/ Language: English / Genre:sf_fantasy / Series: Firestaff

The Tower of Sorcery

James Galloway


James Galloway

The Tower of Sorcery

Chapter 1

It was going to be a good day.

Tarrin stumbled slightly under the weight of the deer as he tried to step over a fallen log, working to prevent the end of his bow from snagging on the underbrush. The morning sun was piercing the thick canopy of the ancient woods at a low angle, splashing golden yellow light over tree trunks and occasionally hitting the back of a leaf, lighting it up from behind and giving it a golden glow. The air was warm and dry, and the forest was filled with the sounds of life; chirping birds, the cry of a squirrel, the rustle of the brush as a rabbit or chipmunk scurried about. The sounds were slightly alarmed, for Tarrin couldn't carry the deer carcass and manage any decent stealth, but he wasn't so noisy that they went totally silent.

He would make it back in plenty of time. The deer was already slated to be roasted at Summer's Dawn, a festival that the village held every year at the beginning of summer. It was a day for everyone in the village and on the surrounding farms to take a break from the grueling work, to bring something that represented the bounty of the land to a grand feast that would take place on the village green. Most people brought something from the wild, representing the richness of the forest, and it another way, giving thanks for it. When the crops failed, a family could survive with a bow or sling. Right at that moment, wives were skinning something freshly snared or shot, accepting bowls of mulchberries from the children who had picked them, or waiting for the husband to get back with his catch. Most men went after deer, but more often than not they had to settle for rabbit, or maybe even boar.

Tarrin downed a big one. It was so heavy that he almost couldn't carry it. Tarrin was a very good hunter. His father had been a Ranger, one of the specially trained soldiers that learned to fight and survive in the forest, and that training made him the best hunter in Aldreth. Or it would have, if he could hunt. Tarrin had learned from the best hunter in the region, and he was very accomplished himself. There were things that his father, Eron, saw that he barely noticed, and to him, the slightest turned leaf was like an open book. Eron couldn't hunt, but he could still track, and he was not only known as the best tracker in the region, but renowned all the way to Torrian. He had been a mighty soldier in his day, and had risen high in the ranks before accepting his pension and retiring to the farm on Aldreth. He'd matured into a quiet, reserved man with graying hair, gray beard, and a twinkle in his blue eyes.

Tarrin's mother had everything to do with that. To the villagers, Elke Kael was…unusual. She wasn't Sulasian, she was an Ungardt, one of the hardy folk that lived to the far north in the frozen lands. She was tall, taller than every man in the village, and had the pattern Ungardt features. Blond hair, wide hips, buxom chest, pretty face. But Elke Kael was steel under her pale skin. She had a figure that made the village women grumble in envy, but there was nothing but corded muscle inside the loose shirts and breeches she commonly wore. She was a warrior, the daughter of a clan king, and she had every bit of the pride and haughtiness.

The villagers didn't quite know what to make of Elke Kael. She was the wife of Eron Kael, one of the most respected men in the area, but she was nothing like him. She was a hot-tempered, blunt, erratic woman that could use a sword or axe better than any man in the village, even her own husband, and the fact that she was a better fighter than the men left them a bit envious and scornful of her, and left the women confused and not a little bit afraid of her. She had a tongue sharper than a razor, and was infamous for her temper-induced explosions. She was nothing like anything the village had ever seen before, with a personality and attitude that was as misplaced in the Aldreth crowd as her appearance was. The years she'd been in the village had done little to change this view of her. She was known as "the blond witch" when her ears were beyond the words. But Tarrin found her reputation to be a bit misplaced, because at home, Elke was a gentle, compassionate woman. She was quick to criticize, but she was just as quick to complement. Forty years of life had done nothing to her body; she looked like Tarrin's sister instead of his mother. Her blond hair was untouched by gray, and her body was just as hard and taut as it had been when she arrived. The only mar on her were the very faint and small wrinkles that had begun to creep up around her eyes.

But what was unusual to the villagers was what Tarrin accepted as normal. Tarrin had grown up watching his mother and father, and he'd learned that they weren't the usual parents from talking to the village children. When most mothers were baking bread, his mother was practicing with her axe. When most fathers were working in the fields, his father was teaching him how to shoot the bow, and how to hunt, and what to look for when he was tracking a deer. For a seventeen year old, Tarrin was a nasty fighter. He'd grown up with a sword in one hand and a bow in the other. His father was a grizzled pensioner of one of the most elite divisions of the Sulasian army, and his mother was the daughter of a clan king, and as such was trained in the formidable style that made the Ungardt some of the best fighters in the world. Tarrin had spent more time in his life outside than inside, and more time holding a weapon than a farming tool. He'd been trained by his parents in most common weapons, and Elke had taught him the devastating hand-fighting styles that made the Ungardt so dangerous.

He stopped for a moment, wiping sweat off his brow that had slid down out of his blond hair. Tarrin favored his mother in looks. He had the Ungardt height and broad shoulders, and had also inherited blond hair and blue eyes from his mother. His ears were flat against his head and narrow, like his father's, who jokingly commented that they were the proof he was blood related to his son. Tarrin's face was the male version of his mother, with the same high cheekbones and strong jaw, the same straight nose and the same penetrating stare. He was handsome in the male way where his mother was handsome in the female way. He was taller than his mother by at least half a hand, the tallest man in the village, and at only seventeen it was guaranteed he would grow a few more fingers before he was finished. He was even stronger than he looked, thanks to the weapons training through most of his life, and had the iron constitution of a man that swung heavy weapons half the day and pushed a plow the rest of it.

He started moving again, finding the game trail that would quickly get him home. They built their farm on what the villagers called the Frontier, the wild expanses west of the village that led into the thousand mile expanse of unexplored forest of the same name. There was nothing between Tarrin and the Sandshield Mountains, a thousand longspans west, but trees and forest creatures, and the occasional river or hill. No human life existed out there, because the Frontier was the stronghold and bastion of the Forest Folk, intelligent beings of various types that preferred to live far away from the humans. There were none this close to the village, but it was the reason that nobody ventured west of the village. Eron fell in love with it as soon as he arrived, Tarrin had been told, and had promptly found a meadow so that he wouldn't have to cut down trees and built the farm that they lived on today. Eron still had the Ranger blood in him, and liked to live in the forest, away from the village and its noise and distractions. The Kael farm was the only human settlement west of Two Step creek, about a longspan towards the village from the farm. The farm itself was about three longspans out from the village, just far enough to make visiting an endeavor but not so far out that it took half the day to get there.

Unusual people, living in an unusual place, so the villagers whispered.

Tarrin didn't really miss it. He liked the wild forest, the same as his father, and he learned early in life that his feared mother made the women shoo their children away from him when he was in the village. Especially the mothers of the girls. But Tarrin was strikingly handsome now that he was grown, and the mothers had a hard time convincing their daughters that the blond child of the wild Elke Kael wasn't worth their time. He'd grown up out among the ancient oaks and maples, birch and blueleaf trees, and when his sister Jenna was old enough, he started taking her. But she didn't like it too well; while Tarrin was his mother's son, Ungardt to the core, Jenna had inherited the gentle, mild ways of her father's Sulasian heritage. She was every bit the lady, even at thirteen. Granted, she was a lady that could put an arrow through a squirrel's eye at two hundred paces, but she was still feminine. Jenna had done some of the Ungardt training, enough to be able to defend herself from an attacker, but she hadn't studied the fighting arts the same way Tarrin had. She was wicked with a short-staff, and was probably the best shot from Aldreth to Torrian with a bow.

Tarrin had lived here all his life, but it wasn't his dream to stay here. His parents knew this, and accepted it. Tarrin wanted to be like his father, to go out and see the world, experience what was out there. He wanted to visit the capital of Sulasia, Suld, one of the grandest cities in the Twelve Kingdoms of the west. He wanted to sail on an Ungradt longship like his mother had, he wanted to visit the island city of Dayise, the grand capital of Shace. He wanted to see the Fountain of Swans in Toran, he wanted to see the Dragon statue in Draconia. There was a whole lot of life out there beyond the boundaries of the village, and it was waiting for him.

Today's festival was a part of that dream. Two days ago, two strangers had entered the village. One of them, a petite, dark-haired woman, was a katzh-dashi, one of the Sorcerers of Suld. A wielder of magic, and a person that the entire village avoided. Magic was an accepted part of life, especially in Sulasia, but a practitioner of it was a strange being with awesome power, and that made the common village folk a bit nervous. Tarrin had seen katzh-dashi before. Every five years, they scoured the entire kingdom of Sulasia, looking for people who had the spark, the natural talent, to use the power of Sorcery. When they found them, they were taken back to the Tower of Six Spires in Suld and trained in the ability, so they could control it. If they wanted to, they could remain for extensive training to become katzh-dashi themselves. But if they didn't, they were taught enough to be no danger to others, and then released to do as they would.

It was the man that had arrived with her that interested Tarrin. He was a man of average height, wearing ornate plate armor and a small helmet that was fringed by his curly black hair, and he moved like a wolf. That was a Knight, one of the special warriors that were trained specifically to act as the physical complement to a Sorcerer's magical power. The Knights were attached to the Church of Karas, the patron god of all Sulasia, and served the Church when not needed by the katzh-dashi. The training school for the Knights was on the Tower grounds itself, and it produced some of the best warriors in the world. A Knight gave an Ungardt nightmares; they could even hold their own against the legendary Selani, the Desert Folk, a race of non-humans that dwelled in the Desert of Swirling Sands, far east of Aldreth. A Selani warrior was rumored to be able to take ten armed men with nothing but his hands and feet. A single Knight was usually enough of a deterrent to stop a good sized raider band.

While the Sorceress looked for youngers with the spark of Sorcery, the Knight would be scouting for potential applicants to the Knights Academy. Most Knights were nobles, or the sons of men who could afford to bribe their children in. But the Knights always looked for people with natural talent. If Tarrin could talk to him, or impress him, he may be allowed to go with them to Suld and petition for formal admittance. His father had taken that step, and had applied, and took their test. But he failed it. Eron was good, but he didn't have the special spark that was needed for a Knight. He went on to have an illustrious career in the army. Tarrin was fully aware that he barely had half a chance to get in. But he'd been taught to go after his dreams. Especially when they weren't impossible ones.

Tarrin stopped for a moment, looking down. There was a track in the soft loam of moss under a tree. It was large, obviously made by someone wearing a boot. But it was huge; the man who made it had to be at least a head taller than him, and weigh almost twice as much. He saw several more, tracking back towards the open forest. He grunted a bit as the heavy deer shifted on his back, so he decided to ask about it when he got back. The deer was too heavy to go investigating, and he wasn't about to set it down and leave it.

A bit later, Tarrin emerged from the treeline not too far from the house. It was a large affair, made of carefully shaped logs and chinked together, with a stone gray slate roof. The house was huge for only four people, with an excavated basement and an attic, and it had six rooms on the first floor. Tarrin occupied the loft-like second floor, which served as his room. His parents occupied the largest room, in the back, and Jenna's room wasn't small either. The other three rooms served as the living room, kitchen, and a storage room. The cellar had a deeper room that held a magical object-it was a piece of metal that radiated intense cold all the time, one of the rare prizes brought back from Eron's many travels. It served to keep their food frozen and preserved, allowing them to stockpile large amounts of food against the often brutal Sulasian winters that howled down out of the Skydancer Mountains, only three days' travel to the north. They often sold the surplus food in the winter to the needy, but were known to share with those who lacked the ability to pay. Paying the worth of something was the honest thing to do-Aldreth villagers were almost legendary for their practical good sense and honesty-but charity was only right and proper.

There were three other buildings in the huge meadow that served as the Kael farm. The barn was on the far side of the house, not large as barns went, but more than large enough to store most of their farming utensils and hay. They had a shearing shed for the twenty sheep that were kept in a pen beside the barn, the source of the wool that Elke would spin into cloth and sew into clothing. His mother may be a warrior, but she was just as good at all the things that wives were supposed to do, and many that most wives were not supposed to know. She could tan leather, weave cloth and fend it, even dye it. And she was an outstanding seamstress and an even better cook. Elke made functional, rugged clothing that would last for years. And with the right kind of leather, she could make leather shoes and boots. Tarrin never ceased to be amazed at the scope and breadth of his mother's ability. He wondered how she found time to learn it all. The third building was the stillery, which sat just downstream of the small brook that passed right by the house. That was his father's passion and favorite hobby. He would spend all day out in that building, brewing homemade beer and brandy, and occasionally apple wine. He was quite expert at it, and his home brewed ale was always in demand down at the Road's End Inn, the village's only inn. Sometimes merchants bought it from him to sell in Torrian.

Much of their farming went for this hobby. They grew hops and barley in addition to wheat, corn, turnips, tomatos, melons, and their groves of apple and pear trees. The sheep were part of the small motley crew of animals living in the farmyard. The sheep shared space with the chickens and geese, and the three pigs in the wallow on the opposite side of the barn. They had three cows, one for milk, that were pastured on the far side of the barn, inside a small fenced area, and they had two horses that split time between being mounts and pulling a plow. Theirs was a prosperous little farmstead, full of plenty and bright in its love of family. He was truly happy here, but the call of the road was something that he couldn't deny. He'd come back here when he was content to settle, find a wife, and live here with his aging parents. By then, Jenna would be married, and she'd have convinced her husband to live here rather than with his own family. It was an unusual circumstance, but he knew his sister. She wouldn't live anywhere else; she shared Tarrin's passion for this little farm, and she would not let herself live anywhere else. She'd make her husband live here.

Jenna came around the side of the house, her dark hair obviously wet. Her simple brown dress was damp around the collar, and she had it partially unbuttoned at the neck. Jenna was just starting to develop into the attributes of a woman. Twice already their mother had had to let out the bust of her dresses, and she'd thickened around the hips substantially in the last two months alone. Though she had their father's dark hair and features, she was going to have a body like her mother. Tall, buxom, and hippy. Not quite as tall as her mother, but she would be at least a hand taller than any other woman in the village. She would be taller than her father, that much was for certain. Eron Kael was half a head shorter than his wife, and it wasn't because he was short. Eron was one of the taller men in the village. She looked up at him intently.

"It's about time!" she said. "Mother sent me out to get you. We're waiting for you."

"Well, I'm here," he told his younger sister with a grin.

"You got a big one," she said gruffly. The relationship between them was complex. It was cordial, and they truly loved each other, but as siblings do, they tended to fight from time to time. They'd had a rather rousing squabble about whose turn it was to feed the animals earlier. In her present mood, that was the closest thing to a complement he would get.

"Let's get it on the cart and get going," he said without preamble.

"Mother! He's back!" Jenna shouted as she turned around. The cart was out front, with the roan Treader hooked up to it. It was laden with his sword and staff, some of the clothes his mother would sell today, a few kegs and casks of his father's ale and wines, and one of the many bushel of arrows that his father had made during the winter. Eron Kael was even better at fletching than he was at brewing. Twenty years as a Ranger had taught him the art of arrow making unlike anything a standard fletcher could match. Tarrin had watched and learned, and he could make good arrows himself, but they were nothing like his father's. It was the major source of income in the house. The farming, the brewing, these were just supplements or hobbies. Eron Kael's arrows were the major part of the family's income. Men came from as far as Ultern to buy them. He also made bows, but not as often. He stated more than once that he didn't have the patience to make bows much anymore, but one of his bows could be sold for a hundred gold lions to a true archery adherant. It took him a month to make a bow, where he could craft ten arrows a day. Occasionally he got the itch to craft a truly exceptional bow. He would spend up to four months on it, but it was well worth the effort, because those special bows were always incredibly accurate, and most of them had tremendous power. Those he could sell for hundreds of lions.

Tarrin dumped the deer carcass on the cart as his father limped down the porch steps, wearing a simple unbleached wool shirt and leather breeches. He'd injured his leg some twenty years ago, but still managed to carry out his duties as a Ranger by doing it from horseback. He managed it for five years before they pensioned him. Tarrin was born after it happened, so he'd never known his father any other way, but the limp didn't slow him down. He could still fight, was still one of the best shots in the region with a bow, and did more than his share around the farm. The only thing he really couldn't do was run fast. Tarrin mused that he didn't look like he was on the verge of his fiftieth year. He had the graying hair, but he was just as spry and alert as ever, and his hands still had the supple magic in them to craft such excellent bows and arrows. His mother came out behind him, dressed in a ragged blue wool shirt with a hole in one sleeve and leather leggings (which was ever a source of shock and gossip among the women, no matter that they saw her wearing pants for the last twenty years). It wasn't like her to have holes in her clothing. It must have just happened. Then again, by the dark look on her face, she wasn't too happy about something. It could very well be that. The fact that she was carrying her axe was more than enough reason not to ask about it. In fact, it was a good reason not to say anything.

"Nice buck," his father complemented as Tarrin climbed into the back of the cart with Jenna, and he climbed into the driving seat.

"He almost got away," Tarrin admitted.

"Let's get going," Elke Kael said grumpily as she got up into the cart beside her husband and stowed her axe under the seat.

Tarrin knew better than to ask, so he filled the quiet silence with mental images of greeting the Knight, what he would say, how he would convince him that he was worthy of a test in Suld. He also went over the forms and moves of the sword in his head, just the way his father and mother had both taught him. Tarrin much preferred the staff in a fight. It was a long weapon with good reach and good speed, you could use it for multiple tricks and feints, and it only killed when you consciously decided to do so. But Knights didn't use staves too often. The sword or the axe was the common weapon of the Knights, so he had to know how to use them to earn a spot in the Academy. And he did, probably better than anyone in the village except his mother. His father had already admitted that his son was a better swordsman than him.

The hour long cart ride was passed in almost total silence. The silence wasn't unusual for the family, for none of them were particularly gabby to begin with, and time spent in silence was common for them. Tarrin was too busy with his mental preparations at meeting the Knight to even notice any conversation around him. The excitement he'd suppressed to hunt effectively had welled up in him since the finality of the trip to the festivities had taken hold of him. He wondered how often the Knight had to endure boys like him coming up and professing a heart-felt desire to be in the Academy and become a Knight. It was a common boyhood dream across all of Sulasia. Tarrin secretly hoped that he could convince him that he was more than the other boys. He was older, that was true, almost too old to start the training, but he already knew so much. He doubted that, if they knew he'd already had instruction, they would hold his age against him. He had all the physical qualities of a Knight. Strength, size, speed, and endurance. But, unknown to him, he had many of the mental qualities of a Knight as well. He was clever, intelligent, insightful, honest, forthright, and modest.

They came around the familiar bend in the road about an hour later, and the small village of Aldreth slid into view. It was a modest community, the village proper holding about thirty homes and shops, arranged in a loose circular formation around the Village Green, a huge grassy meadow that acted as the hub of a wheel, and was the vital communal area of the villagers and the farmers that surrounded it. Every festival or meeting was held on the Green, since the inn was too small to hold everyone. Festivals were held on the Green, and children made it their playground when it wasn't being officially used. The village was bordered on the far side, the east side, by a wide stream, called Cold Water Creek, and right at the foot of the sturdy bridge over it stood Road's End Inn. Aptly named, for it was the end of the road that led to Torrian. The Green was a bustle of activity as tents and tables were being erected or adjusted, and the smoke of many fires filled the air, as did the smell of roasting meet or simmering stews or open-baked bread. Many merchants from Watch Hill and Torrian, the two towns along the South Road, had arriaved and set up stalls to hawk their wares during the summer festival, and even from their distance, Tarrin could hear them shouting.

They parked the wagon at the edge of the Green, and while his father unhitched and pastured the horse in the inn's stables, Tarrin, Jenna, and their mother picked up the food and things they would need and carried them onto the meadow. Elke spoke to her children tersely, in a voice that warned them both not to do anything that would attract her attention. They found a likely spot near the place where the archery games would take place, then Tarrin was sent back for the table boards as the family's women began setting up. Tarrin met up with his father as he reached the wagon.

"What's wrong with mother?" he asked quickly as he pulled out one of the long, broad planks that would be used as their table.

"She's a bit nervous," he replied.

"Nervous?" Tarrin scoffed. "Why would she be nervous?"

"Because of you," he replied.

"Me?"

"Tarrin, she knows you're going to talk to the Knight," he replied. "Sure, she wants to you be on your own and find something in the world, but no mother likes the idea of letting go of a child." Tarrin hadn't considered that. "And, your mother being your mother, she's taking it out on everyone around her," he added with a grin.

"Let me guess," he said, "you didn't sleep well last night."

"I don't think I slept at all," he replied honestly. "I don't think she did either."

"I never thought she'd be like that," he said. "She's all but tried to throw me out of the house."

"That was her trying to motivate you," he confided. "Now that the end is in sight, she's reversing tactics. After she gets over her tiff, and she sees that knight, expect her become all light and sunshine," he predicted with a wink. "She'll try to honey-talk you into giving up on the idea."

If anything, Tarrin knew that his father knew his mother. He could predict almost the exact words she would use when she talked sometimes. That familiarity was an extension of the deep love he had for his Ungardt princess, a love that had caused both of them to learn and know absolutely everything about the other. His mother could perform the same predictions on his father, but Eron was much better at it than Elke.

"I didn't mean to upset her."

"Tarrin, nothing you could do could change that," he said. "It has to do with you striking out on your own, and that's just a natural thing. It comes eventually."

"How do you feel about it?" he asked.

"I feel alot like your mother," he said. "I don't like the idea of you leaving, but I understand that you were never meant to spend your life on a secluded farm. Parents just don't like to let go of their children, Tarrin. When you have your own children, you'll understand."

Tarrin considered that as he and his father carried the long table planks out to their site. He helped erect the table as Elke and Jenna started a fire, and Tarrin winced a bit as Elke rather brutallyy and efficiently cleaned, skinned, and dressed the deer for roasting. She was taking her aggression out on the poor thing. Tarrin was glad it was already dead. "Tarrin, go fetch that barrel of arrows," Eron commanded.

"Yes, father," he replied, and scurried off to the wagon.

At the wagon, he hefted up the heavy barrel, filled to the brim with the wooden shafts of arrows in a carefully arranged double-stacked system of packing them that allowed maximum space with minimal risk of damage to the arrows or fletching. As he hefted the barrel onto his shoulder, he saw the knight and the Sorceress stepping out of the inn.

The woman was a slim woman, very diminutive and delicate looking, with thick dark hair that fell down her back in tumbled waves. Her face was delicate and fragile-looking, with graceful features that made her quite lovely. Her brown eyes were rather large and penetrating, and Tarrin could feel her gaze sweep over him like a hundred phantom hands. She wore the plainest of dresses, a simple blue dress with no frill or ornament, but the dress was made of silk, and it shimmered and whispered in the morning light as she moved. She was a very regal-seeming woman, and moved with a commanding aire that all but announced to everyone that he was high born.

The knight was just slightly above average height, about half a head shorter than Tarrin, wearing rather ornate plate armor that showed the nicks and scars of use in battle. He was solidly built, with an impressive barrel chest and thick arms, and his curly black hair curled around the edges of his conical steel helmet. It was an open faced helmet, and that face seemed out of place on a man of war. His face was cheeky and broad, with a slightly wide nose and narrow eyes that made him look impish and jovial. Despite that disarming face, he wore a heavy broadsword at his belt, and it hung there as if it was a part of him. He was well trained in fighting, his stance and very demeanor screamed of it.

Tarrin wanted to talk to him right then, but he had the barrel of arrows. With a sigh, he turned his back to them and trotted back towards the picnic area his family had claimed.

After setting everything up, Jenna went to talk to her friends, and Eron drifted off to talk to Glendon Nye, one of the Village Speakers. Tarrin watching his mother for a few moments, moving in an aggressive manner, slamming pots down, yanking things about, and muttering under her breath. He put his hand on her shoulder gently, and she whirled about on him. "What?" she demanded.

"You're being silly," he said with a smile. "Even if I do go away, I'm still your son, and I still love you."

She looked at him for a moment, then laughed in spite of herself. "I don't want you to go," she admitted, putting her arms around him and giving him a gentle hug. "I know you need to, but I don't want to lose my baby."

"I'm not a baby anymore, mother."

"To a mother, her children are always her babies," she replied.

"You won't be losing me," he said. "I'll just be somewhere else."

"It's more than that, Tarrin," she said, letting go. He handed her the carving knife she was reaching for absently. "I guess parents don't like seeing their kids grow up. It makes us feel old."

"Old? You?" he scoffed.

"I feel it from time to time," she admitted. "It just doesn't show on me as much as it does your father." She gave him a sidelong glance. "This place isn't for you, son," she said. "Considering the way the rest of the village considers me a witch, you'd do better finding a wife elsewhere. Even the girls who gawk at you cringe when they see me. They would not be good daughters-in-law."

"Mother, you'll outlive the mountains themselves," he said with a chuckle.

She smiled at him, but said nothing.

While the women were preparing the food, the men readied for the competitions. Tarrin picked up his staff and bow and rushed into the fray. First was the archery competition. It was simple enough contest, where stands of ten archers fired at hay-stuffed targets with cloth targets pinned to them. They were painted with red circles, and the two archers to have the best score went on to the next round. There were three circles on the target. An arrow inside the outermost ring was worth one point, inside the middle ring was worth two points, and inside the third was three points. A red circle was in the center, the bull's-eye, and that was worth four points. Each archer had ten arrows, and the targets were started at one hundred paces. With every round, they were moved back twenty five paces. Tarrin's family more or less dominated this event. Tarrin and Eron Kael were outstanding shots, but this year Jenna was old enough to compete. They'd never seen Jenna shoot before, but both her brother and father knew how deadly she was with a bow.

Jenna wasn't the only woman in the contest. Many of the village women knew how to use a bow, and some of the better shots, mostly young women, had decided to compete. There were nearly fifty people competing, almost half the village's population.

Tarrin, Jenna, and Eron all were drawn into the first round. As Tarrin and Jenna checked their bowstrings, they heard Eron scoffing at Lamon Dannis, the village cooper. "That young girl of yours don't have enough arm to send an arrow a hunnerd' paces," he drawled.

"I'll wager you twenty silver talents that she can put eight arrows into the bull's-eye," Eron said immediately.

"'Ere now, friend," Lamon said in his outlander's drawl, "I think that's fatherly pride talkin', not good sense."

"Then accept the wager," he goaded.

"Done then," he said loudly. "Easy money."

"Yes," Eron agreed. "For me."

There was raucous laughter from several of the men around Lamon as the Kaels marched onto the line. They all counted out ten arrows, then put the rest on the ground well behind them, like the other seven men and women on the line. There was no organized firing. Each archer fired at his or her own pace, but they all had to wait for the go signal from Garyth Longshank, the village mayor. Garyth was a tall man, thin and whip-like with a friendly face and warm expression. He was the village cobbler, and just about everyone except the Kaels wore his leather shoes and boots. He was also a sharp trader, who made quite a bit of money duping the travelling merchants who thought the small village had no trading man among them. Garyth, wearing a simple white wool shirt with his leather apron and wool breeches, stood to the near side of the firing range, holding a large piece of white cloth in his hand. "Are the archers ready?" he called.

There was no reply. That meant that everyone was ready.

"Alright then, commence shooting!" he shouted.

Tarrin exhaled, centering himself. He drew back his powerful longbow in a smooth motion; the bow was one of Eron's best, and it was so powerful that only Tarrin, Eron, Elke, and the village smith could even draw it. He brought the bowstring to his cheek, carefully lining the arrow up with the target, after testing the air with his senses to discern wind speed and direction. He held the bow rock-solid, tuning out the sound of loosed arrows and chatter around him, becoming one with his bow, one with the target, just as he was taught. Then he loosed in a smooth, fluent motion.

He knew it was a bull's-eye the instant it left the bow. He didn't bother to watch it, reaching in for another arrow, pulling it out just as his arrow thudded home in the exact center of the target. His was not the only one; many men and women in Aldreth were not shabby with the bow themselves, since just about everyone in the whole village had at least one. The villagers of Aldreth as a whole were exceptionally proficient with the bow. Of the ten archers at the line, only two failed to hit the bull's-eye on the first shot. And theirs were not far off.

Tarrin blanked out his mind again, drew, carefully aimed, and then fired. Then again. And again. His arrows were tightly grouped right around the bull's-eye as he fired his arrows. Tarrin lost track of where he was, he was so caught up in the machination of nocking, drawing, aiming, and firing the bow. He reached for another arrow, and found the quiver empty. He'd fired all his arrows. He looked down the range, seeing his ten arrows almost perfectly arranged inside the red of the bull's-eye. That was good, even for him. He usually had one or two outside the bull's-eye. He looked to his left, to his sister's target. It looked exactly like his. A look to the right showed his father's target exactly the same. His father looked at him and grinned boyishly.

"They'll have to advance all three of us," he said with a smirk. "We tied. And I just won twenty talents."

Jenna laughed delightedly and lowered her bow. "Let's see the others beat those," she said with family pride.

As surely as the sun rose in the east, Eron was right. Garyth consulted with the official tallyman, then made an announcement. "There is a tie," he called. "Three people put all ten arrows in the bull's-eye. The rule is, all people who tie are given advancement except in the final round, so Eron Kael, Tarin Kael, and Jenna Kael advance."

Smiling, the three made their way back to their table, where Elke handed each of them an earthenware mug of chilled apple-flavored ale from Eron's keg. "Did you see that?" Jenna laughed to her mother.

"You shot very well," Elke smiled to her daughter.

"And Lamon Dannis thought I couldn't get an arrow to the target. Ha!"

Tarrin noticed that all the boys were looking strangely at Jenna. Surprisingly, her shooting ability had attracted their eyes. He couldn't see why not, her dark hair and pretty face would attract any boy's attention. Then again, she was the daughter of Elke Kael. But Jenna didn't have the same problems as Tarrin, since she looked Sulasian to her fingernails. She had lots of friends in the village, and the mothers of the children weren't quite as worried over her. Although Tarrin was a nice, considerate boy, he looked too much and acted too much like Elke Kael to suit them.

"Don't drink too much," Tarrin warned her. "We have to shoot again."

"I won't," she promised.

Because ten people were supposed to go on to the next round, the rules changed slightly for the last group. There were only six of them, so the mayor decided that only one of them would advance, to balance out the advancing group to ten to take the tie into account. After the last group fired, the targets were moved back and the advancing ten were called back up to the line. In this phase of the competition, the goal was to score at least a predetermined amount. Everyone that did stayed in, while those who failed were out. Every time a round was over, the target was moved back twenty five paces. In case nobody scored the quota on a particular round, the person with the highest score was declared the winner. What made it more difficult was that each archer was only to fire three arrows.

"This is a group of good archers," the mayor said in a booming voice, "so we'll make it tough right at the start. The quota is nine points." Everyone was expected to pass the first round, but a few of them grumbled at the high quota set. The reason they grumbled was because the wind had picked up some. Distance firing in a shifting crosswind was tricky. "Archers ready!" the mayor called, and ten bows raised. "Loose!" he shouted.

Tarrin raised his bow slightly, calculating in his mind the trajectory angle needed to give the arrow the right height to hit the bull's-eye. Then he watched the wind carefully, adjusted his aim to let the wind push his arrow into the target, and then loosed. He watched the arrow go high and seemingly off center, then get pushed down and back on course by the wind. It hit just at the edge of the bull's-eye, but it still counted as one. He noted with concern that Jenna nailed the center with her first shot, but Tarrin knew that Jenna had to eliminate everyone else fast. If the target went back too far, her young thirteen-year-old arm wouldn't be able to send an arrow to reach it. Tarrin figured she'd be in for only three rounds before distance began working against her. But Tarrin had other things to do than worry about his sister. He nocked another arrow, aimed, checked, adjusted, and then fired again, hitting more solidly in the bull's-eye that time. Then he did it once more. His last arrow missed the bull's-eye, but was solidly in the innermost ring. That was eleven points, enough to advance. Tarrin saw that Jenna and his father both had three bull's-eyes. Looking down the line, Tarrin saw that everyone looked to be advancing.

Almost. After the tallyman checked the targets and the archers walked to the target to pull their arrows, two people were eliminated, the thatcher and the smith's apprentice. The targets were moved back, and Tarrin glimpsed a slightly worried expression on his sister's face. He thought that she had to know that she was going to run into this problem; Tarrin did well his first time, but didn't win. Because the same thing happened to him. The target was pushed back out of his range. He stepped over to her as she checked the fletching on her arrows, and said "don't worry, the same thing happened to me when I competed the first time. Just do the best you can."

"But I want to win," she huffed.

"So did I," he told her.

The wind died down some as the mayor raised the quota to ten points. The whole line took several minutes to shoot three arrows, as each archer carefully took aim, and there was no time limit. After that round, three more were out. Five stood to watch the target go back. The quota went up to eleven points, and Tarrin guessed that this would be the last round.

It took Tarrin almost a whole minute to aim and fire the first arrow. He saw that it was either right on or close, but the target was too far away and too peppered with holes to make a solid guess. He didn't worry about it, just aiming his next arrow and shooting, then again. He was one of the last archers to finish, so he only had to wait a few seconds until the mayor called for bows down, and the mayor joined the tallyman to check the scores. They checked the five targets, all of which looked close, then walked back to his standing area. "Only one person advances, so we have a winner!" he called. "The scores are: Kanly Mills, eight points. Aaron Noth, nine points. Tarrin Kael, ten points. Jenna Kael, ten points. Joran Wanderer, ten points. And the winner, Eron Kael, with twelve points!"

Eron accepted a few handshakes, and then patted his daughter on the shoulder. "You did very well, my girl," he said with a smile. "You'll do even better next time."

"Second place your first time out is pretty good," Tarrin added. "It's better than I did."

"I still wanted to win," she huffed.

"That's your mother talking," Eron laughed as they went out to collect their arrows.

Tarrin ran to the table, set aside his bow, and picked up his staff. Next was his favorite competition, the staves. Much to his mother's dismay, Tarrin preferred the staff to any other weapon. His own staff was rather special, much like his bow, but he'd made the staff himself. He'd found an Ironwood sapling some three years ago. Ironwood was much as its name described, a rare wood that was so strong that it was like steel. It took Tarrin three days to cut the sapling down, and it ruined five saws. It took him over three months to strip and shape the wood, and he couldn't even count how many knives he ruined in that endeavor. It cost Tarrin every copper bit he had, plus some of his parents' money which he still owed them, but it was worth it. Ironwood was almost unbreakable, important qualities in a good staff. The wood itself was just a tad heavier than oak, and it looked almost exactly like oak, but it floated so powerfully that he could stand on the staff in a still pond. That ironwood stump had regrown, and it was quickly going to return to the size that it was when Tarrin cut it down. That was the way ironwood was. Tarrin had wisely made his staff using his mother's height as his guide, projecting the size he would be full grown by sizing the staff for someone slightly taller than his mother, and besides, he could always cut the staff down to size if it was too large, where he couldn't put wood back if he made it too small. And the gamble had paid off. The staff was about half a head taller than him, as a good staff should be sized for its user, and he hadn't had to cut it down. It fit almost perfectly into his hand, but he remembered how cumbersome it was when he first made it. It hadn't mattered much, for he'd had enough wood for two, and had made another one for himself at that height. Jenna owned that one now, it was almost perfect for her. A bit too tall maybe, but she'd grow into it.

Rushing to the referee's table, he hurriedly put his name into the draw for staff contestants, then he looked at the ring. The staff competition was rather simple. Two contestents stood inside a circular ring that was fifteen paces across. A contestant could win in three ways. He could knock his opponent out of the ring, he could knock the opponent off his feet, or he could knock the opponent's staff out of his hands. Dropping your own staff or stepping out of the ring put yourself out. Contestants were allowed to voluntarily go down to one knee, but not both. It was a full contact competition, but hitting between the legs, in the back, or in the face was automatic disqualification. Shots to any part of the head with hair, or above the forehead for the balding contestants, were perfectly acceptable. Hits with hands or feet were also acceptable, as were hits with any part of the body against an opponent, except for those areas that were off limits. Jen Bluebird had a habit of headbutting his opponents, and that disqualified him last year.

Tarrin stood next to his father, who had his own staff, watching the roughly thirty men willing to compete this year put in their names. "Karn Rocksplitter's competing this year," Eron noticed. Karn was from Daltochan, the mountain kingdom in the Cloud Dancer Mountains to the north, and like all Dals, he was wide and powerfully built. Being a blacksmith made him even more powerful than his Dal heritage. Karn had been the village champion for three straight years, but he'd broken his ribs a week before the festival last year and couldn't compete, and Tarrin had won. Many in the village were looking forward to seeing the young Tarrin Kael up against a grizzled veteran like Karn Rocksplitter.

"Good," Tarrin said. "I didn't feel right not getting my head thumped by him last year." Tarrin had been knocked out by Karn two years earlier, but it had been a good contest. Karn relied on his raw power, and his smithy's endurance allowed him to just wear down opponents. Tarrin was ready for him this year. Karn wasn't offensively gifted, but he could stand in the middle of the ring and defend to the Last Day. Tarrin already had a plan, because he fully expected to cross staves with him.

"First contestant," the mayor called, reaching into a hat with names written on pieces of parchment, "Tarrin Kael! Second contestant," he called, pulling out another strip. He laughed. "Second contenstant, Eron Kael!"

There were some shouts and laughter at that, and father and son gave each other a slight smile. Eron may have a lamed leg, but he was still a formidable opponent with the staff. "Looks like you're not going to repeat this year, son," Eron said mildly.

"I just hope mother brought some cold cloths," Tarrin shot back. "You're going to need them."

They took their places in the ring. If anyone could defend against Tarrin, it was Eron, and Tarrin knew it. It had to do with the daily sparring practices they had. Tarrin didn't fight the staff the same way the villagers did. He'd been trained in the Ungardt way, and the Ungardt fought the staff with a completely different style. The Ungardt had forms for holding the staff in the center and also on one end. Tarrin knew Eron had more trouble dealing with a end-hold style, so that was the way he set himself in the ring, holding his staff almost like a spear. Eron grimaced a bit, and then gave his son a wolfish grin.

"Eron, are you ready?" the mayor called. Eron nodded. "Tarrin, are you ready?" Tarrin nodded. "Alright, just remember that we're here for fun, not to knock out teeth. Ready? Go!"

Tarrin evaded a fast thrust to the belly, spun around and ducked to evade the swipe at his head, then whipped the staff across the back of Eron's knees. He felt the staff connect solidly, but he'd missed the knees and hit only one knee. He didn't have a low enough angle to get both. Eron dipped as his lamed knee unlocked, but he didn't go down. There was some laughter at the youngster's quick coup against his father, but they'd seen Tarrin fight staves before. He was one of the ones favored to win. Tarrin blocked a fast series of swipes from his father, using the end-hold grip like a sword to parry blows, then stepped into a high swing, blocked with the far end, and tried to smash the held end of the staff into Eron's belly. Eron blocked it with the center of his staff, but Tarrin's power scooted Eron's feet across the dirt ring, towards the rope that marked the ring boundary. Eron leaned into his staff, stopping his skid, but Tarrin had leverage enough to lift a foot. He stomped on his father's foot hard, making Eron wince, then hooked his heel behind the foot he'd just stomped and pulled with his foot as he pushed with the staff. Eron was pinioned between them, and tottered back as his foot caught against Tarrin's heel. Eron gave up a hand on his staff and grabbed Tarrin by the belt, threatening to pull both of them down and cause a double-elimination.

But Tarrin wasn't put off. He gave his father a heavy push, then quickly grounded one end of the staff and leaned into it. Eron kiltered backwards, staff going wide, and then he started falling. Tarrin leaned into his staff as Eron's hand on his belt tried to yank him forward, using the staff as a buttress against falling. Eron fell backwards, reached the end of his arm, and then was yanked to the side. He came to rest on his backside, his staff under his leg, holding on to his son's leather belt.

"Winner, Tarrin Kael!" the mayor called, as many of the spectators clapped and shouted and laughed. Tarrin helped his father up, who still had that wolfish grin.

"Sneak," his father accused.

"Cheater," Tarrin bit back, with a smile on his face.

"Thought you'd give that up if I threatened to double us out," Eron admitted with a wink.

"I figured you did," Tarrin grinned back.

Tarrin's next match wasn't so quick. It was against Jen Bluebird, who was deceptively powerful and very fast. Tarrin matched Jen's speed with speed, and the two of them danced around each other as their staves moved in blurred symmetry. Tarrin's moves were more precise, more crisp, than Jen's as he moved from one move to the next, flowing like water around and with his opponent. He blocked a flurry of high-low strikes from the staff, leaned back out of reach of a high swing, then just moved his leg out of the way of a strike at his ankle. Just his leg. Jen hadn't expected him to not move back, and was too close. Tarrin drove the end of his staff between Jen's feet like a spear and then twisted, putting one end behind his left foot and the side in front of his right. Then he lifted a hand off the staff and punched Jen in the stomach. Not hard, just hard enough to knock him backwards, allow the staff to tangle his feet, and topple him.

Tarrin defeated his next opponent almost immediately. It was Darl Millen, the wheelwright. Tarrin bulled into the heavier man, supposedly playing right into his hands, then hooked his arm around his hip. Tarrin stepped into his opponent, twisted so his back was to Darl, and dragged him over his body in the Ungardt hook-throw. Darl landed on his back with a thud in front of Tarrin.

Tarrin's final match was against Karn, and it was the final match. Tarrin stepped up and shook the powerful, bald smith, giving him a warm smile. Karn was one of his few friends in the village, a gruff man who was as much an outsider as he, who had the talent to be much more than a village smith. But this was the life that Karn loved, so this was what he did. "I get ta' thump yer head, boy," Karn said in his gravelly voice.

Tarrin laughed and looked down at the shorter man. "We'll see who thumps who," he returned.

"Contestants ready!" the mayor shouted. "Go!"

Tarrin instantly jumped back to the edge of the ring as Karn settled his feet in his classic "like the mountain stone" stance. Tarrin knew that fighting Karn on his own terms was suicide. He had to make the big man move, make him do the attacking. Because Karn would be perfectly content to stand in that one place and let Tarrin swing until his arms couldn't lift his staff over his head. That was Karn's way. Patient and methodical, the same way he hammered hot steel. Tarrin took up his staff in the end grip and weaved the point near Karn's face, flicking the tip lightly towards Karn's nose. Karn easily blocked the attempts, but Tarrin wouldn't stop. The answering parries became harder and harder, as Karn became annoyed that Tarrin wouldn't do what he was supposed to do and try to take the big man down from the start so that the match didn't go on and go into his favor. Karn's face turned black as Tarrin almost got him, the tip swishing a finger from Karn's nose, and he gave a shout and stepped up to engage the younger, taller opponent.

Tarrin ducked under a swing and blocked the reverse, reset into a center grip, and engaged Karn toe to toe. He kept attacking just enough to keep Karn on the offensive, goading him so that he wouldn't settle back into his classic defensive posture. While they exchanged blows, Tarrin analyzed Karn's attacking technique, looking for any exploits or holes. Not surprisingly, Karn didn't have any worth exploiting.

They battled back and forth for several minutes, Tarrin working to keep from getting bulled out of the ring while Karn defended his knees and ankles, two of Tarrin's favorite targets. Bets and suggestions were being shouted by the spectators around the ring, but Tarrin tuned it out as he saw the hole he needed. Karn set his lead foot down heavy when he tried to thrust. That was what he was looking for. Tarrin put a pace between them, then worked Karn into a position where he would try to poke the end of his staff into Tarrin's belly. Karn bit, stepping in and lunging the point of his staff at Tarrin's ribs. Tarrin spun aside even as the thrust was delivered, the wooden shaft missing his side by a finger. Tarrin dipped and bent going down on one haunch as his hand flew out wide to counter balance the spin. His other leg came straight out, and the momentum of his spin added to his strong kick carried his foot around at high speed. His foot flew around and cracked solidly into Karn's lead ankle. Tarrin felt his whole foot go numb, but he had so much behind it that it pushed Karn's planted foot out from under him. Karn windmilled his arms wildly, losing hold of his staff, then went down in a tumbled heap.

Tarrin rose, still spinning, and came to a stop facing the fallen Karn, staff in hand, tip grounded on the dirt.

"Och, boy, what in the name of the Gods was that?" Karn groaned, pushing up onto his backside.

"That would be a spinning foot sweep," a voice called as Tarrin put his hand out to help Karn up. Tarrin heard it clearly over the cheers and calls from the crowd, and the mayor's cry of the winner's name. Tarrin looked over, and saw the curly-haired knight step into the ring with several other spectators. "That's an Ungardt move," he noted aloud. "The Ungardt, she's your mother, isn't she?"

"Yes, sir," he said demurely, pulling Karn to his feet. "You alright, Karn?"

"Fine, lad, fine," he said with a rueful grin. "I thrust at ye, but ye just disappeared. Then I found my foot trying to fly south."

"I think I broke my toe," Tarrin groaned, settling his foot in his boot. "It was like kicking a rock. Is there any soft part on your body?"

"I don't think so," Karn chuckled. "Mae says my belly's getting a bit soft, but I don't see it."

"A good move, son," the knight continued. "Your mother, did she train you completely?"

"She taught me alot of what she knows," Tarrin replied, trying not to blurt out everything at once. It wouldn't impress him acting like a fool. "I still can't beat her with her own weapons, though."

Karn reached down and picked up his staff as the mayor and Eron clapped Tarrin on the back. "Good match, my boy, good match!" the mayor cried with a wide smile.

The knight was lost in the press, much to Tarrin's disappointment, but he found himself swept up into the good mood and festive atmosphere. He won the prize for staves, a new belt knife crafted by Karn just for the occasion. It was a beautiful piece of work, with a hilt shaped like a falcon, the wings acting as the quillions and the body the hilt. The tail flared out to be a miniature pommel, and there was a hawk's head embossed into the steel of the blade on both sides, where the shape had been carved out of the steel and filled in with silver. Karn outdid himself with that bit of artistic work. The blade was longer than Tarrin's hand, and it was razor sharp on both sides.

Tarrin was sitting at the table, watching Eron and Elke dancing on the Green while Jenna checked the arrows she'd used in the archery contest for damage, when the knight's voice called out. "What brought an Ungardt to such a secluded place?" he asked curiously, walking up to them. Tarrin saw that the Sorceress was with him, looking at the siblings with her penetrating gaze.

"She married father," Jenna piped in simply. "Father wanted to live here, and mother came with him. She says it's warmer than home."

"I would think that it is," the Sorceress said in a mild, calm voice, touched with amusement. "You are brother and sister?"

"Yes ma'am," Tarrin replied respectfully.

"I can see the resemblence," she said.

"Not many people can," Jenna said impishly.

"On the contrary, I cannot see how someone could not see that you share common blood," the woman countered. She reached into the bodice of her blue dress, and withdrew an amulet made of ivory. It was rather unusual, Tarrin noticed, a circle holding a six-pointed star inside it created by two triangles resting over each other in opposite directions. And inside the six-pointed star was a four-pointed star, its points going in the four compass directions, with concavely curved sides. At the center of that inner star was a small diamond. "Do either of you know what this is?" she asked.

"It's an amulet," Jenna replied.

"Not what it is, child, what the symbol means," the woman elaborated.

"No," they both said, almost in unison.

"It is the symbol of my order," she told them, pulling the chain over her head and holding the ivory object in her hand. "We call it the shaeram. It represent the seven spheres of Sorcery. Earth, air, fire, water, the power of the mind, the power of the Goddess, and the seventh sphere, which is the power of confluence."

"Con-flewence?" Jenna repeated. "I've never heard that word."

"It means the power of joining, of unity," she said with a smile. She held out the amulet to them. "Here, take it. Hold it in your hands, and tell me what you feel."

Jenna took the ivory amulet and silver chain, holding it in her hands and looking at it. "Ouch!" she cried, almost dropping it before grabbing it by the chain. She quickly pawned it off to Tarrin.

"What's the matter?" Tarrin asked quickly.

"It's hot!" she said loudly.

"Hot?" Tarrin said. He put his hand near the amulet. "I don't feel any heat," he said, then he put his hand on it. The instant he did so, it felt like he'd grabbed a piece of stock out of Master Karn's forge. "Ahh!" he hissed, yanking his hand back and shaking it violently to cool it. "How do you wear this thing without getting branded?" he asked the Sorceress crossly. Jenna was blowing on her fingers, giving the woman a baleful look.

"Here, let me see," she said calmly. Jenna presented her hands. Her fingers were red and blistered. "By the Goddess!" the woman said under her breath. "Here, you too, Tarrin Kael," she said, in a commanding voice. Tarrin held out his hand.

His skin was severely blistered wherever it touched the ivory.

"It burned you," she breathed in surprise. She put her hand over Tarrin's seared fingers, and Tarrin suppressed the desire to yank it away when he felt something flow into his hand. The throbbing pain eased, and then was gone, washed away by some sort of sensation that was warm and icy at the same time, and not entirely pleasant. She let his hand go, and he gawked at it. His fingers were smooth, pink skin, and showed no signs that anything had happened to them.

"How did you do that?" he asked in shock as she took Jenna's hands in her own. Jenna yelped and tried to pull away, but the woman's hands were like steel, holding them in an iron grip.

"My name is Dolanna Casbane, a katzh-dashi," she said formally. "What I just did is called healing, and with practice, it is something that both of you will be able to do someday."

They both just stared at her.

"The young one is a bit too young," the knight said.

"No matter," she replied. "I am amazed that neither of them have done anything. She needs instruction before she has an accident." She put the ivory amulet back around her neck, tucking the device back under her bodice.

"What are you talking about?" Tarrin asked.

"Both of you, you have tremendous potential," she said, pursing her lips. Then she noticed the slightly confused looks she was getting. "Both of you have the natural talent to be Sorcerers, to be katzh-dashi," she explained. "Tremendous potential. The shaeram burned you. I have never seen that happen before."

Jenna looked at her a bit fearfully. "What does that mean?"

"That means that both of you must come to the Tower of Six Spires, in Suld, and undergo formal training," she replied. "Soon. Now."

"Now?" Jenna said. "I can't just leave! My parents wouldn't let me, and I don't want to go!"

"Jenna," Tarrin soothed, "calm down." Then he looked at the small woman expectantly.

"There is no need to look so surprised," she said gently. "Nor is there reason to be frightened. I will speak to your parents, and let them know what has happened. Then we will all sit down somewhere quiet and discuss what must be done."

Tarrin put his arm around Jenna, who had begun to cry, then he pulled her into his arms and comforted her, his own mind tumbling around a numb sensation. "It was wrong to just blurt it out like that, Dolanna," the knight berated as the pair left.

"I was surprised," she said a bit ruefully, and then their voices were lost in the din. He didn't notice the knight stop and look back at them.

"But I wanted to be a knight," he said numbly, putting his chin on the top of his sister's head.

They had been missing quite a while. Tarrin was still sitting with Jenna at their table, but the sun was creeping very lowly down along the western sky. His parents and the woman had been missing for hours. Tarrin still held Jenna very close, for though she had stopped weeping, she wasn't yet ready to give up on the feeling of comfort and security she was receiving from his embrace. Tarrin wished that someone would do the same for him.

Sorcery. Although his father had many times told tales of the Sorcerers of Suld, Tarrin had never really paid much attention to them. His father had worked with them in the past, and his stories and impression of them was very good. Tarrin had been raised to believe that Sorcerers and Sorcery were good things, and that the katzh-dashi deserved to be treated with honor. But never, even in his wildest fantasies, had he ever considered the possibility that he would be capable of using Sorcery. That was a power for special people, the people in the stories. Although it existed, he never dreamed that it would affect him so personally.

Poor Jenna. All her life, since she'd started to grow into a woman, all she wanted was to find a good man, marry, and settle into a life of blissful domesticity. She had no desire to leave the village, much less travel all the way across Sulasia and go to the Tower in Suld. And she was only thirteen. They had no right to take such a young girl from her parents. And though Tarrin had always wanted to leave, being a Sorcerer was not the life that he'd imagined for himself. He wanted to be a knight. Sorcery was a totally alien concept to him.

The others seemed to sense that something was wrong with the Kaels, but they did not intrude. Tarrin thought somewhere in the back of his mind that they knew that this would happen to some family. Every time a Sorcerer arrived, parents began to worry about ever seeing their children again. Last year, Timon Darby was taken to learn Sorcery in the Tower, and Leni Darby, his mother, had moped around, not speaking a single word, for over three months. Timon had visited last month, and he looked well from the glimpse that Tarrin got of him. What made it seem so bad was that the Sorcerers wanted both of them, that his mother's sense of loss would be that much worse with having to let go of both her grown child and her adolescent child.

"Tarrin?"

Tarrin turned. Elke Kael was standing there with his father and the Sorceress, the knight standing a bit behind them. It was obvious that his mother had been crying. Eron looked somber and serious.

"Mother!" Jenna cried, flying from Tarrin and burying herself into her mother's arms. She started crying again, her shoulders shaking as she sobbed into Elke's wool shirt. Elke stroked her hair and held her close, crooning soft words to her daughter.

"Child, there is nothing to be afraid of," Dolanna said calmly.

Jenna pushed away from her mother, her eyes burning with something that Tarrin guessed was pretty close to hatred. "Get away from me!" she shouted. "I don't want to go! I don't have to!"

"Child," Dolanna said, but Jenna cut her off. Jenna raised both her hands, and Tarrin felt the most unusual sensation, a sensation of drawing in. Except it was Jenna who was drawing whatever it was. He could feel something, it, flow into his sister like a flood.

"Leave me alone!" she screamed. Suddenly, pure fire erupted from Jenna's hands, and it roared at the Sorceress like a wall of blowing dust before a tornado. The fire simply stopped when it reached the woman, coalescing into a fiery ball in front of her. Then it vanished as quickly as it had appeared.

Jenna stared at her hands in shock.

"That is why you must learn, child," Dolanna said firmly. "With your power, you could quite possibly destroy the entire village. But you are right. We cannot make you go."

"Dear, you don't have to go," Elke said softly, putting her hand on her shoulder. "Dolanna agreed to send someone here to teach you. You're too young yet to leave, but they can't just let you go around like this. You could hurt yourself."

"I don't have to leave?" she asked in a small voice.

"No," Elke said with a gentle smile. "When you're older, you will have to go to their tower, but not until you're older."

"Mother!" she said with a sob, crushing into Elke's arms again.

"She will learn much better in a place more comfortable for her," Dolanna said to Elke calmly. "We have not had one as young as she with the kind of power that she possesses. In such a special case, certain exceptions must be made."

"What about me?" Tarrin asked.

"You, my young one, you will be going with us," she told him. "We are leaving tomorrow. And you will not be alone. Two other young ones will be going with us. Tiella Ren, and Walten Longbranch. I believe you may know them."

"Tiella? And Walten?" he said in surprise. Tiella was the herbalist's apprentice, learning the uses of herbs for healing. Walten was the son of the village carpenter, a tall, rather shiftless young man more fond of sleeping than working.

"When we return to Suld, I will send one of my brothers or sisters here, Mistress Kael," the woman continued. "As per our agreement, the instructor will reside in your home, so that he or she can be close to Jenna." She turned and looked at Tarrin. "Do not feel that going to the Tower is the end of all," she told him. "It is not required for you to become katzh-dashi. If you decide that the life of the order is not for you, then we will teach you what you need to do to control your power, and then you may be on your way to pursue your own life. But if you do wish to remain among us, I am certain that someone with your raw power and potential would find a position of respect and importance among us."

Tarrin nodded quietly, thinking back to what Jenna had done, and what he had felt. It had frightened him, but at the same time, it felt…wonderful. Like life flowing into him for the first time. Was that how Sorcery felt when it was used? Tarrin was a curious person, and his appetite had been whetted by that strange sensation. He suddenly found that he wanted to know more about what it was about.

"There is little time to chat," she prompted. "Tarrin, you must go home and pack for the journey, but you may only bring what I tell you. You may bring enough clothing for the journey. You may bring a knife for utility, you may bring any books that you own, and you may bring some of your personal belongings, such as a razor. Anything that you use in your day to day life. You may bring weapons, but not weapons of war. Your staff and your bow are acceptable, but a sword or axe is not."

"Why?" he asked.

"Because novices come to the Tower carrying only what they need, and you will not need weapons," she told him simply. "You will need these items during the journey, so they will not be taken from you when you arrive. But you will be expected to put them away, and not touch them while there. If you were to bring a sword, it would be taken from you and held, and then returned to you when you leave."

"Alright," he said. Despite it not being what he wanted, that short touch on something larger was like a seed growing inside him. Even though he still didn't want to be a katzh-dashi, he found the idea of learning more about the sensation he experienced to look better and better to him.

"You will return to the village after packing," she told him. "You will spend the night in the inn, so we may get an early start on the day."

"Wylan said you can borrow one of the inn's horses," Elke told him. "Go ahead and go get your things. Make sure you get enough clothing for a month-long journey. We'll be staying here tonight too, so bring back a change of clothing for all of us."

"Alright, mother," he said.

"Well scoot!" she said, shooing him away.

"Be back soon," he promised.

He went to the inn first, and after talking to the wiry, nervous-looking Wylen Ren, Tiella's father, he was on a horse trotting back down the large trail that led to the secluded Kael farm. It didn't take very long to get there, and he tied the horse to the porch rail and ran inside. He had a leather pack for when he went hunting, made by his mother, and he used that to pack up enough clothing for one month on the road. He also added in his shaving razor and soap, then got his small cooking pot he used when hunting and filled it with various odds and ends that he felt he may need. He got his pouch that had his sling and a variety of sling stones and metal sling bullets, metal cast-offs of Master Karn's forge that he formed into little balls for a sling. That way he profited off the leftover metal. The knife he'd won in the staff competition went on his belt, and two slender throwing daggers were tucked into his boots, one on each side. Eron had taught him how to throw daggers, and these were balanced for throwing. A third also went on his belt, on the other side. He rolled up his outdoor bedroll, a thick mat filled with down and scraps of wool to form a pallet-like mat, with two heavy wool blankets and a small pillow rolled up inside it. When travelling on the road, it was almost guaranteed that they'd spend some nights outside.

He came down out of the loft and went to the storage room, and got his tent. It was a small tent, made only for one or two people, but it was perfect for camping outside. He then picked up three extra quivers of arrows for his bow, and took it all outside and started lashing what he couldn't wear or carry on the saddle.

He stopped, and looked at the house, and he realized that it would be the last time in a while that he would see it. He went back in and went back up to his room, looking around just once more. He'd lived in this room for the last ten years. His eyes came to rest on a section of wall that was slightly different than the others, where he'd accidentally ran his staff into the wood and made a big hole. It had happened in the winter, and his father had made him sleep in the room with the hole to the cold outside for two days until he could get it patched. He stood on the bed, and reached up into the rafters running along the top of the attic, feeling around. He found the small wooden box, then grabbed it and pulled it down. When he was younger, he always used a chair on the bed to get up there, and hide this box. His secret box, full of all the things that a young boy thought were important. Many things had been into and out of this box, some of them even alive. He opened it after sitting on the bed.

Inside were four things. A large tooth of some animal, the sharp fang nearly as long as Tarrin's hand, a brilliantly glittering piece of quartz crystal he'd once found out along the streambed of Two Step Creek, a twisted nugget of pure gold, also found along the creekbed, and the wing. It was a large gossamer wing, looking like the wing of a dragonfly. But this dragonfly would have been nearly a span long. The wing was a bit longer than Tarrin's hand, thin and delicate looking, but Tarrin knew it was very hard and rather tough. It would also bend before it broke. It was translucent, and when one looked through it, it scillinted and reflected in all the colors of the rainbow. Tarrin had often spent hours gazing at the wing, mesmerized by the colors, and dreaming about what animal or creature had once owned it. Tarrin had found it out in the woods when he was eight years old. It was the first thing that had went into the box, and it was the only thing that had been in the box the entire time he'd kept the box. The wing was the reason he had the box; he wanted to hide something that incredible, put it where nobody could find it. He had owned it longer than anything else, and it was very special to him.

He didn't want to leave the box here. It was as much a representation of his life here as it was a possession. It had been filled with his most secret secrets through the years, and the child in him didn't want anyone else to come along and find it. He remembered Dolanna saying he could bring personal effects. Well, this was the most personal effect he had.

He packed everything back into the box carefully, and then used scraps of wool from his mother's work room to pad the contents. They'd never been jostled around, and he didn't want to run the risk that age would make the wing brittle. After making sure that everything was well protected, he closed the box and set the tiny latch on the front. The box had been a gift to him from his mother, and she'd always wondered what had happened to it. Tarrin had let her believe that he'd lost it. He went back out to the horse, noticing that it was starting to get dark, then packed the box deep into his pack, where it wouldn't have to be removed to get at anything else. Then he locked the front door, got on the horse, and hurried back to the village before it got too dark to ride.

