By Sandra Barret
Disclaimer: This is an original work of fiction. All characters, worldbuilding and story belong to the author.
Feedback: Constructive comments and criticism welcomed at firstname.lastname@example.org, and many thanks for reading.
Taryn had recovered enough of her strength to be a grumpy, unpleasant convalescent by the time all the councilors had been summoned to the Keep from the far reaches of the province. Poor Katarine had to deal with her fits of temper and bouts of self-pity at her physical limitations.
Taryn greeted the day of the council meeting with a mixture of resignation and annoyance. After more than a week, she would finally get out of her stuffy quarters, but only by being carried down the flight of stairs by two stout guards. While she could hobble around her own rooms, she could not maneuver down the long curved staircase to the lower level. She dressed in her green Adept’s robe, symbolic of her choice to return to Vescant as soon as she was able. Katarine gently brushed her hands aside when Taryn tried to braid her own long black hair. Katarine’s deft hands worked two long braids and looped them up off Taryn’s neck. Taryn grumbled her thanks as a hard knock on the door signaled it was time. Katarine opened the door to show two large guards dressed in the blue and silver tunics of Damek.
"Your pardon, Lady. The councilors are waiting for you." The speaker was the elder of the two, a broad-shouldered man with thinning brown hair.
The other man looked familiar. Taryn hobbled over to the door before she remembered. "Bran, isn’t it?" she asked.
"Yes, Lady," said Bran, his voice as bereft of emotion as she remembered.
The older man gave his comrade an odd look before offering Taryn a hand.
"I can make it to the stairs on my own," she said, waving off his aid. She heard Katarine’s exasperated sigh behind her.
Taryn hobbled past the guards and set off down the hall. Her thick wooden crutches clunked along the floor in rhythm to her step. She stopped at the top stair, looking down the wide sweeping staircase to the edge of the main hall. Twenty-four steps and one mid-level landing separated her from the rest of the world. Her shoulders slumped as the guards took up position on either side of her. Taryn was an inch taller than the older guard and stood eye to eye with Bran. Thus she had the ignominious treat of needing two guards to get her down the stairs.
The elder guard shifted beside her. "If you are ready, Lady?"
Taryn’s jaw tightened. She nodded. Katarine took her crutches as the two guards lifted her in their arms and made their way down the stairs. Taryn closed her eyes as she counted each step to the bottom. She opened her eyes the instant they made it to the lower landing and practically pushed herself out of the arms of the guards. She balanced on her good leg until Katarine swung around from behind the guards with her crutches.
Taryn leaned on the crutches. "Thank you for your assistance."
She hobbled through the main hall to the corridor leading to the council chambers. She spoke up when Katarine made to follow her. "I am fine from here. Please give yourself a rest, Katarine."
"Yes, Lady." Katarine curtsied.
"And in a moment, I’ll no longer be a Lady." Taryn thought she saw Katarine’s eyes dampen. She turned away and clunked her way down the corridor to the council chamber. Phelin waited for her at the doors. She expected a victorious smile, but his face remained a cool mask. Wasn’t this what he wanted? Perhaps she should give him more credit for being gracious in triumph.
"Is everyone here?" she asked.
"Yes," said Phelin, holding the door open for her.
Taryn thumped into the chamber, her crutches muted on the stone floor. The councilors lined the large oak table, much like they had on the day she accepted this position. They left a chair for her at the front of the table, nearest the door. Alek stood by her chair, and Celina sat on the opposite side. An empty chair beside her mother belonged to Phelin, presenting the façade of a family united. She sank into the chair, and her brother took a seat beside her. Phelin shut the dark double doors and seated himself at Celina’s right. The chamber grew quiet.
"Thank you all for coming here so late in the season," said Taryn. "We would not normally bring you out from your homes so close to harvest, but as you can see, my brother has returned."
A quiet murmur rippled along the table, but Taryn pushed on. "For the past year, I have willingly accepted the responsibility the council placed on me in Alek’s absence. Now that he is back, I am renouncing my claim in favor of him."
The grumbling along the table grew louder. Sebran of Westeron at last spoke out, his thick mustache twitching as he voiced his displeasure. "Is this wise? Nothing against you, Alek, but you left us with no guidance. Now you return, and you expect to be re-instated with out so much as an explanation? Damek has done well this past year. I for one see no reason to change." Sebran looked at his fellow councilors, searching for support.
