Friday, February 27, 2015

A few more things...

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RELUCTANT CONCUBINE (Chapter 23 -- THE END)

Here we go. I hope I didn't miss any typos. Thank you for sticking with me and Tera's story!!!



CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE
(The Siege)


Leena wailed, cradling my body while Batumar raged against his chains, fresh blood running down his arms where he ripped his skin. He roared with grief and fury, lurching forward in his restraints, shaking the wall with his great power. I wished I could give them peace, but I could no longer touch them in any way. I had given all I had to give.
I watched from above with my spirit eyes as four guards rushed in at the commotion. They dared not step close enough to Batumar to use their swords, but their lances fell upon him mercilessly until he hung limp from the chains. He did not move again.
“Is he dead?” One poked him hard with his lance.
Another opened the bars and eased inside, then kicked Batumar viciously. Batumar did not groan, shift or flinch.
Yet I could sense his spirit, still strong within him.
“Hang him from the castle wall.” Another guard pushed forward and released the chains.
Batumar surged up and used that very chain to strangle the man. He grabbed the fallen lance and threw it hard, instantly killing the guard farthest from him, who had turned to run for the door.
The high lord’s mighty fist brought down the third man. Then Batumar leaped after his last foe. He showed no mercy but nearly cut the soldier in half with the man’s own sword.
The other prisoners watched this in stunned, scared silence.
In a moment, Batumar had the keys in his hand and the door of our cell open. Then he stilled for a breath before taking my body from Leena and cradling it with great gentleness.
Leena moved to him at last and embraced him, tears streaming down her face. “You must leave at once. More men will come.”
“You go,” he told her without looking away from me. “Hurry.”
He kissed me softly and laid my body down, then stood and walked out of the cell. Outside, he ripped a torch from its sconce. Black fires burned in his eyes, his bloodied face fierce.
And I knew he meant to take on the castle and die here.
Leena rose like an ancient goddess. “If you fight, I fight. I am the mother of the high lord of the Kadar.” She put her chin in the air and blinked away her tears. “But know this. When you die here a hero’s death, there will be none to defend Dahru when the hordes reach our island. The warlords need their leader. Have I birthed a son who would abandon his people?” Her eyes flashed.
Batumar scowled at her. Then he looked her battered body over. He probably saw what my spirit eyes saw, that she could not walk out of the dungeons unaided. “Fight, you would?”
Leena stood her ground and held his gaze without blinking.
His lips flattened for a moment, but then he kicked the keys to the men in the nearest cell, threw the torch on a pile of soiled hay in the far corner, and tied to his waist the sword he had taken from the last guard he’d killed.
“Get out before the fire spreads,” he told the prisoners who now clamored for release.
He stepped forward and lifted Leena with one arm while he lifted me with the other. He burst through the dungeon’s door with us.
“To the cisterns,” Leena said. “Up, then to the left.”
He thundered up the stairs.
When he reached the strange bathing room, he shoved through the door and had enough time to set us down and reach for his sword, while the men inside conquered their momentary surprise. They outnumbered him six to one. I wanted to close my spirit eyes against the great butchery, but I could not.
Leena picked up a fallen sword and fought beside her son. I wondered if I might have done the same to save the people I loved. Maybe I would have.
In the end, Batumar piled the bodies of his enemies under the old cistern hole in the ceiling and helped Leena climb up, then carried me after her, the space a tight fit for his wide shoulders. But they did escape the castle that way, and I was happy for that.
Outside, at the foot of the walls, he found a charred cart and laid me on it, then lifted Leena and settled her down next to me. She had used up the last of her strength in the fight.
Night had arrived once again. Few walked the road to the castle, and those gave wide berth to the battle-crazed warrior who was dragging two bloodied women off for some dark purpose, one obviously dead, the other still moaning.
None pursued us from the stronghold. They had other problems. Flames licked the timber roof of the southern tower.
Batumar seemed to know which way the Gate lay and walked that road all night, reaching the river by morning. Leena and I had floated far downriver from the island, then had taken a lengthy detour through the endless forest, it seemed.
A great battle waged on the island. Swords clashed, men called out, tigers roared. I saw Lord Karnagh and his tiger with my spirit eyes before Batumar did.
My spirit floated higher now, over the treetops. I tried to return to Batumar and Leena, but I could not. An invisible force pulled me away. One moment I could see, then the next, all turned black, as if my spirit eyes were closing too, at last.
* * *
The next time I opened my eyes, my spirit resided inside my body once again. I was lying upon the bed in Batumar’s chamber at Karamur. Leena sat by me, holding my hand.
“What happened?” I could barely push out the words, my mouth as dry as if I had eaten all the dust of the great desert.
Her face split into a smile. Her eyes filled with relief, and even a few tears.
“Lord Karnagh and his warriors were at the Gate, my lady. Their fearsome tigers caused much destruction among the Kerghi. False news had reached Lord Karnagh that our high lord had been captured and killed. Lord Karnagh sought to take the Gate and destroy it even at the cost of his own life and the lives of his men, meaning to cut off Woldrom from the rest of his vast armies. None can sail the ocean around those lands, not through the hardstorms.”
“Did he destroy the Gate?”
“He tried.” Leena patted my hand. “And Batumar joined Lord Karnagh in the fight. Many good men fell, but more Kerghi troops arrived. We barely escaped.”
She helped me drink.
“Shartor is gone. Banished,” she said. “When I told Batumar what the soothsayer tried to do to you… The high lord nearly cut the old leech in half. But then he said you would not wish a life taken on your behalf. He was afraid such an act might yet weaken your barely lingering spirit.”
I wanted to ask for Batumar, but before I could, I fell asleep. The next time I woke, the Guardians were with me, standing around me at the points of a perfect triangle. They must have been working some healing, but I still struggled to sit.
“Welcome back,” said the Guardian of the Cave. He appeared drawn, as if he had lost weight.
The Guardian of the Gate squeezed my hand with a relieved sigh, his great carved staff in his other hand. He had shadows under his eyes, the line of his thin mouth strained. Even the young Guardian of the Scrolls had worry lines marring his forehead as he looked at me. Frowning like that, he looked so very much like his father, the sight tugged my lips into a weak smile.
“How long have I been ill?”
They exchanged somber glances, then the young Guardian of the Scrolls said, “Three full days. Had my father not given you what spirit he had left before he died, you would not have left the dungeons of Mernor alive, my lady.”
I was relieved to hear no accusation in his voice over his father’s death. “The war?”
“The enemy stands ready. They are but waiting for the Emperor’s orders,” Batumar said, entering.
The Guardians withdrew silently as he strode to me. Tall and strong, a warrior from an ancient myth, he came, his face a map of new scars gained at Mernor. Fierce was his countenance, but he was precious in my sight.
He kicked off his boots, lay upon the bed, and drew me to him. I went willingly into his strong arms that had carried me back from death. I soaked up his love, my body pressed tightly against his. A hardstorm could not have torn us apart.
“You shall not heal anyone. Ever again,” he said into my hair in his strictest voice. “You shall not even think of it.”
I held on to his solid strength as I looked up. “I have passed into death and returned. Do not think, my lord, that I shall grow frightened at the words of a Kadar.”
A smile twitched at the corner of his lips, his dark gaze softening, filling with so much tenderness that my throat constricted. I lay my head back on his shoulder and closed my eyes, thanking the spirits that we were both yet alive.
“I have a mother,” he said, his voice carrying surprise and some soft emotion.
“Have you thought, my lord, that Rorin himself had forged you from sword metal?”
He let out a bark of a laugh. “My mother loves you most fiercely.”
“Not half as fiercely as she loves you. The odes I had to listen to in Pleasure Hall about your great strength and handsomeness…”
He chuckled. “Did you not agree with the odes?”
“I agreed with every word,” I admitted.
He looked very pleased as he moved to kiss me. When, a while later, he pulled back, he said, “I could scarcely believe my eyes when I saw you two in Mernor’s dungeon.”
I preferred not to think about the dungeon, but I asked, “How came you to be captured by Woldrom?”
A low growl escaped his throat, and I did not think he would answer, but he did.
“I found Woldrom’s First Captain as soon as I came through the gate, for he had been charged with guarding the island. I questioned him at once about who had killed my brother. He admitted to the deed, even bragging.” The muscles in his shoulder stiffened under my head.