It had been a quiet, emotional night. Tarrin had spent most of the night with his family, just sharing their company this one last time before he left to go to Suld. It wasn't an unhappy time. As the hours went by, the excitement of doing what he had always wanted to do began to take hold of him, and Tarrin's leaving was something that the family was already prepared to face. He was up well past a reasonable hour, listening to Jak Longbranch, Walten's brother, playing his lute and talking. Tarrin's departure had quickly circulated around the village, and everyone in the inn stopped by to wish him good luck at one time or another.

He'd spent some of that time talking to Dolanna, and to Faalken, the knight. He'd asked them about Suld, and they'd spent quite a while describing the city, one of largest and grandest cities in the Twelve Kingdoms. Dolanna described the Tower, with its six smaller towers surrounding the huge central tower, which rose over the city like a tree in a meadow, how the grounds were surrounded by a magical fence, and enclosed enough land to put ten Aldreths inside comfortably. The Tower was home to more than the Sorcerers. The knights had their academy on the grounds as well, and the Tower ran a school for educating those willing to pay for it. Everyone in the school was considered a Novice, although only a handful out of each major class had the spark to be Sorcerers. Tower educated people had quite an edge on others, so many rich nobles and merchants sent their children there to be educated and gain that edge.

Faalken described the city in a bit more detail, like the massive, grand, breathtaking Cathedral to Karas that was in the center of the city, and the Eight Fountains, one at each compass point, beautiful sculptures set in fountains, many of them rigged to spray water. The most famous was the Fountain of Swans. There were many other landmarks in the city, like the Black Tower, a tower that was once home to a wizard, and now was a cursed place. Many came to look at it, enjoying the perverse thrill of catching glimpses of the hideous things that roamed the tower's halls, and occasionally appeared on the balconies. Faalken had told him that they couldn't leave the tower, but that anyone that went into the tower was putting his life in his own hands. Dolanna had called the things trapped in the tower Demons, and she said that it was the hands of the Gods themselves that trapped them inside.

Dawn came early, but Tarrin was already awake to greet it. He was dressed and packed when Dolanna knocked on his door. She gave him a cursory glance when she saw him fully dressed. "Do you often sleep so little?" she asked.

"I don't sleep too much, no," he replied.

"That will work to your advantage at the Tower," she told him with a smile. "Get your pack and come downstairs. We will eat, and then be off."

Tarrin picked up his two packs, a personal one and one for a pack horse, and then went downstairs. His father was already up, sitting at a table with the knight as Wylan Ren set down plates of fried eggs and bread and bacon. "Morning, Tarrin," Wylan said with a smile as he passed. "I'll bring you some breakfast."

"Thanks, Master Wylan," he said, then he set down his packs and sat beside his father.

"Morning, son," he said. "Sleep well?"

"Well enough," he replied. "You?"

"Your mother kept me awake pretty much all night," he said ruefully. "You warmed up to the idea of going much faster than she did." He took a bite of bread. "Now that you've had a night to think about it, what do you think?"

"I, I think I'd like to know more," he said. "I don't know if it's what I want to do with my life, but looking into the possibilities won't hurt me."

"That's a good attitude," the knight, Faalken, told him. "A man set in stone will break before he can bend." He leaned back in his chair some. "You know, maybe I can convince the Tower to let us borrow you for a while," he thought aloud.

"Borrow?"

"You're Ungardt trained," he said. "There's alot we could learn from our northern neighbors. They fight better than most I've seen. They're not the wild savages people make them out to be."

"Definitely," Tarrin said. "They work very hard to be that good."

Faalken nodded. "I think all the screaming and craziness is more show than anything else. They have a reputation for it, so they have to maintain it." He grinned suddenly.

"A predictable opponent is a defeatable one," Tarrin quoted from his mother's many sayings.

"I see you learned your lessons well," Faalken said shrewdly.

Wylan Ren brought him a platter, and also weak ale for everyone to drink. "Uh, Faalken, I need to ask you about the horse," he said.

"Don't worry about it," he said. "Dolanna bought one of the inn's horses for you."

"Well, that's nice and all, but I don't ride very often," he said. "I'm bound to get saddle sore."

"I'm sure Dolanna will take care of it if you start getting raw," he assured him.

"That's a relief," he said, cutting into the eggs.

Dolanna came down with his mother, and they ate breakfast quietly and quickly. Just about the time that Tarrin finished his breakfast, Tiella Ren staggered down the stairs. Tiella was a pretty girl, fifteen years old and with blond hair and blue eyes. She was very petite, even shorter than Dolanna, but had a very generous figure. She was one of the most sought after girls in the village. Every boy in Aldreth sighed and staggered a bit when Tiella Ren walked past. Tarrin had probably talked to Tiella more than any girl in the village, because she was very smart, and she knew that Tarrin didn't have a real interest in her in the way the other boys did. Although she was very pretty, Tarrin thought of her as a friend, not like that. She was wearing a plain wool travelling dress, one of her older ones so that the brown dye had faded, divided at the skirt for riding. She too had a pack with her.

"Tiella," Tarrin greeted. Tiella was not a morning person. Tarrin had seen her in the morning before.

"Umm," she said blearily, sitting down. Tiella had taken the apprenticeship with the herbalist as much for the fact that he didn't get up until noon as anything else. "There should be a law against getting up this early," she groaned, putting her elbows on the table and putting her head in her hands.

Faalken grinned at Tarrin, then he smacked his palms on the table. Hard. Tiella squeaked and sat bolt upright, then glared at the cheeky knight with murder in her eyes. "I love dawn," he said with an innocent grin. "I love them so much, I'm going to go outside right now and check on the horses."

"You do that," Tiella said in an ominously low voice.

The burly man got up and left without a word.

Dolanna came down with Walten moments later, as Wylan came out, saw the two newcomers, and then went back into the kitchen. He returned with three platters of breakfast, "Wylan, get two more," his father said. "I'm going to go wake up my wife and daughter."

"Certainly, Eron," he said.

Walten was a tall, lanky lad, sixteen years old, with sandy brown hair and a narrow face. His eyes were small and set close together, and his hands were scarred from working as the carpenter's apprentice. He was wearing a simple brown tunic and leather breeches, the knees of the breeches a bit thin from his need to constantly kneel. "Tarrin," he said simply as he sat down. Tarrin and Walten didn't talk very often when Tarrin was in the village, but they got along well enough. They weren't exactly friends, but they didn't actively dislike each other, either.

"Walten," he returned. Walten was notorious for being a bit lazy, but Tarrin thought he understood why. On one rare occasion when they talked, Walten admitted he hated carpentry with a passion that bordered on holy. Tarrin could understand how difficult it would be to motivate yourself into doing something you couldn't stand. He hated carpentry, but he loved to whittle and carve wood. It was that hobby that convinced his parents to apprentice him to the carpenter, but Walten had told Tarrin that there was a big difference between shaving a piece of wood into a shape, and nailing two boards together. Walten would have been a good woodcarver, but not a carpenter. It was the shapes and designs that Walten could design in wood that the kept the carpenter, a wiry, crotchety old man named Dumas Tren, from throwing Walten out on his ear.

Tarrin didn't quite understand the difference, but he kept his opinions to himself. Tarrin crafted arrows in his spare time, trying to master the touch that his father had when making arrows, but what he did wasn't quite the same as what Walten did. Tarrin shaped the ends of arrow shafts to accept the head and the fletching, but Walten could carve remarkably human-like faces and figures into wood. Tarrin could see a difference between the woodworking he did and the work that a carpenter did, but not the difference between what Walten did and the nailing part.

His mother and sister came down moments later, with his father. Elke immediately sat beside him and brushed his hair away from his ear impulsively. Jenna sat across from him, staring at the plate that Wylan set in front of her woodenly.

"We must be off with the dawn," Dolanna said as she sat down. "Eat quickly, young ones. We do not have much time. Tarrin, take the packs and go help Faalken pack the pack horses."

"Yes ma'am," Tarrin said as Elke glared darkly at the Sorceress.

Tarrin shouldered six packs, grunting under the weight, and carried them out to the large stables to the side of the inn. Faalken was there, saddling a small white palfrey, and a large roan stallion pawed the ground behind him. It was a huge horse, and Tarrin didn't doubt that it was war-trained. "Dolanna send you out?" Faalken asked.

He nodded. "Which is the pack horse?" he asked. "I'll start loading it."

"Those two down there," he pointed to the far stalls. "Those packs in the corner go on them too. Put all the food and the tents on the gelding, and use the mare for the personal gear. I have to reshoe Dolanna's horse, and that takes a bit of time."

"Alright," Tarrin said, and he went to work. He pulled out one horse at at time, then saddled it with the pack saddle. After that, he put on the bridle, then began tying packs and tents to the fittings and loops on the pack saddle. After he'd loaded the gelding, he tied it to a post at the feeding trough and went for the mare and repeated the procedure. Tarrin worked with a quiet efficiency that got the job done quickly, and he finished in time to help Faalken saddle the last two riding horses and picket them at the feeding trough.

"Where did you learn how to handle horses?" Faalken asked as they left the stable. "That was professional work."

"My father was in the army," he replied. "He taught me how to take care of horses a long time ago."

"I've heard of your father," he said.

"Really?"

"Yes, his arrows fetch a high price in Suld."

"His arrows go to Suld?" Tarrin asked in a bit of surprise. "A merchant from Torrian comes here and buys them from time to time, but we always thought he sold them in Torrian."

"I guess he sends them on to Suld. Some of them, anyway," he said as they returned to the inn. "Can you make arrows like that?"

Tarrin laughed. "I can make decent arrows, but nothing like my father's," he admitted. "Father has a magic touch when it comes to making them. It's something I could never quite manage to duplicate."

"Don't sell yourself short, son," Eron said. "More than half of the arrows I sell are yours."

Tarrin stared at his father.

"Seriously," he grinned. "You just think my arrows are better. The truth is, you can't tell one of yours from one of mine."

Elke laughed at Tarrin's baffled expression. "I feel, cheated," Tarrin said.

They both burst out laughing at that.

"Tarrin, what do you think happens to all those arrows you make?" Eron asked.

"I thought we used them around the house," he said.

"Son, if I did that, we'd have arrows coming out the chimney. You make more than double what I do. But now that you're going to school, I'm going to have to cut down the orders I accept," he noted to himself. "My hands aren't as fast as they used to be."

"Speaking of school, it is time for us to go," Dolanna said, standing up. "Young ones, pick up your packs and go outside. We will choose mounts for you."

Elke stood and embraced her son fiercely. "You mind your elders now, and do well in your training," she said in a controlled voice. "And remember, your room is always there for you when you come home."

"I'll be back as soon as I can," Tarrin promised.

Tarrin embraced his father warmly. "Do us proud, boy," he said.

"I will," he replied.

Jenna crushed him with a fierce hug. "You write me and tell me what it's like there," she said in a breaking voice. "Maybe we'll be there together when I get there."

"I hope so, shortness," he said. "I wouldn't mind having my little sister around. It wouldn't feel like I was alone then."

His family stood by the table. It was obvious that they weren't going to see him off outside, and that was well enough for him. He wouldn't be tempted to turn the horse around and ride back if he knew they were there watching him leave. Tiella was saying her farewells to her mother and father and three siblings off to one side, and Walten was being admonished by his mother on the far side of the room about his manners and being a good boy. Tarrin hadn't seen his mother come in, but he'd been out in the stables.

Tarrin shouldered his pack and, waving to his parents and sister, he walked out the front door.

Outside, Faalken had the horses lined up and ready. Tarrin selected the largest of them, a gray mare that looked to have a steady disposition, and tied his pack to the saddle quietly. "They're staying inside?" Faalken asked. Tarrin nodded, and Faalken nodded himself. "I can understand that," he said. "I chickened out my first attempt to leave home. I turned around and rode back."

"I was thinking about it," Tarrin admitted.

"Setting out on your own for the first time is both exciting and scary," Faalken said, mirroring what Tarrin was feeling inside. "You're excited about the idea, but part of you doesn't want to abandon what it's come to know and accept as life."

"You're a very wise man," Tarrin said with a smile.

"I've seen Dolanna play this out many times," Faalken admitted. "Be glad you got her. Many Katzh-dashi aren't quite so gentle or considerate as she is."

"Is this all she does?" Tarrin asked.

"No, they take turns," he replied as the others filed out of the inn. Tarrin noted that Tiella was looking back alot, but Walten marched right up to a horse and started tying his pack on, humming a tune and with a big smile on his face. Walten was certainly looking forward to getting away from the carpenter. Tiella tied on her own pack, adjusting the cloak her mother had given her a bit, and climbed up into the saddle. Tarrin had his own cloak rolled up behind the saddle, a very tightly woven one that was virtually waterproof. The air was a bit cool on this cloudless dawn, but not so cold that he needed a cloak. And it was promising to be a warm day, like most days were this time of the early summer.

Tarrin mounted the gray mare quietly, checking his staff and bow, the bow set in the saddleskirt and his staff tucked into the skirt on the opposite side. He had everything, hadn't forgotten anything, and he was ready to go.

"How long is it going to take us to get there?" Tiella asked curiously.

"It's four days to Torrian," Faalken replied. "From there, we'll go to Marta's Ford, which takes six days, and then get on a riverboat and take it to Ultern. That takes about nine days. From Ultern to Jerinhold, and then to Suld, takes five days. Twenty-four days, barring bad weather."

Dolanna gracefully mounted as Faalken climbed up onto his roan. "Alright, young ones," Dolanna said in her calm voice. "Let us be off. Tarrin, you lead the pack horses for now."

Turning their horses, Tarrin took the reins of the pack animals from one of the stable hands that had come out to help. Then they started down the Torrian road, beginning their month-long journey to Suld, and ultimately to the Tower of Sorcery.

To: Title EoF

Chapter 2

It was a good day to travel. Tarrin led the pack horses behind the others along the Torrian Road, as birds chirped in the early summer morning and the sun peeked through the trees to warm the earth. This stretch of road wasn't unfamiliar to Tarrin, who had accompanied his father to Watch Hill numerous times, so he settled into a comfortable muse as he let the horse plod along behind the others. Now that they were actually moving, he couldn't deny that he was tremendously excited about this trip. He was still a bit nervous over going to the Tower and learning magic, but even that was starting to interest him as he thought back to the roar of fire that Jenna had created, or the healing that the Sorceress had done. He began to think about what she had said, about earth, air, fire, water, the mind, and the power of a Goddess, and he began to speculate what Sorcerers could do.

There was a reason why he was put in the back, he noted not long after they started out. It put a fighter at each end of the caravan. Faalken took the lead, occasionally scouting ahead, leaving Tarrin to defend the rear in case something snuck on them from behind. This was wild territory, and just about anything could happen. There could be a new band of brigands that had just settled in, or a pack of Bruga or tribes of Dargu, Waern, or even a gaggle of Trolls could have come down out of the mountains to the north for a bit of plunder. Those races, called the Goblin Races, were universally malicious, cruel, and extremely hostile to human life. Bruga and Trolls were very dim-witted, but Dargu were very cunning, and Waern were downright intelligent. There were Ogres and Giants as well, but both of those races were rather gentle and more amiable than their cousins. Ogres weren't very bright, but they weren't evil like the others, and Giants were intelligent and rather friendly when not encountered in their home range. Giants were welcome in most cities, provided they were careful not to break anything. Four times that Tarrin could remember, Giants had visited Aldreth to buy some things that they couldn't make on their own. Master Karn had been commissioned to make giant-sized versions of an axe and some belt knives, which looked more like swords except for their massive hilts. It was a testament to Karn's ability that he made them so well. The villagers of Aldreth had a good relationship with that Giant Clan, which lived two days walk to the north, in the foothills of the Skydancer Mountains.

They weren't the only forest beings that Tarrin remembered seeing in Aldreth. Being right on the Frontier, Aldreth saw more of the exotic beings than just about any other village or city in Sulasia. Tarrin had seen Centaurs three times, and had once seen a Druid, a human that was devoted to the power of nature. On a regular basis, people that looked like humans came out of the forest and visited the village on market days, bought assorted supplies and merchandise, and simply walked back into the forest. The village had a long standing practice of not asking these people any questions. They always behaved with exquisite courtesy, they paid with good money or bartered with good pelts or other valuable forest goods, and it was promoting good relations with their unknown sylvan neighbors in the forest to cater to the needs of those that chose to live there. Those visits were one of the things that kept Aldreth villagers out of the wild western forest. It had been a long standing rule that no hunting or expeditions would go beyond the farthest settlement, which was the Kael farm. Tarrin broke that rule with daily regularity, but Tarrin felt that if he was willing to take the risk, then so be it. Tarrin had travelled two days into the Frontier last year, curious to see what kind of trees and underbrush would exist in a forest that had not been seen by man in thousands of years. He hadn't seen any forest denizens, but on the second day, he began to feel watched, and decided that they'd allowed him to go as far as they wanted him to go. He turned around at that point.

These woods here between Aldreth and Watch Hill were wild for the most part, but there were many farmsteads and freeholdings that had been carved out of the heavy woods on both sides of the road. Most of them were out of sight of the road, down cart tracks that disappeared into the trees, but they were there. Not long after setting out, they'd encountered Arem Darn, one of those freeholders, on his way to Aldreth with a load of hay to sell. He had his wife with him, and their three children played in the hay in the back of the cart. It was unusual to see a living soul on this road until one almost got to Watch Hill.

"Tarrin!" Tiella called, shaking him out of his musing consideration of the trees.

"What?" he asked. He noticed that Walten had drifted back with Tiella, and Dolanna and Faalken were a bit up the road from them.

"I said, what do you think of all this?" she asked in a quiet voice.

"How do you mean?"

"Well, I for one am a bit nervous," she said.

"I was planning on leaving anyway," Tarrin shrugged. "I'm just going to a different place, that's all."

"Where were you going to go?" Walten asked.

"I was going to try to get into the Knights Academy," he sighed. "I knew it wasn't a sure thing, but this kinda blew that out of the water. By the time I finish at the Tower, I'll be too old." He brushed his hair out of his eyes. "Maybe I'll go into the army, like my father. If I decide not to stay at the Tower, that is."

"I can't wait," Walten said simply. "I've hated carpenting since they day my parents stuck me there. At least this is more interesting, and I get to do something." He looked up the road. "I didn't want to spend all my life in the village anyway."

"I've always thought of leaving Aldreth, but I didn't really take it seriously," Tiella admitted. "And here I am."

"Step it up, young ones," Dolanna called to them. "We must stay together."

Tarrin and the others urged the horses to a faster walk, and they were up with the knight and the Sorceress again.

They stopped several times over the day to rest, so that the Aldreth villagers could get themselves out of the saddle and stretch out muscles cramped by sitting down. They stopped for a meal of bread, cheese, and dried meat by a large stream, in a small meadow near the bridge that spanned it. Despite the slow pace and frequent stops, by the time the village of Watch Hill came into view at dusk, sitting atop the small, rounded, flat-topped rise, Tarrin's legs were painfully cramped and his back felt like he had an axe in it. He almost fell down when they stopped outside the Hilltop Inn and dismounted. The sky was changing into the colors of night when the stable hands came out to get the horses. Three of the four moons were up, all three of them full, and the Skybands, the bands of light that existed in the sky both day and night, were going from their daytime dull white and into the brilliant rainbow cascade of scillinting color that they wore at night. They weren't too wide, about the same width as Domammon, the largest moon, which rode just over the brilliant bands of color. Sometimes Domammon hid behind the Skybands. Duva and Kava, the twin moons, had just risen. Vala, the Red Moon, would rise around midnight, as it did at this phase of the month. The three moons and the Skybands filled the darkening land with curious light, just enough to see but not so much that details could be easily made out.

Watch Hill sat upon a single hill that rose out of the surrounding forest, where there was a large flat valley. During the day, a person could see quite a distance over the green-carpeted valley in which the village stood, thus the village's name. The architecture was so much like Aldreth that it was easy to see the similarities, but the layout of the village was much different. The village followed the contours of their hill, arrayed in rows on the flatter parts of the ridges along the sides, and with the inn and the smithy sitting at the top. The hill had a gentle enough rise so that the road went right up one side and down the other, with several spur streets along the flat ridges leading to the homes and shops. Watch Hill was about twice the size of Aldreth, with fifty homes and shops, and a population of around four hundred both in the village and on the farms surrounding the base of the hill. The Hilltop Inn was larger than the inn in Aldreth, a large four story structure with a huge stable behind it, painted a bright red that was quite visible for miles around.

Before Tarrin could move, he felt Dolanna put her hand on the back of his neck. He gasped slightly as he felt an icy rush go through him, but where the icy sensation flowed, the pain was washed away.

"Warn me next time!" he said in a breathless hiss, holding onto the saddlehorn for support.

"Very well," Dolanna said in a light voice. He had the suspicion that she did that on purpose.

The interior of the inn was spacious and rather crowded. The people filling the inn were both the functionally dressed farmers and villagers, as well as a few men in armor and wearing swords here and there. These were caravan guards, hired by merchants to guard their wares as they moved them from Watch Hill to Torrian. The merchants were here as well, well dressed men, and a couple of women, sitting apart from the common folk of the village like little kings and queens, with their noses in the air. Tarrin didn't particularly like travelling merchants. Most of them were snotty and arrogant, and they always tried to cheat their customers. At least the ones that had come to Aldreth had. They'd thought that just because the people there lived in an isolated community that they were stupid or too back-country to know better. Tarrin knew that not all merchants were like that, but he'd not had any good role models thus far with which to compare them.

A rotund, tall man with a bald pate and wearing a dirty apron scurried up to them. "Mistress Casbane, it is good to see you again," he said. "I have only two rooms left, but they are yours for the taking, with my complements."

"Such a generous offer," she smiled, "but we would not deny you the coin you would make on your rooms this night. We will take your rooms, for the usual fee. I would ask, though, that some supper be brought to us in our rooms. We will not dine in the hall this night."

"It will be as you wish, milady," he said with a warm smile. "Please, follow me. I'll have the hands bring up your packs as soon as I come back down, and I'll send Emmy and Kamy up with dinner for you. We have roasted beef and stewed potatos this night."

"I can hardly wait to taste your wife's excellent cooking," Dolanna said with a genuine smile.

The rooms they were led to were on the second floor, and were side by side. Both were the same size, and both were rather spartan but clean. Each of them had three beds in it, a single stand with washbasin and water, and pegs along the only free wall for cloaks and clothes. A lamp was set into the wall near the door, and the innkeeper lit this lamp with his candle in each room after opening the door. The room key was sitting on the basin table, duplicate of the one the innkeeper had used to unlock the doors from the outside. Tarrin had slept in this inn before, but not in this particular room. He knew that the window would have a good view of the village and the forest below, but right now there was only darkness. "Bring the packs to this room," Faalken told the innkeeper as he moved into the room. "Alright, boys, pick a bed. The one by the window is mine."

"I don't care," Walten grunted, flopping down on the one against the far wall, by the washbasin. That left Tarrin the one beside the door.

Tarrin sat down on the bed, surprised at how soft it was, and took off his boots. Dolanna's healing touch had taken away the pain of a day in the saddle, but not the aching weariness of a day's full activity. Two men brought up all their packs and Tarrin's staff and bow, along with Faalken's shield he'd hung from the saddlebow of his horse. Tarrin and Walten took Tiella and Dolanna their personal packs, and by the time they returned, two young, pretty women in simple dresses came into the room with large trays. "Master Luhan bade us bring you dinner," she said with a coy look at Faalken.

"Just set it anywhere, and mind you bring up the Lady's dinner quickly," he told her.

"Yes, my Lord," she said with a little bob, and the two women set their trays of food and drink down carefully on Tarrin's bed so as not to spill them, and hurried back out.

"Dinner!" Walten said happily, snatching up a plate and a mug of ale. He sat down on his bed, put his plate on his lap and flagon on the floor, and tore into it like a starving wolf. Tarrin handed Faalken a tray and flagon, then started on his own. He had to admit, their cook was very good. The meat was seasoned while it was roasted, and seasoned well, and the potatos had spices in them that Tarrin had never experienced. It was amazingly good.

"Luhan's wife is Shacean," Faalken said, reading the surprise in the faces of his charges. "She cooks in their classic style, which involves using spices. Luhan grumbles at the price of those spices, but he more than makes up for the cost with the food he sells."

"It's like nothing I've ever had," Walten said. "My mother uses spices, but only what grows around the village."

"These don't grow anywhere but Shace," Faalken told him.

"No wonder they're expensive," Tarrin mused as he took a sip of the ale. He was surprised. It was his father's. Tarrin could tell his father's ale as clearly as a smith could see the difference between a forge and an anvil. He laughed ruefully. "This is my father's ale," he said.

Walten took another drink of his. "It is, isn't it?" he agreed with a grin.

"Then your father's a good brewer," Faalken said.

"It's a hobby of his," Tarrin said. "I'll have to tell him that people who buy it are selling it instead of drinking it," he said mainly to himself.

"Well, eat fast, cause we'll be up very early," Faalken cautioned. "I suggest you go to bed right after you eat."

"I intend to," Walten groaned, putting his hand to his back. "Mistress Dolanna took away the pain, but not the soreness."

"With good reason," he replied. "What you're feeling is exhaustion, not just saddlesores. If she'd taken that away, you wouldn't want to sleep. And you need it. Healing isn't just a touch and you're well. It drains away some of your own strength, as well as some of hers, before the magic of it puts some of it back. That's why it's not an entirely pleasant feeling."

"You can say that again," Tarrin agreed. "It felt like she put ice down my shirt."

"That's as good a description as any," Faalken chuckled. "It's worse the more she has to heal." He took a drink from his flagon. "If you're hurt too badly, it'll kill you before it can heal you, if the healer isn't very careful."

"What can Dolanna do with magic?" Tarrin asked impulsively.

"I'm not going to answer that," he said bluntly. "I'll leave the explanations of it up to her. I'd be a bad teacher anyway." He looked at both of them, seeing that they were done. "Finish your ale and let's go to bed."

"What about the dishes?" Tarrin asked.

"Oh, we put them on the trays and set them out in the hall. Luhan or someone else will pick them up later. Now let's get to bed."

They put their dishes out, undressed for bed, and Tarrin put out the lamp after they locked the door.

Wake up, something seemed to whisper to him. You have to wake up.

Tarrin awoke in the middle of the night. He had no idea why; usually he was a very light sleeper, but he didn't wake up unless there was a reason. He looked around. Walten and Faalken were still asleep. The window was open, and a cool breeze blew in from the rather warm summer night outside, the top of his windowsill illuminated in a very faint ruddy light. Could that be what woke him up? That light was probably a torch, held by a watchman or a latecomer down below.

He decided he was just jumpy, being the first night out, and laid back down, ready to go back to sleep.

Then he heard it again.

It was the faintest of noises, like the sound of a man stepping on a twig, but not quite. It came from under the floor, where the kitchen was. He swung his legs out of bed, wanting to get a candle.

The floor was hot.

Tarrin pulled his feet back up quickly and reached down and put a hand on the floor. It was hot. Very hot. That could only mean one thing.

The kitchen was on fire.

"Faalken!" Tarrin called quickly, reaching over and grabbing his boots. His boots were noticably warm where they were sitting on the floor. "Faalken!"

"What is it?" he asked in a calm voice.

"The floor is very hot. I think the kitchen is on fire."

Faalken reached out and put his hand on the floor, then snatched it back. "I think you're right. Walten!"

"I'm up," he said grimly.

"Get on your boots and get Dolanna," he ordered. "Tarrin, go downstairs and make sure. If there is a fire, get everyone up and out of the inn."

"Yes sir," Tarrin said, yanking on his boots quickly and jumping out of the bed. He went to put his hand on the door, then yelped and drew it back. "Aaii!" he hissed, shaking his hand. "Faalken, the hall must be on fire! I can't even put my hand on the door!"

They could hear it now, the rushing, roaring, and crackling that came with a fire. Smoke began to pour in from under the door.

Faalken jumped out of bed and grabbed his metal gauntlet, put it on, and smashed his hand through the wall between their room and the room holding Dolanna and Tiella. "Dolanna!" Faalken shouted. "Dolanna, there's a fire! Get up!"

"Faalken!" she called in reply. "It is too large for me to try to affect! We have to go out the windows! Throw our packs down and jump out the windows!"

"Tarrin, Walten start throwing out packs!" Faalken ordered, getting on his boots. "I'll go out first and catch the ladies as they jump!"

"Come on!" Walten called urgently to Tarrin as they ran to the packs stacked neatly in the corner. They quickly formed a unit. Tarrin would toss packs to Walten, who was standing by the window, who would then throw them to the ground one story below. Tarrin picked up the last pack and threw it to Walten, then he started collecting up Faalken's armor and his sword belt. "Go on, I'll get these!" Tarrin ordered.

"Alright, I'll catch them on the ground," Walten said, climbing into the window and then dropping out of view. Tarrin waddled across the room under the heavy burden of the weapons and armor, then carefully dropped them out of the open window. Tarrin saw many people in nightclothes milling about on the grass below as many of them threw buckets of water on a raging fire on the first floor and a bit to Tarrin's right. That was the light that had illuminated the top of the windowsill. "Tarrin, come on!" Walten called, waving his hand.

"I have to get my things!" he said. "I have time!"

Tarrin rushed back in and grabbed his bow and staff, made a fast sweep to make sure they hadn't left anything, and then ran back to the windowsill. Just as he reached it, there was a loud bang behind him, and he suddenly found himself smashed against the wall. On his kness, he turned and looked as he felt sudden, searing heat against his back and side.

The door had exploded inward under the heat, and the raging inferno was sweeping into the room like water. Tarrin saw something for a fleeting instant, and then saw it again. It almost looked like a man, except its outline was one of flames, and it was almost invisible in the conflagration around it. But he could see its eyes, green slits or pure light that stared out from the flames like twin beacons of doom. It seemed to point at him, and the fire erupted at him like water rushing from a cracked dam.

Blinking away his surprise, he quickly got to his feet as the fire swept in after him. He didn't have time to do this gracefully. Just as the fire was about to engulf him, he turned and dove headfirst out the window.

There was a feeling of weightlessness, as the ruddy-illuminated ground changed places with the starry sky in a whimsical manner, and then there was a numbing pain all along his right side and the back of his head. He felt his mind swirl around like the sky and ground had done, so much so that just trying to remember how to move was quite a chore. He managed to roll over and get onto his hands and knees, but his head refused to respond to his commands to lift it, hanging limply from his shoulder as he groggily tried to get up.

He got some semblance of response from his neck. His head lifted partially up, but his brain instantly swam in a haze of distorted pain and disorientation. It proved to be too much for him. Without a sound, Tarrin slumped down to the ground as his mind descended into darkness.

Tarrin was first aware of the light. He opened his eyes as they registered a dancing, wavering light against the inside of his eyelids. He was laying on the ground on his back, staring up at the stars, partially hidden by smoke. Dolanna, in a nightshirt, was kneeling beside him, and his body registered an icy after-feeling and an exhaustion that he wasn't used to feeling. The wavering light was the fire. It had totally consumed the entire structure, regardless of the attempts to put it out, and now men and women worked feverishly to keep it from spreading to other buildings. They were well away from the blaze. Walten and Tiella stood nearby with Faalken, the three of them holding onto the reins of their horses. Their packs were both on the ground nearby and on the horses; obviously they'd been tying them on to make it easier to move. Tiella was in a nightshirt, and Walten in nothing but breeches and boots. Faalken had found the time to put on both his clothes and his armor.

"The next time you decide to dive out of a window," Dolanna said with a crisp voice but a smile in her eyes, "try to land on your feet."

"I'll remember that," he grunted as he sat up. "What happened?"

"The fire spread faster than I have ever seen a fire spread without the use of oil or magic," Dolanna said sourly. "By the Goddess's grace, nobody was killed. You were the last one out, young one.

"Did we get everything?" he asked.

"I believe so," she replied. "We need to get dressed and decide what to do next. Tiella, come with me."

"Yes ma'am," Tiella said, picking up her pack and following the diminutive woman.

"That was impressive, the way you dove out of that window," Walten said with a grin as he tossed Tarrin a pair of breeches. "You landed on your head."

"I didn't have time to do it any other way," he shrugged. "Better a bump on the head than barbecued Tarrin."

Faalken chuckled, picking up another pack and starting to tie it onto a packsaddle.

"Where's my staff and bow?"

"They're over here," Faalken assured him. "You landed right on the bow. You'd best make sure it didn't crack."

They dressed quickly, and Tarrin checked his bow and staff for damage as Walten helped Faalken add the rest of the packs to the saddles. Tarrin was bone-weary for some reason. No doubt an effect of the healing. Faalken had said that it took some of the strength of the person being healed. Well, he certainly felt drained. He leaned heavily on his staff for a few moments, then sucked in his breath and set his weapons into the skirt on the saddle. "I see the stable was spared," Tarrin said.

Faalken grunted as Walten said "we had time to get everything. Sir Faalken, what are we going to do now?"

"I'm not sure," he said, tying down the last pack, "but it would be best if we just rode on. It's a couple hours til dawn right now, and it serves us no purpose staying when we have nowhere to stay. They'll want us travellers out from underfoot while they deal with this anyway. That, and the longer we stay, the more that they'll think the fire was set by someone."

"Why is that?" Walten asked.

"Because we'd be visible, we're strangers, and something bad happened. It's natural for them to want to blame somebody."

"I didn't think of that," Walten said quietly as Dolanna and Tiella returned. They were wearing curiously similar brown dresses, but Tiella's was of wool while Dolanna's was of silk.

"Tarrin, do you feel well enough to ride?" she asked immediately.

"I can ride, ma'am," he said confidently.

"Excellent. We will start out. There is no place for us to stay, and it is close to dawn. It will just give us more time to travel this day."

Quietly, the small group mounted their horses and, with Faalken leading, they left the village of Watch Hill with the reddish light of the fire illuminating the road. That large fire was like a beacon that was visible for miles on end, a grim monument to the passing of a fifty year old building.

It was not a good start to this trip, Tarrin thought grimly as he looked back.

It was cloudy all day, and there was a fierce wind that tore from the north. Tarrin had his cloak on, pulled around him and with the hood drawn up to protect himself against the dust and leaves that blew on the wind, the dust picked up off the road behind them and the leaves from the forest. The air had also noticably cooled; at this time of year, with the conditions the way they were, Tarrin knew it meant that there was a thunderstorm moving in.

The day had passed in almost total silence. They'd left Watch hill moving at a very fast pace, as if to put distance between them and the accident behind them They stopped not long after daybreak for a short rest, eating a cold breakfast of cheese and dried meat, then had set out again at a pace only slightly slower. The fire last night had subdued Walten and Tiella somewhat the same way it worried Tarrin. They all thought that it was a bad omen of some kind, a warning that there was worse to come. Dolanna and Faalken were quiet as well, but theirs was a wary quiet; this stretch of road was wild, with the next populated area being Torrian itself, some two and more days down the road. The reason the caravans hired guards was to defend against raiders and brigands that were known to ambush along the road from time to time. Tarrin's strength seemed to rush back into him after breakfast, and he felt his old self by noon. Faalken had scouted ahead from time to time, leaving the defense of the rear to Tarrin.

He rode up past his friends to Dolanna, who was riding her small white palfrey at the lead while Faalken ranged ahead to sniff out any potential hazards. "Mistress Dolanna," he called.

"Just Dolanna will suffice until we reach the Tower, Tarrin," she said in her gentle, relaxed voice.

"Dolanna, we need to find shelter, soon," he said. "There's a storm chasing out of the north."

"Yes, I know," she assured him. "Faalken is looking for a place of relative shelter as we speak."

"I hope he's looking for something solid," Tarrin said. "The thunderstorms we get this time of year can be really nasty."

"He will find us something," she assured him.

Faalken rode towards them even as she spoke, coming around a bend farther up the road as Tarrin glanced behind them. The clouds were getting black back there. The storm wasn't too long in coming.

"Dolanna, there's a cave about a quarter mile up a game trail, about a half mile up the road," he told her. as he reined in beside her. "It's been used. It's a bandit hideout of some sort, or was at one time."

"It will have to do," Dolanna said, glancing over her shoulder, back at the clouds. "Is there room for the horses?"

"Yes, plenty," he told her.

"Then I think we had best get there soon," she said. "There is not much time before the storm reaches us." She turned to Tiella and Walten, who had begun to watch the black clouds behind them and talk to each other. "Faalken found a cave for us to shelter in," she told them. "I think it best we hurry. Let us pick up the pace."

They urged the horses into a canter, and quickly reached the game trail as the first rumblings of thunder reached them. The black clouds were moving faster now, but their progress was hidden by the trees as the small party moved as fast as the horses could along the narrow, twisting trail. The forest turned gloomy, and then dark; it seemed to Tarrin that it was more like darkness than the gloom of a storm. "It's going to be a bad one!" Faalken warned. "The cave is right past that bend, so let's get moving!"

The cave was set into the face of a steep incline that marked the base of a hill. The opening was rather large, but it quickly bottlenecked into a tight passage not far inside. They dismounted outside the cave mouth. "Take the reins and follow me," he said, holding out an unlit torch to Dolanna. Tarrin felt that curious sensation again, and then the torch lit by itself. "There's a large chamber just inside the chokepoint we can put the horses."

Tarrin had to yank on the reins of all three horses as a loud crash of thunder almost instantly followed up a blindingly brilliant flash of lightning. "I'm going to need help with the pack horses!" Tarrin shouted over a sudden howling gale that tried to drown out his voice, but Faalken's nod and wave told him that he'd been heard. Tarrin waited just inside the entrance as the others led their horses into the narrow passage one by one, forcing the unwilling animals to enter the confining space as Tarrin sawed and yanked on all three sets of reins to calm the horses down. Faalken and Walten reappeared quickly, and the three of them led the remaining horses into the narrow passage with Faalken leading and Tarrin in the middle.

The chamber at the end of the chokepoint was indeed large. It was almost the size of the stableyard of the Road's End Inn, nearly a hundred spans long. There was an obvious place set up on the north end, the end holding the entrance, for horses. There was even a water trough and fodder laid in neat stacks. The walls of the cavern were very rough and irregular, meandering this way and that, but the chamber was still rather wide at its widest point. The ceiling was also irregular, but at its lowest Tarrin could just barely scrape his fingertips across the stone when he raised his arm. The south end of the chamber had a sand-covered floor, with a firepit neatly laid out directly under a very small hole in the ceiling. The hole didn't open directly to the outside. Tarrin looked up there and saw that it was pretty badly slanted, but that didn't let the rain just fall it. Instead, there was a pretty steady stream of water that fell from one side of the hole and dropped into an area where the sand had washed away, creating a loud splashing. There was another white flash from the hole, and the whole cavern shook with the ear-splitting crash of thunder that followed it up. They all took down the packs, and pretty quickly a well organized campsite had been set up. Tarrin laid out the bedrolls as Walten set up wood for the fire, moving the stones forming the firepit a bit to get the fire away from the waterfall pouring from the chimney hole. Tiella and Dolanna were taking out food for dinner and cooking utensils. Faalken had taken a large piece of tarp, probably one of the tents, and was securing the entrance to the chamber with it to form a door of sorts. He then ducked through it to do something outside. Tarrin doubted he would be long, for it was raining like the furies out there.

Tarrin was sitting to one side of the fire, back to the wall, checking his arrows one by one in a methodical fashion, as Walten sat beside him. Faalken was stirring a stew that had been set over the fire, and Tiella was talking with Dolanna in hushed tones across the cave. "Not such a great start to an adventure, is it?" he asked.

"Adventure?"

"That's how I see this," he said. "Getting out of stinking Aldreth, getting a chance to travel with a knight and a Sorceress, going to see Suld. This beats making cabinets any day of the week."

"I'd be eating dinner at home about now," he said.

Walten gave him a strange look. "You know, there's alot of rumors that fly around about your family," he said. "Tel Darlik used to say that all you did over there was train to kill people."

"Not quite," he chuckled. "I did learn how to use weapons, and hunt and all, but how do you think we got our food?"

Walten laughed. "We never thought about things like that," he admitted. "I've never even been out to your farm before."

"It's a farm," he shrugged. "We have a house and a barn and a toolshed and such. Father has a brewhouse where he makes his ale, and we have fields out behind the house."

"Sounds like you miss it," he said.

"I do," he replied. "I've been preparing to leave Aldreth for two years now, but now that I'm really gone, most of me wants to turn around and go home."

"Preparing to leave?"

"Since I was a boy, I've wanted to be a knight," he said. "Well, mother and father trained me with that in mind. Two years ago, I decided that that's what I was going to do. I'd earn a chance to test for it, and go to Suld. If I got in, great. But if I didn't, well, there was always the army, or fletching, or something that I could do to earn my way."

"Everybody always used to say that you didn't do anything," Walten said. "You weren't apprenticed to anyone. All you seemed to do was hunt. My mother used to say that you were a shiftless, lazy freeloader. But that's her," he said quickly.

"Words are words, I guess," he said. "Besides, the rest of the village really didn't understand. Most of them couldn't see past my mother."

"She is a bit strange," Walten said defensively.

"Only to you," he replied.

Walten laughed. "I guess you're right."

"She's Ungardt. Of course she'd do things differently than everyone else," Tarrin told him. "Ungardt ways aren't much like Sulasian ways."

"How do you mean?"

"Well, women aren't just wives and mothers," he said. "Most women are as big as men there, so they can learn to fight if they want. They crew the sailing ships like men, they fight in the clan armies, they do about anything that men do. And men don't mind all that much, cause they're used to it."

"That is different," Walten said, taking out his knife and a chunk of wood and starting to work on it. "You ever meet your mother's father?"

"A few times," he replied. "His name is Alrak, and he's about twice as big as me. He's very nice. He came to the village to visit with mother."

"Oh, yes, I remember that now," he said. "The last time was, what, five years ago?"

Tarrin nodded, putting away his last arrow and securing the quiver cap. The rain sounded like it was beginning to taper off outside. "I don't think I'll ever understand that," he said.

"What?"

"That you hate carpentry, but you like woodcarving."

"Nailing boards together is boring," he said defensively. "This is alot more fun."

"Whatever you say," Tarrin said with a grin.

The storm passed quickly after that, so they ate with general silence, then went to sleep.

The next day dawned clear and warm, and they set out again. The forest showed signs of the ferocity of the storm, for there were limbs and even a few trees littering the forest floor, and Tarrin spotted one tree that was split in half with its insides blackened and charred. It had been struck by lightning. The road was damp but not muddy, having mostly dried over the night, but Tarrin found that he rather liked it, for it eliminated the dust that had been swirling in the wind the previous day. Dolanna pulled them up for a moment as she considered the area. "If we move a a good pace, we can reach Torrian some time after nightfall," she said to Faalken.

"Aye," he agreed. "We made good time yesterday, even with the storm."

"It was the extra time we had, from when we left after the fire,"Walten surmised.

Dolanna nodded. "We get no closer standing here," she said. "Let us move on."

They rode rather hard most of the day, stopping only for very brief rests and eating lunch in the saddle. The pain of the saddle had begun to creep into Tarrin's legs and backside again, and about midafternoon he saw that he wasn't the only one. Dolanna had stopped them when Walten began to slow down, then did her healing work on them all again. After that, they returned to the brisk canter that had propelled them so far. They encountered five or six other travellers on the road, all but one of them groups of merchants riding to Watch Hill. The last was a party of King's Men patrolling the Torrian road to discourage bandits. They rode past the armed party without a word.

It was well past sunset, riding by the light of three full moons and the brilliant Skybands, when they topped a hill and looked down into the shallow valley that held Torrian.

From what he could see of it, Torrian was a large city, surrounded by a stout wall of huge logs sharpened at the tops. The hazy sight of buildings could be seen inside the walls, as well as occasional points of light that marked a torch or other light source along the streets. It was about ten times the size of Aldreth. Tarrin wasn't the only one to gawk at the size of the place; he'd never seen something quite so large before.

As they started down the hill towards the city gate, Tiella looked fretfully at the wall. "Won't they have the gates closed?" she asked.

"Yes, but there will be a guard at the gatehouse, over the gate," Dolanna replied. "That guard will order the gates open."

"Good," she said. "I'd like to sleep inside tonight."

"What is the matter?" Dolanna asked.

"I don't know," she said, looking around, "but I have the feeling that something is going to happen."

The gate was a large pair of wooden slabs bound with iron, with a large room of some sort built onto the wall above it. A single light oulined a small window, and at that window a silhouette appeared. "The gates stay closed til sunrise," the man called down.

"I am Dolanna Casbane," she called back.

"I don't care if you're Sheba the Pirate," the man said back.

Dolanna reached into her bodice. "I am not she," she said in a level voice. "But I am a katzh-dashi. By law and the agreements between the Tower and the King, you must obey my request to open the gates." She held the amulet up, and Tarrin saw that it started to glow with a milky white light.

There was a span of silence after the silhouette disappeared, and then it was back. But it was a different voice. "He's a new man, Mistress," an older voice called. "They're readying to open the gates now. Please step back a bit."

"My thanks, sir guard," she said as they moved back. "It has been a long day, and we require food and rest."

"Most of the inns are full, Mistress, but the Duke is at home," the guard called down as the gates began to creak and groan. The left gate pulled away slightly, moving at a slow, loud pace. "I'm sure you can get hospitality from him."

"I know Duke Arren," Dolanna said. "He is a most kind and generous man, and one of the best stones players I have seen in many years. Yes, I would like to pay him a visit."

"I take it you know the way to his keep?"

"Yes, I am familiar with the way," she told him as the gate came to a groaning stop, more than wide of an opening for them to enter.

"The Gods be with you, Mistress," the man above called down.

"May the light of the Goddess illumine you," she returned.

They followed Dolanna as the three younger ones gawked and stared at the streets of Torrian. The streets were narrow and a bit crooked, with large houses built so close together that they all seemed to be the same structure in the darkness. There was an acrid pall that hung in the air, what his father had always called the "city smell", the smell of garbage, unwashed people, waste, and stone and wood. The streets were not deserted, as people moved to and fro in small groups, or parties of city watchmen patrolled the city in search of thieves.

It was obvious where Duke Arren lived. It was a huge keep set on a small hill overlooking the river that flowed through the city. It was a brooding structure, with impressive stone walls and a deep, steep ditch dug around the walls that were filled with sharpened stakes, the towers of the keep itself visible over the walls. There was a drawbridge out over the staked ditch, down, with a gatehouse on the other side. A portcullis hung threateningly at the top of the gatehouse roof, ready to drop down to protect the castle from invasion on a second's notice. Four men stood at the other end of the drawbridge, and Tarrin could see about ten more sitting around a table set up in the courtyard beyond the gatehouse. Dolanna stopped them at the edge of the drawbridge as two of the four advanced. Tarrin could see that they were all wearing chain mail armor, and all four held pikes.

One of the two, the taller, one, called out in a friendly voice. "Mistress Casbane?" he asked.

"You have a good memory," Dolanna smiled. "I have not been here in many years."

"I remember you," he said. "You healed my broken arm. Duke Arren is here. Would you mind waiting in the courtyard while I send a man to let him know you're here?"

"That would be very good," she said.

The two men led them over the drawbridge and into a large courtyard, where they dismounted. Like the castles that his father had described, this one had several buildings inside the impressive walls. He couldn't identify all seven of them, but one was obviously a smithy and another a stable, and another looked like either a kitchen or a storehouse. The ten men sitting at the table set up in the middle of the courtyard were the only men to be seen, and despite the many torches set in holders along the walls, the courtyard was dark and foreboding. The main keep was on the far side of the courtyard, a massive construction of huge stone blocks that clawed its way well past the height of the city walls. It had a tower on either side of the main structure, which was easily four stories tall. There were a multitude of window, both arrow slits and larger, more conventional windows, but those larger windows were on the upper floors. There was a balcony on the highest level that he could see; that, most likely, was the Duke's private bedroom. Eron Kael had remarked to Tarrin once that Torrian Keep was over a thousand years old, and in all that time, it had never fallen to an enemy army. He also said that if he ever had the chance to visit it, to go to the main hall and look for a small hole just to the right of the center on the wall where the raised dais was, where the old Duke of Torrian had been killed by a man who had used a bow so powerful that it had driven the arrow through him and so deeply into the wall behind him it had left a hole half the length of an arrow. That had happened three hundred years ago, so his father said, and it had started the civil strife that had brought the present family into power in Sulasia, the kings of the Markas line.

The front doors were massive, at the top of a steep staircase that made the entry level the second floor, and the ground floor a basement. They were made of wood, but they had hammered bronze sheathing the wood, creating a burnished look that was more than visible in the light of the two torches to each side of them. It was obvious that several servants polished those bronze covered doors fairly often. The doors opened a bit, and a rather well proportioned man wearing a red doublet and hose exited. As he approached, it was obvious he was a middle aged man, but still burly in the shoulders and spry of step. Once he was near, Tarrin saw that he was a very handsome man, with a few wrinkles around his eyes and some gray peppering his black hair and beard. Dolanna curtsied to the man gracefully as Faalken bowed, and Tarrin, Walten, and Tiella followed suit. Just alot more clumsily.

"It's good to see you again, Dolanna," the man said with a smile. "Still roaming the countryside?"

"When I have the chance, your Grace," she replied with a smile. "Faalken you may remember, but these young ones you have not met. May I present Tiella Ren, Walten Longbranch, and Tarrin Kael, pupils journeying to the Tower."

"Pleased to meet you," the Duke said with a smile.

"I know it is late, old friend, but do you have room for five more?"

"Dolanna, I'll make room," he said with a grin. "I need to throw some of these lackeys and sycophants out anyway."

"If it pleases you, your Grace, may we dispense with the visiting until tomorrow? We have been on the road since before dawn, and we are all tired."

"Of course, of course," he said. "I'll have baths arranged for you, and some dinner, and some rooms with soft beds. We can catch up on old times in the morning, over breakfast. Tiv, have the hands stable the horses, and have their packs sent to their rooms."

"Aye, my Duke, I'll see to it," one of the men behind them replied, as he trotted towards the stables, shouting some names.

"Come along then, we'll go give my seneschal some work to do," he said.

The entrance hall of the keep was massive, with vaulted ceilings and several suits of armor arrayed on posts to each side of the hall. There was also a huge, well made tapestry hanging at the far end of the hall, where it opened into the main hall of the keep. "Your Grace," Tarrin blurted, "my father told me a bit about this castle. Is the hole still there?"

Duke Arren chuckled. "Yes, it's still there," he replied. "You can look at it in the morning, if you like."

"Maybe," he said, blushing at having said anything in the first place.

"Your father's a historian?" he queried.

"No sir, he's a soldier," Tarrin replied. "He's retired now."

"That's the best kind of soldier to be," Arren said. "Kael? Eron Kael's boy?" he asked quickly.

"Yes, my lord," Tarrin said, a bit surprised.

"I remember him. Tall fellow with wide shoulders. The deadliest bowman I ever saw in my life. I hear he makes a living selling arrows now."

"He brews ale on the side for something to do, my lord," Tarrin said, a bit startled at this bit of information. "Pardon my asking, but how did you know my father?"

"He was garrisoned here for a while," he replied. "He had this wife, the tallest woman I ever saw, an Ungardt-" he looked at Tarrin a bit closer. "Yes, that would be her I see in you," he mused to himself. "Are they still married?"

"Yes, my lord."

"Amazing. I was sure she would have killed him by now."

Tiella giggled.

"You have quite a family reputation in front of you, my boy," Duke Arren told him as they went up some stairs at the far end of the entrance hall. "Eron Kael was a good man, the kind of man we like to have around. His wife, well, she was quite a work. She was the best fighter with an axe I ever saw. If not for the law against women fighting in the army, she'd probably had been a good officer. Karas knows, even I jumped when she barked commands at me."

"I'm just surprised you knew my father, my lord," Tarrin admitted as they turned into a wide, well lit corridor that had a thick rug that went all the way to both ends.

"He was the kind of man that's hard to forget," Arren told him.

They went up another flight of stairs, and were in a large corridor much like the one below, again with a rug on the floor. "Each of you pick a room," he offered, pointing down the corridor. "People will arrive very soon and draw baths for you and bring up your belongings, and I'll have some roast venison and some soup brought up for you."

"I'll take this one," Tarrin said, pointing at the nearest door.

They all said their goodnights, and entered their respective rooms.

Tarrin was shocked at the room. It was very large, with a poster bed in the middle of the wall to his left. There was a washstand with a basin and pitcher against the wall with the door, and a writing desk on the wall facing the bed. A large footchest was at the end of the bed, and a nightstand flanked the bed on each side. A large window was on the far wall, with a tapestry depicting a charging knight on the wall beside it. All of the furniture was old, possibly antique, and it was all ornately carved with flowing leaf and vine designs. He sat on the bed tentatively, feeling the soft feather mattress, as a woman in a plain brown dress entered. "My lord, we're bringing in your bath," she announced.

"Thank you," Tarrin said. Two large men carried in a copper tub, and a procession of servants emptied buckets of steaming water into it. Two more carried up his pack and his staff and bow, and then in a whirlwind of hasty activity, they finished filling the tub, handed him soap and a couple of large towels, and set a large platter of piping hot venison and a large bowl of soup on the desk, then put a mug beside it. Then they were gone.

Tarrin sank into the bath gratefully, scrubbing three days of dirt and sweat off of himself, then cleaning his hair. Then he just soaked in the water langorously as he ate the dinner that was brought him-he didn't want it to get cold. After his skin began to wrinkle, he climbed out and towelled off, and then dressed in a clean nightshirt and underdrawers. Almost as soon as he pulled the shirt over his head, there was a discreet knock at the door. "What is it?" Tarrin asked.

"Are you finished with your bath, my lord?" came the woman's voice.

"Yes ma'am," he replied.

The door opened, and she stepped in. "Would you like the tub removed?" she asked.

"Yes, please," he said. "I don't want to get up in the night and trip over it."

Five men came in, and as three of them filled huge buckets with lukewarm water to lighten it, the other two picked up the tub and carried it from the room. "Will there be anything else?" the woman asked as she picked up the empty dishes and damp towels.

"No, thank you very much," he said.

"You're welcome," she said with a smile, and left the room.

Tarrin climbed into the bed almost excitedly, ready to get into some serious sleeping in such a nice bed. He reached over and turned the lamp all the way down, and then pulled the hood so the tiny bit of light emanating from it wouldn't bother him. Then he snuggled in and fell asleep.

Wake up, something seemed to whisper to him. You have to wake up.

Again he woke up, for no apparent reason. It was still dark outside; very dark, with only the light of the Skybands filtering into the window with the warm night breeze. He looked towards the lamp.

And saw the indistinct silhouette above him.

Without thought, almost instinctively, Tarrin rolled out of the way even as the figure's arm smashed down against the pillow with so much force that the bed shook. Tarrin felt hot lines of pain along the side of his neck as he twisted aside, rolling up into the blankets and he spun aside, falling off the bed. He then immediately rolled in the opposite direction, under the bed, unspooling himself from the constricting covers. He got free of them just as the bed sagged from the weight of his attacker. Tarrin shimmied out from under the bed between the bed and the washstand and quickly got to his feet. He saw the indistinct shadow across the bed, between him and his staff. It hunkered down a bit, and then suddenly was flying towards him with shocking speed.

With speed born of thoughtless reflex, Tarrin bent his knees and twisted, just like he'd been taught to avoid the pounce of a rock lion. The shadowy assailant had aimed for his high chest, but Tarrin was now under that angle of attack. He reached up and out even as something snagged his shirt at the shoulder. It didn't register to him that the palm of his hand came into contact with a woman's naked breast. His other hand came up under a flat, tight belly, and he helped the attacker along on its flight across the room, using its momentum to hurl it headfirst into the washstand. There was a horrifically loud crack as the washbasin and pitcher shattered, spraying water all over the wall, him, and the bed. The stand itself was crushed with a loud smashing crunch, splinters and shards bouncing across the carpeted floor as Tarrin quickly reached out and unhooded and turned up the lamp, then without even looking, jumped over the bed and ran to the far corner to fetch his staff. He turned around armed, confident that that noise would alarm someone, but he was brought up short by what he saw.

It was a woman. Almost. She was totally nude, but it wasn't her unclad condition that caused him to stare in shock.

She wasn't human.

Her arms and legs were covered with white fur, to just above the elbow and just above the knee. Her hands and feet were oversized for her body, noticably so, and were an odd cross between a human's hands and an animal's paws, with wide, thick fingers and toes and feet sufficiently large and long so that she stood up on her toes. Each limb ended with large, long, wickedly sharp claws on the fingers and toes. One of those white-furred hands was stained with his blood. She was standing with her back to him, shaking her head to clear the cobwebs of the impact, and he could clearly see that she had a long, cat-like tail growing from between the muscles at the very top of the cleft of her backside, covered in white fur. She had red hair, this creature, so thick that it all but stood straight up at the top of her head, but not so tall that the back of triangular, cat-like ears weren't visible. She turned around quickly, and Tarrin stared at what was probably the loveliest face he'd ever seen, but a face twisted into a snarl of animalistic rage. She had high cheekbones, a small, pert nose, and a sharp chin, but it was her eyes that captivated him. They were nothing more that two slits of pure green, literally glowing from within with an unholy radiance that made his blood run cold. Her body was tight and well defined; it was obvious that she was very strong the way her muscles rippled and shifted as she moved. Tarrin did see that she was wearing a collar of some strange black metal around her neck.

She growled at him, hunching down in an obvious preparation to lunge at him in the same manner she'd done so before. Tarrin saw with dismay that she had fangs. She may look human, he decided, but this was not a foe to take lightly. A single swipe from those wickedly clawed hands could kill. Tarrin held his staff at one end in the end-grip, getting ready to bat her out of the air if she tried it again. She jumped up on the bed and hunkered down, almost on all fours, her growl lowering to an ominous rumbling in her throat, and then she lunged. Tarrin brought his staff up and around with every bit of power he had. The cat-creature put her feet on the floor and reached out with her hand, and caught his staff. Tarrin's hands felt the shock of the impact; it felt like hitting a rock. She grabbed hold of his staff and yanked, ripping it out of his hands, and threw it aside contemptuously.

Tarrin hopped back, almost stunned. This thing was strong. It would have taken two grown men to rip the staff out of his hands the way she just did. She stepped forward so fast he almost missed it, and missed getting his head ripped off by the span of a child's hand as he ducked under her open-handed swipe. He stepped through her overswing, getting behind her, looped his hand around her neck, and then bodily hauled her over his shoulder in the classic Ungardt neck-throw. Done right, it broke the opponent's neck before any part of him touched the ground. It was a killing move, but Tarrin had quickly realized that only one of them would walk out of this room alive. Not only did it not kill her, but she twisted in his hold and put her feet on the floor as she came over. Before she could set herself, Tarrin lunged forward, letting his weight bull his lighter opponent. But it was like trying to push a mountain. She'd dug her claws into the stone, and he was not about to move her.

He cried out in shock when she picked him up around the waist with one hand, and then bodily threw him all the way across the room. He impacted the wall with a bone-numbing impact, landed on the writing desk, and then fell with the writing desk as it collapsed under his sudden weight. She was on him almost instantly, but he had presence of mind to kick out with his leg. His shin impacted her foot solidly, and despite her strength, she wasn't able to defend against it. Her legs were swept out from under her, spilling her to the ground on her side and back as she grunted in surprise and pain with the hard landing. Tarrin grabbed a splintered leg of the desk and sprung up, holding the wood like a dagger, and tried to plunge it into the woman's face. She quickly caught his wrist in her hand, stopping it as quickly as if he'd struck the floor, and her hand closed around his wrist. Tarrin heard the bones snap audibly as her inhuman strength crushed his left forearm. In a haze of pain, Tarrin gritted his teeth and fixed her with a baleful gaze full of hate as he let go of the wood with his right hand, falling from his limp hand and to the floor beside them, and punched her dead in the face. Her head snapped to the side, and the grip on his broken arm eased, but he was motivated to keep it up. He punched her again, and again, and once again, bloodying her nose and breaking one of her teeth. She seemed disoriented, so he quickly got his feet under him and stomped deliberately on her belly. Her breath whooshed from her lungs with a sound that was quite satisfactory to him. He did it again, higher up, hearing her ribs break under the force of his bare foot smashing down on her. But one of her feet suddenly was up and between his legs, and the heel of her foot smashed into his lower belly so hard he was catapulted into the footchest by the bed, crushing it underneath him, as his back slammed into the footboard of the bed.

Tarrin wheezed for breath as the creature got to one knee, hugging a set of broken ribs with one arm as her other helped support her. He felt like he'd fallen fifty spans out of a tree. Tarrin got to his feet first, scampering around the bed and to the nighstand, where his dagger was sitting. He drew it and advanced quickly as the creature gained its feet, still a bit wobbly. He lunged at her as if to stab her, but she twisted to the side. He was waiting for just such a move. He quickly went to one knee even as her clawed hand swiped at the air where his face had been, then sprang up with every bit of power he could put behind his shoulder. His shoulder slammed into her broken ribs with enough power to lift her up off the floor. His broken arm reached around her and held her side as he ran as hard as he could, ignoring the hot lines of pain that he felt against his back and thighs, smashing her punishingly against the wall. She again lost her breath as Tarrin rebounded off of her. Tarrin slammed the elbow of his broken arm against her head, pinning her head to the wall, and drove the dagger into her heart.