Alek’s anger was palpable beside Taryn. She wondered how much of Sebran's bravado was his own well-known ambition to have married her and ruled Damek beside her. Before the council meeting got out of hand she spoke up, her voice loud and firm. "This is not an issue for debate. I accepted this duty only because my brother was absent. I am glad to have served you and Damek well, but now it is over. I wish to return to my own life at Vescant."
Taryn scanned the councilors. Most nodded their agreement or kept their expressions neutral. Phelin remained as stony as the chamber floor. Only Farrel of the Velek border guards seemed out of sorts. She didn’t think he held the same beliefs as Sebran, but something was making him nervous. Sebran settled back in his chair now that he saw no significant support for his stance. Taryn shrugged. The politics of Damek would be Alek’s responsibility now.
She relaxed. It felt as if a dull pressure had been lifted off her shoulders. "Adele, if you will record this, I believe we can be done with this meeting."
Alek shifted beside her. "My thanks to you, sister, and all of you for maintaining Damek’s integrity and prosperity in my absence. Before this meeting ends, I would like to get briefings from each of you on your regions and responsibilities. I have much to catch up on."
Taryn pushed her chair out. "If you will excuse me then, I should like to return to my quarters." It was a lie, but she very much wanted to leave this chamber and all its responsibilities behind. Taryn stood. Leaning on her crutches, she gave a brief nod to the councilors. Farrel’s hands twitched without their customary mug of wine. Perhaps he needed its soothing effects to deal with Damek’s politics. She couldn’t blame him for that.
Alek held the door for her as she hobbled back into the corridor. He rested a hand on her shoulder and whispered a quick "Thank you" in her ear before shutting the doors behind her. Taryn smiled. At least she had her brother back. She clicked down the corridor with ease. Maybe she would stay in the main hall for awhile before requesting aid to get back up stairs. Taryn made her way down the corridor. She felt a slight headache coming, but resolved to ignore it. She needed time away from her quarters, preferably in the company of someone besides Katarine and her ramblings on which of her beaus her parents would match her with this winter.
Taryn hobbled around the side of the high-backed sofa before the fireplace and understood now where her headache came from. Alek’s companion sat on a stool before the fire, picking the threads out of whatever piece of needlework she’d been working on. Sarai looked up as Taryn balanced on one foot, trying to decide if she should stay or leave. The dark woman’s golden eyes sank into Taryn. She winced as her headache doubled. Why did the woman have this affect on no one else?
Taryn gritted her teeth. Thedric left Sarai in her care and she resolved to tutor the woman to the best of her abilities. She eyed up the sofa, and then glanced to the far bench along the wall, well away from the fire. She chose distance over comfort and settled herself on the bench. Her arms ached from where the crutches held her up, and she rubbed the sore muscles. Sarai lowered her gaze, returning to her needlework. Taryn watched her dark face cringe as Sarai yanked more threads out.
"I never liked needlepoint," said Taryn.
Sarai nodded. "It is…difficult."
Taryn had to smile at that. Sarai’s voice had a musical quality to it that felt soothing. At this distance, the pressure in her head seemed more manageable. She could see Sarai now without being overwhelmed by pain. The other woman wore a dark burgundy dress trimmed with intricate black lacing at wrist and collar. She was not as small as Taryn had thought. Of course she’d been standing next to Alek then, and even Taryn looked small compared to the bulk which was her brother. Sarai’s shoulder-length copper hair had grown. With the added benefit of being clean and well brushed, it seemed quite pretty.
"You are learning the language?" asked Taryn.
"Some," said Sarai, looking up at Taryn.
Gold eyes again bore into her. Taryn rubbed her temples, trying to ease the pain in her head.
Sarai looked away. "I hurt you." Her voice held a note of sadness.
Of course. Sarai had empathic potential. Taryn lowered her hands. "Yes, but I’m not sure why." She chose her words carefully. "Thedric tested you earlier."
When Sarai frowned, Taryn stooped her shoulders and scratched her head, mimicking her old mentor. She felt a flicker of pain as Sarai watched her antics, then averted her eyes again.
"Yes," said Sarai, smiling.
"He asked me to help you, to teach you."
Sarai fingered the threads in her lap. "How?"
"Mind to mind," said Taryn, pointing to her head.
"It will hurt you?"
Taryn studied her own hands. "Possibly. We’ll have to go carefully."
