“How are you coping?”
Azti turned away from the open window and looked back into the room.
“It is hard,” he said quietly, “I am glad I will be the one to act as escort. If I stayed and saw father I really don’t know how I would react.”
“The daughter seems taken with you,” Zonta chirped, “Could make the task more difficult than you think.”
If only you knew, Azti thought but he smiled up at his friend.
“I have little choice in the matter. At some point I knew this test would come my way.”
Zonta silently nodded his head.
“You will have no easy task here. Morden is not one to be told what or how to do something.”
Zonta gave him a rueful smile. “I guessed as much. I will have to hope Matheas takes to me. If I have one ally it will be a help.”
Azti laughed and patted the large man on the shoulder.
“Good luck my friend.”
“And to you.”
They grasped hands and then Azti pulled on his pack and headed for the stables.
Dorien waited in the darkness until both knights had left the room. He was in a slight dilemma. Which knight should he choose? He got up and brushed the dust from his trousers. Would he learn more from the older knight? Probably. And becoming part of Liasna’s retinue was not the wisest thing he could do right now. But to see the Tors again would be….too much of a risk he conceded. Ignoring the sudden pang of homesickness, he set off to find a way to be near Zonta.
Rain clouds threatened from the south and Mona kept a careful eye on them throughout the morning. For some reason she had expected today to be warm and sunny, not cold and damp, and by mid-morning she had hoped to engage her Knight in avid conversation so that he wouldn’t want to leave her side. So far she had had a cursory nod from him as they were leaving the Palace. The rest of the time he had spent positioning bodyguards and luggage ponies, and conversing for a long time with each soldier in turn. To make things worse her beautiful grey mare Nala was lame and she had to make do with Betty, a dependable bay who had never done anything exciting in her life, and wasn’t overly keen on going forward. Mona had to constantly work on her to keep up with her mother and Maria, and digging your heels into your horse’s sides every few strides was not exactly elegant. Nala would have loved this. She would have jogged a little, arching her neck and tail, showing off, making Mona seem like a very capable rider when in fact the horse would never do anything to unseat her. She sighed heavily.
“Bored already, Mona?” her mother asked.
“Disillusioned.” Mona answered grumpily.
“What illusion did you have about travelling my dear?” Liasna laughed.
Mona scowled at her Mother. How could she understand?
“Well for one thing I didn’t expect to be riding a fat old hack who would rather be in her stable with a manger full of hay,” Mona exclaimed, digging her heels hard into Betty’s sides. The mare shot forward a stride and then settled back into her monotonous plod.
“Betty’s a good old mare and has served us well. She’s just not as flashy as Nala.” Liasna said trying not to smile.
“By the time I get to Tor I’ll have legs like an athlete.” Mona complained.
“Is there a problem My Lady?”
She looked around startled. Azti had appeared at her side.
“No I am fine Sir Knight,” she said turning quickly away to hide her embarrassment.
“Azti, my daughter is finding the mare hard work. Is there another suitable mount that is perhaps a bit more forward going?”
Mona nearly died with shame and her cheeks reddened even more. But she could think of nothing to say that would improve the situation.
“I don’t know these horses well yet My Lady, but I can find out.”
Azti bowed his head and trotted to the back of the small ensemble to speak to the groom.
“Mother,” Mona growled in a low voice. “Please do not treat me like a child. I am sixteen not six.”
Liasna looked shocked.
“I am sorry Mona. I thought I was doing you a favour,” she said sounding offended.
“You could have asked that question of anyone. But you had to choose him?” Mona kicked hard until Betty broke into a slow trot, and drifted to the edge of the group where she could be on her own. How would she face him now? This day was not going at all as she’d planned it. The only consolation was that at last she knew his name. Azti. Funny, she mused that was the name of Marti’s brother. Best not to mention him though. Mona had never really known him. He had been a year or two older than Marti, and so was away on active duty from Mona being fairly young.
She jumped and turned quickly in her saddle. There he was astride his beautiful black horse, looking her straight in the eye, his fair hair curling softly out from under his helm. She blushed and looked ahead.
“I am sorry if I startled you.” He caught up to Betty. “I have found you a horse. They’ve been using him as a pack animal, but apparently he isn’t taking to it too well. His name’s Mab.”
