More of The White Flame.
An hour or so before sunset, they reached a town called Myrna, and Kiomo insisted they stop for the night. They rented two rooms at an inn - one for the men, and one for Andellyn and Finn. Gerik and Braeden returned to the inn's bar while Kiomo, assisted by Andy, wrote a letter to Miriam.
"Dearest Miri," he began, speaking what he wrote for the benefit of his pacing Prentice.
"Tell her I say 'hello' and that I thank her for the birthday present, please."
"Andy says hello and thank you for the present." He looked up. "Anything else?"
She bit her lip as she took a moment to think it over. "Tell her... oh... I don't know... I can't think of anything."
Kiomo nodded, and turned back to the parchment in front of him. "Braeden has reluctantly joined our cause, and we are all safe and well."
"But we aren't entirely well, Master Kiomo," she protested. "We took a beating this afternoon, and Ger - some of us are still injured." She unconsciously fingered the knuckles of her right hand, which had been broken until Kiomo healed them magically.
Kiomo smiled at her. "We aren't hurt badly enough to get Miri worried about us. She would, you know. We can't do that to her." He paused to re-ink his quill before writing again. "Fortunately, nothing exciting has befallen us yet." Andy opened her mouth to protest, but Kiomo stopped her with a look. "Gerik and Brae, however, are as quarrelsome as usual. I continue to wonder how they became friends at all growing up when they had such different natures. They have both accepted Andy quite well, though, and we all get along well enough. Finn makes himself more a part of the group every day." He glanced up knowingly at the pacing girl. "Andy, if you're so restless, go and sit with the boys for a spell."
She looked at him with a face that reminded him of a rabbit's. "But I... there are people there that I don't know, and I wouldn't know what to do, and..."
The Adept shook his head. "Go. Sit with the boys. Braeden will talk to you if no one else will. Don't speak to strangers unless either Gerik or Braeden speaks to them first - and be wary even then, especially of the ones that Gerik speaks to." He had no doubt that she would be perfectly safe. Gerik ought to feel obligated to look out for her, and if he didn't, there was no doubt in Kiomo's mind that Braeden would watch her like a hawk.
Andy, still slightly nervous, made her way through the hall to the common area of the inn. There was a bar along one side of the room, and tables around the other walls. A man was moving what looked like some kind of stick over the strings of a strangely-shaped instrument, producing lively music, and there were several couples dancing on the open floor in the middle of the room - Andy had learned of dancing at the Academy, for long ago it had been used in rituals of primitive magic. She knew that it had become a form of recreation and sometimes courtship, but she had never witnessed it used as such. It occurred to her that she would like very much to dance.
She saw Gerik and Braeden at a table in a corner, and went to join them, taking a seat between the two. Gerik was searching the room for beautiful women and had a flagon of mead in front of him. Braeden looked rather bored and had no drink.
Gerik, who had already downed a flagon and a half of alcohol, gave up on finding beautiful women - the women present were mostly of the short, squat persuasion, and Gerik preferred slender, long-legged females. He glanced at Andy, who he'd almost forgotten was sitting there, though she'd only arrived a few moments before. She was pretty enough, really, and she had a room to herself, after all. It was only one night... He downed the last of the mead in his flagon. "I'm going to get some more. Care for a drink, Andy?"
She almost couldn't speak. Not only had Gerik addressed her, but he had used her name. She felt herself blush. "I... I am a little thirsty."
Gerik grinned and headed for the bar. Braeden spoke urgently to the girl. "You shouldn't be drinking alcohol, not if you're not used to it."
She blinked. "How am I to get used to it if I never try it?"
He pinched the bridge of his nose, as if he had a headache. "Now is not a good time to try it, especially not in the company of Gerik."
"But why? What's wrong with Gerik?"
He sought frantically to figure out how to explain it to her. "He cares about himself more than he cares about you or anyone else. He'd rather have a good time than keep you safe."
Before she could counter, Gerik had returned. He had a flagon for himself and a cup of spiced wine for the girl. Braeden's eyes pleaded with Andellyn. She couldn't understand Brae's protests, and she found herself rather annoyed by them. She took a gulp of the wine, just to spite him. The strength of the drink took her off her guard, but she took a sip, and then another, and before she knew it, she had finished the glass, and Gerik was fetching her another. Braeden tried pleading with her again, but she refused to listen.
After she had downed the second glass, Gerik asked her to dance. She was only too happy to accept, of course. She was already dizzy from the wine, and whirling around in the knight's arms only worsened the condition, but she didn't mind. But after one song, he left her on the side of the floor, and went over to a woman who'd recently entered. Before Andy knew it, Gerik was dancing with the woman, who was rather taller and curvier than Andy herself was.
The Prentice, suddenly quite nauseous, managed to stagger out the door and into the dark street before vomiting her dinner. She didn't hear the approaching footsteps over the sound of her own retching. Someone put a hand on her shoulder, and she whirled around in panic, only to lose her balance. Whoever it was caught her by the arms and steadied her. "I hate to say it, Andy," said a very familiar, slightly musical voice, "but I told you so."
"Brae," she said weakly. "I don't get it. He danced with me - he actually asked me to dance. But then..."
It hurt him to finish her sentence, but she would have to learn to understand Gerik sooner or later. "But then he found a woman more to his liking, so he left you without so much as a word."
She leaned over and threw up again, and then she started to cry. "I feel like I'm dead. I feel worse than dead. I feel like Gwinn's hounds have gnawed all my bones to dust."
"That would be the wine. Like I said, you shouldn't drink till you're used to it. Two glasses of strong wine taken within the space a few minutes will do that to you if you've never had alcohol before. Now come on, you should get to bed."
They walked into the inn, and she clung to his arm to keep her balance. "Brae, are you going to tell Master Kiomo about this?"
He looked at her out of the corner of his eye, and a hint of a smile crossed his face. "Not unless you want me to."
She fell asleep as they walked through the hall, but her feet kept moving mechanically. Only the snoring head that pillowed itself against the bard's shoulder was evidence of the condition. "Andy," he said softly, and she grunted through her snores. "Key, please." Still half-asleep, she dug a key out of a pocket. He took it from her, and her snores continued all the louder. He opened her door - Finn wagged his tail as the humans entered - and got her onto the bed. He took a blanket from her pack and placed it over her. Then he looked at the key still in his hand.
He had two options - he could leave the key with her, and leave her door unlocked all night, or he could lock her in and take the key into the room he was sharing with Kiomo and Gerik. He decided on the latter - there was no sum of money that could persuade him to leave her vulnerable. He exited the room, and locked it. He tucked Andy's key into his pocket; Gerik had consumed a good bit of alcohol, and it was best not to leave the key to Andy's room where the knight could get it. Besides, Kiomo might ask about it, and he'd told Andy that he wouldn't tell the Adept what had happened.
