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 email@example.com, and many thanks for reading.
Alek hoisted the last saddlebag on the gray mare while Sarai doused the remnants of their campfire. They had been two days getting over the Trescion Pass, the latter part taking turns on their one remaining horse. Alek had untied her hands after the first night, when he'd awoken to find her cutting cheese for breakfast with her hands still tied.
Alek was sure they would reach the first border town soon and the start of the East Road that led to Atheron. With luck, they could purchase a second horse for the ride back to Atheron. He often wondered how the province managed after his sudden departure, but his council members were well-chosen, experienced leaders in their own rights. They would have kept Damek in order, waiting his return.
Alek gave a sidelong glance at Sarai, watching her poke the fire pit carefully, searching for any last hot embers. Fire safety must have been a necessity in the dry regions she came from. Alek wondered again if she were truly the woman Vasali sent him after, the woman who would give him the power to reach his wife. She fit the description, but he had seen no evidence she was anything but a woman of the desert. Alek shrugged off that thought. Vasali would unlock the girl's power. Alek led the horse to Sarai.
"We should be able to buy another horse today," he said, still talking to her as if she understood. They started back toward the road, heading west. She smiled down at him and he found himself returning the smile.
Taryn and Damon rode steadily along the East Road. There were few towns on the road this close to the mountains. So far they had encountered no other travelers and Damon's tracking skills allowed them to keep up with the cleric without being seen. Taryn dared not use her abilities to track Vasali, for fear the cleric would sense her. She found Vasali's mental presence disturbing. It felt stronger than she'd ever noticed before. The sun rode high in the sky, providing a small bit of warmth to the chilly spring day. The cleric was bound for the Trescion Pass, and Tramoran.
"Should we give up this cat and mouse game?" she asked. "We know where she's headed."
Damon turned to answer her, but then looked past her, down the road from where they came. Taryn turned as well. She saw two or three riders heading up the road toward them, riding fast. As the riders neared, Taryn recognized the livery of her own guards. Damon had as well, as he was already waving down the riders. Three riders approached and halted in front of Damon and Taryn.
The lead rider addressed himself to Damon "Sir, the Captain of the Guard, by order of the Lady Celina has sent us to retrieve the cleric Vasali, to answer for the killing of a man," he said.
"We've been following her as well," said Taryn. "She can't be more than a few hundred yards or so further up the road. I suggest we split up and surround her incase she tries to escape. One of you should continue on the road. Make sure the cleric doesn't turn back. Damon and I will go off the road and over-take her on the wooded side, while one of you does the same on the other side. And you," she said to the first guardsman who spoke, "Ride past her in the woods, and get ahead of her on the road. Make sure she does not escape to the Trescion Pass."
The guards accepted her orders, Before they left, she gave them one final warning, "Don't approach the cleric on your own. Wait for the order from me or Damon."
The guards nodded in agreement, and rode off in their assigned directions. Damon and Taryn headed into the woods.
Alek and Sarai rested in a green pasture by the side of the East Road. A gentle breeze stirred the bare branches above and kicked up brown leaves below as they sat together in silence. Alek tried to convey to Sarai that they would reach a garrison town before nightfall. He could not be sure, but he thought she understood. He longed for a good night's rest in a warm bed after a full hot meal. He had been traveling for so long now, camping in the woods, or bedding in a roadside travel shelter. Even the smallest of towns in Damek would have a place to welcome travelers.
Alek jumped at the sound of an approaching horse. It had been days since they last met anyone on this road and that had not gone well. Alek stood and drew his sword. Sarai stood next to him, weaponless, but wary and alert. She did not look toward the road, though. She scanned the woods around and behind them. Perhaps she heard something approaching from behind, an ambush? Alek learned in their short time together, that Sarai had acute senses. On more than one occasion she picked up sight or sound of something before he was aware of it.
Alek took his dagger from its leather sheath and handed it to Sarai by the hilt. She looked at him with her gold-flecked eyes, and took the offered weapon, examining the ornate hilt in her hand. Together they stood, weapons ready, watching the lone rider approach from the east. Sarai kept glancing back toward the woods, but nothing had emerged from there yet. As the rider came closer, Alek saw that the figure wore the distinct midnight blue robes of the cleric caste. He relaxed his stance and sheathed his sword.
