by Sandra Barret
Taryn let the rhythmic gate of her horse calm her as she listened to Hort's reports.
"We had two separate farriers come back with blackened patches of skin on their shoulders and back. Some kind of flesh-eaters attacked them."
Taryn's stomach knotted. She had been regaled with tales of this sort for most of the day, and her fortitude waned with the setting sun. A frigid wind blew down from the north, though the sky had cleared since morning. Taryn considered how much worse this long ride would be had it continued to snow. Small mercies, she thought as she scanned the horizon. Alek rode a few paces ahead, his black stallion unwilling to keep at a walk for long. The road sloped gently upward and Alek came to a stop at the top of the rise. His horse snorted impatiently, its steaming breath evident even from Taryn's distance. She watched as Alek shaded his eyes to look out to the east.
"Do you see the forest?" Taryn asked as she rode up to join him.
"Yes, but look," he said pointing, "There's a haze hanging over it."
She followed Alek's gaze. The Velek Forest appeared on the horizon, its towering green trees distinct even at this distance. They were closer than she thought. Taryn frowned. Above the green canopy hung a dull layer of brown, south of their current path.
Hort reined in next to Alek on the other side. "Forest fire?" he suggested.
Alek circled his impatient steed. "Out of season. Possible though. We should investigate anyway."
Alek gave free rein to his horse, and they broke into a gallop down the hill, breaking off to the right across the grasslands. Taryn and Hort galloped in pursuit, their horses less than enthusiastic about the quickened pace.
Alek drew to a halt within the edge of the forest. Taryn and Hort trotted up to him a moment later, and they all dismounted. Taryn sniffed the air. A murky haze hung over the forest but she did not smell smoke.
"If it were a fire, surely the horses would have sensed it by now," she said.
"Possibly. We are upwind of whatever it is," said Hort.
They left the horses loosely tethered to low tree branches, within reach grass. The horses bent to graze as the three of them hiked into the thickening forest. After a time, the woods around them changed dramatically. The undergrowth had been destroyed in wide swaths, the land trampled.
"How far to the nearest guard house?" asked Taryn.
"There should be one at the end of the road we were on and another five miles south" Hort replied. "Too far away for this to be a mess left behind by the guards."
"Look here," said Alek who had wandered further into the woods.
Taryn walked around a thick grove of ancient trees to stand beside her brother. The scene before her sent a chill through her body. She leaned against the scratchy bark of the nearest ancient sentinel as she looked around. A zigzag line of bare earth stretched out before her where the impenetrable forest should have been. Enough trees remained that the area would seem as thick with trees and bushes as the rest of the forest, so long as you were not up close to it.
"Some disease of tree or soil, you think?" asked Hort.
Taryn reached out mentally, seeking any sign of the sorts of demon beasts Hort had described. The area was devoid of animal life. Then she felt something shifting to their left. Taryn signaled them to silence, pointing toward the nearest end of the jagged treeless path. Alek and Hort drew weapons simultaneously. Alek held a sword, and Hort cocked his bow and arrow. Taryn pulled out her own short dagger and grasped it tightly, her palms sweating despite the cold winter breeze. Why had she left her sword strapped to the horse?
Alek padded quietly to the left as Hort moved around toward the right to encircle whatever lay within the patch of growth. Before they got within ten paces of the brush, something bolted, heading back into the thickness of the forest. Hort let loose one arrow, and their prey collapsed to the ground. When Taryn joined them she saw not a beast, but a young man lying on his side with an arrow through the back. The man coughed.
"Ah, what have I done," said Hort.
Alek cut off Hort's lament. He stood over the injured stranger, pointing his sword at the man's chest. "Where are the rest?" Alek demanded.
When the man gave no answer, Alek kicked him in the ribs. "Where?" he shouted.
The man moaned and coughed, spitting blood on the brown soil. "Too late," he croaked. "The road is done."
Alek plunged his sword down. In one quick motion, the man was dead. Taryn stared at her brother in undisguised horror as he cleaned his blade on the dead man's leather tunic.
"This is Fasal's grand plan," Alek growled.
Taryn scanned the area again and realization rumbled through her mind. A road through the forest! This must have taken a year or more to complete.
Hort stammered, "How could Fasal manage this without anyone finding out?"
Alek sheathed his sword and marched past them both. "Demons, or men dressed as demons to frighten or kill any who found this."
"No," Taryn countered as she followed her brother back to the horses. "I've seen those demons first-hand. Some at least are real."
Alek leapt into his saddle in one jump. "Nevertheless, Fasal is here and we have to tell the borderguards." He turned to Hort. "Can you ride to the border guard to the south? Taryn and I can warn the guard house by the road, if they haven't all been slaughtered by now."
Hort nodded agreement.
Taryn's heart thundered. Fasal had a clear route to Damek and few to defend against him. She struggled into her own saddle, her hands and feet not cooperating with her mind's call for speed. Alek galloped north. She swung her horse north as Hort's hoof beats pounded away to the south.