“My own guard came through the Gate then.” Regret laced his voice. “We outnumbered the men on the island, for some had gone off to patrol the woods on the riverbank shortly before. I ordered my men to lower their weapons.”
“But you could have overtaken them,” I whispered.
“Honor demanded I fight the captain man-to-man.”
“You won,” I said. I had seen him with a sword, not that I wished to remember it.
“The captain turned the fight so I stood amidst his men. Then he gave a signal. They fell on me, but I fought them, ordering my own guard still to stand back. I cut them down, and I cut down their captain, but his larger force heard the clashing of the swords and rushed back from their patrol.” Batumar’s chest rose as he drew a slow breath. “Ten of my most faithful guards were killed.”
We lay in silence.
“I upheld the honor of my House,” he said after a while. “And now I find I would rather lose even that than lose you again.” He brushed his lips over my hair. “Tera.” He sighed. “You are…more than a concubine.”
“Unless I’ve gone too far and have truly broken my healing power this time,” I murmured, remembering suddenly the Guardians’ warning when first I had met them.
Batumar tightened his hold on me. “I meant to say, you are more to me than a concubine. You have always been more.”
I raised my head to look into his battle-scarred face. He needed no further invitation to claim my lips.
* * *
In the morning, Lord Karnagh arrived through the Gate with many more men than he’d taken to Mernor, and their tigers. After welcoming him, Batumar walked with me to the Forgotten City so I could once again examine the scrolls. Having seen the evil at Mernor, I knew at last that he had been right. There could be no peace with such an enemy. We must fight the Kerghi, or our people would perish.
We went the long way up the side of the mountain, the trip requiring half a day. I could just barely talk Batumar out of carrying me the whole way. But I did feel recovered. What healing the Guardians had begun in me, my own body was now rapidly finishing. The walk and fresh air did me much good as well, a welcome change after having spent so much time in bed of late.
We found the Guardians in low spirits. The Guardian of the Scrolls sat in the same place his father used to sit, in the back, the same unhappy expression on his face. He had a solemn quality rarely possessed by a man so young. Maybe too young to shoulder the responsibility thrust upon him, I thought as I considered the Guardians’ strange customs.
“Greetings, Lady Tera.” He stood, his face a careful mask. “Have you come to look at the scrolls?”
“I have. With your kind help.” I smiled at him.
Batumar sat by the fire with the Guardian of the Gate while the Guardian of the Cave opened the rock, and I followed the Guardian of the Scrolls into the tunnel. I waited when he hesitated at a crossroad. Then he strode forth, and led me through the countless passages until at last we reached the scrolls. As he would not enter the chamber, I walked in alone.
This time, I carried a small blade, for whether the remaining scrolls would readily open or not, I needed their wisdom. I did not open the first scroll, as I knew the prophecy by heart. I reached for the second. As I tugged, the strip of hide holding it together detached easily.
I held my breath as I unrolled the scroll. Oh, but when I read the words, I could have cried. Nothing but old stories, from the history of the First People all the way back to the creation of the world. What a cruel joke of the spirits to crush the hopes of my heart.
I lifted the third scroll, praying that this one at last would be useful to us. The binding held tight and would not give, so I pulled my blade, cut off the binding and unrolled the scroll.
No words. No even a single picture. Not a scratch.
The coldness of the cave seeped inside me and squeezed my heart. We had been left to our fate by the spirits. As I followed the young Guardian back, frustration clenched my teeth.
“I miss your father,” I said, the words coming to my lips unbidden.
The young Guardian’s shoulders sagged, his father’s robe hanging on his lanky frame as he stopped and turned to me. He watched me for a moment, then gave a shuddering sigh. “Everybody does. The other Guardians use whatever excuse they can to stay away from me. I think looking at me reminds them of the friend they lost.” His lips twisted into a sour smile. “I am the only one who did not know my father well enough to miss him.”
I could feel the pain in his heart as if my own. “He always spoke fondly of you.”
His face lightened a small measure. “I wish I were more like him.”
I nodded. “I never knew my true father, but all my life I wished I were more like my mother.”
He looked at me with surprise, so I added, “My powers came to me late. I used to fear I did not inherit any at all.”
“I feared the same.” He caught himself and fell silent.
“You are not as fast yet as your father, but you found the scrolls.”
“I do not feel them,” he said miserably. “They call to me not. My father followed their voice. He would have found them with his eyes closed. I follow the carvings on the walls.”
“Maybe it is so,” I said after some thought. “Maybe now that the scrolls have been opened, they do not need such a Guardian as your father was.”
His face twisted into an expression of anguish. “But do you not see? That is even worse. The scrolls are the sole purpose of my life, as they were the sole purpose of the life of every man in my family before me.”
“Some traditions are so old they seem to be as inevitable as the sunrise. But they are just traditions. Not unchangeable.”
He shook his head.
I said, “Maybe the scrolls call you not. Maybe something else does. The blood of the First People flows in the veins of the Guardians. I am certain you have some gift.” When a quick shift came into his eyes, I pushed. “What is it?”
His answer took a long time coming. “I can see things.”
“Are you a Seer, then?”
He shook his head. “Not like a Seer. I see people not from the outside but within.”
“Their innards?” I often saw that as I healed, blood vessels and bones, the source of the injury.
“The things that are in their hearts.” He hesitated before he went on. “The first time I saw you, in your heart you thought I looked like my father, and you felt sad because your heart was so full of love for him and he was gone. And you thought I was angry.” He fell silent for moment. “I was. Because nobody ever had so much love in his heart for me.”
“I am sure your father—”
“He only met me when I came for my training. He felt fond of me, as you said. Impatient for me to take the weight from his shoulders.”
“Your mother, then.”
He looked away. “She did not want to be chosen. She loved another man and, after I was born, married him. They had other children, ones born out of love, not duty.”
I watched his sad face, my mind filled with thoughts of callings and destinies and whether we had any power to direct our own lives or if we were like little sticks in a creek, carried by the current that was the will of the spirits.
I put my hand on the Guardian’s arm. “I called your father ‘grandfather’. May I call you brother?”
My heart filled with love for him, and he must have seen it, for he nodded. And then he turned to lead me out of the Sacred Cave, his shoulders no longer sagging.
When Batumar saw me, he stood from the fire where he had been talking to the Guardian of the Gate who sat with his carved staff in hand, looking as drawn as he had when I had seen him the day before. I hoped that by healing me, the Guardians had not weakened their own spirits.
I thanked them for all their help, then said my farewells. And then Batumar and I left for the Fortress City.
“I worry about the Guardian of the Gate. He seems unwell,” I said when we were a little farther on the path.
Batumar matched his stride to mine. “He is holding the Gate.”
“Is that why he will not let his staff out of his hand?”
“I am not certain I understand what he does or how he does it. He can hold the Gate, he said, but the hold can be broken from the other side, although, not easily. He might be able to seal the Gate. But sealing a Gate is a dangerous endeavor. A sealed Gate may stay that way, never to be unsealed. And the sealing requires…” He shook his head. “In their legends, there is only one tale like that. The Guardian who sealed the Gate of Rabutin did not survived it. Their Gate has never been reopened.”
I held the horror of that thought as we walked.
“Have the scrolls revealed a way?” Batumar asked after a long stretch of silence.
“Not today.” I sighed. “I fear we will have to fight the war.”
He took my hand. “Then we will.”
I drew a deep breath. “The scrolls…if they hold help for us, I cannot see it.”
And then the rest of it tumbled forth, my disappointment in the vague prophecy of the first scroll and the old legends of the second, my frustration with the empty third.
“I fear we cannot vanquish this enemy,” I confessed. “I fear what will become of our people. In my dreams, I see us like tiny grains of sand washed away by the high tide as the dark waves crash into the shore.”
We were by then in the forest. He stopped to pull me into his arms.
He held me for a long moment before reaching under my chin with a finger and tipping my head up so I would look into his eyes. “The Kerghi hordes are a powerful army,” he said. “Perhaps the most powerful in the world. For many years, they have conquered undefeated. And now they believe they cannot be defeated, and their enemies believe them unbeatable.”
I nodded, understanding better than most the power of belief. I had seen many gravely injured who lived because with every drop of blood in their body they believed they would, and others with lesser injuries who readily relinquished their spirits.
Batumar continued. “But if someone stood against the dark hordes and won a single battle, it would show the rest of the world that the Kerghi are not invincible.”