He knocked on the door of his own room - they'd only had one key, and Kiomo had it. Kiomo opened the door for him and returned to the parchment in front of him, which had grown sizably since the girl had left earlier. He signed the letter, folded it up, and sealed it. He would see to the details of its delivery the following day. "Enjoy yourself?"
Braeden set about making a bed on the floor - there was only one in the room. "There was a fiddler, and the music was undeniably good, but no. No, I certainly didn't."
Braeden scowled openly. "Last I saw him, he looked like he was enjoying himself. He may or may not join us in here tonight."
"Ah," said Kiomo.
There was a moment's silence before Brae's mental dams broke down and his floodwaters of disdain flowed freely. "He disgusts me. Part of me still considers him a brother, but does he hold nothing sacred?"
"He does, Brae," consoled the Adept. "And not just himself, although that is probably what he considers most sacred. A part of him still holds to honor. It's just his sense of honor that is warped. Don't lose all faith in him."
"You think he'll change?" Braeden was incredulous.
The old man shrugged. "Not drastically, and not immediately, either. But I think he'll find his share of wisdom as he ages."
Brae got into his makeshift bed and stared at the beams that supported the roof. He didn't want to talk further of Gerik - he was still too disturbed by the man's actions towards Andellyn that evening. And as for Andellyn - well, she hadn't exactly acted intelligently, and he was angry that she hadn't heeded his warnings, but she'd been punished enough emotionally and physically for him to be really upset with her. And anyway, it wasn't her fault that the dashing Gerik had tried, if only for a short time, to seduce her. Brae turned his head to look at Kiomo, who still sat at the small table. "What news have you sent to Miri?"
Kiomo smiled benignly down at the young man. "Very little. I told her where we are, and where I expect us to be in about a week, so that she can send a letter there for us. I told her you joined us. I conveniently forgot the thief at our camp and the bandits on the road."
A sly grin spread over the bard's face. "The letter looked rather long to only contain such small bits of information."
Kiomo's smile mimicked Braeden's. "Age changes few things, Brae. You aren't the only one pining over the woman he can't have."
The bard's expression turned wry. "At least Miri knows how you feel. At least she returns the sentiment."
Kiomo instantly changed from the lovesick ageless man to the wise old lecturer. "The only thing keeping a certain Prentice from knowing how you feel about her is you, Bard Braeden."
Braeden looked away and pretended to fall asleep. Kiomo sighed. Youth truly was wasted on the young.
Andellyn woke groggily to a knock at her door. She got out of bed, her temples pounding, and went to the door. To her dismay, it was locked, and she didn't see the key anywhere. Come to think of it, she thought, I can't remember coming in here last night, much less where I left the key. She tried to remember what had happened the previous night, but thinking hurt too much. She found she couldn't remember anything at all after joining Gerik and Braeden at their table. Before she could get overly worried, however, a voice spoke softly through the door - it was Braeden.
"Andy? Are you up?"
She cringed at the pain the noise brought to her head. "Yes. But I can't find the key."
"I've got it," he answered. "Are you decent? Can I come in?"
She gave herself a look-over. She seemed decent enough, in spite of feeling like horse dung. "Come on in, Brae. But, Gwinn's sake, be quieter, would you? My head is ringing enough as is."
Her nerves were grated as she heard the key turned in the lock. Braeden entered, looking entirely too well-rested and content for her comfort. He carried a steaming mug. "Good morning," he said with a smile, keeping his voice low. "Headache?"
She frowned mightily in response to his grin. "Yes."
"Can't say I'm surprised. I did try to warn you."
"Warn me about what?"
Braeden blinked. "You don't remember last evening? Well, perhaps that's for the best."
She put a hand to her eyes. "Oh, no. I did something foolish, didn't I?"
He smiled gently. "Nothing incredibly stupid. But you consumed a fair bit of wine. Which is doubtless the cause of both your headache and your memory loss." He looked at his hands and remembered the mug. "Here, I brought you this. Coffee. It'll perk you up a bit."
She took it from him. Then she took a sip. She gagged and made a face.
"Doesn't taste too good, does it?"
"No," she said decidedly.
"Drink it. Then we can go to breakfast. Kiomo and Gerik are waiting. I told them I was just coming to wake you up. We should get down there quickly."
She swallowed the foul drink in a few quick gulps. She still felt miserable. "All right, let's go."
They exited the room, Finn at their heels, and he offered her the key, which she used to lock up, then placed in the pocket of her brown dress. They strode down the hall towards the smells of breakfast.
"Did I..." she started as they walked. She swallowed and started again. "Did I make a fool of myself in front of Gerik?"
He quickly hid the pained expression that contorted his face. Perhaps it wouldn't have been so bad for her to remember - or at least to remember that she'd had her heart stomped on. Without that painful memory, she'd be likely to do something to get it stomped on again. "Not especially," he managed in what he hoped was a reassuring voice. He couldn't bring himself to tell her, to cause her more pain. He hoped he was doing the right thing.
They entered the common area and joined Gerik at a table. There were plates laid out for them.
"Kiomo's gone to mail his letter," explained the knight, who was looking especially bright-eyed as he made short work of his bacon and eggs.
"Sleep well, Gerik?" asked Braeden sourly as he jabbed his fork into a piece of egg.
Gerik grinned broadly and offered the bard a wink, which was received by a scowl. "Oh, something like that. And you Brae?"
"I am well rested, thank you." His answer betrayed no emotion, but his eyes would have set fire to the ocean.
Andy, utterly bewildered, had a feeling that there was a conversation within the conversation, but had absolutely no idea what it was about. She looked meekly down at her plate and ate her breakfast. Finn leaned against her and whined, and she tossed him a couple of strips of bacon.
Kiomo soon returned, bid Andellyn a good morning, and insisted that they'd best be off. They set off toward Ryfedd, a town one of Gerik's information brokers operated out of. They had to go at a grueling pace to make it there before nightfall - Ryfedd was not the kind of place one would like to travel around after dusk - so there was very little speech between any of the party.
They reached Ryfedd about an hour before sunset. It was only a mile or so from the edge of a cliff overlooking a gorge, and Kiomo stopped them on the cliff side of the city. Gerik and Braeden were going into Ryfedd to speak to the information broker. Andy would have liked to accompany the younger men, but she did not question Kiomo's decision that she should stay and help him set up camp.
After the fire was built and lit - a bit closer to the cliff than Andy would have preferred, but Kiomo had insisted - Andy took a spare stick and threw it for Finn, who eagerly fetched it and brought it back to the girl to have it thrown again. In spite of the hard march of the day, the pup still found the energy to bound heedlessly after the stick over and over. Kiomo smiled to himself. Andy was attached to the dog now. It was time to bring his plan full circle. Thinking about what he was about to do, he decided it might be slightly cruel. But it would be effective - it had to be. He owed it to Andellyn to go through with it.
He watched as Finn brought back the stick the girl had thrown. She wrestled the stick from the dog's jaws and tossed it again. Kiomo focused his eyes on the stick and felt the spell work in him. He had to make it look natural. As if a strong wind had suddenly risen, the stick veered slightly off course. The dog followed it without thinking. Kiomo watched as the stick went over the cliff's edge, Finn following with a leap. Kiomo readied himself. If this backfired, he'd have to act quickly.