The morning sun had yet to caress the tops of the towering conifers as Lord Fasal checked the leathers on his stirrup and girth one last time. The roan stallion beneath him snorted its impatience with the temporary rest. Fasal slid his boots back into the stirrups as he surveyed the battle force around him. A line of riders extended before and behind him, three abreast along a winding makeshift path through the forest. Commander Josep waited on his right atop a large bay, and Fasal's standard bearer on his left had unfurled the black and orange flag, symbol of Fasal's dual rule over Beht and Tramoran. He idly considered how the blue of Damek would combine with black and orange for his new flag.
Fasal shook off his reverie as he peered through the forest. On either side he could see only the thick natural growth of the forest. He turned to Joseph. "How many paths did you cut?"
"Eight total, my Lord, spaced between Damek's guard houses."
Fasal's smile widened. Eight tracks of mounted men heading toward Damek and none to oppose them, if his spies were accurate in their accounts. It would take time to regroup on Damek's side of the forest, but their unopposed entry into the province would be worth it. The column ahead began moving. Fasal strapped his golden helmet on his head and drew his long sword out of its glittering scabbard. The column broke into a trot, and Fasal tapped heels to his horse's side.
The sun crested over the treetops to sparkle on a multitude of weapons as his cavalry broke through the last mile of the Velek Forest. Brion be damned, Damek would be his.
Taryn roamed around the inner yard of the Keep, watching the frantic preparations for battle as if they were a distant story unfolding around her. Their effort to warn the border guards proved futile. The guardhouses were empty, save for the few bodies of loyal guardsmen who must have been betrayed by Fassel's traitorous guards. Somehow the reality of Fasal's invasion could not seep through her barrier of denial. This was her home and her family's home for generations. She stopped to let a hurried rancher herd a handful of brown and black cows in through the East Gate. Orders were shouted from the battlements atop the wall and answered by a gaggle of workers below. The massive iron and oak gate would be lowered within the hour.
Taryn continued her directionless amble, past the sealed granaries, two large cisterns, and a confusion of loose hens scrambling away from the painful boots of the workers, guardsmen, and Keep staff running about the inner yard. As her thoughts focused on one obstinate hen insistent on pecking at fallen bits of grain amongst the tumult of activity around it, Taryn nearly stumbled into Alek and Phelin. Not wanting to be pulled into the rushed preparations herself, she hung back in the shadows of a side entrance to the Keep. Their voices managed to penetrate her attempts at isolation.
"We need the conscripts here, Phelin."
"No. The Keep is a fortress. My guards are enough to keep Fasal at bay. I want the conscripts blocking the East Road."
"Fasal's cavalry will slaughter them."
"It will give us time to get Damon's riders back here for a rear-guard attack."
Taryn heard a third voice enter the fray.
"My Lord, the livestock paddocks are full. Most of Atheron have fled north to the mining towns or further west."
"Good," Alek answered. "Take a handful of guards into Atheron and bring back whatever you can of dried goods."
A moment's pause before Alek grumbled, "I will personally skin Farrell if I ever find him! How did he ever bribe his border-guards into letting Fasal to our doorstep?"
Taryn had heard more than she cared for. She slipped into the side door and trudged up the back spiraling staircase. She didn't stop on the second floor landing, but continued on up to the watchtower that stood at the highest point in the Keep. She heard quiet voices from within the watchtower as she approached. She waited on the stairs, considering returning back down to the lower floors. The voices of Sarai and Celina floated to her from above. Her mother must have continued Sarai's training sessions even amongst the fevered preparations for siege. Taryn envied her mother's ability to remain on track no matter the crazed world around her.
Taryn hadn't seen Sarai since their brief, confusing parting before her trip to the forest. Before she could turn back down the stairs, Taryn felt the familiar warm touch that signaled Sarai had noticed her presence. A wave of guilt passed over Taryn for hanging about in shadows. She resolved to spend the rest of the day in her quarters when she heard Celina berating Sarai for not focusing. Taryn sighed. She should expose herself as the disruption to Sarai's concentration.
She walked up the remaining stairs and past the threshold of the watchtower. The circular room remained chilly despite the red-hot coals burning in the central brazier. The wide expanse of green land leading to Atheron was visible from the eastern windows. The southern road stretched out like a thin brown ribbon threading its way through the rocky hillside and out of view. The remaining windows faced into the Keep, looking out over the slate rooftop and past it to the granite outcrop that protected the Keep from the north and west.
"Can't you stay focused, girl?" asked Celina.
Taryn shuffled into the room. Her mother twisted in the chair and greeted her with a short smirk.
"Well," sighed Celina, "That explains the loss of focus. Maybe you will have better luck training her than I."
Taryn actually thought she saw a blush creep up Sarai's dark cheeks before tendrils of coppery hair slid over the woman's ducked head like a closing drape. Celina noticed the flush as well. Taryn swallowed as her mother's expression turned cold.
Celina glowered at Sarai. Keep your mind on your work, and not on my children.
Now Taryn felt her own cheeks burning. "Mother!"
Celina jumped. "How did you hear that? I linked only to Sarai."
It was only then that Taryn realized she heard her mother's thoughts through Sarai's mind and not her own. "I don't know," she stammered. "I guess I've always been able to see through her mind. It's just gotten easier to separate her thoughts from my own now that she's been trained some."
"And is it the same for you?" asked Celina as she turned back to Sarai.
