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 email@example.com, and many thanks for reading.
Alek of Damek leaned against the trunk of a silver oak, his body partly hidden from the events he watched in the distance. The auction had started on a makeshift stage assembled inside a corral, near the main bazaar of the dry Tramoran town. A small crowd kicked up layers of dust as they jockeyed for positions near the stage, while waves of heat rose from the trampled earth around them. Southern Tramoran was much more arid than the cooler mountain regions of Alek's home in Damek. Even the air, tinged with scents of dried fennel and spark weed, smelled foreign to him.
He shifted to get a better view, as the groups were brought up to the stage for display. The first two for auction were an older, fair-haired woman, and a stout boy, just entering manhood. Alek grimaced as the two, mother and son, were subject to humiliating pokes and prods from interested buyers. The actions of buyer and slave traders reminded him of horse auctions at home. The treatment of horse and human seemed no different here.
His eyes grew wide as he heard the mother wail miserably. He felt a sickening wave of nausea as he realized mother and son were being purchased by separate buyers. Callous traders pulled the woman off the auction block and whipped the boy repeatedly when he tried to follow her. Alek turned away from the sight.
He heard the crowd mutter approval and turned back to see seven young men and women paraded before the crowd. Most wore the loose-fit yellow garb of the northern nomadic tribes of Berat. Alek had been told that rival tribes often sold their captured enemies to Lord Fasal's slave traders. The traders brought them south, far away from their own tribe and any hope of escape or rescue. Occasionally, the slave traders captured people of their own, but never from the north, as the tribes of Berat would seek bloody retribution if any outsider stole their people.
Alek ignored the first few young males sold from the batch. His interest lay with a small, dark female, second to last on the stage. Her reddish hair contrasted the wavy brown hair of the other six slaves in her group. She may have come from the north like the rest, thought Alek, but she was obviously mixed-blood. Alek He wondered if she had been sold by her own tribe to remove the taint of sin from her unclean mix. The Berati thought of themselves as pure, the only true believers in the land. All else were impure, nihe'n.
The mixed-blood woman stepped up on the block. Alek edged closer to the clearingorral, watching a potential buyer from the crowd examine her. She stood unflinching as the man lifted her arms and examined hair and teeth. Only one of the buyers showed any interest in the slight woman. Alek, too far away, could not hear buyer and seller haggle over price, but soon the deal was set and the young woman sold.
Alek slipped away beyond the stagecorral, down a dusty path that wound through small, dry brush and dark green scrub oak. He walked, to a thin, clear stream that ran by the edge of the bazaar and beyond the town. He untied his large gray mare that stood in the shade of a taller oak and led it to the stream to drink. He stooped by the stream, using his large, callused hands to splash cool water on his bearded face. He heard the sounds of an approaching horse and stood, wiping his face dry on the sleeve of his coarse brown tunic.
The buyer and the small, dark slave woman joined him at the stream. The woman's hands were bound. A rope attached her to the buyer's chestnut horse, forcing her to walk quickly to keep pace. Alek eyed the buyer as the shorter man dismounted and brought horse and slave to the stream.
"She came cheaper than I thought," said the buyer, as he handed Alek the reins of the horse and the attached slave woman.
"Whatever remains of the money you may keep, you've done well," said Alek. The buyer silently nodded and walked back up the dusty trail toward the bazaar.
Alek stood awkwardly with the slave woman. With her head bowed, she did not come up to the top of his leather vest. He scratched at the rough growth of his black beard, still uncomfortable with it after so long, but such was the style of the men of the east and Alek wished to blend in.
He approached the slave woman and she took a step backward. Alek felt at once that his large frame did not work in his favor to win this woman's trust. He stopped a moment to think. He needed to get away from this town quickly, but traveling with an uncooperative companion would bring unwelcome attention.
"Do you understand anything I say?" he asked. The slave woman raised her head to stare at him blankly through gold-specked eyes. He was taken aback by her startling eyes, a color and shape he had never seen before. Definitely a mixed blood, he thought, but with whom? Alek knew little of the dialects of Berati and he guessed the slave woman knew nothing of his own language.
"Alek," he said, pointing at himself. Still she stared. "Alek," he repeated. She said nothing.
For once, Alek wished he had inherited some of his sister's shinaran mind-reading skills, but he matched his father in that, purely human in abilities. Sighing, he turned back to his horse, untied his water bag, and handed it to her. She grabbed it up and drank greedily. He took out some bread from his saddlebag and approached the woman again. She eyed him warily, but did not shy away. He put the bread on the chestnut horse's saddle and gestured for her to mount. She nodded agreement, as wisps of coppery hair partly coveredslipped over her brown, grimy face. She shrugged him off when he offered to help her in the saddle. She put one sandaled foot in the stirrup, grabbed hold of the pommel and bread with her hands still tied, and deftly hoisted herself up, obviously an experienced rider. Alek sighed with relief. It would make their journey easier, knowing she could handle a horse.
The silent woman sat on her horse, eating the dry bread and watching him.
