by Sandra Barret
Weak sunlight filtered through the upper windows of the council chambers. Days of frantic cleaning and construction had returned most of the Keep to usable status. Phelin studied the reports Farrell had given him. The obese man sat across from him, his face dripping with meat juices from the platter before him. Phelin disliked slovenly manners. He prided himself on being sharp at all times, and he preferred his staff be the same. Roclan stood by the open doors to the chamber hall. Now he was a model guard. Roclan kept his balding head shaved and managed to restore his uniform to its pre-battle clean state. Even Vasali, sitting quietly in the far corner was better company than Farrell. She remained unusually reserved these past days, but the cleric was always enigmatic. At least she did not follow up on Fasal's suggestions to hunt through the tunnels beneath the Keep. He kept that family secret to himself. Phelin returned his attention to Farrell's reports.
"The landowners know what's best for them," growled Farrell over a mouth full of mutton.
"I am sure you were convincing," said Phelin. "What about the paths cut through the forest? How soon can we close those gaps?"
Fasal entered the chamber just then. "Why do you want to close them already, cousin? We spent so much creating them?"
Phelin clenched his fists under the table. "They're not suitable for trade routes, Uncle. It would be best to close them before bandits set up between our lands."
"Hmm. Well, Farrell, any news on Phelin's siblings?" asked Fasal.
Fasal enjoyed reminding Phelin of his relationship to those he ousted. Phelin would be glad when this relation left for good.
"No, nothing in my holdings," said Farrell.
"I'll find them soon enough," said Phelin. "I have scouts in the mountains, but I'd bet they've headed south to the troops by the sea."
Fasal's tossed his head back as he let out a deep laugh. "You mean the few who escaped when my galleons collected slaves?"
Phelin blanched. "What do you mean? I never approved of that."
"Of course not, cousin. That's why I'm here to help you with the hard choices. Come, don't look so shocked. You can't expect to hold this province with an armed and angry force of troops on your southern shores. Those were disguised slave ships off your coast."
Phelin looked away. Soon now, this man had to leave.
"The price they bring at auction will pay for the mercenaries I bought for you," Fasal continued.
Phelin's ire rose. "I don't like you meddling in my province, Fasal. This was not our agreement."
"Calm down, boy. I'm happy to leave Damek in your hands."
"And the mercenary troops are here and paid for. The last thing I want is for some loyalist group to come after you."
Farrell interrupted Fasal's diatribe. "My border guards are heading into EastMarch as well. You promised me that shinaran witch, Lilei, and her lands for my aid."
Phelin grimaced. "Yes, yes," he said gruffly. Farrell blessed him with an evil grin.
Fasal stood by the door once more. "Then we are nearly done here. The last matter is the Lady Celina. She's to come back to Tramoran with me."
Phelin shot from the table, his chair crashing to the floor. "No. I won't agree to that. This is my foster-mother you're talking about."
"Precisely," said Fasal, un-phased. "She has too much influence over you. She stays in Tramoran as guest and hostage."
"That's not acceptable," said Phelin. He was losing control over the situation.
Fasal came back to the large oak table, leaning across it, his eyes narrowed. "Don't assume I need to ask for your acceptance, cousin. Whose soldiers surround this Keep?"
Phelin sneered. "Yours, Uncle."
Fasal stood back. "Good. We are agreed then. Celina comes with me, at least until her children are found. She will be well cared for."
Phelin hated him, with a burning rage, he hated Fasal. He closed his eyes a moment, and then spoke again. "If you will take Celina, then take Adele as well, and Lilei in EastMarch on your way back."
"No," said Farrell, "You promised me the shinaran would be mine!"
Phelin grabbed Farrell's thick head and slammed it into the man's food platter, sending bits of mash and meat flying. "You are my vassal, Farrell, and you will do as I say." Phelin shoved Farrell back in his chair. The man sat in stunned silence, food dripping off his rotund face. "Take the ladies with my foster-mother. They are fit companions for her."
Fasal nodded his assent, and with a smile, left the chamber. Phelin wiped the food bits off his hands and uniform. Someday, the roles will reverse, Uncle. Someday, he thought. Phelin righted his chair and sat back down. "Leave me," he said to the three who remained. Farrell left without a word, as did Roclan, but Vasali remained.