"And you both are linked all the time?"
"When we are close, yes," said Taryn.
Celina pushed out of her chair and paced by the west window, passing through the last golden haze of afternoon sun. "I've never heard of such a thing," she said at last.
Taryn gave a conspiratorial wink to Sarai that threatened to break the woman's quiet composure. Their shared abilities might be extraordinary, but Taryn enjoyed the closeness of the link. She basked in the touch of Sarai's mind, feeling once again that echo of desire that matched her own.
Footfalls echoed up the spiral stairwell. Taryn watched the open doorway behind Sarai as Alek appeared from the darkness. His grim features lightened as he looked to Sarai, but she had yet to realize his presence. As Sarai turned to see Alek, her eyes widened, and she slammed down the barriers between her and Taryn.
Taryn winced. This was the first time Sarai had forced Taryn away from her. Obviously the woman could shut her out, but the affect was painful. Alek stepped toward Sarai but when she lowered her head, his smile waned. "The East and South Gates have been shut. Phelin tells me we have enough supplies within the Keep to last the winter."
"Surely you don't expect this battle to go on that long?" Celina asked.
"No. Riders have been sent for Damon and the southern conscripts. Fasal is welcome to camp at our doorstep until they arrive. We'll drive him all the way back to Beht if we have to."
Taryn should have felt relieved by her brother's bravado. Instead her mind swirled with dark images of bloodshed within the Keep. She was grateful Sarai had closed the link so thoroughly; she would never share this bloody vision of the future with her.
Celina's voice broke through Taryn's inner fright. "So my house is a mess of stolen sacks of food and the last dregs of Atheron." Celina grabbed Alek by the sleeve, "Show me where you've stacked all this."
Taryn and Sarai sat in silence for a few moments after the other two left. Sarai shuffled forward in her seat. "I should go help."
"No, please. I can't go back down there yet. And I don't want to be alone right now." She wanted Sarai to lower her barriers again. Somehow the separation made her feel all that more isolated.
Sarai watched Taryn with bright amber eyes. Sadness played across her face. "It is upsetting to you?"
Taryn sighed, "Yes. So many strangers and near-strangers are crowding the Keep now. And a force of armed men want to take my home and destroy my family."
"It has always been your home, this place?"
"Yes, of course. I suppose it doesn't feel like home to you." Taryn regretted her selfish words. "Do you remember any home or family?"
"I have no family. I can remember many owners."
Taryn remembered her nights of shared dreams with Sarai. She gently prodded, "No memories at all? Of a mother who played with you… before the Nomads came?"
Sarai stared toward the window where twilight crept over the rolling hills. "It is only a dream," she stuttered at last.
Taryn wanted to slap herself for the insensitive knave she was. She slid out of her chair to kneel before Sarai, feeling at a loss for words. Taryn wanted to tell her the dreams were real, that Sarai had a mother once who loved her deeply. But to admit that would mean admitting the other dreams were real as well, the dreams where Sarai the child was ripped from her mother's arms by rough hands and forced to listen to the screams as her mother was burned alive for some blasphemy.
She mated outside the tribe, with the Unclean.
Sarai, I'm so sorry. It must have been horrible.
It is the Law. She had to be saved, purified from the unclean.
Taryn thought she might get ill. But they didn't… didn't try to purify you?
Sarai's mood darkened. I am nothing. I did not exist to the tribe, only property to sell like the other contents of my mother's hut.
Taryn sank back on the cold stone floor, hugging her knees. The tribes of Berat shunned all other provinces, but she never knew the harsh laws that kept them in isolation.
"Riders approach," Sarai whispered.
Taryn's mind churned with remembered bits of Sarai's past.
"Riders approach, from the South," Sarai repeated, pointing to the window she'd been staring through.
Taryn's thoughts locked back on the present dangers. She walked to the southern window but could see little in the near dark.
"One rider, two at most," said Sarai, who joined her at the window.
Taryn peered into the dusk, scanning for the rider. She was distracted by the closeness of Sarai at her shoulder. The woman smelled different. Not unpleasant, but somehow more earthy than anyone else. Another uniqueness to Sarai that Taryn assumed came from her desert origins. The scent drew Taryn's attention away from the window. She could sense Sarai's tension through the woman's rigid controls, blocking any stray thoughts from escaping.
Why do you build such barriers around me now? Taryn asked.
Sarai paled beside her and took a step backward.
Taryn apologized, "I'm sorry. I don't mean to upset you."
"We should go. The rider is Master Damon," Sarai muttered as she backed away further.
"Yes, of course."
Sarai turned and fled down the spiral staircase. Taryn followed more slowly, nursing her own confused emotions. Taryn entered the main Hall to see Sarai standing in Alek's shadow, hiding once again behind her curtain of coppery hair. Taryn wrapped her arms around herself, trying to rein in her own jealous feelings as the front doors swung open. Damon swept in through the doors, wrapped in an icy wind. He managed to pull off his battle helmet before Alek started questioning him.
"What news? Do the southern troops follow you?"
Damon face was awash in confusion. "The troops remain in the south, my Lord."
"What? Didn't you receive orders from Phelin? But no, you couldn't have. He just sent them yesterday."