"Give me your hands." he said. The woman looked at him with curiosity, but did nothing. He motioned for her hands, and she lowered them. He untied the end of the rope attaching her to the horse, but he did not unbind her hands. They had not established enough trust for that. He walked back to his horse, loopedtied the rope from the other horse to his saddle horn, and mounted.
Finally the woman spoke. "Sarai," she said in a soft, lilting voice.
Alek smiled. "Sarai," he repeated. He led horse and bound woman down the streambed and past the weathered town gates without incident.
The two riders journeyed west and north for several days, heading always toward the mountains. Alek avoided townships along the way, not trusting his guise would hold under close scrutiny. He had learned little from his Berati companion, though he felt some of what she said in her own language was not a kindness. She seemed common enough in manner and attitude that Alek worried he may not have the right woman. Her looks matched the woman that had plagued his dreams two years ago, and Seers Alek consulted in his travels clearly directed him to the township where he found her. Nevertheless, he worried. She seemed incapable of remembering even the smallest phrases in his language and had no wish to understand him or be understood herself. He wondered if she was simple, but she watched and studied the landscape as they traveled. On occasion he felt her study him as well.
They were in the eastern foothills of the Black Mountains when Alek decided it was time the woman shed her Berati garb and dress more like a woman of Damek. They would attract less attention this close to the border and her desert clothes would be useless in the cold mountains, going over the Trescion Pass.
Alek tried to explain what he wanted her to do. He took out the woman's travel clothes he stored in the saddlebags on her horse. She seemed to understand, but held up her still-bound hands and shrugged. Alek directed her to put on the trousers and riding boots first, then turned away to give her a measure of privacy.
She said something and he turned back to see she had completed that task. Then he bound her feet and untied her hands. He turned again and let her complete the wardrobe change. When he looked back, he was amused by the transformation. The trousers were loose fitting and the blouse and over-tunic hung from her slight frame. Still, she seemed less foreign to him now, dressed as any Damek riding woman.
"You look almost pretty now," he said with a laugh.
"Nihe'n," she replied with a grimace.
Alek looked up the path as they traveled along , the Trescion Pass. He hated this stretch of the path, not the least because of the treacherous nature of the climb. He'd traveled this route before, searching for his father's remains. The pain of that memory lingered with him as he led the way with Sarai in tow. They each wore heavy woolen cloaks to keep out the cold winds blowing about the top of the pass. Loose rock and dirt marked the narrow path between mountain and steep cliff edge. The trail was barely wide enough for a single horse. They were high up in the pass, beyond the tree line, with strong winds blowing them against the face of the gray-black mountain.
Alek looked back at the desert woman. She seemed less affected by the cold than he did, riding with her head bowed as if asleep in the saddle. He could do little for her. They had to continue, get over the pass before nightfall. He had no wish to be caught in the higher reaches of the mountain when nightfall came, and temperatures dropped below freezing.
He could just see the top of the pass when he heard voices coming toward them from that direction. He froze for a moment. There was no place to hide from whoever approached. He gripped the hilt of his sword and looked back at the slave woman. Her eyes were alert. She must have heard the voices as well. He turned a corner of the trail and caught sight of the newcomers, four swarthy men, heavily armed and walking. Their beards and attire marked them as Tramoran, likely raiders who experienced a stroke of bad luck. They had no horses.
Alek could see them appraising him and the woman, and then staring at the two horses. He reined in his horse. This would not go well.
"Good day to you, sir. Think this cloudy weather will hold out much longer?" asked the nearest man, his hand casually on the hilt of his sword as he approached Alek.
"Well enough, I should hope," said Alek, who remained alert. He assessed them carefully. The first man, obviously the leader, and one other had sheathed swords, one man had a large battleaxe held across hairy arms, and the last, watching Alek suspiciously from the back, had only a belt of daggers.
Alek's considerable size and training meant he could probably handle an attack by two, possibly even three, depending on what Sarai did if a fight ensued. If all four attacked at once, he had little hope.
"Couple of fine steeds you have there," said the leader.
Alek saw the man discreetly signal the others to circle around him. Before he could react, Sarai jumped off her horse and fled down the path, back toward Tramoran. The leader drew his sword, ordering one man after Sarai, while he and the axe bearer pressed their attack against Alek.
Alek had little time to worry about Sarai as he parried attacks from sword and axe. If had his trained Damek stallion, he could have trampled one man already, but the gray mare was ill trained for battle. It bucked and reared, hampering Alek's defense. The attackers pressed him and his horse against the mountainside, avoiding the precarious cliff edge. He continued his defensive blocks, looking for some sign of the third bandit. He caught sight of the man cutting his way through the rope that bound Sarai's chestnut horse to his own mare. He could do nothing to stop the theft. The swordsman proved of limited skill, but the man with the battleaxe fought well and the combination of the two began taking a toll on Alek's defenses.