Sarai gazed into the fire, the light dancing across her dark features. She nodded once, and Taryn took that as her signal to begin. Taryn’s palms were sweaty. This could be very painful. Maybe she should wait for her mother, another shinaran to watch incase of problems? No, she could handle this on her own. Squaring her shoulders, Taryn calmed her flittering thoughts. She breathed deeply, focusing on Sarai, who still stared into the fire. She closed her eyes, and reached out to the other woman. A confused jumble of Sarai’s thoughts swirled around Taryn, some surface level, others deeper, more personal.
Sarai, you need to build up your barriers, separate your private thoughts from this link. Can you do that?
I am not sure.
The touch of Sarai’s thoughts was like no other. Taryn felt as if a warm breeze caressed her, soft and gentle as her headache faded. The feeling was almost sensual, bringing a flush to Taryn's cheeks. She kept the sensations hidden behind her own trained barriers.
Can you focus on just us, what we are doing without the distraction of your other thoughts?
Sarai’s mind settled.
That’s better. You still need to bring up a full barrier, a wall that will separate what you want me to hear from the other thoughts that are crossing your mind.
I do not understand.
Taryn considered her options. A barrier was crucial to any other lessons she taught. Most shinaran children grew up around other telepaths, learning how to block almost by instinct. Let’s try this a different way. I want you to concentrate on my thoughts, try to penetrate into my mind. I’ll be blocking you, and you’ll feel what it’s like to hit a barrier from the outside.
Will it hurt you?
Taryn smiled. No, it shouldn’t. She’d been taught at Vescant how to resist even a trained Interrogator. She cleared her mind of all thoughts, putting up a wall between her and Sarai. A part of her still lingered in Sarai’s mind to observe the other woman’s reactions.
The power of Sarai’s mind forcing itself against hers sent a searing pain through Taryn’s mind. In an instant her barriers crumpled and once again she found herself in that odd dual vision. She saw the red embers of the fireplace, though she knew her own eyes were shut.
Please, no, she begged as she felt the tracks of Sarai’s mind in her thoughts. The pain lessened, but she had no power to resist the other woman’s invasion into her mind.
Sarai broke the contact. Taryn sank to the floor, cradling her head in her hands. How had Sarai done that? Even a Master Interrogator with decades of training could not destroy another’s barriers so quickly. By the time Taryn lifted herself off the floor, Sarai was gone, her needlepoint scattered by the fireplace as if she’d just run away. Taryn struggled to the sofa and collapsed on the cushions, letting the heat of the fire sooth her throbbing head.
Why had Thedric left that woman in her care? Surely he had tried something similar when he tested her potentials, yet he did not think she could force her way into another’s mind. Sarai could punch through Taryn’s defenses at will, creating that dual vision they'd shared. But of the three shinaran in the Keep, why did only Taryn experience these problems with Sarai?
Thedric made no mention of Sarai not having barriers. Surely that would have been an important discovery as well. Her mother never mentioned it either. Was she the only one vulnerable to Sarai's power? Voices filtering from the corridor broke Taryn’s concentration. She straightened herself up as individual councilors trickled through the main hall on their way to the stables.
Alek’s voice boomed over the rest. "No, I’m sorry. I don’t agree. The Velek border-guard should be increased."
"There’s no threat there," said Farrel. "The forest is impenetrable."
"I don’t care. So long as Fasal remains in control of Tramoran, I want that border patrolled as if it’s an open road. Phelin?"
Phelin’s cold voice answered. "Yes, my Lord. I will make the necessary arrangements with Farrel."
"Good." Alek strode into the main hall and paused by Taryn on the sofa. The rest of the councilors continued on their way. "Was Sarai here?" he asked.
Taryn glanced at the scattered needlework on the floor. "Yes. We had a small lesson. It didn’t end well."
Alek frowned, and then shrugged as he settled on the sofa next to her.
"Is all well in Damek, brother?"
"Mostly," he sighed. "Damn that Farrel for a stubborn mule. I’m surprised you put up with him for a year."
Taryn laughed. "Well you put up with him for five and father for another five before that."
"Yes, well Farrel’s father was a good man, dependable and honest. I wish the same could be said for the son."
"Do you think he’s causing problems?" Taryn asked.
"No, nothing serious. Just a bit too opinionated and too cheap to fulfill his duty with the border-guards. If he cut out some of that drinking, he could be an asset to us."
Alek sat up. "I should go find Sarai." His cheeks flushed pink.
Taryn didn’t need empathic abilities to see where Alek’s feelings lay. She resisted the urge to tease him as he left to search for Sarai.
