by Sandra Barret
Fasal Dar Bahn paced along the shoreline, his black heels sinking in the wet sand. A wiry man, half Fasal's size, jogged beside him as he walked on. Commander Josep, small, cat-like in appearance and just as calculating, fed Fasal a steady stream of reports on the tactical readiness of the military leader's various forces.
"The third and fourth battalions have made good progress along the southern route, my Lord. The supply lines have slowed some due to heavy rains, but the road conditions are improving. We anticipate they will catch up with the battalions within the week."
Fasal stepped over a patch of slick green seaweed and bent to pick up a smooth stone. Josep stopped at his left as Fasal turned toward the sea and cast his stone into the white foam of the cresting waves. Fasal's eyes followed the stone as it skipped up beyond the waves.
"And the galleons?" asked Fasal. He surveyed the fleet weighing anchor in the gray waters of Tramoran Bay.
"They are ready to sail at your command, my Lord, provided the weather holds. With the new facades and extra ballast to keep them low in the water, no one can tell from a distance that they are slave transport ships."
Fasal studied the vessels. He had to agree they looked much like his real fleet in Beht, even down to a fake flagship flying his colors. Fasal smiled and turned inland, up the shoreline. Before him stood row upon row of canvas tents, the accumulated accoutrements of his First Battalion, and beyond them, his mobile strike force, two hundred well-armed horsemen. Fasal tapped his golden scabbard against his leg as he marched up through the field of tents.
"What's the news on the forest route?" he asked.
Josep kept pace with him while glancing down as his report parchment. "We will break through the Velek Forest before your birthday, my Lord."
Fasal slowed his stride and graced Josep with a pat on the back that threatened to land the smaller man face down in the dry sand. "You planned this as my birthday gift, old friend?"
Josep's lips curled into a grim smile. "What better way to celebrate your fiftieth birthday than delivering Damek to you, my Lord?"
Fasal laughed, deep and hearty. "If only Brion were alive to feel the shame of that day, Josep."
As Fasal approached a large tan tent, the two soldiers guarding the entrance clicked their polished black boots together and stood at attention. Fasal paused at the entrance, his hand holding the heavy tarp that kept the cold ocean breeze from entering his command post.
"And Damek's border guards?"
"Our accomplice assures me that most are being redirected to other posts, and the remaining are loyal to our cause."
"Excellent, Joseph, excellent, and thank you," said Fasal, dismissing his commander.
Fasal bowed under the tarp to enter his command tent and let the flap fall shut behind him. His eyes adjusted to the darker interior, configured as three separate rooms under the large tent. The front was empty except for his battle armor and weapons. He could see within the planning room off to the left, just making out the two large tables covered in maps and reports. He heard someone within his personal room on the right and passed beyond the separator curtain to see a beautiful auburn-haired woman in brilliant blue robes seated on his chair by a small brazier.
"Vasali," he grumbled.
She turned to him, smiling. "All goes well, my Lord?"
Fasal walked over and stared down at her, silent until she shifted sideways out of his chair and stood, giving him a weak bow. Fasal took off his scabbard and sword.
"Well enough" he replied as he sat, irritated by her thin veneer of respect. If he didn't need her control over their accomplice in Damek, he'd have had her killed by now, cleric or not. He doubted her religious calling anyway.
Vasali simpered under his angry gaze. "Your plans are most ingenious, my Lord."
Fasal muttered his agreement and surveyed the room around him, searching for a cloth to wipe the salty sea mist off his sword and scabbard. "Was there something you wanted, Vasali?" he asked.
"No, my Lord. I am here only to serve you."
That I doubt, he thought. "You serve me well if your traitor stays on course."
"It is assured. Your southern diversion shall signal Damek's downfall. Brion's Keep will be yours before winter sets in."
"It should always have been mine."
Taryn sat on the couch in the main hall with Sarai sitting on a stool in front of her. Oil lamps burned on a nearby table as the two women focused on the current lesson.
That's better. Taryn leaned forward, ignoring the pressure in her head. Concentrate on pushing my thoughts out. Isolate your mind.
Taryn felt Sarai's mental touch recede. Excellent. Your barriers are stronger now.
It is uncomfortable.
Taryn sighed. Yes, I feel it too. It's not supposed to be. It was not so much a real pain, but a loss of something, a mental ache.
Can I stop now? Sarai asked.
