The Lion Mistress: Book 1 — Chapters 7 and 8

Chapter 7: Family Reunion

“WAIT, NO— ” KATHRAEL SAID, taken by surprise as the woman shouted for help. Stupidly, she had not thought much beyond the act of physically getting the children back to Darveen. Of course her ragged clothing and disfigured face would make her appear some sort of miscreant and raise the villagers’ suspicions.

She thought about running, but knew it was hopeless. She had been traveling on aching, blistered feet, carrying a child and a heavy pack for two days. Her skirts were still heavy with rainwater, and she wouldn’t get fifty steps before she was caught. Besides, running would only make her seem guilty of something.

Three young men ranging from adolescence to perhaps twenty-five were jogging toward them—the woman’s sons, she suspected.

“Put that little girl down and back away!” barked the oldest, his voice like a whip-crack.

Petra clung to Kathrael, seeming frozen in place, while Dex grabbed a fistful of her skirt and held tightly. They can feel the fear and anger around them, she remembered, and made a conscious effort to stay calm.

“You’re scaring them,” she said as evenly as she could, “I’m just trying to get them back to their family.”

One of the men grabbed her by the arm, and the woman darted in to pull Petra from her grasp.

“Tell it to the village council,” said her captor, only to flinch back a moment later as he peered under her shawl. “What the—! What’s wrong with your face?”

“They’re just burn scars,” she said through gritted teeth, unable to quell the unwelcome pitch and roll of her stomach at his tone of disgust.

He relaxed a bit, renewing his grip on her arm as he blew out a noisy breath. “Utarr’s tits, I’m surprised you could get within five paces of a child, looking like that.”

Dex had pulled away from Kathrael to follow his sister as the woman carried her a safe distance away, but he spoke up at that. “She helped us!”

“Come away, child,” said the woman. “Let the adults deal with this. Poor things—you’re soaked! We must get you back to your parents so you can dry off and warm up…”

Kathrael’s spirits sank as the twins were led away, throwing worried glances over their shoulders as they headed into the village.

“Come on, you,” said the oldest of the three brothers, as he grasped her other arm and tugged her forward. “Perron, go find someone from the council and tell them what happened. We’ll take the girl to the square in front of the meeting hall.”

Kathrael let them tug her forward, and wondered if she was about to be strung up or burned at the stake, courtesy of another shape-shifter. Serves me right, she thought, anger at the injustice of it all flooding her and banishing her exhaustion from the demanding journey.

They arrived in front of the modest building a short time later, just as the youngest brother came hurrying back with a white-haired elder in tow.

“What’s this?” demanded the old man, peering at Kathrael through rheumy eyes as he approached. “Good grief! What’s the matter with this girl? Does she have some kind of disease?”

“She says they’re just burns,” said one of the pair holding her.

“I have a tongue!” Kathrael flared. “I can speak for myself!” She jerked against her captors’ hold, but the movement was weak and ineffectual—her lack of strength only made her angrier.

The old man raised an eyebrow. “Then perhaps you’d care to explain what you were doing with Shayla’s children, girl. Darveen has no mercy for kidnappers.”

She glared through her good eye, a lifetime of anger threatening to rise up and swallow her whole. “Am I an idiot? Why would I bring kidnapped children back to the place where they would be recognized after—what? A week? Two? Does the village council of Darveen intend to execute me for rescuing them and returning them home?”

Two more elders joined them from inside the meeting hall, drawn by the ruckus and shouting.

“Calm yourself, girl,” said the taller one, a great hulking man with an iron gray beard and a bald, shiny head. “We are not barbarians. You will be given a chance to state your case, and if the council deems you guilty, you will be branded on the cheek as a criminal and expelled from the village.”

Branded. On the cheek. Kathrael had to fight completely inappropriate, hysterical laughter. Of course. Of course they would want to burn her face.

Stop!” cried a man from across the village square. Kathrael twisted in her captor’s grip and saw a plain-faced man running toward them, holding Petra securely against his hip. A pale woman hurried along a few steps behind, holding Dex as she tried to keep up. Kathrael nearly sagged in relief.

The newcomer slid to a stop, panting for breath. “Stop,” he said again, quieter this time. “Let her go.”

The man on Kathrael’s left looked to the little knot of elders for guidance, and the bald man nodded cautiously. She snatched her arms back the instant her guards’ grips loosened, and rubbed resentfully at the bruises they’d left.

“You have something to say, Melko? Shayla?” the first elder asked, squinting at the couple with his weak eyes.

