By Sandra Barret
Disclaimer: This is an original work of fiction. All characters, worldbuilding and story belong to the author.
Feedback: Constructive comments and criticism welcomed at firstname.lastname@example.org, and many thanks for reading.
Taryn, shinaran Healer-Adept and interim ruler of Damek province, sat astride her horse, staring into the dark shadows of the Velek Forest. "Do you think it's a wolf-pack from the Black Mountains?"
"Possibly," said Damon, pulling his horse back onto the path. "We should have brought a small contingent of guards with us to hunt them down."
Taryn sighed and wrapped her black cloak tighter. She turned to her pax-man. "Where to next?"
Damon scanned the rolling hills around them that served as grazing land for Damek paint horses, one of their main sources of trade with neighboring provinces. "Keep on the path, I suppose."
The gray sky and sporadic drizzle dampened clothing and spirits as they rode in silence. They passed another dead animal, but found no further evidence of what killed it. Taryn considered giving up and returning to Atheron when she sensed something strange. She closed her eyes and reached out with trained shinaran senses. Prejudice against her caste kept her from openly displaying her abilities outside her own family and staff. Few in Damek, or all of Altemand, had forgotten the depravations of Sesanth, the last shinaran ruler in Damek more than a century before. His was not the sort of legacy she wished to inherit.
"A moment, my Lady," said Damon, interrupting her mental search. He pointed to another kill to their left, this one fresh. Taryn grimaced, but said nothing.
They rode up the small rise to where the dead foal lay and dismounted. The scent of decay was absent, but a brief respite in the rain meant flying insects had already settled in on the bleeding carcass. The insects buzzed around, harassing and biting as Taryn and Damon approached the dead horse. They walked around it, carefully checking for anything that might suggest what had killed it.
The tricolor yearling lay with its thick winter coat matted and muddy against the high wet grass. Damon stopped, checking for bites or claw marks on the blood streaked body. Taryn searched in a wider circle for tracks in the grass and the outer reaches of the nearby forest. She came across fresh tracks not made by horse or wolves. She walked back to get Damon's opinion.
"Look, my Lady," he said as she approached. "There are claw marks raking the hind quarters and more along the head and withers. There are no deep wounds along the neck or anywhere except here." He pointed with his boot to an open hole torn through the chest cavity.
White, broken ribs jutted out through horse flesh and torn muscle. Taryn turned away from the sight, feeling the bile rise in her stomach.
"Sorry, but there's more," he said. "The heart is gone."
Taryn held up a shaking hand, her face ashen. "Enough. Now we know we're not hunting wolves. I found some tracks, but I don't recognize them."
She led Damon to the tracks.
He bent down, measuring the length of the claws and the gap between sets of prints. "I've never seen tracks like this before. The creature was heavy, but not overly large. It must depend on speed and these front claws to attack its prey," he said. "But I don't know how it kept the horse down while it clawed out the heart."
A piercing screech interrupted them. Taryn staggered as a fierce mental assault battered her internal barriers. Damon fell to the ground, clutching his head in agony. He was not protected from the attack as she was by her mental barriers. Taryn recovered quickly and retrieved their frightened horses. She handed Damon the reins to his horse, and then she mounted and galloped ahead, searching for the source of the brief but fierce assault. Damon recovered and caught up with her. They rode, spraying brown clots of mud behind them from the racing horses. The rains began pelting down as Taryn sensed their prey escaping. Raindrops stung her eyes, but she urged her horse faster.
As they crested the top of the rise, Taryn saw a mud-caked creature, patches of dull gray hide showing through the dirt and grime. As they watched, it tore through another animal, ripping out its heart and eating it whole. Taryn spurred her horse on, followed by Damon. The creature turned toward them, letting out another wail and mental attack. Taryn was prepared this time and blocked the attack, protecting them both from the onslaught. She and Damon rode across the grasslands, cutting the muddy creature off from the protection of the woods. It howled again, but its powers were no match for a trained shinaran. She protected human and horses from the mental attack.
Taryn and Damon drew their swords as they neared the creature. Thick, gray fog lay across the grassy slope between them and the beast, occluding their view. Taryn reached out mentally, trying to sense its abilities. She could see it clearly in her mind, a mutated cross between a wolf and something almost ape-like. The creature screeched once more and ran straight for her, causing her horse to bolt in the opposite direction. She fought to regain control of her frightened mount, clutching reins and willing her own legs to unclench. She turned her horse in time to see Damon racing after the creature as it ran for the forest. He threw his dagger after the escaping beast as it reached the wood's edge where his horse could not follow. Taryn trotted toward him as he dismounted and entered the heavy growth that signaled the start of the Velek Forest.
