Book Two of the Foretold Series - X.
As the bitter cold breath of winter closes in, the same genetic inbreeding that makes Kyra an irresistible assassin guarantees Tahrek’s death. Despite the unexpected kinks thrown into her plans by Tahrek and the Assassin’s Guild, Kyra wants the same thing she’s always wanted.
Freedom to do what she wants, go where she wants, be anyone she wants.
Freedom to roam.
To choose any other path would make her a social outcast and she's not about to let anyone take that freedom from her. Especially the Freni-Kyn Council sanctioned partner, who happens to be an obsessed serial killer. But then again, she didn't choose him. He chose her.
In a struggle to protect Kyra against overwhelming odds Tahrek finds himself forced into a series of humiliating situations. Despite the danger to himself he is determined to remain her guard, especially when their roles are swapped.
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Seduction's Blade - X
Lanion tossed back a M'hakru whiskey before ordering another round. He smiled, leaning forward to give the curvaceous beauty a quick kiss. Soon he would be drunk enough to bed the auburn haired woman without recourse. Laughing, she pressed up against him, encouraging more kisses.
“Mmmmm my dear, don't you smell delicious. But not yet.” Lanion grasped her waist and spun her towards the far wall, “A quick game of dags should suffice.”
Not time yet...just a few more drinks...
A wave of pure passion washed over Airintia. She rolled onto her back with a disgusted groan.
Oh not again.
Before stopping the 'seeing' she caught a glimpse of the woman Lanion was currently bedding. Felt Lanion’s lust intensify as his hands pulled at the woman’s corset strings. She slammed down the sending without bothering to give Lanion an angry response. It was pointless. He was of course, drunk, or he wouldn’t be with the woman at all.
Kyron damn the man!
He had been subjecting her to this ever since puberty and enough was enough. He needed to find his replacement before he drove her crazy. Sending out a tentative probe to find out if any of the other seers had been awakened, she found herself alone. No doubt they still slumbered. Her proximity to the area Lanion lived in had always made her more susceptible to his unseemly sends. Sighing, she pulled a book free from the nearest shelf. She would need to bore herself back to sleep and hope her shields held.
Soft rays of light from the double moons slanted in through large paned windows, painting the nearly bare room in shades of romantic pink. Zark's hand rubbed absentmindedly across his bare abdomen, smearing the blood which coated it. His breathing slowed as the scent of raw meat filled his nostrils. A satisfied smile lifted the corner of his lips. He massaged the slick red splatters into his pale skin like a soothing balm as he considered the bloodied mass before him.
Kyra...nobody will recognize you now. He blinked, frowned, then shook his head, causing waving filaments of white hair to sway and dance with sparkling radiance in the diffused lighting. No not Kyra. H’euman, this one's merely h’euman, unworthy of comparison with that thrice be damned witch.
A poor substitute at best. He took in the short blond hair and hour glass figure without remorse. She shouldn't have reminded me of her. Her fault...
A mask of hate marred his perfect freni-kyn features as he thought about Kyra and what she had done. Almost without noticing he slashed the h’euman’s cheek with retractable claws, adding to the myriad of shallow cuts lacing her body. Fresh blood welled up to mix with the older, darker blood covering her still form. He frowned. Not enough life in her to be worth playing with now. Probably dead within the day.
A single claw traced the smooth line of his pointed jawline as a sneer touched the rounded fullness of his lips. Perhaps one more bit of sport. Something she'll wake up for. One last delicious moment of agony. He gathered the broken body into his arms almost tenderly and carried her from the luxurious hunting lodge.
The muffled noise of burdened steps as he disturbing the thick layer of undergrowth was the only sound as he tramped through the woods. Even the animals waited. Or seemed to. His eyes shifted warily from shadow to shadow, watching for the telling sign of moonlight shivering off the hungry gleam of a wolf's eye. The scent of fresh blood which wrapped them like a cloak made these hunting grounds dangerous.
He shrugged. Worth it though. Well worth it.
Carefully he settled the broken body upon the ground then stood and nudged her with his foot. She breathed still. He had felt her shuddering gasps for life as he walked. His foot bore down upon a nearly unmarred finger. Zark smiled at the groan of pain that escaped split lips. Kyra's lips. Lips once full and luscious, now cut and bleeding from too many hours of abuse without even water to slake thirst.
Turning reluctantly, he climbed a nearby tree to await the arrival of the wolves. The pervasive scent of blood would draw them soon enough. A smile moved across his blood spattered face at the forbidden pleasure he would glean. The thought of her anguished screams as the animals tore her apart pushed a shiver of desire through his body. His hand slid down his bare abdomen, creating a shower of dried flakes of blood as he reached to stroke his engorged member.
Tahrek left the Mystmirr with Kyra strapped to a horse like just so much baggage. Nearby snickers drew his snarling glare till the offender's eyes dropped to the ground. His long absence hadn't erased memory of his prowess. Not a single onlooker wanted to take him on in a one-on-one fight. His eyes moved back to Kyra's draped form. No she didn't look like baggage, she more looked like a deer being carried home for the slaughter. That grim thought turned his stomach sour.
His eyes traveled over their companions. They would do. The guards, fit enough to withstand any attack, had already formed a loose net of protection around them without instruction. He nodded approval. This was exactly what he needed. Not some wet behind the ears youngsters who had to be told each and every step to take. Of course they hadn't left the swamp yet. Who knew how they would behave once in unfamiliar territory. Tahrek grasped the reins of Kyra's horse and his own before giving Sissan the go signal. There was no turning back now. Not with Kyra already drugged. If they lost any time he might as well start figuring out what kind of stone to use for their mutual grave.
