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Commonwealth Universe, Age 1: Volume 13: Wind Walker by Michelle Levigne (Science Fiction)

Commonwealth Universe, Age 1: Volume 13: Wind Walker by Michelle Levigne (Science Fiction)
 
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Refugees from the Downfall Wars, separated by centuries of spaceflight, clash on a far distant world. Caught between them are Tayree -- native, Wind Walker, visionary, and a recent widow--and Arin, a foundling raised by the invading Colonists.

Tayree's visions send her to find Arin, stolen from her tribe when he was an infant. She knows him from childhood dreams ... and because his twin brother murdered her husband and infant sons in an attempt to possess her.

Arin and Tayree could be part of prophecy, to bring peace between the Ayanlak natives and the invading Colonists, but only if their hearts can heal. Tayree has a chance to fill her empty arms, but claiming her rights of recompense from her enemy's family could destroy the future for her tribe and Arin's love for her.

Also available in print (paperback) - still with old cover currently.

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ISBN/EAN13: 1922066451 / 9781922066459
Page Count: 326
Trim Size: 5" x 8"

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Sample Chapter

Chapter One

Winter

Tayree?

Her twin's voice came to her just moments after Tayree had returned to sleep after the midnight feeding. At this time of night, she often wondered how her mother had managed to nurse twins, and she begrudged Talon waking her just when she had fallen asleep again. For a moment, she considered nudging Jerel and asking her husband to see what her brother wanted. Then Tayree remembered she was alone in bed. Jerel had left that morning for Sentinel duty at the Cliffs of Sha'a'kull.

Then she realized she was still asleep, and Talon called to her from within the dreamplain. With a silent sigh, she pushed aside the weary mother and became a Wind Walker. It had to be something important for Talon to use the dreamplain to contact her, when it was much easier to walk down the passageways in the cave complex she and Jerel shared with her three brothers, to wake her.

"What is it?" Tayree opened her eyes to a springtime meadow, sweet contrast to the snows that hugged the peaks and mountainsides of the High Reaches.

She saw her twin brother, Talon, in his sleeping shorts and tunic, standing just outside of arm's reach of a girl wearing the muted blue and green patchwork robes of a high-ranking mistrada of the T'bredi.

"Tay, this is K'reeth. I told you about her, remember?" Talon said, before she could greet either of them.

"Oh, the moonbirds. Yes." She smiled, and looked down at herself to see what her dreaming body wore. Fortunately, she wore her usual daytime clothes, long tunic and pants in deep green. She couldn't remember if she had re-fastened her sleeping shirt after nursing her sons. That would be an embarrassing state to be caught in. "How can I help you, Mistrada K'reeth?"

"She's come to help you," Talon said. "Remember for us again, please." He reached out as if he would hold K'reeth's hand, and that startled Tayree. Since childhood, she and Talon had been warned never to touch someone else in the dreamplain. The consequences were painful, at best. Catastrophic at worst. She never knew why, or what actually happened, but it was enough for her that the leader of Wind Walkers, her own great-uncle Rhovas, warned her not to do it within moments after realizing she could enter the dreamplain while still a child.

K'reeth closed her moss-green eyes and nodded. A haze surrounded the three of them, blocking out the meadow. Then a patch cleared, revealing the stony walls and heavy metal gates of what Tayree took to be the T'bredi compound. The community of scholars was open to everyone with the love of scholarship, no matter what tribe of Ayanlak they belonged to, but that didn't guarantee their safety. They had their own soldiers, volunteers drawn from every tribe, just as the scholars came from every tribe.