She dismounted and joined Damon a few paces into the woods, her sword clenched in gloved hands. "Be careful. This thing has powers I've never felt outside my own caste."
Damon's brown eyes widened. He and Taryn followed the tracks of the creature into the bushes. Thorns and branches tugged at their cloaks as they tried to continue the hunt, but the effort was futile. The creature had escaped into the dark, tangled depths of the forest. Damon saw his tossed dagger on the forest floor. When he moved to retrieve it, Taryn stopped him.
"Look," she said, pointing at the blade.
The bed of leaves on which the metal blade rested smoked and burned. Black blood from the creature still clung to the blade. Damon's aim had been sure but not enough to stop the creature. He bent for a closer look, lifting the dagger by its unsoiled handle. Wiping the blade on a tree trunk, he left a burnt trail on the tree's bark. He continued to wipe the blade clean on leaves until it glinted, free of the black blood. Taryn bent to study the burnt leaves and bark. Taking off a black glove, she ran her hand just above the burn marks on the tree, probing the aftereffects of the creature's blood.
"Any ideas, my Lady?" asked Damon.
"No," she said. "I've never heard of a creature that carries the powers of my caste or any creature that bleeds a black acid that burns. At least none outside of myths and old crone's tales."
"And those of myth?" he asked.
Taryn looked up at him. Rain dripped off his grayed hair, and she wondered if her apprehension was as ill concealed as his. Curiosity battled with fear as she examined the burn marks again.
"And those of myth," she replied as she stood, "are best not talked of, alone in the woods with a beast that bleeds a burning death."
The shadows lay long across their path by the time Damon and Taryn reined in at Stillwater. The quiet town was little more than a crossroads between two trade routes, with rows of gray buildings lining the main east-west road they traveled. A broad, stone building with a black, shingled roof stood beyond the other buildings.
"Is that the inn down there?" Taryn asked, pointing to the stone building.
"No, the inn is just above the tavern."
She turned to look at the dusty, wood structure to their right. In the limited light of dusk, she couldn't see through the grimy windows. The wooden walkway outside the inn appeared recently swept, the only clean spot in view.
"It's not much," said Damon.
"Better than wet ground."
He took their horses around to the barn while Taryn walked to the front of the tavern to ask for rooms. The uninviting outside doors were painted dull black with a red border. A peeling sign, hanging from rusty chains, swung above it. The picture of water dripping from a pail represented the tavern's obvious name, The Leaky Bucket.
Taryn pushed through the front doors. Her eyes adjusted to the dark room as the smell of damp wood and mildew assailed her. Perhaps the wet ground would be better after all. A lone figure, drying a row of pewter mugs, stood behind the bar.
"Excuse me," said Taryn, "We're looking for two rooms for the night."
The bleary-eyed man looked her up and down over his shoulder. Taryn's plain, wet clothing had nothing to signify her rank.
"That'll be ten decats for the night," said the man, turning back to his row of mugs. "Twelve if you want food."
Taryn pulled out twelve coins. "It's very quiet in here this evening."
The innkeeper scooped up the money and poured her a cup of wine. "They're all at the meeting house for the witch-boy's trial."
Taryn stiffened. "Witch-boy?"
"Not something you need worry about, Miss. Local business."
She sipped her wine. It tasted weak. "What's this boy done?"
The man spat behind the bar. "Been a lot of dead livestock. Folks think this witch-boy's been up to it."
Taryn slammed her cup on the table. "You're blaming a boy for predator attacks on your animals?"
The innkeeper shrugged. "Not me. I stay out of these things."
"Where is this meeting hall?" she asked.
"It's down the road. Big, stone barn. You can't miss it."
Taryn took one more gulp of the weak wine. Slamming the goblet on the table, she turned and stomped out of the tavern.
The innkeeper called after her, "Best stay out of it, Miss. The cleric's up there already, taking care of business."
Taryn collided with Damon on her way out of the tavern.
"Lady, what is it?"
"I intend to find out, Damon. Follow me, please."
Taryn's long stride took them down the isolated road past two more run down buildings. They crossed the muddy road in front of the stone meeting house where horses grazed freely within the fenced yard surrounding the building, and two carts were stationed along the side fence. They walked along the stone pathway to the white, double doors of the building. Voices drifted out from the poorly shuttered windows.
They entered the hall. Candles and a few torches battled against the looming shadows. Two columns of benches split the wide room, leading up to a central platform. Cowering in the middle of the platform was a small boy in dirty clothes. A dozen townsfolk sat in the benches.