Sissan gave Tahrek a lopsided grin before kissing Ml'an goodbye. As he turned away she slapped him good-naturedly across the butt.
“Something to remember me by. Behave yourself out there. Or else...”
In response, Sissan shook his ass while moving to the head of the group.
Ml'an's appreciative wolf howl left onlookers chuckling and clapping Ml'an on the back.
Tahrek watched as Sissan inspected the gathered warriors. Satisfied that they were ready, Sissan gave a low whistle. Turning into the swamp, he chose the most direct path towards the freni-kyn landholdings. That it happened to also be the most scenic was just a coincidence. Having all grown up in the Mystmirr, saving the unconscious Kyra, they knew its dangers. There was no need to warn not to touch the beguiling beauties they would be passing. At that sobering thought Tahrek frowned, just in his childhood alone there had been three deaths from minor cuts or bites taken while in the swamp. If the poison didn't kill then the rot did and if those dangers didn't take you out then the smell of blood drew what would feast on you.
Despite this knowledge Tahrek couldn't help enjoying the enticing native flora as they passed. He wished he could show Kyra but she was drugged senseless. And for good reason. Without the psychic deadening drugs she would have succumbed to insanity before they traversed the swamp. He passed a fluttering pastel blue flower with a sudden cringe. Perhaps it was just as well. She would have probably touched that poisonous trap before he could have stopped her. He shuddered at the thought of the slow death that would have followed. No it was good that she was strapped down like a carcass right now.
His attention shifted to keeping their horses centered on the treacherous pathway. That important task occupied so much of his time that he didn't notice when their companions’ footsteps began lagging from exhaustion. At an exclamation he started and looked towards the front of the line. One of the women was preoccupied with backing up her mount. Had it taken one more step it would have died, leaving them with a shortage of mounts. She cursed the hapless creature soundly while pushing its body backwards. Tahrek looked over the group. Hair hung in sweat drenched ropes down their backs, losing all trace of its natural banded coloration. The woman directly in front of him sank into a squat, taking what small rest she could.
With a deep breath he stretched out the knots of muscles kept too tense for hours. “Everyone take this opportunity to grab a bite. We're taking five turns of the glass for a break. If you have business that needs to be done, now is the time to do it. Don't stray far from the path. We don't have time to come search for you if you get lost.”
The thankful nods were enough to tell him that his assessment of the group was accurate. A couple of the females left the path but the rest hunkered down with bits of nuts or jerky after rinsing grime from their hands. Tahrek poured water over his own hands then dribbled some into Kyra's slack mouth. Satisfied that she was as comfortable as possible he pulled out a chunk of cheese he had set aside for this purpose. He ate it slowly, savoring the sharp flavor, while his eyes darted about the swamp.
It paid to keep alert while in the Mystmirr. You never knew when an attack might come, even against a group of this size. In the back of his mind he counted off the time. Returning slowly to his feet, he stretched again before wiping sweat from his forehead. Others, seeing his movement stood in preparation for leaving. His eyes traveled the group, counting heads. All accounted for, he gripped the horses reins and guided their animals to a more centered position on the path. Sissan looked up from his conversation with the female behind him. Catching Tahrek's readiness he let out a low whistle intended to get them moving without carrying too far into the surrounding swamp. They trudged forward, grateful for the energizing foods they had snacked on and the small rest for their legs.
The sun, invisible through the mass of vines and trees, began dropping below the horizon. Their surroundings became hazy as mist rose from the ground till they walked forward without seeing their feet through the fog. With the drop of visibility Sissan began thumping his staff before him to make sure they were on solid ground. Despite the danger of stepping into a trap or worse he picked up the pace, determined to make their first resting stop before daybreak. The troupe trudged on, unused to the grueling pace he set. Weariness crept into their bones, but their eyes were strictly for their feet. Though they were all fit and used to hard work they had never been forced to walk two days’ worth of the swamp in one day. With the bit of energizing food from earlier long ago burned off, they all looked forward to what dinner could be had.
Worry lines etched Tahrek's face as his eyes traveled down the line of females. He wasn't sure they were up to traveling the dangerous swamp in the dark. His eyes moved from the group forward to where Sissan trudged on. Sissan on the other hand looked like he could go another twelve hours. Rounding a corner Tahrek drew a breath of relief at the sight of the widening path leading into a clearing of sorts. Centered in that widened path was the burned out area set aside for bonfires. The edge of the clearing was blackened as though it too had once been on fire. Tahrek watched as the tense shoulders of his fellow travelers relaxed. They would be safe tonight. He grimaced. Maybe.
The group loaded swamp moss and wood into the fire-pit and around the edge of the clearing, creating not only a place to eat but an emergency exterior fire ring that could be lit if needed. While they did this, discussed guard schedules, and otherwise set camp, Tahrek loosened the ropes binding Kyra. She mumbled, giving feeble movements but no more. Her limp body slid down into his arms. He stood for a moment, gazing down into her face before laying her out near the fire. Taking her limbs into his capable hands, he worked them through some simple stretches to bring circulation back. With a whimpered protest Kyra tried pulling away, despite the gentleness of Tahrek's manipulations.