Palan, son of Chieftain Pinder of the Keerlagor tribe, stood in the cleared spot. He was unmistakable, with his thick mop of curly, blue-black hair and the white streak over his left temple. Ruggedly handsome, with ebony eyes and the high cheekbones of the noble ranks, he marred his good lucks with the smirk he wore now. That disdainful, superior look fell on a young woman dressed much like K'reeth, but with higher cheekbones and a green streak dyed in her hair. K'reeth had a blue streak and her hair had tones of deep red and brown, whereas her sister – who else could this girl be but K'rin? – had blue-black hair. Talon had told Tayree about the sisters when he first met them, how they dyed their hair to match the plumage of the moonbirds who had bonded with them. The k'reeth had blue tips to her wings, while her warrior sister-bird, the k'rin, had green.

Palan reached for K'rin's arm, and though he spoke, no words were audible. Tayree didn't need to hear his voice to know his tone, and the demands he made.

K'reeth and K'rin were the adopted daughters of High Mistrada A'tran, leader of the T'bredi scholars, a woman with as much power, prestige, and honor as any chieftain of any tribe of the Ayanlak. It seemed Palan now threatened K'rin to get her into his bed, just as he had tried to bully Tayree before she fled home to the High Reaches. Remembering the last time she had seen Palan, Tayree could still feel ghost pain from her bruises. He had come upon her on the Mist Plains while she harvested dreamweed at Conjunction, expecting her to be amorous and easily seduced. Dreamweed had not taken away her clarity of thought or self-control, but she had been weary and dizzy from more than two hours breathing dreamweed dust – while Palan had been strangely unaffected by it. When she resisted him, he had been strong enough to overcome her. He met her, move for move when she called on the self-defense dancing moves of jali'tay. He had beaten her and would have raped her if Talon and other Wind Walkers had not come at the sound of her screams of rage.

In the vision, K'rin yanked her arm free of Palan's grasp, stepped back, and punched him hard in the mouth.

Tayree cheered, earning grins from Talon and K'reeth.

Palan staggered backwards, his mouth silently spewing what Tayree knew to be more threats, and likely curses. As he fled the courtyard, a tall, wide-shouldered man in T'bredi costume came through the same doorway. Palan knocked him down, kicked him, then looked at him again and laughed. What he said next caused a look of horror to cross the newcomer's face.

The vision vanished.

"What did Palan tell him?" Tayree asked. "Who is he?"

"That is Tokar, my ... former betrothed," K'reeth said with remarkably little dismay. If anything, she looked relieved.

Tayree noticed the younger woman made a visible effort not to look at Talon as she spoke. That set off delighted new thoughts. It was about time Talon found someone who caught at his heart, and loved him in return.

"Palan told him that I was Na'huma." K'reeth shrugged. "He told K'rin that if she didn't come to his bed, he would tell Tokar and shame us all. What that slimy dregs didn't realize is that anyone who matters among the T'bredi already knows I was not born Ayanlak. They've known since the day Mother adopted me."

"But your betrothed didn't know?" Tayree guessed.

"It doesn't matter." She shook her head. "What matters is that Palan s'Pinder and his guards are heading through these mountains for a specific reason. A nasty reason, judging by the few things I overheard his guards saying. Talon told me how you bested him at Conjunction. I thought you should be warned."

"Thank you, Mistrada K'reeth." Tayree crossed her arms over her chest and gave her the deep bow of respect and thanks, bringing a pink flush to the younger woman's cheeks. "Only an obsessive fool would travel the High Reaches at the start of winter. He and his guards won't be able to sneak up on us, and they won't be able to fight us into submission, either." Despite her brave words, Tayree trembled deep inside. "If you will excuse me, I think my sons have awakened."

She left the dreamplain without waiting for Talon or K'reeth to respond.

Tayree leaped from her bed and dashed across the passageway to the cozy cave room that served as nursery for her sons. She stood with her arms braced on the sturdy crib her three brothers and Jerel had fashioned, watching Torel and Joesh sleeping, and waited in vain for her heart to slow its terrified racing.

There was nothing Palan could do to her now. She was safely out of his reach. She was married. She had children. Not even the Council of Chieftains could force her to renounce her vows and agree to marry Palan, no matter how much he insisted that she had to obey the dictates of Aundree's Vision and marry him to fulfill prophecy.

