“I just don’t understand why he didn’t come back last night,” repeated Kera for the fifth time since they had started out from Connall Keep, less than two hours ago. “Or at least send a message. If he was going to be late he would have sent a messenger back…wouldn’t he?” The nagging feeling that something dire had happened crept into her worried commentary.
“I am certain he is all right,” said Ittosai patiently, also for the fifth time. “Merely detained.”
Dawn had just broken when Kera went to Myrande to tell her that Rien hadn’t made it back during the night, declaring her intention to go after him as soon as her horse was saddled. Sable had managed to convince her to wait long enough to have Ittosai go with her as both a companion and an escort in case of trouble. Not for the first time, Myrande thanked god that the Castellan rose early.
As the pair came within sight of Dargon’s walls, Kera pulled the hood of her heavy cloak up so that her face was hidden in its shadowy folds. Ittosai gave her a questioning look.
“There are some people in Dargon who would be happy to know I’m back,” Kera explained evasively. “I don’t have the time to be making social calls.”
Hiding a faint smile, Ittosai inclined his head in understanding. A few minutes later they rode through the main gates of Dargon.
Kera was able to get them to the inn that she and Rien had stayed at in record time. With the strong, comforting presense of Ittosai, she felt safe enough to take a few short-cuts and her companion did not feel the need to ask how she knew the routes, for which the thief gave silent thanks.
“Have you seen my companion?” Kera demanded breathlessly of the innkeeper, as soon as she was inside the inn, while Ittosai tethered the horses.
The man started and looked quickly up from the ledger he was leafing through. “Your companion, miss?” he said, looking at her blankly.
“He was supposed to be here last night,” continued Kera. “To pick up our belongings. We were staying in room three,” she added when the man continued to look questioningly at her.
“Ah, yes, that gentleman. Taller than him,” the innkeep waved a hand at Ittosai as he was coming through the door to join Kera. “Blond, slender, long blue cloak?” Kera nodded eagerly. “Showed up yesterday evening with plans to move out. Asked me to get him a horse and went upstairs, but never came back down. I managed to find him a good horse, too,” he hinted, but before he finished, Kera was halfway up the stairs with Ittosai hot on her heels.
The door to the room she and Rien had shared was closed, but when Kera tried to push it open, it was unlocked. Suspicious, because the caution she and her mentor habitually practiced included locking doors, Kera pushed the door open. Behind her, Ittosai loosened his sword in its scabbard, anticipating trouble.
The door opened with a low groan.
Light peeked through the cracks in the shutters and Kera took a second to allow her eyes to adjust to the dimness before cautiously entering the room. She glanced hastily around, seeking intruders before her gaze was caught by a figure lying sprawled on the bed.
With a soft curse, Kera stepped over and rolled the body onto it’s back. Rien’s hand, the fingertips stained a dull red, flopped over the edge of the mattress.
“How is he?” asked Ittosai softly as Kera checked to see if he was breathing.
“Alive,” she replied after a moment. She shook Rien, in an attempt to revive him, but got no reaction. She tried again, harder, with the same result. “He’s alive,” Kera repeated grimly. “But not much else. We should get him back to Marcellon as soon as we can.” She pulled her pouch off of her belt and offered it to Ittosai. “Would you please pay for the room and that horse? I’ll get him ready to go.”
Ittosai accepted the money with a slight bow and a look of gentle sympathy and disappeared down the hall. Kera stared at Rien’s immobile form and bit her lip to keep the tears back. `This is hardly the time to be losing control,’ she thought to herself firmly. `You said you’d get him ready, so do it.’
She gathered their possessions together first and carefully tied them into as compact bundles as she could, hoping that Rien would wake up while she worked. Yet, when she finished, he still hadn’t stirred at all.
With a sigh, Kera grabbed Rien’s arm to attempt to haul him upright so that when it came time to carry him downstairs, he would be easier to pick up. With a great deal of effort, she was able to get him upright — Rien was not nearly so light as he appeared — and then dropped him as a low scraping noise caused her to turn quickly, reaching for her daggers.
Rien hit the rough wood floor with a loud crash, Kera’s attempt at grabbing him coming too late. Ittosai, who had startled Kera with his return, ducked inside and joined her at her mentor’s side. Rien’s eyelids flickered and he slowly opened them to look up at the pair.
“Rien…Rien! Are you all right?” Kera asked, helping him into a sitting position from behind.
“I’m fine,” Rien said after a moment. He put a hand to the back of his head, where it had hit the floor. “Or rather, I will be in a bit.” His glance was caught by the red on his fingertips and he studied them curiously as Kera let loose a flood of questions.
“Why didn’t you send back a message?” she demanded. “Who knocked you out? Why couldn’t I wake you up, what happened to your horse and are you sure you’re all right?”
