by Sandra Barret
Phelin walked the perimeter of the inner Keep wall. Dawn revealed the death toll in stark detail. The battlement became slippery in spots, from spilled blood, but his loyal guards were already shifting bodies beyond the open gates. The smoky stench of a mass funeral pyre filled his lungs. He watched Roclan march toward him, flanked by two of Fasal's soldiers.
"Lord Phelin," Roclan called up to him.
Phelin smiled at the new honor. "Yes, Roclan?"
"These men request we deliver our prisoners to Fasal."
Phelin heard the bitter undercurrent to his friend's words, but chose to ignore them. "Please see that Fasal's requests are met."
Roclan clenched his fists. "My Lord, do you know what Fasal will do with them?"
"Sell them as slaves, of course."
Roclan face darkened, "These are sons and daughters of Damek."
"And loyal to the family I just replaced. They will bring a good price in Tramoran and help pay our debt to Fasal." Phelin thought the matter closed, but Roclan didn't move. "Do you have a problem here?" His friend turned on his heel and marched off with Fasal's men in tow.
Phelin worked his way down from the wall just as an honor guard paraded through the main gate. Three figures rode within the smartly uniformed guards. Phelin scanned the riders. The hooded figure in the back he recognized as Vasali. He didn't know who the second man was, but the foremost figure, with black beard and balding head, had to be Fasal. Fasal stood in his stirrups, surveying the inner Keep. When they stopped at the steps of the main hall, he signaled the honor guard and they split, forming a wall of soldiers before the blackened remains of the oak doors. Phelin quickened his pace to meet Fasal in the main hall. When he approached the steps to the Keep, the closest soldiers challenged him, barring his entrance.
He stared down at the shorter of the two, a stocky dark-skinned man with a barrel chest, obviously from Bhet. "Step aside, soldier. This is my province and my Keep."
Fasal and the other man turned, and Phelin met the icy blue stare of the Lord of Tramoran and Beht. After a moment, Fasal nodded his assent and the soldiers let Phelin pass.
Phelin returned the insult by addressing Vasali first. "Welcome back, cleric. I take it this is your Lord," he said, gesturing to Fasal. Vasali nodded.
Fasal grinned and stepped forward. "Well met, young cousin."
Fasal's voice filled Phelin's ears, so much like Brion's, his beloved foster-father. He studied Fasal as he shook the man's callused hand. The older man's face bore the scars of his fight to power in Bhet and Tramoran. He had the barrel chest so common to Bheti men, but the black hair and angular jaw came from his paternal origins in Damek. Fasal bore a remarkable resemblance to Brion, his half-brother.
"Welcome to Damek, Uncle," said Phelin, with a slight bow. "I hope you will enjoy your stay in my province."
Fasal barked a short laugh. "Yes, your province. And you earned it, my boy. I pray we can breach the divide in our family and bring back open trade between our provinces."
Phelin nodded. "And this man is?" he asked, looking at the wiry man to Fasal's left.
Fasal put his thick tanned hand on the man's shoulder. "This is my chief military strategist and mastermind of the Velek breach. Phelin of Damek, may I present Commander Josep."
Phelin shook Josep's cool hand as Fasal spoke on. "Now that our allegiance is known, Josep will be replacing Vasali as my liaison in Damek."
Vasali spoke for the first time. "My lord, my work here…"
Fasal waved off Vasali's objections, "You can continue your clerical wanderings, of course. But Josep will remain in Damek to assist my young cousin."
Phelin stared at Josep, the man's face remained clear of any emotion. "I am grateful for your continued generosity, Uncle, but I believe I can rule in Damek without such assistance."
Fasal's smile wavered. "My generosity, young man, is what Josep will be overseeing. It will take more than the sale of Alek's guards to repay the costs of this operation. Come let's not argue over financing so soon." Fasal's smile returned. "Damek is rich in minerals and people. I am sure we can build a profitable cross-border trade, in time. And don't dismiss Josep so quickly. You may find him useful in creating a stable government in the months to come."
Phelin returned the smile, though his anger smoldered. "As you wish, Uncle." He turned toward the main hall, "Let me show you the layout of the Keep. I regret the damage some of these rooms have suffered."