"Liar," Talon whispered, and then his strong, warm arms wrapped around her. Tayree gasped, partly laughter, and elbowed him in the gut. He didn't let go of her, and she was glad. What would she do without her twin? "With those full stomachs, your boys could sleep through a landslide."

"Not only in love, but a betrothed woman and a Na'huma? I thought you were the cautious one, Twin."

"I'll need to be the patient one. They had exchanged promise bracelets and his family – related to his tribe's chieftain – had given their blessing." Talon sighed. "K'reeth is free of that bo'twa, but ritual demands a full year of waiting before she can accept new suitors, once the betrothal is formally broken."

"Who can watch you in the dreamplain?"

"True." He grinned and hugged her hard, then led her over to her cushioned chair, where she sat to nurse her sons. His smile faded. "I know you're afraid, Twin, but be sure we will not let Palan take you, no matter how many guards he brings with him. The warriors of the High Reaches can best five times as many warriors from the Canyon."

"He told me he would kill Jerel," Tayree whispered. "That last time I saw him, when I wouldn't let him seduce me. I showed him my bracelet, proving we were promised, and told him I was marrying Jerel as soon as I returned from the harvest. He swore he would kill Jerel for stealing what belonged to him. I should have demanded my rights, back then."

"You thought you were looking out for the good of the Keerlagor by foregoing your rights. And honestly ..." Talon sighed and settled on the edge of her chair, so he could put his arm around her. "What good would it have done, castrating him for trying to rape you? He would still be alive, and insane, and seeking revenge on top of it."

"He is so different from – " She leaped from the chair, terrified by what had almost slipped from her lips.

"From who?" Talon caught her before she took two steps. She couldn't fight and risk waking her sleeping sons.

"Erlon."

"His twin? He's dead."

"I dreamed of him. Walked in the dreamplain with him," Tayree whispered.

"When?" He turned her around to face him, holding her shoulders hard enough she knew she would have bruises from his fingers in the morning.

"When we were children. Before Great-Uncle came for us and took us into Wind Walker training. I forgot all about him, when our teachers put the guards on our minds. Then when I went to the Canyon to serve, and I saw Palan and I recognized him – " She stopped with a hiccupping sob that threatened to turn into hysterical laughter. Yet strangely, she felt some relief at finally releasing this secret to her twin. It hurt to keep secrets from him. "He was so different from the boy I remembered in my dreams. He confused me." She snorted. "He thought I was infatuated with him, when I was simply trying to understand how he could have changed."

"The Twin Heir lives." Talon shook his head. A soft sigh escaped one of the babies. He led her out of the nursery before she could think to resist, and down the interconnected passageways to the common room their family shared.

"I don't know where to find him. I don't know if I could, even if I tried. Why torment ourselves, why torment his parents, knowing he lives but outside of their reach?" Tayree said, the words spilling out of her as weariness washed through her, bone-deep. She let Talon guide her down onto the cushioned bench that lined the wall. "Why bring a second Palan to the Keerlagor, to bully and dominate us?"

"Who says Erlon would be anything like his brother?" Talon knelt in front of the fire pit to throw some spicy-scented qinta wood chips onto the coals, to awaken the fire.

"What are you two talking about at this hour?" Joktan grumbled, coming from the passageway on the other side of the room. Eight years older than Tayree and Talon, he and his twin had helped raise them. It was ingrained in the younger two, even though they were Wind Walkers, to obey when their older brothers commanded in that particular tone of voice. They didn't fear Juras and Joktan, though the black-haired, gravel-voiced giants could still physically dominate them. The ties of loyalty and loss and shared pain made obedience natural.

Despite knowing her brothers cared, Tayree still felt some resentment curl up tight and sharp in her belly as Talon relayed what K'reeth had told them, and then what she had just revealed.

