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In Confrontations by J.L. Walters, a Books We Love Young Adult Fantasy, Ash, Bran, Ky and Jay along with their friends have now mastered their affinities. They now control their ability to use Earth, Air, Fire and Water. The time has come for them to face Dom Senet and He Who Walks with Evil. They have learned a disturbing fact. He Who Walks With Evil is able to exchange an old body for a new one. Dom Senet wishes to obtain the secret and he is willing to sacrifice even his own son to gain this power. The four sets of companions set off to rid the doms and domas of Dom Senet’s bonds and to defeat the two evil men. Can they or will they become pawns to evil?



Publié par
Date de parution 05 octobre 2012
Nombre de lectures 3
EAN13 9781773627144
Langue English

Informations légales : prix de location à la page 0,0032€. Cette information est donnée uniquement à titre indicatif conformément à la législation en vigueur.


By J L Walters
Digital ISBNs

Copyright 2012 by JanetLane Walters
Cover Art by MichelleLee
All rightsreserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reservedabove, no part of this publication can be reproduced, stored in orintroduced into a retrieval system or transmitted, in any form orby any means (electronic, mechanical, recording, or otherwise)without the prior written permission of both the copyright ownerand the above publisher of this book.
JL Walters – Affinities Series

Affinities Book 1 – Escape
Affinities Book 2 – Havens
Affinities Book 3 – Searches
Affinities Book 4 – Confrontations

The time hascome. Ash bolted upright. Her heart pounded with a beat reminiscentof one created by a mad drummer. Her gaze swept the room. She sawthe other young women slept. Had someone spoken on the winds or hadthe words been part of a dream she couldn’t remember? When herracing heart slowed she cautiously opened her senses to read thewinds of the keep. Using her affinity for Air she searched. Theonly person awake was the Doma and the cry hadn’t arisen from theelderly woman.
Fingers ofmoonlight slid through the shuttered windows. She moved to the edgeof the bed and pushed her feet into her house boots. Ash crept tothe window to peer outside. She knelt on the stone bench and openedthe shutters a crack. A gasp pushed past her lips when she saw thebirds, one light and the other dark. The pair circled the keep.
She rubbed herarms to banish the chill of the late winter night. “Mama, Papa,”she whispered. “What does your arrival mean?”
Since thedestruction of the Wesren henge the birds had appeared atauspicious moments. Sometimes the pair signaled safety and othertimes they brought a warning of danger. What was the meaning ofthis sighting?
“The time hascome.” Softly she whispered the words. Like a jolt of lightning athrill of excitement swept through her. Did that mean her and herhalfling companions were ready to leave the safety of the keep andventure forth against their enemies? There were more opponents thanshe cared to face. She considered the number of Doms and Domas whofollowed Dom Senet, the four halflings he’d trained plus Zand’sformer step-mother and her two sons. A shudder rolled through herbody. There was also the voice of evil she’d heard on thewinds.
Two years and aseason had passed since the return from the quests for theremaining halflings, the heirs and the talismans. The sixteencompanions had worked hard to gain mastery of their affinities ofthe elements. Four whose element was Air, four Fire, four Earth andfour Water united in four mixed quartets. A sliver of fear stabbed.Were they ready? She fought a desire to return to her bed and pullthe covers over her head.
As the edge ofthe sun appeared above the distant mountains Ash closed theshutters. She thought about the birds and knew hiding was asimpossible as a return to sleep. Not while her emotions rose andfell in waves. Should she wake the others and tell them about thebirds? She frowned. If she did Ky, her younger sister, would scoldand rouse everyone in the keep.
Ash grabbed herclothes and dashed to the necessary to wash and dress. Before shestirred the others into action she had to speak to Doma Jandia.Perhaps their teacher could interpret the meaning of the words andthe arrival of the birds.
As she hurrieddown the stairs she quested for the Doma. The elderly woman wasn’tin her room on the fourth level of the keep. The Doma’s mind scentrose from the stillroom. When Ash dashed from the third level tothe second she heard stirrings from the chamber where her brothersand the other male halflings slept. Since she wanted advice, beforethose with affinities plied her with questions, she grasped therailing and sped downstairs.
On the firstlevel she scurried along the hall and opened the door of thestillroom. Shelves on one wall held jars of various herbs, spicesand flowers. Ash tasted the air as she’d been taught and isolatedattars of roses, lavender and the scent of rosemary.
The elderlywoman who had taught Ash and her siblings since the day they’dfound refuge with her sat on a bench at a stone table. She rested apestle in the mortar, turned and smiled. Hair turned to silver byage framed the Doma’s lined face. The gaze from her brilliant greeneyes met Ash’s. In contrast to the copper-hued skin of thehalflings, Doma Jandia’s was as pale as linen bleached by the sun.Until this moment Ash hadn’t realized how much the Doma hadaged.
“You’re astirearly,” Doma Jandia said.
Ash nodded. “Iheard a voice and saw the birds.”
The light ofknowing flashed in the elderly woman’s eyes. “Tell me the entirestory.”
In a few wordsAsh spoke of her awakening. “Do you think the time has come for usto leave the keep?”
The Domanodded. “I believe so. Though I would rather keep you here andsafe, you young people have a destiny. You have learned all I canteach you and more since you aren’t afraid to try new approaches.Yes, you’re ready to begin cleansing the princedoms. Once that isaccomplished you can confront Senet and his allies.”
Those wordscaused Ash to straighten her shoulders. Fear and excitementslithered through her thoughts. Her breath caught. “Are you sure?”The time had come but she wavered between action and retreat.
The Doma leftthe table. “Senet is on the move. I don’t know what he plans butthe air in the highlands shimmers with strange energies.”
Ash’s handsclenched. “How much danger do he and his cronies pose for us?”
Doma Jandiagrasped one of Ash’s hands and uncurled the tightened fingers. “Hehas full use of all four elements. Alone he can overpower any twoor three of you unless you are joined in quartets of both mixed ora single element. When you are, he cannot overcome the meld formedeven when you are distant from each other. Know that to be thetruth.”
Some of thechurning in Ash’s gut subsided. “Where should we go first?” Thedesire to avoid Dom Senet was foremost in her thoughts. She foughtdark waves of fear threatening to engulf her. She couldn’t forgetthe times he had invaded her thoughts in attempts to lure her intohis web. A vision of a huge black spider with the face of the Dommade her shiver.
He’s not here.You have barriers against him.
What if he canbreak them?
Doma Jandiastroked Ash’s hand. “You are safe. Though in the days to come youwill face danger, you are strong enough to defeat him.”
“I pray you’reright.” Ash swallowed. “Where must we go first?”
“The fourprincedoms must be cleansed. Begin in Easren, then Soutren, Nortrenand Wesren in that order. By the time the four are cleansed, thesixteen of you will be ready to face Senet.”
“Why in thatorder?”
“’Tis the orderof the destruction of the henges and the murders of the Doms andDomas who lived in them. In Easren the damage has lasted thelongest. With the approach of spring the conditions have becomedire.” The Doma stepped back. “Assemble your companions and tellthem the time for action has come. Use the inner room where thelayers of protection are the strongest. Set no plans in theopen.”
“Lest you beover heard by Senet when he’s reading the winds.”
“How will weknow where to go?”
“Let your gemslead you.”
Ash paused inthe doorway. “Do you think the barriers over the keep haveeroded?”
