The room was decorated in a fantasy of opulence. Silk, velvet, and satin abounded. Rich jewel tones gleamed in the light of scented candles. Leena was unable to suppress a shiver of fear as she was led into the Lady's private chambers. She had never been here before. There was little need for a lowly kennel girl to enter the private domain of the Lady, and Leena did not know what had prompted this summons.
"Do sit down, child." The languid voice of the Lady emerged from an artfully shadowed nook. Leena sat hesitantly on the edge of a velvet-cushioned settle, wishing the messenger had at least given her enough time to change. She doubted Lady Eliana would appreciate dog hairs on her furniture. "I am sure you are wondering why I have sent for you."
Leena nodded, peering into the shadows. She could just make out a figure seated in a deep wingback chair.
"I have a proposition for you." The Lady paused. A hint of motion suggested the movement of a fan. "It would involve a bit of deception on your part, but the rewards would be substantial."
"I beg your pardon, my Lady?" Leena's eyes widened with shock.
With a rustle of silk, Lady Eliana rose from her chair and moved into the room at last. "Let me look at you, child." She glided over to Leena and took her chin in one gloved hand, turning it this way and that. The Lady's sharp eyes took in every detail- the clear complexion, the thick, amber-colored hair, the clear hazel eyes... and the sturdy hands and well-toned muscles of one who was accustomed to working with dogs for a living. She frowned slightly at the scruffy working clothes, more so when she spotted the fine scars collected from teeth and claws. "Gloves, most certainly..." she murmured. In a louder tone, she continued. "Perhaps you are aware that my son is of an age to marry."
Startled, Leena nodded. Quite possibly every citizen of the Barony knew this fact.
"He has done little towards achieving this goal, and I grow weary of his games. He has rejected out-of-hand every eligible lady in the district."
"Everyone knows this, my Lady. What can any of this have to do with me?"
"Everything, child. I would have you collect information for me."
"My son is drawn to those who need his help. We shall manufacture a situation in which you appear to be a Lady in distress. Then, when he rescues you from this situation, you will make yourself his close friend and confidant. You will find out exactly why he has not chosen a bride, what qualities he is looking for. This information will be given to me, that I may coach an appropriate bride in the way to catch my son."
"My Lady- I- I cannot-" Leena was speechless with shock. This was nothing short of cold-blooded manipulation, and she felt dreadfully sorry for the young lord.
"In exchange, of course, you shall be well taken care of. We can arrange the details later, but I can assure you that your success will mean you need never soil your hands in a kennel again."
Leena drew breath to reject the offer. Such a thing did not even bear considering.
"Do not answer now," the Lady commanded. "You will now return to your quarters. Think on this, and give me your answer by this time tomorrow."
With a graceful swirl of skirts, Eliana turned and left the room. Leena rose slowly, mind filled with incredulous disbelief. She could scarcely credit that a mother would seek to entrap her own son so. Seeing little alternative, she returned to her own quarters.
Here she found yet another surprise. Crammed into her small room were three maids, with an assortment of toiletry items and a fantastic gown.
"It is my Lady's order that we clean you and dress you," said one of the maids. "She bids you to consider such treatment carefully, and observe the result."
Rather amused by this, Leena submitted tamely to the ministrations of the maids as they did arcane things to her skin and hair. This gave her plenty of time to think on the Lady's words, and to reject the plot thoroughly. Although she did not know the young Lord Varley at all, she doubted that he deserved to be manipulated into choosing a wife he had already rejected once.
"If the lady would care to look in the mirror...?" The maid's voice intruded into her thoughts. Leena glanced into the mirror and gasped. Was that her? She had not known she could look so fine, as though she were a lady in truth and not a mere dressed up kennel girl. Satin slid smoothly against skin accoustomed to wool and cotton. She twisted about, eager to see every angle of herself in the full length mirror the maids had brought along.
"My goodness, what a difference a proper gown makes!" she exclaimed aloud, twirling delightedly and enjoying the feel of the satin swirling about her ankles. A part of her that was vain and greedy for pretty things urged her to reconsider the Lady's offer. But no, she was no lady. No matter how she was dressed, her manners were those of a kennel girl- she had no more idea how to behave amongst the nobility than a fine lady had of how to break up a dog fight. Reluctantly, she turned to the maid who seemed to be in charge.
"Beautiful though this gown is, I cannot possibly-"
"No, lady," the maid interrupted. "You are to keep the gown, as a reminder of what awaits you. We have performed our duty, and will leave now."
With that, the trio quickly and efficiently gathered up their equipment and left. Leena, alone at last, sighed wistfully and ran her hand over the rich burgundy fabric. Then she strengthened her resolve and removed the gown, storing it carefully in her standing wardrobe.
* * * *
The next day, Leena was summoned once again into the Lady's rooms. She gathered her courage and followed the servant into the same fantastic bower.
"My Lady," she began, only to be interrupted.
"I trust the gown was to your liking? It is but one of many that shall be yours."
"My Lady, the gown is beautiful. But I cannot possibly do what you have asked of me."
"Refusal is not an option. You must perform this service for me."
"No, my Lady, I will not." Leena drew a shaking breath and held it. Defying the will of one's employer was scarcely prudent, but she could not bring herself to enter into the mad scheme Eliana had proposed.
"Foolish child," the Lady hissed, crossing the room to glare at Leena furiously. "You shall obey me! Do you know what is at stake here?"
Leena gulped. Her life? Her home? Her sole means of support? Certainly she knew what was at stake. But what good was her life if she couldn't look at herself in the mirror? Something in her simply would not allow her to conspire against someone who had done her no harm. "The answer is unchanged."
"Very well, then. If that's the way you want it, then so shall it be." Before Leena realized what she was doing, Lady Eliana strode to the door of the suite. "Guards!"
Two guards materialized promptly and Leena was seized by a sudden intense fear. "This girl is a thief. Detain her immediately and send for your Captain."
Leena's jaw fell. "No. No! It's not true! I'm not- I'm just not-"
"Hush now, missy, there'll be no more out of you." One of the guards moved in close to her, while the other called a page out of the busy corridor. "I don't want no trouble, hear? You just stay right there and we'll be just fine."
"But I'm not-"
"I said no talking. Now just keep your mouth shut and wait here like a good little girl."
The guard Captain arrived all too soon. Leena was kept quiet as the Lady instructed the Captain to have one of his men search Leena's quarters, watching for anything that looked out of place. This was accomplished far too swiftly for Leena's peace of mind.
The guard returned with the gown of yesterday draped over his arm.
"That gown belonged to my dear departed daughter! This little tramp had no right to even look upon it, much less take it for her own use!"
Leena felt tears gather in her eyes. "But you sent it to me yourself!"
"I did no such thing, and well you know it. Captain, I demand that you have this- creature- whipped, marked, and exiled for her crimes."
"No!" Leena moaned. The tears overflowed. "I didn't steal anything, I-"
"Silence, girl," growled the guard Captain. "Bring her along, I'll see to it myself," he said, gesturing for the other guards to follow as he left the suite.
Frantically, Leena struggled to get free of the grip on her arm.. "No, no, you don't understand! I didn't do it, please don't do this to me!"
Apart from the tightening of the grip on her arm, there was no response. Leena continued to struggle futilely, bitter tears scalding cheeks cold with fear.
They took her to the stableyard and peeled her clothes off as they attached wrists to the whipping post. Leena thought she saw a hint of pity in the Captain's eyes, but not enough to spare her this unjust punishment.
"Lady commanded it, so you must be whipped." The Captain fiddled with the slender rod used for disciplining children. "But she didn't say with what, or how many strokes. So I'll go easy on you, girl."
Easy or not, Leena still yelled in outraged pain as the whip struck her once, twice... a total of five times. Then she began screaming and struggling in earnest, for a man approached with the heated branding iron in hand.
"No!" Leena was unable to get away, tied as she was, and she felt the hot iron burn into the back of her right hand, then her left. The pain was easily the worst she had ever felt, and the stench of her own flesh as it burned gagged her. Then they took her and slung her, still naked, over the back of a horse. A party of five took her outside the gates of the manor grounds, then dumped her unceremoniously on the ground and rode off, leaving her alone on the forest road. The sun, almost repellently cheerful, shone down brightly in a sky dotted with high wispy clouds. A playful spring breeze rattled the budding branches of the trees.
Bitter sobs shook her as her mind railed against the injustice of it all. The Baroness, lovely Lady Eliana, was nothing but a lying, conniving, two-faced... she couldn't even think of an appropriate word to describe the Lady. "Bitch," applied to Eliana, would be an insult to the noble female dogs of the world.
Leena wept until her throat was dry and scratchy. The rough dirt of the road beneath her was damp and she had little strength. Apathy and dejection held her immobile. The burning pain in her hands began to take over her entire consciousness. She was so intent on her own misery that she did not even hear the sound of approaching hoofbeats.
"And what have we here?" A man's voice intruded upon her thoughts, as she stared at the brand on the back of her left hand.
"Oh please sir, please help me!" Leena struggled into an upright position. Dirt and tears mixed on her face to make her a most unlovely sight.
"Who are you, and who has done this to you?" The man dismounted from his horse, unfastening his cloak and covering her with it. Leena clutched it about her with intense gratitude, ignoring the way the wool felt against her tender back.
"My name is Leena, sir," she said, gulping against a sob at the unexpected kindness from a stranger. "I- was- a kennel girl at the Baron's estate. The Lady- no, you won't believe it." Her shoulders slumped in defeat.
"The Lady Eliana did this to you? Tell me." Disregarding the dirt of the roadway, the man knelt down in front of her, gazing earnestly into her eyes.
"She wanted me to do something," Leena said, unable to look away from the compelling gaze. "I didn't want to do it. She set me up to look like a thief, and had me whipped, marked, and exiled." A few more tears leaked out of her sore eyes. The stranger reached out for her hand where it clutched his cloak, loosening her grip and turning it so he could examine the rune burned rawly into the back, which proclaimed her a thief to all the world.
"And naturally, with these, the hand of every man will be against you. I think you'd better come with me, I know someone who may be able to help you." The man rose, pulling Leena up with him. She followed mutely, unable to see any alternative.
He remounted and offered Leena a hand. A bit nervous, since she had scarcely ever been on a horse, Leena grasped his hand and mounted behind him. She was still trying to arrange the cloak to cover as much of her as possible when the horse moved off at a gentle trot. Trying to ignore the discomfort of riding without protection for her legs, Leena held on grimly. She had no idea what was going to happen, but it could hardly be worse than what she had endured already today.
The man guided the horse onto a thread of a path through the forest. "Please, sir," Leena asked, "where are you taking me? And who are you?"
"My name is Camryn. I am taking you to my home. Do not worry, it is not terribly far."
Leena was relieved to find that this was true. The sun had scarcely traveled an hour's distance across the sky when the horse jogged into a clearing in front of a modest hunting lodge. At the sound of hoofbeats, the door opened and a man emerged. Leena gasped. It was the young Lord Varley!
"Back so soon, Cam?" The Lord smiled a welcome, then caught sight of Leena. "What's this?"
Camryn dismounted abruptly, turning to assist Leena. She tried in vain to keep the cloak about her as she slid down the tall horse's side. "This, my friend, is the latest of your mother's... projects."
"Do tell! I must know what my mother has been up to this time." Then his sharp gaze fell on the brand, showing clearly on the hand clutching the cloak. "But you are hurt. We must get you inside and cared for first."
"Th-thank you, m'lord." Leena was nearly speechless with gratitude. Her mind was stunned with the bizarre events of the day, but she retained enough wit to follow the men inside.
The young Lord led Leena through the main room of the lodge to a door in the side wall. She had a confused impression of a cross between rustic charm and comfort, then she was in a room that was entirely modern. Long and narrow, it combined a bathing room- complete with running water and flushpot- and a large closet filled with men's clothes.
"Let me see, now... His would be miles too big, surely I have something in here..." Lord Varley began sorting through the shelves and pegs, searching for something that might possibly fit Leena. "Here, this should do. I know it is hardly appropriate woman's garb, but it is better than Cam's cloak." He offered her an armful of clothing, and she took it gingerly, reluctant to get dirt on the clean cloth. "I trust that everything else will work just as well for a woman as a man, though," and he indicated the tub with a grin. "Now get yourself cleaned up a bit, and then I would like to hear your tale."
"Thank you, my Lord! More than I can say. I-"
"Hush now, clean yourself up first. And make sure to get all the dirt out of those burns, no matter how it hurts. They will heal much better if they are clean."
The Lord turned and left, closing the door behind him.
Leena could hear a low murmur of voices begin in the other room, but ignored them in favor of the tub. Amazing, really, how well-appointed this room was- a far cry from the common bathing room the kennel staff shared. She choked back more tears at the thought of her home and friends, determined to make the best of this strange situation she was now in.
Once she was clean and dry, the world seemed a brighter place. Leena pulled on the loose tan trousers provided for her, tying the drawstring tight and rolling up the overlong legs to form cuffs. Then she gingerly slid the loose cotton shirt over her head, wincing a bit as the sleeves scraped over her wounded hands. At least the skin of her back no longer felt as though it were on fire. The shirt hung nearly to her knees, and she rolled the loose sleeves up to her elbows to avoid any chance of contact with her hands. Leena giggled a bit, catching sight of herself in the long mirror. She looked like a child playing dress-up with an adult's clothes. Small wonder, though- Lord Varley was much taller than she. Her head barely came up to his shoulder, and Camryn was half a head taller still.
Leena pulled a comb through her still-wet hair, then admitted to herself that she could no longer avoid the inevitable interview. She took a deep breath, gathered her courage, and stepped through the door into the main room. Her first impression had been correct. This room was very large, and resembled a rich person's idea of rustic charm. Bed, living area, and kitchen were all combined into one large room. The furniture was heavy and roughly made, but well upholstered and covered with luxuriant blankets and furs. There was an immense fireplace along the wall, with a small fire burning to ward off the spring chill. Herbs and root vegetables hung in strings from the rafters of the kitchen. A few more fine skins decorated the walls.
Her rescuers were standing close together by the large window opposite the fireplace, speaking in low voices. Leena cleared her throat, a bit self-consciously. She had the feeling they were discussing her.
"Ah, you look much better." Lord Varley promptly turned to face her. He crossed the room and took her hands to carefully examine the backs. "You did a good job of cleaning these. Now do sit down, and tell your tale."
The two men sat on the large couch. Leena settled into a wide chair, easily large enough to hold two of her. "My Lord, you may not like this," she warned.
"Be easy, Leena. Camryn has told me already that you ran afoul of my mother, and I wish to hear the details from you."
"Well then, my Lord, it started yesterday, when the Lady called me to her rooms..." As she told her tale, more fully this time, Leena was seized by a sense of unreality. She felt dislocated, adrift in a sea of disturbing happenings. Not much made sense anymore... not her memories of the last two days, not her present location, not the fact that Lord Varley and some other man were hanging on her every word...
"So," Varley said when she had finished her tale. "My mother means to trap me into choosing a bride." The tone of his voice did not bode well for Eliana.
"As if she could ever coach one of those flitterheads to suit your tastes," Camryn said. Varley laughed, looking back at Camryn with undisguised affection.
Leena caught her breath sharply as the possible meaning of the intimate exchange sunk in. Reflexively, she glanced at the bed... the single bed. She blushed a little as both men looked at her. "Are you... uh... never mind."
"And what if we are?" Varley said coolly, one eyebrow raised. "You know the penalty... of an exile remaining in the Barony."
"Oh! Oh, yes, certainly my Lord. I have no wish to see either of you... purified, or myself hung either." Her voice dropped to a horrified whisper. She had seen a purification, once- a hideous spectacle that still turned up in her nightmares. There were churchmen in high places who held that only flames could purify the unclean sinners. She shuddered violently as she realized that she was a bare step away from the flames herself, marked as a thief and in possession of such dangerous information.
"I didn't think you would." Camryn leaned back into the cushioned embrace of the couch and stretched his arms back overhead. "I told you she could be trusted."
"Yes, well, one can never be too cautious." The cool, wary look vanished from Varley's face, to be replaced by one of calculation. "So... I think there is a way to turn Mother's little game against her. Let me think on this a bit, it could be quite amusing."
A slight movement by the fireplace caught Leena's eye. What she had first taken for another pelt raised a shaggy gray head.
"Ashley!" she yelped in delight, then was on the floor with the deerhound. Ashley rose with dignity, then sniffed Leena thoroughly and broke into a tail-wagging grin. Leena scratched her and murmured to her delightedly.
