by Sandra Barret
Nighttime settled around her while Taryn prepared for bed. Her thoughts remained a tangled mess, but she resolved to consult a Seer in Atheron. If Maret was in residence, Taryn felt she could confide her Visions with her old friend and Seer. Taryn drifted off to sleep after a time, her mind flittering in and out of mystifying dreams.
She was a child. She heard the crack of a whip just an instant before pain laced across her small bare back. She cried out. The whip cracked again.
"Please, I won't do it again. I'll be good!"
Taryn felt the pain and fear within her dream self build up with untold power. It manifested itself as a brilliant flash of energy, shaking the walls of the hut around her and knocking her assailant down onto the dirt floor. She wrapped her small dark arms around her knees and rocked in silence. The stripes along her back felt warm and wet. She waited for the next strike. Voices around her muttered angrily, calling her names. The other slaves hated her. She was different, unclean – Nihe'n. Tears streamed down her face.
Taryn woke in the dark, her skin damp in the unusually cold room. The dream lingered in her mind, Sarai's dream. It had to be. Sarai as a small slave girl, beaten for an uncontrolled release of power. It was not her fault. Sarai was never trained to harness the powers within her.
Taryn's wild thoughts froze. She felt the distinct presence of another mind in the darkened room. Willing her breathing to a steady slow pace, she feigned sleep. She brushed against the mind with a feather touch and recoiled. It was a man, or more accurately, an assassin by the unbarriered thoughts radiating from his mind.
Taryn thought quickly. She remembered the attack on Sarai on the mountain pass and knew what she had done then to defend her shared self with Sarai. No, she thought. She would not destroy another's mind again. She concentrated a mental image of her room, searching for any kind of weapon. The assassin inched closer. Taryn prayed the man was not shinaran as she sent out a mental plea for help. She felt him very near.
Taryn summoned energy from within her and threw it out as a brilliant flash of light. The assassin staggered, blinded, as Taryn rolled off her bed in the opposite direction. She lunged for the iron poker by the low-burning fireplace and turned to face her opponent.
Fear kept her from using her shinaran skills, but a certain measure of luck was on her side. Taryn had the advantage of a long poker and intimate knowledge of her own room. She managed to elude his first attack by rolling behind the desk he could not see. She heard him curse as he stumbled over her discarded riding boots, but he managed to keep her cornered in the back of her room, away from the door and her open window. Icy wind blew across her. She could not escape him.
A loud bang came from behind the assassin and the door to her room burst open. A flood of light filled the room from around the dark shape of a tall thin figure. Taryn had barely registered Phelin's presence when he stabbed the chest of the stunned assassin. The man sunk to the floor, his hand still clutching an ornate dagger.
"Are you alright?" asked Phelin, his voice deep and raspy as he pulled his sword from the dead man's chest..
"Yes," she replied.
Two guardsmen followed Phelin into her bedroom, weapons drawn.
"Get rid of that," grumbled Phelin, aiming a kick at the still form on the floor.
Taryn stared down at her would-be killer. He was a wiry man, dressed plainly, considering the fancy blade he carried. His empty, glazed eyes stared out from a lean face marked with scars.
Phelin marched over to her window and pulled it closed. "This should have been barred shut."
"How did you know he was in here?" she asked.
Phelin turned toward her, the light from the open door highlighting his features. She was shocked by how tired he looked. "Someone tried to attack Sarai moments ago."
Taryn felt the blood drain from her face. "What happened? Is she hurt?"
Phelin snorted. "What is it with the two of you and that slave girl? Your brother went on a rage when he found out as well."
"It's upsetting that two of us would be attacked within the Keep," she muttered, unsure herself why she felt so protective of Sarai.
"Sarai was unharmed, which is more than I can say for the servant who went in search of her. Katarine is dead."
Taryn sank down on her bed, wrapping her arms about herself. Katarine was dead? "Where was Sarai then?"
"With your brother. You need to talk to him. It's not right for the Lord of Damek to be openly smitten with some desert slave."
"She's not a slave anymore."
Phelin only sniffed as if something foul had entered the room. "Anyway, your mother will want to know you're safe." He turned on his heel and left her in the half-lit room.
