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 walked through the dusty library with Sarai following a pace behind him. Voices drifted through from the adjacent reading room as Alek opened the door. Thedric, Master Healer from Vescant, sat by the low-burning fire with Celina. Cool winter sunlight filtered across the ornate rugs that surrounded the well-padded chairs in the reading room.
"How is she?" Alek asked.
Thedric turned to him, his black deep-set eyes held an intensity that contrasted his aged features. "The poison is gone and the wounds are healing."
"Sheís awake," added Celina. She invited Alek to sit beside her on the long maroon couch closest to the fire.
Alek sat while Sarai remained standing beside him, her fingers playing with the lace trim on her green skirt.
"That's good news," said Alek. "What of her legs? Will she walk again?"
"Yes," said Thedric. "Your sister will need time to re-work those muscles. A month-long fever has left her weak." He scratched the top of his balding head with a brown hand. "And who is this?" he asked, smiling at Sarai.
"This is the foreigner my son spoke about," said Celina. "She speaks in Berati, but I can link mind to mind with her."
Thedric peered at Sarai. "Shinaran then."
"I suppose, but untrained," said Celina. "I was hoping you could test her abilities. Alek seems to think she may be able to communicate with ethereals."
"Communication with spirits," Thedric mumbled. "Not my strongpoint, Celina. Have you tried the Clericís Order in Atheron."
"Thatís what I suggested," said Alek. "Vasali came through that Order."
Celina shook her head. "No. The Order in Atheron still canít account for why that cleric murdered a man."
Alek glared at his mother, but kept quiet. Maybe Thedric could unlock Saraiís potential.
"You test every child sent to Vescant," said Celina. "I trust you can determine this womanís abilities."
"Hmm. Sheís older than our candidates, but letís see what we discover, eh?"
Thedric held out his hand. "Come, child. Sit beside me here."
Alek saw Sarai hesitate. He took her small dark hand in his and guided her to a seat by Thedric. "This doesnít hurt, right?" he asked.
"No. So long as she cooperates, itís nothing more than a standard probe to test for potentials," Thedric explained. "Every shinaran child goes through this. Those with strong abilities are sent to appropriate schools that specialize in their skill."
Thedric smiled warmly at Sarai as he questioned Celina. "Has anyone besides you and Taryn linked with her before?"
Celina looked to Alek, then back to Thedric. "No. I didnít realize Taryn linked with her." †
"Your daughter rambled on about some kind of dual vision when this girl was around. Did that happen to you?"
"No. Her mind feels strange, but nothing like that."
Thedric shifted to the edge of his chair. "Alright. Iíll try a light probe first, and then see where we go from there." Thedric held out his hand, inviting Sarai to link with him.
After a moment, Sarai raised her own small hand and placed it in his. Alek marveled at how dark her skin was, even compared to Thedricís wrinkled brown hand. Minutes passed in silence. Thedric and Saraiís eyes drifted shut while the testing continued. Alek opened his mouth to speak but his mother hushed him. He gave up watching the silent pair after a time and stared at the fire. Times like this he regretted he didnít share the shinaran abilities of his mother and sister. For some reason it skipped him entirely. Not that being shinaran was a blessing, but at least he would understand what was going on now.
As silently as it began, the testing ended. Thedric let go of Sarai, and she leaned back in her chair, her composure quiet, thoughtful. Thedric scratched the top of his dark bald head.
"Well," said Alek, his patience waning.
Thedric looked to Celina. "Iím not sure what to say. If she is shinaran, sheís unlike anyone Iíve ever met."
"Is she a cleric?" Alek interrupted.
"No." Thedricís dark eyes studied him. "Cleric is a training, not a base potential. But she doesnít show any affinity for ethereals, if thatís what youíre asking."
"So what did you discover?" asked Celina.
"Her telepathic skills are extremely vivid. And she shows some basic potential with the elements, wind and fire. With training she could be a skilled weather-worker. Definitely empathic as well, possibly animal and human, and thatís quite rare."
Alek looked away. She had to be a cleric. If she couldnít communicate with the dead, why would Vasali have sent him for her?
"Her mind is very different," continued Thedric. "You said she came from Berat? We donít have much contact with the northern tribes. If they have shinaran, they donít send them to our schools for training."
"Then she could be a different kind of shinaran," said Celina.
"True. She should be sent to Vescant for training."
Alek stood. "No. Sarai stays here with me."
"Alek, she could be dangerous without training," said Celina. "Besides, you canít even talk to her, what good is she around here?"
"Sheíll learn the language soon enough. And Taryn can train her." Alek signaled for Sarai to join him as he made his way to the door. "I spent two years searching for this woman. She stays with me." †He led them out of the library, leaving Thedric and his mother behind.
