Alizand prowled about his bed chamber. He paused beside the window and pushed the heavy draperies aside. Another day of confinement. Since the day his step-brothers had invaded the suite, forcing Alizand to reveal his affinity for Fire, heâd been a prisoner.
At least the guards at the door believed he couldnât leave. They didnât know about the hidden sections and the secret rooms and passages to be found beyond the walls. Though Alizand could slip away, he should wait until night lest his room be checked. Dom Senet often made random visits during the day. Only when Alizandâs personal guard appeared could he escape these chambers. The corridors and places he could go had to be kept secret.
He was bored. He even missed the tedious lessons heâd been given by the clan elders during the short time heâd been acknowledged as his fatherâs heir. Having his affinity exposed had ended the dream of being deemed fit to become a prince. No one who could use one or all of the elements could rule the princedom of Wesren.
He stared at the tray on the table. A maidservant had delivered the food a short time before. Though he had eaten nothing since yesterdayâs midday meal, he had no desire to break his fast.
The back of Alizandâs neck prickled. Trouble approached. Which of the many enemies heâd collected in his fourteen years of life came to upset his day?
The door opened. Before the guard could announce the visitor, a tall man entered. His ash blond hair hung in a single braid. Black leather riding clothes gleamed in the light from candles set in glass-shielded sconces on the wall. His dark green eyes sought and held Alizandâs gaze.
A smile appeared on Dom Senetâs face. Alizand felt like a tabby surrounded by a pack of ratis. He forced himself to breathe. How could one man raise such a high degree of terror? Though Alizandâs legs felt unsteady, he forced himself to remain on his feet.
âDom Senet.â A sense of pride filled Alizandâs thoughts. His voice hadnât cracked or risen to a high pitch to reveal his inner quaking.
The dom stroked the multi-colored gem he wore about his neck. The gold chain glinted. âI have questions for you to answer.â
Questions, Alizand thought. What kind of trick was this? He couldnât relax his barriers or forget his suspicions of the dom. Was this a new way to fool him into becoming the domâs puppet? Alizand needed to respond. To remain silent would expose his fear. âWhat do you want to know?â
âAbout your kin, the children of your fatherâs step-brother. I have a great need to find them. Poor lost children who need a home and a guardian.â
Alizandâs hands clenched. His friends had saved his life when heâd been injured in the aftermath of the destruction of the henge. With them, heâd been Zand, a person and not a creature to be used. âI donât know where they are. I told my father I didnât and I say the same to you.â
âI think otherwise.â The dom moved closer.
Alizand clung to his determination to resist. He felt icy touches trying to push beneath his surface thoughts and invade his memories. He pressed his hand against the gem beneath his tunic and strained to hold firm against Dom Senetâs invasion. âHow could I know where theyâve been or where theyâre going? Iâve been a prisoner here for weeks.â
Dom Senet ran a finger along Alizandâs cheek. âAnd I imagine you have no idea how the child escaped the circle room.â
âWhat child?â Though he had released Ky, he didnât consider her a child. The pressure in his head built until his vision and balance wavered. âIs there a circular room in your suite?â The pressure vanished so suddenly Alizandâs knees folded and he fell into the chair.
Dom Senet frowned. âPerhaps someone else is to blame.â
Alizand looked up. âWho?â
âDonât worry. Iâll learn. As for you, your barriers are stronger than they were the last time we met. I havenât time to break then now, but be assured when I return, you will answer to me.â
âEven if I donât know the answers you want?â To Alizandâs surprise, though inside he battled hysteria, his voice remained calm.
âThis much I can tell you. Your friends have left the city and foolishly chose to challenge me. They gave themselves away. Though theyâve escaped, they have nowhere to go. Iâm leading a patrol of guards eager to receive the reward your father has offered for the return of his step-brotherâs children. We will bring them back.â
His laughter sent prickles along Alizandâs skin. âWill you betray my father by taking charge of them?â
âBetray him? How? Your father is mine to move as I will. Once he sees these children have affinities, heâll gladly name me as their guardian.â The dom leaned closer. âWhen I return with them you will come to me. Donât think to flee. Remember, I touched your gem. No matter where you go, I can find you, unless you remove the crystal and suffer the seizures of destruction.â He strode to the door.
The door snapped shut. Alizand slid to the floor, grasped his knees and rocked. Why hadnât he been told to hide the gem heâd received on his fourteenth birthing day? Heâd worn the red gem proudly. Dom Senet had touched the stone and had made some kind of connection to Alizand.
What could he do? Where was Dragen? He needed his kinsman and protector. He had to let Dragen know about Dom Senetâs latest attempt. Alizand swallowed. He was more than frightened. Terror swept through him, causing his body to shake like the leaves of a tree during a windstorm.
Once his weakness passed, Alizand rose. He arranged pillows to look as though he hid beneath the covers and closed the curtains around the bed. He stepped into the closet and opened the door into the hidden room. There he took his sword from the sheath. For a time he danced flames along the shining metal blade the way Ky had shown him.
