Searches
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Description

Having found a safe place in a tower fortress, the four and their companions set out to find what they need to defeat Dom Senet and He Who Walks With Evil. They divide into three groups. The first group seeks the focus stones that enhance their affinities. The second group looks for the remaining artifacts, the swords, the staffs, the flutes and the scrying bowls. The third group sets out to find those with their affinities to round the groups to four of earth, four water, four air and four fire. Their strength will be needed in the final battle.

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Publié par
Date de parution 23 mai 2013
Nombre de lectures 2
EAN13 9781773629414
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.

Exrait

Searches
Affinities Book3

By JLWalters
 
Digital ISBNs
EPUB978-1-77362-941-4
Kindle978-1-77145-061-4
WEB978-1-77362-942-1
 
Amazon Print978-1-77362-943-8
 

 
Copyright 2013 by JanetLane Walters
Cover Art by MichelleLee
 
All rightsreserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reservedabove, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in orintroduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form, orby any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, orotherwise) without the prior written permission of both thecopyright owner and the above publisher of this book.
Chapter One
 
Valcon
 
The midday sunof the late summer day beamed on the caravan consisting of threeRover wagons, several extra coursers and eight riders. Val tuggedoff his neck cloth and wiped his sweaty brow. Today he rode as rearguard and used his affinity for Water to search for emotions thatspoke of strangers. As yet, the group seemed to be the onlytravelers for miles.
He scanned thehorizon. The grassy plains stretched to the east and the west ofthe old rutted road leading toward a distant grove of trees. Theforest could hide attackers, but as yet he sensed no unknownenemies.
The heavy loadsstored in the wagons caused the slow progress. Val had to admitDoma Jandia was the best trader he had ever encountered. Not onlydid they have extra mounts there was enough food and grain to lasta month or more along with the tools they needed to repair theabandoned keep. He grinned. They still had credit with theRovers.
An outburst ofangry emotions impinged on his peace. Val’s hands clenched. Fourdays of travel beneath a hot sun had brought tempers to the fore,especially from those whose affinity for Fire guided theiractions.
Ky and hercourser tore toward him. With one hand she held the reins. Theother 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 towardthe pair. “Enough,” he cried. “Dampen those flames. Do you want toset the grass aflame and endanger us all?”
“She called mea baby,” Zand said.
Val sucked in abreath. “What did you say to her?”
“That I wasbetter with a sword.”
Val nodded.“Since you have been practicing with one since you could hold ablade, how else could you be? I say you’re both acting likechildren.” In some ways they both were, not only in age but inexperience. “Why don’t the pair of you spar after evening meal whenDragen can watch and comment?”
The flames onKy’s sword died. She turned to Zand. “A good idea.”
“Just blades.No flames,” Zand said.
The pairwheeled and rode off. Val watched them go. Sometimes he wished hecould use his affinity for Water to empty a cloud on his friends’heads. A longing for shade and coolness arose. Would they reach thetrees in time to make camp for the night?
Why were thereno farms or villages in this area? Was this part of the highlands?He knew the Rovers’ camp was in the neutral ground between thelowlands and the highlands. How much further must they travel toreach the deserted keep Dragen knew? The abandoned dwelling was tobe a refuge where they could learn to use their affinities. Thismeant another change in his life.
His thoughtsslid to the many times his life had undergone an upheaval. He hadno recollection of his mother’s death and few from the years he andhis father had lived off the land before joining the Rovers forseveral seasons. Those days had been ones of learning and ofbelonging.
Then his fatherhad been drawn to Cedris. Flashes of memories from the day hisfather 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 arearemained abraded. He knew the children who had lived with him inCedris were safe with the Rovers. They had been his family untilhis affinity had forced a chasm to separate them.
A shudderrolled through his body. A member of his adopted family had enviedhis talent. Had that been the reason for Larkea’s betrayal or hadher dislike of Geni spurred the angry reaction? Larkea’s actionshad resulted in his and Geni’s capture by Dom Senet and had placedall their friends in danger. When he recalled the coldness of thedom’s green eyes, Val felt ill.
“Val.”
He had been sodeep in thought he hadn’t noticed Bran’s arrival. Val smiled at hisfriend. With their pale blond hair, green eyes and the deep copperof their skins they could have been siblings except their featureswere different. Even Bran and his twin had little facialresemblance. Val halted his courser. “Is there a problem?”
“Sort of. Youremotions are so loud I can’t block them. Ash and Kirlon said yourbitterness scents the air. We’re worried about you.”
“Sorry.” Valstroked his steed’s neck. “I was thinking about all the changes inmy life and lost control. I also miss the children.” How could heexplain his losses to anyone?
Bran nodded.“About the children. You haven’t deserted them. Leaving them withthe Rovers gives them chances they didn’t have in Cedris. It’s alsobetter for them not to be with us.”
“I know.” Valsmiled. “Larkea thrives and enjoys her new knowledge about plantsand healing. The boys are gaining farming skills. Even Svana hasfound a place. Still, I miss them.”
A covey ofgrass hens erupted from the brush. Val used a slingshot to bringdown several. Bran dismounted and gathered the birds. By the timethe last one had been flushed they had eight.
“I wonder ifany of our companions have been successful hunters, too.” Thoughsacks of dried foods were stored in the wagons, Val was glad to addto the larder.
“We’ll soonknow.” Bran tied the fowl to his saddle, mounted and rode away.
