/ Language: English / Genre:det_espionage / Series: The Blood and Brotherhood Saga

The Choosing

Jeremy Laszlo

Jeremy Laszlo

The Choosing


Many gods there were who gathered to create the world. Each of them lent an equal gift of their own power, of their own life force, to create all things living upon Thurr. This method of creation allowed them all to remain equally powerful, working together to create perfection. Through eons they watched their world grow and prosper. Civilizations arose and their creations learned and thrived upon the land that had been made for them. With expanding civilizations came discovery of neighbors. With that discovery came borders. With borders came disputes and ultimately wars erupted from time to time upon the world that the gods had made. Among all of their creations upon Thurr, the many races of man held the gods enthralled. The creatures were but a speck in the shadow of the gods who had breathed life into them, yet the many races of man never failed to surprise their makers. So it was that the races of men were to teach the gods who made them many lessons.

All gods were equal, and being so, many concepts had never occurred to them. The races of man however were not all equal. Some of the races had higher intellect, yet others had more brawn and larger physical prowess, but these differences occurred between different races and thus the gods expected different cultures to arise to fit the needs of different peoples. What they had not suspected came in not a physical form, but from within individuals of individual races. As time progressed the gods stood in the heavens watching man, awed by the spectrum of concepts they had never before postulated. Honor, trust, courage, fear, hope, loss, excitement, vanity, greed, lust, and ambition were just a few of the lessons gleaned by the gods from their own creations. Above all however, jealousy was learned by the gods.

Though none of the gods would outwardly show it, each had become jealous of the races of man. Wanting to experience these things for themselves the gods took council with their brethren and it was unanimously decided that each of them would take the form of a mortal, walk among man, and learn firsthand all that they could from their mortal kin. They decided to reconvene later to share all that they had learned. One lifetime each of them was given among the many species of men, and thus they set their ethereal bodies aside, wrapping themselves in the flesh of whatever race most inspired them. Leaving the plane of immortals vacant, the gods came to roam Thurr living among mankind.

Decades passed, merely seconds to an immortal, but among mankind the gods felt as their creations felt, learned as their creations learned, experienced what their creations experienced. One among them however found it hard to cope with mortal flesh and mortal worries. She was lost to the concepts of honor, hope, happiness, or excitement, though she had learned of them from watching mortal life from the heavens. The life she had chosen however was abundant in none of them. Loss, pain, betrayal, fear, and hatred ruled the mortal life she was born into and she would not be allowed another life among mankind. Being all powerful, she decided that in order to experience the other concepts of life upon Thurr she would simply change the circumstances she was born into and make a better life for herself and those around her.

First she repaired the misshapen body she had been born to, creating a beauty unseen among her people. The people considered her physical mending a miracle and so vied her for more miracles and she happily complied. She healed the sick, strengthened the weak, and gave vigor to the weary. The lowly people she had been born to began to thrive like never before and as they spread tales of her miracles, her name was shouted in the streets, and before another decade had passed they had built a temple for her to abide. The people came to her temple and offered her gifts and praise and some among the people began to worship her as their deity. That is when she learned the greatest lesson of her lifetime among men.

Every living thing upon the world was made of equal parts of each of the gods, thus when a life ended and the power returned to the gods it left them all as equals. When a new life began it was also created with equality from the gods thus leaving them as equals. But the Goddess who lived among the humans, hailed as a deity, learned a secret. It was a secret of import, and many of the lessons she learned among mankind would now be put to use.

So it was, that with her greed and cunning she made sure words of her miraculous deeds spread, and throngs of people came to see this Goddess upon Thurr asking for her favor. Thousands upon thousands came from many races and bent knee to her upon her dais in the temple devoted to her. As each man, woman, or child gave themselves wholly to her, worshipping her as their god, they changed. To a mere mortal the change was unperceivable, but to a god, a glorious change took place indeed. Within each living thing on the world was a spark of life created by the gods themselves. Each of those sparks was like a rainbow with a myriad of sparkling twisting colors, each color representing the individual god who lent the power of life to the receiver. As each person prostrated themselves before her however, the Goddess watched as their life sparks changed to the deepest of purples, barely distinguishable from the blackest night.

The Goddess had a few decades left upon the mortal world and thus converted multitudes of peoples from many races to her cause. As her worshippers expired all of their life force now returned to her instead of being equally split among the gods, yet each new birth still took a toll on all of them. Thus it was in the span of a single lifetime in human years that Ishanya rose among her peers, becoming more powerful than half of all of them together. Mankind had taught her well.

Eventually all the gods returned to their realm, and though only moments in the time of gods had passed it became evident quickly that something had went amiss. Ishanya came among them and with a new abundance of power, laid rule to them all. Each of them had learned many lessons among the world's inhabitants however, and in secret councils the other gods plotted to bring Ishanya’s rule to a quick end. They went about their normal routines dutifully as if nothing had changed, each of them, one at a time, sneaking off to the world of man to make miracles, earn followers, lend their powers to champions and returned to the realm of the gods, their individual absences going unnoticed.

Thus the first great war of mankind had begun, known to all the gods but one as the purge. A battle erupted over all of Thurr, each gods' followers seeking to destroy Ishanya’s loyal subjects. Destroy them they did, nearly to a man. Man, woman, nor child was spared. If service to Ishanya was even suspected the life was forfeit, the body dismembered and burned. The event took nearly a century measured in mortal time, but was just a fraction of a blink of an eye to the gods, and realization struck Ishanya too late. With the wholesale slaughter of her followers her power swelled almost instantly making her more powerful still. Even then however she was not more powerful than the sum of her foes, and though they did not have the power to destroy her, they didn't need to. Instead they held her captive for only a moment allowing time to pass, and as they held her generations were spawned and died on Thurr. These new generations of people were those who still worshipped all the gods but Ishanya, for now all feared to worship her. As new generations came and went all the gods became more and more powerful as Ishanya shriveled to near nothingness. Her peers had thought to teach her humility, however backed into a corner, feeling afraid of death, mourning the loss of her power, hatred brewed in the soul of a Goddess and she swore to herself to have vengeance. Thus Ishanya fled into the deepest darkest pit of the realm of the gods and hid, plotting a way to return to power, a way to redeem her name upon the world, a way to destroy her peers. Her power was all but gone so she planned and waited until the opportune time. Her few remaining followers on the world dwindled over the many centuries she waited. Her temples nearly all lay destroyed or in ruins or completely forgotten. But word of mouth kept her alive throughout the ages. She was considered an evil Goddess now, thus a very few who thought no other god would accept their service still prayed to her. Ishanya continued to wait until only one last faithful subject remained. Nearly twelve hundred years had passed on the mortal world, and weak beyond belief Ishanya crept to the mortal world for one quick deed, nearly expelling the little power she had left. Returning to the plane of the gods to hide once again, Ishanya waited in exile biding her time. Her plan already in motion, she need not wait long to receive all that she wanted. Last time she tried to gain power by showing mankind love and compassion, and in return the people were forced to fear worshipping her. This time however she would hear their prayers even if she had to wring it from their necks. This time Ishanya would make them afraid NOT to worship her.

Chapter 1

Farewells and Friends

The sun shrank slowly over the mountains to the west, taking with it warmth, and leaving behind a streak of crimson. The air was cool, cooler now without the direct sunlight to warm the forest below. Winter was coming sooner than most hoped it would come, and apparently it was coming with a vengeance. The atmosphere of the treed canopy changed almost subconsciously as insects began to buzz and nocturnal predators began to stir. The wind blew cold, wistfully down the mountain slopes as breath turned to crystals, and day turned to night.

Seth tracked the beast stealthily through the forest carefully deciding each footfall. The rains had begun a week earlier softening the loam and fallen leaves cushioning each step. Occasionally he would lose sight of the crafty creature behind brush or a large tree, though tracking it thus far had been easy enough. Several times he had believed he had a shot, but unwilling to take it and miss, had not yet drawn his bow. Thus he crept silently stalking the beast, arrow knocked waiting for the perfect shot that he feared would never come. Though it was late in the fall and leaves carpeted the forest floor, the canopy above him was vast and still blocked out much of the light. The scent of rain was heavy in the air and from time to time he could see a glimpse of the cloud covered sky above. Darkness was nearing and with it came yet another storm.

The beast sprang from the brush ahead and darted to a small clearing only twenty yards from Seth’s own cover. This may be the last opportunity for a clear shot he would get, and thus far the best vantage Seth had received to take the beast down cleanly. Taking a deep breath Seth drew his bow to the full, tightening his abdominal muscles as he did to assure himself a steady shot. He drew down on the beast aiming just behind the head hoping to sever the spinal cord and spare himself from following yet another blood trail. He exhaled and just before releasing the arrow he closed his eyes and gritted his teeth.

Seth couldn’t bring himself to actually witness the death blow of his prey, and instead just listened the fraction of the second that it took for his arrow to reach its mark. Within an instant Seth heard the familiar shink of metal meeting bone, followed by the thud of his arrow driving through the beast into the soft earth beneath it. Opening his eyes Seth surveyed the carnage. Approaching the beast Seth realized that he had made a clean kill as he had hoped, and the hare didn't even bother to twitch let alone breathe or squeal.

Grabbing the tail end of his arrow Seth gave a single tug dislodging it and the hare impaled upon it from the soil below. Careful not to shower himself in blood, he pulled the arrow from his catch and placed it back in his quiver. Seth dropped the beast into the leather sack tied to his belt and pulling his head and one arm through his short bow slung it on his back. He had spent the entire day in the woods and had only bagged four of the small hares, but he knew his brother would easily make up for it with his own catch. Seth turned and strode back the way he had come, no longer bothering to be quiet. After nearly a mile he approached the trail where he hoped to meet his brother, at least he was pretty sure this was the trail. In the forest with the light beginning to fail, Seth wasn't certain, even though he had hunted these trails nearly his whole life.

Walking alone in the quiet forest gave Seth ample time to think throughout the day, yet no matter how hard he tried to avoid it, the same thoughts assailed him time and time again. Tomorrow he would leave home, and though he wouldn't be going alone the thought of leaving behind his life terrified him. The uncertainty of the future weighed upon his heart and he feared the days ahead. He had no idea what the future held, but felt certain that it would not be easy. Seth not only feared for himself though, he also feared for his family. Seth’s father would be alone, forced to handle all the chores that Seth and his brother now did, on top of his normal daily routine, and Seth feared that it would be too much to handle for his father. Sure, when Seth and his brother were young, their father handled it all on his own. However, Seth’s father wasn't getting any younger, and things that were easy in his youth may prove more difficult now, and Seth was afraid that all the extra responsibilities might take a toll on him. Seth tried to reason that the neighbors would chip in to fill the void the boys left when they were gone, but rationalizing the situation didn't make him feel any better for he had so many worries; his father was just one of the many. Seth also feared for himself and his brother. Though Seth’s brother had designs for his future, Seth didn't share his ambitions. In fact Seth didn't have any ambitions of a grand future at all. All he wanted was to spend the rest of his days in Vineleaf, eventually take over for his father, and live a long quiet life. Seth had imagined himself many times simply shirking his duties to the realm and just staying home to do just that, but he didn't want to disappoint his father, and didn't want his brother to face the world alone. Thus were his thoughts as he heard the snap of a twig up ahead and better safe than sorry Seth altered his course into the deepening shadows of the trees and crept ahead silently as death.

Only an hour of light remained in the forest valley, and being stuck in the forest, in the cold dark, was not what Garret would consider an enjoyable last night at home. His decision to head home made, he rose from the fallen tree he rested on, picking up his bow and the rabbits he had bagged, slung them across his shoulder. He tramped through the underbrush to the familiar trail he had walked many times in his years living in Vineleaf, and hunting in these forests. He continued down the path, always downhill, listening to the small mountain river that ran parallel to the trail deeper within the trees. It was not long before he came to the fork in the path where he and his brother had separated. Looking around for any sign of his brother Garret couldn’t help but hope that Seth had been watching the time. Unsure how far his brother had followed the trail to hunt, he decided to see if Seth was close.

“Seth you coming?” Garret shouted in no direction in particular.

“Of course” The nearly whispered response from directly behind Garret startled him.

“Wouldn’t want to keep dad waiting.” Seth finished. A mocking smile on his lips. Pleased he was able to catch his brother unaware.

Garret stared at his brother, so much like himself, and wondered silently how he hadn’t heard him coming. It was true, Seth was more agile than he, leaner, but what gave him the advantage? They were both tall. Both muscled from hard work, though Garret obviously the stronger, bulkier. Both had Chestnut hair, brown eyes. So very much the same, but in their entire lives together, Garret could not remember a single time he had ever caught Seth off guard. It was irritating.

Being twins, it was somehow hard to surprise each other, as if their minds, like their bodies, were so much alike they could anticipate each other’s thoughts. It was kind of creepy to think about, yet familiar and comfortable. Seth couldn’t help but wonder how strained their bond might be if they were separated in the days to come. He could only hope that fate keep them together, as they had been from birth. Being so much alike, he could not imagine them being chosen for different paths. They turned together, and walked down the winding path towards home.

“Still worried huh?” Garret stated more than asked with feigned nonchalance.

“I wish I could be as sure as you are that all will just magically fall into place and our lives won’t change.” Replied Seth. “It’s just all the possibilities, all the change, all so quickly. It’s like it’s utterly out of our control, what if something goes wrong?”

“Stop being such a pessimist Seth.” Garret said. “It's not like the world is coming to an abrupt halt, it’s just another chapter in our lives.”

“Yeah, a chapter someone else is writing for us.”

“Oh cut it out, everyone has to go to the Choosing, it’s not like we are the first ones.” Garret couldn’t help but be optimistic, even excited.

The thought of being a soldier, maybe even fighting in the wars to the south, the romanticized glory of won battles, all the tales told to him over the fires at the inn had struck a chord in his soul. He longed for adventure. He had been told once by a retired soldier that nearly two thirds of the people who had gathered for The Choosing went to the vast armies of Valdadore to train as soldiers. Two thirds, damn good odds.

Seth had no notions of glory however. He knew all too well the stories of the great wars and battles won by the immense armies of Valdadore. Always the pessimist however, or perhaps just a realist, he remembered the stories of the fallen, and often forgotten comrades that the story tellers always mentioned with misty eyes, but never dwelt upon in their tales of adventure. Blood, death, destruction, families broken, and love destroyed; hope shattered, soul wrenching loss. The parts of the stories left untold, hidden between the lines of the tales. Those were the stories Seth feared, the stories he had never been told, but he heard them, beneath the surface, the stories of those lost, that each began their final chapters at The Choosing.

The trees began to clear, as the path lead through the dense brush and over growth that would soon then lead them to the small farms of their village, to Vineleaf. All but the last traces of daylight had faded from the sky, carrying with it the last of the day’s warmth. Both brothers shared a sigh of relief, or was it a sigh of anticipation? Probably both. This was the last night they would see their home for a while, and both slowed their walk to take it all in one last time. The farm houses ahead were already alight from lanterns in the windows. Past that a few small houses stretched down the narrow road that ended at the inn. Vineleaf was a small community, self sufficient, and everyone got along well. There were only nine homes in the valley and everyone had a role to play in order to sustain the village. They pictured the faces as they passed wondering how long it would be before they might see them again. There were three farm houses all along the northern edge of the forest. The three families, the Briars all with red hair and freckles, the Stones dark haired and dark eyed, and the Golts with their brown hair and pale skin shared seeds, feed, and tools to keep their fields and herds growing. As it were the food was given freely to everyone who lived in Vineleaf, and any excess food was taken to the inn for storage, and to be sold to travelers or hunters. The first of the five remaining houses belonged to Julia and John Riser who had a small mill and bakery. The second belonged to Max the butcher and his wife Ellen and two young daughters Tina and Samantha. The third house belonged to Jack. He was the village blacksmith and handyman. The fourth house belonged to Emily and Rose, two middle aged sisters who had a loom and were excellent tailors. The fifth and final house belonged to Samuel Cobbler who could make anything out of leather, but specialized in shoes. The last building on the road was the Vineleaf inn. It was the only revenue the village had and so paid everyone’s taxes to the Kingdom, as well as used the funds to purchase anything that the village couldn’t make for themselves. The inn was Garret’s and Seth’s home. They lived here with their Father James, who had he been 20 years younger could have been the twin’s triplet. Their mother lived here once as well. The twins hardly remembered her face any longer but many in the village held fond memories of her. Those that lived here in Vineleaf weren’t just neighbors, they were family.

Both Garret and Seth stopped at the bottom of the steps to the inn and shared a look of remembrance. This was their home, it was all they had ever known, yet tomorrow they would be leaving, not knowing when or if they might return. Light streamed through the front windows of the inn. Smoke rose lazily from the twin chimneys that jutted from the roof from either side of the common room. The large oak door was closed to hold at bay the chill of the night time air. From somewhere inside voices trailed mutely to their ears.

“It seems we have guests.” Garret thought out loud.

“Yeah, we better go see if dad needs any help.” Seth replied shaking the thoughts of dismay from his skull.

They climbed the three steps to the door and Garret, grasping the large iron handle, heaved it open. Blazing yellow light swallowed them through the door, and a rush of warm air greeted them with the scent of stew enticing their nostrils. Both brothers paused a moment just inside the door to let their eyes adjust to the light.

“Boys!” Their dad thundered from the back of the room, standing behind the long oak bar. “Come hang your catch in the kitchen and get cleaned up there are some folks here to see you.”

“Alright.” Seth replied glancing to the seating area to see who had come, vaguely aware his brother was looking to see the guests as well.

The guests were gathered around the fireplace at the far right wall of the room, their backs to the twins. Both brothers recognized them even from behind, and headed off to the kitchen. Walking around the bar towards the kitchen door, Garret leaned towards his father and with a smirk and said.

“I beat him.”

“I heard that.” Replied Seth, and continued with a slightly annoyed tone. “You always beat me but you'll never outsmart me.”

Garret growled in response and shoved Seth through the door to the kitchen, flashing a smile towards their dad as he passed. They walked to the back of the kitchen, past the twin cooking fires to the back door. Both brothers unslung their rabbits and hung them on the pegs above the door, and placed their bows and quivers in the corner behind the crates of preserved foods. Garret’s forehead creased, and his eyebrows came together, obviously in deep thought about something. Seth knew the look; this was something his brother and himself did not have in common. For some reason Garret was unable to concentrate without mangling his features, it was not a habit he shared with his father so it must have been inherited from their mother.

“Whatcha thinking about?” Seth asked after staring at his brother’s grimace for a moment.

“Dad is cooking.” Garret replied. His face still entangled in thought.

“And….?” Seth questioned hoping for a more enlightening answer.

“Well, it’s kind of late… and only Jack, Samuel, and Emily are here. I’m sure they would have already eaten, and Dad doesn’t usually cook a large pot of stew for just the three of us.”

“Well it is our last night at home; he probably wants to make sure we were good and stuffed before we head out in the morning. Besides, there are four of us that need to eat.”

“Four?” Garret’s face scrunched back up in thought. “Who else needs to eat?”

“So you didn’t notice the man at the dining table near the window?” Seth waited for his brother’s response though he already knew the answer.

“No, I hadn’t noticed. Who is he?” Garret’s was still pondering, his eyebrows trying desperately to touch one another.

“He looks our age, so I would guess he is headed to The Choosing. Dad probably figures there might be a few more kids headed this way too, hence all the food.”

“That makes sense.” Garret’s face finally smoothed out before he continued. “Why do you think Jack, Emily, and Samuel are here?”

“I would suppose they came to say goodbye, but there is only one way we are going to find out” Seth said.

Seth shrugged his shoulders, smiling at his brother, slugged him in the arm before making a wild run back to the common room with Garret on his heels.

Seth raced into the common room with Garret wheeling right behind him and danced nimbly around the bar trotting across the room towards the fireplace where their dad had joined their neighbors around the fire. Seth stopped abruptly as he approached the gathering and noticed the dark swelling around their eyes. Garret, right behind him, nearly barreled him over not expecting the sudden stop. Walking around his brother, Garret too noticed the ashen faces of the people whom he considered family. He and his brother, thinking much the same, both gave a half nervous smile to the small gathering.

“We’re leaving for a while.” Seth said. “We’re not dead.”

Garret nodded in agreement.

This proclamation brought out smiles from the sullen faces of those loved ones that had gathered to wish them farewell. James waved the boys nearer the fire and it was then the twins noticed the bundles at their visitor’s feet. It was no surprise that they had brought the twins some going away gifts, they had done the same in the past for others who had made their eighteenth birthday and had to leave for The Choosing. The brothers looked at each other with a knowing glance and each gave Emily a hug, and each Jack and Samuel a stiff hand shake and thump on the back. Jack being, as always, straight to the point reached down and picked up the large leather bundle beside his feet. It was nearly four feet long, appeared quite heavy, and clanked as he picked it up.

“I’ve made you each something that I hope will come in handy along the way boys. They say that beasts from the south have been found venturing even this far north." Jack said knowingly in his thick low voice.

He raised the bundle into one arm, cradling it like a baby and reached over the top with one enormous calloused hand and gave a tug to the small leather strap that kept the bundle wrapped up tight. The strap gave way and Jack quickly laid the bundle across both his arms allowing it to unroll down the length of his arms. It clanked like steel on steel as it unraveled and came to a stop just as it reached his palms. Upon the leather lay two exquisite swords, and a pair of twin daggers. The first sword was long and broad. Made from the finest steel it gleamed in the light of the fire as if it too were ablaze. Its surfaces so polished it reflected everyone’s faces back at them. To balance the enormous blade was a huge two handed hilt at the butt of which a large ball of gleaming steel held in place by a dragons claw with each of the talons facing down away from the blade, making even the hilt end of the sword deadly. The second sword lay beside the first. It was nearly as long as the two handed broad sword, but it was narrower, much narrower. The blade tapered starting at the hilt and working ever narrower all the way to the tip. Made of polished blackened steel, the blade looked menacing as if it were forged out of darkness itself. The hilt was a hand and a half allowing the wielder to use one or two hands. Slithering down and around the handle was a serpent polished silver. At the butt of the handle the serpent was coiled around and around itself with it tail sticking straight out the end and sharpened to a point. At the other end of the handle the serpent split into two long necks ending at wide toothed grins, these making up the hand guards. The daggers, lying end to end just above the swords looked as if they were a mirror image of each other. Both had blades polished to a mirror surface like the larger sword, and both had blackened steel handles wrapped in leather dyed black to match the steel. All four of the weapons were both beautiful and threatening.

Both Seth and Garret smiled at Jack. These were by far the most amazing pieces they have ever seen, above and beyond anything else they had seen him craft over the years. It was obvious whose sword was whose. Garret would be more easily able to wield the broadsword as he was the bulkier, more massively built of the twins. Seth being thinner, perhaps even a bit lanky instinctively picked up the dark black blade. The brother’s both held and appraised their new weapons.

“These are amazing Jack, you have really outdone yourself.” Seth said eyeing the intricately detailed serpent.

“They’re made of Dwarven steel.” Jack proclaimed obviously proud of his creations. “They should hold an edge a long time and shouldn’t rust if I've tempered them correctly. I hope you like them.”

Both the twins nodded in response unable to speak, still in awe of their spectacular gifts.

“Well I should guess that makes us next. Samuel said gesturing to Emily “We have been working together on these projects so everything will fit and look just right.” Samuel continued.

He reached down beneath the chair he had been seated in and slid from under it a large wooden case. He undid the clasp holding the lid in place, and grasping either side of the lid flipped it effortlessly over the box where it rested on its hinges, against the back of the case.

Laying in the case was a jumble of objects, the top most of which was a long slender black leather scabbard. Dyed black to match the blade it was created to fit, and stitched with leather dyed silver, it was an amazing piece. As he stood to give the scabbard to Seth, Samuel flipped the scabbard over revealing a silver serpent embroidered down the side. Knowing the work, Seth flashed a smile at Emily, and as was her custom she nodded in response. Samuel held the scabbard out to Seth who readily accepted it, and slid his new blade into it to admire the two together. The blade slid effortlessly, silently in. A perfect fit. Garret shifted his weight impatiently eyeing the next item in Samuel's case on the floor. It too was a scabbard wide and long, dyed a midnight blue and trimmed in the same silver as Seth’s scabbard. On its face was embroidered a sky blue dragon, jaws opened wide to the top of the scabbard where the sword would enter, as if it would swallow the sword. Garret remained speechless as he accepted the scabbard and slid his enormous blade into it. Samuel was already leaning over to the case at his feet. He removed a sheaf for each of the twins' daggers and a leather cloak for each of them, one black trimmed in silver, the other midnight blue also trimmed in silver.

"There are a couple of new outfits here in the trunk for each of you compliments of Emily and Rose, and some new boots as well. I’ve also made each of you a good sturdy pack for the trip south.” Samuel brimmed with pride. “I’ve given them to James to pack you some supplies for your trip.”

"Thank you both so much." Seth said.

“How could we resist for you boys?” Emily asked. “We can’t have you out traveling the world looking like beggars. As I always say, first impressions are the most important.”

This indeed was something they had heard her say several times and so both returned her smile.

“Rose and I have made you each two pair of new clothes, a heavy pair for the journey that should keep you warm and should not tear so easily, and a pair of dress clothes for The Choosing ceremony." Emily said with tears rimming her eyes.

“Rose will see you off in the morning with the others.” Emily started a little shakily. “She didn’t want to have to say good bye twice.”

The twins both nodded their understanding, each now with moisture clouding their vision. Rose and Emily had sort of taken the mothering role for the boys after their mom had passed away. Both boys knew they would miss their foster mothers when they left.

“Well boys.” Their father began to say. “I guess that just leaves me. I was gonna wait until morning but what with all the gifts I sort of feel left out.”

James walked out of the seating area and walked back behind the bar with all five sets of eyes following him. He bent his large body below the surface of the bar where no one could see him and rummaged around on one of the shelves concealed behind the bar. He stood back up bearing two packs, and two coin purses. Walking swiftly back to the seating area with his giant strides he stopped when he reached his twins and sat the packs down at their feet. Both packs were black leather one trimmed in blue the other in silver.

“I got you all packed up with food.” He said to both of them at once. “And you each have a blanket and towel.” He then held out the coin purses to them and before releasing them into his sons hands added.

“You each get ten silver from the community fund as with all the kids who leave for The Choosing. In addition to that I’ve added five silver each out of our savings.” This last part he said quite boisterously as he swelled with pride at himself.

“I expect that should be enough to get yourselves a room at a few inns along the way, and keep you fed, and if there is enough left over…” he trailed off for a moment holding back the tears that a man of his age and size shouldn’t show. “Use what’s left if you can, to send message back that you made it safely.” James ended quickly trying not to lose his composure. The only time that he had ever cried in front of his boys was when their mother had passed, and that he was sure neither of them could remember. He didn’t want to think that this could be the last memories he would ever make with his sons. Quickly then, James thrust out his hands with the coin purses giving one to each of the boys.

“Boys tell everyone thank you again, they have all worked very hard to make you these gifts. You need to be getting to bed you have a long journey ahead of you. I have to go attend to our customer.” James turned and strode across the room.

Everyone else had forgotten the young man at the opposite end of the common room seated quietly against the window. He was now reading a book, aimlessly tracing absent symbols on the table with his free hand. Trying his best not to eavesdrop, He looked up suddenly when James came between the lamp on the wall and his book. They spoke in hushed tones and James picked up the man’s mug and returned to the bar to refill it. After it was full he returned it to the man, again they spoke quietly and James turned and walked back across the room to his friends and sons. As James walked up the twins were just finishing telling everyone good night and thanking them all again several times for the gifts.

“The boy’s name is Ashton.” James stated. “He is from Glenvale. He says if you guys don’t mind he would like to hit the road with you in the morning, he too is going to The Choosing.”

Both boys nodded to their father, and then to Ashton across the room, who was watching them patiently. Almost simultaneously the boys said:

“Good night dad.”

“You go ahead Garret. I need to speak to your brother for a moment.” James said.

"Sure thing dad." Garret replied.

James, Emily, Samuel, and Jack watched as Garret turned to walk down the hall towards his room, carrying with him all his new belongings. They all smiled at Garret’s retreating steps, knowing they would be missed, knowing they had given the boy all they could to prepare him for whatever might lay ahead.

"Seth why don't you take a seat." James said pointing to the chair he himself had sat in just moments before.

Seth looked around to the faces of his friends and neighbors before taking a seat, his father's tone frightened him and the fact that none of them would meet his gaze troubled him deeply. Preparing himself for the worst he sat down as his father had instructed and waited for whatever it was that his father intended to say.

"I wouldn't do this if I didn't feel I had to Seth."James said taking a moment to get his emotions in check and focus his thoughts. "You know that everyone here loves you like their own child, we are all your family, and any one of us including your brother would lay down their life rather than see you in pain."

Now Seth began to become afraid in earnest, he was not sure of where this conversation was leading, but nothing about his father's tone nor the grim faces in the room bode anything positive. Seth began to shake from nervousness but tried to hold on to some semblance of control to hear what it was that his father was trying to tell him.

"Starting tomorrow it’s just going to be you and your brother looking out for one another, and the gods know your brother is going to need some looking out for with his grand dreams of battle and all." James said.

Seth let out a sigh of relief and even managed to smile a little at his father's comment. This wasn't any new information, in fact Seth had been thinking the same thing earlier in the evening. He nodded his understanding to his father and sat silently letting James continue. James stood a second seeming to steady himself and gather his thoughts. He was a large man both tall and muscular so Seth found it odd that he looked so worn. Where he usually stood tall, his broad shoulders held back as if daring the world to face him, now he stood slumped, eyes downcast, ashamed.

"You're a wonderful young man and we are all very proud of you, and I know if your mother was here today she wouldn't be able to let either of you go tomorrow." With his last statement James nearly lost his resolve and his voice faltered slightly. He could barely keep his emotions at bay.

"What I'm meaning to tell you Seth…" James paused looking to his friends for support. All of them had tears in their eyes, and Emily was openly weeping by this point. Taking a deep breath James continued.

"Seth, Garret isn't your brother, I'm not your father, and your mother wasn't your mother." James barely finished with a sob as he lost control of his emotions.

Seth sat open mouthed, tears streaming from his eyes and just shook his head in disbelief. All eyes were on him, every look a mask of pain and sorrow. Seth could hardly breathe and it felt as if in a single moment his entire life was stripped away, if it had even been his life to begin with. Seth could find no reasoning to his father's words, the repeated over and over again in his head but just did not ring true.

"What do you mean dad? That's not possible we're twins, how could we possibly not be brothers?" Seth asked.

James tried to settle his own nerves and took several deep breaths before even trying to respond to his son's questions. "You have the same birthday it is true Seth, and the two of you do nearly look identical, but the truth is you are not brothers. I only tell you this now because your mother…" James paused for a second not wanting to takes Seth’s feelings for granted. "I mean Cassandra and I swore to each other that when you were ready we would tell you. Bus she is gone now, so it is up to me to tell you the truth like we agreed when we decided to raise you as our own." James said

Seth took several minutes just sitting with his eyes closed not wanting to believe what he was hearing, and not wanting to see all the faces around him, the people who had lied to him his entire life. Feeling deceived and betrayed Seth gritted his teeth to try and gain control of his emotions, and without bothering to open his eyes growled more than spoke.

"Then who are my parents?" He asked.

Inwardly Seth hoped that soon he would just wake up to realize that this was just some twisted nightmare, or at the very least some kind of cruel joke, but he knew deep down it was true. Something about it made sense. He had never been treated any different than Garret, in fact everything besides the loss of their mother had been damned near perfect until now. Seth wasn't sure if he even wanted to know the rest but his father began talking before Seth could rescind his question.

"The night your mother was in labor with Garret I was at my wits end. There was water to boil, your mother was screaming, she was bleeding, Emily and Rose were taking care of her, but I was a nervous wreck." James said a glazed look of remembrance in his eyes. "I was running back and forth from our room to the kitchens with towels and water, unsure if I was doing anything right. There was a terrible blizzard outside and it was all I could do to keep a cooking fire lit in the kitchen to boil the water. As I rushed from the kitchen back towards your mother's and my room there was a faint knock at the door. Worried about your mother I took whatever it was I was carrying to the room first then returned to open the door. The wind had been howling so bad outside I had had to bar the door just to keep it closed. The door burst open just as soon as I had it unbarred and outside in the storm stood this woman. She was just a tiny little thing, and to this day I can’t say for sure, but it appeared that the only thing she was wearing was a bear skin pulled over her shoulders. She was shivering terribly bad, and it was obvious she had no money so I invited her in, barred the door behind her, gave my apologies and simply ushered her into a room on my way back to your mother. Just an hour later your brother was born and I spent the next few hours with your mother and cleaning up our room just happy that everything had gone well. I had completely forgotten the young woman in the other room." James paused to think a moment before continuing. “It was an hour or two past midnight when your mother awoke believing she heard Garret crying, but upon waking she found him still sound asleep, yet the sounds of a crying babe remained. She was too exhausted from giving birth to go find the source of the sound so she woke me up. I found you in the room I had allowed the young woman to stay in. You were in the middle of the cot wrapped in the bear hide that she had arrived in. You had only been born in the previous hours as your skull was still elongated to permit birthing, yet the young woman was nowhere to be found. Jack and I looked all over for any signs of tracks or blood in the snow outside but found nothing. The woman had vanished without a trace. Your mother was already nursing Garret and so put you to the breast as well, thinking that the woman would soon return to claim you. Days passed and then weeks, she never came nor did we ever see any sign of her so we decided to raise you as our own, and swore to one another that someday, when you were ready, we would tell you the truth of it. So in keeping a promise to your mother, bless her soul, I am breaking my own heart." James said tears still running down his face. "Your my son damn it no less than Garret no matter what." James said after a moment of thought.

Seth sat a moment choking back sobs, barely able to take a breath. His entire life had been a lie. Or had it? Just because he hadn't been born to James and Cassandra didn't make them any less his parents. Truth be told, they had saved his life by taking him in. Seth decided that it didn't matter. His family was still his family no matter what, the only problem Seth had with the sudden admission from his father, is for the first time in his whole life he didn't know who he was. Seth’s family was James and Garret, and even all their neighbors, who apparently all knew the real truth of the situation, but it was now also possible that Seth had another family entirely out there somewhere. Seth still felt a bit betrayed that everyone had seemingly kept this secret from him his whole life, and by doing so may have stolen from him a whole other life and family entirely. It just didn't fit though, Seth knew his father, he knew his neighbors, and he loved them all and knew that they had only done what they thought was best for him.

"Does Garret know?" Seth asked

James just shook his head, just beginning to recover and reign in his emotions.

"I hope you can forgive us and understand that we just wanted you to have a normal life, the best life we could give you, and that we all love you very much. James pleaded.

"I love you all too." Seth said looking around to everyone in the room. "But, do we have to tell Garret? I don't think I am ready for him to know yet if that's ok." Seth said.

"I had already decided to leave that up to you son, I've never seen a pair of siblings as close as you two." James said

"So what do we do now?" Seth asked. He took a deep breath, finally able to breathe again as the knots in his stomach began to subside.

"That too is up to you Seth, none of us knew just how you would take the news, but we all hoped…" James said trailing off.

"I think that you and mom and everyone else did what you thought was best." Seth said. "Though I wish you had either been honest with me all along or perhaps never told me at all. In any case you are all the only family I have ever known, and just because I am adopted don’t make us any less family." Seth said.

James grinned from ear to ear with a sigh of relief. The whole room seemed to feel lighter all of a sudden and James stood tall and grabbed his son in a monstrous hug. Before long Seth had hugged each of his neighbors, and with lots of apologies and words of encouragement Seth was finally ready to join his brother in their bedroom and get some rest for the journey tomorrow. Thus he said his goodbyes and left the alcove and quietly went to his room hoping not to wake his brother if he was already asleep.

Seth crept into the room he shared with his brother and was pleased to find Garret snoring lightly. A small candle burned on Seth’s bedside table, Garret had apparently lit it before going to sleep so Seth could see when he finally came to bed. Seth quickly and quietly undressed and crawled into bed, reassured by his brothers' actions that not only had he made the right choice not to tell his brother about his being adopted. He didn't want anything to change the relationship they shared.

Seth lay in his bed thinking a long time about his past and his family, but soon realized that what was done was done, so he instead focused on what lay ahead. Though his life was already irrevocably changed he was aware that starting tomorrow their lives would never be the same. Their journey wouldn’t take but two weeks, first winding south through the foothills of the mountains, then across the plains following the Rapagalon river ever south to their destination, the capital city of Valdadore. They would pass through, or at least near to several villages and towns along the way. It would be their first venture away from home without their father. At least they would be together. Seth imagined their journey south, imagining the many things they would see, people they might meet. Seth slowly drifted away from consciousness, drifting as he did into dreams of his own making, his subconscious mind bringing unconscious acceptance to whatever might lay ahead.

Seth found himself in the kitchen of the inn. The cooking fires were ablaze, warming the room to an almost uncomfortable level. His father could be heard in the common room speaking with guests. The wind blew outside, and rain hammered the roof. These were all very common memories to Seth, after all, often when the weather got bad all their neighbors would come and visit with one another in the common rooms at the inn. But still something was out of place that Seth could not place his finger on. The door separating the common room to the kitchen swung open just then, and the crackle of the cooking fires was drowned out beneath the sound of several boisterous conversations. A young woman entered the kitchen, smiling at him. She was beautiful with long brown hair falling around her shoulders in loose curls. Her skin was fair, the color of fresh milk. Her eyes too seemed to be smiling at him, enchanting him in their green depths. It was then that Seth realized what it was before that he couldn’t find. Nothing was missing, nothing even out of place. What was wrong about this room was its size. Everything here seemed overly large, and it only took a second for it to dawn on him. The room wasn’t large, He was small. He was a child, barely four years old, and the beautiful woman who stood before him smiling was his mother. He concentrated as hard as was possible to commit her face, her smile, even her scent to memory. Her expression changed then, changing to a look of concern. She must be wondering why I’m staring at her. Then her expression changed again, pulling her eyebrows together, her lips into a straight line, and scrunching up her eyes in thought. I knew it!! Garret got it from mom. Seeming to come to a conclusion, she knelt down bringing herself down until their eyes were level. She again smiled at him knowingly.

“Seth honey, don’t worry about what is coming. Everything is going to be just fine.” She still smiled though her eyes took on a look of concern. “Why don’t you go get in bed and get some sleep? Garret is already resting.”

Seth nodded once and headed for the door. Pausing as he opened it, turning around he met her gaze again.

“I love you mom.” Seth barely managed whispering the words.

“I love you too.” She replied, a look of deeper meaning and understanding on her face. “Now, run along to bed.”

Again Seth nodded and turned, walking through the door he was greeted with familiar faces in the bright room. Then everything seemed to swirl, sucking the light from the room, encasing everyone in shadow. The light continued to drain until Seth was lost in darkness. He knew it was just a dream, yet he wished it to continue, knowing all the while that it would not. The dream, perhaps the only memory he would ever have of his mother was over. He let the darkness consume him then, his subconscious taking over, and fell into a deep restful sleep.

Garret too found himself dreaming, an all too real dream. He stood upon a plain wearing brightly polished armor. In his hand, the sword Jack had made him only now it was different. Now he held it familiarly, like he had been carrying it for years. Ahead of him lay bodies, heaped into piles, burning. The ground around him was stained with blood, gore lay across the land. Dismembered body parts, peoples’ entrails, a scalp here, and an ear there, it was a vision of death. Yet behind him, the plains teemed with life, hundreds of lives maybe thousands. A force to be reckoned with was gathered of the bravest, most courageous men the world had ever seen. Some of the most powerful fighters ever to be amassed. They stood for a purpose, they stood for him, with him, awaiting his command. Across the plain there stood another great force. A mass of black armor, crimson pennants, hulking Trolls, twisted Orcs, massive Ogres, and unnaturally strong humans stood to oppose them. Their blades dripping with blood, they stood in no formation, each creature edging the invisible line that held them at bay. At their head, central to this inhuman army stood a man. He was a ghastly sight, covered in gore his armor seemed to be made of blood. Spikes jutted from his armor from every joint, his helm fashioned in the likeness of a ravenous wolf. In one hand he held a blackened evil sword consumed in unnatural power, in the other a staff of bleached bone, stained red from human blood. His eyes, even from this distance could be clearly seen. Two crimson orbs danced behind his skull mask, taking in the force across the plane moving from one extreme end to the other. The eyes darted from foe to foe until they came to rest on Garret. They met gazes, both refusing to blink, both refusing to give anything that the other might take for weakness. Looking into those eyes, even at this distance, made Garret feel sick to his stomach. Something had to be done about this aberration. Something would be done. Garret raised his sword above his head, looking over his shoulder to his comrades. He let the sword swing down in front of him to point at his enemy, and with this unspoken command he yelled at the top of his lungs.

“For Valdadore!”

The plains echoed his battle cry as a thousand voices joined his own and rumbled the very earth beneath them. “For Valdadore!”

The image shifted then, as both armies charged one another. First the grass went from blood smeared green to black, and then the sky went black as well. All traces of light were lost, and with it, all sound. The image faded from Garret’s mind leaving him in darkness. Leaving him to ponder the horrible sights he had witnessed. Leaving him alone in his mind, in the dark comfort that was his subconscious, to get some needed rest.

Both brothers slept restfully within their own beds, within their own minds. Neither would again dream this night. Both would remember their dreams though, all too well would they remember them. Perhaps one day, they would understand the meaning, if dreams held any meaning at all.

Chapter 2

Foreboding farewells amp; friendly faces

Both of the twins awoke to the knock at their door, and both in turn mumbled some sort of reply. The door cracked open a bit and James poked his large head around the door.

“Get moving boys, if you want to get in a good day of travel today you need to be ready by sunrise.” James stated. Removing his head from the door he closed it gently, turned and walked back down the hall, his head hung low, and shoulders slumping. Today was not going to be a good day.

The twins quickly rose from their beds; Garret lit a lantern, and placed it in the window sill. Whether it was nervousness or anxiousness that guided them, both were dressed more quickly than was usual. Seth sat on the end of his bed pulling on his new boots. Lacing them up tightly, he looked across the room at his brother who was doing the same.

“Well I guess this is it.” Seth said in a tone of resignation.

“Yeah.” Was the only response Garret could muster.

Good. Seth thought. At least Garret is finally getting the picture.

Both boys rose from their beds, and exchanged compliments on their new attire. Garret did indeed look like royalty in his blue and silver travel garb, with his sword already sheathed at his hip, and dagger at his waist. Seth reached down to pick up his belt and new sword, and threaded the belt through the scabbard. He then did the same with the dagger and strapped the belt around his waist. It all felt a bit heavy, almost uncomfortable. Garret looked Seth up and down in appreciation and laughed loudly.

“What?” Seth demanded. “Did I put something on wrong?”

“No it’s just funny seeing you like that.” Garret continued laughing.

“What’s so funny about it?” Now Seth was getting a bit annoyed.

“Well.” Garret said trying to compose himself. “You’re all dressed in black, with a black cloak, black sword, black, black, and more black.”

“What’s wrong with that?” Seth questioned, sounding a bit harsher than he intended.

“Nothing. It’s just that you look like what I imagine an assassin would look like creeping around on roof tops.”

Both twins started laughing then and Seth imagined what he must look like all dressed in black as if he were clothed in darkness.

“An assassin huh?” Seth thought out loud.

Now there is a profession I hadn’t thought of. I wonder if assassins are picked at The Gathering. Just one more worry to add to the list.

The boys picked on each other’s new stylish looks a few more minutes then headed out of their room, to the common room, where they could hear their father talking to someone.

Rounding the corner into the seating area where they had received their gifts the twins saw the other boy from last night seated at the bar eating and nodding to a question James had asked. He was a tall, skinny kid, awkward looking, with a child’s face. His hair was a light blonde color, and cut just above the ears as if a bowl had been placed on his head and then cut around. His eyes were a bright penetrating blue, seemingly full of happiness. Beside him were two more plates of food. James looked over to the boys from behind the bar, and waved them over, pointing at the plates of food.

“Eat while its hot boys.” James smiled.

“It’s Ashton right?” Seth asked the boy at the bar.

“Yes, Ashton Rayne.” The boy said with a smile on his lips looking over the twins.

“You must be Seth.” Ashton said. He reached out and clasped hands with Seth briefly and then turned his head to look past Seth.

“That makes you Garret then.” Releasing Seth’s hand he then extended it to Garret.

“It’s nice to meet you.” Was Garret’s reply, Seth merely nodded his agreement.

“Your father has been telling me all about all the extra work he is going to have to do when you guys leave today.” Ashton added. “It seems we all are leaving things unfinished behind us.” He trailed off on this last part as if thinking of something far away.

“Well boys.” James said. He didn't like the mood this last statement from Ashton was bringing out. “Eat your fill, you got a long journey ahead of you. If you need more food just holler I'll be in the kitchen.” With that James turned on his heel and walked through the door to the kitchen. The boys, all three, watched him go uncomfortably each seeing the tears gathering in the big man's eyes.

The twins seated themselves beside Ashton, Seth the nearest, and began eating. They each had a heaping plate of scrambled eggs, day old bread, cheese, and fried pork. This was to be their last home cooked meal for a while, and it seemed James wanted to make sure it lasted.

Ashton, being the first to sit down to eat was the first to finish. Being a good guest, patient to let the twins eat, related to them his journey from home to here at Vineleaf. He also told them as much as he knew about The Choosing ceremony, much of which they had already been aware. Ashton then told them about his older brother, Alex, who was already in service to the Kingdom as a healer.

“I have the gift too.” Ashton stated proudly, and then continued. “Though I’m not as advanced as Alex had been when he left.”

With Ashton’s last words, the twins shoveled the last of their food into their mouths, as the door to the kitchen again swung open. James came out of the kitchen looking fully composed. He rounded the bar without a word and went to stand by the front door of the inn. Taking his meaning, all three boys dismounted their stools, and picked up their packs hoisting them onto their backs, and cinching down the straps until they were snug and comfortable. Looking at the three of them James gave a big sigh as his shoulders again slumped, and heaved the door open, walked briskly through, the three boys following behind him.

Outside the sky was changing from black to blue, the sun still hidden behind the mountains to the east. The air was cool, but dry, and there wasn’t a cloud to be seen in the sky. Today it would not rain. To the Twins’ surprise, their entire village was gathered just outside the inn. Everyone was watching them, taking in their new attire and nodding in approval. Most importantly though, Jack, Emily, Rose, and Samuel smiled at them, knowing they had done their best for the boys, and for that the twins would be as prepared as they could be for whatever lay ahead for them.

James was the first to take the three steps down into the awaiting crowd. He was greeted by stiff handshakes from the men, and hugs from the women. By the time he had thanked everyone in turn for coming, and greeted them all, his tears ran freely down his cheeks. The look of composure he previously had fixed in place had been lost somewhere in the small crowd. Seeing their dad in such pain both the boys’ too began to get misty eyed and walked down the three steps to tell everyone they loved, good bye. It wasn’t until Garret had picked up the toddler Samantha, the youngest daughter of max the butcher and his wife Ellen, that he started crying openly. He would miss her tremendously. She was very much like a younger sister to him, he had spent many afternoons teaching her new words, playing peek-a-boo, and running around with her little body on his shoulders pretending to be a horse. Garret tried to imagine how the years to come would change her little face, and it broke his heart. For Seth it was when he hugged Rose, Emily’s sister, which caused him to start crying. Rose was very much a mother to Seth and his brother, as was Emily. It had been Rose however that had taught Seth to read, and to write. They had spent many nights with Rose reading a book from her small collection Seth on her lap listening intently. He remembered those nights now and they tore at his soul.

Both boys felt homesick already. They hurriedly said their farewells to everyone, and came last to their father. James stood now with his shoulders thrown back, his face in a pain stricken grimace, trying with all his might to hold back the emotions that tore through his body. He gathered both of his sons up in his arms, hugging them so tightly it made breathing difficult. The twins hugged him back just as fiercely. When the hug relaxed, and they were all able to breathe once again, James took a step back and looked at his sons. He looked from Seth’s eyes to Garret’s and back again looking back and forth.

“You boys be careful now…" James choked. Blinking his eyes a couple of times, an attempt at fighting back the tears, he then continued. “You look out for each other, and keep each other safe.” The twins nodded as he continued. “You’re all I have, and as much as I wish I could, I can’t come with you. From here on all you have is each other, that’s more than some have, and more still than many deserve. Don’t you go worrying about me, I’ll be fine, Emily and Rose will see to that. You just worry about yourselves and each other. Dammit keep safe and don’t do anything stupid. Don’t go trying to be a Hero and get yourself hurt. You bring yourselves back in one piece, whenever that may be, and I will be here waiting.”

All three of them, tears streaming again, gave each other one last hug. Wiping the tears from his cheeks James continued.

“Now you boys get going, Ashton’s waiting for you just down the path there.” He pointed down the small path leading into the woods to the south. Sure enough Ashton was there just down the trail sitting on a tree stump, again reading his book. The twins both nodded to him, wiping the tears from their cheeks, turned to head down the trail. James grabbed each of his sons’ shoulders, nodded once as if in farewell, turned and began walking back towards the inn.

Garret and Seth watched him trudge, shoulders slumped, up the steps to the inn. James got to the door and paused as if to turn around for one last good bye, his shoulders sagging a bit more, he heaved the door open and walked inside, never looking back. The twins watched the inn for a moment longer, then with a shared look of pain and remorse, put on as best they could a pair of determined faces and slowly walked to where Ashton was waiting for them.

The twins walked down the path to where Ashton sat waiting patiently. They paused briefly, just long enough for him to put away his book and grab his things, then started off back down the trail, Ashton falling in alongside them. An hour passed with them walking in silence, the twins dwelling on their home, their father, their past. Ashton had inhaled loudly several times in this hour as if to say something, then thinking better of it decided to let the twins brood in silence. Again Ashton took a deep breath, hesitated, and tired of the gloomy silence continued.

“You guys have a very nice father.” Ashton stated whole-heartedly, and continued.

“He didn’t charge me a single copper to stay last night, nor did he charge me for my food or drink.”

Both Seth and Garret were looking at Ashton now, each with a small grin on their faces.

“You know…” Ashton continued. “You guys are really lucky.” Again the twins waited for Ashton to continue, looking at him with questioning glances. Ashton noted their looks and again continued.

“Twins are really rare. So it occurred to me that sure sometimes a kid might go to The Choosing with a neighbor, or a cousin, or even a good friend, but how often does anyone get to go with their brother or sister? It just seems to me that you guys are lucky kind of like you get to take a little bit of home, of normal everyday life with you.”

Garret thought on this a moment and nodded in response, his mood lifted a bit. Seth too pondered Ashton’s statement and realized that indeed he was quite lucky having his Garret along with him. Seth imagined what Ashton must have felt leaving home alone, traveling two days through the mountain passes alone until he reached Vineleaf.

“You know Ashton.” Seth began breaking his silence for the first time. “You are absolutely correct; we are indeed blessed to be twins. However, when I say it’s nice to not be going to The Choosing alone, I say it meaning not only am I glad to have Garret along as my brother, but to have you along as well as a friend.”

“That goes for me too Ashton.” Garret added.

Ashton smiled at them both, glad the silence was over. He had had enough silence traveling through the mountains by himself, he was glad to have company.

The three continued to talk, most of the day into early evening telling the stories of their lives up until this day. Seth spoke mostly for himself and Garret, with his brother adding in details he missed along the way. Ashton told too of his past with his family in Glenvale. His father had been a soldier in the armies of Valdadore, His mother a priestess of Lorentia, the Goddess of healing. When Ashton’s father was injured in battle, and near to death, he was given into the hands of Ashton’s mother to be watched over and taken care of. She had spent months healing his wounds, and in that time they had fallen in love. Not wanting to lose each other, and there initial enlistments to the Kingdom already passed, they left their services to the King and moved to Glenvale. Here they had two children, Alex, the eldest son now in service to the Kingdom, following his mother’s footsteps as a priest of Lorentia, and Ashton, the younger son, hoping to follow his mother’s and brother’s footsteps as well.

“How do you guys make a living?” Seth asked. “That is if I’m not asking anything too personal.” He added as an after-thought.

“Well my mom continues to heal people.” Ashton said with pride. “Though she only accepts donations because some people can’t afford much, or sometimes they can’t afford anything at all. My dad however no longer wields a sword. He spends most of his time helping people build houses, and it pays pretty well. Glenvale is growing fast, I guess it’s because we are so close to the ocean, and it’s the only pass around the mountains to the north.” Ashton ended, his childish face alight with a giant smile, thinking of home.

As it were however, against his awkward boyish looks, Ashton was nearly 4 months older than the twins. This had come as quite a surprise to the twins as they compared birthdates with their new found friend.

They continued walking and talking like old friends as they wound their way southward, following the narrow trail through the forest as the sky slowly began to darken. The day had been perfect for traveling, warm, but not uncomfortable, a slight cool breeze at their backs, sunshine, not a single cloud in the sky. Though the day was fading, rapidly becoming night, it appeared that they too would have a well weathered night. As daylight was fading the three companions decided they should look for a spot to make camp. Continuing down the trail they looked this way and that searching for a suitable spot to rest for the night. It wasn’t long before Garret spotted a small clearing just off the right side of the trail where a large tree had uprooted and leaned against its neighbors, making a large depression, sheltered from the elements on three sides beneath its roots. The trio could not believe their luck, and set to making camp.

The air was cooling off a bit as the last of the debris was removed from the hollow beneath the tree, but it wasn’t yet cold enough for a fire, so the boys unanimously agreed against starting one. The twins dug their blankets out of their packs and unrolled them and laid them in their makeshift shelter. Ashton pulled a large leather hide out of his pack, which he told them was from a small bear, and laid it in the shelter as well. They all pulled food from their packs and shared with each other happily, and talked about their hopes for The Choosing. Obviously Ashton wanted to join the white robed healers who followed the teachings of their Goddess Lorentia. Garret too had no problem telling them that he was hoping to join the ranks of the army and win glorious battles. It was then that Ashton told them that there were two gods that most of the army worshipped, Gorandor, the god of honor and valor, and Vikstol the god of battle. This brought Garret’s hopes to a screeching halt. Sure he had heard of the gods, though he didn’t remember any of their names until now, but he had never considered joining a religion. After all there were no places of worship in Vineleaf, and no one there that he could think of offhand that had worshipped any god. Thinking over it a few minutes while Ashton prattled on about the differences between the two gods, and the differences in their worship, Garret came to the conclusion that if these gods were good enough for those under the banner of the armies of Valdadore, than certainly one of them would be worthy of his worship. Only when it was Seth’s turn to tell of his hopes did their shelter seem a bit too small. Seth told them he had no hopes what so ever of glory, or honor for that matter. He wasn’t keenly interested in helping the injured, though he told Ashton it was indeed a worthy cause, just he wasn’t compelled to do it. Seth, ruining the spirit of their camaraderie temporarily told them he just wanted to come home alive, after his five years of service. He wanted it to pass quickly; doing whatever it was that he was chosen to do. He did not want to put down any roots, did not want to burden himself with choosing a god to worship. Most of all, if given a choice, as few were given at The Choosing; Seth wished he could perhaps do something for the families who would lose their loved ones in the Kingdom’s wars. All were quiet for a few moments, taking in all that Seth had revealed about himself. Ashton was the first to speak.

“That’s awfully sacrificial of you Seth.”

Seth refused to respond still consumed in thought. It was Garret who spoke next.

“How so Ashton?” Garret asked as his face puckered up in deep concentration.

“Well.” Ashton answered. “You are willing to sacrifice your life to the Kingdom by dying in battle. I am willing to sacrifice my own life to save another. Seth is willing to sacrifice happiness, to bear the burden of the Kingdom’s failures, the burden of families’ loses, the burden of broken hearts and anguished lovers. Seth is willing to sacrifice himself over and over, while we are willing to do it once.”

Seth spoke then in a low voice, trying not to let Ashton’s words sink in.

“Let’s get some sleep guys, if we pick up the pace a bit tomorrow, we should be able to reach Stone Haven by tomorrow evening.” Seth immediately lay down on his blanket, laying on half, covering himself with the other half and rolled over to face away from his brother and new found friend. He hadn’t said much to them about his thoughts about The Choosing, and yet Ashton had seen right through his vagueness, and read what his soul felt, what his mind was loathed to reveal. Ashton looked at Garret questioningly and Garret shrugged his large shoulders in response. They too then lay down, covering themselves from the cool nighttime air, slowly drifted off to sleep.

Seth lay awake a while listening first to Ashton’s words, playing over and over again in his head. He had never thought of his choice as being self sacrificial. Still it was hard for him to imagine it as a sacrifice, trying to help those that had truly sacrificed the most.

It simply felt to him as a good worthy cause, helping others heal their souls, not their bodies. Bringing closure to the bereaved just felt like the right thing to do.

Seth lay pondering his choices until he heard his brothers light snoring, as well as Ashton’s quiet even breathing. Knowing that there would be no more conversation tonight, he relaxed his hold on consciousness and let his mind drift where ever it might go. The last thing Seth saw before his consciousness was lost to darkness was an image of his mother smiling at him, that concerned look in her eyes.

Garret was the first to wake, and sitting up quickly as was his habit at home, smashed his face into a low hanging root, abruptly scaring him wide awake enough to yell at the top of his enormously loud lungs, startling his brother and Ashton awake as well. Seth quickly got his bearings, and then sat up scrutinizing his surroundings for whatever danger caused his brother to yell. Nothing found, he looked at his brother, seeing the root directly in front of Garret’s face, and the face of his brother, filled with rage, snarling at the root, he quickly surmised that there was nothing to worry about. Ashton sat up as well and just sat there looking at Garret like he were an unworldly creature, unleashed to disrupt others peaceful sleep. Seth then looking from his brother’s face to Ashton’s starting laughing loudly, causing both his companions to look at him, Garret still with a face of half rage, and Ashton in questioning wonder. Seth just shrugged his shoulders at them, with a smile still on his face, climbed out of their shelter and stood to stretch. Garret too began to climb out giving his nemesis, the evil root, one last menacing glare, and then crawled out to join his brother. Ashton and Garret cleared the cover of their shelter at the same time and echoed Seth’s stretches with their own.

“Eat now or later?” Ashton asked the brothers, willing to follow their lead.

“Well, I could defiantly eat now.” Garret replied and walked back to the fallen tree to retrieve his pack.

“Good enough for me.” Ashton replied. Then he and Seth both went to gather up their packs as well.

The three boys sat outside the pit that was created by the tree’s upheaval, they sprawled themselves out in a rough semi circle, their packs in their laps and each pulled out a little something to eat. They ate in silence, Seth often smiling to himself thinking about his brother’s early morning battle. Catching the little secret humor Seth noticed Ashton looking at him, then Garret and smiling. The morning meal went off without a hitch, and soon they had their bedrolls back in their packs, and had their packs on their shoulders ready to go.

The day passed by quickly filled with small talk, all three of them avoiding any discussion of The Choosing. The trail was easy, winding forever downhill and the large pines that made up the forest above began to give way to oaks and elms. Less leaves had fallen at this lower altitude so it almost appeared to the boys that they were walking back in time from fall back into summer, though the occasional brisk breeze at their backs told a different story. It was just after they had stopped for lunch, and had hit the trail again that one of Garret’s questions spurred a lengthy tutorial by Ashton.