Yes. You've done well today.
Like a gentle summer breeze, the touch of Sarai's mind surrounded Taryn again. Taryn closed her eyes, basking in its sensual touch. No other mind had ever felt like this to her. Not even when she and Maret were lovers at Vescant.
Sarai strengthened the mental link. Your mind is like the cool rain in the desert.
Taryn looked up and fell into the depths of Sarai's amber eyes. She couldn't deny her feelings for the desert woman. Gently, she lessened the mental link, fearing Sarai would sense Taryn's attraction to her. "We should probably stop for the day. It's quite late," she said.
Sarai lowered her gaze. "You are tired. I should not take so much of your time."
"No," said Taryn. "I enjoy our lessons."
Sarai smiled shyly. "I like our times together as well."
Taryn blocked her body's unmistakable response to Sarai's words.
Damon was worried about Phelin. The younger man's usually crisp, precise appearance was missing. He was running his hand repetitively through his dirty blonde hair. His military uniform lacked the diligent care and cleaning that had been a constant for Phelin since he was a boy. Even his boots were scuffed. Phelin paced before the stone hearth of the commander's quarters, Damon's old rooms and now Phelin's. The younger man hadn't changed the rooms much in the time since he became Commander of the Guard. The dark oak desk and chairs remained under the one wide window looking out toward Atheron. Reports were stacked neatly on a set of shelves lining the opposite wall. In fact the only change seemed to be the addition of two large maps of Damek and Tramoran, hanging to Damon's right. He grimaced as his eyes dropped down to see the slovenly form of Farrell, organizer of the Velek border guard, slouching on a bench beneath the map of Tramoran.
"Are you sure these reports are accurate?" Damon asked.
Phelin pacing continued. "Reliable sources, yes. They came from Sebran himself, and he still has family in Tramoran. Ships are anchored in the southern edge of Tramoran Bay."
Damon's was distracted a moment by Farrell, who shifted his obese frame into a chair by the fire. The chair beneath Farrell groaned in protest.
"So you want my agreement to shift my guards off the Velek forest," Farrell rumbled with an arrogance that grated on Damon.
Phelin paused in his pacing and turned to Farrell. "I want your opinion on the positioning of my guards. Do you think the border forces can be depleted for a shoreline defense to the south? What's the activity by the forest?"
Farrell gulped from his ever-present wine goblet. No wonder the man let himself go, thought Damon. He remembered Farrell as a sly, ambitious man when Brion set him to control the Border Guards in the Velek region. Damon clucked silently while Farrell continued.
"The forest is as the forest has always been, impenetrable. I've asked for years now to reduce the forces there. Able men wasting their time in guardhouses, eating my food stores when they could be working the fields."
Phelin turned away from them and stared into the fire. "I'm not convinced," he said finally. "I don't like thinning the forest guard like this, especially with Fasal on the move."
He turned back around, and Damon studied his face. The boy was strained; his eyes red, skin paler than normal, if that were possible.
"What do you have in mind?" asked Damon.
"What?" sputtered Farrell, nearly tipping his goblet as he slammed it down on the table beside him. "You can't be serious. More wasted men sitting idle? It's nearly winter, boy. Not even Fasal would risk the seas during the winter storm season."
Damon had about enough of Farrell. He marched in front of the man and glared down at him, his hand on the hilt of his dagger. "You overstep your bounds, Farrell," he hissed.
Damon felt Phelin's hand on his shoulder. "It's alright, Damon. I've had to listen to far worse since my foster-father set me on the Council before I reached maturity."
"And you had Brion's approval and respect for years before and after that. More respect than this man deserves," said Damon, emphasizing his point with a sharp kick to Farrell's fat ankle. Damon saw a flicker of fear pass over the man's porcine features. Maybe Farrell would remember his place now. Phelin urged Damon to step back a pace and he complied, satisfied for the moment.
"Back to my wish for conscripts" said Phelin. "I know winter is upon us, but what better time to take men from the fields as you say, Farrell. They'd only be sitting around their homes waiting for the spring thaw. Their families might even be grateful for the extra wages during slow winter months. If we show a strong force against Fasal's galleons, he'll think twice before staging a full invasion during the warmer weather."
Damon listened as Phelin presented his full defensive plans. He had to admit, the young man had a fine head for military strategy. Alas, that Brion had died before seeing through his own plans for Phelin and Tramoran. Damon thought they'd be having this discussion from the opposite view if Brion had lived.