He parried a blow from the axe but the swordsman used the opening to slice a cut across Alek's thigh. He howled in pain and anger. The third bandit mounted the chestnut horse and maneuvered past Alek and the other two, working his way back up the mountain pass toward Damek. The axe bearer turned, cursing his double-crossing companion for deserting them. The horse thief pulled two daggers from his belt and threw them deftexpertly at the exposed chest of the axe-bearing bandit.
Alek used the distraction of the axe bearer's death to press his attack on the remaining swordsman. While he bore down on the man, he heard a howl coming from behind him on the path and he remembered Sarai and the other swordsman. Grimly, he made quick work of the remaining attacker, cutting down on him with such force and anger that he nearly severed the man's head from his shoulders with one final stroke. Alek steadied himself in the saddle, his breath rasping in his ears. Blood trickled from his wounded leg but the shock of the battle kept the pain at bay. He had to find Sarai and the remaining bandit.
Taryn sat quietly in the soft padded chair by the main hHall fire, sipping mulled red wine. She, barely listeneding to her mother prattle on about aunts and cousins, who married whom, what was a good match, and what, in her mother's esteemed opinion, was a match doomed to failure or the creation of horrid offspring the family would live to regret. Taryn's gaze tracked the dance of soft yellow light and dark shadow along the polished floor.
"Taryn. Taryn are you listening to me?" asked Celina as she looked up from the multicolored beadwork on her lap.
"Yes? Sorry Mmother. What is it?"
"I asked what you thought of that nice young man from Westeron, dear. The Chieftain'lordling'ss son who came courting yesterday? Oh, I can'not remember what family he is from. They have so many over there," said Celina.
Taryn sighed. "The Stalt family, Mother, and he isn't courting. He brought official news from Sebran."
"Yes, yes. But a handsome young man, don't you agree?" asked Celina.
"Ever the matchmaker, eh Mother?" Taryn responded jokingly.
"Well, you're hardly trying on your own, now are you," said Celina, exasperation evident in her tone.
Taryn sipped more wine, avoiding the old argument. Deep down, Taryn did want to find someone to share her life with. There had never been a real spark with any of her mother's approved candidates and there never would be. Taryn was not destined to carry on the family line, a fact recognized by everyone except her mother.
"Any news of Damon, Mother? His hunting party has been gone longer than I expected."
"No, dear. I haven't heard anything yet. Maybe there was no beast to find? Not every hen's death is cause for panic."
Taryn fingered the rim of her wine glass.
"Have you heard back from any of your colleagues?" asked Celina.
"Yes. Morel from up north sent copies of a manuscript he discovered in the old libraries. It is concerned primarily with mythical beasts. The language is very old and his translations are sketchy at best."
"Perhaps your old tutor could translate it. I recall he translated many old texts before he retired, and…"
Taryn heard her mother's voice fadeA thundering noise in Taryn's ears blocked out her mother's voice, as her own vision clouded. She shook her head to clear the odd fuzzy sensation. She tried to call out to her mother, but no sounds came from her as her mind slipped into a gray void.
With a twist of vertigo, TarynShe felt as if she were suddenly on a mountain slope, cold wind blowing as she ran down a rocky path. Her mind filled with thoughts and feelings not her ownforeign thoughts. It felt like the first time Taryn had linked with her shinaran tutor.Someone else's thoughts swirled around inside her mind, but this was far more intense. Her physical sensations were being overridden by someone else's mind.
SheShe looked down in the confused double-world. She saw her hands were bound, and she heard the grunts of someone following her. She turned to see a bearded man, dressed in patched clothes, running after her with a drawn sword. Her pulse raced as she considered her options. Someone else'strange thoughts went through her panicked mind, the confusing images blocking her attempts to concentrate.
The armed man nearly upon her, Tarynshe turned to face him. Sweat beaded up on her brow even in the cold. She crouched down in a defensive stance and concentrated on her attacker, thinking to send a quick mental jolt to distract him. Her body tensed as unknown, immense power welled up inside her, out of control, and lashed out at the attacker. The man howled in pain, staggering to her left. Shocked, she watched him stumble over the path edge, down a steep rocky slope. Her double-self looked on in confusion.
As the dual panic subsided within her mind, Taryn felt the other mind slowly withdraw from hers. became disentangled from the intermingling of minds. Her pulse slowed, her breathing calmed, and she pulled herself away from the foreign mind as her vision clouded again.
Alek turned his horse back arounddown the path and trotted down the path in search of Sarai and the final bandit. He stopped and dismounted when he saw Sarai appear from a bend in the steep path. She showed no injuries, no real sign of a battle of any kind. "What happened? Where is the other bandit?" asked Alek, still carrying his bloody sword.
Sarai looked at him, her eyes wide, pupils dilated. She pointed toward the cliff edge. Alek walked carefully to the rocks and boulders piled close to the edge of the path and peered over. It was not a sheer drop off the edge of the path but the steep black slope combined with jagged edged boulders all but guaranteed death. Alek scanned the slope until he caught sight of a crumpled figure far below. The figure did not move.
