“Every time you go, I can’t believe six months have passed already.”
Prince Jair Rothlandorn of Dhasson looked up as his father, King Harrol, stood in the doorway. Jair smiled and sighed as he closed his saddlebag and secured the cinch. “And every time I get ready to leave, I can’t believe I’ve survived six months away from the Ride.” Carefully, Jair folded his palace clothing into neat piles and placed them in a drawer to await his return. For the Ride, the only clue that would mark him as the heir to the throne of Dhasson was the gold signet ring on his right hand.
Jair walked to his window and looked out over the city. Valiquet was both the name of the Dhassonian palace and its capitol city. The sun gleamed from the white marble and crystalline sculptures that had earned Valiquet its reputation as “the Glittering Place.” Long a crossroads for commerce and ideas, Dhasson was perhaps the most cosmopolitan of the Winter Kingdoms. Its long tradition of tolerance for all but the Cult of the Crone had spared it the conflicts that often tore at the other kingdoms, and made it a magnet for scholars and artists. Beautiful as it was, for the six months Jair was “home,” the city felt like a glittering prison. He sighed, and returned to packing.
Harrol watched as Jair gathered the last of his things. For the last eleven years, ever since Jair’s fourteenth birthday, he had made the Ride. Although this trip would take Jair away from the palace, Valiquet, and Dhasson for six months, Jair’s belongings fit neatly into two large saddlebags. “You miss her, still.”
Jair turned back to look at his father. “I miss her, always.” He was dressed for the road, in the dark tunic and trews that were the custom in the group with which he would ride sentry for the rest of the year. Jair slid up the long sleeve of his shirt, revealing a black tattoo around his left wrist, an intricate and complicated design that had only one match: around the wrist of his life-partner, Talwyn. On his left palm was an intricate tattoo that marked him as one of the trinnen, a warrior proven in battle. He stared at the design on his wrist for a moment in silence. “I wish—“
“—that the Court would accept her,” Harrol finished gently. “And you know it’s not to be. Even if they did, Talwyn is the daughter of the Sworn’s chieftain and she’s their shaman. She can no more leave her people than you can renounce your claim to the throne.”
“I know.” They’d had this conversation before. Although every heir to the Dhasson throne made the six month Ride, only two before him had married into the secretive group of warrior-shamans. Eljen, Jair’s great-great granduncle, had renounced the throne, throwing Dhasson into chaos. Anginon, two generations removed, had worked out an “accommodation,” accepting an arranged political marriage in Dhasson to sire an heir while honoring his bond to his partner among the Sworn by making it clear the Dhasson marriage was in name only. Neither option was to Jair’s liking, and it was at times like these that the crown seemed to fit most tightly.
“You may find that this year’s Ride leaves little time for home and hearth,” Harrol said. “Bad enough that plague’s begun to spread into Dhasson. What I’ve heard from Margolan sounds bad. I know the Sworn stay to the barren places, where the barrows lie. Please, avoid the cities and villages. And be careful. Nothing is as it should be this year. I fear the Ride will be more dangerous than it’s been in quite some time. I have no desire to lose my son, to plague or to battle.” Harrol embraced Jair, slapping him hard on the back. But there was a moment’s hesitation and the embrace was just a bit tighter than usual, letting Jair know that his father was sincerely worried.
“Don’t worry. I’ll be home before Candles Night. And perhaps this time, I’ll bring Kenver with me. The Court can’t argue that he’s my son, whether or not they recognize my marriage. Whether he can take the crown one day or not, they can get used to the fact that I won’t deny him.”
Harrol chuckled. “If the boy can be spared from his training, by all means, bring him. If he’s half the handful you were as a lad, it should keep you busy fetching him out of the shrubbery!”
Neither Jair nor his father said more as they descended the stairs to Valiquet’s large marble entranceway. There was no mistaking the two Sworn guardsmen who awaited Jair. They were dressed as he was, in the dark clothing and studded leather armor of the Sworn, wearing the light-weight, summer great cloaks that would help to keep down the dust and flies of the road. Jair shouldered into his own cloak.
“Good to see you once more, Commander.”