Farrell sat up. "It's a good plan, but what if Fasal is holding his forces for a spring invasion? Your winter conscripts will be anxious to get back to family and farm. You won't be able to keep them through spring."
Damon reluctantly agreed with Farrell. "It's risky to hold a standing army so early when invasion is least likely."
Phelin's shoulders slumped. "So you both think I should wait until the spring." He turned to Farrell. "I still want those border guards heading south. Fasal's galleons aren't this close to our southern shore for nothing."
Farrell nodded his agreement. He pulled himself out of the chair with a grunt and left the room. Damon waited for Phelin to sort his papers, and then they left the commander's quarters. As they walked down the stairs to the main hall, Damon put his hand on Phelin's shoulder. "You've done well with Damek's defenses. I think this is the right decision."
Phelin's gray eyes held his. "It's good that you agree, Damon. I'm putting you in charge of the southern defense."
The news had little time to register before Damon felt Phelin shoulders tense beneath his hand. He followed Phelin's icy glare to see Alek enter the main hall from the kitchens. Phelin muttered something Damon didn't catch, and then pushed past him to leave the hall in the opposite direction.
Alek approached Damon, though his eyes watched Phelin's stiff back as he left. "What was that all about?" he asked when he reached Damon.
"He is under a lot of stress, my Lord."
"Maybe. But he's barely had two words for me in all the time I've been back."
"He needs time. Of all of us, he was hurt the most when you left, my Lord. He felt responsible; he was your paxman."
Alek sighed. Damon shifted the conversation as they walked to the fireplace for warmth. "How is your sister?"
Alek brightened some. "Better. Feeling a bit too housebound, though. She's pretty cranky."
Damon laughed. "And her leg?"
"She can walk with just a cane now. She healed much faster than expected. She pushes herself hard."
Damon controlled a shudder at the thought of the shinaran Master being in the Keep. Alek must have sensed his discomfort.
"It's alright, Damon. Thedric won't come back from Vescant Hall any time soon."
"Old superstitions are hard to dismiss, my Lord."
Alek shrugged. "I suppose. I've always been kind of jealous of Taryn, though."
"I wouldn't be. For all she can do, there is an equal price to pay in the prejudice she endures, even from me."
Alek smiled at him. "She knows you try your best."
Damon did not answer. He lifted an iron poker and shifted the logs on the hearth fire. It responded with a shower of sparks and a burst of yellow flames.
"Anyway," Alek continued, undaunted, "Taryn should be down here soon. She's hell-bent on going for a ride while the winter weather holds, and I doubt my mother can stop her."
Damon smiled, picturing mother and daughter arguing over the virtues of a good ride.
Taryn bent and tugged again at her riding boot. She winced as pain shot up the scar on her thigh. She could hear her mother clucking in disapproval.
"You shouldn't be doing this so soon, Taryn. You've hardly given your muscles a chance to recover."
Taryn sat up on her bed stool. Her eyes skimmed past her desk, which held stacks of dusty old books and manuscripts she'd been reading and re-reading over the past month. She shuddered at the thought of spending any more time trapped inside with only a window to stare out. "I've barely been out of this room in months."
"Well you don't have to go all out you know. Why not just spend some time in the library again? You used to love that."
"Look at my desk, mother," Taryn grumbled. "Even I have a limit to how much time I can spend reading."
Celina frowned. "Well I still think you'll hurt yourself."
Taryn renewed tugging on her reluctant right boot. "If you worry over my pain then why not help me get this unreasonable boot on."
Celina stood and pressed the folds out of her russet dress. "Helping isn't agreeing. Just so we are clear on that."
Taryn smirked as her mother squatted down to push the black riding boot on for her. The final shove sent a jolt of pain up her leg again, but Taryn masked the shock with a small cough.
"You aren't fooling anyone, child," scolded her mother.
"It'll be easier on my leg to ride than to walk. I need to get out of the Keep."
Taryn stood up and tested her weight on the injured leg. She had enough strength for basic leg directions on her horse, and that was all she required. She pulled on a thick black riding cloak and fastened it with a plain silver clasp.
Celina frowned. "And why must you always wear black? A nice burgundy cloak would go so much better with your coloring, dear."
