T.C. McMullen's Disillusionment Series

Curse of the Gods Excerpt

Home
Daughter of Gods
Revenge of the Gods
Starlight and Judgment
The Freedom Wars
Curse of the Gods
Descended
Retribution
Characters
Earth Map in 4327

Curse of the Gods
Words and chapters subject to change during editing.
2009 T.C. McMullen
 
 
 
 

Curse of the Gods

 

Chapter One

 

The moment Tarenek sensed energy in the storm that had nothing at all to do with drumming thunder or slashing lightning, he knew his nightmares weren’t only dreams. No, this energy linked to a soul, the soul he killed every night moments before waking breathless in a sticky sweat.

Tarenek peered out at the soggy, gray surroundings from under his wide hood, moving only his eyes to view the expanse of fields circling the small village on the hill. Thunder hammered the clouds and growled along their hidden peaks. Everything on the surface was a shade of brown or gray with hints of wilting greens under the constant slaps of rain. Daylight waned as somewhere beyond the thick cloud deck the sun sank ever closer to the horizon, promising a silent and concealing night. Finding nothing in the fields, he focused on the town just beyond a low stone wall.

Then he saw her. She stood behind the livestock stables with her arms out, face to the sky, as the drops fell like crystal shards and melted onto everything they touched. They glossed her long dark hair, her delicate face, her sleek neck, her hands, and her fingers, causing her to shimmer like a jewel, though his eyes saw much more than anyone else could. He saw her essence, the life energy that coursed through her, gorgeous and vibrant to the extent of intoxicating. He closed his eyes at once, not able to inhale from the intensity of her, reaching even this far, surging through the storm to wash over him more powerfully than the rain. He shook from her essence mixed with the storm and from sheer terror. Then he had to look again.

She danced in the downpour, not flinching from the booming thunder, her long, thin coat swaying around her waist to her ankles. Didn’t she know the dangers of dancing with lightning? Even as the question formed in his thoughts, he somehow knew she didn’t care about danger. Somehow he knew she lived her life not in fear, but in unbridled enjoyment of every simple thing. She reached up to the sky then, sliding one hand over her other arm, pushing her coat sleeves to her elbows. Oh so seductive was her simple act of enjoying the rain.

He never saw her before, not outside his dreams, and he had to be sure he would never see her again. For her sake. He glanced back to the hilltops where he left Elek, his one true friend. People of the villages on this equator continent didn’t know of the Drako Wars from nearly four hundred years ago. Seeing a drako wasn’t a common occurrence for them now, so he always had Elek deliver him out of sight from the village either at night or during torrential rainstorms such as this. He took some comfort in knowing all he had to do was call out and Elek would be there to whisk him away for everyone else’s safety. He wouldn’t care if seeing the great flying beast would terrify them then. If it happened, he and Elek would never be back to hear about it.

Work had called him into the settlement now, a request from his aunts’ granddaughter three hundred and fifty years descended. Tarenek didn’t know exactly what all those years made Marana to him, only that her ancestor had been his father’s youngest sister.

He was a ranger in these lands, helping to keep order among the people as civilization spread out to continents reemerging from the ocean as ice sheets grew at the poles and lowered sea levels. Rangering was easy for him. Being a rogue, no one bothered to notice or ask why he did not age or why he always kept himself concealed even in the warm climate. No one needed to know what a threat he was to every living thing he neared.

Thunder cracked and hammered, drawing his attention to the sky. The worst hadn’t begun yet, not even close, and he couldn’t help feeling his passing thought came from much more than the storm.

He shrugged out from under the plaguing notion, glanced at the magnificent woman in her glowing beauty again, and headed west away from her. He planned to enter at the far side of town and keep to the alleyways to meet with Marana. Hopefully she would be quick with the details of the job and he could be on his way again before morning’s rise.

The slosh of rain muffled his passage onto the muddy streets. A yellow, brown-spotted lizard slithered across his path and under a rock as he moved over the threshold where the stone wall allowed entry from the outer lands. It was all made with stone hauled in from the quarries of his homeland hundreds of miles over sea waters away. No one remembered how it got here, not the work the Annunakar gods did, or the lifting and flight the drakos had done. Those details were lost in time to all but those like him. Those cursed to live on and on while others around them aged and passed into the spirit world.

He had tried to join that spirit world on several occasions, but the inability to become or stay badly injured long enough for life to drain from his shell was another curse of being what he was. The thought sickened him now, but he shoved it aside as brutally as he did the door to Marana’s tavern.

The crowd inside the single story drink-house was the usual town’s folk at the far left tables, farmers and ranchers to the right, and a few outlanders settled into the darkest alcoves to each side of the exterior door.

Setanian slaved over the open grill centered inside the chest high bar, his bulk hinting to his absolute love for food, cooking it and consuming it. He shouted orders and tossed plates to the servers waiting to take them to the customers. Tarenek slid into one of the tall stools farthest away from everyone else and laced his gloved fingers together on the counter, waiting and watching. He took note of everyone in the room, seeing the glowing hues of their life forces easily enough to know all were peaceful. Even the outlanders tucked inside their shadows held no ill feelings toward anyone near. He alone was the danger in the room.

Marana turned after pouring a drink for an older lady. She raised her brows in surprise, then blinked as if to clear her vision in exaggerated teasing. She smiled at him, asked for a moment, and continued to arrange the ale bottles into their correct places. When she finished she strode to him. He pulled his hands back safely from her reach.

“Why Taren, that was fast,” she said.

“Wasn’t too far away.”

Marana smiled. “It seems you never are these days, a good sign I hope. Can I get you anything?”

Tarenek shook his head. “Not a social visit. Your message said you had an urgent job you needed me for.”

She sighed. “Yes, well, a girl can try, can’t she?  Come on to the back room where we can talk.”

Tarenek gritted his teeth. “Rather it be said here.”

“Not an option. Not with this.” She slipped around the counter and strode to the door across the room into the only separate private space in the building. Tarenek hesitated then slowly followed. He cringed when she closed the door behind him, sealing off the sounds of clanging dishes, Setanian’s bold voice, and the hum of conversations. He side-stepped away from her as she moved past him too closely. She seemed to disregard the risk all together when she handed him a towel.

“Dry yourself before you soak my floors.”

“Why do you insist on playing with flames?” he asked.

Marana scowled at him. “I suppose you consider yourself the flames?  I’ve been burned often in my life, boy, so don’t worry your pretty little head over it?”

“Boy?” He cocked one brow.

“No nevermind your age, you still look young, so give me that right.”

Tarenek sighed and rubbed the towel over his leather gloves and drako-hide jacket, doing his best to at least stop the dripping. He remembered his aunt Janni, Marana’s ancestor clearly enough to know the spry attitude was genetic. There was no arguing about it or changing it. “The job, Marana.”

“Tsk, tsk, enjoy a bit will you? Relax.” She gestured one heavily worked hand to a nearby chair, wide and upholstered.

“I don’t relax,” he said. “Who are you? Or has someone stolen your memory?”

Marana sat leisurely in a matching chair across from him and peered up at him, her bright eyes framed with just a touch of wrinkling, a result of four dozen years on a human and a hard life. She ruffled her mid-length curls and sighed.

“My memory is just fine, I’m not that old yet. I was just hoping we could talk a bit. This job is a little different, a little more personal, I guess you could say. And I do worry about you. You may be my elder many times over, but it’s not healthy, living like you do, always out there alone.”

“Not alone.”

“No humans,” she amended.

Tarenek eyed her but refused to respond. She knew why he lived the way he did. She still had contact with his parents and had the knowledge passed down to her from her ancestors. She knew what he was.

She waved her hand in the air, and kicked her shoes off, tucking one leg up under her as she made herself more comfortable. Tarenek stood where he was.