"I asked you to leave," said Phelin, his jaw tight.
Vasali rose from her seat. Her blue cleric robes clung to her as she approached. Phelin, to his shame, felt himself respond to her seductive nature. Vasali bent over him, her auburn hair brushed against the back of his neck, sending a thrill through his body. He could smell her scent, mixed with something spicy, enticing. She whispered to him, her full lips brushing his ear, deepening his arousal.
"His arrogance burns in you," she said, "I can feel it."
Phelin growled his agreement.
"Bide your time, my Phelin," she continued, "My master has far more planned for you than this."
Vasali stood tall, her firm breasts mere inches from Phelin. She smiled down at him, her hazel eyes dancing with reflected flames. She lifted her hood and walked out of the chamber without another word.
Phelin chuckled to himself, mildly abashed by his instinctual reaction to Vasali. He shook off the effects, and then called, "Roclan!"
Roclan came at once and stood before him.
"Sit," said Phelin. "Have you finished with the house staff?"
"Yes, my Lord. Seven will remain, fifteen have loyalty issues. They should be replaced."
"Good. Talk to Josep. I want them bartered for Bheti slaves."
Roclan protested. "My lord, they have families here. We can't just send them away like cattle or horses."
"I know you're against this, but I need loyal people around me." Phelin rested his hand on Roclan's shoulder. "Just give me time to solidify my province, and then this unpleasantness will be over."
Roclan nodded in silence.
"Good. Now what about the miners and the Guild-Hall? They won't come over without a fight, eh?"
"We've arrested most of the Guild in Atheron already, my Lord. As for the miners, Josep has agreed to bring in migrant workers from Tramoran for the next two seasons. The miners can either keep production going or be replaced."
"Excellent. But there must be some bad news, eh?"
"We haven't found Hort. And Sebran of Westeron has proved difficult. He has a band of riders with him in the west hills."
Phelin nodded. "Well, no coup is without its problems. Let's get Atheron running again. Once the townsfolk accept the new order, we'll be in a position to hunt down remnants like Sebran."
Moonlight glinted off a tear rolling down the young man's face. Vasali dipped her brush in her cup and painted a deep red trail, following the track of the lone tear. The young man trembled, but did not move. He could not. Vasali dipped her brush again and painted arcane symbols along his forearms and calves, up to the knots which bound him to stakes in the ground. Vasali shuffled to the side, rolling the body of a still-live mountain lion beside her. Blood gushed again from its torn chest, filling Vasali's cup. She returned to her work. Symbols covered the naked body of the young man, red-black markings on his pale skin. Vasali emptied the cup and walked to the arrow-riddled body of a black bear. It too still clung to life, steam escaping its muzzle as it panted. Vasali gathered more blood and returned to her human victim. The man's eyes opened wide as she sat beside his head. She ran a cool hand down one unadorned cheek.
"Scream too soon, and I shall cut out your tongue," she whispered. She removed his gag.
"What are you?" he asked, his voice raspy from screaming through the gag.
Vasali put a finger to his lips. "Nearly done," she said. She held open his mouth and filled it with the bear's warm blood. The man coughed, struggled.
"Swallow," she ordered. The man choked, and then gulped what remained in his mouth.
Satisfied, Vasali stood up again. Her head bowed, she chanted, "Master, accept this vessel. Transform him for your work."
Vasali's head shot up to the night sky. "Mesha Sarai! Marant al Scarava. Scarava! Scarava!" From the still night, a whirlwind came. Vasali stepped back from the prone man. "Scarava!" she shouted again.
The whirlwind whipped at her hair as it hovered over the man. Lightening flashed, striking man, bear, and lion. A chorus of howls arose from all three, high and clear. Vasali raised her hands, channeling the energies into her victim. "Scarava!" she said one last time, and then collapsed to her knees.
The whirlwind calmed, settling as a sickly yellow fog over the victim. She watched as it twisted and groaned. Acrid smoke stung her eyes, but still she watched. The body grew and spread, transformed.
