T.C. McMullen's Disillusionment Series

Daughter of Gods Excerpt

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Daughter of Gods
2009 T.C. McMullen
330 pages / 17.95 USD
ISBN 978-1-935188-01-8

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Chapter One

 

 

 

Tryn swung her pickaxe and cut another dart bullet from the air inches from her leg. A fourth hit avoided. She leapt the slight rift and clung to the side of the cold cavern wall with her left hand for only a moment before scaling to the low ceiling. None of the guards could follow her antics, none ambitious or nimble enough to even attempt the climb. She, though, she was their best digger and knew every crease and sharp edge to hold onto or jump from along the ceilings and walls.

Gargan’s fifth shot kicked a puff of dust from the stone she hopped onto.

“When are you going to learn!” Gargan shouted. His growl alone let her know his frustration had peaked beyond where she usually pushed it. “Devil child, the worst in this hole!”

Tryn choked down a laugh. She shouldn’t have found the situation funny, but her blood pumped so hot it warmed her spirit and was gratifying beyond anything she’d felt for months. She wiped the smile from her lips with the back of her filthy hand and rolled to peek over the stone. Below, familiar trodden paths of black dust stretched and vanished in all directions. The all-too-clean guards hovered there, watching with perplexed expressions twisting their pale faces. They nearly glowed in the dark. Four of them. Only Gargan carried a dart shooter in clear view.

Gargan had one shot left. One. It was a good number, yet she had no idea what she planned to do next. Running from Gargan hadn’t been her best choice for the day, but as usual, she hadn’t fully thought the action through. All she knew was that she didn’t want to surface for the market. She was no animal to be sent to field or slaughter or a slave for someone’s household. She was a slave, she couldn’t deny, but she’d been in the mines so long, she taught herself to like it.

She stared at the black ceiling, watching the flickering flame-light lick the cuttingly sharp edges, edges she had created, prying every usable mineral from what the Madai viewed as junk rock. Junk just like her and her kind.

Murmuring hastened below, then one voice rose above the others, ordering them to hush. “Slave girl, may I have a word with you?” the man asked. The newest guard. He had yet to lose his manners.

“I’m listening,” she called down, using Common Tongue just as he had.

“Might I inquire what the problem is? I thought you would be thrilled with the prospect of fresh air and sunlight, not run from it like this.”

“How long have you been down here? Take a guess,” she said. “And what do they call you?”

“Corporal Dagard,” he answered. “I’ve been here for…”

She listened to him count and chuckled. “Seven hours, Corporal Dagard. It’s been seven hours since the last shift change, that’s all. And how do your eyes feel seeing sunlight after those seven hours?”

“Well, I… Ask for some shade. Why this? Do you have any idea the punishment you are inviting by doing these tricks?”

“A beating inches from death? Yes, I know. But I’ve only experienced it twice this month, guess I think I need to step it up to not fall behind my record.”

“See!” Gargan shouted. “Unreasonably stupid, this one. Should leave it here, no one would want to buy it anyway. I tried to tell you.”

“I was told to surface all females of worthwhile age, lieutenant, and this one is of good age and health. I have no intentions of leaving her behind.”

“I have no intention of coming down,” Tryn said.

More murmurs. She laughed again, hearing enough of each word to understand it.

“Your folly is in believing us slaves ignorant, you pathetic imbeciles,” she said, though not too loudly. If they heard, that was well, but if not, it was their loss.

“Your battling days are over young Tryn, you need to let them be in faded memory.”

Tryn rolled onto her shoulder and found old Sarmi goggling her with his one remaining eye from a lower ledge.

“Why must you cause all this ruckus down here? I’m an old man, done with these rebellious things. It no longer amuses me.”

“Nothing amuses you,” she said. “And this concerns you none. Be gone.”

He furrowed his craggy brow, creating gray cracks in the coating of filth across his forehead, but he climbed down from view without argument.

“So, slave girl, how exactly do you see this situation resolving?” Corporal Dagard again. Noisy he was.

“You going away,” she said.

“It is the festival of harvest above,” he said. “A grand thing for the city. And it’s been appointed to me to see you brought above for sale. You may very well find yourself purchased by someone of wealth. I cannot understand this action you’ve taken.”

“I’m not for sale,” she said to the wall. “I’ve never been bought or sold, and I have no desire to start now.”

She tolerated enough auctions over the years, the scrutiny, the snide and ignorant remarks, all buyers looking at her as if she couldn’t understand their fancy words or accents. She endured the last harvest sale a year ago, managing to scare off prospective buyers. The older she got, the more she looked like a woman, not a young boy, and men always believed they could tame a woman, take from her and make her carry children as more slaves. She knew what a precious commodity she was. Good health, perfect child bearing age.

Picks clinked and cracked against the stone below. She peeked down and saw a ladder sliding toward her. She rolled, leaping from her haven. Gargan fired. Mid-air lent her no protection, and the dart pierced her shoulder. She gripped the wall, hearing Dagard scold Gargan. Her vision blurred. She stretched her fingers over her shoulder, felt the dart against her fingernail, too low to grasp before the full dose filled her.

“Get ready to catch her, you ignorant pigs. How dare you risk damaging this one so close to sale!”

Damage? Tryn leapt from the wall, flipping backward and landing on her feet in front of Gargan. She saw two of him, but only one held detail. She swung her closed fist at him, then delighted in the hard hit to her jaw. Perfect. She felt skin break and sweet blood rose to her lip before she fell to the path and sharp stones waiting to pierce her back. Then her muscles refused to obey. She screamed internally, hating the hopeless feeling. Her mind alone remained her own, alert and free of fog. Rope tightened around her wrists and legs. She was theirs to do with as they wanted. Only Dagard’s presence would keep them from abusing her. She was too precious to soil this close to sale. But it didn’t stop them from touching her in places she promised they would pay for when she returned. Rocks had a way of splitting in just the wrong way to collapse on unsuspecting guards, especially under her expert hands.


~*~

 

Cedrik swallowed the sour taste stirred by the forced smile he offered the main gate keeper. He handed over his official badge as his invitation and stepped onto the relatively clear pathways of the slave market. The chaos and ruckus from the city streets he gladly left behind, but what waited ahead tortured him even more. Smoke and boiling berries perfumed the air; all an attempt to cover the sour stench of filthy slaves prepped and polished just enough to look presentable.

Women lined the walls, some in tattered fancy dresses, some shouting offers he didn’t desire to hear or need. All were far too thin. Their eyes shined like black gems as did most all of the Inaut race. It was a race thought of mixed heritages so intertwined the color of their skin had changed from white, red, or black to a kind of pale stone gray. Some said it had to do with how they ate and survived in the forests and mountains of Earth too. Many of his people considered them animals.

He knew different.

He shoved away groping hands and pushed by lines of buyers with eyes full of greed and unrespectable intentions. Some would no doubt give the women a decent home, but it sickened him no less to know they felt the offspring they had with these women were worthy of only servitude, no more valuable than the women surrounding him. Their own children.

He weaved his way through the most popular prospects to the last street, called “Last Level.” It was last because the tired and scarred souls it held were those least expected to please a man for any purpose. The keeper in charge of these slaves bowed his head.

“Good day, Sir Cedrik,” he said.

Cedrik gestured in return and clenched his fists to keep from hammering the man. In all probability, the poor sap had no say in the treatment of slaves. Cedrik chose to give him the benefit of the doubt and believe the man was as troubled by the cages and chains as he was.

