The sisters halted at the crest of the hill for only a moment, lingering just long enough to take in the view of the valley below. It made a stark contrast to the utterly barren waste they had just traversed. The spring season lay full upon the land, with a plethora of grasses and flowers growing on the mountain slopes. They had seen this panorama before, in all of its seasons, and they were in a hurry. They both felt the tingle of stored Power, and each checked her weapons.
Coleni shifted her bundled baby away from her sword side and said, "I sense two, Sister, hidden south in those trees."
Aetria looked down into the valley and along the trail from where it started at the stream at the foot of the hill to where it entered a copse of trees. She knew that area because it was where her escort had once camped and waited for her to make that first trip to the Non-Lands to see Merina, her reclusive mother. There was plenty of cover for an ambush. "I agree. They are too weak to be sorcerers. More like Neos in strength--or maybe Tierian. Did you have a Kanchala escort when you came to fetch me?"
"Not that I was aware of--which doesn't mean much considering their stealthiness."
"Best move down and act as if we don't know they are there."
Aetria led the way. Reaching the bottom of the hill took an anxiety-filled half hour as their mounts cut back and forth across the face of the slope. There was no established path going up or down the hill, for no one was expected to enter the Non-Lands, let alone emerge from them. At the bottom they paused to let their horses drink from the stream of clear, cold water that flowed swiftly by. It was not as swollen with snowmelt as it had been when Coleni had crossed it a few days past. The baby in her bundle stirred restlessly against Coleni's chest and made a hungry cry.
"It is time to feed Yolania, Aetria. There is a spot over there I used earlier."
Aetria nodded, busily scanning the valley for movement. Coleni said she had not been escorted to the Non-Lands, but it seemed she had been followed. Am I looking for enemies from among my own countrymen now?
"When did you stop asking yourself questions?" Coleni said, unbuttoning her blouse and putting Yolania to breast, which the mewling baby accepted as if she had not eaten in a week.
::Are we still sharing thoughts?:: Aetria said in her mind. Coleni did not answer.
"What makes you think I no longer ask myself questions?"
"You have not spoken in hours, and I have learned from our short time together that you usually think through questions you have before asking me. I used to think it was because you already had an answer and were just testing me. Now I wonder if your death and return to life made you accept things more readily than you had previously. I know I did for a while after my death."
Taking the water bottle from where it was secured next to her saddlebags, Aetria similarly retrieved Coleni's and walked to the stream to fill them both. Perhaps she is right. Or maybe this is all a dream, and I am really asleep in Mother's den.
The icy water splashing over her hands made her fingers ache after a few minutes and staring at them, denying the pain, did not make them hurt any less. She corked the full bottle and began filling the second more carefully. I spend this whole journey from Mother's hiding place searching for something, and I haven't asked myself why. That is odd.
Returning to the shaded spot Coleni had chosen to feed the baby, she handed her sister a water bottle and sat down beside the nursing mother.
"You are allowed to ask your own questions, Coleni. Don't worry about breaking my train of thought. I seem overly occupied thinking about nothing at the moment."
After drinking thirstily from the bottle, Coleni handed it back for Aetria to stopper and switched Yolania to her other breast.
"Well, before I ask the deep, ominous, and might I say, obvious question, I have several not-so-obvious ones. Where did your horse come from? Did our mysterious, Power-using mother conjure her? Does Merina have a stable hidden under the mountain, as well as a kitchen, additional living quarters--maybe even a drawing room?"
Taking a drink from Coleni's opened bottle, Aetria closed it and held it out for her sister to see.
"My guess is she got the horse from the Neos. This water bottle is Delmathian army issue, as is the rest of the livery. The saddlebags and blanket look like they were purchased from a village hosteller. I suspect if I look in the bags, the clothes will be some of hers."
"As usual, you are correct, my resurrected sister, but how did she find a horse in the lifeless Non-Lands? We know the Neos traversed them, but they have been defeated for many months. No horse could survive for any length of time in that place of no water, or plant life to use for food."
Looking at her twin, Aetria smiled and said, "Maybe Rajii flew the horse in from his secret hiding place."
If Coleni took her answer as the joke it was supposed to be, she did not respond to it as such.
"No, the horse was too calm. I would bet that she would have been near death from fright if a dragon had picked her up and flown her to Mother's for any distance. Besides, Rajii never said he could fly. You're being silly." Coleni reached over and gave her sister a shove, spilling her twin onto her side. Aetria just lay there giggling. Aetria realized it was the first time she had laughed since Coleni had found her waiting with Merina at their mother's hidden home.
When the giggles stopped, Aetria stayed on her back and took in several deep breaths. It had felt good to laugh again, and she realized it had also released some of the strange feelings of being out-of-place that she had been experiencing. Coleni burped Yolania and let the sleepy baby stare over her shoulder at the wildflowers that swayed gently in the mountain breeze.
"She is such a sweet child," Aetria said, watching the mother and daughter resting in the shade, reluctant to disturb them.
"How unlike her mother, is that what you are thinking?"