"In your praise, Master," she whispered. The fog dissipated as a deep growl rumbled in the night. From the ground rose a hunched, furred man-beast. It stooped before Vasali, heaving its sulfurous breath down on her.
"Hunt the half-breed slave. Kill her." She ordered through clenched teeth. Vasali pulled out a deep green gown with golden spirals. The man-beast clutched it in clawed paws, sniffing. "Kill her."
The beast howled, shredding the dress with its protracted claws.
"The storm is getting worse," said Taryn. She tightened her fur-lined hood to block the wind-whipped snowflakes. Sarai trudged along through the deep snow beside her, not staying within the path cut by Damon's footfalls. How can she be so unaffected by the storm, Taryn grumbled to herself.
Damon paused in front of them, "You're right." He scratched icicles off the fur edge of his hood. "Gethrig Mines must be along this road soon."
Taryn scanned the snow-covered hillside around them. Scattered bare trees stood out from the blanket of white. There was nothing distinguishable in any direction. Taryn's breath came in short freezing gasps. "How can you tell if we are even on the road anymore?"
Damon's shoulders sagged. "We're still rising in elevation, heading mostly north and west."
"You're directional accuracy in a blinding snowstorm is a marvel," grumbled Taryn. Days of hiking in the mountains, and now through snow hadn't helped her short temper. She turned to Sarai. "Do you see anything? Any hope of shelter around here?"
Sarai pulled off her hood to scan the area. Wind and snow whipped at her coppery hair.
"Less trees up there," She pointed to their right. "The road maybe?"
Taryn restrained the urge to grin smugly at Damon. "Shall we try it?"
Damon turned up the slope in answer, cutting a new path based on Sarai's directions. They struggled on for a time. Snowdrifts buried them to their knees in spots as they pulled their way to the clearing. "This is why they close Gethrig in the winter," said Damon as he pulled Sarai out of a deep patch of snow. They traveled easier once they were in the clearing. A wide swatch of unbroken white snow lay above them, surrounded on all sides by tall snow-covered pine trees. The wind died down some.
"I'm not sure this is the road," said Damon.
Taryn brushed snow off her shoulders. "Well it's easier to walk along. There's a hard patch of snow under this storm's layer."
They walked along the edge of the clearing, heading again they hoped in a northwesterly direction. Damon was still in the lead, but Sarai had dropped back behind Taryn now, keeping within their tracks. Taryn smirked. Someone did not want to be hauled out of a snow bank again. They were nearing the edge of the clearing, facing the cover of trees, when Taryn felt a rumbling beneath her feet. All three paused to look around. She heard the distant sound of thunder. She looked to Damon and saw his face pale, his eyes glaze. Sarai screamed, pointing up hill. Taryn turned and saw a wave of white rippling down the center of the clearing. The ground rumbled, and the sound of thunder grew.
"Avalanche!" shouted Damon.
Taryn turned to him, "What do we do?" He did not answer, he just stood, frozen. Taryn felt the memory of her father's snowy death tug at her, and she knew Damon was lost in despair. "Damon, we need you. Do we run?"
He snapped out of his stupor. "Away from the clearing. Grab hold of a tree and hang on."
Taryn wrapped herself around the nearest tree, pushing herself through the lower branches. A wave of white fog crashed over them moments before the avalanche struck. A strong current of white powder streamed past her. Taryn shut her eyes and held on. Snow rumbled past her, beating away at her legs. She felt like she stood in a freezing river as the snow piled up her legs and swirled past her. Sarai screamed again. Taryn opened her eyes to see Sarai swept down the slope by a torrent of snow. The woman disappeared in a wave of white.
"Sarai!" Taryn screamed as the wind and snow howled around her.
Snow pulled at her legs, threatening to drag her down the slope. She did not dare turn to see how Damon fared. Her knees scraped against the rough bark as the snow plowed past her. Within moments, it was done. The rumbling noise in Taryn's ears dissipated. The push of snow against her slowed, then stopped. She shook off snow from the front of her hood. Without loosening her grasp, she turned. Damon held tight to a tree on her right. Already he was struggling against the mound of snow piled around him.
Taryn shouted, "She's gone Damon. I can't see her!"
