Category Archives: Fiction

PREVIEW OF WARRIORS OF ST. ANTONI

Welcome to the Portal World Tales: The knowledge that it was possible to open a doorway to other worlds couldn’t be kept secret. The Portal technology was leaked, and unregulated gates popped up like fleas on a dog in summer. Immigrants who came through these illegal gates had only the supplies and technology they could carry to defend themselves against the alien plants and bizarre animals they found. But they came because of man’s lust to explore and because they wanted freedom and adventure. With intelligence, courage, and sheer stubbornness, they built a new world.

WARRIORS OF ST. ANTONI is the story of sisters Bethany, Jeanne and Iris, and the choices they make to survive on the world of St. Antoni. Bethany marries a mercenary warrior to shield her family from a predatory neighbor. To her surprise, the marriage of convenience turns into a love match, but Bethany and Alec must learn to trust as well as love each other. Iris chooses an arranged marriage with a beloved old friend, but did Carlos marry her for love, or to please her father? Jeanne and Samuel, the son of her family’s greatest enemy, run away to a distant city to build a new life, but discover you can’t run away from who you are.

A Portal World Tale

Warriors of St. Antoni

by

Gail Daley

Something Wicked This Way Comes

IT WAS THE luck of the draw that the illicit portal to the world of St. Antoni opened onto a planet that closely resembled its parent world. Although St. Antoni possessed a yellow sun, darker than the one that shone on earth, it looked down on blue seas, land masses covered with lush grass, gray Ironwood forests, high snowy mountains, hot dry deserts and continents threaded by large rivers and small streams. Plants and animals had developed along lines genetically close enough to earth to support human life, and St. Antoni’s temperature range was close enough to Earth to make living there bearable for humans.

St. Anthoni’s illegally founded portal in Gateway City had been open for several hundred years, giving its settlers time to develop seven City States with loosely connected governments. Except for areas directly connecting the City States, much of St. Antoni was still wild and unexplored. In the years the St. Antoni gateway had been open, Portal Runners had brought in a steady trickle of new settlers and other items highly valued on a planet without its own technological resources. The industries developed by the settlers, were mostly farming, ranching and mining in the interior, and fishing along the coastal areas, although manufacturing was growing. Travel took the form of steamboats along the deep rivers, and a newly built railroad system connecting the largest City states using steam driven trains. To get to anywhere else, the settlers walked, rode or drove a tricorn pulled wagon. Named for their three horns; the animals had two spikes set high in the forehead, and a third at the end of their noses. Tricorns were herd animals, and like the horses they resembled, once domesticated, served a variety of purposes for the settlers.

The area around River Crossing and its companion across the river, Minerstown, was dominated by six powerful families who together controlled mining and ranching in the area. Rather than decimate their livelihoods by fighting until only one family was left standing the families of Kenefic had jointly come to an agreement to settle their differences with a joint council. The mountains above River Crossing were rich in gold, silver, bluestones and gems. The Lucky Strike, owned by Michael St. Vyr, mined Bluestone, the other mines owned by the six families, worked gold, silver and various gemstones.

Michael St. Vyr had come through the portal in Gateway City with his parents when he was a child. By the power of his own hard work and ingenuity, he had carved a place for himself and his family in the long wide valley at the base of the mountains ringing the northern continent. He owned a Bluestone mine, gold, gemstone and silver claims in the hills above the valley, and a cattle and goat ranch with a good house and twenty acres of orchards.

Folks around River Crossing described him as a big man, solid, with a mane of graying red hair. His three pretty daughters, well he thought they were pretty, had recently come home from Copper City. He was on the road leading from his ranch into town, because he had just come from a meeting with his lawyer. Michael was pleased to think he had made satisfactory arrangements to divide his property equally between his three girls and their husbands in the event of his death.

“None of your daughters are married or engaged,” his lawyer, Terrance Milliner, pointed out.

St. Vyr waved that quibbling objection away. “Doesn’t matter. I have plans to take care of that. Before the year is out, I plan for all three of my girls to be wed.”

Riding home after signing the papers, his satisfaction was marred by an uncomfortable itch growing on the back of his neck that got worse the further away from town he rode. He knew better than to ignore the feeling.

He had been twelve the first time it happened. He and his parents followed a Portal Runner through an unregulated gate to the raw new world of St. Antoni. The emigrant camp where they were taken by the Runner was a wild place. Young Michael’s family had only been in the immigrant camp three days before his father had been gunned down and robbed of the small number of gems he had been carrying to the money changer. After Jess St. Vyr was killed, an investigation was done, but the investigator simply reported it had been a fair shooting because Jess had been armed. Michael and his mother had been left to fend for themselves in the camp.

Michaels neck itched that day too; he had been afraid of something bad happening that day, and had begged his father to let him accompany him, but Jess St. Vyr had left him with his mother.

After her husband’s death, Giselle, Michael’s mother quickly discovered that on this new world a woman needed to be tough enough to protect herself or find someone to do it for her. A strong-minded woman, she decided to learn how to take care of herself and her son. Michael and his mother were left at the mercy of a society that expected its people to be able to protect, feed and clothe themselves on their own. His parents had been fleeing an organized gang back home, so returning to earth on a permanent basis was out of the question. To support herself and her son, Giselle became a Portal Runner. apprenticing with the woman who brought them over. Portal Runners traveled back and forth between Earth and St. Antoni, smuggling in goods and people. Between trips she supported them with a variety of enterprises.

His father’s death had taught Michael a lesson; he never again ignored the warning he got from his gut and it saved his life many times over.

He paid heed to the warning now, and carefully examined the area around the road because paying attention to his surroundings had kept him alive a long time. He could see nothing out of place, however. The road leading from his ranch the Golden Tricorn into town was smooth; it had been recently graded by his own workers. The deep drainage ditch that kept the road from becoming a mire during the rainy season was dry. The thorn bushes growing in it would be underwater when the rains came, but that was not due to happen for several months. It was high summer and the waves of knee high buttery grass, broken here and there with tall thorn bushes, gave the undulating landscape a deceptively flat look. Evening was drawing near and the valley was beginning to cool from the blistering heat of a summer day. Long shadows had begun to shade the road.

The road had no heavy traffic this late in the afternoon, but it was busy enough to be safe from bands of roving outlaws. Deciding he wanted a better look around, he dismounted and fussed ostensibly with the cinch holding the saddle on his red and black striped tricorn. St. Vyr took the opportunity to loosen the gun in his holster while he was pretending to fiddle with the cinch. He never got the chance to draw it.

Without warning, a savage blow followed by the crack of a high-powered rifle hit him in the lower back. His Tricorn, Redbird, had been trained not to flinch from gunfire and stood like a rock when Michael collapsed against him. But when a second bullet burned the animal across the rump, he took off running, leaving his master to fall half in, half out of the drainage ditch.

St. Vyr slumped to the ground, still conscious but unable to feel his legs. He felt lightheaded, and knew he was in danger of passing out. He touched his waist and brought his hand away red with his own blood. The light wavered in front of his eyes and he knew he had to find cover before whoever fired the shots came to see if he had killed him. Desperately, he used his powerful arms to drag himself all the way into the drainage ditch at the side of the road. He slid sideways and rolled down into it. The ditch was dry this time of year and overgrown with thorn bushes. Just before he passed out, he rolled under a bush, praying there wasn’t a Sander, one of St. Antoni’s poisonous reptiles, lurking under it seeking shade from the heat of the day. Michael pulled some of the dead bushes lining the ditch over himself before blacking out.

Tricorns, like the horses they had replaced, were herd animals. The stallion ran hard for a few miles and then slowed to a more moderate pace as he made his way back to the ranch. Reaching the barn, he stopped outside the corral where he had the remuda tricorns for company.

The ranch house itself was a large two-story structure built with sun baked bricks made of the local dried grasses and clay found along the riverbanks. High walls, broken apart with narrow slits for windows made from the same material, enclosed an inner courtyard. Barns and corrals for animals rested against the outside wall facing the fruit and nut orchard, and a bunkhouse for the workers attached to the other wall. Racks of Bluestones to power the ranch’s steam generators were stored on layers of frames under a roof supported by long poles, so they couldn’t develop moisture and catch fire. St. Antoni’s first immigrants had discovered the bluestones by accident soon after they arrived. A man had spilled some water on a pile of them and they burst into flame. His partner, an engineer, experimented with adapting the chemical reaction from the mixture of stones and water to create enough heat to run a steam engine. The first few steam generators had been made from parts smuggled in from earth, but the engineer and his partner soon got rich making their own generators with parts made from a home-made alloy of iron, carbon, copper and tin.

Coming home several hours after Redbirds arrival, Michaels daughter Jeanne found her father’s tricorn loose in front of the corrals. Annoyed, because she hadn’t counted on her father being home and possibly asking her questions about what she had been doing, she was busy thinking up excuses as she rode up.

Her father had given orders that the girls weren’t to ride out alone, which Jeanne had disobeyed, and not for the first time. The youngest of Michael’s three daughters, she was accustomed to getting her own way by a combination of sweet cajolery or tantrums. Jeanne wasn’t above using her looks ruthlessly to obtain what she wanted, but she knew her father wouldn’t be fooled by the attributes that distracted others. Growing up, she had gotten away with doing forbidden things because when she was a young girl, people were diverted by her huge blue eyes that she could make swim with tears and her quivering lips. As she grew older, men especially failed to see past the lush figure, golden hair and red-lipped mouth. They frequently missed the hard-headed intelligence peeking out of those lovely turquoise eyes.

When her father didn’t appear, she dismounted and breathed a sigh of relief. She tied her gray striped mare up to the hitching rail in front of the tack room and unsaddled her. Coming out with a brush and currycomb after she deposited her saddle on a rack inside, she was surprised to see that Redbird, her father’s mount had come up to the hitching rail where she had tied Grayling her own tricorn, and was investigating the feedbag she had dropped over her nose.

“Redbird, how did you get loose?” she demanded of the tricorn, picking up his trailing reins. As she moved to re-tie him to the rail, she spotted the wound, still oozing a trickle of blood, on his rump where the second bullet had grazed him. When she stepped back and looked more carefully at the stallion, she could see a smear of blood on the stirrup leather.

Her first impulse was to remount and back trail Redbird to see if she could find her father. Looking around for help, she realized the stable area was empty. This time of day the thirty or so people who earned a living working for St. Vyr around the home ranch were probably inside resting from the burning heat of the day. The herders and farmers who normally would have been close by were doing the same in the orchards or out in the fields with the stock. Jeanne finished tying Redbird to the hitching rail and ran through the open doors on the courtyard to the house, shouting for her sisters, her grandmother and Margo the housekeeper.

“What is it, child?” Giselle, her grandmother asked in alarm when Jeanne burst through the French doors leading from the patio to the sitting room.

“Papa’s tricorn came back without him,” Jeanne gasped out. “There is blood on the stirrups and he has a bullet burn across his rump. Where is everyone?”

“Margo went into town to do the weekly shopping,” Bethany, her older sister said, referring to their housekeeper. “Did you say Papa was hurt? Where is he?”

“I don’t know,” Jeanne said. “Redbird was loose by the corral when I got back. At first, I didn’t notice he was hurt. Where was Papa going today?”

“He went into town to see the lawyer,” Iris, the next oldest sister, told her.

“Jeanne, go saddle us some mounts while we change into riding clothes,” Bethany ordered. Jeanne ran back outside.

Bethany looked at her grandmother, her grey eyes worried. “Gran, You need to send someone out to the men working in the pastures closest to the house and have them come in and help with the search. If Papa was shot between the ranch and town, he’ll be found somewhere along the road to the Crossing.”

Giselle nodded her understanding and left quickly, calling for Macon, the head gardener.

Bethany came downstairs a few minutes later, dressed in homespun grey pants and shirt. The tight shirt and pants fit snuggly on her hourglass figure, and the grey color brought out the red highlights in her hair. she went to her father’s gun cabinet and loaded rifles and pistols for herself and her sisters. She belted on a holster belt specially made to fit around her waist. She slid a handgun into the holster.

“Oh, no,” Iris protested, her green eyes widening when she saw the weapons. She was tucking her white blond hair up under a wide-brimmed leather hat. “Surely we won’t need those.”

“If something happened to Papa,” Bethany told Iris grimly, “It wasn’t an accident. Jeanne said Redbird had a bullet burn across his rump. Do you want to be helpless if we need to rescue him?”

Bethany handed the second pistol and rifle to Iris who took it reluctantly. Despite her height, this middle girl of Michael St. Vyr’s had an air of fragility, belied by the expertise with which she checked the pistol and rifle.

“Where is mine?” Giselle asked, returning from her errand. Like the girls, she had changed to homespun pants, shirt and boots. She was a beautiful woman despite showing her fifty years of age, and could still turn heads in the tight pants and shirt.

“In the gun cabinet because we need you need to stay here in case Papa makes it home,” Jeanne informed her as she came back in through the window. She took her weapons from Bethany. “The Tricorns are ready to go.”

“Thank you, Jeanne,” Bethany said. She turned to Giselle. “You are our best doctor. You know you need to stay here in case someone brings Papa home wounded, Grandmother.”

Giselle gave reluctant consent to the plan. “I’ll give you girls three hours to find him, and then I’m coming out to look also.”

The land between the Golden Tricorn and the town of River Crossing looked flat, but it was pocked with shallow dips and cuts in the earth, making searching for a wounded man who might be trying to hide, slow and difficult work. The knee-high grass growing off the road could hide a body as well.

It was Iris who spotted the marks Michael had made when he dragged himself into the ditch for cover.

“Here!” Iris called, dismounting and sliding down into the waist deep ditch. Her tricorn smelled blood and pulled back nervously on the reins, nearly dragging her back up the embankment.

“Papa!” Jeanne called urgently. “Where are you?”

She too dismounted, and taking the reins of Iris’s tricorn, she tied the nervous animal to her saddle horn. She had no fear of her own mount running off because she smelled blood; she had spent hours training Grayling not to flinch under more difficult circumstances than a smell she didn’t like. When Bethany dismounted, she handed the reins of the tricorns to her and joined Iris in the ditch, carefully lifting the bushes to see if her father had crawled under them.

Iris had just spotted one of Michael’s boots sticking out from under a bush against the far bank, and she rushed forward, yanking the bushes out of her way.

“Be careful. There might be a Sander under there. You know how they like the shade when it’s hot,” Bethany warned, referring to St. Antoni’s large poisonous reptiles.

“So, shoot it with that damn gun you insisted we bring,” Iris retorted, dropping beside her father and picking up his wrist to feel for a pulse.

Jeanne had finished moving the brush aside and she too dropped beside Michael. “He’s bleeding. It looks like someone shot him in the back. We need to get him out of here and back to the ranch.”

“The doctor’s house in town is closer,” Bethany objected.

“Should we move him?” asked Iris doubtfully. “What if it hurts his back?”

“His back’s already hurt,” Jeanne snapped.

“That might not be relevant anyway,” Bethany observed. “I don’t think the three of us can get him back up the bank on our own. Here,” she pulled bandages, rags and a bottle of alcohol out of her saddlebag. “One of you see if you can clean the wound and bandage it. I—”

Her head lifted sharply as she heard the unmistakable clop, clop of a buckboard driven by a team of tricorns coming down the road from town.

“It’s Margo,” she cried, waving frantically at the driver. Margo snapped the reins, and the team broke into a gallop, coming to a sliding stop when they reached the girls.

“What happened, Nina?” Margo asked.

“It’s Papa. He’s wounded, and he’s down in the ditch. We will need help to get him out of there.”

“Dios mio!” the middle-aged housekeeper exclaimed, tumbling off the wagon seat and coming to look down into the ditch.

“I think we’ll soon have help to get him out of the ditch,” Jeanne said, pointing to a plume of dust rising on the road from the direction of the ranch. Shortly, about fifteen of the ranch hands thundered up on lathered tricorns, demanding to know what had happened.

With their help, it proved easy to move the wounded man into Margo’s buckboard. Margo made a wide, slow turn to jostle Michael as little as possible, and headed back into town. Iris and three of the hands, who were just aching for someone to attempt to stop them, rode with the wagon.

Bethany turned to Jeanne. “You’d better go back to the ranch and let Gran know what happened. She’ll want to come into town. Take a couple of the men with you.”

Jeanne nodded and remounted.

Bethany remounted her own tricorn and looked over at the hands that had stayed with her. “Durango, who is the best tracker?” she asked a tall slim man with a wide brimmed hat.

“Red and I,” he replied. “You want us to find out who did this?”

“Yes,” she said grimly. “I’m putting you in charge. And Durango, when you find him, we need him alive to be able to talk to the Sheriff. I don’t care if he dies afterward, just if he lives long enough to talk. I want to know who did this.”

She turned her tricorn and kicked her into a gallop, following the wagon into town, unaware of the startled look the men exchanged before they set off to find the sniper.

Unlike his father when he had been shot, Michael St. Vyr lived, but he would never walk again. He was lying in bed, unable to do anything but fume when he overheard Emory Johnson’s attempt to coerce Bethany into marrying him.

“You can marry me or end up in a whorehouse,” Emory told her arrogantly.

Giselle had taught Mike’s girls to take care of themselves. Bethany shoved him away and stomped over the front door which she threw open.

“Get out!” She snapped.

Emory hesitated, but Stevens, Michael’s attendant had come to the door of Michael’s room, and Margo’s son Paco was standing in the kitchen doorway watching, so he stalked out.

“This isn’t over,” he told Bethany.

“It had better be,” she retorted. “If you come back here, I’ll make sure someone shoots you.”

Michael knew then that he needed to start his plan for taking care of his daughters as soon as possible. Accordingly, he demanded pen, paper and a lap desk be brought to him. He wrote a letter and addressed it to McCaffey & Miller Range & Mine Detection in the City of Bitterstone. Margo’s son Paco took it into town and paid a runner to take it to Bitterstone.

An Interesting Proposition

THE YOUNG runner looked doubtfully at the letter he was being paid fifty copper chips to deliver. It was addressed to A. McCaffey, esq. The sign over the door simply read “McCaffey & Miller Range & Mine Detecting”. The messenger shrugged and opened the door. Inside the room were two wooden desks, a gun rack, and a cast iron stove with a battered coffee pot and two tables, one of which housed a stack of wanted flyers. A couple of straight-backed chairs pressed against the far wall of the room. The faded window shade rising halfway up the window fronting the street was drawn, but intense summer light glared in over the top of the glass panes.

The two desks had been positioned so that anyone entering by the door was automatically caught between them, but it wasn’t just the feeling of being trapped that made the messenger uncomfortable; it was the men. On the surface, this should not have happened. Outwardly, the two looked like prosperous townsmen, but the messenger could sense a faint edge of readiness for battle when he entered the office. It made him nervous. On St. Antoni, you paid attention to things that made you uneasy, or you died. The young messenger had been living on his own for more than ten years and he was still alive.

The older man was tall and skinny with a grey beard and bushy eyebrows. He wore a faded plaid shirt tucked into homespun jeans. He should have looked neat and tidy, but somehow didn’t. The younger man was a little below medium height with a tough, wiry build and mild brown eyes in a wedge-shaped face. Like the older man, he wore a plaid shirt and jeans but on him the clothes looked comfortable rather than messy. The two men regarded the messenger with almost identical expressions of quiet watchfulness.

“Ah—which of you is A. McCaffey?” the messenger inquired looking desperately from one to the other.

“That would be me.” The younger man held out his hand for the letter.

The messenger thrust a clipboard at him in haste. “Oh, please sign here, sir.”

  1. McCaffey dipped a quill in an open inkwell on the desk and scrawled a signature. He accepted the letter pushed at him and flipped a small handful of copper chips at the messenger who caught the tip deftly. He exchanged grins with the old man as the young man fled their office.

“You suppose he’ll change his drawers after he gets back to the Runner Office?” the older man, who called himself Henry Miller, was trying hard not to laugh. “You really oughtn’t to scare the boy that way. It’s bad for business.”

McCaffey made a rude noise. “Shut up, Henry. Besides, maybe it was your sour puss that scared him.”

The return address was the Golden Tricorn ranch in River Crossing. McCaffey turned the letter over several times before he opened it and began to read. Afterwards, he shoved it at Henry and went to stand looking out the window although not directly in front of it, as Henry read.

Henry was a slow, deliberate reader. When he was through, he refolded it carefully. Thoughtfully, he tapped it on the desk.

“Well, now. This is quite a proposition. Going to do it?”

“How, the Hell should I know?” Alec demanded almost fiercely.

Henry tapped the letter again. “Don’t hurt nothing to meet her, check out the situation. You can always say no. Been awhile since we got out in the field.”

Alec gave him an old-fashioned look over his shoulder. “You think I should go find out, don’t you?”

“Son, you ain’t been happy for a while. Oh, we’re making money, especially since we started hiring men for fieldwork, instead of doing the tough jobs ourselves, but you been looking for something. Maybe this is it.”

The Arrangement

THE GOLDEN Tricorn Ranch lay at the base of the foothills above a wide valley in the City State of Kenefic. The ranch had been originally owned by a family of First In settlers. They had died out, and the last of the family had sold the ranch to Michael St. Vyr, a placer miner who had made his fortune working claims in the rolling hills above the Valley. He still owned a Bluestone mine higher up in the mountains that separated the valley and settlement of River Crossing from the neighboring City State of Azure. He also had substantial shares in some placer gold and gemstone claims in the hills.

After buying the Golden Tricorn, St. Vyr, a canny man, put in wells, collected water in ponding basins, and diversified the fork-horned, shaggy cattle and the huge goats that were the ranches traditional crops by adding orchards of fruit trees in the winter and nuts in the hot summer. He added a dairy goat farm and raised geese to sell for meat and eggs. His two younger daughters now managed the dairy farm and sold the eggs and geese.

After St. Vyr had been shot, the family had converted Michael’s library into a bedroom, and his once vigorous body lay wasting away in the four-poster bed replacing the overstuffed chairs and tables, but his mind was still as sharp as ever.

The books had been moved into his den, but the room still smelled of the dearly bought leather bound books printed on rag paper, and the citrus and glycerin mixture the housekeeper, Margo Alveraz, used to polish the desk and tables. That pleasant smell was overlaid now by the less pleasant scents of chamomile, camphor and bandages.

According to the doctor, he would never walk again. Michael eyed the new wheeled chair, an ingenious affair brought by the doctor, in disgust. It was going to be his transportation from now on. A large chair body with the legs removed had been placed between four wooden bicycle wheels with a short axle connecting them. The chair moved when the front wheels were turned by hand.

His daughter Bethany sat in the straight-backed chair across from him looking down at her clasped hands. Except for her red hair and grey eyes, she bore little resemblance to her father. At twenty-four she couldn’t be considered a girl any longer—in fact by the standards of the pioneer society in which she lived, she was considered a spinster; old enough to be on the marriage shelf while younger women passed her by. She was wasn’t unmarried because of her looks; Bethany’s full, lush figure, fiery red hair and icy grey eyes as well as her father’s riches had attracted many men in the past, but by choice she was still unmarried. Although there was no social bar to a woman competing for work with men on St. Antoni, most of the work in the frontier society still required more physical strength than all but a few women possessed. With so few opportunities for women except marriage, Bethany should have been grateful for the marriage proposition her father had just presented to her. Instead, she regarded it with mixed feelings.

“Papa—”

“Mind, I’m not forcing you girl. If you’ve got a fancy for someone else, why, I can put this to Iris as she’s the next oldest. But so far as I can see, you haven’t got anyone else in mind.”

‘No,” she retorted, “and there is no one else eligible either! At least no one I could stand to be married to.”

“Just so. The only really eligible bachelors around here aren’t fit to sire pigs—well except for Carlos Madonna and I think he’s got eyes for Iris.”

“And she for him—not that she would admit it. Very well, Papa. I will meet this Alexander McCaffey. If we agree we are suited, then I will marry him; but I won’t consent until after I meet him.”

He scowled at her. “You’re as red-headed stubborn as your mother, but I agree. Now go and tell those two with their ears glued to the door your decision. I’m tired.”

Dismissed, Bethany shut the door softly on the downstairs room. Her father had posed a solution to their problems she would have liked more time to come to terms with. Unfortunately, her two younger sisters were lying in wait for her in the hall, anxious to discover the outcome of her discussion with their father.

The three girls shared a father, but different mothers and each of them had inherited their mothers looks. Iris was a tall slim blond, with dark green eyes and her mother’s patrician beauty. Just now, she looked anxious. Jeanne, the youngest, had inherited her mother’s full, red-lipped mouth, statuesque figure and her turquoise eyes. Just now the lush mouth was hard, and her blue snapped furiously.

“Well?” Iris whispered.

“Yes, what did the Doctor say?” demanded Jeanne at the same time.

“Come into the parlor,” Bethany gestured to the room across the hall.

Once inside the room Iris’s mother had designated the ‘lady’s’ parlor’, she shut the door and sat in one of the overstuffed chairs. She waited until her sisters had taken seats before she answered.

“The paralysis is permanent. The Doctor is sure, but that wasn’t what Papa wanted to talk about.”

Iris covered her face with her hands. Jeanne sent her a half-contemptuous look at what she considered an over-reaction. None of the girls had ever been close to their father. He had sent them all east to be raised by his mother after his last wife, Jeanne’s mother was murdered by raiders. Michel St. Vyr hadn’t had good luck with his wives. All three had died on him, leaving him with daughters and no son to take over for him. When Copper City, where they were living, was taken over by a rival gang faction, he had come east to rescue them but none of them had spent much time here on the ranch since the oldest, Bethany had been twelve years old.

“Then he wanted to talk about the ranch,” Iris stated.

“Who is going to take over handling the railroad holdings, and running the ranch and the mines?” the practical Jeanne asked. “Us?”

Bethany shrugged. “For the time being Papa is going to continue to run things from his chair—”

“What about the Johnsons? Isn’t he afraid they are going to take advantage? After all, we know one of them shot him from ambush, probably that horrible Abner, even if we can’t prove it.”

“Well, as I started to say, Papa has a plan for that. It involves all of us. It is pretty much the same plan he told us about when we first came home—”

“I’ll not be a sacrificial goat! He’s not marrying me off to some old man!” Jeanne exploded.

“If you don’t marry someone how do you expect to live if we lose the ranch and the mine to the Johnsons? Go to work as a cowhand?” Iris asked. “If we returned to Earth we would have nothing and probably be put in jail for violating the Portal Rights Act. Here at least we have money and land. If we allow it to be taken from us, how will we support ourselves? I mean the railroad practically runs itself and we get some revenue from the shares, but—”

Jeanne jumped to her feet. “I can run the ranch!”

Bethany shook her head. “While I agree that you could do that under ordinary circumstances, that isn’t the case right now. What do you or any of us for that matter, know about fighting a takeover like this? Jeanne, you know as well as I do, that the men won’t obey you if we must fight the Johnsons. No, Papa says we need a warrior to defend the ranch. A malewarrior that the men will follow. In fact, he’s already sent for him.”

“What about Carlos?” objected Iris. “He would help us.”

Bethany shrugged. “He says Carlos has too much to do defending the Lucky Strike and the gold and gemstone claims. Apparently, there is trouble there too.”

Jeanne took a deep breath for another blast, but Bethany cut her off. “In any case Jeanne, you aren’t going to be the ‘goat’, I am.”

Her sister deflated like a wet pig’s bladder and sank back into her chair. “You? But that isn’t fair to you either—”

“What if he’s horrible?” whispered Iris.

“Papa isn’t forcing me,” replied Bethany mildly. “He did say that Alec McCaffey is young with an established investigator business and he has resolved situations like this before, so he will have the experience to take over the fight. If he is good enough, maybe the two of you won’t have to marry to save the ranch and the mines. I do have the right to refuse if we can’t stand each other.”

“Honey, we can’t ask you to do this for us,” protested Iris faintly.

“That’s right!” Jeanne seconded.

She smiled at them. “Do you know I love you both?” Bethany held out her arms and enfolded them in a tight embrace. “This is the best way. If we want this man to take up our fight, we must offer him something substantial, and to safeguard our ownership of the holdings, he must be bound to us. According to both Gran and Papa, the best way to bind a man to us is through a marriage. Kids, I’m the eldest. This is my job. We all know what happens to women who don’t have money or a way to support themselves. Remember what it was like for the Jones women when that Smith gang in Copper City killed their men?”

Iris shuddered. “The Smith’s turned them into whores. I’d rather die.”

“I won’t let that happen to you, and I won’t do it myself,” Bethany assured them, calm descending on her as she came to terms with her agreement with her father.

“Why does Papa think this man will be better than the Johnsons?” Iris asked.

“He was recommended by your uncle, Iris,” Bethany replied.

Jeanne frowned at her. “And if he is worse than Emory Johnson?”

Her sister smiled grimly at her. “Gran has a contingency plan for that. But first we let him defeat the Johnsons.”

Jeanne gave her a penetrating stare and Bethany nodded. Jeanne swallowed. Unlike the softer Iris, she had a good idea of what her grandmother’s ‘contingency’ plan might be. “I see.”

Bethany didn’t get any time to herself to think about her new situation until after dinner when she managed to slip away from her anxious sisters into the inner courtyard of the house. She had always loved the inner patio space. It was so quiet here. The dark sky overhead was broken up by stars, and St. Antoni’s double moons had risen, making the white-washed walls of the house stand out in sharp relief to the shadows cast by the night. Separated by a low wall from the outer courtyard leading to the stables, bunkhouse and barns, the patio was a quiet area of tranquility.

Separated from the outer courtyard by a low wall, the inner courtyard provided shaded benches under fruit trees and flowering plants with luxurious scents. It was too early for the fruit to be ripe, but hard little balls were already beginning to make fruit. In the moonlight, Grans flowers made splashes of bright color against the whitewashed walls. A deep brick pond with colorful fish surrounded by raised flower beds was attached to the shaded well in the center of the flagstone courtyard.

Razor, her grandmother’s brown and green striped Bobcat, yawned and stretched from his perch atop the wall enclosing the well. The Bobcats were a species of feline native to St. Antoni. Dubbed Bobcats for their resemblance to earthly wildcats by the settlers who first saw them, the bobcats of St. Antoni were about halfway in size between their namesakes and a pet cat on earth. A grown bobcat weighed about twenty-five pounds, with short, stripped fur in rainbow colors. Razor and his sons and daughters earned their keep by ridding the ranch house and barns of St. Antoni’s large rodent-like creatures who were attracted by grains stored there.

The area created an oasis from the late summer heat, but it was by no means cool. Bethany’s white blouse clung damply to her body in the heat.

A faint rustle of clothing caught her ear. She was not quite alone then. She turned her head. “It’s alright, Gran,” she said.

Her father’s mother came forward and sat beside her on the bench, stroking Razor’s tufted ears when he leaped down to join them. How did Gran manage it, Bethany wondered? Despite the heat, Giselle St. Vyr didn’t look in the least wilted in her long-sleeved blouse and trousers.

“I thought you might want to talk about it,” her grandmother’s voice was soft. “I think I met him once you know.”

Bethany shifted on the bench so she could see her grandmothers face. “Really? What was he like?”

“Very presentable actually. I could tell someone had taught him manners. Oh, not the kind you sometimes see out here, but true Gentleman’s manners. It was just after I moved to Copper City. I had gone to the hotel to make a delivery of a necklace to a customer. He had rescued a kitten from some boys who were tormenting it,” she added inconsequently. “He gave it to me to hold while he dealt with them. I found him quite charming.” She patted her granddaughter’s hand and went back into the house.

Her emotions a wildly teetering turmoil of hope and fear, Bethany continued to sit there in the scented darkness until it was time to retire to bed. Her prospective bridegroom rescued kittens and shot people. It was quite a combination.

The next few days were nerve wracking for Bethany. To keep herself busy, she went to help Jeanne with her birds. The large, rainbow feathered birds were raised by the ranch for meat and the eggs they laid.

“Today, you can help us separate out the ones we’re sending east to the market,” Jeanne said. The flock was still inside the enclosed fence next to the bird cote. All the workers were dressed in leather shirts and pants to protect them from the bird’s sharp beaks and talons as they separated them. She handed her sister a pair of gloves and a hat with netting to cover her face.

Bethany looked at her curiously. “I thought we were going to collect eggs today?”

Jeanne laughed. “I already did most of that. No, today, we are going to separate most of the grown drakes out of the flock to send them to market.”

The big drakes were easily identifiable by the black plume of feathers riding over their heads. Using long sticks with brooms on the ends, the crew began moving the drakes into a separate enclosure. From there they were herded into large wagons with enclosed tops to prevent their escape. When a wagon was full, it moved down to the spur of the railroad set up to load animals. Large wooden crates with sealed tops were waiting for the birds to be loaded. As soon as the shipping cars were loaded, they would be pulled to the docks and loaded onto steamboats where they would be taken to the rail head in Junction City, and then on to the other city states to be sold. It was hot, dirty and messy work. Bethany was soon too busy trying to shoo the hens back into the cote with a protesting Lulubelle to worry about the marriage she had agreed to. She knew Jeanne would spend the next day soothing a complaining Lulubelle, who would be searching for the missing members of her flock and keeping a jealous eye on the others as she supervised them feeding on the long grasses in the orchards.

On the third day, to keep herself busy, she went out to the barn where she kept her racing tricorns. Tricorn racing was big business. There was a racetrack on the outside of River Crossing that drew large crowds. Once a month during Race Day, breeders like Bethany brought their animals to town to pit them against each other in four races; two sprints of a quarter mile, a medium distance race of about three quarters of a mile and a longer race of a mile and a quarter. Bethany’s stable held two animals showing promise, a red and white stripped filly who could sprint like the wind, and a gold and brown colt who might prove himself as a distance racer.

Tessa, a slight girl who worked as her head groom, met her at the door this morning.

“Glory is feeling pretty fresh, Miss Bethany,” the girl told her. “I think she’s ready for her workout.”

“Then saddle up. I want you to ride her this morning,” Bethany said.

Tessa smiled delightedly. Bethany knew the girl wanted to be a rider because a rider got a percentage of the purse, so she had decided to see if Tessa could handle it. She saddled her own tricorn, a gold and brown mare and followed Tessa out to the practice track south of the nut orchards.

Bad Blood On The Rise

NESTLED FURTHER north in the same foothills above the valley, a far different family conference was taking place. The two ranches shared a border along Gold Creek whose headwaters began in the mountains to the east. The creek, dotted with small gold & gemstone claims, most of whom had been sponsored by St. Vyr, rushed down the mountains to join the Black River, the body of water bisecting River Crossing and who gave it its name.

Even from the outside, the ranch houses were very different. The Golden Tricorn was a gracious Spanish style hacienda with a tiled interior courtyard and a well in the center. The J4 ranch house was tucked up under the Ironwood trees bordering the valley. Although as large as its rival, the Johnson house was a timber-built two-story house with a breezeway between two bottom stories. The kitchens and laundry were on one side and the living and dining rooms on the other to avoid the intense summer heat.

The Johnson patriarch, Ira, was still tall and broad shouldered with bright blue eyes and a leonine shock of white hair. Before settling in River Crossing, Ira Johnson had been a member of the Grayling Clan who controlled Highland Mountain Stronghold. Having risen as far as he could in his own clan, he decided that opportunities in the lowland city states might prove easier to surmount. An ambitious man, he had traveled to the lowland City States, studying how to become a power in the three states bordering Highland Mountain. Introducing himself as a businessman, he made influential contacts. During this time, he met and married a woman who he felt would fit in with his new station when he achieved it. Pending that time, he set her up on a captured farm at the edge of Highland Mountain territory. When the war with the neighboring Kawasaki family had led to the demise of Johnson’s Grayling clan and the death of his wife, he fled Highland Mountain to the town of River Crossing and the J-4 ranch he had won by cheating in a card game.

Johnson had been a handsome man in his youth and had bequeathed his looks to his three sons. Emory, the oldest, made the most of his choir boy looks and natural animal magnetism with the ladies. He was quick-tempered, intolerant of opposition from both men and women, and prone to violent fits of anger when he had been drinking. The youngest son, Abner, was the most like his father in appearance. He was vain of his long golden locks which he kept tied back with a leather string. His dark blue eyes and clean cut features made many women sigh over him. He enjoyed his position as a member of a powerful family and his reputation as a gun hand. The middle son, Samuel, shared his brothers’ clean cut features and blue eyes, but his hair was a dark, burnt honey color. Unlike the other two, he had inherited their mother’s brown eyes and more importantly, her sense of right and wrong.

The current discussion like that on the Golden Tricorn concerned the coming fight, but offense was the topic here. Samuel was making coffee in the big tin pot. Abner was cleaning his gun at the table. Emory sat straddling a wooden chair with his arms crossed on its back. Ira turned from looking out the window to glare at his oldest son.

“When are you going to get married to that St. Vyr gal? You’ve been sparkin’ her long enough.”

Abner giggled. “He ain’t! Not if she has anything to say about it!”

“You shut up!” Emory slapped the table with his fist so the cups on it jumped.

Ira frowned at his son. “What’s wrong there? You’re a fine-looking man and you will have a share in the ranch.”

“She don’t like him,” Abner grinned and blew a kiss at his older brother. “He tried to kiss her at the last dance and she boxed his ears. Then he went over to tell her it was time they got married, and she threw him out.”

Ira snorted. “Rushed your fences, did you? Well, you go into town, buy up a big box of chocolates, and take it out to her. You be real sweet and apologize for taking liberties.”

Samuel brought the pot to the table and poured coffee into their cups. “Might be too late for that; I heard old St. Vyr sent off for a husband for her. Some range detective out of Bitterstone.”

“I swear boy, you got a better spy system than anybody I know! Where did you hear that?”

Samuel shrugged. “If some of us talked less and listened more, everyone could hear what I hear.”

Ira fixed his middle son with a cold stare. That had almost sounded insolent. But Samuel was never insolent to him. He grunted.

“You hear a name with this rumor?”

“Alec McCaffey. He’s supposed to be coming in on the train from Junction City this week.”

Ira’s fingers drummed on the table for a minute. “McCaffey, ain’t he the one cleaned up that mess at the Mill Creek Mine over the mountains? As I recall, he’s got an old gunhand he runs with name of Henry Miller.”

“Why don’t we take him out before he gets here?” suggested Abner eagerly, patting his handgun. “Emory would have time to make up with his lady-love.”

Ira shook his head. “If we arrange an ambush this soon after St. Vyr got shot we’ll end up with a District Marshall down here. I don’t want that. They’re getting too nosy as it is.”

“Who said anything about an ambush,” countered Abner, “I’ll meet him somewhere and force a fight on him.”

“Don’t be so sure you can take him out,” Samuel warned his younger brother. “Word is McCaffey got his start as a gun for hire; even if Emory came with you to even the odds, Henry Miller isn’t the only one he has in his crew. There were six guys with him on the Mill Creek job.”

Samuel was talking about Emory shooting at McCaffey from behind when Abner shot from in front and they all knew it. This was the part of his family Samuel hated. Love and loyalty kept him from riding off, just as it had kept his mother from leaving when she realized the kind of man she had married. Still, he did his best to discourage actions like these. It had earned him the reputation in the family of being too cautious, but sometimes the Old Man listened to him.

Ira considered battle tactics and his cocky youngest son. True, the boy was lightning fast with that gun, but he was green. McCaffey was rumored to be fast too and he was a seasoned fighter. However, Junction City was far enough away so a killing there might not be connected to St. Vyr’s shooting. It probably wouldn’t spark an investigation by the Territorial Agents office. The situation needed to be assessed. He could decide on the killing after he got there. It never occurred to Ira that he would be breaking the law. When he had taken over the J-4 five years ago, he had decided he wanted the Golden Tricorn. He planned to become governor of the Kenefic City State, and for that he needed money. St. Vyr had money and holdings. Laws were for the weak. Power was survival; to survive a man took what he wanted. He got rid of anyone or anything in his way.

“Maybe. Abner, You and I will take the riverboat up to Junction City. I’ll decide if you fight him after I’ve seen the setup there. You,” he pointed at Emory, “get into town and buy that girl those chocolates! Samuel will stay here and run the ranch as usual”

The Wrong Mac

THE PROPRIETOR of the Ferry Boat Hotel in Junction City was a canny man. Junction City, once just a convenient crossing place above where the Wild Mans River joined Black River and two other rivers on their way to the southern coast, had grown to be the main hub for travelers using the newly minted steam trains. Hopeful settlers wanting to take up land in the North and West came here from the eastern and southern city states to buy supplies and find guides. Junction City was the second oldest human settlement on St. Antoni, almost as large as Gateway City itself, where the illegal Earth Portal operated. It was large enough to overtake several of the smaller towns that had previously surrounded it. These boroughs had retained their independence and local government for the most part, joining into a larger council who decided on issues affecting all of them.