“I know him. He has a big ugly head.”
Mona cursed herself as she spoke.
“Shall I ask for a different horse, My Lady?”
“No. Mab at least is more exciting than Betty, and she won’t mind being a pack animal. I am sorry for sounding ungrateful.”
“You needn’t be sorry, My Lady. I am here to serve you.”
“I wish.” Mona began looking shyly up at him, “I wish we could be friends instead.”
Azti gave her an open grin.
“I would be glad to be your friend My Lady.” He wheeled his horse around.
“Will you accompany me to the rear? We can change your horse there.”
Mona’s heart leapt and she smiled through the first drops of rain.
“I will,” she called “if you call me Mona.”
“Mona,” he said, and smiled again.
By evening the rain had stopped and the clouds allowed a few rays from the setting sun to peek through. Mona had found the remainder of the day much more enjoyable. She had not had any other opportunity to speak to Azti, apart from to assure him that her new mount was more to her liking. Mab seemed to be enjoying himself and was at least as lively as Nala, sometimes to a point where she was not quite sure what to expect of him. So far though he had not done any thing to upset her, and getting to know him at least gave her something to do.
They had followed the main trade route that had been cleared through the forest and were now in the foothills of the Tors. The Palace of Den was just visible to the west, the plateau it sat on standing out plainly below them. The day had been long and Mona was tired when at last they pulled in off the road to a cleared area meant for trade caravans. A large tent was soon erected for herself, her mother and Briyden, and then smaller tents appeared, encircling it. Mona dismounted and led her horse to the tethering area.
“Mona, Mona wasn’t that fun,” Briyden yelled at her enthusiastically. There were a few chuckles from the men caring for the horses.
“I wonder if he’ll still be saying that two days from now,” one of them laughed.
Mona smiled. Knowing her brother he probably would. She walked into the tent and flopped down on a large floor cushion.
Liasna walked in and scanned the interior whilst pulling off her gloves.
“This is quite cosy,” she said approving.
Maria appeared from behind a curtain to the rear of the tent.
“I have made up your bedrolls My Lady,” she said, “I will bring the food as soon as it is prepared, and I think that hot water is almost ready.”
“I real home from home,” Liasna said gaily. She sat down next to her daughter.
“You seem happier now Mona.”
“I am. Mab is fun,” she answered with a shrug
“Good.” Liasna nodded sagely and gave her daughter a wry smile.
“ And Azti?” she asked innocently.
Mona sat upright.
“Mother! I don’t know what you mean.”
“Oh yes you do. Just be aware that although he is a very handsome young man, he is a Knight of Isil-Ra, and so can never be more than your friend.”
“I don’t understand.” Mona looked puzzled.
“He has taken a vow of chastity and sworn his life to the service of Isil-Ra. Do not play the temptress with him Mona. It would be very unfair to test him so.”
Mona blushed furiously. Her mother had never discussed such things so openly before. Her heart sank at the import of the words, but he had looked her in the eye when he smiled. She thought it had meant something. Perhaps his vows to his god meant less to him than her mother thought. She clung to that hope.
“The Knights of Isil-Ra are strange men. It is said that there life span is ten times that of normal men. They are endowed with the spirit of their God, which makes them extremely powerful. I am glad they are our friends and not our enemies.”
“They seem no different from anyone else,” Mona scoffed.
“In a lot of ways they are no different, and I expect that like any other man they have urges that I would prefer you didn’t encourage.” She arched her eyebrows as she looked at Mona. “Do you understand?”
“Of course,” Mona said a look of disgust playing across her features.
Getting up she walked off behind the curtain and lay down on the nearest bedroll trying to hide the disappointment she felt. He had said he would like to be her friend, but she had taken it as meaning that he would like to know her better. Was she wrong? Had he meant his words to be taken literally? And what of that smile? She sighed, closing her eyes and picturing his face, smiling at her, bending towards her, his lips brushing hers.
“Mona, the hot water is here.”
She jumped up quickly, her heart thundering in her chest.
“Do you want to wash in there?”
She sat back down and unbraided her long chestnut hair, all the while trying to rid her lips of a tingling sensation. Maria entered with a bucket of water.
“I am afraid it is just one bucket each My Lady.”
“Thank you Maria. That will do nicely. Is the food on its way?” she asked as she took a soft flannel from the old lady.