“Well let me think.” Ashton had started. “There used to be dozens of gods that people from all the races of men worshipped. Most of them are now forgotten or dead I assume.”

“Wait hold up.” Garret stopped him in his tracks. “How is it that a god, something all powerful, would be dead?”

“Good question.” Stated Ashton. “Sorry I didn’t think about elaborating on it, but I will. It is believed that a god can only exist a short while without worshippers, though none can prove it. It kind of makes sense though, think about it. If a god holds the power to alter men’s existence then to balance it out should not men hold the power to alter the gods’ existence? Like I said it can’t be proved of course, but with wars lands are taken over, with the new rule laws are set in place outlawing worship of a certain god. Time passes and so too the knowledge of the god, even the memory of it passes, then when no one is left to worship the god supposedly even the god vanishes. At least that is what some of the scholars think. My mom told me about it. Anyhow back to your original question, how many gods, who worships them, and what does it entail? Well to be honest I don’t think I can completely answer your question Garret. I have a limited knowledge of most of the Gods that are openly worshipped besides my own. Even less knowledge do I have of the few gods who are not openly worshipped, yet still have a few followers. But in any case I will try to tell you what I can of those I know if that will do?”

Garret simply nodded in response to Ashton’s question, and so Ashton continued.

“Well first and foremost of course is Lorentia. She is widely accepted as the Goddess of healing and nurturing. Being that most of us with a gift for healing come to worship her, and heal in her name, it is thought that we her followers have a gift for magic, but through us she channels healing powers to restore the wounded or dying. Most of us pray to her, I know at least my family does, even my father who doesn’t have the gift, though he knows firsthand of its power. Let’s see, I guess next, and of special interest to you would be Gorandor. As I said last night, he is the god of Honor and Valor. Mostly warriors worship Gorandor, and nearly all of his followers are human, elf, or dwarf, though some other races probably make up a small amount. It is said that of his followers, only those with a pure heart and pure intentions are blessed with his gifts. There are a few of his gifted followers in Valdadore so I won’t spoil the surprise for you, you will know them when you see them I promise. I don’t really know how his followers carry out their beliefs though; I assume they pray to him as well. Next on the list, who may also be of interest to you is Vikstol, the God of battle. Now this one is a bit trickier I think. Most warriors, if not nearly all of them give their spiritual allegiance to Vikstol. Not because he gives them wondrous powers, or grants them wishes or anything, but because he is supposedly the god who controls the outcome of every battle. It is believed that he is the difference between you dying from a single shot from an arrow, or you taking the impact of twenty arrows and still living just long enough to slay the man holding the bow. Most followers of Gorandor, who do not receive his gifts drift off to worship Vikstol instead. I do know that at least before a battle, Vikstol’s followers will pray to him, and some of his followers that still carry old traditions will often make a sacrifice in his honor. Next up I guess would be Valonore, the god of nature. He is the god of the green robed Druids you are sure to see around Valdadore. Druids use earthly magics to create natural things. It is said they can sculpt plants, animals, even stone and earth with their thoughts. Oh and most Ranger types, you know trackers, worship him as well, they say the gifted ones can follow a year old trail buried beneath desert sands if given the gift of a magical sight by their god. But who knows right? Let’s see there is Saranadia, the Goddess of defensive magic, though from my understanding not many people worship her anymore, most preferring offensive magic. But through worship of Saranadia followers are often gifted with the ability to shield themselves from nearly every type of harm, the most powerful of her followers were said to have been able to shield entire regiments of the Kings army. Though I don’t think any are currently alive that can do that. Hmm let’s see who have I missed…Oh yes Zeranthil the mighty god of offensive magic. He has many, many followers all of them wear the red robes of his order of mages, all with the gift of magic of course. He cannot give his blessings to those who do not already possess the gift. He gives all of them his blessing to varying degrees, those who worship the greatest, and sacrifice the most of themselves to him, wield his most powerful blessings. Let’s see there is Ximlin, the Dwarven god of stone and steel. Ximlin has blessed the entire race of Dwarves with the ability to create the most wondrous items with those elements. It is said he is very particular to dwarves, however my mom once said that on occasion he chooses a member of another race to bless with his gifts if they are worthy. Who does that leave?” Ashton questioned himself. He thought about it a moment and started again.

“Well I think that just about covers all the Gods still openly worshipped among men today, but there are a few that I don’t really know much about that a few still worship. There is Gompidil worshipped by some Gnomes as the god of inventiveness. Though most every gnome, that I have heard of who worshipped Gompidil, and invented something truly amazing, died shortly after unveiling his creation. Then there is Ishanya a Goddess believed to be the Goddess of lost souls, though some called her the Goddess of hope a long time ago. It was said that she sometimes gifted her worshippers with either great magics, or great speed and strength. Warriors who followed her, and had her blessing fought with unimaginable fury and unbelievable speed. They were once called berserkers, though it is widely thought that no more exist. Followers of Hers who possessed the gift of magic were said to hold the powers of life and death within their hands, killing with a word, reviving a fallen comrade with another. Most people today think these are just old legends though as not a single person with her blessing has been seen in hundreds of years if even the histories aren’t mistaken. I think there is still a temple for her somewhere in the older part of Valdadore though.

That leaves Dazilen, the patron god of thieves and assassins. Good luck finding his temples as they are all very well hidden. His blessings to my knowledge haven't even been revealed to anyone outside his worship, perhaps those gifted by him are sworn to secrecy though no one even knows if he is a real god, or really gives his blessing to any of his followers without even a shred of proof. There I think that does it, at least as best as I can answer your question. I’m sure there are a couple I am forgetting, probably even some I haven’t heard of considering the Orc, Ogres, Trolls all retain some of their old gods as do the Elves, Centaurs and Minotaurs.”

Seth and Garret both simply stared at Ashton in disbelief. Not because they didn’t believe his words, but because his words were so hard to digest. They had heard mention of many of the gods through stories from travelers at the inn in the past, even heard tales of all the other races of men that walked Thurr. But what completely caught them off guard is the fact that they had written them off mostly as simple stories. Tall tales created to fetch the imagination of young children to keep them from wandering off into the woods, or go out playing in the dark at night. Being that as far as they knew, James and their mother had never served the Kingdom, not out of any fear or any misguided feelings toward the Kingdom, but simply they were raised so far from the Kingdom he hadn’t even known about The Choosing until he and the twins’ mother had moved to Vineleaf shortly before the boys’ birth. The twins knew Dwarves and Elves were real, even Orcs and Goblins, but centaurs, Ogres, trolls, and Minotaurs too. It was a bit much. Next Ashton would be telling them that dragons and Unicorns were real too. It took a few minutes for the twins to regain their composure and realize that they had stopped walking to listen, then a moment longer to close their mouths, still open in disbelief.

After they had been walking again for several hours Garret peered off into the distance, and seeing something the others hadn’t yet noticed said;

“Good we made it.” As if stating it to himself and then continued with. “Look out through the trees you can see roofs.”

Sure enough the others noted, past the trees and a few rolling fields beyond they could indeed see the roofs of Stone Haven. They picked up their pace. It was not long before they broke through the last of the trees into the open fields surrounding the small town.

Evening was upon the trio as they passed through the rolling fields at a quickened pace, every step bringing them closer to the town..

Stone Haven had once been a stone quarry. Not just any quarry, it was the quarry mined to build the city of Valdadore itself. Here the Glorian River meandered close enough to the large deposit of granite, where the stone could be cut, then sent on rafts down the river to where the city was built. No longer was this the case however. The stone, all mined out, was a distant memory of the inhabitants of the small town. It was nearly five generations ago that the Capitol city was erected. Now the town thrived much like Vineleaf, relying on travelers to buy goods, rent rooms, pay for female company, or have a drink at the tavern. It was a shell of a town, with people constantly moving away, and more constantly moving in to take their place. More or less Stone Haven was just a stepping stone for people trying to move closer to or farther from Valdadore.

The trio came upon the first homes just as the sun began to set upon the western horizon. The houses here were monstrous, foreboding structures. Made of the dark stone that was once the reason for the towns existence, packed closely together, the town had a feeling of unwelcome. Stone Haven appeared to be built in rings, cut down the center with one main road. It appeared the first inhabitants here had built the inner most ring, and those coming to mine for the Kingdom continued to build out from the original dwellings, starting a new ring when the previous one was full. It seemed a thoughtful design really, everyone had easy access to the innermost parts of the town, where surely the market stalls, stores, and inn would be. The boys each thought their own version of this conclusion as they made their way down a narrow alley, working their way to the main road that ran east to west through the town. Most of the buildings in the outermost ring were boarded up, some of them in disrepair. Occasionally the trio would catch sight of a person rounding a corner, or darting down a side street, but with the fading light it was hard to make out what the people here looked like. So the boys marched on straight towards the center of town each hoping their assumptions were correct and they would find people here. Sure as the sun would shine tomorrow, the closer they neared the towns center the louder the atmosphere became. They could hear haughty laughter, music playing, and the occasional garbled yell of someone obviously drunk. Ahead on the right side of the road was a Tavern very brightly lit, and its stone walls were gaudily painted in a bright orange color, just past that was an inn. The inn had the bare stone walls that most of the town shared. It was a long sprawling building that upon further investigation revealed it was actually once several buildings that had been conjoined with stone hallways adding to its rooms. Across the street from the Tavern sat a large three story building, it was dimly lit, and smelled of incents. The windows were all curtained in red, and the boys discovered that this was where the music came from. Approaching the broad doorway the trio was quick to discover a sign beside the door proclaiming the building to be a brothel. Next to the brothel, across the street from the inn were several small buildings and stalls, this is where the traders would set up their wares to sell, however at this hour they had all packed up and gone home.

The boys all stood in the middle of the road looking around, if not somewhat nervously, than at least undecided. Garret’s eyes kept flickering to the brothel, and Seth couldn’t help but to slug him in the shoulder and laugh at him. Ashton caught the meaning and laughed as well. They stood there a minute longer surveying their surroundings deciding independently if it would be safe to stay within the town, or safer to continue through town and find a place to shelter out the night then return in the morning.

“Seems safe enough.” Seth was saying almost to himself then added for everyone’s benefit. “If the inside walls are stone too, one of us could sleep against the door to be sure no one comes in while we sleep.”

Seeming a brilliant idea, the three marched off towards the inn, Seth and Ashton glancing around warily, and Garret glancing back to the brothel longingly. Oh the things money could buy.

They came to face the door to the inn and could hear from inside many muted voices in relaxed conversations. Light streamed around the poorly fitted door, and from two oversized windows, one to each side of the door. Above the door a sign danced in the slight evening breeze, marking this, the sunrise inn. The boys gave one another a nod of approval before pulling the door open. Garret placed his hand on the handle and giving a sharp tug, nothing happened. Thinking it stuck, Seth too took hold of the handle and the two large boys pulled in unison to no avail. Looking at each other in defeat the two boys shrugged their shoulders in acceptance and turned as if to leave. Ashton reached one of his slender hands up to the door then, the twins pausing to watch what would presumably be another failed attempt at dislodging the door; he gave it a light push, not pull, and the door swung effortlessly, silently on its hinges wide open. Ashton smiled at them as the twins faces flushed in embarrassment. The three walked through the door, Garret mumbling something about the door needing a sign saying push. They were welcomed by many strangers’ stares, and the strong scent of ale and garlic. They looked around quickly, and met the gaze of the barkeep who smiled at them widely, and welcomed them in a deep booming voice to the Sunrise Inn. They each nodded to him in response and quickly located a table. The three sat at a table in the corner keeping their backs to the wall, facing the expansive room ahead of them. They looked around the room, appraising the many people seated throughout the common room. There were a couple of men at the bar laughing drunkenly at their own jokes. Many of the tables too were occupied by men and women of varying ages. Some of them were obviously travelers like themselves, but more than half showed no sign of travel, their hair well kept, clothes clean. One man in particular caught all three of the boys’ attention. He was old, shriveled by age. His hair hung in long white cascades over his shoulders nearly reaching his waist. He had a full snowy beard as well, nearly the length of his hair. He was dressed in a peculiar gray garb, that had once perhaps been black, but faded by years of wear and travel now had a more mute earthly stone color to it. He seemed out of place, it wasn’t his clothes that seemed made in another time, in a fashion no longer used. It also wasn’t his age that seemed to keep him apart from the others here in the inn. Something about his posture, his too graceful movements left a feeling of unworthiness to those around him, as if the man were some holy artifact that was too great to touch or even look upon directly. Yet everyone within the room had looked upon him, and left him to his own musings, sitting in the opposite corner the boys had seated themselves in. The trio watched the man from the corners of their eyes, pretending to look around the room again and again. So caught up in their secret appraisals of the old man, none of them had noticed the woman when she approached their table.

“Hello fellas.” The woman greeted the boys, scrutinizing their clothes as if to measure their worth. Assured by the quality garb the twins wore she smiled at them all and continued in a softer nicer tone.

“Welcome to the Sunrise Inn, what can I get for you?”

The boys looked at each other puzzled, not having decided upon anything yet. Seth and Ashton looked to Garret as if to let him answer for them all. Garret took their meaning and turned to return the Bar maids smile and give his reply.

“Miss, if it wouldn’t be too much trouble, we would each like a cold mug of your finest ale, a hot meal, and a room if you have one to spare.”

“Well.” She began her reply. “Tonight we are serving spit roasted hog, spicy bean soup, and oven toasted bread. The ale is neither fine, nor is it very cold but I’d be happy to get you some, and as we are quite filled to capacity tonight I only have one more room available, with two beds, if that will suite your needs for the night. Perhaps if you’re here for an extended stay tomorrow we should have a few more rooms free.” She stated all this with practiced perfection as if she had said this same exact statement a thousand times before. Assuming somehow the thickest boy was their leader she looked to Garret waiting for a response.

“Miss I believe the room should suit us fine for one evening, and we will take the food and drink as well.” Garret replied to the woman with a wink.

“Well then sir, the room is a silver, and the food and drink is twenty five copper for the each of you.” The woman kept her gaze fixed on Garret, who nodded in response before she whirled on her heel and headed for the bar, Garret appreciatively watching the swaying of her hips as she departed.

Each of the boys pulled from their belts a small coin purse. Garret looked to his brother and Ashton and raising a hand to them signaled for them to put their money away. Seth looked at Garret questioningly, while Ashton’s look was more of that of one of relief.

“I’ll pay this time.” Garret said. “Next time one of you guys can pay, we will take turns.”

Both boys nodded in agreement, and Seth and Garret met eyes a moment. Both of them had noticed Ashton’s face when he realized Garret would be paying for him as well. Both twins came to the conclusion that he must not have much money with him and they agreed silently to save him any embarrassment by paying the majority of the way for their new found friend.

All three companions sat silently a moment, their eyes flickering around the room. It wasn’t long before the woman returned with her unremarkable smile, this time carrying a tray covered with mugs plates and bowls. The mugs were filled to the brim with a light colored ale that after a few tastes was evident that it had been watered down a bit. The bowls were filled with a fragrant steaming melody of beans and cabbage that tasted delicious if not rendering the consumer thirsty after every flaming bite. The plates too were piled with thick cuts of pork roasted and peppered, and each plate also held a toasted half loaf of bread. Eyeing all the food, unsure how any normal sized person could eat so much, Garret paid the plump smiling woman two silver and instructed her to keep the remaining twenty five copper for herself. She thanked him graciously and handed him a key with the number eighteen engraved upon it. The boys sat stuffing all the delicious foods into their ever reddening faces, attempting every so often to quench the heat with a large mouth full of ale. The trio was lost in their meal, oblivious to the room around them when as if the world had ceased to exist the room went unnaturally silent, then almost in unison all the inn’s gathered patrons inhaled as if expecting some great event. The three boys looked around in sudden wonder as to the commotion, or lack thereof rather, and seen immediately the cause for the rooms disruption. All eyes were locked on the old man in the corner. He had stood, as if to leave, the only really significant thing he had done since the boys arrived. Instead of leaving however, the old man glanced around the room, his gaze falling on, and pausing briefly when he looked to the boys. As if he was appraising their worth, as if he hadn’t seen them arrive. He stepped then nimbly to the bar beside the three drunken men, turning his back to the great polished stone slab that was the bar placed his hands behind him, each to one side and rested them palms down on the edge of the stone surface. Despite his apparent age, despite his withered features, he lifted himself gingerly to sit upon the edge of the stone surface with grace beyond that of those around him. The room still stood silent, everyone fearing to move or make a sound as if they might scare the old man back to his seat. The white haired man looked around the room again as if remembering where he was, and then inhaled silently to speak. Everyone in the room leaned nearer as if his ancient lips would not be able to make a sound big enough for them to hear. He spoke then in a melodious tone to the dozens of unworthy human ears.

“Would you be so kind as to let me recite a tale both old and glorious?” It was as if music escaped his lips when they parted, the entire audience already enthralled just sat silently waiting for him to continue, and he did.

“Once was a man blessed with powers so grand,

The women could not help but adore.

Unite his race was the mission he had,

Given to him by his god Gorandor

It took him no time to travel the land,

His body’s size of a man times four.

Yearning to save his race of man,

Whose conditions of life were so poor.

Though peace he wanted, he did understand,

To save them he must make war.

Many armies he crushed beneath his heel,

Improving man’s life with his sword.

Banners rose, his cause gaining strength,

His race was united once more.

It would not be long, he was assured

Armies would march with him by the score.

They cleared the lands of the evil it had,

And brought peace to his world’s doors.

His quest fulfilled, but man not safe,

For evil is like a festering sore.

Needing to ensure the safety of his race,

Knowing all too well their ancient lore.

He built a great city, named after his fathers,

Then arose from the stone, castle Valdadore.

For many hundred a year peace was protected,

The King now growing old and sore.

He passed his Kingdom to his only son,

Known now as King Sorantore.

Evil again strikes at our borders,

Always into the shields of Valdadore.

But each day the evil grows stronger,

As dark armies amass once more.

It seems the dark ones test our defenses,

Anxious to settle the score.

Too soon it seems our world again,

Will be drenched with the blood of war.

It falls to you, the young and the strong,

Blessed by the gods at your core.

To pick up the banners, and the cause,

And fight for your King Valdadore!”

The song was of the like that none of the boys had ever heard its equal, and the entire room sat enthralled hanging on every word the old man sang. Even the drunkards at the bar had quieted their clamorous jests to listen to the old codger’s song. Finally, when the man’s song came to an end many a man in the room lifted his mug and shouted "Long Live Valdadore!"

The old man scrutinized the small crowd, most of them still sat with their jaws still agape. It seemed to him his words had the effect he intended, and so with effortless grace he launched his body down from the bar and strolled straight across the room and out the door.

A few moments had passed since the old story teller had departed. Most of the people within the inn looked from one another in astonished glances, not feeling the warning the grave tale had told them. People started talking again in hushed voices at first repeating parts of the tale. The large room grew louder and louder as the twins and Ashton looked across the table at one another knowing all too sure that if the tale were true, The Choosing would be much more uncomfortable than anticipated. The boys still sat facing the bar, oblivious to their surroundings, discussing the old man’s tale when a loud thud followed by a bone shattering crack broke the tension in the room. Across from them, at the bar, stood one of the drunken men, holding one of the Inn’s stools in his hand. Next to him on the ground lay another one of the drunks writhing in pain clutching his face as blood spilled out between his fingers. Several men in the inn stood up. The barkeep, large as he was, ducked behind the counter as if to hide. The large burly drunk scanned the crowd measuring up those who had stood to intervene. Still holding the stool raised above him in one hand he turned back to the bar as the barkeep returned from behind the counter. The barkeep was now holding a small crossbow, drawn and loaded. If the drunk persisted he would drop where he stood.

“It time to call it a night John.” Stated the barkeep coolly. “Why don’t you go home, we can square up your tab tomorrow?”

The drunk, apparently named John, looked the barkeep in the face, and then glanced down at the crossbow. Hesitating momentarily, John lowered his stool then let it drop to the stone floor with a clatter. He looked at the man at his feet, turned and walked to the door muttering something about not gonna fight for Valdadore anymore, and how someone was gonna answer for his ruined night, then he strode, somewhat unevenly out the door slamming it behind him. Everyone in the room watched him go, everyone but Ashton. The gangly blonde bounced out of his chair and weaved himself between the stunned patrons towards the injured man. Coming to the man’s side Ashton dropped to his knees and closed his eyes, looking to the sky. His childish features relaxed and he spoke soft words then in Prayer to his Goddess, and opening his eyes looked down to the man who lay before him. Lightly grabbing the man’s protective hands, he peeled them back to assess the damage. Several people who had gathered around him, including the twins, gasped at the sight. The man's jaw was broken and ripped wide open spurting blood, his nose almost completely detached from his face. Ashton composed his face to one of un-terrified concern. He lowered his own hands above the man's face leaving a breath of a hair between himself and the man's mangled features. Chanting something nearly inaudible Ashton’s features seemed strained with some unseen exertion. Yellow and white light began to glow at his fingertips slowly, steadily encompassing his entire hands. With each repetition of his chant the light increased in intensity. Sweat beaded on Ashton’s forehead, and his body began to tremble lightly. He chanted louder and louder though his words were incoherent, something foreign. The light from his hands now encompassed the face of the injured man, and Ashton’s body shook more violently. Almost as if a cold wind blew down the young healer’s spine his body shuddered as the magic took him over racing through his blood. Ashton’s body was consumed in light for a moment as he regained control over the power that coursed through him. As if struck with an arrow he suddenly stopped chanting, his eyes popping wide open, he grinned in the direction of the twins then went limp falling to the floor. Ashton lay, eyes wide, breathing shallowly, still grinning at the amazing sensation coursing through his blood. The injured man lay next to Ashton, lying in a pool of his own blood. The man looked up at the faces around him, mouths wide open in wonder or horror, and he couldn’t be sure which. All the man knew was that most of the pain in his face had abated and the ringing in his ears had vanished completely. Not knowing how to react, he put his hands back up to shield his face, try to stop the blood. There was no blood, not now. Reaching up to touch his face he found with his blood stained fingers that his face had been completely and utterly restored. The guests all stared at the man on the floor and the boy beside him speechless. Only Garret and Seth reacted. They raced to their fallen friend and reached down each grabbing Ashton under an arm drug his limp form through the crowd and rested him in a chair. Garret shouted for some water, and a moment later the barmaid came hustling to their side with a large mug of clean water.

Long moments passed as Garret tried unsuccessfully to make Ashton drink the water. Ashton just sat there propped in the chair, a crooked grin on his face, eyes wide open oblivious to the world outside his own mind. The injured man had since regained his feet and was towering in front of Ashton with a look of unsurpassed gratitude lighting his face. The barmaid too was standing nearby incase the boys required anything further. The bar keep had come around the bar and was standing behind the small crowd, easily looking over their heads at the comatose boy. Ashton Blinked. The crowd froze. His lips settled into a straight line. The crowd still refused to move; now most of them stared at him with anxious faces their eyes wide. Ashton took a deep breath and shook his head as if to clear it of some invisible fog. The crowd roared a cheer like the boy had just slain a dragon.

The rest of the boy’s evening was filled with people approaching to congratulate Ashton. It was obvious that this made him more than a little uncomfortable, and often he replied that it was his Goddess that performed the healing, using him as her vessel. After the common room had cleared out a bit, with locals returning to their homes, and travelers retiring to their rooms, the twins finally had time to ask Ashton the questions they had been dying to ask for the last few hours. Garret started in on him first with questions about his limitations, could he restore an amputated limb and the such. These Ashton quickly pronounced were beyond his ability for the time being; however with proper training it was possible he could someday achieve such feats. As it were however, the miracle he performed here in the inn this evening was pushing his luck, testing his boundaries. It wasn’t that the power blessed to him was limited, Ashton had explained, it was his ability to control it, his ability to bend it to his will and do his bidding. The Goddess supplied the power, but it was left to him to wield it properly. While explaining all this to Garret, Seth sat silently, absorbing the information and had only one question for his friend.

“What does it feel like?” He had started, then thinking to clarify his question better continued with. “I mean what is it like when your Goddess feeds her power through you. It almost seemed that you were enjoying yourself while performing, and then when you finished healing the man it was like you were drunk or something?”

Ashton thought about the question for a moment, pondering the best way to explain it. Unable to find a perfect comparison, tried to explain as best he could.

“Well, I guess you could say that it feels wonderful to channel her power. It is kind of like a drug I guess, you feel it throughout your entire body like it is surging through your blood. It’s the best feeling you could ever imagine. For me it is like I can actually feel Lorentia’s love like a physical thing pumping through my body. It’s hard to explain really.”

Seth nodded in response taking the answer as it was. Perhaps if given the chance he could someday ask other magic users if they felt the same way.

The boys decided to get some rest, so they could get an early start in the morning. They found their room quickly, and unlocked the door. They clamored inside, piling all their packs in a corner. It was a small simple room all made with the same stone as the exterior of the building with a desk and two beds. Being that it was an interior room there was no window, only a small lamp that hung off a peg in the wall. Seth was quick to give up his place in a bed for the night, as it was obvious that Ashton was quite drained. Ashton argued that he should sleep on the floor being as the twins had been the ones to pay, but both of the twins squashed his argument and so it was decided. Both Garret and Ashton undressed and climbed into their beds. Seth pulled his blanket from his pack and curled up on the floor, his back against the door. The Trio was quick to find sleep this night. None tossed or turned, all exhausted from their long day. When morning came, none would remember having any dreams. It would be a peaceful night.

Chapter 3

Pretty face, mangled heart

Ashton was the first to wake, and was unsure if he should wake the twins or let them continue to sleep. He got out of bed, and while getting himself dressed, accidentally knocked Seth’s sword over with a loud clatter. Both twins sat up looking around. It took them a moment to remember where they were, and both of their gazes settled on Ashton who stood frozen, a sheepish grin on his face.

“Sorry ‘bout that guys” He said to them sincerely.

“No problem.” Garret replied still groggy. “We needed to get up early anyhow.” He added clearing his throat.

All three of them got dressed then and grabbed their equipment. They headed back out the door of their room, and down the hall to the common room. The hall was empty but voices could be heard already from the common room echoing down the stone hallway. They made their way back to the familiar room to be greeted by several faces they had seen the night before. Looking around Seth caught the eye of the barkeep behind the bar and the large man smiled and waved them over. Nudging his brother and Ashton, Seth relayed the unspoken invitation. The three of them made their way to the bar and seated themselves, where the night before, Ashton had performed a miracle of his chosen deity. The barkeep approached them from across the stone bar, a smile still on his face, and greeted them with his loud booming voice. He thanked them, his eyes on Ashton, for their help the previous night, and graciously offered them breakfast “on the house.” The boys happily accepted, and the barkeep turned and disappeared through a large door behind the bar. The three companions looked at each other in wonder. They sat for a while quietly; taking in the room now lit with the morning sun, and realized it was quite a cheery place. Garret and Seth looked around, comparing this inn to the very one they had been raised in. The inns really had little in common, besides the fact they both had a bar in the center of the common room and a kitchen past that. Other than those two facts, the two inns were hardly comparable. Garret, still looking around, noticed that many of the inns patrons were looking at them, speaking in whispers and muffled tones. Some of them pointed towards the bar when they spoke, some of them simply jerked their heads in the boys’ direction. Thinking that Ashton’s acts last night must have spread through the town and these were people come to see the healer, Garret looked to Ashton to see if he had noticed as well.

It was immediately apparent that Ashton had noticed, his head hanging low to hide his face, and his cheeks burned crimson with embarrassment. Seth too was looking at Ashton, with a look of pity on his face. Meeting eyes with his twin Garret gave Seth a questioning glance. Both brothers knew their friend was uncomfortable, but neither of them had any idea what they could do about it.

The door to the kitchen burst open then, and all three of the boys looked up in anticipation. Through the door came the Barkeep, head held high scanning the room, his gaze lost among his patrons and landing on the Boys at his bar. In each arm he carried a tray. Upon one tray rested three plates, the other tray carried three mugs. He gingerly sat the plates in front of the boys, scanning their faces to see their responses. The boys eyed the food hungrily. Upon each plate was what appeared to be a small pie, as well as a large pastry. The mugs, the innkeeper told them as he passed them out, were filled with warm spiced cider. The trio each in turn thanked the Innkeeper for his hospitality and graciousness. He nodded in response to them happily, and scanned the crowd again with his eyes, all the while telling the boys if they wanted a room again this night they could have it at half price. The boys thanked him again but declined his offer. The large burly man again peered over the heads of the boys at his bar, and scanned the room around him.

“You boys seem to have made this a popular place this morning.” The barkeep stated. “If you would like, why don’t you go have your food on the front porch. People are less likely to stop in the middle of the street to stare at you there.” The last sentence the large man said much louder than he needed too, as if to convey the message to the whole room.

Ashton, all too happy to take the man’s advice, stood up immediately making the twins’ decision for them. They all three slung their packs on their shoulders, and snatched up their plates and mugs. The barkeep watched them knowingly, and told them that they could just leave the plates and cups on the porch when they were finished, he would collect them later. They all nodded to him in thanks, then turned and headed for the door.

The boys sat upon the top step of the porch facing the street as they ate. A couple of people passed them by hardly giving them a second glance as they went about doing whatever it was that they were doing. The small pies as it turned out were just that. However, unlike any of the pies any of the boys had ever had before, these were filled with eggs, meat, and cheese. The small pies were delicious and filling, however even these were nothing compared to the pastries. The small warm pastries, obviously freshly baked, were coated in a delicious syrup-like frosting, and filled with a cut medley of sweet fruits.

The boys sat back on their elbows, enjoying their full stomachs and the suns warmth. The street was fairly quiet, except for a few voices from the small shops and stalls nearby. Occasionally someone would come down the road and disappear into the brothel across the street. Garret still watched the brothel longingly as he had the night before. He sat watching the building silently, admiring the red curtains that hung in each and every window, playing with ideas as to what might be happening behind those curtains at this very moment. It was an enticing day dream he was having when it was suddenly interrupted by a muffled scream of a woman. The scream was then followed by the deeper hate filled yells of a man. Though none of the boys could make out what words the screams held, each of them now followed the sounds with their eyes. The screams and yells seemed to go back and forth between the woman and man, and seemed to be making their way across the building. As each sound escaped the stone walls across from them, the boys noticed that each time they seemed to come from a different place within the building than the previous noise. They each traced the sounds, as much with their eyes as their ears and each of them sat, upon the step of the inn, looking at the door opposite them. The yells had stopped moving at this point, going back and forth from man to woman just behind the door.

The man had yelled something then, replied to by a scream from the woman followed shortly by a loud thud against the inside of the brothel door. At this sound the boys all stood, making their way to the bottom of the steps, still staring at the door across from them. Something, they knew, had just gone horribly wrong inside the brothel. The yells had stopped altogether. Seth was walking slowly across the street to listen better, when the brothel door swung slowly open. From the door a small figure appeared. It was the woman. She was small, almost fragile looking, she was young as well. She stumbled out of the door, leaving it open. Her long black hair trailing behind her, her hands rose to wipe the tears and blood from her face. Seth continued to cross the street unsure of what he could do, if anything to help the woman. She seemed to not notice his approach, instead looking back defiantly towards the open door she had emerged from. From inside the door came the man’s yell again.

“You get back here girl!” the voice yelled in rage. “I own you.”

The small woman’s face crumpled, no longer holding a look of defiance, instead now her features were twisted with defeat. She stumbled again as if dizzy, and took another step, only this time it was in the direction of the Brothel, as if she would return. She stopped then, dead in her tracks, as the man who had been yelling came to stand in the open door.

“Where do you think you’re going?” He mocked her. “You get back in here and clean up this mess you left on the back of my door.” He said, pointing to where her blood smeared wetly down the wooden surface.

It was then the three boys recognized the man. They had seen him the night before, watched him leave the inn, drunk, after bludgeoning another man nearly to death with a bar stool. It was John.

The large man stepped out of the doorway, his eyes on the girl, a short steel rod in his hand.

“You get your ass back in here.” John snarled at the girl. “Or I’ll drag your lifeless body back in!” He continued hurling threats at her as he slowly staggered out of the door into the street.

Without thinking, Seth raced the short distance between him and the girl, coming to a stop beside her. He glanced at her pain stricken face, and took the last few steps to place himself between her and the man that had attacked her. Looking John in the face, eye to eye, Seth reached down and pulled his sword half way from is sheath, revealing to the man its deadly blade. The large man, appraised Seth, and seeming to decide he wasn’t a big enough threat continued towards him, raising the steel rod in his hand. The distance closed between them, Seth was certain he would have to fight. He pulled the wicked black blade from its scabbard, testing its weight, lifted it to defend himself. John stopped in his tracks, looking at Seth, then past him, then back to Seth. Garret came to stand beside his brother, his giant broad sword in his hands. He stopped at his twin’s side and let his sword rest, point down on the stone paved road, daring John to come closer, a smile on his face. John eyed them nervously now, unsure if he could take the two of them at once. Unwilling to admit defeat, John once again turned his gaze on the girl.

“Fine then!” he yelled at her over the twins’ shoulders. “Go to Valdadore, without clothes, without food, without a single copper coin to your name. Maybe you can find a special way to repay your new friends here for their kindness. Mark my words girl you are nothing more than a whore just like your pathetic mother! You'll be back begging when these boys are no longer amused by you!” With that last statement John spit on the ground then turned and stalked back into the Brothel, slamming the door behind him.

The slam of the door was all the girl could take apparently. Her knees gave out and she crumpled to the stone road sobbing heavily. Blood tinted tears ran through her fingers, as she cried, covering her face, ashamed of her weakness. The twins sheathed their swords and came to stand beside her. Ashton too came to their side nodding his approval to them. They each looked to one another unsure of what to do. It was Seth, like before, who acted first. He knelt down beside the girl, and wrapped his arms around her hugging her tightly into his arms. At first she struggled with his arms as if to break free, then raising her eyes to look at him, noticing something in his face, she stopped struggling and dropped her head against his chest still sobbing.

“Everything is going to be ok.” Seth whispered into her hair over and over again unsure what else to say.

Slowly, either from exhaustion, or something else her sobs eased and her breathing no longer came in gasps. She still trembled slightly in Seth’s arms, but slowly she regained herself and stopped crying.

Seth relaxed his grip on her, afraid he might be making her uncomfortable, and as he relaxed her body shook as if with chill. It was then he noticed her clothes. She wore a threadbare tight fitting shirt, accompanied by a short pleated skirt. Hardly the clothes someone should be wearing with winter approaching. Even with the sun shining as it was, the air was still uncomfortably cool. Her body no longer shook in his arms and he looked down to see if she had perhaps cried herself to sleep, instead he found her looking up at his face again and it appeared at least that her bleeding had already stopped. She had noticed him eying her clothes, and a look of fear was on her face as she spoke.

“John was right you know.” Her voice, almost angelic came as whispers to Seth’s ears.

Seth gave her a puzzled look, not knowing at all what she meant. Fortunately, she took his look for what it was and explained herself.

“I don’t own anything, I have no money, I can’t leave.” Her shoulders slumped and again her eyes brimmed with moisture as if to start crying all over again. Through her pain she continued talking, barely whispering, refusing to let the tears escape again.

“I won’t make it far on nothing; maybe if I apologize to him he will let me stay. I can work off my mother’s debt and then save to go my own way.” She spoke now more to herself then to Seth, but he caught the meaning of her words.

She would be willing to make a slave of herself to the abusive, violent drunk, probably selling her body, to repay a debt she did not owe. Just the thought of her small body, ravaged by old drunken men put knots in Seth’s stomach. She was so small, so helpless, he had to do something. He looked to his brother and Ashton, who had both noticed that the girl had spoken but had not heard her words, and so Seth spoke to them, at the same time as speaking to the girl.

“We can take you with us if you want.” He said to the girl in his arms while giving the other boys a pleading look unsure of himself. “We are headed to The Choosing at Valdadore castle. We don’t have a lot of money, but I think we should still have enough if you join us. Don’t worry about anything, we will help you.” Seth said all this to the girl, but his eyes remained on his brother and Ashton.

Garret nodded once and shrugged his shoulders, telling Seth that he would agree if Seth thought it best. Ashton just bobbed his head up and down several times happily. The girl once again looked up from Seth’s chest, tilting her head back at an odd angle to look in his eyes. He saw then a glint in her eyes that he had not seen before. Seth knew at once it was hope, the hope for a new beginning that shone in her eyes. As soon as the look arose however it was gone, replaced by a look of self pity. She made a move as if to get up, and Seth willingly let her go. She spun as she stood to face the three of them, and took a deep breath to steady herself.

“I’m sorry if I am bringing you undue burden, and I'm not one to take charity.” She stated looking to each of them. “I promise that as soon as I am able, I will repay you every single…

“No.” Seth interrupted her. “Don’t worry about money, you’re not burdening anyone. We just want to help and we are already traveling the same direction so it's not as if we are really going out of our way.” Seth stated a bit more vigorously than he intended, and he hoped his words would not hurt the girl.

Instead of being hurt, the young woman seemed to take his words at face value, and turned to smile at him and him alone. Seth stared in wonder as her entire face lit up when she smiled. Gone was the pain and grief that marked her face before, in its place a look of pure gratitude, pure beauty. For the first time Seth noticed her eyes were a golden honey color, something akin to amber. Her skin looked nearly untouched by the sun, smooth, flawless, she had perfect cream colored skin, and as if in defiance of her pale flesh her hair fell long and loose in a black waterfall from the top of her head. She was a beautiful woman. He realized now that he would do anything to keep that smile on her face. Seth realized all this in only a matter of seconds, but was surprised to see that she was still looking at him smiling.

“Well I guess if you are willing to make sacrifices to have me along with you then you should at least know my name.” The girl stated, still looking at Seth. “I’m Sara.” She said. “Sara Gallow.” She corrected herself, bringing her hand up to Seth, to shake his hand.

Seth raised his arm and took her hand, shaking it gently, and introduced himself. He released her hand, almost reluctantly, and let his arm fall back to his side as she turned to greet his brother. Sara shook each of the boys’ hands letting them introduce themselves, then looked around, down the street in each direction, then looked back to Seth.

“So… what do we do now?” she asked him.

Seth looked from her to his brother and then to Ashton, not finding an answer he returned his gaze to Sara.

“Well.” Seth said. “We were about to go pick up some supplies, and head out of town.

“Great!” She replied. It was obvious she wanted to get as far away as possible just as soon as possible.

Seth still unsure of what to do exactly, not knowing either what to say, looked to his twin for guidance. Garret knew his brother’s look and so he turned, motioning to Ashton, and began walking down the road the short distance to where they had seen the shops and stalls the night before.

Garret walked along the stone road with Ashton at his side joking lightly about the look on Johns face when Garret had unsheathed his sword. Seth and Sara fell in behind the other two, walking silently. Seth stole a few looks out of the corner of his eyes, at the girl beside him. He could swear that one time when he stole a glance, while pretending to look at something else, that she too had secretly looked at him.

They made the small trek down the road to where the different merchants sat with their wares, in shops and stall of all sizes, and as they reached the first few stalls Garret and Ashton stopped and turned to talk. The four of them stood in a small circle, in the middle of the road, and decided they needed three days worth of supplies to reach Raven's Keep, the next town they planned to visit. Sara mostly listened to the boys, not really knowing anything about the world outside Stone Haven. She absently reached her hand up to feel the lump on her head John had given her with his steel rod, and then slid her hand around to her forehead to feel the cut where her skin had tore against the door when she fell after being struck. Realizing the boys had stopped talking, previously lost in her painful memories, she looked to each of the boys faces. Garret looked like a statue, frozen emotionless, looking back at her. Ashton looked concerned, eyeing her cut as a physician might. Seth on the other hand looked angry, and she caught him looking at the ragged cut on her head and then glancing down the road to where they had just come from as if he might go back and try to teach John a lesson. Seeing all their faces, focused on her, she blushed slightly and smiled at them hoping to wash away their concerns. It seemed to work, all their faces smoothed back out, and they talked again deciding that Garret and Ashton would go collect what food they might need for the trip, and Seth could take Sara to get everything else they might need for the journey including equipping Sara more appropriately for travel. Seth seemed exceptionally happy about the decision and Gave Sara a Wolfish grin while asking her to join him. Not only did she join him, she reached out, taking his hand, walked with him down the road.

Garret watched them go, and thinking to himself suddenly started laughing. Ashton gave him a puzzled look and asked.

“What are you laughing at?” Ashton asked.

“I spent all night and all morning thinking about going into that brothel to get a girl.” He paused laughing again even more loudly then before. “Then, go figure, my brother brings a girl out of the brothel without ever stepping a foot inside the door. Lucky bastard!” Again Garret laughed his throaty laugh and turned to clap Ashton on the back. They too walked down the road then, looking shop to shop for the supplies they needed.

Seth led Sara through the stalls and shops knowing all the while exactly what he was looking for. They didn’t have to walk far before he seen the shop he hoped would be here. He led her up to the shop, first to the window where inside, two wooden figures stood, shaped like people. He led her around to the door and walked inside, pulling Sara along with him. Inside the clothing shop they made their way past all the racks of clothes made in the latest fashions, Seth all the while looking for something particular. He spotted what he was looking for near the back of the shop, and smiling in triumph, led Sara to the large rack of traveling clothes. Fortunately Seth knew that travel clothes were generally much cheaper than most clothing, as they were made from more available materials, and were less decorative than other clothes. Keeping this in mind, he looked again at Sara’s beautiful face, and gesturing to the rack of clothes, told her to pick whatever she wanted.

Sara looked at Seth horrified. Never in her life had she wore new clothing. One item on this rack was probably worth more than all the clothes she had ever owned. She couldn’t even imagine letting Seth spend that much money on her. She wasn’t worth it. She thought all this to herself and shook her head at the boy smiling at her.

“I can’t.” She said quietly to Seth. “It’s too much; I won’t let you spend this much on me.”

Seth was taken aback. He hadn’t expected this type of reaction from her. He thought she would like to buy new clothes. Isn’t that what girls did? Shop and buy clothes and stuff? Not really knowing how to respond, but knowing she had to get something warmer than what she wore he tried to reason with her.

“Sara you need something warmer than what you are wearing.” Seth stated trying not to sound forceful. “It’s going to be cold tonight and I don’t want you to get sick.” Seth waited for a response; sure his words weren’t enough to convince her.

Sara sighed, she knew he was right, but still didn’t think he needed to spend any money on her. She didn’t want to upset Seth though. He had been the only one to ever protect her, ever. He was kind hearted, and she knew he was doing this to keep her safe, still protecting her. She had an Idea.

“Tell you what.” Sara said, a smile spreading across her face. “Why don’t you pick something you think I will look cute in, after all it’s your money.” This was perfect in so many ways. First it let him get his way, second oddly enough, even though she just met him, she wanted to look cute for him, and third if he picked it out she didn’t have to feel too guilty about the price.

“Seth looked from Sara to the rack filled with confusion and surprise. He didn’t expect her to relent so easily, and he didn’t know the first thing about girls’ clothes. Before he could think about what he was saying he replied to her offer.

“I think you would be beautiful in anything.” Seth stopped. Did I say that out loud? Seeing the blood rushing to Sara’s cheeks as she blushed, he hung his head sheepishly, blushing even redder than she.

They stood there silently for a moment blushing at each other, both embarrassed by his words when Sara was struck with another idea. She quickly rummaged through the rack, dismissing item after item. She worked her way slowly around the rack, all the while Seth watched her, happy she had changed her mind. She stopped directly across from him, on the opposite side of the rack and stood staring at one of the garments and again smiled. She looked up at Seth, the smile still on her face. She looked him over as best she could then returned her gaze to the garment she had chosen, seeming satisfied she nodded to herself and returned her gaze to Seth.

“I think I found some.” She said across the rack to Seth who smiled at her in return. “I’m afraid to look at the tag on it though. Could you look and see how much it is? If it’s too much I will find something cheaper.”

Seth just nodded to her and walked around the rack to where she was standing. Sara pointed at a set of clothes that hung from the rack, and turned around quickly to avoid seeing the price. Seth found the tag, and turning it over in his hand read the price. The clothing was priced at two silver. This seemed reasonable to Seth so he snatched the clothes off the rack, and carried them across the small shop to where he had seen a woman sitting behind a counter. Sara drifted along behind him, but she stayed far enough away from the counter as to not hear the price. Seth greeted the middle aged woman behind the counter and held the clothes out to her. Accepting the clothes the woman looked at Seth and then around the room. The clothes obviously not meant for Seth, must be meant for the woman he came with. The round woman behind the counter glanced around her store, spotting Sara glancing through another rack of clothes. Recognition dawned on the older woman’s face. She had seen this young girl before, bruised and battered. Always beaten by that no good, drunk, woman hating John, and always looking more like a homeless girl than anything else. She hefted the travel clothing onto the counter and pretended to notice something that Seth had missed.

“It’s your lucky day.” The shop owner told Seth. “This one here is on special. Half off it is. It’s been hanging on that rack for a while, time to be rid of it.” The woman smiled at Seth, happy the poor girl had found someone to take her out of this town, away from that wretch of a man.

Seth took out a silver coin from the small pouch at his waste and handed it to the woman.

“I’m glad you are an honest woman.” He told the lady behind the counter. “I hadn’t noticed the reduced price.”

The lady nodded at him and smiled. She had done her good deed for the day, as she tried to do each and every day.

“Would you like me to wrap it for you?” The woman then asked Seth, whose only response was a confused look. “So it doesn’t get dirty before she can change into it.” The woman clarified.

“Oh…um…I’m not sure, I’ll be right back.” Seth said as he walked between the racks of clothes to where Sara waited for him patiently.

“The lady wants to know if you want it wrapped so it doesn’t get dirty before you get to wear it.” Seth repeated the question.

“Can I change into it now?” Sara asked him.

“I don’t know.” Seth responded. “We can go ask.” He suggested. Sara nodded and again took his hand to follow him.

They wove back through the racks of clothes to the counter, but it was Sara not Seth to speak to the woman this time.

“Miss, could I change into the clothes here if you don’t mind?” Sara asked the woman a bit timidly.

“You sure can hun.” The woman replied. “Look, there in the back corner, there is a little booth you can change in.” The woman said smiling politely.

“Thank you.” Sara replied.

Taking the outfit off the counter, she skipped girlishly across the small shop to the booth in the corner, leaving Seth to trail behind her. Seth stood outside the small booth as if guarding it from some unseen enemy. Looking around the shop, Seth waited patiently for Sara to emerge.

“Seth?” “Are you there?” Sara asked. Her sweet voice carrying through the door as Seth did his best not to imagine her changing her clothes.

“yes.” He replied thinking the question a bit odd.

“Could you come help me?” Sara said with a tone Seth didn’t understand.

“Um… sure are you stuck or something?” Seth asked.

“Something like that.” Sara replied sounding a bit embarrassed.

Seth walked to the small booth, and slowly pulled the door open. Looking inside he saw Sara with her back to him, her arms clutching the shirt over her body, to cover herself. He then noticed that she was actually wearing the shirt, her arms through the sleeves, but the back remained open, a piece of leather strapping dangled from it.

“Can you lace me up please?” Sara asked him, her cheeks flushing a bit.

Seth then realized the leather strap was to pull the two halves of the shirt back together. Quickly, without responding to her question, Seth took up the two ends of the leather cord and wove it back and forth through the provided holes, all the way up her back. Feeling the shirt was securely in place Sara let go the front of it and pulled her hair over her shoulder to keep it out of Seth’s way. He laced the shirt all the way up to her neck, and then stopped unsure.

“Is it tight enough?” He asked her.

“A little tighter please.” Sara responded.

Starting at the bottom again Seth pulled the cord tighter and tighter working his way to the top, reaching her neck again he tied the cord in a bow, so that she would be able to remove it by herself when she needed to. Sara let her hair fall again down her back, as Seth stepped back out of the little booth. Sara turned around and Seth’s jaw hit the floor. He couldn’t believe his eyes. She wore black, skin tight, leather pants, a shapely woman’s tunic cut dangerously low in the front, also of black leather, barely contained her breasts. Around her waist, over the shirt a silver belt rested over her hips. The outfit left just enough to the imagination to send Seth daydreaming about taking it off.

“So? Sara asked. “Am I cute?”

“The outfit is…No, You ”…he emphasized the word. “Look astonishing.”

“I’m glad you like it.” She said while blushing again. “I picked it so we would match.”

Seth hadn’t noticed that indeed their clothes did match, and realizing this, he again smiled at Sara while his cheeks again burned with blood. Sara, happy he was pleased with her declaration returned his smile and strode forward, once again taking his hand. They left the store with a wave to the owner and again entered the street full of shops, Seth again leading, again looking for something particular.

“What are you looking for?” Sara asked as they made their way winding through the different stalls.

“Something to put on your feet.” He stated honestly.

This time she didn’t seem upset about him wanting to by her something, but she did however take the lead. Sara led Seth around a corner away from the jumble of shops. Down a side street they walked a short distance when Sara stopped in front of a small building and pointed to a sign above the door. Seth, seeing this was exactly where he wanted to take her, gave her hand a little squeeze and pulled the door open for her. Following Sara into the shop, she led him straight to a display on one of the walls, and picked up a pair of boots as if she knew exactly where they would be. A girl who likes shoes. Go figure.

“Been here before?” Seth asked Sara in a sarcastic tone.

“Yup.” She replied. “But I’ve never actually bought anything.”

Seth took her meaning, and took the boots from her. Sara turned her head as Seth read the small tag hanging from one of the boots. One silver, fifty copper. A bit steep, but they were what she wanted, and she had obviously visited them several times. This time Sara accompanied Seth to the counter. No one sat at the counter, but there was a bell, so Seth picked it up and rang it. A moment later a short white haired man appeared. The old man greeted his customers and picked up the boots off the counter. He read the tag on the boots and looked up again. Recognition registered on his face.

“Sara!” The old man said her name almost hysterically. “Why look at you, you look gorgeous.”

Sara blushed and smiled lowering her face to hide her embarrassment.

“You know.” The old man now speaking to Seth. “This girl has come in this store every day for three months, just to look at these boots.” The old man smiled first to Seth then to Sara. “You know young lady, if I could afford it, I would have given them to you.” The old man’s face lit up even more then, if it were possible. “You know what I can do though, I will sell you one boot, and you can have the other one for free!”

Sara smiled so brightly at the old man; Seth feared the man might go blind. Seth gladly reached into his small pouch and drew out yet another silver coin. He handed it to the old man, telling him to keep the change, feeling it was the least he could do for the man making Sara so happy. Sara plopped herself down on the floor right there at the counter, peeling off her old ragged shoes she tossed them in a small pail of trash next to the counter, and pulled on her new boots smiling the whole time. The boots were also made from black leather, polished to shine. They fit her perfectly from the tips of her toes all the way up her calves. She laced them up tightly, and smiling at Seth stood and took a couple steps back for him to get a good look at her. Seth smiled his approval, and she returned to his side, again taking his hand. Sara was a bit taller now with the new boots. Noticing her new height, Seth looked at the heel on the boots. They must have made her three inches taller, but it was a wide heel, and so shouldn’t impair her walking. They both thanked the shopkeeper graciously and left the shop headed once again, hand in hand, back to the main market.

“You’re done buying me stuff right? Sara asked almost pleadingly.

“Almost.” Seth grinned at her. “I promise just two more things.”

“What else do I need? Sara questioned a bit embarrassed that she really didn’t know.

“Well.” Seth began to answer. “We need to find you a pack, and I would feel safer if we found you something for protection.”

“But I have you for protection.” Sara stated in earnest but giggled a little despite herself.

“Yes you do." Seth agreed. "But we got some news last night that makes me a little nervous and I would feel better if you had something to protect yourself with.” This he stated matter-of-factly leaving the subject pretty well un-open to discussion. “Do you know how to use any kind of weapon?” Seth asked her, almost certain she would say no.”

“Well, James at the inn showed me one time how to shoot a crossbow.” Sara said this with pride, finally not being completely oblivious.

“That’s good.” Seth stated thinking quietly that it was not so good. Cross bows were very easy to wield, but they weren’t cheap. So far they had done very well. Seth had only spent two silver for all of her clothes which left him thirteen for the rest of the trip. Seth knew he could teach her to use a bow, but also knew that if she could already shoot a crossbow, then it was the best choice. He would just have to make due.

“Do you know where they might sell a crossbow?” Seth asked Sara, knowing well if there was a shop with them she would be more likely to find it.

“I do know a place that used to have them, it where James got his, though I don’t know if they still sell them.” Sara answered his question, and then began dragging him once again through the tangle of shops and carts leading him to the shop he wanted to visit.

Sure enough in no time Sara was dragging him up to one of the biggest shops in the market. It was a large two story building built from the same stone as everything else. The only difference here was the door. All the other doors Seth had seen in Stone Haven were wood, this door was Iron. Expecting the door to be extremely heavy Seth braced his feet and yanked with all his might against the door so as to not look weak in front of Sara. The door swung open effortlessly with such force it nearly flung Seth into the wall of the building. Recovering from his shock, Seth looked at the door in wonder trying to imagine how they had built it to swing so freely with all the weight. Seth walked through the door and abruptly stopped. He had no choice there was a wall to wall counter not three feet inside the door, behind it stood a large burly man with a familiar face. Sara glided through the door as well, and stood quietly beside Seth.

“Hello young friend.” The large man greeted Seth. “It’s good to see you again.”

Seth smiled at the familiar face. A face that had been utterly destroyed the night before, and subsequently restored by Ashton.

“Hello.” Seth replied. “It's good to see you are doing better.” Seth added

The large man nodded in understanding, and smiled again.

“To what do I owe this visit?” The large man asked.

“Well actually I’m looking for a crossbow for Sara here, so nothing to big or heavy, and preferably nothing too pricey.” Seth simply stated the truth to the big man, and in response the man smiled at him ear to ear.

“I think I can handle that.” He said still smiling. “Let me see what I have.” With that, the large man left the counter, and walked to the back of the room behind a large set of shelves filled with daggers and arrows, and other small trinkets. A moment later he returned from behind the shelves carrying with him three crossbows. As he approached the counter he grabbed the tag on each of the weapons and giving them a swift tug, tore them free. He let the tags fall to the ground not giving them a second look. He placed the three crossbows on the counter for Seth to choose. Seth looked them over, they all looked very well crafted, and each of them had a decorative stock, and engraved bows. All of them looked expensive, too expensive.

“They all look great to me.” Seth stated honestly. “Which one is the cheapest?” He asked then, assuming not a single one of them would be within his budget.

“Well let’s see here.” The big man appeared to think for a moment then smiled. “They are all the same price.” He stated coolly.

“Ok.” Seth then continued his line of questioning, to the most important question. “How much are they then?”

“That depends.” The man behind the counter stated, more than a bit amused by this conversation.

“Depends on what?” Seth couldn’t help but ask, though he now felt the big man was just playing a game with him.

“Well it would depend on how much my face is worth to me, or my life for that matter.” The man stated this with an ever growing smile as he seen the realization registering on Seth’s face.

“You mean that….” Seth couldn’t finish the question.

“That’s right son, whichever one you want, it yours, consider it my thanks for last night.” The big man said proudly.

Seth attempted a reply but found himself unable. The large shop owner found this very amusing and just watched Seth fumble time and again with his words. Unable to create a sentence, Seth gestured for Sara to pick a crossbow, and stepped back allowing her a closer look.

It was as if it was the first time the large man had noticed Sara. He squinted his eyes at her trying to remember where he had seen her. Sara picked the middle crossbow, and the large man handed it to her, still trying to place her face. Sara accepted the weapon, and using the strap provided slung it over her shoulder, allowing it to rest on her back. Seth, finally regaining his composure, thanked the man whole heartedly, then remembering he would need something else asked the man about a quiver and some bolts for the crossbow. Again the man left the counter, this time walking to the large shelves that separated his shop, he pulled from it a black quiver, and stuffed it full of iron headed bolts. Returning to the counter, he placed the quiver in front of Sara. The man still searched her face, as Seth pulled out his coin purse. The large man gasped as realization knocked him back on his heels. He did know the girl; she belonged somehow to John, the man who had just last night tried to kill him. The Large, middle aged man, stood looking across the counter at Sara perplexed.

“What do I owe you for the quiver and arrows?” Seth was asking the man, who now stood frozen.

Shaking his head it took a moment for Seth’s words to register. He looked at Seth, then back at the girl. Something was going on here and he was gonna figure it out.

“That depends.” The large man replied for the second time, his eyes still on Sara.

“On?” Seth questioned, now familiar with the game.

“It depends on her.” The man stated jerking his head towards Sara.

“Ok.” Seth started. “What about her?”

The man now looked at Sara, sure of whom she was. “You’re that girl that lives with John right?”

Sara nodded unaware of the previous nights happenings. The man continued.

“But now you’re leaving with this guy huh?

Sara nodded again unsure where the line of questions was going.

“John was ok with that?”

This time Sara shook her head, she had tried to put the events of only a little more than an hour ago out of her head, but she felt the man wanted an explanation, so she gave it.

“No. He told me I couldn’t leave, and he hit me. He chased me into the street threatening to kill me. Then Seth and Garret threatened to chop him to bits if he didn’t leave me alone.” The last part she said looking at Seth pure adoration in her eyes and a wicked grin on her lips.”

The man thought over her words a moment, eyeing Seth’s sword. Then just as before the man grinned ear to ear and continued with his questions.

“That really pissed John off didn’t it?”

Once again Sara nodded in response. Her nod set the large man to laughing hysterically, and amidst his howls of glee, he handed the quiver with arrows to Sara and told her to take it, as a gift. Still laughing, the man then looked at Seth again and said something about making his day, and asked if Seth wanted another crossbow. To which Seth readily declined, feeling he had already taken advantage of the man. Both Seth and Sara bid the man farewell. In response the man just waved them out the door, laughing too hard to breathe, and as such, unable to speak.

They stepped back into the street, Sara remembering what else it was they needed, took Seth’s hand and they walked down the street together.

“What was that all about?” Sara asked as they walked.

Seth related the story beginning with their arrival to the inn, up to the point where they decided to eat on the porch of the inn, instead of inside. As he finished his short narration, Sara pulled him up to a merchant’s stall that sat outside covered by a canopy. The merchant sold a wide variety of leather goods, from gloves, to bags, from vests to packs. They quickly decided upon a black leather pack, a bit small, but it was cheap, and it fit Sara well. They walked then to the place they had left Garret and Ashton nearly two hours before, and waited for them to return. While they waited, Seth helped Sara adjust her pack, mount her quiver on her belt at her hip, and re strung the crossbow’s strap so that she could wear it over her shoulder, under her arm like a woman’s bag.

Before long Garret and Ashton emerged from the rows of shops, carrying with them two parchment wrapped bundles. Spotting Seth and Sara the two sped up to meet them. They stood together once again in a small circle, and each Garret and Ashton passed the bundles, one each, to Seth and Sara, telling them it was their food for the next three days. Both Seth and Sara untied the small leather straps holding their bundles together and carefully packed the food into their packs. Sara then used the small strap she had untied from her bundle, gathered her beautiful black hair behind her head and tied it there, leaving her delicate neck exposed. Seth stared in awe. Garret then leaned over to his twin and whispered in his ear.