"It's a cleric," he said, but Sarai watched him with bewilderment. She still held the dagger firmly, pointing toward the cleric.
"No," she said as she pointed, "Nihe'n!" She backed away from him as the rider approached and slowed down.
Alek shook his head in confusion. Maybe she thought all riders were bandits, he thought. "It's all right, it's a cleric, a holy person," he repeated, but she ignored him.
She stood crouched, tense, as she watched road and wood with equal distrust. Alek had no idea what fears sped through her strange foreign mind.
"Good day to you, Lord Alek, and well met," said the cleric as she dismounted. Alek turned from watching Sarai's strange behavior to see the cleric walk toward him, her blue cowl pushed back to reveal long auburn hair and a thin smile.
Alek sighed in relief, "Vasali, well met indeed! This is a stroke of luck."
Taryn and Damon made their way through the sparse woods by the side of the East Road. The trees were bare of leaves, forcing them to travel further away from the road to keep out of sight. They came up equal with the cleric on the road sooner than they expected. As Taryn watched, peering through the numerous trees that separated them from the road, she saw Vasali slow considerably and veer toward them in the woods. For a moment, Taryn thought the cleric spotted them or sensed them in the trees. Damon gestured next to her, pointing to a space to the left of where Vasali stopped. She saw another horse and at least two people standing in a clearing.
Taryn felt a strange stirring, but she dare not reach out with the cleric so close by. They tied their horses to a tree, and crept closer to the clearing from the woods. Damon's footfalls were barely audible to Taryn. In contrast, she felt her stumbling progress through thicket and branch could be heard all the way back to the garrison town. Grimacing at her own clumsiness, she sought to mimic Damon's silent tread, stepping where he stepped, and yet she still heard each twig snap beneath her feet as if it were the echo of a tree felled in the woods.
They were closer now. She could make out two figures, a man and a woman, with weapons drawn. The man had broad shoulders and short dark hair. He dressed as a peasant, but held his sword with practiced care. A mercenary? As she watched, Taryn saw the man sheath his sword as Vasali approached. Bad move, she thought, but how was he to know that a devil rode in the guise of a woman of peace. At least his companion showed more sense. The small dark woman backed away from Vasali.
Taryn inched closer. Another twig snapped underfoot. Her eyes shot up and met the stare of the dark woman, sending a jolt through Taryn and shocking her to immobility. She knew that face. Taryn dropped to the ground. Confusing images from her visions came back to her. Her heart beat rapidly against her chest as her breath came in short gasps. A mental maelstrom swirled around her. Whoever, or whatever that woman was, she held enormous power, and she knew where Taryn hid.
Damon crouched beside her, his sword drawn. Taryn fought to calm her breathing and clear her mind. She stole a glance back at the clearing to see the strange woman crouch low and draw a knife. Damon motioned that they should get closer. Taryn followed as he crept between tree and bush, until they were within earshot of Vasali and the others. Taryn avoided looking at the group, as each time she did, the woman stared back at her, and a storm rumbled within her. She could make out bits of conversation. Vasali responding to something one of them had said and then the dark haired-man spoke. Damon gave her a quick, shocked look.
That was her brother's voice.
Taryn examined the three people again. It was undeniably Alek. His scraggly beard and worn clothing were much out of character for him, but definitely the face and voice were Alek's. Damon made as if to stand, but Taryn held his arm, signaling him to stay hidden.
"But it is Lord Alek," he hissed.
"I know. But there is more to be learned if we watch and listen for a time."
"And if the cleric attacks, do we watch that as well?"
Taryn felt his frustration, but she needed to know what Vasali and Alek planned, or at least why they met here, seemingly pre-arranged.
"I think Alek can protect himself well enough from the cleric." She did not add that she felt they all had much more to fear from the strange dark woman.
Taryn could hear Alek and Vasali more clearly now.
"She is as you described, Vasali, but I don't think she is who you wanted her to be. She is quite plain. Do you really think she can help me?"