Ittosai simply knelt opposite him and observed him quietly, prepared to offer Kera a hand should Rien collapse again.
“I didn’t send a message because I hadn’t planned on being late,” Rien said sharply, pulling his gaze away from his fingers. “That’s a foolish question to ask.” Kera flushed and Rien continued. “Someone stole my horse, just after I got into town,” he said slowly. “I’m sure I’ll recall the circumstances later. Did the innkeep find me another horse?” he asked suddenly, as though just remembering that he had made the request.
Ittosai nodded. “It is a fine animal,” he said. “Light cavalry. I have paid for it and your room.” He offered Kera back her pouch and she absently took it back.
`Cavalry?’ Rien thought. `I just wanted a horse…’ “Thank you, Castellan,” he said aloud. Ittosai bowed and Rien looked down at his hands again. “You couldn’t wake me, Kera, because I forced myself into a jashch,” — she wondered how he managed to get all those sounds out without damaging his tongue — “it’s a trance like state that isolates me from normal bodily control. I assume I was poisoned,” he said, looking up once again. “My senses failed me completely.”
“Are you all right? Who would do something like that? Where did it happen?” Kera burst into a string of questions again.
“I told you already, I’m fine. I don’t know who did it or where or how. It just happened.”
“Could it…could it have been the disease?” asked Kera, swallowing hard.
“Possibly,” Rien said, frowning. “I’m not sure…” He looked back to his hand. “I’m sure this is somehow involved,” he indicated the red stain.
“We need to return to Lord Marcellon,” said Ittosai decisively. “He will know. Are you well enough to travel?”
“Then let’s get moving!” declared Kera, grabbing the bundles that contained her’s and Rien’s possessions. She headed for the door.
With Ittosai’s help, Rien walked out of the inn and mounted his newly purchased horse. They left for Connall Keep immediately.
“That was indeed nightshade,” Marcellon said putting away the beakers after pouring out the solutions he used. “You say your race is immune to the effects of the plant?”
Rien nodded. “They are. I am surprised it had this effect on me.”
“Have you tried it before? Was there a reaction?”
“No, I never tried it before,” Rien said. “At least not to my knowledge and not deliberately.”
“But you are half human…” Marcellon stroked his chin absently, staring at nothing in particular. “You could have a different reaction to it, especially now that you have the disease to worry about. This is the most positive proof that some changes have taken place. Do your people respond to it as a narcotic?”
“No. It’s a simple forest grass.”
“None the less,” the wizard went on, “it was nightshade and it did affect you as a hallucinogen.”
“At least it’s not the disease,” Kera sighed. She had been seriously concerned the entire morning, even after Marcellon assured her that it could not be the disease, and only now was beginning to relax.
“Young lady,” Marcellon looked over at her. “What happened today stressed the one factor which we all should be concerned about. Rien is neither human, nor Ljosalfar. In him the disease may take any course imaginable. For all I know, he may display more symptoms tomorrow morning than you will in the next month. He is one of a kind. There is no precedent for what we are dealing with.”
Kera shuddered at the images the wizard invoked with his words, as he turned back to Rien. Visions of Rien mutating into a wolfling were fore-most in her mind as the wizard continued talking with her mentor.
“This still leave the question of who poisoned you.”
“Over all, I see Dargon as a friendly town…”
“Any people in town who may for some reason dislike you?” Marcellon persisted.
“None that I could think of, sir,” Rien answered.
“Even the men you rescued Kera from?”
Damn, he had a good memory! “I would imagine they are still in custody of the guard. Penalties for armed assault are stiff…and I doubt they had the knowledge to make the poison or the money to purchase it.”
“Very well,” Marcellon nodded. “One last question. You said you forced yourself to pass out. Could you elaborate on that?”
Rien gave the question some thought. To him it was something natural, but equating it to human norms would be a difficult task. “Sometimes after sustaining injuries humans go into shock,” he said finally. “This reflex is triggered by pain or perhaps loss of blood. Jashch is similar to that. It protects from unwanted sensations, but it can be triggered by a conscious effort. It is in a way opposite of going into shock. The action is controlled at the start, but while humans recover on their own, I would have to be `removed’ from the condition forcibly.”
Kera lowered her eyes as Marcellon looked at her.
“And you dropped him. On his head.”
She nodded. “It was an accident…”
“Otherwise I would probably still be unconscious,” Rien said, feeling the lump on the back of his head, and grinning as Kera flushed a deeper shade of red.
“The condition isn’t permanent, is it?” the wizard asked. “There must be other ways to regain consciousness.”
“Hunger would have woken me up,” Rien said, “but that could take a while.”
“Very well,” Marcellon stood up. “That satisfies all of my curiosity for the moment. Let me return to my work and I shall see both of you at dinner.”
Rien and Kera stood up as well.