"I like black," said Taryn as she tugged on her matching black riding gloves and grabbed her black cane.
Celina huffed at her as they left Taryn's room. The walk down the long corridor was highlighted only by the methodic tap of her cane on the wood floor. At least the weather would hold. Taryn recognized the glimmer of sunlight as it spread a dusty ray through the high windows of the main hall. She did not relish the task of hobbling down the staircase though.
Celina continued to pronounce her disapproval of the whole event. "You shouldn't go alone, you know."
"And who would I take with me? It's not like I can drag Damon around anymore."
Celina graced her with a calculating stare. "Too bad young Sebran has already left. I'm sure he would have accompanied you."
"Mother." Taryn's face flushed in irritation. She paused at the head of the staircase, sideling over to the banister on the right. With Celina's arm looped firmly under hers and her hand clutching the banister, they made their way down the wide staircase to the deserted main hall. Her leg throbbed but Taryn would not admit that to her mother. The idea of someone accompanying her on this jaunt seemed a realistic need though.
"Is there anyone else about, Mother?"
Celina smiled triumphantly. "Well, not that I know of except that desert orphan of Alek's. I'm sure we can get a guardsman to ride with you, though."
Taryn was surprised by her mother's tone regarding Sarai. "Is there a problem with her? Does she give headaches to you now?" she asked.
"No, no. Only you have that problem. She's capable enough. Now that she's learned some measure of self-control, maybe your headaches will cease. But really, she belongs in a shinaran Hall. I wanted Thedric to take her back with him, but Alek refused."
The training lessons had been a mild burden on Taryn as well, but unlike her mother, she didn't want Sarai sent off. For all the discomfort of Sarai's presence, the woman's mental touch was unlike anything Taryn had ever felt before. She did not want to think about Sarai leaving the Keep anytime soon. "Well, she could always return to Vescant with me in the spring." Taryn felt her cheeks flush at the thought and turned away from her mother.
"If your brother allows it," said Celina as she pulled on a shawl from the hallway beside the kitchens.
Taryn shivered as they walked out to the stable yards. The presence of a brilliant blue sky and golden sun left her unprepared for the crisp breeze that blew across the yard, tugging at her cloak. Celina left her to approach an older guard standing by the grayed barn doors. Taryn rested against the paddock fence. Behind her, three horses stood in the trampled mud. She guessed the rest were content to stay inside the stables and out of the wind.
Celina called her over and Taryn prepared to swallow her pride. Between the poison-induced fever and the slow healing, she had missed most of the autumn. Better to ride safely with another than risk further injury if she ran into difficulty. Before Taryn could thank the guard for his assistance, she heard the distinctive clip of horse hooves echoing from within the barn. Phelin emerged on a tall grey and white stallion and reined in before them.
He glared at the guard. "Is there a reason you are not at your post, man?"
Taryn interrupted the guard's stammered reply. "I asked him to ride with me."
"My guards aren't here to play nursemaid to you."
"Phelin, really," Celina chided, "Must you continue this petulance?"
Phelin's face blanched. His tone became more respectful. "Sorry, foster-mother. Nevertheless, the guards are posted for good reasons. I've gotten disturbing reports from the south." Phelin wheeled his eager horse around and pointed back to the barn. "Alek's girl is in there, why don't you ride out with her?" He trotted past them and out toward the main gates.
"Well, I suppose that will do," said Celina with a sigh. "I'll leave you to it then."
Taryn walked toward the open barn, glad to be out from her mother's nagging eye, but not eager to spend an hour's ride with Sarai. Training or no, she was certain the headache would come. If she were honest with herself, Taryn also felt uncomfortable around the other woman. She knew she wanted to feel the touch of Sarai's mind in hers again, but she also worried that the empath would sense Taryn's attraction to her.
Taryn leaned on the splintered barn door. She massaged her leg as she waited for her eyes to adjust to the dark interior. Doves cooed from the dark rafters above, and rays of sunlight cut across the barn floor from cracks in the aged walls. As her eyes adapted, she saw Sarai toward the back of the barn, grooming the lone grey mare. In a region famous for paint horses, the solid grey horse stuck out as an obvious outsider. Taryn watched as Sarai maneuvered around the horse. She felt a twinge of jealousy that the lithe woman managed horses far better than she did. It was difficult to tell in the filtered light, but she thought Sarai was smiling as she worked. She could just make out Sarai's voice humming an unfamiliar tune. Taryn's lips curled slightly in response. She never realized that the other woman had such a sweet voice for music.