Alek wiped a dirty sleeve across his face and looked back at the small woman. She sat with her head in her hands, perhaps shocked by the events. He could not guess how such a slight figure managed to trick a good-sized, armed man to such a death. He felt torn between gratitude for her unknown skills and unease that he knew little of what she might be capable of. If she could dispatch the bandit with ease, what kept her from finding a way to slice his throat while he slept?
Now that the fourth bandit had stolen the chestnut mare, they had no choice but to spend the night on the cold mountain pass. They could not get down to the lower elevations in Damek before nightfall. Looking toward the sky, he realized the darkness was not just the approaching dusk. Storm clouds were blowing in, and he could feel the temperature dropping.
"We need to find shelter before this storm hits." Alek had gotten in the habit of speaking even though he knew Sarai seemed to understand little or nothing of what he said.
With only one horse, he let Sarai ride first. He retrieved a cloth from the remaining saddlebags, wiped his sword clean and sheathed it. Sarai pointed to the bleeding cut on his leg, mumbling something unintelligible.
"It's not as bad as it looks," he replied. Still, he used a bit of water and the cloth to clean the wound. Water would not be as scarce once they made it to Damek. Looking up at the clouds again, Alek realized water in some form or other may be more than plentiful soon. He cursed the loss of the other saddlebags with the second horse. He had spare blankets and food in that set.
Alek wrapped a cloth bandage around his wound. The leg felt stiff, but hecould put his weight on it. They would be tired, cold and hungry long before they reached any help on the other side. Alek sighed, took the reins of the gray mare and headed up the last stretch of the path to the summittop. At least they would be walking downhill soon.
"Taryn? What is it, child?" asked Celina.
Taryn felt the cold stone floor on her cheek. She opened her eyes and realized she lay sprawled on the floor of the main hHall. Her mother shook her shoulders.
"I'm alright," said Taryn as she tried to sit up. Her head still felt fuzzy. Pain centered on her right hip and elbow, bruises forming where she fell to the floor. Small brown and yellow beads lay scattered by her from her mother's discarded beadwork.
Celina helped her back into her chair. A look of worry creased her brow. "Are you sick?"
Taryn concentrated, grasping at the remnants of what she just experienced. "I'm not sure what just happened," she said. "I felt as if I were on a mountain somewhere, under attack."
"A vvision?" asked Celina.
"No, It felt more like a shared link with another shinaran, but much more intense. I was there. Well, sort of. I felt the cold wind and the gravel under my boots. Ropes cut into my wrists. I think I even bled from it."
Taryn rubbed her wrists as she spoke, almost surprised to see no trace of rope burn. Her head throbbed. She remembered the surge of power she felt and the horrible effects her mental probe had on the attacker. "The power I controlled, Mother, the intensity. It seemed a storm cloud that nearly swept me away. I think I killed a man."
"Share what you saw with me," said Celina, reaching out her hand. Taryn held her mother's hand. Physical contact, while not required, enhanced their abilities to join telepathically. Taryn replayed her experience in her mind, ending with the final blast of power that sent her attacker to his death. She felt her mother break contact abruptly.
"Gods, Taryn. That power. It can't be. It should not be." said Celina.
Taryn hugged herself, for a time feeling isolated from her mother by what she had experienced. She sensed her mother's cool gray eyes judging her.
"Can we really kill like that?" asked Taryn, confusion mingling with fear. Her mother did not answer right away, but instead sat plucking up discarded beads from the chair and pillows. Finally, her mother spoke.
"I don't know. Our skills are many and varied. I can only say I have never heard of such power."
"I only meant to distract him, I didn't seek to kill," said Taryn.
"You talk as if this was real, but it can't be. You can't be in two places at once, and even if you were, that kind of power just doesn't exist. Your head's been in old books for weeks. Maybe your mind created a waking dream."
Taryn knew her mother was making excuses, wanting to deny the possibilities. She wished she could do the same, but she knew what she felt and saw. She knew she destroyed a man's mind tonight, and the realization left her cold and shaking.
The large oak double doors to the main hall opened, letting in a burst of cold, damp air. Taryn and Celina turned to see Damon come in from the dark, shouting orders to clear the area before the fireplace. Others followed him in, carrying a wounded guardsman on a makeshift gurney. Taryn moved chairs, and Celina left to fetch blankets as the others lay the injured guardsman on the thick embroidered rug before the fire. Taryn looked down on the ashen face of the guardsman, who moaned and thrashed about. He smelled of dank earth mingled with sweat.
"What are his injuries?" asked Celina when she returned with a pile of woolen blankets and clean cloths.
"The beast we hunted clawed him, raked along his shoulder here," said Damon, pointing to a bloodstained cloth that covered the wound. "His cuts are not so deep, but he shakes and sweats from a fever."
Taryn knelt beside the injured man, putting a hand over his brow and pulling the cloth gently from his wounded shoulder. A putrid smell rose from the festering cuts, making her gasp and turn aside. The wounded guardsman groaned and trembled, but didn't open his eyes.
"What attacked him? Was it the same creature we saw near the forest?" asked Taryn as her mother handed her a clean cloth and a pot of heated water brought in from the kitchens. She dabbed gently at the wound, but each touch brought renewed pain to the injured guardsman.