Andellyn shrieked and ran to the edge of the cliff. For a brief moment, Kiomo was sure his plan wouldn't work. He prepared to save the dog himself. But there was a sudden burst - a change in the air pressure. He felt immediate and severe magical pain as Andy shattered her own defenses and reached out with her magic to return the dog to firm ground. Finn veritably flew, and the Adept feared that Andy might hurt the creature in her raw power and sink back into herself.
Finn landed safely, though yelping and whining, and ran to Andellyn. She sank to her knees and embraced him, and he licked her face with his long, pink tongue. Kiomo laughed inwardly. It had worked better than he had expected. Now the real work could begin. He made his way over to Andellyn.
She gazed up at him, bewildered. "How...?"
He might eventually tell her about why she'd built the walls within herself in the first place, but not just then. First he'd have to teach her control. "You wanted it badly enough, that's how. Your desire to save Finn was stronger than the barriers you'd set around your magic. Now that you have access to your Talent, I suggest you pay attention so you won't kill us all."
Andellyn felt... not strange, but different. Different from how she'd felt for a long time - as long as she could remember. And yet, she knew she'd felt this way before. She hadn't realized how empty she'd been, but now she felt so full, it was a wonder to her that she hadn't died without access to her magic. She felt connected. Whole. She wanted to laugh and cry at the same time. She no longer felt like an outcast, with no effect on the world. Now she was someone that mattered.
Braeden followed Gerik into the near-empty pub where they were to meet the information broker that was the knight's primary source of information. The cloaked, shrouded figure sat in a dark corner of the building. Knight and bard took seats opposite the man.
"Who you bringin' before me, Gerik?" he asked.
"He's my oldest friend, Hirtch." Then in an undertone. "You can trust him: he's a bard. Brae, this is Hirtchokk."
Hirtchokk smiled and pulled back his hood, revealing two rows of rotting, black teeth in an unwashed face. "Didn't know you was in the habit of talkin' with bards, Gerik. What can I do you for? I ain't got anything new on the situation in the North."
"Actually," said Gerik, "I need you to tell my friend here what you told me about that very situation. He won't believe me."
"Normally, I wouldn't believe you either. In this case, 'owever, I 'appen to know you're right. 'Course, that's 'ecause it came from me. Listen well, Bardy Boy, I'm only sayin' this once. Three cities just south o' the Arswai Mountains been raided by goblins since Spring Thaw. That ain't much out o' th' ord'nary, o' course, 'cept there's somethin' different this time. See, the goblins were all different groups that done the raidin', but they all carried the same flag.
"The flag shows a white flame on a black field. Now, that seems to mean somethin' to Gerik, but I ain't 'eard nothin' on it meself, and I can't get Gerik to sell me the secret. Anyways, what's more is that there's eyewitnesses what say they saw gnomes 'elpin' the goblins. Gnomes and goblins ain't known for actin' together. Only logical connection is there's a new power in the North what got the goblins and the gnomes t' work t'gether."
An unsettling silence fell and rested for a moment, until Braeden spoke. "How do you know this? How do I know you're telling the truth?"
"A man's got to protect his agents, ain't 'e? I ain't about t' tell you where I get my information. But no self-respectin' broker would sell falsities."
Braeden sighed and stood up, unfolding his long self from the small chair. Gerik followed suit, bidding farewell to Hirtchokk. Before they could leave the pub, however, something caught Gerik's eye. There was a woman at the bar - an attractive one. He tapped Braeden on the shoulder and pointed discreetly. Brae saw the woman and rolled his eyes, but followed Gerik to the bar.
Even though she sat in a stool, it was easy to see she was tall - certainly taller than Gerik, even a bit taller than Braeden. Her body was muscular and curved. Her skin was tan, her hair curly, wild, shoulder-length, and brown. Her eyes were brown as well, and large as a doe's, and her lips were full and red. She wore flattering clothing made from animal skins. At a glance, the men could tell she was a Benywa.
The Benywae, although human, were a people in and of themselves. They lived in Creddarn, but were not under the rule of the king. Their society was matriarchal, and they were famed for their warrior women. They were also famed for their beauty. Gerik looked the Benywa over from her long, strong legs to her voluminous hair. He searched his mind for a good pick-up line, and decided on a different strategy.
"Excuse me, Miss, but am I correct in assuming you are a Benywa?" Of course he was correct. But it was polite to act as if he was unsure.
She looked him over as if examining a horse. "Yes." Her voice was deep for a woman's, and slightly husky, but it fit her well, and Gerik was drawn by it.
"My friend and I," he gestured to Brae, "are currently on an expedition to the Arswai Mountains. We have two other companions, but we could use another fighter. The Benywae skill is known throughout Creddarn. We would be honored if you'd join us. You would, of course, be then entitled to a fifth of any loot we come across." He wasn't sure there'd be any loot, but he had to mention there'd be something in it for her.
The Benywa took a swig from the mug in front of her, then slowly licked the foam from her plump lips. "What kind of expedition?"
"We wish to rid ourselves and the country of a renegade Adept who has the goblins and gnomes working for him." There was no need to tell her anything about Gorden specifically.
She took another swig. "I accept." She finished off the drink, and stood. "I am Rhyfellur."
"Wonderful," said Braeden in mock courtesy. While they'd been sitting at the bar, he'd felt a sharp disturbance in the magical field around the city. He wanted to get back to Andy and Kiomo. "We are eager to return to our camp." He gave Gerik a meaningful glare, and fortunately for Gerik, the knight did not protest.
Kiomo was watching Andellyn attempt to light a small candle without setting everything (and everyone - Kiomo and the girl were both sporting scorch marks, but the old Adept kept a dousing spell at the ready) else on fire as well, when three forms on horses appeared. He called her name to catch her attention and pointed.
"Three?" she asked quietly. "What do you think...?"
He offered no answer. He felt that two of the three were indeed Gerik and Braeden, but the third he did not recognize. Finn barked and ran to meet them.
When the three arrived and dismounted from their horses, the Benywa introduced herself before the anxious Bard could inquire into the blackened and burnt look about the girl and man. Rhyfellur turned first to Andellyn. "I am Rhyfellur of the Benywae. You may address me as Rhy. I must admit I am quite pleased to find another female. I had feared these males were without proper leadership. What may I call you?"
Andellyn was a bit taken aback. This woman seemed to think she, Andellyn, a mere Prentice, was higher in station than the famed Master Kiomo. "My name is Andellyn. You may call me Andy, if it please you, ma'am." She bowed deeply.
Kiomo cleared his throat. "I am Kiomo. Andellyn is my Prentice. It is certainly a great honor, Rhy, to have a Benywa accompany us."
Rhyfellur's eyes turned hard and cold as she glared down at the old man. "I did not give you permission to address me so familiarly, male."