Was she all right? She had been his first friend and had trusted him before her siblings had. Where had they gone? How could he warn them about Dom Senet? He stared into the flames and thought about his friends. Bran and Jay had healed him after the rock had smashed him into unconsciousness. Ky had helped, too. He closed his eyes and recalled Ash. She was the image of her mother, a woman heâd seen just once.
Dom Senet hunts you. Over and over again he mouthed the words and prayed Ash would hear them on the winds. The sword grew heavy. He let the flames die and sheathed the blade. With weary steps, he returned to his chamber.
At midday a maidservant brought his meal and took the untouched morning food away. The door guard lingered.
âKafene?â Alizand pointed to the two cups on the tray.
âMy thanks.â The guard accepted the cup and closed the door. âLady Melena leaves the palace today.â
âIn the middle of winter?â Alizand asked. Though he had no love for his step-mother, to be forced from Cedris during the winter season could be a death sentence. There were few inns in the princedom to offer shelter if there was a storm. âHow will she travel? Where will she go?â
The guard chuckled. âShe wonât go far. Her maid obtained rooms at an inn near the southern gate. Several guards have bought release and have taken service with her. Once the midday meal in the great hall ends she will depart.â He drained the cup.
âWill her sons go with her?â Alizand prayed the bully boys would leave with their mother. If they hadnât invaded his chambers and attacked him, he wouldnât have revealed his affinity.
âThose two? Do you really think theyâll leave their comfort before they must?â The guard opened the door. âIn the spring Prince Zedron will send Mandir and Lodar to their fathers.â
Alizand dismissed the guard. His shoulders slumped. Though two of his enemies would leave the palace today, his step-brothers would remain. He ate some of the stew, and then devoured the nut rolls. Had Melena left yet? He wanted to watch. He wiped his fingers and hurried to the secret room.
There he fastened the sheathed fire sword to his belt. Though what he planned wasnât without risk, he desired to see Melena disgraced. He lit a candle and made his way along the narrow inner passages to the stairs leading to the hidden door into the courtyard. Before opening the door, he stuck the candle in a sconce and pinched the flame. After tapping the proper sequence on the tiles of the door, he stepped outside.
The air bore a damp chill. Snow flurried around him. With his back pressed against the stones of the wall, Alizand edged toward a place sheltered from the wind where he could observe the front entrance. He halted in a shadowed alcove beneath an overhang and waited. His gaze was focused on the heavy doors of the palaceâs main section.
The double doors at the top of the steps opened. Melena appeared on the landing. Alizandâs father and step-brothers followed her from the palace.
âBe gone, Melena,â Prince Zedron shouted. âYou are no longer my spouse and are no longer welcome in this palace. Stay at the inn, but as soon as the thaws begin, I order you to depart from Cedris and Wesren. Should you remain within the borders of the princedom beyond Summer Day, you will be meat for any manâs blade.â
Melena walked down the steps. Her back was stiff and her head erect. When she reached the courtyard, she turned. âZedron, I curse you. May you never sire another and thus you will have no one to follow you.â
Her words sent a chill through Alizand. His father had two children, a daughter who could never rule the land and a son who was a halfling with an affinity.
He stared at his former step-mother. Rings glittered on her fingers. Bracelets flashed on her arms. As she strode toward the gate a gust of wind parted her cloak. Alizand stifled a laugh. Necklaces and broaches covered her chest. She was so laden with jewelry he wondered how she could walk.
She turned and held out her hands. âMandir, Lodar, attend your mother as dutiful sons must.â
Mandir turned his back to her. Lodar laughed. âMother, donât be foolish. Why would we leave our comfortable place in the palace to live in a single room at an inn? In the spring, Prince Zedron will send us to our fathers with all honor.â He followed his brother into the palace.
âYouâll be sorry, all of you.â Melenaâs voice rose in pitch as piercing as the howl of the wind. âA thousand curses on your heads. A hundred plagues to ravage your lands. I will not rest until I have revenge.â
A hand clamped on Alizandâs shoulder. Waves of panic washed through him. How could he run when his feet were leaden weights? âWho?â He forced the question out.
âDragen, and youâd best be thankful. Lad, what are you doing here?â
Alizand swallowed his fear. He met the gaze of his kinsman. Weathered lines across Dragenâs brow and at the corners of his eyes softened the anger in his voice. White strands dotted his auburn hair. âI had to see her gone.â
âAnd so she is.â
âDid you know Dom Senet is also leaving?â
The older man nodded. âHeâs gone. Left before the midday meal. Did the guards permit you to leave your chamber?â
âI used the inner ways.â
âThen let us return the way you came. There is much I have to tell you and I have orders you must obey.â Tension filled Dragenâs voice. He held his cloak to shield Alizand.