“Guess you’re broke huh?” he asked jerking his head towards Sara.

Seth shook his head and silently mouthed the word “only” and held up two fingers where only his brother could see. Garret’s eyes widened in amazement, but he nodded his approval to his twin.

The four of them decided then it was time to leave Stone Haven, and so they each shouldered their packs, and began walking south Garret and Ashton in the lead, Seth and Sara following behind.

Chapter 4

Freedom and Feelings

They walked through the day, stopping occasionally to let Sara rest. She was unused to the unpaved roads beyond the town’s borders. Neither was she accustomed to carrying three days worth of food or a weapon. The boys had all offered to carry her equipment but she refused, stating they had already done too much for her. She tried her hardest to keep pace with the longer legged boys, but the boys slowed their pace, seeing her struggling to keep up. All of them knew it wasn’t her fault and none of them minded. In fact they had fabricated several reasons to stop along the way so she could rest without guilt. It wouldn’t be long until she was used to the exertion, and could keep pace with the rest of them. However, they hadn’t anticipated this, and now realized that three days worth of food would not be enough by at least a day if not two at their current pace.

They made camp earlier than they had hoped that first evening, under a tree away from the path. They had stopped as soon after Sara started limping as they could find a suitable place to make camp. The new boots it seemed were not agreeing with her delicate feet.

Sara sat down on a root that protruded from the ground beneath the canopy of the tree’s leaves. Unlacing her boots she pulled them off revealing her mangled little feet. Seth gasped at the sight and couldn’t believe she had done this to herself. At some time in the day, probably early, Sara must have developed blisters. Refusing to mention them she continued to walk until nearly her entire feet were covered with them, then she still continued until they had popped and new ones formed beneath the first. Those too had now popped and blood flowed from both of her feet freely. Knowing that Sara must be in terrible pain made Seth’s stomach tighten into knots. Ashton was setting down his pack when he heard Seth gasp and came to see the damage for himself. Garret seeing his twin and Ashton hovering around Sara’s legs too came to see what was going on. He had known she was sore, all of them had known, but maybe it was worse than he imagined.

Ashton regarded Sara’s feet just as he did the man’s mangled face the night before. He looked them over calmly, carefully, examining every injury. He looked Sara right in the eyes and smiled.

“This won’t hurt a bit.” Ashton assured her. “Much easier than the last person I helped.”

Ashton knelt down at Sara’s feet, closing his eyes, tilting his head back to look skyward. He prayed briefly, at least he appeared to, as his lips moved but no sound came forth, then returning his gaze to Sara’s feet began his low chant. To Seth it seemed this time Ashton used different sounds than he had the night before, but he couldn’t be sure. Almost immediately this time, Ashton’s fingers were consumed by the pale yellow light as they had been before. The light spread again, only this time it did not encompass his entire hands, nor his entire body, but stayed focused in his palms. The chanting only lasted a moment, and Ashton stood and admired his work, his childish face stretched into a toothy grin. Once again Sara’s feet were perfect. Ashton stopped however and leaned back down to where Sara was seated and, still feeling the magic in his blood, summoned it forth once again, and placed his hand over Sara’s forehead. He removed his hand a second later revealing where once had been a terrible jagged cut where her flesh had tore open, now lay a perfectly smooth patch of skin, unscarred by the heinous attack she had suffered. Sara thanked Ashton several times for his healing, each time Ashton’s cheeks flushed and he assured her that it was nothing. So it was that the four companions continued to make camp before all light was lost.

It was then Seth realized his mistake. He had made sure Sara was clothed appropriately, wore proper boots, was able to defend herself if the need arose, and had a pack to carry her food. What he had forgotten however was just as important. Sara had nothing to sleep on, neither did she have anything to cover up with. It was a simple mistake, but a stupid one. Each night grew colder as winter approached, and he had forgotten to at least buy her a blanket. It seemed to Seth, the only thing to do now was simply give up his own blanket to her. He couldn’t imagine her small fragile, beautiful body shivering on the bare ground.

They had each placed their packs around the base of the tree, marking their spots as it were. Ashton laid out his bear hide bed, and Garret his blanket next to that. Seth dug through his pack and pulled out his blanket, skipping the spot where his pack sat, the laid out his blanket, beneath Sara’s small pack. Sara seen him lay out the blanket, and approached him, realizing that it was his blanket. She walked right up to Seth stopping with just inches between them. Then looking up to face him, tears in her eyes, she spoke.

“No.” She told him quietly enough the others wouldn’t hear, but loud enough that he wouldn’t miss it. “I told you no sacrifices for me.” She said this as a tear slid down her cheek. Her golden amber eyes never leaving his.

“I’m not sacrificing.” Seth started his reply. “I will be fine, you need to stay warm.” He told her. “I won’t let you get sick if I can help it. I want you to use it, it would make me happy.” Seth finished.

“Why must you do this to me?” Sara asked, another tear sliding down her face. “Why must you make me feel guilty? If I use it I will feel guilty you are without your own blanket, If I don’t use it I will feel guilty that I have upset you it’s not fair.” She said this, now the tears came more rapidly.

Seth, reaching up wiped away her tears, and pulled her head to his chest. He hated seeing her cry. Angels shouldn’t cry.

“Please don’t cry Sara, and don’t feel guilty, not over this. Like I said I’m actually being selfish by giving it to you.” Seth stated, liking this new twist.

“How in the name of the gods is giving me your blanket, so you can freeze to death, selfish? Sara asked him with a tone akin to that of anger.

“It lets me feel like I’m protecting you, taking care of you. It makes me feel good.” It was the truth, it did feel good to take care of her, give her what she needed, and make her smile.

“Then we will share.” She stated, and Seth shook his head.

“No, it’s not appropriate, and it might make Garret and Ashton uncomfortable, No, I can’t share. Sorry.” Seth meant every word, and Sara could feel it.

“Why is it not appropriate, you don’t like me enough to share a blanket with me on a cold night? Sara was upset, but she really just wanted to understand his reason for refusal.

“It’s not that Sara, I swear, I care for you, I do, it just isn’t time yet ok?” Seth pleaded with her.

“If it isn’t time yet when will it be? Sara asked.

Seth shrugged.

“Will it be soon?” She demanded

“I hope so.” Seth replied.

Hearing the honesty in his voice, she gave in. Seth did care for her, and wanted to take care of her. It seemed he was waiting for something, maybe even something from her, before he would let himself get too close, too comfortable.

Seth let her go then, and she walked to the tree where the other two boys had already settled in their makeshift beds. She lay down then, on one half of the blanket, leaving the other half sprawled out beside her, leaving the invitation open if Seth were to change his mind.

Seth stood, where he and Sara had had their argument. It wasn’t fair to Sara, to make her feel bad for him. It wasn’t really even anything to do with her in the first place. The only real reason Seth turned down her invitation to share a blanket, to share a bed, was that he didn’t feel he deserved her. He hoped that at some point in the days to come he would do something so great that would make him deserving of any feelings she might have towards him. He knew without asking that she cared for him, just as he cared for her. It was a mystery how such feelings could overcome him about a girl, no a woman, he had barely known a day. But he couldn’t imagine a life without her. He dwelled for a while, about how best to deal with his feelings for her and decided upon some rules for himself. He could only be with her on two conditions. The first of course, if he did something unimaginable for her, earning her companionship, or second, if she told him she loved him, clarifying her feelings towards him, then he would allow himself a place at her side. Neither of these situations likely to occur, he felt secure enough in this fact that he would keep his distance, watching over her, protecting her, caring for her, but nothing more.

Seth walked to the empty space between his sleeping brother, and the woman who unknowingly was the master of his heart. He lay down on the naked ground, and rolling to face Sara, covered her with the unused portion of her blanket. Settling his mind, by watching her sleep, he too closed his eyes and drifted quickly into unconsciousness.

Sara waged a silent war within her mind that first night. Lying still, eyes closed she pretended to sleep. Wishing and praying that Seth would join her on the blanket, yet unsure if it was what she really wanted. She was torn. Once, several years ago, when she was barely a teenager, her mother died. Not knowing where else to go, Sara had stayed where her mom had lived, in the brothel. It was not the nicest place to live, and Sara had many times witnessed John, the owner’s, anger. But for a while John was different. After Sara’s mother was gone he had been very nice to Sara. Making sure she was fed and had clean clothes. That had lasted for some time until Sara had told him of her intentions to find the only relative that her mother had told her about. Sara had an aunt, in a town somewhere to the south, between Stone Haven and the capitol. This brought John once again to anger. He told her then of her mother’s debt to him, for living under his roof, eating his food. Her work, he explained to her, had not been enough to pay off her debt and so it fell to Sara to pay. Sara refused to work for John, if you could really even call it work. It just seemed wrong, seemed dirty. John assured her that she could not leave him, not while in his debt, and he also assured her that someday soon he would be putting her to “work”. This is what made Sara unsure of Seth. She did not know if he was being nice to her because he wanted something from her in return. Or perhaps he was giving her nice things to put her in his debt, though he had assured her she owed him nothing. She cared for Seth already. She knew she did, but was afraid to openly admit it, even to herself, for fear it was a trap. She couldn’t allow herself to be overwhelmed with him, she must make herself wait. Make herself watch him to be sure his intentions were good and that he truly cared for her like he had said. She hoped he shared the same feelings she had for him, though thought it unlikely. He was charming, strong, and even brave. She was a scared, worthless orphan. She didn’t deserve him, but she could hope that by some strange chance of fate that he would turn out to be exactly what she hoped, and would choose her over any other girl. Sara decided then that she couldn’t just wait and watch Seth, looking for some sort of sign. He had already proved he was willing to protect her, he had also proven that he was willing to take care of her, even sacrificing his own comfort to do so. Now she just needed to see how much he cared for her, or if he just wanted something else, something almost all men wanted, something she had yet to give to anyone. Coming to this conclusion, to test Seth, she smiled into the dark, still pretending to sleep. She heard Seth approach, heard him lay down, though not as close as she had secretly hoped. She then felt the blanket she laid upon being lifted and pulled over her to keep her warm. Keeping very still, keeping her eyes closed, she listened to Seth slowly drift off to sleep, all the while wondering what he would dream about. He had not taken her invitation to share the blanket, though now she wasn’t sure if this was a point for him or against him. She contemplated how she might test his feelings for her, and realized it would be very difficult. She too, slowly drifted off to sleep where her dreams would uncontrollably focus on Seth.

The next morning all four companions woke early. Seth had been the first to wake, and he waited patiently, watching Sara sleep, for the rest to wake as well. Garret was up next, and seeing that his brother was also awake, motioned for Seth to join him a slight distance away from the others. Seth rose and walked the short distance to where Garret waited, looking at him questioningly.

“So what’s the deal?” Garret asked.

“The deal with what?” Responded Seth unsure of what his twin wanted.

“Sara.” Garret stated. “Are you two a couple or what? Can I refer to her as my sister yet?” He added jokingly.

“I don’t really know bro.” Seth replied. “I mean, sure I like her, and I think she likes me, but until I’m absolutely sure, I really don’t know what to do or say.”

Garret nodded solemnly, his face bunching up in thought, and then he smiled.

“What is it?” Seth asked already expecting the worst from his brother.

“If you’re not sure how she feels, why don’t you go crawl into that blanket with her and make a man out of yourself.” Garret stated trying to contain a laugh.

“I don’t think that’s what she wants from me.” Seth replied, giving his brother a slug to the shoulder. “At least not yet in any case.” He quickly added winking to his twin.

They walked back to where Ashton and Sara slept, Garret was rubbing his shoulder, and Seth approached the sleeping girl. He knelt down beside her peaceful angelic face, and carefully pushed her hair back from her face with his fingertips. Kneeling closer, he whispered in her ear.

“Wake up beautiful.” Seth said the word as softly as he could manage, half hoping she wouldn’t hear him.

Sara did hear him however and her eyes opened slightly, peering up at him, she smiled. Seth stroked her cheek with the back of his hand, returning her smile.

“Am I still dreaming?” Sara asked him

Seth shook his head smiling still, realizing that if she thought she was still dreaming, then she had dreamed of him. He bent down, slowly, carefully, and pressed his lips against her forehead. Pulling back from the kiss he again whispered to her.

“I’m sorry, but you need to get up, we have a long day ahead of us.” Seth found himself lost in her deep amber eyes, and smiled again.

Sara nodded her understanding to him, and rolled to her back and sat up. She ran her fingers through her hair in an attempt to untangle it, and losing the battle, decided again to tie it behind her head with the strap. Seth simply watched her. She moved like liquid, always graceful, always precise. Sara moved as if to stand, and Seth held his hand out to her to assist her. She gladly took it, smiling at him in thanks. He lifted her gingerly from the ground, and watched her as she smoothed out her clothing. As Sara stretched her muscles, and sat again on the nearby root to put her boots on, Seth rolled up the blanket he had given her and returned it to his pack. Ashton was awake now as well, following a playful kick to his ribs from Garret. The four of them broke down their little camp, and sat to eat a quick breakfast before heading out. They decided to ration their food a bit, knowing the trip would take a little longer than originally anticipated. This came as a surprise to Sara, though she knew too well the reason behind the miscalculation. She vowed to herself that today she would keep up.

Gone now were the rocky hills surrounding Stone haven, replaced by gently rolling fields of tall weeds and wild flowers still struggling to bloom in the oncoming chill of fall. bees and other flying insects buzzed around the fields and from time to time a flock of birds would rise up from some undisclosed location in the distance just to float lazily on the wind a while before settling back down in the fields.

Sara did in fact do much better their second day of travel. She tried her best to keep pace with the boys, who only had to slow a little for her today. Also they only stopped a hand full of times to let her rest, each time she assured them she was ready to continue. About mid day, during one of their rest stops, Sara removed her boots and asked Ashton to heal the blisters that formed again on her feet. They were not nearly as bad this day as they had been the previous day. Her boots were finally starting to break in. The end of the day came quickly with all four of them talking and telling stories. Sara spoke the least, not having much to tell, and wanting to learn all she could about Seth. As the sun began to set, they foraged around for a good place to make camp. Sara was the first to notice a small stand of young trees a short way off the trail, and pointing it out, the group changed direction angling towards the trees. It was a small stand of birches, in a rough circle with a decent opening at their heart. In the opening, at the very center there lay a ring of stones encompassing a pile of charred wood and ash, marking this as a place someone else had made camp recently. The rest of the night went much the same as the last, with Seth declining Sara’s silent invitation and instead covering her with the remainder of the blanket.

This night the air was much colder, and Seth found himself waking at regular intervals to stretch his cold muscles, and calm his chattering teeth. Each time he woke, Seth checked on Sara, being sure that she slept peacefully, and often he carefully pulled the blanket tighter around her shoulders, tucking it around her small body to be sure she stayed warm. Each time he awoke, after checking on Sara he quickly lie back down to try and salvage what was left of the night.

Seth was again the first to wake as the sky began to lighten. He looked around, verifying everyone was still sleeping restfully, and rolled to check again on Sara. He liked watching her sleep. She was so peaceful, so beautiful. But he decided this morning to wake her, not wanting to disturb her rest, but hoping that they could perhaps share a few moments together, alone, without the eyes of the others upon them. Like the morning before, he knelt down beside her and whispered in her ear.

“Wake up angel.” So soft, so quietly he said the words, watching her face.

Again as before her eyes came slowly open, and registering his face she again smiled at him. Like the morning before Seth leaned down to kiss her forehead. Sara shifted her body, tilting her head back. She saw Seth leaning nearer to kiss her head, his eyes closed, and quickly replaced it with her mouth. His lips found hers, and she kissed him back softly. Their kiss lasted only a moment, and Seth’s eyes had opened in surprise. He had not expected this change, though he wanted it. Leaning again close to her, he brushed his lips against hers once more and pulled back slowly reveling in the feeling it sent through him. He lightly stroked her cheek with the back of his fingers as he had the day before, and Sara seemed to snuggle against his hand, pushing her face more firmly against it.

Sara enjoyed the kisses, more so than anything she had ever enjoyed before in her life. The sensation sent tingles down her spine, and made her breathing come in short gasps. She pressed her face into his hand when he presented the opportunity, and his hand was like ice. This was why he had awoken so early, because he was freezing. She could not believe he would suffer like this, knowing that he could simply share a blanket with her. But she also knew he would not lay with her under the blanket, not yet he had said. He still waited for something, something from her. She wished to give it to him whatever it was if it would end his suffering. But she knew not what he wanted. Sara hastily made a plan. She rose from her blanket and motioned for Seth to join her across the small clearing. He began to cautiously walk across the short distance, careful not to step on anything that might make a noise. Sara reached down, snatching up the blanket and followed him. They walked together to the edge of the trees, and Seth turned to see what it was that she intended. Sara quickly asked Seth to sit, and he did eager to make her happy. He plopped down on the ground, his knees in the air, and his back against one of the small trees that made the grove. Sara ran her fingers through his hair and pulled his head close to her, as if to hug him there against her waist. Holding his head to her with one hand, she draped the blanket across his shoulders with the other. She released him then, and realizing her ploy Seth looked at her accusingly. She smiled, her angelic smile at him then, smoothing the troubled lines of his face. Seth spread the blanket wide across his arms behind him, inviting her to sit beside him. Sara, watching Seth’s face for any looks of disapproval ignored the empty space beside him, and instead climbed carefully into his lap, curling up like a child; she wrapped her arms around his neck and pressed her entire body against his chest. Seth was caught off guard. First a kiss and now she was curled up in his lap. He hurriedly wrapped his arms, and the blanket around her pulling her close, feeling her warmth. She just sat there, in his lap, her face nuzzled up against his neck, her head resting on his shoulder. He hugged her tightly to him, and she responded by kissing his neck lightly. Seth sat there for what seemed like a long time, feeling her small body pressed against his, listening to her breathing. Finally warm, and more relaxed and comfortable than Seth could ever remember feeling, he fell asleep. Seth had not meant to fall asleep, he wanted to relish in that moment forever if he could, but his body, overwhelmed and exhausted, finally relaxed, had other plans.

Sara, curled in a ball, like a child, laid comfortably in Seth’s large arms. His body was so comfortable around her; it was as if she was meant to be here. It made her feel like she was made to fit in his arms. She could feel Seth’s body finally warming to a reasonable level. She heard his breathing slow, and she felt his chest beneath her moving in a steady rhythm. Knowing Seth had fallen asleep with her in his arms, she too closed her eyes, and drifted into darkness, hoping to never leave his arms again.

Sara awoke some time later. She did not know how long she had slept, but noted the sky was fairly bright now. She listened to Seth’s breathing a moment, and found to her delight that he still slept. She heard a rustling sound and slowly, carefully turned her head to see where the sound had come from. Garret and Ashton stood a short distance away, staring at the unexpected sight of Sara in Seth’s arms. Realizing they had been caught staring, Ashton’s face flushed and he quickly turned and walked away. Garret on the other hand raised his hand to his mouth to stifle a laugh and shook his head jokingly at Sara. She glared at him menacingly letting him know in no uncertain terms that if he woke his brother he was in trouble. Garret’s smile disappeared, and he nodded in understanding and with a wink to her, he turned and strode across the small clearing to pack up his things. Sara watched the two boys to make sure they would not disturb Seth, and feeling confident that they would not, she turned her head back to his shoulder, and pressed her face into his neck. There she lay, curled against his chest, when he eventually awoke.

Seth woke, shifting his weight slightly to relieve his muscles, found Sara still curled up in his arms. He pulled her tightly against him, hugging her body to his. As he relaxed his grip on her, her small beautiful face slid into his view and she stretched her body up bringing them eye to eye. Seth watched as Sara smiled at him, and he was ready for her this time as she leaned in to kiss him. Sliding his arm from behind her small body, he cupped the back of her head lightly with one large hand. Feeling their lips press together, Seth lost control of the situation. He kissed her for long seconds. He had kissed her passionately, more passionately than he had originally intended. He hoped he hadn’t frightened her, and as he relaxed to withdraw himself from her, he had his answer. Instead of letting him escape the kiss, she turned in his lap and used her body to follow his retreat, kissing him harder and more passionately. She continued to kiss him until neither of them could breathe. Sara, feeling light headed, finally relented, dizzy as she was, she smiled at him with the most beautiful smile he had ever seen. She opened her mouth slightly then as if to speak and Seth watched and listened, waiting intently for the words he had been waiting for. The words did not come. Instead Sara sighed and once again laid herself against him. Seth turned his head, and kissed her cheek. Adjusting his body, careful to keep Sara comfortably in his arms, Seth scooped her up and stood with her body curled against his chest, and strode across the clearing carrying her.

Seth, reaching the spot where they had slept the night before, laid out the blanket as best he could, and gently placed Sara upon it. Sara noticed the looks that Garret and Ashton had on their faces, and her cheeks blushed a bright red before she could hide her face. Seth picked up her boots, pack and crossbow and brought them to her, setting them at her side. Sara then noticed that Garret and Ashton already wore their packs, eager to get back on the trail. She hurriedly laced up her boots, hefted her pack into place, and hung her crossbow over her shoulder. When she had finished, Seth picked up the blanket and hastily shoved it into his pack, and grabbing Sara’s hand, turned to his brother with a crooked grin, and the four of them began walking.

The day went by swiftly, without interruption. They talked of the Choosing again, this time Seth not mentioning what his hopes had been for the ceremony. Often they walked in silence, Both Seth and Sara reliving the morning’s events in their heads. Ashton again related what he knew of the different god’s to Sara who had asked about them, and it turned out she was already better informed about many of them than the twins had been. Sara had told them that she hadn’t thought about The Choosing ceremony much, as it was relatively out of her hands. She just hoped now that it would not keep her away from her Seth. Seth was thinking much the same. Garret and Seth talked for a while taking turns relating to Sara details about their previous years living in Vineleaf. These stories she took particular interest too and asked many questions, committing their answers to memory. Sara walked, her hand in Seth’s, staring at the ground at her feet trying to commit yet another detail of Seth’s life to memory when she noticed a strange print on the trail. It was unlike any other she had seen since leaving Stone Haven, and it spiked her curiosity enough that she found herself looking for another like it as they continued to walk. The day passed quickly, comfortably, as they walked. Sara’s feet barely blistered, and she was able to keep pace with the boys most of the time. She had spotted the odd track in the dirt, a couple of times as they had walked, and each time it appeared to be in the direction of crossing the wide path they followed, not following it as most did. She assumed that it was just a large animal that had left the track, but curiously decided to keep her eyes open for more. They had only stopped to eat once this day, trying to conserve their food, and Sara found that she was hungry, and hoped they planned to eat when the stopped to make camp.

The sun had begun to set, the sky slowly turning orange, then crimson. The wind had picked up over the last couple of hours, and the temperature had dropped substantially. They continued to walk, hoping to find some sort of shelter before all the light was gone from the sky. The plains here offered very little in the terms of protection. The rare stand of trees like the one they had found the night before was becoming more and more scarce. Instead all that seemed to survive in this area of the plains was dense underbrush, rocks, and very rarely a short twisted sickly looking tree. From horizon to horizon the four companions could see nothing but a vast field of yellow and gray. It was a dismal place in the fading light of late evening. One moment they were walking along the wide trail, and the next moment Garret had stopped, as if frozen in his tracks.

Garret stood on the trail, his companions all looking at him, and he peered, squinting his eyes to the east trying to see something clearer, that the fading light was hiding from him. He told his companions to wait where they were, and he headed off the trail wading through the ocean of waist deep brush. Seth, Ashton, and Sara watched him go. Garret had walked several hundred yards off the trail, and came to stand at a large outcropping of stone. It looked unnatural here, one huge stone lying diagonally across another, creating a large cave like opening beneath the large stone slab. The opening wasn’t tall, barely high enough to sit in, but it was wide enough for the four of them to lie in comfortably. Garret eyed the hole, looking for signs of any animal that might inhabit it. Not seeing any, he called back to his companions, telling them to join him. It did not take long for them to reach him as he had already plowed them a path. They decided it was unsafe to start a fire here, despite the cold. There was too much brush around to try and contain a fire with the wind blowing harder and harder as the night progressed. They quickly made camp, and ate a quick meal of dried meat and cheese, if it could be called that, and sat for a while talking. The sun disappeared beyond the horizon and shortly thereafter so too did any trace of light. Clouds had blown in throughout the day, and they now obscured any sign of the moons or stars. The small group stumbled over one another and struggled to lay out their blankets in the darkness. Seth dug the blanket out of his pack with one hand, keeping the other entwined within Sara’s. Instead of spreading it out for her as was his custom, he dragged her through the darkness to the huge stone that their roof rested upon. The ceiling was the highest here and would be the most comfortable. Releasing Sara’s hand for a moment, Seth pulled the blanket behind him across his shoulders, and sat down, his back against the stone. He reached out to her, searching the darkness with his fingers. He brushed against her arm and followed it down to grasp her hand. Seth gently pulled at her hand leading her to him. The ceiling was so low even Sara had to crouch to maneuver around safely, she tried to see Seth through the darkness, but ended up tripping over his foot and fell right into his waiting lap. Seth successfully stifled a laugh, hoping she hadn’t hurt herself in the fall. He had no way to check her for injuries in the darkness unsure of where his hands may lay upon her body. Sara sat stunned for a moment in Seth’s lap. Realizing where she was, she also realized Seth’s intentions. He wanted to hold her again in his arms as they slept. She was giddy at the thought, and turned her body to face him in the darkness. She reached up, placing a hand on either side of his face and kissed him, trying to convey her happiness at his decision. She let their lips linger for a few moments, and then settled into his arms, her head on his shoulder, her face to his neck just as before.

“Thank you.” Sara whispered into the darkness.

“No angel, thank you.” Came the whispered response followed by a kiss to the top of her head.

Seth pulled the beautiful creature in his lap tight to his chest, hugging her close, hoping beyond hope that she felt the same about him as he did her. He held her tightly for a long time, longer than he probably should, he was probably making Sara uncomfortable. Finally, unwillingly, Seth relaxed his hold on the small woman, sighing in reluctance as he did.

“No.” Sara whispered. Her voice the sound of heavenly music. “You can hold me tighter, I like it.”

Seth didn’t allow her to say another word. Again he pulled her body into his, and locking his arms around her, he whispered into her hair.

“I’ll never let you go, not unless you ask me to.” This promise Seth made to her with every fiber of his being, knowing he would fight with everything he had to keep her forever.

Sara heard his words, not so much with her ears as she did with her soul. Her eyes filled with tears, and she let them slide down her face quietly lost in the darkness. She believed Seth’s words to be true, and more importantly, she knew he cared as much for her as she did for him. She didn’t feel worthy of him though, she had been raised, at least these last several years, believing she was worthless, less than worthless actually as her worth was in debt to a hateful, abusive man. She did not want to burden Seth with care for her, a person who was not whole, a person who was broken. It seemed unfair of her, to let him feel this way knowing she would never be worthy of him, feeling unable to make him happy. Yet for some reason Seth continued to have feelings for her. Maybe he did not realize she wasn’t worthy of him. Or perhaps he pitied her. Maybe, Sara allowed herself to hope, maybe he knows I’m broken and he doesn’t care. Whatever the reason for Seth’s misguided feelings, Sara was overwhelmingly happy that those feelings were for her. She would do whatever she was capable of to make Seth happy, make his feelings for her never change.

Sara thought of Seth for a long time. She cared for him more than anything in the world, yet she did not understand something about him. She wanted nothing more than to just lay upon the blanket with him holding her in his arms. Yet for some unknown reason Seth seemed dead set against it. He was willing now to cradle her body in his arms, holding their bodies so close together she could feel his heartbeat, but he would not lay down with her. It was utterly confusing. She realized that he was waiting for something, he had said as much, but she had no idea what it was that she must do to make her wish come true. She ran image after image through her mind, conjuring out of thin air a hundred scenarios that would bring her one wish into being. After a while her mind grew too tired to contemplate the question further, and she found herself listening to the rhythmic beating of Seth’s heart in the darkness. It did not take long, the constant rhythm, like a lullaby put her inevitably to sleep.

Seth sat, his eyes closed, listening to the darkness. He could hear Sara’s breathing, she was still awake. Whether she was thinking or daydreaming he had no way of telling, but he wished he knew what was going on behind her beautiful face. What he did know, however, was that she was happy here in his arms. More than that, she wanted him to hold her tightly against his body. She was comfortable with him, something Seth was afraid she may never be. He had surmised much of her past by reading between the lines of the stories she had told about her life. She never shared many details, and he assumed it was because they were too painful for her to tell. It was obvious that John had abused her, both emotionally and physically. This fact had led Seth to fear that Sara might never trust anyone enough to get close. Yet she seemed to almost go out of her way to be near him, to touch him. He knew now more than ever that she had feelings for him, trusted him even. She wanted more from him and he knew it, and he was more than willing to give her anything she might want. Just as soon he was sure that her feelings were true. He didn’t want her to rush into something that might leave her hurt. The worst part was he didn’t even know what he should protect her from, not knowing exactly how she may have been hurt in the past. The only decision he was able to consciously make was to wait, as long as it took, until she was sure of her feelings for him, and was able to tell him as much. Seth thought all this over, listening always to Sara’s breathing. Her breathing had slowed, becoming shallower, and he noted that she had fallen asleep. Now that she was safely asleep, comfortable in his arms, he rested his head against the stone that supported his body, and closing his eyes, went quickly to sleep.

Garret lay awake for a long time finding it hard to get comfortable on the stone floor. He had heard whispers from somewhere within their nature made shelter, and knew that it was Seth and Sara. He envied Seth a bit for his finding of such a beautiful woman. They seemed to fit well together. She was always looking at his brother with love in her eyes, and for this Garret was happy. He too knew his brother cared for Sara. He could see it in the way his brother walked with her and talked to her. Seth adored the girl, and who could blame him. She was gorgeous. The fact that the two of them seemed so happy with each other was the reason Garret was happy for them, and at the same time extremely worried about them. He had been trying his best to conceal his concern when they spoke. Thus far he had been able to leave his brother and Sara in the dark about it. Now he wondered if he should mention it to them. Garret knew that a small part of him was jealous of Sara, it was only natural. Seth was his twin, and they had always been the ones to look out for one another, always been as close as two people could be. Sara had changed that to a degree, and Garret had noticed. He was not angry though, he knew that one day it would happen, he just didn’t expect it so soon. But all that was of little importance, what really mattered now is Seth and Sara. He assumed that they had not yet really thought about where they were going. In just over a week, they would be attending The Choosing ceremony, where more than likely they would be chosen to play two different roles, in two different places. It was possible that they would be picked for the same thing but unlikely. Garret was torn about what he should do. He could warn them, remind them really, of the impending possibility. This he feared might end their romance bringing them both to resent him. At the same time however it could make them that much more passionate about each other, allowing their bond to strengthen to the point that it might last even if they were separated. Garret still had the option though of simply keeping his mouth shut, delaying the realization that was sure to hit them in the very near days to come. This option, he did not think, would destroy Seth and Sara’s relationship, but it might lead them to do something foolish without enough time to prepare themselves for a possible separation. Then again Garret thought, maybe they have already discussed it and decided it wasn’t important enough to dwell upon just yet. Garret hated being unsure, he could usually make difficult decisions quickly. Usually though, those decisions did not affect his brother’s happiness and so effect his relationship with his twin. Garret pondered the impossible dilemma until his brain could literally take no more. One minute he was conscious, the next he was out like a snuffed candle.

Ashton laid awake mere moments after he got himself comfortable. His conscious so clear it would make an angel feel guilty. He closed his eyes, not a worry in the world, and fell fast asleep snoring lightly.

Seth awoke abruptly, feeling something was wrong he scanned the small stone room around him in the dim light from the sun still beyond the horizon. He sought out his brother in the darkness and was surprised to see his brother too looked in his direction. They both remained still, unwilling to move, listening into the darkness. A small thud sounded from the back of the small cavern, where the ceiling was lowest and shadows the deepest. Seth slowly turned his head towards the noise not wanting to bring attention to himself with sudden movements. Garret had heard the sound too, but from his position on the floor had no way to look behind him towards the noise, and so remained intent upon his twin awaiting a response or command.

Seth peered into the darkness unable to see anything, yet knowing just beyond his vision, something lurked in the shadows. Something moved then, appearing as just another shadow in the darkness, Seth had not noticed it until it moved. Now that he could see the difference between the object and the shadows he was able to make out more details about it. Whatever it was, it was crouching in the darkness standing on two legs. That ruled out most animals. It was doing something as well but Seth could not tell what. The creature too had its back against the same stone Seth rested against, and so its gaze was not on him. Seth slowly freed his hands from around Sara, careful not to disturb her, praying she would not wake. He still wore his belt, but from this position, with Sara in his lap, he was unable to draw his sword, and unable to reach his dagger. He looked to Garret to see if his brother was still armed and noted at once that he was not. Remembering the previous night, Seth recalled both Ashton and his brother placing their items in the back of the cave where the creature now lurked. Seth peeled his eyes from his brother and again looked into the darkness until he could distinguish the creatures form once again. He located it, right where it had been, and now realized their predicament. The creature was rummaging through their packs, standing between them and his brother’s weapons. Seth looked around for something, anything he might use to distract the creature, long enough for his brother to regain his sword. Garret had suddenly realized what was going on. Garret Watched helplessly as his brother’s eyes darted around the cavern, first to him, then back to their gear, back to Garret, then everywhere. Realization came to Garret just as Seth found his solution. He hadn’t found anything to distract the creature in fact, he found something better. Propped beside him was Sara’s pack, leaning against it her small crossbow. This was perfect. The crossbow sat on the opposite side of him as the creature, so whatever it was it would not see him reach for the weapon so long as he moved slowly.

Seth’s eyes on the creature, he reached out his left hand slowly. Finding the crossbow with his fingers he traced it top to bottom and frowned. It was not drawn, nor was it loaded. This altered his plan extensively. He might be able to draw the small crossbow with one hand, maybe even without making enough noise to gain the creatures attention. But the short arrows for the crossbow were in the quiver, belted to Sara’s waist. First he needed his ammunition. With his left hand, the one the creature wouldn’t see, Seth slowly traced Sara’s body, feeling a little guilty as he did so. Sliding his hand over and around her waist he located the quiver. Another setback. He could reach the quiver with his left hand, but the opening was facing off to his right, just out of reach. He would have to get an arrow with his right hand. He now knew where they were, and he was certain could get one loaded in a fraction of a second if he could get the bow drawn. Still watching the creature, which remained oblivious, Seth again searched for the crossbow with his fingertips. Finding it he slowly, carefully lifted it away from the pack and away from the wall. Feeling it was far enough from anything to make any noise he flipped it over in his hand, turning it bow side up. Again he moved, just as before, painstakingly slow bringing the crossbow to once again rest against the stone that made the wall behind him. He gingerly released his grip on the weapon assuring himself it wouldn’t fall in his hand’s absence. It remained, unmoving. Maneuvering his shoulder and arm he was able to reach above the bow to the handle that was used to draw the cord. He gripped and pushed both down and back, one direction to keep it securely against the stone, the other to draw the cord. The awkward position he was in made it more difficult to draw then it usually would be and he strained in the effort. Slowly, gradually the cord neared the catch, and Seth, unable to watch what he was doing, realized he almost had it when he felt the handle come to a stop. He had reached the catch, just one more tiny push and the crossbow would be drawn. He pushed, and the catch caught, with a click. Seth closed his eyes and froze. He heard the creature turn. He knew it was looking at him, he could feel its gaze upon him. Seth waited afraid even to breathe. He listened intently to hear if the creature moved towards him. Worse than that, he heard something more familiar. The sound of steel on leather. The creature, it seemed, was armed. Seth at this point was not. Sara stirred slightly in his lap, and Seth wished she would be still, not bring attention to herself. Seth listened, and just as he feared, he heard the creature take a step. The creature again paused as if watching and listening. Another step. Seth had to act. He knew if he waited until the creature got any closer, he wouldn’t have a chance.

In one moment, in a flurry of movement Seth opened his eyes, nodded to his twin, grabbed the crossbow pulling it before him with one hand, and pulled an arrow out from beneath his blanket with the other. Looking to his hands he brought the bolt to the crossbow and seated it in place. Turning his head to find his target, he found it. It was too late.

The very second Seth began to move, the creature raced across the small cavern raising his thin wicked blade in front of him, turning the blade over in his hand. He Saw the man brandish a crossbow and lunged at the man with all his might. The creature knew it was a long shot. He would have to travel through the air an incredible distance to deal the man a death blow. Even so, he was already in the air, sailing forward, falling short. His attack would meet the man's leg or his lap if the creature was lucky. Maybe if he injured the man he would buy himself enough time to kill him then the other two men before they were aware of him. The creature thought all this while still in the air, in a fraction of a fraction of a second. He was falling now and thrust his blade out before him, blade down. He would not reach the man's head or chest, but he would be able to drive the blade into his gut.

Seth reacted the only way he could. The creatures lunge had propelled him and his blade not to him, but to Sara. Seth did not think, he had no time for thought, instead he reacted. Rolling his body around, and turning his back to the creature, Seth shielded Sara from danger. At that moment the creature collided with Seth’s back. Seth felt the blade rip through his ribs, driven deep into his chest from behind. The wind was knocked from his lungs, and light exploded before his eyes. He was helpless. The creature had regained his feet, and drew the blade from Seth’s back. Seth screamed in pain.

His scream was echoed in a roar from the back of the cave. Garret came racing, sword in hand, towards the creature. The creature spun and raised his blade to protect himself. Garret closed the distance quickly, and swung the huge blade at the creature. The creature deflected his blow easily, sending Garrets blade to smash heavily into the stone wall. Seth moaned in agony, rolling to his side. Garret regained control of his sword, just in time to see the creature lunge at him. Garret had no time to defend himself and so braced himself for the blow. Midway through the air the Creatures evil, tooth filled grimace was replaced with one of panic and its blow went wild missing Garret altogether. The creature hit the ground sprawling, the nub of a crossbow bolt sticking out between its ribs in its side. It tried to recover brandishing its wickedly curved blade preparing for another lunge but Garret had already moved in, his blade in motion. With every ounce of strength he could muster Garret brought his large blade to meet the creature in a sweeping motion. The beast managed to get its own blade in the path of the oncoming assault but such was the momentum behind the swing that Garrets blade simply clashed against the beasts own blade sending it flying and Garrets stroke made true to the beasts ribcage cutting clean trough the beasts side all the way to the spinal cord where it wedged between two vertebra. Its creature's eye’s rolled in their sockets, as it hit the ground nearly cleaved in two. Garret couldn’t believe his eyes. He looked up to see not Seth holding the crossbow, but Sara. She shook from head to toe, the weapon slipping from her fingers, and falling with a loud clang upon the hard ground. She dropped to her knees sobbing uncontrollably wrapping her arms around Seth, trying to push him onto his side, so that she could see his face. Ashton was there then, helping Sara roll Seth’s limp body. Garret stood frozen, not knowing what to do, what to feel. Ashton felt Seth’s neck first, and then placed his ear to Seth’s face, listening for his breathing. Assured of something he then climbed over Seth to assess his wound. Grimacing at the grievous wound upon his friend he dropped to his knees immediately as he had done before, and raising his face to the heavens he prayed. He prayed longer than usual and Garret found this annoying, how much time did he think he had? Ashton finished his prayers, and turned his gaze down to his fallen friend. He placed both hands over Seth’s wound and began chanting. Louder and louder, faster and faster the chant continued. First Ashton’s fingers exploded in light, then his hands, then his entire body. As Garret had seen him do before, Ashton began to tremble, this gradually worsened until he began to shake violently. Even through his violent spasms Ashton continued, controlling, bending, and twisting the god’s power to his will. Ashton continued long past when he knew he should stop, he continued wielding the power until it was all he could see, all he could feel. He continued even when he could no longer feel the power, he continued until he lost consciousness.

Ashton collapsed on top of Seth. Sara did not notice, she still cried uncontrolled, oblivious to what happened around her. Only Garret was there to bear witness, his entire body numb. He reached down, grabbing Ashton’s limp body by the shoulders, dragged him off of his brother, laying Ashton, on the ground a few feet away, on his back. Garret then knelt down beside his brother, looking at his blood drenched clothing. He reached down and peeled back his brother’s shirt. The wound remained, still bleeding. Ashton had failed. Knowing little about medicine, Garret removed his shirt and tied it around his brother’s torso tightly to stop the bleeding. Sara sat, Seth’s head in her lap, crying over his face. Tears rained on Garrets twin. Garret sat down on the floor between the unconscious form of his friend, and the dying form of his brother. He sat there, unmoving, showing no sign of emotion, no intention of ever regaining his feet. Garret was numb, lost in his subconscious.

Garret was in fact dimly aware of his surroundings. From his peripheral vision he could see Ashton lying to his left and Seth to his right. He could hear the continued sobs of anguish from the small girl just out of his sight, and he tried to ignore them. Ashton was alive, this much he knew. The healer had overexerted himself somehow and passed out. Seth on the other hand, was probably still bleeding, bleeding slowly to his death. Garret was helpless. He sat, unblinking, unmoving, barely breathing himself. He did not know how long he sat there, it seemed to him it must have been an eternity, but then, as if from nowhere, Sara’s wailing was interrupted by a cough. Garret raised his head, this new sound confusing him, and realized the girls relentless sobs had come to an abrupt stop.

Garret forced his mind to focus, and regaining control of his body turned to see if she too had passed out. Sara sat unmoving, turning blue, refusing to breathe. The cough came again and Garret seen Seth’s body jerk in unison with the sound. He stumbled to his feet, to better see his brother’s features, to be sure he hadn’t been mistaken. Sara still did not breathe. Garret looked to his brother’s face, cupped in the small hands of the girl. On Seth’s lips and on the girls hands lay small droplets of blood. Seth coughed again then, spraying more blood across Sara’s hands. She finally took a breath, but just one as she stared at the face in her hands. Again a cough, but this time Seth’s eyes moved beneath his eyelids. Garret and Sara now both watched him, un-breathing, waiting for another sign of life. It came suddenly, though it was not another cough as they had expected. Seth’s body jerked suddenly, violently. His appendages thrashed about for a moment, and then he was still again. Another cough followed this time spraying an entire mouth full of blood into the small woman’s hands. She sobbed again gasping for air, and then was silent once more. Seth moaned. It was an agonizing sound, a sound not of the living, and it sent shivers down Garret’s spine. The moan was followed swiftly by another round of coughs. This time, it was several in rapid succession. These coughs were more powerful, from somewhere deeper down.

Seth opened his eyes then, a panicked look on his face. He looked towards Sara and then away, his eyes unable to see, unable to focus. He tried to move, and found he couldn’t make his body cooperate. He was having trouble breathing and tried to clear his throat. All that escaped his lips was a gurgle. His vision again started to go dark, and he found himself fighting for air, it dawned on him then, he was drowning.

Garret heard the gurgle, and seeing the blue tint on his brother’s lips understood the situation. Dropping to his knees, Garret again pushed his brother onto his side, and careful to avoid his wound, he struck his brother several times between the shoulder blades with the palm of his hand. The gurgle came again, followed by another fluid sound. Seth vomited blood, spewing it everywhere, but as he did he gulped air. He was wracked by coughs again and again, but he was breathing. His vision began to clear, and feeling returned to his extremities. He lay on his side in a pool of his own blood when his eyes finally were able to focus enough to make out Sara. She sat in front of him, holding his head. Tears streamed down her face, a face that was twisted in pain, a face that was one of an angel. Seth looked into her eyes, and willing his lips to move, was able to whisper brokenly.

“Are you…” Seth was shook by another round of coughs before he could continue. “Are you ok?” This time he was able to complete his question before the coughing spasms overtook him.

Sara waited patiently for Seth’s coughing to subside, and waited still for his eyes to reopen. When they did she was smiling at him warily, stroking his hair away from his face. Seth knew not how close to death he had come. He knew only that he was afraid the blade of the evil creature had pierced completely through him and had injured Sara. He was afraid he had failed to protect her. Seeing her smile, knowing she was ok, Seth relaxed and let unconsciousness take him.

Chapter 5

Healing and Feelings

Sara used the last of her water to wash Seth’s face, and then her hands. She sat, as always, with Seth’s head on her lap, gently stroking his face with her fingertips. Seth remained unconscious, but his coughing had subsided, and his breathing came easier.

Garret had told her at one point earlier in the day the story of that morning. He told it from a third person’s point of view as only Seth knew all the details. He told her one thing however she knew immediately would be the same no matter who told it. Seth had used his body to protect her. He had used his body as a shield to keep the blade from her sleeping body. Seth had nearly lost his life trying to keep her from harm. The thought alone brought a storm of emotions to her heart. First and foremost she was filled with gratitude and love towards the man who now lay in her lap, but she was also angry. What kind of fool was he to nearly kill himself to protect her? What could possibly make him think that her life was more important than his own? But that aside, Garret had also thanked her for possibly saving his life. Sara barely remembered the events of the morning. It already felt like a lifetime ago, at the time she was barely awake enough to create any conscious memories of the events. All she could vaguely remember is Seth’s agonizing scream, the feel of the crossbow in her hands, and Ashton passing out.

Ashton was awake now. He had regained consciousness sometime early in the afternoon. He was barely able to move, he had weakened himself almost to the point of no return. Garret had dug through their belongings and forced Ashton to eat what few scraps of food they had left, hoping he would regain some strength.

Ashton recovered quickly after eating, and had told them that though he was unable to completely heal Seth’s wound, he had been able to repair his friends’ lung and heart before he had lost consciousness. He had regained enough strength at one point that he half crawled to Seth’s side, and praying to his Goddess, started a low chant, sealing what remained of Seth’s wound. Again he had drained himself, but he was still able to sit without any support, and so he did now.

Garret on the other hand was doing his best to keep himself busy. He had dragged the creature (which Ashton had identified as a goblin) out of their shelter, and claimed from its corpse a few coins and the twisted blade. It was a gruesome looking creature. It had dark green, muddy looking skin streaked with a stripe like patterns of black. It had no hair, not even on its arms. The goblin had an oblong head, split in two by a wide mouth filled with razor sharp teeth. Its eyes, now rolled back into their sockets, were an eerie yellow color. It resembled a human in the fact that it too walked on two legs, had two arms with hands, but that was where the similarities ended. Its appendages were unnaturally long and its torso incredibly small. It was a lanky gangly creature to say the least. After studying the creature, Garret searched around for one of the scraggly trees that grew here in the plains, and removing a large branch from one, sharpened one end with his dagger. He then thrust the other end deep into the earth. Hefting the Goblin’s body high, it was lighter than it looked. He thrust it down upon the sharpened end of the pole, impaling it up through the ribcage, all the way up to the skull, holding the corpse firmly erect. Garret went back into the cavern and went about sorting the groups’ belongings and loading them into the appropriate packs grumbling something about cleaning up the damn goblin’s mess.

It was growing late in the day, and Seth had yet to regain consciousness a second time. They had very little if any food left, Sara had no more water, and they still had at least one more day of travel to reach the nearest town. If that wasn’t enough, Ashton had told them it could be days before Seth regained consciousness. He had lost a tremendous amount of blood, and it would take his body time to replace it. Sara knew that no matter how long it took Seth to recuperate, she wasn’t leaving his side until he did.

The afternoon eventually turned into evening which was followed rapidly by nightfall. Seth had not moved a muscle in hours. Ashton on the other hand was again able to walk, and had laid out his bear hide bed and was resting on it now. Garret too had laid out his blanket and sat on it looking off into nothingness. Amazingly enough, Seth’s blanket had managed to avoid the majority of the bloodshed, and what little blood did stain it had dried during the day. Sara had taken the blanket, as the night turned cold, and placed it over Seth to keep him warm. Garret had stirred from his day dream when Sara had finally stood, and he sat watching her cover his twin.

“That’s gonna piss him off if he wakes up.” Garret stated smiling at Sara.

“What will?” She asked not understanding his humor.

“If Seth wakes up tonight, and your cold and shivering while he is covered with a blanket, he will be furious and you know it.” Garret stated finishing with a throaty laugh.

Sara smiled in response knowing all too well that his words spoke the truth. She hoped though that Seth would forgive her if he did wake. In any case she had decided to stay awake all night just in case he did wake up.

The sky turned black and cold, the previous night’s icy winds returning as well. Ashton hadn’t sat up since lying down in the first place so it was obvious he slept, hopefully regaining some strength. Garret too was sleeping, he had laid down saying he needed to rest his eyes, but had started snoring shortly thereafter. Sara was not worried about intruders. Garret had assured her that his little goblin on a stick decoration outside their shelter should keep anything with half a brain away. She sat quietly in the dark, Seth’s head in her lap, listening to his breathing. She shivered from time to time from the cold, but other than that she was comfortable, leaning up against the stone wall. She watched and listened for hours, trying with all her might to fight falling asleep. It was a losing battle, and eventually she was bested, and sleep took her.

Seth dreamed a dark dream of a beast with razor teeth and a twisted blade. In his dream he was unable to move, so the beast made a game of skewing his ribs over and over again with the blade. There was no escape, and though the torment was excruciating he could not help but be gratified that neither his brother nor Sara was being hurt and his friend Ashton must have gotten away also. The dream seemed to continue for an eternity, thousands of times Seth felt the blade slice through his flesh glancing off of his ribs and cutting deeply into his organs. Eventually, as if the torture wasn't enough, Seth found himself unable to breathe, thus he started to cough. Coughing it seemed would be the release from his torturous nightmare, for as soon as he began coughing, the dream faded, and opening his eyes he was able to see both Sara and Garret. He tried to speak several times but barely managed any words. Before he lost consciousness again however he had seen Sara smile, and he knew everything would be alright.

After losing consciousness the second time Seth found his condition puzzling, for outwardly he could not seem to wake, though he was perfectly capable of conscious thought. He didn't dream so instead he spent the hours thinking about the past few days. He had learned that his family wasn't his family after all at least not by birth. Then if that wasn't enough he and Garret had to leave their home and their father and friends behind, but had made a new friend of Ashton. Whose friendship has already become invaluable. So the three of them had made their way to Stone Haven where they had met Sara. Seth knew he was already madly and irrevocably in love with Sara, and he hoped that his growing relationship with her wouldn't hurt his relationship with his brother, and up to this point Garret seemed very supportive of them both. So Seth thought over and over, I am not who I thought I was just days ago, though James is still my father in my heart, and Garret my brother, I am unsure who exactly I am. I have lost my father now, but gained both Sara and Ashton, but in the days to come I will probably lose them all at the choosing. What am I to do, Seth thought, when the world takes everyone away from me? With that final thought Seth awoke.

Sara woke with a start realizing she had fallen asleep when she had meant to stay awake. She must have gotten cold while sleeping, as she was now curled up in a ball, lying on her side. She reached down to push herself to a sitting position, and big arms wrapped around her, steadying her. She realized immediately her mistake. She wasn’t lying on the ground at all. She spun around in Seth’s lap and wrapped her arms around his neck crying. Seth pulled his arms around her, holding her as tight as he was able and kissed her forehead.

Seth had woken up during the night, weak, but considering the day’s events he felt quite well. He found himself lying on the ground, his head cradled in Sara’s lap. She had been shivering uncontrollably, and Seth was a bit upset to find their blanket wrapped around him. Using what little strength he had, he managed to pull himself into a seated position, and inched his way to the wall, pressing his back against it, dragging the blanket with him. He then sat for a few moments beside Sara, regaining his strength before he carefully pulled her into his lap. He hadn’t been able to lift her, so he left her lying in a ball on his legs, and covered her with the blanket. Her shivering had subsided, and she slept for a couple of hours peacefully. As it turned out it was Seth who was the one to stay awake until she regained consciousness.

Sara let her tears of joy fall unchecked onto Seth’s shoulder.

She hugged him tightly around the neck, completely overcome with happiness. Seth just hugged her in his arms and whispered.

“I told you I would never let you go.”

Sara nodded into his shoulder unwilling to release him even for a second. She did not deserve him she knew. He was hers none the less, and she would spend her life trying her best to live up to his expectations. She now owed him her freedom, her now mending heart, her soul, and after yesterday’s events, her life as well. She relaxed her hold on his neck, unwilling to completely release him, and moved her face to his and kissed him more passionately than ever before. Her entire body trembled with the passion of her kiss, and she didn’t stop kissing him until the trembling ceased. She pulled away from his face slowly, and Seth gasped for air. Sara giggled a little and kissed him again quickly just because she could. Wanting nothing more than to spend the rest of the night kissing him, she knew that he needed rest to heal and so she tightened her hug around his neck once again and whispered in his ear.

“You need to get some sleep.”

Seth’s head shook in response, and he replied.

“No angel, I’ve slept all day. I’m not even the least bit tired.”

Sara nodded, and with a kiss to his neck slid comfortably into his lap, and turned her body to face him. They could not see each other through the darkness, but that did not keep them from peering into each other’s eyes.

“I’m glad your back.” Sara whispered into the darkness.

“Did I go somewhere?” Seth answered sarcastically.

“Yeah, you went to the one place I couldn’t go to be with you.” Sara stated a tone of defeat in her voice.

“I’m sorry.” Seth replied to her earnestly. “I promise I will try to never do it again.” He added.

They sat for hours, against the wall, Sara in Seth’s lap, wrapped warmly in his arms. She slept on and off, waking several times suddenly to look up at him, as if assuring herself that he was indeed ok, then she would go back to sleep.

Though his body did need rest, Seth could not sleep. He sat holding Sara’s body to his until the sun rose outside, and he held her still when she woke long after sunrise. The previous day must have been very trying for everyone, because even after Sara had awoke again, Garret and Ashton still remained asleep. Seth was happy they slept, as it gave him more time alone with his angel.

As Sara woke for the last time that morning, she smiled knowing, even before her eyes opened, that he was looking at her, watching her sleep. It seemed to her that this was becoming a common occurrence. She liked it. She liked waking in his embrace. The first sight she would see of the new day would be his smile. The first voice she would hear was his voice. It was her own personal heaven.

Seth watched Sara stir, watched her beautiful smile spread across her delicate face. He looked at her waiting patiently for her to open her eyes. He didn’t wait long, and he greeted her with a smile. Her Golden amber eyes shone at him like two little suns, they lit a fire in his soul every time he looked into them. The feeling was like a drug, and he was terribly addicted. They sat silently looking into one another’s eyes until Garret awoke.

Garret stirred, stretching, then yawning, opened his eyes. He had been sleeping on his side, facing towards Seth and Sara when his eyes opened. They nearly popped out of his head. Not only was his brother awake, he was sitting up, Sara in his lap, as if nothing had ever happened. Garret jumped to his feet, and would have ran up to them if the low ceiling had permitted.

“Lookin’ good.” Garret stated then a bit more cautiously asked. “How do you feel?”

“Better than you might anticipate bro, but I’m still weak as hell.” Seth answered with a crooked grin on his face.

“I’ll take weak over dead any day.” Garret responded laughing loudly.

Ashton woke to Garret’s laughing and turned to see the occasion. He couldn’t believe his eyes. He had not dreamed, hoped, nor did he even pray that Seth would recover this fast. He too hopped out of his makeshift bed and came to listen to the twins’ conversation.

“Well…” Garret started to speak again. “As it turns out we are out of food, but I think I can remedy that, that is if Sara will loan me her crossbow and a few bolts for it.”

Sara nodded in response and reaching down, she unclasped her belt and pulled it around her body freeing it. She handed it to Garret and told him to have fun. Ashton, wanting to help said he would go gather some herbs, or whatever wild vegetables he might find. Both Garret and Ashton left the small dwelling quickly, eager to see if food would rouse Seth’s body.

Again Seth was alone with Sara, his Sara. He held her still, and resumed satiating his addiction. He traced her every feature with his eyes. Starting at the top of her head he tried to memorize every strand of her midnight hair. Her face he dwelt on for many moments, taking in her soul penetrating amber eyes, high cheek bones, and her plump, firm lips. He next admired her slender, petite neck, a place he had never kissed her, though knew he would not resist it much longer. Seth continued to study the small form in his arms meticulously. He had nearly lost her, or rather sacrificed himself to save her, and so also sacrificing a future with her. He found it odd just then. There it was, right there in his mind, the inevitable word, Sacrifice. Seth had heard and thought the word entirely too much as of late, and he quickly tried to put it out of his mind. Refocusing his thoughts, he returned his gaze to Sara’s entrancing, depthless eyes.

Sara smiled at Seth, not knowing why he stared at her. She sat up in his arms, and pressing her lips gently to his, crawled out of his embrace. Seth stared at her with a confused look on his face. She recognized the look and tried to reassure him with a wink. She turned and walked across the open room accentuating the natural swing of her hips to be sure she kept his attention. When she reached an area she could stand comfortably, she turned around, and with one raised finger she signaled for him to join her. He half crawled, half walked to where she was, careful not to bang his head on the rock above him. Sara then asked him to lie on his stomach, and he did without complaint. Sara knelt beside him, and pulled up his shirt to inspect his back. Nothing but a hair thin scar remained where a gaping hole had once been. She traced it lightly with her fingertip asking Seth if it hurt. He shook his head in reply. Sara then asked him if he would like a treat. Not knowing what she was talking about, Seth began to roll over to try and determine her intentions, but before he could shift his weary body she was on top of him, pinning him face down, to the floor. She straddled his body with her legs, and slid her hands up the back of his shirt. She began to massage the muscles in his shoulders, and slowly worked her way down his back, all the while pressing parts of her body into him that made blood rise to his face. It was a good thing his face was buried in the floor. Sara kneaded the muscles in his back from top to bottom time and again until she felt that they were all relaxed. When Seth was completely relaxed and unwilling to move now that he felt so good, she pushed his shirt up his torso all the way to his shoulders. She then pressed her warm lips to his back. Over and over she kissed him hovering so closely he could feel her breath. She kissed him all over leaving no bare flesh untouched. When she kissed the new scar on his back she let her lips linger, this scar was because of her. The wound had nearly taken him away from her, and though she had only known Seth a short time, she could not picture her life without him. If only she could find some way to tell him how she felt. Finished with his back, Sara pulled his shirt back down, and crawled up his body still straddling him. She laid her body, pressing it firmly, against his. It lasted for only a moment fore she knew well his rule about lying together. She kissed his cheek, and not wanting to push her luck, she sat up. Reluctantly she got off of Seth, and asked him to just lay there and relax. Not waiting for a reply she rounded his body, sat near his head, and absently ran her fingers through his short brown hair over and over.

Garret had only left their shelter a few moments before. He had fought, once again, through the thick brush to the wide path they had traveled two days before. Here he hoped to find an intersecting game trail he could follow to hunt up some food. Reaching the trail, Garret turned left, the direction they would soon be traveling, and walked examining the ground. He had taken only a few steps when he heard a snort. Jerking his head up he stared down the trail ahead of him where three men on horseback stood. Garret froze, he could not make out much detail at this distance, but even from where he stood he could see the gleam of their armor, and their weapons glinting in the sunlight. The men must have noticed him at the same time, and kicking their horses’ flanks, the beasts exploded forward at a neck breaking speed. Garret was frozen. He did not know whether these men were friend or foe, but was afraid that if he ran, and they were not friendly, he might mistakenly lead them to the others. The horses and their riders approached him without slowing. The armored men reigned in their steeds only inches before trampling Garret, who was frozen in terror. One rider remained directly in front of him, his mount’s hot breath exploding in great bursts into Garret’s face. The other two riders urged their mounts to either side and behind him, leaving him no room to flee.