Kiomo hid his annoyance. Some Benywae refused to acknowledge the patriarchal society of Creddarn. "Forgive me, Mistress Rhyfellur. Perhaps you would like to speak to Andellyn privately while I have a word with my fellow males?"
The Benywa nodded approval. "Yes, that would please me."
Andy, nervously glancing from Kiomo to the woman, managed to say, "If you'll follow me, Rhy." She led the newcomer towards the cliff's edge and Kiomo immediately attacked the men.
"I understand that it is a great thing to have a Benywa on our side, but what in Gwinn's name were you doing taking someone on without consulting me? She'll be nothing but trouble!"
Braeden sighed exasperation. "He saw her, and he got that look in his eye. There was nothing I could do."
Gerik ignored the younger man and half-pleaded to Kiomo. "Did you see her, Kiomo? I couldn't pass that up! Benywae don't go in for one night stands. My only chance is to Mate her. That will take a little time."
Kiomo rubbed his temples. "Gerik, I don't understand you, y - wait a moment. Gerik, you want to settle down?"
The Knight laughed. "Good Brahn, no! Benywae Mating can be called off at any time. Well, unless the Benywa gets pregnant, but luck can decide that, it's worked well enough for me so far."
"Which is why Bardic law doesn't consider Mating marriage, no matter what the Crown says. It's not permanent; it's not binding. It's meaningless."
Kiomo smiled. "Don't let our Benywa hear you say that, Brae. She'll have you flogged for sure."
Rhyfellur and Andellyn sat looking out over the edge of the cliff. Below was a green prarieland.
"He's very attractive, isn't he?" asked the Benywa.
"The Knight, Gerik."
"Oh," said Andy. Color rose in her cheeks. "Yes, he is."
Rhyffellur gave Andy a conspiratorial glance. "I haven't mentioned this to the males, but I trust you'll keep it from them for me - I left my tribe to hunt for a Mate. When Gerik approached me with the job on this quest, well, I thought he looked worthy of investigation. I feel we should discuss this so that there is no question of property in the future."
Andellyn had been near terrified for most of Rhy's speech, but the last bit had her perplexed. "Property?"
"Yes, well, if he's yours, it wouldn't be good of me to try to take him. And if he is not yours, but you seek him as well, we must come to friendly terms." She looked askance at Andellyn. "You are not used to dealing with males this way, are you? Ah, well, you are young." She paused, and looked the girl over. "You look like a fox, with your red hair - Benywae hair is never red. I feel we will be good friends, Little Fox."
Andy, now very confused indeed, searched for words. "I... hope we will, Rhy."
The Benywa glanced back at the men. "Look at them, fussing like children. This is why men need our wisdom and discipline. They do not know what to do with themselves unless we tell them. You must be gentle with males, Little Fox, for they have the minds of children, but you must also be firm."
Andellyn was about to say that she thought the men rather intelligent, but an idea came to her. It seemed quite clever to her. "What about Braeden? He'd make a good Mate, certainly?" She couldn't believe she was speaking of her friend in such a manner. But a glance at Gerik made her search for further argument. "He's... closer your height."
Rhyfellur looked from Gerik to Braeden to Andellyn. She saw through Andy's plan as if it had been made of glass, but gave her new friend the courtesy of considering the suggestion. "Braeden is not a bad male, but he is not what I seek in a Mate. Braeden, from what I have learned of him, dislikes battle. This is hardly natural. I would fear that my children would inherit this trait. Besides, I want attractive children, and Gerik is very attractive, while Braeden... isn't."
Andy cocked her head to the side and looked over the men. She didn't think Brae was all that bad-looking. Sure, next to Gerik, he didn't look like much, but on his own, she'd go so far as to say he was rather handsome. She didn't voice this, however. She didn't say anything. Which didn't matter much, as Rhy picked up the conversation again.
"Anyways, as we both seek Gerik, we must come to terms. Whichever of us manages to win his affections, we must not let it shake our friendship. Agreed?"
Andy felt as though her new friend had a bit of an advantage, but didn't say so. "Agreed."
It was decided that Rhyfellur would be given second watch, bumping Andy back to third, Braeden to fourth, and Kiomo to fifth. This arrangement pleased everyone except Andellyn, but she wouldn't say so.
Rhy woke her for her watch and promptly went to sleep. Andy was left alone with her thoughts and one affectionate dog, who dutifully awoke with her. She lay back, ears alert for noise, and watched the stars. Her fingers sought out Finn's head, and once they found it, began to scratch.
"Finn, why can't life be easier? It was bad enough with Gerik hardly noticing me. Now with Rhy around, he'll never notice me. Don't get me wrong, Finn. Rhy seems very nice - in her own way. But I just wish... I'm not even sure what I wish... I guess I wish I was beautiful, so he'd notice me, and charming, so he'd pay attention after he started noticing." She breathed a loud sigh, and then to sing softly. "Far away from us now..."
Braeden woke at the end of the song, meandered harp in hand over to where she was, and took a seat. She sat up at his approach. "Hello, Brae."
His brow creased in concern. "You don't sound too happy. Anything the matter?"
"Nothing." She looked decidedly at her feet for a moment before saying, "What do you think of Rhyfellur?"
He gave a small chuckle. "I have to admit, I'm not terribly fond of her. It could have something to do with the fact that she calls me 'male' and expects me to be in awe of her femininity. I suppose it would be rather amusing if I wasn't one of the poor, unfortunate people she was overseeing."
"I don't mean that. She's nice - odd, but nice. I rather like her, but..." She sought for the words to express what she'd meant by the quesiton. "Do you think she's pretty, Brae?"
The bard was rather thrown off his guard. He hadn't really thought about how the Benywa looked. "Pretty enough, I suppose. Maybe beautiful by some men's standards."
Still looking at her feet, Andy said, "In comparison with me, how does she look?"
If the previous question had given Brae a slight shock, this one nearly put him into a coma. "Well, personally, I think you're much prettier." He couldn't believe it was his own voice saying this to her. His incredulity, however, was interrupted by a knightly snore, and the reason behind Andy's questions suddenly became apparent. Well, best to give her an honest answer. "Different men have different opinions of beauty, I'm afraid. There are some who might say that she is prettier."
She looked at him then, a glum expression plastered on her face. "What about Gerik?"
He wanted badly to hold her and tell her everything would be all right. "I think he's rather taken with her at the moment, I'm afraid." Sweet Rhianna, she looks as though she's going to cry! "I can't imagine him getting used to being treated like a lesser being, though. It's quite possible he'll get sick of her." Her eyes glistened with yet unshed tears. He forced a small smile. "Would you like to try a new song?"
She shook her head. She faked a yawn as an excuse to rub an eye. "I think I'm getting a bit drowsy."
Braeden nodded slightly. "Go on to bed. I'll finish up for you."
She murmured thanks and hurried to her place by the fire. He saw her shoulders shake with sobs as he tenderly played a lullaby.
