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Printed from https://www.writing.com/main/campfires/item_id/1215633-Crystal-Fire
by Arwen9
Rated: 13+ · Campfire Creative · Fiction · Fantasy · #1215633
The tribe of Shinar flee for their lives from the Eloin. Where do you fit in?
[Introduction] I'm trying to keep this brief. Rules:

1. Please, no magic!
2. No explixit sex scenes, no profanity, other than made up(by Kyda!...or something like that)


These are the four classes, or races.

Dragonian:
Tall, dark hair and eyes and both nomadic and tribal.They despise the Eloin, or Others as they often call them. The Eloin frequently massacres entire tribes of Dragonians. The name Dragonians comes from a legend about dragons possibly existing beyond the Rim. (The truth or falsehood of this legend is up to you!) Fierce fighters known for their well-trained war stallions and longbow skills. Because of the constant battles, they are also known for their knowledge of herbs.
(Celtic roots) [main tribe is Shinar]

Aquila:
An offshoot of the Dragonians. Lighter-colored hair is more common. Live on the sea shore. Friendly to the Dragonian people. Neutral in regards to the war between the Eloin and the Dragonians. Has the only warriors who use a double-headed lance.

Eloin, sometimes called Others:
Have very light hair and often blue eyes, though not always. Ruled by a king, but many smaller groups function alone. Consider all other races inferior. They build castles, make swords...(medieval time) [main castle is Blackmoor Castle]

Hybrid:
Half-breeds between any of the factions. Rejected by most of the races, those who cannot hide their bloodline create their own small settlements. [main settlement is Pennywick]

Once you've chosen one, feel free to insert your character into the story. My only request, do follow the culture for these races. (i.e. A Dragonian will not like an Eloin unless there is a good reason to do so.) Obviously, don't kill or fall in love with a character without permission.

Name: Jin
Age: 26
Class: Dragonian
Appearance: 6' 5, jet black hair down to his shoulders, emerald eyes.
Personality: Stubborn, quiet, likes to get his own way. A natural leader.
Special Talents/Abilities: Decent at the longbow, excells with the lance. Good horseman.
Past: His betrothed died in childbirth after being ravished by an Other. The child, (Elam) was adopted by him. Because of this, he does not look down on Hybrids.
Jin's brother was also killed during the same Other attack. This has made it difficult for him to trust, or love, anyone.


It was automatic. Jin's eyes snapped open and in one smooth motion, he was on his feet. One hand held his dagger, while the other hid the crystal medallion dangling from his neck. Its flash could easily alert an enemy to his presence.

He eyed the dim plains around him. Something had awakened him, but what?

Both of the moons had waned to pale, thin crescents that shed little light. What light there was only revealed the usual things. Horses tossing their heads, a few trees swaying in the gentle breeze, and what was left of his tribe, still sleeping, circled the dying campfire.

Elam muttered in his sleep. His blonde hair gleamed in the moonlight like a beacon. Jin flicked a glance down at his son, and then tugged the fleece over Elam's head, before slinking around the small camp.

With the Other attack force dogging his heels, he knew from hard experience to be suspicious of everything. A whisper of footsteps snapped his head up. He melted into the shadows and waited. A dark figure crossed where he had been a moment before. Silently, Jin slunk behind him.
A Non-Existent User
Name: Daliah
Age: 22
Appearance: 5’ 10, curly brown hair that falls halfway down her back, deep blue eyes, well muscled
Personality: Outspoken(this usually gets her into trouble), a loner, takes no nonsense, but proud
Special Talents/Abilities: swordplay, archery, and can nearly communicate with her horse
Past: Abandoned at birth, she was raised by a soldier who taught her swordplay and archery. Often she is haunted by memories of her parents and the death of her guardian.

Daliah crept through the trees, her light feet making little noise upon the ground. A shaft of moonlight fell upon her and she stiffened, fear driving a stake through her heart. She shook her head to clear the emotions away and quickly darted beneath the shade of a large elm.
She did not much care for people in these times, since they had left Gaharis to die. She closed her eyes and, ashamed, wiped the tears from her cheek.

Name: Eppie
Age: 23
Race: Hybrid (Aquila/Eloin)
Appearance: An unusual young lady, Eppie’s locks are an almost white blonde that fall in a curly cascade down to her hip. Her pale green almond-shaped eyes complement her fair freckled complexion, and are most of the time gleaming in a amused light.

Personality: A bright and happy girl who is a natural entertainer with a knack for being able to weasel a smile out of almost anyone. She is a hard worker and not easy to anger, except when people talk about/make fun of her Eloin lineage.

Special Talents: Knows quiet a bit about medicinal herbs, and can hold her own with a light weight rapier.

History: Eppie was born into the settlement of Pennywick, and lived there for sixteen years before striking out to forge a life of her own. It didn’t take her long to find out just how obvious her Eloin bloodlines were to people and how bad it was to be called an “Other”. After a vicious beating outside a tavern, she learned how to handle a rapier and to hide her parentage by stuffing her hair under a wide brimmed straw hat. After trying to make a home with the Eloin people and being cast out because she was of ‘impure blood’, she wanders from town to town, looking for a place to make her own.

----------------------------------

Eppie was beginning to wonder if she would ever find home again.

Of course, she probably should have never left Pennywick to start with, but she had been so bound and determined to ‘find her own way,’ as she had told her mother, that she had never taken into consideration just how unaccepting some people could be. The truth was, no one was as nice as the people from Pennywick. The Dragonians were overly bitter towards anyone who even resembled an ‘Other’, and the Eloins were so stuck up that they didn’t accept anyone into their society that was not of pure blood.

She sighed and went back to poking at her fire, a futile attempt at keeping it alive. She heard a rustling and her green eyes snapped up, searching for the source. Her gaze settled on the camp not very far from hers, the one of Dragonian refugees that she could only assume were running from the Eloin. ‘Strange,’ she thought to herself, eyeing the seemingly sleepy settlement with a newfound curiosity. ‘I thought they had all gone to sleep a while ago.”

Briefly Eppie pondered what she should do before reaching a conclusion and grabbing her hat and rapier. She piled all of her hair up on the top of head and placed her hat on top of it, before shimmying up a nearby tree to get a closer look. Once she reached the fourth branch, she turned to watch the encampment, pale green eyes searching for movement.
A Non-Existent User
Name: Niamh
Age: 23
Gender: Female
Class: Hybrid
Appearance: She has dark brown hair and light blue eyes, 5'8", skinny yet strong.
Personality: Speaks only when spoken to or when it vital that she says something. She prefers to be alone. She is often haunted by terrible nightmares of a figure in black.
Special talents/abilities: She is skilled with a longbow. She is excels on a horse. She is also very skilled with a sword but she prefers not to use that skill.
History: Niamh was found in the dead of night, in Pennywick, at the age of three years old. The woman, Lida, that found Niamh took her in as her own and Niamh has forever known her as 'mother'. She grew up, very sheltered and shunned even amoung other half-breeds. Some suspect she is half Dragonian and half Eloin, though how she became to be so often escapes them.
----------------------------------

Niamh kept her eyes low on the ground as she tagged along behind her mother. She loathed to leave the house, she hated the curious stares and whisperings. She even hated the people who pretended not to notice her difference.

She knew to stay away from the men, they were the worst of all. All through her life she had been beaten in the field on the outskirts of Pennywick. The people who beat her were always three men, and each time they had left her to die.

One of her first memories was of a beating. She remembered being taken to a field , something that her mother would never know about, when she was three and beaten by three figures in black. They retreated out of the field, leaving the small bleeding child to die. She remembered laying bloody and broken. It was then that Lida found her.

She felt eyes on her. She snapped out of memory and a man was staring at her. She shuddered.




A Non-Existent User
Name: Roth
Age: 25
Class: Eloin

Appearance: 6' 2”, muscular and broad shouldered. Has shaved head w/ blonde stubble and large intelligent blue eyes. Permanent five o’clock shadow on his square jaw, and a cleft chin. Dresses in dark reds and grays in an almost flamboyant fashion.

Personality: Very arrogant. Intelligent and tactically-minded, has a way of reading people and if oftentimes prejudicial. Very suave however but finds himself questioning his life and the path he’s chosen. Looking for someone he can really trust.

Special Talents/Abilities: His stocky muscular build makes him an adept swordsman, unhindered by armor weight. Also has a love for using his spiked short-mace. Found that when he was young he could read the subtle changes in the environment that foreshadowed future events, making him an adept tracker/strategist.

Past: Roth is the son of a lesser lord in the court of King Aretas. His father was a washed-up alcoholic and lived off of the fortune of his mother’s family teaching Roth to be bitter and untrusting. His mother is a kind and cultured woman whom tried to raise Roth to be a gentleman. They each succeeded in their own way. After his fathers death he went into service under one of the Kings great Captains charged with banishing the Dragonians beyond the Rim.



***********************************************************************************************

They reached the hills just two miles outside Pennywick in the early evening. Home of the Halfbreeds Roth thought to himself. It would be the best place to get information, theses people were born afraid. If there was anyone who knew of the Dragonian rebels hiding places, any plans or uprisings, they would be here. For the occasion, Roth donned a hooded gray cloak and soft traveler’s clothes, as well as only a curved dagger in the scabbard on his belt.

He and two other men were ordered into the village to extract information that evening. Two men he didn’t particularly like. They were massive, bulky, and limited in their ingenuity – or brain-function as a matter of fact. He’d rather have take two stable hands with an idea between them than muscle with two eyes and two fists.

Sighing, he led them through the wood line towards the road leading to the village. Behind him he heard the crunch of leaves and branches. Their stealth is unmatchable! Roth laughed to himself. Picking up the pace he got onto the road and dropped his hood over his eyes. Ahead he saw two figures, their silhouettes outlined by the orange of approaching dusk. A mother and child maybe? They had just walked undoubtedly from Pennywicks main gate, perhaps heading with wash down to the river.

He waved in a friendly way and inclined his head so that the two oafs would too. The pair had stopped in the middle of the road unmoving, but considered them momentarily. Well that wasn’t going to work, Half Breeds weren’t stupid…but they still hadn’t made a run for it, and that was a plus. The closer they got though, the more the dusk seemed to settle on the two and blend into them into shadows. Dumb and dumber cracked their knuckles and smiled fiendishly behind him.

What a sorry couple of … Roth hadn’t even had time to finish his own thought, the two slender figures had been startled and were now walking backwards, waiting for an opportunity to dash away. ahh, well why not….

His feet barely hit the ground as he sprinted along the trail, his eyes never wavering from the figures now sprung to full motion, their possessions cast to the ground. The last thing he needed was them to reach the village. One of them was old, a woman nearly as old as his own mother. Her feet stumbled on the pebbled roadway as she fell face-first into a cloud of dust. They passed her as she lay there yelling.

“Run Niamh! Run!” The old woman cried. The woman turned and hesitated, her windblown dark brown hair sweeping all around her face. Roth had not a reluctance in his body as pumped his arms harder to overtake the woman called Niamh who was again running full-speed towards the village. The gate was a still a ways from her but each of her strides was with determination. Behind him he heard his two annoying companions detaining the old woman and laughing like children at the amusement.

Roth was on the girls’ heels now, and planned as he ran. Unsheathing the knife at his belt, he clutched it ready to throw and as they began to round the final bend he let it fly. The blade whizzed through the air right by the girls head and stuck into a tree. He’d missed intentionally of course and her reaction was all the faltering he needed. In one leap, he overtook her.

Throwing his arm around her shoulder he used her momentum to swing her into the wood line. Two seconds later lay motionless on the ground. The air knocked clean out of her. He smiled with victory, and in slight hilarity. Roth couldn’t believe he’d managed to find anyone to interview at all considering those two bumbling idiots he’d been sent with. Her light blue eyes looked around desperately as she struggled to catch her breath.

Flipping back his hood, he tilted his head and extended his arm to help her up.

“Do keep quiet. I’d hate to make this difficult.” He asked with a devilish smirk. Twisting on the ground she tried to get to her feet. Roth kicked her foot out from under her as she tried to rise and sighed. “Come now. Don’t make me hurt you.” A small trickle of blood ran down her temple as turned her frantic eyes on him, mixed blood.

Before he could try to get her up again himself, one of the oxen-brains had arrived and without warning threw a sack over her head and slung her over his shoulder. That works too… Roth shook his head and threw up his hood. It was finally night. The moon wrapped the world in its silver beams and made the woods glow like beautiful crystals as they headed back to camp.




Jin inched closer. It was now or never. He could see the flickering torches that encircled the Other camp through the trees. If the spy returned there...but he wouldn't.

Moving quickly, he yanked the figure around, his dagger's glint unmistakable.

"Cry out and it will be your last," he hissed.

It was too dark here to make out a face, but he could see the spy nod his head in understanding.

"Good."

Jin turned the spy around and pressed the point lightly against his back. "Don't try anything."

They walked silently for a little while. As they entered a small clearing, the spy stumbled. Before Jin could react, the stumble turned into a quick spin, knocking his dagger out of his hand. The sight of a sword glinting in the moonlight backed him up a step.

Jin scrambled for a plan, "My warriors are nearby. One call and you won't see the sun dawn."

The spy didn't answer. They circled each other warily. Jin flicked his gaze around, searching for his dagger. Great. I knew I should have called Sheno.

As they eyed each other, a beam of moonlight shimmered on the spy's face, but only for a moment. A woman? That can't be.
A Non-Existent User
Daliah ducked out of the way as her attacker lunged at her. She quickly drew her sword and placed the tip on his neck once he had rolled over onto his back. They both froze for a moment, trying to recover their breath.
"Why did you attack me?" she panted, pressing the blade deeeper against his throat.
"I- I thought you were a spy." he choked out nervously, but somehow not afraid.
"A spy?" she laughed bitterly. "I travel alone." The statement rang horribly in her head. She knew it was unwise to travel alone, but she could not risk losing anyone else dear to her. "I believe you, though we just met. There is something honest about your face." She slid her sword back into its sheath and held out her hand. "I am Daliah."
"Jin." He took her hand and let her pull him to his feet. She opened her mouth to speak, but before she could, something caught her attention. She spun around and fitted and arrow into her bow, but she was too late. The arrow missed its mark as a poison dart struck her arm, instantly taking effect.
She fought the oncoming darkness, fought the weakness that flowed through her body. All was in vain. She stumbled back into the arms of Jin, her last concious thought that she wished this would kill her.
Eppie blinked hard once, and then again. She rubbed at her eyes and tried to peer into the inky blackness that was the night, but had little success. All that she could really make out were the dying embers of the refugee’s camp, and their little sleeping figures. A yawn escaped her lips and her eyes began to droop, her head falling so that her chin rested on her chest. It was there that she found comfort, and drifted into a warm, long sleep.

Or at least, that is what she had hoped for, but it was not reality. The truth of the matter was that Eppie had not found herself asleep for more than ten minutes, when she was aroused from her dreams by voices. Groggily she blinked and glanced down, green eyes landing on a man and a woman. The woman stood, sword posed at the man’s neck and conversing in hushed tones. ‘A lover’s quarrel?’ Eppie thought to herself, cocking an eyebrow and leaning forward curiously to get a better look.

The brunette woman sheathed her sword, holding her hand out to the man. A few more words were spoken when suddenly the woman spun around, staring straight at where the blonde hybrid hid and drawing back an arrow back. The breath caught in Eppie’s throat and her green eyes went wide in surprise, sure that the arrow would hit her at any moment. However, a something went buzzing past her ear and struck the stranger in her arm, sending her reeling back into the dragonian man’s arms.

Eppie let out an uncharacteristic squeak, loosing her balance and falling from the tree in an uncomfortable heap on the ground. She glanced up to meet the confused eyes of the man, and gave a nervous little titter, before turning and scooping up her rapier, looking for whatever it was that was shooting darts at people.
A Non-Existent User
Niamh didn't like the way the man was chasing her, she pushed herself to run faster. He was chasing with a purpose. She wanted to make it back to the main gate. With determination she dashed, the gate was so close, she could almost taste it. Then there was swooshing sound, and she saw a dagger sticking out of the tree. Stupidly she stopped to stare at it knowing that the man would pounce then.
As she hit the ground the memory of the last beating flashed through her mind. And once again she was helpless trying to breathe with futile gasps. She thought of how sad Lida would be if she was killed by this man. Niamh didn't think he wanted to kill her.... yet.
He held out his hand to her, she wanted to rip the skin off the bone. She didn't want his help. She tried to get up herself, but cruelly he knocked her down, sending her back on her stomach. He said something but all she could hear was a faint garbled murmur. Then she felt the blood trickle down her face, she knew what he was thinking; 'mixed blood'.
Then, there was darkness. Niamh hated the darkness and now to her it seemed that nightmares really could come true. The man that sent her into violent screams was real. Silently she cried as he carried her, salty tears mixing with inferior blood. She wished that Lida wasn't murdered. She would never be able to bear it. She cried, not making a sound, like she had so many times in the field.
A Non-Existent User
“Ha.” The larger of the two oafs grunted. Roth casually glanced at him. The soldier’s mandible was almost too big for his face, and he had two dull-witted bulging eyes. To call him a man seemed a foreign idea, but what else but a scary-looking man could he be. With almost no effort he carried the girl in one arm while tearing at branches along the way with the other.

“Widmar.” Roth snapped. (He honestly wasn’t sure if that was the right name at all) The soldiers eyes were on him instantly. “Don’t do that, you’re making us easier to follow…and take better care with that prisoner, will you!” A slow nod answered him. Roth screamed on the inside. What idiots! Am I cursed? Shaking his head he looked at the other prisoner, a bandana wrapped ‘round her face and through her teeth.

The old woman’s pace was the speed of tar, but he couldn’t fathom something as fragile as a grandmother slung over the back of something so bear-like and careless. Of course, the girl called Niamh was another story, she hadn’t moved since being picked up.

“Boss.” Slurred Not-Widmar. Against his better judgment Roth asked what.

“I thought that it would be ok if… we just sat down a little and let the Gramma rest.” The rope in his hand was taut, the old woman laboring to keep up. Not answering, he halted and perched on a boulder amidst the towering silhouettes of the trees. “That means we can stop.” A wide toothless grin spread across Not-Widmar’s enormous lips, as he took the old womans shoulders between his gargantuan hands and placed her in front of a log. Lowering herself on the tree-trunk she kept her eyes on the ground.

“Now… we can’t stop here long. If we make it back to where the Captain has arranged the rendezvous by morning we’ll be lucky. Remember what happens if we’re late?” He could see the two of them working through their memories, almost as if it was hurting them to do so.

“This lady’s awake.” Widmar said and tossed the dark-haired girl like a sack of apples to the forest floor. Standing, Roth lashed the man with the back of his back hand. OWWWWWWWW! His face is made of metal! He made a mental note not to slap the giant again.

“Watch what you’re doing Widmar.” He commanded. “Now SIT DOWN!” Calming himself he went to the rag-doll figure lying sprawled out on the ground. Rope in his hand he crouched next to her and began to tie her hands. The hood over her face had fallen off miles ago probably, and he regretted how her beauty was now marred by the blood covering half of her face. Reaching out he touched Niamh’s cheek and felt for any sign of what Widmar had called “awake”.
Name: Kor
Age: 22
Race: Hybrid (Dragonian/Aquila)

Appearance: Tall and lanky, with flame-red hair, pale, freckle-less skin, iceburg blue eyes, and a perpetually amused, intelligent expression.

Personality: Kor possesses a carefree demeanor and seems to find amusement in everything. His is a sarcastic, occasionally crude sense of humor, yet with an odd touch of refinement. He is an intellectual who appreciates intelligence and scholarship in others. He tends to act on whims which, for reasons undiscovered, rarely seem to get him in trouble; it is as if he is directed by an inner wisdom which exhibits itself in the unpredictable, carefree purpose of a trickster. At the same time, there is an edge to him when he is passionate about something; he becomes serious and extremely driven, almost to the point of obsession.

Special Talents/Abilities: Kor is extremely intelligent, with an ability to memorize practically anything, a strong singing voice, and a natural way with people. He directs these talents toward communicating with other people and, when time permits, singing and storytelling. As for martial talents, he can handle a sword, but prefers to carry a dagger, as this is less likely to impel combative sorts to test him.

Past: Kor’s father was a Dragonian warrior who fell during a skirmish and was cared for by Kor’s Aquilian mother, a healer, by the seaside settlement, Wardov. Kor resulted from the ensuing union a few weeks later on the eve before the warrior returned to his people. Kor grew up among his mother’s people, the Quatian tribe, as if he were himself a fullbreed Aquilian child rather than a Hybrid. When he was nearly 20, his settlement made the mistake of sheltering twenty Dragonian warriors, and when the Eloin came and demanded that the village give the refugee men and women up, the village elders refused. The Eloin razed the village, killed most of its inhabitants, executed the Dragonians, and left. Kor survived with only minor wounds, but his mother and many of his friends died. He left, choosing to travel from one Aquila tribe to another trying to convince them to ally with the Dragonians in the war against the Eloin rather than maintain what Kor regarded as abhorrent, self-destructive neutrality. He has been largely unsuccessful during the 2 years he has travelled amongst the Aquila, and has taken more and more often to relating to the Dragonians he occassionally encounters.

The next instant, a second dart whipped through the trees and Eppie collapsed.

*-*

Jin looked up from his 'chicken scratches', as Sheno called it, when Daliah moaned. The dart must be wearing off. He recapped the tiny bottle of hoarded ink and waited patiently for her to wake up.

Deep blue eyes fluttered open, darted around her surroundings, and then focused on him. Her hands flew to where her sword had been.

"Where is it?"

He cocked his head. A Dragonian lilt? Interesting.

"It will be returned to you, eventually."

She frowned at his answer. "When will that be?"

"When I am sure you won't attack us in our sleep."

Daliah shook her head, and then winced, rubbing her temple. "What did you do to me?"

Jin shrugged, "Elam, well, he tends to shoot first and ask questions later, especially where I am concerned."

She only nodded. Jin's curiosity was piqued.Is she a Dragonian? The gentle accent in her speech was unmistkable, but, a good spy would probably have that as well.

"This might help."

He offered her some kolinar. The bitter, green-colored tea, a Dragonian staple, was a drink you learned to like. Her reaction would answer a few questions for him.
*-*
A Non-Existent User
Daliah downed the tea gratefully. It eased the the throbbing in her head and the burning in her throat. Her eyes began to clear, allowing her to study her surroundings. The camp definetely belonged to a traveler. There was no permanent shelter, nor was there room nearby for the horses to graze. She wondered where Suni had gotten to by now. He usually returned to her by the end of the day.
Why was Jin staring at her so? She lowered her head and returned the flask to him. He did not take it. She dared to meet his gaze.
"Yes?" she ventured, her voice wavering.
"Who are you?" he demanded.
"Daliah."
"No, not your name. I want to know who you are. Obviously you are Dragonian, but why are you here?"
"I could ask you the same."
"I am the one asking the questions now."
She sighed in defeat. "What do you want to know?"

"Where did you learn to fight?" was the first question. She answered it as best she could, omitting the dark dreams that the death of her companion had left her with. He also asked of her parents, which she could not answer, so she told him of the man who raised her. She told him of his kindness, his skill, and his love for her and her family, though he told her little of them. All she knew was her mother's beauty (which she was told she possessed) and her father's honor. As she continued to indulge his prodding, she was interrupted by a moan.
"Ah." Jin rose to his feet. "The second awakes."
Eppie groaned, pulling herself up into a sitting position and rubbing at the back of her neck. 'What hit me?' she thought to herself, opening her eyes and blinking violently in hopes of battling her blurred vision. Once her vision was mostly back to normal, she regretted to report that she did not like what she saw. The woman from earlier sat beside her, a flask filled with something that smelled absolutely hideous in her hands and a curious express on her face. Eppie wrinkled her nose and turned her head away from the foul smelling concoction, meeting the eyes of the man that occupied the room.

"Who are you people?" she asked, eyebrows furrowing in frustration. She had been in a few uncomfortable situations in her life, but this was among the top on her 'most bizarre' list. Really, how many times does one find themselves falling out of a tree and getting hit in the neck with a dart?

"I'm Daliah," the woman answered, causing Eppie to cast her green eyed stare back towards her. She did not smile, but her deep blue eyes seemed friendly enough, albiet disgruntled. Eppie nodded her head and grinned back at her, a dimple peeking out as she did so. She turned back to the man, blond eyebrow raised in curiosity.

"Well?" she said, with a tone that sounded like it expected an answer. The man matched her quirked brow with one of his own, jade eyes studying her.

"I'll be the one to ask the questions," he said after a moment, meeting her eyes with his jaw set firm. "Who are you?"

"I'm sorry, but I won't answer to a man whom I don't even the name of," she said flippantly, eyes glowing amusedly in the dim lightly.

His eyes narrowed, and she could see that he was growing annoyed with her. This was never her intentions, but she wasn't really all that open to answering the questions of a man that she knew nothing about. He brushed back a stray hair that was hanging in his face, and opened his mouth to speak.
A Non-Existent User
The last thing Niamh felt was the ground. Then she was tossed like a rag doll. She was almost happy to have her blood spilt a different way and whizzing through the air gave her a light feeling. She then met the ground again. The impact made her go numb. She felt herself fall asleep but not before hearing the man curse the large monster that had carried her.

Monster was the only word to describe him. His porpotions seemed off, like a child had molded him.

She felt the blood trickle into her mouth, it was a familiar taste. Then her eyes closed. She was happy, not having to pretend to be asleep was the greatest gift anyone could have given her. Now she wouldn't have to think about Lida, she could retreat into her own shell. She could sleep out most of the journey.

Her dream wasn't anything, just the large dark expanse that was her mind. She enjoyed that. Suddenly startled about the empty dark place she called out in her sleep, "Lida."
A Non-Existent User
“Lida” The one called Niamh muttered as she lay yet again unconscious. All Roth could do was sigh. Running his hand over his head, he felt the soft fuzz-like blonde stubble growing there, and turned in exasperation towards Widmar and Not-Widmar. He opened his mouth several times in frustration, not really knowing what to say. What could possibly prevail upon their simple minds that would really get across his point?

“Do that again…” Roth began his voice low and eyes burning. “And I’ll cut off your hands…” His eyes never left the dull expressionless dark crater-like eye-sockets in the soldiers face. “Do you understand me?” Without waiting for an answer, he bent down and scooped up the girl in his arms carefully. Adjusting her limp body, he announced that they had rested long enough.

It wasn’t long before they reached the rendezvous point. Roth lowered delicately laid the girl on the grass and pointed to where the old woman was roughly forced to sit. Standing akimbo, Roth breathed heavily, tired from traipsing all over the woods with carrying the girl and constantly reprimanding the two oafs he’d been assigned with. Before him, the trees wavered in an unseen and notably unfelt breeze while their trunks expanded and contracted as if almost breathing.

Taking a rock from the forest floor, he threw it hard into the branches of a apple tree just across the small clearing.

“Owe!” Some exclaimed. Muttering a few more curses as they descended from among the tangled branches of the old fruitless tree. Hefting his rucksack, he made his way over to their group. “Sergeant I dunno know how you do it! You always know where I’m at…” laughed the man awkwardly, a slow grin on his face. Roth, however was either too tired or annoyed to kid.

“Where the blaze are the horses?!” He demanded impatiently. I want to get these two back to the outpost as quickly as possible. The young man before him, looked at the women and opened his mouth, but Roth interrupted. “Not them, the two idiots with the weapons.”

“Oh, Horik and Widmar. Yeah, they aren’t the best to work with, no. It’s actually amazing you came back with anyone at all. The Cap’n … well he’ll be pleased to say the least. They always test out the new sergeants by sending them out with them two…” A chuckle escaped the man, his reeking gapped toothed mouth hanging open long enough for Roth to sneer in disgust. “One time, Horik wandered off and nearly got killed by some of our own guys, cause he’s just too simple to know who’s the enemy ‘n all that.”

Anger flared in Roth’s eyes, and the little man took a step back.

“Horses are this way sergeant. Cap’n is ‘pecting you. Good Luck with them prisoners, maybe he’ll let you keep ‘em if they live through the interrogation ‘n all.”
Kor knew better than to travel through these parts. By the five blazing firmaments, he knew it, and yet his impatience, his foolhardy desire to avoid the harsh terrain of the mountains to the north, was going to cost him his life. He just knew it!

This area had seen heavy fighting recently. Already Kor had come upon---and carefully crept in a wide berth around---three dried husks of villages. Burned, pillaged, and utterly devoid of living souls, the former settlements bore the clear handiwork of the Eloin. Kor had seen it in other places; he’d seen the charred tents and staked heads in his own home village of Wardov, he’d seen it in a couple of the Aquila villages that had made the mistake of straying too far from their comfortable neutrality without being wise enough to take up arms, and he’d seen it in countless Dragonian villages.

The rebels had been hard hit lately, especially in these parts. And Kor had stupidly wandered right into the middle of it.

His was a fine dagger. Of Dragonian make, it had been the gift of his father to his then-unborn son. Kor’s mother had saved it to him and given it to him on his fifteenth birthday, when he’d become a man in the ways of the Aquila people. Ivory hilted, with a strong, wickedly curved blade, it was a well crafted weapon. Unfortunately, Kor was largely unfamiliar with the Dragonian style of fighting, and the dagger had been virtually useless in his hands up until a mere year or so ago, when he’d received some basic instruction from a Dragonian warrior in its use. It was best, he had come to learn, to fight with one curved blade in each hand, but he did not have two. He had one.

Kor was a musician, not a warrior. What was he doing out in the middle of nowhere, far from Aquila lands?

Trying to win my pretty head a nice place atop a Eloin spike, he thought, a tired smile gracing his features.

In truth, he was trying to locate a Dragonian tribe---any Dragonian tribe---so he could join their cause. It was a naïve goal, he knew, but not one he easily could give up. The Dragonians would not be overly welcoming of a halfbreed; distrust ran thick through the veins of anyone who crossed paths with the Eloin these days, and it ran thickest through the Dragonians. Son of a Dragonian warrior or not, Kor’s bright red hair and Aquilian accent were not going to win him many friends at first.

But if there were one trait the halfbreed minstrel possessed in abundance, it was charisma. He’d gain their trust in time. But first… he had to find them.

There were not many Dragonians in these parts. The forests to the south of Pennywick were too close to the Eloin lands, and not even the Aquila were entirely safe there. Kor’s destination was further northwest, past Pennywick, past the hills, and on the other side of the mountains, But it would take at least another two days’ worth of walking to get there; his horse had broken a leg a couple weeks earlier and he’d had to put her down.

At first, he thought it was the longing for his mare, Keddina, that made him hear the faint sound of hoofbeats echoing through the trees. A moment later it became overwhelmingly obvious that not only were the hoofbeats real, but they were coming directly toward him. Kneeling swiftly in the darkness behind an oak tree, he watched silently as three horses slowly came into view.

It was hard, in the pale moonlight, to see clearly at first. However, as the riders grew closer, Kor’s eyes confirmed what his instincts told him. An Eloin officer with two bound female prisoners was approaching, riding through the trees at the swift, steady pace of someone who intends to reach a destination before sunrise.

Kor’s pale blue eyes narrowed in the darkness. The women rode like men, but with their hands tied behind their backs and dirty sacks pulled over their heads. The soldier rode with one hand attending to the reins of his own horse and the other clutching the lead-ropes of the other two beasts.

Kor surveyed the warrior’s weapons. A dagger at the waist was all he could see, although for an Eloin that might be enough. Just a brief distraction. That’s all I need. Wait, are there any others coming up behind? A second, longer glance confirmed that there were no other soldiers; the officer was alone, apparently escorting prisoners somewhere. Idiot.

Kor was not particularly fast as he sprang out of the trees at the oblivious Eloin, nor particularly strong in his charge toward the distracted warrior’s horse. But the soldier, glancing over his shoulder to check on his prisoners, even hearing the sudden snap and thrashing of brush, did not turn around in time to even see the tall redheaded man who rushed him and tore him, with a curse, from the back of his horse. The Eloin landed with a sharp exhalation of air upon the ground, apparently unhurt but, for the moment at least, breathless and slightly stunned.

Kor was not much of a warrior, but he was more than an adept rider. It was better, then, to run than to fight. He vaulted into the suddenly riderless horse’s saddle in one smooth motion and gathered the reins of the other two horses a heartbeat later. Already the Eloin had recovered himself and was rising to his feet with a shout.

These Eloin horses were wellbred; the gelding he’d commandeered responded immediately to his gentle tap and with the other two horses sprang into a lope, then a gallup, after them, their riders screaming at the sudden flurry of noise and movement.

“Don’t be scared!” Kor shouted. “I’m a friend. Hold on tight!”
A Non-Existent User
Roth collided hard with the ground, gasping for a breath. Though he thought it pointless he shouted for Widmar and Not-Widmar.

"Get him! Kill him! GO GO GO!"

The two dull-witted massive soldiers kicked the ribs of their mounts and galloped hard after the fleeing guerilla and prisoners. The simple order seemed to take hold of their brains and they were after the other horses like hungry wolves on sheep.

Within moments they passed out of his view. Throwing his dagger into the dirt with frustration he ground his teeth. Then quite unexpectedly he heard a triumph pair of grunts from his wittless companions.

"We gots um! We gots um!"

Roth rubbed his palms together in victory and broke into a run after their echoeing cries. As he came around the corner, he saw Widmar, or perhaps Not-Widmar literally sitting atop the man who'd quite rudley knocked him from his stead.

"I'm squishing him!" Shouted the soldier, his eyes lolling, mouth agape.

"Stop squishing...er..Tie him up immediatley!" Roth demanded, and then went to the two women who'd been thrown from the horses in the scuffle and were desperatley trying to flee, hooded and bound. "Ladies...Ladies..." He said with a smile as he took their bound hands in either fist.

Now how to deal with THIS... He thought as his men tossed the "extra baggage" onto the back of one of the mounts, squirming and cursing.
"I am Jin of Shinar. Who are you?"

"Eppie," she commented cheerfully.

(Women) He sighed. "Are you with her?" He gestured at Daliah. Eppie shook her head.

His eyebrows arched, "You were both traveling alone?"

(It's a wonder they're both alive)

"You may travel with us if you wish."

"Jin!" A scout skidded to a stop in front of him. "There's a group of Others traveling nearby. They have prisoners."

Jin glanced at the women, and took a step back, before hissing, "I leave no one in Other clutches. Get the warriors together."

He turned back to Eppie and Daliah. "Ask for Sheno if you need anything."

With that, he whistled for his stallion and cantered into the night.
A Non-Existent User
Niamh had tasted freedom, had felt bliss for a second. Then she felt herself being pulled away from it.

"Ladies… ladies…" She knew whose hands were tugging her and Lida away, she wanted to lash out with everything she had. Which were, at the moment, her bound hands. The ropes were too tight, and her fingers wouldn't move anymore, and every time she tried painful prickling began at her fingertips and moved up to her wrists. At least she could still feel them.

"Lida?" She whispered, her voice even lower because of the hood. She could faintly hear Lida grunt in reply. Niamh swiped her at her leg with her foot, she swiped backward three times, "Lida?" Niamh tried to sound terrified, she wanted them to believe her.

"Niamh?" Lida's voice shook.

'Good,' Niamh thought, she was going out on a limb, but she didn't care whether she lived or she died. Lida was not going to die, not if she could help it. She was about to try and Lida to run while she, Niamh, distracted the man, when she heard horses. Instead of her heart lifting at the sound it stayed dead and unmoved.

'Lovely,' She thought, 'Just lovely, I already know how this will turn out, might as well sit still.'

The horses were getting closer the others seemed to notice them.

Well, that hadn't gone as expected in the slightest. Kor was right; he most certainly was going to find himself being beheaded and providing grim decoration atop some Eloin spike, but it was most likely going to be a mite sooner than he'd expected.

Edda's balls. Why hadn't he waited a little longer to give himself time to think of a better plan?

Because you're an impulsive fool, he snarled at himself, your blasted uncanny luck couldn't last forever.

Strangely, he didn't mind the thought of dying so much. Not that he wanted---or intended---to die. No, he'd fight tooth and nail and... and.. dagger for his life. But he did mind the possibility that he might not get to aid the cause of his Father's people, even if only for a day.

When he heard the steady sound of rapidly approaching hoofbeats, he grinned wryly. A new element in the game? Perhaps it was a friend; perhaps a foe. Either way, it changed things a bit, gave him a new mix of factors to work with, and he began to move, rocking back and forth in the saddle, feeling the hard leather digging into his gut and sides and bound arms.

He rolled over the rear curve of the saddle, over the rump of the horse, and slammed into the ground.
A Non-Existent User
Daliah glared at Jin's retreating figure. No way was she staying there. She wondered if Myna was still carrying her extra weapons. Only one way to find out.

She put her fingers to her lips and whistled, pushing away the boy who tried to hold her back. Myna cantered to a stop beside her and she mounted before anyone could stop her.

(Sorry it's short, but I have to get off before my mom kills me.)



Jin cursed loudly, yanking his stallion around the tumbling prisoner. Fiery red hair was visible even in the dim light of daybreak.

That caught his attention, something to deal with later, but not now. Warriors fanned out behind him. The Other sergeant and his two lackey hesitated for a moment, eying their approach. The two lackeys fled first, the sergeant cursing at their retreating backs, before his gaze returned to them.

Jin slowed and signaled for his men to wait. Striking blue eyes studied them with a calculating light. He held tightly to the reins of a bay gelding, two prisoners hooded and bound on its back. The red-haired prisoner's voice could be heard arguing with some of Jin's warriors. They would not be exactly "cordial" to a clear Hybrid.

The sergeant took a step back, one hand resting on the hilt of a dagger. Jin smiled grimly, even as the soft creak of a bow being drawn echoed to his right. "Well, the Other has courage." he thought.

Twenty to one were bad odds, even if only a handful were true warriors. But he would lose men, good men, if the situation were not resolved. Jin drew his janin and urged his stallion forward. The Other tensed.

"Leave now, alone, and you will not be harmed."

The eyes flicked over him and the warriors. "And if I take these with me?"

"You won't."

The sergeant scowled, tugging on his cloak, "I won't forget this Jin of Shinar!"

Jin's eyes widened in surprise, but before he could react, the Other threw the reins at him and marched away. Sheno started to move after him, until Jin's glare stopped him. "Leave him be."

The Hybrid yelled behind him. "I want to speak to the Fay-el! Let go of me!"

The Dragonian word for chieftain. Sheno's eyebrows arched. "More mystery," Jin thought with a frown. Flicking the reins to the right, he headed for the struggling man, calling over his shoulder. "Take care of them, Sheno."


Jin dismounted with ease and stood there, waiting. "Well, I am Fay-el. What do you want?"

Kor twisted, curling his legs toward his chest and then, by rocking his torso and pushing hard against the ground with his shoulder, managed to lurch to his knees. It wasn't the most dignified way to face the Fay-el, kneeling on the ground with arms bound behind him and the dust of the road pressed into his face where he’d connected none-too-gracefully with the road, but it was afar cry better than laying breathless in the dirt or draped, bottom-up, over the back of a horse.

No, this was definitely not the way he’d imagined such a meeting would go, but one must grasp the opportunities Eppa threw one’s way.

Spitting dirt, he rose smoothly to his feet, standing with his arms tied behind his back facing the chieftain. He offered a friendly bow, graceful despite his bound state and chuckled.

“Well met, Fay-el,” he said in fluent but slightly accented Dragonian, offering an untamed grin despite the tiny pebbles imbedded in his forehead and the shallow scrapes peppering one side of his face. “I am Kor na Quatian, son of Renji na Shinar---a warrior of the Dragonian people---and Evali na Quatian, who was a healer of the Aquilian people before the Eloin killed her.”

The Fay-el did not seem overly impressed by Kor’s parentage, but the redhead wasn’t in the slightest bit concerned. He didn’t expect the Dragonians to welcome him with open arms at first; he was not, after all, himself a full-blooded Dragonian, and in these harsh times his father’s kin had little reason to trust outsiders.

He was a little surprised, then, when a flicker of recognition alighted in the Fay-el’s eyes, quickly drowned by impassivity and then covered by a new, somewhat amused mask. “And lately a prisoner of an Eloin sergeant as well,” the man said lightly, glancing from Kor to the two women, whose bonds were being cut.

“An ill-conceived rescue attempt,” Kor admitted with a self-depreciating chuckle. “I thought the brute was alone, but I was wrong. I must admit, I’m immensely relieved you lot happened to be around.” He frowned darkly and his gaze slid toward the women, who looked exhausted and were rubbing their aching, chaffed wrists. “I’ve seen what those Eloin bastards do to women,” he told the Fay-el in an low voice. “I expect I would have been merely questioned and then killed, but the ladies… well, I’m extremely happy you came along when you did and drove the bastards off.”

The chieftain nodded curtly. “Yes. But I’m sure you did not want to speak to me just to recite your lineage and thank me for succeeding where you failed. So I ask you again. What do you want?”

Kor glanced over his shoulder wryly at the ropes binding his wrists behind his back. “Well, for starters, could you free me from these damnable things?”
A Non-Existent User
Daliah dismounted just outside the circle and watched for a moment. Jinn seemed to have things under control, so she entered without her sword drawn.

What are you doing here?" Jinn was obviously angry, but he didn't frighten her. She had been on her own long enough to know how to defend herself.

"I thought you could use the help." she gestured to the prisoners. "But I must have been wrong."

"Yes. Return to the camp."

"No."

She drew her sword as he cut the Aquillan free. "I sense I am still needed here, whether or not you believe it."

Suddenly she was attacked from behind. She threw the offender over her shoulder and fought him off, continuing their conversation between strokes.

"Why do you question me? I have had many opportunities to harm you, and I have shown you nothing but mercy. I do not need protection, as you can well see. And I have nothing that you could want."

She drove her blade deep into his shoulder to subdue him, and looked back at Jinn, her sweat clumped hair hanging in her face.

"Do not lie, for once again I can easily kill you."
The pain was a nuisance, but he could deal with it. He had been in too many battles, had broken too many bones, for it to be more than an irritation. Why Daliah was so aggressive was beyond him.

He took a step back and cocked his head at her, unable to prevent a grin. “You think you can kill me?”

His smile infuriated her. He saw the anger flash in her eyes. “Yes, and you can’t stop me.”

“Oh?”

The creak of drawn bows snapped her head around. Three of his men held their bows trained at her. Even she had to know of the fame of Dragonian bowmen.

“I think not.”

She turned her gaze back on him. “Your men would fire on a woman?”

His eyes narrowed. “If she attacked their chieftain. I would sheath that sword.”

She hesitated for a second more, and then sheathed it with an angry clatter. He picked his janin up from the ground and sheathed it as well, before turning away as if she were no concern. If she didn’t want to be pampered, fine, but then he would treat her no different than one of his warriors.

Jin glanced at the Hybrid, Korr wasn’t it?, who was still rubbing his wrists. “Would you like a Healer?”

“No-no. I’m fine. No worse for wear.”

How could that man be cheerful? Jin wanted to drag the Hybrid into the moonlight and study his face. He could have sworn he recognized him. The ancestry he had given was familiar too. Jin shoved the thought aside. He would ask the Keeper to find the Birth Roll and satisfy his curiosity then. Right now, it was more important to deal with the tribe.

That Other knew his name, that worried him. It was very rare for an Other to travel with that small of a guard. If there was another, much larger group of Others nearby, his tribe would never survive. Jin motioned at the Hybrid. “Give him and the prisoners a horse. If he tries to ride away, shoot him.”

Jin turned away. Now that that was taken care of…He mounted his own horse, wincing as he moved that shoulder. The Keeper and the Healer, tonight, right after the tribe got moving again.




Sitting upright atop his borrowed grey gelding fifteen minutes later, Kor watched the back of the Dragonian chieftan with a mixture of amazement, concern and---yes---anger as the tribe rode with startling silence through he woods.

The redhead's amazement came not so much from the fact that the chieftan had taken a blade to the shoulder without a cry of pain or even so much as a wince, but rather from the fact that he'd let the woman who'd wielded the blade live. She'd attacked him, bested him in battle---in front of his own men, no less!---and yet he let her not only continue with her life intact, but continue, unbound and virtually unguarded, to remain in the company of the tribe. Absolutely amazing.

The concern, on the other hand, was for the bloody wound in the Fay-el's shoulder. The halfbreed had seen it's like before; deep and ragged, fever could settle into such a wound easily, causing painful swelling and stiffness at the very least and delirium, wound-rot and possibly even death at the very worst. The Fay-el might be a strong man, accustomed to bearing pain and the surviver of many injuries, but even strong men could be felled by filthy wounds.

It was with this concern that his anger warred. Kor was a proud man. He did not mind being treated like an outsider because, after all, he was one. But he did not appreciate being treated like a prisoner-of-war when he had come of his own free will to these people, offered them no threat whatsoever, and even recovered two helpless women from the clutches of what appeared to be Jin's enemy. He deserved at least a modicum of respect!

Eppa's Balls, the arrogant Dragonian and his woman-wound wasn't Kor's problem!

Yet Kor was also a practical man, and his reason told him that even though such treatment by the Fay'el was not honorable, it did make sense; Kor was a stranger, a foreigner who had stumbled upon a Dragonian tribe in a time of war. It was wise for Jin to be cautious, for Kor could be a spy or, at least, a fool who could unwittedly put the tribe in danger.

Still though... the Fay'el had a lot of nerve! He practically deserved the prick from that woman's sword! Practically...

Maybe not...

Eventually concern won out. Leg-reining his horse slowly toward the man, he glanced at the archers who were diligently guarding the the Fay'el. They watched him warily, bows strung but not drawn, as he approached.

Kor held up his hands nonthreateningly, looking to the warriors, and pulled up alongside Jin. "Sir," he said softly, nodding at the wound when the man turned to look at him with a slight glance of impatience. "My mother, as I told you, was a healer of the Aquila people. I do not claim her trade as my own, but she taught me somewhat of her skills before she died. Although it would be best to have someone better-trained than I re-treat the wound when we eventually come to wherever it is we're going, I think a practical man such as yourself will acknowledge the wisdom of having that injury cleansed and bound now, before bloodloss weakens you or illness is able to settle in. If you permit, I will provide what assistance I am able. It should take no more than ten minutes' time. I have rudimentary supplies in my bag..."
A Non-Existent User
Daliah rode away from the group, angry. She had hoped that Jin would have attacked her, banished her, or at the very least yelled. It was easier not to get close to someone that way. At the moment, all her concentration was bent on not befriending him, because she was afraid of losing him the way she lost Bard.

If she spoke that way to Bard, she knew he would have slapped her. But Jin's behavior confused her. Why was he so soft? Perhaps it was an act. She would have left immediately, if not for Eppie. She could not leave the poor woman alone with so many men.

Compassion may get you killed, but it keeps you human. That was one of Bard's favorite sayings. She said it to herself every time she wanted to abandon her cause.

She broke into the camp, stirring the people that were there.

"Eppie!" she shouted. "Come, we have to leave!"

The girl spun around to meet her gaze, dropping the knife she was holding.

"What?" she asked.

Daliah dismounted and grabbed the girl's hand. "We must go. Now!"
A Non-Existent User
*Sorry that this took so long and that its so short*
Niamh couldn't understand what was going on now but she didn't want to speak because she was afraid. At least she was out of the wretched bonds, but all the excitement had taken its toll on Lida. Niamh and Lida sat quietly and waited for someone do something with them, because that was the only way they knew to do things.
(mine's short too. it's ok. *Smile*

Jin studied Kor for a moment, hesitating. He wouldn’t admit it, of course, but he was struggling to ignore the wound. Teeth clenched against the pain, he could feel his shoulder beginning to lock up. He had already shifted the reins to his other hand. It would take a hard day’s ride to get home, longer with the two rescued women. He couldn’t afford to be disabled, not with Others close by.

“You’re mother was a Healer?”

“Do you have trouble hearing?”

Jin resisted the urge to backhand him. “Tell me then, what does Kenbane do?”

“Mends bone.”

“And valla?”

“For pain and rest. Handy on an arrow too.”

Quite right, Elam often used arrows dipped in valla, as Daliah and Eppie well knew.
(Obviously, he has some Healer training.) Jin flicked a glance at Layole, to his right. Twin to Sheno, he could tell if a man were lying with an almost unnerving ease. Layole dipped his head slightly. The unspoken message was clear; he’s telling the truth.

Jin yanked his horse to the side, “Come then.”

Kor’s eyes widened. “What about them?” He gestured at their group. Layole had already moved to the head of the line, leading them on.

“We’ll catch up. They need the safety of the tribe.” He gave Kor a stern stare. “Ten minutes, no more.”

Kor shrugged, but didn’t argue. Jin loosened his hold, giving his horse, Doblo, its head. Desert-born, the stallion could find water better than a shaman with his divining.
"Here," Kor said, nodding curtly toward a dark wall of trees. Jin's eyes were narrowed in the dark toward him, and he grinned broadly, trying to ignore his own irritation at the other man's distrust. "Water, Fay-el. I can smell it. Aquila-born, remember? The saltwater at home's no good for drinking and one must learn to scout out fresh water. See? Your horse senses it, even if my own is a little oblivious."

Jin's stallion's nostrils flared and he huffed softly, his ears flicking to the side now and then toward some yet-unheard movement; a stream, perhaps, or even a creek. Jin didn't trust Kor, but he did trust his mount, and after a moment he leg-reined his stallion in the direction Kor indicated.

Kor's mouth lifted in a wry half smile and he followed. It was darker here where the trees thickened, the moon barely bright enough to penetrate the thick foliage, but the horses seemed to know better than the men where they were going.

Behind him he heard the sharp snap of a twig and the tumble of a rock through dry leaves. The entire group had not gone on alone, then, but had left perhaps one or two men behind to guard their wounded chieftain from the unruly foreigner. Kor shrugged in the dark; he wasn't going to hurt the man and wondered if he could, even with Jin injured as he was.

Kor considered calling out to the trailing warriors but chose to keep his silence and let them keep theirs. If there were other threats nearby---that Eloin officer and his men, perhaps---it couldn't hurt to have the two warriors remain hidden for the time being.

"Here," Kor said again, as the dark flow of water finally became visible where the trees cleared to either side of the narrow creek. He dismounted before the stream and led his horse to the water, knowing the beast would likely remain nearby with such a providence of liquid and grass available.

Jin watched him for a moment, his eyes narrow in the moonlight, clearly reluctant to leave the back of his horse, but as Kor reached up to the saddle to drag down his pack, the Fay-el grunted and, careful not to put any weight on his injured arm, swung lithely from the saddle and dropped quietly to the ground.

Kor's medicine pack was not too extensive; it contained the most basic of herbal remedies for fever, pain, and swelling, plus a sack of lichen for the staunching of bleeding and a shallow jar of unguent to numb and prevent infection. Anything else he needed, he'd have to find, although his mother had taught him well about what plants were good for the easing of a cough or the calming of a foul stomach.

"Shirt off," he murmured to Jin, wandering down to the water with a small stone bowl and a chunk of hard soap without bothering to see if the Fay-el obeyed.

He washed his hands the cool water, scrubbing them with the harsh soap he was rapidly running out of; Kor was a man who liked to keep clean, and thus far he'd been able to, but supplies such as soap were hard to come by this far from any towns or villages. He'd have to restock soon, somewhere.

He filled the bowl a quarter-way with water then returned to his pack, adding one part lichen to stem the blood-flow and two parts valla leaf for the easing of pain and the relaxation of the traumatized muscles. He would have preferred to boil the water first, but at least the creek was moving freely; the algae and movement would keep the water mostly clean and his salve would do the rest.

"We'll let that set for a moment," he said, as much to himself as Jin as he lay the bowl down. "Here." He pulled a sliver of silver-white bark out of its pouch and held it out to the chieftain. "Kapa. Just chew on it a bit; don't swallow. It should keep swelling and pain down and guard against fever. It'll make you feel a little numb too. Let me know when that happens."

Jin was looking at the piece of kapa like he thought it was poison. Kor ignored him, reaching for his stone bowl and, pulling a pestle from his kit, beginning to gently crush the herbs in the water with the stone pestle. Grind them too much and they'd be too strong for use on an open wound; fail to at least bruise them, and the herbal properties would not be released.

"I feel this numbness you speak of," Jin finally said.

Kor glanced sideways at him, noticing the other man held the sliver of bark between his teeth. "Good. Now, sit here, next to me."

"I'd rather stand," Jin said, crossing his arms slowly, favoring the injured shoulder.

"You'd rather sit, trust me" Kor assured him firmly, indicating the ground before him. When Jin made no move to comply he sighed. "If for no other reason than my own sake, I need you to sit. It will be much faster and surer this way."

Jin nodded curtly. "Very well." He crouched rather than sat on the ground before Kor, who sighed. That was probably the best he was going to get.

Setting the crushed herbs aside once again, he reached into his pack and pulled out the jar of salve. Scooping a generous amount onto his finger, he applied it gently but deftly around the ragged edges of the wound, ignoring Jin's hissing and squirming and making sure it thoroughly coated the injury despite the Dragonian's fluid curses when he spread the salve deep into the wound.

"The blade went in about two and a half inches," he told Jin calmly. "You're lucky; if it'd been on the other side, it could have pierced your heart. That was a salve made of kapa root---kind of like the bark you just chewed---and anderberries. It should numb the wound even more here in a moment, and the anderberries will prevent infection. I'll pack the wound with this," he nodded toward the stone bowl of herbs, "in a moment when you can't feel anything. We don't have time to stitch the wound---your healer can do that tonight if necessary---but this'll stop the bleeding, prevent swelling and pain, and keep the injured muscles relaxed and supple, at least for the next six to eight hours."

Jin nodded sharply. "We're running out of time," he told Kor cooly.

"We're almost done," Kor shot back.

Jin frowned and rotated his shoulder slowly. "I'm numb," he said. Kor could tell by the slight glaze of pain in Jin's eyes that the Fay-el was lying through his teeth, but he shrugged. Suit yourself, he thought.

Jin didn't say anything as Kor packed the wound with the damp herbs, but held himself rigid and silent. Kor couldn't tell if it was harsh control or if the numbing effect of the salve had taken effect, but it was short work to fill the wound with the mixture and bind it tightly with clean bandages.

It was strangely quiet as the two men returned from the creek, and Kor wondered where their shadows had gone.
Jin hated being wounded, but he hated being tended even more. Kor wasn’t so bad though. He was a vast improvement over the Healer of the tribe now. That man had been the Healer for Jin’s grandfather and, though he had an extensive knowledge of herbs, he had all the gentle grace of a blacksmith.

What irked Jin the most was how easily he could have defeated that starry woman, if not for her unfair advantage. If she had Dragonian training, surely she would have been schooled in the Seven Tenets.

Jin had broken Tenet 1 several times. Keep your temper at all times and at all costs, but she had to be aware of Tenet 2. Neither woman, nor woman soon to bear, nor child of up to 11 winters may be harmed.

A twig snapped. It was not the first time. Jin swiveled in the saddle, ignoring Kor’s curious look. He whistled a trilling call softly and waited. The twins or Elam would have responded immediately with a robin’s call, but the thick forest around them remained silent.

Jin’s mind dashed through possibilities. That Eloin captain could have returned, with reinforcements. On the other hand, it could be Dameon finally catching up to them again. The Hybrid had been orphaned by a rogue Dragonian tribe many years ago, and now retained a maniacal hatred of all Dragonians. That Jin had escaped out of the clutches of his bandits twice already did not foster friendly relations. It had been Dameon who forced Elam’s mother, and now tried to claim his “son”. That ragtag band of thieves and murderers had tracked the tribe for several moons now.

His mind wandered to Kor. The Hybrid could have more friends waiting to ambush them, but if that were so, why wait until now? They had been alone for several minutes, and with him wounded, they would have had better success attacking earlier.

Doblo snorted, ears flat against his skull. He pranced beneath Jin’s tight hold, yanking on the bit. Jin patted the proud neck soothingly and pulled him short. Closing his eyes, he concentrated on his surroundings. Insects chirped among the foliage, and creatures of the night rustled through the bushes, but to his right, and some behind him, the animals were silent. The night almost too still, as if waiting for the right moment. This wasn’t right at all.

He drew his janin. Even with the numbness of the kapa bark, he felt a faint twinge of pain from the janin’s weight. If they were forced to defend themselves, he suspected Kor would have to do more tending. The thought didn’t make his mood any better.

Jin heard the Hybrid stop beside him, followed by the soft hiss of a dagger freed from its sheath, and then Kor muttering, “I take it our shadows are not one of yours?”

Jin flicked a glance at the Hybrid and then his eyes widened. He knew a shitan when he saw it.

“Where did you get that?” he whispered.

Kor's clear blue eyes slid to the ivory-handled, curved blade and a small, almost privately-proud smile ghosted over his lips for an instant before being replaced by a strangely-intense seriousness. "A gift," he explained. "From my father." Then a hint of his more usual, impish grin returned. "As for the more immediate where... from my boot. Your men did not disarm me."

"They had no need," the Fay-el said with a lightness that could have been either whatever passed as a jest with this man or a flippant sort of confidence. He was not smiling, but then, Kor wasn't sure he ever smiled. "Do you know how to use it?"

Kor sucked a breath through his teeth. "My father left far before I was old enough to learn from him, but a Dragonian comrade I once had the honor of traveling with taught me the Fundamentals and the Tenets."

Jin cursed under his breath and the redhead knew it was not due to the impressiveness of his training.

"Your tribe?" he asked.

Jin waved his good hand dismissively, his eyes scanning the woods. "Can fend for themselves well enough." He pointed through a couple trees into the darkness beyond and at the same time his janin arm swung up to the ready with surprising fluidity of motion for one with a two and a half inch wound piercing his shoulder. Then again, Kor thought, crossing his own knife over his chest to the ready position, the wound had not yet had time to stiffen. "There!"

The horses snorted as three lightly armored men thrust out of the trees, and Kor's smile at he and Jin's mounted advantage faded almost as quickly as it graced his features as the mud-painted warriors converged on them.
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Daliah froze and pricked her ears. Eppie complained of pain, so she released her grip on the girl's arm, raising her hand for silence. There was something moving near them, clearly coming closer. She drew her sword and looked around, trying to focus in on the sound.

It seemed to be coming from the right, then the left. But it wasn't until she heard leaves rustle behind her that she realized what was going on.

She bent down and whispered. "We're surrounded. Get up behind me and we'll make a run for it."

Eppie nodded and swung into the saddle. Daliah grabbed the reins tightly, tense from all the excitement. Then, without warning, she dug her heels into his flanks and they shot forward.

Faces blurred past them as they rode on. She felt a note of pain as on of their blades sliced her thigh, but she forced herself not to think about it.

As much as she hated to admit it, she needed to find Jin. Even if not for herself, Eppie needed the protection he could offer.
Stars and Crescents! Stars and bloody Cresents! Jin cursed silently. Of all the times to be seperated from his tribe, and without a bow. And with another Hybrid no less.

Jin dropped the reins, using his knees to guide the battle-trained stallion. If he had to, he could use both hands to swing the janin. Doblo’s lashing hooves and vicious bites might keep the Hybrids at bay as well.

It was quite clear what race and clan these men belonged to. Blonde hair marred an otherwise Dragonian face, or blue eyes peered out from between strands of dirty, raven hair. The small circle tattooed on the right side of their faces marked them as Dameon’s. It was the closest thing to the crazed Hybrid’s sigil. Jin had seen his banner of two winged serpents, devouring each other, several times.

The filthy trio paused at the sight of the bared janin, but only for a second. They moved with deadly purpose. Spreading out into a wedge, they slunk closer, various weapons appearing seemingly out of the air. A wickedly curved dagger, a short pike, a set of thin, throwing blades but no crossbow.Kyda be praised.

It was the crossbow that he dreaded the most in battle. The bow had to be used by strong, well-trained archers, but a crossbow…it could be used by a woman. An army of bowmen would be difficult to raise, but an army of crossbowmen--they already guarded Blackmoor Castle.

They split, dividing their attention between him and Kor. Two converged on the redhead, while the last, and obvious leader, remained facing him. Eyes narrowed, Jin snapped, “Are you ready, half-breed?”

The Hybrid’s thin lips cracked into a smile. “I’ll feed your entrails to a Derk-ra when I’m finished, bloody Wanderer.”

Clenching his teeth at the racial insult, he charged at the jeering Hybrid. They moved back and forth in a deadly game, a tenuous balance between death and survival. Jin could not wield his full strength with the janin, but the Hybrid could not use his pike well without the risk of Doblo’s pounding hooves.

Out of the corner of his eye, Jin could see Kor almost dancing through the Fundamentals. He was holding his own well. In fact, he moved with a natural grace. For all you know, he could be a skilled assassin. He snorted at the thought. Not likely that, but he definitely showed some potential. Jin would have to spar with him once, if they survived.

The Hybrid caught his shift in attention and leaped for him. Jin dodged, the steel scraping against his side, but only a flesh wound. In the quick move however, the Hybrid had overextended himself. Jin slashed out, a jagged arc tearing across the man’s sword arm, and then another ripping over ribs and chest. Eyes wide from his mistake, the Hybrid gasped, pulling away, but Jin pressed his advantage. Jin urged Doblo closer and released a flurry of quick, short attacks. The Hybrid tried to defend himself, but his wounds slowed him down. With a final, flowing stance, Jin drove the janin deep and then yanked it free as the Hybrid slumped, lifeless to the ground.

Hoofbeats thudded in the distance.

Great. Reinforcements. He nudged Doblo in Kor’s direction. If the redhead needed help, Jin would step in. But, judging from what he saw, Kor didn’t need any.
Other than two years ago in his village, when he had done no more than clumsily fire a shortbow at the invading Eloin before being knocked unconscious from behind, Kor had never had to actually fight a battle. Yes, he had sparred with his Dragonian companion Kirtha during their two month sojourn together about a year ago, but that had not involved any true threat of death. "If you do not fight to the best of your ability, I will give you a scar as a reminder to try harder next time!" Kirtha had told him, and the thin line of white on Kor's right bicep was proof that the man had been serious, but never had there been the possibility that Kor might actually die.

He found the heady mixture terror and anger awoken by the realization that this first battle might be his last somewhat electrifying.

The Fundamentals were thirty-two stances, evasions and strikes which applied uniformly to every style of Dragonian combat---armed and unarmed alike---and out of which the multitude of maneuvers specific to each weapon and style developed. A Dragonian proverb taught, “He who knows the smoke but knows not the flame looses his tent to the wildfire”. In theory, a warrior could win any battle with the Fundamentals alone, but even if he were the best armed, best armored, most highly-trained fighter, he would be defeated by someone who knew the Fundamentals if he did not know them himself.

Kor knew the Fundamentals. He did not know them well, for he had only been practicing them for the last year or so and had not had an opportunity to practice them against an actual opponent for months, but he did know them. These bloody Hybrids, it was clear, did not. They were fierce, they were experienced, but they had not, for whatever reason, been taught the Fundamentals.

Still, there were two of them and only one Kor and, Fundamentals or not, he had a lot of work on his hands.

The first warrior, a thin, wiry man with long, greasy hair that may once have been blond but was now a sort of stringy light brown, threw two small daggers at Kor before he even reached the mounted redhead. The first flew wide of its target---Kor’s eye---and the second, which could have found its home in the redhead’s jugular, was deflected by the young man’s hastily upraised right arm. It clipped his hand slightly above his wrist, stinging lightly, but the majority of the blade struck the tough leather of his bracer and bounced harmlessly to the ground beneath the horse’s stomping hooves.

Kor was better prepared when the second warrior, a man with slick, dirty ebony hair, threw his own daggers, and Kor evaded them by raising both arms above his face, turning his curved blade downwards to shield his hands, and ducking the rest of his exposed torso behind his horse’s head. He did not like the idea that the borrowed horse might be injured, but it was battle-trained and that was a risk all such beasts faced. Luckily, the first of the thrown blades utterly failed to even come close to Kor or the horse, and the second was turned by his blade.

Then they were on him.

They spread out to either side of his horse, so that one could one could press him from the left while he was distracted with the other on his right. Luckily for Kor, his horse didn’t seem to care overly much for either man, biting and kicking at them as they came close. Kor copied the horse when he could, kicking out sharply as one man came too close and connecting with the man’s jaw to thrust him back and away.

Still, they knew how to fight a mounted man, and Kor’s dagger did not have the reach he needed from horseback; it was almost an advantage to him as one, distracting him and the horse from the one side with his pike, provided the other with the opportunity to drag Kor off the horse.

The redhead didn’t fight, but instead went completely limp and allowed his dead weight to collapse on top of the man, bearing them both to the ground and cushioning his fall with the other’s body. He made a point of digging his elbows and knees into the filthy man’s body as he hurriedly regained his feet and whipped around to face his opponent---not the breathless man still rising from the ground, but the man who’d a moment ago been pressing him with his pike.

The man still had his pike, and to avoid its jab, Kor stepped diagonal to the outside of the pike... toward him, not away, bringing his shitan up across his chest and taking a slash at the man’s exposed armpit. He didn’t really expect the knife to connect, and it didn’t; the warrior leaned a little backwards to avoid him and Kor stepped diagonal again into that lean, bringing his other arm up and, grasping the pike, pushing it and the man backwards. The warrior lost his balance and stumbled backwards, keeping his feet but losing, for a heartbeat, the opportunity to attack.

Unfortunately, the man who’d dragged Kor from his horse had regained his feet and pulled his own shitan free of his belt. The man was left-handed while Kor was right. The redhead cursed under his breath; he was ambidextrous due to many years of playing the harp, but when it came to fighting, he only knew how to use his right arm effectively; one day, he’d have to remedy that.