Val followed ata slower pace. He remained alert and searched for stray emotions.The only ones he sensed belonged to his companions. By the time thesun sank toward the horizon, the wagons had reached the edge of theforest. Val tended to his steed and then joined Ash at the fire topluck the birds.
The clang ofswords and Dragen’s calling patterns accompanied his work. Valchuckled. “That should lessen their anger.”
“Being settledwill help more.”
The three withEarth affinities arrived. Jay and Dyna carried greens andmushrooms. Geni appeared with huge ground nuts and a basket ofsumma berries. “I have cuttings and roots for a kitchen garden,”she said.
“Maybe there’sa growing house.” Jay put the greens in a bowl.
Val popped oneof the berries into his mouth. “I wonder why the area is sodeserted.”
Dragen joinedthem. “In answer to your question, this area is part of the neutralland. To the west there are several villages where people of thehighlands and lowlands have settled.” He nodded to Ash. “You andyour siblings stayed near one of the villages when you lived at thefarm with my sister.”
“And thiskeep?” Val asked.
“Is on the edgeof the highlands. The place was once the home of distant relatives.When the refugees fled some disaster in their homeland and arrivedon our shores, the family of Rangers, farmers, doms and domasdecided to move higher into the mountains. Occasionally Jandiavisits them. Several members of the family have been her students.One is a talented healer. Ilvan is his name.”
Val spitted thebirds 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 longbefore we reach the keep?” Val asked.
The older manlooked up. “Two or three days if we all rode. Five days should seeus to what was the home farm and then several hours to thekeep.”
Val wondered ifany of the crops had gone wild and could be harvested. Living inthe Cedris garden had spoiled him. Having fresh fruit andvegetables had been wonderful. For a moment he thought about Cookand her family. Were they safe?
The moment hefinished the meal he grabbed his sleep saque and retreated to aspot beneath the trees. As he drifted to sleep, he wished the daysuntil they reached their new home would fly past. An impatience tobe settled and to learn more about his affinity, filled him.
Five days laterthey emerged from the forest into a field of stunted grain. Theirtravel had been marked by halts to clear fallen trees and brushfrom the old road.
Val examinedthe seed heads on several varieties and grinned. Though not primegrain, they could harvest enough for the coursers and themselves.He stared at the distant walls of the keep. Tomorrow, hethought.
Peels oflaughter startled him. Geni and Dyna gathered dark blue berriesfrom a tangle surrounding the fields. Ky and Jay pulled crispinsand pesches from trees.
“Would youstop,” Ash called. “I can’t catch what both of you throw andthere’s nothing to put them in.”
Val grabbed anempty basket and ran to help. “Don’t be so greedy,” he called tothe twins.
The pair jumpedto the ground. “There are olla trees, too.”
Val made aface. “We’ll have to pick and render them. Outside, I hope.”
Ash’s grimacematched his. “Agreed. I hope we find a growing house. With threewho have an affinity for Earth tending the plants, we can havefresh food all year. I can’t wait to reach the keep.”
Val lifted thebasket of fruit. “We need to approach the walls with caution.According to Dragen, the place has been empty for generations. Whoknows what pests have taken refuge there. Bran and I should gofirst and see what creatures we can send away.”
“Sending themaway might not be a good idea. What if they return?”
Bran strolledtoward them. “She’s right. Ash and Kirlon can scent the air. Youand I can call them. Zand and Ky can send fire to burn them. Iimagine we’ll encounter ratis.”
Val consideredboth plans and realized Bran’s was more sensible. “Sounds like youridea is the best one. We need to discuss this with Dragen and DomaJandia.”
“Witheveryone.” Ash walked toward the fire.
The nextmorning, the six sent out for the keep. Ash and Kirlon led thegroup. The walls drew closer. Val saw parts of the structure hadgaps where stones had fallen. They entered where there had oncebeen a wooden gate and halted. The tall central tower seemed intactas did the single story building that ran from the front and aroundthe sides of the tower.
Ash looked atthem, “I smell ratis and several scents I don’t know. They arefoul.”
“Spiders,snakes and other vermin,” Kirlon said.
“Are theyhostile to the ratis?” Bran asked.
“I don’t know.Their odor is unpleasant,” Ash said. “Maybe there are scorponslurking.”
A yowl startledVal. He turned to see both pair of forstcats move toward thebuilding. He drew a deep breath. “Are we ready?”
“Yes,” theothers said.
Val sent a callmessage. He heard Bran’s urging join his. A swarm of black, brownand white mottled creatures poured from the building. How had somany survived when there were no people? Then he became tooinvolved in destroying the pests to find an answer.
Lashes of flameshot from the swords Ky and Zand carried. Val, Kirlon and Bran usedslingshots to pelt the mass. The forstcats caught the stunnedcreatures and snapped their necks. The stench of burning fur madeVal’s stomach lurch. Slowly, the stench faded. He realized Ashstirred the air to drive the odors away.
Val continuedto call ratis until only nestlings appeared. The forstcats shreddedthese with their claws and ran into the single story annex of thekeep. Val and the others followed. The four felines flowed intonarrow cracks in the walls. They drove vividly colored lizards andbronze striped snakes into the open.
Once the lowerlevel was clear of vermin, the six escorted by the forstcats, movedfrom level to level of the tower making sure each of the fourfloors were vermin-free before moving to the next.
The towerstairs were on the right-hand side of the building and had openingson each level into a hall. On the first two floors of the keeptower a large chamber and a bathing room provided sleeping spacefor groups. The young women chose the first level and the young menthe second. On each of the other floors there were four chambersand a bathing room. Doma Jandia and Dragen would be comfortablethere.
Bymid-afternoon, Val stepped through the door and stood on the walledspace of the roof. He stared at the vista and saw fields, forestand the rising mountains.
Ash sent amessage to Doma Jandia on the winds. Soon everyone was engaged incleaning the keep for occupancy. Val smiled. They were here andsafe. At least for now.
 