Fasal waved a hand at the destruction of the main hall. "And I have sent for two dozen servants to help you with reconstruction."
Phelin gritted his teeth. "That is too generous."
Fasal patted him hard on the back. "Ha, you are a wary one. That is good, but I assure you, these are purely a gift, purchased from the northeast. They have no ties or loyalty to me or Tramoran."
"Then they will be most useful, Uncle. The house staff may prove too loyal to my foster-brother."
Fasal nodded. "Excellent. But before we commence with the tour, tell me Phelin, where have you put the former occupants of this Keep, eh?"
Phelin's gaze swept the burnt remains of the main hall, the charred portraits and broken furniture. The hall bore the brunt of the destruction, with no reports of looting from the upper bedrooms. He felt a certain measure of pride in that, though it did not make up for the disaster with his foster-family.
"Only one remains within the Keep," Phelin confessed in a throaty whisper.
Vasali grabbed him by the elbow. "Which one?" she rasped.
Fasal interrupted her, "Release him, cleric. This is no longer your responsibility." He turned to Phelin, no hint of a smile remained on his scarred face. "Show me who remains in your care."
The chamber hall remained unaffected by the earlier battles. A layer of soot settled on the oak table and chairs, a thin veil of black over the richly carved wood. Smoke from the smoldering fires outside clouded high windows. Only one of the three braziers in the room held burning red coals. Phelin stepped aside as Fasal's party walked into the chamber, dismissing the two guards present as they entered. The sole occupant of the room sat in a chilly darkness in the far corner, staring up at the windows.
Phelin cleared his throat. "Foster-mother."
"Never call me that again, betrayer."
He stiffened, but Fasal pushed forward. "Come boy, She'll hardly be the first to toss that name at you. It's the price we pay for leadership."
Phelin followed Fasal into the chamber, lighting a few torches along the way. He brushed the soot off a chair and seated himself across the table from his foster-mother. Celina turned to face them, her face and hair smudged with dirt and blood. Her dress was torn and filthy. Phelin cringed.
Fasal broke the silence. "Lady Celina, Brion's fair widow." He gave a slight bow. "I regret the circumstances in which we finally meet."
Celina turned away from Fasal, her eyes fixed on Phelin. "You trust this viper over your own kin?"
"But he is kin, foster-mother…Lady," Phelin answered. "He and I have much in common, both the bastard offspring of an unwelcoming family."
A look of disgust washed over Celina's face. "There is only one bastard son of Damek in this room, Phelin. You were born of this family and kept as a son by Brion when your parents died." Celina glanced at Fasal. "This beast was spawned in the dirt of Bhet by the uncontrolled urges of your grandfather. And now this mistake comes here to claim a land that was never meant for him."
Fasal leaned against the far wall, his arms crossed and a slow smile spreading on his lips. "You are everything I imagined you'd be, Lady."
Phelin was not as calm. "My uncle was passed over for rule of Damek by a less-capable younger brother, just as I was, Lady, when my beloved foster-father died."
Celina stiffened. "Fool. Damek was never yours to have. Your beloved foster-father himself set your path years ago. You were to have directed this sort of campaign into Tramoran. If you had the patience of a true leader, you would have been ruler of Tramoran instead of this beast."
Phelin paled. She had told him this once before, but the plans for the Damek invasion were too far along to alter. And Phelin wasn't convinced Alek would ever have backed Brion's plans.
Fasal stepped forward. "Ease up on the boy, Lady. He chose the better path. He would not have survived an invasion attempt in my lands, he's much too green."
Phelin glared at Fasal, his temper ready to explode. His hand itched to grab his sword and prove to this arrogant man that Phelin of Damek had the mettle to survive and to rule. Vasali shifted behind Fasal, distracting Phelin as she pulled back her hood. Her hazel eyes fixed on his, and she shook her head slightly as if to warn him off his current thoughts. He let out a slow breath, calmed himself. "It doesn't matter what might have been, Lady. I rule in Damek now. And if you wanted peace with Tramoran, well I have accomplished that as well."
"Well said, cousin. Now my Lady, to business. Where are your dear children, eh?"
