by Sandra Barret
Roclan and Josep stood quietly by as Phelin paced the renovated main hall. Fresh wood covered most of the old room, but a burnt smell lingered. Phelin raged. "So now we have Sebran's band in the west and miners with an attitude coming down from the mountains."
The other two men shared a glance.
"Any other good news, gentlemen?"
Roclan looked to Josep again. "Someone's been at the granaries," he said.
Phelin stood still. "How bad?"
"We've lost a third of the winter's store."
Phelin's jaw clenched and unclenched, matching the actions of his empty hands. "Recommendations?" he asked finally.
Josep stepped forward. "Focus on Sebran for now. He's the main threat. If Taryn or Alek make it to Sebran, you'll have a full scale revolt on your hands."
Phelin sank into the richly embroidered chair by the stone hearth. "Do it then." He turned to them. "And interrogate the good folk returning to Atheron. Find someone to blame for the granary attack and make an example."
"It may not have been anyone in Atheron," said Roclan. "They're the ones going to suffer most from the lack of grain this winter."
Phelin's eyes narrowed. "I want an example made. I don't care how you do it."
Roclan bowed. Phelin turned away, staring up at the portrait of Brion still hung above the hearth. "And remove that," he said, point up. "Remove them all." He waved his hand at the string of portraits circling the main hall. The men bowed out of the hall, leaving Phelin to himself. He glared at Brion's portrait. The large man stared down at him from the painting as if admonishing his foster-son for his lack of faith.
"How was I to know your plans, eh? You never told me Tramoran was to be mine." Phelin stared at the portrait. "Damek needed me. This place was weak since you left." Phelin stood and turned away. "It doesn't matter. I have Damek now. And someday I'll have Tramoran as well." He waved a hand behind him, as if brushing off the nagging reminder of his own guilt. He left the main hall in quick strides.
"Can you put any weight on it?" asked Taryn as Sarai sat on the snow bank clutching her left ankle.
"I do not know," Sarai replied. Her face looked pale in the silvery moonlight.
Damon crouched down, "Help me lift her."
Taryn wrapped an arm under her shoulder, and they lifted her up. Sarai stood on one foot And gingerly tried to put weight on her injured ankle. She winced in pain and leaned heavily on Taryn.
"I can help her back to the tunnel if you grab the rest of the supplies," said Taryn.
Damon swung his pack on his back, and then Sarai's new pack, both full of fresh winter berries. "We shouldn't have stayed out past dark."
"I could see well," said Sarai, "I did not take care. The fault is not yours, but mine."
Taryn interrupted them, "It's just an accident. We'll get back to camp and see how bad it is."
They trudged out of the woods toward the clearing. The tall pines opened to a snow-covered landscape, the moon casting is sliver light over the circle of stone buildings. They followed a path in the snow leading around to the south facing slope of the plateau. The wall stood gray in a landscape of white. They stopped a moment as Damon kicked away the snow drifts before their tunnel opening and pushed back the plank of wood they used as a makeshift door. He dropped the packs, felt inside for the dry torch and worked the flint to light it. The passageway leading down to their camp was just wide enough to allow Taryn and Sarai to hobble along shoulder to shoulder. They brushed the rough rock walls of the tunnel as they maneuvered the many bends. The air warmed as they descended, and Taryn was sweating when they finally entered the cavern where they camped.
Damon set the torch in the far wall sconce and lit a lantern, placing it on a table they'd stolen from one of the buildings. "I'm going back to set the door and grab the packs."
Taryn settled Sarai down on their bed mat as Damon left the chamber. She worked off Sarai's cloak and right boot. She stared at the left boot covering the injured ankle. "You probably want to lie back while I do this," she said.
Sarai lay down on the blankets. Taryn positioned herself by the injured ankle and slowly pried off the boot. Sarai winced, but said nothing. A deep purple bruise covered the outside ankle. She rested her hands on Sarai's leg. "It will go easier of you can slip into a relaxed state."
Sarai nodded and closed her eyes. Taryn breathed in and held her hands over the bruised ankle. She scanned lightly first. The bone was cracked, but not broken. She felt Sarai's barriers lower and she took that as her signal to go on. Taryn slipped into a healing trance. Blood canals, bone and muscle became part of her as her hands hovered over the injury. She focused on the blood first, mending and dissipating the old blood.
She sensed Sarai's presence as she worked, watching, following Taryn as she deepened the link. Taryn focused on the bone next, repairing the small crack. The last to be healed were the strained muscles around the ankle. Taryn shifted her hands as she focused the energy toward the calf muscles. Sarai stayed with her. At times it felt like Sarai's hands overlay her own, shifting, healing.