"Too bad you're such a good fighter," Juras said. He had joined them halfway through Talon's recitation, but Tayree knew he had heard everything through the twin-bond with Joktan. "If Palan had torn your clothes more, managed to get you down on the ground, even for a few seconds, we could have demanded his death. The tribe would be better off with his cousins as heirs, instead of him."

"I agreed with Uncle Rhovas, that it would serve our tribe better to spare Palan." Tayree's jaws ached from the effort not to grit her teeth. "No one knows where Erlon is. He's been missing since he was little more than a baby. If they haven't found him by now, with that telltale patch of white in his hair, no one will ever find him."

"Everyone thought the Koh'hani death hunters killed him," Joktan mused aloud. "You have to tell Uncle Rhovas about this. You'll probably be called to stand before the Twin Chieftains, when they hear you've dreamwalked with the missing son."

"And face Lady Eriel again? No thank you. She's as bad as her son, thinking I have no right to choose my own husband, that I have no right to refuse the Heir." Tayree stood up, to go back to her room. "All that matters is we think Palan and his bully guards are headed our way. We've been warned. We need our sleep."

None of her brothers protested when she left them. Tayree knew the subject hadn't been dropped, merely set aside until a better time. She didn't care.

Ironic, she knew, that the nightmare of her life should return immediately after Jerel left for three weeks of duty at the Cliffs of Sha'a'kull. Jerel had initially offered to marry her to protect her from Palan's demands. It was as if the lack of his physical presence had taken away all her security and the barriers against bad dreams and fears.

Should I send for Jerel? Talan asked her before she reached the nursery, to check on her sons one last time.

Why bother him? By the time the messenger gets to him and he comes back here, Palan will have come here, made his demands to the Elders, and been sent on his way.

You realize, Jerel will probably try to kill him, after all the misery he's given you?

Not yet. There are things he wants to find out before he squashes that pestilence out of existence. We still don't know who helped Palan resist the dreamweed, when he went after me during Conjunction. He was as lucid as any Wind Walker, but we all know he lacks the discipline necessary. Someone violated the sanctity of the Mist Plains and gave away our secrets. That's what still makes me angry.

It could be his twin, Talon offered. "Erlon might be a good influence on him, even separated. Wherever he is, Erlon got the Chaiqua's share of discipline and maturity and self-control, and Palan was able to draw on that to help him resist the effect of raw dreamweed at Conjunction," he said, stepping into the nursery to join her.

"If only his twin was strong enough to take over Palan's mind and soul altogether." Tayree shivered. She brushed her fingertips over the downy curls of her sons' heads, then took a deep breath to brace herself and left the nursery. "I've dreamed of both of them, together," she admitted, pausing in the passageway outside her bedroom.

She wished Jerel were there to hold her and share his warmth, this night of all nights. The storms of fall and this far into winter had been a sweet time, secluded with her three brothers, husband, and babies, watching their sons grow, learning new skills and becoming more aware of the world daily. Safe from their duties and responsibilities and the problems of a world that seemed increasingly smaller every year, thanks to the Na'huma settlers who had come from the stars as refugees.

"What do you mean, 'together'?"

"I've tried to bring Jerel with me to the dreamplain, and sometimes he comes, just a whisper of him, like a spirit. And then something drives him away and I see the Twin Heirs. Chasing me, it seems. Erlon smiles at me, and I see my childhood friend in him. Palan ... he can't decide if he wants to kill me for denying him or he wants to seduce me or beg me to take him. He nauseates me even more, when I see him with his brother." She tried to laugh. "What's strange, funny almost, is that neither one seems aware the other is there. Something divides them. So your theory that Erlon is a good influence on his twin, even if unknowing, couldn't possibly be."

"Perhaps. We are still young as Wind Walkers, despite our gifts and strengths."

"I don't need a Wind Walker's counsel tonight, Tal. I need a brother who will drive the monsters out of the shadows for me."

"Consider it done." He smiled and rested his hands on her shoulders, and leaned forward until their foreheads touched. When they were children, they claimed that this increased their mental bond even more. "Do you want me to tuck you into bed and make something hot for you to drink? Sweet enough to make a Chaiqua sick?"

