by Sandra Barret
Taryn's own vision blurred, but Sarai held the shared link. Through her, Taryn saw the figures of a half dozen beings floating down the edge of the plateau, as if they were dark snowflakes from the clear blue sky. As they landed, they form a loose circle. Taryn felt the intense, focused power building from their small circle. Shinaran? Out here?
But they weren't. They were foreign, alien to her.
Their power built and focused. Taryn heard the beast whine. Her own eyes caught sight of the scarav as it lay dying in the snow. Sarai turned away from the newcomers as well, sensing the beast. She put herself in front of Taryn, her dagger clutched in two small hands.
The power circle behind them struck. A wall of fog separated Sarai and Taryn from the beast. She heard it whine and thrashed, but she could not see through the white fog. The whining weakened, became low grunts, then crying, gasping. As the power faded, so did the fog. A young man lay where the beast had been. He was bleeding from a dozen wounds. The man held out his hand in brief supplication as his eyes locked on Taryn's. Then he lay still in the trampled, bloody snow.
Taryn's eyes drifted shut. She breathed slowly, shallow. She felt very little pain now. Most of her body was numb. Sarai was with her, holding her head. Taryn smiled, or thought she did. Someone was here for Sarai. She'd be safe.
Taryn drifted off into grayness.
Celina of Damek sat in her saddle, staring into the clear blue horizon as Fasal's escort led her party through the quiet streets of Atheron, heading east. Fasal himself led the military entourage some few paces in front of her, but she did not spare him a glance. No words had passed between them since he explained her status as hostage for Phelin's good behavior. As for her foster-son, she refused to acknowledge him as she and Adele left Damek Keep with Fasal's soldiers. His betrayal stung more deeply than anything her husband's half-brother could do to her.
Shopkeepers and other townsfolk came out as their troupe passed by. Celina marveled that so few of Atheron's people had returned yet, but there were enough to watch her as she rode, the last known remnant of their ruling family. Weary faces captured her attention, eyes that glittered in the cold day. Were they sad for her and her family, or just worried about their own future under Phelin?
One figure caught her eye as they reached the edge of the town. He was tall, broad shouldered, wearing a tattered gray cloak with the hood pulled tight over his head. His stance held none of the submissive slouch as the other townsfolk. As her horse walked by, he pushed forward from the two figures beside him, but they held his arms, held him back.
It was then that Celina saw his face in the weak winter sunlight. Blue eyes bore into her, as if straining to make a link with her across the distance. She knew he could never make that mental link, but she acknowledged him, with a slight nod of her head. Then her horse carried her beyond the town's edge and out of view of his blue eyes, so like his father's.
Celina squared her shoulders and even smiled at the guardsman who rode between her and Adele. What did it matter, this slow pompous parade through her town? Her son lived. She knew beyond all doubt that at least one of her children lived on.
All was quiet in her gray world. She remembered something about a man and a beast. Hallucinating? Taryn tried to blink, but she could not feel anything.
Taryn's mind went blank for a time. Then she seemed to wake again. Sarai knelt beside her. Taryn could barely feel the woman pick up her head. Sarai was there, soothing her thoughts. It was all Taryn could sense now, thoughts and the occasional sound of crunched snow underfoot.
Her vision faded in and out. She saw a pair of strange black faces staring down at her. Gold eyes, brilliant copper hair against the blue sky. She closed her eyes again. Why did death take so long to come?
Then she felt it, an alien mind in hers. Taryn struggled. She pulled up her barriers as best she could. The mind was so foreign, inhuman.
Sarai spoke in her ear. "Let him in, Taryn. He's a healer."
Nothing made sense to her.
"Please, let me bring him in." Sarai pleaded.