"All babies are sweet, Sister. It is life that teaches them to be other than that. It was such in our lives. We were born with enemies, most of which we didn't even know we had, and the others we learned about early because we were different--orphans in more ways than just being parentless."
Coleni gently bundled the sleeping baby for travel and tied her to her chest. "We were born for wildness, in the magical sense. Yolania is no part of a magical plan. She is the product of a woman who loves life and a man who loves the woman."
"Doesn't the woman love the man?" Aetria asked, fearful of what her sister might answer.
Coleni glanced at Aetria, seeing the worry in Aetria's eyes. "She loves the man, and she intends to return home and raise babies with him, but not before she makes the world safer for them all."
"You wanted a question from me, Coleni. Who awaits us in yon trees?"
"I hope not Neos. But either way we have to pass them or turn back into the Non-Lands."
Aetria stood and brushed the dirt from her riding pants. "If what Mother says is true, and she has yet to lie to us--not told us everything we need to know, but not lied--then trying to pass through the Non-Lands will more likely lead to our demise than fighting some avenging Neos. The odds are in our favor going forward."
"Assuming there aren't a few dozen mercenary allies with those two."
"Always the pessimist."
"It's my Hermanian upbringing, Sister. I'll let you go in front."
They mounted their horses and slowly moved down the trail, no longer making it a secret that they knew someone awaited them. Their watchers saw and reacted when the sisters rode within range. Two green-clad riders emerged from the trees, one man and one woman.
"Tierii Aetria, you are looking well."
"As are you, Tierii Trehanee. I hope your wait was not too long."
The Kanchala leader looked at Coleni and nodded in her direction. "We followed her here three days ago. I had expected a much longer stay."
Aetria's twin gave the assassin a tight smile. "You could have ridden along with me, Tierii. Company would have made the journey easier. Since I did not sense you in trail, you must have been unPowered. Was there a reason for this deceptive behavior?"
The man spoke rapidly in Tierian, in a dialect that Aetria recognized as Rhuhani. She did not catch many of his words, but the tone of his voice was not threatening. Trehanee nodded when he finished and looked at Aetria, knowing she would not understand her companion.
"Tieri Entemas says that to hunt the hunter, use bait--but don't tell the bait that it is being hunted. It won't act naturally."
"Was there a hunter this time, Trehanee?" Aetria asked.
"There is no longer."
Aetria's heart grew saddened at those words. My people are at war! Father, what have I done?
"This hunter," Coleni asked, shifting the resting baby slightly in her bundle to ease the pull of the shoulder strap on her neck, "he was Tierian?"
Trehanee nodded. Entemas turned his mount and headed back into the trees. The three women followed, riding silently, the sisters lost in thought, and the Kanchala watching every movement around them.
"Is my father in danger?" Aetria broke the silence after many minutes.
"Yes, needlessly. He refuses to leave his home for the shelter of the Clan. The Clans are gathering for protection in Hermania, at the mine where you were held so many months ago."
"In danger from the Styreka?" Coleni asked.
Trehanee made a warding gesture and hissed at her in Tierian, "Silence! Such talk is forbidden!"
Entemas turned in his saddle to look at the angry women behind him. He seemed to hesitate, perhaps to ride back and try to bring calm, then turned forward and rode a bit farther down the path.
"What did the Kanchala say to me, Aetria? I do not like her tone at all."
Aetria knew the Tieri were forbidden to speak of the dragons, even among their own people. None in the world knew of the dragons, except from legends, and those were stories to terrify children and sow fear among the uneducated. She and her twin sister had grown up with a dream, remarkably the same dream, considering they were raised in different families and in different parts of the Domains. The childhood dream protector was a green-scaled dragon, Rajii, who lived in a beautiful glade and kept them from harm. Only a year ago did they learn he was real, a "good" dragon living among fellow dragons, some good and some evil.
She slowed her horse down and motioned Coleni to do the same, to put more distance between the angry assassin leader and themselves. She called to Trehanee in Delmathian, rather than in the Tierian's language. "We understand your concern, Tierii, and will respect your strictures, but you also must understand that we do not have your knowledge of the things we are discussing. If we fall upon a truth and speak it, we do not make it less a truth by making it known. If that truth brings danger upon us, could it be worse than what is already facing us? If not, then isn't a danger known, a danger that can be planned for?"
The anger in the Kanchala's deep-set eyes changed little with Aetria's assuaging words, and she looked away from the sisters and rode after her fellow assassin, saying over her shoulder, "Just keep your voices down, Sorcerii, or that danger may find us sooner than you expect."
"I'm waiting," Coleni said angrily.
Aetria looked at her upset sister, and at the squirming bundle against Coleni's chest. Yolania was not a happy baby, sensing her mother's strong emotions. "She told us to be silent. We were talking of forbidden things."
Rocking gently back and forth in her saddle, Coleni tried to calm Yolania. She spoke in a voice pitched higher and more rhythmically, but the words were as cold as if she spoke them still in anger. "What part was forbidden, Sister? What command does she think she has over us?"
