Drifter by D

drifter

Artwork by Calli

Drifter
by D

Prologue

Green eyes gazed across the plains, scanning the emptiness around her intently. The wind had a definite chill in it and she pulled the thick skin closer around her slim body as she allowed her stare to pierce the darkness. A vision had brought her out here two days prior and her father, knowing the accuracy of her sight, let her go without protest. But Donoma Chepi knew that Takoda would be getting worried if she didn’t return soon.

She heard before she saw, and green eyes turned in the direction of the clomping of a horse’s hooves. When her eyes finally found what they sought, Donoma gasped. Then she mounted her Appaloosa and pushed the animal as fast as it would go. This wasn’t what she had seen, but her vision would have to wait. From what she could discern in the darkness, this new unknown needed her help.

Donoma reached the rider’s side, noting the copious amount of blood visible through the deerskin jacket, despite the fact that the rider was slumped over the big black’s neck. A moan broke her out of her contemplation and spurred her to action. Then the rider shifted and Donoma got her first look at the face. She blinked in shocked recognition, and after a moment’s hesitation, she slid from her pony, snatching her bag and patting the beast on the ass to send it towards home.

Donoma bit her lip and struggled onto the big black’s back, positioning herself behind the wounded rider and grabbing the reins. Then she turned the horse’s head and began their journey for home.
Chapter I
Litonya sat at the fire by Takoda, but her focus was far beyond the light cast around the circle. Instead it was with her daughter, alone in the darkness of the plain. She knew Donoma’s brothers would have looked out for her had they been allowed to. But Donoma had insisted on privacy for her quest. Litonya smiled – Donoma Chepi may not have been born of her body, but she was absolutely born of their spirit. She wondered again, not for the first time, what Donoma was searching for.

For some time lately, Litonya had been aware of her daughter’s growing discontent. It was nothing tangible – instead it was a feeling… an innate knowledge that Donoma was no longer satisfied with her life and her place in the tribe.

Litonya sat contemplating when things had started to change for Donoma – had it been when she had turned down Honovi’s proposal to mate? Litonya had thought they would make strong children together, but Donoma had not even given it a moment’s consideration and no brave had dared approach her since. Takoda had warned her not to concern herself over it. If Donoma Chepi was meant to walk a different path, then the spirits would guide her. They could only help their daughter follow the course that she was given.

A commotion at the outskirts of the camp drew everyone’s attention and they were standing beside the fire watching Donoma’s pony rush towards them… empty. Immediately, the warriors began to rally together, preparing to head out into the stark blackness beyond the camp to find one whose value was highly prized among them. Even if she scorned them as mates, no one wanted to see harm come to the one who had done so much for them.

Before any of them could move to the horses, Takoda motioned them back to their campfires. He had promised Donoma Chepi there would be no interference in her quest – but he had only promised because he himself had been gifted with a vision several days prior to hers. He knew what she was searching for… even if she did not yet. And he knew what she was searching for would come to her.

The warriors looked at him askance, as though not believing he was willing to leave his only daughter, a very gifted seer in her own right, out on the prairie alone. She was not trained in the warrior’s ways and they saw her as vulnerable alone. Aside from her value as a mate, there were a number of warlike tribes who would consider her a great prize for her shamaness gifts if she was not destroyed by those who hated the Blue Coats and the white men they defended.

Then they heard the heavy, solo hoof beats of the big black and their attention returned to the darkness of the plains. Whoever was approaching not only knew their way but expected to be treated as a friend. Then she came into the first circle of firelight and the warriors rushed away from their campfires to help Donoma relieve herself and the very large horse of its burden.

The rider groaned as the shift in position once more caused bolts of agony to shoot all over the broken body. Mindful of the wounds they could see and especially those they couldn’t, the rider was gently deposited onto the travois two of the men had carried over. Together they brought the litter to the shaman’s fire and he motioned them into his tent before following them in.

Donoma moved to go in behind them when Litonya stopped her with a shake of her head. Donoma removed her mother’s grip from her arm and looked her in the eye before speaking.

“Nahko’e, I must.”

Litonya’s dark eyes held her daughter’s bright green ones, seeing so many emotions swirling in their depths. But in that glance she knew that it was need that drove Donoma to follow the rider and her father into their home. Litonya released Donoma and sat back down at her place at the fire, putting water on to heat and knowing Takoda would call for her when she was needed. Until that time she would wait and worry in silence with the rest of her people.

************

Donoma ducked her head only slightly to enter the already crowded space. Takoda turned to her as though expecting her presence and he motioned the warriors out with a nod of gratitude before turning his attention back to their unexpected guest. He sat back on his heels and gestured her closer.

“You know who this is, nahtona?”

“Yes, Neho’e. I know it has been several cycles since she left us, but I recognized Koko Kanti as soon as I saw her,” Donoma stated softly as she pushed the hair away from Koko’s bruised and dirty face before turning her attention to the bleeding form. She and Takoda worked swiftly together to remove the bloodstained jacket, then she ripped the buttons holding the rough shirt closed, gasping when she saw the damage someone had wrought to the strong, beautiful body before her.

Automatically, she reached for a bowl and cloth to clean around the wound before she started to repair the injury, not surprised to find her mother crouched beside her holding them ready but wondering how she knew. Donoma took them with a grateful nod, instantly turning her attention back to the broken woman lying so still under her ministrations.

Her parents watched for a long moment, realizing Donoma had retreated into her own world as she tended to Koko. Takoda jerked his head at Litonya and then followed her out of their home, leaving Donoma to complete her task in private.

Word had already spread about the suspected identity of their unexpected guest. So the rest of the tribe turned to them when they emerged and the chieftain approached the fire, knowing Takoda would not leave his until they knew how Koko fared. Takoda motioned him to a seat and Odahingum took the honored place the shaman offered him.

They didn’t speak at first – there was no need. It was understood that Donoma would give them whatever answers she could when she was able. Gradually, though, they spoke of other things… simply to ease the tension that could be felt throughout the camp at the startling turn of events. Slowly, the others took the hint and quiet conversation returned to each fire though their attention was still partly concentrated on the shaman’s home.

Finally, however, when it became clear that Donoma would not be leaving Koko’s side in the near future, Odahingum cleared his throat and began to speak. “Takoda, why has she returned after all this time? I have heard the stories of her life among the white men – they say she is a cruel and dangerous woman.”

Takoda puffed on his pipe for another minute, formulating his response carefully. When he did so, it was slowly and with deliberation, mindful of the fact that while, Odahingum was his friend, he was also the Chief and it was his responsibility to oversee the welfare of the entire tribe.

“She has not yet spoken, Odahingum, so I can only give you my thoughts on the matter. But I believe she came home to seek her mate. This is her home after all and she is well into the age when a warrior looks for companionship if not love.”

Odahingum’s eyebrows flew into his hairline. “A mate??? Here? Why? And why now??” the chief asked, not raising his voice, but managing to put a significant amount of incredulity into his whispered tone. Takoda looked at him steadily and Odahingum took a deep breath and shook his head. “I am sorry, my friend. I know you answered those questions already. I just….” he paused. “You’re right… this is her home, but she has been a part of the white man’s world for so long, I never thought she would return here.”

“Nor did I… until recently. However, it is my firm belief that she is still true of heart and strong of spirit as she was when she left us. She should be welcomed among us as the missing warrior she has been. She has brought no shame to our clan, Odahingum.”

“You are certain, Takoda? What of the things I have heard?”

“I know Koko Kanti is dangerous – she is a warrior born and bred. And I am sure she can be cruel and vicious if the need arises. But not once in the years she spent here did she ever turn that fierceness against us – though there was ample opportunity for her to do so. How many times did she defeat our sons in mock-battles and yet leave their dignity intact?”

Odahingum laughed. “Too many – but at least she left them their dignity… after the first time.”

Takoda snorted. “At least they learned better than to challenge her… after the first time.” He paused, letting silence fall as he puffed on his pipe once more. Finally he felt compelled to finish his defense of the child they had taken into their tribe so many cycles before. “She deserves the opportunity to speak for herself, my friend. I believe it is in our best interests to listen before we pass judgment. The spirits have returned her to us at this time for a reason.”

“You have seen?”

“Nothing definitive, but enough.”

Odahingum nodded. “Very well. I trust you, Takoda; you have never had anything but the good of the clan in your heart.” The chief turned when Litonya offered him a cup of tea, accepting it with a gracious nod of his head even though her eyes never met his as was the custom with their people. She offered the same to her mate and Takoda brushed his fingers over hers in thanks, smiling when Litonya’s deep brown eyes met his with a hint of a smile.

“Anything?” he questioned her softly.

She shook her dark head. “No… Donoma is still working. I think she will remain with her even when her task is complete,” holding Takoda’s eyes firmly before stepping back. “She will be in need of more fresh water. She will not let me do anything else.”

“As it should be, wife. This is her quest… this will give her the answers she has long sought.”

“Let us hope it brings her a measure of peace.”

“This is why you cannot see clearly?” Odahingum asked Takoda once Litonya had crossed back into the dwelling where Donoma continued to work on Koko. “Because it is Donoma Chepi’s quest?”

Takoda nodded. “I know some things… have seen the possibilities of others. I can offer guidance, but this pursuit is hers alone to take.” He stopped speaking, unwilling to say anything more and though he still had a number of questions, Odahingum fell silent. He respected Takoda’s place in the tribe and knew if there was more he needed to know, Takoda would tell him. Until then Donoma was entitled to some privacy on the matter although Odahingum suspected whatever was coming would not stay private for very long. There was something about the two of them together – there always had been… since the day the half-breed and her white mother had been taken into the tribe.

His mind wandered back to the day fifteen cycles before…. what he himself had seen and what Takoda had shared with him later….

************

It had been blazing hot… one of the hottest summers that even the oldest of their elders could recall. Heat rose from the parched land in waves, and the People were traveling behind the slowly moving herd, neither unwilling to exert themselves much. Without warning, a scream brought the caravan to a halt. Takoda, ever patient and recognizing the unusual sound, rode back to Litonya to find their five year old blonde fury clutching at his wife’s midriff while tears ran down her face.

He wondered what had happened to bring such intense emotion out into the open. They had discovered her as a baby abandoned in the remains of a decimated wagon train. Though she had lived with them almost her entire short life, Donoma Chepi had always been a quiet, reserved child with everyone who came into contact with her. Only by accident had Takoda just recently realized she possessed much the same gift he did for seeing. Not questioning the Spirit’s wisdom in gifting one so different and so young, he lifted Donoma into the saddle in front of him, sensing she had seen something that frightened her.

Takoda cocked an eyebrow at Litonya, but she shrugged and shook her head, not knowing what had caused their young daughter wail like a banshee. Takoda kissed the top of her head and Donoma burrowed deeper into him, seeking comfort. He glanced up when the sound of hoof beats came closer, noting Odahingum making his way back to them with concern etched on his face.

“Takoda?”

He looked at his chieftain and friend with honest confusion. “I do not know, Odahingum.” But before he could add anything else, Donoma spoke softly.

“Help them.”

Two sets of dark brows rose into equally dark hairlines, wondering what the normally reticent child was talking about. She sat up straight, allowing her bright green eyes to meet Takoda’s before imperiously pointing north of where the procession was currently stopped. “Help them, Neho’e.”

“Who, Donoma? Can you show me where to look?”

She returned his gaze steadily and nodded. Takoda waited until she tucked her head under his chin again before moving his gaze back to Odahingum. The chief returned his look for a long moment before nodding and calling for several scouts to accompany them. Within moments, a small troupe was ready to move out. Odahingum gave them their orders and they set off towards the north while the rest of the People continued east towards water. Takoda and the scouts would join them as soon as they had investigated whatever it was Donoma clearly expected them to find.

Though it seemed that the sun was unmoving in the sky, almost thirty minutes passed before Donoma spoke again, motioning towards a small outcropping just ahead. Just before they reached it, a shot rang out and they pulled to an abrupt halt. Donoma tugged on the reins, trying to encourage the horse to move forward again, but Takoda held them firmly. Finally, sighing loudly, she turned back to him.

“Neho’e… help them.”

He glanced down at her before giving hand signals to the scouts, waiting for them to spread out before dismounting and catching Donoma when she leaped into his arms with utmost confidence. Takoda set Donoma on her feet and she took off running towards the outcropping; Takoda sprinted after her, catching her in two long strides and sweeping the child into his arms.

“Neho’e….”

“We will help them, Donoma. But we must tread carefully.”

“They are afraid, Neho’e.”

“Then we must be extra careful not to scare them anymore. No more running, Donoma Chepi.” The blonde head nodded her agreement, knowing her full name meant nothing but trouble if she argued. Takoda set her down again and held out his hand; Donoma took it and they slowly approached the rock ledge, just able to make out two figures sheltering beneath a scant bit of shade.

“Close enough,” a rough young voice called out. “Who are you? What do you want?”

“My name is Takoda….” the shaman started to speak, but was cut off by the voice again.

“Who’s the baby?”

Donoma stamped her foot. “I am not a baby! I am Donoma Chepi, nahtona of Takoda and Litonya.”

A second voice answered this time – older and with a hint of a smile in it. “Why are you here, Donoma Chepi, nahtona of Takoda and Litonya?”

“We came to help,” Donoma replied bravely.

There was silence then… a long pause in which Takoda and Donoma stood quietly waiting. The shaman kept his focus on the crags while his daughter closed her eyes and moved her lips silently. Suddenly, the older voice spoke again.

“We thank you for your offer as I am injured, so your help would be most gratefully received.”

Takoda frowned slightly. The older voice – definitely a female – was using a very formal form of speech as though she was not speaking her native tongue. Even accounting for the differences between his tribe and the others in the area, it was still stilted… almost ceremonial in intonation and cadence. It made him wonder. However, his questions did not keep him from signaling the scouts to approach from all angles, knowing he and Donoma made the most inviting target if this was indeed a ruse perpetuated by one of the more warlike clans. Donoma’s first family had been destroyed by one; he didn’t want her to lose a second, nor did he want to lose her to them.

The scouts reached the plateau and signed the situation – only then did he and Donoma approach. And what they found was surprising in the least.

************

Odahingum came back to the present when he heard Litonya return to the fire. He glanced at Takoda, but the shaman merely shook his head. The chieftain sighed silently. It was going to be a long night.
Chapter II
Donoma looked down into pale features, gently checking each and every wound that had been inflicted on this stranger she had once called ‘best friend’. She stripped the warrior of her white man’s clothing and cleaned away the massive amounts of blood that had dried on her skin, glad to note that it had slowed to merely a trickle. Donoma watched her steady breathing for a long moment and wondered what could have brought Koko back to them after all this time.

She looked up when her mother exchanged dirty water for fresh, nodding her thanks and continuing her cleaning efforts. Donoma realized she would need to sew a bit of flesh as well as wrap the damage with poultices and she met Litonya’s eyes. Litonya ran her gaze over Koko’s exposed body, understanding Donoma’s unspoken request and heading back to the fire to fetch more hot water and the kit they kept ready for battle injuries.

Donoma accepted both with a nod of thanks and a small smile, then immediately turned her attention back to the woman who was in need of her care. Her mind wandered back to the first time they had met – when she had been a child of five… and Koko had been an angry twelve year old warrior wannabe.

************

Donoma had jumped into Takoda’s arms, knowing with the utmost faith that children possess in their parents that he would catch her. The minute he’d set her on her feet, she sprinted towards the outcropping, knowing for certain that someone there needed help. She’d protested when Takoda had scooped her into his arms and explained the need for caution. Donoma had been reassured that he understood they needed help and that was enough.

She hadn’t appreciated being called a baby, but the smiling voice had made her nose crinkle up in response. She watched as the scouts slowly approached the ledge. After a moment, they signaled Takoda and he and Donoma made their way to the outcropping. He cleared his throat and spoke again.

“May we join you?”

Two sets of bright blue eyes met his and though it took Takoda by surprise, his expression did not change. Donoma, however, was fascinated and immediately walked to the girl. “Wow!” she exclaimed softly, causing an unexpected blush to crawl up the younger face and a smile to break out on the older one. “You are very pretty.” That got an outright laugh from the older woman and a growl from the girl, causing Donoma to take a step back.

The woman wrapped an arm around the small child and glared at her daughter. “Koko Kanti! That is enough! She is just a baby – do you remember what your father taught you?”

“Protect the little ones,” the older girl grumbled. Koko sighed loudly then stepped closer to Donoma, who reflexively curled closer into the woman’s body. Blue eyes met green; Koko could see the hurt in the child’s eyes and mentally lashed herself for carelessly hurting one so young who had brought help, however unwittingly. It wasn’t the child’s fault Koko and her mother suddenly found themselves as outcasts. She knelt.

“I am sorry, ka’eskone.” She reached out a hand towards Donoma and waited, letting the younger child grasp her much larger one. “Friends?”

Donoma hesitated a long moment, looking Koko in the eye to gauge her sincerity. Then she walked out of the older woman’s embrace and right into Koko’s personal space. She grasped Koko’s face between her two small hands and leaned their foreheads together so their eyes crossed. “Yes,” Donoma interred softly. “Friends.”

************

“Friends,” Donoma whispered out loud to the woman who was lying so still now under her ministrations. “We always were a mismatched pair, weren’t we, Nutta? I have missed you, Koko – what brought you back to me again?”

Koko Kanti didn’t answer; her breathing was shallow but steady and Donoma bit her lip as her hands continued to dress the injuries she found while her mind wandered back to the first meeting between them.

************

“Good,” Takoda smiled at the older woman, swallowing his amazement at what had just happened between his reserved daughter and the fierce girl-woman she had just met. He would share Donoma’s unprecedented behavior with Litonya later, but first, they needed to get back to the tribe. “Now how can we help?” He looked around for the first time, noting the bare supplies they had and the woman’s damaged leg. Takoda’s eyes widened as he realized what must have happened. But he waited for her to answer.

“If you could render a bit of assistance,” motioning to her leg, “I think we will be fine.”

“No,” Takoda said firmly. Two sets of blue and one set of green eyes turned to stare at him in astonishment. Donoma pulled away from Koko and stood in front of him with her hands on her hips. He briefly wondered where she’d developed the stance before he knelt to be at her level; it wasn’t common to the People. “You led us here and you asked me to help, ka’eskone. Well… I am helping. I am going to take them home with us. We can help them better if there are many hands and they can help us as well. They will be part of our family,” he added, seeing the younger female’s eyes glitter at the thought of accepting help.

“No,” Koko growled. “No family. Help Nahko’e, then leave us. I will care for her.”

Donoma turned. “Koko,” the child said, crossing to take the older girl’s hand in hers. “Come as friends. Neho’e will find a place for you. You can stay with us until you are ready to go home.”

“We have no home,” Koko spat, just stopping herself from jerking her hand away from Donoma’s.

Donoma frowned gravely. “Why?” trying to understand politics far beyond her five-year-old mind. Then before anyone could answer her query she shrugged and tugged Koko’s hand. “If you have no home, then you must come with us. I need a sister to play with. I only have brothers and they do not let me play with them – they say I am too little for their boy games.”

“You are welcome to come with us to summer camp until your Nahko’e recovers from her injury. If you want to leave us after that, we will not stop you. And if you decide you would like to stay, we will welcome you as productive members of our tribe.”

“I am a warrior,” the girl proclaimed proudly. “I would expect to be treated as such. I do not do woman’s work, nor will I be wed to a man unless I choose to do so.”

Takoda’s eyebrows went into his hairline. “I give you my word as the clan’s shaman – if you pass the tests of a warrior, you will be treated as a warrior. But know this, Koko… there will be many who would see you fail your claim.”

“Then they will need to defeat me in battle. And I have not yet been defeated by my peers.” Her eyes were aggressive and her stance was proud.

“Then you would be most welcome among us indeed, young warrior.” Takoda paused and spread his hands. “However, all this talk is doing nothing to relieve your mother of her pain. What do you say to my proposal?” tacitly acknowledging Koko’s defacto status leadership role at the moment.

Koko looked at her mother, but the blue eyes told her nothing, placing the decision squarely on Koko’s shoulders as the head of the household. Koko turned her gaze back to Takoda, measuring his worth as a real warrior would. Then she turned to Donoma who had watched the entire proceeding with intent, interested eyes. Koko walked over to where she stood and knelt down to Donoma’s level, putting them eye to eye again. “What say you, Donoma Chepi, daughter of Takoda and Litonya?”

“Will you still play with me when you are a warrior?”

Koko looked into guileless green eyes. “Yes,” she vowed unblinkingly. “And you can be my advisor. Great warriors always have advisors they trust. And if you found us, then you must be a great seer. I would be very fortunate to have you as my advisor.”

Donoma’s smile lit up her whole face and her eyes sparkled with happiness. “Really?”

“Really,” Koko confirmed.

“Then you have to come live with us. I do not think my Neho’e will let me leave home yet to go with you no matter how strong a warrior you are.”

“It is settled then,” Koko stated firmly, hiding her smile at Donoma’s whispered confidence and rising to her feet once more to face Takoda. “We will go to summer camp once Nahko’e’s leg is cared for.”

“And then?”

“And then I will prove myself a warrior to my new clan and my Nahko’e will teach the language of the white man to those who desire to learn.”

Takoda turned to the woman. “You would do this?”

“Yes, certainly,” she replied without hesitation. “It is my mother tongue after all, and if it would benefit my new clan….” She trailed off and grimaced as a wave of pain washed through her body. Takoda noticed and immediately took charge of the situation, feeling things had worked out satisfactorily enough for the time being for him to do so. With an economy of motion, he soon had the older woman’s leg taken care of and loaded onto a makeshift travois.

The horse that pulled the litter he gave Koko to ride alone and he was pleased to see that she had not boasted of her skill – she had stated plain fact. The scout who had given up his horse rode double with another and Donoma was once more seated in front of Takoda. Then he gave a signal and the little band moved out, headed back to where the main tribe would have set up an early camp to await their return. Takoda imagined this would be the talk around the campfires for quite some time to come.

************

Takoda came back from his memories with a start when his eldest son stood beside him, waiting for an invitation to join him and Odahingum at Takoda’s fire. With a grunt and short, choppy gesture, Takoda bade Honaw to join them in their task. This son, more than any other member of the tribe, had questioned Koko’s right as a warrior, but he had been the first to embrace her when she had proven her worth. Honaw might be hard-headed and stubborn, but he was not stupid and he was also incredibly fair. And he and Koko had formed a fast friendship – depending on one another as blood brothers in battle. Only Donoma had been more upset at Koko’s abrupt departure five cycles previously, but for entirely different reasons. Honaw believed he understood Koko’s motivation; all Donoma knew was that her best friend had simply left one day and never returned.

He lit his pipe and let his mind wander back to the day they had first arrived in camp. What a stir that had caused.

************

Odahingum met Takoda’s troupe with a welcome party of his own. His eyebrows rose into his hairline as he realized that Donoma was obviously far more gifted in the ways of the Spirits than they had previously thought. Then he turned his attention to their guests.

Koko sat straight on the back of her horse, meeting his eyes like a warrior would. The woman resting in the litter behind her was obviously related and Odahingum wondered what had brought them to his tribe. He turned to Takoda for answers.

“Odahingum, this is Koko Kanti, warrior-in-training and her mother….” Takoda broke off as he realized her didn’t know the white woman’s name. He looked at Koko.

“My mother is called Rae’l.” Takoda nodded his thanks.

“Odahingum, I believe we should get our new friends settled. Tomorrow will be soon enough to talk.”

The chieftain nodded his agreement. “Very well.” He motioned to those who had ridden out with him to take custody of the travois and move it into the camp and some welcome shade. Koko let them, knowing her mother needed care beyond what she could provide, but she kept a very close eye on where they went. She knew what her responsibilities were and she would not fail the promise she had made to her father when he had agreed to teach her the warrior ways. “Do we have a place to put them?” Odahingum continued speaking to Takoda.

“Litonya and I will make room for them in our home tonight. Once Koko Kanti has proven herself the warrior she claims to be, we can begin constructing them a place of their own.”

Honaw, Takoda’s eldest son, had chosen to accompany the chief’s party out of the encampment to greet his father. He was of an age about the same as Koko, slightly older – just on the cusp of adulthood and ready to prove himself a warrior. At Takoda’s words, he laughed.

“Her… a warrior? She could not defeat the weakest of us in battle.”

“Then as the weakest, I suppose you are volunteering to be defeated first?” she sneered at him. The boy’s face turned crimson with rage.

“I am not weak!” he snarled. Honaw jumped from his horse and drew the bone blade he carried. “Defend yourself.”

Donoma sat quietly on her father’s knee watching the proceedings with interest. She had never met anyone like Koko before. Even though Donoma knew she was a little different than the rest of the children in the tribe because of her green eyes and red-gold hair, she was still treated as a little girl would be. Koko, however, was different than anything she had ever known. No one had ever challenged Honaw before – not even the chief’s firstborn son Keezheekoni. Honaw was the acknowledged champion among the warriors his age, having proved himself in every arena.

Koko slid from her horse easily, managing to put a negligent swagger into the action. She sauntered up to Honaw and looked him over insolently, her disdain of him clear in her expression and her lack of a weapon. “Well,” she motioned to him lazily. “Are you going to make me wait all day for you to gather your courage?”

Furious, Honaw swung his blade at her, only to discover she was not where he had expected her to be. He turned to find her behind him, waiting for him to make his move again. He growled and swiped again, only to find his blade hitting air a second time. This time, though, she didn’t give him another chance to strike. Instead, she went on the offensive, knocking the bone knife from his hand and bringing her foot up into his midsection, making him double over gasping for breath.

Koko deliberately turned her back and walked away, interested in seeing if her father would continue to be right about the male warriors she would face. She heard him shift before Donoma screamed out a warning and Koko kicked out again – this time knocking him flat on his back. Honaw didn’t have time to catch the breath she had again driven from his lungs before Koko had straddled him and was holding a steel-bladed knife at his throat.

“Do you yield?” calling on his honor to end the fight and claim her victory. He would lose face if he did not yield or if he attacked her from behind again. She had beaten him fairly in front of witnesses.

“I yield,” Honaw agreed sullenly. Koko looked into his eyes to gauge his sincerity, having learned at a young age how to tell if she was being lied to. She nodded and rose to stand over him, then extended a hand out to him. Honaw looked at it and her for a long moment. He knew his next actions would determine a number of things in both of their futures. Accepting her hand meant he accepted her as a warrior and an equal; rejecting it meant she would do battle with each of the warriors-in-training and even her victories would matter little if he did not welcome her.

Honaw looked at his father then the chieftain, but neither of them showed any indication of which choice he should make. After a long moment, Honaw took Koko’s hand and stood, clapping her on the back in celebration of her victory. She smiled and he smiled back. He had no way of knowing that his simple act of accepting Koko as a warrior into their tribe would change the course of several lives, including his own.

As soon as it was clear that the fight was over and Koko had won, Donoma squirmed to get down and Takoda released her. She ran to Koko, standing in front of her defensively and turning to face Honaw. “Hestatanemo, she is my sister now and I am her warrior advisor. You cannot treat her badly.”

Honaw squatted down to Donoma’s level. “She defeated me in fair combat, ka’eskone. We will be blood brothers and will protect one another in battle. I promise I will not treat her badly.”

Donoma leaned forward and wrapped her arms around his neck. “I am glad she did not hurt you, Honaw,” she whispered. “And I am glad you did not hurt her. I do not think she has had many friends in her life.”

“Well, she has us now, and soon she will have a whole tribe of friends – though we may have to work to convince Keezheekoni that she is a worthy warrior.”

Donoma frowned and crossed her arms over her chest. She knew from listening to her brothers’ talk that Keezheekoni always took more convincing than just someone saying so. He always wanted proof he could see for himself. His caution wasn’t a bad thing, but it didn’t necessarily make him a good leader either. And it did make him difficult to deal with sometimes.

Honaw appreciated her frustration. Donoma may have only been five years old, but she understood much about the world around her. He and their brothers would not let her play with them to protect her – it was the only thing their father had charged them with from the day she had been found and brought into their home. But still she had seen and heard much in her short tenure on Earth so far… though it would be a while yet before anyone knew how much. He tousled her hair, then laughed when she scowled fiercely at him before turning to Koko holding out her hand.

“Let’s go find your Nahko’e, Koko. My Nahko’e should be with her and I want you to meet her. She will like you.”

The rest watched them walk away, marveling at the difference that Koko had made in Donoma’s demeanor in less than the span of a day. No one knew enough about Koko to realize what a significant change Donoma had already wrought in her… but they would eventually. Odahingum looked at Honaw then at Takoda. “You realize this will turn our world upside down… at least for a little while. Even with her defeat of you, the rest may not accept her so willingly into the clan as a warrior.”

“Then I will guard her back as I promised Donoma I would. As far as I am concerned, Koko has earned her place. If I have to tell of my defeat, then I will do so.” Honaw spoke as a warrior and not a child and held the chief’s eyes. “I gave my word.”

Odahingum nodded in satisfaction. It was not often that the youngest of the warriors took such an oath, but it was expected that they honor such a covenant even as the oldest of the elders would. And for Honaw to do so for someone he had just met *and* been defeated by was extraordinary. He wondered what Honaw had seen that he had given his pledge to his sister so easily.

Maybe one day the boy would share. Until then, they had new members to welcome into the tribe.

************

Litonya watched her daughter from the doorway, her memories of another time and place still sharp and clear as they had been when they happened. Rachel’s and Koko’s coming to their tribe all those years ago had changed so much for all of them, though none of them could have foreseen how much at the time. Koko’s skin was clean and Donoma had flushed all the dirt and poison she could extract from the wounds. She reached for the smallest bone needle and some gut sinew. A glance at Koko’s face told her the woman was still unconscious. Donoma took a deep breath and started to close the ugliest of the injuries, remembering her mother had done the same with Rae’l when they had first joined the camp.

Litonya watched in silence and let her mind take her back to the day they had arrived in camp.
Chapter III
Litonya motioned the litter bearers to her home, knowing Takoda expected her to begin cleaning up and caring for the stranger he and Donoma had found until he arrived to take over. The young men set the travois down gently and waited for Litonya to dismiss them. She turned to see what she would need, only just restraining the gasp that wanted to escape when she realized her patient was a woman.

With a few terse words, Litonya scattered the scouts, sending them out of her home for clean hot water, bandages and her kit. She knelt at the woman’s side, smoothing back unruly curls that had worked loose from the braid the auburn hair had been fastened in. Litonya looked her over carefully, then began to remove her clothing so she could see the parts of the woman’s body that were covered. A hand on her wrist halted her movements and dark brown eyes met bright blue steadily.

“It is all right,” she soothed gently. “I am not going to hurt you. I need to see what damage has been done so I can start the healing process.”

The injured woman slowly nodded her agreement and released Litonya’s hand. Litonya smiled and patted her hand comfortingly before resuming her work. She eased the dress over the other woman’s head, wincing when she saw the cuts and bruising over her body. A call from outside the door caused her to pull a light blanket up before biding the voice to enter.

The scouts came in quickly, placing their burdens beside her and escaping. Litonya turned her attention back to the woman, looking her in the eye as she squeezed excess water from the cloth she held. “What are you called?”

“My name is Rachel,” the woman said softly, “but I am called Rae’l by most. It is easier to say.” She gave Litonya a ghost of a smile, pleased when it was returned without hesitation.

“What happened to you, Rae’l? Who did this to you?”

Rachel sighed. She supposed these people would need to know the barest essentials of her story – they deserved that much for their kindness to her now… even if it meant they threw them back out into the elements. But somehow, she didn’t think that would happen – not if the little girl Donoma was any indication of how they felt.

“My husband’s people,” she answered shortly. “We were removed from the tribe after his death.”

Litonya’s eyes widened. She knew of tribes that purged themselves of perceived impurities to their tribe and bloodlines, but she had never had any personal experience with it until now. Then she realized what Rachel had said. “Who is we?” carefully cleaning the briars from the scrapes. She wondered if they had been abused before being cast out or if the damage had been done because of the circumstances they had suffered through.

“My daughter and myself,” Rachel was answering her question. “It is complicated, and it is my daughter’s story to share as the acting head of the household.”

Litonya blinked, understanding far more than Rachel was willing to say. Only one circumstance would make a girl child the head of the family. And if that was the case, Litonya would hear the story when the girl shared it with Takoda and Odahingum.

“Very well, Rae’l… I understand. Can you tell me if these marks came from your expulsion from your village or from your travels here?”

“From our travels – I am not accustomed to such activity and Koko is still growing into her skills. I am afraid sometimes my clumsiness is faster than her reflexes,” smiling again at this woman whom she felt could be a friend to her if they were allowed to stay.

Litonya smiled back. She hoped the elders would consent to this woman and her child remaining as part of the tribe. Despite her obvious ‘white man’ heritage, Rachel had the same heart and courage that the People possessed. Litonya had the distinct impression they would make a welcome addition to the clan.

“I think it is that way for all of us,” Litonya assured Rachel as she smeared poultice across the myriad of cuts and bruises on her body before wrapping them in clean bandages. “It is part of growing up and getting older.”

“Well, I cannot comment on the growing up part – it has been a long time since I did that, but I would like to say that getting older is not always much fun.” She shifted then winced when she twisted her leg the wrong way. “This would be one of those times actually,” she admitted with a weak laugh.

Litonya nodded slowly. “I think it is broken, my friend,” laying a comforting hand on Rachel’s shoulder, appearing not to notice the injured woman’s startled gratitude. “It is going to take more than me to fix it.” A noise from outside drew their attention and Litonya’s face creased into a huge smile. “However, if my ears do not deceive me, my daughter has brought your daughter home, and that means someone who can help me with your leg should not be far behind.”

“Nahko’e,” called out a five-year-old voice. “Can we come in?”

Litonya looked at Rachel who pulled the light blanket up then nodded in her direction. “Come in, ka’eskone, and bring your new friend.”

Donoma pulled the heavy flap aside only to find it taken out of her hands by her new best friend. She smiled back at Koko who smiled in return and motioned her forward before following her in. Donoma nodded to her mother before kneeling at Rachel’s side and patting her hair.

“How are you, Rae’l?”

Rachel blinked, then realized Koko must have told the child her name at some point. She smiled, watching Donoma’s nose crinkle up when she smiled in return. “I am better, thank you.” Donoma turned to look at Koko who still hesitated in the doorway.

“See, Koko? I told you my Nahko’e would make yours all better.”

Rachel held out a hand and beckoned her daughter forward; Koko stepped away from door and took Rachel’s hand in her larger one as she knelt beside her. “I will be all right, Koko Kanti. You did a good job taking care of me.”

“But….”

“No buts, daughter. We will be safe here for however long we are allowed to stay.”

“We can make our home with these People, Nahko’e, if you so wish it. The offer has been made and already I have taken the first steps to prove myself a worthy warrior to the elders.”

“She is my new big sister, Nahko’e,” Donoma explained seriously to a surprised Litonya. “And I am her warrior advisor.”

“Oh really?” Litonya inquired straight-faced, though there was a distinct twinkle in her eye. “How did this happen?”

“Yes… we made an agreement.”

“Well then… we cannot break such a sacred bond. So what do you say to helping me prepare pallets for your hestatanemos to sleep outside tonight. That way, there will be room for your new sister and her mother to share with us until we can construct them a home of their own.”

“Do we have to?”

Litonya looked at Donoma with a frown. “You do not want to share lodging with Koko?”

“I do not want them to live somewhere else,” Donoma stated plainly. “Can we not move the boys out and keep Koko?”

Koko flushed red and Rachel wisely bit her lips to keep from laughing at the child’s uninhibited spirit. Litonya was not quite so controlling of her own reaction, though she managed to temper her astonishment over Donoma’s reaction to the newcomers. She wondered if it was because they were different as Donoma was or if it was something she felt about them beyond that.

Shaking her head, Litonya took Donoma’s hand. “No, ka’eskone. If Koko Kanti is to be a warrior in her own right, she needs her own home and fire as the rest of the warriors possess. The same will happen to your brothers as they become of an age to marry and have homes of their own. The difference for Koko is that she already has the responsibilities of a household with her mother being a widow.”

Donoma shrugged. “I guess… but I would still rather keep her.”

“I will come over every day that I can, ka’eskone. I promised you.”

“And besides,” Litonya added. “She won’t be leaving for at least a few days, Donoma. We have to build them a shelter first.”

Footsteps approached the home and then Takoda swept aside the door and stepped into the confined space. Koko stood and extended a hand to Donoma who accepted it with alacrity. “Come, ka’eskone. We will go play and leave the adults to their work.”

Takoda gave her a small nod of thanks, knowing Koko would take Donoma far enough away from their home that she would be unable to her Rachel’s cries of pain as they dealt with her leg. Already the older girl was showing signs of strength and leadership that some adults had yet to master. He turned his attention back to the injured woman, moving the blanket out-of-the-way just enough to study the damage she had wrought to her leg.

Donoma held on tightly to Koko’s hand, unwilling to let the older girl go in case she changed her mind once they reached the outlying fields where most of the children were gathered playing games. Donoma was not a stupid child and she knew Koko would probably prefer to practice warrior things with the boys her age. But for just a little while, she hoped Koko would keep her promise. Maybe for a little while, she wouldn’t be so lonely.

***********

Donoma came back from her musings to find her work completed and Koko still unresponsive. She sat back on her heels and just looked at the woman who for all her growing up years had been her whole world and her very best friend.

She smoothed the dark hair away from the planed features, wondering what had happened and how Koko had managed to let her guard down so far that she could have been hurt so badly. Donoma clearly recalled the thrashing Koko had applied to Honaw the first time they’d met and it brought a tiny smile to her face. Though Honaw had always been her favorite brother, he had become less cocky that day and more fun for the five-year-old she had been to be around and she appreciated that.

Donoma also remembered what had happened the first time Koko had been introduced to the rest of the warriors in training. It still made her mad to think about it.

************

They reached the field and Koko kept moving, knowing if she stopped the boys would all want to test her. It was always the same – you could never just defeat one. No, all of them had to be humiliated before they would accept you. And even then, if you didn’t make friends with the key players, you would still be an outcast. That, however, she felt she had taken care of with Honaw, but one never knew until it came right down to it.

Koko felt how tightly Donoma was holding onto her hand, and she squeezed back gently to assure the child she had no intention of letting go. Donoma was an anomaly as far as Koko was concerned. She had never had someone – even her mother and father – who accepted her totally without question or reservation and without expectations. Koko knew in her heart of hearts that the only reason Donoma was so totally accepting was because she was only five and Koko fully understood that acceptance would change into mere tolerance if she was lucky as Donoma grew older and more worldly wise. But for now Koko was determined to enjoy the phenomenon that being accepted for oneself was.

The noise got louder as they got closer to where the boys were and Koko was resolved to ignore it. She had made a promise to her new friend and she had no intention of breaking it.

“I do not like them,” Donoma suddenly announced as they moved away from the boys. “They never let me play with them.”

“What about the girls? Do they not let you play either?”

“Not really. I am too little.”

“And too different?” Koko asked kindly. Donoma nodded.

“How did you know?”

“Because I am too different as well. We can just be different together.” Koko smiled and her eyes twinkled. Donoma stared at her closely and she frowned in response. “What?” she growled.

“I like your eyes. They are like mine, but different. I think they are pretty.”

Koko couldn’t stop the blush and wondered where the kid got the uncanny ability to do that to her. She shook her head. “I think yours are pretty too… like the color of spring grass. Now,” changing the subject before Donoma could comment any further, “do you want to play hide and seek?”

Donoma’s brow furrowed. “Okay… how do you play?”

Koko blinked. She thought all children knew how to play hide and seek. Usually the older ones taught the younger just so they would be able to get away from them for hours on end. She wondered if there was a reason beyond her age and relatively small size that Donoma had been so sheltered. “Um… what do you usually play when you come out here?”

“I am not allowed to be away from camp by myself and Nahko’e cannot come with me very often. When she does, we look at the flowers or chase butterflies; if we are near water she will sometimes take me swimming or fishing. We collect berries when we find them.”

“What do you want to do then?”

“I would like to learn how to climb a tree, but since we do not have any nearby… can we chase the butterflies? I have never been able to catch one and I would like to see one up close. I think you might be fast enough to catch one.”

Koko grinned and felt her chest swell. She wondered what she had done to merit such faith from a virtual stranger, then determined not to let her new friend down.

“Well,” she admitted, “I have never caught a butterfly, but I am certainly willing to give it a try. Come… let’s go see if we can find one.”

Donoma led the way and Koko carefully followed, always keeping the younger girl in her sights. For a while they simply ran, enjoying the sun and the wind and the tickle of the tall grass. Then Donoma stopped, realizing they had gone far enough away from the camp that all she heard was the silence.

“We have to go back,” she said sadly. “I am not supposed to wander too far away by myself.”

“But you are not by yourself, ka’eskone. You are with me… and I am a warrior. I will protect you and get you home safely to your parents.”

A snort interrupted them and Koko wasn’t surprised to find that some of the older boys had followed them. She sighed. She really didn’t want to do this again today… especially not in front of Donoma. She liked the kid despite their age difference and she could tell Donoma liked her too. Koko didn’t want to lose that because of a bunch of hormonally challenged adolescent boys. But she wasn’t going to let them bully her either.

“Who is going to protect you?” the biggest of them asked, though Koko noticed he was not as large as Honaw. “You may think you’re a warrior, but I say you need to prove it. And I do not think you can.”

Koko groaned. She had been hoping for a bit of a reprieve here in this new place, but obviously that wasn’t going to happen. “Are you challenging me, little man?” knowing the boy wouldn’t let the jibe pass unnoticed. Koko figured if she had to establish dominance here, she might as well get it over with at the beginning. She looked at Donoma – she had finally found a friend… she didn’t want to lose her.

Keezheekoni was furious. No one spoke to him that way – not even Honaw, and Honaw was their acknowledged champion. “How dare you! Prepare to defend yourself!” But Koko merely shook her head.

“Not here and not now,” she proclaimed with a significant glance in Donoma’s direction. He nodded, knowing well that neither his father the chieftain nor the shaman Takoda would tolerate such behavior in front of the small child. She would never understand the many mandates that were in place for her benefit alone. “If you want to challenge me, you will do so in camp in front of witnesses.”

“Very well… be ready then, for I will issue my challenge as soon as you arrive.”

Koko smiled. “I will be waiting for you, little man.” Then she took Donoma’s hand in hers and together they headed back towards the encampment. The boys watched them out of sight, then he and Honaw walked away from the others to speak privately.

“You should not have challenged her, Keez. She will defeat you.”

“Have you no faith in me, my friend?”

Honaw shook his head. “Not this time, Keezheekoni. She defeated me with ease – and I can defeat you. What do you think she will do?” A beat. “And I must stand with her in this fight… I have given my word to her and to Donoma in front of our fathers.”

Keezheekoni’s eyes blazed hot with rage for a long moment before the fire petered out. “If she defeats me as easily as you say she will, we will accept her and make her one of us. Our enemies will never expect such cunning.” He sighed. “Come, let me get this humiliation over with quickly. I do not think I will live this down for many moons.”

Honaw grinned. “I think it depends on how you behave after the defeat, Keez. If you do embrace her, the rest of the warrior caste will be forced to reckon with her as well. I think she could teach us much.”

Keezheekoni stopped walking. “Honaw, regardless of her ability to defeat me or even you, Odahingum will not put her in charge of training. She is not yet a warrior and has much to learn herself.”

“Perhaps,” the other boy agreed, “but that does not stop us from asking her to teach us.” Keezheekoni looked at him skeptically and Honaw patted him on the back. “Trust me, my brother. You will understand much better shortly.”

Keezheekoni groaned and he led the group of grinning boys back toward the encampment. They were looking forward to the upcoming altercation. Keezheekoni simply felt dread.

************

Keezheekoni approached Takoda’s campfire and Odahingum covered his mouth to keep from shouting his laughter, though he couldn’t stop his shoulders from shaking. Honaw and Takoda looked at him in bemusement, wondering what he found funny about the current situation. Then they realized what had prompted his reaction and they couldn’t help but exchange smiles of their own. They all remembered well the events of that fateful evening.

Takoda motioned Keezheekoni to take a seat beside Honaw and Keezheekoni shook his head wryly, knowing exactly what had prompted the looks. He let his mind wander back to the challenge that had given Koko Kanti her status as a warrior in their clan – the youngest to ever accomplish such a feat.
Chapter IV
Koko and Donoma walked sedately back to the camp, though Koko was seething beneath her calm exterior. She knew this would happen but she was hoping there would be a little respite before it did. She shrugged her mental shoulders – oh well, at least getting it over this quickly she would know what sort of place she and her mother would have in this community. Koko looked down at Donoma.

“See, ka’eskone. I told you that you would be safe with me. Let us find your Nahko’e, Donoma, then I have a challenge to fight.”

Donoma clutched Koko’s hand tightly. “I must remain by your side. It is my right as your warrior advisor.” Her demeanor was so serious – Koko struggled to maintain a stoic expression. She had no desire to hurt Donoma’s feelings by laughing.

“I do not think your Nahko’e or your Neho’e will allow you to be a witness to the contest, ka’eskone. I believe they desire to protect you.” Donoma frowned fiercely and Koko couldn’t keep the grin from her face. “We will ask. After all, you are my warrior advisor.”

That got a grin so big from Donoma, Takoda wondered as they approached him what on earth had happened to the quiet, introspective child he had known since she’d become his daughter. What was it about this new woman-child that Donoma related with so closely? Then they walked to his fire and he gestured them to join him.

“Rae’l will recover but it will take some time.”

Koko nodded. “Good… thank you.” A beat. “I have been challenged and Donoma has requested to remain by my side. It is her right as my advisor.”

Takoda shook his head – things were happening so rapidly his head was spinning. He never would have imagined when Donoma screamed so fitfully this morning that his world would be so completely turned upside down before darkness fell. “She is a child, Koko Kanti….”