I stilled. “And the defeat would show the Kerghi warriors that their army is not as strong as they believe.”
He smiled at me. “One such battle could turn the tide. If our warriors believe they can win, they might. And they believe because we have you. So you truly do have the power to end the war.”
I was humbled as I held his dark gaze, for I knew that he believed in me with all his warrior’s heart.
He brushed his lips gently over mine. As we walked on, we talked about the upcoming battle, and about the Guardians, and the coming siege.
When we returned to the palace, I only went to Pleasure Hall for my bath, then at Batumar’s request, I hurried to him. As soon as I walked into his antechamber, he gathered me into his arms. He had bathed too, but had put his leggings back on. I lay my cheek against his warm skin. He carried me to his bed and lay down beside me.
Then he shifted and placed his head on my chest, his ear directly over my heart. He found the exact spot so swiftly, I had the feeling he had listened to my heartbeat many a time while I had been fighting my way back to him from the darkness. When I ran my fingers over the thick locks of his hair, he sighed in contentment.
“This war will be over someday,” he said. “Soon, if the spirits will it. And then we will know peace again.” He looked up with a playful glint in his eyes. “You and I are going to spend a lot of that peace between the furs.”
I felt heat creep up my face, but I could not help smiling. As he stretched out next to me, I burrowed against his warmth, seeking something I could not name. I tilted my face to his, and my breath caught at the sudden hunger in his gaze. I placed my palm over his heart, finding his steady heartbeat as reassuring as he must have found mine.
Even relaxed, he looked so fierce, every inch the warrior. But I knew his heart held much kindness. Did he love me as I loved him? I pressed my mouth against his. How warm his lips were under mine, how gentle the strong arms that came to encircle me.
I soaked up his strength, letting the steady beating of his heart soothe me. His warmth and his scent enveloped me, and like a small animal in a nest, I burrowed into the safety of his embrace.
He kissed me back softly in return, then said, “I had been raised for war. I have been taught from childhood that death in battle was glory. I have never been scared on the battlefield.” He brushed his lips over mine, lingered. “I have not known true fear until you came to Mernor.”
Maybe that was as close as a warlord could come to admitting love, I thought, and smiled. I moved my hand across his chest, my fingers gliding over hills of muscles.
He held still, allowing me to explore him without hindrance. Then, as my hand slid down his chest and across his hard stomach, he captured my wrist with a groan and placed my palm back over his heart, trapped my hand there with his own.
“If the Kerghi will not be the death of me, you surely will,” he said against my lips before he took them, with an urgency this time.
My body heated. I moaned in protest when he reined in his passion and pulled back.
“You should rest,” he said in a rough whisper. “You should have spent the day in bed instead of walking to the Forgotten City. You are still recovering.”
I held his hungry gaze. “And if I do not wish to rest?”
He reclaimed my lips before the last word was out. And then he claimed the rest of me.
* * *
The following day, we lost the Gate.
The Guardian’s hold had been broken. The thousand Kadar warriors guarding the Gate—all the small plateau would hold—had been slain. It happened in the night, suddenly, without time to send word to Karamur for reinforcements.
The first of the Kerghi were on our island, waiting for the rest of their troops to arrive. Our enemies had gathered, and like the night, their darkness spread over the land.
Instead of attacking the seat of the Kadar high lord immediately, Woldrom sent a unit of soldiers across the island to scout any possible points of resistance. Some of these Kerghi soldiers were slain by Kadar warriors, others reached far south. Grim accounts of their deeds found their way to Karamur with the first wave of refugees. That first wave was mostly Kadar, but the Shahala followed right on their heels. The Kerghi wrought unspeakable destruction in some Shahala towns.
To protect the Seela, the Guardians sealed the Forgotten City with the strongest wards they had, making it nearly impossible for any stranger to enter or even see the city, but that also meant that the Guardians could not leave to visit me.
In Karamur, men were preparing for the battle, but the women had their share of work too. Under heavy guard, I led to the forest all who were young enough to bend and old enough to be trusted to pick the right herbs. We stayed within sight of Karamur, not daring to risk the deep woods. Still, we gathered as much medicine as we could.
The older women stayed behind to keep the cooking fires going and prepare bandages. Everyone had chores, even the children. They patrolled the streets and reported any piles of hay and dry wood or waste that might catch on fire from fire arrows. Anything that might easily catch afire was required to be stored in cellars. As an additional measure, the water pumps were going all day, and every available pail and tub filled up, lining the streets.
The host of refugees who had until then occupied the fields outside the walls were now all inside. Women and children filled every home to the rafters; the men took turns guarding the walls.
Then the Kerghi horde appeared at the edge of the forest, a dark, endless force, sooner than we had expected.
Outside Karamur, in a large half circle, spread the Kadar army from cliff wall to cliff wall, Batumar among them. On the far side toward the forest stood Lord Karnagh and his men, along with their restless tigers. Thus the defenders of good faced their enemy.
For a moment, silence as deep as a grave covered all living creatures. No birds took flight; no leaves rustled in the wind, for the wind had stopped in shock to watch such evil as was about to take place. Then a cloud of enemy arrows pierced the air, so thick it covered the sun.
The Kadar archers responded in kind, and so it went, back and forth, until a wall of bodies lay before each army. And then a deafening roar rose from the Kerghi warriors as they climbed over the bodies and charged. When the weapons finally clashed, the sound was that of thunder, only instead of rain, blood soaked the ground.
I rushed from the roof, for I knew soon I would be needed to treat the wounded. But night fell before the first of them came in, for none would leave the battle until the fighting ceased for the day.
Their wounds gaped deep, from weapons that must have been the work of the darkest spirits. One man had his arm nearly torn off by but a single blow; another had the bone of his thighs smashed to pieces.
Through the night, I healed, with the women helping and the Shahala by my side. And there were many healers among them, so we were able to save a great number. Those we fully healed returned to their captains, but some had suffered injuries too grave and needed the power of time to complete what the healers had begun.
At first light, the battle continued, and from the palace roof, I saw that the enemy had lost more men than we, and yet so great were their numbers, I did not think it would make a difference. Our army stood still vastly outnumbered, even hopelessly so, although I refused that thought each time it tried to enter my overwrought mind.
The warriors fought on for seven days, and I healed for seven nights. Each day we lost fewer than the enemy, as many of our wounded were able to rejoin the fight, but still the Kerghi advanced toward the city.
By the morning of the eighth day, we could no longer see the battle from the palace roof, for it raged directly under the city walls. So I climbed the parapet, many women with me, to watch our loved ones and pray to the spirits and the goddesses for their safety.
But the enemy fought their way through the Kadar defenses and reached the city gate, cutting off Batumar and his guards from the rest of his warriors.
I trembled as I watched them trying to break the thick oak planks down and hugged Leena with relief when I saw they could not. But then they carried armloads of dry branches from the forest and piled them high against the gate and set the pile on fire.
“Water!” I ran down and shouted to all in the streets to bring as many filled pails as they could.
We soaked the gate from the inside, and some ran up to the parapet and threw water on the fire that burned below them. Many of those were hit by enemy arrows and fell to their death, but they defeated the fire and saved Karamur.
As I leaned over the wall, tipping a large jar to make sure the last of the smoldering embers were out, I saw Batumar fighting with the most fearsome of men, the leader of the enemy horde.
I recognized his red hair as it spilled from his battle helmet and spread upon his shoulders. Woldrom.
He had come, then, I thought, to kill with his own hands the man who had set Mernor castle afire around him. I saw another Kerghi as he circled behind Batumar. I shouted but could not be heard over the clamor of battle.
As I watched, the Kerghi swine thrust his sword into Batumar’s back and twisted it before pulling it free. Batumar fell onto one knee, and Woldrom swung his double-edged sword. Its blood-soaked blade, like the dark bird of death, flew through the air.
The Shahala have a saying: A lifetime can pass but in a moment, and some moments last for a lifetime. Time stopped as I watched the sword fly toward Batumar’s neck.