Ashton was kneeling in the dirt, expertly removing some wild onions from the soil when he heard the thunderous pounding of hoof beats coming down the trail. Leaving the onions on the ground, he crept through the brush to see who had approached, and why they had stopped. Reaching the edge of the trail he could see Garret surrounded by three heavily armored, heavily armed men. Each of the men sat upon an enormous white steed. It was a breed Ashton did not recognize. From this distance he could not hear what transpired, but he gathered from the men’s postures that they were not to be taken lightly. He watched the three armored men dismount their steeds, their highly polished armor all the while shining in the sunlight. Then Garret was off into the brush, and the men followed directly behind him. Ashton, unsure of what was happening raced through the brush, sure he could beat them to the shelter where Sara and Seth remained, unaware of the coming danger. Racing to the clearing Ashton paused to be sure Garret and the men had not yet arrived. Assuring himself they had not, he raced into the stone shelter not stopping until his eyes found his companions in the dimly lit space. Sara sat at Seth’s side near his face, and as Ashton approached, she raised a finger to her lips telling him to be quiet, telling him Seth was asleep.

“Wake him.” Ashton responded to her unspoken command.

“Whatever for?” Sara demanded in a hushed tone. “He needs his rest.”

“Yes but we may be in danger.” Ashton responded, turning Sara’s face grim.

“Again?” She asked

“Yes, three men met Garret on the road, they follow him now, and they follow him here. They are all armed.” Ashton related as much as he could, without being long winded.

That was enough information for Sara. She asked nothing further. Instead she leaned her face to Seth’s ear and whispered.

“Seth darling, I need you to wake up.”

Seth’s eyes popped open immediately scanning the room. He had perceived in Sara’s words a tone of fear, one she had not intended. No danger located he looked then to Sara.

“Men are coming, with weapons, they found your brother hunting, and he leads them here.” Sara spoke quickly not knowing how much time they had if any.

Seth nodded, and rolling to his knees, warily rose to his feet. Though knowing he was too weak to fight, he drew his sword, then reached to his belt and brought forth his dagger as well. Motioning for Ashton to follow, he handed the dagger to Sara, and led them towards the opening of their small cavern. As they neared the entrance Seth could hear voices and motioned the others back. Seth paused a moment to listen. Men were talking and there was the sound of a sword being drawn. Next the sound of bones breaking, followed by a hollow thud, the sound a body might make when it hit the ground. He listened a moment longer, his heart filled with sorrow, his brother was probably dead. Unable to dwell on what might be happening outside their hiding spot, Seth listened for a moment longer. Straining his ears, he could hear someone approaching the entrance. He turned and this time led Sara and Ashton to the farthest corner in the back of the cavern, where the shadows were darkest. If they could surprise the men who had followed his brother, they might stand a chance. Seth, knowing this may be his last chance to do so, looked at his Sara. She did not notice his gaze. Instead she watched the entrance, unblinking, shaking, fear in her eyes. How it pained him to see her this way, yet she had every right to fear. He would be unable to protect her in his weakened condition, and Ashton was not even armed. Her dagger would not be enough to protect her, and after the men disposed of him and Ashton who knows what they might do to her.

This in mind, Seth quickly formulated a plan, he was too weak to fight, but he was sure he had enough energy to put up a good show. He could rush the men as they neared the entrance, hopefully startling them, giving Sara and Ashton a chance to escape, and make a run for it. If he could live long enough to give them at least a few moments head start, they might be able to lose the men in the thick ocean of brush that went on for miles in every direction. Seth knew he would die, but he would gladly sacrifice his life if Sara would live. He turned to tell his plan to Ashton, seeing Sara’s look of fear mirrored on his friends face, and suddenly froze before he could speak.

A footstep sounded in the cavern, echoing across the stone. Seth dropped to a kneeling position, preparing to lunge if the opportunity presented itself. Another step, then another and another echoed through the open cavern. The steps came in fast succession, but Seth noted that it was only one person who came into their small ambush. He waited tensely, watching, hoping he could catch this enemy off guard. The approaching footsteps slowed and then a large shadowy figure emerged into the dark room, something large in its hands.

Garret remained frozen in place, as the horses and their riders surrounded him.

“Young man.” The rider in front of him said in an even tone, eyeing first Garrets face, and then sliding his gaze to land sternly on Garret’s hands.

Without realizing what he was doing, Garret too looked down at his hands. He realized then that he had forgotten momentarily that he was carrying Sara’s crossbow, drawn and loaded. He had it pointed instinctively forward, towards the rider in front of him. He lowered it quickly, not wanting to provoke the men, if they would even need provoking.

Seeing the weapon lower, the first rider, presumably their leader, continued to speak.

“Who are you and what is your purpose on this road?” It was a demanding tone, but not quite menacing.

“My name is Garret Derringer, and I was hunting.” Garret tried to control his voice to sound unafraid.

“Hunting indeed.” The man replied through his helm, again turning his steel gray eyes to the crossbow. He then continued; “Did you happen to notice any Goblin tracks during your hunt?”

“No.” Garret replied honestly.

“Hmm.” The man grunted, eyeing Garret as if considering something. He leaned forward in his saddle, scrutinizing Garret, and presumably decided, he continued to speak. “We are knights to the Kingdom young hunter, sent to track down a goblin raiding party spotted in these lands. Two nights ago we found them, and ambushed them in the night. A single goblin escaped our attack, and we were not immediately able to pick up his trail. Yesterday we found his tracks, heading in this direction. Be careful young hunter, even a single goblin can be a deadly encounter. If you see him, note his location, and report it to a member of the Valdadorian guard as soon as you might meet one.”

Garret thought quickly of how to respond, and deciding honesty was best, spoke to the Knight before him.

“I spoke true about the tracks sire, as I have seen no markings of the Goblin. I have however seen the goblin itself.”

At that point all three riders leaned in their saddles to listen closely.

“Last night, as my companions and I slept, the goblin attacked us.” Before Garret was able to continue, the large knight with the steel eyes interrupted.

“Yet you stand here.” He stated, and then waited as if to let Garret continue.

“Yes Sire, the goblin was wounded in the attack, with this very crossbow.” Garret raised the weapon for them to see, however the knights had no interest in it and so ignored it. Garret let it fall to his side again.

“Then I managed to finish it off with my sword.” Garret said.

“And what of your companions?” This time the question came from the rider to Garret’s left, his voice trailing off as if already assuming the answer.

Without turning to face him, still looking ahead to the Knight before him Garret continued.

“My brother was wounded in the fight, he now rests to recover. Our other companions were unscathed.” This revelation from Garret seemed to take the knight in front of him by surprise, as he reeled back in his saddle in response. He nodded his approval after a moment and leaned once again forward to speak.

“Where is the goblin’s body, I must see for myself if it is the same one we have been racking.” This he once again said in an even tone, and then as if in afterthought asked. “And what of your brother, how comes his recovery?”

“My brother remains weak after the ordeal, and we have run out of food. That is why you have found me here on the trail. I was hunting, hoping to help him regain his strength so that we may complete our journey to The Choosing ceremony.” Garret spoke, fearing he may have offered more details than they wanted and added. “I’ll show you the goblin.”

The knight atop the horse in front of Garret only nodded in response. Then as if a command was given that Garret was unable to hear, the three knights dismounted their steeds, and holding the reigns to their horses, stood facing Garret waiting for him to lead. Garret walked quickly back into the thick brush, not wanting to make them wait. He did not look back to see if they followed, there was no need. The Knights’ heavy armor creaked and groaned as they walked, and their feet pounded the ground nearly as loud as their mounts. Garret led the small procession towards the stone outcropping where his brother and Sara still rested. Entering the small clearing around the giant stones, Garret motioned towards the goblin’s body for them to see. It still stood, as Garret had left it, impaled upon a stick that he himself trust up beneath its ribs, out its collarbone, and into the base of its skull. Two of the knights remained at the entrance of the clearing, the third who Garret assumed was the same one he had spoken to, approached the goblin, still leading his horse by the reigns. When the knight was sure it was the same goblin as he had followed, he drew his sword and with one mighty swing cleaved the base of the branch where it was stuck in the ground. The goblins body tumbled to the ground held stiff by the pole that remained thrust through its body. Returning his sword to its sheath, the knight tied the goblin’s leg to his horse, planning to drag it away with him. After the goblin was secured, the knight turned and nodded once to his peers. He then turned his steel eyes to Garret.

“You have done the Kingdom a service, Garret Derringer, and so you shall be rewarded. Drawing his steed to him, the knight untied a large sack from his saddle, and walked to where Garret stood. He handed the bag to Garret, then reaching to his waist, slipped his mail covered hand beneath his breastplate and pulled forth a coin purse, this too he handed to Garret.

“The sack is food, it is fairly fresh, and there should be enough to sustain you and your companions until you reach Raven’s Hold. From there use the coins to rent horses to make up lost time. The inn will be expecting you, tell the keeper Sirus sent you, he will have a room and horses waiting. You still have plenty of time to make the journey on foot, but if you wish to participate in the festivities in Castle Valdadore I suggest you use the horses.”

Garret tried to thank the knight, but the man raised his hand in protest. The knight joined his two companions, and they began to lead their mounts back out to the trail. Garret watched them go, and just before they were out of sight the Knight he had spoken to turned around and looking back to Garret said:

“I shall hope to see you at The Choosing young hunter.” He then turned and walked out of sight.

Garret could hardly believe what had just happened. All their problems were solved. They now had food, and now too had much more time to let Seth heal before continuing on. Garret turned to walk across the clearing, a huge grin on his face, impatient to tell his companions of their new found luck.

Garret entered the cavern quickly, not allowing his eyes time to adjust to the deep shadows inside. He walked into the area they had slept the night before, already forming words of greeting on his lips, and came to an abrupt halt. No one was here, his and Seth’s blankets remained, as well as Ashton’s bear hide, and he even noted Sara’s pack against the one stone wall. But Seth, his girlfriend, and Ashton were missing. Garret took another step forward into the dark room, to see if anything else remained, and was struck hard in the stomach. The force of the blow knocked the air from his lungs and hurled him over backwards landing with a thud on his back, his head bouncing off the stone floor. Stars erupted before his eyes. Something was upon him then, pinning him to the ground though he could not make it out. Garret struggled to free himself vigorously, abruptly stopping as he felt a blade pressed to his throat. Garret moaned in defeat.

It was that moan that saved his life.

Seth had seen his opportunity and taken it. As his enemy took one final step closer Seth lunged with all his might, hurling himself bodily at his opponent hoping their collision would knock the man off his feet. Seth impacted the man knocking them both sprawling across the stone that made this portion of the cavern floor. Seth had nearly expended what little energy he had in the lunge across the dark room. Sweat already beaded on his head and arms. His legs trembled, and his vision darkened. He could see movement to his right, and untangling his feet from one another was able to drag himself on top of the man. The man struggled as Seth remembered his sword, and reaching for it, he was nearly unseated. He grasped the sword and dragged it across the stone. It seemed so heavy, he was unsure if he could even lift it. He pulled the blade to him, and careful not to kill his enemy, at least not before he had answers, rested the blade on the man’s neck.

Garret moaned in pain, and Seth realized his error. Barely able to lift the sword any higher, Seth pushed it with all his might, over his brother’s head and released it. It fell to the floor with a clatter. Completely and utterly spent, Seth could not even lift his own body enough to remove himself from his brother. Instead he just leaned to one side allowing gravity to do the work. Seth fell off his brother, landing with a thud on the hard stone floor. He lay there panting, hardly able to see when Sara reached him.

Ashton too had recognized Garret’s groan of pain, and had assumed the worst. Thinking Garret was impaled upon his own brother’s sword, Ashton rushed first to Garret to immediately begin his prayer and his healing. Reaching Garret, and assessing his body he found no wound other than a lump on his head. He then remembered Seth’s tumble to the floor and realized that Garret must have defended himself in the attack and injured his twin. Ashton twisted around on his knees, already in the position to pray and looked to Sara, who now was lifting Seth’s head and torso to her body to hold him tightly like a parent might hold an injured child. She shook her head, letting Ashton know that Seth had not been injured. Ashton, not knowing what then to do, turned back to Garret and smiled.

“Welcome back.” Ashton said cheerily to Garret, his child like face gleaming at the jest, yet knowing as he did that this was probably all his fault.

The remainder of the evening went better than any of them could have expected. Seth had blacked out again for a while, but rested peacefully in Sara’s lap. Garret was unharmed, besides a large knot on his head which he refused to let Ashton treat. After Garret had been able to regain himself, and gather his bearings, Ashton and Garret exchanged their versions of the events that had just taken place. Garret was not upset with Ashton in the least, telling him he had done exactly what Garret would have done had the roles been reversed. After telling his tale, Garret brought out the large sack of food, and the small pouch of coins. Curiosity got the better of them, and wanting to see how much they had been rewarded, Garret drew loose the strings of the small pouch and poured its contents into his hands. Garret and Ashton leaned their heads together, peering into Garrets palm. Sara watched from a few feet away unable to see what it had contained, but instead watching her friend’s faces to see how they would react. Garret sat silently blinking over and over again at his palm. Ashton however gasped in disbelief. Regaining his composure Garret poured the contents of his palm back into the pouch, and pulled the strings tight. He leaned towards Sara, and extending his arm held the pouch out to her. Sara shook her head silently to Garret’s gesture, not wanting to speak for fear she might wake Seth. Instead of retracting his arm, Garret spoke.

“It’s yours Sara.” Garret smiled as he spoke the words quietly. “Sirus said it was a reward for killing the goblin. If you had not wounded it we would all be dead, so it only seems fair to me that the reward should be yours and yours alone. The only stipulation Sirus gave with the money, like I said a few moments ago, was that we use some of it to rent horses when we reach Raven’s Hold.” Garret gestured again flicking his wrist to swing the pouch in her direction.

Sara’s expression darkened and her face twisted with a look akin to pain.

“I’ve never actually had any money.” Sara admitted, her cheeks flushing slightly. “I don’t really understand how it works, you know, what piece is worth how much. I don’t want to mess up and give away more than I’m supposed to, and then we don’t have enough for the horses or something else we might need.” Sara finished her eyes on the floor, ashamed of her ignorance.

“That’s no problem.” Ashton chimed in. “We will teach you.”

Garret nodded in agreement, and the two boys scooted closer to Sara forming a loose circle. Garret poured the contents of the pouch onto the stone floor beside Sara, and sorted the coins. As he sorted them Ashton told her their names. The small brown ones were copper. They were the least valuable. The same sized gray ones were silver. One silver was equal to one hundred copper. Next was a large brown one, which Ashton explained was worth twenty five copper, it was made of the same metal as the first one, just larger. The next coin was a large silver coin, valued at twenty five silver. Again this was the same metal as the smaller silver coin, and was larger therefore worth more. Finally the Last coin, which neither boy had ever seen before, was a small gold coin. It was the same size as the other smaller coins, but was made of gold, and had a crown stamped into its surface on either side. This one was valued at one gold, or one hundred silver.

Sara committed it all to memory. Pointing to each coin she would state its value, and the boys would nod. They played a short game with her then, placing various coins together and asking her the total worth of the coins. She was an apt student and quickly learned the lesson and was able to calculate the value of varying piles of coins without any mistakes. The final pile they gave her to calculate was the entire contents of the small pouch. There were seventeen small copper coins, and three large copper coins. There were also eleven small silver coins, and two large ones. Finally there were the two gold coins. It took several moments for Sara to calculate, but her mother had taught her math at an early age and she was quite good at it. She figured after several moments that the total value was twenty six thousand one hundred and ninety two copper, or two hundred sixty one silver and ninety two copper, or two gold, sixty one silver and ninety two copper. The boys congratulated her graduation from their course, and assured her that the money that was now in her hands was a small fortune.

Shortly after their lesson, Seth regained consciousness. He was weak, like before, but otherwise unharmed. He apologized to his twin, who brushed it off as if the attack had been nothing. Garret was quick to relate the afternoon’s tale to his brother, with Ashton filling in his perspective of the events that had taken place. Seth was astonished at the amount of money Sara now controlled, and assured her, like the other boys had, that she could buy nearly anything she wanted, after paying for the horses of course.

Garret brought out the sack of food, which he had waited to open until everyone was ready to eat. In the large sack was enough food to satiate their immense hunger, and still leave them enough for a full day journey. Garret pulled from the sack two long loaves of bread that had apparently gotten squished in the twins’ battle earlier that day. He also pulled from the bag a hand full of salted pork and dried beef that had been cut into easy to manage strips. There was also a large block of cheese which he carved everyone a piece from. They all ate hungrily, filling their stomachs for the first time in days. Everyone but Sara had water left in their water skins, but Seth was all too happy to share with her. While eating they talked merrily, their spirits raised by good food and good fortune.

As the night progressed Seth regained some strength once again, and as his brother and Ashton lay down upon their makeshift beds, he was able to gather his blanket off the floor, fling it around his shoulders, and once again slouch down to the floor, his back to the stone wall that had become his resting place. Sara had followed him around the small cavern, afraid he might get dizzy or hit his head. Seth had a full stomach, his eye lids were growing heavy, and tomorrow he knew would be a tiring day. He reached out his arms to the small, beautiful woman, that he was convinced was an angel, and smiled as she crawled into his embrace. Seth wrapped his arms around her tightly, lovingly, and crushed her body to his. He could hardly contain his love for her, yet he knew he must. He did not want to rush her feelings, force her to do or say anything she did not want to. So relaxing his hold on her he sighed loudly, trying to be patient. He would wait for her to take the next step.

Sara did not take the step this night, though she now thought she understood what it was that Seth was waiting for, what was holding him back. She knew he struggled to contain himself, she struggled as well. She knew her feelings for him. She too knew how he felt about her in return. She still believed herself unworthy of him. She mostly though struggled with herself. It was her fear to trust anyone that kept her from telling Seth how she felt. She was afraid that if she told him, he might use her feelings against her. She felt guilty for thinking it, knowing Seth would never hurt her, but still unable to wash away the stains her past had left on her heart.

Sara nestled up against Seth’s chest listening to his heart beat. It was a heart beat that had nearly stopped beating, only a few hours ago. It had been a tremendously long day, and Sara was glad it was over. Tomorrow, she decided, could not come soon enough. Tomorrow she would tell him how she felt. Tomorrow he would hopefully let her get closer to him. Smiling inwardly at herself with anticipation, she twisted in Seth’s lap, and raising her face to his she pressed her lips to his. Long and slow they kissed, hugging each other tightly, as if tomorrow might never come. When it finally became apparent that without oxygen they would probably die, Sara settled into Seth’s lap, and resting her head on his shoulder, kissed his neck lightly and closed her eyes.

Seth too closed his eyes, wishing into the darkness that Sara would give herself to him soon. Not in a physical way, he could probably have that now if he let her have her way. He wanted more than that. He wanted her heart, her soul and her mind. He wanted what she feared to give him. He was aware of her feelings, he even thought he understood why she would not, could not tell him. He just wished that she would soon realize his intentions, and drop her inhibitions, and give herself wholly to him. Before, he hoped, he lost his mind trying to restrain himself. These were his thoughts as he drifted into a deep, all encompassing sleep.

Seth’s eyes opened as if a noise had disturbed him. Looking around he realized he was not where he had fallen asleep. Panic took him and he jumped to his feet. Scanning his surroundings, he was both confused and overcome with fear. He was alone, in a dark room, with no perceivable door or window. The walls were made from stone and mortar, the stone glistening wetly. The room was dark, but not uncomfortably so, there seemed to be some light source though Seth could not locate it. He spun in circles, slowly, taking in the room and all of its details. He prayed to no one in particular that Sara was somewhere safe, unharmed. Try as he might he could not recall how he had arrived in this room. Nor could he find any way to escape it. It was as if the room had been built around him, an eternal prison, a tomb, a place from which none were meant to return. He found himself gasping for air. The walls seemed to be closing in on him. He spun himself around again looking in vain for some small detail he might have missed before. There were none. Seth knew that he must not give up. He had to find a way out, a way back to Sara and Garret. He continued searching the small circular room, this time dragging his fingertips across the stones of the wall, searching for a hidden seam, or hinge, anything that might determine a way out. It was then that Seth realized he was not alone. He spun on in his heels, and then gasped in disbelief as he registered the other inhabitant of his cell. His face had come so near to hers when he had turned that it had startled him, causing him to fall back into the wall he had previously been searching. Seth stood, confused, staring at the woman before him. She had not been here a moment ago, that much he was sure of. He could not imagine how she came to be here, but he intended to find out.

Seth studied the woman before him. She was tall for a woman. She wore a long black robe and cloak that shimmered around her as if the fabric it was made of was not quite whole. It was as if the strands within the fabric were constantly rearranging themselves to better fit her body, a body that Seth was unable to measure with his intent eyes. Seth realized that this must be due to his tired eyes and the poor lighting in the room. Perhaps the woman shivered under her clothing, causing it to move so much. The clothing fit her well, if not a bit tightly, yet with its constant movement he could not really tell much about her build, only that she appeared slender. But it was not her body, nor her clothing that had Seth reeling in unanticipated horror. It was the woman’s face. Not that her face was twisted or mangled, quite the contrary she had a small, pretty face. She had a familiar face. The woman before him had a face that Seth had seen recently in a dream. Or was it a memory? The face staring back at Seth was the face of his mother. Only it had been changed, altered slightly for reasons unknown to him. All the facial features were there just as he remembered them. Her high cheek bones, narrow pointy nose, full rosy lips, all there just as he remembered. The eyes and hair however were unfamiliar. The woman’s eyes could only be described as crimson. There was no pupil at their center, no interruption to the swirl of blood in her gaze. This looked horribly unnatural to Seth, and it made him uncomfortable, nervous. Her hair too was different than his mother’s. Instead of the long brown flowing locks he remembered, there was in its place rows of black braids. The hair was knotted tightly to the woman’s scalp in neat rows from her forehead, over the top of her head, and then still braided trailing down her back and over her shoulders. The image reminded Seth of a farmer’s fields. In all, the woman was beautiful, with a striking resemblance to his mother. Seth wondered what illness or injury had befallen the woman causing the insides of her eyes to bleed. He felt sorry for the woman realizing that she must be blind, not even knowing she was a prisoner. The poor woman probably did not even realize he was here with her.

Seth’s scrutiny had only lasted a moment, but the woman remained, her gaze fixed in his direction, with no sign of emotion on her face. It was as if she waited for something. Seth watched the woman a minute longer, then deciding that what he was doing was rude he decided to let the woman know he was there.

“Excuse me miss.” Seth began in a tone barely over a whisper, trying not to startle the woman. “Are you ok?”

Seth waited for the woman’s response, but it did not come. The woman remained still peering with sightless eyes in his direction, her features unchanged. Perhaps she was deaf too.

“Can I help you?” Seth said, this time quite loudly.

The woman’s face stirred. The corners of her mouth turned up slightly, and one eyebrow rose as if she were amused by his question.

“Perhaps you can.” The woman replied, her voice much deeper than Seth had anticipated. Not so deep it was unnatural for a woman, but deep enough it did not sound as if it came from the woman’s mouth.

“Are you hurt?” Seth asked.

No answer.

“Can I get you something?”

Again the woman did not respond.

“What can I do for you?” Seth again asked the woman, this time trying to broaden the range of his question.

“Find me.” The woman responded simply.

“What do you mean “find me” you’re directly in front of me.” Seth replied, now thoroughly confused.

“I am lost, and nearly forgotten Seth. Seek me out once in Valdadore, find me and I shall help you.” She stated in her hollow voice.

Seth’s mouth hung open. He did not know how the woman knew his name, or how she knew he was traveling to Valdadore. Nor did Seth know how the woman expected him to get out of this god forsaken room. Seth began to get angry, thinking the woman must have something to do with his imprisonment, after all she knew too much about him. Something in Seth’s subconscious brushed at him as if wanting attention, but Seth mentally brushed it aside, too busy now to deal with anything else.

“Who are you and how did you bring me here?” Seth demanded of the woman.

“I am who you seek, and I have brought you nowhere. You came here of your own volition.” The woman replied, no hint of emotion on her face, nor in her voice.

“I seek no one lady. Now take me back to my companions.” Seth again demanded.

“You will seek something eventually and when you do, look to the oldest buildings.” The woman retorted in a hollow melody. “When you have found me, and when you know me, I shall help you find what you seek.”

Seth shook his head in both disbelief and anger. What was wrong with this woman? Was she both blind and crazy? How did she get here? How am I supposed to get out? What in the name of the god’s is she talking about? All this Seth asked himself, shaking his head, his eyes closed in concentration. He realized that no matter how crazy the woman might be, she had found a way into the room, and he needed a way out. He opened his eyes to face her once again and ask her this most important question, but she was gone. Replacing the woman was a swirl of blackness that steadily grew faster and faster, consuming within it the room and Seth alike. When the Darkness swallowed Seth he tried to scream, but no sound escaped his lips. Terrified, Seth forced himself to reopen his eyes.

Seth found himself once again within the confines of the small stone cavern that was his shelter. In his arms slept Sara, peacefully breathing her sweet warm breath into the cold night air. His twin and Ashton both snored loudly across the small room. Everything was as he had left it, only he realized now that he had not left. It had been his dream that had awoken him. He remembered it clearly. It had been so real he could swear it had actually happened. He remembered every detail of the small circular room he had been in, every detail of the woman who was his only company within that room. A shudder raced down Seth’s spine at the thought of the woman and her unseeing blood-like eyes. It had been an unnatural dream. Something unlike any other dream Seth could ever remember having. He knew he would not easily forget it. Silently hoping to himself that he would not dream again this night, Seth closed his eyes, trying to quickly fall back asleep. After all, the sooner he slept, the faster the night passed, and the sooner he could again spend the day with Sara.

Chapter 6

The expected and the expectations

As expected, morning came all too quickly. Sara was the first to wake, and decided she should wake the others so they could resume their journey. She turned in Seth’s lap, and kissed him gently, waking him the nicest way she could imagine.

Seth’s eyes fluttered open, feeling Sara’s lips on his cheek. He reached his large hands up to cup her face, and lightly grasping it on either side, pulled her mouth to his. He tasted her sweet breath before their lips met, and reveled in the taste. Pressing their lips together, Seth held her tightly to him and kissed her firmly, passionately for as long as his sore body would allow. Releasing her face, he then wrapped his arms around her waist and pulled her body against his and whispered in her ear.

“Good morning angel.”

“Good morning to you love.” Sara replied softly in her musical voice.

The greeting caught Seth off guard. There was the word he had been waiting for. However it was not in the proper context. He was happy to hear it in any case, assuming that Sara had said it purposely, perhaps testing his reaction.

Sara, having greeted Seth quite deliberately calling him her love, did not bother to gage his reaction. Instead she looked inward, to see how she herself would feel saying the word. To her surprise she was able to say it easily, honestly, and it felt great. No longer afraid she might betray her own emotions, she wished to tell him now her feelings for him. She pondered for a moment where to start, and then instead decided to wait. She would wait until she and Seth had some privacy, where they could openly speak their feelings without fear someone might interrupt. She smiled to herself, her face hidden on Seth’s shoulder, finally able to at least know her own heart. She hugged Seth’s neck again tightly and kissed his cheek. Crawling out of his lap Sara stood and watched her dark haired, brown eyed guardian, rise and stretch his weary muscles. She watched him loving everything about him, wanting to spend forever with him, and wanting to show him her love in every way she was able.

Finishing his stretch, Seth again gathered his angel into his arms and kissed the top of her head. He held her there a moment, wishing he could do so forever, and scanned the small room around them. He released Sara reluctantly and strode across the room coming to stand between his brother and Ashton who both snored lightly, sleeping on their backs. He nudged them each with his booted foot, rousing them. He then walked back across to Sara picking up the sack of food along the way.

Seth sat near Sara’s feet gesturing for her to join him, and she did so happily. Garret and Ashton wearily rose from their beds, and joined the others for a filling breakfast. Their meal consisted of the same food they had shared the previous night, and once again each ate their fill. Seth stated during the meal that he felt well enough to continue their journey, and so after eating everyone went about gathering their belongings and loading them into their packs. Everyone prepared quickly, and they headed out of the cavern together, Garret and Ashton taking the lead, Seth and Sara trailing, their hands entwined. Garret left the Goblin’s short sword in the cavern when they left, not wanting to carry a reminder of the day he nearly lost his brother.

They walked leisurely through the day, stopping to rest often. Seth was thankful for their stops, his body not as willing as his mind to handle the exertion. The path widened slowly through the day becoming more level as the path turned eventually into a road. Seth was able to walk further now without resting as the level ground allowed him to walk more easily. The group talked merrily, the light conversation allowing Seth to concentrate on something other than his body. His legs shook and his knees gave out on occasion, but he had been able to catch himself, with Sara’s help each time before he fell.

Seth limited his input to the group’s conversations, preferring to just listen as they walked. His mind wandered and he found himself thinking over the last several days, taking in all the events that had come to pass, that had brought him to this point. Though he had nearly lost his life, he could not believe the tremendous luck that had so obviously filled his life. He and his twin had traveled from home, accompanied by a man blessed with the gift of healing. A man he was now proud to call his friend. They had arrived in Stone Haven, and due to Ashton’s gift had been given free food, and free goods to include the crossbow. It was also Ashton who inevitably led them to eat outside the inn that morning he first met Sara. Seth was extremely grateful for this part. Not only had he met her, he had protected her and in doing so, had laid the foundation for their relationship. A relationship he now knew he could not live without. Joined now by the woman he would come to love and adore, they had set out from Stone Haven along the road to raven’s hold. Sara had slowed them, causing them to fall a day behind, but this too was as if it was meant to be. Because of their delay, they had fallen into the path of the goblin that had nearly killed him, but as it had turned out, Sara had instead played a vital role in killing the creature that mortally wounded him. If not for her, Seth would have died, and probably his twin and Ashton as well. Again Seth had been blessed by Ashton’s friendship, being healed by his friend’s control of the Goddess’s gift. Their delay had run their stores of food dry, and this had lead to Garret’s meeting with the knights of Valdadore who had rewarded them not only with the food they so badly needed, but also with enough coin to deliver them safely, and comfortably to the castle city of Valdadore with what should be several days of time to spare and enjoy the city. All this Seth felt had to be more than just pure luck. No one on the face of Thurr could possibly have ever been this lucky. Seth felt as if someone watched over him, guiding his life safely to some predetermined end. He felt thankful for it, he felt blessed. He now looked at Sara and realized if they had not met, he would not be here to look upon her this day. She, in his greatest moment of need, had come to the rescue just in time to save his life. As he had vowed to protect her, she had in turn protected him, his little guardian angel. The thought made Seth smile, and returning from his daydream found Sara’s eyes watching him. The small twin suns, that were her eyes, were filled with love for him. Seth hoped to himself that she too could see his love for her in his own eyes.

The group marched along through the evening much the same as they had through the day. They talked occasionally about nothing in particular, and Seth had started at one point to relay the dream he had had the previous night to them, but then thought better of it. This he would keep to himself at least for the time being.

The flat, bleak, shrub infested plains had slowly cleared as they walked, and now had been replaced by slightly rolling hills. The hills were covered by tall grass that for the most part remained green. Occasional groves of trees dotted the hills, and eventually the group could see fenced pastures on the horizon filled with animals. This they knew marked civilization. Before long they could see the roof tops of several farm houses over the hills and as they grew nearer, the buildings themselves came into view. It was not long before they were passing down the road between those very farm houses. Occasionally they would see someone in one of the fields, tending animals or crops, and each time they spotted someone the person would wave or nod to them in greeting from a distance, and they too would in turn wave back.

The farms continued for a long time, and eventually as the sky began to grow dark on the horizon, they no longer noticed people in the fields. It was when they were approaching a large gray farmhouse that Garret stopped abruptly in his tracks, and placing his hand above his eyes peered off into the distance ahead of them. He had stopped so suddenly that Sara had actually run into him, but Garret seemed not to notice as he tried to focus on something just out of sight. Garret stood frozen searching the horizon as his companions stared at him in wonder.

“I think that’s it.” Garret stated matter-of-factly.

“What’s what?” Seth asked his twin.

“That.” Garret said jabbing his finger toward the horizon in front of them. “I think that’s raven’s hold.”

All four companions studied the horizon, and after many moments all but Ashton could discern, barely, the massive complex of buildings that was as of now just a smudge on the horizon.

“How far away do you think it is?” Seth asked his brother.

“It’s hard to tell.” Garret began. “I think I first saw this house about three hours ago.” Garret now pointed to the large gray home only a stone’s throw away from them. “I would assume, that if that is the city, then it is much bigger than the house here, so probably can be seen from farther away. If I had to guess I would say four maybe five more hours give or take.”

Seth nodded his agreement to his brother’s calculation, and turned his gaze to the sun.

“We only have a couple hours of light left, three at most.” Seth stated, knowing as he did three hours was being very generous.

Almost without thought the four began walking once again, a new urgency to their pace. They agreed shortly after resuming their trek that they would not stop until they reached the city, even if it took them until well past dark. The road was level and wide here, accustomed to frequent use, and easily discernable from the fields around it. It would not be hard to keep to the road even in the darkness.

Just over two hours had passed since Garret had spotted the city on the horizon. Now however the sun began to shrink past the horizon to the west. They had traveled a great distance in the last few hours, their pace much faster than it had been throughout the day. Now, in the last minutes of sunlight the city was much more easily discernable in the distance. It was apparent that they would indeed need to continue a few more hours into the night to reach their destination, but at least now they knew they could see the destination they sought. Raven’s hold was not what they had thought it was previously. From a far distance it appeared to be several different sized building jumbled together, creating a broken silhouette. However now that they could see the city more clearly it was apparent that it was actually several rows of buildings, each row taller than the previous, growing ever taller towards the center of the city. The whole thing it appeared was surrounded by a great wall of stone, with enormous towers at each corner. This much the group could see in the last moments of light, however, any more details they might take note of were lost as the sun disappeared beyond the horizon.

The group was in luck it seemed. They did not walk on in endless darkness towards their destination as they all thought they would have to. Instead, both moons had appeared full this night, lighting their way in a yellow-green half light that was plenty enough to see the road clearly. They could also see their destination in the darkness. The city itself was obscured, but above it shone the light of the hundreds of lanterns and torches that must have been lit within the city, creating a dome of light in the sky above it. The four walked on at a brisk pace in the half light, hurrying towards the city that seemed to grow larger with each step.

All four companions stared at the high city walls as they approached. They could see from here the gigantic towers that made the corners of the city, and the enormous stone walls that surrounded it. Directly in front of them was a large gate in the wall, where they could see on the road well ahead of them that people walked, and carts rolled though the massive gate. As they neared the gates, the group could see guards posted to either side, who would occasionally stop a person and speak to them before letting them pass. Raven’s hold was bigger than any of them had imagined, and it occurred to Garret that there very likely would be more than one inn in the city. They needed to find the inn where Sirus had said would have a room and horses awaiting them. Garret figured he would have to ask for directions from someone familiar with the city to see if they knew Sirus.

As the twin’s and their companions neared the gate they fell into line behind the mass of people waiting to gain entry to the city. In front of them was a large cart of turnips and carrots, drawn by a mule, lead by an old man. They waited patiently behind the cart, moving forward as it did ever nearing the gates to the city. Finally as they neared the entrance through the massive stone walls, Garret led them directly towards one of the guards posted at the gate.

“Excuse me sir.” Garret spoke to the guard standing to the left of the large gate. “The Knight Sirus said he would have an inn room and horses awaiting myself and my companions once we arrived, do you know perhaps at which inn he might have made such accommodations? Garret asked trying to sound as if this were a normal conversation for him.

“Yes young sire.” The guard responded immediately as if talking to a superior officer.

“Please visit the Stamping Steed. It is most certainly where Lord Sirus would have arranged your accommodations.” The young guard stated knowingly, and quickly related to Garret directions to reach the inn.

The group was back on the road walking through the city in no time at all, with a bed and a hot meal just around the corner. They walked still with purpose, though not as fast as they had the last few hours, here the buildings were closer together than in Stone Haven, and the streets narrower. As they had noticed from a distance, the further they traveled into the city the taller the buildings became. They realized that the city had basically the same design as Stone Haven however, with rings of buildings starting at the center of the city, working their way outward, and a single street running through it from north to south, and another east to west. Each of the rings of buildings had a small street between them that intersected these two larger roads making the city fairly easy to navigate. They had only passed seven or eight rows of buildings when Garret led them down one of the narrower side streets, and then stopped in front of a tall, wide building with torches burning all along its front. The building was made of some sort of clay brick and stood several stories tall. Windows were spaced regularly throughout the front wall and from each window shone a lantern. Above the wide double door swung a sign carved into the shape of a stallion rearing up on its hind legs. The four of them approached the large door together, each imagining a warm bed and hot food that would be behind the door in front of them. Seth released Sara’s hand for the first time that day, and pulling her closer to him he placed his arm around her waist as they followed Ashton and his twin brother inside.

The inside of the large building was just as well lit as the outside. Coming through the door the small band of travelers walked into a huge room that spanned the entire length of the building. The room was filled from end to end with tables of varying sizes, and many of them were attended by groups of men and women. Between the tables brick pillars jutted from the floor to support the building above it at regular intervals. At each end of the room there stood a large staircase leading up to the higher levels. This inn was unlike the one in Stone Haven in more than appearance however. Here no one looked to see who had come through the door. It was as if no one had even noticed them enter. No one hollered a greeting to them either as they entered. They walked into the room allowing the door to close behind them and stood, unsure, looking the room from end to end. This inn too had a large bar directly across the room from the door, and so Garret again taking the lead, walked towards the bar. The massive bar appeared to be made from a single enormous piece of wood, cut smooth at the top and polished to a shine. The front of the bar was an intricately carved scene of two armies facing one another across a field of battle. In front of the bar were dozens of stools from one end to the other, though none of them were currently in use. The twins and their companions approached the bar and seeing that it was unattended, seated themselves upon the stools and waited. A few moments later a young girl, perhaps in her mid teens came through the door behind the bar. Spotting them, she turned and thrust her head back through the door and shouted.

“Whalen you have customers!” The girl yelled then turned back to the four at the bar and smiled.

The girl walked right past the quartet at the bar and walked to a table across the room and seated herself there with two other people. A few moments passed and the door behind the bar swung silently open again and a short, older man came through carrying a tray of glass mugs which he sat on the bar. He approached them then from across the bar, a comfortable grin on his face, and flickering light from the lanterns hung behind him shining off his bald round head.

“What can ol’ Whalen get for ye M’lady and gentlemen?” The Short man asked all the while managing to maintain his grin.

“Sirus said you would have a room and horses waiting for us when we arrived.” Garret stated matter-of-factly to the short balding innkeeper.

“Ah yes.” The man replied in his jolly voice. “You must be Master Garret then.” The man stated one of his white eyebrows rising as if it were a question more than a statement.

“Yes sir and these are my companions.” Garret said motioning to the other three.

The old man seemed to be taken aback for a moment as his small grin faded for just a moment, and then returned.

“Well Lord Sirus did not mention that there were four of you, only that you would need a room. The room I had prepared for you only has two beds so let me see if I have another room near it still available.” The old man stated.

Without waiting for a reply the old man knelt down and from behind the bar he brought out a large tome bound in leather. He unwrapped the leather expertly and flipped through the pages of the large volume, and finding his desired page ran one stubby finger down the page nodding to himself all the while. The man made a few mumbled notes to himself then closed the large tome and again wrapped it in the leather, and returned it to somewhere behind the bar. He turned then back to Garret, again with the grin on his face, only this time it looked less natural.

“Well it seems Master Garret that I have no other rooms available on the second floor, but if you are so inclined I can send someone up to prepare another room for you on the fourth floor, or if you wish I can have them prepare you two rooms on the fourth floor, and I can give the one I have prepared now to another customer.” The man looked at Garret expectantly awaiting an answer, his forced grin still on his face.

“That won’t be necessary sir, we would not want for you to go out of your way for us. The one room you already have prepared will be quite enough for us for this night.” Garret said hoping his companions would feel the same.

“Well then young Master Garret, consider your room ready for you. The horses will be delivered here in the morning from the stalls across town. Is there anything else you require? Whalen asked the group, his natural grin reappearing once again.

“Some hot food would be welcome as well as cold drink.” Garret stated, all his companions nodding their agreement.

“In that case.” Whalen began. “We have a nice Beef roast with garlic, onion, potatoes and carrots with some bread rolls baked only a couple hours ago if that suits you.”

None of the companions spoke, but they all nodded their acceptance of the food to Whalen who then stated he would soon return with their food and drinks. Whalen was true to his word and returned only moments later carrying a large wooden tray loaded with bowls of food and mugs of ale. He placed a large bowl full of roasted beef and vegetables in broth and a mug of cold ale in front of each of the four companions and without a word again disappeared, waddling on stubby legs through the door behind the bar. He returned again this time carrying one large platter piled high with buttered rolls and placed this on the bar between Ashton and Seth who passed them to either side to both Garret and Sara. The four thanked Whalen graciously, who accepted their thanks, then turned and walked back through the door again leaving them to their food. All four ate vigorously devouring the food down to the last roll, and washing it all down with the strong dark brown ale. No one spoke as they ate, all too eager to finish the food while it was hot. As they all finished they each complimented the food and the drink and waited patiently for Whalen to return.

It was not long when the short balding man again came abruptly through the door. His apparently permanent grin remaining, greeted the companions and asked them how the food was. Accepting their praises on the quality of the food and drink he had provided, he assured Garret they could pay in the morning when they had eaten again and received their mounts. Whalen had told them that any friend of Sirus was a friend of the Stamping Steed and he trusted them to pay in the morning. Stating that he needed to return to his duties in the kitchen, Whalen informed them they were staying in room twenty seven on the second floor, and wished them a good night’s rest. The companions bid him good night in return, and collecting their packs from the floor, strode together across the room and up one giant staircase to the second floor.

They found their room easily and quickly went inside. The room was much larger than they had expected. Inside were two large beds, one on either side of the room. Beside each bed sat a small writing table equipped with quill and ink, and a stool. Directly between the two beds was a long wooden table with two large wash basins, several towels, and a hair brush upon it. Across the middle of the floor sprawled a decorative rug, brightly woven in contrasting patterns, and upon the walls hung several paintings depicting the city itself from different views within its walls.

After entering the room and taking in all its contents Ashton, the last to enter closed and barred the door, then stood with his companions waiting to see what it s they would do.

Garret first tried to reason with his brother, asking him to accept a bed, knowing that he above all of them needed to rest. Seth, denied the offer, knowing well that he would much prefer spend the night propped against a wall with Sara in his arms. Seeing this battle was lost, Garret then tried to reason with Sara, pleading with her to accept one of the beds, saying something about a lady should never have to sleep on the floor. Sara too declined his offer, if Seth was sleeping on the floor, so would she. Garret tried to reason with them each once more saying they should at least share a bed, he would sleep on the floor and Ashton could use the other bed. This proposal was replied to by Seth with a look that could have melted the walls around them. Garret quickly gave up his protests after the look from his brother and went to wash his hands and face in one of the basins on the table. The others joined him, each washing their face and hands. Garret and Ashton quickly washed and climbed into their beds, each blowing out the lanterns near their beds. The only light remaining in the room was a small candle upon the large table holding the basins. Sara stopped Seth before he left the table, and pulling his head low to the water, she rinsed the dried blood from his hair that still remained as best as she could and helped him to dry his hair. Smiling in satisfaction at Seth’s hair Sara then took up the brush, and began to brush the tangles from her hair. As she brushed, Seth stood watching her practiced strokes through her hair. He stepped behind her as she worked a knot from her hair and placed his hands upon her hips. Hearing his brother’s and Aston’s light snoring he pulled her into himself, and reached around her waist. Taking the brush from her hand, he returned it to the table. Raising one hand Seth gently pulled her hair back over her shoulder, keeping the other hand firmly around her waist. As he exposed her neck, he bent slightly bringing his lips to the warm flesh of her neck he kissed her softly. Sara trembled with the kiss. Seth kissed her again, this time a little higher than the last. Again Sara’s small frame quivered. So he kissed her neck again and again working his way up her neck to her fragile jaw and continued to kiss her all the way to her ear lobe. Here he exhaled slightly, blowing warm air into her ear, sending a powerful shudder through her small body, and she spun in his arms, turning to face him.

Sara’s face was flushed red, and she threw her arms around his neck and jumped up wrapping her legs around his waist. Seth held her there tightly, their bodies entwined. Sara kissed him several times on the mouth, each time more passionately, each time more vigorously than the last. Seth kissed her back, giving her everything in return that she gave him.

Seth realizing he had let her go too far, relaxed his hold on Sara, and gently pulled back to look her in the face. She looked disappointed. Sara remained, her legs wrapped around his waist, arms around his neck, supporting her own weight. She knew why he stopped. She looked Seth in the eyes waiting patiently for him to gather his thoughts. She knew it was time for the speech about it wasn’t time yet. She had heard it before, and she understood why he felt the way he did. At least she thought she understood. Sara recalled her decision to tell him how she felt when they were next alone, and listening to the other boys snoring quietly in the room she figured this was probably as alone as they were going to get for a while.

“I’m sorry Sara.” Seth whispered to her. “I let it go too far.”

“No you didn’t.” Sara stated matter-of-factly.

“Yes I did angel, and it won’t happen again I promise.” Seth said painfully.

“It better happen again.” Sara stated in a joking tone.

“What?…why?” Seth asked not understanding her tone.

“Because my love.” Sara said barely louder than a whisper. “Because I want it to happen again, because I want you love me freely and because I love you.” Sara said the last statement more boldly than the previous, making sure he heard her.

Seth was taken aback. He had not expected this turn of events. He had hoped for it, wished for it, even prayed for it, but never expected it. Wanting more than anything to make her happy he too whispered to her.

“I love you too, my angel, I have loved you from the moment I first laid eyes on you, and I shall love you beyond the day when my eyes no longer open.”

The words were nothing less than Sara had hoped for. She knew they were true, she knew he would love her like no one else ever could, and she knew also that she would never stop loving him, no matter what would happen to them, she would forever stay by his side.

With tears of joy clouding her eyes, she pulled her arms once again tightly around his neck and squeezed her legs around his waist and kissed him relentlessly. Seth did not hold back this time, and he kissed her furiously, yet gently, all the while crushing her body to his.

Seth was unsure if it was due to the weakened state of his mending body, or to the long hours on the trail, or simply because of the fact he was so overcome with emotion, but his knees began to tremble. Afraid he might fall and hurt Sara he finally forced himself to put her down. She relented, unwillingly, but soon realized he had released her due to necessity, not because it was what he wanted. Sara helped to steady Seth, and walked him across the room towards the door. Seth pressed his back to the door and slid to the floor landing a bit uncomfortably, seated against its wooden frame. Sara dug through his pack and retrieved their blanket. She wrapped it around his shoulders, and began to climb into his lap. Seth put his hand up in protest, stopping Sara in her tracks. Thinking he was in more pain than she had imagined she sat down next to him and just rested her head on his shoulder.

“That’s not what I had in mind.” Seth stated a jovial tone to his voice.

With that, Seth reached one arm around Sara’s waist and pulled her around in front of him, facing him. He pulled her to his body and gently lay down on his side, bringing her body with his. Seth stretched out his legs, and wrapped one arm under Sara’s head to support it, pulled her close, bringing her face to his chest. He wrapped his other arm around her waist, and slid one leg between hers. Bending his neck slightly he kissed the top of her head, breathing in the scent of her long black hair. They lay in the light of a single distant candle, their bodies pressed together tightly, entwined lovingly, reveling in each other’s embrace.

Sara was in heaven. She had dreamt of this night since they had met, how she had wanted to lay in his arms, warm and safe, her head to his chest, listening to his heart. Curling up in his arms as he sat had been nice, but this was ecstasy. She felt the heat of his body encompassing her, felt his strong arms around her, his leg wrapped within her own. Their bodies touched in ways that might have made her blush before, but now she felt just as comfortable with his body around her as she felt with her own clothes. Sara hoped they could spend every night from this one until forever just like they were now.

Seth lay, intoxicated by Sara’s scent. Her hair in his face, her warm body pressed in pleasant ways into his. He could feel the rise and fall of her breasts against him with each breath she took. He knew this was something she wanted, she had stated as much on more than one occasion. But tonight it had been his idea, so he lay still, holding her to him lightly, allowing her to release herself if she wanted. Seth waited for a long time, enjoying their close proximity, breathing Sara in with each breath. He waited until he was sure she had no intentions of removing herself from him, then reaching back behind him, he wrapped their blanket over them both, tucking it under Sara as best as he was able, and again kissed the top of her head. Sara lifted her head in response to his kiss and looked up into his face.

“I love you Seth.” She stated simply

“And I love you my beautiful Sara.” Seth replied.

Again Sara pulled her face into his chest, and Seth pulled her tightly to his body. This way they remained until darkness took them, and they passed into sleep.

The following morning both Seth and Sara awoke together to find themselves much as they remembered. Their bodies remained entwined with one another’s, and they enjoyed the feeling once again, but only briefly. They had awoken to a muffled conversation Garret was having with Ashton across the long room, and seeing Seth and Sara stir, the conversation had ended.

Seth and Sara shared a soft, secret kiss and rose to greet their companions. Garret related to them they had been discussing whether to remain in raven’s hold a day, and continue their journey tomorrow, or leave this morning to spend more time exploring the Capitol city of Valdadore. Ashton also told them that he had counted the days since their departure from Vineleaf, and by his calculation they still had six days to finish their journey. They again processed their options, this time the four of them together, and decided it was best to continue on to Valdadore, lest something else delay them. They gathered their belongings and headed back out the door, down the hall, and down the grand stairs to the first floor.

The common room looked exactly as it had the night before, rows of lanterns in the windows and along the walls. People sitting in groups or solitude at the various tables throughout the room talked quietly amongst themselves. The bar this morning was unoccupied of guests, however Whalen stood behind it and waved the travelers over to join him. They accepted his unspoken request, and quickly seated themselves upon the same stools they had occupied the previous night.

“G’mornin young masters.” Whalen greeted them his grin spread naturally across his face. “I hope ye all rested well.”

The companions each nodded that they had, and Whalen’s grin seemed to widen with their unspoken approval.

“It’s good to see you all rested then. Will you be leaving Raven’s Hold today then?” Whalen asked the question in earnest, though he actually only wanted to know if they would be staying another night at his inn.

“Yes.” Garret stated. “We have decided to make haste to Valdadore to enjoy it’s festivities before the ceremony.”

“Indeed that should be enjoyable.” Whalen said matter-of-factly, nodding to himself as he did. “Then I shall send for your horses, is there anything else you will be needing then? A hot breakfast? Some supplies for the road perhaps?”

“I’m sure we would all welcome some more of your delicious hot food, as well as two days worth of food and water for the four of us.” Garret replied, and then added as if it were an afterthought. “That is if it isn’t too much to ask.”

“No…no of course not Master Garret, I will see to it that your supplies are gathered quickly, and I shall send for your horses.” Whalen stated all the while speaking in his jovial tone. “But in order to fulfill your request I had better get cooking.”

With his last statement the short, bald headed, older man turned on his heel, and wheeling his round body away from them strode through the door behind the bar.

The companions sat silently, each wondering what they might be eating for breakfast, and how long it would take for the horses and supplies to be gathered. Not long after the door closed behind Whalen that it popped open again and a young boy poked his head out from the room beyond the door. Eyeing the companions briefly the boy nodded as if deciding something to himself, and then his head disappeared as quickly as it had appeared. A few moments after the boy vanished, the door again sprang open and another boy darted out the door, around the bar, and across the large common room to the door. He boy quickly exited the building, closing the door softly behind him. Having watched the boy dart across the room and out the door, none of the companions had noticed that Whalen had too emerged from the room beyond, and each of the companions were started when they spun back around in their seats to face the bar and saw the short man where just a moment ago there was no one.

Whalen handed them each a plate of food from a tray he had sat on the bar, and handed them too a mug each of fruit juice. The companions each in turn thanked Whalen for their food and as he had done the night before, he accepted their thanks and again disappeared through the door.

Upon each plate was a large half circle comprised of several eggs. It had been fried and folded back unto itself. Within its fold was placed bacon, cheese, onions, and chopped red peppers. Beside it, on each plate was placed a stack of sliced, toasted bread, cooked until crisp. Each slice of bread was generously buttered. The food still steamed from being freshly cooked, and the aroma convinced each of the four companions to attack the food vigorously until it was consumed. They washed the food down with the large mugs of juice which they decided together was mostly orange juice, with a hint of raspberry. The juice too was fresh and cool, and complimented the food nicely.

As they finished their food and drink the companions saw the boy who had rushed out of the inn return. This time they watched him walk around the bar casually, with no speed or purpose in his pace, and he wandered through the door behind the bar without even so much as a glance at the four people at the bar. As soon as the door swung shut behind the boy it burst open once again, bringing with it Whalen and his naturally grinning face.

“Well folks.” Whalen said. “Your supplies will be here momentarily. The horses are tied out front. If that be all you will be requiring then I suppose it is time we square your tab.”

“How much do we owe you Whalen?” This time it was Sara who spoke to the round barkeep. Her voice and attention seemed to please the man and his grin widened stretching almost unnaturally across the entire width of his round face.

“Well miss.” Whalen started. “The room is six silver, and the combined eight meals another twelve silver. The horses will be costing you fifteen silver apiece, and your supplies another five silver and fifty copper each.” Whalen spoke the prices, each with a nod, obviously calculating the numbers in his head.

Reaching down to the belt that held her small quiver, Sara released the small pouch of coins that had been given into her charge. Rummaging her fingers through the coins she brought forth a single gold coin, the exact amount due to the barkeep. Pressing it firmly into her palm she placed her hand on the bar, keeping the coin shielded from view.

“Thank you Whalen for your hospitality, you have a lovely inn.” Sara said to the grinning inn keeper, a smile on her face.

With her words she released the coin onto the bar and slid it across the polished surface with her fingertips towards the man. If Whalen had been surprised that such a young woman possessed such a coin, his expression had not betrayed it. His grin still on his face, he snatched the coin from the bar’s surface and deposited it into a pouch on his belt without even a second glance at it.

“Thank you M’lady.” Whalen said in response to her prompt payment.

As Whalen spoke a young boy walked around to join him behind the bar. The group realized it was the same boy that had poked his head through the door earlier and had stared at them briefly. The boy waited patiently to see if the conversation had ended before speaking to the inn’s owner.

“They’re all set grandpa.” The boy said in his young, high pitched voice to Whalen.

“Thank you Sedrik.” Whalen replied to the small boy. “Now run along and see if your mother or grandmother needs any help in the kitchen.”

The boy did not hesitate nor complain as many other children might have. Instead he rushed quickly through the door to the room beyond, eager to help.

“Well folks, your horses are loaded with your supplies, your breakfast is finished, and your tab is paid.” Whalen stated the facts as if checking off a list mentally as he did so. “So if there is nothing else I can get you…” He paused briefly waiting to see if they would voice any new needs, and seeing they had no intentions to speak he continued. “Well then, I shall bid you farewell and good luck on the remainder of your journey.”

The group told Whalen good bye each in their own way, and thanked him appreciatively for his services. Before letting them leave Whalen told them there were several stables, once within Valdadore, they could return the horses to. He also gave them a small piece of folded paper sealed in wax to give, with the horses, to the stable master at which ever stable they returned the horses to. Their instructions completed, the group picked up their belongings from beside their stools, and slung their packs across their shoulders. Sara too slung her crossbow over one arm, and adjusted it for a comfortable fit. They turned together and walked out of the inn, feeling ready as they ever would for what awaited them next.

Outside the inn were four, very large white horses. The same breed of horse, both Ashton and Garret noted, they had seen knights ride before. The horses were tied to an iron bar that ran for some length across the front of the inn, secured into the bricks of the inn itself. Aston regarded the horses impatiently. He was ready to get back on the road. He had ridden several horses in his life. His family owned a pair back home, though those horses had been much smaller than these. Garret and Seth had each ridden a few times as well, though the horses they had rode had been labor animals belonging to the farms in Vineleaf. The twins were a bit nervous, but each assumed one horse was much the same as any other and so they approached the horses with nothing more than a slight pause. Sara on the other hand was terrified. She had never so much as touched a horse let alone rode one. She had seen horses of course, and thought them beautiful creatures, but had never actually approached one before. These too it seemed were no ordinary horses. They were monstrous. She had never seen an animal so large before, and the thought of trying to ride one frightened her to the core.

Seth approached the horse he had decided he would ride and realized suddenly that Sara no longer was at his side. He turned on his heels, looking back to see why she had stopped, and froze. She stood only a few paces away from him, her face twisted in horror regarding the massive beasts before them. He had not even taken into account the fact that she had possibly never ridden a horse in her life. Why would she have ever ridden a horse? She had lived in a town, unable to leave, living in fear, imprisoned by a man who intended to sell her body for profit. Seth walked back to Sara’s side, thinking of the Brothel owner John, angered him still, but what angered Seth the most was the fact he had not anticipated Sara’s reaction to the horses. He wrapped his arms around her, standing between her and the horses, and hugged her close to his chest.

“Everything is going to be ok Sara.” Seth reassured her. “They are gentle animals, trained well to carry us safely. Riding is easy enough, and I am certain you are more than capable.” Seth spoke the words as reassuringly as he was able.

Sara only nodded in reply and hugged him tightly before letting him go. If Seth believed in her ability to ride one of these beasts, then that was enough for her. She would not let him down. They walked together, hand in hand, back to the horses. Garret and Ashton had already mounted the horses they had chosen and watched Seth bring Sara to the nearest horse without a rider. Seth instructed her to place her foot in one of the stirrups, and helped to lift her into the saddle. Once seated comfortable Seth instructed her to hold on to the beast with her legs, and use her hands to control the animal with the reigns. He showed her how to control the animal’s movement as well as its speed using the reigns. Sara quickly committed everything Seth told her to memory, not wanting to disappoint him by being a poor student. Seth then released the animal, and Sara was able to easily guide it around the narrow street without much trouble. Satisfied, Seth then mounted the remaining horse, and nodded to his twin, acknowledging that they were ready to leave.

They rode slowly through the city, careful not to trample anyone walking in the streets. The streets were bustling with activity, but even so the horses were able to maneuver easily through the crowds. Garret led them in single file through the streets, heading a circuitous path to the south wall of the city and through the gate onto the open road. By the time they emerged from the city wall, Sara had become comfortable enough upon her mount where she no longer squeezed it so tightly with her legs that her knees would tremble from the effort. She realized then that her fear had been unfounded, a fear that was only due to ignorance, and she felt ashamed that she had reacted so badly before.

Clear of the narrow city streets the four rode abreast, taking the entire width of the road. Ashton rode to one extreme side, and then Garret. Sara rode between the twins, in case one of them should need to come to her rescue. They rode slowly at first, gradually picking up the pace as they each began to feel more comfortable atop the large animals. Before long they were galloping down the road at a break neck speed, smiles upon all their faces, wind roaring past their ears, enjoying the freedom of speed.