Junction City had several fancy hotels to serve wealthy travelers who wanted a break before crossing the Wild Man and going on by train. Jim Faring, the owner of the Lilliput Saloon, was one of the business owners to decide to take advantage of the influx of travelers. He divided his Saloon into two parts and separated the halves with batwing doors. On one side, his regular customers could still congregate for food, liquor and cards. On the other, a man could safely bring his family for a nice meal or courting couples could enjoy a soft drink from the new soda machine.

On the Saloon side, Henry and Alec were enjoying a quiet supper before heading up to their room for the night. It was early evening. Arriving well before the rush from the incoming train, the mixture of miners coming off shift, far walkers and rivermen in town for a spree, they choose a table against the wall dividing the two areas, providing them a good view of all the customers.

At the bar, a tall, raw-boned man with dusty clothes leaned his double-barreled shotgun against it and ordered a whiskey. “You, better check that gun Mac, the bartender reminded him. You know how Sheriff Melody is about not following the City ordnance.”

“Yeah, just as soon as I get a drink,” the man called Mac replied.

At the sound of the name, Abner Johnson looked up. Like Mac, he hadn’t turned in his tied down handgun. Pa had said to wait, but here he was with a golden opportunity to rid the family of this McCaffey. He strode to the bar and bumped the man, knocking the shotgun to the floor.

“Hey, watch it!” he said loudly, shoving Mac again.

Instead of reaching for the fallen shotgun, Mac slowly turned to face him. “Kid, you need to settle down,” he said mildly. “Joe, set him up a drink.”

“I don’t drink with dirty Irish Micks!” Abner sneered.

“You got a big mouth, Kid,” one of the other men offered. “Maybe we ought to shut it for you.”

“Now, Tim,” Mac drawled, “he’s just a baby with a loud mouth.”

Across the room, Henry touched Alec with his hand and jerked his head towards the bar. “Trouble building,” he remarked.

Alec turned his chair to watch. “Both with guns, this could get ugly. Kid’s looking to make a rep as a gunfighter.”

Henry shook his head, “Big man’s shotgun got knocked down, and he hasn’t got a handgun; besides, he’s a blade man. He’s got a big-ass knife on his belt, one in his boot and another down his back under his shirt. My moneys on him.”

Abner slapped Mac across the face and stepped back so he could draw. A riverman sitting nearby stuck out his boot and Abner tripped. He went down on his rump, accompanied by jeers and laughter from the crowd. Furious, he scrambled to his feet and jerked at his gun. His draw was fast and sure, but before he could fire, ten inches of steel flashed across the room, speared itself into his throat and out the back of his neck. Abner’s bullet went into the sawdust floor.

“What’d he make me do that for?” the man called Mac complained.

“Guess he was looking to make a name,” suggested one of the bystanders.

The outside doors swung open and Ira Johnson came running in to kneel by his son.

“Who did this?” he demanded.

“It was a fair fight. He tried to pull his gun on Mac here Mister,” offered the riverman who had tripped Abner, gesturing to the tall rawboned man standing at the bar.

Sheriff Melody pushed his way past the crowd. “Anybody, see it?”

“I saw it, Sheriff,” the bartender said. “Mac here was minding his own business when the kid shoved him and then slapped him. He was looking for a fight. He tried to pull iron and Mac knifed him.”

“That’s right, Sheriff,” corroborated several witnesses.

The sheriff eyed Mac with disfavor. “Jeb Mackenzie, maybe I ought to have you check that knife as well as the shotgun.”

“Sheriff, my son was just a boy,” Ira protested. His son was dead and he would grieve for him later, but perhaps the situation could still be salvaged. “This man McCaffey is a known gunfighter. I say this was murder.”

“Didn’t use a gun, used a knife. And Mackenzie here is a pain in my ass but he’s no gunfighter,” the sheriff retorted. “It looks like a fair shooting to me.”

“His name’s not Alec McCaffey?” Ira asked.

“Nope. This here’s Jeb Mackenzie.”

At the back table, Alec exchanged looks with Henry. “Well now,” Henry observed. “Looks like Mike was right and you’ve bought chips in this game whether you anted up or not.”

“Yeah. I think we better check out and take the boat south tonight instead of in the morning.”

A Warrior Comes

THE MORNING her prospective bridegroom was expected to arrive, Bethany woke early after a fitful night’s sleep. The darkened sky was just showing the first streaks of light when she got out of bed to sit on the window bench in her room. A light breeze floated in through the open shutters. She propped her chin on her hands and looked out over the ranch. From here, she could see the kitchen gardens outside the walls, and the groves of fruit and nut trees at the base of the mountains where they joined the gray Ironwood trees thrusting up toward the darkened sky. Mike St. Vyr planted the orchards with the seedlings Giselle brought back from her final trip as a Portal Runner. Gold Creek cut through edge of the orchard, headed for its meeting with the Black River that gave River Crossing its name. Further west, the low rolling land covered with dry yellow grasses looked like a buttery sea extending to the horizon.

Everything was quiet, but she knew it wouldn’t last; already she could hear Iris’s goats and Jeanne’s geese stirring around. Below, a cooking pot clanged and a door slammed as the housekeeper, Margo Alvarez, added bluestones and water to the iron stove to start a fire for breakfast.

Life began early in the valley. By three o’clock, St. Antoni’s sun would have turned the place into an oven. Everyone living in the valley started early so they could rest in the afternoon to avoid working in the heat of the day.

The Steamboat Bethany knew Alec would take downriver to the Crossing from Junction City wouldn’t arrive until noon, so he wouldn’t arrive at the ranch itself until later that day. He would ride out from town and that was at least an hour ride. There was plenty to do to get ready for Alec’s arrival. She stood up and dressed for the day.

By lunchtime, Bethany had worn out her welcome with most of the household. She had squabbled with both her sisters, snapped at Margo and accomplished nothing the entire morning. In exasperation, her Grandmother, recognizing the ill temper for the nerves it was, thrust a broom into her hands with instructions to sweep the flagstones on the courtyard and stay out of everyone’s hair.

Both the large, arched wooden gates in the courtyard had been thrown open for the day, allowing the breeze to cool the house and grounds. Bethany had barely begun her task when she discovered both Iris’s and Jeanne’s especial pets had again escaped confinement and invaded the inner courtyard.

King George, Iris’s irascible Billy goat, was sneaking toward Giselle’s prized flower bushes. He loved the taste of them which was why he was not allowed in the courtyard when they were in bloom. Lulubelle, Jeanne’s pet goose, felt the courtyard was her property, fiercely resenting any encroachers human or animal. When she spied George, she hissed and spread her wings, attempting to drive him out of her territory. King George responded to her threat by lowering his head and stomping his feet. It was obvious battle was about to be joined.

Out of the corner of her eye, Bethany noticed the two riders dismounting just inside the gates. She ignored them and started toward the combatants, intending to use her broom to separate the pair. She was too slow. Just as she approached, King George lowered his head and charged. Lulubelle, back-winging to avoid his rush, smacked into Bethany. Furious at what she considered an attack from behind, Lulubelle hissed and honked, battering Bethany with her powerful wings and bill. Reeling backwards from the impact of the forty-pound goose, Bethany threw up her hands to protect her face and didn’t see King George until he butted her in the stomach. Still shielding her face from Lulubelle’s wrath, Bethany stumbled backward and landed on her rump in the raised flowerbed around the well. Lulubelle shrieked in anger, continuing to pummel Bethany with wings and beak. Meanwhile King George, the picture of innocence, ambled over to nibble on the forbidden flowers.

The uproar had drawn an audience: the two riders, Grandmother Giselle, Iris, Jeanne, and several of the stable and dairy hands had all rushed into the courtyard to see what was happening. Tessa, the stable girl in charge of Bethany’s racing tricorns headed over to help her, but the younger of the riders got there first. He booted the indignant Lulubelle, still shrieking madly, off Bethany and knelt beside her.

“Are you hurt?” he asked.

Bethany wiped away a trickle of blood from under her nose, noticing as she did so that her hand was covered with dirt and blood, and her dress had a streak of white bird poop all down the front. She looked up into concerned dark brown eyes and blew out a breath before she answered. “No, I’m fine, thank you.” She wiped the dirt off her hand as well as she could and let him pull her to her feet.

“I’m Alec McCaffey, ma’am,” he said, still retaining her hand.

“How, do you do,” Bethany said, resigned to the ridiculous first impression she was making. “I’m Bethany St. Vyr. I’m sorry for the rude welcome. We don’t normally greet our guests with this kind of hullabaloo. May I present my sister Iris,” she gestured to the ethereal girl with the silver gilt hair detaching the goat from the flowers. Iris nodded in acknowledgement, but concentrated in pulling the goat toward the outer courtyard. “And this is my other sister, Jeanne.” He looked over at the honey-haired amazon checking for injuries on the still complaining goose whose cries had turned from wrathful to pitiful.

“That dratted goose!” Giselle came bustling up, firing off orders. “Just look at you! Bethany, go in the house and let Lisette help you clean up. Jeanne! Iris! Get those critters off my patio! Tessa,” she called to one of the watching stable hands, “Come and take the gentleman’s Tricorns.”

She turned to the younger man, who reluctantly let go of Bethany’s hand. “You must be Alec McCaffey. I’m Giselle St. Vyr. My son has told me so much about you.”

“Pleased to meet you ma’am,” he bowed over her hand. “May I present my friend and mentor, Henry Miller?”

Henry laughed. “No need, son, I remember Mike’s mother well. Nice to see you again Mrs. St. Vyr.”

“If you don’t mind, we prefer to see to our own Tricorns,” Alec intervened. “We’ll join you in the house as soon as that’s done.”

Giselle nodded. “I remember. Just come in that door and Stevens will show you where to clean up. We’ll have tea when you join us.”

Bethany had retreated to the house where Lisette, her grandmother’s oldest friend and maid, pounced on her and led off to change her clothes and wash her face.

“I can’t wear that,” she protested, when she saw the afternoon tea dress Lisette had picked out. “I’ll look overdressed.”

“You need to make a better impression,” Lisette retorted. “You want to get the upper hand in this marriage you use your best assets.”

“Lisette, he just saw me with a bloody nose and covered in bird poop! Nothing can change that kind of first impression!”

“He watched you all the way to the door,” Lisette retorted, undaunted. “Play your cards right and you’ll have him right where you want him.”

After washing their hands and dusting off the trail dust, Alec and Henry were led to a room on the ground floor overlooking the patio garden. Giselle St. Vyr greeted them, offering tea or coffee and a selection of small cookies and sandwiches.

“My son will join us soon,” Giselle promised. “After the shooting, he takes time to maneuver his new transportation.”

“He was shot from ambush?” inquired Henry.

“Yes. We were lucky that we found him as soon as we did.”

“Who is investigating the shooting?” Alec wanted to know.

He frowned when Iris responded, “The sheriff supposedly, but since he almost never leaves town, I don’t see how he could find out anything!”

“Well, if he investigated it,” Bethany added, seating herself on the sofa, “he would have to go into who had the best motive to shoot Papa, and that would lead to his biggest campaign supporter—Ira Johnson.”

She accepted the cup her grandmother handed her and passed it to Alec.

“Lulubelle suffered no injuries,” Jeanne announced from the doorway. “No thanks to you kicking her.” This last was directed at Alec with a glare. Lulubelle, he concluded, must be the goose.

“What about your sister?” he demanded. “That bird gave her a bloody nose and might have pecked out an eye!”

“Lulubelle was defending herself!” Jeanne declared, “She thought she was being attacked from behind and by that miserable Goat!”

“Did you discover how he got out again, Iris?” Bethany interjected hoping to change the subject before the argument could escalate.

“Well, there were hoof marks on the fence, so I’m thinking he must have climbed it. Goats are brilliant, you know, unlike geese,” Iris responded sweetly.

“Lulubelle’s smart—” Jeanne began.

“Ah, I see my girls are making you welcome,” Mike St. Vyr boomed out. Jeanne and Iris exchanged glares but quieted down at the sound of their father’s voice.

He rolled the chair into the room. “If that’s tea, I’ll take a cup.”

Giselle poured it and handed it to Jeanne to take to her father, along with a small plate of sandwiches.

After tea, Michael St. Vyr and Alexander McCaffey retired to the den, while Henry went out to check on the tricorns. Iris set out to examine the repairs to the goat enclosure she had ordered. Giselle and Bethany departed to go to her room to decide on her dress for this evening. Jeanne claimed she needed to check on Lulubelle again and disappeared.

In the den, McCaffey sat forward in the hide-covered chair and frowned at St. Vyr. “Your letter made me curious enough to come out here, but I’m not sure what I think it said is what you meant.”

St. Vyr rolled a brandy glass around in his huge hands. In the light from the windows, iron gray shone through what had once been a fiery head of hair. St. Vyr had been a powerful man before the shot had crippled him, and immense power still showed under the blue homespun shirt he wore. Since McCaffey knew St. Vyr owned a rich Bluestone mine and could have afforded to wear a silk shirt if he wanted to do so, it was obvious he was more comfortable in homespun.

“You didn’t make a mistake. I will make out the papers deeding you one third of the Golden Tricorn and the Lucky Strike, the day you marry my daughter, Bethany.”

Alec knew from the gossip they had picked up in River Crossing what St. Vyr was facing. He wasn’t surprised St. Vyr wanted a gunman, but the nature of the offer had thrown McCaffey off balance. His face showed none of his inner turmoil. To be offered everything he and Henry had worked toward for years was a tremendous temptation.

“You’re offering an awful lot more than fighting wages, St. Vyr. Why?”

St. Vyr looked at him. “The Doc says I may not last much longer.” He lifted the brandy glass. “I like this painkiller better than laudanum. You’re right. I could hire a bunch of gunmen and take care of Johnson and his sons. But what about after I’m gone? Besides, anybody I hired, well if he didn’t have a stake in the pot, he might get to thinking there was only a cripple and four women to keep him from taking over. Married to one of my girls, he’d be family.”

McCaffey snorted. “If I was that kind of sander, St. Vyr, I don’t reckon being married would stop me.”

St. Vyr set the glass down on the desk with a bang. “Dammit!” he roared, driven to the last ditch, “I want my girls to be happy. I always wanted one of them to marry a man who could take care of things. Well, they ain’t done it.”

“Why did you pick me?”

St. Vyr smiled a little wryly. “You recall a job up North for a man named Bill Spears?”

McCaffey’s face showed none of his surprise. He had brought that job to a successful conclusion avoiding the usual blood bath.

“Spears is kind of my brother-in-law. My second wife Astrid was sister to his wife. We were courting about the same time and we got to be friends. He still writes me from time to time. Bill told me quite a lot about you.”

McCaffey got up and stood looking out the window. It was a measure of how disturbed he was that he turned his back on St. Vyr.

St. Vyr watched him in silence, trying to see him as his daughter would. McCaffey was a little below medium height, not slim, but not fat either and he moved with the smoothness of a well-honed blade. His dark hair was clean; his wedge-shaped face clean-shaven, dark brown eyes looked out over a large, well-shaped nose. The nose had a scar across it, the obvious legacy of a knife fight. The boy was well enough looking he supposed, although Bethany had never seemed impressed by good looks. If she had been, she would have accepted the oldest Johnson boy’s proposal.

“St. Vyr,” said McCaffey at last, over his shoulder, “what makes you think you can order a girl to marry someone? Here on St. Antoni women have rights.”

St. Vyr took another sip of his brandy. “Bethany’s a good girl. She knows her duty. You needn’t be thinking I’m going to foist an antidote on you either. She’s got her mother’s looks. ‘Course she got my hair, but on her it looks good. And she will always tell you the truth. There’s been times when I wish she wasn’t so truthful, but that’s another story,” he added hastily.

“St. Vyr,” said McCaffey grimly, trying to take control of the conversation, “let me make this real plain. I am not about to marry any girl who feels she doesn’t have a choice. The very last thing I want is a wife who resents having to marry me.”

St. Vyr chuckled. He levered himself up out of his oversized chair with his crutches.

“I think it’s time you and my daughter got better acquainted. Let’s go to dinner.”

Exasperated, McCaffey followed his soon-to-be father-in-law out of the room.

Bethany was nervous. It was too early to go back downstairs, so instead she fussed with her hair which Lisette had helped her sweep into a loose knot at the crown of her head. Soft red curls wafted around her face. She checked her dress in the mirror, and decided, again, that it was perfect for a dinner at home ‘en famille’. The dress was a soft green made of thin material in deferral to the heat. In the new style, the bodice was deceptively modest, the sheer cloth descending from a high collar to the waist. The blouse was designed to catch a man’s eye; that sheer overblouse covered a low-cut chemise showing the full curve of her breasts. The nipped in waist showed off Bethany’s hourglass figure to perfection and the full, knee length skirt swayed enticingly when she walked. Gran had picked out the dress. Bethany wished for that strong presence to be in here giving her a pep talk. She was sure there was no social situation, not even this one, that Gran wouldn’t have been able to handle with aplomb.

I can’t do this! She thought in panic. And then that other voice, the one she had listened to all her life said, Oh, yes you can; You must. Do you want to be out in the street earning money for food on your back, like those Jones women in Copper City?

After Momma Clara was killed, Giselle had come and taken all three girls back east to live with her. Iris had stayed with her other grandparents in Port Breakwater a lot, but Bethany and Jeanne had lived with Gran in a modest house in Copper City.

Gran had supported them easily with the profits from her gemstone business until the clique war between the Jones and Smiths destroyed her livelihood. Michael St. Vyr had removed his family when he heard about the trouble, but it had taken him a week to get to Copper City using the train. Remembering the fate of the Jones women who had been on the losing side, Bethany understood clearly that the only thing standing between her family and destitution was the Golden Tricorn and the Lucky Strike Bluestone mine. She was determined to hold onto them for herself, her sisters and Gran.

When her father had explained his plan to her, she had agreed. If I am going to sell myself to save my family, she had thought grimly, it won’t be for a few paltry chips of copper. At least I’ll be a married woman so no one will call me a whore the way they did poor Priscilla Jones.

Her father had promised her he would try to find her the best man he could, but he had explained that the kind of man who could lead the firefight to rid themselves of the threat the Johnsons posed, might not be cultured or refined.

The dinner bell chimed. Bethany opened the door to find Margo’s son Paco waiting in the hall.

“You look muy bueno, senorita!” he exclaimed.

Bethany laughed. Paco’s juvenile admiration was soothing to her nerves. “How come you’re not at dinner?” she asked.

He skipped ahead of her down the stairs. “Mama said to come and tell you how you look, so you feel better,” he chortled, and ducked into the hallway leading to the kitchen before Bethany could catch him.

Despite Margo’s superb food, dinner was not a success. Margo preferred for her and Paco to eat in the kitchen, so only Giselle, Iris, Bethany, St. Vyr, Henry and McCaffey sat down at the dining room table.

Jeanne came in halfway through dinner and made herself disagreeable to her father to divert St. Vyr from delivering a scold or asking where she had been. She had disobeyed him and ridden out alone again. Her father recognized the tactics; Clara, Jeanne’s mother had often done the same for similar reasons. Giselle and Iris fled the dining room as soon as dinner was over. Giselle claiming the privilege of old age to retire early, and Iris to help Margo clean up in the kitchen.

Bethany was glad to escape to the parlor after dinner, Margo having told her not to help to clear the table tonight. She was annoyed with her youngest sister for making a difficult situation harder. So when she saw Jeanne sneaking off up the stairs, she called after her. “You had better get Margo to help you get those grass stains off your blouse, if you plan to wear it again.”

Jeanne frowned at her, trying to look at her back over her shoulder. “What grass stains?” she demanded.

“You can’t see them, dear,” said Bethany sweetly. “They are in the back.”

Jeanne opened her mouth to retaliate and then heard her father coming out of the dining room. With a gasp, she fled upstairs. Bethany stalked into the parlor and sat down in a chair with a thump.

When Paco brought in the tea tray, she gestured to him to set it on the low table in front of her. “Bed for you, young man,” she said. Paco gave her a hug before he left.

McCaffey sat his cup down on the table with a decided click. “St. Vyr, I think your daughter and I need to talk. Will you excuse us?”

“Now, see here,” St. Vyr blustered, “it’s hardly proper—”

“Papa,” Bethany interrupted him peremptorily, and added a short sentence in French.

Michael opened his mouth and then shut it again. There were things a man just didn’t say to his female offspring, no matter what the provocation. “I’ll be in the den,” he announced, just as if that was what he had planned to say all along.

McCaffey, who had learned French in Madame Tussaud’s House of Pleasure in the French quarter of Azure City eyed Bethany in astonishment. Surely, he hadn’t heard his ladylike bride say what he had thought he’d heard.

“What did you say?” he demanded.

Bethany eyed him speculatively. Papa had promised he would not force her to marry a man she found repulsive and so far, she had found nothing in McCaffey to dislike. It was time for another test. Composedly, she said, “I told him that unless he planned to lie between us in the marriage bed, he would have to leave us alone sooner or later.”

McCaffey choked on a mouthful of tea and had a coughing fit.

Eyes watering, he looked at her. “Your father said you would be truthful to a fault. I see now what he meant!”

“Truth is always preferable,” Bethany said. “If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember later what lie you told.”

McCaffey came over and sat down opposite her in a comfortable wing chair. “Since you prefer the truth, you may as well know I told your father I will not marry a woman who is being forced to marry me.”

Bethany was taken aback. It had not occurred to her that a man who hired out his gun would have scruples about marrying her. Something inside her that had been tense uncoiled at that moment. McCaffey’s attitude was something she recognized—she had seen it in her father.

“But you are a Romantic!” she exclaimed. “How extraordinary!”

“Don’t be a damn fool!” snapped McCaffey, annoyed. “I’ve seen enough marriages to know it is rough enough when both parties want to get married. Marrying a woman who has been forced into it is a recipe for disaster.”

“No, you are right, of course,” Bethany said. Papa, she remembered did not like to be thought of as a romantic either. “Both parties in a marriage must have good reasons for entering the marriage. Papa is not forcing me to marry you, you know. He would never do that.”

“I don’t mean he would beat you. Look, being forced by circumstances isn’t much different from being forced in other ways. It isn’t right.”

It dawned on Bethany that unless she changed his mind, McCaffey would not cooperate with the plan. She would have to be very careful she realized, if she judged wrong, he would get up and walk out.

“My mother’s grave is up there under the trees,” she said. “So is Iris’s mother, and Jeanne’s. My mother didn’t have to come out here with Papa to this wild land. Gran had a good house in the city, and she made a comfortable living supporting herself. Mama came out here because she and Papa had a dream to build a home. It was the same with all Papa’s wives. I remember the day Jeanne’s mother died. Margo had taken us out to pick berries. We were on our way back when we heard the shooting and saw the fires. Margo wouldn’t let us children come to the house until after she had made her decent. It wasn’t fit for us to see, she said.”

“Your father has done a fine job here. I understand how proud you must be of him.”

“No, you don’t understand,” Bethany said. “Do you know what happens to women like me, like my sisters and grandmother when they have no income? Do you know what they do to survive? Well I do. I saw what happened to some of Gran’s customers when the Smith Clique took over in Copper City. You are a man; you can work. For a woman, there are very few places to work and stay respectable. I can’t sew a straight line, none of us can cook, and I am a terrible teacher; you should have seen me attempting to teach Jeanne how to dance. I thought we would pull out each other’s hair! Jeanne and Iris are no better. If we lose the ranch, Iris and Jeanne will lose the income from dairy and the geese farm, and I will lose my racers. We can’t go back through the Portal. If we tried to go back to earth, we would be arrested for violating the Portal Settlement Law. Besides, our mothers died for this land. I will not let that awful man and his cocksure sons come and take it away from us. They shot Papa in the back! Oh, I know the sheriff said he couldn’t arrest anyone without proof. But I know who did it.”

She turned around and looked McCaffey straight in the eye. “Even if I knew how to win a fight like this I am no warrior woman who men will follow into battle. But I can save my family if I marry a man who cando these things. I don’t know what you want in a wife. I don’t know if I could be other than I am. If it turns out I’m not the kind of woman you want to marry, I can’t change that. I can’t pretend either that I have fallen in love with you at first sight. But I will pledge to you I will do everything I can to make a marriage between us work. But you are correct; we must both be willing for the marriage to be a good one, so you must want it too.”

There was a long silence. McCaffey got up and went over to stare out the open French doors. Dusk was turning the sky a faint mauve color. He wanted to believe her. He wanted to believe it so badly he didn’t trust his own judgment. If she was telling the truth, she was offering him everything he had worked for since he had walked out of his stepfather’s house at fifteen; a home, a family, and work he could be proud of. If her words were a trick, it was a good one. Could Bethany be so good an actress? He looked at the clear gray eyes, the soft rounded chin, and the firm set of her mouth. He wanted to believe what she was offering was real. Still, if it was a trick, he could apply a simple test.

“I guess we can go into town tomorrow and get married,” he said.

Bethany, who had been thinking bitterly that she would have to tell Papa she had failed, was stunned. “What?” she blurted out.

“I said,” he repeated, “that we can go into town tomorrow and get married.”

“Tomorrow? No, we can’t get married tomorrow. There must be an announcement in the paper, we must see the Preacher and send out invitations.”

“Tomorrow,” he said.

Bethany eyed him warily. She wasn’t sure what had changed his mind, but she wasn’t about to let him ride roughshod over her either. “Tomorrow,” she stated firmly, “We will go into town, put the announcement in the paper, and talk to Preacher Mayer about holding the ceremony after church on Sunday. We will also,” she added, “make arrangements to hold a reception at the hotel the following Saturday.”

She stacked the cups and saucers on the tea tray so she could take them to the kitchen. Aware that he was watching her with a proprietary air, she suddenly felt shy, so to make conversation, she asked, “Did Paco tell you which room is yours?”

McCaffey took the tray from her and set it back down on the table. “No, he didn’t.”

“The first one at the head of the stairs. Your friend is next door.”

She stopped, because he had taken hold of her shoulders. She could feel the warmth of his hands through the thin material as if she were naked to his touch. After a moment, he tipped her chin up with his finger, forcing her to look at him.

“It will be a long time until Sunday,” he said ruefully before he kissed her.

Bethany had been kissed before. When she had gone with Gran to visit Iris’s grandparents, several men had tried, because despite her outspokenness, she was St. Vyr’s daughter and would inherit a considerable amount of property and money when he died, and she was more than passably good looking. She had been little impressed by the procedure. Emory Johnson had attempted to kiss her as well, but his attempt had been brutal. This was different. McCaffey’s hold was firm, but she could have released herself if she had tried. His mouth was warm and tasted faintly of brandy and the mint tea she had served after dinner. Without realizing it, she felt herself relaxing into his arms. When he felt her response, the kiss deepened. He coaxed her lips apart with his tongue and his arms came around her, one hand sliding down over her buttocks, pressing her up against him so she could feel the hard bulge of his arousal. Like everyone who grew up on St. Antoni, Bethany had spent a lot of her growing up years around animals; she knew what pressed against her. It startled her to feel an answering heat between her thighs. When she found herself lifting against him so she could feel more, she came back to herself with gasp of shock.

McCaffey let her go, smiling down at her.

“Good night,” she gasped, and fled upstairs, leaving the tea tray behind for Margo.

McCaffey stood in the doorway and watched her run up the stairs. She had felt good, he realized, and it was obvious her response to him hadn’t been planned. He whistled to himself as he gathered up the loaded tray and took it out to the kitchen.

It wasn’t until he was undressing for bed that it occurred to him that the interview with Bethany had not gone according to plan. He had intended to gently explain to her that he would accept the job, but not the marriage unless some real feelings developed between them. He scratched his head. How he had ended up engaged to her with a wedding planned for next Sunday? Furthermore, that sweet faced girl had virtually told her own father to mind his own business. What’s more, Michael St. Vyr had obeyed her.

 

 

 

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A PREVIEW OF SPELL OF THE MAGI

An amnesiac Merc on the run falls for a sorceress hiding deadly secrets.In the Kingdom of Askela being born a Magi means slavery to the Kings Witch Proctors or a death sentence.Rebecca will do anything to save her family from them—and she accepts marriage to a Merc with a price on his head, not expecting to fall in love. But to be together, Andre and Rebecca will start a war to remake their entire world. Can They do it?

Spell of The Magi

A Portal World Tale

Gail Daley

In The Beginning

On a planet called Earth in the Milky Way Galaxy, a way to travel from world to world was discovered in the late 22nd Century. Were these new worlds simply other planets in the known galaxy or did the gateways lead to other dimensions with other physical laws? Or perhaps—both?

         Earth itself was constantly beset by strife and wars. The portals became simply another item to be fought over. It came to pass that a group on the losing side of a conflict captured and held a Portal for a space of half a year, and seeing inevitable defeat in their future, sent their families ahead to another world. As the winning forces flooded the city, the last of the fleeing losers fled through the Portal, erasing their destination as they left so they couldn’t be hunted down by their enemies.

         Travel now to the world of Rulari the new home of the escaping Terrans. Not only does time march differently on Rulari, but this world answers to the rule of will, heart, mind and of magic as much as the laws science that had governed on earth.

         Humans are very adaptable and began to prize those families with the ingrained talent to use magic. In the years since man first came to Rulari, Seven Places Of Power were searched out, new portals established and enclosed in keeps held by the seven of the most powerfully gifted families. Formidable wards were created and set to assure the keeps stayed in the control of the families, who were sworn to serve the best interest of the magic users or Magi as they came to be called. One of the ancient keeps was Ironlyn, on the northwestern sea of the country of Askela. It is held by a family named Mabinogion.

The Witchlings

KathleaMabinogion, heritary Draconi to the shire of Ironlyn, was a powerful, unregistered Magi. Her much loved husband Maxton was a great soldier, but he had no talent other than his swordplay. Magi were highly valued in the kingdom of Askela but only if a registered member of the Elite Kings Magi Proctors. Unregistered Magi were hunted by the Magi Proctors and forced to join. When a Magi joined the Proctors, to ensure loyalty only to the King and the Proctors, the Proctors insisted all family ties be broken. The Proctors would choose a mate for you, to breed stronger Magi. It mattered little to the Proctors if the Magi ‘recruited’ was already mated, in a relationship or if they even liked their assigned partner. If she had been a registered Magi, Kathlea would never have been allowed to marry Maxton. If the Proctors caught her, her children would be tested for Magi talents. Any of her Magi gifted children would be separated from their parents and sent to a special school where they were indoctrinated in loyalty to the Proctors above all else.

Kathlea had born Maxton three children, Rebecca, age ten and the twins Catrin and Owen, age four, all of whom were showing signs of nascent Magi talent. There was also hope of a fourth child, but Kathlea hadn’t yet shared that with her family on that fatal day when the Proctors found them.

Years ago, the rebellious unregistered Magi of Askela had formed a network called the Magi Cadre to enable Magi to escape the nets spread by the Proctors. Travelers like the Maginogion family picked up Magi hiding from the Proctors and aided them to escape to neighboring countries where the Magi Laws were different. For the truly desperate, there was Ironlyn Keep and a portal.

Magical in itself, Ironlyn had defied attempts by the King and the Magi Proctors to force their way into it. Unable to break the wards or decipher the spell that created them, the Proctors continually searched for members of the bloodline in the hope they would be able to control them and in turn control so powerful a resource.

The family belonged to the Magi Cadre dedicated to helping Magi escape the Proctors. Joined by Kathlea’s parents, the family traveled around the kingdom in wagons, eking out a living selling spices, potions and medicine to various villages, while a cousin without Magi abilities held Ironlyn for them. On Rebecca’s tenth birthday, the Proctors found her mother. Her grandparents had driven their wagon into a nearby village to meet their contact and pick up a Magi hiding there. Kathlea and Maxton had stayed behind because it was rumored the Proctors were in the village, and Lewys Maginogion felt that two traveler wagons would draw too much attention.

Rebecca and the twins had been playing under the wagon when Kathlea suddenly stood up and looked towards the town.

“What is it?” Maxton demanded.

“He’s coming!” Kathlea gasped. “I feel him. He knows I’m here.”

She turned to Rebecca. “Go! Hide where we found the berries. Be quiet, and keep the twins quiet also. Don’t come out whatever you see or hear. Promise me!”

“I promise,” Rebecca said. She grabbed Catrin and Owen’s hands and ran into the bushes. They barely made it before the Proctor and his men thundered into camp.

The Proctor immediately cast a Binding Spell on Kathlea to keep her from using her Rainbow Magic to help her husband as he fought the Proctor’s guards. Rebecca could see the bubble of magic over her mother push outward as Kathlea tried to break through it. Hidden in a hollow in the brush with her hands covering the mouths of her brother and sister, she watched in terror as her father fought the guardsmen who came with the Proctor.

Catrin whimpered. “Hush!” Rebecca breathed and the children obediently stilled.

The Proctor had brought ten guards with him. Maxton fought like a demon to reach him, slaying all but four of his guards before an unlucky strike brought him down. Kathlea screamed.

“Shut up woman!” the Proctor yelled. “You are Magi and a strong one. I will let him live if you do not resist.”

Sobbing, Kathlea allowed herself to be led away, the bubble binding her to the saddle. The remaining guards loaded up their dead and wounded comrades and followed their master.

Rebecca made the twins wait until the Proctor and his men had disappeared before they came out of hiding. Maxton was unconscious but alive. Anghard, Rebecca’s grandmother had just begun to teach the girl healing, but she bathed and bound her father’s wounds as well as she could, applying a poultice of crushed bayberry and skunkweed to stop the bleeding.

Lewys and Anghard had been forced to watch as the Proctor led their captive daughter through the village, arriving back at the camp to find Maxton alive but still unconscious.

As soon as he was recovered, he left to try and rescue his wife from the Proctors. The family packed up and left the area, traveling in a roundabout way toward the Capitol city of Khios where the Proctors was headquartered, hoping to be able to help their daughter and her husband.

Lewys learned through his contacts in the Magi Cadre that Kathlea had arrived there and been taken into the inner courts for training, but he could discover nothing more. Almost a year later, news came that Maxton and Kathlea were both dead.

“It is a tale to sing of that will inspire rebels against the Proctors for generations,” the woman, an escaped Magi, brought the news. “He fought his way in to her, and they defied the Chief Magi himself, but they were trapped on the highest tower of the castle above the ocean cliffs. They kissed each other and jumped into the ocean. It is believed they drowned.”

Anghard sobbed. Lewys Maginogion’s face was hard.     “Someday, I will kill them,” he said. “All who support this cursed system that destroys families.”

The woman telling the tale looked frightened. “There is more,” she whispered. “It is rumor only, but they say your daughter was delivered of a babe who was sent out of the city.”

“What happened to the child?” Anghard asked, a desperate hope in her voice.

The woman shrugged. “A servant woman was paid to smuggle her out of the nursery. That is all I know. I’m sorry.”

“You are sure the babe was a girl?”

The woman hesitated. “That is what I was told, but—”

Anghard pressed her hand. “Thank you.”

Fire Magic

Thirteen years passed and the family never forgot their lost daughter or the child she might have born. The night the fever took her grandmother, spring was just starting to push up through the ground, frozen hard with winter. The had been able to find a few spring blooms to scatter on her body as she and Catrin prepared it for the dawn service. Rebecca stood under the funeral Pyre looking up at the sky, feeling the weight of responsibility on her shoulders, now that her grandmother was no longer there to share it. Anghard had fought the wasting illness, and fought hard, but after months of agonizing illness, she succumbed. “You will be Draconi now,” she told Rebecca. Holding her granddaughter’s firm young hand in her wasted one. “Take care of your grandfather and your brother and sister. It will be up to you to find our lost one now.” She had pressed an amulet into Rebecca’s hand. “Use this to help you skry for her.”

“I’ll find her grandmother,” she vowed. “Mother is gone, but if her child lives, I’ll find her. I promise.”

“It’s hopeless,” Catrin said, wiping her eyes. She and Owen were sixteen now, a tall strapping pair, with curly dark hair and sunny smiles. Just now their faces both showed evidence of grief.

Rebecca looked over at Lewys Maginogion’s ravaged face. He would miss his beloved Anghard. She reached for her sibling’s hands. “He will stay with her tonight, I think. Let’s go back to camp.”

Dinner that night was a simple stew which they ate in silence. Afterwards, Owen moved the rope corral around the unicorn herd to a fresh location. The herd consisted of twenty mares and half-grown colts. It was their Grandfather’s pride and joy. Moving from village to village, Lewys would occasionally sell one of the younger ones, if he decided an owner was worthy to own one, but they all knew the herd was destined for the pastures of Ironlyn when they finally took up residence there.

Anghard’s funeral pyre would be set afire at dawn, as was the custom. Rebecca and Catrin were finishing up the supper dishes and setting out the bread to rise for breakfast the next morning, when they had unwelcome visitors.

John Thomas Lazarus was an important man in the nearby village of Stonhenge. He had expected these Travelers to be awed by his importance, and was displeased when they were not.

“What, no dancing around the fire? I was looking forward to that,” he said jovially.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Lazarus,” Rebecca replied quietly. “We are not entertaining visitors tonight. This is a camp of sorrow. Our grandmother Anghard passed into the great beyond this afternoon. Please excuse us.”

She went back to wiping down the clean plates, ignoring him, hoping he would take the hint and go away.

Instead, he threw some coins down on the ground. “Here, I’ll pay for my entertainment.”

She made no move to pick up the coins. “No, Sir.”

Lazarus frowned, but he hesitated. “Maybe I should ask the old man. Where is he?”

“Grandfather is sitting vigil with Grandmother,” Owen, who had just returned to the camp, replied.

Lazarus looked at him in incredulity. “You mean someone really did die?”

The three just looked at him in silence.

“I see. Alright, I’ll be back tomorrow then.” He turned and left.

Owen spat on the ground at his back.

“Make sure he really leaves,” Rebecca said. “I intend to skry for our lost sister tonight, and I don’t want a witness.”

“He and the others have left the Trade Station Circle and headed back into town,” Owen reported. “Becca, are you sure this is a good idea? Grandmother always did it before.”

Rebecca pulled out the bronze stone that had been Anghard’s last gift to her. “Yes. I feel her spirit strongly tonight. She will help me before she passes on. I know it.”

Catrin unrolled the ancient map of the kingdom, stretching it on the wooden folding worktable that served a variety of uses. She held down the map corners with four flat stones.

Rebecca pulled the necklace over her head and held the stone in one hand. She cut a small prick in her finger and rubbed it over the stone. Holding the stone over the map, she rubbed the blood on its surface.

“Bone of my bone, blood of my blood, flesh of my flesh, seek now she who is lost.”

Catrin picked up the knife and did the same. Handing the knife to Owen, she too rubbed the stone and map with a bloody fingertip, and repeated the chant.

After a second’s hesitation, he repeated the actions and joined in the chant.

At first, nothing happened, but finally, the stone began to swing gently. There was a surge of power and then the stone pulled strongly toward the west, finally coming to rest on the symbol for the village of Buttersea.

All three felt the soft caress as Anghard left them for the final time.

“What have you done?” Lewys demanded.

Catrin looked up at him with tears running down her face. “It was grandmamma. I felt her,” she sobbed.

“We all felt her,” Rebecca said coolly. “Look, we have a destination.”

Lewys stared down at the map with the stone resting on it. “Yes,” he sighed. “We will be going west in the morning. I heard from Cousin Lerrys. He needs to leave Ironlyn. The local Proctor is getting suspicious of him because so many Magi have disappeared in the area surrounding Ironlyn. We will go home. That village is on the way. If your sister is there, we will find her.”

Rebecca nodded. “We will be ready.”

“I need to go into Joppa tomorrow and pick up the supplies I ordered. You three will stay here and pack up so we can leave when I return,” Lewys instructed.

At dawn, Lewys came to wake them. They stood quietly, while he lit the pyre, watching in silence as Anghard’s earthly remains were consumed.

Breakfast was a subdued meal. Afterwards, Lewys put a pack saddle on one of the mares, saddled his stallion, Sunrise and left for Joppa, the village outside the Trade Station. His grandchildren began packing the two wagons for the journey. It was a complicated process. The limited space meant that everything had to be stowed in exactly the right place or it wouldn’t all fit.

Packing took longer than it should have because Owen kept stuffing things in higgledy-piggledy. It was obvious he was in a hurry. After she had unloaded and re-packed the things he had already packed several times, Rebecca turned to him in exasperation. “What is wrong with you? This will take forever if you aren’t more careful. Why are you in such a hurry?”

Catrin laughed. “He wants to get done so he can hurry over and say goodbye to Fiona,” she said with a knowing look.

“The Station Master’s daughter?” Rebecca inquired.

Owen nodded.

“Okay, take off then,” his sister said. “The way you’re working, we’ll get on better without you. Scram!”

Her little brother kissed her cheek and loped off toward the Trade Station.

“Grandpa told us all to stay here,” Catrin remarked.

“I know,” Rebecca replied, “but he’s only young once.”

Catrin laughed and began repacking the pots and pans Owen had made a mess of.

“Leave a space for what Grandpa is bringing back,” Rebecca reminded her.