“Yes, I have something to say!” said the twins’ father. “This woman is innocent. My son says he and his sister were kidnapped by the two men who came through the village a couple of weeks ago with the traveling show. She rescued them and brought them home.”

Melko and Shayla approached her. Both looked startled when they got a good look at her face, but Dex laid a hand on his mother’s cheek and said, “Don’t be scared, Mama. Look deeper.”

Shayla blinked and stepped forward to stand face to face with Kathrael. “Forgive me for staring. Rudeness is a poor way to greet the woman who saved my family. You’ve returned my heart and soul to me, stranger. Thank you.”

To Kathrael’s surprise, the woman reached out and drew her into a one-armed embrace. Unless you counted Livvy’s sweaty, post-coital clutch, no one had embraced her since before Vesh died. Her breath caught, instincts torn between the need for human contact and the desire to flee and hold herself safe from the dangers presented by such vulnerability.

Shayla must have felt her stiffen, because she pulled away with a final light squeeze of Kathrael’s shoulder. Her husband turned to address the small knot of elders.

“I accept this woman into my home and consider her under my family’s protection,” he said. “Does the council take issue with this?”

Kathrael turned to see what the response would be. The bald man shook his head. “Of course not, Melko. If you are satisfied with the girl’s innocence then the council has no reason to intervene.” His attention turned to Kathrael, though he looked uncomfortable as he took in the ruin of her face. “You’ll have to forgive us, young woman. The village of Darveen is very protective of its children, and the twins are… special.”

“The village of Darveen wasn’t protective enough, apparently,” Kathrael said in a bitter tone. “Since you let them be taken from under your noses.”

“Believe me,” Shayla said quietly. “I’ve been blaming myself since the moment I came back from hanging the washing and found them gone.”

“The important thing is that they’re back now,” said Melko, holding Petra a little tighter. The little girl smiled in utter contentment and burrowed her face into her father’s neck. “Thanks to you,” he continued. “Please, allow us to make you welcome in our home, and accept our deepest apologies for the misunderstanding. We can never repay you, but we can at least provide you with food and a clean bed.”

All at once, reaction to the journey and the ugly confrontation washed over her, leaving her dizzy and weak. She nodded, lost for both words, and the strength to speak them.

“She doesn’t feel well,” Dex said from his perch against his mother’s hip.

Shayla put the boy down and he immediately reached up to take Kathrael’s hand. A moment later, Shayla put a gentle arm around her shoulders, steadying her. “Come, please. It’s not far. Let me help you.”

Kathrael nodded and let herself be led, the buzzing in her ears drowning out the sound of conversation behind her as Melko exchanged some final words with the elders. She was dimly aware of entering a modest house and being guided to a neat, comfortable looking bed. Gentle hands helped her pull off the tattered remains of her wet dress, and replace it with a soft linen shift. Her head hit a down-filled pillow that felt like resting on a summer cloud, and the world went black.

* * *

She awoke later to the sound of cheerful humming and the scent of cooking meat. She lay very still for several moments, disoriented, with absolutely no idea where she was. A warm weight against her side drew her attention to where Petra lay curled in the space between her arm and body, watching her, and everything came flooding back. She craned around to look on her other side and found Dex laid out on his stomach like a starfish in the generous bed, his hair sticking out in every direction as he blinked into wakefulness.

“Mama, she’s awake,” he slurred, still sounding mostly asleep himself.

Light footsteps approached and Kathrael tensed, but it was only Shayla. “Hello, there,” she said, wiping her hands on her apron. “I was starting to think you’d sleep straight through the day and into the night.”

“How long—?” Kathrael rasped, her throat feeling like sand.

“It’s late afternoon,” said Shayla, reaching out a hand to help her extricate herself from the little girl and sit up. “You arrived early yesterday evening.”

“Oh,” she said, her mind still mired in sleep. She looked down at herself, noticing the borrowed shift properly for the first time. A jolt of fear hit her squarely in the chest—where was the satchel with her food? Where was her blanket? Her dagger?

“They won’t steal your things,” Dex said, answering the unspoken thought. “It’s all right by the bed.”

“Yes,” Shayla said, evidently well practiced at following Dex’s one-sided conversations. “It’s all right there. Well, except your dress. I had thought to mend it for you while you rested, but I’m afraid it’s a bit beyond my ability.”

“A bit beyond help, you mean,” Kathrael said, relaxing as she realized that she was safe here.

Shayla smiled. “I imagine that old dress has some stories to tell. Have you traveled up from Rhyth, then? I thought I recognized the style. It must have been beautiful when it was new.”