"Hardly." She reluctantly broke free of their contact and gestured for him to follow her into her room. She settled on the long, cushioned bench set between two tall cabinets, putting her back to one cabinet. Talon mirrored her on the other end. "Tell me about your sweetheart."

Talon scowled at her, but couldn't hide the sparks of laughter and joy in his eyes. He drew his legs up onto the bench and slouched down so he took up more than his half of the bench. Tayree laughed softly, extending her legs so their feet met and pressed together, sole to sole.

"K'reeth has haunted my dreams for years, it seems. She didn't know she could walk the dreamplains until we met last summer and mingled the blood we shed together, defending her students against those raiders. It has been a pain I could not resist repeating, visiting her in my dreams, even knowing she was betrothed," her twin admitted.

"She didn't seem at all upset to have that betrothal broken."

"She has a high sense of honor. She had accepted Tokar, she thought they were a good match, and I did not ask for anything more than friendship."

"Jerel and I had nothing but friendship when we married."

"True. K'reeth never asked for more than friendship from me, either. Both of us were restrained by her betrothal. A political alliance, it now seems. She is more irritated than any other reaction by Tokar's disgust and horror at learning she is Na'huma. And she won't admit the pain that has nothing to do with losing him." His gaze turned inward and he gnawed on his bottom lip.

"And that is?" Tayree prompted, when he didn't continue.

"Tokar broke their betrothal because he is certain Ayanlak and Na'huma cannot have children."

"Our ancestors fled the same civilization among the stars that the newcomers did. We simply arrived here centuries ago, while they have been here a single generation." She shrugged. "They are the ones who claim we are little more than animals, because we have embraced this world, while they cling to their machines. We listen to the land, our mother, and take the gifts she gives us, while they insist that the land must change to suit them. They lose their children to disasters resulting from their arrogance, as K'reeth herself is proof. We treasure our children. Who is the animal and who is the true Human?" she murmured.

"Would you be horrified if I brought a Na'huma girl home as my wife in a year's time?"

"I would be ashamed of you if you did not follow your heart. And I think the fact she can meet you in the dreamplains speaks well for the Na'huma. I see her as T'bredi. She is one of us in her dress and tongue. What does it matter where she was born?" She sat up and scowled at her twin as a new thought came to her. "Were you afraid I would demand you give up your sweetheart?"

"Some of us would."

"Those who lost family to the Na'huma warriors, when they tried to take our land away from us, when they refused to honor ancestral boundaries. I think the Na'huma are learning to listen now. To us and to the world and the way things must be if we are all to survive."

"They must listen. They will be allied with us someday." Talon licked his lips before shrugging. "It is Aundree's Vision."

"I don't care about Aundree's Vision, and the less I am reminded of it, the happier I will be. I am not the Wind Walker who will marry the chieftain's heir. I am not the woman who will bring the Sentinel Stars among us." She started to swing her legs off the bench, to stand, her heart thudding with old pain and remembered anger, but Talon stopped her with a hand on her arm.

"Tay ... I'm sorry. You know I would never willingly hurt you."

"But sometimes you have to cut the flesh to remove the thorn." She nodded, suddenly more weary than she wanted to admit. She thought her shoulders would bow and her legs would fold and drop her to the fur-covered floor.

"There is no escaping Aundree's Vision. Everything she has foretold that has come true has come true exactly as she spoke it. If you are not part of her vision, no one can force you to participate. If you are part of her vision, then nothing anyone does can prevent it from coming true. Keep that in mind. As Wind Walkers, we are duty bound to obey prophecy." He shrugged and slid an arm around her shoulders again. "I promise, Tay, we will not let Palan hurt you again. You are safe here."

