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Chapter One

 

Valcon

 

The midday sun of the late summer day beamed on the caravan consisting of three Rover wagons, several extra coursers and eight riders. Val tugged off his neck cloth and wiped his sweaty brow. Today he rode as rear guard and used his affinity for Water to search for emotions that spoke of strangers. As yet, the group seemed to be the only travelers for miles.

He scanned the horizon. The grassy plains stretched to the east and the west of the old rutted road leading toward a distant grove of trees. The forest could hide attackers, but as yet he sensed no unknown enemies.

The heavy loads stored in the wagons caused the slow progress. Val had to admit Doma Jandia was the best trader he had ever encountered. Not only did they have extra mounts there was enough food and grain to last a month or more along with the tools they needed to repair the abandoned keep. He grinned. They still had credit with the Rovers.

An outburst of angry emotions impinged on his peace. Val’s hands clenched. Four days of travel beneath a hot sun had brought tempers to the fore, especially from those whose affinity for Fire guided their actions.

Ky and her courser tore toward him. With one hand she held the reins. The other hand held a raised sword that blazed with flames. Behind her, Zand galloped. His sword showed a plume of fire. “Take that back,” he shouted.

Val rode toward the pair. “Enough,” he cried. “Dampen those flames. Do you want to set the grass aflame and endanger us all?”

“She called me a baby,” Zand said.

Val sucked in a breath. “What did you say to her?”

“That I was better with a sword.”

Val nodded. “Since you have been practicing with one since you could hold a blade, how else could you be? I say you’re both acting like children.” In some ways they both were, not only in age but in experience. “Why don’t the pair of you spar after evening meal when Dragen can watch and comment?”

The flames on Ky’s sword died. She turned to Zand. “A good idea.”

“Just blades. No flames,” Zand said.

The pair wheeled and rode off. Val watched them go. Sometimes he wished he could use his affinity for Water to empty a cloud on his friends’ heads. A longing for shade and coolness arose. Would they reach the trees in time to make camp for the night?

Why were there no farms or villages in this area? Was this part of the highlands? He knew the Rovers’ camp was in the neutral ground between the lowlands and the highlands. How much further must they travel to reach the deserted keep Dragen knew? The abandoned dwelling was to be a refuge where they could learn to use their affinities. This meant another change in his life.

His thoughts slid to the many times his life had undergone an upheaval. He had no recollection of his mother’s death and few from the years he and his father had lived off the land before joining the Rovers for several seasons. Those days had been ones of learning and of belonging.

Then his father had been drawn to Cedris. Flashes of memories from the day his father had died at the hands of Dom Senet made Val’s hands shake. He pushed his grief aside and tried to smooth the raw places.

One area remained abraded. He knew the children who had lived with him in Cedris were safe with the Rovers. They had been his family until his affinity had forced a chasm to separate them.

A shudder rolled through his body. A member of his adopted family had envied his talent. Had that been the reason for Larkea’s betrayal or had her dislike of Geni spurred the angry reaction? Larkea’s actions had resulted in his and Geni’s capture by Dom Senet and had placed all their friends in danger. When he recalled the coldness of the dom’s green eyes, Val felt ill.

“Val.”

He had been so deep in thought he hadn’t noticed Bran’s arrival. Val smiled at his friend. With their pale blond hair, green eyes and the deep copper of their skins they could have been siblings except their features were different. Even Bran and his twin had little facial resemblance. Val halted his courser. “Is there a problem?”

“Sort of. Your emotions are so loud I can’t block them. Ash and Kirlon said your bitterness scents the air. We’re worried about you.”

“Sorry.” Val stroked his steed’s neck. “I was thinking about all the changes in my life and lost control. I also miss the children.” How could he explain his losses to anyone?

Bran nodded. “About the children. You haven’t deserted them. Leaving them with the Rovers gives them chances they didn’t have in Cedris. It’s also better for them not to be with us.”

“I know.” Val smiled. “Larkea thrives and enjoys her new knowledge about plants and healing. The boys are gaining farming skills. Even Svana has found a place. Still, I miss them.”

A covey of grass hens erupted from the brush. Val used a slingshot to bring down several. Bran dismounted and gathered the birds. By the time the last one had been flushed they had eight.

“I wonder if any of our companions have been successful hunters, too.” Though sacks of dried foods were stored in the wagons, Val was glad to add to the larder.