Kathrael hadn’t owned it when it was new, of course, but there was no point in saying so. “Yes,” she said instead. “I’m traveling north, over the mountains. I was in Penth when one of the other people stuck in that awful traveling show asked me to help Dex and Petra.”

Shayla looked surprised for a moment. “She told you her name was Petra?”

Kathrael shook her head. “Not exactly. Dex said she preferred it. She only spoke to me once, and only a single word.”

Shayla looked at her daughter, eyebrows furrowed. “You really are set on that name, aren’t you, sweet one?”

“Yes,” Petra said, meeting her mother’s eyes with her wide, brown ones.

“Perhaps we’ll speak with the elders about a name changing ceremony.”

Petra’s face lit up, and Dex muttered, “About time,” under his breath. When Kathrael looked at him, he shrugged. “She goes on about it constantly,” he explained. Kathrael shook her head in wonder and amusement, trying to imagine what it must be like for the two siblings to be connected in such a way.

“Why Petra, though?” she asked, curious.

It was Shayla who answered. “That was my grandmother’s name. She had the same gift as the twins. Sometimes looking into their eyes is like seeing her alive again.”

Kathrael digested that for a moment. “I’d never even heard of such a gift before.”

Shayla’s expression turned pensive. “It’s a dangerous time to be gifted. I worry for the future, but I suppose it’s in the gods’ hands.”

Though she maintained a healthy skepticism when it came to putting things in the gods’ hands, Kathrael was loathe to say so aloud in the presence of the small family. She was saved from having to come up with anything else to say by the sound of the door.

“I’m back,” called a male voice—Melko. “Is she awake yet?”

“She is!” Shayla called back. She patted Kathrael’s shoulder. “There’s clothing of mine for you to wear folded over the back of the chair. I’ll keep Melko out of your hair while you get dressed, and then we’d love you to join us for dinner.”

“Thank you,” Kathrael said, momentarily overwhelmed by the sudden free availability of food, clothing, and shelter.

“Come on, you two.” Shayla herded the children off of the bed and out of the room. “Let’s leave your friend in peace for a few minutes.”

The door closed, leaving Kathrael in silence that seemed to echo after the friendly presence of Shayla and the twins. She looked around. The house was a pleasant, well-furnished space that confirmed her muddled impression from last night of a family that was comfortably well off. The smart thing to do would be to grab everything of value that she could carry and disappear through the window as soon as darkness fell.

And yet… what kind of person would that make her?

She picked up the dress hanging over the chair and held it against her body. It was a plain piece of clothing—the dress of a tradesman’s wife, cut from sturdy material and without ornamentation. It would hang on her bony frame. It would also be the nicest clothing she’d worn in months. She shrugged out of the shift and pulled it on, cinching up the belt to hold it in at the waist so the bodice didn’t gape too badly. When she was decent, she padded out into the main room on bare feet.

Melko greeted her with a broad grin. “There’s our hero!” he said, and she felt a flush of surprise. As far as she knew, Kathrael had never been anyone’s hero before. It was a very odd feeling, to say the least. “Are you feeling better after some rest, I hope?” Melko continued.

“Yes, thank you,” Kathrael said hesitantly, still wrong-footed at being treated like a normal person deserving of care and attention.

“Well, I hope you’re hungry,” he said. “It looks like Shayla has made us enough stew to feed the entire village.”

Kathrael’s stomach cramped with hunger at the words.

“She’s starving, Papa,” Dex said solemnly from his perch on a stool near the table. His tone made it clear he was using the word in its literal meaning, and Melko’s smile faltered and fell away.

“Not anymore. Not while you’re under my roof,” he told her, his voice going quiet. “Come. Sit. Please. Can I get you wine?”

Kathrael blushed and nodded, still unprepared for the depth of Melko and Shayla’s gratitude, and the hospitality they offered her so freely. “Yes. Wine would be… very nice. Thank you.”

When they had all seated themselves and partaken of the hearty stew, Melko sat back in his chair and regarded her. Kathrael was still working her way slowly through a third bowl, sopping up the rich broth with chunks of freshly baked flatbread, but she looked up when she became aware of the others’ eyes on her.

“Shayla said you were planning on crossing the mountains,” he said. “I’ve been thinking about what you’ll need for the journey.”

Kathrael blinked at him, uncomprehending.

“It gets cold up there, even in the summer,” he continued, “and the terrain is rugged and rocky. You’ll need decent boots, and a tent hide to use for shelter. Clothes for traveling. Dried rations, so you can carry enough food with you to get across.”