The Domapressed a hand on the long table. “I pray not, but where Senet isinvolved there’s no reason to take chances. As you have discoveredthere are places in the highlands where the winds cannot beread.”
Ash nodded. “Doyou think he’s present in one of those places?”
“Perhaps. Iwill seek but I may not learn.” The Doma smiled. “Go, break yourfast, see to your chores and make your plans.”
Ash hurried tothe huge kitchen where the sounds of meal preparation and the aromaof cooking food scented the air. She listened to the chatter of herfriends and knew her news would end their banter.
Her twin, Branand their friend, Zand, stood at the fireplace and swung a hugekettle from the flames. Together they carried this to the servingtable. Ky and Jay, her younger siblings, stood at a brazier andturned flatcakes and slices of cured shoat. Other friends gatherednear the serving table and selected the food they needed to breaktheir fast.
Ash joined theline. She carried a bowl of porridge to the granite table. She saton a bench and reached for honey. When all were seated she clearedher throat. “We must meet in the inner room when our chores arefinished.”
Zand arched abrow. “Why?”
“Tell you whenwe’re all there.” She bent her head and ate. When she finished shebegan her day’s chore of cleaning the kitchen and starting soup forthe midday meal. As soon as she completed her share she scurried tothe room behind the tower stairs. Here, no windows were present.When sealed the single tightly fitted door prevented spying. Eventhe stones of the wall were bonded with a sealant.
Several stacksof pillows rested against one wall. Ash chose one and then walkedto the shelves holding books and maps. She selected a rolled one ofthe princedom of Easren.
Before long hercompanions arrived. Sydli, the last to enter, used her affinity forAir to seal the door. Now, no one other than those in the roomcould hear what was said. Neither could any sound from outsideenter the sanctuary.
The otherschose their places. Ash noticed how they clustered in their mixedquartets. She waited until everyone sat. In one hand she clutchedthe map. “The time has come for us to leave the keep.”
Gasps greetedthe announcement. Zand leaned forward. “Are you sure?”
Ash nodded.“This is what I heard and saw.” She related the tale of the voiceand the appearance of the birds.
“That’s notfair.” Ky glared. “Why didn’t you wake me? I wanted to seethem.”
“I was soentranced by the sight I couldn’t move,” Ash said. “They haven’tappeared since we began our studies. When they vanished I dressedand went to Doma Jandia. She said we’re ready to begin. First wemust cleanse Easren where the first henge was destroyed and thekeepers died.”
“All of us?”Zand asked.
Ky bounded toher feet. “When do we leave?”
Ash waved herimpetuous sister down. She unrolled the map of the princedom ofEasren. After removing the clear white gem identifying her affinityas Air she held it over the map. “Where should my quartet go?”Slowly the stone revolved. The chain stiffened and pointed northand east. Ash moved along the side of the map. Once again the chaindrooped and the stone spun. Ash marked the spot on the map. “Thisis my group’s destination.”
One by one theothers with an affinity for Air used their gems to find the spot inthe princedom where they must go. Sydli’s stone halted aboveEasrenton where the palace stood. Kirlon’s group would travel towhere the Ruran River vanished near Soutren. The final group wasMikel’s. They would travel to the lake surrounding the drownedhenge.
“What now?”Mikel asked.
“We need tomake plans,” Ash said.
Ky bolted tothe door. “Let’s go.” The others with a Fire affinity followedher.
“Not yet,” Ashcalled. “We can’t run around like emmets stirred from theirnest.”
“Who has thefurthest to go?” Jay asked.
“Kirlon’sgroup,” Bran said.
Ash drew a deepbreath. “We need plans. We’ll need supplies. People in Easren willhave little to share.”
Jay nodded.“Fire affinities should check the coursers and see if they’re fit.If any need to be shod, Earth affinities can help. They should alsosee to the panniers.”
“What are yougoing to do?” Zand asked.
“See to foodsupplies.”
Bran rose.“Water affinities will make medicinal packs for us and for theanimals.”
“Then Air willsee to clothes, tents and sleep saques,” Ash said.
Ky reached thedoor. “What are we waiting for? Zand, Rogier, Tamlia, come withme.”
Bran haltedbeside Ash. “Since rain and flooding are the problems in Easren Ibelieve the Water affinities will take the lead in the cleansing.We should discuss this before we leave.”
Ash nodded. “Ifwe can keep Ky from galloping off with her sword spoutingflames.”
He chuckledthen pointed to the map. “If lines are drawn from the other foci,they meet at the edge of the drowned henge. Do you think that willbe true in all the princedoms?”
“I’m notthinking of any place other than Easren.”
He groaned.“You know how I hate surprises.”
Ash piled thepillows at the side of the room. What were the conditions inEasren? She knew about the rain and floods. But what about thepeople? She decided to search the winds.
Not in here. Ifshe closed the door the barrier would prevent a search. If the doorremained open the protection could be destroyed.
She hurriedfrom the keep into the forecourt. There she turned and stared atthe gray stones of the tower. Sadness blossomed. The keep was homeand family. She brushed her hand over the rough stones. With a sighshe sank on a bench and leaned against the wall. Warmth and comfortseeped from the surface.
Ash openedherself to the winds of thought. Without warning, a stab from thehighlands touched her. Like the sting of a scorpon’s tail someonetried to jab into her mind. Help! She slammed her barriers tight.Who? Not Dom Senet. His touch felt oily and tempting. This had beencrude and demanding.
Mikel andKirlon slid onto the bench on either side of her. Sydli crouchedbefore her. Their arrival brought comfort to ease the chill offear. “What was that?” Sydli asked.
Ash released aheld breath. “Not the Dom. Rougher. Greedier.”
“What were youtrying to do?” Mikel asked.
“Listening tothe winds of Easren.”
“Good idea butwe should form a circle,” Kirlon said. “I’ll block againstintrusion.”
They claspedhands. Ash felt the merge form. She reached for the winds ofEasren. Cries of hunger, fear and despair echoed through the meld.Rain fell two days out of four. Rivers and streams overflowed theirbanks. Soon melt from ice and snow in the highlands would add tothe deluge.
When Ash brokethe circle she met the gaze of her friends. “The Doma was right. Ifwe don’t go now there will be no spring planting. Famine and deathwill follow.” She rose. “The time is now.”
With a shrillnagging voice ringing in his ears Val signaled his three companionsforward. He closed his mind to the muttered complaints of theyoungest member of the quartet. Why me? Was it because he was morethan a year older than any of the halflings that he had to rideherd on the most impetuous of the Fire affinities? He groaned whenKy’s courser sprinted into the lead.
“At last,” sheshouted. “Come on. Hurry.We’ve a long way to go.”
Val shook hishead. “We won’t reach our destination any faster if your courserfalls and you smack your head.”
“Hah! I’m abetter rider than that.”
Val felt astrong desire to scream and return to the keep. Would he ever seethe elderly pair who had become almost parents again? He closed offthose thoughts before his emotions tangled with regret. With Wateras his affinity his emotions and those of others sometimes swampedhim.
The quartetrode past fields that wouldn’t be planted this spring. As theyentered the forest Val noticed how the road they’d widened whenthey first came to the keep had narrowed. The Rover wagons wouldnever pass the tangle of weeds, briars and saplings now.
He paused andwaited for Kirlon. “Can you read the winds of the forest and ride?We need to be sure there are no homeless men lurking nearby.
Kirlon nodded.“I’ve been checking. Other than animals I can hear none but ourgroup. How far will we travel today?”
“I hope toreach the plains.” Val urged his courser into a trot.