"I came of my own accord. The Tramoran Fleet had only a minor force of arms. I fear a ruse."
"You're fears are real, old friend. Fasal is coming through the forest. Phelin's orders should reach the troops by tomorrow, though."
Damon sank to a chair in exhaustion. "No riders passed me as I came north."
Alek ignored Damon and continued, "What of the conscripts? Did you see signs of them heading east?"
Sarai filled a mug of ale and passed it to Damon. He drank deeply before answering. "Those I saw. They've built an effective barricade along the southern road. But they remained with the barricade when I passed through."
Alek was livid. "But this is madness. Phelin ordered them to move east."
Just then Phelin entered the hall from the council room, his face paling as he surveyed the room.
"Phelin," Alek almost shouted, "What of the conscripts? Damon here says they are still on the south road?"
Phelin strode into the hall and stood between Alek and Damon. His eyes glinted coldly at both. "My orders would just have reached the conscripts as Damon came through, my Lord. They are heading the east as we speak."
Damon finished off his ale and stood. "Excellent. Then I'd like to go over your defense plans for the Keep."
Phelin bristled. "There won't be time. Now that you are here, I want you leading the defense of the East Road. You can catch up with the conscripts and take over from my second in Command."
Damon's eyes lingered on Phelin for a moment before he nodded agreement. "You must send another rider to the southern forces. There is no way they can come up the south road through that blockade. They should be sent along the forest route to attack Fasal's rear flank."
Phelin's fists clenched at his side. "An excellent idea, Damon. I will write the order immediately."
Phelin gaze shifted to Sarai. "Why is she not with the other servants?"
Taryn felt Sarai's shock from the reproach. Her own anger flared. "Sarai is a guest in this house."
Phelin gave her a toothy snarl. "Alek bought her. That hardly makes her a guest, does it? She should not be privy to our strategies."
If Taryn had been closer to Phelin, she might very well have hit him.
Alek spoke up before she could. "I don't own her, but Phelin is right. We should move this to the council room."
Taryn's jaw clenched as she felt Sarai withdraw within herself. "Fine," she snapped. "We'll wait here for Mother's report on the food stocks."
After the others left, Sarai lifted her head up and murmured, "I should see if I'm needed in the kitchens."
Taryn stood next to Sarai. "You don't have to," she offered. "Phelin's got his head stuck… well I won't mention where. And Alek's just, he's being pulled in all directions at once."
I don't belong here.
You're right. You belong in Vescant Hall or some other shinaran school, training under a Master.
Sarai responded by gently stroking Taryn's hair.
Taryn heart pounded as her cheeks turned crimson. I'll take you there, after this is over, if you like. Her spirit soared with the flicker of renewed hope in Sarai's golden eyes. She felt a glimmer of optimism that all this would end in Damek's favor, and she would get to keep her promise to take Sarai to Thedric at Vescant.
Taryn, Celina, and Sarai stood in the watchtower, wrapped in blankets against the winter chill. All eyes focused on the clouds of dust and smoke forming on the eastern horizon, the only blotch on an otherwise crystal blue sky. Damon and the remaining conscripts had returned to the Keep in the dim light of dawn, in full retreat from Fasal's invading forces. Taryn turned away from the slowly growing dust clouds. Below the watchtower she could see the outer walls of the Keep, the massive gray stonework wide enough for two guards to stand abreast along the battlements. Unfortunately there were not that many guards present within the Keep.
Taryn watched as a row of archers climbed up the wooden ladder to the front battlement to prepare for what approached within the dust clouds. Further along, she saw the distinct uniform of Phelin surrounded by his inner guard. They took up position in the gatehouse above the still-open East Gate. And the reason for the open gate appeared, slowly trotting down the East road into Atheron. The tops of Damon and Alek's helmets reflected the sun like jewels at the lead of a pathetically small cavalry charge.
Celina broke the silence at last. "This is madness. There aren't enough of them to even cause an inch in Fasal's side."
Taryn was inclined to agree. The token force would do little beyond assuage the egos of those who insisted on riding out to face Fasal head-on.
"Damn your grandfather and his bastard child. Why can't he leave us alone?"
She stared at her mother. "What are you saying?"
Celina bit her lip but did not reply.
Taryn's attention was distracted by the growing dust cloud to the east. Movement was visible now, the distinct rise and fall of row upon row of horse and rider. No sun glinted off metal helmet or weapons from this distance, but Taryn had no doubt how well armed Fasal's forces would be. She turned a wishful eye toward the south but that road remained empty, nothing but a winding strip of brown clay stretching off into the blue horizon.
"I can't watch this," Taryn muttered and shuffled back to sit on the hard stone floor by the brazier. Taryn closed her eyes and her head drooped. Why did Alek insist on going out there? Would he get back through the main gate in time? Would the walls hold until help came? Taryn's tangle of confused thoughts met a cool calming presence like the soft lap of waves on a sandy shore. She basked in the comfort for a time before opening her eyes. She met Sarai's golden eyes looking down on her. All signs of Sarai's mental barriers were gone. Only an open, caring mind caressed her thoughts. Taryn smiled as the other woman settled beside her on the floor. Sarai brushed back a loose strand of Taryn's hair. Taryn's thoughts lingered on Sarai's deep red lips, lips she wanted pressed against her own. Shocked by her own open arousal, she looked up into Sarai's eyes, afraid of what the other woman sensed across their shared link. A smile lifted Sarai's flushed cheeks, and Taryn knew Sarai shared her intimate thoughts.