“I will say no more until you sit,” she said. “You’ll give me a crick in the neck if you don’t.”

“Are you deliberately trying to annoy me?”

Marana smiled. “Oh how tempting, but no. Please, this is serious.”

Tarenek rolled his eyes but relented and lowered to the very edge of the seat.

“Thank you,” she said. “Are you sure you don’t want something to eat or drink?”

Tarenek stared at her.

“You could humor me,” she said.

“If it’s so important, get on with it.”

Marana scowled. “Social skills are really something you need to work on.”

“Social skills concerning me will get people killed. Start speaking or I’ll be on my way.”

“So you believe. Have you talked to your parents lately? Your dad asked about you the other day when I called up. I hate having to lie to him. Why can’t I tell him you’re down here?”

“Marana.”

“Fine, fine. Relax. I do have a bonafide job for you. I need you to be the ranger, help a rancher take a hundred head of cattle through Pirist and out to Markson Shore.”

“Cattle?” Tarenek frowned at the simplistic thought.

“Yes.”

“They take cattle up the gorge through the forest to the shore all the time, what’s so different here?”

Rain pattered the roof and walls and thunder growled. Marana lowered her feet to the floor and leaned toward him with elbows on her knees. She raked her fingers through her curly hair before looking up at him. “I think there’s a bigger threat with this one. You ever hear of a man named Falkrany?”

“Falkrany? Owns most of Markson Shore, runs supplies over the seas. Why?”

“Do you know anything more of him other than the pleasant biography?”

Tarenek grinned then. “You have to ask? There’s a reason I steer clear of him—to keep from accidentally on purpose turning him into dust.”

“Maybe you shouldn’t,” Marana said, then smiled sadly. “A friend of mine, her son-in-law made a deal with him. A hundred head of cattle and he could keep his ranch, a few hundred leagues west from here, not too near the shore. Jerridan apparently had borrowed a bit of money from Falkrany several years ago, before he wed. He paid it back, but Falkrany wouldn’t let him fully remove the debt. So Jerridan had this contract of sorts drawn up and had it notarized by Monarch himself. If Jerridan delivered to Falkrany a hundred healthy head of cattle, the debt would then be cancelled.”

Tarenek straightened in his seat. “Sounds fair enough. I’m sure {Monarch} made certain the contract was seamless.” [Paragraph Removed to not act as Spoiler to earlier book]

“Until Jerridan turned up dead,” Marana said, her voice thick with emotion. “I talked with {Monarch} about it, but they’re powerless at this point to do anything from this angle. There’s no proof of any wrong doing on Falkrany’s end. They’re trying to uncover his unsavory side from other angles but it’s taking too long.”

“So where is my part in all this?”

“I want you to see that these hundred cattle make it to Falkrany and make sure no one else ends up dead. You can do that, Taren, I know you can, no matter what that man throws at you. And if you see fit to obliterate him, so be it.”

Tarenek wrestled with a shiver at how casually she referred to his curse. He didn’t like being reminded of what happened to people who were unlucky enough to upset him or to simply come across him at the wrong time. He worked diligently all the time, even now, to keep his energies under control and tightly held within his flesh.

“It’s not so far outside your usual clients,” Marana continued. “Just with a hundred animals added to it, but you shouldn’t have any problem with those. And there will be ranch hands to help with the herd. I simply want to make sure Falkrany doesn’t take anything more from my friend. Her daughter, Alie, is left to honor Jerridan’s debt, if she has any hope of keeping her home. Please, Taren. They’ve really been dealt a rotten hand here. You can help.”

Tarenek wiped his face, hating the cold rough feel of the leather on his cheeks. He peered at Marana’s pleading eyes, a desperate look. He’d never seen her like she was now. “Fine,” he said.

Marana smiled instantly, her brows rising just a bit. “Wow, that’s a huge relief. I wasn’t expecting it to feel this good.” She took a deep breath and blew out. “You really can’t know how much I appreciate this.”

Tarenek shrugged, but decided against reminding her that he did know. He felt her emotions in the air just as clearly as if she hugged him. “I’ll need a horse and some supplies,” he said.

“Horse?” Marana raised one brow.

“If you want all hundred to make it through, I best not tempt Elek into a feast, don’t you think?”

Marana sat back in her chair. “A horse it is then. Eat cows…” she shuddered and rubbed her arms.

“What did you think he ate?”

“Not an entire cow.”

“He’s a big drako.”

“What—What do you do, go stealing cattle when he’s hungry?”

Tarenek frowned at her. “Of course not. When he’s hungry he takes a little hunting trip into the mountains, helps keep the predator populations under control. And he only needs to eat once a month or so.”

“Is it his time of the month then?” She chuckled.

“Very funny. No, but I wouldn’t want to torture him with temptation. Besides, he might spook the herd.”

Marana nodded and gazed down at the floor. “Good point. They’ll be safe enough just having you along.”

“Gee, thanks. Now it seems you want me only for my drako.”

Marana smiled at him. “See, I knew you were fun in there somewhere. Come on, let me get you something to eat. Alie won’t arrive for a few hours. You can meet her then and start preparing for the trip out.”

“I’d rather stay in here to wait.”

Marana finished slipping her shoes on. She shook her head at him. “You’re not as much of a danger as you think you are.”

“You have no idea.”

“Oh, I think I do. You are your own worst enemy. Besides, I refuse to bring food in here. If you want to hide again after you’re through eating, so be it, but until then you’ll sit at a table like normal people.”

 

~*~

 

Alie dashed from her cozy little inn room and down the street to Marana’s tavern under a thin cover of her knit wrap. She hadn’t packed for being in public and wore her only non-work clothes now, a pair of dark slacks beneath a long, flowing blouse of pale and loosely spun cotton. Despite her best efforts, the rain soaked her shoulders and spine. She shoved through the door to the warm and crowded tavern just as thunder boiled across the dark sky. She hated to leave the sound she found enrapturing for the boisterous voices of men inside the tavern. Some obviously had too much ale, and others shouted above each other in an ever growing list of great accomplishments bigger than the next man’s.

She shook her head to keep from scowling at the manly competitions. It was none of her concern. Her only concern was handling the task ahead, regaining full control of her ranch, and moving forward with her life. Only forward. She carefully and purposefully folded her dripping wrap into a neat square on her arm and looked about for Marana.

The woman bounced around behind the bar, serving drinks and smiles. Alie sidled through the crowd to the bar, and pulled herself up into a stool. She watched Marana, inspired by her energy and never ending charm. She was older, at least as old as Alie’s mother, but she wore the age well and was still a very beautiful woman. She smiled at Alie and motioned for her to wait. Alie nodded her agreement.

She glanced around the room, shaking her wet hair down her back, glad for the heat in the space. Even damp, she didn’t feel any shivers growing, not like they had after her dance in the rain a few hours earlier. She quickly directed her attention away from John Largon’s longing stare, not at all comfortable with the man’s expression. He had asked her to join him for a meal the day before. She refused, of course, and asked Marana to let her patrons know she was not looking for a companion. She had just buried a husband and tradition dictated she mourn him for a dozen years.

She wrapped her arms around herself and safely directed her attention down at the bar, focusing then on the small scratches from years of use. From across the counter, someone called for Marana, a strong and strained voice. Alie glanced up, feeling the weight of someone’s attention press on her. When her gaze met the gleam of a stormy blue glare, she shivered. The man narrowed his eyes, and she suddenly felt caught, as if snagged in a net and ready to be fed to some wild beast. Thunder exploded, and she startled despite it being muffled by the building.