Jair recognized the speaker as Emil, one of the guardsmen he had known since he’d first begun making the Ride. Emil’s greeting was in Dhassonian, but his heavy accent made it clear that language was hot his native tongue. His companion, Mihei, a warrior land mage, echoed the greeting. No one would mistake either of the men as residents of Dhasson. Both wore their dark, black hair straight and long, accentuating the tawny golden cast of their skin. Their eyes, amber like the Sacred Lady’s, marked their bloodline as servants of the goddess. A variety of amulets in silver and carved stone hung from leather straps around their necks. The leather baldrics that each wore held a variety of lethal and beautiful damashqi daggers, and the weapon that hung by each man’s side was neither broadsword nor scimitar, but a stelian, a deadly, jagged flat blade that was as dangerous as it looked, the traditional weapon of the Sworn.
Jair was dressed in the same manner, but it was obvious to any who looked that he did not share the same blood. Tan from a season outdoors, he was still much lighter than his Sworn companions, and his dark, wavy brown hair and blue eyes made his resemblance to Harrol obvious.
“It’s been too long,” Jair responded in the clipped, consonant-heavy language of the nomads. “I’ve been ready to leave again since I returned.”
Jair knew his father watched them descend the sweeping front steps, to the horses that waited for them. Even the horses looked out of place. They bore little resemblance to the high-strung, over-bred carriage horses of the nobility. These were horses from the Margolan steppe, bred for thousands of years by the Sworn for their steadiness in battle, their intelligence and stamina. Jair fastened his saddle bags, shaking his head to dissuade the groomsman who ran to help him. Then the three men swung up to their saddles, and rode out of the palace gates.
They did not speak until the walled city was behind them and they were on the open road. Mihei was the first to break the silence. “When we stop for the night, I have gifts for you in my bag.”
“Oh?” Jair asked, curious. “From whom?”
Mihei smiled. “Kenver—and his mother. Kenver chased me down the road to make sure I’d packed the gifts he made for you. Cheira Talwyn didn’t chase us, but I wouldn’t care to face her displeasure if I were remiss in making sure you received your welcoming gift.”
Jair smiled broadly, knowing that he had packed several such gifts for his wife and son in his bags as well. “Are they well?”
Emil laughed. “Kenver is a hand’s breadth taller than when you left, and begging for a pony to ride with the guards. Talwyn’s driven us all mad these past few weeks with her wishing for time to pass more quickly.”
“Tell me, where do we join the tribe?”
Mihei’s smile faded. “The Ride’s taken longer this year than in any season for many years.”
“Many times, we’ve found the barrows desecrated. Cheira Talwyn says the spirits are unhappy. We’ll join the others just across the river, below the Ruune Vidaya forest,” Mihei replied.
Jair didn’t say anything as he thought about Mihei’s news. The Sworn were a nomadic people, consecrated thousands of years ago to the service of the Lady. They were the guardians of the barrows, the large mounds that dotted the landscape from the Northern Sea down through Margolan, into Dhasson and to the border of Nargi. Legend said that long ago, the barrows had continued, down into Nargi and beyond, to the Southern Plains. But when the Nargi took up the worship of the Crone Aspect of the Lady, they destroyed the barrows and fought any of the Sworn who dared cross into their lands. The Sworn had left them to their folly, and the legends said that the Nargi had paid dearly for destroying the barrows.
Within the barrows were the Dread. What, exactly, the Dread were, Jair did not know. No one had seen the Dread in over a thousand years. Only the shamans of the Sworn, the cheira, ever communicated with their spirits, and then only through ritual and visions. But it was said that as the Sworn were the guardians of the barrows of the Dread, so the Dread were guardians of the deep places, and it was their burden to make sure that a powerful evil remained buried.
The three men rode single file, and Jair noted that both Emil and Mihei seemed more alert for danger on this leg of the trip than he had ever seen them. Normally, the two-day journey from Valiquet to meet up with the Sworn was uneventful. Now, Jair realized that the others’ heightened vigilance had affected him, and he found himself scanning the horizon.
“Look there,” Jair said as a small hamlet came into view late in the afternoon. Any other year, the fields would have been full of men, women and children working. Instead, even from a distance, Jair could see that the fields lay untended, although it was only weeks until harvest. As they drew nearer, an overpowering stench filled the air, and Jair saw shifting gray clouds hovering over the village and the pastures.
“Dark Lady take my soul, what’s happened?” Jair breathed as they drew nearer. The air stank of decay, and it was clear that the gray clouds were swarms of flies. The sunken, half-rotted corpses of cows, sheep and horses lay in the pasture. There was no sound, except for the buzzing of flies, so many that it sounded like the hum of a distant waterfall.