Taryn lowered her weak barriers. Sarai's love and worry washed over her. Taryn calmed, centered herself, then the alien mind came again. Taryn felt herself withdraw again, but Sarai was there, Sarai stayed with her. Taryn kept herself controlled, barely, as the other mind penetrated her wounds. He? it? Taryn could not tell. The being probed deeper than Taryn had ever experienced. She followed him as he sought out and removed the numbing poison. Slowly, feeling returned to Taryn's body. She focused better now, following the other mind as he worked through torn muscle and blood canals, mending, healing with deft skill. The mind pulled out slowly. Taryn opened her eyes. She could see and feel again, but movement was slow, laborious.
"Thank you," she said weakly. The alien man gave her a brief glance, and then turned back to Sarai.
"Please, speak openly." Sarai said. "She can not hear you."
The dark man turned back to Taryn. His large gold eyes stared into hers. His narrow face and copper hair reminded her of Sarai.
"She is not of us," he said, his voice deep and musical. "She should remain here."
Taryn turned to Sarai. "What is he talking about?"
Sarai cradled her head, caressed her cheek. "He wants me to return with him. He says I am of his people."
Taryn looked into Sarai's gold-flecked eyes. Yes, she could see the resemblance. Sarai's hair and lighter skin still held the clear markings of the alien man. Taryn turned back to the man. "Altaran?" she whispered. More myths come to life?
"Yes, we are what your kind call Altaran."
Taryn felt the sting of his words. Her kind. A kind he obviously disliked.
"How many of you are there?" she asked.
Sadness washed over him. "Few survived the invasion of your people."
Invasion? "I don't understand."
The man turned back to Sarai. "We must return now. She should stay here with her own kind." He held a hand up for Sarai, as if greeting a child, "And you should return to yours, lost one."
Sarai brushed his hand aside. "No. We stay together." Sarai's hand held Taryn's tightly, as if she feared they would be pulled apart.
The strange man leaned back, settling on his knees. He looked from Sarai to Taryn and back. "Are you bond-mates?" he asked.
Taryn looked at him, confused. He linked with her directly, sending an image of lovers wrapped in the heat of passion. Taryn blushed furiously, as did Sarai. Obviously Sarai could share in any link with the Altaran with ease.
The Altaran man laughed softly at their embarrassment. "As you wish, but she will be isolate in our lands if she can only hear when directly linked. Verbal speech is a novelty few of us practice."
He held out his hand, palm outward. "I am Ab'ehan."
Sarai mimicked his gesture. "I am Sarai, and this is Taryn."
He nodded, "Sar'hai and Tar'n. You are welcome to the clan of Ehan."
Taryn pulled herself up, leaning heavily on Sarai. In silent unison, the band of Altaran walked to the base of the plateau. Taryn studied the Altaran. They dressed in white leathers from boot to fur-lined hood. Each had the distinct copper hair and brilliant gold eyes. Taryn glanced at Sarai beside her. The woman differed from the Altaran in height and muted skin tone, but otherwise the resemblance was obvious.
One Altaran woman stood amongst the others, her long copper hair bound with an intricate white lace netting. Like the other Altaran, this woman was silent, openly staring at Taryn.
They think you a novelty, Sarai informed her.
Ab'ehan stopped beside them. "We return now, but we must separate you for the journey. We can assist only one at a time up the Great Wall."
Sarai looked up the steep granite slope. "How will we get up there?"
Ab'ehan nodded to the Altaran woman. "Ser'elis will take you. I will take your Tar'n as she is too heavy for the others."
Taryn looked down at Ab'ehan. Taller than the other Altaran by far, but he still came only to her shoulder. Sarai squeezed her hand gently before leaving her to Ab'ehan's care. He wrapped one arm around her waist. Sarai and Ser'elis were similarly joined. Taryn fought back a twinge of jealousy at seeing Sarai in the arms of another woman. Power built around them. Taryn felt its distinct tingle before the air shifted around her, heated. A small vortex swirled around each of them, circling them with warm, dry air. And then Taryn felt the pull, the vortex slowly lifting her and Ab'ehan up higher and higher.
Taryn glanced down only once during the ascent. Watching nothing but air beneath her feet as she rose made her decidedly uncomfortable. Moments later, she welcomed the feel of well-trampled snow beneath her boots once again. They were above the ridge of the plateau, facing a wide stretch of massive evergreen trees. Snow blanketed this land as well, clinging to tree and branch.