“I’ll manage,” she said cautiously, wondering why he seemed so intent on pointing out all the things she lacked.

“I have no doubt that you’d find a way,” he agreed, “but I think we can help you with those things.”

“It’s the least we can do,” added Shayla.

She stared at them.

“I don’t understand,” she said.

“Our oldest son died last year,” Shayla said, adding to Kathrael’s confusion with the apparent non sequitur. “He was about your size, I think. His things… I couldn’t…” She trailed off.

“We still have his boots and clothing,” Melko explained.

“And I could take in one of my dresses to fit you. Our neighbors borrowed our traveling tent last year and never gave it back. We don’t ever use it. But they still have it, and we’d like to give it to you, along with some of our food stores. We don’t need as much now with Persy gone, and it was a good harvest last year.”

Kathrael continued to stare, her spoon dipping slowly in her hand, forgotten, until it slipped out of her fingers and clattered in the bowl. “I don’t know what to say.”

“Say thank you,” Dex advised.

“Thank you,” she said in a weak voice.

The world ran on commerce, she knew—at least it did when neither party was strong enough to take what they wanted by force. Kathrael’s whole life had been commerce. She’d been born as a commodity, to be sold or traded. After escaping slavery—or, at least, trading one form of slavery for another—she had bartered her body for what she had needed.

When that had no longer been an option, Vesh had made a foolish trade, wasting resources to keep her alive when she could no longer keep up her end of the bargain. There were intangible resources involved in commerce sometimes, she knew. Vesh had acted on sentiment, not self-interest.

There were few sentiments as strong as those between family members—parent and child, brother and sister. Kathrael had returned Melko and Shayla’s children to them. Perhaps it was not so surprising after all that they would wish to pay her somehow for her actions. Food and clothing were commodities they could afford, and so they would give these things to her in return for Dex and Petra’s safe recovery.

“If there’s anything else we can do?” Shayla offered.

“No,” Kathrael replied, feeling more certain of the situation now. “Clothing and supplies would be immensely helpful, thank you.”

* * *

At the couple’s insistence, Kathrael stayed two more days with them, resting and regaining her strength. True to their word, Melko and Shayla assembled a practical traveling outfit for her, composed of Persy’s thick-soled boots and breeches, with a modified split skirt to wear over them and a fitted bodice that could be worn with or without a linen shift underneath.

Her worn blanket from Novice Hameen was joined by a light tent hide. The tent could be draped over a branch or propped over a short central pole that doubled as a walking stick for rough terrain. Not only was her belly full from three days of Shayla’s excellent cooking, but her leather satchel was filled to bursting with dried meat, fruit, and rendered tallow for the journey. She also carried a single wineskin. Melko had advised her to ration it until she got into the mountains, where there were numerous small springs and brooks with clean, safe water to drink.

Finally, on the morning of the fourth day, she readied herself to depart. Shayla met her at the door with a swath of lightweight woven fabric in her hands, dyed a striking shade of purple.

“I have one more thing for you,” she said. “I noticed that your shawl was in a similar state to your old dress. I’d like you to take this to use instead, assuming you want it. It was my mother’s. I never wear it, and it’s too fine a shawl to sit unused, waiting for the moths to destroy it.”

Kathrael reached out a hand to take the delicately woven cloth, feeling the silky strands slide across her fingers. “It’s beautiful,” she said. “Are you sure—?”

“I’m sure,” replied Shayla without hesitation. “Here. Put it on.”

Kathrael set down the satchel and tent roll so she could remove her old, worn shawl and slip the new one over her head and shoulders. It seemed to weigh nothing and settled easily in place, a fold falling across the left side of her face to hide her scars.

“It suits you,” Shayla said.

They were joined by Melko, holding each of the twins’ hands in his. “Go with the gods, Kathrael of Rhyth. Should you ever pass this way again, you will always have friends in Darveen.”

“Thank you, Melko. Shayla. You’ve both been very kind,” she said, before crouching down to the twins’ level. “And you two—be good, and stay away from strange men, all right?”

Dex nodded. “We will. Remember, you’re a good person,” he told her solemnly.

Petra darted forward to hug her. “Bye,” she said.

“Goodbye,” she replied, trying not to give into sentiment as she straightened away.

Shayla and Melko had been immeasurably kind to her, but their debt to her was surely repaid by now. As tempting as it might be to stay in this welcoming, generous place, that generosity would not extend indefinitely. It would be far too painful to watch their gratitude fade into resentment as she became more and more of a burden to them. Better to leave while they still felt they owed her. She had what she needed from them. That should be enough, shouldn’t it?

