Trouble, trouble, and more trouble...
Jamu's shocking feat and its resulting fallout send shockwaves throughout the world, but the wards are unable to take much advantage of the unsettling turn of events. The dragons seem to have backed away for now, but important duties await and training is now more important than ever.
The Academy taught them much, but it was only a practice yard for the dangerous world awaiting them all. Ben and Jania's most important goals are suddenly hindered by their relationship. Haunting memories and the loss of their loved ones begin to take a toll on Rohen and Galen as the truth about Galen begins to emerge. And when the Coven reaches out to a disillusioned Megan, she discovers why it is so important for her to save the very people who wish to deliver her to their revered White Angel and certain death.
As the wards grow up and carve their own paths, they also begin to grow apart. But when friends fall into trouble, they realize that although they must all traverse their crossings alone, the survival of each and every one of them rests on the bond of their friendship.
“Get up, boy! Come on, get up!”
Jamu grunted as something sharp dug into his ribs. He rolled over and opened his eyes.
Abeo’s creasy face snarled down at him. “Boy, what have you done? Why the hell are you picking on the East? You have no business meddling in this war!”
“I only follow my commander’s orders, just like any honorable Surian,” Jamu replied. “It does not matter whose fight this is. Why are you so worried about it?”
“You call attention to yourself. If the Draca find out that you are my boy, they will try to kill you. You may have a death wish, but I need you alive right now.”
“Then just make sure that no one tries to kill me,” Jamu said, sitting up. “And here I was beginning to think that you may have had a hand in helping the East capture this land here.”
“The eastern continent is not my target. Those people are worthless,” Abeo scoffed. “But your mother’s people, they are worthy of serving the Draca.”
Jamu turned away from Abeo in disgust. He closed his mind, knowing that Abeo had come to him early in the morning for a reason. The mind was at its most vulnerable right after a restful night’s sleep.
He was right. Abeo laughed. “So what are you trying to hide, my son?”
“If I am trying to hide it, why should I tell you?” Jamu asked. He pulled the washstand over to the bed.
“I may be able to help you. Now before you say you don’t need my help, you should at least listen to my words.”
“I do not wish to.”
Abeo handed him his personal bag. “Wash yourself up. I should be done by the time you finish.”
Jamu did not argue. It was not worth angering Abeo at this point. He could humor the nasty dragon. He began to wash his face and mouth.
“You will return to Trader’s Pass a hero. People will begin to talk, and the Draca will hear. They will come to investigate, and recognize you for what you are. They will question your heritage, and see you as a threat. Both Tueri and Debellos will react this way. I will be unable to protect you; I will be outnumbered. But if you join me, leave all this behind, you can live any way you want. This island is a piece of rock compared to what you can obtain.”
Jamu shook his head and continued washing. Wasn’t Abeo aware that he was necare? He was acting as if he didn’t. Surely he knew of the training he was receiving from Layi.
“You can have anything you want. Anything! I will give you a sample. What is it you want right now? Tell me what your deepest desire is, and I will give it to you. It will be my gift, a free sample just to show you what you can have by being the son I want you to be. I will ask for nothing in return.” Abeo moved to stand in front of Jamu and the washstand.
Jamu looked up at Abeo.
“Ah, there is something you want. What is it? Tell me, and it will be yours. Why should you go unrewarded after all you have done?”
Jamu poured water from the pitcher over his head and scrubbed his hair.
“I will not push you. You have always been a stubborn boy. I will see you when you return to Trader’s Pass. You can decide if you want your gift then. Enjoy your victory, and keep in mind that nothing you do will ever be this easy again.” Abeo winked and vanished.
Jamu pushed the washstand away and stared at his shaking hands. He should have slayed that bloody dragon right then and there. How the hell was he going to say no to Abeo’s offer?
v v v
Jamu stared at Rohen’s scar, barely visible from underneath his bangs. Rohen stared into the astral mist. “This is all too much. Way too much. So both you and your mother are necare?”
“We are,” Jamu said. “Sorry I almost attacked you last night.”
“And I’m sorry I can’t give you what you want,” Rohen answered.
“I understand why. But it really, really hurts.”
“I know. I left Galen crying her eyes out. It is going to kill her if it turns out she cannot learn to reach the astral plane.”
“Ro, please help her.”
Rohen sighed. “You are not going to take Abeo up on his offer, are you?”
“Do you realize the temptation I am up against? I planned to return to Trader’s Pass in a few weeks, but now I plan to stay here for the remainder of my assignment. Eckridge will approve, I am sure.”
“All that just to avoid Abeo?”