They rode hard and fast the entire day stopping only once to eat, and allow the horses to rest and drink from the river that had snaked back to parallel the road closely. Their stop did not last long though, each of them wanting to feel the wind on their faces again, they hurriedly ate, and remounted the horses kicking their flanks once again, driving the beasts to resume their amazing pace. They passed several people on the road that day, waving in greeting as they thundered by. They did not stop to speak to anyone, did not even slow for that matter, yet the horses were able to maintain the pace through the entire day without as much as a sign of tiring.

The day passed quickly, and before the four companions realized it, the sun had begun to set. They followed the road still, now at a slower pace, and decided together that they should find a place to rest for the night. They did not want any interruptions, or any trouble for that matter, from other travelers who may be following the road after dark, and so they turned off the road. They could see the river still lazily meandering this way and that off in the distance, and decided to make for it, thinking it would be best to let the horses drink their fill. The sun shrank ever nearer to the horizon, as the twins and their companions neared the river. With only minutes of sunlight remaining they followed the river to a small cope of nearly bare trees. The leaves that did remain on the branches here were darkened hues of orange and red. Most however had already fallen to the ground or been blown away by the wind. Even so, the small grouping of trees seemed a perfect place to spend the night. They tied the horses at the river’s edge, letting them drink and graze on the grasses that grew there. Pulling supplies from the horses’ saddle bags they sat in a circle eating and telling their vibrant descriptions of how it felt to each of them to ride the massive horses. Before they had finished eating the sun disappeared over the horizon, taking with it all traces of light. Too impatient to wait till morning, they all settled down to get to sleep early, as to rise early to ride again. Garret and Ashton settled on the ground as was accustomed, and were quickly asleep. Seth laid himself down and gathered Sara unto his body, and shared a few moments with her before snuggling up to one another to fall asleep. He was very proud of her this day, she had managed to face her fear of the animal, and more than that she had easily mastered riding it as well. Sleep took all four of them quickly, not even the excitement of the day was able to keep their minds alert enough to avoid the dark nothingness that was sleep. It would not be until morning that they would realize the error of their ways, and come to regret their long day’s ride.

Garret awoke, and opening his eyes noticed that the sky had just started to lighten on the eastern horizon. Feeling well rested, Garret quickly jerked himself into a seated position as was his morning custom. A burning, throbbing sensation painfully overtook his backside and he yelped despite himself. Thinking he had rolled into something hot, Garret jumped to his feet to relieve his rear end. At least that was what he attempted to do. He did nearly make it to his feet before he realized the explosion of burning, searing pain down his thighs. Unable to keep his legs beneath him Garret collapsed back to the ground in a heap. He thrashed about wildly on the ground, rolling this way and that sure he had somehow caught himself on fire.

Sara woke to Garrets yelp and quickly untangled herself from Seth’s body. She rolled over just in time to see Garret collapse to the ground thrashing violently. She looked quickly around to see if anyone had come across their camp and was attempting to ambush them in their sleep. Spotting nothing she quickly awoke Seth, who immediately sprang to his feet to see to his brother. Seth was nearly overcome with pain that exploded in his muscles, nearly driving him back to the ground. Sara too had begun to rise, but feeling her muscles begin to cramp settled herself back on the ground. As Seth paused to regain himself Garrets thrashing had brought him precariously close to the still sleeping Ashton. Ashton’s peaceful sleep was torn away from him from a spastic kick from one of Garret’s still flailing legs. He opened his eyes in time to dodge a second kick, this time aimed for his groin, and rolled swiftly out of range of Garrets assault. Bringing himself to his knees, Ashton’s face crumpled into a grimace of pain and realization.

The four companions had spent the entire previous day upon their massive horses. They had rode fast and hard with no thoughts as to how their bodies might respond to the punishment. Their bodies, now it seemed, had decided to teach them a lesson. It would be a lesson well learned.

Ashton remained kneeling, but repositioned himself to try and relieve his pained muscles. He looked to the heavens and whispered an inaudible prayer. Chanting quietly to himself, his entire body began to shimmer. The shimmer lasted only a fraction of a second and quickly turned into the glow the companions had all witnessed before. A few moments passed and the light that had engulfed Ashton from head to toe vanished. Ashton quickly rose to his feet and flashing a smile in Sara and Seth’s direction he turned and strode towards Garret. Garret’s thrashing had ceased, but sure his body must be terribly burned he kept his eyes closed tightly, refusing to look upon the damage. He lay still now in the dirt, certain he had rolled far enough from whatever it had been that had ignited him. He was panting loudly and sweating freely when Ashton dropped to his knees beside him. Garret did not see nor hear Ashton approach, but he did hear his friend’s prayer, and the low chanting that followed. Ashton took little time to heal Garret’s bruised and sore muscles, and almost before he had started his healing chant, it was over. Hearing his friends words come to an end Garret opened his eyes. He lay on the flat of his back looking up at Ashton. Garret smiled in thanks.

“How badly had I been burned?” Garret asked with a sincere tone to his voice.

Garret’s question was followed by robust laughter from all three of his companions. Seth laughed so hard it brought tears to his eyes, and Sara was forced to lie back down, gasping for air when she finally stopped laughing. Ashton’s laughing on the other had did not last long. He was directly in front of Garret when the man’s mood turned from one of sincere concern to one of anger. The change in his friends face had stopped Ashton’s laughter in its tracks.

Seth and Sara had finally stopped laughing, and both apologized quickly to Garret. They explained their amusement to the fact that though Garret had thought he had been burned, in actuality he was simply bruised and sore from the previous day. Even Garret got a laugh in retrospect.

Ashton took turns healing both Seth and Sara, and then suggested that they should eat before they returned to the road. They all agreed, and gathering their supplies, sat together for a quick breakfast. While finishing up his food Seth mused about how much had already happened that day, yet they had only been awake for less than half an hour. Today he was sure would be an interesting day.

The day passed quickly without anything else out of the ordinary. They rode their mounts a bit slower than they had the day before. Each of them remembering, all too well, the consequences that would await them tomorrow. They passed several people on the road, and noted that many of the people they passed were around their own age. Houses too began to appear in the afternoon, spread apart from one another at great distances at first, ever growing closer and closer as the group traveled. They rode much of the day in silence, simply enjoying the ride. It was a cool day, but not uncomfortably cold. As afternoon approached the land leveled out, and again the river had come near to the road and traveled parallel to it as far as the eye could see. Farm lands lay barren all around them as they rode, having already been harvested for the season. The sky was clear and the sun shone bright already past its peak, descending slowly.

The four companions rode their mounts side by side in a wall of thundering hooves. The Afternoon was growing late, but they still had a few hours of light to ride with. They had slowed their pace to a trot for a while, allowing the horses, and their back sides a short reprieve. They had not yet stopped to eat this day and so decided together, to find a place to let the horses graze for a while and eat a late lunch. Riding for about a quarter of an hour more they found a place where the land had not been plowed for crops, and so grass grew thickly enough for the horses to graze. There was only one scraggly tree in the grass, a tree the horses could easily uproot if they desired, but having no other option, the companions tied all four horses to the small tree. They left the horses liberal slack so that they might graze enough to fill their bellies. While the boy’s tied up the horses, Sara spread out Seth’s blanket on the ground, preparing a place for the four of them to eat. The young men returned carrying with them food, and seated themselves on the blanket with Sara. They took their time eating to allow the horses to graze, unsure how much such a large animal was supposed to eat. Finishing their meal the group continued to sit upon the blanket for a short while. Without any formal decision to leave they each stood after some time anxious to get going. Seth returned the blanket to his pack, and the four walked together to retrieve their steeds. Untying them from the tree the four friends led their mounts across the road to where the river flowed a short distance away and allowed the animals to drink. After the beasts’ thirst appeared to be satiated, they led them back to the road and climbed back into their saddles to continue while they still had light.

Garret placed his foot in the stirrup of his mount. He knew it was his mount because it was the tallest of the four. He had picked this one for that very reason. Lifting his body high into the air he swung his other leg over the saddle and into the other stirrup. Standing in the stirrups he looked on down the road to the horizon. Shimmering just over the horizon, Garret could see six identical objects, evenly spaced from one another. Oblivious to the danger of doing so, and wanting to get a better look at what he was seeing, Garret removed his feet from the stirrups and precariously climbed up to stand atop his saddle. Looking again to the distance, this time with a better vantage point, he could more clearly see the objects. Not only could he see the objects he could now identify as towers, but he could also see the wall that connected them.

Garret’s three companions watched him climb dangerously on top of his saddle. They each watched him quietly not wanting to startle him or his mount. They had each assumed correctly what it was that he was doing, but none of them knew why he was doing it. They all remained silently, still watching, when he climbed back down into the saddle.

“So?” Seth said questioningly

Garret pulled on his reigns, turning his mount back around to face his companions. As he turned everyone noted the smile on his face, but waited for him to answer his brother’s question.

“We’re there.” Garret stated coolly, the smile still remaining on his lips.

“We’re where?” Again it was Seth who asked

“Here.” Garret answered jokingly.

“Ok then bro, then where exactly is here?” Seth asked perplexed.

“Valdadore.” Garret simply stated, the smile returning to his face, then continued. “If you look carefully you can see six triangles on the horizon all spaced the same amount apart from one another.”

Seth, Ashton, and Sara each looked to the horizon at this statement, and one by one returned their eyes to Garret, each nodding their agreement. Once each of them had let him know that they too could see the objects he continued.

“When I stood up I could see that each of those triangles is the top of a tower, and connecting the towers is a wall. I think it is Valdadore. It must be, there aren’t any other towns or cities between Raven’s hold and the capital that I can recall hearing about.”

“How far away do you think it is?” Seth asked his twin.

“Well at the pace we were keeping this morning I would say maybe four hours. That’s assuming the walls here are the same height as the walls of Raven’s Hold. If they are taller that means it is further away and so will take longer. However, if we pick up the pace, like we were doing yesterday or maybe even faster if the horses can take it, I would say two and a half maybe three hours tops. That would get us there right about sunset.”

Seth looked up noting the suns position in the sky. The sky was still clear, and they did have about three hours of light left. Looking across the sky from the sun Seth also noted the two moons shining pale in the still lit sky. The first was already well in the sky, the second just coming over the eastern horizon.

“Well I guess we better get going then.” Seth said. “Seems to me even if your off by a few hours both moons will be out tonight so if we have to travel in the dark we should still be able to see.”

Not waiting for the others to agree, Garret spun his horse back around and drove his heels into its flanks. His mount erupted forward, blazing down the road away from his companions. Seth looked to Sara, and then to Ashton with a wry grin on his face. All three of them copied Garrets previous actions and burst off down the road at a gut wrenching pace.

They pushed their enormous mounts harder than they had the day before, pushing them to speeds the young companions had not imagined capable by a living creature. They thundered down the road with scenery flashing past them in a blur. They rode like this, nonstop until only the last traces of light remained. Finally Garret reigned in his horse and shortly was joined by his twin and their other companions. They looked still at the horizon ahead of them, still at least three hours away, at the massive city that sprawled across the landscape. The sheer size of it left them in awe. How was it that man could build something this magnificent, this enormous? Even at this distance it was easy to tell that each of the towers rose a full twelve stories from the ground, and the wall that connected them was easily ten stories itself. In the center of the wall facing them was one massive gate. The gate stood half the height of the wall itself, and was twice as wide as it was tall. The light was beginning to fade from the sky, but even so it was apparent from this distance that the twins had been mistaken in their assumptions of how the city would look. Each of them had imagined it much smaller for starters. Also they had each thought that it would be the same dull, blue-grey color as Stone haven. After all it was said that the capital city had been built from stone quarried from the town they had previously visited. But as it stood, magnificent on the horizon, Valdadore gleamed white into the impending darkness.

“So what should we do?” Sara asked no one in particular.

“Well it appears it is at least three more hours at the pace we were just running. We can’t even travel at half that speed in the dark, moons or not. So we are looking at a minimum of six more hours, if not more, if we continue on tonight. Garret replied.

“I say we find a spot. We make camp. Then first thing tomorrow we pick up where we left off, and we can eat breakfast within the walls of Valdadore before mid morning.” Seth stated his mind already made up.

They each agreed with Seth’s idea and headed off the road, spreading out but remaining in sight of one another, to look for a place to make camp. Not able to find anything resembling shelter, Seth led his horse to a large oak that sat alone in a field. No leaves remained on the tree, but they did make a nice soft layer on the ground beneath it, and so he decided it would have to do. Calling to Sara to join him he dismounted his horse, and looked for a place to tie it. Sara called to Ashton, who called to Garret, and the three came to join Seth beneath the large tree. When they arrived they each dismounted and led their horses to where Seth was tying his own to a large branch that hung low to the ground. Tying each of their horses to the branch far from the trunk, they dug through their saddle bags for their food. Carrying their supplies they each walked around the tree, opposite the horses and spread out near its base. They sat to eat in the early darkness, none of them speaking, each of them day dreaming of what they might see the next morning.

They ate quickly and quietly, and without much conversation they each unpacked their blankets and settled down to get to sleep. Seth walked a ways off from his brother and Ashton wanting a bit of privacy with Sara. She followed him to where he laid out their blanket, and when he sat so did she.

Instead of sitting in his lap, as she would have usually done, she sat in front of him. She wanted to be close enough they could talk quietly, privately, but at the same time she wanted to be able to see his expressions as they talked.

“I’ve been thinking today.” Sara stated.

“Thinking about what my angel?” Seth asked lovingly.

“About The Choosing.” She replied

“Ah…” Seth said then asked. “What about it?”

“I’m scared Seth.” Sara whispered, her lower lip trembling.

Instinctively Seth leaned forward and hugged Sara into his chest, hoping to ease her pain. Hoping to make her feel safe.

“Why are you scared my love?” He asked her. “There is nothing to be afraid of. I won’t let anything happen to you. It’s just a ceremony. Nobody is going to hurt you.”

“I know how it works Seth, and that is why I am scared.” She told him.

“Then what are you afraid of Sara? I will be there with you I promise.” Seth replied.

“I know you will, but I’m afraid we are going to go to the ceremony together and they are going to choose us for different positions in different places. I’m afraid they are going to take you away from me.” Sara sobbed no longer able to control her emotions.

The thought had dawned on Seth before, and now that he thought about it, he too was afraid, not only of losing Sara, but as always, of losing his brother.

“I’m so sorry Sara. I hadn’t thought to mention it before. You said you have been thinking about it, have you come up with a plan or solution?” Seth asked.

“No love, the only thing I could think of is us running away. We could go somewhere far away where no one has heard of The Choosing, and we could hide. That way, at least we could be together.” Sara stated still sobbing, but hopeful he would agree with her.

Seth thought it over a moment. It was a good plan. It was simple and to the point, and with the money they had combined they would be able to travel nearly anywhere they wanted if they went on foot. The only thing that kept Seth from immediately agreeing was his brother. Seth and Garret had been not only brothers, but best friends from birth. They had never been apart, not even for a day. Seth could not imagine running away not knowing when if ever he would see his twin again. He knew too that Garret would not agree to run with them. Garret wanted to go to The Choosing, wanted to serve the Kingdom. Seth looked to the beautiful woman who sat in front of him. She sat watching him expectantly, hopeful that he would accept her plan and they could leave this night. He loved her with every fiber of his being and wanted in no way to hurt or disappoint her. Thinking quickly, Seth formulated a solid, mature decision.

“We can’t run away Sara.” Seth started, and seeing Sara’s shoulders slump, and tears fill her eyes, he continued. “Not yet at least. Please don’t cry Sara, hear me out. I think you will agree with my idea, and if you don’t like it we will figure something out together.”

Sara did not trust her voice and so she nodded for him to continue, and he did.

“My dad used to tell Garret and I to never give something up without trying it.” Seth began. “It has always been good advice so far, so I think it should also apply to this. I say we go to The Choosing, give it a try, see what we are chosen for. If they separate us, we make a run for it. Tomorrow night we will be staying in an inn somewhere in the city. Where ever that inn is, is where we will meet if they separate us. As soon as it is dark, just head to the inn and I will be there and we will leave together I promise. If we aren’t separated, then I say we do our five years of service so long as we are together.” Seth finished, his eyes never leaving Sara’s amber gaze.

Sara listened to Seth explain. Seth was, as she expected, easily able to come up with a plan. He was a rational thinking person, an intelligent person. Sara knew if they had any options he would find them, and so he did. She nodded her agreement to him, wiping the tears from her face. She smiled at the man she loved. He would be there for her no matter what, and just thinking about it made the pain of future possibilities vanish. No longer was she afraid of The Choosing. She reached up, placed her hands on his chest and shoved with all her might.

Seth toppled over backwards, landing on his back in the leaves, no longer even upon their blanket. Before he could process what had just happened Sara was on top of him. She jumped quickly upon him giving him no time to react. She straddled his waist, pressing her body to his. She pressed her mouth to his and parted his lips with her eager tongue. They kissed passionately for many moments until their breath came in ragged gasps. Releasing his lips she trailed down his neck kissing him softly, every kiss bringing her kisses lower on his neck. When she ran out of neck to kiss she reached between their bodies and grabbing his shirt pulled it all the way up to his shoulders. She sat up, admiring his muscled chest, and ran her fingers lightly across the lines of his chest and abdomen. Lying back down upon him she began to kiss his chest. She kissed him in random locations across his chest and stomach until he could no longer endure remaining still.

Unable to continue taking the pleasurable torment she unleashed upon him, Seth took matters into his own hands. Seth rolled over quickly careful not to hurt Sara he pinned her beneath his body. Holding his own weight he slid his body down until once again their lips met. He kissed her hard but lovingly. His lips remained locked to hers relentlessly. Her breaths coming in gasps she pulled her legs out from beneath him raising her knees to either side of him. This position brought her hips and pelvis to press against his body in a pleasurable way he had not experienced before, and not wanting to give her the upper hand he changed his tactic. Sliding down once more he began to lightly kiss her neck, exhaling his warm breath upon her as he did. As his lips worked down the length of her neck a small moan escaped her lips. He knew he was on the right track. Continuing his descent he left a trail of kisses down to her collar bone. Her breaths came loud and fast as he continued his assault. Her tunic was cut severely low in the front, exposing portions of her soft body he yearned to touch. Keeping his hands to either side of her to support his body, he continued to kiss her exposed flesh. Her body began to tremble, and so he continued to kiss her, low into the V of her tunic. As his mouth reached the last portion of her exposed body her quick breaths stopped as she bit her bottom lip, her hips rolling against his abdomen, she shuddered, and her breaths returned deep and slow.

Slowly, with an occasional kiss to her warm flesh, Seth slid his body up hers, bringing them once again eye to eye. As their eyes met they smiled lovingly at one another, Sara’s smile twisting into a mischievous grin.

“Come ‘ere you.” She said grasping the hair on his head and pulling his mouth to hers.

She kissed him hard, giving his bottom lip a slight tug with her teeth playfully.

“I love you.” Sara told him, her eyes sparkling wetly.

“I love you too angel.” Seth replied. “But you need to be more careful.”

“What do you mean my love?” She asked

“Well, if I am to eventually make an honest woman out of you, you’re going to have to control yourself a bit better.”

“Is that so?” Sara asked mockingly. “Do you then have plans already for us to be joined?”

“Nothing would please me more.” Seth replied honestly. “But if we are going to do it right you need to be more careful. I was on the verge of tearing your clothes off there for a while.”

“I would have stopped you.” Sara replied with a knowing smile on her lips.

“Oh you would have huh?” Seth asked mockingly.

“Yes.” Sara stated. “If you think our first time is going to be among a pile of dead leaves you are mistaken my love.”

“So you have it all planned out then?” Seth asked.

“All but the part when you ask me to spend my life with you, and the part where we exchange rings. Those parts are up to you.” Sara said.

“Seems to me you have those parts all planned out as well.” Seth said jokingly.

Seth kissed her again lightly, and stood pulling her up with him. He pulled her back to their blanket and lowered himself down onto his side. She quickly lay down beside him, and rolling onto her side, her back to him, pulled his arms around her. Seth pulled her body tightly to his own. Releasing her momentarily he pulled the remaining half of the blanket tightly over them to keep them warm.

“Good night my angel.” Seth whispered into her ear.

“Good night love.” She replied.

Chapter 7

Valdadore and Visions

Morning came quickly, and with its coming the companions awoke and prepared to travel the last few hours to the fortified city of Valdadore. While packing their things they decided before leaving they would let the horses again drink from the river. This decided, they slung their packs onto their shoulders, untied their respective mounts, and led them to the river. The horses drank vigorously for many minutes while their temporary masters waited impatiently for them to drink their fill.

Finally, seemingly satiated, the horses lost interest in the water and the four companions mounted the beasts and set off once again at an alarming pace towards the giant stone city.

The hours passed swiftly as they thundered down the wide paved road towards the capital city. The nearer they got, the larger the city grew. They began to notice more details about the city as they grew steadily closer. There were narrow slits in the wall near the top, and also guards could be seen patrolling the top of the wall. The Unbelievably high towers each had several windows upon each level, facing out in all directions. As the companions raced nearer, it became apparent that the city was much, much larger than they had presumed before. Being just a few miles away from the city at this point, the massive stone wall surrounding it stretched as far as the eye could see, from one horizon to the other, hiding anything beyond the walls from view. It was easily twenty miles across from corner to corner on this particular side of the city with the huge portcullis being directly at its center. The sheer size of it all was enchanting to the travelers. Never had any one of them believed that man could create anything this vast or marvelous.

Still growing nearer they could now see the lines of people flowing through the opening in the massive wall. People were coming and going at a steady flow all the while being randomly stopped and questioned by the guards at the entrance.

Not only were people on their way in and out of the city, but dozens of people could be seen off in the distance in any direction performing various yard work and landscaping tasks. This entire side of the city sat upon a vast field of manicured grass and shrubs. Occasionally a fruit tree jutted from the ground, and though it was getting late in the season, fruit still clung to the branches amidst multi-colored leaves. People also climbed dozens of ladders of varying heights up the outside surface of the wall. From these ladders the people were seen painting the stone surface with a thick white substance. This explained why the stone walls did not resemble those in Stone Haven.

About a mile from the city the four companions reigned in their mounts and slowed them to a slow trot. Ahead of them, about a half a mile, was the end of a line of people waiting patiently for entrance into the city. The line of people moved steadily toward the massive gates, which emitted nearly all, though denied a few seemingly at random. Carts full of wares and crops stood in the long line, along with groups of people, and small herds of animals. Children darted around and through the line all the while being fussed and shouted at by their mothers.

Coming to the end of the line the companions decided to dismount and lead their horses. It was easier to guide the animals amongst the other people this way, and too was more comfortable keeping the slow steady pace on foot. Now dismounted they could no longer see the entire length of the line, but assumed that with the current pace it should take them less than half of an hour to reach the city. They waited patiently, moving slowly and steadily ever forward. The giant walls of the city seemed to loom above them even from this distance. The closer they got, the more ominous the walls became.

Only a hundred or so feet from the gate remained, and the travelers grew impatient. From here they could see past the gate into the city where hundreds of people walked to and fro going about their daily tasks. Buildings could be seen from where they stood and one in particular that they would need to visit. From here, as had been promised, the group could see a stable building just beyond the gate. It was an odd looking structure. The bottom half of its walls were made of the same gray stone that had once been quarried at Stone haven. The upper half of its walls were made from giant logs. The logs were carved in such a way as to cross each other at the corners where two walls came together, and some sort of blue-gray tar was pressed between the logs to seal the joints. A large double door was cut into the end of the stable building facing the gate, and one door was propped open revealing a large man leaning against a post just inside the door. The man wore brown leather from head to toe. His cap, smock, leggings, and boots were all stitched out of animal’s hides, and all dyed a deep brown, the color of wet soil. Leaning upon a large wooden post, the man was almost camouflaged. If it were not for his hands and face no one would ever have noticed him. But the man too had noticed Garret and his companions. Even as Garret looked at him, the man looked back, appraising either the large mounts they led, or the mount’s leaders themselves.

It was nearly their turn to pass through the gates when they were forced to abruptly stop. The guards had pulled a young boy out of line and were questioning him vigorously. The boy nodded his head exaggeratedly, and flailing his hands about him wildly, answered the questions given him, gesturing oddly as he did. Seth, being the closest to the commotion could not hear the conversation clearly, but was able to make out something about a new invention, and something about increasing the length of something that would reportedly attract women. Seth shrugged to himself assuming the young boy was probably just making up whatever story came to mind in an attempt to gain entry. Seemingly finished with their questioning, the guards pointed back down the road away from the city, denying the boy entrance. They boy’s head dropped and his shoulders slumped as he turned to walk back the way he had come. Finally the line started moving again.

Seth watched as the boy approached. The boy walked, his face to the ground, grumbling to himself about the technology ignorant guards as he neared Seth. Seth, unprepared for what he was seeing, stood slack jawed staring at the small figure passing by him. It was not a young boy as he had believed. He was indeed the height and scrawny build of a young boy of eight or nine, but his fingers were thin, his knuckles swollen. Looking up from the miniature man’s hands Seth was amazed to see his face. It was as wrinkled as a grape left to dry in the sun, his lips were shrunken, withered and an odd shade of purple. The man’s cheeks were weary and the skin clung loosely to the bone beneath. Also the small mans eyes sat deep in their sockets surrounded completely by a vast ring of wrinkled flesh. Seth was shocked at the revelation. The tiny man that had passed him was extremely old, and extremely odd. He appeared entirely too small, entirely too old, yet bounced down the road as if he were the child Seth had previously thought him to be. Perhaps it was some disease that had shrunken the man, or perhaps he was just a freak of nature.

The quartet of travelers had their turn at the gate, and the guards simply nodded to them in approval, and so without so much as a pause, the four continued on to the stable just ahead. The street was crowded, but people cleared the way for the companions, not wanting to be trampled by the large steeds. Their focus on the building before them, none of the companions had yet to look at the vast city they now were immersed in. Stopping outside the stable, Garret passed the reigns of his horse to his brother then entered the building alone. The man clad in the brown leather still leaned, as before, against the wooden beam just within the building. Nodding to Garret as he entered, the man shifted his weight off the beam and stood waiting for Garret to speak.

“Hello.” Garret greeted the man. “We rented four horses from Raven’s Hold, and were told we could return them here.”

“Indeed ye may lad, but first do ye have something for me?” The large man responded with a deep accent of the like Garret had never heard.

“Oh yes, I had forgotten.” Garret admitted. “Here you go.” He stated, pulling the small parchment from his coin purse and handing it to the man.

The man unfolded the small paper, breaking the wax seal and read it swiftly. Finished with the paper he again folded it as I had been before and stuffed it into a pouch on his belt.

“Let’s get the beasts in their stalls before we complete our transaction if ye don’t mind.” The man stated already headed for the door.

Garret followed the man to the door, and walking through it he watched the man take the reins of the horse that had been Garret’s mount, and asking the others to follow him, pulled the beast with him through the door. The man led them down the length of the long building passing stall after occupied stall of various breeds and sizes of horses. He led them to the far end of the building where a dozen or more stalls stood empty and clean. Releasing one horse into each stall he closed the wooden gates behind the animals and latched them securely in place. Turning to face the travelers the man smiled before he spoke.

“Well now that was easy.” The man said still smiling. “Sometimes they likes to put up a bit of a fight before you locks them up. Well then Let me get ye deposit ere.”

Reaching into another pouch upon his belt the man sifted through it with his fingers and brought forth a fist full of coins. Peering into his own palm he pushed the coins around in his hand counting them. Dropping several back into his pouch, he held his hand out for the group to see the coins he held.

“Fifteen silver be ye deposit for all the beasts ye rented. Now if me knows the way of things in this world, then I’d be a guessing fifteen doesn’t split too evenly between four peoples. Be that as it may, I also be guessing the pretty lady likes to shop and so I gives the money to her.”

The man held out the coins to Sara, who accepted them graciously, not having expected to receive anything in turn for the horses. Accepting thanks from each of the travelers the man led them back across the long building to the door they had entered. Seth paused at the door, and turned to once again face the man.

“Sir, would you be so kind as to point us to an inn?” Seth asked the man.

“Certainly I could, but first I need to be knowing what services it is ye will be wanting at an inn before I points ye to one.” The man replied.

“Well It would be nice to be near a market, as well as able to bathe and wash our clothes.” Seth told the man.

“Ah then, you’ll be needing to visit The King’s Herald, it be one of the finest inns in the city, but it be a bit pricey too.” The man replied smiling once again.

“That’s fine. Could you direct us to it?” Seth asked.

“Indeed I will.” The man responded. “Just follow the main road ye came in on, straight toward the center of the city. Bout Seventeen roads ye will cross when ye comes to the market. Past the market four more streets be The King’s Herald on the left of the street. Just look for the steam, ye can’t miss it.” He told Seth, and without waiting for a reply the man turned and walked back across the building.

Seth walked out the door to join his companions, and barely stepping through the threshold Sara grabbed his hand and entwined their fingers. She smiled at him, happy to once again be able to hold his hand as they traveled. Seth smiled in return and kissed her forehead lightly before telling his companions he knew where they could stay the night. Sara’s hand held firmly within his own as not to lose her in the crowd, Seth turned to lead them through the masses of people toward the inn.

The group weaved in and out of the crowd, taking in the sights around them. All were astonished to note that not every person in the city was human. Sara had met a few members of the other races of men, and Ashton had read about them all, but none of them could have imagined this. There were short stocky dwarves, tall incredibly thin elves, small child like gnomes, and even a few people that must have been cross breeds. The city was brighter now than it had been when they arrived, the sun finally high enough in the sky to shine its light over the massive walls surrounding the city. They walked down the street, their mouths occasionally dropping open in astonishment. The street climbed ever slowly up hill, and as they followed it they noticed a pattern to the streets that intersected it. All the streets were evenly spaced, crossing the one they followed at regular intervals. Seth had quickly noticed, and mentioned to his companions, that each street they crossed seemed to bring them to a different style of building, as if each section of the city had been built in ever older fashions the further they progressed towards the center of the city. They counted the streets as they walked, and enjoyed the scenery. The further they traveled into the city the fewer people crowded the streets making it much easier to walk. Looking back it appeared that the buildings behind them were built shorter and shorter as they went to the outer wall, however they discovered this was just an illusion caused by the road climbing steadily, forever uphill. As they continued to travel down the road the buildings became more and more lavish. Here the buildings were painted with murals depicting different times and stone statues adorned the buildings. All four travelers gawked at the beautiful buildings having never seen such elegance before. Seth hoped that one day he could afford a home as beautiful as the ones here, and he and Sara could enjoy it together.

As they climbed the street, they noticed yet another change in the architecture, now the buildings were not decorative, elaborate, or beautiful. Just the opposite in fact, these building were plain structures, built out of necessity. Most of them had signs above the doors, and windows filled with displays of various wares. They had reached the beginning of the market area of the city. They noticed another intersecting street just ahead, marking the road as the seventeenth they would cross. They walked the side of the street peering into each shop they passed, trying to make mental notes of the locations of any they might want to visit. The market was an expansive portion of the city consisting of nine of the city sections split by roads, and no telling how far the market carried down each side street. People bustled about here darting into and out of shops on either side of the road. In some places carts stood in the street and were either being loaded or unloaded. The shops of the city came in various shapes and sizes and even different colors, just like the people who inhabited it. Most of the people they could see now were all human, though even the humans here showed much variation. Some were pale and creamy looking like Sara, others were more of a tan color like the twins and Ashton, yet others were darker still ranging from shades of pale brown to a color almost as dark and rich as to look almost black.

The market ended abruptly without warning and was replaced by rows and rows of small homes. Each home was built identical to the next except for the varying colors they had been painted. These homes were all built close together, so close in fact that there were even homes behind the homes on the street, with only a small paved path joining them all together and spilling between two of the homes into the street. Looking between these homes there were more just like them as far as the eye could see to the left and right of the road. The masses of identical homes only spanned the length between two of the intersecting streets, and once again the group traveled amongst lavishly painted and decorative homes and offices. The more upscale buildings here lasted for three more intersections, and took them all the way to the section where they found the inn.

The King’s Herald was a beautiful building, and that was the understatement of the century. The front of the building consisted of a sprawling porch from one end of the building to the other. The roof to the porch was held in place by a dozen massive stone columns carved to display royal persons once inhabiting the city in scenes of glory. The building itself was made from the same stone that had made Stone Haven and the wall surrounding Valdadore. The inn, like the wall, had been painted white and glistened in the sun. Several tall windows made with colored panes of glass depicting a royal family stood upon the front wall of the inn. The inn, its columns, and the windows climbed three stories into the air before being trapped under a roof clad in baked clay segments. The group stood in front of the inn, awe on their faces, momentarily lost in their own thoughts.

A loud whooshing sound followed by a hollow whistling startled the companions from their reverie. Looking around to locate the sound they were once again mystified. From the stone pillars steam erupted from the mouths and nostrils of every man and beast depicted upon them. The steam hung ominously about the front of the building coating the pillars in moisture. Within seconds the hollow billowing ceased and once again they stood in awe of the building.

“Whoa.” Garret said.

The rest of his companions nodded in agreement without so much as an attempt to look at Garret when they did. They stood for long moments once more taking in all the tedious details of the magnificent building. It was Sara who took the first step. Giving Seth’s hand a gentle squeeze, Sara led him up to the door of the inn, and looking back, assured herself that Garret and Ashton had decided to follow.

Being a gentleman Seth pulled the massive, decoratively carved door open, allowing Sara to enter before him. The group all entered the door and allowed it to swing closed behind them. Looking around it was apparent that this inn was like no other they had visited. Beyond the main entrance was a small lobby. The floor here was made of polished marble tiles. Each of the tiles was inlaid with gold filigree in symbols of some foreign language. The walls were painted brightly and lacquered to give a rich shine. Directly in front of them, across the small lobby was a tall counter also made of polished marble. The room was crafted sparing no expense and it showed. It was the most lavish room any of them could recall ever seeing.

Not wanting to be noticed gawking, Seth led Sara to the counter. At this time no one was attending the counter, but this allowed the group to look beyond the room at the rest of the building. Behind the counter was a wall hiding what lay beyond it, but muted humming sounds came from somewhere in that direction. To their right they could see a lavishly decorated dining hall. The room was filled with large wooden tables stained a deep russet color and polished to a gleaming shine. Upon each table rested a silk cloth protecting the table’s surface from scratching. Upon each cloth were two sconces with candles, and a vase of freshly cut flowers. The same polished floor they stood upon now carried through the dining room, and the walls were decorated in interlocking wooden planks that spanned from the floor to the ceiling. These planks were stained in various shades of honey and brown creating striped pattern around the room. These too were polished to shine. To the left of where they stood now was a large seating area, a common room of sorts. Here the walls were left to allow the bare stone to show, and each wall contained several small fireplaces. Each of them showed slight signs of use so it was apparent they were not for decoration. Around each fireplace several upholstered chairs and benches rested forming dozens of cozy conversation areas where visitors could just relax and talk with other travelers or their companions. The floor here was the same marble as the rest of the building, and though less formal than the other rooms, this room was no less luxurious.

Waiting several minutes to allow everyone to look around, Seth decided it was time to see if they could afford such accommodations. Reading the sign on the counter Seth quickly followed its instructions and pulled on a cord that hung from the ceiling that he hadn’t noticed before. Pulling the cord, Seth could feel it give, and releasing it emitted a deep resounding dong, dong, dong. From somewhere higher in the building the bell rang and reverberated through the stone walls to be heard throughout the entire structure.

Immediately from somewhere beyond the wall in front of them, they heard a door swing open and then closed again. Footsteps clicked across the marble floor and around the wall from the dining hall a woman appeared. She was tall and slender, and wrapped in an elegant silk gown that clung to the curves of her body like a lover. No detail was left to the imagination and it was apparent that the woman’s body, though appearing delicate, had a distinctive tone to her muscles. She smiled to them as she rounded the corner showing her flawless white teeth. She had a pretty smile, one that both welcomed them and made them feel at ease. As she stepped behind the counter, she began to speak.

“Welcome to The King’s Herald, I am Sasha the Inn’s director. In anticipation of the celebration of The Choosing ceremony we have temporarily cut our rates to better accommodate those that have traveled from afar to attend. We still have several rooms available if you should like to stay.” The woman stated with rehearsed perfection.

Seth stood looking away from the woman as if to show Sara he was not interested in any other woman but her. The other boys were too busy drooling to form any words, so it was left to Sara to do the speaking.

“We would indeed like to stay Miss Sasha, but first may I ask some questions about your accommodations?” Sara said trying to mimic the other woman’s word mastery.

“Yes please do feel free to ask me anything your heart desires.” Sasha replied.

“First off then, do you have bathing facilities, and facilities to launder our clothes? Secondly, what sizes of rooms do you have available? Lastly what are the current rates on those rooms?” Sara asked all at one to get the questions out of the way.

“Well M’lady we do have bathing facilities, and we also can launder your clothes and dry them while you bathe so they are fresh and warm when you are finished. We have several sizes of rooms remaining as well. We have some large one bed suites available with one bed that runs ten silver per night, while on special. We also have some two bed rooms remaining they are less lavishly decorated and on a higher floor and so run a bit cheaper at seven silver per night, then we also have some rooms on the top floor each with four beds made into bunks. The rooms are small but satisfactory and cost six silver per night, from now until the day after the ceremony.” Sasha replied. She then waited patiently for a response.

Sara ran several calculations through her head knowing they could afford any rooms they wanted, but unwilling to spend all of their remaining money on the rooms. Four nights remained until the ceremony, and Sara realized she still had a substantial amount of money, her purse now totaling one gold, seventy six silver, and ninety two copper. Taking this into account she had one last question to ask.

“What services are included with a room?” Sara asked Sasha.

“Everything but food darling.” Sasha replied quickly.

“Ok then, we would like a one bedroom suite for four nights, and a two bed room also for four nights.” Sara said smiling provocatively at Seth.

“Alright M’lady, extended stays must be paid for in advance to reserve your room. Also if you should wish for someone to go to the markets for you just ask and I will send one of ours servants free of charge, you will only need to pay for the items you’ve sent for.” Sasha spoke once again as if she had been practicing the lines all morning.

Sara dug out the two large silver coins still in her possession, and eighteen small silver coins. She paid Sasha, who thanked her graciously and asked if they would like to see their rooms or bathe first. All of them decided they would much rather bathe first asked to be led to the baths. Sasha led them through the lavish building taking them first through the dining hall and then around a corner into a long hallway. They walked to the end of the hall and Sasha opened the door at the end of the hall revealing a room like none the group had ever imagined. It was not that the room was excessively decorative. It was the massive metal structure in the middle of the room that drew the focus of their attention. A giant copper tear hung from the ceiling at the middle of the room, it was polished to a golden honey shine, and across its polished surface flames leaped and danced. The fire was actually situated below the giant metal tear, but its reflections danced all over the object causing it to appear as if it were completely engulfed in flame. At the top of the giant tear, where it hung from the ceiling, dozens of small copper tubes erupted out in a cascade across the ceiling. The tubes ran across the expanse of the ceiling in all directions, curving this way and that, some of them even doubling back upon themselves before turning once again in another direction. The tubes then flowed down the walls disappearing behind the semitransparent glass walls of a dozen stalls. Shadows and sparkles danced around the room making the entire expanse seem alive. It was an amazing site, awe inspiring. Sasha watched their expressions as they entered the room and she smiled knowingly.

“The device was once created by the gnomes as a weapon of war. They brought several of them here to Valdadore to present to the King as a gift. However as most gnome devices are dangerous at best, there was a fatal flaw in their design. The large tank we so lovingly refer to as the gods’ tear was designed to hold a large quantity of tar. It would then be heated causing the tar to expand and spray out the tubes. The tubes can be bent to face in the direction of the enemy who would subsequently by coated in boiling tar. However while demonstrating the device to the King its tubes clogged preventing the escape of the heated tar. Pressure continued to build in the tear until the demonstration unit exploded killing all of its handlers. The King rejected the gift, and the gnomes were so upset by their failure left the remaining devices for the people to do with them whatever they wanted. We, here at The King’s Herald obtained this one and modified it slightly to heat water for our baths. Inside each stall is a tube with a valve, if you would like to heat your bath further simply turn the valve and hot water will flow into your bath. Be careful though it is very hot. After you undress please place your clothes at the base of the door to your stall and one of our people will collect them and have them quickly washed, dried, and returned. Please feel free to take your time and relax.” Sasha finished her narrative, and smiling politely left the room allowing the door to close behind her.

Without a word the group headed down between the two rows of stalls. Ashton walked straight into the first stall and closed the door behind him. Garret walked half way down the same row and disappeared into a stall of his own. Sara led Seth by the hand to the back of the room. She led him to the next to last stall in the room and kissed him gently before allowing him to enter the stall. Watching him close the door behind him, she stepped into the stall directly next to his, the last stall in the room. Sara waited until she heard Seth step into the water. Knowing he was undressed and relaxing, she too quickly removed her clothes. The walls between the stalls were made of the same semitransparent glass as the doors, and being such you could see through them a bit, kind of like looking at a colored silhouette. It was a view lacking detail, thus granting privacy into each stall. Sara walked to the wall she shared with Seth. Assuming the closer she got to the wall the more definition he would be able to see through the glass. She tapped the wall lightly with her fingertips and heard his bath water slosh around. Assured she had his attention, she stepped as near to the glass she could without actually touching it and turned around painfully slow allowing him a less than perfect view of every angle of her naked body. Hearing Seth sigh loudly Sara giggled and turning, climbed into her tub.

Seth looked around the small stall. The tub was a large copper caldron with a tube protruding through the top lip and out through the back wall. Another tube came out of the bottom of the tub and had a knob on it to close or open it. Above the tub as promised one of the copper tubes climbed down the wall, and turning at a right angle ended abruptly just above the tub with another of the knobs. In the back corner of the little stall was a series of shelves easily within reach of the tub. Upon the shelves rested several bowls with salves and creams, small bars of soaps, bottles of differently scented perfumes, and a pile each of washing cloths and towels. Plucking both a bar of the soap and a washing cloth he rested them on the side of the tub. Seth then quickly undressed and stepped into the tub. As his body displaced the water it flowed quickly out of the upper tube through the wall preventing even a drop to overflow onto the floor. Seth was thinking to himself about how great an idea it was when he heard a tapping from behind him. Turning in his tub he could see Sara’s fingertips resting on the pain of glass that separated them. Seth watched as Sara stepped up to the glass. He could see her, though the image was clouded and dull, and lacked detail and definition. Without realizing he had done it Seth inhaled sharply and held his breath. Sara stood naked before him, and though the vision lacked intimate detail, enough clarity remained to keep his attention fixed. She turned then, ever so slowly allowing him to see her fully exposed making up with his imagination the details he could not decipher through the glass. Hers was a body of perfection. Seth tried to breath and found he still could not as she paused once again this time facing away from him. He watched in silent reverence as she bent slightly at the waist to give him a better view of her retreating form. However instead of retreating she again stood erect and continued her painfully slow show. Seth could not help himself. He watched trying to take in every bit of her, unable to look away. As she finally finished her blood stirring game and stepped away from the glass, Seth’s ability to breathe returned once again and he exhaled loudly. This was responded to by a giggle from the other side of the glass. The melodic sound his angel made when she purposely pushed his limits. Seth smiled to himself aware of her little game. She enjoyed his torture, and he could easily admit to himself he enjoyed it just as much. Pulling the cloth and soap from the edge of the tub, Seth began to wash away the dirt and grime of the road.

Sara enjoyed teasing Seth. She enjoyed enticing him with her body. It wasn’t that she was over confident about her body, not even that she found herself attractive. She imagined herself the plain picture of the girl next door. She did not think herself anything special, but Seth seemed to be intrigued by her. If he thought well enough of her body to pay it such close attention, then she saw no reason not to give him something to look at. She knew that he wanted to wait, wanted to do the right thing by her. Seth was very old fashioned, and she adored that about him. Though his body showed no signs of having the same intentions his mind had, Seth had been able to refuse her advances each time she had applied herself. She knew all too well how to arouse his body, she had been raised in a brothel after all, and Seth was a man much like every other man. Even so, though his body might scream for hers, he had yet to step over that line, and said he would not do so until they were joined. So it would be that though Sara did not have the same old fashioned opinions, she would not expect Seth to give in to what she wanted. However, if he planned to make her wait, she would do her best to make him think twice about it. Smiling to herself, thinking about how she might tease him the next four nights that they would be sharing a bed, she began to wash herself.

As promised, just a few moments after Garret had gotten in the tub small hands reached under the stall door and collected his soiled and dirty clothes. He washed his hair and body quickly but thoroughly and laid back in the tub letting his head fall back. The water was relaxing and he eased every muscle in his body allowing the warmth to sooth him. Fully relaxed Garret closed his eyes allowing his mind to wander. It did not wander long, and soon Garret drifted into half sleep.

Again Garret stood among an army on a battlefield. This time he stood watching the black masses of the enemy swarm towards him. The enemy was upon him in minutes and he hefted his sword high and thrust it forward giving the signal to attack. “For Valdadore!” The battle cry echoed across the plains as steel met steel. The nearest of his enemies sprinted at him in a mass. All of them looked otherworldly with blackened armor and weapons gleaming wetly with blood. Their teeth snapped as they ran at him as if they were some breed of savage animals starved into attacking wildly. Onward his enemy came and Garret let his head roll back on his neck. Whispering something into the sky, his words lost in the sounds of battle, Garret’s eyes gleamed with energy and his body exploded.

Garret sat upright with a gasp. Shaking his head to clear it he looked around unsure of where he was. Absorbing his surroundings he recalled the memories temporarily displaced by the dream. Looking down he saw his clothes folded in a neat pile below the door. Realizing he must have slept for longer than he originally thought he had, he quickly got out of the tub and dried himself. Dressing quickly Garret stepped out of his stall.

Ashton watched Garret come out of his stall and smiled to him in greeting. Ashton too was refreshed and redressed in his now clean clothes. Each walking halfway the distance between them they spoke quietly about the giant copper tear hanging in the center of the room.

Sara, her body and hair already washed, sat on the edge of her tub spreading one of the available salves over the entire surfaces of her legs and another more sensitive region of her body. Allowing the salve to sit until it began to burn, she then quickly wiped it away with her damp washing cloth, wiping the hair away with the salve. Feeling her legs to be sure the hair had been eradicated, and assured it was, she then quickly rubbed a cream lotion over her legs to make the skin soft. Sara then dismounted the tub and toweled her hair dry and redressed. Finished dressing, Sara brushed the tangles from her hair with a brush from the shelves in her stall and pulling it over her shoulder she braided it loosely and tied it at the end with the leather strap. Feeling she had made herself as pretty as she could for Seth she stepped out of her stall just as he did.

Seth had washed up quickly, and to be sure he smelled clean for Sara he washed his body again, three more times in fact. Seth had no idea what all the creams and salves were on the shelves, but he was able to find a small sharp blade and a mirror which he used to scrape away the prickly facial hair that had sprouted across his face in a little over a week since he had left home. Only managing to cut himself twice he was impressed with himself. Once the bleeding stopped Seth washed the blood away, and quickly dried and got redressed. His clothes smelled exceptionally clean, and he stepped out of his stall feeling terrific.

Sara and Seth smiled at each other as they both allowed their stalls to close behind them. Taking Seth’s hand with one of hers, Sara reached up with the other to feel his smooth face with her fingertips.

“Smooth… I like it.” Sara said with a grin and a giggle.

They walked hand in hand to meet the others and they all decided to find Sasha so they could take their packs and equipment to their rooms. Exiting the bathing room they walked back down the long corridor towards the dining hall. Rounding the corner into the dining hall they could hear voices around the corner. The voices came from the very counter where they had met Sasha earlier, and she was there again speaking to a man that was apparently another customer. They waited patiently for the conversation to end, and when it did the man handed Sasha some coins and turned and left the inn. Sara motioned for the boys to remain where they were, and releasing Seth’s hand she walked to the counter and greeted Sasha. The three boys were still some distance from the counter and so were unable to hear the women’s dainty conversation but they watched as Sara spoke pausing periodically as Sasha responded with a nod.

Sara left the boys in the dining hall hoping they would be far enough away to remain out of range to hear what she was going to talk to Sasha about. She was a bit embarrassed as it was just asking a stranger what it was she planned to ask, she did not want the added embarrassment that would come if the boys could hear her. Walking towards Sasha Sara greeted her and came to stand mere inches away from the woman.

“Hello Sasha.” Sara greeted.

“Hello again M’lady.” Sasha replied

“It’s Sara. Sorry I didn’t introduce myself properly earlier.” Sara said unused to the title Sasha had labeled her with.

Sasha nodded in understanding.

“You said you could send someone to the market for us if we needed?” Sara asked already knowing the answer to her question.

Sasha nodded in response.

“I was wondering if you might have someone pick up something for me?” Sara asked in a voice barely over a whisper, and continued without waiting for a response. “I have nothing to sleep in, and I plan to share a bed tonight.”

Again Sasha nodded in understanding.

“I would like to get something a bit provocative, yet not too revealing if that is possible.” Sara said still barely above a whisper and unable to meet Sasha’s eyes as she said it.

“That can be arranged, would you like something for your man as well?” Sasha asked mimicking Sara’s muted tone.

“If it’s not too much trouble, I’m not sure if he has anything.” Sara stated. “Though I wouldn’t mind if he didn’t.” She added as an afterthought smiling as she said it.

“Consider it done.” Sasha stated with an assuring tone. “Would you care to see your rooms now?”

This time it was Sara who nodded in response, and the two of them turned and walked towards the boys who waited patiently. As Sasha passed the boys she asked them to follow, and before Seth would comply he made sure Sara’s hand was firmly in his.

Sasha fist led them to the room Sara and Seth would be sharing, and opening the door for the young couple, allowed them to enter and closed the door behind them. She then continued to lead Garret and Ashton to the room they would share.

Seth and Sara walked through the door and stepped directly into a dream. The room was beyond comprehension. The floors here were covered from corner to corner with an amazingly soft rug. The room had various luxurious pieces of furniture throughout its expanse, but both of them instinctively looked towards the bed. The bed was an enormous mass of satin and stained wood. Each corner of the bed was a massive post that rose from the floor to nearly touch the ceiling. The footboard of the bed was carved in a scene depicting nude silhouettes of people dancing in couples, their bodies entwined together in various vertical positions. The headboard was a large frame of stained and polished wood surrounding a large oval piece of some sort of metal polished to a mirror finish reflecting the bed back upon itself. From the tops of the four posts was stretched a white satin canopy that fell in tendrils around the entire expanse of the bed partially hiding the mattress and bedding from view. Pulling back the satin tendrils revealed pillows made from the softest down feathers piled high across the head of the bed. The blankets and sheets were all satin and silk wrapped around an overstuffed down mattress. The bed somewhat resembled a cloud and Sara could hardly wait to see if it was as soft as it looked but restrained herself. Looking around the rest of the room revealed a large writing desk completely stocked with various types of parchment and ink along with small blocks of colored wax. Also opposite the bed there were several overstuffed upholstered chairs. To either side of the bed was a small stand each containing several candles and a small vase of flowers. In one corner on the same wall as the bed stood a small woven partition where one could undress or dress unseen and in the corner opposite of that there was a small room built into the larger one with a single door upon it. Opening the door revealed a small private privy. Most inns had a privy room the tenants would share, but this inn spared no expense. Seth and Sara both dropped their packs at the foot of the bed and sat on its edge sinking deeply into the mattress. They were there many long moments leaning into one another, just enjoying each other’s company.

Sasha led the two remaining boys up a flight of stairs to the second floor. They topped the stairs and walked half way down the hall there and she paused and opened a door. Glancing inside she held the door open for them allowing them to enter. Once they were inside she closed the door behind them and placed the key to the room in the lock to the door and left it there for them to find when they exited.

Garret and Ashton entered the room they would be sharing and were amazed by the quality of the room. The floor here was the same marble as the floors they had seen before, only this floor lacked the filigree. The room was split in two by a long narrow rug that ran the length of the room between the beds. The room was decorated as such that either side of the rug was a mirror reflection of the opposite side. Two beds, two desks, two bedside tables, two upholstered chairs, and two wooden chests decorated the room. All of the furniture looked heavy and crafted from quality materials. The chairs red leather upholstery matched the bed’s red satin sheets and spread. Across the room from the entry door, directly in the center of the opposite wall stood another door. Behind the door was a privy where Garret quickly decided to test the plumbing.

After several long minutes enjoying their privacy Seth and Sara decided to go and wait for the others in the Dining hall. It was just past mid day at this point and both of them agreed they were ready to eat. Leaving their room they found a key with a ribbon tied to it protruding from their door and so they locked the door, and Seth pocketed the key before walking down the hall. Arriving at the dining hall Seth and Sara noticed it was completely vacant and so chose a large table in the center of the room. They waited patiently exchanging smiles and looks of adoration as they did. They did not have to wait excessively long for after a while they could hear the voices of Garret and Ashton coming loudly down the hall.

Spying their friends, Garret and Ashton quickly joined them at the table and seated themselves. Each of the four spoke excitedly about their rented accommodations and the luxurious details of each of the rooms. It surprised them all, it seemed, that a little money could grant a generous amount of luxury, at least temporarily. As they spoke a young woman, younger than Sara, walked through the dining hall carrying some packages. She smiled at the group seated there and continued on through the room and disappeared down the hall. The group watched her go and their eyes lingered on the hall when she returned, this time without the packages. She approached their table and came to stand near them before speaking.

“Hello gentlemen and Miss Sara, if you would care for something to drink I would be delighted to fetch it for you. Also someone will be with you shortly to take your food choices if you wish to eat.” The small girl, perhaps fifteen, said it with the same practiced perfection of Sasha.

The group each stated that they would like some cold ale, and did intend to eat and the girl turned on her heel and strode back into the hall. Moments later she returned carrying a tray with four mugs and a large pitcher. She placed a mug expertly in front of each of the guests and placed the pitcher in the center of the table. The companions all thanked her before she once again walked off, and as she left a short lean man came from the hall wearing a white smock and a funny looking fluffy hat of the same material. The man sauntered up to their table with a noticeable limp. The group watched him approach and each smiled to the man as he did so. Coming to stand beside their table, easily in sight of everyone the man first looked to Sara as he spoke.

“What will you be having to eat this afternoon M’lady?” The man asked his voice coated in a strange accent.

Sara unable to comprehend the question, was unsure if she had not noticed a list of their food choices somewhere and so quickly glanced around the table at her companions. Seeing her look mirrored on their faces, she returned her gaze to the man.

“I’m so sorry sir. I am unaware of the meal choices.” She stated with a meek grin playing across her lips.

“Ah, this is your first stay with us then.” The man said, and without waiting for a response he continued. “We have no meal choices here M’lady, whatever delicious food your heart desires we will prepare fresh for you if the ingredients are available to us and the recipe known.” This the man stated with a look of pride and wide toothed smile.

Sara was a bit taken aback, she hadn’t prepared for this, but also did not want to make the man, or her companions wait excessively so she spoke the first food that came to mind, the last meal her mother had prepared for her before her death.

“If it is possible, could you prepare a chicken soup with noodles?” Sara asked hopefully.

“It would be my pleasure M’lady.” The man stated honestly with a smile. “And what might you be having young master?” This time the man looked to Seth as he spoke.

Seth had been dreaming about the possibilities while Sara decided what she was going to order. Several ideas crossed his mind, and he had nearly decided upon a meat pie like the one he had eaten at the inn in Stone Haven, but hearing Sara’s choice he changed his mind. Seth had never had a chicken soup with noodles before and the thought intrigued him.

“I will take the same as she ordered.” Seth said to the man smiling first to him and then to Sara.

“Well that will be two soups then.” The man said making a note of it. “What will you be having sire?” The man asked, his gaze meeting Garret’s.

“I would like a meat pie.” Garret stated immediately.

“Ah, it’s a hardy meal indeed.” The man replied and then added. “Would you like chicken, beef, or pork sire? Also would you like it with a cream sauce or a cheese sauce?” He asked as if sorting through different recipes in his memory.

Garret thought deeply a moment, his face twisting into compositions that looked incredibly uncomfortable, and then he answered the man’s question.

“Seems you will already be preparing chicken for two meals I’ll take chicken as well.” Garret stated now smiling at the man. “I hope it lightens your burden a bit, also I would like to try a cream sauce if it isn’t too much trouble.”

The man in the outlandish white garb smiled broadly at Garret knowing as he did that the boy had indeed saved him much effort.

“No trouble at all young sire.” Was the man’s simple reply. “What shall you be having young master?” The man now spoke to Ashton.

“If you have it available, I would like an assortment of fresh fruit.” Ashton responded politely.

“Indeed you shall have a wide variety young master. Is that all you require?” He asked the group now as a whole.

Accepting their nods in response the short man spun on his good leg and sauntered back out of the room the way he had come.

Sara turned to Seth with a disarming smile on her lips.

“Chicken soup huh?” She asked him mockingly.

“Why not?” Seth asked rhetorically. “Oh and what is a noodle?” Seth added unsure if he had ever had one before. “Do you think I will like it? I have only had chicken soup with potatoes in the past.” He stated honestly.

“Well my love a noodle is warm, moist, and tender. I think you will like it.” She said her smile fading slightly as she continued. “It was the last meal my mother made me before she died.”

Seth had not expected the revelation and so reached under the table to take her hand and hold it tightly.

“I’m sorry angel.” Seth said not knowing what else to say.

“It is ok my love, she is gone, but I do like to remember her.” Sara said her eyes and expression blank, as if she looked into the distance to see something just out of sight.

Seth, wanting to change the mood of the conversation, but not wanting to take away time from Sara’s memories decided to ask a question.

“Do you think your mother would have liked me?” Seth asked. His question born out of honest curiosity, however Garret and Ashton also looked on curious of her response themselves.

“Well love, you are young, strong, intelligent, handsome, and have several silver at your disposal. My mother more than liked several men who were either: young, strong, intelligent, or handsome. So I would say yes she would most defiantly like you, if not try to bed you.” This last part she added with a wink to Seth.

Garret and Ashton burst into laughter. They had both been unsure as to how Seth’s question would affect the girl, but did not expect her almost sarcastic response. It was true, Sara’s mother had been a prostitute, and so would indeed probably try to bed any man who might have coins to pay for it. Seth’s jaw had dropped open at her reply, and Sara beamed at him, smiling as brightly as her face was able in response to his reaction. Sara couldn’t help herself, and despite her attempt to control it she giggled angelically at the man she loved. Laughter being contagious, consumed even Seth after he was able to somewhat recover from the shock of Sara’s answer. So they all laughed heartily, the mood dramatically changed for the better.

They spoke merrily of the days ahead, making presumptions about the festivities that would be held within the city in the days to come. Garret once mentioned The Choosing ceremony at which point Seth and Sara shared a knowing look, having already prepared an escape plan in case they would need it. They had been talking for some time when the man in the strange white attire sauntered once again into the room. This time the man was followed by Sasha and each of them carried a tray.

The man placed before Sara and Seth large, shallow, steaming bowls. The scent of the food enticed their nostrils and Seth’s mouth began to water. The bowls were filled nearly to the brim with large chunks of meat, small diced vegetables, and pale white strands of twisted soft noodles. All of this was submerged within a golden yellow broth that steamed and smelled of herbs and spices. It looked and smelled delicious.