As the scent of cooking meat tantalized his nose, his stomach let out a low grumble. “It's okay Kyra, one more day, maybe two of this and then we'll be out.” His amber eyes traveled to the pot which bubbled with stew on the fire. He nodded with unspoken approval. They had done exactly what he would have. Their food would be done, eaten, and put away before full dark. No tantalizing smells would remain to draw some of the more aggressive predators. He turned back to Kyra, determined to finish his tasks before he lost all light. Taking out the salves Danle had given them, he sorted through, opening the ones for cleansing and protecting the skin from infection. Though she had not walked her clothing was still moist and sweat stained. Stripping her of the soiled clothing, he rubbed the salve over her body, taking care to coat every scratch or cut he found. The rot would not take root in her body. Not if he could help it.
Tahrek started, nearly dropping the vial he was holding. He peered up at Sissan with a nod. “Somewhat abraded but not too bad. Probably have some new bruises by the time we're out of here.”
Sissan squatted down next to him. “How about you? How you holding up?”
“What do you mean?” Tahrek grimaced, “I'm fine.”
“Come on Tahrek, fresh out of a mating ceremony and on the trail. Plus I've watched you all day. You haven't relaxed a moment. I was tempted to have one of the women watch Kyra for a bit but I knew you wouldn't let them.”
Tahrek gave a shrug of dismissal. “Just doing what needs to be done.” Lifting haunted eyes from the job of applying ointment, he held his friends gaze. “I can't lose another one Sissan.”
“I know...” Sissan agreed, “Trust me, I know. Not sure how you survived the first time.”
“Till I found Kyra I wished I hadn't. It was...it was like having your soul ripped from your body. Dark and empty. This is my second chance. Nobody, and nothing, is going to take it from me.”
Sissan looked away, uncomfortable with having stirred up such painful memories. When he looked back at Tahrek the man had returned to coating Kyra's body. He watched a moment. For a non sharpra she really was beautiful. Not to his taste, too delicate, but Tahrek saw something in her. That was all that mattered. Staff mates stood by each other, without question, to the end. Even if the other one made choices that you didn't understand. Standing, he stamped the feeling back into his toes. “Get some rest Tahrek. Tomorrow's another long day.”
Tahrek gave a mere grunt in reply.
When the bowls of soup were passed around Tahrek fed his broth to Kyra before eating the more solid parts. He watched as orbs of light winked in and out about them. What was a deadly lure for Kyra had no effect on the sharpra. They were merely part of the evening swamp landscape. A light show meant to lure the unwary, the susceptible, to their deaths. True, sharpra children were sometimes drawn to the lights but more because of the blinking than because they were hearing voices. The steady drone of insects, just as much a part of the swamp, increased as darkness settled in. Around him low conversations murmured. The thickening mist drifted across the clearing in small ground covering clouds of moisture.
Tahrek yawned. His shift wasn't till morning. Picking up the ropes, he leaned down to kiss Kyra's forehead before binding her again. She moaned, pulling away, when he began wrapping the ropes about her wrists. Grimacing, he pinned them down and tied anyway. Her safety was more important than her comfort. Taking the other end he tied it to his own wrist. She would go nowhere without his knowledge. Pulling Kyra's limp body close, he wrapped his arms protectively around her body and nuzzled his lips against her neck. The perpetual motion of her floating hair tickled his face as he fell asleep with her cradled within his arms.
Startled awake, Tahrek was half standing before he realized that he wasn't in danger. The sharpra female who had wakened him looked relieved when he moved his hand away from the dagger he had been drawing. She nodded understanding. Who hadn't been awakened for guard duty and thought they were being attacked? She stumbled away to curl herself up within her cloak, almost instantly asleep. Tahrek rubbed grit from bleary eyes. He stared for a moment at the tired sharpra female before reaching towards the pot of banish on the fire. His arm jerked backwards when the rope he had secured Kyra with was pulled too far. Reminded, he glanced at her recumbent form, despite the hard tug he had just given her wrists she slept soundly. Too soundly. Swallowing at that grim thought, he resisted the urge to check her breathing. His fingers fumbled over the ties around his wrist, as though reluctant to break that tie between them. Dipping out a cup of banish, he gave it a tentative sip before gulping in the fluid. Bitter, from being over boiled, but not inedible. Swishing the steamy hot liquid around his mouth, he wandered the perimeter of the clearing, listening for sounds of intruders.
Satisfied that they were safe, at least for now, he moved into the shadows to watch the group sleep. Their bedrolls were laid out like the spokes of a wheel around the fire, a position that would make it easy for them to defend the group if something were to attack in the night. He supposed that was Sissan's doing since it was a design plan he had worked out with Tahrek when they were teens. The snap of a twig nearby caused him to freeze into alert listening. Turning to the fire he added another log in a pretended casual gesture while readying an emergency brand for the fire ring. Though he heard no more sound he walked the perimeter again, sword in one hand, fire brand in the other. Probably an unnecessary check but he would not rest till he was sure. Most swamp creature's fear of fire kept them from venturing near a bonfire. Still, always better to be prepared.
Whatever had made the noise never made another sound. Tahrek waited till the air lightened before waking the group. While they stretched stiff limbs, secured their belongings, and ate, he fed Kyra left over broth, rubbed her limbs with ointments, and stretched her muscles. He knew he was delaying the group but it couldn’t be helped. Her safety was why they had been hired in the first place. Or at least his part of the reason why. She wanted them to guard their trade goods. Satisfied at last, he looked up to see an unusually light haired female watching them with an odd look on her face. When he lifted Kyra to the horse she came forward to aid in the shift of her limp body. Tahrek accepted the help without a word, expecting questions which never came. The group was silent that morning, conserving their strength for another grueling day.