It had just registered that she felt no headache, when Sarai turned toward the barn door, and the pressure in Taryn's head waxed as Sarai's smile waned. Taryn felt guilty for having watched Sarai without a word, covering her embarrassment with a weak nod. Sarai's amber eyes caught hers for just a moment, sending a wave of warmth through her before Sarai looked down. That Sarai maintained a subservient attitude bothered Taryn more than the headaches.
"You handle your horse well," Taryn said.
Sarai nodded, continuing to stare at some unknown spot in the dirt between them.
"I was thinking of going for a ride," said Taryn as she walked closer. Sarai glanced at Taryn's cane.
"Oh, I think I can manage the horse well enough. But I was hoping maybe you'd join me?"
Sarai glanced up at her with an unreadable expression. Taryn felt her cheeks turning pink. What made her think Sarai had any desire to trot around the trails above Atheron with a lame rider who'd been nothing but a stern instructor for a month.
"Yes, my Lady."
"I'm not Lady of Damek anymore, just Taryn."
Sarai still did not look up. "I will tack your horse. Which is it?"
Taryn wanted to argue that Sarai wasn't her servant, but realistically she could not tack up in her condition. She grudgingly pointed to the black and white horse that had just entered its stall in the barn.
Sarai worked in silence preparing Taryn's horse for a trail ride. The time gave Taryn the opportunity to admire Sarai's skills as she tacked and groomed Taryn's horse. Sarai caught her watching and smiled softly. Taryn grinned in response but turned away to hide the flush rising in her cheeks.
After hoisting herself into the saddle, Taryn led the way to the riding path in silence out past the massive stone walls of the Keep and up the trail to the north. Atheron sprawled below them, noisy even at a distance. Smoke rose from a multitude of houses, and Taryn heard the faint sound of marketers harping their wares from the central square. The rhythmic walk of the horse beneath her felt good. The reddish dirt trail wound through thickets of oak and maple, stripped clean of leaves. The occasional patch of grasses on either side of the trail rippled in the wind like waves of green.
Sarai rode behind her. Taryn did not know if it was the benefit of the fresh crisp air but she felt only a mild pressure from Sarai. The woman's ability to control her mental presence had improved. The trail widened before them and Taryn slowed her horse so that Sarai could ride beside her, but the woman slowed as well, staying to the rear. Taryn stopped completely and waved Sarai forward.
"Are you in pain, my Lady?" asked Sarai as she trotted her horse up beside Taryn.
"I told you I'm not to be addressed as Lady," said Taryn.
Sarai stayed beside her as Taryn signaled her horse to walk. "Sorry, but you aren't my servant. We're equals, you and I."
"No. I am Alek's."
Taryn fumed at the notion. "Alek doesn't own you. Did he say that?"
Sarai shook her head.
"I didn't think so. No one owns anyone in Damek."
She pulled in closer to Sarai, resting a hand on the grey mare. "You are free, Sarai. This isn't Tramoran. You can go wherever you want, no one would stop you."
Sarai's startling golden eyes lifted to hers, then turned away. In that moment, Taryn felt a wave of bitterness she'd never felt from Sarai before.
"Where would I go?" asked Sarai.
Taryn sat speechless a moment. She hadn't thought of that. Sarai had been taken miles from any family she may have had and from any town or culture that she recognized.
"Well," Taryn stuttered, trying to recover. "My mother thought maybe you could go to Vescant Hall for training. Would you like that?"
Sarai's gaze sank back down. "Alek did not wish me to go."
Taryn wondered again at her brother's treatment of Sarai. Why had he kept her around him? Was he attracted to Sarai? That thought disturbed Taryn, but she focused instead on his unfair treatment of her riding companion. "It's not his decision you know. You have a right to choose for yourself."
Taryn urged her horse forward, signaling Sarai to keep abreast. She could tell her words were having little effect as they rode over another ridge, the Keep now entirely blocked from their view.
"He says he needs me," said Sarai.
Taryn blinked, unsure of what Sarai meant and surprised the woman spoke on her own.
"Needs you for what?
"He fears for his wife and baby."
"But they're dead. The baby was still-born, and the mother died at childbirth."
"Someone told him they are trapped between death and life."