She looked at the dark stain left on her carpet where the assassin met his end and shivered. Who would want to kill her or Sarai? She needed go to her mother as well.
Taryn entered her mother's quarters in time to hear her shouting at Phelin about inept house security. Phelin stood before Celina, his tall lanky figure offset by stooped shoulders and downcast eyes. Taryn wanted to sneak back away but her mother had already caught sight of her
"Come in. Taryn, you look so pale. Phelin, how could you let things get so out of hand?" Celina took Taryn by the hand and led her to a rose cushioned chair. She dismissed Phelin with a wave, "All your huffing about security, and where are the guards when we need them? And see to it that Alek sets up another room for Sarai this evening besides his own quarters."
Taryn gazed around the room that her mother kept impeccably neat. The few books were tucked away in a bookcase along the far wall, and all her needlework wrapped in yellow canvas bags kept on a low oak table before the fireplace. Even the candleholders along the wall were kept trim and clean of any wax drippings. She envied her mother's sense of order. When Phelin left, Celina questioned Taryn about the attack.
"He might have come through the window, "said Taryn. "He could have crawled along the outside ledge over from Sarai's room."
Celina fumed. "That woman needs to leave this house."
Taryn cringed from the anger flooding across their tentative mental link.
"Why are you so angry with Sarai? She could have been killed tonight."
"Yes and instead Adele's grand-niece is dead. And I sent the girl there!" cried Celina.
Taryn rested a hand on her mother's arm. "You couldn't have known. I mean assassins inside the Keep? I am sorry, Mother. Katarine was a bright girl."
"Yes," sniffed Celina, "and now I must tell Adele, oh this is dreadful. All because of that girl."
"Not just Sarai," Taryn reminded her, "The assassin came after me as well."
Celina dabbed a white kerchief at her eyes. "Why the two of you? I don't understand." Celina's eyes darkened. "Unless it was staged. Maybe Sarai set this all up to mask her hand in this attempt on your life."
Taryn jerked her hand back. "That's nonsense. Why would she want to hurt me?"
"Why indeed," repeated Celina, "Why is she here at all? Why did Vasali send your brother to find her? She could be a spy for Fasal. She came from Tramoran, for all her Berati desert manners."
Taryn considered this. Her mother's ideas had certain logic, but in her heart, she could not believe the timid, shy Sarai could plot such a horrible crime. "I don't know, Mother. She would have nothing to gain from killing me."
"Don't be so quick to dismiss her. With you dead and her pregnant or married to Alek, she'd be that much closer to controlling Damek or handing it over to Fasal."
"I think you're distraught, Mother. Sarai isn't responsible for all this."
"You and your brother, I just don't know what kind of hold she has over you both."
Taryn felt her face flush. She imagined herself going crimson. "I don't know what you mean," she stammered.
Celina waved at her, "Oh, of course not. Then why do you show more concern over this stray urchin than poor Katarine, murdered this very hour. You are just as bad as Alek. He refuses to leave Sarai's side, you know. They were in the library all night. He was reading stories to her, or so he claims. I do not believe it."
Taryn did not want to consider what Alek and Sarai might have been up to besides reading. A knot tightened in the pit of her stomach when she considered their closeness.
"She's manipulating him, just like Vasali did." Celina turned to Taryn, her eyes glaring. "And you're just as bad. Why am I the only clear-headed one around here?"
Taryn had few friends growing up. No one else in the Keep had her shinaran abilities and that kept her the outsider. She felt a growing bond with Sarai, knowing how the former slave-girl had been kept alone and distrusted so many years. It was foolish, but she felt jealous that Alek could somehow share a closer link with Sarai than Taryn.
Celina interrupted her reverie. "Sarai must go to Vescant and soon. Thedric can handle her. Or ship her back to those nomad tribes she came from."
"You can't be serious." Taryn tried to control the shakiness in her voice. "Her own family sold her into slavery."
"Yes, and it makes you wonder why."
"Because she was different, that's why." Taryn's voice rose in anger. "Because she was a shinaran child with no one around her who understood."
"Taryn, really. And she is not shinaran, I'm sure of it."
"Then what is she?"
"I don't know. Maybe you should have asked Vasali when you had the chance."