Taking the cue from Coleni, Aetria answered with the same tone, "None I can think of, or she would have delivered the demands in the first words she spoke to us. I will have to confirm my suspicion with my father, but I think the fact that the Tieri do the bidding of the Styreka is what is forbidden. We know they will not speak of the dragons unless in whispers, and never to non-Tierians."
Yolania was calming down, and rather than disturb her falling asleep, Coleni nodded in understanding and put a finger to her lips. They rode on in silence, staring at Trehanee riding a hundred paces ahead, each puzzling whether they had indeed found something of truth in their discussion.
After an hour, Trehanee slowly drifted back to where Aetria and Coleni rode and said politely in Delmathian, "Do not invoke that name aloud, Captain Coleni. It is forbidden. If you must name them, say dragon-folk. The answer to your question is no."
"Then who, the Kanchala?"
"Yes, those who serve the dragon-folk. The Kanchala-zo."
The Kanchala-zo? Zo is a Tierian curse word ending that means of no value, Aetria thought.
"Our enemies will not attempt an invasion of your countries, either Hermania or Delmathia. Their strength is not in numbers--they are no match against massed men-at-arms. This will be a war of attrition, a dying of each side's Kanchala until my Clan is all gone, then a swift killing of the Rhuhani by the Zo for the final punishment."
This speech was delivered with such calmness and manner-of-fact directness that Aetria's anxiety began to build. "My father must be protected!"
"He is, Tierii. He has chosen the role of bait. It is his hope that Kanchala-zo will waste themselves on him and give us a chance to win the war of attrition."
"And my mother, does she agree with his plan? She is not Tierian or Rhuhani. She has to die as well?" The anger in her voice disturbed Yolania in her sleep, and the baby whimpered in protest.
"She knows of his danger, although I don't believe she understands. Valeria has told the few village victualers she shops from that her family is being threatened by a rival tradesman. She had demanded support from the village elders, but they have refused--as they always have. They say it is your father's problem because he is a Tierian, not knowing how truly they speak. She is pushing your father to seek help from the King. He sent off a request to your General Borlock, but I suspect it was worded to produce no help from your old commanding officer. You must ask her yourself what it said."
It did not surprise Aetria that her home village of Torrelon would deny protection to her father. He had been the focus of their distrust since he had arrived three decades ago with his caravan and stolen the heart of the most beautiful woman in the village, Valeria, her foster mother. Every wrong deed committed through the years was laid at his doorstep, and the fact that he prospered despite their hatred only fueled the meanness. They turned on Valeria as well, and Aetria's life as a child growing up in such an environment of mistrust and loathing was perhaps the greatest sadness she held in her heart.
"The General would not refuse aid to my father. She owes him too much. I believe you are right that he has not asked."
"She has enough troubles of her own, Tierii. The sorcerers have locked themselves behind their Training Lodge's walls, refusing to support the people. The people are at the point of turning on them and taking justice for the Neo-sorcerers' rebellion they believe the sorcerers supported. The Hermanians have closed their borders and are forming an army to protect themselves, aware of the rumors that Hermania supplied the Neos with source material for the Neos' weapons. And no one understands why the Tieri are gathering in Hermania, so they are ready to believe that we are siding with the Hermanians to go to war against Delmathia. Trade among the three countries of the Domains has broken down. It is a time of troubles for all."
When Coleni arrived at Merina's to determine the health of Aetria, she had warned Aetria about the people's discontent with their fellow sorcerers and told her she was needed back in the world of the living. Not that Aetria was truly dead any longer, but it was difficult for anyone born to the Domains to believe anything existed in the Non-Lands other than what the legends spoke of--the spirits of the punished dead. With the exception, of course, of their reclusive mother.
Aetria had no idea how she was going to solve the problem between the sorcerers and the common folk, who had been victims of villainous magic-users during the Sorcerer Wars two centuries ago and had remained suspicious of the Power wielders ever since. Coleni and she had brought down the Neo-sorcerers, but in doing so had used undisciplined or wild magic, the very antithesis of what the sorcerers had enshrined through their strict following of the Laws of Power. For the use of such magics, both Coleni and she had earned the mistrust of the Council of Magi, the leadership of their own Order. They were mistrusted equally by the Delmathian people because the leader of the Neos was their own brother.
Coleni broke into Aetria's reverie. "General Borlock went to Inhestia to deliver the message that the King wanted a meeting with the Council to understand why the Council had not provided the support he had asked for before the Battle of the Two Hills. I traveled with her as Chief Advisor, and while there, I asked about Norandor, your misguided experimental subject. I discovered he had been banished by the Council. They claimed he was a sorcerer and subject to their rules, when we all knew he was not. Sonja demanded his release. It got really tense and heated after that. I was told by the Council that my service with the General was no longer required and I was to remain at Inhestia with the rest of sorcerers. I refused."