At moonrisethey emerged from the gloom beneath the trees. Val stared at thegrassy plain. A memory slammed into his thoughts. Here, his partyhad been confronted by a group of homeless men led by a Dom. Zandand the Dom had dueled with Fire. The flames had spread along thegrass. Only by using his affinity to pull rain from the clouds hadVal been able to prevent a disaster.
Ky jumped fromher steed and cleared some turf away. She piled some wood in thecenter and called fire to ignite the kindling. “Will we visit theRovers?”
Val shook hishead. “I would enjoy seeing the children but that would add toomany days to our journey.” Regret filled his voice. The fourchildren rescued from the streets of Cedris had been like youngersiblings to him. “We must reach our focus as soon as possible.”
“I know.” Kyerected the metal stand over the fire and hung several pots ofwater on the hooks. “Do you think we can cleanse Easren?”
He patted herhead. “Doma Jandia believes we can.” He rose and lifted severalsacks from the panniers. He added dried meat and vegetables to oneand grain and fruit to a second. Kirlon and Geni joined them.
“How longbefore we reach the Ruran River?” Geni asked.
“Three or fourdays of long travel,” Val said.
“We’ll passnear the site of the buried Soutren henge,” Kirlon said. “Do youthink that’s where our group will go next?”
“Maybe,” Kysaid.
Val stirredeach pot. “We won’t be that close. We’ll be on the other side ofthe river and a seven day of travel from that henge. When we reachthe first bridge we’ll cross into Easren.”
Geni filledmugs with tea. “We should leave at dawn.”
“And traveluntil moonrise.” Val watched the pair of forstcats bound into thehigh grass. “Will they be back before we leave?”
Ky reached fora bowl. “One whistle and they’ll come running even if they’reunsuccessful in their hunt.” A squeal sounded. “They have theirdinner. Tomorrow I’ll have them scare some grass hens. We’ll have afeast.” She tasted the stew. “When we reach Easren because of therain we’ll have little chance to hunt.”
Val dished someof the stew for himself. After eating he went to his sleep saque.Tomorrow and the next few days would be long. How bad wereconditions in Easren? Soon he would learn. He yawned. He mustremind Kirlon to read the winds frequently. Not only did they needto avoid Doms and Domas but all the people of the princedom. Untilthe web of evil over the land was cleansed little could be done forthe inhabitants.
At midmorningof the fourth day of travel Val rose in the stirrups to peer ahead.Mist blurred the view but he could hear the rushing water of theriver. Before long the hazy outline of a bridge emerged from thegloom. Wind-driven droplets of water bathed his face.
Ky trottedahead and then returned. “I hope the bridge remains solid untilwe’re across.”
Val urged hissteed forward. “If a crossing here is impossible we’ll find anotherway.”
“We can use ouraffinities,” Ky said.
“We’ll think ofa way.”
When theyreached the bridge Val groaned. The span had to hold until theycrossed. The banks were too steep and too far apart for thecoursers to swim. Even if they could climb down the riverbank hecouldn’t imagine using his affinity to form a clear path betweenwalls of water. The strong current would thwart their passage evenif all four with an affinity for Water were present.
Ky halted atthe entrance to the wooden bridge. She waved to Kirlon and Geni.“Hurry, we must cross before the bridge collapses. If we don’tcross here we’ll have to ride almost to the highlands beforefinding a ford.”
Kirlon reachedthen. “That would take us days out of the way.”
“And we’dencounter swamps,” Geni said.
Val helped Genidismount. “Use your affinity for Earth and see if the bridge willsupport us.”
She nodded andstrode forward to press her hands against the wood. “For now but wemust hurry. There are some missing planks and pieces of the railingare gone. If we remain in the center we should be fine.”
Val stepped toher side. Water washed over the boards. He gulped deep breaths ofair and reached for a calm center. “We’ll cross now and in thisorder: Ky, Geni and Kirlon. I’ll go last. Ky, when you reach thefar end be prepared to control the steeds. Kirlon, see if you canuse Air in some way.”
“Will do.”
Ky grabbed thereins of her courser. As she stepped onto the bridge the forstcatsyowled. The felines she’d raised since she found them in the forestsoon after their birth had no fear of water but they hatedremaining in the panniers.
The mist becamea steady drizzle. Geni pulled her courser onto the planks. Val usedhis affinity to drive the water from the wooden surface.
Kirlon pausedat Val’s side. “Let me keep the water from the boards. See if youcan slow that mass of debris and trees from slamming into thesupports.”
Val drew a deepbreath and stared at the churning water. He focused on the ragingcurrent. While slowing the flow he noticed Ky and Geni’s slowprogress. Ky reached a section where the railing had been sweptaway. How easily she could tumble into the river and be swept away.He wanted to shout for them to hurry and feared to startle them.Kirlon led his courser onto the bridge.
Val began thecrossing. The boards creaked and groaned. A small tree slammed intoa support. Val gasped. His courser squealed in fear.
“Steady,” Valurged, not only the steed but himself. He wished for Ky’s abilityto control animals. He glanced upstream. The roaring of the waterdeafened him. His heart stuttered when he saw a massive oka treetumble toward the central support. “Ky, Geni, Kirlon, hurry.”
Val tugged onthe courser’s reins. He jumped across a gap in the boards where aplank had washed away. The animal balked. Val jerked on the reins.The effort he expended to restrain the tree’s progress sapped hisstrength. Fear rose and added to the panic churning inside.
A gust ofwind-driven rain slapped his face. Kirlon had lost control of hiselement. The slap pushed Val toward a gap in the railing. For abrief moment he tottered there and caught his balance. His heartpounded in heavy thuds against his chest. He moved past the brokenrail. The courser refused to move.
“Come,” hecalled. The steed tossed its head and snorted. The reins slippedfrom Val’s hands. He continued forward and hoped the animal wouldfollow. Thoughts of the supplies they would lose and the time lostif he had to walk brought a rush of anger and a tinge of fear. Theycould fail to reach their destination and leave their part in thecleansing undone.
He looked up.The massive tree sped toward the bridge. “Ky,” he shouted. “Controlmy steed.” Had she heard him? His eyes widened. The oka would hitthe middle support. He ran.
From behind heheard dull thuds of the courser’s hooves. He felt hot breath on hisback. With a leap he cleared the end of the bridge, staggeredseveral steps and fell. His breath whooshed out. The hooves of thesteed nearly clipped his head. He hugged the ground. When he triedto raise his legs shook.
“Val.” Genigrabbed his arm. “Get up.”
Kirlon pulledon his other arm. The three half-ran and half-staggered to where Kystood with the coursers. A loud boom sounded. Val turned his head.Born by a jet of water, pieces of wood shot upward.
When the threereached the steeds, Geni released his arm. “We need to ride now.The ground isn’t stable here.”
Val climbedinto the saddle. With Ky in the lead the four coursers gallopedthrough the rain pouring from the sullen sky. Val turned and staredat the shattered bridge. His eyes widened in alarm. The riverbankslid into the gorge. Great cracks appeared on the road’ssurface.
For a time theymaintained the headlong pack. Val felt his steed falter. Ky held upher hand. The four slowed to a walk.
Pools of watercollected on either side of the road. The saturated soil couldabsorb no more. Though the spring equinox had occurred several daysbefore, the farmers couldn’t plow or plant for the seeds wouldrot.