Taryn felt dismayed that her brother could not sense the strength that emanated from the woman he dismissed so easily. The raw power felt so strong to Taryn she could barely focus on anything else. Sweat trickled down the back of her neck as she fought the confusion, concentrating on her brother and Vasali.
"She seems not to like me, my Lord," said Vasali, smiling. The dark woman remained crouched, holding the dagger in a small tight fist. Vasali leaned back on an old tree, slowly pulling off her leather gloves. "Will you come here, child?" she asked, her smile offset by cold, penetrating eyes.
The musical lilt of the dark woman's voice drifted to Taryn. "Nihe'n. The stench of death follows you like the stars follow dusk."
Vasali's expression never changed as she turned to Alek. "What does she say?"
"I don't know. It is some dialect of Berati I guess. Sarai, why are you like this? She is a cleric, a woman of peace."
The other woman, Sarai, moved away from them both. Nihe'n.
Taryn heard Sarai clearly in her mind. The woman was a powerful telepath.
"You must bring her to me, my Lord, if I am to verify that she is the woman who can help you," said Vasali.
Sarai spoke again, "The mark of evil is on you. The man does not see it, but I do. And so does she." Sarai raised her dagger to point at Taryn's position in the woods.
Taryn stiffened, feeling the power of Sarai's mind focus on her again. Her head throbbed with the effort to keep her barriers intact. Vasali's smile wavered as she turned toward Taryn. Clearly, she'd understood Sarai's words as well. Taryn gave up her hiding place, signaling Damon to follow. She climbed over the tree, past evergreen bushes that hid them and walked to the clearing. She no longer cared what twigs and dried leaves crunched beneath her boots. Alek drew his sword as they approached, but lowered it, his face frozen, when he recognized Taryn and Damon.
"Taryn? Why are you here? Vasali, did you bring them with you?"
Vasali no longer smiled. She stood, looking between Taryn and Sarai. Taryn felt Sarai's presence as well, threatening to cloud her mind again. She fought to maintain control as she turned to Alek.
"We didn't come with Vasali, and our business here shouldn't be discussed in front of the cleric," said Taryn. She approached her brother. He looked different, thinner perhaps, though few would notice on his large frame. The thick black beard emphasized his resemblance to their father. She stopped a few paces from Alek and signaled Damon to stand with her. She waited for her brother to sheath his own sword. He seemed gripped by some inner uncertainty as he looked from Damon to Taryn. Finally he sheathed his weapon.
"You've been gone long, brother."
Alek shifted uncomfortably. "I'm sorry for that, but I don't need answer to you for my whereabouts. It's not your responsibility."
"Alas, you made it my responsibility when you left. What did you think would happen in your absence?" asked Taryn.
Alek only stared at her.
"They made me take over Damek."
Confusion washed over Alek's tanned face as he scratched absently at his beard. Taryn felt Sarai still staring at her, but she dare not turn that way, for fear of losing herself in the storm that centered on the lithe woman. Sweat still trickled down her spine from the strain of concentrating on anything but that storm. The cleric remained silent. Finally, Taryn saw anger replace confusion on Alek's face.
"Is this true, Damon. Has my little sister usurped my position so soon?"
Damon shuffled from foot to foot, looking from Alek to Taryn and back before he answered. "The council appointed her ten months ago, my Lord. Lady Taryn didn't seek that position, but accepted it when offered."
Dear Damon, politically shrewd of him to remain neutral, thought Taryn.
"No matter," said Alek, "Whatever my council has done can be undone. What's important now is that I have this," he said, pointing to the dark woman as if she were his brood mare.
Taryn's own temper rose to match her brother's. "This, as you say, is a person, not a golden bauble that you can own. Have your travels in far lands warped you? We don't own people here. As for your council, they are my council now. And will remain so, until I see fit to return them to you."
Alek all but growled at her. This was not the warm reunion she had dreamt of for months after he had left. She had no desire to remain ruler of Damek, now that he had returned, but his quick dismissal of her grated.
"You are out of your league, little sister," said Alek, his hand returning to the hilt of his sword.
Damon stepped a pace in front of her, hand on his own hilt in response. He had obviously resolved the legality of his own position.
"And you are well out of your own league, my brother, if you think to control this woman and her power," said Taryn, returning her brother's angry stare.