“And we have made a pact… an agreement between the two of us. Do you mean to say that it has no value?”

“No,” Takoda protested, wondering how he was being bested by an almost warrior female child and his five-year-old daughter. Life had not been this difficult yesterday. He rubbed a hand over his brow and sighed. “Of course it has value. I just….”

“Koko Kanti!” Keezheekoni bellowed across the encampment. The warriors all rose from their places around their campfires, smiles firmly in place at the entertainment that was obviously coming. It hadn’t been so long since the last challenge – Honaw and Keezheekoni for the title of class champion – and they rarely happened for any other reasons in the novice classes, so this was an unexpected treat.

Koko sauntered out to the middle area where Keezheekoni could clearly see her, but before he could speak again, Donoma stepped up beside her. He laughed. “You feel the need to hide behind small children in order to fight a challenge against me?”

Donoma growled and Koko gave her a long, reassuring glance before she turned back to Keez and gifted him with a searing look. “You bellowed?” she asked with a smirk, causing a ripple of laughter to run around the encampment.

Keezheekoni’s face grew red. He was already fairly certain from what Honaw had told him that he was going to lose this contest, and he could accept defeat from a better warrior. But to lose face was another matter altogether. She was still untried as far as he and most of his equals were concerned and she had no right to humiliate him in front of the warriors. He started to speak, but she held up a hand and he hesitated.

“Before you get angry, little man, perhaps you should be aware that you insulted my warrior advisor.” Eyes widened around the encampment – only the chieftain rated his own warrior advisor in the form of the shaman. It was unheard of for a warrior to form a bond like that with a child… and especially *this* child. Takoda had insisted on protecting her from so much – even before he had learned of her abilities. They could not believe that he would allow such a thing.

When he recovered enough to speak again, Keezheekoni offered Donoma a slight bow. “My apologies, Donoma Chepi. I did not understand your position here.” She nodded her head in acceptance of his apology and he turned back to Koko. “You claimed the status of a warrior – that is something that must be proven out to those of us here who are earning that title as well as those who have already succeeded. Do you have anyone to stand with you?”

Honaw spoke up. “I will stand with Koko Kanti. She has defeated me in fair combat and I gave my word to protect her back at the cost of my own life.”

Gasps went around the camp. There was a no more serious vow that one warrior could make to another, and to have the class champion admit defeat at the hands of the one being challenged….

“Very well,” Keezheekoni acknowledged. “Then form the circle and let the challenge begin.”

“Wait,” Takoda called as the circle closed in. “The object is not to hurt, maim or kill – but the fight will continue until one of you yields victory. Understood?” Both opponents nodded their agreement to the terms and Takoda clapped his hands together. “Very well,” he concurred, stepping back into the ring of warriors and waiting for the two to thrash things out between them.

Koko knelt down to Donoma and looked in her eyes. Donoma took the larger hands in hers. “You will succeed, Koko Kanti,” the young seer assured her older friend. “And then your place here will be secure.” Koko leaned forward and brushed a kiss over Donoma’s forehead before standing. She looked at Honaw who was waiting patiently.

“He is weak on his left side, Koko, and he is not above trickery and deceit. It is one thing that makes him as good as he is; he knows how to use it to his benefit. Watch that he does not take advantage unfairly – he tried to blind me with sand during our bout. A fair trick for a warrior in battle; not an action appreciated by any warrior who encounters it.”

Koko nodded then turned to face her new nemesis, crossing her arms and waiting for Keezheekoni to make the first move. It was then that Honaw recognized her tactic – she waited for the other warrior to attack. He wondered where she had been schooled in such a method. It was generally thought best to attack first and defeat your enemy before he was able to do harm to you. Then he heard her taunt Keezheekoni and realized she was making him careless in his rage, just as she had done to Honaw himself earlier.

There were bets going round the circle, and those that had been with Odahingum’s group earlier were betting solidly on Koko Kanti. The rest were betting heavily on Keezheekoni, certain no mere female could defeat even their second best warrior-in-training.

Keezheekoni screamed in fury and Honaw wondered what insult Koko had used to invite such fury in the moments it had taken him to place his bet on her. Then Keez rushed towards her and she stepped to one side and extended her arm and the youth dropped to the ground choking and gagging.

Furious at her easy defeat of the chief’s eldest son, an older warrior stepped into the ring, eager to show her the place he felt she deserved. He pulled a bone blade and descended on her; she unsheathed her steel blade and he hesitated… long enough for her to swipe it across his chest and draw blood. He looked at her in astonishment – none of the trainees had ever been able to lay a weapon on him… much less draw blood. He nodded in approval and stepped back into the circle.

Meanwhile, Keezheekoni had recovered enough to stand and jumped on her back, not realizing she would use his own weight against him and simply allow him to pull her over so she landed on top of him. The air whoosed out of his lungs and she turned to pin him to the ground. Keez grasped a handful of sand… only to find all her bodyweight resting on his wrists where her knees held him tightly in place.

“Yield to me,” she said firmly. He glared at her defiantly and she raised her blade to his throat. Brown eyes widened in shock when he realized she carried steel and not the typical bone knife of his people. “Yield,” she growled again.

Keezheekoni released the sand clenched in his fist and nodded his head, lowering his eyes as a sign of respect. Koko nodded and sighed, sliding off his wrists and standing before extending her hand down to him to help him stand. Keez hesitated, then accepted the gesture with a wry smile. It had played out just as Honaw had predicted. He hoped she would be willing to teach them; even the older warriors could learn from her.

Keezheekoni held her gaze and spoke loudly enough to be heard by the gathered crowd. “Let it be known that Koko Kanti has defeated me in fair combat. We will be blood brothers and will protect one another in battle. I welcome her into the tribe as one of our own.”

Despite whatever other misgivings Honaw had about Keezheekoni’s ability to lead, it was the capacity to acknowledge the bigger picture once he had seen it that convinced Honaw that one day, Keezheekoni would make a fine chief. There weren’t many his age that would and in fact Honaw could hear rumblings from several of his comrades who didn’t understand Keez’s immediate acceptance of Koko. In time they would, but for now, only the older warriors appreciated Keezheekoni’s actions.

Odahingum stepped up beside his son and wrapped an arm around shoulders that were still developing. “I believe you have made a wise decision, my son.” He extended his free hand to Koko in warrior greeting, smiling when she accepted it without hesitation. “Welcome to our family, Koko Kanti, as a friend, warrior and ally. We are happy to have you and Rae’l as members of our clan.”

“Thank you for welcoming us, Chief Odahingum. We look forward to becoming contributing members of our new family and our community.”

With her acceptance, a cheer rose from the surrounding warriors and Koko smiled her first full smile, prompting many of the young men to give her a second long look full of interest of another kind. Odahingum sighed; Takoda had told him of Koko’s earlier comments on mating. Given the skill the girl already had, it shouldn’t be too difficult to make the young warriors understand her position on the subject. He sighed again – it didn’t mean it was going to be a fun prospect though.

Odahingum dropped Koko’s hand and Donoma jumped into her arms before any of the men could even make a move to congratulate her and welcome her to the tribe. She threw her slender arms around Koko’s neck and hugged her tightly. “I told you that you would succeed, Koko.”

Koko hugged the small child back gently, surrounded by the warmth and acceptance Donoma offered her unquestioningly. “You did indeed, ka’eskone. You are going to be a very powerful ally for this warrior. Thank you for your guidance.”

Donoma smiled and the crowd around the two smiled indulgently. When Donoma smiled, things seemed to go better for the tribe as a whole, and with the addition of Koko Kanti to their warriors-in-training, things were looking even better.

At Odahingum’s urging, everyone headed back to their campfires, eager to talk about all that had happened that day and the things they had just seen and heard. The chief, his sons, the shaman and his sons followed Donoma who was still being carried in Koko’s arms back to their respective fires next to one another.

The boys were met by their mothers and sent off to clean up while Litonya led Koko and Donoma into the dwelling where Rachel was resting comfortably. Koko set Donoma on her feet then crossed the small space and knelt at her mother’s side. She reached for Rachel’s hand and was glad to see bright blue eyes flutter open.

“Hello, Nahko’e. How are you feeling?”

Rachel smiled weakly. “I have been better, Koko, but I have certainly been worse. Litonya has taken very good care of me and I think we will be good friends when I am able to be up and out from underfoot.” She squeezed the hand holding hers. “How did you do?” able to recognize the signs of a fight even if Litonya had not shared news of the challenge.

“She won!” Donoma exclaimed excitedly, running from her place by Litonya in the doorway. “She beat Keezheekoni fair and square… just like I said she would.” Koko wrapped an arm around Donoma’s shoulders. Rachel smiled at the pair of them.

“We have a place here, Nahko’e. We have been welcomed as friends and allies.”

“And warriors?” Koko smiled.

“And warriors, though I still need to speak with the chief about what that will entail. But for now I have earned us a place here, Nahko’e. We can settle with this clan and be safe among friends.”

“Good, Koko… I am so proud of you. Thank you for taking such good care of both of us.” Rachel’s eyes slid closed and Litonya crossed to her side.

“She needs to sleep. Today has been long and difficult and tomorrow will be much the same. She will heal, but it will be slow – things will be difficult for her for some time to come. Now come… you both need nourishment before you settle into bed tonight. It has been a very long day already and I do not think tomorrow will be any better in that regard.”

Litonya led them both back out to the fire and Takoda gestured Koko to the place of honor. Donoma clutched her hand tightly and was seated next to her for the sake of peace. Honaw took Takoda’s other side and his three brothers sat next to him in birth order. Litonya served out the meal, then sat next to Donoma to eat her own as Takoda and Koko talked.

“You have been well-trained already in the ways of a warrior, Koko Kanti,” Takoda offered seriously. “Yet your skills and thinking are much different than ours. Who was your teacher?”

Koko let her spoon drop back into the bowl she held in her hand and looked directly at Takoda to gauge the earnestness of his speech. Satisfied, she nodded her head and returned her attention to her food, taking a bite and chewing slowly as she considered the best way to answer his question. Finally, simple honesty won out. They would need to know most of the story eventually.

“My Neho’e taught me from the time I was old enough to learn.”

“So you’ve been training for three seasons? Maybe five?

“I have been training for almost nine full cycles. It will be nine next season.”

“And you will be…?”

“I will be thirteen cycles.”

Takoda was hard pressed to keep a stoic face in place at her announcement, but he managed to do little more than raise an eyebrow. Koko grinned. She knew he wasn’t expecting that answer from her. Honaw chuckled as soon as he was able to stop his jaw from hanging loose.

“Are you serious?” he asked after a moment, a wide grin splitting his face.

“Yes… I am a warrior-in-training; we are not allowed to express humor.” Her delivery and expression were so deadpan, it took everyone by surprise for a moment and her pronouncement was met with dead silence. Then Donoma chirped out, “Koko, you are very funny.”

Koko’s expression became chagrined and she shook her head and gave a wry smile. Everyone around the circle shared a good laugh, including Donoma, though she really had no idea why she was laughing other than everyone else was. After a moment, they settled down again and Takoda took back control of the conversation.

“I wondered how I had missed your age so badly, but it seems that you have been training since you were a ka’eskone even younger than Donoma Chepi. Your Neho’e must have been a very great warrior to have taught you so much so young. Who was he?”

Koko sighed. “Honiahaka was my Neho’e. He taught me many things before he died.”

Eyes widened around the circle. All of them had heard of Honiahaka; he was a legendary fighter against the Blue Coats out here on the Plains.

Takoda smiled gently. He understood so much more about Koko now than he had this morning – was it only this morning? – he asked himself again before turning his attention back to the young warrior sitting at his fire. So many more things made sense. But the new knowledge also brought more questions to his mind. What had happened to Honiahaka? And why had his family been dishonored as they had been? Even for the sake of purity within the tribe, a warrior’s family had certain rights.

But, he decided firmly, all his questions could wait for another day. Donoma had fallen asleep against Koko’s arm and even his sons were showing signs of fatigue. He motioned to Litonya who accepted his bowl and removed Koko’s from her hands and then Donoma’s. With a smile of dismissal, Takoda waved her towards the tent, indicating he would settle the boys by the fire and stay with them. It would not be seemly for him to stay in his tent tonight, especially after he had learned Koko’s true age.

“We will talk more tomorrow, Koko Kanti,” he assured her. “But now it is time for everyone to get some sleep. It has been a very exciting day.” He reached down to remove Donoma’s grip from Koko’s arm, but found the child resisted fiercely, a frown marring her otherwise peaceful visage. He looked at Koko in consternation and she shrugged, then lifted the child into her arms.

“You seemed to have acquired a new charge, Koko Kanti.”

“I seem to have acquired a friend, Takoda. Good night.”

“Good night, my young warrior friend. May the Spirits guide your dreams.”

************

Koko Kanti thrashed restlessly on the pallet she was laying on and Donoma Chepi checked her brow in concern. The warrior’s fever was rising already and to Donoma, that meant nothing good. She stepped to the doorway and motioned to her brother Honaw. Of all the warriors in the camp, Honaw was the one Koko had trusted the most. She would not mind as much if he saw her in her weakened state.

Everyone around the fire rose when she motioned, but Donoma shook her head, asking only for Honaw. The rest watched as he went in and exited almost immediately carrying Koko in his strong arms. Donoma walked out beside him and they headed towards the small creek the camp was set next to.

Before they could resume their seats, the second of Takoda’s sons walked briskly back into camp loaded down under the possessions he had removed from Koko’s horse. The saddle was still bloody, but everything else was neatly packed away in her saddle bags. Even her rifle was still in its sheath and her holstered pistols were draped around it. He waited for his father to motion and then took them into the dwelling where Koko had so recently been, placing them gently in a stack in the back. Then he went back out to the fire to join the rest in their vigil.

Odahingum and Takoda exchanged glances and the chieftain shook his head. “I do not think she came home to mate, my friend. I think she came home to die.”
Chapter V
Takoda frowned – that didn’t coincide with the brief glimpse he had been given in his vision. He peered intently at Odahingum. “Why do you say that, Odahingum? It makes no sense… especially not according to what I have seen.”

Odahingum gave Takoda a sympathetic look. “I do not know what you have seen Takoda – only what I can see right now before me with my two eyes.” He paused. “Koko Kanti lived with us for many years… long enough to know there would always be a place for her to call home here if she ever decided to return. She would have returned as the warrior she was in the white man’s world but not bringing so many worldly possessions. Everything she has need of is already here.”

“And if she was bringing gifts to honor her chosen mate?”

Odahingum shook his head. “I understand what you are saying, Takoda. It is just not the feeling I am receiving from her appearance. Wounded or not, if she was coming home as a warrior to take a mate, she would never have given up her weapons… even to her horse.” He paused again. “Perhaps Donoma will be able to shed some light on the situation – assuming Koko lives through the night.”

Takoda closed his eyes. Koko wouldn’t be so stupid to break his daughter’s heart a second time… would she? He remembered all too clearly the events of the day she had left them for good – a little more than five full cycles ago. A time after Donoma turned fifteen seasons… and the first warrior had approached Takoda with an interest in making Donoma his wife.

************

Ahanu was an older warrior and as far as Takoda was concerned, an unsuitable mate for Donoma. Takoda had his own ideas of who would make the best mate for his beloved daughter, but it was not his place to make that determination. However, he would allow Donoma the choice, but he would not be without influence as well. Hopefully, she was not in any rush to be wed.

Ahanu approached Takoda first, stating his intentions and making his wishes known. Takoda listened politely, then informed Ahanu that the choice was strictly Donoma’s. The warrior was unhappy with that answer, thinking the decision should have been made between men… especially since he was one who had much to offer. Why should the decision be left to one who was neither woman nor child?

Donoma and Koko came back from their afternoon walk and Donoma stayed by the fire at Takoda’s behest. Koko walked away just far enough that she couldn’t be accused of overtly eavesdropping, but where she was still an acknowledged presence.

Ahanu presented his case again, trying to convince Donoma of the benefits of mating with him. Instead, she looked at him in horror and then turned her attention to Takoda.

“No, Neho’e. I have no desire to be mated to him or any other man right now. I am happy as I am with you and Nahko’e and Koko… and even my hestatanemos. That is all the family I need in my life.”

Ahanu grew livid – how dare she reject him in favor of Koko. But he was not a stupid man either, and jerked his head in Donoma’s direction before stomping away from their campfire. Donoma watched him go, then turned and entered the dwelling she shared with Takoda and Litonya. Koko watched and kept her own council the rest of the day and long into the night before coming to the only decision she could live with.

She was gone before the sun came up and no one knew the reason why. Koko hadn’t spoken to anyone before she left and she hadn’t left written word with any member of the tribe. And though Honaw knew she had been restless and unhappy since her Nahko’e died two cycles previously, he suspected what had happened with Ahanu had merely served as the final impetus Koko needed to leave.

But when Donoma discovered Koko’s defection, she withdrew back into herself, shunning all but her family. It was a dark time for the clan and even now Donoma bore the scars from Koko’s desertion. Takoda wondered if either of them would ever recover from the damage that had been done to their sensitive souls due to their separation.

************

Honaw knelt down carefully beside the creek bank and placed Koko’s burning body into the shallowest part. He removed the thin blanket Donoma had used to cover her and threw it behind him, submerging all but Koko’s face and waiting for further instruction from Donoma. Donoma motioned to her mother who stood in the shadows nearby and requested robes and furs for Koko’s body to be placed in once her fever was down. She busied herself with collecting enough chips to start a brisk fire burning. Then she moved to the water’s edge to monitor Koko’s symptoms.

She met Honaw’s eyes and he smiled reassuringly at her. Donoma remained somber and let her mind go back to the earliest days of her friendship with Koko – when the world seemed full of possibilities.

************

Things had settled down after that first hectic day when Koko Kanti and Rachel Stone had become part of their tribe. Takoda shared with Odahingum who Koko’s father was and how long she had been training. She became part of the advanced group of warriors-in-training and was assigned the rather daunting task of teaching others her methods of fighting and hand-to-hand combat. Donoma was so proud of her – and even more thrilled to be acknowledged publicly as Koko’s warrior advisor. Most of the warriors welcomed them both and were eager to learn if only to give them a tactical advantage in that area of battle. Those who weren’t – many of them being Koko’s age mates – were encouraged by the actions of their elders and soon she was teaching most of the warriors in the camp.

Odahingum was made aware of the promise she had given to Donoma and every afternoon the two were allowed a bit of time for play. If the other warriors wondered why someone of Koko’s age, skill and natural ability was given time to play as a child instead of working on her training or theirs, they soon understood by looking at the beatific smile that now almost continually graced Donoma’s face. They simply smiled themselves and went about their business.

It took a little while for Takoda to learn the story of Rachel’s and Koko’s exile from their original tribe, but he was patient and finally got the whole story. What he heard made him angry and thankful at the same time – because if they had been treated right by Honiahaka’s clan, Koko and Rachel would never have come to them and Donoma would never have blossomed into such a happy child.

Koko’s voice was low and even and Donoma had to strain to hear it from inside the tent where her bed was. She was supposed to be sleeping and that made her a little mad – why did they think she was not old enough to hear Koko’s story? Even Rachel, who still suffered great pain and had immense difficulty getting around the winter camp, was sitting by the fire to support her daughter as she told the tale that had brought them into Odahingum’s camp.

“My father was a great warrior – a fierce warrior – and when he was a young buck, he thought he was invincible… impervious to laws and traditions. And he was strong enough to back his claim – he had defeated everyone who had challenged him. When his war party happened upon a wagon train of white settlers crossing the prairie, he did not kill all those who traveled in it. Instead, he took one look into the pretty blue eyes of a young Rachel Stone and claimed her as his own. The rest of his party thought it great fun, not realizing that he was more smitten than conquering – though that understanding would come soon enough.”

“When they returned to their camp, silence fell as everyone got a look at Honiahaka’s prize of war. He took her to his tent and made her his wife – she was unwilling at first, but eventually they grew to care for one another very much. Still it did not make her accepted as part of the tribe. But for a brief time, their lives settled.”

“After several cycles of life together Rae’l became with child and in the autumn season of that cycle, she gave birth to a baby girl – me. I was not a welcome addition, but Neho’e was happy to have someone of his own blood to instruct and teach, and Nahko’e was glad Neho’e was happy.”

“Honiahaka continued to be a successful warrior – feared and respected whenever he went out and defeated the Blue Coats or destroyed the white man’s settlements. But in the camp there was always a bit of anger directed towards him and his mongrel family, and he soon recognized that he needed to teach his half-breed, impure child how to defend herself and her Nahko’e when the time came.”

“So just before I turned four seasons, Neho’e started teaching me to become a warrior, and to his great surprise, I learned quickly. I was most definitely Honiahaka’s daughter and soon I knew more than all the other warriors-in-training did in the ways of waging war.”

“The clan accepted my skills reluctantly – but only because Neho’e refused to teach the rest if I was not allowed to be a part. And the tribe needed his skills much more than they needed to hate me or Nahko’e. So for a while, life became an almost comfortable and familiar pattern and if we were not liked, we were finally tolerated.”

Koko paused and sighed deeply, accepting the water skin from Litonya with a grateful smile. She had never spoken so much in her entire life and her tongue felt swollen and her throat scratchy, and she wasn’t even done yet. But these People deserved to know the whole truth of what had happened. Koko took another long pull on the skin and drew in deep breath and resumed her story.

“This past spring, Neho’e was sent out to ambush a company of Blue Coats that were intent on building a fort in our territory – once again flaunting the agreement the government had made with our People. But some of the tribe thought it a perfect opportunity to finally rid themselves of the impure blood that was now part of the clan.” Koko drew a shuddering breath, but the tears that rested in her eyes were not permitted to fall.

“So they set him up… and they ambushed him.”

“Koko,” Rachel admonished softly. “We do not know that for certain.”

“Yes, Nahko’e… We do!” Koko answered angrily. “*I* do!” poking a finger at her chest. “Neho’e would not have been killed in the manner in which he died had the warriors of his own tribe not betrayed his trust! He was better than that – he would never have been caught unaware by the Blue Coats like that… not like he would have by his own.”

Her words fell into silence and Koko stood. “Excuse me,” she said in unbroken English to her mother, giving the others a nod as she stood. How far she might have gotten had she been able to get out of the firelight, it was difficult to say. But as soon as she had both legs firmly under her, Koko Kanti found her arms full of Donoma Chepi, and though Litonya rose to gather her wayward daughter and tuck her back into bed with a mild scolding, a look from Takoda stopped her actions. She resumed her place around the campfire and watched as the two moved over to Koko’s dwelling.

Donoma didn’t speak; she merely ran her small hands over Koko’s wild hair soothingly, feeling the young warrior relax beneath her touch. Koko kept her head down, relishing the gentle touch and willing away the hatred she had felt for her father’s people since the day they had brought him home dead. Finally, Koko gave Donoma a hug, holding on for what seemed like forever. Donoma held on, sensing Koko’s need and loving the attention. When blue eyes met green, they twinkled somberly.

“Thank you, ka’eskone. I am very glad my warrior advisor gives such good hugs. I feel much better.”

“Me too,” the younger child quipped instantly. “I am sorry the bad men were so mean to you and Rae’l, Koko. They should have been able to see all the good in you that I do. They would never have treated you so badly.” She paused, not wanting to upset Koko, but needing Koko to know the truth of her feelings as well. “I am sorry those bad men were so mean to your Neho’e, too. He sounds like he was a nice Neho’e like mine and a good warrior.”

Koko smiled shakily. “He was a very nice Neho’e, Donoma. He played games with me and taught me tricks for hunting and trapping when we were not in warrior training. He would have liked you very much, I think.”

Donoma beamed. “Really? Do you truly think so?”

“Oh yes,” Koko replied seriously. “You have very pretty eyes and hair the color of wheat in the sunshine. And you are very smart. He liked to talk to people that were smart. It is one reason he and my Nahko’e learned to love one another.”

“Rae’l is smart?” Donoma asked – not disbelievingly as much as matter-of-factly, as though she had not considered such a possibility before.

“Oh yes, she is very smart. She taught me to read and write and understand the white man’s world. If I am ever forced to live there, I could survive. I do not think I could be happy in that world, but I could survive.”

“Do you think she would teach me? I would like to know these things.”

Koko shrugged. “You would need for Takoda or Litonya to approve the lessons, but I know she is willing to teach any who wish to learn. But ka’eskone, are you sure you want to learn? It is very difficult. They have such a harsh and confusing language and their customs and way of life go against so much of what we know.”

“But what if I ever need to survive there, Koko? Shouldn’t I know how to do so much as you do?”

“Ka’eskone, you will never need such knowledge. You have your Neho’e and your hestatanemos and me to look out for you. We would never put you in any sort of danger that might force you to become part of such a bizarre and wasteful culture. But,” Koko continued, holding up her hand to keep Donoma from interrupting, “if you still want to learn and your Neho’e and Nahko’e are willing, my Nahko’e will teach you.”

Donoma nodded emphatically. “Good,” she said with surprising firmness. “I want to be just like you.”

Koko blinked. No one had ever said that to her before and being placed into the position of a role model was a frightening and novel experience. She found it slightly unnerving. She swallowed. “Come….” standing and lifting Donoma back into her arms. “I think it is past your bedtime and I need to finish telling Takoda my story.”

Donoma shook her head. “No,” stated without hesitation. “You come with me. It is time for all to sleep. Tomorrow will be soon enough to finish telling your tale.” She crossed her arms over her chest, trusting Koko not to drop her and narrowed her eyes into a glare. It was so impossibly cute, Koko could not resist smiling, though she did curtail her laughter. She dropped a kiss on the blonde head and Donoma snuggled back into her arms, knowing she had won her point.

They reached Takoda’s fire and three sets of concerned eyes met her gaze, searching for any sign of her previous upset and relaxing minutely when there was none. Koko cleared her throat. “Donoma has informed me that it is time for all of us to sleep now, and that I will stay with her tonight. However, since we have more room in our home, I think she should stay with me instead and we will continue this conversation in the morning.”

Takoda’s eyes were twinkling in delighted mirth long before Koko finished her speech, but he merely nodded his head gravely and said, “If your warrior advisor has said, then it must be true. Is she agreeable to the change you made?”

Koko and Donoma exchanged serious glances, then Donoma broke out into a wreath of smiles and nodded her head rapidly.

“Then it is settled,” Takoda proclaimed and stood, knocking out his pipe and motioning to the rest of his family and Rachel towards their dwellings. “We can talk more tomorrow.” And before much time had past, they were all settled down for the night.

***********

Donoma spread the blankets and furs Litonya had brought back before she returned to the encampment to heat some broth for her daughter to feed Koko. She knew all too well that the body needed to eat to heal itself, even if the nourishment had to be forced. And if anyone was up to *that* particular task with *this* particular warrior, Donoma Chepi definitely was.

Donoma kept one eye on Koko’s injured body, wondering again what had put her friend in such horrible condition. “You did survive in the white man’s world, Nutta,” she whispered, “but at what cost?” The wounds reminded her greatly of the story Koko had told them of her father’s body when it had been brought home to her and Rachel – a story she had shared only once.

************

The following evening, Takoda invited Koko to his fire to finish the story she had begun. He had an idea that she needed to finish as badly as he needed to hear the rest. She took her place in the circle, only this time, Donoma sat beside her. They had been inseparable all day and Odahingum had let them be, having heard Koko’s story from Takoda over the morning meal. Now Takoda allowed them to stay together for the last part of Koko’s tale.

She took a deep breath, then started speaking in a low, clear voice. “Neho’e had been shot in the side, giving credence to the fact that he had been ambushed by the Blue Coats. But marks on his wrists showed they had been bound and he was beaten and bruised over a large portion of his body. His face was mangled almost beyond recognition. I knew the way the Blue Coats fought – Neho’e made certain I understood how they fought so I would be able to defeat them with their own tactics. I knew when I saw him that he was the victim of treachery and deceit. But my complaints were dismissed without consideration as if they were of no importance.”

“Neho’e was given a burial befitting a warrior the stature of Honiahaka, his pyre burning so long and high that surely the Great Spirit mourned with us before taking his spirit to the land without the white man.”

“Before his ashes were even cold, the chieftain informed Nahko’e that Honiahaka’s mongrels were no longer welcome in his camp. She tried to argue… to fight back before I could stop her. The chief hit her – hard enough that she fell and damaged her leg. I pulled my blade on his eldest son and drew blood. It was the only reason we were allowed to leave, though the chieftain did explain what would happen if he ever saw either of us around his tribe again.”

Silence was the only indication they had that Koko was done speaking. Then Donoma spoke up. “The Great Spirit will not honor that chief when his time comes to cross over.” Takoda blinked – even he had not seen such. Only time would tell how accurate Donoma’s sight actually was.

************

Donoma saw Litonya approaching with a bowl cradled in her hands and she motioned to Honaw to removed Koko from the water. He scooped her into his arms and stood dripping while Donoma wrapped Koko’s inert body in the blanket she had been covered in. Then they moved together toward the bed Donoma had created from the furs Litonya had provided. Donoma sat first, then Honaw deposited Koko into her arms and backed away to a respectable distance – somewhere he could watch over both of them without invading the privacy he suspected they would need.

Litonya crossed to their side, easing the wet hair away from Koko’s bruised face before looking at Donoma. They didn’t speak – there was no need. Instead, she placed the warm broth in Donoma’s hands, then swept the loose, blonde hair away from her face, pushing the few small braids she wore behind her ear. She leaned forward and placed a kiss on Donoma’s forehead. Then she rose and moved to join Honaw in his vigil at the edge of the clearing.

Donoma closed her eyes and brushed a bare kiss over Koko’s temple. She felt Koko relax against her and she smiled slightly and set about trying to feed Koko the broth she held. Then she started humming an old lullaby that Koko had sung to her on more than one occasion when sleep had been elusive because of the things she saw in her dreams and let her mind wander back to the first time Koko had shared the song with her.
Chapter VI
The colder weather made life more difficult and challenging than it was in the warmer months but things in the clan settled and were good for a while. The winter camp was established and they were mostly left alone by both the Blue Coats and the fiercer tribes that also dotted the Plains. Their attention was more focused on survival in the harsher conditions, but there was still time devoted to fun as well as English lessons for a number of the tribe. And Donoma had convinced Takoda and Litonya to allow her the opportunity to learn.

“Sometimes I wish for the shy, quiet child we once had to return to us,” Litonya grumbled good-naturedly when she heard Donoma squeal as Koko gave chase. Takoda shushed her.

“It is good to hear her laughter, Litonya. I had despaired of her ever being a child.”

Litonya smiled at him. “I know, Takoda. I just sometimes miss the peace I had around camp for a little while every day. I think Koko Kanti and Rae’l make wonderful additions to our tribe and I am truly glad they are a part of it.”

“As am I, Litonya. The warriors are very pleased to be learning the white man’s tongue, though the younger ones are having a much easier time than the older ones are. Still, it will give us an advantage in battle and they all recognize that.”

Litonya nodded. “Some of the women have been sitting in on the children’s lessons, but I don’t think they find it nearly as interesting. A lot of the children don’t understand the point of it either, but Rae’l is very patient with them. And I think Donoma’s enthusiasm is a balm to her.”

“Our daughter is very bright – she should do well in this endeavor.”

“But to what purpose, Takoda? She is already so different from her age mates that they do not play together and you will not allow the boys near her.”

“As it should be,” he stated emphatically.

“As it should be,” Litonya agreed. “But Takoda, is it good that she continues to remain separate from the rest? How will she ever be a true part of the People when she remains so different?”

Takoda took Litonya’s hand in his and they turned and headed back towards the encampment. “Litonya, she will always, *always* be different and nothing we do will ever change that. She is of the white man, even though she is truly our daughter and we love her as such. She has an exceptional gift – I suspect her sight is more powerful than my own. The best we can do for her is to allow her to grow into the person she is meant to be. Other than that, I will not force her into a moccasin she will never fit in. It is not fair to her or to the other children. It may be that she will never be a true part of the People – I have not seen her future. But we should give her every advantage we can. The rest is up to her.”

“And Koko Kanti.”

“Very likely,” Takoda agreed as the arrived back at their dwelling.

As was typical at least once every few days, Donoma wheedled and cajoled until she was allowed to stay the night with Koko and Rachel. Aside from the time it gave her with Koko which she cherished, Donoma was always excited about the chance to read with Rachel. She saw other worlds opening up to her and she was never lonely when she went there, and most of the time, Koko was right there beside her.

The story had been funny and Rachel created intriguing different voices for each of the bears and mimicked a little girl who sounded a lot like Donoma. But the cadence of Rachel’s voice as she read to them was rhythmic. Donoma fell asleep before the tale was finished and Koko smiled at her mother before tucking their little guest in for the evening. Then she stepped outside into the cold, clear night and looked up at the stars.

She and her father had shared time like this often – not speaking, yet content in one another’s presence. It was now when Koko missed her Neho’e the most. Rachel stood in the doorway watching her for a long moment before stepping out to join her. She didn’t say a word aloud, but her light clasp on Koko’s shoulder spoke volumes. Koko smiled at her before turning her gaze back to the night sky.

“I miss him, you know,” Rachel said softly, her own voice low and raspy. “I think I always will.”

Koko was quiet so long Rachel was sure she was not going to comment. Then, surprisingly, she spoke in a clear concise tone. “Neho’e always told me that the lights in the sky were the souls of honored warriors that watched over those they had left behind.” She glanced at her mother to find Rachel looking intently at her. “Do you see the red light?” pointing out the particular one she was talking about. Rachel followed the line of her arm and nodded. “Do you see the tiny white light just to the right of it?” Another nod. “The night after we sang Neho’e’s spirit to the other side, that light appeared in the sky. I like to think it is his spirit watching over us. Sometimes I come out here and look at that light and I feel so close to him… like he is still here with us.”

Rachel remained silent for a long moment after that before turning to look directly into eyes that were mirror images to her own. “Thank you, Koko Kanti. Thank you for sharing such a beautiful and personal image with me.”

What Koko might have replied was lost in the sound of a frightened scream, and she was up and back in their home before Rachel even turned in that direction. She trusted that Koko could calm Donoma’s fears – whatever they were – and she still had difficulty moving very quickly. So she slowly rose and moved to her doorway, standing at it much like she had earlier – only this time she was looking in.

Donoma was cradled in Koko’s arms and Koko was singing softly – the same song Rachel had sung to Koko when she had been a little girl. The crying had stopped and Rachel watched her daughter tenderly push the damp blonde hair off Donoma’s face and wipe the tears from her cheeks. Koko looked up when she felt her mother’s presence, but she didn’t stop singing. Only when Donoma’s breathing deepened did she lay the child back on the bed of furs they generally shared and turn to her mother. She never realized Donoma was not fully asleep, but merely felt safe enough in her presence to fully relax again.

“What happened?” Rachel asked softly. “Do you know what she dreamed about?”

Koko shook her head. “She did not share her vision with me. She simply clutched at me with great strength and held on to me like I was her only link to life. I thought it best to let her do so.”

Rachel smiled at her, gentle pride in her eyes. “You would be a wonderful mother, Koko, if that was your destiny,” she added before Koko could protest. “I am so proud of the way you look after the ka’eskone, my daughter. I know it goes against your warrior nature to do so in the way that you do.”

Koko thoughtfully shook her head. “It doesn’t, Nahko’e… not really. There is a part of me – part of the warrior – that needs to look after Donoma Chepi so carefully. Perhaps it is because she is my warrior advisor,” she responded slowly, not really understanding it herself.

Rachel bit her lips, looking like she wanted to comment on that particular arrangement, but she was wary of pushing. Though Koko was still her daughter and a child in many respects, she was also an acknowledged warrior within the tribe and as such was the head of the household. She held the responsibility of an adult; therefore she was afforded the courtesies of one as well.

Koko watched the indecision flow across Rachel’s expressive countenance. She had learned the hard way, during her years in the other tribe, what was and was not acceptable for a female to question or comment on… even within the privacy of her own household. Koko decided to make it easier for her.

“What is it, Nahko’e?”

Rachel looked at her for a long moment as if judging how much she really wanted to ask, then blew out a breath and held out her arm. Koko took the hint and extended her own, supporting her mother and helping her ease down onto her bed of furs before squatting down beside her. Then she waited patiently for her mother to speak.

Rachel spent a moment just looking at Koko; she reminded Rachel so much of Honiahaka – strong, thoughtful and caring. Rachel wondered if her daughter would be as fierce in battle or as full of anger and independent of rules as she grew older. She had the distinct feeling that she would – her friendship with Donoma was proof enough that she would do what she thought was right. Regardless of what others decided. She smiled softly and Koko cocked her head.

“Am I supposed to guess what you are thinking, Nahko’e or would you like to share?” The smile she offered was teasing and Rachel had the good grace to blush.

“Right at that moment I was thinking how much you reminded me of Honiahaka. But before that,” a deep breath, “I was wondering why you made Donoma Chepi your warrior advisor. She is so young, as are you, relatively speaking, and yet you forged a lifelong bond to a child… a complete stranger. Why? Why would you place such a burden on either of you? You could have simply been friends.”

“It is no burden, Nahko’e.” Koko closed her eyes a moment, then opened them again and resumed speaking. “She was not a complete stranger nor could we have simply been friends.”

“What do you mean, Koko Kanti?”

“I am not entirely sure yet, Nahko’e, but I know these things to be true. Donoma Chepi and I are two differents. There must be a reason that the Great Spirit brought us together.”

Rachel understood exactly what her daughter meant by ‘differents’, but she had to honestly admit she had never considered either child in that manner – probably because she was the epitome of ‘differents’ in this society. Donoma had obviously never known any other life and Koko… well, Koko tended to be a law unto herself.

“You do not think you were brought together because of your differences then?”

Koko shook her dark head. “No, Nahko’e. There is more to it than that. I cannot explain it any better than that, but I know it is true. Just as I know making her my advisor was the right thing for both of us.”

Rachel didn’t look completely convinced, but she nodded her acceptance of Koko’s words. “Then I will ask no more questions. But Koko, remember you will always have a responsibility to her – to listen to her counsel even when you disagree and to protect her even when she wants to stand up for herself. That is the reason such a bonding usually remains between a chieftain and his tribal shaman.”

“I know, Nahko’e, but I also believe this was necessary.”

“Very well, my daughter. We will speak of this no more.”

************

Odahingum looked around the camp, noting the large number of people still awake and waiting for some word from Donoma on Koko Kanti’s condition. The youngest of the children had been tucked into bed for the night, but it appeared that everyone else – everyone who had known the warrior before her abrupt leave-taking five cycles ago – they sat waiting pensively to hear whether the warrior would live or die.

“This is very frustrating,” he commented to Takoda, whose posture exuded peace and confidence. Only sitting this close could the chief see worry and hints of despair in the dark eyes that faced him. “What is wrong, Takoda? Do you not believe Koko Kanti will survive?”

“I am worried Koko Kanti’s return will destroy my daughter – regardless of whether she lives or dies.”

“You do not think….”

“I do not know… and that is what concerns me. The longer I sit here doing nothing, the more difficult it is to bear… especially as I am unable to see anything in regards to the two of them clearly.”

Surprisingly, Odahingum chuckled lightly and patted Takoda’s knee in comfort. “Welcome to the normal world of being a parent, my friend. None of the rest of us can see what Fate has in store for our children either. Why do you think so much of my hair is no longer dark, but silver instead?”

Takoda couldn’t help the reluctant smile that crossed his face. “Point made, Odahingum, but it doesn’t make me worry any less.”

“Of course it does not; they are both your children in one regard or another and they have already been very badly hurt – Koko on the outside and Donoma in her spirit. And we do not know what sort of damage Koko’s karma has sustained during her sojourn into the white man’s world or why she made the journey in the first place. We have far too many unanswered questions as of yet.”

Takoda snorted. “If she had not come home so critically wounded, I would have taken her over my knee and demanded an explanation for her abrupt departure and subsequent silence. I still might if she recovers.”

Odahingum howled – the sound out of place with the somber mood that surrounded the rest of the encampment. But he couldn’t control the laughter once the picture of Takoda attempting to spank Koko presented itself in his mind’s eye. Not only was Koko almost a head taller, she was just much stronger and faster than Takoda had been even as a much younger man.

All eyes turned towards Odahingum, but he just shook his head and wiped his eyes. “I am sorry, Takoda, but the mental image you gave me just then was more than a little amusing. Do you remember how strong she was as a warrior-in-training? It used to make our sons so angry.”

Takoda nodded, a slight smile now gracing his own features. “They never understood that Koko always had something she believed in to guide her when she fought. And that Donoma gave her strength because it meant there was always someone that believed in her.”

“We would never be defeated by the Blue Coats or any others if each of our warriors had ties to something like those two did. I am convinced much of Koko’s spirit and determination came from Donoma’s belief in her and not from her father’s legacy as many believe – which is one reason I never understood her disappearance.”

“I hope she lives to give us an explanation.”

“She will, my friend. Your daughter will make sure of that.”

************

Litonya and Honaw sat silently just within hearing range of Donoma’s voice, able to barely pick out the tune she was humming into Koko’s ear. They had both heard Rachel and Koko sing it a few times over the years, but neither of them had learned it themselves. It was somewhat haunting, and to hear it now coming from Donoma’s voice sent a chill skittering down both spines. But they had resolved to stay nearby until and unless Donoma dismissed them and they watched as she tenderly ministered to the warrior that was now a stranger to them all.

For her part, Donoma focused all her energy and attention on the patient she held in her arms, concentrating on getting the warm broth into her. She refused to let herself think or feel beyond the moment she was in, knowing if she did, she would lose control. And she hadn’t yet decided if she was more hurt or angry at Koko for her defection. All she knew for certain was that for reasons Donoma had never really questioned very deeply, more than five full cycles of seasons had passed and that part of her still ached and bled as though the wound was fresh.

She continued humming the song Rachel and Koko had taught her long ago – it brought a measure of peace to her heart and she could feel Koko continue to relax under her ministrations. She wondered in a distant way if Koko recognized where she was and who she was with or if it simply the familiarity of the tune that made her feel safe.

Donoma silently thanked Takoda for teaching her the art of healing… especially the points that allowed her to force nourishment into Koko’s body while she was unable or unwilling to do so for herself. Slowly, very slowly, Donoma placed broth into Koko’s mouth then triggered the swallowing reflex. Koko’s breathing remained slow and steady throughout the process and Donoma breathed a sigh of relief when they were finally done.

She motioned to the two still, waiting bodies just at the periphery of her vision, noting both of them jerk into motion at her gesture. Honaw helped his mother rise from the ground, then together they approached Donoma.

She reached out the empty bowl to Litonya. “Thank you, Nahko’e.”

“Do you wish for more, my nahtona?”

Donoma shook her blonde head. “No, thank you. I do not think her body will tolerate anything more at the moment. Perhaps later we can try again.”

“Perhaps later she will be awake to do it herself.”

Donoma nodded but she did not answer verbally. She had serious doubts about the outcome of this particular situation. Instead she looked at Honaw. “I need you to help me recline and then position Koko in my embrace. We have to get her fever down and I cannot chance her catching a chill.”

“Out here, Donoma?” he questioned.

“It is for the best, Honaw,” her eyes saying more to him than her lips would admit aloud. He nodded, accepting her words both spoken and unspoken and took Koko Kanti into his arms while Donoma shifted into a laying position. Then he turned Koko on her side and held her until Donoma wrapped her arms around the warrior from behind.

“Thank you, Honaw,” she whispered. “Now, you and Nahko’e go back to the camp and tell them to rest. It will be a while before we see any change… bad or good.”

“I cannot leave you here alone, ka’eskone. I know you are a grown woman,” holding up a hand to cut off her protest to being referred to by her childhood title. “But you are still no warrior. And the warrior you hold is unable to protect you as her sworn oath to you demands. I gave my word to her, ka’eskone, just as she did to you those many cycles ago. Do not make me break the vow I made.”

Donoma groaned silently and closed her eyes. She knew he was right on several levels although the knowledge did not make things any easier. She closed her eyes and reluctantly nodded her head. “Very well,” she conceded, “but only you and only if you wait at the edge of the clearing where you were before.” She opened her eyes and looked at Litonya. “Will you return to the camp, Nahko’e and give them the news? And instruct them not to come here.”

Litonya nodded. “How will we know…?” unsure how best to finish her question.

“I will send Honaw with word.”

“All right, Donoma. I will do as you have asked.” Litonya leaned forward once more and kissed her daughter’s forehead. “Rest well… both of you,” knowing Honaw would remain awake to watch over them for as long as it took. She watched Donoma’s eyes close and then looked at her eldest son. “Do you require anything? A water skin perhaps or a blanket? I do not want you becoming sick from this and I doubt your family does either.” They started back to the spot where Honaw would be keeping his vigil over his sisters.

“I would appreciate my fur robe, Nahko’e,” he replied honestly. “And tell Gaagii and our children not to worry.”

“You know she will, but I will tell them anyway,” Litonya said with a slight smile. “I will be back with your robe in a moment. You will come get me directly if there is any change.”

“Yes, Nahko’e.”

Litonya was back in a moment as she had promised, and Honaw draped his robe over himself and listened to the sounds of the camp settling down behind him. Then he turned his attention to the pair wrapped together by the fire and let his mind remember the things he had heard about the warrior Koko Kanti who in the white man’s world was known as Reb Stone.
Chapter VII
When Koko Kanti had disappeared from their lives, Honaw determined to find out where she was and why she had left. He felt they all deserved an answer, but he knew Donoma *needed* one. It shouldn’t have been too difficult – after all, Koko Kanti was a feared and respected name on the Plains. How hard could it be to find a half-breed female warrior with piercing blue eyes?

What Honaw didn’t consider at first was that Koko was indeed a half-breed… a woman with two distinct heritages. And when she left the tribe, she used that to her advantage. Koko Kanti was left behind as a myth… a legend born on the Plains to explain the defeats warrior bands and Blue Coats suffered alike – their very own boogeyman. The warrior became Reb Stone, bounty hunter.