Celina sat back in her chair, crossing her arms.
"Come now, I can't believe the Bear of Damek's young cubs would turn tail and desert their dam. Didn't he teach them better than that?"
Celina shifted her eyes to Fasal and then back to the windows. She said quietly, "Did you ever wonder that your own father rejected you? You will never be half the man my Brion was. That desert bitch who bred you knew that, so did your father."
Anger washed over Fasal's scarred features, then faded. Phelin wished his foster-mother would not goad Fasal. Phelin had yet to establish control over the situation and Celina's future.
"I wonder which of us has the tongue of the viper now, dear Lady." He bowed his head, and then stood. "Our family's past is irrelevant now. My half-brother is dead, his children either dead or scattered, and his widow is my war prize."
Fasal strode to the door. "Come Phelin, we've much to discuss."
Phelin lingered in the chamber for a moment, staring at his foster-mother. His mind played with words, trying to find something to help heal the rift between them. "Foster-mother."
He stood. "The guards will take you to your quarters." He walked stiffly out of the room, the precise click of his boots lending strength to his resolve.
Just outside the chamber hall, Vasali accosted him. "The girl, is she dead?"
Phelin blinked. "What? Taryn? I don't know."
"No," Vasali hissed. "The dark one, Alek's slave girl."
Phelin shrugged. "I don't know. Roclan is searching the bodies for Taryn and Alek. The slave is of no interest to me."
Vasali's eyes glowed and her nails dug into his arm. He felt their sharpness through his dirty uniform. Phelin pulled away just as Fasal backtracked to them.
"Josep just reported a rumor that you didn't block the escape tunnels," said Fasal.
Phelin shook the dust off his uniform. "They were. I had guards at all the entrances within the Keep and barricaded the tunnels from the outside."
"Then how did Alek get back in the Keep last night?"
"I wish I knew."
Vasali clutched him again. "Where are these tunnels?"
He shook her off. "They are sealed, I tell you."
"Well Alek got in somehow," said Fasal, "And if we don't find their bodies, he and Taryn got out as well. Give Vasali the details of your tunnels. She has certain…talents that may help in retrieving your lost siblings."
Phelin balked. The tunnels were a family secret he did not wish to reveal to Fasal. "I have already sent riders through the woods around Atheron. If they escaped, my trackers will find them."
"Good," said Fasal.
Vasali swayed. Her bronze features paled. "Excuse me, my Lord. Is there a quiet place I might pray for the dead."
Phelin pointed her down the hall. She backed away toward the library and shut the door.
Fasal watched her leave. "What was she going on about earlier?"
"I don't know. Something about a slave Alek brought back with him. Maybe the girl was a spy for Vasali. She might even have slit his throat by now, if she worked under Vasali's orders."
"Perhaps," said Fasal, but his eyes lingered on the library door.
Phelin continued down the corridor. "The main hall is a mess, but the upstairs quarters are in good order. You are welcome to stay within the Keep until your return to Tramoran."
"Thank you, but I prefer to stay with my battalions. It helps keep order."
They were interrupted by a high-pitched wail coming from the library. Phelin clutched the hilt of his sword, but Fasal held his arm.
"Wasn't that Vasali?" he asked.
"Probably. The cleric is subject to these fits. I find it's best to leave her be."
Phelin turned back to the library.
"Don't worry about her. There is little on this land that can attack Vasali." Fasal let go of Phelin's arm. "She has ways to defend herself."
Phelin relaxed his sword arm. The wail quieted to a soft keening that sent a shiver down his spine.
Taryn trudged up along the wooded slopes of the Black Mountains. Damon led them, picking his way through the trees and brush. Sarai followed next, and then Taryn, each carrying the travel packs Alek had left for them in the tunnel. Thoughts of her brother and mother threatened to bring a fresh batch of tears to her eyes. Taryn brushed a gloved hand across her brow, refusing to give in to her fears again. She knew her face must be smudged with dirt and dried tears, but she no longer cared.