The man looked away, still speaking in hushed tones with Marana. He was tall, taller than any other man in the room. Strange violet highlights danced in the dark tossed waves of his hair. The angles of his face, perfectly proportioned, chiseled but not harsh, hardened as he spoke, his words obviously heated. He leaned forward, his hands pressed tightly to the edge of the bar. Gloved hands. In fact, every inch of him was covered in black except for the pale gray skin of his face. The collar of the jacket he wore wrapped around his neck, ruffling the back ends of his hair. There was something decidedly wild about his appearance, brooding, but also alluring.

“Ah, ya spotted Marana’s nephew,” a woman said.

Alie startled and turned to a short lady with fuzzy brown hair who now stood next to her.

“Not a-one of us here who hasn’t lusted after Tarenek.”

“Excuse me,” Alie said.

“I kin tell that look, honey. Don’t waste yer time. He’ll be gone ‘fore sun’s up. Not int’rested in any of us lowly folk. I hear rumors he’za prince from the upper lands.” She waved her hand in the air as if swatting away a bad smell. “Or some such thing. Has to be something like that for a man ta act like he does. Or is that does not?” She lifted a mug from the bar and tilted dangerously to the side. “Woopsie.” She laughed as she turned, sloshing ale out over the side of her mug. Alie leaned away from her to avoid being perfumed with liquor.

“That’ll be your last, Ms. Margrel,” Marana shouted at the woman. Alie looked up at her, prepared to smile at her friend, but the cold, angry gaze that greeted her from the nephew, kept her silent.

He pushed back from the bar, as if wanting to shove it and her away, then turned his glower to Marana. Marana said something further to him and he whirled, vanishing too quickly behind a door in the far corner. Alie blinked against disbelief and focused on taking a breath, realizing now she’d been holding it. The oddness of the situation startled her. He had looked at her as if she was his worst enemy, but she was sure she had never seen him before. What he could have against her, she couldn’t fathom. She toyed with the idea that she had imagined it all but realized that thought was crazy. She wasn’t so delusional to imagine a look like that and she felt his animosity.

“Hi Honey,” Marana gripped her hand. “Sorry, this place is crazier tonight than it’s been all month. Must be the storm bringing them in. Are you all right? What’s wrong?”

Alie shook the odd sensation off and smiled for her friend. “I’m fine, just fine. It is a bit crazy in here, but that’s good for business.”

“I suppose so. Let me get you something to eat, you’re usual?”

“Sure.” Hot stew was perfect for a night like this and she hoped it would dull some of the chill caused by the nephew’s glare.

Marana bustled about, quickly dishing up the steaming stew and adding two slices of fresh baked bread to a plate. She served it with the speed and confidence only she could master then folded her arms on the edge of the bar. “Are you sure you’re all right? You look a little pale.”

Alie shook her head and blew steam from a spoonful of the hot meal. “Perfectly fine. Just, well, I was wondering who you were talking to. I’ve never seen him before.”

“Ah,” Marana sighed. “That would be Tarenek, my brother’s temperamental son.”

“I didn’t know you had a brother.”

Marana waved the thought away. “Cedrik’s a great deal older than I am and he lives with his wife in the upper lands. Tarenek, though, he…he resides down here, wherever his whim takes him. He’s actually the ranger I promised to help you.”

Alie nearly choked on the swallow of stew. She quickly took a bite of bread to hide the cough.

“Watch, it’s really hot,” Marana gestured to the bowl. “It’s going so fast tonight I haven’t been able to keep the pot full so it was just boiling.”

Alie nodded and decided to wait until it cooled more. “He—was he upset about something?”

“That boy’s upset about one thing or another all the time, I swear. But he’s excellent at what he does. I guess it’s probably all his solemnity that makes him as good as he is. He will get you and all the cattle through, get that contract honored, I promise you.”

Alie smiled despite the uncertainties rushing her thoughts. Her mouth went dry at the idea of Tarenek, alone with her in the forests with nothing but a hundred cows and seven ranch hands for miles around. If not for the angry look in his eyes, she could have enjoyed the fantasy. In fact, she almost could still.

“After you finish, we’ll go in and discuss details. He’s promised to wait so don’t feel you have to rush.”

“Thank you,” Alie said but her stomach tightened so much the delicious meal in front of her suddenly seemed more like a chore. She nursed it down as best she could, taking a lot longer than she wanted, then very reluctantly followed Marana through the door into the secluded room.

Tarenek stood in the shadows of the office, a dark hidden form except for his eyes. She felt as if lightning somehow broke through the roof and zapped her with a bolt of heat and nervous energy. He turned directly to Marana.

“I said I wanted to talk to you. Only you. Not her.” He stabbed one gloved finger through the air, aimed at her.

“Tarenek,” Marana gasped.

“Now,” he said, his deep voice viciously harsh through clenched teeth, Alie couldn’t force herself to stand still. She mumbled something about waiting outside, stumbled over the threshold and shut the door a little too loudly. Thankfully, the layer of voices in conversation muffled the sound.  

If her only other choice was taking the herd north alone, she would rather do so than put her life in the hands of Marana’s nephew.

 


Chapter Two

 

“What in creation’s name is wrong with you!” Marana spat at him. She furrowed her brows into an angry V. “You’ve always been antisocial, I’ve come to accept that, but this, that—rude doesn’t begin to express it.”

Tarenek stood pillar still, understanding her reasoning. A part of him felt as if he should apologize, but if he did, he was afraid that would fix it and Alie would be brought back. He couldn’t allow that but he had no idea how to explain it and not sound fully crazy.

“You need to find another Ranger to take her,” he said as calmly as he could.

Marana stared wide-eyed at him, her jaw slack. He looked away, not able to face her.

“You promised me,” she said. “You promised you would keep her safe, you are the only one able to do that without fail, you know why.”

He shook his head too violently. He sensed Alie even now, a hot and powerful tug threatening the iron hold he kept on his energies. “I did, I promised, and this is how I’m keeping her safe. I need to go.”

“You will not. I understand you are not actually my nephew, that you have a great many years over me, but I will not stand here and watch you abandon this poor girl for no reason at all. Tarenek, you’ve never been so unreasonable. I don’t understand.”

“No, you don’t, and you can’t.” The heat of his earlier anger drained a bit. “Marana, you say you’ve come to trust me. Please, trust me now when I say it is for the absolute best that I not be the one to go with this girl.”

“Alie,” Marana said sharply.

Tarenek flinched, not able to bring himself to say her name. He still couldn’t get the image of her dancing in the rain out of his mind. It was almost as clear as her screams from his nightmare.

“If I send her out there with anyone else, she’ll be dead before she clears the other side of the forest. Taren, I know this, I feel it. I promised safety to her and her mother. You can’t let your fears of yourself condemn her.”

She stood, her eyes, her very soul pleading with him, nearly breaking his resolve. He whirled away from her. “You send her out there with me,” he said, struggling to keep his voice steady. “You insist on this and you are condemning her to a worse death. Don’t do that. Don’t, because you will also be cursing me. And then where do I exile myself?”

He turned back to see if she heard him and stumbled from her nearness. She reached out one hand and pressed it to his cheek, such an alien feeling, he gasped and jumped away. It was the tears in her eyes that kept him from fleeing out the door.

“There, don’t you see, I managed to feel your flesh and I’m fine. How many years has it been, Taren?  Two hundred seventy or more?  When are you going to forgive yourself?”

He shook from the mention of it, the wicked memory clawing from the depths of his mind, threatening to regain power. He swallowed, unable to breathe.

“I don’t know exactly what happened,” Marana said, her voice too gentle. “But I do know no one blames you. It was an awful situation and you were young. Everyone knows it was out of your control.”

“I permanently maimed a Dreovid.” He growled. “Me, my powers.”

“Not permanently. She has healed almost fully.”