What wouldhappen if he and his friends couldn’t undo the harm the Doms andDomas had wrought? Uncertainty stained his thoughts. Ahead he saw acluster of houses. When Ky turned into a side lane Val released hisheld breath. He had no desire to ride through a village and bebombarded by the emotions of the people. His affinity for Watergave him the ability to experience the emotions of others.
Sydli groaned.Four days after leaving the Rover’s permanent camp they had enteredEasren to find rain, rain and more rain. Shards of discontentslashed her thoughts. Instead of going to the princedom of Easrenthey could have traveled to Nortren. Though the Doma’s reasoningmade sense Sydli wanted to breeze into the palace at home. Shewanted to show her father and half-brother what she had become. Sheand her friends would have Lodar begging for mercy.
“Jay, slow yourcourser,” Norie snapped. “You’re splashing me.”
“Doesn’t matterof I go fast or slow. The steed splashes even when he walks.”
"Then rideahead of me.” Norie’s voice rose to a shrill shout.
“Enough.” Sydlidrew a deep breath. For three of the past four days rain had beenconstant. Tempers flared. Even when no rain fell humidity dampenedtheir skin. Yesterday they’d been forced to seek shelter when thewind-driven gusts had been so fierce they couldn’t see theroad.
Today’s stormbrought icy needles to sting her face and arms. Who would havethought mittens would be needed after the spring equinox? Thehooves of the coursers splashed on the mud-slick surface of theroad. She wondered if they would ever reach Easrenton and thehidden focus.
She turned herhead to check her companions. Jay looked as though his thoughtscarried him miles away. Was he using the twin bond to speak to Ky?When they made camp Sydli decided to ask for news of that quartet’sprogress.
Sydli soughther twin on the bond uniting them to find Emli distracted. By what?A picture of Toran intruded. Envy colored Sydli’s thoughts. WasEmli thinking about pairing? Years ago they had joked about findingtwins to wed. For a moment Sydli considered Toran’s twin, Zand. Sheshook her head. He was a friend. So were Rogier, Jay and the othermale members of the quartets. Perhaps those with a single affinityhad no time or taste for marriage. She pushed the idea aside. Therewere too many real problems to think about marriage.
Rogier pulledhis steed even with hers. “Any idea when we’ll reachEasrenton?”
She heard anote of impatience in his voice. Would his temper flair likeNorie’s had? With Fire as his affinity she feared an explosion offlames. During the training days he had set several unintendedfires before he had learned control. “I wish I knew.”
Norie edgedcloser. With her affinity for Water she was drawn and repelled bystrong emotions. “Any news from the others?”
“All except forAsh’s group are slogging toward the foci,” Sydli said.
Jay joinedthem. “Ky just told me about their escape from total disaster. Thebridge over the Ruran River collapsed after they entered Easren.Kirlon and Val used their elements to help them cross.”
Sydli frowned.“When I touched Kirlon on the winds he didn’t mention anything butrain and muddy roads.”
“When we campI’ll tell you what they did.” Jay made a face. “She was quite proudof them.”
“Do you thinkwe’ll have to use our affinities to save ourselves?” Norie’s voicefilled with anxiety.
Sydli frowned.“We might. I think you need to release the emotions you’ve beencollecting.”
Norie nodded.“When we make camp, I will.”
Rogier’s browwrinkled. “We could use our affinities to make our camp site morecomfortable. I could dry the ground and Norie could push the wateraside.”
“Aren’t youafraid using them will alert the Doms and Domas to our presence?”Sydli asked.
“Not if youread the winds and learn if any of the enemy are near.”
Norie pointedto the dark clouds covering the sun. “How will we know when nightcomes? I can barely see the road.”
Sydli met herfriend’s gaze. “We’ll ride until the coursers tire. Then we’ll seekshelter.”
“Can we tryRogier’s suggestion?”
“If it’s safe.”Sydli prodded her courser into a walk. What would they find whenthey reached Easrenton? Were their affinities strong enough tounravel the twists the Doms and Domas had placed on the elements?Though Doma Jandia said Dom Senet remained in the highlands Sydlihadn’t caught a whisper of his voice on the winds since the quartetleft the keep. He could be anywhere.
She scowled.Why hadn’t Nortren been the first of the princedoms chosen? Sheknew the palace and Rogier the town. They knew nothing aboutEasrenton.
With a shuddershe recalled how her half-brother had tried to kill Emli and how hehad plotted with Dom Senet. Lodar had become more important totheir father than his daughters though they had lived with him alltheir lives. When the marriage to Lodar’s mother had ended Malenahad taken her son away thus removing him from consideration as theheir. Three years later Sydli and Emli had been born.
Her handstightened on the reins causing the courser to shy. She loosened hergrip lest her angry thoughts continue. Why had her father beenwilling to set his daughters aside for the son he hadn’t raised? Hesaw nothing of Lodar’s nasty nature. Only Sydli’s affinity for Airhad saved her sister from death at his hands.
Another shudderrolled along her spine. She had met Dom Senet, sat beside him atdinner and felt his attempts to slide past her mental barriers. Shehad used the inner ways to spy on his meeting with herhalf-brother. What if the Dom had succeeded and could read herthoughts? He could thwart the plans of the quartets and the faultwould be here.
Stop it. Shepulled her churning thoughts into a knot and focused on theroad.
Mile after milethey slogged. At what her stomach told her was midday they pausedbeneath a willah tree near what had been a brook. Uprooted treeshad formed a dam and instead of a brook she saw a pond.
Afterremounting she continued until they found what had been ashepherd’s hut. The attached cote provided a shelter for thesteeds.
Once inside thehut they discovered the thatch leaked. Several inches of waterpuddled on the floor. After Sydli read the winds Norie used heraffinity to draw the water outside. Rogier called fire to dry andharden the mud. He drew the heat into his sword to warm water fortheir evening meal. Sydli cooled the steamy atmosphere and playedthe hiding song to conceal their presence. Jay pitched the tent inthe rear of the hut.
Sydli filled abowl with stew and joined the others in the tent where the randomdrip of water on the oil-treated canvas made a melody. Hissessounded when drops hit the fire. She studied her companions. “Whenwe reach Easrenton we’ll need a place to stay until the othergroups are in place.”
Rogier lookedup. “No inn.”
“Why not?”Norie asked.
“Doms andDomas.” Rogier scraped his bowl. “If they learn of our presencethey’ll tell Dom Senet and try to stop us.”
Jay leanedforward. “Any ideas about where to stay?”
Rogier grinned.“I don’t know Eastenton but I know towns. We can find shelter inthe poor section. There are always empty houses there. At leastthere were in Norden.”
“I think weshould find a way into the palace,” Sydli said.
“Why?” Jayasked.
“To discover away to rid the princedom of Mandir. If he remains at the palaceMarli will be in danger.”
Norie shook herhead. “How can we enter in secret? I’ve no desire to announcemyself.”
Jay looked up.“In Cedris the palace had secret passages and inner rooms.”
“So did theNorden palace,” Sydli said.
“Then we searchfor them,” Rogier said. “Could that be where the focus lies?”
Norie refilledher bowl. “We’ll have to wait for our stones to show the way. Branthinks we must be at the focus when the time to break the webarrives.”
Sydli nodded.“I agree but we can’t worry until we reach the town.” She cleanedher bowl and retreated to her sleep saque. She considered seekingEmli but another rebuff would hurt. Instead she randomly searchedthe winds. The voices she heard caused her to listen carefully tothe speakers.
Why Easrenton?The voice snapped like burning wood.