“What is it, do you know?” Catrin asked.

“Not a clue,” her sister replied. “He was very mysterious about it.”

“Well, we’ve finished,” Catrin said, a few minutes later. “I suppose we can harness the unicorns. Whose turn is it today?”

Lewys’ prize unicorn herd were mostly draft animals and to keep from overusing any of them, the family rotated the ones used to pull the wagons.

“Let’s rotate the teams,” Rebecca suggested. She went to the rope corral and called four mares to her. She was about to lead them over to the front of the first wagon when they again had an unwelcome visitor; Lazarus was back.

“Not leaving already are you?” he asked Catrin, looking the girl up and down in a way that made her flush with embarrassment.

“Yes, we are,” Rebecca answered him. She deliberately led the four large unicorns between him and Catrin, forcing him to move back out of the way.

“Really?” he sneered. “Leaving without allowing me to sample your wares? I don’t think so.”

Rebecca’s eyes narrowed. She understood exactly what type of ‘wares’ he referred to, but pretended she didn’t.

“I’m afraid we’ve already packed away our herbs and medicines, Mr. Lazarus,” she said.

“I’m not talking about any piddly spices girl and you know it,” he said.

“Catrin, get in the wagon and lock the door,” Rebecca told her sister.

Catrin hesitated, but obeyed her.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Lazarus,” Rebecca continued, “but we aren’t receiving visitors, and my grandfather and brother will be back soon. I need to get our unicorns harnessed. Please excuse me.”

She lined up the unicorns and was preparing to throw the first harness over one’s back when Lazarus grabbed her.

Rebecca fought him, but he was stronger than she. When she landed a lucky kick on his knee, he slapped her hard across the face. The dizzying blow stunned her long enough for Lazarus to rip her blouse open. He yanked her to him and mashed his mouth down on hers.

When she tried to turn her head away, he grabbed a handful of her hair and forced her face back to his. With her arms pinned against his body, she was unable to move. Finally, she managed to free one of her arms and stabbed at his eyes with her fingers.

Lazarus hit her again, this time with his fist. She stumbled and fell to her knees, dizzy. He knocked her the rest of the way to the ground, following it up by falling on her body. He tore her blouse the rest of the way off, biting at her bared breast. The pain brought her awake, and she clawed at his face and head.

When she felt him fumbling at the buttons on her pants, she knew she wasn’t going to be able to stop him unless she used her Magi talents. Rebecca was a fire Magi; fear and anger ignited her Magic. A fireball burst in his face, causing his greasy hair to catch fire. Lazarus screamed and drew back, slapping at his burning hair.

Suddenly, he was knocked off Rebecca by the solid twack!of a camp shovel wielded by Catrin, who had disobeyed her sister and come to help. He fell to the side unconscious, with his hair still smoldering.

When Lewys and Owen arrived a few minutes later, they found Rebecca leaning on her sister’s shoulder while Catrin applied one poultice to her swollen face and another to the vicious bite mark on her breast.

Lewys looked down at Lazarus in silence. He had checked the man for life signs and was disappointed to find him still alive. “You should have made sure he was dead,” he informed his granddaughters.

“We can still do that,” Rebecca said, half hysterically.

“No, child we can’t. It would be murder. Owen, go and get Trade Master Jordan.”

When Catrin started to take Rebecca inside the wagon, Lewys stopped her. “Better he sees her just like she is, so he knows this was justified,” Lewys said.

The Trade Master arrived in Owen’s wake, puffing. He was a round man, no longer made for running.

“Oh, no, Oh, no,” he kept repeating, wringing his hands. “This is bad.”

“It was self defense,” Lewys reminded him. “Look at my granddaughter. Since when is it bad to stop a man from raping her?”

“Since the man is John Thomas Lazarus!” Jordan snapped. “You don’t live here. He is the most powerful man in this county. He owns half the farms around here and at least a third owe him money. He pretty much does as he pleases.”

“Including rape?” demanded Lewys.

“I’ve heard rumors,” Jordan said. “Well, the first thing is to get you out of here. You boy,” he pointed at Owen. “Get those unicorns harnessed. I’m going to the village to round up a few men to help me collect Lazarus and take him back into town to a healer. You need to be on the road by the time I return from town. I can give you about an hour. Who knows? Maybe he’ll die in the meantime and solve both our problems.”

While Lewys and Owen harnessed the unicorns to the wagons, Rebecca threw off her torn blouse and put on a loose comfortable shirt. She mounted the wagon box and took her place to drive.

“Are you able to do this, girl?” her grandfather looked at her from the back of his golden unicorn.

She set her hat firmly on her head and nodded. “Yes, lets just go away from here.”

They camped that night by a small creek deep in the black leaf forest, Lewys having decided that it would be wiser to avoid the Trade Stations until they were a long way from Joppa. Spring had brought out a few fresh grasses in the glade next to the stream for the animals to feed on.

The next morning, he had them whitewash the sides of the wagons, and cover that color with blue, so red sided wagons would appear a different color. He also instructed Catrin how to prepare a concoction he said would dye the unicorn’s coats a different color. It turned Sunrise and the mares’ golden coats to a dull brown.

To make Owen appear older, he brought out a fake beard for him to put on each morning.

It was while they were dying the unicorns that Rebecca found the three hungry kittens near the body of their mother. They were very young and hadn’t yet grown the white manes they would have as adults. Gathering up the kits in her arms, she brought them back to camp. Milking one of the nursing unicorns, she mixed the rich milk into a feed for them.

For several weeks, the family continued to travel west avoiding any villages and Trade Stations. Spring was in full bloom, when they camped in a clearing outside the village of Duranga. Duranga had no proper Trade Station, but the town had designated the clearing as common ground where Travelers or Trade Caravans could stop over.

A Spell Is Cast

Harry Sims, the proprietor of the Glass Slipper Tavern, was an unhappy man on this fine spring evening. He should have been happy. The Glass Slipper was full. The Spring Jamborees for local stock collection and sale had just finished and all the holdings, small and large were in town and spending coin freely.

The chief cause of his unhappiness was not the rowdiness of the crowd; he was long accustomed to that. No, the cause of his worry was the five-man dice game going on in the corner. Harry knew four of the five players well. Leej Jonsyn, the rug merchant, was losing and was going to be in trouble with his wife. Ruddy Tyer, a long, skinny kid from Gryphon’s Nest, was still reasonably sober but he would lose his Jamboree bonus before the end of the night. Charger French, a squatty rider from back in the badlands with, it was said—but notwhere he could hear it—a reputation for shady deals. The fourth player was Jajson Buttersnake the son of old ‘Rock’ Buttersnake, the biggest cattle breeder around. Jajson figured he was top dog in the town of Drycreek because no one dared challenge the son of old Rock. Rock ran a tough, salty crew of drovers. They didn’t much like the boss’s son, but they would take his side in a fight.

It was the fifth dice thrower who worried Harry. Harry had seen him ride into town earlier that day on the highbred, dapple war unicorn presently taking up space at Harry’s hitching rail. The stranger wasn’t a big man; he stood around five-eight with a short, neatly trimmed black beard and cold green eyes. To Harry, who as a young man had seen quite of few of his kind, the stranger had ‘Merc’ written all over him. His clothes were of too good quality and too clean, his thigh-high boots too new and shiny, and the saddle on that fancy unicorn stud was too pricey for a coin-a-day drover. His needle-gun was tied low on his leg in a well-worn holster, and unless Harry was mistaken, in addition to the one on his belt, he had a blade down his back, one in his boot, and a second gun hidden in his other boot.

Absently, Harry polished a glass while he tried to place the man. He didn’t look that familiar, but the blood feud over to the south between the RedBird and Smoker clans had just finished. Before he died, the Smoker Chief Hutchins had claimed Rupert RedBird was hiring paid Mercs and the stranger had ridden in from the south.

The practice of hiring fighters from the Merc Guild in disputes wasn’t against the law, but it was disapproved of by Shahen Tarragon. Since the Merc Guild was very powerful and used by many to settle disputes, his disapproval didn’t mean much. The Guild was composed of hundred of bands of independent fighters and reputed to have ties with the Wild Magi. The Mercs were completely independent of any government, and the Guild’s influence stretched to all seven of the human kingdoms. Since siding with the Shahen against the Guild might mean you couldn’t hire fighters in your next dispute, few landholders wanted to chance it. Rumor had it the Shahen was also trying to consolidate more power to the crown by discouraging holders from keeping their own private armies. Because of his father’s illness, the Shahen had been named Regent and virtually ruled in his father’s stead. Attempting to force the nobles to disband their large standing armies using his Magi Proctors would be a disaster. Despite the Proctors’ Magi talents, they were outnumbered by the Mercs whom the landowners would doubtless call upon for help if he tried it.

Harry swore softly to himself. If he was correct about the identity of the fifth dice player, it might mean he  belonged to a troop he could call on if there was trouble. He was alone right now, but that didn’t necessarily mean he didn’t have allies. And Harry was sure trouble was brewing. Jajson Buttersnake was drunk. When he was sober, he was a poor card player and an even worse loser. Because he ran with the Buttersnake mob, he was usually safe when he had a tantrum; no one in his right mind wanted to start a fighting ruckus with Old Rock’s crew.

Harry had a bad feeling the fifth dice player wouldn’t give a damn how tough Old Rock Buttersnake’s crew was. There was just something in that dark face that said, ‘I don’t care’. The fight would probably cause a lot of damage before things got settled. And it was going to happen in his place too, he thought bitterly.

Suddenly Buttersnake stood up, scattering dice and coins. “I want a new set of dice!” he cried. “You shouldn’t have won that throw!”

The stranger came up out of his chair in one swift, clean movement. He slapped Jajson across the mouth, knocking him into the crowded bar.

The room exploded away from young Buttersnake. Leej Jonsyn, the rug merchant, dived away from the table so fast he knocked over his chair.

Jajson Buttersnake staggered to his feet, a trickle of blood dribbling from the corner of his mouth. He was white with fury. “You cheated!” he shrieked, pawing for his gun. He fumbled and almost dropped it in his rage.

The stranger waited until Buttersnake had his needlegun coming level before he drew and fired. His gun made a loud snapping noise as the puff of compressed air sent a fatal needle right down Buttersnake’s throat.

In that instant, Harry recognized the fighter. Hammer Smith was the handle he went by, but Harry had come from the coast, and he knew Hammer Smith’s real name was Andre Benoit. Benoit was a free-lance Merc who joined the Mercs in the coastal area at the south end of the kingdom. He typically took on jobs that didn’t require the services of an entire troop, but he had allies among the Merc Community. Hammer Smith was reputed to be in his twenties, but he was already known as a dangerous man. It was said that he never drew a weapon unless the man was armed and facing him but if you pushed him, you died. Jajson Buttersnake died.

In the stillness after the weapon fire, Hammer Smith calmly reloaded his weapon, scooped up his coins from the table and quietly walked through the swinging doors. Whispers started in his wake.

“Shot him in the mouth,” someone said.

“Old Rock isn’t going to like this,” said another man.

“He won’t care. That’s a hard man,” a voice said.

Hammer Smith mounted the dapple unicorn and set off at a brisk trot.

“So much for a warm bed for me and a soft stall for you, Blackfeather,” he said. “Unless, I’m mistaken we’re going to have a bunch of irate drovers on our tail soon. Why did I sit down at that game, anyway?”

Blackfeather’s stride increased to a smooth, ground-eating lope. The double moons were full, making the road as clear as day, but Hammer Smith knew he was going to have to leave it soon. He started looking for a good place to leave the trail. Behind him, he could hear angry shouts and then the snap of needle gunfire.

“Okay, boy,” he spoke softly to the unicorn, who cocked an attentive black ear, “let’s ride some lightning.”

Blackfeather was fast. Hammer Smith had traded him off a Cat Man who had used him for racing. The trouble was he had beaten every unicorn in the area so often that no one would race against him anymore, and the Cat Man was broke. Hammer Smith had traded him a half-broke unicorn with the disposition of a poison beetle crossed with a snapdragon, an extra needle rifle and twenty coins in eating money.

He knew if he could get a start on the impromptu mob forming behind him, he could make it across the line into Cat Man Territory. Not the safest place in the world to be, but safer than here, as it was unlikely any posse would follow him there. The Shahen had given orders that entering Cat Man territory was forbidden. No one wanted to re-start the raiding again, and the Cats would undoubtedly see any group of armed men as breaking the treaty. Single riders entered at their own risk, and were usually ignored. Maybe.

Suddenly ahead of him came the pound of running hooves and a wild screeching yell. A mob coming in late off a Jamboree, maybe?

He checked the unicorn and faded off to the side, stopping under a kaleidoscope tree about twenty feet away from the road. The moon flecked through the shinny, semi-transparent leaves, causing light and dark shadows that blended with Blackfeather’s coat.

A more cautious man would have taken the opportunity to scuttle out of there quick. But Hammer Smith was not a cautious man. Grinning, he watched as the mob from town ran full tilt into the celebrating drovers.

Chuckling, he started Blackfeather around the tree and to the north at an easy lope, heading into a forest of more kaleidoscope trees. In the melee behind him, he heard the snap of air guns as some fool started shooting; he knew everybody soon would be doing the same.

Karma has a way of catching up with a man. He paid a price for the inattention caused by his unholy amusement. In the darkness, he never saw the tree branch coming that dealt his head a smashing blow; stunned, he blacked out. Only his instinctive riding ability and Blackfeather’s superb gait kept him from falling off. Several times, Blackfeather shifted stride and course to ensure his rider stayed in the saddle. Puzzled at being given no other signals, Blackfeather continued to travel west, taking the easiest route.

The sun was just coming up when Hammer Smith awoke. Blackfeather had slowed to a walk. Muzzily, Hammer Smith peered around. His head hurt and he was having trouble focusing his eyes. Blackfeather mounted the top of a small rise and started down toward a creek gurgling below.

Hammer Smith blinked harder to focus his eyes because he was sure he was seeing things. The loveliest girl he had ever seen knelt by the water washing her face. Straight black hair fell in a curtain to the ground around her, some of the strands floating in the water.

Blackfeather stopped at the edge of the creek and lowered his head to drink. The girl lifted her head to stare back at Hammer Smith out of the clearest gray eyes he’d ever seen. She stood, pulling her hair back over her shoulders. Her crimson night robe clung to the swell of her breasts and hips, making a bright splash of red against the green plants growing on the bank of the stream.

At that moment, Hammer Smith was beyond appreciating nature’s decorating schemes. The whole world felt unreal. There was no one in it but him and the girl, and never would be. He nudged Blackfeather across the stream and stopped beside her.

She looked up at him with no sign of fear. He stared down at her. It seemed as if her eyes grew enormous and he was diving into a huge pool of gray water. This time, he did fall off his unicorn.

Rebecca tried to break his fall, but since he outweighed her, she ended up on the ground with him on top. Awkwardly, she sat up, wriggling out from under his weight. His head lolled back against her breast.

“Gosh!” exclaimed her sixteen-year-old brother Owen, “where did he come from?”

“Over the hill,” Rebecca said absently, looking at the dark face. He wasn’t bad looking; of course, you couldn’t tell much with that beard…

“What’s the matter with him?” demanded Owen’s twin, Catrin. Like Rebecca, she was still in her nightclothes.

Rebecca had found the caked blood matted in his hair.

“He’s been hurt,” she said. “One of you go and get Grandpa.”

“Gosh!” said Owen again. “That’s a funny place to get hurt. Do you suppose somebody whacked him?”

“Maybe.”

Blackfeather nudged Hammer Smith curiously with his soft grey nose. Why was he so still? Absently, Rebecca patted him.

“He’ll be fine,” she said to the unicorn. Blackfeather snorted gently and wandered off to crop some grass growing by the bank.

Pulling up the straps of his suspenders, Lewys Maginogion, awakened out of a sound sleep by Catrin, hurried up to them. His sharp old eyes took in the situation at a glance.

“Owen, unsaddle that unicorn and take care of it. Catrin, go fix up a bed in the wagon.”

As the two hurried to obey, he knelt beside Rebecca.

“He’s got blood on his head. Owen thought maybe he’d been whacked in a fight,” she said.

Gingerly Maginogion turned Hammer Smith’s head, running a finger in the gash on the top of his head and forehead.

“You’ll make it bleed again,” protested Rebecca.

“He’s out like a candle. Doesn’t feel a thing. We’d best get him in the wagon and that wound dressed before he wakes up.”

Unobserved by Rebecca, Lewys Maginogion looked pensively down at the lovely visage of his eldest granddaughter, who was looking down at the face of the young man resting in her arms. It had been months since the incident at Joppa, and in all that time his beautiful Rebecca had not voluntarily let any man touch her, flinching whenever Owen or her Grandfather touched her accidentally. Yet she held this stranger against her with no sign of shrinking.

They put the unconscious man to bed in the wagon Owen shared with Lewys. As Lewys cleaned and dressed the wound, he thought about what he had learned in the village yesterday, and a plan began to form in his mind. Only if the young man proved worthy of course…

Twenty minutes later, dressed in a grey cotton shirt and trousers, Rebecca was sitting on a folding campstool, brushing her hair with the aid of a hand mirror.

A pan of sliced meat was sizzling on the fire, and Catrin, similarly dressed, with her long curly hair tied back was making sourdough wafers, her face flushed from the fire.

Owen was brushing the mud from the stranger’s unicorn. Blackfeather seemed to enjoy it, one hip cocked as he sleepily munched a bag of grain.

Lewys Maginogion surveyed his brood proudly. They were good kids all of them. Owen was growing tall and straight as a young fire tree. He was gangly still, but his blue eyes met a man head on.

His twin, Catrin, took after Lewys’ mother, being tall and buxom with thick curly dark hair. For all she was starting to draw the men’s eyes like bees to nectar, she was still enough of a child not to notice their admiring stares.

His gaze dropped to his oldest granddaughter. With her hair drawn back, the resemblance to his dead wife was uncanny. Rebecca wasn’t the looker Catrin was; her red-lipped mouth was too wide, and those gray eyes under her slanted brows gave her heart-shaped face an eerie beauty, but he knew from his own experience many years ago just how potent a spell that exotic loveliness could cast. He had been caught in just such a spell years ago when he first laid eyes on his dead wife, Anghard.

“All of you, come here,” he said. “I need to tell you what I learned in the village yesterday. Catrin, leave those biscuits alone. We won’t starve in the next ten minutes.

Obediently, Catrin and Owen seated themselves on a nearby log. Rebecca turned to face him on the folding campstool, a thick black braid lying over her shoulder.

“John Thomas Lazarus has put out a reward for our arrest for unauthorized magic. I saw it posted on the wall outside the sheriff’s office.”

“But we haven’t done anything!” Catrin cried, tears trembling on the ends of her lashes.

Rebecca said nothing, but she shut her eyes and clasped her hands in her lap. Magic users were regulated by the King. Powerful users were recruited to serve in the Kings Magi Proctors. Less powerful magic users were required to buy a license to use magic, or if proven to be of the right bloodlines, used as breeding stock. In either case, Magi were tested and licensed and paid a fee to the King to practice their arts. Unauthorized users could be hung without trial if they committed crimes using magic.

Owen started to curse, and was immediately called to order.

“Owen I’ll not have you using words like that in front of your sisters,” Lewys said sternly. “Besides, saying a thing like that about a man can get you killed in a challenge.”

“Even when he deserves it?” asked Catrin wryly.

“Yes,” her grandfather said flatly. “Especially if he deserves it. It’s about how powerful he is, not if he deserves the name.”

After a short struggle with himself, Owen said, “Yes sir. Sorry, girls.”

“Never mind that,” Catrin said. “What are we going to do?”

Her grandfather patted her hand. “I’ll think of something,” he said. In fact, he already had a plan in mind, but he wanted to talk to their guest before he came out with it.

“Now, how about breakfast? Am I to starve to death today?”

“Grandfather, what exactly does that notice say?” demanded Rebecca.

He took it out of his pocket and handed it to her. She frowned as she read it aloud. Travelers such as themselves always had a bad reputation in any new town, being automatically suspected of thievery and other less savory actions. Combined with hints of outlaw magic it spelled real trouble. Lewys and Owen were wanted for the assault and attempted murder of John Thomas Lazarus, Catrin and herself for a magical assault on Mrs. Charity Lazarus and for burning a wagon. All were hanging offenses.

They had left the village quickly after the incident hoping an old man traveling to his new hold with his grandchildren might escape notice. They never gave their real names when plying their trade as sellers of herbs and medicines in a village, but the descriptions of them on the flyer were very close. Upon fleeing Joppa, they had turned the gaudy signs on the wagon’s side inward and whitewashed the outside so the wagons looked more like ordinary travelling wagons. Unfortunately, Lewys’ treasured herd of beautiful golden draft unicorns were very noticeable, and they had been forced to stop several times and reapply the dye that turned their golden coats to a muddy brown.

“Sorcery my foot!” Owen exclaimed. “That old hag probably died of spleen when she found out what her supposedly God-fearing husband was up to!”

“Look for the mote in your own eye,” quoted Lewys, “before speaking of the one in your neighbors.”

Owen made an angry noise. “I don’t care! And don’t quote that stuff at me! I’m sick to death of—”

“Stop it! Please!” Rebecca cried.

Everyone looked at her in astonishment. She was weeping. Rebecca never cried.

“This is all my fault,” she sobbed. “I should have just done what he wanted—”

“Wash out your mouth of that filth girl!” Lewys roared. “No granddaughter of mine and Anghard’s would make a whore of herself for any reason! You did just as you should have,” he added more gently. “So did Catrin. What’s done is done, and we live now, not in the past.”

“Uh—breakfast is ready,” Catrin inserted. “That is if anyone is interested.

They stayed another day by the creek tending to the wounded man and touching up the dye they had applied to the unicorn herd. The man didn’t really wake up, but Lewys was able to get a couple of spoons of broth down him.

The first night after everyone had gone to bed, Lewys sat up late. Another man might have been ashamed of himself for what he intended to do. Lewys Maginogion was not. He had a plan to protect his family but he needed more information about his patient before he could decide how much of it was workable. He opened the saddlebags Owen had taken off the unicorn. There wasn’t much in them. One of the bags held a clean shirt, an extra needle gun, a small sleeve weapon, a package of kophie and a battered cup and pot. The other held tools for making needles and small containers of compressed air. The most interesting things he found were a gold pendant with a man and woman’s image inside and a small packet of letters.

Most of the letters were addressed to Andre Benoit. The oldest of these was dated almost ten years ago and had been written to a schoolboy.

My dear son, Lewys read,Mr. James, the head master from St. Anthony’s visited us today and I am afraid your father is veryangry with you. Dearest, you must learn to control that dreadful temper of yours or one day I fear it will lead to serious trouble. I am very proud of you for standing up for that poor young man, but was it really necessary to half-drown his tormenter in the chamber pot? And did you really need to break a valuable urn over Jimmy Hendricks head? Not but what I do sympathize with your desire to hit him with something. A more horrid brat I’ve never met and his mother is just the same—but I hear your father coming. All my love dear and do tryto stay out of trouble for a few days. All my love Mama.

There were several others, all in the same vein. The last one was not written by his mother. Instead, it was written by the Cleric at a church.

My Dear boy, my heart goes out to you at this time. I wish I could be with you to comfort you, but as I cannot, I can only tell you to call upon He who is our greatest comfort in our grief as well as in joy. Your mother did not suffer at all. Dr. Thomas tells us the fall killed her instantly. Your poor father is sorely stricken. I hope this mutual sorrow will heal the gulf that has opened between you. Call upon me if you should feel the need for my services and I will come. God be with you, Respected Vincent McCauley

There were two other letters. One was from someone named Marie. It was just a note thanking him for the money to get back home to her family and telling him of her upcoming Handfasting.

The last one was addressed to someone named Hammer Smith, desiring him to come a village named Cutterston and quoting a price of seven thousand silver coins for unnamed services.

Thoughtfully Lewys re-folded the letters and replaced them. A handful of letters wasn’t much to base his plan on, but they were all he had. ‘The Divinity helps those who helps themselves’ he reminded himself. It had been one of Anghard’s favorite sayings. Just the thought of her somehow made her seem closer. Would she have approved of what he intended? He thought so. Comforted, he turned into his bedroll and went to sleep.

The next morning dawned bright and clear. Looking into the wagon Lewys found his patient awake.

“Well,” he said, “you scared us a mite son. How do you feel?”

Andre Benoit touched his head gingerly. “If I move will it fall off?”

“Headache? Well, I think that can be helped.” Lewys rummaged around in Anghard’s medicine box until he found a small leather packet filled with white powder. He poured a tiny amount of the powder into a tin cup, added water and swished it around.

“Here,” he said, “handing Andre the cup. “This should do the trick.”

Andre accepted the cup gingerly. “Who are you?” he asked.

Lewys looked at him in well-feigned surprise. “Why don’t you know?”

There was a small silence as Andre finished his medicine. “No,” he said at last, “I don’t guess I do.”

He paused, searching his memory and then he frowned. “As a matter of fact, I don’t think I know who Iam.”

“Good Lord,” exclaimed Lewys. “I’ve heard of such a thing, but—”

Andre took him up sharply. “What do you mean?”

“Why, memory loss after a blow to the head. When I was at sea, a fella got knocked on the head like you. He claimed he didn’t know who he was either. Of course, we didn’t believe him at first, but we came down to it in the end.”

Lewys rubbed his chin. “As I recall, that fella never did get his right memory back.”

Andre carefully set his cup down on the wooden chest next to him. “Do you know who I am? How I got here? How did I get hurt?”

“Whoa son,” Lewys flung up a hand. “One thing at a time. First, your name is Andre Benoit and you’re engaged to marry my eldest granddaughter Rebecca.”

Lewys told that whopping lie without a blink. He rushed on before Andre could question him. “You’re in bed because it looks like someone took a whack at you. We’re not sure how it happened. You rode off hunting prong horn yesterday and your unicorn brought you back. I’m afraid there isn’t a lot more I can tell you about yourself before you joined us a couple of weeks back, because we only just met you.”

For once in his quick-tongued life, Andre was struck speechless. The story sounded fantastic and he wanted to hear more, but he was very tired and found himself drifting back to sleep. Lewys watched him for a minute more, then rose and left the wagon.

That had been relatively easy compared to what was next—explaining to Rebecca, Catrin and Owen what he had done and getting them to go along with it.

The girls were down by the creek, washing clothes. Owen was making a fresh pot of kophie. He had heard what had gone on between Lewys and Andre. He scowled at his grandfather and opened his mouth to speak. Lewys shook his head at him.

“Where are Rebecca and Catrin?”

“Down at the creek.”

“Good. Come with me; we’re going to have a family conference.”

“We just did that yesterday,” Owen grumbled under his breath as he followed Lewys. “Much good as it did us.”

Arriving at the creek, Lewys said jovially, “You two girls look as lovely as flowers in springtime this morning.”

Catrin and Rebecca exchanged glances over the bucket of dirty clothes. When their Grandfather started showering compliments, it generally meant he was up to something.

“Thank you,” Rebecca said politely.

Both girls waited.

Lewys cleared his throat. “All of you read that wanted notice I brought back from town, didn’t you?”

“We read it, Grandpa,” Catrin replied.

“Well, then you know there weren’t images of us, just a description of an old man, two girls and a younger man. It occurred to me that what we need here is a bit of misdirection. Now we can’t change our looks, but we can become a party of five instead of four. Ironlyn is still several weeks’ travel from here and there are several villages between it and us, including Buttersea. If we travel through those villages as a party of five, everyone who sees us will think of us a group of five people not four, even if the fifth member of the group doesn’t stay around long.”

Catrin was the first to speak. “You’re talking about the man on the war unicorn. Has he agreed to this?”

Owen made a rude noise. “He’ll probably stay. You should have heard that pack of lies Grandpa fed him!”

“What if he finds out about the wanted notice?” Rebecca asked. “He might decide to collect the two thousand coins by turning us in.”

“He might not turn us in but not want to stay either—”

“Quiet!” Lewys glared them individually into silence.

“Our young friend—his name is Andre Benoit incidentally, has lost his memory because of that clout on the noggin he took.”

“Permanently?” Owen asked. “What if he starts remembering?”

Lewys waved that aside. “Makes no difference. It’ll stay lost long enough to suit us. Now stop interrupting me! Where was I?”

“Memory loss,” Catrin supplied.

“Yes. Well I told him we met him a couple of weeks ago on the trail. He went hunting for meat and came back with a cut across his head. I also told him he was engaged to Rebecca so he’d have a reason to stay around.”

Benignly he smiled at his offspring who stared back at him with varying degrees of exasperation, horror or amusement.

“Why you old reprobate!” Catrin exclaimed.

“You,” said Owen forcefully, “are a sneaky, underhanded, unscrupulous old—I don’t know what.”

They both carefully did not look at Rebecca who had gone dead white. She raised stricken eyes to her grandfather.

“I’m sorry Grandpa, but I can’t,” she whispered. “He might want—I can’t do it.”

Lewys jerked his head at Owen and Catrin. “You two go back to camp. Rebecca and I need to talk. And mind, you remember what I told you if you talk to Andre.”

Obediently they started back to the fire. Lewys put an arm around Rebecca and felt her involuntary stiffening.

“Child, you’ve gotto do it. Ironlyn is our last hope. You know we need a permanent spot to retire—it’s getting dangerous to keep up the traveling medicine wagon, we are beginning to be too recognizable. The Proctors were asking questions about us in the last town. If can’t reach Ironlyn, they’ll hunt us down. We don’t have enough coin to start again overseas even if we could get passage on a ship. Besides the Magi Cadre is counting on us to take over at Ironlyn. You know how important that is to what we do.”

She pulled away from him and covered her face with her hands.

“Don’t you see, he’s going to think its real! I dread having even you or Owen touch me and I know you aren’t going to—every time a man even touches my hand I remember—”

She broke into sobs.

Lewys’ heart ached in pity, but he steeled himself against her tears. If she didn’t overcome this fear, she would go maimed all her life.

“Rebecca, you know it isn’t natural to feel that way. You must face your fear and overcome it. What is between a man and a woman is good, not evil.”

“What happened to me was evil!” she flashed.

“The man is evil and what he did was bad,” Lewys agreed. “I’m sorry your first experience was so ugly, but you cannot allow it to rule your life child. Do you want to end your days a sour old maid with no children to light your days as you light mine?”

Her eyes closed. “Grandpa, please!”

Lewys sighed. “Well, child I won’t force you to do this for our benefit. The Magi Cadre will find someone else to handle Ironlyn. I can sell the unicorns—”

“Stop it!” she cried. She knew her grandfather loved his unicorn herd second only to his family. It would break his heart to let them go. Her refusal would bring hurt and destitution on everyone she loved and the innocents they were charged to protect. She lifted her chin and wiped her eyes.

“You’re right. There is no other way,” she took a deep breath and gave him a watery smile. “I’ll try the best I can.”

Lewys hugged her. “That’s my brave girl. I knew I could count on you.”

Rebecca deliberately forced her body to relax. Andre would be in bed for another day or so, she hoped. Perhaps by that time she could learn not to flinch.

Catrin and Owen both looked at her anxiously when she and Lewys returned to the fire.

“Are you alright, sis?” Owen asked, his eyes widening as he realize Lewys still had his arm around Rebecca’s shoulder and she had not only walked all the way back to camp that way, but didn’t move away.

“I’m fine Owen,” she smiled at him, a rather strained smile, but a real one nonetheless. “I have agreed to Grandpa’s plan.”

Owen opened his mouth, thought better of what he had been going to say, and shut it again.

Lewys gave his granddaughter a last hug and moved toward the fire. “Catrin are you burning the biscuits?”

“No, Owen is. It’s his turn to cook,” she replied.

Aggh!” Owen leaped toward the fire to rescue his mistreated breakfast.

Rebecca took a deep breath, poured a cup of kophie, and mounted the wagon steps. Andre was awake.

“I brought you a cup of kophie. Breakfast will be ready soon.”

“I hope you’re Rebecca, because if you aren’t, I’m engaged to the wrong girl.”

An involuntary laugh was surprised out of her. “What a thing to say! It would serve you right if I denied it!”

He smiled back at her, running his eyes over her possessively.

To cover her nervousness, she said hastily, “Here, let me help you sit up. You can’t drink kophie lying down.”

This was an error, she soon discovered. It brought her entirely too close to him, making her sharply aware of him as a man. He did nothing to ease her nervousness and when she attempted to help him sit up so she could place a pillow behind his back, he put both arms around her waist and leaned against her, inhaling her scent from her breast.

“Ummn—you smell good,” he said.

“Your kophie will get cold,” she said, pushing against him.

“Better cold kophie than a cold woman,” Andre retorted teasingly. But he allowed her to settle him back against the pillow and hand him his cup.

“Where’s yours?” he asked, lifting the cup to his mouth. Any doubts as to Lewys Maginogion’s veracity had vanished the instant he set eyes on his supposed fiancée. It seemed the most natural thing in the world to him that he should have wanted to marry Rebecca. She was everything he had ever dreamed of in a woman. He was a little puzzled and hurt at her reaction to his embrace though. His dream woman wouldn’t have pushed him back.

Rebecca retreated to perch on the foot of the blankets. “Grandpa says you don’t remember us.”

Andre almost laughed aloud at this simple explanation for her stiffness. She must feel extremely awkward to have him declare he was in love with her, ask her to marry him one day and then the next be told he didn’t remember her. No wonder she hadn’t responded.

He smiled warmly at her. “I plead guilty, but since I fell in love with you again on sight, I feel I deserve a suspended sentence, don’t you?”

A Tangled Web

Over the next week, the family worked out a rhythm of doing things. Sunrise and Blackfeather had taken an instant dislike to each other, so to keep the two studs away from each other while traveling, Lewys rode his golden stallion Sunrise and Andre rode Blackfeather. One or the other of them helped Owen to drive the unicorn mare herd. The two girls each drove one of the wagons with a white-maned kitten or two sitting on the seat beside them. The kittens had doubled in size over the past weeks. When they reached their full size, they would weight approximately thirty pounds. Their breed were superb hunters, often hunting in a pride, however they easily adapted to domesticity.

Fortunately for the success of Lewys’ plan, Andre was still suffering from the effects of the blow to his head so he was too tired in the evenings to attempt to do more than attempt a few kisses with Rebecca. To Rebecca’s surprise, she gradually became accustomed to Andre’s attentions, and even managed to occasionally return a kiss.

The morning before they entered Coverville, the next village with a Trade Station attached, Rebecca brought out one of her grandfather’s soft, homespun shirts, a green bandana and a large soft hat like the ones worn by herdsman and handed them to Andre.

“Your clothes make you look too much like a hired fighter,” she said. “These will help you blend in better on the way through town.”

He turned them over in his hands, looking at her thoughtfully. He noticed that both Rebecca and Catrin had changed their usual attire this morning. Instead of the better-quality blouses they usually wore, both girls had donned faded homespun shirts and large, soft hats. In addition, Rebecca had used something to darken her porcelain white skin to make it seem tanned.

“Who are we hiding from?” he asked as he began to unlace his shirt.

She hesitated, distracted by the muscled torso he displayed as he pulled the shirt over his head. When she didn’t answer, he met her eyes, enjoying it as she turned bright red at being caught staring.

“Like what you see?” he asked, smiling. Stepping in closer, he slid a hand around her neck to bring her mouth closer for a kiss.

Up close, his body gave off a warm musky scent and she was surprised to find she wanted to touch those smooth muscles. When his mouth closed over hers, she brought up her hands to rest on his chest enjoying the feel of it under her palms. As he felt her response, his hand slid down her back pressing more of her body against his. Things might have progressed even further if there hadn’t been an interruption.

“Ouch!” yelled Owen, as he dropped the hot pan he was using to heat water for breakfast.

Rebecca gasped and stepped back from Andre, who let her go. Several encounters like this had convinced Andre that his girl wasn’t cold, she was just shy, so he was satisfied with the progress he was making.

“Rebecca,” he reminded when she started to back further away. “Who are we hiding from?”

She took a deep breath. “You might as well know there is a wanted flyer out on the four of us. Grandpa saw it in the last town we passed through.”

” You mean a wanted flyer On you?”

She nodded. “When you see it, you may not want to travel with us—”

Andre made a rude noise. “Do you have a copy?”

Rebecca climbed up inside the wagon, brought back the flyer and handed it to him.

Andre read it, a heavy frown gathering on his face. “None of you are violent. This guy Lazarus did something, what was it?”

Instead of answering, she bit her lip and turned her back, her hands covering her face.

Her reaction told him everything he wanted to know. Andre was silent while he gained control of the black rage that had suddenly risen in him. He knew better than to let it out; giving in to that anger had caused him plenty of trouble in the past. He looked at Rebecca’s shaking shoulders and closed his eyes.

“Rebecca,” he said, gently turning her to face him, “It’s alright. He won’t touch you again, I promise.”

To his dismay, she burst into tears, burying her face in his chest. Not knowing what else to do, he simply held her and rubbed her back until the storm of tears subsided.

“What’s the matter with Rebecca?” demanded Lewys, coming around the wagon.

Silently, Andre handed him the flyer.

“Oh, she told you, did she?” inquired Lewys. “Well, I suppose you had to know.”

“I asked her what we were running from,” Andre said.

Lewys sighed regretfully. “I should have made sure that animal was dead, but it would have been murder. I wanted to get my family away from there before they raised a lynch party.”

He handed Andre a handkerchief to give to Rebecca who had stopped weeping.

“Breakfast is almost ready,” he said, “Go and wash your face girl, so your brother and sister don’t see you’ve been crying.”

He motioned Andre to step out of hearing of the wagon. “I suppose you want to know what happened, don’t you?”

Andre shrugged. “I can guess. How bad was it?”

“Not quite as bad as it could have been. We were getting ready to leave that morning. Owen had gone to say goodbye to the Trade Stations daughter he was sweet on, and I’d gone into Joppa to pick up some stuff for the kid’s I’d already paid for. The girls were about to harness the unicorns, so we could leave when I got back. I guess you’re aware that some folk have peculiar ideas about travelers. When Lazarus showed up, Rebecca told Catrin to get inside the wagon and stay there. He had Rebecca down on the ground when Catrin hit him with a shovel. Owen and I got there a few minutes too late. I should have made sure he was dead, but as I said, I wanted to get my family out of there before we were arrested.”

Andre flicked the flyer scornfully. “So, this is because they blame you for defending yourselves?”

“Looks like it.” He shrugged. “The Trade Master warned me. Lazarus is a rich man who pulls a lot of weight around that area. Travelers are always easy marks though. Even before this happened we always made it a point to look as ordinary as we can when we passed through a strange village.”

He looked over at the younger man. “You’ve been good for Rebecca. It broke my heart to see her flinch whenever Owen or I accidentally bumped into her. She’s never done that with you and she’s easier with us too. I want to thank you for that if nothing else.”

They drove through Coverville and stopped a few miles outside of it at one of the Trade Stations the Shahen required be set aside for visiting trade caravans. Trade Stations were a kind of village in and of themselves. They were usually run by a family who received a stipend from the Shahen to keep them in order. Well appointed ones had clothes washing and bathing facilities travelers could use for a small fee. If a merchant caravan came through they might stay for a week, selling things they brought, trading with the villagers, and sometimes putting on entertainment for the town. This Station had a store that sold a few staples such as canned goods, blankets, pots and pans and such.

When they arrived, Owen and Andre set up the temporary rope corral to contain unicorn mares. Both stallions had to be picketed separately on either end of the two wagons to keep them from attacking each other.

When Rebecca went to the Trade station to pay the fee for access to the facilities, Andre went with her, casually catching her hand in his. The Trade Station was run by an older man and his wife called Tomilson. The wife, a plump, gray haired matron smiled knowingly at their clasped hands.

“Newlywed or courting?” she asked comfortably.

Rebecca blushed. “Uh—we’re not married.”

“Ah, courting then,” Sarsee Tomlinson said.

“Engaged,” Andre said firmly.

“Where are you folks traveling to?” her husband asked.

“Ironlyn,” Rebecca said.

“I see,” Tomilson said, withdrawing slightly. “That would make you the new Dracon then?” he asked Andre.

“That would be my grandfather,” Rebecca corrected, handing him the coins.

Several more families of travelers arrived at the Station as the day wore on, parking their wagons or setting up tents along the circle designated for that purpose. Animals were expected to be kept outside the circle. Lewys made it a point to meet each of the new arrivals as they came in, taking either Owen or Andre with him as he encountered them. Most of the people they met were simply families or single men traveling on business, who were glad to get news from outside the area. In turn, Lewys asked them about the surrounding country and about Buttersea, the next village on the way to Ironlyn. When that village was mentioned, several of the men looked over their shoulders, and finally one of them, braver than the others, said, “I wouldn’t go there, if you can avoid it.”

“Why not?” asked Andre alertly. “What’s wrong there?”