When they reached the entrance to the hidden ways, before tapping the bricks, Alizand scanned the area. As soon as the door opened he stepped inside. Dragen was at his heels. Alizand took the candle from the sconce and lit it. âWhatâs going on?â
âWait until weâre upstairs.â
Alizand hurried up the steps and along the narrow hall to the secret room. Dragen pointed to a chair at the small table. âSit and listen carefully.â
âAm I in danger?â
Dragen sat across the table. âAlways, until youâre away from the palace and have mastered your affinity. While Dom Senet is gone from Cedris, Iâll have a chance to leave and speak to someone about the best way to arrange your death.â
Alizand swallowed. Every time Dragen mentioned death as a way to escape the palace and the dom, Alizand felt ill. How could he die yet remain alive? Did Dragen mean the affinity for Fire would be lost? There wasnât time for more than one question. âAre you leaving Cedris?â
âFor a short time.â
âCanât you take me with you?â Alizand thought of what had happened the other times Dragen had been absent from the palace. Both times there had been trouble caused by his step-brothers. The first time, Alizand had fled the palace, and the second his affinity had been revealed.
âLad, you must stay here. My destination has to remain a secret from Dom Senet. You will need a refuge while learning to use your affinity. Senet can find you through your gem.â
âI could leave it behind.â
âThat might be the answer, but I donât know what effect that will have on you.â The older man shook his head. âMight be the same as what happens to a dom or doma when their gem is destroyed. They die in convulsions. Another possibility is Senet finding the gem and using it against you.â
âWe could hide it and I could sneak away.â
Dragen frowned. âDoubtful. The doms and domas who remain in his suite communicate with him. You will be missed and a hunt for you would begin. You must stay here.â
Alizand bit his lip. He would be alone and unprotected again. What if his step-brothers gained access to the chambers? If they tried to hurt him, would the guards step in? Even thinking about the possibility brought the urge to summon fire. âCouldnât this person come to Cedris?â
âShe would endanger herself. The doms and domas would recognize her. Senet would enjoy having her in his power. Iâll be away no more than two sevendays. Promise you will remain confined to your quarters.â
Alizand stared at the table. âWhat about Arrow? He becomes restless if I stay away from the stables for too long.â
Dragen tapped his fingers against the surface of the wooden table. âNight visits only. Take care not to be seen.â
âIâll wear a dark cloak and keep to the shadows.â
âGood enough. Expect me back as Iâve promised.â
âWhat if someone asks about you?â
âTell any and all Iâve taken my war steed to the farm to give the stud service he owes the guard.â
Alizand rose and embraced Dragen. For a moment he clung to the older man, then stepped back. âBe safe.â Alizand followed the older man through the secret ways and stood at the head of the stairs until Dragen merged with the shadows. When Alizand heard the door close, he retraced his steps, unbelted the sword and returned to his chamber. He took a book of adventure tales from the shelf. Perhaps in a story he could forget how alone and frightened he was.
Bran placed one foot after the other and led the way up yet another snow-covered hill. For at least two sevendays he and his siblings had traveled north and east. Heâd lost track of the time until only morning and evening seemed to matter. Sometimes he wondered if they traveled in circles in an unchanging landscape. Still, he knew his fears were false. The direction finder confirmed they traveled in the direction Dragen had suggested.
The constant swirl of snow kept him from seeing more than a few feet ahead. The blasting winter wind swept away all traces of their passage before they had traveled more than twenty feet. A gust of wind slapped his back and nearly knocked him to his knees. He struggled to remain erect.
No trees or bushes broke the vast white expanse. Heâd seen no signs of people. No trails, fences, houses or even the distant spires of smoke rising toward the pewter sky had appeared. The birds that Ky believed were their parents and who guarded them had vanished days ago. Though heâd seen the soaring pair, Bran now wondered if they had been a vision wrought by his imagination.
While he wasnât sure Dragenâs advice to seek Doma Jandia was the right choice, theyâd seen no sign of the woman or her house. A sevenday north and east the man had said. Had they missed her because they hadnât left Cedris by the right gate? Had Dragen meant the journey by courser took that long? Maybe they had traveled too slowly. The many storms had made movement hard.
He reached the crest of the hill and paused to study the way ahead. At the bottom of the slope he saw the dark green of fir trees and the brown leafless branches of the hardwoods. Though a forest would make travel with the sled difficult they would have protection from the wind.
He took his place beside Jay on a runner on the high-sided sled. Ash and Ky rode the other. On the count of three they pushed off and rode the sled to the flat area below. Their laughter cut the silence of the day. Once Bran caught his breath, he grabbed the tow rope. His siblings joined him and they pulled the sled around a tangle of bushes into a cluster of firs.
âWeâll camp here tonight,â he said. âIâll find wood for a fire and cut fir branches for our beds.â Bran moved toward the barren hardwoods to gather deadfall.
Ash and Jay erected the tent while Ky cleared a space for a cooking fire. The brazier and fuel bricks were only used to take the chill from the tent and to keep food warm for the next morningâs meal.