The second day went much like the first. Two near mishaps with the horses. Nothing significant. Around them the swamp unfolded into giant tree high fronds of ferns followed by a clearing filled with magenta and neon yellow flowers. Where the group had moved almost carefree through the ferns, pushing overhanging fronds from their faces without regard, now they stepped gingerly. Eyes focused on the center of the path and a knuckle-fisted grip on the reins of their horses to keep them centered too. The charred ground of the path held just a scattering of encroaching plant life struggling up through its blackened mass. A tiny furred creature ran across the path, startled by their passing. In unison they cringed, freezing in place, when it triggered the nearby flowers to spew forth a rain of razor sharp thorns. Skewered, the creature fell. Navy blue insects swelled up from the ground beneath the flowers to drag its hapless body away. Tahrek let out his breath, glad that the incident hadn't caused a landslide effect throughout the clearing. He had seen that happen once and though it didn't kill the unfortunate Sharpra victims the wounds had been severe.
Sissan's staff started lightly thumped ahead of him when they moved forward again. If they were to frighten another creature into running into the danger of those vicious plants then it would happen far enough away that they were not harmed. Tahrek frowned down at the scorched ground. The fire brigade needed to get this area cleaned up. Those spikells were encroaching too close. Already the pathway was a good foot span narrower than it should be. If nothing was done soon, someone would get hurt. A moan from Kyra drew his gaze. She lifted her head a moment before dropping it back down across the side of the horse.
“Sissan we need to take a break soon. How far to a widened area?”
“Not too far. What's wrong?”
“Kyra needs to be shifted, get her circulation going. Maybe some watered down wine too.”
“I was trying to get us to the honey apple area. That way we can grab some fruit as we travel, but I can stop earlier if you want.”
“Maybe an hourglass turn? That too far?”
Tahrek examined Kyra's hands for signs of blue. “No, that will work.” He patted her hand. “Not too much farther Kyra, then we'll rest.”
Kyra kicked her bound feet, causing her startled horse to stamp its hooves. Tahrek soothed the upset animal with a few calm words before pulling it forward again. He spent the next hour murmuring comforting words to Kyra to keep her from shifting too much. Despite this she managed to cause her horse to try to surge ahead twice more. The only thing that prevented disaster was his firm grip on the animal’s reins. When they finally passed outside the range of the spikells area Tahrek rolled his shoulders to relax the tense muscles there. Listening to Sissan's calls of encouragement, he knew the man was trying to keep their pace up despite the oppressive heat.
Sweat ran down the side of his face, soaking into his already drenched shirt as they left that dangerous area behind. Trees loomed close about them again, these armed with spike covered trunks, but Tahrek relaxed. For once the danger was visible, making it far less dangerous than the areas they had traversed all day. Branches heavily laden with honey apple fruit draped across the path. Their companions snatched pieces of the sweet, nutrient-rich, fruit as they passed. Tahrek smiled when the female in front of him let out a grunt of satisfaction while sucking juice from a piece of fruit. Once hydrated and energized they would all be happier for a while. Sissan slowed to a stop, calling out softly for a halt. The group hunched down in place, dividing their attention between the pilfered fruit and snatches of conversations.
“Hey Klaranth, you want to head to a human settlement with me once this job's done? Might be good to learn how they live.”
Tahrek cringed at these words but didn't interrupt the conversation. Pulling free a water tin, he poured a bit over his hands, making sure to remove all the sticky sap and dirt he had picked up along the path. Taking a shirt from his bags he laid it across the saddle then began to roll a piece of the fruit back and forth across cloth, pressing just enough to liquefy the inside but not enough to crack the surface. Satisfied at last with the softness he pressed his knife in, creating a small hole. He set the fruit aside and slid Kyra from the horse. The woman next to him hastened to help.
“No need to do all this on your own Tahrek. Not when you have capable and willing people with you.” She grunted as she squatted to set Kyra's body down. “Besides, we should be earning our pay.”
Tahrek nodded, “Trust me, we get attacked and you'll have earned every loop.”
“Still Sharpras should help each other. Even if we're just hired help.”
Tahrek began dribbling the fruit juice into Kyra's mouth, so engrossed in not drowning her that he didn't even realize that he was neglecting to answer the woman's friendly offer of help.
The warrior stared down at the couple with a wistful look on her face before shrugging her shoulders and turning back to her own meal.
Kyra choked on the thick liquid before realizing it was food and beginning to swallow. When she turned her head away after two pieces of fruit Tahrek unbound her hands and feet. His hands worked over her muscles, massaging blood back into her extremities before securing her to the horse again. As they started out he tossed a few nuts into his mouth. There had been no time for him to eat fruit but it didn't matter. Kyra was taken care of. That was the important thing.
The troupe trudged on, Sissan urging them to greater speed than the day before. Darkness began falling, the air chilled, and a light drizzle of rain began falling. The soldiers paused long enough to saw giant leaves from nearby plants as they walked. After loading their hapless mounts down with leaves, they continued on, one hand on their reins, the other holding a leaf over their heads by the stems. They would need all the water protection they could get that night. They arrived at the last rest area just as full darkness fell.