“We’ll soon know.” Bran tied the fowl to his saddle, mounted and rode away.

Val followed at a slower pace. He remained alert and searched for stray emotions. The only ones he sensed belonged to his companions. By the time the sun sank toward the horizon, the wagons had reached the edge of the forest. Val tended to his steed and then joined Ash at the fire to pluck the birds.

The clang of swords and Dragen’s calling patterns accompanied his work. Val chuckled. “That should lessen their anger.”

“Being settled will help more.”

The three with Earth affinities arrived. Jay and Dyna carried greens and mushrooms. Geni appeared with huge ground nuts and a basket of summa berries. “I have cuttings and roots for a kitchen garden,” she said.

“Maybe there’s a growing house.” Jay put the greens in a bowl.

Val popped one of the berries into his mouth. “I wonder why the area is so deserted.”

Dragen joined them. “In answer to your question, this area is part of the neutral land. To the west there are several villages where people of the highlands and lowlands have settled.” He nodded to Ash. “You and your siblings stayed near one of the villages when you lived at the farm with my sister.”

“And this keep?” Val asked.

“Is on the edge of the highlands. The place was once the home of distant relatives. When the refugees fled some disaster in their homeland and arrived on our shores, the family of Rangers, farmers, doms and domas decided to move higher into the mountains. Occasionally Jandia visits them. Several members of the family have been her students. One is a talented healer. Ilvan is his name.”

Val spitted the birds and set them over the fire. If the doma visited these people, he hoped they remained friends. With Dom Senet and his cronies, there were enough enemies in the land.

“How long before we reach the keep?” Val asked.

The older man looked up. “Two or three days if we all rode. Five days should see us to what was the home farm and then several hours to the keep.”

Val wondered if any of the crops had gone wild and could be harvested. Living in the Cedris garden had spoiled him. Having fresh fruit and vegetables had been wonderful. For a moment he thought about Cook and her family. Were they safe?

The moment he finished the meal he grabbed his sleep saque and retreated to a spot beneath the trees. As he drifted to sleep, he wished the days until they reached their new home would fly past. An impatience to be settled and to learn more about his affinity, filled him.

Five days later they emerged from the forest into a field of stunted grain. Their travel had been marked by halts to clear fallen trees and brush from the old road.

Val examined the seed heads on several varieties and grinned. Though not prime grain, they could harvest enough for the coursers and themselves. He stared at the distant walls of the keep. Tomorrow, he thought.

Peels of laughter startled him. Geni and Dyna gathered dark blue berries from a tangle surrounding the fields. Ky and Jay pulled crispins and pesches from trees.

“Would you stop,” Ash called. “I can’t catch what both of you throw and there’s nothing to put them in.”

Val grabbed an empty basket and ran to help. “Don’t be so greedy,” he called to the twins.

The pair jumped to the ground. “There are olla trees, too.”

Val made a face. “We’ll have to pick and render them. Outside, I hope.”

Ash’s grimace matched his. “Agreed. I hope we find a growing house. With three who have an affinity for Earth tending the plants, we can have fresh food all year. I can’t wait to reach the keep.”

Val lifted the basket of fruit. “We need to approach the walls with caution. According to Dragen, the place has been empty for generations. Who knows what pests have taken refuge there. Bran and I should go first and see what creatures we can send away.”

“Sending them away might not be a good idea. What if they return?”

Bran strolled toward them. “She’s right. Ash and Kirlon can scent the air. You and I can call them. Zand and Ky can send fire to burn them. I imagine we’ll encounter ratis.”

Val considered both plans and realized Bran’s was more sensible. “Sounds like your idea is the best one. We need to discuss this with Dragen and Doma Jandia.”

“With everyone.” Ash walked toward the fire.

The next morning, the six sent out for the keep. Ash and Kirlon led the group. The walls drew closer. Val saw parts of the structure had gaps where stones had fallen. They entered where there had once been a wooden gate and halted. The tall central tower seemed intact as did the single story building that ran from the front and around the sides of the tower.

Ash looked at them, “I smell ratis and several scents I don’t know. They are foul.”

“Spiders, snakes and other vermin,” Kirlon said.

“Are they hostile to the ratis?” Bran asked.

“I don’t know. Their odor is unpleasant,” Ash said. “Maybe there are scorpons lurking.”

A yowl startled Val. He turned to see both pair of forstcats move toward the building. He drew a deep breath. “Are we ready?”

“Yes,” the others said.