Stunned silence greeted her arrival as Taryn strode to the front. She focused on the hooded figure standing at the head of the crowd. This person wore the brilliant blue robe of a cleric. Something about the way the robes clung to the cleric, revealing an obviously female body, pulled at Taryn's memory.
She stepped in front of the cleric. "Are you responsible for this hearing?"
The cleric lowered her hood.
Taryn recognized the long, auburn hair and sensuous full lips. "Vasali."
Vasali's lips curved as her eyes slid up and down Taryn's body. "I'm afraid I'm not as familiar with you as I would like to be," said Vasali.
Damon planted himself beside Taryn. "This is the Lady Taryn of Damek."
A murmur ran through the crowd behind Taryn, but she chose to ignore it.
Vasali gave her a slow bow. "Lady, my apologies. It has been a long time since I've been to Atheron, but I am flattered you found something in me to remember."
Taryn felt her face flush. Manipulative is what she remembered, emotionally and sexually manipulative.
"The boy, Vasali. What is he being charged with?" asked Taryn.
"The good people of Stillwater feel someone has cursed them," Vasali replied as she guided Taryn to the platform. The floorboards creaked under Taryn's muddy boots as she approached the small, timid boy.
Vasali leaned in to whisper in Taryn's ear, sending an unwelcome warmth through her. "They wish him dead, Lady, but I don't know why they hate him so."
Taryn pulled herself away from Vasali's presence. She knelt before the filthy boy. He couldn't have been more than eight or nine. "What's your name, child?"
The boy said nothing. He looked to Vasali.
"He is mute, Lady."
As Damon joined them on the platform, the boy's eyes widened. He crawled behind the cleric.
Damon looked to Taryn for direction.
"Maybe you should stay by the benches. He doesn't seem to like burly, military men."
Damon smirked but walked back off the platform.
Someone from the benches shouted, "He's cursed us!"
Taryn turned to the crowd. It was then that she noticed a round woman standing by the side of the crowd, clutching two small children to her hips. Hers seemed the only sympathetic face in the group.
"Who is that one?" she asked Vasali.
"It is the woman who raised the boy."
"Raised? Not his mother then?"
Vasali's hands stroked the boy's dirty hair. "No, he's an orphan. She took him in to help with chores when her husband died."
Taryn approached the boy again. He cringed behind Vasali. Something about the boy must frighten the townsfolk. Taryn took a gamble, reaching out mentally to the child. I won't hurt you.
Please don't let them burn me!
Taryn reached out a hand. They won't. The big man is my pax-man. He protects me.
The boy came out from behind Vasali and placed a grimy hand in Taryn's. They both stood.
"What's the formal charge against this boy?" she asked, turning to the crowd.
An ox of a man stood in the front, glaring at her over Damon's shoulder. Damon's hand rested on his sword hilt.
"He killed my stallion, my prize stud."
Taryn sneered. "This child? Look at him. He'd be lucky to catch an old house cat."
The man spat. "He's a witch. We've seen him. The boy should hang or burn."
The crowd grumbled their agreement as the boy's foster mother whimpered in the corner.
The boy cowered behind her as Taryn focused on the ringleader. "You mean the boy is shinaran." Her voice was steady, but held the icy tone of her authority.
The man nodded, "We don't like their kind. Bring trouble and who knows what else."
Taryn had enough. "The boy comes with me. Your troubles are ended."
Two more angry villagers stood up as if to bar her way. Damon drew his sword.
With two or three backers at his side, the first man became bold, even against Damon's sword. "You're not taking him, Lady. In this town, we deal with our own as we see fit."
Taryn held her anger in check. "I rule in Damek and no town here will be lynching an innocent shinaran child."
She focused her mind, building energy. She illuminated the air around her so that it glowed like a shimmering green halo with her and the boy in the center. The child looked up at her in awe. The town folk gasped. There was no doubt now that Taryn was also shinaran and fully trained.
The rest of the crowd backed down, but the fat, angry man planted himself in her way, standing in front of Damon with his burly fists curled. "Witch," he sneered.
Taryn's temper let loose. She formed a fireball in her fist and threw it at his feet, singeing the floorboards.
The man's face went pale. His eyes held hers for an instant, transmitting his hatred, and then he backed out of the hall with everyone else.
Taryn let her energy filter away. Damon stomped out the small fire, and then stood away from her, avoiding eye contact. She'd pay for her little temper tantrum, but could not bring herself to regret her display of power. Just how long had they been bullying the small boy because of his differences. She looked down at the boy, who still watched her in awe, and saw a reflection of the loneliness and isolation she'd felt as the only shinaran child in Damek Keep as she grew up.