He wandered down one path, then the other, not hearing one promise or one beg. These women were aged, deformed, and bereft of spirit. Their eyes watched out at him as empty as split seed pods. He walked here each time he came to see if just one could be saved. As before, he left knowing none there could survive on their own. He would have to try the male level of the sale.

He exited without acknowledging the gate keeper’s apologies for the low quality of the less expensive merchandise. The paths crowded quickly. Cedrik weaved through lines growing long before several exceptionally shaped and enticing slaves. The men nearly seemed to pant before them, shouting competitive amounts, each louder and larger than the preceding offer.  He scrubbed his hand over his face to erase the scene around him. None of these girls could be saved because someone would outbid him for certain. He had to be careful with the amounts he spent.

“Robbery that is!” a man shouted. “It’s worth far more than this.”

“Look at it, limp as a dead fish.”

“It’s an act, I tell ya, an act! It doesn’t listen to anything.”

“All the more reason to offer so little. I don’t much care its age or quality if it’s that disobedient.”

Cedrik stopped and fought against the push and shoves of those behind him. He listened for a moment, then headed toward the back path of the front level.

“A month’s worth of calibin can be supplied,” a gruff looking guard shouted at a man beside him. “By then it’s up to you to have it trained. At any rate, this amount you’ve offered is inexcusable and rejected!”

The two men argued from the farthest corner where the gate to the mines held open for the guards to pass through easily. Cedrik weaved his way right then left, feigning interest in several sales going on until the crowd thinned enough for him to see a cage next to the enraged man.

Cages were saved for the last level slaves, the slaves with arms too frail to wrap in heavy chains. The woman in this cage didn’t have that problem and Cedrik was quick to note she was also chained to two heavy rocks behind the pen. The guard acting as her keeper snarled curses at her, but she stared blankly ahead, blinking rarely, sitting limply against the bars despite the pokes and prods of the guard and prospective buyers. He wondered at first why she hadn’t been placed in the last level, her eyes so silver and unmoving, he thought her at least partly blind. One side of her chin and jaw showed bruised and swollen. He scanned the statistics on the sale tag attached to the bars. She was twenty-two years old and just over five feet tall.

“I guarantee you, this is all an act. She wishes not to be sold,” the keeper shouted, sounding far too desperate now.

“One wishes not to be sold from the mines?” A man scoffed. “Who do you expect to believe that?”

A flick of light and Cedrik realized her irises were not clouded with film of eye disease but as bright as polished blue-silver, a hue he’d never seen in Inaut eyes before. Cedrik watched her small face, so beautifully petite he thought his hands would surely cover her cheek from temple to delicate chin. He’d never seen an Inaut quite so—exquisite. He shook his head, scolding himself for such a thought. When he looked to her again, her steel eyes pierced him. She had moved without notice. Her stare still seemed somehow distant, yet slicing, her limbs hung limp, but she pressed her lips firmly together. He moved closer. Her glare deepened then vanished with only the slightest waver. He stooped down next to her between two tall men.

“Sir, please, Sir Cedrik, be careful. This one tends to lash when you least expect it. Don’t be fooled by her appearance.”

Men laughed. Cedrik didn’t doubt the words. She was small but each muscle in her bare forearms and biceps was etched firm with strength. The rest of her would be just as powerful.

“Why?” he said.

She continued to stare ahead at nothing.

“You hear me,” he said.

The muscle from her long neck to the strong shoulder tensed ever so slightly beneath the thin strap of her shirt.

Cedrik stood. “Three hundred tregs,” he said. Gasps surrounded him.

“We’re asking for five,” the guard said.

Cedrik turned, eyeing the six men encircling him. “I don’t see anyone tempted to offer even as much as I have.” He waited for the murmurs and nods of agreement.

The guard squirmed one foot into the dust.

“Would it be better for you to return with her unsold?” Cedrik asked. “You do get some commission, do you not, even from three hundred?”

“And they appoint me this impossible bitch!” The guard kicked her through the bars. She fell to the side, but didn’t show a bit of discomfort.

Cedrik bit back his shout. “Might I suggest not beating my merchandise or I’ll have to lower my bid.” He held out his sack with all three hundred of his tregs. Tension twisted up his spine. If the guard did take the sack, he was out the month’s remaining pay but if the man didn’t accept the bid…. Cedrik couldn’t describe the odd sense of fear creeping from his gut. He had never wanted a purchase to go through quite so badly before.

The man swiped it roughly from his fist, snarling hateful words at the cage the entire time. The other men chuckled at Cedrik’s stupidity or bravery, slapped his shoulder in mock congratulations for at least having a pretty thing to look at, and drifted back down to the main path.

Cedrik turned to follow the guard and discuss the transfer of ownership when her hand snapped out and nearly crushed his ankle. She had twisted in the chains, dragging one stone against the back bars to flip to her stomach so quickly and silently no one noticed. Her stunning eyes roiled with anger potent despite her low vantage point.

“Demand a refund,” she said. “Or for sure you’ll regret it.” Her Common Tongue sounded perfect in his ears, not twisted at all with Inaut accent, just a lusciously smooth sound. But she was Inaut, he didn’t doubt that. The strength of her fingers even through his hard riding boot shook him and proved it. Inauts were fierce with strength.

“Do you know how to ride?” he asked.

She furrowed her brow and narrowed her eyes. “Are you deaf?”

“I’m no more deaf than you are worthless.”

“Ask him where I’m from,” she said. “His answer will match mine, the mines, see here under my nails, the proof. I’ve worked them for years. I’ll kill you the first chance I get. I promise you that.”

Cedrik shook his boot loose of her grip, a little disturbed by how much effort it took, and stooped down eye level with her again. He kept farther back than before, noting well the length of the chains. She lashed at him, straining her powerful arms. Her fingertips clawed the air inches from his throat before she gave up.

“Trust me,” he said, careful to keep his voice low and only for her.

She narrowed her spirit-filled eyes. Cedrik glanced over his shoulder to be sure the guard stood otherwise occupied. Another guard had pulled him into a discussion.

“I realize you’ve probably never been given a reason to trust anyone in your life but I ask you to do so now. To just beyond the city limits. Will you agree to that much?”

She pulled her knees up to her chest and wrapped her arms around them but her sharp gaze never faltered from him. So many questions about her rushed his thoughts, though none included anything about her time in servitude. He doubted she’d been born to it. Not this one.

“If not, just give me the word and I’ll request refund. But I must know now. I must know if my money will be wasted by you trying to run within the city.”

Uncertainty roiled in the stormy sea of her eyes, so visible, so potent. So like someone else he knew.

“I’ll take your silence as agreement,” he said, hearing the crunch of the guard’s boot in the sand behind him. “Unless you have something new to add.”

“I see you’ve made it speak,” the guard said.

Cedrik stood to face the man. “Yes, indeed.”

“So you see I was not telling a lie when I spoke of its act.”

Cedrik nodded. “I thought from the look of you, I could trust you, but from the look of her, how could I be certain.”

The man grinned, falling for the compliment fully. Cedrik couldn’t fault the guard for his weakness. He was told he had a way of making people believe anything.

“What’s your name?” Cedrik asked as he took the electronic tablet and pen. Still so primitive there in the slave shops.