 
Ashlea
 
Ash helpedcarry the long granite slab the three with Earth affinities hadcarved from the cliff behind the keep. Dragen opened the door sothey could enter the large kitchen. The nine placed the slab on thesquare pillars fashioned into legs. Though the original table hadshattered, the stone benches and chairs had remained. She steppedback and scanned the massive room.
She and Kirlonhad cleaned the large fireplace and used currents of air to clearthe chimney. The braziers on either side had been scoured andrepaired by Ky and Zand. Val and Bran had scrubbed the floors, thestone worktables along one wall and the shelves of thecupboards.
“What else isthere to do?” she asked.
“Dragen isusing wood from one of the wagons to make storage places in thepantry,” Jay said.
Dyna rubbed thesurface of the table with a cloth. The stone gleamed. “We can usethe mounds of straw in the entry way to stuff sleeping mats andpillows. A sevenday of sleeping on the stone floor is enough.”
Ash smiled.During the days since they’d arrived at the keep, they had workedhard. She thought of the other things they needed to do. Beforelong autumn would arrive. Besides having a safe place, there werequests they must complete before they returned to master theiraffinities. Only then could they train to face Dom Senet and hisfollowers.
She wonderedhow much time remained before they could confront the evil man.What was he doing? Could she learn? Was she brave enough to searchthe winds for him? A chill rolled over her arms and she gasped.
Kirlon turned.“What has frightened you?”
Ash drew a deepbreath, “Dom Senet.” She walked to the door and stepped into thecourtyard.
He lookedstartled. “Has he tried to speak to you?”
“No. I waswondering if I should check on him. I can do that, you know.”
Kirlon claspedher hand. “Though I’ve never had a meeting with him, he scares me.I wonder if he was responsible for the disappearance of my fatherand my uncle. When they left for the highlands, they promised toreturn. They didn’t. Then illness struck the village and Dyna and Ibecame orphans.”
“He and hisfriends could have killed them. We were sent to Cedris to meet theteachers our parents had spoken to. They never arrived. Just beforewe 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 weleave on our quest.”
He nodded. “Iknow there are talismans we need as well as other people withaffinities. I think we should seek the talented first. The Roverstold me how those with talents for the elements are often feared bypeople and must flee the way Dyna and I did.” He stepped away.“Could we seek Dom Senet on the winds?”
“We can but notalone.”
“Then you and Iwill do this. What about now?”
Though hisoffer pleased her, now wasn’t the time. She refused to seek the domunless her siblings were present to draw her back. “Not now. Afterthe evening meal, we can meet in the inner room. Bring Dyna. Thoughyou are cousins and not siblings, you have a bond.”
He frowned.“Why must she be there?”
“I’d like youto read the winds with me and taste Dom Senet’s thoughts, but Idon’t want you to be trapped.” She told him of the time the dom hadsensed her and how he had tried to gain control of her mind. “Mysiblings broke me free but an echo remained. Doma Jandia had toteach me how to break free.”
“What do youmean by trapped?”
She shuddered.“I was sick and fevered. He was in my head laughing and makingthreats.”
“I don’t wantthat. I’ll tell Dyna.”
Ash returned tothe kitchen. She put plates on the table. Kirlon brought thecutting boards for bread and cheese. Jay and Geni arrived withgreens and scallions. Ash wished for tomatls like they’d had inCedris. Perhaps after repairing the growing house, their larderwould improve. The doma poured heated water into pots for tea andkaf. Dragen produced a smoked ham. Eleven people gathered at thetable and ate.
While she andher siblings cleaned the kitchen, she told them of her plan. “Ihave to do this.”
“Why?” Jayasked.
“We need toknow where he is and what he’s planning. Soon we have to leave thekeep to search for others with affinities to complete thequartets.”
Ky nodded.“She’s right.”
Bran claspedAsh’s hand. “I hate to agree but we need to know if he has any ideaof where we are.”
“Kirlon andDyna will join us. Kirlon needs to learn how to search the windsfor a specific person. Their bond will pull him back if the domsenses him.” Ash washed the last of the dishes.
Bran and Jaycarried the pails of dirty water to the door and emptied them. Atthe pump they washed and refilled the buckets. “Can’t wait untilthe pipes are repaired,” Bran said.
Ash chuckled.“In time, the doma said.”
Ky dashed tothe door into the entry hall. “I’m off for some pillows. I’ll meetyou.”
Ash walked withher brothers to the inner room the doma had designated as atraining place. Located behind the tower stairs there were nowindows and only a single door. Ky returned with straw-stuffedcushions. She lit the candles set in sconces along the walls.Kirlon and Dyna arrived with more pillows.
Ash positionedone beside hers. The others formed a circle around them. Ashclasped Kirlon’s hand. “Follow me.”
“How do I dothat?”
She reachedwith her mind to touch his, using the way Doma Jandia had taughther. “Come.” She felt his thoughts join hers. She searched thewinds for traces of the particular aroma of Dom Senet’s thoughts.He wasn’t in Cedris. Nor was he in the highlands. She continued toscent the winds until she smelled his essence. Cautiously, sheslipped into his head.
He spoke to apair of doms. Malera, Mandir and Lodar are in place and ready to domy bidding. They will seek the heirs of Easren, Nortren andSoutren. His laughter filled the wind. Ash felt cold.
They believe Iwill help them become the rulers of these princedoms. They will doall I ask until the day they learn there can only be one ruler. Iam that one. You will remain hidden here. Two of my faithful willbe sent to each of the other princedoms. I will tell you when andhow to act. Though time will pass, you must remain alert.
Just as she wasabout to leave his thoughts, she caught a tendril leading to hisplans for the four young men Zand and her brothers had met. Shewanted to know more about them so she delved deeper. As she hadsuspected, the four were being trained to face her siblings andher. A sliver of fear sliced through her thoughts.
Ashlea?
Dom Senet’svoice. A surge of fear that wasn’t hers startled Ash. She broke theconnection to the dom the way Doma Jandia had taught her. Come, shecalled to Kirlon. She felt him flee on her trail. Yet someoneremained.
Who? Ashasked.
Sydli.
Where areyou?
Instead of ananswer the other voice vanished. Ash heard her siblings call hername. Dyna called Kirlon. Ash opened her eyes. “I’m all right. Thisis what I learned…” She told them of the plans for the princedomsand how the dom planned to replace the heirs.
Bran nodded.“We’ve already seen the start of that.”
“How so?” Jayasked.
“Larin is theheir 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 deepbreath. “He plans to use them against us and he has no idea we haveallies.”
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’swhat those four boys said.”
“She wasfrightened of him.”
Kirlongrimaced. “I don’t blame her. One scent of his mind and I feltsick. He smelled like rotten meat.”
Ash nodded.“You are so right.” She turned to Dyna and her siblings. “Someoneneeds to find the doma.”
“I’ll go,” Dynasaid.
“Find Zand andGeni, too,” Ash said. “We’re not trained to fight the dom yet andwe need to plan.”
Bran rose andfollowed Dyna. “I’ll make a calming tea.” Jay and Ky went withhim.
Ash closed hereyes. The encounter with Dom Senet made her want to burrow into acave. A thought arose. Had he really sensed her or had Sydli orKirlon triggered his response? There had been a question in hisvoice. Maybe he hadn’t been sure who had searched his thoughts.
She had to warnothers like herself. She sent a call on the winds. To those withaffinities for the elements, seek the Rovers. If you are in danger,they will help.
Moments laterthe doma and the rest of the party arrived. Ash told them what shehad done and what she had learned.
Doma Jandiafrowned. “I pray the message you sent only reaches those you needand not Senet and his ilk.”
Ash released asigh. “We need them. Visiting every village and town in everyprincedom would take too long.”
“There isthat,” the doma said. “I know you want to start your search, butthe time isn’t yet.”
Ash bowed herhead. While the others talked about what had been learned and madeplans, she prayed they would be granted the time they needed.
 