“It’s the plague,” Mihei said, as they passed the turn to the lane that led into the village. The smell was overpowering in the late summer heat. He began to chant quietly to himself, and Jair recognized it as the passing over ritual the Sworn said for the bodies of the dead. Jair made the sign of the Lady, adding his own fervent prayer for safe travel.
“What have you seen of plague?”
Emil shook his head. “Rarely have I been so glad to avoid cities as this season. Most of what we hear comes from the news of the travelers and tinkers we pass on the road. But it’s bad enough in some of the larger towns that the dead lay stacked like cordwood because there isn’t time to bury them, and the living have abandoned their sick and fled.”
“Sweet Chenne,” Jair murmured. “What of the other kingdoms? Have you heard?”
“There’s a rumor that Principality has closed its border to Margolan refugees. It’s said that Nargi is patrolling the river more frequently, as if anyone would think about sneaking into that rats’ nest. Has your father closed Dhasson’s borders?”
“Not yet. But it may come to that.”
“Watch out!” Mihei’s shouted warning came as figures crashed through the underbrush toward the road. Jair’s eyes widened as he drew his stelian. Four creatures burst from the forest, dressed in rags, moving in a frenzy of rage. They had been men once, but there was no reasoning in their eyes, nor sanity. They stank of waste and sweat, and were covered in filth and dried blood. Three of the madmen swung tree limbs that looked to have been ripped from their trunks. One of the men wielded a large branch with finger-length thorns, heedless of the blood that flowed from his hands as the thorns tore at his discolored flesh. Their faces and arms were covered with large, red pustules and bleeding open sores. The sight of three well-armed men on horseback should have deterred even the most determined thieves. Instead, the four howled with rage and ran at them, swinging their make-shift weapons.
“What are they?” Jair shouted as his horse reared.
“Ashtenerath,” Mihei replied, slashing down with his stelian as one of the madmen tried to lame his mount with the branch it swung. His weapon cleaved the man from shoulder to hip, but the remaining attackers pressed forward, paying no attention to their companion’s fate.
Two of the madmen circled Jair, yammering and howling in their rage. The third launched himself toward Emil, and his thorny club scored a gash across the flank of Emil’s horse before Emil sank his blade deep into the man’s chest. The ashtenerath collapsed to his knees with a gurgle as blood began to pour from his mouth. Still, he swung at Emil’s horse with his club until Emil’s stelian connected once more, severing his head from his shoulders.
Jair struck at the ashtenerath that ventured the closest, slicing through the madman’s shoulder and severing the arm that swung the club. The thing pressed on, paying no attention to the pain or to the rush of blood that soaked his tattered rags. Aghast, Jair brought his stelian down, slicing from the bloody stump of his attacker’s shoulder through his ribs until the body lay severed in two.
With a cry, Mihei engaged the fourth man who had advanced on Jair’s horse from the left. Mihei’s horse reared, and a well-placed kick tore the ashtenerath’s club from its hands. Blind with rage, the berserker hurled himself toward Mihei. The horse reared again, knocking the attacker to the ground and crushing him beneath its hooves as the full weight of the horse landed on the berserker’s chest, spattering gore and soaking the horse’s front legs to the knees in blood.
Silence filled the clearing as Jair and the others watched the treeline for another attack.
“By the Crone! What spawns those things?” Jair asked as he wiped his stelian clean and resheathed his weapons.
Emil and Mihei looked around the bloodied roadway. “Usually, ashtenerath are created by potions and blood magic, men pushed past sanity by torture and drugged into a bloodlust,” Mihei replied. “They’re expendable fighters, just a breath removed from walking corpses, and it’s a kindness to put them out of their misery.”
“A blood mage did this?” Jair asked.
Emil shook his head. “In a way. The plague began in Margolan, and it was the traitor Curane’s blood mages who created it, as a way to stop King Martris’ army. Only it got away from them, and it spread beyond the battlefield. Maybe it’s the nature of the sickness, or maybe it’s because it was magicked up, but a handful of the ones who catch the plague don’t die right away. The madness takes them and they become ashtenerath. We’ve heard of attacks before, but this is the first time we’ve been set upon ourselves.”
Jair looked down at the mangled bodies on the roadway and repressed a shiver. He’d fought skirmishes against raiders and seen men die in battle. In the eyes of his opponents, he’d seen determination and unwillingness to yield, but never complete madness.