"No," said Damon. "This one walked in the shape of a man, but with claws and teeth like a wolf."
Taryn handed the soiled cloth back to her mother. With one hand still to the man's brow, she placed her other over his injury, closed her eyes and probed the wound mentally. She could sense the physical cuts, three slices across the man's shoulder, no longer even bleeding.
Taryn's probe brought forth an internal view of the cuts as yellow discolorations across the normally faint green mental view of muscle and flesh. She probed deeper, following the edges of the cuts and down into the connecting life channels. There, beyond the boundary of the original wound, she sensed a deep yellow poison spreading through the life channels. She concentrated further, building a wall around the poison, keeping it from spreading to the rest of the body. She formed a line of hot white energy and traced it along the original claw marks and out into the poisoned channels, burning out the poison and cauterizing the wound. She opened her eyes, checking the guardsman one last time to be sure the fever had ended, and then rose. She leaned heavily on her mother as she stood.
"He should be moved to a bed for the night. The poison is gone," said Taryn, her voice edged with exhaustion. "Did you kill the beast?"
"Yes, my Lady. It took four volleys of arrows from both archers, but we did kill it. Young Sef here caught the last thrash of the beast as we approached to finish it off."
"Damon, I want to talk to you in my quarters. At first light, you and I ride to find this beast's remains," said Taryn.
Two guardsmen lifted the gurney holding the sleeping form of their injured comrade. The left, carrying him back to the guardhouse.
"Mother, if you would join us please," said Taryn as she walked to the staircase.
Together, they walked up the rust carpeted stairs to the second landing. Taryn led the way down the dimly lit corridor, past the guest rooms and her mother's quarters on the left to Taryn's private quarters at the end of the hallway. She let them both into her rooms and shut the door quietly behind them. Celina lit the oil lamps while Damon tended the fireplace. He added another log to the hot embers to take the chill off the room. Flickers of yellow light cast off the dark shadows.
"Damon, I want you to look through one of these books," said Taryn as she settled at her cluttered desk. "See if you can find a sketch that matches the demon beast you saw today."
From amongst the piles of rough parchments and heavy leather bound books, she took out one old, worn tome and presented it to Damon. He sat on a chair by the desk and opened the book as Taryn lit another lamp beside him.
"Which book is that?" asked Celina, sitting on a cushioned bench by the fireplace.
"Something I found in the back shelves of the library the other day. It's titled ‘Ancient Beasts and Curses'," said Taryn as she took a seat by her mother. Sleep threatened to overwhelm her from the effort of healing the guardsman.
"It sounds fanciful, dear. Do you really hope to find clues of these beasts in old fairytales?" asked Celina.
"I have no other sources that match what we've seen," said Taryn. "Damon, can you tell me more about the attack?"
Damon continued to scan the book as he spoke.
"The five of us went to Habourn. I spoke with the town headman, Jedtak, and he took us to the outlying farm where that family had been slaughtered, husband, wife, and three boys."
Taryn gazed into the fire as Damon continued.
"We tracked the beast to its lair in the wood beyond the town. It had the remains of, of someone in its claws when we found it."
Taryn heard her mother's quick intake of breath, but she only nodded, urging Damon to continue.
"The two archers are what saved us. The thing was tall as any man, wore ragged remnants of clothing even. But the face was a mask of rage – fangs red with fresh blood and eyes gleaming in the dark, like a cat. Two volleys of arrows brought it down before the rest of us got near with swords. Poor Sef got too close, and the beast knocked him flat with one swipe of its claws before we killed it."
"Did Sef get the fever right away?"
"No. He helped us bury the beast, even road part way home before we realized his wound was worse than we thought."
"Slow acting poison, attacking through the blood," said Taryn, mostly to herself.
Silence settled in the room as Damon scanned the book in his lap. Altemand had a rich mythology of demons, going so far as to name and categorize them by physical and mental characteristics. The fairytales told to children were only the more benign legends.
"There," said Damon, pointing to a page in the book. "This is what we killed today." He carried the open book to Taryn and Celina and showed them a rough sketch.
Taryn looked closely at the yellowed page. She examined the faded sketch of a large manlike beast with sharp protruding fangs.
"The sketch has no clawed hands, but otherwise, the beast is the same," he said.
She took the book back to the well-lit desk to read aloud the description under the sketch.
"Cerrol Demon: Raised from the darkness. Walks the land as a man, feeding on the living. The bite of the Cerrol means slow agonizing death. The Cerrol must be purified by the flame or it rises again."
She paused as she studied the sketch. The artist drew the Cerrol with particular detail on the facial deformities, including vertical slits for the cat-like eyes. The cautionary note on how to kill the beast worried her.
"You're sure it was dead?" she asked, leaving the book on her desk and returning to the bench.
"Dead and buried, so no animal will feed on its poisoned flesh."
Taryn felt her mother shift nervously on the bench beside her.