Taryn closed her eyes. It had been a very long day and night, and dueling words with her mother was far too draining. She heard her mother's masked sniffle beside her.
"I don't know why Sarai is here," said Taryn after a long pause. "It's possible Vasali set her upon us to cause trouble. But Vasali herself tried to kill Sarai, remember?"
Celina acquiesced. "I suppose Sarai's not evil. Nevertheless, I do not like having her around here. Trouble follows her like a foal to its dam."
Taryn sighed. "I have to agree. Maybe she would be better off at Vescant. They can delve more safely into her abilities there." And Taryn could travel to Vescant with Sarai.
Celina sighed. "This night as been just too much. It's time for bed. You'll stay here for the night, of course." Celina did not wait for an answer, but stretched and walked through the inner door off to the right. Taryn walked around the outer room, snuffing out the candles as she went. She left the darkened room behind as she joined her mother.
Sunlight filtered through the draped windows as Taryn sat in the outer rooms of the Seers Hall in Atheron. It had taken her a week before the uproar over the attacks had settled enough for her to ride into town. Even then, Alek insisted she take two guards with her. They stood silent sentry beside her in the otherwise empty room. Tapestries hung from the walls around her, each depicting a lone figure in golden robs, kneeling on cushions and surrounded by misty scenes. Taryn recognized one painting showing a Revenant, its eyes burning with fire. She shivered, even in the over-heated room. One of the guards turned to her, but he remained silent.
A door opened at the far end of the room, and a young apprentice came out, dressed in light gold robes. He stopped in front of her, held back by the presence of her guards. "Maret is ready to see you now," said the boy, his young voice cracking as he spoke.
Taryn stood up and signaled for the guards to remain. "I will be alone in Maret's quarters, and under no risk." She followed the apprentice through the door and into a room darkened by thick drapes covering the two opposing windows. Scented candles burned in holders along the wall.
"You may go now, Herrod," said a resonant voice from somewhere on the floor. As Taryn's eyes adjusted, she could make out a figure seated cross-legged on a pile of cushions in the center of the room.
Taryn waited until the door closed behind her, and then spoke. "I don't recall you having such a flare for the dramatic at Vescant, Maret."
Maret chuckled. "Apprentices. They have to be suitably impressed by our mystical ways, you know. It's all standard protocol." Maret stood up and pulled the nearest drape open, letting in the weak afternoon light.
Maret looked much the same as she had in their school days. She kept her wavy brown hair cut short, just below her ears, and her deep golden robes revealed nothing of the thin muscular body Taryn knew lay beneath them.
"Is this a casual meeting between old friends, or do you have something else in mind?" asked Maret.
Taryn felt Maret watching her closely as she answered. "I am seeking your professional advice, Maret."
"That's too bad," said the Seer, her face revealing only a brief indication of her disappointment.
"I'm sorry I haven't come to see you sooner," said Taryn.
Maret held up her hand, "No need for explanation. We went our separate ways when I left Vescant to come here." She settled back on her cushions, indicating Taryn should join her.
"What can I help you with?" Maret asked.
"I had a Vision."
"Really?" Maret leaned toward Taryn, her eyes shining with interest. "You didn't show any clerical leanings while I was at Vescant."
"And I still don't. I'm not sure how I got this Vision, except maybe that a cleric was visiting in the halls above me." Taryn explained the appearance of the Revenant and the barrage of dark images it had shared with her.
Maret whistled softly and leaned back when Taryn finished.
"Well, what do you think?" asked Taryn, anxious to here someone else's opinion now that she'd broken her long silence.
"Revenants are quite rare. But why didn't you seek out a cleric for this? Seers have very little interaction with Ethereals?"
Taryn grimaced. "Let's just say we've had some serious problems with clerics at the Keep. Besides, my brother spent considerable time tracking down the dark girl in my Vision. He consulted a number of Seers to find her. And the nature of the Vision seemed, well, prophetic."
"And thus ask a Seer to interpret, makes sense." Maret stared at the flickering candles a moment before continuing. "It seems obvious that some battle comes to Atheron, but there is no way of knowing how soon. It could be tomorrow or thirty years from now."
"But I saw Sarai, and she didn't look older. Even my mother didn't seem much older."