The night-long hike had taken its toll on her. Taryn's shoulders ached from the weight of her pack, and she had blisters on both feet. She looked at Sarai in front of her, but the woman seemed content to march behind Damon for the rest of the morning. Taryn longed to curl up in the soft bed of leaves beneath her feet and sleep. She shivered. Even the strain of the uphill climb could not combat the icy wind blowing down from the north. They hiked directly into that wind. No matter the twists of Damon's path through the trees, they always headed north. North of Atheron lay the mining towns of Damek. The province was rich in deposits of coal and other minerals, rich enough to attract Fasal's greed.
Taryn closed her eyes. She wanted to block the vision of the Keep burning, the sight they saw as they fled north in the night. And what of her mother and brother? Had they escaped as well? Taryn stumbled over an exposed root and fell to her knees. Pain laced up her leg, and she let out a low groan. Damon and Sarai stopped.
"Are you alright?" Damon asked.
"Yes," she replied gruffly. "Keep going."
Damon surveyed the area. They were in a thick cluster of berch trees, with a bubbling stream just south of them. Since they could not see much of the slope around them, they were likely not visible from below. "We can rest here for a short time."
Taryn greeted the news with a sigh, lowering herself back onto the ground. She shifted the pack off her back and tried in vain to massage the knot that had developed between her shoulder blades. "Can we eat some?" she asked.
"Yes. We'll rest here for an hour, but no more. They'll be tracking us by now."
Taryn wasn't sure who they were, Phelin's treasonous guards or Fasal's invading army. Either prospect sent another shiver through her. She wrapped herself into a tight ball under the cloak, trying to block out the icy wind. Sarai rummaged through her pack and pulled out bread and cheese, passing it out to each of them. Then she settled down beside Taryn.
Taryn broke off small pieces of bread to eat. "They'll be on foot as well, though, won't they? Whomever Fasal sends?" Thinking of Fasal tracking her seemed less disturbing than Phelin's betrayal.
"Yes. I've kept our path within the heaviest growth of the forest, but we still cut a clear trail for anyone to track. Once we get as far as the mining district we may be able to lose them in those high traffic areas."
"How much further is that?"
"Another half day, maybe? We'll cut back west and north along the river. We'll still be below the snow line."
She ate her last bits of cheese. She tried twisting her shoulders to loosen the knot in her back, to no avail. Sarai closed the travel pack, and then shifted behind Taryn. She felt the pressure of Sarai's hands massaging her back, gently releasing the tension. She let her eyes drift shut. A heat rose within Taryn that ignored the external cold air.
"Thank you," she murmured when Sarai stopped. She opened her eyes to see that Damon already had his pack on. They were moving on.
They picked their way upward for endless hours, always keeping the river to their left as they rose. Taryn did not believe the air could get colder, but it did. If the grey clouds above broke, she was sure it would snow. Her shoulders burned, her back and legs ached, but still they went on. Even Sarai in front of her showed signs of strain. The woman stumbled on, bent under the weight of her pack. Taryn felt a stab of guilt. She should have shifted things to her own pack, giving a lighter load to the smaller woman. She nearly walked into Sarai before she realized the woman had stopped suddenly. Damon must have sensed they stopped as well. He took a few quick steps back to them.
"Trackers," Sarai whispered, pointing to their right.
Damon signaled them all to crouch down. He drew is sword and Taryn followed suit, her heart hammering in her chest. How could trackers have caught up with them so soon? She listened, but could hear nothing. She scanned their surroundings. They were in a narrow depression, following the course of the river. The land rose up on either side, covered in evergreen shrub and pine trees. They were hidden from view for the moment. Damon signaled them to stay. He worked his way up the nearest rise, silent and crouching. He disappeared over the crest.
Taryn felt the cold hilt of her sword through her gloves. She waited with Sarai, quiet and tense. She was about to suggest they go in search of Damon, when he appeared a little further south of them. He walked upright, heading further away from them.
Taryn moved to rise, to call him back but Sarai grabbed her arm and shook her head. No.
Taryn turned back to Damon. A group of armed soldiers sprang from the woods around him. Taryn gasped. He walked into a trap. She held her sword in shaking hands. There were at least four armed soldiers surrounding Damon now. He hadn't even drawn his sword. Taryn strained to hear what they were saying. She thought Damon was trying to convince them he was a lone hunter.