Val sent a call message. He heard Bran’s urging join his. A swarm of black, brown and white mottled creatures poured from the building. How had so many survived when there were no people? Then he became too involved in destroying the pests to find an answer.

Lashes of flame shot from the swords Ky and Zand carried. Val, Kirlon and Bran used slingshots to pelt the mass. The forstcats caught the stunned creatures and snapped their necks. The stench of burning fur made Val’s stomach lurch. Slowly, the stench faded. He realized Ash stirred the air to drive the odors away.

Val continued to call ratis until only nestlings appeared. The forstcats shredded these with their claws and ran into the single story annex of the keep. Val and the others followed. The four felines flowed into narrow cracks in the walls. They drove vividly colored lizards and bronze striped snakes into the open.

Once the lower level was clear of vermin, the six escorted by the forstcats, moved from level to level of the tower making sure each of the four floors were vermin-free before moving to the next.

The tower stairs were on the right-hand side of the building and had openings on each level into a hall. On the first two floors of the keep tower a large chamber and a bathing room provided sleeping space for groups. The young women chose the first level and the young men the second. On each of the other floors there were four chambers and a bathing room. Doma Jandia and Dragen would be comfortable there.

By mid-afternoon, Val stepped through the door and stood on the walled space of the roof. He stared at the vista and saw fields, forest and the rising mountains.

Ash sent a message to Doma Jandia on the winds. Soon everyone was engaged in cleaning the keep for occupancy. Val smiled. They were here and safe. At least for now.

 

 

Ashlea

 

Ash helped carry the long granite slab the three with Earth affinities had carved from the cliff behind the keep. Dragen opened the door so they could enter the large kitchen. The nine placed the slab on the square pillars fashioned into legs. Though the original table had shattered, the stone benches and chairs had remained. She stepped back and scanned the massive room.

She and Kirlon had cleaned the large fireplace and used currents of air to clear the chimney. The braziers on either side had been scoured and repaired by Ky and Zand. Val and Bran had scrubbed the floors, the stone worktables along one wall and the shelves of the cupboards.

“What else is there to do?” she asked.

“Dragen is using wood from one of the wagons to make storage places in the pantry,” Jay said.

Dyna rubbed the surface of the table with a cloth. The stone gleamed. “We can use the mounds of straw in the entry way to stuff sleeping mats and pillows. A sevenday of sleeping on the stone floor is enough.”

Ash smiled. During the days since they’d arrived at the keep, they had worked hard. She thought of the other things they needed to do. Before long autumn would arrive. Besides having a safe place, there were quests they must complete before they returned to master their affinities. Only then could they train to face Dom Senet and his followers.

She wondered how much time remained before they could confront the evil man. What was he doing? Could she learn? Was she brave enough to search the winds for him? A chill rolled over her arms and she gasped.

Kirlon turned. “What has frightened you?”

Ash drew a deep breath, “Dom Senet.” She walked to the door and stepped into the courtyard.

He looked startled. “Has he tried to speak to you?”

“No. I was wondering if I should check on him. I can do that, you know.”

Kirlon clasped her hand. “Though I’ve never had a meeting with him, he scares me. I wonder if he was responsible for the disappearance of my father and my uncle. When they left for the highlands, they promised to return. They didn’t. Then illness struck the village and Dyna and I became orphans.”

“He and his friends could have killed them. We were sent to Cedris to meet the teachers our parents had spoken to. They never arrived. Just before we left the town we learned the dom had them killed.” She sighed. “I believe we must discover where he is and what he plans before we leave on our quest.”

He nodded. “I know there are talismans we need as well as other people with affinities. I think we should seek the talented first. The Rovers told me how those with talents for the elements are often feared by people and must flee the way Dyna and I did.” He stepped away. “Could we seek Dom Senet on the winds?”

“We can but not alone.”

“Then you and I will do this. What about now?”

Though his offer pleased her, now wasn’t the time. She refused to seek the dom unless her siblings were present to draw her back. “Not now. After the evening meal, we can meet in the inner room. Bring Dyna. Though you are cousins and not siblings, you have a bond.”

He frowned. “Why must she be there?”

“I’d like you to read the winds with me and taste Dom Senet’s thoughts, but I don’t want you to be trapped.” She told him of the time the dom had sensed her and how he had tried to gain control of her mind. “My siblings broke me free but an echo remained. Doma Jandia had to teach me how to break free.”