“Lieutenant Gargan, Sir,” he said with a sharp salute of hand to chest.

Cedrik handed him the signed tablet. “Nice to meet you, Lieutenant.”

Gargan unlocked a box he carried on his belt and pulled a thin silver key and a flat shock tag from it.

“Sir, here is the key to the cuffs she will be released to you with. This tag is for your own safety. Just press the center if she runs or otherwise gets out of hand and the cuffs will send a shock up both arms to cripple her for a full minute. I suggest you have restraints ready at all times to slap on her if need be.”

“I don’t believe I’ll have any trouble, Lieutenant, I’ve dealt with my share of difficult animals.”

She hissed from inside the cage, no doubt believing he meant what he called her. Once they were well on their way from spying eyes and ears, he would have to clear up a few things. Cedrik walked leisurely down the slope when he remembered his first concern.

“Oh, Lieutenant, I was hoping you could tell me, is it capable of riding?”

Gargan wrinkled his broad nose. “Excuse me?”

“Riding? I have no transport with me, was just out enjoying the weather before the storms and gathering some supplies. I have only horses. Should I be worried of her ability to stay on one?”

He caught a glimpse of her evil grin but remained focused on the keeper. The lieutenant swallowed deeply, almost a gulp.

“I don’t see why it couldn’t. But I highly suggest you give it a nag or a cripple.”

Cedrik nodded in agreement a little less leery of how he would get the woman from the city limits quickly. Chances were she’d seen a horse before. With her build, she would be able to stay mounted even if she’d never ridden before. The only thing tickling his concerns was if he was ready to lose the steed he had for carrying supplies or if he dare trust the spirited stallion not to harm her.

 


Chapter Two

 

 

Tryn shivered. She was used to the cool dampness from the mines, but in the night she also had to contend with wind. Her eyes hurt and watered less than before. Moonlight showed much more mercy than harsh sun. The fresh air washed through her, bringing to her attention just how congested she was of mine dust. She coughed and spit grit again, breathing deeper than she ever remembered breathing but her chest hurt from the strange motion.

It all should have been good despite the ache in her wrists from being chained to the wall to wait for her warden. She bristled at the word and the thought of the young man. He had looked young at any rate, clean shaven and well dressed. They called him Sir Cedrik meaning he wasn’t of military but of royalty. High and rich royalty, no doubt, to toss around 300 tregs so confidently.

Her only solace came with the knowledge she could easily take his kind. He wouldn’t last the night for having the gull to buy her and end her streak of never being bought or sold. The only reason the garrison had her at all was because they attacked her clan and captured all survivors from low along the forest pass.

Why her father had moved his rebel force so far from the mountain terrain and protection, she would never know, and never again would she follow anyone to a place she deemed unfit, no matter who they were. She’d known her father’s mind wasn’t well those last few days. Then he fell almost willingly in the battle where her family had been taken. All because of the drugged darts too. First thing she planned to do when she reached home was layer up on leather to be sure they would never stick her with those darts again. Then she would hunt the Madai for what they’d done.

The stupidest thing the garrison ever did was sell her. She planned to inform them of their stupidity soon enough. For now she decided she had to play it all straight. She had to behave or they would drug her again and that wouldn’t go well.

A few of the other girls whimpered as they snuggled deeper under their skirts, clothes given to them to make them more feminine. She alone remained dressed in her work clothes, probably because the last man who put a dress on her died when a boulder toppled onto him two days later.

Some women sat close enough to huddle and share warmth. Tryn scowled at all of them. She despised their weak little murmurs, sickened by how happy some of them were to be bought. As if they had accomplished some great deed. She wondered how many would be beaten to death or die in childbirth within the next year.

From across the huge courtyard, the gates creaked open and pierced the silence. Some girls stirred, others didn’t move. Tryn arched her back, snapping two vertebrae between her shoulder blades back into place after being hunched around her legs and shivering for so long. Then she listened with all the skill of her ears and mind to pick syllables from the air. She recognized his calm even tone instantly when he spoke a congenial greeting followed by his request for her. Torches flamed at the gates and two guards climbed the incline. Several women begged for blankets. Stupid. The guards didn’t even glance at them, fully focused on retrieving a thing.

A new, young face pointed the dart gun at her, though his hands shook so violently on the butt of the tool she doubted he would hit her. Gargan jangled the keys into their slots and swung open the groaning door of her cage. He paused, his beady eyes glittering.

“One wrong move and you’ll be sleeping your way out of here,” he said.

“Don’t worry,” Tryn said. “I won’t hurt you. Yet.”

Shadows covered Gargan’s eyes under his furrowed brow. He stooped to reach her wrists when she refused to lift them. He slapped a single heavy chain between her arms and released the two holding her to the wall. She jumped boldly to her feet without aid of her hands. Gargan scrambled backward out of the cage, arms flailing, and a dart puffed in the dust at her feet. Tryn eyed the dart, then the younger man who trembled worse than a tree in a windstorm, and clucked her tongue at him.

“You best learn to control yourself, boy,” she said. “A man who can’t isn’t too desirable to the ladies.”

He clumsily worked the bolt, clanking another dart into the chamber, and pointed it at her again. She covered a chuckle with a cough and spit at Gargan’s feet.

“You’re lucky you’re bought,” he grumbled.

“Or else you’d swing at me,” Tryn said, deliberately raising her voice and widening her eyes to feign horror. “Oh, oh, the terror is rippling through my veins!” She swept her closed fists over her forehead in an exaggerated act of swooning.

Gargan yanked her hands down, tripping her forward. She easily caught her balance. One couldn’t scale walls and stone beams without excellent balance. She tolerated his attempt at punishing her until she reached the gate, then she ripped her hands free of his and hissed at him through clenched teeth.

“I only promised not to hurt you up there,” she said.

“Now, now,” Cedrik said, “is that any way for you to behave?”

Tryn whirled on her new keeper but found herself wrapped in the smoothest of cloths surprisingly warm before she could lash at him. She gripped the heat instead of him, a solar blanket, not cheap and certainly not for use on slaves. Oddly, it was covered with a matted and old layer of wool, concealing its opulent underside.

“Won’t do good to have you ill your first days on my compound. Now, let’s be gone, shall we?”

She pulled against his firm grip, nowhere near finished with Gargan. She needed to promise him death for what he’d done to her since her arrival there eight years before, but Cedrik had her shoulders firmly between his strong hands and shoved her ahead of him.

“We need not draw more attention to ourselves, I beg you. I’d rather not have to carry you out in a drug stupor,” he whispered into her ear. His breath felt hot and much too pleasant against her cheek.

“I’ll ask nicely for you to remove your hands,” she returned the quiet tone not out of calmness but out of total irritation. She loathed the feel of anyone so near, especially a Madai.

“Can I trust you will follow willingly without word with the guards?”

Tryn mashed her teeth together, biting the terrible dusty taste in her mouth. She would never obey another person, certainly not one who claimed to own her. Still, this man created too many questions.

“I don’t make promises to your kind,” she said, “but sure, I’ll follow.”

He stopped pushing her and a moment later the weight of his hands slid away. She adjusted the blanket on her shoulders, not willing to give it up without a fight. Not for anyone for any reason.

“Side by side,” he said. “Stay close or I’ll man handle you again.”

“Man handle.” Tryn spat. “You sorry—”

“Hush now, unless you wish them to drag you back.”