Taryn shuffled out of her room, determined not to procrastinate on Sarai's lessons any longer. She'd written to Thedric and received assurances that Sarai had no potential as an Interrogator. Whatever difficulties Taryn experienced with Sarai, they were unique to the two of them. Thedric had faith in Taryn's ability to teach the desert woman, and she would not disappoint him.
Pausing at the top of the stairs leading down to the main hall, Taryn prepared for the twenty-four step journey. As she shifted both crutches to one hand, she heard the clatter of something metal coming from the second floor corridor beyond the staircase. Knowing that Sarai slept in a room in that direction, Taryn gambled that her student was still in her rooms and hobbled toward Sarai's open door.
Resting on the door frame, Taryn let her gaze wander around Sarai's room. It was a sparsely decorated guest room, and the desert woman had done little to change the décor. Thin summer drapes hung from the sole window to the right of a narrow bed. Stooped by the black iron brazier, Sarai fumbled with metal prongs, pushing around unlit coals over a handful of burning embers. Taryn held back a laugh as she watched Sarai struggle a moment longer. The desert woman's copper hair was pulled back, revealing a small narrow face. That face turned from the brazier to the door. Intense amber eyes looked up, and Taryn felt Sarai's warm mental touch. Distance kept the headache to a minimum.
"Having problems?" Taryn asked.
Sarai poked at the coals. "I do not know these heating stones."
"Coal," Taryn corrected. "They're not easy to get started. You need a good, hot fire to get the coals going."
"I need more wood?" asked Sarai.
Taryn hopped to a chair by the door and sat. "That would help, but there's another way, if you don't mind taking a short cut."
Sarai concentrated on Taryn's words, and then grinned. "A short cut is good."
Taryn felt her heart flutter as the smile lifted Sarai's dark features. The desert woman was beyond pretty. No wonder Alek took such a strong interest in her. "With the right concentration, you can heat the coals yourself if you'll let me teach you."
Sarai lowered her head as a blush crept up her dark brown cheeks. "I would like that." She looked up. "But will I hurt you again?"
"Not if we start with a small lesson."
Trying to keep her own unruly emotions in check, Taryn lowered her crutches to the floor and opened her thoughts to Sarai. It's very simple. Concentrate on a space in front of you. Once you've blocked out stray thoughts, ignite a small spark to start, she explained.
Show me, please? Sarai asked.
Extending her hand, palm upward, Taryn concentrated. A tiny flame danced in the air above her hand. She let it play in the space between her and Sarai, and then let it fade out. Your turn
Sarai kneeled by the open brazier. Taryn sensed Sarai focus on the unlit coals. She kept in light contact with Sarai, following the other woman's concentration. She felt a flash of power leave Sarai's extended hand. Intense green-blue flames burst from the brazier, exploding the wood chips piled beneath the coals.
Not so much power, Taryn warned.
Taryn focused on the fire, controlling the flames as Sarai pulled back her energy and let her focus drop from the fire. The flames faded under Taryn's guidance, leaving glowing red coals in its wake.
"I failed," said Sarai, staring at the floor.
"Not at all. You succeeded beyond my expectations." Taryn pushed back a strand of loose hair that dangled in her eyes, trying not to let Sarai sense her hidden concern. The desert woman had so much raw power and so little control.
"Did your parents ever teach you how to control your power?" she asked.
Sarai stood up and walked to the window. "I do not remember." She pulled open the drapes, revealing a gray sky over bare trees.
Realizing she was treading on a sensitive topic for Sarai, Taryn resisted the urge to ask further questions. "Heavier drapes will keep your room warmer this winter," she said, hoping to draw Sarai out of her dour mood.
"I do not wish to be trouble."
"Nonsense. Katarine can help you. It will give her an excuse to avoid me for a day or so. I can be very grumpy when I'm bored."
Sarai laughed. "We should make you not bored."
"Yes," Taryn agreed, smiling. "We should."
She grabbed her crutches and pulled herself upright. "I should probably let you get on with your day."
"I am glad you visited." Sarai stepped toward her. "May I help you back to your room?"
As Sarai approached, Taryn's head began to throb. She waved Sarai off, reluctantly. "I'd better walk back myself. I need to build up my leg muscles again."
Sarai's saddened expression revealed that she'd sensed Taryn's pain and knew the cause. Taryn struggled to come up with something to say that would erase Sarai's sadness, but she could think of nothing that would take back the pain she'd transmitted over their shared link.
"I'm heading down stairs," said Taryn. "Maybe I'll see you there later?"
"Yes," said Sarai. Her amber eyes held Taryn's for a heartbeat.