“Come now. We’ve got to purify ourselves and the horses to make sure we don’t spread the sickness,” Emil urged.
They rode another candlemark before they found a clearing near the road with a well. Emil signaled for them to stop. They dismounted, warily watching the underbrush for signs of danger. Mihei stood silently, staring into the forest, but his hands were moving in a complicated series of gestures that Jair knew worked the warding magic of the Sworn. As Mihei set the wardings, Emil built a fire, and began to take a variety of items from his saddlebags. Jair drew a bucket of cold water from the depths of the well, and Mihei gestured for him to set the bucket near the fire.
Mihei took pinches of dried plants from pouches on his belt and ground them together in his fist, then released them into the fire. Smoke rose from the fire, heavily scented with camphor, thyme and sage. Mihei bade them enter into the thick smoke that billowed from the fire and to draw the horses near as well. “Breathe deeply,” he instructed, and Jair closed his eyes, taking in a deep breath of the fragrant smoke. “The smoke wards off fever, and strengthens the body’s humours.”
Next, Mihei took a flask from his bags and uncorked it. Jair immediately recognized the smell of vass, the strong drink favored by the Sworn, made from fermented honey, hawthorn and juniper. Mihei poured a liberal draught into the bucket of water, then added crushed handfuls of fetherfew and elder leaves, finally dropping in two gemstone disks, one of emerald and one of bright blue lapis. Mihei began to chant, his fingers tracing complex runes in the air over the mixture. He gestured for each man to unfasten the cups that hung at their belts and fill their tankards with the brew. Jair tossed the noxious-tasting concoction back, stifling the urge to choke on the strong bite of the vass. He was gratified to note that Emil also seemed to be catching his breath.
Mihei finished his drink in a coughing fit, but held up a hand to wave off help. When he had recovered, he took three dried apples and a handful of dried fruit from his bags and soaked them for a few moments in the liquid, then offered a handful of the fruit to each of the horses, which they took greedily. Then he moved from Jair to Emil, using a rag to wipe away any blood from the ashtenerath that had spattered their cloaks or clothing, tending at the last to his own cloak. Next, he bathed the horses’ legs and underbellies to assure that any splattered gore was wiped away, and made a paste of the liquid and some herbs from his pouches to tend the gash on Emil’s horse. Finally, he walked around the others, chanting as he went, spilling out the liquid to make a wide circle in which both men and horses could spend the night.
“And you know this works, how?” Jair asked as the wind caught the scented smoke and carried it away.
Mihei shook the last of the liquid from his hands and sat down beside the fire. “Talwyn said our great-grandfathers used these mixtures the last time a plague swept across the Winter Kingdoms. Few among the Sworn died, even though many others perished.”
They settled down around the fire and Emil took lengths of hard sausage, goat cheese and crusty bread from his saddle bags, enough for all of them. Jair rinsed the bucket well and drew up another bucket full of icy water. When they had eaten, Emil took two pouches bound in cloth and leather strips from his bag and handed them to Jair. “I promised I’d give these to you just as soon as I could,” he said with a grin.
Jair smiled and took the packages, carefully unwrapping them. On the inside of the piece of bleached linen was a berry-stained handprint, just the size that might belong to a three year-old boy. Beside it was a charcoal drawing of a horse and a man standing next to the stick figure of a smaller person, and Jair had no doubt it was Kenver’s image of his homecoming. Wrapped in the middle of the linen was a disk of finely polished hematite, wound with four strings of colored leather plaited with strands of Talwyn’s long, dark hair. Though Jair possessed no magic of his own, he knew it to be a powerful amulet, imbued with Talwyn’s shamanic magic.
“Talwyn said it would heighten your awareness of the unseen, and guide your dreams,” Emil said with a smile as Jair raised both the linen and the charm to his lips and held them tightly in his hand.
“Thank you,” Jair replied, tucking the linen safely into his pack and tying the charm around his neck. It lay against another amulet, this one forged of silver and bronze set with amethyst, a token Talwyn had given him when they married. She had told him then that the charm would allow her to enter his dreams, and although Jair spoke of it to no one at the palace, it was only that contact, at the border between wakefulness and sleep, that made it possible for him to endure their separation.
“We’d best get some sleep,” Emil said. “We’ve got another day’s ride to meet up with the others.” He spread out his cloak beneath him, using his saddle bag as a pillow, and took his blanket from the roll behind his saddle. Jair and Mihei did the same, and Mihei shook his head when Jair moved to sit by the fire to take the first watch.