She’d chosen the name to honor her mother and her mother’s mother. Stone for her mother and Rebecca for the grandmother she had never met – only she went by Reb. People tended to pay less attention to the fact that she was a woman if her name did not bring it immediately to their attention. That lesson she had learned from her mother before Rachel had crossed the Divide to join Honiahaka.

It hadn’t been too difficult to hide once she’d found some clothing. And after capturing her first outlaw, not many people felt the need to heckle or make fun anymore. She was able to afford better fitting clothing and a gun. Soon, Reb Stone was a name known throughout the Territories as a fearsome bounty hunter. She never turned down an opportunity to catch an outlaw, and her kills and captures were quite… creative… to say the least.

Finally, after more than two full cycles of seasons, Honaw started hearing regular reports about this bounty hunter. More and more often the People would hear about the individual known as “Stone Cold” and Honaw began to pay attention to the rumors as they abounded. He eventually figured they *had* to be about Koko Kanti, given the descriptions he heard about the hunter, but was unable to form a more firm hypothesis, until….

Honaw went to Odahingum, telling him of the rumors he had been hearing and the possible conclusion he had reached. The chief’s eyes widened as he listened – he had wondered how Koko Kanti had managed to completely disappear. It had never occurred to him that she might go to live among the white man. After a brief discussion, Odahingum agreed to Honaw’s idea and sent him to the trading post with orders to find out what was going on.

Honaw left with little explanation to anyone – he took a few furs to trade, but otherwise he went empty-handed. He made good time to the trading post and when he arrived, he sought out the scouts. Indian scouts were hated among the tribes for their betrayal to their clans, but they could provide useful information. Honaw knew they tended to fall into two categories – those willing to help their native brothers to ease the guilt they felt for being a scout and those who would take greatest advantage of them because of the disdain they themselves received from everyone around them.

Honaw found one who was willing to act as an interpreter as well as give him the knowledge he needed. Hassun translated the shopkeeper’s words and Honaw played his part, though he understood both the English and the native tongue Hassun spoke – unknown to the Native scout. That was how he knew he could trust Hassun – the scout did not try to cheat or take advantage, and for that Honaw was grateful. He had no desire to remain in this white man’s territory any longer than was absolutely necessary. When they were done negotiating, Hassun gave Honaw his money and led him over to the saloon and into a dark corner where they could talk without interruption.

“What is your real reason for coming here, Honaw?” Hassun asked quietly once the girl had left the bottle on the table and sauntered away. “No one comes to the trading post with so little unless there is another objective.”

“I am looking for information,” Honaw replied honestly. Hassun nodded.

“I thought as much. About…?”

“The one they call Reb Stone… the bounty hunter.”

Hassun’s dark eyes widened in surprise. “That is unexpected,” he said softly. “What do you want to know?”

“Tell me about her.”

Hassun looked at Honaw for a long moment then nodded his head. “She showed up here two… maybe three years, um… cycles ago. She rode a magnificent black stallion – that horse is still the envy of many in the Territories but no one goes near him but Reb. He won’t let anyone else approach close enough to touch, much less ride.” A beat. “She was wearing the oddest ragtag assortment of clothing I had ever seen, but by the end of her second week, she had captured her first outlaw and was able to buy better. No one knows where she came from or what her background is. Some say she is a savage come straight from the white man’s hell. Others say she is a half-breed with a score to settle and still others think she is a white woman with a past of some sort.” Hassun shrugged.

“Whatever the truth is, only she knows. She is considered somewhat odd – a woman who wears man’s clothing and does man’s work, but she has come to be well-respected in this town and throughout the Territories. She catches her man, pays her few debts, lives quietly. When she is in town, she usually comes in for a drink and a card game if there is one.” Hassun chuckled lightly and Honaw arched a questioning brow in his direction.

“When Reb first arrived here, she was as green as anyone I had met – some of the men here tried to take advantage of that fact. It wasn’t long before the girls here took her under their wings and taught her a few things. Soon she was beating the white men at their own game, and now she looks after the girls here when she is in town.

Honaw blinked. He wasn’t stupid, nor was he naïve. He knew what the girls in the saloon did for a living. Surely Koko hadn’t…. Hassun read the look and shook his head.

“Reb never became a lady here, Honaw, though she could have had men lining up out the door for a chance with her if she had dressed differently. She is too much like the men for them to want to bed her. She does keep a room upstairs though; the girls set aside one for her after she called out an outlaw who had been harassing them – beating on them and such. The Blue Coats did nothing, so Stone Cold did. Man was dead before he had a chance to draw.”

Honaw nodded. That was much like the Koko Kanti he remembered – Protector and Defender. She looked out for the girls here much like she had Donoma Chepi for so long. It was almost second nature to her to do so.

Hassun watched the different emotions play out in Honaw’s eyes; his face remained impassive. The scout wondered if this warrior knew more about who Reb Stone really was and knew for a certainty that even if he did, he was likely not going to share the information he had. This was about something personal Hassun would be willing to bet his horse.

Honaw brought his dark eyes back from whatever distance they had traveled and pinned Hassun to his seat with their sharpness. “Describe her to me,” he demanded.

“Tall,” Hassun answered without hesitation. “Almost my height and yours. Broad shoulders, thin waist; long dark hair with a few small braids on the left side of her face; darkish skin – not nearly as brown as ours, but darker than most of the white men here; full lips, high cheekbones, glittering blue eyes that turn hard and cold when she is angry. It is how she got the name ‘Stone Cold’.”

Honaw nodded. He was now certain that Koko Kanti was indeed the bounty hunter known as Reb Stone. The question was – what could he do about it? Despite everything, he could not force her to return home – that would cause more problems than it could solve, and there was every likelihood that Donoma would not appreciate his interference. He sighed. It shouldn’t be this difficult, but then if Koko had been a little braver or Donoma a little less innocent they never would have been in this situation to begin with.

“Is she here now?” Honaw finally asked. Hassun shook his head.

“No. She left several days ago after another wanted man.”

“And when do you anticipate her return?”

“We do not,” Hassun stated bluntly. “She will return when she returns or she will not. There is no timetable for catching outlaws.”

Honaw bowed his head. He had expected as much but he had hoped….

“May I ask…?” Hassun started, but stopped at the warring looks of fierceness and despair in Honaw’s expression. “I am sorry. Could I perhaps relay a message?”

“No thank you, my friend. I would be happy for her to have no knowledge of my presence here.”

“It shall be as you wish,” Hassun stated before a clamor outside drew his attention to the window. “However, it looks as though the Blue Coats are preparing for some sort of action. Come with me. You want to be well gone from here before they head out.”

Honaw glanced at Hassun’s face and refrained from asking the question that was just on the tip of his tongue. If he wanted the scout to respect his need for privacy in some things, he would need to do the same in return… no matter how compelling his curiosity.

They reached the small stable where Honaw had housed his pony at Hassun’s directive and Hassun stuck his hand out. Honaw did not hesitate, but offered him a warrior’s salute before climbing on the back of the mustang.

“May the Great Spirit watch over you in your travels, Honaw.”

“And you, Hassun. Thank you for the information.”

Hassun nodded. “I hope you find that which you seek.”

“I have all I came for. The rest is not for me to decide.” And with that, he turned his horse and headed back home to the Plains.

When he arrived at the encampment, Honaw kept his own counsel for the better part the day, spending time with his family and catching up on the things he had missed during his short trip. It wasn’t until after the evening meal, when darkness had settled and the children were in bed that Honaw was summoned to Odahingum’s campfire.

Takoda was also there and Honaw nodded in respect to both before he took his place and told them of what he had learned and what he suspected. When he was done, he was dismissed and Takoda went back to his own home. He never knew if it came up for discussion again between the two leaders, but he knew he had done all he could. What remained was up to them… or Koko.

As time passed, he realized there was little they could do either. Nothing was going to change what had happened and unless Koko decided to return of her own volition, Donoma at least would never truly find peace. And he suspected the same would be true for Koko Kanti as well.

************

Movement from the fur bundle drew Honaw’s attention from the past back to the present. Then he figured out what was happening and wavered between embarrassment, concern and chagrin. He understood why Donoma was struggling out of her clothing – fever of the magnitude Koko was suffering from generally killed and the only way to prevent it was to break the fever quickly while keeping the body temperature from dropping too drastically and allowing a chill to set in. To tell the truth, he had been a bit surprised Donoma had climbed into the furs fully clothed, but had put it down to embarrassment of getting undressed in front of her eldest brother. The modesty was not unexpected given her age, but it also went hand in hand with the withdrawal she had initiated when Koko had left their lives.

He stood, subtly reminding Donoma he was still nearby if she required assistance, but distant enough that she would reveal nothing to him accidentally. When the movement halted, Honaw crept closer to the fire to check on them.

Donoma heard him approach and opened her eyes, unable to hide the gut-wrenching exhaustion she felt. Honaw reached a hand down and smoothed the blonde hair from her face.

“What can I do for you, Donoma Chepi?”

She shook her head resignedly. “There is nothing to be done now but wait, Hestatanemo. I have done all I know to do for her. The rest….” She let her voice trail off and bit her lip, then sucked in a deep breath and continued. “She started shaking with chills,” explaining why her clothing was now bundled under her head. “If I can get her warm again, I will need you to take her back to my tent. Staying out here in the wind is not helping, but I cannot risk the trip until her temperature stabilizes.”

Honaw gave her a small smile, letting Donoma know he understood her concerns. He wondered what she was really thinking… and feeling. As far as he knew, she still did not know the real reason Koko had disappeared from their lives – although, none of them actually *knew* for sure, but certainly a large number of the tribe, especially the elders, suspected – nor was she aware of the motivation behind his brief trip into the white man’s world.

He let his glance run over Koko’s still, pale form, then dropped his thick robe over them to add to their warmth. He shivered in the cold air but a look from him kept Donoma from scolding. Instead, she smiled weakly at him.

“Thank you, Honaw.”

“Nahko’e left me a water skin. Let me heat it here near the fire; that should help some as well.” She nodded her agreement and closed her eyes, and Honaw headed back to the skin. Donoma listened to his almost silent passage away from them and then his immediate return. He placed the skin on one of the warm stones around the fire and held his hand out to the warmth for a moment.

“Stay,” she bade him before he could turn away from the flames.

“Donoma?”

“Things have changed, Honaw. Whatever else I need to do for Koko Kanti will have to be taken care of in the privacy of my home.” She paused to wrap her arms tighter around the warrior that was still shaking with cold in her embrace, feeling them lessen slightly. “I am afraid the wind and dropping temperature will undo all the good I have done if we remain longer than necessary and I will not allow you to catch a chill because of your generosity and caring.”

Honaw nodded. He would not admit to the relief he felt sitting near the warmth of the fire. He wasn’t warm through yet, but at least he was no longer in danger of icing over. “How is she?”

Donoma couldn’t shrug very well, given the position she was in, but the look in her eyes told Honaw quite a bit. “I do not know, Hestatanemo. She has to want to heal and I do not know if that will is there.”

“She is a warrior, ka’eskone. Her will is strong.”

“I hope you are right, Honaw,” not disagreeing with his words though her tone was doubtful. Another shiver passed from Koko to Donoma and Donoma held her even tighter. She closed her eyes and let her thoughts turn to the warrior she now held safely in her arms. She remembered the first time Koko had held her like this – when Donoma had learned firsthand the dangers of freezing chills and skyrocketing fever.

************

That winter had been harsher than in cycles previously and so much time was spent simply trying to get through it. It snowed and stormed with fierceness and regularity, even in the southern camp – keeping the People locked in their homes to stay warm. On the rare days when the sun shone, the entire tribe was happy to get out and simply breathe fresh air and soak up the weak sunshine.

It was Donoma’s seventh winter, and Koko had just turned fifteen seasons. Already she was a warrior making a name and reputation for herself – carrying on Honiahaka’s legacy with pride. More and more of her time was spent fighting and training, and though she did try to keep her promise to Donoma to spend time together every day, it was not like it had been in the beginning. So Donoma found herself more and more on her own, especially on the clear days.

Rachel spent as much time as she could with Donoma, having found her to be an apt and agile pupil, but it was clear Donoma missed her time with Koko. What Donoma didn’t know was that Koko missed her time with Donoma equally, and was doing everything in her power to get that time back. But her skills as a warrior were called upon more and more and even in the midst of winter, she was consistently called upon to take on various adult responsibilities when the weather was nice enough to be out.

On one such day, she was up and gone before daylight, and Donoma – angry that she was being left behind again, struck out on her own without a word to either her parents or her bothers. It was only when Rachel came by for Donoma’s reading lessons that anyone noticed Donoma was missing. It didn’t take long before the entire encampment was searching for her.

In the midst of the searching, Koko and her scouting party returned and she immediately separated from the others, having a very good idea where Donoma would have gone. One of the nice things about being in a stationary encampment was that they had found a few places they liked to go when they were out alone. Koko suspected Donoma had gone to one of them.

Honaw followed her, trusting Koko knew more about Donoma than anyone else and knowing she had sworn to protect her. The first two places, closest to the camp, were empty and they were well on their way to the third when Koko heard Donoma’s voice whimpering.

She stopped and called out, “Donoma? Donoma Chepi – where are you, ka’eskone?” No answer, save the whimpering sound Koko could barely make out. She motioned to Honaw who nodded his head and they moved more slowly, circling in opposite directions towards the sound. After a moment, Koko cried out in relief and Honaw came running to her. Donoma was curled up into a small ball, shivering and shaking so hard she was unaware of Koko’s presence. Her jaw was clenched to keep her teeth from chattering, allowing only the smallest sounds to escape.

Koko put a hand on Donoma, alarmed by the paleness of her skin and the heat that ran beneath it. She scooped Donoma into her arms and Honaw wrapped his fur robe over the child before they started back to the camp as quickly as they could manage. Koko didn’t even slow down when they reached the camp, but went straight into her tent and placed Donoma on her bedding closest to the fire. As quickly as she could, she stripped Donoma’s wet clothing from her body and tucked her under the furs.

A word to Honaw brought the fire to almost roaring in the small space and Koko stripped herself and crawled in beside Donoma to share heat. Honaw placed a couple water skins near the fire to heat at Koko’s directive, then he sat back to wait. For a while, they were the only ones in the camp, but as others began to return, he stepped out to greet them, thrilled he had good news to share.

Takoda immediately walked into Koko’s home, eager to check on them both and pleased to see that Koko was doing everything that could be done. Then he left them alone even though he kept a vigil just outside in case he was needed. The night had passed slowly, but as a new day dawned, Donoma’s eyelashes fluttered open, still slightly glazed with fever but at least she was awake and in her right mind.

“Koko?”

“Good morning, ka’eskone. How do you feel?”

“Tired… sweaty. Why are we naked?”

“We had to warm you up and break your fever. What were you doing out near the water alone?”

“Looking for you… but I got lost. I wanted to find you so we could play. I miss playing with you.” She tried to pout but instead yawned widely and closed her eyes.

“I know, ka’eskone. I miss it too, but I have to be an adult now… at least most of the time,” the last bit whispered. Donoma didn’t respond, having fallen back to sleep. Koko tightened her arms and closed her eyes as well. They would have to work something out to keep this from happening again, trying to come up with a solution everyone would be happy with.
Chapter VIII
“Honaw?” Donoma asked quietly as she felt the chills in Koko’s body begin to settle into lesser tremors. Quite some time had passed and Honaw thought he could just see the sun beginning to edge over the horizon. Donoma was wearing a distant smile that made Honaw’s brow arch in question.

“She is doing better?”

“Slightly, I think… I hope.” Donoma watched the confusion wash over his countenance at her expression. “I was remembering the first time I learned of this technique.”

“You remember that?” Honaw asked with surprise. “You were so young and it was a terribly traumatic experience for you… for all of us. I was so very glad we found you.”

“I was never worried about being found,” Donoma stated with conviction. “Koko had promised to protect me; I knew she would find me. I did not intend to run away or get lost. I was simply angry that we were never allowed to be together… that the elders wanted her to always be an adult instead of being my friend and playmate. They kept her so busy it was hard for her to keep the promise she made to me – a promise they were well aware of.”

Honaw smiled. “I remember. Odahingum was less than happy when she laid out her demands after finding you that day.”

Donoma couldn’t stop the small chuckle that rippled across her belly in remembrance. “I know; he glared at me for a full moon after that. But I did not much mind… I had Koko again and they could not take her from me. Besides, he is very fortunate that I was too young to make demands of my own.”

An awkward silence fell as Honaw pondered her words and debated on the best way to proceed. “Why?” he finally blurted out. She looked up at him and frowned, her brow furrowing deeply. He sighed and moved to sit closer so that the fire no longer separated them, but where the warmth of the flames still reached him. He clasped his hands together and sighed.

“I am not criticizing, ka’eskone. I am trying to understand.” He looked down at his hands and sighed again before looking back at her, finding it oddly endearing to see her wrapped around Koko Kanti so possessively. Always there had been something between them – it was plain for everyone to see if they but looked. But even now Honaw freely confessed that it was beyond his knowledge and understanding and felt that probably most of the tribe felt the same. Now he had to explain to Donoma when he wasn’t certain he could explain it to himself. He cleared his throat softly.

“You found them – you brought them home – you became her warrior advisor. Donoma… you were a five-year-old child then. How… why?”

Donoma closed her eyes again and tightened her hold on Koko’s still warming body. It was a question no one had ever dared voice before and one that she really didn’t have a reason for except….

“I knew, Honaw. I just knew. She came to me in a dream the night before we found them – searching for something… asking for help. I knew she would be important to me… I knew she would be my friend.”

“And you needed that.” A statement.

“So much,” Donoma said quietly. “I was always alone, Honaw… always different. Koko and Rae’l changed that for me.”

Honaw smiled. “I think Odahingum realized that once he resolved his anger with you after that little episode. You always had time to be together when Koko was not away fighting.”

“And despite everything we had been, when all was said and done, she left me alone anyway,” Donoma added sadly and the pain on her face made the conversation die. Honaw was no nearer to understanding how Donoma knew about Koko Kanti or why she became her warrior advisor… to say nothing of the deeper questions that still plagued him. But one look at her expression kept his mouth shut – some things would always be too personal to share.

Honaw felt the presence before he heard it and turned to see Takoda and Litonya waiting at the edge of the clearing where he had waited for part of the night. With a look in Donoma’s direction, he rose from the fire and walked back to them, shivering in the cold morning air. Litonya looked at him disapprovingly until she realized where his coat had gone and nodded her head in acceptance.

“How are they?” Litonya asked when he drew near them. Honaw shrugged.

“Donoma thinks Koko might be slightly better. Her chills seem to have dissipated to almost nil. Her main concern now seems to be stabilizing Koko’s temperature so we can move her back indoors. After that….” He shrugged again.

“And how is Donoma?”

“Closed off. Right now she is focused on getting Koko healed, but eventually they are going to have to talk – if only to one another. I am not sure what this is going to do to her.”

“You go back to camp, Honaw,” Takoda instructed. “I will wait with Donoma Chepi.”

“No, Neho’e. I promised Donoma that only I would remain. Koko Kanti would not wish to be seen as weak by so many that she counted as allies and friends among her People. Whatever we perceive to be her transgressions against Donoma, Donoma is the one now trying to protect her. We can do no less than honor her wishes.”

Takoda nodded reluctantly. What Honaw said was true, but that did not make him any happier. “We will prepare Donoma Chepi’s dwelling to receive them as soon as they are ready to return. Do you require anything?”

“Only to return to the fire. If Nahko’e wishes to remain, she can notify you when we are ready to return.”

Takoda acknowledged his agreement with a slight bow and turned back towards the village. He more than anyone else worried about the effect this unforeseen incident would have on his only daughter. And it occurred to him to wonder why this had gone unforeseen. Surely if they had needed warning about anything, Koko Kanti’s arrival should have been at the top of the list.

He wandered back into the camp and every eye focused its gaze in his direction, looking for some word. Takoda shook his head. “There has been very little change overnight,” he reported aloud. “I am going to prepare Donoma’s dwelling to receive them when they are ready to return.” His sons’ wives moved unhesitatingly to help him and the rest of the camp returned to its normal morning routine. The only difference was the sense of expectation in the air.

When Honaw returned to the fire, Donoma blinked her eyes open slowly. “I need to dress, Honaw, but I need your help. I do not want to bring my cold clothing into the warm nest I have created here. Can you hold them to the fire to warm them for me?”

Honaw nodded and eased the bundle from beneath her head. As quickly as was humanly possible, he warmed them and passed them to Donoma who struggled to don them beneath the heavy furs without disturbing Koko too much in the process. Honaw dutifully kept his back turned until he heard Donoma clear her throat.

“It is safe to turn around now, Hestatanemo. I think we can take her back to the camp now. Anything else that can be done for her I can do there.”

Honaw nodded and signaled the intent to Litonya who disappeared without a sound. Honaw crushed out the remains of the fire while Donoma prepared her patient, tucking the blankets and furs around her as much as possible and removing Honaw’s heavy robe. She maintained a light touch on Koko until Honaw knelt to pick her up. Then Donoma broke contact and stepped back to allow Honaw to stand and a cry was wrenched from the warrior’s pale lips. Honaw froze, afraid to move for fear of doing Koko further injury. Donoma moved to Koko’s side, gently sandwiching her between them and brushing the sweat-darkened hair back off her forehead.

“Koko, it is all right. Honaw is going to take you to my home, but I cannot stay beside you. Listen to the sound of my voice, Nutta. Listen and it will keep you safe. It will guide you back to me,” Donoma continued, heedless of Honaw’s listening ears and dropped jaw. She kept up a litany of conversation for the duration of the short trip. All eyes and ears followed them until they disappeared into Donoma’s tent and watched as Honaw emerged almost immediately.

He headed back to the water to retrieve the robes and furs that were left behind, then stopped when he saw his wife and mother walking back from that direction with their arms full. He wondered how he could have missed passing them, then realized after what Donoma had just unconsciously revealed in front of him, he probably would not have noticed a battalion of Blue Coats.

When had things become so between them? he wondered. And if Donoma spoke the truth, why indeed had Koko Kanti left Donoma behind to become part of the white man’s world? He knew Koko felt for Donoma… he had seen it in her words and deeds, but most importantly, he had seen it in her eyes. The real question was – what had he seen and was it real or imagined?

Honaw relieved the two of their burdens and turned back to enter Donoma’s abode. Litonya immediately went to her fire to stir the cornmeal she had cooking for their morning meal and added a small pot of broth, knowing Koko would need the nourishment it provided. Honaw stepped into the tent and what he saw broke his heart.

Donoma sat curled up beside Koko, hands gently combing through her dark hair, continuing the conversation she had started by the waters’ edge. In an effort to give them as much privacy as he could, Honaw turned his back deliberately and placed the furs neatly on the other side of the small space. Then he walked out without a word, knowing Donoma would call him if she needed him again.

He walked directly to Takoda’s fire, not waiting for his father to invite him before he wearily took a seat. The shaman didn’t speak; merely handed him a bowl of meal and waited for Honaw to devour half the contents before offering him a skin to wash it down. Then he waited patiently for Honaw to finish before clearing his throat and addressing him.

“You look burdened, my son. Has something more happened?”

Honaw chewed his last bite slowly, giving himself time to consider his answer carefully. What he knew, or strongly suspected now, was not his knowledge to share. And yet he highly doubted Donoma would confide the truth to anyone… possibly not even Koko herself. Honaw wondered when and how things had become so difficult and entangled. And for a moment, he wished for a time when Donoma was still a child and misunderstandings between them simply were not.

Eventually he faced Takoda and shrugged. “I do not know, Neho’e. I do not know.”

Takoda wisely refrained from asking more questions, knowing Honaw would reveal no confidences. It was one of his most endearing and frustrating traits. “Well, perhaps the Great Spirit will allow us a resolution to this matter sooner rather than later. Koko Kanti’s arrival here has upset a great many things.” He shook his head. “There are times when I find myself wishing for the days when she and Rae’l first arrived here. Life was much simpler then.”

Honaw smiled wryly. “I was thinking the same thing.”

Litonya nodded her agreement but didn’t speak aloud, choosing instead to lift the pot of broth from the heat and take it to Donoma’s tent. She crossed to the doorway and entered without announcing herself, and in doing so, saw something that brought a tear to her eye.

Donoma had fallen asleep with her head on Koko’s shoulder – not unexpected considering she had been tending to the warrior all night after a spirit quest that had lasted three days. What was unexpected and precious was the fact that even in her unconscious state, Koko held tightly to Donoma as she had always done. Litonya sighed and placed the small pot near the heat to keep warm. Then she exited the way she had come and headed back to tend her own fire. Things had been so much easier before Koko had left, she thought with a silent, mental sigh and loosened the lock on her memories.

************

Things settled into a slightly different routine after Donoma’s experience. Koko volunteered to mind her more during the day so they would always have time to spend together. It wasn’t always in play – sometimes they sat and talked together; others they took walks on the wide-open plain. Still other times, Koko would teach Donoma new skills… such as swimming and hiding and tracking.

In return, Donoma spoke to Koko about the things she could see that were beyond the pale of mere human sight. She taught her to make a simple bead bracelet and braid flowers and chase butterflies. It was a good balance for the two of them and all in all in was a good arrangement for the entire tribe.

As she relaxed and became a happier child, Donoma’s gift became stronger and more focused. She was able to advise Koko in her efforts to protect the clan and as a result, the tribe knew a measure of peace and contentment for a while.

Donoma kept up her lessons with Rachel, far surpassing those around her with her knowledge of the white man’s history and culture. There wasn’t any real need for it that Takoda could see, but the child enjoyed it and it gave Koko the time she needed to take care of her warrior responsibilities. And Litonya enjoyed the time as well – many times she would sit with Rachel and Donoma and listen, but sometimes she took the time to work on special projects away from the lessons.

On the occasions that Koko had to be away for a few days, Litonya took pains to spend extra time with her daughter, even if all they did was sit silently together and work on beadwork. At first they had been simple projects – single line bracelets and necklaces, much as Donoma taught Koko, but as time passed they became more complex in their design. Sometime after her tenth spring, Donoma had chosen to make a bracelet for Koko, intricate enough to showcase Koko’s crest of a screaming eagle flying over the moon. Before her twelfth spring, Donoma created a chest plate for Koko to wear for protection on the battlefield of the same theme and worked painstakingly on it every spare minute.

Then came Donoma’s first bleeding and she was reluctant to give Koko her gift, her newly discovered hormones making her unsure of her place in Koko’s life. As a child she had never questioned that place or her right to be there, but now Donoma felt like a mass of confusion. Her visions became more erratic and her frustration grew exponentially. Finally, Koko took matters into her own hands.

“Where are you going this time?” Donoma demanded petulantly, watching as Koko patiently packed a small bag of trail rations before retrieving her blanket, glad that it was summer and warm enough that they would not require furs or a fire.

“*WE*,” motioning between them, “are going out onto the prairie – away from the noise and excitement of the camp. It is time you were able to know the peace that time alone can bring, and I think you need it. Something troubles you, ka’eskone, and I think this will help clear your mind.”

“Don’t call me that,” Donoma snapped. “I am no longer a little child.”

Koko’s expression saddened. “I am aware of that, Donoma,” she pronounced carefully. “I did not mean anything untoward by it. It is what I have always called you… a sign of affection for my very best friend, but I will refrain if it offends you.”

“Am I still?” Donoma asked quietly.

Koko frowned. “Are you still what?”

“Am I still your very best friend?”

“Always,” Koko replied without hesitation. “You will always be my very best friend, Donoma, as well as my warrior advisor. Nothing will ever change that.”

“Even when I am acting like a little child?”

Koko smiled. “Even then, ka’eskone. One day, sooner than you expect, but much farther away than you desire, you will be a woman – with the responsibilities and expectations of an adult contributing to the good of the tribe. You will have to look for time to have to yourself and there will not be much to spend with me. And you will still be my very best friend and advisor. But even when we are both gray and bent with old age, I will still think of you as ka’eskone.”

Donoma huffed. “I am never going to catch up to you, am I?”

“No, but in a few more cycles, it will not matter. And for me… it does not matter now. You need to understand that, Donoma Chepi. Your age has never been a factor for me in our friendship.” She shrugged. “The Great Spirit brought you into my life for a reason. It is not for me to question.”

“Me either,” Donoma agreed. “I just wish it was not so confusing.”

“It is that way for all as they move from childhood to adult. It is easier for some than others, but it is still a very difficult time to live through. You must take comfort from the fact that all those before you survived and flourished.”

“Like you?”

“Like me,” Koko said with a smile.

“Good. I want to flourish now.”

Koko laughed. “You have been flourishing for a number of years, ka’eskone. This is just a rough patch. Now, go gather your things and come back here when you are ready to leave. Bring enough for a few days, but only what you are willing to carry.”

Unexpectedly, Donoma threw her arms around Koko’s neck, hugging her tightly before scampering out of her tent. Rachel came in once Donoma left.

“She was certainly excited.”

Koko smiled. “Yes, Nahko’e, she was.”

“Be careful, my daughter. She is at a tender and vulnerable age. Do not take advantage of that.”

Koko’s eyes burned blue fire. “I resent that, Nahko’e. I have *never* taken advantage of my friendship with Donoma Chepi. I have done nothing but be her friend and accepted her friendship in return.”

“And loved her and protected her for most of her life. This is a very confusing time for her.”

“I remember, Nahko’e. It was not easy for me, either.”

Rachel smiled gently and brushed Koko’s braids back into her loose hair. “I know, Koko. But your best friend was not an adult warrior who meant the world to you.”

“No,” Koko agreed wryly. “My best friend was a five-year-old child that meant the world to me with a gift she still has not realized the complete potential of.” She sighed. “Nahko’e… I do understand your concern. But I swore an oath to Donoma to protect her; I would do nothing to betray that.”

“I know, Koko. I just worry… for both of you. It is in my nature to do so and as your mother, it is my prerogative.”

Donoma chose that moment to run back in, a small pack on her back and her arms full. “I am ready, Koko. Can we leave now?”

Koko lifted her own pack and kissed her mother’s cheek. “We can leave now,” she assured Donoma and extended her hand. “Come… I have a special place chosen for our adventure.” They exchanged smiles, heading out without a backwards glance; Rachel watched until they were out of sight. Then she turned back to her home, picking up the leather she had been sewing for Koko and resumed her work.
Chapter IX
The air was hot and smelled of sweetness and earth and manure. It was an odd combination of smells and made Donoma wrinkle up her nose in surprise. Koko caught her expression out of the corner of her eye and grinned.

“Not what you expected?”

Donoma thought about it a moment. “I am not sure what I expected. I never noticed it quite as much in camp. There are always so many scents there… so many sounds. I have never really taken the time to notice them or try to separate them out individually. It is simply part of the tapestry of life.”

“It is indeed, and when it changes, you take notice. This trip is about giving you the opportunity to notice. Far enough away where it is only you and me and the sky and the earth. No other sounds to distract us; no one else asking for our attention,” Koko stated as she led them down a slight embankment to a tiny creek burbling with life. “Except maybe for the fish,” she added with a smile, “but I am happy to give them attention as they will provide us with nourishment.”

Donoma crossed her arms and glared at Koko. “You brought me out here so you could go fishing,” she accused flatly. Koko’s head swung around quickly, just catching a hint of a twinkle in the green eyes before Donoma endeavored to frown fiercely.

“Yes,” Koko agreed with a serious countenance. “I did. I figured I could use you for bait,” watching as Donoma’s jaw dropped in shock before she realized Koko was teasing. She launched herself at the warrior, expecting to be caught and looking at Koko in shock when they ended up flat on the ground.

“You were supposed to catch me!”

“I probably should have stopped laughing first,” Koko wheezed. Donoma stood and put her hands on her hips.

“I know where you live, Koko Kanti. You cannot hide from me when I decide how to get even with you.”

This time Koko burst into gales of laughter. *This* was the precocious child she had watched grow up into the awkward woman child Donoma was now. Koko only hoped that this outing would help Donoma find her balance again; she wanted Donoma to know the beauty of growing up and becoming an adult without the pain and awkwardness she herself had felt. Admittedly, their circumstances were completely different and yet many of the growing pains were identical. And Koko wished to spare Donoma as much of the ugliness of that as she could. Hence this trip.

“I will look forward to it, ka’eskone. Now, find a spot to place your blanket and we will set up camp. Then we can do whatever you would like, or I will go fishing and you can have a bit of time to simply be if you would like.”

Donoma blinked. She wasn’t sure what she had been expecting – more lessons, perhaps. Most of her time with Koko now was spent learning in one capacity or another, though Koko always managed to make it less work and more fun than anything. Still, she had never expected the luxury of having time to do what she wanted. Donoma knew what the bleeding meant- it meant she was on the cusp of adulthood and there was very little time left for the games of childhood. Perhaps that would explain her mood swings and her lack of vision lately.

She stood contemplating these thoughts so long her stillness caught Koko’s attention. She crossed the short distance between them, laying a hand on Donoma’s shoulder and squeezing gently when she jumped in surprise.

“Are you all right, ka’eskone?”

Donoma smiled. “I am fine, Koko. Just thinking. Anymore I try to stand still so I do not disturb anything while I am processing for fear of jarring something loose,” she added wryly. Koko chuckled.

“All part of growing up, Donoma. It will get better, I promise and things will return to normal.”

“But they will not be what they were before,” Donoma said sagely.

“No, but you may find that you like the new even better. You have many new experiences still to look forward to, my friend. You should relish each and every opportunity you are given.”

“And if I liked things the way they were?” Donoma asked softly, walking away from Koko and picking up her blanket to lay it on one side of the small fire pit Koko had built for their preparation.

Koko sighed. “Life is about change, ka’eskone. Nothing can stop that. It is how we react to those changes that will determine our satisfaction… our happiness. You do not want to remain a child forever, do you?”

“Sometimes,” Donoma answered honestly. “But sometimes not,” she continued. Donoma looked at the water, then back at Koko who watched her with knowing, understanding eyes. “Do you mind if I walk for a while. I will not go too far, but….” Her voice trailed off and Koko nodded.

“Go ahead, ka’eskone. You need but call out for me if you need something. Otherwise, your time is your own.”

Donoma turned and wrapped her arms around Koko’s waist, hugging her fiercely for a long moment before releasing her grip. “Thank you, Koko. Nayeli,” before she turned and headed away from the tiny campsite without looking back.

Koko watched her go for long moments before she turned back to the water. “I love you too, ka’eskone,” she whispered.

************

Donoma blinked her eyes open, disoriented to find herself in her tent – the noise level around her indicating it was full daylight. She lay perfectly still, trying to figure out why she was still in bed – her dream had been so real and she could still feel the way it had felt to hug Koko so tightly. Then her other senses came into play and she recognized the scent surrounding her and the deep even breathing and steady heartbeat of Koko Kanti beneath her ear and the memory of the previous night and early morning came back to her. She started to sit up, only to have Koko’s arm tighten around her.

Donoma sighed. She didn’t need this right now – she was still violently angry with Koko on so many levels – not the least of which was her nerve to return to them to die without so much as a by your leave. But Donoma couldn’t deny the comfort she felt in her very core being at being held so protectively in the unconscious embrace.

Sighing, she eased from Koko’s arms, pushing her unruly hair away from her face and stepping to the doorway of her home and looking around the subdued campsite. She breathed in deeply, noting the different scents and sounds that made up her home, glad they were still in the winter camp. Whatever ill feeling and anger she harbored towards Koko Kanti, she did not want the warrior to die… especially if there was something she could do to prevent it.

She watched as the men and women of the clan went about their business even though many of them turned questioning gazes in her direction. She looked for Honaw, then realized he must have gone home to get some rest after spending the night watching over her and Koko. Donoma caught Takoda’s eye and he excused himself from the chief, rising and walking towards her with slow, deliberate steps.

Takoda reached her side and stepped into the doorway, easing the loose hair from her face cupping her face in his large hand. “You looked tired, my daughter. You need rest.”

“I will rest, Neho’e – when there is nothing more I can do. However, nature is screaming rather loudly at the moment. Will you stand here and watch her for me, Neho’e. I do not want to leave her alone.”

“How is she, ka’eskone?”

Donoma sighed – a question she was really not ready to answer yet. “I think she is over the worst of it, Neho’e. I hope she is. I think it will depend on what happened, how long she was without care and how well she was before it happened. I have done what I know to do for her. Now it is time for me to watch and wait.”

Takoda smiled gently. “The hard part,” he commented wisely.

Donoma nodded. “Indeed. I will return in a moment.”

Takoda nodded, then turned his attention to their erstwhile patient. Why are you here, Koko Kanti? What made you return to us? He let his mind wander back to the outing she had taken Donoma on after Donoma’s first bleeding. That trip had been a godsend for his daughter and all she had talked about for months afterwards. He smiled at the memory.

************

When Donoma had arrived back at camp, the sun was just touching the horizon and Koko sat cross-legged on her blanket with her eyes closed. They fluttered open as Donoma approached and Donoma sighed.

“You heard me, didn’t you? Even as quiet as I was being.”

Koko nodded. “Yes, but I have been listening for a long time, ka’eskone. I could recognize your footsteps in a crowd.”

Donoma’s eyes widened. “Could you really?” she asked wonderingly. Koko nodded. “How?”

“You have a distinctive rhythm when you walk – a smooth, rolling gait that is different from the rest of the females in the clan.”

“Of course it is,” Donoma griped. “Everything else about me is different… why not the walk?”

Koko cupped Donoma’s chin in her fingers and lifted until their eyes met. “Donoma… ka’eskone – you walk like *I* do… strong and sure like a warrior. The rest of the females walk comfortably, but with a different swagger – one that speaks of softness and nurturing.”

Donoma’s eyebrows rose to her head. “You can hear nurturing in a walk??”

“Of course,” Koko replied with a shrug. “Every trait has a walk… a sound and weight that accompany it. You merely have to listen to learn them.”

“Will you teach me?”

Koko smiled. “If you would like to learn; you are a very apt pupil, ka’eskone. You know many things that could make you a formidable enemy or a useful ally… if you ever decided to become a warrior.”

Donoma grimaced. “I do not think I would be a very good warrior. I am not even a very good seer these days.”

“That is because there are so many things happening to you that have never happened before. It is hard to tell the difference in what is real and what is perceived. But that is all right – it is why we are here. We will find your center again, and when your life is in balance once more, the visions will return and you will be able to interpret them… you will see.”

“Do you really think so, Koko Kanti?”

“I know, Donoma Chepi. When I had my first bleeding, I could no longer fight as the warrior I had been trained to be. My balance was off – my focus… gone. My father took me out onto the plains – just the two of us – and he taught me to listen. First to listen outwardly and then to listen in. And I found the part of me that had changed did not make me different from the person I was before – it simply meant I was becoming an adult.”

“Were you glad?”

“That I was becoming an adult – yes and no. That things had changed for me… no, not at first. But there was no way to go back, so I had to learn to adjust to the way life was for me after that.”

“Was it harder then?” Donoma paused and Koko waited. “It has made things more difficult for me to see… to understand. Sometimes it is as though I cannot see at all.”

“It made me fiercer… more ferocious in battle. I took the confusion and the anger and the hurt and channeled it into something I could use. Ask Honaw… he knows when I am bleeding; he and the rest have learned to steer clear because the blood lust runs strongest in me then. I fight as though I am invincible and no one is safe if we are in the midst of battle then. I react solely on instinct and men die painfully if they try to defeat me.”

“Well, I do not want to kill anyone. I just want to be me again.”

“I am glad you do not want to kill anyone, ka’eskone. I would be more worried if you did as it goes against your nature. But do not fret over such things. We will find that focus again and things will settle for you, I promise. Even if we have to do this over and over until listening becomes a natural part of you, we will find your balance. But I do not think we will need to – you are exceedingly bright, Donoma. And your gift will not stay buried for long.”

“I hope not, Koko. I never realized how much a part of me it was until everything became so complicated. I miss it.” She crawled into Koko’s open arms and held on tightly, relishing the sense of peace and strength she felt emanating from the warrior. Donoma never realized when Koko tucked her into her blanket and kissed her forehead as Litonya did every night before wishing her goodnight. And when morning came, they started working.

It took longer than Koko expected, but much less time than Donoma thought it would, but slowly she was able to focus outside herself and learned to listen to the sounds around her. Then Koko taught her how to separate the sounds… to hear each one individually. Once she could do that, it was easy to tune them all out and listen to her inner voice.

Now if only her inner voice would talk to her.

Koko cautioned her that it might take a little while for her vision to return and insisted that Donoma work on her focus instead of trying so hard to force something that had always come naturally and in its own time. So she decided to teach Donoma the different gaits of the people within the tribe. Koko had no idea how comical that experiment would be. But she would… once they were back in camp and Donoma could see how accurate Koko’s impersonations had been.

When she walked as herself, she was able to sneak up on Donoma and laughed when she jumped. Donoma glared at her before shrugging sheepishly, and Koko moved on to other members. After a while, Donoma realized that Koko had been completely correct – every single movement was slightly different… weight, roll, length of step… something to identify the owner.

“What about those you do not recognize? How do you tell friend from foe?”

“Mostly it is safe to assume that if I do not recognize the walk, the person is an enemy… or at least an unknown. If there is stealth to their movement, definitely an enemy. If there is hesitation, simply an unknown. But either circumstance calls for caution until I can determine who they are and what they want.” She shrugged. “It keeps me amused and helps keep my skills sharp.” She paused. “So, do you feel better, ka’eskone? I know your sight has not yet returned, but it will when it is time.”

“I know, Koko, but thank you. I needed this. I will never listen the same way again.”

Koko smiled. “No, you will not. And if you ever need silence to listen in, you have but to ask and we will do this again.”

“Promise?” Donoma asked wistfully.

“Promise,” Koko affirmed. “I need this sometimes too.”

************

“You broke your word to me, Nutta,” Donoma said as she finished her morning ablutions, reliving the memories the dream had awakened. She rebraided the small braids that hung down the left side of her face and pushed the remaining loose hair back over her shoulders. “I needed the silence and you were not there to help me find it.” She picked up her comb and headed back towards her home. Regardless of her mixed feelings for the situation she currently found herself in, Donoma had a duty to her patient, and Koko’s bandages would need changing soon and she needed to be fed again.

Takoda still stood inside just inside her home watching for her; he saw Donoma straighten her shoulders before she was within sight of the main camp. He wondered again what effect Koko’s sudden reappearance would have on her life, remembering all too well the devastation that had been done to Donoma’s soul at her abrupt departure. He was fairly certain neither of them would survive a second rending – because if Koko caused his daughter that sort of pain again, he and his sons would seek her out and demand vengeance. And Donoma’s wishes would no longer be considered.

A hand on his arm brought him out of the red haze of anger he had fallen into. “Neho’e?”

He swallowed his fury and looked at her, patting her arm in reassurance. “What can I do to help you, daughter?” he asked softly.

“Relax, Neho’e. She will not hurt me again… I will not allow it. She is merely a charge in my care, and when she is well, she will move on as all the others have done.” He looked at her skeptically, wondering how many times she had rehearsed it since she had recognized Koko as the rider the night before.

“And if she does not wish to leave, ka’eskone?” he asked gently. “This is her home as well, despite the fact that she has been away from us for five cycles of the earth.”

“She will not live with me – she will have her own home. And I will adapt.”

“Like you did before, daughter?” not unkindly. “Donoma, the loss of her in your life was a very dark time for all of us, but for you especially. I do not wish to see you hurt so again.”

“Do not worry, Neho’e. That part of me no longer exists,” knowing Honaw would never reveal her slip from the early morning. He would simply set himself to keep a closer eye on her, hoping he would be able to prevent anything else from hurting Donoma as she had been hurt before. “I will be fine,” she added, almost convincingly. “Now, have my hestatanemos set up her tent. When she regains her senses, I will have her moved to her own home. Then the rest can worry about what happens to her – I will have done what I could for her.”

“Very well, Donoma,” Takoda agreed, knowing nothing would change her mind once it had determined the course of action she felt was right. “Is there anything else I can do for you?”

“No Neho’e,” she said with a small smile. “I am going to feed her again, and then I will clean her up and change her bandages. There is nothing else we can do but wait for her to awaken.”

“And you believe she will?”

“I believe she will if that is her desire. Honaw thinks her will to live is strong. We shall see.”

Takoda nodded. “Let me help you,” easing Koko into a sitting position so Donoma could slip behind her and placing the small pot of warm broth beside her. Then he stepped out of her dwelling, heading first for his sons to give them instructions and then looking for Litonya to give her the news. This day was shaping up to be as long as the night that had preceded it.
Chapter X
Donoma slowly fed the warm broth to Koko, triggering her swallowing response regularly while struggling to keep her mind blank. Despite the happy memories she had of the growing up years she had spent as Koko’s best friend, Donoma’s most vivid memory remained the pain and desolation she had felt upon discovering Koko’s desertion.

In the midst of her efforts, her second eldest brother Aucaman stepped into her tent to retrieve Koko’s belongings he had placed there the night before. Donoma looked up to see who was disturbing her and Aucaman motioned his intentions. Donoma nodded her acceptance and turned her attention back to feeding Koko, knowing the broth would help her heal.

A ruckus by the door drew her attention, favoring her brother with an exasperated glare. He shrugged his apology and gathered the bags again, then muttered under his breath when one bag slipped. It opened when it fell to the ground, scattering several items onto the ground. Aucaman groaned and knelt to pick up the things that had tumbled out.

“Leave them,” Donoma ground out hoarsely. Aucaman met her eyes, her tone alerting him to something amiss. Her face was void of color and she held herself stiffly as though in some sort of pain.

“Donoma?”

“Just take the things you have now and go, Aucaman. You can return for the remainder later.”