With that thought firmly in mind, she set off from the comfortable little house and did not look back. Ahead lay the mountains, and beyond—Draebard.

Chapter 8: First Meeting, Again

THE MORNING OF FAVIAN’S novitiate dawned muggy and overcast. He had been up for hours already, ever since Senovo’s light grip on his shoulder woke him from a strange dream full of half-remembered voices and a feeling of vague regret.

The High Priest’s eyes shone in the flickering light of the single candle he’d brought with him. “Come, Favian. It’s time to purify yourself before the ceremony. I won’t insult you by asking if you’re still certain you wish to proceed.”

In fact, nervousness had slammed into Favian’s stomach with all the subtlety of a runaway wagon the moment he’d realized that it was today, it was time, this was really going to happen now. Nervousness was different than uncertainty, however, so he mustered a wan smile for the man who had cared for him and his little sister these last several years.

“Thank you for that, Elder Brother,” he said, managing to project dry humor rather than stark terror, fortunately. “Are you sure Frella will be all right?”

One of the strictures surrounding the novitiation was the ban on contact with anyone outside of the Priests’ Guild or the Healers until after the ceremony was complete. Limdya had shared a meal with Favian yesterday, while Andoc and Carivel had wished him well last night and taken Frella to stay with them for the duration.

“Your sister will be fine,” Senovo reassured. “She is worried for you, but that’s only natural. She is happy for you as well, and she has many friends to keep her company until she can see you again.”

Favian nodded and tried to compose himself, aware that he was only worrying about Frella as a distraction from worrying about himself.

“Up with you, now, Little Brother,” Senovo said. “We will bathe in the river before you perform your devotions to the gods. The Healer will arrive soon after sunup.”

The entire temple had woken early in a show of solidarity, priests and acolytes emerging into the darkness of predawn, shedding robes and wading into the slow-moving waters of the river at the sheltered bend behind the sprawling structure of stone and wood. They were largely silent as befitted their peaceful, deserted surroundings.

Priest Eiridan—a pleasant-faced man with intelligent eyes and a noticeable pot belly who had come to Draebard’s temple from the village of Meren a number of years before—guided Favian to a calm pool near the edge of the river and helped him lather himself from head to foot with herb-scented lye soap. When he was satisfied, Eiridan took him back out into the current and urged him down to rinse. Favian held his breath, feeling the water tug at him as it flowed past the negligible obstruction caused by his submerged body.

How easy to let oneself float away under the onslaught, he thought as the rushing river filled his senses. How much more difficult to stand against the torrent and move upstream.

Eiridan guided him up to the surface with a gentle touch under his chin. Favian emerged into the cool morning air, his eyes and nose stinging as he shook the water from his face. He staggered a bit as his balance shifted in the current, but a firm grip on his shoulder steadied him. He looked to his right to find that Senovo had joined them, his own black hair hanging in a wet mass between his shoulder blades.

“There is one final thing to address,” his mentor said, “if you would allow me the honor.”

Favian nodded, wide-eyed, and let Senovo lead him up the pebbled beach and into the bathing room at the back of the temple. A sturdy chair had been placed next to a table holding a ewer of water, a basin, and several candles; an oil lamp hung nearby. Favian sat, tipping his head back at Senovo’s direction. The High Priest picked up the wickedly sharp blade that lay next to the basin, glinting in the yellow lamplight.

Favian closed his eyes trustingly, his heart beating a complicated rhythm as the razor slid over the front half of his scalp, shaving the hair away as was customary for a proper priest’s queue.

Gods above. I’m going to be a priest, he thought with something like awe. I’m finally going to be what I was born to be.

Senovo shaved the blond hair away with the greatest of care, leaving the back half of his skull untouched. Perhaps it was the emotion of the day making Favian maudlin, but the love in that careful touch made tears prickle at the back of his eyes. How difficult must it be for Senovo to see any of his acolytes undergo castration after what had been done to him as a young man? Much less Favian, who was as close to a son to him as any eunuch could ever have.

When Senovo was finished, he carefully brushed the stray hairs from Favian’s forehead and straightened. Favian reached out a hand and closed it around Senovo’s wrist before he could step away. The High Priest froze, the wicked blade still held in his sure grip.

“Thank you,” Favian said, craning around to meet his mentor’s green-flecked eyes with his blue ones.

The mask of High Priest slipped for a moment, revealing the vulnerable man beneath. “You are most welcome, Little Brother. The look of the priesthood suits you.”