No one moved. It seemed as if the woods itself stood silent.
"Enough of this bravado," said Taryn. "I don't want your position. I never wanted it. But I have it , and I shall keep it until we return to the council to have it revoked."
She tried to smooth over injured egos on both sides. "I respected you, as my liege and lord until long after you'd left us. All I ask is that you return that respect until we can sort this out at home. Perhaps by then you can tell me more of this woman you bring with you."
She put a hand on her brother's arm, "Only one of us can rule and right now by law, that is me. But I give you my word, when we can convene the council, I will readily give it up." Taryn did not turn from Alek as she continued, "Damon, will you witness this oath?"
"Duly witnessed, Lord and Lady," said Damon.
Alek smiled at her for the first time since she shown herself. He let his hand fall from the hilt of his sword.
"It is good to see you again, Taryn." He pulled her into a bear of a hug. His rough leather vest scratched against her cheek, and tears watered her eyes by the time he let her go. She brushed them away.
"And this is Sarai," he said.
He waved to the dark woman to join them, but she didn't move.
"My lord, this is madness," Vasali hissed. "Your sister stole your province and now she seeks to take the vessel from us."
"Since you're so talkative now," said Taryn. "Maybe you want to tell us just why you killed a man in Atheron?"
"My lord," pleaded Vasali, "Can you not see what she does? I warned you she would interfere. Now she spreads lies."
Damon interrupted, "Does the dead body found in your room lie as well, its throat cut from ear to ear."
Vasali turn to Alek, but he only shrugged. "Come, Vasali. Return with us to Atheron, and we'll sort this mess out."
"This witch will not have the vessel. My master will not allow it." Vasali bowed her head. When she raised her eyes, her face was a mask of hatred, as a blood red glow formed around her. Taryn remembered too late that she was not just a holy woman, but a shinaran of unknown abilities. Vasali turned to Sarai, and the woman tensed as the energies building up by Vasali crackled the air.
It seemed as if Vasali acted in a dream, her arms lifted slowly, directing her energy as they rose. Taryn battled the confusion in her mind to extend a protective shield around Sarai. A moment before Vasali's power exploded, Taryn's vision shifted. After an instant of vertigo, she looked again through some kind of dual vision, like she experienced in the main hall the other night. She was linked to Sarai. In the dual vision, Taryn saw Vasali's attack aimed at her. She instinctively strengthened her defensive barrier. Vasali drew her arms together and attacked.
An answering surge of power flowed through Taryn and into the defensive barrier. The initial shock of Vasali's attack physically pushed her back, but it did not break through her defenses. She withstood the onslaught as the cleric's power rippled around her. Taryn watched from as Vasali's power slowly exhausted itself.
Once again, Taryn's world tilted. As her sight cleared, she stood staring at Sarai from across the clearing. Their eyes met briefly in that instant, golden eyes sinking into Taryn's mind, and then she saw the woman's knees buckle. As Taryn watched Sarai falling, her own vision faded, and then blacked out.
Alek felt lost from the moment his sister walked out of the woods, followed by his father's old paxman. Now he did not know what just happened. Flashes of light from Vasali, and both his sister and Sarai were on the ground. Alek did not even know which woman he should help until Damon moved from his own shocked stillness to kneel by the unconscious body of Taryn. Alek moved, taking a few quick strides to where Sarai lay by the edge of the clearing, his dagger still clutched in her hand. He knelt beside her, feeling her forehead and checking her breathing. She breathed in quick shallow intakes.
"My Lord, she's ill with some sudden fever," said Damon from across the clearing.
"So is this one, her forehead is burning up." Alek scrambled to his pack and wet a couple of cloths from his water skin. He tossed one cloth to Damon, and then returned to where Sarai lay and knelt beside her. He gently moved her head into his lap and cooled her face and neck with the wet cloth, seeing some measure of success as her breathing slowed and deepened.
"The cleric is gone," said Damon.
Alek looked around the clearing. Vasali and her horse were gone. He shook his head in confusion, not for the first time this day. Where was that cleric, now that they could use her skill with herbs and medicine for the two sick women?
"There are house guards on the road in both directions and in the woods. She can't get far," said Damon.