Tarrin felt hot blood wash down his hand. She made no sound, only fixed him with a look so evil it chilled his blood. But instead of limply losing her strength, she grabbed his broken arm in one hand as her other grabbed the forearm of his right. Tarrin quickly twisted the dagger in her, making her shudder, but it did not stop her.

She twisted her head around, pushed his arm slightly away, and then sank her fangs into his forearm.

Tarrin screamed as white-hot pain instanly erupted in his arm, followed by a fatally ominous numbness. Tarrin twisted the dagger again, which only made her saw her teeth back and forth, making him all but howl in pain as her long, sharp teeth worked deep into his flesh, gnashing and shredding the flesh of his forearm. It was a gruesome battle of wills, to see who would stop inflicting pain first, to see who could withstand more. But Tarrin was only human, where she obviously was not. Unable to withstand the pain blasting into his arm, Tarrin let go of the dagger and put his hand on her neck, then literally ripped his wounded arm out of her mouth, tearing a sizable hole in his own arm to do it.

Tarrin staggered back, cradling his numb arm as the creature simply pulled the dagger out of her own chest. There was a great deal of blood smeared on her breasts and flowing down her belly, but the wound, that would have killed about anything Tarrin could think of, hadn't seemed to phase her much at all. She fixed him with a gaze full of hate, but oddly enough, a sort of grim respect.

Tarrin knew he had no chance against her. He never really did. And if nobody had come by now, then nobody would. But he'd given her a fight that would make her earn her kill, and he wasn't about to stop now. He was Ungardt. He would die with honor.

"Come on," Tarrin growled, letting his numb arm hang limply at his side and balling up his fist. "Let's get on with it."

She snarled at him, baring her fangs stained with his blood. She then took his dagger and threw it at him. He saw the throw coming, so he easily evaded the missle as it streaked by as if shot from a bow. The dagger struck the door, and there was a loud snapping sound as it went through the door and cracked into the wall outside. She then advanced on him slowly, as if she knew that he was too wounded to make any sudden or fast moves, as Tarrin tried to back up. She took her time, letting him take a step back for every step she took forward, and it wasn't until it was too late he realized what she was doing. His foot snagged on a piece of what was left of the desk, and he stumbled slightly. She lunged at him in that exact instant. She hit him fully in the chest, driving him backwards to land heavily on the floor. The back of his head cracked into the floor, making his vision dance and weave as stars filled his eyes. He managed to focus his eyes just in time to see her rear back one hand-paw, claws extended, as the other came to rest on his upper chest to hold him down.

But she never delivered the blow. She stayed like that for several seconds as her eyes registered surprise, then shock, then rage. He felt the muscles of her legs, up against his sides, flex and bunch, as if she was trying to move something or push something, but she wouldn't move. He even felt the claws of the hand on his chest shimmy and flex, as if something was holding her hand down, and she was pushing against it.

"By Karas' Hammer, what is that thing?" he heard Faalken's voice. Faalken came into view quickly over his view, from behind.

"Do not touch her!" Dolanna's voice cracked like a whip. The creature glared at Faalken with that unholy gaze, and Tarrin saw the knight take a step back.

Tarrin put his head on the stone in relief. Talk about arriving in the nick of time. His heart was still racing from the fight, and that racing was what made him realize what was happening to him.

The numbness had spread, and now there was an angry itching and burning in the arm where she had bitten him.

She lifted off of him as if an invisible hand had picked her up, and she was pushed back and off of him. She came to rest on her knees, still locked in that position of delivering the fatal blow. Tarrin sat up unsteadily, putting a hand over his racing heart. He could feel it inside him, like a venom. Could she have a poisonous bite? Whatever it was, it had already spread all through him. He was almost totally numb inside and out, from head to foot, except for the itching and burning in his ripped arm. "Dolanna," he said in a slurred voice, as he tried to roll over and get to his feet. His actions were jerky and erratic as unfeeling muscles tried to respond to his mental commands. He felt Faalken's hands on his sides, and he was helped to his feet.

"Tarrin, lad, what in the Abyss happened in here?" Faalken asked, looking at him with a professional eye, assessing injury. Tarrin was a mess of blood and shredded clothing, with angry red welts that would develop into spectacular bruises later. His left arm was badly mangled, and he had exceptionally deep lacerations on his neck, back, and on both thighs from the creature's claws. The room was completely smashed; Tarrin had given back as good as he got.

"It, she, tried to kill me," he returned in a wooden, listless voice.

"Tarrin!" Dolanna said quickly. "Tarrin, did she bite you?"

He tried to find the words to reply. It took a moment as he worked through the haze in his mind. "Yes," he finally replied. "She almost ripped my arm off."

"Faalken," she said in a suddenly strangled voice, tightly controlled, "Faalken, do exactly as I say. Do not argue. Let go of him, Faalken, let go of him and step away from him very slowly."

"Dolanna-"

"Do it!" she snapped.

Tarrin felt a sudden sharp stab of pain in his wounded arm. He winced and grabbed it, but then he felt it again, then another pain in his shoulder. "Dolanna, something's happening," Tarrin said in sudden palpable fear. He could feel something inside him, something that suddenly felt like a knife in his belly. "Augh!" he cried, doubling over and putting both hands on his belly. His left arm was on fire, and that fire was sweeping through him like an avalanche.

In an instant, there was nothing but pain. Blinding, white hot pain that filled him like a cistern, flowing over and washing through him like fire in his veins. His small cry instantly became a howl of such agony that Faalken backed away from him like he was Death Herself come to claim him. The pain scoured away all conscious thought. But some part of his mind knew full well what had happened, and what was happening. Wherever the fire touched, his body began to change.

His hands cracked and split, cracked again as bones were broken and reformed, expanded, changed, and then reset. Fingers lengthened and thickened, and claws formed from the nails of his fingers. His feet lengthened and expanded, the toes becoming larger and more defined, with even larger claws forming from the nails. His back was hunched, but it was obvious that the bones in his spine had reformed themselves, adding to his height as his torso elongated slightly even as his legs and arms grew longer by a proportional amount. Tarrin's ears simply fell off as two black cat's ears sprouted up through his hair, just over and behind his eyes and just behind the hairline of his forehead and bangs. There was a ripping sound, and his tail emerged from behind him, pink with new skin as it grew as fast as a snake could slither, then it thickened and fleshed out. Then black fur quickly grew over it, over his arms to above the elbow, and his legs to above the knee. His teeth all simply flowed into slightly different shapes, slightly more pointed and sharper, except for the wicked fang-like insicors that grew out from the gums on both his upper and lower teeth.

Then his long scream ended. He slumped to his hands and knees, his tail hanging limply behind him and his claws retracting back into their resting positions inside his fingers and toes, as he panted in deep breaths of air. He tottered to one side, then the other, and then fell onto his side, oblivious to the world.

"By all that's holy," Faalken said in a mute, awed voice, staring at Tarrin like he was a live snake.

Dolanna's gaze was on the creature. She looked unsually subdued, her body still wrapped up in the solid air she'd woven around her. Her face carried a strangely remorseful expression, but it was her eyes that caught the attention of the Sorceress. They looked on Tarrin's altered form with pity. The collar, Dolanna could sense, was magical. Foul magic, the type used to control other beings. She could sense the weaves of magic inside it as she probed the black metal collar. It was specifically made to force the owner to do what the collar's owners commanded.

She has been forced into this, the Sorceress thought grimly. Something has sent her to kill him.

Several of the Duke's men arrived at last, and they tried to bull into the chamber. But Dolanna halted them with a single forceful command to stop. She wove certain flows of magic into the collar, disrupting its controlling effects, and then found the clasp to unlock it from her neck. She took it off of her smoothly, and could literally see the hazy, unfocused look in the creature's crystalline green eyes. It looked up at her in confusion. She turned to the guards. "You will take this creature to a holding cell," she instructed in a voice that would brook no opposition. "You and you," she pointed to two men wearing leather gloves, "you will carry her, and you will do exactly as I say. You will carry her to the cell, making sure you get as little blood on you as possible. Once you are there, you are to lock it in the cell and leave it be. Both of you are to remove your uniforms and gauntlets as carefully as you can to make sure the creature's blood does not touch your skin. Then you will burn the uniforms. Is that understood?"

"Is it poisonous?" one of them asked.

"Not a poison, but the creature's blood is deadly to humans in its own way," she said. "So long as you do not touch her blood with your skin, you are perfectly safe. Sergeant, nobody is to enter that cell without my explicit permission. Is that understood?"

"Yes, Mistress," the guard sergeant said in a steady voice.

"Do it," she said. Two guards hurriedly rushed in and grabbed the paralyzed creature by her sides, then carried her statue-like form from the room, keeping her as far from their bodies as they possibly could.

"Madam, what about that one?" the sergeant asked, pointing at the unconscious Tarrin, laying on the floor.

"Leave him to me," she said in a quiet voice. "Now leave us. I will not be disturbed. Faalken, get the cover and use it to pick up Tarrin, and place him on the bed. Do not touch any blood on him. It may be the creature's. Then stand outside the door so that I am not disturbed."

Faalken grimly collected up Tarrin's limp body in the quilt that was laying on the floor and gently placed him on the bed, which happened to be the only piece of furniture in the room that was still whole. "What happened to him?" Faalken asked quietly.

"I cannot tell you that yet," she replied, sitting on the edge of the bed with a look of dreadful concentration on her face. "Now leave me. I cannot afford any distractions."

To: Title EoF

Chapter 3

It took a long time for Tarrin to awaken.

It had almost been like he was drifting in a deep blackness, floating in a void where he could not see, but garbled sounds and impressions somehow drifted into his awareness. He registered several voices, but could not make them out. He would drift into and out of these impressions, hearing the voices murmur up from nothing, and the fade away after a time, never understanding the meaning of the words. There was more than sound in the void, there was also smell. Unusual smells and odors touched his awareness, from simple things like the smell of candles and wine and wood and stone, to complex scents that he could not even begin to describe nor understand. Unlike the sounds, the smells were there always, flooding his shrouded mind with its bizarre information.

Tarrin also realized that he wasn't alone in the void. There was something in there with him. It was a presence, a compilation of instincts and motivations that defied rational thought. It was always there, just behind him, as firmly attached to him as was his right arm. But at the same time it was not part of him. It was something that he couldn't describe, and he pondered on it for a long time before the brilliance of light penetrated the blackness, and he realized that he was waking up.

He opened his eyes, the sensations and impressions of his sleeping mind forgotten. The light was…bright. Very bright. He was in a rather small chamber that held nothing but the bed, a small table of some sort with two chairs, the chair Dolanna was sitting in, and a single stand beside the bed holding a lamp. Tarrin didn't feel quite up to moving yet, so he spent the few moments trying to remember what happened. There was…a fight. That cat-creature woman had attacked him. Had almost killed him. She would have, if Dolanna hadn't stopped her literally at the last instant. She'd torn him up too, broke his arm, nearly ripped it off. But the whole thing was a hazy blur in his mind. Only the part where she bit him was clear in his mind.

It was about that time that he realized what he was smelling. He could smell everything around him. The bed, the wool of the blanket, the leather of the chair. The spicy-musky-warm smell that was strong in the room was coming from Dolanna. And there was a myriad of other smells assaulting him, smells that he couldn't identify easily, faint ones and strong ones, sour ones and sweet ones, light ones and heavy ones. He could hear quite clearly his own breathing, Dolanna's breathing, and he could just barely make out the sound of the beating of her heart. Never in his life has his senses been so lucid, so sharp, so incredibly sensitive. The light of the single lamp, the fire turned down very low, was as bright as the daylight to his eyes.

The numbness. When that creature had bitten him, there was a numbness that had spread through him, almost like a poison. Then there was pain, pain so severe that his mind didn't want to remember it. Then nothing. Had the creature's bite caused this change in his senses? Was it a side effect of the venom she injected into him?

There was more, he realized. He was feeling odd new sensations along his body. His sense of touch was more acute, but there was a sensation of things being touched that he didn't have. There was no way for him to describe the sensation, even to himself, but he was feelings things where he didn't have things to feel. He decided to try to move. He shifted his legs, putting his feet down on the mattress, getting ready to push himself into a sitting position.

Then his claws snagged on the sheet.

His heart seizing in his chest, he realized that that was exactly what he was feeling. He pulled an arm out from under the covers, and stared at it in numb shock. His arm was fully healed, and it was covered in black fur to just above the elbow. His hand was almost twice the size it had been, with thick, long fingers that had pads on the insides and on the palm. He could see the tip of claws recessed up inside his fingers, retracted out of the way.

"I'm sorry, Tarrin," Dolanna said in a weary voice, looking at him. "There was nothing more I could do for you."

"How?" he managed to ask.

"It was her bite," she told him quietly. "Her condition can be passed to others through contact with her body fluids. When her spittle got into your blood, it began the change."

Tarrin stared at her, his mind whirling. Then a little voice in his head carrying his mother's imperious demeanor snapped at him to get over it. "What's done is done," his mother would always say. "Worry too much over what's behind you and you don't see the root in front of you," his father would remark. It was done. He had been, been changed. Crying and panicking over it would do no good, and breaking down wasn't going to help him now. Taking a deep breath, he pushed himself up to a sitting position. While doing so, he sat on something that had a feeling of pressure. Reaching under him with his other hand, he grabbed something that felt the sensation of being grabbed. Almost absently, he realized that it was a tail. Whirling images of the nude creature came back to him then, and he realized that he looked just like her now. The fur, the hands and feet, the claws, and the tail. Probably the ears and teeth too. A run of his tongue through his mouth confirmed that aspect of his suspicion. A tentative hand to his head proved the other, as the pad of his palm crushed down on his cat-ear. It was an eerie sensation.

"What now?" he asked calmly.

She gave him a curious look. "A strange question to ask," she said. "I thought you would have started demanding to know what was going on. Or perhaps start rearranging the furniture."

"My mother always says that's what's done is done," he said grimly. "Going into conniptions at the moment isn't going to help me."

"A wise woman, your mother," Dolanna said, sitting up. "And it seems that the training you have received from your parents is going to help you. That is very good. You have a strong mind and an even stronger will, young one, and those will be you allies.

"The worst of the news, Tarrin, is that I cannot change you back," she told him bluntly. "Your body is not what it was, and I cannot separate what was once you from what you are now without killing you."

"I sorta expected that," he sighed.

"The change is not just physical. You have taken in the instincts, the essence, of the animal of which you now are part. In her case and yours, it is the common housecat." She pushed her rather dishevelled hair back from her eyes. "Now this, this is where I have helped you. Do you feel the presence of that side of you? It should be there, inside with you, but it will not be easy to recognize."

He remembered the sensation of not being alone before he woke up. It was still there, but not very strongly. But now that he knew what he was looking for, he could find that other side of himself, the Cat, sitting in a corner of his mind. "I can feel it, but it seems far away," he told her.

"That was my doing," she told him. "The sudden introduction of that animalistic set of impulses into you would have all but driven you mad," she told him. "I have contained that part of you so that you can adjust to its presence. As the days pass, the spell I have woven will weaken, and you will feel it more and more in your mind, until the spell is gone and you must deal with it on your own. But this will give you time, time to adjust to it, time to learn how to control it. Soon, in days, you will begin to hear the song of its instincts trying to guide your actions," she warned. "That song will get stronger and stronger as my spell wanes, but it will give you the chance to learn how to deal with it without any negative consequences."

"Consequences?"

"Tarrin, it is not human," she said. "When you are in danger, or angry, or afraid, that part of you will lash out, just as an animal would. It does not see right or wrong, or laws, or what is proper or improper. It is an animal, and it will react like one. It is up to you to control that, because if the animal takes control of you for too long, what makes you human could be lost to it, and you will spend the rest of your days as the animal you will have become."

Tarrin paled at that, but he nodded. Just as his conscious mind was in control, it seemed logical to him that if he had another mind, then it too could take control. Although the instincts he could feel in his mind wasn't precisely another mind, it was a different aspect of his own. The Cat was part of him, but it was not. More to the point, it was a new part of him, and that unfamiliarity was part of the danger.

"There are, advantages to what has happened," Dolanna said quietly. "You are now a Were-kin, a Were-cat. The Were-kin share several distinct advantages over humans. Most have great strength," she told him, and he nodded. That woman had thrown him across the room with one arm. If that wasn't "great strength" he had no idea what was. "Were-kin can be hurt by weapons, but they cannot cause permanent injury unless they are weapons of magic or weapons of silver. I saw that you stabbed her with your knife. That probably did nothing but make her angrier."

"It did," he said. "That's when she bit me."

"You may have sharper senses now, but that I cannot tell you. I have never read nor talked to anyone that had a knowledge of the Were-cats. They are a very rare and seclusive breed." She leaned back a bit. "You are now linked to the cat, physically and mentally, so I would surmise that you share its traits. Strength, speed, and agility. The senses of a hunter."

"I can smell you right now," Tarrin told her quietly. "And there are, other smells, smells I can't identify."

"You will, with practice," she said. "And that is what matters right now. If you can gain a familiarity with your physical form, it will help you understand and deal with the instincts that are part of you."

"How do you mean?" he asked.

"Look at your hand," she said. He did so. "There are claws recessed into your fingers. Make them come out."

Tarrin gave her a look, then looked at his hand. He tried to flex his hands to get them to come out, but all they did was shift inside their sheaths. Clawing his hands did make them come out a little, but they didn't actually extend. There was a muscle in there, he realized, muscles that he had to learn how to move. Kind of like people who could wiggle their ears, they always said it was a matter of knowing which muscles to flex. It was the same with this, but the problem was, these were muscles he didn't even have when he'd went to sleep. He furrowed his brow in concentration, relying on his enhanced sense of touch, and a strange, new feeling of just knowing his body. He could feel the claws in there. He seemed to sense that they were worked by certain muscles attached to the bases. He clenched his oversized hand into a fist, and then opened it and tried again, flexing inside rather than outside.

Silently, five claws, each one as long as Dolanna's little finger, slid out from the tips of his fingers. They were vicious, formidable looking weapons. He looked at them and wondered how that creature had managed not to kill him. They were hooked, like a cat's claws, sharp along the inside edges and at the tip. "Very good," she complemented, as he relaxed his hands, and the claws slid back up inside his fingers.

Tarrin's belly growled. "Think I could get something to eat?" he asked.

"Yes, I will have something sent up to you," she said, scrubbing her eyes with her hands. "Now that you are awake and seem to be well, I can get some sleep," she said.

"How long was I asleep?"

"Three days," she replied wearily. "The wounds you took in the fight were dreadful, and on top of that, this happened to you. Your body exhausted almost all of its energy in the transformation, which healed you as a side effect. You may not have survived had I not been here. And I wanted to be here when you awoke, to help calm the shock and fear of finding this waiting for you when you awoke."

"Three days," he said in wonder. It didn't feel like he'd been asleep for three days. "Do, do the others know?"

"Faalken does," she said. "I told Duke Arren what happened as well. Walten and Tiella only know that you were severely injured, but they do not know you have been changed. I will tell them now, so that they can adjust to it."

He couldn't help but ask. "What happened to her?" he asked.

"She escaped," she said grimly. "She killed twelve men while doing it. My spell wore off much faster than it should have, and she ripped the cell door off the hinges. She killed the cell guards, two other guards, a servant, and a stablehand. Arren tried to trap her inside the castle by raising the drawbridge, but she simply climbed up the wall and jumped off the top. If she would have simply waited, none of that would have been necessary."

"What do you mean?"

"She was wearing a collar," Dolanna said.

"I remember it," he interrupted, an image of her coming to his mind.

"It was controlling her," she continued. "She was being compelled by magic into doing what she was doing. It was not really her fault. She was being used. I think she was fighting the collar the entire time."

"She should have been able to kill me easily," Tarrin mused to himself, remembering more images of the fight between them. There was any number of places where she could have just put her hand across his neck and slit his throat. She had the speed to do it. If she'd been fighting the collar, it explained much. Why he was able to outmove her, and do the things he was doing. She was distracted. His mother had said many times, "in a fight, the man with his mind on two things usually ends up with his mind in two places." Mother's sayings were usually graphic, but they were very true.

Mother. How were his parents going to react to, to this? He was fairly certain that, after the initial shock, that they would adjust to it, even as he would. But it would be painful. His parents were intelligent, open-minded people. But if they rejected him, he didn't know if he could live through that.

He pushed it out of his mind for the moment. He wasn't even ready to start dwelling on things like that yet. His mind was tickled by something Dolanna has said, about the collar. About the Were-cat woman being controlled. Then someone had to be controlling her, and they ordered her to come up here and kill him.

"Who would go through all that trouble?" he mused.

"Excuse me?" Dolanna asked.

"Why would they send that woman to kill me?" he asked. "I'm not worth that much attention."

"It may not have been you," she said. "Her target may have been someone else, and she simply came into your room by mistake."

Tarrin looked at her, her smell filling his nose. "I don't know," he said simply, leaning back against the headboard. "If she can smell the same way I can, then if she knew my scent, she'd know who to come after. But maybe not. I guess we'll never know."

She stood and stretched, then leaned over the bed and put her hand on his cheek gently. "I must get used to those eyes," she said gently, "but in a way, looking like this, you are very handsome, Tarrin," she told him. "Almost as if this was what you were always meant to be."

"My eyes?"

"They are green," she said. "The same color as the woman's. They are a cat's eyes, with the vertically slitted pupils. They are very striking."

"Huh," he said in wonder.

"Well, you are hungry, and I need to sleep," she said. "I will bring you a meal and some books to read. For your own safety, I do not advise you to leave this room. After the deaths of their comrades, the castle's guards may not take kindly to you. You should take this time to get familiar with yourself. Learn how to move your tail, for example. I will have Faalken check in with you about once an hour, so that if you need something, there will be someone about to see that you get it."

"Alright," he said.

After she left, Tarrin tentatively threw back the covers, and looked down at himself. He was nude, and his tail was coming out from under him. His tail wasn't very thick, more for ornament than use, and covered with black fur. His legs looked mostly like they did, except they looked more muscled, and of course they had the fur on them that started at a ragged line just above his knees. He reached down and put his hand on the fur, feeling that it was both soft and rather thick, but not very long. He reckoned that from a distance it would almost look like black breeches. His feet were similarly oversized, wider through the ball of his foot, almost like a paw, with long, thick toes that were tipped with those nasty claws. There wasn't a pair of shoes out there that would fit those feet. He sat up and pulled a leg up, then grabbed the oversized foot in his hands and turned it so he could look at the bottom. He was surprised at how easily his foot rotated like that, and he saw that the bottom of his feet were covered with two thick pads, much like his hands were. One was at the ball of his foot, and the other at the heel, with smaller pads on the bottom of each toe. The claws on his feet were even larger than the ones on his fingers.

Swinging his legs over the bed, he shakily stood up on his new legs. He was very weak still from what had happened, but he could actually feel the muscles shift and play under his skin as they worked to put him on his feet. Despite the weakness, he realized at that moment that he had every bit of the inhuman strength and power that the woman had. Despite his weakness, he felt light as a feather, and it required almost no effort to move his own weight. On standing, his tail seemed to come to life of its own volition, and that was when he realized that it wasn't just for show. He nearly overbalanced forwards, but his tail swished deeply behind him and recentered himself on a stable balance. It began to move on its own, swishing back and forth in a rhythmic motion, and it had to be the oddest sensation he'd ever felt in his life. He almost instinctively stood only on the balls of his feet, heels off the floor, understanding why they were so wide. Stability. There was one other thing that got his attention, and that was the hair. His hair was extremely long, falling well down his back, and very, very thick. It was the same blond color it had been before. He wasn't used to the weight of it, nor the way it swayed and swished whenever he moved. It was an extremely disconcerting sensation.

He saw his clothes neatly folded at the foot of the bed, and he sat down again and picked up his trousers. He saw that they'd been modified, with a small hole in the back and a slit leading to it, with a pair of buttons. Dolanna had already made clothing for him to take his tail into account. He sat down and carefully put his leg inside, then curled his toes to keep the claws from snagging. He repeated it with the other leg, then stood up and buttoned them in the front. It wasn't easy, because his fingers were so large now, but he somehow managed. The back buttons, however, were another story. Tarrin managed to twist himself in such a way that he could actually see behind himself; Tarrin had never been able to twist like that before, and he realized that his entire back and spine were built differently than his human one had been. He worked for a very long time to get the small buttons through the holes, but the small things eluded even his best attempts. Growling a bit in frustration, he popped out the claws on his hand and pinched the little button between then, then managed to jam it through the slit. He repeated the process with the other button, managing it on the fifth try.

She'd left him a white wool shirt, with laces at the front, and long, wide sleeves. It was much easier to get into that, but the laces were quite beyond him. These large hands had obvious drawbacks. They were very dextrous, but their size made manipulating very small things extremely difficult. He figured that he'd be able to do it with practice, but he didn't much feel like fooling with it.

Dolanna opened the door, holding a tray so filled with food that she had trouble holding it up. She gave him a cursory glance as she entered the room, closing the door with a foot, and set the tray down. Tarrin looked at her. Something was…wrong. He couldn't quite put his finger on it, either. She looked the same as she always had, but somehow, she didn't. As she got closer, he had to look down at her more and more, and then he understood. She was shorter.

That meant that he had to be taller.

He looked up at the ceiling. If this ceiling was the same height as the one in the other room, then he was taller. It was noticably lower than it had been.

"Is it just me, or are you shorter?" he asked her.

"You grew by half a span," she told him simply. "As if you were not tall enough. You are taller than most Ungardt now." She opened the door again and picked something up off the floor, and then came back in. They were books. "How does it feel?"

"Strange," he said, looking down at himself. "But in a way, it doesn't. It's like it's always been like this."

"Those are your instincts," she told him. "Do not ignore them, Tarrin. They may try to guide your actions, but they also will give you important information. You must learn to listen to them without letting them control you. It is a balance you must strike within yourself, a balance between man and animal, with the man guiding."

He nodded. There was no way he could ignore something that just came to him unbidden. But, as she said, he couldn't let it control what he did.

"Faalken will be along in a while," she told him. "He told me that he thought you would not mind company, so he is bringing a stones board."

"I think he's right," he said. "I won't mind someone to talk to at all."

"Go ahead and eat, and Faalken should be along," she said. "He is going to the city market to buy something, and will come visit you when he returns. That should give you time to eat in peace."

"Alright." He reached out and took Dolanna's hand gently, feeling how warm her skin was, and how fragile that she seemed to be. "Dolanna, I want to thank you," he said. "I know you couldn't have stopped it, but at least you've given me a chance. Thank you."

"Oh, dear one," she sighed, giving him a smile, "it is I who should thank you. I cannot help feeling responsible for this. And I want you to know, that if you never need anything, anything at all, I will always be about to help you. It is the least I can do for you after bringing you here, where this could happen."

"Would, would you send a letter to my parents?" he asked. "They need to know about this."

"I already have," she told him. "They should have it by now. I made sure to tell them not to come, Tarrin. I felt that you would need time to grow accustomed to it before you could face them."

"Thank you," he said, because she was right. If he saw his mother right now, looking like he did, and she rejected him, it would destroy him. Better to face it himself than run the risk of that.

"I will return after I have rested, bathed, and eaten," she told him. "Then we will talk of what is to come."

"Eating is a good idea," Tarrin said, the wonderfully sharp smells of the tray drawing his attention to it.

"Enjoy," she told him, leaving.

Tarrin never knew food could taste that way. Everything seemed fifty times what it had been before, and he found that the tastes of some foods had changed somewhat. Mutton had always been bland to him, but now it had a texture and a subtle flavor that he enjoyed immensely. The tray was filled with dishes of meat, and nothing else, with a mug of plain water. There was mutton, pork, beef, venison, rabbit, and even goose and chicken. He found that they all had tastes related to their scents, so much so that the taste of it was the base of the scent it gave off. He figured that if he didn't like the smell of something, odds were that he wouldn't like the taste of it either. He sampled each of them, testing the new taste of it and comparing it to what he remembered, then he attacked the entire tray and devoured it. When he was done, he marvelled that he was capable of eating so much. But he was wonderfully full, and the contentment of that simple condition amazed him. No doubt that it stemmed from the instincts that were inside his mind now.

It was all so strange. By all rights, he should be having a complete panic attack. But he was not. It was as if the instincts in his mind had forced him to accept the change that had been wrought on him. Yes, he was upset, and very frightened about what had happened to him, but even now it felt…right. Just as Dolanna said, he felt as if this was the way that he was supposed to be, that he had been incomplete before this. It was probably the instincts doing it to him…and in a way, he was glad of that. At least this feeling of normalcy was somewhat comforting.

He stood at the window, looking down into the courtyard, wondering if he'd have the courage to walk across it. It was painfully obvious that he didn't belong in the human world anymore. In a place like Aldreth, things were different. The proximity to the Frontier made the villagers receptive to non-humans. But this wasn't Aldreth. This was Torrian, where non-humans walking down the street were quite an event. They would either ignore him, stare at him, or run from him. There were non-humans in port cities, the sea-faring animal people, the Wikuni, but Torrian was far from the sea. Maybe in Suld, where there were many Wikuni, he would be able to walk down the street. But here, he wasn't so sure.

The door opened. Tarrin looked over his shoulder, and saw Faalken coming into the room. Faalken's rough, outdoor-like scent touched Tarrin's nose, and he filed it away in his mind for future reference. Faalken had a stones board in his hands, as well as a couple of mugs and a leather pouch.

"You look, impressive," Faalken told him.

Tarrin looked down at his hand, flexing out the claws and watching in mused wonder. "Something like that," he replied quietly. "I'm getting used to it, though."

"How does it feel?"

"I can't describe it, Faalken. There are sounds and smells and sights I see and hear and smell, that I just can't describe. You have milk and ale in those mugs," he told him. "I think you were either in a rush or working out. You've been sweating, and your heart's still a bit fast. And you were eating a meat pie."

Faalken blinked, then chuckled ruefully. "Right on all counts," he admitted. "I think I understand what you mean then. Feel better?" he asked as he put the stones board on the small table.

"Much," he replied. "Just eating did wonders."

"Did Dolanna tell you what's happened? With the other one and all?"

Tarrin nodded.

"Well, as soon as she's sure you're alright, we'll be moving out," he said. "Dolanna wants to get you to the Tower immediately. If there are any side effects or complications over what happened to you, there isn't a better place to be."

"She didn't tell me that," he said.

"She probably didn't want to worry you," he said, sitting down and pushing the mug of milk towards him. Then he opened the pouch and poured the stones out onto the board. "She probably want you to only think of one thing at a time. I can't argue with it, but I prefer a more direct method of doing things. You want white or black?"

"I'll take black," he said as he moved away from the window. He looked at the chair a moment, then managed to figure out how to sit down in it without pinching his tail behind him. He did it by turning the chair around and straddling it, crossing his arms over the back, which was now in front of him.

"Kind of hard, isn't it?" he asked.

"Sorta," he said. "So far, all the tail's done is move by itself. I can't figure it out."

"Practice," Faalken shrugged. "It'll give you something to do while you're waiting for me to lose."

"I'll do that," he promised.

Faalken was a good stones player, so there was a considerable amount of time between moves. Tarrin took that time looking back at his tail when he wasn't studying the board, sensing what he felt when it moved, what he felt when he touched it, and how it felt as it moved through the air. He took all these sensations and started picking through them, until he thought he had a good idea of where the muscles were, which ones were which, and what he had to do to get some reaction out of it. Reaction that wasn't reflexive, anyway. He sucked in his breath and tried to make it stop moving.

And got nothing for his trouble.

Furrowing his brow, he tried again, but still there was nothing.

He decided that he was going at this the wrong way. Instead of making it stop, he decided to make it move the way he wanted it to. He watched it sway back and forth of its own volition, studying what he was feeling in combination with what he was seeing. "Your move, Tarrin," Faalken prompted. Tarrin turned around and studied the board for a few minutes, and placed a stone on the board, then went back to watching his tail. After a few more minutes, he thought he had it. Instead of making it stop, Tarrin tried to make it stick straight out.

And it did.

He was a bit amazed. Straight, his tail was longer than his leg, over half the length of his body, nearly three quarters of it. A good span of it would drag the ground if it went limp. When it was moving, and looped and curled, it didn't look that long. Tarrin tried something else, bringing his tail around his body. It didn't move smoothly, but it did manage to curl around his side. It was very flexible, he noticed. It kept wanting to go back to what it was doing, and that made it hard to keep control of it.

"Having fun?" Faalken asked.

"This isn't easy," Tarrin told him. "It has a mind of its own." Tarrin let it slide up his side, feeling the fur slide by even as the tail felt his shirt ghost by, then slipped it over his shoulder and wrapped the good span of extra tail around his neck. The tip just made it past the edge of his other shoulder. He wondered how strong it was. If it had the same inhuman strength he did, then it would actually be a rather formidable surprise. It may even support his weight.

"Not bad," the knight said. "Your move."

Tarrin put a stone down on the board. "I was wondering how that creature got up to your room," Faalken said.

"With these," Tarrin replied, showing Faalken his claws. "As strong as she was, she could have driven the tips into the stone and climbed up that way. I think I could do it."

"Probably," he said, "but are you sure she was that strong?"

"Faalken, she threw me across the room with one arm," Tarrin told him. "She was strong enough."

"Are you sure that happened?"

"Would you like a demonstration?" Tarrin asked him testily.

"As a matter of fact, I would," he said, standing up. "I'm curious about this, and it'll give you the chance to come to understand yourself a little better."

Tarrin stood up, got in front of the shorter, stocky man, grabbed him by the upper edge of his breastplate, and hauled him into the air. Tarrin held him at arm's length up and out, letting Faalken's feet dangle well off the floor. Tarrin looked up at him calmly as Faalken's eyes bulged a bit, and he grabbed Tarrin's wrist with both hands reflexively. "And this isn't even much of a strain," Tarrin told him. "I can throw you, if you'd like."

"I get the idea," Faalken said, a bit weakly.

Tarrin set him down on his feet gently, then Faalken grinned at him.

Tarrin gave him a look. "You did that on purpose," he accused.

"Yes," he said. "Dolanna told me about you, about what the change did to you. I wanted to see if you were aware of it yourself. Now then, it's my move."

They played five more games in relative silence, with occasional idle chatter, and Tarrin practicing with his tail, and then with voluntarily moving his ears. The ears were easier and harder at the same time; it didn't take him long to figure out how to move them, but they instantly moved towards any sound on their own. They'd often take off on him in the middle of an attempt to move them, when Faalken made a sound. Tarrin couldn't have had anything better. It was a sense of normalcy to him, and the burly knight did everything he could to make Tarrin feel at ease. He never stared, never blinked, never flinched, even when Tarrin accidentally touched him. What Faalken couldn't understand was that the instincts in Tarrin's mind had forced the acceptance of the change onto him, that, despite it only being hours since he'd awoke to discover himself altered, he had already come to accept it as a new part of his life. Not to be pined over and fretted about, but to be learned and overcome. He was still determined to go to the Tower, to go on with his life. This just changed things. He doubted that he could get into the army like this, but he was sure that he could find something to do, something where this would make very little difference. There was so much of his life that was now thrown up in the air. And this afternoon of playing stones made everything seem like it would work itself out.

There was a knock at the door. "Who is it?" Faalken called. Tarrin didn't know who it was either; the faint scent coming under the door wasn't Dolanna, and hers was the only other man-scent he knew.

"It's Arren," came the reply.

"My Duke, come in," Faalken said, a bit nervously.

The door opened, and the middle-aged Duke Arren entered the room. He was dressed in a black doublet and hose, the doublet with silver thread embroidered into the shape of a hawk on the front. His eyes were a bit tired, and he just waved them off when both of them moved to rise in his presence. "There's no need for any of that," he said. "Tarrin, I'd like to apologize-"

"My Lord, there's nothing you could have done," he cut him off. "Nothing you could have done would have stopped her, even if you knew she was coming. There's no blame to be taken. I'm not dead, you know. I'll learn to deal with this."

"I'd have to agree with you," he said, pulling the third chair over to the table and sitting down. "She killed twelve men escaping from the cells. Twelve men, and two of them were the best fighters I had."

"They had no idea what they were dealing with, my Lord," Tarrin said. "The only reason I survived was pure, sheer luck. And Dolanna." He looked at his hands. "I rather prefer living like this to being dead, so if this is price I pay to keep living, then so be it."

"You're rather calm about this," Arren said.

"I don't have time to run around screaming in apoplexy," Tarrin said dryly. "I have better things to do."

"He's part Ungardt, Duke Arren," Faalken reminded him.

"Ah, yes, that famous Ungardt no-nonsense stoicism," he mused. "If it were me, I would be running around screaming," he admitted.

"No," Tarrin said quietly, "you wouldn't. It's hard to explain, but part of it makes you accept it. I've only been like this for a few days, and only one of those awake, but it's like I've been like this all my life," he said quietly. "I do have trouble making these new parts move, but they feel like they've always been there. This feels…right to me. If I were turned back to a human, I'd feel like, like I lost a part of myself."

Arren looked at him soberly. "An intriguing side effect," he mused.

Dolanna's scent touched him just as he heard her voice. "The Tower will want to study him," she said from the doorway. She'd bathed, and was wearing a clean dress. The dark circles under her eyes were gone, and she moved with that familiar crisp precision that he knew her to have. "But on the other hand, he will have a chance there to better learn how control his animal half. It is a controlled environment, where the stimulus that could make him lose control can be contained and separated from him."

"Dolanna," Arren and Tarrin said together. "How do you feel?" Tarrin added.

"I feel rested," she replied. "How do you feel, young one?"

"Refreshed," he replied. "Strong. The meal did wonders for me."

"I rather thought that it would," she told him, taking his hand as he stood. Her small hand was swallowed up in his huge hand-paw. She turned his hand over and touched the back of it with her other hand, feeling the short, silky black fur that covered it. "How does it feel?" she asked.

"It feels…like this is the way I'm supposed to be," he told her soberly.

"That is very good," she told him confidently. "The harder you fight against it, the harder it is to control it. Part of the key to controlling it is to allow it to try to guide you, but not to control you. There is a delicate balance in that, and that is what you will have to learn."

"If I ignore it, it starts to scream at me?" he asked.

"Precisely," she said with a smile. "You do not want it to do that." She looked at them all. "We will be leaving tomorrow at dawn," she said. "Tarrin, I have had all of your clothes altered so that you can wear them."

"Uh, Dolanna, what am I going to do?"

"How do you mean?"

"Well, am I riding a horse?"

"I would imagine so," she replied. "You must face the public at some point, Tarrin. You cannot live your life in this room. It is best to get it over and done with at the outset, so that it is not a fear that nags at you."

"I guess," he sighed, staring at his hand.

"Let's take it a step further," Arren said. "Tarrin, you will dine with us tonight," he ordered. "I've told my people what happened to you. Let's put you out where you can see that people aren't going to scream in panic. They may stare, but that's about all."

"A good idea," Dolanna agreed.

"What time is it now?" Tarrin asked.

"Nearly sunset," Faalken replied.

"We'll be dining in about an hour," Arren told him.

"I guess, my Lord," Tarrin said dubiously.

"Well, we have time for one more game of stones," Faalken urged.

"Then we'll leave you to that," Arren said. "Come, Dolanna, you and I have some catching up to do."

"Indeed. I will send a handservant to fetch you at dinnertime," Dolanna told them, and the pair exited as Tarrin and Faalken bowed.

They sat back down and started a new game, but Tarrin's mind wasn't much in it. The idea of going into a public place was admittedly frightening, but on the other hand, it was necessary. Like Dolanna had said, he wouldn't be living in this room his entire life. He'd thought to himself that he was going to have to learn how to live with this startling new change…well, going to eat in the main hall would certainly qualify as learning. He wondered if he and Dolanna were rushing things a bit, but on the other hand, considering what had happened, maybe they weren't going fast enough. The only way for Tarrin to learn, learn how people would react, learn about himself, was to do. And sitting in the room didn't teach him much. Still, the concept of it was frightening. He couldn't shake the vision of a gang of men suddenly turning on him with swords, calling him a monster. He knew that it wouldn't happen, couldn't happen, but the thought was there nonetheless, and nagging fears were rarely rational or logical.

It was both with anxiety and anticipation that he stood when there was a knock at the door. A slim, pretty young girl with dark hair opened the door. She gave a slight start when she saw him, but her expression remained open and cordial. "My Lords, Duke Arren is calling all to dine," she announced.

"I was losing anyway," Faalken said sourly, standing up. "We'll be along in a moment," he told her.

"I will inform his Grace," she said with a little bob of a curtsy, then she departed.

"Dolanna doesn't take no for an answer, does she?" Tarrin asked sagely, noting her comment to report their status to the Duke.

"I've yet to see her do it," Faalken grunted, putting his sword belt back on. "Let's go eat."

Tarrin stepped out into the hall with trepidation. The smells outside were all man, criss-crossing each other maddeningly along the corridors to such an extent that the individual scents blurred into a musky, slightly unpleasant miasma. The smells of food were in the air as well, faint but present. The candles in sconces on the walls seemed bright to his eyes, and he could hear the faint steps of people all around. Faalken stepped out into the hall behind him and closed the door. "That way," he pointed, and they started out.

About halfway down the hall, a scent unlike anything Tarrin ever smelled touched his nose. It was so striking in its utter perverse nature. Where most people gave off the smell of life, this smell was the smell of death. Of evil. Tarrin had no idea how he knew that, but he did. He felt his ears lay back on his head, and he instantly assumed a wide-footed stance. In that instant, he got his first taste of the animal within him. At the smell of that evil, it reared up in his mind and flooded his consciousness with impressions and urges to seek out the source of it and destroy it. It was unnatural, the scent, otherworldly, the antithesis of everything that was gentle and good, against life itself. As a creature of nature, tied to it with mystical bonds that transcended human comprehension, the existence of the evil was an abomination, and it had to be destroyed.

Tarrin put a hand to his head, trying to clear away the homicidal impulses, but it was far from easy. He did what Dolanna said, listening to them but not letting them control him, and not ignoring them.

"What's wrong?" Faalken asked. "Are you alright?"

"There's something here," he said in a low, growling voice, still fighting to keep from charging off and killing whatever it was. "Something evil."

"I can smell it," he said in a low voice. He looked down the hallway, into the shadows near the stairs, and he noticed that the shadows were a bit too dark. Had he not had eyes so sensitive to light, he would never have noticed the discrepancy. At that instant, the instincts howled in his mind, and he barely supressed the notion to charge. "It's up ahead, in the shadows past the stairwell."

"I don't see anything," Faalken said back.

Tarrin grabbed a candle off the wall in an innocuous move, then suddenly hurled it ahead with terrific force. The candle passed directly through those shadows, and they seemed to swirl around the speeding candle as it passed through, like smoke, rippling and reverberating in a blatantly visible pattern.

"Shadows don't do that," Faalken said flatly, drawing his sword.

But the swirling shadow simply vanished without a sound, and the death-stench evaporated like mist. Tarrin looked around in confusion, hardly believing what his nose was telling him. "It's gone," he said in surprise.

"Can you still smell it?"

"No, when it disappeared, the smell just disappeared too," he told him.

"Let's go tell Dolanna about this," he said, ramming his sword home in its scabbard.

Tarrin's nervousness about going into public was banished by this new feeling of anxious fear. If it could appear as quickly as it disappeared, it could be on them before either could blink if it appeared close enough. Tarrin kept every sense open and scanning, looking for any trace, smelling for the faintest whiff, anything, that would give them a split-second's warning. He was so wrapped up in it that he stopped in surprise when they entered the main hall.

The hall was a grand affair, over one hundred paces long and about seventy-five paces wide. The floor was filled with table, and those tables were occupied. The smell of it almost bowled him over as a tidal wave of scents stacked one on another assaulted his nose. The murmuring roar of the more than hundred people in the hall confused his ears, and the torches and candles burning in the room gave off myriad shadows that tried to draw away his eyes. Numerous dogs prowled around the tables and among the rushes, sometimes fighting among themselves for the largest scraps thrown from the tables. The general din quieted significantly as the people became aware of him, staring at him and whispering among themselves.

Much to his surprise, he stood up tall and straight and stared back at them until they all looked away.

He had no idea where that came from. Perhaps that too was the instincts, the Cat, at work.

He pondered at it while Faalken led him across the room, the eyes of the hall following him as discreetly as they could manage. He was vaguely aware of the song in his mind, the murmuring sounds that represented the Cat, aware that it was growing stronger inside him. He hadn't realized that it could be so strong so fast; Dolanna had said that she had contained it, dulled its power so that Tarrin would have a chance to get used to it gradually. If it was this strong now, he shuddered to think of how strong it would be when it was contained no longer. But there was no failure in this struggle. Dolanna had already warned him that if he failed to control the Cat, it would drive him mad. And some part of himself knew it too.

They reached the Duke's table, on the raised dais at the end of the hall where his ruling seat usually stood. There were seven people seated at the table. Arren, Dolanna, Walten, Tiella, and three other people that Tarrin didn't know. Two of them were middle aged men much the same age as Arren, one wiry and thin and the other with the same wide-shouldered stockiness that said he was used to wearing armor. The other person was a woman. She was rather young, with sharp, strong features, more handsome than she was pretty. Her hair was a chestnut brown, and she was wearing a rather elegant gown. Arren stood and welcomed them in a loud, calm voice, then offered them seats at his table. Tarrin watched Tiella and Walten carefully for a moment, watching them gape at the change in him. But, to their credit, neither of them flinched or looked away. Tiella even smiled slightly.

Tarrin leaned in close to Dolanna as he passed her seat. "We have to talk. Now," he told her in a hushed voice.

She gave him a calm, curious look, then looked at Faalken, who nodded quickly and slightly. Dolanna stood and gave Arren a warm smile. "I have need to speak with the young one a moment, my Duke," she told him. "If you will excuse us?"

"Certainly," he said with curiosity tinging his voice.

Tarrin led Dolanna over to the corner of the grand hall, then turned to face her with his back to the wall. Faalken joined them quickly. "Dolanna, I saw something up in the hallway. It was something like a living shadow. If it didn't smell the way it did, I may not have seen it."

"Smelled? How did it smell?"

"Evil," he told her. "Death, decay, hatred, but it was evil," he said with a shudder.

"A shadow, you say?"

"Aye," Faalken told her. "Tarrin threw a candle at it, and its body looked like it was made of liquid shadow."

"A Wraith!" she gasped. "What would a Wraith be doing here?"

"What is a Wraith?" Tarrin asked.

"It is a creature summoned from the Lower World," she told him. "It is the spirit of a man who had done great evil in his life. They are not free, they must obey the orders and commands of the Wizard who summoned them. It was not here by chance."

"Then why was it here?" Faalken wondered.

"That I cannot tell you, but the fact that it was here does not bode well. It may have been sent to kill someone, or merely to spy. Their shadow-like bodies make them excellent spies. Arren must know of this immediately. That creature may be eyes for a hostile force."

"Dolanna, if it was eyes for a hostile force, it wouldn't have been sitting at the end of a closed hallway," Faalken told her. "If it was there to spy, it was looking for a specific person that walked along that hallway."

They both looked at Tarrin.

"Possibly," she answered the unspoken question. "If the Were-cat was sent to kill him, it may have been checking to see if she was successful."

"And now it knows that she failed."

"Why would that matter?" Tarrin asked. "I'm a nobody. Why would they be watching me?"

"I do not know," she said. "And that is not a good thing. Somebody outside is acting on information I do not have. If that is it at all. It may have had an entirely different mission in mind." She pursed her lips. "But it is best to assume the worst, so that is what we will do. We cannot leave now. Night is the time of the Wraith. They cannot exist in open sunlight, so we will leave in the morning, when their eyes cannot follow and the summoner must rely on another means of scrying us. In the meantime, everyone will move into an apartment with only one entrance and as few windows as possible."

"But what about the dinner?" Faalken asked.

"As of right now, it is of no moment." She stepped slightly away from Tarrin. All three of them looked towards the raised table, and it was only seconds before Arren looked in their direction. Dolanna made a discreet gesture for him to join them, and he immediately stood up.

"Something's wrong," he said soberly as he joined them.

"Tarrin and Faalken found a Wraith in the passageway outside his door," she told him bluntly.

"A Wraith, eh?" Arren said grimly. "That's not a good sign."

"We do not know why it was here, but we are going to assume that it is part of what happened to Tarrin. We will leave at dawn tomorrow."

"Good," he interrupted. "If there's a Wraith after you, you sure as light don't go outside in the dark."

"Yes," she agreed. "Until then, I am putting our group out of eyesight. I need from you an apartment, with two or three goodly sized rooms, with only one door opening out to the keep. And with as few windows as you can manage."

"I have something like that," he said. "It's a guest apartment, with a bedroom, a room for a maid, and a sitting room. It only has two windows, one in each bedroom, and a single door to the hallway."

"That will do," she told him. "Tarrin, go to Walten and Tiella and have them come here."

"Yes ma'am," he said immediately, then he left the trio and walked over to the table.

"Tarrin, you look…different," Tiella said. "Not bad, just different."

Tarrin's change was the last thing on his mind. "Dolanna wants to talk to us, now," he told them. "Come on."

Walten looked at the food on his plate and sighed, then he stood up.

"Tiella, Walten," Dolanna said immediately when they joined her, "I want you to go to your rooms with Tarrin and gather up your belongings. Do not leave each other. Visit each room in turn. When you have everything, go to the landing of the stairwell on the fourth level and await us. Do you understand?"

"Yes ma'am," Walten said, and Tiella nodded.

"Arren, please have servants take up enough food for seven people," Dolanna went on as Tarrin left with his companions. "Include plenty of meat."

"Tarrin, what's going on?" Tiella asked after they left the hall. Tarrin noted that both of them stayed rather close to him, but not too close. They were trying to be as casual about his change as they could, but Tarrin could smell the tension in both of them. They were afraid of him. Probably with good reason, he concluded with a slight sigh. He was afraid of himself.

"We saw something upstairs, called a Wraith," he told them. "Dolanna thinks it may be watching us, so we're going to all stay in the same place tonight, so she can keep watch over us, I think."

"Wraith?" Walten said. "Jak told me a story about those. They're supposed to be living shadows, and their touch is like the cold of the grave."

"We didn't get close enough to touch it," Tarrin said as they started up the stairs. "Dolanna thinks it may have something to do with-with the one that attacked me," he said after a second of inability to say it. He still couldn't.

They went to Tiella's room first, and with the help of the two young men, they were on their way to Walten's room in minutes. Walten's room was even faster. They went up to the same corridor where Tarrin had seen the Wraith, and he couldn't help but make sure it was gone as they rushed into his room and he collected up everything of his that he could find. But most of his belongings were missing, especially his staff and his bow. He didn't recall seeing them earlier, either. They left his room quickly and went to the stair landing that Dolanna had said to go to, and there they waited for many tense moments.

Tiella looked at Tarrin covertly after they stopped, then she blushed when he looked at her. "I'm sorry, Tarrin, I can't help it," she said shyly.

"I guess I can't blame you," he said gruffly. "I'd stare too."

"What does it feel like?" Walten asked.

"It's hard to explain," he replied. "More like I'd had on blinders and my ears covered and my nose pinched shut all my life. The tail is still pretty weird to me, but I'm getting used to it." He looked back at the member, which was swishing to and fro with a slow rhythm. Did you go into the city?" he asked.

"No," Tiella replied. "After you were hurt, Dolanna wanted us to stay close. Torrian isn't that big, anyway. She said that we're going through Marta's Ford, Ultern, and Jerinhold. Then we get to Suld itself," she said eagerly.

"I thought you were still nervous about leaving Aldreth," Walten said accusingly.

"I want to see the cities," she told him.

"I just want to get out of Aldreth," Walten grunted.

Dolanna and Faalken came up the stairs seconds later, with several servants behind them. To his relief, Tarrin saw his packs and his weapons in the hands of three of them, and he could smell roasted meat under the domes of the platters that the serving women carried. "Do you have everything?" Dolanna asked. "If not, then it will be left behind."

"We got everything, Dolanna," Tiella replied.

"Good. Follow us."

They were led to a small apartment, with three rooms. There was a smallish sitting room into which the door opened, and there were two bedrooms attached to it. They put down their packs as the serving staff carried the other things into the room, and Arren appeared at the door. "Dolanna," he called.

"Arren," she said, "if you would, post guards at the door, but warn them that they will not, under any circumstances, open the door. It could mean their lives."

"I'll warn them," he said grimly.

"Young ones, listen carefully," Dolanna said as she closed the door after the last servant. "I want you to stand in the middle of this room with Faalken. Do not say a word, and to not move until I tell you that it is alright."

Faalken ushered them into the middle of the sitting room, standing beside a plush upholstered chair that was flanking a sofa. When they were there, Dolanna turned around and bowed her head. Tarrin could feel what was happening. There was again that sensation of drawing in, into Dolanna, and for a second he could almost see something around him move. She stayed still for several moments, until the outside walls, ceiling, and floor suddenly seemed to shimmer. But just for a moment. Dolanna sighed audibly and slumped a bit, then turned around and faced them. "Do not open the door, for any reason, unless I tell you that it is alright," she warned. "Do not get too close to the windows. Do not even get close enough to touch the window sill." She put a hand to her brow. "Now then, I am going to rest a while. There is food over there, and I have some books in the smaller pack if you would like to read."

Tarrin and Faalken sat down at the small table in the corner and began eating dinner as Walten and Tiella used the stones board that was on it to play a game. "What did she do?" Tarrin asked Faalken.

"She laid a ward on these rooms," he replied. "It's very exhausting."

"What is a ward?"

"It's like a barrier," he told him. "I don't know how she made this one, but I've seen ones that stop magic, ones that keep people from crossing them, even ones that stopped stone from passing over a boundary. They can be made lots of different ways. You'll have to ask her for specifics, though."

He nodded, resolving to do just that.

After eating, Faalken stood up and looked at the three. "We'll be getting an early start, so I suggest we go to bed now. Tiella, go sleep in Dolanna's chamber. Walten, you and Tarrin sleep in the other room. I'll sleep in here."

They separated quickly, wordlessly. The next room was a small bedchamber, with the bed, a small armoire, and three small tables. There was only one bed.

"You sleep on the bed," Tarrin told him. He knew that Walten would not want to sleep in the same bed with him. To be honest, he didn't want to either. Not until he trusted himself. "I'll sleep over there. Let me go get my bedroll."

Tarrin recovered his bedroll, and Walten was already in bed by the time he got back. "Go ahead and put out the light," Tarrin told him. "I think I can manage."

"Alright. Night, Tarrin."

"Night."

As soon as the lamp was out, Tarrin got the most blatant sign of his change, for after a moment of grayed vision, the entire room bloomed into light as his eyes adapted to the darkness. Just the light of the Skybands through the window, patchy from clouds, was enough to paint the room to his eyes in bright shades of black, white, and gray. He realized that he couldn't see color with such little light, but the fact that he could make out every detail of the room made up for that. He put out the bedroll in the corner, near the window, and sat down upon it, feeling his tail come to rest against the floor, and stared out at the room, wondering at how sharp and clear his vision was, musing at seeing only in black and white. Just like a cat, he could see in just about any light except total darkness.

In the room, alone, in the dark, Tarrin felt the Cat inside his mind, and for the first time all day, for the first time since waking up, he felt fear. They had kept him busy most of the day, keeping his mind off of it. But there was nothing but time now, time waiting for the dawn, time for nothing but cold reality to come down on him. It was in there, staring back at him, and he could feel its power. The power of a caged animal. The song in his mind grew more powerful now that he was listening to it, and it took active concentration not to succumb to it, to do as it urged him to do. He had no one to talk to, nothing to do in order to distract himself from it, and that made it prominent in his mind. And that proximity to something that seemed so strange to him began to make him afraid.

It was as if the whole room changed. The bright black-and-white room seemed to become ominous, and he found the colorless, shaded vista before him to be suddenly frightening. It was alien to him, and the wonder he'd felt when first beholding it drained away, replaced by trepidation and anxiety. For some unknown reason, he backed up on the mat, backing up until his back was to the wall. But there was no getting away from that which made him afraid. It was inside him, part of him, staring back at him, trying to take control of him. There was nowhere he could go to hide from it, no way to make it leave him alone. It was there and would always be there, and that simple fact terrified Tarrin. Because it was already so strong in his mind, and he was told, and knew in his heart, that it would only grow stronger.

He pushed back into the corner, feeling his tail kink a bit from the pressure. He brought it around him and wrapped it across his ankles, drew his knees up to his chest, hugged his waist with his arms, and put his head back against the corner. With the song of the Cat disrupting his thoughts, he stayed curled up in the corner, huddled from something that could not be hidden from, trying in vain to push it out of his mind, to find enough peace to sleep.

To: Title EoF

Chapter 4

It had been the longest night Tarrin had ever had.

It was an eternity there, alone, in the dark, with nothing between him and the Cat but his willpower. Time had seemed to stop, and he had felt every second go by. He spent the night jumping at every little noise, huddled in that corner like a trapped mouse, so desperately wanting to talk to someone that he very nearly went to wake them up. But that would be giving in, and he knew that he had to learn how to fight it now, quickly, before it had the chance to overwhelm him. There wouldn't always be someone to talk to.

He'd finally managed to fall asleep sometime during the night, but it was no relief. As soon as he fell into slumber, he would have dreams. Terrifying dreams, vivid dreams, conveying a message and a set of sensations so base, so raw, so animalistic that even the surrealistic touch of the dream was enough to make him sit bolt upright and start a cold sweat. And the instant he awoke, the song of the Cat would be there, trying to lull him into complacency. He was glad of such an uncomfortable position, since it made it so easy for him to be awakened out of the dreams. The song of the Cat was much preferable to facing the dreams. He could fight the song, but the dreams, he had no defense against them. They touched him on a level that the song could not, and he could do nothing but wake up once they started. He was amazed that Walten had slept through it.

He'd been having one of those dreams, then was shocked awake by a combination of the dream and a sound in the next room. He'd never been so glad to hear a sound in his life. When he joined Faalken in the other room, neither of them said much of anything. Faalken could see just by looking at Tarrin's haggard face that it had been an easy night. The burly knight simply offered him a cup of water and let him sit quietly at the table. Faalken gently rapped at Dolanna's door, then sat down at the table with him.

Dolanna opened the door a few minutes later, stepping out wearing a simple brown silk dress. With one look, she seemed to take in the entire situation. She sat down in the chair to his right and put a cool hand to his forehead. "I can understand what it was like," she told him. "But it was necessary."

"What do you mean?"

"You had to be alone," she told him with compassion in her voice. "It may seem cruel to you, but you will end up alone at some point in your life. It was best for it to be now, while my spell holds the animal inside you in check."

He could understand her reasoning. Although it did seem a bit cold-blooded. She'd left him to face his fear alone, and while the logical part of his mind understood her reasoning, part of him was rather slighted by the callous treatment. He'd respected her before, but in a strange way, he realized that he absolutely depended on Dolanna now. Her calm demeanor and seemingly intuitive understanding of what he was going through gave him a source of strength from which to draw support.

"How do you know so much about what happened to me?" he asked impulsively.

"I, have studied this condition before. There are other Were-kin out there," she told him. "Were-wolves, Were-boars, Were-lions, Were-foxes, Were-bears, and many others that are more rare. Like Were-wolverines, Were-dogs, Were-rats, and your own kin, the Were-cats. I once studied the progression of the condition, which is called Lycanthropy, in an infected man who had been bitten by a Were-wolf. It was much different in his case, but I have seen enough parallels to understand in a general way what is happening to you."

"What causes it?" Tarrin asked. "Is it a disease?"

"No, young one, it is not," she told him gently. "The Were-kin are creatures of magic, Tarrin. There is a natural magic inside of you now that is linked to the cat. While it may not seem like much, it is this magical nature that gives you many of your powers, and it is also what makes you immune to the wounds of non-magical weapons, or ones not made of silver. The only non-magical things that can harm you are falls from heights, fire, and acid."

"Powers?" Tarrin asked.

"Were-kin can change their shape," she told him. "They can assume the form of the animal to which they are bonded. But I do recall hearing or reading that the Were-cats are different than the other Were-kin in that respect. There is something limited to you or makes you different than other Were-kin, so I will not even attempt to try to teach you to shapeshift until I am certain of what that difference is. The fact that your base, natural form, the one into which you transformed at the onset of the bite, was not a fully human form lends me to believe that it is a limitation more than a difference."

Tarrin swallowed that. Shapeshifting?