"Impressive show, Lady," whispered Vasali.
"And why didn't you realize the boy was shinaran?" asked Taryn, her anger barely in check.
Vasali's eyelashes fluttered. "Clerics do not emphasize their shinaran origins." She shrugged. "Those who seek our guidance prefer to remain ignorant of where our skills come from."
Protecting your own hides, more likely, thought Taryn as she urged the boy to walk with her. "We'll take him back with us, Damon."
"Yes, my Lady." Damon sheathed his sword.
"I can take him on to Atheron tonight, if you wish," offered Vasali.
"With no moonlight to guide you? No, I think we stay at the inn for tonight and leave at first light," said Taryn. She felt the tiredness which always followed such a display of power.
"As you wish, Lady," said Vasali with a bow. "May I join you tomorrow? I should like to get reacquainted." She gave Taryn a liquid smile.
Taryn disliked the attention Vasali was showing her and the instinctual way her body reacted. "Fine," she grumbled, leading the way out of the meeting hall.
Outside, the horses and carts were gone, as well as most of the people, all but the heavy-set woman, the boy's foster mother.
"Lady," she bowed, avoiding Taryn's eyes. "Jed, he's a good boy."
Taryn looked down at the boy. What is your real name?
"His name is Ashon," said Taryn. She lay a hand on the woman's arm. "He will be safe in Atheron, I swear it. He can be trained there or in one of the shinaran schools nearby."
The woman sniffed, wiping her nose on a grimy sleeve. "Thank you." She seemed to want to say more, but bowed and disappeared into the growing dark with her children.
Taryn held the boy's hand and walked back to face the indifferent innkeeper.
The wind skittered old leaves through the darkened courtyard as Taryn left the stables of Damek Keep. Damon followed close behind her. The sound of their riding boots echoed on the flagstones that led to the main hall of the vast stone edifice. It had been a long, slow ride back from Stillwater with Vasali and Ashon in tow. They rode the last length in near darkness as the gray day led to an unseasonably chilly dusk. Vasali stopped with the boy at the Clerics Hall in Atheron.
Taryn tugged at her cloak as drops of rain beat down on them. Damon kept pace with her. Together they entered the main building through the kitchen entrance, startling the chef and her assistants.
"Oh, Lady Taryn, you honor us. We have some bread and meat we can warm for you from the evening meal," said the chef, her round cheeks crimson as she hustled her assistants to action.
"And a large bottle of wine," added Taryn, her quick stride taking her past the stunned chef and out of the kitchen to the main hall. Damon followed behind her, and she heard him murmur a quick thank you to the kitchen staff. Taryn flinched at her own lack of manners.
The main hall, built centuries before as the meeting place for the many regions of Damek, was an immense two-story room with polished grey stone floor and blackened oak beam ceiling. A wide staircase led from the hall to a corridor of private rooms above. Lower hallways led back to the Records rooms, library, and council chamber. The rest of the Keep had spread over the years from this one central building.
Taryn circled around past the main front doors. She tried to ignore the walls above her, from which paraded portrait after portrait of the past rulers of Damek. She felt them glaring down at her with ancient authority. Central to them all, over the large hearth, hung the portrait of Brion, the last great ruler, her father.
She slowed her pace as she neared the warm fire burning in the central hearth, discarded her cloak on one chair and dropped herself into the next one. Damon stood quietly nearby as Taryn stared at the portrait of her father above the hearth. Brion's black hair and dark eyes matched her own. The artist had taken liberties with her father's large size and black, wavy hair to highlight some of the reasons he'd gotten the nickname, the Bear of Damek.
"Damon, if you don't sit down, I swear I'll have you physically belted to a chair."
Taryn's gaze never left her father's portrait. Damon removed his cloak and settled into the chair opposite her. He leaned forward to warm his hands by the fire. He coughed, seeking Taryn's attention. She turned away from the portrait, her nerves still brittle from their discovery and the townsfolk of Stillwater.
"The beast, my Lady. You haven't spoken of it since Stillwater. What did you, what could you sense from it?" he asked.
It must have cost him greatly, she thought, to ask so directly about her shinaran gifts. Most of her staff ignored her differences. Taryn and her mother were the only shinaran living in the Keep, though there were others in nearby Atheron.
"Please forgive my sour disposition," she began. "The last two days have left me rattled."