"You both don't believe this myth, do you?" asked Celina. "Taryn, what of Morel's manuscript you were reading the other day? Can this be the work of some twisted shinaran?"
Taryn's pulse quickened. The Morel manuscript described some of the more horrendous actions by Sesanth more than a century earlier. She didn't realize her mother knew she'd read that text. "I don't see how Morel's work is relevant."
"Don't be obtuse, dear. You've read what the worst of our caste can do. What were they capable of?"
"Well, Interrogators have been the worst. A Master Interrogator can force a mental link and warp someone's mind, drive them mad."
"Hmm. What else have you learned?" asked Celina.
Taryn considered Sesanth. "A skilled animal empath can manipulate herds, wolf packs."
"That doesn't help much." Celina sat quietly for a moment, then turned back to her. "How do you heal?"
"What?" Taryn's face flushed.
"How do you heal, child? It's not a talent I share," said Celina.
Taryn watched the dance of light and shadow across the far stone wall as she tried to explain what came naturally. "It's like sensing what is wrong, inside a body. I can see, well, colors of what is normal and what is not. Small manipulations can shift the internal workings to clear out poisons or advance the natural healing process," she said slowly.
"You manipulate flesh and blood to heal," said Celina. "What if you did the opposite? What if you manipulated it to warp and distort the natural form?"
Taryn shivered at what her mother suggested. She saw Damon's look of fear distort his lined face.
"We don't know it can be done like that, Damon," said Taryn.
"But my Lady, if someone is creating these beasts, these demon spawn," said Damon.
Taryn cut him short before his fear of shinarans overcame his common sense. "We will discover that tomorrow, old friend," she said. "If someone is creating these demons, we will see the mark of it on the dead beast's flesh. Even shinaran healings leave a scar."
"And," Celina added, "If it is a shinaran warping these beasts, can we stop calling them demons?"
Damon sat quietly flexing and un-flexing his sword hand. Taryn sympathized with his need for action. "We can do little more tonight. In the morning, we'll find the beast you killed today."
"Yes, my Lady," said Damon as he and Celina rose to leave.
Taryn bid them both good night.
Mists formed with every breath as Taryn and Damon saddled their horses in the scant early light of dawn. She stroked the neck of her black and white gelding as she checked her tack one last time before mounting. The sky remained a dim purple with gray wisps of cloud as the two rode out of the Keep. They rode past the fortified oak and iron gates that were the only opening in the high stone wall surrounding the Keep and its grounds. Taking the East Road out of Atheron, they ride toward the garrison town where Damon and his party buried the Cerrol demon.
Taryn rubbed her eyes with the back of a gloved hand. She had not slept well, dreams of snow and demons plagued her. Her mother's ideas about a Healer distorting creatures bothered her deeply.
With the early spring sun at its highest overhead, Taryn and Damon approached the outlying borders of Habourn. Damon led the way, searching for familiar landmarks in the wooded area. Taryn inhaled deeply of the smell of pine and wood as she followed. The grasslands near home had so few trees.
"We tracked the beast in this area," said Damon as he slowed his horse and looked from side to side. The gradual slope of the land, dotted with pines and an occasional tidy whitewashed cottage, formed the base of the Black Mountains.
"There," he said at last, "We felled the beast by those trees."
Taryn followed him to a cluster of tall green pines, dismounting with a muffled drop onto a bed of old brown pine needles. Startled bluebirds flew off as she and Damon approached the trees. All else remained quiet save the buzzing of insects. Damon seemed confused as he looked around the area, searching for the burial mound.
"Here. These are the arrows we shot at it," he said, lifting two broken arrow shafts from the trampled earth.
Taryn searched with him. The hooves of many horses had torn up the soft earth near the site. The high sun sent patterns of speckled light through the overlapping tree branches as Damon continued to pace the area, searching left and right as he walked.
"It should have been here, my Lady," he said, standing by a shallow ditch near a tall pine. Taryn walked toward him as he poked about the earth beneath the pine. Loose soil mixed with pine needles, but no sign of a dead beast remained. A few spent arrows lined the edge of the ditch. She picked up one and examined the arrowhead closely, but found no evidence of blood on it. She tossed it back to the ground.
"I don't understand. We killed it. We even buried the thing," said Damon, frustration and confusion mingling in his voice.
"The Cerrol must be purified by the flame," said Taryn, quoting the passage from the night before. Damon stood up and kicked the dirt in frustration.
"How do we hunt things that can't be killed?" he asked.
"We learn what weapon will kill it, and then we hunt again," said Taryn.
Vasali sat motionless in her darkened room. She sat alone but for the small spider spinning its web from the base of her dusty table to the spare wooden chair pushed against the dark wall. Vasali preferred the dark. It suited her better than the harsh rays of sunlight that battered against her closed drapes, seeking ever to disrupt the enveloping shadow.
The spider finished its web and moved to sit motionless in its center, waiting patiently to trap its prey. Vasali smiled.
An urgent tapping at the door shattered her contemplation. A glossy black boot shot out to the middle of the newly made web, snaring the small spider underneath as the boot slammed purposefully on the cold stone floor. Vasali stood.