Sarai offered her small dark hand. Taryn enveloped it in her own cool hands. She was instantly lost within the depths of the Revenant's vision once again. A dark world swirled around her and Sarai. Taryn ran down the narrow stone staircase leading to the Keep's cellar, spilled blood making the stairs slippery in spots. Sarai stood motionless at the top of the steps. The world tilted. Taryn stumbled along a snow-covered hillside. This time Sarai was in front of her, watching, as faint sounds of thunder echoed in Taryn's mind. Her body froze in fear. Then white fog swirled around Taryn. She looked into the blood-smeared face of Sarai. The woman was a burning flame of rage, howling like a beast as wind whipped her wet copper hair.
The visions ended when the two women pulled apart. Tears ran freely down Taryn's cheeks. Sarai stood up, swaying.
Taryn's mother flew to her. "What is it, child? What happened?"
Taryn looked back to Sarai. The woman stood frozen for a moment, her eyes wide. Then Sarai blinked, looked from Taryn to Celina and back. Wordless, she ran from the room, her rose skirts billowing out from the speed with which she rushed away.
"What happened?" Celina repeated.
"I'm not sure." Taryn wrapped her arms around her knees and rocked slowly. "I had visions, months ago. A Revenant came to me and wailed dark images into my mind."
"And you never told me?"
"I was frightened. It was when the demon sightings started. The visions were horrible. Somehow I thought I had been the cause of it all. So many people were dying in my vision." Taryn wiped at the tears drying on her face. "I thought I'd turned, like Sesanth."
Celina stroked her hair. "Sesanth was mad, evil. Why would you think that? And what does all this have to do with that girl running away like Wolves of Basker were at her heels?"
Taryn watched the red hot coals in the brazier before her. "Sarai was in the visions. I didn't know who she was at the time, but it's clear now. Sarai was present in each of the deadly scenes."
Celina's hand fell to her side. "She is the one who is evil then."
"No. No it can't be."
Phelin paced the upper story of the small stone gatehouse, peering repeatedly out into the shadowed expanse of the East Road. Somewhere out there, in the gloom of dusk that settled on Atheron, the battle for Damek had begun. Within the gatehouse, only three other men stood with him, quiet sentinels to his nervous march. The parapets beyond, as well as the ground just inside the gate were armed with his own select guards. This was his area to control, personally. Phelin scanned the faces around him until his eyes settled on the face of a stranger standing along the wall just outside the gatehouse. "Who is that man?"
"That's Bran," answered Roclan, Phelin's personal guard. "He's worked the Keep guard for over a year, I think,"
"Bring him here."
Roclan returned a moment later with Bran.
"Bran is it? How long have you been on duty?" asked Phelin.
"Since dawn, Sir."
"I want you with the men inside the main hall. Try to rest if you can. Your time out here will come soon enough."
Bran left immediately. Phelin gazed down the East Road again. The sounds of battle drifted in with the breeze. His eyes stayed on the East Road as he spoke to Roclan. "Prepare to lower the gates. Be ready to lower on my order."
Phelin could see riders now, the small patch of Damek defenders in retreat with a body of Fasal's riders pursuing. Phelin's hands clutched the cold stone rail as he leaned out to watch. Damek's riders split off the main road, separating into small parties. Some of Fasal's men followed while most remained on the East Road heading to the Keep and this gate.
"Now," Phelin whispered, "Now…"
A wall of fire ignited along the East Road, catching Fasal's forward guard in its burning grasp. The screams of horse and man echoed up the road to Phelin's ears. He grimaced, turning away from the sight. Alek's plan had worked. Fasal's cavalry pulled back. He could only guess how many of Fasal's men were caught by in the fire trap. Below Phelin, handfuls of Damek riders galloped into the open gate. The road to Atheron remained blocked by a yellow wall of fire. He heard Damon's voice shouting orders below. Phelin surveyed the inner court from his high vantage. Clusters of riders straggled in, and Damon directed them to move the horses to the back stables and clear the front. Stable hands ran off with tired, sweating horses. Damon seemed to question each of the last bands of riders.
Phelin peered back toward Atheron. The fire trap had dwindled to a dim red glow. So much for Alek's diversion. Phelin leaned over the inner wall. "Prepare to shut the gates!"
He heard a voice shout back, "Where is Lord Alek?"
He scanned the knots of men and riders below him for Alek's bulky shape. The evening dusk had faded to full dark by now, with only the few torches along the Keep providing any illumination. Phelin turned back to the East Road. He could not see Fasal's riders, but no red embers remained of the trap. The Gates must be closed. He heard someone scramble up the ladder toward him and turned to see Damon leap into the gatehouse.
"Keep the gates open," Damon demanded, "Lord Alek is missing."
Phelin slammed his fist on the wall. "Look for yourself, Damon. The fire is out. I have to shut the gates."