The warmth of Sarai's contact penetrated Taryn's body. She felt a heat rising within her. To her surprise, she sensed a matching sensual response in Sarai. Taryn's face flushed as she pulled out of the trance, slowly, regretfully. She opened her eyes as Sarai's small hand searched for hers. Taryn's heart beat rapidly within her. She looked into Sarai's golden eyes, shining in the dim light.
Sarai pulled her down. Taryn rested on an elbow, letting her loose black hair cascade over Sarai's head like a dark veil. Sarai's hand brushed through her hair, letting the soft strands filter through her fingers. Taryn barely breathed, she was within inches of the other woman's deep, red lips. Sarai's hand slipped to the back of Taryn's neck, sending a thrill down her back. Sarai pulled her closer. Taryn closed her eyes as her lips brushed against Sarai's.
Heat flooded through Taryn. She felt every part of Sarai's body against hers as she sank into the embrace. Their barriers still low, Taryn sensed the heat of Sarai's need matching her own pulsing desire. Lips caressed her cheek, and then nibbled her ear. Taryn pulled Sarai closer, pressing against her, feeling the woman's curves beneath exploring hands. Oh, how she wanted this. Sarai's hand slipped under her tunic and she felt the soft fingers caress her heated flesh. She kissed Sarai more deeply, felt the lips part to her.
A noise behind her barely registered, but then she felt Sarai shrink back, pushing her off. Sarai slammed shut the link they'd shared. Taryn rolled away, clutching her head. It throbbed from the shock of Sarai's actions. Damon's flickering torch announced his approach before he turned the last bend in the tunnel. By the time he reached them, Sarai had curled into a ball facing the wall, and Taryn was pushing her fingers along her temple, working to relieve her intense headache.
"We're settled in warm and cozy for the night," Damon announced.
"Yes, thanks," said Taryn without looking up.
"How is she?"
"It's mended. She'll need to give it a few days for the bone to fully mend, but the pain should be gone by morning." Taryn rested her head in her hands.
"Healing gives you a headache?" asked Damon.
"Something like that."
"I'll put out the lights. We could all use a good rest tonight."
Taryn mumbled her thanks as complete darkness enveloped the cavern. She heard Damon shuffle back to his sleeping mat and settle in. She'd almost relieved the pressure in her head. She wondered if Sarai's head throbbed as well. Taryn had to teach her never to shut down a link like that. It really was potentially dangerous.
Taryn kicked off her own boots, and then lay stiffly next to Sarai. She felt too confused and rejected to shift herself under the blanket with the smaller woman. Why had Sarai pulled away like that? Taryn knew Sarai wanted her, she felt it before the link was shut.
Sarai shifted beside her. She felt the woman pull the blanket up to cover them both. Her arm lay across Taryn's stomach. Please forgive me.
I love you, Sarai.
And I you, but no one must know.
Why not? Damon knows about me. I think everyone but my mother knows by now.
It is forbidden, ni'hen!
Taryn wanted to pull away but Sarai held her tight, curling her body around Taryn.
This isn't Berat, Sarai. Our love is not forbidden or unclean here.
Please, I can not. Not in front of others. Is it not enough we have found each other?
Taryn slipped her arm under Sarai, cradling the other woman in her arms. It's more than I ever dreamed.
She felt Sarai's lips searching for her own. They kissed, softly, and then lay quietly in the dark until sleep overtook them.
Vasali tracked her demon-beast through the smoke-vision. She felt it plod through the snow in the early evening dusk. Cold did not penetrate its thick black fur. The scent was old here, scarce. The beast followed the track as it veered down an old snow mound, then back up to a snowy clearing wrapped in trees. Vasali heard voices somewhere near the scarav. It sniffed the air, growling low. The beast kept to the track. Light flickered head. Three humans came into the clearing in front of the beast. Vasali recognized three guards in Damek livery.
The beast reared up and howled. Birds flew from the trees. The beast's keen ears heard the weapons slide free as the guards approached. Its claws came out in silence. A soft flutter, then pain as an arrow sank into the beast's leg. Faster than Vasali could register, the beast attacked. It ripped through the first guard, tearing off the limb that clutched a bow.
Pain laced through the beast's back and Vasali screamed. She lost the link, breathing in short gasps from the shadow-pain. Vasali stared back into the smoke. She felt the battle-rage before she linked fully with the beast again. Two guards lay bleeding at its feet now. The third backed down the snowy slope, bright red drops of blood marking the guard's path. The beast roared, but did not attack. The guard waved a yellow flaming torch at the beast, holding it at bay.