She watched the line of guards ahead. They ogled her as she approached, no doubt recognizing her on sight. They wore concealing full helmets of thin metal but she thought she knew a few of the glaring sets of eyes.

“She’s your problem now,” one snipped as they passed.

“Good night to you all,” Cedrik said with a quick bow of his head.

He continued straight down the main avenue toward blue lights of the glowing city buildings. The space port shined the brightest and stood near enough for her to see three large cylindrical shuttles ready for launch to the giant station in the sky. From there they would pass to the other planets said to support life. Tryn never cared to learn about them. If not for them, the city surrounding her and the people enslaving her would never exist. Besides, she had enough trouble on her own planet.

“So.” She worked hard to make her tone as snide as possible. “A wealthy man on horses?”

“Not much use for transports where I live,” he said. “Horses are more efficient and mine are of good quality.”

“No nag or cripple?”

Cedrik smiled. “I guessed right about you. Good acting skills, sharp mind.”

“More than I can say for you. Just how long do you think you’re going to live tonight?”

“Wouldn’t it do you well not to threaten your new master so close to guards,” he said without so much as a blinked lash. “And I’m not worried.” He swept his heavy gaze over her, blue eyes flecked with green and so much more than it seemed.

“Despite all the warnings and my own threat, you still say this?”

“Yes.”

Tryn furrowed her brow then suddenly understood. “Ahh, the shock restraints.”

“I wouldn’t stoop so low,” he said. “I’ve already disabled the chip to those cuffs.”

Tryn scowled, not comprehending him at all. She glanced at the backs of the guards they passed, then stepped aside, increasing the space between herself and Cedrik.

“I would wait till you’re beyond the city limits at least,” he said. “I haven’t more tregs to buy you back and I assure you, with your reputation, we’re being watched closely and quite a few dart guns or rifles are aimed at you from these surrounding buildings. Don’t let the primitive slave holdings fool you. Their communication is excellent within this stronghold.”

Tryn directed her gaze to the ground before her, beaten so hard under footsteps over the years, nothing grew. Her chest swelled uncomfortably tight with uncertainty and even a touch of worry. This man wasn’t what she thought. He noticed her slight move from his peripheral vision, trained to see more than ahead, and he knew the city’s defenses, or at least some about them. He had read her when all the other prospective buyers hadn’t seen beyond the fake dumb stare. She had studied each of them without moving an inch. This man had looked straight into her, as he did now when she eyed him.

“Who the spirits are you?” she said.

He smiled. “For another time, my dear.”

He wasn’t Inaut, not even close. His flesh shined as sun-golden as any noble’s she’d ever seen from her perches on mountain sides. Many had prowled the valleys beneath her childhood home and many deemed the area unworthy for settlement. Lazy kind. She wondered if this noble was also lazy. He certainly looked prettied up enough to avoid any kind of work, though his shimmering hair was longer than she’d ever seen on a noble, nearly covering his right eye when he lowered his head. His mannerism, height, and broad expanse of shoulders beneath a well-tailored black silken shirt hinted to something else. Something she couldn’t yet grasp.

She spied three horses tethered to a post before a silver bridge. A young boy rushed out from between the equestrians and scurried to Cedrik.

“Father found you one we could spare. She’s an old mare but should serve you well enough.”

Cedrik patted the boy’s head. “Be sure to thank your father for me. Now go before you get yourself in trouble over curfew.”

The boy nodded once and was off, his thin legs carrying him like a shot into dark shadows. Shadows so inviting. Tryn felt heat rush through her, bringing new moisture and need to her mouth. Freedom.

“We’re twenty minutes from the outer lines,” Cedrik said, as if he sensed her thoughts. “The shadows don’t travel that far. You would be seen at some point.”

She spun at him, full of anger and annoyance, but refused to waste more energy on him. Not now, not yet. She covered a cough and chewed the grittiness it produced.

She stifled her surprise when he hefted several large sacks from the back of a proud young stallion and transferred them all to the old mare. Then he handed her the reins to the stallion. The tall horse tossed its head, its tack jingling with his powerful movements. He was beautiful and glistening dark, nearly black in the dim light. Having the stallion handed to her so willingly was too wrong. Something was not right with this Madai.

“I thought you could ride,” Cedrik said when she didn’t take the reins. “Or would you rather have the mare? If you’re frightened, I’ll understand. He is tall and stubborn.”

She yanked the straps from his hand, slipped her foot into the stirrup and swung onto the saddle, never looking away from Cedrik. The horse shifted under her weight, a very comfortable and long forgotten feeling. It spun, agitated and pulled to break free of her hold on the reins.

Cedrik turned but she noticed his grin anyway. She wasn’t stupid; she knew he tried to trick her into motion with his words and bristled at the fact he thought he had succeeded. He clipped a heavy lead rope to the stallion’s bridle and tied it to his saddle opposite to the mare’s lead. He led her down the bridge designated for animals. She watched the buildings and roads surrounding them. Transports buzzed along in streaks on the bridge just a walkway away. Cedrik continued to take her through alleyways. She sat tensed, fighting the itch to bolt. The knot holding her horse to his wasn’t infallible from what she saw of it. The beast beneath her was well suited for speed and continuously swished his tail and bobbed his head as if impatient to the slow pace. But Cedrik had piqued her interest enough to keep her with him at least until the city limits.

The white metal barrier encasing the city towered straight up, appearing to touch the gem stars in the ring of blue haze drifting near the moon, a constant since the arrival of the Madai. A ledge turned awkwardly outward at the top of the wall, making it impossible to climb and ensuring nothing got in or out without clearance. Sir Cedrik clearly had authorization. He hardly paused long enough to show his hand and forms, no doubt including her sale papers. She twisted in the saddle to watch the deceivingly clean doors of the wall clank shut behind her. So ugly and cold.

Ahead she found only deliciously deep and concealing darkness.

“The limit’s behind us,” she said. She quivered from the prospect of open space, so clear, calm, and free. The only unnatural sounds were the soft plodding of horse hooves and the creak of their leather tack. Dew-damp and fertile soil perfumed the air so deliciously. It was too good, too wrong.

“You’re still within view,” he said.

“And how long do you think I’m going to fall for that?”

“The tree line.”

Ahead the moonlit ribbon of pale stone branched off south to the shore-side grasslands or vanished into a line of very old and wide trees marking the beginning of the Eastnorth Forest. She tapped her heels against her mount’s belly, coaxing him into a trot. Cedrik didn’t scold her, but followed suit to keep his horse side by side with her. When several yards of hulking old trees and tangles of brush drank up the moonlight and blocked any chance of a view, Tryn spun her horse on him. He dismounted just as quickly even before his horse had halted and unclipped the lead rope from her stallion. Something silver shimmered in his hand. She yanked the reins back, directing her animal away from him. Cedrik stopped.

“A key,” he said and held the small thing between one thumb and finger. “That’s all it is, just the key to those cuffs.”

Confusion shook loose a deep cough that rattled through her chest. Cedrik stepped toward her again but she directed her horse back just as quickly. Cedrik held his hands up to her, palm out.

“Fine, fine, but here, at least take it and use it. Those things are so thick you can’t possibly move your wrists very well and you can’t walk around shackled for the rest of your life.”