“A Dreovid, Marana. Maybe you don’t know what that means exactly.”

“She was in danger, your mother, you were trying to help.”

Acid tears burned the edges of his eyes. Tarenek fought the memory but it stormed too violently to the surface anyway. His mother face to face with the rogue drako. He had only wanted to pull her to safety, to stop the drako.

His stomach twisted painfully and his blood raced with energy dangerously close to escape even now, always. He had unleashed it on that day, unleashed it and watched the drako turn to dust as his energies shook, breaking the very bonds that gave everything shape. If his mother had been anything less than the powerful Dreovid she was, he would have killed her too.

He dropped onto the chair, fully defeated, exhausted, and hating Marana for dredging it all up again. “Doesn’t matter what I was trying to do,” he whispered. “It only matters what I did do. It is exactly what they were warned about, why they were told to kill me.” He looked up at Marana then. “They should have. I was young enough when they were warned, they could have.”

A tear slipped down Marana’s pink cheek. She swatted it away. He hated her pity.

“It’s been so many years since then, Taren. You’ve done so much in helping protect all of us from the wrath of the Niribarians and humans alike. How do you know you don’t have more control over your powers now? Maybe now, after maturing as you have, it wouldn’t happen like that. How do you know?”

Tarenenk ground his teeth together to keep the sarcasm from being too sharp. “I don’t know anyone who would like to be the experiment,” he said. “And I don’t feel it any differently than I did then. I wasn’t all that young then either. I was a seasoned warrior, twenty some years.”

“No, they said you were still growing, you were hardly more than a teen-ager.”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“Maybe not, maybe so. What is it about Alie that set you off like this? What? Because she’s the sweetest kid I know. She can’t be a threat to you. She’s been through some hard times, Taren. Her husband an arranged marriage she wasn’t all that thrilled about, but she dealt. Then he got himself into this mess with Falkrany. The only thing she has now is this ranch. If he takes it from her—I hate to think what will happen to her and her mother. It would be much worse than whatever it is you fear.”

Tarenek shook his head, too tired now to argue verbally. He looked over at the solid and heavy door, sensing Alie moving away, and then she left, back out into the storm. He relaxed as the charge from her soul left his.

“I realize this probably seems so ridiculously simple to you, but as for her safety, I trust you. Explicitly. Isn’t that enough?” Marana said.

“You have no idea,” he said and rubbed his face again. He felt calmer now, but fatigued, strangely so.

“I might not be some god-enhanced human, but I can read people. I can not in any way believe you could harm anyone who didn’t mean harm to another.”

“Even if I tell you I’ve seen her die, this...” Tarenek lifted his gaze angrily to her. “This Alie. I’ve seen her die as a result of my powers.” He shuddered at speaking it out loud.

Marana watched him. Her tears dried. She suddenly stooped down right in front of him. “Saw how?”

He shrugged, knowing how crazy it would sound to someone who didn’t understand. “In a clairvoyant dream, a constant dream.”

Marana reached gingerly for his hand, gently grasping it. He was thankful for the leather keeping him from feeling her full touch. “Dreams aren’t always what we translate them to be, not even you, Taren. It could be something completely different. Maybe you are to help her—the screams, to keep it from happening, is that not a possibility?”

Tarenek closed his eyes, too exhausted to think further. He always awoke when he heard the girl’s torture. “Not a chance worth taking,” he whispered.

“I don’t doubt you for a moment. I don’t and she needs you to do this. I need you to. Keep your distance from her if you must but watch over her. Please. I’ve never felt a need of anything as strongly as I do this. Can’t you trust a woman’s intuition for that?”

Tarenek wondered if she had any idea of what she was asking him to do. Even now he felt Alie’s energy pulling at him, teasing him. To be near it but refuse it for too long would not be possible. But if he could keep his concentration on the cattle, if he could move them all along quickly enough…. But if he failed, if the dream came to pass, he would not be able to continue on. Then he would have to make Elek end him, somehow. With that resolve, he slowly, ever so slightly nodded his head.

“Good, I’ll call her back in now.” Marana stood.

“Can’t,” Tarenek said and looked at the door. “She left a few minutes ago.”

“How do you—” Marana scowled. “Well, then, I suggest you go find her. I can’t leave with all the business in here and it’s your fault she went.”

Tarenek stood and bowed his farewell to her, thankful to finally be free of her. And once out the door he could vanish into the storm, back to Elek and far away from Alie.

 

~*~

 

Alie shrugged into her still damp riding coat, cinching it tight around her waist. The storm had worsened and she couldn’t force herself to sleep. She finally convinced herself it was due to worry over the herd, all one hundred head gathered in a field outside of town. She had brought along several extra head to guard against the loss of a few. She wanted nothing used as an excuse for Falkrany to reject her efforts like he had so often Jerridan’s. The thought of what her spouse had gotten himself—and her by extension—involved in still bristled her anger. She wanted it finished.

If she didn’t know about Falkrany and what he was after with the possession of her ranch, she would let him have it, but if she did, once she did, he would have his foothold on this coast. With that, he could change it, just as he did in Markson Shore. And the land she loved wouldn’t remain beautiful and loosely tamed. He would overrun it and the people. She had to try and stop that from happening.

Thunder slammed in the clouds so viciously it echoed in her chest. She glanced up at the dark heavens now, but saw only the silver sheen of the downpour. It took a few moments more for her eyes to adjust enough for her to decipher buildings and posts from muddy streets. She pulled her hat tightly down on her head, its wide brim shielding her face, and dashed off, knowing her way to the horse stable by heart. She quickly bridled her tall buckskin mare, but ignored the saddle. She didn’t wish to have it soaked. She leaped easily onto Rhast’s back and nudged her out into the storm, out the opening in the stone barrier wall, and into the grasslands.

Lightning cracked the clouds open and splashed a blink of daylight over the fields. She knew then what had drawn her from her room. Barit, Goran, and Joli shouted to each other. Another flash of light showed the scattered herd too clearly. Alie leaned down and kicked Rhast into a gallop, racing as quickly as she could into the field. She had to reach the front of the herd and keep them from the cliffs. Cows bawled and ran in varying directions. More thunder exploded, chasing the animals as if a great whip snapped down from the sky to lash at them. She leaned close to Rhast, flying past Barit, ignoring the sting of the rain on her face when her hat fell back.

If even a quarter of the herd was lost, she couldn’t replace them for another season. That would be too long. Akil, or at least she thought it was Akil, shouted something at her, but she ignored him, intent only on reaching the head of the scattered herd. Night fully concealed the cliff she knew waited out ahead. Somewhere. She turned Rhast, glancing quickly about, using the lightning flash as it streaked through the furious clouds to gain her bearings. Claec was across the herd, turning his horse toward her.

Two cows nearly slammed into Rhast. Alie reined the horse to the left and right, intent on turning the bovines around. Then she caught the sound of thrashing waves over the screams of the storm. The precipice was a lot closer now than she had feared. She glanced back in near panic wondering how she had come so far so quickly. She screamed at the dumb animals, willing them back. Rhast reared, startling Alie and she slipped on the horse’s soaked hide, barely holding onto the mane.

Something was in the dark, something more than the storm-spooked herd and horses. She saw the streak of some small thing the size of a dog, and the dark shadows of cows lumbering by her in a whirl. She shouted her frustration, ordered the men to gain control of the herd, demanded it even though she suddenly knew how impossible it was.

Then Claec on his pale stallion broke out of the shadows. Frost reared, something the horse never did and she knew then the rider was not the short, stalky ranch hand she had hired three years ago. This man was tall and sleek and launched from the saddle to land on his feet in front of her where black shadow of rock turned to gray mist. Alie held onto Rhast as the mare reared again, dangerously close to the edge of solid earth.