Aucaman nodded, thinking something was wrong with Koko. He backed out of her home without another word.

Donoma watched him go before she turned her attention to the first object that had cascaded from the saddlebag. She closed her eyes and collected herself, then resumed feeding Koko as though nothing had happened. But she couldn’t stop her mind from wandering and without her active permission her memories opened and flowed as though it had happened just yesterday.

************

The night before Donoma and Koko had returned from their camping experience, they sat together on opposite sides of the fire, gazing at the stars and listening to the sounds of the prairie around them. Without warning, Donoma sat up and moved to her bag, biting her lip before straightening her shoulders and turning back to Koko.

Koko remained reclined, knowing when Donoma was ready to share, she would. Then Donoma was standing beside her and Koko sat up far enough to lean on her elbows. “Ka’eskone?” she asked when Donoma stood silently, hesitation apparent in her very posture. Koko pushed to sit up completely, crossing her legs and letting her arms rest on her knees. Donoma abruptly thrust something into Koko’s hand and went back to her own bedroll, plopping down gracelessly and keeping her eyes fastened on the stars.

Koko looked at the bundle in her hands then back at Donoma. Without a word, she shook it out… and her jaw dropped. In her hands she held a chest protector, the beads woven so tightly there was almost no space for air between them. The design on it was familiar – her crest prominent across the front and in one tiny corner there was a fairy with wings the color of Donoma’s eyes.

Koko studied the craftsmanship with wonder – she had never seen such delicate and precise beadwork in her life. Surely Donoma had been given help to do such detailed art. Then Koko shook her head – regardless of how it had been accomplished, the fact remained that the work she now held in her hands was exceptional. She stood and crossed to the other side of the fire.

“May I sit?”

Donoma looked at Koko for a long moment, then sat up… gesturing to the end of her blanket and wrapping her arms around her knees. She dropped her eyes to the blanket, admiring the woven design until strong fingers pried her chin from her knees and nervous green eyes met sympathetic blue.

“This is amazing, ka’eskone. Did you create this by yourself?” The blonde head nodded slowly.

“You need something to protect you in battle, Koko. Blood lust and rage will not always safeguard you; this was my answer to that need.”

“It is beautiful, Donoma, and expertly crafted. Such incredible detail and workmanship. Thank you for taking the time to make something so special for me.” She paused, then continued. “Ka’eskone, did you see something that prompted this? Is something going to happen?”

Donoma took a deep breath. “On this, I have not seen clearly, Koko. But I have seen the possibilities of many things to come – so much blood… so much death.” She took a shuddering breath but did not drop her eyes from Koko’s and the warrior reached across the small distance that separated them and clasped Donoma’s hand gently. “One day, something will happen, and if you do not have something to keep you safe, I fear you will be taken from me.”

Koko accepted the gift and the warning in the serious manner in which it was delivered. “I will wear it every time I go into battle, ka’eskone, for as long as I am your protector.”

Donoma nodded her head with a satisfied expression. “Then you will be safe forever,” she pronounced seriously.

“I will be safe forever,” Koko vowed, pulling Donoma into a powerful hug.

************

Donoma came back from her memories just as she fed the last of the soup to Koko. Satisfied, she slid out from under the heavier body and gently deposited Koko back onto the furs. She checked the warrior for fever, surprised and a little concerned when she couldn’t find one but pleased at her deep, even breathing and slight color. It appeared that Honaw was correct about Koko’s will to live and a part of Donoma was very glad for that fact. Another part of her tried to put aside the complications this would add to her life… especially if Koko decided to remain here.

A glance outside showed Litonya had water already heating for her and testing it, Donoma found it to be more than warm enough to suit her needs. Litonya caught sight of her and offered to help, but Donoma refused with a shake of her head. She grabbed the water skin and ducked back inside her home, her eyes wandering to Koko’s belongings once more before she crossed to the warrior’s side.

Koko remained unmoving as Donoma removed her bandages; Donoma grimaced at the slight redness surrounding the deepest wound. Tenderly, she pressed against it, forcing out a small amount of infection and pus. The touch caused Koko to start struggling and Donoma called out frantically, “Honaw!” even as she straddled Koko’s long legs to keep her from kicking and twisting.

As though he had been waiting for her summons, Honaw rushed into Donoma’s tent a mere moment later. Immediately understanding the situation, he grasped Koko’s shoulders and pinned her gently but firmly to the furs beneath her. He tried not to stare at her naked body, but Honaw couldn’t help but notice both the beauty and the damage on the form he now held still.

Donoma stayed focused on the injury, watching as the liquid that ran out of it turned from yellow to red. When she was certain all the yellow had run out, she gently flushed the wound with warm water, unknowingly anointing Koko with her tears as well. When the water stopped flowing, Koko resettled and relaxed, much to Donoma’s relief.

Donoma looked at Honaw who was kind enough not to call attention to her wet cheeks and red-rimmed eyes which were all that remained as reminders of her unbidden tears. “Thank you, Honaw. She has been so still I did not expect such a violent reaction. Will you ask Nahko’e to heat more water?”

“Of course, ka’eskone. Would you like me to return to help you?”

Donoma bit her lip; she didn’t want an audience for this, but she admittedly needed assistance if Koko was going to be physical. Finally, she nodded, knowing she needed to remove the fur still beneath Koko that was now soaked with water and blood. “Please,” she whispered.

Honaw bowed his acceptance. “I will return shortly, Donoma,” rising from his kneeling position and exiting without another word. Donoma turned her attention back to Koko. Her color was pale again and the dark hair sweaty from her unconscious exertion and what Donoma feared was a new fever.

Honaw returned almost immediately, glancing at the things still laying on the ground, but moving past them quickly to stand beside Donoma and wait for her bidding.

“Can you lift her up for me, Honaw? I need to remove the wet fur.”

He didn’t answer – just simply knelt and cradled Koko in his arms. Donoma pulled the dirty fur from its place and motioned Honaw to ease Koko into a sitting position. She quickly cleaned the bodily fluids from her back and then Honaw reclined Koko until she was laying flat once more. Donoma covered Koko quickly, not wanting her to catch another chill. Honaw headed back out, but he hesitated by Koko’s things.

“Leave them,” Donoma commanded once more. Honaw looked at her then, her eyes holding a mixture of pride and pain. He nodded and continued out, knowing Litonya would have the water skin warmed soon.

Donoma moved the bloody bandages to one side with the wet fur and tried to clear her mind – listening as Koko had taught her so long ago. Before she was able to block the outside noises completely, Honaw was entering her home once again, this time carrying another full water skin and accompanied by Litonya.

Donoma’s tent was now full to the point of overcrowding and Honaw motioned that he would wait outside the door until he was called for. Litonya knelt on one side of Koko and Donoma on the other and they swiftly cleaned the warrior of the bodily fluids that covered her torso and legs. They pulled the blanket up to cover her once more, though Donoma arranged it to leave the wound open to the air and allow her to monitor it a little more closely. Litonya raised horrified eyes to meet Donoma’s.

“I did not realize the damage done to her was so severe. The Great Spirit has blessed you, Donoma – she should not have survived.”

Donoma smiled sadly. “Honaw believes it to be her strength of will; I am inclined to agree with him.”

“Perhaps,” Litonya conceded. “However, you need to rest, my daughter. I will watch….” breaking off at Donoma’s emphatic head shake.

“No, Nahko’e. I will watch for now. When she is well enough to be in her own tent, then it will be time for you and the others to watch. Until then, she is under my care.”

“Donoma….”

“Nahko’e… please. Do not argue with me about this. I will do what needs to be done to care for Koko; it is my responsibility. I do not need to be coddled over this,” the last added roughly as though wrenched from her soul.

Litonya didn’t react except to pat Donoma’s forearm. “If you think it is for the best, ka’eskone. If you change your mind, you know where to find me.”

“Thank you, Nahko’e. This is something I need to do… I have to do. I believe it is necessary.”

“I understand,” Litonya assured Donoma, though in truth, she didn’t. But she had promised Takoda not to push and to only give help when it was asked for. Taking Honaw’s place this time had been at Honaw’s request, to spare him the grief of a jealous wife. “I will take the fur and bandages and soak them. It will take them some time to dry in this weather, but at least they will be clean should the need arise to use them again.”

“Thank you, Nahko’e,” Donoma repeated softly. “It should be a little while before I need to do this again, and if we removed the infection, it will begin to close naturally. I will put something over it soon.”

“As you see fit, daughter – your sight has saved many of our warriors. It is one reason there are so many who wish to take you to wife.”

Donoma sighed. This certainly wasn’t something she wanted to discuss here and now. “Nahko’e,” she sighed, “I have no desire to mate with anyone. Now please….” she started, only to have her stomach grumble loudly.

Litonya shook her head. “When was the last time you ate, daughter? Nevermind,” she continued before Donoma drew breath to answer. “I will return with some food. I expect you to eat and rest. You will know if Koko Kanti needs tending. Promise me, Donoma.”

“Very well, Nahko’e. I will eat and rest. But I do not want to be disturbed.”

Litonya nodded her agreement. “I will be right back.”

Donoma did not move and true to her word, Litonya returned after a very brief absence. She handed Donoma a full bowl of warm stew and some flatbread and with a final glance at the two of them, Litonya went back to her own home. Honaw moved back to his tent as well, though like many others, he sat quietly outside to await developments and in case he was needed again.

Donoma ate because she had promised her mother she would, but she did so quickly and without tasting the food she consumed. Then finally, having absolved herself of the constraints that had bound her before, Donoma crawled over to the items that still lay scattered at one side of her home and looked at them for a long moment.

There was the bone comb Koko had carved for herself after killing her first buffalo; the knife she had been carrying when she and Donoma had first met; a small book that Donoma remembered as Koko’s favorite among the few that Rachel had owned; and of course the chest protector she had created so long ago.

This she took a bit of time to study. It was well cared for and still bore the marks of use – several scratches, a dent or two and what would have been a bullet hole had the beads not been woven so tightly together. As it was, a bit of the bullet remained behind, filling in the gap nicely.

Donoma held it for a long while, her mind recalling each and every single mark, including the bullet hole. That had been made just prior to Rachel’s death. She frowned. If she was remembering correctly, then there were no new marks on the armor since Koko had fled. Had she not worn it for protection once she left the tribe? That would explain the mutilation that had been inflicted on her, but it still did not explain the whys – why she was not protected… why someone had done this to her in the first place… and why she had chosen to come back here.

After spending another long moment in thought over questions she could not answer, Donoma shook her head and piled up the belongings together, making a mental note to have Honaw remove them later. They did nothing but bring up memories best left buried and more uncertainty with no obvious resolution. She sighed and checked on Koko once more, relieved when the injury was still dry and her skin was not flushed. Then she moved over to the other side of the tent and promptly fell asleep.

************

Odahingum made his way to Takoda’s fire when he saw Litonya return from Donoma’s. The shaman bade the chief to sit and Litonya took her place beside him as well. It was unusual, but not unexpected… given the unusual circumstances they found themselves operating under. Litonya shivered slightly in the cool breeze. Spring was making a slow arrival this year and even though there had been no rain for the past several days, it was still quite cool… especially having come from Donoma’s dwelling that was currently overheated by most standards. Takoda offered Litonya his robe and she accepted it gratefully.

“So tell us,” Odahingum demanded after the silence went on for a moment.

Litonya gave him a sardonic look, knowing conversation between them with her present was rare; having it directed at her was astounding. She turned her attention to her mate. “She has great strength to have survived. The injury done to her was very severe. But I believe she will endure now.”

“And Donoma?” Takoda asked, recalling the private darkness she had worn as a shroud since Koko’s disappearance. He was not sure her soul could stand much more.

“She will do what needs to be done and no more,” Litonya stated.

“As it should be,” Odahingum said unexpectedly. Takoda blinked at his friend’s pronouncement. He knew how he felt, but Donoma was his daughter and the chief had favored Koko’s warrior prowess since she had first become part of the clan. Odahingum looked at him sheepishly and shrugged. “Donoma is like a daughter to me as well, Takoda, and she has served the tribe long and faithfully. Despite what Koko did for us when she was younger, the fact remains that she left of her own choice and with little regard for the welfare of the tribe. I will not forbid her from remaining with us if that is her desire – she has earned her place and will always be one of us. But Donoma gets first consideration and I will not allow her to be harmed again.”

“Thank you, my friend,” Takoda said sincerely. “It is good to know Donoma Chepi is so highly regarded here.”

“Never doubt her place, Takoda.”

“And neither of you should forget that Donoma will determine what sort of interaction she will have with Koko, whether or not the warrior remains here briefly or has come home to live again,” Litonya instructed. “We may not any of us agree with what she decides, but it will be her choice. It has to be. Otherwise we risk losing her permanently,” bringing to all their minds how close they had come to losing Donoma before because of their desire to dictate her happiness.

“We will cross that creek when we come to it,” Takoda said. “I simply wish that my vision would clear where the two of them were concerned. If I could have only seen this….”

“If only we all could,” Odahingum agreed. “However, we cannot look back – we must look forward and try to be prepared for any eventuality this time.”

Takoda nodded slowly. “Our only solace is that what I believe precipitated Koko’s last slide into withdrawal should not occur again.”

Odahingum frowned. “What do you mean, Takoda? I thought she left us because of her unresolved feelings for Donoma. How the two of them could have been so blind to what was between them, the Great Spirit only knows,” he muttered. “Although there seemed to be any number of young warriors that would have been happy to overlook that connection.”

“And he is certainly not telling,” Takoda agreed wryly. “But it is easy for us to see – from the outside and in hindsight. But no… I believe Koko left because of something to do with Donoma, though I have yet to figure out if it is because of something that did happen or something that did not. However, I consider the event to have precipitated everything to have been the death of her Nahko’e, Rae’l. Koko lost a stability in her life when that happened.”

Odahingum sat quietly in thought and the other two remained respectfully silent. After a few moments, Litonya patted Takoda’s knee and rose, passing his robe back to him and moving to put water on the fire to heat for tea. Finally….

“I think you are right, Takoda. Many things changed for us that day. And so much more changed for both Donoma and Koko.” Silence fell again and both men were lost in thought, not even noticing when the water began to boil – churning memories in its wake.
Chapter XI
Koko had been away with the rest of the other young warriors, defending the tribe against the Blue Coats that had been harassing them while the tribe moved out of sight again. Thanks to Donoma’s sight, they had been able to dispatch them with a minimum of injury and no casualties. They were headed back to the tribe when Honaw noted a dust cloud headed their way; they scattered, intent on eliminating the new threat with as little damage as could be managed.

Koko was the first to realize it was Donoma coming toward them and she called the warriors back together, even as she rode to meet her. Honaw caught up with them, just as they drew even with one another, and he frowned in Donoma’s direction.

“What do you think you are doing, ka’eskone? It is not safe for you to be out here alone. Does Neho’e know where you are?”

Donoma glared at him for a long moment before she turned to Koko. “You must come back with me now, Koko. Something is wrong with Rae’l.”

Koko turned to Honaw. “Stay with the rest and ensure that the Blue Coats do not return again. Donoma and I will go ahead.” Honaw nodded and turned back to wait for the remainder of the warriors to catch up while Donoma and Koko raced for the clan’s encampment. Any other questions would have to wait until later.

They arrived back in the camp in a cloud of dust and Koko jumped from her horse before he could skid to a complete stop. Takoda didn’t get in her way, just accepted the reins from her and pointed to his home. Koko adjusted her direction though her cadence didn’t even pause. Takoda moved to help Donoma from her pony, holding the reins and extending his hand to her. Donoma slid to the ground and started after Koko, only to find herself held back by Takoda.

“Neho’e…let me go.”

“Donoma, there is not much time. Koko needs that time with Rae’l… alone.”

“No, Neho’e. I must.”

Takoda gazed into her eyes, seeing a depth of pain and understanding that always took him by surprise. He released her shoulder and nodded and Donoma ran across the compound in Koko’s footsteps. Litonya watched her go, knowing Rachel was struggling to hold onto life in order to say goodbye to both of the young women who meant so much to her.

Donoma stopped at the doorway – wanting to support Koko during what had to be one of the most difficult moments in her life and wanting to allow her the opportunity to grieve in private. Even at her rather tender age of thirteen springs, Donoma recognized so much beyond her years. Her sight had given her a wisdom that was rare in the old; it was unheard of in the young.

She crossed the threshold and waited, knowing Rachel was telling Koko goodbye by their actions. Koko did not cry, but her shoulders slumped and her head bowed. Donoma wanted to go to her and as if sensing her need, Rachel looked up and beckoned her closer. Slowly, Donoma took the few steps that were required to bring her to Koko’s side and she knelt to be closer to both her friends.

Rachel smiled at her and drew a labored breath before speaking. “Donoma Chepi, my friend and most favored student, I have to go now. It is time for me to rejoin Honiahaka in the land of his fathers. But before I leave, I have a favor to beg of you. I ask that you look after my daughter. I know that you have always been her friend and her warrior advisor, but I am asking you to allow her to be more.”

Donoma cocked her head curiously. “How so, Rae’l?” taking the older woman’s hand in her own as though offering her the strength of her youth. Koko sat as still as stone.

“She will mourn me as a warrior would, ka’eskone. When the time comes, let her mourn me as a woman and as a daughter would. She will not lose face in front of the tribe. But she will need to release her grief. Do not let her be reckless.” Rachel fell back to the furs, wheezing and pale from exertion. “Promise me, Donoma. I know I ask much of you, but I need to know Koko Kanti will be cared for when I am no longer here.”

“I promise you, Rae’l. She will not be alone.”

Rachel closed her blue eyes and nodded, satisfied that of all the People, Donoma Chepi would be the most capable of keeping such a promise. Her only regret was that she would not live to see their story play out to fruition, but she was looking forward to talking to Honiahaka about the woman and warrior their daughter had become – and the woman-child who would some day be her chosen mate.

When she had recovered slightly, Rachel blinked her eyes open once more, her chest still heaving with each effort to draw in breath. Rachel reached out both hands, gratified when both young women accepted her clasp. Then she put them together and held them with her own, clearing her throat raspily and whispering in English. “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make His face shine on you, and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up His countenance upon you, and give you peace.” She swallowed. “I love you, my daughters… never forget that.” Then Rachel closed her eyes and died, the silence settling over them as her breathing stilled.

Koko removed their hands from beneath Rachel’s and she reverently placed them across her chest. Then she stood and moved away from the body though her eyes never left it. Donoma moved with her and took Koko’s much larger hand in her own.

“I will go bring Nahko’e,” she said softly, squeezing the hand she held before exiting the tent. Litonya was waiting for her just outside and the rest of the tribe was waiting a respectable distance from them. Donoma didn’t need to say a word; Litonya understood and rose to follow.

By the time the sun was ready to set, Rachel’s body had been prepared and a pyre had been built. The young warriors had returned in time to help dig the pit and collect stones for the fire. They placed the body in the earth and stacked the stones on top. Then they gathered around and waited for Koko to come light the pyre that would speed Rachel’s soul to meet Honiahaka in the afterlife.

Koko stepped from her tent in full regalia and everyone straightened unconsciously at the presence she exuded. Donoma followed behind her, unable by right to walk beside her and unwilling by choice to let Koko do this alone. Koko took two steps before frowning, realizing Donoma was no longer with her. She turned and held out a hand, offering Donoma a sad smile.

“You were her daughter too, ka’eskone… as much as your Nahko’e would allow it. You walk with me.”

Donoma searched the blue eyes for a long moment, then took Koko’s hand without a word and together they approached the fire. Koko picked up the long stick that had been retrieved for just this purpose and waited until Donoma’s hand covered hers before touching the fire to the pyre. They stuck it in several strategic places, ensuring that the fire was well caught before offering the torch to Takoda.

It was silent for a while as the tribe watched the smoke curled toward the heavens. Once it streamed in a steady column, Koko opened her mouth and began to sing.

It wasn’t a typical burial song… not for the People. Instead it was the song sung in the white man’s tongue that Rachel had spent so many hours singing to her and Donoma to help them fall asleep. Donoma recognized it immediately and curled her fingers back around Koko’s, offering her a small smile and an approving nod.

When the song was finished, Koko and Donoma knelt at Rachel’s side, intent on watching over her remains for the night. The fire would naturally die out and in the morning, the tribe would move on, following the herd to fresh pastures.

Morning arrived and Takoda found Koko unmoving from her vigil. Donoma leaned against Koko’s shoulder, her exhaustion apparent in her face. He leaned down to pick her up, but a shake of Koko’s head stopped him from removing Donoma. He arched an eyebrow in question.

“I would like to go off on my own for a little while and I want to take Donoma with me if she would like to accompany me.”

Takoda nodded slowly. “That is acceptable, Koko. I have never been afraid for Donoma when she is with you.”

“Thank you, Takoda. We will head out when she awakens then.”

“I will inform Litonya. I am certain she will want to pack some things for you to take with you.”

Koko gave a sad smile of agreement. “Of that I am certain,” she replied. “It seems to be the way of mothers.”

“I believe you are right, Koko Kanti. And much as Rae’l did, Litonya looks on both you and Donoma Chepi as her daughters. If there is anything….”

“No, Takoda, thank you. I am not the first to lose a mother, nor will I be the last.”

“No, you are not,” Takoda concurred. “But your situation is a little different from most as well.”

“Perhaps,” Koko allowed. “But not all are as fortunate as I have been in making a new family,” meaning the tribe, but letting her gaze drift down to Donoma who still rested peacefully against her.

Takoda opened his mouth to say something, then hesitated. It wasn’t his place… yet, anyway, and when the time came, he expected that Koko would do the honorable thing. He wondered if they were even aware yet. He suspected Koko was – she was a fully grown warrior after all. Donoma though… he knew that the Great Spirit did not lend insight to matters of the heart. He doubted that she understood what was between them, even if she was able to see it.

Instead he simply said, “We are glad you are part of that family, Koko Kanti. I have long blessed the day Donoma insisted we help you and Rae’l.”

“As have I,” Koko stated as Donoma stirred against her.

“You have what?” she asked sleepily, rubbing her eyes and trying to stretch without moving too much. Koko looked down at her with a smile.

“I have been thankful for the day we became family.”

Donoma’s smile was big and bright. “Me too,” hugging Koko tightly.

“So, would you like to go out and listen with me? I think I need a little quiet.”

“I would like that. It has been a long time since I have done that.” Koko nodded… it had been more than a full cycle since she had taken Donoma out the first time and taught her how to listen.

“Gather your things, ka’eskone. We will leave when you are ready.”

“I will return in a moment.” And true to her word, Donoma reappeared almost instantly. Even without Takoda’s notification, Litonya had anticipated such an action and had everything ready for both of them. Koko rose from her knees, briefly touching the still warm stones before extending her hand to Donoma who accepted it without hesitation.

“We will try not to be too long. The Blue Coats are out in force to protect the white travelers and several of the other tribes are out hunting for the same settlers. Advise Odahingum to stay near the riverbed. The herd will not wander far from it, and it should keep the People away from accidental discovery. They will have to deliberately come looking for you that way – they seem to be intent on cutting their way across the heartland.”

“That does not seem to be a very intelligent way to travel.”

“Neither does angering the People – warlike and not alike – by breaking the treaties and promises they have made, and yet they continue to do that as well,” Koko spat in disgust. “However, Donoma Chepi and I will be fine. And we will return soon. I just….”

“Koko… I meant what I said. I have always trusted Donoma in your care and you have never done anything to betray that trust. Take the time you need. You know how to find us; we will leave the signs for you to follow when you are ready to come home.”

************

Donoma knew she was dreaming, but it was the dream of a memory of what had really happened. She shifted in her sleep, remembering that trip out onto the plains as if it had happened only yesterday.

************

They had headed south, away from the People and the Blue Coats and the settlers. Koko’s knowledge of the area was extensive and she was looking for a specific terrain. It took a full day’s travel and part of a second on horseback, but when they stopped, Donoma looked around in awe at landscape she had never dreamed was possible. Gone was the flatness and waving grasses of the prairie; in its place were towers of colored rock, bushy trees and scrub brush and sand unlike anything Donoma had ever imagined. She just stood and stared; Koko laughed.

“It is beautiful, Koko… absolutely amazing. How did you find it?”

“We stumbled across it some time back. I decided I wanted to come back here one day and listen.” Her shoulders slumped. “I only wish….”

Donoma stepped closer without touching. “I am sorry, Koko. If I had seen, I would have told you.”

Koko turned – tears in her eyes not being allowed to spill down her face. “I know, ka’eskone. But death is a natural part of life and I believe she was ready to rejoin my Neho’e. Despite their unorthodox beginning, they were well-matched mates. It was her time if the Great Spirit did not gift you with knowledge of her death beforehand.”

“But you are still going to miss her presence, and so I am,” Donoma stated with conviction.

Koko smiled at her. “Of course I will. But I think she is at peace where she is and in a few days, there will be another light in the sky that will mark her spirit watching over us.”

“Do you really think so?”

“I do, ka’eskone. It is what happened when Honiahaka died.”

Several days passed for the two of them, mostly in silence. They talked some, but mostly they listened. Koko ran… never far – up the rock sides, around the perimeter – always within hearing of their tiny campsite. Donoma took many walks around, investigating the territory and collecting bits of the colorful rock, figuring she would be able to create distinctive beads from them if nothing else.

That night they sat around the fire looking at the stars and Koko smiled. Donoma caught the expression and cocked her head in puzzlement. Koko arched and eyebrow at her in question.

“Why have you not cried, Koko? Is that not how a woman and a daughter mourn the loss of her Nahko’e?” thinking of Rachel’s last words to her. “Yet you seem… happy – at peace.”

“I am, ka’eskone… I cried for Nahko’e in my heart while I was out among the hills. Those tears were for me, not for her. She would not want me to dishonor my status as a warrior to cry for her openly… even in front of you. You have fulfilled your promise to her, ka’eskone; you simply allowed me to mourn in my own time and my own way.”

“Tell me what you were smiling at then. I want to know what puts the sparkle back in your eyes.”

Koko offer Donoma her hand, then tugged her down gently to sit in front of her. Koko extended her arm upwards and Donoma followed the line of sight. “Do you see the red light?” pointing out the particular star she was talking about. Donoma nodded. “Do you see the tiny white light just to the right of it?” Another nod. “That is the light that appeared in the sky just after Neho’e died. Now,” shifting her arm over just slightly, “do you see the tiny blue light beside that?”

Donoma squinted a moment before nodding again. Blue was a little more difficult to see against the blackness of the night sky. “That light appeared for the first time last night. I believe that Rachel’s spirit has finally found Honiahaka’s in the afterlife and they are together once more.”

Donoma turned slightly to look at Koko and made an indescribable face; Koko couldn’t contain the laughter that bubbled up from her chest when she saw it. Donoma turned around completely and glared, causing even louder laughter to erupt. Finally, Koko got ahold of herself and cleared her throat. “Thank you, ka’eskone. I needed that,” evoking a reluctant smile from Donoma. “Now what was that face for?”

“I am sure it is very nice that Rae’l found Honiahaka again – they have been separated and alone for a long time. It just sounds so very….” Donoma hesitated and waved her hands, unsure how to convey her thoughts on the romanticism involved. Koko’s countenance softened.

“Do not worry, Donoma Chepi. One day there will be someone in your life that you will feel so about and it will all seem different then. It will not sound so very….” Koko finished, waving her hand in much the same motion that Donoma had. “I promise.”

“Are you sure, Koko? Do you know this for a fact?”

“I do indeed, ka’eskone. I have seen it over and over many, many times,” she continued before Donoma could ask any probing questions. “It happened to your Neho’e and Nahko’e; it has happened to Honaw and Keez and even Aucaman. And how many of the older girls in the tribe that used to run from the boys now wait for them so that they might walk together instead?” Koko smiled. “It is the way of things, ka’eskone. It is how nature works.”

“What about you, Koko?” Donoma asked, ignoring the uneasiness she felt flowing from Koko’s body as she stiffened. “How can you know what will change and what will happen if you do not have someone like that in your life?” Koko blew out a breath, having wanted to avoid this discussion; then she decided to answer as honestly as she could without revealing anything.

“I know because I have watched and learned from those around me and though it is not quite the same thing as mating, I have had it happen, ka’eskone. My life changed when you came into it and brought my new family with you. I feel very strongly about the family that adopted me.” She paused. “For some, there will never be one single person that will hold their heart and soul, Donoma. But it is only that way for a few. You will have many who will wish to mate with you when you are considered of an age that Takoda would allow it. Just remember to choose the one who makes you happy. Promise me, ka’eskone,” Koko urged.

“I promise, Koko, though I prefer not to think about it right now. I do not want to grow up that much yet. I am very happy with the way things are now. I like my family just the way it is, though I will miss Rae’l and her lessons.”

“You cannot tell me you did not have those books memorized,” Koko said with a smile, relieved she had skirted the danger of the previous topic. “Maybe we should see if we could find some new books.”

“I would like that,” Donoma admitted honestly. “But I have no desire to go into the white man’s world to find them and we have nothing they would take for them. Perhaps I should make my own.”

The silence grew thoughtful after that and neither of them realized when they fell asleep.

************

It was dark when Donoma awakened, her thoughts a mass of confusion and her body sore from having remained in the same position for so long. She sat up slowly, pushing her hair back from her face and blinking the sleep from her eyes as Litonya stuck her head in. She didn’t say a word – simply backed out and returned again a moment later with some hearty stew and bread. Donoma didn’t have the strength to argue. She just accepted the bowl and ate, trying to sort out the thoughts and images left by her dream. She finally put it aside for later contemplation, knowing there were things that needed to be taken care of in the present – that the past and the future could wait for another time and place.

When she was done eating, she checked on Koko, satisfied that she was no worse, and Litonya remained with the warrior while Donoma took some time to clean up. She returned to her home and her mother departed, with the instruction that Donoma was to call her for help if it was needed. And so began the next part of Donoma’s vigil.
Chapter XII
For three more days Donoma’s supervision of her patient continued in much the same vein. She kept Koko under careful observation – watching her temperature, changing her bandages, feeding her broth and forcing her to consume it. There was no more sign of infection and Koko’s breathing remained deep and even and for that the entire tribe was thankful.

Still, there was a tension throughout the encampment that had everyone on edge. Takoda convinced Odahingum to hold a free-for-all challenge among the warriors a little away from the camp to draw everyone outside and away from the pall that hung over them.

Donoma appreciated it as much as any of the rest of the tribe since their leaving meant she had peace for just a little while. Without meaning to, the clan had placed an expectation on her and the longer Koko remained unreachable, the more difficult Donoma found her position. She had done all she knew to do; it was now up to Koko. But truth be told, Donoma had mixed feelings about that as well.

Although she truly wished no harm or ill-will to Koko, the fact was she still ached from Koko’s desertion. And despite everything, there was a part of her that wished Koko had never returned home – that she, Donoma, had never been put into such an untenable position that required her to care for someone she had never stopped caring for.

Donoma followed her usual routine, removing Koko’s bandages and cleaning her up carefully before deciding to leave the wrappings off for a while. The wounds seemed to be healing well on their own and Donoma hoped that a bit of exposure might speed the process along. Then she moved to the fire to retrieve the pot of broth Litonya had left there specifically for Koko earlier that morning. She smiled at her mother’s thoughtfulness, then froze when her name was whispered by a voice she had not heard in five very long years.

“Donoma….” Not a question – more of a plea, though what for Donoma herself had no clue. She turned to face Koko and realized that Koko was still in a state of deep sleep. However, the fact that she spoke indicated to Donoma that the warrior was well on the road to recovery, and she determined to have her moved to her own home as soon as the others returned from the games.

She left the broth near the fire, deciding to leave that chore to whoever was assigned to Koko’s care once she left Donoma’s. Then she went to the entrance of her dwelling and pushed the doorway aside, so she could stand just outside it and enjoy the sunshine and fresh air that permeated the earth. It was rejuvenating and Donoma absorbed it like a sponge, allowing the first smile she’d worn since Koko’s arrival to rest on her face.

Then it faded as the memories of waking up to Koko’s disappearance descended on Donoma and her heart broke all over again as the desertion she had felt that morning wash over her again.

************

Donoma woke up happy, despite the odd proposal she had received from Ahanu the previous day. She didn’t see the appeal herself – she had all she could possible want in the family the Great Spirit had blessed her with. She could not imagine anything or anyone could make her any happier than those who were already in her life, and she certainly did not relish becoming the property of some man, no matter how kind he might be to her.

Several of the boys that had grown up with her brothers had shown some interest, but they also seemed to know better than to mention it. Donoma had always been off-limits to them and there was no reason for them to think that would change without consent from Donoma herself. The older generation felt the decision lay with Takoda and assumed he would be glad to have her wed with a home of her own, despite her commitment to Koko Kanti. They did not know that Takoda and Donoma had discussed it at length while developing her abilities, and he was quite willing to let her make her own decision concerning her future. Unusual to say the least, but Takoda knew, more than the rest, that Donoma would one day be able to see the mate the Great Spirit had sent to her. He just wished her chosen would step forward and be recognized. But until that time, Takoda was happy to allow Donoma to refuse any and all unwanted proposals.

So Donoma rose from her bed that morning full of optimism – Takoda had kept his word and she had been able to refuse her first suitor without repercussion. Perhaps the rest would take a lesson and there wouldn’t have to be more refusals in the future. Donoma didn’t want to embarrass anyone or hurt feelings. But the fact was she didn’t feel the need to add more to her life.

She rose and washed her face and combed through her hair with the bone comb that matched the one Koko had carved for herself. Then Donoma stepped from Takoda’s tent into the early morning sun, wondering at the somber mood that had settled over the encampment. She sat beside her father at her mother’s bidding and accepted the breakfast porridge Litonya offered her.

“What is wrong, Neho’e?”

“I do not know, ka’eskone. Koko Kanti is gone. She left sometime under the cover of darkness and provided no word on her whereabouts or her plans to return. Donoma… she took everything with her.”

A frown crossed Donoma’s face. Though it was not unusual for Koko to go out scouting in the middle of the night, she had always left word what direction she was heading and when to look for her return. At times, she had even given reasons for her disappearance. But never before had she vanished without leaving some sort of explanation, and she had *never* taken more than the basic necessities for her trip. Her personal possessions remained with the tribe and Donoma took special pains to ensure that they were moved carefully as the People followed the herd.

“What are you saying, Neho’e?”

Takoda sighed. This was not the kind of news he wanted to share, but he wouldn’t allow anyone else to assume the responsibility for it either.

“I believe she has left us, Donoma Chepi. For whatever reason, Koko Kanti is gone from us for good.”

“No,” Donoma declared fiercely. “No, Neho’e. You are wrong. Koko would not leave without telling me. I am her warrior advisor. She would not leave without talking to me first,” clutching her bowl so tightly Takoda could hear the wood cracking. He reached over and unclenched her hands from either side, sliding it from her grasp and placing it on the ground before covering her hands with his.

“I hope you are right, ka’eskone. I hope I am wrong and you are right about this, Donoma.”

“I cannot be wrong, Neho’e. Koko would not leave without telling me – I am certain of that. We have an agreement and she would never dishonor that. Besides, I would have seen. She will return soon. You will see.”

Takoda nodded his agreement, though he shut his eyes so Donoma could not see his doubts. “I hope you are right, ka’eskone,” he repeated. “I truly hope you are right.”

But the days passed and Koko Kanti did not return. After the first few days, Odahingum sent out several small scouting parties to see if he could find her or any trace of what had happened to her. But there was nothing – no trail, no remains… no sign that there had ever been a warrior named Koko Kanti to pass through their lives.

The days passed into weeks and weeks into one season and then two. By the time a complete cycle rolled around, Donoma had pulled completely into herself and when she passed into her sixteenth spring without Koko’s return, she realized that Takoda had in fact been correct and she had been so very wrong.

The despair she felt settled over the entire tribe and though Donoma continued to live among them and serve them to the best of her ability, it was clear to all that she no longer found real joy in living and her gift had become as much a burden as it was a blessing.

Several of the warriors – young and old – tried to catch her eye, figuring without Koko’s protective presence they stood a better chance than before. But Donoma didn’t even give them a second glance. The thought of investing into someone else the same effort that she had given to Koko was exhausting and Donoma refused to settle for less than everything.

Eventually, she had put Koko Kanti and her desertion behind her, returning the tribe to a semblance of normality. Still there was always a part of Donoma that she held back from everyone, unwilling to put herself out there completely and allow herself to be hurt again. She didn’t understand it really, and when anyone tried to question her, she simply brushed them off as irrelevant. She couldn’t explain it to herself, much less anyone else. She simply knew that she would never, ever allow herself to trust anyone like that again. Nothing was worth the kind of pain this betrayal had cost her.

************

She brought her attention back to the present and glanced behind her at the sleeping figure of the warrior who had once been her friend. No, she decided firmly, she would never, ever allow herself to trust anyone like that again… especially not Koko Kanti.

************

As midday arrived, the tribe returned to their homes and fires to partake in a meal before heading back out to the prairie to continue their games. Donoma still stood just outside her tent with her eyes closed facing the sun, and though she heard them approach, she didn’t open her eyes or acknowledge them until Honaw placed a strong hand on her slender shoulder.

“Donoma Chepi… is everything all right?”

She blinked her eyes open and slammed them shut at the glare, squinting the second time to see Honaw’s worried expression. She smiled gently at him and he could see the residual sadness in her eyes. “Everything is fine, Hestatanemo. I believe the time has come to move Koko Kanti to her home. She is well enough that others can care for her now until she is able to care for herself.”

Honaw gazed at her, his unease etched into his face. “Are you sure, ka’eskone? Surely she would prefer if you….”

“Her preferences are not my concern, Honaw. I have done that which I said I would; now it is time for another to take up the burden and bear it. She is no longer my responsibility.”

Honaw stared into her eyes and read the truth there. She had hardened herself to deal with Koko’s unexpected appearance and now part of the sister he knew was locked away behind walls he had never wanted to see in her. He nodded his understanding.

“I will move her myself and alert Nahko’e to her change in status. She enlisted volunteers to give you a break.”

Donoma shook her head. “I will speak to Nahko’e myself. I am not taking a break – I am discharging her from my care. Neho’e can check on her once she awakens. It is time for me to finish the spirit quest that was interrupted by her return.” Honaw had expected as much, but it still broke his heart to hear it.

“Very well… should I move her now?”

“Yes,” Donoma replied decisively. “At least the village will be able to relax a little now, knowing that not only will she survive, but she will soon be awake and alert enough to become a productive member of the community again.”

“And what of you, ka’eskone? Will you still be a productive member of the community?”

“I never stopped, Hestatanemo. Surely that should count for something.” Anger sparked in her green eyes and Honaw understood immediately he had hit a sore point with her. He held up his hands in surrender, well aware that everyone was watching their interaction.

“You are right, Donoma. I am sorry. I just worry.”

“I know you do, Honaw, but there is no need. Now, please move Koko Kanti from my home so I can air it out a bit before I leave,” her voice firm and final in its instruction.

Honaw crossed the threshold into her home and scooped Koko into his strong arms.

“Donoma?” she whispered again and he frowned.

“No, Koko,” he responded softly. “It is Honaw and you are safe. Rest now. Everything will all make sense to you later.”

This time Koko frowned, though her eyes never opened and she whispered once more, “Donoma….” Honaw sighed. This had all the earmarks of a disaster waiting to happen, but he had been given his instruction. So he stepped from Donoma’s tent into the instant hush that fell in the camp as the tribe realized the implications of his actions. They watched in continued silence until Honaw exited Koko’s home after gently depositing her on the furs that had been prepared for her. Only when he went back to his own fire did the conversations resume and the tension in the air relax.

Litonya waited for Donoma to follow Honaw out, certain she would want to see Koko settled, but when that didn’t immediately happen, she went to check on her. She was a little surprised to find Donoma tamping out the fire and sweeping out the ashes to cool them before they were disposed of.

“Donoma?” The younger woman turned at the sound of Litonya’s voice, then smiled at her. She set the broom aside and picked up the still warm pot of broth.

“Koko Kanti still needs to eat; I believe she will be waking up soon and will want to feed herself.”

Litonya nodded and accepted the pot with ease. She motioned to the dwelling. “Do you need help with the cleansing?” knowing it was standard procedure for Donoma to scrub her home intensely to rid it of residual sickness after she completed her care of a clansman. Donoma shook her head.

“No, thank you, Nahko’e. I am going to sweep out the fire and open the bottom to allow it to air out while I am gone. I will finish whatever scrubbing is necessary when I return.”

Litonya frowned. “Return? Where are you going, Donoma Chepi?”

“I am going to finish my spirit quest, Nahko’e. Koko Kanti’s arrival only delayed it; it did not change the fact that I was in the middle of my search.”

“Have you spoken to Takoda?”

“Neho’e knows I need to do this, Nahko’e. He will not object. But I will notify him of my intentions before I leave.”

“Thank you, Donoma. That is all I can ask. I think what you did here was a very brave thing, nahtona. I want you to know how proud I am of you.” Before Donoma could retort, Litonya continued, “I need to get this to Koko Kanti and set up the watch in her tent to care for her until she is well enough to care for herself. Then I will return with some things for your journey.”

“I will wait, Nahko’e. I will not leave without saying goodbye.” Unlike Koko did, went unspoken, but it hung between them regardless.

“Thank you, Donoma. I will be swift.” Then Litonya left Donoma to her cleaning and scurried off to Koko Kanti’s dwelling, motioning several of the women to join her so she could issue instructions. Honaw’s wife Gaagii volunteered to watch first and Litonya nodded her thanks before returning to her own fire to prepare a few items for Donoma to take with her.

Takoda followed her into their dwelling and watched her for a long moment, then caught her by the arm, halting her progress. Litonya stopped short and met his eyes and he easily read her discomfort. “She is going back out again then.”

“Yes… she promised not to leave without saying goodbye, but she feels the need to finish the quest that Koko Kanti’s advent postponed. Donoma has not even considered that Koko’s arrival was the beginning of the quest she is to take.”

“You know something?” Takoda asked sharply. Litonya was no seer, but the Great Spirit had gifted her with insight into his visions and Donoma’s when they were quick to dismiss the obvious in search of the obscure. “Has she shared her vision with you?”

“No, Takoda. You know she rarely does that anymore. But if her quest was not to lead her to Koko and Koko back to us, I am not sure what the point of her being out there alone was. She is searching for what is missing… we all know the only thing that will satisfy her is the warrior that she brought back to us.”

“I do not think that will be an easy thing for Donoma to accept, Litonya. She still carries much anger for the way Koko Kanti left without a word to her. There is a sense of deep betrayal there as far as Donoma is concerned. We must give her the time and space to work this out.”

“And if she cannot?”

Takoda shook his head. “We will cross that creek when we come to it. However, I will have her brothers look out for her. She will not be alone this time.”

“Thank you, Takoda. Now I must get some things together for her to take with her on her journey. I told her I would return very soon.”

“I will go with you, Litonya. I need to inform her that she will not be alone in her quest this time. I know,” he continued, responding to the look on her face, “but I promised Donoma I would never lie to her. She would consider sneaking them in behind her back the same sort of deceit. I think she will expect as much given what happened the last time I allowed her to overrule my better judgment.”

They would have continued their conversation had Aucaman not interrupted them with urgency. “Come,” he bade them without preamble. “Koko Kanti is….” He shook his head as though to clear it. “Come,” he insisted again. “You must see this.”

They followed him outside and stopped short. Koko stood outside her home wrapped in the fur robe that had been used to cover her looking completely disoriented. She didn’t say a word… didn’t move from the spot where she had taken root as soon as she emerged from her tent. She looked around with confusion apparent in her eyes – as though she did not recognize where she was or those around her. She didn’t respond when Gaagii tried to guide her back inside, nor when Honaw spoke to her.

Then Donoma stepped from her home and time stopped.

“Donoma?” Koko whispered before turning her gaze heavenward. “I can’t be here!” she screamed in the white man’s tongue, forgetting that Donoma understood her. “Why are you doing this to me??” She looked around frantically, her eyes wild in an effort to make her escape. Honaw wrapped his arms around her from behind and she struggled, but her weakened, injured body could not overcome him and she slid to the ground in defeat.

Donoma watched Honaw lift Koko into his arms and move her back into her home. Then she went on to Takoda’s fire accepting the supplies from Litonya’s hands but not allowing either of them to speak first. “I will not go far,” she assured them, “but I must go. I will return when the quest is finished.”

“And if what you seek is here?” Litonya asked as Honaw emerged from Koko’s dwelling.

“It is not,” Donoma assured her. “Nothing here has changed for me,” she stated firmly.

“Your hestatanemos will guard you until your return,” Takoda said in a voice that brooked no room for argument. “Do not wander far.”

“I will not, Neho’e. Thank you for understanding.”

“I do not,” Takoda confessed. “I only know I want you to find happiness, ka’eskone.”

Donoma kissed first her father, then her mother, and without another word, she was gone. Takoda and Litonya exchanged glances.

“Remind me again why we had children?” Litonya just shook her head and they headed out to talk to Odahingum. Things were liable to get a lot uglier before anything good happened and they needed to have a back-up plan… just in case.
Chapter XIII
Donoma made it to the edge of the encampment without interference when her youngest older brother Kya caught up to her. He didn’t speak – words weren’t his forte. Instead, he caught the Appaloosa horse Donoma had nicknamed Dapples and held the mare steady while Donoma mounted. Then he handed her the things she was taking.

“Thank you, Kya. Are you going with me?”

“I can follow behind if it would ease your mind, ka’eskone.”

Donoma smiled and shook her head. She had such wonderful brothers, even if they had given her grief growing up. She appreciated their protectiveness a little more now – they never forgot Takoda’s directive to watch out for her, but they also remembered that she was an adult.

“I do not mind if you ride beside me, Kya. I only ask that when we reach our destination that you allow me the space and privacy I need to continue my search.”