Once they ate the savory stew they returned to the tent. Bran poured tea for them. âAsh, will you read the winds for traces of Doma Jandia? We need to find a place to stay until spring.â
Ashâs skin blanched. âDo you want me to betray us?â Her voice vibrated with fear. âIâm sure Dom Senet and his companions keep a constant watch on the winds. If I try, theyâll find us.â
Bran frowned. âYou could be right, but we need to know where to go. The only emotions I sense are ours. I feel we travel in an area empty of people.â
âYou have to listen,â Ky said. âWhat if Zand sends messages for us on the winds? We wonât know if heâs safe.â
âOr Valcon, Genira and the children,â Jay said. âI want to know how they fare.â
Ash put her mug down. âHow can we help them? Weâre far from the city. I wonât search the winds. My fear of discovery could alert our enemies.â
âWhat if Bran uses the cup?â Ky asked. âHe did once.â
Ash began to tremble. âDom Senet will find us. You donât know how evil he is.â
âI know,â Ky said. âI was his prisoner.â
âAnd I touched his mind. I had him in my head. He tried to control me.â
Bran moved closer to his twin. They could use the circle the way they had when they freed her from the domâs power. Right now, she was too upset to listen to their suggestions. âBefore we look for anyone we need to find a place where we have better shelter than a tent. Then we can make plans. We canât keep on wandering.â
Ky nodded. âYouâre right.â
âWe canât go anywhere tonight,â Jay said. âTomorrow we can choose a direction.â
Bran went to the sled and pulled out his knapsack. âLetâs draw stones.â Taking care not to choose the remaining gem Ky had found and he had stashed away, he put two light and two dark stones into his hat. âThe dark will seek and the light break camp.â Once all had chosen, they opened their hands.
âDark,â Jay said.
âMe, too.â Ash showed hers.
Ky pouted. âBut I wanted to go.â She held up her hands. âDoes anyone want to trade?â
Bran shook his head. âIf they donât find anything, tomorrow you and I will look.â
âHow long should we take?â Ash asked.
âSeek until midday, then return so thereâll be time to move the camp." Bran put the stones into his knapsack.
In the morning Jay and Ash set off in two directions. Jay traveled east and Ash walked north. Ky and Bran filled the flasks with tea and poured the broth from their evening meal into another container. While Ky sliced cheese and placed it on pieces of journey bread, Bran rolled the sleep saques and put them in the sled. Ky buried the flasks beneath them. Together they collapsed the tent and prepared to roll the two halves.
Ky handed him a mug of tea. âThereâs enough left for Jay and Ash. I hope one of them returns with good news.â
âAgreed. Maybe theyâll find a place where we can stay until spring.â
Ky frowned. âWhat will we do when the food we brought is gone?â
Bran sipped the tea. âSet traps, I guess.â
âDo you know how?â
He shook his head. âWe learned how to fish but not hunt. Help me persuade Ash to search the winds for signs of people.â
âI will.â Ky rose and paced about the area. âI donât understand why sheâs so afraid.â
Bran dropped the mug. Tea stained the snow. âNo! Ash!â He bolted to his feet.
âI have to find her.â
âWhatâs wrong?â Ky asked. âIs she a prisoner?â
âI donât know, but sheâs in trouble.â Bran ran. What had happened to his twin? The panic in her voice frightened him.
âWhere are you going?â
âTo help her.â He continued his headlong dash along the way Ash had taken. Her screams filled his thoughts and he couldnât block them. Had she been attacked by a wild beast? Had she fallen into a hunterâs trap? He tried to send a message along the twin bond but her panicked mental cries were too strong.
Suddenly, the cries reached his ears as well as his thoughts. He encountered a patch of ice and slid. By grabbing a branch of one of the firs, he stopped his slide. He saw Ash. She had fallen and broken through the ice on a pond. The water reached her waist and the weight of her cloak kept her trapped.
With cautious steps, he approached the edge of the pond. Was the remaining ice solid enough to hold him? He slipped and fell to his knees. âAsh, Iâm here.â
âBran, be careful. You might fall in.â As she spoke, her teeth chattered. âIâm so cold.â
He found a branch broken from one of the hardwoods and freed it from the snow. He lay on the ground and shoved it to her. âGrab the limb (NEEDED TO ADD A SPACE HERE) and Iâll pull you free."
âWhat if I canât hold on?â
âYou have to try.â He heard the panic in her voice and closed himself to her wild emotions.
âIâm here, too.â Ky grabbed the branch behind Bran. âOne, two. Pull.â
The loud sound of cracking ice filled the air. With great effort Ash moved closer to the shore. When she reached the edge of the pool, Bran and Ky pulled her ashore. Her body shook. Bran pulled off her soggy cloak, tossed it aside and draped his around her shoulders.