 
Sydli
 
Who?
The questionrang in Sydli’s thoughts and brought a gush of fear. Sydli. Sheanswered before she decided whether the voice belonged to a friendor enemy. To muffle her mind, she quickly slammed the barrier hermother had taught her to erect.
She sank on achair and covered her face with her hands. Though she had given hername to a stranger, she had kept her location secret. Cautiously,she opened the bond to her twin. Emli. Be careful at dinnertonight. We don’t want Lodar to know which of us can hear histhoughts.
Emli grinned.He is fun to confuse but I don’t like or trust him. He makes mefeel itchy.
You’re right tofeel that way. I have listened to him when he sits at Father’sside. Mandir constantly speaks of Wesren and how wealthy thatprincedom has become. He hints the reason is because no female orhalfling can be the ruler. He also argues that as Father’s oldestchild, though his mother was never a spouse, he should be named asheir.
Emli frowned.Father was pleased when Lodar returned. What will we do if he isnamed heir?
Sydli graspedher twin’s hands. We will pray spouses are found for us in otherprincedoms.
If Father doesthat, we will be separated.
Sydli caught ahint of eagerness in her twin’s thoughts. Did Emli want to have alife apart? The possibility troubled Sydli. Before their mother’sdeath, she had asked Sydli to protect her twin. The promise hadbeen 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 Lodarknows which of us is the true heir?”
Sydli shook herhead. “Doubtful. Prepare to be charming. I will be nasty.” Shefinished braiding her hair. They had inherited their pale hair andgreen eyes from their mother. Their copper-hued skin was like theirfather’s. Being halflings had held them apart from the people ofNortren.
The summoningbell chimed. Emli walked to the door. “We should hurry.”
They sped alongthe corridor toward the throne room. Sydli paused at the door tocatch her breath and to read who was inside. Emli reached for thehandle. Sydli’s forehead wrinkled. “Lodar is here. Father’sthoughts show he is pleased. What has Lodar told him?”
Emli made aface. “Who knows?”
“I couldlearn.” Sydli felt a brush across her thoughts. Beware. Shield.There’s a stranger in there who can read thoughts.
My blocks aretight. Could this stranger be one of our half-brother’s friends orone of our relatives?
I don’tknow.
Emli opened thedoor. “Father, we are here.”
When Sydli sawthe tall man whose fair hair hung in a braid down his back, herskin prickled. She pulled her barriers too tight she could barelyhear spoken words.
The strangerrose. His black leather clothes made his skin appear as pale asnewly fallen snow. His coloring and manner meant he was from thehighlands. Who was he? A miasma of evil surrounded him. Sydli knewhe was no friend.
The man turnedto her father. “Pedron, your daughters are as lovely as any I’veseen.”
His intenseglare made Sydli’s shoulder muscles tense. She clasped Emli’s hand.They crossed the room and curtseyed to their father.
Prince Pedronsmiled. “You may rise. Dom Senet, my twin daughters, Emli andSydli.”
Sydli kept hergaze lowered. She caught a glimpse of Lodar’s sly smile from thecorner of her eyes. In that instant she knew the dom was herhalf-brother’s ally. Take care. She sent the message on the twinbond.
Always.
The prince heldhis arm for Emli to clasp. “The evening meal awaits.”
The dom heldhis arm for Sydli. She touched the tips of her fingers to hissleeve. They walked toward the great hall. She felt his attempts topenetrate the barrier over her thoughts. Small needles jabbed. Shewanted to push him away, but she dare not show she knew of hisintentions.
In the greathall, Dom Senet held her chair. “I knew your mother. She was one ofmy students. Did she ever tell you how she was brought to yourfather’s attentions?”
Sydli shook herhead. “I know she came here after Lodar’s mother tried to poisonFather.”
“I broughther,” Dom Senet said.
He lied butwhy? “I don’t understand. Mother said Doma Jandia sent herhere.”
The quickfreezing of his expression made her wish she dared read histhoughts. She couldn’t lower her barriers for an instant while inhis presence. Did he think her mother would have kept her romance asecret from her daughters? The moment dinner ended she planned touse the hidden ways to spy on him. The dom could be one of the menher mother had warned her daughters not to trust.
All during themany courses of the meal, Sydli felt subtle brushes against herbarriers. When the last course arrived, she managed to gain Emli’sattention. Has he tried to break your barriers?
Once or twice.What does he want?
I don’t knowbut I will learn.
He frightensme.
Me, too.
When thecourtiers and their ladies gathered in clusters, Sydli and Emlislipped from the room. Though Sydli wished they could use the innerways, the presence of so many people in the halls prevented thisescape. They reached their suite and she bolted the door.
Emli slumped ona chair. “Lodar was so smug. Told me he believes I will make a goodspouse for his half–brother.”
Sydli pulledher dress over her head. “And me?”
“Actually hesaid which ever of us the dom doesn’t claim will become Mandir’sspouse.”
“I’ll fleebefore either happens.” Sydli dressed in a tunic and divided skirt.“I caught several of Lodar’s thoughts. He believes the dom willhelp him become heir.”
Emli grimaced.“We have to know how they plan to achieve this. Should I come withyou?”
“Not this time.Stay here in case someone comes to check on us.”
“What should Itell them?”
“That I went tothe stillroom. You need a potion for a headache.”
“If the dom isallied with Lodar and helps him become heir, what will happen toFather?”
“I don’t know.”She would worry about their father once she knew her twin was safe.“I won’t be long.”
“Becareful.”
“Always. We’rethe only ones who know of the inner ways. Remember what Mothersaid. The passages were created when the highlanders helped buildthe palace so they could have access if needed.”
Emli nodded.“Do you think the dom knows about them? He is from thehighlands.”
“I pray not.”Sydli stepped into the wardrobe and opened the door into a darkpassage. Emli handed her a candle.
As Sydlihurried along the narrow hall, she hoped Dom Senet knew nothingabout the hidden ways. She moved forward and listened for voices.Loud ones came from Lodar’s suite. She peered through the smallviewing hole and swallowed a gasp. The dom was there. Cautiously,she extended her talent to hear both their spoken and their silentwords.
“I should endyour life,” Dom Senet said. “When you shattered the gem, you andyour brother may have killed Alizand. I had a use for him.” Thoughhis voice remained calm, his thoughts churned with rage. Death willbe your lot when you complete the task I set.
“He got in ourway,” Lodar said. “We just wanted to kill the war steed.” Does hethink he scares me?
“And that gaveyou permission to attempt to kill Alizand?” Dom Senet raised hishand. A spurt of fire caressed Lodar’s cheek. “I can mark you or Ican destroy you.” But not until your usefulness ends.
Lodar backedaway. Fear scrambled his thoughts. “Wasn’t me. Mandir is toblame.”
“Was he?”
The question inthe dom’s voice increased the fear Sydli read in Lodar’sthoughts.
“We didn’t knowhe 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 oneof you touched it?”
Lodar laughed.“You’re wrong. Mother had a necklace of red jewels.”
“That wasnothing like the one Alizand wore. No matter. You will pay for thataction by obedience. This time you will heed my instructions.”
Lodar nodded.“I promise.”
“Spend timewith your half-sisters. One of them has an affinity for one of theelements. I need to know which one.”
“Why?” Lodar’sthoughts raced with ways to turn the order to his advantage.
“Not for you toknow.” Dom Senet raised his fist.
“How do I learnwhat you want to know?”
“By skillfulquestions. By observation. When you have the answer, report tome.”
“What are theseaffinities?” Lodar turned his back on the dom.
Dom Senetlaughed. “You have seen me and Alizand use Fire. Air pulls thoughtsfrom a person’s head. Water senses emotions. Earth makes plantsgrow.”
“How do Ireport to you? You’re leaving in the morning.”
With a suddenmovement, the dom placed his hands on Lodar’s head. Commands cametoo fast for Sydli to hear them all. She feared if she probeddeeper Dom Senet would discover her. As she closed her mind, sheheard a voice.
Seek theRovers. If you are in danger they will help.
Dom Senet spokeagain. “Not the Rovers, you fool. There are two doms living intown. Seek them.”
Sydli steppedback and managed to avoid hitting the wall. The voice giving thecommand hadn’t sound like Dom Senet’s, but she had no idea if thespeaker was friend or foe. She and Emli were in danger. Plans foran escape were essential. Where could they go? She knew nothingabout any place except Norla and little about the town except forthe palace and the market. Could she and Emli find safety with theRovers?
 