"True, but Visions just don't follow a neat pattern. You may have seen clips from tomorrow intermingled with what may happen years from now." Maret turned to her. "I can attempt a Search for you, if you think it will help."
"Yes. It's draining on both of us, but basically I focus a time search through you, seeing what events may occur in your personal future." Maret blushed. "The results can be vague or intimately detailed. There's no controlling what we See."
Taryn caught her meaning. Her own face felt hot in response. "I understand. How do we proceed?" She remained seated while Maret gathered incense and candles and placed them in a circle around the cushions. The combined smoke filtered around Taryn as she breathed in the woody scent. Maret sat beside her, taking Taryn's hands in her own. Taryn's mind felt as foggy as the air around her.
"I will link with you, and then together we will initiate the Search."
Taryn nodded. Her mouth felt dry, but she needed to do this. If she was destined to become as evil as Sesanth, this Search would hopefully show that path. She didn't voice her own fears about Sesanth to Maret, but they were as much a part of this visit as any need to understand Sarai's presence in Atheron. As their link deepened, Taryn felt a sudden tug, as if something pulled at her from her stomach. She felt as if she were being dragged through a gray tunnel. While only lasting an instant, Taryn felt as though she'd traveled a great distance.
Her eyes focused on an image before her. She stood on an aged wooden dock, looking out on a white crested sea. A woefully small ship lay at anchor in the harbor beyond the dock, rocking with the swell of waves. Taryn held a small girl-child in her arms as she watched her foster-brother lower himself into a dinghy tied to the dock. His blonde hair lay about his face in matted tangles, and his eyes were masked with dark circles. Their eyes met for an instant, and Taryn felt a pang of regret.
Phelin's eyes shifted to the child in her arms. Taryn looked down on the girl as well. She couldn't be more than two or three and her blue eyes wandered around the quiet harbor. The girl's reddish-gold hair curled around her small face, contrasting her light brown complexion.
Someone stood beside her, but as Taryn turned to see, she felt the pull from her middle again. She tried to resist as the image faded into gray once more.
Taryn felt Maret's hands slip out of hers as she opened her eyes. A sheen of sweat covered Maret's forehead. Taryn felt tired and sweaty.
"Did you recognize anything?" asked Maret, wiping her face on a sleeve.
"Yes and no. The man is my cousin, but I don't recognize the harbor we were in, nor the child I was holding."
"Any similarities to the Revenant's Vision?"
Taryn sighed. "No." And no hints about her possibly dark future, she wanted to add, but kept her thoughts to herself.
"Sorry," said Maret. "I can't control what a Search will reveal."
"I understand. Thank you for trying," said Taryn as she stood. Her legs felt weak beneath her as she walked to the door.
"Maybe next time, you'll come by for a more social visit?" asked Maret, smiling.
The memories of their time together as lovers tugged at Taryn's heard as returned the grin, "Yes, I'll try." She let the door close behind her. Her two silent sentries took up position beside her as she walked out of the Seers Hall, alone once again with her fears.
Damon stood next to his brown and white stallion, staring out at the gray ocean. He ignored the rain pelting down on his uncovered head. Sebran of Westeron backed his mount away from the cliff edge and waited beside Damon.
"How many do you count?" asked Damon.
"Four so far have come around the cape. There could be more."
Damon looked away. "Four is enough." He swung up onto his horse and circled around Sebran. Only the brown mustache, dripping occasionally onto his rain-drenched leather tunic offset Sebran's ashen features.
"Send your fastest rider to Atheron," Damon ordered.
"Wait. There's another coming around the cape."
Damon peered across the white-capped ocean. A fifth galleon drifted into view. He studied the distant vessel. Black and orange waved from the forward mast.
"Inform Phelin that Fasal himself leads the invasion fleet," said Damon, his voice flat, emotionless. He urged his horse down a muddy slope and headed back to his command post. A small standing army awaited his orders. They would all be busy very soon.
Taryn sat in the library, rubbing idly at her scarred thigh. The leg had ceased to ache except on long walks, but she'd gotten into the habit of massaging the muscles regularly. Stacks of old books surrounded her. The weak morning sun cast dusty streaks of light across the table before her as she studied another entry on the exploits of Sesanth, lord of Damek. His reign had been short, some seven years, but the depravations he inflicted in that time astounded her. In one particularly brutal seven-day, he set three towns to the torch for failure to meet his levy on time.