Hearing Norandor's name sent a surge of guilt through Aetria. The young man had fallen hopelessly in love with her, and she had ignored the early signs, choosing to do nothing instead of letting him know his love could not be returned. It was his desperate attempt to please her by learning that silence spell that had led to Yolania's kidnapping and the death of so many Sorcerer Guards. And now he was locked away, cut off from his family and friends. Aetria resisted the urge to dwell on his fate, turning her mind to Coleni's problem instead. "This makes you subject to banishment and a target for retribution. Another problem I need to solve."
"I would have mentioned Valeria's making trouble if I had heard about it. When I left their home to come find you, they were delirious with joy that I believed you still alive. Your father's happiness was tinged with worry that the Styreka..."
Trehanee hissed to silence Coleni.
"Sorry, the dragon-folk might extract revenge on the Tieri, but nothing had happened to show that a war had started with the, what did you call them, Trehanee--the Kanchala-zo?"
A wrinkle of disgust crossed the assassin leader's face at the mention of her enemy, and she made a dismissing gesture.
Aetria said, "My foster mother is very protective, Sister, so that is one development that I am not surprised about at all. As to the dragon-folk starting to take revenge, it is probably why Mother pushed us out of her haven so quickly. Rajii's people are not going to start a war among their kind over the killing of the Tieri ruling Clan as long as none of the dragon-folk becomes directly involved. They certainly are not going to try to solve a dispute among the countries of the Domains, as they had not tried to do anything during our last war with Hermania. I don't look for help from our protector and friend in any of these problems."
The thought of their being alone in this fight made Aetria sad and scared. Her last encounter with a Styreka had been very painful. One evil dragon, Grisylck, had killed her in a process meant to convert her into a slave. The emptiness in her heart reminded Aetria of that wound, and she unconsciously touched the healed area between her breasts.
Coleni saw Aetria's hand movement and guessed at what her sister was thinking. "They interfered in our lives once; what makes you think they won't try again?"
"Because one of their own died, or if you count Rajii's near death by Grisylck, they suffered casualties on both sides of their dispute. Mother would not talk much about them, but she hinted that the dragon-folk are few and they are very, very old. This is my thinking, but I wouldn't be surprised that Rajii's supporters might consider the destruction of the Rhuhani as just retribution."
"Your people did not kill the Crone! If anyone was responsible, it is probably Grisylck's own fault. She tried to blast you into nothingness with a surge of Power and created a backlash into her own mind."
"I am not sure that was the cause, Coleni. I know I told you that, but it is only the last memory I had before I awoke at Merina's. Rajii didn't confirm that when I told him what happened, and he gave me his usual vague answer when I asked him what he thought happened. You would think having his neck broken and torn open by one of his own kind would give him reason to hate Grisylck. I sensed that he mourned her more than hated her."
Coleni shook her head in disbelief. "Then it may be I was right when I said this was all a game to the dragon-folk. The death of a player on the field is regrettable, but let the game continue."
"Don't forget, Coleni, the Crone was killed by Power, and now all the players in this game wield it. And the players were given that Power by the very ones who created the game."
"Did they, Sister, or have we always had the Power? You once told me that in a dream, Rajii said Yolania was a tool to be used, not destroyed or discarded. If Yolania is a tool, doesn't that make me, her mother, and you, my twin, tools? Didn't Mother say we were created for a purpose? Her quadruplets, each having abilities in the four disciplines of Power, were gifted to change the world. And we have, but now there are only two of us remaining. If we are tools, then isn't Merina? And how many others we know nothing about? The Tieri? The Kanchala-zo?"
* * *
Several hours later, Yolania awoke and made her demand for attention known. Aetria started to call to the assassin leader to tell her to halt when Trehanee held her right arm aloft and waved it down toward the ground, a signal to dismount. Since they were in the midst of the trees they had been riding through, it was not the best stopping place, but it was easy to see that factor did not concern the Kanchala, who disappeared off her mount and from their view moments later.
"No reason I can't feed and change her here, unless we are about to be attacked," Coleni said, dismounting herself. Aetria wanted to go after Trehanee but knew the Kanchala did not want untrained help around. She stayed in her saddle, the better to watch the short distance she could see through the trees. Coleni had just put Yolania to breast when the assassin leader appeared next to Aetria.
"There is a wagon train of my people ahead, traveling east along the border road. Their wagons are moving faster than normal; they are not heavily laden with trade goods. They are heading for the gathering of the Clans."
Aetria stared southward, searching with her Power-sense. "There are several magic-users among them, very weakly Powered. I sense a stronger source nearby. Is that Entemas?"
"Yes, I sent him after them to observe from hiding. I can't be sure if there is a Zo among them. Normally it would be impossible to hide a stranger among the people, but the colors in the train of wagons tell of several Clans traveling together. A spy could slip into their midst somewhat easily."
Coleni looked up at Aetria, wondering why her sister had such a studied look on her face. "What does it matter if there was a Zo with them? What dangers would that pose to us? Let them pass by, Sister."
"I agree with Captain Coleni, Tierii."
Aetria dismounted and walked over to stand next to the log where Coleni sat feeding the baby. "Trehanee, how many Tieri are in the train?"