“Let’s get that fire going fast. Everyone but Tahrek gather wood.” Sissan barked out while pulling a bag from his horse. Hastening to the fire-pit, he overturned the bag. Dried moss landed in an untidy heap. To this he added a few limbs he had collected along the pathway. Squatting, he scratched a red fire-maker over a branch till it began smoldering. He bent to blow on the tiny flame, stirring it to life with his breath before adding a small handful of the moss. As soon as a small flame leapt up from the wood he scooped the rest of the moss close. Soon a good fire was going, filling the air with heartening warmth. The women trooped back in with wet wood, adding it to the pile. The fire blazed higher, despite the steady drizzle that fell. Soon it was a hissing smoky fire that made them rub at their eyes. That didn't matter. It gave them the protection they needed as well as a place to cook their meal.
Satisfied with the progress, they stopped long enough to pull waterproof outer garments from their backpacks before building the barrier brush ring. While they were occupied with all this Tahrek set up an area near the fire, placing Kyra on blankets and propping up the leaves he had gathered on leaning sticks. Stripping her of wet clothing, he worked warmth into her chilled limbs. Assured that she was warm and secured, he looked up to see the rest of the group starting to build their own temporary lean-to, connecting them one to another, in order to conserve energy and resources. As the network of leaning branches was completed, the smell of a sweet soup began circulating. Tahrek turned his attention back to Kyra, rubbing down her body with creams and checking to what few scrapes she had. She was holding up very well despite the rough travel. He settled down near her, unwilling to bind her limbs till absolutely necessary.
“So Tahrek, what are the human settlements like?” One of the women called out. At her words the rest of the conversations died out.
“Just places where people live. Some of them dangerous, some not.” He shrugged, unsure what kind of information she wanted.
“Is it true they sleep with everyone they want?” another female asked.
Tahrek snorted. “I guess they could, since it won't kill them. But no, not most of them. Most of them try to be with one mate.”
“Really? So finding a mate with them might not be so bad.”
Tahrek stiffened, “No, not bad, but you need to be careful. It can be dangerous.”
“Trust me, we will be,” came a softer voice out of the dark.
“Time to eat.” Sissan announced before the conversation could move on.
As the bowls were passed around and Tahrek began spooning the fruity meat broth into Kyra's mouth more questions came.
“What do they eat?” “How do they dress?” “Tell us about their customs.” “Do they have a lot of children?” “How do they treat their children?” “What kinds of jobs are to be had?” By the time he finished feeding Kyra and answering the barrage of questions, he was glad for the excuse to roll himself into pretended sleep within his blanket. The conversation had stirred up memories he would have rather kept at bay. He listened as they surmised on things he hadn't answered before drifting off into troubled sleep. They thought to somehow prepare for what was coming. He knew better. They would be in a state of wonder for days, just as he had been those many years ago.
“Tahrek! Get up! We're under attack!”
Tahrek surged to his feet, drawing his sword. He swung it down, severing the rope that tied him to Kyra's wrists. The surrounding brush had been ignited. Now a ring of fire stood between them and the attackers. A gust of thick smoke blew into his face, causing him to give dry coughs while searching the clearing for danger. His burning eyes teared up, blinding him. Lifting an elbow, he scrubbed a sleeve across his face, trying to clear his vision. One of the women crouched near the fire, while another wrapped strips of cloth around her bloodied forearm.
Tahrek squinted through the blazing fire, searching for the source of the attack. “What's attacking?”
“Wolves,” the injured soldier shouted.
“What?” Tahrek gave her an incredulous glance. “How many?”
“I know,” She winced as the bandage on her arm was tightened. “Really is wolves. Six. I think. Hard to tell. Mottled fur.”
“What're they doing in the swamp?”
Nobody answered as a bone chilling howl went up from outside the fire ring. For now they were safe. But not unless they kept that ring burning.
A body hurtled across the fire, landing before Tahrek. He cut down in a broad slant, catching the beast across the throat with his sword and sending blood flying onto the nearby sharpras. Head severed, it fell to the ground. One of the women wiped the blood from her face in disgust. “What's wrong with them? This isn't normal. They shouldn't be here.”
Kneeling near the beast, Tahrek checked its blood drenched throat for a collar. Somewhat relieved to find none he stood. “Uncollared! The Mystmirr isn't under attack. Maybe the pack followed prey in and was crazed by the swamp.”
Unsatisfied with that answer, the sharpras near them fanned out with their backs to the central fire. Tahrek dragged the dead wolf into the fire near him before setting himself over Kyra to watch. “Someone get some banish going. It's going to be a long night.”
“You heard him,” Sissan barked when nobody moved to make the energizing drink.
One of the warriors filled a pot with water before pulling it over the fire. By the time the water was boiling, no further attack had occurred and the group had relaxed some. As the smell of banish filled the area another howl caused them all to tense. They prepared for another attack, their eyes straining to see into the darkness beyond the ring of fire. They waited, muscles rigid, action ready, for what seemed an eternity. Despite the chill of the oncoming winter the air lay close, warm, and muggy from the surrounding fire. One by one the women stripped off their cloaks, leaving them in untidy piles near their blankets. Tahrek glanced around at their sweat covered faces, glad to find them alert and ready to fight. Even the injured one.
Sissan broke the silence at last. “You three.” He pointed at three of the women. “Get some sleep. The rest of you stand guard duty till moon crossing.” Tahrek helped himself to the banish. He would get no sleep. Not with Kyra out cold and danger so close.
Sissan hunkered down near him. “What do you make of this?”