Taryn caught an echo of sadness and something else in that last contact. Was it loneliness? She wanted to say more, but the silence between them became awkward. She turned and hobbled down the corridor.
The first blanket of snow floated by the wide windows of the library as Taryn sat studying shinaran training techniques. She wanted more control over her lessons with Sarai. She'd already proven her theory that Sarai could penetrate only her own barriers. She felt a twinge of guilt for having used her mother for that risky test. Why she was uniquely vulnerable to Sarai remained a mystery. She heard rapid footsteps approaching from behind her and turned in her chair to see her mother rushing into the library.
"Taryn, you need to come see this." Celina’s pale face worried Taryn.
"What is it?" she asked.
"In the main hall, someone’s captured one of your demon creatures. Alive."
Taryn grabbed her single crutch and hurried out of the library behind her mother. The clamor from the main hall echoed down the corridor as they approached. Taryn paused at the entrance, struck by the chaos before her. A handful of guards stood in a wary circle by the main double doors, surrounding a man and some snarling beast. Staff from the kitchen and stable hung by the entrances, enthralled and frightened.
"You all, back to your duties," Celina ordered to the staff as she approached the circle of guards. They moved out of the hall slowly, whispering to each other as they left. Taryn followed her mother to the source of the commotion, the guards parting to let them in. Taryn saw a small wolf-like creature. It was covered in matted gray fur, but its paws seemed more like small hands and feet. She studied the creature and it stared back at her, sharp canines bared as it emitted a weak growl. As Taryn watched, a shiver rippled across the creature’s thin body.
She looked then to the man who controlled the beast, holding it by a rope around its neck. The man’s thick brown hair and beard surrounded a pockmarked face and intense gray eyes. His ragged features contrasted the calm soothing approach he took to control the beast beside him. It pressed against his leg like a frightened dog.
"Tell my daughter what you told me," said Celina.
The man looked to Taryn. "I am Nehamad, horse trainer to Sebran of Westeron."
Horse trainer and animal empath, Taryn thought.
"I captured this creature in the woods beyond my farm. It's like no other."
Taryn looked back at the creature. It watched Nehamad, who stroked its head with a callused hand.
"Different beyond its physical deformities?" asked Taryn.
"Its mind, it’s no wolf."
"What do you sense?"
Taryn sighed. Animal empaths were highly sought after for their abilities to communicate on some level with animals. Unfortunately that seemed to coincide with a lack of ability to talk to humans.
"It seems very thin. Is it sick?" she asked.
"Dying." Nehamad’s deep voice held a note of anger.
Taryn lowered herself to the floor, watching the creature. It eyed her warily as she held out her hand, treating it like a strange dog. She felt Nehamad’s eyes on her as well. The creature whined for a moment, then took a step forward, sniffing Taryn’s outstretched hand.
"Is it dangerous?" asked Celina.
"Only if it feels threatened," said Nehamad.
Taryn uncurled her fingers and scratched the underside of its muzzle. "I’ll need you to control it while I probe it."
"Taryn," said Celina, "You can’t be thinking of healing this thing?"
"If it’s ill, I have to try."
Nehamad knelt beside the creature. His eyes bore into Taryn, and she felt a rush of emotions from him, gratitude and something else, an attraction bordering on lust. Taryn turned away. "Just try to keep it calm," she said. "Does it have injuries that you know of?"
"No," said Nehamad. "But I know it will die soon."
Taryn stroked the bristly fur on the creature’s back. She relaxed, and then began her probe. Focusing on what lay beneath the surface, Taryn searched for signs of sickness. She had never fully probed an animal before, but she was struck by the oddity of this creature’s anatomy. The spine curved at an unnatural angle for a four-legged beast and both the snout and legs showed signs of weakness inherent in their size and shape. She wondered how this creature survived from a wolf-pup. Taryn saw what Nehamad could sense as well. The creature would die soon. Something about its makeup was unstable. Taryn sensed something else. A mind watched her as she probed, something intelligent but young. It felt as if it wanted to talk to her, plead with her somehow. It felt almost human.
Taryn pulled back with a start, scrambling away from the beast. Nehamad stared at her, his teeth bared as the creature growled at her. She felt his anger as Celina helped her stand back up.
"Call Ulrica. Get her here now," said Taryn.
"An Interrogator? Taryn do you have reason to think this man is lying?" asked Celina.
Nehamad stood up as the circle of guards drew closer.
"Not for him, for the creature," said Taryn.
Nehamad’s expression cleared. "You sense it too, don’t you?"