“By the way,” Marcellon stopped them before they reached the door. “Rien, an old friend of mine, someone I attended the University in Magnus with, will be stopping by here in a day or two. He is an archivist. I am sure he would be interested in meeting with you. Would you object?”
“Not at all,” Rien answered and promptly left with Kera. “I hope his friend isn’t as strange as he is,” Rien said as they walked down the hall. “He asks far too many questions.”
“You lied to him, you know,” Kera said. “You said you didn’t have enemies in town.”
“Morality from you? Is profession of thievery becoming moral?” Rien jested. “I did not lie. I stretched the truth, emphasized some misleading facts, but it was not a lie. He suspected someone from Dargon attempted to poison me. I believe it was someone from outside of Dargon.”
“I told him it was not an individual from Dargon who did this.”
“You know who it was?”
“No, but I suspect. The innkeeper told me an elderly woman came around asking for me. The lock to the room was jammed. Marcellon established beyond doubt that the poison was administered through the hand.” He displayed for Kera the still visible red stain. “I assume that the old woman, very likely a witch from Maari’s coven, came around and set up the `trap’ for me, most likely expecting the poison to kill me. It would have to be left on a surface that I would be guaranteed to touch…such as the door. The lock was probably jammed so that my exposure would increase.”
“Very convincing,” Kera said.
“So, as you can see, I did not lie. I simply did not tell him the whole truth. If he or the Baron were to learn the truth about Liriss or Maari, our position could become compromised. In either case, this convinced me that Dargon is far too dangerous for us. The sooner we can leave, the better it will be.”
“Could it have been Liriss’s assassin?”
“I doubt Liriss would hire someone’s grandmother to kill us,” Rien smiled. “Usually grandmothers are self-motivated.”
A laugh escaped from Kera’s mouth.
“I would imagine that the assassin is looking for us in Tench by now. He will track us here eventually, but we will be gone by the time he figures out where we went…I hope.”
They walked in silence to the door of one of the rooms given to them, considering all the dangers that waited to present themselves, then Rien turned to Kera once again. “I do have a question for you about Liriss. When I made it to Dargon yesterday, I went by the docks, including Liriss’s pier. Three men were trying to drown a girl there. She was your age, perhaps a bit younger. About five foot, light frame, light brown hair, amber eyes… She’s the reason my horse was stolen. I stopped to help her out and I think she took it. Does that sound familiar?”
“Sorry. I never had a horse stolen like that.” Kera grinned. “And no one I know is into horse theft. It’s too hard to get rid of the goods.”
Rien glared down at her. “It’s not funny. Do you know the girl?”
Kera shook her head. “I was the youngest one. His ward, in fact,” she added bitterly.
Rien continued, not really hearing the last part of Kera’s comment.
“I’ve seen those eyes before…”
“I’m very glad that you were willing to make this record with me, Rien. It will be invaluable for future generations. Perhaps we will even stop fearing your people because of this.”
Rish Vogel made himself comfortable in the Baron’s chair and, placing an ink well with a goose quill on the desk, pulled out a long rolled up sheet of parchment.
Rien watched as the old chronicaler set everything up, opening pots of ink, pulling out extra pens from a small box engraved with the quill and scroll of the Archivist Guild, laying out a blotter and a large pile of clean parchment. Vogel came across as a man completely dedicated to his profession; perhaps so much so that he seemed to forget everything else, although he never forgot information that applied to his craft. He even, to Rien’s mind, dressed like a historian should — long brown robe with the crumbs of his last meal clinging to the front, worn belt with additional quills, a jar of ink and several small rolls of parchment dangling from it. Rien had asked the reason for the extra equipment and had been told flatly that after being caught without paper and having to record a very important event on a napkin in wine, Rish had vowed to never be caught without proper tools again. Hanging the items from his belt was his way of making sure that they were on hand at all times. Rien found this to be highly amusing.
He had agreed to the interview only because he believed in the chronicler’s desire to have the unknown recorded for later generations of people. And he hoped, like Rish, that this information would someday lead to friendly contact between the two races.
“Now,” Rish dipped the quill in the ink well and poised his hand over the page. “Your name?”
“Could we set a few `house rules’ first?” Rien remained motionless in the middle of the room.
Rish looked up, without actually moving his head, then jotted down a few words. The chronicaler was actually writing every word! Rien frowned.
“If you insist,” Rish said, “but I intend on making this an accurate record.”
“First of all, this record is for your and the Duke’s reference. No one else is to see it.”
Rish nodded and set his pen to the paper again.
“You will not use my name or make any specific descriptions that relate directly to me. After today, you do not know me. Nor will I make any specific references to names, places, or dates to protect my tribe.”
Rish mouthed the last few words as finished writing them and looked up. “Understood. How old are you?”