The following morning, Kiomo instructed Andellyn as she attempted to use magic to perform small tasks. Charred logs flew when she put out the fire and almost injured several members of the company. Her blanket rolled itself up - and continued on rolling, until she ran after it and tackled it to the ground.
The grey sky reflected the girl's mood - and her teacher wasn't entirely sure it was coincidental. She was indeed powerful - and the sooner she learned to control herself, the better. So Kiomo told the younger men - and politely and humbly asked the Benywa - to go on ahead, and let his student and him lag behind a bit.
"Close your eyes," he commanded once they'd gotten on the move. "Let Ebony keep walking, you just close your eyes and relax."
She jutted her jaw out in slight annoyance before complying. Naturally, Kiomo noticed.
"You must learn to control yourself, Andellyn. If you don't, it could have dire consequences."
She huffed, and her eyes popped open. "I closed my eyes, didn't I?"
The old man's brows knitted. "Here now, what's this? Getting complacent? We may not be at the Academy, but I can still punish you for disrespecting me."
Her expression, however, was not one of disdain but of melancholy. She didn't say anything, but looked away.
His voice softened. "What's the matter, Andy?"
She kept her teeth clenched as she replied. "Nothing."
"Are you lying to a Master, Andy?"
Her face screwed up at his Gwinn-forsaken wisdom. "I'm just a little upset is all. Maybe it's something I ate."
"You hardly ate anything at breakfast," he remarked. "So I doubt very much that it's indigestion that's bothering you." He glanced sidelong at her. Her head was bowed in a pathetic, drooping manner. "Would I be correct in assuming that this has something to do with a certain Knight?"
She shot him a look of utter surprise. "But... how did you...?"
"I have eyes," he offered by way of explanation. "Now, tell me, what specifically is bothering you? We won't get any work done if you're moping."
"I... I'm fond of him... Gerik. And I think he's fond of Rhyfellur. And I think she's rather taken with him, too. I don't know what to do about it."
Kiomo heaved a bit of a sigh. He wished Miri might be there - she'd have a better response. "Andy, girl, you listen to me." He paused, carefully selecting his words. "You can't go around basing your opinion of yourself on others' opinions of you. You ought to find respect for yourself, even if others despise you - which they don't. Regardless of how Gerik may feel about you, you must not think yourself less important." He sighed a little. This sounded fairly stupid and rather trite. He glanced at her, though, and she seemed slightly heartened. He kept going. "Anyway, you'll likely find it easier to respect yourself if you can get a few spells under your belt without causing any damage. Are you ready to work, now?"
She nodded, only slightly glumly. Green eyes closed.
"Take a deep breath. Follow the air as it enters you. Follow it as it travels through you. Follow it as it permeates your being. What do you feel where the air ends?"
She had done as he instructed, and now she gasped, opened her eyes, and broke her concentration. "There's so much of it, Master Kiomo!"
She hadn't meant the air, and he knew it. He smiled. "I know. You're veritably saturated with it now that you've freed it. You must practice siphoning off just what you need of it. Your problem is that all of your Talent wants to work for you, and you don't know how to contain it. Now, close your eyes and follow the air again." She did as he said, and after a moment, he continued instruction. "Take a little of it. Use it to coax Ebony to go a bit faster. Not much, just a little."
In half a moment, Andy's eyes were wide open, and she was holding onto the reins for dear life. Still, Ebony slowed by the time they caught up to Gerik, Brae, and Rhy, who hadn't quite been a quarter of a mile ahead. It wasn't as bad as it could have been.
"By the Hounds!" she exclaimed at her own Talent, forgetting the presence of her friends in her frustration. "I only wanted her to speed up a bit! Did you have to do all that?"
The Knight, the Bard, and the Benywa had stopped and were looking at her curiously.
She froze under their eyes. After a moment's silence, she got up the nerve to say, "What?"
The other three exchanged glances. Gerik finally spoke. "You all right, kid?"
She was frustrated enough that she didn't panic at his addressing her. Instead, she rolled her eyes. "Magic is really stubborn sometimes. Besides that, I'm just fine. You can all keep going, I'll wait here for Master Kiomo."
They eyed her askance for a moment before Rhyfellur commanded the men to get a move on. When Kiomo did catch up with her, he insisted they try it again. Although Ebony still went faster than her rider intended, the horse sped only to a brisk trot and was calmed more quickly. The third trial gave successful results, and Kiomo decided that was enough for one day. They caught up with the others, who rather seemed to be pretending that an hour before they hadn't seen the girl ride up on a magic-maddened horse.
They set up camp in a cave in a wall of rock that rose to the east. Whether Andy had influenced the weather or not, it looked like foul conditions were on their way, and Kiomo wanted them as sheltered as possible.
Gerik politely begged a friendly sparring match of Rhyfellur, which she graciously granted. The Benywa took her bone-handled hunting knife from its sheath and held it in her teeth. Her hands then became occupied by her spear. Although the spear's shaft was wooden, much of it was plated in metal, so that only those places on the shaft where the woman's hands gripped it were of exposed wood.
Gerik was armed with his sword and shield, but he had a dagger concealed in his right boot which could be used in a pinch.
They faced off next to the cave's mouth. Andy watched intently, Kiomo with passing interest, and Braeden hardly at all.
Rhy made the first attack, and Gerik's shield met her spear easily. She feinted right and struck left, and Gerik almost didn't bring his sword up fast enough to counter. The Benywa spun away, and Gerik assumed the offensive.
He brought his sword down on her, but her spear met it, and she pushed him back. Not expecting such a show of strength, Gerik almost lost his balance as his feet took him back from her. He barely regained it when she set on him, striking him in the chest with the heavy butt of her spear.
To his credit, Gerik was able to keep his feet, but he lost his breath, and before he could think to move, she had her knife at his throat. He smiled and raised his arms in defeat.
She resheathed the knife. "I trust you found that enlightening. It was rather short, though. Would you like to try again?"
"I would, if you don't mind," he humbly begged of her.
They continued for some time. Rhyfellur won almost every match, and Andellyn got the feeling that the woman had let Gerik win those few times that he did. After a few sparring matches, however, Andellyn's interest waned, and the smell of dinner cooking over the fire in front of the cave caught her attention.
Braeden had been cooking a stew while she was watching the fighting, and it smelled delicious. She had scarcely begun to eat when large raindrops began to fall at a fast rate, causing the Knight and Benywa to cease their exercises. The stew was taken into the cave, and they all had their fill. Andellyn was eagerly watching the falling rain. The Academy had several courtyards, so she had seen the phenomenon before, but when she had seen it before, she had been hurrying to class or to a meal. Never had she had the time to truly examine it, and now she reveled in each falling drop.
The rain fell all night, and Kiomo cast a spell for warmth at the back of the cave to make up for the lack of a fire. Andellyn sat her watch wrapped in her blanket at the mouth of the cave. The wind had picked up, and the rain was being blown into the cave a fair bit, but Andellyn didn't mind in the least.