Tryn worked to keep the mount she rode facing him. She hardly noticed the cuffs or chains anymore, having worn some form of them for the last eight years. He sighed and hooked the key on the tip of a thin branch. Then he backed away from it toward the old mare. Tryn searched side to side and quickly glanced behind her. It had to be a trap.

“Gargan put you up to this? He tell you if you kill me out here no one would know the better?”

“I have no intention of harming you or letting anyone else do so,” Cedrik said.

Tryn shivered from the pleasant tone of his deep voice. He sounded far too sincere, almost caring, but it was totally insane to believe it. And she didn’t consider herself insane for real. She just liked pretending.

“Look, I think you strong enough to survive on your own if you so wish. You are more than welcome to travel with me, of course. But right here, as of this moment, I do not own you. As soon as I reach a secure position, your papers will be ash. I suggest changing your name, or give yourself a call name, something, since you’re so well known here. And I suggest you keep yourself hidden. Most will see you as Inaut despite your eyes and I promise you they will have you pursued until capture again. You need to make your way quietly over the grasslands and Enil Desert to the Kharsag Mountains. I have a map.” He turned his back, opening a pack on his saddle.

“I know the way,” she said.

The flap clicked down. Cedrik faced her again, his hands empty, his features little more than a silhouette in the night forest. His eyes no longer arrested her, only his voice.

“I thought you not born to this,” he said.

“And I want my question answered. Just who the spirit are you?”

“Cedrik DeVassi of Shire West,” he said without hesitation. “Though I’ve not been south west for seven years.”

“Shire West?” She knew the name. “Just east of the Kharsag Mountains?”

“Yes.”

“They called you ‘Sir.’ One of the nobles who dared the wilderness? So I suppose you succeeded in conquering it.”

“No.”

The curtness of his answer hammered her to silence. She met the sparkle of his eyes for a short second in the sparse starlight penetrating between dancing tree leaves. Cedrik patted his horse with a smooth and steady touch.

“The wildlife and climate took it back. My family lives just inside New Key now.”

Tryn wanted to laugh but couldn’t draw the will. New Key was considered a midland city, not west. It was the only certified city beyond the eastern boundaries from what she had heard in the guards’ talk at the mines. It seemed logical nobles would be pushed there by the weather and wildlife.

“Why in creation’s name are you doing this?” she said. “Because my experience and each aching bone in my body tells me there’s a trap, an ambush, something waiting just ahead if I take anything you offer.”

Cedrik lifted a sack from the old mare and hooked it on the tree next to the dangling key. He then mounted his horse again, comfortable and confident, so bold and straight in the saddle. “I’m going on my way. I’ve packed a few days’ ration in that bag in case you have trouble finding your fill of food. I’ve also packed some clothes you may find helpful. Be sure to drape that blanket out during the sunny days to recharge it. It should be all you need at night until the rains hit, but if you move quickly enough you should reach the desert before the season change.”

Tryn watched in total awe as he slowly moved by her, not once looking back. The mare followed, still tethered to his saddle. The sounds of the forest, from the tree crickets chirping to the click of some distant critter knocking loose bark, closed in. She heard nothing out of the ordinary, no cracking of sticks or leaves beneath human feet, no huffing from human lungs. Just the forest and the ruffling of her horse’s breaths and searching snout. Cedrik left her the stallion. Shock and fear wafted through her for long minutes. She waited, for what she didn’t know.

After several more moments of nothing, she edged the stallion forward, not willing to dismount, and pulled the key free.

No net fell to recapture her. No sounds increased. She slipped the small but complicated key into the notch of her left bracelet, releasing it and then the right. Her wrists felt alien, open to the air and free of the weight, but she remained alert to the world around her, not her petty little pleasures. She draped the chain over the saddle horn, glanced about the woods, then retrieved the sack from the limb. It was heavy with rations and several articles of clothing including a pair of knee-high leather boots, well made.

She stared after the man, no where near understanding. But she didn’t need to understand either. She knew where she was as well as where she wanted to go. She spurred the horse forward. Many miles, Madai towns, and wilds stood between her and home.


 

Chapter Three

 

 

Monarch Reland Crakshandal, leader of the Earth exhibition and gathering, clasped his fingers together at his back, determined to keep his chin steady and spine straight, despite his dire need to bow to his knees and duck from the gaze of the god or goddess. His heart thumped with intense pressure from the atmosphere surrounding the being, surely a sign he was in the midst of one of the oldest and most powerful.

“What brings you so far to see me?” Reland asked, bowing his head in respect. The immense room around him, a room he commanded and controlled, seemed nothing but a hollow cell with the unexpected arrival. He had no time to prepare his quarters or himself for the meeting with one of the divine.

The cloaked figure stepped slowly down the unfolded stairs from space-shadow and into his abode. The gods alone could dock at his private sector of the space station and, in doing so, keep their presence completely secret from the general population as they preferred.

“A dire danger has come to our attention.” The woman’s voice slithered out from the cloak, smooth as silk and heavy as smoke. “A threat to your mission.”

“I assure you, I have everything under control here. The mines are growing faster than ever before and we are starting explorations into western lands, easily moving now with the threat from the Inaut fading.”

He knew not which goddess stood before him from the far away planet. Not a planet really, for Niribar was a giant space station with capabilities beyond his comprehension. It appeared more like a planet than something unnatural. Larger than the Earth, it needed the natural fuels from the planets of the solar systems to continue on with its atmosphere. Or at least that was what he was told and why he led the missions on Earth to collect all its resources.

“You doubt what we know,” the goddess said, her tone raising an octave.

Reland nearly choked on his swelling tongue.

“No, no of course not.” He bowed to one knee, deciding to show humility instead of strength. “I simply do not understand your abilities, Goddess, please, forgive me.”

She slipped her large hood down to reveal golden hair and a face full of great beauty. Thin with large eyes, small line of a nose and fine lips, he did not recognize this goddess. She stood tall and graceful, pale hair as smooth as falling water.

“You may call me Iladi,” she said. “And I know of the problems rising on the surface you patrol. I have been sent to guide you against this growing threat so you may reach your goals more easily.”

Reland nodded very slightly. “I am ever so grateful of your assistance.”

“Tell me, what do you know of the rebellion?”

Reland stood, driven upright by shock. He knew of no rebellion. None of his many hunters, guards, or patrols had reported any kind of suspicious behavior for quite some time.

Iladi smiled a sly smirk that quivered his bowels as much as it pleased his sight.

“There must be someone who has tested the boundaries in the not so distant past,” she said.

Reland mouthed a few words, fear nearly strangling him. How could he continue to lead with strength if something so potent had escaped his sharp watch? “Please, my lady, give me but a name and I will see the problem solved, this I promise.”

“You first must share with me those most easily corrupted and turned from your loyalties. The threat I sense is a power growing to further taint those who have strayed from their loyalty to you, it does not have a name. However, I am certain you and I together can find and eliminate the infection before it grows strong enough to challenge you.”

Reland’s thoughts cleared quickly. He strode across the expanse to his work station, a desk and many screens all connected to masses of information on every Madai city and home. He sat resolutely in his seat, tapping the controls to bring the screens to life. The odd green hue cast by the electronics painted the room a surreal color.

“There are a few who have tested the laws over the past several years.” He hurried to pull the database he used to mark all wrongdoings to the large screen in one wall so Iladi could also view it. Most who had betrayed him were already executed or imprisoned as his records showed.