Two of the men, brothers who were going to visit their relatives in Glassfall, exchanged glances. “We don’t know for sure,” one of them said. “But we hear rumors that some of the folk who go there don’t come back, or are robbed.”

“By the village?” asked Lewys.

Jorgon, the other brother, frowned. “I don’t think so. The story I got was it happens outside of town.”

“Yes, but I heard that some of the stolen goods ended up for sale in the shops,” one of the others chimed in.

Lewys nodded thoughtfully. “Thank you for the warning. We will be on our guard.”

After dinner, one of the men who had been a part of the discussion came over to their fire. Sorson Tobias was a tall, gangly man with an open face. “Dracon Maginogion, I have a favor to ask,” he said diffidently.

“What is it, Sorson Tobias?”

“First, may I ask if you still intend to go through Buttersea?”

Lewys nodded curtly. “We must. It’s on the road to Ironlyn.”

The man took a deep breath. “Well, you see, my family is traveling that way too, and I was hoping that we could travel together. I’ve heard that it’s safer to travel in a larger group. I have only the one wagon for myself, my wife and our young son.”

“How far are you going?” inquired Andre, watching him closely.

“Until I find work,” Sorson Tobias said. “I’m a bricklayer and I’m hoping there will be work in Snowdon, the next village beyond Buttersea.”

“We would love to meet your wife and child,” Rebecca said softly. “It must be very hard traveling this way with a young one.”

“Yes,” agreed Lewys. “Why don’t you bring her over now?”

The man nodded and left.

“Thank you, Rebecca,” her grandfather said. “That was well done. What do you think? Shall we let them travel with us?”

“Yes,” both girls said.

“I want to meet the wife. If everything is as he says, it would make it safer for us also,” said Andre.

“Owen?” his grandfather asked.

“I don’t feel anything harmful from him,” Owen replied.

Sarcee Anja Tobias turned out to be a pretty young woman who looked very tired. The little boy was a dark-haired moppet with curious blue eyes. His mother had wrapped a belt around the child and attached a short rope to it, one end of which she kept attached to her wrist. It was soon seen why this was necessary, as the child, Robern, immediately tried to escape his mother’s custody by darting away from her the moment his feet touched the ground.

It rained all the next day and the night before they were due to pass through Buttersea. There was no actual trade station around Buttersea, but there was enough open ground under a grove of maconut trees just past the village to provide some protection for the three wagons. The normally peacefully gurgling creek a little way inside the grove was threatening to overflow its banks. Lewys and Owen pulled out a large tarp, which they anchored overhead between two wagons to provide shelter from the rain and wind. The unicorns were bunched under the trees close to the wagons. The two stallions seemed to declare a truce during the storm, or at any rate, they refrained from attacking each other. The three kittens complained bitterly and stayed in the wagon used by the girls for sleeping. A break easing the rain a trifle, allowed Andre and Rebecca to go down to the swiftly flowing creek for water to be heated for the dishes. At the edge of the stream, Rebecca spotted the shivering girl at the foot of a tree. Rebecca now wore the pendant she had skryed with constantly, and it had retained a small glow. When she saw the girl, it suddenly heated up and glowed a bright blue through her shirt. Rebecca gasped and pulled it out, looking at the girl in shock.

“What’ is it?” Andre asked sharply.

“We’ve found her!” Rebecca exclaimed.

“Found who?” he demanded.

“Our sister. I’ll explain when we get her back to camp.”

The girl was clad only in too-small shift and trousers, and she was barefoot. Her black hair clung wetly to her face.

“Oh, you poor thing!” Rebecca exclaimed going to kneel beside her. “Whatever are you doing out here by yourself?”

The girl raised drenched gray eyes to hers. “Don’t let them find me!” she begged.

When Rebecca touched her, the stone cooled, returning to its original bronze color. She tried to lift the child to her feet, but the girl fainted and would have fallen back down if Andre hadn’t caught her. He handed the still empty bucket to Rebecca and lifted the child in his arms.

“We need to get her back and dry her off,” he said practically.

“Put her in our wagon,” Catrin said when they arrived back at the camp. “I’ll bring some hot water. You get her out of those wet clothes.”

Rebecca hissed in anger when she stripped off the sopping clothes and found the child’s thin, pale-skinned body covered in welts and bruises from a recent whipping with a lash.

“Get some salve and bandages out of Grandmother’s medicine box,” she told Catrin. “This will sting when I clean these cuts. It’s a good thing she’s still out.”

Silently, Catrin handed her the things she’d asked for and opened their grandmother’s trunk. “What do you suppose happened to her? Where are her parents?” she asked, taking out a thick soft nightgown.

“Catrin, I think she might be our sister; Grandmother’s pendant identified her. Some animal has used a lash on her,” her sister said. “If her guardians allowed this—”

“You don’t know,” Catrin pointed out.” Maybe they did it.”

She handed the nightgown to Rebecca, helping her pull it over the child’s head just as she was regaining consciousness. While Rebecca helped the child into the bed and wrapped a blanket around her shoulders, Catrin leaned out of the wagon door and asked Owen to bring a bowl of the stew from dinner and some of the hot tea in the pot sitting on the fire. The kittens converged on the child; one of them lying across her feet, while the other two snuggled up against her legs.

Rebecca unfolded a lap tray and spread it across the girl’s knees, carefully setting the bowl and cup down on it. When she saw the bowl and cup, the child’s eyes grew round. Hesitantly she cupped the bowl between her cold hands.

“Can you feed yourself, or shall I help you?” Rebecca asked.

“Is—is this for me?” the girl asked, hardly daring to hope.

“Of course, it is,” Catrin said holding out the spoon.

“You need to eat and warm up the inside as well as the outside,” Rebecca said, lighting the burner on the small warming oven.

They waited patiently until the child had finished the stew.

“What is your name?” Rebecca asked.

The girl looked frightened. “Selene. Please don’t tell anyone you’ve seen me. He’ll be looking for me.”

“Who will be looking for you, Selene? The man who beat you?”

The girl nodded jerkily. One of the kittens, sensing distress, climbed into the child’s lap, purring loudly. The girl reached out a tentative hand to stroke his back.

“Is he your guardian?”

“No,” Selene whispered. “The Magi Proctor’s man, Leroys Torrigan.”

“I see,” Rebecca said grimly. She exchanged a glance with her sister.

“Are you going to send me back?” Selene asked fearfully.

“No, child, we are not,” Rebecca’s voice was calm. “But if we are to protect you, we need to know everything you can tell us. Why were you with him instead of being sent on to the Shahen’s school?”

Selene shuddered. “Torrigan almost never sends anyone there. He keeps the young magi for a while and then they are sold off to another place. At least that’s what the girl who was there before me said.”

“Is she still there?”

Selene shook her head. “No, they took her out a week ago. That’s when Torrigan started training me.”

“With a whip?” Catrin asked, incredously.

“No, that was because I wouldn’t do what he wanted.”

“What did he want you to do?”

Catrin gave her sister a sharp glance. From her tone, she knew Rebecca had a good idea what the child was about to tell them.

Selene swallowed. “He took off his clothes and he wanted me to—to—”

Rebecca stroked the child’s forehead. “It’s alright, darling. I know.” She smiled down at the girl. “You have family now, and we will protect you and teach you how to use your gifts to protect yourself.” She settled the girl back down on the bed and tucked her into the blankets. “Catrin will sit here with you, and the kittens will keep you company. I will be in soon to join you. I need to get the dishes cleaned up first. Sleep now.”

Going to the door, she slipped on her rain slicker and went outside. When she approached the fire, she found that the Tobias family had gone to bed in their wagon.

“When did they leave?” she asked.

“Just after you went for water,” Owen responded.

“Good,” she told the three men. “I don’t want them to hear this.”

“How is she?” asked Lewys.

Rebecca held out her hands to the dying fire. “She has been whipped and beaten, starved, and I think an attempt was made to rape her.”

Lewys gave a hiss of dismay.

“We heard something about the Magi Proctor,” interjected Andre. “Is she a Magi?”

“Yes,” Rebecca said.

“Then she landed with the right family,” Owen stated.

Andre’s eyebrows rose. “Really? And when were you going to tell me about this?”

Owen looked at him in surprise. “I thought you knew. Didn’t Rebecca show you the flyer?”

“That isn’t the same as saying the words,” Andre retorted.

Rebecca lifted a hand. “Gentlemen please! We need to get our stories straight. Now, Sorson and Sarsee Tobias only met us two days ago at the Trader Station, so I think we can simply tell them that our younger sister Selene has been ill—spotted fever, I think—and we kept her in the wagon so that’s why she wasn’t introduced to them.”

Lewys stroked his chin. “With the storm, I think that will work. We wouldn’t let a sick child out in the rain. Ah—how old is my granddaughter?”

He suddenly focused on the pendant lying outside Rebecca’s shirt. The stone resting on Rebecca’s breast was quiescent.

“It’s her?” he said, incredulously.

Rebecca nodded, smiling with tears in her eyes. “Yes, I think so. She is the right age, and—she looks like grandmother.”

“Is someone looking for her?” inquired Andre. “When we found her, she said something about ‘not letting himfind her’.”

“It’s possible. She said she was being kept by the Proctor’s man before she escaped.”

The three men exchanged glances.

“Are you alright with this?” Lewys asked Andre.

“At least the ground is going to be soft enough to bury a body,” he answered, and Lewys laughed, clapping him on the shoulder.

“Go to bed Rebecca,” her grandfather told her. “We’ll keep—?”

“Selene, is her name.”

“We’ll keep Selene safe.”

Andre walked her back to the wagon. “Don’t worry about anything. One of us will stay on watch tonight.”

She laid her hand against his face, giving him a tremulous smile. “Thank You,” she said softly. “You always make me feel safe.”

It hadn’t exactly been declaration of love, he reflected, but it gave him a warm feeling all the same. A man’s presence should make his woman feel safe. He turned his head and pressed a kiss into her palm.

Strangely enough, what she said was true. He had been with them for several weeks before Rebecca realized the hovering fear that had afflicted her since the attack had disappeared. It only took a little longer for her to associate its disappearance with Andre.

They left the next day with the rain still pouring down. Catrin mentioned casually at breakfast that morning that they had better continue to keep Selene in bed and Rebecca agreed. Andre and Lewys both asked how she was doing, and Owen prepared a plate for her. Anja and Jerlyn Tobias accepted their story of a sick child without question.

Selene was a little harder to convince. When Rebecca took her breakfast in to her, she looked up warily.

“Who are you?” the child asked.

“I am Draconi Rebecca Mabinogion, and I believe you are the child we have been looking for. You see, our mother was with child when the Proctor’s took her. We were told she had smuggled the newborn baby out of the Proctor headquarters. We have been searching for that child, who would be about your age for many years.”

“Why do you think I’m that child?”

Rebecca took out a hand mirror from the drawer where she and Catrin kept their toiletries. She handed it to Selene, who looked at it in wonder.

“Look at your face in the mirror and then look at mine,” Rebecca instructed.

The child had the same pale skin, grey eyes and black hair. Recent privations had thinned her face of any remaining childhood plumpness, so that the resemblance to Rebecca was very marked.

“What do you remember about your life before the Proctors found you?” Rebecca asked her. “Do you remember your parents?”

“I never knew anything about my father. The woman who raised me wasn’t my mother, and she didn’t tell me much. We moved around a lot. She told me if we got separated, I was supposed to go to a place called Ironlyn and they would help me,” Selene said slowly, “when I was older, Sara told me my mother was a great lady, but I wasn’t to talk about it. She caught the wasting fever in Wintermere. She had taken a job in a nursing home there. The family we were boarding with discovered I was Magi and reported me to the Proctor.”

Rebecca smiled at her. “We are on our way to Ironlyn, and I believe we are who this Sara was trying to reach. You are safe now. The family traveling with us have just come into our service, and won’t think it strange they haven’t met you yet, because we said you have been ill. You are staying inside the wagon until the weather clears so you don’t get sick again. As far as they are concerned, you have always been our little sister.”

“Why would anyone believe I’m your sister?”

“They will believe because they will be able to see how much you look like me and our Grandmother. Now, eat your breakfast, and don’t let the cats trick you—they’ve been fed.”

“What about someone who knows you?” the girl asked sensibly.

“For them, it is the same story; most of them know we have been looking for our parents fourth child. We simply say we have found you at last. Because of them taking our mother and other things, our family is bitterly opposed to the Magi system. All of us are unregistered Magi, and we belong to a group that helps Magi escape the Proctors. Now, after breakfast Catrin will bring you some warm water for washing and take you out to relieve yourself. For today, just rest and enjoy your breakfast. There are books over there in the chest if you would like to read.”

“Novels?”

Rebecca smiled. “Yes, there are some there. Please help yourself to them.”

Since there had been no work for Jerlyn in the last two villages, the Tobias family was still with them when they arrived at the Linhaven Trade Station. The journey from Buttersea had been wet and miserable for everyone as the storm continued to pound the travelers. They hadn’t been attacked outside the village; probably, Lewys had speculated aloud because not even outlaws wanted to go out in the rain.

It was late afternoon when they made camp at Linhaven Trade Station. The sun had finally broken out of the clouds that morning, and the air was beginning to warm up.

The journey had given Lewys time to evaluate Tobias. “Is bricklaying your only trade?” he asked him.

“Oh, my Jerlyn can do a lot of things,” his wife said proudly. “He made all our furniture and fixed our neighbor’s well when it got fouled.”

“Anja!” her husband protested. “They don’t want to hear all that.”

“I do,” Lewys said. “As I understand it, Ironlyn has been neglected over the past few years, and most of the staff are gone. I’m going to need a man who is handy with tools. Would you consider working for us?”

“I would be honored, Dracon,” Tobias said, bowing.

“Then let’s talk wages,” Lewys suggested. “Step into my office.” He indicated the spot by the fire next to himself.

“Is your sister Selene feeling well enough to join us for dinner?” Anja asked.

“That is a good idea,” Catrin said. “I’ll go and help her dress.”

I hope she will manage to find the girl something to wear that fits her, Rebecca thought ruefully. Clothing was something she hadn’t taken into consideration when deciding to introduce the girl as family. When they appeared, Rebecca was pleased to see that Catrin had obviously raided their Grandmother’s trunk for suitable clothes. Unlike her daughter, Angard had been a small woman, and the pink shirt and whipcord trousers fit Selene well enough. Catrin had even managed to dig out a pair of Gran’s old boots for the child.

Andre brought over folding stool for her to sit on, which she accepted with a shy smile.

“Yes,” Anja agreed, “That’s right dear. Spotted fever is nothing to fool around with. For tonight, you just sit and watch the rest of us work.”

4  The Mercs

Travelling with three wagons and a herd of unicorns slowed the journey even more. Andre and Owen took turns handling the Unicorn herd, but villages close to Trade Stations were getting further and further apart, and the animals were beginning to show the effects of the long journey.

“I think we need to stop and rest the unicorns for a couple of days,” Lewys announced after inspecting the herd. “The map shows Sandcrake, the next Trade Station, has a good pasture for herds because it’s a waystation on the Drover’s Trail. We can stay there for several days. The closest village is Wintermere and it is at least half a day’s ride, but that will mean we won’t have to worry so much about someone stealing our animals.”

“We’re low on meat too,” Andre remarked. “I saw pronghorn sign yesterday. If we stay long enough we can smoke the meat.”

“You’re very sure of getting a shot at one,” Jerlyn remarked.

Andre shrugged. “Some of the work I did wasn’t in towns. When you don’t have a steady supply of food, you learn to hunt.”

“We need to do some washing also,” Catrin put in.

Lewys was frowning when he returned from meeting the Trade Master.

“What is wrong?” Rebecca asked.

“I’m not sure,” her grandfather replied. “There is a copy of that wanted flyer Lazarus put out, along with others posted inside the store. It was being tacked up by a self-important little man when I came in. The Trade Master looked unhappy about it. He warned me the man who brought in the wanted flyers came from Wintermere. Said he was always checking on who was using the Station in the hopes of collecting a reward for reporting them.”

Andre rousted Owen out of bed before daylight to hunt the pronghorns he had seen. Rebecca and Catrin cooked a breakfast of biscuits and gravy in the dark for the hunters.

“They come out to feed at dawn and dusk,” Andre told Rebecca as he kissed her goodbye. “We want to be in place before that.”

Dawn was just breaking over the horizon when Rebecca and Selene brought the baskets of dirty clothes over to the Trade Stations Communal washroom. Rebecca worked the handle over a large tub to see if the water was hot, nodding approvingly when it came out warm.

“Good,” she told Selene, “we are the first one’s here. We won’t have to pay extra for clean water for our clothes.”

The younger girl looked at her curiously. “I’ve never used one of these places. How does this work?”

“Time you learned then,” Rebecca said cheerfully. “Start putting the clothes into the tub while I shave some soap into the water. We’ll take turns pumping the handle until the tub is full.”

Once they had the clothes in the tub of water, Rebecca sealed the lid, and showed Selene how to use the foot pedals to make the tub rock back and forth to wash the clothes.

Anja joined them, Robern again attached to her with a lead.

“You beat me here,” she said. “I thought I would be first.”

“They have several tubs,” Rebecca said. “This must be a busy station.”

The other woman nodded, dumping her basket into an empty tub. Rebecca noticed she had only a small sliver of soap to wash with and offered, “Here, we have extra soap. I know how hard it is to make it when you are traveling.”

Anja hesitated, and then took the bar and the shaving knife, smiling her thanks.

The women ran the clothes through a rinse tub and then through the Stations hand-cranked wringer to get rid of the excess water before taking them out to the communal drying lines.

Selene had volunteered to keep Robern occupied, and at Rebecca’s smiling nod, Anja had agreed. Because they were enjoying their talk, Rebecca and Anja were facing each other across the lines of wet clothes. They had almost finished the chore when Rebecca noticed the alarmed look on Anja’s face as she looked into the Station center circle. Hastily, Anja finished hanging up her load to dry and grabbed her basket.

“We should to go back to the wagons,” she said urgently.

Frowning, Rebecca turned to look behind her. A small troop of Mercs had ridden in. They stopped at the Station House, and one of them dismounted and went inside.

“Do you know them?” she asked.

Anja shook her head. “Not them specifically, but I know what they are. We had Merc troops stationed in our village several times before our home was burned in the fighting. The ones associated with the keep weren’t too bad—they lived in the village too and they had an interest in keeping the peace so they mostly behaved properly. The free Mercs—well let’s just say a woman didn’t want to be caught out alone with them around.”

Rebecca nodded. “Selene!” she called the girl who was entertaining Robern with a game of small sticks and pebbles, “We should return to the wagons.”

She picked up her empty baskets and started back through the washhouse to gather up her supplies. She still had more than two thirds of a bar of soap she had left to dry on the sink, and soap was, as she had told Anja earlier, hard to come by on the road. Anja didn’t bother, but hurried back toward the wagons, dragging a reluctant Robern.

Rebecca had just dropped the used soap bar into the empty baskets when a man entered the washroom. He was tall and wide, with sandy hair and a scruffy beard that needed the attention of a razor. He smiled when he spotted the two girls.

“Well, what have we here?” he asked.

Rebecca put an arm around Selene and moved toward the door. He moved to block their exit.

“Don’t run away pretty girl,” he said. “My name’s Jokan, what’s yours?”

Rebecca looked him up and down with no expression on her face. “I am Draconi Rebecca Sancha il’Maginogion, and this is my sister Draya Selene,” she told him haughtily. She didn’t often use her title, but she felt it might make him wary of offending her.

Instead he laughed. “My, aren’t you the high and mighty one. I’m going to enjoy getting acquainted with you.”

“We have not been introduced, Sorson,” she said coldly. “Kindly move out of our way.”

When he didn’t move and Selene gave a frightened whimper, Rebecca readied herself to use her Magi abilities. If she pushed past him and encouraged her shove with a telekinetic shove, it would make him step out of the way and they could get out the door. Just as she was about to make her move, Andre stepped into the room, and Rebecca felt a wave of relief. She relaxed, smiling reassuringly down at Selene. Taking in the situation at a glance, Andre shifted his body between the girls and the Merc.

“Is he bothering you, love?” he asked Rebecca, not taking his eyes off the other man, who was staring at him in astonishment.

“Hammer Smith?” he said incredously. “Where did you spring from?”

When Andre didn’t answer him, he apparently realized he had overstepped a line. “Is she with you? Sorry man, I didn’t know you were working for them.”

“I’m not,” Andre said. “Rebecca, take Selene and go to the wagons. Stay there, and keep Catrin there as well.”

He moved with them toward the door, and the Merc stepped aside so the girls could exit the building.

Once outside the door, Rebecca handed Selene the baskets. “Run to the wagons and tell Grandpa and Owen about this. Tell Catrin to stay with you at the wagons.”

“Andre told both of us to go,” Selene protested.

“I know, but that Merc isn’t alone. Andre may need help.”

Rebecca leaned back against the wall, listening to the men inside as she watched her sister run to their wagons. She looked around, checking for any of the other Merc’s headed toward the washhouse.

“If you’re not working for her family, how do you know her?” the Merc demanded.

“She belongs to me,” Andre told him. “Anyone who bothers her is going to answer to me, understand?”

“Sure,” Jokan agreed hastily. “No problem. I didn’t know she was taken. I saw a prettier girl over in the wagons anyway. One skirt’s as good as another.”

“Rebecca’s sisters, and the wives and daughters of any man who works for us are off limits, Jo. You be sure to tell the others. I’d hate to kill one of them over a misunderstanding.”

“Sure,” Jokan said. He went over to one of the full tubs and opened his war bag to dump in some clothes, whistling as he started his laundry.

Andre watched him for a few minutes, then turned and went out the door Rebecca had used. He stopped in his tracks when he saw her waiting for him, a small fireball rolling in her palm.

He caught her wrist, looking down at her hand. She closed her fist and the ball of flame disappeared. Curiously Andre rubbed a finger over her palm. It was cool to the touch.

“Didn’t I tell you to go back to the wagons?” he said.

“I know,” she replied, “but he isn’t here alone. I saw a whole troop ride in earlier.”

He looked at her, a small, delighted smile playing around his lips. “And you were going to use that to help me?”

She nodded, ducking her head and looking at him sideways, not sure how he would react to this display of Magi talent.

Andre brought her palm to his mouth and pressed a kiss into it. “I wasn’t in any danger, Darling.”

“Well, I realize that now,” she admitted. “I stayed because I knew he would have challenged Grandpa or Owen and I supposed it would be the same with you. Why didn’t he?”

“He knew better,” Andre told her dryly. “He and I worked together a couple of times. Jokan Locklear never saw the day he could beat me in a fight.”

He tucked her hand under his arm and started back toward the wagons.

“He called you by another name,” Rebecca said. “Hammer something.”

“I used the name Hammer Smith when I fought as a Merc,” Andre said, watching her expression to see if his past occupation offended her.

“Is he a friend?” she asked.

“Not really, we just worked together, that’s all.”

“I’m glad. I didn’t like him,” she admitted. “A friend of yours is always going to be welcome to me, but I’m glad that man isn’t a friend. He frightened Selene.”

He nodded soberly. “I saw that. I passed the word to leave you girls alone, but it will be better if you stick close to our wagons until they leave.”

“Anja and I both left clothes there on the lines,” she told him. “We will need to go back and get them this afternoon when they are dry.”

“I’ll go with you,” he promised.

“Was your hunt successful?” she asked.

He grinned. “Got two buck pronghorns. Owen did okay with his crossbow. We can spend a couple of days curing the hides and smoking the meat. I had to hang them pretty high; your cats kept trying to drag the meat down.”

They had parked their wagons far enough from the station house and any other travelers to give them some privacy. Trade Stations were neutral territory, but they were hotbeds of gossip as well. Lewys never wanted to be close enough to other Travelers that a casual observer could listen in on their conversations. Anyone could stop at the Stations and be sure they would be let alone if they behaved properly. The Station Master had the right to summon the Sheriff of nearby towns if trouble occurred. When the Stations had first been established, the Shahen had also stationed soldiers at them to enforce order. Long custom made that no longer necessary.

The women spent the afternoon cutting the meat into strips. When Rebecca gave Anja a quarter of the meat, the woman teared up. “Thank you,” she whispered.

Andre showed Owen how to build a smoking rack while Rebecca and Catrin cut the meat into thin strips for smoking. Although it would take several days to finish curing, by evening the smoked meat was beginning to give off an appetizing odor. Selene had been given the task of keeping the kittens from burning their paws when they tried to get close enough to steal a strip of the meat.

The women were starting to prepare dinner when a man on an old zebra unicorn rode up to their wagons, stopping a little way from entering the camp. “May I come to the fire?” he called.

“Come in,” Lewys said easily. Tobias noted that Andre and Owen both moved into the shadows to cover the camp and he did the same, approving of the precautions.

The man was young, but he showed signs of hardship. His clothes were worn and the unicorn looked gaunt.       “Dracon Maginogion?” he asked hesitantly.

When Lewys nodded, he said, “I am Sorson Lorkeet. I was told that you might be wanting some goats to restore the herds at Ironlyn?”

“Perhaps. Do you have goats?”

Lorkeet took a deep breath. “Yes. My family has been goatherds for many generations, but we recently lost our holding and are looking for a new patron.”

Andre and Owen came back to the fire. “He’s alone,” Andre said.

Lorkeet looked a little startled and then he smiled. “You are a careful man, Dracon.”

“Yes, I am,” Lewys agreed. “I’d like to see the goats before I talk any deals.”

Lorkeet nodded. “We are camped just over the hill there. We can go now if you want.”

“He’s alone, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a trap,” Andre said. “He could have a crew waiting over there.”

Lewys looked at his grandson.

“Owen?” he asked.

Owen shook his head. “I don’t feel anything like that from him.”

Lewys stroked his chin. “I see. Well, I think that you and Andre will stay here just in case. Tobias and I will go and look at goats.”

While they were saddling the unicorns, Owen saw Andre go to the wagon and retrieve his needle gun and a sword which he belted on in addition to the long knife he always wore. Owen decided to imitate the example and went to the wagon shared by the men for his own crossbow and needle gun. Seeing the weapons, Andre nodded approvingly.

He signaled Owen and the pair of them slipped out of the firelight to make a round of the camp. “Do you think someone really is out here?” Owen asked.

Andre held up a hand and pointed at Blackfeather and the unicorn mares who were stamping nervously. “You hear that? The unicorns think there is and I don’t think its Lorkeet or his people. See how they keep looking back toward the road from the village? It might be an animal, but it could be human too. Let’s make a circle around the camp.”

What the unicorns heard was human. As they finished their circle, a small group of riders trotted right up to their wagons and stopped. Behind her, Rebecca heard Selene gasp in fear. She moved so her body partially shielded the girl, reaching back to grasp her hand.

“Who are you, and what are you doing here?” Rebecca demanded. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Owen moving into positon behind the riders with the bolt drawn on his crossbow. When Andre came up to stand between them and the men, she felt a surge of confidence.

“It’s going to be fine, you’ll see,” she whispered to the girl. “Andre will take care of it.”

“I’m Korman, the Sheriff of Wintermere, and I’m looking for a fugitive,” the short, round man in the front announced.

“You didn’t stop at the Station to check yourselves in. Approaching a camp at night without warning is a good way to get dead, Sheriff,” Andre drawled. “We don’t have any fugitives here. Just our family, our workers and their families.”

“So you say. I’m going to search the camp anyway,” the Sheriff said. “She could be hiding in one of the wagons.”

She? It takes five men to hunt a woman?” Andre asked disdainfully. “Sheriffs are a lot tougher where I come from.”

“She’s not a woman, she’s a kid and she’s Magi,” the sheriff said. He and the others dismounted.

“About the age of that one there,” a townsman in rich clothes said, indicating Selene, who shivered.

“That’s my little sister,” Rebecca snapped.

When one of the men started to approach the nearest wagon, Owen shot a crossbow bolt into the ground front of him. “There’s more where that came from,” he called cheerfully from the shadows. The man backed up nervously, looking to the Sheriff for guidance.

“If you’re looking for a Magi,” Andre said, “Where is the Magi Proctor? You have no jurisdiction without one. I would advise you to mount back up and leave.”

The tone of his voice made Sheriff Korman take another, more careful look at Andre. When he did, he took a mental step back. Despite the soft clothes and herdsman’s hat, it was obvious this man hadn’t always been a traveler. He was too sure of himself when confronting armed men. Andre’s hand rested lightly on his hip, within easy reach of the needle pistol, and his sword and knife in their well-worn sheaths had seen plenty of service. Everything about Andre shouted ‘Merc’ to the Sheriff, and he wavered. He had no lust to take on a trained fighter; he knew hewould be the first target in a fight. Damn that Sorris for a meddling Busybody. He hadn’t wanted to come all this way out here anyhow, he thought bitterly.

The decision was abruptly taken out of his hands. There was the thunder of heavy unicorn hooves, and Lewys rode smack into the middle of the dismounted riders, who scrambled to get out of the way. He wheeled the massive golden stud around to face them, not caring if the posse was trampled in the process.

“What the devil is going on here?” he roared, in his best Lord of the Manor voice.

Behind Andre, Rebecca put an arm around the shaking Selene’s shoulders.

Being dismounted was distinct disadvantage. The Sheriff was forced to look up into Lewys’ face. “I am Sheriff Korman of Wintermere. We are here in search of a wanted Magi.”

“A girl about that age,” the overdressed townsman pushed his way forward and started toward Selene. He stopped, backpedaling hastily when he suddenly found ten inches of fighting blade in his face. Andre held the knife in the easy grip of men who know steel.

“You’ve been told who she is,” Andre said softly. He stared directly into the townsman’s eyes, his own gone flat and hard.

“Sorris! Stand down!” the sheriff shouted, correctly interpreting how close to death the townsman was.

Sorris backed away from Andre before turning on the Sheriff, blustering to hide his embarrassed fear. “See here, Korman, if you won’t do anything to find the girl, I will. I think these people are hiding her. I bet I have a flyer on them too. Look at this!” he thrust a sheet of paper under Korman’s nose.

Korman sighed. “Sorris, this plainly describes a party of four people. I count at least twice that number here. Get back on your unicorn before I decide to let this young man split you like a roasting bird. The rest you mount up also,” he added, going to his own mount.

“Sorry for the intrusion—” he waited for Lewys to supply the name.

“Dracon Lewys il’Maginogion of Ironlyn,” he was informed.

“Dracon Maginogion, my apologies to you and your family,” Korman said, reflecting sourly as he left that, he had probably just offended the Dracon of one of the strongest keeps in the area. Ironlyn was a long way from Wintermere, but the nobility had lingering memories.

As soon as the posse disappeared into the darkness, Celine jumped off her stool and threw her arms around Andre, sobbing, “Thank you.”

Taken aback, he patted her shoulder. “It’s okay, they’ve gone. You are safe with us.” He looked helplessly at Rebecca, who came and kissed his cheek.

“You were wonderful,” she told him smiling. “I knew you would keep us safe.”

“Hey!” her grandfather protested. “What about me? Didn’t I help too?”

Catrin laughed. “Yes, Grandpa, you’re wonderful, and so is Owen. Thank you.”

 

WANT TO READ MORE? PRE-ORDERNOW SO YOU DON’T MISS OUT

 

 

An amnesiac Merc on the run falls for a sorceress hiding deadly secrets.In the Kingdom of Askela being born a Magi means slavery to the Kings Witch Proctors or a death sentence.Rebecca will do anything to save her family from them—and she accepts marriage to a Merc with a price on his head, not expecting to fall in love. But to be together, Andre and Rebecca will start a war to remake their entire world. Can They do it?

 

Spell of The Magi

A Portal World Tale

Gail Daley

In The Beginning

On a planet called Earth in the Milky Way Galaxy, a way to travel from world to world was discovered in the late 22nd Century. Were these new worlds simply other planets in the known galaxy or did the gateways lead to other dimensions with other physical laws? Or perhaps—both?

         Earth itself was constantly beset by strife and wars. The portals became simply another item to be fought over. It came to pass that a group on the losing side of a conflict captured and held a Portal for a space of half a year, and seeing inevitable defeat in their future, sent their families ahead to another world. As the winning forces flooded the city, the last of the fleeing losers fled through the Portal, erasing their destination as they left so they couldn’t be hunted down by their enemies.

         Travel now to the world of Rulari the new home of the escaping Terrans. Not only does time march differently on Rulari, but this world answers to the rule of will, heart, mind and of magic as much as the laws science that had governed on earth.

         Humans are very adaptable and began to prize those families with the ingrained talent to use magic. In the years since man first came to Rulari, Seven Places Of Power were searched out, new portals established and enclosed in keeps held by the seven of the most powerfully gifted families. Formidable wards were created and set to assure the keeps stayed in the control of the families, who were sworn to serve the best interest of the magic users or Magi as they came to be called. One of the ancient keeps was Ironlyn, on the northwestern sea of the country of Askela. It is held by a family named Mabinogion.

The Witchlings

KathleaMabinogion, heritary Draconi to the shire of Ironlyn, was a powerful, unregistered Magi. Her much loved husband Maxton was a great soldier, but he had no talent other than his swordplay. Magi were highly valued in the kingdom of Askela but only if a registered member of the Elite Kings Magi Proctors. Unregistered Magi were hunted by the Magi Proctors and forced to join. When a Magi joined the Proctors, to ensure loyalty only to the King and the Proctors, the Proctors insisted all family ties be broken. The Proctors would choose a mate for you, to breed stronger Magi. It mattered little to the Proctors if the Magi ‘recruited’ was already mated, in a relationship or if they even liked their assigned partner. If she had been a registered Magi, Kathlea would never have been allowed to marry Maxton. If the Proctors caught her, her children would be tested for Magi talents. Any of her Magi gifted children would be separated from their parents and sent to a special school where they were indoctrinated in loyalty to the Proctors above all else.

Kathlea had born Maxton three children, Rebecca, age ten and the twins Catrin and Owen, age four, all of whom were showing signs of nascent Magi talent. There was also hope of a fourth child, but Kathlea hadn’t yet shared that with her family on that fatal day when the Proctors found them.

Years ago, the rebellious unregistered Magi of Askela had formed a network called the Magi Cadre to enable Magi to escape the nets spread by the Proctors. Travelers like the Maginogion family picked up Magi hiding from the Proctors and aided them to escape to neighboring countries where the Magi Laws were different. For the truly desperate, there was Ironlyn Keep and a portal.

Magical in itself, Ironlyn had defied attempts by the King and the Magi Proctors to force their way into it. Unable to break the wards or decipher the spell that created them, the Proctors continually searched for members of the bloodline in the hope they would be able to control them and in turn control so powerful a resource.

The family belonged to the Magi Cadre dedicated to helping Magi escape the Proctors. Joined by Kathlea’s parents, the family traveled around the kingdom in wagons, eking out a living selling spices, potions and medicine to various villages, while a cousin without Magi abilities held Ironlyn for them. On Rebecca’s tenth birthday, the Proctors found her mother. Her grandparents had driven their wagon into a nearby village to meet their contact and pick up a Magi hiding there. Kathlea and Maxton had stayed behind because it was rumored the Proctors were in the village, and Lewys Maginogion felt that two traveler wagons would draw too much attention.

Rebecca and the twins had been playing under the wagon when Kathlea suddenly stood up and looked towards the town.

“What is it?” Maxton demanded.

“He’s coming!” Kathlea gasped. “I feel him. He knows I’m here.”

She turned to Rebecca. “Go! Hide where we found the berries. Be quiet, and keep the twins quiet also. Don’t come out whatever you see or hear. Promise me!”

“I promise,” Rebecca said. She grabbed Catrin and Owen’s hands and ran into the bushes. They barely made it before the Proctor and his men thundered into camp.

The Proctor immediately cast a Binding Spell on Kathlea to keep her from using her Rainbow Magic to help her husband as he fought the Proctor’s guards. Rebecca could see the bubble of magic over her mother push outward as Kathlea tried to break through it. Hidden in a hollow in the brush with her hands covering the mouths of her brother and sister, she watched in terror as her father fought the guardsmen who came with the Proctor.

Catrin whimpered. “Hush!” Rebecca breathed and the children obediently stilled.

The Proctor had brought ten guards with him. Maxton fought like a demon to reach him, slaying all but four of his guards before an unlucky strike brought him down. Kathlea screamed.

“Shut up woman!” the Proctor yelled. “You are Magi and a strong one. I will let him live if you do not resist.”

Sobbing, Kathlea allowed herself to be led away, the bubble binding her to the saddle. The remaining guards loaded up their dead and wounded comrades and followed their master.

Rebecca made the twins wait until the Proctor and his men had disappeared before they came out of hiding. Maxton was unconscious but alive. Anghard, Rebecca’s grandmother had just begun to teach the girl healing, but she bathed and bound her father’s wounds as well as she could, applying a poultice of crushed bayberry and skunkweed to stop the bleeding.

Lewys and Anghard had been forced to watch as the Proctor led their captive daughter through the village, arriving back at the camp to find Maxton alive but still unconscious.

As soon as he was recovered, he left to try and rescue his wife from the Proctors. The family packed up and left the area, traveling in a roundabout way toward the Capitol city of Khios where the Proctors was headquartered, hoping to be able to help their daughter and her husband.

Lewys learned through his contacts in the Magi Cadre that Kathlea had arrived there and been taken into the inner courts for training, but he could discover nothing more. Almost a year later, news came that Maxton and Kathlea were both dead.

“It is a tale to sing of that will inspire rebels against the Proctors for generations,” the woman, an escaped Magi, brought the news. “He fought his way in to her, and they defied the Chief Magi himself, but they were trapped on the highest tower of the castle above the ocean cliffs. They kissed each other and jumped into the ocean. It is believed they drowned.”

Anghard sobbed. Lewys Maginogion’s face was hard.     “Someday, I will kill them,” he said. “All who support this cursed system that destroys families.”

The woman telling the tale looked frightened. “There is more,” she whispered. “It is rumor only, but they say your daughter was delivered of a babe who was sent out of the city.”

“What happened to the child?” Anghard asked, a desperate hope in her voice.

The woman shrugged. “A servant woman was paid to smuggle her out of the nursery. That is all I know. I’m sorry.”

“You are sure the babe was a girl?”

The woman hesitated. “That is what I was told, but—”

Anghard pressed her hand. “Thank you.”

Fire Magic

Thirteen years passed and the family never forgot their lost daughter or the child she might have born. The night the fever took her grandmother, spring was just starting to push up through the ground, frozen hard with winter. The had been able to find a few spring blooms to scatter on her body as she and Catrin prepared it for the dawn service. Rebecca stood under the funeral Pyre looking up at the sky, feeling the weight of responsibility on her shoulders, now that her grandmother was no longer there to share it. Anghard had fought the wasting illness, and fought hard, but after months of agonizing illness, she succumbed. “You will be Draconi now,” she told Rebecca. Holding her granddaughter’s firm young hand in her wasted one. “Take care of your grandfather and your brother and sister. It will be up to you to find our lost one now.” She had pressed an amulet into Rebecca’s hand. “Use this to help you skry for her.”

“I’ll find her grandmother,” she vowed. “Mother is gone, but if her child lives, I’ll find her. I promise.”

“It’s hopeless,” Catrin said, wiping her eyes. She and Owen were sixteen now, a tall strapping pair, with curly dark hair and sunny smiles. Just now their faces both showed evidence of grief.

Rebecca looked over at Lewys Maginogion’s ravaged face. He would miss his beloved Anghard. She reached for her sibling’s hands. “He will stay with her tonight, I think. Let’s go back to camp.”

Dinner that night was a simple stew which they ate in silence. Afterwards, Owen moved the rope corral around the unicorn herd to a fresh location. The herd consisted of twenty mares and half-grown colts. It was their Grandfather’s pride and joy. Moving from village to village, Lewys would occasionally sell one of the younger ones, if he decided an owner was worthy to own one, but they all knew the herd was destined for the pastures of Ironlyn when they finally took up residence there.

Anghard’s funeral pyre would be set afire at dawn, as was the custom. Rebecca and Catrin were finishing up the supper dishes and setting out the bread to rise for breakfast the next morning, when they had unwelcome visitors.

John Thomas Lazarus was an important man in the nearby village of Stonhenge. He had expected these Travelers to be awed by his importance, and was displeased when they were not.

“What, no dancing around the fire? I was looking forward to that,” he said jovially.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Lazarus,” Rebecca replied quietly. “We are not entertaining visitors tonight. This is a camp of sorrow. Our grandmother Anghard passed into the great beyond this afternoon. Please excuse us.”

She went back to wiping down the clean plates, ignoring him, hoping he would take the hint and go away.

Instead, he threw some coins down on the ground. “Here, I’ll pay for my entertainment.”

She made no move to pick up the coins. “No, Sir.”

Lazarus frowned, but he hesitated. “Maybe I should ask the old man. Where is he?”

“Grandfather is sitting vigil with Grandmother,” Owen, who had just returned to the camp, replied.