A secondspeaker babbled like rushing water. To argue with the oldies there.I hate that. Just because they have all four elements doesn’t meanthey’re better than we are. Our lord and master should summon themhimself.
The third voicerose like a blast of icy wind. He’s afraid that Doma will hear him.Remember those three boys who came with her to the training place.When they escaped we were blamed and punished.
None of themhad Air. The deep voice insisted. Remember how Dom Manton shookwith fear when we returned without them.
I do. The windyvoice blew hot. After we send the Doms and Domas from the fourprincedoms what will we do?
Laughterflared. We find a way to free ourselves from his rule. Then each ofus will claim a princedom. No one can defeat us.
Sydli gasped.Jay, Rogier and Norie popped into the tent. “Are we in danger?” Jayasked.
Sydli shook herhead. “I heard four voices on the winds. I think they belong to aquartet sworn to Dom Senet.” She related what she’d heard.
Jay leanedforward. “I know them. They’re halflings. The Dom controls them.Zand, Bran and I fought then. They don’t believe girls can haveaffinities. One of them is the Dom’s son and Geni’s twin.”
Rogier graspedthe hilt of his sword. “Can he reach her through the twinbond?”
Jay shook hishead. “Doma Jandia closed the link and only Geni can open it.”
“What about DomSenet?” Norie asked. “As her father there must be someconnection.”
“He has no ideashe exists. On the day her mother gave birth the son came first.The Dom took the boy before Geni was born.” Jay moved to his sleepsaque. “We should sleep. We’ve another long dreary day of traveltomorrow.”
The nextmorning when they left the hut Sydli’s thoughts were as gloomy asthe weather. How much longer must they slog before they reachedtheir goal and discovered a way to stop the rains?
Rogier’s crypulled her from her reverie. She stared at the road ahead. He hadvanished. Cautiously she edged her courser forward. Then she sawhim climb from a hole in the road. “Jay, Norie, come quickly.” Shereached Rogier. “What happened?”
“Sinkhole, fullof water. Courser trapped.”
“Is heinjured?”
Rogiershrugged. “Won’t know until we get him out. The problem is figuringhow.”
Jay and Noriearrived and dismounted. Jay walked to the edge of the pit. Severalclumps of mud fell and sent spouts of water into the air. Thecourser’s squeal of terror hurt her ears.
Jay looked up.“Calm him. I have an idea that might work.”
Sydli watchedRogier’s brow wrinkle as though in concentration. The courserquieted. “What should I do?” she asked.
“Stand by tolend your strength if I need it.” Jay turned to Norie. “I’m goingto shape the soil into a ramp. Draw water from the earth so thesurface will be firm."
“Ah,” shesighed. “Then Rogier can lead him out.”
Sydli watchedas the hole enlarged, not deeper but one side slanted toward theroad like a ramp. Once the path seemed solid Rogier entered thehole. He placed a hand on the courser’s neck. The steed began theslow climb upward. When Rogier and the animal reached the road shereleased the breath she held. Muddy water poured from the panniers.Would they lose the supplies and the courser?
Norie knelt andsluiced mud from the courser’s legs. She ran her hands along eachleg. “The water must have buoyed him and prevented any breaks. I’vereduced the swelling and I need to wrap his legs.”
Jay brought herstrips of linen. Rogier removed the panniers and used heat from hissword to dry the contents. “Looks like I’ll walk.”
“Just today,”Norie said.
Sydli frowned.Another delay. “We’ll make camp as soon as we find a place.” Sheturned to Jay. “Ride ahead and check the road for moreweaknesses.”
For a seven dayMikel and his companions had crossed the plains traveling from dawnuntil dusk. Though their journey to the lake in the center ofEasren wasn’t the longest the sooner they reached the site the moretime they would have for Bran to examine the remains of the drownedhenge for clues about how Dom Senet and his underlings had warpedthe elements.
Mikel drew adeep breath and stared at the rushing water marking the borderbetween the plains and Easren. He turned to his companions. “Todaywe cross into Easren.” He stared at the torrential rain on theother side.
Dyna nodded.“We can cross here. The rock bed is solid and there’s not muchmud.”
“Water’s aboutthree or four feet deep,” Bran said.
“Then we go,”Mikel said.
“Let me takethe lead.” Tamlia met his gaze. “If there is trouble I can use myability to control the coursers.” She urged her steed into thewater.
Mikel and Dynafollowed. When they reached the midpoint Mikel turned his head towatch Bran’s slow progress. He seemed to have difficultycontrolling his mount. Mikel reached the opposite bank. He heard ashout and jerked around. Bran’s courser shied. Bran tumbled intothe chill water. Mikel jumped from his mount and pulled Bran toshore. Tamlia raced her courser after Bran’s.
“Whathappened?” Dyna asked.
“Something inthe water startled him.” Bran bent over and coughed.
Tamlia returnedwith Bran’s steed. Streams of water ran from the panniers. “We needa place to build a fire.”
Mikel movedthrough the misting rain. He mounted his courser and quickly readthe winds. “Not here. There’s a group of Doms and Domas headed thisway. If we’re quick they won’t see us.”
Bran graspedthe reins of his steed and pulled himself into the saddle. “Whichway do we go?”
Mikel pointedeast. “Will you be all right?”
“I’ll have tobe. Once we’re safely away we can look for shelter.”
Hours of ridingthrough the rain that changed from light to heavy wind-driven gustsof chill air passed before they found a sagging barn for theircamp. Tamlia kindled a fire from broken pieces of wood from thestalls. Bran’s panniers were unloaded. Using his affinity he pulledwater from the clothing and food sacks. Tamlia added heat from herflame sword to dry them.
Mikel drew adeep breath and opened himself to the winds. After scenting thevicinity and finding only a farm family worried about the weatherand the need to use their seed grain as food, he closed the linkand directed his quest to find the others with his affinity. Allexcept Ash’s group experienced the miserable weather and had littleto report. Mikel felt a sharp stab at the edge of his thoughts andslammed his barriers tight. Could this be the seeker Ash hadmentioned? Had Dom Senet stumbled on the search? Mikel had nodesire for that one to gain an inkling of the plans.
In the morningunder a pewter sky they left the barn and rode for several hours. Aroll of thunder caused Mikel’s courser to rear. He gripped thereins and brought his steed under control.
Bran pointed atthe sky. “We’re in for a downpour. We need shelter.” Hesneezed.
“Ahead,” Dynasaid. “There’s a cave large enough for us and the steeds.”
“Lead the way.”Tamlia shouted above the booming thunder.
Before theyreached the cave the storm arrived and thoroughly soaked them.Fortunately Tamlia was able to start a fire using some black rockDyna found. The smoke sent Bran into a fit of coughing. Heretreated to sit near the cave mouth.
The quartetremained in the cave for the remainder of the day. Mikel watchedthe storm’s fury build. A small stream of water flowed through themouth but by using rocks Dyna turned the flow from the fire. Bymorning the rain ceased but clouds remained to darken the sky.
For three daysthey followed a narrow road. Mikel worried about Bran. His friendwas quieter than usual. Though Bran tried to hide the deep coughsthat exploded with growing frequency he failed. Mikel feared hiscompanion was ill. What would they do if he was too sick to aid thequartet in healing Easren? Mikel believed Bran’s aid was essentialto the process.
At the end of aseven day after entering Easren, Mikel paused his steed at the topof a rolling hill. Ahead he saw water. Beneath the leaden sky thelake appeared dark gray. Was that their destination? He glanced atthe sky. Were those birds circling under the clouds? The shapesplunged toward the lake. “Look, there’s a dark and a lightbird.”