The shitan was designed primarily as a slashing weapon. Its curved blade was sharp on both sides, but the outside was used the most; the inside was only really useful if one managed to hook an opponent’s limb or if one managed to stab and tear the weapon free of the unfortunate soul’s flesh. It was not strong enough to parry a blow, but a man who knew the Fundamentals well didn’t need to parry; he could evade.

Unfortunately, evading was exceptionally hard when one didn’t know how to fight a left-handed opponent, and Kor felt a growing sense of dread as he was forced once, then twice, then again to bring his knife up to deflect the other’s strong blow.

Please don’t break, please don’t break! he chanted over and over in his head, and to his dismay, heard approaching hoofbeats.

From behind, the other man’s pike came jabbing at Kor’s back. He dodged sideways toward the knifeman as he saw the movement out of the corner of his right eye, avoiding the pike but bringing him a little too close to the shitan. The knife bit sharply into his side, and, knowing what could happen if it were driven further in and then ripped free, Kor stepped diagonal again in one of the most basic moves of the Fundamentals, grasping the other’s knife hand at the wrist and twisting his torso to the right so that the tip of the knife slid out of the wound cleanly. Then, taking advantage of the fact that the man’s knife hand was still securely held, he yanked it sharply toward him, grasped it with his other hand as he pulled the man toward him, and drove his other elbow, hard, into the man’s side.

“Riders?!” He snapped at Jin.

The Fay-el nodded sharply and stepped forward to engage the pikeman. Kor turned his full concentration to the knifeman.
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Daliah cursed beneath her breath at the sight of the skirmish. She had not expected to run into trouble that soon. With a sigh, she slowed Darman to a stop and turned to Eppie.

"You need to stay here."

"I can fight."

"I know. But I will not let your blood be on my hands."

As the girl resisted, Daliah took her by the arm and lowered her to the ground. She threw down her short sword as well, so that she would have protection if they failed. She then dug in her heels and raced off once more.

The fight was well underway when she came upon it, so she galloped over to where Jin and another were facing incredibly odds. They didn't appear to need much help, but it was in her instinct to fight.

She drew her sword and lopped off the head closest to her, sending it flying several feet away. The she plunged it into the shoulder of another, slicing straight through the heart.

"I apologize for before." she called. "You frightened me is all."

She waited for the reply while engaging with a tall, burly soldier, but if there was one, she did not hear it, for he proved to be of much greater strength than she expected.
That man is going to make a great warrior. Kor might not know the Fundamentals well, but he did know them. That was quite clear. Jin slid from Doblo’s back to the ground. This man’s pike was longer, and it was more dangerous mounted than not if that was the case.

Jin moved in and out of the Fundamentals himself, though he added some of the stances as well. Raven in Flight clipped by Reaper’s Scythe; Waving Grass flowing into the Crow’s Feet. The pikeman didn’t stand a chance. When the dark-haired Hybrid finally stumbled from the speed of Jin’s attacks, the janin found its mark.

Panting, Jin stopped to catch his breath. He could almost hear Terran, his closest counselor and friend, scolding him. Jin’s “style” involved quick, fast shifts from stance to stance, and Fundamental to Fundamental. The shorter man, who often bested him thoroughly, had often warned him not to do that. “You will tire out before the other man does, and then where will you be?” Terran gestured at the tattoo of a Derk-ra on his forearm, the emblem of blademaster. “You won’t win this that way.”

Jin shook the thought away. He had more important things to worry about right now than what Terran thought. He spotted Kor dispatching the knife man with a combination of the diagonal step and a powerful slash from left to right. The old proverb muttered in his head.

Beware the dancer:
Neither deer move,
nor serpent strike
as fast as he.


Again, Jin felt a flicker of recognition. The style of fighting was familiar to him. If Kor’s father had been a member of the Shinar tribe, it would have been around 20 years ago, with Jin just beginning to learn the Fundamentals. Could this Renji have been one of his teachers?

The hoofbeats were getting louder. Jin whistled for Doblo, who came cantering to his side. Remounting, he scanned the surrounding trees for more enemies and, more importantly, Kor’s gray gelding. Neither met his sight. He sheathed the janin. They had to get out of here, and fast. Dameon’s clan, the last time it was numbered, came to over twenty men. With a tribe of 75, that wasn’t a problem; with a group of two, they were in serious danger. Jin was quite aware of what happened to those Dragonians Dameon did manage to capture. It was not a pleasant sight.

In his concentration, he hadn’t noticed the slim Daliah step into the fray until now. She dispatched two men in the blink of an eye. By the Star, she knew the Fundamentals, and a great deal of the stances. A whisper of nervousness slid through his mind, but he beat it down. Now was not the time. “Daliah!” He called out, “Come on, let’s go. More are coming.” Her head swiveled in his direction, so she must have heard him. One problem down. One to go.

Whipping his stallion around, he hurried to where Kor stood. “Let’s go.”

The redhead glanced up at him, hand pressed against his bleeding side. Jin held out his hand to haul him up.

“Let’s go,” he repeated, “We don’t have much time.”

As if to confirm his words, the obscene blare of a Hybrid horn echoed in the air, followed by a renewed thrashing in the trees. Jin felt a tendril of fear snake through his chest. If they caught him…

Surely by now Sheno and Layole were heading back this way. If they hurried, and if Kyda was merciful, he and Kor could catch up with them before the Hybrids did. Doblo rarely carried two, but for the short distance, it should be enough.

For the first time, Jin snapped his name, rather than the insulting “Hybrid”. “Kor, get on the crescent-blinded horse!”
Kor blinked up at Jin for a moment, then grasped the man’s proffered hand and half vaulted and was half dragged into the saddle behind the Fay-el. “Ha!” Jin cried, giving his horse a swift kick.

The redhead glanced over his shoulder, seeing that infernal sword-wielding woman fall in line behind them on her own mount. He could hardly believe his eyes---there she was again!---but gratitude surged through him at her presence. Two versus a large group of mounted men was a terrifying concept, and although three was not much better, it was better. Still…

“The tribe?” he asked the Fay-el again, digging through his pocket. Firmaments! Where was it? A patch of roughness against his fingertip and then he’d pulled the sliver of kapa bark free and was sucking on it. He’d have to find more later, if they survived. More of everything; the entire blazing herbal kit had been lost with his horse and all he had now were a couple slivers of kapa and a nearly-used jar of salve. That wouldn’t be enough to treat Jin, let alone them both and anyone else who managed to get injured in this fray.

“The tribe can fend for itself. But we need their help.”

The two horses thrust through a tangle of branches as the enemy surged through the trees behind them. Kor caught a flash of throwing knives and spotted at least two bowmen. One man pointed at the fleeing riders and kicked his own horse into a run.

The woman reached down into the grass and dragged a girl out of the darkness and into the saddle before her. Jin’s head swung around and widened as he took in the sight of the clinging child, but he whipped around again as quickly as he too took in the ranged weapons and gave his horse its head.

Kor glanced behind him again, shitan clutched tightly in his hand, becoming slippery with blood from the stinging nick above his vambrace. One of the bowman was within his reach and he wanted to throw his weapon at the man, but stars!, if he did that he’d be out his only weapon!

And so he held onto it, hoping none would come close enough that he’d have to use it. Behind him came the sound of a bow being released and an arrow punched deep into a tree before them, having narrowly missed the woman’s back.

“This way!” Jin called back to her as he spotted the imprints of the tribe’s feet and the deeper impressions of their horse’s hooves in the damp early morning dirt.
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Daliah ducked as the arrow came near. By lights, that had been closer than the last one! The next may meet its target.

"Here." she shoved the reins into Eppie's hands and turned in her seat. She took her bow from its place and counted her arrows.

Five. She would have to be careful.

Her first hit one of the bowmen, sending him to the ground to be trampled. The second struck a horse in the chest. But the third struck off a piece of armor and became lodged in the dirt.

Then she had to turn back around, with two arrows left and a heart full of dread.
Doblo had the bit in his teeth and charged ahead, stride fully extended. The trees were thinning rapidly, which was both good and bad.

There was no worry of the powerful stallion tripping on an upturned root or moss-slick boulder, but without the trees to block the flying arrows, they would be lucky to escape with their lives, much less untouched.

Daliah was followig hard behind them. Jin could hear her horse's hooves pounding at his back. Unfortunately, he could also hear a myriad of other horses and men chasing after them as well.

Dawn sent golden fingers trailing through the trees. A gleam of sunlight on water was barely visible through the greenery. Jin wrenched Doblo's head around and made a beeline in that direction. That was a likely place for the tribe to camp. Fresh water, and grass for the horses.

They burst through the shrubs, branches lashing at them as they passed, Jin spotted hurried movement to his left and right. Not Hybrids.

Jin swiveled, waving at Daliah an mouthing, "Get down." Before turning back to guide the war horse again. "Kor," he snapped over his shoulder, "Duck."

He hoped the redhead had heard him. The movement had to be his own sentries. They would use the bow first, and ask questions later. If Kor was close to their chieftain, however, they probably would not attempt it, and they certainly would not fire on a woman.

The camp was spread out before them. A wheel-like arrangement of tents, with his own in the most protected center of the camp.

At his back, Jin heard the bushes snap with the arrival of Dameon's men. The whisle of released arrows was audible a moment later. Dameon's men? Or the sentries?
Kor was a tall man, but Jin was taller. The Fay-el told him to duck, and duck he did, but the only thing to duck behind was Jin himself. As the sounds of bowstrings being released cut through the air, Kor cringed, then straightened with a look of relief upon his face when, behind him, he heard two sharp exhalations of men in pain.

Still though, there were many riders gaining on them, and, as far as Kor could tell, only two Dragonian sentries.

Luckily, their loud arrival brought Jin's other warriors to sharp attention, and after the initial frenzied moments of men grabbing weapons and stringing bows, Kor knew that they had enough fighters to face off against these mounted threats with something better resembling equal odds.

Jin, Kor could tell, sensed it too, wheeling his horse around to face the oncoming attackers, his janin held out to his side, ready.

A second volley of arrows were released, this time by the attackers. One whizzed past Kor's left ear, and he snarled.

Leaning precariously in the saddle and pointing his shitan directly at the emerging Hybrids, he bellowed angrily, "Fools! You press this attack, you will die here, to a man!"
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Daliah admired Jin's bravery. Even she would have run from something like this. Maybe having a friend would not be so terrible, though she would probably lose him in the end.

She decided to stay with him for now, long enough to see what kind of person he was. It had been so long since she had been around anyone other than Darman...

"So what is the plan?" she asked, gripping her sword tightly. She had loosened it when an arrow nicked her shoulder. It was not bad, it just came as a shock. "I can take a couple with my bow, and perhaps one more with my knife before they reach us."

He nodded and she knocked it back by her ear. She aimed carefully this time, since she had to make it count. It hit one of the larger men in the center, and threw the one next to him off balance.

It took everything in her not to grin at that moment, especially as more fell under the blows of Jin's tribe. She savoured the last arrow, unsure whether or not to use it. Then she decided against it. They might need it later.

So she drew her sword once more and waited for their line to surge forward.
Jin felt Doblo tremble beneath him, ready to charge into the battle. He held the stallion in check however. He was looking for a particular foe right now. The twins, Sheno and Layole, had moved protectively to his side, their eyes on both the surrouding enenmies and on Kor, the latter with some curiousity. Jin was not in the mood to enlighten them.

If he knew Dameon at all, the cowardly Hybrid would flee at the sign of any danger, or overwhelming odds. One good charge from him, and maybe Daliah too, would make him dart away, taking his filthy band with him.

Where could he be? Never in the front of the line, he had to be nearby just the same. Where...there!

With hair the same shade as Elam's own and sitting astride a big black, Dameon was easy to spot. Even more so with the disfiguring scar trailing down his face. He had a short, curved dagger in one hand, and a lance marked with raven feathers in the other. Dameon excelled in the use of both.

Jin half-turned his head. Kor still held his shitan tightly, muttering what souned like Aquila profanity at the approaching Hybrids. The man had fire in his blood, that was for sure. Jin frowned thoughtfully. He may be prepared to dash through the lines after Dameon, but that didn't mean he had to take Kor with him.

Dropping the reins to free his hands and tightening his hold on the janin, Jin said. "I'm going after the Hybrid's leader. Layole's horse can carry you both, if you wish."

Kor's sharp blue eyes slid sideways toward the Dragonian warrior Jin indicated for a moment and he hesitated before looking again toward the battle. Then a slow, feral grin spread across his face. "Take me with you," he said firmly. "I'm getting my own blazing horse."

Jin twisted in the saddle to look at him. "You're going to what?" the Fay-el demanded, and then a half-breath later he cursed and turned back toward the enemy as an arrow punched deeply into the ground just in front of his horse's impatient hooves. "Edda's Thumb, Kor, we don't have time for this!"

"Let's go then," Kor snapped with a nod. "Ride fast'n'hard for the man you seek. I'll take care of the rest."

The Dragonian chieftain swung his attention back toward the battle. "I hope you know what you're doing," he murmured as he dug his heels into his stallion's side. Behind him, the rest of the Dragonians flung themselves into battle with him, encouraged by their leader's charge.

Kor was actually pretty sure he didn't know what he was doing, but he was going to do it anyway. Already, as Jin galloped directly toward some target Kor could not yet actually identify---the Hybrid leader, Jin had said?---the redhead spotted his own victim... well, his victim or his death...

As Jin was just about to be abreast of Kor's hastily selected opponent, Kor held his shitan in a white-knuckled grasp, his eyes locked upon his completely-stationary opponent where the man sat calmly upon his roan's back with only a crossbow in his hands.

Then, leaning precariously out of the saddle and knowing full well it wasn't going to matter one bit in a moment, Kor half dove off of the horse's back in his sudden passing-lunge toward the unsuspecting warrior, wrapping the startled Hybrid in a bear hug and dragging them both out of their respective saddles as he tackled the other man, at a full gallop, to the ground.

It felt like the ground slammed upwards into him. The cold, packed earth was far, far harder than Kor expected and the warrior who landed on top of him was much, much heavier. The hoof of the fallen Hybrid's horse stomped about a centimeter away from Kor's temple and the redhead barely even noticed as he struggled to regain his breath and stop the spinning of his head and protesting of every bone in his body. It felt like a new blade had slid between his ribs, and Blood, the Hybrid was heavy!

Heavy, and utterly, terribly still...

Kor rolled the body off of him, finding his shitan half buried in the man's throat. They were both covered in blood; the blade had severed the Hybrid's jugular in the fall.

Heh, maybe Edda was looking out for Kor today!

Still, the redhead hurt... blazes he hurt! And, stars and crescents, he still had to get up and claim the Edda-forsaken horse!
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Daliah grunted as she pulled her sword from a hybrid's chest. Their armor was a lot tougher than she was used to, but she was not one to back down from a challenge. She thrust it toward another, excited at the the clang of metal on metal.

They parried for a moment, lost in the heat and blood from the battle. Then they were joined by another, friend or foe, she did not know.

Foe.

She quickly beheaded the other and turned to him. He proved a better fighter than the last, surely trained by a master. Perhaps he was a master himself.

She pondered this for a moment before realizing that she had to concentrate this one. He combined several different techniques, and she did not know what to expect from him.

A slow smile crossed her lips. This should be interesting.
He felt Kor's weight shift a moment before he left the saddle completely.

Kor had to be star-struck; he just had to be. That or some god had special interest in him. If the Hybrid was always this brash...that he survived to adulthood was a wonder.

Jin didn't have time to consider it. He spotted Daliah dueling with what he recognized as a commander's second. Seconds were bodyguards, well-trained, and would fight to the death if their "master" was close. He hoped Daliah realized that. At the moment, Jin's focus was on Dameon.

A few of the Hybrid forces were retreating already from the rain of arrows from Jin's side of the battle. Those did not belong to Dameon's clan, rather they had probably joined up with him at the prospect of booty or killing.

Dameon's men had not budged. The Hybrid was known for his firm hold on every one of his men, and severe punishment for rebellion or desertion. Though two years younger than Jin, he had the strength of will of an older leader.

Jin locked eyes with him, saw the blue of them narrow in recognition. Dameon mouthed a command and his second nudged his horse between Jin's oncoming charge.

Jin waved a hand and his men spread out, chasing down their own foes. Something nagged at the back of his mind but he pushed it aside.

Dameon tucked the dagger into his belt, and raised the lance high. Jin nudged the stallion on into a pounding charge, outdistancing his own second, Layole. He heard the twin calling out to him, but he ignored it. Layole would catch up.

Dameon watched his approach with unnerving calm, cocking his head idly to one side. Why wasn't the cowardly Hybrid fleeing, as he had done so many times before? Again, a fleeting thought trickled into Jin's mind. What had he forgotten? What was he missing?

Something moved in the chaos of warriors and horses dashing here and there. A shadow unfolding at Dameon's side. There was his answer.

Dameon had two seconds.

Jin's mind comprehended it at the same time as he spotted the crossbow in the man's burly hands. He grabbed Doblo's reins with his free hand and wrenched on the stallion's head.

The range was perfect for the crossbow. He presented a clear target. Jin could hear Kor, (who must still be alive then) shouting at him.





Uttering a curse under his breath, Kor rolled away from the body of the fallen Hybrid and the warrior’s mount, taking up the dead man’s crossbow as he went. He lurched to his feet in three motions, clamoring first to his knees, then planting his fists---one clutching the crossbow, the other the shitan---in the mud, and finally pushed up to his feet. He was covered in mud and blood, most of it from the gushing tear in his opponent’s jugular but some fresh from his own side.

Now, what was he doing? He looked around in confusion, seeing the clash of Dragonians and Hybrids.

Oh, that’s right, killing people.

There was a blur of movement to his left and he swung around, slashing with the shitan at what he only assumed was an opponent. Oh good, it was. The Hybrid fell back, clutching his arm, and then, to Kor’s surprise, turned to run with a small group of his fellows.

What in the name of Edda… running away already? But the majority of the foes did not run, but instead stood their ground to withstand the Dragonian charge.

Where was that demon-blessed Fay-el? Ah, there he was, charging headlong toward what Kor could only assume was the Hybrid leader. To Kor’s surprise, Jin pulled back on his reins sharply, driving his horse to a dead halt as a man emerged from behind the enemy leader.

Kor spotted the crossbow at the same time Jin did and shouted something---he didn’t know what---as he raised his own stolen crossbow, fired, and saw the crossbow-wielding Hybrid start as though slapped. For a moment their eyes met across the clearing, and then the warrior toppled from the saddle, his crossbow falling, unused, to the ground beside him.

Ha! Kor thought in victory. I didn't accidentally shoot myself or something!

He turned to look for another opponent, feeling slightly lightheaded and queasy and hoping the battle would end soon. The crossbow was out of bolts and he dropped it to the ground, spotting at the same time a man coming toward him. One hand crossing to touch his screaming side, he stepped back into one of the basic stances of the Fundamentals, bending his back knee slightly, and lifted his shitan to the ready.

Edda's Balls, why am I here again? Oh right... joining the Dragonian cause and all that...And my demon-blasted horse is getting away!
A Non-Existent User
Daliah was tempted to ask her opponent his name and station, but there was no time for conversation. She could only flick the blade again and again to block the rapid fire attacks.

Suddenly she felt a shock of pain. She was forced to drop as his sword sliced her arm and curved once more toward her head. The ground was fairly soft at least. She scrambled with her left hand for her own sword and hurled it at the horse's side.

Before her attacker knew what had happened, she had hacked through the strap of the saddle. He too was thrown to the grown and stabbed in his side.

She crawled over and leaned over him, wishing to gain one last look upon this face so worthy to die. That was when she recognized him.

"You killed him." she whispered. "I loved him and you killed him."

A look of confusion crossed his face before she drove the blade into his throat, savoring the last look of despair in his eyes before death clouded them.
Jin couldn't decide if he should be thanking Kyda, or Kor. Dameon's eyes narrowed in hatred, and he whirled around, his remaining second following hard on his heels.

Jin clenched the janin tighter, and started to urge Doblo forward, but a hand snaked out and grabbed the reins. Layole's chestnut danced at his side. "They're retreating." he said quietly.

"Layole-"

"Not now."

His second's level personality had been the main reason Jin chose him. Even now, his anger dropped at the man's quiet advice. They turned back together. At Jin's nod, Layole signaled to one of the lieutenants, who in turn lifted a horn to his lips and dipped Jin's banner.

In a few moments, those Hybrids who remained had been slaughtered or fled. The warriors were busily gathering their wounded, or stripping the bodies of weapons, both enemy and friend. Jin grimaced at the gruesome sight. Few warriors had a sword, and most had more children than arrows. The dead had no need of them.

Jin rode to the center of camp, and then dismounted wearily. At his feet, a crude circle had been etched into the ground. The Council Circle. Though no new laws had been added, nor was the Loha Festival due for another four moons-still, every new camp set up involved drawing the Circle into the dust.

Jin settled himself cross-legged on the ground. "Layole, find out our losses. And our 'guests' need to be found, if they're alive."

The second gave him a curt nod and glided into action. Light laughter preceded the scuffle of feet. Jin looked up, and then smiled. Elam, his son, leaped into his arms, nearly bowling him over. "Has Rowan been taking care of you?"

"Uh-huh."

Jin fingered the flaxen hair. The widow had raised Jin and his brother, after his parents' death, and now cared for Elam. He was two years from Confirmation (10). Jin wanted to keep him as innocent as possible until then. Footsteps made Jin look up again.
"They retreated," Kor stated the obvious as he stepped up to the Fay-el's shoulder. He glanced down at his hand, where he found himself absentmindedly wiping his shitan clean on his off-white tunic. His lip curled in distaste and dismay as he regarded his filthy shirt, but then he shrugged. A little more blood and mud would not harm the shirt anymore after battle had already thoroughly ruined it.

Jin nodded curtly. "Yes." A man of few words.

Kor tucked his blade into his belt on the opposite hip of his captured crossbow. His hand was shaking a little, whether with bloodloss, exhaustion or nervous energy he didn't know. "Your men are not going to pursue them?"

The Fay-el's eyes narrowed and for a moment he stared off in the direction of the enemy. Then---"No."

"They might come back," Kor pointed out.

Still Jin did not look at him. "They will. But not yet. They took us by surprise and lost. They will seek reinforcements before they return. We have days, two weeks perhaps... and we will not remain here long. The Eloin are too close, and they... they we are not prepared to fight."

Kor was digging through his pocket with shaking hands. He only had one sliver of kapa bark left, but he snapped it in half and handed it to Jin.

His proffered hand was covered in mud and blood, a good deal of it his own, but Jin didn't seem to notice, taking the bark from him and tucking it between his teeth and cheek.

"Where will you go, then?" Kor asked as he chewed on the bark, hoping to release its analgesic qualities faster that way. The heat of the battle was flowing from him like water, leaving him cold, exhausted, and aching. If the tribe did not have their own healer, he would need to set out soon to find the herbs to treat himself, Jin, and---he noted with a glance toward the woman---Daliah as well. But he didn't want to... not yet. Rest first, then the herbs.

If, of course, Jin even intended to allow him to stay.

The Fay-el regarded him with cool emerald eyes. "I thank you for dispatching Damien's second, Kor."

Kor sighed. Still not trusted, then...
A Non-Existent User
Daliah let out a long groan as she climbed back into the saddle and nudged Myna into a slow trot over to the men. She knew she would not survive on her own, so she would stay...

For now.
Daliah joined their trio, dropping the reins of her horse and sliding down from the saddle.

Jin could see the Healer headed their way, and resisted the urge to groan. That was going to be painful, though the kapa bark was helping.

Layole glided to his side and, crouching down, filled him in on the condition of the tribe. Ten dead, six wounded, but they should be able to move on by tomorrow's dawn. He had completely forgotten about Elam, until he heard the boy's clear voice.

"You look like Joran, though he's not a Hybrid," Elam said. He giggled, reaching for Kor's hair, "Is it real?"

"Elam, leave him alone."

Elam glanced at him, blue eyes wide. "Da, I won't hurt him." He glanced back at Kor and, spotting their shared eye color, grinned wider. "See, he looks like me."

Jin cringed. Anyone with eyes to see could tell Elam was a Hybrid as well. If Kor called him that...
Kor raised an eyebrow at the child, then carefully rose from where he sat next to Jin and Daliah to kneel, eye to eye, before the boy. "Goodness, look at that, you do have eyes like me! And what a handsome pair of eyes they are, eh?" he said with a broad conspiratorial grin. Then he pointed to the boy's waist, where a miniature dagger hung from his boiled-leather belt. "And by Edda, look at that shitan! I bet you're turning into a fine Dragonian warrior!"

The little boy grinned proudly. "I already know the first four Fundamentals!"

An old man knelt shouldered between Kor and Jin and began examining the wound in the Fay-el's shoulder without a word.

Kor gasped at Elam. "Really? You must be a great warrior, to know so much already! I didn't learn my Fundamentals until I was... goodness... probably more than twice your age."

The healer raised an eyebrow in surprise and inturrupted their conversation with the single-minded ease of the truly old. "Someone has already packed this," he commented in a slow, faltering voice.

Jin tilted his chin to Kor. The Dragonian healer nodded slightly in satisfaction.

"Yeah," Elam said to Kor with a giggle, "but you're a Hybrid. You would have learned earlier if you were a Dragonian." He cocked his head curiously at Kor, who settled back down to sit crosslegged on the ground. "You do look a lot like Joran though, and he's of the tribe."

"Who is Joran?" Kor asked.
A Non-Existent User
Daliah pulled her arm away from the healer and nodded toward the others.

"They need your help more than I do."

The man shook his head.

"They are being tended to. You are the last one."

"All right then." She pulled her sleeve away from the cut and held it out. Once it was treated, she dismounted and checked Myna over. There were a few cuts, only one that would have to be treated.

She dug through the saddlebags, at last drawing out the ointment she needed. It took a moment to warm it in her hands, but she applied it quickly, singing softly to distract the horse from the pain. That attracted some attention, but she ignored it.

Instead she looked at the boy. He was so adorable, just like she always wanted. No, she must not think of that. Her life would not consist of a family.

Unfortunately, Jin noticed her staring.

"Do you need something?" he asked.

"No." she shook her head. "I was just noticing his dagger. It is a very fine one. He should make a great warrior someday."

He didn't look convinced. She turned back to Myna and cursed beneath her breath. He had seen her weakness.
Jin would have to be blind to miss the longing in Daliah's eyes. With the Eloin and Hybrids choking them down, raising children was risky at best. Had she lost her own children and husband? Or someone close to her?

She had her own form of beauty, so unlike Jin's now dead wife, Karli. Where Karli had been a fragile flower, Daliah was a sharp, shitan- useful, but with a beauty all its own.

Blinking, Jin curbed his wandering thoughts. He saw the Healer coming back and, more importantly, the needle in his hands. Jin turned his head away. He had to focus on anything but the man's painful ministrations.

With their nomadic lifestyle, harvesting or cultivating herbs was difficult. Serious injuries would allow him to take valla to put him under, or serenia to numb him completely, but with a minor wound like this--endurance took on a different meaning.

Elam chattered away with Kor, showing off a few of the Fundamentals he had picked up. "Joran, he's my friend. We spar together."

The two were about the same height and weight, though Joran was a few years older. Unfortunately, Jin knew Elam would not grow much taller, (a curse of his Hybrid heritage) unlike the fully Dragonian Joran. Sparring enabled them both to get used to the Fundamentals, both using them and recognizing them backwards.

Joran, yes, they did look alike. If he ignored the reddish hair, and pictured the stormy gray of Joran's eyes...very much so. Joran's father had died in an Eloin raid when Jin was still very young. Corin would have known him, but Jin's elder brother was dead. He grimaced at the memory. Tanniyn, the Eloin king, had sent Corin's body to the new chieftain, that is, a dismembered body. Quite forceful a threat.

"Turok," he whispered to the Healer, "Send the Keeper to me when you're finished."

"Aye." His tone was distracted.

Jin gasped as the needle drove deeper than was necessary. It was not a good idea to distract the ancient man. He bit his lip to keep from crying out more. The Healer was half done, thank Kyda.



Kor watched the Healer’s ministrations upon Jin with a growing sense of discomfort. Kor may have known somewhat of medicine, but he was not familiar at all with being the recipient of a Healer’s care. He’d always had a hearty constitution; rarely had he been ill, and although he’d had his fair share of childhood bumps and scrapes, never had he been in need of more than perhaps a touch of his mother’s ointment. Other than this day, he’d never been in battle beyond that single time two years ago, and never had he had the ill occasion to find himself under a Healer’s needle.

Jin, he could tell, was accustomed to such care. The warrior chieftain bore the Healer’s touch with a slightly impatient, bored resignation. The elderly man knew his craft, there was no denying that. However, he had lived some four of Jin’s and Kor’s lifetimes, and the time during which his hands were steady and sure had long since passed. Many a time Jin gasped, cursed or jumped under his touch, and Kor squirmed in sympathy and dread as he watched the old man unpack, cleanse, repack, stitch, salve and finally bandage the Fay-el’s wound with shaking hands.

Stars and crescents! Has the old wheezer no concern for the pain of his charge? Edda’s Balls, if that’s how he handles his own Fay-el, how in the blazing firmaments is he going to treat a lowly little Hybrid such as myself?

“You now,” the old Healer grunted, gesturing Kor toward him after he’d tied off the bandage binding Jin’s shoulder. The Fay-el glanced sympathetically at Kor as he carefully slipped his wounded arm back into his tunic. “Come here.” The Healer chuckled as Kor reluctantly rose to his feet, patting Elam absently on the head as he passed. The sound which emerged from the old man’s lips was more cackle than laugh. “Surely, having taken a sword to the side, you don’t fear the prick my little needle, boy!”

Kor felt the blood rise in his cheeks, but a moment later he barked out a laugh. Settling himself before elderly man, he said, “No, I suppose not, when you illuminate the situation in such a light. Twas a shitan, in any case, not a sword. I twisted away from the blade at the last possible opportunity, and so am fortunate that the wound is not terribly deep.”

The Healer squinted at the wound in the early morning grayness. “Deep enough. Take this shirt off; it is beyond salvaging and we will give you another." He grunted his satisfaction when Kor complied and bent back to his task. "You are right, boy. This could have been far worse. Rest you a bit, then, as I do what must be done. Ah, you did not pack this, as you did the Fay-el’s wound?”

Kor gritted his teeth as the Healer probed the wound lightly. “There was no time for such things. Also, I have lost my herbs.“

“Where did you learn your craft, Hybrid?” He said the word with no malice and Kor was not offended. “The herbs with which you treated the Fay-el’s wound are familiar to me, but they are not from these parts and it is rare indeed that I see their like in use or have the occasion to harvest that particular lichen for my own stocks. It is unfortunate indeed that your supplies were lost, for I would greatly have liked to trade a few items with you. But perhaps we could have words later about your training; I would enjoy comparing knowledge of our shared craft with you. Even in my... advanced age... there is always more to learn.”

The Healer’s slow, careful speech plodded with infinite deliberateness from his lips as he worked on cleaning the tear in Kor’s side, so that it was all that Kor could do to keep still and wait for him to say his piece before responding with a good deal less patience, “I too would enjoy such an exchange, goodsir. To tell you the honest truth, the healing arts were my mother’s craft; all I have learned, I learned from her lips, but she departed this world two years ago and can teach me no longer. Any knowledge you might share from the wisdom of your years would be greatly appreciated, and in return I will offer what meager knowledge I might give you in exchange.”

The Healer cleared his throat of a great gout of phlegm as he continued sponging Kor’s side with as much gentleness as he was capable of. “Yes, well, there will be time enough for that in the days to come. I know not how long our good Fay-el plans to keep you, boy, but you’ll be here at least three more days whilst this wound knits.” He glanced sharply toward Jin, who nodded curtly in agreement. “The two of you---aye, and the girl too---should restrain yourselves to light work for the coming week if at all possible. Burst your stitches and I shall not be as gentle in replacing them, I assure you! Tonight you, Hybrid, and the girl as well, shall sleep in my tent where I might keep watch over you to be sure you do not succumb to fever. Layole will of course attend similarly to our Fay-el in the comfort of his own tent. The weapons of our enemies are sometimes poisoned and always filthy; only time will tell if the wounds have been fouled, although swift tending such as this should prevent complications. Nevertheless, heed well my instructions.”

Jin chuckled dryly at the Healer’s words and Kor’s look of surprise. “You speak as though you are Fay-el here and not I,” he chastised lightly.

The Healer looked at him archly. “Where my patients are concerned, I am.”

Jin did not refute his words, though whether it was because he was tolerating the stubbornness of an old man or submitting to the authority of a healer, Kor could not tell.

Kor sat still through the same process Jin had endured, squirming and cursing a fair deal more than the stalwart Fay-el had, and then was finally released. The Healer turned his attention to Daliah with the same combination of sureness and unsteadiness, and then, once all of their wounds had been cleansed, stitched and bound, a young woman brought them each a wooden bowl of stew and a foul-tasting tea the Healer had ordered made earlier. They ate and drank before the fire, listless and sore, as the old man left to fetch the one Jin had called the “Keeper.”

The redhead turned to Daliah, feeling more drained than he had all day and drowsy besides, most likely from the heavy dosage of Valla in the tea. “It is fortunate that you came, my good woman. I thank you. Your skill with the sword would put many a man to shame."
A Non-Existent User
Daliah nodded and pulled out her knife. She needed to replenish her store of arrows. There was some comfort in watching curls of wood strip away from the stick. At least she still had some of her arrow heads with her, but they would have to be sharpened.

"Thank you for your kind words. But it is merely a result of a lifetime of training. There is nothing about me that is superior to anyone else."

"Who trained you?" the man asked.

She paused for a second to look at him, then returned to her work. "A kind man. Far greater than any I have met." She sighed. "I found the man who ended his life, and today he received the same. Now if you excuse me, I need to find more wood."

Daliah walked back into the trees, bent low to pick up branches that would serve for her purpose. She did not wander too far from the fire, since she did not have the energy to get lost. After a while, she returned and proceeded to shape the remainder and fit them to the arrow heads.

Once she began, the boy, Elam, walked over to her. "Can I help?" he asked.

Daliah preferred to work alone, but the child was so interested that she actually smiled at his request. She handed him one of the heads. "Do you think you can find a rock I can sharpen this with."

He nodded and dashed away, coming back shortly with a stone in hand. She took it from him and showed him how to carve the end into a point. At first she held his hands in hers to add pressure, but it was not long before he could do it alone.

"Would you like your own bow and arrows?" she asked, looking at Jin for approval.
Jin nodded his consent. He allowed himself to smile slightly, "You'll have to do the teaching, however. That is a skill I lack, and most of my men have more apprentices than they need."

He saw Daliah's glance of surprise. As Dragonia was known for its archers, that the Fay-el of a tribe did not use the bow had to be unusual.

The Keeper's arrival distracted his attention, though he could hear Elam's cries of delight.

The middle-aged man had already gathered an armful of parchments, brush, and ink. He handed them to Jin without a word. The Keeper knew him well.

The names of the dead needed to be added to the roster. Usually, Jin added them, to help him remember each loss better. He was one of the few Fay-el who was not illiterate. Most were. Warrior training was considered more important. Hhis teacher's scolding popped into his head. That's what Keepers are for.

Jin shook the memory away. He had been a second son, never intended to become Fay-el. He had been lucky to learn. Corin never did.

Jin also had no intention of allowing Elam to be unable to read and write, no matter what his station became.

After a few minutes of struggling to use his left hand, (which was making his normally neat script look like Elam's) he gave up and handed the pieces back. "You'll have to do it this time."

A curt nod, and the man went to work. Jin watched him for a minute. The spidery scrawl was better than his attempts, though not by much. "While you're at it..."

The Keeper glanced at him.

"Could you find the name of Joran's father?" Jin continued.

"Aye."

Layole returned. Jin felt his hand resting against his shoulder in a silent request. He glanced at his second. "Where's Terran?"

"Fretting. I'm sure he'll want to scold you in the morning, but I sent him away for now," His russet eyes narrowed, "As you are going to bed."

Jin heard the implied command. "I'm coming."

The Valla was kicking in. He could feel its warmth spreading across his chest. Jin turned, catching Layole's eye. "Wake me in the fifth point. No later."

"But-"

"No later."

Layole's disapproval was written across his face, but he ceased arguing.

The Eloin were much too close. He had to move the tribe. They, or the Hybrids, could attack again. Their resources were seriously depleted now. And the fall was half finished.

It was too much for him to worry about now. Jin shoved it to the back of his mind, and followed his second away from the little group.

"Layole, keep an eye on Kor. Some might..." he staggered, and the second gave him a gentle nudge to keep him standing.

Jin shook his head and continued, "They might take out old hurts on a new face. He is Hybdid-A Hyrid..." The Healer must have put quite a dose of Valla in that tea.

Layole cut off his rambling. "I will. You rest."







The voice came a cluster of young warriors sitting on the other side of the fire. “So, Hybrid, that hair natural, or you dye it in henna like a woman?” A couple men laughed, but Kor could not pinpoint the original speaker among them.

The redhead was leaning back heavily on both hands, wanting nothing so much as to lie down. The Healer had departed to prepare his large tent for Kor and Daliah. Daliah had been led away by a nother woman to change out of her muddied, bloodied clothing.

“Hey, Hybrid! I am talking to you!”

Kor glanced slowly over toward the speaker. “Name’s Kor,” he said as amicably as he could manage under the weight of the Valla Leaf upon his tongue and mood.

“Not here it’s not. Here you’re Ael Kinth. A… Hybrid.” The laughter from the taunter’s friends was louder this time and one of the men spit toward Kor but did not clear the fire. It was he who had spoken.

Kor bristled at the insult. ‘Hybrid’ was nowhere near a proper translation of the Dragonian term, which referred equally to the product of rape as to the child of one who preferred congress with animals to that of other people. Gritting his teeth slightly, he forced a smile onto his face. “The red hair is natural and you’re right, I’m a Hybrid. I have my mother’s hair.” And her temper as well, Kor added silently.

One of the young men rose from his place among his friends and crouched down before Kor, who didn’t move. A sneer was spread across the warrior’s face. “Who gave you that shitan, Hybrid? Did you steal it from a proper warrior?”

“Twas a gift,” Kor explained for the second time that day. “From my father.”

The young man grunted. “Didn’t earn it, then. You have no right to it.”

“I have every right to it. It was given to me by my father. I was trained in its use by a Dragonian. It has been anointed by blood in battle.” As of today, anyway. “Thrice mine.”

“I’ll fight you for it.”

Kor glared at him over his half-eaten bowl of stew. “I’ve had enough fighting this day.”

“Scared? Took a little prick in battle and are now ready to run off and cry?”

Kor levered himself slowly to his feet and the young warrior stood quickly, reaching for his shitans as he did. Kor did not touch his own weapon, but he did, to his dismay, rock on his feet. Crescents, how much Talla did that blazing wheezer give me? No wonder the Fay-el was stumbling. “You…” He blinked as everything tilted around him. “You’re not getting this shitan from me.”

The young warrior’s eyes narrowed. “Oh yeah? Look at you? You can’t even stand. You couldn’t stop me.” He shoved Kor roughly with both hands.

Kor stumbled backwards… into a warm body that stopped him like a wall. Rough hands closed on his shoulders and steadied him. “No, a drugged and injured man may not be able to stop you, Talen, but I sure can. Is this how you treat the man who fought at the side of our Fay-el?” It was Layole’s voice. Kor glanced over his shoulder and Layole nodded curtly at him. “Come, Kor. The Healer is ready for you, and Daliah as well." He glanced around. "Where is Daliah?”

"Changing," Kor said.
A Non-Existent User
Daliah shivered as the cold water was dumped over her head. It felt good to wash away the grime, but the night air was chill enough without having to bathe in the river. Her head ached and her skin felt too tight for her bones.

"There now, you may dress and return to your tent." One of the women handed her a length of thick cloth to dry herself on. Daliah took it and rubbed herself until she was warm and dry.

The clothing chosen for her was a dress, but she did not complain. As long as the men respected her as more than a woman, she would wear it. Next, her hair was brushed as it had not been in years. The boar's hair ripped at the snarls, inducing such pain that she had never endured before. But she bit her lips together and refused to cry out until it was done.

She was so grateful to get out of there. The herbs she had been given were starting to make her unsteady. She clasped her cloak at her throat and walked back to the camp.

The rest of the tribe seemed to stare more than usual, yet she ignored them and sat beside Elam. He was the one friendly face of the crowd.

"When will you teach me to use it?" he asked, twanging the string of his bow.

"Tomorrow." she replied. She looked ahead, staring at nothing in particular. He reminded her of the young boy Gaharis found one day. She took care of him like she would a brother... or son. He never told her his name, never had the chance. The boy died three days later.

"What are you thinking about?"

She hesitated, trying to find a reasonable story. "I was thinking about... how I should train you if you do not get any rest."

Elam's eyes widened and he ran to his tent. Daliah laughed to herself, remembering when she was a child.

"You are good with him. I find that surprising."

She looked at the man next to her. "Who are you?"

"My name is Layole, a very close friend of Jin's. And if you hurt his boy-"

"What is it you think I would do?" she asked, throwing a stick to the fire. "I am not some insensitive monster that would hurt a child."

"It is not that."

"What is it then? Speak your mind and do it quickly."

He shook his head and gazed at the ground before meeting his eyes.

"I am afraid you will leave him. I do not think he can bear it again." He stood and shook out his cloak. "Now get some rest, and if you are going to leave him, do so quickly."

Daliah returned to her tent and knelt in the corner, shaken by what Layole had said. She had not meant to draw so close to Elam so quickly. With trembling fingers, she tied her pack closed and shouldered it painfully.

Then she couldn't hold on any longer. She collapsed to the floor, succumbing to the forced sleep. How could she do this to him?
Jin awakened several hours later, with Layole's help, and a throbbing headache. Daliah and Kor were probably suffering from the same symptoms. Valla was wonderful, until the next day.

The tribe would not be up and about until the sixth point. Jin always rose before they did. It gave him time to collect his thoughts, to plan for the day, and, if he felt like it, worship Kyda.

He had never been overly devout, especially after the Shinar massacre. The shaman had long since given up on him. Ask for tithes? Jin's tirade had ended that one.

Few people would bother him at this hour, with the moons still faintly visible in the corner of the sky.

"Jin?"

He turned. Terran stood there, and he had kolinar. "Bless you," Jin muttered, taking the proferred cup.

His friend's ebony eyes shone with amusement, "I thought you might want some."

The brew was slightly bitter, but no more than he was used to. More importantly, the hot tea both eased pain and shoved the grogginess he still felt down to a tolerable level.

"You're going to scold me, aren't you?" Jin remarked.

Terran shook his head, chestnut hair brushing against his shoulders. "Enduring Turoc's unsteady hands is punishment enough, I believe."

They shared a smile over that one. Both had been under the Healer's touch before, and neither liked to repeat it.

"The Keeper was looking for you," Terran commented.

Jin glanced his way, eyebrows arched in question. The kolinar was definitely improving his mood. "Hmm?"

"Joran's father, you asked for that?"

"Aye."

"Renji. According to the records, why?"

Jin blinked in surprise and turned around. "Renji? Are you sure?"

"Aye. The Keeper checked twice to be certain, as it was you asking," Terran cocked his head, "You have my curiosity."

"Later. I'll explain later." He glanced at the cup in his hand. "Kor might like some kolinar, don't you think?"

"The Hybrid? I suppose so," Terran scowled slightly, "You know I hate when you change the subject."

"I didn't." Jin said no more, but went searching for the redhead. He wasn't angry, only puzzled.

When Jin spotted Kor, he was relived to see Layole with him. He had enough respect for the man that he had no desire to see him wounded or killed from old hatred.

"Good morning, Kor. A little early for you to be up, isn't it?"
"Morning?" Kor responded groggily. "Don't you mean afternoon?"

Jin handed him a mug of something with his good arm. "Kolinar. It'll help wash the last traces of Valla from your limbs. You'll have to ask Turoc what's in it, for I know not. And yes, I suppose it is afternoon. Forgive me, we keep an... unusual schedule, these days, but habits of speech die hard."

Kor grunted but nodded his thanks to the Fay-el, sipping from the warm but bitter liquid he'd been offered. He tasted the sweetness of kapa berries barely masking the tartness of anderberries and the bitterness of an extremely low dosage of Valla. In the background was a faint taste of something he could not identify; he'd have to ask the old Healer about it later.

They sat in silence for a while as Kor sipped slowly from the tea and Layole, Jin and the young warrior who'd accompanied Jin to the dead campfire sat a few feet away, talking amongst themeselves in low voices.

Kor, who was not in the best of moods, did not resent being ignored for the time being. He'd woken to the throb of a Valla hangover at his temples and the throb of the wound in his side. Even in the late afternoon sunlight and the small fire pit in the center of the Healer's tent, it had been cold, and after waking from his drugged sleep well over an hour earlier and failing to fall back asleep, he'd finally resigned himself to the sad fact that it was time to wake up.

When he'd finally emerged from the Healer's tent---dressing first in a set of worn but clean clothes the still-sleeping Healer had left out for him the night before---it had been late afternoon and Kor had been surprised to find that the majority of the camp was asleep and the campfires had long ago been stamped out. However, on reflection, it made sense; the tribe seemed to travel at night, and they had to rest sometime; during the day seemed as good a time as any, for at night they could travel unseen for hours at a time and at day it was just warm enough that they did not need the heat of campfires that would cast smoke into the sky and alert enemies to their presence.

Layole had already been awake when Kor had risen, but there'd been no others. Kor had noted, as he approached the fire where the second had waved him over, that Daliah had her own tent and was still asleep. Layole and Kor sat in silence for a few minutes, Layole preparing a few arrows and Kor carefully unwrapping the bandages about his side to check his wound before rewrapping it with some clean cloths the Healer had left out for him. The wound hurt, but the stitches were well placed and no signs of infection had developed in the eight or so hours Kor'd been asleep.

When Kor had nearly finished his tea and was beginning to feel much better, Jin extracted himself from his two companions and settled down at Kor's side. The redhead noted that he did not put any weight on his injured arm at all, but instead held it loosely at his side as he sat down.

"If you would like, I can check and rebind the wound before your Healer awakens," Kor offered with a wry smile. "I know I offered myself the same service. The man knows his art, but his is not a gentle touch!"

Jin chuckled. "Turoc likely will not awaken for another two hours, so there is time enough yet for that before he rises. I... would like you to meet someone today, later, when he wakes up. But first, I must begin making ready to depart. We have a long way to go tonight and much must be done before we set out in four hours."

Kor did not ask where they were going, for he doubted Jin would tell him. Instead---"Have you anything I might do? Between the two of us, we should be able to do the work of one man," he said wryly, touching his side and glancing at Jin's shoulder.
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"Wake up! Wake up! It's morning!"

Daliah rolled over and groaned, pressing her fists into her eyes. "Elam, what are you doing in my tent?"

He hopped next to her and held up his bow. "You promised, remember?"

"Oh, that's right." She froze as she recalled last night's events. How could she tell this boy she had to leave? Then she made the mistake of looking up at his hopeful face and she knew there was no way she could leave him.

---

"Good. Now make sure that the string will not strike your arm when you fire." Daliah adjusted his elbow as Elam focused on the target ahead. She did not want him to have to feel the pain of the bruise, or the slice of feathers on his hand.

Once he was in the proper stance, she signaled for him to fire. The arrow shot from his bow, landing a few feet short of the mark.

Elam pouted. "What did I do wrong?"

Daliah shook her head. "Nothing. You should have seen my first shot. I doubt if it even made it as far as yours."

His face lit up. "Really?"

She laughed. "Yes. You will be a master in no time. Now, I think it is time for breakfast. I can give you another lesson in the afternoon if you like."

He nodded and ran back to the camp, which was fairly busy by this time. She walked slower, and was not surprised to be joined by Layole.

"I see you chose to stay then." he mused, staring straight ahead.

"Yes." she replied equally distant. "He does not deserve to be abandoned.

"I just hope you know what you're doing."
With Kor's help, the two of them began the work of taking down tents and repacking the travois in preparation for the journey tonight.

Jin spotted Layole and Daliah walking together, talking in low voices. He had heard his second grumbling about the woman earlier, when he thought Jin was asleep. Though Sheno was married, and had three sons, Layole had never found a maiden for himself. It made Jin wonder...

He turned back to his work. It felt satisfying to be doing something common, rather than the constant pressure of his normal chieftain duties. Turoc checked on them once, but left them alone, shaking his head.

Jin was taking down his own tent when Kor's voice broke into his thoughts. "What's this?"

The redhead had been repacking Jin's travois, making sure Elam's new "toy" was unharmed in the move. Jin turned.

Kor had unwrapped the covering to his lola and was tapping the curved surface that was clearly visible. That was going to be hard to explain.

"A lola."

Kor's eyebrows arched. The Dragonian lyre most certainly could not be Elam's. "Yours?"

"Yes," He turned back to the tent, pulling the last stake free. Kor didn't let it drop.

" You have a lola?"

"Is there anything wrong with that?"

"No, but that's for...for-"

"Minstrels?" Jin half-turned to catch his gaze. "I trained to be one before...other things."

"Other things?"

Jin sighed and swiveled around to face him completely. "I am-was, a second son. My elder brother was chieftain, not I."

"He's dead." It was a statement, not a question.

Jin nodded. "The Eloin killed him in a massacre, with Hybrid help. You can see their touch on Elam, can't you?"
Kor grimaced. "How poorly men treat other men," he murmured. "Elam then is not yours by birth?"

Jin sighed heavily and turned away to carefully rewrap the lola in its waterproof sealskin cover. "No, but he should have been. It's... complicated. But it is no matter now; he is mine."

Kor nodded as he stared enviously after the instrument as it disappeared out of sight. He knew well how to play the lyre and longed to get his hands on a Dragonian version of the instrument, but all he'd been able to see of it was the shiny, well-oiled wood of one of the instrument's bowed arms.

"Know you how to play the lola?" Kor asked to lead the subject back to smoother terrain.

Jin snorted. "Later, if we have time and if I can convince my shoulder to cooperate, I'll show you."
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Daliah sat by the fire with a steaming cup in her hands. It did not matter to her what was in it, as long as it was hot. In the distance, she could see Elam showing one of the other children his bow.

"Be careful!" she shouted, before she could stop herself. Then she shook her head at her own foolishness. Jin was his parent, not her. But it made the hole in her heart ease some to say it.

The drink was sweet and comforting, and spread warmth throughout her body. After some bread, she was ready to work. Perhaps Jin and Kor could use her help.

She found them packing by the tents. With an inward groan of stiffness, she knelt beside them.

"What do you need of me?" she asked. "If your women try to dress me again, I cannot assure that all of them will make it safely."

Jin laughed and gestured to a pile of things to be bundled. She wrapped them carefully, surprised how fluid her fingers worked. That drink had done her incredible good. The sweetness that lingered on her tongue also sharpened her senses. It would have been well to have it in some of her earlier years.

Kor and Jin continued to talk amongst themselves. They seemed to enjoy each other's company. Maybe it would have been better if she hadn't come. She bent her head and began to hum softly. It was a song Gaharis claimed her mother used to sing to her, so she sang it often to keep any memory of her alive. She could not remember all of the words, so in times like this she just enjoyed the tune.

It might have been a song of history or of love. All she really knew of it was the lady in white. But it didn't matter. Either way, her mother sang it and so did she.
Jin recognized the song Daliah was humming, though he couldn't think of the words to it at the moment. His three-year training had taught him most of the Dragonian lays, though his apprenticeship had been cut short by Corin's death.

Whatever the song was, it seemed to have special meaning to the normally tough woman. She sang with a quiet revrence, as if remembering some other moment when she had heard it. The glint of tears suppressed was at the very edge of her eyes. A lullaby from her mother? A love song from her husband? Jin's curiousity was aroused, but not enough to disturb her private grief.

Layole appeared, stopping his musings. He led a prancing Doblo and Kor's hard-won chestnut. "This is all that is left," he said, gesturing to the belongings they were still packing. "The rest of the tribe is packed and ready."

"Good."

They finished quickly. Jin slid onto Doblo's back and then motioned for Kor to ride at his side. It was better than his "shadows" of late. Whether the redhead noticed or not, Jin did. Both the twins, Sheno and Layole, had been nearby at some point or another, and if not them, then Terran or another young warrior. With his injury, they weren't taking chances of a surprise attack when he probably would be unable to defend himself.

When he motioned the same to Daliah, she shook her head and lagged to the back of the line, riding beside Elam.

The tribe had done this several times before. They covered the miles quickly, a good day's journey, though traveled at night. By the tenth point, (five in the morning) as the sun gilded the edge of the sky, they stopped. Another three days like that and they would reach the Mara Desert. Within that was one tribe of Dragonians that no longer retained the same heritage. These were called the T'Ollo, and their Fay-el, Chrys, knew Jin well. Karli, Jin's former betrothed, was his younger sister.

They usually wintered there with him, in exchange for some of the tribesmen working in the marketplace Crossroads.

The tribe scattered out, setting up tents within a few minutes and starting a meal. Turoc was back, insisting they eat and let him check their wounds. Jin complied reluctantly.

After both being tended to and eating- Kor, Daliah, Layole, and he were sitting alone. Most of the tribe was asleep, but with their shift in schedule, none of them was tired.

A few moments passed in silence, and then Kor cleared his throat. "About that lola..."

Jin glanced his way, feeling Daliah's curious gaze. "I don't know the Aquila lays."

Kor waved his excuse away. "I'd like to hear something Dragonian anyway."

Layole had already hurried away and now returned with the carefully wrapped lyre. Pulling it free, he ran his fingers over the strings, tuning it again. Mindful of Daliah's seeming sadness earlier, he chose a slower tune. The deeper, haunting tone of the lola echoed around them.

Ah, Braewin, my heart singeth for thee.
Like gold lyre strings-so thou affecteth me.

But you're leaving, going so far away,
Across the sea, where night meets day.

It rends my soul; the sweet strings are broken,
Renewed by thy loving words soft spoken.
Return, my love, e're the call of the sea,
Or enemy's bow, forever take thee.
Lest the dew clinging to forests' green boughs,
The soft purity of mountains' first snow.
In lands afar, make you forget to care,
For I who pine- your maiden fair!

Return before stars fade to morn's first light.
May the silver moons show your path aright.
Then shall my soul 'round thine heart tightly wend,
Never parted shall we be, 'till the world's end


At the final chord, he glanced at Kor and Daliah to see their reaction.

Kor's eyebrows had risen nearly into his red hair with surprise, and then he began to laugh. "A fine song, Fay-el, a fine song indeed. Your skill does justice to your training. I must confess that the tune is not entirely new to me. We sing... another version of the song in Aquila. It is, however, somewhat... different." He chuckled, then nodded toward the lola. "If you would permit?"

"You play the lola?" Jin asked, handing the instrument to the redhead.

Kor stroked the strings lightly, then quickly tightened a peg at the top of the lola, humming a pitch quietly until the note matched his voice. "No," he said, his fingers working absently over a couple of chords. "But the lyre is one of my favorite instruments." He cleared his throat. "My uncle, who was a minstral long before I ever picked up my first fiddle, taught me this on. You'll find it... famliar," he said with a grin.

Kor's slim, agile fingers flew over the strings in a fast, lively introduction. Jin's eyes widened immediately in recognition; the tune was in major rather than minor, and far faster, with playful echoes, but it was, undoubtedly, the same tune he'd just played. Then Kor's robust, highly-trained baritone started in, and the Fay-el and the Dragonians settled back to listen.

"O Kainen, only for you I sing," said she.
Then-- "Branen, dearest love, only for thee!"
By morn and by eve two tunes did she play:
The Lover’s Reel, and the Lover’s Lay.

Ah di doo, ah di doo da deh!

"Ah, Branen, my heart sings only for thee.
As tawny lyre strings doth thou affect me.
So play me once; then twice, then thrice!
As the minstrel loves the lute, my flesh entice!"

Ah di doo, ah di doo da deh!

"Ah Kainen, love, my soul hums the sweet tune
Of thy soft caresses ‘neath the pale moon.
But you're leaving, going so far away,
Across the deep sea, where the night meets day."

Ah di doo, ah di doo da deh!

"In lands afar, thou shalt forget to care,
For I who pine- your maiden fair!"
From the bed she rose as the last chord fell
The Lover’s Reel ended and she said farewell.

Ah di doo, ah di doo da deh!

"Ah, Branen, my heart sings only for thee.
As tawny lyre strings doth thou affect me.
My soul round thine heart doth tightly wend
I am thine alone, 'till come the world's end!"


Kor flourished a little bow, and handed the instrument back to Jin.
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Daliah smiled and pulled out her flute, also feeling inspired to sing. She blew a phrase or two, then opened her mouth to sing. It was a song Gaharis used to sing, and she tried to translate it, but it still came out rough.

"Oh weary traveller, far from home
Child of the eastern sea
Tired one, you're not alone
For you have come to me

"Make your bed in the quiet stream
Lay your head in the glade
Some day you'll return to the eastern sea
But first you must learn your trade

"Run where the wild stallions roam
Fly with the birds of the air
Swim where the white fish make their home
And sleep in the caves of the bear

"Wrestle with the black haired wolves
Wear their teeth at your neck
Defeat the armies in darkest groves
And then you may go back"

She ended here and looked at them. "That is all I know. The rest is still in the old tongue, which I am still learning."

With a smile, she put the flute to her lips once more and blew a well known dragonian tune that everyone there knew. Their voices mixed well, which made the old song even more pleasing to her. After a while she stopped concentrating on her playing and just listened. It was beautiful, unlike any other music she had ever heard.
Jin played absently, letting his fingers wander as he watched the others. Daliah's gentle smile gave her an appealing softness. Kor was tapping out the rhythm with one hand. Layole's face was impassive, but he kept his eyes on Daliah.

"Well, it's been a while since I've heard you play," a voice broke in.

Jin swiveled his head. Terran smirked down at him. "Is something wrong?" Jin questioned.

His frown was small. "How can you always...?" he sighed, "Slightly. I'll let you know if they get any closer."

Eloin? Jin mouthed. Terran nodded and then continued, "You summoned Joran, I believe?"

"Aye. Where is he?"

Terran jerked his head. "There. Waiting for your permission."

"Tell him to come. I want him to meet someone."

"Kor?" At Jin's surprised look, he chuckled. "I'm not blind. I hope you know what you're doing."

As Joran stepped into view, Jin turned away, watching Kor.

Kor's mouth dropped open into one of his most inelegant expressions. To say that he was shocked would be an understatement. It was as though he were watching a younger, Dragonian version of himself walking toward him. Joran's approach was cautious, as though he weren't at all sure how to take this half-breed relative who'd suddenly dropped into his midst. Joran looked to be about twelve or thirteen years of age, and his eyes were gray, not pale blue like Kor's own and his hair was a subdued Dragonian black rather than bright red, but he was clearly, undoubtedly, Kor's brother.

Before the two brothers had a chance to speak, a woman pushed toward them, a young girl clinging to her skirts. And Joran looked like these, too, although far, far more like Kor.

"What's this, Fay-el?" the woman demanded. She pointed a finger toward Kor. "What's he doing here?"

"He looks like Daddy," the little girl said, but her lower lip was extended in a pout and after a few seconds she burst into tears.
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Daliah watched in confusion. Was Kor a part of this tribe. But watching his face, he didn't seem to know this. She realized that this was as new to him as it was to her. Oh, how she dreamed of this same moment for herself. How she dreamed of finding her family.

She snuck away from the cirlce. There was no way she could watch this and keep her composure. She went to Myna and sat next to her while she took up her knife and wood.

Finding a shape within the mass served to calm her. She didn't know what it would be yet. Perhaps another horse, perhaps not. Most of the time, she never knew until she was done.

Slowly, the body of a young maid revealed itself, arms open, hair blowing in the wind. It was often how she envisioned her mother.

She tossed it to the ground and kicked dirt over it. There was no use in wanting what she couldn't have.

Myna dropped her large head over her master's shoulder. Daliah stroked it while digging through her things for a treat, though the horse didn't look like she was deprived of food.

She brushed the mud from her coat while Myna ate. It fell away, as did her pain. The simple task drew her mind from her own problems. She savored it like a sweet and rubbed until her hide reflected the sun.

Then she was able to watch Kor and his family. Her heart still throbbed, yet it eased to see that he had a chance at repairing his past.

She felt a tug at her skirts and looked down to see Elam and a couple of his friends. She smiled, realizing that she, too, had that chance.
Jin had not intended for the entire family to come traisping in, but here they were.

Turina's sharp, amber glare jumped from him to Kor, narrowed with anger. The look suggested she wanted to lunge for and strangle them both, but she had not decided which. Jin didn't wait for her to decide.

"Turina, please," he tried to rest a soothing hand on her shoulder, but she moved out of his reach, throwing her head up with all the wildness of an unbroken filly.

"How dare you bring this...this Hybrid here!"

"I asked for the ruler of your family, not you. It is you who came without summons."

That did not calm her anger. She moved into his face, dark hair waving. It was Jin who took a quick step back. She hissed, "Do you have to bring up old hurts, pain that cannot be eased?"

"I do not believe Kor is after the few horses you retain. No one deserves to lose their family."

Turina's anger cooled some. He saw the fire drain out of her eyes. She knew of Elam. Turina glanced at Kor, who was still open-mouthed. "I don't want him staying in my home."

Jin sighed. "At least allow Joran to talk to him. I am curious how Renji crossed paths with-"

"Don't say it, please don't."

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"Will you teach us now?"

Daliah laughed kindly at the children's eager question, then glanced back at Jin and Kor. They were much too busy now to bother. She shook her hair back and fumbled for a string to tie it.

"I will teach you if Elam will share his bow." she responded.

The youths looked at Elam hopefully, and the boy graciously nodded his head.

"All right, I will teach you."

-----

Aletha leaned against the trunk of a tree, truly tired. Once every child was satisfied, it had taken all of the strength in her body. She sipped at her flask and sighed.

It was a comforting weariness.
Kor frowned. "Please daena," he said, using the Dragonian term for 'goodwoman' or 'ma'am', "Forgive me; it was not my intention to offend you or to bring up uncomfortable memories. This... comes as much as a surprise to me as it does to you. You are Renji's wife?"

"Am, was, and always will be," Turina said curtly, staring at him through dark, distrusting amber eyes.

"My father is dead," Joran explained softly, then corrected himself. "Our father. These two years past, he died fighting the Eloin."

Kor swallowed. "I am sorry for your loss. And, I must confess, mine as well; I would have liked to meet him. I never had the occassion to so much as see him my entire life."

Renji's widow looked somewhat more comfortable at that pronouncement. "He left before you can remember?"

Kor chuckled. "He left before I was born. I was... his way of saying thanks to my mother for her services as a healer. He was injured in a skirmish with the Eloin outside our village. My mother came across him, found him senseless, and brought him to her home to care for him until he was well enough to return home to you."

Turina shook her head slowly. "No, not to me. We had not yet been joined, then; Joran is the consummation of our marriage."

The teenage boy blushed hotly.
Jin could feel the tension of the moment softening. Kor's natural way of putting people at ease seemed to work even for the stubborn Turina.

Joran watched Kor with open curiosity. It was to be expected. Jin felt the same way at the moment, though he had learned enough patience to wait and find out in due time. For now, Turina would prevent any conversation.

Dropping his voice low, Jin pulled her aside and said, "If Joran is to pass Confirmation, you must allow him to lead."

She frowned at him, but let him lead her away from the small group. "How soon?" she asked.

Jin smiled lightly. A mother's heart. "A month, or less. I wish to reach the safety of Ratacca Korr first."

Turina nodded. Chrys' stronghold could hold out against siege and attack for months on end, and if the port was left open, years.

She stepped away and started to leave, but glanced back over her shoulder. "It's hard to let them go."

"Aye." He shifted away from her gaze. Elam was due for Confirmation as well.

With a shared smile of mutual understanding, they parted company. Someone cleared their throat a moment after she left. "Worried about Elam?" Terran said lightly, melting out of the shadows.

"I always worry about him."

"I know," he stepped closer, extending a scrap of parchment, "Chrys' messenger came a moment ago. I doubt he refused you but..."

Jin took it from him. The clear sigil of the T'Ollo, dark dragon attacking the tower of Bar-Katan, made it obvious whose it was.

"Now that's interesting," Terran muttered. Jin glanced at him, eyebrows arching. Terran gestured to his right. Jin followed the motion with his eyes.

Daliah rested against a tree, far from the rest of the camp. She seemed to be humming, though the sad cast of her face suggested it was not for happiness.

Jin frowned. He may not know what Kor and Joran were discussing, but he could certainly satisfy his curiousity, or at least some of it, with Daliah. He headed her way, ignoring Terran's chuckle.

"Daliah, are you all right?"

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Daliah swallowed her song and gazed at the sky.

"I tried so hard to avoid being weak." she whispered. "I told myself if I could be alone, there would be no reason for pain, no loved ones to be held against me."

She looked back at Jin. "But then I was here, and now I can't seem to leave. I don't want to my heart to break again. I'm not strong enough for that."

Her admission broke through the air, and she wished she could bite it back. She hated being seen like this.

Jin lowered himself to her level. "Why do you think it would break again?"

She shook her head and laughed a little. "There's no need to lie to me. I saw the sign. I know our chances."

He stiffened. "How could you see it? I just learned of it myself."