Rien hesitated. That was a very personal question, but it was not something that could compromise him in the long run. The bookish chronicaler was not breaking `the rules’ and was still getting as much information as he could. Rien could see why Rish was able to make such complete records — he knew which questions to ask. Still, Rien temporized. “Over a century,” was all he permitted the historian to write down.
Rish began writing again. “I understand that your people are immortal,” he said, his pen scratching over the paper, recording his own question.
“We are not immortal,” Rien said. “Not in the true sense of the word, anyway. We do have long lifespans and in our recorded history no Ljosalfar has died of old age, but we do die.” Rien’s voice was somber. “We suffer from disease and accidents just like humans. And we can be slain just as easily.”
Rish paused to dip the quill in to the ink again. “How do you live?”
Rish looked up, irritated that Rien could not handle a simple question. “How does the society function?”
“We function as a tribe with a central leader, but each individual, once they come of age, has a voice in making the decisions that effect the tribe as a whole. For example, the leader might settle a dispute between two people, but if there is a question of whether the tribe should move elsewhere to winter, it is discussed by everyone.” Rien drew a deep breath and continued as the chronicaler finished writing his last sentence. “We don’t have a money based economy. Barter is the usual method of distributing goods and skills. There are no social classes. Everyone helps to take care of everyone else and no one goes hungry. We have no crime and–”
“No crime?” Rish interrupted Rien, looking up sharply. From years of ingrained habit he used the opportunity to get more ink on his pen.
“There are very few of my race left,” Rien said. “We can’t afford to hurt each other. There are plenty of outsiders who do that for us.”
“No crime at all,” Rish repeated musingly, jotting down a quick notation on the bottom of the page so that he could cross-reference the statement with other records at a later date.
“Practically none,” Rien conceded. “There are recorded cases of individuals being cast out, but they are few and far between, and none of them recent. The idea of consciously stealing from your sister or harming your brother is as foreign to us as the concept of lack of crime is to you.”
Rish pulled the ink well closer, not quite satisfied with the response, but knowing that he would get nothing else on the subject. “From what you said, I assume your tribe is very closely knit…?”
“Were you cast out?”
That hit a sensitive nerve. “No,” Rien said, forcing himself not to snap. “My father was human. I wanted to explore his world.”
Rish kept scribbling along, not noticing Rien’s discomfort. “`Keegan’ is a human name. Was that the surname of your father?”
Rien did not answer and the chronicaler looked up. “I am sorry.” he said, looking a little abashed. “We did have an agreement…” He was about to say something else, but Rien spoke.
“It’s the name of the man who trained me. He recommended I take it as two names are expected in your society. I was honored by his offer, so I accepted the name.”
Rish nodded and bent his head to the page again. “Can you tell me the early history of your people? And do sit down. This won’t go any faster if you stand!”
Kera sat up in bed with a ear piercing scream. She was in cold sweat and out of instinct she tried to dodge the arms reaching for her. She slammed into Rien who was lying next to her, to avoid being grabbed.
“A dream…” she muttered to herself, realizing no one was after her. She tossed her hair back over her shoulder and wiped the sweat from her face. It was chilly in the room, cooler than usual for the summer and Kera pulled the blanket up. It was strange, she thought, that Rien hadn’t responded when she hit him. Usually he was more alert than that…
She turned to look at her companion, expecting to find him still asleep, but instead found herself staring into unfamiliar eyes. Next to her lay a beast — she could think of no better word to describe it — with grey-white fur, extended dog-like jaws and large ears at the top of the skull. The jaws were partially open, displaying rows of snow-white teeth, four of which stood prominently at the front, each half the length of her index finger. The creature stared hungrily into her eyes and she realized that one of its hands was clamped tightly around her wrist.
Kera tried to pull her arm back, but the creature prevented her from withdrawing. Instead the grip tightened further and, using her for leverage, it sat up. Kera tried to scream, but her voice refused to obey her. Instead of a shout, a small whimpering noise escaped her throat. The creature’s lips pulled back in a viscous smile, tongue lolling out of it’s mouth.
“Let me go…” she managed to whisper.
The creature responded by forcing her onto her back, its strength so great that Kera found herself unable to struggle effectively against it.
“You will be like me,” she heard Rien’s voice, issuing from the creature’s throat without accompanying jaw movement. “You will be like me,” she heard again and this time the mouth moved, the voice a rough parody of Rien’s usually gentle voice.
She felt its fur against her chest as it moved to loom over her. “No…” she screamed, fear finally forcing the words out.
“Like me…” the phrase was repeated again, the words distorted, barely recognizable. The claws on the arms that held her dug deep into her wrists, piercing the skin and bringing up trickles of blood, even as her hands went numb.
“I don’t want to be like you!” Kera shouted out at the top of her lungs, twisting beneath the heavy body with a last burst of strength.