Behind us, Sarai hissed. Taryn whirled in time to see two more soldiers appear on the rise to their left, up from beside the river. There was no option to hide now. Taryn stood up, facing the soldiers. She did not recognize the uniforms they wore, forest green with yellow markings. The soldiers drew their weapons when they saw her. She could not fight them both, this she knew. She swallowed hard and held her sword in both hands. She vowed to take at least one of them to the grave with her.
The soldiers shouted to the other group. Taryn did not know the language. She heard the commotion behind her but she had to stay focused on the two in front.
The taller of the two spoke in a thick accent. "Drop weapon, Miss. Or father dies."
Taryn frowned. Father? They must mean Damon. She studied the soldiers again. They might have been from Fasal's troops. Obviously they did not recognize her. Maybe she could bluff her way out of this. Taryn lowered her sword. "Please don't hurt my father," she pleaded, pitching her voice high and loud, hoping Damon would here and catch on. Taryn risked a glance behind her. Damon was being led toward them, his hands already bound. She dropped her sword and backed away, signaling Sarai to do the same with her dagger.
A large man with ruddy cheeks above a greasy beard came around, leading Damon. He spoke; his voice had only a hint of the foreign accent. "Who are you, and why are you lurking in the woods. The truth this time, man."
"I beg forgiveness, sir," said Damon, "I wished only to protect my daughter and her handmaid."
The large man, the leader, nodded. "And why are you here then? There is no town here, no road."
"We ran from Atheron when the soldiers came. We lost our way."
"Hmm. That may be true, but you are far from any path."
Another soldier spoke in the foreign language. The leader seemed to consider the man's words.
He says they are searching for brother and sister, not a family.
Taryn's eyes widened but she forced herself to relax. Sarai, you understand them?
Yes. I had Behti owners before I was sold in Tramoran.
The leader shook his head. "Sephrin, tie them. Let the captain decide what to make of their tale." He waved over another soldier. This one, a woman, bound Taryn's hands with coarse leather straps. The soldier approached Sarai, and Taryn felt her panic rise.
Sarai, please don't fight. We may still convince this captain to free us.
Sarai's face paled as the woman approached, but she let the soldier tie her hands. Taryn felt waves of anguish emanating from her. She had no chance to question Sarai, though, as the soldiers dragged them on a long southern march.
The campfire glowed in the cold, dry night, but Taryn and the others felt none of its warmth. Damon was bound to a tree on the far side of the camp. Taryn and Sarai were kept together, their wrists still tied, but otherwise they were left on their own. One bored soldier cast a lazy eye toward them now and again. The soldier blew warm air on her hands as she watched her companions joking around the warm fire.
At least Taryn would get to sleep tonight. She could feel her muscles stiffening while she drank a cup of hot broth. Sarai sat beside her, head bowed, quiet. She drank little of the broth. Taryn finished off her broth and set the bowl aside. Then she pulled up a musty blanket the soldiers had left them. She could not tell if the original color was grey or brown. She probably did not want to know, given its current murky color. She shifted herself until she was next to Sarai. The woman remained on the edge of panic, her face drawn and pale, even in the silver moonlight. Taryn drew the blanket around the two of them. She reached out to Sarai mentally.
Why are you so frightened? These soldiers won't harm you, even if they discover who I am. They are well trained. See – they take care to have only their women approach us.
Sarai dropped her mental barriers, and Taryn felt herself transported by the other woman's emotions to a time when Sarai was a child:
Mounted nomads circled them, their high-spirited horses frothy and snorting. Sarai's small wrists hurt from the ropes that bound her. She curled up on her mother's lap. Her mother was bound at wrist and ankle, but managed to hold Sarai to her. Sarai watched as a group of men built up a mount of dry wood. She did not understand why the men stole them from their house. Where was her father? "Momma?"
"Don't watch, my Sarai. Promise me you won't watch."
"I don't understand, Momma. When can we go home?"
"Promise me. Close your eyes."
The nomads tore her away from her mother. She screamed, tore at her captors face. He pinned her arms down, holding her off the ground. Tears streamed down her face as she cried. The nomads set the pile on fire. It caught in an instant, flames rising high into the night sky. Momma said close your eyes, she thought. Close your eyes.