 
Kylandra
 
Ky and Zandspent the morning fusing the broken glass panels for the growinghouse. The rest of the group busily fitted the pieces together.When all the panels were in place, the covered area would be threetimes as large as the one they had found in the Cedris garden.
“Ky,” Jaycalled. “I’ve finished another one.”
She crossed towhere he sat and knelt beside the pane he had assembled. Aftercalling fire to her fingers, she traced the cracks and watched theglass shards fuse. With a grin, she rose. “Once we finish thepanels, all we’ll need to do is repair the beds and find plants tofill them.”
Zand lookedaround. “Where will we find the plants?”
Ky walked tohis side. “Jay, Geni and Dyna already have cuttings in thestillroom. They’ll also search the fields and forest.”
Bran waved herover. “Another one is ready. We have some seeds the doma boughtfrom the Rovers, and they promised her more.”
Ky ran herfinger over the glass and watched a solid sheet form. She rolledher shoulders. “I need a rest.” And a change. Doing the same thingagain and again was boring.
Doma Jandiaappeared in the doorway of the growing house. “The midday meal isready. Go wash your faces and hands.”
With a shout ofjoy, Ky dashed outside and splashed cold water from the trough onher face. After finishing two bowls of soup, toasted bread andcheese, she decided Zand could finish the dozen glass panelsneeding to be fused. She wanted to work in the large barn. Shestayed in the kitchen to help with the dishes.
After sheemptied the dirty water, she sauntered to the large stone structurethat abutted the rear wall of the keep. The walls seemed solid andso did the beams of the roof and loft. Something about them puzzledher. How had the builders made the wooden stalls and troughs looklike stone?
Along thewalls, she noticed a number of places where bits of the mortar hadcrumbled. If she used fire to melt the white material when ithardened, the walls should be solid. Before that happened thedebris from the loft had to be removed.
She ran herhands along one of the stalls and formed a ball of fire to take acloser look. Wood and not wood. The smooth surface felt likeporcelain or polished stone yet the grain of the wood was visible.What had the former occupants of the keep used to produce thesmoothness and the longevity? She climbed the stone steps to theloft and began flinging down the matted leaves and other things.There was less debris than she had expected. She inched along thebeams finding the same type of preservation. Why hadn’t theytreated the loft floor and the roof?
Ky laughed ather questions. They couldn’t be answered. The people who hadproduced such wonders were lost in the past.
Once the lastof the waste matter was on the ground, she climbed down and rakedthe material into a heap. To her surprise, the floor was stone withchannels to aid in cleaning the stalls. She loaded a barrow andpushed it to the pile outside the gate. Then she returned foranother load. She felt as tired as if she had used her sword in abattle. She sank to the ground and leaned against the wall. Wouldthe keep ever be ready for winter?
Don’t be sonegative. Jay’s comment flowed over the twin bond. Dragen’s cuttingsaplings to use as flooring for the loft.
A sharp painjabbed her hand. She screamed. Flames spurted from her fingers. Kyjumped to her feet. What? Then she saw the barbed tail of a scorponpoised to strike again. The creature was larger than both her handsplaced side by side. She seared the scorpon with fire. A mass ofsmaller creatures emerged from the cracks in the wall. Ky turnedand ran.
The poison fromthe barbed tail of the scorpon burned a trail up her arm. “Help!Scorpon,” she shouted. Her stomach clenched and threatened toerupt. Dizziness caused her to stagger. She struggled to keep onher feet. If she fell the rest of the vermin would attack.
Dragen dashedinto the barn. Zand followed. He sent lashes of flame into themilling mass of creatures. Ky fell to her knees. She tried tostand. Bran appeared.
“Be still,” heordered. “Running makes the poison move faster. Val and I will takeyou to the keep.”
They liftedher. The jarring movement increased her nausea. By the time theyreached the kitchen, she opened her eyes. The room spun. Sheswallowed to keep from spewing her lunch. The burning sensation hadtraveled past her elbow. Her fingers were numb. The pain was akinto what she had felt when she’d cleared the web from the tunnelduring the escape from the henge, and a strand had wrapped aroundher wrist. Had Dom Senet found a way to weave scorpon poison into aweb?
She heardvoices, but they were blurred. Her eyelids seemed too heavy toraise. Her thoughts swept away as though captured by the wind.
Ky opened hereyes to find Doma Jandia and her siblings seated around hersleeping mat. “My arm.” Her fingers barely moved.
“Will be weakfor 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’smouth. “Drink.”
The liquid wascool and so sweet she grimaced. “What is that?”
“Astimulant.”
“You werereally sick,” Jay said. “I couldn’t find you on the twin bond.”
Ky swallowedthe rest of the drink. “You really couldn’t hear me?”
Ash nodded.“You’ve been ill for three days. Even your thoughts were absentfrom the winds.”
Ky’s eyeswidened. Maybe her thoughts had really whirled away. “What happenedto the scorpons?”
“They’re dead,”Bran said. “Val and I called them from the walls. Zand scoured themwith fire. There were hundreds.”
“Good.” Kylooked at the doma. “Can I get up?”
Doma Jandiasmiled. “Not today.”
“But I feelfine. Being in bed makes me itchy.”
“Your siblingswarned me. Said you hated being idle. Tomorrow you can come to thekitchen for your meals. No work or running around for threedays.”
“I’m hungrynow.”
Jay walked tothe door. “I’ll bring some porridge and tea. There are pesches,too. We brought some saplings from the orchard to plant in thegrowing house.”
After hereturned, Ky shared her observations about the poison. “Was almostlike when the web strands burned me. I’m glad my skin didn’t breakthen.”
Ash shuddered.“So am I. You were very sick that time, but not like now.”
Bran leanedforward. “It’s a shame we didn’t keep one of the scorpons alive sowe could gather the poison and test it.”
The doma shookher head. “The only thing you need to know about poisons is how totreat them.” She rose. “Brandien and Ashlea, you will come with me.We need to organize the stillroom and unpack the herbs andmedicinals.”
The three leftand Zand slipped into the room. “Grandmother said you were awake.When I saw how sick you were, I was scared. You were my firstfriend. I was afraid I would lose you.”
Ky smiled.“That’s how I felt when I heard your step-brothers hurt you.” Shefinished the porridge and handed Jay the bowl. “Is the growinghouse finished?’
“All the glasspanels are in place and most of the beds have been repaired.” Heleaned 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 thewood with a special mud. Then Bran and Val will remove the water.Zand will call fire to dry the slurry. When flames move across thesurface, it dries as hard as the wood that’s already there.” Hehesitated a moment.
“Good for you.”She sighed. “I wish I could help.” Her eyes narrowed. “Zand you’rethe only one using the fire. You need me.” She pushed the coversback and tried to stand.
Jay shook hishead. “Not today. Tomorrow we’re going to cut thatching straw. Whenthe roof is done, we’re thinking about making that hard. Then youcan help.”
“Where do youget the straw?”
“A meadow thedoma knows.”
“I want togo.”
“You heard whatGrandmother said. You can’t work for three days.” Zand walked tothe door. “See you.”
Jay turned toleave, but Ky caught his hand. “Who knows how to thatch?”
“Dragen,Kirlon, Dyna and the doma. They’ll teach us.” He turned to followZand. “I’d better go.”
Ky yawned. “Seeyou at midday.” She pushed the pillows on the floor. She closed hereyes with the forstcat kittens curled at her side. Tomorrow sheplanned to do more than go to the kitchen and eat.
 