Favian smiled up at him, helplessly fond, feeling his earlier nervousness slip away. “I had an excellent role model,” he said, serenity settling in place across his shoulders like a comfortable cloak.

“I’ll be sure to tell Brother Eiridan you said so,” Senovo replied with a flash of his customary self-deprecating humor, a small smile quirking one side of his own lips in response. “Now, though, you should visit the altar and prepare yourself for the ceremony. The sun is almost up.”

“Yes, Elder Brother,” he said. “And… don’t worry. Everything will be fine.”

“I believe that’s supposed to be my line,” said Senovo, raising an eyebrow. “Go, Favian. I will see you after the ceremony.” His voice turned wry. “Though you may not be in any condition to remember it. Nevertheless, we will watch over you.”

The altar room was almost completely dark, illuminated by a single candle on the large stone slab dedicated to Naloth and his goddess, Utarr. Favian knelt in the small circle of light, hands folded and resting on the warm stone, head bowed.

I know that we humans don’t truly understand all that you have attempted to tell us, he thought. I’m trying to do the right thing. I swear that I will dedicate myself to your service. I will help all of your children who have need of me, to the best of my ability. Only… I cannot give up on the idea that there’s someone out there, waiting for me. Surely you wouldn’t have given Carivel and Andoc to High Priest Senovo if it were truly wrong for a priest to desire such a thing?

I don’t know why you made me the way I am. These urges for men—they’re so strong. So overpowering. I hate the loss of control that they make me feel. It will be a relief to finally be free of them. Perhaps that’s what the gods intended all along. Perhaps I was given these… inclinations… so that I would be drawn to the priesthood to escape them.

I hope that’s the case, anyway. I just want to do what’s right. But… I also hope… that I won’t always have to do it alone. Perhaps you’ll show me a dream to point the way. Perhaps—

Eiridan’s low voice interrupted his prayer. “Brother Favian. The Healer is here. It is time.” Favian looked up, and the priest handed him a cup of brown liquid, earthy-smelling and laced with the sharp hint of herbs. “Drink now, and I will help you back to your room.”

Favian took a deep breath and let it out. While he’d knelt in front of the altar, the gray light of a cloudy morning had crept in around the edges of his awareness. He closed his eyes and tipped the cup back, letting the contents slide over his tongue. The liquid was rich and complex, with a hint of bitterness. He swallowed until nothing was left but a few dregs, and handed it back to Eiridan.

The older priest helped him to his feet and kept a hand cupped under his elbow as they made their way through the quiet hallways, to the familiar room that Senovo had set up for him and Frella after their father’s death. He swayed a bit as they rounded the final corner, the sleeping draught beginning to hit him at the same moment he saw the other temple denizens arrayed along the final stretch of hall like an honor guard.

Reston and Crenelo, who had survived the temple massacre during the Alyrion attack all those years ago… Brother Feldes, who prepared their food every night, channeling his nurturing tendencies into providing the temple with nourishment… slender Mithral, the youngest acolyte, his hazel eyes seeming huge in his thin face… all of the others, meeting his eyes one by one, standing silent and proud as he walked past.

Again, Favian felt tears rise. Perhaps his inability to hold them back this time was a side effect of the sleeping draught. Eiridan guided him through the door of the room, where Healer Sagdea waited for them with her long white hair bound up in braids. A clean apron covered her simple gray robes.

“Help him lie down,” she said, her voice softened somewhat from its usual brusque tone. “I can see that the draught is already taking effect.”

Hands helped Favian down to lie on the bed, and his vision swam at the change in elevation.

“’S all right,” he slurred. “’M all right. Tell S’novo not to worry…”

“We’ll tell him, lad,” Sagdea said, as if humoring him. “Now, just close your eyes for a few minutes, and everything will be fine.”

Favian snickered, suddenly overcome with amusement at the way everyone seemed to feel the need to reassure everyone else about his castration. He opened his mouth to explain the joke, but before he could make the words come out, colors exploded behind his closed eyelids and his awareness floated away through the rafters above him, disappearing into the darkness like mist.

* * *

The mountains were nothing like Kathrael had pictured them. She’d thought they must be stately. Peaceful. An oasis of nature, largely free from the touch of men. Instead, they were a terrible, haunted place. Wind whistled through the rocks and trees, leaching the moisture from her skin and making her lips crack and bleed.

It was cold at night, as Melko had warned—unnaturally so, for summertime. In the daytime, the sun baked her, reddening any exposed skin until it peeled. Something about the air near the top had a strange effect on her body and mind. Her heart labored, beating hard and fast even when she stopped to rest. She was light-headed. Dizzy. Her muscles ached constantly from the steady climb, keeping her awake at night.