Those were not the entries that interested Taryn the most. It was the details of his shinaran experiments that caused her to shudder. Sesanth had a penchant for torture in any form. Her mother had been right; a skilled healer could warp living flesh to grotesque abnormalities, and by all accounts, Sesanth had been a healer of extraordinary measure. One gruesome account included a faded sketch of a prisoner who'd had his hand smashed by a hammer and then wrenched into a misshapen claw.
Taryn jumped at the sound of the library door opening. She slammed the book shut and slid it under a pile of others, her heart thudding out a guilty beat within her chest. She peered over her stack of books to see her mother approach.
"Find anything of interest, dear?"
"No," Taryn lied. "There aren't any credible accounts of demon sightings going back past the unification of Damek."
Celina dragged another chair to the table and sat down. "I'm not surprised. Anyone reporting such a thing would be thought mad. I'd not have believed it myself if I hadn't seen it."
Taryn pushed back from the table and rubbed her eyes. She hadn't really been looking too hard for demon reports.
Celina picked up the top book in a pile, "Can I help you look?"
"If you like. I've been through these already," said Taryn as she heaved up a pile of books, including the accounts of Sesanth. Taryn filed the books back onto their shelves. Her task was interrupted by a rapid knock on the library door. She turned to see a young house servant rush into the library, nearly tumbling the remaining stack of books when the girl skidded to a stop before Celina.
"You must come to the council chamber at once," she exclaimed, her cheeks pale despite her rushed approach.
Celina grazed her with a cold glance. "Is that any way to present your self, Heda?"
Heda hiccupped and gave a nervous curtsey. "Your pardon, Lady, but Master Phelin is in a state. He's sent runners for all the councilors. Will you come?"
Celina placed her book back on the table with the grace available only to those accustomed to years of social superiority. Taryn muffled her laugh in a sharp cough. After Heda made a hasty retreat, Taryn asked her mother if she delighted in frightening the younger staff.
"Well they have to learn from someone, don't they? And you certainly aren't up to the task."
Suitably berated, Taryn offered her hand to help Celina up, "Shall we go then, Mother? Perhaps Heda was right and the wolves are at the door."
Celina huffed in response as they left the library and headed down the shadowed hallway to the council chambers. The poor light filtering through the window at the end of the hallway suggested storm clouds had moved in to cover the faint winter sunlight. Taryn surveyed the council chambers as she entered. Phelin, Adele, and Gabrielle were there, as well as a short young man in riding clothes, his boots dropping bits of mud and grass on the black stone tiles. Adele and Gabrielle held the corners of a large yellow parchment that Phelin leaned over, studying carefully. Torches flickered along the walls to enhance the dim light from the high windows.
Taryn took a seat next to Gabrielle, peering over the other woman's arm to see the detailed map of Damek drawn on the parchment.
Phelin glanced up, taking in her and Celina in one sweep. "Have you seen Alek?"
She felt a moment's panic that Alek had deserted them again before Celina replied.
"He's gone down to the Guild Hall in Atheron. Hort has some news on hideous creatures gathering in the Velek Forest."
Phelin snorted. "Waste of time. My runners should bring them both here shortly then."
"What is this all about?" asked Taryn.
Phelin returned to his map, jabbing a finger in the direction of the young man who stood in the corner. "That's Sebran's messenger. Ships were spotted off the southern cape two days ago."
Taryn paled. The attack from Tramoran they had feared for so many years. She clenched her fists to rid herself of the Revenant's visions of battle and bloodshed that swirled in her mind. "How many ships?"
Phelin continued to scribble notes on a black slate-board as he studied the map.
Adele answered for him. "Five galleons in total were seen, including presumably Fasal himself in the flagship."
Celina exploded in rage. "That beast of a man. Curse his jealousy of Brion. And curse your grandfather for creating this insanity!"
Taryn stared at her mother as if she had become unstable herself. She could not understand what her father or grandfather had to do with Fasal's invasion, but perhaps there had been some earlier political battle in her grandfather's day. She was distracted from questioning her mother when Phelin began muttering aloud.