Bran laughedand waved. “The henge is there. We must follow the birds to thesite of what was the Easren henge. The lake is larger than Iremember.” He gasped for breath and covered his mouth to muffle acough.
Mikel frowned.“Can I help you?”
“I’ll be fine.Let’s ride.”
By lateafternoon they neared the body of water. A gray stone rose from thelake’s center. “What’s that?” Mikel asked.
“The remainderof the henge that was.” Bran coughed until his face turned scarletand he gasped for air.
Mikel rode tohis side. “Are you sure you’re all right?”
Bran shook hishead. “Not. Throat hurts.”
Mikel gesturedto Tamlia and Dyna. “We need to find shelter.” He pointed to thedistant trees. “Do you think there?”
Tamlia urgedher courser closer to Bran. “Are you sure this is where we shouldbe?”
He nodded.Another bout of coughing began.
Geni grabbedthe reins of his courser. “Hang on.”
Tamlia pointedto a dark structure part way around the lake between the water andthe forest. “Might be a building. Check for people. If there arenone we can camp there while we wait for the other quartets toreach their destinations. Hot food and dry clothes would bewelcome.”
Mikel staredinto the distance. “Building is empty. There are no people evennear.” He urged his courser into a walk. When he reached the stonebuilding he dismounted. A shed at the side held a few bales of hay.“Coursers can be stabled here.”
Tamlia and Dynahelped Bran inside. Mikel removed the panniers and saddle fromBran’s steed and carried them inside. Long stone tables lined oneof the walls. Dyna came outside to help. “Tamlia’s starting afire.” She set two pots to catch rainwater.
Mikel placedanother set of panniers on the table. He looked into two smallerrooms and frowned. Definitely not sleeping chambers. Hooks hungfrom the ceiling. Each room had a central fire circle. He steppedback into the main room and found the necessary behind the mainroom. A large bathing tub with no pipes to allow hot and cold waterto fill the tub sat at one end of the room. At least there weredrains for all the facilities.
Bran sat besidethe fireplace. He held his scrying cup and opened the medicinalpouch. With shaking fingers he put a selection of herbs into thecup.
“Sitting andwaiting for the water to heat is foolish.” Mikel extended a hand tohelp Bran to his feet. “You need to change into dry clothes.” Mikelcarried clothes dried by Tamlia’s sword into the necessary. Oncethey changed they returned to the main room.
Bran dippedwater from one of the steaming pots into the scrying cup. He pouredthe liquid into a mug and drank. Mikel unrolled a sleep saque.“Rest. We’ll care for the coursers.”
Mikel went withTamlia and Dyna outside to groom and feed the steeds. When theyreturned they found Bran asleep. “I’m worried about him.” Mikeldropped dried meat and vegetables into a pot.
“So am I,” Dynasaid.
“Speak to DomaJandia,” Tamlia suggested. “She’ll know what to do.”
Mikel handedthe stirring spoon to her. He moved away from the fire and settledagainst a wall. He found the winds of the keep. Doma Jandia, Branis ill. He has a cough and he’s fevered.
Mix healal andfeverfage with honey and have him take a spoonful every time hecoughs. If he has trouble breathing burn eucala in a dish close tohis head. When he wakes bathe him in cool water. Have him drinkbroth and willah tea.
Mikel relayedthe instructions to the others. Dyna set about making the honeysyrup and the willah tea. Tamlia gathered pots of rain water tofill the bathing tub. Once all was ready Mikel woke Bran and toldhim what the Doma had suggested.
Bran sat. About of coughing racked through his body. Dyna handed him a spoonand the syrup plus a cup of willah tea.
Tamlia helpedhim stand. “Are you sure you don’t have fire throat?”
He shook hishead. “Just ague.”
Mikel aided himto the necessary and waited until Bran was in the tub. He returnedwith drying cloths. After the soak Bran dressed and returned to themain room where he alternated sips of broth with tea,
Tamlia curledher arms around her knees. “How do we reach that spire?”
“By boat,” Branrasped.
“What if wedon’t find one?” Mikel asked.
Dyna grinned.“We build a raft.”
Mikel walked toone of the small rooms. “I’ve been puzzling over the purpose ofthese rooms. I believe this was a fishing camp and these rooms arefor smoking fish. There should be a boat on the shore.”
Tamlia groaned.“So we go looking.”
“Not tonight.”Mikel yawned and opened his sleep saque.
For the nexttwo days Mikel fretted. Bran remained feverish. Mikel feared theywould all become ill. The rain continued until the morning of thethird day. Though no rain fell there was no break in the cloudcover. He left the house and took the coursers to the grassy areanear the trees where Dyna had used her staff to rejuvenate thegrowth.
Instead ofreturning to the house he decided to walk along the shore. As hemoved forward he stared at the spire. He stumbled and fell to theground. When he groped for the obstacle he freed an oar. A fewyards ahead he found a metal ring and a boat fastened by a metalchain to the ring.
Rain had filledthe craft. Was it sound? He ran to the house for ropes and then tothe meadow for two of the coursers. After fastening the rope to thesteeds and the boat he urged them to pull the craft from the water.Dyan and Tamlia helped empty the water. Using the ropes theycarried the rowboat to the house to dry.
Bran sat up.“Good.”
Dyna laughed.“Better than a raft.”
“What now?”Tamlia asked.
“We learn howclose the others are to their destination,” Bran said.
“My job.” Mikelsat near Bran. “We should use a circle when speaking to ourfriends. Last night Dom Senet or someone else tried to read mythoughts again. We don’t want to give the enemy any hint of ourplan.”
Dom Senet
Senet addedanother log to the massive fireplace of the lodge’s main room.Though spring had arrived, here in the highlands the night promisedto be cold. He stood and filled two mugs with mulled spirits.Before long the Doms and Domas he had summoned from Easren wouldarrive. Among the projects he had for them was to undertake tendinghis guest.
He handed a mugto the gaunt aging man whose graying dark hair and copper-hued skinmarked him as kin to the people of the lowlands. Kin yet different,for the man had affinities for all the elements. His knowledge ofhow to use them was beyond anything Senet knew. He wanted to learnall the old man’s secrets. He raised his mug. “To our success.”
“Ours?” Thequestion seemed tinged with ice. “To mine.” He sipped. “Soon I mustleave this ailing body for a younger one. Have you found acandidate?”
Senet frowned.How was this exchange possible? Though he had learned much aboutthe affinities from his guest leaving a dying body for another hadnever been explained. Senet wanted to know the technique.
The man whoSenet knew as He Who Walks With Evil laughed. “I will choose. Makesure there is a wide selection of young men. The best candidateswill be less than twenty-five years of age.” His smile failed toreach his eyes. “My choice may not please you. The perfect body mayor may not have a single affinity.”
“What do youmean?”
The agingentity’s ebony eyes glittered. “Do not ask questions I have nodesire to answer. When the day comes and I rule this land I willtell you what I believe you need to know. As in the days when Iruled the lands of my birth, people will bow to me. Since themoment you found my broken body on the shore and restored myhealth, I have planned.” His laughter rang long and loud. “Thepeople will welcome me.”
“Those of thelowlands.” Senet looked away.” He had his own plans for thehighlands.
The old manshook his head. “I will permit you to act as my deputy in thehighlands but there can only be one ruler.”