He and Ky half-dragged Ash back to the fire. The distance seemed to be miles. Snow fell from the trees and splattered on Branâs tunic. Ashâs body shook so hard he nearly lost his hold on her arm. When they reached the fire, Bran held Ash on her feet. âKy, go drag one of the tent halves over here. Get one of the sleep saques, my knapsack and a blanket. We need to get her out of those wet clothes.â He lowered Ash to the canvas and pulled off her boots, stockings and divided skirt.
Ky brought the things heâd requested. Together, they dressed Ash and slid her into the sleep saque. Her tremors lessened.
Bran searched his knapsack and removed several packets of herbs. He added them to a mug of tea and supported his twin as she drank. Slowly her body relaxed.
âShould we put up the tent?â Ky asked.
âNot yet.â Bran sucked in a breath. âSee if you can reach Jay on the twin bond. If he hasnât found a place for us, then weâll erect the tent.â
Ky closed her eyes and pursed her lips. A short time later she met Branâs gaze. âHeâs coming. Heâs found two places. One is a hut.â
Bran released his held breath. âGood.â
Ky rose. âIâll be back.â Instead of running to meet her twin, she ran to the path Ash had taken.
âWhere are you going?â
âFor Ashâs cloak. I donât think we should leave it behind. If a dom or doma found it, they would learn where we are.â
âOnce we reach the hut and have a fire weâll dry yours and hers. Better put on one of the ponchos before you get chilled.â
Bran went to the sled and found one of the woolen garments. He returned to the fire and added wood. Ash slept. He prayed Jay would arrive soon. They needed to check Ashâs hands and feet for signs of frostbite.
With a burst of speed Jay turned from the hut and raced toward the camp where his siblings waited. Kyâs call had held an urgency that spurred him to hurry. The path he took wound in a serpentine manner around clusters of firs and stark stands of hardwoods. Towing the sled through the maze would be difficult.
He passed the first place heâd noted as a possible shelter. The fallen trees and bushes formed a space resembling a cave. Dead leaves lay in a thick mat on the ground. There was room to pitch the tent but he was glad heâd continued past. The abandoned hut could shelter them for days while they decided where to go.
Jay sighed. If only Ash would search the winds for signs of people they could have formed an idea of where they were. He understood her fear. With the twin bond he had experienced some of Kyâs panicked reaction when sheâd been Dom Senetâs prisoner. Being separated from her siblings had been hard, but when the two-way conversation had been cut off, her hopes must have vanished. His had.
He caught the scent of burning wood and then saw a great cloud of smoke. Finally he was close enough to see leaping flames. Why had they built the fire so high? If there were people nearby they would come to investigate and they might be enemies. He stretched his legs into longer strides. âWhat happened?â
Bran looked up. âAsh â¦ Ash.â
Ky put her hands on Branâs shoulders. âShe broke through the ice on a pond and was soaked and chilled. She needs a warm place.â
âThe abandoned hut isnât far.â
âWhat kind of hut?â
Jay shrugged. âMade from logs. Could be a woodcutterâs place. Thereâs a big stack of cut wood and a fireplace. Took a glance inside. Saw some bunks.â
Ky rose and walked to the sled. âThen let us hurry.â She dropped the folded half of the tent inside.
Jay nodded. âWeâll be there before midday.â
âCome and help.â Bran reached for the head of the sleep saque. âWe need to lift her into the sled.â
Jay and Ky joined him. They carried Ash to the sled and managed to lift her over the high side. Jay heaped snow over the fire while Ky and Bran made sure theyâd left nothing behind.
While Bran and Ky pulled the sled, Jay followed and stirred the snow to obscure their trail with a fir branch. Light flurries had begun to fall. Jay smiled. With luck, the snowfall would continue until all signs of their passing vanished.
They wove a path around bushes and trees. When they passed the tangle, Jay pointed to the way the growth formed a cave. âWe could have used that but the hut is better. Not much further to go.â
âGood,â Bran said.
Soon the dark structure appeared. Jay dropped the fir branch and began to push the sled. He studied their destination. Gaps between the logs had been sealed with yellow clay. Once they had the fire started the small structure would soon warm. He ran ahead and opened the door into a square room. âHow will we get Ash inside?â
âOn the sled,â Bran said.
âWill it fit?â Ky asked.
Without spilling Ash, Jay wondered. He moved to help. Bran pulled. Jay and Ky pushed. The runners squealed on the wood. Then like a cork pulled from a bottle, the sled popped into the room. Jay and Ky landed in a tangle on the floor. He freed himself and lay back to gulp deep breaths of air.
âJay, help us lift Ash onto one of the bunks,â Bran called.
He pushed to his feet and took hold of the foot of the sleep saque. The three struggled to lift Ash onto a lower bunk closest to the fireplace. Jay rooted in the sled, found the brazier, the firebricks and the flasks of tea and broth.
âKy, light the bricks.â
âBe right there.â She emerged from behind a door he hadnât noticed before. âThe necessary,â she said. âKind of small.â
Once his twin lit the fire, Jay found two pans and emptied the flasks into them. He placed journey bread and cheese on a cloth and set them on the small table. There were only two rickety chairs so they would have to take turns.