“Never heard of it before. Wolves don't live in the swamp. I always assumed they weren't immune.” Tahrek murmured. “Alarming to have them here.”
“Agree. Seen anything else weird in the swamp last few days?”
“No, just that the pathways aren't being up-kept like they should be. Someone needs to clear the edges before they become impassable.”
“Haven't heard any more howling in the last turn of the glass. They may have lost interest.”
“Hope so. Everyone's going to be tired tomorrow.”
“Try to get some sleep Tahrek.” Sissan patted Tahrek's shoulder.
“You know better.” Tahrek answered without explanation. Despite this Tahrek did at last doze as day broke around them.
He awoke to the moans of Kyra as a h'euman female put her through the same stretches Tahrek had been using to keep her circulation up and prevent muscle cramping. Tahrek sat up, startled. His hand shot out to grasp the wrist of the h'euman in a vise like grip. He blinked at the group, momentarily confused. As the events of the past night came rushing back, he released the wrist he had been near to crushing. She wasn't really h'euman, just a poor rendition of one made by a sharpra female who had never seen a h'euman in person.
“I'll do that,” he croaked out through a dry throat.
“Get some banish. I've got this covered. Watched you do it for two days now. I've already fed her, just finishing off rubbing her down with the ointment.”
“What?” Tahrek's eyes fell on the nearby vial. “Okay. Ummm.”
She grinned at him. “You aren't awake yet. We let you sleep as long as we could. Get some banish. We have to leave soon. I'll take care of your mate.”
Stumbling to his feet, Tahrek took in the rest of the group. The horses were already loaded down and ready to go. The lean-tos had been dismantled and their debris left in the center for burning by the next group to make camp here. The women were wearing, or trying to get into, human clothing. One of the women, wearing a long riding skirt, plain off-white blouse and brown homespun corset, handed him a metal cup of banish along with a piece of the fruit they had enjoyed the day before. Nodding his thanks, he sipped the lukewarm liquid. Not as hot as he preferred but it cleared his head.
He rubbed the back of his hand across his eyes before turning back to the woman who was helping Kyra. She seemed to know what she was doing, he thought while taking a bite. The sweet fruit made him smile in appreciation. He was grateful to have at least one of this Mystmirr favorite, despite the rush to leave the swamp. As the juice ran down his wrist, he resisted the urge to lick the sticky liquid. It would need to be rinsed off or risk drawing biting insects later.
The woman attending Kyra started to bind her hands. Tahrek tossed his pit into the burned out fire ring before pouring a bit of water over his arm and hands. “Here, I'll do that.” He placed his hand on the rope, stopping the woman.
She had been so focused on the task that she startled, surprised at the interruption. “You ate, right?” She kept the ropes while squinting up at him.
“Yes. I'm good. Thank you.”
She released the ties into Tahrek's hands. “We leave soon. If you need any more help my name is Zetara.”
“Thanks Zetara. I'll let you know.”
With a curt nod she walked away. He watched as she inspected her horse, lining it up with the other ones.
Sissan walked past wearing something similar to a Traveler's clothing as Tahrek's hands secured the ropes with practiced ease. He was getting used to this. He grinned at the thought of what Kyra would think if he told her that. A string of curses exploded from the mouth of a woman near him. He turned to see her struggling with a corset. Amused, Tahrek watched as the rest of the women tried to help. It was a case of the blind leading the blind. None of them had the corsets on right. His lips twitched with suppressed laughter as he finished loading up his horse. And they think they're ready for a human city.
After loading Kyra onto a horse he turned back to the women. Impatient now to move on, he stepped forward and gave a simple class on how to wear the corsets. Though they were appalled at the snugness of the item, they were grateful for help. When they set out at last they looked reasonable, like female peasants. All of them had chosen a h’euman visage based on books Lory showed them; faces which wouldn’t pass a close inspection but should do from a distance.
Before they left Sissan gave a warning, “I know you're all excited to be moving outside the swamp. We should be out before noon but keep in mind that we had wolves on us last night. They were crazed enough to jump the fire ring. That means they may still attack today. Keep your eyes and ears open. No talking till we're out of the swamp.”
Sobered the women exchanged glances. He was right. The mere presence of wolves in the Mystmirr was alarming enough. The fact that they had jumped the fire ring was enough to cause several to put hand to staff, checking to be sure they could be pulled free easily. Kyra began whimpering pitifully a short time before they exited the Mystmirr but Tahrek refused to stop. Open sunlight shone out a welcoming beacon in front of them. They would be free soon. She wouldn't need another dose of the sleep drug. Instead he walked beside her; soothing Kyra with his voice and reassuring her that the othervoices weren’t real.
Early morning still shone down when they exited the swamp at last. The sharpra drew in deep breaths of awe at their first sight of the distant purpled peaks of the Darkiorn Mountain Range. Tahrek didn’t bother telling them that though the fog shrouded mountains seemed close, days would pass before they'd even begin nearing the bottom slopes.
They had only traveled about an hour outside the swamp before Kyra lifted her head to speak, “Get me the Kyron’s hellfire off this blasted dung-breather of an animal!” She punctuated her words with an angry jerking of her hands.
Tahrek let out a grunt of relief at these words, even though they were slurred and scratchy. Her mind had survived; intact and spicy as ever. Setting her on the ground, he untied her hands and feet.