Kya nodded and caught his own mount before jerking his head at her to lead the way. And the two of them headed out onto the vast prairie with Aucaman trailing far behind… just so he would know where to go searching for them when it came his time to protect his sister.

************

Before Takoda and Litonya could reach Odahingum’s fire, the chieftain was stepping into Koko’s home; Gaagii immediately emerged from the doorway and moved back to her own fire. Litonya broke off and headed towards Gaagii while Takoda moved on to stand in the doorway of Koko’s home. Odahingum stood in front of him and he stiffened until he recognized the presence at his back. But he did not turn around or acknowledge Takoda in any way. Instead, he kept his attention on the delirious warrior in front of him as Koko dumped her saddlebags as she tried to find her other set of clothing in an effort to dress herself.

“Koko Kanti, you are in no condition to leave!”

“Odahingum, I cannot remain here. I was never supposed to return,” she added more quietly, wincing as she slid her spare shirt over her shoulders. She buttoned the front slowly, breathing in and out in measured breaths, attempting to remain upright. She didn’t take notice of her nakedness, having long since outgrown any hint of modesty. All she knew at the moment was the physical pain of her injuries and the emotional devastation of being in this place… again.

Koko stretched carefully to reach her trousers, then took a deep breath before struggling to her feet. Neither man moved nor offered her assistance and Koko finally looked at Takoda. “Help me, please, Takoda. I cannot stay here,” she reiterated, gasping for breath.

Odahingum’s raised arm stopped Takoda’s progress even though the shaman had shown no intention of moving. “Perhaps I have not made myself perfectly clear, Koko Kanti. Aside from the wounds you bear that make leaving a physical impossibility for you at the moment – if you leave here without resolving your… misunderstandings… with Donoma Chepi, you will no longer be able to call this home. You will not be welcome among us.”

“I was not able to stay then and I am unable to remain now. Your words do not really make a difference to me. I simply want to gather my things and leave. At least things can settle back to normal with me gone again.”

“They have not been normal since you left!!” Takoda broke in. “You made a promise to her, Koko Kanti… swore an oath that you turned your back on! She was your warrior advisor and yet you simply left her with nothing… not even the courtesy of a note. If you leave again without a word to her, my sons and I will hunt you down. I am not asking for an explanation – that is not my place. But Donoma deserves better from you than a silent dismissal, even if it is just a goodbye!”

“You do not understand!” putting the pain of her choice in leaving Donoma those years before aside for the moment. It wasn’t something she wanted to discuss with either of them anyway. “This is not about what happened between Donoma Chepi and me five cycles ago. The men who did this to me will be looking for my body. Black was supposed to take me home, not bring me here. They will come here eventually if I do not leave soon and lead them away from here. My first responsibility to Donoma Chepi has always been to protect her. I cannot do that if I am here!”

“You cannot do that anyway – her hestatanemos protect her now. Besides, she is not here. She and Kya have gone out onto the plain so that she can finish the spirit quest your arrival interrupted. She does not feel that your return was the answer she was seeking.”

Koko flinched almost imperceptibly and held up her hands, not wanting to hear such a dismissal; she slowly sank to the ground again, covering herself to stave off the chills she felt skittering throughout her body. “That is not my affair, Takoda. My concern lies in protecting her and the tribe that took my Nahko’e and me in during our hour of need – People I was once able to call family. That right is gone now… I understand that. That lack does not negate the debt I have here.”

“What is your plan?”

“Plan?” Koko repeated dumbly. “I plan to leave and make sure the men that are looking for me find me… far away from this place.”

“And then?”

“And then it will not matter – Donoma and her People will be safe and my debt to them will have been paid in full.”

“NO!” Takoda roared though he barely had to raise his voice. His intensity was enough to keep her attention. “You will take a war party with you and they will destroy this threat to the People. Then you will return and make your peace with Donoma Chepi. Only then will your debt be paid in full. Otherwise, the warriors will dispose of this threat and your debt will continue to remain unpaid. And you will still face Donoma when she returns. I will not see her destroyed as she was when you left before, Koko Kanti. She would not survive the darkness that would follow.”

Odahingum watched in silence. Koko Kanti was the strongest warrior he had ever known and yet she had a single weakness – one that Takoda was currently exploiting. He could only hope that Koko would see reason, then breathed a sigh of relief when the dark head dropped and her shoulders slumped in defeat before she nodded once.

“Which is it to be, Koko Kanti?” Odahingum asked.

“I will lead the war party and then I will speak to Donoma Chepi before I take my leave from the People. And when I go, we will be considered even and I will not return again. Now since neither of you will assist me, I would ask that you wait outside until I am dressed. I would prefer for you to be witness to my humiliation no longer,” her fire gone… only grim determination left in its place.

“Let me call Litonya….”

“NO! Just leave me alone. Go gather the war party. I will be out when I am ready and we will leave. I have no desire to remain here longer than is necessary… and I am certain you feel the same. Now please go so I can do what must be done to prepare for the coming fight.”

They left, Takoda first without a backwards glance, then Odahingum. Just before he let the doorway fall closed behind him, he chanced a last glimpse of Koko Kanti and what he saw was heartbreaking. Her shoulders were stiff, her breathing carefully measured and her face devoid of any real expression. But he could see the trail of a single tear coursing down her face and wondered at the folly of youth. Surely Koko knew what needed to be done – why was she so resistant to it?

Then he shook his head and left her in solitude and silence.

Koko knew Odahingum was looking at her, and it took every last measure of restraint not to shout and curse at the man. But the situation she currently found herself in the middle of was no one’s doing but her own and she was honorable enough to admit that. It didn’t mean it hurt any less or make it any easier to have to reckon with, but then, she supposed… that was life.

Koko pushed the blanket away from her, wincing when the cold air hit her naked skin. She didn’t think she had any fever or infection left, but even her skin hurt at this point. Still, she had a responsibility to fulfill and with much lip-biting and muffled groans, Koko Kanti finally managed to clothe herself and stand. She wished for some other type of clothing to wear – the white man’s clothes were rough and abrasive, but they were all she had… she would make due. Koko moved slowly towards the pile of things she’d dumped from her saddle bags and reached beyond it for her guns.

Then she saw it and stopped cold – it was the carefully crafted chest protector she’d worn into every battle faithfully until the day she’d left the People to go live in the white man’s world. She’d refused to desecrate it or what it meant to her by using it there. No one was worthy of such intimate knowledge, so she’d packed it carefully away and locked the memories away with it. She’d stood on her own two feet and until now, she’d been all right.

A soft knock on the flap brought Koko’s head up and she glared before she heard Litonya’s soft voice. “Koko Kanti, may I come in? I have something for you I think you will appreciate.” She didn’t want to… she really didn’t. But her mother had raised her better and Koko knew in her heart that Litonya had a great deal to do with her being healed.

“Come,” she beckoned and reached again for her guns. Her motion was brought up short by Litonya placing a hand on her arm.

“I saw the damage done to you, Koko Kanti; I know how badly you hurt. Here,” she added, extending her other hand and offering Koko a set of soft leathers. “These were to be yours anyway. Your mother began them and Donoma was working on completing them when you left.” She cleared her throat awkwardly. “She finished them just before her sixteenth cycle. But you never came home for her to give them to you. I think it is time they were yours.”

Koko accepted them hesitantly, holding up the shirt. She gasped at the intricate beadwork that covered it – this had been a shirt for celebration… the birth of a child, becoming a warrior, or a joining, her mind supplied.

“I cannot accept these, Litonya,” with regret in her voice and eyes. “These were meant for happiness and joy… for a warrior that no longer exists. I will not defile their meaning by wearing them into battle with scum such as these men. They do not deserve to look upon such. And I cannot wear them anyway. As Takoda so rightly pointed out – I am the one who walked away. You should no longer have such consideration for me.”

“This is as much about Donoma as it is about you, Koko. She and Rachel created these for you… they do nothing for anyone else.” She dropped the pants on the floor with a curl in her lip to show her disdain. “Do with them what you will, Koko Kanti. That does seem to be what you are best at. Maybe one day you will wake up and realize that you are deliberately throwing away the Great Spirit’s most precious gift.”

Litonya turned and stalked from Koko’s home without a backwards glance, her shoulders stiff and unyielding in her anger. Koko watched her go, then with a groan she slipped back to her knees slowly. She carefully took the leather and folded it neatly, sighing with regret at missed opportunities. Then Koko tucked it into the bottom of a saddlebag and reached for her gun belt.

She grunted as she stood up, breathing deeply, willing away the pain she felt in her body and in her soul. Another knock on the door made her growl – surely Odahingum and Takoda had understood her request for privacy. Angry that they were knowingly ignoring her appeal to their honor, Koko strode to the flap and thrust it aside… only to find Honaw staring back at her with wide, understanding eyes. The fury in hers died and she stepped back, allowing him admittance into her home. Then she turned back to her saddlebags and eased down to complete her repacking.

Honaw didn’t speak… not yet – his presence was enough. He knew Koko would speak when she was ready; his only fear was that she wouldn’t.

There seemed to be a method to her madness and Koko picked and chose items with deliberate care before placing them in one bag or another. Honaw watched as she slowed and caressed the more personal items – things that evidently meant a lot to her. But when she reached for the chest protector with trembling hands, Honaw finally stepped forward.

“This is not for putting away, Koko Kanti. The time has come for you to reclaim your place in this tribe and in Donoma Chepi’s life. Nothing will proclaim your return home more decisively than for you to resume your role of her protector.”

Koko crumpled it and stuffed the beadwork chest guard thoughtlessly into the top of the bag, then stood to face him with a pained rage in her eyes. “It has been made clear to me that is no longer my place, Honaw – that my services are neither required nor wanted. I agreed to lead the warriors to destroy the threat I inadvertently brought to the People I was once able to call family. I will then say goodbye to Donoma Chepi before I take my leave from this place for good.”

“Why, Koko Kanti??? Surely you know….”

“I know that I will not stand between Donoma and her destiny, Honaw, but I cannot stay and watch that destiny play out. That is more than I can bear!”

Honaw scrunched his eyebrows in frowning thought. Certainly Koko was not that dense. “Koko, what are you talking about?? You *are* that destiny. You have to know that!”

“I am not going to discuss this with you, Honaw. Donoma Chepi has so much love to give – I will not keep her from finding the happiness she deserves to have because of the misplaced loyalty and promises of a child!” She snatched up the bags and gasped as pain ripped through her belly at the action. Honaw moved swiftly and gripped her by the upper arms, holding her upright until she was stable enough to shake off his grasp. He shook her just slightly to get her attention, then he removed the saddlebags from her hands.

“Koko, you trusted me once.”

She closed her eyes. “I trusted you always, Honaw – to guard my back when we were warriors together and to protect my ka’eskone when I could no longer do so.”

“Then trust me now, sister of my heart. Donoma’s happiness lies with you. You did not see the devastation you wrought on her sensitive soul with your leaving, nor did you have to face the darkness that was left behind in her heart. If you leave again… even if you say goodbye, you will destroy her.”

“And what makes you think she still needs me, Honaw – that she still wants me to walk beside her? I saw the look on her face – she hates me.”

“No, Koko… she is angry – very, very angry, but she has never, ever hated you. It would have been easier for her if she had. At least then she would have moved past you and gotten on with her life.”

“She never… not with anyone?”

“No, Koko… she never – not that there have not been plenty of offers. She has always refused to consider any other possibilities and Takoda is content to allow her to make her own decisions in the matter. Perhaps it is time that you do the same.”

Koko didn’t move a muscle, but the defeat was apparent in every line of her body. Honaw took that as his sign and knelt to dig the chest protector from the bag she had shoved it in. He straightened it with the flick of his wrist, then slid it over her head. Koko didn’t resist when he lifted her arms to secure it on either side. When he was done, he stepped back from her and gazed into her eyes, suddenly filled with new purpose.

“You look much as I remember, Koko Kanti.”

“I am not, Honaw. I have changed much in the time I have been away from the People. But I will not let harm come to those I once called family. Come,” she commanded naturally. “We need to go.”

Without direction, Honaw lifted the saddle from the ground, glad Aucaman had cleaned the blood from it. Koko clenched her jaw, but allowed him to help her, knowing there was no way she could manage the heavy thing with her injuries. Then she pushed the doorway aside and gave a loud, piercing whistle. It served to draw all eyes in the camp to her, but that was not her concern. The big black came running, stopping and rearing only when he was within a hairsbreadth of Koko.

She let him dance a moment, then reached for his mane. Black nudged her playfully, then settled down to await her bidding. She motioned to Honaw, who placed the saddle on the horse’s back and strapped the girth around him. Then he flipped the saddlebags over the strong back and waited for further instruction.

Koko tapped the big black’s shoulder and he knelt, allowing her to climb aboard with relative ease. Honaw stood back and let her go, knowing she had to be strong in front of the warriors she was expected to lead. Another tap and Black rose to his feet and the entire encampment watched in silence. Then Keez rode forward on his pony, negligently aiming his bow in her direction.

“Who are you… and what gives you the right to lead – the right to wear such armor?”

“I owe you no explanation, Keezheekoni. I am here to defend the People I swore allegiance to… to protect them from an evil I unwittingly brought to them. Now either stand beside me or stand behind me, but get out of my way. I have a debt to pay.”

“And the armor?”

“Is none of your business,” Koko flared.

“You dare??” he asked with a raised eyebrow as he cocked the bow.

“Try me,” she insisted. “I have nothing left to lose.”

“Very well, but when we return victorious….”

“It will still be none of your business. Now it is time to ride and find the men that threaten your wives and children… that threaten your homes and your way of life. Who rides with me?” Koko asked in a loud voice.

The warriors cheered and without another word she headed out in the direction Donoma had gone not very long before. The rest followed closely, Honaw at her right side as he had always been. Only Keez lagged behind, shrugging his shoulders at his father. He had done what he could but they were no closer to knowing Koko’s intentions than before. Odahingum nodded and Keezheekoni urged his horse forward, not wanting to miss a minute of Koko Kanti’s triumphant return.

The rest would wait until their victory was secure.
Chapter XIV
Donoma reached the place where she had been on her quest nights before. She sat still on Dapples and closed her eyes, breathing in what should have been peace. But something disturbed the tranquility of the place and her brow furrowed. So instead of stopping, they pushed on to a semi-hidden dell that held very mixed memories for her.

When Kya recognized where they were headed, he placed his hand on her arm, causing her to stop and look back at him. “I know where you are going, ka’eskone. Let me ride ahead and make sure it is safe. Something is out of place and I will not be responsible for it hurting you. Once I am certain everything is as it should be, I will take my place here to watch.”

Donoma nodded her agreement, knowing Kya was here at Takoda’s bidding and admitting to herself that something was not right. Whether or not it was her or her surroundings remained to be seen, but if Kya felt it enough to be concerned, she would allow him to take precautions.

So she closed her eyes and extended her senses while Kya rode ahead to check the little glade itself. In a few moments he returned, satisfied there was nothing hidden in the tiny space other than what naturally belonged there. Then he turned his horse out towards the plain to watch for trouble while Donoma slid from her mare and walked down the slight decline and out of sight.

She spread the blanket she had brought with her and then collected chips for a fire, clearing bits of grass from the obvious fire pit. Then she started a fire and closed her eyes, hoping to clear her mind. It had been a very hard and emotional few days and she needed to find her balance again.

How long she sat there she couldn’t have honestly said. But she knew when she opened her eyes that it had been a while. Darkness had fallen at some point as the sun was rising again, but more than that, something had changed. Something was not as it had been when she started her meditation.

Donoma listened carefully – she heard the whisper of the wind, the ripple of the water that trickled along beside her, the snap of the fire and the crunch of horses chomping the grasses around them. She heard them, then let them move past her, knowing there was more. Then she heard it – the sound of breathing and a heartbeat she knew as well as her own.

She turned… and found Koko Kanti kneeling stoically at the edge of the small hill. She bit her lip, resolved to ignore the warrior, despite the chest armor she wore that indicated her status in Donoma’s life. Then she realized Koko was bleeding and huffed – still angry beyond words, but unable and unwilling to let her suffer when she was able to heal the wounds she could see.

Wounds? She wondered, noting they were fresh – some in places they had not been before. What in the Great Spirit’s name had gone on here? Surely the warriors of the tribe had not challenged Koko to battle?! They knew better….

Then Donoma rose from her blanket and walked swiftly towards Koko, watching as the other woman tracked her movement but made no effort to rise or greet her.

“What happened?” she asked without prelude. Koko dropped her eyes and focused on the ground – something she had never done before with anyone… especially not Donoma Chepi. But there was no way for her to look into those green eyes and say goodbye.

“It does not matter; I came only to say goodbye to you, Donoma Chepi. I cannot stay here any longer.”

Donoma felt her heart break all over again, just as it had five cycles before when the woman before her had simply disappeared. She walked up the hill and saw Kya was gone, then she returned to stand beside Koko. “You swore to protect me as long as the armor I gave you protected you in battle. If your word means anything, you must remain until I am ready to return to the tribe.”

Koko shook her head. She had tried to send Kya away, hoping that Donoma might allow her the privilege of chosen warrior once more. She did not realize he only went far enough to collect Donoma’s medical kit after having witnessed the obvious injuries on Koko’s body. Despite her insistence, there was really nowhere she wanted to be than beside her ka’eskone again. This was her first effort to do as Honaw suggested and see where Donoma’s choice in the matter might lie.

“When I swore to protect you, there were no conditions. I will remain until you are ready to leave.”

Donoma nodded – not that Koko could see the action. Her gaze remained locked on the hands that rested on her knees. Donoma stepped closer and gently cupped the bruised face, the action distinctly different from the harshness in her voice and the fire in her eyes. “We may be here a while,” she insisted. “We will not go back until I know why you left… and why you returned. But first, we need to care for your injuries again. Now tell me what happened to undo all the healing I have already done.”

Koko didn’t move or speak, content to absorb the look and touch she had not felt upon her in far too long. Then without warning she was up and moving, pushing Donoma behind her and moving up the hill with the grace of a panther before Donoma could question her actions. Then Kya was standing in front of them, held by the throat until Donoma made it up the slight incline to convince Koko to release him.

“It is all right, Koko Kanti. This is my hestatanemo Kya… you remember Kya.”

Koko nodded but frowned. “He was sneaking.”

“He did not want to disturb my meditations. He brought supplies so I can heal you, but you need to let him go first. He will not hurt us, Koko. He simply wants to drop the bundle he brought and be on his way,” Donoma assured her with a pointed look in Kya’s direction; he caught her expression and nodded solemnly. Then he offered Koko the bundle he still held.

She dropped her hand from his throat and accepted the cache he offered, checking it carefully before handing it to Donoma. At her nod, Kya turned and left again, content to return to his watch post outside the tiny dell until Donoma dismissed him. He didn’t honestly think Koko would endanger his sister, but he had promised Takoda to keep watch.

“Come,” Donoma commanded, extending her hand. “Let me repair the damage that has been done to you while you explain to me how it occurred.” Koko shook her head and would have returned to her place at the edge of the glade had Donoma not drawn her up short with a firm grasp on the chest plate. Koko could have easily escaped the hold, but not without hurting Donoma or destroying the armor, so she froze in place and waited.

“Look at me, Koko Kanti.” Then Donoma waited until blue eyes slowly tracked to green. “Let me make something perfectly clear to you, warrior.” Koko blinked but didn’t remove her eyes from Donoma’s. “I am still very, VERY angry with you… furious in fact. I do not know if I will ever get past that – it has been stirring in me for a long, long time. But regardless, I am a grown woman now… not some child you need to dissimilate the truth for. From now on, when I ask you a question, I expect you to answer me honestly – not evade replying or remaining silent. I am making the choices for me now, not you. Do we understand one another clearly?”

“Yes, ka’eskone.”

Donoma drew in her breath sharply at the familiar address – it had always been like a warm blanket being wrapped around her heart when Koko had called her such. She peered at Koko, but found she was staring at the top of the dark head. “Koko,” she said softly, drawing her head up so their eyes met once more. “I am angry, but I do not hate you. I could never hate you. Please stop looking away from me.”

“Ka’eskone, I am only showing you the respect due you as a woman from a warrior. It is not my place to presume that you would welcome that kind of attention from me.”

Donoma was genuinely ready to scream in frustration. “Regardless of your status as a warrior, Koko Kanti, we are both still women and we did grow up together as best friends. Despite our situation now, formality at this point seems a little bit extreme, do you not think?”

“Nevertheless,” Koko insisted, “it is not my place to assume.”

Donoma’s eyes grew cold. “Very well… I will not force you to look upon that which drove you from the People. Now sit and allow me to care for your injuries.”

Koko reached out to Donoma, but Donoma deliberately moved away from her touch. Koko let her hand fall and dropped gracelessly to the ground beside but not on Donoma’s blanket. She winced in agony as the old wound complained even louder than the new and she hoped dearly that she had not ripped out the stitching in her side.

She untied the leather strips that bound the armor together on either side and eased the beadwork gently over her head. She placed it carefully beside her and turned her attention to unbuttoning her shirt while Donoma scooped a bit of creek water into her small pot and put it in the fire to heat rapidly. When she turned back to Koko, she gasped at the sight that met her eyes.

Koko’s side was bleeding again and she had several lacerations on her arms and one very ugly cut on her neck. There were also a few more bruises forming that were side by side with the older green ones and what appeared to be a gash on her upper thigh, though with the dark cloth trousers on, it was hard to be certain.

“Lay down on your back, please,” Donoma requested in a cool, civil tone. “I need to repair the damage that was done to your original injury before I turn my attention to the rest.”

Koko moved without protest and lay down, shifting her arm out of the way so Donoma could work. The seer’s touch was light and impersonal and still the goosebumps rose up all over Koko’s body. She cleared her throat awkwardly.

“We went out to defend the tribe against a band of outlaws I inadvertently led here.” She winced when Donoma pushed on the open wound.

“I am sorry, Koko, but it must be done to ensure we do not reintroduce infection into the area.”

“I know,” Koko admitted. “It is simply another pain I need to deal with.” Then without missing a beat, she continued. “I had been chasing the gang leader, but he made it to his hideout where he and his men arranged an ambush for me. I was not supposed to live, but I escaped and I was supposed to be headed to my home. Instead, when I said ‘home’, Black brought me here.”

There was no comment from Donoma except for her urging Koko to sit so she could tie off a bandage around the hole. Having Koko awake and alert while she was naked was a much different prospect for Donoma and she was working very hard to stay focused.

“Thank you for caring for me, ka’eskone.”

“Please do not call me that,” Donoma said softly. “It should mean something coming from you, and knowing it does not is hurtful for me.”

“It means everything to me, ka’eskone. Just as you still do.”

Donoma clenched her hands tightly together until her nails were cutting into the palms of her fists. She finished her wrapping and realized that she would not have enough bandage to wrap the others. But, she acknowledged silently to herself, I can at least clean them.

She took up her cloth once more started wiping the smallest cut first, wanting to make sure they were clear and free of dirt and debris. She remained intently alert to everything about Koko, but she didn’t speak… she couldn’t. She was not going to give up five cycles of anger and betrayal simply because Koko was home and speaking to her as though nothing had changed. *Everything* had changed and Koko was going to have to earn her place back in Donoma’s heart and soul if that is truly where the warrior belonged and wanted to be.

Koko sighed, but she was beginning to see the course of action she would need to take. She proceeded to share her story. “I had managed to kill several of them and wound the rest, but not enough to stop them… only enough to slow them down. They had to stop and tend to their wounds before they could finish me off and I used the time to escape.”

“When Black brought me here, it actually bought me a little time as they headed in the wrong direction for almost two days before they realized I was not where they thought I would be. That gave me time to heal enough to lead the warriors of the People into battle against them and defeat them soundly.” A beat. “That is where all the blood and bruises are from.”

Donoma nodded and kept her attention on what she was doing. When she was done with her torso, Donoma directed Koko to remove the trousers she wore. She kept her focus on the deep gash, wincing at the pain she knew Koko must be feeling, but the warrior had steeled herself against Donoma’s touch and didn’t flinch when she started cleaning the wound. Koko put a hand on Donoma’s before she could wrap it, causing Donoma to jerk her hand away and Koko to shake her head.

“No, ka’eskone. I want to rid myself of the remainder of the battle. Let me wash away the dirt and grime – then you can decide if a bandage is still warranted.” Donoma nodded curtly and moved away from Koko to start her own morning ablutions with the last bit of warm water. She deliberately ignored Koko, choosing instead to focus her thoughts on what she had been told.

She never intended to be here – her returning home to me… to the *People*… was nothing but a mistake, Donoma realized sadly. She never planned to come back and is going to leave as soon as she is well enough to travel away from here.

Donoma finished washing her face and straightening her hair, then moved back to her blanket to sit. All of the peace and tranquility she had achieved in her meditation the night before was gone, and left in its wake was heartache and confusion. Her shoulders slumped momentarily, then she deliberately straightened them and closed her eyes. She didn’t even notice when Koko Kanti emerged from the creek and paused beside her before moving back to the guardian position she had been in.

Koko dried off as well as she could with her clothing, then searched through her bags for a suitable bandage to tie off her leg. When she came across the leathers Litonya had given her, she hesitated, then slid into them carefully. If she was going to lose Donoma for good, it would be because that is what Donoma chose and not what she herself had forced on them this time.

The leathers were soft and comfortable and felt like home in a way white man’s clothing never could. It didn’t hurt that they were warm as well, cutting the cool spring wind and creating a barrier Koko could appreciate. Satisfied she had done all she could at the moment, Koko resumed her place on her blanket and kept watch while Donoma continued on her spirit quest, putting the pain of her injuries to one side and forcing herself to stillness so she could listen as she hadn’t since she’d left.

Once it was silent, she heard the Great Spirit’s voice inside her head as clearly as if he had been sitting beside her. Koko knew if she closed her eyes, she would find the spirit of her father next to her. To his daughter, Honiahaka was the embodiment of spiritual guidance. It had always been so… even before he died. That conviction only became stronger after his death.

“What do you seek, my nahtona?” the warrior asked Koko as she sat in silence watching Donoma Chepi struggle for answers. “Why have you come to this place?”

“I seek nothing, Neho’e. I am here simply to fulfill a promise to my warrior advisor and her People. When this task is complete, I will leave if that is what my ka’eskone desires.”

“That may be the truth, Koko Kanti, but it is not the entire truth; do not delude yourself into thinking it is. What do you seek, nahtona? What is it that *you* desire?”

“I wish to mate with Donoma Chepi, Neho’e, but that choice is no longer mine to make.”

“Then perhaps you need to show her your desire, nahtona. She believes you left because you could no longer abide her presence. It was the only conclusion she could make given the facts she had in hand. You are going to have to rebuild her trust in you – begin again as if everything was new once more.”

“And if she still does not accept that I want to bond with her as a mate?”

“Then you will be no worse off than you are now, and you can return to the life you have created for yourself in the white man’s world. You have nothing to lose, Koko Kanti… and everything to gain.” Honiahaka paused a moment and let his gaze follow Koko’s to the visage in front of them. “She is a beautiful young woman, nahtona, and a most desirable choice as a lifebonded companion. Do not let your pride keep you from pursuing her if it would bring you happiness.”

“It must make her happy as well,” Koko insisted. “And I am not sure my presence does that any longer. Besides, I must return to the world of outlaws and bounty hunters soon. I have work that must be tended to. I do not think Donoma would be so willing to follow me there.”

Without warning, Honiahaka became visible to Koko and his brown eyes burn red fire. “You said it was her choice, Koko Kanti! How can she make a choice if you do not give her the option to choose?!”

“Neho’e….”

“NO, Koko Kanti!! This is about you and your honor, but there is more to it than that and you know it. Why are you so afraid to be happy?”

Blue eyes stared at Honiahaka sullenly for a long moment before Koko dropped her gaze to the ground and shrugged. Then her father grasped her chin firmly and brought Koko’s eyes up to meet his. “No, nahtona. I raised you better than this. I taught you to stand up and fight for what you believe in. Now either you tell Donoma the truth and let her choose, or you tell Donoma the truth and claim her. Either way, the time has come for you to make the truth of your feelings known to her. Stop cowering in fear over what might happen and take the chance to live a little. You might find happiness.” He blew out a frustrated breath. “Nahtona… give her the choice.”

Koko’s shoulders sagged but she finally nodded her agreement. “I will do as you say, Neho’e.”

He patted her knee. “That is my nahtona. Thank you, Koko. You will see that I am right.” He rose from his place beside her and she reached out and caught his hand.

“Can you not remain a little while, Neho’e? I have missed you and your guidance so much.”

Honiahaka covered her hand with his and squeezed it gently. “I am never far away, nahtona, and I always hear when you speak to me. But I must return to the land of my fathers – your Nahko’e is waiting for my arrival. However, if you need me, I will visit you again.” He paused and then smiled at her. “You and Donoma Chepi have our blessing, Koko Kanti.”

“Thank you, Neho’e. Tell Nahko’e….”

“She knows, nahtona, as do I. Be happy, Koko Kanti. You deserve that.”

“I will try, Neho’e. I give you my word as a warrior.” Honiahaka brushed a kiss over her bowed head and when Koko finally looked up, he was gone.
Chapter XV
Donoma felt herself finally settle as her breathing evened out and she shut out all the extraneous noise around her. She lost all sense of time as she waited for her vision to clear, hoping beyond hope that the Great Spirit would allow her to finish her vision quest. A touch on her head caused Donoma to slowly open her eyes, only to find Rachel’s compassionate blue eyes staring back at her.

“Rae’l?” she asked in surprised recognition. “What are you doing here?”

Rachel shifted a little closer, then sat down cross-legged and reached for Donoma’s hand. “The Great Spirit sent me to check on you, Donoma Chepi. There has been a great deal of turmoil surrounding you lately and we are concerned.”

Donoma pulled her hand from Rachel’s grasp and clasped hers tightly together in her lap. Her eyes shuttered, leaving Rachel only the barest glimpse of the child she had known in the beautiful, stubborn young woman now sitting in front of her.

“There is no need for you to be concerned, Rae’l. Everything is all right.”

“Is it really, ka’eskone? I sense much anger and confusion in you.”

“I have been angry for a long time, Rae’l. It is nothing to concern yourself with,” Donoma reiterated.

“I think it is, Donoma,” came Rachel’s mild rejoinder. “It is time you let go of the anger you have held in your heart for my nahtona and focused instead on all the good you shared together before she….”

“Before she left me? Before she walked out of my life and the lives of the People without a word of explanation or even a goodbye??” Green eyes glowed in their ire. “I do not think you understand what you are asking of me, Rae’l. I took care of her… healed her in spite of my anger and everything… only to discover that her return was nothing more than a mistake. And she is completely unwilling to talk to me and tell me her reasons for doing so. You are asking me to be a bigger person than I am, Rae’l.”

“I do not think so, ka’eskone. I think you want someone to give you permission to release the anger that has held you captive for so long. I am doing that – I am telling you it is time to give up the anger and darkness in your heart. Koko only did what she thought was best….”

“What *she* thought!!!” Donoma flared. “She did not bother to speak to me – not to talk about her decision or to ask my advice. In everything else we were always open and honest, but in this… it made me feel as though she had lied to me all those years – that I was simply a child to be humored and not the advisor she claimed that I was.” Her fury was evident.

Rachel knew there was little she could say to Donoma that wouldn’t come across as patronizing to her or as a protective mother. She reached out again, glad that Donoma did not flinch away from her touch. She stroked the blonde hair for a few minutes, formulating the best way to reach Donoma. Finally… “I want to ask a favor of you, ka’eskone. I want you to talk to Koko Kanti about this – be angry at her if you need to be. I think she deserves a little of your anger at least. But she deserves it from you face to face, ka’eskone. She cannot give you her side of things if you are unwilling to hear what she has to say.”

“I was willing, Rae’l. She refused. She intends to leave… again.”

“Then it is up to you to prevent that, Donoma. Make her stay and listen.” Rachel paused and drew a deep breath, feeling her way cautiously. “Donoma… ka’eskone… what do you want from her?”

Green eyes welled with tears though Donoma didn’t allow them to fall. “I do not know anymore, Rae’l. I only wish it did not hurt so much.”

“Then maybe you should consider which would hurt more – insisting that she stay and talk to you or allowing her to leave without explanation. But if she comes to talk to you, child, I ask that you listen to her with an open heart and mind. It is possible that she did what she did for the right reasons, even if it ended up being all wrong. My daughter loves you, Donoma, as she always has done. Please do not hold that against her.”

“I wish I could believe that, Rae’l… I really do. But I have lived the past five cycles knowing that she did not love me enough to talk to me or to say goodbye. I sincerely doubt there is much love in her heart for me. However,” Donoma continued before Rachel could protest, “if she chooses to speak to me before she leaves once more, I will do my best to listen to what she has to say and judge it fairly.”

Rachel nodded. It wasn’t the unequivocal support she was hoping for, but under the circumstances…. “That’s the best I can ask, Donoma. Thank you.”

“You were always so good to me, Rae’l. It is the least I can do to repay some of your kindness.”

“You were a joy to my heart, Donoma. I always blessed the day the Great Spirit led you to us.” Donoma bowed her head and blushed profusely; Rachel smiled and stroked her hair. “Do not be embarrassed, my young friend. One day… one day you will know the difference you made in my life and the life of my daughter. Until then, I want you to know that you retain a special place in my heart.”

“As you do in mine, Rae’l.”

Rachel smiled lovingly at the woman she had always considered a second daughter. “I must go now, ka’eskone. Honiahaka is waiting for my return to the land of his fathers, and I do not want him to worry because I am gone for too long. But if you ever need to speak to me, I will be listening for your call. Be strong, Donoma Chepi. Your life is going to take an interesting turn very soon.”

Donoma looked up then to ask Rachel what her cryptic words meant. But there was no one there. Donoma closed her eyes again, hoping to stave off the headache she could feel coming on. Rachel had given her much to think about – the question was… what did she want to do?

************

Aucaman rode up to where Kya was seated on his mount, eyes wary and alert. “Anything?” he asked without preamble.

“No,” Kya replied shortly, not willing to share Koko’s lightning reflexes against him with anyone – for Donoma’s sake as much as his. Despite the victory she had just led the tribe to, Koko’s standing in the community was uncertain, and she and Donoma needed to work things out alone one way or another before action was taken against her. If word got round that she had laid hands on him… well, her defense would be that she was protecting Donoma. And that would only be enough if Donoma forgave her.

“Are you sure they are all right? Maybe I should check….”

“Do not, hestatanemo,” Kya cautioned with a hand on Aucaman’s shoulder. “Though I do not think Koko would react with malice, she would respond to you as a threat to Donoma’s safety. Donoma was tending to Koko Kanti’s wounds – I delivered her kit myself.”

Aucaman nodded. Donoma would have sent Kya away if she was tending to the damage done by the white raiders. Despite her obvious upset over Koko’s actions five cycles ago, she was very protective of the image Koko worked to achieve. “Do you need me to relieve you, Kya? You have been here for quite some time.”

“I am fine, Aucuman, but perhaps you should let Neho’e know it might be a while. I believe Donoma Chepi intends to find the answers she seeks from Koko Kanti before she allows either of them to leave this place.”

Aucaman’s eyes widened. “That could be a very long time, hestatanemo.”

Kya sighed. “I know. Two more stubborn People were never born.”

“I will bring you back something warm to eat. And we will decide what to do after you have eaten.”

“It would be appreciated,” Kya admitted.

“Then I will return shortly.”

Kya watched Aucaman out of sight, then turned his focus back to the plains that surrounded them, wishing that soon Donoma and Koko would emerge from the dell that currently hid them. Once they had things settled between them, Kya hoped things would return to a semblance of normal life… whatever that turned out to be.

************

Odahingum walked around the perimeter of the encampment. There was an air of expectation that had long been missing from his People. Koko Kanti’s return had changed the very air around them and everyone seemed in a better frame of mind than they had for a long time. Takoda caught up with him when he was about halfway around and they stood together watching Aucaman return to them at a steady pace.

He jumped to the ground as he reached them, patting the pony on its hind quarters to send it back to the herd until he was ready to leave again. Takoda lifted a brow in question.

“I told Kya I would bring him some hot food and then we could decide how to proceed. He seems to think that this could take a while – that Donoma will not permit either of them to leave until she finds satisfaction in Koko’s answers to her questions.”

Odahingum covered his eyes. “They do realize that with the coming of the first Chinook, we leave the winter camp to follow the herd? That we are already behind?”

“I do not think Donoma Chepi is concerned about that, honored chieftain. Besides, having seen Koko Kanti fight as she did only hours from a sickbed, I believe ka’eskone could not be in better or safer hands. No matter why she left, Koko will not leave Donoma unprotected while she is here.”

“I do not think Donoma will allow Koko Kanti to be anywhere she is not at this point, Odahingum, but what happens once she finds the answers she seeks remains to be seen. It would be better if we were some distance away. It will force them to resolve this on their own.”

Odahingum nodded his agreement to Takoda’s words. “Very well,” he said. “Tomorrow we strike the tents and follow the herd towards the open plain. They will catch up with us or they will be here when we return for the cold season once more.” He turned to Aucaman who was waiting patiently. “Tell Honaw and Keezheekona to dismantle Donoma Chepi’s and Koko Kanti’s dwellings and deliver them to just beyond where they are now. Then you go fetch Kya and bring him home. There is much to be done in preparation for our move.”

Aucaman bowed his head slightly in acknowledgment. “I will do as you say, honored chieftain. I am certain there will be plenty of hands willing to help,” he added before continuing on into the encampment. Soon there was a lot of activity as Litonya oversaw the packing up of both Donoma’s and Koko’s personal possessions and the young men started to disassemble the homes.

Odahingum and Takoda watched the activity for a while before turning back to look at one another. “I hope this works,” Odahingum commented.

“I think it will,” Takoda said. “I have a good feeling.” Then they resumed their walk around the perimeter, breathing in the cool spring air with a sense of satisfaction. Today had been a good day – tomorrow would be better.

************

Koko sat quietly listening to the sounds she had missed for five long years as she let her mind wander. Slowly she was shedding the persona of Reb Stone and returning to the roots she knew as Koko Kanti. She sighed silently, wondering if that pursuit was a particularly wise one – no matter what happened… or not… between her and Donoma, the truth was Koko had another life now. Did she want to abandon everything she had achieved to return to the People? Would Donoma be willing to come with her if she didn’t?

Koko shook her head in frustration. She had never had so much trouble listening before. She consciously cleared her mind, allowing no thought except for the sounds she could hear around her. There was the wind, a constant on the Plains; the rustle of grass; Donoma Chepi’s breathing and the heartbeat that beat in time with Koko’s own. At the back of her listening, just inside her hearing range, Koko heard the sound of horses moving rapidly toward them.

Without hesitation, Koko moved swiftly and silently to her feet, jumping onto the rise to see Kya riding towards the intruders slowly. Even from this distance, she was able to recognize Honaw, Keez, Aucaman and the other couple of warriors were familiar but not so much that she could put a name to the face. Didn’t really matter – she knew they were part of Odahingum’s tribe. She watched as they started to unload something from behind the pack horses until Honaw looked up and caught her fierce gaze. He called a halt to the activity and rode over to where Koko was standing with her arms crossed over her chest.

“Koko Kanti,” Honaw greeted with a nod of his head.

“Honaw,” she returned with a brow arched in question.

“Odahingum has decided to move the tribe; it is past time to begin following the herd. The Chinook has begun to blow.”

“Several days ago, as a matter of fact. Why did you not move then?”

“Donoma insisted we stay put until her vision quest was over.” Honaw sighed. “Everyone believes you are the answer to her search… everyone except Donoma. She refuses to see what the Great Spirit has done in this instance, but Neho’e assured Odahingum it is time to go. You are here to protect her now. We have brought your homes and belongings by his command.”

Both brows flew straight up into her hairline. “Excuse me?” Honaw sighed, wondering why he always got stuck with this sort of assignment. He took a deep breath, but Koko waved her hands to stop his explanation before it could start. “I understood what you said, Honaw. I just cannot comprehend the reasoning behind it.”

“Takoda believes that Donoma will not allow you to be anywhere she is not at this point… at least until she finds the answers she seeks from you. He thinks it would be better if we were some distance away, forcing you to resolve the situation on your own.”

“I see,” Koko said calmly. “In that case, I would like you to place them in the dell. Come with me and I will show you where.”

Honaw signaled to the rest of his band, then jumped from his horse and followed Koko back down the incline. He hoped Donoma would ignore them until he was gone. He had no desire to face her wrath after the last few days. Personally, he would be glad to be far away from the two of them when everything came to a head.

************

Litonya didn’t say anything as she and her daughters-in-law packed up first Koko Kanti’s possessions and then Donoma Chepi’s. But as soon as they were finished and had returned to their own homes to take care of their own preparations, Litonya turned to Takoda with questions in her eyes.

“Takoda, what are we doing? Why are we leaving the two of them out here alone… without the protection of the tribe? Have you seen…?”

He wrapped his arms around her in comfort and Litonya snuggled into his embrace – it had always been this way between them and Litonya sighed in contentment. Takoda ran his hands gently over her arms and back, then kissed her head before he spoke.

“I have, Litonya. Late last night after Koko left to follow Donoma on her spirit quest. What happens now is between the two of them – there is nothing more we can do and our continued interference will do nothing but ensure Donoma’s stubborn behavior. To that end we will leave. They are both well aware of the habits of the People; they know how to find us if and when they decide to rejoin us.”

Litonya lifted her head to look Takoda in the eyes. “You do not think they will?”

He shrugged. “I do not know,” he replied honestly. “I cannot see clearly on much involving the two of them,” he said with a wry tone. “I know it is a possibility given that Koko Kanti does have another life out in the white man’s world. She may choose to return to it. Donoma could choose to return with her or she could decide to stay here and be miserable alone. Or Koko could decide to return to the fold of the People and resume her life among us, Litonya. I do not know what will happen – I only know what I see as options for the two of them. Odahingum assures me that is the best I will get in regards to the two of them because they are my daughters and the Great Spirit will not give me insight where they are concerned… just like any other parent.”

He felt Litonya shake with laughter within the circle of his arms and smiled sympathetically. Then she shifted in his embrace so she was sitting up next to him yet still had his arms around her. “Well, if they do not get things settled between them to *my* satisfaction, I will exercise my prerogative as their Nahko’e and do something drastic. The tribe cannot continue to live with Donoma’s darkness… not when her chance for happiness is right here waiting to be claimed. I will not permit her stubbornness to be a deterrent to that end.”

Takoda squeezed her tightly, then ran his hands over her arms again in a comforting manner. “We cannot interfere in such a manner, Litonya. It must be their decision for better or worse.”

“You think so, Takoda? Just try me. I have been patient with these two long enough.” He gazed at her lovingly, then shook his head in humored dismay. “I just want them to find the happiness that we have known, Takoda. They deserve to be happy.”

“They do, but it must be their choice, Nutta. Otherwise it means nothing.”

Litonya huffed. “That is not fair.”

“No,” Takoda agreed, “but it is life.”

“I could do a much better job than they are doing with it at the moment.”

Takoda laughed. “I think we all could, Litonya. But have a little faith. I have a feeling things will turn out all right for them in the end. It just may not be the ending *we* want.”

“You think they will leave the People and return to the white man’s world,” Litonya said flatly. Takoda didn’t speak aloud though his eyes gave their own answer. “That will be all right, Takoda, as long as they do so together. We will deal with the rest as it comes.”

Takoda smiled at Litonya and kissed her tenderly. “How did you get so wise?” he asked when they parted.

“I married a wise man, Nutta. How could some of that not rub off on me?” This time when Takoda laughed, Litonya joined him. The rest of the clan wondered at the sound given the week they had just been through, but for the shaman and his wife, it was a respite they needed. And it was enough.
Chapter XVI
Donoma heard the commotion at the back of the small hill she was sheltered by, but she did not bother to turn around to see what was going on. Her hearing told her the people making the noise were friendly and that was enough for her. She knew Koko would take care of any problems that arose. And at the moment she was trying to find the balance in her soul she so desperately craved. Her conversation with Rachel had thrown everything out of kilter worse than it had been before, and the turmoil was making her shake from the inside out.

Koko watched Donoma with one eye while overseeing the raising of their homes side by side. She could see the deep, even breathing and the faintest hint of trembling in the small frame. Koko wanted to go to Donoma, but had no desire to do so in front of so many witnesses. What was between them was private, and Koko intended to keep it that way if she could. A look in Honaw’s direction showed her that the warriors were nearly done with their assembly and would soon be ready to leave.

Keez and Kya brought down the possessions – bedding for Koko since she already had her saddlebags; more personal possessions for Donoma. They placed the items just outside the doorway, assuming correctly that both women would prefer to put their own stuff away. Then the warriors nodded to Koko to indicate the completion of their task and their readiness to leave. She nodded back in thanks and dismissed them. Only Honaw lagged behind.

“You know the path we follow, Koko Kanti, but there is no expectation for your return.” He paused to swallow. “I wish you much success in your endeavor. It will be good to see you both whole once more.”

Koko would have commented, but Honaw did not give her a chance. Instead he turned and disappeared up the hill, mounting his horse and leading his fellow warriors back to the encampment. Tomorrow they would follow the herd away from the winter camp.

Koko looked at the belongings and back at Donoma. The shaking seemed to have stopped for the moment, so she decided to put things away. Hers was easy – the furs for her bedding went down quickly, though not without some effort and a good deal of pain. She breathed for a long moment, willing the pain to the back of her mind to deal with later. Then she placed the saddlebags on the other side of the space and stepped back out to take care of Donoma’s things.

Bedding first again… mostly because the sky was rapidly becoming overcast. She dropped it rather haphazardly, planning to straighten it after the rest was brought into the dry tent. Koko went back out and grabbed up the remainder of Donoma’s possessions, groaning aloud against her will when pain shot up her side again in a sharp, blinding wave.