"I take it you've met our hound?" Varley's dry voice interrupted the reunion.
"Met her? My Lord, I had the care and training of her for her first year. It is good to see that she is so well taken care of and obviously happy."
"Then I owe you a debt, friend, for she is a wonderful companion, and you did a thoroughly good job with her early training."
"It was easy, with her. She is an intelligent hound."
Talk of Ashley segued into hunting tales, then into stories of other dogs, which became other subjects. The talk stretched through the afternoon and on into the night. They continued chatting without pause while Camryn prepared a meal, until all three of them were yawning.
"I must apologize for being so ungentlemanly," Camryn said, "but all I can offer you for a bed is the couch. You see-" he paused to yawn, and Leena broke in.
"No matter, the couch is fine, and is far more than I have any right to expect. I will take it and be grateful."
"In that case, then...?" Varley rose, and extended a hand to help Camryn up.
"Good night, my Lords," Leena said, around a yawn of her own. "And thank you, more than words can say."
"It is the least I can do," Varley said. "I feel somewhat responsible for your situation. Now sleep well, and tomorrow we shall see about this idea I have in my head. I must return home now, but I will get away as soon as I may tomorrow."
As Leena drifted off to sleep, snuggled into the unfamiliar softness of the couch, her tired mind worked at the puzzle of Lord Varley's behavior. Not only was he harboring an exile, but he was treating a mere servant as a friend. He had surely saved her life, and then entrusted her with a secret that could be the death of all three of them. Her muddled thoughts led to restless dreams at first, of fire and other unpleasantness. But then the nightmares faded into deep, dreamless sleep.
* * * *
Leena awoke to bright sunlight streaming in the window and a nose in her face. "Mmph," she said. Ashley licked her. "Ash, go 'way. Y'r breath stinks."
A low chuckle sounded from somewhere over her head. Reluctantly, she opened her eyes. She determined that it was no use trying to go back to sleep.
"Good morning." Camryn sounded altogether too awake.
"If you say so," Leena muttered. She rubbed her eyes and sat up, then blinked and looked around blearily. Through the uncurtained window, she saw that the sun was just over the horizon, and shining vigorously already. A few picturesque clouds hung about the horizon, glowing pink. Leena's conscience kicked her, telling her she should have been awake and cleaning kennels an hour ago.
"Not a morning person, hmm? I never was either, until I met Varley. The man delights in being awake before the birds." He gave an artistic shudder. "It's begun to rub off on me now."
"Where is Varley?" Leena asked, as she woke up enough to notice his absence.
"He's gone back off to the Baron's estate, remember? Last night. He seldom stays the night. People get suspicious, you know."
Leena nodded understanding. "May I ask- why is he treating me like, well, like a friend? I mean, I'm a servant- former servant- in his father's household, yet he talks to me like an equal and trusts me with a dangerous secret..."
"That's just how he is," Camryn said. He smiled fondly and began to straighten the blankets on the couch. Leena rose and helped him. "He's like that with everybody, of high station or low. Look at me- by rights, if he were as snooty as most baron's sons, he should never have deigned to speak to me. I was a mere forester in his father's service, not even particularly good at my job. But our paths crossed one day in a storm, and we became the best of friends."
"And then some," Leena murmured. "If you'll excuse me?" and without waiting for a response, she headed for the flushpot. Part of her was disturbed by Camryn and Varley's relationship- the part which had the memories of the "purification" deemed necessary by the Church. The rest of her knew that such things, while never spoken of openly, did happen in the servant's quarters of both sexes. She had known three other people like that before. All had been unhappy and secretive. Fortunately for them all, the eye of the Church rarely fell upon the workers of the Baron's stables and kennels.
Once finished, she appropriated a comb from the washstand to untangle her hair. She gazed in the mirror and wondered what was to become of her. The ugly red welts on the backs of her hands marked her forever outcast from society. Laying the comb down, she examined the burns. Scabs had formed overnight, and they still stung with the not quite pain of a burn.
Suddenly restless, she spun and returned to the main room. Camryn was carving a chunk off a slab of bacon.
"What is to happen to me?"
"Pardon?" He glanced up, then returned to slicing.
"You two can't take care of me forever. What happens when you tire of me, and send me out on my own?"
"Ah... I wouldn't worry about the future too much, if I were you." He laid slices of bacon in the frying pan on the cooktop. It sizzled and began to send up a delicious scent immediately. "Once Varley takes it into his head to help someone, he doesn't stop until that someone is taken care of beyond their wildest dreams. As for now, I have orders to take you into town once your hands are healed enough to wear gloves."
"Shopping." Camryn grinned at her and reached for an onion. "He's got an idea that will put the Baroness in a most awkward and embarrassing position."
"Oh does he now? Do tell." Leena crossed the room and perched on a stool in the kitchen area, gazing avidly at Camryn. Now that the shock of yesterday's experience was wearing off, she was feeling a burning desire to make Eliana pay for what the Lady had done.
"What do you suppose would happen if you were to turn up in the Baron's court on Varley's arm, playing the Lady to the hilt?"
Leena's jaw dropped in a most unladylike fashion and she stared at Camryn, momentarily speechless. Then she burst out laughing. "You mean- turn her own plot- against her!" she gasped. "And no one will know but us and her- there's no way anyone will recognize me."
"Indeed. I will enjoy watching her- ahem- discomfort- as she tries to deal with this new situation."
Leena giggled and snorted, trying to regain control of herself, as Camryn dumped chopped onions and tubers into the pan with the bacon. "Oh, this will be good. You will be there?"
"Of course. Everyone knows I am Varley's closest friend. I am at the estate several times a week, visiting." He sighed. "Sometimes it can be a bit of a hassle- the only time we're truly free to just be ourselves is when he manages to come out here, which is not often. But so far we're still alive."
Leena sighed. "What an incredible strain it must be on you both."
"Yes, but worth every minute."
The glowing smile on Camryn's face rather embarrassed Leena, as though she were intruding on something intensely private. She lapsed into silence and watched Camryn prepare the meal.
Her stomach was growling insistently by the time Camryn was satisfied with his concoction. She had lost track of what all was in the pan, but it smelled wonderful. She followed him eagerly to the table, seating herself on one of the benches as he placed a plate of food in front of her. "Thank you!" she said, and dove in eagerly. "Mmmm...."
The meal disappeared with alarming swiftness. "Where did you learn to cook like that?" Leena asked, frankly admiring. Her own cooking skills were limited to making the stew and biscuits which fed the dogs and the kennel staff. All took turns at the stewpot, but there was little skill involved in simmering a bunch of meat and vegetables all day.
"Having to eat my own cooking," Camryn grinned. "That was enough incentive for me to learn."
"I can understand that. Did you live alone, then?"
"My mother died when I was five, and my father turned to drink not long after."
"Apologies, Camryn. I am too nosy by far."
"That's okay. Now, will you be alright if I leave you here alone for a while? I do still have duties as a forester, despite the improvement in my living conditions."
"Are there any books here?" He nodded. "Then I shall be fine."
"How is it that you learned to read?"
"It was part of my duty to keep records of the breeding and training of the deerhounds."
"I see. Well, enjoy- they are located in that chest over there." He indicated a cedar chest under the window. "I shall return perhaps by midafternoon."
"Good day then, and be safe." Leena eagerly headed for the chest. She didn't mind his chuckle at all. She was barely aware when Camryn and Ashley passed her and went out the door. She selected a heavy woodbound volume titled Magick, Mystery, and Myth- True Life Stories From Anarill and settled into the comfortable embrace of a chair.
Leena read avidly through fascinating tales reported as honest truth until she became aware of discomfort. Her legs were stiff from remaining in one position so long, one foot was asleep, and the backs of her hands were burning furiously. She got up and went to investigate the contents of the bathing room, hoping to find some kind of salve to ease the dry burn. Her search turned up a tin of bag balm, and she smeared it on gratefully. The unpleasant sensation faded almost immediately.
Leena returned to the chair and resumed reading, but couldn't get back into the book. She had daydreamed many times of having a day completely to herself, when she had absolutely nothing to do, but it wasn't nearly as much fun as it should have been. She was too restless to sit still anymore, so she rose and looked around for something to do. Her eye fell on the dishes from breakfast. That would do, for starters.
Camryn's laugh rang out into the sudden silence. "I think not! Perhaps you'd care to repeat that accusation to Varley's ladyfriend? She would likely disagree with such a foolish notion."
The tension in the tavern was sharp enough to shave with. "Ladyfriend?" Tarn said carefully.
"Indeed." Camryn's tone was light, easy, for all the world as if no one had accused him of something punishable by death. "May I introduce the Lady Lenalla?" and he bowed grandly with a flourish of his arm in Leena's direction.
Taking her cue, she steeled herself and stepped forward from the shadows of the booth. Her stomach promptly twisted into knots and she summoned up all the confidence and arrogance she had been practicing for the last week. All eyes were riveted upon her, taking in every detail of hair, face, dress. She surveyed them coolly, not allowing a hint of her inner turmoil to show.
"Am I to understand there are doubts of my Lord's manhood?" She swept her gaze over them, remembering Varley's instructions- Just talk to them as you would to a particularly dense individual who insisted that they knew more than you about the care of hounds. Or perhaps a new kennel hand who questioned your knowledge... It seemed to work. There was much foot-scuffling and many abashed looks.
"No, no, my Lady," Tarn said hastily. "Never a doubt in my mind- we were just funning with him, that's all!" His eyes bulged anxiously.
"Very well, then. See that you no longer say such things, even in fun. Camryn?" She looked at him with raised eyebrow, and he offered his arm. Without a backward glance, they strode out of the tavern and into the overcast afternoon. They continued casually down the street until well out of sight of the tavern. Then Leena collapsed against Camryn and shook with the release of nervous tension.
"That was close. That was way too close..."
Camryn put an arm around her shoulders, offering comfort. "You were wonderful, though. Just continue as you have begun, and we shall win this game yet."
"I hope you are right. With stakes as high as these, we cannot afford to lose."
They continued on down the street in contemplative silence until they reached the hostel where the horses awaited their return. Then Leena spoke up quietly.
"How long before the game begins in earnest? Do you know when Varley intends to bring me to Court?"
"I'd say you have at least a week's grace, yet," Camryn replied, presenting their claim chits to the hostler. "He has to wait until the seamstress has finished your gowns, after all."
"So little time... and yet, I wish the wait was over, and I could confront the Baroness immediately." A slow wave of anger rolled over her. The day's first purchase had been a pair of gloves to cover the brands. She stroked the soft leather lightly, able to feel the outline of the runes even through the fine kidskin.
"Patience, my dear. Your time shall come." The hostelworker brought their horses out to them at that moment, and they mounted.
Leena had a moment's difficulty getting settled in her new dress. A plain gown, ready made and altered on the spot, it tugged and pulled as she tried to settle into the sidesaddle. This business of riding horses was still new to her, and she was deeply grateful that the mount Varley had provided for her was docile and smooth-gaited. Once properly arranged, she tightened her leg against the horse's side and remembered to tap with the crop on the other side. The horse, whose name was Ladybird, stepped out smartly. Leena grinned at Camryn, pleased with her success. He returned the smile and moved his own gelding out onto the main road.
"Oh blast," Leena said suddenly.
"I just realized that we never got our meal. Those men had me in such knots, I forgot all about the food we'd ordered."
Camryn chuckled. "That's not a problem. When we get back, I can show you how to make something new. Perhaps a flatbread rollup...?"
They chatted comfortably about food as the horses carried them out of town. Leena was aware of people who watched their progress from windows and doors. Her appearance was already causing quite the fuss.
When they reached the low wall that marked the border of the town, Leena sighed with relief. Perhaps this game would be more difficult than she had anticipated, but the desire to have some form of revenge on the Baroness still burned within her.
By the time they reached the hunting lodge, a light rain was drizzling down out of the heavens. Camryn put up the horses while Leena ran inside to tend the fire. Once she had a respectable blaze built out of the banked ashes, she changed out of the new dress. She was far more comfortable in cotton and wool than silk.
When Camryn returned, the two of them prepared a meal together. Leena was amazed yet again by Camryn's creativity- he could turn the most ordinary ingredients into the most extraordinary meal. They were in the middle of eating his concoction of flatbread rolled around a spicy filling of panfried meat and vegetables when a horse pounded up to the lodge. A brief moment later Varley burst in, smiling, dripping, and flushed with excitement.
"Varley! I thought you couldn't make it today?" Camryn was startled, but his face lit up.
"I bring good news, my friends!" The Lord gestured grandly with both arms and, laughing, joined them at the table. "Your little excursion into town today caused quite the sensation. People are already pestering me to know the identity of the Lady I've been keeping out in the woods." He laughed. "I told them little, of course- just enough to get them thinking I've finally chosen a bride. Then I was able to get away to come here. Since the secret's out, I said, I'm going out to visit my Lady. I will return... sometime! And then I left." He laughed again. "Now they know exactly why I've been out here nearly every day lately, or they think they do."
Camryn snorted. "Little do they know, eh? I had a feeling the word would get out, after Leena so neatly put Tarn in his place. You would have loved it- the old windbag fell all over himself trying to apologize to your 'Lady.'" He grinned, then a sudden expression of melancholy washed over his face. "I wish things didn't have to be this way... I've heard that across the great World Ocean, in Anarill, things are different."
"Yes," Leena agreed. "I've read tales of Anarill before. If they are to be believed, the people there are much more tolerant of anything. Of course, they also believe in magic and demons, but nobody's perfect."
"Be that as it may, we are in Bandor now, not Anarill, and must live accordingly." Varley smiled again, all eager anticipation like a child with a wrapped birthing day gift. "I can't wait... there's to be a grand ball in another week or so, to celebrate who knows what- another of my mother's fool notions. Shall we make that the occasion for your appearance, my Lady?"
Leena was dismayed. "A ball? But all I know is country dancing..."
"That's easy enough to fix! Come on," and Varley leapt up, extending his hand. Leena took it, unsure but willing, and he led her to the open space between the back of the couch and the window. He frowned at the bearskin on the floor. "This won't do." He kicked it aside. "Much better. Now, there are four basic movements to all the courtly dances..."
As Leena laughed and stumbled through her dance lesson, Camryn cleared the dishes and settled on a stool to watch, gray eyes troubled. After a while, he rose and went outside.
"We shall have to practice more, of course," Varley said at last, "but I think you shall do wonderfully." He escorted Leena on his arm to the couch, where she sat gratefully. Dancing this way was fun, but her feet hurt. "And now, if you'll excuse me, I'll go see what's become of Cam."
The two men were gone for quite some time. Leena busied herself cleaning the dishes from their noon meal. She smiled at the memory of getting caught that first day by the servants. She had not known servants came to clean Varley's hunting lodge on a daily basis, and they had been unaware of her presence there. Once they believed that she was a guest and not an intruder, they had been scandalized that she had washed the dishes. They had chased her out, gently but firmly, to complete the rest of the cleaning.
Done with the dishes, Leena found herself a book and curled up in her favorite chair. She hoped Varley would figure out whatever was wrong with Camryn- she hadn't missed the sad, brooding look the man wore while watching them dance.
It was late afternoon before the men returned. Leena was relieved to see them. The closer the sun dipped toward the horizon, the more she had worried.
Varley stayed overnight that night, and the one after. As he left, he promised to return again as soon as he could.
Leena's head felt stuffed full to bursting. There was so much work to being a Lady! And so much of it was pure nonsense, too. Camryn and Varley had both been schooling her nonstop when they were around. Do this, don't do that- Ladies never sit like that! Even her name required some effort to remember. True, her mother had named her Lenalla at her birth, but she had never used the name before. Everyone had always called her Leena. And then there was the riding. Varley had produced sidesaddle, crop, and mare and proceeded to instruct her ruthlessly until her knees were rubbed raw and her rear was extremely tender. But she was now capable of remaining on top of the horse, as well as telling it to start and stop. She wondered if she would survive all the things she had to learn, just to get a bit of revenge by making the Baroness look a fool.