The herd suddenly curved. The animals turned in a fluid stream as if the cliff shot up instead of down. Alie stared even as she hung on to reins and mane to keep from falling. The dark shadow of a small predator shot out from the herd, caught before the man. He reached for it and the animal streaked south away from the bawling bovines.

Rhast stomped her hooves to the sodden soil. Alie straightened on her back and peered at the man. A wide hood concealed his face. Even so, she recognized the dark clothing and the potent energy. She shivered, wondering if he glared at her as hatefully as he had at the tavern.

Men shouted to her. She answered without looking away from the new arrival. He moved along the edge of the sea cliff, his cloak blowing in the thrashing wind. He bowed his head to her as he passed and vanished into darkness.

Alie brushed rain from her face, blinked, but her eyes burned from rain and couldn’t peel away the layers of storm and night. She nudged Rhast ahead, wondering if the man was walking all the way back to town and in the next second, wondering why she cared. She halted Rhast as the downpour washed over her. She shook, but not from the chill. The reality of her situation leaked into her as the precipitation piled on, soaking into every seam, every joint, down her throat, into her shirt to the waist band of her trousers. Fabric clung to her thighs. She felt completely and totally miserable and far too vulnerable to this wicked world. Rhast lumbered forward, her head down, her sides swelling from heavy breaths.

Alie slid from her back, stumbling when her boots hit the uneven ground. Dozens of hooves had left deep pocks in the soil. Alie dropped Rhast’s reins and raised her face to the rain. She focused only on the sting of each drop to her face, eyelids, and then spit water from her mouth and swallowed her scream.

She never wanted to run cattle. She never wanted to feel so trapped, so alone, so against all odds. But it was all handed to her no less and she had to find a way to deal. It also wasn’t an option to show the men just how doubtful and how unwilling she was. She lowered her head, wiped her hair and fresh rain from her eyes, repositioned her hat, and parted her lashes. Someone stood just in front of her.

Lightning flashed, glittering in his stormy blue eyes. She wasn’t sure he was real for a moment, he stood so still, so solid against the storm, his hood and blowing cloak gone, leaving his hair and tight black coat to the elements. Then he turned his head, looking back toward the herd and the distant shimmer of town. She moved ahead, suddenly not sure she wanted to be alone with this man or why he was there at all after the outburst at the tavern. He turned toward her as she moved by him.

She felt him there, following her. She did her best not to seem too obvious in her glances over her shoulder. Common sense told her she should feel nervous with him just steps back and to her right, but instead she felt an uncanny feeling of safety.

It seemed to take forever before she reached the outer field where the herd had once again gathered. The shadowed forms of the ranch hands, her husband’s friends, all mounted on their horses, including Claec on Frost, bunched the cows tightly together once again.

Other riders were there as well and she realized they were preparing the herd for a drive east. She stiffened, wondering what was happening, then frantically looked for Rhast, but the mare had most likely made her way back to the dry stable. One rider reined his horse up next to her and leaned down. She recognized his bearded face as one of the farmers from Marana’s tavern.

“Ain’t ‘specting this storm to let up for a few more hours,” he shouted and she still hardly heard him. “My farm’s just over the ridge and I’ve got a pen that’ll fit your herd here. Not the best fence, but it’ll be a lot easier for your boys to keep ‘em corralled.”

Alie nodded. “Much appreciated, give me a minute to get my horse.”

“No need, we’ll get them there for you. You head on back into town for the night. I’ll send half your men back once we get ‘em all settled. No sense all of you being exhausted when this clears.” He snapped the reins of his horse and raced off after her retreating herd. She cringed at seeing them go, too aware of what could happen when she wasn’t looking.

“Mr. Calkroun is a good man.” The voice drifted to her from over her shoulder, impossibly quiet and intensely clear. She whirled to face Tarenek, startled by his nearness.

She wanted to say something, anything but the storm would steal her words away unless she shouted. “I…I have to find my horse,” she said and hurried into the street. Most of the buildings were dark save for the front room of the inn, where she had rented rooms for herself and her men, and the windows of Marana’s tavern at the center of town. She wished now she had rented rooms on Marana’s second floor instead. Something about her building was more inviting than the inn.

Alie wrestled with her hat, the leather strap tangling in her curling locks and dragging over her neck. She slapped it to her side when she finally got it free of her hair. Water streamed from the wide brim and from her coat, spraying horizontal drops against the vertical ones still falling from night hidden clouds. She hurried a little faster along the street when the shelter of the stable grew distinct in the torrents.

The humid air, thick with the scent of hay and horse, wrapped her instantly when she stepped through the sheet of falling water that curtained the wide door. Rhast stood at the far end, soaked and none too calm. She hurried to her horse, holding her hands out.

“Shhh, girl, it’s all right now. All right.”

Rhast jerked her head high and jumped away from her. Alie stood still, talking softly until Rhast settled enough for her to place her hand on her forelock and then take a gentle hold of the reins. “Sorry girl, so sorry for throwing you away like that.”  Rhast snorted and shook her head as if to scold her. Alie smiled through a moment of amusement before everything crashed in on her again.

The sound of the sheeting water slapped louder for a split second and then she wasn’t alone in the building. She turned and faced Tarenek. In the dim solar lights of the stable, she saw him fully and half expected to find him glaring at her, but his expression was much softer, yet no less intense.

She scowled at the thoughts trickling through her mind. “Is there something you wanted?” She did her best to sound annoyed.

“Are you always so crazy reckless?”

Alie felt her eyes widen in total disbelief. He thought her reckless? And for what? The thought was absurd.

The right corner of his lip curled almost into a smile and she silently swore she would throw something at him if he did. Instead he seemed to tightly control his expression. “Marana tells me you’re in need of a ranger to take you through to Markson Shore.”

He said it with an authority, a finality that aggravated Alie’s tired mind almost as much as his first comment. He breathed deep then and bowed his head to her. “Tarenek Brye Annis. And I’ll be that ranger. I’ll keep an eye on the weather and let you know a few hours in advance when we can leave.”

“Excuse me?” she said, wondering when he gained permission to say when they left or not.

“I’ve been asked to look after your well-being,” he said.

“Not by me.”

Again, the corner of his lip curled up ever so slightly. “I was informed otherwise.”

“A few hours ago, maybe. What’s your problem?”

“Everything,” he said.

Alie nearly stumbled from the quick response. She frantically searched for the right words to reply. “Well, not me. I’m not your problem at all.”

He bowed his head again, so mannerly. It seemed extremely odd to her. “You don’t need my help?” he asked.

“I’m sure I can find someone else, someone who knows as much as you supposedly do. Don’t feel you have to be inconvenienced by me at all.”

“Alie,” he said, stopping her, but almost seeming pained by her name before he looked down, the first time he broke eye contact since she met it.

“Coralie Angenil,” she said as formally as she could muster. He raised his gaze to her again, sending a shiver through her heart. His eyes were absolutely and stunningly gorgeous coupled with his beautiful face.

“Coralie,” he said in a whisper that sent quivers through her being. “I apologize for our first meeting going as it did and assure you the problem has been…resolved.”

“Money?” Alie said, the heat of anger rising again. For him it took so little to spark. Every man seemed so hung up on money. She slapped her hat to her thigh to keep from throwing it and stormed toward him. “I will not let Marana pay my way, and I can’t afford—”

“I don’t need money,” he cut in so calmly his voice doused her anger as thoroughly as the rain soaked the ground. He took a step back from her to where the splash of the storm water falling from the roof reached him.

Had he moved away from her? She took another step forward to test the theory. This time he straightened even taller but didn’t move into the storm.

“If you have a problem with me, Mr. Brye Annis, don’t feel you need to torture yourself.”