From her position on the ground, Donoma heard Koko groan in pain and opened her eyes. She turned back towards where she knew the warrior had been meditating, eyes widening when she saw the changes that had taken place in such a relatively short period of time. She noticed the storm gathering around her and headed towards her home. Then she stopped short just inside the doorway, stunned at what she saw.

Koko lay on the floor in a fetal position, her breathing short and shallow and her eyes closed. Scattered around her were all of Donoma’s belongings. Donoma bit her lip and crossed to kneel beside Koko’s head, placing a gentle hand on her shoulder. Blue eyes fluttered open and Donoma winced in sympathy at the pain she saw reflected in them.

“Turn over for me, Koko. I need to see what damage has been done to cause you to hurt so badly.” Koko lay still, not moving. Donoma pushed as easily as she could to roll Koko to her back. “Nutta… work with me here. I cannot take care of you if you will not let me. Please, Koko….” The rumble of thunder accompanied her words and the roar of rain swiftly followed.

Recognition finally dawned in Koko’s eyes and she allowed Donoma to ease her back into a reclining position, though she couldn’t stop the moan that escaped her lips. Donoma sucked in a breath when she saw that once again her handiwork had been destroyed and wondered in passing what had caused the injury to start bleeding again.

“We need to remove your shirt, Koko. Then I need to find a way to close your wound without trying to sew it shut, as the stitching obviously will not hold there at the moment.”

“Help me stand,” Koko whispered, as though the effort was costing her greatly.

“Koko, I do not think….”

“Please, ka’eskone. I do not want to bleed to death all over my new leathers,” Koko joked weakly.

Donoma glared at her. “I do not want you to bleed to death at all, Koko.” But she stood and offered Koko her hands, bracing herself for the pulling of weight against her deceptively sturdy frame. It took a bit of effort and grunting on both their parts, but eventually, Koko found herself in an upright position.

She loosened the ties around her neck and Donoma eased the shirt over Koko’s chest. Then Koko struggled to get it over her head. After several long minutes of exertion, she managed to get it over her head and off one arm. Donoma took over from there and slid it down the other, laying the shirt aside and unwrapping the bloody bandages from Koko’s torso. Before she could do more, Koko’s hand on her arm stopped her in her tracks.

“My trousers, ka’eskone. Help me remove them as well.”

Donoma looked at Koko askance, but the determination in the warrior’s eyes convinced her to help first and ask questions later. “Stand still,” she commanded, and loosened the ties at Koko’s waist. Then she knelt and slid the pants down the long legs, tapping each one to tell Koko when to lift. Koko’s hands went to Donoma’s shoulders for balance, and soon she was standing in the center of Donoma’s tent naked except for the bandage she wore around her thigh.

“Stay here,” Koko commanded in a firm voice that was now just above a whisper. Then she stepped out into the pouring rain and just stood with her arms extended outward and her face turned towards the sky.

She let the rain beat down on her a long moment, rinsing away the blood once more and allowing it to cleanse her… body and soul. She removed the bandage from her thigh and handed it to Donoma when she extended her hand for it, then turned and walked into her home. In a moment she was returning with her saddlebags in hand and stepping back into Donoma’s dwelling. Without a word, Donoma took Koko’s arm and led her to her bed, easing her down and waiting expectantly.

Koko closed her eyes and concentrated on breathing – the whole day had cost her far more than she had to expend, and the last was particularly agonizing. A warm hand on her face caused her to blink open her eyes and Koko was surprised by the compassion staring back at her from bright green eyes.

“What can I do to ease your suffering, Koko Kanti? My anger aside, I have no desire to see you in such pain.”

Koko smiled wanly. Donoma had never been one to see anyone suffer if she could do something to prevent it. “This helps, ka’eskone,” covering the hand on her skin. Koko felt Donoma jerk but she didn’t release her hand and gradually Donoma relaxed again. “But I have something in my bag that will help stem the bleeding without you needing to stitch the skin again or bandage it up immediately. It is painful, but it is also very effective.”

Donoma waited, then finally broke the silence with a sly grin. “Would you care to loosen your grip on my hand and describe to me what I am looking for or do you expect it to make its way out of your bag to me of its own free will?”

Koko smiled sheepishly. “My apologies, Donoma. I do not think my brain is engaged as it should be.” She moved her hand from on top of Donoma’s and immediately felt the loss when Donoma removed her warmth from Koko’s face. She looked at Koko expectantly. “In the bottom of this bag, I think,” tapping the one nearest to her, “you will find a small kit. Inside is a folded paper with a white powdery substance. Cover the wound with the powder.” Koko lay down and covered her eyes with her hand, waiting for Donoma to follow her instructions.

Donoma dug through the bag carefully until she found the kit, then searched through it for the paper Koko had described. She sniffed it carefully, then scrunched her nose up as the urge to sneeze became overwhelming. A taste on her tongue made her pucker up and shake her head. Then she shook the powder out onto the raw, open injury, watching in fascination as the powder bubbled up. Donoma heard Koko hiss at the sensation, but otherwise there was no reaction from the warrior.

After a few minutes, the bubbling stopped, and so had the bleeding. Donoma sighed and so did Koko. “Now what?” the seer asked softly.

“Now,” Koko groaned and rolled slightly to look out onto the wet but no longer stormy landscape, “I take the wet fur and return to my own home. If you want another dry piece of bedding, I am afraid you will need to come with me and bring it back for yourself. I am afraid I have done all that I can and more than I should today.”

Donoma glared at Koko and planted her hands on her hips. “Are you stupid all the time now, Koko Kanti?” her anger clear. Blue eyes blazed at the insult and Koko would have responded if Donoma had not continued speaking. “I will not permit you to lie on a wet fur and I will not allow you to leave here to go anywhere… not even to your own tent. You are not in any condition to be left alone for any reason – do I make myself clear?”

Koko bit her lip at the familiarity of it all and nodded, her ire cooled at the true concern and anxiety clear in Donoma’s eyes and voice.

“Good,” Donoma said after a moment. “Now, I am going to go gather your bedding and bring it over here, then I will take care of finding a place to dry the fur. Are you dry now?” Another nod. “Very well – do not move… I will be right back.”

Donoma was indeed back after only a moment, and she took her time setting up Koko’s bedding on the opposite side of the firepit Honaw had thoughtfully made sure was ready for her use. When she was satisfied it was as comfortable as she could make it, she crossed back over to Koko and laid a gentle hand on her shoulder. Koko forced her eyes open and faced Donoma.

“Come, my warrior… it is time for you to rest.”

Koko didn’t answer but her heart swelled. That was the second time Donoma had used an endearment when addressing her. There was still a possibility for forgiveness. First, however, she wanted to be well and in her right mind, something she was confident was not possible at the moment. She rose slowly, leaning heavily on Donoma for support and shuffled to her bed. Koko dropped the wet fur and eased down as slowly as she could manage, letting Donoma tuck her in carefully. She closed her eyes when Donoma brushed still wet hair from her face.

“Sleep, Koko Kanti. It is the best medicine I know.”

Koko smiled and was asleep before Donoma could say any more. Donoma sat beside her watching her breathe for another very long moment before she rose and gathered the wet fur and bandages from around her and headed outside to find a place to drape them to dry.

Then she went back inside and lit the fire Honaw had laid, watching the flickering flame and the warrior that rested on the other side of it. It looked to be a long night.

************

Koko blinked heavy eyelids open slowly, trying to orient herself. Her first incoherent thought was attempting to figure out where she was and why she was naked. Her second thought came as she realized she was alone and by the look of the sun streaming in the open doorway, probably has been for some time. She blinked again, moving her head slowly as she tried to put all the pieces together, but she was having difficulty deciding what was real and what was imagined.

Koko threw the blanket covering her body off, wincing with the motion and flinching when she was the raw wound that was scabbing over. No wonder she felt as though she had been back-kicked by a horse and run over by a wagon train for good measure. She reached to pull the blanket back into place and groaned at the pain she felt rush through her system. Donoma was immediately at her side, tucking her in again and checking her for fever.

“Donoma Chepi?” Koko asked, trying to make her mind believe what her eyes were seeing. She had been dreaming, hadn’t she? But the bullet hole in her side attested to the fact that what she remembered was more than dreams – it was real. Koko reached out a hand towards Donoma, pleased when Donoma didn’t flinch away from her touch. “Are you real?”

Donoma caught her hand and brought it to her face. “As real as you are, Koko Kanti. But you were taken with fever again. I am going to bring you some broth, then you are going to sleep some more so you can regain your strength. No more fighting.”

“So says my warrior advisor?”

“If that is what it takes, warrior. You are not going to undo all my effort to make you whole again by getting sick now, do you understand me?”

Koko grinned weakly. “I understand, ka’eskone. I have missed you, Donoma Chepi.”

Donoma didn’t answer aloud, but she gave Koko a long, telling look before she rose and headed back out into the sunshine where she had broth on the small fire. Koko closed her eyes for a moment, and the next thing she knew, Donoma was shaking her awake.

“Can you manage on your own, Koko or do you require some assistance?”

“If you could help me sit up, I think I can eat on my own. Sitting up is going to be the problem.”

“Are you in much pain then?”

“My whole body hurts, ka’eskone. But at least I am alive to feel the pain. I have a feeling I could be much worse off than I am. What happened?”

“What do you remember?”

“Bits… I am not sure what is real and what I imagined. But given the hole in my belly, I have to think that most of what I remember is real. How long has it been?” They shifted her into a reclining position against Donoma’s chest and Koko slowly sipped at the warm broth, realizing instantly how hungry she was, but knowing better than to rush.

“That depends on what you are asking, Koko. It has been six days since you rode into the winter encampment draped over Black’s back. It has been two days since you led the warriors of the tribe out to defeat the white enemy who did this to you and since Honaw and my hestatanemos brought our homes and belongings into this place and set them up for our use.”

“I have been asleep for two days??”

“No, Koko,” Donoma corrected carefully. “You only slept through one day… and two nights,” guarded green eyes just barely twinkling. “And you are going to sleep through at least one more before I let you up out of bed.”

“But….” Koko whined, not caring about her warrior image at this point.

Now the green gaze glared. “Do not attempt to argue with me, warrior. I will not allow you to be reckless as my kinsmen did. You should not have been allowed to chase the white men who followed you – Honaw and the rest of the warriors could have managed. And do not tell me you had to lead them, Koko Kanti. They are perfectly capable – you trained them well.”

“It was a matter of….”

“If the word ‘honor’ comes out of your mouth, I will not be responsible for what happens.” Koko leaned back enough to look into Donoma’s eyes to find dead seriousness reflected back at her. She swallowed hard.

“I am sorry, ka’eskone. I am afraid I have caused you much work that should not have been your burden. I was not supposed to be here; Black was supposed to take me home… to the home I have among the white men. I never planned….”

“I know, Koko Kanti. We had this conversation already. What I do not yet understand is why you left me in the first place. Nor do I know how long you plan to remain in this place with me before you return to the world of the white man.”

“We talked about this?” Koko asked and pushed the remainder of the broth away from her. Donoma looked into the bowl with a frown until she noted there were only dregs. She placed the bowl beside her and nodded at Koko. The warrior frowned, then her vision cleared. “Oh yes… after you dressed my wounds the first time- before my vision quest when I spoke to Honiahaka. You were very angry.”

“I am still very angry, Koko, but that would never interfere with my care of you. Donoma’s eyes widened. “Wait… you spoke with Honiahaka?” She blinked at Koko’s nod. “I spoke to Rae’l.”

“I miss my Nahko’e and my Neho’e. I wonder why she came to you,” Koko mused softly.

“She came on your behalf, warrior. Perhaps you should think about why she would come to me for you like that,” Donoma said as she slid out from beneath Koko’s weight. “However,” she added, not allowing Koko the chance to respond, “right now, you need to sleep.”

“Actually, right now I need to go outside. I have to, ka’eskone.”

“Then you have to allow me to help you, Koko. Your body cannot heal if you continue to abuse it so.”

“I know, ka’eskone. I am stubborn… not stupid. We will move slowly so that we do not injure you or do more damage to me in the process.”

“It sounds as though you have been through this before,” Donoma said evenly as she braced for Koko’s weight against her.

“Never this badly, but more than I would like,” Koko confessed as she rose to her feet. They walked slowly to the area Donoma had set aside for a privy and when Koko was done, they moved just as slowly back to Donoma’s home. Koko breathed a sigh of relief when her head finally hit the fur under her head. “I do not remember it being so hard before.”

“It will get better as you heal,” Donoma promised, but that was all she said before moving back out into the sunlight. Koko hardly had time to miss her before her eyes closed and she returned to a deep, healing sleep.
Chapter XVII
The return of daylight caused Koko’s blue eyes to open with a feeling of satisfaction. She stretched gingerly, glad there was only a residual ache in her bones and pleased at the lack of actual pain she felt in her belly. All in all it could have been much worse and she knew it; she was glad Donoma had been right about needing rest to heal. She blinked, trying to clear the sleep from her eyes, then turned her head, noticing Donoma’s tired countenance across the fire. Koko kept her eyes glued to Donoma’s face as she allowed her knowledge of the last few days to roll through her consciousness.

She remembered Donoma’s anger and her compassion; she recalled the conversation with her father. She remembered the men who were chasing her and the warriors that followed her into battle. Koko remembered everything. Now she just had to decide what to do about it.

She shifted on the furs and was pinned in place by suddenly piercing green eyes. Koko smiled, but Donoma merely continued to stare at her. “Donoma?”

Green eyes blinked and Donoma stretched before sitting up and rubbing her face. “Koko Kanti,” a cross between a greeting and an accusation. “How do you feel?”

“Much better, actually. You were right again… as usual,” offering another smile.

Donoma’s lips twitched, but she didn’t allow them to crease into a full smile. “Good. Do you feel like you could be up for a while then? I need to air out the tent and wash the illness from it.”

“I could help… or maybe I should go wash the illness from my body,” when Donoma’s eyes grew glacial at the suggestion.

“You will let me help you do that Koko Kanti. Until I get a chance to check your injuries and can be sure that things are healed enough….”

“I am not a child, Donoma,” Koko stated firmly and with vehemence. “I can take care of myself.”

“Not until I give you leave to do so, warrior. I am also no longer a child you can make decisions for. I am a healer who has learned my craft through the blood of my clansmen and the sweat of my own brow.” She paused and took a deep breath, willing her anger down. “Warrior, this has nothing to do with everything else that is still between us. This has to do with my unwillingness to be irresponsible about your care again.” She rose from her pallet and crossed to Koko’s side, extending her hands down to her. “Come… let me examine you. If I am satisfied with your progress, I will allow you the privacy to bathe in while I air out my home.”

Koko accepted Donoma’s hands, easing into a sitting position before rising to her feet. Donoma released her hands as soon as she was sure Koko was steady on her feet, letting her hands roam impersonally over the rough and smooth sections of skin while she inspected the damage.

Koko tried to remain unmoving, allowing the different sensations Donoma’s touch was causing to wash past her conscious mind. She was focused so hard that it took Donoma cupping her face in both hands to bring her back to the present. Koko looked into green eyes clouded with worry.

“Ka’eskone?” covering Donoma’s hands only to have Donoma slip free of her grasp.

“You had me worried, Koko Kanti. You seemed to disappear for a moment.”

“I am sorry, ka’eskone. I was trying to clear my mind.”

Donoma smirked. “I hope it worked.” Then she turned serious. “Your wounds look much better, Koko. I believe you will be all right on your own for a bit of time; just be careful. You are still likely to be very weak.”

“I will not go far, ka’eskone.”

Donoma nodded and watched as Koko went back into her home to gather her bits of soap and drying cloth to carry with her to the creek. When she was out of sight, Donoma went back into her tent and began to drag everything out, intent on taking advantage of the warming sun and fresh air as much as she was able.

In only a few minutes Donoma had everything laid out and the bottom of her home rolled up to allow the breeze to blow through. She carefully tamped the fire out and swept the ashes from the doorway, scattering them carefully into the wind. Then she took the furs and blankets that Koko had been treated on and walked down to the creek to give them a good scrubbing, well away from where Koko was bathing.

Washing them was easy… wringing them out to dry was something else again and by the time Donoma had finished with them, she and everything she wore was soaking wet. She sighed and struggled out of the wet leather. “Well,” she muttered to herself, “I needed to do this anyway. I just wish I had brought something to dry off with.” Then Donoma got down to the business of cleaning herself.

It didn’t take long, but she felt much better by the time she was done. She spread the wet things on top of the tall grass and having little recourse, padded back to their small camp naked as the day she was born. Not that being naked bothered her – on the contrary, it was quite liberating – yet it still wasn’t something Donoma would have chosen to do in front of Koko. There were too many things left between them to assume that sort of intimacy. But there was nothing to be done for it.

So Donoma shook the excess water off her body and walked back into the camp, ignoring the stare she could feel coming from fiery blue eyes before she disappeared into her home to change into the clean, dry clothing she found among her things.

Koko looked down as soon as she realized she was staring, but by then Donoma was out of sight. She sighed. This was going to be a lot harder than she thought, because Donoma was certainly not the child she had left behind. Suddenly the fact that Donoma was a woman was coming home to Koko in a very real way.

When Donoma stepped from her home, she was combing through her hair, gently removing the tangles with her fingers. Koko itched for the privilege of doing it herself as she had before, but knew well there were things that had to be settled between them first. Then perhaps Donoma would consider something more than the friendship they had always known.

Koko remained in her place, facing out from the camp looking towards the west. There was nothing to see in that direction more than any other, but it afforded Donoma the opportunity to decide when they would speak.

Donoma stood watching the warrior for a long moment. Her back was ramrod straight and Donoma knew it would be up to her to initiate any conversation between them. Even if she was misunderstanding Koko’s words from earlier in regards to the deference a warrior showed to a woman, the fact of the matter was she knew how stubborn this particular warrior could be when she made her mind up – her five year disappearance was proof enough of that. She took a deep breath and came around to stand in front of Koko Kanti, waiting to be acknowledged.

Koko looked at Donoma briefly before dropping her gaze to her lap, giving Donoma the position of power. For this time, what happened would be Donoma’s choice. Donoma sighed silently – it was impossible to hold onto her anger when Koko reminded her so much of a chastised child waiting for punishment to be meted out. She took a seat next to Koko, but facing her as well. Then Donoma reached out and cupped Koko’s chin, bringing their eyes back to a level.

Green eyes searched blue for a long time and Donoma wondered at the trembling she could feel through the touch she had on Koko’s face. Finally, “The time has come for truth between us, Koko Kanti. I promised Rae’l that I would offer you another opportunity to be honest with me. If you feel like you cannot do that, I will dismiss you from my presence and you will no longer be welcome around the campfire of my fathers.”

“Would you do that, ka’eskone? *Could* you do that?”

“I would not want to, warrior mine, but I could if I had to. I cannot continue on this way. I have been angry for a very long time… at you, at me, at the world… and it has affected everything and everyone around me.” She dropped her hand from Koko’s face and would have moved away had it not been for the fact that Koko caught her hand and held on as tightly as she dared.

“I could not bear that darkness, ka’eskone. The only reason I survived the darkness I brought between us was because I thought you would find happiness from it.”

Green eyes glowed in their anger. “How could you think that, Koko Kanti? How could you believe that your absence from my life would do anything but destroy me?? You were my whole world and you walked away without an explanation – you left me without saying goodbye! Do you have any idea what that did to me… what it did to the tribe while I struggled to come to terms with your desertion? Do you know how angry I became or how impossible it was to use my gift because of it??”

Koko sat quietly, stunned by the anger and passion she could feel flowing from Donoma simply through her words. She watched in fascination at the play of emotion over her face. The child she remembered had grown up into a beautiful, passionate woman and Koko couldn’t stop the smile that wanted to cross her face. That just made Donoma angrier.

“You think this is funny, warrior? You think this is a game?” She jerked her hand from Koko’s… or attempted to… astonished by the gentle strength that suddenly held both hands in one of Koko’s and cradled her face in the other. “Koko Kanti,” Donoma hissed, her face flushed red, “remove your hands from me this instant.”

“Not until you give me a chance to explain, ka’eskone. Not until you promise to listen to me with both ears and an open heart and mind.” Koko paused and exhaled softly. “I was not laughing at you, Donoma Chepi – I was noticing what a vibrant, fiery woman has become of the child I once knew so well. It made me smile to remember and to see the changes our time apart has wrought in you. Despite the bad things that happened, some of the differences are good ones, ka’eskone.”

Donoma paused to breathe and let Koko’s words wash through her. “Does that mean you are ready to explain to me the actions of five cycles ago that brought us to this place?”

“It means that I will try, ka’eskone. But I will ask you to be patient with me. This is very arduous for me to share. Only my Neho’e knows the story, and only those parts I chose to share with him. I would like to share the whole story with you, ka’eskone, but it may take some time.”

“You have all the time you need, warrior. You need only tell me the truth.”

Koko sat still for a long time, gathering her thoughts. Donoma watched in fascination the myriad of expressions those thoughts took and questioned what caused such pain, such misery to flow over the expressive countenance. She could not recall there ever having been an occasion for them before Koko left and wondered what she could have missed in her youth and inexperience.

“Do you remember,” Koko said softly at long last, “when we first met? When you led Takoda to my Nahko’e and me hidden in the hills not far from the summer camp?” Koko met Donoma’s eyes and waited for her to nod. “My life changed that day.”

“Both of our lives did, Koko. You were the first real friend I ever had… the first one who accepted me without question or expectation. That’s why….” She broke off, not wanting to regain the hurt and anger she had managed to set aside somewhat to listen to what Koko had to say.

“I realize that now, ka’eskone, and I am sorry for have unwittingly put you through such distress. That was certainly not my intention.” She paused and bit her lip, never losing eye contact with Donoma, needing her friend to see the truth she had to share as well as hear it.

“But I had never met someone like you. You were bright and spunky and outspoken – something even the warriors of the tribes were not with all their swaggering bravado. But more than that – you looked at me as a friend and a warrior and a protector, and I knew right then that I could never let you down. And when I made you my warrior advisor and I became your warrior, I found myself committed to your well-being and happiness.”

“As I was to yours, Koko,” Donoma broke in. “I would have done anything for you.”

“I know, ka’eskone. *That* is why I left.”

Donoma’s brow furrowed in confusion. “I do not understand, Koko Kanti. You are making no sense.”

Koko blew out an impatient, frustrated breath. “Story of my life lately,” she mumbled in English. Donoma arched her eyebrows, having understood the words even if she didn’t quite get the connotation in terms she recognized. “I am sorry, ka’eskone,” Koko apologized again. “I am having difficulty putting my thoughts into some semblance of order to present them to you logically.”

Donoma took Koko’s hands in hers, chafing the unexpectedly cold hands lightly to restore a bit of warmth to them. “Try thinking a little less, warrior, and speak from your heart.”

“Do you remember the day before I left?”

“In very vivid detail, Koko. For a long time I spent every day going over and over what I could possibly have done to have turned you away from me without a word. I never did understand exactly what precipitated your departure.”

“Tell me what you remember.”

************

The sun had been warming the earth as spring returned to the land once more. Donoma breathed in deeply, appreciating the fresh air and the smell of wet, growing things. She had seen the speculative looks some of the warriors were beginning to cast in her direction now that she had passed her fifteenth cycle, but she put it out of her mind when Koko returned to the camp after her morning drills. The rest of the warriors were dragging tail behind her, glaring at Koko before collapsing around their various campfires in time for lunch.

“You must have had a good day,” Donoma commented quietly as Koko took a seat at her campfire. “You are the only one smiling.”

“I did well enough,” Koko said calmly, though she couldn’t hide the twinkle in her eyes. “Well enough that we can spend the whole afternoon together if you would like.”

Donoma almost squealed, but she managed to contain her enthusiasm to a wide grin. “I would most definitely like, my warrior. I seem to see you only briefly in the afternoons and again for a few moments in the evenings any more. I miss you, Koko Kanti.”

“I miss you as well, ka’eskone. It feels as though lately everything is conspiring against us to keep us apart. I miss your counsel and your conversation.”

“I just miss being with you, Koko, even if all we do is sit quietly.”

“As do I, ka’eskone. So let us finish eating so that we can have a nice long walk today.” And they rushed through lunch much to the amusement of Takoda and Litonya. When they were out of sight and out of hearing, Takoda and Litonya turned and looked at one another solemnly for a long moment before their faces creased into smiles and they started laughing.

“Do you think they will figure it out?” Litonya asked.

“Koko Kanti knows… I am hoping she will enlighten Donoma Chepi before the suitors start calling. I do not want to have to fend them off until Koko decides the time is right for Donoma to know the truth of what is between them.”

“How can she not know? Even those without sight can see it.”

“Maybe because she is too close to the situation, Litonya. Or maybe because she is afraid of what it will mean… what it will change between them. It is not something she has discussed with me.”

In the meantime, Koko Kanti and Donoma Chepi were out walking among the grasses of the prairie, not sharing conversation except to point out something particularly striking. Donoma caught Koko’s hand and held on, swinging them gently between the two.

“Thank you for spending the day with me, warrior,” Donoma confessed. “Nayeli.”

“Do you really, ka’eskone? Do you love me?”

“With all my heart, Koko. I have always been so glad that you came into my life. You have made such a difference in my life.”

“As you did in mine. Maybe one day I can share with you how much.”

Donoma smiled shyly. “I would like that, Koko.”

************

“The next day you were just… gone,” Donoma concluded as she came back from her memories. “I never understood what I had done or said to drive you away… unless it was my telling you I loved you. But that had never bothered you before.”

“That never bothered me at all,” Koko confessed quietly. “It was something I always cherished close in my heart… something I still cherish, even if it is no longer true. But that is not all that happened that day – do you remember the rest?”

“I remember Ahanu talked to Takoda about marriage between us and I told Ahanu no. I had no interest in marrying him or anyone else. I was complete in the life I had.”

“THAT is why I left, Donoma.”

“You left because I was happy so you could make me miserable??” This time when Donoma pulled away, Koko let her go, knowing she needed to get away from her pain and the cause thereof. “Why would you do that, Nutta? Did you hate me so much for loving you?” She turned her back to Koko so the warrior could not see the tears that wanted to spill down her face, but her back was ramrod straight and Koko could no longer bear the anguish she felt rolling from Donoma in waves.

Koko rose from her place slowly, unwilling to make a spectacle of herself by doing any more damage to her body in her haste to reach Donoma. She walked slowly towards the seer, making sure her steps were heard until she was within touching distance of Donoma Chepi.

She grasped Donoma’s shoulders, only to feel them stiffen at her touch before slumping in defeat. Koko slid her arms around Donoma until their bodies were touching. “No, Nutta. I left so you could find happiness – so you could have a family and children if that was your desire. I could not be the one to hold you back from such things.”

Donoma jerked away from Koko, separating them again. This time when she looked at Koko, the fire had returned to her gaze and Koko nearly flinched from the intensity. “What gave you the right to make such a decision, Koko Kanti? What gave you the right to choose for me?”

“I loved you, ka’eskone. I only wanted your happiness.”

“What about now, warrior?” At Koko’s confused look Donoma continued. “You said that you loved me, Koko Kanti. What about now? How do you feel about me now?”

“I still love you, Donoma. I never stopped.”

“Idiot warrior,” she growled. “Did you never stop to think that *you* made me happy – that you were all I needed.”

“Are you saying…?” Her world spun and her breathing was shallow and fast; Koko closed her eyes briefly to regain some sense of balance in her body while her mind and heart continued to soar with the implications of Donoma’s words.

“I am saying that we need to sit down and have honest speech between us, Koko. We need to decide how we feel and what we want to do about it.” Koko’s knees gave way at the sudden shift in Donoma’s attitude, and Donoma was at her side in an instant. Koko gazed up at her with a dazed expression and Donoma bit off the grin she could feel forming despite herself. “First, however, I think we should see about having a midday meal. I do not wish to keep nursing you back to health.”

Koko nodded and rose to unsteady feet. Suddenly the day looked much brighter.
Chapter XVIII
The two went about their chores silently. Donoma had wanted Koko to sit and let her take care of getting their lunch, but she could feel the sudden wave of restless energy flowing from the warrior like a tangible thing. So Donoma sent Koko to check on the horses and asked her to check on the bedding while she was out. Koko nodded her assent and took off at a slow pace, though the air vibrating with electricity all around her made it seem like she was running.

Donoma watched her until she was out of sight and shook her head. Never in her wildest dreams would she have ever imagine being in this place with Koko, and then she stopped cold to wonder why. Why had she not seen this? Why had she not known how Koko felt… how she felt… what was really between them?? Wasn’t that what her gift was – being able to see what others could not?

She stood still so long that she never heard Honiahaka’s approach and jumped when his hand landed lightly on her shoulder. She thought of screaming for Koko briefly before she looked closely at him, wondering who the warrior in front of her was and why he seemed so familiar – and then he smiled. And Donoma immediately recognized Koko’s father for who he was.

He gestured her over to the spot on the ground that had been cleared for sitting and eased her into place before squatting down beside her. “Because seers and shamen are never allowed to see what the future could be for themselves – only for those around them,” he said, answering her unspoken question as though he had heard her. “Hello, Donoma Chepi. My name is….”

“… Honiahaka,” she breathed softly. “Koko Kanti’s Neho’e.” She smiled at him bashfully under his frank appraisal. “I recognized your smile.”

The smile became a grin and then a hearty laugh. “I wondered why you did not call out for my nahtona. You are a very wise woman, Donoma Chepi.”

She shook her head, blonde braids falling into her eyes. “I do not feel very wise at the moment, Honiahaka. I feel something of a fool.” He arched his eyebrow in a familiar gesture, taking a seat and wrapping his arms around his bent knees. His attitude was one of patient waiting and Donoma had a feeling he would last longer than she would if they were to play a waiting game. “How could I have been so blind, Honiahaka? How could I not have realized…?”

“You alone are not to blame for this situation, Donoma. Koko bears the brunt of the responsibility for the circumstances you now find yourselves in. Although her intentions were honorable and with your best interests at heart, she could have handled it better. But tell me, if she had stayed, what would you have done?”

Donoma’s brow furrowed. “I am not sure I understand,” she stated honestly. “Things would have continued on much the same, I suppose.”

Honiahaka looked out towards the prairie in the direction he knew his daughter had gone. “That was killing her, Donoma. Not physically, of course, but inside. She left to protect herself as much as she did to give you the opportunity to find happiness with someone who could give you the family she thought you wanted and knew you deserved.”

“But why, Honiahaka? Why leave? Why did she not simply talk to me?”

“Donoma, I am going to share something with you I will deny to your dying day if you share it with my nahtona. Koko Kanti is the bravest warrior I have ever seen and yet when it comes to matters of the heart, she is shy and fragile… afraid of being hurt. She always cared for you more than she thought she should. At first she put it down to gratitude and the fact that you were ‘differents’ together. Then she figured it was because you were best friends and you hero-worshipped her.” He sighed and looked into trusting green eyes and recognized his daughter’s dilemma. “It got worse when she realized what she felt for you; she became an adult – you were still a child. She never acted on her feelings… never would have, but she loved you even then. There was always something between you….”

Donoma nodded. “There *was* always something between us – even as a small child I understood that. I never analyzed it, never tried to explain it in words, but I knew it was there.”

Honiahaka nodded. “Koko could not bear to keep you from finding happiness… but she could not bear to stay and watch you find the happiness that she wanted with you with someone else.”

“So she did not talk to me because….”

“Even the bravest warrior has moments of fear, and even the wisest among us sometimes do foolish things for the right reasons. Her heart was in the right place, Donoma Chepi, even if her mind led her astray. I know you are angry; I cannot blame you for that anger. But you should know that she suffered as well during your time apart from one another.”

“That does not make me happy, Honiahaka. Despite my anger towards Koko Kanti, I never wished ill will towards her.”

Honiahaka smiled. “I know – I think your brethren had that covered quite nicely.” He looked around suddenly and rose from his place. He extended a hand down to her and drew Donoma to her feet. “It has been a joy and a pleasure to finally meet you, Donoma Chepi. I can see why my nahtona desires you for a mate.” He chuckled when her eyes got impossibly round. “Do not worry, ka’eskone,” addressing her familiarly for the first time. “You have my blessing and Rae’l’s for this union. Be good to my nahtona, ka’eskone. She may be a stoic warrior on the outside, but she is a caring woman inside. She will need your strength as well as your love and tenderness.”

“You seem so sure, Honiahaka.”

“She is my nahtona, Donoma. I am. Now I must go. Rae’l and I will be nearby if we are needed, but we will not be watching your every movement.” He shook his head trying to rid his face of the blush Donoma could see through his dark skin. “There are some things that should remain private between the two of you and any number of other things that a parent should never know about a child.”

Donoma couldn’t help it – she laughed. And then jumped again when Koko Kanti clasped her elbow and looked at her in concerned amusement.

“Should I be worried, ka’eskone?” Koko asked, letting her eyes roam over Donoma’s features. “You are standing in the middle of the encampment where I left you and you do not appear to have moved, yet you are laughing for no apparent reason. Is there a problem?”

For answer, Donoma turned and cupped Koko’s face gently within her hands, tracing her skin with the lightest touch of her thumbs. Koko struggled to keep her eyes open against the cascade of sensations Donoma was creating throughout her body. Quite without her permission, Koko’s hands dropped to Donoma’s waist and she held on for dear life.

Donoma could no more halt the sharp intake of breath caused by Koko’s grip than she could stop breathing completely. She saw Koko’s eyes darken in response and hesitated. She had never garnered such a reaction in her life – at least not one she was so conscious of.

Koko released the hold she had on Donoma’s waist and clasped the hands cupping her face in her hands instead. “Not yet, Nutta… but soon. We still have much to discuss.”

“But only one thing of real importance,” Donoma replied without losing eye contact. Koko nodded slowly and stepped back a pace, wanting Donoma to be comfortable. In turn, Donoma stepped forward and caught Koko’s hand again. “No more running, Koko. There is no one but us here, and you have nothing to fear from me.”

“Are you so sure of that, ka’eskone?” Koko asked in a whisper.

“As sure as I am that the sun rises in the east every morning and sets in the west every evening, warrior.” Donoma held Koko’s eyes and watched them search her countenance for reassurance. She knew the identical moment that Koko found the proof she needed – she lifted a shaking hand to Donoma’s face and tenderly traced the features there.

“Are you sure, ka’eskone?” she asked again, but this time, she was asking a completely different question.

“Do you love me, Nutta? Do you love me with the love one mate has for another?”

Koko shook her head and Donoma’s head dropped as her heart shattered. Her humiliation was complete. She released the hand she held and stepped back… or would have had Koko not shifted one hand to the back of her neck and slid the other arm around her waist to hold onto her with gentle strength.

“Ka’eskone, look at me,” she pled softly to the top of the blonde head that shook rapidly. “Donoma Chepi,” she growled. “Look. At. Me.” This was a command and Donoma reluctantly raised her head, biting her lips to keep the tears that sat on her lashes from spilling down her cheeks. Koko gazed intently at her for a long moment, letting the love and affection she felt roll over them both in wave after wave of warmth. Donoma blinked in her confusion and the tears rolled off her lashes and onto her cheeks. Koko leaned down and kissed them away, then moved her lips to Donoma’s ear, speaking so softly it could hardly be considered a whisper.

“Beloved,” she said in English, causing Donoma to start in surprise. “Nayeli… with all my heart. But, Nutta – it is beyond the love one mate has for another. That cannot begin to compare to what I feel for you.”

Donoma pulled back – far enough that she could see the truth of Koko’s words in her eyes. “Tell me, Koko,” she demanded quietly. “Tell me what it is you feel.”

“It is love, ka’eskone, but far beyond something so basic. It is soul completion, beloved.”

Donoma slid the hands that were trapped between her body and Koko’s up and over Koko’s shoulders, locking them behind her neck. “Nayeli, Koko Kanti.”

“Nayeli, Donoma Chepi.” Then she gave in to the gentle pressure Donoma was putting on the back of her neck while urging Donoma’s body closer to her own with the hands she slid around the slim waist. Then she bent her had and brushed her lips over Donoma’s once… twice… watching as her eyelashes fluttered and finally closed.

With that, Koko allowed her eyes to close, absorbing the sensations of the kiss through taste and scent and sound. She lightly traced Donoma’s lips with her tongue, capturing the gasp with a smile and plundering the mouth that opened beneath hers. Donoma groaned and allowed Koko to have her way for a few moments before she returned the favor, examining every part of Koko’s mouth until they were forced to separate for lack of oxygen. Koko started to speak but found herself pulled back to Donoma’s mouth and this time, Donoma took the lead. Koko just held on for the ride.

When they pulled apart… slowly, reluctantly… Donoma kept her hands wound tightly round Koko’s neck and Koko never lost her grip on Donoma’s waist. They simply leaned their foreheads together and breathed one another’s air.

“Welcome home, Koko Kanti,” Donoma whispered with a smile.

“I will never go away from you again, ka’eskone.”

************

They had finally pulled apart from one another, their grumbling bellies making it impossible to concentrate on anything other than the physical hunger pangs that called to them… loudly. They exchanged embarrassed glances then broke into laughter, diffusing the sexual tension they could both feel roiling just below the surface. Donoma turned to collect the small cache of food supplies from her home, surprised when Koko followed her.

“I need to retrieve my things, ka’eskone, and move back into my own home for the time being. I cannot stay here with you any longer. You deserve better than that.”

“Does this mean you intend to stake your claim as a warrior?”

“I do indeed, Donoma Chepi. I want there to be no doubt of my claim or my intentions towards you. I left to give you a chance to choose another; that opportunity is gone. However, if you do not intend to favor my petition, I ask that you tell me now so I can spare us both the humiliation of rejection.” Blue eyes twinkled with merriment, but Donoma could see a clear fear of rejection lurking in the back of that gaze. She cupped Koko’s face in her hands.

“Can you still have doubts, warrior mine?”

“You were very angry, Nutta.”

Donoma nodded. “Yes, I was. There are still some things I am upset about… some things we need to talk about – things I need to know and things we need to share with one another. But none of that will stop what is happening between us. Nothing can stop that except us, Koko Kanti, and I for one do not want to stop. Do you?”

Koko shook her head vehemently, reminded again at the difference five cycles of seasons had made in Donoma’s demeanor. The Donoma she remembered, while never shy of speech when conversing with Koko, had never been so sure of herself. Donoma smiled and Koko couldn’t help but respond in kind.

“Then you only need to know one thing about your claim, warrior.” Her eyebrow arched and her eyes twinkled and her lips spread into a wider grin.

“What would that be, ka’eskone?” Koko feeling her own smile grow in reaction to the teasing.

“Do not make me wait too long. I have waited a lifetime already.”

Before Koko could respond, their stomachs growled in hunger once again and she shook her head. “I think we should at least wait until after we eat something. Otherwise, the entire tribe will come back looking for us, thinking we have been run over by a rogue herd.”

Donoma couldn’t help it – she laughed. Koko had delivered that last bit with a completely straight face and the truth was, she could honestly see that happening. As it was, she was still a little amazed at Takoda’s willingness to leave her alone with Koko, given her previous anger – then she wondered if he had seen something she had not.

“All right then… you take your things to your home and I will begin preparing something for us to eat. Then we will see what comes next… aside from reclaiming the furs and blankets. With this breeze, it should not take too long… I hope.”

“I will check again after I move my things over. If I stay around here right now….”

Donoma smiled gently, but nodded her understanding. “Just be careful, warrior mine. You are still healing, despite how good you feel at the moment.” She looked at Koko who was dressed in a set of white man’s clothing she hadn’t seen before. “Though how you can be comfortable in those clothes….”

Koko shrugged. “I am used to them. Besides, I am saving the leathers you and Nahko’e created. They will be for claiming you as mine.”

“Then I will look forward to the day I see you in them again, warrior. Now go… I have work to do.” And so they separated to complete the tasks they had set for themselves, comfortable in the knowledge that despite everything, things between them were going to work out. That was something they both wanted to happen.

Koko picked up her saddlebags carefully and went to her home while Donoma opened the supplies and pulled out the stuff she needed to start soup. She headed back out to the fire that needed tending and heard Koko start back towards the small creek where the furs and blankets were drying. Donoma was thankful she had managed to get water on to heat; with any luck it wouldn’t be long before she had something prepared for them to eat. She was anxious to feed them both so they could settle down and just talk for a while. It was something Donoma had missed with aching intensity and then there was the added incentive of wanting to explore this relatively new facet of their relationship.

She smiled when she felt strong arms wrap around her middle and she straightened to lean back into the firm body, mindful that it was still healing.

“I missed you.”

“I missed you, too. But at least there were no unexpected visitors this time.”

“Excuse me??” Koko sputtered, but stopped when Donoma turned in her arms and put a hand to her lips.

“Your father came to see me, but we can add that to our list of things to talk about.”

“Oooookaaaaay,” Koko drawled thoughtfully, wondering what had brought her Neho’e out into the mortal plane again so soon. “Um, I think we should move the bedding closer to the camp. Just in case the weather turns… at least we would be able to drag it inside fairly easily then.”

Donoma nodded, knowing how quickly the weather was prone to change at this time of year. “Thank you for not doing it on your own, Koko. You could definitely have hurt yourself and despite my confidence in my abilities as a healer, I do not want to see you suffer needlessly for your pride.”

Koko ducked her head. “I did think about it, but I knew how disappointed you would be if I was that careless. The foolishness would have simply made you angry and I would rather not do that any more for a while.”

“The stew should be fine on its own for a few minutes. Let us go see if we can bring things closer. I have no desire to sleep on wet bedding tonight.”

“And then we will talk?”

“And then we will talk,” Donoma affirmed. “We have five cycles of seasons to catch up on.”

Koko smiled. “I guess we are going to be talking for a while then. I am glad though. I have missed it.”

“So have I warrior. So have I.”
Chapter XIX
“Are you sure about this, Takoda?” Odahingum asked even as he shifted the clan away from the beaten path they normally followed when they chased the herd across the plains. “You know that Koko and Donoma will not be able to find us if we deviate from our projected path.”

“I am aware, Odahingum. I am also aware that if we do not change our course, we will face a hardship that will devastate our clan. I do not believe that Donoma and her mate intend to return to us any time in the near future. Koko Kanti has other responsibilities.”

“And what of her commitment to Donoma?”

Takoda smiled. “That is one thing I have no doubt about anymore.” Then his smile faded. “I only hope Donoma will set her anger aside long enough to listen to Koko’s words. I have to believe she will.”

They rode silently for a few minutes as the tribe followed them on an altered path into the hills. Finally Odahingum asked what was on his mind. “What of Donoma, Takoda? Does she feel any responsibility for Koko Kanti or what happened between them?”

“I do not know, my friend; she never shared with me any of her thoughts or feelings in that regard. I can only hope maturity will allow her to see that Koko was trying to look out for her. And Honaw believes that Koko will honor her commitment to Donoma and protect her regardless of Donoma’s feelings on the matter. I am inclined to agree with his assessment.”

Odahingum shook his head. “So much misunderstanding. In one way, I would like to be witness to their conversation and in another, I am thankful we are not close enough to hear it. They are such strong-minded, stubborn women. I almost feel sorry for the hearing of those around them when they finally decide to discuss the past.”

Takoda chuckled. “I do as well… though I will be glad to see the end results.”

“You believe it will end well then?”

“I believe they are establishing a new foundation for both of them, Odahingum. I have too.”

The chieftain nodded and together they continued on the path that Takoda was setting for them. It marked a new direction for their nation, and with any luck, Koko and Donoma were experiencing a new beginning as well.

************

Their meal had been quiet. Several times Donoma started to speak and then hesitated and Koko was happy to wait for her to settle her thoughts. She figured Donoma had something she needed to say or wanted to ask and was trying to decide the best way to approach it. Not that there weren’t any number of things Koko herself wasn’t downright curious about, but she had cultivated a magnitude of patience in her time as both warrior and bounty hunter.

When she was done, Koko rose and slipped Donoma’s bowl from her hands. Donoma blinked and came out of her brown study just as Koko stepped out of the fire circle. She thought of calling out to her, then turned her attention to the remainder of the meal that still bubbled slowly over the small fire. She moved it to one side and covered it, then resumed her seat and propped her head on her hands.

Koko came back from the tiny creek with clean dishes and sat down beside Donoma. Unexpectedly, Donoma turned to Koko and pinned her in place with sad, haunted eyes. Koko had time to wonder briefly what had changed in the short time she had been gone to put such an expression on Donoma’s face before a whispered query brought her thoughts to a halt.

“Koko, was I hurting you?”

Koko frowned, truly not understanding exactly what she was being asked. “When, ka’eskone? Do you mean earlier when you were treating my injuries?”

Donoma shook her head. “No, warrior. I mean before – before you left. Was I hurting you?” Her hesitation was brief, but it was long enough for Donoma to see the deep-seeded pain in Koko’s eyes before it was swiftly hidden.

“No, ka’eskone,” Koko denied almost immediately. “My pain was of my own making….” She would have continued had Donoma not covered her mouth.

“Please do not lie to me to spare me pain now, Koko, especially about something this important. Something Honiahaka said made me realize that you were taking all the blame for our separation, even though some of the responsibility lies at my feet.” Donoma dropped her hand from Koko’s lips and let her eyes fall to the ground between them. “I always assumed it was my fault, but it was so easy to be angry and place the blame solely on you since you were the one….”

“… since I was the one who left. You were not doing anything, Donoma, other than being yourself as you had always been.” Koko shrugged and stepped away from Donoma and that action made the blonde head come up in question to see broad shoulders slumped in defeat. Koko sighed. “It was not your fault that I loved you even then.”