Lazarus looked at him in incredulity. “You mean someone really did die?”

The three just looked at him in silence.

“I see. Alright, I’ll be back tomorrow then.” He turned and left.

Owen spat on the ground at his back.

“Make sure he really leaves,” Rebecca said. “I intend to skry for our lost sister tonight, and I don’t want a witness.”

“He and the others have left the Trade Station Circle and headed back into town,” Owen reported. “Becca, are you sure this is a good idea? Grandmother always did it before.”

Rebecca pulled out the bronze stone that had been Anghard’s last gift to her. “Yes. I feel her spirit strongly tonight. She will help me before she passes on. I know it.”

Catrin unrolled the ancient map of the kingdom, stretching it on the wooden folding worktable that served a variety of uses. She held down the map corners with four flat stones.

Rebecca pulled the necklace over her head and held the stone in one hand. She cut a small prick in her finger and rubbed it over the stone. Holding the stone over the map, she rubbed the blood on its surface.

“Bone of my bone, blood of my blood, flesh of my flesh, seek now she who is lost.”

Catrin picked up the knife and did the same. Handing the knife to Owen, she too rubbed the stone and map with a bloody fingertip, and repeated the chant.

After a second’s hesitation, he repeated the actions and joined in the chant.

At first, nothing happened, but finally, the stone began to swing gently. There was a surge of power and then the stone pulled strongly toward the west, finally coming to rest on the symbol for the village of Buttersea.

All three felt the soft caress as Anghard left them for the final time.

“What have you done?” Lewys demanded.

Catrin looked up at him with tears running down her face. “It was grandmamma. I felt her,” she sobbed.

“We all felt her,” Rebecca said coolly. “Look, we have a destination.”

Lewys stared down at the map with the stone resting on it. “Yes,” he sighed. “We will be going west in the morning. I heard from Cousin Lerrys. He needs to leave Ironlyn. The local Proctor is getting suspicious of him because so many Magi have disappeared in the area surrounding Ironlyn. We will go home. That village is on the way. If your sister is there, we will find her.”

Rebecca nodded. “We will be ready.”

“I need to go into Joppa tomorrow and pick up the supplies I ordered. You three will stay here and pack up so we can leave when I return,” Lewys instructed.

At dawn, Lewys came to wake them. They stood quietly, while he lit the pyre, watching in silence as Anghard’s earthly remains were consumed.

Breakfast was a subdued meal. Afterwards, Lewys put a pack saddle on one of the mares, saddled his stallion, Sunrise and left for Joppa, the village outside the Trade Station. His grandchildren began packing the two wagons for the journey. It was a complicated process. The limited space meant that everything had to be stowed in exactly the right place or it wouldn’t all fit.

Packing took longer than it should have because Owen kept stuffing things in higgledy-piggledy. It was obvious he was in a hurry. After she had unloaded and re-packed the things he had already packed several times, Rebecca turned to him in exasperation. “What is wrong with you? This will take forever if you aren’t more careful. Why are you in such a hurry?”

Catrin laughed. “He wants to get done so he can hurry over and say goodbye to Fiona,” she said with a knowing look.

“The Station Master’s daughter?” Rebecca inquired.

Owen nodded.

“Okay, take off then,” his sister said. “The way you’re working, we’ll get on better without you. Scram!”

Her little brother kissed her cheek and loped off toward the Trade Station.

“Grandpa told us all to stay here,” Catrin remarked.

“I know,” Rebecca replied, “but he’s only young once.”

Catrin laughed and began repacking the pots and pans Owen had made a mess of.

“Leave a space for what Grandpa is bringing back,” Rebecca reminded her.

“What is it, do you know?” Catrin asked.

“Not a clue,” her sister replied. “He was very mysterious about it.”

“Well, we’ve finished,” Catrin said, a few minutes later. “I suppose we can harness the unicorns. Whose turn is it today?”

Lewys’ prize unicorn herd were mostly draft animals and to keep from overusing any of them, the family rotated the ones used to pull the wagons.

“Let’s rotate the teams,” Rebecca suggested. She went to the rope corral and called four mares to her. She was about to lead them over to the front of the first wagon when they again had an unwelcome visitor; Lazarus was back.

“Not leaving already are you?” he asked Catrin, looking the girl up and down in a way that made her flush with embarrassment.

“Yes, we are,” Rebecca answered him. She deliberately led the four large unicorns between him and Catrin, forcing him to move back out of the way.

“Really?” he sneered. “Leaving without allowing me to sample your wares? I don’t think so.”

Rebecca’s eyes narrowed. She understood exactly what type of ‘wares’ he referred to, but pretended she didn’t.

“I’m afraid we’ve already packed away our herbs and medicines, Mr. Lazarus,” she said.

“I’m not talking about any piddly spices girl and you know it,” he said.

“Catrin, get in the wagon and lock the door,” Rebecca told her sister.

Catrin hesitated, but obeyed her.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Lazarus,” Rebecca continued, “but we aren’t receiving visitors, and my grandfather and brother will be back soon. I need to get our unicorns harnessed. Please excuse me.”

She lined up the unicorns and was preparing to throw the first harness over one’s back when Lazarus grabbed her.

Rebecca fought him, but he was stronger than she. When she landed a lucky kick on his knee, he slapped her hard across the face. The dizzying blow stunned her long enough for Lazarus to rip her blouse open. He yanked her to him and mashed his mouth down on hers.

When she tried to turn her head away, he grabbed a handful of her hair and forced her face back to his. With her arms pinned against his body, she was unable to move. Finally, she managed to free one of her arms and stabbed at his eyes with her fingers.

Lazarus hit her again, this time with his fist. She stumbled and fell to her knees, dizzy. He knocked her the rest of the way to the ground, following it up by falling on her body. He tore her blouse the rest of the way off, biting at her bared breast. The pain brought her awake, and she clawed at his face and head.

When she felt him fumbling at the buttons on her pants, she knew she wasn’t going to be able to stop him unless she used her Magi talents. Rebecca was a fire Magi; fear and anger ignited her Magic. A fireball burst in his face, causing his greasy hair to catch fire. Lazarus screamed and drew back, slapping at his burning hair.

Suddenly, he was knocked off Rebecca by the solid twack!of a camp shovel wielded by Catrin, who had disobeyed her sister and come to help. He fell to the side unconscious, with his hair still smoldering.

When Lewys and Owen arrived a few minutes later, they found Rebecca leaning on her sister’s shoulder while Catrin applied one poultice to her swollen face and another to the vicious bite mark on her breast.

Lewys looked down at Lazarus in silence. He had checked the man for life signs and was disappointed to find him still alive. “You should have made sure he was dead,” he informed his granddaughters.

“We can still do that,” Rebecca said, half hysterically.

“No, child we can’t. It would be murder. Owen, go and get Trade Master Jordan.”

When Catrin started to take Rebecca inside the wagon, Lewys stopped her. “Better he sees her just like she is, so he knows this was justified,” Lewys said.

The Trade Master arrived in Owen’s wake, puffing. He was a round man, no longer made for running.

“Oh, no, Oh, no,” he kept repeating, wringing his hands. “This is bad.”

“It was self defense,” Lewys reminded him. “Look at my granddaughter. Since when is it bad to stop a man from raping her?”

“Since the man is John Thomas Lazarus!” Jordan snapped. “You don’t live here. He is the most powerful man in this county. He owns half the farms around here and at least a third owe him money. He pretty much does as he pleases.”

“Including rape?” demanded Lewys.

“I’ve heard rumors,” Jordan said. “Well, the first thing is to get you out of here. You boy,” he pointed at Owen. “Get those unicorns harnessed. I’m going to the village to round up a few men to help me collect Lazarus and take him back into town to a healer. You need to be on the road by the time I return from town. I can give you about an hour. Who knows? Maybe he’ll die in the meantime and solve both our problems.”

While Lewys and Owen harnessed the unicorns to the wagons, Rebecca threw off her torn blouse and put on a loose comfortable shirt. She mounted the wagon box and took her place to drive.

“Are you able to do this, girl?” her grandfather looked at her from the back of his golden unicorn.

She set her hat firmly on her head and nodded. “Yes, lets just go away from here.”

They camped that night by a small creek deep in the black leaf forest, Lewys having decided that it would be wiser to avoid the Trade Stations until they were a long way from Joppa. Spring had brought out a few fresh grasses in the glade next to the stream for the animals to feed on.

The next morning, he had them whitewash the sides of the wagons, and cover that color with blue, so red sided wagons would appear a different color. He also instructed Catrin how to prepare a concoction he said would dye the unicorn’s coats a different color. It turned Sunrise and the mares’ golden coats to a dull brown.

To make Owen appear older, he brought out a fake beard for him to put on each morning.

It was while they were dying the unicorns that Rebecca found the three hungry kittens near the body of their mother. They were very young and hadn’t yet grown the white manes they would have as adults. Gathering up the kits in her arms, she brought them back to camp. Milking one of the nursing unicorns, she mixed the rich milk into a feed for them.

For several weeks, the family continued to travel west avoiding any villages and Trade Stations. Spring was in full bloom, when they camped in a clearing outside the village of Duranga. Duranga had no proper Trade Station, but the town had designated the clearing as common ground where Travelers or Trade Caravans could stop over.

A Spell Is Cast

Harry Sims, the proprietor of the Glass Slipper Tavern, was an unhappy man on this fine spring evening. He should have been happy. The Glass Slipper was full. The Spring Jamborees for local stock collection and sale had just finished and all the holdings, small and large were in town and spending coin freely.

The chief cause of his unhappiness was not the rowdiness of the crowd; he was long accustomed to that. No, the cause of his worry was the five-man dice game going on in the corner. Harry knew four of the five players well. Leej Jonsyn, the rug merchant, was losing and was going to be in trouble with his wife. Ruddy Tyer, a long, skinny kid from Gryphon’s Nest, was still reasonably sober but he would lose his Jamboree bonus before the end of the night. Charger French, a squatty rider from back in the badlands with, it was said—but notwhere he could hear it—a reputation for shady deals. The fourth player was Jajson Buttersnake the son of old ‘Rock’ Buttersnake, the biggest cattle breeder around. Jajson figured he was top dog in the town of Drycreek because no one dared challenge the son of old Rock. Rock ran a tough, salty crew of drovers. They didn’t much like the boss’s son, but they would take his side in a fight.

It was the fifth dice thrower who worried Harry. Harry had seen him ride into town earlier that day on the highbred, dapple war unicorn presently taking up space at Harry’s hitching rail. The stranger wasn’t a big man; he stood around five-eight with a short, neatly trimmed black beard and cold green eyes. To Harry, who as a young man had seen quite of few of his kind, the stranger had ‘Merc’ written all over him. His clothes were of too good quality and too clean, his thigh-high boots too new and shiny, and the saddle on that fancy unicorn stud was too pricey for a coin-a-day drover. His needle-gun was tied low on his leg in a well-worn holster, and unless Harry was mistaken, in addition to the one on his belt, he had a blade down his back, one in his boot, and a second gun hidden in his other boot.

Absently, Harry polished a glass while he tried to place the man. He didn’t look that familiar, but the blood feud over to the south between the RedBird and Smoker clans had just finished. Before he died, the Smoker Chief Hutchins had claimed Rupert RedBird was hiring paid Mercs and the stranger had ridden in from the south.

The practice of hiring fighters from the Merc Guild in disputes wasn’t against the law, but it was disapproved of by Shahen Tarragon. Since the Merc Guild was very powerful and used by many to settle disputes, his disapproval didn’t mean much. The Guild was composed of hundred of bands of independent fighters and reputed to have ties with the Wild Magi. The Mercs were completely independent of any government, and the Guild’s influence stretched to all seven of the human kingdoms. Since siding with the Shahen against the Guild might mean you couldn’t hire fighters in your next dispute, few landholders wanted to chance it. Rumor had it the Shahen was also trying to consolidate more power to the crown by discouraging holders from keeping their own private armies. Because of his father’s illness, the Shahen had been named Regent and virtually ruled in his father’s stead. Attempting to force the nobles to disband their large standing armies using his Magi Proctors would be a disaster. Despite the Proctors’ Magi talents, they were outnumbered by the Mercs whom the landowners would doubtless call upon for help if he tried it.

Harry swore softly to himself. If he was correct about the identity of the fifth dice player, it might mean he  belonged to a troop he could call on if there was trouble. He was alone right now, but that didn’t necessarily mean he didn’t have allies. And Harry was sure trouble was brewing. Jajson Buttersnake was drunk. When he was sober, he was a poor card player and an even worse loser. Because he ran with the Buttersnake mob, he was usually safe when he had a tantrum; no one in his right mind wanted to start a fighting ruckus with Old Rock’s crew.

Harry had a bad feeling the fifth dice player wouldn’t give a damn how tough Old Rock Buttersnake’s crew was. There was just something in that dark face that said, ‘I don’t care’. The fight would probably cause a lot of damage before things got settled. And it was going to happen in his place too, he thought bitterly.

Suddenly Buttersnake stood up, scattering dice and coins. “I want a new set of dice!” he cried. “You shouldn’t have won that throw!”

The stranger came up out of his chair in one swift, clean movement. He slapped Jajson across the mouth, knocking him into the crowded bar.

The room exploded away from young Buttersnake. Leej Jonsyn, the rug merchant, dived away from the table so fast he knocked over his chair.

Jajson Buttersnake staggered to his feet, a trickle of blood dribbling from the corner of his mouth. He was white with fury. “You cheated!” he shrieked, pawing for his gun. He fumbled and almost dropped it in his rage.

The stranger waited until Buttersnake had his needlegun coming level before he drew and fired. His gun made a loud snapping noise as the puff of compressed air sent a fatal needle right down Buttersnake’s throat.

In that instant, Harry recognized the fighter. Hammer Smith was the handle he went by, but Harry had come from the coast, and he knew Hammer Smith’s real name was Andre Benoit. Benoit was a free-lance Merc who joined the Mercs in the coastal area at the south end of the kingdom. He typically took on jobs that didn’t require the services of an entire troop, but he had allies among the Merc Community. Hammer Smith was reputed to be in his twenties, but he was already known as a dangerous man. It was said that he never drew a weapon unless the man was armed and facing him but if you pushed him, you died. Jajson Buttersnake died.

In the stillness after the weapon fire, Hammer Smith calmly reloaded his weapon, scooped up his coins from the table and quietly walked through the swinging doors. Whispers started in his wake.

“Shot him in the mouth,” someone said.

“Old Rock isn’t going to like this,” said another man.

“He won’t care. That’s a hard man,” a voice said.

Hammer Smith mounted the dapple unicorn and set off at a brisk trot.

“So much for a warm bed for me and a soft stall for you, Blackfeather,” he said. “Unless, I’m mistaken we’re going to have a bunch of irate drovers on our tail soon. Why did I sit down at that game, anyway?”

Blackfeather’s stride increased to a smooth, ground-eating lope. The double moons were full, making the road as clear as day, but Hammer Smith knew he was going to have to leave it soon. He started looking for a good place to leave the trail. Behind him, he could hear angry shouts and then the snap of needle gunfire.

“Okay, boy,” he spoke softly to the unicorn, who cocked an attentive black ear, “let’s ride some lightning.”

Blackfeather was fast. Hammer Smith had traded him off a Cat Man who had used him for racing. The trouble was he had beaten every unicorn in the area so often that no one would race against him anymore, and the Cat Man was broke. Hammer Smith had traded him a half-broke unicorn with the disposition of a poison beetle crossed with a snapdragon, an extra needle rifle and twenty coins in eating money.

He knew if he could get a start on the impromptu mob forming behind him, he could make it across the line into Cat Man Territory. Not the safest place in the world to be, but safer than here, as it was unlikely any posse would follow him there. The Shahen had given orders that entering Cat Man territory was forbidden. No one wanted to re-start the raiding again, and the Cats would undoubtedly see any group of armed men as breaking the treaty. Single riders entered at their own risk, and were usually ignored. Maybe.

Suddenly ahead of him came the pound of running hooves and a wild screeching yell. A mob coming in late off a Jamboree, maybe?

He checked the unicorn and faded off to the side, stopping under a kaleidoscope tree about twenty feet away from the road. The moon flecked through the shinny, semi-transparent leaves, causing light and dark shadows that blended with Blackfeather’s coat.

A more cautious man would have taken the opportunity to scuttle out of there quick. But Hammer Smith was not a cautious man. Grinning, he watched as the mob from town ran full tilt into the celebrating drovers.

Chuckling, he started Blackfeather around the tree and to the north at an easy lope, heading into a forest of more kaleidoscope trees. In the melee behind him, he heard the snap of air guns as some fool started shooting; he knew everybody soon would be doing the same.

Karma has a way of catching up with a man. He paid a price for the inattention caused by his unholy amusement. In the darkness, he never saw the tree branch coming that dealt his head a smashing blow; stunned, he blacked out. Only his instinctive riding ability and Blackfeather’s superb gait kept him from falling off. Several times, Blackfeather shifted stride and course to ensure his rider stayed in the saddle. Puzzled at being given no other signals, Blackfeather continued to travel west, taking the easiest route.

The sun was just coming up when Hammer Smith awoke. Blackfeather had slowed to a walk. Muzzily, Hammer Smith peered around. His head hurt and he was having trouble focusing his eyes. Blackfeather mounted the top of a small rise and started down toward a creek gurgling below.

Hammer Smith blinked harder to focus his eyes because he was sure he was seeing things. The loveliest girl he had ever seen knelt by the water washing her face. Straight black hair fell in a curtain to the ground around her, some of the strands floating in the water.

Blackfeather stopped at the edge of the creek and lowered his head to drink. The girl lifted her head to stare back at Hammer Smith out of the clearest gray eyes he’d ever seen. She stood, pulling her hair back over her shoulders. Her crimson night robe clung to the swell of her breasts and hips, making a bright splash of red against the green plants growing on the bank of the stream.

At that moment, Hammer Smith was beyond appreciating nature’s decorating schemes. The whole world felt unreal. There was no one in it but him and the girl, and never would be. He nudged Blackfeather across the stream and stopped beside her.

She looked up at him with no sign of fear. He stared down at her. It seemed as if her eyes grew enormous and he was diving into a huge pool of gray water. This time, he did fall off his unicorn.

Rebecca tried to break his fall, but since he outweighed her, she ended up on the ground with him on top. Awkwardly, she sat up, wriggling out from under his weight. His head lolled back against her breast.

“Gosh!” exclaimed her sixteen-year-old brother Owen, “where did he come from?”

“Over the hill,” Rebecca said absently, looking at the dark face. He wasn’t bad looking; of course, you couldn’t tell much with that beard…

“What’s the matter with him?” demanded Owen’s twin, Catrin. Like Rebecca, she was still in her nightclothes.

Rebecca had found the caked blood matted in his hair.

“He’s been hurt,” she said. “One of you go and get Grandpa.”

“Gosh!” said Owen again. “That’s a funny place to get hurt. Do you suppose somebody whacked him?”

“Maybe.”

Blackfeather nudged Hammer Smith curiously with his soft grey nose. Why was he so still? Absently, Rebecca patted him.

“He’ll be fine,” she said to the unicorn. Blackfeather snorted gently and wandered off to crop some grass growing by the bank.

Pulling up the straps of his suspenders, Lewys Maginogion, awakened out of a sound sleep by Catrin, hurried up to them. His sharp old eyes took in the situation at a glance.

“Owen, unsaddle that unicorn and take care of it. Catrin, go fix up a bed in the wagon.”

As the two hurried to obey, he knelt beside Rebecca.

“He’s got blood on his head. Owen thought maybe he’d been whacked in a fight,” she said.

Gingerly Maginogion turned Hammer Smith’s head, running a finger in the gash on the top of his head and forehead.

“You’ll make it bleed again,” protested Rebecca.

“He’s out like a candle. Doesn’t feel a thing. We’d best get him in the wagon and that wound dressed before he wakes up.”

Unobserved by Rebecca, Lewys Maginogion looked pensively down at the lovely visage of his eldest granddaughter, who was looking down at the face of the young man resting in her arms. It had been months since the incident at Joppa, and in all that time his beautiful Rebecca had not voluntarily let any man touch her, flinching whenever Owen or her Grandfather touched her accidentally. Yet she held this stranger against her with no sign of shrinking.

They put the unconscious man to bed in the wagon Owen shared with Lewys. As Lewys cleaned and dressed the wound, he thought about what he had learned in the village yesterday, and a plan began to form in his mind. Only if the young man proved worthy of course…

Twenty minutes later, dressed in a grey cotton shirt and trousers, Rebecca was sitting on a folding campstool, brushing her hair with the aid of a hand mirror.

A pan of sliced meat was sizzling on the fire, and Catrin, similarly dressed, with her long curly hair tied back was making sourdough wafers, her face flushed from the fire.

Owen was brushing the mud from the stranger’s unicorn. Blackfeather seemed to enjoy it, one hip cocked as he sleepily munched a bag of grain.

Lewys Maginogion surveyed his brood proudly. They were good kids all of them. Owen was growing tall and straight as a young fire tree. He was gangly still, but his blue eyes met a man head on.

His twin, Catrin, took after Lewys’ mother, being tall and buxom with thick curly dark hair. For all she was starting to draw the men’s eyes like bees to nectar, she was still enough of a child not to notice their admiring stares.

His gaze dropped to his oldest granddaughter. With her hair drawn back, the resemblance to his dead wife was uncanny. Rebecca wasn’t the looker Catrin was; her red-lipped mouth was too wide, and those gray eyes under her slanted brows gave her heart-shaped face an eerie beauty, but he knew from his own experience many years ago just how potent a spell that exotic loveliness could cast. He had been caught in just such a spell years ago when he first laid eyes on his dead wife, Anghard.

“All of you, come here,” he said. “I need to tell you what I learned in the village yesterday. Catrin, leave those biscuits alone. We won’t starve in the next ten minutes.

Obediently, Catrin and Owen seated themselves on a nearby log. Rebecca turned to face him on the folding campstool, a thick black braid lying over her shoulder.

“John Thomas Lazarus has put out a reward for our arrest for unauthorized magic. I saw it posted on the wall outside the sheriff’s office.”

“But we haven’t done anything!” Catrin cried, tears trembling on the ends of her lashes.

Rebecca said nothing, but she shut her eyes and clasped her hands in her lap. Magic users were regulated by the King. Powerful users were recruited to serve in the Kings Magi Proctors. Less powerful magic users were required to buy a license to use magic, or if proven to be of the right bloodlines, used as breeding stock. In either case, Magi were tested and licensed and paid a fee to the King to practice their arts. Unauthorized users could be hung without trial if they committed crimes using magic.

Owen started to curse, and was immediately called to order.

“Owen I’ll not have you using words like that in front of your sisters,” Lewys said sternly. “Besides, saying a thing like that about a man can get you killed in a challenge.”

“Even when he deserves it?” asked Catrin wryly.

“Yes,” her grandfather said flatly. “Especially if he deserves it. It’s about how powerful he is, not if he deserves the name.”

After a short struggle with himself, Owen said, “Yes sir. Sorry, girls.”

“Never mind that,” Catrin said. “What are we going to do?”

Her grandfather patted her hand. “I’ll think of something,” he said. In fact, he already had a plan in mind, but he wanted to talk to their guest before he came out with it.

“Now, how about breakfast? Am I to starve to death today?”

“Grandfather, what exactly does that notice say?” demanded Rebecca.

He took it out of his pocket and handed it to her. She frowned as she read it aloud. Travelers such as themselves always had a bad reputation in any new town, being automatically suspected of thievery and other less savory actions. Combined with hints of outlaw magic it spelled real trouble. Lewys and Owen were wanted for the assault and attempted murder of John Thomas Lazarus, Catrin and herself for a magical assault on Mrs. Charity Lazarus and for burning a wagon. All were hanging offenses.

They had left the village quickly after the incident hoping an old man traveling to his new hold with his grandchildren might escape notice. They never gave their real names when plying their trade as sellers of herbs and medicines in a village, but the descriptions of them on the flyer were very close. Upon fleeing Joppa, they had turned the gaudy signs on the wagon’s side inward and whitewashed the outside so the wagons looked more like ordinary travelling wagons. Unfortunately, Lewys’ treasured herd of beautiful golden draft unicorns were very noticeable, and they had been forced to stop several times and reapply the dye that turned their golden coats to a muddy brown.

“Sorcery my foot!” Owen exclaimed. “That old hag probably died of spleen when she found out what her supposedly God-fearing husband was up to!”

“Look for the mote in your own eye,” quoted Lewys, “before speaking of the one in your neighbors.”

Owen made an angry noise. “I don’t care! And don’t quote that stuff at me! I’m sick to death of—”

“Stop it! Please!” Rebecca cried.

Everyone looked at her in astonishment. She was weeping. Rebecca never cried.

“This is all my fault,” she sobbed. “I should have just done what he wanted—”

“Wash out your mouth of that filth girl!” Lewys roared. “No granddaughter of mine and Anghard’s would make a whore of herself for any reason! You did just as you should have,” he added more gently. “So did Catrin. What’s done is done, and we live now, not in the past.”

“Uh—breakfast is ready,” Catrin inserted. “That is if anyone is interested.

They stayed another day by the creek tending to the wounded man and touching up the dye they had applied to the unicorn herd. The man didn’t really wake up, but Lewys was able to get a couple of spoons of broth down him.

The first night after everyone had gone to bed, Lewys sat up late. Another man might have been ashamed of himself for what he intended to do. Lewys Maginogion was not. He had a plan to protect his family but he needed more information about his patient before he could decide how much of it was workable. He opened the saddlebags Owen had taken off the unicorn. There wasn’t much in them. One of the bags held a clean shirt, an extra needle gun, a small sleeve weapon, a package of kophie and a battered cup and pot. The other held tools for making needles and small containers of compressed air. The most interesting things he found were a gold pendant with a man and woman’s image inside and a small packet of letters.

Most of the letters were addressed to Andre Benoit. The oldest of these was dated almost ten years ago and had been written to a schoolboy.

My dear son, Lewys read,Mr. James, the head master from St. Anthony’s visited us today and I am afraid your father is veryangry with you. Dearest, you must learn to control that dreadful temper of yours or one day I fear it will lead to serious trouble. I am very proud of you for standing up for that poor young man, but was it really necessary to half-drown his tormenter in the chamber pot? And did you really need to break a valuable urn over Jimmy Hendricks head? Not but what I do sympathize with your desire to hit him with something. A more horrid brat I’ve never met and his mother is just the same—but I hear your father coming. All my love dear and do tryto stay out of trouble for a few days. All my love Mama.

There were several others, all in the same vein. The last one was not written by his mother. Instead, it was written by the Cleric at a church.

My Dear boy, my heart goes out to you at this time. I wish I could be with you to comfort you, but as I cannot, I can only tell you to call upon He who is our greatest comfort in our grief as well as in joy. Your mother did not suffer at all. Dr. Thomas tells us the fall killed her instantly. Your poor father is sorely stricken. I hope this mutual sorrow will heal the gulf that has opened between you. Call upon me if you should feel the need for my services and I will come. God be with you, Respected Vincent McCauley

There were two other letters. One was from someone named Marie. It was just a note thanking him for the money to get back home to her family and telling him of her upcoming Handfasting.

The last one was addressed to someone named Hammer Smith, desiring him to come a village named Cutterston and quoting a price of seven thousand silver coins for unnamed services.

Thoughtfully Lewys re-folded the letters and replaced them. A handful of letters wasn’t much to base his plan on, but they were all he had. ‘The Divinity helps those who helps themselves’ he reminded himself. It had been one of Anghard’s favorite sayings. Just the thought of her somehow made her seem closer. Would she have approved of what he intended? He thought so. Comforted, he turned into his bedroll and went to sleep.

The next morning dawned bright and clear. Looking into the wagon Lewys found his patient awake.

“Well,” he said, “you scared us a mite son. How do you feel?”

Andre Benoit touched his head gingerly. “If I move will it fall off?”

“Headache? Well, I think that can be helped.” Lewys rummaged around in Anghard’s medicine box until he found a small leather packet filled with white powder. He poured a tiny amount of the powder into a tin cup, added water and swished it around.

“Here,” he said, “handing Andre the cup. “This should do the trick.”

Andre accepted the cup gingerly. “Who are you?” he asked.

Lewys looked at him in well-feigned surprise. “Why don’t you know?”

There was a small silence as Andre finished his medicine. “No,” he said at last, “I don’t guess I do.”

He paused, searching his memory and then he frowned. “As a matter of fact, I don’t think I know who Iam.”

“Good Lord,” exclaimed Lewys. “I’ve heard of such a thing, but—”

Andre took him up sharply. “What do you mean?”

“Why, memory loss after a blow to the head. When I was at sea, a fella got knocked on the head like you. He claimed he didn’t know who he was either. Of course, we didn’t believe him at first, but we came down to it in the end.”

Lewys rubbed his chin. “As I recall, that fella never did get his right memory back.”

Andre carefully set his cup down on the wooden chest next to him. “Do you know who I am? How I got here? How did I get hurt?”

“Whoa son,” Lewys flung up a hand. “One thing at a time. First, your name is Andre Benoit and you’re engaged to marry my eldest granddaughter Rebecca.”

Lewys told that whopping lie without a blink. He rushed on before Andre could question him. “You’re in bed because it looks like someone took a whack at you. We’re not sure how it happened. You rode off hunting prong horn yesterday and your unicorn brought you back. I’m afraid there isn’t a lot more I can tell you about yourself before you joined us a couple of weeks back, because we only just met you.”

For once in his quick-tongued life, Andre was struck speechless. The story sounded fantastic and he wanted to hear more, but he was very tired and found himself drifting back to sleep. Lewys watched him for a minute more, then rose and left the wagon.

That had been relatively easy compared to what was next—explaining to Rebecca, Catrin and Owen what he had done and getting them to go along with it.

The girls were down by the creek, washing clothes. Owen was making a fresh pot of kophie. He had heard what had gone on between Lewys and Andre. He scowled at his grandfather and opened his mouth to speak. Lewys shook his head at him.

“Where are Rebecca and Catrin?”

“Down at the creek.”

“Good. Come with me; we’re going to have a family conference.”

“We just did that yesterday,” Owen grumbled under his breath as he followed Lewys. “Much good as it did us.”

Arriving at the creek, Lewys said jovially, “You two girls look as lovely as flowers in springtime this morning.”

Catrin and Rebecca exchanged glances over the bucket of dirty clothes. When their Grandfather started showering compliments, it generally meant he was up to something.

“Thank you,” Rebecca said politely.

Both girls waited.

Lewys cleared his throat. “All of you read that wanted notice I brought back from town, didn’t you?”

“We read it, Grandpa,” Catrin replied.

“Well, then you know there weren’t images of us, just a description of an old man, two girls and a younger man. It occurred to me that what we need here is a bit of misdirection. Now we can’t change our looks, but we can become a party of five instead of four. Ironlyn is still several weeks’ travel from here and there are several villages between it and us, including Buttersea. If we travel through those villages as a party of five, everyone who sees us will think of us a group of five people not four, even if the fifth member of the group doesn’t stay around long.”

Catrin was the first to speak. “You’re talking about the man on the war unicorn. Has he agreed to this?”

Owen made a rude noise. “He’ll probably stay. You should have heard that pack of lies Grandpa fed him!”

“What if he finds out about the wanted notice?” Rebecca asked. “He might decide to collect the two thousand coins by turning us in.”

“He might not turn us in but not want to stay either—”

“Quiet!” Lewys glared them individually into silence.

“Our young friend—his name is Andre Benoit incidentally, has lost his memory because of that clout on the noggin he took.”

“Permanently?” Owen asked. “What if he starts remembering?”

Lewys waved that aside. “Makes no difference. It’ll stay lost long enough to suit us. Now stop interrupting me! Where was I?”

“Memory loss,” Catrin supplied.

“Yes. Well I told him we met him a couple of weeks ago on the trail. He went hunting for meat and came back with a cut across his head. I also told him he was engaged to Rebecca so he’d have a reason to stay around.”

Benignly he smiled at his offspring who stared back at him with varying degrees of exasperation, horror or amusement.

“Why you old reprobate!” Catrin exclaimed.

“You,” said Owen forcefully, “are a sneaky, underhanded, unscrupulous old—I don’t know what.”

They both carefully did not look at Rebecca who had gone dead white. She raised stricken eyes to her grandfather.

“I’m sorry Grandpa, but I can’t,” she whispered. “He might want—I can’t do it.”

Lewys jerked his head at Owen and Catrin. “You two go back to camp. Rebecca and I need to talk. And mind, you remember what I told you if you talk to Andre.”

Obediently they started back to the fire. Lewys put an arm around Rebecca and felt her involuntary stiffening.

“Child, you’ve gotto do it. Ironlyn is our last hope. You know we need a permanent spot to retire—it’s getting dangerous to keep up the traveling medicine wagon, we are beginning to be too recognizable. The Proctors were asking questions about us in the last town. If can’t reach Ironlyn, they’ll hunt us down. We don’t have enough coin to start again overseas even if we could get passage on a ship. Besides the Magi Cadre is counting on us to take over at Ironlyn. You know how important that is to what we do.”

She pulled away from him and covered her face with her hands.

“Don’t you see, he’s going to think its real! I dread having even you or Owen touch me and I know you aren’t going to—every time a man even touches my hand I remember—”

She broke into sobs.

Lewys’ heart ached in pity, but he steeled himself against her tears. If she didn’t overcome this fear, she would go maimed all her life.

“Rebecca, you know it isn’t natural to feel that way. You must face your fear and overcome it. What is between a man and a woman is good, not evil.”

“What happened to me was evil!” she flashed.

“The man is evil and what he did was bad,” Lewys agreed. “I’m sorry your first experience was so ugly, but you cannot allow it to rule your life child. Do you want to end your days a sour old maid with no children to light your days as you light mine?”

Her eyes closed. “Grandpa, please!”

Lewys sighed. “Well, child I won’t force you to do this for our benefit. The Magi Cadre will find someone else to handle Ironlyn. I can sell the unicorns—”

“Stop it!” she cried. She knew her grandfather loved his unicorn herd second only to his family. It would break his heart to let them go. Her refusal would bring hurt and destitution on everyone she loved and the innocents they were charged to protect. She lifted her chin and wiped her eyes.

“You’re right. There is no other way,” she took a deep breath and gave him a watery smile. “I’ll try the best I can.”

Lewys hugged her. “That’s my brave girl. I knew I could count on you.”

Rebecca deliberately forced her body to relax. Andre would be in bed for another day or so, she hoped. Perhaps by that time she could learn not to flinch.

Catrin and Owen both looked at her anxiously when she and Lewys returned to the fire.

“Are you alright, sis?” Owen asked, his eyes widening as he realize Lewys still had his arm around Rebecca’s shoulder and she had not only walked all the way back to camp that way, but didn’t move away.

“I’m fine Owen,” she smiled at him, a rather strained smile, but a real one nonetheless. “I have agreed to Grandpa’s plan.”

Owen opened his mouth, thought better of what he had been going to say, and shut it again.

Lewys gave his granddaughter a last hug and moved toward the fire. “Catrin are you burning the biscuits?”

“No, Owen is. It’s his turn to cook,” she replied.

Aggh!” Owen leaped toward the fire to rescue his mistreated breakfast.

Rebecca took a deep breath, poured a cup of kophie, and mounted the wagon steps. Andre was awake.

“I brought you a cup of kophie. Breakfast will be ready soon.”

“I hope you’re Rebecca, because if you aren’t, I’m engaged to the wrong girl.”

An involuntary laugh was surprised out of her. “What a thing to say! It would serve you right if I denied it!”

He smiled back at her, running his eyes over her possessively.

To cover her nervousness, she said hastily, “Here, let me help you sit up. You can’t drink kophie lying down.”

This was an error, she soon discovered. It brought her entirely too close to him, making her sharply aware of him as a man. He did nothing to ease her nervousness and when she attempted to help him sit up so she could place a pillow behind his back, he put both arms around her waist and leaned against her, inhaling her scent from her breast.

“Ummn—you smell good,” he said.

“Your kophie will get cold,” she said, pushing against him.

“Better cold kophie than a cold woman,” Andre retorted teasingly. But he allowed her to settle him back against the pillow and hand him his cup.

“Where’s yours?” he asked, lifting the cup to his mouth. Any doubts as to Lewys Maginogion’s veracity had vanished the instant he set eyes on his supposed fiancée. It seemed the most natural thing in the world to him that he should have wanted to marry Rebecca. She was everything he had ever dreamed of in a woman. He was a little puzzled and hurt at her reaction to his embrace though. His dream woman wouldn’t have pushed him back.

Rebecca retreated to perch on the foot of the blankets. “Grandpa says you don’t remember us.”

Andre almost laughed aloud at this simple explanation for her stiffness. She must feel extremely awkward to have him declare he was in love with her, ask her to marry him one day and then the next be told he didn’t remember her. No wonder she hadn’t responded.

He smiled warmly at her. “I plead guilty, but since I fell in love with you again on sight, I feel I deserve a suspended sentence, don’t you?”

A Tangled Web

Over the next week, the family worked out a rhythm of doing things. Sunrise and Blackfeather had taken an instant dislike to each other, so to keep the two studs away from each other while traveling, Lewys rode his golden stallion Sunrise and Andre rode Blackfeather. One or the other of them helped Owen to drive the unicorn mare herd. The two girls each drove one of the wagons with a white-maned kitten or two sitting on the seat beside them. The kittens had doubled in size over the past weeks. When they reached their full size, they would weight approximately thirty pounds. Their breed were superb hunters, often hunting in a pride, however they easily adapted to domesticity.

Fortunately for the success of Lewys’ plan, Andre was still suffering from the effects of the blow to his head so he was too tired in the evenings to attempt to do more than attempt a few kisses with Rebecca. To Rebecca’s surprise, she gradually became accustomed to Andre’s attentions, and even managed to occasionally return a kiss.

The morning before they entered Coverville, the next village with a Trade Station attached, Rebecca brought out one of her grandfather’s soft, homespun shirts, a green bandana and a large soft hat like the ones worn by herdsman and handed them to Andre.

“Your clothes make you look too much like a hired fighter,” she said. “These will help you blend in better on the way through town.”

He turned them over in his hands, looking at her thoughtfully. He noticed that both Rebecca and Catrin had changed their usual attire this morning. Instead of the better-quality blouses they usually wore, both girls had donned faded homespun shirts and large, soft hats. In addition, Rebecca had used something to darken her porcelain white skin to make it seem tanned.

“Who are we hiding from?” he asked as he began to unlace his shirt.

She hesitated, distracted by the muscled torso he displayed as he pulled the shirt over his head. When she didn’t answer, he met her eyes, enjoying it as she turned bright red at being caught staring.

“Like what you see?” he asked, smiling. Stepping in closer, he slid a hand around her neck to bring her mouth closer for a kiss.

Up close, his body gave off a warm musky scent and she was surprised to find she wanted to touch those smooth muscles. When his mouth closed over hers, she brought up her hands to rest on his chest enjoying the feel of it under her palms. As he felt her response, his hand slid down her back pressing more of her body against his. Things might have progressed even further if there hadn’t been an interruption.

“Ouch!” yelled Owen, as he dropped the hot pan he was using to heat water for breakfast.

Rebecca gasped and stepped back from Andre, who let her go. Several encounters like this had convinced Andre that his girl wasn’t cold, she was just shy, so he was satisfied with the progress he was making.

“Rebecca,” he reminded when she started to back further away. “Who are we hiding from?”

She took a deep breath. “You might as well know there is a wanted flyer out on the four of us. Grandpa saw it in the last town we passed through.”

” You mean a wanted flyer On you?”

She nodded. “When you see it, you may not want to travel with us—”

Andre made a rude noise. “Do you have a copy?”

Rebecca climbed up inside the wagon, brought back the flyer and handed it to him.

Andre read it, a heavy frown gathering on his face. “None of you are violent. This guy Lazarus did something, what was it?”

Instead of answering, she bit her lip and turned her back, her hands covering her face.

Her reaction told him everything he wanted to know. Andre was silent while he gained control of the black rage that had suddenly risen in him. He knew better than to let it out; giving in to that anger had caused him plenty of trouble in the past. He looked at Rebecca’s shaking shoulders and closed his eyes.

“Rebecca,” he said, gently turning her to face him, “It’s alright. He won’t touch you again, I promise.”

To his dismay, she burst into tears, burying her face in his chest. Not knowing what else to do, he simply held her and rubbed her back until the storm of tears subsided.

“What’s the matter with Rebecca?” demanded Lewys, coming around the wagon.

Silently, Andre handed him the flyer.

“Oh, she told you, did she?” inquired Lewys. “Well, I suppose you had to know.”

“I asked her what we were running from,” Andre said.

Lewys sighed regretfully. “I should have made sure that animal was dead, but it would have been murder. I wanted to get my family away from there before they raised a lynch party.”