Taryn struggled for breath, feeling light-headed. Ser'elis approached, along with Sarai. Her voice carried that same musical quality as she spoke. "The tight in your chest will not last. You will adjust to the air here." She smiled, a flash of pearly teeth against her black face.
No, not black. Taryn looked closer. It was more a deep brown, like her mother's eyes. Taryn closed her eyes to hold back the tears at the thought of her family. Sarai was at her side, her hand slipping into Taryn's. She opened her eyes to see Sarai worriedly watching her. Taryn could stand on her own now, but she felt very weak. Most of the Altaran ran into the woods, returning moments later with a series of buckskin ponies. The ponies came without lead ropes, following each Altaran like trained dogs.
Ab'ehan brought the largest pony to Taryn. "This one will carry you both to our hearth."
Taryn eyed the pony warily. It had no saddle or lead rope. She watched as the Altaran vaulted onto their ponies and led them with clicks of the tongue and subtle calf movements. She smiled. Not so magical after all, she thought, just very well trained. Sarai and Ab'ehan gave Taryn a boost up. Her legs dangled embarrassingly far below the pony's belly. Sarai pulled herself up behind Taryn and still the pony did not complain. Taryn wondered if they could crossbreed the Damek paint with these stocky ponies. The offspring could be excellent draft horses. They joined the Altaran as they wound their way silently through the snow-covered forest.
After hours of riding, the trees opened up to a small clearing. A thin stream of clear water trickled along the edge of the forest, and beyond lay a stone and wood village. Two dozen or more small huts gathered in clusters of two or four along the one main path. Men and women stopped their work to stare at the newcomers. A handful of small Altaran children scampered along beside Taryn's horse, pointing and giggling. Taryn could feel her cheeks blushing from the attention. As the horses drew to a stop by a central unused fire pit, the band dismounted. Sarai dropped off first, and then helped Taryn steady herself after she slid off. The pony followed along with the others, leading themselves off to pasture somewhere beyond the village boundaries.
Taryn looked around at the sea of silent dark faces staring up at her. Most were staring, but a few faces smiled at her as well. "Now I know how you must have felt," she said, thinking of Sarai's differences amongst the paler folk of Damek.
Sarai chuckled, slipping her arm through Taryn's to steady her. Can you hear them all? Listen through me.
Sarai's mind linked Taryn into the noisy chatter of the Altaran village. There was a jumble of words and images passing around them, unlike anything Taryn had ever experienced. She shut her eyes, but still felt disoriented.
Ab'ehan turned to her. You will learn to shut out what is not of interest.
Taryn nodded, but pulled herself out of the link with Sarai. "It's too much," she said, rubbing her temples. Her knees felt as if they would give way under her.
"She needs rest," said Sarai, slipping an arm under Taryn's shoulder.
After a moment of silent chatter which Taryn thankfully could not hear, Sarai led her to a small stone hut off the central path. Taryn had to duck through the doorway but once inside, the place seemed light and comfortable. It was really one main room, with storage shelves and chairs, separated from the sleeping area by a thick hanging drape. Sarai led her to the mound of sleeping furs in the bedroom area. She dropped her stiff, dirty cloak to the floor and looked down in dismay at the blood staining her breeches and tunic. Sarai left her a moment, and then returned with a thick flannel nightshirt.
"Thank you," said Taryn. Their eyes met, and each blushed furiously before Sarai turned away to let Taryn undress.
The shift felt soft against her cold skin. Taryn sank down into the welcome softness of the bed furs. Sarai helped cover her with furs. "Will you stay with me," asked Taryn softly.
Sarai slid under the topmost cover, pulling Taryn in beside her. She caressed Taryn's cold cheeks, her fingers gently tracing Taryn's jaw and down along the open neck of her shift. Taryn's eyes fluttered shut. She wanted to stay awake, wanted to pull Sarai down on top of her. Sarai lifted her hand and kissed each fingertip.