Sasha walked around the table and placed before Garret a large round plate. At its center sat a flaky pie crust with several slits in the top. From the slits bubbled a creamy white sauce releasing the scents of mushroom and pepper. The crust was baked golden brown and was trimmed into a perfect circle. It too looked and smelled delicious.

Sasha then walked around to Ashton who smiled as she approached. In front of him she placed a large bowl identical to the ones Seth and Sara were given. Within the bowl sat a small melon with its top carved out in the likeness of a swan. Within the recesses created by the carving, grapes and cherries and other small fruits filled the hollowed center of the melon. Around the melon, ringing the entire bowl were cut strawberries, orange slices, and wedges cut from various types of apples. The bowl appeared more as a work of art then a meal. It was a fantastic display of the creator’s culinary skill, and Ashton stated as much. His compliment brought a huge smile to the man’s face and Sasha nodded to the man her approval. Wishing them an enjoyable meal Sasha and the man left the group to eat in peace.

The four companions enjoyed their meals almost without speaking, but an occasional sound of delight penetrated the room as someone was overwhelmed by some succulent morsel or another.

They finished their meals more quickly than they thought possible, obviously more hungry than any of them had presumed. Talking quietly around the table, they each graciously complimented the chef and waited patiently for one of the inn’s employees to return. Before long they could hear voices from somewhere down the hall but none of them were able to make out the words. Shortly thereafter, the muted conversation had come to an end and footsteps sounded on the stone floors growing increasingly louder with each step. Sasha’s heeled shoes clicked and clacked as she appeared from the hallway. Sasha’s face lit up as she responded to their intent gazes.

“I hope your meal was enjoyable.” Sasha said in greeting.

The boys each nodded their approval, but Sara turned to speak to their host.

“It was perfect Sasha. Please send my thanks to whomever prepared the soup.” She said in earnest.

“Oh I shall darling, is there anything else we can get for you? If not is there anywhere you should like to visit? There are still a few hours of light remaining within the city walls if you would like for me to direct you to some place of interest.” Sasha asked the questions as always with practiced perfection.

“Didn’t you want to visit the knight’s training grounds Garret?” Sara asked turning to face him as she did so.

Sara’s question was followed by a gasp from Sasha, and Sara quickly returned her gaze to the woman to see what had transpired that she must have missed. Sasha stood with a stunned look on her face, unable to believe something, though what it was no one knew. The woman’s lips moved a couple of times as if to speak. She inhaled deeply, regaining her composure and looked to them once more, this time pausing to inspect each one of them as if looking for something.

“I’m sorry.” Sasha stated. “How rude of me to stand here staring at you all, it’s just that I had heard the name Garret recently, and I now presume that the two are the same.” Sasha stated, explaining her reaction only a moment ago. “I realize it isn’t any of my business, but could I ask you a few questions?” Sasha asked them as a group, looking to each of them hopefully.

“Sure.” Garret answered, intrigued by the woman’s previous statement about his name.

“Well then I must ask if you are the same Garret that met three Kingdom knights upon the road between Raven’s Hold and Stone Haven?” Sasha asked, eyeing Garret intently.

“Yes ma’am one in the same.” Garret stated and then as if to prove the meeting added. “They approached me looking for signs of a goblin who had visited the area.”

Sasha nodded in reply and her eyes drifted from Garret around the table and fell upon his twin Seth.

“You then must be the brother who sustained injury in the encounter.” Sasha stated recalling the details she had been told.

Seth nodded in response, unsure of the direction of the conversation.

“It appears you have recovered then from the injury you reportedly sustained. I suspect it was no great injury then if you sit here already just a couple days later.” Sasha spoke as if making notes of the details mentally as she did.

“Well actually…” Ashton chimed in not wanting her to presume incorrectly. “The goblin was able to drive his blade between Seth’s ribs and up into his lung and heart.” Ashton spoke evenly as a physician might of the injury.

Seth shuddered at the thought, remembering too well the pain of the injury and the grief it had caused Sara.

“Truly?” Sasha asked as if unconvinced. “Yet you sit here with a beating heart, breathing air easily at my table. How is this possible?” She asked this time the disbelief audible in her tone.

“Like this.” Ashton said, slightly annoyed by the woman’s disbelief.

Ashton pushed back from the table and kneeled beside it, raising his face to the heavens he spoke a prayer silently to himself. Then focusing his gaze inward he chanted almost silently. Twisting the power surging within him he began to focus the power at his hands. Deciding that would not be dramatic enough he refocused the power to consume him and molding it to his will he unleashed it. Bright light exploded from Ashton’s entire body consuming him in its soft yellow tinted glow. The light pulsed more brightly than any of his companions had ever witnessed before, and the light appeared to dance around the boy’s body clinging loosely to his form. As quickly as the light had appeared, Ashton forced himself to once again contain it as to not tire his body. A smile spreading across the lanky man’s face the light vanished with a wink. Ashton opened his eyes to find Sasha staring at him, her mouth wide open in disbelief. Attempting to regain her composure, Sasha peeled her gaze away from the young healer and looked away to gather her thoughts before she spoke.

“A young powerful healer.” She stated more to herself than anyone else. “Who would have known? Please accept my apologies for not readily accepting your tale. It is just a surprise that you travel without the robes of your order.” Sasha mused of her own thoughts as Ashton began to reply.

“I have not yet received my robes Miss Sasha, as I have not yet attended The Choosing, nor have I been properly trained. My abilities are what my mother was able to teach me, as well as the result of much trial and error.” Ashton stated honestly.

“I see.” Sasha proclaimed. “May I have the honor of learning your name?” She asked having derived the rest of their names from the conversation. His name alone was the only one not known to her.

“My name is Ashton Rayne, and it is a pleasure to make your acquaintance.” Ashton replied earnestly.

“No my young friends, it is I that has the pleasure of meeting you. I must send word to my husband that you have arrived safely.” Sasha stated. “He was most hopeful to see you again at The Choosing Garret, and I am sure he would be happy to learn that you have arrived intact.” She stated happily.

“Who is your husband and why does he want to see me?” Garret asked thoroughly confused.

“Oh how silly of me, one of the knights you met on the road was my husband, Lord Sirus.” Sasha stated a look of pride spreading across her pretty face.

This time it was the four companions whose jaws dropped open. None of them could believe that this woman’s husband had been the one to supply them with horses and food, and money for shelter. The money that in fact had been used to pay for their stay at this inn. The very inn owned by the man and his wife. It was just too much to comprehend.

Allowing her four guests to regain their composure, and to let the information settle upon them, Sasha waited patiently. When they all had appeared to recover from the news, Sasha decided to finish answering Garret’s question as best as she was able.

“When my husband met you he was able to determine that with training you could become a knight like himself. He said he could sense…” Sasha’s words broke off as she pondered something. “Wait if you are twins though than that likely means that Seth too has…” Trailing off again Sasha was consumed by her own thoughts momentarily before she continued. “Never mind me. It will all be sorted out in the days to come. That much I am sure of, but I must leave you with my apologies. I must send word to my husband. Perhaps he will even come to visit you before the ceremony. In any case don’t worry about the meals. They are free of charge, as well as any further services or food you might require whilst you stay under our roof.” Sasha spoke the words swiftly, and when she finished speaking she turned and strode elegantly out of the room.

The four companions sat looking around from one face to another. The meaning of Sasha’s words had been lost to them, and none of them wanted to voice their shared questions. Yet her generosity made them all feel somewhat comfortable with the fact that something obviously beyond their understanding was going on. Feeling concerned and a bit frightened Sara took in the faces around her. Seth looked deep in thought, his eyes focused on some point straight ahead of him. He still held her hand beneath the table, though his fingers felt limp, unfeeling. Sasha had said that Seth apparently shared some unknown talent with his brother, a talent that could possibly lead him to being chosen for the vast armies of Valdadore. This Sara knew was not what Seth wanted, nor did she want him to go with the army. The possibility worried her, as it must be worrying him, judging by the look on his face. Sara then looked to Garret. He sat tall and proud in is chair beaming a smile across the table at his brother, however the look went unnoticed by its intended target. Garret felt that in this moment his dreams and hopes had been assured. He would be chosen to join the armies protecting Valdadore. He might even be trained as one of the elite knights that served the Kingdom. Not only was he happy that he would get chosen for what he wanted, but it seemed as if Seth was likely to be chosen for the same reason. If they were both chosen for knighthood, then they would remain together. Garret’s wishes all seemed to be coming true, and he rejoiced in the feeling. Sara’s gaze left Garret and she turned to look upon Ashton. Ashton sat across from her, looking back and forth from one twin to the other as she had just done. Only his face was not troubled by concern as hers was, instead he looked inquisitive. He looked from one brother to the other then back again searching for something he could not see. Not finding what he searched for he sat back in his chair, slumping into it slightly as if defeated. Sara looked back to her guardian, and seeing the pain still on his face she could not stop the tears from brimming her eyes. She squeezed his hand lightly, all the while keeping her eyes focused as best she could through her tears, on his face. When she squeezed his hand his expression shifted. Turning his head slightly his eyes finally focused and he turned his gaze to Sara. His face immediately twisted to one of concern and he pulled her to him wrapping his arms lightly around her. He was trying to protect her even from her own feelings. Seth kissed the top of her head and whispered into her hair.

“It is going to be ok angel, and if it turns out badly, we have already made such plans.” Seth finished with another kiss to her head.

Sara nodded in his embrace and he carefully released her as to not make her lose her balance and fall from her chair. She sat up and immediately looked to his face, assuring herself that his pained look had not returned. It had not. In fact his expression now looked as if nothing had even transpired. Seth looked to his brother who was still smiling as if trying to air dry his teeth. Seth nodded to his brother in understanding and then turned out of his chair and stood.

“So what do we do now?” Seth asked no one in particular.

“Well it is getting a bit late in the day to explore the city.” Ashton replied. “However if you guys are up for a challenge, or a test if you prefer, I would like to try something.”

Sara, Seth, and Garret all looked to Ashton for explanation, and realizing that he had gained their interest he continued.

“Sasha said that Sirus had seen something about you that had caught his attention. I recall someone once telling me that all Knights to the Kingdom possess the gift of magic. Though each of them has varying talents, each of their talents lends to their skills of battle. If Sirus thinks to make you a knight than he must have surmised that you have the gift.” Ashton waited a moment to let his words settle in before he continued. “If you do have the gift we can try a simple test to confirm it. It is a test my mother used on me when I was young, and though she did not teach me how to perform it, I think I can replicate it well enough.”

Garret nodded immediately and so it was left to Seth to decide for himself. Seth was a rational person, perhaps even calculated in his decision process. Seth knew that no harm could come from this knowledge and so he agreed to the test. Sara waited just as anxiously for Seth’s answer as Garret and Ashton had, and seeing him agree, she hoped that this test would not alter Seth’s perception of her or of himself. They decided to return to Seth and Sara’s room for some privacy to perform the test.

Seth unlocked the door and allowed Sara to enter first. Garret and Ashton followed her through and Seth entered behind them closing and locking the door. They walked to the seating area with the overstuffed, upholstered chairs and benches. Seating themselves comfortably, they prepared themselves for Ashton’s instruction. All too ready to begin Ashton immediately started talking.

“Ok guys all I want you to do is clear your minds and relax. Try to focus yourselves, but remain aware of your mind. If this works you should be able to feel the power flowing through me, and if you can I want you to try and absorb that power and contain it within yourself. It sounds easier than it is, but we have time to make a few attempts if needed. I am going to pray and summon my Goddess’s blessing and through me I will try and channel her power to you. Are you ready to try? Ashton asked with a wide grin on his face.

Garret was the first to nod his readiness and so Ashton walked to him and knelt down beside him.

“Ok now relax and clear your mind, focus yourself inward and wait until you can feel the power.” With his instructions completed Ashton tilted his head to the heavens and prayed.

His prayer completed, Ashton began a low chant. As the intensity of his chant increased the holy light of his Goddess began to dance across his skin. Ashton held the power within him. Molding it to his will he let it consume him. Reaching out with his hand he grasped Garrets exposed arm. Not requiring healing Ashton released the power slowly in its pure form allowing it to flow unchecked into Garret’s body. Garret gasped.

Garret sat still, his body as relaxed as he could make it and did as he was told. He focused his mind inward pushing all thoughts and memories that tried to assault him away. Clearing a space for him to focus Garret imagined himself in a pure space, surrounded by white nothingness. He could vaguely hear his friend chanting but as soon as he realized it he washed it away as well. Garret floated within his own mind waiting to see or feel something both magnificent and foreign. He did not notice when Ashton grabbed his arm, he was too disconnected at this point for his body to relay the message. He sat surrounded by a white abyss when he felt the tingle. Reaching towards it with his mind he was able to see it for what it was. A vast ocean of yellow light churned upon itself within him. However try as he might he could not reach it, he made attempt after attempt to grasp it, yet the power remained elusive. Then something struck him, the power was here, he knew it was here he could feel it and see it, but Ashton had told him to contain it. Slowly carefully Garret lowered the barriers within his mind he had built to keep out unwanted thoughts and memories. As the barriers slipped away Garret’s mind was flooded with images and thoughts but he ignored them, instead focusing himself on the power within himself. This time Garret mentally envisioned himself building the barriers around his entire mind contained, as the power reeled away from a barrier Garret would let it fall allowing thoughts and images escape. Before the power could too find the hole in his defense he replaced it. It was a task that seemed to take a life time, forever removing his mental shields allowing thoughts to pass beyond, then, replacing the shield. He slowly destroyed and rebuilt the barriers each time making them smaller forcing the power pulsing within him to focus tighter and tighter until at last a perfect sphere of roiling light was encased within his mind. Garret reeled at the realization and without knowing it he gasped. He had been able to detect, locate and contain the power, but now what was he supposed to do?

Carefully, deliberately, Garret opened his eyes, all the while focusing inward, keeping the power contained. He located Ashton with his eyes he realized his friend had stopped chanting and now sat before him staring at him intently.

“What now?” Was all Garret could mutter while retaining his focus on the power.

“Now if you have it focused, immerse yourself within the power, try to control it with your mind, command it to do something then release it.” Ashton instructed quickly seeing that his friend was struggling.

Garret again closed his eyes allowing himself to focus once again wholly on the task at hand. Mentally locking the barriers that held the power Garret was assured they would hold. He focused into himself and sent his consciousness to penetrate the barrier and be consumed by the power. Pure pleasure consumed him, gone was any traces of pain or sorrow, gone too was the uncomfortable body that contained his mind. He was one with the power within him, or perhaps one with the power he was within. Following his instructions Garret imagined himself aglow with the power like he had seen his friend become several times. Pushing this image mentally throughout the power surging around him he let the barriers fall and unleashed the power at his command.

Seth sat watching his brother looking for any sign of emotion. For long minutes Garret sat unmoving, his face like a stone statue showing no sign of emotion. Everyone in the room at this point was leaning nearer Garret anxiously awaiting any sign that he still lived. Slowly as if in answer to their curiosity, Garret opened his eyes. As Garret’s eyes focused on the man in front of him, his face bunched up in concentration. Garret had said something then but too low for Seth to hear only a few feet away. Ashton had heard his words and had relayed some new instructions, and Seth’s twin immediately closed his eyes once again. With the closing of his eyes his face once again relaxed into a statuesque expressionless mask. A moment passed and nothing happened. The trio sat watching and waiting intently for something, for anything to happen. When it did none of them were prepared.

A thunderous boom exploded through the room followed by a shockwave that shook the building. Ashton was knocked on his back from the force of the sound and all of them locked their eyes on Garret. Immediately following the deafening sound Garret began to shimmer, it started first at his extremities and worked down their lengths to quickly encompass his entire body. He shuddered as his body seemed to become something without substance, almost as if he were a liquid conforming to no specific shape. The thunderous explosion again shook the building and Garret sat wide eyed with a smile from ear to ear where a moment before he had only been as solid as smoke.

“Garret are you ok?” Seth asked his brother.

“That was incredible.” Garret stated while nodding a response to his twin.

Ashton pulled himself up off of the floor, all the while his gaze remaining on Garret. He brought himself back into a kneeling position where he had moments before coached his friend to wield magic.

“Well I would have to consider that a success.” Ashton stated, a smile coming to his lips.

“But I have to know, when I told you to mold the power to do something you wanted it to do, did you intentionally attempt to turn yourself into an explosive device?”

“No, actually I tried to make my body glow like you do. However I don’t think that part worked out.” Garret stated with a grin.

“No kidding brother, for a second there I had thought you were a goner.” Seth stated earnestly. “How did it feel? Do you feel any different?”

“I can’t really describe how it felt, it was more difficult than I had imagined. At least it was at first. It was hard for me to isolate the power and concentrate it. I guess over all it felt great though.” Garret told them. “You have got to try it, it’s amazing.” He added as an afterthought.

Sara listened to their conversation, still overwhelmed by the entire display. She realized then that if Garret was able to wield magic, than it was also a good chance Seth had the ability as well. She wasn’t sure how she felt about the realization, but she didn’t imagine it would change anything between them if he could.

“You still want to try Seth?” Ashton asked, afraid Garret’s near explosion might have changed his twin’s mind.

“Well, Garret seems to be fine so I don’t see any reason not to.” Seth answered as if trying to convince himself.

Seth gave Sara’s hand a light squeeze before he released it, silently telling her he loved her. He then sat forward in is seat awaiting his friends instructions.

“Ok Seth, now relax and clear your mind. You need to try and focus on nothing, leave yourself open and wait until you feel the power. When you do feel it, you need to isolate it from the rest of your mind, and then you can control it.

Seth nodded and quickly closed his eyes. Relaxing his body he too tried to relax his mind. Images of memories past flooded his mind’s eye and he shut them away. He could faintly hear his friends whispered prayers and he quickly worked to tone it out along with any other noise that might disturb him. Only a moment had passed and Seth found himself shrouded in darkness, alone in his mind. It was a peaceful feeling, yet somehow empty. The emptiness inspired a feeling of unease within him and he tried to banish it, but it remained no matter how hard he tried. Not knowing how much time had passed, Seth realized he needed to find a way to relax, to ease himself into a state of openness where he would be receptive to the magic. Seth hurriedly tried to force himself to relax to no avail. Then it occurred to him, he could allow the memories to return momentarily and seek one out that was relaxing. Once he became relaxed again he could simply banish it away as he had done before, and then he would be prepared to accept the magic. This in mind, Seth released the memories he had temporarily locked away, and they flashed through his mind in a flood of pictures and emotions. As each memory presented itself he dismissed it looking for something relaxing. A few memories were close, but did not quite give him a complete feeling of ease and so he too discarded them. The memories flashed one after another until one appeared that he could not release. Seth held the memory of Sara sleeping in his arms for the first time, the morning they spent in the grove of trees, his back pressed to a tree, her curled in his arms. Peace flooded through Seth’s mind, he had found the one thing that put him at ease. Seth berated himself mentally for a moment, realizing it should have been an obvious choice. Sara always made him feel comfortable, relaxed, Sara made him feel whole.

This image in mind Seth went about once again locking away any stray thoughts and memories. Finished with the mental exercise, he was once again shrouded in the empty darkness of his subconscious, only this time he was focused on his memory of Sara.

As soon as he had locked away any stray memory that might interrupt him he could feel something tugging at the edge of his consciousness. Thinking it was another memory, or perhaps even a stray emotion Seth sought it out with his senses. Much to his surprise it was nothing belonging to him at all. He could feel the power more than see it, though it was visible. Not as one would see with the eyes, but something more ethereal, something like smoke or water churning this way and that. It pulled at his mind as if seeking a way to escape or a weakness that would permit it to leave. It twisted and churned in incoherent patterns, and as it did so Seth recalled his instructions and went to work. The ethereal being that was the power had found no way of escape and so it had eventually made its way through Seth’s mind to where he waited in the darkness alone with Sara’s memory. Seth monitored it’s every movement, he watched it come. The smoke like substance reeled away from his consciousness when they nearly came into contact trying to escape him. Seth did not let it go, instead he tightened the walls of his mind, decreasing the area the darkness filled and so making it darker. The smaller Seth forced his subconscious domain to become the nearer the power was forced to him. Seth squeezed and squeezed mentally until there was no more space between him and the power and he could feel it whirling around him.

Seeking a means of escape from the non worshipper, the Goddess’s power struck at the only thing it could find in the darkness. With smoky tendrils the power grasped Seth’s memory of Sara nestled in his lap and wrenched it away from him.

Seth, The power swirling all around him, did not anticipate the attack. With a mind tearing assault the power attempted to rip away Seth’s memory of Sara, the memory he had used to calm himself. Seth felt the mental attack as if it had left a physical wound. Realizing the power’s intent, Seth grasped his cherished memory of the woman he loved with his consciousness and held it firmly. With the memory secured he focused his mind once again, and this time heaved his subconscious into itself with all his mental might. The empty darkness that was his mind folded into itself submersing Seth within the Goddess’s magic. He opened himself to the power and let it flow into him. As they became one Seth could feel his body once again, could feel the power pulsing in his veins, beating in his heart. Seth reveled in the sensation, allowing himself to slip deeper into its depths, feeling it caress his mind when only a moment before it had tried to escape him. The sensation sent feelings of pleasure through his body of the like he had never known before. The magic was fulfilling, satisfying, and intoxicating. Seth loved the thrill of it in his body and thought briefly about how he had come to this enchanted bliss. He disconnected his consciousness from the blackened space of his subconscious where he remained one with the magic. Concentrating once again upon the image of Sara to focus himself, he molded the power to his will. The power strained against him momentarily, but Seth was able to overcome it quickly forcing it to follow his purpose.

Assuring himself he was in control of the power Seth once again reconnected with his body. He opened his eyes to reveal his companions around him, watching him intently. Seeking out Sara, he focused his gaze on her. Seth raised his hand before him, and turned it palm up. He found it easier to focus now that he could see Sara in person, and so did not have to strain to keep the power contained. Focusing on the woman he loved, he could see she now regarded his raised hand. Seth mentally checked again on the power contained within him, assuring himself it still remained bent to his will. Finding his control on the power intact, Seth’s lips parted into a wide smile as he released the magic.

Garret, Ashton, and Sara sat watching Seth intently. Long minutes had passed since Ashton had stopped chanting, yet Seth remained unmoving showing no sign of the battle being waged within his mind. The group sat motionless as well, waiting, refusing to blink until something happened. When nothing did happen they remained, still unable to take their eyes off of the motionless boy before them. Many more minutes passed and Sara began to worry something had gone wrong. She watched the man she loved hoping for any sign, besides his breathing, that he was still alive. As if in answer to her plight Seth’s expression changed. The change was miniscule, but it was better than nothing. Another moment passed and Seth’s eyes fluttered open. Sara watched breathlessly as Seth turned his head to face her. She locked eyes with him momentarily and then left his gaze as he raised his hand toward her as if holding out something for her to see. She looked upon his empty palm and then back to his face. Seth smiled. Sara did not understand what was going on and so looked back to his hand to see if maybe she had missed something.

Seth watched as his palm was consumed in blue flames. The fire twisted and slithered around his hand as if it were alive. It swirled upon his skin, ever moving, ever burning, but left his flesh unscathed. The blue flames licked at his fingertips and finally settled into his open palm. The unnatural blue fire then expanded upward from his palm in a short pillar of fire. The pillar twisted then, and split in two. Each half of the pillar flared and sputtered as they twisted around and over, back upon themselves to meet once again at the base of the pillar in Seth’s palm.

Sara gasped when she noted the flames consuming Seth’s hand as did Garret and Ashton. She again looked to his face, sure to find there pain and torment. She beheld his face again only for a second and was amazed to find he was still smiling at her. Returning her gaze to his open palm she now saw the flame growing into a pillar of fire reaching skyward off of his hand. The flesh of his hand she noted, was unscathed, unburned. She no longer watched in horror as the flame again began to change and split into two halves. A look of pure wonder stood on her face as the two halves of the fire pillar bent back upon themselves to once again meet at the palm they had risen from.

Extended towards her as if in offering, Seth held in his hand a perfect heart formed of blue flame. Sara had barely enough time to see the flame, and note its shape and intended meaning when it disappeared with a sizzle. She sat in awe, her mouth open, and her eyes wide in astonishment.

Ashton sat at Seth’s feet clapping like a child who had just watched a play. His mouth hung open with disbelief, and his eyes sparkled with wonder. Garret too clapped loudly at the spectacle he had just witnessed. Accompanying his clapping, Garret laughed heartily at his brother’s success.

Seth took a moment to regain himself, lost momentarily in shock of the fact that he had consumed all of the power lent to him by Ashton. He had enjoyed the feelings it had inspired within him, and now that it was gone he missed it terribly. Pushing the feeling aside, Seth focused on the woman he loved, sitting in open mouthed wonder before him. He reached out and took her hand, and as he did, she was again able to compose herself.

“What did you think?” Seth asked Sara.

“It was amazing. It was beautiful. But at first it was a little scary.” Sara admitted.

“Sorry if I frightened you angel, I just wanted to tell you in a special way that I love you.” Seth said with a tone of sincerity in his voice.

“Well you succeeded my love. It is a moment I shall never forget.” Sara replied honestly.

Ashton and Garret had finally settled down, and listened to the couple speak. Seeing that their short, lovey dovey conversation had come to an end, Ashton had some questions he wanted answered.

“Well Seth how did it feel?” Ashton asked.

“I don’t know.” Seth began his reply. “It was hard at first for me to focus, but when I finally found a way to, it really wasn’t hard.”

“Well each time you use the magic it gets easier.” Ashton stated.

“It felt good though, almost natural.” Seth added.

“How do you feel now?” Sara asked her concern evident in her voice.

“I feel terrific Sara. I promise I was not harmed in any way.” Seth said to reassure her.

“Well then.” This time it was Garret who spoke. “It seems to me that we both passed the test, so what do we do now?” He asked honestly unsure.

“Well, there really isn’t anything to do I suppose.” Ashton said and then thinking further on the subject added. “It will all depend on what you are chosen for, and which god you should choose to worship. Even then you aren’t guaranteed a blessing from the god. Even if you are, each god only lends their power with a predetermined purpose, and that purpose will be the only way you will be able to wield the power. Some of the blessed are able to perform various tasks with their blessing, but most often someone is only able to perform one thing specifically.”

“So that means the only way I will be able to do that again is if I swear myself to a god and worship them like you do?” Seth asked

“Yes and no.” Ashton answered. “Like I told you once before, there are many gods, and each require from their follower’s different things. I would suggest waiting until after the choosing, and learn which god or gods fits the best with what you are chosen for, and what they expect from their followers, then choose which one of any you want to follow the teachings of.”

Sara sat quietly listening to the conversation, trying to learn all she could about the ability Seth possessed. She knew he held no intentions of worshipping any god. This much she had gleaned from him in past conversations with Ashton. She too realized that the only way he could use the gift is if a god blessed him and allowed him to summon their power. She found that she was happy about the fact that he was likely to never worship a god, and so was likely never to use the gift he had been born with. Sara was unsure why it made her happy, and she felt guilty about the feeling. She pondered both her happiness and her guilt when a knock sounded from the door.

They all rose from their seats at the sound and curious about the interruption, they approached the door together. Sara was the first to reach the door, and unlocking it, she pulled it open wide. Sasha stood in the hall, and looked at each one of them briefly. A look of relief washed across her face as she noted their condition, and she quickly replaced the look with a smile.

“Sorry to interrupt you.” Sasha stated. “I have just returned from visiting my husband. In my absence the servants said they heard an explosion. I assumed it was the God’s tear, but it appears to be intact, and so I’m checking on our guests.”

The group nodded their understanding, unwilling to admit the source of the explosion. Sasha invited them to come and eat, as the evening was growing late, and the companions assured her they would come to dine shortly. Accepting their reply, Sasha turned and strode down the hall, her hips swaying in her near transparent gown.

Sara quickly closed the door on Sasha’s retreating form and turned to face her companions. They all shared a knowing smile and Sara couldn’t help but giggle a little at what had just transpired.

Chapter 8

Seduction and Temptation

The companions arrived at the dining hall shortly after their conversation with Sasha. This time the hall was not empty as it had been earlier in the day. A few random tables were occupied, however the one they had sat at earlier in the day was vacant, and so they again resumed their places around the table. They spoke quietly for a time, a bit uncomfortable with others in the room. Before long the same man who had served them earlier appeared in the same outlandish white clothing he had worn before.

“Greetings honored guests.” He said to them a wide smile splitting his face in two. “What can I have the pleasure of preparing for you this evening?”

Sara found herself once again unprepared for the question, but quickly decided upon a solution.

“I really hadn’t thought about it sir, but it seems to me you enjoy cooking. Is there any dish in particular you enjoy preparing more than another?” She asked him happy to see his surprised reaction.

“Indeed there is such a dish.” He stated honestly. “Would you have me prepare it for you?”

“I most certainly would.” Sara answered.

“What will you be having Master Seth?” The man asked Seth with a smile.

“I will have what she is having if it’s not any trouble.” Seth replied

“Me too.” Garret added.

“I would like the same as well.” Stated Ashton.

“You are all so very kind.” The man told them with a smile. “Four of my specialties coming up.” He added with a twirl of his finger in the air.

With that the man spun and limped his way back across the room and disappeared into the hall. The four companions again spoke quietly while waiting for their food. They once had seen Sasha pass through the room and each of them flashed her a smile as she passed. It was not long before the man returned with their food. He placed in front of each of them a steaming plate. Each plate contained a small duck smothered in a thick tangy sauce that made all of their mouths water. Beside each duck was a large pile of mixed steamed vegetables, and several fried apples carved into the likeness of rose buds and drizzled with honey. Each plate was its own astonishing masterpiece and they each thanked the man whole heartedly before he left them to eat their meal.

The meal was beyond delicious. Each savory bite left their mouths watering for another. The duck was tender and nearly fell from the bone. The vegetables were steamed to be tender, but not overcooked as to lose their flavor. The apples were like nothing any of them had ever tasted before. They were soft but not mushy, and the tart flavor hinted at wine and lemon, all the while added to by the sweet honey filling every carved crevice. The entire meal was like ecstasy to their taste buds.

They finished their meal quickly and waited a while hoping the man would return so they could share with him their compliments. He did not return however and so they decided to head off to their rooms early for some sleep so they could begin exploring the city in the morning. They pushed in their chairs and headed for the hall. Telling one another good night, they departed at the room Seth and Sara were sharing, as the two other boys continued down the hall to the stairs that would lead them to their own room.

Garret and Ashton entered their room and set about undressing. They climbed into their respective beds, and putting out their bedside lanterns went quickly to sleep.

Seth let Sara through their door before him, and closed it behind him. As Sara crossed the room towards the bed Seth locked the door and tested it to be sure t worked correctly. Turning towards the bed Seth witnessed Sara picking up a small package. She peeked inside it with a smile as he approached.

“What’s that?” Seth asked, eyeing the package suspiciously.

“A surprise.” Sara answered a teasing smile on her lips. “There is one here for you too.” She added pointing to another smaller package.

“Hmm…what do you think it is?” Seth asked reaching for the package.

“Why don’t you open it and see?” Sara asked again with the teasing smile.

Seth reached his hand into the small container and pulled out its contents. In his hand was a small bundle of silk. He unfolded the small bundle, and holding it before him revealed a pair of black silk men’s undergarment. These particular ones were fashioned as quarter length shorts. Seth eyed the garment scrutinizing it as if it might hurt him somehow.

“What is it?” He asked her quizzically.

“Something for you to sleep in.” Sara stated, eyeing the garment he held with a big smile on her face. “I like it.” She then added.

“What did you get?” Seth asked silently hoping she did not have anything to sleep in.

“I guess you will just have to wait and see.” She said in her most angelic voice, the teasing smile returning. “Why don’t you change here, and I’ll go change over there.” Sara instructed pointing to the small partition in the corner.

Seth nodded his understanding, and waited for her leave. Sara walked across the room purposely accentuating the sway of her hips, knowing he watched her go. She stepped behind the partition and immediately began to undress.

Seth watched Sara cross the room, her swinging hips holding his attention until she disappeared behind the screen. He undressed as fast as was possible, not wanting to get caught in the act, and pulled on the black silk garment he had been given. Looking down at himself he realized he didn’t look nearly as silly as he had imagined he would. He climbed onto the bed and sat patiently watching for Sara to reappear.

Sara stood naked behind the screen. She was not worried that Seth might come and catch her in this condition. She knew he would wait patiently, though she thought it might be more convenient if he did appear. She reached into the package she had requested and pulled out two silk garments. Looking them over she realized they were actually two halves of one garment. She placed the bigger of the two upon the clothes she had just removed, and attempted to ascertain what the remaining piece was meant to cover. It was a small triangle of silk no bigger than her palm with a satin cord attached to all three corners. Two of the corners were connected by the cord in a large loop. The other cord was sewn by its end at the middle of the loop created by the first cord. Sara held the piece before her face turning it this way and that when it struck her. Holding the garment by each end of the large loop, the triangle in front of her, she stepped into it with each leg on either side of the remaining cord. She pulled the garment up her legs and into place expecting it to be uncomfortable. The placement of the cord that wrapped under her and up her backside was not as uncomfortable as she had assumed it would be, but it wasn’t exactly pleasant either and would take some getting used to. Having successfully figured out the first piece she reached down and retrieved the other. This one looked a bit more self explanatory, and only took her a second to derive its orientation. This too was made of black silk, but it was much thinner than her lower garment, nearly completely transparent. She flung it around her shoulders and pushed her arms through its sleeves. Pulling it around her she tied the single tie upon the front. Finally dressed, she turned to look in the mirror that sat behind the screen. Looking in the mirror she decided to unbraid her hair and let it fall around her shoulders. She ran her fingers through her hair straightening it as best she could and stood to look at herself. The top was open from top to bottom revealing her bare skin from her neck all the way down well below her navel. The only tie on the garment was just below her breasts, pulling the front together slightly. It accentuated her body nicely but left nothing to the imagination. The Sheer fabric was so entirely see through she hardly seen any use in wearing it at all. The bottom also left very little to the imagination. It was a thicker silk and so hid the portion of her body it was designed to conceal, but it left the rest of her totally revealed. The thin cords traced lines up over her hips and came together in the back. Her backside was completely exposed except the thin cord that ran down its length disappearing between her legs. The outfit was significantly more revealing than Sara had intended, but she found it did appear to make her body more attractive somehow. The black silk stood in stark contrast to her creamy white skin making her seem more visually appealing. Sara gathered what little courage she had, and with a nod to herself in the mirror, she turned and walked out from behind the partition.

Seth watched the partition patiently waiting for Sara to reappear, all the while imagining what she might be wearing when she did. None of his imagined fantasies had prepared him for what he saw when she did.

Sara strode out from behind the small screen, her head held high, and a look of determination on her face. Seth tried not to stare, but was unable to wrench his gaze from her. He could not believe what he was seeing and silently swore to himself if there was anything at all worth worshipping in the world, he had found it. Sara strode across the expanse of the large room and stopped at the foot of the bed smiling at him sheepishly.

“Do you like it?” She asked, her teasing smile returning.

Before he could reply she turned around slowly allowing him to see her from every angle. Seth, try as he might, could not help but study her inch by inch in fascinating wonder. Her outfit composed of two pieces, both made from black silk like the one he now wore. Her top was split from top to bottom revealing a trail of milky white flesh from her neck to her lower abdomen. The silk of the top fluttered at the edges with the rise and fall of her breasts as she breathed. These too he could see clearly through the clothing though he tried his best not to stare. As far as he was concerned however they were perfect, firm and round, and apparently she was a bit cold. As she turned he watched her hips twist, and his eyes followed her bare hips down the entire bare length of her tone legs. She paused briefly when she had her back to him, and he traced her body again with his eyes up her calves, to her thighs and up again to her completely bare backside. Seth’s breath caught in his throat at the discovery and he choked unable to control the reaction. He heard a small giggle escape Sara’s lips as she began to turn again. She twirled slowly to face him again, and it pleased her to find that Seth’s face had gone completely red.

“So?” Sara asked. “How do I look?”

“You look breath taking.” Seth said, having experienced the effect of her attire only seconds before.

Seth fought his body’s urge to displace the blood his brain would need if here were to try and escape her advances this night. Seth knew though that if she pushed the issue he would be hard pressed not to give in.

“I’m sleeping on top of the covers tonight.” Seth stated jokingly, though thinking to himself it was his best defense.

“Don’t be silly my love, I will be good I promise.” Sara said, a bit disappointed by his statement.

Sara walked around the bed to the side Seth was seated on, his eyes following her the whole way. She walked until her legs pressed against the mattress, and reached her arms out to hug him. Grasping his neck with one hand, and his hair in the other she pulled him to her, hugging his face into the bare flesh between her barely concealed breasts. She held him there for a minute before releasing him, and when she did he gasped for air and looked at her accusingly.

“I thought you said you were going to be good?” Seth accused.

“I’m sorry was that too much?” Sara asked in her angelic voice, the teasing grin returning once again.

“Just a little.” Seth stated trying once again to overcome his body’s urges.

“I’m sorry. I will try and be more cautious.” Sara said a hint of mischief in her voice.

Without another word, or warning Sara leaned her body over his, and pressing as much of her body against his as she could manage she crawled slowly across him, to her side of the bed. As she cleared his body she paused, her bare backside in the air only inches from his face, and she gave her hips a little wiggle. Finished with her charade she settled into a sitting position beside him and waited for him to start breathing again.

When Seth did finally start breathing once again Sara gave him a few moments to relax and regain control of his body. Feeling he had had enough time she placed one hand against his chest and let it rest there a moment. No protest forthcoming, Sara decided to once again push her limits with him just for fun. She slid her hand down from his exposed chest, tracing the line of his muscles. Leaving his chest she continued to slide her had down his abdomen. Not wanting her plan to be an obvious one she traced the line of his uppermost abdominal muscles across his stomach and slid her hand down his side. Tracing the black silk down his hip she slid her hand down the outside of his muscular thigh as far as she could reach comfortably. Tracing her fingers around the curve of his kneecap she began to slide her hand up his inner thigh letting her fingers brush his skin lightly. She watched his face out of the corner of her eye as she moved her hand further and further up the inside of his leg. Feeling silk once again she looked down to watch her hand trace the rest of the way up to her goal. She slid her hand up the remaining inches until Seth grabbed her wrist, only a fraction of an inch away from what she sought.

Defeated, Sara sighed loudly. She knew she shouldn’t push him. She should just wait as he had asked her to do. But she wanted more than anything to give herself to him, and though teasing and enticing him was fun, she found it increasingly hard to wait. With her lower lip jutting out in a pout she turned her body to face him.

“I guess that’s a no then?” She asked him.

“No, it’s a not yet.” Seth answered.

Seth fought hard to contain his body’s urge to have her, his entire body shook from the effort. He had almost let her reach her intended target, deciding against it at the last second. He wanted them to do the right thing, and be joined before he gave in to her. It was hard denying her desires though. Especially due to the fact he desired the same thing. It was now even harder seeing her actually pout over his denial. He felt bad for doing it, but figured it would only be a matter of time before she got her way. If only they could discover another way to share their passion, just to relieve some tension. Feeling as if he betrayed her, Seth decided to try and redeem himself.

Rolling onto his knees Seth slid one arm behind Sara’s back where she sat next to him. The other arm he slid beneath her legs. He picked her up and held her to his chest a moment, enjoying the feeling of her warm bare flesh against his. Pivoting on one knee, Seth laid the woman he loved down in the middle of the bed, placing her head upon a pillow. He lifted his own body above hers, and placing one leg between hers he lowered himself to press into her. Beginning at the top of her head, and ending at the bottom of her feet, Seth kissed every inch of the front of her body. Whether exposed or unexposed he left no portion of her untouched by his lips. He too traced her entire body with his fingertips, lightly brushing circles upon her milky skin in no specific pattern. Often goose bumps arose on her flesh. Often too her body would shudder in delight. When his body got the better of him and sent blood coursing to parts of him he would usually protest, he let it happen. He did not try to hide it from her, and when it brushed against her body he was not ashamed. He continued showering her with kisses and let his fingers slide upon her skin until she panted loudly and sweat began to bead on her forehead. When he had finished he lay down next to her and pulled her body into his. Hoping he had done enough to redeem himself. Hoping he had given her enough to satiate her for a while so they could do things properly when the time came.

Sara laid in Seth’s arms her back to him, her bare backside pressed warmly into his lap. She waited until her heart finally slowed, and her breathing returned to normal. When her body finally relaxed she crawled from his arms to the top of the bed and slid beneath the covers. She gestured for Seth to do the same, and hoped he would not deny her. He didn’t, and soon he too was beneath the blankets with her. She reached across the bed and put out the lantern that rested there and Seth did the same on his side of the bed. In the darkness Seth again began to pull her into his arms, but Sara was not yet ready for sleep, and so she decided it was only fair if she could return some of the pleasure he had given to her moments before. Sara rolled to face Seth. She did not want to upset him by pressing her limits too far and so decided to take it slow. If he wanted her to relent at any point she promised to herself she would obey. Sliding her body close to his she pressed his shoulder lightly, asking without words for him to roll onto his back. Seth relented and obeyed her silent command. Again Sara placed her hand upon his chest, and this time traced designs across his body with her fingertips. She let her fingers glide upon his skin up and down his arms and over his shoulders. Across his chest and down his abdomen her fingers slid. She did not move to kiss his body as he had done for her, knowing that he would not allow her near as much leniency as she allowed him. Instead she continued with her hands tracing every inch of his body with her fingertips. When she thought herself too close to the spot she had previously been stopped she would veer away and trace elsewhere with her fingers. Several times she approached his manhood with her fingers and Seth made no attempt to stop her, but each time she contained herself and led her hand away. In one such instance she had apparently gone closer than she believed and felt her hand brush against it unintentionally. Sara immediately withdrew her hand and apologized quickly. Seth then told her he had come to a decision. He had decided so long as they kept their hands above each other’s clothing, they could do as they wished, except that one thing that was permitted only to couples that had been joined. Sara accepted his decision happily, and thanked him for reconsidering. She continued to trace lines across his skin beneath the sheets, and this time when she neared the area where she would have previously changed direction, she continued her path drawing all of her fingers down the length of him, smiling to herself in the darkness.

Long hours passed in the room Seth and Sara shared. They spent long hours taking turns exploring each other’s body in new and exciting ways. Eventually however they grew tired, and pulling Sara into his arms, they both relaxed and eventually went to sleep.

Morning came quickly, though inside the city’s immense walls light did not readily come with it. Garret and Ashton awoke early feeling more rested today than they had for many days. They decided to not disturb their companions, and instead would go get some breakfast just the two of them. Unsure how the couple’s first night sharing a bed would go, they figured it best to leave them be until they emerged from the suite of their own free will.

They climbed quickly down the stairs to the first floor, and walked quietly past the room where their companions stayed. Rounding the corner at the end of the hall they entered the dining area. The room was vacant for all but one table. Seated at the table where Garret and his companions had previously sat was Sasha, and the Inn’s cook. Sasha sat in an emerald gown facing them as they entered. She waved them over to join her and they complied happily. As the boys approached the table, the man in white turned to see who it was that approached. With recognition upon his face he smiled to them and wished them a good morning. Returning his greeting the boys pulled out chairs from the table and seated themselves amongst familiar faces.

“Did you sleep well?” Sasha asked them.

Both boys nodded in response and Garret elaborated.

“I feel better than I have in a week.” He stated.

“Would you care for some breakfast?” This time it was the man in white who spoke.

“That depends.” Ashton stated. “What are you cooking this morning?”

“Ah you know the rule here, you may have whatever it is you desire.” The man in white reminded them.

“I know, but I trust your choice of food better than my own.” Ashton replied.

Garret nodded his agreement as the cook rose from his seat. The man in white was beaming with pride as he took in their words.

“Then it shall be a delicious surprise you will dine upon this morning.” He stated and bowing to them like some sort of puppet he turned and sauntered out of the room, his limp more pronounced than the day before.

“Felix seems to like you guys.” Sasha said as the man rounded the corner leaving the room.

“He is an exceptional cook. The duck last night was unbelievable.” Garret stated his mouth beginning to water at the thought.

“Yes he is. He is a good man as well.” Sasha stated her eyes focusing on some event of the past playing out before her, unseen to the others.

“Have you already eaten?” Ashton asked. “Or will you be joining us for breakfast?” He added.

“I have been awake for some time now, so unfortunately I have already eaten. There is a lot of preparation to do for the festivities, as well as for the inn. Our rooms will probably be near capacity tonight. But perhaps I can put off breakfast tomorrow and we could all eat together.” Sasha told them obviously running through her to do list in her head.

“That would be nice.” Garret stated honestly.

“So what are your plans for today master Garret?” Sasha asked, one of her eyebrows rising.

“Well, we had discussed visiting the knight’s training grounds, however I get the feeling I may be seeing them a lot in the near future, so Instead I was thinking about a visit to the local temples to get a feel for the different gods and Goddesses.” Garret admitted.

“Well that should make for an interesting day indeed. The Temples are some of the oldest buildings in the city. Most of them are both magnificent and ancient. They are certainly a sight to see.” Sasha stated excitedly. “You know though, you don’t have to spend too much time now learning about the gods, if you are chosen for any position within the army, or with the mages for that matter, most of your first lessons will be about the gods.”

“That is good to know.” Garret exclaimed. “I was beginning to wonder how I would choose a deity without a proper education about them.”

“So Ashton, I assume you hope to be chosen into the ranks of the white robed healers. Am I correct?” Sasha now turned her gaze to Ashton waiting for his response.

“That is my plan. I really can’t see my future played out any other way.” Ashton stated honestly.

“And you Garret what are your hopes?” Sasha continued her questioning.

“Well I had hoped to join the army, but I think the knighthood would be much more exciting.” Garret too answered with complete honesty.

“Well I am unable to guarantee you anything, but if my husband has his way, I think the knighthood is where you will find yourself in the days to come.” Sasha told Garret watching the smile spread across his face as she did. “What of your brother then? Does he too hope to join the knighthood?” Sasha asked her curiosity getting the better of her.

“I honestly don’t know.” Garret stated. “He really isn’t into the whole live by the sword glory bit, however since he and Sara met I have yet seen him back down from a challenge. He even used his own body to protect her from the goblin.” Garret stopped before he revealed anything more of the subject afraid it might upset his twin.

“So that is how he had been injured, protecting young Sara. That makes sense, it is so obvious how much he cares for her. So you know nothing for his hopes about the choosing ceremony then?” She asked again still curious.

“No not really, it’s hard to say. I think he would make a great fighter, he is fast and strong. Honestly though I can’t say, at this point I think he would be happy hand scrubbing latrines so long as he could stay with Sara, but I hope he gets something worthwhile.” Garret told her.

“What of Sara then, does she have any hopes about the ceremony or does she too just wish to stay by his side?” Sasha asked, promising herself she would stop prying for information as soon as she got this answer.

“I honestly don’t think that she cares or has really put any thought into it. As long as she is with Seth though she will be happy, Seth will see to that. I’m just afraid how it might affect them if they are separated though.” Garret said relieved to finally speak the fear that had been hanging around his neck like a weight. “I really just hope they get to stay together.” He added.

This time it was Sasha who nodded her understanding, and true to her promise to herself she did not continue her line of questioning.

“Well I hope all goes well for all of you at the ceremony.” Sasha said earnestly. “I have to admit, from my experience it seems everything happens for a reason, though we may not realize it for many years. I think it will all turn out just fine.” She added almost as if to assure them.

They sat silently for a while, all of them caught up in their own thoughts of their pasts or futures. Garret and Ashton lost in daydreams of what yet might lie ahead, and Sasha thinking back to The Choosing ceremony she had attended once upon a time.

Felix returned, carrying with him two plates and a triumphant smile. As he approached the trio remaining at the table stirred from their thoughts and one by one greeted the man eyeing the food he carried. Setting a plate in front of both Ashton and Garret the man asked if he might join them for a while. The trio happily accepted his company and he quickly seated himself.

Felix knew he had a talent for food. He enjoyed preparing it each time he did, no matter how many thousands of meals he had created, he enjoyed making each as if it were his first. What he enjoyed more than cooking however, was watching the reaction people had to his creations. This was the reason he actually asked to join the boys this morning, though he did find the group intriguing. It was odd to Felix how all four of the companions had quickly decided to let him make their meal choices for them. He enjoyed being able to choose what he would prepare, as more often than not he was cooking the same things again and again. Yet this group had seen to it that he could prepare whatever he liked for them, and he appreciated the kindness they had shared with him in doing so.

Garret and Ashton looked to their plates in anticipation. Upon each plate was a steaming pile of some sort of golden flat bread. Each plate contained several of the round pieces stacked one upon the other and drizzled across the top and down the sides was thick honey-brown syrup. They each thanked Felix for the meal, which he told them was named pancakes. He also told them that each subsequent layer was cooked with a different fruit mixed in the batter. Felix and Sasha watched the boy’s faces as they took their first bites, and couldn’t help but smile at their reactions to the medley of flavors.

Both Garret and Ashton complimented Felix and his creation, assuring him it was the best breakfast they had ever eaten. Felix took the compliments with grace, and continued to smile as the boys devoured their food. Devour they did. It was only a few moments and both boys were scraping the last remaining crumbs from their plates, wiping their mouths and patting their full bellies.

“Don’t even give Seth and Sara an option when they come for breakfast.” Garret told Felix. “Just make them some pancakes. That truly is something they need to experience.”

Felix again thanked him and agreed to his wishes, happy to be able to once again watch someone enjoy his food.

The four chatted quietly about the city and the inn as the early morning grew less and less new. Garret and Ashton asked many questions about the festivities that would be in full swing later in the day and received some very informative answers. They also learned much about the lay of the city. They now understood that it was divided into blocks, and several blocks that looked the same was called a district, and the further you traveled to the center of the city the older the buildings became, and the larger the districts sprawled. Garret and Ashton learned the location of several places they hoped to visit including the many temples of the gods, the healing order’s tower, as well as the knight’s training grounds. Sasha told them if they became lost in the city simply continue straight down any rode until they either reached the city’s outer wall, or one of the four main city streets that each led from the outer city wall to the palace. This in mind Garret worked at deciding upon a route they could travel through the city to visit all four locations they had intended to see. Their route decided upon, Garret again joined the others in small talk about the city and its origins. They spoke for nearly an hour until a pair of the Inn’s other guests entered the dining hall, at which point Sasha and Felix each rose from the table to excuse themselves. Sasha greeted the newcomers and spoke to them briefly before disappearing down the hall. Felix too greeted the pair and took their meal orders before he too vanished into the hall.

The newcomers had seated themselves across the room from where Garret and Ashton sat, and being a large room, it was hardly even evident that anyone else was in the room with them. Garret and Ashton spoke for a while about the conversation they had just had with Sasha and Felix and waited as patiently as was possible for their remaining companions to join them.

Seth awoke feeling better rested then he could ever remember. Keeping his eyes closed he relived the previous night in his mind and could not help the smile that soon appeared on his face.

“What has you smiling before you even open your eyes love?” Sara asked Seth. She had awoken earlier than he, and lay still beside him, watching him, waiting for him to wake.

“You.” Seth stated simply.

“Me? What about me has you so amused?” Sara asked trying to sound innocent.

“Not amused my angel, just happy that I have you, and amazed by the power you hold over me?” Seth replied finally opening his eyes.

“What power is that love?” Now Sara tried to play ignorant, knowing exactly what he spoke of.

“You know what I’m talking about.” Seth stated smiling once again.

“I’m afraid I don’t understand Seth, could you explain it to me?” Sara asked. She knew what he was talking about but hearing his explanation might help her to gain a better grasp as to just how much she affected him with her attempt at seduction.

“You know…You have a way of getting your way with me. You know I hate to tell you no. You know if you push enough that I will give in. I think it is a bit unfair that you use my love for you against me, no matter how much I enjoy it, it still seems unfair.” Seth explained. “It is adorable however, watching you do your worst to entice me.” He added as the smile returned.

“Oh is that all?” Sara asked, returning his smile as she mocked him. “You know love, I do not want you to do anything you do not wish to. However, I want you to do everything that you wish to. Don’t be afraid to ask anything of me my love, you have already done so much for me, so much that I may never be able to do for you. I only wish to make you happy, as happy as I can that is, and hopefully I can make you happy enough that you will always want me at your side.” Sara admitted, knowing Seth would not care for her choice of words, but feeling it was best to let him know how she felt.

“My angel, you need to do nothing to earn my love, you have it already. I do now, and will always want to be with you, that much I can promise you. I am happy just being with you, knowing you are mine, you need not make yourself uncomfortable for me. I love you the way you are, and I do not wish you to change.” Seth stated, carefully watching her expression, and noting the moisture in her eyes before he continued. “Do you understand Sara? Please do not do anything that makes you unhappy just because you think it will please me.”

Sara nodded her understanding, all the while fighting back the tears that threatened to fall from her eyes. They were good tears, happy tears, tears formed by his promise to stay with her. Sara did not know why he loved her, did not understand what attraction he could have towards her. She presumed she looked much the same as any other girl her age, at least in body. Sara too was sure there were plenty of other girls with a more pleasant face. Yet for some reason, unknown to her, Seth had chosen her. Not only had he chosen her, but he had also said he wanted to be joined with her, and planned to be with her forever. Nothing could have made Sara happier, but she too was concerned. He had told her not to do anything that would make her uncomfortable as a means to please him. Did he think she had compromised herself last night in a means to make him happy? She hoped this was not what he was thinking, but decided she had to be certain.

“Seth, my love, I hope I have not offended you with my actions last night. Perhaps I went too far and if I have I am sorry. It’s just that…” Sara was suddenly cut off.

“No Sara you have not offended me, I assure you I thoroughly enjoyed last night. I just hope that it did not cost you, emotionally, anything you did not intend.” Seth said quickly, not wanting her to feel guilty for an offence she had not committed.

“And I don’t want you to think that I have in some way damaged myself by giving you my affections. I love you Seth, and to be honest with you, I wish nothing more than to give myself to you in every way I can think of. Nothing I have done has cost me anything, and I wish to do so much more. I know you want to wait until we are joined. I will wait though I know not how long that will be. I don’t want you thinking that you have somehow forced me into wronging myself. What I give, I give freely with no consequence to myself. I love you more than I will ever be able to tell you, and I only wish to share my love with you in any way that I am able.” Sara explained, hoping she had properly made her feelings known.

“I see.” Stated Seth. “I hope you know how much I too love you, and that I have not set our boundaries for any other reason but to do right by you. I still wish for us to be joined before we give ourselves to one another. It feels to me like the right thing to do.”

“I know love.” Sara replied. “And I shall try and be patient, and I shall try as well to be on my best behavior.”

“Like last night?” Seth asked jokingly.

“Exactly like last night.” Sara responded, her teasing grin from the night before returning.

“I don’t figure you are going to make this easy on me are you?” Seth asked.

“Do you really truly want me to?” Sara responded, nearly certain he enjoyed the teasing as much as she.

“No I suppose not.” Seth answered with a sheepish grin.

“Well then, shall we pick up where we left off last night or do you have other plans?” Sara asked anticipation in her voice.

“As much as I would love to pick up where we left off, it appears we have already missed much of the morning. I would guess that Garret and Ashton are waiting for us somewhere, ready to go exploring.” Seth replied.

“But darling.” Sara started her retort. “If they have been waiting for us, don’t you think they could stand to wait a few minutes longer? Then perhaps we could do a little exploring of our own.” Sara said adding emphasis to the word.

Without waiting for a response Sara twisted her body beneath the sheets and flung herself atop the man she loved. Straddling his body with hers, she clung to him pressing her body into his in pleasurable ways. Bringing her face a fraction of an inch from his she traced his lips with the tip of her tongue before kissing him as hard as she could. Seth gave in without so much as a raised hand, and for many moments they let their passions take them.

Panting for air Sara finally relented and smiled triumphantly. Seth too was breathing heavily when Sara finally released him.

“Ok now I guess we can go.” Sara stated still smiling.

Seth rolled out of bed and Sara watched as he pulled his clothes on over his new silk undergarment. He strapped his belt around his waist making sure his sword was secure, and turned to Sara watching him.

“What are you waiting for now angel?” Seth asked.

“Your help.” Sara stated. “I’m going to need a hand re-lacing my shirt.” She added to clarify.

Sara lightly slid out of the bed then and glided halfway across the room towards the partition where she had changed the night before. Seth watched her go admiringly, and still watched when she turned to beckon him to follow. Seth joined Sara behind the partition, and not wanting to seem eager, he stood behind her waiting.

Knowing Seth was directly behind her, Sara once again found an opportunity to entice him. Bending at the waist, she reached down to retrieve her clothing, completely exposing her back side to him. Hearing Seth’s sharp intake of breath, and knowing she had succeeded, she again stood, clothing in hand. Once again Sara found herself with an opportunity to tease him. She realized now that her normal shirt was open in the back, and her new undergarment was not. She would have to remove what she wore now, or else it would show through the shirt she normally wore.

Holding her clothing in one hand, Sara untied the single tie beneath her breasts that held the shirt secure. Releasing the strings she let the top fall off her shoulders and down her arms. Sliding her free hand from one sleeve she switched hands holding the clothing and let the lacy garment fall to the floor between her and Seth.

Seth watched as the black lace slid down Sara’s shoulders. He continued to watch as she untangled her arms from the silk and allowed it to flutter to the floor in a heap. As he looked up from the black silk pile upon the floor Seth studied the body before him. From this view Sara was completely naked except for two small strands of satin. One strand of black satin clung tightly around her hips, pulled down in the back where it met the other strand that ran down her backside and disappeared beneath her, between her legs. He was awestruck by the perfection of her body. She had flawless creamy white skin from heel to head. No blemish marked her perfectly proportioned body. Her silky long black hair lay over one of her shoulders exposing her elegant neck. She had a flawless body in Seth’s opinion, the body of an angel. As he continued to admire her, his musings were interrupted.

“Hmm…” Sara made the sound, pretending to have just noticed something of interest.

“What is it angel?” Seth asked.

Sara did not respond, but turned her head slightly as if examining something. Seth followed her gaze, and looking over her shoulder from behind, his gaze fell upon the tall mirror a few feet away from them. In the mirror Seth’s eyes met those of the woman he loved, and he saw upon her face the same teasing grin she liked to wear when tormenting him with her advances. Then Seth realized the reason for the grin, fore before him in the mirror stood the opposite side of Sara that he had just been admiring, her upper body still exposed. From this angle Sara was also nearly completely naked. The only portion of her body that remained covered was swathed in a black silk triangle with satin cords leaving it at the corners to trace up over her hips and disappear behind her. Seth, though he tried not to, found himself admiring Sara’s now bare breasts in the mirror. He had thought the night before he had seen them well enough that it would not surprise him when he did see her exposed, but he was mistaken. He stood, gaze affixed, when Sara began to giggle.

Seth quickly averted his gaze, and closed his mouth which had apparently fallen open. He tried to pretend he hadn’t been looking by turning his head, but knowing well that he had been caught, blood rushed to his cheeks staining them red.

“You don’t have to look away.” Sara said pleadingly, her giggles had vanished. “Don’t be ashamed to look Seth, if I didn’t want you to see then you wouldn’t be back here with me.” She stated. “Besides, I like the way you look at me, it makes me feel pretty.” She added hoping her honesty would return his gaze to her.