 
Jaydren
 
Jay left histwin and walked with Zand to the growing house. The boxes had beenrepaired and filled with earth. Ash, Bran and Val planted herbs andmedicinals in several of the beds. Dragen lifted the last of thefruit trees into a tub set along the rear wall of the spaciousstructure. As he strode toward the older man, Jay inhaled thearomas of growing plants. “What can I do?”
Dragen lookedup. “Go see what needs to be removed from the spare wagon so itwill be ready for your trip. While you’re gone, I’ll finish settingthe logs in place for the loft.”
Jay hurriedoutside. He stopped before the wagon and saw that little more thanthe sides remained. Dyna and Geni lifted the table and carried ittoward the steps. He grabbed one end. “Where is this going?”
“Thestillroom,” Dyna said. “The lower bunk is in Dragen’s room and theupper in the doma’s.”
He guided thetable down the steps. When she joined him, they carried the tableinto the keep. Geni followed with one of the benches.
“Doma Jandiasaid we leave in the morning for the field where the thatchingstraw grows,” Dyna said.
“She told me.”Jay carried his end into the main entrance to the single story partof the keep. Inside, he turned toward the stillroom. “Since Ky isbetter, the doma is coming and wants us to hunt for more herbs andmedicinals for us or to trade.”
Inside the roomwhere shelves lined two of the walls, they placed the table so thebenches could be set on either side. Someone had constructed a longtable from boards removed from the sides of the wagon and placed itagainst the wall beneath the windows. He noticed most of the jarsand bottles were empty.
Dyna walked tothe door. “I’m glad your sister is better.”
Jay made aface. “She wants to go with us.”
Geni placed thebench behind the table. “Her energy astounds me. She’s always onthe move.”
Jay laughed.“So true, but she can’t come. I suggest we leave early.”
Dyna nodded. “Agood idea.”
They returnedto the wagon and left a few boards on the sides and ends to containanything they might carry. The remaining lumber was stored in theentry hall.
After a breakfor lunch, they followed Dragen and the wagon to the edge of theforest where he had cut enough saplings to finish the loft. Theytrimmed the branches before loading the timber on the cart bed.
On their returnto the keep, Jay, Geni and Dyna mixed water with clay from beneaththe cliff to form a slurry. They carried the buckets to the barnwhere the logs for the rest of the loft were in place. They usedbrushes to paint the logs. Val and Bran drew water from the mixturewhile Zand used flames from his sword to dry the surface.
Jay touched thecompleted flooring and discovered it felt like stone. “I wonder ifthis is how firebricks are made.”
“I’m sure we’lllearn,” Bran said. “Race you to the brook. I want to be clean.”
The boys headedto the bathing place. Jay hoped they would soon have water in thekeep’s bathing rooms. Once clean, they returned for the eveningmeal. Jay spoke to the doma about leaving early the next morningand she agreed.
He rose withthe sun and met the others who were to make the trip in thekitchen. Just as they were about to leave, Ky arrived. “I want togo.”
The doma shookher head. “Kylandra, though you feel stronger, you would hold usback.”
Jay made aface. “Cutting straw would bore you.”
“But you’recamping and you know how much I like that.”
“I do but therewill be other times.”
“If you findsomething interesting, use the twin bond.”
Jay laughed.“What could be interesting about straw?” He shouldered his pack andjoined the others in the courtyard.
By mid-morning,they reached the meadow where tall stalks of dried straw stood. Thedoma took one of the cutting knives and a ball of twine from thewagon. Dyna did the same. The doma bound a bunch of straw andsliced near the ground. Then she watched while Jay and Geni cutseveral more.
“You’re doing agood job. When you’ve cut a dozen bundles, pile them in the wagon.I’ll be in the trees at the edge of the field.” The doma carriedtwo empty sacks.
A short timelater after the sun reached midday, the three had nearly filled thebed of the wagon. They sat in the shade and ate the food they hadbrought from the keep.
The doma joinedthem. Both her sacks bulged. She looked at the load and smiled.“Rest awhile. Then bundle, cut and stack. I’m leaving for the keepand will return in the morning for the second load. I’ve a bountyfor the growing house. Some of the herbs must be planted beforethey die.” She placed the full sacks under the driver’s seat.
After the domaleft, Jay rose and cut straw until he ran out of twine. Dyna andGeni finished moments later. He turned to them and pointed to thestream that ran along the edge of the field. “I’m going upstreamand see if I can catch some fish to supplement what webrought.”
“Good idea,”Geni said. “I saw some safras bushes. The berries make a pleasanttea.”
“There are someground nut runners,” Dyna said. “And gingar. If you bring backfish, we can use that for seasoning.”
Jay set off andwalked along the brook until he came to a widened area. He lay onhis stomach and dangled his hand in the water. He had nearly dozedoff when he felt a brush against his fingers. With a snap of hiswrist, he flipped his catch onto the grass. He grinned. Largeenough to feed three. He gutted and wrapped the fish in wet cressleaves.
He spotted somesumma berry bushes across the creek. The ripe fruit tempted him.After packing the basket with more leaves, he found a narrow placeand waded to the other side. He ate several berries and filled therest of the basket.
The sound ofshouting startled him. Who, he wondered. He put the basket on theground and crept forward. Were the speakers a threat to the keep?He reached a place where the bushes formed a screen. He saw thefour young men beside a spring and tightened his barriers. He knewthem and had no desire for another meeting. Bran and Zand had beenwith him when they had encountered and fought this quartet. Hedidn’t recall their names, but he knew their affinities. He neededto know what they planned.
“Why must wewait here?” Water asked.
“Dom Manton’son the way with coins for our journey,” Fire said. “This is theplace he chose for a meeting.”
Air nodded. “Hemay have more instructions about what we must do in Easren.”
Earth laughed.“Will we have time for fun there?”
“Depends,” Airsaid. “We’re to take the heir and his sister from the palace. DomManton believes she has an affinity.”
“A girl?”Flames spurted from Fire’s fingers. “Maybe she’s the heir and herbrother has the affinity. We all know girls don’t have affinities.Wonder what he wants with them.”
“Not him,”Earth said. “Your father.”
“If he reallyis,” Fire said.
A courser rodeinto the clearing. Dom Manton had arrived. Jay pulled his barrierseven tighter.
“Greetings.”Dom Manton tossed a pouch to each of the young men. “Your expensemoney. You have your instructions. There is more.” He beckoned toFire. “Your father has heard a rumor that may be ofimportance.”
“And that is?”Arrogance rang in Fire’s voice.
“You may have atwin sister. Twice she was Senet’s prisoner and twice she escaped.Since we suspect the relationship exists, you will use the twinbond and find her.”
“Why would I dothat?”
“Senet knowsthis young woman has an affinity and she is with our enemies.” DomManton placed his hand on Fire’s head. “Open to me so I can see ifthis bond can be activated.”
Jay’s handsclenched. Geni was the one who had been the dom’s prisoner twice.Could the bond be awakened without the pair seeing each other? Hehad to do something without exposing himself. With care, he shiftedsmall bits of earth from beneath the hooves of the fivecoursers.
The steedsmoved in a restless dance. Fire jerked away from Dom Manton. “Letme be. When I see my father, I will permit him to do this. Notyou.”
Dom Mantoncalmed his steed. “So be it.” He turned his mount and rodeaway.
Once hevanished, Fire dismounted. “Camp here or move on.”
“There’s waterhere and only a long trail ahead,” Air said. “By tomorrow we’llreach a village with an inn. If we continue this afternoon, bytomorrow we’ll be past the place.”
Earth unsaddledhis courser. “Do you believe Dom Manton’s nonsense about you havinga twin sister with an affinity?”
Fire shrugged.“We’ll ask my father. Remember what he said about females andtalent for the elements.”
Draggingtroubled thoughts, Jay began a slow retreat. Was Fire really Geni’stwin? That meant Dom Senet was her father. Would she become abetrayer? Should he tell her what he had heard? He needed to talkto his siblings first. They would help him decide what must bedone. Once he reached the basket, he lifted his gatherings andhurried back to the meadow.
Dyna sat besidethe fire where water heated in a pot. “What’s wrong?”
Jay put thebasket on the ground. I nearly stumbled over the boys we met whenwe went to the training place.”
“We’d betterhead back to the keep and warn the doma.”
Jay shook hishead. “They aren’t that close.” He emptied the berries from thebasket and showed her the fish. “I’m starved.”
“Then we’ll eatfirst. Geni found some large ground nuts that are roasting.”
Jay cut thefish and placed it in the pan. “This will cook quickly.”
“We should letthe doma know.”
Jay nodded.“I’ll speak to Ky on the twin bond. She can tell the doma.” Heturned the fish.
“What about thestraw?” Geni asked.
“Someone willcome tomorrow.” Jay sprinkled gingar on the fish. Then he closedhis eyes and spoke to his twin.
 