He handed Andre a handkerchief to give to Rebecca who had stopped weeping.

“Breakfast is almost ready,” he said, “Go and wash your face girl, so your brother and sister don’t see you’ve been crying.”

He motioned Andre to step out of hearing of the wagon. “I suppose you want to know what happened, don’t you?”

Andre shrugged. “I can guess. How bad was it?”

“Not quite as bad as it could have been. We were getting ready to leave that morning. Owen had gone to say goodbye to the Trade Stations daughter he was sweet on, and I’d gone into Joppa to pick up some stuff for the kid’s I’d already paid for. The girls were about to harness the unicorns, so we could leave when I got back. I guess you’re aware that some folk have peculiar ideas about travelers. When Lazarus showed up, Rebecca told Catrin to get inside the wagon and stay there. He had Rebecca down on the ground when Catrin hit him with a shovel. Owen and I got there a few minutes too late. I should have made sure he was dead, but as I said, I wanted to get my family out of there before we were arrested.”

Andre flicked the flyer scornfully. “So, this is because they blame you for defending yourselves?”

“Looks like it.” He shrugged. “The Trade Master warned me. Lazarus is a rich man who pulls a lot of weight around that area. Travelers are always easy marks though. Even before this happened we always made it a point to look as ordinary as we can when we passed through a strange village.”

He looked over at the younger man. “You’ve been good for Rebecca. It broke my heart to see her flinch whenever Owen or I accidentally bumped into her. She’s never done that with you and she’s easier with us too. I want to thank you for that if nothing else.”

They drove through Coverville and stopped a few miles outside of it at one of the Trade Stations the Shahen required be set aside for visiting trade caravans. Trade Stations were a kind of village in and of themselves. They were usually run by a family who received a stipend from the Shahen to keep them in order. Well appointed ones had clothes washing and bathing facilities travelers could use for a small fee. If a merchant caravan came through they might stay for a week, selling things they brought, trading with the villagers, and sometimes putting on entertainment for the town. This Station had a store that sold a few staples such as canned goods, blankets, pots and pans and such.

When they arrived, Owen and Andre set up the temporary rope corral to contain unicorn mares. Both stallions had to be picketed separately on either end of the two wagons to keep them from attacking each other.

When Rebecca went to the Trade station to pay the fee for access to the facilities, Andre went with her, casually catching her hand in his. The Trade Station was run by an older man and his wife called Tomilson. The wife, a plump, gray haired matron smiled knowingly at their clasped hands.

“Newlywed or courting?” she asked comfortably.

Rebecca blushed. “Uh—we’re not married.”

“Ah, courting then,” Sarsee Tomlinson said.

“Engaged,” Andre said firmly.

“Where are you folks traveling to?” her husband asked.

“Ironlyn,” Rebecca said.

“I see,” Tomilson said, withdrawing slightly. “That would make you the new Dracon then?” he asked Andre.

“That would be my grandfather,” Rebecca corrected, handing him the coins.

Several more families of travelers arrived at the Station as the day wore on, parking their wagons or setting up tents along the circle designated for that purpose. Animals were expected to be kept outside the circle. Lewys made it a point to meet each of the new arrivals as they came in, taking either Owen or Andre with him as he encountered them. Most of the people they met were simply families or single men traveling on business, who were glad to get news from outside the area. In turn, Lewys asked them about the surrounding country and about Buttersea, the next village on the way to Ironlyn. When that village was mentioned, several of the men looked over their shoulders, and finally one of them, braver than the others, said, “I wouldn’t go there, if you can avoid it.”

“Why not?” asked Andre alertly. “What’s wrong there?”

Two of the men, brothers who were going to visit their relatives in Glassfall, exchanged glances. “We don’t know for sure,” one of them said. “But we hear rumors that some of the folk who go there don’t come back, or are robbed.”

“By the village?” asked Lewys.

Jorgon, the other brother, frowned. “I don’t think so. The story I got was it happens outside of town.”

“Yes, but I heard that some of the stolen goods ended up for sale in the shops,” one of the others chimed in.

Lewys nodded thoughtfully. “Thank you for the warning. We will be on our guard.”

After dinner, one of the men who had been a part of the discussion came over to their fire. Sorson Tobias was a tall, gangly man with an open face. “Dracon Maginogion, I have a favor to ask,” he said diffidently.

“What is it, Sorson Tobias?”

“First, may I ask if you still intend to go through Buttersea?”

Lewys nodded curtly. “We must. It’s on the road to Ironlyn.”

The man took a deep breath. “Well, you see, my family is traveling that way too, and I was hoping that we could travel together. I’ve heard that it’s safer to travel in a larger group. I have only the one wagon for myself, my wife and our young son.”

“How far are you going?” inquired Andre, watching him closely.

“Until I find work,” Sorson Tobias said. “I’m a bricklayer and I’m hoping there will be work in Snowdon, the next village beyond Buttersea.”

“We would love to meet your wife and child,” Rebecca said softly. “It must be very hard traveling this way with a young one.”

“Yes,” agreed Lewys. “Why don’t you bring her over now?”

The man nodded and left.

“Thank you, Rebecca,” her grandfather said. “That was well done. What do you think? Shall we let them travel with us?”

“Yes,” both girls said.

“I want to meet the wife. If everything is as he says, it would make it safer for us also,” said Andre.

“Owen?” his grandfather asked.

“I don’t feel anything harmful from him,” Owen replied.

Sarcee Anja Tobias turned out to be a pretty young woman who looked very tired. The little boy was a dark-haired moppet with curious blue eyes. His mother had wrapped a belt around the child and attached a short rope to it, one end of which she kept attached to her wrist. It was soon seen why this was necessary, as the child, Robern, immediately tried to escape his mother’s custody by darting away from her the moment his feet touched the ground.

It rained all the next day and the night before they were due to pass through Buttersea. There was no actual trade station around Buttersea, but there was enough open ground under a grove of maconut trees just past the village to provide some protection for the three wagons. The normally peacefully gurgling creek a little way inside the grove was threatening to overflow its banks. Lewys and Owen pulled out a large tarp, which they anchored overhead between two wagons to provide shelter from the rain and wind. The unicorns were bunched under the trees close to the wagons. The two stallions seemed to declare a truce during the storm, or at any rate, they refrained from attacking each other. The three kittens complained bitterly and stayed in the wagon used by the girls for sleeping. A break easing the rain a trifle, allowed Andre and Rebecca to go down to the swiftly flowing creek for water to be heated for the dishes. At the edge of the stream, Rebecca spotted the shivering girl at the foot of a tree. Rebecca now wore the pendant she had skryed with constantly, and it had retained a small glow. When she saw the girl, it suddenly heated up and glowed a bright blue through her shirt. Rebecca gasped and pulled it out, looking at the girl in shock.

“What’ is it?” Andre asked sharply.

“We’ve found her!” Rebecca exclaimed.

“Found who?” he demanded.

“Our sister. I’ll explain when we get her back to camp.”

The girl was clad only in too-small shift and trousers, and she was barefoot. Her black hair clung wetly to her face.

“Oh, you poor thing!” Rebecca exclaimed going to kneel beside her. “Whatever are you doing out here by yourself?”

The girl raised drenched gray eyes to hers. “Don’t let them find me!” she begged.

When Rebecca touched her, the stone cooled, returning to its original bronze color. She tried to lift the child to her feet, but the girl fainted and would have fallen back down if Andre hadn’t caught her. He handed the still empty bucket to Rebecca and lifted the child in his arms.

“We need to get her back and dry her off,” he said practically.

“Put her in our wagon,” Catrin said when they arrived back at the camp. “I’ll bring some hot water. You get her out of those wet clothes.”

Rebecca hissed in anger when she stripped off the sopping clothes and found the child’s thin, pale-skinned body covered in welts and bruises from a recent whipping with a lash.

“Get some salve and bandages out of Grandmother’s medicine box,” she told Catrin. “This will sting when I clean these cuts. It’s a good thing she’s still out.”

Silently, Catrin handed her the things she’d asked for and opened their grandmother’s trunk. “What do you suppose happened to her? Where are her parents?” she asked, taking out a thick soft nightgown.

“Catrin, I think she might be our sister; Grandmother’s pendant identified her. Some animal has used a lash on her,” her sister said. “If her guardians allowed this—”

“You don’t know,” Catrin pointed out.” Maybe they did it.”

She handed the nightgown to Rebecca, helping her pull it over the child’s head just as she was regaining consciousness. While Rebecca helped the child into the bed and wrapped a blanket around her shoulders, Catrin leaned out of the wagon door and asked Owen to bring a bowl of the stew from dinner and some of the hot tea in the pot sitting on the fire. The kittens converged on the child; one of them lying across her feet, while the other two snuggled up against her legs.

Rebecca unfolded a lap tray and spread it across the girl’s knees, carefully setting the bowl and cup down on it. When she saw the bowl and cup, the child’s eyes grew round. Hesitantly she cupped the bowl between her cold hands.

“Can you feed yourself, or shall I help you?” Rebecca asked.

“Is—is this for me?” the girl asked, hardly daring to hope.

“Of course, it is,” Catrin said holding out the spoon.

“You need to eat and warm up the inside as well as the outside,” Rebecca said, lighting the burner on the small warming oven.

They waited patiently until the child had finished the stew.

“What is your name?” Rebecca asked.

The girl looked frightened. “Selene. Please don’t tell anyone you’ve seen me. He’ll be looking for me.”

“Who will be looking for you, Selene? The man who beat you?”

The girl nodded jerkily. One of the kittens, sensing distress, climbed into the child’s lap, purring loudly. The girl reached out a tentative hand to stroke his back.

“Is he your guardian?”

“No,” Selene whispered. “The Magi Proctor’s man, Leroys Torrigan.”

“I see,” Rebecca said grimly. She exchanged a glance with her sister.

“Are you going to send me back?” Selene asked fearfully.

“No, child, we are not,” Rebecca’s voice was calm. “But if we are to protect you, we need to know everything you can tell us. Why were you with him instead of being sent on to the Shahen’s school?”

Selene shuddered. “Torrigan almost never sends anyone there. He keeps the young magi for a while and then they are sold off to another place. At least that’s what the girl who was there before me said.”

“Is she still there?”

Selene shook her head. “No, they took her out a week ago. That’s when Torrigan started training me.”

“With a whip?” Catrin asked, incredously.

“No, that was because I wouldn’t do what he wanted.”

“What did he want you to do?”

Catrin gave her sister a sharp glance. From her tone, she knew Rebecca had a good idea what the child was about to tell them.

Selene swallowed. “He took off his clothes and he wanted me to—to—”

Rebecca stroked the child’s forehead. “It’s alright, darling. I know.” She smiled down at the girl. “You have family now, and we will protect you and teach you how to use your gifts to protect yourself.” She settled the girl back down on the bed and tucked her into the blankets. “Catrin will sit here with you, and the kittens will keep you company. I will be in soon to join you. I need to get the dishes cleaned up first. Sleep now.”

Going to the door, she slipped on her rain slicker and went outside. When she approached the fire, she found that the Tobias family had gone to bed in their wagon.

“When did they leave?” she asked.

“Just after you went for water,” Owen responded.

“Good,” she told the three men. “I don’t want them to hear this.”

“How is she?” asked Lewys.

Rebecca held out her hands to the dying fire. “She has been whipped and beaten, starved, and I think an attempt was made to rape her.”

Lewys gave a hiss of dismay.

“We heard something about the Magi Proctor,” interjected Andre. “Is she a Magi?”

“Yes,” Rebecca said.

“Then she landed with the right family,” Owen stated.

Andre’s eyebrows rose. “Really? And when were you going to tell me about this?”

Owen looked at him in surprise. “I thought you knew. Didn’t Rebecca show you the flyer?”

“That isn’t the same as saying the words,” Andre retorted.

Rebecca lifted a hand. “Gentlemen please! We need to get our stories straight. Now, Sorson and Sarsee Tobias only met us two days ago at the Trader Station, so I think we can simply tell them that our younger sister Selene has been ill—spotted fever, I think—and we kept her in the wagon so that’s why she wasn’t introduced to them.”

Lewys stroked his chin. “With the storm, I think that will work. We wouldn’t let a sick child out in the rain. Ah—how old is my granddaughter?”

He suddenly focused on the pendant lying outside Rebecca’s shirt. The stone resting on Rebecca’s breast was quiescent.

“It’s her?” he said, incredulously.

Rebecca nodded, smiling with tears in her eyes. “Yes, I think so. She is the right age, and—she looks like grandmother.”

“Is someone looking for her?” inquired Andre. “When we found her, she said something about ‘not letting himfind her’.”

“It’s possible. She said she was being kept by the Proctor’s man before she escaped.”

The three men exchanged glances.

“Are you alright with this?” Lewys asked Andre.

“At least the ground is going to be soft enough to bury a body,” he answered, and Lewys laughed, clapping him on the shoulder.

“Go to bed Rebecca,” her grandfather told her. “We’ll keep—?”

“Selene, is her name.”

“We’ll keep Selene safe.”

Andre walked her back to the wagon. “Don’t worry about anything. One of us will stay on watch tonight.”

She laid her hand against his face, giving him a tremulous smile. “Thank You,” she said softly. “You always make me feel safe.”

It hadn’t exactly been declaration of love, he reflected, but it gave him a warm feeling all the same. A man’s presence should make his woman feel safe. He turned his head and pressed a kiss into her palm.

Strangely enough, what she said was true. He had been with them for several weeks before Rebecca realized the hovering fear that had afflicted her since the attack had disappeared. It only took a little longer for her to associate its disappearance with Andre.

They left the next day with the rain still pouring down. Catrin mentioned casually at breakfast that morning that they had better continue to keep Selene in bed and Rebecca agreed. Andre and Lewys both asked how she was doing, and Owen prepared a plate for her. Anja and Jerlyn Tobias accepted their story of a sick child without question.

Selene was a little harder to convince. When Rebecca took her breakfast in to her, she looked up warily.

“Who are you?” the child asked.

“I am Draconi Rebecca Mabinogion, and I believe you are the child we have been looking for. You see, our mother was with child when the Proctor’s took her. We were told she had smuggled the newborn baby out of the Proctor headquarters. We have been searching for that child, who would be about your age for many years.”

“Why do you think I’m that child?”

Rebecca took out a hand mirror from the drawer where she and Catrin kept their toiletries. She handed it to Selene, who looked at it in wonder.

“Look at your face in the mirror and then look at mine,” Rebecca instructed.

The child had the same pale skin, grey eyes and black hair. Recent privations had thinned her face of any remaining childhood plumpness, so that the resemblance to Rebecca was very marked.

“What do you remember about your life before the Proctors found you?” Rebecca asked her. “Do you remember your parents?”

“I never knew anything about my father. The woman who raised me wasn’t my mother, and she didn’t tell me much. We moved around a lot. She told me if we got separated, I was supposed to go to a place called Ironlyn and they would help me,” Selene said slowly, “when I was older, Sara told me my mother was a great lady, but I wasn’t to talk about it. She caught the wasting fever in Wintermere. She had taken a job in a nursing home there. The family we were boarding with discovered I was Magi and reported me to the Proctor.”

Rebecca smiled at her. “We are on our way to Ironlyn, and I believe we are who this Sara was trying to reach. You are safe now. The family traveling with us have just come into our service, and won’t think it strange they haven’t met you yet, because we said you have been ill. You are staying inside the wagon until the weather clears so you don’t get sick again. As far as they are concerned, you have always been our little sister.”

“Why would anyone believe I’m your sister?”

“They will believe because they will be able to see how much you look like me and our Grandmother. Now, eat your breakfast, and don’t let the cats trick you—they’ve been fed.”

“What about someone who knows you?” the girl asked sensibly.

“For them, it is the same story; most of them know we have been looking for our parents fourth child. We simply say we have found you at last. Because of them taking our mother and other things, our family is bitterly opposed to the Magi system. All of us are unregistered Magi, and we belong to a group that helps Magi escape the Proctors. Now, after breakfast Catrin will bring you some warm water for washing and take you out to relieve yourself. For today, just rest and enjoy your breakfast. There are books over there in the chest if you would like to read.”

“Novels?”

Rebecca smiled. “Yes, there are some there. Please help yourself to them.”

Since there had been no work for Jerlyn in the last two villages, the Tobias family was still with them when they arrived at the Linhaven Trade Station. The journey from Buttersea had been wet and miserable for everyone as the storm continued to pound the travelers. They hadn’t been attacked outside the village; probably, Lewys had speculated aloud because not even outlaws wanted to go out in the rain.

It was late afternoon when they made camp at Linhaven Trade Station. The sun had finally broken out of the clouds that morning, and the air was beginning to warm up.

The journey had given Lewys time to evaluate Tobias. “Is bricklaying your only trade?” he asked him.

“Oh, my Jerlyn can do a lot of things,” his wife said proudly. “He made all our furniture and fixed our neighbor’s well when it got fouled.”

“Anja!” her husband protested. “They don’t want to hear all that.”

“I do,” Lewys said. “As I understand it, Ironlyn has been neglected over the past few years, and most of the staff are gone. I’m going to need a man who is handy with tools. Would you consider working for us?”

“I would be honored, Dracon,” Tobias said, bowing.

“Then let’s talk wages,” Lewys suggested. “Step into my office.” He indicated the spot by the fire next to himself.

“Is your sister Selene feeling well enough to join us for dinner?” Anja asked.

“That is a good idea,” Catrin said. “I’ll go and help her dress.”

I hope she will manage to find the girl something to wear that fits her, Rebecca thought ruefully. Clothing was something she hadn’t taken into consideration when deciding to introduce the girl as family. When they appeared, Rebecca was pleased to see that Catrin had obviously raided their Grandmother’s trunk for suitable clothes. Unlike her daughter, Angard had been a small woman, and the pink shirt and whipcord trousers fit Selene well enough. Catrin had even managed to dig out a pair of Gran’s old boots for the child.

Andre brought over folding stool for her to sit on, which she accepted with a shy smile.

“Yes,” Anja agreed, “That’s right dear. Spotted fever is nothing to fool around with. For tonight, you just sit and watch the rest of us work.”

4  The Mercs

Travelling with three wagons and a herd of unicorns slowed the journey even more. Andre and Owen took turns handling the Unicorn herd, but villages close to Trade Stations were getting further and further apart, and the animals were beginning to show the effects of the long journey.

“I think we need to stop and rest the unicorns for a couple of days,” Lewys announced after inspecting the herd. “The map shows Sandcrake, the next Trade Station, has a good pasture for herds because it’s a waystation on the Drover’s Trail. We can stay there for several days. The closest village is Wintermere and it is at least half a day’s ride, but that will mean we won’t have to worry so much about someone stealing our animals.”

“We’re low on meat too,” Andre remarked. “I saw pronghorn sign yesterday. If we stay long enough we can smoke the meat.”

“You’re very sure of getting a shot at one,” Jerlyn remarked.

Andre shrugged. “Some of the work I did wasn’t in towns. When you don’t have a steady supply of food, you learn to hunt.”

“We need to do some washing also,” Catrin put in.

Lewys was frowning when he returned from meeting the Trade Master.

“What is wrong?” Rebecca asked.

“I’m not sure,” her grandfather replied. “There is a copy of that wanted flyer Lazarus put out, along with others posted inside the store. It was being tacked up by a self-important little man when I came in. The Trade Master looked unhappy about it. He warned me the man who brought in the wanted flyers came from Wintermere. Said he was always checking on who was using the Station in the hopes of collecting a reward for reporting them.”

Andre rousted Owen out of bed before daylight to hunt the pronghorns he had seen. Rebecca and Catrin cooked a breakfast of biscuits and gravy in the dark for the hunters.

“They come out to feed at dawn and dusk,” Andre told Rebecca as he kissed her goodbye. “We want to be in place before that.”

Dawn was just breaking over the horizon when Rebecca and Selene brought the baskets of dirty clothes over to the Trade Stations Communal washroom. Rebecca worked the handle over a large tub to see if the water was hot, nodding approvingly when it came out warm.

“Good,” she told Selene, “we are the first one’s here. We won’t have to pay extra for clean water for our clothes.”

The younger girl looked at her curiously. “I’ve never used one of these places. How does this work?”

“Time you learned then,” Rebecca said cheerfully. “Start putting the clothes into the tub while I shave some soap into the water. We’ll take turns pumping the handle until the tub is full.”

Once they had the clothes in the tub of water, Rebecca sealed the lid, and showed Selene how to use the foot pedals to make the tub rock back and forth to wash the clothes.

Anja joined them, Robern again attached to her with a lead.

“You beat me here,” she said. “I thought I would be first.”

“They have several tubs,” Rebecca said. “This must be a busy station.”

The other woman nodded, dumping her basket into an empty tub. Rebecca noticed she had only a small sliver of soap to wash with and offered, “Here, we have extra soap. I know how hard it is to make it when you are traveling.”

Anja hesitated, and then took the bar and the shaving knife, smiling her thanks.

The women ran the clothes through a rinse tub and then through the Stations hand-cranked wringer to get rid of the excess water before taking them out to the communal drying lines.

Selene had volunteered to keep Robern occupied, and at Rebecca’s smiling nod, Anja had agreed. Because they were enjoying their talk, Rebecca and Anja were facing each other across the lines of wet clothes. They had almost finished the chore when Rebecca noticed the alarmed look on Anja’s face as she looked into the Station center circle. Hastily, Anja finished hanging up her load to dry and grabbed her basket.

“We should to go back to the wagons,” she said urgently.

Frowning, Rebecca turned to look behind her. A small troop of Mercs had ridden in. They stopped at the Station House, and one of them dismounted and went inside.

“Do you know them?” she asked.

Anja shook her head. “Not them specifically, but I know what they are. We had Merc troops stationed in our village several times before our home was burned in the fighting. The ones associated with the keep weren’t too bad—they lived in the village too and they had an interest in keeping the peace so they mostly behaved properly. The free Mercs—well let’s just say a woman didn’t want to be caught out alone with them around.”

Rebecca nodded. “Selene!” she called the girl who was entertaining Robern with a game of small sticks and pebbles, “We should return to the wagons.”

She picked up her empty baskets and started back through the washhouse to gather up her supplies. She still had more than two thirds of a bar of soap she had left to dry on the sink, and soap was, as she had told Anja earlier, hard to come by on the road. Anja didn’t bother, but hurried back toward the wagons, dragging a reluctant Robern.

Rebecca had just dropped the used soap bar into the empty baskets when a man entered the washroom. He was tall and wide, with sandy hair and a scruffy beard that needed the attention of a razor. He smiled when he spotted the two girls.

“Well, what have we here?” he asked.

Rebecca put an arm around Selene and moved toward the door. He moved to block their exit.

“Don’t run away pretty girl,” he said. “My name’s Jokan, what’s yours?”

Rebecca looked him up and down with no expression on her face. “I am Draconi Rebecca Sancha il’Maginogion, and this is my sister Draya Selene,” she told him haughtily. She didn’t often use her title, but she felt it might make him wary of offending her.

Instead he laughed. “My, aren’t you the high and mighty one. I’m going to enjoy getting acquainted with you.”

“We have not been introduced, Sorson,” she said coldly. “Kindly move out of our way.”

When he didn’t move and Selene gave a frightened whimper, Rebecca readied herself to use her Magi abilities. If she pushed past him and encouraged her shove with a telekinetic shove, it would make him step out of the way and they could get out the door. Just as she was about to make her move, Andre stepped into the room, and Rebecca felt a wave of relief. She relaxed, smiling reassuringly down at Selene. Taking in the situation at a glance, Andre shifted his body between the girls and the Merc.

“Is he bothering you, love?” he asked Rebecca, not taking his eyes off the other man, who was staring at him in astonishment.

“Hammer Smith?” he said incredously. “Where did you spring from?”

When Andre didn’t answer him, he apparently realized he had overstepped a line. “Is she with you? Sorry man, I didn’t know you were working for them.”

“I’m not,” Andre said. “Rebecca, take Selene and go to the wagons. Stay there, and keep Catrin there as well.”

He moved with them toward the door, and the Merc stepped aside so the girls could exit the building.

Once outside the door, Rebecca handed Selene the baskets. “Run to the wagons and tell Grandpa and Owen about this. Tell Catrin to stay with you at the wagons.”

“Andre told both of us to go,” Selene protested.

“I know, but that Merc isn’t alone. Andre may need help.”

Rebecca leaned back against the wall, listening to the men inside as she watched her sister run to their wagons. She looked around, checking for any of the other Merc’s headed toward the washhouse.

“If you’re not working for her family, how do you know her?” the Merc demanded.

“She belongs to me,” Andre told him. “Anyone who bothers her is going to answer to me, understand?”

“Sure,” Jokan agreed hastily. “No problem. I didn’t know she was taken. I saw a prettier girl over in the wagons anyway. One skirt’s as good as another.”

“Rebecca’s sisters, and the wives and daughters of any man who works for us are off limits, Jo. You be sure to tell the others. I’d hate to kill one of them over a misunderstanding.”

“Sure,” Jokan said. He went over to one of the full tubs and opened his war bag to dump in some clothes, whistling as he started his laundry.

Andre watched him for a few minutes, then turned and went out the door Rebecca had used. He stopped in his tracks when he saw her waiting for him, a small fireball rolling in her palm.

He caught her wrist, looking down at her hand. She closed her fist and the ball of flame disappeared. Curiously Andre rubbed a finger over her palm. It was cool to the touch.

“Didn’t I tell you to go back to the wagons?” he said.

“I know,” she replied, “but he isn’t here alone. I saw a whole troop ride in earlier.”

He looked at her, a small, delighted smile playing around his lips. “And you were going to use that to help me?”

She nodded, ducking her head and looking at him sideways, not sure how he would react to this display of Magi talent.

Andre brought her palm to his mouth and pressed a kiss into it. “I wasn’t in any danger, Darling.”

“Well, I realize that now,” she admitted. “I stayed because I knew he would have challenged Grandpa or Owen and I supposed it would be the same with you. Why didn’t he?”

“He knew better,” Andre told her dryly. “He and I worked together a couple of times. Jokan Locklear never saw the day he could beat me in a fight.”

He tucked her hand under his arm and started back toward the wagons.

“He called you by another name,” Rebecca said. “Hammer something.”

“I used the name Hammer Smith when I fought as a Merc,” Andre said, watching her expression to see if his past occupation offended her.

“Is he a friend?” she asked.

“Not really, we just worked together, that’s all.”

“I’m glad. I didn’t like him,” she admitted. “A friend of yours is always going to be welcome to me, but I’m glad that man isn’t a friend. He frightened Selene.”

He nodded soberly. “I saw that. I passed the word to leave you girls alone, but it will be better if you stick close to our wagons until they leave.”

“Anja and I both left clothes there on the lines,” she told him. “We will need to go back and get them this afternoon when they are dry.”

“I’ll go with you,” he promised.

“Was your hunt successful?” she asked.

He grinned. “Got two buck pronghorns. Owen did okay with his crossbow. We can spend a couple of days curing the hides and smoking the meat. I had to hang them pretty high; your cats kept trying to drag the meat down.”

They had parked their wagons far enough from the station house and any other travelers to give them some privacy. Trade Stations were neutral territory, but they were hotbeds of gossip as well. Lewys never wanted to be close enough to other Travelers that a casual observer could listen in on their conversations. Anyone could stop at the Stations and be sure they would be let alone if they behaved properly. The Station Master had the right to summon the Sheriff of nearby towns if trouble occurred. When the Stations had first been established, the Shahen had also stationed soldiers at them to enforce order. Long custom made that no longer necessary.

The women spent the afternoon cutting the meat into strips. When Rebecca gave Anja a quarter of the meat, the woman teared up. “Thank you,” she whispered.

Andre showed Owen how to build a smoking rack while Rebecca and Catrin cut the meat into thin strips for smoking. Although it would take several days to finish curing, by evening the smoked meat was beginning to give off an appetizing odor. Selene had been given the task of keeping the kittens from burning their paws when they tried to get close enough to steal a strip of the meat.

The women were starting to prepare dinner when a man on an old zebra unicorn rode up to their wagons, stopping a little way from entering the camp. “May I come to the fire?” he called.

“Come in,” Lewys said easily. Tobias noted that Andre and Owen both moved into the shadows to cover the camp and he did the same, approving of the precautions.

The man was young, but he showed signs of hardship. His clothes were worn and the unicorn looked gaunt.       “Dracon Maginogion?” he asked hesitantly.

When Lewys nodded, he said, “I am Sorson Lorkeet. I was told that you might be wanting some goats to restore the herds at Ironlyn?”

“Perhaps. Do you have goats?”

Lorkeet took a deep breath. “Yes. My family has been goatherds for many generations, but we recently lost our holding and are looking for a new patron.”

Andre and Owen came back to the fire. “He’s alone,” Andre said.

Lorkeet looked a little startled and then he smiled. “You are a careful man, Dracon.”

“Yes, I am,” Lewys agreed. “I’d like to see the goats before I talk any deals.”

Lorkeet nodded. “We are camped just over the hill there. We can go now if you want.”

“He’s alone, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a trap,” Andre said. “He could have a crew waiting over there.”

Lewys looked at his grandson.

“Owen?” he asked.

Owen shook his head. “I don’t feel anything like that from him.”

Lewys stroked his chin. “I see. Well, I think that you and Andre will stay here just in case. Tobias and I will go and look at goats.”

While they were saddling the unicorns, Owen saw Andre go to the wagon and retrieve his needle gun and a sword which he belted on in addition to the long knife he always wore. Owen decided to imitate the example and went to the wagon shared by the men for his own crossbow and needle gun. Seeing the weapons, Andre nodded approvingly.

He signaled Owen and the pair of them slipped out of the firelight to make a round of the camp. “Do you think someone really is out here?” Owen asked.

Andre held up a hand and pointed at Blackfeather and the unicorn mares who were stamping nervously. “You hear that? The unicorns think there is and I don’t think its Lorkeet or his people. See how they keep looking back toward the road from the village? It might be an animal, but it could be human too. Let’s make a circle around the camp.”

What the unicorns heard was human. As they finished their circle, a small group of riders trotted right up to their wagons and stopped. Behind her, Rebecca heard Selene gasp in fear. She moved so her body partially shielded the girl, reaching back to grasp her hand.

“Who are you, and what are you doing here?” Rebecca demanded. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Owen moving into positon behind the riders with the bolt drawn on his crossbow. When Andre came up to stand between them and the men, she felt a surge of confidence.

“It’s going to be fine, you’ll see,” she whispered to the girl. “Andre will take care of it.”

“I’m Korman, the Sheriff of Wintermere, and I’m looking for a fugitive,” the short, round man in the front announced.

“You didn’t stop at the Station to check yourselves in. Approaching a camp at night without warning is a good way to get dead, Sheriff,” Andre drawled. “We don’t have any fugitives here. Just our family, our workers and their families.”

“So you say. I’m going to search the camp anyway,” the Sheriff said. “She could be hiding in one of the wagons.”

She? It takes five men to hunt a woman?” Andre asked disdainfully. “Sheriffs are a lot tougher where I come from.”

“She’s not a woman, she’s a kid and she’s Magi,” the sheriff said. He and the others dismounted.

“About the age of that one there,” a townsman in rich clothes said, indicating Selene, who shivered.

“That’s my little sister,” Rebecca snapped.

When one of the men started to approach the nearest wagon, Owen shot a crossbow bolt into the ground front of him. “There’s more where that came from,” he called cheerfully from the shadows. The man backed up nervously, looking to the Sheriff for guidance.

“If you’re looking for a Magi,” Andre said, “Where is the Magi Proctor? You have no jurisdiction without one. I would advise you to mount back up and leave.”

The tone of his voice made Sheriff Korman take another, more careful look at Andre. When he did, he took a mental step back. Despite the soft clothes and herdsman’s hat, it was obvious this man hadn’t always been a traveler. He was too sure of himself when confronting armed men. Andre’s hand rested lightly on his hip, within easy reach of the needle pistol, and his sword and knife in their well-worn sheaths had seen plenty of service. Everything about Andre shouted ‘Merc’ to the Sheriff, and he wavered. He had no lust to take on a trained fighter; he knew hewould be the first target in a fight. Damn that Sorris for a meddling Busybody. He hadn’t wanted to come all this way out here anyhow, he thought bitterly.

The decision was abruptly taken out of his hands. There was the thunder of heavy unicorn hooves, and Lewys rode smack into the middle of the dismounted riders, who scrambled to get out of the way. He wheeled the massive golden stud around to face them, not caring if the posse was trampled in the process.

“What the devil is going on here?” he roared, in his best Lord of the Manor voice.

Behind Andre, Rebecca put an arm around the shaking Selene’s shoulders.

Being dismounted was distinct disadvantage. The Sheriff was forced to look up into Lewys’ face. “I am Sheriff Korman of Wintermere. We are here in search of a wanted Magi.”

“A girl about that age,” the overdressed townsman pushed his way forward and started toward Selene. He stopped, backpedaling hastily when he suddenly found ten inches of fighting blade in his face. Andre held the knife in the easy grip of men who know steel.

“You’ve been told who she is,” Andre said softly. He stared directly into the townsman’s eyes, his own gone flat and hard.

“Sorris! Stand down!” the sheriff shouted, correctly interpreting how close to death the townsman was.

Sorris backed away from Andre before turning on the Sheriff, blustering to hide his embarrassed fear. “See here, Korman, if you won’t do anything to find the girl, I will. I think these people are hiding her. I bet I have a flyer on them too. Look at this!” he thrust a sheet of paper under Korman’s nose.

Korman sighed. “Sorris, this plainly describes a party of four people. I count at least twice that number here. Get back on your unicorn before I decide to let this young man split you like a roasting bird. The rest you mount up also,” he added, going to his own mount.

“Sorry for the intrusion—” he waited for Lewys to supply the name.

“Dracon Lewys il’Maginogion of Ironlyn,” he was informed.

“Dracon Maginogion, my apologies to you and your family,” Korman said, reflecting sourly as he left that, he had probably just offended the Dracon of one of the strongest keeps in the area. Ironlyn was a long way from Wintermere, but the nobility had lingering memories.

As soon as the posse disappeared into the darkness, Celine jumped off her stool and threw her arms around Andre, sobbing, “Thank you.”

Taken aback, he patted her shoulder. “It’s okay, they’ve gone. You are safe with us.” He looked helplessly at Rebecca, who came and kissed his cheek.

“You were wonderful,” she told him smiling. “I knew you would keep us safe.”

“Hey!” her grandfather protested. “What about me? Didn’t I help too?”

Catrin laughed. “Yes, Grandpa, you’re wonderful, and so is Owen. Thank you.”

 

WANT TO READ MORE? PRE-ORDERNOW SO YOU DON’T MISS OUT

 

Book Review: The Cinderella Story

Author: Jennifer Crusie

Jennifer Cruise is a very talented lady and her books provide a reader with humor, suspense and most important believability. It’s a plus also that I usually find her heroines likable. Believe it or not, this is an often neglected aspect of character development that can get lost in telling the story. Let’s face it, if you are a fan of reading, how often do you read another book by an author whose MC you hated? Considering the premise of the story, Crusie could have written both characters as self-centered jerks, but she didn’t.

I enjoyed this one mostly because falling in love came as such a surprise to both characters.This is actually the first “have to get married” story I have read in a long time where the premise was actually believable. Both parties intended to get something out of the marriage and considered it incidental. Falling in love wasn’t even considered. As always, the side characters were funny aw well even if their silly behaviors were a bit exaggerated.

Book Review: Montana Horseman

by John S. McCord

You don’t find many western writers around these days. It isn’t so much that there are not any, it’s that the genre was taken over several years ago by bodice rippers, looking for new ground because they had worn out the Regency and Historical genres. This is an old fashioned western, written from the Hero’s point of view. There is no vanilla porn, but there is romance and a straight up good story.When I first discovered this author, my husband and I liked his books so much that we bought extra copies so we would still have some around to read when the paperbacks wore out! Sadly, McCord’s books have never made it to e-books, so it and the others in the series must be read the old-fashioned way—in book format.

In a way, this is a coming of age story about how a 16-year-old boy gets himself named as a gunfighter, but it is also a close up view of what western society in that day and age was like. Nothing is sugarcoated. I especially loved the practice horse race scene where the heroine thinks his pet race horse is going to kill Ward!

Book Review: Cruel Zinc Melodies

Garrett, P.I. Book 12 By Glenn Cook.

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

This was the first new Garrett mystery I’d read in years, and it had a slower, more meditate pace than the earlier books. Unlike the earlier books, we meet an older, more mature Garrett. Tunfare has changed from a boomtown due to the war, to a city where returning soldiers can’t find work, and crime lords and keeping a lower profile due to the new sheriff in town Deal Relway’s getting support from the Crown Prince. When Garrett, in a much overdue scene, lays down the law about Tennie’s ridiculous jealous antics, I could only say it was about time; she was getting boring. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the earlier books, but characters need to grow if they are to hold onto readers interests. Cook has finally allowed this to begin with the Garrett characters and I’m sure it can only enhance the series.

To say I was pleased to revisit old friends is a given. The story was full of all the usual treats: That sedentary detective the Dead Man being his mysterious self. Fast talking Garrett juggling too many balls in the air and in danger of dropping them all. Spoiled Tennie Tate causing problems (although Garrett finallydid get tired of her shenanigans). Morley in trouble financially and desperately looking for a way out. Saucerhead and a host of others behaving in their normal fashion. Plus, giant mutant bugs, and a strange entity at the root of all Garrett’s troubles…

PREVIEW SPELL OF THE MAGI – BOOK 2 OF THE PORTAL WORLDS

An amnesiac Merc on the run falls for a sorceress hiding deadly secrets. In the Kingdom of Askela being born a Magi means slavery to the Kings Witch Proctors or a death sentence. Rebecca will do anything to save her family from them—she accepts marriage to a Merc with a price on his head, not expecting to fall in love. But to be together, Andre and Rebecca will start a war to remake their entire world. Can They do it?

 

Spell of The Magi

A Portal World Tale

Gail Daley

In The Beginning

On a planet called Earth in the Milky Way Galaxy, a way to travel from world to world was discovered in the late 22nd Century. Were these new worlds simply other planets in the known galaxy or did the gateways lead to other dimensions with other physical laws? Or perhaps—both?

            Earth itself was constantly beset by strife and wars. The portals became simply another item to be fought over. It came to pass that a group on the losing side of one of these conflicts captured and held a Portal for a space of half a year, and seeing inevitable defeat in their future, sent their families ahead to another world. As the winning forces flooded the city, the last of the losers fled through the Portal, erasing their destination as they left so they couldn’t be hunted down by their enemies.

            Travel now to the world of Rulari, the new home of the escaping Terrans. Not only does time march differently on Rulari, but this world answers to the rule of will, of heart, of mind and of magic as much as the laws science had governed earth.

            Humans are very adaptable and began to prize those families with the ingrained talent to use magic. In the years since man first came to Rulari, Seven Places Of Power were searched out, new portals established and enclosed in keeps held by the seven of the most powerfully gifted families. Formidable wards were created and set to assure the keeps stayed in the control of the families, who were sworn to serve the best interest of the magic users or Magi as they came to be called. One of these ancient keeps was Ironlyn, on the northwestern sea of the country of Askela. It is held by a family named Mabinogion.

 

The Witchlings

Kathlea Mabinogion, heritary Draconi to the shire of Ironlyn, was a powerful, unregistered Magi. Her much loved husband Maxton was a great soldier, but he had no talent other than his swordplay. Magi were highly valued in the kingdom of Askela but only if a registered member of the Shan’s Elite Magi Proctors. Unregistered Magi were hunted by the Magi Proctors and forced to join. When a Magi became a Proctor, to ensure loyalty only to the Shan and the Proctors, the Proctors insisted all family ties be broken. To breed stronger Magi, the Proctors would choose a mate for you. It mattered little to the Proctors if the Magi ‘recruited’ was already mated, in a relationship or if they even liked their assigned partner. If she had been a registered Magi, Kathlea would never have been allowed to marry Maxton. If the Proctors caught her now, they would try to force her to mate with a male Magi they had chosen and her children would be tested for Magi talents. Any of her Magi gifted children would be separated from her and sent to a special school where they would be indoctrinated in loyalty to the Proctors above all else. Maxton would be killed outright.

Years ago, the rebellious unregistered Magi of Askela had formed a network called the Magi Cadre organized to enable Magi to escape the nets spread by the Proctors. Travelers like the Maginogion family picked up Magi hiding from the Proctors and aided them to escape to neighboring countries where the Magi Laws were different. For the truly desperate, there was Ironlyn Keep and a portal to another world. As the spymaster for the Cadre, Lewys Mabinogion, Kathlea’s father traveled around the kingdom eking out a living selling spices, potions and medicine to various villages. While Lewys and his family worked at overseeing the Cadre network, Lerrys Maginogion, a cousin without Magi abilities held Ironlyn for them.