“All that just to avoid Abeo,” Jamu agreed. “But there are other reasons. I can do much good here. And it may be a good place to find out what happened to Yar and his group.”
“We need to find Jania. She would know.”
“Jania may not know how to get here. If Animis has not taught her by now…”
“She knows how to get here. She just needs to learn how to navigate the plane.”
“You have seen her here?”
Rohen nodded. “I sensed her call for help. It was strange. In any case, she defied Animis and projected.”
“Was Animis with her?”
“Animis was so angry he made her look for a scrying pool and left her on her own. Then Abeo showed up.”
“What?” The mist gusted about, reflecting Jamu’s alarm. “What happened?”
“I helped Jania as best as I could without letting her know I was there. Then I distracted Abeo for as long as I could. He knows who I am, but he couldn’t see my cord, so he didn’t know whether I was dead or alive.”
Of course Abeo would begin to meddle with his friends. But it gave Jamu yet another reason to ignore his offer. “If Jania had come to harm I would have heard of it by now. But this is not good. Now Abeo will be curious. And if he finds out that you are alive, then he will find Galen. And if he finds out how I feel about her, he will use her to get to me.”
Rohen kicked up some of the mist. “Galen is safe with me, I promise you. But I would like to meet your mother. I need to know more about what I am. Galen and I almost lost control once. If it were not for the fact that we were both in danger at the time, I am not sure how that fight would have turned out. And if Abeo finds us…”
Jamu nodded. “Six nights from now. Come find me then. I will be with Mother.”
Rohen smiled and nodded. “Can you try to get Jania up here, also?”
Jamu smiled back. “I will try my best. You work on Galen.”
“I will. I’ll try now. Wait here and see what happens.” Rohen faded away.
Jamu waited, and waited, and waited. The mist swirled, and sometimes shifted unexpectedly, but Rohen never returned. Jamu finally left, disappointed as always, but there was a new feeling mixed in with his sadness. A feeling he had not experienced in a long time. Hope.
v v v
“Lord Jamu, we beg you to take our words as truth.” The Eastern prisoner’s words were spoken in a heavy guttural accent. “Provide our families a safe home and protection from persecution, and we will swear fealty to you. Our skills, knowledge, and lives we offer to you.”
“Unworthy, their words are. No honor they contain,” Shiko whispered in his ear.
Shiko had a point. Easterners were known for deception and treason. The fact that this man would readily switch fealty was proof of that. Then again, the prisoner’s family was on the line here.
Interrogations had uncovered a small group of craftsmen within the Eastern army. Engineers, architects, blacksmiths, artisans, and even musicians, just to name a few. These men were no better than slaves, taken from their families, worked and abused with minimal food, water, and tools. Their families were under constant threat of annihilation. But these men worked to preserve their crafts, passed down from parent to child, as much as they worked to preserve their families. If Jamu could save these people, move them to a safe land, these craftsmen would have no reason to maintain their ties to the East.
Jamu looked around, admiring the tiny hall and balcony above. The second fort on the isle was much smaller than the first, but it was built exactly the same. He sat on a makeshift throne in the main hall with Shiko, Captain Maru, Anton, and Zeb. Schlar, a Massean captain who had led the invasion wave into the second fort, was also with him, standing to Shiko’s right. These men may have honor, they may not, but they certainly had skill.
“My lord,” the prisoner whimpered.
“Your lord he is not!” Shiko shouted. “Speak no more!”
“Calm down, Shiko,” Jamu said. He beckoned the prisoner to rise from his kneeling position. “Easterner, I cannot speak for the Masseans, but we Surians see a change of allegiance as devious and dishonorable. We hold more respect for our enemies who maintain their old loyalties. It may sound strange, but it shows certain qualities that we value and respect. Now I understand your situation, and see why you would present me with this offer. But you will be seen by most as without honor. Do you see the quandary here?”
The prisoner lowered his head and said nothing.
“Schlar, do you wish to work with these prisoners?” Jamu asked.
“Anyone who can give me information about the East I would welcome,” Schlar replied.
“All right, they are yours.” Jamu handed Schlar a scroll. “You are now governor, and in charge of this side of Age. Prepare the forts to hand over to Massea. With General Eckridge’s permission, I plan on presenting this land to the Emir as a gift.”
Light applause followed Jamu’s statement. Jamu kept talking. “Suspend all levies and taxes imposed by the East. Liberate all native prisoners. Make sure the people get what they need.”
“It will be done. A census will be conducted and the needs of the people will be identified.” Schlar bowed. “Thank you, Lord Jamu. I will not disappoint you.”
“I am sure. You may all leave. There is much work to do.”