Her twin's words stayed with Tayree through the night, which was restless, and through her chores the next day. She took her sons with her, bundled up warm and secure in the carrier on her back, as she navigated the stone corridors and tunnels cut through the solid rock, connecting caves and valleys and plateaus, forming the central community of the High Reaches. Wind Walkers were essentially healers, for body, mind and spirit. She had already learned that what she could not do with her medicines and words of counsel, the presence of her chubby, giggling twins could often do, simply by raising spirits.

She was tired and ready for a long afternoon nap when she returned to the cave complex she had shared since childhood with her brothers. Joesh and Torel were sleepily happy, and Torel fell asleep while she nursed him.

Unfortunately, Tayree found herself unable to curl up to nap with her sons. Now that her duties for the day had finished, her mind gnawed on the revelations that had come the night before. She was glad for her twin that he had found someone to love, who filled his soul – but why a Na'huma girl?

Technically, Kreeth could not be considered a Na'huma, because she had been raised among the T'bredi, as an Ayanlak. The image she projected when she went into the dreamplain showed her self-image, so it was clear she saw herself as Ayanlak. The question of whether Na'huma and Ayanlak could produce children seemed like a waste of time to Tayree, but then again, she wasn't in love with a Na'huma, or betrothed to one, so the problem didn't have the urgency that it might for others.

What was it like for the Na'huma children who had been saved from certain death and raised as Ayanlak? Did they all consider themselves Ayanlak? How many had been adopted so young, they had forgotten their roots? K'reeth was old enough to be among the first adoptees, if not the first. Talon had told her more about his sweetheart. K'reeth had been saved from the gocali migration across the Scolasi Plains that destroyed many Na'huma settlements. Bad blood had been stirred up between Ayanlak and Na'huma after that disaster, because the grieved Na'huma had attacked most of the Ayanlak who rode out to help the survivors. It was no wonder that those who found surviving children made no effort to return them to their birth families. How many adoptees were there, in the generation since the Na'huma had come down from their starships, set up their colony, and attempted to establish themselves as the dominant race on the planet? How much did the actions of the colonists influence the decisions made by those who rescued the children? How many children were taken to live among the Ayanlak with no effort made to return them to their blood relatives? How many children were adopted to take the place of those who had been killed by Na'huma invaders?

Tayree leaned over the crib holding her sleeping sons and shivered at the memory of a tribunal she attended in her duties as a Wind Walker. A Sha'hasti horse trainer had acted in greed and traded a half-trained stallion to a Neyguma traveling trader, who wanted to settle down and set up a stud farm, to sell horses to other Neyguma traders. The stallion went on a rampage and trampled people only a few days after arriving at the new stud farm. The tribunal determined that the Sha'hasti had been at fault, because many witnesses testified the stallion should never have been sold, and should have been gelded years ago because it was known to be dangerous. The Sha'hasti man had to make recompense for the lives that were lost. All three of his children were taken from him and adopted in the Neyguma tribe to replace the baby, the adolescent girl and the grown woman who had been killed by the stallion. Tayree looked at her sons and knew the law was just. Those who contributed to the loss of life had to make recompense. Yet she ached for the man who lost those dearest to him because of his greed. What if she someday made an error so drastic that lives were harmed, and her sons were taken from her to repay her debt of life?

"Never," she promised her sons, and brushed her fingertips over their feathery soft curls. "I swear, I will never take such risks or act so thoughtlessly. I will never lose you for the sake of justice. You will always be safe."

She ached in sympathy for those unknown Na'huma parents who had lost their children and thought them dead, never knowing they had been rescued and raised by the despised Ayanlak natives. If the animosity between Ayanlak and Na'huma continued to grow, and the Na'huma continued to expand their settlements and try to take more territory that had belonged to Ayanlak for centuries, the fates of those lost children would never be revealed to their grieving parents. Was that right? She couldn't decide. Yet was it right for those children, raised as Ayanlak, to stand at their handfasting ceremonies and learn that they were born Na'huma and some Ayanlak feared they would never be able to produce children in a mixed marriage? How many more would have betrothed turn away from them in mixed disgust and fear, as K'reeth had experienced?