"I see many things. Well, not quite see, more feel or hear, as though someone were whispering them in my ear. Most times I cannot make sense of it, but seeing your face made it all clear."

She pulled her clothes away from her shoulder and showed him the jagged scar. "This was given to me almost twenty years ago. My parents knew what our enemy is searching for, and I know where we can find it."
Kor nodded to the campfire, then glanced at his brother. "Come. Sit and talk with me a while. I want to know who you are."

Joran looked a little uncomfortable, but he lowered himself to the ground to sit by his elder brother despite his uncertainty. Clearing his throat, he stared at Kor's bright red hair. "I don't know what to tell you," he said, his voice breaking halfway through, so that he sounded like a man at the beginning and a boy at the end.

Kor favored him with an easy smile. "How old are you?"

"I'm thirteen," Joran said.

Kor raised an eyebrow but said nothing. Joran should have passed Confirmation three years earlier, and yet his hair still hadn't been cut.

The child chuckled. "You are too polite to say anything, but I know what you're wondering, brother. I am two years from my Confirmation. I have no father or... or elder brother," and he blushed at that and stared at Kor, "to sponsor me, and so I must wait until Jin's son, Elam, has gone through his own Confirmation before Jin can sponsor mine. There is no dishonor in waiting and there is much honor in being sponsored by the Fay-el."

Kor did not offer to sponsor Joran if the child wanted; that would be presumptuous so early in their relationship, and besides, Kor was not himself Confirmed and so could not sponsor another's Confirmation. "I'm sure you will do the Fay-el proud," he said instead, "and, indeed, that you have already done him proud."
Jin hesitated. Daliah had fought at his side, seemed to be in tune with the Dragonian ways, but if she were an Eloin spy...

The risk was high. If the already powerful Eloin found it first, what hope his people retained would be lost. He could think on his own; he could see the danger. A year, two, and they would slaughter or assimilate every Dragonian. Those in the Mara, like Chrys' tribe, would be next.

Though he had not felt like sharing it with Kor, few Dragonians trusted the Aquila any longer. Karik, Sheno's uncle and a chieftain of his own tribe, would have killed the Aquila without question. The Aquila were seafarers; the Eloin owned almost three-fourth of the ports and harbors across the coastline. If the Aquila did rebel, they would starve. Few bothered beyond that.

Jin glanced at Daliah. "You know where to find it? What are we searching for?"

Her eyes narrowed. "You don't trust me."

"No, I don't."

She straightened and stepped away from him. Her stance was more of the warrior at attention now. "And if I said I didn't trust you?"

Jin shrugged, "We would be on equal terms. Where is it?"

Daliah shook her head, a grim smile on her face. "I don't think I should share it with you. Who knows what you would do?"

Clenching his teeth, he stepped closer. "Crescent-blinded woman! This is foolishness."

"Be that as it may, you cannot force me to do anything. No Dragonian would torture, unless his senses have truly left him."

Jin scowled. She was right. Daliah grinned in victory. Now what? He had never been witty, one who did well in a debate. Give him a quill and parchment and he could make a scribe envious; a lute or lyre and he could express what he wished. But this, his mind was still scrambling for a response. To save face, he turned away from her. "Go then. I'll find it on my own, without help from a bloody, star-bred woman."

He popped the seal on Chrys' message, scanning it hurriedly. Daliah sighed behind him. He heard her shift her weight in the loose leaves. Sigh again. She rested a hand on his shoulder, and he stiffened. "You're stubborn, you know that?"

She pulled away. By the time he had schooled his expression into an angry growl and spun, Daliah had glided away, on silent feet that even a warrior would have longed for. That...that woman!

Chrys' message was simple and to the point.

Jin son of Turin

May the Star shine on thee and your house. You may come to Shinar, if you wish, but I must warn you. Eloin prowl still, especially in Eastar, where you will journey. If you must come to me, come through Kaama Forest, then to Crossroads before coming to Ratacca Korr. Beware the Derk-ra. The Star bless thee and guide thee in thy paths.

Chrys, son of Endry.


Jin grimaced. Derk-ra were dangerous creatures that roamed the Mara Desert, searching for prey. The wolf-sized lizards could disembowel a deer with their talons, crush a windpipe with their fangs, and ran as swiftly as a horse. He hoped dearly they would not cross any pack of them while traveling through the Mara.

At least they would be safe in Ratacca Korr from both Eloin and the Derk-ra. Someone coughed. Jin whirled. Terran eyed him, grinning again. "You're not paying attention to your surroundings. I could have killed you."

Jin scowled. "In the midst of the camp?"

"Don't scoff. Assassins can still roam here in tribesman garb."

Jin turned away. "I am not in the mood for a lecture."

"And I am not in the mood to give one. Two scouts have returned, one wounded. They had a skirmish with an Eloin company."

Jin whirled. "How soon?"

"I don't know. They said they were moving fast."

Frowning, Jin snapped, "Alert the tribe again. We'll have to move in the day, rather than rest."

With that, he darted for the horse lines. Not again, please not again





A Non-Existent User
Daliah had learned how to pack a camp long ago, but even she felt sluggish when the news was urgent. She joined the scurry by dousing the fire and loading Myna with supplies. The others were surprisingly quick, and it was barely a quarter hour before they were ready to leave.

Jin was toward the front, so she hung behind. She would wait for him to make the first move. After all, he had much more at stake, and would surely realize that soon.

She adjusted the strap of her pack, beginning to feel even the smallest weight of the arrows under the stress. These years of running were taking their toll. With a sigh, she kicked Myna's side, easing her up behind the others. She did not want to stray when she was carrying their belongings.

She pulled out her knife, somewhat assured by the feeling of cold steel between her fingers.

"By the light of the stars..." she whispered to herself. "Before the full moon rises."

It struck her then that there was no time for her to give into Jin's games. She looked at those around her. No, she could not let them suffer.

She broke Myna into a trot and pulled up beside him, though she neither spoke nor looked at him for several minutes.

"I shall grant you this favor for your people's protection. But you must trust me, and it must be tonight."
Nudging his borrowed horse gently with his knee, Kor made to join Jin and Daliah. Layole, at the Fay-el's side, jerked slightly as he sensed the other's approach, but relaxed somewhat when he noticed it was just Kor.

Talen, on the other hand, wasn't so trusting. Conversing in a small knot of armed Dragonian men, the young warrior broke away from his fellows with a dark scowl as he spotted Kor's approach. That scowl warped into a sneer as he reined his horse to block the Hybrid's path. "You are not a tribesman. You do not get to have access to the Fay-el whenever you blazing well---"

The words died on his lips as his gaze fell upon Joran, who approached on horseback at Kor's shoulder. The warrior's eyes widened as his gaze flickered from between the two brothers. "You... um."

"Am I to ride at your side today, Sair?" Joran interruped, addressing the Dragonian as "Mentor" as he came to a stop side-to-side with Kor. The boy was young, but his cool gray gaze was as wise and unyielding as stone. Kor saw something of the Fay-el in his little brother, noting the way the youngster masked watchfulness behind calm impassiveness.

"I... yes," Talen said, clearing his throat. Suddenly he was all business. "Although if we encounter the enemy, you are to come no closer to battle than bow range. Have you your shortbow?"

Joran lifted the weapon to show his instructor.

"Keep it on hand always. But heed well my words. Your Father would not approve of disobedience." Again his eyes shifted from Joran to Kor, and then he turned his horse's head and returned to the other young warriors.

Joran turned his steel gaze to his brother. "Talen is wary of outsiders, but he is a good man and a fine warrior."

Kor grunted. "I'm sure he is," he said, unconvinced. With a brief nod to his little brother, he approached Jin and the others.

"Where are we going, Fay-el? And think you can fight with that arm if need be?" He himself wasn't so sure he was ready to weild a blade, but if the Fay-el could do it, so could he, he decided.
Daliah had withdrawn at Kor’s approach. Though Jin dearly wanted to question her further, he cut himself off and flicked a glance at the Hybrid. It took him a minute to smooth the irritation off his face and out of his tone. “What?”

Kor repeated his question. Jin gave him a sidelong glance, “The Mara.”

As he had expected, the Hybrid’s eyebrows arched. “The desert?” When Jin nodded, “Eppa’s balls, Jin. Have you any idea how dangerous that is?”

“Aye,” he cocked his head, “I have scars from a Derk-ra.”

Kor frowned, “I did not mean them, though they alone are worth concern. Even among the Aquila, we know of the T’Ollo. They are more deadly than any of the Derk-ra, be the man Eloin or Dragonian.”

Jin allowed himself to smile slightly. “I know. Their Fay-el has killed more men than the number of my tribe. And his loquiri, even more.”

“Loquiri?”

Ah, a Dragonian word he doesn’t know? “Ask Joran. If he has listened to his lessons, he can explain.” Jin was not in the mood to give lessons, “The eastern province of the Mara is a day’s journey from us. Eastar, as it is called. We will camp at the edge of the desert tonight, with a tight watch for Derk-ra, and then cross in the early morning, while it is cool.” Jin smiled, “I doubt we will get far before the Border Guards spot us. Chrys is expecting me.”

“Chrys?”

“The T’Ollo Fay-el. His sister was my betrothed.”

Before Kor could ask him yet another question, Layole tapped his shoulder lightly. “Jin, a scout brought word.”

Jin turned to face him. Kor muttered under his breath for a second. The Hybrid obviously did not like to be ignored. But after a moment, he retreated to Joran’s side. Layole nudged his horse closer to Jin’s side once Kor had left. “There is much of you in him,” the twin commented.

“Joran? I should hope so.”

Layole handed him the missive, a smile quirking the edge of his mouth. “I was speaking of Kor.”

Jin scowled at him, but Layole feigned disinterest and returned to his place. He tucked the missive away for now. If it were good news, he would not slow the tribe. If it were bad, they were already driving hard. Neither option was worth considering until midday, when they reached Kaama Forest at the edge of the Mara.

Tonight, if all went well, he would be with Daliah. He hoped to bring something valuable to Chrys, if possible. Not that he wouldn't use it for himself as well. But, the last time he had seen Chrys was shortly after his sister's death. The T'Ollo were not known for calm, level thinking. If the sight of Elam, who resembled his mother strongly, didn't keep the Fay-el calm; the prize Daliah was promising, might do just as well. Jin certainly hoped so.
When the tribe pressed out again, their pace was much swifter than it had been before, and the number of warriors on watch at the outskirts of the ragged band had doubled. Kor, not yet trusted, yet also too capable a fighter to ride among the women and children, rode with the off-duty warriors.

Whereas earlier this bunch may have been willing to allow some of their hostility toward the obvious Hybrid to melt through conversation or after hearing the charismatic young man sing, now, on the other hand, all was tense. The others did not speak ill of Kor, except perhaps in hushed whispers he could not hear, but neither did they talk to him, and most chose to ride somewhat away from him, to the side or a few steps behind, so that they could watch him to be sure he would not sneak up on the Fay-el.

Kor was of course somewhat dismayed, but not overly surprised or offended. This was a group threatened on all sides by outsiders. It was not only reasonable that they should fear others, but in all honesty, it was also perhaps the healthiest, safest way of acting.

Still, it made for a cold, lonely ride, as Joran was kept near the center of the tribe with his mother, sister and the other noncombatants, and Jin stayed with his warriors and that demon-woman Daliah, who occassionally whispered to the Fay-el, who would nod curtly and then, only when she wasn't looking stare with some hope off toward the horizon.
Jin breathed a sigh of relief when they passed under the arching branches of Kaama Forest. Save the occassional rogue Hybrid, few would tarry this close to the Mara. The risk of Derk-ra and T'Ollo raiders, each a danger in their own right, assured that.

With the fast-paced ride, few arguments would break out tonight. Most of the tribe were too tired to bother. Two fires were lit, one farther out than the other. The latter would keep the Derk-ra packs from coming too close. Usually.

The preparations for night were done quickly, and with little sound. Some warriors left, returning with a handful of rabbits and a deer from the forest. The women dispatched them into a meal easily.

Satisfied that everything was going well, Jin retreated from the tribe. He lost his shadow in the forest with some artful backtracking and a shinny up a tree. The man soon tired of wandering alone and headed back to the camp.

Jin dropped down again and tramped off. He wanted to be alone for a while. Terran, Layole, and maybe Joran knew of the little clearing, but it was unlikely they would bother him.

A willow drooped over a small stream, trailing thin fingers in the water. Clumps of bushes broke up the otherwise flat plain of grass, smothered between trees. A deer darted away when he stepped into the open.

Jin smiled. Quiet. No squabbles; no Others. Sometimes, he brought the lola, if he had time. But Daliah would need him at midnight. She had whispered something about supplies and when they should leave, before hurring away. Jin settled himself on the ground beside the stream.

No, not religious, but he still prayed somewhat. Best to appease the Triad as he could. He nicked his wrist, and rubbed his thumb across the oozing wound. Then, he touched the blood to the crystal that he wore, the willow's trunk, and then the water, (the proper order) before muttering the creed absently.

Kyda, Kree, noble Kratan
We praise and plead, divine Three
Bless and guard those in need
Blood of war, land and sea.


Jin waited. No wondrous visions, but no deadly vipers either. Must not have offended them then.

He slid the missive from its hiding place and popped the seal. The scout was barely literate, but Jin could make sense of his writing. The Eloin were still behind them, but their fast pace had left them behind. For now. With women and children, they often slowed to a crawl. But the Eloin never crossed into the Mara. Those that did rarely returned. If the tribe could last the night without a Derk-ra attack, they could pass into the relative safety of the desert.

The night was suddenly silent. Jin glanced up at the moons first. Not midnight yet. He glanced over the woods. Had his shadow caught up with him finally? Tucking the missive away again, he stood. The janin was still on Doblo, safely wrapped against the blowing sands soon to come. But he slipped his dagger free, curling his hand back to keep the glint of the blade from showing.

Another quick glance. No, nothing dangerous. He relaxed, staring at the figure vainly trying to stand still. "I see you. You might as well come out."
A Non-Existent User
Daliah sat before the fire, desperately trying to keep warm. Though she spent her life in the outdoors, the night held an unusually bitter chill.

With a sigh, she stood and shook her leg, trying to keep her blood flowing. Despite the fire's warmth, she retreated to the closeness of the trees. Tonight she needed to be alone with her thoughts and the serenity of nature.

The moon looked so beautiful over the water. She smiled and walked on, trying to remember the exact clearing she had been told to find. It had been so long ago.

She closed her eyes and stopped, then spun around. It was a trick Galahad had shown her. Once she opened her eyes again, she saw what she was looking for.

The tree stood alone, as she remembered it, but it seemed smaller as she had grown. She strode toward it with purpose, holding her breath until it hurt.

The ground was nearly frozen and covered with roots, making it impossible to dig with just her fingers. She unsheathed her dagger and hacked through it steadily. The soft dirt was revealed after just a few minutes, its smell and texture comforting.

Her hands worked greedily, eager to be moving again. She pushed the dirt aside, forming a small pile on the grass. After another twenty minutes, her fingers struck bronze molding.

She pulled it out and dusted it lovingly with her sleeve. The leafy pattern began to shine, bringing a smile to her face.

Galahad's journal.

It wasn't as much a journal as letters to her. Letters she wasn't allowed to read until now, when she needed them. Emotion choked her, and a tear spilled onto the cover as clasped a hand around her necklace. She snapped it from her neck and pulled the ring from its chain. It fit perfectly into the groove. She gently pushed it in until she heard it click.

She wasn't sure why, but she held her breath as the bundle of papers fell into her lap. Her heart pounded as she cut through the string and searched for the letter she needed. It was somewhat difficult, since there were so many, but she discovered it about halfway through the stack.

She tucked it into her pocket and was about to return the rest when she noticed some unfamiliar script. Confused, she took it out and held it up to the light.

"My dearest angel", it read. "If you are reading this, than the rebellion has begun and I am most likely dead. Most likely Galahad has limited your knowledge for your own protection. I cannot say I would do differently, for the story is a terrible one.

"I cannot tell me how it breaks my heart to see you go. You are still so young, but I already see so much of your mother in you. I only wish we had more time together, and that you would have some memory of me, and your life here..."

Daliah hurriedly tucked the letter away. She did not want to be seen crying, as she knew the hand this was written in.

Her father's.
As Kor's second evening with the Dragonians descended into night, the Hybrid was so exhausted from nearly twenty-four hours of almost nonstop riding---the meager two hours of sadly-interrupted early-morning camping over twelve hours ago had done little to ease anyone's fatigue---that he did not even hear the footsteps approaching from behind him.

"It grows dark," Turoc's slow, unsteady voice said behind him.

"That it does, when it is night," Kor agreed wearily.

The healer settled down at Kor's side beside the campfire. "It is the eighth point of night. Normally we would be packing up camp now and beginning to ride, but our flight has turned everything on its head and it is now time to sleep."

Kor understood what Turoc was suggesting, but was strangely too tired to draw himself up and find a place to sleep. Instead, he raised an eyebrow. "I should think our flight merely set things to right, for it is not backwards to sleep at night."

Turoc grinned, displaying missing teeth in a wizened face. "Aye, you speak truth. It has been months since the people of Shinar have had the opportunity to live as men should. We have become people of the night, sleeping when others wake and waking when others rest. But now, as you say, our flight has set things to rights. And you should sleep. I can give you a measure of Valla tea after I check your wound, if you think it will be difficult for you to sleep at night after having slept at day."

Kor nodded. "Ah no, I should be able to sleep without difficulty. I am not accustomed to staying up all night, as your people are. I shall rest soon, I merely wished to think a bit. These past couple of days have been... eventful."

"Ah yes," Turoc said slowly. "You have met your brother, or so I hear."

"And that changes everything," Kor said. "I must decide, soon, what I wish to do. I want to come to know my brother, but... I am not Dragonian, and I am not welcome here, during your people's time of trouble. The time will come, soon, for me to leave, I think."

Turoc cleared his throat roughly of some obstruction. "Well, you have some time, yet, to think on these things and decide, for I wll not allow you to leave until another full day and night have passed. Speaking of which, I must tend to your wound, and those of the Fay-el and that valorous woman as well. You first, then, and then will you fetch them for me? My back is not as it used to be and searching for warriors in the woods is not easy for me anymore..."
Jin couldn't hide his surprise. He had expected Elam, or even Layole. But Daliah?

She looked as surprised as he. Jin sheathed the dagger, striding closer. "How did you manage to find me?"

He saw her tucking a book away from the corner of his eye, but kept his face impassive. Curiosity rose at the sight, however. Something of special importance was bound, rather than carted about in loose scrolls. Daliah shook her head. "I was not searching for you. It seems you found me."

"Oh?" Jin's eyes narrowed. "Why were you wandering here?"

"Do you not trust me?"

He studied her face. "Not completely."

Daliah's features remained impassive, but the edge of her mouth quirked with a suppressed smile. Must have said something right. She cocked her head at him. "I have my reasons to be in the forest. None of which I need to explain to you."

Jin dug his nails into his palms, but kept his temper in check. "At midnight, then?"

She nodded. Spinning on her heel, she disappeared into the trees without a sound. Jin stared after her. Even Elam had not mastered that yet. When someone cleared their throat behind him, Jin whirled, bringing the dagger up. He halted it a few feet from Kor's widening eyes.

"Bloody...crescent-blinded...Stars and Crescents!" He flipped the blade around, shoving it into the forearm sheath. "Kor, how did you find me?"

Jin rubbed at his aching wrist, his irritation flaring. "I suppose you were not searching for me either?"
A Non-Existent User
Daliah rubbed a tear from her eye as she walked back to the camp. But as she heard the laughter and felt the warmth, she retreated back to the shade. She felt more comfort in the cold. The wind picked up and pulled her hair back, drying any sign of emotion from her face.

She longed to read the rest of the letter, yet also wished she had never begun it. It brought memories and feelings she had tried so hard to forget.

Layole suddenly appeared at her side. Either he was lighter of foot than she thought, or she had become so consumed with her thoughts that she had not heard him.

"Every time I look your way, you are alone." He said it simply, without judgement or question. She felt relieved, but also that there was a silent curiousity that required explanation. She decided to grant it to him. He did not ask much of her.

"I never felt the need to surround myself with people. Horses are more honest, and they do not require..."

"Commitment?" He finished.

Daliah closed her mouth and turned away. He knew her truth though she would never admit it.

Layole sighed. "Just answer me one question, and I promise to leave you alone."

She nodded, giving her consent.

"Why do you refuse to love? There are many in the world that are not as evil as you say. What was so terrible that you live alone?"

She prepared her tongue to lie, but it refused her orders. "Every person I have ever loved has either died or left. I am so tired, my heart cannot take it."

He shook his head. "You kept your end of the bargain, now I shall keep mine." He bowed slightly and moved to walk back to the camp.

She bit her lip as she left, fighting the feeling that she wanted him to stay. But perhaps she was ready to risk her heart one last time.

"Wait." She called softly, closing her eyes in disbelief.

"Yes?" He turned, a strange look crossing his face.

"You were wrong before." She took a timid step closer, afraid for the first time in many years. "I do love someone."

He smiled slightly. "He is a lucky man."

"I am afraid not. I fear my love would never satisfy such a heart."

"Why is that?"

She did not fight the tears this time, though clenched her fists until her nails cut her palms. "He is so much stronger than I in every way. I do not think even his love can overcome my faults, though I desperately hope it can."

He stepped closer this time, until she could smell the horses and leather burned into his skin. "Perhaps it might."

"Then I have one more confession."

"What is that?"

"I love you."
"I... um..."

Kor felt somewhat unbalanced for the first time in a while. Maybe it was just that he was exhausted. Maybe it was that that demon-blasted healer had just picked free and replaced a single suture that had torn loose during the day's riding. Maybe it was that the Jin suddenly seemed so strangely ill-tempered for such a rock-calm man. Or maybe it was just that the Fay-el had nearly just taken out his eye with a knife.

Whatever the reason, for a moment Kor forgot what he'd come out into the woods to say, and when he did remember a breath later, he felt less than inclined to share the message he'd been sent to pass on in a normal, business-like fashion.

"Well," he said with a flippant gesture at a nearby oak, "It had been my intention to water the tree here, but then I saw you and thought it would be impolite to water your boots as well."

Jin's eyes were narrowed, hardly in the mood for the Hybrid's evening antics. The Fay-el looked tired too, and more than a little distracted. "I am busy Kor, and this is rather far out into the woods to come for a piss. Now how did you find me, and what do you want?"

Kor sighed. "Aquila born, remember? I followed my nose to the water, and followed the water to you. And it is not I who wants, but Turoc. He, and possibly his wicked needle, seek you," the redhead explained, rubbing ruefully at his freshly bandaged side.

Jin grumbled a halfhearted curse under his breath, but seemed more irritated than concerned about the healer's plans for him. "I'd best go to him, then. Turoc is an old man, and like many old man prefers to seek his bed at the earliest possible opportunity once we make camp. If I make him wait, I'll never hear the end of it."

Nodding absently, Kor stared down at the reflection of the moon wavering in the slowly moving stream. "Do you mind if I linger for a while in this little haven of yours while you are gone? I could use a few moments of quiet and solitude before I seek my own bed, and this seems as fine a spot as any."

Jin, already walking away back toward the camp, turned for a moment to regard the Hybrid over his shoulder with narrowed eyes. Kor could not tell if it was distrust he saw there, irritation about being addressed yet again, or a simple reluctance to share this scenic little spot with others, but he drew back a half step at that look.

"Or, I suppose I could go elsewhere," Kor said uncomfortably.
Yet again, he had failed the First Tenet. He seemed to be doing a lot more of that. Jin sighed. "Forgive me, Kor. I should not treat you so, no matter my temperament."

The Hybrid shrugged, but kept his saucy comments to himself for once. Jin turned away, crossing his arms over his chest. He stared at the dark wood. "You may tarry here, if you wish. But I warn you, this far from the campfires, Derk-ra roam." He glanced back over his shoulder. "No sentry is close enough to help you. I do not wish to lose..." he hesitated, and then finished hurriedly, "...to lose a man foolishly."

Kor grinned. "Even a Hybrid?"

Jin held his gaze. "Especially so." He swiveled, ducking into the trees before Kor could question him further. How did that man manage to coax things out of him? He had came that close to asking him to stay. He's just a Hybrid.

Jin frowned. And he was lying to himself. There was more to it than that. He hurried through the wood, shoving the clinging branches aside with reckless abandon. Once his anger cooled, mostly directed at himself, his pace slowed. The grass did not bend; the leaves did not crackle.

A sentry started when he glided past the man, unheard until the last instant. Jin grinned, and then forced it under again. It helped to remind the tribe he was chieftain in more than bloodlines. The less challenges he had to deal with, the better.

"A little late to be wandering, isn't it?"

Jin jumped, whirling. Terran's burly form flowed out of the grass. Even in the flickering gleam of the campfires, he could see Terran's smirk. Jin scowled at him, though he couldn't see it with Jin's back to the fire. "It is unwise to sneak up on a chieftain."

"It is far more unwise for the chieftain to allow it."

In a battle of sharp comments, Terran would beat him every time. Jin turned away. "And you stayed up this late, just to scold me?"

"No. Turoc sent me after you. It seems he thought you wouldn't listen to Kor."

"I am not a child to be fetched at will," Jin growled.

"You're certainly acting like one."

Jin whirled on him, but Terran didn't back down. No amount of bluffing would cause that, which they both knew very well. His friend spoke again, "You have no intention of going to Turoc."

"That is untrue."

"It is you who is being untrue. I know you too well. That wound will turn into another battle scar, another reminder that the chieftain is invulnerable. It's not a risk you should take."

"Terran, I choose what risks I wish to take."

He moved closer. "Can't you take a little advice?"

"No, I can't," he snapped.

In the distance, the sentry of before stiffened and then relaxed again. Kor. Jin flicked Terran a glare. "I do not wish to discuss this tonight."

"By morning, it won't matter."

"I do not want to discuss this."

Terran leaned into his face, squinting. Jin backed up, aware of footsteps coming closer. "What?"

Terran shook his head. "I could have sworn your hair was uncut." And then turned on his heel and left him there, the insult ringing in his ears.

Jin clenched his fists and swallowed the hot words in his mind. He saw motion out of the corner of his eye. When he turned, it was Kor, yet again, who stood there. He had almost certainly heard the insult from Terran.

"What do you want now?" he snapped.

Kor hesitated, for obvious reasons. Jin was too irritated to care. "What is it? Speak."
A Non-Existent User
Daliah pulled away from Layole, holding up the letter.

"I promised Jin I would give this to him."

He nodded and let her go without complaint. She was grateful for that. Her heart was already pounding with the night of searching that lay ahead.

As she neared him, Jin seemed to be speaking with Kor. She considered waiting, debating the urgency of the matter, but realized that the time was already drawing near. With a deep breath, she walked over and handed the creased paper to him.

He opened it and began to read, his brow furrowing as he did. There was silence for a moment, and Kor began to look uneasy.

"I should go." he muttered, already turning.

"No." Daliah realized the was one of the first words she spoke to him. "Stay a moment. Now, tell me. In your upbringing, were you ever taught to track?"

"Do you mean deer or hare?"

"Not entirely. Did you learn of the Ugama?"

Kor's eyes widened. "Are you serious? Do you know what you're suggesting?"

"Yes." she smiled. "But what is life without danger now and then?"
"Depends on the danger," Kor quipped. "Too dangerous and life isn't life at all, it's death." Still, he smiled, and that smile grew increasingly wider as he contemplated her idea. "Then again, if one has to die, why not die in an inferno of dragon's breath?"

"Dragon?" Daliah asked.

Kor shrugged. "Dragons, drakes, wyverns, wyrms... all words my people use to refer to the Ugama."

Jin was frowning and his eyes were narrowed. "How do you propose we actually catch a Gama?" He jutted his chin at his own shoulder, then at Kor, indicating their relative bandages.

Daliah shrugged. "The same way anyone does. Find her first, then proceed from there."

"It's the 'from there' that concerns me," Jin pointed out. "An angry Gama is no trivial opponent. Many a skillful warrior has been snapped in half and cast aside like so much refuse, and might I remind you both that Kor and I are mending, but hardly at our full capacity?"

Kor twisted his torso experimentally. "I don't think I could tangle with one now. But in a couple days, maybe... It'd hurt, but it wouldn't stop me. But as Daliah said, we have to find a Gama first, before we can try our hands at taming her."

"You don't tame a Gama," Jin snapped. "You... persuade... her to do what you want. Many men have died trying. This sounds like a foolhardy plan."

Kor chuckled and grinned broadly. "Which is why it's likely to work! If we survive, I'll write a song. How about that?"

"Are you so eager to seek an early grave?" Jin growled. "By the Stars, you crescent-blinded maniac, your brashness is going to get you killed! And you," he hissed, rounding on Daliah, "Might I remind you that you've a child depending on you? Why rush off to get yourself killed? Surely you've a more sensible idea than this!"

Daliah bit her lip a bit. "It's dangerous, yes, but it is by far the most sensible way to go about this, and I'll tell you why..."
Jin tuned out most of Daliah's explanation, but did not interrupt. Kor needed to know the reasoning she had explained earlier. The idea of tracking and persuading a Ugama was not foreign to him.

His mother had been spurred into early labor from the attack by one, in revenge for the hatchling his father had killed. He had been christened in honor of th event. Jin-El, "fiery one" in Dragonian, changed to "dragon" if you spoke the tongue of the Mara. There was a time when those of the Mara and Dragonian were one people.

Jin cocked his head, listening to the conversation, before breaking into it. "Enough. Even if we knew where the Ugama lurked, none of us are in a condition worthy of that beast. Nor would I abandon my tribe just yet. Once we journey through Dike Pass and reach Crossroads, perhaps. The Guild might help us."

At mention of the Guild, Daliah's brow furrowed, her eyes narrowing in obvious distrust and anger. Kor's blank expression suggested he, on the other hand, did not know of them. "The Guild?"

Jin shrugged. Years of kidnapping, murder, and intrigue could not be summed up in a few sentences. "A sect of the T'Ollo, desert people, that we do not wish to cross." He smiled crookedly. "You've never been to the Mara, have you?"

Kor shook his head. Jin dropped his voice into a hushed whisper. Even now, he could hear his old teacher, a bard he had apprenticed too, reminding of atmosphere. A good tale had plenty of that. "It's a vast sea of sand and rock, where the only life is a Derk-ra hungry for your flesh. Harsh wind peels the skin from your face, while the sun sears the rest of you. No water. Not for miles and miles. Do you know what they do to intruders?"

"I don't think I want to know."

Jin didn't pause. "They strip him, stake the unfortunate man spread-eagle on the burning sand. And place bets on which will get him first: Derk-ra or the sun."

Kor's face paled. "Why..." his voice cracked. He swallowed and tried again. "Why take the tribe there then?"

"Chrys, the reigning Fay-el, is my kin. The leader of the Border Guards in Eastar, Ravin, knows me and grants us passage to Ratacca Korr. Though if I told him one of mine were traitor..." he flicked a glance at Kor, leaving the threat unfinished. Not that he distrusted the Hybrid. It was the reaction he wanted to see.

Kor's eyes narrowed, hands clenching into fists. "Bloody, arrogant....after all I've done, and said, my lineage--" He took a menacing step closer, and Daliah stepped between them.

"Mule-brained men!" She snapped. "This is not the time to fight." She glared at Kor. "I have heard you sing and play. You have some minstrel training. There are lays from the desert, are there not?"

"Aye, but--"

"So use your mind for more than gutting enemies! What do they say of the Mara, and Ugama?"

Before he could answer, she had whirled on Jin. "You're trying to frighten him, you crescent-blinded, Eyrie-spawned thorla." Jin flinced at the last one. The term "thorla" had been used several times in his presence, in reference to Elam. He had grown to hate it.

Her expression softened, somewhat, but it didn't curb her tongue. He quickly felt like a child caught with stolen sweets. His patience only stretched so far. "Enough."

She quieted, though fire still glinted in her eyes. "Bloody Ajin-sty"

Kor chuckled under his breath. Spit-fire was definitely the proper term for her. Daliah didn't catch it, though her sharp glares at them both suggested she would puzzle it out later. Jin cooled his temper. With the right words from her, Layole could make him miserable for many days to come. Slipping cinnamon into his food, waking him at odd hours of the night, insisting on old traditions...Jin grimaced. Layole as an enemy would be very bad indeed. He forced a smile. "If I offended, Daliah, please forgive me. I was only testing his mettle." He flicked a glance at Kor.

The Hybrid's eternal optimisim had cleared his features into that same, easy grin that seemed permanently drawn on his face. Infuriating....but reliable as the sunrise. Jin cocked his head at the distant camp. "We can speak more, later. For now, we all need our rest."

She looked like she was going to argue, then turned away. Layole's distant figure must have helped matters. Jin wondered idly how long she would sleep alone, before turning back to Kor. The Hybrid had already began to head in Daliah's direction.

"Kor, there is one other question."

He paused, glancing quizzically over his shoulder. "What would that be?"

Jin ignored the cocky retort. "Tracking the Ugama is a fine goal, but there is one thing that must be settled first. Will you be with us through the Mara? Do you wish to remain with your...captor?"

A Non-Existent User
Daliah grew sick of the fighting and hurled a stone into the lake, upseting the sleeping fish. Men that were usually so eager for decision were now arguing like children. She knew that she was far from rational, but perhaps a sound word from her would shock them into silence.

Moments passed and still they argued. She tried to figure out what might end it, despite her urge for a good fight. They needed to conserve energy for the road ahead. Insults would only aggravate the matter. Her only hope was a gentle word.

She turned around, her hair falling over her right eye. "Night is falling fast. Jin, you may want to get back to your son."

He could not hide the surprise in his expression. Her voice had never been that calm.

She returned her gaze to the lake and crossed her arms. He should return to his son if they did not reach a decision soon, for there would not be time left. Hopefully he would realize this on his own. She did not care to explain it.

Though she could not see them, she knew the men were frozen in place. Such was the power of sudden change.

Yet, for once, she did not enjoy her victory. Her heart ached with the thought of subjecting these people to the trials ahead. Yes, she too knew the conflict they faced. But she knew that this was necessary in the long run.

She sighed and walked back to them. "If you continue to argue, your people may not have a sunrise to wake to. Surely you have noticed that the nights are longer and the moon is fading. This is not the time for games, and I will not be a part of it. I will leave with or without you."

Jin seemed confused, yet refused to admit it. "You always have the passion for an argument. Are you so imbalanced?"

The question may or may not have been an insult, but she took it as one. She was too tired to look for the meaning behind it.

She pulled her sword carefully from her sheath, pointing it away so that they knew it wasn't a threat. "I have already seen a country destroyed by men's folly. I will not stand to see another."

Then she left them to sort out her words while she tried to rest at least a little before morning came. By the look of the sky, though, she had a long time to wait.
Kor cleared his throat awkwardly to clear the uncomfortable silence left in the wake of Daliah's scolding. Jin, who a moment before had been scowling in the direction in which the demon-blessed woman had stalked off, sighed heavily and turned stiffly to look over his shoulder at the redhead with a raised eyebrow.

"She's right, you know," Kor pointed out airily with a little wave of his hand.

The Fay-el's frown deepened and flat words fell like stones from his lips. "She speaks of matters which are not her concern."

Kor chuckled and clucked his tongue mildly. "Now now, Fay-el, you yourself named her Ajin-sty! You know well that she is not the sort to be confined to a traditional woman's role. Besides, woman or not, her words were wisdom, whether you want to admit it or not. Although, I'll admit, having her scold us like two little boys still clinging to our mothers' skirts was not a particularly pleasant experience." His grin suggested he didn't actually have any such discomfort about the dressing down but was, in fact, rather amused by it.

"Perhaps," was all Jin said for a moment. Then, after a few seconds had passed, he added, "We should get back to the camp. But first, my question?"

It was Kor's turn to raise an inquisitive eyebrow. "What question?" Then he searched his memory and grunted. "Oh right. Would I like to stay? That is a complicated question, with an even more complicated answer, but the short version is: yes. I left my people to seek out you Dragonians, and not only did I find you, but much more besides. Although I was not particularly interested in establishing contact with my father or his family or tribe, now that I've found the Shinar and Joran and my... my little sister... Well, I want to stay, if only to get to know them a little bit. But even so, it would be exceedingly foolish of me to leave the Dragonians so soon after just having found you! So family or not, I wish to travel through the Mara with you."
A Non-Existent User
Daliah wrapped her cloak tightly around her shoulders as she sat before the fire. She had not realized how frozen her hands were until it felt like they were melting over the blaze.

This was the only thing she noticed, for the memory of her father's letter blocked out the rest. She could feel the hard binding beneath the cloth of her skirt. It weighed heavily on her leg. Her hand slipped into her pocket, feeling the patch of worn leather. A shiver entered her fingers and ran up her arm. She drew them away, gazing into the flames.

Gaharis had once told her that there were many answers that could be found in the fire, though he had never shown her. As she watched the yellow and orange tongues dance, she could not help but wonder what they could tell her. How had her father died? Had he felt pain? Would he have loved her?

She blew a misty breath into her cupped hands, rubbing them thoughtfully. It hardly seemed fair, even with the mistakes she had made in her past.

Perhaps that was why she wanted so much to protect them. There was nothing that frightened her more than another fatherless child.

Something brushed her shoulder, causing her to jump. She breathed a sigh of relief when Layole sat beside her.

"You know better than to scare me like that. I could have cut you, you know." she whispered, worriedly stroking her knife.

"I spoke to you, but you must not have heard." he looked concerned at the sight of her pale face. "What plagues your mind?"

She smiled bitterly. "The same as every other night. Unanswered questions."

He rubbed her still chilled hand with his own. Warmth rushed over her skin, banishing the cold. "Perhaps I can answer a few."

"No." she shook her head. "Those that could are long dead."

"All right. I see you are not going to make this easy, so I will tell you what I do know." He looked up at the moon, contemplating his words before turning back to her. "You are stubborn, nigh unreadable, you frighten just about every man here. You scold grown men like they were boys, and wield a sword better than most. Gloom is written in your eyes, yet you refuse to speak of it. You are rude, pushy, and secretly afraid."

She bit her lip and looked away.

"Yet in your heart is courage, and when you love, you love well. That is why I love you."

"How do you know so much of me?" she wondered aloud, glad the dark hid the redness in her cheeks.

"I have always been good at reading people." he replied. "But I cannot read why you are upset."

She sighed and pulled the letter from her pocket. "I found a letter from my father, and I cannot help but feel that my fate is somehow entwined with his."
The tribe made good time. Within seven days, the outskirts of Findor Plains was behind them; the borderland of the Mara Desert directly ahead. The only delay in their westward trek had been a small Hybrid raiding party. The twins’ careful scouting prevented the ambush, and turned the tables. It had ended with the raiding party destroyed, new weapons and supplies for the tribe, and high spirits.

Jin soothed his horse absently, eyes on the expanding sea of golden dunes. From here, the outer borderland ended. Scrubby trees, the shallow pool of water, scrawny rabbits—all would vanish beneath the burning sun and sand of the true Mara. The desert had earned its name; the Mara was truly a bitter place. The gelding snorted again, tossing its head against the hold on its reins. Jin patted its sweating flank, murmuring in Old Dragonian. He preferred his stallion, but overusing the war-horse was not wise. For now, the flighty gelding would have to do.

The crunch of approaching hooves made Jin look away from the dazzling sand. Kor rode a speckled gray, his eyes on the sand as well. Jin smiled at the expression on his face. A beach of hot sand was one thing; this limitless sea of barren wasteland was another.

Kor had added two horses to his picket since the skirmish, from the deaths of their previous, Hybrid owners. Most of the warriors accepted him as one of their own now. None of Jin’s honor guard stirred when the Aquila’s gray came abreast of him. Kor remained silent, studying the sand.

What had caused this place of death had been lost many years ago, such as the making of the janin. Legends claimed the drakes of the Rim, with their cold fire from snowy peaks, had battled with the sea dragons. When the Rim drakes won the battle, and demanded the submission of the dragons, they chose revenge instead, scorching their homeland with the flames of their own bodies.

The Dragonian people had earned their name from the legend, though not of their own choosing. They had called themselves Wanderers, the Ishtar, but the Eloin had refused the name, preferring to mock them. The willingness of the dragons to die, rather than surrender to slavery, was foolishness to the Other mind. Though they had not chosen the name, the Dragonians kept it as a badge of honor. Only the old lays would still use the term Ishtar now, and few minstrels knew the Ishtar and Dragonians were the same people. Most believed it to be a reference to the Aquila, who “wandered” through the sea.

The gelding jerked its head. Jin loosened his tight hold on the reins. Pondering Eloin cruelty would not change the past, and only mar the future. He didn’t want to consider them today. Their troubles would be bad enough.

“Hail to the Mara, scourge of compass and guide;
List to the four winds, Ware of each tribe;
When mistakes are made, the water is dried.”

“What lay is that?” Kor said.

Jin started. He had not intended to quote it aloud. “It’s old. Ancient.”

“But what’s it called? You can’t deny a man his curiosity.”

Jin glanced at him. Kor’s wide smile and the twinkling good humor in his eyes perked Jin’s mood. He returned it with an easy grin. “It is legend, most of it. I learned it for the Compass Chant. There, it recites all four provinces, their differences, and their dangers. It’s accurate on those at least.”

Kor shook his head. “Ah, but you still haven’t answered my question. What is it called?”

The grin became a chuckle, and then a hearty laugh. It had been a long time since he could laugh, and truly mean it. “You’re a bloody stubborn man.” Jin commented.

Kor shrugged.

Jin nudged his gelding closer to Kor. “Some people believe the lay to be true, and try to find the Tower of Brakir, the first Dragonian Fay-el. I didn’t want you to get any ideas. It’s called Tale of Dragonfang.”

“I plan to stay here, with my people.” He cocked his head. “Dragonfang?”

Jin patted the hilt of his janin. “Another name for the janin. According to the lay, Brakir promised his throne to the son who could bring a gift worthy of the Dragon King, as Brakir was nicknamed. The seventh son, Avali, journeyed through the icy Rim, traveled in the burning desert, and eventually cornered a dragon in its lair.”

He had Kor’s interst, even if it was a legend. “And? What gift did he return with?”

He dropped his voice lower, reciting the translation with careful inflection. “He battled the great she-dragon in her lair, for so it was that a hatchling grew within her. Golden scales flecked and fell, slashing Avali until dragonblood and human were mingled atop the stone. Hours he fought her, until his sword was riven. He seized the blades of those who had tried before, notched and broken, but sharp edge remaining. She drove him from her lair, to the snowy ledge. There they battled, dragonfire roaring. Skin afire, but heart determined, Avali fought her. Dragonslayer twice over. So the name he longed to bring.”

Several of Jin’s honor guard had moved closer, but not out of a sense of danger. They had the same expression in their eyes as Kor. He continued on. “Blood and burn, Avali staggered. The she-dragon howled her fury. Teeth flashing, fire burning, her jaws closed upon him. But a twist and fall, a whirl of blade and bone. Fang shattered, driving into snow and stone. Roaring her pain, her head came higher. Weak and wounded, Avali rallied. He seized the fang, searing palm with its heat, and hurled it high. Drove her tooth against her. Throat torn and blood flowing, the she-dragon screamed. By her own fang she was felled.”

Jin stopped, flicking a glance at Kor again. “Of course, the Ugama is called dragon, but I do not believe it to be as the legend claims of dragons. I suspect a Ugama to be a Derk-ra of unusual size, not a creature of fire and flight."

“You don’t believe in much of anything, do you?”

Jin shrugged, though the remark stung. “I trust my sword, my horse, and my strength. I do not trust in things I cannot see.” He drew the janin, presenting it to Kor hilt-first. “I do know this is not regular steel, though of what I am not certain.”

Kor hesitated. Jin smiled good-naturedly. “Try it yourself.”

The Aquila closed his hand tentatively over the hilt, and then brought it up in a quick salute. He slashed with it lightly, the motions familiar to Jin. He was testing its balance and weight. Jin knew he would notice the same odd things as he had. Light blade, yet strong edge. It had never broken, and rarely needed honing, yet he had used it to hack through bone before. It caught light easily, gleaming yellow in the sun, silver in the moon, scarlet by a campfire, and purple with the sunset. But there was no magic to it; no mystical powers that made it anymore than what it appeared to be, an unusual sword.

Kor returned the janin to him, gesturing at the small Dragonian characters on the pommel. “Is that part of the legend too?”

“Perhaps.” He slid the blade back into its scabbard. “It’s just an inscription, but it sounds connected to the lay to me. Snow aflame with desert blood: Fire and ice, meld to one.” Jin shrugged. “However, it is not dragons I fear, but the Mara and its creatures.”

He cocked his head at Kor. “Beware the Derk-ra.” And then nudged his gelding into a flowing trot across the sand. Nightfall would bring its own terrors.
Kor had the strangest, most irrational hope that one of these near-legendary "Derk-ra" would be spotted sometime soon, not so close as to be a danger, but close enough that he could at least see it. He wanted a feel for its quality of movement, the particular hue of its scales against the sun, and the set of its bones beneath those scales for the ballad he was composing in his head. Already he had thought of a handful of Dragonian terms that rhymed with "Derk-ra", and one Aquilian word---ircna or "claw"---that would work well... if Derk-ra had claws or other features that made the words Kor'd selected appropriate.

However, as afternoon faded into evening, and the patrols at the edge of camp doubled, the bard was suddenly not so very sure he wanted to encounter one of these creatures. Although the men and women at the center of the camp laughed and chatted amiably, the fires had been built high to discourage the beasts from venturing near, and the other men on patrol with Kor seemed fearful in the dark, unseen but for the occasional nervous shift from one foot to the other, or fidgeting with a dagger.

Kor had not been taking part on the patrols long. Only after his necessary involvement in repelling the Hybrid skirmish had the Healer begrudgingly pronounced him fit, particularly after seeing his "patient" ride, victorious like the others, back into camp with two captured horses speaking for his battle readiness.

However, Kor was not technically an adult warrior in the ways of the Dragonians, and although none failed to acknowledge that he was a man and showed the first signs of one day becoming a capable fighter, most knew of his lack of experience with shitan or sword.

There was some reluctance among the more traditional of Jin’s warriors to allow an un-Confirmed man serve on the patrols, and some concern among the others to allow what basically amounted to a green fighter help protect the tribe. Only Kor’s status as “outsider” was no longer an issue, and soon the other warriors had overcome their fears concerning him and he had been accepted in the patrols as necessity demanded.

The Mara was a dangerous place, and the tribe needed every fighter---experienced or not---it had to keep its women, children and elderly safe.

As evening deepened into night, Kor’s caution and trepidation shifted back toward a mix of fear and excitement. He really, really wanted to spot a Derk-ra, and be just close enough to it so that he could commit its features to memory.
A Non-Existent User
Daliah crossed her arms as the wind picked up, throwing bits of stinging sand into her face. But, though she'd never been this far, she was used to it. Camping under the stars for the past fifteen years had taken care of that. Now she found herself watching the horizon for something unknown. Answers, perhaps. But answers to what?

She began to pace, a nervous habit. Something was coming. She could feel it. Her hand twitched, itching for her blade. The wind slowly forced her to close her eyes, so that she found herself surrounded by unbearable darkness until a sudden image flashed before her.

A man was dragging a small girl down several flights of stone steps. Well, he was trying to, but she insisted on skipping, seemingly unaware of fire that was coming down outside. Daliah sensed the fear and frustration in him as he finally picked her up and carried her to the bottom.

She smiled when he finally set her down. "Are we playing another game?" she asked.

Inspiration took him and he nodded. "Yes. We're going to pretend we're in a battle. The enemy has us surrounded, and there is only one way out, but it won't be long before it is gone. Understand? Good. Now listen, because this part is really important. You have to make sure no one sees you, all right? You have to be very quiet, you cannot make any noise, not even a sneeze. If you do, the enemy will hear, and you lose the game."

She nodded, still smiling. "Okay. I am ready."

The girl did not question him when he embraced her tightly, though she could hardly breathe. She was already playing, already silent. As he sent her off, she sprinted where he pointed, to the stables. Again she did not ask why she went alone, for she trusted him and was too far into the game to say anything.

Gaharis, her father's closest friend and her playmate, met her there. Without saying a word, he ran over to her and all but threw her onto his horse. Then he swung up behind her and dug his heels sharply into the ribcage. The horse flew from the building and sprang away.

Home fell behind them quickly, and the girl found herself travelling farther than she had ever been. It slowly dawned upon her that this was not a game. She looked back before Gaharis could stop her, just in time to see her country erupt into flames.

Daliah nearly dropped to the ground with this memory. But when she turned back to the camp, her eyes shone with tears.
Jin paced the perimeter of the camp, content to let his two feet carry him. He wouldn't be able to rest until he had checked, and rechecked, the precautions he had taken.

Elam trailed close behind him, bumping against his back when he paused unexpectedly. Some older boy had told him a story on the Derk-ra; Elam's fertile imagination had supplied the rest. Clutching his bow tightly, Elam kept a watchful, and fearful, eye on the dark night around them.

Jin smiled, but didn't comment. It was unlikely Elam could hit, much less kill a Derk-ra. But if it made him feel safer, so be it. At least Elam could shoot the bow better than he could. No one had ever bothered to teach him. Not with Corin already present.

A woman sobbed, breaking into a pitiful keening of grief and loss. Elam tensed. "Someone hurt?"

Jin shook his head. "Listen."

The woman's grief shifted higher, became a stallion's dying scream, and then rose into a sharp whistle. Soon, they couldn't hear it, but feel that eerie cry shuddering in the bones. Jin rubbed at his shoulder and turned away. "Nothing to worry about. They haven't found us yet."

"The--The Derk-ra?"

"Aye. But that sound...it means they're still looking. If they had found us..."

"What?"

Jin hesitated. "It just sounds different. You can hear them from far away sometimes. That's why they sound so close."

"Oh."

Jin smiled. He crouched down to eye level with him. "It's late. Why don't you go to bed now?"

"I'm not tired." He insisted stubbornly. His eyes narrowed in a perfect imitation of Jin himself. "I don't want to sleep yet."

"I know. But you want to be wide awake for the Border Guards, don't you? They'll probably take you to their barracks if I ask."

"Border Guards?"

Jin nodded. "But you have to rest if you want to stay awake tomorrow. What if you fell asleep, right when they wanted to show you something special? Like a lune."

"A lune? Really?"

"They have plenty of them, bigger and brighter than mine. The Guild makes them."

"How?"

"You'll have to ask the Border Guards tomorrow. If..."

Elam hitched the bow under his arm and ran. Jin grinned at his retreating figure and straightened again. He finished his circuit of the camp alone. Crouching down by the fire, Jin yawned and checked the points, the latter out of habit. He had grown used to traveling at night; he still felt flooded with energy, but it was fading. The warmth of the small campfire helped.

“Tired?”

Jin glanced up and smiled. “Terran. I don’t know how you do it.”

“Do what?”

“Sneak up on me like that.”

The man shrugged and settled beside him, staring into the flickering flames. “Ravin sent an owl an hour ago.”

“They’ve spotted us already.”

“Aye. Ravin plans to meet you tomorrow morning.”

“Good. We’ll run out of water in a few days. Ravin knows the oasises better than I do.”

“Agreed. How will he take a Hybrid in the tribe?”

“Kor and Daliah are under my protection, as much mine as Elam. Ravin will not touch them.”

Terran chuckled. “Oh, Ravin won’t kill him, certainly. But he’ll certainly test Kor’s skill, or try to. He loves to spar. You should know that.”

Jin grimaced. It had been the only way to earn Ravin’s trust. The bruises and cuts had healed after a few days; his pride had taken the most time. He chose to change the subject. “Speaking of pests, where is Kor?”

“Hmm? He was with Joran, down by the horse lines.” Terran grinned. “I think they were trying to sneak a peek at a Derk-ra.”

“Foolhardy.”

Terran shrugged. “Neither of them have seen one. If you plan to hunt the Ugama…” he continued, ignoring Jin’s start of surprise. “He needs practice with their smaller kin anyway. A few nips, an hour or two with Derk-ra venom coursing in his veins, and he’ll be more careful, I’m sure. It'll add to his knowledge anyway.”

“And Joran?”

“Joran can defend himself. And his brother. Besides, there are plenty of sentries near who have traveled the Mara before. They’ll know when the Derk-ra attack. I made sure of that.”

“You planned it, didn’t you?”

Terran shrugged.

Jin could only shake his head. “I don’t like that cunning gleam in your eye. You’re up to something.”

“I am. I’ll explain eventually.”

The Derk-ra shrieked again, a grating whistle that became a woman’s scream again, this time dropping low in a rapid slide. “Ah, they’ve caught the scent.” Terran nudged his shoulder. “Go to bed. I’ll watch over Kor.”

“You’ve lost your senses.”

Terran laughed. “Perhaps. But that’s my choice, not yours. Quit worrying. Go to bed.”
"There," Joran whispered, pointing.

Kor narrowed his eyes against the press of darkness, but did not see. The moon's light had been swallowed by a cloud and Joran was more accustomed to staring into the black maw of night and could make out minute changes in the layered shadows better than the bard could. "Where?" he breathed back, his eyes darting uselessly left and right.

His brother did not answer, instead slipping sideways around Kor, grasping the older man's upper arm and pulling him hard backwards. Kor actually stumbled somewhat, simultaneously marveling at his little brother's unexpected strength and straining his eyes to follow a flash of blackness that slipped with naught but a soft rustle of sand across their feet.

"Here," Joran said, a blend of fear and excitement in his voice.

The darkness blurred toward them again, and again Joran dodged, twisting his brother around and out of the way with him. "I can't see it!" Kor growled.

"It's toying with us," Joran remarked. "Testing. Here it comes again."

This time, Kor heard the slide of the youth's blade out of his scabbard. A shadow converged on them again, faster this time, and Kor stumbled back away from it himself this time, pulling Joran with him. He heard the snap of fangs as it passed. "What is it? I still can't bloody see!" he hissed, reaching for his belt and pulling a Cat's Tongue torch free. Bending briefly, he struck it against the sand at his feet, igniting a spark and then the entire end of the torch.

"Don't!" Joran snapped, grabbing his elder brother's wrist and trying to drive it toward the sand. "Snuff it!" His steel-gray eyes were very wide, though with terror or anticipation, Kor could not tell.

"I can't see without it!" he complained, flexing his arm somewhat so that his little brother's efforts were futile. Still, the youth's wiry strength surprised him. "Where is it?" The Derk-ra was nowhere to be found, if indeed it even was a Derk-ra.

Joran shook his head. "They don't like fire," he explained to his sadly ignorant brother.

Kor's mouth opened into a little O of understanding. "Shall I put it out, then? I still haven't seen the demon-blasted---"

There was nothing but open desert around them, but the Derk-ra leapt out of nowhere, seeming to unfold from the sand. Kor didn't see it coming, and yet was moving out of its way already, his arm raising to thrust the torch at it without him consciously thinking about it.

It didn't do him much good. The beast landed in the sand a few paces from him, then leapt again. Seeing it this time, Kor stepped aside again, swinging the fire he now knew it hated toward it. But the beast didn't go for Kor so much as the torch in Kor's hand, and the bard and cat-lizard-wolf thing collapsed together to the sand as the beast's jaws closed over the torch. “Stars and crescents!” he yelled, feeling the shallow bite of the creature’s fangs as it literally tried to eat the flaming torch, and Kor’s hand with it.

Sure he was about to lose his arm, he kicked out, his knee connecting with the scaled beast's middle. He felt strangely tired, and the kick felt slowed, somehow. The Derk-ra yelped, a strangely woman-like sound, but did not release the burning torch. Neither did its fangs pierce deeper into Kor’s wrist; the torch was too big for that.

“What the—” Kor hissed in mixed amazement and terror, seeing fire briefly lick the sides of the creature’s long snout as, growling, it struggled to put out the flame with its mouth. He had the sudden, uncomfortable realization that the hard wood of the torch was the only thing preventing the creature’s strong jaws from closing entirely on his forearm, and that if he tried to yank his arm out, he’d end up with worse than the shallow scratches he’s earned himself already. Yet if he didn't move his arm, the flame would burn him.

Another rush of fatigue washed over him and the flame faltered somewhat as the Derk-ra bore down in it more, growling musically in frustrated determination. But Cat's Tongue torches burned long and hard, and the sputtering flame continued tenaciously.

"I told you they don't like fire!" Joran explained again, driving his shitan, the twin of Kor’s own, into the Derk-ra’s flank. It screamed like a woman in childbirth again, flames from the torch briefly spilling out of its mouth again, and Kor took that as a reminder that perhaps he, too, should use his weapon. With the hand that was not currently trapped beside a flaming torch between the razor-like fangs of a Derk-ra, he drew his shitan and drove it into the beast’s soft underbelly.

Twisting viciously and hoping the Derk-ra's answering scream was a death cry, he pulled the blade free. He did not, however, have the opportunity to strike again, for at that moment Terran melted from the sand, shitan in each hand, and blurred toward the creature. Driving one blade into the base of the Derk-ra’s tail---causing it to release Kor’s wrist and the still feebly burning torch with a screech---he straddled the thrashing creature and drove the other blade beneath its jaw and up into its neck.

And just like that, it was done.

“Are you two hurt?” Terran asked, cleaning the twin blades and sheathing them smoothly as he straightened.

“No, sir,” Joran replied, mimicking the blademaster’s movements somewhat less dexterously.

Kor extracted his hand carefully from the lizard creature’s mouth, only now noticing the bitter scent of its breath. He scrunched his nose and flexed and unflexed his hand briefly. The burns from the torch hurt worse than the shallow punctures and scratches from the Derk-ra’s fangs, and neither looked serious. The burns might blister, maybe, but they hadn’t been near the torch for too long. “I’m fine. Tired.” He felt slightly dizzy.

"Tired? I thought so..." Terran’s eyes shifted from the shallow cuts to the dead Derk-ra, then back to the two brothers. “Are you two satisfied now?”

Kor took in the muscular, serpentine form of the scaled creature, noting the play of firelight over its black opal and mother-of-pearl scales, and nodded. “Yes.” He caught a strange gleam in the other man's eye and raised an eyebrow. "Are you?"

"I'm more satisfied than you are."

Thinking of the song he now knew how to write, Kor grinned. "I'm not so sure about that."

“We’ll see if you feel the same way in a few hours,” Terran commented dryly. “Well… why don’t you come back to camp now and let the others have their bit of fun with the Derk-ra? Where there’s one, there are usually others, and I’m sure later you won’t feel up to fighting another tonight.”

Confused, Kor followed the blademaster back to camp. “I don’t feel like fighting another now,” he pointed out, but Terran only sighed and murmured something about “crescent-blinded, ignorant Hybrids” in an oddly pleased voice.
A Non-Existent User
Daliah slipped silently around the fire, watching briefly as stories were exchanged and arguments began. Then she walked back to the edge of the camp, listening for anything that might be a threat. She'd heard the Derk-ra, but it seemed to have been handled. There was no need for her to search for it.

She pulled the hood of her cloak up, but it was immediately blown back. Frustrated as she was, she left it there, letting the sand coat her skin and hair. That was nothing new, but it was anything but pleasant. She kept walking, careful not to breathe it in. It had been hard enough to get a minute alone, she didn't need any attention right now.

Usually she found comfort in nature, but the desert seemed stripped of even that. There was no sign of life, just endless stretches of sand. It had been beautiful in the sunset, but now that it was dark, it was cold and unforgiving. She licked her lips, grimacing when her tongue came back covered in grit. Her body grew restless, and she was tempted to lure a Derk-ra just to be able to move. Yet even she was not dumb enough for that. There was only one thing that would cure it. She stripped off everything except for her clothes, sword and dagger, then took off.

Running in the sand was no easy task, but it was just what she needed. Hot blood took over her frozen fingers, leaving her exhilirated. She kicked up dust, though there was little sound. Her feet carried her effortlessly, and she soon found herself looking back to the camp. She stopped, her heart racing even though she could still see it. It was probably time to go back, she'd come far enough.

She twirled her dagger around her arms as she walked back. There hadn't been any cries close by, so she wasn't in any real hurry. At the moment, she was content in watching the flash of her blade when it reflected the moonlight. The cold began to seep back through her skin, but she ignored it. She'd faced colder weather than this. Why worry about it now?

Leather creaked, even though her boots had never done such a thing. She also heard an attempt at silent breathing. Her lips curled into a smile. This could be rather fun.

She slowed her steps, now tossing her dagger from one hand to the other. After a moment she began to hum, fearing nothing from this person. If he wanted to attack, he would have done so already. Perhaps she would have been appropriate to confront him right away, but she was starved for excitement. Maybe she could toy with him for just a few minutes...

It only took that long before it became dull. This person was easy to hear, not a challenge at all. She let her dagger drop to the ground so that she could kneel down to get it. As she did, she glanced back to catch a glimpse of the noisy culprit.

The girl looked to be about thirteen, clothed in a somewhat worn, brown dress and boots. Light from the fire caught the red tint of her hair, leaving a small halo around her head. She was rubbing her arms, watching her curiously.

"You might want to get to bed." Daliah called back to her. "It will be a long day tomorrow."

She seemed surprised at first, then crossed her arms in defiance. It was a posture she knew all too well. There was no way she would be able to get her to go back alone. She sighed and rose to her feet.

"Come, I will walk you back. Your parents will have my head if anything happens to you."

The girl shook her head. "They have no idea I'm gone. I don't get caught easily. You're the first to notice."

In spite of herself, Daliah found herself intrigued. "What's your name?"

"Caira."

"Well, Caira, why were you following me?"

"You are not supposed to go anywhere alone. But I wasn't there the whole time, just when you were close enough to the camp so I could follow without you seeing me. At least, that was the idea. How did you hear me?"

"I will tell you tomorrow. At the moment, we both need our rest."
Howling and screaming, a Derk-ra's death was a noisy warning to the rest of his pack. And an annoyance when it was repeated over several hours. Jin sighed and tried to burrow deeper into his blankets.

It was expected. Baiting a Derk-ra, and the thrill that followed, was not restricted to youths alone. Tomorrow, several warriors would have the brilliant scarlet or orange crests of the Derk-ra dangling from lances or braids.

When another howl broke into the night, Jin sat up. He raked a hand through his hair. Elam mumbled, one hand thumping him in the ribs, before finding the edge of the blanket, and tugging it close again. Jin flicked an annoyed glance his way. "At least you can sleep," he muttered.

Curling onto his side, Elam claimed the rest of the blanket. Jin shook his head and left him there. He found Layole first. His second was little help. With him distracted and searching for Daliah, their conversation was about as productive as chatting with sleeping Elam.

Next was Terran. The blademaster crouched by the fire, sharpening his shitans. The tatoo on his forearm seemed alive. The dark lines writhed and coiled in the flickering light; the amber eyes gleamed with savage intent. Jin settled by his side and gestured at the tatoo. "How many did you kill?"

Terran flicked him a glance. "Enough." He cocked his head. "Little late for you to be roaming, isn't it?"

A round of harsh swearing punctuated his statement. Jin glanced toward the sound and then swiveled his gaze back to Terran, eyebrows arched. His friend laughed. "I see what you mean. They'll quiet down in a bit." He sheathed the shitan. "Though I remember a time when you used to do the same."

Jin smiled. He bore the scars across his ribs to prove it. "And paid for it in blood."

"True, but you still have the crest."

He shrugged. Warmth flooded across his cheekbones. "Perhaps."

Terran chuckled dryly, but didn't press him. He changed the subject lightly. "Kor and Joran finally spotted their Derk-ra. Though, I doubt the Hybrid feels too well now."

Jin grimaced. Derk-ra preferred their prey alive, but unmoving. The paralyzing venom rarely killed, but the discomfort would take hours to work out of his system. "How is he?"

"Don't know. I was going to check on him in a minute. Do you want me to wake Turoc?"

Jin shook his head. "As you pointed out, I do know firsthand what a Derk-ra bite can feel like. I have a few herbs in my supplies. I'll check on Kor, as you want me to."

Terran cocked his head. "Whatever are you talking about?"

"You can't fool me."

He shrugged. "He tended you before. I thought you'd want to return the favor."

"I'd prefer knowing what moon-spawned idea is in your bloody skull."

"You'll find out when I'm ready to share." Terran shifted, yawning absently. "Which reminds me, your honor guard needs refreshing."

Jin's eyes widened. "You wouldn't."

"Refresh your guard?"

"Terran."

He waved a hand dismissively. "Don't fret. You worry more than a woman. Go tend the Hybrid."

"Terran."

"Is your shoulder bothering you?"

Jin blinked at the sudden shift. "What?"

"I think so. I should wake Turoc to tend you."

" That isn't fair."

Terran held his gaze, but said nothing. Jin sighed. "Fine. But please, don't do anything...rash."

"Me? Never."

Jin swore under his breath, but left him there. Terran was worth than a mule sometimes.



Obeying the advice an annoyingly cheerful Terran had given him upon their return to camp, Kor was trying to sleep, but it wasn’t as easy as he would have thought it would be. Although his limbs were as immovable as fallen logs and he could neither open his eyes nor speak, his mind was wide awake and he couldn’t seem to dive into sleep.

This disturbing inability to move frightened Kor somewhat, but infuriated him more. Terran had chuckled as he’d helped the bard take off his boots and lie down, and reassured him that it was “just the onset of Derk-ra paralysis” he was feeling and soon either he or Turoc would be by soon with a remedy that was “somewhat less pleasant than the poisoning”.