Heat mingled with a dull ache down the beast's back. Vasali saw its black blood mingle with that of its victims in the snow. She dropped the link just as the beast tasted of hot human flesh.
Sarai controlled a small glow of light as Taryn and Damon heaved the makeshift door from the tunnel opening. Snow drifted down on them as soon as the door was clear, piling up to their knees. Damon tested the wall of white with the shovel. A block of snow tumbled down on him, dusting his head and shoulders. Sunlight streamed through the new hole.
Taryn held her side, laughing. "Got a bit of snow last night, did we?"
Damon answered her with a snowball.
"Hey," Taryn grumbled, brushing the snow off.
Damon pushed through the tunnel opening before she could strike back. Outside, the air was crisp and clear. Taryn pulled Sarai free of the snow mound. Their eyes held each other as gloved fingers lingered together. Sarai smiled up at her. And then a snowball hit the middle of Taryn's back. She turned in time to duck the next snowball. It slammed squarely into Sarai's chest.
"Are you alright?" she asked, reaching out to Sarai. Sarai stepped back, and Taryn had just enough time to duck again when Sarai lobbed a return volley at Damon. Within minutes they were laughing, panting, and sitting in snow. Taryn tried to catch her breath.
"You think," she said between gasps, "We can get some fresh meat today?"
Damon looked at the clear sky, "Yes, seems a good day to hunt. There's a bow and quiver of arrows in the tools storage."
"Excellent. Sarai, have you ever been on a hunt, a real hunt?"
"We'll you're with one of the best now," Taryn said with pride.
"You?" Sarai asked, her eyes wide.
"No, no." Taryn blushed. "I mean Damon here. Damek's best, he is."
Damon gave a mock bow. "Flattery will get you a tasty dinner, ladies."
Taryn stood up and offered a hand to Sarai. Damon trotted off to get the weapons and they followed at a more leisurely pace. Their fingers entwined as they walked. When Damon went out of sight, Taryn paused. She leaned into Sarai, cupping her face in gloved hands. Sarai gazed into her eyes, wetting her lips. Taryn kissed her gently. Sarai pulled her in close, her tongue flicking Taryn's lips. Mind and body linked with a heated passion.
Neither noticed when Damon returned. He let out a fake cough.
Taryn jumped. Sarai pulled back, her hands covering her mouth. Taryn braced for the painful severing of the link, but it did not happen this time. Sarai let out a soft whimper, then fled. Taryn called after her. "Sarai, please. It will be alright."
Damon chuckled. "Sorry, didn't mean to cause trouble."
Taryn pushed him into the snow and went after Sarai. "Come back."
Sarai stopped. Taryn slowed as a flash of fear struck her across their shared link. Her ears flooded with Sarai's voice, but the words were unintelligible.
"You're speaking Berati. Please, what's wrong," Taryn shouted. Sarai kept rambling. Taryn followed the woman's gaze. At first she saw just a lumbering animal. Bear maybe?
Damon caught up with her. "Still won't talk to you?"
"No, it's something else." Taryn pointed, "Can you see it? A bear?"
They stopped by Sarai. Her gaze never left the beast but she clung onto Taryn's arm, her small hands clenching tight. That's when Taryn finally felt it. Through Sarai she saw the beast in stark detail. It was as large a man, covered in matted black fur, eyes glowing red. Its mouth opened revealing a set of sharp fangs.
"Oh Gods, Damon," said Taryn as she drew her sword. "It's a monster." She felt the blood drain from her cheeks. She'd seen this monster before, painted on the ceiling in Damek Keep. "Damon, it's a Scarav."
Damon pulled an arrow out of the quiver. The demon-beast was clearly visible now. It sniffed the air, and then watched them, pulling itself up to its full height. Damon let loose on the bow. The arrow sank deep into the beast's hide. It roared. Two more quick arrows flew in rapid succession, striking shoulder and chest.
Damon managed on more arrow as the beast lumbered toward them. Taryn moved Sarai to the side, to keep her away from the beast and Damon, but as soon as they moved, the beast changed directions. It was tracking. Taryn pulled Sarai back behind her. "It's after me," she shouted.
Damon reached the beast first, hacking at the front paws. The scarav reared up and attacked. Damon swung wildly at the beast, but it seemed immune to the pain of its black, oozing cuts. Claws exposed, it lashed at Damon.
Then in a leap, it crashed into Damon, pinning him down in the snow.
"No!" Taryn ran to her friend, her sword in the air. She hacked down across the scarav's exposed back, drawing slick black blood. The beast howled. A long clawed paw struck out at her sword arm.