Tayree shuddered, trying to reconcile the thought of her twin in love with a Na'huma invader. Yes, she knew the Na'huma invaders who had come from the stars were people just as much as the Ayanlak, but it was hard to remember that when she heard about the atrocities the invaders committed, making slaves of the natives, laying claim to fertile plains and key waterways, proclaiming themselves the only true Humans and classing the native Ayanlak as something sub-human, and therefore worthy of abuse and slavery. It was almost justice that the Na'huma, in their arrogance, made mistakes that violated the natural laws of this world, so floods and stampedes and other natural disasters destroyed their homes and settlements and orphaned their children. She tried to feel sorry for K'reeth. There had to be something quite worthy about the girl, to catch Talon's heart.

In a year's time, when K'reeth was free to accept another suitor, would the Wind Walker Council permit Talon to take her as his bride? Talon had a duty to pass along the talents born into his blood. He had promised to father children to preserve the gift, just as Tayree had promised, when she made her vows as a Wind Walker.

Tayree grimaced as that thought brought back Palan's insistence that the Council should force her to marry him. He had been furious, acting as if he were the injured party, that day after Conjunction when he stood before the Council bound with ropes, facing Tayree with her bruises and cuts from his beating. He had dared to insist that she had no right to refuse him, and had been righteously indignant when every member of the Council told him she had the right to demand he be castrated for what he had tried to do. She shivered, remembering how she had listened to the advice of her elders, of Rhovas, her great-uncle and leader of the Council, and chose to act for the good of the tribe.

"I turned my back on the justice that was my right, for the good of our tribe," she whispered to her sons. "I let him remain a man, and did not send him back to the Canyon as a gelding and shamed. But I did break his nose for him. I wonder how he explained that to his doting mother, hmm? He knows the Wind Walker Council has no respect for him, and will not respect him when he inherits his father's position and becomes Chieftain. I suppose he blames me for that. Well, I don't care. I wouldn't have you, my treasures, if I had married Palan s'Pindir. I could never let him touch me, let alone sleep with him and give him sons. I would rather die. And you would not be here."

A cold nose touched her wrist, startling a muffled yelp from her. Tayree sighed, laughing softly, and sank down into the chair where she sat to nurse her sons. The Chaiqua that had bonded with her as her protector went down on its haunches and tipped its big, gray-streaked, blue-black head to one side to study her. Tayree silently scolded herself for feeling any fear of Palan. The Chaiqua, canines native to this world, had been the guardians of Wind Walkers since the first day the refugees from genetic cleansing had set foot on this world. Her Chaiqua had been with her since her third testing time in her Wind Walker training, had strengthened her when she gave birth to her sons, and had given its approval when she married Jerel. Her Chaiqua guardian had been on guard duty on the far side of the Mist Plains, when Palan attacked her during the ecstasy of Conjunction two years ago. Otherwise the big canine would have shredded him the moment he leaped to attack her. Palan's status as the next Chieftain of the Keerlago tribe would have had no influence on the Chaiqua.

"I've been silly to worry, haven't I?" she murmured, and bent her head to rest it on the Chaiqua's warm, bristly neck.

Alarm bells clanged, bringing her to her feet and halfway to the nursery door while she strained to pick up the pattern that indicated the location of the emergency. Tayree flung the door open, letting the sound carry better to her, though she could feel the reverberations through the stone under her feet and vibrating through the walls. They were big bells, their tone deep and penetrating. Even before the sequence finished, she knew where disaster had struck the High Reaches – the central community area, where the healer hall, guest lodgings, council hall and supply storage caves were located.

Tayree leaped across the passageway to her supply room when the triple note pattern asking for healers followed the location sequence. She snatched up her healer's bag before the four rapid notes indicating fire pierced the dying reverberations of the larger bells. She looked back once as she picked up her cloak and swung it around her shoulders. The Chaiqua met her gaze and settled down in the doorway of the nursery. Her sons could have no more vigilant protector if she and Jerel both stayed in the cave to watch over them.