“It is almost ready.”
Mona nodded and Maria left. She washed the best she could, and changed into a warm wool dress before joining her mother again in the main part of the tent, just as Briyden came hurtling in.
“Hi mother. I’ve been putting my horse to bed. Azti showed me how. He said that tomorrow we will go higher into the mountains and we might see dragons.”
Briyden looked as if all the muck from his pony had settled on him. Mona laughed out loud.
“I’m sure he didn’t say we would see dragons,” she said slumping down on a cushion. Briyden screwed up his face and scowled at her.
“Well he certainly didn’t say that we wouldn’t.”
Mona gave him a withering look.
“That’s enough you too. Briyden go behind the curtain and wash. The food will be here any minute.” Liasna sat cross-legged opposite the entrance reading a book.
“I’m starving. Can I get washed after I’ve eaten?”
“No you can’t, you smell like a stable. Hurry up now.”
Mona picked her diary out of her saddle pack and began to fill out her first day. Should she write everything in it or would her father actually want to read it for himself? She decided that he would prefer her to give him an account of their travels. She pictured them all seated around the big fireplace in the family room, the fire roaring, each telling him their tale. A small pang of homesickness crept up on her and she hugged her knees and tried to squeeze it away. A voice at the door brought her out of her melancholy
“Hello. May I enter?”
All thoughts of home fled in an instant, and the now familiar butterflies were instantly active again.
“Come in Azti,” Liasna called putting down her book. “Please have a cushion. It has been a long day.” She gestured at the cushion next to Mona’s and Azti politely sat down. Mona stole a quick glance at him, but he saw her and smiled. She smiled back feeling an intense glow in her stomach.
“Will you join us for supper? It should be here shortly.”
“No thank you My Lady, I will eat with the men. I would like to get to know them. If I ever need to use them I must know with whom I am dealing. I only came to see if everything was to your satisfaction.”
“You needn’t wait on us Azti. We have staff with us for that purpose. I think you are of more value to us in the role that your God intended?”
Mona frowned slightly. Her mother seemed to be speaking cryptically to him, and it annoyed her immensely. She was not a little girl, and had every right to know what was going on here, but before she could speak he was rising to his feet and smiling at her mother fondly. A spark of jealousy hit Mona. That was her smile.
“Thank you My Lady. I bid you both a goodnight.”
Mona knew he turned to her as he spoke but she couldn’t look at him. She had misread him totally and she felt like a fool. She picked up her diary and furiously began to write.
“So how are Mora and Jack?” Karayana asked the tall woodsman as she tried to keep pace beside him.
“They are well,” he said cheerily, “Jack’s bone set very quickly with your help and there is nothing to show that he ever broke it. No scarring, no weakness. You are a great healer Karayana.”
She smiled with pride. When she’d last met Brack he had been out tracking in the forest with his son and daughter when his son, Jack had fallen badly on his arm. Karayana had followed the sound of crying and found Brack trying to splint the arm and reassure his son at the same time. The poor man had looked completely out of his depth. She had taken charge of the situation and helped them home. There she found out that Brack had lost his wife the autumn before and she’d stayed for two days using her new healing skills for the first time on another person. It was gratifying to know that it had worked so well.
“I hope you will all stay for dinner. That would please the children very much. It isn’t often that they get to see anyone other than me.”
The thought of a full stomach cheered Karayana even more.
“What do you two think?” she asked glancing behind her.
“It sounds good to me.” Marti answered instantly.
Portheas just looked at her, before looking back down at the path in front of him.
Sulking like a little boy, she thought. It irritated her even more, this quiet, petulant Portheas. She almost wished he’d go back to being arrogant instead.
“We’d love to then,” she told Brack.
“Good. You know I think you healed more than Jack’s arm when you were here last. The house felt more at ease. I think you helped us lay my wife’s ghost to rest.” He looked down and smiled fondly at Karayana. “You will always have a friend here.”
The worries of the night before slowly seeped away to be replaced by a warm, comforting glow. Grinning suddenly, she linked arms with Marti and squeezed, before realizing that the set smile on his face was in fact a grimace of pain.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered releasing his arm.
“I’m fine,” he laughed softly, “Just a bit tender in places. Perhaps you could heal me when we get to this house.”