A great power rose within me, dizzying me, power great enough to corrupt a person’s spirit. I thought of my great-grandmother. So this was what had turned her heart. Even as I fought against it, the power surged through me, filled me, until I felt more, bigger, brighter than I had ever felt before.
Then in a moment all the Guardians’ lessons came together in my head like the separate colorful threads of a tapestry come together to paint a story. And I understood that the power was neither good nor evil, but would follow the path of the person who wielded it.
I found a fear under all my resistance, a nagging voice that asked what if I claimed my full power and still failed? And the next moment, I knew that the only true failure would be to run from my destiny.
Spirit, be strong. Heart, be brave. My mother’s last message came to me.
With a cry, I sent my spirit into Batumar across the distance and drew his pain, and as I sank to the stones with agony, I watched him rise and defend himself. Blood poured down his back, for he was still injured, only he did not feel his injuries. So I closed my eyes and began to repair the hideous wound.
If Batumar was defeated, Karamur would fall, and all the men, women, and children within. And with Karamur would fall Dahru, our legacy erased from memory forever. We would become like the First People, carvings on cold cave walls hidden in the dark for future nations to look at with wonder and not understand.
No!
I healed the man I loved and opened my eyes just as he ran Woldrom through. The great savage fell at Batumar’s feet, blood trickling from his mouth, his body twisting upon the blood-soaked ground. He was staring at me, hate boiling in his gaze.
But the Kerghi khan’s fall did not halt the battle nor did it slow down the fighting, for the fight was so fierce his men barely noticed his demise.
I expanded my power until I could almost see it, a shimmering cloud above me. And then I shared it, connecting all of us Shahala healers on the parapet together with invisible strands. They accepted me, their eyes on the battle, some clutching their shoulders, some their legs, pain on their faces as they healed.
On the battlefield, I saw a young Kadar warrior with a lance piercing his side. As soon as the lance was withdrawn, he seemed to regain his strength and fought on to vanquish his enemy.
The fight went on all day and into the darkness. The enemy did not stop for the night, for they felt victory was close. The Kadar fought back with their swords, and the Shahala fought back with their healing spirit. We even healed the wounded tigers.
Every time a Kadar warrior suffered injury, he sprang back again. And every time it happened, his Kerghi opponent was either slain or lost heart after witnessing such magic. Soon the cry spread through the enemy that the Kadar were not human, that they were able to rise up from the dead. Woldrom was not there to rally them. That too was at long last noticed.
Slowly the tide turned, the enemy army pushed back by the fear in their hearts as much as by the Kadar. And it seemed there might yet be a chance for our victory. But a small group, perhaps knowing that the miraculous powers of the Kadar had something to do with the Shahala men and women who stood on the parapet, began to scale the walls with ladders coarsely made from the tall trees of the forest behind them.
The Shahala poured water on them, the only weapon we had, but that did not stop the Kerghi. Some town people threw the empty pails. Then boiling water and even boiling oil came from the kitchen. That did have some effect.
Dizzy with exhaustion, by chance I turned toward an abandoned section of the wall. The top of a new ladder appeared in that instant, angled cleverly so that it would be difficult to see by the defending force.
The soldiers who came up that ladder would quickly disappear behind a guardhouse, in cover.
I rushed forward.
Shartor climbed at the top, leading Kerghi warriors. If they secured a portion of the wall, more could climb after them and overpower the people within the city, for the men and women inside were not trained to fight. The walls would be lost then for certain, and the city with them.
I charged as Shartor straddled the wall. I tried to push him back. He laughed at me—his eyes dancing to a mad rhythm—and bent me back as if I were a willow sprig.
I scratched at his face. Not something my mother would have ever done. All my life, all I wanted was to become like her, but I had some Kadar spirit too, from my father.
Spirit, be strong. Heart, be brave.
“Sorceress.” The soothsayer hissed the single word.
“Traitor.” I leaned into him, thinking of one thing only—his feet must not find purchase on the wall.
But my strength was no match for his. And so I did the only thing I could—I threw my entire weight against him. This at last upset his balance, and as he reeled backward, he took the ladder with him. The ladder and me, for our arms were entwined.
We fell from the dizzying height, the ladder somehow falling sideways, and I could see the corpses below us. But I did not land on the dead. I landed in the last of the hot embers that still glowed in front of the city gate.
I heard the sound of Shartor’s neck breaking as we landed, he but a moment before I. All my bones felt broken as I fought to pull in air.
I rolled out of the fire, my clothes alight, and rolled and rolled until the blood-soaked ground doused the flames. Then finally I lay there, panting, seeing little but the shadowy outlines of the corpses next to me, among whom I now belonged. The pain of my flesh paled in comparison to the pain of my heart as I lay on the ground among our dead and the fallen enemy I had helped to kill.
I heard the city gate open and felt the ground shake as the manyinga entered the battle. Since he had few of them, I knew Batumar had decided to hold them back until the end, hoping the very sight of the fearsome beasts would strike terror into the hearts of the enemy. They had to fight on the opposite side of the battlefield from Lord Karnagh’s men and their tigers, as the beasts were not used to waging battle together.
I passed in and out of awareness, the noise of the battle rising and receding in my ears like the tide. And after a long while, as the night wore on, I heard the clamor of the battle quiet. And I heard warriors talking, ours, as they walked among the dead, searching for their fallen friends. Then Batumar found me at last and cradled me into his arms and carried me to the palace.
The Shahala healers gathered around me, but I forbade them to take my pain—they were much weakened already—so they treated my wounds with salves from the herbs stockpiled in the empty chambers of Pleasure Hall, but they did not use their powers. And I would not let the Guardians further weaken their own spirits to help me when they arrived. They had been much worn out by holding all those protective wards over the Forgotten City for so many days. I did not think they could have held a day longer.
If we had not triumphed over the enemy when we had, all would have been lost.
But we did win.
* * *
The day after the battle, Lord Karnagh returned home with his men and tigers. He did not dare leave his own lands long undefended. Emperor Drakhart had other armies.
I ordered the injured women and children housed in Pleasure Hall so I could look after them while I convalesced—some arrows had found their way over the wall and wrought havoc, and the Kerghi had even managed to start a few small fires that injured people. 
The refugees who suffered no injuries left for home.
Soon the rains washed away the blood of the battle around Karamur. Men replanted the destroyed fields, and the wheat grew plumper than ever before. A new city gate replaced the old charred one. We lived in precious peace.
The high lord and I did spend more time than was modest between the furs.
But in the fall, bad tidings came again. Emperor Drakhar had somehow bound to his service a sorcerer from the east. Rumors reached us that the Emperor had spies now on every island. Then worse news arrived: Lord Karnagh was believed dead, as were many other Selorm lords. A warrior queen had risen in their kingdom—a foreigner—holding the last free Selorm city.
“I must go to help,” Batumar said as we stood on the parapet in the late fall afternoon, watching the last of the harvest being brought in.
In his black leggings and golden doublet—dressed to meet the Guardians at the feast later—he looked like the legendary high lords of old, his wide shoulders outlined against the setting sun, a warrior lord who stood between his people and harm like a bulwark.
He drew me into his arms. He had scarcely let me out of his sight since the siege. “I pledged my help to Lord Karnagh. In his absence, I owe it to his people.”
I wanted him not in danger, but knew that he would go and help where he had promised. In that, we were not dissimilar. I helped people with my healing, he helped them with his sword, even if we had to make sacrifices.
“I must fight the Emperor where I can,” he said. “He will send more men against us. He cannot allow us to remain free. He cannot allow word of our victory to spread over the world,  and give hope to the conquered.”
Batumar was right. With everything I was, I sensed an even greater battle ahead. The journey that had brought us to this point had not been easy. And a long and dangerous road stood before us still.
“I shall watch over our people while you are gone,” I promised, my heart full of gratitude that we still had our freedom, that we still had each other.
As Batumar turned toward the city, I turned with him, every building familiar, so many men and women known to me by name. My people. I soaked up the warmth of the high lord’s embrace, taking what comfort I could while I still had him with me.
So Emperor Drakhar’s armies are still coming. Let them come and try to take what is mine. Let them perish.
Spirit, be strong. Heart, be brave.