“You are more than pretty Sara, you are beautiful. You are perfect.” Seth replied still looking away.

“If I am all that, then why do you turn your eyes away from me?” Sara asked looking into the mirror at him.

“Because if I don’t I won’t be able to concentrate all day.” Seth said a smile appearing on his face.

Seth then turned back to meet her eyes in the mirror, and reaching his arms around her, he pulled her near naked body to him. Seth wrapped his arms loosely around Sara’s body, letting his hands fall low on her waist. Sara, her back to Seth raised her hands up and wrapped her hands behind his head, laying her head back upon his shoulder. They stood for a moment in each other’s embrace, admiring themselves together as a couple in the mirror. Seth finally released Sara, motioning towards the clothing she had once again dropped upon the floor. Sara too let go and again bent to retrieve her clothes. As she bent to pick up her clothing, Seth, unable to help himself, smacked her firmly on the bottom with the palm of his hand. Sara shot back up, her clothing in hand and spun to look at him.

“You naughty, naughty man.” Sara said teasingly. “You will pay dearly for that tonight.” She added as a mock threat.

“I can’t wait!” Seth returned excitedly.

They smiled at each other a moment and finally Sara began to dress. When she was finally clothed, Seth helped her re-lace her tunic. Sara then picked up the silky top from the floor and after stuffing it in her pack they together left the room to find their companions.

Seth and Sara found Garret and Ashton seated in the dining hall. The four greeted one another with a smile and a hello, and after a moment all were seated in their normal spots around the familiar table. Garret and Ashton related details of their earlier conversation with Sasha and Felix, and explained the city’s lay out to both Seth and Sara. Garret also told them he knew a route to several places they all wanted to visit, and the group decided that after Seth and Sara ate they would leave to do some exploring.

It was not long and Felix rounded the corner from the hall, and spotting Seth and Sara he smiled broadly. He greeted them each from across the room by name, then without warning he spun on his heel and strode back down the hall. Seth and Sara looked at each other puzzled, and not finding any answers they then looked to Garret and Ashton.

“He already has your orders.” Garret said smiling.

“Does he now?” Sara asked returning Garret’s smile.

“Yes trust me. It will be a pleasant surprise.” Garret stated with certainty.

“Good enough for me.” Seth stated and Sara nodded her agreement.

The companions talked briefly about various subjects as they awaited Felix’s return. They did not wait long, and before they had expected it, Felix again rounded the corner carrying two steaming plates. He placed one in front of Seth and the other in front of Sara, and wishing them an enjoyable meal, he left again for the kitchen.

Seth and Sara eyed their plates hungrily. They admired the steaming piles of round bread dripping in syrup as a pair of hungry wolves might eye a fawn with a broken leg. As they began to attack their food Garret told them it was called pancakes, and not wanting to interrupt them further he sat back and waited less than three minutes until they finished. Thinking the sight amusing Garret decided to share his thoughts with his companions.

“Quite the appetite you two have this morning.” Garret stated. “Must have been an exhaustive night.” Garret added. His tone implying more than he said.

“Wouldn’t you like to know?” Sara replied, giving Garret a twisted grin.

Garret exploded into laughter, no longer able to contain himself. The others too laughed with him. None of them could believe Garret had the nerve to say such a thing, and none of them expected Sara’s response either. So they laughed loudly together at the circumstance. Each of them was thankful to have such close friends, as to be able to joke with one another without offending anyone.

When the laughs and subsequent giggles finally settled, they decided to hit the streets and see the sights. They rose from their table and each pushed their chair in. They left the room in pairs, passing once again through the familiar lobby and straight through the door leading them back outside to once again behold the expertly carved facade of The King’s Herald.

Chapter 9

Sought and Found

The four companions entered the street bustling with activity and Garret steered them north through the masses of people who now inhabited the streets. They traveled straight down the main, always heading north, always walking up hill. Even from the inn they could see that the street ended, some distance ahead, at a massive stone structure. Garret had told them they needed to walk twenty three blocks north towards Castle Valdadore, then skirt the castle wall, following it to the east and then north again six more blocks.

As they traveled up the road they watched the castle before them grow, as they had previously watched the city grow. The castle sat upon the top of the hill that the city was created upon, and from its vantage point it looked down upon the city surrounding it. It was a giant stone structure consisting of giant towers and walls. Behind the walls arose dozens of large spires with stone staircases spiraling around them all the way up to their pointed tips. Upon each spire’s pinnacle, flags blew lazily in a breeze that was not evident upon the streets below. Several of the spires were joined by arched breeze ways that hung perilously in the air, looking dangerously fragile from the street below. Upon the walls and twisted staircases and even upon the breeze ways small figures could be seen walking or rushing from one place to another. The stone of the castle walls was not painted as had been the wall surrounding the city. Instead each stone was polished to a shine revealing hidden flecks reflecting the sun in hues of gold, magenta, and silver. The small flakes of metal in the stone made the entire structure appear to shimmer and sparkle as the sun struck its surface. The castle was a breath taking sight to withhold, and as each of the four companions took their last steps from the street into the courtyard surrounding the massive castle, each of them held their breath while admiring the glorious creation that stood before them.

Directly across the courtyard from where they stood was a massive gate. To either side of the gate stood at least a half a dozen guards, each fully armored, and fully armed. Several stories above the road, through narrow slits in the wall, several dozen more armored men could be seen watching the street below them. From this perspective, using the armored guards on the ground as a reference, Seth estimated the wall to be approximately fourteen stories tall, the gate itself rose nearly eight of those stories. The towers and spires rose over a dozen stories beyond that of the wall. The towers were placed behind the wall at a regular interval, and all appeared to be equal in height. The spires on the other hand appeared to have been built irregularly, each of them raising into the air to different heights, and sometimes appearing to clump together in pairs and trios. A couple of the spires jutted out from the towers themselves and rose alongside the towers into the air. It was an amazing sight. Some of the stone structures appeared to be defying gravity itself as they spiraled off into the sky attached to the other structures by thin spidery walkways. The four stood staring at the castle before them in awe of its glory, the rest of the city forgotten to them for many minutes.

After the four companions finally absorbed as many details of the castle as was possible from this vantage point, they continued around the castle’s wall to the east. Counting the roads as they passed, they counted eleven roads before they came to the corner of the castle’s wall. Turning north once again they paralleled the castles eastern most wall and continued down the road six more blocks. Garret had been leading them, Ashton at his side when he came to an abrupt stop in the middle of the street nearly causing Seth and Sara to run them over. Garret turned this way and that, looking all around him in every direction. He looked around the square as far as he could see. He also looked down the road that they stood near, the sixth road they had counted since the corner.

“It should be right here.” Garret stated, still looking around.

“What should?” Seth asked his twin.

“The Knight’s training grounds.” Garret answered. “Sasha said it was almost six blocks down this side of the square.”

“What did she mean by almost?” Seth again questioned his brother putting emphasis on the word.

“I’m not sure, but I didn’t ask either, I assumed we would be able to see it easy enough.” Garret stated.

Seth turned around looking back the way they had come. He sized up the space between them and the previous road they had passed and looked all along the side of the square in between. None of the buildings along the square appeared to be near large enough to train knights in, and so Seth continued his search. Looking across the square to the castle wall Seth found what he was looking for. They had been so busy looking away from the castle wall, counting roads and such they had missed another gate in its wall. This gate had no guards around it fore it had no need of guarding at present. The portcullis had been lowered at this gate closing it to all traffic, but the castle within could be seen through the iron bars. Seth began to wander back towards the gate, holding firmly to Sara’s hand he pulled her along with him. Garret seeing his twin set off towards the castle, shrugged his shoulders to Ashton and the two followed to see what it was that Seth had noticed.

Approaching the iron barred gate Seth could hear the clangs of steel on steel and the grunts of men’s exertions. Pulling Sara even quicker than before Seth led them straight up to the bars and peering between them, Seth gasped in surprise and reeled back from the sight. Sara, curious as to what Seth had witnessed too pressed her face between the bars. Seeing what lay beyond she too gasped and stepped back shaking her head in disbelief. Garret and Ashton were just approaching as they witnessed both Seth and Sara’s reaction to something beyond the curtain of iron. Both of them too looked beyond the bars into the clearing beyond. Both of them inhaled loudly and took a step back to look at one another.

“Did you see…?” Garret asked, unable to finish his question.

“Yup.” Ashton replied. “I have never seen it before, though my mother described it to me. I have to admit, I was not sure if she was just telling me tales to keep me quiet, but now I see for myself the stories were true.” Ashton stated.

“But what… err…who are they?” Garret managed to ask.

“Those are Valdadorian Knights, the blessed of Gorandor.” Ashton stated.

“But they can’t be human, so what are they?” This time it was Seth who asked.

“They are human Seth, well at least those two are.” Ashton stated shrugging his head in the direction of the iron bars. “Their size is part of the blessing bestowed upon them by their god. The first man to receive this blessing was the original King Valdadore, and if you remember the story teller’s story in Stone Haven, then you will recall that the First King was able to become four times the size of a man.” Ashton stated knowingly.

“So the crazy old bastard was telling the truth?” Garret asked amazed.

“So it would appear.” Ashton replied.

They each again approached the bars, and pressing their faces between them, watched the giant men within performing some sort of battle practice. After a few moments Garret pulled back from the bars, and the others noticing his absence then turned to relocate him.

“Those guys are about two and a half times as big as me I would guess. Their swords are about as wide as I am for crying out loud. Yet you’re telling me that they get even bigger than this? Where would they live?” Garret bombarded Ashton with questions.

“Well let me see if I can explain this well enough. Wait I have a comparison.” Ashton began, and with a deep breath continued. “Ok, you know how I pray, then I repeat words in another language, then I glow when I am healing?”

Ashton’s three companions nodded to his question their individual acknowledgements.

“Ok the knights do something similar.” Ashton continued his narration. “They are usually normal size like you and me, but they pray to their god, and he blesses them with incredible size and strength. My mother told me the largest of them still alive was the King himself, and He can become nearly four times a man’s normal size.” Ashton said taking another large breath as he finished.

“Do all Valdadorian Knights get the same blessing?” Garret asked, yet another question popping into his mind.

“No I don’t think so, but each of them is blessed by Gorandor, and each of them receives some sort of blessing to make them better on the battlefield.” Ashton again answered.

Garret seemed to think about the answers a moment as his face twisted in upon itself momentarily. Apparently coming to some conclusion, Garrets face once again smoothed out, and he pressed his head into the bars again for another look. His companions followed suit.

Two enormous men stood in the manicured field opposite the wall of the four companions. Both of the giants were armored from head to toe in gleaming polished steel armor. Each of the giants too held a massive sword the length of a man and a half, and a shield of equal length. They lunged back and forth landing blow upon blow on each other. Most blows glanced of their shields, but scratches and dents on the giants’ armor bore witness too many blows that had gone unchecked. With every step of the giant men the companions could feel the iron bars reverberate with the impact the ground was forced to endure. Garret was soon daydreaming about how hard it must be to forge a suit of armor so large, when he realized the bars pressing to his head no longer vibrated. Snapping his attention back to the field before him he witnessed one of the giants raising his hand to halt the other’s advancement. The men squared shoulders with one another, and touching their swords together at the tips, they bowed their heads to one another. Lowering their massive weapons, they exchanged words and each of them nodded as if agreeing on something. That was when things got interesting again. Garret and his three companions watched as each of the giants began to shimmer, and their bodies began to lose shape as they appeared to lose definition around their edges. The more the shimmering encompassed the men the more unstable they appeared, and with two large booms wind gusted heavily into the four companion’s faces forcing them to close their eyes momentarily. When the wind vanished as quickly as it had come they reopened their eyes to reveal two armored men of average height walking away from them, across the field beyond the gate. Each of the companions watched them go, each of them wishing they had been able to keep their eyes open to see the transformation.

The group continued to watch for many minutes in hope that more knights might appear, but no more forthcoming, they eventually stepped away from the gate and decided to continue on to their next location. Garret and Ashton led the way as before, following the eastern wall of the castle towards the north all of them talking excitedly.

Seth and Sara followed their companions through the street towards their next destination. Sara, clinging tightly to Seth’s hand slowed for a moment to put some space between them and their companions ahead of them. Seth, curious about Sara’s change of pace looked to see her expression, and again he found the teasing smile upon her lips.

“Oh no what now?” Seth asked jokingly.

“Well I was thinking it’s probably safer if you don’t receive that particular blessing.” Sara stated.

“Why is that?” Seth asked her in return. “It seemed pretty amazing to me.” He added.

“Yes it is amazing but look at it from my perspective. Let’s just say that in the near future we are joined, as we both hope we will be. Following that I am finally able to give myself to you, and who’s to say that one day I don’t bed you so well that you start saying things like “oh god oh god” and then Kaboom, I get split in two and die in our bed.” Sara stated trying in vain to look serious as she explained.

Seth started laughing so hard he snorted, and Sara unable to contain herself any longer giggled both at her explanation, and then at Seth’s snort. They were laughing so hard they had stopped walking, and realizing they had fallen some distance behind, rushed to catch up with their companions. Seth was so taken aback by Sara’s descriptive narration, that every time he thought of it or even looked at her he would start laughing again, and this would cause Sara too to start laughing anew. Several times they shared a look, followed by laughter, and received questioning looks from their companions in front of them. Each time they would wave it off explaining that they could not explain why they were laughing.

They walked to the northern most corner of the castle and turned back to the west, still following the castle’s wall. After making the turn to the west Garret and Ashton walked a few dozen more steps, and gradually slowing they came to a stop.

“Well here we are.” Garret stated.

“Where is here?” Seth asked his brother.

“Temple row.” Ashton was the one to answer as he turned to point opposite the wide street of the castle. “Sasha told us the temples span from here all the way to the western wall of the castle, there are supposed to be nineteen gods and Goddesses represented here, each with their own temple.” Ashton recited the words spoken to him earlier by the inn’s owner.

“Ok so what do we do now?” Seth again asked.

“I am going to visit the temple of my Goddess.” Ashton stated.

“I have to go learn about Gorandor.” Garret added.

“What about you my angel, is there any temple you care to visit?” Seth asked.

“Not particularly my love, I will come with you if you have one you would like to see.” Sara answered.

“Well honestly I had just thought to walk the street and admire them, but I suppose if one should stand out I might go inside.” Seth stated and then added in a whisper for Sara’s ears only. “After all, we have to get joined somewhere, might as well pick a place.”

Sara nodded happily, and smiled lovingly to the man she adored. They said their farewells and agreed to meet back at this corner in a couple hours, and then they parted ways.

Seth and Sara watched Ashton lead Garret away down the wide street where they eventually vanished among the other people traveling up and down the road. Losing sight of his brother, Seth tightened his hold on Sara’s hand and led her slowly in the same direction his brother had gone.

Seth led them to the nearest temple, almost directly across the street from where they had separated from his brother. The building was a magnificent structure covered from the road to the highest arch with intricate stone carvings. Each of the carvings that sprawled up the walls depicted scenes of nature and various animal and plant life. The door to the temple sat between the trunks of two large stone trees. The trees’ branches were interwoven above the door and at the doors peak was carved a nest. Standing inside the nest was a majestic looking bird, its stone gaze peering down at the two people in the street who stood gawking at the temple. The building was beautiful. It was as if it were a part of nature that had petrified here beside the road. However as beautiful as it was, the stone gaze of its protector made Seth uncomfortable and so he decided to move on. With Sara walking beside him Seth again traversed down the street to where the next temple sat. Though the buildings were large, they were placed so close to one another that it was not long before they once again paused to admire another temple. This temple too rose majestically from the ground, covered with carvings and sculptures of its own. It looked much like the first temple in design, only here the scenes of nature were replaced by various symmetric symbols carved into the stone walls. Above this door was a carving of two hands. The hands reached palms out toward one another holding between them an open eye. This too made Seth uncomfortable, but even so he waited until Sara was done admiring the building before leading her once again to another.

Sara and Seth visited the doorstep of temple after temple to admire the painstaking detail that was poured into building each one of them. Even after stopping to admire each and every temple on the street, they realized they still had a significant amount of time before they were to reunite with their companions. They were stopped at the last temple on the street, and had inspected it thoroughly when Seth once again turned to walk away. This time in the direction they had just come, but before he could take a step, Sara squeezed his hand asking for his attention.

“Did you see any you were interested in?” Sara asked. Her amber eyes pleading.

“I’m afraid none of them really stuck out.” Seth replied. “But there are a couple that seemed more appealing than the others.” He added in an attempt to not destroy Sara’s hopes.

“Really?” Sara asked enthusiastically. “Which ones?”

“There was the one with the teardrop above the entrance, that one felt the least uncomfortable. Then there is the one with the weird symbols and the eye. It was a little creepier, but it was kind of intriguing. Then after that one I think the temple with the big dragon statues at the entrance.” Seth told her honestly, letting his discomfort with the temples be known.

“I know the gods and worshipping isn’t anything you hold in high regard Seth, but would you stop to take another look at those three for me?” Sara asked, still clinging to the hope that he might choose one and in doing so allow them to make plans to be joined.

“For you my angel I would do anything.” Seth answered earnestly.

Sara led Seth back the way they had come, a slight bounce in her step. Seth couldn’t help but notice the happiness mingled with hope in her eyes as they walked. He did not want to disappoint her so as they walked he again gazed upon every temple they passed. They stopped again at the temple guarded by the immense stone dragons. Nothing on this temple made Seth feel uncomfortable. The dragons did not stare at him with empty eyes. They did not menace him with bared teeth. The thing about this temple that Seth did not like was the fact that dragons were just fairytale monsters used to frighten children into obeying their parent’s rules. Seth imagined if the temple was inhabited by people worshiping a god that was depicted by a dragon, then he must assume that their religion had a lot of strict rules the followers were frightened into following. As Seth decided upon the temple he could not help but notice Sara watching his reaction. She seemed to recognize his decision before he could speak it, seeing something in his face he had not intended to show. Knowing Seth did not like the temple, Sara again led him down the road to their next stop. She still had a bounce in her step, though it had diminished greatly. Seth hated that he was making her unhappy, and could not stand to look upon her in his guilt. He instead chose to look to the temples they were passing. It was then that he noticed something he had missed previously. The temples were exactly the same as before, but as they walked away from the dragon temple and approached the next one Seth noticed a structure between them.

It was nothing magnificent, it was not even large. No grand statues or carved scenes marked its entrance. Nothing wrapped its walls at all. The structure between the two grand temples was as plain and bare as the road beneath his feet. Looking down to actually make the comparison, Seth realized he had stopped. Looking up from his feet he found Sara staring at him with a questioning look in her eyes. Smiling to reassure her he hadn’t forgotten how to walk, he gestured towards the small stone building between the temples.

Sara scrutinized the small stone building hiding in the shadows of its neighbors. It was made of bare stone with a wooden door. The door had a word carved into its surface, but from this distance she could not make it out. Besides the door no other detail marked the front of the building. Sara marveled at a sudden realization. She knew instantly that Seth would want to inspect the building further. The building, Sara felt, was a lot like her. It was small and plain, it appeared all but forgotten by the people who once took care of it, and nothing about it was remarkable. Like her, the building was a lost cause. Seth seemed to like lost causes, after all he loved her. This in mind Sara returned her gaze to the man she loved and smiled at him already guessing his decision.

“You want to go take a look?” Sara stated more than asked.

“How did you guess?” Seth answered with a look of surprise.

“I think I know you well enough.” Sara stated honestly.

“Well then, let’s go have a look.” Seth said.

Seth led Sara to the door, their hands clinging tightly to one another. As they reached the door Seth paused to read the inscription upon it, but found he was unable. The characters of the word were alien to him. Written in a different time, perhaps in a different language, the words meaning was lost upon the two attempting to decipher it. Seth turned and looked deeply into Sara’s eyes, and seeing her hope once again blazing in their depths, he grasped the handle upon the door. With a loud sigh Seth pulled the door open and warm air rushed past them from within. The scent of jasmine and other various spicy scents tickled their nostrils as they stepped into the small room through the door. Letting the door close behind them, they examined the room before them. It was empty except for two torches that were held in iron bands fastened into the walls to either side of them. Ahead of them, the only structure within the room was a staircase. Stone stairs led down into the earth and ended at a lighted room below. Besides the fact that the room below was lit, no other detail could be ascertained from the top of the stairs. Without speaking Seth led Sara down the stone staircase. They descended slowly towards the light, attempting to see what lay beyond. Reaching the foot of the stairs they peered into the room before them blinking frequently as their eyes adjusted to the bright light. The air here was thick with incents, and Sara coughed lightly trying to clear it from her throat. Even her cough reminded Seth of an angel. The room was larger than either had expected. It was not an elaborate room, having no furniture or decorations. The walls hung bare except for more torches running its length on either side. The room too was bare except for stone pillars that stood at regular distances supporting the ceiling above them. Looking across the long room Seth noticed one single statue standing at its far end looking back at them. Seth noted a familiar feeling about the statue, and wanting a closer look he began to cross the room towards it leading Sara by the hand. The back of the room was not as well lit as the entrance had been and being as such the statue was cast in shadow. Seth noticed that even as he was growing nearer he could not see the statue clearly enough to discern its details. As Seth made the halfway point across the room he thought he heard a foot scuff on the stone somewhere and slowed his pace to look around for its source. Spying nothing but the stone pillars Seth decided he must have been mistaken and turned his head once again toward the statue. Seth stopped abruptly before colliding with his intended target. Regaining himself Seth looked to the stone figure before him and gasped in realization. The stature before him was of a person he recognized. Not only did he recognize the stone features, but he remembered the voice that belonged to the stone woman before him. He remembered it, because it had only been a handful of days since he had spoken to her in a dream.

Before Seth stood a stone statue of a woman bearing a stark resemblance to his mother. Where before the woman’s hair had been braided in tight rows to her head, now it hung loosely across her shoulders. The statue stood, a calm look upon its face, its eyes fixed on Seth, who returned its gaze. Seth could not believe his eyes. In fact he closed them briefly only to reopen them revealing the same face as before. Without thinking about what he was doing, Seth reached out to touch the statue, a strange compulsion guiding his hand. Pressing his fingertips against the cool stone figure Seth heard a whisper. Removing his hand he turned to look at Sara to better hear her words, but Sara stood silently watching him with a curious and hopeful look upon her face. Thinking this odd, Seth returned his gaze to the statue in front of him. Again his hand rose as if of its own accord. Touching the stone again Seth could hear the whisper, only this time it was louder and more coherent. He closed his eyes to focus better upon the sound and found himself in a familiar stone room. The room was circular with no windows or doors just as it had been in his dream. He turned in the room mentally, conscious that it was simply a vision in his mind. Finding nothing out of the ordinary he again tried to listen for the whisper. No whisper came, instead as if standing directly before him, he heard the woman’s voice from his dream so many nights before.

“Seek me out amongst the oldest buildings of Valdadore.” The disembodied voice said into the room created by Seth’s mind.

“I have.” Seth replied not knowing what else to say.

“Go then. Call to me when you have need of me. Serve me and I shall reward you.” The voice said almost as if it were a command.

The circular stone room vanished taking with it the voice leaving Seth within the darkness of his mind. Seth’s eyes fluttered open and he found himself shaking as if from cold. Sara had come to support him, wrapping her arms around him gingerly from behind. Seth twisted in her arms attempting to turn to face her. Sara realizing his intentions loosened her grip upon him letting him turn. Seth turned, still in Sara’s embrace, and sought out her angelic face. Looking into her deep amber eyes Seth smiled to reassure her. Sara released his waist taking a step back to analyze him further. The shaking had ceased and Seth watched as Sara looked him from head to toe.

“I’m ok Sara.” Seth said.

“What was that all about?” Sara asked with a concerned expression.

“I’m not sure I can explain it correctly, but I will try.” Seth stated trying to plan his explanation so that it would make the most sense.

Just as Seth began to speak again a movement from something behind Sara caught his attention. Leaning slightly to his side he peered over Sara’s head to reveal a man cloaked all in black just a few paces away from them. Instinctively Seth sidestepped Sara and brought himself between her and the man that was now approaching slowly. Seth placed his hand on the hilt of his sword in silent warning to the other man.

“No need for that young master.” The man spoke with a thick accent causing his words to sound akin to a hiss.

“Why do you sneak up on us then?” Seth asked in a demanding tone.

“It has been some time since we have had a visitor to the temple, I was trying to see if you were vandalizing the statue.” The man hissed again.

“We mean no harm to your temple sir, in fact we were just about to leave.” Seth said, adding the last part as an afterthought.

The man again stepped forward towards them as if to get a better look. The man was staring intently at Seth’s face when he froze in place with a loud gasp. Regaining himself the man bowed low to the ground.

“Forgive me Sire for I did not recognize you. Nor was I aware you would be arriving with a guest.” The man spoke quickly making his hissing hard to interpret.

Seth was thoroughly confused at this point, sure the man was mistaken

“I am afraid you must have me mistaken for someone else.” Seth stated his thoughts.

“No sire, though you may not know it I have been expecting you. The mistress showed you to me and told me to await your arrival. I should never forget your face she told me and I did not. She too told me to give you something.” The man said quickly not stopping for a single breath.

“Who are you and what do you speak of?” Seth asked demanding an answer.

“Forgive me master, my name is Borrik. I am the last surviving follower of her holiness Ishanya.” The man stated beckoning towards the statue behind Seth. “She showed me a vision of you, in the very clothing you wear now. She told me you would come and she sent me to retrieve an ancient relic for you. I have it here with me now.” Borrik stated reaching one of his hands deep inside his robe.

Borrik reached up with his free hand and pulled back his cowl revealing his withered face and greasy black hair. He was neither old nor young, but somewhere in between. Around his eyes were dark circles that made it appear as if he had not slept for many days. His face was nearly clean shaven except for a small patch of hair beneath his lower lip, and his nose had a distinct knot in it where it had been broken long ago and the bone had not mended properly. His eyes were charcoal gray, and his pupils abnormally large as if unable to focus. Borrik took another step towards Seth and pulled his hand from his heavy black robe. He then presented his hand to Seth, and within it lay a small book. The book looked to be nothing of great value. The black leather cover had a tear in it, and its edges were worn or missing altogether. The edges of the pages that were visible through the ruined cover were stained shades of yellow and brown. Seth did not reach to accept it.

“What is it, and what does Ishanya want of me?” Seth asked the man named Borrik.

“It is a book sire. A book penned in the hand of a powerful servant of Ishanya many generations ago. It is a catalogue of sorts of his many services to the mistress, a journal of his powers, of his creations. That is what the mistress told me though I am unable to read it for myself.” Borrik stated remembering the words of his Goddess.

“What of Ishanya, what is it she wants from me?” Seth demanded.

“This I know not master. Only I know she told me you would seek her temple. She told me get the book for you at any cost, and so I have. She says for me to serve you now master for you will soon do her will upon Thurr. That is what she told me master. That and nothing more I swear to you.” Borrik stated with honesty.

Sara had come to stand beside Seth with a look of concern mixed with a look of confusion. Seth took his eyes off Borrik only for a moment to meet her eyes. He could see she was afraid, and he wished to ease her fear. Seth did not trust the gods, he felt what was near to loathing for them. Now it seemed however a god had taken interest in him. This Seth knew could not be a good sign. Though Ashton had a Goddess. A Goddess he loved and worshipped and it seemed to make him happy. All this Seth thought about before speaking again.

“Do you have a place we can sit and talk?” Seth asked Borrik still refusing to accept the small book.

“Yes master, past the statue there is a hall. Through the hall there is a room with a table and some chairs.” Borrik stated gesturing towards the darkness.

“Will you take us there?” Seth asked unwilling to enter a dark room first as it could be some sort of trap.

“Yes sire I will do as you command.” Borrik said again bowing low to the ground.

Borrik walked past Seth and Sara. Circling around the statue he continued on into the darkness. Seth followed next pulling Sara along behind him. They traversed the short hall and stepped into a room where a single candle sputtered upon a table. Borrik plucked the candle up from where it sat and used its small flame to ignite several torches that clung to the walls of the room. As the light increased the room was revealed. Inside the room was a long table with a dozen chairs situated around it. There were two ways out of the room. The first was the hall they had entered through, the second was a wooden door across from the hallway that at this time remained closed. Deciding it was safe, Seth pulled out a chair and gestured for Sara to sit. Sara quickly sat in the chair he offered, wanting to quickly learn what was going on. Seth then waited for Borrik to seat himself before sitting beside Sara. Organizing his thoughts Seth looked to Sara before he began to speak.

“Many nights ago I had a dream. Only it was not like a dream, it was as if it was more real than even when I was awake. In the dream I was at first alone in a round room. The room had no doors or windows. I could see plainly but there was no source of light. I searched for a way out but there were none to be found. Giving up my search I had turned around and before me there stood a woman. I know now that the woman was Ishanya. She told me to seek her out in the oldest buildings in Valdadore. I did not know that she had meant a temple, and thinking it a dream I had no intentions of pursuing her wishes. When we came here to the temple I recognized the statue and when I touched it I could hear her voice. She again spoke to me. This time she told me to leave. She told me to call upon her when I had need of her. She said that if I served her, she would reward me.” Seth told his tale looking always to Sara and waiting for her to respond.

“So the Goddess spoke to you in your dreams, and even though you did not intend to you found the place she wanted you to come?” Sara asked to confirm her understanding.

“Yes.” Seth stated simply.

“Then you touch the statue and she tells you to serve her and in return she will reward you. That must be when you started shaking.” Sara said to Seth.

“Yes that is right.” Seth answered.

“Then you Mr. Borrik say that the Goddess sent you on an errand to fetch a book. The book you are to give to Seth because the Goddess told you that he would serve her. Now you bring the book to him, and tell him that you are to serve him instead of the Goddess?” Sara asked

“Almost M’lady.” Borrik hissed. “I serve the Goddess by serving him.” He stated gesturing towards Seth.

“What do you get in return?” Sara asked knowing a piece of the puzzle was still missing.

“The mistress told me that in time my new master would be able to reward me with a great strength and lasting life.” Borrik answered quickly.

“May I see the book?” Seth asked.

“Yes master it is yours to protect now.” Borrik answered holding the book out for Seth to take.

“Please call me Seth.” Seth replied taking the book for Borrik’s extended hand.

Seth carefully opened the cover to expose a badly stained but otherwise blank page. Flipping to the next page he found it too was blank. Seth quickly sifted through the entire book letting the pages flip open one after another. Each and every page was free of ink.

“The pages are blank Borrik, what kind of trick do you try to pull here?” Seth demanded rising to his feet.

“No trick Lord Seth I assure you. I cannot read the pages either my Lord, but maybe if you ask the mistress she will reveal its contents to you.” Borrik stated certain he was correct.

“Where did you get it?” Seth asked.

“It was hidden among ancient books in a secret library protected by those who know its origins.” Borrik replied.

“Who are they and if no one can read it then how many know its secrets?” Seth asked still standing.

“I know neither what they call themselves nor who they serve Master Seth, but I assure you there are several less people who know about the book than there were before I sought it out.” Borrik said stating the last part proudly.

“You killed for this?” Seth said taken aback.

“Yes master Seth, it was the only way to retrieve it. They would not have given it to me freely.” Borrik stated a determined expression upon his face.

“What is so important about it then that people would die to keep it safe?” Seth again demanded.

“As I said master I know not what it contains but I can tell you this much. The man who wrote the invisible inscriptions that the book is said to contain was once nearly seated where the King sits now.” Borrik stated, he the only one worshipper of Ishanya remaining who knew the books history.

Seth mulled all the details over in his mind. The Goddess had gone out of her way to choose him for some reason unknown to him. If ever he did call upon her perhaps he could use this knowledge as leverage. She chose him, not the other way around. She had also given him a book containing something important, but he was unable to read it so that seemed pointless at this time. These details were important, of that Seth was sure. More importantly however was the reward Borrik was promised, a reward that Seth was supposed to eventually give him. Seth was to give him a reward that consisted of some sort of strength and lasting life. The details swirled in Seth’s mind and he filed them away to dwell on later. He looked to Sara and noticed she too was wrestling with all the unexpected events and details and as Seth watched her face suddenly lit up and she smiled widely.

“What is it angel?” Seth asked.

“Well it seems you do have or will have ties to a religion.” Sara stated leaving the thought unfinished.

“Hardly something to be happy about Sara, you know how I feel about worship.” Seth stated not grasping her point.

“I know love, but it also means that in some way you will probably belong to a temple and so we can be joined.” Sara stated quickly her smile beaming at him.

“Well there is that.” Seth replied returning her smile.

Seth was amazed that with all this news surrounding the unexpected revelation Sara was able to find a silver lining. She never ceased to amaze him. Stuffing the book in his tunic Seth again turned to face Borrik.

“So what of us now Borrik?” Seth asked the man.

“I cannot tell master. I imagine it is up to you to decide when or if you will call upon the mistress. Then maybe you will see more clearly what it is she wants or requires.” Borrik answered.

“What of you then Borrik? What shall you do in the mean time?” Seth asked.

“What do you wish of me Master Seth? I am to serve you.” Borrik stated a look of questioning appearing on his face.

“What is it you would normally do?” Seth asked.

“I live here at the temple master. I am its sole keeper.” Borrik replied.

“Then I suppose you should continue your duties here for now Borrik.” Seth told him, then added as an afterthought. “I do have one service you could provide for me if you are so inclined.”

“What is it you would have me do master?” Borrik asked happy to serve.

“I want information. Gather up any book or scroll that contains information about Ishanya or those who served her and deliver them to me at The King’s Herald.” Seth commanded.

“You shall have all you wish before night falls Master Seth.” Borrik vowed to the man he now served.

Seth was still on his feet when he bid Borrik farewell. Reaching out his had to assist her, Seth helped Sara from her chair and they quickly left the temple. Returning to the sunlight Seth and Sara stood outside the wooden entrance to the temple dedicated to the Goddess Ishanya. Seth did not move as to return to the street. Instead he turned to face Sara a look of defeat upon his face.

“I don’t think we should mention this to my brother or Ashton.” Seth said quietly.

“Why is that my love? Don’t you think that perhaps they might have some insight as to all that has occurred?” Sara asked her face a mask of concern.

“They might indeed angel, but I would like to know more myself before burdening them with my troubles.” He stated.

“If that is what you want, then I will not mention it.” Sara said honestly. “So what do we do now?” She then asked.

“Well it appears to be about time to meet the others so I guess we will go do that.” Seth stated noting the suns position in the sky. “Later, after Borrik delivers the information I asked for, I suppose we will have some reading to do. I don’t think it will look suspicious if we retire to our room early tonight do you?” Seth asked with a crooked grin on his lips.

“No indeed my love. In fact if we are to be spending a lot of time in our room then perhaps we can do more than read.” Sara said with a giggle, her teasing grin appearing briefly.

Seth took Sara’s hand and they walked from between the temples into the street ahead. Rounding the corner to the left they quickly navigated through the throngs of people and worked their way down the long street. Seth ignored the people gathering in the street as well as the row of temples to his left. He guided them on instinct alone, all the while sifting through details of his conversation with Borrik. Seth found it discomforting knowing that a god had sought him out. Why would a god choose him over another person? What was it the god wanted of him? Seth knew enough about the gods to determine that they did not act on a whim. Ashton had stated that the gods needed followers or worshippers to exist, though it was not a proven fact. If it was a worshipper Ishanya wanted she had chosen the wrong disciple. Seth was not inclined to blind worship. The gods were each known to grant special blessings to their most devout followers. Seth had witnessed this with Ashton and again earlier this same day with the enormous knights inside the castle. A god’s blessing could come in any form ranging from the most mundane ability to amazing feats of immense power. Seth recalled how it had felt to wield the power of Ashton’s Goddess. The power had not been his to wield, but none the less Ashton had loaned the power to him in a sense, allowing him to feel it course through his body. Seth recalled the feeling as if it had only just happened. It was a feeling he had enjoyed immensely. It was both pleasurable and intoxicating. It was a feeling Seth secretly hoped to one day feel again. If the Goddess wished to grant Seth a blessing of magic he could not imagine himself refusing it. He would not lower himself into a position of mindless worship for the blessing however. Of this much Seth was certain.

Feeling Sara’s pace slow, Seth refocused himself on the world outside his mind. Finding they were near the predetermined meeting point he too slowed his pace to match that of the woman he loved. They walked slowly, hand in hand, the last remaining steps to the corner of the castle wall. Stopping at the corner Seth and Sara took turns looking around to try and spot Ashton or Seth’s twin. It was a futile search as the street was now growing very crowded with people. The sun had passed its apex and people were out in masses ready for the evening’s festivities. Small booths were beginning to spring up in various locations down the street and people crowded around them. Seth had never seen so many people before in one place, the feeling made him a bit uneasy. Seth liked to keep an eye on people. Naturally he was a bit untrusting of others with a few exceptions. He found it difficult here to relax with so many people wandering around aimlessly. Feeling uneasy was a treatable ailment however, and Seth knowing well the drug he needed to ease himself, pulled Sara snugly into his arms. He held her there in a tight embrace gazing down into her liquid amber eyes. He was instantly soothed, the anxiety stirred by the crowd washed away leaving nothing but her eyes. Seth was an addict, and Sara was his drug of choice. Seth continued for some time gazing into Sara’s eyes, losing himself in their honey colored depths. The world unfocused around him and he was temporarily lost within her gaze.

“Have you no shame?” Garret hollered from a short distance. “You two have a room. Use it will you?” He joked loudly.

Seth pulled himself from the depths of Sara’s eyes and turned his head to watch his brother and his friend emerge from the crowd. Both Sara and Seth watched their companions approach, smiling to them in welcome. Releasing his grip on Sara, Seth again took her hand in his and they both turned to face their companions.

“How was your exploring?” Sara asked Garret in her angel’s voice.

“It was very informative. Thank you for asking.” Garret replied smiling.

“How about you Ashton? Was the visit to your temple a good one?” Sara again asked.

“Yes it was Sara.” Ashton answered, a boyish grin on his pale face. “The temple here is beautiful and many followers took time to speak with me. My mother’s description did not do it justice.” He added.

“What about you two did you visit any of the temples?” Garret asked both his twin and Sara.

“We visited them all briefly.” Sara answered honestly.

“How was it then?” Garret asked his gaze now fixed upon his twin. He knew well his brother’s distrust of the gods.

“It was much the same as yours I should think bro. It was very informative.” Seth answered with honesty but careful not to hint towards further detail.

“What do you suppose we should do now?” Garret again asked, looking as before towards his brother.

“I had thought to return to the inn to eat.” Seth stated making up his plans as he spoke.

“Do you not want to see the festivities brother?” Garret asked. “There will be plenty of food out here.” He added as if to persuade his twin.

“To be honest Garret I do not feel well, and I suspect that I would not be good company. I think I will return to the inn and retire early tonight, perhaps I can witness the festivities tomorrow.” Seth replied knowing well his ailment was of a mental nature rather than a physical one.

“You want us to join you?” Garret asked with real concern.

“No need for that. Enjoy the festivities, perhaps take note of some things you think I will enjoy and tomorrow you can show them to me.” Seth said knowing his brother did not want to return to the inn.

Garret nodded solemnly, realizing his brother’s mind was already made.

“Well if you are certain then I guess I will see you in the morning.” Garret stated and then added with a smile. “Don’t keep him up all hours of the night and wear him out too much Sara. We need him to feel rested tomorrow.”

Sara replied with a playful scowl, and waved as Garret and Ashton turned to once again join the masses of people milling about in the street. Watching them once again vanish among the crowd Sara turned to face Seth.

“Not feeling well? Perhaps I can perk you up a bit.” Sara stated as she stepped into Seth’s body.

Rising on her toes, Sara pressed her lips to Seth’s. She kissed him more passionately than was appropriate for a public place, but she cared not what others might think of the display. Letting her lips fall from his, she shrank back down off of her toes and took his hand in hers. Seth smiled appreciatively before turning to walk back the many blocks to the inn.

Chapter 10

The Choosing

As they had planned Seth and Sara returned to the inn. They went immediately to the dining hall and waited for Felix to appear. As was customary Felix appeared shortly after their arrival, and they sent him to prepare for them a dish of his choosing. They spoke quietly from time to time often exchanging flirtatious smiles. When their food arrived they thanked Felix graciously and consumed their meals quickly. After they had finished they sat for a few moments relaxing. The inn was deserted of guests. Everyone had gone out to venture in the streets to enjoy the festivities. Felix returned shortly and accepted their compliments to his meal as he collected their plates. He left them once again alone in the dining hall taking with him their dirty dishes. A Bell rang somewhere in the building above them and it was followed shortly their after by Sasha striding quickly through the room. She smiled and waved to them in greeting as she passed heading for the lobby. Her muffled voice could be heard speaking to someone on the other side of the stone wall, and listening carefully Seth heard the inn’s door open once again after the voices had stopped. Sasha returned around the corner this time carrying a large leather sack in her hand. She brought it to the table and placed it at Seth’s side.

“A man has just delivered this for you Seth.” Sasha stated in her eloquent voice.

“Yes I was expecting it.” Seth replied honestly.

“Would you like me to have it taken to your room for you?” Sasha asked then, always the host.

“No thank you Sasha I can get it from here. However we plan to retire momentarily, could you see to it that we are not disturbed?” Seth asked.

“Certainly.” Sasha replied sharing a quick smile with Sara. “Well then if you will excuse me I have a lot to see to this evening.” Sasha said.

“Of course don’t let us keep you.” Sara answered quickly in her soft angelic voice.

With that Sasha turned and strode out of the room. Seth looked to Sara who was in turn already looking at him.

“Guess we should get to work.” Seth stated and then added as an afterthought. “That is if you want to help. I’m sorry I assumed, I should have asked earlier.”

“That is fine love, if I can find a way to help you, I will do what I can.” Sara answered her voice full of love.

Seth pushed back from the table. Grabbing the bag he rose and waited for Sara to do the same. Sara rose and stepped nimbly around her chair beside him and they walked together down the hall towards their room. Seth retrieved their key and unlocked the door. Allowing Sara to enter in front of him he followed her through and closed the door behind them. Seth tested the door after he locked it assuring himself it was secure. Satisfied, he carried the bag to the seating area where Sara now stood waiting patiently. He joined her in quick order and untied the leather straps securing the top of the bag. Pulling the mouth of the bag open wide Seth peered inside. Assured of its contents Seth then flipped the bag over pouring its contents to the floor in a jumble. Scroll cases and scrolls littered the floor along with several books of varying sizes. Seth eyed the pile with uncertainty, not sure of where to start. Sara on the other hand immediately kneeled upon the floor and went about sorting the items into piles. The first pile consisted of scrolls without cases. The second was comprised of scrolls that were in cases. Finally, the last pile was a short stack of books stacked neatly with the largest at the bottom, and smallest at the top. Sorted as such the task did not seem quite as daunting as it had before and Seth seated himself quickly next to Sara the piles arranged in front of them.

“I guess we can start with the scrolls.” Seth stated noting it was the biggest pile.

Sara nodded in response and she took up the first scroll within her reach and unraveled it quickly to begin reading. Seth followed her lead and he too picked up a scroll and revealed its contents. They read each scroll entirely, pausing between scrolls to exchange details of the Goddess or her followers they had deciphered from the ink. After they had completed the unprotected scrolls they moved on to those in cases. After each document they would share details of its contents and compare those details to others they had previously read. They finished the scrolls contained within the cases in quick order and moved on to the books. Most of the books were small consisting of fewer than fifty pages. Only two of the books were larger volumes each containing several hundred pages. They started with the smaller books and found immediately that the tomes were divided into small sections, each dealing with a specific subject. This allowed them to skip portions they did not need and go directly to the pages they sought. The small books were finished very quickly after this discovery and all that remained unread were the two largest of the books. They each selected one and opened it upon their laps. Flipping through the first few pages they were each surprised to find the books were indexed in a similar fashion to the smaller tomes. The book Seth held was a collection of short histories of the gods. Each god it seemed had its own section within the book and Seth was able to quickly locate the pages pertaining to Ishanya and he began to read them. Sara’s book was not divided as such and she found references to Ishanya in several places in the index of her tome. She flipped to one section, and after she finished it she would return to the index to locate another section. She followed this process until she had gleaned every ounce of information contained in the book about Ishanya. Seeing that Seth had not yet finished she decided to once again scan through the index for anything else that might be useful. Running her fingers across the page she found a heading that caught her attention. The words read “The Heavenly war” and noting the page number Sara flipped the pages until she found it. She read through the passage quickly fore it was not lengthy, and as she finished, Seth too had completed his task. They each closed their books and placed them back on the floor. It had taken several hours but finally their task was completed. They each took a moment to organize their thoughts before sharing the information they had learned. It was Seth who spoke first.

“Ok so up to this point we have read that Ishanya is at best an unpredictable Goddess. She generally has few followers throughout history. Those she did have however were very loyal to her and many of them in the past were blessed by her. Her blessings were for the most part blessings of physical strength, speed or agility. Sometimes the blessing was a combination of the three. Each of those was a physical blessing bestowed upon a worshipper without the gift to control magic. Instead they were given abilities to enhance them in battle. Though I think none of those qualities are what the Goddess has in store for me.” Seth narrated his last sentence barely a whisper.

“Why is that love?” Sara asked, compelling him to explain.

“Borrik said that Ishanya told him that one day I would reward him with strength and a long life. If I am to be able to reward him with such then I see it unlikely she will bless me with a physical trait if I choose to serve her. Besides I also apparently have the gift, and being such I think I am better suited to one of her other blessings. From what we read she has only blessed a few of her followers in the past with gifts of magical power. I think this is due to most people with the gift choosing to serve the more popular gods of magic. But what we do know is that those she did bless with the gift were very powerful, but if I interpret what I have read correctly it is almost as if their powers were unreliable. It is almost as if she chooses to channel her power to her followers as she sees fit, not as they require it. Those she had blessed with her power were also intended for battle however, and their various blessings were more powerful than those of other gods. So it would appear that though she has not blessed anyone in several hundred years, as far as these records show that is, that her blessings are very powerful. I wish we had more information to go on.” Seth said finishing his narration.

“I think I found something that puts it in better perspective.” Sara said a small glimmer in her eyes.

“What is it angel?” Seth asked.

“In this book it tells of a war in the heavens. It is a war in which the gods fight for dominion over our world. But they do not fight one another openly, instead they use their powers to bless those of their followers to wage war here. It also mentions several theories as to why the gods’ gifts vary so much and why some gods no longer have many followers. Let me see if I can summarize it without losing the details.” Sara paused for a moment gathering her thoughts and recalling the passages she had just previously read before starting anew. “The gods’ power, the book states, is determined by how many worshippers the god has. Each of the gods worked together to create our world giving all living things a portion of their power bringing life to the world. Each god seeks to regain the power that each living creature contains. They gain claim of the power through worship. The more followers they have the more powerful the god becomes. The god then chooses to bless some of its followers with that power which in turn usually brings more followers. However a god can choose to retain his power instead of giving blessings. I guess they would do this to bide time while the other gods struggle with one another, wasting their strength so to speak. I think this is what Ishanya has been doing. As the more prevalent gods have been warring silently expending their power she has been waiting for an opportunity. I think that maybe Seth you are that opportunity. Maybe the gods that are in power now have spread themselves too thin, and though they have many followers feeding them power they are siphoning that power back down into those they have blessed. It is all just theory and speculation, but it makes sense to me. Does it seem likely to you? Sara asked Seth hoping she had been able to find the piece of the puzzle that had been eluding him.

Seth thought it over for long moments. He mulled over all they had learned in his mind. Piecing details together within his head he began to create a bigger picture. He now added what Sara speculated and finally the situation appeared more clearly. Seth looked it over inside his mind. The Goddess had been biding her time for hundreds of years. She had waited patiently as the other gods waged war thinking her already defeated. Their arrogance had led them to spread themselves too thin, at least those that battled here in Valdadore. Seth could recall fourteen magnificent temples lining the square. Each of them equal in grandeur, each of them worshipped openly and freely by many. He also could recall one temple hidden amongst the others. A temple only visited recently by three people. Ishanya was the underdog so to speak. She was outdated and outnumbered. Few now lived who even knew her name, yet she had chosen to return to the world, she had chosen Seth to be her champion. Of this much Seth was nearly certain. It was odd however thinking that the gods had given life to the world, giving each life upon it a small portion of themselves. Now however and perhaps since the beginning of time they wanted those small pieces back. They used the races of men and even perhaps beasts as pawns to wage wars and kill each other’s followers to gain strength. It was sickening, yet in some way it all made perfect sense. Seth again retuned his focus to the world beyond his mind. He nodded as he smiled to the small woman he loved.

“My angel you are a genius.” Seth stated knowing if it hadn’t been for her he may have never found the explanation he sought.

“I know now why Ishanya has chosen this time to return.” Seth stated as the thoughts clarified themselves in his head.

“Why my love?” Sara asked intrigued.

“The Kingdom is at war, and with the Choosing ceremony many will be chosen to serve the ranks of the army, the knights, the druids, even the mages. Many of those will be blessed by their gods to enhance their chances to win the war. Those blessings will cost the gods who give them dearly. It will take time for people to recognize the new blessings for what they are and longer still for people to join in worship because of what they witness. So it seems there will be a period of time after The Choosing, yet before the end of the war where several gods will be weakened temporarily. Ishanya is choosing this time to make her move towards a seat of power. It’s perfectly logical yet I think she has not foreseen one problem in her plan.” Seth said grinning widely to himself.

“What is it Seth?” Sara asked in wonder, amazed by his new understanding of the gods.

“Me.” Seth answered simply. “She does not see that I have no ambition to join a religion, I have no want or need to worship a god. I am happy being me just the way I am. I would like the gift of magic. I feel like it is something I must pursue, but I will not trade my freedom for it. That my angel is the flaw of her plans.” Seth said with determination in his voice.

“You know what that means don’t you?” Sara asked her face changing to an expression of concern.

“What is that?” Seth asked.

“It means that you hold the power to change the world. If you stand by and do nothing the war will wage on for who knows how long. Thousands will die and eventually one god will triumph over another just to then be attacked by another god’s followers. Or if you choose to follow Ishanya you might forever change the history of the world, you could maybe even stop the war. I know not what Ishanya wants of you, but perhaps it is worth it in the end to at least find out what it is she desires.” Sara stated watching Seth’s triumphant smile fade into one of disgust.

“Why can the gods not just leave us all alone to live as we choose?” Seth asked. “Why is it we must pay with our lives for their ambition and greed? It seems I have no choice in the matter. I have to at least do what you say, if nothing else maybe I can use my opposition as leverage to gain some advantage on the Goddess. If I play my cards right, maybe I can gain her blessing without swearing myself to her, maybe even I can do some good after all.” Seth said more to himself than anyone else.

It was a suffocating feeling, being tangled in the web of a Goddess. Seth felt like the world literally rested on his shoulders. No matter which direction he chose there would be consequences. He decided then that whichever direction he did choose it would be for the betterment of man, not for a god. He looked to Sara, the one person who shared this knowledge with him, and vowed once again to himself to do all he could to protect her. He would do what was right to make the world his angel lived in a better place.

Seth sat silently for a long time thinking to himself about the predicament he was in. He wanted nothing to do with the gods, though now he knew he had no choice. He tried to imagine how his future would play out. In Seth’s mind he imagined the world as a scale. The scale weighed dozens of different armies, different outcomes. Seth stood at the center of that scale. A movement in any direction would cause an unbalance in the strained equilibrium that now existed. If what he believed and what he felt was the truth, then how could he choose who the winners and losers would be? Thousands or perhaps tens of thousands would die in a drawn out war among the gods. Seth was not familiar with all the other races of men, but he knew it was not right to condemn them to death. No matter which choices might lay before him, none of them were the right choice. None of them were true and just. Each and every outcome Seth could think of led to bloodshed. Each of them evil. Seth tumbled within the darkness of his mind. Consumed by the grief growing within him he was lost for a moment. Lost to the world, lost to his senses, lost to himself. It was only when Sara had risen and come to his side, wrapping her arms around his neck that Seth sought to free himself from the dark thoughts. Returning his mind to the physical world Seth had come to a final decision. He knew well that each and every choice would be one he would regret. However he decided to forever choose the quickest, less costly path to an end. This he hoped might spare lives, and in turn not make him the monster the Goddess planned him to be.

Focusing on Sara to keep his mind from wandering to darker thoughts Seth rose to his feet. Sara rose with him and the two stood for a long moment in each other’s arms.

“I think it is time to adjust your mood.” Sara said, her teasing smile appearing on her lips.

“Is that so?” Seth asked innocently, his dark thoughts fading as he looked to her angelic face.

“Yes let’s go to bed.” Sara replied as she turned and strode across the room exaggerating her hip’s twist as she went.

“To sleep?” Seth asked already knowing the answer.

“Perhaps at some point my love.” Sara said over her shoulder still walking away.

Seth too crossed the room to his side of the bed and began to undress. Unbuttoning his tunic he revealed the small leather bound tome that was his gift from the Goddess. Not wanting to dwell upon his bleak future yet again he tossed the book upon the floor, and using his foot slid it beneath the bed. Undressing quickly Seth crawled into their bed and pulled the covers over himself. Seth had settled into bed just in time to watch Sara pulling the silky top over her shoulders. She faced away from him and he took a moment to admire her beautifully shaped body. Sara turned to face him, once again revealing her barely disguised figure. Seth smiled as Sara crawled into the bed like a graceful feline. Sara too slid beneath the covers and inched her way the remaining distance to Seth’s side. Rolling to her side Sara wrapped one leg loosely over him and laid her head upon his bare chest. Feeling her small warm body pressed once again against his own Seth fought his body’s urges. As Seth tried to sway his changing blood flow Sara slid her hand up his side and began to dance her fingertips across his bare skin. With a loud sigh of defeat Seth let go of his inhibitions and in spite of himself he grinned as Sara watched his face quietly giggling.

The night passed for Seth and Sara much like the previous night. For long hours they experimented pleasurably with one another’s bodies, finally finding sleep when their eyes could remain open no longer.

Late into the night Garret and Ashton stumbled back into the front door of The King’s Herald. Garret swayed this way and that uncontrollably as Ashton attempted to guide and support his larger friend. They precariously made their way through the building and up the stairs to their floor. Guiding Garret through the door to the room they shared Ashton strained as he led his friend through the room. Bringing the large man to his bed Ashton let him fall heavily upon it. Within mere seconds Garret had begun snoring and Ashton too undressed and climbed into his own bed.

The intoxicating effect of ale and rum was not enough to spare Garret from what sought him this night. Deep in a drunken slumber Garret dreamed lazily about the things he had done and seen previously in the evening. He watched once again as beautiful women swayed and twirled before him in perfect rhythm, dancing to the music of a nearby group of minstrels. Garret’s dream again changed focus as he again visited a booth in the street with his friend. The booth was filled with carved wooden puppets each unique in their design. A small man stood inside the booth smiling, revealing several missing teeth. Again Garret’s dream shifted focus and he stood outside the magnificent temple of Gorandor looking up at its intricately carved walls. Stepping forward Garret began towards the temple’s entrance. He walked through the door that stood open into the evening air and paused to let his eyes adjust to the light within. Garret waited patiently as his eyes adjusted to the new light, and he looked around the temple as it came into focus. The temple’s rows and rows of pews stood unattended as Garret walked between them towards the far end of the room. As he walked he noticed a man kneeling before a statue of Gorandor at the altar across the room from him. As he neared, the man stood and turned to face him. He was a tall man, taller than Garret by a head. He too was thickly muscled with bulging limbs and a thick neck. He had a strong jaw and was clean shaven. His hair was black as night and curled loosely upon his head. Atop his head amongst the black curls sat a shimmering crown of gold studded nearly to entirety with Gems. The man stood facing Garret with a welcoming smile as Garret closed the distance between them. The man looked familiar to Garret yet he could not recall the name of the man nor where they had met. The man began to speak then. At least it looked as if he were speaking. The man formed words with his lips only Garret could not hear them, and thinking the man whispering Garret leaned ever closer in an attempt to decipher the man’s words. No matter how near Garret got, no word escaped the man’s moving lips. As Garret tried in vain to hear the soundless conversation the world again heaved and the temple and the man vanished.

Darkness swirled around Garret for a moment and his stomach turned awkwardly. Fighting back the bile that rose in his throat Garret commanded the whirling nothingness to retreat, and as if obeying his command it did. When the misty blackness subsided Garret once again stood upon a battlefield. This time was much like a previous dream he had had. Looking across the body littered field Garret watched as black masses coagulated across the field from him like pools of aging blood. Realizing he had seen this scene before Garret then turned his attention to the men beside and around him. To each side of him were men dressed in the armor of the knights of Valdadore. Behind him more knights formed rows, and as he met their gazes each nodded to him. Garret then extended the sweep of his eyes to include those further away than the knights. Behind the knights, and to either side of them thousands of men in various types of armor stood ready for battle. Garret could not distinguish any familiar faces, so he turned his gaze elsewhere. Seeking out something familiar Garret looked through the front lines of the massive force until his gaze fell upon a face he had seen every day since his birth. Seth stood mere yards away, facing the enemy across the field. He was easy to recognize though his face had changed tremendously. He looked tired, wore out, a withered image of himself. His clothing too was different. Instead of a tunic and leggings as was usual for him to wear, Seth wore a long robe made from a black fabric trimmed in a deep red color. He did not notice Garrets gaze, he stood focused across the field as if concentrating. Confused and concerned Garret tore his eyes from his brother and again tried to scan those around his brother. He quickly located what he sought. Sara stood beside Seth, opposite of Garret. He could not see much of her, his view obscured by his brother, but she was there at Seth’s side, refusing even in the threat of battle to leave the man she loved. Garret nodded his approval silently to himself as he noticed the mood of the men around him change. As he turned to seek out the cause of this change he noticed Seth pulling up his sleeves and extending his hands as if to point toward something across the field. Following his brother’s motion Garret turned his gaze to where the enemy faced them, only now the enemy rushed across the field as bolts of blue lightning began to rain down among them. Garret faced his coming enemy and began to mutter words he himself could not distinguish as his body began to shimmer. Everything went black, and the intoxicating effect of all the liquor he had consumed earlier in the evening returned, and refused to let him awaken. Garret snored heavily, sleeping uneasily until morning when he woke with a pounding head and uneasy stomach.

The next two days passed much like their second day had. They explored the city each day, sometimes splitting into pairs to go their separate ways. Seth and Sara used this time alone to reread the scrolls and books brought to them by Borrik, and they too visited the temple of Ishanya each day to speak with him of the Goddess though this led to no new answers. Borrik, each time they visited, asked Seth for orders to carry out though Seth each time had none. Seth now had a loyal servant that at present he had no need for, but he had a feeling that in time his link to Borrik would be one of much more substance. Seth spent the days drowning in mixed emotions. The knowledge of his seemingly inescapable future disturbed him and left him feeling empty and burdened. Yet having Sara all to himself made him feel relaxed and focused. Her presence filled him with such adoration he knew he would never be able to fully express his feelings for her in words. It was a strange mix of emotions that caused his mood to swing frequently negative, only again to have Sara light the way back to normalcy with her depth less amber eyes and disarming smile.