The sound of muffled footsteps coming down the staircase interrupted them. Taryn turned to see her mother descend toward the main hall, accompanied by Adele, the old Record's Keeper for Damek. Lady Celina pulled back her graying hair at the nape of her neck as she walked down the stairs.
"The draft in this hall is awful, Taryn. Why do you always sit in here?" asked Celina as she tightened her soft blue robe around her plump frame as she sat across from Taryn on the deep green cushioned couch.
Taryn smiled to Adele as she settled on a bench by the fire.
"I am sorry to interrupt," said Celina. "What beast is this? Have you found what's killing our horses?"
Damon nodded, "We found something, Lady Celina, but we're not sure what it was."
"We didn't get a close look at the creature before it fled," said Taryn, "but its mental image and unusual abilities matched legends I've read at Vescant."
She took a deep breath as she prepared to voice what had been bothering her for the past day. "I think it's demon-bred."
Stunned silence settled around her. Taryn made a mental note of which books she wanted to get from her old mentor, Thedric at Vescant. Two or three dealt with the origin myths of Altemand and delved into mythic and demonic creatures. She wanted to check Adele's records as well. The Keep's library had extensive volumes on the history of the province, and the old record-keeper knew where the relevant records were kept.
Celina broke the silence. "This doesn't make sense. Demons don't exist, not in Damek, not anywhere."
Taryn turned to her mother. "How do we know that? I mean how can we be sure? Our written records only go back a few hundred years. Anything before that was written down centuries after the events, mingling with myths."
"Yes," said Celina, "but that doesn't mean what came before the written word is demonic."
"The origin myths of Altemand suggest it's possible. All our legends talk of demons and magical creatures. Good against Evil."
Damon added, "Like the story of The Chesian Sea protecting Altemand from the demons of Nemanir beyond the waves. That legend's been around for generations."
"Stories to frighten children," said Celina, waving her hand dismissively.
"I wouldn't dismiss her ideas so easily," said Adele, peering over her wire-frame spectacles. "There's quite a lot in the old records that match what your daughter's been saying."
"Well, what makes you think this thing was a demon?" asked Celina. "Maybe it was some deformed animal."
Taryn considered just linking telepathically with her mother, but discarded the notion, for Damon and Adele's sake.
"Its major weapon against its prey is an incapacitating mental scream that momentarily cripples its victim. I wasn't quick enough to block Damon from the first attack."
Taryn saw the color fade from Damon's cheeks as he nodded in silent agreement.
"And it sensed me as well, Mother. When I blocked its mental attack the second time, it attacked me physically, though Damon was closest to it."
"Hmm," said Celina after a moment. "Even so, demons don't just walk off the pages of a storybook. Next you'll be telling me you met a band of Altaran in the woods."
Taryn saw Damon's look of confusion and explained, "It's an old children's tale about tiny slate-black people and their magical powers. They went from town to town like a traveling circus, amazing children with their bag of tricks. Some people think shinaran are the lost orphans of these people." She turned back to her mother. "Anyway, this demon was real. No other animal has ever had shinaran mental powers."
"Could someone have been controlling it? Some shinaran handling the mental attack while the beast ran at you?" asked Adele.
"It's possible, but I sensed no one else in that area. It would have to be someone very powerful or physically very close. After our experience in Stillwater, I doubt there are many shinaran in that area."
"And the blood," added Damon. "The creature bled a black blood like liquid fire, burning tree and leaves."
Celina sank back into her cushions. "Did you kill it then?" she asked.
"No. It escaped into the Velek Forest." Taryn sighed and stretched her stiff legs. "I'll need to consult my books on this demon-spawn or whatever it is. I can have some of the old volumes sent down from Vescant." Somehow the thought of her old shinaran school cheered her sour mood. Studying old texts would not replace her dream of being a Master Healer, but it might give her an excuse to exercise her shinaran skills.
The room grew quiet as the kitchen staff came in with bread, meats and a bottle of red wine. Taryn poured herself a full glass and drank in small sips as she nibbled on the bread.
"Well to add to that, we have had some news since you left yesterday. News of your brother," said Celina.
Taryn sat up, "What? Where is he? Is he coming back?" she asked, the words tripping over each other to get out all at once.
"Settle down. No, the news isn't good. We have word he's been seen in Tramoran."
Taryn stood up, pacing. "How sure are you of these reports, Mother?"
"You can probe the messenger yourself if you like."
She considered it a moment, but shook off the offer. Her mother's skills were adequate to read the details of another's memory, if offered willingly.
"Is he prisoner to Fasal?" she asked.