“What do you mean by trapped?”

She shuddered. “I was sick and fevered. He was in my head laughing and making threats.”

“I don’t want that. I’ll tell Dyna.”

Ash returned to the kitchen. She put plates on the table. Kirlon brought the cutting boards for bread and cheese. Jay and Geni arrived with greens and scallions. Ash wished for tomatls like they’d had in Cedris. Perhaps after repairing the growing house, their larder would improve. The doma poured heated water into pots for tea and kaf. Dragen produced a smoked ham. Eleven people gathered at the table and ate.

While she and her siblings cleaned the kitchen, she told them of her plan. “I have to do this.”

“Why?” Jay asked.

“We need to know where he is and what he’s planning. Soon we have to leave the keep to search for others with affinities to complete the quartets.”

Ky nodded. “She’s right.”

Bran clasped Ash’s hand. “I hate to agree but we need to know if he has any idea of where we are.”

“Kirlon and Dyna will join us. Kirlon needs to learn how to search the winds for a specific person. Their bond will pull him back if the dom senses him.” Ash washed the last of the dishes.

Bran and Jay carried the pails of dirty water to the door and emptied them. At the pump they washed and refilled the buckets. “Can’t wait until the pipes are repaired,” Bran said.

Ash chuckled. “In time, the doma said.”

Ky dashed to the door into the entry hall. “I’m off for some pillows. I’ll meet you.”

Ash walked with her brothers to the inner room the doma had designated as a training place. Located behind the tower stairs there were no windows and only a single door. Ky returned with straw-stuffed cushions. She lit the candles set in sconces along the walls. Kirlon and Dyna arrived with more pillows.

Ash positioned one beside hers. The others formed a circle around them. Ash clasped Kirlon’s hand. “Follow me.”

“How do I do that?”

She reached with her mind to touch his, using the way Doma Jandia had taught her. “Come.” She felt his thoughts join hers. She searched the winds for traces of the particular aroma of Dom Senet’s thoughts. He wasn’t in Cedris. Nor was he in the highlands. She continued to scent the winds until she smelled his essence. Cautiously, she slipped into his head.

He spoke to a pair of doms. Malera, Mandir and Lodar are in place and ready to do my bidding. They will seek the heirs of Easren, Nortren and Soutren. His laughter filled the wind. Ash felt cold.

They believe I will help them become the rulers of these princedoms. They will do all I ask until the day they learn there can only be one ruler. I am that one. You will remain hidden here. Two of my faithful will be sent to each of the other princedoms. I will tell you when and how to act. Though time will pass, you must remain alert.

Just as she was about to leave his thoughts, she caught a tendril leading to his plans for the four young men Zand and her brothers had met. She wanted to know more about them so she delved deeper. As she had suspected, the four were being trained to face her siblings and her. A sliver of fear sliced through her thoughts.

Ashlea?

Dom Senet’s voice. A surge of fear that wasn’t hers startled Ash. She broke the connection to the dom the way Doma Jandia had taught her. Come, she called to Kirlon. She felt him flee on her trail. Yet someone remained.

Who? Ash asked.

Sydli.

Where are you?

Instead of an answer the other voice vanished. Ash heard her siblings call her name. Dyna called Kirlon. Ash opened her eyes. “I’m all right. This is what I learned…” She told them of the plans for the princedoms and how the dom planned to replace the heirs.

Bran nodded. “We’ve already seen the start of that.”

“How so?” Jay asked.

“Larin is the heir of Soutren and he’s with the Rovers,” Dyna said.

Kirlon nodded. “What about the four young men we saw in the dom’s thoughts?”

Ash drew a deep breath. “He plans to use them against us and he has no idea we have allies.”

Kirlon frowned. “Who is this Sydli? Is she friend or foe?”

“I’m not sure. She does have an affinity for Air.”

Jay looked up. “I’d say friend. Dom Senet has no use for girls. At least that’s what those four boys said.”

“She was frightened of him.”

Kirlon grimaced. “I don’t blame her. One scent of his mind and I felt sick. He smelled like rotten meat.”

Ash nodded. “You are so right.” She turned to Dyna and her siblings. “Someone needs to find the doma.”

“I’ll go,” Dyna said.

“Find Zand and Geni, too,” Ash said. “We’re not trained to fight the dom yet and we need to plan.”

Bran rose and followed Dyna. “I’ll make a calming tea.” Jay and Ky went with him.