* * * *
Leena's grand debut at the ball came about swiftly. She hoped she was ready as they entered the ballroom. The herald at the door introduced the Lord Varley, and then gave her name as Lady Lenalla. Every eye in the room turned to see her, but she had eyes only for the Baroness where she sat on the dais. Her face mirrored her thoughts clearly. Curiosity gave way to puzzlement, then outrage flashed across her face as she placed Leena as the exiled kennel girl. Leena allowed herself a small triumphant smile as Varley led her into the milling crowd of people. She would remember the look on the Lady's face for a long time. Throughout the evening Leena was aware of hate-filled glances directed her way, from not only the Lady Eliana, but a small group of young women. Presumably they were the hopeful brides. But Varley remained by her side. He refused to relinquish her to other partners- which was seen as a touching display of devotion. During the intermission, while the musicians rested, Varley was accosted by a Lord who refused to let him escape. Leena tried to remain with Camryn, who was attending the ball on the strength of being the young Lord's best friend, but it was no use. The Lady Eliana plucked her away from Camryn with ease, and the excuse that she must get to know her son's chosen Lady in private. Leena followed her into a parlor off the main hall.
"What do you think you are doing?" The Lady's voice hissed furiously. Leena smirked at her, enjoying the sight of Eliana's rage. "How dare you show your face here again, and on my son's arm no less? You are no highborn- merely kennel trash. You have no right-"
"And yet, you were perfectly willing to see me on your son's arm when it was your idea. What troubles you now, Lady? That your son has interest in a mere commoner, or that the situation is out of your control?"
"Ha!" The Lady straightened, no longer looming over Leena like a hawk stooping on prey. "The situation, as you call it, is and will remain under my control. You shall do as I planned for you all along. Varley will wed a suitable bride, and by such I do not mean a lowly servant girl."
Leena laughed. "And how do you suppose I will cooperate? I was unwilling to harm Varley when I didn't know him, and now that I do what makes you think I will betray him?"
"This!" Quick as a striking snake, Eliana grabbed Leena's wrist and peeled back her long elegant glove. The mark of a convicted thief, incongruous amidst the fine furnishings of the parlor, gleamed with the shine of fresh scar tissue in the lamplight. "One word from me, and you are exposed as a thief and a liar! You will cooperate with me. You must, or risk all."
Leena's smile faltered a bit, but she managed another laugh. "And it all comes down to this... your word against your son's. He has collected quite a bit of information-"
The transformation of Lady into snarling beast was amazing. Leena found herself pinned against the wall, gasping and struggling to break the Lady's grasp on her throat. The woman was remarkably strong for one who lived a life of ease.
"What has he found? What does he know? Tell me now, fool girl! You tread upon dangerous ground."
"I- will tell- you- nothing!" Leena gasped, wondering what the Lady was hiding. With a furious wrench she broke Eliana's grip. The two women glared at each other. Then Leena straightened her hair and smoothed the lace at the front of her gown.
"I suggest you keep in mind what I just said before you try to 'expose' me." She favored the Baroness with a cool look and swept regally from the room.
Returning to the ballroom was a vast relief. Varley was hovering anxiously near the open door.
"Where have you been?" He grasped her hand urgently, raising it to his lips for the benefit of those watching.
"Your mother wished to speak to me privately, my Lord." She wished she could say more. Varley looked at her sharply, catching the tone of her voice. Then his eyes flicked to her neck and widened.
"My mother can be a bit... intense," he said casually. "Perhaps my Lady would care to join me on the balcony?"
She nodded. "Fresh air would be welcome, my Lord." He offered his arm and led her upstairs to the gallery. The first balcony was occupied, so they continued to the end of the long walk and took possession of the last balcony. The cool night air was welcome after the closeness of the ballroom, with its hundreds of candles and guests burning with curiosity and dislike of the unknown Lady Lenalla.
"What happened to you?" Varley asked urgently as he slipped an arm about her shoulders in a loverly fashion.
"Your mother tried to blackmail me into betraying you," she murmured, resting her head against his shoulder.
"And then she went mad when I hinted that you had incriminating material against her. What is going on here, my Lord?"
"She did what? Did she harm you? I saw the marks around your neck-" Anxiety darkened his green eyes, and he touched her throat gently, easing away the memory of those grasping fingers.
"She tried to strangle me. Varley, I'd say there's something more going on here than just a loving mother wishing to see her only son happily married. What is she up to?"
"I do not know," Varley said grimly, "but I intend to find out. I have long suspected that she is up to no good. I would rather the confirmation had not come at risk to you, but what's done is done. I think we should return now, dance a few dances, and then I shall escort you and Camryn back home. We have stayed here long enough. This grows too dangerous for my liking."
Leena shuddered. "Mine too. I thought it would be so fun, just being able to spite the Baroness- I had no clue she would fight back. I should have realized." She sighed, then they returned to the ball.
After spinning with hard won grace through the figures of two dances, Leena spotted Camryn standing by the food tables. He looked upset.
"There's Cam," she murmured. "Shall we go now?"
"Indeed." Varley led her off the floor to join Camryn, with a pause along the way to ask a servant to have their coach readied.
"Varley, we must leave-" he began urgently.
"What-? No, not now." Varley's eyes darkened again with worry, and Leena could feel how badly he wanted to reach out to Cam. "The coach should be waiting out front. Let us be off now."
Walking tall and proud, with Camryn trailing anxiously behind, they made their way out of the ballroom. Every eye was upon them by the time they reached the door. Varley halted, swept his gaze over the crowd. Then he nodded once and they set off- through the double doors of the ballroom, across the wide hallway, and out the double doors to the outside. With exquisite timing, the carriage rolled up just as they reached the driveway. A footman assisted Leena inside, the men followed, and then they were safely away. When the coach rolled through the gates of the manor and away from torches and prying eyes, Varley dropped his calm exterior.
"What happened, Cam?" He was away from Leena like an arrow from a bow, to join Camryn on the other seat. Cam sighed with relief and sagged against his shoulder.
"Your mother's up to something," he said. "I was out in the gardens, trying to clear my head after dancing with old Widow Mayfield- her perfume gave me a headache- when I was surrounded by men, wearing a livery I didn't recognize. The leader of them told me that we were all playing with something best left alone. He threatened me, Varley- said he knew all about us and would go public with it if we didn't stop. What is going on here?"
Varley frowned and ran a hand through his carefully combed hair, rumpling it. "I think we may have stumbled onto something much worse than we ever believed possible," he said thoughtfully. He shifted until his arm was around Camryn, and related the tale of Leena's experience.
"I think we should do something about this," Camryn said, after a thoughtful pause. "Obviously she is up to no good. I want to know what it is, and why people are threatening us. If I'm going to have the threat of burning shoved in my face, I damn well want to know why."
"Agreed. I think it's time for some action. I trust you will not protest if I bring Ratboy in on this?"
Camryn grimaced. "No. I know, it is necessary. But if he so much as lays a hand on you-"
Varley smiled and stroked Cam's hair soothingly. "You have nothing to fear, and you know it."
"Ratboy?" Leena asked, unable to contain her curiosity. Cam made a face at her from his position on Varley's shoulder.
"Another of Varley's... projects." He smiled, a wry twist of the mouth. "He truly is a thief, and a sneak. Varley saved him from hanging a bit ago."
"What Cam doesn't mention is that Ratboy is also a highly talented spy capable of finding out what color the High Prelate's underwear are and determined to convince me that he'd be a much better partner for me than Cam."
Camryn glowered. "Stupid man."
"Hardly stupid, just... delusional. But I think I'll pay him a visit tonight."
"Tonight? Must you?"
"Hush now Cam, the sooner we get this cleared up the better. I'll be back. Now, what would you two say to visiting my estate for a while?"
"You have an estate?" Leena was surprised. How many homes did one man need, anyway?
"I do. It is a day's ride out from the manor, making it rather inconvenient but a good place for privacy. I'm not supposed to use it until I am married, but given the current assumptions about my choice of wife, I'm sure that will be overlooked."
"What's the point of moving us out there?" Camryn asked, raising his head.
"To keep you safe, of course."
"But if everyone knows you've opened up Blackthorn, how will we be safe?"
"Hmm. Good question." Varley lapsed into thoughtful silence. "We'll just have to see what news Ratboy brings us. Perhaps it's all nothing, just a screen to hide that my lady mother is having an affair."
Leena shivered with a strong sense of foreboding. Somehow, she was sure it was far more than that.
* * * *
"So you're the kennel girl." Leena jumped. Ashley leapt up and began growling, hackles raised. A slender man dressed all in shades of deep gray stood on the porch, where she had been enjoying the sunlight and a book. Suddenly she was glad Cam had insisted Ashley remain home to guard her.
"She will do more good for you than me," he had said. "I only need her to scent anything unusual, not to defend my life."
"And who might you be?"
"Come on, use your brain, girl. Who else could I be, but the one and only Ratboy?"
"No wonder Cam doesn't like you," she muttered. "So, Ratboy- what do you here? Have you news?"
The insolent grin vanished from his face, replaced by a dark frown. "That I do, girl. When will Varley return here? I dare not go to him at the Baron's manor."
A thrill of fear coursed through Leena. She became aware that Ashley was still growling. "Lay down, Ash." The hound cast her a reproachful look, then sank smoothly to the floor. Her eyes continued to glare at Ratboy, who ignored them thoroughly. "He should be here this afternoon. What is your news?"
"I'll tell you this much now- you're all in danger."
No, really? Leena thought. I hadn't guessed that from all the threats. "I know that," she said impatiently. "The question is, what kind of danger? and why?"
"You have to wait, and so will that twit Camryn when he shows up." He leaned against one of the supports for the porch roof, grinning insolently once more.
"Lay off Camryn." Leena glared. She wasn't too impressed with this man, despite his rakish good looks and overabundance of personality.
"Never, dear kennel girl." He laughed as she bristled at the insulting tone. "I have a message for you, by the way- Ferrin was devastated by your disappearance, and wishes you well."
Leena grew hot, then cold all over. She hadn't even thought of Ferrin since her first day away. "Tell him that I am doing well," she said softly. "And thank you."
She gazed off into the distance, thinking of the young man who might have been her husband if her situation had not changed so drastically. Funny, but she did not feel any particular sense of loss- she must not have cared about him as much as she thought she had.
A sound startled her and Ashley at the same time. Breaking out of her memories, Leena saw Camryn approaching from the forest trail. His open, friendly expression closed like a slammed door when he spotted Ratboy.
"Hello, Leena," he said, joining them on the porch. "And how was your day?"
"Fine, and yours?" She grinned as Ratboy shifted, plainly irritated.
"It was excellent. Until now." He flicked a pointed glance at the younger man, who glowered in return. Then Ratboy's grin returned.
"Hello, Camryn," he said heartily. "Someone's really got it in for you, old man."
"Oh really? That's interesting news, boy." Camryn moved gracefully to the wooden chair beside Leena. "Quite fascinating, really- I would never have expected anything of the sort."
Ratboy's grin didn't waver. Neither did his hard eyes shift their gaze from Camryn. "But I'll bet you'll be surprised by who. And why, and what they plan..."
"And I suppose you're going to expect me to get all upset now." Cam yawned. "And then you'll laugh and taunt me with your secret knowledge until Varley arrives, and then you'll tell him once again how he'd be better off without me... Very well then, get on with it. We haven't got all day."
"You are more right than you know." Ratboy's grin took on a vulpine quality. "But you are right, nothing will come out until Varley is here. So if you'll excuse me, I think I'll just go have a nap. I was up late last night, you know." He sauntered into the lodge. Ashley growled as he passed. Leena felt like doing the same.
"That boy is insufferable," Camryn muttered as the door thumped shut. "But necessary."
Cam and Leena passed the time pleasantly enough, talking quietly and waiting for Varley. They were both beginning to worry when he finally turned up, as the sun was dipping below the horizon.
"Sorry I'm late," he said, swinging off his horse. He pulled its bridle off, loosened the girth, and set it loose in the paddock. "I was delayed. What's wrong?"
"Inside, on the bed," Cam grunted sourly. Varley arched a brow and went inside. They followed.
"Wake up, you lazy bag of bones!" Varley grinned at the sprawled figure on the bed. Ratboy sat up, suddenly and completely awake.
"About damn time you got here, Varley. Where've you been?"
"I was... detained. Have you news for us?"
"I do." Now that Varley was present, Ratboy's attitude was entirely different.
"Shall we sit, then?"
They arranged themselves on the couch and chairs. Camryn took his accustomed place at Varley's side, shooting Ratboy a glare as he settled in.
"Well? Will you tell us your news now?" Varley looked surprised at Leena's acid tone.
"Of course, dear." Ratboy smirked. Leena growled. "Well, it would seem that you three have stirred up a hornet's nest this time."
"So tell us! What is she up to?" Cam looked ready to tie the young man in knots.
"Please," Varley said. Only one word, but Camryn subsided and Ratboy lost his grin.
"Okay, here's how it is. The Baroness is in debt- so far, in fact, that the barony coffers are not likely to ever recover. Lucky for you, Var, she can't touch your personal stash." Jaws dropped all around. "She has been gambling and drugging it all away for years now, and it's come time to pay her debts. Her plan was to marry you off to a rich girl- one with enough money to cover all her debts. But her creditors are tired of waiting. The Organization has been putting pressure on her, trying to get money out of her. She's borrowed all she can from friends, and is getting desperate. She's worked a deal with one of her gambling buddies, Lord Orlen. You marry his daughter, she gets the money- Orlen takes over the Barony."
"But that would mean-" Varley swallowed hard.
"Yes, you and your father both would be on thin ice indeed. Now here's the rest of it- if she fails to marry you to Orlen's daughter, you must be eliminated anyway. Your father, too, of course. He knows nothing of any of this. Orlen has had spies following you for some time now- he knows all about you, Camryn, and Leena. And he's quite prepared to blow the whistle on you to turn the public eye away from himself, since people are already suspicious of his dealings. See, his luck is better than your mother's, and his fortune has increased dramatically over the last couple of years."
Leena's head swam. She had never even suspected such a wild tale! "And if this were known-"
"If this were known," Varley said grimly, "my mother would be cast away, penniless, and at the mercy of the Organization. However, if she were to succeed, she would have more wealth, more power, more land..." He shook his head sadly.
"I would suggest you leave," Ratboy said, genuine concern in his voice. "The Organization always gets what it wants. If you are not around, they can't come after you to make good on her debts."
"Yes, but if I am not around, who's going to stop her? And what about Father?" Varley shook his head. "No, we stay. There is a banquet in a few days, Leena must attend with me-"
"Don't you understand?" Ratboy's voice shook with intensity. "They mean to kill you if you don't do as they say!"
Varley gazed at him calmly. Ratboy flushed slightly, but didn't back down. "There must be another way. If I take your suggestion and leave, what then will become of the barony? I have lives to consider other than we three."
"What will become of them if you are dead? Tell me that!"
"They will not kill me. At least, not now- they need me too badly. We will deal with that when the time comes."
"No buts, Ratboy. Now what are we going to do about this mess?"
"Leave?" A withering glare from Varley actually made Ratboy wince.
"Can we tell your father?" Camryn suggested.
"Hmm." Varley considered carefully. "How is it that he doesn't know? Rat?"
"The accountant is Eliana's man," was the prompt reply. "She seems to enjoy blackmail- she's holding something over him, too."
"Lovely. So all the figures in the books are bogus. How- no, that's right. We hardly need money to take care of the day to day business of the barony... only when something must be purchased, or it is a tax year. Come to think of it, this is a tax year- no wonder she's desperate! The King won't take an answer of 'I'll pay you later' very kindly."
Camryn snorted. "Hardly! I'd love to see her try to explain that one, though."
"I think maybe telling Father is a good idea. Perhaps he will have a solution that doesn't involve anyone's death."
"When will you do it?" Leena asked.
"I think tonight. I'd wanted to stay," he glanced quickly at Cam, "but this is more important. My thanks, Ratboy. You did a wonderful job."
"No problem, none at all."
"I'd best be getting back. It's pretty dark out there already."
Camryn and Leena sighed simultaneously, then grinned at each other.
"If you must." Camryn rose. Taking that as a cue, so did everyone else. They moved outside in a compact group.
"Care for a ride back to town, Rat?" Varley grinned a challenge in the dim light.
"No!" A look of panic flashed across the sharp features. "No, walking suits me just fine. Just fine. In fact, I'll be off now."
He moved away silently, gray clothing fading into the twilight. Leena chuckled. "Afraid of horses, is he? That's good to know. Good luck, Varley. Now if you'll excuse me, I feel the need for a bath."
"Don't use all the hot water," Camryn teased. She escaped inside with all the dignity she could muster. The copper boiler in the bathing room here was a completely different design than she was accustomed to. She hadn't known how to work it properly, resulting in an icy cold bath the first time she had tried to use it after Cam. How was she to know that there was a little tap to turn which let in water, constantly replenishing the supply?