 
Brandien
 
When DomaJandia arrived at the keep with a load of thatching straw, Branlooked for the three friends who had gone with her. He dashedacross the courtyard and unhitched the ponies. “Where are yourhelpers?”
“Cutting asecond load,” the doma said. “What we don’t need for the roof canbe used in the stalls and animal pens. In the morning I’ll returnfor the rest. Is there some reason you need them here?”
Bran paused.Was there a need? He wanted to make sure they were safe. “I climbedto the roof of the keep and saw riders on the trail. How close isthe field to the road?”
“At least fivemiles. A forest surrounds the field.”
“But they wereenemies. I sensed their emotions.”
She grasped hisshoulders. “We are safe and so are your friends. Few people knowabout this keep and they are friends. There are other protectionsas well. Did you tell Dragen?”
Bran shook hishead. “He and Zand are hunting or something.”
“Calm yourfears.” She gazed into his eyes. “Believe me when I say we’resafe.”
Could he trusther? Until Jay returned and the siblings were together there waslittle choice. He toed the dirt. “I’ll try.”
The domapointed to the two sacks beneath the seat. “Once the straw isstored, the herbs and medicinals in the smaller sack must beplanted. I’ll take the others to the stillroom.”
Bran cared forthe ponies then took them to the pasture and returned to helpunload the cart. He hoisted the sack of herbs to be planted andcarried them to the growing house where the aromas of growing herbscalmed his spirits. The scent of the earth and growing things hadalways done this. Before long, Val joined him and together theycompleted the planting.
Just before theevening meal, Bran entered the stillroom. Herbs and medicinals hadbeen hung to dry. Ash crushed a pungent herb and added it tobottles of oil. “Why are you making so much?”
His sister madea face. “Doma Jandia said we need to purchase many items from theRovers.”
“More than thecredit we have with them?” he asked.
Kirlon lookedup. “We’re hoping for seven more to join us before winter. When thebarn is thatched, Dragen and some of us will return and trade forplants and animals.”
Bran turned toleave. Who would be chosen for the trip to the Rovers’ camp? Hedidn’t want to be one of them unless his siblings were to be partof the party. “I’m heading to the kitchen.”
The pair joinedhim. By the time the evening meal was prepared, Dragen and Zand hadreturned. They gathered around the table. Bran missed the threeabsent members of the group.
As he emptiedthe dishwater, Ky pulled him aside. “Jay just sent a message on thetwin bond.”
“Did he findtrouble?”
“Not exactly.Remember the boys you met when you went to that training place withthe doma.”
Bran shuddered.He clearly recalled how Dom Manton had tried to drug them and theirescape. He also remembered the confrontation with the four youngmen. “Yes.”
“Jay sort ofencountered them.”
“What?” Brangrasped her arm. “Is he all right? Did he have to fight them?”
Ky shook herhead. “They didn’t see him. He had his barriers tight and he spiedon them. They’re searching for people with affinities. We need towarn everyone to keep their barriers up.”
Bran leanedagainst the wall. “Do you think they will find us?”
“They’re notlooking. Jay said they were traveling to Easren. There wassomething else he learned and he wants to tell the three of us.They’re on their way back. Go get Ash and we’ll ride to meetthem.”
Bran scowled.Couldn’t Ky wait patiently? “I’ll see what Ash thinks. You’d bettertell the doma.”
“After Jaycomes.”
Bran ran off.He found Ash in the stillroom. “Can you leave for a bit?”
“Yes.”
He told herwhat Ky had said. “She wants to meet them.”
Ash rolled hereyes. “In the dark with her barely recovered from the scorponpoisoning?”
“The moons arefull and bright.”
Ky opened thedoor. “I talked to him again. What he wants to tell us isimportant.”
Ash glared. “Ifwe don’t go, will you take off on your own?”
“Yes.”
Ash rolled hereyes again. “Seems we must go with her.”
Bran walked tothe meadow for their coursers. Before he and the three steedsreached the barn, Jay and his companions rode past. Bran shook hishead. “You made haste.”
“Had to,” hesaid. “After I talked to Ky, I knew she would dash off.”
Bran opened thepasture gate and released the steeds, then hurried to the barn. Hehelped Jay unsaddle the coursers. “What will the doma say aboutyour return?”
“The straw iscut and ready to be brought back. What I heard is important.”
Bran removedpacks and sleep saques from the saddles. He turned to Geni andDyna. “Do you know what he’s talking about?”
“No,” Dynasaid.
“Just that hesaw some boys who are enemies and we need to keep our barrierstight.” Geni grabbed her pack and followed Dyna to the house.
Ky and Ashreached the barn. Ash studied Kay. “Tell us what’s botheringyou.”
“In a circle.Then I’ll tell.”
Bran graspedJay’s and Ky’s hands. Ash completed the circle. Bran wondered whyJay wanted to keep what he’d learned from their other friends.
Ash stared atJay. What won’t you say out loud?
Jay told thetale of spying on the quartet. The irony of the situation amusedBran. So Geni is Dom Senet’s daughter.
Jay nodded. Andhe had her under his control and never knew.
Didn’t he tryto slip past her barriers? Ky asked.
She fainted,Bran said. She doesn’t look much like him or the one with Fire.
Did you tellher? Ash asked.
Jay shook hishead. When I asked her how much she remembered about her lifebefore she became a slave, she can’t recall anything. She knows howafraid she was when she was tortured by a doma and how she faintedthe time Dom Senet made her and Val his prisoners.
We need to knowhow much of a problem she presents. Bran had an idea of how tolearn, but the doing made him uncomfortable. Could Ash use heraffinity and see if Geni had a twin bond and if she used it tospeak to her twin? Could the one with Fire use the bond to spy onthe keep?
Ash leanedforward. I could but is that a good thing to do to a friend?
Only if sheagrees. Bran frowned. We need to know where she stands. How well dowe know her? Don’t make the problem worse. Should we tell her?
Yes. Ky’sanswer came loud and quick. She needs to know about her twin andher father.
Knowing willmake her more afraid, Jay said.
Ash nodded. Weneed to tell the doma first.
Bran yawned andreleased his siblings’ hands. “I’m going to bed.”
Jay grasped hisarm. “Maybe we should pack and leave. What if Geni’s a spy for DomSenet?”
Ash shook herhead. “We stay. We’ve been on the run for almost a year. This is aplace where we’re safe and can learn.”
“I agree.” Branwalked to the door. “I’ll speak to Doma Jandia tomorrow.”
The nextmorning Bran discovered the doma. Geni and Jay had already left thekeep. He dished porridge from the kettle and sat to eat.
Dragen rose.“I’ll expect you all to join me in the barn. Today we’ll startthatching the roof.”
Bran finishedeating and joined the others. Dragen showed them how to bond thebundles so they were about two feet around. The older man, Kirlonand Dyna climbed to the roof. The bundles were placed butt end outand bound to the rafters with metal cords. Before long, Bran andVal joined the others, laying one layer on top of the other andpegging them with wooden rods.
When the domareturned with the second load, Jay and Geni began on the other sideof the roof. Two days later, they finished with thatch placed alongthe ridge line.
Jay looked atthe finished work. “Could we use the clay to make the roofhard?”
Dragen shookhis head. “Would be too heavy.”
Bran grinned athis brother. “You can’t turn everything to stone.”
“Guess not.’Jay walked with Bran to the keep. “Have you told the doma aboutGeni yet?”
Bran groaned.“No, but I will.”
 