“Get some rest. I’ll take this watch. Don’t worry—I’ll be happy to rouse you when your turn comes.”
Despite the amulet, Jair’s dreams were dark. The afternoon’s battle replayed itself, but in his dream, throngs of ashtenerath pursued them, undeterred until hacked to bits. He woke with a start, relieved to find the campsite peaceful. Mihei had put another log on the fire, and from the smell of the smoke, more warding leaves. Jair settled himself back into his blanket and tried to sleep once more.
As he balanced between waking and slumber, Jair saw Talwyn’s image in the distance. She smiled and beckoned for him to come closer. She was singing, and the sound of her voice cheered his heart. Finally, he stood next to her, and Talwyn welcomed him with a kiss. Then she placed on hand over the pendants at his throat. “Watch carefully, my love. The roads are filled with danger.” Her eyes widened. “Wake now. Take your sword. The shadows are moving.”
Jair jolted awake an instant before Mihei cried out in alarm. Jair and Emil were on their feet in an instant, swords in hand.
“What do you see?” Emil said, scanning the night.
Jair could just make out a trace of movement in the shadows.
“Spirits. Dimonns. Don’t know which, but whatever’s out there isn’t friendly,” Mihei replied. “I strengthened the wardings.”
Jair looked down, and where Mihei had traced a large circle around them and their horses with the cleansing elixir, a ring of stones now marked the area.
“There! Can you see?” Emil pointed into the darkness where darker shapes moved swiftly across the tall grass of the clearing.
Mihei nodded, raising his hands as he began to chant. As Jair watched, a phosphorescent mist rose in the clearing, first just ankle-high, then suffusing the night with an eerie green glow. In the glowing mist, the shapes became clearer. Disembodied shadows slipped back and forth in the mist, but their outlines looked nothing like men. Some were misshapen hulks with wide, empty maws. Others were wraiths with thin, grasping arms and impossibly long, taloned fingers that stretched towards the living men and horses within the wardings.
The horses shied and Jair feared they might bolt. Mihei spared the animals a moment of his attention, looking each of the horses into the eyes and murmuring words Jair did not catch. Immediately, the horses quieted.
The black shapes rushed toward the stone circle, and a curtain of light flared between the three men and the advancing shadows. The shadows howled and shrieked, spreading themselves across the glowing barrier until they blotted out the moonlight. Jair glanced at Mihei. The land mage’s forehead was beaded with sweat and he was biting his lip with the effort to reinforce the strained wardings.
“Tell us what you need and we’ll do it,” Jair urged.
“Keep me awake,” Mihei said. “My guess is that someone used this forest as a killing field, and the spirits have never left. Their anger could have drawn the dimonns. The deaths in the village could also make the dimonns stronger.”
“What do they want?” Jair asked.
“If they’re drawn by the wronged dead, can you appease their spirits, reduce the dimonns’ power?” Jair had drawn his stelian, even though it was clear that it would be little protection against the shadows that wailed and tore at the gossamer-thin veil of the warding.
“I’m no summoner,” Mihei replied. “I can’t help the spirits pass over to the Lady. But if we survive the night, I can find where their bodies were dumped and consecrate the ground. That should satisfy the spirits, and without them and the ashtenerath, the dimonns should leave.”
“Should,” Emil repeated doubtfully.
Mihei looked to Jair. “I need some things from my bag.” Jair listened as Mihei recited a list of powders and dried plants, and went to gather them from the vials in Mihei’s bag as Emil stood guard, weapon at the ready.
“Mix them with my mortar and pestle,” Mihei instructed. “Then make a paste of it with some water.” Jair did as Mihei requested, dripping water into the mortar’s rough bowl until a gray, gum-like paste stuck to the pestle.
“Bring me a small wad—save the rest, we’ll need it.”
Jair rolled a coin-sized wad of the gum between thumb and forefinger and brought it to Mihei, who placed it under his tongue. “That should help. When I trained with the mages, there were all-night workings where we didn’t dare fall asleep. The muttar gum will keep me wide awake, although I’ll pay for it tomorrow.”
“Anything else we can do?” Emil asked.
Mihei nodded. “The dimonns will try to reach my mind. They’ll send visions and nightmares. If I begin to lose my focus, you have to bring me back. All our lives depend on it.”