He looked to the right then, his eyes darker than before. “I’ll take you and your herd of one hundred twenty to Markson Shore. I’ll see Mr. Falkrany honors that contract of yours, no exceptions. You will keep your ranch. All I ask is that you don’t question me. I make my decisions based on my experience, for the safety of you, your men and your animals. Don’t question it. You will owe me nothing else. Agreeable?”

Alie stared at him and realized she was holding her breath again. People had made promises to her before, but Tarenek did much more than promise. There was a finality to his words, a refusal to do anything less than what he stated. He watched her now, the intensity still pouring from him. She finally managed to force a nod.

“Get some sleep,” he said with another polite dip of his head. Then he bowed into the sheet of water, and was gone.

Alie stared after him, seeing nothing beyond the shimmering river falling from the roof to slap the ground, wearing a ditch in the hay and soft mud where it landed. She finally managed to suck in a slow inhale. The thought she should chase after him and refuse his show of chivalry swept through her and fell away as quickly as water ran from her coat. She sagged against Rhast, leaning on the horse and realizing she was at a total loss in the situation. No amount of denying or fighting it would help. She would follow Tarenek Brye Annis, wherever he ordered her to go.

She turned Rhast loose into a dry stall, but couldn’t keep her thoughts from drifting out into the night. Somewhere out there, Tarenek wandered, the man who considered everything his problem. She thought of his name, so different from Marana’s. Then she remembered Marana’s maiden name. It wasn’t Brye Annis. Alie quivered from the sound of it even in her mind. She’d never met anyone with a double surname before, but he had definitely paused between the syllables yet not so much as to denote them as separate names.

She hurried from the stable and back into the stormy night, not caring about her apparel or state of appearance. It was late when she reached the tavern again and she was relieved to find it empty except for Marana and several of her employees. The smell of spilled ale and grilled food permeated the space.

“I’m sorry, we’re….” Marana turned and raised her hands in greeting. “Aile, thank the gods! Worried me, you running out like you did.”

“You’re closed,” Alie said, finishing Marana’s first statement.

“You’re not a customer, you’re family, come on in, goodness, you’re soaked through to the skin, let me get you something dry.”

“No, really, I just came to ask you a couple questions, then I’ll head back to my room and dry off there.”

Marana motioned for her to take a seat at one of the cleared tables. “Ask away.”

Alie suddenly felt foolish, a schoolgirl asking after a first crush, but this was so much more than that. She had a right to know the things she wanted if she was to trust her life to someone else.

“Your nephew,” she began, finding it hard to bring up all the words. “He introduced himself as Tarenek Brye Annis. I was just wondering, I mean, that’s not your maiden name, but you said he was your brother’s son.”

Marana smiled. “So he did find you then?”

“Well, yes, he helped bring the herd back in after something spooked them.”

“Spooked them, is everything all right?”

“Fine, I just—after his reaction here. I mean, does he have some sort of personality disorder or something?”

Marana laughed a hearty sound. “Oh, I would love to see his face if he heard you say that, or maybe not, he might agree with you, but no, he’s of sound mind, as sound as the rest of us. And yes, his name is Brye Annis. It’s his mother’s name. She’s from a different culture in the upper land, from a high-ranking family. To preserve her family line through the generations, her children and my brother’s are given her name.”

Alie nearly melted into the chair with relief, feeling worse than foolish. “I’m sorry, it all just struck me as very odd. I mean, did I do something to upset him? Even in the stable, he was a perfect gentleman but I got the feeling he couldn’t stand to be there with me. So I have to ask, is someone compensating him behind my back, because I can’t have that, I don’t want to be indebted to anyone else—ever.”

Marana reached across the round table and gripped her hand tightly. “You won’t be. I simply asked him to watch after you, nothing more. He’s not really in need of anything more.” 

“Then what is it? The look he gave me earlier, I’m not sure I want to go to Markson Shore with him.”

“His fear earlier was of failing you. What he showed was anger he felt toward himself, not you. And you left before I got him talked down. He’s a lousy one when it comes to dealing with people. Comes with being a good ranger, I suppose.”

“Is there really no one else?” Alie said softly, watching down at her hands, her fingers wrinkled from the water.

“There are other rangers, you know that. But none like Tarenek. He can do things no one else can and he will absolutely get you through. If I had known before Jerridan…” Marana sighed.

Alie squeezed her friend’s hand. “Even I didn’t know it all before. I had no idea he was in so much danger. I guess maybe that’s why I’m being so cautious now.”

“Cautious is a good thing. And Tarenek is your back-up when cautious isn’t enough.”

“If he’s so good, why would he be so…upset about failing me?”

Marana raised her brows at the question. “Well, first, he is extremely modest. He would never admit he’s good at what he does. Second, I honestly can’t tell you why he worried so much about it where you are concerned. Maybe my dear nephew finally finds himself fancying someone. He wouldn’t be the first in this town to be taken with you.”

“Oh, please. Look at me.”

“I do, all the time. Anyway, I doubt he’ll be easy to deal with at least at first until he works through whatever it is he has to work through. Be patient with him, ignore his odd behavior as much as you can. No one is saying you have to put up with him forever, just a couple of months until you get where you’re going and possibly back again. Right?”

Alie forced a smile. “Exactly. I suppose I just wanted to understand a bit more about the man who’s going to be taking me out into the unknown.”

Marana patted her hand again. “You sure you don’t want something warm, a drink of tea, you’re soaked to the bone?”

Alie plucked the collar of her coat out and half laughed. “That I am, but I’ll get this way again the moment I step outside.  I should go anyway. Tarenek says we’ll leave as soon as the storm clears so I best make sure I’m ready.” She raised her brow at that, feeling like she was a child again. She hugged Marana gingerly to not make her too wet and promised to take care before she forced herself back into the storm yet again.

 


Chapter Three

 

 

 

Tarenek sat on the high peak of the four story inn. He had watched Alie dash from the stables but she hadn’t come this way. Instead she had gone to the tavern again. It wasn’t long before she emerged, nearly as bright as a star even in the downpour.

He blinked away the rain to clear his vision and shoved his dripping hair from his brow. At first, when he left the tavern, he planned to flee to the hills where Elek rested. Guilt had gotten the better of him and forced him to look in on the herd he found not far outside of town. They had seemed fine, everything calm even in the storm, but he sensed something out of sorts and shortly after, someone set a hungry feline into the animals, unleashing chaos. He couldn’t simply leave then. He tried again after clearing the threat. He was certain Alie had lost sight of him in the storm before she dismounted. She had believed she was alone. It was then he felt the coursing of her energies change in the air, change with the weight of despair. Even now, even with it just a fresh memory, he ached from her pain and in that moment, he knew he couldn’t leave. He simply had to be stronger and do what he must to see her safely through.

He looked up again, expecting to see Alie hurrying to the door several stories below him but instead he found her stopped in the street. Her shimmering aura glowed pale blue and powerful against the storm. She had put her hat on again, the rim concealing her face, but he had a feeling she sensed something. Maybe him. He rolled over the peak, safely away from her view and lay back to stare into the rain clouds. The water stung his eyes, but only a little. He had become desensitized to those little annoyances over the years. In fact, he often wondered if there was anything still fully human about him.

He focused on the dark sky and the veins of high lightning, not near as potent on his flesh as Alie’s energy. She entered the building and must have climbed steps for he felt her warmth grow near. He closed his eyes then, lavishing in her essence and hating himself for it. He had let Marana’s words soften his fear, a dangerous thing. He didn’t understand why he felt Alie so intensely, so much more strongly than he had ever felt anyone else, even when he focused on a soul. With Alie, it happened so easily, so naturally. He knew when she moved, sensed when she was frightened or troubled, as he had in the field. He sat up and climbed to the peak again, watching out over the village and keeping an ear toward the farm where he heard the soft bawls of cattle even through the rain and thunder. It was then he heard another sound.