Ash closed her eyes. The encounter with Dom Senet made her want to burrow into a cave. A thought arose. Had he really sensed her or had Sydli or Kirlon triggered his response? There had been a question in his voice. Maybe he hadn’t been sure who had searched his thoughts.

She had to warn others like herself. She sent a call on the winds. To those with affinities for the elements, seek the Rovers. If you are in danger, they will help.

Moments later the doma and the rest of the party arrived. Ash told them what she had done and what she had learned.

Doma Jandia frowned. “I pray the message you sent only reaches those you need and not Senet and his ilk.”

Ash released a sigh. “We need them. Visiting every village and town in every princedom would take too long.”

“There is that,” the doma said. “I know you want to start your search, but the time isn’t yet.”

Ash bowed her head. While the others talked about what had been learned and made plans, she prayed they would be granted the time they needed.

 

 

Sydli

 

Who?

The question rang in Sydli’s thoughts and brought a gush of fear. Sydli. She answered before she decided whether the voice belonged to a friend or enemy. To muffle her mind, she quickly slammed the barrier her mother had taught her to erect.

She sank on a chair and covered her face with her hands. Though she had given her name to a stranger, she had kept her location secret. Cautiously, she opened the bond to her twin. Emli. Be careful at dinner tonight. We don’t want Lodar to know which of us can hear his thoughts.

Emli grinned. He is fun to confuse but I don’t like or trust him. He makes me feel itchy.

You’re right to feel that way. I have listened to him when he sits at Father’s side. Mandir constantly speaks of Wesren and how wealthy that princedom has become. He hints the reason is because no female or halfling can be the ruler. He also argues that as Father’s oldest child, though his mother was never a spouse, he should be named as heir.

Emli frowned. Father was pleased when Lodar returned. What will we do if he is named heir?

Sydli grasped her twin’s hands. We will pray spouses are found for us in other princedoms.

If Father does that, we will be separated.

Sydli caught a hint of eagerness in her twin’s thoughts. Did Emli want to have a life apart? The possibility troubled Sydli. Before their mother’s death, she had asked Sydli to protect her twin. The promise had been sworn. We could have twin spouses.

Emli laughed. How many high-ranking sets of twins are there? I know of no others. She rose. “Let me be the friendly one tonight. Do you think Lodar knows which of us is the true heir?”

Sydli shook her head. “Doubtful. Prepare to be charming. I will be nasty.” She finished braiding her hair. They had inherited their pale hair and green eyes from their mother. Their copper-hued skin was like their father’s. Being halflings had held them apart from the people of Nortren.

The summoning bell chimed. Emli walked to the door. “We should hurry.”

They sped along the corridor toward the throne room. Sydli paused at the door to catch her breath and to read who was inside. Emli reached for the handle. Sydli’s forehead wrinkled. “Lodar is here. Father’s thoughts show he is pleased. What has Lodar told him?”

Emli made a face. “Who knows?”

“I could learn.” Sydli felt a brush across her thoughts. Beware. Shield. There’s a stranger in there who can read thoughts.

My blocks are tight. Could this stranger be one of our half-brother’s friends or one of our relatives?

I don’t know.

Emli opened the door. “Father, we are here.”

When Sydli saw the tall man whose fair hair hung in a braid down his back, her skin prickled. She pulled her barriers too tight she could barely hear spoken words.

The stranger rose. His black leather clothes made his skin appear as pale as newly fallen snow. His coloring and manner meant he was from the highlands. Who was he? A miasma of evil surrounded him. Sydli knew he was no friend.

The man turned to her father. “Pedron, your daughters are as lovely as any I’ve seen.”

His intense glare made Sydli’s shoulder muscles tense. She clasped Emli’s hand. They crossed the room and curtseyed to their father.

Prince Pedron smiled. “You may rise. Dom Senet, my twin daughters, Emli and Sydli.”

Sydli kept her gaze lowered. She caught a glimpse of Lodar’s sly smile from the corner of her eyes. In that instant she knew the dom was her half-brother’s ally. Take care. She sent the message on the twin bond.

Always.

The prince held his arm for Emli to clasp. “The evening meal awaits.”

The dom held his arm for Sydli. She touched the tips of her fingers to his sleeve. They walked toward the great hall. She felt his attempts to penetrate the barrier over her thoughts. Small needles jabbed. She wanted to push him away, but she dare not show she knew of his intentions.