Alek sat atop his black and white stallion, wearing a light tunic in the warm sun. It felt good to dress like a provincial Lord again, even if he wasnít re-invested with that honor just yet. He shaded his eyes against the morning sun.
Alek's foster-brother, Phelin, trotted up beside Alek on an all black gelding. "Ready," he said.
"Where to?" asked Alek. Glad as he was to have his foster-brother at his side again, this excursion was Phelinís idea.
"Down past the breeding pastures and around Atheron by the south?"
Alek urged his horse forward. "Sounds good."
They rode at a walk around the Keepís high stone walls. Guards and Atheron merchants hustled along the inner yard as they passed by. They rode under the gatehouse that controlled the massive iron gate opening to the south, and then Phelin led them down the gentle hill that separated the Keep from Atheron. Alek looked back at the Keep as they rode. The somber stonework building backed into a steep granite outcrop from the hills behind. This provided a natural barrier to the Keepís northern exposure, a defensive strategy from the days when Damek fought to create its current borders from the neighboring provinces.
He stood in his stirrups as they neared the breeding pastures. Only a few mares were accompanied by young foals. "Has it been a bad breeding season?" he asked, waving Phelin forward from behind him.
Phelin urged his horse to a trot to ride beside Alek. "No, itís been a good year." His expression clouded for a moment. "Weíve been weaning the foals at 4 months now. Theyíre down by the west end of the Keep."
Alek frowned. "Seems young. Tarynís idea?"
"No, mine. Your sister kept out of the herd. One of the few things she recognized as beyond her abilities."
Alek heard the sarcasm in Phelinís voice.
"If we accelerate their training," Phelin continued, "we can break them in and sell them in their second year."
"Yes, but it weakens them, doesnít it? Sounds like youíre compromising the quality of the horse for quicker money."
Phelin glared at Alek, his blue eyes cold, but he said nothing. He dropped back behind Alek again as they rode around the southern pastures and began their loop around Atheron. The city had not changed in the two years since Alek left. Row upon row of narrow streets remained clogged with carts and horses. Alek could just make out the stalls lining the market district with children darting between merchants and buyers. Further to the east, they passed the busy streets of the Guild Halls. The smell of wood shavings mingled with the scent of burning coal from the blacksmith forges.
Alek turned back to Phelin. "How are the tax levies?"
"Less than they should be. Taryn lowered them at the request of the Guild Hall. She felt our private herds could compensate for the lower income."
Alek reined in his horse until he rode beside Phelin. "Look, when I left, I didnít think theyíd bring in Taryn."
Phelin eyed him coldly. "What did you think, then? Or did you think at all?"
Alek smirked. "I deserved that, I suppose." He put a hand on Phelinís arm. "But what I did, it was important, something that I had to do."
"And what of Damekís needs?"
Alek pulled away, staring ahead. "Damek has done well enough in my absence."
They were quiet again for a time as the trail looped north of the town. A cool wind with a hint of autumn to come, brought the savory smell of grilled meat from an inn theyíd passed. Alekís stomach reminded him of the approaching noon hour.
"Is this a pleasure ride, or did you have a motive for our jaunt this morning?" he asked, weighing his hunger against Phelinís unusual request for a ride. Phelin remained silent for a time. Alek felt the uncomfortable distance that had grown between them since his return. Some cloud hung over his foster-brother.
"A lot has happened since you left," said Phelin.
"I suppose. But Iíve been working with the landowners and tradefolk again, so things will get back to normal."
He felt Phelinís intense gaze as his foster-brother continued. "Why havenít you convened the council yet?"
"Tarynís only just awoken. She has to call the council to return Damek to me."
"It should never have been hers to begin with," Phelin growled. He leaned over to Alek. "Take it back. Call in the councilors now and take Damek back."
Alek felt a wave of disgust at Phelinís suggestion. "Why bother," he said at last. "Sheís recovering now and within the week will convey the council on her own."
Phelin yanked his horse away from Alek. It snorted in protest. "You lack ambition, foster-brother."
"And you lack respect, cousin," Alek replied, reminding Phelin of his relative position in the family.
Phelinís back stiffened as his face shifted away from Alek. "Apologies, my Lord." He slowed his mount to follow behind Alek again. Alekís mind wrestled with his foster-brotherís words. He'd missed something important based on Phelinís reactions, but he didnít know what.
Taryn fought against her growing consciousness, fearing a return of the pain that burned through her body whenever her mind rose from her fevered sleep. Light filtered past her closed eyelids, and she tensed, waiting for her head to pound in beat with her pulse.
Nothing happened. Slowly the fog in her mind lifted and she remembered. Sheíd been fully awake before. Thedric had been by her side then, her old mentor and Master Healer at Vescant Hall. His dark face had seemed drained when she saw him. She rolled on her side, still not believing the pain which had racked her body was finally gone. What had Thedric said? Sheíd been sick for over a month? As she shifted further in her bed she felt a dull throbbing in her leg. Her eyes still firmly closed, she reached down and traced her fingers along the tender scars on her thigh.