"What is happening here, Damon?" said Alek, "Why are you after Vasali with a contingent of guards?"
"We weren't initially after her. We were hunting some, some strange beasts. Your mother sent the guards after Vasali. We met up with them only a short time ago."
Alek felt Sarai stir in his lap and returned his attention to her. He pushed back a few loose strands of her copper hair. She opened her eyes, looking up at him through enigmatic golden eyes. He turned to tell Damon that Sarai was awake and saw that Taryn had awakened as well. He turned back to Sarai.
"How do you feel?" he asked. "Can you walk?"
Sarai rubbed her eyes. She leaned on him heavily as she sat up and then stood at his side. Damon, with the equally weak Taryn, walked over toward him, stopping a few paces away when Taryn refused to get closer. Alek shot her a frustrated look, wondering what foolishness kept her away from him now.
"Can you ride?" Alek grumbled. She nodded, but did not get any closer.
"Our horses are back in the woods," said Taryn, "But where is Vasali?"
"I don't know," said Alek, "But your guards will no doubt bring her back."
"Alek, she attacked me, right in front of you. Do you still believe she is the innocent cleric she pretends to be?" asked Taryn.
Alek turned away from her, leading Sarai to his horse. "I don't know what to believe," he muttered to himself. "People popping out of the woods, women fainting."
Alek turned back to Damon and Taryn, "Damon if you would get your horses, I for one would like to spend tonight in the nearest warm inn."
Vasali galloped up the road, her horse's reins held in shaking hands. She sat low and loose in the worn saddle. The witch had stopped her. She did not know how, but that witch of Damek kept her from the vessel, and in the end, stopped her from destroying it when she could not have it for her master. Burning anger kept her from collapsing, anger and fear. Her master would not be pleased. Vasali lost the vessel. She shook with fear.
Vasali sensed two riders nearby, one on the road ahead, the other shadowing her in the fields. She pulled a knife from her boot sheath, carefully avoiding the liquid dripping from the tip of the blade. She would have some satisfaction. She did not slow as she approached the rider on the road. She charged at him, holding her reins in one hand, the knife hidden in the other. The rider watched, weapon drawn. As Vasali rode, the guard's eyes grew wide. He struggled at last to back his horse off the road and avoid collision. Vasali took advantage of the man's confusion and let her dagger fly.
He collapsed to the ground beside his startled horse as she rode by, smiling.
Vasali saw the second rider come toward her from the fields, mud, and grass flying back from the pelting hooves. She slowed her pace, concentrating on the second rider. She had a use for him. Slowing to a stop, calming herself, she drew what little energy she had left from within and waited. The guardsman slowed as he approached. Vasali raised her hands over her head, weaponless, and held them there. The guardsman drew his weapon, circling Vasali from a few paces. She did not shift, did not move. She only waited. She was patient. She could destroy the vessel. She need not fear.
Through the forming red haze, Vasali saw confusion on the guardsman's face as she slowly lowered her arms until her outstretched hands were even with the guard's drawn sword. Vasali smiled.
Damon and Taryn joined Alek on the road, leading their horses out of the patch of evergreen trees and brush. Alek admired the sleek black and white Damek horses, fast and sure-footed. He'd been away from home too long. His thoughts returned to Sarai. He would need Vasali back to unlock Sarai's power, if she had power. His sister interrupted them before Vasali could determine if this was the right woman.
Alek stole a glance at Sarai as she sat on his gray mare. She was obviously tired, but no worse from her fainting spell. Sarai turned to him. She smiled at him, but then her eyes strayed beyond him. Alek turned to follow her stare and saw his sister mount her own horse, sliding stiffly into her black leather saddle.
"My sister spent more time studying her books than riding," he said. Sarai did not respond, only stared at his sister intently. Alek frowned. Sarai turned, looking down the road to the west. He looked as well. Though he saw nothing, he said, "Someone approaches, one of your guards perhaps?"
"My Lord," said Damon, "I hear nothing."