After her bath, Leena appropriated one of Cam's shirts to sleep in. She paused in the act of slipping it over her head, caught by the strangeness of the situation. She settled the soft cotton of the shirt about her shoulders slowly, then sat on the little stool in front of the mirror. Here she was, alive and well, sharing a home with the Lord Varley's boyfriend. She snorted. Not to mention the fact that half the Barony thought she was Varley's betrothed. There were people who would kill her with a smile on their faces. The Baroness wanted her to betray one of the men who had saved her from exile and certain death. And to top it all off, her own former betrothed was devastated by her disappearance and wished her well. She sighed heavily and pulled herself up off the stool.
In the main room of the lodge, Camryn stood gazing blindly out the window.
"What is it?" she asked, joining him.
"Nothing. Just... worried a bit, that's all."
They stood together for a while, taking comfort from each other's presence. Then Leena yawned hugely. "Well, Cam, the world may be falling down around us, but I'm tired."
"Go to bed, Leena. I'll even put out the lights for you." He blew out the three lit lamps, then banked the fire. Leena laid down and pulled her blanket up from the foot of the couch. Camryn started to move toward the window, then stopped and shook his head slowly. He went to the bed and sat on it. Leena had the feeling he was still staring off into nothingness as she fell into sleep like a stone.
Chaotic activity woke Leena. It felt like only a few minutes had passed since she had laid down. "What's going on?"
"We're leaving." Camryn finished rolling a blanket up and tied it with a short cord. He tossed it over the couch to a pile of assorted gear by the door.
"My mother, that's what." Varley's voice emerged from the bathing room. "She's gone too far this time."
Leena gathered her scattered wits and stood up. "What can I do to help?"
"Get started on the food, okay? We'll need enough for about a week's journey overland."
"Where are we going?"
"Anywhere, as long as it's away from here. She tried to push the blame off on Varley for all she's done, and then she blew the whistle on all of us- she told enough truth to make us all look guilty as sin, and herself as pure as newfallen snow."
Leena swore pungently. "You mean, she knew about you two?"
Cam nodded. He turned up four travel packs from a chest and began neatly packing the clothing and other items Varley was pitching out of the bathing room.
Leena moved into the kitchen and began sorting through the available food. She gathered everything that would keep well out on the road and began sorting through it. Dried meats, bacon- there wasn't much of it left, it could be eaten right away. With a grin, she included Camryn's precious spices- he'd never forgive her if she left them behind. Bread, some cheese, a few vegetables... and of course, Cam's famous trail mix. He made it up for the foresters, since it was a wonderful source of instant energy.
"Got a way to carry all this stuff?"
"Here." Camryn tossed her the fourth pack and she loaded it up.
"What now?" She looked around. The usually tidy lodge was a chaotic mess. "And where's Varley?"
"He's getting the horses ready." Cam surveyed the pile of things by the door with satisfaction. "There, that should do it." He looked around, then checked in the bathing room for anything that Varley might have missed.
"He'd better not put that bloody sidesaddle on Ladybird," Leena muttered. The thought of a week sitting sideways, with that padded wooden hook chafing her leg, was not a pleasant one. She chased Cam out of the bathing room and put some clothes on.
"Everyone ready?" Varley called.
"In a minute," Leena said, braiding her hair rapidly.
"Cam, help me get these packs on the horses."
Leena tied off the end of the braid and flew out to help with the packs. Once on the horses, there didn't seem to be as much stuff as there was on the ground. Each of them had a blanket roll- good thick blankets, Leena noted approvingly- a bag of grain, and a bulging travel pack. The pack of food was on Leena's horse, as was an extra bag she didn't recognize.
"First aid kit," Varley replied shortly, tightening his girth another notch. "We all ready? Then let's go."
"A moment-" Leena called for Ashley. The hound crept up slowly, aware that something was amiss. Leena hugged her for a moment, then told her to go into the woods and have a good life. Varley fidgeted impatiently.
Leena mounted, glad that she now had proper boots and pants that fit. That shopping trip had yielded more than just ball gowns.
The horses moved off single file onto the narrow track through the forest. Leena shivered in the chill night air and wondered where they would end up. Ashley escorted them through the forest until they reached the main road, then she stood and watched them leave. Her training would not allow her to go on the road, away from her proper territory, when she had been told to stay.
Once they were on the wide paved surface, Leena rode up beside Varley. "So what happened?"
"She had me arrested and locked up in the holding cells."
"Because my father is a blind, stubborn fool, and refused to listen to what I was telling him. She walked in on the argument and he confronted her. Next thing I know, I'm in the cell with the guard captain telling me none of his men would see me if I happened to get out. He laid the keys to the cell right up close to the bars and mentioned that there were always trade ships leaving for Anarill this time of year."
Leena felt a thrill of excitement. "And is that where we're going?"
"I don't know yet. We'll have to discuss it later."
Varley lapsed into a gloomy silence. Leena rode beside him for a ways, then allowed her mare to fall back. Anarill! Now that would be something to see. A place where people were convinced that magic was real... Where creativity was encouraged, and people were free to do whatever they wished...She wondered if all the tales, or even just some of them, were true. She fell into a pleasant daydream, punctuated by the steady trotting hoofbeats on the hard dirt road.
* * * *
Travel on the High Road was not nearly as difficult as Leena had expected. Despite the fact that they had prepared for pursuit and rough camping all the way to the coast, there was no sign of interest in their passage. At the end of the first day of travel, they camped in the forest. Leena found that evergreen needles, while fragrant and springy, were a poor substitute for the thick cushions of the couch she had been accustomed to. She was sore and exhausted from the long ride, but more than willing to go on.
The next night, and every night thereafter, they stayed in inns. Their pace slowed with the lack of pursuit until they might have been enjoying a pleasure trip, rather than escaping certain death. When they rode into the port city of Cainar they were laughing and smiling, ready to discuss passage to Anarill with shipmasters to find the best deal. Cainar was the largest city any of them had ever seen. The streets were all paved and huge stone houses loomed three stories tall over them. People stared at them as they rode down the main street.
"What is wrong with them?" Camryn was nervous. "Why are they staring so? Have they never seen travelers before?"
"They surely are used to strangers here. Perhaps they are just curious?"
"Or maybe they think we need a bath." Leena groused. The last two inns they had patronized had scarcely been worth the name. Neither had boasted a bathhouse and Leena was unpleasantly aware that she was filthy and smelled of horse.
"Whatever the cause, a few stares won't stop us from getting a room at an inn."
The road passed beside the great central court of the city. Leena noticed a crowd of people gathered around some workers. They were erecting some kind of wooden structure- she saw three tall supports sticking up over the heads of the crowd.
They continued on to the docks, where they made arrangements at an inn. Leena made her way to the bathhouse immediately, while Camryn and Varley ate and began inquiring about shipmasters.
Clean and refreshed, Leena returned to her companions and ordered a meal of her own. There was a stranger with them.
"And here is our third companion," Varley said as Leena gazed curiously at the stranger. "Leena, this is Captain Bael. He has offered us passage on his ship, the Clearwater. She sets sail this afternoon, before the tide rises."
"Aye, lass. Times be strange here, and I dare not wait longer. Wouldna waited this long but for a slow merchant, couldna get his wares ready sooner."
"Strange how?" Cam looked sharply up from his contemplation of his mug of ale.
"Been strange soldiers here, askin too many questions. Claim they serve some inland Lord, lookin for fugitives." His shrewd eyes looked them over one by one. "Two men and a woman, they say. Travellin together and guilty of crimes such as no decent man would even mention."
Ice shot through Leena. She put her spoon down, completely losing interest in her bowl of stew.
"They been leanin hard on those with ships, pokin in where their noses no belong, askin about passengers. Mayhap they be lookin to use those stakes the townsfolk built out in the square."
Camryn made a strangled noise. Varley took a deep breath, about to say something, when there was a commotion at the door. "There they are!" a voice shouted. "Get them!"
"Hellfire!" The seaman swore and leapt up as soldiers poured in. Camryn gasped as he recognized the livery of Lord Orlen. "This way! Follow me!"
The trio followed Bael as he darted for the back door of the inn. He led the way through the narrow alley, making turns into branch alleyways, until they burst out into the open on the docks.
"Look normal, now," he ordered, and slowed to a walk.
The others did their best, but couldn't restrain their paranoid glances at the crowd.
"There be my ship." Bael indicated a three-masted ship flying a red and yellow flag.
"There they are! By the docks!" The cry rose behind them. Leena spared a glance behind before bolting. The soldiers were running through the crowd. Some of them carried torches. The memory of the wooden poles in the town square flashed through her mind and lent wings to her feet. Even so, she was the last aboard the ship. The plank was pulled in as soon as she stepped off it and the Captain rushed around, bellowing orders.
"Cut the lines! Out oars! Move yer lazy hides, blast you! Be ye wantin to get boarded? Then move!"
The crewmen dashed about and somehow got the ship moving before the soldiers reached them. Leena, Varley, and Camryn clung together in a stunned knot, watching the frantic activity about them. Then Camryn gasped and pointed.
Lord Orlen's men had piled onto another vessel and were pulling away from the docks as well. The Captain saw this as well and bellowed for a faster stroke.
"Rest easy, friends, we've only to make the breakwater before we're all safe." Bael indicated the manmade stone barriers which stretched from either side of the wide natural harbor. "Beyond that, no man's rules apply."
They made it- barely. The Clearwater shot through the stone walls a bare two shiplengths ahead of the soldiers. A great cheer rose from the crew as they cleared the breakwater.
"See? I told ya we'd make it!" The Captain grinned from ear to ear. "C'mon, I'll show ye to yer room."
He led them to a tiny cabin with four narrow beds built into the wall. "Here you go, then." He turned to leave.
"A moment, Captain?" Varley said.
"Our thanks for helping out back there. May I ask why you were so willing to help strangers?"
"Lad, there be many reasons why I no be wantin to be boarded, catch my drift? And besides, if I can spare nice folk the fate that befell me nephew, then mayhap I will."
With that, he vanished, leaving Varley staring after him with a disgusted look. "A pirate. Of all the ships available, why did I have to get the bloody pirate?" He flung himself down on one of the bunks.
"Varley, this is hardly the time to let your delicate sensibilities get in the way," Camryn observed dryly. "Pirate or no, he saved our lives."
Leena's legs chose that moment to give out and she collapsed where she stood. "I can't believe how close that was!"
"Yes, well, we're safe now." Cam helped her up and led her to the other bottom bunk. "Just rest and relax now, we're safe."
"How long will the crossing take, anyway?"
"Three or four weeks, barring any storms."
"Did anyone think to grab the packs?"
Blank looks met her gaze.
"Ah, blast. It'll be a truly new beginning in Anarill then, with nothing but the clothes we stand in."
* * * *
The trip was long and uneventful. Once the three friends had adjusted to the motion of the sea, it was a fairly pleasant experience. There were no major storms. Varley's conscience was somewhat appeased when he discovered that Bael was a mere smuggler, and not truly a pirate. Leena was worried about Varley. He was distant and preoccupied, scarcely willing to speak to anyone. He spent a great deal of time on the forward deck, gazing into the waves.
After twenty five days, the Clearwater pulled into port at Trade City. Leena was thrilled, despite the fact that they had no plan and no possessions. Disembarking on the dock of a whole new land was one of the high points of her entire life. They said their farewells to Captain and crew, then moved hesitantly into the city. The sun was nearing the horizon, beyond the sprawl of the city.
"Now what?" Camryn asked Varley.
"I suggest we find an inn and ask the keeper if he knows anyone who could provide employment for us."
Leena's eyebrows shot up into her hair. "What can you do? I'd never thought of a Lord seeking employment before."
"I'm not a bad hand with a sword," he said, caressing the hilt of his. Leena blinked. Somehow, she'd never considered that- the sword was just another part of Varley's outfit, like boots. She'd never seen him use it and had paid it no mind. All noblemen carried swords, but they did not hire them out like a common soldier. "And my purse is not bottomless. I think we'd also better find a money changer. Who knows if they accept Bandoran currency here."
They entered a district of inns. All had signs hung out front. Many had tables set outside for diners. They selected one with a picture of a sleeping cat. The name was printed underneath, but none of them could read it.
"Oh dear," Leena said, as she stared at the unfamiliar letters. "Another thing I hadn't thought of... Do you suppose they all speak trade-tongue, at least?"
"I'm sure they do," Camryn reassured her. "Everyone speaks trade-tongue."
They entered the inn, pleased to find it clean and not overfull. A plump woman in an apron came to meet them, tucking a towel into her pocket. "Welcome to the Lazy Kitten, travelers. How may I serve you?"
"We seek a night's lodging and advice for newcomers. May we speak to the innkeep?"
She chuckled. "You are speaking to her. My name is Mairead. I have only one room left available, but it has two beds. Will that suit?"
"Do you have a bathhouse?" Leena interrupted urgently. Mairead laughed.
"Certainly we do, and a separate one for men and women at that. Now as to price..."
Leena left that to Varley and looked about the room. Trestle tables stretched the length of the room, with a few diners scattered about them. Appealing scents drifted from the kitchen. Suddenly she laughed. In the front window a plump cat was sleeping. She looked a bit more carefully about the room and was able to spot three more cats. Then a small mew attracted her attention and something prickled her ankle. She looked down into a tiny face, split wide by a mew bigger than the kitten. "Oh, how precious..." She scooped up the kitten and cuddled it, scratching the little chin. She was rewarded with a thunderous purr.
"You'll do well here indeed," said the innkeeper. Leena smiled up at her. "There's some as don't like my cats, and they're not welcome here."
"Little fear of that with us," Leena said. Camryn reached over and stroked the kitten and received an enthusiastic head-butt.
"Come, let me show you to the bathhouse."
Leena put the kitten down carefully and followed Mairead. "There you go now, and there's been fresh clothes sent for. When you're done, just go to the common room and there'll be a meal waiting. Everything's been taken care of."
Leena eagerly stripped off her clothing. Although she had done little on board the Clearwater, her clothing was much the worse for having been worn for nearly a month straight. And bathing was near impossible on the ship, unless one wished to use seawater. It was difficult to feel clean when forced to wipe off with a damp cloth. Then she stood and stared at the tub in puzzlement. Nothing looked familiar. Finally she pulled a string, which raised a tiny floodgate at the end of a pipe. Water gushed out. She tried pulling the other string and was rewarded with a stream of hot water. She giggled at the tiny floodgates, wondering who had ever thought to apply an irrigation system to indoor plumbing.
While she was bathing, a servant girl brought in a pile of clothing and left it on a bench along the wall. Leena scrubbed and rinsed repeatedly, until she finally felt clean again. Then she dried off with the rough cloth the innkeep had provided and tried on the new clothing.
She returned to the common room and found that the others were not done bathing yet. Mairead was watching for her, though, and soon had her settled at a table with a trencher of chicken and dumplings. Leena dug in with good will, sometimes slipping bits to the kitten wrapped around her foot. She was nearly done when Varley and Camryn appeared, freshly scrubbed and dressed in plain new garb.
"Took you long enough," Leena grinned.
"Well, we were rather dirty," Camryn said blandly, shooting a sideways look at Varley. He snorted, refusing to meet Cam's gaze, and signaled the innkeeper.
Once they were settled, Leena asked, "So what's the plan now? Do we even have one?"
"Mairead suggested we continue on to Larantyne," Cam replied. "She said there's always need there of a sword, and dog trainers as well."
"What about you?"
"I'm sure my skills will serve in a strange forest as well as the one I was born in. If not, well- I can cook."
"Amazingly well, in fact. So where's Larantyne?"
"Several days travel to the west. The good news is, our currency is a bit more valuable here than it was at home- we should even have enough to purchase horses."
"That's good, I suppose," Leena said absently, as she scratched her little friend under the table.
"Indeed." Varley ate a few bites in silence, then spoke again. "Mairead offered to send one of her sons to run our errands for us- for a price, of course. What say you? Should we entrust our only money to a complete stranger in the hopes he might get a better bargain out of the locals?"
"Perhaps we should meet the son in question first?" Cam suggested mildly.
"Yes, that would be a good idea. And perhaps I could go with him?" Leena offered hopefully. Tired though she was, the lure of the new land was strong.
"That might work." Varley snagged the sleeve of a serving girl as she passed and told her to fetch the innkeep. Mairead appeared in short order, and was quite willing to introduce her son.
Despite their fears, Sandar turned out to be mature and apparently trustworthy. He declined to take Leena along, though, saying that most merchants would double their prices at first sight of an outlander. With some trepidation, Varley handed over the purse which contained their money. He worked out a list of requirements with the innkeeper and handed that over as well. As the young man was leaving, Mairead whispered something to him and he nodded.