Senet drew adeep breath. For a moment fear paralyzed him. He clamped barriersover his mind. Didn’t his guest realize without help he waspowerless? Who else would find another body for the transfer? Senethid a smile. On the day of the exchange he would learn the secretand the old man would die.
The first raysof the morning sun entered the window of the nearly deserted youngman’s sleeping chamber of the keep. Zand rolled to his back andpushed a pillow beneath his head. Today his group left for theprincedom of Easren. Before they departed he needed to speak toToran on the twin bond. His brother needed to know the quartets hadleft the keep and to let Dom Ilvan know of their grandmother’splans. What better time than now?
Zand, what’swrong? It’s barely dawn.
Are you stillat the lodge?
Where elsewould I be?
The time hascome. Tell Dom Ilvan the last quartet is leaving for Easren to endthe rains there.
Loran will bepleased.
The secondthing to tell him is this: Grandmother wants the heirs to come tothe keep. She and Dragen will meet you here. They will tell youwhen it’s safe for Loran to go home.
When will I seeyou again?
Zand heardlonging in his brother’s voice. They’d had so little time to learnabout each other. He almost wished he could remain at the keepuntil the heirs arrived. Not possible. We won’t have time togetheruntil the four princedoms are freed from the evil of Dom Senet andhis power over the elements is gone.
I’ll tell DomIlvan and the others. Good luck.
And to you.Zand closed the twin bond. He rose and nudged Donel. “Time todress. We’ll break our fast and leave.”
Before longthey arrived in the kitchen. Zand halted in the doorway. Ash andVera sat at the long table. Zand swallowed. The room seemed largerand the table more massive. The aroma of chochla permeated the air.He filled a bowl with porridge, grabbed a plate of flatcakes andsausages and filled a cup with the savory beverage.
Doma Jandia andDragen joined them. Zand studied his grandmother and great uncle.He would miss them. Would they travel with the heirs when theprincedoms were safe?
He cleared histhroat. “I told Toran we were leaving. He’ll tell Dom Ilvan aboutcoming here.”
“Good.” DomaJandia served herself. “Don’t dally with the Rovers but make a goodtrade for the wares on the pack coursers. That will insure supplieswill be available when you need them.”
Ash looked up.“You’ve thought ahead. I never considered what happens after weleave Easren.”
The Domasmiled. “With all the rain there will be little chance to gathernew supplies. The task ahead must concern you. Remember you won’tfinish in a season.”
Dragen refilledtheir mugs. “Do you remember all I’ve taught you about weapons?Your affinities may not be the only defense you need.”
Zand laughed.“After the way you’ve drilled us how could we forget?”
Cera raised hermug. “I feel sad about leaving but our duty to the land must comefirst.”
Zand nodded.“Duty to the people of the highlands, too.” He felt sure Dom Senetplanned to rule the highlands and the princedoms.
All too soonthe plates and bowls were empty. The time to leave had arrived. Hecouldn’t move but he must.
Ash rose andclasped the Doma’s hands. “I’ll miss you. You have helped me growand mature and to forget the sadness of the past.” She turned toDragen and repeated her thanks and farewell. With a low cry she ranfrom the kitchen.
“You will bemissed,” the Doma called.
“May fortunefollow you,” Dragen added.
For a momentZand felt the sadness Ash had sent on the winds nearly as stronglyas when the four were united in their circle. He drew a deepbreath. Would the time come when he and his companions were solocked in a meld they were no longer themselves?
Donel and Ceratook their leave of the older pair. They followed Ash outside. Zandknew he should follow but reluctance to leave held him in place.“Dragen, Grandmother, I don’t want to go.”
Doma Jandiaclasped his hands. “You must.”
Dragen graspedhis shoulders. “Go and do what needs to be repaired.”
“I will.” Zandturned and embraced the man who had been his teacher and protectorfor most of his life. He reached for his grandmother and held herclose. “Stay safe.”
“Until we meetagain.”
That promisecolored her voice but he sensed a dark strand of dire possibilitiesin her expression. Zand drew a deep breath. “Until then.” He kissedher cheek and went to the forecourt. Tears blurred his sight. Hedashed them away. In the barn he saddled his courser and fastenedthe loaded panniers behind. He led the steed to the forecourt. Ash,Cera and Donel were there and mounted. Donel led a pair of packcoursers.
Zand leapedinto the saddle and joined his friends. A new phase of his life hadbegun. As he led the way to the gate he turned and waved. Would hereally see them again? He dared not think he would not.
As the quartetrode past fields left fallow, his thoughts wandered to the warsteed he had once ridden. Waves of regret washed through hismemories. How he wished Arrow still lived. His step-brothers hadtormented and finally caused the animal’s death. During the steed’sfrenzied fight the gem that had belonged to Zand’s mother hadshattered.
Anger coiledlike a snake prepared to strike. A short burst of flame shot fromhis fingers causing his courser to buck. Zand sought a calm center.Would he encounter Mandir and Lodar during the restoration of theprincedoms? Would his be the hand to strike them down?
Ash rode to hisside. “Calm yourself. Cera is feeling your emotions. Do you want tobroadcast our location to anyone who listens on the winds?”
Zandstraightened. “Just dreaming about ghosts from the past.” Hetightened his barriers.
Once past thefields they entered the forest. Birds chirped and he heard therustling noises of small animals in the brush. At a spring theystopped to rest the coursers and to eat a midday meal. Afterremounting they rode until dusk before camping at the edge of theforest where a fire circle showed their friends had stopped.
At dawn theystarted across the plain. The green of new grass spread to thehorizon. Donel and Cera used their bows to bring down enough grasshens for several days’ meals. During the day they paused frequentintervals to allow the coursers to graze. When there was no springCera called water from the earth for the steeds to drink. Theirdays fell into a pattern. Finally Zand spotted colorful wagonsahead. He breathed a sigh of relief. Soon they would leave the packanimals behind and make a faster pace to their goal.
Zand drew hissteed beside Ash. “Do we spend the night here?”
“Doma Jandiasaid we shouldn’t linger.” She glanced at the sky. “Nearly midday.After the trading I think we should continue. Another five or sixdays of hard travel should see us to our destination. Bran’s groupis in place and the others should reach their sites around the timewe do.”
Cera and Donelcaught up. “Won’t the trading take a long time?” Donel asked.
Cera giggled.“We all know how the Rovers love to bargain.”
“Not thistime,” Ash said. “There won’t be an exchange of goods or coins. Theherbs, spices and medicinals are to be left with them for ourfuture needs.”
Zand signaledfor them to ride. “We should hurry and hope we’re in time for themidday meal.”
Donel urged hiscourser and the pack beasts after Zand. “Will they have nutrolls?”
“I hope so. Ifthey do just be glad Ky isn’t with us. She would try to eat themall.”
As they enteredthe Rovers’ home camp they noticed several wagons ready to depart.They waved and greeted the men and women they knew. Donel paused tospeak to the man who had taught him staff fighting.
Larkea andRaven, two of the children Val and his father had rescued from thestreets of Cedris ran over. Zand noticed how much they had grownand changed in the past few years.
“We’ll takeyour steeds to the pasture,” Larkea said.
Raven looked atthe pack animals. “Have you come to trade?”
Zand nodded.“In a way. We’ll keep the pack animals with us. We need to see theheadmen and women.”
“Is Val allright?” Larkea asked.
Ash dismounted.“He’s fine. He and his group have a long distance to travel. That’swhy he didn’t visit.”
“Where areFinchon and Svana?” Zand asked.