Karayana kicked herself for not thinking of that before. She had let the pair of them suffer their bruises all night long, when she could have erased them easily. They had both set off stiffly that morning and Marti was walking with a slight limp. Then again, perhaps they deserved to feel a little pain.
“I will, on one condition.”
“What’s that?” he asked in amusement.
“You learn from what happened and don’t do it again.”
Marti’s face darkened slightly.
“I won’t let anyone hurt you, Karayana.”
She touched his arm.
“I am a big girl now. I can look after myself.”
Marti looked away quickly, and stared rigidly ahead. He shortened his stride and was soon walking slightly behind her again. Karayana sighed. What was she doing wrong here? Why couldn’t they both be reasonable and just get along? The sooner they reached Ral the better. He might talk some sense into them. Obviously knocking their heads together hadn’t helped at all. Children’s voices brought her out of her reverie. Mora and Jack were running full pelt towards their father. He had to stop and let them hug him so as not to fall over.
“Steady now, you two. Let me get this deer to the house first.”
“Karayana. It’s Karayana,” Mora shouted. Jack jumped up and down with glee.
“Look at my arm. Look it works again.” He waggled his right arm around in front of her face. “You mended it.”
“What will you mend this time Karayana?” Mora asked grabbing her hand.
“I don’t think you have anything for me to mend. I have just come to see you,” she laughed. Jack grabbed her other hand. He was the younger of the two but was as tall as his sister.
“The roof leaks a bit,” he said thoughtfully.
“Ah, well I’m not too good with roofs. Marti is better at that sort of mending.” She glanced round at him and smiled. She was pleased to find him smiling too. Jack ran up to him and took his hand.
“Can you fix my toy horse? His leg came off.”
“Now, now you two. Leave them be a minute. Why don’t you go and get me some kindling while I sort the deer? The sooner we start the fire, the sooner we eat.”
“We will daddy,” Jack said running round the back of the house. Mora was about to run after him, but instead she walked up to Portheas who was carefully putting down his pack.
“What do you mend?” she asked, grabbing his hand.
Portheas looked surprised and slightly embarrassed.
“Off you go Mora. Get me some kindling.”
Mora ran off and Portheas gave a small smile of relief.
“Now they’ll be gone all of five minutes. If you want a rest from the chatter you best get it now.”
They followed Brack into his small cottage and had a seat at the homemade oak table in front of the fire.
“There’s ale in the pantry. Help yourselves to it. I’ll go sort out this deer.”
He left them and went back outside. Karayana fetched the pitcher of ale and three tankards from a shelf. Silently she poured them each a drink, waiting for some reaction from Portheas. There was none. He slouched back in his chair and traced the grains of wood on the table with his finger.
“Brack seems like a good man.” Marti broke into the awkward silence, “And the children are so full of life.”
“Aren’t they always?” Portheas said tonelessly. He didn’t look up from his knot of wood. Marti gave him a hard stare before deciding that it wasn’t worth it. Karayana didn’t know what to do or say to Portheas, to improve the situation. Just as she was about to try and make some sort of amends with him the door burst open and Mora ran in.
“Here. I brought these for you. To make you smile.” She thrust a small bunch of bluebells under Portheas’s nose. His expression went from surprise to annoyance and then to embarrassment in the space of a second. He took the flowers from the five year old, and then, on an impulse took the grubby hand and kissed it graciously.
“Thank you my lady.”
Then he smiled faintly and watched the little girl run back outside into the rain. Karayana reached over and touched his arm.
“It is nice to see you smile again.”
Portheas raised his eyes and looked deeply into hers. He said nothing, but she felt her heart jump in her chest as, for a second, she saw love there. Then it was gone. She moved her hand quickly away and took a swig of the cool ale. She could feel Marti watching her, but she daren’t show her face for fear that he would read her mind.
The whole situation was getting more complex by the minute. Two men seemed to be in love with her and a few days ago she wouldn’t have believed it of either of them! The worst problem was that she seemed to have feelings for them both. Her mind spun. This had to stop or more fights would ensue. She couldn’t keep travelling with these two until something was sorted out, but everything that she could think to do, or say, would hurt one or the other of them.