Adele answered, "No. As far as we can tell, he traveled there freely, though not openly."
"Fasal would love to capture or kill all of us," Celina added, her eyes flashing in anger.
Old Adele lifted her be-speckled gaze to Taryn. "Are you sure Alek is still alive?"
The attention of the others tugged at the edges of Taryn's mental barriers. "My brother lives," she said softly. Taryn had the rare shinaran gift of sensing when a loved one died. She knew her brother lived, just as she knew the moment that her father had died in the avalanche that entombed him in a frozen grave five years ago. She knew Damon still felt the pain of that moment, when he had to watch helpless as Brion was swept away before him. The old pax-man never forgave himself for Brion's death.
"Your pardon, my Lady, but will you send for Lord Alek?" asked Damon.
Taryn stared at him. "Alek deserted this house. He left family and province over two years ago for who knows what reason. He left me." She looked away, remembering the day her brother's councilors asked her to take up his position. She'd had support of just over half the councilors, excluding Farrell from the forest Border Guards, Damon at the time, and even her foster-brother, Phelin, who held to the belief that Alek would return. Phelin's objections hurt most of all. The three of them had grown up together after Phelin's parents died. He even protected her from Alek's boisterous pranks, when her brother would lose her in the tunnels under the Keep. Phelin would always return for her.
But, like all else, her shinaran differences had alienated even her foster-brother. He adamantly objected to her appointment based on those differences. Now he avoided her entirely, keeping only to his formal duties as Commander of Damek's Guards.
"Alek is no traitor. That I'm sure of," said Damon.
"I agree," said Celina, standing up to guide Taryn back to her chair.
Taryn bristled. "He left here secretly, with no guidance, left all his responsibilities. Now I hear he is in Tramoran. What am I to believe, Mother? That Alek means well. That Alek only seeks the enemy of Damek because it's in all our best interests?"
Her own angry words echoed in her mind but she wouldn't take them back. He walked out on them all and destroyed her dreams as well as his own. Now she ruled out of a sense of duty, in a land that tolerated her differences only because she was Brion's daughter.
Celina stood next to her, resting her hands on Taryn's tense shoulders. "Alek is still my son. He's brash and irresponsible at times, much like your father was at that age."
"Then why?" asked Taryn. "Why is he in Tramoran? Lord Fasal would want nothing more than to use Alek to bring down Damek, maybe add it the rest of his illegal province holdings."
Celina sighed, "I've had no visions, child. I can only be glad that Alek was seen alive, wherever he is. And hope he finds his way back to us."
Taryn stared into the fire. If only he came back. She could return to Vescant Hall and continue her shinaran studies. There at least she knew she had the skills, might even become a Master Healer some day. And others wouldn't threaten to roast her for being shinaran. No one outright rejected her leadership, but there were more than a few landowners that bristled under her rule. Sometimes she thought Phelin had been right in rejecting her in council.
Taryn linked telepathically with her mother. Why wasn't Phelin considered for ruling Damek?
Your father had different plans for him, uniquely matched to Phelin's abilities.
"What about the cleric who befriended Alek before he left?" asked Celina.
Damon shrugged, "Phelin has spoken with her frequently but hasn't uncovered anything."
Celina paused a moment. "Where is she now?"
"She rode back with us from Stillwater. She's with her order in Atheron," Damon answered.
"Bring her to me then, Damon. I want to hear more of what this cleric discussed with my son."
Taryn grinned as Damon bowed to leave. Her mother may no longer be wife to lord of a province, but she remained a formidable power unto herself. Taryn did not envy the cleric's position.
What do you think she can tell you? she asked.
Who knows? She was Alek's constant companion after his wife died. He must have told her something. Maybe she's learned more in her travels abroad.
Taryn toyed with her emerald ring as the room quieted. It had been a present from her father before she first left for Vescant Hall when she turned sixteen. She remembered when he gave her the emerald, his black scruffy beard scratching her cheek as he bent to greet her. Phelin had convinced her to have a ring made for the stone, as a remembrance of her father after he died.
She brought her thoughts back to the present. "There's more that happened in Stillwater, Mother. We got there just as they were about to burn a young shinaran boy for cursing their livestock."
"What?" Celina's face paled.
Taryn's voice thickened with anger. "Yes. He's mute and an orphan, with no way to defend himself."
"How did you stop them? You did stop them?" Celina looked to Taryn for assurance.
"Yes. He's in Atheron now with Vasali." Taryn looked away. "As for how I stopped it, well let's just say not in the most astute manner."
Celina frowned. "What did you do?"