“But it was my fault for not being able to see that – to see that your feelings for me had changed somehow.” Donoma crossed the few steps that brought her back to within touching range of Koko’s back and she reached out a shaking hand and placed it between the strong shoulder blades. Koko twitched then relaxed, but she did not turn around. “Koko, I always knew there was something between us… even if I did not know what it was or what to do about it. I expected things to always be the same between us and that was wrong of me.”

“You were a child, ka’eskone… why should you not?”

“I am a seer, warrior. I should have known.”

Koko turned slightly… enough that Donoma could see the wry expression twist her lips. “I do not think the Great Spirit gives insight to matters of the heart, ka’eskone. If he did, a seer’s time would be taken up with constantly giving advice to the lovelorn.
I do not think that would sit well with the chiefs and war leaders.”

Donoma smirked. “Probably not, but it does not make me feel any less stupid about my inability to see the truth of my own heart, warrior.” Koko twitched her eyebrow in question and Donoma sighed and flushed a little. “Koko, you were my best friend, my hero, MY warrior – someone I loved without question or reservation. I could talk to you about anything and even when we argued, you never laughed at my opinions or put them down – you always took the best care of me. I was always happiest when
I was with you and missed you with an aching need in my heart when you were gone. You would think that would have told me what you really meant to me.”

“When did you know?” Koko asked softly. “When did you understand the truth?”

“Understanding it – about a heartbeat after discovering you were gone. That is what made me so angry, I think. Accepting it – well, that did not happen until today. I had no reason to.”

Koko turned around completely and wrapped Donoma in an embrace so tight, it was like being surrounded by a cloud. “I will never give you a reason not to believe again, Donoma Chepi.”

“I will never give you cause to leave me behind again, Koko Kanti.”

Koko smiled when Donoma’s arms crept around her and returned the hug as fervently as she could. “When I go, Nutta… where I go – I will take you with me. Or I will stay where you are if that is what you desire, ka’eskone.”

“Koko, I know you have a life outside of what we know with the tribe. I would not ask you to give up whatever comforts and things you have there to return to the life of a nomad if that was not going to make you happy. Is that life important to you? Do you need to do whatever it is that you do in the white man’s world?”

“It filled a need in me, Donoma. It gave me purpose and provided for me in the white man’s ways. I no longer have to fill that particular need, but I do need to return at least once more to let Stephen… the local Marshall… know about the disposition of the outlaws that followed me here. They were wanted men in the white man’s world.”

“Why were they following you, Koko?”

“Revenge. I am a bounty hunter, ka’eskone. My job is to track those who break the law and escape justice then bring them in. I am very good at it. Outlaws do not like that.”

“Perhaps you should consider another line of work.”

“Perhaps I should consider retirement.”

“Would you want to do that, Koko Kanti? Could you give that up?”

“In a heartbeat, Nutta, if it meant keeping you by my side. I promised to protect you. I cannot do that if I am chasing outlaws and trying to keep my own skin whole.”

It was quiet for a little while after that while Donoma considered what Koko had shared with her so far. Finally….

“Tell what it was like for you when you left, my warrior. Tell me about your life when you went into the white man’s world.”

“If we are going to start that conversation, we might want to make ourselves comfortable, ka’eskone. It is a tale that will take some time to relate.”

In answer, Donoma took Koko’s hand and led them a short distance from the fire, out into the tall grass where they could lay cushioned and look up at the bright blue sky. They settled side by side on their backs, holding hands and closing their eyes against the brilliance of the sunshine.

“This is nice,” Donoma commented, “though it may put me to sleep.”

Koko chuckled. “Me too. I’ll tell what I can though before that happens. The Great Spirit knows we could use the rest – you probably more than me actually,” frowning in memory at the smudge of darkness underneath Donoma’s eyes before she opened her eyes and squinted in Donoma’s direction to confirm her memory. Koko had been so focused on the emotions in the eyes that she had failed to note the fatigue so obvious now that she looked for it.

“In fact,” Koko said, tugging on Donoma’s hand and waiting for the green eyes to open and peer at her from beneath scrunched brows. With her free hand she patted her thigh. “Here… put your head in my lap. It will be more comfortable and maybe you will be able to get a little rest.”

Donoma leaned up on one elbow and smiled at Koko. “Should I not be saying that to you? I am not the one walking around with a hole in my stomach.”

“And I have slept a majority of the last six days away, ka’eskone. I am tired, but not really sleepy. You, on the other hand, look as though you have not had a full nights’ sleep since I arrived.” She patted her leg again. “Please, ka’eskone. I will tell you my story until it puts you to sleep,” with a smile, then she reached up to trace the dark circles under Donoma’s eyes. “I will even retell the parts you sleep through. But you need to rest.”

Donoma caught and held Koko’s hand. “This bothers you so much?”

“I swore to protect you, ka’eskone… that means taking care of you when you will not. We have time, Donoma; I am not going anywhere without you – I swear.”

Donoma twisted until she could lay her head down on Koko’s thigh, shifting so she could face Koko instead of looking up. Koko smiled and tangled her fingers in the blonde hair, gently massaging her scalp, then forcing herself not to laugh at the contented sigh that flowed from deep in her chest.

“Comfortable?”

“Yes. This reminds me so much of the nights we would go out and look at the stars.”

“I have very fond memories of those nights. I always enjoyed seeing the patterns through your eyes; you saw things so differently than me.” Koko paused and laid her head back on the grass, closing her eyes in thought. “I have not done that since I left.”

“Neither have I… not like that anyway. Sometimes I would look at the stars, hoping they would answer my questions.”

“I never bothered. I knew the answers… or thought I did.” Donoma squeezed the hand she still held and tucked it under her chin. “I know we cannot change what happened, ka’eskone,” Koko said as her fingers caressed the skin along Donoma’s jaw line, “no matter how much we would like to. It will take us both some time to get past our feelings about it, but I do think sharing our stories with one another will help alleviate the guilt and anger between us. So where would you like me to start?”

“Start at the beginning,” Donoma mumbled sleepily. “Later,” she continued as her breathing deepened in sleep.

“Later, beloved… I promise. Rest now; I’ll keep watch.”

In response, Donoma tightened her grip for a moment and then relaxed. Koko smiled and extended her senses, using the listening techniques she had taught Donoma all those years before.

************

“Oh my….” Donoma said as she blinked open her eyes to find darkness surrounding her and the sky full of stars. “I guess I really did need some rest.” The surface she was laying on shook with laughter and Donoma turned her head to look at Koko who was gazing at her with adoring eyes. “How long were you going to let me sleep?”

Even in the darkness, Donoma could see Koko’s blush, but mostly because the chagrin was clearly written in her eyes. “I fell asleep as well, ka’eskone. I have only been awake a very short time myself.”

This time Donoma chuckled and squeezed the hand she still held. “I suppose we both needed the rest, warrior. At least we can chase stars now.”

“We certainly can, Nutta. Would you like to stay here or would you prefer to go back to our clearing?”

Donoma lay still, considering her words before answering. She felt the tension in the body beneath her and knew if she was stiff, Koko by definition had to be in agony. “I think we should go back, Koko. At least then we can pull out the furs to lay on and we probably need to eat.”

As if on cue, two stomachs growled loudly. They exchanged glances and grinned, then Donoma released Koko’s hand and rolled over until she could push herself into a sitting position. She twisted slightly, grimacing at the popping noise, but sighing at the relief she felt. Then she eased to her feet and extended a hand down to Koko.

Koko looked at Donoma with a frown. “You know it is not supposed to be like this, ka’eskone. I am supposed to take care or you… not the other way around.”

“No, warrior mine – we take care of each other. And you cannot do by this yourself.”

Koko gave Donoma a wry smirk before accepting the hand she held out. “It is hard to argue with that kind of thinking, ka’eskone.”

“I know,” Donoma agreed as she gently pulled Koko to her feet and steadied her there for a moment before releasing the hand she was gripping. Then Koko caught her hand once more and Donoma smiled up at her. “It is why I used it. I am more than just a pretty face, Koko Kanti. I am pretty smart as well.”

“I remember that,” Koko concurred, bringing her other hand up to trace the delicate features of Donoma’s face. “But you are not simply pretty, ka’eskone. You are beautiful. You would make beautiful children.”

“I do not want children, warrior mine – beautiful or otherwise. I only want you.”

Koko smiled shyly and looked at the ground. “I am glad about that… both parts of that, actually. I was certain when I realized where I was and how angry you were that I would never have the opportunity to be with you the way I wanted to. It was only because Takoda forced me to speak to you directly that I did so.”

“Takoda?”

Koko nodded. “He said you deserved better from me than my leaving without a word again… and he was right. I will have to thank him for the kick in the behind.”

Donoma stared at Koko’s contrite expression for a long moment, then glanced at her ass before returning her eyes to Koko’s. “Remind me to thank him as well. At least he did not leave a mark.”

Koko chuckled and tugged on Donoma’s hand to start them back in the direction of the camp. “I think he would have,” she confided, “if he had been sure that your wrath would not have been turned in his direction for doing so. I got the impression the tribe is very respectful of your anger.”

“They have learned to be. It was very sharp for a long time, but never without cause. I just allowed it to go to the extreme.”

“Now you have no reason to.” They reached the encampment, remembering the furs that had been left out to dry and hastened to retrieve them. Koko went about setting them up a cozy nest to one side while Donoma relit the fire and set the remaining stew on to warm. Then she cuddled up in Koko’s arms where she had gently reclined on the furs and turned her attention to the star-studded expanse.

“I still think it is a bear, warrior. Time has not changed that.”

“It is a dipper, ka’eskone. I still do not see a bear in those stars.”

“You do not see his head with the little ears and the rounded body and….” stopping the age-old argument when Koko vehemently shook her head. “Maybe you should try seeing it from my eyes.”

“I imagine the world would look a lot different for me if I saw with your eyes, ka’eskone. What about those?” pointing to another group of stars. The quiet conversation between them could barely be heard and the stew signaled its readiness while the stars looked on.
Chapter XX
“When I first left the tribe, I thought I would die,” Koko said as they settled down after eating. “It was so quiet… so lonely. I never realized quiet could be lonely until it was absolutely silent. I kept waiting… listening for any sound that would show me there was more life out here than me. It seemed that even the animals had abandoned me. I came so close to turning around, but I knew you deserved a chance to find happiness, so I kept going. By the time I reached the fort I was happy to be there if only for the sound of other human voices. Of course, I did not realize how the white man was going to react to me.”

“That bad?”

“Not after I explained myself in excruciating, explicit detail.”

“What happened?”

“There were some who felt the need to heckle… who believed that my being a woman precluded me from being a warrior. And there were those who felt my not being of the white world meant I was less than they were… that I was an animal to be taken – I simply restructured their thinking.”

“What happened?” Donoma repeated.

“I defeated them; I fought them and I won. Then I got my first bounty and things got a lot easier.”

“Wait… go back. You *fought* them?”

“I did – hand to hand. I had no guns and no knowledge of how to use them, so I earned their respect by beating them up.”

Donoma shook her head. “Is it that way everywhere? You had to do the same when you came to us as I recall.”

Koko smirked. “I think it is simply the way of man, ka’eskone. The few women I encountered took me in and gave me a place to stay and food to eat until I could manage on my own. In return I looked out for them… did not let those same men push them around and beat them up anymore.” Blue eyes grew thoughtful. “I realized that the ones who have the least seem to be the most generous while those who have the most to give are the ones who want more and will do anything to keep taking. That is one reason I became a bounty hunter.”

“One reason?”

“I needed money, ka’eskone, and since I did not know how to play cards, it was about the only way I could earn it as a woman that did not require me to lie on my back underneath some man.” Donoma looked at Koko with horror and revulsion shining out of her eyes. Koko nodded her head. “Exactly. Besides, I am good at tracking – good at killing, honestly. And the animals I went after did not deserve better than dying.”

“Do you enjoy it, Koko?”

Koko turned to look directly into Donoma’s green eyes, finding not judgment or disgust, but a desire to understand. “Sometimes,” she confessed honestly. “Sometimes I am glad to kill them if only because I know they will not be able to destroy any more lives.” She drew a deep breath. “The men that I go after are wicked men, ka’eskone, who have done evil, bad things. My job is to stop them in any way I can and generally that entails killing them.”

“Would you give it up?”

“I could, ka’eskone… in a heartbeat. It is not something I need to do; it is something I do because it needs to be done. And I am good at it. But I will stop if that will make you happy.”

“Would that make you happy?”

“I know that at some point I will have to stop or it will kill me – that is just the way of the world. Someone will come along one day who is stronger or smarter or faster who will take me down like an outlaw and end my life if I do not stop by my own choice. Even now, there is still a possibility that someone will come looking for me before I can go looking for them.”

“Like what brought you back to us again?”

“Exactly like that.”

Donoma took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I do not like that, warrior. I do not think I could live knowing you were in constant danger. But I am not sure it is fair to ask you to give it up either. You serve the greater good, Nutta, and that has to mean something to you or you would not have continued to pursue such a course once you had enough money to leave the white man’s world.”

“Donoma… ka’eskone… being a bounty hunter gave me purpose. It gave me a reason to look forward to another day, because there are always more outlaws that need hunting.”

“And now?”

“Now?” Koko brushed her fingertips across Donoma’s cheek, gratified when the green eyes closed and Donoma leaned into the touch. “Now I have the possibility of the future I have always wanted. That is all the reason I need.” She stopped talking when Donoma snuggled deeper into her embrace.

Quiet settled over them and it was only a short while before the rhythmic breathing of sleep was the only accompaniment the crackling fire had. The stars twinkled merrily, two moreso than the rest, as the night continued on to fade towards dawn.

************

Honiahaka turned to Rachel and smiled at the delighted expression that sparkled out of her blue eyes. “You are happy with the turn of events, Nutta?”

“Oh yes, Honiahaka. I have waited a long time for my nahtonas to realize the bond they share with one another.” Honiahaka laughed and took Rachel into his arms, hugging her with all the strength in his ethereal body.

“Oh Rae’l… they have yet to recognize their bonding. They have only just begun to understand and explore what is possible between them. But they will – what they have will not be denied.” He brushed a kiss over the top of her dark head. “Trust me, Rae’l.”

“I always did, Nutta, even before I knew you as more than just my captor. You never lied to me and you endured a lot to protect us.”

“Then believe me when I tell you that Koko Kanti inherited that same strength and stubbornness. Now that Donoma’s heart is open to her, Donoma Chepi does not stand a chance against Koko Kanti’s persuasiveness. Besides, she wants to be convinced.”

Rachel chuckled. “I think you are right about that, Honiahaka. I just hope it is sooner than later. I do not want any more gray hair than I died with.”

“Come then… we will leave them to figure things out. It is time for us to rest.”

And they faded from view as the sun edged its way over the horizon.

************

“Good morning, ka’eskone,” Koko greeted as Donoma’s lashes tickled the side of her neck. Donoma stretched carefully, not willing to leave the nest that had been created for her in Koko’s arms, but equally reluctant to do any further damage to the still healing body beneath her. She turned and let her lips brush Koko’s neck.

“Good morning, warrior,” she croaked, clearing her throat and blinking her eyes again. She gratefully accepted the waterskin and gulped down several swallows. “How did you sleep?”

Koko shifted so Donoma could see the wry look in her eyes. “You were in my arms, ka’eskone, despite all good intentions to the contrary. How could my sleep be anything but good?”

Donoma shifted, easing into a sitting position. “You can have good intentions tomorrow, Koko. I needed to be in your arms last night as much as you needed to have me there.”

“Did you really, Donoma Chepi?”

Green eyes met blue and Donoma winced to see the uncertainly lurking in them. She leaned over Koko’s body and cupped her face in one hand. “Yes, Koko… I did. I needed the reassurance of knowing you would be there when I awoke this morning just as you needed to know I would be there all night long. We are rebuilding trust, warrior. We both have fears we can only face together.”

Koko took the hand that cradled her face and brought it to her lips. “When did you get to be so smart again?”

“I have always been smart, Koko Kanti. It is the reason I am the warrior advisor to the best warrior the tribe has ever known.”

“Oh no, ka’eskone,” Koko disagreed. “That had nothing to do with your mind and everything to do with your heart. I knew someone who saw and felt as you do could be relied on to be the best possible advisor in the world. It made all the difference.”

“But you did not know anything about me when you made me you advisor,” Donoma protested.

“Oh, but I did, ka’eskone. You cannot see it, but your soul shines out of your eyes like a beacon.” Donoma flushed bright red at Koko’s words and dropped her head. Koko raised it with her fingers under Donoma’s chin until their eyes were at a level. “Oh no, ka’eskone. It is nothing to be ashamed of – your soul is beautiful.”

“You can really see that?”

“I always could, Donoma. It was the first part of you I fell in love with.”

Donoma sat perfectly still, concentrating on breathing. Koko sat and watched in fascination as the emotion play across her face. She’d always thought that Donoma knew so much about what was between them, and was slowly coming to the realization that Donoma was feeling her way through things that Koko was still coming to terms with herself. It was one thing to know something intellectually and something else again to have to acknowledge it emotionally.

“Does that surprise you, ka’eskone?” Koko ask when the silence went on too long for her comfort. Donoma’s eyes tracked back to her from wherever they had been and she blinked rapidly to bring her eyes back into focus. Koko gave her a gentle smile and Donoma responded with a shaky smile of her own. “Does it surprise you to know that I love you, Donoma Chepi?”

“No, my warrior,” Donoma replied possessively. “Only that you have known for so long.”

“Perhaps on some level, ka’eskone, but never overtly… at least not until I decided to leave. I spent that entire night thinking, you know – recognizing a few truths about myself… and us.”

“Perhaps I should take the time to do the same.” Donoma looked down at her hands and watched them fidget as if by their own volition. “I should have done it years ago… when you left. I imagine I would have followed you if I had.” She paused. “Then again, I purposely avoided thinking about you or why you had left – probably because I knew it would come down to being my fault.”

“Not your fault, Donoma – my decision.”

“And my fault for not seeing… for failing to look.” She looked into Koko’s eyes and took the larger hands in hers. “Koko, if I had known… if I had seen…. Takoda could not have stopped me; no one could have. I would have followed you until we had sorted all this out.”

“We can only go forward from here, ka’eskone.” The growling of two hungry bellies interrupted her and Koko and Donoma exchanged smirks that became chuckles after a moment. “First, however,” Koko continued when the noise died down a bit, “I think we need to find something to break our fast and decide what we want to do now.”

“I will catch us some fish,” Donoma said confidently. “You do not need to be bending over and straining that tummy wound,” she cautioned when Koko frowned. “Besides, you taught me, remember? I can do it, warrior.”

“I know,” Koko agreed. “It is just different than what I remember.”

“It is different, Nutta. We are different people getting to know one another again. But I have to be honest… I am looking forward to it.”

“So am I, ka’eskone. Go catch your fish – I will stoke the fire. There will be time later to talk.”

************

“I have missed your cooking, Donoma. I had put the flavors you created out of my mind, but they bring back so many memories.” Koko leaned forward to whisper conspiratorially, even though she and Donoma were the only ones around. “I always loved your cooking… even more than my Nahko’es.”

Donoma smiled and blushed. “Did you really?”

“Yes. Nahko’e cooked for me because it was her place to do so, both as my Nahko’e and as the woman in a warrior’s household.
I know that she loved me, but she also bore a responsibility to me as her nahtona and her provider. You cooked for me because you wanted to and it always tasted a little bit better because of that.”

“Not all of it, warrior. I remember some distinct disasters while I was learning.”

“I would not call them disasters,” Koko replied tactfully.

“I would,” Donoma said with laughter. “There was nothing successful about the flat bread on fire or the stew that….”

Koko held up her hands in surrender, grimacing in memory. “All right… all right. Maybe there were a few disasters while you were developing your own style, but even then I could still taste love in the effort you put into caring for me that way.”

“Could you really?”

“Of course…. because you never did it for anyone else – only me.”

“Of course I did – you were my warrior.”

“I am still your warrior, ka’eskone. That never changed – even when I built a home out in the white man’s world.”

“You built a home there?”

Koko nodded wearily. “I had to. Living in the town was driving me crazy. The noise there – while I had searched for relief from the quiet on my sojourn there as a reassurance that I was not alone in the world, I realized that I could not live with so much sound from so many sources. As soon as I could afford to do so, I moved away from the fort and built a small cabin out away from everything.”

“The silence didn’t bother you there?”

“I needed it – it wasn’t the total quiet that haunted me when I left the tribe. This gave me a sense of peace… a sense of home that
I had not had since I left here.”

“Do you think I could see it?”

“Would you like to?”

“I think so, yes. I would like to know about your life while you were gone from this place. You know what mine was like – it is very consistent.”

Koko chuckled. “That it is. Would you like to find your family and let them know?”

“Not until we are joined, warrior. Takoda trusts you to keep me safe.”

“Then we can go whenever you would like to leave. It will take us a little while to reach the fort if you would like to go into town. My cabin is a little closer.”

“I think I would like to see the cabin first. It might take a while before I feel comfortable going into the town. I am not sure how the white world would take to me.”

“You will be fine, ka’eskone. You would fit into the white world easier than I did,” combing her hands through blonde hair. “But I would never let you face something like that on your own, beloved,” switching to English. “Anywhere we go, we go together. If you are not comfortable going into town, my business there will wait until you are.”

“And if I never am?”

“Then we will not go, Donoma… simple as that. I told you – you make the choice. If you want to live here, we can always come home to your family and the tribe. I only want to be where you are.”

“No, Koko… *we* make the choice. This is about us… our life together.”

“Then I say that we start out at first light tomorrow. We do not have a schedule to keep, and it will give me a little more time to recover. I have this very strict caregiver who would be very happy if I took better care of myself so she did not have to continue to repair the damage I do to my body.”

“Your caregiver would prefer that you not do damage to yourself to begin with, but I will accept that as a viable option in this situation.”

“So leaving tomorrow…?”

“… is fine with me, warrior, as long as you feel able to do so. Now I am going to go check on the horses. You should rest.” And Donoma rose from her spot and headed out into the prairie before Koko could protest. Koko watched her go and let a smile cross her face. Then she rose and went into her own tent. The evening suddenly had interesting possibilities.
Chapter XXI
Donoma walked out onto the prairie in the direction of the horses, laughing out loud when Dapples ran to her and butted her gently in the chest to encourage her to scratch the mare behind the ears. Obediently, Donoma lifted her hands and rubbed Dapples’ ears and neck. The mare pushed more firmly against her chest, forcing Donoma to grab onto the pony to keep from falling ass over teakettle. “Dapples!”

The horse whinnied in perceived laughter and Donoma shook her head. Then a snort was heard from the far side of the plain and Donoma looked up to find the big black was shaking his head at her. She planted her fists on her hips and glared at him.

“Whose side are you on?”

The black trotted majestically across the prairie and Donoma watched entranced, inevitably reminded of Koko in the smoothness and grace of the movement. He butted her in the chest with much less force than Dapples used and she reached up and hugged his neck.

“Oh, Black – what am I doing?” Sensing her distress, Dapples moved up and nuzzled her back. “Should I not still be angry? After holding on to it for so long, is it right that I give it up so easily?” She closed her eyes and leaned against Black’s neck.

“Are you that afraid to be happy, Donoma Chepi? Do you need that anger to be part of your life?” Donoma scrunched up her eyes, then sighed when a hand landed between her shoulder blades. Then she turned to see Rae’l standing behind her, crossing her arms over her chest. “Donoma….” chiding.

She sighed again. “Rae’l….”

“Donoma….” She paused. “We can do this all afternoon, but I do not think we will make much progress that way. Tell me why you are so scared of happiness.”

“I am not scared of happiness, Rae’l… at least I do not think I am. I have not been truly happy in so long that I am not quite certain how to react. But it seems wrong to release my anger so easily. Rae’l… I was so angry at Koko – furious even – for such a long time. To simply let it go because she finally took me into her heart and spoke to me honestly… is that the right thing to do?”

“Do you believe that you will never have cause to feel anger towards my nahtona again if you give this anger up, Donoma? Do you think things will change completely?” Rachel shook her head and sighed. “Donoma, even before you found the anger that you have held to your bosom for the last five cycles, you had plenty of reason to become exasperated with her, and she with you. It is a normal human condition – to feel anger – but it is also a passing one. What does holding on to it garner you?”

Donoma turned her eyes to the prairie, so that all Rachel could see was her profile. “Safety, perhaps,” she whispered after a long moment. “It is what I know now.”

Rachel stepped up behind her and placed a comforting hand on her shoulder. “Donoma – trust Koko to give you that safety now. She has gone five long, lonely cycles without the safety of knowing you were in her corner watching her back. She knows what it is to do without the reassurance of a safety net. Trust that she loves you enough to never let you understand that.” Rachel came around to stand in front of her and cupped Donoma’s face in her hands. “Donoma… nahtona e nutta… my daughter loves you – more than knowledge or wealth or warrior skills; she loves you more than life itself. All you have to do is let go of your anger and accept that.”

“That simple?”

Rachel smiled into Donoma’s trusting green eyes and brushed a kissed across her forehead. “That simple.” She chuckled. “We always make it harder than it needs to be – it seems to be human nature.”

“Sometimes I wonder at the Great Spirit’s wisdom in making us quite so human.” This time Rachel laughed outright and Donoma couldn’t keep the smile from crossing her face.

“Be happy, Donoma Chepi. You and Koko Kanti both deserve so much.”

“Thank you, Rae’l. I will think about what you have said.”

“And you will then do as I say,” Rachel commanded sternly but with a twinkle in her blue eyes. “Seriously, Donoma – all Honiahaka and I want for the two of you is for you to find the happiness you have always known with one another and let the love flourish from there. And it will… if you let it.”

“I will… urk,” unexpectedly gasping for breath as the sound of the shot and the burning pain that accompanied it reached her senses. She looked down and watched with a bemused expression for a moment as blood blossomed on her dress, then crumpled to the ground.

“Take the horses, sergeant,” the blonde lieutenant commanded. “I have waited a long time to own this stallion.” The sergeant nodded and slid from his own mount, only to find himself under the hooves of an angry war horse. He screamed and the lieutenant placed his hand on the butt of his pistol. He had no time to draw it, however, before he wound up crushed under the hooves of his own horse as he shied away from the teeth of the Appaloosa.

The five men – four privates and a corporal – left in the scouting party looked at one another in confused alarm, backing away slowly as the big stallion approached them snorting and huffing while the dappled horse remained guarding the woman they’d shot.

“I don’t care what the lieutenant said – them two horses ain’t worth dyin’ for.”

“I thought there was s’posed to be a whole herd of ’em.”

“Well, I ain’t seen nothin’ that looks like no herd and we ain’t found no Injun tribes neither. I think somebody done lied ’bout something and I ain’t getting into trouble fer this.”

“What about the woman?” the youngest of them asked. He hadn’t understood the need to shoot her to begin with. It wasn’t like the army had need of these two horses. And given the lieutenant’s words, this was personal for him.

The corporal shook his head. “Nothing we can do for her… or for them,” motioning to the now still, mangled bodies of the two dead soldiers. “Leave her be – them we gotta take back to the Cap. He can dispose of ’em.”

“We won’t get into trouble?”

“Not like we would for goin’ back without ’em or desertin’. Drag ’em away from the woman first, then load ’em up on the backs of their mounts. We got a long ride aheada us and they’re gonna start stinkin’ before we get back iff’n we don’t move.”

The men did as the corporal commanded and the horses allowed it as though sensing the immediate danger to them was passed. In very short order, they were loaded up and moving back the way they came. As soon as they were gone, Black galloped towards the dell.

************

Despite all her good intentions, Koko had fallen asleep almost the moment her head had hit the furs. Now she was having the oddest dream – all colors and shapes, but no sound… until suddenly there was a loud pop. Still in the throes of her dream reality, she didn’t even try to make sense of the sound or figure out what it might mean in the real world.

It was only when she felt the very real heat of warm breath on her neck that she blinked opened her eyes, then started back when she met the liquid brown eyes of her horse instead of the warm green she was expecting.

“Black?” raising a hand to make sure her vision was accurate and she was awake. Though not what she had been dreaming, this was such an unheard of event in her reality that Koko wanted to be sure her dreaming had not merely shifted gears. But the prickly hair of Black’s muzzle convinced her she was awake, and Koko rolled up slowly until she was sitting. “What are you doing in here, boy?” her mind still trying to shake the cobwebs from her thought processes.

Black nipped at her and backed out of the tent, then stepped forward and nipped again before leaving completely. A little angry and more than a little annoyed, Koko slowly climbed to her feet and followed him outside, glaring at him when she realized how little time had passed since she’d laid down to rest.

“What is it, boy? Why are you here instead of out on the Plain with Donoma? Does she not have a tre…?” A cold chill skittered across Koko’s skin and down her backbone as she understood exactly what Black was trying to tell her.

Before she could give the command, the stallion knelt and took her weight easily, standing as soon as she had a secure seat and racing back across the prairie. Koko only hoped they were not too late.

************

Black went right to where Dapples stood guarding Donoma’s fallen body. Koko leaped for the ground before the stallion could stop, wincing at the jolt of pain the impact sent through her body, but putting it aside as she knelt at Donoma’s side. A quick check assured Koko of Donoma’s continued life, but she could only imagine the damage that had been done from the amount of blood that was spilled. She lifted her head and screamed, releasing the anger and frustration she felt, then she lifted Donoma into her arms.

Black knelt at her whistle and stood when she kneed him and Dapples followed them back to the encampment. Koko dismounted as quickly as she could when they reached Donoma’s dwelling, then the horses moved to the outer perimeter to watch.

Her guts were quaking but her hands were steady as she cut the blood-soaked material away from Donoma’s body, stripping her and throwing the ruined cloth to one side to deal with later. The bullet appeared to have gone straight through and even now, the blood loss was down to a trickle. Koko looked around, then remembered she had moved her saddlebags back to her home and with a groan, rose and went to retrieve them.

She dumped them carelessly beside her and pawed through things until she found what she wanted. Not her first choice, but at least the whiskey would clean the wound and help stop the bleeding completely. That plus the alum powder she had left meant Donoma had a chance of survival… if she hadn’t already bled out too much.

Carefully Koko emptied the bottle, doing her best to coat both sides of the injury. Then she took the powder and sprinkled it inside the hole, continuing until her supply was gone. That done, she found the waterskin and cleaned the excess blood from Donoma’s body, sparing the barest thought for how beautiful her ka’eskone had grown up. When she was finished, Koko moved Donoma to the furs and covered her, then made to clean up the mess and leave. Her body had other ideas and she crumpled, landing beside Donoma on the furs.

She grunted, her injured side taking the brunt of the fall as she tried to fall away from Donoma. Without thinking about it, Koko rolled over and slid closer to Donoma, then cradled the smaller body in her strong embrace. Despite her pain, or maybe because of it, Koko fell into the sweet oblivion of sleep.

************

It was dark when Koko woke up with a start, wondering what had brought her back to consciousness. Then Donoma moaned and she realized that Donoma was starting to wake up. Koko eased up onto an elbow and started a light massage over Donoma’s torso to help her relax a little. After several long moments, Donoma’s eyes blinked open, and though Koko couldn’t see them, she felt the change in her breathing and awareness.

“Hello, ka’eskone. How do you feel?”

“Like Dapples danced on my stomach.” A gasp as she breathed too deeply. “What happened?”

“You were shot,” Koko informed her grimly.

“What? By who… and why?”

“I do not know, Donoma. I was hoping you might have seen something. Black came and got me and you were alone by the time
I reached you.”

“Remind me to thank Black later.” Donoma paused and breathed for a few minutes and Koko was content to let her, reassured by the steady movement of her chest. Finally, “Warrior, I hate to ask this, but we have to eat and I am not certain I can sit up long enough to prepare anything. Do you think you could…?”

Koko smiled in the darkness, then chuckled to show Donoma the mirth she could not see otherwise. “I am not an accomplished cook like yourself, ka’eskone, but I did manage to learn a few things while I was away. I could probably prepare a broth we could consume.”

Donoma nodded. “That would be perfect. I do not think I actually have the strength to chew at the moment. Do you think we could get some light in here as well?”

“I will start a fire. I do not want you to catch a chill or a fever. In fact, if you like, I will cook in here as well. I do not think I am up to maintaining two at the moment and I would rather be where I can keep an eye on you. I certainly never expected to be in a position to need to do so like this.”

“Neither did I, warrior, but I am glad you are here to do so.” She yawned then winced. “As for the other, please. I do not care for the smell of the medicine you used.”

“Well, whiskey is not my first choice,” Koko admitted, “but it did what I needed it to do. At least I did not get it on the furs – we would have had to have thrown them out. You rest,” feeling Donoma’s breathing start to slow and deepen. “I will wake you to eat when it is ready.”

All she got in response was a mumbled agreement, but it was enough.

************

Koko shook Donoma gently once the soup was warm. It took a few moments for Donoma to come out of her deep sleep, and she blinked rapidly to clear the sleep from her eyes. Donoma made the mistake of trying to adjust on her own and hissed at the pain that shot through her body with the movement. Koko placed a gentle hand on her shoulder.

“I realize we are neither one at our best, Donoma, but we have to help each other. The kind of injury you have will be slow to heal and you will find it interferes with every move you want to make.”

“Guess this means we will not be going anywhere tomorrow.”

“Good guess,” Koko smiled. “Though at least we do not have a schedule to keep. We will go when we go and get there when we get there. In the meantime, you need to eat, and so do I. Then we can rest again and see how things look in the morning.”

Donoma nodded and waited for Koko to ease down into a sitting position. Then she scooted slowly up the warrior’s body, taking care not to bump along the wounded side. Finally they were set so that they could eat together and bit by bit they drained their bowls.

Koko had thought ahead and removed the larger pot from the fire and placed it close enough to reach for seconds that she finished and Donoma made an effort at. When they were done, she slipped out from beneath Donoma and placed the pot to one side of the fire for reheating later.

“I am going to check on the horses, then I will get my furs and bring them in here. I would be more comfortable not leaving you alone tonight.”

“I would be more comfortable not being alone tonight,” Donoma admitted softly.

“The horses have not gone far, so I will be right back.”

Donoma nodded her head in agreement and closed her eyes. She had never felt pain like this before and was anxious to slip into a meditative state of sleep that would allow her to work through it until she could tuck it away out of her conscious mind.

Koko went to the far side of the dell’s perimeter and hugged the necks of both horses. “Thank you Dapples – for watching over Donoma and protecting her. And thank you, Black – for coming to get me so quickly. You probably saved her life with your actions.”

She held on for a long time, recognizing in that moment that she could have very easily lost Donoma. The realization made her shake, and the horses stepped closed to her, understanding her distress. After a bit, Koko came back to herself and hugged both horses again before straightening and stepping away.

“Thank you both,” she said sincerely, then turned and headed back to the camp. She and Donoma both had some recovery to do, and the sooner they started, the sooner they would be able to head away from this place and towards the relative safety of Koko’s home.

Sooner or later, the warrior in her would need to find who did this to Donoma, but for now, it was enough just to be together and know they were all right.

Donoma’s breathing was deep and even when Koko stepped through the doorway of her home. She debated for the space of about half a second before carefully placing her furs right beside Donoma’s. The warrior part of her knew it was less than honorable, but the human part of her couldn’t deny herself the comfort of being close enough to reach out and touch the woman she loved.

Koko eased into a sitting position, suddenly feeling all the stupid and rash things she had done during the day, but not finding it in her to regret one of them. She pulled another fur up over Donoma’s body and tucked her in, then sighed and lay back on her own. She lay completely still for a long moment, relishing the feeling of relaxation that washed over her making her feel lethargic and sleepy. Koko let her eyes close and she released a deep breath.

Today had been a day she could truly have lived without the good parts if it meant skipping the bad as well. It occurred to her as she pulled a fur up to cover herself that she had been intending to woo Donoma tonight – to approach her seriously as a suitor. Ah, she thought with a wry smile on her face, the best laid plans….

She rolled carefully onto her side, facing Donoma’s profile in the fire lit space and just staring at her for a bit. Koko reached over a hand and took Donoma’s limp one in hers, grinning when Donoma returned the squeeze with just the barest amount of pressure.

Then again, she thought as her eyes closed again as the warmth of the blanket seeped through her body and caused sleep to be an acceptable alternative to staying awake. We are together at the end of the day. Can’t ask for more than that.

Then she let the sleep take over and surrendered herself to its healing properties. With a little luck, tomorrow would be a better day.
Chapter XXII
Donoma blinked her eyes open slowly, wincing at the amount of pain present in her body. She closed her eyes again and took a slow breath, struggling to relax and willing the pain to the back of her mind. It took a long time, but she was finally able to put it out of the realm of conscious thought and although it was still there, it became at least tolerable.

She lay still, finding it was easier to maintain the block if her eyes stayed closed and there was no movement to disturb her thoughts. Donoma felt fingers tighten their grip on her hand and she couldn’t stop the smile as they loosened to gently trace a pattern on the skin immediately surrounding them. That, even more than her meditation, was taking her thoughts off of her injury.

Without warning, Koko buried her face in Donoma’s neck, breathing in her scent before kissing the self-same spot. Donoma forced her eyes open again and turned to find blue eyes in very close proximity to her own. She pulled her head back just enough to keep her eyes from crossing and smiled, watching in delight as Koko’s face reflected the expression.

“Good morning, warrior mine.”

The smile went from happy to outright dazzling with her greeting and Koko leaned down to kiss her lips tenderly. “Yes it is, ka’eskone. It is a very good morning. How do you feel?”

“Worse than I did yesterday,” Donoma replied truthfully. She eased a hand up to cup Koko’s face, allowing her thumb to trace the sharp planes and hollows it could reach. Koko smiled and Donoma let her fingers track the curves of her lips. “But somehow it does not seem to bother me as much lying here in your arms. Maybe I could just stay here until I am healed.”

“Maybe you could just stay here.”

Donoma smiled. “As tempting as that sounds, I need to go out.”

Koko returned the smile. “So do I,” she confided. “Let me get up and then I will help you up. And then we can see about getting something to eat.”

Donoma chuckled, then stopped with a gasp. “Ouch…” she wheezed. “We are quite a pair.”

“Yes – the question is… a pair of what?”

Koko eased to her knees, then helped Donoma into a sitting position. Once she was sure they were both stable, she rose to her feet, wincing at the amount of residual soreness she still felt throughout her body. Taking a deep breath, she offered a hand to Donoma, knowing that the location of her injury would preclude using more than one hand to aid her in getting up.

It was a slow, painful process for both of them, and they were both wincing and gasping by the time Donoma was standing upright. Koko wrapped a fur around Donoma’s nudity to protect her modesty – respecting that she was an unattached female in the presence of a warrior. Once she was satisfied she had done the best she could, they leaned into one another for support and slowly made their way out into the brightly lit day, shutting their eyes in reflex for a long moment before blinking rapidly to adjust to the change from the duskiness of indoors.

Then they moved to relieve themselves – another challenge in and of itself – before Koko helped Donoma over to where the horses still stood sentinel over the encampment. Then she moved off to restart the fire and collect water for their use while Donoma talked to the horses.

Koko watched for a moment, charmed by the way the animals responded to her ka’eskone. Then she turned and headed out to accomplish the chores she had set for herself. Now more than ever, she wanted the safety the four sturdy walls could provide her with.

Donoma one-arm hugged first Dapples, then Black, murmuring her thanks and gratitude into alert, twitching ears. She scratched them both gently and kissed the ends of their noses, then slowly made her way back towards the fire pit area that lay between her home and Koko’s. She felt weak and exhausted and fell into a light doze, only to be awakened when Koko dropped the chips she had collected and knelt beside her.

“Are you all right, ka’eskone?” she asked lovingly. “Aside from the obvious, I mean.”

“I am just tired, warrior… drained. I will be fine with a bit more rest.” She looked into the haggard blue eyes that stared at her. “As will you. This is not helping your recovery.”

“As you said, Donoma… I will be fine. I will get the fire started, then I will start the soup… what?” she asked when Donoma shook her head.

“If you will start the fire, I will prepare the soup. You need the rest as much as I do, Koko Kanti, and that is all I can do at the moment.”

Koko nodded, easily reading the determination in the green eyes facing her. “Very well, ka’eskone. I collected water already. I thought you might want to clean up a little. I am not sure I got all the blood off when I did it.”

Donoma took a deep breath. “I am not sure I can manage,” she said honestly. “But I will try.”

Koko rested a hand on Donoma’s arm. “I will help you, ka’eskone. I did not want to make you uncomfortable by suggesting it.”

“Koko, I think we can agree we are dealing with far less than normal circumstances here. I think the elders would understand if we have to bend convention and tradition a bit to accommodate the special needs we are both functioning with at the moment.”

“In other words….”

“In other words, I do not think that seeing one another naked or helping each other bathe is an untoward situation given the circumstances we find ourselves in. You have made your intentions clear and when the time comes, my answer will most definitely be in your favor.” Donoma watched the relief flow across Koko’s body, though nothing changed in her expression except for a twinkling that started in the back of her blue eyes. She tilted her head slightly. “You doubted so much?”

“Not your love, Donoma Chepi….” She paused and took a deep breath. “Only your forgiveness. I understand your anger – I have felt it myself. I am not certain I could have been so merciful to me had the circumstances been reversed.”

“Could you have been that merciful to me?”

“Of course,” Koko replied without hesitation. “Donoma….”

“Warrior, if the situation was reversed, you would be forgiving me, not yourself. Though I do not agree with what you did, I understand why. And even though I still get angry when I let myself brood about… things… Rae’l was right. I do not need to hang on to the anger any longer. I have held it close to my heart for five full cycles to protect myself from everything – especially people and emotions that could hurt me. There was no room for anything else as long as I held onto my anger.”

Donoma closed her eyes and breathed, trying to dredge up the strength to finish. Koko wrapped a tentative arm around her but didn’t speak, sensing Donoma wasn’t done speaking. She had cultivated her patience for years under her father’s tutelage and the intervening years had only served to hone it to a fine art. So Koko sat patiently waiting and lending her own waning strength to the woman in her arms. Finally her patience was rewarded when Donoma opened her eyes and smiled.

“Thank you, warrior mine. I am sorry….”

“Do not apologize, ka’eskone. I have nowhere else I would rather be, and we are not running a race.”

“Rae’l was right about something else as well,” waiting until Koko cocked an eyebrow in a familiar questioning gesture. Donoma grinned and traced the brow with her thumb before answering. “She said I no longer needed to protect myself… that you would do it for me if I would allow it.”

“That is very true, ka’eskone. Even if you did not return the love I feel for you, I would still never allow anything to hurt you that it was in my power to stop. I gave you my word to protect you, Donoma Chepi, and I will do so as long as you allow it.”

“In that case,” Donoma said with a tired grin, “build the fire, warrior, so I can prepare us something to eat. Then we can get some rest. Cleaning up will wait until we have both had some rest.”

Koko nodded wearily. “I concur, ka’eskone. I feel like I have been fighting all day.” Then she shifted her weight to move closer to the fire pit and began laying the chips. Donoma closed her eyes, thankful for the respite. After several minutes, the noises stopped and the crackle of flames could be heard. Donoma opened her eyes when she felt Koko lean against her and trace her face with a delicate hand.

Their eyes met and Donoma turned her head to kiss the calloused fingers. “Let me put the soup on and then we can rest while it heats.” She noticed that Koko had already hung the large pot full of water over the heat and had a smaller one sitting beside it and looked back at smiling blue eyes. “Thank you, Koko.”

“I know you said cleaning up could wait, but I thought you might appreciate the chance to get rid of the itch.”

Donoma shifted uncomfortably, dumping a selection of the supplies Koko had set beside her at some point into the heating water. “How did you know?”

Koko’s smile broadened. “I have been where you are, ka’eskone, on more than one occasion. There is nothing pleasant about it. But sometimes the itch from the dirt and old blood and healing can be more irritating than the original injury itself.” She leaned forward and swiped the smaller pot from its place beside the fire. “Here,” she offered. “You can do the front, and then I will clean your back.”

Donoma accepted the cloth from Koko’s hands, then dunked it into the warm water… and realized she wasn’t able to squeeze it out. She looked over her shoulder at Koko, and Koko stared back dumbly for a moment before realizing the problem with the situation. She shrugged sheepishly. “Sorry, ka’eskone. I forgot about that.” She took the cloth and squeezed out the excess water then passed it back to Donoma.

When Donoma was done with the front, which Koko had been able to mostly clean before, she dropped the cloth back into the water and let the fur slip down to her waist. Koko winced when she looked at the damage, then gently wiped away the grime that still coated Donoma’s back. Even as gentle as she was, she could feel Donoma flinch. Koko bit her lip and finished as quickly and carefully as she could, feeling Donoma’s sigh of relief as her own when she pulled the fur back over her shoulders.

They leaned against one another waiting for the soup to boil, both falling into a light doze in the process. The bubbling and hissing brought Koko’s eyes open and she grimaced a bit before smiling at how quickly she and Donoma had resumed their comfort level. She gently shook Donoma awake.

“Wha…? Oh… sorry Koko – I….”

“Shh, ka’eskone. We need the rest. We will eat, then we can rest some more. It will take a little time, but we will get through this.”

“I know, but a healer usually makes the worst patient.” Donoma blew out an impatient breath. “I wish I could have seen this coming.”

“As do I, Donoma – I would have spared you this pain if I could have.”

“I know, warrior. I have always wondered why the Great Spirit chooses to make some things known and keep other things hidden. And how things are chosen. This is something I think I would have chosen to reveal.” She grit her teeth and shifted, accepting the bowl that Koko passed to her.

“Those are good questions, ka’eskone. Perhaps you will get the chance to ask them of the Great Spirit one day. But in the interim, I am going to find out who did this to you and why. And then I will exact payment for their indiscretion.”

“You do not….”

“I do, ka’eskone. If not for the promise I made to you, then simply because it is who I am… it is what I do, Donoma. I find the guilty and I bring them to justice… one way or another. I cannot do less for you than I would do for strangers, Nutta. Please do not ask me to.”