“I need some space,” she said abruptly scraping the chair back on the stone floor. Intensely aware that two pairs of eyes followed her, she headed quickly out of the door.
Outside the tension dropped away. She took a deep breath of air. The rain had stopped, but the trees dripped all around the little clearing. There was the smell of fire in the air, and she followed it to the rear of the house where Brack stood with his children in an open sided shed. The shed had a chimney on the roof and the smoke was pouring out thickly. Curious, Karayana went to join them. Brack was stoking charcoal under a metal grill. Above the grill was a spit that all ready contained a portion of the deer. Fat was dripping down onto the fire, making it smoke.
“Tastes good cooked this way.” Brack said quietly.
“Yeah we like deer.” Mora agreed.
“It’s really yummy,” Jack enthused.
The smell of the meat cooking began to fill the air, and Karayana’s stomach rumbled loudly.
“A while since you last ate?” Brack asked.
“Since I last ate well.” Karayana nodded.
“You must take some with you when you leave. If it will help.”
“It would help. Thanks.”
“Are you in trouble Karayana?” he asked quietly looking her directly in the eye.
“In a way, yes,” she said carefully, “It’s all very complicated.”
Brack nodded solemnly. He was a man who only said what needed saying, and she was very glad not to be questioned further. They stood in silence watching the spit slowly turn. The two children were playing tag, shrieking when caught.
“I sense a tension in your group,” Brack said suddenly. “If your journey is long it should be straightened out as soon as possible. It is better to travel with friends than enemies.”
Karayana sighed heavily.
“Is it that obvious?”
Brack said nothing.
“The light haired man, Marti, is my best friend from childhood. The dark haired man is my betrothed, although neither one of us had any say in the matter.”
“Ahh,” Brack nodded and smiled; “Now I understand. They are both vying for your affections.” He chuckled and then asked, “Which one would you choose?”
“Right now I would prefer to choose neither. I would prefer it if we could just be friends and get on with our journey. Do you know, last night they ended up fighting over me. It’s all getting too ridiculous.”
“You cannot do or say anything. They must come to some terms of their own over this. My only advice to you would be not to favour one over the other. You will add fuel to the fire.”
“I wish I could just go on without them, but, well there is safety in numbers.”
“That there is. Here comes one of them now.” Brack looked behind her and she turned to see Marti appear around the side of the house. He was nearly bowled over by Jack and expertly caught the small boy, swinging him through the air amid shrieks of laughter. Mora ran over to insist on a turn too. Marti obliged her with a grin, and Karayana couldn’t help but smile.
Mica lay along the branch of a spruce trying not to smell the aroma of roasting meat that was drifting her way. Her stomach growled loudly and she quickly stuffed a wild mushroom into her mouth. She had been delighted to find them. Now they just couldn’t compare with the imagined taste of roast venison. She couldn’t see the house but the sounds of children playing echoed through the forest. Perhaps she could grab one and demand some meat for its safe return. She hated children. They were noisy; they never stopped chattering and asking questions. Her childhood had been silent by necessity. She had learnt not to ask questions. Either she was not allowed to know the answers, or they scared her witless and gave her nightmares for weeks. Any knowledge she needed was won by stealth. At least then if something scared her she could run away before she found everything out. Running around and playing were frowned upon in the monastery. If she had enough time to play then she must need more to fill her day. But she wasn’t going to replay her childhood now. It was done with and she never had to suffer it again.
She sat up and stretched. It would be very easy to sleep now, but she couldn’t allow herself that luxury. Rubbing her tired eyes she eased her way down from the low branch, to the forest floor. I’ll go a little closer and check on them, she thought, it might keep me awake. She made her way noiselessly through the undergrowth, keeping to the darkest areas.
Suddenly she heard the snap of a twig some where off to her right. She crouched down immediately and slowly scanned the area, eventually making out what looked to be two soldiers creeping along the trail towards the house. Trackers from the palace, she thought. What should she do? Would they insist on Karayana going back with them? And if they did would she go? Mica doubted they could force Karayana to do anything, and she did have backup. This did however place her in a quandary. If Karayana did go back, then Mica could not complete her task, and could not reap the benefits. But if she attempted to attack the soldiers herself, they would probably hear the sounds from the house, meaning she would be discovered.