In the great hall, Dom Senet held her chair. “I knew your mother. She was one of my students. Did she ever tell you how she was brought to your father’s attentions?”

Sydli shook her head. “I know she came here after Lodar’s mother tried to poison Father.”

“I brought her,” Dom Senet said.

He lied but why? “I don’t understand. Mother said Doma Jandia sent her here.”

The quick freezing of his expression made her wish she dared read his thoughts. She couldn’t lower her barriers for an instant while in his presence. Did he think her mother would have kept her romance a secret from her daughters? The moment dinner ended she planned to use the hidden ways to spy on him. The dom could be one of the men her mother had warned her daughters not to trust.

All during the many courses of the meal, Sydli felt subtle brushes against her barriers. When the last course arrived, she managed to gain Emli’s attention. Has he tried to break your barriers?

Once or twice. What does he want?

I don’t know but I will learn.

He frightens me.

Me, too.

When the courtiers and their ladies gathered in clusters, Sydli and Emli slipped from the room. Though Sydli wished they could use the inner ways, the presence of so many people in the halls prevented this escape. They reached their suite and she bolted the door.

Emli slumped on a chair. “Lodar was so smug. Told me he believes I will make a good spouse for his half–brother.”

Sydli pulled her dress over her head. “And me?”

“Actually he said which ever of us the dom doesn’t claim will become Mandir’s spouse.”

“I’ll flee before either happens.” Sydli dressed in a tunic and divided skirt. “I caught several of Lodar’s thoughts. He believes the dom will help him become heir.”

Emli grimaced. “We have to know how they plan to achieve this. Should I come with you?”

“Not this time. Stay here in case someone comes to check on us.”

“What should I tell them?”

“That I went to the stillroom. You need a potion for a headache.”

“If the dom is allied with Lodar and helps him become heir, what will happen to Father?”

“I don’t know.” She would worry about their father once she knew her twin was safe. “I won’t be long.”

“Be careful.”

“Always. We’re the only ones who know of the inner ways. Remember what Mother said. The passages were created when the highlanders helped build the palace so they could have access if needed.”

Emli nodded. “Do you think the dom knows about them? He is from the highlands.”

“I pray not.” Sydli stepped into the wardrobe and opened the door into a dark passage. Emli handed her a candle.

As Sydli hurried along the narrow hall, she hoped Dom Senet knew nothing about the hidden ways. She moved forward and listened for voices. Loud ones came from Lodar’s suite. She peered through the small viewing hole and swallowed a gasp. The dom was there. Cautiously, she extended her talent to hear both their spoken and their silent words.

“I should end your life,” Dom Senet said. “When you shattered the gem, you and your brother may have killed Alizand. I had a use for him.” Though his voice remained calm, his thoughts churned with rage. Death will be your lot when you complete the task I set.

“He got in our way,” Lodar said. “We just wanted to kill the war steed.” Does he think he scares me?

“And that gave you permission to attempt to kill Alizand?” Dom Senet raised his hand. A spurt of fire caressed Lodar’s cheek. “I can mark you or I can destroy you.” But not until your usefulness ends.

Lodar backed away. Fear scrambled his thoughts. “Wasn’t me. Mandir is to blame.”

“Was he?”

The question in the dom’s voice increased the fear Sydli read in Lodar’s thoughts.

“We didn’t know he would die. We wanted the steed dead and to have the jewel.”

The flame died. “Fools. Did you not know the gem would become gray and dull if one of you touched it?”

Lodar laughed. “You’re wrong. Mother had a necklace of red jewels.”

“That was nothing like the one Alizand wore. No matter. You will pay for that action by obedience. This time you will heed my instructions.”

Lodar nodded. “I promise.”

“Spend time with your half-sisters. One of them has an affinity for one of the elements. I need to know which one.”

“Why?” Lodar’s thoughts raced with ways to turn the order to his advantage.

“Not for you to know.” Dom Senet raised his fist.

“How do I learn what you want to know?”

“By skillful questions. By observation. When you have the answer, report to me.”

“What are these affinities?” Lodar turned his back on the dom.

Dom Senet laughed. “You have seen me and Alizand use Fire. Air pulls thoughts from a person’s head. Water senses emotions. Earth makes plants grow.”

“How do I report to you? You’re leaving in the morning.”

With a sudden movement, the dom placed his hands on Lodar’s head. Commands came too fast for Sydli to hear them all. She feared if she probed deeper Dom Senet would discover her. As she closed her mind, she heard a voice.