"Five armed galleons, can't have more than two battle squads each, so ten fighting squads. Likely no mounted troops aboard. He'd send them overland."
Taryn leaned back in her chair in shock. She saw the color drain from her mother's round cheeks as well. Such vast numbers, all bent on the destruction of Damek.
"Do we have enough guards to fight that large a force?" she asked.
"I sent the bulk of our forces south with Damon. Thankfully Sebran sent word early of rumors about these ships preparing in Tramoran Bay. The sea approach is very narrow and should be easy enough to defend. I'm more worried about Fasal's mounted forces. He has a lightning strike cavalry, but where will he position them? That's the real question."
All signs of Phelin's earlier resentment seemed gone now that he was fully engaged in Damek's defense. Taryn marveled at the sharpness with which he approached the battle strategies.
Phelin slammed his fist hard on the table, rattling the items on it as well as everyone else in the room. He pushed himself away from his calculations and the map. "We need more forces. I should have called up conscripts weeks ago."
Celina stood by Phelin, a hand on his stooped shoulder. "You have prepared us well. If you need more men, we will call them up from the towns and villages." Celina turned Phelin toward her, her brown eyes fixed on his.
"This is what you were trained for, foster-son. The defense of Damek. Had Brion lived, it would have been different. You would be leading the liberation force for Tramoran against Fasal the Beast."
Phelin's mouth hung open as Celina continued. "It is what Brion wanted for you, that you would free Damek from the threat of Fasal at our borders and rule in Tramoran as ally to Damek."
Silence descended on the chamber room as Phelin remained slack-jawed. Taryn understood now why Phelin had been kept out of the ruling seat. It would have worked well. Perhaps it still could if Phelin beat back Fasal's forces. Taryn could not fathom the emotions shifting across Phelin's gaunt face. The revelation stunned him certainly, but he seemed disturbed rather than honored by Brion's plans. His fists clenched and unclenched but his eyes remained unfocused. Taryn's own quiet shock was disrupted when the thick oak door swung wide, letting in Alek and Hort and the scent of fresh mud and wet leather into the council chambers. Alek shook off his riding cloak, to which clung a handful of snowflakes fading into water droplets.
"Half of Atheron is in a panic," boomed Alek as he led Hort toward the cluttered table.
Phelin's face clouded over again as he jabbed a finger at Alek's broad chest. "If that's true then you've only got your own loose-lipped staff to blame."
Alek quieted down. "It is true then? Fasal is on the move?"
"Yes," said Phelin as he shifted by Alek and Hort to shut the chamber door once again. He stood by the map while the rest of the local council members took their seats. He cleared his throat once and addressed the room.
"Fasal has begun the invasion of Damek. We have enough guards under Damon to hold against his sea forces to the south, but we have no news on his cavalry. I want those conscripts." Phelin grazed each councilor with his icy stare.
Alek spoke up. "Where would you use them? And how do you propose to train farmers and tradesmen for battle against Fasal's standing army?"
"They will march south and build a series of barricades against riders along the main southern routes to Atheron." Phelin punctuated his speech with a series of jabs at the map before him. "Fasal's cavalry will likely come overland around the cape from Tramoran. We slow them there until Damon's forces can be switched from the shoreline defense to take on Fasal's cavalry. The conscripts will remain as a rearguard fallback only."
Adele's scratchy voice joined the discussion. "What of the border guards along the Velek Forest? The guards are few and the border only a day's ride from Atheron."
Taryn did not expect the dark glare Phelin returned to Adele.
"The forest itself is our border guard," Phelin growled. "I can not spare men to placate an old woman's fears."
Adele seemed unaffected by the insult, but Taryn felt ashamed for Phelin as his harsh words echoed within her.
"I for one share that old woman's fears," Alek retorted. "Hort here as been relaying some disturbing stories from his guild journeymen."
Phelin sneered. "As you wish, my Lord. I will send a rider to border stations for reports."
"Thank you," Alek replied. "But I will go myself. I wish to see first hand what problems are surrounding the forest."
Phelin seemed more disturbed than ever. "That's uncalled for. Do you question my abilities to defend this province?"
Alek held up his hands, "No foster-brother. I wish to investigate Hort's reports. There have been too many attacks by unknown beasts in that area."