"Nothing. Just let them know what a fully trained shinaran is capable of."
"They would have killed him, Mother. For no other reason than that he's untrained and likely caused a few accidents because of his abilities."
Celina sighed. "News of that escapade will spread. You need to be more careful, especially in your position. Stories of Sesanth's atrocities haven't been completely forgotten and you can't afford to be compared to him."
Adele spoke up, "Her words are harsh, Taryn, but they will be repeated by others when news of this spreads. Like it or not, the last shinaran head of this province was an abomination." Adele smiled at her. "I'm not comparing you to the depravations of Sesanth, child, but others will. You, all of us, must be prepared for the difficulties your caste presents."
"There are problems with being shinaran in any political position," said Celina. "There are still many here and abroad who think we aren't fit for any position that gives us authority over others."
Taryn slumped back in her chair. She concentrated on the ornate ceiling above her, as Adele's words sank in. The ceiling showed a legendary battle between the mythic Scarav, clawed man-beast, and some hero of Altemand riding the famed Damek paint horse, holding a brilliant gold torch as if it were a sword. Taryn knew her actions were rash and dangerous. But she would do it again to save a child.
"How much do you know of him, Sesanth that is?" she asked.
Adele adjusted her glasses. "I know he burned through entire villages in his attempt to make shinaran the ruling caste in all of Damek."
"Do you think he was evil or just deranged?" asked Taryn.
Celina relaxed in her chair. "I don't know, a little of both I suppose. Persecution of our caste has a long bloody history. It's possible Sesanth was driven to act out against it."
"His actions set up years of persecution against shinaran across all provinces of Altemand," Adele countered.
Taryn sat quiet for a time. Something about Sesanth bothered her deeply, personally. Maybe it was because she was the first shinaran ruler in Damek since his time. She felt haunted by his legacy.
Changing the topic, she asked, "So you'll be drilling Vasali tonight?"
"Yes, once Damon returns," said Celina.
"I'll leave you to it," said Taryn as she stood. "I need to wash this trail mud off. Please ask the staff to deliver some of these leftovers to my private quarters."
Taryn bid them good night and left the main hall. She trudged upstairs to gather clean clothes for her bath.
Steam rose from the waters of the basement bath as Taryn soaked. A series of natural hot springs beneath the Keep were channeled into individual tubs that were carved out of the bedrock. This re-engineering of the hot springs also left a labyrinth of tunnels under the Keep and outlying areas, prime targets for exploration when she was younger.
She submerged herself, rinsing the last of the sweet soap out of her hair. Her private views of her brother were not as harsh as she intimated earlier, but Alek in Tramoran could only lead to trouble. Fasal of Beht invaded Tramoran five years ago, and her family had been wary of a similar attack on Damek ever since.
Taryn squeezed water out of her hair and brushed it out while she lingered in the hot tub. When she finished, she lifted herself out of the steaming bath. She rushed across the cold tiles to a dry towel and her clothes. Dressing in a clean plain shift, she wrapped a thick cotton robe around her for added warmth.
Before Taryn could gather the rest of her belongings, she felt a cold tingle down the back of her neck. She raised her barriers, ready to block another mental attack as she scanned the subterranean baths around her.
A tall gray figure formed out of the mists of the hot springs. Lightening flashed in the hollows of what should have been a man's eyes. Taryn broke out in a cold sweat as she watched the ethereal being opened its mouth to speak, but no words came out.
Her barriers melted in an instant of searing pain as visions pushed into her mind, quick, painful flashes of events jumbling together. Visions of a battle outside the Keep, guards burning from flaming arrows. A small dark woman with golden eyes leading her brother, Alek, through a snowstorm. Taryn saw her mother imprisoned, and herself and the same dark woman facing a rumbling snowy mountainside.
The final vision brought Taryn to her knees. As if she were transported to the high watchtower above the Keep, Taryn saw someone standing before her, dressed in black cloak, vest and breeches. The vision-man turned to her and she felt herself burning from the fires that raged within his empty eye sockets.
Taryn struggled to regain control of her mind. The cold tingle of power slowly faded and the gray creature dissolved into the mists of the hot spring chamber. Her physical senses returning, she felt the slick, cold tiles under her sweating palms and the sting of bruises forming on her knees from the fall. She leaned against the rough stone wall of the chamber, breathing rapidly. Concentrating on the flashes she had seen, she remembered an attack on Damek, bloody battlefields, and a dark, desperate race through a forest. Taryn remembered the cold of the snow and even the sick smell of burning flesh.
She heard only one phrase in the vision Ă± "The dark power returns!"