Sweat beaded over his forehead as he worked, willing the program to move faster, to show him something. Hunger gnawed at his inners as the hours crept on. Nothing unusual showed in the words and data before him. His tongue grew to dry, useless leather in his mouth under Iladi’s scrutiny. And then, in the very smallest areas of record, he saw it.

The name, the man who had troubled him before but who he had ignored because of his young age and high station. He quivered with rage. A sharp pierce of pain grazed his mind then vanished. He shivered from Iladi’s inhuman mental touch.

“You must investigate him immediately,” she said, not needing to hear his thoughts spoken.

“But I… I have scouts and a bounty hunter watching him, one of my best and most loyal in fact.”

Danik was ruthless and lethal in bringing him the heads of those she found as betrayers. She had been for years, born in the space station and raised as one of his followers from the very beginning. He shared everything with her.

“Might I suggest,” Iladi said, her expression firm and emotionless. “you do more than what is currently in place to delve into his life. We must know everything about him for me to find this infecting power.”

Reland nodded and tried to swallow without ingesting his tongue. Anger twisted with his fear in a most awkward way. He peered up at Iladi, determined to show her his conviction as he spoke.

“I assure you, when I’m finished, I’ll know what he eats for each meal and have his head on my desk at the smallest sign of betrayal. I know just who to order to watch after him first.” One press of a button connected his Comm to the DeVassi Royal House. He struggled to suppress his anger while he waited for Lady Juliara to answer.

Iladi curved the corners of her mouth up ever so slightly as she watched him, the green hue flickering eerily in her eyes.

 

~*~

 

Cedrik pushed Bishop faster through the forest, glancing back only twice. He was fairly certain Tryn had taken the offered supplies and key. Except she hadn’t followed him or raced past. He hurried because he didn’t want her to think he hovered to capture her or some such thing. He couldn’t imagine the amount of distrust she harbored. He couldn’t blame her either, but he really wished she wouldn’t have made it so hard for him to help her. Remembering her hoarse cough snagged worry in his thoughts again. It had concerned him even before he left her but he hadn’t dared offer more help. He simply prayed Red would cooperate with her and carry her safely to the mountains before she fell too ill. The young stallion was well suited for it. Bishop was a few years older and more mellow but he knew the path Cedrik now had to take. The path to New Key wasn’t one Cedrik cared for but it was a must.

He rode easily through the night to morning, leading the slower mare as gently as he could over the forest-flanked road. Transports had cleared the bare dirt path wide enough for eight horses to pass yet left all beyond the edges untouched. Tall ferns robust with green color draped gracefully at the base of enormous trunks and mixed with mushrooms of reds, golds, and whites. Broadleaved evergreen bushes abloom with dancing lilac flowers dotted the view. There was something magical about the pallet of colors alive so far beneath the whispering flutter of leaves. A sense of memories locked deep in the rings of every tree.

The forest smelled fresh with life, green and young, despite the ancient wood. He wondered if any Madai ever stepped to the forest floor under the power of their own two feet. Other than himself. He walked the forest many times, finding a strange sort of peace in its infinitely deep shadows. It sang to him somehow. He longed for its solace but didn’t slow to enjoy it this trip. He had a promise to keep and his detour into New Key would add an extra three days to his travels home. He simply couldn’t return without money for taxes. He rode straight for four days, stopping only long enough for some sleep in the darkest hours. He didn’t bother setting up camp. The bread and dried meats he had packed kept him nourished.

Morning of the fifth day, he mounted Bishop from his grass-softened bed and headed from the grove of sheltering rag trees toward the road again. The sky blessed the seemingly never ending grasslands with shimmering golden hues of sunshine. The soft wind held a faint scent of dampness from impending rains and swayed the tall seed heads gracefully in a heart-soothing dance. The weather would hold for a few more days, judging by the shy kiss of warmth in the air and the brightness of the sun. He lowered the hood of his travel cape to fully soak in that sun and patted Bishop’s neck, glad to have his beast along. He did own a transport but couldn’t remember the last time he operated it. He much preferred the company of his horses.

The noises of the city reached him a few hours later. He chewed his sandwich, trying to swallow it and the foreboding dread that always smothered him when he neared his family’s home. He did what he needed—visited once a month to report his work and collect his tregs. This time was different.

He circled the outside wall to the west entrance where he could gain access with a swift swipe of his palm to a small screen. The fewer streets he had to travel, the happier he’d be and his father’s estate sat just one block from the west wall. He gazed out into barren and bleached Enil Desert. Few ever dared to cross it these days. Too many had been lost to its deadly dangers. He wondered if Tryn knew it well enough to travel through it safely like many Inauts did. In fact, it was said the Inauts were the cause of the terrors. Some said they once held the power of magick at their wills and commanded wildlife and nature. That was why it was so important to squelch their race, their culture. Or so he was told.

It was also why he worked so hard to help them.

He didn’t remember the beginning of the recolonization at all, born many years after it commenced. He didn’t learn the full horrors by humanity against humanity until after he married.

Clanks and groans called his attention back to the doors. Westerly winds constantly beat sands into the hinges of the west gates. No amount of upkeep kept them silent. He passed easily through, bowing his head to the gate keeper, ignoring the gawk the man gave him. He’d gotten used to the stares and whispers. Most had learned to accept him as eccentric. Others labeled him as a touch insane. He really didn’t care what anyone thought as long as they left him alone and allowed him to do his work.

He draped Bishop’s reins over the post at the back of his father’s towering estate and pumped fresh water into a barrel for him and the mare. Cedrik didn’t look at the building, just stayed focused on the cold stone walk to the grand front entrance sheltered by an elongated roof. Inside, the foyer towered three stories high with windows servants cleaned at least once a day. No one worked now. He wiped his dusty travel boots on the front rug and strode down the marble passage to the one room he knew well in this building.

The office stood only two stories high, books and records on disks covered all but one wall.  Its purpose was tinted windows that also gathered solar energy to heat the room in the cold season and light it at night.

Gavin looked up from his desk, his silver framed glasses low on his nose. Gavin was the only sibling Cedrik saw on a regular basis. Somehow Cedrik thought Gavin aged years more each month he saw him.

Gavin sat back in his seat, removed his spectacles, and stood.

“Well, this is a surprise,” he said.

“Business,” Cedrik said.

“Isn’t it always?”

Cedrik ignored the insolence in his brother’s tone. He tossed the hard copy records of his last three jobs onto the desk.

“Only three,” Gavin said. “Why bother?”

“I was passing through.”

Gavin searched him with his small blue eyes. He was the oldest of the siblings, and also the smallest and slightly sickly. It was why he was appointed to be the family record keeper. As the record master, he never had to travel. Gavin looked as if he wanted to say something, but simply leaned back into his plush seat and placed his glasses on his nose again. He flipped through Cedrik’s handwritten pages.

“Moilnir increased population by two hundred,” Gavin said. “That’s quite a burst.”

“Yes,” Cedrik said. “A small baby boom.” He held steady under the lie, not willing to reveal the boom hadn’t all been from babies. Several Inaut families had found shelter in the village.

“Not quite city status yet.”

“Only twenty-five shy. You know they could use the funding and we could push it through anyway.”

“Are they prepared to construct the necessary walls and ports to declare it a city?”