Damon looked up at Taryn, then beyond her to where Sarai had been. His face and hood were caked with snow, his expression unreadable. "Dig yourself out first," he shouted as he squirmed and pushed his way free.
Taryn looked at the pile of snow around her. She could not move her legs at all. A mound of snow up to her thighs held her pinned against the tree trunk. She could only push herself side to side. Damon came beside her, kicking and shoveling snow away from her.
"She's down hill somewhere, Damon."
"I know," he said. He scanned the hillside beneath them as Taryn finally broke free. He grabbed her by the shoulders. "Can you sense her?" he asked, his eyes dark and hard.
Taryn closed her eyes, reached out for Sarai. "Yes," she gasped. "Yes, she's alive." Tears of relief rolled down her frozen face.
"Where is she?"
Taryn pulled him down through the trees, sliding some fifty feet or more. "She's here, somewhere here." Taryn looked at Damon.
She focused again. Sarai, we're here. We'll find you.
Yes, Can you speak? Talk out loud so we know exactly where you are?
Taryn listened. There it was, to her left, a muffled voice.
Damon reacted instantly. "I hear her." He dropped to his knees and dug furiously at the snow. Taryn clawed through the snow from the opposite side. Some three feet down, they unburied Sarai's legs. Her body was sprawled out, as if she tried to ride the wave of snow as it tumbled down. Damon dug through further down hill, moving mounds of snow with his arms as he searched for Sarai's head. "We found you," he said as he brushed clear her head and face.
Snow still held her torso firm but Damon cleared an air path to her head. Sarai's arms were wrapped protectively about her face, giving her an air pocket.They pushed away at the rest of the snow, and together, pulled Sarai free. She coughed weakly as tears streaked her scraped face.
"I lost my pack," said Sarai.
Taryn laughed and pulled Sarai into her arms. She felt small arms around her waist, shaking. "You're shivering," said Taryn, holding Sarai close.
Damon came up to examine Sarai more closely. He felt hands and booted feet. She could feel and move everything. "Short of some bruises, I think you're unhurt. Can you walk? We need to be clear of this area incase more snow lets loose."
Sarai nodded, and with Taryn's help, stood on weak legs.
"That shelter now, Damon?" Taryn asked more gruffly than she intended. She kept one arm firmly around Sarai as they struggled back uphill.
Smoke stung her eyes as Vasali crumpled more root of night-shade onto the burning coals of the brazier. Her room filled with pungent fumes. She stared into the brazier, letting the flickering red embers fill her eyes as the potent smoke filled her lungs. Her vision blurred, shifted.
"Scarava," she whispered.
Vasali shared the senses of the beast as it sniffed the trampled snow. The path led up to a stone building. The beast snorted, crouched low. On padded feet it approached the building. Brightness illuminated the windows against the dark night. It caught movement within. The beast sniffed the air by the door. Its prey had come here. Vasali felt the icy mountain air fill its heaving lungs, and then it bellowed.
Deep and loud it roared, and it battered against the wooden door. Once, twice, and on the third try, the wood splintered. Something inside screamed and the beast roared again. The door split in two and the beast pushed in, its fangs bared and claws protracted. A young man scrambled back from the door. The beast grabbed him, sunk its fangs into the soft neck and shook its victim until it stilled.
The beast scanned the room, sniffed for its prey. Vasali saw through the beast's eyes. Two other women were in the room, one older, greyed and weathered, the other one younger and smaller. Wrapped in a richly embroidered cloak, she trembled by the far wall. The beast tossed its victim away and circled toward its prey. The scent of the cloak filled its nostrils.
"Marika!" someone shouted as the beast stood its full height before the cowering woman. It raked through her thin flesh with its claws. Warm blood spilled over its paws. The blood-scent was wrong. The beast pulled the limp woman to its mouth and sunk its teeth into her neck. The taste of warm human flesh filled Vasali's mouth as the beast tore through its prey.
It dropped the body. In a rage, it turned on the others. Two men with knives entered the building. The beast howled. The body at its feet was not its prey. Vasali howled with the beast as it attacked the others barring its exit.