Jamu turned to Anton and Zeb as the hall emptied. “It seems our work is done. Are you guys ready to take a trip to Shoreside? I am eager to see my friend Yar.”
“It may be a pointless trip,” Anton said. “I spoke with some of the Syntreans from the western side of the island. According to them, there were no Gladia replenishments this year at Shoreside.”
“What? But a group was assigned to Shoreside.”
“We know that. But it seems like Shoreside did not.” Anton shrugged. “We left before the Gladia graduates were due to deploy. They must have been reassigned at the last minute.”
“They must have,” Jamu replied. “But where did they go?”
“That is a good question,” Anton said.
“Look at all those horses,” Rohen said. He drove Trust around the roped-off circle set up on the meadow at the southern part of the village.
Galen studied the horses as Trust carried them by. There were several dozen yearlings. There were also several older colts that looked ready to break. There were even a few mares with foals beneath them. She had never seen a horse trader travel with so many horses. “Is it good for the horses to travel in such big packs?” she asked Rohen.
“You mean herds,” he corrected. “I don’t see why not. As long as there is enough food and water, and enough hands to keep an eye on them.” He waved at Mey and Leda as they called out to him.
Galen noticed a disturbance at the far end of the circle. Colorful curses floated over to her. She stared at the bobbing heads and shifting horses across the circle. She was about to look away when a black-maned head rose into the air. She squeezed Rohen’s ribs as the horse arched its neck and screamed.
“What is it?” Rohen asked her, stopping Trust.
“I’m going to go see that horse,” Galen said, sliding off Trust’s back. She followed the ropes until she reached the point where the horse struggled with the hands. As she leaned against the ropes, the horse broke free of the three men trying to hold him and bolted.
“Get out, girl!” One of the hands shouted, chasing after the horse. “He’s going to jump!” Gasps and cries erupted as the horse ran straight for Galen. As she stared, entranced, the horse hesitated, then stopped.
He had a beautiful reddish brown coat, topped with a black nose, mane, and tail. Black stockings covered his legs up to the knees. His wild dark brown eyes calmed as he examined Galen. And then…
Help me. They hurt me. They hurt mother.
She gasped out loud. Never had an animal reached out to her mentally before. She always had to initiate contact. And animals never communicated to her so clearly, not since the wolf that had helped her so long ago. They hurt his mother?
The young horse’s head swung to the side, sinking his teeth into the arm of one of the hands. The man screamed, and the other hands pulled out sticks and whips.
“No!” Galen jumped over the ropes and rushed over to the beautiful bay. Despite his defiant struggle, he was absolutely terrified, but his fear dwindled when he saw Galen push the hands aside to stand before him. Everyone became quiet as he let her take one of the leads and grip his halter.
I won’t let them hurt you any more. Will you let me take care of you? She looked up into his dark eyes.
The colt stared back. We can speak. We can take care of each other.
She grinned up at him, then turned to the closest hand. “I want him. I will take him; he’ll come with me.”
The hand shook his head angrily. “Our master will not sell that hellion to anyone. He is too dangerous. He is to go down.”
“No!” Galen cried out. The colt stomped his feet and neighed angrily. “You will not harm him!”
“And who are you, little girl?” The hand asked her nastily. “You cannot have this horse, so deal with it.”
She felt her hands heat up as she stared at the man’s ugly sneering face. “If that is how you want it.” She dropped the lead and let go of the halter. “Take him back, then.”
The young horse sensed her thoughts. He screamed and reared up. He butted the man as he tried to grab hold of him. The rude hand fell hard on his rear. A wide area opened up around them as the colt bucked, kicked, and carried on.
“Galen, for shame!” Galen whirled around at the sound of Druid Tean’s voice. She stood behind the ropes with a disapproving frown. “Get that colt to calm down.” Rohen stood next to Tean, his arms crossed and an amused look on his face.
“He won’t let me buy the horse,” Galen protested over the colt’s loud cries.
“He will let you buy the horse,” Rohen assured her. “The trader is coming right now. Get the colt under control before he reaches us.”
Galen nodded and beckoned for the colt to come to her. He complied meekly, making some of the villagers laugh at his sudden change in demeanor.
“What the hell is going on here?” the trader bellowed as he approached. His large round figure and loud voice worried Galen, and the colt sensed it. He snorted a warning to the trader, and reared up once more as he noticed Rohen standing beside him. Rohen jumped clear of the flying hooves.
He is good. He will make the mean men let me take you, Galen thought at the colt. He stilled once more, shifting his wary gaze from Rohen to the trader.