Someone? Taryn thought. Vasali. Why else would the conniving woman have hung around so long before Alek left? Taryn could only guess what vile things she whispered into Alek's ear after his wife died.
"But what do you have to do with Alek's family?" asked Taryn.
"He wishes me to free them." Sarai turned to her, fear and confusion flooding over the tenuous mental link between them. "I do not know how."
Taryn's expression grew dark. "He can't expect that from you. This is all nonsense. Vasali sold him an empty sack of lies, and he believed them all."
Sarai's eyes glistened with tears. "I would help him if I knew how."
Taryn did not know what to say. Obviously Vasali twisted the facts to convince Alek of all this. But why? Did she want him out of Damek for a time?
"You can't help him, Sarai. Only a trained cleric can converse with the dead, and even then, there is no way to guarantee you'd reach the soul you were searching for."
This seemed to agitate Sarai even further. "Then he will send me away."
If Alek were there, Taryn would have smacked him with her riding crop.
"He can't do that. I said you are free to come and go as you please." Taryn risked exposing her own feelings to look Sarai in the eye. "You are welcome to stay here in the Keep for as long as you like. Alek can't send you away. I wouldn't let him."
Sarai smiled at her. Taryn felt the woman's mental touch as a soft caress. Taryn broke off the contact, letting her eyes wander over the trail. She felt warmer now, much warmer.
The wind picked up as they neared the end of the path. "This trail ends at that wall of granite jutting out of the mountain," said Taryn to break the silence again. "Parts of the Keep were built right into this rock face. The only way to truly go north from the Keep would have been to head in the opposite direction when we left the gates."
"We should go back," said Sarai softly. "You are pale."
Taryn smirked, "I am not as dark-skinned as you, you know."
Sarai smiled at this, and Taryn grinned foolishly herself, glad to have lifted the woman's spirits.
"Paler than normal, then," said Sarai.
Taryn laughed. "Why Sarai, I think you just insulted me."
Sarai's eyes grew wide, and Taryn immediately regretted her retort. "I was joking, it's okay," she added quickly, but too late. Sarai's head had lowered again.
Taryn wanted to kick herself the entire long, quiet ride back to the Keep.
Taryn hobbled into the main hall, favoring her stiff leg. Celina and Alek watched her approach as Taryn slumped into the space next to her mother on the couch. Sarai followed behind her, carrying a plate of cheese and apples from the kitchen. The woman slid the plate onto a low table and blushed when Alek gave her a small wave from where he tended the fire by the main hall hearth. Taryn felt a chill creep over her that had nothing to do with the outside weather.
"Over done it, haven't you," aske Celina, glancing up from her needlepoint only long enough for Taryn to register her mother's disapproval.
Alek came to her defense. "It'll do her some good to work the leg. How does it feel?"
Taryn wanted to complain about the steady throbbing that radiated from her thigh half way down to her toes, but instead she lied. "It's not too bad."
Her skills at dissemination were not convincing. Even Sarai peeked at her in disbelief before returning to her normal downward posture and settling on the floor.
Alek left his place by the fire. He bent down, took Sarai by the hand and led her to a side chair. Sarai blushed furiously this time. Taryn wondered if there was more going on between those two than anyone had mentioned. She felt a rising sense of jealousy and considered asking her mother, but Celina had made her dislike for Sarai apparent earlier. Maybe that was why? Her mother would not consider Sarai a suitable wife for her son, as Lord of a province. Taryn wasn't sure which bothered her more, the thought of Alek and Sarai together, or the idea that her mother would disapprove of the woman. Taryn felt a twinge of guilt at her own mixed feelings for Sarai. This might be the first real interest in another woman that Alek had shown since his wife's death, and she should keep her own emotions out of it.
"Alek," Taryn began, "What exactly did Vasali tell you to convince you to leave Damek for so long?"
Alek stood up from his quiet chat with Sarai. For a long moment, Taryn thought he would not answer her at all.
"It wasn't what she said, really. It was a vision. After Malia died, I kept having this dream. Malia was calling to me, she and my son. He was little, barely walking. They pleaded with me, night after night. I must come to them. They needed me to free them."
Taryn felt the hairs stand on the back of her neck as she listened. Her mother and Sarai watched Alek as well, everyone transfixed by his tale.
"Free them from what?" Taryn asked.