Mihei shrugged. “Douse me with water. Pinch my arms. If you have to, slap me across the face. Better a few bruises than to be sucked dry by the dimonns.”
Grimly, Jair and Emil took seats next to Mihei. Jair fingered his amulets, but his connection to Talwyn was gone. Just on the other side of the coruscating light, the dimonns stretched their shadows over the domed warding, mouths full of dark teeth snapping against the barrier. Talons scratched against the ground and cries like tortured birds of prey broke the silence of the night.
A movement caught Jair’s eye. Something solid moved through the tall grass, and to his horror, the face of a young girl, no more than six or seven seasons old, pale and wide-eyed, rose above the mist. The image wavered, and as Jair ran his fingers over the amulets at his throat, the girl seemed to flicker and shift.
Emil started towards her, and Jair blocked his way. “She’s not real.”
Emil struggled against Jair, his eyes on the child. “They’ll kill her.”
“She’s not really here.”
“Let me go! Emil broke away from Jair and stepped through the warding. Immediately, the shadows massed and the image of the girl winked out. Emil’s scream echoed in the night. With a curse, Jair dove after him, making sure to keep one foot within the warding as Mihei began to chant loudly. Jair caught the back of Emil’s great cloak and pulled with all his might. Claws tore at him, slicing into his forearm and shoulder. He twisted out of the way of snapping jaws, and pulled again. This time, he succeeded, landing hard on his back as Emil tumbled through the warding.
Emil’s skin was pale, as if in the few seconds beyond the warding he’d been nearly drained of blood. Long, deep gashes had sliced through his vambraces, down his right arm. Razor sharp teeth left their imprint on his left thigh. Emil was trembling and jerking, groaning in pain.
Jair glanced up at Mihei, but the land mage’s full concentration was fixed on the battle beyond the warding. The ghostly child was gone. Jair had seen enough of battle to have a rudimentary idea of how to lessen Emil’s pain, and he riffled through Mihei’s bag until he found the flask of vass, mixing a few fingers’ depth of vass in his tankard with cohash and poppy. Jair pinned Emil with the weight of his body and forced his jaws apart until he could drip the mixture between Emil’s teeth. Emil’s eyes were dilated with pain, and his blood stained the dry grass red. Little by little, Emil’s breathing slowed and the thrashing ceased. Jair slid his fingers along Emil’s wrist.
“He’s got a pulse, thank the Lady.”
“Cleanse the wounds,” Mihei said in a distracted tone. “Use the vass. It’ll sting but it’s the best we have. Dimonns don’t carry plague like the ashtenerath, but their wounds fester.”
Jair did as Mihei said, gritting his teeth as he drizzled Emil’s wounds with alcohol and Emil flinched, gasping with the pain. Jair tore strips from Emil’s ruined shirt to make bandages and bound up the wounds as best he could. When he had done all he could for Emil, Jair applied the vass to his own torn arm and shoulder, then returned to Mihei’s side.
Outside the warding, the dimonns struck with increased fury.
“They’ve tasted blood,” Mihei murmured. “They’re hungry.”
“Wonderful,” Jair said dryly. “Now what?”
“Just keep me awake. It’s taking a lot out of me to keep the wardings up. You could sing.”
Jair looked sideways at him. “I can’t sing, even for Talwyn. You know that.”
Mihei managed a tired half-smile. “Pain is an effective way to stay awake. It’s that or step on my foot. ”
In reply, Jair trod on Mihei’s toes. “Ouch!”
“Yes, thanks. You can save the other foot for later.”
As the candlemarks wore on, Jair paced the warded circle. For a time, he drummed on the empty water bucket with the pestle, keeping up a rhythm that kept both of them awake. When Mihei began to waver, Jair brought him more of the muttar gum and fanned his face. But as the stars overhead reached their zenith, Mihei was tiring. The golden glow of the warding dimmed, and the dimonns, sensing victory, massed against the shielding.
Alarmed, Jair started to his feet, one hand on his stelian and one hand touching his amulet in a gesture of protection. Beyond the warded circle, the phosphorescent glow had gone dark. Mihei’s eyes were bleary and his lips were dry and cracked as he struggled to reinforce the magical barrier. And although Jair had treated his own wounds, the gashes where the dimonns had cut him burned. He was sweating although the night was cool, and his heart was racing from more than mortal fear. Emil lay still and pale on the grass. Whatever poison was rapidly coursing through Jair’s blood, Emil had received a larger dose.