She rubbed them for a few minutes, accepting a drink from the water flask before standing. Staring back the way they had come her face took on an odd wistful look. “I heard them—in my dreams—calling to me—always calling. They—knew somehow—what I wanted and offered me...” she sighed. “Such beauty, such freedom. Anything I could want, all that I've ever wanted.”
Tahrek nodded his head in understanding. He had heard this before from some of the insane ones they had rescued from the swamp.
Turning from the swamp to face north she grimaced. “Well, I guess I survived that poisonous fairytale, time to pay my dues back home,” her words held a sense of resolve in them, as if going home were unavoidable.
Tahrek smiled crookedly as she mounted her horse without fanfare. She really was an amazing woman. He had planned on giving her a day of rest, in order to heal the scrapes and bruises, yet she was ready to press on despite the discomfort.
With the dispersing rain of the previous night had gone the onset of winter, it would seem. As they started across the unseasonably warm grassy plain a breeze picked up, blowing the horses tails in playful tugs. The peaceful grasses shivered back and forth before them like honeyed water in the wind. Insects buzzed in their ears and the sound of bird calls added to general feelings of contentment. The sharpra females, having never left the swamp—never felt the unobstructed warmth of the sun on their faces—stared about in amazement. Tahrek would have preferred more experienced warriors, ones who weren’t distracted by the sight of open dry land, but he was sure they knew how to handle a staff if Sissan had chosen them.
When the sun set in a blaze of red the temperatures dropped down to freezing. They were soon forced to halt. Tahrek, noting the droop of Kyra’s shoulders, insisted she stay by the campsite while the rest foraged for wood. One of the women lingered behind, her strong hand unloading sacks near the area they had chosen for a fire.
Kyra dug through her bags, finally pulling a rolled up blanket free. Throwing the fabric on the ground, she dropped onto it without care for how hard she landed. With legs feeling like jello, she was just glad to be off the horse. Next to her the other woman continued unpacking food.
“So you'rrre a frrreni-kyn?” the woman's voice hesitated over the simple sentence.
Kyra didn't bother opening her eyes. “Yes.”
“What's it like being a frrreni-kyn? I'm told you can make illusions.”
Kyra sighed. Rolling onto her stomach, she propped up her head on her hands. “We can create illusions. Nobody's ever asked me that before. What is it like being a freni-kyn? I've played the roles of other races, of course, so I have some idea of what the limitations are.” Her eyes drifted closed as all the roles raced through her mind. Finally she opened them, afraid she would drift off. “I would say we're freer than a lot of people. And yet not. We have rules and laws just like all the other races. They make sense to us but probably not to outsiders.” Kyra sighed again.
“You'rrre sad. At being frrreni-kyn?”
Realizing the impression she was giving, Kyra gave a low chuckle. “No. I'm sad at being me. My life was planned for me before I was born. I'm supposed to follow a set path.”
“And it doesn't suit you?” the sharpra raised a questioning eyebrow. “Why don't you just tell them no? Do what you want?”
“It's complicated. I can't just walk away. It would shame my family.”
The sharpra nodded. Shame she understood. All sharpra knew that bringing honor to the tribe was important. “Then crrreate illusions, fake it.”
Kyra smiled wistfully, “I only wish it were so simple. Our illusions don't work that way. I can change my personal appearance and those changes are limited. I would show you if I were not so tired.”
The woman began tossing ingredients into a pot. “What are the frrreni-kyn men like?” she asked over the sound of pouring water.
Kyra gave her a sharp look, glad that the woman's attention was focused on getting the water from a flask into the pot without spilling it. “They're men, like any other men. Only they don't choose one mate. Ever. Well hardly ever.”
“What's it like having...being intimate...with other rrraces? Is it exciting? Does it hurrrt?”
Kyra didn't like the path the conversation had taken. “It's mostly the same. Each race has some physical differences and of course you don't want to have sex with a m'hakru. That really would hurt, since their penis is barbed.”
The sharpra sucked in a hiss of breath, “So it's trrrue then. I thought it was just something they told us to frighten us.”
“It's true. The males can trim those barbs but why do so when their females aren't harmed and it's the only way they can be impregnated.”
“Do you think if I went to a city I could find a mate. Like Tahrrrek found you?”
Kyra frowned. The question had been inevitable. She was surprised that it hadn't come sooner but she still didn't like answering it. “It's possible but it can be dangerous. There are places you want to avoid.”
“That's good news,” the female smiled broadly.
“No, listen to me....oh never mind. I can see from the look on your face you've already decided to go. Just make sure to stay away from the docks, bars, and brothels. They're dangerous. Avoid the thieves and assassin guild too. None of those places will find you the type of mate you're looking for.” Kyra gave an inward groan, instead of the expected nap, she was answering a round of questions starting with her race and finishing with the rundown of where available men of all races might be and how to safely find a mate. The naiveté of the questions both alarmed and amused her. “I'd avoid noble born too. They're likely looking for a dalliance.”
“Dalliance? What's a dalliance?”
Kyra groaned aloud this time. To explain a lifetime of experience in a few minutes was daunting. “It's when a man or woman wants to find a sexual partner for a short period of time, maybe even just one night, or one hour.”
“Oh. That wouldn't work,” the woman shook her head while adding a handful of herbs to the pot of waiting food. “Done.” She rubbed her hands together in anticipation. “Need that firrrewood. Hope they hurrrry.”
“Listen. You need to get to know the male a long time too before mating. They aren't like your race. They won't bond and some of them will leave you as soon as you've mated with them. Check them to make sure they're going to be faithful. Find ways to test them. Promise me you will.”