Vasali's vision cleared. The howling of the beast echoed in her mind as she kicked over the coals in her own rage. Red embers scattered on the gray stone floor. The half-breed tricked her. Vasali swung open the door, letting the trance smoke escape into the winter night. She walked out into the still inner courtyard of Damek Keep and hissed into the night, "I will feel the blood drain out of your still beating heart. You can not escape me."
Damon knelt in the snow before the heavy oak door of what they hoped was one of Gethrig's storerooms. "You're skills don't happen to include lock-picking, do they?" Damon asked as he looked up at Taryn with a smile.
"That's not typically taught at shinaran schools," she replied. A bold ray of sunlight snuck past the grey clouds overhead to shine off the metal lock barring their entry. Taryn looked around at the half-dozen other stone buildings in the small clearing.
It's the only one with a lock," she said, "Must be the food stores."
"Let's hope so," said Damon as he shoved a shoulder into the door. He groaned; it didn't.
"There were tools back in one of the other buildings. Maybe you can take the door off its hinge?"
Damon shoved against the door again. He leaned against it, breathing heavily. "Yes, maybe. Picking the lock would have been easier though. I mean if they bothered to teach you useful skills at that school of yours."
Taryn reached out to cuff him in the back of the head but he moved away too quickly. "Taking liberties, sir?" she shouted after him. He gave her a mock bow as he trudged through the snow to another building. Taryn leaned against the stone and sent two warm breaths into her gloves to fight the cold. Gethrig Mines proved to be a small outpost of buildings surrounding three separate mine shafts dug straight into the wall of the Northern Plateau. Behind the buildings, a wall of granite rose high above them. No tree or ledge broke the stark gray faÁade as it reached toward the sky. Not even Sarai's sharp eyes had seen anything but rock along the wide expanse of the plateau.
Sarai remained inside the smaller of the three tunnels. Since they dare not start a fire, Damon chose the tunnel as their main camp. Taryn could not complain. Deep within the tunnel, the air remained at a cool spring temperature. She taught Sarai how to create a small glow-light from the air particles around her. The light did not last long, but it was enough to light her way out or to aid in finding a lantern to light.
Taryn frowned as she thought of her companion. Sarai seemed off since they came here. She had stayed in the tunnels to sleep, keeping silent about her feelings, but Taryn knew she sensed something. Maybe it was being up against the Northern Plateau again. Sarai had shared with her the memory of her first home in Berat. Her home had been a multicolored, billowing tent within site of the eastern reaches of the Plateau wall. Taryn wondered again if this wall cut through the whole of the land or if there were some place where it ever ended.
"This should do," said Damon when he returned. He held up a mallet and an iron spike.
Taryn watched as Damon worked the hinges loose. When he finished, he handed her the tools. He pushed his shoulder against the door, and it groaned.
Damon looked at Taryn. "Care to lend a hand?"
She flattened the snow in a spot and put the tools down. Together they pushed until the door creaked open part way. It was enough for Taryn to sneak through.
"We have enough here to last awhile," she said as she surveyed the shelves lining the walls.
"What have we got?" asked Damon through the narrow opening of the door.
"Preserves. Cheese. Jars of pickled vegetables, dried meats." Taryn lifted a jug and sniffed its contents. "Some wine, if you trust it."
"Excellent. I'm going to find a rope or something to help pull the door shut when we're done."
Damon's padded footsteps diminished outside. Taryn pulled off a few jars and pushed them through the door. There was even a box of dry-bread in the corner, but Taryn did not take that yet. Hanging from a string beside the door was a thin iron key. She smiled and tucked it in her pocket. She grabbed some of the dried meat, and then pushed her way out the door as Damon approached with rope in hand.
"If we tie it on the handle, we can pull the door shut against rodents," said Damon.
Taryn smirked as she pulled out the key and dangled it in front of him. "Or you can repair the hinges and use this."
Damon looked forlornly at his rope, and then dropped it into the snow. "I'll bring down some of the wine when I'm done here," he said as he faced his latest task.