I’m going to die, Talwyn, Jair thought, fingering the metal charm. Forgive me.
The metal tingled under his touch and Talwyn’s image formed clear in his mind for the first time since the dimonn attack began. Hang on. Rescue… The voice faded, but hope was enough to shake off Jair’s fatigue. He ran to Mihei and shook him by the shoulders, rousing him as the glow of the warded dome dimmed nearly to darkness. The shrieks of the dimonns were louder now, and just beyond the thin golden glow, Jair could hear the snap of teeth.
“They’re coming for us,” Jair whispered, afraid that the dimonns might hear. “Try, Mihei. Try to hold the barrier until help comes.”
Mihei nodded. His eyes widened, and he slammed them shut, squeezing them tight as his head jerked back and forth. Alarmed, Jair reached toward him.
“No. Visions. I see…our deaths. All dead.”
Acting on instinct, Jair gripped Mihei’s shoulder with his right hand and tightened the fingers of his left hand around the amulets that hung at his throat. He willed his breathing to slow, picturing a river of golden light flowing between his amulets and Mihei, warm and powerful energy to reinforce the mage’s failing magic. Mihei drew a long, shuddering breath and seemed to relax.
In the distance, Jair heard hoof beats.
A crack like thunder split the night, and a wall of flame burst into light at the edges of Mihei’s wardings. A streak of light burned through the darkness, and the dimonns scattered, howling in anger as strong magic crackled through the cool night air. Mihei collapsed to his knees, and the last glow of his warding faded.
The fire flared, and in its light, Jair could see five shapes approaching. By their outlines, all had swords at hand. As they stepped closer, Jair could see that the five were Sworn, and leading the group was Talwyn, clad in leather armor, dressed for battle. As Talwyn and the others reached the stone circle, the ring of flames disappeared as quickly as it had come, leaving only blackened grass behind.
“Open the circle,” Talwyn said, and Jair rushed to move stones out of the way to welcome the others into the warded space.
“How did you know?” Jair asked, as Talwyn knelt beside Emil.
“When I touched your dream, I sensed evil near you. Something was strong enough to keep me from reaching your dreams again to warn you. Janeth knew the route Emil and Mihei were going to take. We’d had to backtrack from where they left us because flooding had taken out the bridge on the river, so we weren’t as far away as Emil and Mihei would have expected. Even so, we had to ride hard to get here in time.”
Jair glanced at their sweat-soaked horses, then looked back to Emil. “The dimonns tricked him. They showed us a child beyond the wardings. She looked like Emil’s daughter.”
Talwyn nodded. “That’s hard to resist, even if you know better.” Jair looked away, not at all certain he could have resisted the bait had it been Kenver’s image the dimonns had projected.
“Can you heal them?”
Talwyn checked over both Emil and Mihei carefully before she nodded. “Yes, but not here. I’d like to be somewhere less exposed. She looked up at Jair and cast a worried glance at his wounds. “I’ll need to look at that arm, as well.”
“Gladly,” Jair replied. The warmth of the wound had grown to a low fever, and he didn’t want to imagine how Emil was feeling.
At Talwyn’s command, the Sworn warriors lifted Emil and Mihei and carried them to their horses, draping each man over his saddle and securing them in place. Jair waved off assistance and swung up to his saddle, favoring his damaged arm but able to ride. They rode in silence, on high alert, for a candlemark until they came to an inn.
“We stop here,” Talwyn said, and the others slowed beside her.
“Is it safe?” Jair asked warily.
Talwyn smiled and raised a hand. On the upper doorpost, a rune suddenly began to glow, fading again into invisibility. “One of our people marked this place. It’s safe.”
The inn was quiet, empty of the usual travelers. Jair had no doubt that plague had dampened business, and if the locals suspected that the road ahead held horrors, then it was no surprise that few ventured this way in the dark. The innkeeper’s eyes widened as he saw the company of Sworn enter, but he gestured them upstairs at the sight of the injured men, and promised to send up food and ale. Jair took a deep breath to steady himself as he climbed the stairs. His fever had worsened during the ride, and his head had grown light. He stumbled near the top, and one of the warriors caught his shoulder. Talwyn glanced sharply towards him, but Jair shook his head.
“Emil’s worse, and Mihei’s completely spent. I’ll be all right.” As he spoke, his voice seemed distant, and the upstairs corridor at the inn tilted as he fell, and blackness took him.