The soldiers were almost out of sight now; she had to make a decision. She stood up quickly and spied a good size branch lying on the ground a few paces off. She grabbed it, hurling it at the nearest tree trunk she could manage to the two men. Then she ran. She crashed heavily through the undergrowth moving away from the house, hoping they had seen her. She didn’t stop until she thought she was out of the range of an arrow. Ducking quickly behind a tree she slowed her hammering heart and listened for any sign of movement. Two minutes passed and still there was nothing. She waited a bit longer. Surely they had seen her. Then she caught a flash of colour out of the corner of her eye. Without waiting to confirm what she already knew inside, she broke her cover and sprinted away. They were very good. She had not heard a thing, yet they had managed to approach her position, one to either side. She could hear them now, racing after her, gaining on her. She had to stop and make a stand. She searched ahead looking for a small clearing where she could see her attackers, but if anything the trees were thicker here. She began to focus her energy into her stomach, until she felt it’s gentle heat like a breeze inside her. Pulling it together she let it run up her torso and down her arms until she felt a ball of energy in each palm. Mica spun in mid-stride taking in the positions of the soldiers. In a second she had aimed her palms and released a bolt of energy that should have knocked them both unconscious. But in the split second it took to fire she realized that these were no ordinary trackers. They were Kranz. Both men launched away from the energy attacks, never taking their eyes off Mica. Not only were the Kranz the best trackers in the known world, they were also excellent warriors. Mica backed away from them, building up her energy as she went. She cursed and lost her concentration as a knife whooshed past her arm and thudded into a tree behind her. Ignoring the sting and the small warm trickle of blood, she quickly launched another attack of her own, aiming both palms at the man on her left, one to either side of his position. As she had hoped he rolled to one side and was propelled backwards by the force of unseen energy. She had no time to check if he was unconscious or not, she turned to face the other attacker, instinctively sinking into a crouch. Another knife just missed the top of her head. If she hadn’t ducked she would be dead. The man approached her warily, a knife in each hand. She drew her own and joined him in a circling dance, weighing him up, looking for an opening. She had to clear her thoughts and let her instincts come to the surface. Mica had never before been in a situation where she was unsure of winning. Fear was a hard thing to lock away. She couldn’t see the man she’d knocked out, but hopefully he was still unconscious.
The Kranz in front of her suddenly feigned a jab to her right side. Mica jumped back, so avoiding the thrust to her left. He stared into her eyes, and she knew that he was working on his animal instincts alone. A little shiver of fear crept down her spine as she tried to do the same thing, but a voice in her head kept warning her that she was panicking and that she must relax. Why did she doubt her self?
The man lunged again, straight at her chest, and Mica leapt to the side, spun and ran. She swerved like a rabbit and tucked behind a tree. She could think of nothing else to do. Hand to hand combat she was good at, but she was no expert with a knife. She carried on bolting from tree to tree, hoping that he wouldn’t guess which side she would come out from. Then there was a crash as he jumped out in front of her. He had out run her and cut her off. Before she had time to think he launched himself at her, and she landed heavily on the pine needles, his weight, knocking the breath out of her. She had no time to breathe as he spun her over and pulled her arms roughly together, expertly wrapping rope around her wrists. He didn’t speak, just went about his job calmly and efficiently. He dragged her onto her feet, and pushed her forwards. Mica lost her footing and fell again. He grabbed the back of her shirt and dragged her back upright Mica was thinking fast, trying to figure out how she could escape. She had to try something while there was still only one of them. All of a sudden she spun, kicking in an upward arc and catching the Kranz hard on the chin. Seeing his surprise as he fell backwards, she bolted again, but this time she didn’t pause, she just ran. She thrust her energy into her legs, and fought to keep her balance, escape the only thing on her mind. Something cold hit her leg, just above the back of her knee. Immediately it gave way under her, and as she hit the ground a wave of fiery pain shot through her thigh. It took a confused minute for her to understand what had happened. Glancing down she saw the hilt of a knife protruding from her flesh. Swallowing the rising vomit and trying to clear the encroaching mist from her eyes she looked desperately for her attacker. The Kranz was heading straight for her, slowly and confidently as if she were a downed rabbit. Her heart pulsed with the throbbing behind her knee, hammering loudly in her ears. She sat helpless and bleeding on the forest floor watching death approach. One minute he was moving effortlessly, the next he was pitching forward, shock registering on his face. He landed face down, three paces from Mica an arrow sticking out of his back.