Bran sat beside Ash and opened the sleep saque. âJust as I feared.â
âWhat?â Jay asked.
âCome and see. I fear her feet are badly frost-bitten. Her hands, too, but not as bad. She could lose her toes.â
Jay stared at the blanched skin of his siblingâs feet. He gently touched one. âI feel a faint pulse. How can we help her?â He couldnât imagine Ash being crippled.
Bran looked up. âFind Ky. I need her help. We have to warm Ashâs hands and feet and bring more blood to them. Iâm glad sheâs sleeping. The restoration will be painful.â
âWhat can Ky do?â
âRemember what she did when we healed Zand?â
Jay nodded. âIâll get her.â He ran to the door. âKy.â
âHere,â she called. âBy the woodpile. The top layer and some of the sides are covered with ice but the rest is all right. Thereâs enough for at least a sevenday, probably longer.â
âBran needs your help with Ash. He wants you to bring fire sort of like you did with Zand.â Jay walked to where she stood. âIâll fetch the wood.â
Ky thrust the logs she held into his arms. She sprinted to the house. Jay followed. He piled the logs beside the fireplace and returned with two more loads. Finally, he laid a fire and with his knife shaved some scraps for kindling.
Bran and Ky stood beside the bunk. Curiosity drew Jay across the room to watch and add his strength if needed.
âThe hands were easy,â Ky said.
âWe should have done her feet first,â Bran said. âWhat if we waited too long?â
Ky shook her head. âWe had to be sure we knew what we were doing. Iâm ready.â
Bran cradled one of Ashâs feet in his hands. Ky placed her fingers over his. As Jay watched, the skin color changed from near-white to pale brown and finally to bronze.
Once they finished, Ky slumped and nearly tumbled to the floor. Jay caught her and pushed her beside Ash. Bran slumped at the foot of the bunk. âJay, some tea. Add a lot of honey.â
Jay rushed to the brazier and scooped tea from the pan. He added a liberal amount of the sweetening and carried the mug to the bunk. After helping Ky sit, he held the cup so she could drink. With a grin, she finished the tea and dangled her legs over the side.
Jay fixed a second cup of tea. Bran drank, then left the bunk and searched in his pack. He sprinkled herbs in a cup of tea. Ash groaned. Jay supported her while she drank.
Though they were protected from the wind, the hut was cold. Jay searched for the fire starter Dragen had given them. He sat on the stone hearth and struck sparks until one caught. He blew on the spark and added shavings. The flame grew. Carefully, he added larger scraps and then a small log. He groaned. Instead of the smoke flowing up the chimney, it eddied into the room. Jayâs eyes watered. Ash began to cough.
âDo something,â Bran cried.
âSomethingâs blocking the chimney.â Jay grabbed a poncho and dropped his cloak on the chair. âLeave the door open. Most of the smoke will escape.â
Jay went outside and stared at the roof. Only a thin plume of smoke rose from the stone chimney. He studied the trees around the hut and saw one of the hardwoods had a branch that hung over the roof and nearly touched the shingles.
He jumped, caught the lowest limb and pulled himself up. After sliding to the trunk, he climbed until he reached the branch he wanted. Several times his feet slipped and he clung to the bole until his heart steadied. He straddled the limb and inched forward. The branch narrowed and he hoped it would hold his weight until he reached the chimney.
As he prepared to drop to the roof, the branch cracked. He sprawled on the roof. Snow slid toward the edge threatening to take him along. His breath exploded in a cloud of vapor. He grabbed the stones. His heart thundered. He felt tears on his cheeks.
Once he caught his breath he pushed to his knees and peered into the chimney. A ragged birdâs nest plugged most of the opening. He tore the straw and twigs away. Smoke poured from the opening and spiraled into the air.
Jay slid to the edge of the roof and lowered himself to the ground. He saw Ky carrying in an armload of fir branches and went to cut more. When he entered the hut the smoke had dissipated. He hoped the vapor rising from the chimney wouldnât betray them.
Valcon pulled a knit cap low to hide his hair and wrapped a scarf so his mouth and nose were covered. He opened the door of the stone house and peered across the barren garden. Only a skim of snow lay on the ground. The weather had been strange this winter. The heavy snowfall that had aided his friendsâ escape had melted. Since that day only flurries had fallen. Heâd heard the farms in the northern section of the princedom had experienced one storm after another. The bitter cold made him shiver. Leaving the warmth of the house hadnât been his idea. Svanaâs begging to visit Cook for sweets had finally pushed him to the door.
He checked to see the little girl was bundled before he lifted the basket of fruit and vegetables that had been gleaned from the growing house this morning. Svana danced outside ahead of him.
âHurry, Valcon.â She used her heavy stick as a sword. Finchon and Larkea waited near the wall. Larkea pressed the stones in the proper sequence and a segment of the wall slid inward.
âDo you have the list?â Valcon asked.
âIn my head,â Larkea said.