"There are other powers," she told him. "Inhuman strength like yours is a gift of your magical nature. And if I remember, you can regenerate wounds received from magic, falls, acid, and fire at an accelerated rate, and that you can even regenerate lost limbs. Only the injuries made from silver counter the magic that gives you power.

"But I digress. It is this inherent magic that causes the condition, Tarrin. The only thing missing from a human is that magical touch, that essense of magical energy and animal instincts. That is what is passed on through contact with body fluids. Once it is introduced into a human, he becomes a Were-creature of the same type that passed it to him. He gains all of the powers and vulnerabilities of the Were-kin, and he is Were in every aspect. He is as much Were as the one who bit him; there is no difference between a Were-kin who was born into it and one who was bitten."

"What would happen if that magic was taken away?" he asked.

"Nothing could take it away," she told him. "It is infused into every fiber of your being, and it is now as integral and necessary as your blood, or heart, or bones. If it truly was removed from you, you would die."

"I've heard stories about Were-wolves," Tarrin said thoughtfully. "They all say that they change into beasts at the full moon, but father always scoffed at them. He said he'd met one or two in his life, and they were nothing like that."

"He is correct. Were-wolves are urbane, polite fellows with a highly defined sense of propriety. Being part animal, Tarrin, Were-creatures tend to act much as their animal counterparts act, just in a human way. Were-rats are rapacious, greedy, and unreliable. Were-bears are methodical and careful, and Were-wolves are very organized and structured."

"What about, the Were-cats?" he forced himself to say the word.

"There is very little written or known about them," she said, pursing her lips. "They are the rarest of all the Were-kin, and I have never heard of a Sorcerer or scholar finding one to learn about them. The other Were-kin hold a rather low opinion of them, for some reason," she said, giving him a curious look. "Those that know of them at all, that is."

"It seems like the hand of Karas was at work when you were chosen for this assignment," Faalken noted to Dolanna. "Blind luck put the boy in the hands of someone that could help him."

"Yes, it does seem fortunate that I was sent," she mused. "To think that I nearly rejected the request. I am glad that I did not."

"I am too," Tarrin said sincerely and fervently.

Dolanna smiled and put a hand on the back of his. "With luck and hope, tonight will not be as bad," she told him. "You must still spend it alone, but as we travel, I will teach you ways to center your thinking so that you can put the instincts aside in your mind enough to rest. They are the same techniques we teach our novices in order to wield the power of Sorcery," she told him. "As you become accustomed to the cat inside your mind and as you become skilled with the centering and concentration skills I will teach you, let us hope that it solves your problem. And it will give you a head start in your studies at the Tower."

"Dolanna, I've been meaning to ask," Faalken said, "what are we going to do about travelling? Tarrin kind of stands out now."

"I have already taken that into account," she said. "I cannot create an illusion that will last all day, so I instructed Arren to have a robe made for Tarrin that will cover him. It will have a hood on it and oversized sleeves, so that he may hide his most striking features. I also had him alter Tarrin's saddle so that his feet will fit in the stirrups."

"I'll get the young pups out of bed," Faalken said. "We have a long way to go today."

Tarrin looked at his hand, more like a hand-paw than a hand, wondering at Dolanna's words. He could only really be hurt by fire, acid, magic, silver, or falling from a height. But that didn't make much sense. "Why can I be hurt from falling?" he asked.

"There is a simple concept behind it, Tarrin, one that I should explain. Now that I think of it, it is something of which you should definitely be aware. To put it more specifically, you can only be harmed by magic, silver, or weapons of nature."

"Weapons of nature?"

"Is fire not a part of nature?" she asked.

"Yes, but-"

"Does it not injure?"

"Yes."

"Acid may be made by man, but it is still a natural compound, existing in nature. Does it not also burn when touched?"

He started to understand. "So falling off a cliff results in a very natural impact with the ground," he concluded.

"Exactly. You should also be wary of true weapons of nature. A falling tree will hurt you just as quickly as it would me, and if someone hit you with a rock picked up off the ground, then it would result in a real injury. But of these lesser forms, none can kill you. You regenerate too quickly for that to happen. The only weapons of nature that can kill you are fire, acid, falling…or maybe getting impaled on a tree branch., or getting caught in an avalanche or rockslide."

"I'll remember that," he told her. "You said that I have magic inside me," he said, his mind starting to explore the possibilities.

"Yes."

"Doesn't that make me a magical weapon?" he asked, holding up his hand-paw and extending his claws. "I do have these, you know, and they are weapons."

She smiled broadly at him. "You are most clever, Tarrin. Yes, it does. Being a magical creature, you have the power to injure those creatures like yourself that can only be harmed by magic. But, there is a drawback to that," she warned. "You are a magical creature, and that lends itself to certain…vulnerabilities concerning magic. The largest is that a ward set up to repel magic will not allow you to cross it," she told him. "You cannot very well just leave your magic on the other side."

"That makes sense," he reasoned.

"Well, we must be getting ready to leave," she told him. "We can continue our discussion on the road. Let me lower the ward protecting the room. You should go get your things together, and make sure that nothing was left behind."

"Alright," Tarrin said.

Walten was getting dressed when Tarrin came back into the room. He was sandy-eyed and bleary; Walten was not a morning person. Tarrin checked his packs, and realized that all of his trousers had been altered already, and also that his boots were not here. Just as well, he reasoned. He couldn't wear them now anyway. He took that opportunity to put on clean clothes and wash up a bit, fighting a bit with the trousers to get his fingers on that little button in the back that sealed his tail into that little hole made for it. This was the second time he'd done it, and it took less than half the time the second time around. He pulled a clean shirt over his head and laced it up, then packed all his things away as he made sure that he had it all. His bow and staff were in the corner. He picked up the bow, then looked at his hands. There was no way he could shoot it like this. The tips of his claws were right there, and they could hit and cut the bowstring. "Walten, I…I can't use this anymore," he said, holding up the bow. "Would you like to have it?"

"I, guess," he said slowly. "I'll just keep it for you, in case you want it back, alright?"

"Alright," Tarrin said.

Tiella was sitting at the table when they left the room, and the door outside was open. Tarrin could see one guard standing at the door, but he could smell three others. Faalken's scent was still strong in the room, but it was obvious that he'd left. Dolanna was in the other room; he could hear her moving around. Not long after Walten came out of the room, three servents brought in large platters with breakfast, and that lured Dolanna and Tiella out of the bedroom. Tarrin had learned from yesterday how careful he had to be, else he would bite his tongue while he ate. And with teeth like his, that was not a pleasant experience. He managed to work through breakfast, then was handed a plain brown robe by Dolanna when he pushed his plate away. Although if fit, it was not comfortable. The hood pressed down on his ears in an irritating manner, and he had to keep his tail tucked in to keep it from bulging out the back of the robe.

"It won't look half as bad when you're on the horse," Faalken assured him.

"I hope not. I look deformed like this."

"Tuck your hands in," Dolanna told him, and he pushed his hands into the sleeves. They totally concealed them. "The only problem is your feet, but they will be partially in the stirrups. With the black fur on them, they will appear as boots. It will do." She sat back down at the desk, writing something on a piece of parchment. "I doubt that Duke Arren is awake, so I will write him a letter of gratitude, and when I am done, we will depart. I wish to reach Skeleton Rock by sunset, so we have a day of hard travel ahead of us."

Outside for the first time since the change, Tarrin was assaulted on all sides by sounds and smells that almost overwhelmed him. What was merely unpleasant before was a powerful stench now, the smell of man, his waste, and his sweat assaulting Tarrin's nose like a hammer. He realized that it was the background from inside the castle magnified a thousand fold. He choked briefly after stepping out the door of the keep, then went into a fit of coughing and sneezing.

"What's the matter?" Walten asked in sincere concern.

"Do all cities smell like this?" he demanded indignantly. "I think I'm going to vomit!"

"It should lessen after a while," Dolanna told him.

"I hope so," he said, putting the back of his hand over his nose and letting the smell of his fur cover the stink of the city.

Hands brought the horses around, and Tarrin realized that they may have a problem. Horses could smell too, and he wasn't sure if they'd take him as a predator or not. His scent was not the same as a human.

He approached his horse slowly and gently, letting it get his scent a little at a time. The horse began to whinny slightly and started to fidget. Reaching out one hand, Tarrin placed it on the bridge of the horse's nose, stroking it reassuringly. The horse looked at him curiously, realizing that he was the one that had the strange smell, but Tarrin's careful gentle touch had eased the horse's primary fear. "Yes, it's me," he told the horse with a smile as it suddenly nuzzled him.

"I see that that will not be a problem," Dolanna said.

"Not with this horse," he corrected. "They don't know my smell, so how they see me depends on how I act when I come up to them." Tarrin packed his saddle with his gear, sliding his staff into the saddleskirt, then carefully mounted the horse. The horse was still a bit nervous, and the other horses were beginning to get skittish, but a gentle pat on the neck and a few soothing words calmed the horse down again.

"Put up your hood, Tarrin," Dolanna ordered as she climbed into the saddle. Walten was ordered to take the pack horses, and Tiella pulled herself up with Faalken's assistance.

"Have a safe journey, milady," one of the hands said, letting go of her horse's bridle.

"May the Goddess make it so," she said quietly.

Torrian didn't seem any different when they had arrived, when Tarrin was human, but it smelled differently. The powerful smell of the city was indeed starting to dull, and Tarrin could begin to make out other scents, those of horses and wood and metal, out on the streets. The streets were sparsely populated, mainly merchants and shopkeepers and their servants beginning the ritual of opening their businesses for the day's custom. He could also catch faint odors drifting out of open doors, those of leather, spices, and the smell of baking bread of roasting meat. He looked around actively, trying to put a name or sight to a particular smell, for there were many that he couldn't readily identify. The ones that he knew were simply the smells he'd known when he was human, only sharper, but there were a myriad of other smells out there that he'd never smelled before.

They crossed the White River at the Old Bridge, and then left Torrian through the eastern gate, on what was known as Skeleton Road, because of the natural formation called Skeleton Rock that was visible from the road. Once they were outside the walls, the powerful smell of the city ebbed with every step, until there was nothing left but the smells of the forest.

It was just as powerful, but for different reasons. The Cat seemed to roar up in his mind at the smells and sounds and sights of the wilderness, reacting to the scents of the forest. His ears began to search and seek out every little sound, his nose testing the air for every possible scent. The smells of man and horses were still strong along the road, but the smell of trees and earth and animals washed away that unnatural intrusion. Tarrin pulled down his hood and breathed deeply as the smells of the forest, letting them clear his nose of the city-smell and clear his mind of his worries.

There was one other smell, faint, but he could just barely make it out. A familiar smell, though he'd never smelled it before. Familiar because it was close to his own. "The other one was here," he told Dolanna. "The one that bit me. I can still smell her."

"How long ago?"

"Probably yesterday," he told her. "I'm not sure, though. I'm still getting used to this." He pointed to the woods. "Her smell goes that way. I think she went for the trees almost right after she cleared the hill that hid her from the city wall."

"Just let her go, Tarrin," Dolanna warned. "You will not find her."

"I don't want to," he grunted. "I know that this wasn't her fault, but she's still the one that did it to me."

"I understand," she said. "Let us pick up the pace. Skeleton Rock is quite a distance from here."

They rode hard throughout the entire morning, stopping only to rest the horses. The morning was warm and sunny, and the weather pleasant enough to make the ride almost enjoyable, as Tarrin experienced such a sensation of freedom and pleasure that it made him wonder at himself. He knew it was coming from the Cat, but that didn't change how he felt. The Cat considered the trackless winderness to be home, but he could also sense that it didn't mind the cities, either. It was a creature of adaptability, capable of making it almost anywhere its paws were touching the ground.

They did not stop for lunch, they ate in the saddle during a walking period to rest the horses, a meal consisting of dried fruit, cheese, and bread, then they were off again at a brisk canter. The shape of the land was slowly changing, becoming less hilly but just as forested, and there were more and more small streams and brooks to traverse as they continued in the south-of-east direction in which they were moving. There were no villages or settlements in the region, which Tarrin considered to be curious. "Why aren't there any villages?" he called to Dolanna as they rode.

"Because this region is considered to be bad luck," she replied. "Skeleton Rock breeds such tales. You will understand when you see it."

Tarrin considered that, then decided to wait until he saw this Skeleton Rock before he made any judgements.

About an hour after eating, they slowed to a walk to rest the horses. The wind shifted into Tarrin's face, and that brought to him the smell of man. Several of them, just up ahead. Faalken was at the rear, riding up from a scout of their trail and possibly moving on up ahead to scout the front. "Dolanna, there are men and horses in front of us," he warned her.

"How many?"

He sniffed at the air. "I can make out at least six different men," he told her, "but it seems like there are more than that." Up ahead, the road turned sharply to the left to avoid a deep streambed.

Dolanna called for them to stop by raising her hand and reining in. "This road is known for bandits, because of the lack of population along it," she told Tarrin. "Let us make sure it is a trade caravan before rounding the corner. Put up your hood, young one. Walten, Tiella, come closer."

He lifted the hood in place as Faalken reached them. "What is it?" he asked.

"Tarrin smells men up ahead," Dolanna told him. "We will wait to see if they show themselves."

"That's not all of it," he said. "There are several men riding up from behind, hard," he told her. "I could just make out their dust. They'll be up to here in just a little while."

Tarrin scented a change in the attitude of the scents, getting stronger. They were moving, and it wasn't up the road. "Dolanna, the men are moving, but they're not coming up the road."

"Which direction?" Faalken asked.

"Towards us," he replied.

"That tears it," Faalken said grimly, clapping down the visor of his helmet. "Caravans don't sneak through the woods."

Walten drew out Tarrin's bow and nocked an arrow. Surprisingly, Tiella drew out a sling from her belt pouch and slipped a stone into the cup. "No, take the pack horses," Walten told her. "I need both my hands. You can still get off one shot holding the horse's reins."

"Tiella, take the pack horses off the road," Faalken told her.

Tarrin could hear them now, rustling the brush ahead of them, near the curve. He could make out a startled oath of disappointment, then there was the sound of swords sliding out of scabbards. Tarrin laid back his ears and snarled wordlessly as the Cat in him prepared to beat back the attackers. "They're coming," Tarrin said, pulling his staff out from the saddleskirt. Now that they were closer, more and more scents were becoming clear to him. "Dolanna, I can smell at least fifteen now, maybe more."

"Listen!" Dolanna said sharply. "Stay together, and do not advance past me," she warned. "I will have to use sorcery, and I do not want to hurt one of you by accident. Faalken, with me. Tarrin, stay with Walten and Tiella and defend our pack animals."

In a rush, at least ten men erupted from the brush ahead, shouting and brandishing weapons. Five men on horses rounded the corner ahead and charged, and a single man stood back by the brush. Tarrin could hear him shouting in oddly discordant, unintelligible words that made Dolanna's eyes widen like saucers. He could feel her do her magic, then he felt a sensation of enclosure. The shouting man pointed his hands at them, and Tarrin almost jumped when a ball of fire erupted from his hands and streaked right at them. It struck something in front of them, something invisible, and exploded. Tiella screamed and Tarrin had to supress the sudden urge to run away when an inferno of angry fire surrounded them, licking at the invisible something that prevented it from reaching them. Dolanna's magic had created some sort of shield that was defending them from the enemy's magical attack. "Walten, take out that mage!" Faalken demanded instantly. Walten raised the longbow instinctively, pulled back, aimed, and fired. Tarrin could see from the instant it left the bow that it would hit the mark. It arced over the small field separating them, homing in on the chanting man, then simply bounced away harmlessly.

He had something protecting him too.

"I cannot divide my attention," Dolanna said in a strained voice as the men reached her shield and started beating on it with their swords. "It is all I can do to hold a shield this size!"

Tarrin pulled off the robe and dropped off the horse, understanding instinctively that if the mage wasn't killed, he would bring down Dolanna's shield, and they would be hopelessly outnumbered by the attacking bandits. He dropped his staff and waited for the right instant, right when the middle-most man was rearing back his arm. Then he exploded forward like an arrow from a bow. His shoulder caught the man squarely in the chest, picking him up and carrying him into the man behind him, exploding him off his feet and carrying him for several spans before Tarrin threw both of them aside almost negigently. Then he put his ears back and ran flat out right at the mage. Tarrin's inhuman strength gave him inhuman speed in that sprint, faster than a horse, and the chanting man's eyes' bulged and he nearly mis-spoke himself as he saw the Were-cat bearing down on him, his face full of mindless fury. The mage simply redirected his spell, pointing at Tarrin instead of Dolanna. A bolt of brilliant white lightning lashed out from the man's hands, arcing across the meadow.

But Tarrin wasn't there.

The man blinked a second, then a shadow on the ground made him look up.

It was the last thing he would ever see.

Tarrin had sprung into the air at the last instant, jumping clear of the magical attack, jumping impossibly high, nearly twenty spans into the air. He could have jumped onto the roof of a two story bulding with his vaulting leap. It wasn't that hard for him to adjust his trajectory so that he would land right on the unfortunate man His hand-paws leading, Tarrin slammed directly into the man's chest, and he was already slashing and tearing before his opponent hit the ground. They both rolled several times backwards as Tarrin's momentum blew them both back towards the trees, as Tarrin got a grip on the man's shoulder with one hand, his claws sinking deep into flesh, and he brought up a foot and put it against the man's ribcage. He drove his claws into the man's belly as they rolled, then kicked out and down even as his hand pulled the man into it. It was an instinctive move, the same as a cat raking with its back claws, and it was devastating. Tarrin ripped the man open from the base of his ribcage to his hips, and all his internal organs flew out of him in a stinking, bloody spray, their rolling making them fly all about. The man managed to make a gurgling croak before he came down hard on his back, Tarrin on top of him. His eyes registered shock as Tarrin lifted a paw while hunched over the man, his other paw holding him down by the chest and his face twisted into an animalistic snarl of pure hatred, and then struck with it. The blow was aimed at the throat, but the sheer force of it, and Tarrin's inhuman strength, ripped the man's head right off his body. That head was swiped aside by the raw power of the blow, bouncing in the bloody grass like a ball before coming to rest at the base of a tree.

Tarrin was almost overwhelmed by the smell of the blood, and for a horrifying moment, he had to stop himself from ripping the man apart. He put a blood-saturated hand-paw to his head, trying to shake off the loud song of the Cat trying to get him to do as it willed, urging him not just to kill, but to savage the victim. But his human reason prevailed; his friends needed him. Tarrin got up and turned around, looking at the men beating against the shield Dolanna created with their weapons. Dolanna made a pushing motion, and the shield suddenly exploded outward, sending the men flying in all directions. Faalken charged into the fray with his sword drawn, having his warhorse stomp and grind enemies into the ground under his hooves. Tarrin sprinted back towards them, chagrined at throwing away his staff like he did. Walten put an arrow into a man's belly as Dolanna seemingly grabbed small balls of fire from the air, hurling them with deadly accuracy into the chests and backs of the attackers. Tarrin hit the back of the regrouping men like an avalanche, grabbing one by the back of his mail armor, picking him up, and hurling him into three others with enough force to tumble them three paces down the road. He raised a bloodstained paw, the claws with small bits of ripped flesh stuck to them, and ripped the face off one attacker with it, then backhanded another with enough power to rip through his chain mail. One man desperately tried to spear him from the side, but Tarrin twisted, grabbed the spear with a free paw, and swung the man around, throwing him to the ground. Tarrin used the spear shaft to block a sword, then an axe, then stepped into an overswing and delivered a short kick to the knee. It snapped the man's leg like a twig. Tarrin almost instinctively fell into the Ungardt forms of fighting, and found a center, a focus that kept the Cat in check and let him concentrate on the matter at hand. Killing enough of them to make the survivors break and flee.

Tarrin went to rake a man across the chest, but an arrow appeared in his side, and Faalken cut him down from behind an instant later. Tarrin darted to the horse's side and grabbed the haft of an axe that was aimed at the horse's leg, then yanked it out of the man's hand and buried it up to the handle in the back of the man's head as he was turned by the strength of Tarrin's yank. Tarrin saw out of the corner of his eye a man trying to stab him in the side with a sword, then grabbed the brained man and dragged him into the sword's path. The man lost his sword as the dead man fell, then he fell himself with an arrow right in the temple. Tarrin had to admit, Walten was a very good shot with his bow.

The remaning five men, two wounded by Faalken's sword and Walten's arrows, turned and fled, screaming in panic. "Let them go!" Dolanna said wearily as Tarrin moved to chase them down.

"Are you alright?" Faalken asked. "You're covered with blood."

"It's not mine," Tarrin said through clenched teeth. He'd killed. Not just one, but several men; he couldn't even remember how many. Although it was a case of kill or die, he'd never taken a human life before, and he found the taste of it to be very bitter.

"Tarrin," Dolanna said in a tightly controlled voice. "The next time you decide to do something like that, let me know. You nearly gave me a heart attack."

"I didn't know I was doing it myself," he muttered quietly, looking away from the carnage and trying not to smell the blood, or listen to the Cat sing to him in his mind.

"This was no group of bandits," Faalken said with a grunt. "Not with equipment like this."

"And not with a Wizard leading them," Dolanna agreed.

"This is too much, too fast," Faalken continued in a sober voice. "There was the fire at Watch Hill, and then the attack on Tarrin, and now this. Somebody doesn't want us to get back to Suld real bad."

Tarrin could hear the pounding of horses' hooves, and feel the vibration of it in the pads of his feet, coming from the road under him. "Dolanna, those horses are coming up fast," Tarrin said urgently.

By the time Dolanna had turned to look up the road, the first of them appeared. The man behind the leader was carrying the banner of Torrian and Duke Arren. They were dressed in the blue surcoats that were the uniform of the armored, mounted warriors under Arren's control. They slowed to a stop at the battlefield, and the lead man advanced. "Lady Dolanna, Duke Arren sends these twenty men to be your escorts and guards on your journey," he announced. "I am Captain Daran." He looked around. "I see we didn't ride hard enough," he said in a grating voice. "Are there any wounded?"

"Not among us, captain," Dolanna said warily.

The captain reached under his surcoat and produced a letter. "The Duke asked me to give you this, to prove our identity," he said. "Jarax, take two men and see if the survivors of this are still lurking around. Kardon, take three men and pull these bodies off the road. Let's not litter the King's Highway."

The two men, one slim and wiry and the other massively built, saluted and took men to carry out their orders. Dolanna accepted the letter from the captain, broke the seal, and read it quickly. "These are the Duke's men," she affirmed. "Noboby but Arren would know what is written here. Considering what just happened, captain, we will be very glad to have you along."

Daran looked around professionally. "Quite a rumble," he noted. "Looks like the Were-cat did some serious damage. Good work, Master Kael," he said, bowing in his saddle. "It looks like you saved one of my Duke's favorite people."

"It was nothing," Tarrin said weakly. The smell of the blood was getting to him, and it was getting very hard to control the instincts.

Dolanna looked at him sharply. "Tarrin, there is a stream just at the bend up ahead," she told him. "Take a clean change of clothing and go wash up."

"I think I will," he said gratefully.

After scrubbing the blood and bits of flesh off his paws and getting himself clean and into clean clothes, he rejoined them. The bodies had been pulled off the road and placed in a line in the meadow. The bodies had been carefully searched, nearly stripped, much of their equipment now on the pack horses serving the Duke's men. Dolanna was with Walten and Tiella, talking to them as Faalken helped the captain throw the last body into line with the others. The three men sent to look for the survivors had returned. Tarrin joined Dolanna with the others as she finished telling them about something. Tiella, Tarrin noticed, was a bit pale, but had a determined look on her face. "You alright, Tiella?" he asked.

"I'm alright," she told him. "I almost got pulled off my horse by one of the bandits, but Sir Faalken saved me."

"Not before you put that sling stone in his eye, then kicked him in the face," Faalken chuckled as he rejoined them. "That had to hurt."

"It was supposed to," she said primly.

"I imagine it would," Faalken grinned. "For a trio of farm children, you three are rather nasty fighters."

"It's from working all day, Sir Faalken, and having nothing else to do but shoot things," Walten replied dryly.

"Just Faalken, please," he corrected. "And I think I'd rather have you three farm villagers in a fight over a pack of knights. Are we ready to leave, Dolanna?"

"Yes, we are ready now," she said. "Tarrin, pick up your staff and put the robe back on, and we will be off."

Tarrin rode with Dolanna and Tiella as they got under way, encircled protectively by the Duke's alert men, wrapped in a layer of steel and trained warriors against another attack. Faalken and Jarax were scouting ahead, and the captain had a man riding behind as rear guard. Tarrin had a grim expression on his face as he broached a subject he wanted to continue talking about. "Back there, Dolanna, you said that you didn't think that they were bandits," he said.

"They were not," she said gruffly. "A pack of bandits would not have a Wizard leading them."

"And then Faalken brought up the fire, and, and what happened to me."

"Yes, and I do not think that they were mere coincidence. Not now. Tarrin, someone sent the female Were-cat after you on purpose. The collar that she was wearing was a device that was controlling her. And now the attack on us, after you and Faalken had noticed the Wraith. And before that, the fire that started so mysteriously, and raged out of control faster than even my magic could control it. No, someone is trying to stop us from reaching Suld. Someone with considerable resources at his disposal."

"But why?" he asked. "It makes no sense. We're three villagers being brought to the Tower by a Sorceress and a knight. What possible reason could someone have to try to stop us? We're not worth the effort."

"I know, that is a part of the puzzle," she said thoughtfully, a finger tapping her chin as she thought. "Obviously, these people know something that we do not. Or believe that they do."

"I think-" Tiella said, then she quickly hushed herself.

"Go ahead, child," Dolanna prompted. "Do not think that you cannot speak your mind to me."

"I think that maybe it's not just one person," she said.

Dolanna raised an eyebrow. "An intriguing concept," she said with sincere interest. "Why do you believe so?"

"Well, there was the fire, then what happened to Tarrin, and now this," she said. "And the Wraith, but it didn't attack us. Well, aren't they just a bit too different?" she asked. "Why not try another fire? That almost worked, and they had to know that. Why send that woman after Tarrin, when she could have attacked you? If they got you, Dolanna, the rest of us would probably just turn around and run home. Then there was this, where they tried to kill all of us, but they used brute force and not magic or a slave, like before. They just don't add up."

"I think that you have a point," Dolanna said. "They may be from the same group, but I think you are right in believing that this was not the work of an individual. This was either a group or several individuals working independently."

"The question is still why," Tarrin maintained.

"That, I cannot answer," Dolanna said, rubbing her delicate jaw.

"So we'd best plan our moves carefully," Tarrin said.

"I have already mapped out our plan of action," she said. "At Marta's Ford, we will take a riverboat to Ultern. That, I hope, will leave behind any spies that are watching us. From Ultern, it is but a bit over three days to Suld. Two days to Jerinhold and one day from there to Suld itself. Plus, the Ultern Road is packed at most all times with caravans and travellers," she added. "The congestion on the road will help to conceal us from sight, and dissuade another such direct attack."

"So the worst of it will be getting to Marta's Ford," Tiella said.

Dolanna nodded. "It is still three days to Marta's Ford, even if we travel hard," she told them. "This is a wide expanse of unsettled territory, where most anything can hide and wait in ambush. I must admit, I am relieved beyond measure that Arren had the foresight to send a guard detachment after us. Daran and his men are highly skilled, and are extremely familiar with this terrain. They will get us to Marta's Ford. That is our main objective at the moment."

"And from there, a boat ride," Tiella said.

Dolanna nodded. "Rennee should still be at Marta's Ford," she said. "He is an old friend of mine. He told me that he would not be leaving for a while, so that his crew can conduct minor repairs to his ship. Perhaps, if he is there and seaworthy, he will agree to take us downriver. His ship is fast, and his crew skilled. They will put us far ahead of any pursuers."

"I like the sound of that," Tarrin said sincerely.

"As do I," she said. "Now then, let us pick up the pace a bit. We still must make Skeleton Rock before we may stop."

Skeleton Rock was literally self-explanatory. They reached the formation right at nightfall, and all four moons rose early and full, washing the land with enough light to see by for a human. The others couldn't see that far into the distance, but Tarrin's eyes could easily see to the cliff face that towered over the road some distance away. In the side of it, there was the head and partial skeleton of a monstrous animal so huge that Tarrin doubted it was ever alive. The skull was long and vaguely reptillian, and it looked like the teeth were as long as Tarrin's foot, all of them coming to sharp points.

Tarrin peered at the formation for several moments, then stopped Dolanna as she walked by. "What kind of beast is that?" he asked.

"Nobody knows," she replied. "The bones are actually stone, but I have been told that bones turning to stone is a natural process. It means that the bones are beyond ancient. They are so old that all the Tower's attempts to study them through magic have failed. It is just too far back for our magic to reach. There are reports of much smaller creatures resembling that one that live in the Desert of Swirling Sands, to the west."

"Much smaller? How small?"

"About the size of a house," she replied calmly.

"Yeek," he said under his breath. "I wouldn't want to see one of those up close. It looks like it's nothing but an eating machine."

"That is a fairly accurate description," she said with a light chuckle.

Tarrin was given his own tent, and it was another night of dreams. The fear wasn't as bad this second night, but the dreams were even worse, because more than once he simply could not wake from it. They were also mixed with human-like dreams of the men that he had killed, rising up from their resting places and following him around, demanding to know what gave him the right to take their lives. That scared him more than the Cat dreams. Tarrin had suppressed the shock, fear, and horror at what he had done, but when he was asleep, they all rushed back at him in a flood.

Hours before dawn, he found the idea of going back to sleep to be too frightening to contemplate, so he dressed and left the tent. Three men were standing guard around the camp, and the fire was low. He spent the hours before dawn reading one of the books Dolanna gave him, a book about the sources, uses, and practioners of magic. The book was confusing, obviously written for someone that already had a basic understanding of magic and the people who use it, but he did learn several things that he thought were important.

There were four distinct types of magic-users, and each one drew magic from a different source. The Sorcerers, who were born the ability inside them. Where anyone with sufficient intelligence could learn another type of magic, only people born with the ability inside them could be Sorcerers. They manipulated the existing pattern-web of magic that laid over the world, twisting and changing it into the magical effect they wanted. This magical matrix was called the Weave, and it was from this web of magical energy that Sorcerers drew their power. Sorcerers were the only magic-users that could generate Illusions, it said, and a Sorcerer could interfere with the flow of magic through the Weave that would disrupt and block the powers of a Wizard. There were also Wizards, or Mages, who drew on their magical power from an elsewhere, a place that nobody really understood. They did this with their arcane chants of special words of power and precise gestures, and the presence of certain materials that were vital for the magic to operate. Wizards were the only ones that could Conjure creatures up from other worlds and command them to do their bidding. Much like the Wraith that he had seen. Priests, or Clerics, were the worshippers of Gods, and it was the Gods that supplied these faithful with the magical power. Tarrin was already familiar with Priests, for one from the temple to Karas in Torrian visited Aldreth every two months to check in on them and see if they were doing alright. Abram preached alot about the goodness and power of his God when he was there, and though the villagers politely ignored his ranting, they were always happy to see him, because he could perform healing on the sick or injured. The main powers of a Priest were healing, supportive, and defensive, the book said, meaning more to aid than to hurt, but Priests did have formidable offensive magic at their command. Mending broken bones, breaking fevers, that sort of thing was what Abram did for the village. Sorcerers could heal too, but a Sorcerer's healing worked differently. Sorcerers could heal injuries, but not illnesses. The last type of magic-user was also a type that was born with the ability. They were called Druids, and little was known about them or their magical power. What was known was that their power seemed to come directly from nature itself, almost like the magical energy of life that was theirs to command. Druids were rare and exceptionally powerful, because a Druid could disrupt and block the magical attempts of any other type of magic-user. But Druids were as rare as they were powerful, living far from human settlements and doing their obscure work in the wildest of the wilderness.

Tarrin digested that during the dark hours, wondering at the why of it. Why could Sorcerers block a Wizard's attempt to cast a spell? And why didn't Dolanna do that to the Wizard when they were fighting? How did Priests call on the Gods for their magic? Could anyone? The book didn't say. What other place did Wizards get their magic, and how did they learn of the creatures from beyond that they could summon up into the world? And just what did the Druids do? Why could only Sorcerers create Illusions? Why could Wizards only summon creatures from beyond? Just what magic did the Druids draw on for their power?

Many questions, questions that he doubted the book was going to answer.

The wiry man, Jarax, came out of a tent and sat near him by the fire. He was a thin man, seemingly too thin to wear the heavy armor, with wiry muscles and a long, narrow face. His black hair was short and slicked back off his face, and he had a scraggly beard and moustache. "I see I'm not the only one that can't sleep," he said.

Tarrin had not talked to any of these men, and he was a bit afraid to do so. They knew what he was, and it was their companions, their friends, that the female killed in her escape. He was almost certain that most of them probably blamed him in some way for what had happened. Besides, he was a bit nervous about talking to strangers. He couldn't see past his own transformation in order to communicate with people he didn't know, so self-conscious was he about what had happened to himself. Tarrin just nodded vaguely, hoping the man would just sit down and be quiet. He wasn't sure if the man was talking out of simple courtesy, or friendliness, or out of fear of him. All in all, he rather preferred it if there was no talk at all.

"What are you reading?" he asked politely.

"A book on magic," Tarrin replied quietly.

"Don't think I ever read that," he mused, leaning back against a log. "I prefer stories and poetry myself." Tarrin went back to his book, and after a few moments, the man spoke again. "Is that what you always read?" he asked curiously.

"Do you mind?" he asked. "I'm trying to understand this."

"Sorry," he said a bit tartly, leaning back against the log again. Tarrin looked at the book, not really reading it, turning a page every few minutes. It was worth it to avoid talking. "Could I interest you in a game of stones?" the man asked.

Tarrin snarled at him, his ears laying back slightly. The man gave him a startled look, then hastily stood up. "I think you'd rather be alone," he said, stating the obvious. Then he turned and walked away.

Tarrin put the book down, putting his palm to his forehead. Where did that come from? It wasn't like him to react like that, but the man had irritated him. What scared him was that it came without thought, and he reacted on it just as mindlessly. Were the instincts changing him so much? Like what had happened earlier, with the mage. He'd torn the man apart, literally, and he had reveled in it for one horrifying moment. It wasn't a perverse joy, it more like a deep satisfaction that came with killing an enemy. But it frightened him just the same. He was changing, he knew it, he could feel it. And there was nothing he could do about it. He could only hope that he could temper it. So that there would be some part of Tarrin left once the mental alterations were complete.

"Would you like to talk about it?" asked a voice. It was Tiella. She sat down beside him on the log, fearlessly taking his hand-paw into her hand and stroking it reassuringly. That simple act was devastating in its simplicity, and he was about to surrender completely to her and let her scratch him behind the ears. Tiella turned his hand up and looked at his palm, with its large, tough pad and the smaller pads on his fingertips, marvelling at the paw-like qualities of his hand, which truly made it a hybrid of the two, and not one or the other.

"I'm…doing things, Tiella," he said uncertainly. "I'm not thinking about them…it's like I can't think about them. They just happen, and I'm afraid of it."

"Why?" she asked.

Tarrin blinked and looked at her. "Why? Because it's not what I would do," he told her.

"That's to be expected, Tarrin. This," she said, holding up his hand-paw, "this is not what you were a few days ago. It's different now. You have to let yourself get used to it, but that doesn't have to mean that you have to be afraid of it."

"What do you mean?"

"Well, when something like that happens, ask yourself why it happened," she told him. "What happened?"

"That man kept talking to me, and I wanted to be left alone," he said, shuddering a bit. "So I snarled at him."

"Alright, now why did it happen?" she asked.

"I don't know, because he was irritating me, I guess," he said.

"No," she said. "That's what you think happened," she said. "What about the other mind in there? Why did it do it?"

"To make him leave me alone," he floundered.

"No," she said again. "Because you wouldn't do anything about it," she told him. "It let you try first. When you either gave up or failed, it decided to do something about it. And it worked."

Tarrin stared at her for quite a while. It was a bit crazy, but in its own way, it was perfectly logical. The Cat in him had its own way of doing things, that was true…but it was also true that that didn't happen until after then man repeatedly bothered him. Had the Cat sensed his human desires, and acted upon them? If that were so, then didn't that put the Cat under his control as much as it put him under its control?

"You're going to have to start asking yourself why you do the things you do," she told him. "There has to be reasons for every single thing. And if you can understand those reasons, well, then maybe it won't be so scary. So the next time it happens, don't be afraid of it. Explore it, try to understand it. Experience it. If you try to just ignore it, then you'll never be able to stop it."

He chuckled ruefully. "Tiella, I don't think you know how much better I feel now," he said sincerely. "I think you may be right. Dolanna told me not to ignore what I was feeling and the instincts in my head, but if she'd have said it the same way you just did, I don't think I'd have been afraid. Well, I'm still going to be afraid, but I'll try to understand the why of what I do as well as the what. There has to be reasons the Cat does the things it does. It's not a creature of whim."

"That's where you're messing up, Tarrin," she told him. "Don't keep thinking about it as it and you. There is no it and you. It's just you. What you have in here," she said, tapping his forehead, "it's a part of you. If you treat it like something that's not, then it's going to seem like it's not, and that's not good for you. You may call it the Cat, or the instincts, or the other mind, but it's not. It's just a different part of you, of your own mind. It's not what the Cat does, it's what you do."

He gave her a steady look, and he could see her blush slightly. Tiella was usually a quiet girl, headstrong, but talking wasn't her way. He knew she was smart, but she'd just laid out what he was feeling, and solutions to those problems, like it was something that even a child would have realized. He looked at her with a budding new respect. He reached up and put his paw on her cheek, his huge paw swallowing up half her face, and she smiled at him and put her hand against his paw. "That tickles," she giggled. "That pad is soft and rough at the same time, and the fur on your fingers is smooth. Now, it's my turn," she said, holding out a hand imperiously. Tarrin seemed to understand what she wanted. Without much thought, he brought his tail around and placed it into her waiting hand. She grabbed hold of it, feeling the thickness of it, then probed the fur with her fingers meticulously. He felt her fingertip touch the skin under the fur, then she grabbed it both hands and bent it. She bent it until it was touching itself, and kept doing it until he sucked in his breath. "Sorry," she apologized. "Is the fur hot?"

"I don't think so," he replied. "It just seems normal."

"What's it like, having the tail?"

"Different. Interesting," he replied. "It does its own thing most of the time, but it does help with balance, and it helps me run faster. It's longer than my legs, so I have to keep it off the ground, but that's not too hard. The muscles that move it are pretty strong."

"How does it help you run?"

"It's like a counterbalance," he told her. "I can lean farther down, and that lets me run faster. I don't fall over because of the weight pushing out behind me. It seems to just know when and where to move to keep me balanced too. It's almost eerie."

She yawned. "I think I'll go back to bed," she told him. "Think about what I said, Tarrin. And try to get some sleep. You're starting to get circles under your eyes."

She slipped back into the tent she shared with Dolanna, leaving Tarrin to his own thoughts. She had come very, very close to the mark, he realized. He did tend to think of the Cat as an invader, an alien, something that was not him taking up residence in his mind. That wasn't true. Though it hadn't been there before, it was there now, and it was as much a part of him as his right arm. Perhaps the Cat considered him to be much the same, an usurper out to overthrow it. It did things, things that happend without his rational thought, but that was only logical. They were instinctive reactions, response to stimulus, reflexes. They happened first because he didn't have to think about them. Analyzing his actions also was very sensible. If he could identify what was making him do things, and why they were happening, he would come into a greater understanding about himself, and that would make it easier when it was necessary for him to prevent that particular thing from happening again, or to minimize its effect if it was something either unavoidable or uncontrollable.

It wouldn't be easy. He knew that. It may be instincts and impulses, but it carried with it a greater intelligence that made what he called the Cat a very complex creature. But it was a start. And that was something that he hadn't had when they left Torrian yesterday. It did make him afraid, but at least now he felt that there was something that he could do in order to make peace inside himself.

After a suitable gawk at Skeleton Rock and a hot breakfast, the group was off again, riding hard in the cloudy morning. Captain Daran kept two men in the lead at all times, scouting out the conditions ahead as two men drifted behind them to ensure there were no followers. They passed one caravan train in the morning, and a brief stop to talk to them told them that the way ahead was all but deserted, and that they were making better time than they thought. At the pace they were going, they would reach Marta's Ford before noon tomorrow.

Tarrin spent the riding thinking about what Tiella had said to him, and thinking about Dolanna's instruction that morning, in concentration exercises. They were a bit like the aiming exercise that his father taught him, about emptying the mind of all thought and concentrating all of your attention onto a single thing, ignoring everything else. In archery, that one thing was the target. Dolanna was teaching him to center himself on himself. She told him that that was the first step to using Sorcery, to look within, and then without, then draw what was out within, then use what was within to change what was without. It sounded a bit confusing, but he was certain that it would make sense eventually. He couldn't do it riding the horse as hard as he was, but he could think about how what Dolanna had told him would fit in with the insights that Tiella had revealed to him early that morning.

They stopped for lunch near a small river which they had just forded. Lunch was going to be a simple affair of bread and cheese and some dried fruit, but Tarrin was more thankful for the time out of the saddle. His back didn't agree with all the bouncing around. He put his paws on his back and stretched it, bending backwards so deeply that his head nearly brushed the ground. His backbone was different now, he knew, with more bones in it that were a bit smaller, which let him bend like that. Playing around, he put one paw on the ground and walked over himself, bringing his legs up and over until he was balanced on that one paw perfectly. He'd never considered that he would inherit the cat's agility as well as the fur. Such a move was no strain on him at all to maintain. He bent his elbow and brought his nose down to tickle the grass, then pushed himself back out, then swung down into a hunched, all-fours position much akin to a cat sitting. "Having fun?" Walten asked him as he walked by.

"Just testing something," he replied. He sprang straight up, high into the air, then tucked in and began to roll backwards. The sky and ground traded places wildly, but Tarrin just knew exactly where the ground was, and he also just knew precisely how he was oriented to the ground at all times. He snapped out his arms, and his paws made perfect contact with the grass. He arched back and pushed off with his arms, coming to a perfect stop, bent like a bow, at a very shallow angle to the ground, using raw strength to keep from toppling over. It was incredible, and he wondered at it for long moments as he generally just jumped around, performing acrobatic feats that would had made the most grizzled veteran performer gawk.

"Impressive," Dolanna remarked. "Now, if you are done playing, we need to eat and move on."

"Sorry," he said, sitting down beside the Sorceress as Faalken grinned at him. "What?"

"You should tour," he said with a laugh. "Tarrin Kael, acrobat extraordinaire. I can see you pack them in."

"Oh, please," Tarrin scoffed.

"We can get you one of those tight-fitting costumes," he went on.

Jarax laughed, and Tarrin scowled at the knight.

"Dolanna can open for you, doing a magic act with things stuffed up her sleeves and ribbons hidden in her hair."

"That will do," Dolanna said frostily.

Faalken gave Dolanna an imupdent grin, then took a drink of water innocently.

"You can be the strongman," Tarrin told him with a calm voice. "Faalken, the half-brained strongman, so muscular because his body didn't want to waste the effort on his mind, so dumb we don't even pay him. I figure that should attract the baser audience."

Faalken gave him a look, then laughed jovially. "I guess I deserved that," he chuckled.

"You deserved worse," Dolanna said in an icy voice.

"Your dinner is getting warm," Faalken told her with a wink.

They camped that night in a clearing well off the road, and it was another sleepless night for Tarrin as the dreams invaded his mind. He awoke the next morning sandy-eyed and feeling like his head was stuffed in wool. Dolanna put them out on a pace even harder than the day before, and it wasn't long until the first farms surrounding Marta's Ford were laid out to the sides of the Skeleton Road. Dolanna slowed them to a walk, and as Walten and Tiella listened to the wiry Jarax tell some old tale, Tarrin rode up to Dolanna and listened as she talked with the captain of Arren's men and Faalken.

"We intend to take ship here, Daran, and there are too many of your men to make it feasible," she told the captain.

"I intend to see you to Suld, Mistress Dolanna," he said adamantly. "Arren ordered me to escort you through the front door of the Tower, and I mean to do just that. I'll bring five men with you."

"That is still too many. We have to board the horses."

"Four."

"Three," Faalken said. "That's about all the room that we'll have."

"Three then," he said. "Jarax and Orgal."

"Good choices," Faalken agreed.

"Jarax?" Tarrin asked. "Why?"

"There's more to worth than a man's arm, Tarrin," Daran told him. "Jarax is a good fighter, but he's also a talkative man that keeps the villagers entertained, and keeps their mind off what's going on. That makes him more than worth it."

Tarrin hadn't considered that. And it made sense.

"Orgal is the monster of a man that usually rides rear guard," Daran told Dolanna. "He's quiet and seems slower than he is, and he's got a good eye. Not much gets past him."

"Then arrange your packs so that your gear is with us," she said. "But I do not want any more than one extra pack animal in our train. Space is becoming a problem."

"I'll see to it, Mistress Dolanna," Daran said.

"Tarrin, go back to Tiella and Walten for a time," Dolanna told him. "And pull up your hood."

"Yes ma'am," he said, pulling back and letting the knight and Sorceress speak privately. He didn't even try to eavesdrop on them, which would have been easy because of his keen hearing. He settled the hood over his ears carefully, patting on it to feel if they were bulging, then joined the trio in the middle of the column.

Jarax was spinning a tale about history, about the civil war that had raged between Draconia and Tykarthia for the last seven hundred years. They were the two kingdoms north of Sulasia, which had once been one kingdom, and had fought a war so bloody for so long that victory wasn't even a goal any more. They lived only to completely eradicate the other off the face of Sennadar. "So," Jarax was saying, "the western nobles of Draconia were getting more and more displeased with King Dawon. They considered the weighted tithe system the king used to be unfair, seeing as how the western nobles were paying nearly four times as much as the eastern ones. The nobles of the east, led by the crafty Earl Winold, kept flattering the king with gifts and very carefully arranged plots to continue to discredit the western nobles and keep them out of the king's favor. Winold, you see, hated Duke Tykan with a passion, and he considered the more moderate practices going on in the western parts of the kingdom to be almost sacreligious. Winold was a man that would have banned the use of fire if the thought he could get away with it. Some men are like that.

"Winold was a crafty one, but he made one fatal error. He arranged a border atrocity, sending a large complement of soldiers to attack an isolated, small village in southern Ungardt, then arranged it to look like the leader of the western nobles, Duke Tykan, was the one that ordered the attack. The attackers carried out their mission, and did manage to convince the Ungardt that it was Tykan who was responsible, but they didn't count on the Ungardt response. Instead of punishing just Tykan, the Ungardt invaded the entire kingdom of Draconia. That was the War of Seven Roses, and it lasted only six months. It ended with the Ungardt invaders taking King Dawon back to Dusgaard in chains, dragged by a horse the entire way. The stories say that he even managed to live long enough to get to Dusgaard, where he was stoned to death in a public square by children. Dawon's heir was Elon."

"Elon the Sunderer?" Tarrin asked.

"That's how he's known, yes," Jarax said with a smile. "Elon wasn't a very smart man. He relied on Winold's counsel, not realizing that Winold only cared about putting Tykan in his place. Tykan and the western nobles had fought well in the war, but the western lands had been relatively untouched. The Ungardt had invaded from the north and east, ravaging the eastern duchies on their way to Draconis. Winold convinced Elon to raise the taxes and thithes even more on the western nobles, to equalize the suffering, so Elon had been told.

"Needless to say, Tykan and the western nobles went up in flames. Tykan demanded an audience with the king, which was denied. Tykan knew that it was Winold behind all the scheming, so he decided that he had to talk to the King without Winold's oily voice there to cloud the issues. When he tried to get into the king's bedroom to talk to him personally, Winold had him thrown in the dungeon. The western nobles, loyal to Tykan, attacked Dracon Keep in a surprise attack and freed Duke Tykan. They were careful not to hurt anyone, but their goal of just freeing the Duke wasn't really noticed. Tykan fled back to his duchy with Winold's private army on his tail, then they barred themselves in Tykar's Hold and endured a month-long siege. The armies of the west rose up and chased out the invaders.

"That was when Elon made a fateful mistake. He declared Tykan an outlaw, and levied fines on all the nobles of the west that had participated in the routing of Winold's army, so steep that they would never be able to pay them. The western nobles, in an absolute rage over the continual injustice, simply seceeded from Draconia as a block. They decided that wise Tykan would be their king, and named their new kingdom after him. The nobles of the central duchies were suddenly caught between two nations, and they declared their allegiances in a random order that left pockets of one kingdom inside another.

"By then, Elon had died under mysterious circumstances, and with no heir, Winold assumed the throne. His hatred of Tykan had totally consumed him, so he raised an army to march into the rebelling western lands and kill anything that moved. The western lords, already mobilized, marched east and met the hastily assembled army at Long Staff River, and totally crushed them. Winold pulled back and regrouped as Tykan rallied for support from Ungardt and Sulasia, his bordering neighbors. The Ungardt were still in a tiff over the war, and the Sulasians recognized their independence but wouldn't form any sort of military alliance. "And that was how the war started. Tykan controlled the commerce coming in from the western harbors and ports, but Winold controlled the iron mines in the mountains around the Petal Lakes. The two kingdoms started a war that still hasn't ended, to this day. The lands between Draconia and Tykarthia, once fertile farmland, are nothing but a barren wasteland now, the grass trampled into mud by hundreds of battles and all the towns and keeps crushed by one side or the other. The border changed by the day at the beginning of the war, but as time went by and more and more was destroyed by the boots of soldiers, the wheels of siege engines, and by fire. They're more or less separated now, and there are few if any major battles, but not a day goes by when one baron or earl rides across that wasteland to raid on the border of the other. They say that there are enough bones littering Elon's Waste to make a mountain."

"Wouldn't it have grown back by now?" Tiella asked.

"Yes, it has, but it's still called a wasteland because nobody can live there," Jarax replied. "Even the rudest hut is burned and all its inhabitants killed, because there are raiders from both sides prowling the no-man's land constantly. That brutal practice has actually helped to keep the two kingdoms separate."

"I'm glad I don't live there," Walten said, shuddering.

"It's an unhappy place, all right," he said. "I've been there a few times. Children are taught that the people on the other side of the border are murderous animals and have to be completely exterminated. They live in cities behind walls, and the people out on the farms jump at every shadow. The funny thing is, they both worship the same God. They're the same people, but they're too busy hating each other to notice it."

"Eww," Tiella sounded. "I'm glad I don't live there too."

"Why does it go on?" Tarrin asked.

"Who knows?" Jarax shrugged. "I guess because by now, there's nothing left but hate. The minds of fanatics are hard to fathom. You'd be better off trying to walk to the sun." He scratched at his beard absently. "Now that we got the unpleasant story out of the way, how would you like to hear about the Islands of Amazar?"

"Where?" Tiella asked.

There was a gleam in Jarax's eye. "A wondrous place that I myself have visited. A place of women, where women rule, women fight, and women do all the things that men do here, and men are the property of the women."

"There's no such place," Walten scoffed. "My father told me that the tales about Amazar are a bunch of baloo. There's no Amazar, no Sha'Kari, and there's no such things as dragons."

"Sha'Kari, I don't know about," Jarax admitted, "but Amazar is a real enough place, thousands of leagues to the south of Shace. Amazar is actually a series of islands off the coast of the continent of Sharadar, home of that wondrous and ancient land of magic. The Wikuni visit it often, because the furs and silk the Amazons make are in high demand, and they are the only ones that go to the islands. I was there myself, so I know."

"If they don't let humans go there, how did you get there?" Tiella asked, a bit accusingly.

"Ah, that's a long tale," he said. "Let's just say that I was a young man with a wanderlust. It's not that humans aren't allowed. Women are free to come and go as they will, but any man that sets foot on the lands of Amazar becomes a woman's property, and he's not allowed to leave. I happened to Amazar quite by accident, and spent nearly a year there, owned by a tall, regal lady named Sulina Dar. She was quite a woman," he said, his eyes distant. Then he cleared his throat and continued. "I decided that being a slave wasn't all it was cracked up to be, and snuck onto a Wikuni galleon and returned to Sennadar. I even have something to remember it by," he said. He rolled up the sleeve of his tunic, displaying a strange tatoo. "This was the mark of my mistress," he told them. "That's how they know who owns which man."

"What happens when he's sold?" Tarrin asked.

"He's tatooed again underneath the first one. Some men have tatoos all the way down one arm and halfway down the other, but they're usually older men. Being sold too often hurts a man's reputation."

"Reputation?" Walten asked. "How can a slave have a reputation?"

"It's slavery, yes, but it's almost an institution now," he said. "Full-blooded Amazon men may be owned, but they're not exactly slaves either. They have to do what the woman tells them to do, but there's a certain amount of leeway in the matter. It's very difficult to explain."

"Kind of like marriage," Tiella injected.

"Something like that, yes, but not quite," Jarax agreed.

They could see the edge of the town of Marta's Ford, and Tarrin pulled up the hood a bit more to make sure of it, especially since there were children playing in the field off to one side of the road. Dolanna called the column to a stop, then turned her horse to face them. "Faalken and I are going ahead to secure passage on a ship. Daran, keep everyone together and off the road, and perhaps this would be a good time to check the horses. We should be back soon."

The two of them trotted into the town as Daran and his men walked the horses to a small field by the road across from the playing children, then they all dismounted. Daran's men started checking over their horses, and Tarrin did the same, urging his horse to give him a hoof at a time, as he checked them to make sure the shoes were in good shape and there were no stones or bruises. All of the horses had more or less grown used to Tarrin's unusual smell, and he could pass among them like anyone else. They actually paid him no mind; although his smell was obviously one of a predator, they either understood or came to realize that he didn't eat horses, and that they were safe with him among them.

A wooden ball came to a stop near Tarrin, and he froze at the sight of the two small children running across the road to fetch the toy. It was two little boys, both of them about eight years old, gangly but well fed, with the taller of the two having reddish hair and the shorter brown hair. Their features were similar; they were either brothers or cousins. Tarrin let the rear hoof of the horse down slowly as the two boys looked at him curiously. "Why do you have such big hands?" one of them asked boldly.

"And why are they all black?" the other one continued.

Tarrin put his hands inside his sleeves slowly as if it was something he was used to doing, not drawing any undue attention to them.

"They're just my hands," he said calmly. "Just like any other hands."

"My hands aren't black," one boy said, holding them out to show him.

"No, but you're not me either," Tarrin replied with a smile.

"You have funny eyes, mister," the other boy noticed.

"They're not funny to me," Tarrin told him. "I could say that your eyes are funny."

"You're one of those wi-koos, aren't you?" the taller boy asked. "Those animal-people that sail on the ships."

"No," Tarrin said, "but you can think of me as one of their cousins."

One of the boys across the road shouted for them to bring back the ball. "Well, we have to go. Goodbye, wi-koo cousin," the taller boy said.

"Bye," the other said, and they ran back across the road to rejoin their friends.

They hadn't shown any fear of him, even when it was obvious to them that he wasn't human. But then again, children were like that sometimes. He went around the horse and picked up the other rear hoof, checking it carefully for signs of injury or damage, noting that it would have to be trimmed down soon.

The horses all started fidgeting. Tarrin looked up and sniffed deeply at the air, then his hackles rose. He had no idea what that smell was, but it was not human, and it didn't smell very friendly either. Judging from the way the horses reacted to it, it could be said that it was definitely a bad smell. The wind was blowing from the north, from the trees and across the field on the other side of the road, and then to them. Whatever it was was up there in those trees past the field. Tarrin listened to his instincts for the first time, actively seeking them out and seeing how they reacted to that smell. The Cat didn't like that smell. And that was what he wanted to know.

"Jarax," Tarrin said calmly, peering over the children at the trees on the far side.

"What is it?" he asked.

"How quietly do you think you could get the attention of those kids and get them to move?" he asked in a quiet, intent voice. "There's a smell in the air that's upsetting the horses, and it doesn't smell friendly. Whatever it is, its in those trees on the far side of that field."

Jarax gave him a sober look. "I think I can get their attention," he said. "I'll get Orgal and Nyllin and we'll let them look at our swords. That always fascinates young boys."

"I'll drift up to the road over there," he said, pointing towards the town with a clawed finger. "If whatever it is sees that the kids are being watched, maybe it will give up and go away."

"What is it?"

"I don't know, but it has the smell of blood on it," Tarrin replied. "That means its a predator."

Jarax nodded, and he walked over to where Daran was talking to Orgal and a few other of his men. Daran looked at Tarrin curiously, who nodded and started to move, so he quietly issued a few orders to his men, and they all started to drift apart in seemingly random directions. Jarax, Orgal, and Nyllin, the second in command of the men, approached the boys with light voices and offers to let them hold their swords. That made the young boys instantly forget their game and rush over to where the men were standing, which was on Tarrin's side of the road. That drew the boys out from between Arren's men and whatever it was on the other side of the field.

Tarrin reached the road a few paces from the leading horse, ignoring the curious looks from Tiella and Walten. He looked back at Walten quickly, and made a drawing motion with his hands, then nudged at the far woods with a jerk of his head. Walten understood his action, then quickly pulled Tarrin's longbow out of his saddleskirt and started stringing it. Tiella pulled her leather sling out of her belt pouch and kept it wadded up in her hand, a bullet stone fitted into the sleeve, as she pulled out Walten's quiver of arrows for him. Tarrin untied the robe belt in front of him; the robe was too full, and he couldn't run very fast or very well while wearing it. He stood on the side of the road, seemingly with his head bowed, watching the edge of the woods from the edge of the hood.

There was a movement at the edge of the woods. It was just too high up. Tarrin looked up and saw a face, nearly fifteen spans off the ground, impossibly wide. Tarrin gave a gape at the face that materialized in the greenish cast of the woods, probably invisible to any eyes but his, then he saw the yellowed tusks at the edges of its mouth. It was a Troll! He'd never seen one, but he'd heard enough about them from his father. Trolls were the largest of the Goblin races, twice as big as a man and ten times meaner. They ate humans whenever they got the chance. The Cat in him welled up loudly when he recognized that face; obviously the Cat had no love for Trolls either. It wanted to kill it, and Tarrin found himself in agreement. Trolls this close to human lands were only there for one reason, and that was to catch someone to eat. But he wouldn't go running after it. The smell of it was too strange to him to discern if there was more than one, and he wasn't about to run into a snake pit. Too strange, and too horrid. Now that the smell was clearer, he decided that he'd never smelled anything so vile in his life. Not even the city-smell that hung about Torrian was that bad. It smelled like rotting flesh floating in a month-old cesspool. Tarrin made a motion to Daran, who approached him casually. "It's a Troll," Tarrin told him.

"You're sure?"

Tarrin nodded. "I saw it. The face was about fifteen spans off the ground, and it had tusks."

"That was a Troll, alright," he said grimly. "How many?"

"I'm not sure," Tarrin said quietly. "I don't know their scent well enough to figure out if there's more than one. Besides, the smell is so awful I doubt I could if I tried," he said, wrinkling his nose.

"We can't let a Troll run around loose," Daran said. "It will kill someone."

"Walten may be able to put an arrow into it," Tarrin said. "It's right at the edge of bow range."

"No, then it'll just get mad," Daran said, thinking. "We have to lure it out, so we can kill it."

"Trolls may not be smart, but they aren't stupid," Tarrin said, falling back on what his father had taught him about them. "It's not going to come out here when it can see twenty armed men."

"We can have some of the men trot off," Daran said to himself."

Tarrin looked up, seeing more disturbances in the foliage. "I don't think that it's going to matter," Tarrin said quickly. Tarrin could see another Troll, and then another, and one more, gathering at the edge of the trees. "I see four of them now."

"They'll attack with that many," Daran told him, turning around and putting a hand on his sword. "I can see them," he said.

The Trolls hovered at the edge of the clearing, then they simply turned and walked away. Tarrin could smell their scents getting fainter; a smell that pungent was easy to keep track of. "They're leaving," Tarrin said. The taste of disappointment was hot in his mouth, and he had to quell the Cat's desire to go chase them down. Now he was glad that he hadn't chased off after that thing in the first place. He'd have had a nasty shock by the time he got there.

"That's not like them," Daran said curiously. "Twenty to four are odds that Trolls would have accepted, and it's not like a Troll to give up on a fight. They like killing as much as they like eating."

"All in all, with those children here, I'm glad we didn't have to fight," Tarrin said, tying his robe belt again and trying to calm down from the adrenaline-rushed high he'd worked himself up to in preparation for the fight.

"It may not be over yet," Daran said. "They may have decided to turn around, or maybe even try to come at us from another direction. We're moving into town, and we're bringing the children in with us," he announced. "I don't want to be left out in the open like this with four Trolls prowling the woods."

"Good idea," he agreed.