"Perhaps a hundred and fifty. Entemas could not get an accurate count because the small children usually ride inside the wagons out of sight. There are twenty-eight wagons, with several dozen outriders around them."
"That is more wagons than I have ever seen together in my life. I thought six wagons was an exceptionally large train."
"To Delmathians, one Tieri wagon is too many. This caravan will be avoiding the towns along the road to prevent confrontations with the villagers. Your people do not like this many Tieri around."
Aetria nodded in agreement. The Domains' populace accepted small numbers of Tieri as long as the locals outnumbered them. If they did not, the villagers viewed the Tieri as a threat--a possible raiding party. Aetria knew from her adopted father that there was no history of the Tieri attacking homesteads, but there was a long one of other villages sending raiding parties dressed as Tieri to prey on their neighbors and blaming the Tieri for the deed.
"Aetria, you have that look on your face. You aren't planning to join them, are you?" Coleni asked.
"If they will accept us, there is safety in numbers. Even with our ability to sense stored Power, your Aggressor spells, and the skills we know the Kanchala have with weapons, we could be overwhelmed by the Zo."
"If they found us. You are proposing we put ourselves among the very people with whom the Zo could best hide themselves."
The assassin leader stood silent through this conversation. Aetria turned to her and said, "You agreed with Coleni earlier that we should let the Clans pass and go on our way. Now you are not supporting her. Does that mean you believe traveling with the caravan is a good idea?"
"When I agreed with your sister before, it was not clear that you intended to join them. There are advantages to doing so and dangers. You have already heard them. I have nothing further to add and will not make the choice, as it is not mine to make."
Coleni shifted the baby to the other breast and gave Trehanee a hard look. "What choice would you make anyhow, Tierii? You have not told us why you were waiting for us at the trailhead. Are you escorting us somewhere or spying on us for the Magess Chalinee? By whose authority do you continue in our presence?"
Considering the ill feeling that had existed between the two women since they had first met, Aetria was not surprised by the tone of voice Coleni chose to use with Trehanee. However, it would not do to let the conflict continue.
"Sister, Trehanee and her Kanchala risked their lives and lost compatriots in rescuing Yolania. She has guarded us in the past, and it is probable she is again. It is a fair question, Tierii. Are you under orders to protect us?"
"Yes. Protect, but not interfere."
Coleni laughed sharply. "How do you protect without interfering?"
The assassin leader gave the nursing mother an expressionless look, making it hard to read meaning in her next words. "The manner of your death is of no matter as long as it does not come from the Zo. I will not let the Zo harm anyone under my protection." Trehanee turned away and walked to her grazing horse.
* * *
They rode into the Tierian camp as the sun was touching the horizon. The wagons had been circled, with the horses corralled in one half of the interior, the rest sectioned off for campfire use. There were three Clans in the train; two small Clans made up about half the number of people. The people moved freely between the fires, so it was hard for Aetria to tell who belonged to which Clan. Her knowledge of Clan colors and emblems was scant at best. Her Clan, consisting of her adopted father and herself, had none. Despite her own Tierian dress, there was no doubt that she and her sister were instantly recognized as outsiders and watched silently as they walked their horses through the crowd. Trehanee and Entemas led them straight to the camp of the wagon master, who Aetria guessed was the largest Clan's leader. The assassins' dark clothes were not a uniform, but the people recognized them for what they were. Aetria could see eyes glancing at the hands of Kanchala, then looking away.
Trehanee stopped and handed her reins to Aetria, asking her stiffly in her accented Delmathian to please wait quietly. The words were for the crowd, not for Aetria. Coleni uncovered her baby's head and let the smiling child look out. A murmur spread out from the women who smiled back at that sweet face. Aetria stepped up alongside Coleni and touched Yolania's cheek before taking her sister's reins so that Coleni could hoist the baby higher for all to see.
While the people's attention was focused on them, Aetria glanced at the assassins talking quietly with the small, heavyset leader, a middle-aged man who was not smiling when Aetria looked at him. Their conversation seemed to go on forever, even though she knew it was tens of minutes. The murmurings in the crowd grew with each minute as the Tierians' whispered questions increased, and the numbers of people grew as the crowd pressed closer to see what was happening. Aetria watched the nearest people, realizing that if a Zo wanted to attack them, she could do little to prevent it. She felt a strong unease in her body and fought not to let her fear show in her face. She reasoned with herself that in the Clan master's camp, a Zo would not be any more welcomed than she would. The wagon master strode toward her.
"Tresparmo, Tierii Aetria Menhala v'Grelnes!"
The crowd noise swelled to a low roar.
"She told him who you were! That was not in the plan," Coleni said in a singsong voice she adopted to keep from alarming Yolania. Her alarm at their exposure still came through, her eyes darting around, scanning the nearest people's face.
"He has welcomed us to his fire, Sister, that is the important part. Calm down and let me return his greeting."
Aetria gave the wagon master a slight bow and said, "Chanta Menhala tierii debrade gratio, Chantos."
The Clan leader smiled, and Trehanee grimaced.