One might have assumed that things would get better once she crested the top of the trail and started down the northern slope. However, almost six years after what had become known as the Massacre at the Western Pass, the northern slope was still a strange wasteland of rocks, scrub, and the creaking skeletons of burned trees.

And, of course, where was she going, madwoman that she was? She was heading to Draebard to confront one of the men who had turned the mountain forest into a raging inferno, trapping and burning to death hundreds of Alyrion soldiers as they marched toward the northern villages.

With no leaves or branches overhead to dampen it, the wind was even worse on this side of the range. It keened and shrieked at night, threatening to blow her sad little tent down around her. Worse, as her journey wore on, it started to sound like voices. Or rather, it started to sound like one very specific voice.

Help me, Kath,” Vesh whispered in her ear as she lay in pitch darkness, exhausted and trying to sleep. “Help me, please!”

Kathrael pressed her palms to her ears as hard as she could and screwed her eyes shut. “You’re dead, Vesh. I may be losing my mind, but you’re still dead, damn you! I can’t help you!”

Don’t leave me,” Vesh said in the same strange, attenuated voice. “don’t leave me alone…”

Tears squeezed between the tightly closed lids of her good eye, cold on her cheek as the wind whipped around her through gaps in the tent. “Fine!” she nearly screamed. “Fine! You can stay, only please shut up!”

Vesh didn’t shut up. On the contrary, his voice was joined by others as the hours passed. Her mother. Her sister. The baby that had perished in her womb, years ago. Kathrael curled up in a tight ball and hid her head in her arms, trying to hold on until morning.

* * *

When she finally emerged from the foothills days later, everything inside her had been scoured away except for the overwhelming need to reach Draebard and find the Wolf Patron… to end things, one way or another. Unseen presences still hovered around her, harrying her forward toward her goal. In moments of clarity, she knew with utter certainty that without the supplies that Shayla and Melko had given her, her body would have perished somewhere on the mountain pass, along with her wits.

As it was, the sole of one of her boots was coming loose, and her food was almost gone—which would have been more alarming if she hadn’t become too disoriented to remember to eat and drink most of the time. All that mattered now was putting one foot in front of the other. So she walked, and she walked, and she walked.

Even with her face covered, other travelers gave her a wide berth, something in her bearing proclaiming the dangerous madness that threatened to swallow her whole. Whenever she reached a crossroads, she would wait for the next person to pass and waylay them, hissing, “Which way to Draebard?” Inevitably, they would blanch and stammer directions, at which point Kathrael headed whichever way they were pointing until she became lost again and had to accost the next unlucky person.

When she rounded a bend in the logging road she was following and came upon a large village in the valley below, surprise momentarily snapped her out of her fugue. This had to be it. This had to be the place. The last people who had directed her made it sound close by. Kathrael’s heart sped up. There, in front of her in the distance, was the temple—the sprawling single-story building unmistakable with its enclosed courtyard and beaten metal icons adorning the walls.

He was there. The Wolf Patron had to be right there.

She looked around at her surroundings. Her vision swam in and out of focus. Voices still whispered in her mind, making it hard to think, and she clutched at her temples angrily, releasing a cry of frustration.

A plan. She needed a plan. She would hide until nightfall and sneak inside. If she couldn’t find the Wolf Patron, she would use her knife to capture the first wide-eyed acolyte she found and demand to be taken to him. And then… and then… she would run forward and sink her dagger into him again and again until he stopped haunting her dreams.

And it would all be over. Either they would catch her and execute her for killing their High Priest, or else she would escape and make her way back to Rhyth to help the slaves.

You know better, Kath,” Vesh whispered, his breath tickling her ear. “It will never be over. Not ever.”

Kathrael let out a ragged sob and stumbled into the forest, hunching up at the base of a tree to wait for evening.

* * *

Favian tossed and turned, his head moving restlessly from side to side. His mind spun in lazy, drugged circles that were only partially effective as a distraction from the deep ache between his legs where his balls had previously hung.

Healer Sagdea had done the deed neatly and efficiently with the assistance of Priest Eiridan, while Favian snored and drooled under the influence of the powerful sleeping draught. Or so Reston and Crenelo had informed him afterward in cheerful tones, during one of the woozy stretches when he could actually stay awake and aware enough to understand speech.