“Be like who?” the form above her asked. The voice was strict and concerned — Rien’s.
“Like you!” she shouted again and continued to struggle. She felt cold and wet and angry at being restrained, but above all lurked the fear of the creature above her. She bit into the arm holding her right wrist and it was released immediately. Her next thought was to punch up and she did. The figure over her swayed from the blow and she continued to hit at it, to drive it away. “I don’t want to be like you!”
“Stop it!” Rien’s voice sounded again, this time a lot closer and a hand locked around her free wrist once more. “Kera! Wake up!”
She stopped the struggle long enough to look up. Rien was leaning over her, holding on to her arms. “It’s only a dream. Relax.” He pulled her up to a sitting position and cradled her protectively. “It’s going to be all right.”
Kera stared to cry softly.
“I wouldn’t want you to be like me,” she heard him say. “You’d be boring.”
The door burst open and two guards rushed in. One held a readied sword and the other a burning torch. “Let go of her!” the first man ordered Rien.
“She had a nightmare,” Rien responded, drawing one of the sheets around Kera’s shoulders. She was cold, covered with sweat and shaking from the dream she just had and on top of all that, clammy. It was the last that Rien objected to the most, as he held her.
“Let go of her,” the guard repeated, not sure what to believe. “I want to hear that she is fine from her.”
Rien sat up straight, holding onto Kera’s shoulders. She was still sobbing. “Are you all right?” he asked softly.
“I’m fine,” she said, wiping the tears from her eyes. “Really, I am,” she finished, turning to face the two guards.
“We’ll be in the hall if you need anything,” said the man with the torch while the other glared at Rien and they stepped back outside, pulling the door closed.
Rien turned back to Kera who was still shivering.
“Are you sure that you’re all right?” he asked, holding her by the shoulders and staring intently into her eyes.
“I’ll be fine,” Kera replied. She wiped the last of the tears from her cheeks. “It was just a nightmare…I dreamed…I dreamed that you had changed into a…” She choked on the last part of the sentence and Rien pulled her close again.
“It’s all right,” he said, stroking her hair. “I haven’t changed into anything yet and Marcellon will find a cure so see that I don’t, ever.”
“I hope he can,” whispered Kera.
Rien held her until she finally fell asleep, and stared at the wall for a long time afterwards.
“Sir Keegan? The High Mage wishes to see you right away.” The summons came right after a quick knock on the partially open door to Baron Connall’s study.
Rien frowned. Rish must have already let it slip that he was a knight. At least he hadn’t tell the chronicler much more than that. He closed the book he was reading and stood up. “Thank you. I will be right there.”
The guard left the room and Rien got up to replace the book on the shelf. Baron Connall, it seemed, was very preoccupied with the `art’ of war, but then again so were most other Humans. For some reason the society was more interested in perfecting methods of fighting, claiming all the while that those preparations did more to insure peace than any other occupation. It struck Rien as a hypocritical view, but how could one argue that a whole race was misinformed?
Rien made his way to Marcellon’s laboratory. The wizard was talking with Myrande and Kera and there was some sense of excitement about. Rien closed the door and came up to the group. He noticed Kera trying to hold back a smile.
“I believe that I have solved it,” Marcellon told Rien and Kera’s smile finally burst free.
“You did it?” Rien asked, just to make sure he heard it right, in spite of Kera’s expression indicating the question was useless. “You found a cure?”
“I believe I did,” Marcellon said again. “Believe,” he re-emphasized the word as Rein started to develop a smile much like his apprentice’s. “Kera is still capable of seeing in the dark, but there is no other evidence of the disease in her body. The change appears to be a permanent physical alteration, but just in case it decides to reverse itself, I would like to observe her for a few more days.”
Kera jumped off the stool she was sitting on with a laugh and embraced Rien, eyes shining.
“Ah!” Marcellon grabbed hold of her arm and pulled her back. “Stay away from him. He’s still sick. I want to be positive that you don’t become ill again through contact with him.”
Reluctantly Kera returned to the stool, the happy sparkle still in her eyes. Rien found her good humor to be contagious and was still smiling as Marcellon turned back to him.
“Now,” said the wizard, leaning up against the table’s edge. “I have a good idea what the cure is. We will definitely know tomorrow if it is a hundred percent effective. Meanwhile I would like to begin on you.”
The High Mage began his work. Kera remained in her seat, watching the now familiar procedure, until Marcellon told her to leave the laboratory, as contests were the only spectator activity of which he approved.
Annoyed, Kera left the laboratory and wandered around the public areas of the keep, trying to find something to do. After five days in the laboratory, wistfully thinking of all the things she would like to do, she had no idea of what should actually be done with the free time she suddenly gained. If nothing else, she could use the time productively, Kera decided finally. She went up to her room and unpacked the bow that Rien had purchased for her a week ago. Going to the stables Kera told the servant she was going for a ride and, after saddling her horse, left the keep.