âMake sure to take care when you return.â Valcon followed the three children into the lane. âWe donât want anyone to suspect the wall isnât part of the cityâs enclosure. Make your purchases and hurry back.â
Finchon nodded. âIâll be careful.â He turned to Larkea. âSo will she.â
Larkea watched the gate close. âKeep an eye out for guards. They seem to favor Cookâs tavern.â
âDo you blame them?â Valcon asked.
Finchon laughed. âIf I could I would eat there every day.â
Svana tugged on Valconâs hand. âCome on.â
Larkea made a face. âYou need to teach her caution. Ever since you and Bran fixed her foot, she doesnât listen.â
âAnd youâre so obedient.â Finchon danced away from her raised fist.
Valcon hated the heat of anger he heard in Larkeaâs voice and saw in her eyes. How could she be envious of the little girl? The mite was their joy. Lately Larkea had been moody, especially since he and Genira had been rescued from the palisades and their friends had left.
âWeâll be fine,â Valcon said. âThe most we have to worry about is the pack of hounds that hang about the alley. Theyâre becoming bolder. Iâll beg some meat scraps or bones from Cook and toss them into the pack.â
Larkea laughed. âClever.â She ran after Finchon. âSee you.â
When Valcon and Svana reached the alley leading to the rear door of the tavern, he and the little girl waved to the others. Svana raced to the door of the tavern and knocked. Just as the door opened, Valcon reached the stoop and took her hand.
Cook ushered them into the steamy kitchen. She put the large basket on the table. âWhat have you brought today?â
âFresh legumes, pease, tomatls and crispins.â
She wiped her hands on her apron. âWhat can I give you in return?â
âBread and meat pies. Some fowl if you can spare any,â Valcon said. Though some nested in the growing house, he hated to use them. The eggs were more valuable as were the ones they allowed to mature.
âSweets.â Svana rubbed her stomach.
The heavy-set woman laughed. She reached into a pottery jar for some treats and poured a glass of milk for the child. Then she drew Valcon aside. âWalk with care. The guards seek all who have highland blood. Be best if you kept yourself scarce lest you be taken again.â
He nodded. âWhat about you and your family? Wonât the guards come after you?â
âFor now weâre safe and we do have a hiding house. Should the guards become greedy, we will have to flee.â
âIf you need a safe place let one of the young ones know. The place where we are now wonât be easily found. Most times Finchon or Larkea will be the traders.â
She nodded. âGood of you to offer. There are six of us.â
âOur place is hidden from all who donât know the secret of opening the gate. Thereâs also a growing house.â
âBut for six adults?â
âThere must have been a loft in the house and most of the crossbeams are still in place. With stairs and flooring, there could once again be three or four sleeping rooms. We might be crowded but we can manage.â
âAny chance you might follow your friends soon?â
Valcon shook his head. âNot in winter. The small ones canât travel far.â
âYou could leave them.â
âI wonât abandon them. Theyâre my family. On Summer Day, Iâll speak to the Rovers and see if we can join them.â
Cook nodded. âTwo nights from now have one of yours come by. My sons will have wood for the loft. I know where we can get some solid beams and other material.â She wrapped a slab of shoat and pieces of fowl in oiled paper. She placed the meat in the basket. Next, she added meat pies and a number of sweets.
âThanks. Could we have some bones for the hound pack?â
She pulled several from a covered bowl and handed them to him. âHope this works.â When he and Svana donned their ponchos and scarves, she opened the door and handed him the basket. âStay safe.â
Valcon pulled his scarf over his mouth and nose. He pulled Svana outside. When they reached the mouth of the alley, he paused and stared toward the street. He sensed no one. âLet us fly, little bird.â
They left the alley. A snarl sounded. Then low growls reached him. âHounds.â Svana clung to his hand.
Valcon put the basket on the ground and retrieved the bones. He tossed them into the pack. With snarls and yelps, the hounds began to fight. Valcon grabbed the basket and Svanaâs hand. They raced down the lane. With haste he pressed the stones. He pushed the child ahead of him and closed the gate on a pair of hounds that had followed.
Raven met them at the door of the house. âGeniraâs burning hot again and I donât know what to do.â
Valcon pulled off his wraps. âIâll see to her. Store the things we bought. The fowl and shoat should be put in a jar outside.â He knelt beside the pallet and ran his hand over Geniraâs brow. âWhere do you hurt?â
âMy right foot aches and burns just like it did after the rescue. I canât press it against the floor to walk.â
âHow long has this been a problem?â
She shrugged. âIâve never been completely without pain.â
âWhy didnât you say something?â
She looked away. âI didnât want to be a bother.â
âLarkea tell her not to be a baby,â Svana said.
Valcon groaned. What was he going to do about Larkeaâs attitude?