Celina looked from Nehamad to Taryn. "Sense what? What’s going on here?"
Taryn turned from the group. "Get Ulrica. Only she can tell for sure."
"And the beast?" asked one of the guards.
Nehamad watched her as she answered. "I’m sorry, we have no place else. Put it in the dungeon." Taryn held up a hand as Nehamad made to protest. "You are welcome to stay with it for now. The dungeon is not a comfortable place, even for an animal, but it’s the only safe enclosure we have. And we can’t risk this creature escaping. You understand that."
It was Taryn’s turn to stare at Nehamad. He bowed his head after a moment.
"I will stay with her," he said.
The guards led him down the far corridor to the staircase that led to the dungeon under the Keep. Celina gave directions to one guard and sent him off to Atheron to fetch the Interrogator.
"Well, what are you thinking?" asked Celina, once they were alone in the main hall.
"The creature’s mind is something beyond animal. It’s hard to say, but I felt like there was an intelligence there, almost human."
Celina frowned. "You mean like your Cerrol demon? A creature capable of human thought?"
"Not really, I don’t know. I didn’t actually see the Cerrol demon. This one felt, childlike. And very frightened."
"You’re not suggesting that thing has the mind of a human child?"
Taryn closed her eyes. "Hopefully Ulrica can tell for sure." She looked at her mother. "And I don’t think it’s just the mind. The body had both human and wolf characteristics, like a hybrid."
Celina paled, "Gods, Taryn. Is that possible?"
The solid oak doors from the inner Keep opened, ending their conversation. Taryn peered around her mother, anticipating Ulrica’s arrival. Instead it was Alek and Sarai, discarding their warm cloaks at the door as they entered.
"I’d forgotten how cold autumn is around here," said Alek as he sat on a bench by the fire.
Sarai knelt silently beside him. Something about her submissive posture grated on Taryn’s nerves. "Perhaps you should get a proper seat for your companion?" she asked through gritted teeth.
Sarai kept her gaze averted, but Taryn still felt the subtle mental pressure that always accompanied Sarai’s presence. She watched as Alek encouraged Sarai to sit beside him on the bench. Somehow that did not make Taryn any happier.
"How have her lessons been going?" asked Celina.
"Slowly," said Taryn. "I’m having problems teaching her to build up her barriers."
Celina smiled, "Yes, I remember you as a child, tenacious little snooper that you were."
Alek laughed, "You mean she kept invading your thoughts?"
"Yes and broadcasting her own." Celina turned to Taryn. "Until you were eight, I had to deal with every flicker of emotion you felt, from the temper-tantrums when your father went out and took Alek and Phelin, to the pet turtle who died when you were six."
Taryn grimaced, her cheeks flushing with embarrassment. She saw the faintest smile lift up Sarai’s red lips and blushed even further. Obviously the woman’s language skills were improving. "Well, Mother, since you're so experienced at this, maybe you should try teaching Sarai for a time."
Celina patted her on the leg, "Now, now. Don’t get defensive, dear. But if you don’t mind, maybe I will have a lesson or two with her. I think I did a well enough job with you when you were younger."
"If Sarai is willing, then please do," said Taryn.
Sarai looked at Taryn for just an instant, a brief flicker of thought passing over Taryn that felt like regret, then she nodded. "I would be honored to learn from you, Lady."
"Well, Let’s try a little test of those barriers to start." Celina smoothed her skirt and sat up straight. She closed her eyes and Sarai let her own drift shut.
"Taryn, I don’t know what your talking about," said Celina a moment later. "Her thoughts are completely blocked."
"Really?" asked Taryn. The pressure on her mind had not turned into a full headache, so maybe Sarai was learning some self-control. She focused on Sarai again, searching for the barriers her mother encountered. Instead, she was once again swept into the depths of Sarai’s thoughts. This time, Sarai’s mind seemed less cluttered with random thoughts and feelings.
Taryn kept the link with Sarai open. You’re not blocking me.
I do not know how.
But you blocked my mother.
She is not you.
Taryn let the mental link dissolve. She wanted to ask Sarai what she’d meant, but her own inhibitions kept her silent. The great oak doors swung open, this time letting in a guard who was overshadowed by the considerable girth of Ulrica, the Atheron Interrogator. Ulrica took off her cloak and swung it over the shoulder of the unsuspecting guard beside her. She wore her deep gray Interrogator robe which hung off broad shoulders and past her wide hips to barely touch the tiles as she walked.