Donoma shifted again, hissing but continuing her movement until she could look directly into Koko’s eyes. “I would not ask you to be less than you are, Koko Kanti. I trust you to know what is best… especially when it comes to dealing with things in the white man’s world. Just make sure you take care of yourself in the process, warrior mine. It is pointless otherwise.”

“I understand, ka’eskone.”

They finished the remainder of their meal in silence, then Koko helped Donoma to her feet. They shuffled back to Donoma’s tent and Koko eased Donoma back down onto the furs and turned to go… only to find her ankle clasped in Donoma’s hand.

“Donoma?”

“You need rest as well, Koko.”

“I know, ka’eskone,” Koko replied with a smile. “I will be right back. I want to retrieve the soup for later and extinguish the fire so we will not be spotted from the smoke.” Donoma released her grip and true to her word, Koko was back swiftly, placing the still boiling soup in the cold fire pit and settling into her own furs beside Donoma.

It didn’t take long and they were soon tangled together as much as they could comfortably manage, sound asleep.

************

The next few days passed much the same, except for an inordinate amount of rain. They slept a good deal of the time, waking to eat and relieve themselves as nature required and spending time in conversation, healing on the inside as well as their physical bodies.

After almost a week of recovery time, they were both feeling much more normal and were happy to wake to clear skies.

“It is nice to feel the warmth of sunshine again,” Donoma commented as they stepped out into it again.

“It is indeed, ka’eskone. Go and enjoy your bath; I will cleanse your dwelling. Then I will see if I can find something fresh for our dinner. I cannot speak for you, but I would not be adverse to a change in our diet.”

“Neither would I, warrior mine. Are you sure you can manage the cleansing alone?”

“I am sure, Donoma.”

“Then I will go get clean myself. I believe I have lost my sense of smell in self-defense. I would hate to scare off the opportunity for something fresh to eat with my scent.”

Koko chuckled. “I happen to like your scent, but you’re right… it would probably scare off any game I could find. Besides, you will feel better.”

“I will indeed,” Donoma agreed. “And so will you.”

“I know; I will go when you have returned. By then, I should have completed my other tasks. However, I will accompany you to the creek and you need only call for me if you need my help and I will come.”

“I will be fine, warrior, but I would welcome your company.”

When they were both clean and well-fed on the prairie chicken Koko had gotten for their dinner, Donoma laughed at Koko’s antics and groaning after she finished up the last of the bird.

“That was wonderful, Donoma, but how could you allow me to eat so much?? I am so full.”

“Allow you, warrior? When did I start allowing you to do anything?? I have only ever been your advisor.”

“You should have advised me more carefully then.” Koko paused and looked down at the ground before catching Donoma’s eyes and holding them. “Or perhaps instead of simply my advisor, I should offer you a position of significantly more power.”

“Such as?” her eyes steady but her lips and voice trembling. Koko placed a kiss on Donoma’s hand, then rose from her place and disappeared into her own tent. Donoma watched her go, shaking with nervous excitement – fairly certain what was coming next.

It didn’t take long but it seemed like forever before Koko emerged from her home dressed in the leathers Rachel and Donoma had stitched for her with such loving care. Donoma caught her breath at the figure she cut in the full light of day. Koko focused on Donoma’s expression, relishing the honest emotion playing over her features.

Koko strode to where Donoma waited, and mindful of both their injuries, gently but forcefully pulled her to her feet. “Join with me, Donoma,” she commanded firmly. “Be my chosen mate.”

************

The captain sat brooding in his office. His brother had been right – no damn woman needed a horse as fine as the black stallion Reb Stone rode, and Leroy hadn’t deserved to die for trying to give the horse a more worthy master. He certainly hadn’t deserved the horrible end he had gotten. George Washburn shook his head. He didn’t care what the colonel said – someone was going to pay for his brother’s death.

Killing Reb Stone would be a good place to start.
Chapter XXIII
“Neho’e, I do not feel right about this,” Honaw complained to Takoda again. They had been following their new course for several days and with each step that took them further from Donoma and Koko, Honaw felt the heaviness settle deeper into his chest. Now, sitting beside the small fire Takoda had built inside his dwelling to stave off the chill that accompanied the rain, he reiterated his position. Takoda sighed and faced his eldest son. Honaw, more than his brothers, was sometimes gifted with the same insight that Takoda himself knew. So the shaman couldn’t refute his worries on the grounds that he knew best – they both understood how fallible they could be.

“What troubles you, Honaw? What have you seen?”

Honaw shook his dark head. “It was not a vision, Neho’e. It is more a feeling – a heaviness in my chest that I cannot seem to shake. I think… I believe Donoma Chepi and Koko Kanti may be in trouble.”

“You do not think this feeling extends from the difficulties already between them?”

“No, Neho’e. Despite Donoma’s anger, she wants to forgive Koko. In her heart, she knows she must to be whole again. It may take her some time to admit that to herself or to allow it to happen, but I do not think it will. She has been miserable alone for far too long. Why would she allow it to continue when the chance for happiness was within her grasp?”

Takoda cut his eyes at his son. “You do not know much about women, do you?” he asked wryly. “They can be the most vindictive creatures capable of holding onto a grudge for years.”

“I understand that, Neho’e,” Honaw countered seriously. “But I know Donoma’s heart – I know how she feels about Koko,” he said with a certainty Takoda could not doubt. “She may fight and struggle with it briefly, but in the end she will have to let it go for her own sake… to say nothing of Koko’s.”

“So if this heaviness is not because of what has happened between them, where is it coming from?”

“I do not know, Neho’e. I only know that I have not been able to shake the feeling of unease from my mind since we left them. I am no longer certain that was the right thing to do, given the circumstances.”

“You do not believe Koko Kanti is capable of protecting your sister? You do not trust in the vision I was given by the Great Spirit?”

“I know that Koko Kanti is still recovering from a critical wounding, despite the vigor with which she destroyed the white men that pursued her. Is it not possible that some should have remained to protect them until we were sure she was healed? And if that was not serious enough, we have deviated from our chosen path – if they required help from us, they would not find us.”

“Honaw, I appreciate your concern, but you cannot possibly think that a warrior of Koko Kanti’s caliber could not find the trail left by an entire tribe no matter how careful we are to hide it.”

“What of Donoma, Neho’e? Could she find us if she was the one required to search for us? You know as I do that we are not all gifted with the same visions or the same strength of sight.”

Takoda blew out a deep breath. Honaw made some very valid points in his argument and Takoda couldn’t disagree with his concern. He also could not deny the fact that he had been given the vision that led them away from their chosen path. The carnage he had witnessed had been disturbing, especially since that was all the vision he had received. Takoda met his son’s eyes squarely.

“What would you like to do, Honaw?”

“I would like to take a small contingent of warriors to ensure their safety… at least until I am convinced that Koko Kanti is able to do so on her own.”

“You do realize that if you go charging back in there, regardless of your intentions and whether or not they have resolved their differences, you run a very serious risk of being thrashed by not only Koko Kanti, but by Donoma as well? Or that they may no longer be where we left them?”

“I do, Neho’e. But I also feel this is something that needs to be done.”

“You feel so strongly then?”

“Yes, Neho’e. I realize now I should have spoken sooner, but at first I thought it was because of all the tension surrounding them. I do not think that is the case any longer.”

Takoda nodded his head. “Very well. I will speak to Odahingum. Surely we can remain in this vicinity long enough for you and a small band of scouts to check on them and return. If not… we will figure something else out.”

“Thank you, Neho’e. I appreciate your faith in my sight.”

Takoda didn’t reply with words, but Honaw felt the warmth of his gaze and smiled. Then Takoda wrapped up against the blowing rain and went in search of Odahingum. Honaw did the same before kissing his mother goodbye and heading back to his own home to wait.

************

Colonel Jonathon Ignatius Spencer stood at the window of his office looking out unseeing at the town stretched out beyond the walls of the large fort. Something was brewing – he could feel it, and he didn’t like the way it felt. Unfortunately, he was an officer in the United States Army and he functioned under facts and orders… not feelings and instinct. However, he had learned to have a strong respect for his gut; for now, he would keep a cautious eye out.

A knock at his door brought him out of his musings and he returned to the heavy chair behind the big desk before calling out, “Enter.”

Sergeant Jake Clemmons, his aide, opened the door and snapped to attention briefly before relaxing into a more at ease position. “Sir,” he announced softly in the low drawl he had. “The Marshall from town is askin’ to speak to you. He said it’s a matter of some urgency.”

Spencer crinkled his forehead at the wording Clemmons used. Most of the men in his regiment were not well-educated and tended to speak plainly. Obviously the sergeant was quoting the Marshall’s words. “Then by all means, sergeant,” Spencer commanded. “Show him in.”

Clemmons nodded and stepped from the office, only to return a moment later with a large man dressed roughly in black denim and a course linen shirt with a badge pinned to the left breast. He extended a hand to the colonel and Clemmons closed the door as he went back to his desk.

“Spence… thanks for seeing me.”

“You’re always welcome here, Murph. It’d be nice if it was for something other than trouble though.”

Stephen Murphy nodded his dark head. “That’s the damn truth, though I’m not entirely sure it’s trouble… yet.”

Spencer leaned forward on his desk. “What’s happened?”

“Reb Stone seems to have disappeared. Not unusual, I know, except she was running after Hobbs and his gang when she left outta here. I’m getting a little concerned.”

Spencer nodded his head. “I can see where you would be. What do you propose we do about it?”

“Well, I was hoping you might be willing to keep an eye on things in town for a couple days while I ran out to her place. It’s possible she went there for whatever reason, especially if she was hurt. You know how she feels about showing weakness.”

“Yeah, I do.” The colonel sat back thoughtfully. “I don’t see why not. There’s nothing pressing going on here at the moment. The men could use a new challenge.” He looked up to see the Marshall gazing back at him thoughtfully. “I had a squad that asked to go out looking for horses the other day.” He shook his head. “We don’t really need anymore here, but the cavalry can always use them. Would have been a good exercise for the men.”

“They didn’t find any?”

“Oh no… apparently they found some….”

“But…?”

“But something’s not right about the whole situation. My best wrangler and a lieutenant were crushed by them… or rather, they were trampled by their own horses when they got spooked or something – the corporal wasn’t particularly forthcoming with that information. Said they were split up in an effort to cover as much ground as they could and intimated they weren’t close enough to see what happened… that by the time he and the others reached them, it was too late. The rest corroborate his story.”

“That makes sense, Spence – isn’t that how it’s normally done?”

“Yes, but that’s not what bothers me. Murph, these horses are trained *not* to spook. They have to be to be war horses. So what could have spooked them badly enough that they were not only thrown off, but trampled to death as well? One of my captains, the lieutenant’s older brother, in fact, is convinced there is foul play.”

Murphy sat up straighter in his chair. “Does he have a reason to think such a thing?”

Spencer shook his head. “None. He just doesn’t want it to be Leroy’s fault, so he’s making noise that Reb Stone is behind the attack.”

The Marshall burst into laughter. “You’ve gotta be kidding me, Jon. You know as well as I do that Reb Stone avoids anything to do with the army as much as possible.” He noted the grave expression on the colonel’s face. “You’re serious??? He’s really trying to blame her for his brother’s death???”

“He’d like to, Murph. I’ve told him to drop it, but the Washburn brothers have always been hotheads… especially where Reb Stone is concerned. Think she needs to learn her place.”

“Evidently, they were not here five years ago when she showed the town just exactly what her place was. Jon, there’s a reason she is the most feared bounty hunter in these parts.”

“Preaching to the choir, Marshall. I’ve come to respect Reb Stone. She’s done nothing but good since she showed up out of nowhere and as far as I can tell, the only one’s complaining about her being a woman are those stupid enough to try and take advantage of her because of it. I’ll keep an eye on Washburn; you go see if you can find Stone. Aside from knowing she is all right, it would be nice to know what happened to Hobbs and his gang.”

Murphy rose from the chair and slapped his hat back on his head. “I’ll do what I can and let you know what I find out. Shouldn’t be gone but a day or two unless something is wrong at her place.”

“Stop by here on your way out so I know when you’re leaving.”

“And on my way back in so you can hear if I find out anything. Thanks, Spence.” Murphy gave him a little salute before exiting the office. Spencer turned back to the window to contemplate this new complication.

************

“I do not know about this, Takoda. You were so sure we needed to leave the winter encampment and change our path to reach the summer camp. I am not certain I can justify turning around again to….”

“No, Odahingum… no. Not the entire tribe – just a small scouting party.”

Odahingum shook his head. “Still, Takoda. I do not know. Did your vision not indicate that we needed to leave them alone to resolve their differences?”

“No, my friend. My vision indicated we needed to move from our normal path to avoid the slaughter of our People. It was my belief as a father that Koko and Donoma needed to resolve their problems on their own – we were only making the situation more difficult for both of them. Odahingum… it was past time that we left the winter encampment.”

“So why is there a need for a scouting party to return? Surely Koko Kanti is even stronger now than she was when we left them alone.”

Takoda sighed. “I know this is frustrating, Odahingum. I do not understand it myself – why would the Great Spirit not share something so important with me? But I cannot discount Honaw’s intuition. Though his gift is not as developed as mine nor as strong as Donoma’s, he does have some ability. Not sight so much as sense, but it is there. Would it be so difficult to allow him to go check on Donoma if it would give him some peace about them? I have never known him to ask if he did not feel there was sufficient reason to do so.”

“Very well, Takoda,” Odahingum sighed. “Honaw can go. But he will go by himself. We cannot afford to separate the tribe while we are on this altered path to go on what could amount to a wild goose chase. I refuse to put everyone in danger like that and sending the warriors….” Odahingum shook his head. “I do not want to seem heartless, Takoda, but I have to be honest – these kids… all of them… are beginning to drive me crazy.”

“I understand, Odahingum. I think it will be enough for Honaw that he is allowed to go. Thank you for allowing him to set his mind at ease. I will admit I would feel better knowing how they are now that Honaw has stirred things up a bit. Do you think that makes me crazy?”

“No, my friend… I think it makes you a good parent.” The chief blew out a breath. “I will ask Keezheekoni to go with Honaw. I am sure he will ask to go if I do not.”

“Thank you, Odahingum. It makes me feel better.”

Odahingum put an arm around Takoda’s shoulders and leaned in to speak softly, though there was no one else in the dwelling to hear. “I would deny this if you told anyone, Takoda, but it makes me feel better too.”

Takoda laughed. “I will let Honaw know. I am sure they will start out as soon as they can get started. Are we going to stay put until they return?”

“No… but we will move slowly. Ensure they are aware of our planned path so that they will be able to find us upon their return.” Takoda nodded and rose from his place beside Odahingum.

“It will be as you say, Odahingum.” Then he headed back into the rain to give Honaw the news.

************

Honaw exchanged sodden glances with Keezheekoni. They could have waited until the rain stopped, but the urgency Honaw felt prevented that. When he had heard of Honaw’s request, Keez had insisted that they head out as soon as possible, regardless of the rain. The sooner they reached their destination, the sooner they would be able to return to their homes and families. A little bad weather was not going to deter them.

“Do you think they will be in the glade where we left them, Honaw?”

Honaw exchanged glances with Keez before smirking just a little bit. “Think about this a minute, my friend. Donoma has Koko Kanti at her beck and call for the first time in five cycles. And she has five cycles worth of anger and frustration to get out in regards to Koko Kanti. Do you seriously think that there is any way Donoma is going to allow them to go anywhere for the next full season?? It will take them that long for Donoma Chepi to release all that pent-up aggression. Why do you think Takoda insisted they have their dwellings?”

“So you really have not had a vision then?”

“I do not have visions, Keez; I can only sense things. And I really do sense that something is not right. It is… it is hard to describe… like a heaviness in the pit of my stomach that seems to center around them. It does not happen often thankfully – and usually only about a battle or a place that is unsafe.”

“So why them? And why now?”

“I do not know, my friend. Perhaps because of all the controversy surrounding them; perhaps because I understand Donoma almost as well as she knows herself. But I will feel better once I have had the opportunity to see how they are for myself.”

“Well then, let us get there. I am certain the remainder of the tribe is waiting for our return. They are as anxious to know what is happening as we are.” He wiped the rain from his eyes and chuckled. “We should have simply stayed with them until things were settled; it would have saved us all a lot of grief.”

Honaw laughed in sympathy. “I do not think Donoma would have tolerated the supervision.”

Keez paused in thought. “I think you are right, Honaw. I believe I would have made an effort to get away from that much interested interference.”

“As I recall, you tried. You were just not as successful as Donoma.”

Keez snickered. “I am not as scary as Donoma.”

“Keezheekoni, *no one* is as scary as Donoma Chepi on the warpath. I almost feel sorry for Koko Kanti.” Their sniggering and chuckles followed them, and despite the rain, they felt better about the trip they were making and their reason for undertaking it. With any luck, they would find that Honaw’s gnawing gut had been the result of bad food – that things had returned to normal for Koko and Donoma and they would be able to report the same to the tribe when they reunited with them. And if they were really lucky, the sun would start shining sooner rather than later. Otherwise, it was going to be a long, uncomfortable ride.

Of course what they found when they reached the dell more than made up for the misery they had suffered on their ride. They were going to have some news to share.
Chapter XXIV
They were met by Black and Dapples, and it was clear from the horses’ aggressive behavior that something had happened. Honaw and Keezheekoni let the horses reacquaint themselves with the horses of the tribe before they dismounted and then allowed Black and Dapples to satisfy themselves that they were friends. Only then did the make a move towards the dell on foot.

They reached the edge of the small glade and looked down… then exchanged glances and slapped their hands over their mouths to keep from cheering. Koko stood proudly in her fine war regalia holding Donoma firmly in her grasp. At that moment, Donoma pulled away from her and Koko circled. The two men watched what to them was a silent tableau, knowing they would need to share all the details with the entire tribe upon their return.

Mindful of their still healing bodies, Donoma pulled away from Koko’s grip and turned her back. Koko circled her carefully then stepped up behind her, threading her arms around Donoma’s waist and holding her in place. “Join with me, Donoma,” she commanded firmly once again. “Be my chosen mate.” Her voice was low and growly and sent shivers up Donoma’s spine, causing Koko to smile in satisfaction.

“Tell me why, warrior. What makes you a worthy mate for me?” Donoma asked the question with the intensity it required, but Koko heard the breathiness in her voice.

“I am a strong warrior, ka’eskone – a stalwart defender and protector. I have proven my prowess on the battlefield in defense of my People. I am a skilled hunter and a good provider. Never has my family done without food and shelter.”

“That makes you a good prospect for anyone, Koko Kanti. What makes you a worthy mate for me?”

Koko turned Donoma in her arms, refusing to allow Donoma a chance to escape. Donoma brought up her hands, trying to keep a sliver of space between them only to find them crushed against Koko’s soft chest. Her breath caught in her throat and she raised her eyes to meet Koko’s intense blue ones.

“Nayeli, Nutta,” Koko answered softly. “Because I love you, beloved,” she reiterated in English, “with all my heart – and I have for my entire life. No one will love or care for you as completely I do. Join with me, ka’eskone. Be my chosen mate, and I will love you and care for you and protect you for as long as we are together.”

“How long are you willing to commit to me, Koko Kanti? How long will you stay by my side?”

“For as long as you will allow me to do so, Donoma Chepi, but my commitment to you is forever.”

Finally Donoma allowed her hands to slide up Koko’s chest, locking them behind the dark head and urging her down to Donoma’s lips. A hairsbreadth apart, Donoma licked her lips, gazing at Koko’s mouth for a long moment before dragging her eyes back to burning blue. “That is a very long time, warrior mine.”

Koko let her eyes drop to Donoma’s lips, reaching out with one hand to trace them reverently. She pulled her eyes back to shining green. “It is only the beginning, ka’eskone.” Then she leaned down and captured Donoma’s lips, plundering her mouth with a passion and intensity that left them both breathless when they separated for air.

“Join with me, beloved,” Koko asked for a third and final time. “Be my chosen mate.”

For answer, Donoma pulled Koko’s mouth back to hers, possessing it with the same intensity as Koko had shown her mere moments before. Then she backed up slightly, allowing her hands to scratch lightly down Koko’s neck and torso and smiling at the shiver that followed her touch.

“Come, my mate,” reaching for Koko’s hand and urging her towards her home. “It is time.”

Koko cursed her injury, wishing she could scoop Donoma and carry her into what would soon be their home. Instead, she dropped to her knees and leaned her forehead on Donoma’s belly. Donoma let her fingers tangle into Koko’s loose hair once more and held her in place.

“Nayeli, my warrior. Until time is no more, I will love you. Now come….” Koko rose from her knees and took Donoma’s proffered hands, following her into the tent.

************

Once they were sure Koko and Donoma were too preoccupied to detect their presence any longer, Honaw and Keez removed their hands from their mouths, but barely breathed as they watched the courtship dance commence. When Donoma and Koko disappeared into the confines of their home, the two men backed away from the edge of the ledge they were reclined on before rising and moving back to the Plain.

“Well, it seems as though your vision was incorrect, Honaw.”

“Perhaps, Keezheekoni, but I would feel better if I could talk to them. They were still very careful with one another. Not that I think they are uncomfortable with each other,” he pressed on before Keez could protest,” but something has happened… beyond Koko Kanti’s injuries. Even Donoma was slow and careful in her movements.”

Keezheekoni nodded slowly. “Perhaps you are right, hestatanemo. We have a bit of time before we should begin our return to the People. Besides, when they hear of the bonding, they will forgive us for our tardiness. Come,” he said. “We may as well be comfortable in our wait.” And the two began to gather chips enough to provide a fire for what would be their temporary home until they were able to talk to Koko and Donoma.

************

Stephen Murphy rode out of the town as the sun rose, hoping to reach Reb Stone’s home before the sun reached the horizon. He had never actually been to her home, but he had a good idea where to go and one of the scouts had given him directions after a fashion. So he knew there would be a bit of searching involved; he only hoped it would be easy to find.

There was no path to follow and no real landmarks; he had to rely on his sense of direction and navigational skill to guide him for the first little while. As midday approached, he reached the stream and the lone cottonwood that grew beside in and knew he was close. He took a break, giving his horse a chance to rest and taking the time to walk around a bit. He ate then remounted, anxious to complete his journey and get some answers to his questions.

It didn’t take as long as he feared it would and he was soon pulling up in front of her homestead. It was neat and tidy… and so quiet he knew she was not there. Still he approached with caution. Though she knew who he was and had no quarrel with him, the Marshall knew Reb did not tolerate unexpected visitors well. She had made that clear when she still lived in the town, and there was a reason she guarded her privacy so fiercely.

Still, he had an obligation to find her – for his own peace of mind as well as her safety. So he dismounted and walked slowly towards the front of the tiny cabin built from river rock. Murphy knocked several times and when they continued to go unheeded, he lifted the latch and pushed open the door. It was immediately apparent that no one was home, nor had they been for some time. There was no fire in the fireplace and the air was slightly musty – as though the door had not been opened for a while. He looked around inquisitively, not touching anything, but trying to satisfy his curiosity about the woman he respected and outlaws feared.

There was nothing personal out in the open… nothing that told him any more about Reb Stone than he already knew. After looking around once more, he took his leave, careful to close the door and leave the latch out like he had found it.

Murphy went back to his horse, trying to figure out his next move. It was clear that she had gone chasing after the Hobbs gang, but she hadn’t returned since. That meant trouble. The question was – what kind? Either she had been ambushed or killed by them or she had been injured and forced to hole up somewhere to heal. Either way, Stephen Murphy had no way to find her.

He clambered aboard his horse and headed away from her homestead. On the other hand, he reasoned, Spence might be willing to send a scouting party to find her, if only to learn the outcome of her run-in with Hobbs. Although given the resentment some of the soldiers seemed to feel towards her, it might not be the wisest course of action the Marshall could pursue. It would bear thinking about and he would have plenty of time to ponder it on his way back into town.

************

Donoma turned to Koko once they were inside her dwelling – what would soon become their home. She watched as Koko released the ties to shut the outside world out and allow them the privacy all mated couples were entitled to. A little odd, considering they were the only ones for miles, but it was tradition and it helped bolster her belief in the pledge they had just made to one another – made it seem more than just a fevered dream.

Then Koko stepped close enough that their bodies were just touching and Donoma knew that no dream had ever felt so real… so right.

Koko lifted her hands to Donoma’s face, allowing her fingertips to follow the planes and hollows so prominent in her features. Her touch was light and compelling and Donoma closed her eyes under the onslaught of intense emotion it created within her being. She felt as though Koko was worshipping her and forced her eyes open to find it was the truth.

She raised her own hands to Koko’s face to return the favor, closing her eyes to enhance the sensory feeling. Donoma followed the same path that Koko chose – across her forehead, over smooth eyebrows, down the sharply raised high cheekbones, around the nose, tickling full lips into a smile until they reached the firm jaw.

Donoma felt Koko move closer still and held her breath – nervous and excited at the same time. “Donoma,” Koko requested quietly, though there was no one to overhear them in this moment. “Beloved, look at me.”

It took a long few seconds for Donoma’s brain to catch up with her hearing; when it did, she blinked her eyes open slowly, gazing at Koko with an expression full of love and desire and seeing the same reflected back to her.

Koko’s hands moved from her jaw, down the front of her dress to stop at her waist. Then she shifted until her hands were gently cupping Donoma’s ass and bringing them into such close contact along their length that there was no room for air between them.

Koko bent her head, gratified when Donoma’s hands slid into her hair of their own accord, tangling in the thick locks and pulling her head down with tender ferocity. Then their lips met again and time ceased to have meaning.

When they finally separated the barest bit to reclaim their breaths, they leaned their foreheads together. “I never thought that this would be real,” Koko confessed. “I dreamed of it, but I never believed it would actually happen.”

“I never allowed myself to dream,” Donoma replied. “Not of this… I could not. It would have only served to remind me of the impossibility I would never attain.” She looked at the ground and bit her lip before returning her eyes to drown in the blue that stared back at her with complete devotion. “I believe I am going to like my reality much better than I ever enjoyed my dreams.”

Her smile was matched by the one Koko sported and she urged their lips together again. This time, however, her hands slid from Koko’s dark hair to the ties that held her shirt closed in the front of her body. She gently loosened them, fumbling slightly in her excitement, but knowing instinctively what she needed to accomplish in order to feel the smoothness of the Koko’s skin against her own in something other than the capacity of a healer.

Donoma didn’t even realize Koko was returning the favor wholeheartedly until cool air hit her bare skin and raised goosebumps along her exposed flesh. She tugged at Koko shirt, lifting it until she could no longer reach and allowing Koko to finish its removal. Then they stood and gazed at one another – finally allowed to look with the eyes of a lover.

“So beautiful,” Koko murmured, letting her eyes roam over Donoma’s body. Donoma wasn’t content to look; her hands began to wander of their own volition – tracing the womanly curves she had not been able to appreciate as a mate til now.

She paid close attention, noting the places that caused Koko to catch her breath and those that caused her hands to roam or to clench. She leaned down to kiss the still healing belly wound, glad for Koko’s amazing recuperative powers. When she reached the ties of the trousers, Donoma undid them and pushed them down the long length of leg with a fascination akin to reverence. Koko watched her, feeling humbled by the myriad of emotion she found in Donoma’s gaze when their eyes met.

Donoma opened her mouth to speak, but found her breath caught in her throat. At a loss, she reached for Koko’s body, wrapping herself around the strong body she craved and merging them into a single being. Koko closed her eyes at the contact, relishing the explosive sensation of skin on skin. Then she surrendered once more to Donoma’s urging, and they met in a hot, open-mouthed kiss, tongues plunging and invading as they explored tastes and textures.

Mindful of her limitations, Koko eased Donoma down onto the furs she had prepared earlier with just this moment in mind. No longer were they two divided stacks of furs creating two distinct beds – now they were a single entity covered with a new blanket, waiting to be christened as their joining bed.

They separated briefly in deference to their still healing bodies and collapsed gently onto the smooth surface. Donoma ran her hands over the soft blanket, recognizing it with surprise and looking up into Koko’s eyes.

“Where did you…?”

Koko shrugged and looked down at the blanket. “It was in the box of your things. I found it when I was searching for some bandages after you were injured. It was right on top. I thought it was a sign,” peeking at Donoma through long lashes. “I remembered it.”

“I am certain you did, warrior,” Donoma replied with a small smile, stroking the blanket once more. “How many nights did you sit beside me at the fire while Rae’l and Nahko’e and I worked on it? I never thought we would be able to use it as a joining blanket.”

“Nor did I, ka’eskone,” shifting her hands from the blanket back to the silkiness of Donoma’s skin. “I am glad you saved it,” letting her hands trail up Donoma’s body from her waist to the full round breasts and relishing the widening of darkened, green eyes and the flaring of Donoma’s nostrils when her thumbs teased rigid nipples.

Donoma closed her eyes as the first sensation rippled through her body, but couldn’t resist the desire to return the same pleasure to Koko. She opened her eyes, meeting the burning intensity in Koko’s and reaching out to caress the expanse of bare skin within reach.

Koko closed her eyes, enhancing the sensation for a long moment before nudging Donoma farther back, reclining them completely on the bed. They sighed simultaneously when they were fully stretched out along their lengths, absorbing the sensation of completion and desire that shivered through them. Then they turned their attention to loving one another, claiming one another in the most intimate and precious of ways.

************

“How long do you thing it will take them, hestatanemo?” Keez asked as the sun touched the western horizon. I do not recall any of our tribe taking so long to join with their mate.”

Honaw snickered inwardly, though his expression remained carefully neutral on the outside. “I do not think they are taking so long before joining with one another, Keez. I would be willing to wager that they are *still* joining with each other.” He paused. “Do you remember the attention to detail Koko was famous for as a warrior?” Keezheekoni nodded. “Why would you think that she would be any less focused on something that means everything to her?”

Keezheekoni nodded before his eyes widened perceptibly. “You do not think…?”

“I am not going to go any closer to find out, hestatanemo. I value my life.”

“Honaw, that is not natural. Not even the strongest among us could last….”

“Not even the strongest among us could defeat Koko Kanti, Keezheekoni. Do you really think there can be a comparison?”

Keezheekoni thought about Honaw’s words for a long moment before standing and wiping his hands on his trousers. “I will go hunting… see what I can find for our dinner.” He pointed in the direction opposite of the dell where Koko and Donoma were still comfortably ensconced. “I will go that way. I have no desire to find out if there could be a comparison. I promised Calyle I would return from this without any more bruises.”

Honaw burst into laughter, then quickly slapped a hand over his mouth. “She is already tired of repairing the damage that happens when Koko Kanti is around?”

“I think she grew accustomed to not having to do so. Besides, I do not believe Koko would let me survive if I interrupted her coupling with Donoma Chepi.”

Honaw snickered again. “I think you would have more to worry about from Donoma Chepi.”

Keez’s eyes widened comically. “I will be over there… very far away over there,” scooting off away from their tiny camp to the sound of Honaw’s laughter. Honaw watched him go before rising and heading out after him, knowing someone needed to collect more chips if they were going to have a fire. Besides, he didn’t want to be around just in case Koko and Donoma had heard them. He valued his life.

************

Koko and Donoma lay curled up together, gently stroking all the bare skin within reach which was considerable considering their nakedness. An unexpected sound of laughter stilled their movement and they exchanged glances.

“What was that?”

Koko tilted her head slightly. “Honaw… and probably Keezheekoni. They have been here for a while – since before we pledged to one another.”

“You knew they were there?”

“I was listening, ka’eskone; I heard their approach. I saw no reason to deny them the opportunity to share in our joy. They will provide witness to the People.”

“You are very clever, warrior mine.”

“And I am definitely yours, Nutta.”

“As I am yours, Nutta.”

Koko smiled and shifted until she was leaning over Donoma. Donoma smiled and twined her hands around Koko’s neck. “They can wait,” she declared and lowered herself to meet Donoma’s lips. Honaw and Keezheekoni would be waiting a while.
Chapter XXV
The sun was just peeking over the horizon when Koko stepped from the home she now shared with Donoma. At some point they would need to make some decisions, not the least of which was what to do with her own dwelling now that she and Donoma were joined to one another. But that was not her concern at the moment. Right now her focus was on finding and waking Honaw and Keezheekoni.

It wasn’t hard – they hadn’t tried to hide their trail from her. She walked right up to them, smiling evilly and then grabbed them by the shoulder as she let out a loud war cry. Both men jumped to their feet, wide awake and looking for the danger that clearly stalked them. All they found was Koko sitting on the ground laughing hard enough that she was biting her lip at the pain it was causing her. It didn’t slow her laughter though and a second glance at the two of them glaring at her caused another wave to peal from her mouth.

Honaw planted his hands on his hips. “That was not nice, Koko Kanti.”

“Of course it was not, Honaw, but it was very funny. You should have seen the expression on your face.”

Keez snickered. “She is right, Honaw – it was quite funny.”

“Oh… and like you were not?”

Keezheekoni laughed. “I am sure I was. Admit it, Honaw, Koko got us and very well. We should have known better than to sleep so close to her encampment. She taught us better.”

Honaw smiled reluctantly and he shifted his eyes in Koko’s direction, glaring as much as he could manage before breaking into unwilling chuckles. “Yes, she did,” he agreed. “Congratulations, by the way. We saw your joining ceremony with Donoma. Can I tell you we all believe it is about time things came right between you – how happy it makes us to know you are finally joined?”

Koko smiled. “Not nearly as happy as it makes me… and Donoma.” She slowly climbed to her feet. “Come… Donoma has started the fire and I promised to bring you both and some fish back for our morning meal. And I still need to go catch the fish.”

“Can we help?” Honaw asked as they cleaned up the small area they had slept in, tamping out the fire and spreading the ashes.

“If you would like to collect a few more chips for the fire, I am certain Donoma would be most appreciative. Then we can have breakfast and you can tell us why you are checking up on us.”

The two warriors nodded their heads in agreement, having expected as much. They tossed their blankets over the horses that stood nearby and went out onto the Plain to gather the chips for Donoma. Koko headed down to the stream, determined to beat the boys back to camp.

Donoma, meanwhile, had started the fire in the outside pit and placed water on to boil for tea. She couldn’t stop the smile that seemed to be plastered to her face as her mind wandered over and over the events of the previous day. Against all odds… despite her own doubts about trusting herself, she was happy. And even better – she was joined to Koko Kanti. Never in her wildest imaginings had she believed that Koko would love her like she did. For the first time in forever, Donoma knew completion.

Arms wrapped around her from behind and Donoma smiled as she recognized the touch… then scrunched up her nose at the fish smell that accompanied it. “You were successful in your hunt, I smell,” Donoma joked as she turned in Koko’s arms. “Where is your bounty, great fisherman?”

Koko released her hold on Donoma and turned to pick up the package that she had dropped to embrace Donoma. “Your morning meal, ka’eskone. Honaw and Keezheekoni are collecting chips – they will be here shortly. I will go wash up as I do not wish to offend.”

“That is probably a good idea, warrior. Otherwise you might scare the rest away from the camp.”

“Even you?”

“Oh no, warrior… you are not that lucky.”

“Oh, I do not know about that, ka’eskone. I think I am the luckiest person alive.” The sound of gagging interrupted what was headed for a passionate embrace. Koko looked up to glare in the direction of Keezheekoni. Honaw just shook his head and continued on into the camp, dropping the chips he was carrying onto the small pile by the fire. Keez burst into laughter and trotted along behind him, placing his chips on the pile and backing out of Koko’s reach.

Koko, however, was not about to let him get away so easily and took one giant stride towards him; Keez took a huge step back. Forward, back – forward, back… until they were at the water’s edge. Then, forgetting her injury, Koko lunged for Keez, taking him into the creek with her.

He squealed like a girl, howling at the coldness of the water he was suddenly immersed in. Honaw and Donoma exchanged glances before bursting into laughter. Keez turned to Koko, a wicked twinkle in his eye… until he realized from her expression that she was in a bit of pain. He extended a hand down to her and helped her to stand, then together they exited the stream.

Donoma was the first to notice the look in Koko’s eyes and moved to her side. “Are you all right, warrior mine?”

“Yes, ka’eskone,” Koko said wryly. “I should have been more careful.”

“I should have known better,” Keezheekoni said in disgust as he stripped off his wet shirt. “You think one day I would learn.”

The other three looked at one another before they all turned to him. “No,” they chimed at once, chuckling. He just shook his head before joining their laughter. Then he removed his trousers, leaving him clad only in his breechcloth.

Koko continued on into their dwelling to change her own clothes, returning mere minutes later in her joining leathers. She tossed Keez a fur to wrap around himself to keep from getting a chill as the breeze was still quite cool this early in the morning. Donoma had the fish nearly ready to eat and soon they were sitting around the fire enjoying the morning repast.

When their hunger had been satisfied, Koko turned her attention to Honaw. “So why are you here, Honaw? I thought the People were following the herd.”

“Actually, we have moved away from the herd for the moment. Takoda saw a great darkness befall the tribe if we remained true to the path of the buffalo. We will rejoin our brothers when Neho’e sees it is safe.”

“That does not answer my original question, though – why are you here?”

“Honaw had a bad feeling,” Keez responded after a moment. “Did something happen to you once the People left the area?”

“We had a bit of trouble, but things are better now,” Donoma answered. She turned to Honaw. “Thank you for looking out for us, hestatanemo. It is nice to know you are looking out for us, even reluctantly.” She opened her arms and Honaw wrapped her up in his strong embrace.

“I am never reluctant to look after you, ka’eskone, but I do not care for the gnawing in my gut when things are not right with you. What happened?” He looked at Koko. “Was it the tension between you two or something more?”

“Something more,” Koko confirmed, “though I do not as yet know what. We will be going into town for a bit when we leave this place – I have business there and it is possible that the white lawman there may have some news about whatever the something more is.”

“So you do not know.”

“No, and at the moment, I do not even have suspicions.”

Honaw and Keezheekoni regarded the two women for a long minute before turning their gazes to one another. They nodded satisfactorily and then turned back to Koko and Donoma. “Very well,” Honaw decided at last. “Do you have any idea how long you will be gone from us this time? It would be nice to be able to tell the elders when to expect you to be with us again.” Koko shook her head, accepting his silent rebuke with a nod. Donoma, however, glared at him until he had to look away from her.

“Donoma,” Koko chided softly, but Donoma stopped her protest with a violent shake of her head.

“No, beloved,” addressing Koko in English, surprising everyone before reverting back to her native tongue. “As long as we are together….”

“No, ka’eskone – just because we are together now does not mean they stop caring for you… for us. They are well within their right to ask.”

Donoma glared at the two men again who sat looking abashed under her obvious ire. “I do not have to like it,” she finally relented, “But I do understand.”

“So…?”

“I cannot say for certain, hestatanemo. It will depend on a goodly number of things.”

“But you do plan to return to the People?”

“We will try.”

Honaw nodded his acceptance of her answer. “Fair enough,” he conceded. “That will be the response I give the elders when they ask – you know they will… especially when I share with them the fact of your private joining.” He turned to Donoma. “You know Nahko’e will be disappointed she missed it.”

“You know that will not stop her from hosting the wildest celebration she can manage when we return.”

Keez laughed. “I do not think it will keep her from starting the party as soon as *we* return with the news. As long as the People have been waiting for this….” trailing off when he saw Honaw vehemently shaking his head, then noting the looks of consternation both Donoma and Koko were giving him. “I mean….” verbally backtracking and looking at Honaw for help.

“You mean what exactly?” Donoma asked with a frown marring her features. Koko just sat back and waited for the fallout, exchanging glances with Honaw who crossed his arms over his chest to watch.

“I mean,” Keez stammered, looking around and realizing he was on his own. “Well….”

“Yes?” arching a dark blonde eyebrow in his direction.

“Oh come on, Donoma,” he finally said with a bit of exasperation in his voice. “It did not take a seer of even Honaw’s admittedly limited ability to know that you and Koko belong together… you always did. From the time she came to us – from the time you brought her and Rae’l into the tribe – you were always a part of one another. And when she left, you changed. Everyone who watched it happen was waiting for the day Koko returned to you.”

Donoma blinked, staring at Keezheekoni for a long moment before shifting her attention to Honaw first and then landing on Koko. “Everyone knew?” she whispered.

Honaw shrugged, then realized she couldn’t see his reaction with her attention focused on Koko. “Everyone knew,” he agreed softly. “At least anyone who took the time to look.”

“Everyone knew?” Donoma whispered again, her eyes never leaving Koko’s.

“Everyone except for you and me apparently,” Koko replied wryly. “But it does not matter, ka’eskone. We know now and that is all that is important.”

“Look at it this way, ka’eskone,” Honaw said with a smile. “You will not surprise anyone when they hear the news of your joining. You just have to accept the fact that Nahko’e is going to have the biggest party the People have ever seen. It might even rival the sun festival.”

Donoma’s eyes grew wide in startlement and she looked at Koko with alarm. “Perhaps we should forget going back to the People until we are gray and stooped with age. I am not sure I am up to that much celebration.”

Honaw and Keezheekoni joined Koko’s laughter and she wrapped Donoma up in a tight hug when she reluctantly smiled. “Not to worry, Donoma. If Nahko’e starts the celebration when Keez and I arrive, I imagine it will be winding down a bit by the time you and Koko return.”

“I can only hope.” This time they all dissolved into sniggers.

************

Stephen Murphy had decided to take advantage of the fact that Spencer was handling the law duties in the small town near the fort for another day or so. If Reb was not at her home, then it was entirely possible that she was still on the trail looking for Hobbs and his gang or any other number of outlaws whose wanted posters still hung on the walls of his office. He would certainly ask for a scouting party if he returned without finding her, but maybe he could at least give them an idea of where to start looking.

What bothered him was her rather complete disappearance without a word. Stone was nothing if not a professional and it worried him more than he cared to admit that she had not returned within a reasonable amount of time. He could almost set his pocket watch by her – even when she was out chasing criminals. She went – she conquered – she came back for her spoils. And since she had not returned to claim her bounty, Murphy decided to do a little investigating on his own.

He headed away from the cottonwood, confident that she had headed west into the Plains – most outlaws went that way as there was very little to stop them once they were beyond the fort and town.

He rode that way until the sun touched the horizon, not seeing any sign of either Hobbs’ gang or Reb Stone. He wondered if there was any sense in what he was doing. Surely Stone had proven her skill – why had he chosen this moment to doubt her ability to take care of herself?

Murphy shook his head. The truth was it was less doubt than concern. More times than he could count, Reb had watched his back, and he wanted her to know he would do the same for her. The difference was he had no idea where to start.

He set up a temporary campsite, picketing his horse nearby and starting a small fire to ward off the chill in the air. Tomorrow he would head back into town and see if maybe she had returned on her own. With the accusations that were starting to fly around the army, he needed to find her soon – if only to dispel the rumors that were being spread against her.

The Marshall turned his thoughts back to what the colonel had said. Why would the army want to blame a bounty hunter for the accidental deaths of two of its own? It didn’t make any sense – Reb Stone had done the army a number of favors by the outlaws she had removed from their sphere.

Murphy could understand resentment within the ranks over the fact that she was a woman. It had galled him too at first to know that she could operate so successfully outside the norm – not only as a woman, but also as one who basically functioned beyond the laws he was sworn to uphold. But that did not excuse the unreasonable need to hold Stone responsible for something that was not in line with her character. If nothing else, it drew attention to those who stood accusing.

What were they trying to hide?

************

Donoma and Koko walked Honaw and Keezheekoni back up the small incline to their horses. They had shared conversation and lunch while waiting for Keez’s leathers to dry and once they had, the warriors were ready to leave.

“You do not need to rush off, hestatanemo. You are welcome to share our campsite for another day.”

“I do not think so, ka’eskone. You are a newly joined couple and it is for the best that the two of you have a little time alone.” He didn’t say anything more, but the twinkle in his eyes caused Donoma to blush.

“Besides,” Keezheekoni added as he mounted his horse. “Explaining the chafing to Calyle is going to be bad enough. I promised her I would not get hurt while I was out here with Honaw.”

“Then the two of you stay safe going back to the People. There is someone or something out here targeting something, though whether it is us or the horses or the land or something else all together, I cannot say for certain. Not very informative or helpful
I am aware, but it is all we know at the moment. If I find out anything, I will ensure that someone lets the tribe know.”

Honaw knelt and drew in the fire pit ashes. “This is the normal route we take following the herd to the summer encampment.” He drew a second line in the dirt. “This is the path Takoda currently has us on. It will still lead to the summer camp, but it will take us longer to arrive and will keep us away from the buffalo for a majority of the journey.”

Koko nodded her head. “Look for Hassun – the scout you met on your visit into town. He is the one I will send to the People with news.” Honaw’s eyes grew round in disbelief and Koko smirked. “I knew as soon as I returned to town, Honaw. It was exceedingly brave of you to come looking for me, hestatanemo, but you would not have found me regardless of your bravery or your intentions. I was not ready to talk to anyone… not even you.”

“Were you there hiding from me?”

“No, Honaw… I really was gone. But I would have stayed away as long as you remained in the town. I was made aware of your presence before I returned.”

He nodded. “I will look for Hassun if we do not see you first.” He stepped forward and took Donoma into his arms. “Be safe, ka’eskone… and be happy.” She leaned forward and kissed his cheek, then he mounted his horse. “Watch over one another and return to us soon.”

The two warriors saluted Koko and she bowed her acceptance of the gesture. Then they turned their horses back in the direction they had come. She and Donoma watched them out of sight; then they headed back down into the dell.

“Shall we head out tomorrow?”

“We can leave when you are ready, Nutta. You lead and I will follow.”

“I would prefer that you walk by my side, ka’eskone.”

For answer, Donoma clasped Koko’s hand and together they walked side by side into their home.

Chapter XXVI

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