Taryn felt those words sink into her, binding her to the dark visions. Did she cause all those events as Sesanth's heir? She strained to see the face in her last vision, the man in the tower. Was it really a man? Could it have been her, overtaken by darkness? She was tall as any man and with her long hair hidden, might even pass as a man.
She stood, steadying herself against the wall as she settled her frantic thoughts. She knew a revenant, an ethereal remnant of some person long dead, had delivered the vision. Ethereals came only to clerics, drawn to the unique shinaran abilities centered on that holy order. Taryn's abilities were tested in full at Vescant when she was sixteen. She had no cleric skills, nor the abilities of Seers, who could call up visions from past and future. The experience left her confused and unsettled. Why had a revenant visited her, and to whom had it been drawn, if not her?
Taryn looked around the bath chamber one last time, willing her pulse to calm and her breathing to steady. She gathered her belongings to walk back to her private quarters. She desperately needed sleep, but the incessant pounding in her head from the mental assault deprived her of that sweet release. More importantly, she needed to send a message to her colleagues in Vescant, colleagues who might help her understand the storm clouds forming over her and Damek.
Taryn walked past the main hall just as Damon reentered, followed closely by the elegant figure Vasali. The woman remained hooded. Though her blue robes suggested a higher calling, Vasali's body movements bespoke an earthly purpose as she glided forward. To his honor, Damon seemed unaffected by the beautiful woman who stopped only a hand span away from him as he presented her to Celina. Taryn envied Damon's dispassionate stance, as she felt her own eyes drawn to the curvaceous body to which the blue robes clung most irreverently.
Removing her cowl, Vasali bowed deeply, her auburn hair reflecting the candlelight, and murmured her greeting to Celina. Sycophant, thought Taryn, wishing she could see her mother's face from her vantage point in the corridor.
"Thank you for bearing with an old woman's whims, mistress Vasali," said Celina.
The smell of incense drifted to Taryn's position in the hallway. Vasali must have been in trance when Damon called on her.
The cleric bowed again, "You do me great honor, Lady. How may this humble soul be of service to you?"
"You were in close company with my son before he left, weren't you?"
"Yes Lady, we talked at length. Your son sought to understand the mysteries and powers which control us all."
"Indeed. And tell me, was there a focus to these talks?"
"A focus, Lady?" Vasali's blank face revealed nothing.
"Yes, a focus. Was there any particular mysteries my son showed interest in?"
Vasali smiled, "I am sorry, but I can not reveal the private discussions between cleric and seeker."
Celina ignored the response, "Do you know what my son seeks these past years?"
Vasali chuckled "Perhaps the young man seeks a new wife?"
Celina paused for a time. "Where did you visit last?"
The cleric's smile faded some, "I traveled much, Lady. I go where my guidance is needed."
"And where were you needed before you came here, mistress Vasali?" she asked.
Taryn noted the cleric's discomfort.
"We can not discuss our confidences with any besides those to whom it relates."
Taryn leaned forward as her mother continued.
"I didn't ask what your teachings were, I asked from whence you came. A simple question, mistress Vasali, and one that demands a simple answer. Or perhaps you would prefer if Damon invited Madam Ulrica from Atheron. I'm sure she wouldn't let a late summons to the Keep affect the delicate nature of her work. You are familiar with our Interrogator, yes?"
Vasali's eyes gleamed cold. "Yes, Lady."
"And a forced mental probe across the barriers of another shinaran, that can be quite painful I hear."
Vasali flinched as Damon backed toward the door. Taryn could see the woman's agitation grow. "I came across the Trescion Pass," Vasali mumbled.
Taryn's breath quickened. Vasali had come from Tramoran. She leaned closer, the smooth plaster archway pressed against her cheek as she listened.
"Excellent. Now I feel we are communicating, don't you? And my son, Vasali. Why do you think he's in Tramoran."
The look of shock on Vasali's face seemed real. "I do not know, Lady."
Celina sat up. "You don't?"
"I know he searches for a woman who plagued his dreams. I don't know where that search has taken him."
"Thank you, mistress Vasali. Help yourself to some bread in the kitchens as you leave. The chef has been quite productive today."
Taryn saw her mother wave a lazy hand at the cleric and Damon took that as his signal to guide Vasali to the door. Vasali's information was tantalizing, but small. The vision of Alek and a small dark woman floated in Taryn's mind. She shook off the memory. She had too much else to search out this night. She would start in the library first, before heading on up to her own quarters. She wanted to write to her old mentor at Vescant.
Continued in Chapter 2
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