They all got into a loose formation around the children, who were lured into coming with them by Jarax's easy manner and promise that they could sit on the horses, then walked into town. Marta's Ford was a large village, with no outer wall, and it was surprisingly clean by the standards of Tarrin's nose. The buildings were vaguely similar to the ones of Aldreth, except for the thatched roofs where Aldreth used slate tiles, but they were laid out in rectangular patterns following the streets instead of facing the village green. This town didn't have a green. The masts of three or four ships were visible over the rooftops, near the large warehouse buildings. It was that commerce that made Marta's Ford larger than Aldreth, for much of the city seemed to revolve around its modest docks and the goods that were loaded onto and off of the ships. Daran sent Nyllin to find the mayor and warn him of the Trolls lurking in the surrounding woods, and the rest of them stood in a vacant lot between two houses near the road leading towards Torrian.

Dolanna and Faalken returned not too long after the kids had run out of things to see and drifted away. Dolanna was smiling slightly as she approached, and Tiella, Walten, Daran, and Tarrin met the pair. "Rennee is still here," she told them. "He awaits us at the dock."

"Lady Dolanna, there were Trolls in the woods while we were waiting," Daran said quietly.

"Trolls?" she asked.

The captain nodded. "I sent Nyllin to quietly warn the mayor. I've ordered my men to stay in the town for a couple of days to dissuade them from attacking anyone."

"Tell me what happened."

Daran and Tarrin quickly recanted the events that had happened not long ago. When it was over, Dolanna pursed her lips worriedly. "That's not normal behavior for Trolls," Faalken grunted. "They should have attacked."

"I know," Daran agreed.

"At this point, I am not going to take any chances," Dolanna said. "Let us get to the ship now. I will convince Rennee that leaving immediately would be a good idea."

They walked the horses through town, reaching the docks. The river was deep towards the southern end of town, but shallowed dramatically towards the north, until it resembled little more than a stream, forming the ford from which the town took its name. It was a natural headwater that made it a logical place for a town to be. The town sported three wooden docks stretching out into the narrow river, and all three were occupied by three different types of ship. The farthest one away was a two-masted vessel with a narrow beam and a graceful look. The middle ship was an oared scow with a single, small mast, little more than a barge. The third ship was a single-masted fishing vessel of some kind, heavy with nets and rigging and smelling like fish even from this distance. Dolanna led them to the farthest ship, which was painted a dull brown. Men and women both moved along the decks, performing the repetitve chores that made up sailing, and one man, wearing a white silk shirt and with a wide, flat hat with an outrageously long feather in it, was standing at the rail. He was a thin man with a narrow face and long, wavy black hair spilling out from under his cap, and he wore a thin, long moustache and a goatee. It was obvious that he was Shacean, if not from his graceful features, then from his frilly shirt and black trousers with its red sash, or maybe the light rapier he wore in his sash. Shaceans were about the only people who used the light fencing weapons.

"Ah, Madam Dolanna, you return already," he called in a thickly accented voice. "Andevouz."

"Andevouz," Dolanna repeated in a calm voice. "We must leave immediately. As soon as our gear is brought aboard."

"Ai, madam, you hurry me, no?," he said, "but I am done with my loading, yes. Come, come, I will have your horses loaded, yes, and we will talk as my Lady begins her journey." He barked out a series of commands in a flowing, musical language, and a heavy plank was quickly lowered for the horses. They carefully led the horses up the narrow walkway, holding tightly to the reins, allowing canvas-shirted sailors to take the reins from them once they got the horses on board. The tall captain gave them all a cursory look, then he retreated to the raised sterncastle and grabbed hold of the wheel that moved the rudder. He barked out a few more commands, and another man started shouting a series of instructions. Dolanna and the others went up to the captain's sterncastle deck as the sailors hurriedly started untying ropes, slipping hawsers, and climbing up into the impressive rigging to lower the sails. Shaceans built very good ships, almost as good as Wikuni vessels.

"A dangerous group, yes," Rennee noted as he watched his sailors free the ship from the dock. The vessel started drifting with the current, sliding away from shore. "But not without its flowers and jewels," he added, giving Tiella a look that made her blush suddenly. "Mon am, what manner of creature do you bring to Rennee?" he asked soberly, looking at Tarrin.

"This is Tarrin," she said calmly. "He is my guest."

"Ah, then he is my guest as well. Andevouz, Tarrin."

"Tarrin, take off your robe," Dolanna instructed.

Tarrin hesitated a bit, but did as she commanded. He never felt so self-conscious in his life. It was almost as if he was stripping in front of them. Rennee's eyes widened slightly at Tarrin's appearance, but he said nothing untowards. "Ai, I thought for a moment, you bring a Wikuni aboard my Lady," he said with a snort. "I have three cabins open for you, madam Dolanna. I have two other passengers as well, so it will be crowded at the dinner table, no?" He spun the rudder wheel a bit as they entered a shallow bend in the river. "It will be crowded, yes, but I know you will make do."

"I appreciate your aid, Rennee, and that you do not ask too many questions," Dolanna told him.

The Shacean smiled at her roguishly. "No, madam, it is I who must thank you. Rennee would be sleeping at the bottom of the river, yes, if had not been for you. If this little thing pleases you, then it is with an open hand that I give it to you, yes." He sniffed a bit. "And only a fool demands to know the mind of a katzh-dashi, yes. And I am no fool."

Faalken stifled a laugh, and Dolanna pinned him with an icy stare. "Who are your passengers?" she asked.

"A merchant, yes, whose cargo we carry, and who is most likely very happy I left early. The other is a traveller, yes, who paid Rennee enough to sail for a year, and asked only for a cabin, meals, and not to be bothered."

"I see," she said. "I thank you again for your help, Rennee."

"De'cest," he said with a smile.

Their cabins were cramped, but on a ship, everything was cramped. There were three beds packed into a room a bit larger than a closet, with cabinets and a small stand for a washbasin and lamp. A single small porthole served as a window to the outside. Dolanna stepped into the door and regarded Walten and Tarrin calmly as Faalken stowed his armor into a tiny locker bolted to the floor at the base of his bed. "Feel free to move about as you wish," Dolanna told them. "Just be careful of the crew. Many of them do not speak our language, and Shaceans are known for their quick tempers. And do not, under any circumstance, allow one of their women to lead you off alone," she warned.

"Dolanna, you're ruining the trip for them," Faalken jibed, grinning at her.

Dolanna cowed the jovial knight with an unholy stare, and then continued. "The women will be friendly enough, but the men aboard will look upon it with jealousy. Shacean women adore playing one man against another, so, for my own sanity, please refrain from getting involved."

"Women sailors," Walten said with a bit of a laugh, after Dolanna had left. Walten wasn't crazy enough to say something like that in front of her. "What's next?"

"The Ungardt do it," Tarrin told him, a bit waspishly. "I don't understand this Sulasian hang-up about gender. Women aren't little china dolls, Walten. My mother should have shown you that by now."

"Yes, but your mother is, well, your mother."

"She's just your average Ungardt woman, Walten," Tarrin told him bluntly. "Ungardt ships have as many women on them as they do men, and it seems like the Shaceans are much the same."

"They are," Faalken said. "And you do what Dolanna said, Walten. The women here will try to get you alone, just to make their current beau jealous, and he'll carve his mark into your cheek if he finds out. And the woman will make sure he finds out."

"That's a bit silly," Walten grunted.

"Of course it is, but we're talking about women here," Faalken said, giving Tarrin an impudent grin.

"I just said they're not helpless," Tarrin said. "I never said they weren't strange."

All three of them laughed, and Tarrin went back to putting his clothes in the tiny chest at the foot of the bed he'd chosen for himself. "Never try to understand a woman," Faalken said with a chuckle. "It's like trying to make water flow uphill."

Tarrin lingered in the cabin for a bit, then went out on deck for a while to enjoy the warm summer afternoon. The ship was sliding through the river waters like a knife, making excellent time with both the current and the wind helping them along. The ship bobbed slightly in the water, creating a rocking motion that he rather liked. He looked up at the complicated rigging guiding the billowed sails, making sense out the seemling chaotic criss-cross of ropes and lines that held the two large sails at a precise position relative to the wind. Sailors crawled around up in the ropes constantly, because every turn of the river changed the ship's orientation to the wind, and that demanded a change in the position of the sails. Tarrin decided that running rigging for a riverboat had to be much harder than rigging a ship on open water, where it moved more or less in a straight line.

It was going to rain tonight, he predicted, staring back at the clouds gather in the west through a break in the trees. It would be the first real rain since they left, and that was unusual. This was usually a rainy part of the summer. It had been much warmer than usual too. Maybe the two were related. Maybe the heat was making the rain dwindle down. But, on the other hand, it had been a very wet spring, so maybe the lack of rain in the early summer was just things evening out. He was no weather-watcher, like some in the village.

"The fur, it is handsome on you," a woman's voice called. Tarrin looked up, and he found himself staring back into a rather pretty face. Her cheekbones were high, her chin sharp, and her nose thin and straight. She had deep green eyes, like emeralds, and she had red hair spilling out from under a kerchief tied around her head. She was partially laying across a spar in the rigging above. Her face conjured up a remembrance, but he couldn't quite put his finger on it. He felt like he was supposed to know her, even though he'd never seen her before. "I like the ears too," she remarked with a grin. Her voice was deep, strong, not delicate like a face like hers would suggest, but the Shacean accent was strong in it. He saw that she was wearing a simple white cloth shirt with trousers made of sailcloth canvas. Her feet were bare, like most of the sailors, and he noticed that unlike the other sailors, she wore no jewelry at all, not even earrings. Her ears weren't even pierced. "How are you called, furry one?"

"Tarrin," he replied shortly.

"Tarrin," she said, trying the word out for size. "I like your name. Do you play angecen?"

"No, I'm afraid not," he said, starting to get a bit edgy.

"That is a shame, yes," she said, smiling at him. "Perhaps I will teach you, later. But for now, I have work to attend. We will see each other again, no?"

"Probably," he said non-commitally.

"We will, Tarrin," she promised, and Tarrin's ears picked up. Her voice had no trace of the Shacean accent.

He watched her gracefully climb higher into the rigging, helping to shift the sail to match the new angle of the wind. It was odd, but he dismissed it. His mother had gotten rid of her Ungardt accent, but she could easily pick it back up whenever she wanted. That woman had probably done the same.

They ate dinner with the captain and his merchant passenger in the small officer's mess. Dinner consisted of a very savory fish stew that all but melted in Tarrin's mouth, and he liked it so much he nearly emptied the pot by himself. The merchant kept giving Tarrin wild looks, and barely spoke two words together throughout the entire meal. And as soon as he was done, he got up and left quickly. Tarrin sighed as he left, but there was nothing that he could do about it.

"Dolanna, what is angecen?" he asked curiously.

Rennee laughed richly. "Angecen?" he repeated, then laughed again. "Angecen means Maiden's Kiss. It is a game that women play to tease men."

Tarrin blushed furiously. "I didn't know," he muttered.

"What woman said this to you?" the captain asked.

"The redhead," he replied.

"Ah, her," he said. "She is new to the Lady. I hired her this morning. Stubborn as a rock, but she is a good sailor, yes, very good." He gave Tarrin a look. "I am surprised she said this to you, yes. She has not been on the Lady long enough to find a beau. And, I am sorry to say, you are not what most ladies would look for in a man."

"That's true enough," Tarrin agreed, looking at the palm of his paw soberly. Not indeed.

Dolanna put her hand on his shoulder. "Tomorrow morning, I will start teaching you," she said. "Tiella, Walten, it would behoove you to sit with us, for what I will teach Tarrin will do both of you good as well. It is seven days to Ultern, so we will have plenty of spare time."

And we're leaving behind those that were following us, Tarrin added silently.

After dinner, Tarrin stood on the deck of the ship as it coasted to a stop and anchored in the river on the gentle side of a bend, anchoring for the night. The ship was well enough away from shore in the wide section of river to ensure that getting aboard would be very difficult, but there were sentries posted regardless. Tarrin looked up at the sky, up at the silvery darkness where the clouds concealed the moons and the Skybands, and felt the cool wind on his face. Wind carrying the green smells of the forest, smells that always seemed to soothe him, even back when he was human. He opened his eyes and looked down at his paws, studying the backs of them, marvelling at them.

It was as if he'd never been anything else.

It was a calm revelation, he admitted, but he couldn't even remember what it was like not to have a tail. What he felt, and smelled, and heard, it was as if they were things that had always been there, and the didn't seem so unusual or new to him now. He knew that that was just him getting adjusted to his new condition, but he never expected to forget what it was like to be human. The Cat had taken up its now-familiar place in his mind, singing to him the song of the instincts, supplying him with information that transcended human comprehension and thought, that which truly made him neither human nor animal, but both. He felt the cool wind blow, felt the first drop of rain touch his cheek, marvelling once again at himself.

How alive he felt.

He knew there was no going back. But he couldn't help but feel that this was how he was always meant to be. Over the last few days, such a short time, he had fallen into more than a mere acceptance of what he was, he had found true joy in it. There was just something incredibly pleasing about how the way the grass smelled in the morning dew, or the smell of a thousand kinds of flowers blowing in the wind, or the scritch scritch sound a squirrel's claws made on the bark as it moved. He began to find pleasure in his body as well, at its strength and agility, at his tail, and ears, and fur, and claws. It was no longer an alien thing to him, but his body, the body that was more of a home to him now that his human one had ever been.

He also knew that in a time of anxiety he would feel much differently than he did now, when the dark part of his condition reared its head and made him afraid, but that would be then, and this was now. It would happen very soon, when he closed his eyes and went to sleep, and the dreams returned to him, the nameless dreams that he could never remember, yet never failed to startle him stone cold awake and in a cold sweat.

He stood at the rail a moment longer before going below decks, smelling the rain, listening to the sharp staccato pattering of drops hitting the wooden deck, the ropes, the water, even the leaves and branches of the trees along the riverbank. Feeling it against his skin, feeling it in his fur.

Feeling alive.

To: Title EoF

Chapter 5

Tarrin had suffered through another sleepless night. He was desperately tired, but every time he settled into slumber, the dreams would rise up again and shock him awake. And he could never remember what they were about. In its own way, that was even more frustrating and frightening, because the things that scared him so remained nameless, shapeless phantasms, things that he could not identify. He ended up on the deck of the ship well before dawn, standing at the rail and simply waiting for the sun to come up. He was completely exhausted, but he was so terrified of sleeping that even the thought of it made his blood go cold.

He had no idea how long he stayed at the rail, wilted over it like a dying flower, until the first rays of the sun touched his face. With the rising light came voices, and sounds, and the smells of the humans as they rose from their sleep and went about the work of a new day. He watched them all with a detached curiosity, as Rennee came from his cabin and the officers and the crew started readying the ship for departure. His exhaustion made it seem like he was watching everything through a filmy gauze over his eyes, and it took him moments to think even the simplest things through.

The ship lurched, and Tarrin sank his claws into the deck and railing. The ship's bow anchor had raised, and the ship was starting to get pushed by the current. The ship had been stopped for the night with the bow facing the current to minimize the effect of it on the ship, and now the vessel was swinging around to put her stern to the current, to face downriver, using the stern anchor as a pivot to keep the vessel stable. The stern anchor was raised, and the ship pushed ahead with the current. The wind was very faint, the air calm and the sky clear, so the sails were very slack as the ship pushed downriver. Dolanna's clean scent touched his nose, but it took him a moment to recognize it. "It is time for breakfast," she said.

"I'm not hungry," he replied.

She put her hand on his shoulder, and he flinched away from it. The grip hardened, and she made him turn and face her. She gave him a look of concern. "How long has it been since you slept?" she asked.

"I don't know," he replied. "I sleep a little at night, but not for long."

"Dreams?" she asked, and he nodded. "There are some medicines I can give you that will let you sleep without dreams, but I do not want you to have to rely upon them. Tonight I will give you a dose of it, and we will see how it helps you." She put a hand to his cheek, feeling his temperature. "Why did you not tell me of this?" she demanded. "Tarrin, if I am to help you, you cannot hide things from me."

"I didn't think that you could do anything," he told her quietly.

She gave him another look. "Would you prefer to try to sleep now?" she asked.

"No, I can wait," he assured her.

"Tell me about these dreams," she said.

Tarrin closed his eyes. "I don't remember them when I wake up," he told her, "but whatever they are, they scare me so bad that I'm stone cold sober and awake when I do wake up. It's strange…the dreams just vanish like mist the instant I wake up, as if they'd never been. All it leaves me is the memory of being afraid."

"Interesting," she said. "You remember nothing at all? Not even a flash, an impression?"

"No," he replied. "I think I remembered them on that first night, but since then, nothing."

"We cannot let you go on like this," she said. "Lack of sleep has different effects on people, but a common one is increased aggression. That is something that you can definitely do without. If the medicines do not work, I will have to resort to magic."

"Why not use magic in the first place?"

"Tarrin, it is very complicated," she told him. "To put it very briefly, I have an exceptionally difficult time using magic on you that affects the mind. You are not human, Tarrin, and the alien nature of your mind does not allow me to use mind-affecting weaves as I could use them on humans. You do not think the same way that I do, and I must have an idea of how a target thinks in order to weave together a spell that can affect those thoughts. When I wove the spell that holds the instinctual side of your mind in check, it nearly killed me. I had to rely on raw power to overcome my unfamiliarity with your mind. And look at the results. I think the spell totally unravelled at least two days ago. Such a short respite for so much effort."

"It did?"

She nodded. "I am surprised that you did not notice."

"Maybe I did," he said. "They've been…loud lately. I've started doing things without thinking, things I think that the Cat is making me do."

"What things?"

"Little things," he admitted. "Like smelling before I open a door, or checking my room before I rest. I think the Cat can hear my own thoughts, because sometimes it acts on what I'm thinking or feeling. Like what happened with Jarax."

"He told me about that," she said.

"I wanted him to be quiet, but he wouldn't shut up…so I growled at him."

"Are you sure that you are not hungry?" she asked.

"I'm sure," he said.

"I will have the cook keep something for you, just in case."

Tarrin heard a faint sound, almost like the fluttering of a sheet in the wind. He looked up, but the sails were rather slack in the still air; the sailors were not even tending them, they were standing around on the deck waiting for a wind to come along. "What is it, Tarrin?" Dolanna asked. He put a paw up to quell any further questions.

But after a few moments, he gave up on it. He had no idea where it had come from…it could have been a branch slapping into another. "I don't know, maybe I'm hearing things," he told her. "You should-"

He heard it again, closer this time, and from another direction. He looked up towards the bow of the ship-

– then he was diving to the side, carrying Dolanna with him, as a loud crash shook the ship, and large pieces of the rigging and mast slammed into the deck. Tarrin was up in an instant, as a huge reptillian-like bird writhed in the rigging, shrieking a loud, high-pitched scream and thrashing at the sails and ropes. "It's a Wyvern!" Dolanna shouted in sudden fear and anger as the creature systematically destroyed the sails, and broke off another piece of the mast. It gave another keening cry as chaos erupted on the deck, sailors scrambling every which way to avoid whipping ropes and falling spars. The creature was nearly twenty spans long, not counting its tail, and its large wings beat heavily at the air with every stroke as it used its huge, wickedly clawed feet to rip at the rigging. Its tail had a noticable barbed tip, and its black scales gleamed in the morning light. Its red eyes glared balefully as it screeched, thrashing apart the intricate rigging and working its way to the deck. Sailors started to scramble towards the gangways, getting away from the huge monstrosity. Tarrin watched helplessly as that barbed tail shot down like a javelin and impaled one hapless man in the back. He stiffened instantly, then fell limply to the deck when the sharp point was pulled away, his skin already beginning to turn black from the venom.

He had to do something. It was too large for the sailors to fight, and with it up there and them down here, there was nothing that they could do except for get stung by that tail. Unthinkingly, Tarrin popped out his claws, laid back his ears, and growled at the creature menacingly, his eyes flaring up from within with an unholy greenish aura. Those two slits of evil glared right into the creature's reddish eyes without fear, challenging it without words. More sailors scrambled safely away as Tarrin held its attention, and Dolanna groggily got back to her feet.

The monster crashed to the deck with enough force to make the entire ship tremble, smashing planking under its feet as it dropped from its perch in the ruined rigging. It towered over Tarrin, barely able to fit on the deck, but Tarrin just growled at it menacingly, hunching down and putting his paws out wide in an instinctive, reflexive battle stance. "Tarrin, have you lost your mind!?" Dolanna shouted at him angrily, even as she raised her hands at the creature and started weaving a spell.

The creature lunged its head at him, faster than a striking snake, but Tarrin was even faster. He slipped just aside of those wicked jaws and raked it right across the snout, almost getting its eye. He got in another good rake on the end of its nose as it snapped back, howling in pain, shaking its head as blood flew in all directions. Tarrin hunkered down and grabbed a barrel, then lifted it as the expected tail-stinger lanced in at him with blazing speed. He put the barrel in its path, and was pushed back as the stinger slammed into the full barrel. Digging his claws into the deck, he stopped the momentum of the stinger, amazingly with the barrel intact, then threw the barrel and tail aside. The barrel was stuck on the end of the Wyvern's tail, regardless of the creature's whipping attempts to free its venemous stinger of the obstructing object.

A sheet of pure fire flashed out and up, right into the monster's face, as Dolanna's spell was fully formed and unleashed. The Wyvern howled in agony as the curtain of fire continued to sear at its scales and crisp the flesh of the open wounds Tarrin had put in its face. It desperately lunged forward, making Dolanna break the spell to literally dive over the edge of the rail to escape the creature's snapping maw. Tarrin tried to slash it, but the creature's great weight, put on only one side of the narrow-beamed vessel, was making the whole ship list dangerously to that side. The rail was almost in the water as the Wyvern started skidding forward, and that low level allowed Tarrin to reach into the river and pluck Dolanna out of the current by the back of her dress. Sinking his claws into the deck, he carried the wet woman up the steeply angled decking, out of the thrashing Wyvern's reach. The Wyvern had too much weight on one side, and as it tried to turn around to get back into the middle of the ship, the railing broke against its leg and it tumbled into the water.

The ship rocked wildly, catapulting Tarrin all the way across the ship as many sailors, and Walten, were hurled over the sides, as well as the horses and what wasn't nailed down that was on the deck. Tarrin had to wildly throw out one paw and snag his claws into the rail to keep from going over the other side. He managed to keep hold of Dolanna, but that grip tightened as the Wyvern hooked its wing over the railing and pulled, dragging the ship's starboard rail under the water's surface as it tried to clamber back onto the ship. Many of the people below, who were eating breakfast, were just now getting to the doors, among them Faalken, who were armed to the teeth to repel the monstrous invader. But at that moment, they were all grasping onto anything that would not slide across the deck. The ship listed higher and higher, until the deck was almost vertical to the water, as the Wyvern tried to drag itself back onto the ship. The horses were swimming frantically towards the far bank, just putting distance between them and the Wyvern.

"Goddess, it is going to capsize the ship!" Dolanna screamed in fright.

"Everyone over the rail!" Tarrin heard Rennee's terrified voice scream over the din, then he shouted it again in the language of his own people. He looked down, right into the Wyvern's face, seeing that one of its eyes had been burned away, and smoke was wafting from the charred flesh of the wounds he had given it. It was mad from pain, and it did not realize that capsizing the ship would most likely kill it as the ship's weight rolled over it and pinned it underneath. Sailors were diving off the ship in every direction, even right past the Wyvern, but the creature's eyes were fixed balefully on Tarrin and Tarrin alone.

Grabbing Dolanna by the waist, he set his feet into the deck with his claws and grabbed her with both paws. "What are you doing?" she demanded as he hefted her over his head.

"I'm saving your life!" he answered. Then he threw her, with every ounce of strength in him. She sailed far downstream, a good thirty spans, and crashed noisily into the water well clear of the Wyvern.

Tarrin grabbed onto the rail and pulled himself over it as the Wyvern's wing hooked around the mast, and it hefted to drag its weight back out of the water. The ship lurched violently, rolling up even higher as it was pulled down by the monster's weight. Tarrin saw Faalken and Tiella jump over the side, as Rennee tried to keep hold of the railing, then lost his grip and dropped out of view. Tarrin glanced away for a moment, back towards shore. He thought that he may be able to jump to one of the branches overhanging the river. He turned his back to the Wyvern, set himself in a sitting crouch, and then sprang.

He extended fully in the air, his paws reaching for anything to which they could grab hold. He just barely reached the foliage with his spring, but he got paws full of twigs and leaves, the branches to which they were attached supporting the sudden increase in weight. The tip of Tarrin's tail brushed the water as he bobbed down, then he hauled himself up and onto a sturdy branch, then he turned and looked.

The Wyvern had pulled the ship about as far as it could go without rolling. Tarrin could see half of the ship's keel and the rudder. Then the ship shimmied to one side, and it rolled over on the Wyvern with a thunderous crash that sent white spray high into the air. The Wyvern screeched once before the ship rolled over onto it, then the ship rocked upside down several times. Then it began to move.

The Wyvern was pushing the ship from underneath.

Tarrin looked at Dolanna, who had managed to swim upstream somewhat. The sailors were all swimming for the opposite bank, the bank farther from the Wyvern, the bank where Rennee was standing and calling to his crew. Tarrin was about to say something, but the hideous stench of Trolls struck his nose like a hammer.

He looked down, and saw three of them, approaching the tree where he was. All of them were armed with spears, and he could hear more of them over the shouts of sailors and the rocking swish of the ship.

He couldn't jump into the water, not with that Wyvern between him and the other shore. And he couldn't fight so many Trolls alone. That left only one recourse. Flight. But if he fled, he doubted that he could rejoin Dolanna and the others. With the ship capsized, they would most likely flee in every direction, and they were all soaked, which would make it impossible for him to track by scent.

Dolanna had seen the Trolls, he was certain, for it explained what she shouted to him. "The Tower!" she called. "Go to the Tower! Go west to the coast, and then south to Suld! I will see you there!"

Tarrin nodded, even as the first spear arced in. Tarrin ducked under it frantically. It had been an elaborate trap, and an effective one. If it didn't kill him, it did separate him from the others, leaving him to survive on his own. He vaulted higher into the tree, scrambling into the high branches with the grace of a squirrel, using his claws and strength and agility to get out of sight of those spears. They chased him up the tree, several missing him only by a whisker. Then he felt the whole tree shudder. He looked down, and saw five Trolls working the tree back and forth, trying to uproot it. He'd have scoffed at such a notion, for the tree was old and it was huge, but the tree was already swaying alarmingly. He had no doubt that they could do it. He looked around frantically, and noticed that the branches of another tree were rather close by.

High over the ground, Tarrin vaulted from one tree to the next with surprising ease, landing on all fours on a sturdy branch. The Trolls below all shouted and pointed at him, and it occurred to Tarrin that, as old as this forest was and how thick and large the trees were, he could go quite a distance before having to touch the ground. And if he could get a few minutes out of sight of the Trolls, he could lose them. But travelling in the trees wasn't as fast as moving on the ground, he discovered quickly, and Trolls had outstanding eyesight.

For two long hours, Tarrin scrambled through the branches, trying to get far enough ahead of the Trolls to hide, or come down onto the ground and run at a faster speed without getting a spear in his back. But there were a lot of Trolls; the air was literally befouled by the stench of so many. There had to be a hundred of them, and most of them were following him with their surprisingly fast lumbering gait, and they tried to knock down any tree he stopped in for any amount of time. They couldn't get him down, and he couldn't get away from them. He moved in totally random directions, often going in circles. Once he stopped to rest, but a spear had blasted in and came about two fingers' width from his nose. It had almost startled him out of the tree.

Tarrin was almost exhausted, feeling the effects of lack of sleep, running on pure adrenalin and depending on the Cat's skills of the forest. It helped him know which branches weren't safe to jump to, it kept him from going in a predictable direction and letting them get ahead of him. He saw daylight in front of him, too low to be anything but a break in the woods. He kept moving towards it, planning to cut in one direction or another when he reached the edge, but he stopped once he got there.

It was either the same river or another one. He had no idea. It didn't look quite like the other river, though, for the water was not as muddy on this river. What made him stop was that the river was deep, very deep, and it was at least fifty spans across. Just like the other river, the branches of the trees overhung the river a goodly ways, a good ten spans over the bank, on both sides. That left thirty spans of open air…and if he went high, he could come down and grab a lower branch, which would give him at least five more spans of distance…

It was insane, but he was getting tired, and if he stopped, they would kill him. He was hopelessly lost, and there was nobody to help him this time. If he didn't separate himself from them enough to where he could really get away from them, he was going to die.

Tarrin climbed higher and higher into the tree. He'd already chosen his branch, a long, heavy one that would take his weight almost to the very end, one that had several prime candidates for grabbing almost directly across from it. He could hear the Trolls rumbling towards him, a few of them almost under him; as soon as they had enough, they'd try to topple the tree. He reached the branch and squatted for a moment, preparing himself. If he missed, and fell into the river, he'd be speared before he could reach the other bank. He had to wait for the Trolls to get involved with knocking down the tree, so that he'd have enough time to recover from the jump and get out of sight before they could throw spears at him, or figure out a way to get across the river and chase him. They would get across the river. If they were smart, they'd find a long enough tree and knock it over the water. But that would take time, and all he needed was enough time to get onto the ground and away without taking a spear in his spine. He was much too fast for them to chase him down once he got a lead on them. At least he fervently hoped so.

The tree shuddered violently. That was Tarrin's cue. Taking a deep breath, Tarrin swallowed his panic and sprinted over the uneven branch, running along it as surely as if it were solid ground. He spaced his strides carefully so that he'd hit the very end and be able to jump. He felt his heart go into his throat as his foot hit the jump mark he'd mentally made, and he pushed off from the branch with every bit of power and desparation that his tired body could muster, giving out a cry of effort as he hurled himself into the air.

Stretching out in the arc of his jump, his paws led the way as he sailed over the bubbling waters of the river, some fifty spans underneath him. Even from there, he could tell that it was going to be close. Had he been fresher, he could have put his feet on his target branch with such a run at it. But his exhaustion had removed that advantage. Even his inhuman strength had its limitations. He started descending, and for an instant he panicked, thinking that he wasn't going to make it. He missed his target branch by nearly two spans, but his forward momentum lined him up to grab one of the ones underneath it. He stretched out as much as he could, even his claws reaching out, reaching out for that branch.

He snagged it in his claws, and instantly his hand closed around it. He came flying down, then was snapped back by his hold on the branch. The limb cracked and splintered under his sudden impact on it, bowing it down deeply, but it had served its purpose. It had kept him from going into the river. He swung wildly on the branch for several moments, grabbing it in both paws. He caught a glimpse of something as he started slowing down, and just barely managed to identify it as a spear. He twisted his entire body around that arcing weapon, shocked and impressed that a Troll could throw such a huge spear so far. Natural invulnerability or no, if he was hit by something like that, the shock alone would probably kill him, if it didn't slow him down with him trying to pull it out. He pulled his body up and out of the trajectory of another spear, then physically curled his body up and around the limb above him. He hooked his waist around it, swung over, then hauled himself up, then jumped straight up reflexivey an instant before yet another spear tore him in half at the belly. The spear slammed into the trunk with a loud thok, and Tarrin's feet came down to land on the haft of it. It was embedded so deeply into the tree that it supported his weight.

Tarrin used it as a springboard to get him to the branch higher up, the branch he'd targeted, then scampered around and behind the tree trunk, safely out of the Trolls' line of sight. He peeked back around the other side, lower down, seeing them standing at the bank of the river, howling curses and screaming, stamping their bare feet in frustration. They were too busy being mad to think of finding a way across the river, but that wouldn't last for long. He had to move, and he had to move now.

He hesitated an instant, weighing his options. He could try to find Dolanna again, but he had no idea where he was, and he certainly didn't want to lead a hundred Trolls right to her. He thought about following the river down to the original one-he was certain that the two joined somewhere-but he had no idea if Dolanna would be there once he evaded the Trolls with his roundabout route and tried to find her. She told him to go to the Tower. She expected him to go to the Tower. He seriously doubted that he would be able to find her, for she would obviously take another ship downriver, and he couldn't keep up with it. She would meet him at the Tower.

So that was where he decided he had to go.

Looking up, he got his bearings using the Skybands. Since they crossed the sky from east to west, and he could see from the morning sun which of those two directions was which, he knew which way to go. Go west to the coast, and then south to Suld.

Turning away from the morning sun, Tarrin left the howling Trolls behind, dropped to the ground, and ran south, with every intention of doubling back on a good bit of his trail and then going into the trees to give the Trolls fits when they got across the river. They knew that he could go in any direction…and he'd have too much of a lead on them for them to seriously give chase to him.

He did just that, doubling back on almost two miles of trail, then going into the trees and moving west. He did that all morning and well into the afternoon, past the point where his muscles burned and his breath came in hard, short pants. Every moment he kept moving was more time he could safely rest. That one thought, that goal, dominated his mind, kept him moving. Get out of danger, and then rest. Resting too soon will leave them too close. His whole thought process centered around the next branch. Find the next branch, jump to the next branch, walk across the next branch, climb up the next branch. He was afraid to stop, even a moment, fearing that that moment would become longer, and they'd be surrounding the tree he was sleeping in when he woke up, shaking him out of it.

It was a hazy, totally exhausted Tarrin who looked up a moment and realized that it was sunset. He moved the entire day, on a course that was as due west as he could manage in the trees. He was famished, thirsty, and totally drained, but hunger and thirst couldn't hold a candle to the bone-weariness that threatened to topple him out of the tree. Tarrin dropped to his knees on the wide branch, a branch even wider than he was, connected to a tree that had to be a thousand years old, laid out on its length right where he was, and fell into an instant deep slumber.

There had been no dreams. None that he could remember, anyway, and if there were, they were incapable of rousing him from his comatose sleep. Tarrin's eyes fluttered open, aware of the rosy light that was painting the green foliage in front of him, hearing and smelling the life of the forest that he had all but ignored in his mad flight the day before. It was quiet, peaceful, and there was no sound of Troll feet and no stench of Troll bodies.

He'd not moved an inch from where he had fallen to the branch, and he was sore in more places than he could count. His belly growled dangerously at him, and his throat felt like someone had stuffed wool against it. But he was alive, and he'd evaded the Trolls, and that made it tolerable. Even being lost and alone in the wilderness was more than preferable to his head hanging around some Troll's neck, as it jokingly exagerrated the difficulty of the spear cast that had killed him. Getting up onto his paws and knees, he yawned loudly and stretched, feeling his back crackle and pop from the long hours in an uncomfortable position, his claws digging furrows out of the bark.

His head snapped up. There was another smell, almost right on top of him, but it had been there so long he'd dismissed it, even in sleep. It was a smell very much like his own.

"Good morning," came an amused voice.

Tarrin looked behind him, and she was standing there. She was wearing clothes now, a white shirt and a pair of canvas breeches, but she was just as beautiful and terrifying as he remembered. The nightmarish memories of that chaotic battle washed over him, and his arm throbbed and burned in memory of her bite, the bite that had changed him. Her shirt was stained in many places, and the breeches were tattered about the ankles, but her skin and fiery red hair and white fur were clean, and her crystalline green eyes looked down at him with a guarded expression. He could tell that she was tense, as if expecting him to attack.

The thought did occur to him, but he was in no position nor condition to start a fight. He was still very weak from the long flight and lack of food or water, and he knew it. An indignant "you!" escaped his lips, carrying with it all the hatred and enmity he felt for her, a hatred that had flared up inside him like a bonfire. She had done this to him, had changed him. That it was not her conscious choice did not matter.

"I see you remember me," she said, a bit ruefully.

"What did you expect?" he demanded hotly, managing to get to his feet. He couldn't hide how much of an effort it was just to stand. "You have alot of nerve, woman. If I wasn't so tired, I'd kill you."

"You would try," she said flatly. "You don't bring enough to the table to kill me, cub, especially not right now. Be thankful I like you. I've killed others for less than what you just said to me." She crossed her arms beneath her ample breasts and leaned back against the tree trunk. "I'm not here to fight, anyway," she told him. "I'm here to meet you."

"We've met," he growled at her.

"Mind your manners," she snapped at him. "I'm not going to be able to do anything with you if you can't be civil." She pointed at him. "You are Tarrin," she said. "My name is Jesmind. "

"How did you find me?"

"Oh, come now, cub," she said in a flat voice. "Give me some credit. I've been watching you since the day you left Torrian."

"I didn't see you, or smell you."

"That's because I didn't want to be found," she told him simply. "You did very well getting away from the Trolls. I was about to put a paw in, but you got away on your own. I'm impressed."

"What do you want?" he asked bluntly.

"I want to teach you," she said. "Well, there's no 'want' involved in that. It's a matter of 'must'. For the time being, consider me to be your mother."

"Mother?" he said in a strangled voice.

"There are things that you have to know," she told him with a challenging, cool look. "It's my responsibility to teach them to you. Until you're old enough, or experienced enough, to be out on your own, you are my responsiblity. What you do will come back to me, because I'm the one that is responsible for you being what you are." She gave him a moment to let that sink in. "There's no choice in the matter, Tarrin. You must know these things. But as soon as I'm confident that you understand them, and I'm sure you won't go mad, then you'll be free to do as you will. You'll never have to see me again. Unless you want to, that is."

Tarrin steadied himself, considering her words. He hated her, but there were things that he wanted to know. "I don't mind, not all that much," he said in a quiet voice, "but I'm travelling west. If you're going that way too, then we can travel together."

"Is that so?" she said, raising an eyebrow. "My home lies to the east, cub. That's where we need to go."

"I can't," he said. "I have to go to the Tower. The reason I left home was because I can do Sorcery. They were taking me to the Tower. If I don't go there, I'll do magic and hurt someone without knowing what I'm doing. Besides, someone out there doesn't want me to get to the Tower," he told her wearily. "Those Trolls were after me, and it's not the first attack. You should know that," he said. "The only place I'll be safe is in the Tower."

"I'll worry about keeping you safe," she told him. "Once we get out of human lands, nobody will ever find you."

"Didn't you listen at all?" he demanded. "I don't have a choice. I have to go to the Tower. That's more set in stone than anything that has anything to do with you. Now if you're willing to travel in that direction, then we can travel together, and I'll learn what you have to teach me. If you're not, then we'll just part ways here and now and hopefully never see each other again."

"Don't dictate terms to me, boy," she said in a dangerous tone. "You'll go where and when I say you'll go."

"Then you'd best either let me go or try to kill me now," he shot back, standing straight and tall before her. He realized how tall she was as he faced off against her. Her eyes were on the same level as his, and she was only on very slightly higher ground. He hadn't noticed that before; his memories of her didn't include any where she was standing up straight, or very many that included her by herself or without pain involved. In his memory, she was twice as big as he was. It was reassuring that she was his own size.

She gave him a dark look, then she laughed ruefully. "Oh, my, this is going to be interesting," she said. "Mother always wished for me to have a child as stubborn as I was. Well, I think she got her wish. Both of us have to travel south," she said. "Let's travel south for now. When the time comes when we'd have to part, let's take this up when we get there."

"I don't object to that," he said, after a moment of weighing her offer carefully. "Just answer me one question. Who sent you after me?"

"I don't really know," she sighed. "I was careless, and someone managed to use magic against me to hold me still while someone put the collar on me from behind. It was on a deserted street in Goram."

"That's in Tor," Tarrin objected. Tor was a small kingdom on the southern coast, not far from Arkis. It was also almost a thousand leagues to the south and east.

"I know," she said. "I don't have any memory of much after that. Just little images. I remembered you, though, because the Sorceress took off that thrice-damned collar with you in the room. If she'd have left it on, I probably would never have known you existed."

"A pity," he grunted.

"No, lucky for you," she snapped back. "You seem to be dealing with the dual nature of our kind, but there are things about us that you need to know. There are rules that we live by, rules imposed on us by the Fae-da'Nar. If I wasn't here to teach you, then you wouldn't know these things, and that would hurt you later on."

"Fae-what?"

"Fae-da'Nar," she repeated. "Think of it as an association of intelligent beings of the forest," she told him. "Centaurs, the other Were-kin, Faeries, Pixies, Dryads, Sylphs, and many others. We all live with a very loose communal government, so there's very little friction and we can all live in peace, and we don't irritate the humans and cause trouble that way. Look, there's a great deal I have to teach you, and it's not going to happen right here, right now. You're about to fall over, and I'm tired from tracking you down over the last night and day. Let's get something to eat, get some water, and we'll start south."

"Alright," he said.

They climbed down out of the trees, and Jesmind led him towards the smell of water. It was a large stream with large rocks littering the shores. "Ah, water, and it looks like we have breakfast too," she said.

"Where?"

"Don't you know how to fish?"

"Of course, but I don't have a hook."

"Humans," she sighed. "You have to make tools for everything. Come on, I'll teach you how to really fish."

Tarrin watched as Jesmind laid down on a rock by a large, deep pool, then slithered up to the edge. He stood just behind her, watching as she watched the water. Tarrin could see several silvery shapes moving about under the water. Jesmind lifted up one paw, watched intently for a second, then her hand shot into the water so fast it sounded like the surface of the water was ripped. She snatched her paw back just as quickly, and a rather large fish sailed over his head, then hit the bank and started to flop around.

"That's all there is to it," she said. "Just make sure that you aim below where you see the fish. The surface of the water bends what you see, making the fish look like it's somewhere else. Here, you try."

Tarrin traded places with her, watching the darting shapes, a bit nervous now, with tail-twitching interest. His first few attempts were badly off the mark, but he swallowed his frustration and concentrated on the task at hand, analyzing how much he had missed with the different attack angles he'd used. He got a pretty good idea how much he was off from his past attempts, so he adjusted his trajectory, waited for the right moment, then struck like a viper. His paw slammed into the water, his claws hooked into something that gave, then he yanked it out. Tarrin looked back to where it was falling, and saw a rather large silver-backed fish flopping around next to the one that Jesmind had caught, which was already starting to go still.

"Not bad," she praised. "Catch us a few more, and then we'll eat."

"Alright," he said, turning his attention back to the pool.

After about ten minutes, Tarrin had six trout laying on the bank. Jesmind used her claws to gut and clean each fish as it bounced onto the bank, her claws like knives as she cut off the heads and tails and fileted the remainder with precise skill. Tarrin stopped to drink deeply from the pool after fishing, then returned to her where she was sitting on a rock at closer to the trees. "I usually don't eat it raw," she admitted, "but it's well enough in a pinch."

"Raw?" he said with a shudder.

"Don't knock it til you try it," she said, holding out a fileted strip of fish.

Tarrin was surprised. He expected to gag the instant it his his mouth, but it actually wasn't that bad. He wolfed down his meal quickly as Jesmind watched him, his ravenous hunger coming back in a rush. "It's not like we live in the woods and act like animals," she told him as they ate. "I live in a nice cottage in about the center of the Sylvan lands. What you Sulasians call the Frontier. I hunt, and fish, and just live, and when the urge hits me, I wander around the Twelve Kingdoms and see what's going on with the humans. I built the cottage myself," she added with a bit of pride.

"Why doesn't anyone know about you-us?" he asked.

"Because there aren't very many of us," she said. "We're the rarest of all the Were-kin. And because of this," she said, holding out her arms, "we're often mistaken as exotic Wikuni."

He looked at her face, closely. Take away the ears, and she was the twin of the sailor that was on the ship. She was even wearing the same clothes. "You were the sailor on the ship," he accused.

"Yes, I was wondering when you would figure that out," she said with a smirk.

"How did you-"

"It's not easy," she cut him off. "So don't even think about trying. The human shape, it's not natural to us anymore. At one time it was, but that was long ago. We've changed since then. We can take the human shape, but it's very painful, and it's also very exhausting. I seem to have a knack for it," she shrugged. "I can hold the human shape for over four days, but it leaves me sore and aching for a week. My mother can't hold the human shape for more than six hours, and she's been practicing for over six hundred years."

"Six hundred years?" he said in consternation.

"Oh, that," she said. "We don't age like humans do, Tarrin. How old do you think I am?"

He looked at her. She had a youthful glow about her, even though her features were obviously mature. It made it hard to put an age on her. "I don't know," he said. "About twenty-five, I think."

She laughed. "You're trying to be sweet on me," she accused. "I honestly don't know how old I am. I think I'm somewhere around five hundred. Maybe more."

He gaped at her.

"I lost track," she shrugged. "The next time I see the Red Comet, I'll know. I was born two years before it passed, and it passes every fifty-nine years. I've seen it eight times, and it's going to be coming around again fairly soon."

"In two years," he said absently, doing the math. "That makes you five hundred and thirty-one years old," he said soberly.

"Something like that," she shrugged. "My mother is over a thousand. She's the oldest of us."

"How?" he asked.

"It's just our nature," she replied simply. "Once we reach a certain age, we just stop aging. We live until something kills us."

He continued to eat, wondering over that information. That meant that he was the same. He would live until he was killed. But the way things had gone lately, that could be at any time.

"Any other questions come to mind?" she asked calmly.

"No, not at the moment," he said, chewing on another strip of fish. He was still in a bit of shock over the concept that Were-cats didn't grow old, or die of age.

"I think you understand the basics," she said absently. "I have the feeling that that Sorceress managed to give you a little instruction. You certainly understand your physical gifts," she noted. "We'll start with shape-shifting. It's not that hard, and you should be old enough. You look it."

"You don't know?"

"I've never worked with a Changeling before," she said with a small frown. "Kimmie was a Changeling, but Mist was the one that acted as her mother. Mist is like that sometimes," she mused. "There are things we can and can't do that depend on our age," she told him. "We can't shapeshift until puberty, and taking the human shape isn't possible for a couple of hundred years afterward. I don't know about you, because you weren't born into it. And I can't remember just when Kimmie had managed the human shape." She finished off her strip of fish, and leaned back against a rock. "We'll try this evening," she decided. "You need to understand what all goes into it, and it's easier to do it when we're stopped."

"Why?"

"So you don't lose your clothes," she replied.

He gave her a blank look.

"The clothes don't change with us, Tarrin," she warned him. "You have to take them off."

He blushed furiously.

She laughed richly. "You're one of them," she said with a grin. "I've never understood the human hang-up about clothes. Really, they don't have anything I haven't seen a thousand times over, and besides, I'm not going to go into heat at the sight of a man's bare backside."

He didn't dignify that with a response.

Tarrin had discovered one thing about Jesmind over the course of the day, as they walked south at a very leisurely pace. She was blunt. She tended to say exactly what she thought or felt, and had no reservations of making observations that wouldn't go over well with him. She also had the unnerving habit of speaking almost graphically about things Tarrin wouldn't even think about. And it never occured to her that she was making him uncomfortable. He felt he would die when she started inquiring, very bluntly and thoroughly, about his past love life.

"Why do you want to know that?" he finally demanded.

"Because I need to know," she shrugged. "If you've never slept with a woman, I need to know. But, judging by your reaction, I'd bet that you haven't," she grunted.

She missed his murderous glare. "That's not what I'm talking about," he said flintily.

"You're so touchy," she snorted. "Didn't you do anything when you were a human? It must have been unbelievably boring."

"I guess humans have different customs and standards than you do," he said frostily, leaving out the implication that she had no morals or standards.

"Yes, I've noticed that myself from time to time. You know, once I was ran out of a town because I took my shirt off to wash at a stream? Humans are the strangest creatures."

"Didn't it occur to you that maybe the town had standards of modesty?"

"You mean it's wrong to take off your shirt?"

"In public, in some places, yes, it is," he told her.

She snorted. "I'm amazed humans manage to breed," she said. "I wouldn't be surprised if women had to keep their legs closed in bed, or men have to keep their pants on."

He blushed furiously, right up to the base of his ears. "Are you alright?" she asked.

"I will be, as soon as you shut up," he grated.

She gave him a look, and laughed delightedly. "Tarrin, in that respect, you were right. My people, my kind, what we consider 'right' and 'wrong', it's much different than what the humans believe. Because we are shapeshifters, we spend some amount of time without clothes…so I guess we're used to it. I could look at you naked and not even get a stir. Because I don't associate being naked with sex the way humans do. To me, clothes are for utility, not for concealment. It wouldn't make me bat an eyelash to walk down the busiest street in the world nude." She chuckled. "I'll admit, I was teasing you a bit there. I've been around long enough to understand the human customs. It's just fun to make you blush," she said with a wink and a grin. "But you should start getting used to the idea of being nude in company," she said. "You'll have to be nude when you shapeshift, and I'll be nude as well. So you'd best resign yourself to the idea of being in close proximity to me without clothes on either of us." She wrinkled her nose slightly. "And you are definitely taking them off at night," she said. "They need to be washed, and I'm not sleeping with that smell under my nose."

"What do you mean?" he asked warily.

"If you think I'm sleeping alone, you've got another thing coming," she told him flatly. "It's cozier with another." She gave him a strange look, as he gaped at her. "Oh, come on now," she said accusingly. "If I wanted to bed you, I certainly wouldn't be playing at it like a love-sick human. When I want you, I'll let you know in no uncertain terms. It's not the custom of my kind to play games about it, and we don't assign the same significance to it that the humans do. It's simply something that is very enjoyable, and if you keep making me talk about it, I may change my mind."

That effectively cowed him. "I'm sorry, but you're moving a bit too fast for me," he said carefully.

"Obviously. Don't assume something just because you think you know what I'm thinking, cub," she told him gruffly. "What I consider important is much different than what you do. The faster you understand that, the quicker you'll learn." She gave him a look. "Actually, just shapeshifting a while will show you that. The cat in us, it's stronger when we're in the cat shape," she told him. "Alot of things I'm talking about will make more sense when you see them through eyes closer to my own."

"I have a question," he said.

"What is it?"

"Are you always this cross?"

She gave him a look, then laughed. "Not usually," she said. "To be honest, I'm a bit nervous about you, and a bit worried for you."

That broke a small chip off the big block of animosity he felt for her.

"Worried?"

"Tarrin, I didn't wish this on you, but we can't change the past," she told him with a sigh. "What matters to me now is helping you learn how to live with it. I didn't do it by choice, but I was still the one that changed you. I have to take responsibility for that. And that means that I have to help make it as painless for you as I can."

Now he was mad at her. He'd built up a perfectly acceptable reason to hate her, and she'd managed to destroy it with that one eloquent sentence.

They travelled for the rest of the day moving in a southerly direction, through virgin forest that had probably never known the footsteps of man. Tarrin listened to Jesmind during those times that she spoke, describing the trick of willing the change into cat-shape, and warning him in advance about how the change would affect his body and mind. When he wasn't listening to her, he was watching her. He had to admit that he was fascinated by her. He was used to dealing with strong women, but his mother was nothing like this. Every move she made was like a demonstration of her power, and she carried herself as if she owned the world. Every little move she made was a clear symbol of her dominion. She was strong, wise, authoritative, and she knew it. But on the other hand, her movements and some of the looks she gave him were not overbearing, but interested, curious, compassionate. She was a woman of strength, but she didn't beat him over the head with it. She was content with herself and her life, and that fact was obvious in her demeanor.

"I'm starting to think I have a hole in my shirt," she said bluntly after a time.

"What?"

"You're staring at me," she told him. "If you didn't notice, that makes our kind a bit uncomfortable."

"Sorry, just seeing what it looks like from the outside," he told her.

"The same as it does on me," she said. "Except for certain differences," she added as an afterthought, motioning at her breasts.

Tarrin looked away from her, wondering at the wild changes of attitude he'd felt towards this woman just since the morning. From hate, to distrust, to suspicion…and now to the first inklings of respect, and even a bit of trust. He trusted this woman, he discovered. In very many ways, he was a child, and almost instinctively, he was reaching out to someone that he thought could make everything better, someone to quiet the fears, someone to put an arm around him and guide him. Jesmind represented that person, he realized. She was that person, the only person, that could help him make sense out of the chaos that had become his life. Her sincere regret and resolve to help him had helped break down the anger he'd felt for her just that morning, allowing him to look on her with new eyes.

And look at her with new eyes. She was beautiful. There was no doubt about that. And he was starting to dread having to disrobe in front of her.

"The cat is strong when we carry its form," she told him later that day, after his long contemplation of her and his situation. "The longer we stay a cat, the stronger it gets. Expect to have to take a lesser role concerning some of the instincts when in that shape. But for you, I think it will help, because those things that try to affect your mind now will be much clearer to you when you allow them to express themselves, instead of bottling them in."

"I hope so," he said sincerely.

"Have you been having dreams?"

"Yes, but I can't remember them," he replied.

"They do go away, in time," she assured him. "They're your mind getting used to the instincts. As you settle in with them, the dreams will get weaker and weaker, until they go away." They stopped for a moment next to a huge oak tree, that was on the edge of a small clearing that was dominated by a fallen log and a large carpet of moss. The light was starting to dwindle. They had walked all day. "This looks like a good place to stop," she said. Then she pulled the strings of the laces on her white shirt.

"What are you doing?" Tarrin asked.

"I'm taking off my clothes," she told him with a steady look. "You do the same. Chop-chop, I want to get you through this at least once before sunset." And with that, she pulled the shirt over her head.

Tarrin made himself look. In just a moment, there wasn't going to be anywhere on her that would be safe to put his eyes, and he wasn't about to fuel her amusement. She stared right at him as she pulled her long, thick red hair out of the neck of the shirt, and he returned her gaze with the same calm. He did well, right up until she unbuttoned her trousers. He looked away right as she pushed them over her hips, working on the laces of his own shirt.

"Look at me," she commanded. "It won't do you any good not to look. You're going to see me, no matter how hard you try not to."

He met her gaze shyly, and she smiled at him. It wasn't an amused or malicious smile, it was one of compassion. "I know it makes you uncomfortable, but the quickest way to get over that is to meet it head on," she told him. "Don't look at my face. Look at me, all of me. I'm not embarassed, so you don't have to be either."

She stood there calmly as he did as she said. He looked at her. From toes to the top of her hair, he looked at the muscular form of her body. He noticed that her muscles were very defined, but not overly developed. She did have a washboard stomach, but it gave her a very slender waist compared to her full hips, and the muscles in her back heightened the seeming smallness of her middle. She even turned around slowly for him, allowing him the full view. He noticed how shapely her backside was, even with the white-furred tail sticking out of the top of it. Just like his own tail, the fur on her tail stopped right at the base of it, with no fur anywhere else. "Just one thing, Tarrin," she said. "Looking is one thing. Touching is altogether different."

"I didn't even think of it," he said sincerely.

"I didn't say it was bad," she said huffily. "I just said it was different."

"It sounded like you meant it was bad," he grumbled.

"Then I'm sorry," she said. "But touching is the same for us as what looking at a naked woman does for a human male," she warned him. "It goes for you as much as it does for me. Believe it or not, I think you'll find that standing there with no clothes on isn't half as bad as you think. Even with me standing here. But the instant I touched you in a place you considered to be intimate, well, let's just say that it would give you a different reason to blush."

He blushed anyway, pulling off his shirt.

"The same goes for me," she said. "I don't recommend you putting your paws on my more sensitive parts, unless you want to fend me off with a stick."

"I find it hard to believe that," he said with a sniff, unbuttoning his trousers and steeling himself for the act of disrobing in front of her.

"It's been a long time since I've had a man," she warned bluntly. "Believe it or not, human women get the same urges as human men. Well, among my kind, females get that urge even more often than human men, and we're not afraid to go after what we want." She crossed her arms, waiting deliberately. "I'm being nice to you because you're still unfamiliar with what's happened to you, but if you'd have been any other male, we'd be-"

"I thought you didn't want to talk about it," he said through gritted teeth. In one fast, jerky move, he whisked off his trousers, and stood there, self-consciously, under Jesmind's appraising eye. "And why is that?"

"Is what?"

"Why do the women, um-"

"Oh, that," she said. "Because there are seven women for every man."

"What?"

"There are seven females for every male," she repeated. "So we have to share." She put a finger to her chin, staring at him in a way that made him feel distinctly uncomfortable. "Turn around," she ordered. he did so, gritting his teeth. "My," she said. "My, my, my."

"What?"

"You've got a very handsome body, Tarrin," she complemented.

"Can we get on with this?" he asked plaintively.

"You're ruining my fun, do you know that?" she said with an evil little smile.

"I'm glad one of us in enjoying this," he growled.

"Just give it time," she told him. "The best way to get used to it is to just do it. And it gives me something nice to look at."

"Do you mind?" he demanded.

"Not at all," she said, looking him up and down in such a way that he blushed to the roots of his hair. She laughed then, and then motioned at him with her paw. "Alright, I guess I am being mean," she admitted. "Watch what happens. After you see it, I think you'll be able to do it easily enough."

He watched as she hunkered down in a squat, her arms lowering to the ground in front of her, and then she simply shrunk, so fast it happened in the blink of an eye. A rather large white cat was sitting on the ground where she'd been standing. There was another flash, this one of expansion, and she was again standing before him. "That's all there is to it," she told him. "To make it happen, you have to want it to happen, and you have to will it to happen. You already know how to do it. It's in your blood. You just have to make it do it."

"Alright," he said. He thought about what she did, how she changed. He wanted to do the same thing, so he kept telling himself to change in his mind, over and over again. But nothing was happening.

"Don't just think it," she said. "Want it. Will it."

Clenching his paws into fists, he closed his eyes and willed it to happen, using all the concentration skills taught to him by his parents. he felt the oddest sensation, a cool sensation, as if his body had been changed into a liquid. He felt it actually flow into that other shape, the liquid filling the new vessel. There was no pain, just that flowing sensation. And then it was over.

He opened his eyes, and he was given a new point of view of the world. One much closer to the ground. Everything was in vibrant color, and the world opened up to his senses as his instincts seem to advance from the corner of his mind where they usually sat. He was closer to them that way, and he could feel them in a way that he'd never felt them before. And after a few seconds of that intimate contact with them, he didn't feel quite so afraid of them. He looked down at his paws, seeing a pair of cat's legs underneath him. He looked at himself, this way and that, getting an idea of how it felt to have four legs instead of two, getting used to having fur all over his body. "You're a handsome cat, Tarrin," Jesmind said appreciatively, then she hunkered down and shifted into her cat form. She was slightly smaller than he was, he noticed, and her smell was the smell of a cat, not the smell of a Were-cat.

"How does it feel?"

Tarrin was a bit surprised. She had not used sounds or words or movements, but he just seemed to understand perfectly what she was saying to him. And he found it instinctively easy to reply to her in the exact same manner. "Strange," he told her in that unspoken manner. "How are we talking?"

"I've never understood the specifics of it," she said. "We just know what other cats have to say. It works with normal cats too, from housecats to lions."

"Odd," he remarked, sitting down sedately. He felt the urge to start cleaning his fur. Though the idea of licking himself seemed a bit unusual, nonetheless he felt perfectly at ease with the concept. That was definitely the instincts of the cat impressing themselves on his consciousness, as she said they would.

"What do you think?" she asked, walking up to him and sitting down in front of him.

"It feels…right," he said after a moment.

"Then you won't have any trouble," she told him. "To change back, you just will yourself back. It's that easy."

"It'll be more comfortable to sleep like this," he remarked.

"Now you understand why I talked about getting rid of the clothes," she said with a light manner, grinning at him in the manner that cats smiled. "Change back, Tarrin. Make sure that you can do it easily."

Tarrin nodded to her, and this time he kept his eyes open. He willed himself back into his bipedal form, and he changed. His vision blurred and grayed over at the same instant that he felt his body go liquid again, and it cleared with him looking down at Jesmind's cat form. "Very good," she told him in the manner of the cat. "Now change back, and let's go hunting. I'm hungry."

"Hunt, as a cat?" he asked.

"Cats are excellent hunters," she said proudly. "And I have a taste for squirrel. So let's go get one."

"Eat a squirrel, raw?"

"You'll understand once you change back," she told him huffily.

Tarrin again willed the change, and he was surprised at how easy it was that time. It just took wanting it, and thinking about making it happen, and it happened. He sat down again in his cat form in front of her.

"It's easy, isn't it?" she said simply.

"Yes, it is," he agreed.

"Now, let me teach you how to hunt, cubling," she told him, assuming a matronly role. "The meat is worth the effort."

Jesmind was right. Raw squirrel did taste good.

Tarrin lay half-awake in the darkness, with Jesmind curled up beside him, against him, sound asleep. They'd found a large hollow log to nest in for the night, where it was dark and warm and snugly cramped, just the way that cats liked dens. He drowsily mused over how complete the domination of the cat was on him while in its form, how things that would have turned his stomach or made him flinch just seemed to be second nature to him now. The hunting was actually rather easy, for he already had a solid understanding of the basics. All Jesmind had to do was teach him the tactics and nuances of doing with stealth, speed, claws, and teeth, rather than a bow or sling. Once he'd caught the squirrel, he killed it with a bite to the neck to asphyxiate it. Then they ate it. And Tarrin had felt like it was the most natural thing in the world. All those little things that cats did made perfect sense to him now. It was like he was blind for not realizing it sooner.