"Sleep," she urged, but Taryn fought against her exhaustion.
She tugged at the emerald ring on her finger. "I want you to take this."
"Please," said Taryn as the ring came loose. She lifted Sarai's small hand and slid the ring over her middle finger. "It was a gift from my father," said Taryn.
Sarai made to pull it off, but Taryn held her hands. "But it is all you have of your family," said Sarai.
"No. You are my family now." Taryn held Sarai's hand up, "I love you."
And I, you.
Taryn straightened the ring on Sarai's hand. It felt loose, but not so much that it would fall off. Taryn could have a silversmith adjust it, assuming these people had silversmiths.
"But are we safe here?" Taryn muttered, her eyes refusing to open now.
"We are safe."
Taryn resistance dissolved then, letting her drift into much needed sleep.
Sunlight filtered past the edges of the long drape separating the rooms. Taryn pulled herself deeper into the sleeping furs. It was too late though. Her belly was already wide awake and savoring the delicious scent of baking bread that filled the air. She pulled herself out of the covers and immediately regretted it when the cold air surrounded her face. Sarai was no longer in the hut. Taryn bolted out of bed in a panic. She gave herself enough time to put on her stained clothes and tug on her boots, then sped past the empty main room and out the door.
A blast of icy air stole her breath. Taryn scanned the area. Their hut was in a circle of three, sharing a large hearth in the middle. It was from this that the smell of bread came, as two young Altaran tended the fire, cooking bread rolls. Taryn smiled to the Altaran youth, and then moved past the hearth and beyond their circle of huts. She still could not see Sarai. She looked around to ask for help, but then remembered Ab'ehan's comment that few spoke verbally.
Here, by the main hearth.
Sarai's mental touch soothed Taryn's frayed nerves, but she felt something else in the link that made her worry. Taryn trotted along the main path, past circles of families sharing breakfast in the cold morning air. She found Sarai standing by the village main hearth. An Altaran man stood in front of her, his hand resting on the neck of a sweating full-size chestnut mare. Sarai turned to Taryn as she approached, tears streaking down her cheeks. Taryn's gut wrenched as she pushed herself between Sarai and the strange man.
"What is it? Did he hurt you?" Taryn felt for her sword, but it was not there. She stood in the frigid morning air in nothing but her tunic and breeches, her fingers grasping the cold air.
Sarai put a restraining hand on Taryn's arm. "No," she said, "He is no danger to us." Sarai looked back at the Altaran. "He says he is my father."
A mix of emotions flooded through Taryn, some her own and some from Sarai.
The Altaran man turned to her, bowing low. "Bondmate, I greet you. And I thank you for returning my heart-daughter to me."
Taryn stared at him. He had the same oval face and amber eyes that Sarai had. His eyes held back tears as he turned to Sarai again. Taryn recognized the silent communication between Sarai and her father. Frowning, she grasped Sarai's hand, urging a link between them to hear what they said.
I searched for you, my child. I hunted the lands of the Berati for years after they raided our hearth.
They killed her. They burned her because of me.
No, heart-daughter. Because of me.
His hands rested on Sarai's shoulders now, as tears fell freely. I should have taken you both north, away from that land.
Sarai bowed her head as her shoulders shook. Taryn dropped the link, embarrassed for having eavesdropped on what should be a private time between Sarai and her father. The Altaran man pulled Sarai in, holding her, rocking her as they both cried. Taryn backed away. This was not for her to share. Her shoulders slumped as she walked back to their hut, alone.
Sarai joined Taryn in their hut an hour later. "How are you feeling?" she asked.
"Much better," said Taryn from under the pile of bed furs. "Would you like to join me? It's very cozy."
Blushing, Sarai slipped off her boots and crawled under the furs. She lay her head on Taryn's chest. "I thought I would lose you."