Crescents take the man! Kor cursed in his mind, struggling to no avail to get his body to move. What did he meant by that? And where in the Stars is he? Terran had been gone a good five minutes already, and Kor was beginning to feel a strange heaviness descend upon his chest, making it harder and harder to draw breath every moment.

He heard footsteps approaching his little bedroll by the fire and was surprised when it was Jin’s voice, and not that of Terran or Turoc, that spoke. “Kor? Awake?”

Stars and Crescents, what do you think, you demon-blinded fool?

The chieftain of the tribe of the Shinar obviously did not hear the ranting of the helpless Hybrid before him. “I’m going to assume that yes, you are, for I remember the first time I myself felt the Derk-ra’s venom running thick through my veins.”

Well, that’s blasted interesting, Jin! Now get me Turoc or Terran and whatever Star-cursed ‘remedy’ they’ve got for me!

The Hybrid felt the Jin’s hand rest for a moment at his pulse, then upon his chest. It remained there for three slow, labored breaths, and then went away. He heard the clink of glass against metal, and then Jin said lightly, “You are a healer of some variety. Perhaps you are familiar with the effects of the kurara berry?”

Realizing he had no choice but to be patient, Kor considered. Kurara berry? It’s not from Aquila, but close enough that mother got it in the spring from the old hedge-woman with the blue herb baskets. Causes extreme muscle relaxation, sometimes to the point of paralysis. Dangerous, but occasionally useful in surgery. Laeri’s daughter needed it when she had to have that tumor removed from her abdomen, but mother had to give her an antidote because she stopped breathing…

Jin continued to the sound of more gentle taps of glass against metal. “Derk-ra venom, I’m sure you are discovering right now, is rather like the poison of a kurara berry. I remember how within seconds after I had slain my first Derk-ra, my fingers and toes started to get a little numb and my eyelids started to droop. It was then that I noticed the long scratch on my arm, which had seemed like an almost-inconsequential wound at the time, or maybe a fine badge of my prowess as a warrior. I ignored the numbness and sudden fatigue and sat down upon the ground to claim the beast’s crest for my janin.”

I would bet my very shitan that his fingers became unwieldy and he destroyed his crest. Ha! The folly of youth. Was I ever that dumb? Oh right, I’m in the same position Jin was in when he was half my age. Will I ever live this down? At least I’ll have a song to write. “Oh foolish bard, is it so hard, to slay the Derk-ra… something rhyming with ‘ra’… Fa… ga? Kurara?”

Jin chuckled, almost as though he’d heard Kor’s thoughts. There was the sound of something being stirred in a metal container. “So there I was, kneeling on the ground with my hands crimson with the Derk-ra’s blood and its crest halfway removed from the scales of its hide, when suddenly my hands started to fail me. My fingers began to move very slowly, like an old man’s, and I nearly slipped and cut myself with my knife. And so I finished the task as hurriedly as I could, and started back toward the tribe.”

Kor had a feeling he knew where this was going. The young Jin would encounter a brother, mentor, perhaps even Kor’s father Renji, who would scold the young warrior, warn him of the dangers of the Derk-ra, and commend him for getting the Derk-ra’s crest. And that would be Jin’s subtle way of scolding Kor. Why didn’t I think of claiming the thing’s crest for myself? Or Crescents, why didn’t Joran? Surely a boy that young would love to dangle a bit of lizard-dragon-wolf-thing from his shitan! I wonder if Jin notices that we did not bring one back? Will Joran be ashamed not to have claimed a crest?

Jin’s story took an unexpected turn for the worse. “As I was heading back to camp, where I knew Turoc would be able to tend me and my brother would congratulate me for my kill, my arms and legs suddenly became very weak, and my head began to feel too heavy for my neck. I sat down upon the ground briefly to rest, but the feeling of weakness did not pass, but instead grew and grew. Soon, I was unable even to sit up, and I lay down upon the sand for two hours not five minutes from where I had slain my first Derk-ra and waited for its poison to wear off or for someone to find me. It became harder and harder to breathe, and still I could not move. Luckily, my older brother came upon me then and brought me to Turoc. It was a fortunate thing indeed, for the old wheezer---he was old then, too, and not much more gentle---knew what to do, as does any healer of the Dragonian people.”

What would Turoc have done? Hmm… if I recall correctly, mother always said to monitor the breaths of a patient who is under the effects of the kurara berry for at least three hours. The poison spreads its paralysis from the extremities to the torso and finally the respiratory system, and often the patient ceases to breathe and needs to be given emergency breaths or an antidote. Blazes, what is that antidote?

“Needless to say,” Jin continued, giving whatever he was making a final stir, “Since that day, although I always encourage my warriors to test their mettle against the Derk-ra, I also require them to carry a very small measure of ground calaba bean. It is a very simple remedy, easy for us to find---if we know where to look---and produce. There’s this very squat little plant, with long leaves, right? We can grind the beans or mash the tuber into a fine powder, which can then be added to a small measure of whiskey, rum, or any other spirit really. It instantly halts the effects of Derk-ra poison, which is great, but it also sends the body into immediate withdrawal, which is not so great. Know you the withdrawal effects of kurara? Withdrawing from Derk-ra venom is like that...”

Oh no… Kor thought with a certain sinking feeling, and tried to stir. But his body would not obey him and he could not open his mouth to voice his protest.

The stirring stopped. “So, what I have here in my hand is a dosage of fire brandy mixed with calaba bean. The stuff has a faintly nutty taste, but you won’t be able to detect it over the brandy. There’s a lot of it; you’ll be a little drunk. I’ll give you this now---” Kor felt the press of a metal cup against his lips and then a rush of liquid into his mouth. “---and in about ten seconds it should start to work its somewhat vile magic.” Kor coughed feebly at the burn of the brandy, but his body was still able to swallow, and swallow he did, lest he drown.

Kor felt his toes tingle a little bit, and then his finger twitched. Jin must have noticed, because he said sympathetically, “Just remember, practically every man over the age of fifteen here has experienced the joys of the Derk-ra venom at one time or another. Except Talen, but his time will come.”

Sure enough, Kor saw the flicker of one or more figures passing by the fire and heard the rueful chuckle of a couple warriors. I’ll puke in your porridge, Kor promised, but was relieved to feel a greater rush of air into his lungs as he once again caught a breath. His leg kicked out involuntarily.

“Gah,” he sputtered.

This time Jin chuckled. “Right…” Kor heard the other man standing up and managed to peel his eyes open. The Fay-el grimaced as the bard twitched again and he stooped to grab the end of Kor's bedroll. “I’ll just pull you over here, so you don’t accidentally throw yourself into the fire.”

“Demon… blasted---”

Jin laughed, depositing the Hybrid a ways away from the fire. “Don’t blame it on me! I’m not the one who got himself gnawed on by Derk-ra. And what in the name of the Stars is that?” he demanded, raising an eyebrow at Kor’s wrist when the bard one again flailed randomly. “A burn? What were you doing out there? Don’t you know that the Derk-ra hate fire?”

Kor felt uncomfortably hot, and sweat broke out on his forehead. He snarled. “Didn’t know it'd… attack fire!”

Jin frowned and pulled the bedroll higher on Kor’s shoulders. Kor pushed it back down, not liking the feeling of sweat against fabric, and Jin pulled it back up. “Stop it. Joran didn't tell you?”

“I did!” the boy’s voice piped up suddenly, appearing from behind one of the tents on the far edge of Kor’s vision and striding toward them. He knelt beside his older brother, who shuddered in greeting, feeling a cramp rising in his middle. The blankets felt too warm but also protected his sweating body from the coolness of the desert night. Kor grudgingly accepted it; it’s what he would have done if a patient were sweating excessively, even if it was not what made him feel comfortable. “Mother said to leave you alone until you’d been given the calaba,” Joran said. He grinned. “Did you see the crest I got?”

“Joran,” Jin snapped, “go back to your mother. Your brother’s not feeling well.”

“Nobody ever feels well after being given the calaba,” Joran grumbled, but obeyed. As he retreated, Kor could see the scarlet crest tied about his little brother’s shitan.

“Very… bright,” Kor commented. Joran cast a smile over his shoulder and disappeared behind the tents.

Jin sighed heavily. “I hope you two have learned that the Derk-ra are nothing to be trifled with.”

Kor drew in a long breath. “It’s well we encountered… one now, with th’ tribe close by.” This time it was a wave of nausea, and not difficulty breathing, which stopped him, and he frowned at the foul taste in his mouth. “---Better’n waiting till one… snuck up... to fight one for the first time.”

“I suppose that makes a… kind of sense,” Jin admitted grudgingly. But then he pointed his janin at Kor, who merely curled miserably around his cramping middle. “Still, you should have found out everything you possibly could have about the Derk-ra before running off to fight one. I would have expected you, at least, to know about their venom, and shouldn’t there be a song somewhere that mentions their hatred of fire?”

“Least we killed it,” Kor gasped. Sweat was pouring into his eyes and it only increased the misery of the muscle cramps. “Well, Terran did, in any case.”

“Water?” Jin interrupted.

The very notion made Kor even more nauseous, and he shook his head, then reconsidered. He knew what he’d require of a patient. “Yes.”

“The two of you did well,” Jin admitted after the Hybrid had drank. “Terran would not have let Joran keep the crest if he hadn’t earned it.”

Kor gasped out a chuckle around a spasm. “Terran… didn’t even see. Came… last second. Saved our hides.”

“No,” Jin shook his head. “Terran would have been watching to see how you fared. Most warriors fight Derk-ra for the first time in groups of four or five and are not able to get in more than a blow or two on a Derk-ra before the beasts scratch or bite them and must be driven off by someone more skilled. That you and Joran fended one off on your own long enough to earn a crest before Terran had to step in speaks well for your potential. Fighting a Derk-ra is five parts wits, four parts evasion and only one part offensive maneuvering.”

Kor curled around another cramp. “And ten blasted parts foolishness,” he added.

Daliah appeared with another young woman in tow. "What in the name of the Stars happened to you?"
A Non-Existent User
Daliah tried not to laugh as Kor explained his situation. Had her first experience been any better? She remembered Gaharis alternating between scolding and laughing for days on end. That had not helped any, so she would let him be until he was well enough to take it.

Caira shifted behind her, and Daliah suspected she was thinking similarly. Hopefully she would hold her tongue. The calaba's after-effects could be rather unpleasant. Even if Kor's pride was not already injured, he would anger easily. Oddly enough, she did not feel like arguing tonight.

She locked eyes with Jin, and she felt he had something to tell her. Well, she had to also, and it could not be shared in front of Caira.

"Caira, remember our bargain." she reminded her, sending her off to bed. The younger woman pouted and spun on her heel, walking quickly back to her own tent.

Daliah knelt next to Kor, pulling a book and pouch from the folds of her dress. She set them down, motioning for Jin to sit.

"I found these just outside the border." she whispered, dumping the contents onto the sand and opening her book to a page she had marked. She unwrapped a small cloth bundle, revealing a remarkably large scale. "It comes from the Ugama. Notice how the markings are similar to this one. There can be no mistake." she rocked back on her heels. "Most likely he is farther on, though. This is several weeks old."

Kor reached out to touch it, and she grabbed his wrist before he could. "Careful. You have enough poison in your body already."

"It would have dried by now."

"Ugama poison never dries. That is what makes it so lethal. You could find one a hundred years old and still die from it. If you wish to keep it, you must wrap it in a thick cloth, like this one. Or you could choose to fashion a bit of armor, but be sure to keep your skin away from the edges, for that is where the poison lies."

She held it firmly so that he could stroke the center and marvel at the markings. She did not know if he knew the old Dragonian tongue, but if he needed, she could translate it when his mind was ready. All that she had shared was likely filling his drugged mind to its capacity. She turned the scale over, scratching at a thick, black crust.

"He is wounded." she noted. "Perhaps badly. He might have come up against several Derk-ra."

She saw Kor flinch at the word. "Sorry. Or perhaps it was one of your kin. Chrys, perhaps?" she thought aloud, turning to Jin.

He pressed his chin thoughtfully against the hilt of his dagger. "That is possible, though I doubt they would come this way."

She put the scale back in its pouch, tying it shut. They had learned all they could of it at this time. Now she needed to know what Jin had learned.
Jin hesitated, fingering the hilt of his dagger. He crouched down by both Kor and Daliah. "I have spoken to the Keeper and searched our scrolls. There is not much on the Ugama, or dragon, if you prefer. Some are are fanciful descriptions--breath of fire and broad wings--but there is more practical things mixed in with the legend."

Daliah's eyes narrowed. "It is not a legend."

"Perhaps." He continued, cutting off her sharp reply. "It mentioned two weak spots--between the wings or at least, up close to the neck if there are no wings. And just under the head. The only other claim, which doesn't help us at all, is that, save those spots, only dragonfang can score the Ugama hide."

"Dragonfang?"

Jin frowned at Daliah. "If you believe in it."

Kor snorted. His words slurred slightly, thanks to the calaba. "Remember? He donna believe in anytin."

Jin shrugged. "Whether I believe it or not makes no difference. I plan to hunt whatever is called the Ugama, no matter if it is an over-large Derk-ra or the dragon of legend. That should be enough."

"And what will you do when you find it?" Daliah said. "What good will slaying a large Derk-ra do?"

"I--" he hesitated. "I hope it is...that it will help me in some way. I do not know how yet, but at least I can hold out hope. For a little while." He shut his mouth with a snap. Blabbing didn't help either. Jin straightened again. "For now, we should sleep. As you said, Daliah, the creature is several weeks ahead of us. We must reach Crossroads and its safety before I am prepared to hunt. And you," he gestured at Kor, "Need your sleep. I doubt you will enjoy tomorrow much."

Jin left them there, passing a warrior heading the other way. He smiled at that, but didn't comment. Kor might or might not notice his new "shadows" for tonight. The Hybrid woudl probably sleep quiet and undisturbed, but the men would make sure he didn't wander off in a daze, or suffer a renewal of the venom symptoms, unlikely though that may be.

This time, the night was quiet. Jin wrestled a bit of the blanket from Elam and fell asleep before the boy could kick him away.

--------

Jin fidgeted uneasily. Blast that man. Bloody blast that man!

The tribe had formed up into proper order. They were eating a quick morning meal, on their feet and ready to leave. Jin's honor guard clustered around him, all new faces again. He had been relieved to be missing one particular face. A Hybrid in his tribe was one thing; one serving as his honor guard was quite another.

Doblo's ears twitched forward and he snorted, pawing at the sand. Jin patted his neck absently, scanning the surrounding camp. Where was Terran?

Before they could dare move the tribe forward, they must have the Border Guard's permission. Ravin waited out there in the dunes. Terran always accompanied him in situations like this. With his sharp mind, quick wits, and the tattoo on his arm as a clear deterrent to more violent solutions--he was invaluable.

Ravin had a nasty temper and a tongue sharper than Derk-ra claws.The Border Guard leader had been a typical case in some ways, and not so in others. Like most of them, Ravin had been a street waif, willing to sell himself for five years in exchange for the food, lodging, and brief education.

His skills blossomed under the training and conditioning, and he continued to sign his name. Until his fifteenth year. The first flowering of the Mara "Gift" (something Jin barely understood). A common Border Guard could have the Gift; an officer could not. He chose to have it stripped from him, and regretted it ever since. He could sense the Gift, but never seize it.

Jin bit his lip and neck-reined Doblo around. If he had to, he would hunt Terran down himself. Keeping Ravin waiting was a very bad thing.

He sighed in relief. Terran, astride his burly black, cantered up to him, with Kor close behind. The Hybrid's expression was quite unlike his usual cheery reaction. He squinted at the sunlight, muttering Aquila profanity under his breath without much of a pause. He gave Terran special attention. When his eyes landed on the lanky blademaster, the curses were more audible, and his eyes narrowed in obvious frustration. Sometimes his fingers danced over the shitan hilt at his side. If Kor tried it on Terran, he would regret it.

Jin glanced at his friend, but Terran's face was unreadable. "Are you ready?"

"Aye. I've been ready."

"A delay was unavoidable. I had something that needed my attention first." His eyebrows arched. "Do you plan to stand here and chatter like old women, or meet Ravin before he feeds us to his Derk-ra pets?"

Kor flinched. Jin gave Terran a steely glare. "Crescents! Do you have to keep needling him? Ravin is not Apollar; he does not keep Derk-ra."

Terran shrugged. Jin turned away. "Let's go."

--------

The trip did not pass comfortably. He could hear Terran's voice, though not the words. Kor seemed to be providing the pauses with a mixture of Dragonian and Aquila words not fit to be repeated in Elam's presence.

"Hail, Jin of Shinar, friend of the Mara." Ravin called, materializing from the sand like a wraith. Doblo's head jerked back, snorting at the veiled stranger. His forelegs pawed at the air, but Jin brought him down again. Thankfully, both Terran and Kor had silenced abruptly.

Ravin's dark eyes flicked over their small group, and then beyond them, to the waiting tribe. His brown hair, bleached lighter by the burning sun, was pulled back into a tight tail at the nape of his neck, and bound with a simple leather tie. His hawkish features and twice-broken nose was not improved by the scars he carried, including a particularly wicked gash that zigzagged from the edge of his mouth to trail across his throat. Three Derk-ra crests, varying from a vivid red to a burnt orange, dangled from the short spear he held in one hand. He gave Kor an especially intense stare, before returning his attention to Jin. "Strange friends you keep of late."

"True-heart, true-blood."

"Aye, his heart. But not his blood. Only an Ael Kinth."

Kor hissed behind him. Jin growled one of the few words of Aquila he did know. "Silence." And then to Ravin. "Do you intend for us to bandy words while my tribe waits and the sun burns hotter?"

His eyes narrowed. "Why the hurry? You brought sad news when you arrived before. Will Chrys welcome you this time?"

Jin kept his face impassive. "Is that your task? To know your Fay-el's heart?"

Ravin clenched his teeth, but let it pass. He jerked his hand in a silent signal, and three more Border Guards appeared, stalking across the sand. Jin flicked a glance at Layole and then tipped his head in their direction. His Second nodded once, smiled at Daliah, and then pulled his horse's head around, following after the fast-moving Border Guards.

Jin returned his attention to the silent Ravin. "May we share your water?" Ravin's expression darkened. The Mara culture was strong in this regard. Any man offered hospitality could not become enemy. It forced Ravin to treat them with some measure of respect at least.

Ravin studied him for a moment, fingers clenched his spear until the knuckles whitened, but he relented. With a curt "Come," the Border Guard whirled, leading the way.
"Come." Terran tossed the command over his shoulder at Kor, echoing the Mara border guard's word with the same terseness.

"I am," Kor snapped, but it took him a moment to persuade his stiff, aching body to gather the reins and give the mare a firm kick. His hands felt like claws; another spasm was building up, he could just feel it. They came every five minutes or so and lasted perhaps thirty seconds to a minute. Meanwhile, he sweated profusely until he stank, shivered like an old man, vomited up the acid of his empty stomach, and tried not to hate Terran too much.

The swordmaster swiveled in his saddle. "Faster, Hybrid! It is unwise to keep Ravin waiting."

Kor had worn out his store of curse words---Aquilian, Dragonian and even Eloin alike---much earlier that day, and was now coming up with new, creative combinations. "Kinth-Crescents!" The swordmaster---who had taken a very sudden, keen interest in making Kor's life miserable the instant he'd kicked the bard into groaning wakefulness that morning---glared at him until he kicked his horse into a canter.

Every muscle in his body screamed and rapidly began knotting up with each jarring fall of the mare's hooves. It felt as though the hard muscles of his belly and back were trying to twist themselves into ropes or braids. The blood pounded painfully in his temples and forehead, and the back of his throat burned from vomiting so often that all there was left to vomit was stomach acid.

"Kyda, Kyda, Kyda," he hissed, half curse, half prayer.

Gritting his teeth, he bore it, for there was nothing else to do. Terran was not in a mood to be denied and besides, the swordmaster was right; Ravin could not be kept waiting, rude and arrogant as the man might be. But some part of him wanted to simply tell Terran and Ravin and Jin and everyone else to go to Xraj.

Kor did not know why the swordmaster had taken such a sudden, intense dislike toward him, but he refused---refused---to back down. If Terran said ride faster, he'd ride faster if that's what it took to show the star-cursed man that Kor na Quatian, son of Renji na Shinar, was no weakling... no matter what Terran might think of Kor's blunder with the Derk-ra.

As long as he doesn't start disrespecting Joran, I can blasted-well take anything he throws at me, the bard told himself, but the spasms in his stomach and back were stretching down into his seat and legs now, and all he really wanted to do was drop off the horse to the sand and curl up there against the sun-baked warmth until it passed.

Ravin led them for approximately an hour, then finally brought them around to a rest stop of sorts. There were stones there for a campfire, but little else.

Stiffly, Kor dismounted and reached immediately for his waterskin to wash the grit and acid-taste from his dry mouth. A shadow fell over him as he did so, and he sighed heavily and turned to look over his shoulder.

Terran, of course. The man still sat atop his horse, and stared sternly down at Kor. Not a single hint of the strange humor the bard had spotted the evening before showed on the swordmaster's face. "The campfire pit. You will clear the sand from it, then help Ravin's men disburse water."

Kor turned to stare at the circle of stones. Sure enough, it was more than halfway buried in sand. "I haven't a shovel."

The swordmaster's face did not change. "That is hardly my concern. You will clear the sand, you will help with the water, and then you, along with Talen and Sharin, will join Ravin's men on sentry duty."

You've got to be kidding me, Kor wanted to say, but knew better than to voice those words. Terran was definitely not kidding.

"Very well," the bard growled, "Anything else?"

Terran smiled ferally. "Do not forget to run through the paces with a sparring partner. Your handling of the shitan shames the Shinar and our Fay-el, and I will not stand by it. In fact, you will practice the Fundamentals before you do your sentry duty. Perhaps then, if you face another Derk-ra--" Kor flinched, the very word sending a spasm of pain through him "--you will put on a better showing. In fact... Daliah!"

The woman had just dismounted from her horse and wandered over, eyebrows raised curiously.

Terran nodded to Kor. "Once the Hybrid has finished with the campfire and the water, you will spar with him. His Fundamentals are poorly executed. You will work with him."

Daliah gaped at him. "But... he is hardly in any condition to--"

"I care not," Terran interrupted, then turned his horse's head and headed for Jin.

"Blasted Stars!" Kor cursed. Then, wrapping his arms around his middle, he pulled his shitan and headed for the campfire.

Better to get it done now rather than later. Kyda, I hurt. Crescents take the man!
A Non-Existent User
Though Daliah was furious with Terran, she managed to formulate a plan that would allow Kor to rest for a few minutes without sacrificing his pride. She waited anxiously for his return, hoping that he had seen a proper Dragonian spar. Most of the tribe likely moved right into the fight, without taking the old rituals into account.

"Sit." she commanded, crossing her legs carefully. Kor eased himself across from her, allowing himself to only wince, though she could tell he longed to do much more. She led him through the exercises, beginning with Kyda's greeting.

"Arms out, palms up. Good. Now, look to the sky and repeat after me. 'Kyda, fyr lon valon a colarh. Il hota nifyr toka, tyra rode-an virca. Kyda, your face burns in the night. We fight in your honor, that you may bring us victory.'"

"What crescent-blasted madness is this?"

Daliah turned to Terran innocently. "I thought of all the Shinar, you would recognize the ancient Dragonian spar. You would not expect me to fight without first acknowledging Kyda? If I did, he could bring fiery rains upon us, and I suspect Jin would not be pleased when I tell him it was because you were eager to see the suffering of his protected."

She stared unblinkingly into his eyes, ignoring the itch to draw her blade and show him exactly what suffering was. At this time, she would settle for his humiliation before others of his station. When he finally broke away from her gaze and walked back, she shared a victory smile with Kor. They had won for now.

They finished without any other interruptions until it was time for them to spar. For that, Terran returned, seemingly eager to see blood spilled. Daliah knew there would have to be some. If she held back, it would be known, and Kor would be taunted for days on end. But he was already injured, if only she could level that...

She swung her sword, parrying several blows. Kor was talented, she could see that even his condition. However, under the poison's influence, he was quickly tiring. She dug her foot into the sand, leaving it there until an attack forced her back. Her entire body dropped to the ground, where she continued to fight. She knew his technique. He would not let her up easily.

Her blade crossed his arm twice, barely breaking the surface of the skin. But there was enough blood that she would not be suspected. He nicked her shoulder, and she could tell then that he knew what she was doing. Yet he was eager enough to protect her pride as she was to protect his. They kept up the show of skill for nearly half an hour until Terran grew frustrated and called them all to work.

Kor helped her to her feet, watching as she pretended to test her weight on her foot before leaving, limping slightly. Of course it ached, but she did not do enough damage to be a burden to anyone.

She was assigned to the tents. It was simple work, but it took her focus off of the past few days. She tossed canvas over the frame and held down the corners so that the stakes could be driven in. The rest of the tribe spoke and she listened, but contributed little. She still did not have a place here. Kor had found family, and she had love, but that did not bind her to them. She smiled at Layole, who had come to see that everything was going smoothly.

He passed a flask of water around, coming to her last. She drank slowly, savoring the warm drops as they slid down her throat. He gave her a strip of blue cloth that she had seen often around the camp. She tied around her head like the others, and it soaked the sweat that would have otherwise fallen into her eyes. They had a few minutes of conversation before he had to continue to the next group, but that was enough to restore her energy for her task.

They were at last allowed a break for the midday meal. She did not notice what they ate, for she ate it too quickly in her hunger. All she knew was that it tasted wonderful and quieted the hunger that clawed at her ribs.

Kor sat beside her. She was surprised, as she had expected him to keep a fair distance between them. It was a welcome surprise, even as he said what she knew he would.

"I need to speak with you alone."

She wondered what he was going to say. That part she had not thought through.
Jin's eyes narrowed at a point behind Ravin's shoulder. That was the third time Terran had slunk past him, this time with a small, wrapped bundle in his hands. Friend or not, the man was making him nervous. He glanced at the Border Guard and excused himself. Ravin growled something, but Jin ignored him.

With a curt gesture, he ordered the other warriors to stay behind. Their sullen expressions showed their feelings about that one, but he didn't need the noise of their passing alerting Terran. And there was little concern for his safety in the midst of Mara Border Guards.

The blademaster was easy to spot. His stride was fluid, swaggering slightly as his weight shifted from one foot to the other. His training attested to that. They darted between two tents, skirted a third, and passed the last remnant of tents in a few minutes. Jin stayed back, leaning past the farthest tent to watch Terran.

The blademaster studied the ground for a moment, and then dragged his foot through the sand, forming a narrow circle. He stepped into the center and unwrapped the bundle. Saluting with what was now revealed as a shitan to the light, he stepped into an opening Fundamental, transitioned into several stances, and then back into a handful of Fundamentals. The pattern Jin recognize easily; testing the balance and workmanship of a new or recently adjusted weapon. But Terran already had a pair of shitans of fine work customized exactly to him, including an extra weight to the lefthand shitan to favor his style.

Sand hissed softly behind him. Jin stiffened and whirled. Ravin stood there, smiling. "What?"

"Your captain is very intrigued with the Hybrid, yes?"

He shrugged. "I know not."

Ravin's smile broadened. "You do. You won't admit it, but you do. He has arranged things quite well, I would say. I wonder what your captain has found so interesting in a scant Hybrid. Maybe I should find out."

Great. "You have far more training than he. It would not be a fair fight."

"Instinct is stronger than training. A trained Derk-ra is dangerous; a feral one far more so."

Terran called out to someone. Ravin glanced aside. Jin followed his gaze. Kor had reappeared, Daliah at his side for a moment, before she stepped away. Kor appeared drained, putting one foot in front of the other by will power alone. And Terran, obviously, planned to either spar with him or set another Derk-ra on him after dusk.

Jin shook his head. Terran he would deal with later. It was too confusing now. And more importantly, Terran was very close-mouthed on matters of this. Ravin chuckled behind him. "I think I will watch this."

And probably join in after a moment Jin thought, but didn't voice it. He strode after Daliah. At least she might give him some answers. More than Terran would at the very least.
Hearing Terran's sadly now overly-familiar call, Kor glanced from Daliah to Terran, his expression twisted into a strange combination of snarl, grin and wince, before settling into a stern scowl. "A moment, Bladesmaster," he murmured, striving at once for politeness and firmness. "The lady and I were about to have a word."

Terran grunted. "There's time enough to fawn over women once you've done your duties. Every man of the Shinar must pull his weight. You---" and he pointed a shitan at Kor "---still have duties to see to."

A muscle clenched involuntarily in Kor's jaw. He was not gritting his teeth; instead, another spasm was coming on. "Very well." He tossed the words like offerings of appeasement at Terran's feet; right now, as little talking as possible was the easiest course. It was far easier to comply than to argue, and far easier to stay silent than attempt to speak through a spasm. He dipped in a bow toward Daliah, but was so stiff it was barely more than a nod. "Later then, Daliah. I'll seek you before I find my rest." If that Demon-blasted kinth permits me to rest tonight, he finished silently.

Terran nodded, and pushed past Kor and Daliah, who both gave him dirty looks behind his back. Then Daliah cast Kor a sympathetic glance, and hurried off. The Hybrid sighed heavily, wrapped his arms about himself, and uttering a fluent string of curses, strode off to find Talen and Sharin.

******


Layole frowned, but gave Daliah's shoulders a small, reassuring squeeze. "Terran can be a... harsh taskmaster. But he usually means well."

Daliah's eyes narrowed. "This is more than being a harsh taskmaster, he's---"

Jin appeared at her shoulder in the sudden, silent way that was his habit. Both Layole and Daliah jumped. The weight of the Fay-el's attention fell upon Daliah.

"I'd like to have a word with you," he said.

Her eyes gazed off in the darkness where Kor'd gone. "It seems many people desire my time this evening. What is it?"

******


To say that the other two warriors were surprised to see Kor was an understatement. They weren’t merely surprised; they were more than a little dismayed.

“Oh no.” Talen shook his head, hard, upon Kor’s arrival. “Terran has to be out of his mind. Hybrid, you are hardly fit---”

Sharin added his own estimation of the situation. “No offense, Hybrid, you’ve shown well enough. But whether slowed by a Derk-ra’s venom or sickened by its ‘remedy’, a man has no business hunting Derk-ra just after having tangled with one for the first time. Go back. We’ll talk to Terran.”

Talen stared at his companion. “Oh we will, will we? Speak for yourself, cousin. If you want to match wills with Terran, you may, but I’m not going to attempt it.”

Kor spread his arms wearily, shitan already clutched in his hand. “Then we are at an impasse, I’m afraid. I myself admit it feels like folly for me to be here, but we must trust in Terran’s wisdom, is it not so?”

The cousins grumbled. “Yes, it is so,” Talen admitted. “Though what in the Star’s name Terran is doing in his wisdom, I’d like to know! I know you and I haven’t always gotten along well, Hybrid, but as Sharin said, you’ve shown well enough and Joran likes you, so I don’t wish ill on you. But… well, I don’t know what you did to get on Terran’s bad side, but he has it out for you!”

Kor sighed. “Well, perhaps he does, and perhaps not. But pondering that question will not help us spot any Derk-ra that may lurk about the camp. So we’d best see to our duty.”

The two warriors merely stared at him. He pointed to the left. “I’ll go that way.” Still they watched him. “Ah… as soon as my leg stops spasming.”

For a moment they continued staring at him, and then Sharin laughed brusquely. “If you survive this night, it’ll be worth writing songs about.”

Kor chuckled too, but that chuckle was strained with pain. Attempting to so much as move his of his right leg hurt almost as though the muscles in his calf were tearing in twain. “Yes,” he gritted out, “and I shall write the song!”

The two warriors chuckled again as they left him, then abruptly lapsed into the silence of sentries. Kor clenched his jaw, holding his shitan in a white-knuckled grasp, and waited impatiently for the spasm to pass. “Cursed Kyda. Starry kinth demon spawn. Crescents. Crescents!”

Gradually, over the course of a long minute of cursing, the spasm wore off, leaving in its wake naught but a tired ache and shaky weakness. Hissing, Kor stalked through the sand, tracing a slowly widening perimeter around the camp. This time, his torch was not lit.

Off in the distance he heard the screech of a Derk-ra, followed by Talen and Sharin’s laughter. He needn’t fear for those mens’ lives; they’d doubtless fought many scores of Derk-ra since their adolescence, and judging from the death-scream that quickly followed the laughter, they’d proved easily victorious against the first Derk-ra to be spotted that night.

There was a soft rustle of scale against sand to his right. Kor dropped into a crouch, practically smelling the rush of adrenaline through his own veins, and his eyes darted to and fro in the darkness. There was nothing. Nothing he could see, in any case.

Every muscle was tense with fear and he actually felt slightly faint and clammy. Sweat poured down him in rivulets, and only some of it was from the calaba. His breath echoed hoarsely in his ears, so loud he feared he would not be able to hear the approach of a Derk-ra should one choose that moment to come to him.

I can’t do this, Kor realized. I can’t stand out here, pissing myself in terror while waiting for one to sneak up on me. Where’s that torch?

Hand shaking badly, he reached for his belt, pulling free the small Cat’s Tongue torch he’d claimed from the women who’d started the campfire after he dug it out for them. He lifted it high above his head, then froze and let out a low groan; a spasm was mounting his back, beginning with the muscles alongside his spine and spreading over his torso. It felt like his ribs were pulling apart. Slowly, he lowered his arm, and remaining in a low crouch in the sand, panted and cursed his way through the pain, all the while praying to Kyda that the Derk-ra would not come upon him then.

A few moments passed, and then the convulsion melted away from him like water. Again, he heard that silky glide of scales over sand, and before another spasm could rise again, he struck the torch hard against the ground.

The flame flared up with a loud hiss. Kor tossed it as far away from himself as he could, then slowly crept backwards away from the circle of its light. As he did so, a stalking shape leapt up from the sand, wailing out it’s strangely feminine scream, and landed upon the small flame. Scales glinting in the warm torchlight, the Derk-ra thrust its head down at the torch, snuffing the light with one snap of its jaws.

Kor threw his shitan, flipping his wrist harshly at the end so that the point of the curved blade would find the Derk-ra’s hide. The scream of pain confirmed his hit, and he launched himself up from his crouch and straight toward the Derk-ra, weaponless, relying on the slither of shadow against shadow to tell him where precisely it was now.

Then he was upon it, one hand somehow finding a firm handhold in its crest, the other seeking his shitan in its hide.

The beast was a good deal stronger than him, and having eliminated the annoyance of the fire, she now turned to confront this new threat. Feeling the small mammal’s grasp upon her crest, she wrenched her head around, snapping at the offending forearm.

Kor hissed in pain, feeling those teeth graze him, but pulled his arm away from the crest by instinct the instant the slightest feeling of sharpness and moisture touched his arm. The strong jaws snapped shut a few inches from where his arm had a moment before been, and at that moment his other arm, flailing for purchase as the thrashing beast unbalanced him, came into contact with his shitan. Growling, he tore it viciously free of the beast’s hide, twisting to ensure that the weapon’s exit would cause as much damage as it could, and was greeted with another scream.

Then, remembering Terran’s killing blow the night before, Kor thrust his shitan upwards, driving it into the Derk-ra’s throat just beneath the jaw and upwards into the beast’s brain. It fell limp at his feet without a sound.

He heard two sets of racing footfalls coming toward him from the left. “Kor!” Sharin’s voice called out.

There was another sound, closer. Kor flung his shitan at it before he could think and saw the blade glint briefly in the moonlight before hearing the sound of metal clanging against metal. Then there was a low chuckle, and the hiss of a torch being lit. Kor found himself staring into the grinning face of Ravin.

"Interesting," the Border Guard commented, sheathing his twin shitans. "An... innovative victory, to say the least." His eyes traced a path from the fallen Derk-ra to Kor and noted the new, long scratch on the Hybrid’s forearm. The smile widened. "Although... I do suspect you'll come to regret your moment of triumph come morning. You'll find that a Derk-ra's poison can be a... somewhat less-than-satisfactory award for your efforts."

Kor knelt beside the Derk-ra corpse and began sawing at the crest. It parted more easily than he thought it would. "I know the effects of Derk-ra venom all too well," he sighed, cleaning and sheathing his shitan. "In fact, just last night I experienced it for the first time."

Ravin raised an eyebrow. "As I said, interesting. And your Fay-el's captain put you up to this madness, I suppose?"

Kor did not frown or grimace or show any other hint of his present distaste for Terran. Who knew if the two warriors were friends? "Terran reminded me to see to my duty," he responded simply. Then, more tersely than he intended--- "I have."

"Very interesting indeed, I do say," Ravin positively drawled, that strange wide grin still upon his face. "Well... you'll be relieved to discover that a Derk-ra's venom is nowhere near as harsh the second time. Doubtless, you won't need the calaba this time."

"Great," Kor snapped, but a small flame of relief kindled in him.

"Which means perhaps tomorrow I can answer my own questions about you," the Border Guard responded.

The small flame went out. “Great,” Kor said again, with even less enthusiasm. Even worse, he felt another spasm building.

“Good evening, Hybrid!” the Border Guard said cheerfully, starting back toward the camp.

“Evening,” Kor grunted, then sat abruptly upon the sand, hissing and waiting for the spasm to finish building to he could go about the process of waiting for it to diminish.

That was how Talen and Sharin found him a few seconds later. “Are you hurt?” Talen demanded, kneeling before the Hybrid where he sat in the Derk-ra’s blood.

“No,” Kor said. “Yes. I don’t know.” Strangely enough, just before the spasm would have peaked, it suddenly eased off. “Huh,” he murmured.

Talen grasped Kor’s forearm. “Hybrid, you got scratched.”

“Yes,” Kor said morosely. He waited for it.

It came. Talen and Sharin began to chuckle. Talen actually thumped Kor heartily on the back. “Well, you killed it, at least! Hybrid… you are a madman.”

Sharin shook his head at his cousin, still laughing. “No, it’s not Kor who’s the madman, it’s Terran. Whatever made the man decide to throw Kor at two Derk-ra in two nights is beyond me. But at least he gets a reprieve from the calaba for his trouble. And look, he got his crest!”

“And immunity to the venom!” Talen was saying, but Kor was beginning to feel extremely drowsy and somewhat drunk, and could hardly be bothered to be interested in the conversation. “But still… what is Terran thinking?”

“You two!” the voice of the man in question snapped out of nowhere. Talen and Sharin leapt to their feet. Kor, feeling an immensely soothing relaxation settle gradually over his limbs, didn’t bother. For once, he wasn’t being given an order, and even if he had been, he didn’t have any particular interest in obeying right now. All he wanted to do was seek his bed.

Terran looked down at Kor. “Let me see that.” His head tilted to the crest in Kor’s hand. Shrugging, the Hybrid handed it to him. It was bright orange, like the setting sun. “You fought it alone, in the dark.” It was not a question. A moment later he grasped Kor by the front of his shirt and hauled him to his feet. “Come with me.” Glancing over his shoulder, he looked sternly at the two warriors. “Back to your duties!”

“A madman,” Kor heard Sharin whisper as Terran half dragged him back to camp. If the bladesmaster heard, he didn’t show it.

Terran deposited him on his bedroll when they arrived back in camp. “You’ll sleep well tonight, at least,” he told the Hybrid. “Calaba is a cure for Derk-ra venom, and vice versa.”

Kor yawned widely, lethargically yanking off his boots. “Don’t need more calaba?”

Terran cocked his head at him. “You can just sleep the venom off this time. The body builds immunity to Derk-ra poison quickly, especially after being poisoned with it twice in such rapid succession. You’ll be a bit unsteady on your feet tomorrow. Slow.” He frowned down at the Hybrid. “See that it doesn’t make you lazy.”

“I know, don’t forget my duty,” Kor said, then yawned rudely in the blademaster’s face.

Terran nodded. “Yes.”

A shadow fell over them both. Jin, standing with arms crossed, Daliah and Layole at his shoulder.

Daliah couldn’t seem to be able to decide whether to laugh at Kor or feel concerned for him. Laughter won, this time. “In your case, this is a strange fortune,” she giggled.

Kor smiled wanely. Why won’t you people just go away and leave me alone so I can sleep? he whined inwardly. "Why?" he asked out loud.

She nodded toward his arm. "Calaba cancels out Derk-ra venom, but leaves rather nasty lingering after effects and causes your body to protest the venom's absence. So, naturally, calaba sickness and venom withdrawal are both alleviated by---"

"Derk-ra venom," Kor finished, nodding very slowly. It felt like his head was surrounded by water.

Layole was studying the scene with a thoughtful expression on his face. He glanced briefly at Terran, who nodded slightly.

The Fay-el did not look pleased in the slightest. “Terran, a word with you. Now.”

Terran nodded, turning away from Kor and following the Fay-el, who had started heading toward the privacy of a nearby campfire the instant he issued his order. Then the blademaster paused and glanced over his shoulder. His wrist flicked, and a shitan buried itself in the sand at the foot of Kor’s bedroll. The orange crest he’d earned that night was fastened about the hilt. “I’ve commissioned a second shitan for you. You’ll begin learning to dual-wield them with me
tomorrow.”

Kor stared, briefly shocked out of his drowsiness, at the shitan. The rest of the group gaped at Terran. Somewhere, Ravin chuckled.

"Terran!" Jin said sharply, gesturing impatiently fo the man to come.

The blademaster's eyes flickered over his shoulder toward the waiting Fay-el, who looked even less pleased now. Then, to Kor--- "We'll talk tomorrow morning. Not tomorrow afternoon, Hybrid, tomorrow MORNING! Remember your duty and see that you do not oversleep!"

"Terran, NOW," the Fay-el commanded.

Without another word, the bladesmaster followed Jin away.

Daliah and Kor exchanged an immensely confused look. "Finally," he muttered, as Jin led Terran away. Then he turned to Daliah. "I was going to ask you something, but I forget what..." he started, yawning widely.

The woman laughed. "You look as though you're already asleep. We'll talk tomorrow, before your 'lesson'."

Kor sighed. "With Terran's temper, it had better be AFTER the lesson."

Daliah nodded. "Agreed."
A Non-Existent User
Daliah watched as Kor began to drift. She knew he was not up to a serious conversation, so she kept it as light as she could.

"I dare say you can write that song now." she joked softly.

"I dare say I can." he agreed, humming a few lines. She found herself liking them, though no words were put to it yet. Her ears remained intent on his voice until sleep at last took him.

She spread a blanket over him, knowing that chills would likely come soon. It was remarkably quiet now, and she soaked it in. Though Kor was only a few feet away, she finally had a moment to herself. She began to think over all that happened, attempting to unravel some of the confusion. It seemed that everything continued to change. The truth was unclear. All she knew was what was in her heart, and that was to let go, even if her kind acts were in secret.

Once he fell into a deep sleep, she decided to leave. She could not take refuge in someone else's tent for too long.

Jin appeared to be waiting for her at the campfire. She sat beside him, remaining silent, allowing him to speak first.

"I trust you and Kor had a good discussion."

She felt her cheeks burn in shame. "Yes. He has begun to work on his song, and allowed me to listen to it."

He laughed and shook his head. "How long has he been asleep?"

Daliah dropped her head in her hands, answering his question without words.

"You know, there is nothing wrong with wanting to escape. I do so every so often. It is all in the matter of timing."

"Timing?"

"Like now, for instance. Most of the camp is in their tents, and any left would believe that we were merely patrolling the border."

She nodded, smiling. "I never knew this about you. But how do you ensure that no one follows?"

He fingered something beneath his cloak. "Are you sure you are up to the challenge?"

"Always."

------------

"So what are you escaping from?" Daliah asked, lowering herself onto the ground.

Jin considered this for a second. "When you are a leader, it is a rare moment when you are alone. I know it is my responsibilty, and I feel privileged. But there are days... And you? Has Layole become too dull for you?"

She considered slapping him, but decided against it. He meant it in jest. "No, far from it. Yet there is much I am afraid to tell him, thoughts I cannot sort out, memories..."

"I see. Though, I do believe he would understand."

"Would he understand knowing nothing of your past, even though you feel you are missing something important? Would he understand dreams of blood and tears, screams that echo, though you do not know why they scream? Would you?"

He raked his fingers through his hair. "Sometimes it is best to forget, and move forward."

She was silent for a long time, before she allowed him access to the darkest corners of her mind. "What if I lose him?"

"What?" Jin spun around to face her, surprise written across his face.

"Think about it. I lost my family in war, my only companion in battle. If I lose him, I do not believe I can take it."

Then he said something she did not expect. "I can relate. I lost my wife, and did not think I could survive."

"How did you?"

He smiled slightly. "Elam."

"He is an incredible child." she sighed as she rose to her feet. "Perhaps we should go. I would not want to see you at odds with your guard."

He laughed, and walked her back to the camp, leaving her outside her tent. "He will understand, you know."

"I do. Thank you. Tonight was exactly what I needed."

She ducked under the flap, not entirely surprised to see Layole. "You do realize that if you were seen, others might get the wrong idea." she teased.

"There is nothing I could care less about. I had to see you."

"I do as well. There is so much that I never told you that I believe you need to hear."

"Why tell me now?"

"I do not want to hide anything from you. I want you to know every dark secret, and know me completely." She began to explain everything, talking long into the night. She told him of her dreams, the vision of her father's death and her home's destruction, all that she could think of. It took her until dawn, before she felt she had told him all he needed to know, but she felt such peace. He had not rejected her for her past, rather he accepted her for it.

The sun's pink rays were already filtering through the tent before Layole responded. "Marry me." he whispered.

But Daliah was already sleeping against his shoulder.
Terran sat cross-legged on the sand, eyes closed, back against a chunk of rock. He could hear the camp beginning to stir. Pots rattled. Children laughed. Horses snorted and whinnied as they were buckled into their traces. In an hour, maybe two, they would move on, following their Mara guides toward the sprawling marketplace of Crossroads.

A shitan clattered against the stone by his shoulder, close enough to spatter his arm with chunks of rock. The blademaster opened one eye and then smiled. "Ah, the Star bless you, Kor."

"The bloody Star take you, Terran."

He laughed. "At least you have your spirit." Curling his fingers around the shitan's hilt, he tossed it at the seething Kor. "Did you sleep well?"

Kor caught it and brought the blade up, crosswise for defense. "Forget the nice words. Just get it over with."

"Get what over with?" Terran stepped closer, hands on his hips.

"Shaming me. Making me suffer. I care not what you term it, I only know prolonging it is useless for both our sakes. Do what you must and let me return to my duties."

Terran cocked his head. If the man wanted to impress him, he couldn't try much harder. "I do not intend to shame you. I have other plans than that."

Resignation flickered in Kor's eyes. The blademaster smiled. "Here are my terms. You have some potential, not much, but enough. Each day, I will drill you and train you, until we reach Crossroads. Three dawns."

The Hybrid's eyes widened. "You?"

He nodded. "If you satisfy me at the end of that span, I will sponsor your Confirmation, under one condition. I will continue your training after your Confirmation, until I think you are prepared enough. Agreed?"

"Why? You must have other things to do than train a Hybrid such as I. And one who lacks what another warrior would already know."

Terran smiled. "I have my reasons." Sees right through me, does he? "Do you agree to my terms?"

"Answer me this first. Why should you treat me so, if you intend to sponsor me?"

" If you do well. And the other is simple enough. Can you hold your temper? Can you ignore pain? Because I assure you, you will learn what I teach, I may have to beat it into your skull, but you will learn it. Do you agree?"

Kor hesitated for a beat more, and then nodded. "Aye."

"Good. Now then, do you know the Fundamentals?"

"Aye. You've seen me fight."

Terran sighed. "Then you see no need to learn more of them?"

"Perhaps a little."

There's a place to start. Terran shifted his weight, balancing on the balls of his feet, and then moved, stringing four Fundamentals back to back. Kor's eyes widened and he took a step back, but not in time. Elbow in his chest, fingers in his hair, Terran shoved him down. The Hybrid sprawled facefirst in the sand. Terran leaned down, eyes narrowing, but kept his voice level. "Do you know the Fundamentals?"

Kor spat sand and turned his head. "No."

Good. Not as hard-headed as Jin. It took four such episodes for the headstrong Fay-el. "We'll start there. A house is only as sturdy--"

"--as its foundation," Kor finished.

Terran stepped back. "Get up. Now then, I want you to know nothing, think nothing, do nothing but the Fundamentals--" He saw Ravin skirt by out of the corner of his eye. Ah, won't be much longer.

"--We'll start with one shitan and work up to the dual. Ready?" He saluted and advanced on Kor. "Fundamentals only. Do your best or I'll give you something to remind you."



The sun streaked unexpectedly across the sky as Kor lurched gracelessly backwards and sprawled on his rump. His face throbbed sharply in time with his heartbeat where the blademaster's knee had connected solidly with his nose, but bringing his hand to his face revealed only the thinnest trickle of blood.

“Fundamentals only,” Terran said quietly, waiting for the Hybrid to regain his feet.

For the fourth time Kor dragged himself off the ground, wiped the blood away, and advanced upon the bladesmaster. His movements were annoyingly sluggish and he struggled to force his body to work at its normal speed.

Waving Grass melted into Tumbling Rock as he sensed Terran begin to slash toward his pretty face with a downward tilted shitan. For once, rather than breaking the Fundamentals with an instinctive block or dodge, the Hybrid dove for the ground in a somersault to both avoid his opponent’s strike and earn himself some room.

Terran pressed the attack, however, and in the heartbeat it took for Kor to notice that the bladesmaster was moving, Terran was already waiting for him at the end of his tumble.

Kor lifted his own shitan in Derk-ra’s Claw, twisting the blade so that Terran’s shitan was deflected at the last second with a clash of metal against metal. But then he started to rise to his feet with a twist around the bladesmaster’s outside, and he was so blasted slow. Terran’s shitan flipped and slashed the Hybrid’s bicep.

I'm going to find and kill every last of those Crescent-spawned Derk-ra! he vowed silently as he retreated a step.

Fundamentals only,” Terran reminded him again, kicking sand as the Hybrid backed away.

Kor winced and sighed, bringing his shitan up again in the defensive Derk-ra’s Claw. All of them. He’d never before realized how often he instinctively maneuvered in battle without the Fundamentals, and these habitual mistakes, combined with the sluggishness of his limbs, was going to earn him an entire array of scars from Terran.

Kor launched into Lizard’s Scurry and pressed his attack upon Terran in two swift steps. There was another loud ring of shitan on shitan, and then the bladesmaster spun in Dust Devil and his blade sliced the air. The Hybrid began to step and twist out of the way again, but turned it at the last second into the simple Diagonal Step that was the first technique any student of the Fundamentals learned. Now he was behind Terran’s left shoulder, and in position to parry again with Derkra’s Claw when the bladesmaster brought his shitan down. Again, the blades sang as they collided.

“Better,” Terran said, but before he'd even finished the word the bladesmaster sprang, hunkering down into Rushing Bull and ramming his shoulder into the Hybrid's solar plexus, driving him backwards.

Taken by surprise, Kor began to fall, and rather than resist it he decided to use it to his advantage. Falling wasn’t one of the Fundamentals, but neither was it precisely an outside technique. And so he fell, simultaneously grasping at Terran’s belt for purchase and making sure his legs were in the bladesmaster’s way.

However, to his dismay, he went down hard and Terran merely Sparrow Hopped over him, tearing free of the Hybrid’s grasp in the process, and Kor suddenly found himself looking up at the wickedly curved end of Terran’s shitan.

Fundamentals only,” the bladesmaster reminded him yet again, and took that opportunity to slash another token reminder into Kor’s skin, this time on the other arm.
A Non-Existent User
Daliah found that she woke alone in her tent. For a moment she wondered if Layole had changed his mind, then realized what he had done. He left before the rest of the camp stirred, leaving her honor intact. She stretched, allowing last night's conversation to flash through her head. It nearly made her dizzy. There had been so much to talk about, that she could not even remember all of it. All she knew was that she was truly happy for the first time in years.

She jumped up, ready to begin her day. Most of the camp was already awake, but she was relieved to see she was not the last. That would have been truly embarassing.

Her feet automatically followed the sound of commotion. It appeared that there was another spar. She smiled with delight to see that it was Kor. He had definitely improved, there was no doubt. Terran was still beating him dreadfully, but Kor was clearly putting up a decent fight. Strangely, she felt a swell of pride, though she had done nothing. Perhaps it was only pride for a friend.

Friend. The word tasted odd in her mouth, but not unpleasant.

"I see Terran is testing the hybrid." Layole observed, appearing as always without her knowing. "Interesting."

"He seems to be holding up rather well. In a few months time, we could be looking at one of the fiercest warriors yet." She bit her lip as he fell onto the sand. "In a few months time..."

Layole crossed his arms, and it appeared his attention was elsewhere. Daliah found her curiousity roused.

"What are you thinking?" she whispered.

He smiled. "The same thing as I do every day."

"What would that be?"

"I will tell you tonight. This is not the place."

She pretended to pout. "I hate to wait."

"You made me wait before you told me your thoughts." he pointed out.

"Fair enough." she sighed and looked back to the fight, but she could not focus now. "Is there a hint?"

"No." he replied, obviously enjoying their banter. "You must wait."

"All right, then." she walked off without telling him her destination.

"Breakfast? I have not eaten either." he began to follow her. She gritted her teeth. He knew her too well for her to get him to tell his secret.

She sat on one of the logs near the long-dead fire, food in hand. It was simple, bread with cheese and cream. She ate it slowly, though, deep in thought once more. How dare he torture her like this?

"This cannot do, even for you." One of the women clucked her tongue and tugged on Daliah's arm. "You cannot hide that beautiful hair in dirt and tangles. It simply cannot do."

Daliah was quickly dragged away by the woman and two of her companion, despite her protests. She looked to Layole for help, but he was laughing too hard to move.

She struggled, but soon understood the extent of their strength. They would not give up their captive easily.

"A shame there is no water. She could use a good washing." An older woman commented, pushing her onto a makeshift bench.

"We will have to make do with rags and a comb. Now sit still, do you want this to hurt?"

Daliah stopped moving at the threat. This woman struck fear in her more than anything she ever encountered. She kept quiet and stared straight as they ripped through her tangles with boar's hair and scrubbed her skin with dry cloths. The pain dodged about her brain, but she ignored it, afraid to move.

"Nati, perhaps one of your travelling dresses would fit her?" The woman gestured to one of the younger members. "This one is far beyond repair."

Daliah bit her tongue. This day would be a long one, and she would kill whoever put these women up to this.
Jin leaned against the side of a tent, waiting on Terran's reappearance. The blademaster had dismissed the Hybrid earlier, reminding him to return by morning. Kor had not looked thrilled at the prospect, not while clamping a hand over his latest wound.

Wincing, Jin fingered his own marks from Terran's gentle instruction. He had been distracted. Terran dragged a shitan from the crook of his elbow to his wrist, and insisted he fight on for another fifteen minutes, bleeding everywhere. Jin made quite sure he didn't get distracted again.

A horse snorted. Jin straightened as Terran appeared, leading his ebony charger. His eyes found Jin before he could open his mouth. "Yes?"

"Well? What did you think?"

Terran smiled. "He'll do. It's been a while since I've trained anyone. Quite fun." Turning, he slipped the reins over the black's head, tugged on the cinch to make sure it was secure, and then mounted again. "Has Ravin said anything yet?"

"Not directly. But he's thinking about it. He has hinted at me sparring with the Hybrid first."

"Do not."

Jin studied his face. "Why?"

"If you want spar in private, far from the camp, then go ahead. Otherwise, I would suggest against it. He is an amateur in some ways, but he makes up for it with instinct. He surprised me today."

"Oh?"

Terran laughed. "I knocked him over. Instead of being a normal man, and falling, he grabbed at me as he fell. If not for the Fundamental-only session, I would have praised him for it." Still shaking his head, the blademaster changed the subject. "Has Chrys answered any of your messages?"

"None, save the first one."

"Hmm."

"Do you think he's still upset?"

"Karli died thirteen years ago."

"And I did not allow Elam to be raised in his mother's stead. Don't forget that."

"I have not forgotten. I hope Chrys has."

Jin shrugged. "I want you there, when I go to Ratacca Korr."

"I plan to be. With Kor."

"A Hybrid in a pure-blood T'Ollo court?"

Terran flinched. "I've warned you about that."

Jin scowled. The term was accurate. The Mara did stem from a "Lost" tribe of Dragonians, fleeing from an earlier scourge by the Eloin. But the Mara people usually resented it. "Mara court. A Hybrid? Do you think he'll stand for it?"

"Can he refuse a member of your tribe?"

"True." Jin shook his head. "I'm still surprised that you'd choose a Hybrid to sponsor. The last Confirmation you sponsored--"

"--was yours. I know." Terran smiled. "I have my reasons."

"Why do you keep me in the dark?"

"Because you worry too much." He nudged his charger with his knees. "Ravin wants to leave in half a point. Better get the tribe packing."

"Aye, Da.." he mocked, dipping his head in a mock bow. Terran's chuckle floated back to him. Jin smiled and turned away. All he wanted was Crossroads.

"Ah, Jin."

He winced. Ravin, of course.

The Border Guard stretched lithely with a satisfying creak of his boiled leather armor. He simply could not help the spread of the smile across his face. “I must say,” he told the rather irritated-looking Fay-el, “I am coming to enjoy the company of your tribe immensely. The Mara is suddenly so much more interesting with you lot around!”

Jin, son of Turin, frowned and crossed his arms. Ravin relished the expression of irritated discomfort on the other man’s face. “How so?”

“Weeell,” Ravin drawled, leaning back lazily and resting his hands on his hips. “An Ael Kinth with Dragonian weapons and a Derk-ra’s crest is strange enough alone, but to have such under the tutelage of the Fay-el’s own blademaster is simply unprecedented,” he pointed out flippantly, with dripping sarcasm and a wide grin. “And you also call 'friend' a woman of---let us just say---questionable breeding who can barely be coaxed into proper skirts and who struts about with a sword and proud words like a man. Yet if my little eyes do not deceive me, I think she has an eye for your Second, and he for her, which---again---is… well… most interesting.”

Jin’s frown deepened into a scowl. “You seem to spend an inordinate amount of time observing my tribe.”

Ravin shrugged fluidly. “I am a Border Guard. I watch.” His smile melted from his face as he felt a sudden emptiness wash over him, as though the air had just fallen apart.

“What is it?”

The Border Guard’s eyes were narrowed, and all sense of humor had been leeched from his face. He was all wary watchfulness. “Something just happened.” He held up a hand to stay the Fay-el and stalked off in the direction of the event. “Stay here.”

Jin blatantly ignored the command, following at the Border Guard’s shoulder. “Something? What do you mean something?” They passed through the outer ring of tents toward the first sentry perimeter.

Ravin’s eyes flicked back toward him. “Like the Gift. Only… the opposite?” He could hear the confusion and uncertainty in his own voice. The explanation made no sense, but he had felt what he had felt.

“What in Kyda’s name does that mean?” Jin demanded.

“Shh,” Ravin commanded. Then, a second later, he sighed. There was loud discussion off behind dunes in the second sentry circle and obviously stealth was unnecessary. “When someone uses the Gift, it’s like… a knot. Or a peak. Or a wave. There’s something there. This was the opposite. An… unraveling. Or a sinkhole. A dispersal. For a moment everything was utterly calm. There was no motion, no tension, no activity. Just… smoothness.”

The Fay-el of the tribe of Shinar was staring at him as though he’d sprouted a Derk-ra’s crest. Ravin didn’t entirely blame him. What he was saying made no sense, even though it was undeniably what he’d felt.

“Um…” Jin sounded entirely out of his element, but still he offered a theory. “Maybe it was just someone not using the Gift?”

Ravin shook his head. “Normally there are eddies and tensions even when people are not seizing the Gift. Gives and takes. This was definitely something else.”

They finally reached the speaking voices. Neither of them were entirely surprised to find Kor standing there, although Jin was shocked to find Elam and Joran with him.

“What are you doing out here!” Jin exclaimed, grasping Elam by the upper arm and glancing back toward camp, where the boys should be.

Elam had his bow and arrows with him. “I was showing Joran my bow!” he piped. “I went away from the camp like Daliah showed me so a stray arrow wouldn’t hurt anyone.”

“Good,” Jin said. “That’s good. But why is Kor here?”

And what in Kyda’s name caused that… event? Ravin wondered silently. It felt like something had happened nearby. Everything was still eerily calm, but the Gift was beginning to resume it’s normal flow. He sensed somewhat of a condensing around the boy Elam, and wondered.

The Ael Kinth shrugged. He was cleaning off his shitan on his pant leg with one hand. In the other hand he held something long, limp and dark as night. “They saw a viper and asked me to come out and kill it. I obliged.” He held up the snake and looked at it. “Pretty little thing. See the scales? They look black but are actually a very interesting shade of blue and purple. I think there may be enough here to skin for three or four shitan coverings.”

“You fired some arrows and killed a snake?” Ravin said doubtfully, looking the group over. “That’s all?”

The redheaded man stared at him as though he were crazy. “Yes… The boys were practicing their archery and saw a snake. They came and got me. I killed it for them. She was fast, but she was no Derk-ra.”

“Look at her fangs!” Elam said excitedly, tugging on Jin’s pant leg. “She tried to jump on Kor and bite him, like this---” He formed his hand into a mouth and thrust it at the Fay-el’s face, who laughed and swatted the boy’s hand away. “---but Kor knew she was coming and dodged and sliced her out of the air with his shitan like this!” He slashed at the air with an imaginary knife. "Kor says he’ll let me keep the head!”

Jin chuckled. “You’re not keeping the head. It’ll start to smell. But maybe if you’re really nice, Kor will show you how to skin the hide for a shitan covering.” He glanced at Ravin. “Are you satisfied now?”

Ravin suddenly felt very stupid. “I suppose.”

“Come,” the Fay-el said. “I think maybe the sun is getting to your head. You should get into the shade and have a swallow of water. And Elam and Joran, it’s time to return to camp. You know you shouldn’t be out past the first sentry circle.”

The Ael Kinth tossed the Border Guard his water skin. Ravin caught it one handed and raised an eyebrow. “Here, have a bit of mine,” the redhead said.

The sardonic smile crept once again over Ravin’s features and he tossed the waterskin back. “Thanks, but I’ll drink your water after we spar.”

With a curt nod to Jin, he stalked back to camp, puzzled and annoyed.

He was so lost in his thoughts that he nearly ran headlong into a woman. She stepped agilely out of his way and he frowned, finding himself staring into the irritated blue eyes of that demon-blasted warrior woman. At least she was clothed now in a proper dress with freshly scrubbed cheeks and artfully braided hair.

“You people,” Ravin growled. Then he smiled pleasantly; a viper’s smile. “Can you spar in those skirts?”

“Can you?” she shot back, clearly irritated, though whether at him or the clothing or both, he did not know.

"Probably," Ravin told her, the sardonic grin still on his face. "But then, if I were wearing skirts, I'd have no business sparring, now would I?"
A Non-Existent User
Daliah crossed her arms, trying desperately to control her temper. Hot blood pounded into her arms, desperate to wrench the guard's insolent jaw from his face. Yet, as she spoke, her words came evenly, perhaps too much so.

"You find it wrong for me to defend myself, then? Perhaps you would prefer it if I were to depend on a man such as yourself."

His obnoxious grin remained. "No, I find it wrong that you liken yourself to a man. You believe you are equal to a warrior, and that disgusts me."

Daliah closed her eyes briefly, praying to Kyda for strength before she answered. She knew she should at least attempt to explain before she severed one of his limbs. "You have travelled through the woods alone at night, yes?"

He nodded slowly, unsure of where this was going.

"How protected would you feel if you did not have your...gift? Even so, you have the appearance of a man that no one would dare plunder. Imagine yourself as a woman, vulnerable to the elements and any caravan that happened across you. You believe I violate my integrity, but that is in fact what I am protecting. I will not find myself defenseless, at the mercy of any man of questionable morals."

She spun around, not wishing to speak with him any further. It could be that he called her name, scoffed at her, but her head was too hot to hear him.

Sounds of the camp spun around her, biting at her mind, forcing her from her thoughts. It was a sort of blessing. If she were to dwell longer on the issue, her temper would have broken forth.

She melted onto the sand, a state of awareness overtaking her. Her eyes darted from face to face, until they landed on Layole speaking earnestly with Jin. Yet from here, she could not hear what they were saying, which she found frustrating.

She could feel Ravin approaching, and stiffened. If he were here to banish her, she did not think she could leave. She could only hope she found a friend in Jin, who held that decision.
“There is no need to feel ashamed, Layole.”

The Second’s eyes shifted to behind Jin’s left shoulder. He sighed, and moved into his view again. “You wish to marry, and I will not bar you from it. And I have no need for a Second here, with the Border Guards so close.”

“I swore oaths.”

“Which I release you from.” Jin cocked his head. “Enjoy it while you can. How else can I grow a tribe?”

Layole flushed. Chuckling, Jin stepped past him. “I will make it official in a few days. Beware though. If you’re no longer a Second, I guarantee Terran will find you and set you to work.”

Ravin swore. Both of them glanced his way, Layole with a frown at the sight of who his anger was directed against. Jin rested a staying hand on his shoulder and moved closer.

“Bloody, blasted, star-spawned—“ Ravin slid into his native language, though he was obviously still cursing at her. Daliah smiled, head cocked to the side, apparently enjoying the tirade. “I would suggest moving your betrothed away from him,” Jin suggested.