Taryn felt her mother’s discomfort as the heavyset woman approached. The Interrogator spent a silent moment staring at each person in the room, an attempt to intimidate all around her. She spent a long time with Sarai, who met her gaze with a calm dignity that Taryn wished she could match. She felt her own dislike for Ulrica grow as the woman turned to her.
"You are the one who called for my services," said Ulrica.
Taryn stood, grasping her crutch. "Yes. There is a creature in our dungeon that I need you to investigate."
Ulrica folded her arms. "I do not deal with animals."
"This isn't a natural animal, that I know. What it is, well I hope you can discover that."
Ulrica raised an eyebrow. "As you wish. Let’s get on with it then. I need to be back in Atheron by dinner."
Alek stood up to join them and Sarai stood as well.
"I don’t think you should come," said Taryn, looking at Sarai and remembering the unpleasant nature of an Interrogator’s duties.
"Why not?" asked Alek.
"She’s an empath. This sort of experience could hurt her nearly as much as the creature below."
Celina patted the sofa next to her. "Stay with me, child. I’ve no stomach for what’s about to happen either."
Sarai turned back and sat down beside Celina.
Taryn led the way down the corridor to the steep stone steps leading to the dungeons below the Keep. "You two go ahead. It’ll take me a moment to navigate these stairs."
Ulrica swept past her as Alek took over the lead, heading down the stairs. When they disappeared from view, Taryn hobbled down behind them, hopping one step at a time. By the time she reached the bottom stair, a sheen of sweat covered her face. The cool, dry air of the basement corridor greeted her as she caught her breath. Storage rooms lined the walls on either side of the corridor, leading to an open area for weapons training on bad weather days. Taryn caught up with Alek and Ulrica as a guard opened the thick iron gate separating the dungeon from the rest of the basement.
Taryn sniffed at the murky air. She could smell the creature now, a pungent odor mixed with something else, something diseased. She came to a stop with the other two in front of the occupied cell. A torch flickered on a nearby wall, casting eerie shadows across the gated enclosure. The creature made a small bed out of the floor straws. It lay now, its muzzle snorting wisps of air across Nehamad’s lap.
Nehamad watched them. "The Interrogator," he said.
"And you must be an animal empath. So obvious," said Ulrica.
Taryn ignored their antipathy toward each other. "Nehamad, this will cause the creature some pain. I’ll need you to keep it calm if you can."
He nodded, keeping his dark eyes on Ulrica.
The woman planted her feet. Taryn knew the instant the Interrogator forced her way into the creature’s mind. It let out a high-pitched wail and arched its back, further straining the curvature of its weakened spine. Taryn clenched her jaw but kept quiet. Ulrica could have made a more subtle entry, if she’d had any sympathy for her victim.
The creature writhed in pain as the forced probe continued. Seeing Ulrica’s cold determination, Taryn knew somehow that Sarai could never do this. It would be impossible for an empath to force her way into another’s mind, not with that much pain involved. Whatever oddity existed between her and Sarai, the other woman could not be an untrained Interrogator.
Without warning, the creature leaped from its bed and threw itself at the iron bars separating it from Ulrica. The Interrogator did not move, but a moment later the creature howled in agony, throwing its head back and landing on the dirt floor of the cell with a sickening crack.
"No!" shouted Nehamad as he cradled the head of the now silent creature. It no longer moved. He lay the head back on the ground, then stood and clutched the bars. "You," he growled, his thick hands reaching through the bars as if he wished to claw at her. "I will break you as you broke her."
Ulrica focused on Nehamad and he stood back, clutching his head.
"No," said Taryn, grasping the Interrogator’s thick forearms. "He is not to be Interrogated."
Ulrica broke contact with Nehamad. "He should be. Whoever created that abomination must be found."
"Agreed, but he is not under suspicion. What did you discover?" asked Taryn.
Ulrica wiped her voluminous sleeve across her brow. "Wolf, and child, a young girl, mixed together. Somehow horribly combined."
Taryn nodded as Alek approached the cell, staring wide-eyed at the dead creature.
"And you killed it?" asked Alek.
"Yes," said Ulrica, regaining her cold expression. "It was dying anyway." She turned to Taryn. "I know you dislike my profession, you think I am cruel. And I am. All Interrogators must be to perform our duties. No mind wants to be invaded. But this," she waved her arm at the cell, "this was horrible. The girl was aware, fully aware, and in pain."
Nehamad regained his composure. "You did not have to kill her, not that way."