She followed the road as it passed by the keep’s wall, turning south-west, then took the road that turned sharply north, heading towards the coast line. In an hour the evergreens gave way to a broad leaf forest and Kera turned off the road to a small side trail. She dismounted a fair distance from the trail, strung her bow and, after securing the horse, went in search of game.
The day was warm and sunny and Kera had no problems finding something to shoot at. She spotted a fat magpie perched on a tree branch and after a moment of aiming, released the arrow.
The missile passed just over the bird, crashing into the leaves in the upper branches and finally fell back to the ground. The bird took the hint at the first sign of trouble and flew away. Retrieving the arrow with a muttered curse, Kera went further down the path, hoping the next shot she took would be more effective.
Scrambling up a small hill, she sat down and looked around the forest. It was filled with life. Up above birds flew back and forth at the tops of the trees, but Kera would not even dare shooting one in mid-flight. She spotted a squirrel and took aim, but immediately began to feel sorry for the little animal, peacefully nibbling on some forest fruit. What if she were to get lucky and hit it? She sighed and replaced the arrow she held in the quiver on her back. The squirrel happily snapped its tail and kept on eating. Kera smiled at it and climbed down the other side of the hill.
The slope here was much rockier and steeper and it took Kera much longer to go the same distance to the forest floor. The woods here took a darker appearance, the broad leafed trees once again merging with pines.
Kera looked around. On a second glance the forest wasn’t all that different. The birds were still high above in the trees and a pair of squirrels chased each other around a particularly large stump.
Kera wandered a little deeper into the forest. One pine had a natural discoloration that looked like a rabbit and Kera drew another arrow, thinking that an inanimate target would be as good as a live one. She drew the string back to her ear, as Rien had taught her and let the arrow fly. Missing its intended target, the arrow struck a tree a few feet back.
Kera threw the bow down in anger and marched over the the tree to get the arrow back. Rien ordered these arrows after they returned to Dargon a week ago. They were normal except for the fletching that permitted the arrow to fly straighter and different color rings painted around the shaft, each two finger breadth apart.
The arrow was stuck in the trunk up to the third ring and Kera quickly realized that the arrow was stuck in there for good, at least as far as her strength was concerned. She kicked the tree and stomped off in anger. After some time of pacing Kera once again picked up the bow and tried shooting the tree again. This time the arrow lodged itself just above the target and did not go in far enough to get stuck.
Kera practiced for an hour longer and finally felt competent enough to shoot at reasonably large, stationary target.
She returned to her horse and continued north, towards the Akmeron Ocean, in search of large game. By mid-afternoon she reached the north shore without seeing anything larger than a raccoon. It was as if the whole forest knew she was ready to shoot and was avoiding her. Broadleaf trees gave way to pale yellow sand and crisp waves making their way towards shore. A faint hint of salt permeated the air, distinct from the cool, earthy smells of the wood.
She hopped off the horse and lead it west along the sandy shore. At first the animal complained at its hooves sinking into the sand, but soon got used to it and followed her obediently.
Off in the distance Kera noticed a man on top of a horse coming towards her. She slowed her pace, moving closer to the water line to give him room to pass. As they got closer, she got the dreadful feeling that she knew the man approaching her and drew up the hood of the cloak, hoping she was not recognized.
As the two got closer, the man jumped off his horse and approached Kera. “Haven’t seen you in a long while,” he greeted.
“Yeah, a long while,” Kera stopped, her fears of discovery realized.
The man left his horse behind and walked over to her. “Where have you been for the last two months?”
“Kera, don’t give me that look. Liriss is really mad about you!”
Kera did not expect any less. “That’s his problem, isn’t it?”
“You’re going to come back with me and tell him that yourself.”
“Keep dreaming, Garold,” said Kera coldly. “I’m not going to do anything to further your career!”
“You’re coming back with me, whether you want to or not! Even if I have to knock you cold.” Garold grabbed Kera’s arms.
Kera jerked an arm free and punched Garold in the chest. He did not even flinch, but backhanded her as she tried to pull her other arm free and permitted her to fall back into the water.
Kera stood up, wet and angry. In her hand she held a dagger. Garold grabbed her arm and twisted until Kera dropped her weapon, then started trying to pull her tunic up. “Before we go…” Kera struggled more furiously, forcing Garold to use both hands to hold her still and preventing him from doing anything more with her clothing.
“What’s the matter? It’s not like we haven’t done this before.” He dragged Kera back to the bank and shoved her down. As he leaned over her, a glimmer of steel shone in Kera’s hand and sharp pain engulfed his arm. Kera rolled out of the way as Garold hit the sand in anger and bolted for her horse. Garold got up slowly, his left arm dripping blood and drew his sword. “You’re dead, bitch! Liriss will take you either way.”