________________
 



Author's note: 
I'm going to keep the full book up over the weekend, but I'll probably have to take it down when I upload to Amazon/Nook/iTunes/Kobo/Google Play on Monday. RELUCTANT CONCUBINE will be available there at that point, for 99c. If you enjoyed the story, would you stop by at one of the online bookstores next week and leave a review? Thank you!

The sequel, ACCIDENTAL SORCERESS, should be available at all online retailers mid-March. 


If you'd like me to notify you when ACCIDENTAL SORCERESS and then book 3 comes out, please sign up for my newsletter at my web site.


Thursday, February 26, 2015

another update

Tomorrow's post is going to be late too.

The editor convinced me to delete 2 of the 3 final chapters. Which means the remaining chapter must be heavily rewritten. I worked on it today, and I need to work on it a lot more tomorrow. I'll post it when I have it.

Nothing like a creative crisis at the last possible moment. But the editor is right. Those scenes slowed the pacing. At one point, I'll probably post the cut chapters either here or my web site. At the moment, I'm just too frazzled. I thought the book was done!

THANK YOU for all your comments! All that positive energy makes a huge difference and keeps me going.

RELUCTANT CONCUBINE (Chapter 21 & 22)



 (Please note that I posted 4 chapters today, in 2 batches. Make sure you read everything in order :-) Enjoy!)



CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE
(Journey through a Forsaken Land)