The nomads dragged her mother to the fire. "Momma?" she whimpered. Sarai wanted to obey her mother. Close your eyes. She hiccupped. She let her eyes close. She heard a high wail, like the sounds of a dying animal. Sarai could not help it. She opened her eyes. Her mother flew in the air, arching up, away from the group of nomads. Then her mother crossed into the burning yellow flames and the screams grew hoarse.
Sarai closed her eyes. Shut them tight. "I'm sorry, Momma! I'm sorry! I closed them now! Come back, Momma!"
Sarai closed the link. Taryn wrapped her arms around her companion as best she could, rocking her gently as warm tears streamed down her own cold cheeks.
But they didn't burn you? Taryn asked.
No. They purified my mother in the fire. I was not worthy of the fire. I was sold at the next auction with the rest of my family's property.
Taryn stroked Sarai's head, her soft copper hair slipping between Taryn's fingers. That won't happen here. You are a free woman, now. No one in Damek can make you a slave again.
In part, Taryn knew that was not what Sarai needed to hear. She was not even sure it was true, given that these were Behti soldiers. She felt the woman's need, not just for her own safety, but for Taryn's safety as well. She felt Sarai's bound hands clutch her overtunic and pull her close. Taryn stroked her hair, pressed her lips against Sarai's soft cheek. Sarai feared she would be taken away again, or worse, she would have to watch as Taryn was killed. Taryn wanted to tell her this would not happen, but she couldn't. She did not know what her own fate would be. She drew them both down onto the bed of old leaves. The cool scent of the earth masked the odor of their blanket as they lay wrapped together, until sleep finally claimed them for a time.
Taryn grumbled when she felt an elbow in her ribs. She tried to roll away, but Sarai nudged her again. She rolled on her side, away from the offending limb. She refused to open her eyes, her body still fixed in its state of exhaustion.
Others, in the woods.
Taryn's body tensed. With her eyes still shut, she reached out mentally to search the area. Yes, she felt them now too, maybe a dozen, not near enough to be seen, but definitely moving closer. Taryn rolled back so she faced the campfire. She opened her eyes to thin slits and scanned the area. The fire had burned to red embers. She saw one figure moving, a lone sentry. Taryn could not sense anything about the people in the woods, but this might be their best chance to escape. She reached out to Damon, on the opposite side of the camp. His mind was resting fitfully. Taryn roused him.
Damon. She felt him tense at her direct contact. There are others, forming a circle around us in the woods.
Damon did not move, but he was fully awake now. Taryn continued, there's only one sentry by you.
She heard a noise behind her and froze. Two people crouched by the tree behind them. Taryn lifted the blanket from her head and stared at two sets of eyes, glowing in coal-blackened faces. One of the attackers, a woman, slid a small dagger to Taryn. She and her companion crawled back into the woods without a word. Taryn used the knife to cut herself and Sarai loose.
They gave me a dagger, she told Damon, Sarai and I are free. She waited, tense. She strained to hear evidence of the people in the woods, but she heard nothing beyond the creaking of bare trees overhead.
An instant later, the silence was broken. Dark figures jumped out of the woods on all sides. At least two soldiers were dead before they ever roused. The sentry had no hope against the three who bore down on him with weapons Taryn did not recognize in the dark. She tossed off the blanket and pulled Sarai up with her. The remaining soldiers fought with multiple assailants each. Taryn crouched as she worked her way over to Damon.
"Who are they?" he whispered as she cut at his bonds.
"I don't know. Their weapons are strange."
"They are fighting with pitchfork and axe."
Taryn cut the last rope holding Damon. He rushed over to the dead sentry, grabbing the man's sword. Taryn followed suit, taking the un-drawn sword from one of the dead soldiers. She handed Sarai the dagger.
"Now what?" she asked. Their benefactors stayed silent throughout the fight. The only noises came from Bheti soldiers shouting in their own language. She looked at the remaining soldiers. Two were left, back to back, defending against a wary circle of attackers.