"Maybe you shouldn't speak in Tierian, Sister. What did you say to him?"
"I told him that the Clan Menhala thanks him for taking in their daughter."
The assassin leader corrected her. "Debrase means taking in. Debrade means using."
Coleni burst out laughing, and Aetria felt the heat of a blush spread over her face. Moments later, as her words passed among the crowd, the people joined her sister in the merriment, and the Clan leader let them all release the tension that had been building before reaching out to Aetria and taking her arm to introduce her to his life-mate. One of the men standing nearby took the reins from Aetria and led the horses away. As Coleni followed Aetria and the Clan leader, she said in a voice pitched loud enough for Aetria to hear, "Yolania, my lovely daughter, see how clever Auntie Aetria is with the Tierian language."
* * *
"Conversations in three different languages exhaust me, Aetria. It is so easy to misunderstand what was said, then misconstrue what was meant, so the end result is a frustrating confusion which makes one want to throw the whole mess out as a worthless waste of time."
Aetria couldn't agree with her sister more. They were settling into their temporary accommodation, making a nest among the stacks of boxes which filled the bed of the supply wagon that Tieri Arafne Kanosto m'Vrilenar, the Clan leader, had graciously let them use. Most of the conversation had been pleasantries guests were expected to exchange with their hosts, but the conditions he set upon them at the end had brought back the earlier tensions about their status.
"Why did Arafne welcome us to his wagon train, then insist we not stray away from this wagon? We are more prisoners than guests."
"Much of what happened tonight is ritual, Coleni. The Clan leader refused to take us in when Trehanee first asked him to allow us to accompany the train until we neared the General's headquarters. His response to her was so quick and firm that she knew she could not bargain with him as we had hoped. She decided to force him to offer hospitality by invoking Tierian custom. She told him who I was."
"The foster daughter of an outcast member of an obscure Clan? How would that help us?"
Aetria sat on a crate and rested for a moment. The effort to move the boxes around had strained muscles that she had not used for many months. "Trehanee told him I was under the protection of the Kanchala because I was Rhuhani."
"I know little of the Tieri, but I am sure these Rhuhani are not an obscure Clan. Isn't my least favorite Tierii, Chalinee, Rhuhani?"
"She is. She is also the sister of my foster father."
Coleni sat wearily down. "What? Listen, I don't know how many times while I was a Hermanian Novice I had to stand at attention for lectures about the commanding officer of 'Chalinee's Sorcerers'."
"Chalinee's Sorcerers? I never knew that was the name of your regiment. We always referred to it as the Second Imps, short for Imperial Regiment. I remember your First was lost when the Saphradeans surrendered and left the Hermanians exposed on the field of battle."
"Long before my time, Aetria. The lectures would always start with a long dissertation of her name, Tierii Chalinee Rhuhani v'Nomeles, Magess of..., and on, and on. I know that name. Now, your father's name is Tieri Grelnes m'Menhala. Your name is Tierii Aetria Menhala v'Grelnes. Where is the Rhuhani in either of your names?"
Aetria understood the frustration Coleni was having with the Tieri cultural names. Most of the Domains' people used only one or at most two names. "My foster father was born to Mylithee, Clan Mother and Leader of the Tieri. His sire was named Menhala. Menhala died when my father was young, and his mother took as life-mate a man named Nomeles. She bore him a daughter, whom you know as Chalinee. Mylithee died bearing Chalinee. Nomeles took over as Clan Leader because Grelnes was still too young. When Grelnes reached adulthood, he became Clan Leader."
"It is a lot easier being an orphan, Sister, you don't have to worry about who raised you."
"You forget who bore us, Coleni, or why we were born. My foster father banished himself from the Tieri because he interfered with the Styreka's plans and brought their enmity down on us."
"And became leader of an obscure Clan. I remember all that, Sister. How does any of that make you Rhuhani?"
"I apparently always was. Arafne was forced to offer his hospitality to us. All Clans must provide assistance to the ruling Clan if that name is invoked."
"So your father has changed his mind and become Rhuhani again?"
"I don't think so; he would never do that. If he had, I suspect our assassin leader would have a whole different attitude toward us. Moreover, she would have brought a lot more help with her than one assistant. No, I think Trehanee may have stretched the truth a little to get us into the wagon train."
Coleni checked on Yolania in her nest of blankets, ensuring the baby was sleeping soundly. She came over to sit beside Aetria. "Since Arafne did not use the Clan name of Rhuhani when he named you to his people, I wonder if he truly believes you are who she says you are."
"If he had named me Rhuhani, it would have created a bigger problem for him than we represented already. My father's decision to exile himself was made a long time ago, and I suspect his assumed Clan name is not one many people recognize. By keeping us away from his people, Arafne hopes we will not expose my ancestry and make us the center of attention."
"Good reasoning, but it is too late for that, Aetria. There is another reason for his isolating us. Your father's name may be obscure, but I wager a non-Tierian woman bearing a Tierian name is not common either. And that woman is traveling with a twin sister. I distinctly heard the words 'Sorcerii Hitalno' being spoken. What does that mean?"