With a nod, Layole moved forward. Ravin flicked him a glance, fingering the hilt of one shitan. They studied each other, and then Ravin relented. Either could win, but neither would risk it. Daliah followed Layole with a wry grin curving her face. Jin, on his way to calm the fuming Border Guard, stopped her. “What did you say to him?”

“He mocked me for my blade.” She shifted the sheath smoothly, adjusting its position. “I told him me without my sword would be like him without his Gift.”

It was Jin’s turn to swear. “Have you lost your mind? No wonder he wants to feed you to the Derk-ra.”

She stared at him blankly. Jin sighed. “He does not have the Gift. It was removed from him, permanently.”

“Like mocking a eunuch for his lack,” Layole added. Daliah glanced from one to the other. “Perhaps I should speak to him.”

“No. You have said quite enough already.” Jin sighed. “I hope Kor is prepared,” he said dryly. Not that Ravin would act on his anger yet. The Border Guard would feed that flame, keep it burning long and fierce, and then express it against Kor on his own timing. Jin knew Ravin, and his own form of self-control.

When he caught up with the Border Guard, Ravin was calm again. He scrubbed a hand across his forehead and smiled in Jin’s direction. “The sun won’t wait forever, you know. I hope the whole tribe is not as lazy as you.”

“We’re moving on at midday?”

Ravin shrugged. “The Fay-el wants no delay.”

Jin’s eyes narrowed. “You have received news?”

“Some. Not much. He very much wants to see you.”

“Bound or free?” He muttered.

Ravin cocked his head. “I do not know my Fay-el’s heart, as you so pointedly reminded me earlier.”

Jin glanced at him. His face was smooth, undisturbed, but danger glinted in his dark eyes. This time, the chieftain held his tongue. The Border Guard shrugged affably and stepped aside. “I would dearly hate to leave you behind. Or help you keep up. Better be ready.”

Their gazes met. Ravin’s expression darkened lightly. The implied threat Jin understood; he would rather not be presented to Chrys tied to his own horse. “We will be ready.”

“Good. And tell that Ael Kinth I have not forgotten him. In Crossroads, we shall see how he dances.”

And Ravin strode away, whistling sharply at the sand. One of his men unfolded from the dunes, brushing away golden grains as he trotted after his leader. That the man held a scrap of parchment, and had a hawk perched on his shoulder, suggested his occupation clearly. Jin scowled at them both, but did not interfere. Chrys sent messages to his Border Guards, but not to his kin-in-kind; it did not bode well.

As he, Elam and Joran returned to camp, Kor was not incredibly surprised or dismayed to see Terran melt from in between two buckskin tents. He was, however, not incredibly thrilled---and taken quite off guard---when the bladesmaster brought his arm back like a thrower in an Aquillian saeda game and, with a mightly snap of the wrist, lobbed a good sized stone directly at Kor's head. The rock sailed past his right ear as he barely managed to twist out of the way. Beside him, Elam jumped, and Joran stared in dismay as the Hybrid, flustered, dropped the snakeskin they'd salvaged.

"What the... in Kyda's name... what..." Kor sputtered.

"Good," Terran said simply, then eyed the Hybrid and each of the boys in turn with a heavy stare. "Always expect to be assailed by unexpected assailants." The phrase had the feel of a recently-invented proverb, perhaps of the blademaster's own creation.

The two boys nodded, wide eyed. Kor merely stared for a moment, then laughed ruefully. "Well, at least you did not test our preparedness with an arrow or shitan!"

"This time," Terran replied. Kor honestly could not tell if he was serious or not, and judging from the glance exchanged by Elam and Joran, they were not sure either. The bladesmaster did not give them long to contemplate, however, before changing the subject. "We're setting out. Pack your things immediately. Boys, see that there is adequate water for the tribe. Kor, when you have packed up that ridiculous bedroll you deign to call 'living arrangements', assist the Fay-el. Now, boys!" he growled, seeing Joran and Elam still there. The boys nodded sharply and hurried off to do as the blademaster bade them. Terran watched them go, and then, once they were out of earshot, turned to Kor. "Stay close by the Fay-el and... take care with the Border Guards."

Kor's fingers rested on the hilt of his shitan. "They would hurt Jin, after giving him safe passage and an escort besides?" He glanced around, looking for any of the elusive men of the Mara, but they were---as usual---not to be seen.

Terran blinked. "I mean look out for yourself. It is unlikely that they would do Jin harm, but you are---forgive the word---a Hybrid. Although..." His expression darkened. "Well, it is a strange thing, to hurry the lot of us along when the sun rides so high in the sky. And Ravin is unusually surly, even for him. Watch well your own back, but also be wary of those who may approach Jin. You never know..."

Kor frowned. "His honor guard has been refreshed. I am not to ride with him..."

The bladesmaster raised an eyebrow. "Who do you think chose his honor guard?" Kor smiled sheepishly. "Today, you ride with him. When they challenge you---and they had better challenge you or I'll have their hides!---tell them I sent you. They will confirm with me."

"But... won't my presence so close to the Fay-el displease Chrys?" Kor worried out loud. "A lowly Hyrbid like me?"

Terran frowned deeply and glanced off toward Jin's tent. "Chrys is already displeased about something, I think. Now get you to your duties. And don't slack!"

Kor nodded seriously. "I won't." He strode toward the campfire. Spotting his bedroll, he knelt to roll up his pallet and two blankets.
"You cannot."

Jin blinked, shifting his gaze away from the stiff back of Ravin, and toward the arguing voices. His honor guard had adjusted their position. Two formed a wall of horseflesh between Jin and the Hybrid. "You mean well," one continued. Talen, it seemed, had drawn the leader position for today. "But you cannot."

"Terran ordered me to do so."

"Terran chose us already. Why would he order you as well?"

Kor shrugged. Talen sighed. "You hold to that?"

A nod. Talen's sigh deepend. Flinging a hand at the nearest of the guard, he snapped, "Go. Find Terran. See if what he says is correct."

"And in the meantime?" Kor asked.

"In the meantime, you stay there," Talen said.

As the argument resumed, Jin turned away. Whatever they chose made little difference to him. He did puzzle over Terran's statement. Why would the blademaster insist on having the Hybrid close to him? There was little danger of the Border Guards. Jin glanced at Ravin thoughtfully. As long as Chrys wanted to see him alive, that is. If Chrys were to order his death...Jin shifted that line of thought away. Surely not.

A shout. Swearing. Kor was suddenly at his side, grinning from ear to ear. And Ravin whirled, hand snapping into the air. "What did you just do?"

"Me?" Kor's eyebrows arched. "I saw an opening between them. I took it. Now I am where I should be."

Jin caught a string of invectives from Talen. Kor acted as if he didn't hear, though his grin broadened just a little, and his eyes glinted with suppressed amusement. Bloody rogue Jin thought. He frowned at Ravin, whose eyes had narrowed as if studying a curious insect. "You lie, Ael Kinth."

Kor stiffened. The honor guard quieted instantly. Even Talen drew himself up. Jin tried to defuse the sudden tension. "Should any man accuse without proof?"

"I have proof," Ravin snapped. "I felt something. Or rather, the lack of something."

Jin sighed. "Did we not discuss this before? How can you bring up such star-crazed things again?"

Ravin didn't answer. He cocked his head, danger gleaming in his face. "Well? Have you nothing to say, Kor?"

"I do not lie. I did nothing. Perhaps you should have accepted the water I offered you before."

Jin flicked Talen a glance and gestured at the two glaring men, whispering. "Do something. Kor looks like he wants to--"

"To fight. Aye, I hope he does."

Jin glared at him. "Ravin will kill him."

"A honor fight requires no death. And Ravin deserves to find Kor is no weakling."

"I don't want to lose a good man over harsh words."

Talen's eyebrows arched. "He felled two Derk-ra, in two nights. What makes you so sure Kor will be the loser?"

Ravin tensed. "You speak as ka-lin, as darkness--a deceiver." A sly grin. "Perhaps your heritage lies more toward the tower of Eyrie than the fair land of Aquila."

Kor's eyes narrowed at the insult. Each word was spoken with careful distinction. "So, you say my mother was a concubine of Azrael, Lord of Darkness. Or that I was sired by a demon. You insult my honor and now my birth."

Ravin shrugged. "I felt something that cannot be explained by what I know. I see one who says he did nothing, yet I felt the proof of his lies."

Kor drew his shitan. "This cannot lie."

And Ravin's eyes lit up. "Do you challenge me then? Can demon-kind bleed?"







"Let's find out," Kor said, pointing the wickedly curved dagger toward the sand. "Yes, I challenge you. But this is your land. You draw the boundary."

"Oh for Kyda's sake," Jin sighed.

Ravin smirked in satisfaction, drawing his own shitans, and sauntered in the direction the Hybrid had indicated. "Very well." The toe of his ashy brown leather boot began to trace a graceful arc in the sand. All the time he smiled ferally at Kor. "This is simple. I shove you outside the boundary, you lose. You step outside the boundary, you lose. My shitan tastes your blood, you lose. I knock you unconscious, you lose. You yield, you lose." The circle traced, he stood waiting in the center, arms spread wide, inviting the Hybrid to enter..

Kor stepped into the circle, sheer anger burning some of the drowsy lethargy from his body.

"You're going to lose, Ael Kinth," the waiting Border Guard informed him pleasantly.

Kor didn’t answer, but instead watched Ravin warily, looking for any hint of movement that might warn him that the more experienced man was about to attack. The Border Guard was all fluid grace; every minute change of stance and expression melted seamlessly into the next. There were no hints.

“You don’t wish to exchange words?” Ravin sneered, stepping back into Coiled Snake. "Plotting more tricks?" Kor just watched him. “Fine,” the Border Guard said with a shrug, “then we shall fight.”

Still Kor said nothing in response, only crouching low, his eyes trained on Ravin’s readied blades.

“And I thought they called you a bard,” Ravin said silkily. And in the middle of the sentence he pounced.

Kor dodged easily, noting the calculation in Ravin’s eyes. His foe was merely testing him. The fight would get much more trying. They wove about each other for a few moments as if in a great dance, feinting and dodging. It was clear Ravin was leading and Kor following.

“You prefer a silent fight, do you Ael Kinth?” Ravin asked, that infuriating grin still spread from ear to ear. “Do words frighten you so very much? Is your concentration so bad that you cannot spare any attention for a friendly conversation?”

Kor smiled a tiny bit himself, changing footwork and forcing their circle to the left. Ravin followed him effortlessly. He thrust forward, faster this time, and Kor swung to the side to evade his attack. “You dance so prettily,” Ravin taunted. Still Kor said nothing, testing Ravin with his own blade.

The Border Guard leapt in a great Diagonal Step suddenly, lashing out with his knife so quickly that Kor, focused on the downward stroke, almost failed to avoid the blade when Ravin shifted it to his left hand in a blur. He felt the tip slash the side of his tunic as he twisted out of the way, missing his flesh by mere millimeters. He ducked under Ravin’s follow-up swing, spun around, and kicked him hard in the back. The Border Guard stumbled but stayed upright, and turned around to face the Hybrid.

Ravin grinned savagely. “Again you prove your denial a lie! I knew it!” His smile was cold and sharp as steel, and rage Kor still didn't understand simmered in his eyes.

Kor tried to shrug away his confusion, but at that moment the other man feinted, and at the last second pulled his dagger and met Kor’s right shitan arm with a turning kick that knocked the blade from the Hybrid’s hand. It flew through the air and landed outside the circle, out of both of their immediate reach. The other followed where that one had gone with a grab and heavy blow to Kor’s left wrist.

“You are disarmed,” Ravin said, his own shitans still held quite firmly before him. “Do you yield?”

Kor snorted, shaking his hands firmly to try to clear some of the tingling numbness left by Ravin’s blows. “I’m not going to lose.” He charged forward head first in Rushing Bull to plow into the Border Guard, but instead of slamming into the other man, he stepped out of the way at the last moment and tripped Ravin as the Border Guard changed his footwork to meet the expected blow. The attack drove the Border Guard back and to the ground.

Ravin’s head struck the ground with an audible thud, and he lay there for a long moment, stunned.

Grinning in satisfaction, Kor knelt beside him, claiming one of the shitans the stunned Border Guard had dropped.

The Hybrid held the blade to Ravin’s throat with narrowed eyes. “Do you admit you lose? Or would you prefer I draw your blood first?” he hissed.

Eyes suddenly clearing, Ravin beamed and hooked his leg around Kor’s knees and used it to twist the Hybrid off balance. Kor fell sideways with a curse, Ravin’s other shitan came up, and Kor felt the blade knick his bicep just below Terran’s shallow slash.

“So the demon does bleed,” the Border Guard smirked.
"Are you two finished now? Satisfied?"

Ravin glared at him, eyes narrowing, before rising to his feet. He cleaned the blades, sheathing them smoothly. "I have my reasons."

"Reasons I wish not to hear," Jin growled. "Can we go now? Or do we hold up the rest of the tribe and your Fay-el?"

The Border Guard's eyes narrowed. "If you were any other man--"

Jin shifted the janin sheath on his shoulder, a light threat Ravin did not miss. "If you were, I would have had you flogged and beheaded already. By my hand. But you are a Border Guard. I am in your land. Do you wish to challenge me?"

Ravin scowled. A lose-lose situation for him. Wounding Chrys' kin-in-kind could mean demotion, exile, or death. Losing to Jin would include a loss of honor, somewhat, among his men. His frown deepened. Whirling, he gestured west again. "To tarry is unwise. This close to the caravan trails, unwanted visitors wander."

Jin nodded curtly. Grabbing Kor's steed's reins, he led him closer to the Hybrid, who was gathering his own shitans. "You fought well."

Kor glanced up at him. "Perhaps. I still lost."

"You did stay in the Fundamentals. At least, as far as I could see."

He shrugged. Jin sighed, dropping his voice. "He won't challenge you again. Ravin is of the ilk that backs off when another stands up to him."

The Hybrid remounted silently. Jin backed away and turned to follow their rapidly disappearing guide.

< >

The gentle swell of dunes cut off abruptly, shearing down into the narrow Dike Pass, smaller cousin to the mighty Rim. Stone wings spread on either side, their broken sides only suitable for wiry, thin goats or the few renegades who dared not risk Crossroads. A thin river, fed by melting snow from higher peaks, drained into a large pool. Trees and sparse foliage made this a suitable camp for caravans and one lost, Dragonian tribe.

Jin smiled ruefully and shifted in the saddle. Here, they were safe from the Eloin and most Hybrid attacks. Several camps were spread out at the base of these cliffs. Caravans milled and churned, setting up camp or preparing to leave, either course discerned by the amount of merchandise dangling from the wagons. A merchant-noble's retinue sprawled in disregard of the cramped area, striped tents rapidly changing into the dusty brown patina of the desert's trademark.

Jin gestured at the men behind him. Talen eased up to his shoulder. "Sire?"

"Where do you suggest the tribe camp?"

Talen glanced at him and frowned. "I...I suppose they--"

"Do not."

His eyebrows arched. Jin sighed. "You drew leader this morning?"

"Aye."

"Then do not guess or suppose. You tell me, where?"

Talen straightened slightly, flicking a glance over the landscape. "To the north of the Pass, at a goodly distance from the nobleman. The trees are sparse, but that merchant may be cause of trouble."

Jin nodded. "I agree. Do it."

And he was gone, whirling his horse and drumming his heels against its flanks. The tribe had set up camp many times already; they were efficient and quick. Though Ravin muttered and swore, Jin tarried until he was certain the tribe was safe and prepared.

The honor guard divided. A large one would be an insult to Chrys' goodwill. Terran reappeared, flicking a curious glance at Kor's bared arm, and the bloody cloth wrapped around it. He shifted to Jin's shoulder. "Seems I missed something."

"You did."

"Did he hold to the Fundamentals?"

"Never strayed."

Terran grinned. "Good."

Jin shook his head, smiling. "Let us go now, Ravin. I am satisfied with the arrangements for my people." He nudged his stallion forward.

"Halt."

He stared at the Border Guard over his shoulder. "What do you need?"

Dark eyes narrowed. "The boy."

Jin frowned. "He is still but a child. Let him stay with the women and other children."

"The child comes with us. That Chrys demanded. You deny a man the right to see his sister's firstborn?"

And his heir Jin thought. "You know as well as I the danger of the Guild. The danger of Eloin slavers."

"I also know the danger of my Fay-el's temper. Bring the boy."

Jin turned, but Kor had already reacted, apparently, because he was at Jin's shoulder again, Elam on the saddle. "Your Da wishes to show you Crossroads," he said.

Elam grinned, oblivious to the tension. "I can't wait to tell Joran. He'll be so jealous!"

Kor's smile was forced, but Elam didn't seem to notice. "Aye, he will. Go to your Da now."

Jin shook his head. "Keep him with you."

"A Hybrid? With your son?"

Jin smiled. "I trust you."

Kor looked slightly startled, but he said nothing more. Ravin scowled at them both, obviously disliking the arrangement, but he let it stand. Jin nudged Doblo through the Pass. Crossroads loomed ahead. And at its back, the craggy outline of Ratacca Korr; Chrys' lair.
Kor’s nostrils flared. “I smell the sea,” he said with an appreciative inhalation, but he stared dubiously about. The desert looked as dry and lifeless as it had for the last several days.

“I smell dates,” Elam piped, and Kor nodded. That implied either an oasis he could not yet see, or a healthy trading post, for any trading post was sadly lacking if it lacked dates. He’d only had the desert fruit once in his life, and knew he’d have to sample them again while here, even if the only currency with which he had to pay for them was a song.

Jin glanced at them both crosswise. “You may see the sea and taste some dates later,” he said, and Elam pouted. “Right now, seeking an audience with Chrys is our first priority.”

Although there was hardly time to explore, Kor and Elam were able to see much of Crossroads as Jin’s small entourage---surrounded on either side by Ravin’s Border Guards---made its steady trek through the main avenue of the trade city toward Ratacca Korr beyond.

Here, there were bright tents, beneath which, piled precariously within giant barrels and parked carts, were heaps of fresh fruits and vegetables, some of which---like a spiked green melon that reminded Kor of a morningstar---the Hybrid had never seen before. Just across from it was a covered stall constructed of whitewashed, neatly hammered wood, where a woman of clearly mixed ancestry was selling lace products. Next to that was a large open space, where a Dragonian blacksmith had set up a forge and was selling horseshoes and a dagger to a family of what appeared to be Aquilian netmakers, judging from the materials in their carts.

Although he could not see it as they traveled northwest through the city, Kor was aware of the moist air flowing from the east, and salt on the wind. There were fish that way, and faintly he smelled the seaweed salad and sugary kelp treats of his boyhood. Several times Jin noticed the shift of the Hybrid’s eyes toward the east, and finally smiled.

“Smells like home, does it?”

Kor raised an eyebrow. “That it does. Yet it is strange, for I cannot hear or see the sea.” On the saddle before him, Elam squirmed, trying to see past the sprawl of tents, stalls, huts and stone cottages to the source of the salt-smell.

Ravin, riding nearby, snorted and kicked his horse into a canter to escape the idle chatter of his charges.

The Fay-el glanced off in the direction Kor’s attention was repeatedly torn. “See the shanties down that way, past the Derk-ra stalls?”

The Hybrid jumped at the word, then grinned ruefully, his fingers briefly brushing the Derk-ra crest on one of his sheathed shitans. “Aye, I see them.”

“The sea is just beyond. Crossroads is on the gulf, and there is a thriving Aquilan port there where Crossroads meets the sea.”

Kor’s eyebrows arched nearly into his bright red hair. “Indeed?” It had been more than six months since he’d last been in Aquila, and the thought that some of his countrymen were so close briefly made him long for home. Then his eyes flicked backwards in the direction of camp and Joran, and he shrugged. Home was where one made a home. Still, it would be good to visit the port, if he had time.

Jin chuckled lowly. “Assuming all goes well with Chrys” --- Kor was somewhat discomforted by the doubt in the other man’s voice --- “you should take some time to see the city. Perhaps even sample some of its wares. Have you anything to trade?”

Kor shook his head. “No, other than perhaps a tune or two.”

“Well, I’m sure there are a few folks here who would gladly exchange a leaf-full of fish for a familiar song. Or perhaps you could put your mother’s craft to good use; Crossroads is large and thriving, but few live here permanently, and finding a healer can be difficult. I’m sure there are those here who could use a healer’s services, and would be willing to part with some coin in exchange for a steadier needle than Turoc wields.”

Terran came riding up behind them as Jin was finishing that last, and glanced from the Fay-el to the Hybrid. “Just see that you---”

“Don’t forget my duties,” Kor finished in a tone of long suffering.

Terran blinked. “That too.” He nodded to the left and Kor turned to look in the direction of the blademaster’s gaze. Two blond-haired, heavily armored men walked side by side in the shadows, speaking lowly. “I meant make sure you keep an eye on them.”

“There are Eloin here…” Kor growled, fingers touching the hilts of his mismatched shitans.

“Ahh, the demon has his own hatreds,” Ravin taunted, twisting in his saddle to stare over his shoulder at the Hybrid with that infernal grin.
Jin gave the Border Guard a fierce glare. Ravin scowled and whirled aside.

“If only he would challenge me,” Terran muttered. “Knock some of that arrogance out of his thick skull.”

“Unfortunately, Ravin will not. He knows better.” After ordering Talen and his men to remain behind, (as his uneasiness grew) Jin nudged Doblo after the retreating Border Guard. They rode at an easy pace through the packed sand, settled by hundreds of feet over the years. When hooves clattered against stone, Jin slowed and dismounted. The courtyard spread in a wide circle, speckled with sand. Careful attention kept the stone clear of most debris.

Ravin had halted as well. He called out in the desert dialect, a slurring accent that mingled syllables, as if he spoke with a mouthful of pebbles. A hostler appeared at his summons and led the horses away. Jin shifted the janin’s sheath from saddle to back. Not that he would be allowed to keep it in Chrys’ presence, but at least it would be in his chambers…. hopefully.

They walked across the courtyard and into a milling crowd of supplicants. Though the outer gates were open, the inner gates were tightly closed, barred by two tall sentries, bearing the Aquila double-headed spear. Each stood at rigid attention, arms unwavering, eyes narrowed like hungry falcons. Sharp features marked them Eastar, such as Ravin. The Border Guard plowed through the crowd with ease. Swearing and angry shouting followed his path.

Jin did not follow him. He had no desire to push through the people. And not with Elam in tow. One mistake, one slip—and his last link to Karli would be gone, as well as the son he loved. Guards patrolled the battlement of the stony castle. Its name had come from its construction. The southern tip of the Rim curved through this stretch of fertile land. The castle had been carved over ten generations, crafted from the rock that protected their coastline. Save the Aquila port, the rest of the surf was a pounding sea that threw ships onto jagged rocks. Many Eloin invasions had tried to unseat the Mara stronghold, and the timbers of their ships lay scattered here and there.

Ravin glanced back at their motley group and shook his head. He turned to the two guards, eyes sliding to the west. He snapped his attention away, fingers flicking a warding sign toward the distant peaks. The ebony needle of Eyrie, Azrael’s tower, lay there. Whether it were truly a tower or a thin spike of dark stone, Jin could not guess. The truth or falsehood of the legend had never concerned him, and still didn’t.

The Border Guard finished his discussion with the other guards. He turned to face them, gesturing irritably for them to follow. Jin worked his way through the petitioners. Ravin stepped away from the two guards and gestured vaguely to the right. “Come. We will pass through the guard tower.”

“Why?”

“Must you ask questions? Chrys is expecting us. His men saw our approach through Crossroads.”

The Guild saw us, you mean. The hawkish glares and studied disinterested expressions he recognized from before. They had not improved, as Chrys had claimed would happen. If anything, the power of the Guild was rising. Two of the shops had the Guild’s mark of disapproval on them. Four intersecting triangles, with a red slash drawn through them—and both shops had been empty of patrons.

Ducking through a low lintel, they darted into a murky-lighted room. Sweet kolinar smoke clouded the air. A hind turned on a spit, surrounded by burly men tossing dice or downing tankards. These were off-duty men, it would seem. A small group, clad in cloaks and linka, were talking quietly among themselves at a rough table, crowned by a single lantern. They gave their group a cursory glance and promptly ignored them.
A pair of Derk-ra rested at their feet, their coloring unusual enough that even Terran took a second glance.

“A matched pair,” he said quietly.

“Aye.” Though their underbellies were the soft tan of most Derk-ra, their other scales were a gray, fading into white around their jaws and talons. They did not possess the murky amber eyes either, but a brilliant sapphire. One hissed, rising into a half-crouch.

At the edge of his vision, Jin saw Kor tense and shift himself between the Derk-ra and Elam. The man at the table looked up, frowned at them, and snapped at the Derk-ra. The creature flopped down again, snarls continuing, but it did not continue after them.

Winding through the corridor, Ravin finally paused and threw open a door, gesturing for them to hurry. Jin stepped through first, and climbed the stair. The rest of them tramped behind him. Out onto a landing of smooth stone, veined with minerals, like threads in a tapestry. Clean rushes and lanterns spaced at intervals revealed a wide hall leading in both directions. Men and women scurried from either side, heads down as they moved from task to task. Each was clad in the color-banded tunic or dress of hereditary servants.

“This is the west wing of Ratacca Korr. Do you know where you are, Jin of Shinar?” Ravin’s voice held a taunting note.

“I do.” Dread uncoiled in his stomach. A flicker of nausea rose, but he beat it down.

The last time he had wandered these halls, Elam was but a month old. His mother had died within sight of her homeland, leaving Jin to intercede with the grief-wounded Fay-el. Thankfully, the midwife Rowan had taken Elam into her home after the miscarriage of her own child. She gave the babe the milk he needed and, more importantly, hid him from the Guildsmen who tramped through the tribal camp in Jin’s absence, searching for Chrys’ heir.

“Ah, sweet recollections, Jin?”

He glared at the Border Guard. “We have no more need of you.”

“You could not find the throne room, even if you tried.”

“I can. Go, Rah-vin.”

The Border flinched, eyes glinting at the slight. “You will regret that.”

“I think not,” Terran said softly. Ravin glanced at him, his frown deepening, and then back to Jin. His eyes slid to Elam and a slow grin spread. “Maybe so.”

Jin leaned into his face, grabbing his shirt and shoving him back against the wall. “Go. Now. Before I do something I regret.” He released him.

Ravin’s eyes were stormy, but he only brushed at his tunic and retreated to the stair. When he had truly gone, Jin sighed and leaned back against the wall, closing his eyes. “I fear Chrys has not forgiven me.”

“For once,” Terran said, fingering his shitan, “I agree with your worrying.”

“What did you do?” Kor asked quietly. “Did not the Eloin cause—“ his voice trailed off. Elam was staring at them both with wide eyes.

“Perhaps, another time?” Jin said.

Kor nodded. They passed in mutual silence, between the smoldering glares of long-dead warriors on their tapestries. On through the quiet corridor, aware of servant’s curious looks and the contemptuous frown of nobles, the rich cloaks and gold torc on bare arm marking their status.

The corridor ended abruptly. Four guards bore lances and swords, studying them as they approached. Behind them, the wide hall of Chrys nuse Endry a Lodear stretched out of sight. Without a word, Jin unsheathed the janin and withdrew the dagger hidden in his boot. Handed it to them. Terran’s shitans and a small blade was added to the pile. Kor hesitated for a moment, perhaps fearing his father’s gift would not be returned, but then he too handed his weapons to the waiting guards.

Elam stirred, tugging on Jin gently. “What are you doing?” he whispered.

Jin smiled at him softly. “Chrys doesn’t want anyone to get hurt.”

Puzzlement flickered on his face. Jin squeezed his shoulder. “Don’t worry about it.”

Elam frowned, nibbling at his lip. His face turned solemn. “Nothing dangerous can go where Chrys is?”

“Only what his guards allow.”

He moved closer to the men. Jin reached for him, but he wriggled out of his grasp. Withdrawing short arrows, Elam held them out to the men with quiet seriousness. “Keep this safe.”

“Aye, sire.”

Jin blinked. Saw Terran’s head snap up. The blademaster glanced at him, eyebrows arching. Jin felt his heart sink. Chrys had married a young Settar-born maiden, Turina, four years ago. But if she were childless, than Elam remained sole heir to the Mara. Jin clenched his teeth. You can’t have him, he growled in his head. He is mine. Mine and the love of my heart.

The guards stepped aside. Jin stalked through, anger pounding in his skull. The hall was wide, centuries old, and stunning to anyone who had never crossed its flawless stone. Curls of scarlet, sapphire, and emerald meandered through a milky marble floor. Craggy pillars reached up into the air to support a roof graced with a pane of Aquila glass the size of a small table. Sunlight shimmered across frayed and fading tapestries. Delicate lunes cast their pale light over the vast room, lighting the inlaid symbols etched into their surface.

Kor and Elam alike stared at the glowing globes. These were not like the small ball Jin owned. Teardrop and crescent moon, prism and six-pointed star—their shapes differed, but all shone with the sapphire gleam imparted them by the hands of a Guildsman. This many of them in one room advertised Chrys’ wealth; a lune that could fit into the palm of a hand was worth a week’s wages. A larger lune could buy a horse.

At the end of the corridor, a raised dais seated two men. Chrys sat at the top of it, eyes narrowed at the approaching group. A gold circlet, crowned with a single green gem, banded his dark brown hair. It was shorn close to his ears, as befitted a man who had passed Confirmation, framing almond eyes, the edges tipped slightly upward in deference to his Lodear heritage. At the base of the dais, Chrys’ loquiri sprawled in languid annoyance, head resting on one elbow, feet dangling from the step.

The relaxed posture belied the true danger. Though the loquiri queue dangled down his spine, marking him out, he was more obvious by the studied stare he gave each of them, searching and weighing the risk to his Match. Jin had seen him kill a man from that position on the dais, unfolding like a Derk-ra from his crouch. Veritas was not a man to trifle with.

He stood as they approached, hands on the hilt of his sword. He alone could carry weapons into Chrys’ presence, and did so visibly. Burly where Chrys was wiry, Veritas smiled easily, and motioned them closer. “Hail, Jin of Shinar. The Star bless thee and thy house.”

Jin glanced at Chrys in surprise. The Fay-el swore, glaring at his loquiri. “ That is not what I said to tell him.”

Veritas shrugged. Chrys swore and jerked to his feet. The loquiri shifted, glancing back over his shoulder. His gaze returned to Jin. “He’s mad at you.”

“I know.”

“I can’t fathom why. Well, I can, because he’s always muttering about it in my head. But his reasons don’t make sense to me.”

“Would you be quiet!” Chrys snapped. He pushed Veritas aside. Glowering, he leaned into Jin’s face, anger twisting his features. Even then, his resemblance to Karli was uncanny. Regret and grief twisted in Jin’s chest. He stepped back. “The Star keep you, Chrys.”

Chrys’ hand came up, and then dropped again. His eyes glanced over their group, searching, hungry. Jin felt his dread rise into a snarling monster. “How fares Turina?” he spoke around a lump in his throat.

“What concern is that to you?”

“You are my tata-kan.”

Chrys glanced at him. A scowl darkened his face. “I care not.” And then flinched, wincing as if he had been slapped. His eyes slid to Veritas and back again. He took a breath and retreated a few inches. “It is…worry for you. That has me…upset.”

Liar. Jin bit his lip and forced a smile. “Of course. Kin-in-kind should never quarrel.”

“Aye.” His eyes widened. “Oh, Kyda,” he breathed.

Jin followed his gaze. Elam stared up at the Mara with unfeigned wonder. “You look like the Keeper’s drawings.”

Chrys smiled. “Perhaps. You look like someone…” his voice caught, “someone I loved very much.”

“Are you a T’Ollo?”

Jin flinched. Terran groaned softly. Chrys said nothing for a long, dreadful moment. Veritas cleared his throat behind them. “We are of the Mara, Elam. ‘Tis best to call us by that, to prevent confusion.”

Elam nodded solemnly. “You sure do look like the pictures of T’Ollo though. Are you sure you’re not one of them?”

“Quite sure,” Chrys grated. His eyes shifted to Jin. “I see what a fine education you have given him.”

“It is a true term.”

“Not any more,” he hissed.

“What do you want of me? Of the boy?”

“I wish only to see him.”

“I do not believe you.”

Chrys clenched his hands into fists. “Do you question my honor?”

“I question your motives. Your actions.”

Elam frowned, glancing between them. Jin rested a hand on his shoulder and gently nudged him toward the Hybrid. “Stay with Kor.”

Chrys’ gaze shifted, and then his expression hardened. “You have a Hybrid caring for my heir?”

Jin’s eyes narrowed. “For my son. Your nephew.”

“A Hybrid? Have you lost your wits?”

Veritas scowled. His hand jerked. Chrys winced. Swore half-heartedly. The loquiri smiled and settled back. Jin watched the play of expressions on the Fay-el’s face. Pain faded to anger, then frustration, and ended at uneasy annoyance. “Fine. Let the child be carried off by some Eloin slavers. A castrated jester for the Eyrie-spawned Eloin king.”

Jin spoke each word with careful distinction. “I trust Kor.”

He flicked a hand in a cursory gesture. “Hybrids are notoriuos liars and thieves. I’m surprised half of your women is not with child by him.”

Kor tensed, but Terran rested a restraining hand on his arm, shaking his head. Jin forced his own anger back under control. “We are weary from our journey, Chrys.”

Chrys frowned. “I know that!”

Jin blinked. And then the Fay-el twisted to glare at his loquiri. “I said, I know that. But they can—I don’t want—Ack!” He pressed his fingers to his temples. “Fine. Do what you want. Just quit jabbering at me!”

Veritas clipped his heels together and bowed at the waist. “As you command, sire.”

Chrys cursed. Threw a hand out at the grinning loquiri. “He will lead you to your chambers. Speak to a maid if you need anything." Veritas glared at him. Chrys flinched again. "You may....eat with me, tonight, if you wish."

Jin dipped his head and turned away. They followed Veritas from the throne room. When they were out of earshot, Jin dropped back, catching Kor’s arm. “Take Elam out now. I don’t want him within easy reach of Chrys. It makes me…uneasy.”

The Hybrid nodded. “Elam,” he called out. “Remember the dates? Let’s go see if we can find some.”

The boy dashed to Kor’s side, grinning from ear to ear. “Really?”

Jin tousled his hair and dropped crouched down to his level. “Aye, you can wander and explore. But, Elam, listen to me.” He rested his hands on his shoulders and dropped his voice to a stern tone. “You stay with Kor. At all times. No matter what you see, or hear, or think, you stay with him, and do what he says. Understand?”

Elam nodded, his face solemn again from his serious tone.

“Promise me,” Jin said.

“I promise.”

He straightened, pasting on a smile. “Good.”

“Jin?” That was Veritas. He bent down again, hugging Elam close. “You be careful now.”

Elam squirmed in his grip. Jin released him and he scurried to Kor. “Come on. Come on. Let’s go. Let’s hurry.”

Kor sighed dramatically but tagged along after the excited boy. Chuckling, Jin returned to Terran’s side.

"Well," Kor said to Elam conversationally as he led the child hastily toward through the courtyard, fearing at every moment that someone would stop them. They had paused just long enough to collect their weapons and hear, again, the guards direct that strange title toward Elam. They hadn't even looked at Kor. "This'll be a first for the both of us!" he said in an undertone.

"You've never been to Crossroads either?" the eight-year-old asked, slightly louder than Kor would have liked. The swarming sea of supplicants did not even so much as glance at the boy, and Kor relaxed ever so slightly. Before he could answer the child's question, Elam offered, "My Da hasn't been in years."

With a slow nod, Kor smiled weakly for the boy. "Yes, well, it seems your father is less comfortable in Crossroads than he is at home."

Elam puffed up his chest. "Well I'm not uncomfortable! I'm not afraid of new things at all!"

Kor laughed, and the bark of his voice did turn a couple heads, who scowled to see his red hair. "Me neither! Now let's find those dates!" Kor said, ignoring the xenophobic glares and whispers except to almost unconsciously rest his finger upon his father's shitan.

They were not challenged at all as they left Ratacca Korr. Kor lifted his nose, and pointed it toward the wind. The wind pointed him toward the dates. "That way!" he said with more joviality than he felt, considering the fear he'd seen in Jin, and pointed toward a figure approaching with a cart.

"My good woman!" the bard greeted with a winning smile as he positively swept before her, Elam on his shoulders.

The 'good' woman frowned deeply, her eyes flowing from Kor's flame-colored hair, to his stormy eyes, then finally to his smile. Her coldness melted somewhat at that last, but her muddy brown eyes were still suspicious where they watched him from beneath a ridiculous floppy, sapphire blue hat. "Yes?" she inquired, her hands fidgeting with her full maroon and azure skirts, then patting the covered top of her cart nervously. Kor could smell the sweetness of the dates stored beneath the lid.

"I see you have a full load of dates!" the Hybrid grinned, shifting Elam on his shoulders. "Are you headed to Ratacca Korr?"

"Yes..." the woman said again, looking even less certain now that her wares had been identified despite having never been exposed to the open air. She couldn't possibly comprehend the keenness of an Aquilian's nose. Kor and Elam would have made the world's most unusual pair of bandits, but the woman was eying them as though they intended to stab her---perhaps with Elam's little arrows---and steal her cart at any time.

"You wouldn't by any chance be willing to part with a small handful or two, would you? The boy here loves them dearly, and I... well... I smelled them, and saw you, and simply couldn't resist."

The woman hesitated, melting slightly more beneath that smile. "No... I cannot... These are for the kitchens. I deliver them once a month."

"Not even for a song?" Kor asked with a pout.

The woman blinked in confusion. "What?"

"A song," the Hybrid repeated. He hummed an agile track of notes, then smiled again. Elam, on his shoulders, giggled and looked at the woman hopefully.

"Well, perhaps one," the woman relented.

"Thank you thank you thank you!" Elam said as she opened her cart and, frowning slightly at herself, lifted the lid of a barrel and passed not one, but three dates to the boy and the Hybrid. Kor, still singing as promised, smiled a little and bowed as he accepted them.

"Now I must be going!" she said, but there was no rancor or impatience in her voice. Kor bowed his head again, and sauntered off, still humming. Elam clung to his dates with one hand, and ate them with the other.

"These are good!" the boy exclaimed, once Kor had led them through the gates back into Crossroads proper.

His eyes were already seeking other carts. "Aye, they are. And that's just fresh. They're good dried, sugared, baked, or made into pastries, too."

"Can we try the pastries?" Elam asked, squirming.

Kor lifted the boy from his shoulders and set him on the ground. "We can certainly try to try the pastries. Let's go see if there are any."

"Wait," Elam said, tugging Kor's hand to stop him. "I want to try your food."

"My food?" Kor said in mock surprise. "Why, my cooking tastes terrible!"

"You know what I mean, Kor!"

Kor thought of the sea-smell on the eastern end of town and smiled. "Aye. Let's visit the Aquila port then, and you can try all kinds of my foods. But Elam... remember... you are to stay close. No running off ahead, okay?"

"I won't," Elam assured him, wrinkling his nose in consternation at being reminded, once again, not to leave Kor's side.

The crowds on the streets became slightly thicker as the two Shinar neared the port. Most of the men passing were merchants of various types, transporting great carts of wares, often with armed escorts. Elam and Kor stepped hastily aside to allow these room to pass, and Elam grinned to see the red, strawberry blond and hay colored hair of Kor's countrymen. "They look like you!"

"Aye," Kor agreed, although those armored guards looked a good deal more muscular than he did. He nudged Elam affectionately, "But I'm not all Aquila!"

"True," Elam piped. "You look like Joran, too! And Ava, though only in the nose, 'cause she takes after their Ma." He frowned. "I don't look like anybody."

Kor studied him as they stepped back out into the street. "Well, you look like your uncle, a bit."

Elam shook his head vehemently. "I do not! Da doesn't like him, so I don't like him either!"

Nor do I, Kor thought. But outloud, he said, "You should give him a chance. Remember what your Da said. Kin-in-kind should never quarrel. I'm sure the Fay-el is a... very nice man... when he wants to be."

Elam scowled. "I don't think he's nice. His loquiri said he was mad at my Da!"

Kor shivered at the term. Something about the loquiri had disquieted him almost as much as seeing the Derk-ra, tamed, had, and in a way that did not even pale in comparison to Kor's shock when the loquiri and his Fay-el had quite obviously shared thoughts.

"Yes, well, I'm sure our Da and the Fay-el will work out their differences. You should wait until that time to pass judgment on your kinsman."

Elam did not seem to particularly like the idea, but he was distracted from those troubling thoughts shortly enough when Kor's nose caught a whiff of fire-roasted fish. Again he set upon an ill-prepared merchant with pretty words, a disarming smile and a song, and this time earned not only the fish, but also a few coins from passersby.

"Ah, this will give us a little spending money," he said. He handed Elam a steaming, lemon-sprinkled fillet of fish wrapped in berka leaves, and a coin. "This is for you. Now you can buy something, if you want. But saving is better."

"I don't want to save it!" Elam said with a boy's impatience, already looking for carts with interesting wares and tasty snacks.

Kor laughed. "To be honest, I'm not going to save mine, either."

"What are you going to buy?" Elam asked, nibbling the hot fish delicately.

"Well," Kor said, "I lost my herb bag back when I first fought alongside your Da. It'll take more than this little coin to get back what I lost, but perhaps another song or two can make up the distance."

"We can sell the shitan covers we made!" Elam exclaimed, nearly dropping his fish as he reached into his pouch to retrieve the deep blue and purple snakeskin covers Kor had taught him how to make.

Kor shook his head. "No Elam, I gave those to you. They're yours. If you want to sell them, you may, but as for my herbs, I know I can afford them with a song or two. Shall we try?"

They set off again, this time looking for something that might mark an apothecary's cart or shop.
"Lord Gyas of Apollar." The announcer had a voice somewhere between a mule's bray and a screaming Derk-ra. Jin shifted uneasily in his seat and glanced at Chrys. The best way to keep an eye on the Fay-el was to stay as close to him as possible. It didn't mean he had to enjoy it.

Earlier, he had bathed, scrubbing the sand and dirt and grime of the trail from his skin. His clothes had been washed while he was busy, but they still needed more help than even they could give. A quick meal of water and a few pieces of fruit, and then he had rushed to the throne room.


Chrys stirred wearily. His gaze shifted to the skylight above, eyes narrowing in an expression Jin knew: counting the points. Like the years before, Chrys reserved several hours of his time to deal with supplicants. He hated the petty arguments, preferring his varied Lords and other officials to deal with things. He knew enough about people, however, to make sure they saw their Fay-el in action.

He waved his hand vaguely at the approaching noble. "Hail...greetings...the Star."

The Lord gave no sign he noticed the abrupt welcome. Not that Jin could blame Chrys; repeating the same set of ritual phrases would make him feel the same way.

Someone gasped. Veritas, who had been standing behind Chrys, unsheathed his blade and started to move forward. When the Fay-el was foolish enough to stand, more from surprise than fear, his loquiri seized him by the hair and yanked him to the floor, stepping over his body to put himself in the way.

The Lord smiled. His pupils were wide with kolinar smoke, but they lacked the murky confusion of a full haze. Instead, the dark depths gleamed with amusement and something more...cunning. At his side, two pale Derk-ra stood in relaxed positions.

The other guards were glancing uneasily between the waiting Derk-ra and tense loquiri. Gyas bent to one knee. "My liege," he said, and then made a clicking sound with his mouth. The Derk-ra crossed their front legs, dipping in a half-bow.

Jin could only stare. Muttered whispers spread through the court. Mostly outrage and excitement, but it gradually turned into soft humor. Chrys swore. Grabbing Veritas' shoulder, he pulled himself upright again. Flicked a hand at the two nearest guards as he growled, "How dare you bring such as these into my presence."

The Derk-ra hissed at the approaching men. One bared its fangs. They stopped and glanced at Chrys. Gyas' grin broadened slightly. "I brought gifts to my Fay-el. Is there a crime in that?"

Chrys' jaw clenched. But he sat again, motioning the guards aside and allowing the man to approach a little more. Veritas did not relax. He sheathed the blade and settled at Chrys' shoulder, arms crossed, glowering at the Lord.

Gyas' eyes swept the assembly, wandering from man to man. They stopped on Jin. Tightness spread across his chest. He struggled to breathe. Couldn't turn his gaze away.

I know you. whispered in his head.

Jin clenched his fingers around the chair arms until his knuckles whitened. Bile burned the back of his throat. And then Gyas looked away. "Sire, I present to you the work of Gyas the White. These are purebred Derk-ra, well-trained. But, as you can see, quite different than any other."

In the clear light of the skylight, they were less pale gray and more like an off-white gleam. Eyes as blue as lunes studied those around them, fangs extending past lower lips. When one held Jin's gaze, an uncanny look gleamed. Though he could not describe it, his gut clenched in dislike.

A warm hand rested on his shoulder. He flicked a glance from the corner of his eye. Veritas. The loquiri didn't turn his head, but his thumb pressed against his spine. Gift flared. Jin closed his eyes, and allowed the loquiri to bleed the tension from his body.

"What's wrong?" Veritas whispered

"Don't know. Nothing probably. Just...strange."

The loquiri shrugged. "He does have a way of doing things, doesn't he?" He gestured at Gyas, who had backed away. His Derk-ra stood quietly beside a pillar, one of Chrys' Derk-ra handlers standing near.

Jin saw Chrys' eyes slide to him, noting his loquiri, and then move away, but not without the look of irritation. Veritas sighed. "I swear, if he doesn't get out of this surly mood, I'm going to dunk him until he cools off."

He stalked away, returning to his Match's side. Jin smiled and returned his attention to the court again. The "gifts" cut the number of supplicants in half. The rest, thoroughly cowed, stammered out their pleas quickly and then backed away as soon as Chrys gave an answer. The rest of the session passed without incident.

< >

Settled for the evening meal, Jin saw Chrys' gaze run over the two empty places. "They have never seen Crossroads. I believe they wished to sample some of the prosperity of your land."

The Fay-el's eyes narrowed, but he didn't comment. At least, outloud. Veritas, standing at his side, thumped the top of his head. Jin bit his lip to stifle the laugh. Taking a deep breath, Chrys shifted slightly away from his loquiri and said, "Tell me of this Lord Aretas. I have heard some rumors."

"There is nothing much to tell. He is young, but not untried in warfare. He has two half-Dragonian advisors, which makes him a formidable opponent." Jin hesitated. "He also, through them, knows how best to treat his...captives."

An eyebrow arched. "No torture, surely. Eloin do not participate in that."

"Eloin do not. Hybrid do."

Pain flickered in his eyes, before vanishing again behind a mask of boredom. "Ah, I see."

It had been a Hybrid who raped Karli. Jin felt like beating his head against the wall. Only he could be so half-witted as to remind Chrys of that. Veritas cleared his throat, breaking the tension. "Sire. Your wife--"

Chrys stood before he could finish. "The Healers released her already?"

The loquiri nodded. Chrys strode out. Jin glanced at Veritas. "Turina? She is ill?"

Veritas hesitated. "She miscarried his third child a week ago."

"Third?"

"Aye." He bit his lip. "It is some of the reason for his anger, though it is no excuse. Plus, with the Prime, he has a great deal of ... " he cleared his throat, "...desires, that he cannot fulfill."

During the short span of Prime, a man's needs doubled. Jin grimaced. He had a few years yet until forty. "It must be hard, to experience the Prime secondhand."

"It can be, but it is--" he trailed off as Chrys returned. Turina leaned against his arm. Her skin was pale and waxen, spots of color from her exertion flushing her cheeks. The cheekbones were sharp, clearly visible in her thin face. Amber eyes glittered with grief and pain.

Chrys' expression had softened, his eyes clouded with concern. He looked like the kin-in-kind Jin had known before. Like Karli. Another pang of grief sizzled in his chest, though not as severe as last time. Jin beat it down and waited until they had seated themselves.

Servants appeared as is crawling from the walls. They must have tarried until the Fay-el returned. More intersesting was their order of serving. They served him and Terran, but gave Chrys' plate to Veritas first, who sampled it and then returned it to the Fay-el. They had not done that before.

Jin frowned. "Have the Eloin assassins reached here as well?"

"Never within Ratacca Kor. I would sooner poison an oasis than allow Eloin scum here."

For a Lodear-born, that was a drastic threat. "If not Eloin that you--" No, fear would not be the proper word. Not if I'd like to keep my head on my shoulders. "that you consider, than who else?"

Chrys arched his eyebrows in genuine perplexment, and then glanced at Veritas, who was sampling his wine at the moment. "Ah, there have been some squabbles lately among my Lords. Those of the..." his voice trailed off, but his fingers traced a triangle on the tablecloth.

The Guild. Poisoning was one of their favorite means of removing obstacles. "There has been trouble then?"

"Some. Not for long." His voice hardened. "It seems my lack of..." he flicked a glance at Turina. "They are mostly threats and air, like a Derk-ra lacking fangs." He shrugged. "I am not concerned."

Yet your loquiri tastes your food. Jin chose to shift the subject to safer matters. I hope Kor is careful. The Guild is much stronger than before.



"I don't think I want to try anymore food," Elam told Kor, slumping slightly over his full stomach and holding his sticky fingers out away from his body.

Kor deftly rewrapped the parchment paper about the pistachio cookies they'd purchased from a Dragonian baker (who'd eyed both of the Dragonian Hybrids curiously but--- thankfully---said nothing). "Well, you are a growing boy, but I suppose you're not a bottomless pit." he ate the other half of his own almond cookie. "I, on the other hand, am."

Elam briefly looked like he wanted to challenge that statement, then sighed in defeat. His hands moved toward his tunic, to wipe away the stickiness, but Kor shook his head.

"No. Let's go wash our hands in the sea, shall we?" Kor suggested, pointing down across the docks toward the calm blew ocean beyond.

"Really?" Elam asked, straightening immediately.

"Aye. There must be more to the Aquilan port than the docks and ships. And swearing sailors, he finished silently, with a sideways glance at the boy.

"I want to go swimming!" Elam informed him, dragging on Kor's hand.

Kor chuckled. "Do you know how to swim?"

That slowed the boy down a bit. "No." He looked dejected for about half a heartbeat, then tugged Kor's hand again, harder. "But you can show me, like Daliah showed me how to use my bow!"

The bard shook his head, following after the excited boy. "Tis a somewhat longer task, to teach one ot swim than to teach him to shoot an arrow. But you can see the beach, and walk in the surf, if you'd like. If we stay in Crossroads a while, I'll teach you to swim."

"Do you think my Da will let me learn?"

"Do you think your Da wants you to grow into a strong, capable warrior?" Kor shot back.

Elam grinned, revealing two missing teeth. "Yes!"

"Well then," Kor said, "I'm sure your Da will let you learn to swim if there is water in which to teach you. And I am the best man to teach you, for I am half Aquilan and I am a fish." He puffed out his cheeks at the boy and widened his eyes.

"You are not!" Elam giggled.

Kor nodded furvently. :Oh yes I am, as surely as I am Dragonian and Aquilan. For they say, in the priest-songs, that the first Aquilan was a fish, and his wife was a seal."

Elam smiled slyly. "Can you fly too?"

Kor looked at him in confusion, cocking one auburn eyebrow over an iceberg blue eye. "What?"

"You're half Dragonian too, and the old stories say that the first Dragonians were Ugama and that Ugama can fly."

Kor jumped up on top of a sealed wooden crate, then onto the brick wall behind it. "Maybe I can fly," he speculated for the boy below, jumping down and opening his arms wide. His boots thudded on the ground beside Elam. "Well, perhaps with more practice."

"Let me try!" the boy exclaimed, running for the crates. Kor caught him by the arm.

"The sea, remember?" he reminded him.

They passed though the Aquilan part quickly, nodding politely to two T'ollo bearing insignia of entwining triangles, who stared at them with gleaming, calculating eyes.

A small beach on the southern side of the Aquila port was waiting for them, with only a few teenage boys and a young Aquilan couple enjoying the white sands. The two Hybrids removed their boots and lay them carefully in the sand, Kor setting his newly-purchased pack of medicinal herbs on top.

They walked in the shallow waters, delighting at the rush of foamy waves over their feet.

"Is this like your home?" Elam asked, crouching to splash his hands through the waves.

Kor smiled slightly, but his voice was homesick. "The waters of Aquila are colder than these, and the sands much darker. There are usually dense, puffy coulds on the horizon, or fog rolling in from the sea, and it is damp, chilly and often rainy."

"I know what happened to your Da, but what of your Ma?" the boy asked. "Where is she? Does she miss you?"

Kor sighed. "Ah, Elam. My Ma is two years dead." he still felt bitter.

Elam's blue eyes were very wide. "My Ma died too, when I was new. What happened to yours?"

Kor frowned deeply, wondering how to---or even if he should---answer the boy's question. Then he shook his head; Elam knew well the threat of Eloin, as did any Dragonian. "The Eloin raided my village and my mother was killed."

"Is that why you came to us?"

"Yes," Kor said immediately. "I wasn't even looking for my father or his tribe. I just wanted to help stand against the Eloin, and the Dragonians are the only people doing that."

"Why?" Elam asked, his curiosity boundless.

The bard cocked his head at the boy. "Who are the people of the world?" he asked, offering a question of his own instead of simply answering.

"The Dragonians, the Aquila, the T'ollo and, if the stories are true, the Ugama," the boy responded.

"The Ugama we will ignore for now, and you must learn to refer to the T'ollo as the people of the Mara," the Hybrid gently corrected.

Again, that persistent question. "Why?"

"Because people have the right to define themselves, and the lost Dragonian tribe, the T'ollo, became a new people---the people of the Mara---long ago. Do you see them, and still think that they are Dragonian?"

The boy chewed his lip. "No. They're weird!"

" 'Different and interesting' is a more diplomatic description," Kor laughed.

"What's dip-lo-atic?"

"It's when you talk to people to try to work out your differences without fighting."

Elam kicked at the water beneath his feet. "Why don't the Eloin do that?"

"Well," Kor said, trying think of a simple way to frame the complex issue. "I'm not sure. Maybe they don't htink others are people. Or maybe they don't think others are worth trying to share the world with. Or maybe they think it's easier to kill people than to talk to them."

There was a long silence as the boy digested that, but Kor soon broke it. "But you were asking why the Dragonians are the only people willing to fight back against the Eloin. Do you know what the people of the Mara are known for?"

"They live alone and say they are not Dragonian, and that they don't owe anything to anyone." Elam offered after a few seconds of thinking.

"Exactly. They try their hardest to stay away from everyone, including the Eloin. And they have the Mara to help them with that. And what about the Aquila? What do you know about us?"

"You... eat fish?" Elam asked with a sheepish grin.

The bard chuckled. "Well yes, we do. But we're also diplomats. We try to get along with everyone, and that requires neutrality. We are known for not taking sides when there are conflicts. So that's why the Dragonians are the only ones willing to fight the Eloin. The people of the mara shut themselves off from everyone and don't need to worry about the political situation outside of their homeland. Meanwhile, the Aquilans don't want to make anyone mad, so they don't fight the Eloin either. So that leaves just the Dragonians."

"And the Ugama," Elam said.

"If they exist... and if they are," Kor pointed out.

"I'm cold," the boy complained.

"Aye," Kor agreed, although he was still quite comfortable. "Let's go back."

A robed figure was standing by their shoes, his hands on Kor's medicine bag and his eyes inventorying its contents.

His fingertip coming to rest on the hilt of his father's shitan, Kor demanded, "What in Xraj's name do you think you're doing?"

The man's eyes slid up toward the approaching Hybrid and a silky smile stretched his lips. "You are a strange companion for a scion of the Mara."

"Put my bag down and step away from our belongings," Kor growled, stepping directly in front of Elam. The man was T'ollo, and when Kor'd seen him earlier, the man'd had a similarly garbed companion by his side, their matching entwined insignia marking them as representatives of the same organization. Kor reached back to put his free hand on the child's shoulder, to make sure he was still there more than anything else.

The man held up his hands, letting the bag fall to the ground. "Trust me, Ael Kinth, you don't want to threaten me." But he backed slowly away, still leering.

"I won't have to, if you leave now."

"I'll be seeing you again," the man promised, the grin abruptly falling from his expression. He turned, and stod casually across the sands back toward the market beyond.

"I'm scared," Elam whispered. "Let's go back to camp."

Nodding, the Hybrid picked the boy up and placed him on his shoulders for the walk back toward the Dragonian camp.

Daliah approached them from the arena in which she'd been practicing her sword. "How was your... meeting?" she asked, seeing the grim expression on Kor's face.

The bard grunted, said "Short", and left it at that.

"Will Jin be returning here, or will you two have to return to him?"

Kor shrugged. "I know not. I suppose if he wants us, he'll send a messenger. He has determined that Ratacca Korr is... not a place he wants Elam to be, at least not for the time being." He cleared his throat and changed the subject. "And how have the past few hours passed for you?" He motioned for her to follow him as he followed the suddenly-hungry-again boy toward the cook fires at the center of camp. Jin had wanted him to stay close by Elam's side.
Where could he have gone? Jin frowned and glanced up both corridors. Chrys was not one to vanish normally. His retinue of attendants, guards, and lone loquiri marked him out better than any beacon.

He knew Chrys had held a brief meeting with the major Houses, six Lords that held governorship over the provinces or, in the case of Eastar, over one-third of the province. Gyas was also included, as he oversaw the peace and prosperity of Crossroads.

Thoug the meeting ended over an hour ago, Chrys was nowhere to be found. When Jin questioned the servants, none knew where he was, or at least, were willing to share. With a scowl, Jin headed for the top floor. Broad skylights dotted the roof here, spreading pale square of sunlight across the stone. Tapestries and paintings alike gleamed with unholy life, while the lune was distinctly absent.

Frustration rising, Jin stalked down halls at random. He had never been up here. Somewhere, Chrys' royal chambers were guarded by a crossed pair of lances above the door, and several bodyguards outside it. The loquiri quarters, the Houses, and any other diplomat or representative invited to Ratacca Korr would be somewhere in this maze, along with enough guards to skewer a pack of Derk-ra.

Something moved at the edge of his vision. A courier, with a pouch stuffed with messages. Jin grinned and ducked down. He would know where Chrys was. They wandered through the halls, Jin tagging behind as the messenger hurried with apparent confidence. And then what he had been hoping for. Jin dropped back and waited. No guards (which meant Veritas was with him) but the lances were a dead give away. Jin pressed against the wall around the corner and waited for the courier to pass him again. When the boy did, Jin dashed back down the hall.

He raised a fist to knock, and the door came open. He stepped back. Veritas glanced at him curiously, but he remained silent. Shutting the door behind him, he leaned against it and sighed. "You can't feel Gift, can you?"

Jin shook his head. Veritas sighed again, deeper. "Good for you."

Something thudded against the door. Glass shattered. Angry swearing shouted hoarsely. Jin glanced at the loquiri quizzically. He shrugged. "He's been holding his anger in for the last hour. I'm letting him throw a fit now."

"Why is he angry?"

"The ambassador from Aquila. His presence alone would make him act like this, and with the demands..." he shot a pointed look at Jin. "Neither is he in the best of moods at the moment."

He shrugged. "Why should an Aquila ambassador bother Chrys? I was told the Mara and Aquila were allies, as Dragonia and Aquila are."

"Not any more."

Jin cocked his head. "Why?"

"You sound like your son." The loquiri sighed. "The Aquila signed a peace treaty with the Eloin yesterday."

He froze. Jin felt like someone had punched him in the gut. "What?"

"I knew it would happen," Veritas muttered. "The Eloin own all that coastline, and they have a tendency to be very...persuasive. Like impressing sailors into their army, or confiscating goods, or raising impossibly high tariffs. The Aquila signed a treaty for the sake of their people."

"And that made him this angry?" Another thud hit the door. The loquiri gave hima sharp stare, eyes narrowing. "The Aquila ambassador was an Eloin."

Jin winced. He couldn't refuse the Aquila ambassador. "He didn't kill him?"

"Believe me, he wanted to. I've never felt him so angry, spiraling out of control."

Something cracked with a shrill ting. Veritas swore, muttering, "That was a lune. If he keeps breaking those..." His eyes turned distant, an inward gaze. Listening to the link. "Hmm, he's calming down now. Get some wine, would you?"

And the loquiri stepped back into the room. With a shrug, Jin complied. It was easy to catch a servant in a color-banded tunic. He took the proferred bottle and flagon and darted back to Chrys' chambers. The royal suite was divided into two rooms. The first was designed as a reception chamber, with places to sit and talk, and decorations that were composed of all four provinces, and some Crossroad material. The next room was Chrys' alone. And it showed.

The Lodear design was strikingly apparent, from the blessing bowl at the entry, filled with tepid water, to the rich sapphire tassels dangling from curved shitans . No paintings or tapestries here. And no more furniture, save a bed and a handful of cushions scattered in different corners.

One of those had been shredded. Downy feathers dusted the floor llike a layer of snow. (not that Chrys would know what he meant if he said it) Chunks of a lune spattered the floor. Silver-blue oil shimmered its dying gleam, the luminescence already fading. A set of messages were pinned to the wall with a slender dagger.

Chrys was sitting on the edge of the bed, panting, scowling at his loquiri. "I can't believe...the nerve...that he would--that they would dare to..." He clenched his teeth and dropped his head. His fists clenched at his side.

Veritas' voice was calm. "No more, I said." His eyes caught Jin. "Bless you." He grabbed bottle and flagon and poured him a glass. "Here now. Calm down."

The loquiri took a quick sip and bent down. "It won't la..." Veritas paused. His eyes narrowed and he straightened.

Chrys glanced up at him. "What? What's wrong?"

Veritas held up a hand. "Just a moment." He turned his back to Chrys. Jin could see his puzzlement. But the loquiri shook his head at the silent question and took another, deeper drink. Sniffed at the cup. Ran a finger over the rim. And then brought his attention back to Jin. "Where did you get this?"

"I asked for some from the first servant I saw."

"Did he seem nervous? Uneasy? Did you see any odd marks on his wrist or palm?"

"Why?"

Veritas set the cup down carefully. "Go get Asaph, captain of Chrys' guard, if you please."

Chrys stood, eyes widening. "Ver? You're worried."

"About you." The loquiri didn't turn around.

Chrys bit his lip. "Now you're lying."

"Partially."

"What is it?"

"Somna. You need protection before it takes full effect."

"It shouldn't bother you."

"It wasn't meant for you. There was a bloody lot of somna in that. Mixed with valla for good measure, I'd think. But they just wanted the somna in my system."

Jin glanced from one to the other. "Somna?"

Veritas scrubbed a hand through his hair. "It helps with headaches somewhat, but among the loquiri, we know it blocks Gift too. Which means there's a leak somewhere."

"Or a Guildsman among your kin."

"Aye." Veritas threw his hands out, staggering, and leaned against Chrys. "Sorry."

"Don't be." Chrys glanced up. "Asaph. And a Healer. Please?"

With a curt nod, Jin darted down the maze of corridors again. At least Elam is safe
A Non-Existent User
Daliah walked carefully through the market, savoring the sights and smells. It had been many years since she had been near so many people. She was almost claustrophobic in the crowd, but she laughed. Nearly everything attracted her attention, especially the vendors. She held respect for the jewels and the brightly colored fabrics, yet she was entertained most by the animals.

A trained monkey performed tricks on a makeshift stage, flipping through the air like a jester. She stopped to watch this, and clapped her hands with delight. After several minutes, he bowed and left the stage. People began to toss coins to the vendor, and Daliah wished she could spare a few. But it had been long since she found work, and could not afford it. Instead she threw a ribbon and hoped the man had a little girl that would appreciate it.

She then continued to the next stand, which included a bird with white eyes. This was one she had never seen nor heard of, so she stepped a little closer. Then it seemed it looked at her, burning straight into her soul. Long forgotten images flooded her mind, as if he had unlocked a door she had never seen. When it ended, she backed away, watching in curiousity as its eyes turned blue.

"You fancy the 'Lota?" The vendor stepped up from behind her, his thick accent obscuring his words.

"Is that what it is, then?"

He laughed. "I thought you knew. It can be dangerous at times, though. It has a rather hypnotic effect."

She nodded. "Well, thank you. It was, ah... interesting to watch."

He laughed again as she walked away. She was suddenly filled with the desire to be alone, away from this place that was so overwhelming. Her agility was lost for the moment, and she bumped into several people, drawing stares she did not want.

At last, she came to an empty stretch of land. She ran to a far corner and collapsed to the ground. The memories flashed before her again. Voices, smells, thoughts...until they all blurred into one.

Her father's face.

She almost cried at remembering it, and longed to reach before her and hold him again. Yet she felt the roughness of his beard against her fingertips, the crinkles where he had smiled too much. She smelled the horses and the sea...Oh, to see that sea again. Not the one that seemed so small now, but the wide ocean that you felt would swallow you without notice. She now felt it at her feet, though she did not see it.

"Push and pull, watch the gull, be careful when the moon is full."

The simple child's rhyme brought on her mother's face now. It was far more beautiful than she could ever hope to be, and she was ashamed of it. Her hands were dirty and brown, never to be admired as her mother's were. She folded them and pressed them into her skirts, willing them away from her sight. If only she could stop remembering...

But the curiousity plagued her, and she plunged deeper while they still remained. She remembered her home, her childhood friends, and at last her family. Then her heart pained her, and she was forced to stop.

She found that she was out of breath, and leaned over to suck in the air. Her head pounded with all of these new memories, and though she felt the ache of loss, she hoped she would not forget them. With them was knowlege, and a step closer to finding herself.

Then perhaps she would know what connected her to others.