Taryn wrapped her arms around her lover. "But you didn't. We're safe now." She lifted Sarai's head and pressed her lips to Sarai's. The softest of lips parted and Sarai's tongue teased Taryn's lips. Taryn rolled to her side, wrapping her legs around Sarai as their kiss grew more passionate. Fur covers were pushed aside as the two women expressed their love. Sarai's shy explorations teased and aroused Taryn, but Taryn would not push her lover. The weak winter sun cast rays of golden light across their bed as Sarai's small fingers slid under the cotton shift that Taryn wore. A low moan escaped Taryn's lips when Sarai's warm hand cupped her bare breast. With their minds linked, Taryn felt her own passions rising in harmony with Sarai's. Their bodies and minds drew together as they shed their remaining garments.
At the evening meal, Taryn watched with interest as Sar'elis scooped up the baby boy from the rugs and rocked him on her lap. Ab'ehan's hut was considerably larger than the one she shared with Sarai. But then again, his family was sizable as well, with his bondmate, Sar'elis, twin girls running around outside, and the young baby.
They sat around a warm fire in the center of Ab'ehan's hut. Sarai sat beside her, and Taryn kept a protective arm around her love.
"My father wants us to travel to his Hearth. It will be a full day's ride inland from here."
Taryn looked at her. "A full day? Then how did he find out you were here and get here so quickly?"
Ab'ehan interrupted. "How long does it take for a thought to go from one mind to the next? One village to the next?"
Zeb'hai, Sarai's father answered. "I received the image of you coming into the Hearth of Ehan within an hour of your arrival. I rode through day and night to get here." He turned to Sarai. "Please, heart-daughter, come home with me. Our family awaits us."
Sarai didn't answer right away. Taryn wondered why she hesitated, and then a thought occurred to her. "Do you, have you re-married since," she paused, "since then?" she asked weakly.
Zeb'hai sat back, shocked. The hut was silent a moment, then Ser'elis broke the silence. "Altaran have only one bondmate, Tar'n. We are drawn to our mate, wherever they may live. The power which joins two souls can never be unlocked and can never be replaced by another."
Taryn's cheeks burned from embarrassment. "Oh. I'm sorry, I didn't mean to offend." Bonding for life? Was that why she and Sarai were drawn together when Sarai met Alek?
Zeb'hai remained silent, aloof.
Sar'elis clucked softly at the baby, and then looked to Zeb'hai. "It is nothing," she chided. "Their ways are not our ways. Still, she is bondmate, none can deny it."
Taryn felt Sarai pull closer to her, entwining her arm within Taryn's. Sarai turned to her father, her face proud, as if daring him to deny the obvious.
Zeb'hai relaxed some. "I too mated with the clans below, child. You will not face their harsh judgments here amongst us."
Taryn heard his words, but she felt a faint discomfort at his blank expression. And what of her own family and province? She had a duty to Damek, though what she could do against the combined forces of her foster-brother and Fasal?
What are your thought? asked Sarai.
She gazed into golden eyes. I will go with you, wherever the winds take us, but you must promise me we will return to Damek.
We will find your family.
Taryn lifted Sarai's hand, kissed it, and slipped it between her own hands.
We will go with you, to Clan Hai, Father. Sarai smiled up at Taryn. And I acknowledge you as my bondmate. My love and my heart you will have always.
Tears threatened to spill from Taryn's eyes. My love and my heart for you, forever my love.
Vasali lay on the floor; cool, damp stone pressed against her hot cheek. Her nostrils filled with the scent of sulfur and something else.
Yes, that was it. She remembered now. She'd soiled herself.
She felt his presence again. His hot breath seemed to sear down on her fevered brow, though he was not in her room. "No," she pleaded, her voice worn, raspy. "No, I have not failed you."
The half-breed bitch. She was beyond Vasali's reach now. But if she ever came back, Vasali would be ready. Her lips curled back, revealing small fanged teeth. She would tear the flesh off that darkling's hide herself next time.
She felt the burning in her limbs again. "No, please, Master!" She whimpered.
His power burned through her, like flame igniting the blood in her veins.
She screamed. She screamed until her voice gave out.
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