"Now we find out who are benefactors are," said Damon as he strode toward the stand off. "Drop your weapons, and maybe they will spare you," Damon ordered. He stood back from the circle, the sword held loosely in his hand.
One of the soldiers understood him at least. "They killed the rest of us. How do we know they won't cut us down as well?"
Damon looked from one attacker to another, resting finally on the one coal-darkened face that had turned to face him. It was the wizened face of a woman.
"Madame, May I ask to whom we owe our rescue?" he asked with a slight bow.
The woman moved away from her position around the soldiers, and the circle immediately shifted to close the gap. She stood before Damon, nearly as tall as he. Taryn saw her gray hair through the layer of coal dust. "I am Erika, of Kaneltown. And you are?"
"We have escaped from Atheron," replied Damon. "You are a brave town to patrol the woods with such weapons."
Erika shrugged. "Finer weaponry would not help. We work the mines, we have little time for training with sword or pike."
Damon nodded. "And can you take these two soldiers with you? Do you have a place to keep them out of trouble?"
Erika looked back at her circle of miners. "This is not something we have prepared for."
"And is killing soldiers in the woods something you did prepare for?" asked Damon.
"Hmph. It's not a task we wanted. Nor did we want prisoners, but our town must work with the changing times."
Erika shouted to the soldiers. "We will abide by the rules of war. Disarm, and you will be taken under blindfold to our town."
The soldiers slowly let their swords drop to the ground. The miners made quick work of binding their hands and checking for hidden daggers.
Erika turned back to Damon. "What news of Atheron? We've been searching the woods for the lost who escaped there before the siege."
Damon looked away. "Atheron has fallen."
"Well they won't find the mines so easy to tame. You are welcome in Kaneltown. We have little to spare now, but we make do."
Damon studied the woman. "Your offer is kind, but my family and I are heading further north."
Taryn felt the intense gaze of the older woman as she eyed her and Sarai up and down, a doubtful expression growing on her face.
"As you wish," Erika said at last. "There are few towns further north from us, and you're not properly dressed for the snows of the north. Your fancy Atheron garb won't help you when the snows fall."
It was Damon's turn to shrug. "We had no time to get warmer clothing."
Erika clucked her tongue and walked around the three of them, sizing them up. Then she shouted, "Marika? Kiran, Caled."
Two women and a man came up at once.
"If you would, sir, you may switch garments with these three. They would welcome your rich clothes for their coarse ones. And if you are heading as far north as I might guess, you will need their thickly lined clothes and fur cloaks."
Damon turned to Taryn. She scanned the three miners, and then nodded her assent. The two groups of three struggled out of familiar garments and into unfamiliar. When Taryn finished tying the fur-lined boots on, she stood up to face her mirror, wearing Taryn's sable cloak and boots. Taryn's new outfit was wider in the waist, but short in arms and legs. Thick lined gloves covered the gap left by the shorter sleeves. She would be much warmer. She looked at Sarai and stifled a laugh. If Taryn were tall for a woman, Sarai was smaller even than most. Her traded clothes hung off her like a child playing dress up. Sarai struggled with folding up over-long sleeves, and Taryn offered to help. After a time, they were all settled into their new outfits. Damon fit well in his new clothes. The campfire was again burning brightly, with a dozen miners and two bound soldiers sitting around it. Birds began to chirp in the trees, harbingers of the coming dawn.
"Our packs?" asked Taryn. Damon pointed to the bushes beyond where he had been tied. Taryn went to check their provisions as Damon pulled Erika away for a private conversation.
Taryn returned, lugging their packs. "All is well." She handed over the packs as well as their original weapons.
Damon replaced his sword and gave the extra weapons to Erika. "Maybe you can convince your prisoners to train others with these. It may be some time before order is restored in Damek."
Erika accepted the weapons with a silent nod, and returned to her group of miners.
"We'll leave after breakfast," said Damon after Erika left. "The road to the Gethrig Mines will be hard going, but Erika tells me the dry goods stocked there would hold us through the winter."
Taryn sank down to the ground, and Sarai sat beside her. This would be their last full rest for days. Staring at the woman who now wore her clothes, Taryn could not help but feel she was leaving behind a part of herself.
Continued in Chapter 10Return to the Academy