“This horse is too wild. He has to go down.” The horse trader shook his head stubbornly as he spoke.
“I don’t see why. I see a rare opportunity for you here,” Rohen replied. “She wants to buy a horse you wish to get rid of. They are getting along fine. Why won’t you sell it to her?”
“I don’t want anyone’s blood on my hands!”
“You might have blood on your hands if you try to bring the horse down,” Rohen replied. “Look what he’s done to your hand already.”
The horse trader chewed on his tongue as he stared at Galen thoughtfully.
“Come on,” Rohen said, putting his hand on the trader’s shoulder and leading him away. “I’m sure we can come to some kind of agreement.”
Galen smiled as she watched Rohen walk away with the horse trader. It’s as good as done. You can come home with me.
The blood bay colt bobbed his head happily.
v v v
“Rowy, why are you laughing so much?” Galen asked.
“There’s just something about girls and horses,” he answered. He tried to pet Galen’s new horse, who kept close to Trust, but he shied away from Rohen’s hand. “So what is his name? Remember it has to be some kind of virtue.”
“I know.” Galen leaned over from behind him and scratched the colt’s ear. “His name is Fury.”
“That’s not a virtue!”
“It’s as much a virtue as trust, and pride, and hope.”
“But it’s negative.”
“It’s his name. It becomes him. You’ll see.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of,” Rohen groaned.
“Do you think the horse trader will become suspicious about me because of how Fury reacted to me?”
“No. There are many stories about wild horses turning tame at the hands of a young lady. No one would think it is anything supernatural. That was quite a spectacle you two put up, though.” He began to laugh once more.
“I can’t wait until we get back home,” Galen said excitedly. “Fury is going to love having a nice safe roof over his head.”
v v v
Rohen pressed his pillow down hard over his head, but he could do nothing to block out Fury’s cries. The yearling had been screaming ever since they shoved him into the empty stall. Morning was only a few hours away.
Nothing irritated Rohen more than losing sleep. His body never had required much, but the little he did need was precious to him. He found drowsiness abhorrent, and his temper was at its thinnest when his sleep was interrupted. And he did not particularly like Galen’s new horse to begin with.
He sighed and sat up. He heard the patter of Galen’s bare feet as she climbed down the ladder and rushed to the stable. It was the fifth time she had done so that night. Rohen grabbed his robe and tied it on as he walked out of his room. He reached the rear door leading to the stable and opened it.
The blood bay’s head shot up over the stall door, and he bared his teeth at Rohen. Galen pushed the stall door open to look.
“He’s terrified, Rowy. They kept him locked up in a dark room while they slaughtered his mother,” Galen said. “Why would anyone kill a mother horse?”
“Food,” Rohen said shortly. He pointed at Fury. “And unless that horse quiets down, he may end up just like her.”
“Oh, no, don’t say that!” Galen exclaimed. “I’ll calm him down. Go back to sleep.”
“How can I go back to sleep if I haven’t gone to sleep in the first place?” Rohen muttered, throwing the door shut.
He knew he wouldn’t be able to sleep, angry as he was. He sat down on the big comfy couch and took some deep breaths to calm himself.
Galen came back inside a little while later. “It’s new, and he’s frightened,” she said apologetically. “I’m so sorry he’s keeping you awake. He should be all right now.”
Rohen gave her a tiny smile. “It’s not your fault. I just want to get some sleep.”
Galen yawned. “Me too. I feel so bad for Trust. He is taking this very well.”
Fury screamed once more, making them both jump. Rohen’s irritation flooded back, and he felt his face get hot.
Galen groaned. “He doesn’t want me to leave him.”
“Oh, is that it? Well then, give him what he bloody wants!” Rohen ran to his room, snatched his covers and pillow, and rushed over to Galen. “Here!” He shoved his pillow and covers into her arms and wheeled her around. He opened the door to the stable and pushed her out of the cottage. “Go keep your poor orphaned horse company!” he yelled, slamming the door behind her.
“But it’s cold out here!” Galen yelled back from the other side of the door.
Rohen tore off his robe and opened the door once more. “This should keep you warm,” he snapped, throwing his robe at her. He slammed the door again.
He stood in front of the door for a moment, but the stable remained quiet. Shivering, he trotted over to his room. It was a bit cold to be standing around clad only in underpants.
He stared at his stripped bed, and cursed. He had nothing to cover himself with. Still cursing, he spun on his heel and marched towards the ladder leading to Galen’s loft, making sure she heard him as he stomped by the stable door.
He climbed up into the loft and jumped into her bed, wrapping her covers tightly around him. He was still grumbling as he finally fell asleep.
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