He didn’t mean to pick up on her words. The moment he realized it was Alie’s voice, he tried to block her out, but then he wondered who she was talking to. He smiled despite himself when he realized she was scolding herself about something in her thoughts. He closed his eyes and envisioned her in her room, free of the long coat, possibly dressed in something like the fluttering blouse she wore at the tavern, flowing around her thin build, still glowing. He shook himself loose of her hold, angry at himself for being so intrusive. He forced other thoughts to the surface, sobering thoughts.

South and west loomed as nothing more than mist over the ocean. Miles and miles east and north, up in the higher world, secluded in the Syrinx Mountains, was a race of people so similar to him, he felt a kind of kinship with them. He longed to speak with them now, and toyed with the idea of calling Elek and racing home, but he sensed the storm would end before he could make it back, and while he was gone, Alie would be completely on her own. He had caught something on the wind when he helped get control of the herd in the field. It remained even after he sent the feline away. Someone was already trying to make things difficult for her. Definitely not a good time for him to go. He pulled his gloves from his fingers and held his hands palm up to the rain, focusing on the energy in it, a zing not unlike the energy that accumulated to create lightning. The sensation safely pulled his mind into focus away from the woman so close beneath him. As night wore on, he felt her energy calming him as she slept. He felt safe enough then to relax his mind. Then he wondered yet again what it was about Coralie Angenil that arrested him so.

 

~*~

 

Alie couldn’t believe how easily everything was coming together. It was another full day and night of storms before Tarenek Brye Annis came with the announcement it was time to leave. It was a simple statement and then he had vanished before she had a chance to speak with him. Now, it was just after dawn, her men had the cattle under control, the two motorized transports with trailers packed with supplies had their engines grumbling and ready. She had also said her final goodbyes to her mother and waved to her now. Saralie Angenil stood on the second story balcony of Marana’s tavern too far away to view clearly but near enough for Alie to see her wave back. Saralie would watch until Alie with the herd had moved out of sight. Alie had done her best to convince her mother not to worry and hated leaving her so distraught but Alie had to go with the herd. She had to be there to sign the agreement when Falkrany did. Still, she found it hard to leave now, hard because she was all her mother had left. If not for knowing Marana would look after Saralie, a much frailer woman, she wouldn’t be able to go.

Alie rode Rhast through the organized chaos, determined to put her mind solidly on her work, and took note of the older bulls and heifers. She had neared the front of the pack when she noticed Tarenek again. She couldn’t help but wonder if he was to thank for how well everything was going. He walked now, the rein of his giant gray horse, with hooves a size and a half larger than any of her horses, loose in one gloved hand. He still wore the dark gloves and tight jacket with its high collar closed around his throat. She wondered if he would wear them even as temperatures rose. She held still as he neared, trying her best not to show any interest, but she didn’t miss the ease and strength of his movements. She forced her gaze to remain on the bulky cattle when he stopped next to her. He did nothing and said nothing for so long, she finally had to look at him, wondering what he had approached for.

“Shouldn’t take the man you call Goran,” he said. His tone was as set and determined as it had been in the stable when he promised he would see her task done.

Alie couldn’t hide her shock. She glanced out at the younger man who worked to push the herd together. Goran had been with Jerridan almost from the beginning, coming to her husband for work when he was just eighteen over two years ago. “What?” 

“Not a good idea to keep him.” Tarenek’s gaze was unfaltering, unbending, and very devouring. Still, she couldn’t contain her shock at his words.

“And why not?”

Tarenek narrowed his eyes a bit at the corners. “The deal was for you not to question me.”

Alie gasped, half choked on a word, then managed to wrangle her thoughts together. “Out there, where decisions are made based on the terrain, weather, that sort of thing. Not my workers. Goran’s been working for us for years. I…I’ve not seen a reason to remove him.”

“Not a good idea to take him,” Tarenek repeated, seemingly unphased by her statements. Alie felt the heat of anger rise from the base of her spine again. She had dealt with impossible men before, men who looked at her and saw a pretty little thing they assumed was stupid.

“Look,” she said, managing to keep her wits even when Tarenek pierced her with his intense gaze again. How could anyone have eyes so forceful? “You’ll have to give me more than that before I cut myself one man short for this. He’s capable. He’s always done well for my husband.”

“Fine,” Tarenek said and turned directly away from her. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you.” He moved off then, his back to her, but he obviously directed his gaze at Goran. The younger man halted his horse and looked toward Tarenek as if he heard his name called. The two stood motionless for a moment before Tarenek finally mounted his horse with unfeasible ease. She thought it crazy for him to have such a powerful and large animal on a trip where it would only carry him, not pull anything, but when he sat atop the gray stallion, the horse seemed perfectly right for him. She shrugged free of the thought and found Goran looking at her. She smiled to reassure him and waved him on. He tapped his hand to his forehead and raised it to her then spurred his horse back into place just a few lengths behind Claec.

She quickly turned Rhast when she realized Tarenek intended them all to leave and took up her place near the lead, behind Joli. Akil and Barit flanked the back of the herd with the supply transports driven by Laraleen, the cook, and Jacom in charge of animal and human health, brining up the tail.

The animals bawled and cried, some running into others until all were moving forward. Alie tried to keep her focus on the cattle but through the day, she couldn’t help her attentions wandering to the brooding man.

Despite what Marana had told her, she couldn’t stop feeling as if Tarenek hid something, something that maybe was concealed by all the cloth he wore. It was stranger still as the day tromped on. The sky filled with the steamy rays of sun that thickened the humidity left by the storm to soup in the air. Even she stripped her outer jacket and top-shirt but Tarenek remained in his coat in gloves. When the others were downing water from their canteens and wiping sweat from their brows, Tarenek looked as if it was a cool day in winter.

She vowed to keep a very close watch on him, mostly because of his strange behavior but she also knew something else pulled her to him, something she couldn’t discern. Tarenek rode far ahead and out of sight at times before circling back, his gaze piercing even from a distance each time he took count of the full company. When night neared, he led them to an open field next to a running stream where the herd could drink. Alie took in the view and found the dark line of Pirist forest on the north horizon. It would take at least another two days to reach its boundaries, but they had made good progress despite the heat.  

Laraleen clanged her spoon to her kettle, calling everyone in for their nightly meal. Alie smiled at her men as they passed by her but stayed mounted on Rhast. From her seat she could still see Tarenek up ahead. He didn’t seem to hear the dinner call. Alie looked back to her company, the men tossing jokes at each other and thanking Laraleen as she dished out their servings.

Alie nudged Rhast into a canter, loving the cool rush of the air as she rode out to Tarenek. She purposely stayed back a bit to not feel the full impact of his tall horse. Tarenek straightened in his saddle, his attention on something distant, yet she saw nothing.

“Laraleen rang the dinner bell,” she said. A soft breeze brushed through his hair, rippling the violet highlights. The big horse stomped its back hoof and swished its tail to swat away flies.

“I heard,” he said.

“She won’t keep it out for long.”

“Not hungry,” he said.

“Not—how do you expect to keep your strength if you don’t eat?”

He turned to look over his shoulder at her. “What do you know of rangering? I’ll have my fill later tonight when the heat is gone.”

“It’s not too hot now. Maybe you should take your coat off.”

“Maybe you should mind your own business.”

Alie flinched at that. “This, all of this, including you right now, is my business,” she said, and straightened her shoulders, ready for the confrontation this time.

Tarenek gently leaned the reins to the big horse’s neck, and the animal turned him just enough for him to look directly at her. Her heart skipped from a rush of hot energy.