 
Alizand
 
Zand mountedhis courser and followed the pair of nearly empty wagons past thegates of the keep. Dragen drove one and Val set the second onerolling. His steed was tied to the rear. Val had asked to beincluded in the trading party so he could visit with the childrenhe had protected in Cedris. Doma Jandia had selected Kirlon. Hisability to read the winds and Val’s for sensing emotions would warnthem of danger.
Why was Iincluded? Zand wondered. Though he could call fire to his sword andhad gained skill in sword fighting, so had Ky. The doma could havechosen her.
“I will warn usif there’s danger,” Kirlon said.
Zandstraightened. He hadn’t sensed his friend’s approach. “What ifthere’s a large band of attackers? Could Dragen and I fight themoff successfully?”
“You’re notalone. I have my bow. Val’s skilled with knives and a sling. He hasthose metal pellets he bought from the Rovers.”
“I wish I hadmore skill with one. I miss almost as many times as I hit.”
“When we makecamp, you can practice.”
The trip to theRovers’ camp lasted six uneventful days. Zand wondered how hisfriends at the keep fared. Doma Jandia had planned a trip to thebog to cut firebricks. He was sorry to miss learning how they weremade.
On the day theyneared their destination, Val rode with Zand. Kirlon drove thesecond wagon.
Val turned toZand. “I’ll ride ahead and announce us.”
“Go,” Dragensaid.
Zand watchedhis friend gallop away. Though he was tempted to follow, Dragenheld up his hand. “Let him have a reunion.”
Zand drew hiscourser beside the wagon. Dragen was right. Val deserved time withthe children he had raised.
Kirlon grinned.“The next time we’re both riders, I’ll race you.”
“You’re on.”Zand turned to Dragen. “How long will we be here?”
The older manshrugged. “Depends on how long the trading takes. Jandia found somerare herbs and mushrooms she dried. We won’t need the firebricksshe asked them to purchase since we can make our own. We werefortunate that the grain fields provided enough to last us and thelivestock all winter.”
Zand thoughtabout the list they carried. At the top of the list were plants andseeds for the growing house and the animals to provide meat, milkand eggs. If they had enough credit, dried foods, kaf beans,chochla, cloth and leather could be bought. Would they haveenough?
Dragen tsked.“Lad, you’re worrying again. We have enough credit and trade goodsfor all our needs and even clothes. If needed, we can bring a loadof firebricks to sell.”
Zand wished hecould put his concerns aside. He had been afraid for a long time.He couldn’t remember a time when fear hadn’t been his closestcompanion.
Before long,they reached the encampment. Though a number of Rover troupesremained on their trading journeys, several had returned. Zandcounted at least forty wagons surrounding the central area. Henoticed one troupe preparing to leave for their autumn visit tovillages in one of the princedoms.
Dragen haltedhis wagon at the site where they had camped during their first stayat the camp. Kirlon pulled into a second spot. Zand dismounted anddropped the reins of his courser to keep the animal from straying.He removed the saddle and helped with the cart ponies.
Val waved.“We’re here to help.”
Zand greetedthe four children and Larin, the Soutren heir. They began to freethe ponies from their traces.
Two older menapproached the wagons. One held a small jug. Zand dashed into thewagon and returned with three sipping cups. The bargaining wasabout to begin. He handed the cups to Dragen. “Luck.” With a wave,Zand helped the gang of youths herd the coursers and ponies to thegrazing field. Dragen’s war steed followed.
When theanimals had been tended, Val’s young friends settled on the groundbeside the fence. Zand listened to their tales of life with theRovers. Larkea worked with the healers. Raven and Finchonapprenticed with the Master Farmer. Svana lived with the breeder oftabbies and hounds.
Larin spoke ofhis training with the sword, staff, knives and unarmed fighting. Hesat with the council and listened to their rulings of disputes andheard the news of the four princedoms.
“In Wesren theblight spreads slowly. Soutren’s desert grows larger. The prince ofEasren fears the coming of the fall and winter rains. In Nortrennew diseases threaten both people and animals.”
Zand’s handsclenched. He stored the stories to tell his grandmother. One daythey would face the doms and domas. On that day they must find away to restore the princedoms. Can we learn enough in time?
Kirlon met hisgaze. “We must.”
The answer tothe unspoken question startled Zand. “About Nortren. If Lodar isnamed as the prince’s heir, what will happen to the man’s true borndaughters?”
Larin shrugged.“Maybe what happened to me and they’ll escape.”
“Do they have aprotector?”
“I don’tknow.”
Zand shook hishead. “I know Lodar’s ways. None of his actions will be done in theopen.

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