"Next to highest sorceress. We say Adept."
"Then our fame has caught up with us. They know who we are."
"That could not be helped. They recognized us the moment we rode into their camp. If we had given false names, they would know we were lying. Arafne's initial refusal was not based on his unwillingness to help a couple of women traveling alone. Tierian custom demands protection of such women. He did not want us here because he knows we will attract the attention of the Zo, who will try to kill us."
"Does he think they could be among his people now?"
"Not in his Clan, but he doesn't know the other Clans' people that well. It is possible that they are already in the caravan disguised as one of them. He told Trehanee that he knows the Zo would be interested in getting in among the gathering Clans. They could have infiltrated a smaller group as they gathered for the trek and used coercion to make one of the smaller Clan's people attest to the Zo's assumed Clan status. With our presence, some of his people could get killed if the Zo attack us. Worse yet, if the Zo are not here now and find out we are traveling with the caravan, it would be easy for the Zo to ambush, kill, and with a minimal amount of natural disguise, replace members of the caravan--then attack. Either way, he loses people. Since he can't refuse our presence, by keeping us close to his fire, he is putting his immediate family at risk, but not his whole Clan."
"And you think we are safer than if we were traveling alone?"
"It may not look that safe to you, but aside from the threat of the Zo, the caravan gives us protection from our other problems--such as villagers unhappy with sorcerers and sorcerers unhappy with wild magic-users."
Coleni gave Aetria a thoughtful stare. "You think the Order would make an attempt on us?"
"If you mean kill us, the answer is no. If you mean make us disappear, then yes. The Order has a tendency to hide its mistakes. Look at Narisa at Gavilia. She is not a danger to anyone, but she is locked away from the eyes of the common people. Inhestia made Norandor disappear. Both the Hermanian coven and the Saphradean lodges cloister their troublemakers. The Council of Magi would like nothing better than for you and me not to return to General Borlock, for they know we will use our knowledge to support Sonja. It would not surprise me if they have convinced themselves that we need to be protected from the non-sorcerers and brought within their sanctuary at Inhestia--for our own good."
"I'd have thought they would reject us totally and hope a band of mercenaries would ambush us for revenge or ransom."
Alarmed, Aetria asked, "Mercenaries? When did mercenaries become a problem?"
"When the Neos surrendered, there was no one to pay for the services of their ex-henchmen. Most of the Hermanians fled to my old homeland to offer their weapons to the army being raised by the Supreme Ruler. Your Delmathian mercenaries are either biding their time waiting for a war to break out so they can rejoin General Borlock, or continuing to poach on the trade caravans as they had been doing in support of the Neos. The General is going after those mercenaries with a vengeance, so I expect them to be ready to use any bargaining goods they could get their hands on--like us."
Aetria used her magic sense to search around them. The two Tieri they had sensed earlier were both in Arafne's Clan, and close. One of them was Tierii Katrinee, the Clan master's life-mate. The other had not been in the small group of family they were introduced to before they had been scuttled off to the supply wagon. Trehanee was just outside by their wagon; Entemas was patrolling along the perimeter of the circled wagons. Aetria could not sense any other stored Power or sources in the vicinity. Coleni looked at her in confirmation, as she had also been searching. They were safe from magic-users, for the moment. Feeling as if the whole world was bearing down on her, which if what Coleni said was true, it was, Aetria lay down on her pallet and prepared to spend her first night out in the real world, no longer safe in her mother's home.
* * *
Captain Valetti stood respectfully by the command tent's entrance and listened to his commanding officer vent her anger at the scroll she held crumpled in her fist. As personal secretary to General of the Armies Sonja Borlock, it was his responsibility to deliver bad news as well as good and bear the brunt of the response in either case. He knew before delivering the missive from the Commander of the First Regiment of the Sorcerer Corps that he would be giving information that was going to upset her. It was never difficult to predict reactions from General Borlock. Her tactics in battle and strategies in war would lead one to believe she was a complicated and devious officer, but she was a soldier's soldier at heart. Tweak her nose and expect a slap back.
* * *
"I should have never let Adept Coleni go after her sister. Instead of getting advice from an expert I can trust, I get veiled insults and demands from someone I regard as hardly more than a spy."
"Commander Cemaron is only relaying what the Council of Magi is ordering him to do, General."
"He is a soldier in King Phyrlatus's army and as such is under my command. I, and only I, can issue him orders."
"His majesty signed an agreement with the Council of Magi before they entered the war on our behalf that they would have co-equal command of their sorcerers. They have honored that agreement and are asking we do so also."
Slamming the scroll down on her worktable, Sonja turned away from Val to control the anger surging through her mind and to keep her lips from twisting into a sneer. It is not his fault.Don't kill the messenger.
Taking a calming breath, she suppressed the urge to yell and said less forcefully, "Asked, my dear Captain? Demanded is closer to the tone of this, this communication. They are informing me that their regiment will stand down from any operation short of protecting themselves until they can renegotiate the agreement they signed less than ten years ago. They inform me that Delmathia is no longer at war with anyone and the basis of the charter is therefore not valid. Have they not seen the Hermanians closing their borders? Have they not heard of the attacks on our trade caravans by mercenaries? No basis?"