“I am no one’s concern but my own,” he said very clearly. “I’ve taken care of myself out here for more years than you can—” he closed his eyes, drew in a visibly deep breath and opened them again. “Understand.” He finished with a tone meant to finalize the conversation.

Alie watched him for a moment, a strong need to not leave coursing through her. “So I’m stupid then?”

Tarenek furrowed his brow. “What?”

“If I can’t understand it, am I unintelligent? How brilliant does a person have to be to understand it?” She struggled to contain her grin when he stared blankly at her. He obviously wasn’t used to people questioning him about anything.

He wet his lower lip with the tip of his tongue but stayed quiet.

“So,” Alie said, intent on keeping him there. “How many years? You can’t be much older than I am, what, twenty-two, twenty-five at the most. So you’ve been gallivanting around out here since you were what, four?”

“I don’t…gallivant,” he said.

Alie couldn’t contain her grin any longer. She looked north, trying not to laugh out loud. “Oh,” she said. “Okay, so you traipse, or soar, or parade.”

“Skulk,” he said.

She raised her brows at that. “Sure. I can see you skulking.”

“You should go,” he said. “Laraleen won’t keep the food out long. Your words, not mine.”

Alie sighed and let her smile fade from her lips. “Fine then. I know when I’m being brushed off. You take care of yourself, just don’t go skulking off anywhere that’ll scare the herd.”

She bowed her head to him, as he often did to her, and raced Rhast back toward the transports where everyone was already making camp.

 

~*~

 

Tarenek watched the pale horse carry its rider a hundred yards away, but not nearly far enough. It was getting much too dangerous. He found himself pulled with a strong need to be closer to Alie, and she had approached him, willingly and with such…innocence, the same innocence that made her dance in the rain and argue with herself. He wondered again if she knew the dangers of dancing with lightning.  

He turned his mount back toward the forest, trying to refocus his energy on only what was ahead and not Alie but it was an exhausting task. As darkness settled, he dismounted, leaving the horse where it stood and slid silently around the herd. Or skulked as Alie would call it. Sadness ached in his chest, sadness at how little she really knew. He watched the camp, the several ranch hands around a small campfire, and Alie alone at the back of a transport. He wondered what she would have said if he told her he walked the lands, these lands, for seventy-four years and the upper lands for two hundred and ninety six before that. She really had no idea what danger she was blindly toying with when she talked with him.

His years and what he did was something she could never know, of course, and he mentally scolded himself for even playing with the idea of her learning it.

He studied each of the ranch hands. Three of them had already fallen asleep, their large hats covering their faces. One snored loudly, the sound intermingled with the sounds of the insects and occasional bawl of a cow. The one Alie called Barit sat with Laraleen, whispering quietly. He worked at a block of wood he held in his hand with a small knife. One man was missing.

Tarenek studied them all from a distance, saw Alie crawl safely into the back of a transport, hopefully to sleep, and then set out in search of the missing Goran. High clouds filled the sky, dampening the starlight, but he still saw the details of every blade of grass, every stone along the river bank. He breathed deep to focus himself on the imprint he had stored away in memory of Goran, and opened his eyes. He searched the campsite, then the horizons. The tiny glow from the man appeared far to the left, much farther out than he should be. Tarenek stepped softly along the wide creek, a whisper of wind in the water, then headed toward the glow, not at all comfortable with the muddy dark green aura he saw around the man. He recognized the shade from people who were angry at the world. And he had also seen muddy swirls of black and red in the man’s energy glow. None of it was good.

He stepped carefully, aware of every rodent and small mammal scurrying at the water’s edge. A water snake in the brush at a bend in the stream coiled tightly when he passed, its poise watchful but not interested in him. He had closed enough of the distance to sense Goran wasn’t alone when the man started moving back toward camp.

Tarenek leapt over the stream and rushed through the field, stopping in the shadows just ahead of Goran. Goran was a young man, not much older than a boy really with hair the color of sun-dried straw, in no way responsible for the energy hues Tarenek saw. Goran walked with his head down, his heavy steps crunching field grass and stones. He jerked his head up when Tarenek moved one arm just enough to get the man’s attention. Goran jumped back and swore but not before Tarenek noticed he reached to his side as if he wore a weapon there.

“What the spirits! Damn ranger. What are you doing out here?” he said and punched out at Tarenek. Tarenek easily side-stepped. 

“The question is what are you doing?”

Goran huffed and spit. “Well—can’t a man have some privacy? Not like there’s a…a decent place to relieve myself anywhere close.”

Tarenek raised his face to the air. He smelled the cattle excrements, the dew, but nothing of Goran left behind, not even with his senses so tuned-in to the man. He faced Goran again. “I’m a ranger,” he said. “Do you have any idea what that means?”

“Means you’re an arrogant ass who doesn’t answer to anyone. And I don’t have to answer to you.”

Tarenek snagged the man by the collar of his loose shirt. Goran gasped and stumbled so badly he would have fallen if Tarenek hadn’t held onto him.

“You do anything to harm Miss Angenil or her task at hand, and it is my business. You won’t like how I take care of business I see as harmful. Understand?”

Goran swung at him, grumbling under his breath, obviously not listening. Tarenek tossed him to the ground. Goran scrambled away. He snickered when he regained his footing and stood. “You think you’re so grand with that ranger title. You have no idea what’s going on here, none. And you never will. I heard what Alie told you, to let me alone. You thought you could get rid of me.”

“And you have no idea why I’m onto you,” Tarenek said, turning as Goran circled him.

“Don’t matter,” Goran said. “You’re just a crazed ranger, everyone knows it.”

“Absolutely,” Tarenek said, feeling wild energies grow hot in his palms. “So crazed people disappear around me. Don’t forget that.”

Goran huffed again, but he halted his pace. He backed away from Tarenek, turned, and ran. Tarenek watched after him for a moment before focusing his full attention on the person he sensed just out of sight over the slight rise. Whoever it was noticed him turning back because they fled on foot, a tall male with lanky strides. Tarenek waited until all sounds of the intruder were gone, then hurried back to camp. He hid out of sight with the stream separating him from the others until the wee hours when even Goran slept. Joli and Akil rose to replace Claec and Barit on watch with the herd. None noticed him. The other men in Alie’s small troop were all trustworthy enough. Claec held some hidden shame for something, nothing Tarenek thought important. He watched the transport with the back open to the night save for the soft flutter of fabric. Alie slept just inside, hidden except for her brilliant life force glow.  

Tarenek walked the west perimeter of camp and animals, then sat to stare at the cloud streaked sky but couldn’t relax, not even a little. The early hours had never seemed so long before. When need chewed away all resolve, he crept across the stream and nearer to the transport. No one moved, no one sensed him at all. He was a ghost in the night. A spirit of death. He stood outside the flutter of fabric, just able to see Alie’s sleeping form on top of several covers and drink in the intoxicating feel of her life force. She had removed her boots and lay with her knees pulled up and one arm stretched out to the side, the other tucked close around her middle. He fought the urge to move closer, hating himself for giving in to the need to be so near to start. He closed his eyes against the ache of what he could never know and never risk. He had to be stronger, to stay farther away. He only wished there was a way to keep her from approaching him like she had earlier. It was those times that drew the temptation close to the surface so strongly it muddled his caution.

Somewhere south, the soft distant howl of a wolf drifted through the air, barely audible over the creaks and chirps of insects in the field and burping amphibians from the stream. He had to focus on those familiar things. Not Alie. Not at all. He gritted his teeth and hurried away, back to the front of the herd where he found his horse grazing. He swung into the saddle and stared back at the transport, torn by leaving Goran there so close to the woman he had to refuse to be near.

All Text and Artwork on this site is Copyrighted.
2009-2013 T.C. McMullen