Seek the Rovers. If you are in danger they will help.

Dom Senet spoke again. “Not the Rovers, you fool. There are two doms living in town. Seek them.”

Sydli stepped back and managed to avoid hitting the wall. The voice giving the command hadn’t sound like Dom Senet’s, but she had no idea if the speaker was friend or foe. She and Emli were in danger. Plans for an escape were essential. Where could they go? She knew nothing about any place except Norla and little about the town except for the palace and the market. Could she and Emli find safety with the Rovers?

 

 

Kylandra

 

Ky and Zand spent the morning fusing the broken glass panels for the growing house. The rest of the group busily fitted the pieces together. When all the panels were in place, the covered area would be three times as large as the one they had found in the Cedris garden.

“Ky,” Jay called. “I’ve finished another one.”

She crossed to where he sat and knelt beside the pane he had assembled. After calling fire to her fingers, she traced the cracks and watched the glass shards fuse. With a grin, she rose. “Once we finish the panels, all we’ll need to do is repair the beds and find plants to fill them.”

Zand looked around. “Where will we find the plants?”

Ky walked to his side. “Jay, Geni and Dyna already have cuttings in the stillroom. They’ll also search the fields and forest.”

Bran waved her over. “Another one is ready. We have some seeds the doma bought from the Rovers, and they promised her more.”

Ky ran her finger over the glass and watched a solid sheet form. She rolled her shoulders. “I need a rest.” And a change. Doing the same thing again and again was boring.

Doma Jandia appeared in the doorway of the growing house. “The midday meal is ready. Go wash your faces and hands.”

With a shout of joy, Ky dashed outside and splashed cold water from the trough on her face. After finishing two bowls of soup, toasted bread and cheese, she decided Zand could finish the dozen glass panels needing to be fused. She wanted to work in the large barn. She stayed in the kitchen to help with the dishes.

After she emptied the dirty water, she sauntered to the large stone structure that abutted the rear wall of the keep. The walls seemed solid and so did the beams of the roof and loft. Something about them puzzled her. How had the builders made the wooden stalls and troughs look like stone?

Along the walls, she noticed a number of places where bits of the mortar had crumbled. If she used fire to melt the white material when it hardened, the walls should be solid. Before that happened the debris from the loft had to be removed.

She ran her hands along one of the stalls and formed a ball of fire to take a closer look. Wood and not wood. The smooth surface felt like porcelain or polished stone yet the grain of the wood was visible. What had the former occupants of the keep used to produce the smoothness and the longevity? She climbed the stone steps to the loft and began flinging down the matted leaves and other things. There was less debris than she had expected. She inched along the beams finding the same type of preservation. Why hadn’t they treated the loft floor and the roof?

Ky laughed at her questions. They couldn’t be answered. The people who had produced such wonders were lost in the past.

Once the last of the waste matter was on the ground, she climbed down and raked the material into a heap. To her surprise, the floor was stone with channels to aid in cleaning the stalls. She loaded a barrow and pushed it to the pile outside the gate. Then she returned for another load. She felt as tired as if she had used her sword in a battle. She sank to the ground and leaned against the wall. Would the keep ever be ready for winter?

Don’t be so negative. Jay’s comment flowed over the twin bond. Dragen’s cutting saplings to use as flooring for the loft.

A sharp pain jabbed her hand. She screamed. Flames spurted from her fingers. Ky jumped to her feet. What? Then she saw the barbed tail of a scorpon poised to strike again. The creature was larger than both her hands placed side by side. She seared the scorpon with fire. A mass of smaller creatures emerged from the cracks in the wall. Ky turned and ran.

The poison from the barbed tail of the scorpon burned a trail up her arm. “Help! Scorpon,” she shouted. Her stomach clenched and threatened to erupt. Dizziness caused her to stagger. She struggled to keep on her feet. If she fell the rest of the vermin would attack.

Dragen dashed into the barn. Zand followed. He sent lashes of flame into the milling mass of creatures. Ky fell to her knees. She tried to stand. Bran appeared.

“Be still,” he ordered. “Running makes the poison move faster. Val and I will take you to the keep.”

They lifted her. The jarring movement increased her nausea. By the time they reached the kitchen, she opened her eyes. The room spun. She swallowed to keep from spewing her lunch. The burning sensation had traveled past her elbow. Her fingers were numb. The pain was akin to what she had felt when she’d cleared the web from the tunnel during the escape from the henge, and a strand had wrapped around her wrist. Had Dom Senet found a way to weave scorpon poison into a web?