Taryn screamed. Her sword dropped from her bleeding arm.
The beast sniffed the air again. It turned for Sarai, leaving Damon and Taryn.
"It's after Sarai!" she screamed, grabbing her sword in her left hand. She circled in front of the beast, cutting it off from Sarai. Taryn could not even scratch the scarav before it raked its claws across her chest and slammed her body to the ground.
Her own hot blood leaked from gashes across her chest and thigh. Her eyes filled with tears as she tried to rise again. The scarav turned from her, relentlessly tracking Sarai. Taryn pulled herself up to her knees. Her vision blurred as something ran past her. Damon. He grabbed up her sword and sliced across the beast's back again.
"Get her out of here!" he shouted as he circled and cut at the beast.
Taryn pulled herself up. Her right arm lay useless, numb. She stumbled over to Sarai, who stood frozen with fear. "Come on," said Taryn pulling at her. Damon kept the scarav at bay, cutting and circling just beyond its reach. He was bleeding badly.
So was Taryn. She coughed. Pain laced her chest. Sarai held her up, half dragging her away from the fight. Taryn blinked, the tears stinging her eyes. The gray jagged wall of the Northern Plateau stretched upward in front of them. They were cut off from the buildings and their tunnel. Sarai pulled her up when she slumped to the snow. The beast growled behind them. How can they kill it, a demon-beast that crawled out of the pages of myth? Taryn closed her eyes. The painting from the chamber hall came back to her. A man on a wild stallion, rearing before a crouching scarav. But the man had no sword. It swung a torch as its only weapon.
"Fire," she rasped. "It can only be killed with fire."
The beast howled.
Taryn turned. Damon's body went limp as the beast sank its fangs into his throat and shook him like a cat toying with a rodent.
"No," Taryn sank to the ground. "Damon," she whispered. Her own blood stained the white snow around her.
Sarai pulled at her. "We have to run. He is gone now. The beast comes for us."
Warm tears streamed down Taryn's face. "I can't."
Sarai looked from her to the beast. It tossed aside Damon's body. "Please, move."
"Sarai, I can't feel my legs."
Sarai looped her arms under Taryn's shoulders, dragging her through the snow. Red streaks stood out in harsh contrast to the white snow. The beast stood, staring at them across the field. Sarai let out a small whimper, tugging, dragging Taryn. The beast lowered itself on all paws and trotted toward them. Taryn felt Sarai's panic growing.
Focus, Sarai. Attack with a fireball.
Sarai was beyond listening. Her chest heaved from unsuppressed rage as her panic grew. Sarai's power rose at a frightening rate. She would not be able to control it. Taryn joined Sarai and felt herself drawn into maelstrom of power whipping around her. Lightning flashed out from their shared link. Taryn harnessed the energy with her remaining strength. Her legs were going numb.
A burst of lightening broke free of them and struck the beast full in the chest. It flew back, landing in a black smoking clump. Sarai collapsed in the snow beside Taryn as the power faded.
Taryn breathed in shallow gasps. Pain filled every breath. "It's taking over," she said, "The numbness. A poison, I think."
Sarai pulled her closer. "Heal it."
Taryn gazed into Sarai's golden eyes. "I can't. I haven't the strength."
Tears spilled down Sarai's dark cheeks. "Together? Show me how," she pleaded.
Taryn's eyes fluttered, and then opened. "I'm not in any pain," she lied.
"No, you can not leave me now."
"I'm sorry, my love." Taryn reached up to dry Sarai's tears. The woman dipped her head to rest lightly on Taryn's. Wet drops fell on Taryn as Sarai stroked her hair with shaking hands.
"Please, do not leave me."
Movement distracted Taryn. She turned, and Sarai followed her gaze. The scarav. It rolled in the snow, pulling itself back up. Steam rose from its charred body.
Taryn turned back to Sarai.
Sarai closed her eyes. "No," she whispered.
NO, she bellowed with such force that Taryn winced in pain. Sarai stood up, pulling her small dagger. She staggered, and then braced herself. Her face was smeared with dirt and blood. Her hands shook as she held the dagger out. Taryn wanted to cry, wanted to tell her to run, but there was no place else to go. Sarai tightened her grip on the dagger. The beast lumbered closer, then fell back into the snow, motionless. Taryn prayed it would not move again. If it died, maybe Sarai would survive on her own.
Confusion washed over Sarai's expression. She turned around, scanning the granite wall behind them.
"What is it?" asked Taryn.
Sarai linked with her. Then Taryn heard it too. A voice. A chorus of lyrical voices. Urging calm.
We are here, lost one.
Continued in Chapter 12
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