As Liriss’ thug advanced Kera grabbed the bow and off her horse — she had kept the bow strung, since she was hunting and did not want to take the time to restring it each time an animal appeared — notched an arrow, and drew back the string. “Stay back!” she ordered, aiming at his chest. “Or I’ll kill you!”
Garold either did not hear her or was so taken with his anger that he did not even pause at her words and Kera released the arrow. It struck its target in the stomach and he gasped, bending forward, as if the wind had been knocked out of him.
Kera quickly prepared another arrow and as soon as Garold moved forward again, fired. This arrow took him square in the chest. His legs buckled and he sank to his knees. Kera hesitated with the next arrow. Garold tried to speak, but blood foamed at his lips and he collapsed forward, the two arrow shafts breaking beneath him.
Afraid that the man hadn’t been alone, Kera looked up and down the beach and, not seeing anyone, quickly remounted and encouraged her horse towards the forest. The animal started out at a lazy walk and Kera kicked it as hard as she could with her heels. “Faster!” The horse lunged into the forest, leaving behind the body, with its blood being slowly washed away by the tide.
The sun was just sinking below the horizon when Kera galloped through the gates to Connall Keep, eyes straining behind in fear of pursuit. She nearly jerked the horse around and bolted when the gate guards came out to see what the racket was, but managed a bright smile and a wave as they realized who she was and called polite greetings.
Shivering with a combination of chill and fear, Kera guided the horse to the main stable doors and dismounted. As she gathered the reins to lead the animal inside to rub down, voices floated out into the courtyard.
“..prentice indeed. If’n he’s a knight, she should be a squire, not an apprentice,” The rough voice of the stable master was easily identifiable. Kera froze where she stood, unable to stop listening. “Bet he jus’ gives the title t’ make it sound good, and t’ make her believe she’s more’n just a bedwarmer.”
Kera flushed angrily at the implication the man made, but decided that a confrontation would be a bad idea. Drawing her daggers on a servant of a baron could be almost as dangerous as leaving Liriss’s employ. The thief glanced sharply around the courtyard, expecting to see yet another of her former master’s men lurking about. Feeling far too exposed outside, she called for a stablehand to come deal with her horse and ducked off towards the main keep before the child made it out of the stable to follow her orders.
Praying that she would meet no one until tomorrow, she pulled open the keep door and nearly ran Myrande down on her way inside. Only luck prevented Kera from going for her remaining dagger.
“Kera!” exclaimed the senechal in surprise. “I was just looking for you. Dinner’s ready and — my goodness! What happened to you? Your shirt’s all bloody!” Her dark eyes lingered on the deep maroon stains on the other woman’s tunic.
“I decided to go out hunting,” began Kera, honestly enough, trying very hard to sound normal. “After being cooped up with High Mage Marcellon in his laboratory for so long, I needed to get out. I tried to shoot a rabbit while I was out and it wasn’t quite dead when I picked it up.” She pulled at the shirt ruefully, hoping that the lie didn’t sound as transparent as she thought it did. “This was the result. Ruined a perfectly good tunic because of the darned creature and couldn’t even bring it back in with me to show for the trouble.”
Myrande smiled sympathetically.
“Go ahead and change then,” she said. “I’ll have them hold dinner and send someone to clean the shirt.”
“I don’t feel very hungry, my lady,” said Kera quickly. “I think I’ll just go to bed. If you don’t object.”
“No, I don’t mind. I’ll see you in the morning then. Goodnight,” and she continued out into the courtyard.
Kera breathed a sigh of relief and hurried up to her room, bolting the door behind her as soon as she got inside.
“I’m simply not sure,” said Marcellon, setting the half filled vial down on the table in annoyance and looking over at Rien and Kera. “I wish I could tell you something more definite, but I can’t. The infection appears to have been halted, but there are still traces of it in Kera’s body. Another day, at least, will be required to be absolutely positive that she will not relapse.”
Kera sighed deeply and Rien’s eyes narrowed in concern.
“I don’t believe that there is any chance of reinfection,” continued the mage. “If you two wish to associate, you may. But don’t DO anything, understand?” He looked sharply from one patient to the other.
At any other time, an admonition like that would have brought an amused smile to Rien’s lips and a giggle from Kera, but now their only response was, “Understood.”
“Good,” harumped Marcellon. “Now go, Kera. I need to continue my treatment of Rien. Come by again tomorrow morning and we’ll see if the disease is cleared from your body.”
“All right,” said Kera. She gave Rien’s hand a squeeze and slipped out the door. Resignedly, Rien seated himself on the stool that Marcellon indicated with a preemetory gesture.