“If they’re given the funding.” Cedrik pulled a chair over and lowered to sit on its arm. Gavin frowned but refrained from his usual complaints. Cedrik hated how low the chairs put him to his brother. He either stood or rested against one of the wide arms.

“And their attitudes?”

Cedrik clenched his teeth together. Of all the towns he was assigned to supervise every other month, Moilnir was the one he wanted to see upgraded to city status. They needed the protection of a wall from the animals migrating from and to the Tundra and from any investigating Madai as much as they needed the supplies they would get through a port. They were also the village most vigilant in caring for their land and open to ideas of change.

“They’ve agreed to most of the laws.”

“Most?” Gavin raised his blue button eyes, enlarged behind the lenses. “What’s that to mean? It’s all or nothing and I need the signed contract. This isn’t the original contract.”

“So I modified it a bit.”

Gavin held the handwritten contract, scowling deeply as he scanned one page and then the next. He shook his head. “They must install the identification scans to enter,” he said. “No leniency on that one.”

“C’mon,” Cedrik stood. “What trouble is going to find them there? Nothing human lives in the Tundra, the ocean is all that waits to their east and the Eastnorth forest their west. South is nothing but other towns. No one of threat is going to pass through there.”

“Then why the problem with installing them?”

“He simply wants to keep it more open and friendly for those who live there. He already watches his roads in and out. He agreed to placing guards, just not the scans. I don’t see the harm in it.”

“No,” Gavin sighed, “you wouldn’t.”

Cedrik crossed his arms over his chest and stood tall above the desk again. “Don’t start.”

Gavin waved one open palm at him as if a white flag of truce. “I’ll run this by Father, but I think you know the answer. Especially with whispers of unrest going on. More free Inauts are being seen lately. And we can’t find where they are sprouting from.”

“Or you could just run it through yourself.” Cedrik said, wanting to avoid any subject of Inauts but also knowing he couldn’t push too hard without inviting suspicion.

“I’m not like you,” Gavin said.

“Obviously.”

Gavin was the follower of all rules, never questioning anything, a fact that roughed Cedrik’s feelings for Gavin nearly as much as his so-called recklessness annoyed his brother. “Look, do whatever. Just be quick about it.”

“You have somewhere to be?” Gavin raised his judgmental gaze again.

“Anywhere away from here,” Cedrik said.

“Mother’s annual dinner is tomorrow, you could attend since you’re already in town. Looks as if you could use a stay in decent quarters.”

Cedrik shook his head. Even if Gavin withheld paying him, he wouldn’t remain for the dinner. He hadn’t attended for seven years and he wasn’t about to start now.

“She still has Drake and Brent to parade to the ladies, she doesn’t need me.”

“Ah, but you are the oldest yet unmarried,” Gavin said.

Cedrik felt his jaw twitch from the strain. He glared at his brother. “You going to pay me or not?”

“A little unorthodox, paying you mid-month. What’s the hurry?”

“None of your business.”

“You waste last month’s tregs already? You really should watch your money more closely, little brother.”

“You really should stop sticking that snub nose of yours in my business and just do what you’re told.”

Gavin grimaced behind his glasses, yanked open the drawer, and tossed out three slips of credit. It wouldn’t be much, but it would cover taxes for the month. Cedrik swiped them from the desk and turned without any kind of goodbye.

He exited the stifling room, saw the flowing gown, then turned on his heel, wishing he could escape back inside. She spotted him too quickly.

“Cedrik!” Juliara shouted, her voice light with joy. She rushed to him and grasped his hands in hers. He tolerated the greeting of her kiss to his cheek but refused total eye contact.

“It is so very good to see you. You always come and go so quickly, it’s been a year since I’ve caught up with you.”

“Not quite a full year,” he said.

She shook her head at him. “Look at you. Someone is taking good care of you.”

“Yeah, me,” he said. “I haven’t been home in weeks so you can’t give Sienna the credit.”

Juliara’s smile faltered a bit. “Oh, yes, how is Sienna these days?”

He wondered why she asked of her past slave. A flick of tension licked out at him, the same lick he always felt if he stood near the family too long.

“She’s very well,” Cedrik said. “Takes care of the house, keeps busy.”

“She was always good at caring for you.” Juliara slid her palm over his cheek. “Please, come. Sit with me for a bit in the parlor.”

He shook his head, but she squeezed his hand too tightly.

“We must talk, Cedrik. You’ve avoided things for too long. It’s time.”

He glared over her head to the door. “Not in my opinion.”

“Don’t make me get nasty,” she said. “Please, I miss you around here. I have for a long time. Besides, looks as if you could use a rest in a cool room.”

“Ten minutes,” he said knowing well he wouldn’t get anywhere with arguing. Her mind was set on cornering him.

She didn’t release his hand until she closed the parlor door to the foyer. Cedrik recognized the family painting above the fireplace from their home in Shire West, but the room itself was much larger, nearly ugly despite the warm shades of wood and green toned rug and furnishings. Two tall windows slashed one dark wall to show a small artificially manicured and strangely colorless garden fenced by iron from the street below.

“Please.” She motioned toward one of the chairs as she poured from a crystal flask into two wine glasses.

“I’m fine,” he said.

“You promised me ten minutes. I’m not spending those minutes with you towering over me.”

He grinned at her playful feistiness, sighed, and lowered to the edge of one of the chairs, understanding what it was like to have someone looking down, though for him, it was never the height anymore. He took advantage of his height to enforce his authority more often than not.

“Thank you,” she said and handed him a goblet. He accepted the drink and rolled the amber liquid inside the glass watching it as if he could find secrets to history and future in its movements.

She sat back in her chair, her silk skirt flowing elegantly around her legs. Not exactly thin, she was still slender after six children and forty-eight years. Her blond hair swept beautifully around her face, always graced with a perpetual smile reflected in her hazel eyes.

“So,” she said. “What has my son been up to for the past year, or years for that mater?”

Cedrik shrugged. “Work.”

Juliara shifted herself deeper into the chair. “Good work from what I’ve heard. You’ve straightened the growing violence in East Bend.”

“For now,” he said. “There are still a few there I need to keep a close eye on.” East Bend was his least favorite place. Fully Madai, it was also the most violent and egocentric.

“You know, you could move closer, either here or to one of those towns, then you wouldn’t need to wear yourself down so far.”

“I’m fine where I’m at.”

“And how many nights do you sleep in your bed?” She slipped to the edge of her chair, concern darkening the sparkle in her eye and dampening the smile just a bit. “I worry about you, Cedrik, truly I do.”

“I know. But I’m fine.”

She fingered the sleeve of his black shirt. “This tells me differently. It’s been six years.”

Cedrik bristled at the flash of remembered blood pulled forth by her words. “And I have a right to four more. Or have you forgotten I’m mourning more than one.” He gulped the wine then, its sharp sweetness not nearly potent enough to wash away the sour taste of memories.

“No, I have not forgotten anything.” Juliara lowered her lashes.

“Then let it be.”

“Sometimes, sometimes, that isn’t the best thing to do,” she said. “And I truly feel as if this is one of those times it shouldn’t be left.”

Cedrik set his empty goblet on the lace coved table and stood before a window, its height giving the illusion of stepping outside. His mother took his hand again and rested her head against his shoulder.

“Come home and let us help you.”

“There is no help for me here,” he said. “I don’t belong here anymore.”

Juliara tightened her grip on his strong arm. “Nonsense. You always have a place here.”

“Really?”