While they waited for Sandar's return, they asked Mairead about the land they now found themselves in. She wasn't very helpful, though- she admitted straight off Trade City made its own rules.
"It's like no other place in the world." Her eyes glowed with pride. She had little use for the inland countries. "Trade City stands alone- we bow to no king, follow no power hungry lord. We rule ourselves and prosper."
It was nearly time for the evening meal before Sandar returned. He was followed by a man who went straight to Mairead as Sandar sought out the three travelers.
"I was able to get most of what you asked for," he said. "I couldn't find anyone willing to sell a mail shirt, but you expected that anyway."
Varley looked disappointed, but nodded. "Horses? Provisions?"
"Yes to both. Three horses, tack, and enough travel rations to take you all clear to the north of Larantyne. Maps, also, written in trade-speech. Travel packs and a change of clothes, all used but in good condition and clean. And these- I brought them in, rather than leave them with the packs." He pulled a leather roll out of his back pocket and opened it to show a pair of sheathed daggers. Leena sucked in her breath and leaned over to look at them, eyes wide.
"Ah, excellent," Camryn said, unsheathing one and examining it minutely. "I wasn't too comfortable with letting someone else select weapons for me, but these will do just fine." He laid the first down and inspected the second. "Varley, do you still have steel and stone?"
"Always, as long as I have my belt pouch."
Leena stared at her companions, amazed. Here they were, casually discussing weapons and the care thereof, when she had never thought of either of them using such things. In a civilized country like Bandor, weapons were worn mainly for show. Surely life could not be so dangerous as all that here?
"Greetings, fair lady," a voice spoke at her elbow. Startled, she turned and looked up. It was the man who had arrived on Sandar's heels. "My name is Malkren." He extended a hand gracefully. She took it automatically. He bowed over her hand, then straightened with a startled look on his face. "Mairead was right," he murmured, almost too low for Leena to hear. "Mairead wished for me to meet you. She thought we would have much to discuss, and it seems she was right. May I sit?"
"You may," Leena said, after a glance at Cam and Varley. They were engrossed in some discussion of sharpening techniques. Malkren released her hand and lowered himself to the bench beside her.
"What do you know of magic, my Lady?"
"I beg your pardon?"
"Magic. Have you any knowledge of it at all?"
"Only what I have read in tales. It is pure nonsense, after all- there is nothing of the sort..." Leena trailed off uncertainly at the look on Malkren's face.
"Oh no, my Lady. Magic is real enough. I had feared as much." He sighed heavily. "Mairead is an old friend of mine, and she has some sensitivity where such things are concerned. So do her cats." Leena glanced involuntarily at the kitten, who had worked his way into her lap for a nap. "She thought you had untrained potential for magecraft, and she was right."
Leena's eyebrows shot up almost to her hairline. "But- but- that's absurd!" She laughed uncertainly. "How can that be? Rational, educated people know that magic is nothing but fables and wishful thinking."
Malkren sighed again. "Magic is real." He raised his hand and a fireball appeared in his palm.
Leena squawked and nearly fell off the bench backwards. Instantly Varley and Camryn broke off their discussion. When they saw Leena cowering away from a strange man with a hand full of fire, they leapt to their feet and stood behind Leena, offering support. Their faces bore no sign of friendliness. Their watchful stances reminded Leena of deerhounds over a kill.
"What goes on here?" Varley casually rested his hand on his sword hilt.
"Peace, brothers, the Lady was merely startled."
Cam glowered. "And why did you startle her?"
"Mairead asked me here to speak to your Lady." He casually clenched his fist and the fireball disappeared. "She is at risk, and it would be dangerous for you to leave without knowledge of why."
"The Lady has the potential to be a very powerful magicuser. In her untrained state, she is vulnerable to all sorts of dangers. Will you sit and talk with me?"
"Do you wish to continue this conversation, Leena?" Varley asked.
"Y-yes, I think so." She took a steadying breath. "I was merely startled. I've never seen a man's hand catch fire before." She even managed a shaky laugh. "How did you do that, Malkren?"
"Once, long ago, I was a member of the Circle of Lights." As he spoke, Varley and Camryn settled slowly to the bench beside Leena. "I have little aptitude for magic myself, I was the swordsman for my Cluster. But I worked closely with a powerful magicuser-" his eyes grew sad and distant for a moment, then he continued. "-and I learned early on how to judge the strength of those I came in contact with. It has been long since I used the skill, and now I require actual physical contact to assess strength, but the skill is still reliable. I have not seen anyone as powerful as Leena here in many years."
"Ridiculous," Leena muttered, even though she felt hope blooming within her.
"You mentioned danger?"
"Indeed. There are many mages in this land, who serve both light and darkness. All will be drawn to Leena as a moth to flame. As strong as you are, my dear, a powerful mage will be able to sense you from a day's travel away, maybe more."
"And why under the moons would they want me?"
"A completely untrained mage has no defenses, no barriers. A servant of darkness would conquer your will with little or no effort, then have your vast strength at his disposal. If you were lucky, your mind would be destroyed in the struggle. If not, then you would remain aware of the evil deeds done with your power."
"And what proof of this do you offer? How am I supposed to believe that I possess this mythical power you claim to sense?"
"None, my Lady. All I can do is offer to shield you, so your strength will appear far less to any watcher."
"Shield me how?"
Malkren concentrated, eyes closed. Leena felt something strange going on, then there was a snap! Suddenly, everything was strange. She gasped and reeled in her seat.
"What did you do to me? Nothing is right anymore!" She was completely off balance. There was something undefinable missing, something that had always been a part of her. There was no longer any sense of being surrounded by her friends, there was no kitten-feeling lump in her lap, even the other people in the common roomed seemed dull and colorless.
"I put a shield around you, to contain your power and prevent it from reaching out and touching-"
"I don't like it! I don't like it at all!" She clutched frantically at both Varley and Camryn, but could not feel their concern. "Put it back! I can't-"
"You must, Lady- otherwise-"
"I don't care! I said put it back."
"Do as she asks, old man," Varley said.
"But the danger-"
Leena gasped as her awareness of everything came rushing back. She sagged back against Varley, feeling tears of relief prickle her eyes.
"Perhaps I had better go now," Malkren said, with infinite sadness. He rose and started to leave, then turned and drew breath to say something. A glance at Varley and Camryn changed his mind and he left, shoulders slumped in defeat.
"Are you okay, Leena?" Cam anxiously took the seat Malkren had vacated, reaching for Leena's hands. She smiled at his concern. An irrelevant memory crossed her mind, of the day he had confessed to her how jealous he was of Varley's attentions to her. Things had certainly changed for the better between them.
"I'm fine, Cam. I suppose this means I truly do have such a power as he said."
"Perhaps," said Varley. "All it truly proves is that the man had the power to influence you in some way."
"Anyone know what the Circle of Lights is?" Cam asked.
"No, I don't. Varley?"
"Never heard of them. There is so much to learn in this land. Perhaps we should be off to bed now? We must leave with first light."
Leena gathered up the purring kitten, once again a bundle of vibrant kittenish life. "That sounds like an excellent idea to me."
So they turned in, despite the early hour. The room Mairead assigned them was small, but clean. The promised two beds were a bit narrow, but that was no difficulty after so long on board the Clearwater. Before Leena crawled under the coverlet, she glanced over at her friends. "Thanks."
"For what?" Cam was puzzled.
"For being ready and willing to defend me like that."
"Anytime, my Lady," Varley said flippantly, with a mock courtly bow- an amusing sight, from a man in a nightshirt. But Leena could sense his sincerity. She lay sleepless for a time, contemplating her supposed power and the way she had felt under Malkren's shield.
"Ow!" Leena jerked her feet up and away from the needle sharp claws puncturing the coverlet.
"Hey, knock it off!"
"Yeah, Leena- knock it off," Cam griped sleepily.
"The kitten is attacking me!"
" 's what you get f'r sleepin with it."
"Wait a minute, it may have done us a favor." Varley rolled over Cam, who groaned. He pulled up the corner of the window covering. "False dawn- time to get up, everybody." Camryn stuffed his head under the pillow.
Leena sat up and tucked her legs underneath her. "Monster," she said fondly, picking up the ferocious tiger as it hunted the hills and valleys of her bed. It purred, but struggled to be set down so it could resume pouncing.
Despite much grumbling and complaining from Cam, true dawn found them all in the courtyard with Mairead pressing hot filled rolls in their hands. After Leena took her roll, Mairead pulled the kitten out of her apron pocket. "His name is Izzy. He's yours, now."
"Oh, no, Mairead!" Leena protested, laughing. "I can hardly take a kitten on the road-"
"Quiet, girl," Mairead growled."You refused the protection of my friend, but you will not refuse my cat. He would follow you anyway, no matter what you do- that is the way of my cats with their chosen people."
"Varley?" Leena turned an appealing gaze his way.
"Keep it if you wish, as long as it does not slow us down. A cat may prove useful, anyway."
And so Izzy took up residence in Leena's saddlebag. They wasted no further time, but set off at once through the cobbled streets, directly away from the rising sun.
People were already out and about, despite the early hour, and the streets grew increasingly crowded as the sun rose higher.
It took nearly an hour to reach the West Road. Once clear of the sprawling city, Leena at last got her first look at the new land. Her jaw dropped in dismay.
"It's... it's... ugly!"
"What did you expect in these barbarian wilds, the beauty of the homeland?"
"I don't know what I expected, but it sure wasn't this."
Barren ground stretched as far as the eye could see, punctuated by a few scrubby bushes. Surely those couldn't be called trees- they were scarcely taller than Camryn! Her eyes, accustomed to the rich color and density of old growth forest, were offended. The trees back home were so enormous that three men could embrace the trunk without touching hands. The grass was lush and green in the meadows. This... this barrenness was pathetic. Leena strained her eyes and made out a dark smudge on the horizon. That must be the Palantir Hills- perhaps they would be more pleasant to look upon.
They day quickly grew warm. Out on the open plain, there was little shade to be had, and no shelter at all if a storm should strike. The distant smudge of the hills grew more distinct, but appeared to recede teasingly ahead of them. It was nearing midday when Izzy awoke and began to meow loudly. He was perched on the pommel of Leena's saddle. Leena was trying to hush him when all three horses snorted and pricked their ears.
"I think they've scented water," Leena said. She wondered suddenly how she knew that- was it part of her power?
"Give the horses their heads, they'll take us right to it." Varley dropped his reins. Instantly his horse's head swiveled off to the left. All three trotted eagerly to a deep little stream, snaking its way through the dry grass.
"Break for lunch?" Camryn suggested, dismounting so he could stick his head in the creek. He came up sputtering and shaking water everywhere.
"Izzy, what-" Leena watched, amazed, as the tiny white and orange kitten climbed down her pantleg, then jumped to the ground from her foot. "Well, okay, but don't get stepped on." A disgusted tail flick was his response to that.
They broke out the packets Mairead had prepared for them, finding more filled rolls.
"Anybody know how far to the next town?" Leena asked.
Varley pulled out his map. "According to this, there's nothing until we reach the other side of those hills. Then there's villages all along the road. The next city of any size is Caissa, and that is perhaps a week away."
"Good. This grit is getting into everything."
"You and your baths," Camryn teased fondly.
"Yes, and who was it that just stuck his head in the creek? It wasn't me... although that may be a good idea."
"Try it, you might like it!"
"I may, at that." She finished her meal, then followed Cam's example and stuck her head in the creek. When she straightened back up, the wet slap of her braid against her back made her gasp. She did feel better, though.
Back on the road, Leena gave Cam a significant look as she pulled her horse up beside Varley. He nodded understanding and dropped back out of earshot. This was the first complete privacy they had enjoyed since the night in the forest, and Leena meant to make use of it.
"So what's wrong, my friend? There's something bothering you, I can tell, and it has been for a long time. What is it?"
"I shouldn't have left."
"I ran, with no thought for my people. What will happen to them now?"
"You had to run, to save your life. Cam's argument still stands- what would happen to your people if you died on a stake?"
Varley shuddered but made no reply.
"Your father will choose an heir from a collateral line of your house. Surely you know that."
"But he will not be trained to rule my people. He will at best be a competent manager of a small estate, with no knowledge of how to care for the people of an entire barony."
"Look at it this way. Is your father ailing in any way?"
"No. Why?" Surprise colored his voice.
"Then he will not only be strong enough to deal with your mother, but he will live long enough to school the one he chooses as his heir."
A look of understanding passed across his face. "But I still ran, with no thought but to-"
"To save your own life, and the lives of those you love."
"It is still cowardly."
"Not even the bravest man in the world would walk willingly to his own burning. Look, if you want to beat yourself over the head and wallow in guilt, go right ahead. But there is no reason to. Everything will work out fine."
With that, Leena pulled up her mount and allowed Camryn to catch up. "He can be so stubborn sometimes."
"So what is it? Worrying abut his people?"
"Right you are."
Camryn sighed. "Ah well. He'll brood about it until he figures out that there really was no other option."
"And until then, we get to deal with mopey Varley."
Cam snickered. "Remind me never to say that in his hearing- he'd probably knock me flat."
The ride continued on uneventfully. Towards late afternoon, the land began to change. Scattered piles of rock began to appear, offering a break from the monotony of the landscape.
"What is that?" Camryn asked suddenly, breaking a long silence.
"What is what?" Varley looked in the direction Cam pointed. "Smoke. Must be somebody camping there."
They followed the smoke to the largest rockpile they had encountered yet. An old man sat by a fire there, roasting a rabbit on a spit.
"Hail, travelers!" he called in a scratchy voice. "Well met. Care to join me? This here is the finest campsite to be had for many a mile."
Izzy, riding on Leena's shoulder, arched his back and hissed. "Hush, kitten," she soothed.
"We would be glad of the company indeed." Varley dismounted and introduced his companions. Leena wondered if she was the only one who noticed that the old man gave no name.
She sat off to the side, out of the main circle of firelight, as the night grew darker. The three men were laughing and chatting like the best of friends, but Leena could not be entirely at ease with Izzy fussing and growling all evening. The cat did not like the old man at all, and she was inclined to trust his judgment. There was something just not right about the man.
When the second moon rose, the nameless old wanderer decided to call it a night. Leena placed her bedroll on the far side of the fire, away from the men. She was glad, this once, to adhere to social conventions- she didn't think sleeping next to the stranger would be very restful. The last thing she heard before sleep claimed her was the kitten's grumbling complaint, ending in a sharp hiss.
* * * *
Leena regained consciousness all in a rush. Completely disoriented, she could make no sense of her surroundings at first. What was that reddish blur in front of her face? And why did her head hurt so bad?
Then she tried to move and realized she was slung facedown over her horse's back. An attempt to move brought agonizing pain to life in her arms and legs. She had been tied to the saddle tightly. She grunted and thrashed, which only succeeded in spooking the horse.
"Now, now, missy. None of that," a scratchy voice admonished.
"You! How dare you-" she gasped and coughed painfully. The dust of the plains was much worse in this position.
"I was just following orders, dear."
"Orders? From whom?" She tried to twist her head so she could see who she was talking to.
"My Master. He told me to go get you, so get you I did. You belong to the Master now." He cackled gleefully.
"Like hell I do! Let me go!" Leena began thrashing and struggling in earnest. Her horse neighed and half-reared. Then pain blossomed in her head and the world went dark.
* * * *
"Leena? Leena, can you hear me? I think she's coming round!"
Leena groaned. "Wha-" she coughed weakly and her head exploded. When the pain subsided, she became aware that someone was holding her up against his chest, while someone else was sponging her face with a wet cloth.
"Shh, don't talk. You're safe now." She should recognize that voice... she knew she would, if she could only think...
Blackness claimed her again.
* * * *
Urgent meowing roused her this time. A small weight rested on her shoulder, and the meowing was aimed directly into her ear. She reached up to brush it away, and the meow broke into a thunderous purr.
"Leena? Are you back with us?"
"Cam- what happened?" She was leaning against Camryn. Varley was no longer washing her face, he was crouched over a small fire, watching a pot anxiously. Apparently satisfied with it, he poured its contents into a cup. The sharp scent of a restorative tea rose into the still air.
"The old man stole you away in the night," Camryn replied grimly. "He left us both with gooseggs on our heads and a highly upset kitten. The horses were spooked and running loose- it took a long time to catch them. Thank god he wasn't trying to hide his trail. We were able to catch up to you by midday. Too bad you weren't awake to see it when we rescued you. I've never seen anything like it- Varley charged the old bastard with his sword out, just like in the tales... and just like in the tales, a monster appeared. His horse stopped and reared, but Varley just cut it in half and did the same for the old man."