That was the Cat, and he knew it, but in a way, he welcomed it. He hoped that this closer communion with what was inside him would let them co-exist peacefully together. Introducing each other, as it were. And maybe stop the dreams that haunted and terrorized him, the dreams that were the reason he didn't want to fall asleep, no matter how desperately his body and mind cried out for it.

Jesmind yawned and stirred against him. He was a bit surprised when she raised her head and licked his cheek, then kept at it. He closed his eyes and put his head down, letting her groom him, accepting her attention completely.

She groomed his cheek and neck, then put her head back down against his shoulder. "Now go to sleep," she ordered in a gentle tone. "I'm here to watch over you."

Tarrin closed his eyes, and soon he was fast asleep.

Sunrise poured a stream of rosy light right into the log, and into Tarrin's eyes. He opened them blearily, letting them adjust to the light, and he wondered at it.

He'd slept through the night, without a single dream.

Jesmind was sleeping beside him, with her head resting against his shoulder. And there was a strange smell in the air. It was a musky smell, an unwashed one, and from the smell of it there were several of them. Whatever they were. Leaving Jesmind asleep, Tarrin inched out of the hollow log, testing the air with his nose. They were very close, whatever they were, almost within earshot. When he heard the first rustling, he backed well into the log, back beside Jesmind, who was still asleep.

After a few moments, he could hear voices, and they weren't human. They were canoid sounds, full of yips and barks, and Tarrin had been taught by his father about them. That meant that the smell was of Dargu, the dog-faced, goat-horned Goblinoids. He saw one padded, dog-like foot come down right outside the log's opening. He didn't know their language, only knew how to identify it.

"Jesmind," he called in the unspoken manner of the cat.

"I know," she replied calmly. "Just leave them be, Tarrin. They're not looking for us, and I hate killing anything before breakfast. That isn't breakfast, that is," she added absently.

"But-"

"Just lay back down, Tarrin," she told him.

There was a cry from outside, and Tarrin saw the edge of his trousers as they were picked up. "They know we're nearby," he said sourly, "and they know I'm not alone."

She seemed to consider that. "Maybe we should do something about it," she decided. "If they're with those Trolls, I don't think that we want them knowing where we are. Besides, I'm not giving up my clothes. But if we do this, they all have to die, Tarrin," she told him. "All of them. Even the wounded. Are you capable of it?"

He was quiet a moment. "I am," he said grimly.

"Alright then. Let's crawl out of here. You go one way, I'll go the other. We'll get them between us, change, and attack. Remember, no mercy. We can't let them know we have alternate forms."

"Alright," he said.

The black and white cats slithered unnoticed from the hollow log and split up. Tarrin hunkered down and darted from bush to tree, working himself out to the edge of the Dargu pack as he took stock of them. There were about eight, armed with spears, clubs, and one with a rusty sword. They were snuffling and checking out their clothes, putting their dirty hands all over them. He'd have to wash them after that. The sword was no danger to him; it was the clubs that were the real threat. Weapons of nature, the rough treestumps could deal real damage to him. Besides, the raw impact of a club could knock him out just as easily as a human, and then he would be helpless.

Once he was in position, Tarrin waited a few seconds for Jesmind to get into position, then changed form. It was so easy to him, he didn't even think about it. He struck from behind, without warning, and his clawed paw reached around the Dargu and cut its throat with a single claw just as quickly as any assassin's knife. The Dargu died without a sound, slumping to the ground, and the others had yet to notice. Tarrin picked up the already dead Dargu and hefted him over his head, feeling hot blood pour on his shoulder, then he threw the dead creature into the backs of his companions. They fell to the ground in a bloody pile, grunting in surprise and the shock of the impact.

Total chaos erupted at that instant, as Jesmind struck from her position of concealment. Jesmind fought with an elemental style that Tarrin could see was self-learned, but it was no less deadly. She ripped the throat from her initial victim, then darted in and did the same to the nearest enemy before it could react. Tarrin drove right into the heart of the Dargu concentration, wreaking havoc with his clawed paws and feet, fighting in the forms of the Ungardt hand style, modifying them as he went to take advantage of his claws. Fighting in the familiar forms seemed to calm him, help him control the bloodlust that raged through his soul, dying to be released, and it allowed him to maintain himself. He caught the wrist of a club, yanked the creature forward, and then broke the arm. Then he whipped it around by that broken arm, and it spun over onto its back as it howled in agony. Tarrin finished it with a stomp right to the neck, crushing the windpipe. The Dargu at first fell back, then pressed in, and then fell back as their weapons were batted aside or evaded, and Dargu fell by the second to the clawed Were-cats' devastating attack. The last few turned to flee, but Tarrin knew that there could be no mercy in this battle. His life depended on it. He grabbed one by the ponytail on its head and yanked back hard enough to snap its neck as Jesmind rushed forward and tackled another, her claws flaying it alive before they hit the ground. That left one, and it had a few steps on Tarrin. Tarrin simply picked up a fallen club, sized up his target, and hurled it at its back with his unnatural strength driving it. It hit the Dargu squarely in the back of the head, and it hit with sufficient force to spray the surrounding trees with red gore. The dead creature tumbled to the ground, and was very still.

Jesmind blew out her breath, carefully sizing up the bloody mess. "Good," she told him. "You know how to fight. That's something I won't have to teach you."

"I know how to fight," he said tightly, looking away from the bloody carnage they had wrought in a surprisingly short time.

They washed themselves of the blood in the nearby stream, and Tarrin dunked his clothes and beat most of the dirt out of them, and wrung them out as best he could. They were still wet when he put them on, but there was little else he could do. Wet leather chafed and itched, but he wasn't about to go nude.

"Much better," Jesmind approved as she donned her own wet shirt. She'd taken his idea and done the same thing.

"You think there are any more of them out there?"

"Thousands," she replied, "but they usually live farther north. They'd only come down here for a reason, and with those Trolls that were chasing you, I'd say that you were that reason."

"I don't see why," he complained. "I'm just a farmboy from a secluded village."

"I don't know either, and I don't really care," she said. "We'll have to make for a city. We need humans around us, with their steel to scare off the Goblinoids." He saw nothing wrong with that idea. Until he could continue on in safety, heading for the Tower was out of the question. It was too far away, and these creatures had obviously been placed previously…as if the placer had known which way he would go.

Of course he did, Tarrin realized. There was only way to get to Suld from Marta's Ford.

One way for a human.

"Darsa is on the coast," Jesmind thought aloud. "It's actually pretty close. About four days' travel. And they're expecting us to go south, towards Ultern, not west."

"So we should go west," Tarrin said.

"But my home range is east," she fretted. "I hate going the wrong way."

"If you want to walk through them, then go right ahead," Tarrin told her.

"Hush," she said absently, billowing out her wet hair to help dry it. Tarrin was struck again quickly by Jesmind's raw beauty and physical perfection at that moment, as she scrubbed her hair to and fro to get air through it, the move accenting those breasts that Tarrin couldn't help but stare at when he thought she wasn't looking. He didn't understand why or how he could look at her as a guardian in one way, and as a partner with the same eyes. She was almost like his mother, and he wouldn't even dare to think of his mother the same way he caught himself thinking about Jesmind. He thought that maybe it was because she was a female of his own kind that made him think that way, the only one that he knew. But it could be anything, and he knew that. He still wasn't familiar enough with this new life to understand the nuances.

She gave him an intent look, then put her arms down casually. "I guess that we will go west for a time, then turn south again," she acceded. "We may not have to go all the way to Darsa. It'll depend on whether or not we're followed."

"I guess that'll work," Tarrin acquiesed.

They turned west and started at a very brisk pace that was almost a run. Jesmind urged him into a loping, jog-like pace that ate up the ground, and he was shocked at how easily he could maintain it. They ran for most of the morning, farther and faster than a horse could manage it. The trees flew by as they ran along game trails, and the whole world seemed to center down to the sharp watch for tree limbs and turns in the trail, or picking out a path when they had to travel through virgin forest. Their clothes dried relatively quickly with their speed blowing air over it. About midmorning, Tarrin started to get tired. "Can we stop for a while?" he asked her.

"I guess," she said sourly. They both slowed to a walk. "We'll find a stream and fish out some lunch. We'll rest while we eat."

They found one, a pretty little stream with a waterfall that was twice Tarrin's height feeding a large pool. Silvery shapes darted to and fro in the water, which was decidedly icy to the touch. Tarrin guessed that the stream was fed right from the Skydancer Mountains, with their ice and glaciers in the higher elevations. Jesmind had him fish out some lunch as she drank farther down, and when she returned, he had three large trout sitting on the leaf-strewn bank. "Only one more," she told him, cleaning and paring them as Tarrin took five minutes to snag the last one. She handed him a flank of fish as he sat down.

He gave her a curious look, a question coming to mind that he'd been meaning to ask her for a while. "What do you do?"

"Do? What do you mean, what do I do?"

"Well, what do you do? When you're not here with me, anyway." He took another bite. "You know, do you make things? Or sew, or what?"

"Ah," she said. "I don't work for a living, Tarrin. Unless you want to call hunting and gathering work. I do have a little garden behind my house, but I admit I'm not there too often. I like to roam around alot. I guess as we get older, just sitting at home isn't quite as sedate as it used to be." She pulled a bone from her mouth and tossed it aside. "It's bloody boring, truth be told. I've never had a child, so I've never really had the urge to stay in one place too long. Mother really gets after me over that," she grunted.

"Over not being married?"

"Tarrin, we don't marry," she told him tersely. "My three sisters all have their own children, and I think my brother Jarlin has sired about twelve. I'm the oldest, but I don't have any children to present to my mother. Well, except for you, but you're not the kind of child she wants. Mother's a busybody, and she probably won't let off of it until I hand her a baby. She tracks me down about every twenty years or so just to see if I'm pregnant or already have a baby, and if I don't, why I'm not trying to track down a male." She made a face. "Last time, I just went home around the time she started looking for me, just to save myself the trouble. That's where she always starts to look."

"Well, how do you earn money?" he asked curiously.

"Money? I've been around a while, Tarrin," she told him with a grin. "I have money. I keep most of it at home, buried in a safe place. But I don't really use it too often. I can provide my own needs. About the only things I ever buy are clothes, and the occasional steel tool." She finished her last bit of fish, and leaned back. "Why all these questions about me, anyway?" she demanded.

"I don't know," he said. "You're a Were-cat, so maybe if if I learn about what you do, then I'll know what I'm supposed to do."

She laughed. "Cub, do whatever you want. If staying in your den all your life is what you want, do it. If you want to spend your life travelling, do it. The only things you can't do are what's proscribed by Fae-da'Nar."

"What are those?"

"It gets involved, but the core of it is not to give the humans reason to hate us," she told him. "Butchering villages, preying on humans, killing people for no reason. That kind of thing. What would give us a bad reputation."

"Oh."

"The real mess is when you have to learn about the other Fae-da'Nar," she grunted. "You have to learn the basic customs of the others, and things like that. It's so we don't have misunderstandings and start fighting among ourselves." The wind had blown a strand of hair up inside her ear, and it was flicking reflexively to clear it. Tarrin reached up and pulled it free for her. "Thank you," she said absently. "I see your hair is still growing," she remarked.

Tarrin made a face as he swung his head back and forth, feeling it sway behind him. "I hate it," he complained.

"I'll braid it for you," she offered. "That keeps it more or less under control" She got up and knelt behind him, taking his hair into her hands. Hands, he realized. There was no way she could put her Were-cat paws into his hair like that without him noticing the difference. But a look down showed him that her tail was still there. "You can change only your hands?" he asked.

"I can," she said. "But I can't get rid of my tail or put on human ears without going full human. Some of us can, some of us can't. It depends." She pulled his hair back and started separating it. "It's alot easier just changing your hands, I think. It's not as much of a strain." Tarrin looked down at his paws. "Don't even think of trying," she warned. "When you're as young as you are, you could only do it for a few minutes, and even then it would be excruciatingly painful. Save it for when the gain is worth the pain."

"Alright," he said, bowing his head and letting her braid his hair.

"Tarrin," she said.

"What?"

"If you don't get your tail out from between my legs, we're going to have a disagreement."

"Sorry," he said sincerely, blushing somewhat. "It does what it wants most of the time." He took control of his rebellious limb, snaking out out from under Jesmind and curling it around himself.

After she finished, they started off again on that same ground-eating pace. They held it as the land began to get flat, and the trees slowly began to get larger and larger, with less underbrush, which allowed them to go faster. Tarrin began to see faint signs of human activity, but it was very sparse. It also let him think and he had reached a very simple conclusion.

He had to leave Jesmind.

Not because she was cruel, or mean, or he was afraid of her…it was because he liked her too much. He was getting more and more intrigued by her, and more than once he'd entertained the idea of going with her to her den. He'd already made a promise to go to the Tower, and he meant to uphold it. And the memory of Jenna almost burning Dolanna with fire instilled enough fear into him to make him want to go there. He never wanted that to happen with him. The thought of accidentally burning Jesmind made him even more horrified. He knew that there was nothing he could say to her to make her stop doing what she was doing…because he knew that for one, Jesmind wouldn't change, and the other, that it was who she was that was quickly charming him, not what. Jesmind had a unique, direct approach to life, and a vibrant liveliness and manner about her that was quickly putting him under its spell. She was much like his own mother, and Tarrin wasn't the only boy alive that found the ideal woman to be something like his own mother. She was intelligent, wise, strong, willful, and honest, and those were qualities that he found to be very attractive.

The only question that remained to him was how he was going to do it. He was fairly certain that she could easily track him down, and she seemed to be in much better condition than him, so he was fairly sure that a lead wouldn't matter all that much. He had to fix it so that they were physically separated, or do it in a manner that would make her not want to follow him. But he had no idea how he was going to manage that.

He thought about it the rest of the day, until Jesmind called him to a stop. She looked up worriedly. "We have to find shelter," she told him. Tarrin felt the cold wind, and he knew what she meant. There was a summer storm blowing in. "You go that way, I'll go this way. Look for anything dry."

He followed a small ridgeline for a few moments, but Jesmind called out to him over a rumble of thunder. He followed her scent-trail back to her. There was a fairly large hole in the side of the small rise, leading up rather than down, and from the smell of it she'd already crawled in. "Jesmind!" he called into the small cave as the first drops of rain started to fall.

"It's large enough," she called back. "Come on in."

It was an abandoned den of some kind, but the smells were too faint to identify. It was rather cramped with two people in it, but it was more than long enough for both of them to stretch out. It just didn't have any headroom. "No, go on the other side," she ordered as he tried to crawl in beside her. The den entrance was set so that it would be to the side of them when they laid out, and she obviously wanted to be closer to it. He obligingly crawled over her, trying not to put too much weight down on her, and laid down in the space between her and the den's curled wall.

"Good," she said calmly. "I didn't want to sleep in fur tonight. This is soft enough, dry, warm, and large enough for us to sleep like this."

There was a brilliant flash and then a blasting crash of thunder that shook the whole den. "That was close," Jesmind remarked as she rolled over on her back and put her paws behind her head.

"Sounds like it's going to go on for a while," Tarrin said as the hammer of the rain became suddenly loud.

"Probably," she agreed, her eyes almost glowing in the darkness of the den. They were gathering in the light, like a dog's eyes in the dark, only the color that reflected back was the same green as they were in the light. It was an eerie look, with her eyes glowing in that manner, and Tarrin fully understood how his gaze could instill fear. If his did what hers do, then they would be frightening to look at. "I'm going to sleep. Unless you had other ideas?"

"No," he said with a faint blush. Tarrin put his head on his paws, closed his eyes, and immediately fell asleep.

It was morning. Jesmind was asleep beside him, and he'd again slept through the night without dreams. The air coming into the den smelled of wet leaves, and he could hear dripping water. After the thunderstorm, the rain had continued on as normal rain for most of the rest of the night, breaking the rather long dry snap that had been going on. He leaned over her and looked out the opening, seeing water droplets sparkling in the sun, and he could hear a wind blowing the tops of the trees. He wanted to go out and see. Putting his back against the top of the den, Tarrin tried to inch over Jesmind without disturbing her, but there was almost no room. His tail swished across her side and leg, and her eyes opened immediately and focused on him. "What are you doing?" she asked.

"I wanted to go outside and see, but you were in the way." He was about to say more, but her eyes seemed to go softer for a moment, and the texture of her scent changed in a way that he couldn't explain. He stared down into those lovely eyes of hers and seemed to be captivated by them. He could smell her, feel the nearness of her in the cozy den, and it seemed to be clouding his judgement. He hadn't even realized that he'd leaned down close to her until he was already there. She just seemed to lay there and see what he would do, and for some reason that bolstered the young man's courage. Closing his eyes, he lowered his head and kissed her.

It was an awkward kiss, tentative, and Tarrin didn't even know what he was doing until he felt Jesmind's paws slide up and around his back. But Jesmind seemed to urge him, and when she kissed him back, the sensation of it totally blew all coherent thought to the four winds. He realized in some corner of his mind that she made sure to get a hold on him before returning his kiss, because the sudden sensation and raw sensuality of it actually frightened him. He tensed up and tried to pull away. Jesmind let him go only so far before her claws dug into his back, and the pain caused him to instantly stop. "Whatever is the matter?" she asked, her voice breathless, her eyes a bit confused and a tad annoyed.

"You…I…I can't do this," he said in a panting tone. He wanted to, but he felt that if he did, he wouldn't want to leave her. But he had to. Her own safety depended on it.

"And what is stopping you?" she asked in a calm, quiet voice. "I know I'm not. I've been working you up to this since the moment we met, and I'm not about to let you back out now." She used a leg to throw both of them over, until he was on his back and she was on top of him, her smoldering eyes staring down into his and her paws holding him down. "I thought I was going to have to hit you over the head to get your attention. I've never been so blunt about getting a man's eye."

"But we can't, I can't-"

"Stop talking nonsense," she said in a cooing voice. She leaned down and kissed him again, and all resistance, as well as all thought, fled his mind.

To: Title EoF

Chapter 6

Tarrin had no idea what to do now.

It was midday, and they were still inside the den. Tarrin was gathered up into Jesmind's arms, and as she slept contentedly, he brooded.

This was not what he wanted to happen.

It was, but it wasn't, and in that respect, it had been more than he ever dreamed. Jesmind had been an infinitely tender lover, and that expression of her warmth and feeling for him had touched him to his soul. He knew that he'd never think of her in the same way again. He felt a feeling of trust in her that defied explanation, grounded in the incredible intimacy that they had shared, and he would tell her anything she wanted to know, and he would trust that it would go no farther. He'd come to know her every line, her every curve, and her scent was imprinted forever into his mind. He didn't know if it was love, but there was certainly something between them now, some sort of bond that could not be broken.

What he had feared would happen had happened, though…he didn't want to leave her. He wanted to stay with her and learn what she had to teach, but more than that, he just wanted to be with her. And he knew that, unless she agreed to go with him to the Tower, that it wouldn't come to pass. The problem was, he couldn't just come out and ask her to go to the Tower with him. If she knew that it was his intent, then she'd watch him so closely that he'd have no chance to get away from her. He knew that he'd have to approach the subject very delicately, try to urge her into it, convince her that teaching him at the Tower was just as good as back at her home. And he also had to impress upon her how important it was that he learn how to control the untouched talent of Sorcery that was deep inside him, control it before he hurt someone, or hurt her.

It was very heavy thoughts, and he worried at them fretfully, almost as much as he worried at who was trying to kill him. He had no doubt about that now. They had been trying since he'd left home, and they weren't about to stop. They were probably even behind the fire in Watch Hill's inn. And they had caused this to him, the change that had forever altered his life. He didn't really blame Jesmind. She was a pawn, and whatever he'd thought at first, she had no direct responsiblity for what had happened. She was just a tool used by another. There is an old saying in the army; don't kill the messenger when he brings bad tidings. Jesmind had been the messenger. Whoever they were, they had access to some very exotic creatures, like Jesmind, they had mages like the one he'd killed, and they could make the Goblinoids do what they wanted them to do. That was considerable power, because Trolls didn't like to talk to their dinners before eating them. Those Trolls had to be afraid of the ones that told them to chase him to do what they wanted. Trolls were like that. And it was very disturbing, because from what his father had said often, the Goblinoids weren't much of a threat because of their infighting. Tribes fought tribes with just as much enthusiasm as race fought race. Well, he more or less had concluded that those Dargu had been working for the same people. If these people could command all the different Goblinoids and prevent them from killing each other, then they had an extremely powerful army at their disposal.

It was a puzzle, and it was like trying to put one together with a blindfold on, and he wasn't allowed to touch the pieces either. But until he knew who and what was behind it, there was nothing that he could do but keep one step ahead of them. They seemed fanatically intent on keeping him from reaching to Tower of Sorcery. He was just as determined to do it just to spite them. Tarrin thought about that as he absently played with Jesmind's hair, studying the white-backed cat ear that was poking up out of that brilliant red mass, noticing how it was large, but not too large, and how it moved even in her sleep towards any sound. He ran the back of his finger along her cheek, then over the smooth skin where a human ear would have been. It looked odd to him, even now, not to see an ear there.

"Mmmmm," Jesmind sounded, stretching under him. Her arms wrapped back around him almost immediately, and she gazed up into his eyes with a bemused, content expression on her face. "Good morning," she sounded, bringing a paw around and tapping him on the tip of his nose. "Such a serious face," she chided. "Don't I get a smile?"

"Not right now," he told her.

"Well," she said, ignoring him, "I'd say that that was definitely worth stopping for."

"I'm glad you enjoyed it," he said dryly.

"Cub, I don't think you want to hear how much I enjoyed it," she said with a grin. "Unless you'd like a rather detailed account of the parts I found most pleasurable?"

"Ah, no," he replied urbanely.

"Good," she said. "Talking about it with you right here will just give me ideas, and as much fun as this is, we have to move. Where are our clothes?"

"I have no idea," he replied.

She laughed richly. "Then we really must have enjoyed it," she observed. "I hope I didn't tear them."

She waited a moment. "Tarrin."

"What?"

"To get up, you have to get up," she told him. "I can't move with you on top of me."

After finding their clothes, Tarrin crawled out of the den. He had dirt caked to him in many places, and there were streaks of brown on him. "That's what happens when you sweat in a dirt-floored den," she told him with a wink. She looked much the same as he did. "There's a stream somewhere nearby. We can wash off there."

The smell of water led them to a very small little brook, and they found an area of relative depth to wash off the dirt, then let the sun and wind dry them before they dressed. As they sat by the stream, basking in the warmth of the sun, Tarrin decided to start trying to convince her to come with him. "Where will we go from here?" he asked.

"We'll have to turn northwest for a while," she told him, smoothing out the fur on her arms, then using her claws as a comb to brush her thick hair. "I think going on to Darsa is the best thing to do, whether they follow us or not. After we lose ourselves in the people there, we can get back to my range easily."

"Why turn northwest?"

"Because of the Scar," she told him. "It's a big ravine that runs almost to the coast. Once we get to it, we'll run beside it. Darsa is at the end of it."

"If you're worried about that, then we can just go to Suld," he said. "It's a large place, full of people, and we'll be allowed to stay in the Tower. I think that we'd be safer there than running around out here."

"No," she said firmly. "I'm not going anywhere near those spellweavers. It was one of them that collared me."

"Really?" he gasped.

"I know Sorcery when I smell it," she said in a deadly voice. "I don't know much about Druidic magic, but I've got enough of it to sense a Sorcerer's weaving, and I felt that right before I lost my memory."

"Not all people who can use Sorcery are Sorcerers," he told her. "Many of them don't want to be in the order. Maybe it was one of those freelancers."

"I don't care," she grated. "I'm still not going anywhere near them. And neither are you."

"I have to," he said. "Jesmind, I am one of those people. Before I left home, I saw my sister nearly kill someone with Sorcery. It was an accident, but it was no less deadly. If I don't go somewhere and find someone to teach me how to control it, that may happen to me. And I may kill somebody. I don't want to hurt anyone, Jesmind, least of all you."

She gave him a hot look, but he pressed on regardless. "I don't see why you can't teach me what I need to know there," he said in a reasonable tone. "That way I learn what I need to know about being what I am, and I'm in a place where I won't accidentally kill someone with Sorcery."

"I'm not going there," she told him in a steely tone. "And since I'm not, you're not. And that's the end of it."

"Gods, woman, do I have to burn your hair off to make you understand?" he said hotly. "I don't want to hurt anyone, and if I hurt you, I think I'd kill myself. There's only one place that I can go to keep that from happening. Why are you being so stubborn about this?"

"Cub, I'm about one step from shutting you up," she growled, balling one oversized hand-paw into a fist. "I said no. In case you don't understand what that means, it means no. I'm not going to Suld, and you go where I go. That means you are not going to Suld."

He was getting angry with her, but he knew better than to press it too far, else she'd start getting suspicious. When the time came, he needed as much a head start on her as he could get.

After dressing, they started off again at that ground-eating pace that they'd used the day before. It was amazing that he could run so fast for so long. At that pace, he knew he could outrun a horse, for while a horse could run faster, it couldn't do it as long as he could at the speed he was running. The forest became populated by more and more evergreens as the terrain quickly became hilly. There was less undergrowth as well, which allowed them to run faster when there was no trail to follow.

The Scar was almost self-descriptive. It was a huge ravine that simply opened with no warning. It was about a hundred paces across where they'd encountered it, and it went straight as an arrow due east and west. Jesmind stood confidently at the very edge of the deep crevice, which had a considerable amount of standing water at the bottom which was at least two hundred spans down, shading her eyes with her paws from the bright sun as she studied the horizon to the east, and then to the west.

Tarrin stood at the edge, looking down at the narrow lake at the bottom. "What now?" he asked.

"There are some bridges across here and there," she said. "There are enough woodsmen around for them to need them. We'll cross one and get on the other side, then cut the bridge so the Dargu can't follow." She grunted. "Damn, I don't see any," she informed him. "Let's skirt this thing to the east and see if we can't find one."

They turned east and followed along the edge of the ravine. Tarrin noticed that it stayed at almost the exact same width, and the walls of the ravine's sides were smooth, with striated, multi-colored bands of rock that went all the way down to the water's edge some distance below. "I wonder if there are any fish in there," he mused.

"There are," she told him. "I fell in once. It took me almost an hour to climb out. That water is cold."

"How did that happen?"

"The bridge fell out from under me," she shrugged, "and I was too far away to jump to the edge."

"I wonder what made it," he said.

"From what I hear, it was some God," she remarked. "I guess he was having a hissy fit or something."

They found a bridge about an hour later. It was a rotted rope bridge with wooden planks, and it looked like it would collapse if a fly landed on it. Jesmind frowned a bit after looking at it, but a few tugs on the supporting ropes showed that they were firm. "We may as well try this one," she said. "The worst that can happen is that we both get wet."

"I hate getting wet," Tarrin growled.

"I do too," she said. "It's a race thing."

Jesmind went first, since she weighed less than Tarrin. But not much. The planks groaned considerably as she put her weight on them, but they held. The ropes creaked just as loudly, but they too held. "Come on," she said after she was about a quarter of the way across.

"Is that wise?" he asked.

"The support ropes are strong enough," she said. "So long as we're far enough apart, it'll be just fine."

Tarrin put one padded foot on the first plank, and he winced when it creaked ominously as he put weight on it. He kept both paws on the handrails as he gingerly stepped out onto the bridge, moving with the sure-footed caution for whom that cats were famous. Tarrin realized that he had absolutely no fear of the height. It was the fear of the bridge breaking out from under him that made him go so slow.

After he was about halfway across, Tarrin suddenly stopped. He realized one simple thing. That this was the perfect opportunity to separate himself from Jesmind. With the Scar between them, she would have to find another bridge to get back across, and that would give him enough of a lead on her to get away.

Tarrin agonized over it for several seconds. He didn't want to leave her. He was afraid that she would be angry with him for his treachery. No, he was sure of that. But the single thought of Jesmind's skin charred and her hair on fire strengthened his resolve. It was for her own good as much as his.

With her back to him, Jesmind didn't see Tarrin flex out his claws, grab the rail rope securely with his other paw, and then shear through the rail with his claws.

The rail snapped like a broken bowstring, popping back towards the walls of the ravine and breaking guideropes that secured the support ropes to the rope lattice holding the footplanks. The floor fell out from under both of them, and Jesmind wildly managed to get her paw on the unbroken support rope, which sagged and suddenly groaned loudly from the sudden extra weight. Tarrin flexed out the claws on his foot, and, holding the support rope with both paws, he set his claws of his foot against it and pushed. They ripped through the sturdy hemp easily, and then the rope bridge separated into two pieces.

Tarrin fell with one section, and Jesmind fell with the other, on opposite sides.

The impact with the wall was bone-numbing. Tarrin almost lost his grip on the rope as he rebounded away from the wall and his hands stung fiercely. He scrabbled on the wooden planks with his claws, then found purchase as they sank into the old wood. Breathing a few deep gasps of air, he put his forehead on the rotting wood and thanks whatever Gods were watching that he didn't take a swim. "Tarrin!" Jesmind called urgently. He looked back and up. She was higher up on her section, hanging on with her paws and footclaws in the same manner as him. "Are you alright?"

"I'm alright," he replied soberly, then he started climbing up. The rotted condition of the planks made climbing up them dangerous, so he opted to just hand-walk up the support rope, which was still in good condition.

"Don't!" she called.

"What?" he asked, still climbing.

"You're on the wrong side," she shouted to him. "You'll have to drop into the water and climb up my side."

"I'm not getting in that water," he said adamantly, neatly evading giving away his intention for a few precious moments. He had a good rhythm at that point, and he was climbing up the side of the ravine with surprising speed. She beat him to the top, but not by very much. He clambored over the edge of the wall and turned around to face her.

"Well, we can follow along on either side until we find another bridge," she called.

"You're safe now, Jesmind," he called calmly.

"What?"

"I'm sorry."

She was quiet a moment, then her ears laid back. Even from a hundred paces away, he saw her eyes literally flare up from within with an unholy greenish glow. "You did that!" she accused. "You little-"

Tarrin winced at the barrage of sudden graphic curses she threw in his direction. She was incensed, and he was suddenly glad they were separated by an uncrossable barrier. "You're going to Suld!" she shrieked. "You lied to me!" she said with a sudden vehemence that frightened him.

"I never did any such thing!" he called back.

"You said you'd stay with me, and now you're running away!" she accused. "You lied to me, Tarrin!"

"I said I would learn what you had to teach," he called back. "I never said when. You don't understand that I need to go to Suld, Jesmind. I don't have a choice. I wanted you to come with me, but you refused. This is more your fault than mine. When I'm done at Suld, then I'll be happy to go with you. But not until then."

She was totally enraged, and despite the distance between them, he was suddenly very afraid of her. "You had better run far and fast, rogue," she spat at him. "Because when I catch up to you, I'm going to kill you!" Tarrin rocked back on his heels. She meant it. "And I know where you're going, so you had best hope to every God you can remember that you get there before I do!" She snatched a small rock off the ground, and hurled it at him. Despite the distance between them, Tarrin had to duck to avoid getting his nose flattened by the rock. "I'm going to kill you, Tarrin!" she shouted at the top of her lungs, then she threw a few more tongue-shrivelling curses at him, even as she threw more rocks. He hoped she didn't know what some of those words meant, as he evaded the amazingly accurately thrown rocks.

He gave her a sober, calm look, and she stopped shouting at him. Her face was screwed up into a mask of utter outrage, and she was panting hard from her anger and exertion at throwing curses and rocks. "I'm sorry," he told her. Then he turned and started running south.

Her howling promise to gut him when she got her claws on him followed him into the trees.

It had not gone as well as he had hoped, but it had been necessary. Tarrin sighed at what could have been, then quickened his pace. Jesmind was now his enemy, and he knew that she would kill him without hesitation when she caught up to him. So he had to make sure that she didn't.

It had been a very hard two days.

Tarrin was huddling in a small hollow bole created by a massive fallen tree, avoiding a heavy rain that was soaking the surrounding forest. The only reason he stopped was that he needed rest and that it was so heavy it had reduced visibility to almost nothing. Tarrin had had almost no sleep since leaving Jesmind, pushing himself at a murderous pace that was surely so far ahead of her that his trail would be washed out by the rain. That had been his intent, for rain was a common occurance in Sulasia at that time of year. With enough of a lead and the rain washing out his scent, he could now change direction without fear of her following him.

Then again, he didn't even know if she was. He'd seen no sign of her since he'd left her fuming at the Scar. Since she knew where he was going, he saw her making one of three choices. She would try to track him down, she would get ahead of him on one of the more obvious routes to Suld and head him off, or she would go all the way to Suld and try to catch him there. Tarrin was guessing that, as mad as she was, she was chasing him. And now that the rain was so heavy, it would wash away any trace of his passage, and he could make his planned turn with no fear of her following.

Well, not too much fear.

He waited for a few moments, then climbed out into the rain, getting onto the fallen tree. Now it was important not to get on the ground, where his tracks or scent could sink into the mud. He pulled himself into the trees with a low-laying branch, then turned southeast, away from Suld.

That was his plan. Go southeast for a while, turn due south, then cross the High Road to Suld at some point. Run parallel to that road on the south side, veer away close to the city, and then enter from the south, the opposite direction of what she would think he would come in.

Two days with very little food and no sleep had taken their toll, however. Tarrin had already factored in a day of little movement into his plan. Once he was sure he'd lost her, he'd stop and get a very good sleep, then fish or hunt up a good meal, and then return to his established pattern of eating whatever he could find during a stop of only a short time. Over the last two days, his father's training in woodlore had kept him alive, letting him find roots and plants that were edible, things that he wouldn't have to hunt down or catch. He did have one meat meal, stumbling over a rabbit den, then reaching in and grabbing the animal before it could get too far away. It hadn't expected that. But raw rabbit left much to be desired, and he wouldn't do that again unless he was hungry enough not to care.

Tarrin moved in the trees for the rest of the day. It wasn't as fast as moving on the ground, but with the heavy rain, it was almost undetectable. Especially since he was being extraordinarily careful about not leaving clawmarks on the trees. Twice he'd passed over or allowed to pass a band of Goblinoids, one a tribe of small Bruga, the other a small pack of Trolls, which were trudging about in the rain in an obvious attempt to find something.

Or someone.

They were still looking for him. He'd already known that they would. It was what made his plan risky. If he had too many fights with them, he'd be leaving bodies and obvious signs of his passage, and that was something that he was certain would doom him to be meeting Jesmind face to face in the immediate future. He had to get to Suld without getting into a single fight, if he could help it. And with the number of Goblinoids that were infesting this stretch of forest, that would not be easy. But, to his advantage, they would slow Jesmind down as well, if she did manage to follow him.

He kept moving after the sun went down, moving in the pounding rain. The darkness was much more his ally than the Goblinoids, for his sensitive eyes gathered in the murky light and allowed him to see, while they resorted to torches, ruddy beacons that told him exactly where they were. He moved on through the night, after the rain tapered off, stopping in utter silence as a sooty torch came in his direction, then moving on after it had gone by.

He moved on after daybreak, and throughout the entire day, glad of a warm, windy day with heavy overcast that would keep his shadow off the ground, while the sound of the wind through the trees would cover any sound he may accidentally make. The concentration of Goblinoids was going down, as they concentrated their search in other areas, for he only saw five bands of them as he meandered on a generally southern course.

By the end of the day, his head felt as if it were stuffed with sand, and he found his mind drifting at the most inconvenient times. He'd already been awake somewhere around two days, and he'd all but exhausted his reserves. The rain that had begun to fall was about the only thing keeping him awake, as it pattered on his head and body and dropped into his ears, which was uncomfortable. He knew that he had to stop, danger or no danger. He decided to stay in the safety of the trees, though, and he searched around for a suitable sleeping place. It took him about half an hour to find one, just as the sun was setting in the west, an old hollowed out squirrel's nest that had yet to gain a new tenant. It was just large enough for him to squeeze in through the opening, and inside it was certainly warm and dry. Tarrin removed his clothes and pushed them into the opening, then changed form and wriggled in through the entrance. The inside was indeed dry, and warm. The past tenant had littered the floor of the hollow with pine needles and shredded leaves, creating a very soft bed on which to sleep.

He laid down on the soft mat of needles and leaves, considering things in that drowsy half-conscious frame of mind before sleep. He'd yet to feel real fear at what he was doing…and he hadn't had a single dream since meeting Jesmind. In the short time that they had been together, the feisty Were-cat female had changed Tarrin, changed him very much. Because of her, he could strike out on his own, surrounded by enemies, with very little fear, and a great deal of confidence. He would have been lost out here alone, if it hadn't been for Jesmind.

He closed his eyes and slept, dropping off literally between one thought and the next.

It took him nearly fifteen days to reach the High Road. He'd spent almost all that time moving through the trees, not leaving the Goblinoid patrols even a footprint to follow, coming down only to forage for food and to drink water, and to cross a couple of streams and small rivers. His ribs were starting to stick out some, but he'd gotten used to the constant hunger that came with meals that couldn't fill his belly.

The time out in the forest, in a way, had been good for him. His body was as tough as an old gnarled root now, already strong muscles hardened visibly by some serious physical activity. The pads on his hand-paws and feet had had been worn down, then grew back several times, until the pads that were now on his feet were about as tough as old leather. He thought he'd had endurance before, but now he could move all day and half the night at a constant speed that would have put a Goblinioid on the ground panting and heaving. It had also brought his two elemental sides into a closer symbiotic harmony, as both the human and the Cat cooperated to get him to safety. The human guiding his path and allowing him to execute his plans, the Cat by keeping him safe and telling him what moves were wise and what moves were stupid. He drew heavily on the instinctive knowledge of his animal half in those fifteen days, and that along with the woodlore instruction he'd received from his father had been what had fed him over the course of time. He noticed a change in his basic attitudes as well, for the time in the forest had all but converted him into a creature of the forest.

But now a sign of the human world stood on the ground underneath the tree in which he was perched. His tail snaked back and forth reflexively as he stared at it, the single goal that had driven him for half a month, watching a trade caravan wend its way to the west. He needed information, and here was the perfect opportunity to get it. It was a large caravan, with some ten or fifteen wagons and nearly forty men on horseback, wearing armor and carrying assorted weaponry, guarding the goods which were stowed on the large wooden conveyances.

Tarrin dropped down to a lower branch, waiting to see if he could get one man somewhat by himself. He didn't want to hurt the man, just talk to him, but he didn't want to attract the attention of the entire caravan. He got his chance, as one of the caravan's rear guard stopped not too far from him and dismounted, then hurried off into the bushes to relieve himself. The others didn't wait for him. Tarrin moved into a position relatively close to the horse, approaching it with the horse's scent full in his face so that the horse wouldn't smell him. The man came out of the bushes and climbed back up onto his horse quickly.

"Excuse me," Tarrin called from the concealment of the lower branches.

The man gave a startled oath and drew his sword.

"Oh, please," Tarrin called. "Put that away. I just need to ask you a couple of questions."

"Who are you?" he called. "Where are you?"

"Don't worry about it," he said. "Where are we? I'm a bit lost."

"This is the High Road," he said, a bit confused.

"I know that," Tarrin retorted. "Where on the High Road? Near what city?"

"How can you not know that?"

"Are you going to answer me or not?"

"I may not," he said.

"Human, if I was a bandit, I would have attacked you when you went into the bushes," Tarrin said in disgust. "I just want to know where I am so I can get to where I'm going."

The fact that Tarrin called him "human" was not lost on the man. "Are you a Faerie?" he asked curiously. "Is that why I can't see you?"

"Don't worry about what I am, just answer the question," Tarrin grated.

"This place is about a day's ride to the west of Ultern," he answered. "Jerinhold is about a day's ride east of here."

Tarrin considered that. "I came too far east," he growled aloud. "Thank you, human. That helps me a great deal."

In an intentional rustle of leaves, Tarrin left the man standing there.

Tarrin was quickly faced with another problem, one he hadn't considered. The forest came right down to the road in that stretch that he'd found, but that was not normal. Farmlands cut into the forest on both sides of the road not even a quarter of a mile from where he'd encountered the guard, and they stretched out too far for him to keep the road in sight and still stay in the woods. Tarrin couldn't follow the road quickly if he had to detour every quarter of a mile to go around a farm, and time was a definite factor. It left him with a hard decision to make, but in the end, it wasn't much of a decision.

Tarrin holed up in a tree top for the rest of the day. When sunset drained all the light from the sky, leaving only the faint, multihued light of the Skybands as illumination, Tarrin dropped down from the trees and stepped out onto the road. There was no helping it, but at least on the road he could travel with great speed. Tarrin set out in that ground-eating lope, and spent the night travelling down the road. He passed the caravan he'd encountered that day around midnight, and left them far behind.

What he didn't expect was reaching the city of Jerinhold before dawn. It was a walled city, surrounded on all sides by farmland, and not a few small villages. Tarrin wasn't about to set foot inside the city, so he ran along a road that went along the base of the wall, watching the faint light on the eastern horizon warily. He also didn't want to be caught out in the open at daybreak. He wasn't sure why he was so concerned with not being seen, but some part of him didn't want the humans to see him, or for them not to see him like that. In a way, he was afraid of how they would react to seeing a half-human creature, and the thought of being violently rejected was more than he was willing to risk.

It was almost dawn by the time he'd managed to circumnavigate the walls of Jerinhold, and the High Road stretched out before him with almost no cover available. He decided to find cover for the day, but he'd get as far as he could before he had to take shelter. He ran at a very brisk pace right up until the dawning of the sun, then he veered off the road and crossed several farms, and got himself into a small strip of woods that lay between two large farms, serving as a boundary between them. He hid his clothes in a small bole of a tree, changed form, and crawled into the bole with his clothes. As the first rays of the sun washed over the floor of the woods, Tarrin fell asleep.

Tarrin was almost starving when he woke up, some time before sunset. He dressed with a hollow hole forming in his stomach, and the thought of food was the only motivating factor. Aside from a few field mice, there really wasn't much in the small strip of woods, and besides, field mouse wasn't the tastiest of meals. There were farms around, several of them, and he was absolutely positive that he could find something to eat among the buildings of one of them. Tarrin didn't really like the idea of stealing from honest folk, but there was almost nothing else to eat, and he was afraid to show himself. He was filthy and bedraggled, and a farmer or innkeeper would probably go for his pitchfork before greeting the Were-cat in a civilized manner. Aside from that, Tarrin had no money with which to buy a meal, even if he had the courage to walk into an inn.

Tarrin considered this as he slinked out of the woods furtively, keeping himself relatively well hidden among the rows of knee-high wheat growing out in the fields. The closest farm was the most logical target, and it was a very large one. Obviously losing a chicken or two wouldn't really hurt this farming family. They were evidently very prosperous. He crept among the wheat as human smells touched his nose, and he crept up on the scents with the stealth of a ghost. He lay in the field and watched as four men worked with iron rods and wooden dowels to uproot a huge treestump. The tree which had owned the stump lay on the ground beside the stump, and the stump itself had not been cut. Rather, the ancient tree which had once rested upon it had simply came down from old age. There was an older man with a brown beard and a grizzled visage that was obviously in charge, coordinating the heaving attempts of the three young men with him to rock the stump out of the ground. By their scents, Tarrin could determine that they were all related. A father and his three sons. And they all had smells of other humans all over them. Wives and children, most likely. This was a family farmstead, where whole generations lived and worked in harmony to manage the large holding and make it productive.

Tarrin just couldn't steal from them. He'd been a farmer himself, and he knew how it felt to lose livestock and crops to raiding animals. But, watching them heave and groan and sweat trying to uproot the stump, he realized that he didn't have to steal from them.

Steeling himself, Tarrin stood up. It took them a few moments to notice him, and when they did, the father gave out a startled shout and brandished his iron rod like a staff as his sons hastily yanked out their own tools to defend themselves against the intruder.

"Please, don't do that," Tarrin said from his heart, raising his paws in supplication. Tarrin's simple plea must have struck a chord with the brown-bearded patriarch, for he lowered his iron rod a bit and regarded Tarrin curiously.

"What manner of creature are ye?" he asked. "And what do ye want?"

"I'll help you uproot the stump in return for food," Tarrin offered, ignoring the questions he didn't feel like answering.

"Really now?" the patriarch asked. "And what makes ye think that we'd be wanting yer help? Or that we can trust ye?"

Tarrin hadn't considered that. Back in Aldreth, trust was a simple matter, and it was abundant through the village and outlying farms. Nobody locked their doors in Aldreth. He knew things were a bit different in the rest of the world, but watching the farmers made him look on them as he would have looked on farmers back home. And it was obvious that they were nothing like his friends back home. Tarrin caught a glimpse of his hand-paws, and an even greater reality crashed in on him. They'd trust him even less because of what he was. "I, I'm sorry I bothered you," he said quietly, turning around and starting to walk away.

"Hold," the man called. Tarrin stopped and turned around. "Yer more dirt than skin, and that shirt's hangin' off ye like there's nothin' under it. Ye offered work in exchange for food, and I have the feelin' ye could have easily stole what ye wanted. If ye could get this close to us, then getting that close to the chicken coop woulda' been just as easy. Come, stranger. Help us pull this cursed stump, and ye can eat with my family this night."

The look of grateful appreciation on Tarrin's face made the fatherly man blush a little bit. The three young men gave their father a wild look, but said nothing. "Come on then, stranger," the man said, putting his iron rod back under one huge root. "Well, come on, boys, I'd like to get this done today," he prompted.

Tarrin put a foot down in a hole dug around the base of the stump, sunk his claws into the side of the stump, and braced his other foot against the ground. The young men all returned to their places, and the older man put his shoulder under his iron rod. "Alright now, all together," he said. "One, two, three!"

Tarrin felt his blood rush through his body and he put his inhuman strength against the side of the stump. It creaked, and groaned, and the rods and dowels used by the humans suddenly began to move, helping the main force of the movement, which was Tarrin, drive the stump out of the ground with raw physical force. The stump moved half a span with that first push. "Alright, again!" the farmer said, resetting his iron rod as Tarrin got a new hold on the stump. It groaned, and several smaller roots undergrond snapped from the strain. They stopped and reset the levering prybars, and Tarrin got a hand-paw up and under the edge of the stump. He set his shoulder against the stump and waited for the farmer to give the word. "This time may do it," the man said in his earthy voice. "Ready now. One, two, three!" Tarrin growled from the strain, and his vision blurred over as the blood pounded through his body. The stump shuddered, then there was a loud, deep snap as the main taproot broke. After that, the stump rolled out of the hole easily.

Tarrin sat down heavily on the edge of the hole left by the vacated stump, elbows on his knees and breathing heavily. That had been all he had in him. The farmer and the three young sons gave Tarrin sidelong glances, then the aged patriarch offered a hand out to Tarrin. Tarrin took it hesitantly, but the aged farmer just smiled and helped Tarrin to his feet. "The name's Kellen," he introduced. "My boys, Delon, Brint, and Ian."

"I'm-uh, call me Rin," Tarrin said. He didn't think it was wise to tell him his name, even though his physical description more than gave him away. "Why don't you have your horses pulling the stumps?"

The man's eyes hardened slightly. "Both my horses died last month," he said.

"I'm sorry to hear that," Tarrin replied. "Sickness?"

"Yah," he replied with a grunt. "Come on then, let's go see if Mother has dinner on the table."

The farmhouse was an impressively large affair, some three stories high, and it was teeming with activity. There were at least four generations of this family living in the house, two generations below Kellen the farmer and one generation above. The children playing in the farmyard all stopped and looked at Tarrin with undisguised curiosity, and the elderly woman sitting on the house's porch, with her knitting in her lap, eyed Tarrin suspiciously as Kellen brought him up to the front porch. Tarrin was filthy and matted, and he felt his indisposition keenly as the old woman stared at him with her hard eyes. "Mother Wynn, this is Rin," Kellen told the aged woman in a calm voice. "He helped us pull that big stump from the west field."

"That's nice," she said in a calm voice, continuing with her knitting. She was a very small woman, Tarrin noted, with silver hair tied back in a loose bun. Her hands were gnarled from age, but her fingers were still surprisingly nimble as they worked the knitting needles. She was wearing a plain brown wool country dress, and had slippers on her feet. Her face was very old, and wise, thin from the sunken cheeks of her advanced age, and she probably only had three teeth left in her mouth. But her eyes were clear and lucid, a chestnut brown that seemed to see absolutely everything with the most cursory of glances. "Your wife won't let him through the front door looking like that," she warned. "You need to clean yourself up, Rin," she told him.

"I know, ma'am, but I haven't had the time," he said shyly.

She gave him a calm look. "Ian, take him out back and show him where the wellpump is. Brint, he's about your size. You have a decent shirt and pants he can wear?"

"I think I have something, Mother Wynn," Brint replied respectfully.

"I'd appreciate the chance to bathe, but I can't stay long, ma'am," Tarrin told her, "so there's no need for me to get clothes. Master Kellen offered me a meal for my help. Once I get the meal, I'll be moving on. And I can eat on the porch just as easily as inside."

She gave him a simple look, and grunted in assent. "Have your mother fix Rin a plate," she told Brint.

Ian took Tarrin around to the back of the house. Tarrin was surprised that none of the children followed. There was a wellpump and a trough of water right behind the house, close to the door opening to the kitchen. "The water's not that warm, but it should be alright," Ian told him gruffly.

"Thank you," Tarrin said sincerely, taking off his shirt.

"Yer ribs are sticking out like branches," Ian noted.

"I haven't been getting much food lately," Tarrin replied.

Tarrin washed up as best he could in the trough, dunking his shirt and twisting out most of the smell and dirt, then scrubbing out the mats in his fur. His hair still had the same braid in it that Jesmind put in it, but he still tried to wash out his hair the best he could with the braid in it. He couldn't put it back, and it was much too convenient for it to stay in the braid. After he was done, he walked back around the house. Everyone else was gone, inside, except for the elderly woman Mother Wynn. She had a plate with roasted chicken and carrots in her lap. There was another such plate sitting on the porch by the steps. She motioned at it. "Have a seat, boy," she said.

"Thank you," he said politely. "You don't have to sit out here with me, ma'am," he said.

"Maybe not, but I always sit on the porch when I eat," she said. "An old lady has the right to eat wherever she wants." Tarrin sat down and attacked the large mound of roasted chicken pieces. It had been a very long time since he'd had a cooked meal, and even longer since he'd had that much food at one time. "Try not to swallow the bones," she remarked with a crooked grin.

"It's been a while," he said between bites.

"I gathered," she said pointedly. "Who are you running from?"

"I offended a large tribe of Dargu that decided that my home range belonged to them," Tarrin lied. "They decided to press the argument, even after I killed some of them. I decided to take a little trip into the human lands, since they won't come into the human lands, but I've not had much of a welcome from you humans either," he elaborated. "I have no money for food, and there's no game worth hunting so deep into the human lands, so I've had nothing to eat. Master Kellen is the first that's been nice to me."

"Kellen likes to feed strays," the old woman said with a shrug.

"I feel like a stray," Tarrin sighed. "I can't go back to my den til the Dargu aren't expecting me. Then I'll discuss the living arrangements with them one at a time," he said grimly.

"Sounds like fun," she remarked.

"Not for them, it won't be," he growled.

She cackled evilly. "I don't mind seeing a few less Dargu in the world," she told him.

"Try about fifty," Tarrin said.

"No wonder you decided to leave," she said.

Tarrin nodded. "I can handle three or four, but not fifty. I'm going to let them go back to my range and get comfortable, and then I'm going to start killing them one at a time," he told her. "Once I have them down to a managable number, then I'll start getting unpleasant. A few very messy and graphic object lessons should let them know that I'm back."

She cackled again. "I like you, strange one," she said. "You have a flair for the dramatic."

"Fear is a good motivator with Dargu," Tarrin told her, falling back on his many lessons from his father. "If I can scare them enough, they'll leave my home range without so much as a fare thee well. But they're brave in numbers, so I have to get rid of some of those numbers before I can start my little terror rampage."

"You know the dog-faces pretty well," she said clinically.

He nodded. "It's best to understand some of your more unpleasant neighbors," he told her.

"Smart boy," she complemented.

"Thank you, ma'am," he said politely, tearing off another chunk of chicken with his sharp teeth.

"Sounds like you have a good plan there," she told him.

"I hope so," he replied. "We'll find out soon."

"I reckon you will at that."

They ate in silence for a while. "How long have you been here?" Tarrin asked. "If you don't mind my asking."

"I've been here all my life," she said with a dreamy smile. "I was born on this farm, in this house, eighty years ago. And I'll die here."

"Home is the best place to be," Tarrin agreed calmly.

"It is indeed."

Tarrin looked down at the plate, and was surprised that it was clean. The bones were all stripped totally bare, and he'd even found the time to eat the carrots, although he honestly couldn't remember doing it. "Well, that's about that," he said, looking at his plate. "I'd best be moving on. I don't want to upset your house any more than I already have."

"Not quite yet," she said. "Since I'm an old woman and it won't make any difference, why don't you tell me why you're really running?" she said with a mischievious smile.

Tarrin grimaced ruefully. "I thought I was a better liar than that," he said.

"You're a good liar, boy," she admitted with a grin. "The problem is, I'm better at seeing the truth than you are at lying. You wouldn't lie to a decrepid old woman, would you?"

"I thought I already did," he said.

She cackled loudly, slapping her hand on her knee several times. "I like you, boy," she repeated. "Now then, out with it. Who are you, and what's got you running so hard you don't have time to take a bath?"

"My name is Tarrin," he told her honestly. "I am running from Dargu. And Trolls, and Waern, and Bruga, and whoever else has decided to chase me today. I have no idea why they're chasing me, though. I came down into the human lands because they won't follow me. There are too many humans for them to hide." He put the plate down. "I'm supposed to be a student at the Tower of Sorcery. If I can ever get there, that is," he sighed.

She pursed her lips. "Alot of bother for one boy, Sorcerer or no," she said.

"I know," he said. "That's why I don't understand it. What do they want me for, anyway?"

"That I can't answer, my boy," she said in her gravelly voice. "But you were right. It is time for you to move on. If you have that many people chasing you, Suld is the only place you'll be safe. Run for the Tower, boy. They'll protect you well enough."

"I'm already working on it, ma'am," he assured her with a smile. "How far am I from Suld, anyway?"

"It's two days from when you reach the High road," she told him. "You should steal a horse and just run for it."

"Steal?" he gasped.

"What, you've never heard of it? Well, you find someone with a horse, hit him over the head, and take his horse," she told him with a blunt grin. "You may as well take his money and his clothes, while you're at it."

"I know what it is, but I don't like to steal," Tarrin said. "If I did, I'd have stolen food off this farm."

"Boy, beggars can't be choosers," she said bluntly. "If it comes down to you living or dying, better someone loses his horse than you losing your life."

Tarrin nodded. That was just pure wisdom, and it would be foolish to ignore it. Mother Wynn may be old, but Tarrin saw that her mind was sharp, and she had the wisdom of experience. "I'll think about it," he promised, "but I don't like horses all that much. It's too hard to hide when you have a horse." Tarrin stood up and approached Mother Wynn, then knelt beside her and took her hand in his paw. "I appreciate your talk, Mother Wynn," he told her honestly. "You're a wise woman, and you made me feel much better."

"Glad someone around here appreciates an old woman's chatter," she said with a totally fake look of suffering. Tarrin had no doubt that everyone in the house hinged on her every word.

"Some of us can see past how someone looks," he said pointedly.

She harumphed, then shook her hand free of his gentle grip. "You'd best get on with yourself, boy," she ordered. "You're not getting any closer to Suld standing here, you know. Now scoot."

"Yes ma'am," he said with a smile. "Thank you, Mother Wynn."

"No need, boy," she told him. "Now scat."

"Yes ma'am," he said. Then he left the old woman sitting on the porch, rocking gently in the darkening evening with a plate of chicken on her lap and a faraway look in her clear brown eyes.

It was the feeling that he was too close for anything to go wrong that lulled him into a false sense of security, and he paid for it. It came in the form of something hitting him in the back of the head as he loped down the High Road towards Suld, well into the middle of the night. Tarrin saw nothing but stars and dropped to the ground like a felled ox, rolling several times before coming to a stop against a tree by the side of the road. Tarrin swam in a gray haze, as he hovered right on the edge of consciousness, not yet able to move but vaguely aware of what his ears were telling him. He could literally feel his skull start to mend the fracture created by whatever it was that hit him.

"Don't get too close," Tarrin heard one voice through the haze. "I wonder what it is."

"I don't ask questions," the other one said. "That man in the inn said anything that even remotely looks Wikuni, and this one is close enough for me. I just don't want to carry the body back. It looks heavy."

"Is it dead?"

"It will be in a minute," came the ominous response.

The haze parted like a curtain, but Tarrin didn't immediately move. He reached out with his keen senses, feeling the air, smelling it, noticing the shifts in air against his skin and fur. There were two of them, and they were right over him. Tarrin felt the air brush along the side of his long tail, and he used that as a guide to slowly slither his tail between the feet of one of them. Once it was in position, he slashed with it as hard as he could.

Tarrin's tail wasn't anywhere near as strong as the rest of his body. It was more for balance than for work, but the muscles in his tail had the same proportionate strength as the rest of his body, and that gave the slender limb formidable strength. That strength swiped the feet out from under one of the two men, who crashed to the ground in a heavy grunt. Tarrin rolled up on himself and slipped away from the other, springing up to face a smallish, dark-haired man with a narrow jaw and rotting teeth, who was holding a long dagger in his hand and a sling in the other. The other man was a shade smaller than this man, but maybe a bit heavier. Both of them wore common peasant clothing. The standing man gaped at him, and barely had time to gasp before Tarrin was on him. Tarrin's huge paw closed around his neck in a crushing grip, and Tarrin picked the smallish man off the ground by his neck and held him out at arm's length.

"The next time you hit a man in the head with a sling," Tarrin growled at him evilly, his eyes glowing from within with an unholy greenish radiance, "make sure he's dead before you get this close." Then he closed his grip around the man's neck, crushing it. The man gurgled once, then his head flopped limply to the side as the bones in his neck shattered.

The other man screamed in terror and scrambled to his feet as Tarrin threw the dead body aside. That sound snapped Tarrin out of his sudden desire for blood, and he hesitated as the other attacker turned tail and ran, blubbering and whimpering in abject terror. Tarrin let him go; it had been this man that had tried to kill him, and the fear would be punishment enough for the other. Tarrin was worried more at how easily he had killed the man, how he had done it without a second thought. Granted, he argued to himself, the man did try to kill him. But Tarrin had killed him out of retribution, not out of defense of his own life. And what scared him was that he had absolutely no remorse.

Tarrin put it out of his mind as he considered the situation. Someone somewhere was spreading some kind of story that got men out on the road hunting down anything that looked Wikuni. Wikuni were also known as the Animal People, so the resemblence to Tarrin was not even remotely a coincidence. Whoever was after him was trying another tactic to get rid of him, a tactic that had come very close to working. It made the road unsafe for him. He rifled through the pockets of the dead man as he considered his original plan to skirt the road from the safety of the forest. That plan was still workable, but it meant that he would have to go quite a bit out of his way, at least an hour's travel south.

The man had a few coppers and a silver coin in his purse. Tarrin took it, and his dagger, and took his leather belt as well. Tarrin's pants weren't quite so snug on him now that he'd lost weight, and he needed something to help hold them up. The money would get him a meal in the morning, and the dagger, like any knife, had a multitude of uses, and would save his claws. As an afterthought, he picked up the body and slung it over his shoulder. It would be better to leave it somewhere other than on the road.

He slunk across several farms until he reached the treeline, being careful not to alarm the dogs on many of them, then went back well and far enough so that the body would be eaten by scavengers long before it started smelling bad enough to attract attention, back where the signs of human passage were so old that it didn't matter. Then he looked up to the Skybands and aligned himself so that he'd be travelling west. Then he left the body, naked, the clothes neatly folded on a nearby log, and continued on towards Suld.

Tarrin's encounter with another farming family did not go quite so well the second time. It took three tries before he would find a farmer or farm member that would even talk to him without running away screaming. The screams and fear stung Tarrin terribly, but he had to admit that as dirty and bedraggled, and as non-human, as we was, it wasn't much of a surprise. He finally found a farmer willing to listen to him, a tall, burly man holding a pitchfork who was standing outside his barn. Tarrin offered to buy his breakfast, and the burly man simply gave him a gruff nod. He was given a loaf of bread, some cheese, and a few apples in return for the copper coins he'd taken from the assassin. Tarrin left the farm and the farmer behind, eating his meal in the quiet safety of the forest, then he moved on. It was important to get as far as he could before stopping, maybe even to within sight of Suld.