Or what set her apart.
Early evening found Kor sparring with his little brother Joran before supper, as Elam stood off to the side and cheered them on, rooting for Kor one moment and Joran the other.

“I do not think you even realize how often you venture beyond the Fundamentals,” Joran laughed, jumping forward agilely to avoid Kor’s foot as his elder brother snapped a low kick at the back of his knee in an attempt to drive him to the ground.

Kor snorted. “Of course I know. But please note that a certain bladesmaster is not here right now to chastise me every time I get a little creative! And you” --- he swiped at Joran’s torso with his shitan, the weapon turned in such a way that it would only tap the adolescent with the flat of the blade if he actually connected --- “are hardly in any position to stop me, now are you?”

Out of the corner of his eye he saw three figures leading a horse stop to watch. Grinning at Joran, he tipped his chin in that direction, and the two of them enjoyed themselves for the next five minutes with showing off, until the younger brother at last tired and they bowed out of the sparring match.

Kor now turned that grin upon the assembled onlookers, but it faltered and fell from his face when he saw that he was facing an unconscious man laying over the neck of a horse, and a small woman with her right shoulder heavily bandaged and her arm in a sling. They were clearly people of the Mara, dressed for the desert in veils, their two uninjured companions---a man and a woman---carrying the water for the entire group.

Iceberg blue eyes widening, Kor patted Joran on the shoulder and strode over to them. “Come Elam,” he said, not willing even now to see the boy separated from him. His encounter with the man at the beach earlier had made it clear to him that something was not entirely right in Crossroads, and Jin’s fear earlier had been an almost tangible thing.

“Forgive me,” he urged them, relaxing a bit as Elam came to stand before him. “I knew Joran and I were being watched, but I didn’t realize you were hurt. Please, all of you, come to my tent and I’ll see what I can do.”

He began to steer Elam away by the shoulder, but when he touched the injured woman to do the same, she scowled and twisted subtly away from him so that his hand rested on empty air. She turned her head sharply, dark curly hair flying over her shoulder as she did so, and tipped her chin toward the shadows between the tents. “It is for my Derk-ra---and for Naftis---that we come,” she told him firmly, fixing him with a rather unfriendly stone gray stare.

That was the last word Kor had expected or wanted to hear, and he froze, his eyes settling first on one Derk-ra crouching between his own tent and Layole’s, and then on another, hidden between the legs of the unconscious man’s horse. At least the second one was tethered; a strong but crude leash extended from about its slender, sinewed throat to the end of the staff held by the cloaked man leading the horse. Unfortunately, it was clear that the woman was indicating the untethered Derk-ra, and Kor took a step back away from it. “Oh.”

An excited Elam tried to take a step toward the animal, but Kor grasped his arm gently and kept him close by his body. “You have Derk-ra as pets?” the little boy asked, and tilted his head up at Kor with a huge grin. “They’re nice,” he insisted, “like the ones I saw when Da and I met my uncle!”

Kor snorted and shook his head. “Shh, Elam,” he said quietly, then nodded politely to the injured woman. “Is it trained?”

He could barely see the smile beneath her veil, but the crinkling at the corners of her eyes gave it away. He noticed a rather nasty scar stretching from her temple nearly to her eye; she’d been lucky, once, not to have lost her vision. “He hasn’t taken anyone’s fingers without permission yet,” she told him, her voice almost a warning.

He swallowed. That was just great. “Very well. Well, uh, let’s not keep him waiting, or your companion either.” He turned his attention with great difficulty away from the Derk-ra to the man on the horse, who sat in the saddle like a normal man, only with his torso and head resting on the beast’s neck. His eyes were still closed, and he was very still. There was a white bandage around his head. “He is unconscious? Ill? Injured?”

The other woman in the group, who had until this moment not said a word, spoke. “Drugged,” she said in a rich, bell-clear voice. Kor could hear years of bardic training there. “He has had a rough few days. Two days ago, he attempted to end his life. Hamen had to strike him to prevent him from doing harm to himself. He was quite determined.”

Elam’s eyes were very wide. “Why would he do that?” he asked

“Elam, not now,” Kor told him quietly. He nodded to the four travelers… and their Derk-ra. “This way,” he said, leading them to his tent even though he’d much, much rather they leave the Derk-ra behind. The cloaked man led Naftis’s horse by the reins, and Kor touched the man’s face gently as they walked, trying to rouse him. He opened his eyes easily enough, but was clearly disoriented and ready to slip back into sleep at any moment. However, when they helped him out of the saddle, he was able to stand reasonably well on his own, and could walk between Kor and the female bard’s supporting arms. “What did you drug him with?” he asked as the group entered the tent and helped the drugged man sit down upon one of the rugs Kor’d borrowed from Turoc. Thankfully, the Derk-ra stayed outside under the care of the cloaked man.

“Derk-ra venom,” the taller, healthier of the two women said. Now that she was indoors and away from the dust and the sunlight, she removed her veil, folding it carefully and tucking it inside her belt. The other woman did so as well, awkwardly, clearly not as accustomed to using her left hand as her right.

Kor raised an eyebrow. Well, that would work, he supposed, although it hadn’t occurred to him that one could use Derk-ra venom as a sedative. Nor did it seem like a particularly good idea, considering its potentially deadly effects on those who had never felt a Derk-ra’s bite. Fortunately, he’d purchased somna today at the apothecary, a drug long known for its strong sedative effects and distinct lack of dangerous side effects such as the paralysis and respiratory failure of kurara berry or Derk-ra venom.

When the injured and drugged man was awake enough to sit on his own, Kor knelt before him, going through the basic tests his mother had taught him to give an individual who’d suffered a head injury. The suicidal man was by far the saddest person Kor had ever seen in his life---although he couldn’t pinpoint why exactly he thought so---but the man was able to tell the Hybrid his name, age, hometown and the number of fingers Kor was holding up. The blow to his head hadn’t impaired him particularly much, and now that he was awake he could think past the Derk-ra venom, which was not particularly surprising considering Kor’s own experience.

“You seem mostly intact,” he said, noting how the wound had scabbed over and the bump that has surely been there a few days before was gone. He was greeted with an apathetic grunt from the injured man. He continued on anyway. “It looks like this was washed and bandaged shortly after you were hit?”

Naftis ignored him, and Kor turned to the man’s two companions, who nodded in confirmation. “Good,” he said. “It’s healing well. I’ll just spread a little salve over it, cover it back up, and give you some kapa bark for the pain.” He fixed the two women with a significant look and lowered his voice slightly. “I have something you can give him. Something better than Derk-ra venom. Remind me to prepare a bag of somna for you before you leave.”

Naftis seemed to start a little at that statement, and stiffened in anger. “That’s right,” he snapped at the two women, so loudly and forcefully that both Kor and Elam, taken by surprise, started.

Kor was suddenly very afraid that the man would rise and try to harm one of the women, or rush out into the night. Unsteady as he was on his feet, that would not be a good idea. He needs to calm down, Kor thought, gathering himself as he tried to think of soothing words to speak to the man, and how best to convince him to remain quiet and seated.

The weight of the injured man’s eyes fell upon Kor, and he saw true terror there, and anguish and rage as well. “Do not do that,” the man whispered sharply.

Kor’s hands flew away from the injury over which he’d been spreading salve. “I’m sorry, did I hurt you? I am trying to be as gentle as I may, but you took a rather nasty blow to the skull.” He was not sure he could stand the pain practically radiating off of the man. How could any human being be this sad?

“My head is fine,” the man snapped, his eyes turning away to stare coolly at the ground. “Leave me alone.” He gestured brusquely toward the injured woman. “See to Jaara.”

Kor really, truly thought the man was in more need than the woman, but he hadn’t the faintest idea how to help him. He’d been taught to heal the body, not the mind. He nodded politely to the woman, Jaara. “He’s right. I’ve done what I can for him. You now, my good woman.”

“I am not your good woman,” she said stiffening. She strode to the flap of his tent, and for a moment he thought she was going to simply leave, but then she held the flap open with her good arm and said with a sharp note of command, “Khyr, come.”

To Kor’s complete and utter dismay, the untethered Derk-ra slipped silently in through the door into the tent with serpentine grace, fixing Kor with a cold reptilian stare and hissing. Without even thinking, Kor stepped before Elam, his hands resting on the hilts of both of his shitans. The Derk-ra merely looked at them.

A soft, musical voice smoothed the ripples of fear and tension in the room. “Do not be afraid,” the female bard urged him with a soft chuckle, still sitting comfortably beside Naftis on the rug. “He is tamer than he looks.”

Jaara did not seem to notice the tension at all, but Kor suspected she relished it. “Sit, Khyr,” she told the beast and indicated with one clean but callused finger a spot at Kor’s feet. He tensed to run, but knew he could not; that would mean putting Elam in the creature’s path. Fortunately, the animal settled down upon the ground, growling lowly but not attacking.

Well, Kor knew what he was supposed to be doing, and figured the faster he did it, the sooner the thing would get out of his tent. Swallowing his fear as best as he could, he reached out tentatively to rest his hand on the scales of the beast’s face, half expecting his fingers to be snapped off at any moment. But he Derk-ra neither bit him, nor flinched or shrank away from his touch, and Kor found that he actually somewhat liked the roughness of the scales beneath his fingers. The Derk-ra were, undeniably, beautiful creatures. The lizard creature allowed him to turn its head into the light so that he could better see the injury. Unlike the Derk-ra he’d slain earlier, this one bled a sort of dirty blue blood, but fortunately there was not a whole lot of it. He probably would not need to test the animal’s patience by placing sutures in its scales. “Looks like this is an old wound that reopened,” Kor observed. “Was he in a fight today?”

“Yes, less than an hour ago,” Jaara said.

With a nod, Kor stepped away from the beast, pulling Elam along with him. The boy was staring at the Derk-ra with rapt fascination. “A moment,” Kor said. “I’ve some things to clean the wound with. It does not require stitching, but there’s a salve around here somewhere that will help protect against infection and foster the healing of the flesh.” The retreated to Turoc’s tent, and borrowed a small measure of the sleeping healer’s special salve, which a lot of the warriors used to keep their Derk-ra crests supple and waterproof, paying the healer for it with small treats from the cook fires.

“Did you see?” Elam asked him, craning his head over his shoulder as though he could see the Derk-ra through the tent. The cloaked man was nowhere to be seen, perhaps having gone to find water for the horse and other Derk-ra. At least, Kor hoped so, although horrified images flowed through his mind of the Derk-ra getting free from the man and running rampage on the camp. But there were no screams or battle cries, only the soft voices of men, women and children down by the campfires. His stomach rumbled. He’d need to grab something to eat once he had finished treating his rather unpleasant patients.

“Of course I saw,” Kor laughed nervously.

Elam did not seem to notice the Hybrid’s fear. “Can I have a Derk-ra, Kor? Do you think Da will let me keep one? I like the one that man had tied to his staff. It was pretty.”

“You will… uh… have to ask your Da that question,” Kor said, really hoping that Jin would not feel inclined to give in. Kor seriously doubted it.

With Elam following close behind, Kor returned with Turoc’s salve, and cleaned and salved the Derk-ra’s snout as quickly, gently and thoroughly as he could manage. It wouldn’t do to do a poor job, for then he might see these people back here in a couple days with a decidedly less calm Derk-ra. But neither did he spend any more time than was necessary. When he had finished, he stepped away from the creature and wiped the grease of the salve away upon his trousers.

His eyes settled once again upon the Derk-ra’s owner, and he sighed to see that heavy bandage. “Will you allow me to tend that shoulder, my good woman?”

She clenched her jaw a little and lifted her chin. “It has been tended,” she informed him coolly.

Kor heard anger in the voice of the female bard for the first time as she turned to regard her companion. “Two days ago!” she said, with a tone of voice that suggested the was a subject that had been discussed many, many times, and of which both women were quickly beginning to tire. “Besides, if the other healer was right, now is time to remove the stitches. You should be grateful for that, at least.”

The smaller woman sighed heavily, but Kor had a feeling it was more for show. “Fine.”

She sat down on the ground when he asked her to do so, and allowed him to pull the corner of her loose-fitting tunic down over her shoulder to reveal the bandaging and, once that was removed, the wound. Kor’s eyes narrowed at the fabric beneath his fingers; it contained an extremely high thread count, and he could see hints of gold stitching in the hems. She was a either a rich woman, or a thief, although her attitude suggested the former.

Kor whistled softly at the wound once it was revealed to the light. Someone had clearly pierced the woman’s shoulder with a sword or dagger, twisted viciously, and yanked it back out. The damage was not as extensive as that which would have been caused by a shitan or other curved blade, but still, it was a wonder the woman was even still on her feet, let alone traveling. It appeared as though the wound was perhaps eight or nine days old, and had been sutured with a healer’s careful touch shortly afterwards. He saw no signs of infection, but the wound still looked slightly swollen and rather painful. Yet as he examined it gently, the woman showed no sign of pain at all, keeping her face almost inhumanly impassive, almost as though she were bored. But he saw a hint of sweat break out just below her hairline, and was suddenly reminded of Jin’s stoic approach to medical care.

“You are like my Fay-el,” he laughed quietly.

The woman stiffened and immediately took offense. He should have guessed; she was a touchy one, and quick to anger. “I am no Dragonian.”

Why must you be so unpleasant? Kor asked silently, but outloud he merely chuckled and gestured toward his flaming red hair and the shitans at his waist. If he could claim to be Dragonian, surely so could she. “That doesn’t stop me!” Behind him, Elam giggled, and Kor reminded himself that he’d have to compliment the boy later on how good and quiet he’d been.

The woman was not to be consoled at all, not even with a joke. “Yes, well,” she said flippantly, “true blood is a much truer thing within the Mara than without.”

Kor gritted his teeth. The people of the Mara were quickly becoming a close second to the Eloin in his ranking of peoples he liked and disliked. Still, he needed to remain professional, even if the woman clearly had no interest in doing so. “Let us just stick to the business at hand. You’ll want to keep this arm in your sling for another two weeks, at least. If you rest it properly, it should be completely usable within a year, unless you sustained nerve or tendon damage.”

He was surprised when the woman laughed in his face and the female bard stared at him in shock, her mouth falling open a bit. Jaara raised an eyebrow at him and said huffily, “I’ve seized enough of the Gift to Mend it long before then. I just…” She nodded toward Naftis, who had straightened a bit and was staring at the healer incredulously. “Well, I don’t think it’s a good idea just now, you understand.”

Kor didn’t understand, but he did think with silent sarcasm, Well pardon me!

Something about the exchange had caught the attention of the half-conscious Naftis. “You do not know the Mending?” he asked.

Kor wasn’t even sure how to answer that question. The grammatical structure of the sentence didn’t even make sense to him. “I… excuse me?”

The three visitors exchanged glances, and Kor had the sudden, distinct feeling they thought he was an idiot. Naftis turned his head back to stare at the dirt again. “Interesting,” he said.

Kor was quickly growing tired of this, and a headache was beginning to blossom in his temples. He rubbed his head, frowning deeply and wanting nothing so much as to kick all of these people out.

“Why are you so sad?” Elam asked Naftis with a child’s innocence, but the man did not answer, for which Kor was glad.

“Leave him alone, Elam,” Kor said, continuing to rub his aching head.

The injured woman raised an eyebrow at him. “Headache?”

Kor sighed. “A bit. But I’ll be fine. Um.” He was having the hardest time thinking past the ache. It was definitely time to call it a night, and to get these people out of his tent. “Oh right. I can give you some kapa to help with the pain,” he told Jaara, hoping to give them some herbs and send them on their way.

The female bard snorted. “She won’t take it, trust me. But… do you have anything for an unsound stomach?” The two women exchanged a glance, and Kor could tell by the injured woman’s angry expression that it was for her the bard was asking.

Kor turned to regard Jaara with renewed interest. She should not be having problems with her stomach at this point unless the wound was fouled, which it was not. “Stomach problems?” he asked, inviting her to explain.

She was not very forthcoming. “Yes,” she grunted, and did not enlighten him further.

Luckily, the female bard was more concerned for the injured woman’s health than she was. “Every morning, without fail---and sometimes into the afternoon as well---she becomes very ill and cannot hold anything down.”

Kor frowned. No, that definitely did not make any sense at all. “How long has this been happening? Did she suffer from an infection early on?” Perhaps it was just the lingering effects of an earlier illness.

“It has been happening since she was first wounded ten days ago, and no, I do not believe the wound was fouled,” the female bard said.

“And this happens everyday, without fail?”

The woman nodded her confirmation to the glare of her companion. “And at the same time of day, without fail.”

Jaara had had enough of the exchange. “Talk to me, not about me!” she snapped.

We would, if you would actually cooperate, Kor thought irritably. Then an idea came to him suddenly. No, that’s highly unlikely. Still… might as well check. “Any fatigue, mood swings, unusual cravings, faintness or heat flashes? Unusual weight gain?”

The female bard stared at him in shock, instantly understanding what he was suggesting. “Isn’t that a bit of a leap?”

Jaara was clueless. “Yes? No? I don’t know. Are you calling me a glutton?” To Kor’s horror and surprise, her lower lip started to quiver and her eyes welled with tears.

Her companion rushed to her side. “What’s wrong? He’s just considering the options!”

“Nothing’s wrong with me,” Jaara insisted, but was clearly in tears now. “You’re the ones with the problem.”

Well, maybe my guess was not so off the mark after all… He cleared his throat and nodded politely to the female bard. “Could you give the lady and I a moment alone?”

“Do you want me to leave?” she asked her friend.

Jaara stared at Kor for a long moment, her gaze clearly measuring. Finally she nodded. “Yes. I’m in no danger.”

What? I’m hardly going to hurt you. Infernal woman! “Thank you,” was all he said out loud. He turned to find Elam. “Elam, go sit in the corner and be quiet, alright?”

When the female bard had finally stepped out of the tent, he shook his head ruefully, staring down into Jaara’s defiant face. Then he remembered Naftis, and wondered if he should send the man from the tent as well, but saw that he was slumped forward, snoring softly. He turned back to Jaara. “This may be a somewhat personal question, but…when was your last moon day?” The confused look Elam gave him confirmed that the boy did not understand what they were talking about.

The question seemed to catch the woman off guard. “I don’t know,” she said, as though it were not something she’d thought about in a long time. “I’ve been concerned with other things.”

Interesting, Kor thought. He might as well do the test. “Alright,” he told her. “Well, would you be so kind as to gift me with a drop of your blood? There is an herb I can blend it with that will tell me what I want to know.”

The woman offered her open palm to him with the same lack of concern or trepidation she’d shown when he’d carefully removed her stitches. Pulling his shitan from his belt, he carefully pressed its tip into her palm, then scraped a little of the resulting blood onto the blade. “A moment,” he told her, and step outside of the tent with Elam.

“What are you going to do with that?” Elam piped as Kor led him once again to Turoc’s tent. The elderly healer had turned in his sleep, but not yet awakened. Kor replaced the salve he’d borrowed earlier, and selected a small pouch of pale blue bark instead.

He held it up to Elam. “See this? When a woman is going to have a baby, there’s something in her blood that’s not there when she is not going to have a baby. The stuff that’s in her blood reacts with this bark” --- he sprinkled a tiny pinch of the bark onto the droplet of blood on the blade --- “and turns it green.” He tilted the shitan to show Elam, as sure enough, the drop of blood turned a deep emerald where the bard had touched it.

“Can I try!” Elam asked eagerly.

Kor resisted the urge to say the first thing that came to his head---Not until you’re a man, and instead responded more appropriately. “Not today. The lady has already lost enough blood since she was injured, and it wouldn’t be very nice of us to take more just so you can play with Turoc’s herbs.”

Elam pouted. “Well she’s not very nice,” he pointed out.

“No she’s not,” Kor agreed.

They returned to the tent, and Kor was dismayed to see that the Derk-ra was laying right next to its mistress, directly in Kor’s path. Picking Elam up gently, he stepped over the beast, and put the boy down well away from its jaws. He spotted the female bard in the corner. “Oh, you’re back,” he said politely, then glanced back at Jaara. “Um…” He nearly called her ‘my good woman again’, but caught himself, “Jaara… What I have to tell you, you may prefer to hear alone…”

She fixed him with a withering stare. “I am not easily frightened or dismayed. You may speak before her.”

You do not even know what I am going to say, he thought, scratching his head and wondering if he should send the bard out anyway. Then he shrugged, decided it wasn’t his problem, and delivered his news with a grin. Hopefully this would cheer the surly woman up. “Well, I’ve got some great news. You are most definitely with child. Congratulations!”

Or perhaps it wouldn’t cheer her up. The two women exchanged a glance, and the shock on Jaara’s face was not encouraging. She turned slowly to look at Kor. “Excuse me?” she said flatly.

He felt the smile begin to falter on his face, and felt like he’d overstepped some unknown boundary again. “I said you’re with child,” he said uncomfortably.

Jaara definitely seemed to deflate a bit as the words sank in, and suddenly she looked like the tired, injured woman she was, and worse, he saw echoes of the pain he’d seen in Naftis’s eyes in her own. What had these people endured, that brought them to Crossroads? “You have got to be kidding me. Is this some kind of blasted joke? I don’t have time for this.”

Looking simultaneously ready to cry or to kill someone, she rose to her feet, and calling for her Derk-ra, strode unceremoniously out of Kor’s tent.
Veritas' presence was usually a calming matter around Chrys, but not today. Jin knew that look in the loquiri's face and eyes. The somna had not completely worn off. He could walk and move on his own, but the constant twist of his head to keep an eye on Chrys, the uneasy pacing, the restless check and re-check of the hilt at his side spoke volumes of his feelings.

An insecure loquiri kept all the Lords on their best behavior, or noticeably absent. Within a few points, the number dwindled to only a scant three or four, Gyas included. Jin kept his attention away from that particular Lord. The paired Derk-ra rested at his feet.

"Sire, this is not acceptable to any of us. If you should perish, Kyda forbid, you cannot expect a boy such as Elam to take the rule of Mara. Name a proxy and we will be content."

Chrys glared at Gyas anew. "You will never be content. I will not have any bloody, Eyrie-spawned proxy of your choosing to rule over my people."

Mutters rose and fell. Jin inched closer to the loquiri. "Veritas, you've got to keep him calm."

"Don't you think I know that?" he hissed. He rubbed his temples and sighed. "I still can barely feel him. As it is, I'm draining his Gift to keep me awake. And--blast!"

Veritas moved to Chrys' side, head snapping to study the group arriving. Jin turned to do the same, and bit his lip to keep from gasping. Ravin and several other guards led a bound Kor and several other T'Ollo into the throne room. Daliah followed on her own power, though bereft of her weapons, and glaring at everyone who met her gaze. Jin spotted Elam and felt his heart race. A Guildsman held the boy in an iron grip. That the normally impassive official was smirking did not ease his fear.

Jin whirled, bending close to Chrys. "My son, give me my son and keep that bloody Guildsman--"

"Jin--" Veritas' voice was strained. "Please, Jin."

The chieftain blinked. Chrys was leaning back away from him. That close would make any loquiri snarl, even without somna muddying the link. Taking one quick breath, Jin backed an arm's length away. He saw Veritas' shoulders relax. That was close. "Chrys, please. Put him in the charge of the woman, Daliah. Anyone but a Guildsman."

The Fay-el stood and nudged him aside. "What is this, Ravin?"

The Border Guard dropped to one knee and dipped his head.

"Get up," Chrys growled. "What is this?"

Gyas' head turned. One of the men looked up. He reacted much the same as Jin had before, his eyes widening in surprise and shock.

As Ravin explained the situation, Jin felt his heart sink. Kor isn't capable of that. I had him at the camp all this time. But blast...the evidence is certainly there. And his mixed blood doesn't help feelings. A Hybrid bought herbs, including somna. A point later, Chrys' loquiri is out cold with the same drug, and Kor's own flask was half-empty, though he claimed not to have used it.

Chrys moved forward, standing next to Gyas. The Lord flicked him an uneasy glance."Well?" the Fay-el snapped. "Why did you drag all these others before me? There is no need to leave them all bound, and accuse them all, if only this Ael Kinth seems guilty."

"But sire."

"Do you question me, Ravin?"

The Border Guard shook his head and moved to obey. Chrys' gaze snapped to the Guildsman. "And why do you tarry with the boy? Should he not be asleep in his own bed? Or in the care of someone he knows, and not a stranger such as yourself?"

"He is your heir, sire."

"He is Dragonian-raised, Guildsman. Give him to her," he gestured at Daliah.

The Guildsman's eyes narrowed. He glanced at Gyas, biting his lip, and then returned his attention to Chrys. "Sire."

"Not you too. Do as I command. Unless you wish to see how I deal with those who cross me."

The Guildsman released his hold on Elam. And the boy ran to Daliah's side. Jin relaxed a little. With Elam in her care, hopefully, the Guild would have trouble reaching him.
A Non-Existent User
Daliah gripped Elam's hand, allowing him to squeeze hers as hard as he liked. In a way, it gave her reassurance that he was still there. His small fingers warmed her, and reminded her not to do anything rash. If she took him and ran, it could harm him in the future, especially if Jin still remained. They had to stay and face what would come.

She clenched her teeth, willing her anger down. Her eyes met Jin's for just a moment, and she passed what she hoped was a trustful look. Then she knelt carefully beside the boy.

"Elam, would you like to practice your bow? I found some special arrows at the market."

His concern was immediately forgotten in place of this bribe, and it seemed the light flicked back into his expression. "What kind of arrows? Will you show me?"

Daliah smiled gently, realizing that their entire conversation was being observed and judged. "Of course. A future leader needs to learn his weapons early."

She dared not glance at Chrys, but knew that this last line pleased him. Jin, however, may have thought differently. But she needed them to believe she would not run. She nodded in Jin's direction as they passed, and let Elam give him a parting embrace around the waist.

I'll take care of him. I promise.

They walked out with a seemingly carefree air, yet Daliah was still on her guard. She knew they were being followed, as she expected. Chrys would not release his heir so easily. She did not worry, though. They would keep their distance as long as there was no danger.

She began to sing a common child's tune, swinging Elam's hand to distract him. The last thing he needed was to notice the men behind them. He laughed and sang along, unaware of their circumstances. She was grateful for that, and hoped he wasn't only pretending for her sake.

Thankfully her weapons were not back at the camp. She could not risk returning, as they would also be looking for Kor. He would have to meet them eventually, but she did not want to be the one that betrayed him.

She retrieved her bow and arrows from the side of the courtyard, where the guards had left them. However, she left her sword, unwilling to risk any kind of suspicion. She was already testing the waters with her bow, but it was the only way she could think of to entertain Elam before he began to ask questions. She led him to the range, where there were targets already set up. Then once more she lowered herself onto her knees, laying out the arrows for his inspection.

"You must be careful not to break these." she cautioned. "There are no more."

He picked one up gently, studying the fundamentals carved into the wood, and the bright colors each one was decorated with. They were far from practical, but she bought them for his enjoyment. He deserved them.

She pulled out his bow, which she planned to bring to him before she was taken before the Fay-el. He remembered his stance almost perfectly, and fit the arrow onto the string. She laid her hand on his arm, guiding his aim. Then he released, spinning the arrow only a few inches from the mark.

They continued until she noticed that his arrows were continuously straying further from the center.

"I think it is time you rested." she whispered, lowering his arm before he could take another shot. "It will not be long before it is too dark to see."

She gathered up their things and led him toward the market, knowing that Elam must be starving. Her ears picked up the sound of men rising to their feet, but she did not let on that she noticed.
Kor's wrists burned where they had been chafed raw by the coarse ropes with which Ravin had bound him, but his physical irritation was nothing compared to the seething burn of his pride. How dare that kinth-spawned Fay-el accuse him---a blasted healer!---of deliberately poisoning a royal servant? Of deliberately poisoning anyone, for that matter? How dare that smug, conniving Ravin arrest him? And that thieving, scheming Mara… Kor knew the man must have stolen the somna he and Elam had purchased from the apothecary, and then had turned around and made Kor the scapegoat for his crime.

Kyda, he hated the Mara more and more with each passing second! Their only redeeming quality was Chrys's insistence that little Elam be shielded from the drama of the court that evening and released into Daliah's capable care. He’d felt positively flooded relief as he had watched her escort the child out of the throne room, and he desperately hoped she would be a better guardian for the boy than he had been.

When at last he was permitted to speak, he strove to keep his voice calm but to also convey the urgency of his words. Seeking out the gazes of Jin in the chair beside Chrys, and Terran at Jin’s shoulder, he felt slightly reassured, although both men looked very grim. "Please, my lord, think past your distaste for my mixed heritage and see that it makes no sense for me to have committed this crime. I have no interest in the affairs of your court or country, beyond any refugee's hope that the land in which he seeks sanctuary will be secure and flourishing. I bear neither you, nor your royal loquiri, any ill will whatsoever; indeed, I have never even met you before my arrival with my Fay-el today, let alone had the occasion to come to know you well enough to take some unfathomable offense toward you."

The ruler of all the Mara leaned forward, his eyes like daggers, pinning Kor to the spot. "Your Aquilan heritage alone is enough of a cause for concern in these trying times. Do you think me an idiot? It cannot be mere coincidence that on the very same day news of the alliance between the Aquila and the Eloin is made known to this court, a half-Aquilan Hybrid with a healer's education---who somehow managed to weasel his way into my kinsman's tribe---stands before me accused of having poisoned my loquiri with an herb only known to healers, loquiri and the occasional bard. I’m given to understand you are two of these things, and a Hybrid besides."

Kor's eyes slid to Veritas, where the royal loquiri stood, clearly tense, behind Chrys. Despite the fact that the man accused of being his poisoner stood on trial right before him, the loquiri was hardly even paying attention to Kor. Instead, his focus seemed to be divided between Jin and Chrys, sharpening to a tension so strong it nearly vibrated through the room whenever the Dragonian Fay-el leaned a little too close to his Mara kinsman to whisper furious appeals to the livid ruler. Terran, for his part, seemed more intent upon encouraging Jin to keep a healthy distance away from the High Fay-el, and Kor wondered at it. If he would ever be released, he’d have to ask Jin about that.

The bard sighed heavily, smothering the urge to wordlessly bellow his frustration at Chrys’s idiocy. "My lord," he said through gritted teeth, "Reason alone will inform you that I am a mere scapegoat for some plot within your own court. You must be blind if you cannot see it. I've no cause whatsoever to trust---let alone align myself with---the schemes of the Eloin, and numerous reasons to despise them. More than two years ago an Eloin raid saw my mother slain and our village nearly burned to the ground. I have spent the last twenty-six months attempting to convince my countrymen to take up arms against the Eloin, to no avail, and only then did I ‘weasel my way into your kinsman's tribe’, as you so quaintly put it. My tribe too, by the way, for my father was a warrior of the Shinar. So now, here I stand before you, accused of a crime for which I have no conceivable motivation whatsoever, and yet you insist it is I, and not a more obvious threat that already dwells within your court, who is at fault."

Chrys waved a hand dismissively. "I care not for how you came to be in Jin's retinue, ael kinth. All know that the loyalties of Hybrids are as impure as their bloodlines and as fluid as their mothers’ amorous attentions. Gold coinage would have been an easy salve for whatever ill-feelings you might bear toward the Eloin."

Even Veritas looked scandalized about that, and began to turn to speak furious words to the High Fay-el, but then his attention snapped to Jin as the man surged to his feet at those words.

"Chrys, you go too far---"

Veritas's jaw was very tense as he turned to regard the angry Dragonian Fay-el. "Jin, I am going to have to ask you to sit down now."

Normally Kor would expect a sharp retort from Jin after such words, but Jin grew very still, and then nodded very carefully and sat down as though upon eggshells. Behind him, Terran relaxed, clearly afraid of what a confrontation between Veritas and Chrys would lead to. That Terran could be so wary of one man frightened Kor somewhat; what kind of warrior must Veritas be, to make Terran so ill at ease?

Kor, for his part, felt a surge of hatred flow through him at the High Fay-el's callous dismissal of his very real, and still brightly burning grievances. He felt the royal loquiri's eyes come to rest dangerously upon him, and he struggled to find the breath to speak through his anger.

"My lord," he said finally, "if you want to search for treacherous motivations, look to the individuals who have brought forth these vile accusations. Elam and I saw these two men---" He thrust his chin toward the kinth he'd overheard arguing against Elam's succession when Ravin had escorted them into the throne room and the one who'd been rummaging through his pack at the beach earlier "---just today. They were watching us as we left the palace, and when Elam and I returned to our belongings after taking a brief walk down to the sea, we found that man searching through my bag. He easily could have taken the somna from my bag at that time, used it to poison Veritas, and then brought it back when he came with Ravin to arrest me. He even promised me that he would be seeing me again! Meanwhile, as I was brought before you, his companion was busily standing before you making known his strong reservations about Elam's succession. Why look beyond your own court for treachery when the seeds of discontent have clearly already been sown within?"

The smirking man who had earlier spoken against Elam fixed his eyes upon Kor, and the Hybrid noticed for the first time that they were dilated, so much so that they were nearly black. What in Kyda’s name?

The Lord smiled charmingly as he spoke. "This one has a sweet tongue, my lord, but like all ael kinth spews poison with every word. Surely it is no transgression for a pureblood Mara Lord to convey his subjects' concerns to his High Fay-el? Indeed, as I'm sure the ael kinth knows, being a learned man as Hybrids judge such things, feudal obligations within the Mara demand that a Lord oversee the welfare of his province, and speak on the behalf of his people before the Fay-el. I am hardly alone in my reservations about the boy Elam, and it would be deeply improper of me to refuse to bring Apollar's concerns before my lord Chrys."

The Fay-el did not look in the least bit persuaded by the Lord's speech, and indeed appeared even more angered by it. "Lord Gyas, you speak more for the Guild than you do for your province, and everyone in this room knows it," he snapped, taking a single step toward the man.

"Surely, my lord, you do not mean to suggest that the Guild, alone out of all your subjects, has no right to make its concerns known to you?" Lord Gyas said nervously, taking a small step backwards, his eyes suddenly shifting about the room.

“Naftis!”

Kor twisted over his shoulder, his eyes widening in surprise as his heavily-drugged recent patient, with a look of strangely dazed determination, broke away from his companions and headed toward Lord Gyas’s retinue despite Caylia’s attempt to call him back.

On the top of the dais, the High Fay-el looked just about ready to launch himself into the crowd and punch Lord Gyas in the face. "Lord Gyas,” Chrys said, enunciating each word with infinite care as he strode down the steps of the dais toward where Lord Gyas and his retinue stood among the other supplicants, “if you do not cease this pathetic attempt to dominate my court, I will have you physically removed. I have already addressed the matter of Elam’s succession, and this court has moved onto other business. Do you understand me?”

“Perfectly, my lord,” Lord Gyas said silkily. He opened his mouth to say something else, but broke off an instant later with a gasp of surprise and dismay as Naftis, appearing seemingly out of nowhere, abruptly stepped in front of him and, tripping suddenly, sprawled at his feet.

Kor thought he might have heard Caylia humming softly, but if so, she abruptly broke off at the unexpected spectacle. What is Naftis doing?

Chrys took a single step back from the fallen man, more in disgust than surprise. “What in Kyda’s name is this!” he snarled, gesturing sharply from Naftis to Lord Gyas. In three short strides, he crossed the distance between himself and the Guildsman, who recoiled, eyes wide. “What game do you think you’re---”

“Chrys, no!” That was Veritas, springing abruptly to his feet on the dais and launching himself into the crowd.

The High Fay-el started to turn toward his loquiri, but it was too late. Moving faster than any man with Derk-ra venom running through his veins had a right to move, Naftis twisted on the ground, rolling onto his back and pulling a dagger in one smooth motion and throwing it with a practiced snap of the wrist.

Chrys crumpled, his hands clutching his side and his eyes wide with shock.

Kor didn’t even realize he had tried to run forward until he felt something catch at his bonds, jerking him harshly to a halt. Cursing at the pain in his shoulders from the sudden jolt, he twisted over his shoulder. “Let me go!” he shouted at Ravin. “You know I’m a healer!”

Ravin tugged him backwards roughly. “You’re not going anywhere near him. You and your friends have already done enough.”

Not really thinking, Kor kicked his leg out behind him, hooking it around the Border Guard’s ankle. Ravin toppled, pulling Kor with him, and uttered a sharp exhalation of air as the Hybrid landed on top of him. Not bothering to catch his own breath, Kor wiggled free, making a point of stepping on Ravin’s belly as he rose, then sprang toward Chrys, who lay in a growing pool of his own blood surrounded by frightened courtiers.

Veritas was kneeling beside the fallen High Fay-el, but his attention, for the time being, was upon Naftis, not Chrys, as he restrained the dazed loquiri. That attention snapped immediately to Kor as the Hybrid rushed forward.

“No!” Jin shouted from the dais as Veritas sprang to his feet and drew his sword in one motion. Instinct or insanity alone propelled Kor to dodge sideways and twist his back toward Veritas as the royal loquiri, moving with the same blinding speed Naftis had employed, brought the sword down viciously.

The blow should have cleaved Kor from shoulder to abdomen; instead, it touched him not at all, slicing through the bonds at his wrists alone. Veritas gaped a little, his eyes widening in shock, but his expression was still grimly determined as he flipped the blade and brought the sword up in a follow-through swing. Shaking the severed ropes away from his hands, Kor dove beneath that strike, and then he was kneeling on the floor next to Chrys, holding up his hands and staring up at Veritas. “Please, I’m a healer! I can help!”

The loquiri paused, staying the blade where it was poised, ready to stab the Hybrid through the heart. Hesitation warred with viciousness in the loquiri’s eyes, and then, as abruptly as Kor had decided to turn his back to Veritas’s blade, Veritas decided to trust the Hybrid. Saying not a word, he sheathed the sword, and turned back to Naftis, who was murmuring, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” over and over again.

Kor turned to the High Fay-el. “Get back,” he snapped at the flustered courtiers crowded about, throwing up a hand to motion them back as his eyes surveyed Chrys’s condition. The wiry High Fay-el was writhing on the ground, but his eyes were filled with hatred and no small amount of fear as he looked up into the healer’s face.

“Kyda, not you,” he gasped, his hands wrapped around the hilt of the dagger buried in his side.

Kor slapped his hands away. “Do not pull that out, you hear me? Here, lie on your back and bend your knees up,” he commanded the ruler of all the Mara, helping him adjust his position to alleviate stress to his injured abdomen. “Good.”

Swearing loudly, Ravin was rushing toward them, but Veritas bounded to his feet again to intercept him. Kor did not hear what the loquiri said, but definitely heard the Border Guard’s response. “Are you serious? That ael kinth---”

“You heard me,” Veritas growled. “Where’s Lord Gyas?”

“Gone,” the Border Guard said. “Do you think he was the one…?” Veritas nodded, and Ravin thrust his finger toward Naftis. “What about him?” His lip curled into a sneer. “Are you going to have him fluff the our lord’s pillows? Draw him a bath?”

The loquiri glanced down at the despairing man, who was, at this point, positively in tears over what he’d done, and utterly incoherent. “I’ll treat him myself.”

What?” Chrys snarled, struggling to sit up. Kor held him down firmly, and a worried Jin knelt beside him, placing a restraining hand on the High Fay-el’s other shoulder.

“Stay down,” Kor told him calmly.

Jin echoed the sentiment. “Marriage-brother, you need to stay still.”

“I’m not your bloody---”

Ravin’s eyes had just about popped out of his head at Veritas’s pronouncement. “Treat him? This man just tried to kill our Fay-el!”

“How is he?” Jin asked Kor quietly.

The Hybrid’s eyes were narrowed in concentration. “Lucky. The blade shouldn’t have hit any organs or arteries here. But I’ll need to remove the blade to be sure, and stop the bleeding. It’s deep.” He eyed Jin’s shirt. “Take that off and fold it.”

“No,” Veritas was saying in response to Ravin’s question as the Dragonian Fay-el slipped out of his tunic and began folding it obediently. “No, he didn’t try to kill him. He tried not to kill him.” He finished tying Naftis’s wrists and then spoke to the confused Border Guard in a low voice. “This here is a depraved loquiri, and if I’m understanding what he’s saying, Gyas just tricked him into believing he was his Match. The Guildsman felt threatened by Chrys, and Naftis reacted precisely as newly pair-bonded loquiri always act.”

“Yes,” Chrys said through gritted teeth as Kor’s fingers closed carefully over the hilt of the dagger, “he tried to kill me.”

Veritas bit his lip. “At first, maybe. Yes. But he says he sensed the pair-link between you and I and could not bear to make another suffer what he has suffered.” Two palace servants appeared at the loquiri’s shoulder. “For that reason, and that reason alone, I will treat him myself.” He addressed the servants. “Take him to my chambers. See that he is under guard, but unharmed.”

“Can you treat me, too?” Chrys hissed as the depraved loquiri was taken away, and Kor, focused on the dagger in his patient’s belly, could not tell if the Fay-el was serious or joking. A gentle pull revealed that the dagger moved easily beneath Kor’s fingers; good, it would slip easily out of the wound without doing further damage or needing to be cut out.

“No. The Hybrid knows what he’s doing,” Veritas said, his lip twitching slightly in a smile which turned quickly into a sympathetic grimace as Kor pulled the dagger free to the sound of his patient’s choked cry.

“Tunic,” Kor commanded, holding out his hand to Jin. The Fay-el placed the folded cloth into the healer’s palm, and Kor placed it against Chrys’s wound, pressing firmly down. Chrys cursed robustly, and ignoring the insults, Kor handed the dagger to Veritas and turned to Ravin. “All of my medical supplies are in my bag. I’ll need that.”

The Border Guard scowled. “I confiscated what was needed from it and discarded the rest.”

Kor fought to control his temper, taking a deep breath before speaking again. “Very well,” he said, with iron politeness. “Then you can gather what I need and bring it to the High Fay-el’s chamber. Hot water and a sponge. A funnel. Valla. Lichen. Kapa bark and kapa salve. Anderberries too, if the salve is not already made with it. Bandages. But before you go get them, send a servant with a litter. Go!”

Ravin looked from Veritas to Chrys. The latter was still busy cursing, and the former merely shrugged and said, “You heard him. I’m given to understand you know where the apothecary is, if you cannot find what you need here.”

Ravin grunted. “All of that should be available in the barrack’s infirmary.” He glanced down at Chrys, worry clearly written on his face, glared at Kor, and disappeared.

“Where is Gyas?” Chrys demanded, craning his neck and trying to see around him. Kor didn’t care, so long as the Fay-el did not actually try to sit up.

“Gone,” Jin and Veritas both said at the same time.

The Fay-el of the Mara frowned up at Kor. “It seems you were right.”

The healer frowned absently. “Yes.” He spotted the litter-bearing servants and gestured them over. Carefully, Veritas and Jin lifted the injured man, then bore him away to Chrys’s chamber as Kor continued applying pressure to the wound in his side.

An hour passed as Kor treated the wound, irrigating it with a warm valla, lichen and anderberry boiled water to help ease the pain, stave off the blood flow and guard against inflammation and infection; coating it in kapa salve to numb it heavily; placing careful sutures; and finally bandaging it with fresh linens. He had just given the overactive High Fay-el a heavy dose of valla tea to keep him quiet for at least the rest of the night, when suddenly there was a loud knock on the heavy ironwood door.

Veritas glanced at Jin, nodded to Kor, and pulling his sword, disappeared into Chrys’s reception room. There were loud, urgent voices, and then the loquiri was back, helping Caylia support a dazed and bloodied Daliah. Jaara and Hamen followed behind them.

Jin rushed forward, taking the woman by the shoulders. “Where is Elam?”

Kor followed at the Fay-el’s heels, taking Daliah’s chin gently in hand and tilting her face toward the light. The side of her head was matted in fresh blood.

“I don’t know!” Her eyes were very wild, and very dilated as she looked around. Definitely a concussion.

Chrys was trying to get up from bed, but was having a hard time summoning the strength after all the blood he’d lost and the valla Kor had given him. He finally settled back against his pillows. “What happened? Who struck you?”

“I don’t even remember being struck, let alone who struck me.” She turned to Jin. “I’m so sorry!”

Jaara slipped out from behind Veritas, and Hamen with her. She knelt, bowing her head, with fluid, practiced and business-like grace. “My lord, we found her outside, pulled behind some bushes. It looked like she’d been headed southward away from the archery range on the west side of the palace grounds, probably on her way back to the Dragonian camp on the far side of Crossroads. There was no sign of the boy.”

All of the blood had drained from Jin’s face. “None? There was not… please tell me there was no sign of a struggle or of violence…”

Jaara shook her head. “Beyond the blow this woman took to her head, nothing my lord. There were no marks of a fight in the dirt, no blood except that upon this woman’s head. In my educated opinion, someone struck her from behind and snatched the boy. A child that young… well, he could not have put up much of a fight. Nobody I questioned heard a thing, and neither were there footsteps leading away from the scene, which, my lord, is notable, as the ground was fairly damp.”

Chrys blinked at her. “You seem to have done a fairly thorough investigation for someone who simply stumbled upon a crime scene…” He sat up a little straighter against his pillows and squinted at her. “What is your name?” he demanded.

“Jaara, my lord.”

He cocked an eyebrow. “Jaara of no particular family?”

She lifted her chin slightly. “Jaara na Harad lo Arvan,” she said, stating her clan and father.

Chrys laughed, then grimaced, then stopped laughing abruptly, holding his stomach. “I knew your name was familiar! You’re Lord Arvan’s unruly daughter, the one who refused to wear women’s skirts, dared to marry her loquiri, and then became Inquisita to my infernal cousin, Kinyth!”

“The Fay-el of the Harad clan in Apollar,” Jin whispered to Kor for his clarification. "Lord Arvan’s royal nephew and therefore Jaara’s cousin and clan Fay-el. Chrys’s cousin as well, the son of his maternal aunt, which makes Chrys Jaara’s, um… let me think… In any case, House Harad has been the rival of House Liyl---from which Lord Gyas hails---for nearly twelve generations. Lord Arvan was just replaced by Lord Gyas this winter, at the changing of the terms. House Harad will not have a Lord in court again for... four winters. It's unfortunate; House Harad lacks House Liyl's unfortunate allegiences to the Guild and is known for being far more evenhanded with the people of Apollar."

Jaara nodded slowly. “Yes, it is so, my lord. Our royal cousin Kinyth would… ah… send his greetings… if he knew I was here.”

Chrys frowned at her. “Kinyth did not send you to Crossroads?”

“Indeed, no. A few days ago, he granted me leave to see to… personal business.”

“Personal business that bring you to Crossroads and find you in the company of an assassin?”

A muscle tensed in her jaw. “Personal business such as blood-debt, my lord. A woman of Eastar took the life of my loquiri and husband. I followed her to Settar and executed her, as is my right, then traveled to Eastar to bring her body to her kinsmen and word of my husband’s death to my marriage-kin. It was there that I met Naftis, and he became my travel companion as I made my way back to Apollar.”

Chrys settled back on his pillows, apparently satisfied. “I have heard tell of you. You are a ruthless investigator, quick to bring justice where our cousin desires justice be brought. You are sworn into our cousin’s service and I would not interfere with that duty, though it is my right. Nor are you truly my kinswoman, to beg favors of. But I ask a favor of you nonetheless.” He swallowed and glanced at Jin. “My heir is missing. My kinsman’s son is missing. You and your companions have spent some time in the company of a man who proved to be the tool of Lord Gyas of your native Apollar, a man who does not desire to see Elam inherit my throne." He turned to Caylia. "I'm given to understand that you are a scholar, a bard." He turned to Hamen, "And you train Derk-ra and are a fine weaponsmaster.”

“And quite adept at hiding in shadows and following those who do not want to be followed,” Jaara commented lowly.

Chrys nodded. “Also, all of you are Gifted, and you two---" He nodded to Caylia and Hamen "---are mine to command. I would like the three of you to find Elam and bring him back to his father and I.”

Caylia stepped forward slightly. "My lord Fay-el, I am not yours to command. I am a bard, and cannot be detained without good cause."

The Fay-el slammed his hand down on the bedsheets. "Is finding and liberating an innocent young boy from his kidnappers not a good cause?" he thundered.

She nodded frankly. "Yes. And it is for that reason I choose to help you."

He stared at her for a long moment, nodded, then glanced at Hamen. The Derk-ra trainer inclined his head, then said, "I’m yours to command at will, my lord. But… I do ask a favor… I would like to see my Derk-ra returned to my care." His eyes slid sideways to Jaara and he grimaced. "And hers as well," he said in distaste.

"Very well," Chrys started to say, but Jin cleared his throat.

“Chrys… no. Please do not send these three to look for Elam.” He turned to the three Mara. “No offense, but I am not ready to entrust my son’s safety to individuals who may be accomplices in his kidnapping. I've no reason yet to trust you, and quite a few reasons to distrust you.”

Chrys held up a hand, “Jin, I cannot speak for these others, but if you knew the reputation of my cousin's Inquisita, you would not think---”

Jin shook his head, looking very tired and very frightened. “No. No, Chrys. Let Kor and Daliah go after Elam. They are competent individuals who have earned my trust, and they know my son well. He will be far less frightened if it is they who find him and not these three strangers. If you’ve a need for the Inquisita and her companions, then perhaps have them investigate the matter of your assassination attempt instead.”

Chrys turned to regard Jaara, Hamen and Caylia in turn. His eyes were becoming very bleary with valla, but his voice was still strong. “The matter of the assassination attempt, then. As you saw today, I cannot not trust my court incredibly well these days. It is better that I make use of the services of outside investigators. Are you willing? Answer quickly, for this valla is beginning to wear on me.”

Caylia looked less than pleased. "My lord..." She sighed. "Yes. If it will help prove that Naftis is an unwitting tool in someone else's schemes---an individual who needs healing, not punishment---then yes, I will help."

Jaara, however, looked positively angry at the request. “My lord, I am in mourning. I have been released from my duties for a year in order to mourn my husband as is proper. I have been traveling for days on end, and expected to find some time to recover from my own wound. I am also…” She swallowed, her good arm wrapped around her stomach. “My lord, if I grant you this favor, I demand one in return.”

“Demand?” Chrys asked dangerously. “What does the daughter of my marriage-uncle’s brother think she can demand of me in return for seeing this humble request granted?”

Jaara did not let his belittlement of their distant relationship quell her. “There are people who may come to Crossroads soon seeking Naftis. His kinsmen. Keep him heavily drugged, locked in chains and guarded at all times, if that is your will, but do not let them know that he is here, or that he has been here.”

Chrys blinked. That was clearly not what he’d expected. “I... Very well. Your request is granted.” His gaze shifted to Hamen. “Your Derk-ra will be returned to you, and hers as well. Do you require aught else?”

"Ah… yes… sort of…"

"Why am I not surprised?" the Fay-el murmured. "What? What is it?"

"Don't... hurt Naftis. He has already been hurt enough."

Chrys scowled. "What kind of man do you take me for? Yes, yes, your request is granted. You need not have even asked."

He turned to Kor and Daliah. “Ael ki---Hybrid, see to Daliah’s head. The two of you have work to do. Get to it. Also… Ravin will accompany you on your search.” He smiled darkly. “To ensure you do not misremember whose heir Elam is.” His gaze shifted to Jin. “And you… you will remain here, with me. I’ll not see my royal kinsman killed in the crossfire of the Mara’s troubles. Despite today’s, erm, events, Ratacca Korr is safer than the rest of Crossroads.”

Jin would have reached for the reassurance of his janin, had he been permitted to have it within Chrys’s presence. “Nor will you see your heir’s father attempt to find his son and return to Shinar, leaving the Mara’s troubles behind.”

Chrys nodded, his eyes drowsy but no less shrewd. “Aye, that too.”
A Non-Existent User
Daliah knelt before the statue of Kyda, slowly drawing her sword. This all seemed too familiar, though she'd only done it once before. However, there was little ceremony to this, as the problem was her fault. She sighed and touched the flat of the blade to her forehead.

"May I not rest until the boy is found. May I travel as far as the sky before my sin is purged. May I-" she broke off, too heartbroken for the formal vow. "Do not blame Elam for my mistakes. Only let me... Just let me find him. Please."

She would not swear vengeance this time, for it had taken too much of her the last time. Her head began to spin, and she bit her lip, drawing blood to block the emotional pain. She had to focus now.

Her brows creased as she concentrated on the statue, its detail and grace. Hair hung in her face, but she did not notice it enough to brush it away. Even if she did, it hid her from the rest of the world.

She let the sword clatter to the floor and dropped onto her elbows. "Please..." she whispered. "I would give my life for his if it would come to it. You know I would, so please."

"It was not your fault."

Daliah recognized Kor's voice and cursed herself for not hearing him approach. "I let my guard down while protecting my charge, I should not have done so."

"But you kept him safe for so long."

She started to cry in her weakness. "I saw him coming, but I thought he was... I saw him with Chrys and thought he was there to protect us, but..." she looked back up at the statue. "I fought him, but I was not strong enough. I failed Elam and Jin."

"But... Wait. You said you fought him?"

"Yes. With everything I had."

"We only found that one blow to your head."

"I don't know. I only just started to remember... I know he approached me, and I felt this... wind force me out of the way, and though I fought, I could never get within an arm's length until he struck me."

Kor gazed up at the ceiling. "He must have had the gift, then."

Daliah finally pushed her emotion away and took a quill from her bag. She began to draw her vow in symbols along her forearm. They were the ancient Dragonian markings of shame until a promise was fulfilled. Soldiers used to bear them, and now she did as well.

"I should gather my things." she said at last. "I left my bow in the throne room."

"It was not your fault." Kor stated once more, noting the ink staining her arm.

Daliah left the temple in silence, not bothering to reply.
Kor cursed, rubbing his forehead, and threw himself down the path after her. He hadn't been struck over the head this day, unlike Daliah, but he was beginning to feel the strain of the past hours, and knew it would only get worse as the night stretched before them. He didn't know what to else to say to her to make her believe Elam's abduction was not her fault. He wasn't even sure he should try to comfort her; there as determination in her grief, and Elam needed that determination.

Still, Kyda take him, he tried. "Daliah," he called, stepping up to her and taking her shoulder gently, she shrugged his hand away, dragging her bow off the table outside the throne room. "There was nothing you could have done. These Mara... they do... unnatural things."

There was a sardonic snort behind him. "We're hardly alone in that," an unfortunately familiar voice drawled, and Kor tensed.

When had finally mastered his expression, he turned slowly to look on Ravin. The Border Guard did not have his customary irreverent smile, but instead stood behind them looking thoroughly displeased with life. His hands clutched two shitans in an iron grip and Kor stiffened to see the familiar orange crest.

"Give those back."

Now Ravin did smile. "What if I don't want to?"

Kor resisted the urge to punch the wall, and actually had to grasp Daliah's arm to prevent her from rushing the Border Guard in anger. "Eppa's balls, you devil, every second we waste playing your stupid games give Elam's captors more time to get away!"

The Border Guard tossed him his shitans, one after the other, giving the Hybrid time to catch each in turn. "Have you notified your keeper that you're leaving in search for the boy?"

Kor started toward the door, but glanced irritably over his shoulder. "My keeper?"

"Your Fay-el's captain."

"Jin will---"

Daliah shook her head angrily. "Ignore him, Kor. Let's start in the archery field. I know that T'Ollo woman searched the area, but maybe she missed something..."

They crossed the palace grounds at a near run, forcing Ravin to hurry to keep up with them.
A Non-Existent User
Daliah traced her finger along the backs of the targets, searching for a piece of snagged fabric, anything that might help. Yet the wood was impossibly smooth, not even a sliver to find evidence. Curse the Fay-el's need for good appearances. She sucked her cheeks in with frustration, willing herself not to scream. If they were to find Elam, she would need a clear head.

"We were standing here." she thought aloud, walking over to a place in front of a target. "Someone was behind us. A guard, I think."

She looked back, catching the deep impression in the dirt. Whoever was there was standing for quite some time. Kor and Ravin were already there, forgetting their differences for once in this new clue. She left them to it, trusting Kor if not Ravin.

She stepped lightly behind their target, only taking a second to smile at the child's aim. But then she ducked behind it for reasons she did not know why. Gut instinct, perhaps. She found one of the arrows Elam must have forgotten and felt a surge of pain through her head like a reminder. She held it gently as if it were a new treasure. This was the last thing they had done together.

But then she noted evidence that it had been handled, and not by either of them. There were traces that were not there before. Suddenly everything clicked.

Daliah leapt to her feet, staring at the arrow in disbelief before trotting back to Kor. She found that for a couple minutes she could not speak. What if she truly found something? Would they ridicule her if she hadn't? She decided to take her chances.

She handed the arrow over to Kor, giving him time to inspect it. "Is it possible they could have a connection to me through the arrows? I know a little about the Gift, but I was hoping... Could it be true?"

Then she stood in agony while he thought it over.
Kor glanced dubiously at the arrow. "You may be grasping after straws, Daliah," he said gently.

She shook her head emphatically. "No. See this smuge? No, look, here!" She pointed it out to him. "Someone had filthy fingers when they touched the arrow." She held up her splayed hand, releaving her clean fingers. "Not I."

"Elam is a little boy," Kor pointed out. "I spent half the day washing date juice from his hands. He could have made the print."

"No!" she snapped, and pointed again. "His fingers are much too small. That's a man's print. Or a large woman's." She repeated her earlier question. "Do you think they used the arrows to form some kind of connection to me?"

Kor sighed and swallowed his impatience. It felt like they were wasting precious time, but he felt like Daliah needed her hope badly, and this early in their search, any clue was a cause for hope. He glanced down at the toy.

The little fire red arrow did feel strangely heavy in Kor's palm, as though there were more substance to it than just wood, paint and bronze. He turned it over in his hand slowly, his eyes and fingers tracing the Fundamentals engraved along its shaft. Someone had put a great deal of work into the little children's toy; the nock and arrowhead were both solid metal and shined to look like gold. The glyphs for the Fundamentals were perfectly carved and painstakingly tiny, with no roughness about the edges at all. Each one was inlaid with gold metal, and it looked like the wood had been carved in such a way as to draw the metal out, rather than the bronze having been poured meticulously into the tiny lines and swoops of Whirling Grass and Derk-ra's Claw.

The Hybrid frowned and turned the arrow on its head, studying the nock. "Oh wow," he said, his eyes widening at it. He'd been mistaken; that wasn't bronze. The gold of the nock seemed to spill out of the end of the arrow and bubble slightly on top. His brows knitting, Kor pulled one of his shitans free of his belt, and began carving the wood back from the nock.

"What are you doing!" Ravin snarled, reaching out with one hand to stay Kor's knife. The Hybrid stepped sideways to avoid him, and sliced the rest of the wood lengthwise from nock to arrowhead. Ravin threw his hands in the air. "You incompetent fool, you're destroying the only evidence we've found thus far!"

Kor peeled the wood back, allowing it to snap in his hand. "Look," he said, handing the split, hollow tube of wood to Ravin, and holding up what he'd found.

"What in the world?" Daliah asked, stepping foward and reaching for for the thin rod of gold.

Kor handed it to her. "It's solid gold," he confirmed as she turned it over in her hands, scrutinizing the arrowhead on one end and the nock on the other. "Someone crafted that thing, fashioned a shaft over it, and sold it as a children's toy in the city."

"Not solid," Daliah murmured. "Look. There's something in the middle."

Kor leaned over to look. "Glass?" It was very thin, a minute speck appearing at the tip of the arrowhead and between the nock; Daliah had good eyes.

"Give me that," Ravin commanded, snatching it from Daliah before she had a chance to protest. He tossed the wood to Kor. "And you, take a look at those carvings. Notice anything strange?"

Kor and Daliah bent over the wood, but it was harder to make out the carvings without the original gold backdrop. "No..." Daliah said.

The Border Guard tossed the gold skeleton of the arrow back to Daliah. "That's lune glass inside. Snuff your torch."

Daliah looked at him doubtfully, but did as she was told. The archery field was swallowed by darkness, except for a tiny speck of pale blue light where Daliah was standing. As Kor's eyes adjusted, he leaned closer. "What is that?" he whispered. The glow was very faint, but steady.

Ravin allowed them to study it for a moment, and then he struck his Cat's Tongue torch upon the ground, flooding the archery field with light again. "That, my friends" --- he said the word sardonically --- "is a Guild toy, and not a toy for little boys. And if I'm not mistaken, it was put in your path deliberately."

"Why do you say that?" Kor demanded.

Ravin nodded his head to the piece of destroyed wood that had formed the arrow shaft. "Count the Fundamentals. The Dragonian Fundamentals are two and thirty. But here in the Mara, where some warriors fight with Derk-ra at their sides and others must defend against the Derk-ra of our opponents, we have fourty Fundamentals."

Kor and Daliah both hastily began counting the Fundamentals carved into the wood. Daliah nodded grimly to confirm what her friend already knew.

Ravin stated what they had both already figured out. "There are thirty-two. Someone in the Mara crafted a set of arrows clearly intended to catch the eye of a Dragonian child, or someone who would want to get that child a gift. You were definitely intended to buy this Guild toy, and you walked right into it."

Kor barely heard Daliah choke down a sob at his side. He turned her around to face him. "It is not your fault. These are clearly plans that have been long in the making, and we walked into this situation having no cause to distrust every pretty toy on Mara's streets." He glared up at Ravin, who was watching them both in growing impatience. "Alright Ravin, what in Kyda's name this thing is intended to do?"

He shrugged. "I should think it'd be perfectly obvious. They wouldn't leave it here unless they wanted you to find it. Most likely, they think you'll take it with you, keep it as a reminder of the boy. And then they'll probably know where you are at all times... and possibly even be able to use the Gift on you through it."

Kor cursed. "Okay. And how do we destroy it?"

The Border Guard raised an eyebrow. "Use your Gift."

Kor nearly pulled out his hair. "All this talk of the Gift! What are you talking about?"

It was Ravin's turn to look frustrated. "Are you mad? You know what I'm talking about. The Gift." Kor looked blankly at him. "Kyda! What do they call it in Aquila? The Shine?"

Kor's eyes widened, and then he laughed. "What? You fool, I'm not a mage!"

Ravin laughed back, dryly. "Call it what you will. I can't do this part for you. Look at the rod."

Kor looked at it. It looked the same. "And what---"

"Look at the Crescent-blasted rod!" The Border Guard struggled to control his temper. "Just look at it. Breathe calmly. Break it."

The Hybrid's eyes widened at him. "Break it? It's solid gold!"

Ravin shook his head. "You heard me. Just do it."

Frowning, Kor grasped the thing by both hands. Bent the metal. It was gold, and soft, but it didn't break, only bent. He stared at Ravin impatiently. "Now what?"

"Break it."

"I can't break the demon-blasted arrow!" He threw it against the ground, hard.

The arrow's nock struck a rock just so, and with a rushing roar, bright blue light pulsed thunderously outwards from the arrow, struck all three of them in their chests, and knocked them clear off of their feet before spiraling due east across the sky.

Kor blinked as the light faded. "What in Kyda's name...?"

Ravin rose slowly, brushing the dirt of the ground off of his pants. "As I said before... your methods are innovative." He pointed toward the east. "Whoever made that arrow is that way. It's a start."
A Non-Existent User
Daliah stared at the sky in frustration. Guilt had firmed the lines in her face, taking the sliver of innocence she had left. Her hands clenched and released repeatedly as she thought it all through. She had not been even slightly educated in this, and felt completely inadequate next to Kor and Ravin. She did not have a trace of the Gift, all she had was her sword. That seemed so useless now.

Anger and despair chased each other in her mind. One second she was filled with vengeance, the next she lost all hope. They were then consumed by confusion and she became dizzy.

She glanced down at her arm, where the temporary tattoos were still clear against her skin. She had to get rid of them, but she could not until Elam was found. If not, she would bear them forever, as she deserved.

With a sigh, she pulled her sleeve back down. She could not bother with that now. She had to find some way to be useful. The men were still arguing over the arrow, which reminded her of her own arguments with Kor. Back to the night on the lake, when she knew something would soon happen. She wondered if this was it.

Angry that her mind had wandered once more, she shook her head and looked back to the house of the Fay-el. She wanted to be somewhere quiet, where she could sort out the turmoil without interruption. But with the chaos surrounding Chrys, that would not be the best place to do so.

If either Kor or Ravin noticed that she left, they did not let on. She was grateful for that as she walked toward the stables. Myna was there now, and she had not seen her in days. The mare always helped her solve her problems.

Myna certainly was happy to see her, though Daliah noticed she was well cared for. "Well, old friend, I certainly failed this time." she whispered, stroking the smooth jaw of the animal.

Dark eyes blinked at her, understanding. It gave her some comfort, even if she was mostly talking to herself. She stepped into the stall and closed the door behind her. There was the soft scraping of wood and the sounds of other horses, but otherwise silence. She began to work with the brush she'd taken from the wall, moving it in circles in no particular pattern. Her stress eased with this until she finally was able to evaluate the situation.

Perhaps she could not contribute any knowlege, but her experience would have to serve. She knew how to track as well as fight, and she knew how to survive the long nights that were surely ahead of them. But her spirits soon fell again. What could she do once they met the captors? She had little power against the Gift. That role would have to fall to Kor.

"I thought I would find you here." Kor said. "You have to stop sneaking away."

"I needed to think." she replied without looking up.

"I see." he leaned against the stall and began to rub Myna's forehead.

She finally allowed her eyes to follow his movements. "Did you find anything else?"

He shook his head slowly. "We have ideas of their location, but nothing is for certain."