Braeden joined her near the end of her watch, wrapping his cloak close about him as he approached the entrance to the cave.
"No harp?" she asked, somewhat disappointed.
He grinned. "Not with this rain, no. I don't want the strings getting wet. We could sing if you like, though."
She drew her now-soaked blanket closer about her. "I'm not in a singing mood. I'd like it if you would sing, though. If you want to, that is."
Singing, however, was far from his mind as he watched her. "Andy, you're shivering!"
"Am I?" She held a hand in front of her face, and sure enough, it was shaking uncontrollably. She was generally unperturbed, though.
Braeden undid the brooch that fastened his cloak. "I'll not have you get sick." He took off the cloak and handed it to her.
She shook her head in protest. "I've got my blanket, I'm fine, really."
"Let me see it," he said, unconvinced. Water dripped from it as she handed it to him. He frowned and wrung as much water out as would come, then spread it out on the dry ground behind them. "Let it dry," he insisted. "Take my cloak." Before she could protest, he placed it around her shoulders. "And Rhianna's sake, sit farther back in the cave, or that'll be no better than that blanket of yours."
They both moved back about a foot so that very little rain actually touched them. She wrapped the warm, dry cloak more closely about her. "Thanks, Brae."
He smiled, but didn't say anything.
"Well?" she asked. "Are you going to sing or not?"
He mulled it over in his mind. "Not tonight."
"Why not?" she demanded with genuine disappointment.
The main reason he wouldn't was because he was afraid he wouldn't be able to keep his teeth from chattering and he didn't want her to give back his cloak, but he couldn't very well tell her that. Fortunately, it wasn't the only reason, so he could speak without telling a falsehood. "The rain makes beautiful music by itself."
They both fell silent and listened to the rhythm beat out by the pouring rain.
"You should get to sleep," Braeden told her after a while.
She was indeed very tired. So tired, in fact, that she merely nodded in reply. After a moment, she made to remove his cloak from her shoulders, but he spoke before she could.
"No, keep it on. By the time my watch is over, your blanket will be dry enough. I'll just use it."
She might have protested, but she was too exhausted. She got up and meandered over to the sleeping area, where she curled up and promptly fell into a deep sleep. Had she stayed awake a moment longer, she might have heard the great sneeze that escaped the Bard as he sat his watch alone.
Andy was entirely too comfortable to get up. She kept her eyes closed and feigned slumber, pulling her blanket more tightly around her. Her mind, groggy from sleep, cleared a little. This wasn't her blanket - it didn't smell like her blanket, and it wasn't as coarse as her blanket was. She inched closer to the clarity of full wakefulness and remembered the previous evening. It had been very nice of Brae to lend her his cloak. Enveloped in dry warmth, she decided to try to get a few more minutes of sleep.
Rhyfellur had already been up for an hour, first stretching, then performing calisthenics to prepare for the day. The rain had ceased in the wee hours of the morning, and the sun was rising in a clear sky. She had, of course, noticed - and noted with interest - that the Little Fox was wrapped in the Bard's cloak, and he in her blanket. She was quite sure that it was an innocent exchange, but she still found it amusing. Braeden obviously cared for Andy, and Andy was obviously completely oblivious. Ah well, Andy still did not know enough about males to pick up on such things. Yet. Rhyfellur would have to train her - it was her responsibility.
While the Benywa was exercising, Kiomo prepared breakfast. He had, of course, already been up, for his watch was last. He was frying strips of meat on Gerik's shield and boiling water in a pot for tea. He had a feeling a good herb tea would be needed. Braeden had been tossing and turning all through Kiomo's watch, occasionally shaking with a sneeze or cough. He had walked over to examine the Bard at one point in the night and seen that the man was wrapped in a slightly damp blanket that ought to have been dry and wrapped around a certain Prentice.
Kiomo glanced from the frying meat back to the cave where the three companions he liked still slept. Those three were like his own children, the children he should have had with Miri. He thought fleetingly of what Miri would say if she were there, and smiled. She'd fuss over Braeden's cold and chastise Gerik and Andellyn for being lazy, no doubt. But mostly she'd fuss over the cold. Still, the thought of laziness crept into the Adept's mind and he looked at the sun. It really was too late for them to be sleeping. After all, they were on a serious quest, and they couldn't afford to sleep through the morning. It wasn't like either Gerik or Andy to sleep late; he'd have to make sure they weren't going soft.
He heaved a sigh. He wouldn't mind an extra hour of sleep, himself. Still, there were lives in the balance. He took the shield off the fire and strode into the cave. He dealt the Knight a swift but soft kick in the side, which was received with a gasp, a grunt, and a sudden alertness. Kiomo ignored Gerik and continued to Andy. He knelt to shake her shoulder. She groaned and buried her face in Braeden's cloak so that only her fiery hair was visible.
"Andy," the Adept commanded gently, "you must get up. Now."
She moved her arm in an attempt to swat him away as she might a fly, and he was sent rolling backwards. He was half amused, but didn't appreciate the bruises he'd have. When he got to his feet, he was back outside the cave. He walked back in and called the cloak to his hand. She shivered for a moment, then looked up, annoyed.
"Did you have to do that?"
He grinned. "Did you have to make me roll backwards over ten feet of solid, uneven rock?"
She smirked and got to her feet. "Point taken."
He pointed her towards the mouth of the cave and handed her the cloak. "Go get some breakfast." She did as she was told, and the Adept hurried over to Braeden. He shook the young man awake gently.
The grey eyes that opened to the Adept had a foggy look to them, and no sooner was Brae awake than a thunderous sneeze shook his body.
"How are you feeling, lad?" Kiomo asked quietly.
Braeden pulled Andy's blanket more tightly around himself. "Not my best." His voice was hoarse from coughing and thick from congestion. "Is Andy all right?"
The old man couldn't help but smile. "Right as rain, as it were. Can you get up, do you think? Will you be able to ride?"
In answer, the Bard got shakily to his feet. He wasn't exactly stable, but he could stand without aid. "I'll manage."
Kiomo hurried back towards daylight to get some tea for the invalid, who followed, albeit slowly.
"Good morning, Brae," Gerik managed around a mouthful of breakfast.
Andy looked up from her own meal to thank her friend for the loan of his cloak, but the sight of him made her gasp. He was ghostly pale, dreary-eyed, and red-nosed. "Gwinn have mercy! Brae, are you well?" She dropped the meat and bread she'd been eating, then hurriedly picked them up from the ground. She set them on a shelf of rock in the cliff-side and hurried to her friend's side, taking him by the wrist to lead him closer to the fire.
The corners of his mouth turned up. "Just a cold," he assured her. "Nothing to worry about." After a moment's hesitation, he put his free hand over hers where it held his wrist. Of course, he wouldn't have been able to work up the courage if he'd known that Kiomo, Gerik, and Rhyfellur were watching Andy and him intently.