Taryn remembered part of her talk with Thedric the day before. At least she thought it had only been a day. She had no real sense of time just yet. He told her sheíd walk again. She focused on this as the throbbing in her leg subsided. She remembered the wolf attack, but not much else. Alek had been there and his companion, Sarai? She remembered that dual vision when Sarai calmed her horse after the attack.
She opened her eyes. She craved water. Looking around her bedroom she saw someone had drawn the drapes, letting in a meager light from the cloudy day. The creak of a door caught her attention. She turned to see Adele's grand-neice, Katarine, from the house staff come in. She was a short, round girl with barely managed red hair and a spattering of freckles across her rosy cheeks. Her full figure would certainly turn plump with childbirth when she married. Taryn tried to ask for water, but all that came out was a deep croak from her dry throat. Katarineís wide-eyed stare melted into a warm smile as she padded over to the bedside.
"Youíre awake?" she asked in her thick country accent.
Taryn nodded, licking her parched lips.
"Itís a cool drink you want," said Katarine as she leaned over to the bedside table and poured water into a plain pewter mug. She sat on the edge of Tarynís bed and lifted her with one able arm as she held the mug to Tarynís lips with the other.
Taryn gulped the water too quickly. She coughed, spraying the bed sheet with droplets.
"Slowly now," Katarine coaxed.
Taryn let the water trickle down her throat, easing the dryness. The cool wetness restored her ability to speak. "Thank you," she said as Katarine lowered her back to the pillow.
Katarine pulled the covers up around Tarynís chin. "You gave us quite the scare," she clucked.
Taryn had to smile. The girl must be six years her junior yet she fussed like any mother hen.
"Well," said Katarine, taking a step back. "If youíre up for a visit, Iím certain youíre mother will want to see you."
Taryn nodded her assent. "And can you bring back some food?"
Katarine grinned, her crooked front teeth marring an otherwise pretty face. "An appetite! As sure a sign as any that youíre on the mend." She gave a half curtsy, and then bustled out of the room. Taryn must have drifted off as it seemed an instant later that her mother was in the room. A delicious meaty scent filled the air. Taryn turned to see a steaming bowl already on her bedside table, along with a chunk of bread.
"Is it stew?" she asked as she squirmed to see the bowlís contents.
"No, only beef broth." Celina pulled up a chair beside the bed. She helped Taryn get into a semi-raised position using multiple pillows, then moved a flat wooden tray onto Tarynís lap with the bread and soup bowl. Taryn lifted a spoonful of soup to her lips, trying to ignore how her hand trembled with the effort. Sheíd never truly been sick or injured before. If this was any indication of the recovery process, she knew she wasnít going to like it much. As she dipped bread into the broth and ate, her mother informed her of the events in the Keep and Atheron of late.
"So," mumbled Taryn over a bite of bread, "Alek hasnít called the council yet?"
Celina frowned. "Well he couldnít, not legally anyway. You are the councilís selected ruler in Damek so only you can convene the council."
Taryn leaned back on her pillows, her stomach full from the light broth and bread. She wanted to sleep, but knew she couldnít.
"So, is there any reason I shouldnít call the council now?" She watched her mother carefully.
"You mean is there anything wrong with your brother? No. He refuses to explain why he left, but beyond that heís been fine. Quite patient really, considering your illness and his lack of status in Damek right now."
Tarynís eyes drifted shut a moment. For over a year, she had hoped and prayed for this day, when she could discard her duty to Damek and return to her studies. Now that it was upon her, she felt both relieved and saddened. She would miss being in the Keep. Not the politics and bureaucracy inherent in running a province, but the ability to accomplish something in spite of all that, to make a difference. Would she be happy going back to a scholarly life?
Taryn opened her eyes. It was not the time for such thoughts. "Call in the councilors, Mother. Let them witness my promise to Alek. Damek is his by right."
Celina nodded. "Good. Thedric wants to see you before he goes back to Vescant. I asked him to wait while we settled this matter first. Iíll go get him."
Celina rose and swept out of the room, her midnight blue gown creating a slight breeze in the otherwise still room. Taryn waited for Thedric, fighting the urge, the need to just sleep again. The door opened once more, and Celina led Thedric into the room. His forest green robes, symbolic of his status as Master Healer, hung from his stooped shoulders as he approached. He looked in better health today than he had when Taryn first awoke. She wondered how much effort he expended in healing her from the demon-wolfís poison.
Thedric stood at the foot of her bed, propriety requiring that he get no closer. He clapped his gnarled hands together. "Well, well. Finally on the mend. You really were a difficult one, you know."
Taryn grinned. "That bad?"