Magical in itself, Ironlyn had defied attempts by the Shan and the Magi Proctors to force their way into it. Unable to break the wards or decipher the spell that created them, the Proctors continually searched for members of the bloodline in the hope they would be able to force a way into the Keep and control the Gate.

Kathlea had born Maxton three children, Rebecca, age ten and the twins Catrin and Owen, age four, all of whom were showing signs of nascent Magi talent. There was also hope of a fourth child, but Kathlea hadn’t yet shared that with her family on that fatal day when the Proctors found them.

On Rebecca’s tenth birthday, the Proctors found them. Her grandparents had driven their wagon into a nearby village to meet their contact and pick up a Magi hiding there. Kathlea and Maxton had stayed behind because it was rumored the Proctors were in the village, and Lewys Maginogion felt that two Traveler wagons would draw too much attention.

Rebecca and the twins had been playing under the wagon when Kathlea suddenly stood up and looked towards the town.

“What is it?” Maxton demanded.

“He’s coming!” Kathlea gasped. “I feel him. He knows I’m here.”

She turned to Rebecca. “Go! Hide where we found the berries. Be quiet, and keep the twins quiet also. Don’t come out whatever you see or hear. Promise me!”

“I promise,” Rebecca said. She grabbed Catrin and Owen’s hands and ran into the bushes. They barely made it before the Proctor and his men thundered into camp.

Unknown to Rebecca, her mother cast a shadow spell on the children to keep them from being noticed. While her attention was diverted, the Proctor cast a Binding Spell on her to keep her from using her Rainbow Magic to help her husband as he fought the Proctor’s guards. Rebecca could see the bubble of magic over her mother push outward as Kathlea tried to break through it. Hidden in a hollow in the brush with her hands covering the mouths of her brother and sister, she watched in terror as her father fought the guardsmen who came with the Proctor.

Catrin whimpered. “Hush!” Rebecca breathed and the children obediently stilled.

The Proctor had brought ten guards with him. Maxton fought like a demon to reach him, slaying all but four of his guards before an unlucky strike brought him down. Kathlea screamed.

“Shut up woman!” the Proctor yelled. “You are Magi and a strong one. I will let him live if you do not resist.”

Sobbing, Kathlea allowed herself to be led away, the bubble binding her to the saddle. The remaining guards loaded up their dead and wounded comrades and followed their master.

Rebecca made the twins wait until the Proctor and his men had disappeared before they came out of hiding. Maxton was unconscious but alive. Anghard, Rebecca’s grandmother had just begun to teach the girl healing, but she bathed and bound her father’s wounds as well as she could, applying a poultice of crushed bayberry and skunkweed to stop the bleeding.

Lewys and Anghard had been forced to watch as the Proctor led their captive daughter through the village, arriving back at the camp to find Maxton alive but still unconscious.

As soon as he recovered, Maxton left to follow and try to rescue his wife from the Proctors. The family packed up and left the area, traveling in a roundabout way toward the Capitol city of Khios where the Proctors were headquartered, hoping to be able to help their daughter and her husband.

Lewys learned through his contacts that Kathlea had arrived there and been taken into the inner courts for training, but he could discover nothing more. Almost a year later, news came that Maxton and Kathlea were both dead.

“It is a tale of love and defiance to inspire rebels against the Proctors for generations,” the woman, an escaped Magi, brought the news. “He fought his way in to her, and they defied the Chief Magi Proctor himself, but they were trapped on the highest tower of the castle above the ocean cliffs. They kissed each other and jumped into the ocean. It is believed they drowned.”

Anghard sobbed. Lewys Maginogion’s face was hard.

“Someday, I will kill them,” he said. “All who support this cursed system that destroys families.”

The woman telling the tale looked frightened. “There is more,” she whispered. “It is rumor only, but they say before her husband found her your daughter was delivered of a babe who was smuggled out of the compound by a servant woman.”

“What happened to the child?” Anghard asked, a desperate hope in her voice.

The woman shrugged. “Your daughter had been kind to her and she was well paid to smuggle her out of the nursery. That is all I know. I’m sorry.”

“You are sure the babe was a girl?”

The woman hesitated. “That is what I was told, but—”

Anghard pressed her hand. “Thank you.”

She turned to her husband. “We can’t go back to Ironlyn until we find the child, Lewys.”

Fire Magic

Thirteen years passed and the family never forgot their lost daughter or the child she might have born. The night the wasting fever took Rebecca’s grandmother, spring was just starting to push up through ground that was frozen hard with winter. She and Catrin had been able to find only a few spring blooms to scatter on her body as they prepared it for the dawn service.

Rebecca stood under the funeral Pyre looking up at the sky, feeling the weight of responsibility on her shoulders, now that her grandmother was no longer there to share it. Anghard had fought the wasting sickness, and fought hard, but after months of agonizing illness, she succumbed. “You will be Draconi now,” she told Rebecca. Holding her granddaughter’s firm young hand in her wasted one. “Take care of your grandfather and your brother and sister. It will be up to you to find our lost one.” She had pressed an amulet into Rebecca’s hand. “Use this to help you skry for her.”

“I’ll find her grandmother,” she vowed. “Mother is gone, but if her child lives, I’ll find her. I promise.”

Rebecca’s straight, blue-black hair, plaited into a braid as thick as a man’s arm, fell to her waist. Clear grey eyes below slanted eyebrows stood out against her porcelain complexion that never took a tan. The resemblance between her and the woman now resting on the funeral pyre was uncanny.

“It’s hopeless; we will never find our baby sister,” Catrin said, wiping her eyes. She and Owen were sixteen now, a tall strapping pair, with curly dark hair, their father’s green eyes, and sunny smiles. Just now their faces both showed evidence of grief.

Rebecca looked over at Lewys Maginogion’s ravaged face. He would miss his beloved Anghard. She reached for her sibling’s hands. “He will stay with her tonight, I think. Let’s go back to camp.”

Dinner that night was a simple stew which they ate in silence. Afterwards, Owen moved the rope corral around the unicorn herd to a fresh location. The herd consisted of twenty mares and half-grown colts. It was their Grandfather’s pride and joy. Moving from village to village, Lewys would occasionally sell one of the younger ones, if he decided an owner was worthy to own one, but they all knew the herd was destined for the pastures of Ironlyn when they finally took up residence there.

Anghard’s funeral pyre would be set afire at dawn, as was the custom. Rebecca and Catrin were finishing up the supper dishes and setting out the bread to rise for breakfast the next morning, when they had unwelcome visitors–several men from the town outside the Trade Station where they camped.

The leader, John Thomas Lazarus was an important man in the nearby village of Joppa. He had expected these Travelers to be awed by his importance, and was displeased when they were not.

“What, no dancing around the fire? I was looking forward to that,” he said jovially.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Lazarus,” Rebecca replied quietly. “We are not entertaining visitors tonight. This is a camp of sorrow. Our grandmother Anghard passed into the great beyond this afternoon. Please excuse us.”

She went back to wiping down the clean plates, ignoring him, hoping he would take the hint and go away.

Instead, he threw some coins down on the ground. “Here, I’ll pay for my entertainment.”

She made no move to pick up the coins. “No, Sir.”

Lazarus frowned, but he hesitated. “Maybe I should ask the old man. Where is he?”

“Grandfather is sitting vigil with Grandmother,” Owen, who had just returned to the camp, replied.

Lazarus looked at him in incredulity. “You mean someone really did die?”

The three just looked at him in silence.

“I see. Alright, I’ll be back tomorrow then.” He turned and left.

Owen spat on the ground at his back.

“Make sure he really leaves,” Rebecca said. “I intend to skry for our lost sister tonight, and I don’t want a witness.”

“He and the others have left the Trade Station Circle and headed back into town,” Owen reported. “Becca, are you sure this is a good idea? Grandmother always did it before.”

Rebecca pulled out the bronze stone that had been Anghard’s last gift to her. “Yes. I feel her spirit strongly tonight. She will help me before she passes on. I know it.”

Catrin unrolled the ancient map of the kingdom, stretching it on the wooden folding worktable that served a variety of uses. She held down the map corners with four flat stones.

Rebecca pulled the necklace over her head and held the stone in one hand. She cut a small prick in her finger and rubbed it over the stone. Holding the stone over the map, she rubbed the blood on its surface.

“Bone of my bone, blood of my blood, flesh of my flesh, seek now she who is lost.”

Catrin picked up the knife and did the same. Handing the knife to Owen, she too rubbed the stone and map with a bloody fingertip, and repeated the chant.

After a second’s hesitation, he repeated the actions and joined in the chant.

At first, nothing happened, but finally, the stone began to swing gently. There was a surge of power and then the stone pulled strongly toward the west, finally coming to rest on the symbol for the village of Buttersea.

All three felt the soft caress as Anghard left them for the final time.

“What have you done?” Lewys demanded.

Catrin looked up at him with tears running down her face. “It was grandmamma. I felt her,” she sobbed.

“We all felt her,” Rebecca said coolly. “Look, we have a destination.”

Lewys stared down at the map with the stone resting on it. “Yes,” he sighed. “We will be going west in the morning. I heard from Cousin Lerrys. He needs to leave Ironlyn. The local Proctor is getting suspicious because so many Magi have disappeared in the area surrounding Ironlyn. We will go home. That village is on the way. If your sister is there, we will find her.”

Rebecca nodded. “We will be ready.”

“I need to go into Joppa tomorrow and pick up the supplies I ordered. You three will stay here and pack up so we can leave when I return,” Lewys instructed.

At dawn, Lewys came to wake them. They stood quietly, while he lit the pyre, watching in silence as Anghard’s earthly remains were consumed.

Breakfast was a subdued meal. Afterwards, Lewys put a pack saddle on one of the mares, saddled his stallion, Sunrise and left for Joppa, the village outside the Trade Station. His grandchildren began packing the two wagons for the journey. It was a complicated process. The limited space meant that everything had to be stowed in exactly the right place or it wouldn’t all fit.

Packing took longer than it should have because Owen kept stuffing things in higgledy-piggledy. It was obvious he was in a hurry. After she had unloaded and re-packed the things he had already packed several times, Rebecca turned to him in exasperation. “What is wrong with you? This will take forever if you aren’t more careful. Why are you in such a hurry?”

Catrin laughed. “He wants to get done so he can hurry over and say goodbye to Fiona,” she said with a knowing look.

“The Station Master’s daughter?” Rebecca inquired.

Owen nodded.

“Okay, take off then,” his sister said. “The way you’re working, we’ll get on better without you. Scram!”

Her little brother kissed her cheek and loped off toward the Trade Station.

“Grandpa told us all to stay here,” Catrin remarked.

“I know,” Rebecca replied, “but he’s only young once.”

Catrin laughed and began repacking the pots and pans Owen had made a mess of.

“Leave a space for what Grandpa is bringing back,” Rebecca reminded her.

“What is it, do you know?” Catrin asked.

“Not a clue,” her sister replied. “He was very mysterious about it.”

“Well, we’ve finished,” Catrin said, a few minutes later. “I suppose we can harness the unicorns. Whose turn is it today?”

Lewys’ prize unicorn herd were mostly draft animals and to keep from overusing any of them, the family rotated the ones used to pull the wagons.

“Let’s rotate the teams,” Rebecca suggested. She went to the rope corral and called four mares to her. She was about to lead them over to the front of the first wagon when they again had an unwelcome visitor; Lazarus was back.

“Not leaving already are you?” he asked Catrin, looking the girl up and down in a way that made her flush with embarrassment.

“Yes, we are,” Rebecca answered him. She deliberately led the four large unicorns between him and Catrin, forcing him to move back out of the way.

“Really?” he sneered. “Leaving without allowing me to sample your wares? I don’t think so.”

Rebecca’s eyes narrowed. She understood exactly what type of ‘wares’ he referred to, but pretended she didn’t.

“I’m afraid we’ve already packed away our herbs and medicines, Mr. Lazarus,” she said.

“I’m not talking about any piddly spices girl and you know it,” he said.

“Catrin, get in the wagon and lock the door,” Rebecca told her sister.

Catrin hesitated, but obeyed her.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Lazarus,” Rebecca continued, “but we aren’t receiving visitors, and my grandfather and brother will be back soon. I need to get our unicorns harnessed. Please excuse me.”

She lined up the unicorns and was preparing to throw the first harness over one’s back when Lazarus grabbed her.

Rebecca fought him, but he was stronger than she. When she landed a lucky kick on his knee, he slapped her hard across the face. The dizzying blow stunned her long enough for Lazarus to rip her blouse open. He yanked her to him and mashed his mouth down on hers.

When she tried to turn her head away, he grabbed a handful of her hair and forced her face back to his. With her arms pinned against his body, she was unable to move. Finally, she managed to free one of her arms and stabbed at his eyes with her fingers.

Lazarus hit her again, this time with his fist. She stumbled and fell to her knees, dizzy. He knocked her the rest of the way to the ground, following it up by falling on her body. He tore her blouse the rest of the way off, biting at her bared breast. The pain brought her awake, and she clawed at his face and head.

When she felt him fumbling at the buttons on her pants, she knew she wasn’t going to be able to stop him unless she used her Magi talents. Rebecca was a fire Magi; fear and anger ignited her Magic. A fireball burst in his face, causing his greasy hair to catch fire. Lazarus screamed and drew back, slapping at his burning hair.

Suddenly, he was knocked off Rebecca by the solid twack! of a camp shovel wielded by Catrin, who had disobeyed her sister and come to help. He fell to the side, unconscious, with his hair still smoldering.

When Lewys and Owen arrived a few minutes later, they found Rebecca leaning on her sister’s shoulder while Catrin applied one poultice to her swollen face and another to the vicious bite mark on her breast.

Lewys looked down at Lazarus in silence. He had checked the man for life signs and was disappointed to find him still alive. “You should have made sure he was dead,” he informed his granddaughters.

“We can still do that,” Rebecca said, half hysterically.

“No, child we can’t. It would be murder. Owen, go and get Trade Master Jordan.”

When Catrin started to take Rebecca inside the wagon, Lewys stopped her. “Better he sees her just like she is, so he knows this was justified,” Lewys said.

The Trade Master arrived in Owen’s wake, puffing. He was a round man, no longer made for running.

“Oh, no, Oh, no,” he kept repeating, wringing his hands. “This is bad.”

“It was self defense,” Lewys reminded him. “Look at my granddaughter. Since when is it bad to stop a man from raping her?”

“Since the man is John Thomas Lazarus!” Jordan snapped. “You don’t live here. He is the most powerful man in this county. He owns half the farms around here and at least a third owe him money. He pretty much does as he pleases.”

“Including rape?” demanded Lewys.

“I’ve heard rumors,” Jordan said. “Well, the first thing is to get you out of here. You boy,” he pointed at Owen. “Get those unicorns harnessed. I’m going to the village to round up a few men to help me collect Lazarus and take him back into town to a healer. You need to be on the road by the time I return from town. I can give you about an hour. Who knows? Maybe he’ll die in the meantime and solve both our problems.”

While Lewys and Owen harnessed the unicorns to the wagons, Rebecca threw off her torn blouse and put on a loose comfortable shirt. She mounted the wagon box and took her place to drive.

“Are you able to do this, girl?” her grandfather looked up at her from the back of his golden unicorn.

She set her hat firmly on her head and nodded. “Yes, lets just go away from here.”

They camped that night by a small creek deep in the black leaf forest, Lewys having decided that it would be wiser to avoid the Trade Stations until they were a long way from Joppa. Spring had brought out a few fresh grasses in the glade next to the stream for the animals to feed on.

The next morning, he ordered the sides of the wagons whitewashed, so they would appear a different color. Catrin was told to prepare a concoction he said would dye the unicorn’s coats a different color. It turned Sunrise and the mares’ golden coats to a dull brown.

To make Owen appear older, he brought out a fake beard for him to put on each morning, and told him to stop shaving. He would do the same.

It was while they were dyeing the unicorns that Rebecca found the three hungry kittens near the body of their mother. They were very young and hadn’t yet grown the white manes they would have as adults. Gathering up the kits in her arms, she brought them back to camp. Milking one of the nursing unicorns, she mixed the rich milk into a feed for them.

For several weeks, the family continued to travel north and west avoiding any villages and Trade Stations. Spring was in full bloom, when they camped in a clearing outside the village of Duranga. Duranga had no proper Trade Station, but the town had designated the clearing as common ground where Travelers or Trade Caravans could stop over.

A Spell Is Cast

Harry Sims, the proprietor of the Glass Slipper Tavern, was an unhappy man on this fine spring evening. He should have been happy. The Glass Slipper was full. The Spring Jamborees for local stock collection and sale had just finished and all the holdings, small and large were in town and spending coin freely.

The chief cause of his unhappiness was not the rowdiness of the crowd; he was long accustomed to that. No, the cause of his worry was the five-man dice game going on in the corner. Harry knew four of the five players well. Leej Jonsyn, the rug merchant, was losing and was going to be in trouble with his wife. Ruddy Tyer, a long, skinny kid from Gryphon’s Nest, was still reasonably sober but he would lose his Jamboree bonus before the end of the night. Charger French, a squatty rider from back in the badlands with, it was said—but not where he could hear it—a reputation for shady deals. The fourth player was Jajson Buttersnake the son of old ‘Rock’ Buttersnake, the biggest cattle breeder around. Jajson figured he was top dog in the town of Drycreek because no one dared challenge the son of old Rock. Rock ran a tough, salty crew of drovers. They didn’t much like the boss’s son, but they would take his side in a fight.

It was the fifth dice thrower who worried Harry. Harry had seen him ride into town earlier that day on the highbred, dapple war unicorn presently taking up space at Harry’s hitching rail. The stranger wasn’t a big man; he stood around five-eight with a short, neatly trimmed black beard and cold green eyes. To Harry, who as a young man had seen quite of few of his kind, the stranger had ‘Merc’ written all over him. His clothes were of too good quality and too clean, his thigh-high boots too new and shiny, and the saddle on that fancy unicorn stud was too pricey for a coin-a-day drover. His needle-gun was tied low on his leg in a well-worn holster, and unless Harry was mistaken, in addition to the knife on his belt, he had a blade down his back, one in his boot, and a second gun hidden in his other boot.

Absently, Harry polished a glass while he tried to place the man. He didn’t look that familiar, but the blood feud over to the south between the RedBird and Smoker clans had just finished. Before he died, the Smoker Chief Hutchins had claimed Rupert RedBird was hiring paid Mercs, and the stranger had ridden in from the south.

The practice of hiring fighters from the Merc Guild in disputes wasn’t against the law, but it was disapproved of by Shahen Tarragon. Since the Merc Guild was very powerful and used by many to settle disputes, his disapproval didn’t mean much. The Guild was composed of hundreds of small and large bands of independent fighters and reputed to have ties with the Wild Magi. The Mercs were completely independent of any government, and the Guild’s influence stretched through all seven of the human kingdoms. Since siding with the Shahen against the Guild might mean you couldn’t hire their fighters in your next dispute, few landholders wanted to chance angering the Guild. Rumor had it the Shahen was also trying to consolidate more power to the crown by discouraging the larger holders from keeping their own private armies. The Shahen wasn’t having much luck with that either.

Because of his father’s mental illness, the Shahen had been named Regent and virtually ruled Askela in his father’s stead. Attempting to force the nobles to disband their large standing armies using his Magi Proctors might cause a rebellion against his already uneasy reign. It was common knowledge the neighboring Kingdom of Jacite would attack immediately if a war broke out between the Shahen and his nobles. Despite the Proctors’ Magi talents, they were outnumbered by the Mercs whom the landowners would doubtless call upon for help if he tried to force their compliance.

Harry swore softly to himself. If he was correct about the identity of the fifth dice player, it might mean he  belonged to a troop he could call on if there was trouble. He was alone right now, but that didn’t mean he didn’t have allies nearby. Harry was sure trouble was brewing because Jajson Buttersnake was drunk. When he was sober, he was a poor player and an even worse loser. Because he ran with the Buttersnake mob, he was usually safe when he had a tantrum; no one in his right mind wanted to start a fighting ruckus with Old Rock’s crew.

Harry had a bad feeling the fifth dice player wouldn’t give a damn how tough Old Rock Buttersnake’s crew was. There was just something in that dark face that said, ‘I don’t care’. The fight would probably cause a lot of damage before things got settled. And it was going to happen in his place too, he thought bitterly.

Suddenly Buttersnake stood up, scattering dice and coins. “I want a new set of dice!” he cried. “You shouldn’t have won that throw!”

The stranger came up out of his chair in one swift, clean movement. He slapped Jajson across the mouth, knocking him into the crowded bar.

The room exploded away from young Buttersnake. Leej Jonsyn, the rug merchant, dived away from the table so fast he knocked over his chair.

Jajson Buttersnake staggered to his feet, a trickle of blood dribbling from the corner of his mouth. He was white with fury. “You cheated!” he shrieked, pawing for his gun. He fumbled and almost dropped it in his rage.

The stranger waited until Buttersnake had his needlegun coming level before he drew and fired. His gun made a loud snapping noise as the puff of compressed air sent a fatal needle right down Buttersnake’s throat.

In that instant, Harry recognized the fighter. Hammer Smith was the handle he went by, but Harry had come from the coast, and he knew Hammer Smith’s real name was Andre Benoit. Benoit was a free-lance Merc who joined the Mercs at the tender age of sixteen, in the coastal area at the south end of the kingdom. He typically took on jobs that didn’t require the services of an entire troop, but he had allies among the Merc Community. Hammer Smith was reputed to be in his twenties, but he was already known as a dangerous man. It was said that he never drew a weapon unless the man was armed and facing him but if you pushed him, you died. Jajson Buttersnake died.

In the stillness after the weapon fire, Hammer Smith calmly reloaded his weapon, scooped up his coins from the table and quietly walked through the swinging doors. Whispers started in his wake.

“Shot him in the mouth,” someone said.

“Old Rock isn’t going to like this,” said another man.

“He won’t care. That’s a hard man,” a voice said.

Hammer Smith mounted the dapple unicorn and set off at a brisk trot.

“So much for a warm bed for me and a soft stall for you, Blackfeather,” he said. “Unless, I’m mistaken we’re going to have a bunch of irate drovers on our tail soon. Why did I sit down at that game, anyway?”

Blackfeather’s stride increased to a smooth, ground-eating lope. The double moons were full, making the road as clear as day, but Hammer Smith knew he was going to have to leave it soon. He started looking for a good place to leave the trail. Behind him, he could hear angry shouts and then the snap of needle gunfire.

“Okay, boy,” he spoke softly to the unicorn, who cocked an attentive black ear, “let’s ride some lightning.”

Blackfeather was fast. Hammer Smith had traded him off a Cat Man who had used him for racing. The trouble was he had beaten every unicorn in the area so often that no one would race against him anymore, and the Cat Man was broke. Hammer Smith had traded him a half-broke unicorn with the disposition of a poison beetle crossed with a snapdragon, an extra needle rifle and twenty coins in eating money.

He knew if he could get a start on the impromptu mob forming behind him, he could make it across the line into Cat Man Territory. Not the safest place in the world to be, but safer than here, as it was unlikely any posse would follow him there. The Shahen had given orders that entering Cat Man territory was forbidden. No one wanted to re-start the raiding again, and the Cats would undoubtedly see any group of armed men as breaking the treaty. Single riders entered at their own risk, and might be ignored, if he was lucky.

Suddenly ahead of him came the pound of running hooves and a wild screeching yell. Perhaps a mob coming in late off a Jamboree? If so, it suited Hammer Smith’s needs just fine.

He checked the unicorn and faded off to the side, stopping under a kaleidoscope tree about twenty feet away from the road. The moon flecked through the shinny, semi-transparent leaves, causing light and dark shadows that blended with Blackfeather’s coat, making the unicorn practically invisible.

A more cautious man would have taken the opportunity to scuttle out of there quick. But Hammer Smith was not a cautious man. Grinning, he watched as the mob from town ran full tilt into the celebrating drovers.

Chuckling, he started Blackfeather around the tree and to the north at an easy lope, heading into a forest of more kaleidoscope trees. In the melee behind him, he heard the snap of air guns as some fool started shooting; he knew everybody soon would be doing the same.

Karma has a way of catching up with a man. He paid a price for the inattention caused by his unholy amusement. In the darkness, he never saw the tree branch coming that dealt his head a smashing blow; stunned, he blacked out. Only his instinctive riding ability and Blackfeather’s superb gait kept him from falling off. Several times, Blackfeather shifted stride and course to ensure his rider stayed in the saddle. Puzzled at being given no other signals, Blackfeather continued to travel west, taking the easiest route.

The sun was just coming up when Hammer Smith awoke. Blackfeather had slowed to a walk. Muzzily, Hammer Smith peered around. His head hurt and he was having trouble focusing his eyes. Blackfeather mounted the top of a small rise and started down toward a creek gurgling below.

Hammer Smith blinked harder to focus his eyes because he was sure he was seeing things. The loveliest girl he had ever seen knelt by the water washing her face. Straight black hair fell in a curtain to the ground around her, some of the strands floating in the water.

Blackfeather stopped at the edge of the creek and lowered his head to drink. The girl lifted her head to stare back at Hammer Smith out of the clearest gray eyes he’d ever seen. She stood, pulling her hair back over her shoulders. Her crimson night robe clung to the swell of her breasts and hips, making a bright splash of red against the green plants growing on the bank of the stream.

At that moment, Hammer Smith was beyond appreciating nature’s decorating schemes. The whole world felt unreal. There was no one in it but him and the girl, and never would be. He nudged Blackfeather across the stream and stopped beside her.

She looked up at him with no sign of fear. He stared down at her. It seemed as if her eyes grew enormous and he was diving into a huge pool of gray water. This time, he did fall off his unicorn.

Rebecca tried to break his fall, but since he outweighed her, she ended up on the ground with him on top. Awkwardly, she sat up, wriggling out from under his weight. His head lolled back against her breast.

“Gosh!” exclaimed her sixteen-year-old brother Owen, “where did he come from?”

“Over the hill,” Rebecca said absently, looking at the dark face. He wasn’t bad looking; of course, you couldn’t tell much with that beard…

“What’s the matter with him?” demanded Owen’s twin, Catrin. Like Rebecca, she was still in her nightclothes.

Rebecca had found the caked blood matted in his hair.

“He’s been hurt,” she said. “One of you go and get Grandpa.”

“Gosh!” said Owen again. “That’s a funny place to get hurt. Do you suppose somebody whacked him?”

“Maybe.”

Blackfeather nudged Hammer Smith curiously with his soft grey nose. Why was he so still? Absently, Rebecca patted him.

“He’ll be fine,” she said to the unicorn. Blackfeather snorted gently and wandered off to crop some grass growing by the bank.

Pulling up the straps of his suspenders, Lewys Maginogion, awakened out of a sound sleep by Catrin, hurried up to them. His sharp old eyes took in the situation at a glance.

“Owen, unsaddle that unicorn and take care of it. Catrin, go fix up a bed in my wagon.”

As the two hurried to obey, he knelt beside Rebecca.

“He’s got blood on his head. Owen thought maybe he’d been whacked in a fight,” she said.

Gingerly Maginogion turned Hammer Smith’s head, running a finger in the gash on the top of his head and forehead.

“You’ll make it bleed again,” protested Rebecca.

“He’s out like a candle. Doesn’t feel a thing. We’d best get him in the wagon and that wound dressed before he wakes up.”

Unobserved by Rebecca, Lewys Maginogion looked pensively down at the lovely visage of his eldest granddaughter, who was looking down at the face of the young man resting in her arms. It had been months since the incident at Joppa, and in all that time his beautiful Rebecca had not voluntarily let any man touch her, flinching even whenever Owen or her Grandfather touched her accidentally. Yet she held this stranger against her with no sign of shrinking.

They put the unconscious man to bed in the wagon Owen shared with Lewys. As Lewys cleaned and dressed the wound, he thought about what he had learned in the village yesterday, and a plan began to form in his mind. Only if the young man proved worthy of course…

Twenty minutes later, dressed in a grey cotton shirt and trousers, Rebecca was sitting on a folding campstool, brushing her hair with the aid of a hand mirror.

A pan of sliced meat was sizzling on the fire, and Catrin, similarly dressed, with her long curly hair tied back was making sourdough wafers, her face flushed from the fire.

Owen was brushing the mud from the stranger’s unicorn. Blackfeather seemed to enjoy it, one hip cocked as he sleepily munched a bag of grain.

Lewys Maginogion surveyed his brood proudly. They were good kids all of them. Owen was growing tall and straight as a young fire tree. He was gangly still, but his green eyes met a man head on.

His twin, Catrin, took after Lewys’ mother, being tall and buxom with thick curly dark hair. For all she was starting to draw the men’s eyes like bees to nectar, she was still enough of a child not to notice their admiring stares.

His gaze dropped to his oldest granddaughter. With her hair drawn back, the resemblance to his dead wife was eerie. Rebecca wasn’t the looker Catrin was; her red-lipped mouth was too wide, and those gray eyes under her slanted brows gave her heart-shaped face an unearthly beauty, but he knew from his own experience many years ago just how potent a spell that exotic loveliness could cast. He had been caught in just such a web years ago when he first laid eyes on his dead wife, Anghard.

“All of you, come here,” he said. “I need to tell you what I learned in the village yesterday. Catrin, leave those biscuits alone. We won’t starve in the next ten minutes.

Obediently, Catrin and Owen seated themselves on a nearby log. Rebecca turned to face him on the folding campstool, a thick black braid lying over her shoulder.

“John Thomas Lazarus has put out a reward for our arrest for unauthorized magic. I saw it posted on the wall outside the sheriff’s office.”

“But we haven’t done anything!” Catrin cried, tears trembling on the ends of her lashes.

Rebecca said nothing, but she shut her eyes and clasped her hands in her lap. Magic users were regulated by the King. Powerful users were recruited to serve in the Kings Magi Proctors. Less powerful magic users were required to buy a license to use magic, or if proven to be of the right bloodlines, used as breeding stock. In either case, Magi were tested and licensed and paid a fee to the King to practice their arts. At least it worked so in theory. In practice, the rule of the Proctors over Askela’s Magi gifted was absolute. Almost no licenses to practice magic were ever issued. Unauthorized users could be hung without trial if they committed crimes using magic.

Owen started to curse, and was immediately called to order.

“Owen I’ll not have you using words like that in front of your sisters,” Lewys said sternly. “Besides, saying a thing like that about a man can get you killed in a challenge.”

“Even when he deserves it?” asked Catrin wryly.

“Yes,” her grandfather said flatly. “Especially if he deserves it. It’s about how powerful he is, not if he deserves the name.”

After a short struggle with himself, Owen said, “Yes sir. Sorry, girls.”

“Never mind that,” Catrin said. “What are we going to do?”

Her grandfather patted her hand. “I’ll think of something,” he said. In fact, he already had a plan in mind, but he wanted to talk to their guest before he came out with it.

“Now, how about breakfast? Am I to starve to death today?”

“Grandfather, what exactly does that notice say?” demanded Rebecca.

He took it out of his pocket and handed it to her. She frowned as she read it aloud. Travelers such as themselves always had a bad reputation in any new town, being automatically suspected of thievery and other less savory actions. Combined with hints of outlaw magic this spelled real trouble. Lewys and Owen were wanted for the assault and attempted murder of John Thomas Lazarus, Catrin and herself for a magical assault on Mrs. Charity Lazarus and for burning a wagon. All were hanging offenses, and the fact that most of it was a tapestry of lies wouldn’t matter. In fact, only Rebecca had used any magic; Catrin had used a shovel, and Owen and Lewys had both arrived after the incident was over. Although defending herself hadn’t been a crime, with the memory of the day the Proctor took her mother fresh in her mind, Rebecca didn’t think being turned over to the Proctors was a better fate.

They had left the village quickly after the incident hoping an old man traveling to his new hold with his grandchildren might escape notice. They never gave their real names when plying their trade as sellers of herbs and medicines in a village, but the descriptions of them on the flyer were very close. Upon fleeing Joppa, they had turned the gaudy signs on the wagon’s side inward and whitewashed the outside so the wagons looked more like ordinary travelling wagons. Unfortunately, Lewys’ treasured herd of beautiful golden draft unicorns were very noticeable, and they had been forced to stop several times and reapply the dye that turned their golden coats to a muddy brown.

“Sorcery my foot!” Owen exclaimed. “That old hag probably died of spleen when she found out what her supposedly God-fearing husband was up to!”

“Look for the mote in your own eye,” quoted Lewys, “before speaking of the one in your neighbors.”

Owen made an angry noise. “I don’t care! And don’t quote that stuff at me! I’m sick to death of—”

“Stop it! Please!” Rebecca cried.

Everyone looked at her in astonishment. She was weeping. Rebecca never cried.

“This is all my fault,” she sobbed. “I should have just done what he wanted—”

“Wash out your mouth of that filth girl!” Lewys roared. “No granddaughter of mine and Anghard’s would make a whore of herself for any reason! You did just as you should have,” he added more gently. “So did Catrin. What’s done is done, and we live now, not in the past.”

“Uh—breakfast is ready,” Catrin inserted. “That is if anyone is interested.”

They stayed another day by the creek tending to the wounded man and touching up the dye they applied to the unicorn herd. The man didn’t really wake up, but Lewys was able to get a couple of spoons of broth down him.

The first night after everyone had gone to bed, Lewys sat up late. Another man might have been ashamed of himself for what he intended to do. Lewys Maginogion was not. He had a plan to protect his family but he needed more information about his patient before he could decide how much of it was workable. He opened the saddlebags Owen had taken off the unicorn. There wasn’t much in them. One of the bags held a clean shirt, an extra needle gun, a small sleeve weapon, a package of kophie and a battered cup and pot. The other held tools for making needles and small containers of compressed air. The most interesting things he found were a gold pendant with a man and woman’s image inside and a small packet of letters.

Most of the letters were addressed to Andre Benoit. The oldest of these was dated almost ten years ago and had been written to a schoolboy.

My dear son, Lewys read, Mr. James, the head master from St. Anthony’s visited us today and I am afraid your father is very angry with you. Dearest, you must learn to control that dreadful temper of yours or one day I fear it will lead to serious trouble. I am very proud of you for standing up for that poor young man, but was it really necessary to half-drown his tormenter in the chamber pot? And did you really need to break a valuable urn over Jimmy Hendricks head? Not but what I do sympathize with your desire to hit him with something. A more horrid brat I’ve yet to meet, and his mother is just the same—but I hear your father coming. All my love dear and do try to stay out of trouble for a few days. Mama.

There were several others, all in the same vein. The last one was not written by his mother. Instead, it was written by the Cleric at a church.

My Dear boy, my heart goes out to you at this time. I wish I could be with you to comfort you, but as I cannot, I can only tell you to call upon He who is our greatest comfort in our grief as well as in joy. Your mother did not suffer at all. Dr. Thomas tells us the fall killed her instantly. Your poor father is sorely stricken. I hope this mutual sorrow will heal the gulf that has opened between you. Call upon me if you should feel the need for my services and I will come. God be with you, Respected Vincent McCauley

There were two other letters. One was from someone named Marie. It was just a note thanking him for the money to get back home to her family and telling him of her upcoming Handfasting.

The last one was addressed to someone named Hammer Smith, desiring him to come a village named Cutterston and quoting a price of seven thousand silver coins for unnamed services.

Thoughtfully Lewys re-folded the letters and replaced them. A handful of letters wasn’t much to base his plan on, but they were all he had. ‘The Divinity helps those who helps themselves’ he reminded himself. It had been one of Anghard’s favorite sayings. Just the thought of her somehow made her seem closer. Would she have approved of what he intended? He thought so. Comforted, he turned into his bedroll and went to sleep.

The next morning dawned bright and clear. Looking into the wagon Lewys found his patient awake.

“Well,” he said, “you scared us a mite son. How do you feel?”

Andre Benoit touched his head gingerly. “If I move will it fall off?”

“Headache? Well, I think that can be helped.” Lewys rummaged around in Anghard’s medicine box until he found a small leather packet filled with white powder. He poured a tiny amount of the powder into a tin cup, added water and swished it around.

“Here,” he said, “handing Andre the cup. “This should do the trick.”

Andre accepted the cup gingerly. “Who are you?” he asked.

Lewys looked at him in well-feigned surprise. “Why don’t you know?”

There was a small silence as Andre finished his medicine. “No,” he said at last, “I don’t guess I do.”

He paused, searching his memory and then he frowned. “As a matter of fact, I don’t think I know who I am.”

“Good Lord,” exclaimed Lewys. “I’ve heard of such a thing, but—”

Andre took him up sharply. “What do you mean?”

“Why, memory loss after a blow to the head. When I worked on cattle station one summer, a fella got knocked on the head like you. He claimed he didn’t know who he was either. Of course, we didn’t believe him at first, but we came down to it in the end.”

Lewys rubbed his chin. “As I recall, that fella never did get his right memory back.”

Andre carefully set his cup down on the wooden chest next to him. “Do you know who I am? How I got here? How did I get hurt?”

“Whoa son,” Lewys flung up a hand. “One thing at a time. First, your name is Andre Benoit and you’re engaged to marry my eldest granddaughter Rebecca.”

Lewys told that whopping lie without a blink. He rushed on before Andre could question him. “You’re in bed because it looks like someone took a whack at you. We’re not sure how it happened. You rode off hunting prong horn yesterday and your unicorn brought you back. I’m afraid there isn’t a lot more I can tell you about yourself before you joined us a couple of weeks back, because we only just met you.”

For once in his quick-tongued life, Andre was struck speechless. The story sounded fantastic and he wanted to hear more, but he was very tired and found himself drifting back to sleep. Lewys watched him for a minute more, then rose and left the wagon.

That had been relatively easy compared to what was next—explaining to Rebecca, Catrin and Owen what he had done and getting them to go along with it.

The girls were down by the creek, washing clothes. Owen was making a fresh pot of kophie. He had heard what had gone on between Lewys and Andre. He scowled at his grandfather and opened his mouth to speak. Lewys shook his head at him.

“Where are Rebecca and Catrin?”

“Down at the creek.”

“Good. Come with me; we’re going to have a family conference.”

“We just did that yesterday,” Owen grumbled under his breath as he followed Lewys. “Much good as it did us.”

Arriving at the creek, Lewys said jovially, “You two girls look as lovely as flowers in springtime this morning.”

Catrin and Rebecca exchanged glances over the bucket of dirty clothes. When their Grandfather started showering compliments, it generally meant he was up to something.

“Thank you,” Rebecca said politely.

Both girls waited.

Lewys cleared his throat. “All of you read that wanted notice I brought back from town, didn’t you?”

“We read it, Grandpa,” Catrin replied.

“Well, then you know there weren’t images of us, just a description of an old man, two girls and a younger man. It occurred to me that what we need here is a bit of misdirection. Now we can’t change our looks, but we can become a party of five instead of four. Ironlyn is still many weeks’ travel from here and there are several villages between it and us, including Buttersea. If we travel through those villages as a party of five, everyone who sees us will think of us a group of five people not four, even if the fifth member of the group doesn’t stay around long.”

Catrin was the first to speak. “You’re talking about the man on the war unicorn. Has he agreed to this?”

Owen made a rude noise. “He’ll probably stay. You should have heard that pack of lies Grandpa fed him!”

“What if he finds out about the wanted notice?” Rebecca asked. “He might decide to collect the two thousand coins by turning us in.”

“He might not turn us in but not want to stay either—”

“Quiet!” Lewys glared them individually into silence.

“Our young friend—his name is Andre Benoit incidentally, has lost his memory because of that clout on the noggin he took.”

“Permanently?” Owen asked. “What if he starts remembering?”

Lewys waved that aside. “Makes no difference. It’ll stay lost long enough to suit us. Now stop interrupting me! Where was I?”

“Memory loss,” Catrin supplied.

“Yes. Well I told him we met him a couple of weeks ago on the trail. He went hunting for meat and came back with a cut across his head. I also told him he was engaged to Rebecca so he’d have a reason to stay around.”

Benignly he smiled at his offspring who stared back at him with varying degrees of exasperation, horror or amusement.

“Why you old reprobate!” Catrin exclaimed.

“You,” said Owen forcefully, “are a sneaky, underhanded, unscrupulous old—I don’t know what.”

They both carefully did not look at Rebecca who had gone dead white. She raised stricken eyes to her grandfather.

“I’m sorry Grandpa, but I can’t,” she whispered. “He might want—I can’t do it.”

Lewys jerked his head at Owen and Catrin. “You two go back to camp. Rebecca and I need to talk. And mind, you remember what I told you if you talk to Andre.”

Obediently they started back to the fire. Lewys put an arm around Rebecca and felt her involuntary stiffening.

“Child, you’ve got to do it. Ironlyn is the last hope of the Magi. You know we need a safe place to go—it’s getting dangerous to keep up the traveling medicine wagon, we are beginning to be too recognizable. The Proctors were asking questions about us in the last town before Joppa. That flyer will give them the excuse to hunt us down. It takes one of the blood to hold Ironlyn and control the Gate. We can’t allow it to fall into the any hands but ours. Besides the Magi Cadre is counting on us to take over at Ironlyn. You know how important that is to what we do.”