The soldiers stank of sweat, mead, and dried blood that caked their armor. Their hands were rough upon us, and they had bloodlust in their eyes and filthy words dripping from their leering lips. They began with confiscating our traveling supplies. They spoke the language of the Kerghi—harsh growling sounds—and so I addressed them in that same tongue.
I looked above their heads and said in a clear voice, “I am Queen Manala of Chebbar, coming to surrender to Khan Woldrom to save my people. Take me to him at once.” I could think of nothing else that could purchase us time enough to escape. I had not come this far only to be raped and killed.
They stepped back, snarling in anger and disappointment at being robbed of a night of entertainment, but more than they wanted to abuse us, they feared their khan, it seemed, for two of the men took us to the tent of their captain.
The burly giant said nothing as he listened to the report of our arrival and claims. His gaze swept my golden gown, very much the worse for wear. Not unreasonable for a queen in the time of war and on a great journey.
“You travel without your guard?” he asked after some time.
“If the khan favors my plea, I have nothing to fear of his warriors. If he does not, my guards cannot protect me.”
I stood tall and would not flinch under his inspection, hoping my short hair would not give me away. With luck, the Chebbar customs were not like those of the Kadar, and hair had less significance. And even if that was not the case, I wondered if a Kerghi captain would know much about the customs of the Chebbar.
“Queen Manala.” He glanced at Leena, then back at me. “You will go to Mernor in the morning under escort. Rest here for what remains of the night.”
“Thank you, Captain.” I nodded gratefully, and after he strode out, I sank onto a wooden chest, relief suddenly turning my knees weak.
Leena looked at me with open admiration. “Well done, my lady.”
Maybe. But how to proceed?
Even though the captain had promised to send us to Mernor, I had no wish to travel with his men. I did not know how long the journey to the city would last. Chebbar might fall before we arrived, and our ruse would be discovered. I did not want to be close to so many swords when the truth came out.
“It would be best if we traveled on our own.”
Leena moved to the front of the tent and listened. “Two guards outside.”
I slipped to the ground and lifted the edge of the tent in the back. “None here.”
We were not prisoners and were on an island besides. The guards at front were probably more for our protection than for fear that we would escape. We had come of our own free will, after all.
We waited as the night wore on and the camp grew quieter around us. When I was afraid to wait any longer—we needed the cover of darkness for as long as we could have it—we crawled out the back.
Most of the men slept in their tents, some snoring the stars out of the sky. We crept in the cover of bushes toward the water, to the boats that lay like great dead fish on the shore. But when we reached closer, we found the boats well-guarded and the men watching them alert.
Shivering, we crept back in the other direction and down to the water’s edge until we found a large log wedged into the mud. I waded into the river, Leena close behind me. My feet went numb in the icy water long before we managed to push the log into the water.
We did not let go of it but went along, submerging our trembling bodies. With our heads hidden behind the log, we floated down the river to find Mernor, and in it, Batumar. Or die in the trying.
My wet gown pulled me down, but I hung on with all my strength. I did not dare even to whisper to Leena, as the water would have carried my voice well and far.
I could barely feel my limbs by the time we floated out of sight of the island. I tried to angle us toward the bank, but we floated downriver for some time, as the current was strong and the log not easily directed.
The first light of morning dawned on the horizon by the time we finally reached land. We pushed the log back into the water, then sought refuge in the thick forest ahead. Shivering, we lay on the cold ground, holding on to each other for warmth, too exhausted to rise.
But we did not dare to stay long or to start a fire. When we were able, we stumbled deeper into the woods, feeding on the succulent leaves of lenil bushes we passed. What we did not eat, we saved, as we did not know when we might have food again.
The wind picked up and swayed the giant trees above, but low to the ground the bushes protected us. Still, even the fraction of the full wind proved enough to chill us further. My sunborn body shivered without stop; my skin stung with pain. Leena seemed to carry on better, having been snowborn. She had lived through a lifetime of frigid winters.
We did not find anything else to eat, although we saw many strange plants and birds and tracks of other smaller animals. A lot of the trees and bushes had thorns, some I suspected poisonous, so we forged ahead with great care.
In a valley, we came upon an abandoned tar pit, the smell turning my stomach.
Boil her in tar. I heard the cries again for a moment as I remembered the boiling cauldron in the alley. I told Leena about Shartor and his mob. She prayed loudly to the goddesses to burn off his braided beard and other parts that stuck out from his body.
As we walked on, I shared with Leena some stories about my childhood and my mother. In turn, she told me how she had been a powerful warlord’s favorite concubine but gave up all the luxuries of his Pleasure Hall and became a servant to save her son’s life. My heart ached for her and all that she had suffered.
Soon we reached the end of the woods and, guided by the smell of smoke, came upon some overgrown fields and the ruins of a small village.
The handful of wattle-and-daub huts were scorched, and we saw the remains of many others that had been burned to the ground. Weeds grew tall around the huts, and I knew they had no grazing animals or enough people to trample down the grass. The forest was slowly reclaiming the village.
Foreboding settled on me heavily. Would this be the fate of my people once our lands had been conquered by the Kerghi?
We walked into the dying community, hoping for food and shelter, the warmth of their fires. But they seemed in worse shape than we were. No men, only women and children—little girls, not a boy among them. They looked at us with such hunger in their eyes, had we any lenil leaves we would have given it to them, but we had eaten them all.
They spoke a language I barely understood, similar to Tinfa, and some time passed before I could explain we were looking for the way to Mernor.
“We do not know, mistress,” said one, her gaze roaming my gown. She wore thin strips of animal hide, her ribs visible under her bruised skin. “But there is one among us who might. She is hunting. You must wait for her return.”
Behind her stood two little girls, thin and dirty, their eyes fearful and wild at the same time, almost like small forest animals. None of the children talked or ran around—as we would have seen had we walked into a Shahala village—they hid behind their mothers.
The air was silent, missing the voices of little ones at play and the noises of household beasts, the sounds of work—clanging of metal, and axe falling onto wood—sounds that made up the music of other villages.
The huts must have been empty, all the people outside to greet us. I looked at their wounds, bones that had been broken and had not healed well, some infected cuts on the arms and legs, some other small injuries that even though they did not threaten a person’s life, gave pain enough to make it miserable.
We could wait awhile for the one who knew the way. I could do some healing in the meanwhile.
Before I could offer my help, another woman stepped forward, her lips covered in festering sores so I could barely understand her when she said, “Come rest in our hut, mistress. The fire burns warmer inside.”
I looked at the low flames of the cooking fire between two huts. Nothing cooked today, but they had food at one time, for I saw blackened bones stick out from the ashes.
Most had been cracked for their marrow and were hard to recognize, but some smaller ones stuck together still, held by charred sinew. A narrow paw of some sort drew my eyes. It had five fingers, half of one missing.
No, not missing, just shorter than the rest. And when I looked closer, my stomach rolled. A human hand.
“Thank you,” I said to the women, who watched sharply as they moved into a half circle around us. “We will share your hut, but let us go into the woods and gather some food first. I am a healer and know many plants that would help your wounds and others that are good to eat.”
I stepped back, and Leena followed, although I could tell she did not understand why we were leaving when we were cold and we had not seen anything edible for a long time before reaching the village.
The women hesitated.
“I will come with you,” said the one with the sore-infested lips. “So after you leave, we might find those plants ourselves.”
And for the first time, I noticed the blade hanging from her rope belt, half-hidden among the animal skins that covered her. I could do nothing else but nod.
I led the way in the opposite direction Leena and I had come from but found all edible plants already harvested. I collected a few healing herbs along the way, explaining their use to the woman. She kept looking back as we went.
Were others following us at a distance?
They probably were, although she could have killed the both of us alone, for she had the sinuous strength of those who worked hard to keep on living. Leena was old and tired from our journey, and although I was younger, I had no knowledge of fighting. And too the woman had a knife.
The spirits stayed with us, for they led us to a garon tree.
I rolled up my dress and tied it with a piece of vine, then began to climb until I reached the spot from where the branches spread. In that bend, in a handful of dirt blown there by the winds, I found what I was looking for, the woodsy stalks of the caringo, full of yellow berries. I tugged the whole plant away from the tree and climbed down.
“We should take this back to share with the others. Not much, but it tastes sweet.” I handed the berry-filled branches to the woman.
I knew the caringo from my mother, for she had given tea steeped from the berries for pain of certain illnesses. One or two berries worked wonders; any more than that put a person to sleep. I hoped the woman was hungry enough that she could not resist, but dared not offer it to her myself as I feared it might raise her suspicion, and she would demand that Leena and I eat of the berries.
We walked on, and I did not look back at her once, not wanting her to think I was watching for something. But soon her footsteps faded behind us, and then I could no longer hear them at all.
“Let us keep on walking,” I said to Leena, and we did not go back to see what had become of the woman. I did not heal her lips as I could have, for it seemed they might have been cursed by the spirits for her feasting on human flesh, and I dared not interfere with their judgment.
I did not condemn her, though, not her or her people. They lived in a stark despair I had never known. Would Dahru fall, my own people could find themselves devastated. I shuddered as an image of sacked Shahala villages flashed into my mind. I prayed to the spirits to keep us from such a fate, and doubled my resolve to do what I could to defeat the Kerghi.
We walked without stopping to rest as I told Leena about the bones in the cooking fire and my suspicions about what the women were planning to do with us. She shuddered at my words and praised me for my wisdom. We crossed through the forest as fast as we could, careful not to leave tracks behind.
As the day wore on, the woods became denser, giant trees blocking out most of the light. Leafy vines wove intricate patterns on the tree trunks as they snaked upward, spreading out to connect tree to tree. We kept west by the sun, what little we could see of it, not because we knew that to be the right direction but because we thought going straight whichever way would at least keep us from wandering around in circles.
We had not had any water since we had left the river, save what dew we had been able to lick off leaves here and there, so when we heard a creek beckon from the distance, we hastened our steps.
Not much later, we came upon a faint path. We followed it carefully, not knowing whether it had been made by animals or humans, not knowing, indeed, which to fear more. But we reached the water without coming to harm and slaked our thirst. Water had never tasted as sweet.
And the creek held another blessing. In the wet mud of its banks grew many plants I recognized. Soon we were on our knees digging for bulbs and rhizomes to sate our hunger. We dug up all we could find before we left, carrying our treasure tied into a small bundle I made from a piece of my dress.
We took off our shoes and lifted our dresses to cross the creek, following the path that continued on the other side.
Leena, having gained some strength from the food and drink, walked ahead of me, while I lagged a few steps behind as I scanned every green thing. More food to carry with us would have been most welcome and any healing herbs too, for we’d both lost some strength since our arrival.
I saw the patch of leaves on the path in front of us, not much different than the rest that littered the ground, and yet my gaze snapped back to the spot.
I slowed. Unmindful, Leena walked on, almost at the edge of the patch now. In that one spot, the leaves seemed not as faded, not as trampled as the rest. The skin prickled at the back of my neck.
“Leena, stop!”
Too late. With a shrill cry like a bird taking to the sky, she flew high up into the air to swing among the branches.
For the briefest of moments, I thought it the magic of the ancient days or the trickery of bad spirits, but then I could see the net that kept her above my reach.
“Run, my lady,” she implored. “They who caught me will catch you as well if you stay.”
A length of twisted vine held the net, and I traced the vine to a tree half-covered by the dense brush. I tore at the knots with my fingers to no avail. I wished for a blade, my gaze falling on the moss-covered stones at my feet. They had no sharp edges, but I crouched and smashed two together until a chunk broke off. Then I attacked the vine rope with my makeshift weapon.
Even with the sharp edge of the stone, the sawing required time, and my knuckles bloodied from scraping against the rough bark of the tree. But finally I thinned the vine to its last fibers and yanked it hard while holding on tight. I did not want to drop Leena from such a height.
“Brace,” I called up, keeping my voice as low as I could, for we did not know how close the hunters who set the trap waited.











CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO
(Mernor)