"Enter," she said, her voice raspy for having been silent for hours with no drink to wet her lips or throat. The door opened letting in the painfully bright light of the outside world. Vasali winced.
"Master, I have news," said a man, a silhouette in the painful light. He wore odd fitting clothes. Sunlight reflected slices of light off a series of sharp knives held by a belt around the man's waist. Vasali waited.
"Lord Alek returns," said the man as he moved further inside the nearly empty room. Vasali walked slowly passed the man, shutting the door, stopping the light.
"And the girl?" she asked.
"He brings the girl, Master," he said, fidgeting nervously in the dark. "He is a day's ride at most, coming over the pass on the East Road."
Vasali stood close to the man. He smelled of horse and dirt. He smelled of fear.
"You did not change back into Damek clothes," said Vasali. She felt the man tremble.
"I had no time, Master."
"So you claim. You did not shave your beard, either" said Vasali. She drew a knife out of the man's belt. "Let me help you with your beard."
The man stood, trembling. Vasali wished she had allowed more light into her dark sanctuary. She could not see the man's eyes. The eyes told so much. Vasali brought the blade up to the man's neck. She sliced deeply from right to left.
Vasali dropped the knife and turned as the body fell gracelessly to the floor.
The vessel had been found. Her master would be happy. She removed her satchel from a hook on the wall and opened the door to the bright light. She squinted as she headed toward the stables. Someday she would not have to squint. Someday the light would be gone. Vasali smiled.
Taryn left Damon with their horses and supplies as she went to start a fire from the wood and kindling she'd gathered in the dark forest. She stepped outside Damon's view and concentrated to create a small globe of yellow light, which she set to glide a pace in front of her, lighting her task. Taryn piled up a few logs and some branches for kindling. Then, when she thought Damon occupied with setting out food for a light meal, she sent a small flash of white-hot light into the dry branches, igniting the fire.
"That's a bit like cheating, don't you think?" asked Damon.
Taryn turned toward him with a guilty smile.
"You needn't hide your powers, my Lady," he said as he came to sit by the fire, bringing slices of salted meat and cheese, and a large flask of red wine to share.
Taryn took a bite of the meat, grimacing at the salty flavor and rough texture. She drank a bit of wine to wash it down before speaking again.
"I know it makes you uncomfortable, my differences," she said at last.
"Differences I must get accustomed to if we are going to destroy these demon beasts. It seems no natural methods of attack will kill these abominations."
Taryn sat in stunned silence for a moment.
"Meaning what I do is unnatural?" she asked.
Her paxman would not meet her eyes as he continued, "I am your sworn man, my Lady. It is not my place to question your abilities."
"You're evading the issue. Do you see me as some unnatural thing?"
"You are shinaran."
She put down the rest of her meat, the sourness in her stomach ruining her appetite.
"Damon, I am no different from you. Yes, I have skills which you don't, but I am no more capable of using those skills to harm another than you are to use you swordsman's skill to harm an innocent person."
"But only shinaran can enter the mind of another against his will," said Damon, his voice shaky.
Taryn realized this must be a main source of his fears against her caste.
"Yes, only shinaran can share thoughts. Or take thoughts from the mind of the unwilling, as you say. But we don't run around doing this like pickpockets, stealing the thoughts of the unwary. It takes concentration and usually the willingness of the other person to share their thoughts. Only an Interrogator can force their way into another's mind. It's not a skill most shinaran have."
Damon looked at her, disbelief obvious in his lined face. Taryn closed her eyes and concentrated.
"How is your head?" she asked, her eyes still shut.
"I'm getting a bit of a headache, my Lady. Lack of sleep I suppose," he said.
Taryn opened her eyes. "It's gone now, yes?"
He gave her a surprised look. "Yes, it is. How did you know?"
"That was no headache. I caused that, sending you a mental touch."
Damon shot up, dropping the food on his lap into the dirt. Taryn stood up as well, holding her hands up.
"Damon, settle. I couldn't read your thoughts. That was just a demonstration. If a shinaran tried to steal your thoughts against your will, the pain in your head would have increased tenfold. No one can take your thoughts without you knowing it, my friend."
"What about Interrogators?" he asked.
"They can force the mental link, yes. But only under strict legal policies. And you'd still know they were doing it."
Damon squatted down, tossing the remnants of his ruined meal into the fire pit to keep from attracting scavengers in the night.
"You read nothing, my Lady?"
"Nothing. The mind has natural barriers to entry. Either you have to willingly drop those barriers to share your thoughts with me, or I would have to break them down and you would certainly know it was happening. The pain would tell you. Besides, I don't have the skill."
Damon stared at the fire. "A bit less messy than physically beating a confession out of a man, I suppose," he said.
Taryn smiled. At least he got the gist of it. "Yes, that's one way to think of it." She stood up. "Can we rest now?"
"Yes," he said, "I'll take the first watch. There may be other beasts around."