Damon peered into the darkness, his body shaking in frustration. "He's not back yet."
"Alek knew the risks when he planned this thing. He gave orders to shut the gates when the fire blew out."
Damon eyes never left the dark road. Phelin watched with him, unsure if he could see a dark mass creep up the road. Maybe it was his imagination on the moonless night. Damon turned away from the window. With his hand on the ladder, he muttered, "Close the gate," and climbed down to the lower ground.
Phelin's body tensed a moment. This was not going as planned. Alek should have been inside the Keep. He slammed his fist on a side table, scattering small splinters of wood toward the floor. He leaned over the rail once more. "Close the gates!"
He stood with his head in his hands as he felt the floor beneath him rumble from the chains lowering the massive iron outer gates.
Taryn weaved her way through the scattered array of cots and make-shift bedding lining the lower hallways. Each sector of the Keep seemed a confusion of faces, the tired, frightened, or embittered remnants of Atheron seeking safety within the stone edifice. Fumes lingered from the last set of fires ignited by a volley of flaming arrows from Fasal's army. A spotty coat of soot clung to Taryn's heavy skirts as she wound her way back to the main hall where the first casualties of battle lay in moaning, pain-wracked clusters by the central hearth. Taryn had lost three men already, their wounds beyond her healing skills.
She peered out through the window slits to the inner courtyard, but could only make out a few yellow torches burning in the late night darkness. Or perhaps it was nearing dawn by now? Taryn felt the ache of exhaustion tug at her as she knelt beside a silent pale guardsman. This one had the soft downy growth of a first beard blanketing his round chin. She turned away from his boyish face. It was too harsh a contrast to the deep crimson stain seeping through his tattered jerkin.
Taryn would lose this one as well. Already darkness encircled his deep-set eyes as she lowered herself into a healing trance and scanned his wounds. The left lung had collapsed. His shallow breathing came in short pants as Taryn searched deeper for some way to stem the bleeding. The boy had been injured outside the gates. No arrowhead had ripped a hole this large. He must have been one of the riders who went with Alek. Taryn's eyes flicked open, her concentration lost as she wondered if this boy had seen her brother. Did he know if Alek escaped or died in that trap?
Taryn's eyes drifted further. The Hall had a half dozen wounded men sitting or lying nearby. She saw a familiar copper head atop a green gown with gold spirals. Sarai glided between the men, serving warm broth and bread. Taryn's mind filled with a cool gentle touch as Sarai turned to her briefly before continuing to clean the wounds on the next guard. A soft smile curved Taryn's lips, easing some of the tension within her. Her mother was wrong. Sarai could not be evil. She returned to her charge one more time. She closed her eyes and concentrated this time on easing the pressures building within the dying youth. She could not save him, but she could ease his passage.
Taryn's slow progression through the injured guards was interrupted by a disturbance down the hallway leading to the council chamber. She glanced down the dimly lit corridor just as her mother's thoughts called for her attention. Taryn left the sleeping form of her healing patient.
What is it? she asked as she hustled along the hallway to her mother's side. led Taryn into the council chamber. The room had only two burning candles, but even in such poor light, Taryn recognized the burly shadow of her brother standing next to Damon.
"Alek!" Taryn threw herself into his arms. He smelled of old dust and sweat as she nuzzled into his chest a moment before pulling back. "Are you hurt?"
"Nothing but a few scrapes from the tunnels," said Alek.
Taryn stepped back from his grim expression. "What is it?"
"Something is very wrong, little sister. My men and I fought a dozen or more of Fasal's soldiers after we set the fires. We didn't get back before someone closed the gate."
Damon grimaced. "I agreed with that order."
"Understood," Alek nodded. "The real problem came when we hunted for the tunnel openings behind the Keep. We found two of them blocked by planks and boulders. With Fasal's men in pursuit we had no time to dig through."
"I haven't been in the tunnels in years," said Taryn.
"Neither have I, sister, but someone has. Or rather someone did not want us using them anymore."
Taryn considered this a moment. "Then how did you get in?"
Alek stared at her, his blue eyes locked on her own. "You remember the games of Catch the Shadow we used to play as kids?"
"And you remember how we always won against Phelin?"
"Yes," said Taryn with a wry smile. "We snuck into the Keep from the outer stables tunnel under the feed bay. It drove Phelin mad."
"Because he never knew about that tunnel, did he?
We never told him when we discovered it." Taryn felt lightheaded as Alek's innuendoes finally dawned on her. "You came in through that tunnel?"
"Yes. It was the only one we found still open."
Taryn felt herself sway as her knees threatened to buckle under her. Betrayal from a family member crumbled her remaining resolve far more than an invading army at her doorstep. Her vision swam with images of the three of them as children, laughing, teasing. They were inseparable. How could their differences have cut them so deeply from one another?
Celina stood. "I don't believe it. Phelin is no traitor. He must have told someone else about those tunnels."
Alek eyes narrowed. "Perhaps. We'll have to ask him, then."
"Is that wise?" asked Damon, "If you think he could be responsible? How many of the guards here have direct loyalty to him?"
Alek scratched at the bristles of his day-old beard. "Someone within the Keep is working for Fasal that much is certain. I want the women ready to leave here in an hour."