"Stray bears from the mountains," Phelin snorted.
"Perhaps. But it's time I found out for myself what my people have been seeing."
Phelin was not placated. "You should not be leaving Atheron. This is your place and where your people expect you."
Alek smiled, "My people barely know I am back. I've only been as far as Atheron for months now. It will do me good to get out for a day."
"It's not safe," Phelin hissed.
Hort spoke up, his deep voice instilling a sense of calmness. "I will accompany him. I know where my journeymen have traveled of late."
Phelin spoke through clenched teeth. "Fine, as you wish. Do I have approval to order up conscripts?"
All present agreed. Phelin rolled up his map. With a final glare at Alek, he turned on his heels and marched out of the room, swinging the door so hard it banged against the outside wall. A tremor ran along the wall, rattling the mounted torches.
"He doesn't much like to be disagreed with," Alek said lightly. "Anyway, Taryn, I'd like you to come with us if you think you're up for the ride. If these beasts are demon-spawn as you think, we may need your help."
"Are you sure it's wise to leave the Keep?" Celina asked. Her face had not recovered its color since hearing of Fasal's attack. Taryn wondered if her own face expressed the trepidation she felt inside.
"It is only a day. And though I would never admit this to Phelin for fear he would resign in protest, I want to see for myself the state of the Velek defenses." He smiled at Celina, "We will be safe and back within a day and a half." He slid his chair back from the table, "Shall we pack and go then?"
Taryn stood and surveyed the room. The faces surrounding her varied from the quiet acceptance of Adele to the nervous darting eyes of Gabrielle. Taryn felt as if in a dream herself, the events unfolding around her seemed unreal. She was unsure whether a day on the road would calm her rattled nerves or send her into a panic when she found herself beyond the protective walls of the Keep. Alek and Taryn left the chambers together. Hort headed back to Atheron to prepare for the trip, agreeing to meet them on the East Road by noon.
Taryn changed into black wool breeches. She pulled on a soft flannel under-tunic, and then a long slate over-tunic which would reach to the top of her riding boots. As she sat on the bed, tugging on her boots, she felt the familiar gentle touch of Sarai's mind. Taryn looked up as she heard a knock on her door.
Sarai walked just inside the door and stood silent, playing with the embroidered cuffs of her dress. Taryn didn't need empathic abilities to sense the woman's distress.
"What is it?" she asked.
Sarai looked up. "There is much fear, in the castle."
"Keep," Taryn corrected. She stood up, pushing her heels down into the boots. She could feel Sarai's own fears transmitting across the mental link they seemed always to share when near each other.
"We are under attack," said Taryn. Fear mixed with anger rippled across Sarai's expression. Taryn felt the other woman scrutinize her wardrobe.
"You go to fight?" she asked.
"No. Alek and I need to investigate something near the forest. We're going away from the troubles in the south."
Panic flashed in Sarai's amber eyes. You are leaving me?
Taryn closed the distance between them. No, not at all. We will be gone only a day or so.
Sarai's fingers worked frantically at the edges of her cuffs. Taryn reached out and separated Sarai's hands, holding them in her own. The link they shared intensified. Taryn's thoughts and emotions mixed with Sarai's, but this time without the confusing dual vision. It seemed a natural mingling, stabilized by their physical contact. She felt the intensity of Sarai's loneliness, a mirror to her own sense of isolation outside the halls of Vescant. Taryn felt the softness of Sarai's small hands in hers. Her feelings projected across the shared link, and Sarai responded with a gentle caress across her mind.
The heat of her own desire burned in Taryn's cheeks. Her breath came in shallow gasps as she pulled away from Sarai. Just as the link dissolved she felt a spark of response in the other woman, whose own cheeks turned crimson under her dark skin. They pulled apart, each letting their arms drop.
"I should go," Taryn whispered.
Sarai looked up, a faint smile curling her red lips, "Yes."
Taryn walked past Sarai and pulled her black cloak off a hook by the door. Sarai watched her. Their eyes locked for a moment, and Taryn felt again that faint sensual reaction in Sarai.
I will. Taryn drew her gaze away from Sarai and headed down the hall, her cheeks flushed despite her attempts to calm herself.
Continued in Chapter 8
Return to the Academy