She did not wait for his answer before throwing her hands into the air and groaning out her frustration. She stalked over to the field chairs set up in the "hospitality" corner of the tent and waved Val to sit. When she started to pull a wine flask from the storage shelf, he protested that he would prepare her a drink, but she quickly pointed at the chair and motioned for him to sit down immediately.
Grabbing two cups, she carried the wine to the chairs and tossed one of the cups to her secretary. Sonja poured the cup full as soon as it was caught and proffered. Sitting down, she filled hers and saluted Val with a toast, draining the cup. He offered to refill, and she let him.
"What do you think Magess Aetria would say about this return to the rules horseshit?" Sonja noticed that when she mentioned Aetria's name, Val's face broke into a relieved grin. His love for the long lost ex-Chief Advisor was evident.
"Ma'am, do you want the short answer or her answer?"
"Good question, Captain. The last time I told Aetria to keep it short it cost me dozens of lives. I don't think you have that problem, so say what you think."
"I think she would say it was equally fecal matter. For the Council to suggest that they have erred in allowing the use of magic to take life goes against what they have been teaching their students for the last decade. They have continuously found fault with the Saphradeans for their beliefs as being too conservative, not allowing magic to progress as the people mature. She would say that the Council is trying to hide behind an excuse to avoid upsetting the people. They need the people to keep the ranks of the sorcerers filled. The Council blames what happened in the Sorcerer Wars on the magic-users breeding only among themselves."
"Aetria told me that once, but I did not believe it. Then we find out that Aetria, her sister, and her brother are the results of two powerful sorcerers mating. Yolania, her niece, if rumors are true, is strangely gifted with wild magic at an age when such use is not possible, and she springs from the pairing of two sorcerers, Coleni and Belanar. Perhaps the Council's blame is well placed. Damn, I really need my Chief Advisor."
Val nodded, but Sonja knew he had his own reasons for agreeing with her. He said rather enthusiastically, "Captain Coleni told me that she didn't expect to be in the Non-Lands very long. Perhaps I should ride up to the mountains where we camped before and wait for her."
"That is an excellent idea, Captain, except for the I part. Take the Bravos."
"We can't afford the use of a cavalry squadron for ceremonial escort duty, General. The Second Royal Guard Squadron is needed to hunt down the mercenaries."
Finishing her wine, Sonja held out her cup for a refill and pointed a finger at his, still filled. "You read Tieri Grelnes's message, did you not?"
"Yes, ma'am, and he did not ask for assistance."
"Why did he send the message, Captain?"
Val's momentarily puzzled expression cleared. "To tell us of the danger to Magess Aetria and Adept Coleni."
"Take the Bravos!"
"You can always bivouac them out of sight of the ridge if you want privacy time with your woman. I am sure Coleni will understand and leave you two alone."
Val's face reddened, betraying the thought that entered his mind with Sonja's suggestion. "General, I..."
"No protestations, Captain. It is what I would do if I were in command of the escort. Now, wait! Are you trying to tell me that you and Aetria never took the roll in your blankets that everyone thought you did?"
Val chose that moment to drain his cup, obviously to avoid answering his superior's direct question. Drinking too fast, he choked on the last gulp and watched in horror as wine sprayed from his lips. Sonja howled with laughter and emptied her cup to show him how it should be done.
"Your silence is sufficient, my dear Captain. I would have been surprised if you had bedded her. She has had too much on her mind these past years to think much of the pleasures of living. Unlike her sister, I might add, who ranks all forms of work in the saddle equally. Adept Coleni was sleeping with her then subordinate, now life-mate, while hunting Neos. Damn woman got pregnant on the battlefield! At least Magess Aetria had the sense not to do that."
From the look on Valetti's face, Sonja knew he remembered the night Coleni had told her the news. She smiled at the thought that she had not had the opportunity to use such blistering language since. Sonja had no doubts that Val and others were envious of Lieutenant Belanar, to have had that opportunity and been able to take it. Her anger was directed more at the men who thought more about making love to the beautiful sisters instead of their duty.
Wiping his lips on his sleeve, Val said, trying to put an end to the direction this conversation was heading to, "Aetria has been through an experience only a few alive can speak of. I suspect she has changed greatly since I last saw her."
She waved away the offer of a refill but insisted Val take one more cup. "On that you can surely place a bet, Captain. The questions are how has she changed, and how does that affect her value to me as the new Commander of the Sorcerer Corps--when and if she gets back?"
The serious look on Val's face as he drank his wine spoke of his dashed hopes. Sonja took the cup from his hand, ignoring his request to put away the refreshments. "Keep in mind, Captain, that one of those few alive who has died and been returned is Adept Coleni. Perhaps in death, she saw the value of life and creating it. Certainly changed her behavior. There is still hope for you, Val."
The General turned and left the slack-jawed cavalryman gaping after her.