"You will," said Alek, smirking. As he finished, he heard the slow steady clip of a rider coming from the west. The rise and fall of the land so close to the mountains made it difficult to see any long stretch of the road. They could only wait until the rider came into view. Alek stood, one hand resting on the hilt of his sword while the other held the reins to his horse. He saw the other horse and rider come into view from around a sharp bend in the road. The unique blue and silver colors of the Damek House livery declared the loyalties of the approaching rider. He relaxed, letting go a breath he did not realized he was holding. There had been far too many surprises on this road already.
Damon trotted his horse out to meet the guardsman, and they returned to the small group together. "No sign of the cleric," said Damon, not directly addressing either Alek or his sister.
Alek thought the dual leadership problem a laughable situation, but he did not want to fight it here. He said nothing, willing to let Taryn enjoy her moment of power, however brief it would be. Soon enough they would be back to Atheron and Alek could clear up this mess.
"What's your name," said Taryn, addressing the young guardsman.
"Pedro, my Lady."
"Pedro, ride up the road and search out your comrades. Bring them back here, or bring word if they have the cleric Vasali with them."
Pedro nodded. He led his horse up the road at a trot. Before he passed from view, Alek saw him stop. Another guardsman rode toward them leading a spare, saddled horse.
The new guard paused briefly to converse with Pedro, handing him the lead for the rider-less horse. The two rode back. Alek could not miss the anger in Pedro's stance, the stiff way he sat in his saddle.
"My Lady," said Pedro, "The cleric is no longer a threat. Bran saw her kill our comrade. He cornered her by the river and made her pay for her crimes."
Alek let go of his horse and marched over to the guards. He pulled at the reins of the one called Bran. "You did what? You killed her!"
Bran looked down at Alek through dull gray eyes. No emotion registered on his bland face. "Her body floats down the Benden River," said Bran flatly.
It all felt too much for Alek. More than two years spent huddled in the rain, barely able to stand his own stench from sweat and dirt in the dry desert, moving from town to town, province to province following leads, rumors, and dead ends. Finally, to have found the woman to match his dream vision so perfectly, and now, the person who could control this woman's power is killed by his own guards. He would never know the fate of his beloved wife and baby, because Taryn interfered, just as Vasali said she would.
Alek turned to his sister, his body shaking with rage. "You will pay for this, little sister."
He grabbed the leads from Pedro for the spare horse and walked back to Sarai. She gave him a puzzled frown, but he ignored her as well, hoisted himself onto the new horse and bent to take the lead rein from Sarai's horse. Together he led them at a trot down the road toward Damek, not caring whether the rest followed him or not.
Taryn and her group followed Alek along the East road, keeping an easy distance behind her brother. She felt the pressure inside her lessen as she widened the space between herself and Sarai. She could focus better on the world around her, the rhythmic gait of her weary horse, the scent of damp undergrowth in the scattered clusters of trees by the road. She watched the last rays of light splash deep red and orange across the high clouds as the sun set before them. All this she could see for herself, without the dizzying effects of another mind pushing against hers.
"My Lady," said Damon, "Lord Alek and his companion have turned aside at Bessant."
Taryn snorted. "He wants a warm bed tonight. Well so shall we. Perhaps a half day's ride gave him time to cool off."
Damon smiled at her and nodded. He lead them off the main road, riding south along a narrow path between bare towering elm trees that cast faint shadows along their route in the dim remaining daylight. Taryn's spirits rose with the land as they rode up a gentle treeless hill into the small town. She caught glimpses of warm fires and the tantalizing aroma of cooked meat as her party passed by the outlying homesteads of Bessant.
A faint smiled lingered on Taryn's lips, as she and her party entered through the high stone palisade surrounding the center of Bessant. The town guards greeted the group as they lit torches atop the palisade. Wooden gates creaked and groaned as they were pushed shut behind her party, the last travelers to enter. The gates would shut out the night and anything that might approach in the darkness. Taryn spotted Alek's two horses being led to the dark stables behind a large, well-lit house. Light escaped the house from many scrubbed windows where patrons sat in large comfortable chairs, enjoying plates of steaming food. Alek chose well, she thought as she and the others dismounted in front of the inviting inn.
"Shall I stay with the guards tonight?" asked Damon.
Taryn pulled off her riding gloves. She understood his desire to relax with fighting men, like himself, rather than cater to the needs of one sore, tired young woman. "Yes, that would be fine. You'll see that they get good food and a warm place to rest?"