Andy's brows knit at the touch, and for a moment Braeden feared he shouldn't have done it. She took that hand in both her own and glared at it, then up at him. She frowned deeply. "Who's shivering now?"
Bewildered, he looked at his hand, only to find that it was indeed trembling.
Her expression softened slightly. "Foolish Bard. You've gone and gotten yourself sick so I'd be warm." She assumed a lecturing manner, as those of her masters back at the Academy, and as she spoke she placed his cloak back around his shoulders and secured the brooch. "Now, wear this, drink some tea, and sit close to the fire while we pack up camp. I won't have you falling ill on my account."
He bowed in mock submission, humbly returned her still-just-slightly-damp blanket to her, and did as she'd ordered him. She spread the blanket in the sun to finish drying and returned to her meal.
They rode at a decent pace, though they didn't dare travel too hard for Braeden's sake. In spite of the return of his cloak and several cups of Kiomo's herb tea, Braeden worsened. Though the day was cool, by the time they stopped to set up camp, the Bard's brown hair was limp with sweat. His complexion was waxy, and even when spoken to directly, he hardly uttered a word in response.
Andellyn, blaming herself for her friend's illness, took it upon herself to tend to him, so while Gerik and Rhyfellur went hunting (Andy envied Rhy's luck to be alone with the Knight) and Kiomo set up camp and brewed more tea, the Prentice made a bed for Brae next to the fire and insisted he lie in it. In truth, he hadn't the strength to protest. She made him drink about two or three times the amount of water he would have liked to swallow and mopped the sweat from his brow. He fell asleep before the hunters returned, and Andellyn walked around the fire to speak to Kiomo.
"Isn't there anything more you can do for him, Master Kiomo?"
He smiled ruefully and offered her some tea, which she took gratefully. "I'm afraid not. Healing magic was always my weak spot. I can set bones, and mend them if I don't plan on doing much of anything else magically or physically for the following day. Mostly, I depend on herbs, and they don't seem to be helping much. We can't have you try healing him magically, because you're liable to overdo whatever it is you do." He spoke the truth, and he spoke it kindly, so she was not offended.
An idea came to Andy - an idea that she didn't like at all. "He... he won't die, will he?"
They turned to face the sleeping form that looked too much like a corpse for comfort. He placed a large, callused hand on her shoulder. "I hope not, Andy. I think he's coming down with a flu, or something like it. Miri would know. Anyway, we're going to do our best to bring him out of it, but we must keep moving. It'll be harder for him to recover on the road, but... well, two days' journey should bring us to a fair-sized town. Perhaps there will be a good healer. We could take him to the Temple of Rhianna, if they have one there. They'd tend him for free, as he's one of Hers, and the best healers often work in Her temples." The old man's voice was growing hoarse, and Andy feared he, too, might be growing ill, but when she turned to see him she saw the source of his hoarseness. There were tears in his eyes.
She was worried for her friend, and that was bad enough, but Kiomo was fond of Braeden - as he was of Gerik and Andy herself - and so was Gerik, for that matter, and she couldn't see them saddened, too. "Don't worry, Kiomo," she said, dropping the title for the first time. The quaver in her voice told her that she was on the verge of tears as well. "Whatever we do, we won't be taking him to Gwinn's Temple." No, she wouldn't let Brae be taken there, not any time soon. If they took him to Gwinn's Temple, it would be for burial rites, and she refused to be parted of her friend so soon.
"No," Kiomo agreed. "Not there. Not yet." He offered her a weak smile. "Come now, we must compose ourselves before Rhyfellur returns - she wouldn't approve, and we'd never hear the end of it." He wiped the tears from his eyes.
She did the same and returned to Braeden's side. He was moving in his fitful, feverish dreams. She held his head still between her hands and sang softly the only song she knew. After she finished, she spoke some of the words. "Hope seems to dwindle, but don't let it die." She looked down at Braeden, now calmer in his sleep, as though the song had eased his fits. "But as long as you remain here beside me... " She trailed off, and rubbed at an obstinate tear gland. "...I will not cry."
Gerik and Rhyfellur returned from their hunt smiling and laughing. Andellyn was half jealous. The other half of her was outraged that they could be so happy when Braeden was so ill. They had some right to merriment, though. Gerik had bagged half a dozen meaty rabbits and Rhy had taken down a stag. The two chatted pleasantly as they skinned and gutted their kills, oblivious to the dark mood possessed by the Adept and his Prentice.
"You should have seen it," Gerik crowed. "It came out of nowhere, this huge forest lord of a beast, and she steps in its way as if it were harmless as a cow and thrusts her spear straight into its heart. And even if she'd missed her mark - which, of course, she never would - the wretch would've died of shock!"
They ate three of the rabbits between them that night. Rhy used a Benywae trick to cook and preserve the meat of the stag and one of the rabbits overnight, and the remaining two were saved for breakfast the next morning.
Braeden was too feverish in the morning to do much of anything. Andy fed him roast rabbit and Kiomo lifted and lashed him onto his horse. They rode a bit harder than they had the previous day, the urgency of Braeden's illness pressing them forward.
Andellyn again spent the evening nursing the Bard, but Gerik and Rhy did not hunt. When the camp was set up, the Knight walked to where Braeden lay and squatted down next to Andy. "How's he holding out?"
"I wish I knew," she replied. "He doesn't seem any better. He was awake a few minutes ago, but he just stared blankly around, as if he didn't see any of us." She found herself staring at Gerik's pale blue eyes. "I'm so worried. I don't know if he'll make it."
Gerik was frowning thoughtfully at Brae. "He'd better make it," he muttered gruffly. Then, with annoyance: "Brahn knows how I'll find another Bard if he dies." He stalked off in a foul mood.
Andy felt indignant on Brae's behalf. Was that all he was to Gerik? A Bard? Any Bard would do, but Brae was the convenient one? And why did he need a Bard anyway?
Still, it wasn't without some degree of longing that she watched Gerik walk away.
They arrived at Leandin the following evening, and did not slow the horses until they reached Rhianna's Temple. Kiomo hurried into the building to find someone while Gerik untied Braeden from his saddle and lifted him down. Andellyn and Rhyfellur dismounted and led the horses in behind Gerik. Finn followed at Andy's heels. It was not uncommon for animals to be found in the goddess' temple, and there was a hitching post along one wall, which the women tied the horses to.
Andy looked around to find herself in a general worship area that was the public part of the temple. At the end of the room was a white marble statue of a beautiful woman smiling benevolently. Two devotees were kneeling in front of the statue and didn't bother looking to see who had entered. The marble walls were carved with various images of Rhianna. In one she was showering blessings on a group of bards that joyously played and sang to her. In another, she comforted a woman in childbirth. A third depicted her surrounded by adoring animals.
Andellyn put a halt to her curious observations to pay more attention to the matter at had. She cast a worried glance on Brae and then looked around for Kiomo. He emerged from a side door followed by nine women dressed in white. Eight of the women carried a stretcher, which Braeden was placed on and hurried back through the door.