Leena tried to sit up, but her head, the kitten, and Camryn all conspired against her. Varley brought the tea over then, helping her hold the cup so it wouldn't spill.
"Thanks," she croaked. The tea eased the burn of her throat, washing the dust away. She leaned back against Cam and waited for the headache-damping properties of the medicine to take effect.
"How can I ever repay you?" she asked, voice still hoarse. Varley shook his head.
"No need. There's no debts among friends."
She wrapped her free hand around his, and he smiled.
"Your poor hands..." He lifted it, examining the rope burns and the swelling.
"Frankly, I'm more concerned about my head," she said carefully. The pain was easing back a little bit with the medicine, but it was still dreadful. "Bet I have quite a bump back there..."
"Time for you to rest now," Cam said, hearing the way her words were starting to slur. "We'll have to wake you though, with that head injury."
"'sokay..." and she was drifting aimlessly through billowing clouds. The pain dwindled down to nothing as she drifted. She was aware of them rousing her periodically, but what her body did was of less interest than the peaceful sensation of floating. Once she brushed up against a glowing something, and sensed startlement, but nothing happened so she drifted on.
* * * *
Leena awoke suddenly, completely in her body again. Her head still throbbed, but not with the insistent pain of before. This she could ignore. So she did, struggling into an upright position. Sunrise turned the eastern horizon to liquid gold. Varley leaned against a boulder with his sword drawn across his lap. Izzy marched up her leg demanding attention. Camryn lay sprawled nearby.
"How do you feel?"
"Awful. Did you stay up all night?"
"No, Cam and I traded off watches."
Leena shivered, then winced as the involuntary motion jarred her head. "What a barbarian land we have come to."
"Not quite what we expected, is it."
"Not at all." Leena struggled up and saw to her needs as well as she could with no bathwater. She slipped away to relieve herself and returned to find Camryn awake and grumbling.
They decided to press on towards the hills, despite Leena's injuries. The old man had cut off across the wasteland with her, and now the road was somewhere off to the north of them. Hopefully they would strike the road early and make it through the Palantir Hills in time to reach an inn before dark.
As they rode, the carefree air of yesterday was replaced by watchful wariness. Leena found herself thinking that Malkren must have been right about her. After all, why else would someone want to carry her off? The possibility was at once frightening and exhilarating. To use magic...
They struck the road midmorning, and turned west. The hills loomed before them, offering the promise of escape from this wasteland. They pressed onward.
"How are you doing?" Camryn asked. "Both of you," he added, with a frown of concern for Varley.
"I'm fine, Cam. Just a bit tired."
"My head hurts bloody awful, but I'm altogether glad to be riding upright this time." Leena grinned weakly.
"Think you'll make it through the hills?"
"Oh, of course. It's bound to be better on the other side."
They continued ever westward. Soon the horses were climbing the hills, which rose abruptly from the plain. Leena looked about with interest, despite her discomfort. She had never seen hills before, and these looked to be the size of mountains... a thing which she had likewise never beheld.
They stopped at midday beneath a stand of slender trees with smooth white bark, which provided a pleasantly shady area. A small brook threaded its way through the hills. Horses, humans, and kitten all drank thirstily.
Camryn made a small fire and pressed cups of restorative tea on both Leena and Varley. Leena took hers without complaint, sipping to steady her stomach. She had never had such a fierce headache- it was making her queasy. She nibbled a bit of dry trail bread, but passed on the dried fruit and meat the others ate. They moved on once Camryn had the fire extinguished.
Travel through the steep hills was harder on the horses, but easier on the humans. The temperature even dropped slightly and they no longer rode in complete silence. Leena was content to listen to the men's speculation of what the future would hold.
The sun was setting and they were still in the hills when they passed through... something. Leena felt a cold tingle all through her body, and shivered. "What was that?"
"What was what?"
"We just passed through something that-" she hesitated, unable to find the right words. "Never mind, it was probably nothing."
"No, not 'never mind,'" Varley said, resuming his wary watch of the surroundings. "In this strange place we can't afford to ignore anything, no matter how strange, that may pass for a warning. Stay close, now."
They rode grouped tightly together. Izzy crawled out of the saddlebag, purring. Leena scratched him, wondering how accurate the kitten's senses actually were.
"Greetings, travelers!" A man stepped out into the roadway. He wore a dusty brown robe, calf-length. A pair of well-worn boots and tan trousers showed beneath it. His eyes were warm and friendly beneath his short dark curls.
All three halted. Leena spared a moment to marvel in the change in her companions- suddenly they were alert and ready for trouble. Both sat straighter in their saddles, hands near weapons and focused on the man with startling intensity.Then she returned her attention to the man in front of them.
He was afoot, with no visible weapons. He looked to be in his middle years, strong and healthy.
"I've been waiting for you. My name is Vindra. Will you join me?" His voice was rich, with the control of a trained musician.
Izzy scrambled down to the ground and launched himself at the stranger, to purr and twine about his ankles. Vindra smiled and bent over to scratch the kitten, then straightened.
Varley and Camryn's hard, wary expressions did not change. Both had eased their horses together in front of Leena.
"And why have you been waiting for us?" Leena hadn't known Varley could sound so cold.
"I am a sorcerer, from Friseia. I sensed your companion back there last night. She was hurt, and bears the mark of the Nameless Ones. I can help."
"And how are we to know you speak the truth?" Camryn had become a stranger as well. Leena was unsure how to deal with this dangerous new side her friends were showing.
"You are not." Vindra smiled pleasantly. "You can only take my word for it. This area here is all under shield. No servant of darkness can penetrate it. I can offer help to your friend, a way to discourage the dark mages who want her."
Leena nudged her horse forward. "What is this help you offer?"
Vindra bent down again and lifted the rapturously purring kitten. He stretched out his hand, and Leena reclaimed Izzy. "I would show you how to disguise your power, so that none can see it without much effort."
"And what will this do to me?" She shuddered at the memory of being cut off from everything.
"Nothing but protect you."
"Well, friends?" She looked at her companions.
"I think this one is your call," Varley said slowly.
"Very well, then." She dismounted. "So, what was that you said, about a mark?" She rubbed the backs of her hands unconsciously.
"I shall tell you over supper. Am I right, that you are strangers to this land?"
"We came from Bandor," Varley dismounted also.
"Ah! That explains a great deal. Come, then- we shall go to my campsite, and I shall make things clear to you."
Vindra had camped in a shady hollow, filled with fresh new spring grass. A shallow pool provided water, and the hollow was ringed with more of the slender trees. A fire burned cheerfully within a ring of stones.
Once the horses were cared for, the three friends joined Vindra at the fire. They all ate a supper of travel rations, washed down by tea and water. When they were finished, Vindra stretched and spoke.
"So, friends, let me tell you why it is that Nameless Ones wish to harm you."
"Wait-" Leena interrupted. "First tell us what a Nameless One is."
"It must be wonderful to live in a land where the hand of the Dark One has not touched..." he mused. "Nameless Ones are the servants of the Dark One. They have lost their names as a result of a soul-eating ritual, in which their very soul is consumed by the entity which serves the Dark One. There is nothing left of them but the need to follow his orders at all costs."
"And who is this Dark One?"
"He is the most powerful dark mage the world has ever known. He constantly struggles to conquer all the lands, but so far the Old Guard of Larantyne still holds firm. Should the Old Guard ever fall..." he shook his head.
"Larantyne... that is where we are going." Varley spoke with sudden interest. "Are you telling me that this Larantyne is engaged in a war with an evil mage? How can an army fight against magic?"
"You take this news calmly, for one who was raised to believe magic is pure nonsense. The Dark One is not all-powerful. His armies of demons die as readily as his armies of Nameless Ones, with the proper weaponry. He has been struggling to win for a thousand years, yet has not overcome the Old Guard yet."
"A thousand years?" Disbelief was plain in Camryn's voice.
"Indeed. The entity which he controls has granted him immortality along with vast powers."
"This is all well and good, but how am I supposed to protect myself from these Nameless Ones?"
"I shall show you now, my dear."
Leena concentrated fiercely as Vindra walked her, step by step, through a basic magic lesson. He taught her how to find her center and ground herself. Once she had done this, he showed her what her power looked like. Leena was amazed- once she knew how to look, her whole body was filled with light. Tendrils of light reached out from her to everything around her. Then he showed her how to use her voice to focus her power.
"Like this," Vindra said. "Listen to the change, from speaking voice to Voice of power." As he spoke, his voice did indeed change- from a merely pleasant voice, to an incredibly rich and compelling Voice. "One must be careful not to abuse the Voice. When you have mastered the use of it, you can make people do anything you choose."
Then he showed her how to use her own power to weave a shield about herself, building off the firm support of her ground. This shield, unlike the one Malkren had imposed on her, did not cut her off from the world around her. Instead, it concealed her power from other mages.
"The other man was inept," Vindra said. "There is no need to cut yourself off entirely from your mage senses. In fact, if that is the way the Circle teaches shielding, it is no wonder their mages tend to die young. I can think of few things worse for a mage of life and light to endure than being cut off from life itself."
"This is much better," Leena agreed. "Will you show me more?"
"Not tonight, my dear." Vindra smiled gently. "You may be young and strong, able to stay up all night despite your injuries, but I would like to seek my bedroll and rest."
Startled, Leena realized that it was late. The sky was black, stars were out, and Cam was valiantly attempting to smother yawns. Varley was already sprawled across his blanket, sound asleep.
"Vindra- my head!" she gasped. "It doesn't hurt any longer!"
"That is because you have cleansed yourself of the Nameless One's foul influence. Now go to bed, dear." With that, the sorcerer rose and sought his own blankets.
* * * *
The next day, Vindra agreed to travel with them as far as Caissa. "But after that, I must be on my way. The Magicmen of Larantyne do not care for me, or my teachings."
"Many reasons. They practice an entirely different school of magic there and have little tolerance of other ways."
"Other ways," Leena mused. The party of travelers moved off into the morning light, three riders and one afoot. "Vindra, we've heard the Circle of Lights mentioned several times now. Do they teach one of those different ways?"
"Indeed they do. The Circle of Lights is based in Caissa. The Circle is made up of scholars, teachers, and active Lights who travel about in Clusters, fighting the Dark One in his many ventures. They are quartered beside the great Temple there, dedicated to all forms of Light-serving religion. Servants of any god are welcome there."
The three Bandorans exchanged startled glances.
"Now, your people are monotheists, are they not?" Vindra chuckled at their blank looks. "Of course they are- your Church denounces all other gods as powerless demons. Well, this is a far more open-minded land you have arrived in."
"How much more open-minded?" Camryn asked casually.
Vindra shot him a sideways look. "Stay clear of Shandar Province."
"Shandar is well known to be intolerant of magic use and... unconventional relationships."
All three friends turned white.
"And what makes you mention that?" Varley said in a tight voice.
"Easy, friend. I am from neither Shandar, nor Bandor. I was raised in a more enlightened culture."
"And what of other people? What does the rest of this land think of such things?" Leena was aware that her voice was no match for Camryn's casual tone.
"Users of magic are welcome anywhere, outside of Shandar. As for the other... well, people being what they are, there is always intolerance from some. But the only place with laws against those relationships is indeed Shandar."
"Thank you for the warning." Camryn had lost the casual tone. He smiled, but Varley looked unconvinced.
"Are there... purifications here, ever?" Leena asked in a low voice.
"Certainly not." Vindra shook his head vehemently. "There are those who hold the purifications to be mere myth, here, but I know they occur. Forgive me, don't answer if you don't want to, but is that what brought you to this land? Were you fleeing the fires?"
Leena and Cam looked to Varley for guidance. He gazed at Vindra intently for a moment, then nodded once, slowly.
"Well, no need to fear such here. Demons may take you, evil mages try to corrupt you, and bandits try to rob you, but no one outside Shandar will try to burn you."
"Well that's a relief," Leena said.
"If it's true," Varley muttered.
"Oh, true enough, my friend. I have no need to lie to you."
Leena shook her head sadly. They had all changed so much, just in the last few days... She sighed, then began plying Vindra with questions about magic. She felt so ignorant in this strange land with its unknown customs. Not to mention the discovery that she had power which she had been taught was pure nonsense...
* * * *
The descent from the Palantirs ended abruptly in a broad, grassy plain. Leena was amazed at the difference. Flowers bloomed all over the vast meadowland. Trees were scattered all around, filled with twittering birds. The sun beat down less harshly here. The road was wider, and soon they were passing scattered farms. Peasants in the fields sometimes waved at them as they passed.
"These lands look prosperous," Varley observed, during one of the infrequent pauses in Leena's relentless questioning.
"That they are. This far from Larantyne and the Dark One's greatest influence, it is as though there is no war. In fact, if you asked that man over there-" and Vindra pointed to a man working a hand plow "-he would say that there is no war, and the Dark One is a mere myth."
"Some myth," Leena observed dryly, looking at the rope burns on her arms.
"Indeed." He paused. "Perhaps I shouldn't tell you this, as there's nothing we can do about it, but there has been a dark presence probing at my shield quite frequently. The evil one must suspect you are under my protection."
Leena sighed heavily and rubbed her wrists. "Great. Just great."
"So that is the great city of Caissa." Varley was the only one able to voice a comment at the sight of the vast sprawl of civilization.
"It's enormous," Leena whispered, gazing at the walled hive of humanity before them. At the center of the city, a gleaming structure of marble stood, surrounded by smaller buildings and much open space. The setting sun painted it a vivid orange.
Camryn simply stared.
"Yes, well, we shall be well taken care of tonight." Vindra set off eagerly down the hill. He was in better shape than the horses, who required considerable urging to resume movement.
"What do you think, Izzy?" Leena asked the kitten on her shoulder. He yawned.
"I'd say he's not impressed," Camryn snickered.
"Vindra, where are you taking us?" Varley called, booting his horse into a slow trot to catch up with the sorcerer.
"To the Temple. They will house us all free of charge."
Varley grinned at that. The amount of coin in his purse had dwindled to almost nothing over the last several days.
They followed Vindra through the crowded streets, trying not to gawk at the sights. People swirled about them constantly in the complicated dance of city dwellers. As they approached the Temple, structures grew grander in design until the three Bandorans were gaping in awe. Such buildings did not exist in Bandor. Not even the King's palace was as splendid as these mere homes.
The Temple itself was breathtaking. A low wall set the grounds off from the rest of the city. Inside, a lawn spread up to the gleaming marble stairs of the Temple. A smaller, less impressive building, also made of marble, stood beside it.
"We will stay in the smaller building," Vindra said, leading them onto the carefully tended gravel path. "That is the Hall of Lights, where the Circle is based. The Temple is, naturally, strictly for religious purposes."
They followed him up to the main entrance, then nervously dismounted as Vindra went inside. They removed their travel packs and waited. He emerged a moment later with two people dressed in light gray robes. One of them took the reins to all three horses and led them around the Hall.
"Welcome to the Hall of Lights," said the other. "I am Serena, and I will show you to your rooms. If you have any questions, please ask."
"Why do you house travelers? Can just anyone stay here? Will we get to meet any Clusters?" Even while gazing about in awe, Leena was still capable of producing questions.
Serena laughed wryly. "Well, I did offer, didn't I? The Circle houses travelers of a certain kind- those who fight the Dark One. You will be safe here." She glanced significantly at Leena's wrists, where the rope burns were still faintly visible over the cuffs of her gloves. "You will likely meet many active Lights in the dining hall."
Serena led them out a small door. Behind the Hall was a U-shaped building. "Over there are the classrooms, and over here are the living quarters. First floor is for resident Lights, second floor is for visitors and upper level students. Third floor is for the youngsters." She indicated the shorter portion of the U. "That is for administration and meals." She entered the building and took them to the second floor. She opened two doors, across from each other.
"Here you go. I trust you don't mind sharing rooms?"
"Not at all," Varley assured her gravely. Leena snorted.
"Sorry, furrball," she said in response to Serena's inquiring look. Izzy obligingly stuck his tail up her nose, from his now-accustomed shoulder perch. Leena sneezed. Cam grinned wickedly at her, then hastily straightened his face as Serena looked at him.
"If you'd like to leave your packs-?"
They all did so, Vindra and Leena taking the room with two beds. A look of understanding passed across Serena's features. As she led them all back down to the dining hall, Cam elbowed Leena and they snickered like naughty schoolchildren.