Alek focused on her, his voice breaking. "I don't know. I still do not know. Vasali came to me one evening, and I told her my dreams. She helped me. Through her, I could talk to Malia. Malia showed me a vision of someone who could free her. She showed me Sarai."
Alek stared at Sarai, but she kept her eyes averted. Taryn ached for them both, but especially for Sarai and the burden Alek was placing on her.
"Alek, why didn't you tell anyone about this?" asked Celina.
"I didn't have time. The night Malia showed me Sarai was the night I left. I had to find her."
Taryn was not sure whether to scream or cry. "Vasali manipulated you. She used you."
"But the dreams, I kept having those horrible dreams until Vasali helped me reach Malia."
Celina sat up beside Taryn. "Alek, close your eyes a moment."
Taryn glanced her mother, unsure what she had planned. Alek hesitated a moment and then closed his eyes. Celina shut hers as well. The silence in the room was broken a few moments later by Alek's hearty guffaw. Taryn shared a confused look with Sarai, the link between them bringing a rush of Sarai's fears and self-recrimination for being unable to help Alek.
It's not your fault, said Taryn.
I must help him.
You can't. Only time can heal him. Time and acceptance.
Alek and Celina opened their eyes.
"Care to share with the rest of us what's going on?" asked Taryn.
Alek wiped a tear from his eye as he reined in his laugh. "Well. I just had a rather strange view of Father riding that big roan he loved." Laughter tugged at Alek's breath once more. "He was wearing a long emerald gown."
Taryn chuckled, realizing her mother had created a false vision and given it to Alek.
Alek sobered a moment later. "But I knew it was you, Mother. You taught me how to feel the presence of a shinaran in my mind."
"True. But if I had done that while you slept, would you realize it was a false dream?"
Alek stared at his hands. "What about the vision? Malia spoke to me."
"With Vasali's help," Taryn interjected.
He turned to her and then Sarai, who sat quietly, seemingly lost in her own thoughts. Alek crumbled, face in his hands. "It all seemed so real."
Sarai was there in an instant to comfort him, stroking his thick black hair. Taryn, surprised by the tinge of jealousy she felt at their shared affection, looked away. Her mother glowered at the pair.
"Well," Celina said abruptly, "It doesn't explain why Vasali wanted you away from Damek."
Alek sat up. "No, it doesn't."
Taryn considered Vasali's motives. "Maybe she wanted you dead. Were you ever attacked?"
"No. Well once, on the way back here. Sarai and I came across some bandits coming over the Trescion pass. They wanted our horses. Got one of them, too." He turned to Sarai beside him. "I thought I'd lost you then. How did you get away from that man?"
Sarai's hands shook as she spoke, "I do not know. I ran to make one follow me. When he attacked, IÃ–" She did not continue. Alek clasped her small hand in his.
"I can tell the rest," said Taryn, barely above a whisper. All eyes turned to her, but she focused on Sarai.
"I can't explain how or why it happened, but at that instant, Sarai linked with me."
"What? From so many miles away?" asked Celina shaking her head in disbelief.
"Remember the night I fainted here? It was the next day when we met Alek on the East Road. I was there with Sarai when that man came at her."
"But you killed a man in that dream," Celina stammered. "It can't be true. You obliterated his mind!"
Taryn remembered the vision. Looking at Sarai, she knew now where that raw power had come from that sent the bandit plunging over the cliff, his mind a shattered wreck long before his body succumbed to death. Taryn watched Sarai's face turn ashen. She must have realized as well what had happened.
Alek broke the uncomfortable silence. "Shinaran morality codes be damned. If this is true then you saved Sarai's life and maybe mine as well."
Taryn envied Alek's simple acceptance of the events. Flashes of her other dark vision from months ago returned to her. The bloodshed and destruction delivered to her mind by the Revenant. She was responsible for destroying a man's mind. This was just proven true. Would she follow the path of darkness? Sesanth had not been the only shinaran to abuse his powers. And interwoven through it all was Sarai. She appeared in Taryn's visions as well as those Vasali implanted in Alek. Vasali had been keenly interested in Sarai, but then why had she attacked the woman? Taryn's head throbbed, her own turmoil heightened by Sarai's untrained presence, now distraught and confused.
"I need rest," Taryn muttered, standing up from the couch. She needed time away from Sarai to think.
Continued in Chapter 7