I lowered Leena to the ground and freed her, then we hurried off the path and into the woods. We moved silently and did not stop until Leena seemed ready to collapse.
“My foot tangled in the net as it pulled me up,” she told me at last, sliding to the ground.
I sat next to her to look at her ankle. The woods were quiet around us and peaceful. I thought we might be safe for the moment.
I probed the swollen purple flesh but could feel nothing broken. “Bruised.” I put my hand upon the injury, but Leena pulled back.
“No,” she said. “You will weaken yourself.”
“I can help.” I reached again.
“The High Lord forbade it.” She grabbed my hand, her gaze determined. “I forbid it,” she said, issuing an order for the first time since I had known her.
She was the High Lord’s mother. She would have had a seat at the high table at the feasts and a powerful position in the palace if she had revealed her identity. Her station was equal to that of the favorite concubine.
“As you wish, Lady Leena.” The Shahala did not heal against a person’s will. The choice, even between life and death, stayed always with the sick.
“Your herbs?” She eyed my belt.
I glanced at the few stalks that hung from the rough belt I had braided from some soft tall grasses as we had walked. “We need kukuyu pulp bound around your ankle with cold wet cloth. We have neither. Shall we stay awhile?”
She shook her head as she struggled to stand. “If I slow you down, you must leave me. You have to reach him in time.”
I helped her to her feet, determined not to leave her behind in this dark place, neither her nor Batumar.
She limped forward. “Night will fall soon. We should not stay this close to the trap. We could be still in the hunters’ territory.”
I nodded. Whoever had set that net might decide to track his escaped prey. We moved on, not as silent as before but grateful for still being able to move.
“A large and strong net,” Leena said after a while as she limped alongside me.
“Probably for deer.”
“Or else,” she said, “it could have been set by the same kind we met before.”
I cringed at the thought of the women we had escaped earlier that day, and offered a silent prayer to the spirits asking them to deliver us safely from the woods.
As the night darkened around us, we found a suitable tree—one with branches that started low to the ground and a good cross-branch higher up—and I made a shelter of twigs and leaves for the night. Leena needed much help to climb, but she would not give up easily and reached our nest. We ate half of the bitter rhizomes we had, not nearly enough, and saved the rest.
Despite our exhaustion, we slept little, for at night, the forest came alive. Strange, unseen birds cried out, startling us from time to time; footsteps on the dried leaves below us made us cringe. Growls we heard, first nearing, then moving away, while eyes glowed green and narrow in the darkness.
We barely dared breathe for fear of drawing the attention of the invisible beasts that roamed the night. I must have dozed toward dawn at last, as I woke to Leena’s strong grip on my arm. She spoke only with her eyes, wide and alarmed. A small noise came from below us. I turned my head slowly, then let out a sigh of relief. The doe looked up at me, then went back to licking dew from the moss-covered trunk.
I sat up so Leena could also see. I had blocked her view when I was sleeping, and she had not dared to move to look around me.
“Can you climb down?” I checked her ankle, still bruised but less swollen. The night’s rest had been most beneficial.
She nodded with a thin smile. “If I manage to fall instead, I will arrive at the same place.” Then her expression turned sober. “Is it safe?”
I looked but saw nothing other than trees and bushes. The deer, perhaps startled by our voices, had fled. “The spirits will keep us.” The night predators, I hoped, had already returned to their lairs.
We decided to forgo our morning meal and save our meager provisions for later in the day.
Not long after we started out, we reached another path, wider than the one we had found the day before and, by the looks of it, more frequently used. As Leena could barely walk on the uneven forest floor, tripping over gnarled roots with every other step, we took the path and prayed to the spirits and the goddesses to keep us safe.
We kept our eyes open for anything strange, the slightest thing out of order so that we might escape another trap. We did not talk but listened for any noise of people coming up from behind or lying in wait in the distance ahead.
And so we heard long before we saw the small family of a man, woman, and child coming up the path behind us. The man carried his daughter in his arms, the mother bowed under a heavy bundle.
They did not look like they belonged to the tribe of starving women—different clothes, diffent features—nor did they look like hunters. They seemed as tired and as wary of the woods as we were, for I saw the man’s gaze search the forest from time to time.
The child he carried was no longer a babe but still too young to keep up with the adults on her own. A badly infected cut disfigured her face where her flesh had been split from forehead to chin by something sharp. A sword, I thought.
We halted to wait for them, but they stopped at a fair distance from us. The father shifted the child to his hip and drew a dagger from the folds of his long tunic.
“I am a healer,” I said in the merchant tongue that was spoken, in one form or the other, in most of the world. “We are looking for the road to Mernor.”
The mother grabbed for the child to free both of the man’s hands for fight. He inspected us at length, his gaze hesitating on the herbs that hung from my belt. He did not lower his weapon. Silence stretched between us, tense and full of mistrust.
“Can you help my daughter?” he asked at last.
The woman said something, too fast for me to understand, her face twisted with fear and worry. He motioned her forward, but she would not budge. He said something then in a low voice, and she took one hesitant step. I moved toward them too, even though he had probably just promised her to gut me at the first sign of trouble.
Leena threw me a look of disapproval but held her silence. I glanced at my herbs, though I already knew I had nothing suitable. But I could not pass the girl by. The infection would kill her before long. Already, she glowed with fever.
I reached for the child, and the mother shook her head.
The father shoved her forward gently. “Please, mistress, help her if you can.”
I placed one hand, palm down, onto the child’s forehead where the scar began, the other to the top of her chin where it ended. The best of healers did not need to touch the sick to heal them, but I was far from the best, and weak from lack of food and insufficient sleep.
I closed my eyes and thought of nothing but the raised edges of the wound, the sticky wet feel of pus that oozed from my gentle pressure, and the heat that burned against my skin. I could feel her pain, but she neither cried nor squirmed under my touch.
I drew the pain then and gained a better sense of the injury. The infection had gone deep. Slowly, I moved my hands toward each other, focusing my spirit on closing the wound. When my thumbs touched, I sent up a silent prayer before I removed my hands.
She was whole. My arms were trembling.
The mother cried and would not look at anything but her child. The father thanked us and told us the way to the road we sought. To reach it, we had to cut through the forest.
“But there are none there to heal who are worth the healing,” he said. “Khan Woldrom put many to the sword the day the Khergi broke through the city gate. The last who defended Mernor fled to the tower, but the Kerghi caught up with them. To the last man, their throats were cut, their bodies hurled from the height.”
I shuddered, the picture of the black tower I had seen in my vision still clear in my mind, the blood of its defenders staining the stone walls. My empty stomach rose, but I fought it back.
“We have not much, but I would pay you, mistress, for you have done us a great favor.” The man reached into the bundle on his wife’s back and offered us some bread.
This we refused as we still had a few roots, and their supply seemed hardly enough for the three of them. Then he held out a flask of water, and that we accepted with gratitude.
We went our separate ways, they on the path, Leena and I back to the forest, the shortest way to the road that led to Mernor, according to the man. No longer did I have to hold back to match Leena’s slow limp. I barely had the strength to keep up with her.
We found the road by midday, wide and well trampled by wagons, beasts, and men.
We stayed behind a clump of dense bushes and ate what little food we had left, then drank the rest of our water while we watched mercenaries and warriors pass. Going among them did not seem wise, so we walked in the woods some distance from the road, far enough not to be heard or seen.
This became our luck at the end, as in a small clearing, guided by the pungent smell, I found a few plants that appeared much like the kukuyu weed. I wasted no time to prepare a poultice for Leena’s ankle.
And our good fortune increased still further. After we left the clearing, we came upon a nut tree. We only lacked water, our canteen long empty by then. I prayed to the spirits while Leena beseeched the goddesses to lead us to a creek.
That night, we slept in the trees once again. We heard less of the frightening noises of the forest than before, perhaps because we were close to the road.
Around midday the next day, we reached the end of the woods, and in the distance, we could see the once great Mernor, its walls charred, its city gate broken. Like a giant carcass, it lay surrounded by barren fields and a village destroyed to the ground. More men hung from the parapets now than I had seen in my vision, and my heart lurched. Leena grabbed my hand and squeezed tight as we prayed none of the blackening corpses was Batumar’s.
We waited until nightfall before we moved closer, then climbed in through the cisterns that had carried water for the palace but now stood in ruin. At last we could drink, and both of us felt better than we had for some time.
We crept into the enemy stronghold with care. Our path sloped up, and the trickle on the water channel’s moss-covered bottom made the stones slippery. Rats scurried ahead, but they kept out of our way, thank the spirits.
Soon we reached an opening that led into a strange chamber below us. I saw little beyond a few rough-hewn tables and rows of water-filled buckets. I eased myself through the opening and jumped down as quietly as I could, then helped Leena.