He did manage that, around midday, but it wasn't quite what he had in mind. The forest simply stopped almost half a day's walk from the city walls, which were clearly visible well in the distance. The land sloped down gently towards the city walls, and it was covered with nothing but farmland and hedges separating them. He could see the fabled Tower of Sorcery even from here, its white stone soaring out over the distant walls of the city, and he could just barely make out a few of the six smaller towers that surrounded the main spire. He was within sight of his goal, and that simple realization swept a wave of relief and reassurance through him. The only problem was to get to it. He would have to do it at night. He had too much owned, organized land to cross to do it at any other time. Getting over the walls wouldn't be much of a problem. There wasn't a wall made that his claws couldn't help him climb. Once he was inside the city, it just became the simple task of reaching the Tower without Jesmind or any other interested party getting in his way.

Tarrin crept back from the treeline and found a nice crutch between a large limb and a trunk, then hunkered down to sleep out the rest of the day.

Orisen the guard stood on the high battlements of the impressive walls of the city of Suld. They were high walls, strong walls, and they had never fallen to an invading force. The job of guarding those walls fell to men like Orisen, but unlike most wall watchmen of Suld, Orisen took his duties very seriously. Every night, he prowled the city walls of the south sector like an impatient general, his eyes scanning the dark landscape for the slightest movement. His ears strained to hear any sound not normal for that sector of the city at that time of the night, since Suld was such a large city that it never truly went completely to sleep. In his illustrious ten year career on the South wall, he'd witnessed three robberies on the streets below, all of which had been solved and the perpetrator caught and convicted on his testimony. He'd also been privy to one murder, which was also solved. He'd even caught personally sixteen men that had tried to sneak either into or out of the city at different times of the night. Orisen was a good man, and he took his job as seriously as a surgeon did when he cut open a man. He stood at his favorite battlement, staring out over the farmland and small village outside the south wall, thinking how nice it was that the winter's chill was gone, and the early summer night was much preferable to prowling the walls wearing five cloaks and three pairs of breeches.

He never saw nor heard the ghostly shape that rose up from the wall not ten paces to his right, darted across the twenty spans that made up the top of the wall, and disappeared quickly over the other side.

He did perk up and rush to the city side of the wall when the sound of a roof tile hitting the street reached him. Many thieves liked to run the rooftops, and that sound was one of the most obvious that gave them away. He looked over the side of the wall. He could see the tile in the torchlight at the base of the wall, but there was nothing, and nobody, else to be seen. Longspan Street was deserted.

Reassured, Orisen the guard went back to his serious duty of defending the city of Suld from any and all threat, be it from inside or outside.

Tarrin stood in the shadow of a large manor house, near its fence, staring at the massive compound that was the Tower of Sorcery. He was a bit discouraged at what he saw. The obvious gates to the compound were guarded by men that frightened Tarrin not a little bit.

By the time he'd gotten to the huge towers, it dawned on him that the men guarding it would have no idea who he was. He didn't want to get into a fight with them, and he certainly didn't want them to go crazy at the sight of him, and more than once the thought that one of them would be happier turning him to the people looking for him crossed his mind. But he absolutely had to get inside. Jesmind could be behind any building, and the men that were obviously looking for him could be readying to slide a dagger in his back at any moment. The miasma smell of the large city, which was surprisingly clean for its size, effectively robbed him of his most powerful sense, his sense of smell, and the background noises prevelant in the city made it hard for him to lock in on the faint sounds of someone sneaking up on him. He had to get in, but he didn't want to risk trying to get in through the front gate. He wasn't going to feel safe until he was inside that tower, and in the presence of people that he felt he could trust. And that meant Dolanna, or Faalken, or Walten or Tiella.

That left doing it the other way. There was a fence surrounding the tower compound, an elegant structure of iron that rose up and ended in a tapered curl at the top. It was only about fifteen spans high, and it was much too elegant and showy to be very effective. It also had not one speck of rust anywhere on it. A one-eyed man with no legs could get over that fence in a very short amount of time, much faster than the regular patrols Tarrin saw roaming the fence perimeter to get there in time.

But it couldn't be that easy, and he knew it. That left only one solution. That fence had to be magic. This was the Tower of Sorcery. There were lots of people inside that could do magic. So if they were so lax about defending such a flimsy fence, then it only stood to reason that the fence was capable of defending itself.

A plan formed in his mind. He would get over that fence and get to those buildings across the open area, then use them as cover to sneak up to the overpowering presence of the central tower. Once he was there, he would find a way to sneak in. And after he was inside, he'd just surrender himself to the first person that walked by. They could find Dolanna, and Dolanna could set everything straight. And then he'd be safe.

Tarrin watched the movements of the patrolling guards closely. The men, dressed in white surcoats over a chain jack, moved in groups of four, with one man leading, two in the middle, and one man bringing up the rear. One man held a torch, the man in the back. That made sense, because it kept the glaring light out of the eyes of the men that were trying to see, while still illuminating their path. A group passed by about every ten minutes, but they didn't move at the same pace, so that amount of time changed randomly. Again, a good idea, because predictability was the first step down the road to defeat, when it came to anything military. He was just going to have to take his chances.

He waited almost another half hour, until one torch disappeared around a distant building, and he did not see another appear around the other corner. With a sudden lurch, he sprinted down the street that led up to the fence. He carefully gauged its height; he couldn't even so much as let an errant hair on his tail touch that iron. He glimpsed a spot of ruddy torch light just as he reached the point where he had to jump, because he was going too fast to turn aside. He sprang for all he was worth, clearing the fence clearly by nearly the length of his own tail, and he hit the ground at a dead run. He was across the two hundred space field in the same amount of time it took the average man to light a torch. He disappeared from sight just as the next patrol came around one of the buildings farther down the way.

With the stealth of the cat of which he was part, he slunk across the massive compound, around large buildings and small ones, across a sand-filled area that was obviously some sort of training area for military men, then between buildings where the sounds of sleeping men could be clearly heard. He ducked into a narrow gap between two small buildings to avoid another patrol, then he darted across an open area to another building that was right beside one of the six towers that surrounded the main spire. Even the surrounding towers were huge, hundreds of spans tall, and his neck craned as he looked up its dizzying height. The central tower was more than twice the height of the six surrounding ones, a massive cylinder that towered over the city the same way a lone tree towered over a meadow. The top of it had to be at least a thousand spans in the air, and the effort and engineering required to build it absolutely boggled his mind.

He stopped gawking like a tourist and studied the surface of that huge central spire, easily visible even from that distance to his light-sensitive eyes. He saw what he wanted, a balcony some hundred spans off the ground. That was his way in.

He sprinted silently across the open ground to the smaller tower, then circumnavigated it with an eye out for torches. Once he was on a line with that balcony, he ran across the open area between the two towers. He stopped at the base of it, and it loomed over him. For an irrational moment, he thought it was about to fall over on him, as he looked up to see where the balcony was. he squelched the squeak of surprise at that idea, then, after a few quick looks for wandering patrols, he put his claws into the stone. He didn't want to be discovered hanging off the wall. That would be very inconvenient.

The tower's stones were made of some kind of white marble or granite, and they didn't even have so much as a scratch on them. They fit together so tightly that Tarrin had trouble finding creases to stick his claws, and Tarrin realized that there was no mortar between the blocks. It had to be magic holding the unimaginably huge construction together. It was slow going up the side of the wall, because of the tight fitting stones and no wear which would have given him places to put his claws. It took him nearly an hour to clambor up the one hundred or so spans, and he nearly fell twice. Sweating, exhausted, and with his belly trying to gnaw a hole through his skin, Tarrin got his fingers around the base of the guardrail around the balcony. He hauled himself up onto the balcony with main force, then stopped and got his breath back while looking down over the large open yard at the base of the tower.

He'd made it.

Now he had to get inside. Turning to the door to the balcony, Tarrin turned the latch in his oversized paw and felt the door open. It made no sound, but the glass paned door was pushing up against the drapes that had been drawn over it. He pushed it out as quietly as he could and slithered in through the opening. He found himself in a rather large, lushly appointed bedchamber, complete with a slumbering occupant. It was a woman, by her scent, but there wasn't enough light in the room for him to get the best of looks at her. She stirred slightly as Tarrin closed the door to her balcony. Tarrin wanted to be caught, but he decided that being caught in a woman's bedchamber was not the best way to go about it.

He padded across her carpeted floor as silent as death, then snuck through the door on the opposite wall after opening it to make sure that it wasn't a closet. He found himself in a large hallway that curved very gently to one side, which was illuminated by curious globes that hung from the ceiling, globes that gave off a milky white light, but no obvious heat.

There was nobody to be seen. He couldn't even hear anyone.

He yawned. He wanted to be captured, but there was nobody about to go to the trouble. He was exhausted, and hungry, and filthy, but the only one of those he could remedy was the exhaustion. He'd find some quiet, dark place to lay down for a while, then he'd let himself get caught in the morning, when there were people awake.

It took him only a few minutes to find an empty bedchamber. From the smell of it, this chamber wasn't used by anyone, so he was rather sure that nobody would bother him until he was awake and good and ready to be captured. He took no notice of the room other than its empty smell, then flopped down heavily on a soft feather bed. He didn't care if his filthy clothes were dirtying the covers. He'd made it. He was in the Tower of Sorcery.

Now he felt safe.

Tarrin fell immediately into a deep, dreamless slumber, a look of calm contentment on his face.

To: Title EoF

Chapter 7

Tarrin awoke slowly, and for a moment, he forgot where he was. He was warm and content, and the early summer sun washed through a partially curtained window. As he awoke he wondered why mother hadn't woken him up before now. But the tingling sensation in his tail from where he'd been laying on it brought him back to the present, as did the gnawing hollowness in his belly. He was still filthy and half starved, but at least he was warm and safe. That almost made up for it.

It was an effort to get out of the soft feather bed. Tarrin saw that he was in a very lushly appointed bedchamber, very much like the one that he'd came in through the night before. It had the soft bed, two nightstands to either side of it, a chest for clothes at the foot, a stand for a washbasin, a writing desk in the corner, and an armoire to hang clothes that were too delicate to be folded. There was a small tea table in the corner by the glass-pane door that led to another balcony. The walls were adorned with tapestries, one a simple geometric design that was pleasing to the eye and the other a scene depicting a solitary knight riding his charger across a grassy meadow. He stood by the bed for a moment, feeling a bit dizzy from having to exert himself. Now that he'd made it, he was allowing himself to feel every little ache and feel the weakness of several days with almost no food.

Now to the business of getting himself captured. It was going to be an easy affair, he was certain. All he had to do was go out into the hall and just wander around until he crossed paths with someone. That someone could almost certainly tell him where to go, or maybe that person could direct him to Dolanna. Either way, he would be more than satisfied. He had no idea if Dolanna even knew he was still alive, and he wondered if she was worrying about him. He'd been too busy with Jesmind, and then with getting away from Jesmind, to even consider what had happened to his friends after he'd left them on the other side of the river. He hoped that they'd not had the same trouble he'd had with Goblinoids, and that their trip to Suld was a quiet one.

Taking a deep breath, Tarrin went up to the door and opened it. Not even approaching the farmers had been quite so difficult. Mainly because he was starving when he approached the farmers, and hunger dulled much of the fear of encountering people. Despite his newfound comfort with what he had become, he was still very much insecure about how others would react to him, and he found himself to be desperately afraid that people would want to have nothing to do with him now that he was no longer human. Tarrin was used to being alone much of the time, but before he always had his family. Now he had nobody, and that frightened him more than a little. Being alone in a crowd was the worst way to be alone, because one had a whole group of people around to remind one of just how alone one was.

The hall was quiet and deserted. Tarrin could smell traces of human scent, which were rather fresh. Though the hall was empty now, people did come down it with fair regularity. He had a choice of left or right. Since it really didn't matter to him which way to go, Tarrin went in the direction that seemed to have the stronger human smell, which was to the left. The hallway curved ever-so-gently to the right, so he couldn't see very far down it to look for people.

Tarrin's first encounter in the Tower was almost by surprise. It was with a rather small woman wearing a simple gray dress with a white apron over it. She was obviously a maid or servant. She came up the hall in the direction that he was walking, and stopped dead when she saw him. He was about to greet her, but she gave out a shrill scream that hurt Tarrin's ears, turned the other way, and ran for all she was worth.

Tarrin sighed audibly, and then he couldn't help but laugh. All the trouble he'd gone through to get here, and now nobody wanted to talk to him. He couldn't get himself caught.

He didn't smell the two humans until they were nearly up the stairs that descended to his right. They were both young, not even twenty, and it seemed obvious to Tarrin that they had come in response to the woman's scream. There was a young man and a young woman. The young man was wearing a pair of simple brown wool trousers and a blue shirt, and the young woman was wearing a plain red dress, devoid of any adornment. They were both attractive young humans, the man with brown hair and dark eyes, and the woman with black hair and grayish eyes that stood out. They both gaped at him in shock, then they too turned to run back down the stairs.

"Stop!" Tarrin barked in a voice that cracked like a whip. They did so, instantly. They didn't even turn around to look at him. "Go find a Sorcerer, any Sorcerer, and bring them back here. Tell them that there's a Were-cat in the Tower, and to come see what it wants right away. I'm going to wait right where I'm standing." They hesitated. "Well? Move!"

They bolted down the stairs.

Tarrin leaned he back against the wall, idly checking the claws on his fingers for splits or other damage. He was starting to get surly about the whole affair. Getting himself caught wasn't supposed to be this much work.

Another man rushed up from the direction the maid had run, and the sound of metal jingling told Tarrin it was a guard long before he rounded the curve. He was a young man, burly, with a blue surcoat over a chain jack. He was carrying a drawn sword. He had dark hair and dark eyes, which were a bit wild at the sight of the emaciated Were-cat. "Oh, put the sword away," Tarrin snapped at him churlishly.

The man came to a stop and stared at him, obviously at a loss as to what to do. Tarrin marvelled at the base intelligence of the occupants of this tower. "Put the sword away," he said in a slow tone, as if addressing a child. "Turn around and go find someone in charge. Tell that someone that there is a Were-cat in the tower that wants to talk to someone with a mind. Bring them right back to this spot."

He too just stood there.

"Go!" Tarrin snapped.

He hastily turned and trotted away, still carrying his sword.

Tarrin leaned his head back against the wall. For their defense, he realized that his appearance here was probably a bit shocking. As formidable as the defenses and security were around the compound, it was probably quite unusual to see someone that looked like him prowling the halls. But that was three people off to bring back someone that he could talk to. He was sure that it wouldn't be very long.

The young man and woman indeed returned, not a moment later, with someone with them. He was a mature man, probably around forty, with specks of gray disturbing the continuity of his dark hair. He was thin and studious looking, with a long face and smallish ears, and his eyes were decorated by a pair of wire-rimmed spectacles sitting on the end of his nose. His brown eyes seemed to take in the entirety of Tarrin with only a single glance. He was wearing a severely plain brown robe, with a leather belt around his waist from which two leather pouches and a small dagger hung.

"Are you a Sorcerer?" Tarrin asked abruptly.

"Yes," he replied. "My name is Sevren Dallinson. Who might you be, stranger, and what business do you have with us?"

"My name is Tarrin Kael," he replied. "I was supposed to be coming with a Sorceress named Dolanna Casbane, but we were separated on the way here. If you could send someone to go get her, she can explain everything."

"I'm afraid I don't know all my sisters by name," he said dubiously. "Initiate, what is your name?" he asked the young woman.

"Tryla, Master," she replied obediently.

"Tryla, go to the Council of Seven and tell them of this development," he ordered. "Report that this visitor is looking for Dolanna Casbane. When you are done there, come back to, that room," he said, pointing to a door a bit down the hall. "We will be waiting there."

She curtsied to him, then turned and hurried down the stairs.

"Wendall, go to the kitchens and fix a very large tray of food. And bring some wine. Bring it back to us. Make sure it has plenty of meat," he ordered.

"Yes, Master Sevren," he said with a bow, then he too rushed off.

"You look about half starved," the Sorcerer noted with an appraising eye at Tarrin. "We can eat while we wait."

"If you can stand the way I smell, I'd be happy to have you at the table," Tarrin said with a rueful look.

"You must have had a rough time," he said. "Come, let's go sit. You can tell me more while we eat and wait. It looks to me like you're having enough trouble standing."

"To be honest, Master Sevren, this wall is about the only thing holding me up," he admitted with a chuckle.

Sevren offered out his arm to the Were-cat, who took it after only a moment's hesitation. He led Tarrin into the room, which was an almost exact copy of the bedchamber in which Tarrin had slept. These had to be guest quarters of some kind. They sat down at the table, and Tarrin yawned and stretched in his seat. "So, what was bringing you to our Tower?" Sevren asked curiously. "We don't get many of the Woodland folk here."

"You know what I am?" he asked in some surprise.

"I'm familiar with your kind, but I've never met a Were-kin before," he admitted.

"Well, it's not that I was coming here for any serious reason," he said, then he recanted some of the story of their trip from Aldreth. He didn't really talk about Jesmind. What he felt for her, and what had happened still seemed too private to discuss with a total stranger. But despite being a stranger, Tarrin rather liked Sevren. He was a calm, thoughtful man that had quickly eased most of Tarrin's fears with a few simple words and one act of kindness. Offering to help Tarrin into the room had told him much of what made up the sober looking man, and Tarrin could honor and respect that about him. That was why Tarrin told him anything at all.

He absorbed what Tarrin had to say. "If you don't mind, I may study some of the outward effects of your transformation," he said. "I know it sounds like I want to study you like a bug, but you have to admit that this is a good chance to learn. And what we discover may help someone else that has this happen."

"No, I really don't mind all that much," Tarrin told him. "I know what it was like for me, and I'd rather not have anyone have to go through it," he said with a shudder. Being used to it still didn't mean that he liked it. One could get used to a missing arm, but that was no reason to lop one off. "If I can help make it easier on them, then I don't mind at all."

"That's a good lad," he said with a smile.

The door opened, and three women entered, flanked by two armed guards, with the Initiate behind them. Two of them were unknown to him, but the third, dressed in a dark blue silk dress, was Dolanna. Tarrin smiled broadly and stood, ignoring the other two women to accept Dolanna's hand as she reached him. He stared into her eyes for a moment, then pulled her close and embraced her. She coughed and wheezed, then said "Tarrin, I need my ribs in one piece" in a gasping voice.

"I'm sorry, I'm just glad to see that you're alright," he said. "Are Faalken and-"

"They are all well," she assured him. "Tiella and Walten have already entered the Novitiate. Faalken has returned to the Academy, where he instructs pupils when not accompanying me." She pushed him away slightly. "Tarrin, may I present the Keeper," she said, motioning.

The woman to which she motioned was a very small woman, even smaller than Dolanna herself. She had dark hair, nearly black, that was streaked in a few places with silver, and was as petite as she was short. She was more handsome than she was pretty, just coming into her middle years, but in her dark eyes Tarrin saw a hardness that came with being a ruler. He could almost smell the aura of power around the small woman, an aura that made her seem to be much larger than she actually was. She wore no badge of her rank, only a simple silk dress in a modest brown, but it was obvious just looking at her that she was a woman of great power and importance. Those hard eyes took Tarrin in in a single glance, and he felt distinctly uncomfortable standing there in his filthy clothes.

"You're as thin as a stick," she noted in a clear, strong voice.

"Running for your life can do that, ma'am," he replied calmly. Tarrin didn't like this woman. He wasn't sure why, but he did not. It was a gut feeling, an instinctive reaction, but he did not like her.

"So I've been told. Well, you've made it, young one, and we can all be happy of that." She sat down at the table, and the other woman followed her. She was a rather tall woman with black hair and very pale skin, wearing a yellow silk dress that was cut rather low in the front. Silk seemed to be the fabric of choice in the Tower among the ladies. The woman had a very pretty face, and was obviously very young, but her dark eyes were expressionless. It gave Tarrin the chills to look into them. It was like looking into the eyes of a corpse. "Because you look about ready to fall over, we'll put off formally admitting you into the Novitiate for two days, so you can rest a bit and get back some of your strength," she told him. "Until then, feel free to look around, but you're not to leave the Tower grounds. Although you're not officially a Novice yet, you should start abiding by the rules that all Novices follow. I've sent for Elsa Gaarnhold, the Mistress of Novices. Where you sleep and what you'll need will be her responsibility. She'll also provide you with some new clothes and show you where things are."

The young man Sevren had sent for food returned with a tray heavily laden with roasted chicken and goose. Tarrin's mouth started watering the instant the smell of it touched his nose. "A good idea," she remarked, standing up. "I'll leave you to your meal, young one. I'm sure you'd like to stay, Dolanna, so please do so."

"Thank you, Keeper," Dolanna said quietly.

"Elsa should be along in a while. Just wait here for her." They all stood, and then the Keeper and the dead-eyed woman with the yellow dress left without so much as a word.

"Strange," Sevren said calmly.

Tarrin didn't waste any time. He sat down at the table where the young man had set the tray and attacked the food with a vengence. The young man left, and Sevren and Dolanna sat down at the table with Tarrin. Sevren and Dolanna exchanged polite introductions, and Tarrin offered each of them something off the tray.

"Thank you," Dolanna said, pouring glasses of wine for each of them. Tarrin wondered how the man knew to bring more than two glasses. "Tarrin, what happened after we separated? I have been worrying for you."

"It's a very long story, Dolanna," he said between bites. "To make it short, I ran into Jesmind."

"Jesmind?"

"Her," he said calmly.

"Ah. She came to find you?"

"She'd been following us the whole time," he replied. He gave Sevren a cautionary glance. "Sevren, I just met you, but I think I can trust you. Promise me that what you're about to heat goes no farther than this room."

"You have my word, my boy," he said immediately.

"She didn't know who collared her," he told Dolanna. "She can't remember anything that happened while it was on her neck. The only reason she knew about me was because you took off the collar with her in sight of me."

"I hope that it was not a bad occurrance," she sighed.

"It is now," he grimaced. "She was taking me back into the Frontier. I kept trying to convince her to come to Suld with me, but she wouldn't hear of it. So I ran away from her. And she was not happy about it."

"I feared as much," she said in a heavy voice.

"She's going to try to kill me, Dolanna. There's no doubt in my mind. She's decided I'm a Rogue because I refused to learn what she has to teach me, and that means that I'm marked. The people here should know that Jesmind will come here, and when she does, she'll try to kill me."

"I will let the Keeper know. She will be the one that will have to take steps."

"That's why I'm in such sorry condition," he said. "I wasn't sure if she was right behind me, but I wasn't about to take the chance. I've been running almost constantly for the last fifteen days or so. Dinner was whetever I could find during a ten minute stop to rest."

"Well, you have made it, my dear one," she said with a gentle smile, putting her hand over his paw.

"Only just," he sighed. "The entire forest north and west of Suld is literally crawling with Goblinoids. Maybe someone should be told about that. There may be enough out there to come down and attack a fair sized town."

"That should be passed along," Sevren noted.

"There were also humans around trying to kill me," he told her. "I was almost done in by a little rat of man with a sling. I found out that someone was paying a reward for dead bodies of anyone even remotely resembling a Wikuni travelling on the High Road. I just hope no innocent Wikuni were killed."

"Dear one, Wikuni almost never leave sight of the sea," she told him. "They are almost married to the ocean. That is why Wikuni are so rare outside of harbor towns."

"What else did the man tell you?" Sevren asked.

"Not much. I killed him pretty soon after I shook off getting hit in the head with the rock," Tarrin shrugged. "I wasn't exactly thinking straight, else I would have grilled him for more before I killed him."

Tarrin missed the slightly worried look Sevren passed to Dolanna, and her very slight gesture to leave it be.

"Have you been having the dreams?" she asked.

"No," he replied. "Jesmind did teach me a little bit before we split. She taught me how to make them stop. That's at least one good thing that came of it." He put down a stripped goose leg bone. "She also taught me how to shapeshift. It's actually pretty easy."

"Did she teach you anything else?"

"Not really," he replied. "We were only together a few days, and we spent alot of that trying to sneak around the Goblinoids that were all over the place." He decided not to tell her about the night they'd spent together. That was too private, even to discuss it with Dolanna. "What happened after the Wyvern sunk the ship?" he asked.

"There were several casualties among the crew," she replied. "We helped them as best we could, and then we took another ship south. It was a very uneventful trip after you left us. That leads me to believe that you were the reason for it."

"I was," he said. "Whoever it was that's after me certainly didn't stop after the Wyvern. I spent most of my time running from Jesmind and dodging Goblinoids at the same time."

"Are you sure that they were after you?" Sevren asked. "I'm assuming here that by Goblinoid you mean more than one race. They don't usually cooperate."

"These were," he replied. "I saw a Dargu tribe meet with a Waern tribe, and the chieftans spoke without drawing weapons. That's not right, because Waern consider Dargu a delicacy. They're working together. And that means that there's someone that's telling them what to do that they fear more than they hate the others."

"A very grim suggestion," he said, stroking his chin in thought. "I think that the King should know about this. A coordinated horde of goblinoids could storm any city in Sulasia, except for Suld." He picked up a slice of beef. "They may decide to pick a few cities in their leisure time."

The door opened, and a huge woman entered. She was wearing a pair ofblack trousers and a brown shirt, and her long, thick blond hair was done up in a simple braid that was as thich around as Tarrin's wrist, and reached almost to her backside. Her face was strong but very handsome, and she had a sword belted at her waist. There was no doubt that she was Ungaardt. Tarrin stood and eyed her calmly as she closed the door and approached them. "Vasra guhn," Tarrin greeted. Tarrin had been taught the language of the Ungaardt by his mother. They used it often, especially since Eron had never gotten around to learning it.

"Vasra dughus," she noted with surprise. "What clan?" she asked in the Ungaardt tongue.

"Vashtalla," he replied. "You?"

" Emden," she replied.

"We are cousins," Tarrin noted, holding out his paw to her. "Greeting, cousin. Honor to Dallstad."

"Honor and glory," she replied, clasping his wrist in a strong grip. "It's nice to meet someone with manners," she said in the common tongue, grinning. "You're Ungaardt under that fur, and dirt."

"Half," he admitted. "My mother is of the blood." "Of the blood" was the way the Ungaardt referred to themselves.

"You look Ungaardt," she noted clinically. "You take after your mother. You are also of the blood, no matter who your father was. A good thing for you."

"I'm happy with it," he said. Ungaardt were a very arrogant people, and just agreeing with her was the easiest way to keep the peace.

"But you're also a Novice, and I'm the Mistress of Novices. Don't expect any preferential treatment just because we're cousins," she said in a steely voice.

"I don't expect any," he replied.

"Good. I'm going to take you to the Novice quarters," she told him. "We'll get you some clean clothes, give you a room, and I'll show you where you can bathe."

"Yes!" he said fervently.

"You are a bit fragrant," Dolanna noted.

"Dolanna, if I smell that bad to you, just imagine how I smell to me," he told her.

She laughed. "Yes, that nose is very much a liability, is it not?" she asked with a smile.

"At the moment, yes," he said with a grunt.

"As of this moment, she's Mistress Dolanna," Elsa said bluntly. "And you're a Novice, just like any other Novice. Come along, Tarrin, and we'll get you washed and dressed."

"Yes, Mistress Elsa," he said calmly. He'd kiss a Dragon for the chance to take a bath.

"Dolanna, you can see him later," Elsa instructed her.

"I'll talk to you about arranging time with Tarrin," Sevren told her. "He's agreed to let me do some studies."

"As long as it doesn't cut into his class time, we'll talk about it," she told him. "Let's get moving, Tarrin."

The halls of the Tower were wide, and they were all lit by those softly glowing globes. From as far as he could tell, they simply hovered in midair near the ceiling. Another thing that he noticed was that the floors were carpeted out in the halls. That was unusual, and it had to be frightfully expensive if every hall was like this, considering the awesome size of the building. They went down stairs quite a ways, all the way to the ground floor, and he saw that the carpeting did indeed stop. The hallways in the sector of the Tower to which she took him were just as wide, but there were many, many more doors set into the walls. The floors and walls were absolutely spotless, and not a cobweb could be found anywhere. There were also many people. They were universally young, in their mid teens, from pale, tall Ungaardt to stocky Dals to swarthy Arkisians. Even one or two olive-skinned people from the Free Duchies between Shace and Arkis. They were wearing either plain white wool dresses or white wool shirts and brown wool trousers. They all wore exactly the same kind of leather shoes. They all stared at Tarrin in shock, and more than one shrank away from him as Elsa led him deep into the domain of the Novices.

"These are the halls of the Novices," she told him as they walked along. "There are three levels above this one also. My office door is at the end of this hall. Pray that you're not called in there." She pointed down a side hall. "At the end of that hall is the Novice Hall," she said. "It is where you will eat, and it is also where you will gather for any assemblies called for the Novices. The classrooms where you will receive your instruction are on the third and fourth levels. I'll have someone else show you all the little things. For right now, we're going to worry about the main things."

They stopped in front of a door. "This will be your room," she said. He noticed that it was within sight of the plain wooden door with her name on a wooden plaque which was nailed to the door. She was keeping him well within her sight. "You will have a roommate, Tarrin. We are not treating you any differently than any other Novice. Right now, he's probably in class." She opened the door. Inside the surprisingly large room were two narrow beds, both neatly made, with a strong, sturdy chest at the foot of each bed. Each bed also had a stand to the side of it, and there was a small writing table, with one chair, between them against the far wall. There were two pegs on the wall on each side of the room, and on the right side, one peg was occupied with a plain wool robe, and the other had a brown cloak hanging from it. Tarrin saw that hanging on the wall on the right side were pieces of paper with very elaborate sketches. Many of them were the towers and buildings of the compound, but there were also several sketches of people. One of them, he saw, was Elsa. And it was remarkably well done. Whoever had done them had a natural talent for art. "See how clean this room is?" she asked. "It had best stay this way. Now then, let's go see the Quartermaster and get you clothing."

The Quartermaster was on the second level, in a large room that was filled with shelves, those shelves holding assorted items and articles. The Quartermaster himself was a small wiry man, approaching his golden years, with a bald pate fringed with gray hair. His face was drawn, as thin as he was, but Tarrin saw that he moved with a spry step that belied his advanced years. he wore a simple brown coat over a white shirt, with brown trousers, and he had several stick pins stuck to the sleeves of his coat. He had several Novices and similarly young people with colored shirts or dresses rather than white. Those, he'd managed to deduce, were Initiates, in the step above the Novices. "Madam Elsa," he greeted in a scratchy voice, eyeing Tarrin warily. "What can I do for you?"

"This boy needs Novice's clothing," she said, jerking her thumb at Tarrin.

"Ah, this could be a challenge," he said, studying Tarrin. "Is he always so thin?"

"He should fill out a bit," Elsa said.

"Turn around," the man told Tarrin, and he did so. "That tail is going to cause a problem," he said. "I'll have to put a button in the back for it. I'll just have to cut holes in the underclothing."

"Do you have anything just for now?" she asked.

"We could put him in a robe until I get his pants sewn," he offered.

"That's a good idea," she agreed.

"Do you commonly wear shoes, Novice?" he asked.

"No sir," he said, holding up a leg and letting him see the rough pads on the bottom of his feet. "My feet do well enough for me."

"Good, I don't have any shoes big enough for those feet," he said, "and those claws would cut them up pretty quickly anyway.

"Let me measure you, and then I'll get to work on some pants," he said, taking a knotted cord out of his pocket, the knots tied at regular intervals along its length. "Go behind that screen and take off the shirt and pants." The affair took about ten minutes, for the wiry Quartermaster was quite adept at what he was doing. He would wrap that knotted cord around some part of Tarrin's body, and then write down the resulting measurement on a slate board he'd taken off a table. Tarrin was a bit antsy when the man casually wrapped that cord around the base of his tail to measure its width. He was unaware of how sensitive that particular place was, but Tarrin didn't do anything. He just stayed still and let him get it overwith. In a very short time, he had Tarrin thoroughly measured, and had taken reference measurements from Tarrin's current pants. The man gave him an old, worn out robe to wear, for he adamantly refused to give back the filthy, ripped clothing Tarrin had been wearing. "I'll be sure to leave room for him to fill them out," he told Elsa. "From his current clothes, I have a good idea of how much that's going to be. He can wear that old frayed robe to the bathing pool, and he can wear this one until he gets these clothes." He pointed at a folded garment that had been placed on a table by a Novice.

"When will they be ready?" Elsa asked.

"I can have them for you tomorrow morning," he replied.

"Very good. Come along, Tarrin, we'll get you clean."

They went down into a basement, and he was quite surprised. In the basement was a huge pool of water, one end of it steaming, and it was occupied by a surprising number of people who were bathing. Both men and women. There were many chairs set around the bathing pool which were filled with clothing and towels, and there were several Novices scurrying about tending the baths. The water smelled heavy to his nose, and he realized that it was minerals in the water, the minerals of a natural hot spring. A most ingenious way to build a communal bath and keep the water hot.

"Surprised?" she asked.

"A bit, ma'am," he responded.

"There's just the one pool, and since we all don't have the same hours, it would be impossible to divide the time. Don't worry, you'll get used to it. It takes some people longer than others, but you will. Everyone uses this pool. You, me, the Novices, Initiates, Sorcerers, guards, servants, and visitors. Even the Keeper herself bathes here."

Tarrin felt absolutely no reservations about undressing, he realized. The time with Jesmind had indeed changed him, in more ways than one. Or maybe the time with her had allowed him to come more into contact with the Cat within him. Either way, he realized soberly in that instant that he was changing, he was adapting to his Cat instincts. And, in some ways, they were starting to have a serious influence on his views and mannerisms.

He unbelted the robe immediately, and pulled it off his shoulders, then draped it over the back of a chair. She laughed richly. "That didn't take very long," she said as he stood beside her nude.

"I'm not human, Mistress Elsa," he reminded her gently. "My idea of modesty isn't the same as yours."

"Point taken," she acceded. "Is there anything else I should know? Anything special you'll need?"

"No," he replied. "I don't need anything special, ma'am. My blood is dangerous to humans, but let me be the one to worry about that problem."

"Yes, you would be the best to deal with it," she agreed. "And telling everyone that you're contagious may not endear them to you."

"I can do without that added stress, ma'am," he told her, giving the hot water a longing look.

"I'll leave you to your bath now," she told him. "I'll send someone to take you back to your room."

"I can make it back on my own, ma'am," he replied.

"Are you sure?"

"Positive, ma'am," he said. "I can find it. I'd like to walk around and see things after the bath, anyway."

"Alright then," she said. "Just don't get lost."

"No chance of that, ma'am," he told her. "I can follow my own scent trail back if I don't know where I am."

"Your nose is that sensitive?"

He nodded.

"Interesting. Have a good bath. Don't get waterlogged."

She left him as he lowered himself immediately into the water. It was tepid, and he discovered that it got hotter as one moved towards the far end of the pool. He waded in the waist deep water until he reached a delightfully hot temperature, then picked up a cake of soap that was sitting on a tray between the outer and the inner lip of the pool. He saw that there were two edges to the pool, the upper one and a lower one near the water level, that was just below the surface of the water. The water poured over that edge in a very thin stream, then was channeled away to a drain that removed the excess. He noted that that skimmed the soap foam and dirt out of the water and carried it away, keeping the water clean for other bathers. A very clever design.

He scrubbed at himself for a very long time, washing over twenty days of dirt and sweat and leaves and bark and all other manner of things off his skin and out of his fur. It was a bit hard to get at his tail, but he managed to scrub the formidable dirt out of it and comb out the mats with his claws. He unbound his hair and washed it thoroughly, watching as dirt and bits of bark and leaves, and a couple of dead flies and mosquitos, washed out of his hair and were carried away by the gentle flow towards the edge. He climbed up onto the edge of the pool to thorougly soap down and lather the dirt out of the fur on his legs, then he combed the mats out after dropping back into the water to rinse.

During the bath, he'd come to realize how thin he'd gotten. His ribs stuck out like bare branches, and every muscle he had was visible to the eye as he moved. The heavy meal had done wonders for him, though, and he could literally feel how much weight he'd gained since then. He suspected that it was the semi-magical power of regeneration that Jesmind said they possessed at work there, using the food he'd eaten to quickly put meat back on his bones. He was already hungry again. He was going to have to find out if he could get more to eat. He had the idea that if he ate heavily for a day or so, his regenerative ability would flesh him back out in almost no time.

He felt like an entirely new person when he climbed out of the water and shook much of the water out of his fur. He was clean, warm, safe, secure, and he would soon be full. The trials of the journey to Suld were quickly fading into his memories. He felt the eyes on him, but unlike the sensation he'd felt when he was on the run, he didn't mind these eyes. Some of them were in fear, but the look on one blond woman who was in the bathing pool was one of appreciation, not fear. Jesmind's prediction that he would come to not mind being nude in the presence of others had come to pass, he knew. The Cat had taken that much of a hold on his mind. And he found that he welcomed it.

He took a towel from an edgy Novice girl and dried himself off, then sat down on a chair, nude, and tried futilely to try to braid his hair back up. His huge paws made the task extremely difficult, and he came close to using his claws to shear it off more than once. He knew how futile that would be. It would grow back in a matter of hours, and may end up growing back longer than it was now. He didn't want to risk that. Having it three quarters of the way down his back was more than long enough.

"You look like you could use some help," a voice called.

He looked up. It was the blond woman who'd been in the pool, with a towel wrapped around herself. Her face was young and very pretty, with deep blue eyes that sparkled in the light and the classic high-cheekboned, delicate face that made Draconian women famous for their beauty. Her common mode of speech marked her as a Tykini, from the breakaway kingdom of Tykarthia. "I do have trouble with it," he admitted.

"Here, let me," she said. She went around behind the chair, and he felt her take up his damp hair in her hands. "Why do you grow it so long?" she asked.

"Because it just grows back," he replied.

"Hair this long must have taken you years," she noted, starting to pull his hair into sections for braiding.

"No, hours," he told her.

"Really?"

"It's racial," he said delicately.

"Ah," she sounded. He could feel her hands swiftly begin to intertwine his hair into a single thick braid.

"You're good at this," he noted.

"I have five sisters, and braids are a very common hairstyle in Tykarthia," she said. "Not as popular as they are in Tor, but popular enough. Have you ever seen a Torian woman?"

"No."

"They put their hair into as many tiny little braids as they can," she told him. "Sometimes they weave beads into the ends. I shudder to think of how long that takes."

"They must have alot of time on their hands," he noted.

"Truly," she agreed. "My name is Jula," she introduced.

"I'm Tarrin," he responded.

"You're visiting?"

"Actually, I'm supposed to enter the Novitiate," he told her.

She laughed. "Then I'd best not let too many people see this," she told him. "I'm katzh-dashi. If they see me braiding the hair of Novices, I'll never hear the end of it."

"I'm sorry," he said. "I didn't know who you were."

"I didn't know who you were either," she said. "Down here in the baths, it's not easy to tell. It's not like I have the shaeram tattooed on my bosom."

"I think that would be a bit ostentatious," he said sagely.

"Not to mention painful," she agreed. "Do you have a bit of twine or thong?" she asked. "I need to tie this in, or it'll unravel itself."

"I think I have the old one somewhere," he said. "No, wait, I undid it in the pool. I forgot about it."

"Not a problem," she said. "I'll cinch it so it'll hold itself for a while, but you need to-" She stopped as Tarrin, who had his old, frayed robe in hand, ripped a bit of cloth off the hem, then handed it to her. "I hope you're not quite that hard on your clothes," she said with a bit of a laugh, taking it from him and tying it to the end of his braid. "Want me to make a pretty little bow in it?"

"No thank you," he said dryly.

"We don't have too many non-humans in the Tower," she told him as she knotted the torn fabric and then came back around him. "I think there are a couple of Wikuni that act as emissaries of a sort, but that's about all. If I may ask, what race are you?"

"I'm not Wikuni," he told her. "I'm a Were-cat."

"Really?" she asked, her eyes brightening. "We'll definitely have to talk. I have an interest in the non-human races, and most Were-kin are very tight-lipped. Well, it will have to wait, I guess," she sighed. "I need to get dressed and get to the class I'm teaching before they think I'm not showing up." She went over to the next chair and dropped her towel without so much as batting an eyelash. Tarrin noted that she had an exquisitely shaped body. She was very lovely. Her figure almost compared to Jesmind's.

Tarrin pulled the new robe on and belted it at his waist, then gathered up the old one. He realized that they didn't tell him what to do with it. He decided to take it back to his room and drop it off. He'd ask about it later.

"What do I do with the towel?" he asked Jula as she pulled her shift over her head and settled it into place.

"Just leave it," she told him. "A Novice will pick it up in a while."

"Thank you, Mistress Jula, for the braid," he said.

"Any time, Tarrin," she told him, shrugging herself into a robe. Obviously, she would wear that back to her chambers, where she would dress. And the sight and thought of that told him that this robe he was wearing was his. He was supposed to hang it on that peg on the wall.

He couldn't follow his scent-trail all the way back, since they'd come from the Quartermaster's so he went up to the first level and wandered until he saw something that looked famliar. From there, he quickly found the central hall, and followed it down to the door to his room. He noticed that there were no locks on the doors. Opening it, he saw the room much as it was before, except for a neatly folded pair of trousers and a shirt resting on the bed. He also saw, to his own surprise, a single leather pack sitting in front of it, and his staff was sitting in the corner. Dolanna had had his things all this time? He was impressed, and a little relieved when he realized that the Box had been in that pack. Going to it quickly, he noticed a note resting on top of the pack, and another note sitting atop the clothes. The note on the clothes was from the Quartermaster.

Master Tarrin:

I finished this set, and decided to bring it so you had more to wear than a robe. You can pick up your other four sets of clothes in the morning. They will be ready for you.

The second note was from Dolanna.

Tarrin:

We managed to recover this pack from the wreck of the ship. Thank Faalken for this, it was his quick thinking that saved our belongings. I dried them out as best I could with magic, and I do believe that nothing was damaged. It took some doing to recover your staff, but I knew how much it meant to you, so I decided that it was worth the effort. By the way, what is in this pack will be held in the strictest confidence. It was obvious to me that what is within are things that you hold dear for sentimental reasons. It will remain a private matter.

This evening at sunset, I think you should visit the library. It is easy to find. I am certain that you will find it to be an interesting place.

Tarrin folded the note carefully, and then opened his pack. It was obvious from the letter that Dolanna wanted to talk to him, and without the Keeper or a stranger around. It would be no problem. Since he wasn't really a Novice yet, even if his excursion broke a rule, it wasn't a rule that applied to him. Then he unpacked his pack to check things.

The Box was alright. The four items inside, the tooth, the piece of quartz, the gold nugget, and his treasured wing, were just fine. They showed not a sign of being dunked in the water. Neither did the box. His small daggers were in the pack, and so was his larger one, which surprised him. He thought he'd lost the item he'd won at staffs in the fair. His shaving razor was there, but not the soap. But then again, he didn't need the razor. With a start, he realized that he'd not shaved once since being bitten. And his face was hairless. That he didn't mind, for he didn't like beards and he hated shaving even more. His sleeping mat, tent, and cooking pot were absent, probably lost, but this pack, with his clothes and his personal items, it was what was important.

He placed the pack in the chest at the foot of his bed. The clothes in the pack were his sturdy leather clothes, and he wanted to keep them. A bit of cutting with a knife or claw would free up a place for his tail in his pants, and that was all that really mattered. He took off the robe and dressed in the Novice's clothes that had been left for him, and hung his robe on the wall on the peg. Then he went to his staff.

The sturdy Ironwood showed not a sign of any duress, but that was usual for it. It took something like a blazing inferno to mark Ironwood. It seemed almost feather-light to him now, but he could feel every indentation on the wood intimately, and it felt just the same as he remembered. He was just stronger, and that made the very heavy wood feel lighter. His hands were now paws, and were much larger. He knew he'd have to practice with the staff to get used to the different grips he'd need to use it, now that his hands were so different. And learn how to use his natural weaponry in harmony with it.

The door opened. Tarrin stood by the bed calmly, staff in paw, and regarded the young man that entered. He was a bit tall for his age, which looked to be around fifteen, and he had the dark, swarthy skin that marked him as an Arksian. His hair was black as pitch, long and done up in an attractive side-parted style, and his eyes were a rich almond brown, almost like amber. He too wore the white shirt and brown pants of a Novice, and he had a book in his hand. "They told me that you may be here," he said calmly. "I'm Dar, Dar Ulthan," he introduced. "I'm your roommate."

"I'm Tarrin," he replied calmly.

"They asked me to show you around," he said. "We can do that after lunch, if you want."

"Lunch sounds very good at the moment," Tarrin said with a smile.

"Well, if we're going to eat, we'd best get moving," he said. "They don't let stragglers eat."

Tarrin put the staff back in the corner and followed the tall, lanky young man out.

"Where are you from?" he asked.

"Aldreth."

"Where?"

"A village about as far from Suld as you can get without leaving Sulasia," he replied.

"I'm from Arkhold, in Arkis," he returned.

"What brought you all the way here?"

"My parents are in the spice trade," he explained. "Merchants who are educated in the Tower tend to do better, and my parents want me to keep up what they've built."

"Educated? I thought that the school they have here would have been in some other building."

"The Initiates stay in other towers," he said, "but we Novices are here."

"Why do they all wear different colors?" he asked curiously.

"The Initiates? It's their rank," he replied. "Except the ones that wear brown. Initiates who wear brown aren't Sorcerers, they're just the advanced people in the school. They're here in the Tower too, in the levels above the library."

"Which way will you go?"

"I don't know yet," he said. "All I've learned so far is history and geography, and they've taught me about fifty different ways to add two and two together," he said ruefully. "But they haven't given me the Test yet." He led Tarrin down another passageway. "I'm not entirely sure which way I want to go. Seeing the Sorcerers here, it's made me interested in what they do. But if I do end up learning Sorcery, it's bound to make my parents very mad. They're paying alot of money to send me here. But, on the other hand, if I do have talent, they don't have to pay anymore," he said with a smile.

"Hmm," he mused. "My parents weren't quite so lucky. They made me come here."

"The Test?" he asked.

Tarrin nodded.

"I didn't know they tested Wikuni."

"I'm not Wikuni, and I wasn't like this when they tested me," he told him.

"I wasn't sure," he admitted with a short laugh. "I know alot of Wikuni from when my parents bargain with them, and you don't look like any Wikuni I've ever seen. But you look almost like one. I thought maybe you were a deformed Wikuni."

"No," he assured him. "I'm a Were-cat."

"Truly?" he said in wonder. "Then none of the stories I've heard of the Were-people are true, are they?"

"Probably not," he said. "Well, the part about biting is true," he added somberly.

"That's how it happened?"

He nodded. "It was just one of those dumb things," he said. "I was in the wrong place at the wrong time." That much was true, to a certain degree. If he'd chosen another bedchamber, it would have been Walten, or Tiella. Or maybe even Faalken or Dolanna. Or maybe nobody.

"You took it better than I would have," he said. "I'd still be screaming."

"I'm over that now," he said. "It's actually not that bad, once you get used to it."

"I'd rather not find out," he said.

"Smart man," Tarrin agreed. "The getting used to it is not pleasant."

"I didn't think it would be." They went through a door, and entered a huge room, much like a grand hall. There were tables and benches aligned in orderly rows in the center, with a single table on a raised dais on the far end of the room. There were already a great many people in the room, and almost all of them were sitting quietly at the tables, where a myriad of different foods sat and waited. The smells of them made his stomach growl. Sitting at the table on the dais were several men and women wearing assorted dresses, shirts, doublets, and robes, but Elsa was seated firmly in the center of the table facing the assembled Novices. Dar led them to the closest empty seats, and he had them sit down fast. "Anyone standing once the Mistress starts the meal prayer is sent away hungry," he explained in a very low whisper.

Tarrin nodded calmly, taking in the nervous reactions of the other Novices seated near and around Tarrin. They all couldn't help stare at him, but they tried to make it inconspicuous. He decided that ignoring them would be the best thing to do. Not an arm's reach away, a large platter of roasted ham sat, almost taunting him. It was a tremendous act of will not to reach out and take it.

"Everyone stand!" Elsa's booming voice called across the hall. All the Novices stood respectfully and bowed their heads. Tarrin endured a short little speech from Elsa, where she invoked the blessing of some Goddess on the meal, but Tarrin didn't listen to her. He was more interested in hearing her voice stop than he was listening to her speak. When the Novices began to take their seats, he realized that Elsa had stopped talking. He sat down with Dar, and when he saw several people reach for platters of beef, or pork, or a bowl of potatos, he knew that it was time to eat.

He graciously let everyone else take what they wanted off the platter he was eyeing, then he reached out and took the entire platter. "Anyone else want any of this?" he asked pointedly, holding it out. When nobody answered, he pushed his own plate away and set the platter in its place. He looked at the small-handled fork by the plate with a bit of annoyance, and instead used the large serving fork that was on the platter. It had a handle large enough for him to use. The knife too was too small, but the claw on the index finger of his free hand was more than capable of being a substitute for a knife. The razor-sharp tip of his claw neatly sliced up the meat to his liking, then he used the serving fork to get it to his mouth. Someone poured fresh, chilled milk into a pewter mug that was beside him, and then that person moved down to do the same with Dar's mug. He was more interested in the food, however, and he managed to finish off the entire platter of roasted ham, which had enough ham on it to feed five. Dar gave him a rather wild look as he pushed the platter away and took a drink of milk. "Do you always eat that much?" he asked.

"Not always, but I'd been moving without eating much before I got here," he replied. "I'm just catching up on missed meals."

"I can understand that," he said, going back to his own meal.

Tarrin could almost feel the energy of the meal surge into him as he sat there drinking his milk and waiting for Dar to finish. Now that his body had more raw material to work with, he was very certain that he'd not look even half so thin by dinnertime. He was looking forward to the studies with Sevren; he was curious just what his body was capable of doing. This ability to restore lost body tissue was most interesting. But then again, he felt that he should have known it would do that. Something in the back of his mind, he thought it was the Cat, told him that he could grow back missing limbs, except for his head, and even regrow lost teeth and claws. It was part of the regenerative capabilities inherent with his kind.

And, he realized, it was the reason they didn't age. The regeneration healed them of the effects of time, repairing any damage brought on by the marching of the seasons. That was only logical, he realized calmly as he sat there. The effects of time were not natural; well, they were natural, but they were not the natural state of his body, and that was how his regenerative ability maintained him. An older him did not fit into his body's imprint of itself, and so it was corrected by regenerative healing.

Tarrin was only seventeen. He hadn't lived long enough to be able to appreciate the profound concept of living until someone killed him, maybe for thousands of years, but he was wise enough to know that he wasn't old enough. It was something that he would have to think about in the time to come, something to ponder.

After the meal, Dar took Tarrin around the Tower. They went to the Library, the scribing chamber, out on the grounds, to the huge garden behind the Tower, then they walked along the highly polished black tiles of what was known as the Heart of the Goddess, a massive open space in the exact center of the Tower that ran from the base right up to the top. While they walked, they talked. Dar was an earnest young man with high goals and ideals, but they didn't include what his family wanted from him. He was an accomplished artist, and he wanted to pursue that, while his family thought it was frivilous. He also wanted to learn. He was wildly curious about the world, and he almost didn't want to leave the Tower, to leave the vast Library, which was one of the largest and most complete in the world. They strolled along the black tiles around the edge, near the wall, as Dar confided certain things to Tarrin that he knew the young man had not told other people. Dar and Tarrin seemed to just connect, and he realized that he already considered the young Arkisian a close friend. The Cat in him liked Dar just as much as the human did. In the base of the floor, in a huge design, was the shaeram, the geometric star-in a star-in a circle design that was the symbol of the order. It was done much differently than the medallions he'd seen, and that pointed some things out to him. The medallions were a four-pointed star with concave sides inside a six-pointed star. This symbol resembled that six pointed star, but instead of a star it was six individual triangles laid out corner to corner, third point out, all contained within the circle. Each triangle was a different color. They were red, blue, a shade of purple like violets, orange, yellow, and a lighter shade of purple that was obviously a different color. The circle encircling them was green, and the concave four-pointed star within was white. The design had to be about fifty paces across, taking up about three quarters of the floor.

Tarrin felt…strange. There was something in this vast chamber, but he couldn't quite put his claw on it. It hovered right on the edge of his consciousness, almost like something that rested just at the edge of his vision, a sound that was so faint that he couldn't tell if it was real, the phantom of a scent in his nose. "Do you feel that?" he asked Dar quietly, almost reverently.

"Sometimes I do," he replied. "There's something in this place, but the Sorcerers won't tell me what it is. I think it has something to do with magic. Not many people come in here, so I like to come in here alot and think."

Tarrin advanced into the huge open area, still trying to understand the extremely vague sensation he was feeling. His pads made no noise on the black tiles as they crossed the boundary and set foot on the green of the surrounding circle of the symbol. Tarrin felt that unusual sensation more strongly as he advanced into the middle of the huge room. He looked up into the soaring void that rose up over them, an enclosed area that went up so high that he could just barely make out the ceiling so far above. Tarrin put a paw out in front of him, because he could almost see a something coalescing in front of him. As he moved closer, it seemed to be more distinct.

When his paw crossed the invisible barrier above where the green circle ended and the red triangle began, something strange happened. A faint, ghostly radiance appeared around Tarrin's thick fingers, and it swirled and eddied like water between and over them. At the touch of that visible light, Tarrin's fingers tingled angrily, pins and needles that were almost painful, yet seemed to go through his fingers as well as around.

"Amazing!" Dar murmured, standing beside him. "It never did that to me."

Tarrin put his entire paw in, feeling the tingles, watching the light ghost up and around his paw. It was almost like water; whatever it was was definitely flowing, from the floor up towards the ceiling so high above. "Put your hand in," Tarrin told him in a wondrous voice. "Don't just put it in, feel what's there."

He did so, closing his eyes. After a moment, while Tarrin put his other paw in and played with the swirling, smoky radiance, Dar's eyes snapped open. "I feel…tingles," he said. He put his other hand out, and then tendrils of ghostly smoke-light started wisping out from under Dar's hands. "Incredible!" he whispered as it became stronger. "I can feel it!"

Tarrin raised a foot, to take a step inside.

"I wouldn't do that," a voice called from behind.

They both whirled around. The woman standing before them was very, very tall, and she was almostly achingly beautiful. Her skin was bronze colored, but her hair was a brilliant, fiery red. A most unusual combination. She wore a daring, low-cut red silk dress, and had a figure that most women would kill for. Dar instantly bowed to the woman, and Tarrin clumsily did the same. Her hard green eyes swept over them quickly, then she walked up to them. She stepped between them and put her hand out, over the barrier, and Tarrin watched it as it reached into the same area where he had been. "You have no idea what you're doing," she said in a hard voice, "and that can kill you if you're not careful."

Her hand suddenly erupted into a white fire, which spread over her palm, and licked up from under her cupped hand. She removed her hand from the place, and the white fire was still in her palm, dancing and weaving in the air. Tarrin could feel the heat from it; it was real fire. It was pure white, but it was real. "This place, I don't think it's safe for either of you. You'd best not come here again."

Swallowing, Tarrin looked at the fire. Why hadn't it done that for him? Like she said, it was something he had no knowledge of, but he just had to know. "What is it, Mistress?" he asked.

"It is Sorcery," she said simply. "It's something you haven't learned yet. But from what I just saw, it's something that both of you will learn," she added with an appraising look at Dar.

Dar positively beamed.

"Just don't get creative," she said. "Before you even try to use Sorcery, there are many things you have to learn. It's way too easy to kill yourself if you don't know exactly what you're doing."

"I know," Tarrin said absently thinking back to Jenna and her explosive experience with the power of Sorcery.

"Now get on with both of you," she said shooing them away with a hand as the fire winked out from the other. "I suggest you not come back here until you've learned more about the power of Sorcery."

They left her with hurried bows, almost running from the vast chamber. Only when they were clear of her did they start whispering fervently. "You will be a Sorcerer!" Tarrin whispered to him, as Dar said "that was absolutely incredible!"

Dar looked over his shoulder. "That was Ahiriya," he told Tarrin in a hushed tone. "She sits on the Council of Seven."

"Ahiriya?" Tarrin asked. That was also the name of a Goddess, the Elder Goddess of Fire.

"I know, she almost looks the part, doesn't she?" Dar said with a grin. "She sits in the Fire seat on the council and everything. She has just as much of a temper too. She's the last person in the Tower you want to have mad at you."

"The Fire seat?"

"The council, it has six members," he explained. "Each one is the seat of one of the six spheres of Sorcery. Air, earth, fire, water, the mind, and the power of the Goddess. The Keeper is the seventh. They rule the Tower."

"I remember that much," he said. "I just didn't know they called themselves that, that's all."

"You'll learn most of that in the first week or so of the Novitiate. That's about all they talk about. Rules, rules, rules, and just how deep you bow to which person. I think it's a bit silly, myself," he grunted. "Back home, you bow to the king, but that's about all. We're kinda informal about that kind of thing."

"You sound like a noble," Tarrin said.

"Well, my father is a Margrave," he admitted. "That's a rank something like a Baron here in the west, but there are no lands that go with the title. It's like a landless noble."

"A landless noble?" Tarrin asked.

Dar nodded. "He earned it about fifteen years ago. The king needed something done badly, and my father managed to do it for him. He gave my father the title in thanks."

"Hmm," Tarrin sounded.

"We don't take it seriously, anyway," he said. "My family earns money through the spice trade, so we don't really need land."

"My father said that Novices work when not in class," he said.

"We do," he said with a wince. "I got very lucky. They wanted you to know your way around, so I have the afternoon off to show you the Tower."

"What do you usually do?"

"Scrub floors, scrub walls, scrub pots and pans, scrub scrub scrub," he said with a face. "I swear, when I get out of here, I'll never so much as look at another scrub brush as long as I live."

Tarrin laughed. "You should work on a farm," he said. "You do the same things every day, over and over. As soon as you finish it, it has to be done again. It's very monotonous."

"Sounds like torture," he said.

"You get used to it," Tarrin said. "I didn't mind most of the chores. It was something to do." He looked down at his paw idly. "Besides, we had a small farm, and there were four of us, so there wasn't a huge amount of work. We had alot of free time."

"What did you do with it?"

"Hunted, roamed around in the forest, that kind of thing," he said. "My father was a Ranger, so he taught me all about the woods. My mother's Ungardt, so I learned all about fighting from her. That's more or less what I did with my free time."

"I sat and learned numbers, then learned how to cheat spice dealers," Dar said with a grin.

"Must have been boring."

"You have absolutely no idea." He looked around. "Let's go back outside. It's a nice day, and if any Sorcerer decides they need something, they can make us do it. We're the mules in the Tower, and idle mules irritate many of the Sorcerers for some reason."

Tarrin laughed. "Outside sounds like a good idea."

The sky was clear, with the Skybands cutting across the blue in their dull white colors. They went to the massive garden behind the Tower proper, where numerous Novices toiled in the meticulously arranged gardens with gardeners and Initiates supervising them. The garden was in its early summer bloom, and it was a sea of colorful flowers divided by red brick walkways. There were several fountains among the large sections of roses and tulips and numerous other flowers, and they stopped at each one and gazed on the beautiful sculpture that often spouted streams of water. There was also a huge hedge maze behind the flower gardens, and the two of them wandered the pathways of that huge maze for almost the entire afternoon, going well past the point where the pathways were neatly tended.

"Things are getting ragged," Dar noticed.

"I don't think they come in this far," Tarrin replied.

Dar laughed. "Maybe we'll come across the skeleton of the last person who did," he joked.

"It's certainly large enough to get lost in," he said.

"Do we even know where we are?" Dar asked a bit uncertainly.

"I know where I've been," he assured him. "I can smell our trail, so we can just follow that to get out."

After a while, though, Tarrin was getting aggravated. They'd followed every single possible path, and yet they still hadn't found the center. "There has to be a way in," he growled.

"As rough as these hedges are," Dar said, pushing away a branch that quite nearly grew across the entire path, "The way to it may have grown over."

"I think you're right," he agreed. "Let's start looking for holes in the hedge."

After about half an hour, they found it. It was indeed overgrown, and so badly that it literally looked like a wall. They pushed through it, walked down a short path that was similarly choked, and then they found themselves standing in the center.

The hours were worth the effort. There was a fountain in the middle of the large grassy clearing, a fountain that was bright and clean despite the obvious years of neglect. There was a statue in the center of the pristine marble fountain, a statue of a woman of indescribable beauty. The stone was unweathered, and it seemed to literally capture the sparkle in the eye of the long-haired, nude figure. The sculpture was so incredibly detailed that Tarrin could see the individual strands of hair flowing down the back of the statue's shoulders. It stood on a pedestal in the center of the fountain, where small spouts of water filled the small center area with the sound of happily splashing, bubbling water. The figure was in a delicate feminine pose, and its arms were outstretched, as if welcoming them into the clearing. The clearing itself was neat and clean, despite the obvious fact that nobody came into it anymore, with several rose bushes growing to each side of a single solitary bench that sat in front of the fountain. There was a red brick path around the fountain, widened around the bench, running under their feet towards it.