The dining hall was nearly full. Serena showed them where to find the food, then left them to their own devices. They settled with bowls of fish stew at a table full of people in a darker shade of gray robe than Serena. Leena leaned over to whisper in Vindra's ear.
"Do you know the significance of their robes' colors?"
He shook his head. "Probably a way to separate the Lights by rank or duty."
Then the Light next to him introduced himself as a magicuser, and the two were off on a discussion of magic. Leena listened at first, fascinated, but they quickly went beyond her meager knowledge. She wondered if she would ever be fully trained. Vindra was showing her the basics, things every gifted child learned as soon as their power manifested, but she wanted more.
By the time Leena was finished with her stew, she was nodding over her bowl. So she excused herself and returned to her room, too tired to even use the common bathing room. She fell into bed, Izzy curling himself on the pillow.
* * * *
"Is it true, you ride to join the Old Guard?"
"Beg pardon?" Leena looked up from her porridge.
"I heard that is where you travel to." A young woman smiled shyly at her, out from under a shock of unruly dusty-brown hair.
"Not necessarily. We go to seek employment in Larantyne." Leena gathered her scattered wits.
"Ah." She seemed disappointed, then smiled again. "We leave today for the Guard. My Cluster and I, I mean. My name is Kaylyn. What's yours?"
"I'm Leena. I didn't know the Clusters ever joined the Old Guard."
"Most of us do, at some time or another. It is our duty to fight evil, and there's not much worse evil than the Dark One."
"So would you like company along the way?"
"Rannel wanted me to ask. He said he talked with Vindra all night last night, and wanted to work with you."
"Let me ask my friends." Leena was having difficulties keeping up with the other's quick speech in the predawn darkness.
"Cam, where's Varley? Someone wants to travel with us."
"He's already gone off to the stables, with Vindra. Who's this?"
"Kaylyn, this is my friend Camryn." That's bloody hard to say at this hour. "Cam, she wants to travel with us. And her Cluster, too."
"Huh. Fine by me. We'll have to ask Varley."
"Great! I'll go tell my Cluster." Kaylyn darted off.
"There's something positively indecent about being that awake before dawn," Leena muttered. Cam grunted assent.
After they ate, they returned to their rooms and collected the packs. Leena felt odd knowing that Vindra would not accompany them any further. Perhaps this... Rinna? Rennel? Ah, yes- Rannell would continue teaching her.
Cam and Leena joined Varley in the stables. Vindra was there as well. He smiled when he spotted them.
"I have good news! For me, anyway. The Circle is interested in my methods of teaching. They wish me to remain here and teach a class or two, and write a book for their great library."
"How wonderful!" Leena said, clasping his hands. Then she turned to her horse, whom she had begun calling Ellis. The gelding's red chestnut coat reminded her strongly of a kennel worker of that name. He was already tacked, so Leena fastened her pack to the saddle and scooped Izzy off the ground. She deposited the kitten on the pack, then checked on the others.
"Oh... before I forget, Varley, someone wishes to travel with us for a ways. What say you?"
"Who is it? And why?"
"A Cluster of Lights," Camryn responded. "They are on their way to the North, to join the Old Guard."
"Fine with me." He shrugged, then turned to Vindra. "Is there anything else?"
The sorcerer shook his head. "Just remember."
An intense look passed between them and Varley nodded. "I will." He swung up into the saddle. "Until we meet again, friend." He moved his horse out into the main stableyard, looking back impatiently.
"Thank you, Vindra," Leena said. She surprised herself by hugging him, then mounted and rode out.
"Good bye, and good luck with your book," Camryn called, as he urged his horse out to join the others.
They were following the path back to the city when a group of four riders caught up with them.
"Greetings, friends!" A tall man with shoulder length dark hair said. "I am Rannell. Kaylyn said she discussed traveling together with you?"
"You are welcome to ride with us," Varley said.
"I thank you, friend. I had words with Vindra last night." He looked at Leena. "Would you consent to magic lessons while we ride?"
And so Leena and Rannell began a concentrated course in magic. Rannell had spoken with Vindra of how to combine their methods of instruction to the best effect. Leena absorbed everything he said avidly, paying little attention to anything but Rannell.
Two days out of Caissa, the travelers ran into trouble. Distant shouts and the clash of swords alerted them to the conflict ahead.
A group of bandits was attacking a merchant caravan. A mage assisted them, hurling fireballs and lances of power. Varley, Camryn, and Danir the swordsman drew their weapons and rode to help. Rannell held his horse in for a moment, with hand raised to prevent Leena following.
"I want you to construct a shield," he said. "Make it completely reflective of magical energy and put it around your two friends."
"But what about-"
"Do it! I'll worry about my Cluster."
Leena concentrated fiercely and made two shields, one for each of her friends.
Rannell raised his arm and pointed. A compact ball of distortion flew towards the conflict and hit the head of a mounted bandit. He flew out of his saddle and sprawled on the ground.
"Did you see how I did that?" Leena nodded. "Good. Lets move in a bit closer. I want you to continue to watch what I do closely, but do not let your shield falter. They are depending on you to keep them safe. Kaylyn, Bidley- stay close. I don't want you near the conflict."
They rode a bit closer, then stopped. Rannell threw a few more disruption balls. They shimmered and twisted as they flew, making them hard to see. Their effects were plain, however- when one came in contact with a bandit, he toppled to the ground. After the third one fell, the enemy mage spotted him and turned to attack. Rannell cast a shield about the mage, similar to the one Leena held about her friends but reflective on the inside. The other mage gathered power and made a throwing motion, then fell like a dropped rock as the mirror shield reflected it back at him.
"Did you get that technique?"
Leena nodded. "Very neat way to deal with the problem. That required little of your strength, since he felled himself."
"Indeed. Remember that trick, you may need it someday. Now let's see you make a ripple-ball."
Between the two of them, they knocked down the remaining bandits. Leena's aim was abominable- she even hit Camryn twice and Varley once.
"At least my shield is working properly," she observed the second time she hit Cam.
Once the bandits were all sprawled unconscious, they all rode to join the others. The merchants were effusively grateful.
"Name your reward, and if it's in my power I'll give it," the caravan master urged.
"A job?" Camryn said with wry humor, wiping sweat from his brow.
"Done," the man said instantly. "Obviously we are not well enough guarded."
The two caravan guards glared. "There were a dozen of them," one protested.
"Enough. You will have more help now."
"Just myself and my two companions," Varley put in. "The others have a prior commitment."
A look of disappointment crossed the man's face. "Very well, then. I am Grivald, caravan master and merchant."
Varley introduced the Bandorans. "Shall we arrange the details now?"
"Very well." The two walked off out of earshot.
They returned shortly, and the caravan began moving again. A round of hasty goodbyes was said to the Cluster of Lights, who were obligated to continue northwards. The merchants were heading to Kar'at, stronghold of the secretive Dargasi people, on the western border of the civilized lands.
"Leena, you're with me," Varley said. "Can you keep watch for any other bandits?"
"That I can, assuming they have a mage. I won't be much good for anything else, though- that will take up all my concentration."
"Stick close to me, I'll take care of you. Cam, you're on point- hope you were right about your knowledge working in other lands."
Cam grinned. "It's worked so far, hasn't it? Where will you two be?"
Leena grimaced at the thought of all the dust soon to be in her face.
"The other two guards are taking the flanks. You see anything strange, anything at all, let us know. The caravan master said they're carrying a load of oddities and rare objects, but it's supposed to be secret. Some of the items are supposed to be magical in nature. So keep watch for anything odd at all."
"Yes, sir!" Camryn gave a mock salute, with a grin for Varley's fussiness. He cantered his horse to the head of the line of four wagons, then rode out of sight.
Leena and Varley dropped back to the tail end of the caravan. At least it's only four wagons, Leena thought as she tied her reins in a knot and dropped them on the horse's neck. "Watch my horse?"
Varley nodded, and Leena dropped into a state that wasn't really a trance, but wasn't far from it. She scanned the countryside for energy pockets. All was as it should be, full of verdant green life energy, but she kept looking. She hoped her skills were up to this job.
When the attack came, it was silent and sudden. Leena had a brief impression of men dropping out of trees before something hit her and the world went black.
* * * *
Leena became aware that she was still alive slowly. Her first clue was scent- a peculiar musky odor tickled her nose. Then she felt the smooth surface under her cheek. Gummy stuff crusted her eyelashes shut. The act of raising her hand to wipe it away brought a new awareness- of pain.
Always my hands, she thought groggily. Why? Couldn't it be some other part that hurts for once?
But it wasn't just her hands. Her entire arms burned and ached. She succeeded in wiping her eyes clean and opened them. She was puzzled by what she saw- an opulent bedchamber. She was sprawled naked on a satin covered featherbed in a chamber fit for a whore's nightmare. There were things hanging on the walls she didn't even want to guess the purpose of- straps and clamps and Lord-knows-what.
Leena pried herself off the bed, groaning. She wasn't sure where she was or how she had gotten here, but laying around served no purpose.
Once upright, her head began banging with a monotonous beat. She grimaced and tried to ignore it. Her eye fell on a luxurious black velvet robe. With less effort than she had anticipated, she rose and put the robe on. Wobbling slightly, she eyed the door and set out towards it. It was locked.
She made her way to a normal looking chair, averting her gaze from the one shaped oddly and covered in an assortment of straps. She tried to center herself and meditate.
She didn't have long to wait for something to happen. She had barely achieved a fragile peace when the door opened.
"Greetings," said the man who entered. He was breathtakingly handsome, dressed in a fantastic concoction of beaded silk shirt with full sleeves and velvet trousers. Evil poured off him in waves, assaulting her newly awakened mage-senses like acid. "Welcome to the humble home of the great Dark Lord Kierlan." He swept an elegant bow. "I trust you slept well?"
Leena didn't respond.
"You are mine at last, little one."
"I belong to no one!"
He smiled delightedly. "Ah! You have spirit, I see. I shall enjoy... entertaining you." He licked his lips with obscene pleasure. "But not in here, I think- this room was made for a different sort of pleasure. Come."
To her horror, Leena felt her body rise and walk behind him without her permission. She followed him into a room that fit every description she had ever read of a torture chamber save one- this place was scrupulously clean and well lit.
"Over there," he said, gesturing casually. Her body walked obediently to stand beside a post set into the stone floor while her spirit screamed and struggled. He tied her securely to it with leather restraints. "Now... let me look a you." He examined her minutely. "Hmm..." Kierlan inspected Leena's brands. "These marks offend me. You are mine now, little one." He smiled at Leena's furious growl of denial. "I will not have you marked by any other than me."
With a casual gesture of his hand, he called a ball of black fire into being. He split it in two and set one ball to each brand. Leena howled with the pain of it burning into her flesh.
Although it seemed to last forever, the burning died away rapidly. The flames gave a last flicker, then sank into her now-smooth skin. Leena whimpered with the pain, but was unable to tear her gaze away from her unmarked hands, stretched above her head and bound to the pole with bloodstained leather.
Then Kierlan began to... amuse himself, and such things as vanished brands became utterly insignificant. Leena shrieked and howled as Kierlan did foul things to her body, until she could barely remember why it was so important for her not to give in. When he tired of her, his servants carried her into the bedchamber and left her sprawled whimpering on the bed.
* * * *
"You will regret this," Leena whispered weakly. She had lost track of how long she had been here, how many days the Dark Lord had toyed with her. But some shreds of her will still remained. "I will never serve you, and my friends-"
"I grow tired of hearing of your friends." Kierlan made an impatient gesture, his hand above the whip. Leena flinched and cowered as far away as her bonds would allow. "You love and trust them so much. Would you see what they really think of you?" He gestured again, with purpose. The tarnished bronze mirror on the wall flickered to life, showing an image of Varley and Camryn resting by a campfire. Sound followed the image.
"...to be alone. I thought we'd never be rid of her."
"She was dreadfully clingy," Varley nodded, stretching. "Wonder where she is now?"
"Who cares? The little bitch can take care of herself. I think she betrayed us all anyway, and led those men right to us."
"You're probably right. Better to be rid of her than-"
"No!" Leena screamed. She writhed against the leather bindings, tears pouring down her face. "That can't be! Make it stop... they are my friends, they wouldn't say such things..."
Her strength ran out and she slumped forward, in time to hear a final hurtful comment before the image faded.
"I never should have picked her up from that roadway. Just look at the trouble she has caused."
"You see, there is no hope for rescue. You are mine. None other on this earth wants you. You will serve me well, little one." His cruel chuckle elicited no response. "You look rather sad. Perhaps a present will cheer you up." He reached into a pocket of his elaborate robe and produced a black velvet ribbon with a rose carved of onyx strung onto it. "Allow me, my dear."
Leena was too devastated to even flinch away from the hated touch of her captor. He tied the ribbon about her neck, then released her bindings. She toppled slowly to the floor and lay in stunned shock. Her mind replayed the scene between Camryn and Varley over and over again.
Rid of her... clingy... little bitch... betrayed us... betrayed betrayed betrayed...
The Dark Lord sent for one of his silent servants to remove Leena to her room and put her to bed. There, she passed into oblivion, haunted by a sense of loss.
* * * *
"How are you feeling, my stubborn one? Was my present to your liking?" The evil mage's voice rippled with dark amusement. He glided towards her, plainly ready for more of his exotic amusements. Leena said nothing. "I can see that you will be no more trouble. You are mine now. In token of this, you shall call me... Master."
To her horror, Leena found herself responding, "Yes, my Master." Eyes wide, deeply shaken by the fact that those words had come from her, she stared at the Dark Lord. Her bonds had not been retied- nothing held her except the formidable will of the dark presence before her. Darkness poured off him in waves, but no longer battered at her protections. Instead it lapped gently at the fringes of her awareness, warm and inviting. Under the hooded cloak he wore, she could see the gleam of his eyes. She flinched as he moved suddenly, setting down the silver-handled whip on a table filled with similar devices and implements of torture.
"No, little one, not this time." The Dark Lord's rich voice held a hint of a cruel chuckle. "There is no need for more lessoning, at this time."
"What is thy bidding, my Master?" Leena cursed herself for the ease with which the words came, the humble servility in her voice. No, no- this can not be! her mind screamed. I will not allow this...
But her will was no longer her own. Try though she might, Leena could no longer resist the will of the Dark Lord, this Kierlan. She could not even touch the rose he had given her last night with the thought of removing it. The part of her mind that was still rational realized the pendant must have taken control of her will as she slept. She fought the evil spell with single-minded intensity, only peripherally aware that Kierlan was giving her instructions and her voice was responding to him. She had to win free of this repulsive black rose wrapped about her neck.
A commotion intruded upon her concentration. Voices shouted in the corridor, then the door slammed open. Leena gasped but was held immobile by the Dark Lord's will as Varley and Camryn burst into the room.
Cam darted forward to her side as Varley raised his sword to deal with the evil mage. Amazingly, Kierlan only smiled with satisfaction, then vanished.
"What the hell-?" Varley halted his sword mid-swing, searching the room frantically for the mage. There was no sign of him anywhere. Leena collapsed to the ground with the abrupt loss of Kierlan's control. Her entire body burst into a flare of pain. Camryn lifted her carefully, supporting most of her weight.
"Let's go! Before any others arrive." Varley looked out of the torture chamber cautiously, then led the way outside.
"How did you find me?" Leena gasped as she staggered through the passages of Kierlan's stronghold. Horses waited outside. Camryn had to lift Leena into the saddle. Then they were off, pelting through territory that was all unfamiliar to Leena. She concentrated on hanging on. She refused to think yet. Betrayed us... little bitch-NO!
Camryn signaled Varley, and they slowed the horses. Cam dismounted and took the lead, picking a way through dense brushy forest with ease, despite the uneven ground. He abruptly disappeared, although Leena could hear the sound of his horse crashing through the undergrowth. When she reached that spot, she discovered it was the entrance to a well-hidden, narrow ravine, barely deep enough to conceal a horse and so narrow that the horses would have to back out.
Leena slid down the side of the horse and sat in silence as both men fussed over her. Now that she was no longer concentrating on riding, her mind was obsessively replaying the little scene she had witnessed last night and trying to detect any hint that it had been a true vision.
"Huh?" Camryn poked at her, breaking into the obsession. He held out a steaming mug.
"I said, drink this, it'll make you feel better. What's wrong with you, anyway?"