"This is nonsense." Celina pushed a lock of gray hair behind her ears as she stood. "I will be there when you confront my foster-son with this accusation." With a swish of skirts, Celina was out the door.
Alek paused only a moment before continuing. His callused hands rested on Taryn's shoulders. "I need you to be ready to leave through that tunnel. Take Sarai and be dressed in warm travel clothes within the hour."
Taryn nodded. "What about Mother?"
Alek glanced out the open council door. "I will talk with her. I'll carry her out if I have to." He turned to Damon. "I want you to go with them, old friend. If the worst happens, take them to the mines. You might get to Gethrig before it's snowed-in for the winter."
Alek grasped Damon hand. Taryn could only guess at what passed silently between the two men. Abruptly they parted and she took this as her signal to leave.
Taryn's easy pace through the main hall toward Sarai belied her inner panic. She was losing her home, running into the harsh winter to who knows where. Alek's accusations against Phelin echoed in her mind but refused to take hold. She could not believe Phelin would betray them. They were family. Sarai looked up as Taryn approached. Sarai's rigid controls were locked in place again, but her cheeks burned crimson. Taryn had no time to wonder at Sarai's discomfort. She signaled the other woman to follow and headed up the stairway. Sarai's footsteps echoed behind her. She tried to reach Sarai mentally one last time, but Sarai held firm to her isolation. Taryn waited for her at the top of the steps.
"We need to dress for travel, quickly," she whispered.
Sarai blanched. "We are leaving the Keep?"
"Yes, on foot. Breeches, boots, and the heaviest cloak you can find."
They rounded the bend to Sarai's rooms, where a lone guard stood sentry. Taryn took little notice of the man but Sarai slowed, then stopped.
"Come on," Taryn urged. "We haven't time."
Taryn heard the distinct sound of metal on metal. She turned to see the sentry inch toward them, sword drawn. Taryn whipped her head around in search of the danger. She saw only the three of them in the upper hallway. Turning back, she looked intently at the guardsman. "Bran? It's Bran, isn't it? What's the matter?"
Bran lurched closer, his breath coming in ragged gasps. Taryn stepped toward him, thinking he must have been injured.
The link with Sarai snapped open. No!
Taryn paused, He's injured.
He holds death in his heart!
Sarai, I don't understand.
He means to kill us!
Bran moved within the light of the wall torch, and Taryn staggered back. His face was awash in sweat, his eyes barely open. She had only a moment to realize help would not come in time for them.
Help me, she pleaded, reaching out to Sarai.
Taryn created a fog of illusion between them and the possessed Bran. She felt the tenuous link with Sarai strengthen as the woman grasped her hand. A wave of power washed over her. Taryn's eyes smarted from beads of sweat off her brow as she struggled to control and channel the power. A gray barrier solidified across the hall, separating them from Bran. The air crackled with energy, but Taryn focused most of the power into the disorienting illusion. Bran let out a low growl and charged. In that instant, Taryn lost control of the link. More power exploded from Sarai. Taryn stumbled against a wall she could not see, as a brilliant white barrier slammed down around her. She was isolated from Bran and Sarai.
Fear pounded in Taryn's chest as she fought to regain control. The barrier and the energy flowing into it meant Sarai was still alive, but where was Bran? An unseen hand grasped Taryn's hand and pulled her through the barrier. Taryn could barely see in the dark hallway beyond the white wall.
Inside my room, quickly. Sarai dragged Taryn across the threshold and pushed the door shut.
Phelin's breath came out in thin wisps of steam as he paced the length of the gate tower in three quick strides. The black expanse of the moonless night was interrupted by dozens of watch-fires burning in ordered columns within Fasal's siege camp below. He smirked. He had to admire the man's military precision. Every tent had been pitched by the light of the watch-fires, well out of reach of the Keep's archers. Phelin imagined the morning sun would shimmer off the tops of perfectly aligned rows of tents. He pulled on his black gloves, flexing his fingers in the supple leather. Winter nights in Damek could freeze a man's hands if he was careless, and no fires burned in his small enclosure.
A commotion behind him took Phelin's concentration away from the invaders below. He turned in time to see Roclan's shaved head appear at the top of the ladder. Phelin's personal guard swung himself up into the gate tower.
Roclan pointed back down the ladder toward the inner Keep. "He's back, my Lord."
Phelin sidestepped Roclan and peered over the railing toward the main hall doors. Alek stood in the well-lit doorway with Damon at his side. Mud and grime covered Alek's tunic. Even from a distance, Phelin could discern jagged cuts in Alek's clothing. He had no idea how his foster-brother managed to get back within the Keep, but it must have cost the lives of many of his men.
He smiled. "Well done, foster-brother."
Alek turned his head up and stared at Phelin, who stiffened a moment from Alek's grim expression. Alek did not move, did not turn away.
"Caught on then have you?" Phelin murmured. He raised his voice for Roclan. "It will be a night to remember, old friend."
Phelin slid his sword out of the scabbard, the blade catching the light from the torches hanging along the Keep wall. His heartbeat pounded; he could feel his pulse throb into the hilt of his sword as he raised it in the high air for a beat, then another. The steam from his warm breath hitting the cold night air swirled around him, occluding his view of Alek for just a moment. On the fourth beat of his pulse, Phelin brought down his sword in a fast slicing arc, a parry to an invisible foe, it would seem to most watching.