Daliah bit at the inside of her cheek, unsure of what to say. They slowly grew comfortable in each others' presence, and she noted that Kor's rigid stature eased some. She finally put the brush away and prepared for a more serious conversation.

"What can I do?" she asked, closing the door behind her.

"The time for your skills will come soon. Try to remember what you can, perhaps. A face, if possible. But other than that, just try to prepare for the journey. We hope to leave tomorrow."

She nodded, making a mental list of what they might need. She managed to figure out rations by the time two Dragonians entered the building. They were leading two horses, still loaded with saddle bags. The stallions were clearly well bred, but they did not appear to be from this place.

"Who do these animals belong to?" she inquired.

One of the men shot her a disapproving look. "That is not of your concern."

It seemed there was a lot that was not her concern lately.
Kor could not sleep. For once, it was not the churning, twisting viciousness of the calaba that kept him awake, nor the throb and burn of wounds earned at the hands of Jin’s enemies (or Jin’s bladesmaster or Jin’s demon-blasted kinsman’s kinth of a Border Guard), nor---thank Kyda---the creeping, leaden numbness of Derk-ra venom. Indeed, all of his past troubles---so very trivial in comparison to the circumstances which now stared him in the face---had faded and been forgotten in the midst of his arrest, the attempt on the Fay-el’s life and Elam’s kidnapping.

And now, no matter how much he prayed to Xraj to bring the blessed little death to his incessantly-prattling mind, sleep would not come to him.

For four hours he forced himself to lie still and take what rest he could from darkness and immobility, but his mind screamed at him to stop lying around while there was so much to do, to take action before it was too late. At last he sighed, and pulling himself up in his bedroll, looked about the sleeping camp.

It was almost unseemly how bright it was this night. Firelight bounded off the coverings of tents, and many people had left lanterns hanging outside their tents. Safe within the shadow of the walls of Crossroads and with the Maran city guard as well as the camp’s own sentries on heightened alert because of the events of that day, the tribe had felt secure enough to keep the fires brightly lit all night despite the potential dangers of Derk-ra or bandits being led to the campsite by the fire. Apparently Derk-ra were just as valuable as---if not more so than---wild stallions in these parts, and the creatures seemed to be wise enough to avoid large settlements where waiting merchants might capture them and sell them to the highest bidder. And bandits knew well the foolishness of trying their luck outside so populated and well-fortified a city.

The campfires and lanterns, however, heralded more than the Shinar’s lack of fear about Derk-ra and bandits. As word of Elam’s kidnapping had spread through camp, nearly every child in the tribe had been brought inside his mother’s tent and made to play quietly while his mother watched fearfully, and every fire that could be lit was kindled.

Kor thought the precautions were most likely unnecessary---Elam’s kidnapping was surely politically motivated---but nevertheless, he knew that he would have done the same had he been blessed with unruly spawn of his own. He didn’t know enough about the elusive Guild to know for sure whether it was their practice to kidnap children and bend them to their own purposes, but something about his encounters with the Guild made him strongly believe that they were a nest of self-interested, plotting vipers who had no qualms about engaging in unsavory practices to get what they wanted. It would not surprise him at all to learn that kidnapping was something they did regularly and with little thought.

He heard footsteps approaching behind him, and turned from the twisting flames to look---somewhat anxiously---over his shoulder. His blue eyes settled on a familiar face and he relaxed. It was just Daliah.

“You cannot sleep, either?” she asked.

He shook his head. “Nay. Normally I fall asleep faster than a cat in a sunbeam, but tonight my thoughts fly to and fro in my head as though Xraj’s own fury were after them“

She quirked a tiny, unhappy smile. “Thus it is with me as well.” Her hand rubbed absently at her forearm, and although Kor could not see the ink beneath the fabric of her night tunic, he knew that it must surely still be there.

He stretched and rose. “Well, I know well enough that at times such as this, I can do little better than to answer the demands of my heart. What say you to waking Ravin, and dragging the man out of his bed in the dark of night?” He grinned, but it was fierce and not cheerful. “I’ve a mind to find a particular maker of arrows, and put him to the question.”

Daliah looked down at herself. “Yes, let us do that. But I must make myself ready.” Her lip twitched, this time in a more genuine smile. “As do you.”

He glanced down at his own tunic, and grimaced. “My mother made it,” he defended his favorite night shirt, with its delicately embroidered “Kor, Kor, Kor” stitched about the bottom hem in a cheerful spring-green thread.

Shaking her head, Daliah took her leave, and after folding his tunic with gentle care, Kor changed into his rough but durable Dragonian leathers.
A Non-Existent User
It took Daliah a bit longer to change clothes, as she had to incorporate her weapons. So, once she had on her basic shirt and pants, she took a few extra minutes to strap on her sword belt, sling a pouch of arrows over her shoulder, and hide a dagger and bottle of poison in her boot. She did not bother to tie her hair back, though, seeing little point in it. Hair kept her warm in the night, and the last thing she needed was a chill wind ripping across her neck.

Kor was already prepared when she stepped outside her tent. And though she was glad to see him, she could not help but miss Layole. It had been several days since they last spoke, as he was busy attending to Jin. She immediately felt guilt for such selfish thoughts. He was still Jin's second, after all.

"Dare we bring him out into the cold?" Kor had a friendly, boyish smile. The pleasure and guilt of a harmless prank was written in that grin. Daliah could not help but smile back.

"We have faced Derk-ra and Gifted attacks, I do not think Ravin can be much more dangerous. Besides, there is nothing more exciting than a good interrogation."

He chuckled, and led the way to Ravin's tent. Daliah stood outside, but was still able to aim a good kick to the sole of his boot. At least he sleeps dressed, prepared to leave at a moments notice, she thought.

Ravin shot up, then moaned grumpily. "I should think it was your sole purpose to torture the camp. Could this not wait for morning?"

Daliah crossed her arms. "How amazing it is that after Elam's disappearance and the attempted assassination of your Fay-el, you can still sleep so soundly. That must be one of the many benefits of lacking a soul. Tell me-"

Ravin cut her off by crossing the distance between them and drawing his own dagger nearly even with her throat. For a second, he only stood, panting and wild-eyed. "I will not be insulted by the likes of you."

She stared at him evenly. "Perhaps by him, then?" she jerked her eyes toward Kor, who had his own weapon at the ready.

"Well, Ravin, as long as you are risen and dressed," he held the knife against the man's shoulder, "we have a matter to see to."

Ravin growled, but sheathed his dagger. "I shall see that you are both put in the stocks when this is over."

"Fine." Daliah walked over to Kor. "As long as Elam is found."

------

"Finally, that fiery temper of yours can be put to use." Ravin was in a less beastly mood now that he had had a bit of wine. "But do not kill him until we have the information we need."

"I do not take the value of life as lightly as you think." Daliah replied. "I do not kill unless I am first attacked or there is good reason. But if he has harmed Elam, I shall see that as good reason for a slow death."

Kor looked at her worriedly, but she gave him a reassuring glance. "I will stand in the corner until I feel I am needed. But perhaps between the three of us, we can pull what we need from him, whether through a few words or the edge of a blade."

"This would be our stop." Ravin pointed out the small business. "It seems he sleeps there as well." He knocked the door sharply, drawing out a too thin, pale boy of about fourteen.

"We have business with your master." Daliah prodded gently. "No harm will come to you."

He nodded and disappeared into another room.

"I could have handled that." Ravin grumbled. "You do not exactly look convincing with your stash of weapons."

Daliah did not look at him as she answered. "If you did not see his eyes, he obviously has poor vision. A woman's voice would have been more comforting to him." she closed her eyes, pushing away her worry. What man would leave a boy in that condition? Her heart ached for Elam.

Finally, after sounds of shouted cursing, a man appeared at the door. He was still in his nightclothes, though he at least had the decency to wrap a blanket around his waist. He looked at them suspiciously, and it occurred to Daliah that they must be a strange group. It was not often you saw a hybrid, warrior woman, and a man of Ravin's standing. Good. They caught him by surprise, then.
Since the ael kinth and that loose woman had awakened him, Ravin had ran options through in his head. Tramping up to a Guildsman's door in the middle of the night was foolhardy. Marching up when the man had already been alerted to his discovery, thanks to the broken arrow, was suicide. They needed a story, believable enough to keep the man from raising an alarm to Guildsmen and watchmen alike.

At the sight of the shopkeeper, the air around Kor stilled. Ravin's annoyance rose, but he beat it down. That blasted Gift would do nicely. Grabbing the Hybrid's shoulder, he shook him roughly and shoved him forward. "This ael kinth is nothing but trouble," Ravin growled. He spoke in Common, but added a light nasal tone. The way an Eloin, feigning another race, would sound.

The shopkeeper's thin lips twisted into a scowl, and then shifted into an impassive mask. His chestnut eyes belied the mask, gleaming with interest. No Guildsman could miss the flickering Gift, and none would give up the chance of kidnapping or buying a new bloodline. "What seems to be the trouble?" he said. "And why would you question me, and at this late hour?"

Ravin gestured at the boy close by. This time, he noted the clouded white in both eyes. "Is he deaf as well as blind?"

Daliah hissed profanity under her breath, and Kor twisted against his grip. The Border Guard tightened his hold. With the other hand, he motioned at Daliah to keep still. The shopkeeper paused, and then nodded as if agreeing with himself, before sending the boy away with a curt snap of name and command.

Ravin waited until the boy's footsteps faded away. "This Hybrid I purch--that serves me," the Guildsman's eyes flickered. Ah, he caught it. Good. "He is acting strangely, hearing what he should not, moving quickly. When I spoke of it in the tavern, they mentioned a Tyre, of the craftsmen, might be able to remove the problem. Are you Tyre or do I seek another?"

The shopkeeper held his gaze. Ravin didn't back down. Eloin slavers often had the Gift stripped from their flowering cargo. With a nod, the man motioned them inside. Ravin grinned. One problem down.

Tyre closed the door behind them. He cupped his left hand over his right, fingering a ring, and then reached for Kor. "If I may?"

No matter how much he disliked the blasted Hybrid, he would not wish a Gift-probing on anyone. "First, the price?" he snapped.

"We will get to that, in due time. It will depend on the malady." Tyre's smile was cold. "The harm will fade."

Kor tensed under his hand. Ravin felt his plans trickling away. "I did not earn my place among the...merchants...easily. My gold sticks to my fingers."

Pleasure flared into his features. The task of taking Gift would require only silver; the hint of much profit effectively distracted him. Tyre looked away and his eyes found Daliah. Eyebrows arched slightly. "You have a Dragonian woman?"

Daliah laughed. Ravin glanced at her. Had she lost her mind, touched by the gods? Serves her right, refusing to dress like a true woman.

"You are a fool," she said. "Can you not see my heritage?"

Tyre hesitated. To insult a prospective buyer would be unwise. His mouth shut with a snap and he turned away. He plucked at a chain around his neck, and then pulled a simple key out of his tunic. Bending down, he fiddled with an ornate chest. "My materials are here. If your Hybrid has the Gift, it will soon be gone."

Ravin frowned and stalked closer. Tyre flinched and backed away slightly. So, he doesn't like my height, does he? The Border Guard leaned closer, resting long fingers on the Guildsman's shoulder. "I have also heard that you have...ways...of keeping an eye on some. This one keeps vanishing."

"Perhaps." He shut the chest again and, with a flick of his wrist, cast a jumble of odd-shaped items across the table. Two lit immediately, hollow tubes shining with lune light.

Even Ravin didn't recognize this, and he had his Gift stripped from him. "What are these?"

"They are necessary."

Frowning morosely, Ravin shook his head. "They are not."

"And how would you know?"

His eyes jumped to the shopkeeper's gaze, now narrowing in suspicion. Think. A reason. A bit of excuse wrapped in logic. "I have heard...other things are used. Shaped more like stars, sharp-edged." He rubbed a thumb across the old scars on his right hand. The ceremony had not been without pain.

"You hear many things. Not all are true."

"I see. So the toys with special purpose? I found one, but it was damaged. Could it be repaired?"

Tyre scowled. "Get someone else to mend broken arrows. I cannot overtire myself."

Ravin froze. He had said nothing of arrows. Daliah drew a sharp breath. The Guildsman flicked a glance at her, and then his eyes widened. Ravin swiveled his head. She had drawn her dagger, and rolled up one sleeve to reveal black symbols etched into the skin. "You. Eyrie-spawned, son of a Derk-ra's harem."

Kor stood too, slowly, his shitans sliding free of their hilts. "Aye. You have questions we need answered."

"I see. You are neither Eloin, nor need my talents." His eyes wandered over them. Ravin felt the tension, the danger of a crouching Derk-ra. One hand rested at his side, but the other was at shoulder-level, twisted out of sight.

The Border Guard took a step closer to both the Guildsman and Kor. Of them all, the Hybrid was at the most risk. "The boy, Elam. Where is he?" Ravin said.

"It is not my concern. Or yours. I only do as I am told."

"And kidnap a young boy? Take him away from father and family?" Daliah swore and stalked closer. "I will gut you and leave your bones for the Derk-ra to gnaw."

"Not now," Ravin hissed. "If he is dead, he cannot respond to questions that need answering."

Chestnut eyes found Kor. Narrowed. Ravin inched closer to the Hybrid, but kept his attention on the Guildsman's hands. "By whose orders did you fashion the arrows? Seems a paltry task for the talent we saw in those toys, unless you had good reason to do so."

"I am of the Guild. I obey." He cupped one hand over the other again. The ring. If it is a nexus... Tyre's hand whipped upward. Ravin yanked Kor from his feet, shoving him across the room. Daliah leaped forward, tackling the shopkeeper and pinning him, dagger at his throat.

On the wall behind where the Hybrid had been standing, a mirror shattered as if touched by invisible hands. Jagged chunks of glass spattered the floor. Ravin caught Kor's eye, widening at the sight of the mirror. "A strong Guildsman, whether by breeding or aid, can stop a man's heart," Ravin said.

"He would have killed me. If you had not reacted as you did." Kor studied his face.

An uncomfortable feeling spread across Ravin's chest. He shrugged and looked away. "If we want answers, we need your Gift, however impure and untrained it may be." his eyes narrowed. "Which will soon be remedied."

"You?" Kor laughed. "You don't have the patience of a teacher."

"Aye. Better learn quickly."

Whirling away and bending down, Ravin ripped fabric from Tyre's sleeve and handed it to Daliah. "Blindfold him. Without his sight, he cannot focus the Gift well enough to harm us."

While she did as he asked, Ravin snapped the slender chain and withdrew the key to the chest. "Let's see what else he has hidden in there, shall we?"
A Non-Existent User
As Ravin began to unlock the trunk, Daliah tossed the ring to Kor. He caught it in a bit of cloth and tied it securely. They could not risk Tyre trying something.

She pressed her knee into the man's back and proceeded to bind his arms as well. Though she could still see Ravin, she could not see what he had found. It frustrated her, but she had to keep a close watch on Tyre. Even after his struggling and insults died down, she did not trust him alone.

Her lips twisted into a grimace. He was not as much of a challenge as she expected, and gave her no opportunity to inflict pain. The promise she made to Kor sat heavily on her chest, making her sick. This man may not deserve death, but he deserved punishment. How she longed to be the one that dealt it. Though perhaps it was not hers to give.

She blew her hair away from her face in frustration, rousing another struggle from Tyre. It was not physical, however. It was his nature to jeer, testing her, drawing out her anger that she might do something rash. She would not let him, so she ignored him.

Then he started in on her family. Low remarks of her father and mother reached her ears. How her father was a Derk-ra and her mother was an Eloin. How they abandoned her in their quest to plague the world. How she was cursed to wander on and beneath the land, with no love, her heart and soul stolen in the night. He knows nothing, she told herself. But the insults continued until she could take it no more.

She flipped her dagger in her hand, so that the blade pointed out from her hand, angry and red in the light of the dying fire. There was a gasp from Kor, and a shudder from Tyre. She held it for a moment, contemplating the shine of the steel before plunging it down.

It struck deep into the wood, still vibrating from the force. Tyre let out his breath, but she felt his fear yet.

"I rarely miss." she whispered in his ear. "Do not test me or the next time it may be those hands."

She looked up at Ravin, flushed. "What did you find?"

------

Finally bored with the fight, they strapped Tyre tightly against a chair, gagged as well as blindfolded. Daliah force herself to watch him, though she could not stand the sight. She continually spun her retrieved dagger in absent-minded circles as she did so.

Ravin began to explain his findings, and she did her best to understand. Unfortunately, he used many terms that one without a proper education could not know. From what she could gather, however, this man left enough clues for them to go on. He was only useful now for names and perhaps history, but that was all.

She looked over the objects, though she still did not know their significance. Ravin and Kor seemed to be particularly interested in a coin, which she thought she saw somewhere once. When she had the opportunity to hold it, she felt a chill as her eyes glanced over the bird and other symbols, and she could look no more. She passed it back to Kor, not wishing to hold such an evil thing at this time.

"The assassin's seal." he hissed. "It cannot be."

She was about to reply when the door behind him opened. Two dark-haired women entered, one bearing a scar. She immediately plucked the coin from Kor's hand and inspected it, eyebrows creasing. The other saw its meaning as soon as it was in her grasp and seemed to hold back a series of curses before resting her hands on the top of her head.

"What else is there?" she asked softly, the recognisable voice of nobility. Both took a place at the table, and the objects were exchanged between the group. Daliah looked carefully, but could not see what the others did. All she had were feelings as each passed through her fingers.

A small, shapeless bit of metal was dropped into her palm. She quickly threw it on the table, as it had grown hot. Her skin felt seared, and she pressed her thumb against the wound to ease the pain.

The one without the scar looked at her strangely, eyes widening. "Did that just burn you?" she whispered.

"Yes." she answered simply, returning her hand to the table. "What of it?"

"Who is your father?"

"I do not know." she grumbled through her teeth, annoyed that she was forced to share so much of her personal life. "Why?"

"It is most likely nothing." There was a flash of discomfort in her eyes, quickly replaced by concentration. Daliah felt herself believing the girl, though she did not know why.

"Now, as for the significance of the coin..." Ravin continued. "As we were talking about before our interruption, I think may be traced back to the Guild..."
Kor honestly wasn’t sure what in Kyda’s name Ravin wanted. One moment, the kinth was dragging him practically by the hair before Chrys, accusing him of poisoning the royal loquiri. The next, he was shoving Kor across the room to save him from a sorcerous attack. As the sun rose, he was claiming first blood over Kor’s supposed use of this maddening “Gift”. In the dark of night, he was offering---no, threatening---to train Kor in the very same Gift. Did he want Kor dead, or alive? Did he want the Hybrid to learn the Gift, or not?

Not that I have the Gift, Kor thought, watching in confused interest as the Border Guard carefully lifted item after item from the chest and lay them upon the table. Two were similar to those lune lamps he’d seen in Chrys’s court, only much smaller and longer, with far less ornate glasswork and a duller glow. There was a palm-sized trinket shaped like a seven-pointed star; he reached out to touch it, wondering at its sharp edges and failing to imagine how it could possibly be used in battle, but Ravin positively slapped his hand away from the thing.

“Stars and Crescents, I’m not going to pocket it, if that’s what you’re thinking!” he snapped. It was very late, and his head had been throbbing for the past several hours as though Xraj himself were pounding an anvil into his temple; his patience was wearing thinner with every passing second.

Ravin’s dark eyes pinned him like an insect to the spot. “If you wish to know pain so great it feels as though your soul is being shredded away from your body, then feel free to touch the star. It is of no concern to me, I assure you. But please, do wait until after my lord Chrys has no further use to you.? There’s yet a need for your Gift, virtually-useless though it may be.”

That demon-blasted Gift again! Are all these people mad? He wasn’t saying that there wasn’t anything, well, unusual about his luck. His Ma had oft reminded him to trust the will of the gods and thank them in his prayers when he felt their favor upon him; he knew well the power of faith, especially in times of trouble. But Kyda had not blessed him with the Shine, which was said in some of the old songs to allow men to partake of the powers of the gods; of that, he was positive. Ravin was a bloody, superstitious fool.

“I don’t have the---“ he started to protest again, but the Border Guard slammed a coin onto the table and flicked it with one calloused finger toward him.

“What think you of that, minstrel?”

One side was marked with an unfamiliar insignia: a dagger and vine. The other made his blood run cold, and he handed it to Daliah as she turned away at last from her torment of the blindfolded Tyre. “Assassin’s seal,” he identified the raven sigil through clenched teeth.

The warrior didn’t seem any more inclined to hold it than he, and she hurriedly passed it back as the door opened.

“It cannot be,” Kor whispered, turning the coin over in his hands as that unpleasant woman Jaara and a new woman of the Mara entered the room. He’d seen the raven before; in Aquila, his mother had had a book of little-known herbal remedies that could be made from well-known poisonous substances. The chapter that had described the properties of nightflower root and its history in the Mara as a poison had been illustrated by a raven in flight. Beneath the picture, in black ink, the scribe had written the words, “The Assassin’s Seal.”

Cold fingers closed over his own and snatched the coin from his grasp. Kor glanced down in annoyance to see that woman, Jaara, scowling at the coin. Apparently its meaning eluded her because after turning it to and fro for a few seconds and glaring as though intending to intimidate answers out of it, she handed it to her companion, who cursed fluidly, destroying Kor’s first impression of her as a Maran noblewoman.

After a few moments Ravin cleared his throat. Kor wanted to hit him for the patronizing expression on his face, but refrained, clenching his jaw and his hands instead. "Now, as for the significance of the coin..." the Border Guard began.
"...of the coin, the dagger and vine most of us know or have seen before. This represents the Guild nearly as much as the vile triangles, sprouting up like nightshade." Ravin frowned at the young girl that had entered with Jaara. "No need to hold the Gift, dearie. I am only stating the truth, unpopular though it may be with you."

She clenched her teeth, but the Gift vanished again. As did the insistent buzz in the back of his skull. "My thanks," he growled, "The vine for peace, the dagger for war, and the Guild touches both. Simple enough?”

The group nodded. “This symbol,” he continued, gesturing at the dark raven, “As the ael… er, Hybrid aptly pointed out, is known as the assassin’s seal. I have seen six of these in my tenure as Border Guard, held by men in Endry and in Chrys’ service.”

Jaara’s eyes widened. The proud Inquisista had probably never considered that aspect of Fay-el power. Ravin smirked at her. “Never fear. None were destined for Mara hearths, no matter how well deserved it may be.”

She snorted. “And you are judge of that?”

“Perhaps.” He glanced back to that younger woman, Kharme, and Kor, noting absently that the Hybrid was squinting as if in pain. “What worries me more is the lack of the second.”

“Second?” Kor said.

“Assassins no longer work alone,” Kharme responded. “They move in pairs, dropping the coins as proof of their presence, their task completed, or sometimes as an approval of their task.”

Ravin’s eyes narrowed and he passed the coin to her. That last one he had not heard of before. “Pray explain…approval?”

“The raven is constant. But these here,” she ran one finger over the characters inscribed around the bird’s head. “Can sometimes read another word than ‘Gidlak’ or Death as is usually etched.”

She squinted at it for a moment, turning it to the light. When she filled with Gift, Ravin’s apprehension rose. Jaara spoke first. “What does it say?”

“Someone has rubbed the last few characters out. It spells Gid now.”

The Border Guard yanked it out of her hand. “Surely not.”

“Gid?”

“A sect of the Guild,” he flicked an annoyed glance at Kor. “A very nasty sect of the Guild.”

“Could they have approved the kidnapping of Elam?”

Blast him with his infernal questions. Ravin opened his mouth to answer, but Kharme cut him off with her response. “If they did...” she swallowed, biting her lower lip, “Then we have a day, maybe two at the most, before there is no rescuing the heir.”

Jaara frowned. “Why?”

“The Gid practices culling,” The Border Guard stated bluntly. “Unless Elam has the Gift, and that at a higher rate, they will either kill him or--to keep a bargaining tool--do as was done to me.” Ravin tossed the sharpened star onto the table, gesturing at the dark stains on each point. “Remove his ability to use it. Permanently.”

The blood drained from Daliah’s face. For the first time since had met her, Ravin thought she was going to cry. But then she hardened her expression, whispering, “That’s so...so cruel,”

Kor’s reaction was more unexpected. He smacked the table with a clenched fist. The star bounced, lune-rods tumbling to the floor. “He is only a little boy. He has nothing to do with the politics of this place!” The air around him stilled, prompting curious glances from Jaara and Kharme.

“The Gid are always brutal,” Ravin muttered. He retrieved the star and rubbed his now-aching scars. They ached with remembered pain.

Clenching the star as blood oozed across its edge, focusing on the hum as it tuned into his Gift’s bent, and then pain—intense, searing agony...

He shivered. Best not to dwell on that. Ravin straightened. “If we find the other coin, marked as this, then we will find where the boy is kept. All we need is the compass heading the group took.” He stalked to Tyre’s side. “And you will tell us. Willingly or not.”

Tyre shook his head. Ravin grinned. “By Kyda, you will.” He yanked the gag from the Guildsman’s mouth, ignoring his yelp of pain. “Where did they take the boy?”

His mouth set into a thin line.

“I don’t think this will work,” Jaara said. “The Guild is willing to torture and kill any who speak of things they should not.”

“Aye, I know.” Ravin stalked around the man, noting the tilt of his head. Tyre could not see him, but he could certainly hear him. “But perhaps I can offer a far worse punishment.”

“You cannot,” Tyre rasped. “With lucca root and the Gift, the Guild can make you beg for death. I have seen it done.”

“Ah, but I know of one that you will not only beg, you will attempt to die by your own hand. And that I have seen done as well.”

Jaara and Kharme flicked him a curious glance. Ravin bent down, hissing a few words Tyre would know quite well. “ Cur nuse kalin, cur nuse jom’y. Karne speka karne, jom’y catak jom’y.” And then, shifting into Common, he repeated the invocation. “Clouds of darkness; clouds of light. Blood answers to blood, light scatters light.”

Tyre shivered. “You lack the knowledge, proud though your words may be.”

“Nay. I remember quite well.” Ravin retrieved the star, rubbing it against the man’s sleeve, before tapping it against his bound fingers. “It wouldn’t take long, would it?”

“Surely you...you would not...” Kharme looked physically ill at the idea.

“Take the Gift from a Guildsman? Aye, unless, of course, I had reason to let him keep it.”

Tyre bit his lip deep enough to draw blood. “No.”

“Where is the boy, Tyre? Where did they take him?”

“I don’t know.”

“He’s lying,” Jaara said.

Well, at least she’s not squeamish. Ravin laid the lune-rods on the floor beneath the Guildsman’s hands, clinking them together as noisily as possible. Saw Tyre flinch. “Where did they take the boy?”

Tyre shook his head, but he was visibly shivering. Ravin loosened the bonds on his hands, and pricked his palm with one point of the star. The lunes lit at the touch of blood. A distinct hum resonated. Tyre jerked, drawing more blood at his movement. Ravin leaned close, speaking slowly, with as much menace as he could muster. “Where did they take the boy?”

“N-Nowhere.”

“Answer me!” Ravin growled. “Not with riddles.”

Shaking his head frantically, the Guildsman repeated it. “Nowhere. They didn’t take him anywhere. He’s still in Crossroads.”

“Crossroads?” Kor said. “Impossible.”

“He’s here. Who notes one Hybrid among many?”

“Where is he hidden?” Jaara snapped.

“A ship.”

“Which one?”

“I don’t know.”

Ravin jabbed him again.

“Stop that!” Jaara growled. “He doesn’t know. Do you think they would tell him everything?”

“There are many ships in that port, some of which will leave early in the morning.”

“He doesn’t know, Ravin. What good does bleeding him do?”

Clenching his teeth, the Border Guard stepped back, panting. She had a point. “Fine, Inquisita. How do you suggest we track down one small Hybrid among a hundred sailors?”

“Give me a chance to think!” Her eyes flicked to something behind him, as the air stilled. “You might tend to the Hybrid first.”

Ravin whirled in time to see Kor stagger, and then slide to the floor, hands clenching his head. “Bloody ael kinth. Whatever is the matter?” He stalked to the Hybrid’s side, cupping his chin in his hand and forcing his head up. Kor blinked at him with bleary eyes.

The Border Guard frowned, eyes narrowing in thought. Counted rapidly. And then swore, before growling, “How many times have you seized the Gift today?”

“I don’t have...Gift.” Kor groaned, clenching his eyes closed.

“The Shine. The Glow. The touch of the gods—dragon’s fang, Kor! How many?”

“Six…seven. I don’t remember.”

“Headache? Dizzy? Humming in your ears?”

Kor nodded, and then thought better of it, judging by the instant wince of pain. “Yes. All of those.”

Ravin scowled morosely. Could this day get any worse? He whirled on the others in the room. “Daliah. Come.” Her eyes sparked with anger. The Border Guard’s frown deepened. “I and the Hybrid are headed for my tent, and the herbs I keep there, as well as some instruction for better control. And then the docks, if he recovers. You may come with us, or stay with them. But do not wander alone.”

“Do not order me.”

“If you wander alone, you risk a cut throat or worse, if a bandit realizes there is a woman beneath that manly garb. That is your choice,” Ravin sneered.

He turned back to Kor, hauling him to his feet and shoving him ahead. “I hope you can at least climb onto a horse,” he muttered under his breath.

-~-

Kor lay curled on his side, cursing vigorously. Ravin chuckled as he bent over him. “Much worse than Derk-ra venom, eh?”

“Much.”

“It is your fault, ael kinth. That blasted stubbornness. If I had known how close to flowering you were, I would have acted sooner.”

“Do you have to speak so loudly?”

Ravin ignored him. “Unfortunately, there is no time. We must find Elam before the morning is very old. And we need you to do it.”

“I know none of the Aquila sailors here. I cannot help.”

“I meant with your Gift.” The Border Guard crouched beside him, cup in hand, and pulled him upright with his free hand. “There is no time to brew this properly, but you must drink it.”

“Drink what?” he muttered. “Calaba?”

“No. Raw kolinar.” Ravin moved fluidly, pouring the thick mixture down his throat while pinning him with the other hand. Kor gagged, spluttering at the bitter potion.

When the cup was empty, he released him. Kor tried to stand, staggered, and then did straighten up, drawing both shitans. Ravin laughed. “Really. Can’t stand your medicine?”

“You Eyrie-spawned, kinth bred, Kyda-blasted...”

“You’re standing again, aren’t you? And the pain should ease, somewhat.”

Kor blinked. Frowned. And then glared at him again. “What did you do?”

“Boosted your Gift. No—“ he cut off Kor’s argument. “You have it, whether you deny it or not. Do you want me to show you how to use it? Or do you plan to be easy pickings for the next Guildsman to use as target practice?”

Kor glowered. Ravin smiled. “Well?”
“We don’t have time for this,” Kor snarled, shaking his head viciously and almost relishing the pain of the headache pounding behind his eyes. It was strange, the way energy seemed to almost tangibly be traveling up and down his spine, thanks to the kolinar… but at least the headache was receding. He gestured with his shitan at the tent door, palm up. “I am on my feet again, and I thank you for it, truly, but we need to focus on recovering Elam right now and put this superstition aside.”

“Are you daft?” the Border Guard snapped. “This is not superstition, no matter how much you argue against it. Surely you’ve felt the pressure of your bent? And, if you cooperate, we will find Elam. Even if the boy were drugged, as long as he lives, you can find him”

Kor felt like pulling his hair out. Maybe it would relieve the pressure on his skull if he did. “How? Eppa's Balls, if I must listen to this madness about bents and Gifts, then show me---quickly---how it can help Elam. And I swear to all the gods, Ravin, if nothing comes of it and he dies, I will kill you myself.”

Ravin’s lip curled. “I’d like to see you try. However…” He held up a hand to silence the Hybrid’s protest, “I will show you, as best I can. Do you remember the first Fundamental? The very first? ‘Clear your mind—focus on your opponent’?”

Kor sneered, impatient to begin searching for Elam and in no mood to play this game, but also cognizant of the fact that he was going to get nowhere fast unless he played along. “Which opponent? You? Lord Gyas? Or whoever may have taken Elam in Lord Gyas’s stead?”

“Focus on me, for now. You feel, and hear, and see only me.”

"Well, that's not hard," Kor growled with an exasperated sigh, but affixed Ravin with a glare as instructed. Struggling to breathe evenly through his anger, he forced himself to take in the other man's posture, the way he breathed and waited, and to get a sense of the tension the Border Guard held in his jaw and shoulders and which practically vibrated in the air between them.

“Good.” Kor heard, though slightly at a distance and as though through a jar of his mother’s molasses. “What do you see? Feel anything…unusual?”

Kor scrutinized Ravin carefully, but felt a rush of warmth against his shoulder and neck and flicked his eyes over his shoulder more than once in annoyance. Where was that draft coming from? He could not see a tear in the tent or anything. “No, nothing.” He tried focusing on Ravin again, but his concentration felt broken by the maddening airflow behind him. It felt so warm that for an instant he could have sworn someone lit a lamp behind him. But, again, when he turned to look, there was nothing there.

“If you feel nothing, then why do you keep looking behind you?" Ravin snorted. "Maybe the Lord of Eyrie sent a spirit to hunt you down.”

The Hybrid gritted his teeth at the reference. “It’s warm in here,” he snapped. “Damn you to Xraj’s Bowels and Eyrie, what is it I am supposed to be sensing?”

“It’s not warm in here.” Ravin smiled, and then exhaled deeply. His breath plumed white. He glanced at Kor, his grin widening as Kor’s eyes widened in surprise. “Look out of the edge of your vision? Do you see something? A light—a gleam?”

Kor really didn't want to admit that he'd sensed precisely what Ravin was describing, but he wasn't a liar, nor afraid of uncomfortable truths. "I saw it already." He signed and finally sheathed his shitans in resignation. Apparently Ravin did have something to show him here tonight. He only hoped it’d be enough to help Elam, or he would make good on his warning. He cleared his throat and elaborated "A warm... light, that I could not see when I looked at it directly."

“Ah, good. Touch it—no, not like that.” Kor tensed as Ravin caught his hand to prevent him from reaching upward. How in Kyda’s name else am I supposed to touch it? “That’s a habit you do not want to start.”

"Touch it how, then?" He twisted his wrist out of the Border Guard's grip and grinned at him in nettled amusement. "What, Ravin, going to hold my hand through the whole process like an anxious mother?"

The Border Guard kept his voice level, but his eyes narrowed in annoyance. “One of the Guard had that habit. He grabbed at the air to seize his Gift, a habit he grew accustomed to, just as you use one hand to eat with. Hybrids caught him. They gagged him, tied his wrists, and tortured him to death, unable to seize his Gift, unable to call to us, waiting within easy reach. That habit will kill you.”

Kor’s eyes widened and all humor and frustration drained out of him, replaced by shocked confusion. “Why?” he breathed. “Why would they do that?”

The Border Guard shrugged. “They’re Hybrids. No offense to you. Eloin-bred Hybrids are always that way. They belong in neither world. That particular group had already raided a few villages, and we had retaliated. When we found they were coming back again, the Guard set up an ambush, and I sent the man ahead, as a scout.”

Ravin shook his head and continued. “We were ten, fifteen feet from him, waiting for his signal. It took a full point for us to realize something may be wrong. By the time we had crept up to the camp, he was beyond hope. I—“ The Border Guard looked away. The memory was not a pleasant one. “I finished him, at his request. Freed his soul from that broken body. But that is beside the point.” He straightened, glaring at Kor. “You will not learn that habit. Most Gifted, like I at one time, are taught to use images.”

Kor resisted the urge to reach out and touch the glow over his shoulder. He might have to try, later, if he could do so without Ravin watching. Did it {i{feel warm like it looked? "Very well. What manner of images? And how am I to use them?"

Ravin cocked his head. “Now that is the difficult part. I seize my Gift, forcing it to do as I like. I picture the Gift as a horse, an unruly stallion that I insist my will upon. You do not seize it, but allow it to…to flow around you, or through you, in some way. For that, you would need to picture…a river perhaps?” He bit his lip. “It’s all in your head. How you think. I could try to follow the steps, but I can never seize it.” The Border Guard clenched his hand, fingertips brushing the old scars. “You might try picturing a bow, stringing one or…” he grinned, “A lyre. Can you picture a lyre, the music flowing through you, filling you?”

Kor grinned. “Aye, I think I can manage that. Ah… Do I close my eyes?”

He did it anyway before the Border Guard could respond. So… How did he feel when he usually felt like letting luck take its course? He’d never deliberately concentrated upon that feeling before, let alone tried to recreate it in his mind, but he did so now, remembering a profound sort of paradoxical stillness coming over him, before filling him like a bowl with a rhythm too deep to be heard and so slow and prolonged that each vibration seemed to flow almost seamlessly into the next. He remembered, and as he did, shaped a lyre in his mind’s eye---no, a lute, with a deep, round shell that could be filled with sound---and tried to visualize that uncanny stillness flowing into the lute as it sometimes seemed to flow through him.

“Closing your eyes helps, at first,” Ravin said calmly and quietly. “But you can’t do it forever. Not if you want to outlive a lyre.”

It’s a lute Kor thought distractedly, but the stillness he was imagining was beginning to gather around him, and it was a simple thing, really, to surrender to it.

Kor stiffened, gasping softly at the slightly charged warmth that seemed to rise up around his body from the base of his spine, then flood out from his body into the air around him, taking his awareness with it. Distantly he heard Ravin’s chuckle and words. “Obviously, you feel it now. Don’t open your eyes.” The Hybrid felt a hand rest on his shoulder. “Allow the music to spread, like light on a windowsill. When it touches something, listen.”

Kor felt slightly distracted by the difference between the music Ravin was describing and the low thrumming pulse he was feeling within and around him, but shrugged it off. It probably didn’t matter precisely what he visualized to encourage this perception, so long as it worked. And it was working, against his every expectation. He wanted to accuse the Border Guard of drugging him with some hallucinogen, but he knew without a doubt that what he was feeling was in no way the product of some foul substance or another. His mind, even on the best and worst of drugs that he knew about, could not possibly come up with something so fantastical and yet simple as what he was feeling.

And what he felt was… large. Very large. Expansive, like he extended well beyond the bounds of his body, filling the entire room, filling the entirety of Eppa’s vast universe. But there was nothing there in the universe but him, and that wasn’t right. Ravin had said to… to… What had Ravin said? “Let the music spread, and listen when it touched something?”

Kor already felt as though he was everywhere, but still he reached out further, tentatively at first, and then, when that yielded no results, in a great pulsing wave. He crashed against something, and the deep thrumming resonance of his Gift rebounded back at him powerfully off of whatever it was he’d connected with, sounding like a great bell in his mind and jarring him into opening his eyes in shock. The resonant, slightly-charged warmth flooded from him.

Ravin glared at him from his sprawled position on the floor. “Kyda’s teeth, bloody Hybrid. I said to touch it, not shove it.” The Border Guard stood, brushing sand from his tunic. “And, you let go again. You have to hold onto it. Seize it…or woo it…again. And try again, gently this time, hmm?”

“I knocked you over?” Kor said in alarm. First he’d imagined himself as a lute… and then had felled a man with it. The Border Guard waved at him impatiently to continue, none the worse for wear, but still…

But still… “I could have done that with my hand,” Kor pointed out, no less shocked by what he’d done but also not particularly sure about it’s usefulness. “And it felt like I had to cross the entire universe before I could do it. How is this useful?”

“How many repetitions of the diagonal step did you do before you could do it quickly, accurately? It is the same with the Gift. The more you do it, the faster you can be. At the moment, you will be slow.” Ravin shrugged. “If we had time, I would continue this, but the key is finding Elam, yes? So, seize the Gift, and reach out to touch me.”

Kor nodded. This time, knowing already what it felt like to immerse himself in that strangely resonant stillness, he kept his eyes open, and taking a deep breath, tried to find it again. It was as simple a thing as trusting, but as he felt his body and mind shift into the embrace of that stillness, he could vaguely feel that headache growing in the back of his head this time, and knew that even with the kolinar Ravin had given him, he couldn’t do this all night. He needed to learn quickly and get Elam. Tonight.

He studied Ravin, feeling again warmth grow around him with that sense of being larger than his body, but yet not connected to anything, Ravin or otherwise. He could see that warm glow at his shoulder again and knew it as the warmth he was feeling within and about him, and this time could vaguely spot another one bathing the Border Guard in light where Ravin stood, hands on his hips, at the far side of the tent. Perhaps if he pushed out again---slower this time---and reached for that light, he could touch the kinth, rather than shove him over?

Carefully, he did so, and heard that same bell-like resonance sound in his mind, quieter this time. Ravin shivered slightly, clearly uncomfortable as Kor’s presence brushed against his awareness, hesitant, but with growing confidence. Kor could not believe such a thing was even possible, but it was undeniably a part of his reality now. Not wanting to intrude, he let the warmth and stillness fade.

“Very good,” the Border Guard said. “I can feel you. That sense of me is constant. As long as I breathe, you can find it again.” The Border Guard stepped out of his line of sight. “Don’t turn your head. Can you find me again?”

Kor didn’t particularly like having the Ravin behind him, but he cautiously expanded his awareness away from himself in all directions until he felt that light contact again. It was easier this time.

“You’re a fast learner, ael kinth ” the Border Guard admitted grudgingly. “This part will be more difficult.” He fished out the damaged arrow of before. “Three people have touched this, one of which is Elam. You will have to sort through them. Hopefully, you can pinpoint which is him. If not,” he sighed. “We can return to the Dragonian camp, and find something that he touched and the others did not. But that takes time.” He tossed Kor the arrow. “Same thing as you did with me.”

The Hybrid frowned deeply at the arrow in his hands. That stillness still filled him, though it was faltering, but after three or four tries he could not seem to bridge the gap between himself and the arrow, regardless of whether he probed it forcefully with a pulse or gently with a tendril. Every time he tried, he thought he sensed something faint, the tiniest of responding vibrations, but then it was gone and his temples were beginning to pound. He didn’t want to release the stillness and call it up again, because he had a feeling it’d just be harder and more painful to get it back, but this was yielding nothing.

He shook himself a little, feeling the stillness slide away from him. He felt very cold as the warmth flooded from him and the noise in the room felt almost deafening. Ravin frowned at him and Kor ignored him and stared at the arrow. The nock was bent very slightly from where it’d fallen earlier, and inside he could see tiny shards of broken glass where the light stored within it earlier had fled. The thing didn’t glow anymore like it had before, and all the wood had been peeled away earlier, but he tried to look at it and see what Elam would have seen.

It was small, not as practical as a man’s arrow, but it was sturdy and had been beautifully wrought before Kor had stripped it down to its gold skeleton. The little boy probably would have turned it over in his hands, like so, admiring the Fundamentals carved into the wood, and held It on this end, like this, as he strung his bow. So if there was anything left of Elam’s touch on the thing, it would probably be here in the center, where all of the Fundamentals had been, and on the end, where he’d have had to hold It before stringing the bow. Kor would just have to hope the child’s touch hadn’t been stripped away with the wood.

Taking a deep breath to steel himself against the growing headache, he recalled the stillness again and reached out to touch the arrow.

“You’re hurting.”

Kor glanced up at Ravin, squinting in pain and not entirely positive how much time had passed as he’d repeatedly---and futilely---probed the arrow. “Aye. But Elam must be found. If this is the way to do it...” He fiddled with the arrow again, glaring at it as if the secret to everything was etched into its surface. About him, the stillness around him flared in and out, harder and harder to hold onto as each breath passed. He swore hoarsely as he continued, but no amount of cursing would tell him if one of the faint presences he sensed on the arrow was Elam’s.

Ravin appeared at his shoulder with a tap. “Hold for a moment,” the Border Guard said, drawing Kor unwillingly back away from his work. The Gift slipped and faded, and Kor could have strangled the man with his bare hands, but Ravin held up a hand. “We can head for the docks, while you chew on these, like that infernal kapa bark. It should help.” He pressed a handful of slightly bruised kolinar leaves into Kor’s hand and Kor stared in shock. He hadn’t even noticed the Border Guard leave. Ravin sighed. “I sincerely hope you can stay conscious long enough to track them down.”

Kor chewed on the leaf, not particularly relishing the flavor, although it could be pleasant in a much smaller dosage. “Sometimes, I felt small vibrations,” he croaked to the Border Guard as they started for the docks. Each step pounded in his head. “Five, I think.” He started to reach out to probe at the arrow again to confirm that number, but thought better of it and chewed on a second leaf. “Two were faint but easy to pick out, but not to hold onto. Ours? But the others… I couldn’t get a firm grasp of them, but I suppose I got a sense of what they feel like. I’m not sure which is Elam’s, but I could try all three and see where they lead us. Two should lead back to Daliah and Tyre, right? And one to Elam…”

“I would think so.” Ravin caught him by the arm as he stumbled. “I do not envy the headache you will have in the morning.” Kor reached for another leaf, and the Border Guard frowned. “Take care. Do you remember Gyas’ eyes?”

The leaf fluttered from his hand to the ground. "Dilated. Ah... Is that bad? I don't know the properties of kolinar. Well, I know it helps one feel a bit better the day after taking a wound and downing a full measure of Valla... and apparently helps with these headaches..."

“Aye, it helps with pain and weakness. But higher doses are more dangerous. Such as morpha. Taking a little will help with pain, but taking a great deal…you know the dangers of that, I am sure.”

The Hybrid nodded a tiny bit, grimacing. “Aye. I know those who have been treated with it after surgery who could not give it up again once they were well.” He glanced down at the dwindling handful of leaves Ravin had given him. “And what kind of dosage would you say this is? I won’t find myself craving more tomorrow, will I?”

Ravin laughed. “Certainly not. As long as you don’t keep taking it. This is the green kolinar.” He frowned at Kor’s blank look. “Green—unripe. It can cause the cravings, but only if you take very large doses, such as Gyas does. On the other hand, if I were feeding you ripe kolinar, the leaves would be red and crisp from drying. And, it you would crave, stronger each time, until you died. Think of kolinar as morpha, and red kolinar as haro root. That is their difference.”

“I shall avoid red kolinar as though it were Xraj’s own monster, then,” Kor said devoutly, pressing the tips of his fingers together as though in prayer and grinning through his headache. "Besides, once we find Elam, I shall not find employment in the finding of people anymore anyway, now will I?"

“Perhaps. But I hope you will continue to use what you have been given,” Ravin frowned. “Do not waste it. Some have, and regretted it ever after.” He stopped, glancing up to study the dark masts outlined against the lightening sky. With a grim look, he motioned to the arrow. “Ready to try again? We haven’t much time.”

Kor nodded grimly, his jaw hurriedly working on the last of the kolinar leaves. Bracing himself, he called up the Gift once again, staggering a little as it caught him like a bit of seaweed on an outgoing tide. Again he probed the arrow, to remind himself of the faint signatures there and to imprint the particular vibrating sound of the three unknown ones in his mind. The first one he noticed, he flung himself at desperately, trying to hold onto it long enough to recognize it when he found it again. Then, before he could forget what it felt like, he pushed his awareness outward in a pulse, feeling himself connect briefly---then brush past---several things that didn’t feel like the sensation he’d received off of the arrow. The answering response he was waiting for was stunningly loud when it resounded back to him, but it came, unfortunately, from the wrong direction.

“Not Elam,” he gasped to Ravin by way of explanation as pain shot through his temples, but he was already steadying himself in the stillness again to repeat the process with the second of the three unknown signatures. By Kyda, one of them would be Elam.

Again, his awareness surged outwards away from his body in every direction, brushing against and going over and around hundreds of small presences like water over pebbles until it crashed against the signature he was looking for. This time, his Gift did not rebound with a hollow, bell-like thrum sounding in his mind when it came into contact with his target. Instead, it felt as though the resonance he’d encountered curled around him with serpentine speed, holding him fast and nearly deafening him as though he were trapped inside a great bronzework bell. He had the most uncomfortable feeling of being known, and then it released him.

“Tyre,” he said grimly, feeling nauseous.

Ravin grimaced. “Don’t mess with him. Guildsman are well trained. He can track us as well as we can track him, and with far more accuracy. The only worse to follow is a depraved loquiri. They have nothing to lose, and all to gain.”

Kor gave him an annoyed glance as each word pounded behind his eyes. “For one, how do you know this? For another, can’t you be quiet?”

“My bent. I was a tracker. When you find Elam’s presence, head there. I will follow you.” And with that, he fell silent and watched the Hybrid work.

Kor swallowed, straightened his spine and gathered his wits about himself once again. His heart still pounded in his chest with the realization of what Tyre, even far away, bound, blindfolded and barely conscious from Daliah’s blow to his skull, could do, It took a few agonizing moments to calm himself enough to even imagine the stillness of the Gift, let alone ride it, but he hurried as fast as he could; time was running out, not only for Elam, but for Kor’s Gift as well. If he and Ravin did not find the boy, and the ship carrying him set sail, he knew without a doubt it’d probably be the last time he saw the boy alive. Gyas would not keep the child alive, after his plans in Chrys’s court had gone so badly awry.

He breathed in and out a few times, directing his attention once again to the arrow to isolate and recognize the last signature---Elam’s---before casting his Gift out away from him for Kyda only knew what time that day. The last, he hoped.

It was harder, this time. Rather than simply throwing himself outward, to fling his Gift up against whatever it found no matter how unsubtle or how unsettling the contact might be, he instead pushed gently onward, slowly, with little momentum behind his efforts to help ensure it was over quickly. He had knocked Ravin over earlier when seeking him out too enthusiastically; he didn’t want to do that to Elam, who was a sturdy boy, but much smaller and weaker than the hardy Border Guard. Besides, Kor had no notion of the shape the child might be in; Elam wasn’t one to go quietly…

By the time his awareness brushed, feather-light, against a presence that sang like Elam’s, the Hybrid was covered in perspiration, stank like the depths of Xraj’s bowels, and was shaking like an elderly woman with ague. But his grip was strong when he turned and grasped Ravin’s shoulder, pointing toward the fifth ship in the port.

“There!” he gasped, his grip vice-like. An instant later he drew his shitans and ran, more than stalked, toward the dock.

Ravin tagged after him, matching his stride. He came up on the Hybrid’s left side, his shield-arm, and grinned in the lightening darkness. “To think, Border Guard of Eastar and a bloody Aquila ael kinth . What a tale that will make.”

“Will you be quiet!” Kor hissed, ducking down into the shadows cast by the ship’s hulking bulk. Ravin crouched and drew his own shitans . “This is not the time go subtly. Come.” And he dashed toward the ship. He heard the Hybrid swear softly behind him, but his feet soon padded after.

Smirking, the Border Guard increased his speed. He shifted his weight forward, darting up the gangplank as if the wood were scorching sand. Though his progress was relatively quiet, Kor’s subdued motion was still loud enough to draw attention. Ravin had been counting on that.

When the sailor on watch stepped forward, frowning at Kor, the Border Guard slid behind him, dragging the curved blade of one shitan cleanly across his throat. With a low gurgle, the man crumpled to the deck.

Kor scowled. “He may not have been involved,” he whispered, “At the very least, he could have told us where Elam is being kept.”

Ravin shook his head. “We cannot risk any warning to the others. How many Aquila sailors are aboard this vessel alone? Not counting any Guildsmen—against which we would be sorry opponents.” He cleaned the blade and turned to study the slowly swaying deck. “What sort of cargo would this ship carry?”

The Hybrid took a step forward, and sniffed at the air. Ravin flicked him a sidelong glance. “Whatever are you—“

“Cinnamon. And fennel. A spice merchant.”

“Better than a hound,” Ravin muttered. Kor’s eyes narrowed. Grinning, the Border Guard crept across the deck, and out of the ael kinth’s reach. “Where would they keep what needs to be hidden? Or passengers?”

“Below deck.”

Ravin glanced around, squinting at the wood. He nudged a coil of rope with one foot, and then ran a finger across a taut line, frowning at the rustle of sail. "And how exactly do we get there? You will have to lead the way."

The Hybrid snorted and stepped past him. He bent and tugged on a metal ring, opening a trapdoor, before eying Ravin with a wry grin. They were nearly standing on top of it. The Border Guard frowned. "I am not Aquila. Do not expect me to know where your bloody kin places things. You would not fare well in the shifting sands of Mara."

Kor only chuckled and disappeared into the hole. Ravin peered into the darkness, his frown deepening. He could hear the whisper of the water's caress, and the slight shift of the ground beneath his feet with the roll of the waves. Even in the quiet harbor, the sensation made his stomach twist. Few Mara, himself included, cared for the sea and its dangers.

"Are you coming?" a voice hissed.

Ravin jumped at the disembodied voice. And then swore at the Hybrid. "Aye." With a grimace, he slid into the opening and down the ladder. The rocking floor was more pronounced here. The Border Guard spread his legs for balance and scowled at the lantern swaying nearby. And then blinked in surprise.

Its twisting light revealed bunks, scattered like spokes in a wheel, stacked four high. Most were occupied. The evidence lay sprawled on small pillows and thin blankets. A bone-carved flute. Charms of serrated teeth and jade beads. Flasks of oil, ale, and medicinal elixirs. Pale hair, colored in varying shades like Kor's own, peeking out of blankets. Several of the crew sat up, blinking at them, rubbing their eyes. "Itois ekai ato' ?" One said, pale hair flaring like a mane around his head.

Ravin froze. This was not going as planned. And then Kor spoke at his side. A stream of words that were lost on the Border Guard, but seemed to appease the sailor. They gestured and chattered. And then the sailor frowned, puzzlement creasing his face. "A tao' ?"

"Tell him no, whatever it is," Ravin hissed.

Kor sighed. "He's asking about 'the child' brought on board. Contrary to any stories you may have heard, Aquila do not condone kidnapping." The Hybrid focused on the sailor, and continued his conversation. Ravin scowled. Being left out of any conversation was irking. Not understanding what was being said, and knowing the chances of a Guildsman's appearance were very high, was not much better. "We have to hurry, ael kinth."

A dagger sailed past his shoulder, clipping the tunic, but missing skin, before burying its point into the wood behind him. The Border Guard gaped. "I would not call me that," Kor said, without turning his head.

Ravin yanked the dagger free and dropped it the floor, glaring at Kor. "Could you please hurry, Kor and find out where the boy is? If the ship sails with us on it, we'll have a worse fate than Elam."

Kor spoke to the sailor again, and the man nodded his head, curtly. He stalked across the room, retrieving his dagger with a wry grin at Ravin, and then gestured for them to follow.

`~`

The youth guarding the cargo hold took one look at their motley group and darted away. The sailor with them, who had introduced himself as simply Alek, spoke in rough Common. " The tao'--the child-- 's there. But there are two--with Shine." He glanced at Kor. "Yes? Shapes here..." he tapped his palm.

"Guildsmen," Ravin muttered. "Are they in there too?"

Alek shook his head. "Nay. They rest, to prepare...they say."

"I can guess for what," Kor said. He shoved his shoulder against the door. Prickles of warding tickled Ravin's spine.

"Ah, Kor. You might want to..."

He took a step back and hit it again. The warding unraveled with a snap that made Ravin wince. Kor paused and glanced at him. "What was that?"

The Border Guard sighed. "A warning. Much like our arrow, one of those Guildsmen now know we are here. Better hurry."

"Why didn't you say something?"

Ravin sighed again, deeper. "Just hurry, hmm?"

"Then help me, bloody sandcrawler!"

The Border Guard scowled, but held his tongue.Beneath their combined efforts, the door gave. Kor hurried into the room, sheathing his shitans. Ravin had no intention of doing the same. A quick throw might defeat a Guildsman, if you could manage it before he seized his Gift. Of course, he could only kill one. Ravin frowned. "Hope you're an excellent learner, Hybrid. Or we're both in trouble."

An alarm bell clanged above their heads. Ravin glared at the wood above him. "Just great." The noise continued. Angry shouting, cursing in both Common and Aquila, and then, to his surprise, the battle-cry of a Dragonian...Ravin blinked. "Did you hear that?"

Kor glanced at him. "Jin or Daliah. Or both. If they're here..."

"Maybe that bloody Inquisita managed to get some information from Tyre after all," the Border Guard mused. He squinted into the shadowy hold, before darting forward. "There. This is not part of a spice."

He shoved a group of cloth sacks aside. Elam lay stretched on his side, arms and legs bound, with a bruise darkening one side of his face. His hair was matted with dirt, and what the Border Guard hoped was sweat. His eyes narrowed in an excellent imitation of his father. "Get away from me, bloody kinth. Kyda banish you to Eyrei!"

"Good to see you too," Ravin growled. "Won't your Da love the words you've learned."

His eyes swiveled, and then widened in relief. "Kor!"

"You're welcome," Ravin muttered, stepping aside as the Healer shoved past him. "Kor, you'll need to carry him. I doubt he can run on his own." He frowned at the Hybrid. "And that hair...like a beacon--blast." He jerked his tunic over his head and handed it to the Healer.

"What about you?"

"I have fought Derk-ra naked. I can manage a few Guildsmen," Ravin snapped. "This is not the time or place to argue. Cover his head, pick him up, and let's go. Got it?"

A Non-Existent User
Jaara and Kharme looked hard at Tyre’s unconscious form. Two blows to the head in as many hours could hardly be good for the man, but then, Jaara did not particularly care about his wellbeing at this point, and Kharme wasn’t inclined to complain either. Here was a man who was undoubtedly involved in some way with an attempt on the Fay-el’s life, and who they’d just caught using the Gift, possibly to consort with whoever had attacked Daliah, knocking her clear off her feet with the sheer force of a Gift-pulse.

A moment later Daliah, having heard the other two women’s hypotheses about what had just occurred, rushed into the night, headed for the port where Jaara and Kharme had traced the attack with their own Gifts.

“What should we do with him?” Kharme wondered aloud as Jaara carefully rechecked the bonds on the man’s wrists, ankles, and the blindfold around his eyes. “We cannot leave Daliah unarmed against the Gift.”

“Kill him.” Jaara spat, then glanced over at Kharme’s shocked face. “Only jesting. But perhaps it would be good to give him the…” she rustled through her bag, at last pulling out the bottle she was looking for.

“Poison?” Kharme’s voice was suddenly very small.

“No, it is only to keep him asleep for a little longer while we look for Daliah and the others.” Jaara glanced at the bottle in her hand; somna, for the deadening of the Gift when one wanted to pass unnoticed through heavily populated cities without the Guild taking note of the presence of one whose work was delicate enough to require anonymity. A very useful trick her husband had taught her; a triple dose should boost the drug’s effects to help ensure the Guildsman remained sedated.

“Fine, then. But do it quickly.” Kharme watched nervously as Jaara emptied the contents down the man’s throat. “Now let us go.”

Both women began to run toward the docks. Because of all the years of horseback riding and foot races, Kharme was a near match to Jaara in speed. But if it came to fighting, she had great fear.

***


Daliah stumbled to her feet and continued to run. She still did not quite understand what force had struck her back there in Tyre’s home, but she could not let it slow her. All she could do was hope she found the ship in time. Her feet flew evenly over the ground, light as any deer’s, leaping over fallen carts and boxes of salted meat.

The ship was in sight now, and by the shouting alone she knew there was trouble. She ran faster, crossing the plank in only a few steps. She leapt aboard, sword drawn even before she landed. Chaos met her, but she knew how to handle it.

Her sword clanged against those of the sailors, but hers rang clearer and sharper as each stroke felled another enemy. But there were so many, she needed a way to balance the scale. There was at least one she was repeatedly trained in.

She cut the arm of one of the men, causing him to drop his sword. It fell into her outstretched hand as he stumbled back, and she proceeded to wield both blades against her opponents. She did not fight with flash, but with a raw viciousness. Her blades did not spin in her hands before they ran through flesh, but moved only with speed and power.

Another man jumped in front of her, and she noted his athletic form and strong sword. He had obviously been trained in battle. She let him attack her first, and blocked him easily with both blades, pushing them forward so that he was forced to back away. His arm flashed out, grasping the weapon of one of his fallen comrades. They were now evenly matched.

He grinned at her and started forward once more. They fought in circles it seemed, and Daliah had to spin more than once to dodge an attack and gain force behind her blows. But he continued to drive her back, and she let him, a plan already formed if she read him correctly. Her back was now pressed against the rail, and she leaned out over the water, fighting for her life. She could hear the waves sucking hungrily at the ship, ready to swallow her.

She shoved him away and readied herself. He flew at her, eager to finish this. She ducked at the last second and lifted his legs over the side. He fell, but managed to grab the collar of her shirt and fumbled to get in one last attack before she threw him over. By the time she forced him away, he had sliced deep through her thigh and she was hanging to the side with only a hand, her other clutching the wound tightly. She glanced down for a moment until she was sure he was truly gone before she began to pull herself up.

The blood made the railing slippery, but she dug her fingers into the grooves and swung her legs over. She pushed herself up from the deck, clutching her leg and trying to catch her breath.

***


“I see that the time for subtly is over,” Jaara grinned harshly, as she and Kharme skidded to a stop to behold the skirmish that had spilled out onto the dock. Apparently that ael kinth and his Border Guard “friend” had found an ant’s nest of angry, armed men, and even now were whetting their blades in freshly spilled blood, working their way along the deck.

They were also, it appeared, running away from their opponents, moving adroitly down the gangplank in a series of jumps, slides and rapid footsteps. The red-headed Hybrid had a small, hooded form slung over one shoulder, and was clutching his shitan in his other hand as he ran. Ravin guarded his back, weaving around the Hybrid once their feet touched the ground again to fend off their pursuers with wickedly powerful slashes and stabs. He spotted the two approaching women and his dark eyes widened. “Go!” he shouted, pointing with one hand before slashing at a stocky Hybrid with the other.

“Where is Daliah?” Jaara shouted back.

***


Daliah groaned as the pain seared her thigh. Something was wrong, now. She’d been wounded in battle before and it had never hurt this much, and now the pain was spreading rapidly until she struggled for breath. Her vision began to blur and darken as she felt something invade her body.

She had never encountered the Gift, so she did not recognize the feeling, as she should have. A shadowy figure at the corner of her vision stepped closer, and the pain increased greatly. She screamed in spite of herself, drawing attention from those around her.

Jaara and Kharme heard it, and soon found themselves running across the deck. Both knew the cry of a woman in pain, and they knew of only one other woman on the ship. Neither stopped to think about how easily they were able to cross, how the other men stepped away from them with a simple push from their Gifts. Their minds were on other matters.

“What is he doing?” Kharme cried, quickly spotting the man that stood staring at Daliah in silent concentration as the woman froze in midstep and began to sink to the floor in agnoy.

“The Gift,” Jaara snapped. “He’s killing her with it,” she explained flatly, rushing the Guildsman. “Let her go!”

He turned to them slowly and his hold loosened enough for Daliah to suck in a quick breath. He smiled, but it faded as Jaara expanded her own---comparatively feeble---Gift between the Guildsman and his victim, breaking his hold.

Kharme stood for a moment, unsure of what to do, before circling over to Daliah. The strange woman was nearly unconscious now, and didn’t seem to recover even as the Guildman’s Gift released her. Kharme was not a healer, but she knew the gray cast of the other woman’s skin and her rapid, shallow breathing were not good signs. Still, she saw little that she could do at the moment except attempt to help Jaara.

“Come on!” Jaara yelled, fighting off a sudden attack from a sailor at her side as she focused her meager Gift upon the Guildsman. She was sweating from the strain of just trying to fend off the man’s attacks, which washed, one after another, against her own Gift. If she could only find a break in his attacks, she could take the offensive… but he kept slamming her again and again, driving his Gift like a knife between her ribs, into her stomach, between her eyes…

“Stop!” Kharme tried tapping into her Gift, but he was too determined to fall prey to her undisciplined attempt.

“That will not work!” Jaara gasped in pain and frustration.

“Then what do I do?” Kharme asked herself quietly. But she knew she had to at least try.

She leapt into the struggle and started to search within herself. Necessity allowed her to find it quickly, and they were soon pushing him back. Kharme felt like a knife was carving out her ribs, slicing them apart slowly. She could only imagine what Jaara felt.

“We have to go. Hurry!” This order came from Ravin, who continued to fight for the Hybrid and the boy. They were extremely outnumbered, and could not afford to waste much time.

Jaara cued Kharme and they both pushed with their Gifts at once, so that the man landed on his back a few feet away. Kharme moved to help Daliah, but found the woman already on her feet with her cloak pressed against her wound. She had a strange look in her eyes as she reached for her knife.

“We have to go.” Kharme pulled her away.

“Is he all right? Is he hurt?” Daliah asked as they jogged out, though she limped slightly.

“Is he---Oh, the boy.” Jaara took her other arm and tugged her faster. “He seems to be fine, but that will change if we do not leave now.”

Daliah nodded and pressed forward, slicing out with her knife whenever one of the sailors came too close. It was a weak effort, but it helped some in combination with Jaara’s Gift and Ravin clearing the way before them as they fought their way slowly, laboriously, up the docks and toward Ratacca Korr. It wasn’t until Ravin procured horses in “the Fay-el’s name” that they were able to escape their enemies.

Daliah began to black out again as she mounted, so she did not complain when someone mounted behind her. It comforted her that she would not have to latch herself to the saddle. She was grateful, but fainted before she could tell who it was.

“..a lot of blood,” Kor was saying. “I think the great artery in her leg…”

“Use your Gift,” Ravin snapped.

All she felt was someone shaking her and gently slapping her cheeks as the horses’ hooves clattered against the stones of Ratacca Korr’s inner courtyard, and, somewhere, Jin cried---“Elam!”
Kor’s hands were slick with blood and its sickly sweet, metallic scent turned his stomach. He hadn’t seen this much blood since he’d found his mother’s body after the Eloin raid two years ago, and she’d already been dead then, her throat torn with a butcher’s knife from one ear to the other and her body cast aside like refuse.