“Is that what you do?”
Kyra shook her head, unaware of how magical she looked as the glowing tips swayed in the moonlight. “No, the freni-kyn aren't the same. We aren't looking for a life mate. In fact we don't want one.”
“But what about Tahrrrek?” For the first time the female looked concerned.
Kyra bit her lip. Tahrek was a mistake. One I'll never be able to fix. “Trust me on this one. It's completely different with our people. Our bodies. I mean our females.” She stuttered to a stop, unsure how to explain. “We crave sex. We can't help it. It's how we're made. Because we're senseless when in the...craving cycle...we don't want to let that be the time when we choose a life mate. Ugh! This is too hard to explain. And we also don't feel a need to be with just one partner. What's the point when there's so much pleasure to be explored with many partners. Does that make sense?” Looking at the other woman she discovered such a look of confusion that she realized she had failed. The woman opened her mouth to ask another question but was interrupted by a call for help from one of her friends.
Kyra breathed a sigh of relief as she watched the two drag in a large log. The rest of the group stomped back into the clearing laden with wood and kindling right behind them. Her respite was short however. The other females began plying Kyra with questions as soon as they started the fire. Kyra tried catching Tahrek's eye but he was busy discussing travel arrangements with Sissan.
Her eyes drifted closed to the sound of the women discussing one of her answers. Her dreams were filled with confusing scenes of herself as a sharpra in a human town. She awoke to a rough shake of her shoulder. “Kyra, wake up. You need to eat.”
“Ugh! You don't have to be so rough.” An outbreak of chuckles from their companions forced her into prying open her eyes.
“I wasn't. The first three times I tried to wake you. I'd like to let you sleep but you have to eat first.”
“I'm not really hungry.”
“Doesn't matter. Danle said to make you eat.”
Kyra rolled to her feet. “Oh very well. I can tell you aren't going to leave me alone.”
Taking a proffered bowl, she settled down to eat the salty stew. It was better than she expected, tasting of meat mixed with herbs she wasn't familiar with. Her stomach's furious grumble when she took the first bite helped her decide that maybe Tahrek was right. She did need to eat. She kept her eyes on her food, afraid that if she looked around the questions would start back up. Scraping up the last morsel she finally looked up. Tahrek was staring fixedly at her.
“What?” She glanced around, disconcerted.
“Do you want more?”
“No. Why are you staring at me like that? I'm not a ghost.”
“I'm just so relieved to see you awake and eating and being...well…being you.”
Disarmed by the lopsided smile that spread across his face, Kyra grinned back. “I told you it would be ok. I made it through. I'm a lot tougher than I look.” Thinking that now was a good time to discuss her concerns, she pulled Tahrek to his feet. “Walk with me,” she said with a sideways glance at the rest of the group.
Tahrek wrapped an arm around Kyra's waist as the two strolled away from the fire. As the silence of darkness enveloped them like a comforting presence, Kyra let herself relax. Once out of earshot she cleared her throat, unsure of how to phrase things.
“Tahrek we have a problem. Or rather you do. You need to warn the women about bonding with males who seem interested. They need to make sure the man is genuine.”
Tahrek snorted. “Kyra, they know that.”
“No they don't Tahrek. Listen to them. Really listen. They sound like school children. And it's dangerous, especially for them.” With a shiver Kyra wrapped her arms around herself. Her voice was a low strident murmur as she continued. “The bars; someone could get them drunk, impair their judgment. And the guild. They will want to recruit them. Not good. They won't be armed with the type of training you and I had. Then there are the thieves, they'll be easy targets.”
“Kyra I know this. They know this.”
“And Tahrek, you know as well as I do that there are more dangers than an unfortunate bonding!”
Tahrek shuddered and started to answer but Kyra stalked back to the campfire, leaving him struggling against a sudden influx of such raw sadness that a sob escaped his lips before he could stop it. He watched as she wrapped a fur cloak about her chilled body and promptly fell asleep.
Or at least she seemed to. In fact she lay near the fire listening to the conversations of the sharpra. She wasn’t sure exactly why anger was running a rampage of quicksilver shifting emotions through her but understood better why Blarn had scolded her for her flirtatious ways years ago. Though these were grown women, they had a childlike quality to them which worried her. A quality she felt needed protection. Yet she also understood the futility of doing so. This had to be their choice, not hers.
The next day dawned clear and fine. A lazy warmth lay in the air, lulling the group into a slow relaxed meal before taking to the trail. They set out again, each enjoying the soothing play of the unusually warm air as it riffled a fluttering course through their hair. Llayentia seemed wholesome and pure, untouched by the hands of man. No farms or cottages dotted the landscape, no ancient ruins. If not for the overgrown wagon trail they followed northeast this land might be thought completely uninhabited. And though they traveled ever onwards towards the distant peaks of the Darkiorn Mountain range it never drew closer, never offered up itself for their inspection, but remained a distant observing sliver of foggy mauve.
Despite knowing better, a sweet luring breath of contentedness crept over Tahrek till he too settled into false security, lulled by the softness of the landscape. The country track they had turned onto earlier in the day left the group even more relaxed; bunched together in a tight cluster of horses with small excited discussions breaking out at each new sight, each new wildflower, or insect, or piece of native fauna. Tahrek, his thoughts half amused by their discussions, startled back to harsh reality when all their horses began to whicker and fidget with fright. They all smelled it at the same time. Blood. And a lot of it.