She felt herself blacking out, and fought to stay with the moment. Another man was running towards her now and there was nothing she could do to protect herself. He bent down and checked the pulse on the neck of the Kranz before coming to her. As he crouched down she realized that she knew the face.
“Mica,” he whispered.
The sun was beginning to make its’ presence felt through the thick branches above. Karayana watched as the light changed in the forest from grey gloom to a green tinged glow. Droplets of water sparkled like tiny diamonds, and the little clearing suddenly became a magical place. Her mood lifted. She knew that Brack was right about her two admirers. It was their problem not hers, and so up to them to put right. She would do her best to keep the peace between them, nothing more. She got up from the step she was sitting on and went to check on the meat. Marti and Brack were leaning on the side of the shed discussing something about the house. The children had been told to go inside and sit quietly for a while. Karayana couldn’t imagine that ever happening, but at least it was peaceful.
“Is Portheas in the house with the children?” she asked of Marti.
He gave her a strange look before answering, that she now recognized as jealousy.
“He went off with my bow to bag a few rabbits. I told him it was the wrong time of day, but he insisted,” Marti said raising his arms in the air. Brack smiled knowingly at her.
“Did you two argue again?” she asked quietly.
“No. We said nothing at all to each other,” Marti answered, slightly annoyed.
“Would it be possible for you to call a truce?”
“Perhaps you should ask him that.” Marti stared at her for a full minute before turning away to join Brack again.
“Marti please don’t fall out with me over this.”
His eyes shot back round to join hers, obviously alarmed at her suggestion, but then suddenly they left her and stared at something behind her. Following his gaze she saw Portheas striding towards them carrying a girl. Her head hung limply backwards and blood dripped from her, splattering Portheas’s boots as he walked.
As one they rushed to help.
“What happened?” Marti asked, as Karayana gasped, her hand flying to her mouth.
She looked from the girl to Portheas and anger born from fear struck her.
“Why have you brought her here?” she demanded.
“Karayana.” Marti sounded shocked.
“She is our enemy,” she cried, whirling round to face Marti.
“At the moment she is just a badly wounded girl. Bring her to the house.” Brack ordered.
“Did you do this?” Marti asked quietly of Portheas. His answer was a look of regal disdain.
Karayana made to storm off, but Marti caught her arm and pulled her around to face him.
“I think she needs your help,” he said sternly.
“She is the one who abducted me,” she spat. “She hit me on the back of the head, and threw me in a cold dark cell. She didn’t give a damn about me. Now I will return the favour.” She shrugged his arm away and strode off.
“Didn’t she do the same to Portheas?” he called after her.
She swirled back round to face him but could think of no retort.
“She has been hamstringed, and I would say that the artery has been cut. That is a wound that could kill her, and frankly probably will. If you think you could live knowing that you didn’t try to save her, then that’s your choice. I think that you would regret it for the rest of your life.”
Karayana glared at him. She wanted to do what was right, but she hated that girl. The house door banged shut and the two children rushed out with buckets. Jack stopped on his way to the well.
“Karayana there is a poorly lady inside.”
She swallowed quickly, and stroked the boy’s hair.
“I know Jack. I will see what I can do.”
“You will make her better,” he smiled.
She walked hastily past Marti, not daring to look him in the eye, and entered the house.
They had lain Mica face down on a bed and removed the knife. Karayana glanced queasily at the wound. Brack was dowsing it with whisky. Both men looked up as she entered.
“You do what you can. I will try my best to heal her,” she said stiffly.
She knelt on a cushion at the side of the bed and placed her hand over the top of Mica’s head, mentally preparing herself to heal the enemy. She shoved aside her anger, closed her eyes, and before she had a chance to talk herself out of it, jumped head first into Mica’s energy field.
It was all wrong. All wrong. It wasn’t the wound. That was…just a leg with a problem…it was Mica’s energy. It jarred, almost warred with her own. It was as if it was all working the wrong way around.
‘She’s losing a lot of blood. Can anything be done?’ Marti’s voice sounded close to her ear.
Forget the energy, just focus on the wound she told herself, reining in her conscious mind and allowing her own energy to get to work.