Taryn lit her way back through the tunnel. Multiple wall sconces held unlit lanterns the miners had left behind, but she did not need them. Better to save them for when they are all within the cave. Sarai was sitting in the dark when Taryn came around the last bend in the tunnel. Taryn put down her wares and lit a lantern in the far wall. Strategic shafts throughout the tunnels kept the air circulating, causing the light to flicker. She pulled off her gloves and cloak and set them by the sleeping mat she shared now with Sarai. They managed to find a replacement pack and blankets for Sarai's lost pack, but no bed mats. Not that Taryn was complaining that she had to curl up next to Sarai every night.
She sat beside the quiet woman. "We found the store rooms. We're likely to grow round and lazy over the winter months if we stay in here," she said with a smile. Sarai returned a weak grin.
"What's wrong?" Taryn asked, tentatively taking the other woman's warm hand in hers.
Sarai leaned in to her, resting on Taryn's shoulder. "I do not know. I feel something strange here, like I should remember something."
Taryn nodded. "It reminds you of home, doesn't it, your first home."
"Yes, some. Maybe that is all."
Damon stomped into the cavern with another lantern in one hand and a jug of wine in the other.
Sarai pulled away from Taryn.
"Successful repair?" Taryn asked, her hands now idle in her lap.
"As if we were never there. I cleared up most of our foot-traffic as well, just incase."
Taryn's hands trembled. She had all but forgotten they were still being hunted.
"Snow's coming again. I left some shovels by the opening incase we get snowed in."
Sarai sat upright, her eyes focusing inward.
Taryn tensed. "What is it?"
"Someone approaches, in the woods."
Damon doused his lantern. "Put out that one as well."
Sarai put out the other lantern as Taryn created a glowing ball of light. It was barely enough to see the perimeter of their small cave.
"We should seal the cave with snow. If a storms coming they may not even realize a tunnel is here," said Taryn.
Damon agreed. The three traced their way back to the mouth of the tunnel. The wind whipped snow around and into the tunnel opening. Damon grabbed a shovel and began shifting more snow across the opening. Taryn reached out mentally. She sensed the guards now, at least three. They were not within the circle of buildings yet. She could not tell if they were Phelin's guards or Fasal's. Not that it would matter if they were found.
"We should seal ourselves in for a time," she suggested. "The ventilation shafts within the tunnels will keep our air fresh."
Damon struggled at the opening, pouring in snow. The light grew dim as he slid past the new pile of snow and into the cave.
"I can't seal it all the way," he said, breathing heavily.
"Maybe we can." Taryn called Sarai forward. They clasped hands and she felt the power in Sarai building. Taryn closed her eyes and concentrated on the storm outside. She channeled the wind and drifting snow into a small whirlwind. They had to step back a few paces as the wind whipped more snow into and over the tunnel opening. Within moments the seal was complete, only a faint glow showing where the opening had been.
Still, the power channeled through her from Sarai. Taryn began to sweat. She could hear the wind howling as it forced more snow over the tunnel opening. She had to dissipate the power and break contact before the snow seal became impenetrable. Taryn focused on the whirlwind, searching for a weakness. She sensed the wind pattern she had created and forced changes in wind direction.
The power from Sarai still flowed. Taryn sensed snow squalls forming in all directions around the mouth of the cave. Bring down your energy, Sarai.
Nothing changed. Beads of sweat trickled down Taryn's neck. I can't do this alone, please. Rein it back in, Sarai.
Sarai's face was a mask of darkness. Her eyes glazed.
Focus, Taryn pleaded.
Slowly, the power lessened. Taryn felt the whirlwind dissipate. Squalls continued to race through the compound outside, but they were not directly under Taryn's control anymore. With a deep sigh, Sarai let go, and the power flow stopped. Both women slumped against the tunnel walls.
"What happened?" asked Damon. In the dim remaining light his expression was unreadable.
"Same as always happens," said Taryn. Sarai looked away, and Taryn regretted her words. "We managed to regain control this time though," she added hopefully. "That's an improvement."
Sarai moved off down the dark tunnel, not bothering to light her way.
Damon put a hand on Taryn's shoulder as she lit the way for herself and Damon. "Do you have special vision in the dark?" he asked as Sarai disappeared around a bend.
"Not me, just her."
Continued in Chapter 11
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