Kiomo introduced the remaining woman to his companions. "This is the high priestess of the temple, Mistress Tiama. Mistress Tiama, this is Sir Gerik, my Prentice Andellyn, and the Benywa Mistress Rhyfellur."
Tiama nodded her covered head. She seemed to be older than Kiomo, but she was smiling a young smile. "Pleased to meet you, my children. You need fear nothing. Bard Braeden is in good hands. Our best healers will be working on him, and we will keep three priestesses praying for him at all times until he is well."
"When will he be well enough to travel?" asked Gerik impatiently.
"Only the gods know for sure," the old lady answered. "However, I think he will have made good progress by morning, and perhaps sometime tomorrow or the next day will be able to return to the road."
The Knight sighed. "We have three options. We wait for him, we leave him, or we split up, and whoever waits here will have to catch up with the others. Kiomo?"
The Adept stroked his long, black mustaches. "Let's see how he is tomorrow. I'd hate to leave him. We'll see how well he is in the morning."
Gerik nodded. "Very well. What do we do now?"
Mistress Tiama smiled. "There is not much you can do to help your friend. You might wish to pray. If you would like to stay here for the night, that could be arranged. If you wish to leave and return in the morning, that may be done, as well."
Rhy thought on this before speaking. "I would like to have a drink. Would any of you like to join me at the nearest pub?"
"I would," piped up Gerik. "I could use a stiff drink."
Andy looked at Rhy and Gerik, then back at the door where Braeden had disappeared. She bit her lip. Finally she looked at Kiomo.
"Go if you want," he told her. "There's nothing we could do here."
She shook her head. "It's for my sake that he's so ill. I can't just go out and have fun." She turned to Gerik and Rhy, and somehow managed to speak. "You two go along without me." They did.
Tiama cleared her throat to get their attention. "Would you like to stay here for the night?"
Kiomo nodded. "I think that's best."
"Can't we sit with him now?" asked Andy.
"I'm afraid not, child. You'd be in our healers' way. In an hour or two less will be going on, and perhaps they'll let you in."
Kiomo bowed to the woman. "Thank you, Mistress Tiama. We must visit Gwinn's Temple now, but we will be back soon."
She returned the bow and left.
Kiomo and Andy walked out of the temple, followed by Finn. The Temple of Gwinn was just next door, and Brahn's Temple was on the far side of it. Gwinn's Temple was set up much like Rhianna's, but the walls and statue were of grey granite and his expression, rather than benevolent, was shrewd and calculating. The carvings on the wall were also less benevolent. Gwinn was shown on horseback following his hounds as they chased the souls of the wicked and standing behind a grave-looking judge in a court room. Of all the carvings on the wall, the only ones that showed Gwinn even mildly pleased were one in which he watched an Adept who was carefully honing his skills and one in which one of his hounds nuzzled his hand as the others justly ripped apart a condemned soul. Oblivious to the solemn air of the temple, Finn walked up to the statue, sniffed it, and wagged his tail.
Kiomo smiled. "He knows his master. I'm surprised he didn't do that for Rhianna's statue, too."
"He did," Andy corrected him, "while you were fetching the priestesses."
"Well, either we've got a smart dog, or just one that likes visual arts."
She smiled a little.
"Andy, I know neither of us have been in the mood to train these past few days, but you do need to control your power. All the rest will fall in once you've got control - you've learned most of everything in theory already."
She blinked. "You want me to practice here? Now?"
"I didn't say that," he said. "Being here just brought it to mind, was all. I want you to pray - for a good judgment on Brae, should he come before Gwinn soon, and for control for yourself. Speaking of which - that was very grown up of you to turn down a night out with Gerik and Rhy. I'm proud of you, Andy."
She blushed just a little. "Brae'd've done the same for me. And anyway, I'm not so sure I'm in love with Gerik anymore. Or that I ever was, for that matter. I mean, I count him a friend, but I don't think we have very much in common, and anyway, he hardly notices me. The feeling is fading."
Then they prayed for several hours, while Finn curled contentedly at Gwinn's feet.
When they returned to Rhianna's Temple, Gerik and Rhy were still out. Kiomo and Andy were allowed to see Braeden. The healers had broken his fever, and he was sleeping soundly. After the Adept and Prentice had been watching the sleeping form for about ten minutes, one of the priestesses came to invite them to dinner at the temple mess, which they accepted.
They ate a hearty gruel with coarse bread at one of several long tables, surrounded by white-clothed women who chatted pleasantly while they ate. Those near Andy and Kiomo were not much older than Andy herself, and were excited at the prospect of visitors.
Andy, used to having men around, and remembering the time when Braeden sent a would-be thief to Rhianna's Temple, couldn't' help but ask, "Aren't there any men around here?"
One of the young priestesses giggled. "Rhianna has a few priests in her service, but only a very few. We don't have any here. Today's the first time I've seen a man since I took my vows!"
"Yes, and you saw enough before then to last the rest of your lifetime," put in a second priestess. "Her parents made her come to the temple. Didn't approve of the fellows she was courting at the time, and all three were ready to propose."
A third priestess guffawed. "You think they would have bothered with a formality like marriage!"
The first priestess scowled. "My parents wouldn't have settled for anything less than a Bard. Is it my fault that I like my men a little less holy than that? Or liked, anyway, before I got landed here."
"Don't let her make you think we're all bad," the third priestess assured Andy. "Most of us are here because we want to be."
Andy nodded, but didn't respond verbally, intimidated by the conversation. It was too bad Rhy wasn't there - it seemed to Andy the kind of talk the other woman would have enjoyed. She dropped a chunk of her bread for Finn, who was seated attentively at her side.
"So anyway," said the second priestess, "what's going on with this Bard Braeden? He's handsome. Are you betrothed?"
Andy's face tried to contort several ways at once. "What? Brae - me - betrothed? No!"
"Courting, then?" asked the first priestess.
"No! He's my friend. Nothing more."
The three priestesses looked at each other for a moment, nodded in unison, and then chanted, simultaneously, "Denial."
Kiomo was pushed beyond the point of restraining his laughter.
"What?" demanded Andy, indignant.
"It's nothing," he managed through laughter.
The third priestess, however, piped up. "Go on, then. What do you know that she isn't saying?"
"Really, it's nothing," he insisted. He would not tell them how Braeden felt about Andy. "She just reacted so explosively, that's all. She doesn't do that often."
"Definitely denial, then," confirmed the second priestess.
Andellyn was very put out by this, although she refused to argue with them any more. She wasn't in denial! Why, she'd never even though about Braeden that way. Never even thought about thinking about him that way.
The first priestess seemed about to say something, but another woman in white hurried to where they were seated to tell Kiomo and Andy that Braeden was stirring, and might wake soon. They bid a good evening to their mess mates and hurried away.
They seated themselves on stools on either side of Braeden's bed and leaned anxiously over him. Consequently, they both narrowly missed getting seriously injured when Brae sat bolt upright, eyes wide.