Gods, his sac really hurt. He stared up at the rafters, trying to focus on the way the heavy beams moved in slow, surreal waves when he was fairly sure they were supposed to stay still and support the thatched roof. Why had he woken up in the first place? Things had been fine when he was asleep. Maybe it was Frella who had disturbed him? But that couldn’t be right. His guardians had taken his little sister away to stay in their quarters while Favian recovered. So if it hadn’t been Frella, then what had awakened him?

Oh, yes.

The girl. That was it. He looked back to the doorway to see if he’d imagined her. Which, apparently, he hadn’t. Or at least, if so, he hadn’t stopped imagining her yet, because she was definitely still there.

He didn’t think she was supposed to be in his room, hovering inside the door like a ghost while he lay naked under the light woven blanket, drugged out of his mind and barely able to string together a coherent sentence.

“Wha—?” he asked, his tongue feeling thick and dry.

He stared at her profile as she peered into the hallway—dark-haired, golden-skinned, fine-boned. Pretty, if one happened to be interested in such things. Which Favian wasn’t, particularly. At the sound of his voice, she whirled to look at him, and a tendril of shock wormed its way past the fluffy layer of wool stuffed inside his head.

The other half of her face was horribly scarred, the flesh looking nearly melted in places. Her eye on that side was wide open and milky.

“Shh!” she said sharply.

The world went gray at the edges for a moment. When it came back, she was standing next to the bed, and there was a wicked little blade pressed under Favian’s chin. He snapped his jaw shut reflexively.

* * *

It had been sheer luck finding a sick, defenseless novice alone in his room in the quiet hallway of the temple barracks. Candles illuminated the modest space, which contained cots for two people. The young man lay on his back, looking up at her with hazy blue eyes. He was strikingly attractive in that exotic northern way, she noted distantly, with fine features and a chiseled jaw. His hair was a shade of pale gold that she had never seen before, and his eyes were the color of the sky just after dawn. The combination lent him an almost unearthly air of beauty.

She pressed the blade a little more firmly into the skin of his neck.

“This is Draebard, yes?” she asked, just to be sure. He started to nod, only to stop short as the knife jabbed into the flesh of his neck. She took the aborted gesture for assent, and her racing heart beat even faster. “Good. Now, priest-boy, unless you want me to open up your guts like a fish, take me to the shape-shifter called Senovo. I have unfinished business with him.”

The novice stared at her blearily as if trying to make sense of her words. She was just gathering herself to try to drag him to his feet by force when they were interrupted by a voice from the doorway.

“That will not be necessary. I am here.”

“Step away from the bed,” said a second voice, deep and commanding. “Now.”

Kathrael whirled in shock, the sudden movement making her dizzy. No, wait, he couldn’t be here yet. She wasn’t ready to face him now

But there he was, standing just inside the doorway. Clad in the white robes of a High Priest, with his tightly plaited black hair and dark southern complexion, it could be no one else. He was flanked on one side by a powerful man with a withered leg who leaned on a stout walking stick, and on the other, by a slender, androgynous boy with close-cropped hair and a soft, beardless chin, who sighted down the shaft of a small bow and arrow pointed at her.

“You heard him,” said the boy, drawing the bowstring back another fraction. “Step away.”

This wasn’t how it was supposed to happen. She’d meant to take him by surprise, but now there were three of them, and she couldn’t—

Kathrael raised the dagger in front of her defensively—an instinctive movement. Before she could even blink, the lame man’s walking stick flashed out and her hand exploded in pain, the little knife flying from her grip to skitter along the flagstones and come to rest next to the wall. She cried out and lunged after it, only to be intercepted by a gray shape that slammed into her, rolling her onto her back and knocking the breath from her lungs.

The large wolf pinned her beneath its body, its rank breath puffing in her face. A snarl curled its lips, revealing sharp canines as Kathrael stared at the beast, transfixed.

How appropriate that you should be the one to finally take my life, she thought. How terribly, pathetically apt.

She had failed. She had failed at everything. Kathrael looked up, meeting gold eyes ringed with green, trying to draw breath into her lungs and failing. The buzzing in her ears grew until it threatened to drown out everything else. Suddenly, the wolf stiffened above her, its snarl subsiding as it leaned down to snuffle at her face and neck. A moment later, the body pinning her in place twisted impossibly, and a slender eunuch with piercing green-gold eyes gripped her shoulders, staring down at her in shock.

You?” he said, as if the word had been punched from him. “I remember you. Merciful gods. You’re… alive?”

Kathrael tried desperately to suck air into lungs that did not want to work properly, and couldn’t manage more than a wheeze. Gray fog flowed in from the edges of her vision and smothered her until she finally slipped down into darkness.

End of Free Sample

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