“Absolutely.”

“And if my daughter were still alive would you say the same?”

She lifted her head but didn’t release his arm. He held her fingers against his palm, cursing himself for saying such a thing but so desperately wanting an answer he doubted she would ever give.

“My arms are always open to you, no matter the situation,” she said. “I stood by you then.”

He shook his head. “No, you stood behind father. You didn’t protest, but you didn’t support either.”

Lines formed across her brow, lines of anguish and hidden pains. “So, you blame me? Is this why you stay gone?”

“No,” he said. “I blame the way things are. I blame Father’s inability to see anything beyond the laws first made. Sometimes change is really needed, and you know, I’ve seen it in other places, not just our family. It’s going to happen whether we like it or not. You all can’t keep killing the babies just because…” Rancid emotions closed his voice.

She squeezed his hand so hard it hurt.

“You forget I lost children too?”

“I remember every damn night. I remember every time I go into a town and take census and notice a few expected children missing. Others might be blind to it, but I’m not. It’s happening more in my generation than it did in yours, and it will happen even more in the next.”

“Probably, yes.”

“And you will all just keep killing them?”

Juliara widened her eyes, then squinted as if caught in some mental tug-of-war. “What choice do we have? You know what they are capable of doing. It’s only by luck we were able to win our safety from those who were here. If we start raising them amongst ourselves as equals, we are doomed.”

Cedrik pulled from her embrace and looked into her shining eyes too aware merriment wasn’t the reason for the gloss now. “They really have you convinced of that, don’t they?”

Juliara lowered back to her chair. “I have to be convinced of it,” she said and wiped her thumb across her eye. “I must.”

“And I must handle it my own way,” he said. “It won’t be in believing that.”

“We’ve never disagreed on much.” She struggled with a smile again. “Remember that? You and I.”

He sighed, remembering it well. Of all in his family including his two sisters, only he shared in her love for the arts and nature and kindness with all things living.

“I know,” he said. “I really need to go now.”

“Why such a rush? You could stay, I could tend your clothes for you, have your hair trimmed.” She brushed his bangs from in front of his eye. “You could visit with Janni, she asks about you all the time.”

“My hair’s fine, as are my clothes. Sienna is waiting for the supplies I have, and I’m sure you remember just how cranky she gets if they don’t get there on time. ” As for his youngest sister, he would write her when he could.

Juliara smiled then. “Please tell Sienna I said hello and wish her well. And thank her for me, thank her for watching after you even now.”

He kissed her cheek, loving the fresh scent of rose he remembered from childhood and strode to the door.

“Don’t stay away so long this time,” she said, holding her hand to her cheek where he kissed her. “Even if it’s just short visits. I cherish them.”

“We’ll see,” he said. “Maybe.” But as he stepped out the front door, he doubted it was possible. His chest ached with grief as if it all happened again. The betrayals, the revelation of lies, suicide, near murder. He yanked the hood of his cloak up when he mounted Bishop and turned toward the west gate, wanting to hide from the sun and all those around him. Shame mixed wickedly with sadness. He had no right to feel the way he did. He hadn’t lost as much as everyone thought.

 


Chapter Four

 

 

 

Tryn climbed down from her perch in the tree, stifling her cough. Her throat felt so raw it sent a slightly bitter-sweet taste to her tongue. She dropped to the soft forest floor and landed before the grand stallion. He raised his head, dragging his loose reins, and regarded her with one large shining eye.

“Still here,” she said.

He huffed and returned to nibble the sparse greens at the base of the tree. Sunlight sliced through high leaves, sparkling over his dark mane and shining coat as if striping him with blood. He shimmered as brilliant red when in direct sunlight but looked nearly velvet black in shadow. His mane and tail always appeared as dark as night. He was a magnificent animal, tall, strong, perfect in every way. It was why she couldn’t keep him, though each time she tried to turn him loose, he followed anyway.

“You’re not going to go, are you?” She wondered if he was like the women she left behind in Madai City. Born to servitude, they knew nothing different nor would they welcome anything different. “Silly beast, don’t you know any better?”

He lifted his big head and shook it so violently his mane buckled side to side, then he turned his back to her, straightening his hind legs to raise his rump. Tryn chuckled at the show.

“Call me crazy, but you seem a bit annoyed at me.”

He twisted his neck to look at her over his right shoulder.

“So I have it wrong? You don’t wish to go simply because you like being ridden all day?”

He snuffled the ground, moving slowly forward, crunching twigs.

“And here I am, talking to a horse and thinking maybe it understands me.” She plopped to the ground, slapping her hands to her forehead. Maybe she was going crazy. She heard trauma early in life could cause a mind to warp. She certainly felt off center now free of the mines, free of the guards. Everything assaulted her senses to a degree beyond any pain she could remember. The sweet scents of the forest blooms and tender greens cradled her, not bad; in fact they were too excellent, too luxurious. Nausea, born from her overwhelmed sense of smell, raked her stomach to the point she could hardly tolerate anything more than the bland bread she found in the pack Sir Cedrik gave her.

Fear lingered on about him also. She constantly watched over her shoulders, waiting for the hunt to come upon her, despite knowing days had passed since he left. She longed for the safety of mountains, but the golden flatlands ahead taunted her with the unsheltered danger they presented. She had a long cloak to hide her flesh under. She could ride a steed so obviously precious no one would think her a slave. But she couldn’t stop feeling vulnerable like one.

Hot breath puffed her hair from her cheek. She swatted softly at the muzzle but the stallion continued to nip at her. She patted his firm forehead.

“If you don’t mind,” she said. “I would appreciate the company.” She pressed her cheek to his big head, hoping she could tolerate at least a full day’s ride to hurry as far through the open lands as possible. She rose slowly, again gazing into the wide open grasslands then rounded the tree to gather her supplies.

She donned the travel cloak Cedrik left for her, tied it securely at her shoulders so it wouldn’t choke her, and lifted the heavy saddle. Beady hateful eyes of a tree wolf greeted her.

She froze too late. She’d made eye contact, a challenge. So stupid.

Its size denoted it easily as a male, most likely the leader of its pack. He hissed a horrible growl and curled back lips showing needle-sharp fangs under his starved dark eyes. She held her gaze steady, her inhale hung in her throat. If she looked away, he would take that as admittance to defeat, yet she knew she had no weapon more lethal than the saddle to battle with.

“Where did you come from?” She huffed, trying to sound threatening.

The wolf skulked forward, his gray form rippling a shade of green as he moved, his snout nearly waist high. Tryn’s heart pounded her sore lungs. The rush of blood roared in her ears. Her palms dampened against the saddle. Stress born more from frustration than fear racked her already tormented body.

“You know, I didn’t wait all this time for freedom to let you screw it up for me,” she said.

Its growl deepened, ending in a piercingly sharp bark. She glanced behind him, sure the rest of his pack was near. The slight release was all he needed. He leapt to his hind legs, spit flying from his jowls.

Tryn raised the saddle in front of her face and planted her feet firmly apart to handle the blow. She blocked his huge paws with the underside of the saddle, barely managing to shield herself from the mashing jaws but couldn’t hold his massive weight. She tumbled, scrambling to keep the saddle between her throat and his fangs. She kicked his hind legs, trying to knock him off balance. He snapped her wrist in his slimed maw, tearing deep into her forearm and ripping a scream from her throat.

 

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