"It's beautiful," Dar whispered.

Tarrin couldn't answer. He approached the rim of the fountain and boldly stepped up onto the lip, then waded through the ankle-deep water. He went right up to the life-sized statue and stared at its intricately detailed face, a beautiful face with elegant cheekbones and almond shaped eyes under very delicate brows. Tarrin reached out and put his paw on the cheek of the statue, just to make sure that it was really stone. Never had he seen such unbelievably detailed sculpture. For an irrational moment, the statue's exquisite figure reminded him of Jesmind, and he wondered if she somehow had something to do with it.

"What are you doing?" Dar asked.

"It's really stone," he told him. "You can see the hairs in her eyebrows."

"It's almost embarassing," Dar said.

"What?"

"That's not all the hair the sculpter made," he said delicately.

Tarrin looked down. "You can see each hair in that too," he said.

Dar blushed.

"What?" he asked. "It's just stone, Dar. I don't think it cares if you look." Tarrin stopped himself. Where did that come from? That sounded just like Jesmind. Had those short days changed him so much?

"Well, it's still improper."

"Don't be such a prude, Dar," he said. "With all the art I saw in the room, I would think that you could appreciate the art of this, even if she is nude."

"Yes, well, I can appreciate the art," he said, "but it's almost too life-like. If you touched that statue in the wrong place, I think it might slap you."

Tarrin rather bluntly placed the palm of his paw against the area of contention. Dar choked a bit, and then he laughed. "No slap," Tarrin said.

"You're fearless," Dar told him.

"No, I'm just not afraid of a piece of marble," he replied.

"Well, you couldn't have touched it in a more sensitive place," Dar said.

"Yes I could have, but the statue was carved with her legs too close together," he said.

"Tarrin!" Dar hissed. "That's nasty!"

"And you've never thought of doing it yourself?" he asked pointedly.

"Yes, well," he said, clearing his throat and turning a bright shade of red. "I never thought to do it to a piece of stone."

"Now you're thinking the right way," Tarrin said, leaving the statue and wading back across the fountain.

"You don't think the same way we do," Dar deduced shrewdly.

"No, I don't," he said calmly. "What I consider modest and improper isn't the same as what you do, Dar. It has to do with what I am." Again, he marvelled at how much like Jesmind he sounded. "This is a very nice place," he said. "That's the most beautiful fountain I've ever seen, and the whole thing is pretty. I could live in here."

"I wonder who keeps it like this, since the opening is so overgrown that it's hidden," Dar wondered aloud.

"Somebody has to," Tarrin agreed. "This place would be a jungle if it wasn't tended. But there are no human smells in here. Not even a trace of one," he told him. "Nobody has been in here in weeks, maybe months. And that's too long for it to look like this."

"Maybe the place is magic," Dar said.

Tarrin considered that, and then he thought about the way he felt in the huge chamber Dar called the Heart of the Goddess. But that same feeling wasn't here. But there was a different feeling here…a feeling of peace. That was the only way to describe it. Standing there, staring at that beautiful statue, Tarrin coudln't deny that there was something very special about this place, something that made him feel very much at peace.

"I don't know about magic, but this place is very special," he said in a quiet voice. "Maybe it's a good thing that nobody really comes here."

"Yeah," he agreed. "They'd just mess it up."

They sat down on the bench and stared at the exquisite statue for a long time. They didn't speak. Talking was unnecessary. They both simply contemplated the statue, her arms held out in a gesture of welcome, the look of gentle caring on her face.

"It's getting late," Dar said, looking at the dimming sky. "We probably missed dinner."

"It was worth it," he said calmly.

"It was," he agreed.

"We should go. They may be looking for us, and they won't find us here."

"Yes. We should remember that. This might be a nice place to get away from it all."

Tarrin glanced around at the clearing. "Yes, it would be," he said. Looking up, he could see that the hedges didn't conceal the center from the vast height of the main Tower. But from that height, one would need a spyglass to see who was down here.

They went back to the Novice quarters, and Tarrin considered the fountain. It was a beautiful place, and it was indeed very well hidden. It was the perfect place to go when he didn't want to be bothered.

"Let's see if we're not too late for dinner," Dar said.

"You go ahead," he said. "I need to do something."

"Alright. See you in the room. I'll try to sneak something back for you."

"Thanks," he said.

He immediately went to the Library. He wasn't too late to keep his appointment with Dolanna. The library was a vast place, a chamber that took up almost every span of available room on one side of the Tower. It went from the inner wall to the outer wall, took up two levels, and probably took up enough room to house about three hundred people. The floor was lined with bookshelves, and each one was piled heavily with books. There was a set of steps on each side of a large statue of some robed man with long hair and no beard, leading to a half-upper level with even more bookshelves. In the exact center of the lower floor, up against the wall that separated the central core of the tower, was a circular desk behind which sat the Master Librarian and two or three of his scholar attendants, who were responsible for keeping the Tower's vast wealth of books in a neat and orderly fashion. Tarrin hesitated to let one of those librarians pass, pushing a wooden cart stacked with books that were to be replaced on the shelves.

Ignoring the several curious looks, Tarrin squatted down and put his nose close to the floor. There were a multitude of scents all jumbled together on the floor, but he knew precisely which one he was looking for. He had to check two other likely places it would be until he found Dolanna's scent, sharp and strong and fresh. After that, he simpy followed it. It went up the stairs and into a dark corner of the huge library. She was sitting at a solitary table behind a large, dusty bookshelf, where a single one of those glowing globes hovered over the table to provide light.

He sat down across from her at the small table quietly. She looked up from the book she was reading, then carefully looked in either direction for eavesdroppers. "Thank you for coming, Tarrin," she said.

"What did you want to see me about, Dolanna?" he asked.

"Nothing earth-shaking, my dear one," she said with a smile. "I simply wanted to talk to you about your journey to the Tower. I felt that there some things that you did not wish to talk about in front of Sevren."

"Not a whole lot," he told her. "Me and Jesmind, we, uh, got very, you know, uh-"

"I understand," she said quickly. "I had assumed as much."

"Why?"

"Because, my dear one, that is a very effective way for a woman to control a man," she said.

"That's not why it happened," he said.

"Then what did occur?"

Tarrin explained to her the social peculiarities of the Were-cats, as it was described to him by Jesmind. Dolanna simply nodded. "Yes, that is logical," she said. "I should have expected as much. I keep falling into the trap of thinking of you and the other Were-cats as thinking in a human manner."

"No, we don't," he said soberly. "Here lately, I've really noticed it. I've changed, Dolanna."

"How so?"

"I'm starting to think almost the same way Jesmind does," he told her. "I used to be nervous about undressing in public. Right now, Dolanna, I could strip and walk across the library without batting an eyelash. It just doesn't seem the same as it once did." He shuddered slightly. "I find it very easy to kill," he added.

"What else?"

"Just little things, Dolanna, mostly along those lines," he said. "I think the time with Jesmind opened my eyes to that other side of me, and now they're starting to communicate. Jesmind told me that I was ignoring it. Well, I'm not doing that anymore. And it's doing it without me knowing about it. When I was in the baths, I realized that my ideas about being nude changed. It wasn't until then."

"It is your instincts," she told him. "They are starting to merge with your conscious mind. Tarrin, it is what is supposed to happen, and it is a very good sign. You do not seem to be having any problems integrating them together, which is also very good."

"It's just scary," he told her. "I'm starting to wonder at what I'm going to do next. It's like I'm starting to lose control."

"No, dear one," she assured him. "The fact that you can recognize these changes in attitude tells me that you are still very much in control of yourself."

"It's still weird," he said. "At first, when I met Jesmind, I was amazed at how different she was. She was blunt and almost totally fearless, and she thought about some things in ways I never thought any woman would ever think about them. And now I find myself acting more and more like her with every passing moment. I know I'm not becoming her, because she's female and I'm not, but I'm starting to think almost the same way. I'm getting just as blunt, and I find myself capable of doing things that would have made me almost faint just last month."

"You are starting to think like a Were-cat," she told him gently.

"I didn't realize that it would be so different," he admitted.

"But you do realize it, Tarrin, and that is your best weapon in learning how to deal with it," she told him.

"I hope so," he sighed.

"Just believe in yourself, dear one," she told him.

He nodded. "Did you tell them about Jesmind?"

"Yes," she replied. "The Keeper has started putting eyes out to watch for her. So far as I know, she has yet to arrive. Nobody has seen her."

"They're not going to," he grunted. "If she doesn't want to be seen, she won't."

"We must have faith," she said.

"What about the Goblinoids?"

"Now that we have passed on to the King," she told him. "I have not heard what will be done about it, but at least the King now knows what is happening. I am certain he will mobilize units in the army to deter them from getting any ideas."

"Good," he said. "Dolanna, that place in the center of the Tower, what is it?" he asked.

She gave him a curious look. "It is called the Heart of the Goddess," she told him.

"I know. Me and my roommate were in there. There's something in there, something magic. But before we could find out, someone came in and threw us out."

"That was a good thing," she told him with a look of concern on her face. "Tarrin, you have awesome potential, and you will have tremendous power when you learn to use it. That place, it is very central to our power as Sorcerers. It is something that you will not understand until you learn about the Weave. But for now, consider it to be a place with a great deal of magical energy. With your inherent aptitude, I am surprised that nothing bad happened."

"I think it almost did," he said with a shudder. "Me and Dar were playing with the area inside the symbol, because it was creating light when we put our hands in it. The woman came in and stopped us before we did anything else."

"Then your roommate has the talent," she told him calmly. "He will be a Sorcerer."

"Yes, the woman told him that," he replied. "He's very happy about it."

"Have you, done anything with Sorcery?" she asked.

"No," he told her. "After what happened with Jenna, I don't even want to try until I know what I'm doing. I've seen what can happen if I mess it up."

"That is a very good attitude," she told him fiercely. "Sorcery is not bad, Tarrin, but you must understand what you are doing when you do it, or there is a tremendous potential for disaster. Training people as powerful as you is very, very dangerous because of that. I have asked for the honor of doing that myself. I feel that I am best qualified to do it, since I know you so well, and you are so comfortable with me."

"I wouldn't mind it."

"But they may not allow it," she told him. "I am very strong, Tarrin, but there are others much stronger than I. They may decide to pair you with a Sorcerer with enough raw power to stop you from hurting yourself. And there are only a handful with that much raw talent in the Tower."

"Not if I refuse to learn from them," he said.

"Tarrin, you cannot do that."

"Really? What's stopping me?" She gave him a blank look. "I didn't think so."

"Tarrin, that is rebellion you are talking about," she said. "That is not tolerated in a Novice."

"I'm not a normal Novice," he told her.

"You will get in a great deal of trouble," she warned.

"And? Dolanna, I'm already in trouble. Do you think that a little bit more is going to make a difference? Between Jesmind and the Goblinoids and the person that was trying to kill me, I'm really not going to worry about someone getting into a twist because I want a specific teacher."

She gave him a strange look, and then laughed delightedly. "Tarrin, my dear one, you are going to drive this Tower to distraction," she told him fondly. She looked down the passage between the bookcases. "It is getting late, dear one. We should be leaving."

"It is getting there," he agreed. "I don't have anything to do tomorrow either…maybe I'll spend the day reading. And maybe see you in here. Around sunset maybe."

"Perhaps," she said with a smile.

Tarrin left her sitting at the table. It had been a productive meeting. Dolanna had calmed some fears that had broiled up in the past day, and he had learned a thing or two besides. And he got to talk with Dolanna. Tarrin had a very special rapport with the Sorceress, and they both knew it. It had been she that had kept a terrified Tarrin from going into histrionics after he'd been bitten. It was her gentle guidance that had literally kept him from going mad. And they had a very close personal friendship as well. She was in many ways one of the crutches on which he leaned, and he would have no one else teach him about Sorcery. Unlike many others in the Tower, he already knew Dolanna, already knew what to expect from her. Despite them being Sorcerers, and despite the warm welcome he had received from many in the Tower, Tarrin was still a bit reluctant about getting close to strangers. He wouldn't be as forthcoming with a stranger as he would with Dolanna, and that made her the best teacher for him.

Tarrin was used to being what he was. Now he had to get used to how that would affect relationships with others.

Tarrin was up before dawn, and so was Dar. Someone walked up the hallway just as Tarrin awoke, ringing a bell. That was obviously the signal for all Novices to get up and start preparing for the day. Tarrin had had a very good sleep, and much to his surprise, so had Dar. Dar had not shown the slightest reservation about sharing his room with such an exotic, unknown creature as Tarrin, and that surprised the young Were-cat considerably. Dar was perfectly at ease with Tarrin, and that simple fact had endeared the Arkisian to him even more than the previous day. Being able to sleep soundly in the same room as someone was a definite measure of trust.

Tarrin wondered if it hadn't been for that specific reason that Dar was chosen to be his roommate. Because he was so tolerant.

Dar groaned, sat up, and yawned deeply. "Dawn gets here earlier every day," he grumbled in complaint as he rubbed his eyes.

"Of course it does," Tarrin told him. "It's coming into summer. Each night is a bit shorter than the last. If you'd go to bed at a decent hour, then you wouldn't be so sleepy."

"You're the one who kept me up," he shot back. "Do you always like to play cards?"

"It helps me think," he shrugged.

"Next time, read a book," he complained, sliding out of bed.

"I may. You're a lousy hand in King's Sword."

"Give me a break, I just learned it last night," he said indignantly.

"Do you play stones?"

"Religiously," he replied.

"I'll get a stones board."

"Not in this room you won't. Neither of us will sleep if you do."

"You may be right there," he admitted. "I don't like stopping in the middle of a game."

"I don't either." Dar was wearing his small clothes, and he pulled his robe off the peg and belted it on.

"What's the routine in the morning?" Tarrin asked.

"We all have to bathe first," he said. "After that, we eat. Then we either go to class or to our work."

"All the Novices at once?"

"No, they do it a floor at a time. We have to go bathe first."

"What do the others do while they wait?"

"They wait," he said. "They have to get up at the same time we do. But we have to wait on them to finish before we can go to eat, so it evens out."

"Well, what happens in you want to take a long bath?" he asked.

Dar laughed. "Tarrin, you don't see many Novices take long baths," he said. "At least everyone but Torians."

"Why is that?"

"Because they have to appear naked in front of the others," he said. "The Torians have communal baths, so it doesn't bother them. Most Novices jump in, jump out, and then wrap a towel around themselves as fast as they can."

"Humans," Tarrin sighed. "You're so quirky. After you see someone naked once, does it matter how many more times you see it?"

"I don't like doing it either," Dar told him. "I think having to take a bath with the girls is the worst part of the day."

"I'll go with you," he said. "I feel like taking another bath. That bathing pool is just too handy."

"It'd be real nice if I didn't have to take my clothes off in front of girls," Dar grumbled.

Tarrin laughed, which made Dar blush. Which made him laugh even more. Now he understood why Jesmind was so amused at his own discomfort. And now that he seemed to be closer to Jesmind's way of thinking, it was just as amusing to him as it was to her. It was such a silly custom, almost ridiculous, for humans to be so ashamed of themselves.

Dar and Tarrin left their room and fell into step with the other Novices that lived on their floor. They all seemed as sulky as Dar. Tarrin also noted that many of them stared at him in wide-eyed amazement, and not a few of them wouldn't get that close to him. That made him sigh a bit. It wasn't like he was some unholy monster there to drink the living blood from their veins. He was a person, after all. He even had a name. He understood that to them, he was a very strange creature, but it was silly to be afraid of him. He was a Novice, just like them. It wasn't like he'd gotten himself into the Tower so he could eat the unwary young Novices.

He ignored them as best he could. He was more interested in a hot bath than anything else. That he attended to with a brisk businesslike manner of which Dar seemed to approve. They disrobed and jumped right into the water, and he waded out into the hot water quickly, before others could get over there and intrude on his space. He had plans for the day, several of them. The first was to take his staff outside and start working out the differences that there would be. He had larger hands now. He was stronger, faster, and he had natural weaponry. He needed to work with them more than the chaotic, half-instinctual way he'd been using them. He needed to know exactly what he could do, so he would know exactly what he was capable of doing. In a fight, that was dreadfully important. His life would hinge on it. Then he would go to the library and start reading about Sorcery. He'd discovered from talking with Dar last night that they didn't start really teaching Sorcery until the Initiate. Well, he wanted to know now. And he was pretty sure that he could talk Dolanna into giving him lessons, whether or not they were sanctioned by the Tower. Before he started doing that, he wanted to read about it. Besides, he was rather sure that they'd watch him very closely for a while. He'd just arrived, and they had no idea what he was about. They'd watch him carefully until they were certain that he wasn't going to do anything unusual. At least for him. After that, if he had time, he wanted to explore the rest of the grounds more thoroughly. That, he knew, was a purely Cat instinct, to know his territory, but he was more than willing to go along with the idea. He was curious to see what all there was out on the grounds, which were about three times the size of Aldreth. And after that, he would meet with Dolanna in the library at sunset.

He'd been right about his body repairing itself, though. He wasn't half as thin as he'd been this time the day before. His ribs were again sheathed in a layer of muscle, and the little aches and pains had faded quite some time ago. It had only taken a single day with a huge amount of food for his body to restore what had been consumed during his period of near-starvation. He looked healthy, and he felt healthy. He was strong again, strong enough to take his staff out in the field and work with it.

"Man, this is hot," Dar complained as he lathered his hair.

"I like it like this," Tarrin said.

"It's tolerable, but only just," he said.

"For you."

"Hey, I'm the only one that matters," he said with a grin.

"You might think so," Tarrin shot back.

"You mean the world doesn't revolve around me? I'm crushed."

"You look it."

Dar answered that by splashing water at him. Tarrin retaliated by snaking his long tail around the boy's ankle, and then yanking. Tarrin's tail was by no means as stong as the rest of his body, but it was strong enough. Dar disappeared under the water with shocking speed, and then came up spluttering. "Cheater," he accused after spitting out a mouthful of water.

"Oh, did my tail catch on your leg? I'm so sorry," Tarrin said with false sincerity. "Let me help you up."

"That thing is long," Dar remarked, looking behind Tarrin in the water.

"About half again as long as my leg," Tarrin told him calmly. "Long enough to be useful."

"I noticed," Dar said after he stuck his tongue out at the Were-cat.

"It doesn't look it because it moves all the time, and it's always bent," Tarrin said, washing the soap out of the fur on his arms.

Dar laughed. "Your tail reaches farther than your arms."

"I guess it does."

"And you can grab things with it?"

"Yes. It's not as delicate as my fingers, but it's got enough agility to grab things."

"That's the first time I ever heard of the butt grabbing the hand."

Tarrin gave him a face, then laughed. "Wait til it smacks you. Then you can say that it's the first time a butt ever smacked back."

Dar laughed with him as they climbed out of the bathing pool. But it also made Tarrin consider the possibilities. From a combat situation, his tail was a tactical advantage. It gave him a third arm, as it were, one that didn't have an elbow and was as supple as a snake. He made a mental note to ponder that. He was rather sure he'd thought of that once before, but he hadn't pursued it last time. Most likely it had been during his flight from Jesmind, and at that time he was too busy trying to survive.

They went back to their room and dressed, then they stood at the hallway leading to the Hall, waiting for the Mistress of Novices to appear and lead them in. Dar explained that the food was already laid out on the tables, but those unlucky Novices that had pulled kitchen duty, and only awaited them to come in and sit down. They had the same thing for breakfast every day. Cooked eggs, slices of bacon, ham, porridge, bread, milk, and fresh fruit, when it was in season.

Elsa appeared a short while later, and she stopped in front of Tarrin. "You look a whole world better, boy," she noted.

"I feel just fine, Mistress," he assured her.

"Good. You're entering the Noviate tomorrow. Oh, and don't forget to pick up your clothes from the Quartermaster after breakfast. He's waiting on you."

"I'll take care of it, Mistress Elsa," he promised.

"I saw that staff in your room, boy. You're not supposed to have that. Unless, of course, it's of sentimental value."

"I've owned it for five years, Mistress. I made it myself. It's got a great deal of sentimental value."

"Good," she said. "That's all I wanted to hear. And if anyone asks, you'll tell them that. Understood?"

"Understood, Mistress," he told her. Then she led them into the Hall.

"What was that all about?" he asked in a hushed voice. Elsa was only a bit ahead of them.

"We're not allowed to have weapons, except for a personal knife. I didn't think it was a weapon," he shrugged.

"It's very much one, if you know how to use it that way," he told him in an equally hushed voice. "I could teach you, if you want."

"I may take you up on that. It's always handy how to know how to fight with something so ordinary."

"That's the idea," he said. "My mother could whip your tail with nothing but her hands and feet. My father could do it with a leather belt."

"A belt?"

Tarrin nodded. "I've never seen one used quite that way, and I doubt I ever will. He could even block a sword blow with it. He said he learned it because even if you lose everything else, you'll always have your belt."

Dar chuckled. "That's a very smart idea." They entered the Hall and took the closest available seats, but they didn't touch any food. That came after the blessing. "Your mother knows the Ungaardt Ways?" he asked in a whisper.

Tarrin nodded. "She taught them to me, but I'm still not as good as she is."

"I heard that they don't often teach them to women," he said.

"You heard wrong," Tarrin told him. "Even a village grandmother has some training in the Ways. It's a custom."

Many more Novices poured in, many of them still damp from the baths. After the hall was more or less full, Elsa stood up and delivered the blessing in a booming voice. When she was done, the Novices started in on breakfast. Now that he was mended, he didnt' have a quarter of the appetite he'd had the day before, so his breakfast plate was much more reasonable. He did like scrambled eggs, so he put more on his plate than was good for him, then added some bacon and fried ham to it. He didn't touch the porridge, but did have an apple after cleaning his plate.

As he'd discovered the day before, he wasn't required to sit and wait for everyone else to finish. Once a Novice was done with the meal, they were permitted to leave and get about their affairs. Tarrin bid good day to Dar and left the Hall, going straight to the Quartermaster's. The wiry man greeted him warmly when he entered. "Ah, I see you got my clothes," he said.

"Thank you, sir. They were very handy. I don't like wearing robes."

"With that tail, I can understand why. I have your clothes ready for you. Come with me and we'll get them."

The wiry man led him to a shelf some ways back into the huge room. "Those are the same size as the ones you have on now," he said. "Hmm, maybe I should have made them looser. They're already snug on you."

"No, sir, this size is perfect," he assured him. "I'm as thick as I'm going to get."

"But you were thin as a stick yesterday."

"I got better," he said with a mischievous grin.

"I don't think I want to know, so spare me the details," he said dryly. "With all the magical things that go on around here, I should know better than to ask anymore."

"Oh, what do you want me to do with the old robe?" he asked.

"Keep it," he said. "It'll make good rags if anything else. That's what I was about to do with it."

"I'll find something to do with it, sir," he assured him.

"Well, I won't keep you. I know they keep you Novices busier than a frog on a griddle. Have a good day, young man."

"You too, sir," he mirrored.

Tarrin took his clothes back to his room and put them away neatly in the chest. He took off the ones he was wearing and put on a set of his old leathers out of his pack, then picked up his staff and went outside. He debated where to do his practicing for several moments. It had to be an open area out of the way. But a moment of thought told him that the perfect place was that sand-strewn area he'd crossed the night he arrived. It even had several large posts driven into the ground, and was obviously a training field for someone, most likely the Tower guards. If nobody was using it, it would be perfect for his needs.

But it was indeed being used. A squad of young men wearing leather pseudo-armor labored on the field, swinging lathe-bundled practice swords to the barking command of a burly man wearing the plate armor of a Knight. Farther down the line, young men swung their practice swords at the wooden posts, and in another place they sparred against each other. About seven or eight other Knights prowled the field, correcting stances and giving instruction as they moved, or they supervised the sparring matches with a keen eye. Tarrin also noticed three robed Sorcerers standing to one side. They were obviously there in case of an accidental injury.

As Tarrin approached, he recognized one of the prowling Knights. It was Faalken. Dolanna had said that he trained students when not out with her. Faalken noticed him and trotted out quickly to greet him, his plate armor jingling as he moved. "Tarrin!" he said joyfully, clapping the Were-cat's paw in his strong hand. "Dolanna told me you were back. You look very well."

"I do now," he said ruefully. "I wasn't in very good shape when I got here."

"Yes, she told me. She said it wasn't easy on you."

"Not by a measure," he grunted.

He took notice of his staff. "Here to practice a bit?"

"I remembered seeing the field, but I didn't know if it would be used," he said apologetically. "I'll go find someplace else."

"Nonsense," he said. "You're more than welcome here. It's not often that we get to see someone other than Elsa use the Ways, anyway."

"Is she any good?" he asked.

"Let's just say that I've never seen a Sorceress thump so many heads without magic," he said with a grin.

"I'm not surprised," he said back. "She's from the Emden clan, and they've always been very good at the Ways. It's a matter of pride with them."

"Yes, well, just find yourself an open spot," he invited. "I hope you won't mind if some of us watch."

"Not really," he said.

Tarrin picked a small corner of the soft sand practice field and turned the staff over in paws several times, getting a feel for the changes. The staff seemed a little smaller to him now, and he'd have to adjust his grip on it. He started going through forms, very slowly, sliding from one to the next with a fluid grace and feeling the changes in leverage, the shifts in the grip he'd have to make, the adjustments to take his new height into account. His wide feet gave him more stability than before, and his Were-cat sense of balance and equilibrium was a definite asset. He worked through the same forms again several times, going faster and faster each time, until he whirled through the routine at blazing full speed. He almost dropped the staff three times, but his inhuman agility and speed allowed him to snatch it back before it got out of control. His huge paws made walking the staff over the back of his paw harder than it had been before, which meant he'd have to be more careful with grip-shift moves.

Tarrin began to sweat as he started practicing with some of the more difficult forms, slowly working himself into the changes the bite had brought about and adapting to them. He knew it would take more than just one day, but he was pleased at the amount of progress he'd already made after a few short hours of work.

He then started with the mixed move forms, staff moves that were accented with punches or kicks, even headbutts and several throws. He began to experiment, changing a punch into a claw rake or a stab with the pointed ends of his claws, changing a foot sweep into a tail-sweep. All in all, making such minor changes wasn't much of a problem, just very subtle changes to his stances or sets to take a broader swipe into account and such.

"Not bad," Faalken complemented as Tarrin stopped for a moment to gather in his breath. "I forgot how good you are with that thing."

"It's coming along," Tarrin told him. "I need to practice the hand forms. I think it'll be harder for me to use them that the staff now."

"Why is that?"

"Because alot of what they are depends on your strengths and weaknesses," he said. "All those are different for me now. I'll almost have to re-teach myself the forms. Weapons don't change like that. Well, sure, there are some things that are different now, but it's adjusting to the weapon. In hand forms, I have nothing to adjust to, so that changes it all around." He made a face. "If that makes any sense."

"I understand what you're trying to say, even if you're doing a bad job of it," he said with a grin. "Weapon forms are weapon forms, but your hand forms are more or less suited just for you. You're a different you now, so you need to use new forms."

"Exactly," he said. "What I already know is all I need. I just need to learn the new way to use them. I have these claws now, and the tail. I need to learn how to use them in a fight."

"Wise idea," he said with an outrageous smile.

"You," Tarrin said, shaking a paw at him. "It's good to practice again," he sighed. "I forgot what it was like. And I still want to beat my mother in a fight."

"I think you could do that now," Faalken observed slyly.

"I wouldn't cheat," he said in an outraged tone.

"How is it cheating?"

"It just is," he said after a moment's blank look.

"When are you going to give up that overgrown toothpick and use a real weapon?" Faalken asked.

"Like what?"

"Like a sword."

"I've used swords before. I don't like them," he said. "They're too crude."

"Crude?" Faalken gasped in feigned shock.

"Crude," he said again. "They have no style. Any fool can pick up a sword and use one."

"I'm glad you think so," Faalken laughed.

"And they're crude in using them as well," he added. "It's too easy to kill when you don't want to kill. With my staff, I have to make a conscious choice to deliver a killing blow. It's not as uncertain as it is with a sword."

"You just never learned how to control one," Faalken told him. "If you think it's that crude, then you have alot to learn about them."

"I do know how to use one," he said. "My father uses one. But then again, my father won't draw it unless he intends to kill, so there's no open area about leaving people alive as far as he's concerned."

"So…you consider it crude because you don't like it?" Faalken surmised.

"Just about," Tarrin said with a grin. "Keep you toy, Faalken. I'll stay with a real weapon."

"What happens if you don't have it with you?" Faalken asked.

"Faalken, my friend, that's what these are for," he replied, showing the Knight his claws. "And I can't leave these behind. They're with me everywhere I go."

Faalken laughed. "Point taken," he acceded. "But all in all, I'd still like to see you practice the sword. And the axe, and any other weapons you know. Best get used to using them as you are, in case you ever come to a situation where you need to use them."

"I can agree to that," he said after a moment. "Better to be ready for what will never be."

"Because only a fool says never," Faalken finished the saying.

Tarrin looked up at the sun. It was nearly noon. The students were filing off the field in neat rows, and that reminded him that it was about time for lunch. "I have to go, Faalken," he said. "I'll see you later."

"Have a good day, Tarrin. Come visit again soon."

"I hope to," he said.

In the Hall, as he was settling in for lunch, he managed to spot Walten a few tables over. Rushing over there, he saw that Tiella was sitting with him. They both saw him, and Tiella waved to him happily. "Tarrin!" Tiella said with a smile. "It's so good to see you!"

"They told us you made it," Walten told him with a grin.

"It wasn't easy," Tarrin said. He tapped the shoulder of the Novice that was sitting across the table from his friends. "Excuse me, would you like to trade seats?" he asked. "These are old friends of mine."

The young girl gaped at him a moment, then hastily vacated the area. The novices to each side of her scooted away from him as he stepped over the bench and sat down, shaking Walten's hand over the table and holding onto Tiella's a moment. "What happened after the boat sank?" Walten asked.

Tarrin gave them a very brief account of what had happened after he'd parted ways with them. He told them about Jesmind, but didn't go into the more personal things that had happened between them. "So after I got away from her, I made my way here," he finished. "It wasn't easy because of all the raiders running around. I was in pretty bad shape when I got here."

"Wow," Tiella said. "Nothing happened to us. We just got another boat and kept going."

"How's the Noviate?" Tarrin asked.

"Busy," Walten grunted. "I've never cleaned so much in my life. I think I may see if I can go back to being a carpenter."

"I'm starting to hate rags," Tiella added. "They make me clean the Keeper's office, and she goes into fits if she sees even a speck of dust."

"That's all you do?"

"Believe me, that's enough," she said with a screwed-up face.

Tarrin laughed. "Just stick with it," he said. "They can't make you clean forever. What are you learning?"

"Right now, history," Walten told him. "We don't get to start learning Sorcery until we learn some things about history and geography, and even things about adding numbers and a class on logic. After that, they put us in the Initiate, and we start learning magic."

"Sorcery," the Novice beside him said absently.

"Yeah," he said. "They make you scrub the privies if they hear you say that word."

"We call it the M word," Tiella told him.

"How long have you been doing this?" he asked.

"Almost two rides," Tiella told him. A ride was ten days, so it was nearly twenty days.

"They must have put you in fast."

"The day after we got here," Walten told him.

Tarrin chuckled. "They didn't waste any time, did they?"

"None," Tiella agreed.

Elsa stood, and the Hall stood with her for the blessing of the meal. Tarrin thought about what they'd said while she talked. They'd wanted to do the same with him, but he hadn't been in shape to do it. It must have been standard practice. He was very glad that they'd had no trouble after he'd been separated from them. Faalken and Dolanna were experienced travellers, but Walten and Tiella weren't really suited for fighting. They could, and did, though. Both of them had exhibited dogged courage and determination in the fights that had happened while he was with them. But they hadn't had the fighting background that he did. He was happy that it had been left to him, and not to them. It wasn't that he liked fighting, it was that he was better suited for it than them.

The blessing over, they all sat back down and started to eat. Tarrin listened as Tiella and Walten talked about the routine of classes in the morning, lunch, then maybe one more class, and then off to do all the cleaning, or whatever duty was imposed upon them that day. They talked about several instructors, and Tarrin was a bit surprised to find out that only a few of the Novitiate teachers were actually Sorcerers. But then again, the Novitiate dealt with pure knowledge, and a non-sorcerer was just as capable of teaching history or numbers as a Sorcerer.

Tarrin stared at a Sorcerer who had entered the Hall and started staring at him. It was an old man, with sunken eyes and cheeks and with a white-fringed ring of hair around that bald pate. He wore a simple brown robe that was slightly food-stained. The man moved with an erratic gait, as if one leg didn't always want to work the right way, and he made a zig-zagging, meandering course to Elsa and the Sorcerers seated at the table on the dais at the far end of the Hall.

"Who is that?" Tarrin asked.

"Brel, the Master of Initiates," Tiella informed him. "Nobody I talked to likes him. Mistress Elsa is firm, but fair. I hear that Brel enjoys punishing people."

"He's a little man that thinks it makes him bigger to put other people down," Walten grunted. "Standing on a man's shoulders may let you see higher, but you're still the same size once you get down."

"Well, that's a problem that will have to wait," Tarrin told them. "None of us are there yet. I'm not even here yet," he said with a smile.

"Tomorrow," Tiella told him. "We were all told about you, Tarrin," she said with a wink.

"Told? Told what?"

"That you'd be in the Noviate," she said. "A Sorcerer came into our class and told us about you. That you'd be in the Novitiate, and that since you're not human, you're not quite like everyone else. He said a few things about how to act around you, and said as long as we don't make you mad, that everything will be just fine."

"Nobody told me they were doing that," he said.

"I guess they want to make sure that nothing bad happens," Walten said. "Tykarthians and Draconians don't like people who aren't human, and the Dals really hate them, because of all the Goblins up in the mountains."

"I'm not a Goblinoid," Tarrin grunted.

"Yes, well, even I think that if someone called you a really bad name, you'd do something to them," Tiella said.

"I would," he affirmed bluntly. "But you know me, Tiella. I would have done it even before this happened to me."

"True," she acceded.

"There's going to be another one," Walten said.

"Another what?"

"We heard about it in our class today. A Selani is going to come and enter the Noviate."

A Selani. One of the Desert Folk, who lived out in the Desert of Swirling Sands to the east of Arkis. That desert, and the Selani that lived there, were the only things keeping the countless legions of the empire of Arak out of the West. The Selani were a hard people, like their desert, and they were regarded the world over as the most lethal adversaries in hand to hand combat in all the world. The Ungaardt were known for their fighting ability, but even the Ungaardt paled in comparison to the Selani. Five hundred years ago, the Emperor of Arak decided to try to invade Arkis. That was when Arkis was a fledgeling nation, made up of Arakites that had fled from the brutal oppression of the Emperor, Zanak XVI. An advance force of Arakite Legions had tried to cross the desert, and were obliterated by the Selani. Angered by the loss, the Emperor ordered his legions to sweep the desert and kill anything that moved. The Selani simply allowed the invaders to come in, let them wander around for about a month to let the heat and blowing sand take their toll, then they wiped out the invaders. The Selani had been angered by the attacks, and after a council of all the clans, they decided to attack Arak.

No nation in the world would have been insane enough to make that decision, but the Selani were beings of high honor. Their honor had been stained by the invasion, and they meant to punish the Emperor for his actions. Nine of the fifteen clans left the desert and fell on the western border of Arak like the a tidal wave of destruction. They laid waste to absolutely everything in their path, but, according to their honor, they killed not one civilian. All who did not raise a weapon to the Selani were allowed free passage to safety. Many simply remained behind the Selani lines, for the Selani advanced so quickly that there was no way they could outrun the advance. These were treated as guests of the Selani, and were given tents to live in and food to eat while the Clans eradicated their Empire. Zanak became so enraged and bewildered at the unstoppable Selani that he took command of the army personally and met them on the plains of Dala Ren. The Selani clans met the elite of the Arakite Legions on that grassy plain, and killed them to the last man. The Emperor himself was captured and taken back to the desert, where not a word was heard from him again. Nobody even knew what fate had befell him at the hands of the Selani.

The Emperor captured, the Selani clans simply withdrew, leaving the throne to the Emperor's eldest son, Zanak XVII. The ruined western marches of the Empire blamed the Empire for their loss, and seceeded, becoming the kingdom of Selas. The Emperor was too busy fighting a sudden war on his eastern frontier, caused by the decimation of the Legion reserves, to attend the matter immediately. But once that war was finished, Zanak set his legions to invade what was once his own empire.

The legions advanced to the border, and found three clans of Selani sitting on the other side waiting for them. The people of the new kingdom had managed to befriend the Selani, and the Selani had had council and decided that a nation between the desert and Arak would be better for all involved. So they simply created one. Zanak, fearful of the lethal ability of the Selani, who were clearly allied with his former subjects, decided to sue for peace instead. Arak recognized the sovereignty of Selas, formal peace treaties were drawn up and signed, and everyone went home. Arak was the largest single nation on the planet, and yet even they were no match for the fighting prowess of the Selani. It is a world-wide relief that the Selani have no interest in conquest. So long as they are left alone, they are quite happy to dwell in their desert in perfect contentment. And all of the Selani's neighbors are more than willing to let that happen.

"I wonder what the Selani will be like," Tarrin mused.

"I heard it's a she," Walten said. "A Clan Princess or some such thing. Some kind of noble."

"Who knows," Tarrin said. "I'll be curious to meet her, though. Well, I need to go to the library for a while. See you two later."

"Have fun," Walten said.

"Just be careful, Tarrin," Tiella said. "Some of the other Novices don't like you. Don't let them bully you into a fight."

"Tiella, dear, don't worry about it. Once I kill a few of them, I think the rest will leave me alone."

"Tarrin!" Tiella gasped.

Tarrin laughed as he stood up. "I'm just teasing you, Tiella," he said with a grin. "See you later."

Tarrin spent several frustrating hours in the library after that. There were lots of books on magic, and magical theory, and many other such things, but most of them were written for people who already had a basic understanding of magic. He did eventually find one that explained the fundamental differences between the four orders of magic, but it wasn't that much of a help. According to the book, there were four distinct orders of magic, each one using a different type of it. There were the Sorcerers, who drew energy from the world around them, it said. From something called the Weave, which the author stated was all around the world. The Wizards, or Mages, drew magic from elsewhere. The book didn't say exactly where that was, but it made it clear that Wizardly magic was not of this world. That concept intrigued him. Priests used Clerical magic, they drew their magical power directly from the Gods themselves, beseeching the God to grant the priest the power to work the magic. Tarrin had seen Clerical magic before, when a priest of Karas came to the village to help stop a strange sickness that had spread through the village. The last order were the Druids. The book was very vague about the Druids, and it stated that they were extremely secluded and reserved. The author stated that they drew their magical power directly from the earth itself, tapping the raw power of nature for the magic to cast their enchantments.

"I did not expect to see you here, dear one," Dolanna's voice called. Tarrin looked up, and saw her standing by the table.

"I've been reading," he said as she seated herself across from him. "Haven't been getting very far, though."

"What about?"

"Sorcery," he said pointedly.

"Worry not over it," she assured him. "They will give you that instruction in due time."

"I know, but I have reasons to start thinking about doing it now," he said.

"You worry that much?"

"Let's just call it being safe," he said. "Jesmind is out there, and me being in here makes no difference to her. If I can get in without attention, so can she. She will try, Dolanna. And I'll need every weapon I can get when that happens."

"The Keeper is aware of it, Tarrin," she said. "I do believe that she has already taken steps to find her."

"She won't."

"Give us some credit, young one," she said. "We have more at our disposal than normal spies."

"Be that as it may, I'm not placing my trust in someone I don't know."

She was about to say something, but she held her peace instead. "How was your day?"

"Busy," he said.

"Faalken told me you were on the field. The others were most impressed with you."

"I don't see why. They've seen Elsa, so they've seen me."

"Tarrin, you may not understand this, but you are very fun to watch," she told him with a smile. "You are very graceful, and you move as if you float. When you were out on the field, Faalken said it was like watching a professional dance. He also remarked that you should think of using acrobatics," she said.

"Acrobatics?"

"Tumbles, flips, and such," she said. "You are more than capable of it. I have seen you do such things."

"I'll think about it," he said. "Any word on who my teacher is going to be?"

"Tarrin, that day is some ways in the future," she told him. "There will not be a decision for some time." She stood again. "It is not good for us to be seen thus very often. If I need to speak with you, I will send you a message."

"Alright. Have a good night, Dolanna."

"You too, dear one."

After dinner, Dar and Tarrin sat in the room. Dar was at the desk, writing a series of numbers exercises on a piece of paper, and Tarrin was reading a book he took from the library, a book studying the condition the author called Lycanthropy, which was another name for the condition of the assorted Were-kin. The book named several different species, such as Were-wolves, Were-bears, Were-dogs, Were-boars, Were-rats, and Were-tigers. It also talked about some of the lesser known strains, such as Were-foxes, Were-lions, Were-wolverines, Were-bats, and his own kind, the Were-cats. The book touched on the society of Fae-da'Nar, saying that the Were-kin existed in a very loose association so that there was very little infighting between them. It didn't mention anything about other woodland beings being in it the way Jesmind said they were.

Tarrin hadn't really thought all that much about other Were-creatures, or any other creatures for that matter. He was born human, and though he no longer was, he was more human than anything else. His upbringing made him thus, and while the Cat could alter that, it could not replace it. In the short days since meeting Jesmind, a peace had fallen over him. He had almost no trouble with the Cat, although he could feel it there. It was almost like the Human and the Cat in him had struck a bargain to work together. Tarrin felt that the Human had to give up a few things, which accounted for the Jesmind-like attitudes and mannerisms that had come over him lately. But that was a small price to pay for the peace under his ears. Tarrin did not embrace what he was, but he had accepted it. And he knew that that was an important step.

It was all so strange. When he'd left Aldreth, never in his wildest dreams did he think that he would have ended up the way he did. It was almost like the Favor of the Lady had turned black on him. But in another way, he had to admit that being what he was had saved his life. That Wyvern may have killed him had he not been Were, and capable of the inhuman speed and coordination he'd used to sheathe its poisoned tail. And make the jump to shore, then make the jump that got him out of reach of the Trolls. It was better to live changed than not to live at all.

Rather shamedly, he realized that he hadn't written a letter to his parents. Though they knew of his change, he still thought it was only decent to write to them himself. Best to let them know he was well and whole.

It wasn't easy to write with his huge paws, but he managed to pinch the quill pen between two fingers, and proceeded to write. He wrote simply, honestly, the way he talked to them. He told them about his change, and disclosed much of the journey down in simple, straightforward words. Then he described what it was like as best he could, since it was so very hard to try to explain sensations that a human had never experience.

While he was writing his farewells, the door opened after a single sharp knock. Elsa stood in the doorway, wearing her tunic and breeches, her blond hair damp from the bathing pool. "Tarrin, a word with you," she said in the Ungaardt tongue.

"Yes Mistress?" he asked in kind.

"You'll be presented to the Keeper in the Hall tomorrow before breakfast," she said. "It's a simple ceremony that inducts you into the Novitiate. After that, you'll go to your first class. Someone there will guide you."

"Alright, Mistress Elsa," he said.

"Oh, there's a Selani in the Tower," she said. "You'll be in class with her. She doesn't seem to like humans, so we'd like you to show her around after class."

"I can do that, Mistress," he replied.

"Alright. Have a good night."

"You to, Mistress," he replied, and she closed the door.

"What language was that?" Dar asked.

"Ungaardt," he replied.

"It's like a broken lute," he said sourly.

"I didn't invent it," Tarrin shrugged.

"I should teach you a civilized language," Dar told him. "Arakite."

"I know Arakite," Tarrin told him calmly.

"You do?" he said, looking at him strangely.

"My father speaks it. He learned it when he was in the army. He taught it to me."

"How many languages do you speak?" Dar asked curiously.

"Four," he replied. "The Common tongue, Ungaardt, Arakite, and Dal. I learned Dal from the village smith, Karn Rocksplitter, and enough Dals come down from the mountains to make speaking the language a good idea. They trade with us sometimes."

"Where did you find time to learn all these things?" Dar said in consternation.

"We don't have much else to do once the chores are done," Tarrin shrugged. "We don't have a big farm, so it doesn't take very long. I learned the Common tongue and Ungaardt when I was a baby, because that's what my mother speaks. My father taught me Arakite when I was a boy, and I learned Dal from Karn during the time I was helping him at his forge, after his apprentice broke his leg in an accident. Karn would teach me as he hammered the metal. It gave him something to occupy his mind, because he was such a good smith he didn't have to think about his work."

"This could be handy," Dar said in Arakite.

"Like we'll have to keep secrets," Tarrin said in Arakite with a smile.

"I know Shacean," Dar told him. "Maybe I'll teach you that instead."

"I don't see much use for it," Tarrin said. "I never thought I'd use this language, ever. Except to talk about mother in front of her with father without her understanding."

Dar laughed. "If she's Ungaardt, she probably didn't appreciate it."

"Mother does it to father too," Tarrin said. "I think it's a game with them. Mother doesn't know Arakite, and father doesn't know Ungaardt. I'm the one in the middle."

"Must be a dangerous place," Dar said with a grin.

"No, not really. It's just a game with them, so they never ask what the other is talking about."

"Ah well."

Tarrin looked around the room. "Dar, there's something about me you should know," he said in Arakite. "I think it's best to get this out of the way now, so you don't have a heart attack when you see it."

"What?" he asked curiously. He raised an eyebrow as Tarrin started to take off his clothes.

"I don't want this to go out of this room," he said.

"It won't, I promise," he replied as Tarrin shed the last of his clothes.

"This." Tarrin fixed the image of the cat in his mind and willed himself to change. The room went gray, as it did when he was in transition, and his body swiftly melted into the new form. When vision returned to him, he looked up at the now-gigantic Dar and meowed complacently.

"Yaman!" he gasped, speaking the name of the patron God of Arkis. Then he made a curious scratching gesture with his right hand over his eyes, and made one small bow. It must have been religious in nature, Tarrin guessed. Maybe speaking his God's name was taboo or something. "Tarrin, is that you?"

Tarrin nodded, sitting down calmly.

"I heard stories about this, but I never thought to think about it. You can't talk, can you?"

Tarrin shook his head.

"But it's obvious you can understand me."

Tarrin nodded.

"May I?" he asked. When Tarrin nodded, Dar reached down and picked him up. "By the storm, you're heavy," he grunted as he shifted Tarrin into a comfortable position, then he started to scratch his ears idly. "You're cute like this," he said with a grin. He then put him down, and Tarrin resumed his own shape.

"So if you see me like that in the room, don't have a conniption," Tarrin told him, bending down and retrieving his trousers. "Sometimes I like to sleep that way. And I'd appreciate it if you didn't give me away if you see me like that out in the Tower. There may come a time when I'll want to sneak around." He sat down and started pulling them back on. "Oh, if you see a white cat that looks alot like me, come find me and let me know immediately."

"That would be this Jesmind, wouldn't it?"

"Yes," he said.

"I'll keep an eye out," he promised, then he yawned. "I think I'll go to sleep early, after you kept me up last night."

"Sure, blame it all on me," he shot back with a smile. "But I think I could go for some sleep myself."

Tarrin had discovered that the strange balls of light were called Glowglobes, and they were all over the Tower. Not a single candle was used anywhere. The secret to making them were lost over the years, as was so much that the Sorcerers had managed to achieve before the disastrous Breaking which had occurred two thousand years ago. Tarrin had heard that story from his father, who had heard it from a Sorcerer.

The Breaking was a series of natural disasters that had ravaged the world from one end to the other. Fires, earthquakes, tidal waves, followed by disease and famine. It was a savage time for the world, and in the West, the ever-jealous Priests had managed to convince the people that the Breaking was the fault of the mysterious Sorcerers. In a climax of mindless fury, a mob of thousands and thousands had stormed the one and only center of learning for Sorcerers in the whole world, the Tower. Rather than defend the Tower and kill thousands, thereby destroying the reputation of the Sorcerers, the Keeper at that time, Valas Dansen, ordered the Sorcerers who were not in the Tower to hide themselves and keep the art alive. Then the Sorcerers in the Tower raised a mystical ward which blocked the mob for long enough to weave one more enchantment.

When the ward lowered and the mob stormed the Tower, they found it empty.

Totally empty. Not even the furniture remained. The Sorcerers had decided that rather than kill innocents, or allow themselves and their knowledge to be destroyed, they would simply vanish. And in vanishing, they would take themselves and every scrap of the knowledge that they had accumulated along with them. Eron had told him that to this very day, nobody knew what happened to the Ancients, as they were called, or where they went.

The mob, thinking that it was some great curse laid on the place, fled in panic. And the Tower remained empty for over a thousand years. After the vanishing, Karas, the patron God of Sulasia, was incensed at his priests for their duplicitous destruction of the Sorcerers, whose Goddess, a goddess that had no name anywhere, was an ally. He stripped the priests of Karas of all their magical powers, and decreed that they would remain without magic for a period of one hundred years. And that was how it was. Without their magical powers, the priests of Karas were subjected to the humility of the common man, and so they were punished for their part of the deed.

Things remained thus until Malin Trent, the Crusader, entered the Tower and called out to all his hidden brothers and sisters who practiced the forbidden art of Sorcery to return and dwell in the Tower in peace. Malin suffered serious challenges to his crusade to restore Sorcery, for the priesthood again took up their old war against the Sorcerers, whom they despised, calling Malin Trent a witch and a consorter with evil. Malin and those Sorcerers that did return to the Tower found themselves to be the objects of ridicule and scorn, and not a few outright attacks. One year after Malin reclaimed the Tower, and had persuaded some three hundred of his secreted brothers and sisters to join him in the open, the priests again carefully staged and incited a near-riot, whipping up the people against the Sorcerers to drive these new ones out just as the old ones were. The old ward that once stopped a mob was restored, for it was an ancient magic that was still in place and had not deteriorated over the centuries.

In desperation, the Tower met in secret and reached an agreement with the King of Sulasia, Ulan the Wise. The Sorcerers would be permitted to return to their ancestral seat and return to their lives of study and contemplation. The Crown would protect the Tower and the order from the priests and the people. But in recompense, the King demanded that the Sorcerers perform certain tasks for the crown which their Goddess did not deem unsuitable, tasks that the order of Karas would not do themselves, for in their arrogance they felt themselves above the Crown. The Sorcerers would also rise up in defense of Suld itself, should the city ever be attacked. The treaty was sealed, and Malin Trent returned in secrecy to the Tower.

After Ulan's army put down the riot and dispersed the people, the Tower quickly proved to the Ulan how incredibly useful they could be. Ulan had inherited a weak nation from his father, for with the punishment of the priests so long ago added to the taboo of housing the Sorcerers, Sulasia did not have the political or military power of its neighbors. Draconia, which was one nation at that time, was at that time preparing to invade Sulasia for its rich farming land and deep harbored city of Suld. The kingdom of Tharan, which had been to the east and on the land that Aldreth now stood upon, also was preparing to attack the weakened nation. In a concerted effort, the two nations invaded Sulasia and found undefended territory, for Ulan had pulled all his troops back to Suld, to defend the ancient and proud city against invasion. The two armies reached the vast plain on which Suld stood, and advanced in total confidence that the city was theirs for the taking.

Bound by their treaties with the King, the Sorcerers of the Tower rose up and smote the armies with their magical power. Eron had shuddered at that point in the story, only saying that the destruction wrought by the Tower was horrific. Neither army managed to get a single man to the walls of the city. The army of Tharan was totally annihilated, and the Draconian forces escaped with only one tenth of their total manpower. And that small fragment itself was destroyed when the Sulasian army flooded out of Suld and caught up with them on the south side of the Scar. The natural boundary proved to be the doom of the fleeing enemy, who, in their mad rush to get over to the safety of Draconia, broke the bridge under their weight and doomed those behind them. After the slaughter, Sulasia quietly marched into Tharan, whose king was killed at Suld, and annexed the entire nation. Ulan also captured and annexed the southern marches of Draconia below the rugged hills that marked the western edge of the Skydancer Mountains.

The priests of Karas were outraged at this new alliance, but there was nothing they could do. They had refused to be of service to the king, and in that rejection they had lost his ear. That place was now held by the Keeper, and so long as the Crown and the Keeper were allied, the priesthood could do nothing. They did, however, continue to try to turn the people against the Tower. But after a yet third attempt, one which the priests orchestrated from a veil of secrecy, Karas himself took notice of the behavior of his priests, and stripped them of their magic for a period of one year as a warning that such behavior would not be tolerated.

That Glowglobe represented what the Sorcerers had lost after the Breaking, for the secrets of the Ancients had disappeared with them when they vanished. All of their accumulated knowledge was gone, and the hatred of the Sorcerers caused the destruction of nearly all of the knowledge they had gathered that had not been housed in the Tower. The eradication of knowledge had been so complete that literally nothing was left of the Ancients, only this ancient Tower which they had built, and the smallest of scraps of lore from old tomes and training that was passed down through the generations, training that deteriorated from the tremendous power of the Ancients, a power that was only now, after two thousand years, just beginning to be researched again. It was the driving force of the Tower now, to rediscover the power of the Ancients and return it to the world.

A lofty goal, Tarrin though it. But grand, and noble, in its own way. In the thousand years since the return of the Sorcerers, they'd more or less stayed to themselves, opening the school in the Tower and forming a somewhat unfriendly alliance with the priests of Karas, by way of the Knights. The Knights were a militant order of the church of Karas, but were sworn and duty-bound, on command of the Crown, to defend the Tower itself and to protect and guard the Sorcerers whenever they left it. Arman the Just, the king who had made that decree, had done it to try to foment a favorable relationship between the two orders, but it had done little more than anger the priesthood and strengthen the Sorcerers. A Knight's oaths were to Karas, not the order of the priesthood, and defending the Tower and the katzh-dashi were their primary goals. They did perform service for the priesthood, but when and only when those duties did not come before their defense of the Tower and its inhabitants. They were a free-standing entity, related to the Church but not a true part of it, and that situation made every high priest of Karas chew on the carpet in frustration for the seven hundred years that the Knights had been in existence.

And during all that thousand years, they had done almost nothing but study and research. Since his father was no Sorcerer, he didn't really know how far along they'd gotten in their quest to reclaim the power of the Ancients. But Tarrin was certain that they'd managed to make some gains, some discoveries. After a thousand years, that was almost a given. And it was what he would learn.

Tarrin closed his eyes and thought about that for a while, half-dreams where he speculated about learning the power of Sorcery. Then he fell asleep.

To: Title EoF

Chapter 8

Tarrin was quite amazed as he stood in the Hall beside the other entrants into the Novitiate.

This Selani was gorgeous.

She was stunningly beautiful, with swarthy, creamy brown skin and exotic white hair that was so thick it was amazing, silky and very fine, and hung down to her backside in loosely curled waves of brilliant white. She had a face that artists would sell their souls to capture on canvas. She was ethereal, delicate, and quite exquisite, with her slender nose and high, arched cheekbones and almond shaped eyes that were so intensely blue that even the pupils had a bluish cast to them. Tarrin could readily admit that he had never seen any woman that could compare to the ethereal beauty of this Selani woman who stood before him. Her body was as perfect as her face. She was amazingly tall, only a bit shorter than Tarrin himself, who stood a head over most men. Her generous figure and shape were perfectly proportioned for her tall stature, and she had a figure that rivalled Jesmind's, the first woman he'd seen that could compare with his fiery bond-mother. And just like Jesmind, Tarrin's sharp eyes could see the definition of the muscles in what brown skin he could see, for she wore a baggy sand-colored, long sleeved shirt and a matching pair of pants. She may look slender and delicate, but this was one flower with steel for a stem. Selani were warriors, and she had a warrior's body. Her scent was metallic, almost coppery, a clear symbol of her non-human heritage, but at the same time it was very spicy and clean, and he found it to be quite appealing. Tarrin noticed idly that she only had four fingers on each hand. Three fingers and a thumb. And her hands were not malformed, nor was she missing fingers; that was how they were meant to be.

She also had a look of aloof distance on her face. Elsa had said that she didn't like humans, but to Tarrin, it was more like a resentment at being in her current position. Tarrin had felt like that a few times, and that was exactly how he looked when he was in them. She didn't want to be here, and that was plainly visible.

The little ceremony of induction into the Novitiate was dry and dusty, and Tarrin didn't even listen to the Keeper as she droned on about being there to learn, obeying their teachers and the Sorcerers and all that rot. He was considering the Selani. Tarrin had an intense interest in her, for some unknown reason. She looked aloof, but Tarrin saw under that, and to him, she looked alone. He thought that, if he approached her the right way, that they could become good friends. He wondered if that wasn't why he was so interested in her. She looked very lonely to him, and he didn't like to see anyone suffer like that. The days alone with nothing but his fear as he ran from Jesmind and the Goblinoids had put a soft spot in his heart to people in similar fixes. Here was a young woman taken very far from everything she had known and thrust into a sea of confusion, where nothing was comfortable or understood, and surrounded by people to whom she could not relate.

After the little speech, the twenty or so new Novices were allowed to go sit down. Tarrin made a special note to sit next to the beautiful Selani woman, and once blessing was said, he turned to her. "My name is Tarrin," he told her. "I was told to show you the places in the Tower after class."

"I was told of you," she said in a toneless voice, which was quite pretty. Her accent was thick, and it made her voice sound very exotic. It was almost as if she was trying to sing the words of the Common tongue. "I do not need to be guided. I can find my own way."

"As you wish," he said in a carefully neutral voice. "Whatever makes you feel most comfortable."

That word had the desired effect. She blinked those luminous eyes once and regarded him carefully. "You are devious," she said in a calm voice. "There is more of a cat about you than fur, strange one."

"I meant no offense," he said. "You just look very unsettled. I meant to offer you friendship."

"Friendship is a thing that is earned, not given," she told him abruptly. "But your concern for me touches my heart. I would accept your offer. We will go see these places after this class."

And she spoke not another word. An Initiate gathered up the new Novices and escorted them to a large room with many chairs, all facing a small podium with a huge slate board behind it A small man with thinning brown hair and wearing a tight-fitting tunic and hose in the Sulasian style stood at the podium. "Good morning," he said as they were seated. "My name is Sheldin Brewer, and I will be your instructor in the subjects of history and geography," he introduced. "I know that some of you already know a good deal of history, and some of you know geography, but just be patient so that those who don't have a chance to catch up a bit."

And so he began. Tarrin knew a goodly amount of history, thanks to his father, but this Sheldin touched on events and places that Tarrin had never heard of. He also knew just about everywhere, as he roughly sketched in the four continents of the Known World and the kingdoms and nations on which they stood, and described very briefly the continent across the sea which was the domain of the Wikuni. Although it was a dry subject, the man's light manner and keen knowledge of his material made the class actually enjoyable, and he was surprised when the man broke the class for lunch. "All of you are to sit together at the table directly in front of the Mistress of Novice's table," he instructed. "An Initiate will come and escort each of you to where you need to be after lunch. We will meet again in this room tomorrow after breakfast. Good day to you."

"The man is learned," the Selani said in her calm voice as they walked back to the Hall.

"Yes, he is," Tarrin agreed. "I'd expect him to try to pull you aside pretty soon," he said.

"Why?"

"I don't think he'll pass up a chance to learn about your desert," Tarrin told her. "Nobody but your people go there, so he'll jump at the chance to ask you about it."

"It is our home," she said. "That is all there is to tell him."

"True, but he'll still want to know," he said. "Men like that are driven by the hunger to learn."

"It is a good quality," she observed. "There is honor in knowledge."

She still hadn't told him her name. Tarrin didn't want to push her too hard, though. He had the feeling that she could be very touchy, and he thought that if he put the wrong foot forward now, it would ruin any chance to strike up a friendship with her. Making friends with her was as much for him as it was for her, for in her Tarrin felt there was a kindred spirit, someone else here that did not quite fit in. From her he could expect honesty, and she had already put him at ease by not showing any fear of him. After they'd been seated in the Hall and the blessing was made, Tarrin discreetly watched her as she ate. He was curious about what she would and would not eat. She did not disappoint him by showing certain peculiarities. She would not eat pork, he noticed. Nor would she eat any chicken or goose. He didn't know if those were personal preferences or racial or cultural preferences, though. She ate a great deal of cabbage and stringed beans, he saw, and she especially seemed to enjoy the boiled potatos.

Initiates began to arrive, pick out a certain Novice or Novices, and then leave with them, taking them to their assigned work duties. Tarrin waited until he was sure the Selani was done with her meal, and then turned to her. "Do you feel like looking around?" he asked politely.