“We must disappear among the servants and find Batumar,” I whispered, having no more than that for a plan.
“I pray we are not too late,” Leena whispered back.
But no sooner did her feet touch the floor than we heard voices outside. We could not climb back up, had no time to move tables so we could reach the opening. And we had nowhere to hide in the chamber.
Except…
A metal grate covered a hole in the floor beneath my feet. I grabbed the heavy grate and it gave way, opening for us the shaft carved into the rocks below. “Hurry.”
Leena slid in first, then I, fast after her, and replaced the cover just as the chamber door opened. We slid farther down into the sloping curve, until we were out of sight of anyone who might peer down.
The stones were so foul smelling, I had to cover my face with the hem of my dress.
“Hold on tight,” I whispered and had no time to say more than that.
Warriors filled the room above us, bragging about the number of lives they had taken and the loot they had gained.
Swords clinked against the stone as they lay their weapons down. Boots thudded as they were dropped. Then buckets clanged, and soon water poured all over us. We dared not to move or make any sound. I tried not to choke and splutter from all the filthy water running down on top of me and could feel Leena squirming below, probably doing the same.
As soon as the men left, we climbed up to leave the strange bathing chamber before others came.
I gasped as I came up into the light. My dress, much reduced and soiled during our arduous journey, had turned red. The warriors had washed blood off their bodies onto us.
I helped Leena up and watched the horror in her eyes as she discovered the same. But then she strengthened her will. “Let us find Batumar.”
I gathered my own spirit and opened the door bit by bit, then peered out into a dingy hallway. Torches stood in their brackets at uneven intervals, half of them either missing or burned out. I saw no one, so we emerged from the chamber and hurried down the corridor but hardly took a few steps when we heard men talking ahead.
Before we could turn and run back to the chamber to hide, warriors came around the corner. I froze, but Leena shuffled forward and yanked on my arm until I bent over and followed after her.
The warriors passed us without giving us any notice. My once splendid gown was torn and soiled beyond recognition; my short hair hung in filthy gnarled locks. We probably looked like those unfortunate souls forced to serve the Kerghi. The men did not seem to think it strange that we were both wet and bloody.
Once the warriors had passed, we hurried forward and descended the first stairs that led down, eager to reach the dungeons at last. We met with warriors time and time again, most covered with the grime of battle and too tired to pay us much mind. But then another group strode through a thick wooden door to the side, carrying heavy bundles.
“You,” one of the men called to us. “Come over here.”
We had no other choice but to obey. They piled bundles on our backs until we were bent halfway to the floor, and ordered us to follow after them. Up the stairs we went, Leena groaning with every step. My own knees trembled by the time we reached a large hall, its floor covered with moldy old rushes upon which we were finally allowed to set down our burdens.
We tried to slink away.
“Stay,” one of the soldiers ordered.
Carved wood panels covered the walls; tables littered the room, some broken, some turned over. The room was smaller than Batumar’s Great Hall, but it looked as if at one time it had been richly appointed.
At the head table sat the most fearsome of men, surrounded by a handful of others on their feet. His red hair shone with grease as it streamed past his shoulders, his wide chest clad in black leather armor that belonged to no animal I had ever seen, covered with spiking ridges. The man’s nose was flat and wide, his eyes sharp and cruel, his stare deadly. I looked down at once, not wanting to draw his attention.
One of the men who stood in front of the table bowed deeply with respect as he talked. “Great Khan Woldrom, I shall carry your message to the Emperor Drakhar with all haste.”
“See that you do.” The khan spat at the man’s feet. “Neither less nor more if you value your life.”
The man bowed even deeper.
“Know on whose side you stand. The Emperor might push the Kerghi in front of his troops to use like a whip, but in every kingdom we take, women breed large with Kerghi sons. Before I die, I will see the Kerghi outnumber the Empire’s warriors. And who will be Emperor then?”
The man fell on his knees to kiss the khan’s boots. The khan dismissed him, then turned his attention to us.
The warriors shoved us forward and told us to spread upon the floor the contents of the bundles we had carried. We did so with distaste, for the loot still had the victims’ blood on it: golden chalices, swords, fine cloth. My stomach rolled as I saw a large-stoned ring—still on the finger.
I looked away for I could not bear the sight, and my gaze fluttered to the man next to the khan. He looked familiar, and after a moment, I realized why. He was the spy I had healed at the House of Joreb. He caught me looking, so I cast my eyes down once more. Too late, for with unhurried steps, he strode toward me.
He stuck his fingers under my chin and lifted my head none too gently. “I have not seen you here before.” With his other hand, he fingered my clothes. “You are wet.”
“My work is in the kitchen, my lord,” I answered, and at once, I knew my mistake, for I spoke in the man’s own language. A local servant would not have known it.
His eyes narrowed then. “I know you,” he said. “But not from this place.” He let me go and turned to the warriors. “Throw her into the dungeons until I remember.”
The men grabbed me and dragged me from the room. I did not fight them, for they carried me to the very place I sought to reach. Down many stairs we went and long narrow corridors, my heart beating faster with every step.
Then a door fashioned of iron bars opened in front of us, and at last I found the dungeons, in a large underground cavern. Leena was not far behind. Shortly after I was thrust into an alcove of rough stone guarded with more rusty bars, the men threw her in after me.
I helped her to the pile of filthy hay in the back, and she lay down, bruised, and exhausted. I made her as comfortable as I could, even as I gagged at the horrid stench of the place. Human waste soiled the floors, the disgusting odor mixing in the air with the smell of unwashed bodies.
Mostly men filled the dungeon, locked in small nooks carved from the rock on which the palace had been built, some hanging from chains in the wall, a few I suspected no longer living. I did not see Batumar but could not bear thinking that he had already been killed.
All night, I thought of nothing but a way to escape, talking in low whispers with Leena, but we could not construct a worthy plan. The cries of others sounded without stop. They begged for death.
Toward morning, we were given water but no food. We gulped what we had, both weak with hunger and exhausted from lack of sleep. The man chained to the wall opposite from us, whom I had thought dead before, looked up, his body covered in wounds and dry blood, his face beaten beyond recognition, his nose and cheekbones broken, his jaw shattered. He blinked, his eyelids moving slowly as if even that hurt.
“I had the strangest dream.” The weak whisper came out garbled and barely audible, but in the voice of Batumar.
My heart leaped, and I rushed to the bars as close as I could to be able to hear him.
“I dreamt that you were here with Leena, only she was my mother,” he told me and lost consciousness again.
And at that, Leena and I wept, for he had called Leena his mother, and we knew on that day he would die.
We talked to Batumar throughout the day as he passed in and out of consciousness. Leena told him about the time he was born and asked for his forgiveness, but he had not the strength to give it. I told him I loved him, and watched his chest rise slower and slower as his breathing grew shallow.
His shackles cut into his bloody wrists—he could no longer stand; only his chains held him in place. When his head fell forward, I could no longer see his face but could still hear him now and then gasping for air.
And then he gasped no more.
Leena keened next to me, her hands extended toward her son through the bars. The pain in my heart nearly tore me apart. And I understood why my mother had been willing to give her life for my father, and no matter how much it was forbidden, I knew what I had to do.
I closed my eyes and sent my spirit forth. Batumar’s life force was so weak I barely found it in those last weak pulses of the blood. I drew all his pain into my own body; then I surrounded his life force with my own and pushed against it until they merged.
I saw him lift his head slowly and look at me. A lifetime of understanding passed in that look, forgiveness, love, need. Then his gaze flickered as he realized what I had done.
“No!” Like a wounded beast he roared.
And then the eyes of my body could no longer see, and the ears of my body could no longer hear, for I had sent into him the last of my spirit, and the darkness came to claim me.
I was not sad to die. How could I be, when Batumar would live? If anyone could defeat the Kerghi, it was him. And by saving him, I might have saved all our people. I would die having fulfilled my destiny.

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AUTHOR'S NOTE:

Would you please consider signing up for my newsletter on my web site? As you might know, the first version of this book was published 2 yrs ago. While it didn't reach millions of readers, it did reach some who really seemed to enjoy Tera's story. Unfortunately, I have no way of reaching them to let them know that an updated edition is going to be soon available and then the sequel (ACCIDENTAL SORCERESS) is coming out in a few weeks. Eventually, there'll be a book 3 as well. I would so love it if I had a way to let you know when the rest of the books come out. 

Also, could I ask you to tell your friends about Tera's story? I will upload the rest of RELUCTANT CONCUBINE tomorrow, then keep the full book up until Monday or so. Then I'll have to take it off, as once it becomes available on Amazon, I can no longer have it here. (Or I'll be in breach of contract.) So readers only have a few more days to discover and read the story here for free. THANK YOU! --Dana