He unwrapped the bandages and studied Geniraâs foot. The ball was swollen and there was a small scab. All the burns had healed. In the brazier, he heated his knife and a thin probe. After pulling the scab away, he pressed putrid matter into a cloth. What now, he wondered. He wished heâd learned more from Bran but there hadnât been time. He cleansed the area with warm water. When Larkea and Finchon returned he would make a healing paste. What would happen if he couldnât draw the poison from her body?
She sighed. âThe throbbing is less.â
He touched her hand. âIâll give you a tea to help you relax when I probe the area.â
She wiggled her toes. âFeels like thereâs something in there.â
He nodded. âI fear there is. When we escaped from the palisades there was broken glass and other things on the ground. Thatâs why I want you to drink the tea. Iâm not sure how much probing Iâll have to do.â
Raven carried a cup to Valcon. âHereâs tea with the bitter powder. I added a lot of honey.â
Valcon took the mug, sniffed and tasted a drop. âSmells and tastes right.â
Genira drained the beverage. âIâm ready.â
âNot yet.â Valcon rose and brought more scraps of cloth. He also selected clean strips to make a bandage. He heated the probe a second time. âEven with the tea to make you drowsy this will still hurt.â
âI can bear it. I must.â
Valcon smiled. Her valor brought a rush of admiration for her. âSvana, Raven, hold her hands.â Using the probe he explored the wound. Finally a piece of glass popped out. A gush of bloody exudate followed. He pressed a pad over the area. âWhen our shoppers return Iâll make a healing paste. I believe youâll heal properly now.â
âThank you.â Genira closed her eyes. âIâm so sleepy.â
âThen rest.â Valcon checked her heartbeat and breathing. âSvana, sit with her while Raven and I start the evening meal? As he set about preparations he thought about Ash and her siblings. Were the four safe? Had they found another refuge? He wished there was a way to learn.
The aroma of the vegetable soup and the meat pies scented the air. He put dried legumes to soak for the next dayâs meals. The door opened. Larkea and Finchon burst into the house. Their laughter made Valcon smile. âMust have been a good venture.â
Finchon dropped a large sack on the table. âAll the herbs you wanted are here and we found a bargain on kafene beans."
Larkea waved a pair of gloves. âFound these.â She tossed them to Valcon. âShould fit and keep your hands warm.â
He examined the fur-lined leather gloves. âWhere did you find these?â
âOn a guardâs belt. He was too slow to catch me.â She laughed.
Valcon grasped her shoulders. âAre you planning to prentice with the thieves?â
âNever,â she cried. âDonât want to prentice with anyone. Donât want to leave the garden.â
Valcon groaned. Larkea needed something to lessen her reckless energy and keep her from trouble. He had to persuade her to study for one of the trades. She wouldnât remain a child forever. Her belligerent expression made him realize now wasnât the time for any plans to be made. âWeâll discuss this later. Any other news?â
Finchon nodded. âPrince Zedron sent the Lady Melena away. We watched from
an alley. Sheâs not his wife now. Heard her curse him and Wesren.â
âDid her sons go with her?â Several times while scavenging, he and his crew had experienced trouble from the bullying pair. Just before Winter Day, when they had threatened Larkea, Ky had used her fire sword to chase them.
âThey stayed with the prince.â
âWhat about her? Winter is no time to travel,â Valcon said.
Larkea snorted. âDidnât leave Cedris. She went to an inn.â
âWe heard something else,â Finchon said. âThe guards are rounding up anyone with highland blood.â
Valcon nodded. âCook told us. Iâve offered her family refuge here.â
âWhy?â Larkea asked. âThis is our place. We donât need adults coming in and taking over.â
Raven grabbed her arm. âYouâre mean and selfish. If Ky didnât bring us here weâd still be living in the broken house.â
âThereâs not enough room. Cook has a big family.â
âSix people.â Valcon pointed to the crossbeams and the high roof. âI think there was a second floor. If we build a loft there will be room.â
Larkea made a face. âI guess so.â
Valcon opened the sack and pulled out the kafene beans and the packets of herbs. He selected two of the herbs and took the scrying cup from a shelf. âIs the water boiling?â
Raven peered into the pan that sat on one of the braziers. âReady to brew kafene.â
âLet me have some first.â Valcon dipped some into the cup.
âWhat are you doing?â Larkea asked. âThatâs the cup Ky brought you. Bet you could sell it for a lot.â
Valcon shook his head. âThis was a gift and special. Donât you remember how Bran used his to mix medicines when Svana was ill?â
âThe cup enhances the medicines. At least thatâs what he said.â
Larkea thrust out her lower lip. âThen why canât I have it? I know more than you about herbs.â
Valcon sighed. âYou donât have an affinity.â
âThatâs not fair.â
Finchon made a face. âWhy all the fuss? You donât need a cup. You know enough about herbs to be prenticed to an herbalist.â
âI want to be special. If I could have the cup, even the prince would buy medicines from me,â
Genira sat up. âYou are special. Youâve survived on the streets. You escaped slavery. You escaped from the palisades. Just because you donât have an affinity doesnât mean you canât learn to help people.â