Two days later, Rien found Kera in the courtyard, stretched out on the grass with a cup of mead and a book. “I hope this isn’t the way you spent the last two days,” he smiled, sitting down beside her.
“You’re just jealous that I’ve been able to do this while you were cooped up with the mage,” Kera retorted with an answering grin. “Not that it took a long time,” she added pensively. “I expected that it would take weeks and weeks to get cured, but it didn’t. We had better luck in this one place in a shorter amount of time than all of the months of travelling combined.”
“Sometimes it works out that way,” said Rien with a slight smile. “Our luck’s finally turned.”
“Gods I’m glad of that,” said Kera forcefully. “We deserve some good luck for a change.”
They traded the mead back and forth a few more times, watching a pair of birds fly in dizzy circles in the sunlight.
“I was wondering if you want to leave tonight or tomorrow morning,” said Rien abruptly.
Kera sat up, surprised. “You’re cured?”
“According to the High Mage himself.”
Kera embraced him with a strength he didn’t think she had. “I’m glad it’s over, but how can he know so quickly? He didn’t pronounce me healthy until last night.”
“I was his second patient,” Rien said. “He already knew the disease and the cure.”
“Where do you want to go?” Kera asked.
“Not Dargon. I want to take care of matters that were brought to my attention two weeks ago.”
“The messenger? What was it all about?”
“Have a seat,” Rien indicated. “Two months ago a brigand showed up in the Duchy of Quinnat. I was asked to go there and remedy the problem. That’s really all there is to it.”
Kera offered him the cup and he took a sip. “Can’t the local constable handle it?” she asked.
“I’m afraid not,” Rien said, returning the cup. “The local constable, it is reported, made a very valiant effort before dying. It’s really not his job to control renegade knights in the first place.”
“So you’re going to do it?”
“That’s why the job was offered to me,” Rien said.
“I really would like to leave right now,” Kera said, tactfully refraining from commenting about his confidance. “This place is too stuffy for me. Everyone is always so proper.”
“Lady Myrande,” Rien said, using a stiff and somber tone of voice on purpose, “has asked us to stay for a special dinner tonight, as we are finally able to return to a normal life in society now.”
“I guess since she asked, we should stay,” Kera agreed. Over the last week and a half she had gotten to know Myrande rather well and could not personally object to such a request. “We can leave in the evening, I suppose. It would be safer to travel by night anyway.”
“Safer?” Rien asked.
“Who’d be able to see us? I guess since I am stuck with being able to see in the dark, I might as well make the most of it.”
Rien embraced her and they both fell back in the grass. “Tonight it is.”
“Dinner was just wonderful,” Kera said with a smile. “I have never eaten this well before in my life.”
Myrande smiled back at her as they walked out of the hall, towards the outer doors.
“It’s too bad that you can’t stay longer,” said Luthias.
“Yes, well…Rien thinks it’s about time we leave,” replied Kera, stealing a glance behind her. “So…”
“Are you sure that leaving at night is a wise?” asked Myrande. “Travelling it night isn’t the safest way to go.”
“Between the pair of us, Rien and I should be able to spot anyone or anything coming at us before it sees us,” Kera reassured. “We’ll be all right. Really.”
“And are you certain that you have enough supplies?”
“Yes, my lady,” said Kera patiently. “What you’ve provided was more than generous and we plan to supplement it with our road kill anyway, so I’m sure we’ll be fine.”
Rien and Marcellon slowly followed everyone down the main corridor of the keep. “I am positive the disease has been cured,” the wizard was telling his patient, “but should you suspect that you still have it or that any side effects appear, seek me immediately. I expect to be here for a few more months. If you will be unable to locate me, my daughter, Lauren, the Duke’s wife, will be able to direct you.”
“That’s very kind of you, sir. And about our arrangement…?”
“Don’t bother with our agreement,” Marcellon answered. “When I will need you, I will find you. I suspect you will outlive me as it is.”
“And…” Rien began, but Marcellon interrupted him again, as if reading his mind.
“I have promised you and I never go back on my word. Your morals will not be compromised.”
They caught up to the others waiting for them under the entry arch to the great hall.
“…welcome here, Kera,” Myrande was saying as Rien and Marcellon joined them. “That goes for you also, Sir Keegan. Should you ever travel back to Dargon in your adventuring, please come by.”
“Yes,” seconded Luthias. “And perhaps next time you and I can have that bout I mentioned.”
“Perhaps, lord,” said Rien noncommittally. “I would like to thank you for your hospitality. I and my apprentice greatly appreciate it.” He inclined his head respectfully to Luthias and Myrande and Kera followed with a quick bow to each. The pair smiled.
“Good journey to you,” said Myrande as they stepped outside.
“I certainly hope it will be,” muttered Kera, and they headed for the stables.