"Yes, my Lady," he said, smiling.
Taryn walked to the front of the building and opened the wide, whitewashed doors to the inn. She felt warm air greet her as she entered, her eyes taking a moment to adjust to the brightly lit room. Townsfolk and visitor alike sat by a round stone hearth, central to the crowded room, where a well-kept fire blazed high. Two or three of the inn's staff jostled between polished wooden tables and chairs as they rushed plates of fresh bread and cooked meats to patrons.
Taryn scanned the room, but caught no sign of her brother or his companion amongst the many bodies chatting and eating. She felt a twinge of guilty relief, wanting only to eat and rest herself and delay facing her brother's icy hostility until the morning. Amongst the bustling staff, Taryn managed to note a balding man, dressed in plain brown trousers and tunic, a small white apron lost on his round figure. The man had a smile and greeting to give to each customer and turned to give her a quick wink and a nod as he made his way through his throng of customers to greet her.
In a moment he stood before her, his cheeks red from the warm fire or the effort of hustling his bulky frame around the inn. His blue eyes sparkled a welcome to match his large outthrust hand.
"Welcome Mistress, welcome! We have had many new faces this evening! Will you need a room? Are you traveling alone, a young girl like yourself?" He looked past her to the closed door.
"My guardsmen will be staying by the stables tonight," she said as she shook the offered hand. The innkeeper's eyes widened. "I need only a room for me, someplace quiet, if that is possibly, and a warm meal."
The innkeeper bowed, "Yes Mistress, of course. And some wine to warm you."
Taryn smiled, letting go his hand, "You're most kind."
The innkeeper called over one of his assistants, a lanky boy, and directed him to take 'the lady' to a certain room, and tend the fire, fetch her fresh water, and be sharp about it. Taryn suppressed a chuckle, wondering if the berated lad were the innkeeper's son. At least she would be warm and well fed soon. Tomorrow's troubles could be dealt with after a good meal and long rest.
At dawn the next day, Taryn left the inn, the noise of early-rising patrons silenced by the large doors closing behind her. Cold air clashed with her warm breath, forming small puffs of mist as she wrapped her black cloak about her and walked to the stables. She heard Alek and Damon chatting amicably. She entered the freshly painted stable barn, seeing most of her party, including Alek and Sarai, waiting for her. The discussion stopped as Taryn entered. Alek graced her with an indifferent glanc,e and she felt the mental confusion that signaled Sarai's presence. She avoided the woman for fear of losing her own perceptions again.
Damon led her horse to her. "We have less than a half-day's ride to Atheron, my Lady."
"That's about a half day more than my legs could wish for," she said. Damon laughed with her as they walked their horses out of the stables and mounted, followed by the others.
They rode in silence through the opened gates of Bessant and back to the East Road. This time, Alek and Sarai rode with them, following behind the two guardsmen. Taryn was grateful for whatever soothing words Damon had spoken to Alek to calm him down. They would at least appear as a united ruling family when they entered Atheron.
The small party rode for most of the morning, passing acres of green pasture and a handful of harvested fields. They entered a patch of woods, heavy with the scent of wet leaves as they neared the outskirts of Atheron. Dark, rolling rain clouds hung over the tops of the towering oaks as the road twisted through the trees. Damon stopped the party after a sharp turn in the road. A blackened tree, thick with scorched branches lay across the road, blocking their way.
"Don't they keep the roads clear in Damek anymore," scoffed Alek, but his voice held little real scorn. Proximity to the Keep must be cheering him up, Taryn thought.
She slid from her saddle to investigate the tree. "You've yet to hear what has happened in Damek lately, dear brother." As strength returned to her weary legs, Taryn paced the length of the downed tree, examining the scorch marks.
"There's a path here on the left," said Alek as he spurred his horse forward, past the stationary guardsmen. He guided his horse along the narrow path, ducking beneath low branches.
"Go on," said Taryn to the rest, "I'll follow in a moment." She watched as one by one, her group followed Alek's lead. Taryn felt the pressure in her mind build as Sarai came toward her to reach the side path. Her vision swirled. She clamped her barriers down and staggered away, distance clearing her mind. Only Damon lingered, worry creasing his brow.