"Nothing." She tried to smile and wrapped her chilled hands around the mug. She guessed it was nearly evening. The overcast sky provided little clue as to time, and prevented the sun's warmth from reaching the land. It wasn't real, she told herself firmly. They really care about you. But again she heard their words in memory. Better to be rid of her...
"What's this?" Cam asked, touching the black rose at Leena's throat. She started.
"How could I have forgotten that vile thing! Take it off, will you? I can't touch it."
With a puzzled frown, Cam did as she asked. Instantly Leena doubled over in agony, filled with wrenching, twisting pain that increased when Cam moved the rose away from her and completely dwarfed the pain from her wounds. She thought she was screaming but couldn't tell.
Then the pain was gone and she was in someone's arms. She sobbed wretchedly, fighting the rose's compulsion once again and losing.
"What was that all about?" Varley stroked her hair, holding her gently.
"She wanted to be rid of the rose about her neck. But as soon as I removed it, she started screaming and thrashing about. I was barely able to get it back on her, but that made her stop. What is this thing?"
"Kierlan put it on me, after he- never mind. It made me..." she gulped back more bitter sobs and tried to pull away. Varley wouldn't let her, and Camryn moved in closer and started rubbing her back. "It made me lose my will. He told me to call him Master, and... and I did." Ashamed, she buried her face in Varley's shoulder. He's your friend. Remember that. See? That couldn't have been real... But remember, whispered a traitorous portion of her mind, they left you there for days. And he took the brands away.
Then Cam ran his hand across one of the deeper whip cuts and she flinched away, leading to their discovery and treatment of her injuries. At length, the men sent Leena to bed, bandaged, poulticed, and so full of painkilling herbs that her head buzzed incessantly.
* * * *
The next morning found them once again on the road, silent and watchful. Leena was grateful to be awake and feeling much better. Her dreams had been plagued by formless fears and darkness all night long. She huddled silently in a damp bundle atop her horse and wondered what was to become of her now.
They rode fast, anxious to reach the main road. The ancient, rolling forestland was comfortingly homelike, but it offered few amenities. Leena was better able to ride today, since Cam had insisted she take more medication. About noon, they struck the main road at last and set the horses to a steady westward jog. A dust cloud ahead promised fellow travelers.
The dust cloud was, in fact, created by the very caravan they had left. They rode up to the caravan master warily, uncertain of the welcome they would receive after the battle which had separated them. However, there was no cause for worry.
"Glad to have you back," Grivald grunted. The formerly cheerful little man now watched everything suspiciously, eyes darting about the countryside. "Been more attacks. We need every hand we can get. Ho! You there! Look sharp, fool- don't ride under trees!" With a grumbled curse, he rode off to deliver a sizzling lecture to the hapless rider.
"What a change," Varley said, assessing the state of the caravan. There were only three wagons left. All the remaining merchants- slightly more than half their original number- now rode guard, many bearing weapons from their own stock.
"Indeed." Camryn slipped off to scout ahead. Varley and Leena resumed their accustomed position.
"So what is it?" Varley's abrupt question broke the uncomfortable silence.
"I don't know what you mean." Leena's horse danced sideways, picking up on her tension. She corrected it unconsciously, staring straight ahead.
"What's been bothering you? There is something, don't try to deny it."
"Very well, I won't. I saw something while I was... away, that upset me."
"Leena, don't be difficult."
"Kierlan showed me a vision. I didn't like it." At Varley's look, she sighed and went on. "You and Camryn, discussing me. And- how glad you were that, to be alone- without me-" Tears welled in her eyes and she blinked furiously. She worked to swallow around the knot in her throat.
A gentle hand caught at her chin and forced her to look at Varley, his horse crowded in next to hers so close their sides nearly brushed. "We never said that. We would never say that. Surely you know this?"
She nodded mutely.
"Now don't think about such things anymore. We are your friends, now and always... remember?"
She summoned up a tiny smile and nodded, which seemed to satisfy him. But the doubt was still in her heart and would not leave her alone. Should have left her... trouble... be rid of her...
* * * *
Leena woke from more nightmares to feel a familiar presence in the blackness. She rose silently, walking in a daze to the edge of the camp.
He was there. She knelt before him, welcoming the warm waves of dark energy as they washed over her.
"Rise, little one. You have done well." He stroked her head as though she were a dog. "It is time, now. I will take the artifact, while you... you will prove your loyalty to me by destroying those who thought to steal you from me."
"But- they are my friends," Leena whispered.
"Do you forget already how they speak of you when you are not there? They are no friends of yours. Go now- use this, and prove your loyalty."
He pressed a long dagger into her hand. She clutched the hilt and turned back to the camp, in a daze. She betrayed us... little bitch... Her mind struggled to form thoughts. This couldn't be right, weren't they her friends? She tried to remember Varley's earlier words, but all she heard was the hateful things of the other night.
There he was, at her feet- Varley, the one who had hurt her most. No, wait a minute, hadn't he saved her? And the other one, Camryn, he had held her... but he wanted her gone...
A tortured whimper escaped Leena as she raised the knife high above her head, preparing to strike the unprotected breast of her... friend? Enemy? She hardly knew. The blade began to descend. She fought it, trying to control herself. Her muscles burned as she struggled to keep the blade away from her... friend. If she could only wake them, they could tell her what to do...
Then one of them did stir. Camryn rolled over, eyes half open. Leena made an urgent grunting sound, all she could manage. His eyes flew open and widened with shock. Then he leapt up and knocked her flat.
"Varley! Wake up!"
Leena's body struggled against her will and the night became chaos, as Camryn's shout roused more then just Varley. She was aware of an explosion, laced with her Master's power signature. Then Varley was on her as well, helping Camryn wrest the dagger away from her frenzied grip.
Leena felt her strength draining as her Master drew on it. Light erupted into being, illuminating an insane scene at the center of the wagon circle. Leena saw it all through her Master's eyes. He held a closed jewelry casket in his hands, trying to open it. He laughed maniacally as merchants tried to attack him, setting fire to man, beast, and wagon indiscriminately with Leena's power. He grew frustrated and smashed the casket against a rock, then snatched up the pendant which spilled out.
"At last! It is mine! The great Eye of the Djinn! I shal-"
His voice cut off abruptly. The pendant began glowing with a vivid ruby beam of light, focused on the Dark Lord. He clawed frantically at his throat with one hand, trying to shake the blazing gem off the other hand. Then he gave a great gasp as air rushed back into his lungs, only to exhale it in an uncanny shriek that went on and on as the intense beam of light intensified. The shriek continued, even as he burst into flames.
Leena echoed the shriek, clawing at her own throat. The black rose, nearly forgotten moments ago, now burned fiercely into her as the Master died. She ripped it off, shaking violently but in full control of her body once again.
"The fires! We must help with the fires! Let me up!"
Varley and Camryn exchanged glances. Varley nodded, and they released her, but watched her warily. She staggered to her feet and called on her own power, ignoring the taint of darkness. She focused on dousing the flames trying to consume living beings first... except for the unnaturally hot blaze which even now emitted a ghost of a shriek. Varley and Cam went into action, organizing frightened and disoriented merchants to try and stop the flames. But all soon saw that is was no use. The fire had too firm a hold of the three large wagons. The survivors pulled together and straggled wearily to the top of the hill to watch the destruction.
Leena sought her friends out and took their hands. "I'm sorry."
"It wasn't your fault," Camryn said.
The three of them stood staring at the burning wreck of the caravan. Visible even through the smoke, a beam of ruby light shot skyward. The pendant rested atop a pile of ashes which had once been a Dark Lord. Leena could still feel the darkness within herself, calling... She shook her head to clear it of that insidious voice.
"The enemy has been defeated. Isn't this the part where the heroes ride off into the sunset and live happily ever after?"
Camryn made a disgusted sound.
"That hardly seems likely, at this point of the tale," Varley sighed, shoulders slumping with exhaustion.
"Happy ending or no, at least we're still alive," Camryn said, summoning up a weary smile. He pushed damp hair back from his soot-smeared face.
"And we will make it, I swear." Leena turned away from the destruction below to face her friends. "Together."
A wilted sounding mew sounded by her foot. Astounded, Leena bent down and found her missing kitten- smoke stained, weary, but alive. She raised her eyes to her friends, cradling Izzy with the beginnings of a smile. "If he can do it, then so can we. Right?"
She sighed heavily. "Then I suppose we'd better get back to it. They need us to help with the wounded."
That brief moment of peace was their last until nearly dawn. Of the original dozen surviving merchants, six had died and the others were all either wounded or in total shock. Once all were made as comfortable as possible, Leena threw herself on a blanket and tried to sleep.
When her eyes closed she saw herself standing over her friends again, blade in hand, about to carry out her Master's will. Her eyes flew open. Breathing in ragged gasps, she lay on the hard ground and stared at the brightening eastern sky. I wouldn't have done it, she repeated to herself over and over. I couldn't have done it. But the guilty litany did nothing to disguise the memory. She lay staring sleeplessly at the stars, so different from those of her homeland. Eventually she dropped into a fitful slumber.
* * * *
Running, running- alone and friendless. They betrayed me. Nightmare sense of pursuit, but nothing visible. Betrayal burning through her very veins. I thought they were my friends. Then-
Peace. Quiet. No longer running, the pain distant now. Ah, you have come to me at last.
A small black speck, floating in space. Blacker than black, in hung in the emptiness and spoke to the darkness within her.
I knew you would not be long. None such as yourself can resist the lure of my darkness.
"Who are you?"
I am your future.
Images flashing through her head- the betrayers vanquished, herself laughing triumphantly, power singing through her veins like liquid black fire. Whole countries bowing down to serve her. Immortal life, in exchange for...
"For what? What are you after?"
Nothing that is not yours to give, little one. I merely ask access to your mind. The whole world shall be yours.
"And why do you wish this? Who- what are you?"
That is not important. I ask of you a mere trifle, and offer the world.
Flash of her own hand holding the blade ready to descend- no, he is my friend, surely he is my friend- on the great betrayer.
"Something is not right."
But it is right. I tire of this foolish child I now inhabit. Your Master was not strong enough- his character had a fatal flaw. But you... you are better than either. Give me your mind now, and be the Dark Queen.
* * * *
Leena woke,, tears pouring down her cheeks, to find Camryn kneeling over her. "I'm sorry to disturb you so soon, but... hey, are you alright?"
She scrubbed at the tears and took a deep breath, then struggled into a sitting position. "Bad dream. What is wrong?"
"Not wrong, really- just something needs your attention."
She took a closer look at him- the dark circles under his eyes, his face still smudged with soot, the weary expression. "Did you get any sleep?"
"Some." Then he smiled a little. "Well, not really- I did lay down for a few minutes though."
"You need to take better care of yourself. So what was it again?"
"The merchants want to recover that pendant, but they're afraid to touch it. They say it's best left to someone with mage-power. Are you up to it?"
Blazing red light, the scream that echoed even now in her memory... the feeling of freedom as the evil one died... "I think so." She ran her hand over her hair and grimaced at the sticky texture. She clambered to her feet slowly. The sun was well up now. She must have been asleep for at least a couple of hours, despite the fact that it felt like only a few minutes.
Cam walked with her to the smoldering remains of the Dark Lord.
"Eew." She looked down at the greasy ashes. The pendant rested atop the pile, pulsing with power. "Wonder what'll happen when I touch it?"
"Nothing," said Camryn firmly. "They said that particular little bauble is supposed to destroy evil."
Leena giggled. "It certainly does that... wonder why he wanted it?"
"It is also supposed to hold the power of one of the Greater Djinn."
Leena snorted derisively. "Indeed. Well, wish me luck."
With a quick motion, she plucked the pendant out of the ashes. Immediately she felt something tickling at her mind- a feeling of being weighed and measured against some exacting standard. Then a ruby glow formed at the heart of the stone.
"What-" She couldn't speak, or breathe... something was crawling through her, rooting out all the darkness from her entire being, burning it with ruby fire. She moaned and thrashed, unable to break away. Darkness writhed and shrieked as it was immolated by the ruby blaze. Her flesh healed and became whole again in the wake of the fire. Then it was done. The stone gave a few last flickers and then subsided.
"What under the sun was that?" Leena asked weakly. She felt drained, yet better than she had in days.
"I'm not sure," Cam said, gazing at the stone warily. "I think you've been cleansed."
"I think you're right." Leena shook herself all over. "I feel... good. Very good, in fact. So what am I supposed to do with this thing?"
"I think they want it back. Shall we?" He gustured towards the hilltop, where the survivors were recovering.
"So what was that plan again? Go to Anarill, challenge a Guard Captain to a duel, move us all into a castle- right?"
"That sounds like what I said." Varley leaned casually against the log, watching their faces in the flickering firelight.
Leena sighed. "And what of us, then? What are Cam and I supposed to do, sit on our rumps and look pretty?"
Cam laughed. "I, for one, would not do to well at that, but I'm sure there's plenty of opportunity for employment in a castle."
"But..." Leena held out her hand. A ball of fire appeared above her palm. She stared at it. "After learning what I have of magic, I doubt I'll ever be content to work in a kennel again." She doused the fire. "Even the position of kennel manager means less than nothing when compared to this power I have now."
"So find a teacher." Varley did not appear too concerned.
"Among the Magicmen, who dislike Vindra for his training methods? That may not be possible."
"Must we settle down?" Camryn looked up from the twig he was demolishing.
"It was just an idea! What else could we do, anyway?"
"I think we make a good team," Cam said, a bit surprised by Varley's defensive tone. "Maybe there is a market for guards with other skills as well. How many groups can there be with our combination of talents?"
"Not many, I'll wager." Leena perked up with interest. Life on the road was difficult, but she wanted an opportunity to use her new skills.
"But do we really want to continue wandering?"
"I'm up for it."
"And I." Leena held her breath.
"Perhaps..." Varley stared moodily into the fire.
"A compromise," Cam suggested. "We start for Anarill but keep an ear out for any jobs along the way."
Varley grumbled and complained, but eventually agreed.
* * * *
The inn was dimly lit and smoky. Leena sneezed as they entered, hastily closing the door behind then before the weather could follow them inside. Thunder rattled the windows, rain beat steadily on the roof, and the occasional gust of wind offered to knock the building flat. She sneezed again.
Great. Hope I'm not catching something, she thought, wiping her nose on her sleeve. The last several days had been miserable. Torrential spring rains seemed intent on washing the three travelers off the face of the earth. When she had commented on this at the last inn, the old farmer had laughed at her.
"Nah, lass- this ain't but a gentle spring rain! Just you wait for a real storm, now..."
She pulled her attention back to the present, to find Varley speaking to the innkeeper and a stranger staring at her. She caught his eye and looked away quickly, a faint blush staining her cheeks. Sweet goddess, but he's handsome!
She snuck another look out of the corner of her eye. He was still staring... and yes, he was still handsome. Very dark hair- she couldn't tell if it was black or dark brown in this light- fine features without seeming delicate, dark eyes, graceful hands... She mentally grabbed herself by the scruff and shook. Knock it off, girl! That's the last thing you need.
"Huh?" Leena looked at her friends, startled, as Varley gave her an ungentle nudge.
"I said, wake up! I got us rooms."
"Oh, sorry," Leena replied vaguely. She followed them through the common room, one eye on the stranger.
His eyes followed her across the room and into the darkened stairway beside the fireplace.
"Huh?" She jumped when someone poked her in the ribs.
Camryn laughed. "I'd say put your eyes back in your head, but that one was worth a second look. And a third, and..."
She flushed. "Aw, lay off, Cam."
"But why? You're so fun to tease."
"Because I'm wet and tired, that's why."
"Children," Varley drawled sarcastically, opening the third door from the right. "Do behave now, or I'll see that you go straight to bed with no supper."
"I'd like to see you try," Cam laughed and pushed past him into the room. He went straight to the fireplace, where a heap of coals smouldered, ready to become a warming blaze. He added wood until a respectable fire was sending warmth into the chill air. Leena huddled near it, smothering yet another sneeze. Varley began digging through his pack for something dry to wear.
After Leena began to feel warm at last, she did the same. After her third time through the pack, she paused. What is wrong with you, girl? She had been looking through her plain serviceable clothing for anything fancy or attractive. She growled at herself in disgust and snatched out the first things which came to hand. She dressed hurriedly. Her friends had given up on her and gone down to the common room already.
Leena made a conscious effort to keep her eyes on Cam and Varley when she reached the dim common room. She did not look at the corner table where the man had been, and deliberately sat with her back turned toward him. She ignored Cam's teasing as she applied herself to the bowl of potato-leek soup in front of her. It was warm, and filling, but the taste left much to be desired.