Her duty called her elsewhere. Tayree said a silent prayer of thanks to Omnistos that she could depend on the Chaiqua to guard her sons, that she did not have to spend precious time wrapping the babies against the cold and carrying them to another home to ask someone else to watch them. She ran out of the cave, pausing only long enough to latch the door her great-grandfather had fashioned, sturdy and resistant to the strongest winter winds. In moments, she had darted along the ledge that looked out over a sheer drop three leagues deep, and through the gap in the rock face that took her deeper into the mountain passageways.

Twenty steps took her into the crevice that had been widened to form a main thoroughfare for the community of the High Reaches, and a strong gust of evening wind brought her the first whiff of smoke from the fire. Tayree flinched when she caught the sweet tang of scorched grain mixed in with the wood smoke from casks and crates, and the sour, burned flesh smell of leather wrapped with flames. The worst of the winter storms had not come yet, and most of the supplies to see the community through the winter were still in the central stores, not yet dispersed to the homes and families of the Sentinels. If they could not get more supplies from their leaders in the Canyon, the Sentinels would face a hungry winter.

Fury propelled Tayree's feet faster down the winding trails through the rock, until she burst out into the common area. The fire seemed to be more black smoke than flame, and she prayed it was already under control. She saw no other Wind Walkers, no signs of her brothers, and knew she was the first healer to reach the site of the disaster. Figures emerged from the smoke, two men dragging a third with them, putting him down on his back on the thick carpet of moss that filled the common area. Tayree slung her healer's bag off her shoulder as she ran the short distance, and went down on her knees over the first victim before she recognized the face.

Danton was a friend of Juras and Joktan, his hair so pale gold it looked white in strong sunlight. His hair and face and clothes were smudged with smoke. Tayree welcomed the fury that rose up in her chest when she saw the dark red of dried blood that turned the back of his head into a crusty mass of hair and dirt. The fury warmed her and steadied her hands as she bent to her work.

Two others needed her help, both suffering from inhaling smoke as they fought the flames. Tayree was grateful to send them home with packets of herbs to put in boiling water, to breathe the fumes and clear their lungs. Danton was the only one injured, and he was awake and swearing before she finished cleaning and sewing his wound. His pupils dilated normally and he said he felt no dizziness, and that was a good sign. Tayree gladly gave him over to her older brothers' care, and they dragged him home to his wife, teasing him about being asleep on duty.

"He wasn't," Talon said, joining her once the trio were safely on their way. He squatted next to Tayree, helping her clean up the detritus of bloody cloth and dirty wash water. "It would take someone of superior skill to sneak up on Danton. Why would anyone want to set fire to our supplies? Anyone who hates the Sentinels that much ... well, if Koh'hani raiders went to so much trouble to burn our winter supplies, they would have done more damage than just batter Danton's head in and set the fire."

"I heard Aarman sending his team out to check all the watch posts and see who isn't on duty," Tayree said. "You're right. There's something odd about this picture." She shivered, and nodded thanks when her brother flung her cloak around her shoulders.

"Are you all right?" He handed the bucket to someone else to dump out the dirty water, and helped her stand.

Tayree laughed breathlessly and pressed a hand against her breast. It ached from the growing pressure of milk. That was a surer sign of time's passage than the last few streaks of bloody sunset still trickling across the sky in the far distance. Talon nodded, offering a crooked grin of understanding. He hooked his arm through hers and hurried her out of the common area, heading for home. Through their twin-bond, they shared their impressions of the fire and what they had heard other people say while they worked together on Danton and the other two victims.

All thoughts and even her breath fled when Tayree walked up the wide ledge and approached the door of their cave home. The door hung open. A dark shape in the doorway resolved into the Chaiqua, when she drew a few steps closer. A few more steps revealed the arrows bristling all over the beast's body, and puddles of blood lying in congealing pools.

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