Ulrica shrugged. "Death is death. And it could not come too quickly for her." She turned and strode back to the stairs.
Taryn looked to Alek. "Can you?"
"Yes," he said, understanding her need. "Guard? Help me here, will you?"
Taryn turned and hobbled after Ulrica. Somehow, knowing an Interrogator could kill with just her mind was not a comforting thought.
Strange dreams disturbed Taryn's sleep, images so foreign that she could not grasp their meanings. By morning, it felt as if she fought through a thick fog as she struggled to wake herself from a semi-conscious state. She breathed in shallow gasps. Her chest felt heavy, each breath an effort against that weight. At some point, Taryn realized she must have caught a chest infection. Her body shivered under the thick layers of blankets tangled around her on the bed. She fought against the fog in her mind, trying to focus enough to determine the source of her illness.
With effort, she managed to clear her mind long enough to scan her own body. She focused on the pain in her chest, scanning for congestion in her lungs. She found nothing there, all seemed clear and normal. As she probed deeper, she discovered her breathing eased, and the chills stopped. So long as she concentrated on herself, she felt normal, if somewhat sleepy from the fitful night. She raised herself out of the healing trance, and instantly felt the pressure on her chest increase. She rolled to her side, wanting to cough out congestion that did not exist. Her mind struggled against the fog again.
Mother, where are you?
I'm in Sarai's room, dear. She's got lung fever. I was about to send for you.
Taryn wrapped the blankets around her shivering body. I know, I can feel her fever.
I don't understand.
Neither do I, but I can't Heal her in this condition. Somehow she's linked to me and I feel all of her pain.
What do you want me to do?
Taryn thought a moment. Do you have any thesalin, Mother?
Yes. You want me to drug her?
Yes, please. It will dampen her mental abilities and sever the link between us. I can't do it on my own.
But we have no idea what kind of dose to give her. If we give too much, it could be worse than letting the fever take its course.
Taryn considered the options. She hadn't had lung fever since she was a child, but she didn't want to spend the next week suffering vicariously through Sarai.
We'll try small doses. I'll know when the link weakens, and we can stop there.
It took three doses before Sarai's link to Taryn lessened enough for Taryn to regain control. She still felt part of the fever, but not enough to prevent her from healing Sarai. She dare not give any more thesalin to the woman. The elixir, created from the pollen of the thessyn flower, acted as an inhibitor to shinaran abilities. Too much of the drug could inhibit breathing and heart rate to the point of death. Taryn pulled on a robe and joined her mother in Sarai's room. The dark woman lay on her bed, lost in a pile of blankets she did not need in her fevered state. Her eyes remained closed, and Taryn prayed they had not administered too much thesalin.
"She's been ill most of the night," said Celina.
"That explains the nightmares," said Taryn.
"Nothing," said Taryn. "Is she conscious?"
"Not since dawn. Katarine came for me when she discovered Sarai's fever."
Taryn pulled a chair up to the edge of Sarai's bed. She rested one hand on the woman's hot forehead and the other hovered over Sarai's chest. She closed her eyes and tried to scan Sarai. Taryn's thoughts felt cloudy. She shook her head.
"What is it?"
Taryn shrugged. "It's the thessalin, I think. I can't focus."
Celina gave her a hard stare. "You mean she's still linked with you?"
"On some level, yes."
"We gave her enough thessalin to put down an ox for the night."
Taryn pressed her palms to her temples. "If I concentrate, maybe I can get past this." She closed her eyes again and focused her breathing. After a moment, she raised one hand over Sarai. This time her healing scan penetrated the drug-induced fog. She saw the congestion in Sarai's lungs. With effort, she cleared the source of the infection, and eased the woman's fever. Before she pulled away from Sarai, she linked with the now-sleeping woman one last time. Sarai's breathing was steady, and her temperature lower. She felt a cool presence in her own mind, something light and tenuous. Taryn lingered under that gentle touch from Sarai's unconscious mind. She felt a warmth within her that had nothing to do with Sarai's fever. With regret, she pulled out of the link entirely and opened her eyes. Sarai sighed and rolled toward Taryn, curling herself in the blankets.
"How is she?" asked Celina.
A soft smile curled Taryn's lips. She brushed a few damp strands of Sarai's copper hair off the woman's face. "She'll be fine. She just needs a good rest now."
Celina stood up and Taryn joined her.
"Why would she come down with a children's illness?" asked Celina.
"Maybe they don't have lung fever in the desert," Taryn answered, as her eyes lingered on Sarai's peaceful face.
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