As Phelin's blade slowed, a long piercing horn blew from along the Keep wall. He watched Alek's confusion as Phelin's own guards drew weapons and faced into the Keep, guarding the gatehouse below him. Another horn sounded, then a third, these coming from outside the Keep. Phelin felt the unmistakable rumbling of the gate mechanism beneath him. "Your time has ended, foster-brother."
As the sound of the gate chains echoed within the Keep, Damon's voice rose above the confusion, shouting orders. Guard fought rebel guard as the clanging of the gate continued. Phelin's grip tightened on his sword as he watched Alek draw his own weapon below. Instead of heading into the fray, he grabbed Damon and ran back inside the main hall.
Phelin let out a barking laugh as the doors to the main hall swung shut. "Hiding with the house staff? The son of the Great Bear of Damek runs away?" Phelin sheathed his sword and turned to watch Fasal's foot soldiers stream toward the opening gate.
Taryn and Sarai hurried down the staircase, the shouts from the open Hall doors echoing around them. They each wore thick buckskin breeches, heavy boots tied to the knee, and long hooded cloaks. At the base of the stairs, Taryn paused to adjust the short sword strapped to her waist. She regretted Sarai's lack of training with a sword. The woman had only a dagger in her belt.
Taryn's thoughts froze at the unmistakable sound of grinding metal. She peered across the hall to the open main doors. Fires raged outside. Taryn pushed through the hysterical crowd within the hall, heading for the doors. She heard guards screaming, cursing. And above it all, the groan and creeks of the thick iron gate as it rose inexorably upward. A handful of men pulled at the oak hall doors, sealing them shut against the battle outside. Taryn recognized Alek and Damon as they turned from the barred doors. She pushed her way through to them, urging Sarai to follow.
"How?" she asked, simply.
Alek ran a hand across his eyes. "Phelin. Traitorous bastard." Then he grabbed Taryn, pinching her arms in his tight grasp. "You must leave, now. Lead Damon to the remaining tunnel."
Taryn pushed away from her brother. "Not without you. Not without Mother."
"There's no time. I'll find her and follow. You must get out while you can." Alek looked passed her to Sarai and Damon. "Please, take her." He sidestepped Taryn and pushed his way through the throng of guards.
Taryn made to follow, but Damon's hand on her arm stayed her. She knew she must do as he asked. She rid her eyes of the tears with a frustrated swipe of her gloved hand. "This way," she said, through clenched teeth. Taryn led Damon and Sarai through the pandemonium of the main hall, past the library, and down the sparsely lit staircase to the subterranean baths. Taryn made each of them carry unlit torches. She lit her own from the wall light at the base of the stairs and started toward the far end of the cavern. She heard footsteps on the stairs behind them.
"Alek," she called, her heart lifting with hope. But it was not Alek who stepped down to the base of the steps, panting and sweating profusely.
Damon took a step toward the man. "Bran? You should be upstairs, where they need you."
"No," Taryn warned, "This man attacked us just an hour ago."
Damon pulled his sword. Bran swayed as if drunk, his own sword loose in his grasp. "The girl," his voice rasped.
"Go back, man. The lady is not for you or any of Phelin's traitors."
Bran shook his head. "Not Lady Taryn, the other one. My orders are for her." He stabbed his sword in the air, pointing at Sarai.
Taryn pushed Sarai behind her and drew her own sword. "She's not for you, either," she growled.
Damon held up his hand, "What does Phelin want with her?"
Bran shook his head once more as he crouched. "My mistress wants her." He hissed, and then struck like a viper.
Damon lost ground at first, overwhelmed by the sheer force of Bran's attack. Taryn held her sword ready, looking for an opening to help him. Bran deflected Damon's parry and used his full weight to drive Damon further back, inching closer to Sarai. Taryn lunged at Bran to distract him, but he only pushed Damon between them, cutting off her opening. Taryn felt Sarai move behind her. She turned, too late to grab the woman back. Sarai circled around the two men and ran for the stairs. Bran let go of Damon and drew his sword high to cut Sarai down.
"No!" Taryn shouted.
Bran was between her and Sarai as his movements froze. Damon pierced the man's side with his sword, but Bran was already crumbling at the base of the steps. As his body rolled, Taryn saw Sarai's dagger in his chest. She looked up to see Sarai standing higher up on the stairs. Below her lay a pool of blood from Bran.
Damon grabbed the knife out of Bran's chest, cleaned it and handed it back to Sarai. She slipped the knife back into the sheath in her belt, her eyes downcast. Taryn wanted to ask her why she risked herself, but there was no time. Taryn sheathed her sword and retrieved her discarded torch from where it lay sputtering on the damp floor.
"The entrance is here, behind the towel shelves." Taryn ran her hand along the edge of the wooden shelves until her fingers triggered the hidden door release. She stepped aside as the door swung open, hinges squealing in protest. "Bring the spare torches," she called over her shoulder as she entered the dry, dark tunnel.
Continued in Chapter 9Return to the Academy