She heard voices, but they were blurred. Her eyelids seemed too heavy to raise. Her thoughts swept away as though captured by the wind.

Ky opened her eyes to find Doma Jandia and her siblings seated around her sleeping mat. “My arm.” Her fingers barely moved.

“Will be weak for a day or two.” Doma Jandia gestured to Bran. “Raise her head.” He propped pillows behind her back. The doma held a cup to Ky’s mouth. “Drink.”

The liquid was cool and so sweet she grimaced. “What is that?”

“A stimulant.”

“You were really sick,” Jay said. “I couldn’t find you on the twin bond.”

Ky swallowed the rest of the drink. “You really couldn’t hear me?”

Ash nodded. “You’ve been ill for three days. Even your thoughts were absent from the winds.”

Ky’s eyes widened. Maybe her thoughts had really whirled away. “What happened to the scorpons?”

“They’re dead,” Bran said. “Val and I called them from the walls. Zand scoured them with fire. There were hundreds.”

“Good.” Ky looked at the doma. “Can I get up?”

Doma Jandia smiled. “Not today.”

“But I feel fine. Being in bed makes me itchy.”

“Your siblings warned me. Said you hated being idle. Tomorrow you can come to the kitchen for your meals. No work or running around for three days.”

“I’m hungry now.”

Jay walked to the door. “I’ll bring some porridge and tea. There are pesches, too. We brought some saplings from the orchard to plant in the growing house.”

After he returned, Ky shared her observations about the poison. “Was almost like when the web strands burned me. I’m glad my skin didn’t break then.”

Ash shuddered. “So am I. You were very sick that time, but not like now.”

Bran leaned forward. “It’s a shame we didn’t keep one of the scorpons alive so we could gather the poison and test it.”

The doma shook her head. “The only thing you need to know about poisons is how to treat them.” She rose. “Brandien and Ashlea, you will come with me. We need to organize the stillroom and unpack the herbs and medicinals.”

The three left and Zand slipped into the room. “Grandmother said you were awake. When I saw how sick you were, I was scared. You were my first friend. I was afraid I would lose you.”

Ky smiled. “That’s how I felt when I heard your step-brothers hurt you.” She finished the porridge and handed Jay the bowl. “Is the growing house finished?’

“All the glass panels are in place and most of the beds have been repaired.” He leaned against the wall. “We’re working on the barn today.”

Jay grinned. “With the doma’s help, Dyna, Geni and I figured how to coat the wood with a special mud. Then Bran and Val will remove the water. Zand will call fire to dry the slurry. When flames move across the surface, it dries as hard as the wood that’s already there.” He hesitated a moment.

“Good for you.” She sighed. “I wish I could help.” Her eyes narrowed. “Zand you’re the only one using the fire. You need me.” She pushed the covers back and tried to stand.

Jay shook his head. “Not today. Tomorrow we’re going to cut thatching straw. When the roof is done, we’re thinking about making that hard. Then you can help.”

“Where do you get the straw?”

“A meadow the doma knows.”

“I want to go.”

“You heard what Grandmother said. You can’t work for three days.” Zand walked to the door. “See you.”

Jay turned to leave, but Ky caught his hand. “Who knows how to thatch?”

“Dragen, Kirlon, Dyna and the doma. They’ll teach us.” He turned to follow Zand. “I’d better go.”

Ky yawned. “See you at midday.” She pushed the pillows on the floor. She closed her eyes with the forstcat kittens curled at her side. Tomorrow she planned to do more than go to the kitchen and eat.

 

 

Jaydren

 

Jay left his twin and walked with Zand to the growing house. The boxes had been repaired and filled with earth. Ash, Bran and Val planted herbs and medicinals in several of the beds. Dragen lifted the last of the fruit trees into a tub set along the rear wall of the spacious structure. As he strode toward the older man, Jay inhaled the aromas of growing plants. “What can I do?”

Dragen looked up. “Go see what needs to be removed from the spare wagon so it will be ready for your trip. While you’re gone, I’ll finish setting the logs in place for the loft.”

Jay hurried outside. He stopped before the wagon and saw that little more than the sides remained. Dyna and Geni lifted the table and carried it toward the steps. He grabbed one end. “Where is ...

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