“Finchon iswith the flocks and Svana stays with the Rovers who breedcoursers,” Raven said. “If you spend the night we can visit.”
“I wish wecould but we must leave after our talk.” Ash reached for the leadrope of one of the pack animals. “Where are the headwomen andmen?”
“At the meetingtent,” Larkea said.
Zand led theother steeds. At the tent a woman halted them. Zand smiled. “DomaJandia sent us with wares for a special trade. We need to see oneof the leaders.”
“Wait here.”The woman slipped inside. “I’ll see if one of the headwoman or mencan speak to you.”
Moments later aman appeared. “Greetings.” He walked to the coursers and examinedsome of the contents of the panniers. “I imagine there’s a reasonfor these.”
“There is,”Zand said. “Can we speak to the council?”
The man liftedthe tent flap. “Follow me. You’re in time to join us for a meal.Then we’ll bargain. Will you spend the night?”
“Only for themeal and to talk. The time has come.”
“I see.”
Zand followedthe headman into the tent with Ash, Donel and Cera on his heels.They found places to sit. Plates with flatbread rolled aroundspiced meat and vegetables along with river rice were passed tothem.
When Zandfinished his portion he waved away seconds. Nut rolls were offered.He took two. Though she wasn’t present, he ate the second for Ky.He wished she was here instead of traveling in the rain.
Finally theplates were collected. Zand wiped sticky fingers on a cloth. Heturned to the members of the council. “The wares we brought are toensure we can ask for supplies when we need them.”
One of theheadmen nodded. “You have our pledge of aid. All of our troupeswill carry extra supplies.”
“What is thenews from the princedoms?” Ash asked.
The oldestheadman tapped his fingers on his thighs. “We’ve had little newssince the Winter Day appearances. There are many homeless menroaming the princedoms though they avoid Easren. Several of ourtroupes were attacked during their return. We killed a dozenoutcasts. Six of our people were injured and two died. This spring,the only ones to travel for trade are men and women skilled withstaff and knife.”
Ash stared atthe man. “Did any of the other quartets stop here? Did they tellyou of our destination?”
Zand’s handsclenched. Was it safe to tell these people about the plans? Then heremembered how the Rovers had ways to conceal their thoughts.Tension oozed away.
A secondheadman spoke. “Two of your groups made brief visits. We havedecided to delay sending troupes to Easren until the rains returnto normal patterns.”
A headwomancleared her throat. “On that day we’ll carry seeds and plants fromour stores and growing house. We’ll trade for shares of thecrops.”
Donel smiled.“Those things will be needed. When my half-sister takes her placeas heir of Easren she’ll see you’re rewarded.”
The oldest ofthe men nodded. “This is our pledge. We will do all we can to aidyou as you fight the evils placed on the princedoms for we fear theplains will be the next target of those who seek to destroy.”
Zand pushed tohis feet. The oldest headwoman tapped her cane on the ground. “Donot go yet. I have a tale for you. Once, those who now dwell in thehighlands lived in the lowlands. The palaces were their homes.Though we are kin our restless spirits urged is to a roaminglife.”
Zand frowned.“What made them go to the highlands?”
“All didn’tdepart at once. When the refugees came to our shores many of ourpeople ceded the lands to them. A few remained to help. Among thenew arrivals were men and women with shattered minds. Like our kinthose afflicted at one time had controlled the elements. An evilman forced them to do his will. If they fought he stripped theirminds. He also had a second use for some of the young men whovanished.”
“Whathappened?” Zand and Donel asked.
“’Twas said hecould live forever and that he could eat their souls.”
“What name didhe have?” Ash asked.
“The ones whofled to this land called him He Who Walks With Evil.”
Ash gasped.Zand waited for her to speak but she remained silent. She shook herhead and mouthed “Later.”
The headwomancontinued. “Those ancestors of the lowlanders fled from a countrywhere floods, droughts, disease and blight destroyed the land.”
“Like what’shappening here,” Cera said.
The elderlywoman nodded. “Just so. Perhaps one of our far kin in the highlandshas made a pact with such a creature. Take care while you travel.We will hope for your success.”
Her words werea dismissal. Zand rose. “Thank you for the meal, the informationand your promise of help.” He led his companions from the tent.They found the pasture and saddled their coursers. After leavingthe Rovers they rode toward the river separating the plains fromthe lowlands.
For two daysthey followed the narrowing river to the east. Across the rushingwater Zand saw dark clouds and rain. He turned toward hiscompanions. “Do we cross here or continue east?”
Cera dismountedand walked along the bank. “Here, I think. Much further east andwe’ll find a swamp.”
“She’s right,”Donel said.
Zand joinedthem. “How deep is the river here?”
“Maybe three orfour feet,” Cera said. “The current is the real problem. I’m notsure the coursers can fight it.”
“What should wedo?” Ash asked.
“Combine ouraffinities,” Cera said. “I can part the water and you can use Airto hold the passage open. Donel will find the best place while Zandcontrols the coursers.”
Donel walkedalong the bank. Finally he stopped. “Here.”
Cera joinedhim. She handed the reins of her courser to Zand. He tied the foursteeds in a line. Though he wished Cera and Ash would cross firsthe knew they must come last. He quieted the animals and prepared tolead them to the opposite bank.
Cera raised herarms to shoulder height, brought her hands together slowly andspread her arms wide. As she did, the waters parted. Ash’s eyesheld a fierce concentration. Donel knelt and pressed his handsagainst the ground. An earthen ramp appeared. Zand led the stringof coursers down and followed Donel across the muddy ground.
“Avoid thethird puddle,” Donel said. “Quicksand.”
Zand paused touse Fire to dry the puddle. As he continued forward the waterrolled aside. Donel reached the far side and formed a path from theriverbed to the shore. Zand led the coursers to a stand of trees,tied them and returned to the river bank. Rain fell in a steadydrizzle.
As Cera startedup the ramp she stumbled. Ash braced her. Zand grabbed their armsand pulled them onto the rain-slicked grass. With a thunderous roarthe two walls of water collided. Spray shot into the air.
“Success,”Donel said. “I’m not even tired.”
Cera staggered.“I am.”
Ash nodded. “Weneed to find shelter and make a meal. We’ll feel better then.”
Zand led off.When they spotted a deserted barn he signaled for a halt. Onceinside he started a fire. By the time they’d eaten hot stew andcheese melted on bread even Cera’s exhaustion had passed. He openeda map and traced their route. “We should find the focus soon.”
Jay stared atthe pewter sky and groaned. Every day began and ended with rain. Hemounted the courser and led the way constantly checking forpotential sink holes. The quartet had passed two that had collapsedbefore their arrival. He straightened. Ahead loomed the gray stonewall surrounding Easrenton. He paused to await his companions.“We’re almost there. We’ll need to choose a gate to enter.”
Rogier nodded.“Unless there’s a secret way.”
“We couldn’tfind one,” Norie said. “None of us have been here before.”
Sydli halted.“I found the one in Norden by accident.”
Jay turned hiscourser. “We don’t have time to search. Which gate will allow us toenter quickly? We don’t want the gate guards asking questions.”
“Can wedisguise ourselves?” Norie asked. “Our hair and eyes mark us ashalflings.”
“We could usemud to darken our hair,” Rogier said.
The expressionon Sydli’s face made Jay want to laugh. He pulled a knitted hatfrom beneath his poncho. “Did you bring yours?” The others nodded.“With these on and our poncho hoods pulled forward to shade oureyes we should pass as traders.

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