Daliah was still alive, barely, but her lifeblood was pumping from her leg in great gushes, bubbling between Kor’s fingers despite the firm pressure he was applying to the wound, and he knew enough about healing to know that he couldn’t heal this. Even with the palace guard pouring into the courtyard, giving him time and room to treat the wound in relative safety, he knew that there was nothing he could do.

On the horse beside the roan Kor and the semi-conscious Daliah rode, Ravin cursed anew, uncaring about the presence of young Elam in front of him on the saddle. He too had seen enough battle wounds to know the severity of this one. “She needs the Mending, and soon.”

Kor shook his head but did not say anything. Instead, he slapped Daliah's cheeks lightly, trying to bring her around. He didn’t want to admit in front of Elam that there was nothing he could do. The little boy was staring at Daliah from under his makeshift hood with very wide eyes.

Thankfully, Jin, running with Terran at his heels from the palace courtyard full tilt toward his son with a terrified and elated shout, shot Kor an understanding glance as he dragged his son from the saddle into a rough hug, then fled with the boy back into the safety of the palace. Terran, on the other hand, ducked into the skirmish, his shitans raised before his chest to deliver a powerful cross slash to the first sailor who mistakenly got in his way.

“Go,” Jaara snapped over her shoulder at Kor as she too shouldered her way between the guards into the fray. Even wielding a sword one handed, with her other arm in a sling, the attackers backed warily away from her. “Between the guardsmen, Kharme and I, we should be able to handle this.” She was pointedly ignoring the Dragonian blademaster.

“Inside,” Ravin snapped, already pulling on his rein toward the reception hall. “We need to find someone to help with the Mending.”

“I cannot do anything,” Kor said in a low voice to the Border Guard as the palace guards closed around them, blocking the attackers from Jin and Elam. He prayed to Kyda that Daliah was too far gone to hear him, or at least to comprehend. “She’s too badly hurt. But yes, we should get her inside so that she can have some peace.”

“No, you blasted—“ Ravin’s voice trailed off and he flicked a glance over the men around them. None had more than a faint flicker of Gift, not enough for something like the Mending. Scowling, the Border Guard seized the reins of Kor’s horse and shoved his way through the head of the palace guard company.

“What are you… we can’t take the horses in the---“

“We can and we will.” Ravin dragged horse and all into the main hall, ignoring the gasps and glares from the servants. His eyes jumped from person to person, searching.

Kor, positively raw from his use of the Gift, gasped as Chrys and the royal loquiri appeared, the resonant thrum of the strange duality of their Gifts pulsing like an almost physical thing through his head, so that even his teeth ached in sympathy.

Ravin felt the duality a split second before the loquiri’s form appeared, his Match behind him. Chrys’s eyes narrowed. “Whatever are you doing? What is all the commotion?”

Kor thought it should be fairly obvious what was going on. He sat upright upon a sturdy horse in the Fay-el’s own hall with a rather harried-looking and decidedly armed Border Guard at his side, an unconscious woman leaning back against him, and the steady pressure of his hand on her leg probably the only thing keeping her alive. Obviously, they had not been sharing a cup of kolinar.

“Elam is back,” he explained briefly, scanning the room for Jin and Elam. They were not to be seen. “His father is with him. We were followed.” He glanced down at Daliah. “And she needs… well… I need to make her comfortable, and have a runner sent out to find her betrothed, Layole, in Jin’s camp outside Crossroads.”

“Elam?” Chrys said. Ravin saw Veritas wince, felt a flicker of Gift, suddenly smoothed. "And Guildsmen, eh?" The Fay-el continued.

Veritas scowled. “Don’t you dare.”

“I’m fine.”

The loquiri sighed, but didn’t answer. He moved closer, eyes flicking over Daliah. “She is wounded, but the spark of life remains.” Veritas glanced at Kor, reaching for the unconscious woman. “If I may?”

Using that little trick Ravin had taught him earlier, Kor tried to make sense of the Gift coming from this man, but could not comprehend why it felt strangely entwined with the Fay-el’s. His gaze slid to Chrys in curiosity. “Of course,” he said in confusion. He kept the pressure firmly on Daliah’s wound, but nodded to the royal loquiri.

Veritas smiled. “Good. She needs to be on the ground first. This is difficult enough without trying to do it on the back of a horse.”

Kor nodded, but Ravin was the first to slide off the horse. With the three of them, they managed to stretch her out on the floor. Her color was pallid, breathing rough and shallow.

The loquiri frowned. Seizing his Gift, he probed her lightly. “She needs a very strong Mending,” he said. “More than I can give alone.”

Ravin’s eyes slid to Chrys, but both Veritas and Kor shook their heads simultaneously and said, “No, he is still weak.” They glanced at one another, surprised.

Kor did not grin at their shared words like he normally would have. “I do not know if I can help but… can I help?” He felt strange talking about such things, out of comfortable waters, without the proper vocabulary or understanding necessary to discuss matters of the Gift and Mendings.

“You have the Gift?” Veritas didn’t finish the rest of the thought. A Hybrid?

“He does,” Ravin answered.

Veritas bit his lip. “Aye then, you may help, but do as I say. An improper Mending can wound more than heal. Seize the Gift.”

The loquiri glanced at Chrys, aware of the burning eagerness flashing in his mind. If not for his presence, the blasted Fay-el would be out there with the guardsmen, hacking at the Guild. Sighing, Veritas reached for his Gift, and then Chrys’s. The latter snapped in his grip. He frowned. What in Kyda’s….oh. Veritas frowned. “Chrys, come here.”

Kor’s eyes widened slightly at the commanding tone, but he held his peace. The Fay-el obeyed. He moved closer, standing at Veritas’s shoulder, eyebrows arched.

“The stone,” the loquiri prompted. As long as he wore the stone, his Gift could not be used, only stored.

Chrys’s eyes lit with understanding. He yanked the chain over his head, holding the dangling green gem away from his skin.

“A dreamstone?” Ravin said. “Why would you need...”

“Hush.” Veritas flicked a glance at the Hybrid. “Ready? Watch.”

He traced the pattern of the Mending above her limp form, slowly and without power. “Trace the blessing points, plus two more.” Veritas filled with Gift, pulling from Chrys as well. The Fay-el flinched, but didn’t move. “Now then, trace the blessing points.”

Kor had always had a good memory, which was largely the reason he’d been given bardic training as a child. Watching the royal loquiri trace blessing points once was more than sufficient to inscribe the strange ritual in his mind. But… “Plus two more? What two more?” he asked softly, afraid that his words would destroy the loquiri’s concentration and cause him to lose his hold on the Gift.

Veritas smiled. “Here,” his hands hovered by each side of her head. He traced a thumb across her forehead, from left temple to right. “Those two are not blessing points. The source of the Gift, if she be such, or simply tapping into whatever life-threads she may have.”

Kor nodded and repeated the pattern of the Mending perfectly. Veritas blinked. “That is half the work done. With control of your Gift now, slowly add strength,” the loquiri followed his own instructions, and felt the Hybrid do the same. “If it were only you, then you would also have to listen with your Gift, until you felt her…her ‘spark’ match with yours. But as we are doing this together, I will manage that.” He smiled slightly in Chrys’ direction. “I know the feeling quite well.”

The headache that had been pounding dully in Kor’s temple crashed like a wave over him with each heartbeat as he struggled to hold onto his Gift as the loquiri commanded. How it was Veritas could keep expanding his Gift more and more in this way was beyond him.

“Will I know when our sparks match? Or---oh.” He heard a low, dangerously quiet tone sweep through him and his headache peaked briefly.

The loquiri glanced at him. “You know her spark already, good.”

“It’s weak,” Kor pointed out. “Now what?” he grated through clenched teeth.

“Wind the two pieces together,” Veritas smiled, “Like a well-written song, twine her spark into the pattern, and the pattern into her spark. It is similar to the Joining, but not as deep,” he added as explanation.

“Joining?”

“The loquiri pair-link, such as Chrys and I share.” Veritas carefully intertwined both pieces into one whole, allowing the Gift-fed pattern to drape over Daliah like a woven blanket. The Dragonian woman shivered, and then shivered again, the second most likely from Kor’s Gift.

Once, when Kor had been little more than a boy but had been quite convinced of both his maturity and virility, he had courted a pretty young woman whose father owned a stall down by the wharf. He distinctly remembered walking on the seashore with her, his arms wrapped around her waist as they walked, and feeling ill at ease with their unsteady gait through the sand. She had been a beauty, and he had cared for her, but they simply had not fit together perfectly, and that had been uncomfortable.

That was what it felt like, when Kor did as Veritas instructed and wound Daliah’s spark with the pattern. He had traced the pattern with his own Gift; in his mind’s eye, it formed seven deeply thrumming spiraling whirlpools over Daliah’s seven blessings and over her temples, and these whirlpools pulsed gently with the rhythm of the input from Kor’s Gift. They were a part of him, as much as his Gift felt like another limb, and meshing the pattern with Daliah’s “spark”, as Veritas called it, felt very strange and not at all comfortable.

And all the while, the headache grew and grew. Glancing sideways at Ravin, he slipped another kolinar leaf into his mouth.

Ravin frowned, but said nothing. He could not help and, obviously, neither could Chrys. Without the Mending, the Dragonian woman would die.

She sighed, snapping his attention back to her face. Daliah’s eyes fluttered, and she groaned softly. Veritas pulled back and rested a hand against his temples. “Ah, much better. She will need to rest now, and heal.”

“Aye,” Kor breathed, kneeling shakily beside her and checking the wound in her leg. The injury was far from healed, but the blood had clotted nicely, and looked as though it’d been healing for a week more more… despite the fact that Kor knew, rationally, that such wounds did not heal. Her color was not much better, but she breathed much easier and the beat of her heart beneath his fingers was stronger. She was not yet awake, but he felt he could move her safely someplace else to rest, with the assurance that she would wake later.

He started to rise back up to his feet, but paused. “Ah. Ravin?” One hand thrust out the remaining kolinar leaves. The other kneaded his temple with a white-knuckled fist. “Take them? And up. Please?” Asking the Border Guard for help galled him, but there was certainly no way he was going to ask the Fay-el or the royal loquiri.

Ravin grabbed the Hybrid by the wrist, hauling him to his feet, and then grabbed at his shoulder with the other hand as he staggered. Veritas gave him a worried glance. The Border Guard smirked. “Not much training.”

“Ah.” The loquiri frowned disapprovingly at the kolinar leaves. “Take care with those.”

“Aye, I am watching him. He won’t get more tonight.” Ravin smiled. “Daliah and he alike can rest.”

Veritas nodded. “Good.” He turned, focusing on Chrys. “And so will you.”

“I already have, with my thanks to that bard.”

The loquiri stepped closer, slipping the retrieved stone over his head, holding his gaze. “Truly rest.”

Another stand-off, but Veritas didn’t back down. Not until the pale blue of his surrender flickered in his head.

Kor cleared his throat uncomfortably, unsure about what had just passed between the two men but feeling strangely as through he was intruding. “I need a clean room to move her to. And medical supplies.” He grinned tiredly up at Ravin. “You know what I need, I should think.” When the Border Guard scowled, he sighed. “Bandages,” he said, with growing impatience, rubbing his temple. “Water and a sponge. Hot water, that is, boiled long enough to burn away impurities. Valla. Lichen. Kapa. And, um…” His mind swam.

“Anderberries?” the Royal Loquiri suggested.

“Right, those.”

Ravin fixed him with a narrowed gaze. “I’m not a blasted nursemaid!”

The Hybrid rolled his eyes. “Of course not. That’s my job.”

“But first,” Veritas interrupted, “You will rest, while she is sleeping.” Kor started to protest, but he cut him off. “That I will enforce. Sleep first. Nursemaid later.”

Kor shook his head firmly. “The first few hours after an injury are the most critical. Prompt attention often means the difference between wound fever and a sound recovery. I can retire after her leg is clean and properly dressed. It shan’t take more than half a point, and,” his lip quirked, “I doubt I’ll need to resort to the Gift to work with linens, herbs and water.”

"True." Veritas sighed. "But after that--"

Kor's lip curled in something more akin to a grimace than a smile. "I am not a madman, sar, nor a masocist. After I see to the most basic necessities of care to ensure that she will not worsen, I will follow your wisdom and rest."

“No he won’t,” Ravin snorted. “Ael Kinth lack the sense to---“

“Yes, I will,” Kor snapped. After I take a look at Elam, and check the status of the battle in the courtyard, he finished silently, but knew better than to voice that outloud right this moment. Where would Jin have taken Elam? It was good that the child was fully conscious and as ornery as ever, but still, it would be best to be sure, and soon. Afterwards, he’d have a message sent to Layole. And maybe, just in case, Turoc should come and see that Kor’s less experienced care was adequate, that he wasn’t overlooking anything…

He glanced up at the royal loquiri who was watching him with narrowed, suspicious lies. Kor cleared his throat awkwardly. “Well, anyway, I’ll sleep Daliah after I treat. Kyda. I mean…”

Veritas smiled. “May I observe? I have but little knowledge of healing without the Gift, and if my Match were ever injured, it would be wise if I knew more.” Not to mention being able to make sure you do as I ask.

Kor scowled. “It’ll be much faster if I… oh fine.” He glanced at Ravin, who was staring impatiently at the door, and sighed. “I suppose I’ll have to go get the herbs myself. I’m hardly holding you here, Ravin. Why don’t you go see how Jaara and Kharme fare? I’m sure Lord Veritas and I can see to Daliah ourselves.”

“Indeed we can,” Veritas said, motioning servants closer to help carry the unconscious woman. “Lead the way.”

Kor led, sort of lingering near the wall, one hand tracing the rough pits and pocks of the stonework, more to help guide his untrustworthy feet in a straight line than out of any interest in Ratacca Korr’s admittedly-strange architecture.

The exhausted mind and body were amazing things, he concluded, wishing he could just lay eagle spread on that fantastically strange floor. Kyda, yes, the hard, cold floor, with a bottle of good spiced wine and maybe that little Maran lass who was helping bear Daliah’s litter. Not, mind you, that the pretty little thing had anything but glares for his lowly Hybrid self. Still, he knew he could win her over, if he only had the time. And the energy.

“Here looks good,” he directed, pointing one finger at the clean but narrow bed in the palace infirmary. He crossed over to the palace healer’s herb cabinet, methodically sorting through everything there until he found the familiar jars and bags from which he’d treated Chrys the other day.

Veritas watched the Hybrid work with subdued interest. Chrys fidgeted uneasily out of sight, but not out of sensation, thanks to the pair-link. The impatient image of a sand-crab, midmolt, kept popping into his head. The Fay-el’s patience stretched thin as the Hybrid carefully cleaned and treated the wound.

Though he had not seized the Gift, he kept repeating what he had done in the hall as they headed to the infirmary. Veritas knew Kor did not know the way to the infirmary, and yet still the man led, and as he led the air around him stilled, smoothing as if he held the reins of the wind, before relaxing again. And Kor, though he would probably deny it, seemed more and more unsteady as each moment passed. Yet they arrived at the infirmary.

Another image replaced the sand-crab; a silvery fish darting just out of reach. Frustration. Veritas sighed, swiveling to give his Match a glare. Chrys scowled at him. And then blanched. Ice shivered through the loquiri’s spine. He shivered. That sensation he knew too. Chrys’ bent, recently indulged, pushed to be fully released.

If Chrys did, he would continue to Foretell, jumping from person to person, place to place, over several hours. The Fay-el’s hand crept to his chest, two fingers resting over the dreamstone’s hiding place beneath his tunic. You should not have allowed me to dream.

Veritas ignored the accusation beneath that statement. I did what I thought was best, for you and for Elam.

I could not bear dreaming here, in front of yet another person. Somna?

Veritas frowned. Absolutely not.

A dragon-image hissed in his head. And then Chrys’ mind snarled. You have to do something.

Not that.

“My lord? Sar?”

Both of their heads turned to glance at Kor in unison. The Hybrid grinned. “Do you two always do things at the same time?”

Kor had never encountered anyone so odd before in his life, and here before him stood two such men. Hideously powerful, they seemed almost physically clothed in their Gifts, as though wearing heavy winter cloaks woven of power. They seemed to be closer than even brothers or dear friends, to the point where they almost felt like a single person, and yet at the same time they seemed so different, so strangely at odds with one another, the royal loquiri a well of calm, the Fay-el a seething whirlpool of impatience and frustration. He wondered if they were lovers, but something about their gestures, their shared glances, the casual ways they touched, and even the way their Gifts intertwined described a different kind of relationship, one Kor did not comprehend.

Finishing wrapping a length of linen around Daliah's leg, he pulled the blanket up to her chin. She stirred briefly, but did not wake or even groan. Then he straightened, and already wondering where Jin and Elam might be in the palace, nodded politely to the loquiri and Fay-el. "Well, rest will probably do her more good than anything else right now, so I suppose I'll go find my bed as you wisely suggested," he lied smoothly. "Good eve, my lords, and I thank you for your assistance with Daliah. She has you to thank for her life, I've no doubt of it. Even if I'd known how to perform the Mending, I do not believe I would have had the strength." Bowing slightly, he slipped out the door, trying not to think too much of the strangely keen expression on the loquiri's face.

He didn't get more than three steps down the hall before Veritas called out to him, "Kor, it is somewhat difficult to find your bed when you do not know where your bed is."

“Ah…well—“

“—and you certainly cannot use your Gift, or whatever it is you’re doing, to find it.”

The Hybrid wisely quit arguing and only sighed. Veritas smiled. “I may have used much of our Gift, but even I can tell when one is lying.”

Kor flicked him a curious glance. “Our? Is that how you could do so much more than I?”

Again, he called on his Gift, so that he could take a closer look at the two men. He quickly let it go once again, because even looking at the Gift with his Gift was exhausting, but with one resonant pulse he’d already seen enough to answer his question. “Your Gifts are strange, like… salt and water sitting together in one cup. Separate, different, yet they fit together almost perfectly, like two parts of one substance.” His tone was questioning at the end.

The loquiri nodded, but did not explain.

Kor wanted to ask what are you, but couldn’t imagine a tactful way to frame the question. Instead, he glanced off down the hall. “I suppose I can go back to camp and sleep there. Tis not a long walk, though it’s longer than I’d like, and I’d rather not risk wading through battle to get there. But first,” he said firmly, “I’m going to see how Elam is doing.” He couldn’t find his bed using his Gift, but he’d found the boy earlier and knew he could do it again. Drawing on the Gift once again, he sent his awareness out in a slow pulse to find Elam as he’d done earlier.

Or tried to. The Gift slipped away from him like sand through fingers and he staggered, banging his shoulder against the wall, and cursed fluidly in Aquilan. Veritas was looking at him with a strange mixture of amusement, irritation and dismay.

“You need to rest.” Veritas said simply.

“Kyda…” Kor hissed through clenched teeth. “I know that.”

“Elam is with his father and Chrys’s royal guards. If they cannot keep him safe, then you cannot either. Destroying your strength without cause is foolish.”

Kor rested a shaky hand against the wall. “I must be foolish then.”

“Not on my watch.”

The Hybrid gave him a bleary glare, eyes narrowing. Veritas shook his head. “You are as stubborn as Chrys, and nearly as foolhardy.”

Kor grinned fiercely. “Then you know you cannot stop me.” He pushed past the scowling loquiri, making his way down the hall in the direction he’d sensed Elam. He more sensed than saw the door before him, and ducked under the arms of the guards who moved to stop him. A familiar voice called, “Don’t!” and he turned over his shoulder to see the two men step away from him, lowering their weapons.

Jin stood in front of Elam, one hand on the boy’s shoulder, where the boy sat, feet kicking idly, on a cushioned chair. “Kor, you look like Kyda’s wrath. Is Daliah…”

“Resting and recovering,” Kor said, noting the Fay-el’s surprise and relief, “thanks to Veritas and your kinsman. How is Elam?”

“I’m fine,” Elam piped, glaring down at the elderly man kneeling before him. “But Da won’t let me eat supper until the healer’s seen to me.” The healer was sponging dried blood from Elam’s forehead to reveal the tiniest of cuts.

Kor breathed a sigh of relief. The wound---and it could barely be called that---was very shallow, and the sturdy child did not even wince as the healer cleaned away the last of the blood. It did not even need bandaging, although the palace physician was quick to spread salve over the wound.

Terran, standing behind Jin by the door, was looking rather satisfied. “The Guild?” Kor asked.

The bladesmaster shrugged. “Everyone that survived is in custody and will be questioned at the Fay-el’s pleasure.”

Veritas pushed into the room and smiled at Kor. “There, you’ve seen for yourself that Elam is well and is properly guarded. Now, I’m sure Jin would be more than willing to grant the man who recovered his child leave to rest for a few---“

“I have to---“ Kor started, thinking of Jaara, Kharme and yes, even Ravin as he headed for the door once again. But Veritas, leaning casually against the doorframe, wasn’t moving out of his path. “The bloody Star take you! Stop nagging after me like you’re my mother!”

“I will not allow you to harm yourself, even unintentionally.” Kor scowled, taking another step forward. Veritas’ eyes narrowed. “I would advise against trying to get past me.”

Terran cleared his throat. “Kor, best listen to him. Even I would not attack a loquiri.”

Flickering only the smallest of glances at Terran, Kor snarled, "What, he's not going to hurt me if he's so keen on not allowing me to 'harm myself'. Now, I have only a few things left to do tonight, and then, I promise, I will lay my pretty little head down on the first pillow I see. All right? What are you---"

Kor was being sustained almost entirely on anger at this point. When the loquiri, eyes narrowed, stepped toward him, Kor thought he was moving out of his way. But to his surprise, the loquiri neither got out of his way, nor lifted a weapon to stop him. Instead, he rested his hand on Kor’s shoulder, as though to have a serious discussion with him, but Kor felt the other man draw on the Gift, and siphon the tension from him like pouring water out of a jar.

“Oh… not fair,” the Hybrid murmured, and didn’t have the energy even to glare.

Smile broadening across his face, Veritas caught the Hybrid as he slumped. The pair of palace guards both hid a chuckle. Most likely, they had experienced the Gift's use on them personally.

"You can't win against a loquiri," Veritas said and then glanced at the guards. "There is a chamber prepared for him opposite the tata-kan's rooms. Make sure he gets there." And stays there.

They nodded, obviously grasping the intent behind his words. The two of them helped the weary, staggering Hybrid out of the room. Veritas turned back to face Jin, and then winced at the sudden pressure of Chrys' mind. Where is the boy?!

Scowling, Veritas headed back the way he had come. One stubborn mule down; one more to go.
Caylia touched the ring lightly beneath the thin fabric of her linka. The clinging fabric made her a little uncomfortable, however it was light and smooth against her skin, banded with color at the hems, and the rest of the palace servants wore it with ease. That is the point of all this I suppose. If this can be solved then the Mara won’t have to steal an heir from the wetlands.

She had taken a chance with the Matron of Chambermaids. Speed was important and only she could accept the strange new comer and place her closest to where she needed to be.

”The Fay-el’s ring?”

“Yes. I am to be a ladies maid, for lady Turina”

Lips pursed, eyes suspicious slid back and forth between the bard and the ring, then a nod and the eyes measured her. “We may not have something that fits you.”

“We’ll make due.”


The matron had handed her a dress, two sizes too big, and the belt, as color banded as the hems, wrapped once and once again around her waist. The mistress tamed her hair, sniffed her approval, then hustled her down the hall and put her in the hands of a small, slight girl with large doe eyes, brown as mahogany wood.

“First of the Ladies,” the Matron said and Caylia dropped her hand. “Alzira fa Hassan. You will report to her.” And then she was gone, nothing but her large shadow disappearing around a corner.

“You will be third,” Caylia’s eyes came back to her. “There is already a second. Now come, there are tasks that must be performed and we must hurry especially if you are to help.” She on her heel and the bard turned ladies maid hurried to catch up. Despite her size and looks, the girl had iron in her veins.

They went through one door, then down a set of stairs Caylia had never seen, into the bowels of Ratacca Korr. The First took a left and she found herself in a high arched room, ceiling painted with stars and the two moons of the night sky and she stopped staring wide eyed until the girl hurried her along.

“You have never been to a place such as this?” Caylia shook her head. “Then it is understandable. It is the court of the Fay-el and you’ll become used to it.”

“How old is it?”

“The castle? Old. Shenan, the hostler says it ages the farther down you go.”

“Into the bones of the earth, that’s what I heard.”

The First quirked a brow curiously at the now Third and Caylia looked down. “In my old place…well they told stories too. We traveled a lot...it was the only thing to do.”

“Stay away from Shenan then. And his assistants. The spit boys by the fires are too be avoided too. They have faces like melted wax.” They passed through another doorway into a passageway where servants dusted, presided over by a man whose linka was embroidered with a seal on his breast. “That’s Omani, in charge of the men. Make sure you are respectful to him. Although we serve my lady Turnia, you can’t ignore the hierarchy.”

Another room, full of wash tubs. “This is where we do our lady’s laundry. Washed and dried and pressed. There will be some for you to do later today, as well as sheets, which I suppose you can manage.”

“Pressed?”

The First looked proud for a moment as she gestured to a small closet. “That traps the heat that comes up from the ground. We put the lady’s clothing there and then drag a piece of metal over it to get rid of the wrinkles.” Caylia raised her brows, impressed. “Down lower,” the First continued, lowering her voice, “there are hot springs that the Fay-el and his wife use for bathing or relaxing but…there are some of us that use it too when they are not around.” The bard tried not to smile at the girl’s tone, as if they were doing something illicit. There’s no harm in stealing bathwater I suppose. And I don’t think floating herbs in it would cause a miscarriage.

“Will I get...” The lady’s maid was already off again and Caylia caught her as she was ascending another hidden stairway. “Will I get to meet my lady today or…”

She sighed and shook her head. “Unfortunately no, but don’t worry. She is very nice, very kind to us,” her smile slipped and she frowned. “I’m sure you’ve heard and half the known world has probably heard that she is not well. I wish they would give her some privacy.” Her delicate chin tightened. “She miscarried her third child and is not well and I am the only one who they are allowing into her sick room.

“It’s…it’s a shame.”

“It’s more than a shame.”

What does that mean? Her brows furrowed and she tried to find a question as the stairs opened into a landing and they found the kitchen. Smells of figs and roast lamb, pistachio and grape leaves, twisted through the air and pans clattered on counters and floors.

“New girl? Is that a new girl? Where’s she from? What’s she doing here? Is she alone?”

“This is the lady’s tray,” the First was saying, “her food will be placed here but for now it is only tea. Our job is to take it up to her in her rooms. None of this lot is allowed to touch it.”

Caylia nodded obediently, noting the placement of spoon and teacup when she felt a tug on her sleeve and a face leered at her. The First hissed and Caylia backed as meekly as she hoped a new ladies maid would, away. The spit boy leered once more and disappeared in the shadows.

“Whose the new girl, Alzi, who?” asked a shorter boy clad in a linka tunic, carrying a tray.

“New ladies maid. She’s with me.”

He raised his brows. “First the fight in the courtyard and now a new ladies maid? What next?”

The First frowned and Caylia’s heart jumped. Fight in the courtyard. Windrunner, what did Jaara do? No…if she started a fight it would end quickly, before one could even call it a fight. Hamen? Is he alright? “A fight? Here?” The First’s voice was disbelieving.

“Yes. The heir has returned and his captors came with him. It was,” he grinned, “a very good fight. Shenan will talk of it for months. The Dragonian woman will probably die though.”

“No!” A girl with a pug nose slipped a bowl of winter cherries, expensive in the desert, on a nearby counter. “She was healed.”

The boy snorted. “Not by that hybrid.”

“Of course not, never from a hybrid,” the girl agreed. “It was lord Veritas of course.”

“Don’t worry,” the first said lowly to Caylia, mistaking her expression for fear, “the palace guards will make sure none get back.”

She nodded. That wasn’t her concern. “Did…did anyone else…get hurt?” she asked quietly and the boy and girl both looked at her as if they suddenly remembered she was there.

“Some guards…I think. Maybe.”

No way I’ll know. she pursed her lips. I’ll have to trust what they say for now. “Enough of this!” The First flapped her hands at the two and they glared. She paid them no mind, picked up a tray and motioned for Caylia to follow.



“And this is where my lady takes tea.” The First threw the doors open to a new room, light and airy with gossamer curtains, by a wood screened window. Caylia smothered a grin at the carving in the wood. She knew Ru’s work when she saw it. “Black tea with one spoonful of honey. No more.” Caylia nodded, but the woman had already turned. “These surfaces need to be dusted daily,” she said, running her finger along a desk, a chair, “including the crystal.” She motioned to the lunes inset in the walls. “Especially the crystal but you be careful. I will not think of mentioning what might happen if you break one.” She nodded dutifully, as she took a duster and watched the girl go back to the tea.”

“Erm…midra does the lady take anything with her tea for her illness?”

The girl nodded. “Yes but the healers administer that, so it’s not with her tea really.”

Caylia paused. “So I don’t have to worry about giving her anything? Not even to help her sleep or..?”

“If she needs something to help sleep she will tell you. However,” the girl paused and ran a finger down the tray. “When she is feeling better, there is this.” From a hidden pocket inside her linka, she drew a small box, decorated with flower petals. Her face soften and she gently touched a finger to the surface. “She really wants a child and…ever since the first miscarriage she’s been trying everything. I was in the market and the herb seller gave me these.” She gave Caylia a rueful smile. “Don’t get me wrong, I would never give my lady away but most people knew she lost her first. He said these would help. Supposed to allow for a healthy baby in the womb.” She frowned and murmured sadly. “Didn’t really work I guess.”

“May I see them midra?” The girl nodded and held forth the can. Caylia took a large pinch between a thumb and two fingers, sniffed it, and then palmed half of it and returned the rest to the can. “So are we giving this to her now? In her tea?”

“Not until she’s better,” the ladies maid sighed. “And Kyda willing it will be soon. She is getting stronger each day, the healers said.”

Caylia smiled a little. “And that is a blessing.” She is innocent in all this, and the girl is loyal. Loyal or phenomenally stupid. I hope the Fay-el is pleased with that. The Guild however… She shook her head. Unless they were listening through the walls, the herb seller wouldn’t know the ladies maid had given him away. The Fay-el would be able to get to him. Now, she looked at the duster with a grimace, how to get out of this…
“Excellent,” Chrys said, rubbing his hands together. “Do whatever you must to find the man, and bring him to me. And…” he glanced at Hamen. “Perhaps, if you would accompany him? Between the two of you, whatever Gifting the man has should be easy to overcome.”

The trainer dipped his head in silent assent, though glancing warily at Andros. The latter had a wounded expression on his face. “Sire, is there anything else you need? Questions that might need answering?”

The Fay-el frowned. He knew exactly what Andros was trying to do. “I can’t stay, no matter my desire. And you cannot go with me. A Guildsman tagging after the recently attacked Fay-el would certainly draw suspicion.”

Andros covered the eye at his wrist. “I could act as—“

“You are obviously a Guildsman.” Chrys shook his head. “There would be no hiding it.”

Their eyes met. And then Andros looked away, shoulders slumping. His voice dropped to a whisper. “As you command, sire.”

Kor scowled. “My lord, it is unfair to—“ he cut off abruptly. Chrys glanced at the Hybrid, and then shook his head. Veritas had moved into Kor’s personal space, eyes narrowed in a definite warning.

“You’re making his bond tingle,” Chrys commented. “Might keep quiet.”

He stepped around the Guildsman, who had extended his hand to “steady” him. Moving past Kor, Chrys left the small back room. Veritas came up behind him, shifting to his right side as soon as there was space for him. Smiling again, the Fay-el headed for his chambers.

< >

Veritas shifted against his shoulder. The motion made Chrys’ hand jerk, etching a jagged line across the parchment. He sighed. “Ver, you did it again.”

“Sorry.” The loquiri stood and circled to his other side, before settling again, head resting against his shoulder. “Better?”

“Aye.” Chrys replaced the messy scroll with a new one and started writing out his message. Again.

After that bout with Andros and Kor’s accusations about the loquiri pair-link, Veritas had been just as needy as Andros. Being an older, more seasoned loquiri did not change his feelings.

It had been nearly an hour, but the royal loquiri was finally losing that jealous haze across the link. The female Derk-ra, snarling above her litter, no longer dominated every sensation from him.

Chrys paused, nibbling on the tip of the quill absently. Veritas nudged his hand down. “You look like a teething child.” The loquiri shifted away from him, though his hand still rested against his shoulder.

“I’m thinking,” the Fay-el protested.

“Don’t chew on things.”

“Yes, Da.”

Veritas chuckled. “I am six years older than you.”

“Five years and eleven months.”

The loquiri laughed. “I’ll give you that.” His voice turned questioning. “What are you working on?”

“A letter to the Border Guard camp near Sharik Gorge.”

Veritas leaned forward, partially to glance at the parchment, and partially (as Chrys well knew) to be closer to him. His hair brushed at Chrys’ neck. “A second one?”

“Aye. To give strict command that they not harm or kill Gyas before he reaches Ratacca Korr.”

“Good.” Veritas’ voice was close to his ear. “And then what?”

Chrys gently nudged him back enough to turn his head. “What do you mean?”

Veritas grinned. “If you want to see her, you should.”

He blinked, and then frowned. “I was trying not to think about it.”

“Not hard enough. You’ve pictured the Settar kolinar fields thrice already. Means she is on your mind.”

The Fay-el glanced down, studying the wooden top of the table. “I want to see her, yes. But when I do, she always…” he toyed with the quill. “I worry about her.”

“I know.” Veritas squeezed his shoulder. “Go to her.”

Chrys smiled slowly. “Are you certain she has sufficiently recovered?”

Veritas’ grin broadened. “You are better for her than any Healer.”


< >

Veritas settled into a corner in the reception room, waving Chrys on with a soft smile. The Fay-el took a deep breath. This was worse than kneeling before his blood-father Endry. To see her, the comely lass, reduced to a weakened state made his heart ache anew.

It was his fault the Guild had done this to her. If he had followed tradition, such as Endry had, she would have borne a child already, in secret. He sighed, biting his lip. The Houses had been furious at the announced marriage, furious that he had so blatantly broken with tradition. Screaming the tenet at him as if he didn’t know it already.

…that the heirs shall be born of seed royal, but of common stock; trained and prepared by men of uncommon loyalty.

The Fay-el of all the Mara hesitated at the threshold, worry gnawing in his chest. Would his presence tire her? Make her unhappy? He should go. But he wanted to see her. Chrys raked a hand through his hair, straightened his shoulders, and stalked into the room.

The First swiveled at his approach, eyes widening. “Sire,” she breathed and then dipped into a quick curtsy.

He nodded his head at her. “Alzira, if you will leave us for a time.”

“Aye, sire.” And she was gone.

Chrys slipped the circlet from his head first, setting it on a nearby table. His dreamstone followed, then signet rings. Everything that marked him Fay-el. Satisfied, he stepped to the side of her sick bed and bent low, brushing his lips across her forehead.

Turina’s eyes fluttered, focusing on him. He rested a hand on the lune closest to him, feeding it Gift until the light brightened. She smiled. “Chry-yis.”

Only Athelia, Chrys’ mother, and Turina added the Lodear accent to his name. He smiled back. “Are you well?”

“Better now that you are here.”

Chrys picked up one limp hand, rubbing his thumb across her knuckles. He studied her face, noting the lines around her eyes, the paleness of her skin. She was improving, but it was a slow process. His voice rasped. “I missed you.”

“As have I.” Her hand crept up to rub his hair between her fingers, and then cupped the back of his neck, pulling his head down. Their lips met. He slipped his hand beneath her head, feeling silken softness drape over his hands.

The kiss was brief and gentle. He would not hurt her for his own needs. Pulling away, Chrys studied her face. “Alzira is taking care of you?”

“Aye. She is a good maid.”

“Good. The Healers say you are improving fast. I’m sure you will be commanding me again soon.”

She laughed. “Soon, Chry-yis. I will keep you in line.”

He smiled and kissed her again, softly. She caught him before he leaned away. “You’re worried about something.”

“Some.”

She sat up weakly, leaning against his shoulder, before resting her head against his chest. “Tell me.”

“You will worry.”

“You already are.”

Chrys laughed. “Aye, I suppose so. It’s Elam.”

“The Dragonian boy—Karli’s child—the one they brought back earlier this morning?”

“Yes. If it bothers you, I won’t—“

Her fingers brushed against his lips. “Shh. I know my womb cannot bear your children. I only wish you to be happy.”

He smiled and leaned close to her face. “And I wish yours.”

Her face lit with humor. “Well, then we are both satisfied. Let me guess what concerns you.” Turina toyed with his hair with one hand, a soft smile quirking one side of her mouth. “Keeping the boy here, in Ratacca Korr, with the Guild growing bold, might get him killed—and ensure Jin’s hatred for you, and the Mara in general. But, if he returns to Dragonia and an Eloin kills him—then the Guild will surely grow in power, perhaps overthrowing all the work that you have done, even your throne.”

He snorted. “When did you become so versed in court affairs, love? Has Alzira been coaching you?”

She laughed. “I know you. That is all I need.” Her eyes darkened with seriousness. “You’re afraid of repeating Endry’s cruelty.”

Chrys sighed, looking away from her gaze. He studied the slowly fading lune. His voice dropped to a whisper. “Do I do what is best for the Mara? Or what is right to my kinsman? How can I choose between my blood and my homeland?”

“You should….” She paused, and then continued on softly. “…should return to tradition.”

He gave her a look of surprise. “Never. That is not fair to you, nor to those others.”

“Perhaps not that tradition, but those of the Eloin kings?”

He grimaced. “Concubines? I think not. Look where it has got the Eloin lords—inbred and ael kinth children ruling over their houses.” He brushed the hair away from her face. “I will not do such things to you.”

“Sometimes we do what we feel is right.”

Chrys cocked his head. His voice was husky. “Aye, sometimes we do.” Determination filled him. “You are a wonderful advisor, my love.” He cupped her chin with one hand and kissed her again. Her pulse raced beneath his fingers.

When they parted, her face was flushed. He smiled, squeezing her hand gently. “I wish I could stay with you forever.”

“But you can’t,” she gave him a playful shove. “Go. I want you to stay when I’m feeling better.” She grinned impishly. “And can please you.”

Veritas cleared his throat subtly. Chrys felt the heat rise into his face. He stood and released her hand reluctantly. “Soon.”

Turina smiled. “Yes. Very soon.”


< >

When he left Turina’s chambers, Chrys was both somber and exhilarated. Veritas could feel both fighting for control in his mind. He had been worrying about making Elam hate him as he had hated Endry, for days, but said nothing. Turina could coax the words out of him.

Veritas tagged after the Fay-el as they headed down the corridor. Chrys kept checking each face, eyes narrowing as they passed him. Looking for Caylia. The servants bowed nervously, or wrung hands at his steady stare.

You’re scaring them. They think you are angry. Veritas said.

Chrys straightened, softening his expression. Where could she be?

You will find her. First, shouldn’t you speak to Jin?

Chrys stopped dead. Veritas grinned and watched him swivel his head to glare at him, eyes narrowing. “How did you—I mean, besides the…”

“There is what is right for the few; and what is best for all. I have always known you would make the right decision.”

The Fay-el scowled, but the heat of his anger was missing. Veritas hid a smile. Chrys spun. “Well then. Why don’t we find Jin and give him the good news.” He flicked him an annoyed glance. “But keep an eye out for that bard.”

“Kor?” Veritas asked innocently. “He’s gone to the Dragonian camp. Seems the blademaster had some plans for him. I don’t think the Hybrid is having a good time.”

Chrys snorted. “I hope not.”

“Oh, Chrys.”

He shrugged. “Come on. I want to get this over with.”

“And get back to Turina,” the loquiri finished. “Should I have the servants prepare my room?”

Chry’s face reddened again. “I—I don’t…that is foolish. She is still weak.”

“And you have the Gift, and perfectly good knowledge of the Mending. Should I tell the servants?”

The Fay-el looked very uncomfortable. “Ah…yes. That would be wise.”

Veritas only smiled and motioned the Fay-el forward. “To Jin. And Caylia. And Turina.”

Chrys growled a Lodear curse and stalked away. Grinning, Veritas followed at his heels.

< >
A Non-Existent User
Daliah found herself in the desert once more, though far hotter than it had ever been. She fancied that she heard voices around her, but saw no one. Perhaps it could have been, yet it sounded so human. How long have I been here? she wondered to herself. I must be losing my mind.

She fell back onto the sand and watched the sky. A foolish choice, she knew, but she could not ignore its brightness and beauty. It seemed that there was an additional sun, so close she could almost touch it. She reached out.

“Don’t.” someone yelled, slapping her hand away. “Once you try, there is no going back.”

“But…” she frowned, finding the sun farther now than before. “I want…”

She looked over, not as shocked as usual to find her father. He knelt beside her and took her hand.

“As much as I would love to see you everyday, there is so much left for you to do.” he whispered. “In two summers there will be a child. Unless…” he sighed. “I do apologize. I can only see what could be, not what will. But I assure you, he will be beautiful.” he patted her hair gently. “Just like his mother.”

Tears silently fell to the ground beneath her. “I wish I knew my mother.”

“And someday you will. You will learn all soon, but know that we would be with you if we could. Also know that greater dangers will follow this one, and you must fight them. Remain true to your Dragonian blood, and it will not fail you. You must maintain the family line.”

She nodded and closed her eyes. “I will.”

He shook her again. “No. Do not while there are those that still love you. I…” he bit a cheek in frustration. “You are too weak now. I will have to help you. But once more I apologize… This will hurt.”

He pulled out a knife and pressed it deep into her leg.

------------------

Daliah woke screaming. She was in a strange room in the Fay-el’s home, but that was not what made her pulse race. There was a new woman by her thigh, and it felt like she was tearing the wound anew.

“Daliah!” Layole grabbed her arm, and another woman held her leg down. “The worst is over. You will be fine, now.”

She read his face and could tell he was trying not to cry. “What happened?” she asked, leaning her sweat-streaked head back against the pillows.

“The wound was infected somehow. Perhaps by dirty linens.” he shot one of the women a cold look. "Kor explained it at least. He said that when the body becomes infected, it has to grow continually warmer until the infection is killed... But you grew so hot, so weak..." he looked away.

She squeezed his hand. "As you said, I am fine now." she sighed. "I suppose that all know of our betrothal now?"

He gave her a small smile and played with the end of one of her curls. "We could only keep it secret for so long. But Jin will officially announce it once you are better, as well as announce my stepping down."

She felt guilty for the loss of his position. "I am sorry."

"For what? Surely they could find a better man than me."

She shook her head. "No matter how hard they look. I know I could not find better."

His smile grew wider, which caused her to show her own. "Well, I should finally get out of this bed."

She began to rise once the women finished with her leg, but he pushed her back down. "Rest." he commanded. "No bride of mine will lose her leg because of a stubborn streak."

She laughed. "I will not lose my leg."

"I know. Because you will rest until it is healed." he glared at her warningly. "I will have archers at the ready if needed."

"You will kill me to keep me in bed?"

"If that is what it will take."

They looked at each other for a moment before both laughed harder than before. Layole stopped first and kissed her forehead. "I brought some things that might make bedrest more bearable for you."

Daliah knew better than to argue, so she instead pushed herself onto her elbow and rolled to her good side, which, luckily, faced him. "How bearable?"

He grinned and reached to the floor, resurfacing with a book. "First, the chronicles of the past Fay-els. I have heard that you love tales of history."

She covered her nose and mouth with a hand to still her emotion. It had been well worth fighting for life. Perhaps she should tell him of the child that would come in two years' time. No, it may hurt him if it did not come true.

The door opened before she could decide, exposing Kor’s tousled hair. He must not have gotten much sleep in the past few days.

“I was told she…” he trailed off as he looked over at the bed. “You must promise never to do that again. You almost killed us with worry.”

She cocked her head teasingly. “A woman does what she can.” Her face took a more serious tone. “I hear I have you to thank. Please let me know if there is anything I can ever do to return your kindness.”

His cheeks bore a faint blush. “I did not do much.”

“Modesty becomes you.” she chuckled and glanced at the corner. “Maybe that is something you should learn, Ravin. It is not very kind to hide in corners. Checking on us, I suppose.”

The Border Guard stepped out of the shadows, bearing his usual scowl. “I was sent to make sure you did not injure the servants, as well as see that your betrothed did not try anything until he is no longer second.”

“Admit it, you were worried as well.”

Kor snorted. “Usually he hides emotion better. Deny if you wish, but I saw your face.” The last was in return to an especially dark glare.

“My worry was for the Fay-el and his wife. She is worse off than you, you know.” Ravin sneered, then turned back to Kor. “Perhaps you would like to watch the children, then. That way there will be no need for me.”

He stalked away, slamming the door behind him.

“He was worried.” Daliah concluded, absently tracing the binding of the book. It bore some resemblance to her own leather-bound history, come to think of it. Maybe they were made by the same craftsman, though hers bore no crest as this one did.

“Kor, you may sit if you wish.” she winked at the man now standing awkwardly against the wall. “If we ask nicely, Layole might read to you as well.”

“Now who is watching the children.” her future husband grumbled.

“He saved my life.” she pointed out, batting her eyelashes prettily.

He groaned, but pulled out a chair for Kor. Once the Hybrid was seated, he set the now open book on the bed and rested his elbow next to Daliah and leaned in to see the pages.

“Now, then. We shall begin with the reign of the Fay-el Masaph, whose loquiri saved both him and his newly pregnant wife from an ambush by eighteen men…”
The soft, clean leather of Jaara's new boot met the man's stubble-roughened chin. His head snapped back, eyes widening from fitful sleep, to full wakefulness, to shock and pain all in an instant. "Azrael's slu---" he started to snarl as awareness came to his mud brown eyes and his gaze settled upon the Inquisita.

"I trust you slept well," she cut him off indifferently, stepping neatly back away from him now that he had roused. Behind her, Kharme slipped uncertainly into the cell, stepping lightly around both Jaara and the Guildsman to stand well away from them both.

Jaara folded both of her arms before her, having discarded the unsightly hindrance of her sling earlier along with her well worn, filthy travel garments. She stood before the incarcerated Guildsman dressed much like Kharme, her well-crafted clothing matching her noble station... although no skirts hid her form from the rabid traditionalist's view, nor obstructed her movement. At her ankles Khyr prowled, freshly washed, his scales glistening with oil.

Cathbad's eyes narrowed. He reached for his Gift out of habit, and felt the jarring discord of a dreamstone. That worried him. Most would use somna to mar his Gift, but the drug would also make him drowsy, and better able to hide his feelings. Not so with a dreamstone. He forced the worry into tight control, masking his uneasiness with a smirk. The two women did not react, but the derk-ra hissed. "I slept well enough," he lied.

Jaara did not return his smile. “Good. You are rested enough to answer questions.”

Beside her, Kharme cleared her throat. The Inquisita turned slowly, a muscle twitching in her jaw, and raised an eyebrow at the other noblewoman in irritated inquiry. “It is late afternoon,” Kharme said demurely, crossing her hands before her and eying the filthy gravel upon the floor through lowered lashes rather than meet the Inquisita’s burning eyes. It was not fear, but an effort to mimic bland innocence, that bent her gaze downward. “The man has been here for hours with neither food nor drink, and it is a hot day. Perhaps a bit of water…”

The Guildsman snorted. “Idiot girl, I’ve nothing to say to you or the Inquisita, water or no water.”

Jaara regarded him with cool eyes. “We could just release you.” The Guildsman frowned in confusion at the answer, and the small, athletic woman passed the iron keys from one hand to the other pensively. Khyr settled in at her feet, laying languidly over the toes of her boots. “But do you really want that? Stay and you will answer our questions. But maybe the Fay-el will spare your life. But we let you go, you will end up like your friend Tyre before the day is out. Oh, you hadn’t heard?”

Cathbad’s face had drained of all blood and it was only then that Kharme and Jaara saw the resemblance between the man before them and the---now dead---man they’d left bound and unconscious in his own home the night before when they’d sensed the disturbance at the docks. “What has happened to my brother?” the Guildsman demanded.

Still the keys clanged from one hand to the other. “Found dead, this very morning.” There was no sympathy in her voice.

Kharme was far gentler. “He died quickly, and quite possibly while asleep.” By ‘asleep’ she meant unconscious from Jaara’s rather sharp tap to his head, but she wasn’t about to say that. “The Inquisita and I were going to bring him in for questioning, but… well, your Guild got to him first.”

“Sliced him from ear to ear,” Jaara contributed.

Cathbad blanched.

“Seems the price of failure in your precious Guild is death, Cathbad,” the Inquisita pointed out mercilessly. Jaara kept her face cool, but her stomach writhed a bit sickly as she watched the Guildsman’s face. Yet her sympathy only went so far. This man was a kidnapper and brutalizer of children. He did not deserve her pity.

“We shouldn’t help you,” Kharme said slowly, but there was compassion in her voice. She sounded very young to Jaara’s ears, though in fact she was a little older. “And we may not be able to change your fate. You are a traitor, and the Fay-el’s justice falls swiftly on those who betray the throne. But we, at least, are willing to hear your story. Perhaps some arrangement can be made, even if it is only the promise of an easy death.”

“We were both aware of the risk involved,” he said. He kept his face impassive. The rising grief, however, was not so easily quelled. Tyre and he were true-brothers, having the same father and mother. That their father had been allowed to sire two children spoke of his Gifting, and the rank he carried.

“What risk? Planning the Fay-el’s assassination? Kidnapping the heir to the throne? Perhaps…” Jaara paused. She cocked her head, a slow smirk spreading across her features. “Perhaps trying to kill someone as Gifted and sly as Gyas?” She dipped her chin, pulling from her bag the golden chalice Veritas had given her leave to examine that morning. Her hands carefully covered in black leather gloves.

Cathbad stiffened and then forced himself to relax again. How had she known what the device was for? “No need to bandy words with me,” he growled. “You have little hope of winning in that contest, not with a Guildsman such as I.”

“This is not a game,” Jaara snapped, and Khyr sprang to his feet, pacing around and around her feet in agitation. She knelt before Cathbad, putting a hand out to keep the derk-ra back, and leaned toward the Guildsman to look intently into his face. “What use is there at this point in hiding the truth? Gyas is gone. He ran off like a dog from a derk-ra and will likely never allow himself to let down his guard around another fellow Guildsman again. The Fay-el is alive, and you can be sure he and the royal loquiri will be more cautious in the future. Elam is back, and doubtless your people will never be allowed near him again. So if you think your silence will help your cause, think again. It will not protect your plans, or your life. So talk.”

“You know nothing,” he sneered. “Nothing at all. You speak in pretty circles, without the element of truth to weigh your words.” Cathbad focused on a mocking expression, though his heart pounded faster against his ribs. “Why should I care what happens to Gyas? It was but the child that we wished.” He smirked. “And you cannot guarantee he will be safe. Do all Guildsman advertise their presence?”

Jaara snorted. “Hardly.” She rose to her feet, balling her hands into fists. She hadn’t wanted it to be this way, but she could think of only one way to proceed at this point.

Kharme stepped in front of her and stared urgently down at the bound Guildsman. “But recent events have undoubtedly persuaded the Fay-el that the Mara is not a safe place for the boy. The Guild’s hands reach far, but they do not span the globe. And even if you were everywhere, well, the child will be well protected. And it is not as if a sensitive individual cannot sense the Gift. Where there is a strong Gift, it may be reasonable to assume there is a Guildsman… especially outside the Mara.”

“That ael kinth seems… perceptive,” Jaara added lightly, nudging Cathbad’s ribs with her toe. There was a glint of viciousness in her eyes, and beside her, Khyr flicked a forked tongue across his teeth and stared intently at the Guildsman. “He found the boy. I’ve no doubt he could find a Guildsman. If properly trained. So,” she finished reasonably, “You’ve little to gain by your silence. And you may even earn your life if you speak. Cooperate.”

It took bravery to sneer at Jaara the way he did. “Idiot girl. Do you suppose me an simpleton? If you have questions for me, then you do not know everything. That means there are still variables in this great equation that you have not yet accounted for. You want to frighten me, to convince me that you have the situation under control and that I am powerless, but you don’t and I’m not. You know nothing and you need me. Look at you, foolish women playing at a man’s investigative work. You should have left this to your betters.” He spat at their feet. “I will not cooperate.”

Jaara said nothing for a long moment, only studying him with an increasingly-more grim gaze. Kharme, on the other hand, snarled at the man on the floor. “What makes you think we know so little? We knew enough to locate your brother. We knew enough to find the boy. And we know enough to have you sitting before us.” She cast a significant glance at the ground. “Lying before us.”

“Precisely,” the Guildman snapped, leaning on his elbow as casually as a man with his arms tied behind his back and lying on gravel can lean. “You went after my brother, and now you have me. If you truly had any notion whatsoever of what was going on and who was involved, you would not be wasting your time with me. But you are. So here we are.”

With a defeated sigh, Kharme glanced at Jaara to see how the other woman might want to proceed, and froze. The Inquisita’s eyes, already normally hard as flint, were now utterly devoid of life and her face had smoothed into an expressionless mask as cold and lifeless as marble. Her boot came down hard on the man’s jaw, and he howled in pain as she reached down behind him and grasped the knots of the ropes binding his arms behind his back. She wrenched them savagely upwards, and hissing, Cathbad rose instinctively to his feet to protect his shoulders.

“What are you---“ he started to demand, but she slung the other end of the rope over the rafters above his head, and pulled it taut. Cathbad’s eyes widened in dismay and then pain as his arms were lifted from the wrists upwards behind him, and crying out, he stood on the very tips of his toes and bent forward to alleviate the pressure on his shoulders as best as he could.

Stony faced, Jaara tied the end of the rope off at a iron loop near the ground in the far corner of the cell, which had apparently been placed there for this very purpose.

“We’ll start here,” Jaara said curtly. “Tell me the names of those involved in the drugging of the royal loquiri and the attempted assassination of our lord Fay-el.”

She did not hear when Kharme slipped out of the cell, face drawn and pale.

Cathbad lost track of time. Though he had been trained to resist pain, it did not change the severity of it. Furthermore, he knew during his training that they would stop, if necessary. But would this Inquisita do the same?

Sweat beaded on his forehead, trickling between his shoulder blades. His mouth dried. He licked dry lips and shifted his weight carefully from the balls of his feet to his toes. But there was no relief.

"Well?"

He glared at Jaara with a scowl twisting his features. Her face's impassive expression never softened. "Who drugged Lord Veritas and Fay-el Chrys? Speak or remain. The choice is yours."

"And when I have told you," he hissed, "You will only kill me and be done."

She shrugged. "Perhaps. Perhaps not. It is surety if you remain silent. That is, if you survive the night like this," she gestured at the rope. "You might last several days."

He closed his eyes. "Begone, thorla's mate."

A blade dragged across his arm and he yelped, eyes snapping open again. Jaara was inches away from him, holding a bloody dagger. Her eyes were thin slits. Cathbad saw his own, slow death in her eyes.

He swallowed. "You are a strong woman."

"I have nothing to lose." She shoved the knife under his chin. Warm blood trickled down his throat. "Speak. Who wears a mask within Ratacca Korr?"

"You promise my life?"

"I promise a quick death. The rest is up to Lord Chrys' decision. Will you tell me their names?"

"Aye."

"Swear it."

"By Kyda the great, I will tell you what you wish."

Her expression didn't change. "What Guildsman believes in Kyda?"

He felt his heart sink. She knew some of the Guild's ways then. By whom he did not know. Perhaps Gyas? Surely not. "Swear by the blood of your son," she continued.

Cathbad blanched. If he failed in that one, she had Guild-right to slay his children. "I have no child."

"Then you have no oath I can trust," her blade cut deeper.

He winced. "I swear it. I swear."

Jaara's face split into a slow grin and she withdrew the blade, and then whipped it toward his head. He yelped, expecting to feel its bite in his throat. The rope loosened and he tumbled to the ground. Rolling onto his back, he spit moldy hay and glared at her.

She drove the dagger into the ground, inches from his face. Her voice was barely above a whisper. "Speak. And quickly."

"Lord Gyas created the idea of assassinating Chrys, using the royal loquiri and a depraved one as a fitting end. To banish the heretical king and his loquiri filth forever from our land."

"Your land?" she hissed. "Does the Guild own all of the Mara?"

He ignored her. "Tyre and I chose a different route. Neither Chrys nor Veritas deserve to live, but a death would only leave the throne empty, without a clear heir, or so it seemed. We contacted a Guildsman within the palace and had him follow most of Gyas' plans, but not all. The blood on the dys-knife was not the Fay-el's. And Tyre and I were never the enemies of the Fay-el."

"Who was the Guildsman?"

He hesitated. She danced the blade in front of his eyes. Cathbad closed his eyes. "You know the Guild will finish what you threaten."

"I never threaten."

"His name is Erastus. He was once a Border Guard. When he discovered he would lose his Gift to rise in rank, he joined us. He has often guarded the Fay-el's quarters." Cathbad snickered. "Ironic."

"Who else?"

"None that had any true knowledge. A few guards were bribed, a servant convinced to look aside. Very neat. Erastus arranged the rest for us."

Jaara beamed at him, the smile never reaching her eyes. “Good.” She strode toward the door without another word.

“Wait,” Cathbad gasped.

Her gaze over her shoulder gave no hint to her emotions. “Your word?”

Her lip curled ever so slightly. “Is good. If yours is.”

He swallowed. “And my children?”

She paused. Her face softened, ever so little. Even Khyr seemed to relax. “Will be cared for, one way or another. They will not be harmed. Though they may be removed from the control of your kin if they are Gifted.”

He did not say anything then, only bowing his head with a sigh of relief, or perhaps of fear. Jaara left to find Kharme, and the others as well.


Ravin left the Dragonian woman's room and slipped along the passages and halls, almost unaware that he was keeping in shadow as he went. Few said anything to him before he exited out into the courtyard.

He took his time looking over where the fighting had taken place. He'd certainly done his part beforehand, but it was clear that he'd been as unneeded as he would expect to be if a boatload of Guildsmen had the nerve to attack Ratacca Korr. The servants had mostly cleared away the signs of battle, but the occasional slash where a blade met with stone was harder to disguise. From what he'd heard, the Gifted Guildsmen had been dealt with rather neatly. Disappointing. The Gift should have made more of a difference than that.

He passed on through the courtyard, entering a small door in the inner side of the wall. The border guard made to climb the steps stretching upwards, but stopped at the sound of steps moving closer farther upwards. He waited patiently for a few moments, saving his energy, until one of the aerie watchmen got to him. "Thank you for saving me the trip to your post. What news do you have?"

The watchman held out the tightly-scrolled message, to Ravin. He took a moment to read through it, then rolled it back up and thought for a moment before smiling. "Weeeell. It seems our friend Gyas is not having such a pleasant trip after all. You can return to your post, I'll deliver this."

Ravin watched the man walk back the way he'd come with a smile. I do hate walking up all those steps.

*****

Chrys stopped and turned back to look into the room he'd just passed, then stood in the doorway and watched the woman there finish straightening the linens. "Have you found anything?"

Caylia turned, then smiled in relief at the sight of the Fay-El. "Yes, actually, I have. Should we talk here?" Chrys glanced at Veritas, who nodded and started quietly directing away any of the servants who tried to pass by the room.

Chrys turned back to Caylia and snapped, "What did you find out?"

In answer, the bard pulled a small phial from her pocket. "This is something your servants have been giving to your wife. They were told by the herb-seller who carried it that it was a fertility drug. Should such prove false, the seller in question would likely be able to point to the responsible party."

Chrys's eyes widened as he took the container and the powder within. He looked at Caylia in silence, then smiled wide enough to impress Elam. "Thank you." He held out the phial, Veritas taking it without even looking. I suppose it's good that I had my room prepared, isn't it? Chrys nodded, still smiling. I need to tell Turina.

Veritas nodded. You might want to wait until I am able to have this powder examined first, but yes. She will want to know, and I doubt you would be able to hide it if you tried. I haven't seen you grin like this in years.

Patience suffused Caylia's features as she waited for their mental conversation to conclude, then Chrys turned back to her. "If this is what we think, you'll have my gratitude for the rest of my life, Bard of Settar. Thank you."

He turned, striding purposefully down the hall. Caylia took a step to follow, then stopped when she noticed that Veritas wasn't accompanying the Fay-El. He answered her question before it was asked. "He is going to see Turina." The bard smiled, already writing the verse describing the smile of a Fay-El turned love-dumb.

Ravin chose that moment to show up. "I see our fearless leader is in high spirits."

"He is, and it may be good news for all the Mara." The loquiri chuckled and shook his head, trying to keep the infectious, childish glee he felt seeping over his bond from distracting him too much.

Caylia smiled and mused aloud. "Reborn is the child in the lord of the land of the sand as the Mara rejoices... Perhaps a little less repetition, that line needs to be more dramatic."

Ravin held out the message he'd read to Veritas. "Well then maybe I should save my own good news for some time when everyone's miserable so they can feel better." He continued as the loquiri took the hawk-delivered text. "Gyas has been sighted. He's moving much slower than we originally guessed, and on an unusual route."

Veritas stared at the words, and then grinned. "He is avoiding anyplace that has a strong Guild presence."

The border guard's smile was among his most genuine. It was not pleasant. "It seems the Guild takes to his failure about as kindly as we take to his betrayal. A group could leave as late as tomorrow at mid-day and still beat the Guildsman to the border by almost two days by taking a direct route."

Veritas nodded. "Then it will be decided in the morning. There are more important things to attend to tonight."

Ravin laughed aloud as he turned and walked back through Ratacca Korr.
Her old clothes were comforting, her harp even more so, but the dys knife felt like an aberration on her side, and so she breathed a sigh of relief when she saw a familiar form come clattering into the courtyard through a carved screen. Quickly she slipped down the stairs passing linka clad servants who didn’t give her a second glance. Thinking over the last few hours, which had evolved into days without her noticing, she realized she needed more than anything, to rest. Her fingers brushed the dys knife. Soon…very soon.

She stepped into the courtyard dust stirring beneath her feet as the rider halter. “You’re alive,” Caylia greeted her, as another young woman came reining up behind.

Jaara, startled out of a scowl, quirked a brow. “You had doubts?”

“When it comes to your job? No,” she shook her head, and the warrior slid from her saddle, muttering under her breath. “News?” the bard asked noting the stories behind the other’s eyes.

“Where’s the border guard?” Jaara demanded. “There is a traitor within the palace.”

“I wouldn’t be surprised if there were a traitor under every stone. What traitor is this?”

“One who guarded the Fay-el.” Her eyes rose, searching lintels and the shadows of the windows for hidden secrets. “He’s been working for a…sect of the guild and once I find the cursed border guard…No, I will handle it myself.” Her look had gone stony and Caylia smiled quietly.

“I’m glad you are well, Jaara. As for the border guard, he is about to go riding after Gyas who should be in Sharik Gorge in a day or less.”

“How do you know?” It was the other girl now who joined Jaara, whose milk pale skin and cultured voice spoke of nobility.

Caylia bowed her head. And who is this that Jaara has picked up? Windrunner do people cling to this woman like cobwebs. Of all the people in the desert… “I am a bard of Settar, lady. Who knows where I find the words that I do.”

Jaara snorted. “Or you’re being difficult. You’re sure about Gyas?”

“And the border guard.”

With a grunt, Jaara launched herself back into the saddle. “Give the Fay-el this,” she said, passing the bard a folded piece of paper. “It informs him of the spy. Gyas…that is my business.”

The lady followed suit, turning her own horses head expertly around and Jaara frowned following Caylia’s eyes. “Kharme hasn’t gotten in the way…yet.”

Convenient a stranger would show up at this time. Can we trust her? Granted she has survived Jaara thus far. “Wait a moment, Jaara. Where’s Hamen? And this…you might find interesting.” She drew the knife from her belt and held it hilt first to the Inquisita. “It’s guild work, and from what I’m guessing the knife that Naftis had. You, I think, may know more about this than I.” Jaara grew quiet and took it from her grasp, colors catching in the hot desert sun and spreading from hilt to tip.

“Where did you get this?”

“Veritas’s room. He took it from Naftis.”

She examined it, slowly turning it, and murmured, “Not with the Fay-el’s blood…” then tucked it away. “Good. And I do not know where Hamen is…”

“Trying not to get my blood sucked from my veins from a goblet,” came a good natured reply and Hamen himself strode into the courtyard, Maheen on his heels, hiding a grin somewhere beneath his hood. “And it appears we are all together again.”

“Not for long,” Caylia noted, “our Inquisita is about to go hunting.”

“Oh?”

Jaara’s grip tightened on the reins. “Gyas. And justice.”

“You know where he is?”

“Yes, or where he is going. The border guard probably even knows more.”

Hamen turned his attention to Caylia. “And you’re going along on this adventure.”

She smiled and shook her head. “No, I need rest and would get in the way more than likely. Jaara can tell me the story later and the story on the ship. I’ve only heard wisps of that one.”

“Other people were on that ship, ones who aren’t trying to catch a traitor. I’m sure they will also be glad to tell you.”

She nodded. “Be sure to get some rest at some point

“You are not my nursemaid.”

The old argument and Caylia quirked a brow. “No, and when the Inquista falls from her horse, I’m sure it will be quite graceful.”

And at Hamen’s chuckle, she withdrew.