"I'm fine, Damon. Go on ahead."
"You're pale and shaking. What is it? Do you sense something here?"
Taryn calmed her breathing. "I am fine, really. Just too long in the saddle lately. And I wanted to scan the tree burns, but not in front of my brother. He is angry enough already without me flaunting my abilities in front of him. Go on ahead. I'll only be a moment."
"Is he jealous that you inherited your mother's shinaran potential and he didn't?"
"Only when he's grumpy."
Damon did not move, obviously not convinced he should leave his charge.
"Damon, really. Atheron lies beyond these trees. I am quite safe. And I'm hardly the ruling party here anymore."
Damon turned his horse toward the path, giving her one last worried glance before ducking down the trail, out of sight. Taryn returned to the base of the burnt tree, finding the blackened stump from where it fell. She settled on her knees before the stump, the scent of burnt wood overpowering all else. She tugged off her riding gloves, placing them beside her. Gingerly, she lay her bare hands on the stump. It was still warm. Black dust clung to her hands as she moved along the burnt remains, probing, sensing.
Yes, there, clear evidence the tree was not the victim of stray lightning. Altering the natural order always left evidence behind, for those who could read it. She brushed the black dust from her hands. A shinaran weather-worker might be able to set a tree on fire, by why? Random accident or someone in league with Vasali?
Taryn's horse whinnied and stomped behind her. She scanned the area and sensed it as well. Wolves. She turned and studied the trees and path. Nothing moved, but she felt them, a pack of wolves, creeping around her, trying to form a ring around her. She leapt into her saddle, leaving gloves and burnt tree behind. Her horse reared and bolted down the path the others had taken.
Taryn bowed low, clinging to the panicked horse as it charged down the narrow path. She saw the wolves giving chase on either side of her. They were large, gray mountain wolves, their white fangs catching the light as they darted between trees and over low brush. She had no control over her horse as it fled from the main path, veering away from the pursuing wolves. Branches cut and scratched at her as her horse raced on.
The wolves were closing in, two on either side. She could hear one other from behind. She could not free a hand to draw her sword as her horse ran wild. She heard the pounding of hooves somewhere to her left, but she could not spare a glance to see if friend or foe approached. The wolves were upon her.
The nearest wolf, its long wet fangs exposed, leapt at her from the right. Taryn cried out as its claws raked her leg. Her horse bucked and kicked out at the wolf, nearly tossing her off. Her leg burned. She felt warm wet blood soak her breeches as a second wolf came within striking distance on her left. Taryn watched in dread as the second wolf leapt to attack. Surprisingly, it yelped in mid air and fell to the ground, missing her and her horse.
Taryn glanced behind her and saw Damon pulling another knife from his belt as he raced after her. Alek, circled in the distance, his heavy sword drawn as he blocked the attack of two other wolves. Pain laced up Taryn's leg from her wounds as she clung on in weak desperation. She felt a familiar pressure building within her but did not have the strength to fight it off.
Her world swirled and dipped. Taryn closed her eyes, but still she saw, felt a small dark hand reach out, grab hold of her reins and pull. Two horses ran in pace, one black and white, the other gray. Taryn felt as if she rode both horses, controlled both, as a soft lyrical voice floated in her mind.
Relax your legs; your clenched knees spur the horse on.
Taryn relaxed, letting go to the dual world. Two horses slowed, then stopped. The pressure in Taryn's mind eased as she gave up fighting the duality, but the pain in her leg burned with an intensity unequal to the depths of her cuts.
Taryn did not know whether the thought came from herself or Sarai, but she knew poison raced through her system. She opened her eyes briefly, stared into intense amber eyes. She saw Sarai closely for the first time, her delicate dark features framed by coppery-red hair. She saw herself through Sarai's eyes as well, a pale scratched face, surrounded by disheveled black hair stuck with twigs and leaves, and thin pale lips. Taryn's thoughts drifted as she saw fear and worry painted across Sarai's narrow face. She felt warm, unseasonably warm for the rainy day. Taryn felt herself slip in the saddle as her world faded to black once again.