Taryn walked to the bedrolls Damon had lain out for them and crawled under a blanket. "Wake me in a few hours, and I'll take next watch." She closed her eyes and sleep overtook her quickly.
Celina sat in her bedchambers, combing her long gray hair when she heard a rapid knocking at her door. She grabbed her green robe and wrapped it about her before opening the door. One of her ladies stood there, breathless.
"Yes Katarine? What brings you to my door at this late hour, twitching like a frightened rabbit?"
"My Lady, the guard captain sent me. There is, someone has been killed!"
Celina gave the woman a cool stare. "Well, who, child? And where?"
Katarine fidgeted a moment, "I do not know, my Lady. The captain said only to ask that you join him in the main hall."
Celina did not like this. The captain would not come to her with this unless there was some unusual link to the Keep.
"Come inside then, help me dress," said Celina.
Dressed and having dismissed the chattering Katarine, Celina walked alone down the stairs to the main hall. She saw the captain of the guard pacing by the fire, his lean form casting long shadows across the stone floor. He stopped as she approached and bowed low.
"Your pardon, Lady Celina," he said, his voice low and deep. "But you wanted any news of the cleric."
"Yes, Captain Marcom, please go on," she said.
"The cleric is gone, and she left a man in her room. His throat was cut," said the captain.
Celina sat, stunned. Death was not uncommon, but so merciless a slaying, and from the hands of a cleric?
"Do you know where Vasali is now?" she asked.
"She is no longer in Atheron."
"Send guards along each of the main roads. I want her back here, Captain," said Celina, her face reddening with anger.
The captain bowed and left the hall in a few quick strides. Celina remained seated by the fire. She could do little more tonight.
The quarter moon hung white and low in the western night sky as Taryn poked at the low burning fire. She sat wrapped in her gray woolen blanket and yawned. She had slept well for her few hours, and her watch remained uneventful and silent save for the crackling of the fire and the soft snoring of her paxman. She could just make out the outline of the high mountains to the east, a portent of the coming dawn. She stood and stretched, intent on making a hot breakfast for them both. She walked to the saddlebags and rummaged about quietly, searching the food supplies.
Taryn stopped her search and looked around the woods near her. Something felt odd, out of place. She scanned the area, feeling the early stirring of the woodland creatures around them. Then she sensed it, something approaching from the direction of the road. She drew back mentally, not wanting to alert whatever it was to her presence. She walked silently to Damon to rouse him.
He woke instantly and quietly, following Taryn's signals. He grabbed his sword. He wore only shirt and breeches in the cold pre-dawn air, but had slept with his boots on all night.
They crept to a point where they had sight of the road but would not be visible to anyone approaching. Birds chirped in the trees above them, singing in the waning darkness before dawn.
Taryn felt the approaching woman before she came in sight, something about her oddly familiar. They could hear the hoof beats of one rider coming up the dark road from the west. In an instant of recognition, before horse and rider became clearly visible, Taryn ducked completely behind a tree, signaling Damon to do the same. She willed her racing heart to slow as she mentally and physically hid her presence as the cleric Vasali approached.
She waited in silence as Vasali approached. She could hear the cleric's pace slow as she neared, her horse snorting impatiently. Taryn tried to extend her net of silence to include Damon, building a barrier between them and Vasali. She heard Vasali stop by the road opposite them. She held her breath. There was not a sound in the woods or on the road for a heartbeat or two. Then Taryn heard the cleric urge her horse on again. Within moments, horse and rider were out of earshot, heading east toward the rising sun.
Taryn and Damon relaxed and returned to their campsite. Fortunately, the camp had not been visible from the road, and the wind blew in their favor. It sent the scent of their campfire up the mountain so Vasali had not caught the smell of smoke.
"Did you see the rider, my Lady?" asked Damon, confused.
"It was Vasali," said Taryn.
"Riding through the night? Odd thing for a cleric to do."
"Yes," she agreed, poking at the remnants of their fire as she contemplated this. Why would Vasali leave Atheron and ride through the night? Either something happened to drive her away from Damek or she headed toward something of importance.
Damon filled a small pot with water and set it close to the fire to boil while he rummaged breakfast food. Taryn saw him return with some leftover meat and other ingredients to make a soup.
"We should follow Vasali, see if she continues to the Trescion Pass," said Taryn. She saw Damon's forlorn look at his soup ingredients. He went back to the supplies and returned with bread and cheese, and some dried tealeaves, which he put in the steaming water.
"You think she returns to Tramoran?" asked Damon, as he split the bread and cheese for them to share.
Taryn took some cheese and ate mechanically. "I'd like to be sure what direction she's gone, if she leaves Damek." The dryness of the cheese made Taryn too eager for the tea Damon prepared. She burnt her tongue on the hot liquid. To Damon's obvious displeasure, she added some cool water to her tea. She drank again, glad for the way it warmed her inside in the cold air of early dawn.
"We break camp, and track our cleric a ways," Taryn said as she rose. "The Trescion Pass is less than half a day's ride east of here. We'll know soon enough if she returns to Lord Fasal."
Continued in Chapter 3
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