Garret and Ashton too visited the temples. Ashton went each day to pray to his Goddess, and Garret went each day to visit the temple of Gorandor trying to decipher the meaning of his multitude of dreams.

Each evening Seth and Sara would return to the inn foregoing the city’s festivities to instead spend quiet time together. Garret and Ashton however spent each night enjoying the multitudes of performers and indulged themselves with foods from around the realm. Garret continued to drink his fill of rum and ale each night, however he had gained a new respect for the effects of alcohol and so drank more responsibly. The days and nights passed quickly, and before any of them were ready the day had come that had been their purpose in coming to the castle city of Valdadore.

Seth lay still staring at the ceiling above the bed he and Sara shared. He was exhausted, the revelations of days past had been eating at him slowly making sleep a nearly unobtainable commodity. He could not recall actually waking up and he wondered if at any point he had ever fallen asleep. He slid carefully to the edge of the bed and stood to dress moving slowly as to not wake Sara. As he pulled from his pack the clothing given to him for this day he stood to see Sara standing opposite of him across the bed watching him.

“Good morning angel.” Seth said smiling at the beautiful woman before him.

“G’morning my love.” Sara replied.

Smiling momentarily at one another they then dressed quickly and Seth sat down upon the edge of the bed. Sara joined him as he pulled on his boots and she smiled at him provocatively.

“What’s gotten into you?” Seth asked.

“You look very handsome in those clothes love.” Sara stated beckoning towards his outfit. “You look very important as well.” She added.

“You think so?” Seth asked raising one eyebrow.

“Yes I do, I just hope none of the other girls at the ceremony notice.” Sara said smiling slyly.

“No matter if they do Sara, I will never want any other than you.” Seth said honestly.

Sara smiled proudly knowing he was being honest, and happy with the knowledge that though she might not deserve him, he was hers and no other’s. Seth rose from the bed and pulled Sara into his arms. Today he knew would be a life changing day. Today was the choosing. It was a day he was sure he would never forget, and he hoped now that he would be making good memories this day. If it did not go well however, he would return here to the inn to meet Sara and they would run together to somewhere the Kingdom would not care to look for them. The plan was made, the day had come, now all there was to do was see how it played out. The ceremony was scheduled to start two hours after sunrise, and sunrise was upon them.

Gathering their belongings Seth removed the small black tome from beneath the bed and placed it within his shirt, tucking it firmly at his waist. Then without a look back he and Sara left the room and headed to the dining hall.

Garret and Ashton both awoke feeling renewed and well rested. They both were excited about the coming ceremony. Both of them fairly certain what it held in store for them. They rushed to dress and gathered their things before leaving their room. Taking the stairs two at a time and skipping the last few all together they made their way to the first floor and down the hall to the dining area. Rounding the corner they were amazed to see the room full of people. They had hardly even been aware of any other guests up until now, however the dining hall was filled nearly to capacity this morning and it took Garret a moment to scan the dozens of faces who looked up at him as he entered the room. Looking from table to table Garret located his brother and Sara and led Ashton across the room to join them. It was not their normal table they attended this morning, instead having to sit at one against the wall. They all greeted one another as Garret and Ashton sat themselves with their companions. Looking around Garret noticed that nearly all the people here this morning were their own age. Most of the people in the hall were already eating, or empty plates stood upon their tables having already finished their meals. Each of the companions anxious for their own reasons, waited impatiently for Felix to arrive.

After some time Felix did arrive, accompanied by a young woman. They each carried large trays filled with plates of food which they delivered to several different tables. The meals delivered, the young woman and Felix then gathered empty plates from those guests that were finished, and too from tables that now were deserted. Having gathered everything there was to gather, Felix sent the woman back to the kitchen her arms heavily burdened with plates and bowls before turning to approach the four’s table.

“It appears you are a busy man this morning.” Seth said to Felix as he came beside the table.

“Indeed I am Master Seth.” Felix replied. “And good morning to you all.” He added.

They each in turn greeted Felix, and when he asked what they would be having for breakfast he was not surprised when Sara spoke for the group.

“Felix, you should well know by now that you can prepare for us anything of your choosing, as no one I am sure has better taste in food than you.” Sara said all the while beaming a giant smile at the man.

“Thank you for your kindness all of you.” Felix said, looking to each of them one by one. “It is a shame your stay could not be longer, I truly hope to see each of you again.” He added in earnest.

Each of the companions responded thanking Felix for his delicious meals and friendly conversation. Each too promised they would return as soon as they could assuring the man nothing could keep them away from his cooking. Felix left their table giving them a smile and a wink before he left. As he crossed the room the companions watched him go his limp more prevalent than it had been in days past.

As the group waited patiently for Felix’s return, they spoke briefly about the ceremony that awaited them in less than two hours time. Both Garret and Ashton spoke boisterously, unable to restrain their excitement. Seth and Sara tried to sound as excited as their companions, but neither of them was able to quite mimic the others’ mood.

Before long Felix returned, carrying a tray of food and mugs for the four companions. He placed a plate and mug before each of them and wished them an enjoyable meal before he left to see to other customers.

Upon each plate stood a large muffin, larger than any muffin any of them had seen before. The top of the muffin had been cut away and hollowed out to hold a pool of thick syrup blended with raspberries. The entire muffin was also drizzled with melting frosting crisscrossing the top of the muffin in milky white lines that ran down their sides and formed small pools of sticky sweetness upon the plates. To accompany the muffin Felix had brought each of them a large mug filled with milk blended with orange juice. It was a simple meal, but even so Felix had seen to it that it was a delicious meal. Each of them ate quickly, knowing that time was growing short, and they still had to walk the distance to the castle which would take nearly half an hour. They finished eating in record time and instead of waiting for Felix to return they decided to leave the inn. Pushing back from the table the four of them rose, and grabbing their belongings, they headed to the street.

Entering the street they were amazed to find that like the inn the street was bustling with people unlike they had ever seen before. Hundreds of people of all ages crowded the street all moving in the direction of the castle. Merging into the crowd the four headed like everyone else toward the castle in the center of the city. Garret and Seth walked side by side down the street. Opposite of Garret, Sara walked beside Seth their hands entwined tightly, each of them afraid of what might lay ahead. Ashton walked on the opposite side of Garret that Seth walked, and he knew today he would follow in the footsteps of both his mother and his older brother. Nothing could please him more. Garret too walked more quickly than was usual. Being almost guaranteed that he would be joining the ranks of the elite knights of Valdadore, Garret rushed on to his future, a future he was happy to embrace, a future sure to be filled with honor and glory. Seth and Sara on the other hand walked quickly just to keep up with their companions. Neither of them really wanted to attend the ceremony, both of them fairly certain it would turn out badly. Sara did not care for what she would be chosen, it mattered not at all so long as she would be able to stay with Seth. This she knew was unlikely. If Garret was to be chosen for the Knighthood, then so too was Seth likely to be chosen. Sara doubted that there were any women in the knighthood. Even though they had planned for a possible separation, Sara was afraid.

Seth on the other hand was not afraid. He had already made plans with Sara in the event they should be separated, and that being done he was comfortable in the fact that they had foreseen the possibility and planned accordingly. Seth was also not afraid of the ceremony itself. It was true he knew it was likely he, like his brother could be chosen for one portion of the army or another. Though this was in no way what he wanted, it did not scare him. Seth had no energy for fear now, instead it now seemed as if the ceremony really held no relevance to him, with the recent revelations Seth was almost certain his path would lead to one predetermined point no matter what was to happen today. All that mattered is that Seth pay attention, watch for signs, gather information and knowledge in his plan to regain control of his fate and untangle himself from the Goddess’s schemes.

Following the crowd like mindless sheep the companions finally emerged into the square surrounding the castle. The crowd had not dissipated, but instead clung to the edges of the square leaving the majority of the road open to those actually traveling into the castle for the ceremony. The gate stood open across the square from them, and today it seemed the normal guard had been doubled. They walked slowly toward the giant gate that now resembled a massive iron maw that occasionally ate a person or group of people who dared enter. As they approached the guards looked them over, and determining their age and purpose allowed them to pass unquestioned.

The companions passed through the portcullis into the stone entrance of the castle courtyard. Just inside the massive walls to either side of them stood a pair of stone staircases that appeared to be a reflection of one another across the paved street. Each set of stairs ran parallel to the massive wall up its side to a higher level. Upon that level spaced evenly at each slit in the stone stood lightly armored soldiers. Each of the soldiers held a bow with and arrow already in place to draw and fire at a moment’s notice. The archers spanned the wall as far as the eye could see in either direction. It was an impressive sight. Upon passing the stairs that led to the upper levels of the outer wall to the castle, the group walked into a giant courtyard. Here stood massive towers and spires of varying height and size. Each of these rose great distances into the sky above, casting long shadows across the paved courtyard. Above them, spanning great distances, elegant web like catwalks ran between the giant structures crisscrossing the sky this way and that. Flags and pennants waved in the early morning breeze from various locations and levels among the towers and spires. The entire castle was awe inspiring and the four companions could not help but gawk like tourists as they walked. Passing between two giant towers the group came to an even larger portion of the courtyard. This portion consisted of several levels. The paved courtyard ran for hundreds of feet before rising three steps and then running another couple hundred feet to yet another set of steps. The trend continued with an large open expanse raising steadily a few steps every so far as if smaller and smaller courtyards had been stacked one upon another creating dozens of layers each one rising a few feet and at their very center sat the castle proper. The actual castle was not as impressive a sight as the group had expected. It was a large building for sure, but it stood small next to the towers and spires that had been built around it. It rose only a few stories higher than the massive outer castle wall, but was dwarfed by some of the towers by nearly a dozen floors. It was still some ways off, but at this distance it was not as magnificent as any of them had expected. As the four walked they noticed that people were gathering on the next tier of the courtyard and so they continued towards the steps ahead of them, assuming that this is where the ceremony would be held. Topping the five steps that rose to this tier they looked around at what lay before them. This tier held no towers or any other structure for that matter. In fact besides the small groups of people gathered here and there the only other item upon the tier was a small canopied tent that stood across from them at the opposite edge of this tier where the steps again climbed to the next. The tent had no walls, it consisted of poles supporting a roof, and beneath its canopy more than a dozen people stood speaking, though they were too far at this distance to see clearly let alone hear. Looking around at the others inhabiting this level of the courtyard it was apparent that those gathered were here to be chosen as well. Realizing they had come as far as they needed to, the four companions stopped, and not knowing what else to do they stood looking around, waiting for some sort of instructions.

Chapter 11

The Chosen

Trumpets blared across the open expanse of the immense stone courtyard, reverberating off the stone walls and paved road around and under all who now stood within the Castle’s shadow. As the trumpets announced the beginning of the ceremony a deafening roar exploded over the castle from outside its walls. Thousands upon thousands of voices cheered in unison as their many small voices joined and twisted together through the air to become one great blast of sound. The four companions remained standing apart from the many others who had gathered here this day, and watched as dozens more quickly poured onto this tier of the castle’s courtyards. As the crowd gathered outside the castle walls began to fall silent, a thunderous drumming could be heard coming from somewhere within the walls. The sound beat like a giant heart that shook the stone beneath the companion’s feet and they looked around as far as the eye could see to locate its source. The rhythm continued growing ever louder as time progressed, and all of those gathered for the ceremony looked around in anticipation. It was not long before the source of the pulsing drum beat was revealed. It was not what anyone had expected, and as the source of the sound was revealed many exhaled loudly at the sight that appeared from behind the castle proper. From beyond the castle itself a line of heavily armored soldiers appeared. At first all that could be seen was their helms, polished to a mirror surface gleaming in the sun. As they approached they climbed the steps of each tier revealing more and more of themselves to those who were gathered to see them. A solid line of soldiers marched in unison, their swords drawn, spanning the entire expanse of the Castle’s courtyard. Their feet pounded the stone paved road as they came creating the drum like rhythm that sounded so much like the heart of some giant beast. As they neared, the soldiers looked more and more menacing. A giant wall of polished armor, thundering ever nearer with swords drawn marched across the open expanse driving before them those who had gathered for the ceremony. As the wall of shining steel approached the canopied tent, those soldiers that stood behind the tent stopped immediately creating an impassible wall. From the ends of this wall that was created by a dozen soldiers, another wall began to form from each side. As the remaining line of soldiers continued to move, with each step two more soldiers would stop, one from each side where they had been split at the tent. This created a diagonal line of sword and steel fanning out from the back corners of the tent. These two lines of soldiers continued to form across the entire expanse of the stone tier that the companions stood upon. When the line of soldiers had finally reached the end of this particular tier they marched straight down the three steps without hesitation, never missing a beat. As their feet thundered off of the bottom step all the soldiers turned on some silent command and marched inward upon themselves in two lines slowly closing the gap that had been created by those who had stopped to form lines across the courtyard. As the two lines came together closing the gap the Soldiers halted in perfect time, and driving their heels together both lines turned to face toward the courtyard they had just surrounded. Raising their swords above their heads as if to attack, the immense line of soldiers that stood at the bottom of the steps to the courtyard crouched as if all controlled by one mind. Then as before, as if from some unspoken command they lunged. A hundred soldiers moving as one body gained the four steps in a single bound, bringing them like a wave from an ocean made of steel onto the tier where their brethren held those attending the ceremony captive.

As the soldiers landed, swords drawn as if for battle, a sound arose that landed on hundreds of unfamiliar ears. It was the first time anyone attending the ceremony had heard the sound, anyone but Garret anyhow. He had heard these words many times before. It was the same words, the same sound, as he had heard in his dreams.

“For Valdadore!” Every soldier roared valiantly as their precision display had come to an end

All those who had come to The Choosing had been penned in by the soldiers’ procession and now stood in one giant mass of bodies between the walls of gleaming armor like herded sheep. More than five hundred had come for the ceremony yet no one spoke as they all stood together unsure of what would happen next. It was an awkward uncomfortable silence that seemed to last an eternity as the many faces looked around for any sign of instruction. After many long moments movement finally stirred from within the canopied tent as the people there parted to allow a solitary figure to emerge into the open. As the man stepped into the sun, light gleamed and glinted off his gem encrusted and gold inlaid armor. Upon his head a myriad of colors gleamed from the many gems inlaid within the crown of gold that rested there. With The man’s approach all of the soldiers creating the wall around them sank each to one knee and bowed their heads to the ground in reverence. Following the soldiers lead the mass of young men and women too dropped to their knees at the sight of their King, though none took their eyes off him. The King strode forward only a few paces from beneath the tent before he stopped. Beckoning for everyone to again rise to their feet the King waited as they each rose to again regard him on an even level. The King watched as all those around him regained their feet and he waited a moment longer before he spoke. When he did speak it came as a surprise to all those who had gathered that a single man could speak so loudly without shouting that his voice carried clearly through the air to each and every set of ears that had come to listen.

“First I should like to thank you all for heeding the call of your Kingdom.” The King boomed across the stone courtyard, giving his words a moment to settle upon the ears of those who listened before continuing. “Today you shall each start a new chapter in your lives, a chapter that too will be written in the history of our Kingdom. Think not lightly of the triumphs or failures you may experience from this day forward, for what you are and what you may become, and what deeds you may or may not accomplish will all be combined in the histories of our homeland. We live in perilous times. Armies gather at our borders and seek an entry into our Kingdom. Each and every one of you has the chance to help keep our Kingdom alive and safe. No matter if you are chosen as a cook for the soldiers, or if you are chosen to join the ranks of my personal guard, the fierce knights of Valdadore, every one of you will play an important role in the survival of our people. If you have a particular skill you think useful be not afraid to tell my advisors and generals what that skill is. We can help you to perfect it, to master it, to use it to the Kingdom’s advantage. I am afraid that this Choosing ceremony will be much different than those in the past. We face many enemies, and many challenges, the worst of which is time. Normally you would spend no less than half a year here within the castle to train and master your skills before venturing out to perform the Kingdom’s duties, however at present, time is not a luxury we have in ample supply. Many of you will only have weeks to train. Some of you may have a few months. Learn well young men and women for your lives and the lives of those you love depend upon it. Now as I have said we are short on time, so in order to get The Choosing process started may you spread out to form a single line starting here at the tent and following the soldiers’ line around to end back here at the tent.” The King did not wait for his command to be followed before he turned and strode back to his peers who stood within the shadow of the canopy.

The mass of young bodies exploded into chaotic action. People moved in every direction squirming through the crowd headed towards the gleaming steel perimeter. Seth held tightly to Sara’s hand as to not lose her in the confusion and did his best to follow his brother. Ashton too followed Garret and the four of them broke free of the crowd and made their way to what would presumably be the middle of the line. Turning their backs to the wall of soldiers the four stood directly across from the tent. They watched and waited patiently as the remaining stragglers found themselves places in the large line, and as the line finally settled a small procession consisting of few more than a dozen soldiers emerged from behind the tent, with several large carts trailing on their heels.

The unarmed soldiers moved at a slow steady pace, following along the line of those who had reached adulthood and had come to heed the call of the Kingdom. As they proceeded down the line they were in constant movement, handing out items from the carts, speaking briefly, then continuing on to the next in line. It was several minutes before Seth or any of his companions realized what was going on. The choosing ceremonies of the past had been just that, ceremonies, where young adults were chosen into professions to serve the Kingdom for a term of no less than five years. However, now the Kingdom faced war, and without the luxury of time to pick and choose persons to fill key positions and train them, it appeared to Seth, that against his hopes, all were being outfitted for the army.

Seth watched as the small procession proceeded, growing steadily nearer, and he saw as the items that were handed out were donned by their new owners. Each of the young adults attending the choosing was being outfitted in leather padded armor, ring mail, and various weapons. Seth realized his worst fears had just become a reality, and stood dazed until the very moment the procession of soldiers reached him and his companions, un-wanting to accept this fate.

Before Seth could even acknowledge the soldiers before him, one of them was dropping a bundle of leather armor at his feet, and another dropped a ring mail tunic. A third approached with a sword, and seeing him already armed, simply moved on down the line. Sara and Ashton were both given swords, along with the meager armor, and before the soldiers departed they gave instructions to begin dressing in their gear.

Then it dawned on Seth. Even if they had all just been conscripted into the military, it was not as if they would be marching to war immediately. The King himself had said they would have a few weeks to train. Also as far as he was aware, Seth had never heard of females being conscripted into the armies of Valdadore, though this may have changed due to necessity. In any case, at least for now Seth knew two things to be true. First he was still with his brother and Sara, and secondly, if they would be remaining in the city for at least a few weeks, then he and Sara would have ample opportunity to flee, neither of them wanting to be soldiers. He hoped he could talk Garret into fleeing the city as well, but knew it doubtful, as apparently all of Garret’s wishes had just come true.

Seth began to dress in the armor sparing only a slight smile to Sara, who herself was lost in thought with a deep look of concern on her face. Garret on the other hand was already dressed, a grin splitting his face in two, and was currently helping Ashton strap on his sword. When they had all finally completed the task given, they stood silently, watching the process continue down the line, for over an hour, until the last man was armored and armed. Only once during the procession did someone, overcome with fear, try to make a run for it. The poor soul crashed bodily into the line of soldiers surrounding the courtyard, and summarily apprehended, was dragged off beyond sight of all those remaining.

The padded leather tunic and breaches were stifling even in the early morning, and by the time everyone had been armed, everyone else in the courtyard began to move and twitch anxiously, trying in vain to find a comfortable position. Though none of the young adults who had gathered for the ceremony knew what to expect next, none dared talk, and if anyone else had been overcome with fear, they had at least for the time being mastered it, lest they end up like the man who had tried to escape earlier. Many long moments passed as those in the tent looked out upon the courtyard, waiting for something, as those in the courtyard stared at those in the tent in return. Seth stood as still as he was able, as he again felt the sweat drip down his back, and reaching up, once again swiped the sweat from his brow. He assumed he could not take just standing there any longer, when the King once again exited the tent to address all those gathered.

"Forgive me this day." The King began. "It is out of necessity that we make you endure such a harsh welcome into service to the Kingdom. As I can see the concern and fear upon many of your faces, know that you have not yet been consigned to join our armies." The King said. He then paused to gage the crowd's reaction, and was met by sighs of relief from all sides. "As you realize now, our Kingdom is a nation at war, and being such many of you will indeed be joining the army in one fashion or another. Some of you will fight, as others may simply drive supply wagons. Others might cook for the troops, and yet others may tend to the injured or even the dead. With so little time to place you each into stations befitting your skills, we shall first have a test to see how many of you are befitting a place with the common troops of my armies, and as such should be able to appraise many of your abilities. The rules of your test are simple. You have been armed, and now I command you to fight. Fight until you cannot raise your arms any longer, fight until you are the last standing, fight to show those around you that there are mighty, valiant, courageous warriors among you." The King shouted.

With the King’s final order white robed healers stepped into the armored wall of troops surrounding the mass of young men and women who had come to the choosing. Those soldiers making up the wall took a defensive stance, holding their swords high and their shields at the ready. At first, for just an instant, no one moved as the courtyard took on an eerie silence. All were in shock, just as Seth and his companions were, but the silence was soon disrupted as the masses of newly armored, would be soldiers, broke into pandemonium.

Within seconds, most of those with no desire to bear arms shed their weapons hoping to flee the dire situation they had found themselves in. Many women or weak of heart men lay down their arms and rushed to the wall of soldiers seeking an exit, and much to their surprise, they were indeed aloud to pass through the wall of armored bodies, only to be gathered up by more soldiers who patrolled outside the melee. Before Seth or any of his companions had even begun to react, cries of pain mingled with the sounds of clashing steel and curses sprang from all directions.

Seth, for a moment was unable to react. He realized this was a test of sorts, to sort out those willing and able to fight with the army, and as much as he desired to throw down his weapons and flee with Sara to be herded like sheep by the soldiers, he could not abandon Garret. It was a predicament to which he saw no escape, in this single test he could lose one or both of them depending on his actions, and without seeing any real options available, Seth drew his long slender sword with one hand and grasped Sara’s hand in his other, then turned to face his brother.

"It's a test Garret, let’s all work together." Seth said. He watched as Garret, his sword already drawn, stepped to take their lead. Seth fell in with Sara behind his bulkier brother, and Ashton too joined them taking the rear. Just as they found their places and prepared to defend themselves against any who might attack, they were swallowed into the masses of their fellow would be warriors.

Seth watched the chaos that ensued as if seeing it all from somewhere outside his own body, and as he watched the world seemed to slow revealing everything in stark detail. Seth followed as his brother literally carved a path through the throng of untrained fighters, cleaving man and woman alike, leaving a path of bloody maimed peers as he moved ahead. Dozens fell by his brothers great two handed sword, but it did not take long before, immersed in the crowd they were forced to defend on all sides. Seth could not stomach hacking at his fellow men, so chose mostly to defend and parry as he was able, until either his brother or some other rogue fighter did the deed for him. Several times He was forced to intervene for either Sara or Ashton, who both held a similar distaste for slaughter. Fortunately for Seth, his brother seemed quite capable of dealing the damaging blows for all of them more often than not.

What seemed like an eternity passed as the numbers of combatants in the courtyard began to dwindle, either fleeing of their own accord, or being drug to the sidelines by soldiers to be tended by the healers. However as the number of combatant decreased, the herd being culled, those superior in ability remained, and that was when Seth realized that they were in trouble.

Until this point the so called test had basically been sheer butchery, with those less afraid or more skilled reaping pain and destruction upon their foes of lesser ability. Blood coated the cobblestone courtyard making even the simplest maneuvers difficult, but finally reaching the center of the courtyard, Garret brought them to a halt, right in the middle of the massacre. Somewhere along the way Sara had managed to lose her sword, and being at such a disadvantage she stood at the center of her companions, each of them defending themselves and in so doing, also defending her.

Seth watched as a large man with a boyish face lunged at him, hoping to strike a quick blow. Seeing the blow coming Seth managed to rend the man's blade aside with his own sword, but such was the man’s momentum, that he crashed bodily into Seth who stumbling back nearly tripped over Sara behind him. Kicking and heaving his body forward to keep his balance Seth managed to free himself of the man just as Garret turned, and with a smile Seth’s brother thrust his large blade into the man’s shoulder effectively removing the man’s arm from its socket. With the blow Garret chuckled and turned to face his next opponent, as Seth, regaining himself turned to help Ashton with yet another attacker. As time progressed the fight turned into some sort of macabre dance with Seth, Garret, and Ashton slowly turning like a wheel around Sara who now brandished her small crossbow.

As Seth and Ashton worked to hold off attackers, forever wheeling in a slow circle, each attacker came to face Garret who made up for lack of skill with bold determination and raw aggression. Each of the boys had sustained several minor injuries, but so intoxicated with adrenaline, none noticed their wounds that bled freely, staining their clothing and armor. Seth was somewhat appalled at his brother’s ease of butchery. Not only did it seem to come naturally to his brother, but Garret seemed to enjoy it, mercilessly laying man and woman to waste before him, chuckling the whole time like a mad man.

The fight raged on for what seemed like an eternity to Seth, who was amazed they had lasted this long, when things took a turn for the worse. All three boys faced individual opponents as Sara rushed to redraw her crossbow. Garret struggled with a man with far more skill, as Seth managed to cause his opponent to slip upon the slick cobbles, landing in a bone jarring heap upon the bloodied ground. Finding himself a moment of reprieve, Seth turned just in time to watch as Ashton fell. His blonde friend had managed to hold off his opponent for many minutes as Garret struggled to best his own foe, but having never before wielded a sword, Ashton had been bested, and crumpled to the ground clutching his stomach, blood flowing from between his fingers. Seth, knowing Ashton lost, had no time to worry for his friend. For as Ashton hit the ground, the man who had bested him lunged back into the fray, hoping to make an easy victory of Sara.

Seth barely managed to place himself between Sara and the oncoming blow of their opponent, and with no time to react he was forced to take a glancing blow to his arm. Though the ring mail took the brunt of the assault, pain exploded in Seth’s arm causing him to fumble with his sword nearly dropping his only weapon. Seeing him nearly incapacitated, the young man lunged in again to finish Seth off, however was caught mid lunge square in the chest with a small crossbow dart, and losing his wind instantly, this man too fell to the ground to be quickly hauled off back to the lines of healers. Seth spared Sara a quick glance, showing his appreciation, and that single moment was to be his last mistake.

As Seth spared the woman he loved a thankful smile, unseen to him, another attacker rushed him, just beyond his peripheral vision, and before Seth could turn to assess his next opponent, his side seemed to explode in searing pain as the air rushed from his lungs and he was bowled over onto the slick paving stones of the courtyard floor. Just before his head smacked into the stone below him, the last image Seth remembered before he blacked out, was his brother cleaving another man's leg off with a single blow, and with the same swing turning to witness the fall of his twin.

Garret fought as skillfully as he was able. Other than a stray goblin, the only sword practice he had had in his life had been dueling his twin with sticks as children. However fighting came naturally to Garret, and even now he put to use lessons learned with a stick against his brother what seemed a lifetime ago. He had felled many of his peers already today, but it seemed to Garret that each he removed from the test was replaced by yet another, who was stronger and more able than the last. The man he faced now he could only assume had some training with actual weapons. Each slash he swung was met by the man’s blade and turned aside. Every lunge he attempted was met by a parry, and Garret felt he had found his equal in this battle, but he also knew that for his brother and their friends, he could not fail. Garret swung at the man again and again only to be thwarted each time, and each time his enemy attacked he mimicked the man’s moves, learning quickly how to dodge such blows. Back and forth he went with the man, who though slightly smaller than he, was obviously more accustomed to such strenuous labor. Knowing at this rate they would fight on for all eternity Garret decided to improvise. Swinging his massive blade as if to slash for the man’s chest, Garret watched as his opponent leaned back just out of range of his blade, and as the blade swung harmlessly past, Garret lunged mid swing driving the blade just barely through the man’s ring mail and into the flesh of his chest. The blow had done little real harm, but the man already leaning back to avoid the blow, was forced back further throwing him off balance. Trying to negate the effect of Garret’s blow the man raised his leg to change his center of gravity and regain himself. Then Garret saw his opportunity, and using every fiber of every muscle in his body, Garret twisted to stop his previous swing and with all his force brought his blade back the direction it had come. Catching the man just above the knee, Garret cleaved his opponent’s leg clear off, but such was the force of his swing, his body continued to spin after the blow, nearly turning him completely around to face what had before been behind him. What Garret witnessed tore at the core of his being.

As Garret spun, he watched as Seth, sword protruding from his ribcage, was thrown from his feet, his head banging off the blood coated cobblestones with a cracking sound, all light fading from his eyes. Garret turned his focus from his brother to the man who had felled his twin. The man was recuperating from the blow, and his sword still wedged in Seth’s ribcage, the man now stood unarmed. Garret succumbed to rage as his mind seemed to explode, and his vision turning red with a berserkers fury he lunged over Sara who knelt to tend to the man she loved, and Garret, raising his sword well above his head brought it down with the full weight and momentum of his body, nearly cleaved the man in two from shoulder to mid abdomen. Such was his fury at the loss of his brother, he did not witness as his twin’s seemingly lifeless body was dragged to the perimeter to be tended by healers, and Sara was forced to stand and defend herself. Garret went on a blind rampage stomping through the carnage that had once been a courtyard, felling mercilessly anyone who dared stand in his way. Such was his fury that all who remained in the ring of the Kings soldiers sought him out, seeing him as the biggest threat, and in what felt like forever from those on the sidelines, in Garrets mind only moments passed as he cleaved and hacked his way through all his remaining foes, all the while a disheartening chuckle escaping his lips, until all had fallen around him but one. Garret blind from rage, turned his gaze of seething anger on the only opponent remaining on the courtyard, and striding across the blood covered stone courtyard he stalked her.

Seth had no idea how long he had remained unconscious, and as his eyes fluttered open he lay on his undamaged side, the sword having been removed from his ribs, and a healer currently worked to mend his organs, flesh, and bones. He felt the ecstasy of the healing Goddess's power flowing through him as the healer continued to work, but willed himself to ignore the pleasure. Pleasure subdued, Seth’s eyes began to focus as he heard several gasps from those around him as the spectacle played out upon the courtyard. His thoughts turning to fear and panic Seth craned his neck around to see what it was that had those around him so enthralled. At first he could see nothing, but he could hear the clanks of steel, and thuds of body meeting body, and many other indistinguishable sounds, but above all, he could hear his brother's raving mad chuckle. The sound could not be described any other way, but knowing his brother still stood, Seth wriggled beneath the healer’s hands to gain a better view of the courtyard. What Seth witnessed in those following minutes was a memory he would never forget for the rest of his days, no matter how much he wished he could. Garret didn't walk around the courtyard. He didn't run or give chase. Seth could find no word to describe in his mind the way in which his brother moved about the slick cobblestones. Garret seemed a whirlwind of motion, his great blade swinging this way and that in menacing arcs, and when his blade found no purchase his feet kicked out with ferocity snapping bones. When neither his sword nor his feet gained him the advantage he used everything available to him, head butting one opponent and biting another, throwing an elbow to one man's face, and crushing another man's chest with the pommel of his sword. Garret had become akin to a force of nature, those he approached dared not turn their back to flee the rampaging warrior for fear he would strike them down from behind, and as each stood to defend themselves, each fell in a flurry of blows, blood raining down in all directions. Garret unleashed his rage on one opponent after another, and if two sought to gain the advantage of numbers, Garret leveled them without thought to his own safety, bearing his wounds as if they were naught but scratches.

Seth watched as the last of Garret’s would be foes were dispatched and his brother seeing no more men in his path, spun on his heels to appraise the courtyard around him. Seth watched Garret turn a quarter of the way around and freeze, his eyes locking in deadly menace upon some unseen target. Seth again wriggled beneath the healer's hands who this time berated him for it, though he heard not the words. As Seth followed his brother's gaze, his own eyes fell upon Sara, who stood transfixed in the center of the courtyard, horror plainly upon her face, having watched Garret butcher anyone else that moved. Garret began to stride across the courtyard, slowly at first, and then picking up pace as he closed the distance. Seth believed his brother went to comfort Sara, as the small woman appeared so pale she might very well pass out, but instead Seth’s hope turned to horror.

Seth watched as Sara dropped her crossbow and raised her hand to protect her face, showing submission to her advancing opponent. Garret was lost in bloodlust however, and Seth watched as his brother, gaining speed began to raise his sword above his head as if to fell Sara in a single blow. Seth could not wrap his mind around his brother's actions. Garret knew that Seth loved Sara, he had himself fought with her to save Seth’s own life little more than a week before. They were friends, and being such Seth expected any moment for Garret to regain himself as stop his butchery before it went too far. But there was no time, and as Garret careened nearer to Sara Seth panicked, and unknowing what he was doing, reacted upon instinct, his very heart and soul working with his subconscious beyond his conscious control.

Seth reached inward toward the power rushing through his body. The Goddess's power felt familiar and alien at the same time, but Seth knew instinctively that he could use this power. Latching onto the power the healer was bending to its will to repair his damaged body, Seth poured his own will against the power and ripped it away from the healer. Knowing there was no time to think how best to use the power, Seth reached out with his hand as if to grasp both of people he loved most in the world and screamed.

"Noooo!" Seth wailed. It was all he could manage as he unleashed the stolen power within him, and like a raging river the power exploded from his palm, racing like a torrent across the cobblestones spraying blood into the air in a pink mist, the wave of invisible power expanding as it went, reached its intended targets. Just as Garret brought his sword down in the blow that would sever Sara’s life, and the love and trust of his twin, a great wall of air collided with both him and Sara sending them sprawling across the cobblestones soaking them both in blood and adding dozens of new bruises to their already battered bodies. But the sudden blow had served its intended purpose. The powerful blast had interrupted Garret’s train of thought, breaking his bond with whatever force had overtaken him, and as he slid across the bloodied stones, his vision cleared and he realized he had nearly attacked Sara, and looked now to see if she was unharmed. Gaining his feet as soon as the blast subsided, Garret rushed to help Sara back to her feet, apologizing repeatedly for his near assault. It was then that the trumpets blared from across the courtyard, announcing the end of this test, and declaring Garret, its champion. Seth feeling exhausted beyond measure, merely clung to consciousness, hardly baring witness to his brother's triumph.

Nearly an hour passed as healers mended those final victims of Garrets viscous assaults that they were able, and with that hour all those who had come to the choosing ceremony were divided into groups, a couple such groups having already been ushered off to their intended positions in service to the Kingdom. For the most part however, the majority of those who had come to the ceremony remained, returned to the courtyard in three separate groups. As far as Garret could tell the first group contained those who had stayed to fight, but had fallen early on in the ensuing battle, though these people were lined up and each questioned by a procession of high ranking officials of the court and the military, and then subdivided further into smaller groups which were summarily led away from the courtyard.

The second group as far as Garret could tell were those that had lasted longer in the melee, showing more potential perhaps, and these were questioned more vigorously and also subdivided into smaller groups and ushered from the courtyard as well. Those who remained in the courtyard now, were those who had lasted the longest in the battle that had been used to test their abilities. Though still near a hundred and fifty strong, this group was the smallest of the three larger groups, and before long all those needing mending were mended, and Garret was happy to find his brother conscious once again, and surprised to find that Ashton remained in this group as well.

Seth had come in and out of consciousness several times as the healer worked to piece his various body parts back together. He had witnessed glimpses here and there of the happenings within the courtyard, though his understandings of those glimpses were tenuous at best. As he woke for the final time he was happy to find Garret, Sara, and Ashton all gathered around him, each of them smiling down upon him as he struggled to sit. The aged healer proclaiming his work done, Seth was helped to his feet by Garret, and summarily hugged by Sara who clung to him as if he had just arisen from the dead. After a few moments Seth’s companions filled him in of the events of the last hour or so, and Seth was impressed to find that thus far he had managed to stay with both his brother and Sara, the only thing he really hoped to do at this point. However he also knew now, that the ceremony was not over yet.

Chapter 12

Hopes dashed and hope renewed

The day had seemed an eternity, and now that evening approached, all who had witnessed the events of the day felt the after effects of their earlier actions, knowing all too well, that this day was nowhere near over, and after another quarter of an hour those remaining in the courtyard were instructed to form a line, and as before Seth, his brother, and companions found themselves near the center of the line. Looking up and down the line Seth was appalled at the condition of all those that remained. Every single face was smeared with blood, each person's leather armor was drenched in both blood and sweat, though beginning to dry lending the air an unpleasant scent. Everyone remaining looked on the brink of passing out due to exhaustion, each of them looking worn well beyond their years. This Seth thought as a procession emerged from the canopy at the end of the courtyard, and began stopping before each of those in line, where several from the procession questioned the bloodied and battered men and women who yet remained.

The first and foremost of those in the procession was a large man wearing the polished armor of a knight of Valdadore. Beside him walked another armored man, though this man’s armor had a different crest upon it. Behind them walked a woman in a white robe with golden blonde hair falling down her back and shoulders. With the woman walked two men who too each wore robes. The first was in a deep red color, his face obscured by a deep cowl. The second man wore a grey robe the color of ash, his face likewise obscured. Behind these three, another man walked a short distance behind. He wore green leggings, the color of springtime grass and a tunic of the same deep color. His were graceful movements, his strides long and elegant as if he weighed nothing at all. Behind the man in green eight more people followed. Each of these were dressed in normal if not luxurious clothing and none of them stood out in the small crowd except for one man who carried with him a large tome, its pages open, and in his opposite hand he held a quill ready to write.

As the small procession neared the first person in the line they each shifted their positions. The majority of the group remaining back a short distance. Only the knight, the woman in white, and the two men in robes of red and gray actually approached those waiting to be chosen. The other armored man falling back to join the rest of those who had come with the procession. This is how the group remained as they made their slow progress from person to person working their way ever slowly down the line. After talking to each of those waiting to be chosen they would send the person to the man with the tome who would then scribe something quickly in his book before sending them to stand in the middle of the large open courtyard. As the group worked their way down the line those who had already been chosen had began to form small groups at various locations having been chosen for different roles. The four companions watched the progress with a mix of interest and anxiety as one peculiar person caught their interest, particularly that of Garret. The procession had stopped at a short man for a particularly long time and appeared to be discussing something with the man. That was not what had gained Garret’s attention as it had already happened several times since the procession had started. What had grabbed Garret’s attention was the point when the three in robes had fallen back a step to allow the knight to speak to the small man alone. This had not previously occurred. The knight conversed with the man shortly, and apparently having come to a decision they shook hands and the short man left his place in line to speak to the man holding the tome. Having taken the short man’s information the apparent record keeper pointed the short man in the direction of the companions. This is what caught Seth, Sara, and Ashton’s attention. As the man approached all four watched him come to stand alone, apparently forming a new group for which no one else had been chosen. That however was not what was remarkable. As the man walked over halfway the distance toward the companions they were better able to discern his features. He appeared much older than they for he already had a thick beard braided down his chest and long hair cropped at his shoulders. His eyes were deep set and he was squinting as if the dim evening sun hurt his eyes. He had a large bulbous nose that compromised the majority of his wide rounded face. As it turned out however he was not a short man as they had each presumed. He was indeed short with thick muscled limbs, his torso looked entirely too large above his squat legs and his arms were a little longer than they should have been. The problem with the companions' early classification of the man was not that he had been short. In fact he was quite tall, for a dwarf. Though none of them had ever actually seen a dwarf each had heard descriptions or seen paintings of the dwarves. Dwarves rarely if ever ventured out of their cavernous mountain homes however, and so it was that none of them had expected to see one at the choosing ceremony. Yet here one stood. He appeared to be tall enough that his head would nearly reach Garret’s chest, though he had much more muscle mass than Garret, and Garret was relatively big for human standards. The four companions examined the dwarf independently each deciding in due time that it was rude to stare and each on their own eventually turned their gazes back to the procession that grew ever nearer.

The procession had made quick progress as the four had been inspecting the dwarf, and now there were only about a dozen and a half people remaining between the procession and Ashton, the first of the four companions to be chosen. The procession was close enough that their conversations could now be heard, and each of the four companions watched and listened to prepare themselves for what they too would soon face.

Seth tried in vain to remain hopeful. After the battle today he would likely be chosen for something he did not want. He knew it was possible that he and Garret both be chosen for the army in some capacity, which eased his fear of being separated from his brother, something he had never in his whole life fathomed possible. However if he was chosen for the army it was likely Sara would be chosen for something so different that they would be forced to flee the Kingdom in hopes of starting a life somewhere outside the realm where they wouldn't be branded as traitors. All this Seth thought as the procession neared.

They watched as another boy was sent to join the largest group in the courtyard which they now knew to be those joining the regular soldiers of Valdadore’s armies. They too were paying attention when a young girl was sent to join a group near that of the chosen soldiers as she was picked to be a servant in the castle proper. As those that stood between Ashton and the procession dwindled, the four companions were able to establish the purpose of nearly every group of those who had already been chosen’s purpose. So it was with much anxiety that Ashton stood before the knight and his three robed companions when his turn to be chosen had arrived.

The three men and the woman formed a tight semicircle in front of Ashton. None of them spoke for a moment, each scrutinizing him independently. The man in the grey robes was the first to speak.

“He has the gift.” The man stated coolly in an even tone.

“I can confirm it.” Stated the blonde woman in white as the man in red nodded his agreement.

“Do you have any talents or have you sworn yourself to a god?” This time it was the knight who spoke, his voice deep and commanding.

“Yes M’lord, I follow the path of Lorentia as a healer. I follow in the footsteps of my mother and my brother before me.” Ashton replied smoothly having rehearsed the lines in his head.

The blond woman inched nearer and smiled to Ashton before speaking again.

“What is your name then young healer, and if you have already performed healing miracles tell us now of the worst wound you have healed.” She stated with calming words.

“My name is Ashton Rayne.” Ashton stated pausing briefly to take a breath.

As Ashton paused, the knight's head rose slightly in realization and he looked once again at Ashton with a look of knowing on his face. Then as if seeking something he already knew to be there the knight turned to look at the next person in line, and registering Garret’s face the knight smiled.

“My most recent healings and the most complicated I have ever performed happened on the road here to Valdadore.” Ashton continued not noticing the change in the knight, his eyes focused on the woman in white. “My friends and I were attacked in the night by a goblin. One of my companions sustained a mortal wound to both his heart and lung. Healing him took me two attempts. With the first attempt I was able to repair his heart and lung before I was too drained to continue and unsure of my limitations I lost consciousness. Later when I regained some strength I managed to close the wound and free him of infection.” Ashton related the story deciding to leave out any detail that did not pertain to the question.

“Is there anyone here who can confirm that you performed this miracle?” The woman asked intrigued.

“Yes M’lady, my companions stand beside me now and if their word is not enough then I could point you to Sasha the proprietor of The King’s Herald, she too has witnessed a brief display.” Ashton answered and watched as all three of the robed figures turned to stare at the knight beside them who stood smiling broadly at their questioning looks.

“What?” Sirus asked his companions rhetorically. “I did not want to ruin your surprise. Indeed I knew of his ability, though I did not know his face, and I too can verify his tale. It was he and his companions that killed the goblin that I myself tracked to the north.” The knight Sirus stated boisterously.

“Indeed then young healer I should like to welcome you to the ranks of the clerics of Valdadore.” The blonde woman stated smiling. “My name is Karishtala, the head of the white robes here in the city and I will be instructing you and your peers in the days to come. Please go see Heath with the ledger and give him your information and he will point you to your new peers.” Karishtala told Ashton.

Sirus, Karishtala and the two other robed men stepped aside to let Ashton pass before coming to stand before Garret who still stood with a smile on his face. Meeting Sirus’ eyes, Garret reached out to shake hands with the knight much to the amazement of those who accompanied the knight.

“Garret the hunter.” Sirus stated his steel eyes alight. “I am impressed with your actions today, Goblin slayer and the champion of the King’s test. You do not cease to amaze me. I am glad you are here, though I heard of your arrival to the city, and am happy to see you have come unscathed. However this is a formal occasion and so I shall ask you the questions I am required.” Sirus said still smiling. “Do you have any skills and do you worship a god?”

“Yes Sire.” Garret stated happily. “I possess the gift to control magic, and I have just recently begun visiting the temple of Gorandor here in Valdadore. I plan to swear myself to him sire.” Garret stated hoping to improve his chances to join the knights.

“Is that so?” Sirus asked turning to his robed companions for verification of Garret’s magical ability.

“He is strongly gifted Sirus perhaps he would be better suited wearing a robe than armor.” The man in the red robe stated coldly.

“Trying to swell your ranks are you Vladmere? You have already chosen seven to my one. Let’s let Garret decide his future and loyalties shall we?” Sirus stated more as an order than a request and he watched them as they nodded their agreement. “So what of you Garret? Would you like to continue your path and join the knights of Valdadore, or would you choose another path to become a powerful mage fighting your battles from afar?” Sirus asked already knowing Garret’s answer having gleaned the information from his wife.

“I should like to join the knights of Valdadore if they would have me Lord Sirus.” Garret replied trying his best to sound noble.

“We should indeed be happy to embrace you young master Garret. Now if you will see Heath and then go stand with Zorbin Ironfist the dwarf there I will see you again shortly.”

Garret nodded with a smile and strode happily to meet with Heath glancing over his shoulder briefly to his brother. Seth was next in line and composed himself as best as he was able, un-wanting to join with any portion of the army be it common soldier or knight, and as such coming to terms with his current situation. Giving Sara’s hand one last squeeze he released it to face those coming before him alone. As the four main members of the procession stopped in front of Seth he realized that Sirus was again smiling, this time at him. Seth did not return the man’s smile. Instead he waited patiently for someone to speak to him, trying as he waited to keep his composure.

“You must be Seth.” Sirus stated mater-of-factly. “My wife mentioned that Garret and you were twins.”

Seth nodded his understanding still unsure of his ability to speak through his nervousness.

“Seth I must ask, as is my duty, do you have any particular talents and do you yet worship any of the gods?” Sirus asked in his mock ceremonious tone.

Mustering his courage Seth chose his words carefully before he spoke.

“I too have the talent to control magic, but I have yet to align my soul with a god.” Seth stated coolly trying to emphasis his distaste on the religion subject.

“I see.” Sirus stated understanding Seth’s tone. “Have you put much thought into what station you had hoped to be chosen for?” He asked seeking Seth’s intentions further.

“I have indeed sire, however I have only just recently learned of my ability to wield magic, and although I am not inclined to take another's life, it feels as if it is something I need to pursue. Other than that M’lord I am afraid I am unsure what positions exactly that I might best be suited for.” Seth answered trying to see if he might be offered options rather than being picked for a particular duty.

“Well young Seth let’s see if we can’t discern a couple possible paths for you shall we?” Sirus again asked him waiting to continue until Seth nodded in agreement. “With the ability to wield magic your options are several, and all of them lead to a path with possibilities of great power and great rewards. Let’s see if we can dwindle down the choices a bit shall we?” Sirus asked rhetorically before continuing. “The druids seek those who are one with the land, those who would not harm plant nor animal unless there was no other option. The path of the druid is one of patients, for their craft sometimes takes years to bear fruit. Are you so inclined to live from the land and not harm the animals that live there?” Sirus again asked.

“I enjoy hunting sire.” Seth stated simply.

“In that case perhaps like your young friend should like to heal those that have been injured or become sick. The healers whose souls are sworn to Lorentia live a life of servitude to others. Their sole purpose and calling is to those who require healing. They give no preference, they deny no one, and so if asked for their service they shall give it. Are you so inclined Seth?” Sirus asked raising one of his bushy red eyebrows.

“It is an honorable position for sure sire, however I do not feel so inclined and I am afraid I would be poorly suited for that station.” Seth answered honestly.

This piqued Sirus’ interest so he then offered the position he hoped Seth, like his brother, would choose.

“Perhaps then you should like to remain by your brother’s side and join the elite ranks of the Knights of Valdadore. All of us within the ranks possess the gift, though our wise god Gorandor chooses to give the ones he blesses each a single blessing to help them perform in battle. The blessings vary slightly, but usually they are for the same purpose. We are a small portion of the Kingdom’s vast armies, choosing only the best. We live by a code of honor at all costs, even at the cost of our own lives. Is this the path that you can foresee yourself venturing down? Sirus again asked Seth.

“I would like to stay with my brother.” Seth stated while thinking of the other person he refused to be away from. With the though Seth accidentally let his eyes wander to Sara where he viewed her for a fraction of a second in his peripheral vision before returning his gaze to Sirus and continuing his response. “Though I do not feel any drive to join the army I am afraid.” Seth finished

With Seth’s answer Sirus’ eyebrows knotted in the middle of his head and he nodded solemnly. He had noticed Seth’s sideways glance and already understood its meaning. Sasha had told him of the young love affair, and even if the boy did not want to be a knight he would try to see to it that he could carry out his wife’s wishes.

“I see.” Sirus stated coolly once again. “Perhaps then you wish to wield magic as one of the powerful battle mages who don the red robes. They fight with the army though they live and train separately. Most of them worship Zeranthil though some have been known to worship other lesser gods in times past. Their powers are quite formidable and their blessings vary from person to person. Some have many abilities yet others are limited to just one or two abilities. They live by their own set of rules, though I do not know them precisely. If that does not suit you then perhaps you might find interest in the gray robed mages. They specialize in defensive magics. They too help the army though they do not fight. They instead use their power to protect those of us who do fight. Their abilities vary as well, some of them can bless armor to make it impenetrable, and others can form invisible shields to deflect blows. Gray robes are a rare enough sight as most with the ability choose to join the red robes. Judilanthaliz is the head of the Gray robes and he teaches a life of discipline and honor much akin to that of the knights. All who don the gray robes throughout history have worshiped Saranadia. Those are the two primary options left to you young Seth, however I warn you. Should you choose to join the ranks of the mages you are given a limited time to choose a god to swear yourself to, and then if you do not receive a blessing from your chosen god in a reasonable amount of time you will be removed from their ranks and given a position elsewhere. The same goes for my knights, however I choose them carefully and have never had to turn one away after I have chosen them. Does either of these positions seem a likely choice to you?” Sirus asked for the final time.

“M’lord I think if I am being given a choice then I feel I am best suited for a gray robe. I like to help others, and I do try and protect them if I am able. I feel this would be the best option for me.” Seth stated honestly, thinking a guardian role suited him nicely.

Sirus turned to the man in the gray robe and nodded to him.

“It seems he is all yours then Judilanthaliz.” Sirus said to the man.

The man in gray nodded his cowled head and took a step forward towards Seth. Stopping after a single step the man pulled back his cowl revealing his face. Seth inhaled sharply at the sight though composed himself as quickly as he was able to face the man. The man was older than Seth had imagined him to be. In fact the man’s hair was the same shade of gray as his robes. This however was not what had shocked Seth. The man’s face was split in two by a wide jagged scar that started as his left temple, straight through his sightless left eye, across his nose and down the opposite cheek all the way to his neck. His mangled features were the first thing that Seth registered however they were not the only thing that had caught him off guard. The man was also not human, at least not completely so. His face was narrow and slightly elongated. His cheekbones were a bit too high under his almond shaped eyes that slanted slightly. This however was not what readily gave the man away as nonhuman. It was the man’s long pointed ears that labeled him unmistakably as an elf. All this Seth was able to take note of in the time it took for a single intake of breath. Composing himself immediately he waited for the man to address him.

“Hello young Seth, my name is Judilanthaliz. I share both the bloodlines of humans and of elves and being so I am an outcast to the Elven race. I am the head of the order of those in gray robes. We are known as the guardians, though some refer to us as shields. Ours is a life of discipline. We spend time each day studying both magic and religion. All among us now alive worship Saranadia. It is not always an easy road as one in the gray robes as you may tell by my face, but it is a rewarding path to protect those in need of protection. Choose wisely young Seth, but choose now.” Judilanthaliz said giving Seth a moment to think before continuing. “Have you come to a conclusion?”

“I have sire, I should like to join your ranks if you would have me.” Seth stated knowing at this point that more than likely he would be a gray robe for the remainder of the day and then he would be fleeing the city with Sara.

“We should be happy to have you young Seth, please go to see Heath and he shall point you in the right direction.” Judilanthaliz said.

Seth did as he was told, looking to Sara first before walking away. Giving her a slight nod, secretly reminding her of their plan, Seth walked the few paces required to speak with Heath. Speaking to the man briefly Seth watched as Heath wrote down his full name, age, where his home was, and his newly appointed position before finally sending him to stand only a few paces from his brother. As Seth approached his brother and the dwarf he smiled to his twin but stopped short of joining him, saying without so much as a word that they had not been chosen for the same purpose. Seth did find it a little odd however that out of the seventy or more people already chosen, he was the first to join the ranks of the gray robes. Seth stood alone, already separated from his brother, anticipating the separation from Sara as well, his shoulders slumped and head sagged in defeat.

Garret watched as his brother approached, appearing broken and defeated, he had taken the meaning of Seth’s sudden stop and smiled to reassure his brother before turning to watch what would become of the woman his brother loved.

Sara listened to the entire conversation held between those doing the choosing and her three companions already chosen. She had already gleaned the names of all four people who came to stand before her now and she quickly committed their faces to memory as well. Sara then just stood with a blank expression on her face, completely obscuring the fear she fought within, and waited for them to speak to her.

“Hello young lady, you must be Sara.” Sirus stated his steel eyes alight once again.

“Yes sire that is correct.” Sara answered.

“You were the last standing in the test earlier alongside Garret were you not? Sirus asked. Sara simply nodded her reply, keeping her blank expression in place.

"Well I must say that Sasha is quite fond of you and it seems Felix has grown a bit attached to you as well.” Sirus said with a wide smile. “Well I must first ask you if you have any special skills and I must also ask if you worship any of the gods.” Sirus said not trying to conceal his boredom with repeating the same thing over and over again.

“As far as I am aware M’lord I do not possess the gift of magic, nor do I have a religion.” Sara stated simply wanting this moment to be over.

"Women are rare in the army, but with your survival so long in the battle earlier I cannot help but ask if you would wish to join the army?" Sirus asked. With this question all those with Sirus leaned nearer awaiting the small woman's reply.

"I don't believe myself suited for the army M’lord, it was due to Seth, Garret, and Ashton that I remained in the competition as long as I did." Sara answered. Sirus thought a second before continuing his line of questioning.

“Well do you have any other skills that you are particularly good at?” Sirus asked with an unfamiliar tone in his voice.

“What do you mean M’lord?” Sara asked unsure of his tone.

“Is there anything at all that you are good at that might be useful to the Kingdom?” Sirus asked this time not trying to hide that he wanted her to say something.

“Well M’lord I am fairly good with figures, and I can memorize things rather quickly.” Sara stated hoping it would answer the knight’s question.

“Can you read and write as well?” Sirus asked.

“Yes M’lord.” Sara answered.

Sirus stood for a moment trying his best to pretend he was deep in thought about something, though Sara, who had just met the man, could tell he was faking.

“Judilanthaliz aren’t you currently without a messenger?” Sirus asked as if trying to recall some detail.

“Yes Sirus in fact I am.” Judilanthaliz said nodding. “I am happy you have reminded me I had not thought to find myself one today.” He added.

“Does this young woman suit your needs?” Sirus asked the man in gray.

“She might indeed. Let’s give her a small test shall we?” Judilanthaliz asked in a musical voice that was too sweet to be wholly human.

“What do you have in mind?” Sirus asked the older man.

The man in gray thought a moment and turning his gaze upon Sara he asked his question.

“Young woman, can you recall some details of the conversation we just had with the man who stood beside you a moment ago?”

“Yes M’lord.” Sara answered.

“Well then young woman what do you recall.” Judilanthaliz asked.

“Well M’lord your name is Judilanthaliz the head of the gray robed guardians. You worship Saranadia and live to protect those in need of protection. The man in red here is Vladmere The head of the red robed battle mages. He worships Zeranthil as do most of the battle mages. They fight with the armies of Valdadore. The beautiful woman beside you in white is Karishtala the head of the order of healers. They worship Lorentia and live to heal those in need of healing. Sirus here is the head of the Knights of Valdadore and he and his men worship Gorandor. They fight with the army though they hold a much higher council than those of the regular forces. The man behind you in green is an elf and I assume as such that he is the head of the druid order, though I know not his name. Behind him, Heath stands with a large tome in which the names of those chosen are recorded as well as the location of their homes as well as their new station in life. Beyond him representatives of the regular army as well as a representative of the King’s house stand. Is that sufficient sire?” Sara asked after speaking every detail she could readily recall.

“Indeed young woman your memory is sharp.” Judilanthaliz said and turning to face the knight he continued. “I think she will fulfill my needs of a messenger quite nicely.” He said with a grin.

“Sara go and see Heath and tell him you are to be messenger to Judilanthaliz and follow his instructions.” Sirus said grinning once again.

Sirus watched as Sara passed and he could not help himself but to smile. His wife had given him instructions not to allow her and Seth to be separated, and though he knew it was not entirely up to him, he had played his cards properly and by doing so had not disappointed his wife.

Seth watched for many long moments as Sara spoke to those gathered before her. He was close enough to see who was speaking and when but too far to clearly hear their words. He could clearly see through Sara’s mask to the fear she was trying to hide. The same fear that twisted within him. He watched as she spoke for a long time, speaking more quickly than she normally would as if in panic. He then watched as Sirus and Judilanthaliz exchanged words and Sara left them to speak to Heath. Seth watched even more intently as heath scribed Sara’s information in his book and finishing with his quill, again raised his head. Heath said a few words then to Sara, and turning his head he pointed directly at Seth. Sara nodded her understanding to the man and with a giant beautiful smile turned to meet Seth’s eyes with her own amber gaze. Seth suddenly realized what was happening and all fear rushed from his body to be instantly replaced with gratitude and love. Sara strode confidently to his side, where she belonged, and took his hand interlacing their fingers once again. For all that had gone wrong since the night before Seth left his home in Vineleaf, something had finally gone right. He was to be separated from Garret he knew, but it was a realization that he knew he would have to come to terms with. Garret dreamed of glory and honor, whereas he just wanted a quiet life with Sara.

To both Seth and Sara it was as if a huge weight had been lifted off of their shoulders. Though they had not spoken of it frequently they had both been carrying the fear of separation with them for many days now and it had slowly eaten its way through them. So certain they each had been that they would be separated that both of them had already planned by themselves when they would flee and what route they would take back to the inn. Now however it was all for naught. The fear, the anguish, and the planning had all been for nothing. They were together just as they were meant to be. Finally each of them was able to relax and the tension that had been building dissipated quickly.

“I love you.” Sara said smiling as big as she was able.

“And I love you angel.” Seth replied also smiling.

Together they waited hand in hand for the remainder of The Choosing ceremony. No one came to join them, nor did anyone join Garret and the dwarf. Seth and Sara paid the actual choosing selection little attention, instead choosing to enjoy the time together. Neither of them had any real idea of what was to come in the days ahead, but they were both sure that they would at least be able to see each other frequently, and that was enough for them to be happy.

Before long the ceremony was finished and the procession of delegates performing the actual choosing parted ways and each went to collect their new members. Seth and Sara both waved goodbye to Garret as Sirus came to collect him and the dwarf. It was not long after Garret had left the courtyard that Judilanthaliz came to collect his two new charges as well. Greeting them as he approached he asked both Seth and Sara to follow and he led them across the courtyard the way they had come earlier in the day.