"Oh worse, worse," teased Thedric. "But done is done and the poisonís gone. Youíll have to keep off that leg for a while."
"How long?" she asked.
"Best to take it slowly, give yourself until the winter before you come back to Vescant."
Taryn grimaced. Months of idle time?
Thedric chuckled at her obvious discomfort. "Not to worry, child. Your brother has a most interesting task to keep you busy in the meanwhile, hasnít he, Celina?"
Tarynís frown mimicked her motherís. "What task is that?"
"Alek wants you to train that girl he brought back, Sarai," said Celina, her tone conveying her disapproval.
"Me?" asked Taryn, her eyes widening. "But I can barely be in her presence without getting a throbbing headache or worse." Taryn remembered the dual vision. She did not want to experience that again.
Thedricís eyes studied her. "I tested the girl the other day. Neither your mother nor I experienced any problems with Sarai."
"Iím not making it up," said Taryn.
"I believe you," said Thedric. "Iím just not sure what to make of it."
"Then why not take her with you? Vescant is better equipped to handle her than I am."
Thedric shrugged. "Alek has different ideas. Perhaps heíll change his mind in time, but for now he insists that she stay in the Keep."
Anger drove away Tarynís thoughts of sleep. "Thatís ridiculous. What right does he have to keep her here if she wants to go to Vescant."
Celina interrupted, "You assume she wants to leave. I donít think she does. Why would she? Your brother keeps her in fine gowns and sets her up in the guest quarters down the hall. For a former slave, this must seem like paradise."
"Anyway," said Thedric. "The girl will do well enough under your tutelage for now, Taryn. As I said, I tested her already."
"What potentials did you find?" she asked, her scholarís interest taking over.
"She's a very vivid telepath. I canít tell if she can force a link through trained barriers like an Interrogator does, but I wouldnít be surprised." Thedricís eyes narrowed. "If you discover she can, then she must be sent to Vescant, with or without Alekís approval. Someone with that ability has to be trained for both the base potential and the moral responsibilities that come with it."
Taryn nodded. Her mind flashed with a remnant of her Vision, a small dark woman surrounded by death, so frightening and so like Sarai. She pushed the thought away. "Anything else?"
"Empath, possibly animal and human. Some elemental abilities with wind and fire. Hard to determine much beyond that. Sheís unique, Iíll say that much."
"Unique," Taryn repeated with a scowl.
"Enough of that, I want to talk to you about the wolves that attacked you." Thedricís eyes studied her as he waited for her answer.
"Nothing unusual about them that I noticed, but then I was fleeing for my life. There might have been four or more, gray mountain wolves. Alek killed a few I think, you should ask him."
"I already have. What I donít understand is the reaction you had to the claw marks. The poison in your body nearly won out, you know."
Taryn paled. She hadnít really thought about how sick she had been. "Weíve had other problems with poisonous creatures."
Taryn looked to her mother again, then back to Thedric. "Weíve tracked a few. One escaped into the Velek Forest but not before revealing a thick black blood that burned like acid."
Thedric scratched his head. "Anything else?"
"Our guards killed another. A beast in the shape of a man, but when I went to retrieve the body, it was gone."
"I donít think so. The characteristics matched that of a Cerrol demon." Taryn watched Thedricís expression for signs of disbelief. He stroked the stubble on his chin for a moment.
"How sure are you of this?" he asked.
"I know the first creature had some shinaran abilities. It used a mental attack on me. As for the Cerrol demon, I didnít see it myself, except the empty grave." Taryn expected Thedric to dismiss her ideas as far fetched.
"Yours havenít been the first sightings," he said at last.
Taryn heard her motherís muffled gasp. "What do you think it is?"
"I donít know, child. Weíve contacted the other Halls, but only two have replied." Thedric smiled. "One thinks weíve gone quite mad."
"And the other?" asked Celina, breaking her long silence.
Thedric turned to her. "The other reply came from the Seerís Order in Westeron. They say a darkness comes. Something evil."
Celina snorted. "Thatís it? Nothing specific? No guidance?"
"I know your thoughts on Seers, Celina. But it is an unpredictable skill at best."
Taryn shivered, remembering her own contact with a Revenant. Celina caught her movement and misinterpreted it.
"We should go," said Celina as she pushed back her chair. "Taryn needs rest."
"Of course," said Thedric. "Keep well, child. We hope to see you back at Vescant by spring."
"Yes, thank you." Tarynís mind whirled from the news Thedric had given her. She spoke as Thedric and Celina stood at her doorway. "Will you keep us informed? If you learn anything else about these demons?"
Thedric nodded. "And you as well?"
"Yes. Safe journey."
The room grew quiet enough for Taryn to hear her own exhausted breathing. She slid down the pillows, aware again of her own weakness. Sleep settled her confused thoughts.
Continued in Chapter 5
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