She pulled away from him and covered her face with her hands.

“Don’t you see, he’s going to think its real! I dread having even you or Owen touch me and I know you aren’t going to—every time a man even touches my hand I remember—”

She broke into sobs.

Lewys’ heart ached in pity, but he steeled himself against her tears. If she didn’t overcome this fear, she would go maimed all her life.

“Rebecca, you know it isn’t natural to feel that way. You must face your fear and overcome it. What is between a man and a woman is good, not evil.”

“What happened to me was evil!” she flashed.

“The man is evil and what he did was bad,” Lewys agreed. “I’m sorry your first experience was so ugly, but you cannot allow it to rule your life child. Do you want to end your days a sour old maid with no children to light your days as you light mine?”

Her eyes closed. “Grandpa, please!”

Lewys sighed. “Well, child I won’t force you to do this for our benefit. The Magi Cadre will find someone else to handle Ironlyn. I can sell the unicorns—”

“Stop it!” she cried. She knew her grandfather loved his unicorn herd second only to his family. It would break his heart to let them go. Her refusal would bring hurt and destitution on everyone she loved and the innocents they were charged to protect. She lifted her chin and wiped her eyes.

“You’re right. There is no other way,” she took a deep breath and gave him a watery smile. “I’ll try the best I can.”

Lewys hugged her. “That’s my brave girl. I knew I could count on you.”

Rebecca deliberately forced her body to relax. Andre would be in bed for another day or so, she hoped. Perhaps by that time she could learn not to flinch.

Catrin and Owen both looked at her anxiously when she and Lewys returned to the fire.

“Are you alright, sis?” Owen asked, his eyes widening as he realize Lewys still had his arm around Rebecca’s shoulder and she had not only walked all the way back to camp that way, but didn’t move away.

“I’m fine Owen,” she smiled at him, a rather strained smile, but a real one nonetheless. “I have agreed to Grandpa’s plan.”

Owen opened his mouth, thought better of what he had been going to say, and shut it again.

Lewys gave his granddaughter a last hug and moved toward the fire. “Catrin are you burning the biscuits?”

“No, Owen is. It’s his turn to cook,” she replied.

Aggh!” Owen leaped toward the fire to rescue his mistreated breakfast.

Rebecca took a deep breath, poured a cup of kophie, and mounted the wagon steps. Andre was awake.

“I brought you a cup of kophie. Breakfast will be ready soon.”

“I hope you’re Rebecca, because if you aren’t, I’m engaged to the wrong girl.”

An involuntary laugh was surprised out of her. “What a thing to say! It would serve you right if I denied it!”

He smiled back at her, running his eyes over her possessively.

To cover her nervousness, she said hastily, “Here, let me help you sit up. You can’t drink kophie lying down.”

This was an error, she soon discovered. It brought her entirely too close to him, making her sharply aware of him as a man. He did nothing to ease her nervousness and when she attempted to help him sit up so she could place a pillow behind his back, he put both arms around her waist and leaned against her, inhaling her scent from her breast.

“Ummn—you smell good,” he said.

“Your kophie will get cold,” she said, pushing against him.

“Better cold kophie than a cold woman,” Andre retorted teasingly. But he allowed her to settle him back against the pillow and hand him his cup.

“Where’s yours?” he asked, lifting the cup to his mouth. Any doubts as to Lewys Maginogion’s veracity had vanished the instant he set eyes on his supposed fiancée. It seemed the most natural thing in the world to him that he should have wanted to marry Rebecca. She was everything he had ever dreamed of in a woman. He was a little puzzled and hurt at her reaction to his embrace though. His dream woman wouldn’t have pushed him back.

Rebecca retreated to perch on the foot of the blankets. “Grandpa says you don’t remember us.”

Andre almost laughed aloud at this simple explanation for her stiffness. She must feel extremely awkward to have him declare he was in love with her, ask her to marry him one day and then the next be told he didn’t remember her. No wonder she hadn’t responded.

He smiled warmly at her. “I plead guilty, but since I fell in love with you again on sight, I feel I deserve a suspended sentence, don’t you?”

Rebecca’s lips twitched. “Maybe I do and maybe I don’t. There’s your pack. Breakfast is in ten minutes.” Shaking her head, she left the wagon. A few minutes later, she heard Andre’s boots hit the floor.

A Tangled Web

Over the next week, the family worked out a rhythm of doing things. Sunrise and Blackfeather had shown an instant mutual dislike, so to keep the two studs away from each other while traveling, Lewys rode his golden stallion Sunrise and Andre rode Blackfeather. One or the other of the men helped Owen drive the unicorn herd of mares and their offspring. The two girls each drove a wagon with a white-maned kitten or two sitting on the seat beside them.

The kittens had doubled in size over the past weeks. When they reached their full maturity, they would weigh approximately thirty pounds and would have developed mottled grey/green coats and long silver manes. Their breed were superb hunters, in the wild they often hunted in a pride, however they easily adapted to domesticity.

Fortunately for the success of Lewys’ plan, Andre was still suffering from the effects of the blow to his head so he was too tired in the evenings to attempt to do more than steal a few kisses from Rebecca. To Rebecca’s surprise, she gradually became accustomed to Andre’s attentions, and even managed to occasionally return a kiss.

The morning before they entered Coverville, the next village with a Trade Station attached, Rebecca brought out one of her grandfather’s soft, homespun shirts, a green bandana and a large soft hat like the ones worn by herdsman and handed them to Andre.

“Your clothes make you look too much like a hired fighter,” she said. “These will help you blend in better on the way through town.”

He turned them over in his hands, looking at her thoughtfully. He noticed that both Rebecca and Catrin had changed their usual attire this morning. Instead of the better-quality blouses they usually wore, both girls had donned faded homespun shirts and large, soft hats. In addition, Rebecca had used something to darken her porcelain white skin to make it seem tanned.

“Who are we hiding from?” he asked as he began to unlace his shirt.

She hesitated, distracted by the muscled torso he displayed as he pulled the shirt over his head. When she didn’t answer, he met her eyes, enjoying it as she turned bright red at being caught staring.

“Like what you see?” he asked, smiling. Stepping in closer, he slid a hand around her neck to bring her mouth up for a kiss.

Up close, his body gave off a warm musky scent and she was surprised to find she wanted to touch those smooth muscles. When his mouth closed over hers, she brought up her hands to rest on his chest enjoying slightly prickly feel of his sparse chest hair under her palms. As he felt her response, his hand slid down her back pressing more of her body against his. Things might have progressed even further if there hadn’t been an interruption.

“Ouch!” yelled Owen, as he dropped the hot pan he was using to heat water for breakfast.

Rebecca gasped and stepped back from Andre, who let her go. Several encounters like this had convinced Andre that his girl wasn’t cold, she was just shy, so he was satisfied with the progress he was making.

“Rebecca,” he reminded when she started to back further away. “Who are we hiding from?”

She took a deep breath. “You might as well know there is a wanted flyer out on the four of us. Grandpa saw it in the last town we passed through.”

” You mean a wanted flyer On you?”

She nodded. “When you see it, you may not want to travel with us—”

Andre made a rude noise. “Do you have a copy?”

Rebecca climbed up inside the wagon, brought back the flyer and handed it to him.

Andre read it, a heavy frown gathering on his face. “None of you are violent. This guy Lazarus did something, what was it?”

Instead of answering, she bit her lip and turned her back, her hands covering her face.

Her reaction told him everything he wanted to know. Andre was silent while he mastered the black rage that had suddenly risen in him. He knew better than to let it out; giving in to anger had caused him plenty of trouble in the past. He looked at Rebecca’s shaking shoulders and closed his eyes.

“Rebecca,” he said, gently turning her to face him, “It’s alright. He won’t touch you again, I promise.”

To his dismay, she burst into tears, burying her face in his chest. Not knowing what else to do, he simply held her and rubbed her back until the storm of tears subsided.

“What’s the matter with Rebecca?” demanded Lewys, coming around the wagon.

Silently, Andre handed him the flyer.

“Oh, she told you, did she?” inquired Lewys. “Well, I suppose you had to know.”

“I asked her what we were running from,” Andre said.

Lewys sighed regretfully. “I should have made sure that animal was dead, but it would have been murder. I wanted to get my family away from there before they raised a lynch party.”

He handed Andre a handkerchief to give to Rebecca who had stopped weeping.

“Breakfast is almost ready,” he said, “Go and wash your face girl, so your brother and sister don’t see you’ve been crying.”

He motioned Andre to step out of hearing of the wagon. “I suppose you want to know what happened, don’t you?”

Andre shrugged. “I can guess. How bad was it?”

“Not quite as bad as it could have been. We were getting ready to leave that morning. Owen had gone to say goodbye to the Trade Stations daughter he was sweet on, and I’d gone into Joppa to pick up some stuff for the kid’s I’d already paid for. The girls were about to harness the unicorns, so we could leave when I got back. I guess you’re aware that some folk have peculiar ideas about Travelers. When Lazarus showed up, Rebecca told Catrin to get inside the wagon and stay there. He had Rebecca down on the ground when Catrin hit him with a shovel. Owen and I got there a few minutes later. I should have made sure he was dead, but I wanted to get my family out of there before we were arrested.”

Andre flicked the flyer scornfully. “So, this is because they blame you for defending yourselves?”

“Looks like it.” He shrugged. “The Trade Master warned me to leave as quickly as we could. Lazarus is a rich man who pulls a lot of weight around that area. Travelers are always easy marks though. Even before this happened we always made it a point to look as ordinary as we could when we pass through a strange village.”

He looked over at the younger man. “You’ve been good for Rebecca. It broke my heart to see her flinch whenever Owen or I accidentally bumped into her. She’s never done that with you and she’s easier with us too. I want to thank you for that if nothing else.”

They drove through Coverville and stopped a few miles outside of it at one of the Trade Stations the Shahen required be set aside for visiting trade caravans. The caravans were usually run by families or groups who made their living buying and selling goods as they traveled from village to village. Depending on their wares, most caravans had regular stops where they were expected at certain times of each year. A lone Traveler could sometimes pay a passage fee and journey along with them as a part of the group, which was safer than traveling alone.

The Trade Stations had been created to cut down on the friction between the visiting Travelers and town merchants. They were a kind of village in and of themselves; usually a Trade Station was run by a family who received a stipend from the Shahen to keep them in order. Station Masters were allowed to make what profits they could from fees for the goods sold in the Trade Store, using the bath and wash houses, or in some cases renting rooms. If a Traveler caravan came through they might stay for a week, selling things they brought, trading with the villagers, and sometimes putting on entertainment for the town. This Station had a store that sold a few staples such as canned goods, blankets, pots and pans and such.

When they arrived, Owen and Andre set up the temporary rope corral to contain unicorn herd. to keep them from attacking each other, the stallions were picketed separately, on either end of the two wagons.

When Rebecca went to the Trade station to pay the fee for access to the facilities, Andre went with her, casually catching her hand in his. This Trade Station was run by an older man and his wife called Tomilson. The wife, a plump, gray haired matron smiled knowingly at their clasped hands.

“Newlywed or courting?” she asked comfortably.

Rebecca blushed. “Uh—we’re not married.”

“Ah, courting then,” Sarsee Tomlinson said.

“Engaged,” Andre said firmly.

“Where are you folks traveling to?” her husband asked.

“Ironlyn,” Rebecca said.

“I see,” Tomilson said, withdrawing slightly. “That would make you the new Dracon then?” he asked Andre.

“That would be my grandfather,” Rebecca corrected, handing him the coins.

Several more families of Travelers arrived at the Station as the day wore on, parking their wagons or setting up tents along the circle designated for that purpose. Animals were expected to be kept outside the circle. Lewys made it a point to meet each of the new arrivals as they came in, taking either Owen or Andre with him as he encountered them. Most of the people they met were simply families or single men traveling on business, who were glad to get news from outside the area. In turn, Lewys asked them about the surrounding country and about Buttersea, the next village on the way to Ironlyn. When that village was mentioned, several of the men looked over their shoulders, and finally one of them, braver than the others, said, “I wouldn’t go there, if you can avoid it.”

“Why not?” asked Andre alertly. “What’s wrong there?”

Two of the men, brothers who were going to visit their relatives in Glassfall, exchanged glances. “We don’t know for sure,” one of them said. “But we hear rumors that some of the folk who go there don’t come back, or are robbed.”

“By the village?” asked Lewys.

Jorgon, the other brother, frowned. “I don’t think so. The story I got was it happens outside of town.”

“Yes, but I heard that some of the stolen goods ended up for sale in the shops,” one of the others chimed in.

Lewys nodded thoughtfully. “Thank you for the warning. We will be on our guard.”

After dinner, one of the men who had been a part of the discussion came over to their fire. Sorson Tobias was a tall, gangly man with an open face. “Dracon Maginogion, I have a favor to ask,” he said diffidently.

“What is it, Sorson Tobias?”

“First, may I ask if you still intend to go through Buttersea?”

Lewys nodded curtly. “We must. It’s on the road to Ironlyn.”

The man took a deep breath. “Well, you see, my family is traveling that way too, and I was hoping that we could travel together. I’ve heard that it’s safer to travel in a larger group. I have only the one wagon for myself, my wife and our young son.”

“How far are you going?” inquired Andre, watching him closely.

“Until I find work,” Sorson Tobias said. “I’m a bricklayer and I’m hoping there will be work in Snowdon, the next village beyond Buttersea.”

“We would love to meet your wife and child,” Rebecca said softly. “It must be very hard traveling this way with a young one.”

“Yes,” agreed Lewys. “Why don’t you bring her over now?”

The man nodded and left.

“Thank you, Rebecca,” her grandfather said. “That was well done. What do you think? Shall we let them travel with us?”

“Yes,” both girls said.

“I want to meet the wife. If everything is as he says, it would make it safer for us also,” said Andre.

“Owen?” his grandfather asked.

“I don’t feel anything harmful from him,” Owen replied.

Sarcee Anja Tobias turned out to be a pretty young woman who looked very tired. The little boy was a dark-haired moppet with curious blue eyes. His mother had wrapped a belt around the child and attached a short rope to it, one end of which she kept attached to her wrist. It was soon seen why this was necessary, as the child, Robern, immediately tried to escape his mother’s custody by darting away from her the moment his feet touched the ground.

It rained all the next day and the night before they were due to pass through Buttersea. There was no actual Trade Station around Buttersea, but an open ground under a grove of maconut trees just past the village was designated for Travelers. The trees provided some protection for the three wagons. The normally peacefully gurgling creek a little way inside the grove was threatening to overflow its banks. Lewys and Owen pulled out a large tarp, which they anchored overhead between two wagons to provide shelter from the rain and wind. The unicorns were bunched under the trees close to the wagons. The two stallions seemed to declare a truce during the storm, or at any rate, they refrained from attacking each other. The three kittens complained bitterly and stayed in the wagon used by the girls for sleeping.

A break easing the rain a trifle, allowed Andre and Rebecca to go down to the swiftly flowing creek for water to be heated for the dishes. Near the edge of the stream, Rebecca spotted the shivering girl at the foot of a tree. She now wore the pendant she had skryed with constantly, and it had retained a small glow. When she saw the girl, it suddenly heated up and glowed a bright blue through her shirt. Rebecca gasped and pulled it out, looking at the girl in shock.

“What’ is it?” Andre asked sharply.

“We’ve found her!” Rebecca exclaimed.

“Found who?” he demanded.

“Our sister. We were told she was born after our mother was taken by the Proctors and smuggled out of their compound. I’ll explain more after we get her back to camp.”

The girl was clad only in too-small shift and trousers, and she was barefoot. Her black hair clung wetly to her face.

“Oh, you poor thing!” Rebecca exclaimed going to kneel beside her. “Whatever are you doing out here by yourself?”

The girl raised drenched gray eyes to hers. “Don’t let them find me!” she begged.

When Rebecca touched her, the stone cooled, returning to its original bronze color. She tried to lift the child to her feet, but the girl fainted and would have fallen back down if Andre hadn’t caught her. He handed the still empty bucket to Rebecca and lifted the child in his arms.

“We need to get her back and dry her off,” he said practically.

“Put her in our wagon,” Catrin said when they arrived back at the camp. “I’ll bring some hot water. You get her out of those wet clothes.”

Rebecca hissed in anger when she stripped off the sopping clothes and found the child’s thin, pale-skinned body covered in welts and bruises from a recent whipping with a lash.

“Get some salve and bandages out of Grandmother’s medicine box,” she told Catrin. “This will sting when I clean these cuts. It’s a good thing she’s still out.”

Silently, Catrin handed her the things she’d asked for and opened their grandmother’s trunk. “What do you suppose happened to her? Where are her parents?” she asked, taking out a thick soft nightgown.

“Catrin, I think she might be our sister; Grandmother’s pendant identified her. Some animal has used a lash on her,” her sister said. “If her guardians allowed this—”

“You don’t know,” Catrin pointed out.” Maybe they did it.”

She handed the nightgown to Rebecca, helping her pull it over the child’s head just as she was regaining consciousness. While Rebecca helped the child into the bed and wrapped a blanket around her shoulders, Catrin leaned out of the wagon door and asked Owen to bring a bowl of the stew from dinner and some of the hot tea in the pot sitting on the fire. The kittens converged on the child; one of them lying across her feet, while the other two snuggled up against her legs.

Rebecca unfolded a lap tray and spread it across the girl’s knees, carefully setting the bowl and cup down on it. When she saw the bowl and cup, the child’s eyes grew round. Hesitantly she cupped the bowl between her cold hands.

“Can you feed yourself, or shall I help you?” Rebecca asked.

“Is—is this for me?” the girl asked, hardly daring to hope.

“Of course, it is,” Catrin said holding out the spoon.

“You need to eat and warm up the inside as well as the outside,” Rebecca said, lighting the burner on the small warming oven.

They waited patiently until the child had finished the stew.

“What is your name?” Rebecca asked.

The girl looked frightened. “Selene. Please don’t tell anyone you’ve seen me. He’ll be looking for me.”

“Who will be looking for you, Selene? The man who beat you?”

The girl nodded jerkily. One of the kittens, sensing distress, climbed into the child’s lap, purring loudly. The girl reached out a tentative hand to stroke his back.

“Is he your guardian?”

“No,” Selene whispered. “The Magi Proctor’s man, Leroys Torrigan.”

“I see,” Rebecca said grimly. She exchanged a glance with her sister.

“Are you going to send me back?” Selene asked fearfully.

“No, child, we are not,” Rebecca’s voice was calm. “But if we are to protect you, we need to know everything you can tell us. Why were you with him instead of being sent on to the Shahen’s school?”

Selene shuddered. “Torrigan almost never sends anyone there. He keeps the young magi for a while and then they are sold off to another place. At least that’s what the girl who was there before me said.”

“Is she still there?”

Selene shook her head. “No, they took her out a week ago. That’s when Torrigan started training me.”

“With a whip?” Catrin asked, incredously.

“No, that was because I wouldn’t do what he wanted.”

“What did he want you to do?”

Catrin gave her sister a sharp glance. From her tone, she knew Rebecca had a good idea what the child was about to tell them.

Selene swallowed. “He took off his clothes and he wanted me to—to—”

Rebecca stroked the child’s forehead. “It’s alright, darling. I know.” She smiled down at the girl. “You have family now, and we will protect you and teach you how to use your gifts to protect yourself.” She settled the girl back down on the bed and tucked her into the blankets. “Catrin will sit here with you, and the kittens will keep you company. I will be in soon to join you. I need to get the dishes cleaned up first. Sleep now.”

Going to the door, she slipped on her rain slicker and went outside. When she approached the fire, she found that the Tobias family had gone to bed in their wagon.

“When did they leave?” she asked.

“Just after you went for water,” Owen responded.

“Good,” she told the three men. “I don’t want them to hear this.”

“How is she?” asked Lewys.

Rebecca held out her hands to the dying fire. “She has been whipped and beaten, starved, and I think an attempt was made to rape her.”

Lewys gave a hiss of dismay.

“We heard something about the Magi Proctor,” interjected Andre. “Is she a Magi?”

“Yes,” Rebecca said.

“Then she landed with the right family,” Owen stated.

Andre’s eyebrows rose. “Really? And when were you going to tell me about this?”

Owen looked at him in surprise. “I thought you knew. Didn’t Rebecca show you the flyer?”

“That isn’t the same as saying the words,” Andre retorted.

Rebecca lifted a hand. “Gentlemen please! We need to get our stories straight. Now, Sorson and Sarsee Tobias only met us two days ago at the Trader Station, so I think we can simply tell them that our younger sister Selene has been ill—spotted fever, I think—and we kept her in the wagon so that’s why she wasn’t introduced to them.”

Lewys stroked his chin. “With the storm, I think that will work. We wouldn’t let a sick child out in the rain. Ah—how old is my granddaughter?”

He suddenly focused on the pendant lying outside Rebecca’s shirt. The stone resting on Rebecca’s breast was quiescent.

“It’s her?” he said, incredulously.

Rebecca nodded, smiling with tears in her eyes. “Yes, I think so. She is the right age, and—she looks like grandmother.”

“Is someone looking for her?” inquired Andre. “When we found her, she said something about ‘not letting him find her’.”

“It’s possible. She said she was being kept by the Proctor’s man before she escaped.”

The three men exchanged glances.

“Are you alright with this?” Lewys asked Andre.

“At least the ground is going to be soft enough to bury a body,” he answered, and Lewys laughed, clapping him on the shoulder.

“Go to bed Rebecca,” her grandfather told her. “We’ll keep—?”

“Selene, is her name.”

“We’ll keep Selene safe.”

Andre walked her back to the wagon. “Don’t worry about anything. One of us will stay on watch tonight.”

She laid her hand against his face, giving him a tremulous smile. “Thank You,” she said softly. “You always make me feel safe.”

It hadn’t exactly been declaration of love, he reflected, but it gave him a warm feeling all the same. A man’s presence should make his woman feel safe. He turned his head and pressed a kiss into her palm.

Strangely enough, what she said was true. He had been with them for several weeks before Rebecca realized the hovering fear that had afflicted her since the attack had disappeared. It took a little longer for her to associate its disappearance with Andre.

They left the next day with the rain still pouring down. Catrin mentioned casually at breakfast that morning that they had better continue to keep Selene in bed and Rebecca agreed. Andre and Lewys both asked how she was doing, and Owen prepared a plate for her. Anja and Jerlyn Tobias accepted their story of a sick child without question.

Selene was a little harder to convince. When Rebecca took her breakfast in to her, she looked up warily.

“Who are you?” the child asked.

“I am Draconi Rebecca Mabinogion, and I believe you are the child we have been looking for. You see, our mother was with child when the Proctor’s took her. We were told she had smuggled the newborn baby out of the Proctor headquarters. We have been searching for that child for many years. She would be about your age.”

“Why do you think I’m that child?”

Rebecca took out a hand mirror from the drawer where she and Catrin kept their toiletries. She handed it to Selene, who looked at it in wonder.

“Look at your face in the mirror and then look at mine,” Rebecca instructed.

The child had the same pale skin, grey eyes with up tilted brows and black hair. Recent privations had thinned her face of any remaining childhood plumpness, so that the resemblance to Rebecca was very marked.

“What do you remember about your life before the Proctors found you?” Rebecca asked her. “Do you remember your parents?”

“I never knew anything about my father. The woman who raised me wasn’t my mother, and she didn’t tell me much. We moved around a lot. She told me if we got separated, I was supposed to go to a place called Ironlyn and they would help me,” Selene said slowly, “when I was older, Sara told me my mother was a great lady, but I wasn’t to talk about it. She caught the wasting fever in Wintermere. She had taken a job in a nursing home there. The family we were boarding with discovered I was Magi and reported me to the Proctor.”

Rebecca smiled at her. “We are on our way to Ironlyn, and I believe we are who this Sara was trying to reach. You are safe now. The family traveling with us have just come into our service, and won’t think it strange they haven’t met you yet, because we said you have been ill. You are staying inside the wagon until the weather clears so you don’t get sick again. As far as they are concerned, you have always been our little sister.”

“Why would anyone believe I’m your sister?”

“They will believe because they will be able to see how much you look like me and our Grandmother. Now, eat your breakfast, and don’t let the cats trick you—they’ve been fed.”

“What about someone who knows you?” the girl asked sensibly.

“For them, it is the same story; most of them know we have been looking for our parents fourth child. We simply say we have found you at last. Because of them taking our mother and other things, our family is bitterly opposed to the Magi system. All of us are unregistered Magi, and we belong to a group that helps Magi escape the Proctors. Now, after breakfast Catrin will bring you some warm water for washing and take you out to relieve yourself. For today, just rest and enjoy your breakfast. There are books over there in the chest if you would like to read.”

“Novels?”

Rebecca smiled. “Yes, there are some there. Please help yourself to them.”

Since there had been no work for Jerlyn in the last two villages, the Tobias family was still with them when they arrived at the Linhaven Trade Station. The journey from Buttersea had been wet and miserable for everyone as the storm continued to pound the Travelers. They hadn’t been attacked outside the village; probably, Lewys had speculated aloud because not even outlaws wanted to go out in the rain.

It was late afternoon when they made camp at Linhaven Trade Station. The sun had finally broken out of the clouds that morning, and the air was beginning to warm up.

The journey had given Lewys time to evaluate Tobias. “Is bricklaying your only trade?” he asked him.

“Oh, my Jerlyn can do a lot of things,” his wife said proudly. “He made all our furniture and fixed our neighbor’s well when it got fouled.”

“Anja!” her husband protested. “They don’t want to hear all that.”

“I do,” Lewys said. “As I understand it, Ironlyn has been neglected over the past few years, and most of the staff are gone. I’m going to need a man who is handy with tools. Would you consider working for us?”

“I would be honored, Dracon,” Tobias said, bowing.

“Then let’s talk wages,” Lewys suggested. “Step into my office.” He indicated the spot by the fire next to himself.

“Is your sister Selene feeling well enough to join us for dinner?” Anja asked.

“That is a good idea,” Catrin said. “I’ll go and help her dress.”

I hope she will manage to find the girl something to wear that fits her, Rebecca thought ruefully. Clothing was something she hadn’t taken into consideration when deciding to introduce the girl as family. When they appeared, Rebecca was pleased to see that Catrin had obviously raided their Grandmother’s trunk for suitable clothes. Unlike her daughter, Angard had been a small woman, and the pink shirt and whipcord trousers fit Selene well enough. Catrin had even managed to dig out a pair of Gran’s old boots for the child.

Andre brought over folding stool for her to sit on, which she accepted with a shy smile.

“Yes,” Anja agreed, “That’s right dear. Spotted fever is nothing to fool around with. For tonight, you just sit and watch the rest of us work.”

The Mercs

Travelling with three wagons and a herd of unicorns slowed the journey even more. Andre and Owen took turns handling the Unicorn herd, but villages close to Trade Stations were getting further and further apart, and the animals were beginning to show the effects of the long journey.

“I think we need to stop and rest the unicorns for a couple of days,” Lewys announced after inspecting the herd. “The map shows Sandcrake, the next Trade Station, has a good pasture for herds because it’s a waystation on the Drover’s Trail. We can stay there for several days. The closest village is Wintermere and it is at least half a day’s ride, but that will mean we won’t have to worry so much about someone stealing our animals.”

“We’re low on meat too,” Andre remarked. “I saw pronghorn sign yesterday. If we stay long enough we can smoke the meat.”

“You’re very sure of getting a shot at one,” Jerlyn remarked.

Andre shrugged. “Some of the work I did wasn’t in towns. When you don’t have a steady supply of food, you learn to hunt.”

“We need to do some washing also,” Catrin put in.

Lewys was frowning when he returned from meeting the Trade Master.

“What is wrong?” Rebecca asked.

“I’m not sure,” her grandfather replied. “There is a copy of that wanted flyer Lazarus put out, along with others posted inside the store. It was being tacked up by a self-important little man when I came in. The Trade Master looked unhappy about it. He warned me the man who brought in the wanted flyers came from Wintermere. Said he was always checking on who was using the Station in the hopes of collecting a reward for reporting them.”

Andre rousted Owen out of bed before daylight to hunt the pronghorns he had seen. Rebecca and Catrin cooked a breakfast of biscuits and gravy in the dark for the hunters.

“They come out to feed at dawn and dusk,” Andre told Rebecca as he kissed her goodbye. “We want to be in place before that.”

Dawn was just breaking over the horizon when Rebecca and Selene brought the baskets of dirty clothes over to the Trade Stations Communal washroom. Rebecca worked the handle over a large tub to see if the water was hot, nodding approvingly when it came out warm.

“Good,” she told Selene, “we are the first one’s here. We won’t have to pay extra for clean water for our clothes.”

The younger girl looked at her curiously. “I’ve never used one of these places. How does this work?”

“Time you learned then,” Rebecca said cheerfully. “Start putting the clothes into the tub while I shave some soap into the water. We’ll take turns pumping the handle until the tub is full.”

Once they had the clothes in the tub of water, Rebecca sealed the lid, and showed Selene how to use the foot pedals to make the tub rock back and forth to wash the clothes.

Anja joined them, Robern again attached to her with a lead.

“You beat me here,” she said. “I thought I would be first.”

“They have several tubs,” Rebecca said. “This must be a busy station.”

The other woman nodded, dumping her basket into an empty tub. Rebecca noticed she had only a small sliver of soap to wash with and offered, “Here, we have extra soap. I know how hard it is to make it when you are traveling.”

Anja hesitated, and then took the bar and the shaving knife, smiling her thanks.

The women ran the clothes through a rinse tub and then through the Stations hand-cranked wringer to get rid of the excess water before taking them out to the communal drying lines.

Selene had volunteered to keep Robern occupied, and at Rebecca’s smiling nod, Anja had agreed. Because they were enjoying their talk, Rebecca and Anja were facing each other across the lines of wet clothes. They had almost finished the chore when Rebecca noticed the alarmed look on Anja’s face as she looked into the Station center circle. Hastily, Anja finished hanging up her load to dry and grabbed her basket.

“We should to go back to the wagons,” she said urgently.

Frowning, Rebecca turned to look behind her. A small troop of Mercs had ridden in. They stopped at the Station House, and one of them dismounted and went inside.

“Do you know them?” she asked.

Anja shook her head. “Not them specifically, but I know what they are. We had Merc troops stationed in our village several times before our home was burned in the fighting. The ones associated with the keep weren’t too bad—they lived in the village too and they had an interest in keeping the peace so they mostly behaved properly. The free Mercs—well let’s just say a woman didn’t want to be caught out alone with them around.”

Rebecca nodded. “Selene!” she called the girl who was entertaining Robern with a game of small sticks and pebbles, “We should return to the wagons.”

She picked up her empty baskets and started back through the washhouse to gather up her supplies. She still had more than two thirds of a bar of soap she had left to dry on the sink, and soap was, as she had told Anja earlier, hard to come by on the road. Anja didn’t bother, but hurried back toward the wagons, dragging a reluctant Robern.

Rebecca had just dropped the used soap bar into the empty baskets when a man entered the washroom. He was tall and wide, with sandy hair and a scruffy beard that needed the attention of a razor. He smiled when he spotted the two girls.

“Well, what have we here?” he asked.

Rebecca put an arm around Selene and moved toward the door. He moved to block their exit.

“Don’t run away pretty girl,” he said. “My name’s Jokan, what’s yours?”

Rebecca looked him up and down with no expression on her face. “I am Draconi Rebecca Sancha il’Maginogion, and this is my sister Draya Selene,” she told him haughtily. She didn’t often use her title, but she felt it might make him wary of offending her.

Instead he laughed. “My, aren’t you the high and mighty one. I’m going to enjoy getting acquainted with you.”

“We have not been introduced, Sorson,” she said coldly. “Kindly move out of our way.”

When he didn’t move and Selene gave a frightened whimper, Rebecca readied herself to use her Magi abilities. If she pushed past him and encouraged her shove with a telekinetic shove, it would make him step out of the way and they could get out the door. Just as she was about to make her move, Andre stepped into the room, and Rebecca felt a wave of relief. She relaxed, smiling reassuringly down at Selene. Taking in the situation at a glance, Andre shifted his body between the girls and the Merc.

“Is he bothering you, love?” he asked Rebecca, not taking his eyes off the other man, who was staring at him in astonishment.

“Hammer Smith?” he said incredously. “Where did you spring from?”

When Andre didn’t answer him, he apparently realized he had overstepped a line. “Is she with you? Sorry man, I didn’t know you were working for them.”

“I’m not,” Andre said. “Rebecca, take Selene and go to the wagons. Stay there, and keep Catrin there as well.”

He moved with them toward the door, and the Merc stepped aside so the girls could exit the building.

Once outside the door, Rebecca handed Selene the baskets. “Run to the wagons and tell Grandpa and Owen about this. Tell Catrin to stay with you at the wagons.”

“Andre told both of us to go,” Selene protested.

“I know, but that Merc isn’t alone. Andre may need help.”

Rebecca leaned back against the wall, listening to the men inside as she watched her sister run to their wagons. She looked around, checking for any of the other Merc’s headed toward the washhouse.

“If you’re not working for her family, how do you know her?” the Merc demanded.

“She belongs to me,” Andre told him. “Anyone who bothers her is going to answer to me, understand?”

“Sure,” Jokan agreed hastily. “No problem. I didn’t know she was taken. I saw a prettier girl over in the wagons anyway. One skirt’s as good as another.”

“Rebecca’s sisters, and the wives and daughters of any man who works for us are off limits, Jo. You be sure to tell the others. I’d hate to kill one of them over a misunderstanding.”

“Sure,” Jokan said. He went over to one of the full tubs and opened his war bag to dump in some clothes, whistling as he started his laundry.

Andre watched him for a few minutes, then turned and went out the door Rebecca had used. He stopped in his tracks when he saw her waiting for him, a small fireball rolling in her palm.

He caught her wrist, looking down at her hand. She closed her fist and the ball of flame disappeared. Curiously Andre rubbed a finger over her palm. It was cool to the touch.

“Didn’t I tell you to go back to the wagons?” he said.

“I know,” she replied, “but he isn’t here alone. I saw a whole troop ride in earlier.”

He looked at her, a small, delighted smile playing around his lips. “And you were going to use that to help me?”

She nodded, ducking her head and looking at him sideways, not sure how he would react to this display of Magi talent.

Andre brought her palm to his mouth and pressed a kiss into it. “I wasn’t in any danger, Darling.”

“Well, I realize that now,” she admitted. “I stayed because I knew he would have challenged Grandpa or Owen and I supposed it would be the same with you. Why didn’t he?”

“He knew better,” Andre told her dryly. “He and I worked together a couple of times. Jokan Locklear never saw the day he could beat me in a fight.”

He tucked her hand under his arm and started back toward the wagons.

“He called you by another name,” Rebecca said. “Hammer something.”

“I used the name Hammer Smith when I fought as a Merc,” Andre said, watching her expression to see if his past occupation offended her.

Rebecca nodded. If he was remembering, he might decide he wasn’t engaged after all. Tentatively, she asked, “Is your memory coming back?”

Andre hesitated. “Some of it. I remember being in the Mercs, and I remember a fight in a town, but anything after that is only bits and pieces.”

“I see. Is that man a friend?” she asked.

“Not really, we just worked together, that’s all.”

“I’m glad. I didn’t like him,” she admitted. “A friend of yours is always going to be welcome to me, but I’m glad that man isn’t a friend. He frightened Selene.”

He nodded soberly. “I saw that. I passed the word to leave you girls alone, but it will be better if you stick close to our wagons until they leave.”

“Anja and I both left clothes there on the drying lines,” she told him. “We will need to go back and get them this afternoon when they are dry.”

“I’ll go with you,” he promised.

“Was your hunt successful?” she asked.

He grinned. “Got two buck pronghorns. Owen did okay with his crossbow. We can spend a couple of days curing the hides and smoking the meat. I had to hang them pretty high; your cats kept trying to drag the meat down.”

They had parked their wagons far enough from the station house and any other Travelers to give them some privacy. Trade Stations were neutral territory, but they were hotbeds of gossip as well. Lewys never wanted to camp close enough to other Travelers that a casual observer could listen in on their conversations. Anyone could stop at the Stations and be sure to be let alone if they behaved properly. The Station Master had the right to summon the Sheriff of nearby towns if trouble occurred, but it was a rare occasion when it was necessary anymore. When the Stations had first been established, the Shahen had also stationed soldiers at them to enforce order.

The women spent the afternoon cutting the meat into strips. When Rebecca gave Anja a quarter of the meat, the woman teared up. “Thank you,” she whispered.

Andre showed Owen how to build a smoking rack while Rebecca and Catrin cut the meat into thin strips for smoking. Although it would take several days to finish curing, by evening the smoked meat was beginning to give off an appetizing odor. Selene had been given the task of keeping the kittens from burning their paws when they tried to get close enough to steal a strip of the meat.

The women were starting to prepare dinner when a man on an old zebra unicorn rode up to their wagons, stopping a little way from entering the camp. “May I come to the fire?” he called.

“Come in,” Lewys said easily. Tobias noted that Andre and Owen both moved into the shadows to cover the camp and he did the same, approving of the precautions.

The man was young, but he showed signs of hardship. His clothes were worn and the unicorn looked gaunt.      “Dracon Maginogion?” he asked hesitantly.

When Lewys nodded, he said, “I am Sorson Lorkeet. I was told that you might be wanting some goats to restore the herds at Ironlyn?”

“Perhaps. Do you have goats?”

Lorkeet took a deep breath. “Yes. My family has been goatherds for many generations, but we recently lost our holding and are looking for a new patron.”

Andre and Owen came back to the fire. “He’s alone,” Andre said.

Lorkeet looked a little startled and then he smiled. “You are a careful man, Dracon.”

“Yes, I am,” Lewys agreed. “I’d like to see the goats before I talk any deals.”

Lorkeet nodded. “We are camped just over the hill there. We can go now if you want.”

“He’s alone, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a trap,” Andre said. “He could have a crew waiting over there.”

Lewys looked at his grandson.

“Owen?” he asked.

Owen shook his head. “I don’t feel anything like that from him.”

Lewys stroked his chin. “I see. Well, I think that you and Andre will stay here just in case. Tobias and I will go and look at goats.”

While they were saddling the unicorns, Owen saw Andre go to the wagon and retrieve his needle gun and a sword which he belted on in addition to the long knife he always wore. Owen decided to imitate the example and went to the wagon shared by the men for his own crossbow and needle gun. Seeing the weapons, Andre nodded approvingly.

He signaled Owen and the pair of them slipped out of the firelight to make a round of the camp as Lewys and Tobias rode out. “Do you think someone is out here?” Owen asked.

Andre held up a hand and pointed at Blackfeather and the unicorn mares who were stamping nervously. “You see that? The unicorns think so and I don’t think its Lorkeet or his people. See how they keep looking back toward the road from the village? It might be an animal, but it could be human too. Let’s make a circle around the camp.”

What the unicorns heard was human. As they finished their circle, a small group of riders trotted right up to their wagons and stopped. Behind her, Rebecca heard Selene gasp in fear. She moved so her body partially shielded the girl, reaching back to grasp her hand.

“Who are you, and what are you doing here?” Rebecca demanded. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Owen moving into position behind the riders with the bolt drawn on his crossbow. When Andre came up to stand between them and the men, she felt a surge of confidence.

“It’s going to be fine, you’ll see,” she whispered to the girl. “Andre will take care of it.”

“I’m Korman, the Sheriff of Wintermere, and I’m looking for a fugitive,” the short, round man in the front announced.

“You didn’t stop at the Station to check yourselves in. That is a violation of Station Protocol. Approaching a camp at night without warning is a good way to get dead, Sheriff,” Andre drawled. “We don’t have any fugitives here. Just our family, our workers and their families.”

“So you say. I’m going to search the camp anyway,” the Sheriff said. “She could be hiding in one of the wagons.”

She? It takes five men to hunt a woman?” Andre asked disdainfully. “Sheriffs are a lot tougher where I come from.”

“She’s not a woman, she’s a kid and she’s Magi,” the Sheriff said. He and the others dismounted.

“About the age of that one there,” a townsman in rich clothes said, indicating Selene, who shivered.

“That’s my little sister,” Rebecca snapped, putting a protective arm around her.

When one of the men started to approach the nearest wagon, Owen shot a crossbow bolt into the ground narrowly missing the man’s foot. “There’s more where that came from,” he called cheerfully from the shadows. The man backed up nervously, looking to the Sheriff for guidance.

“If you’re looking for a Magi,” Andre said, “Where is the Magi Proctor? You have no jurisdiction without one. I would advise you to mount back up and leave.”

The tone of his voice made Sheriff Korman take another, more careful look at Andre. When he did, he took a mental step back. Despite the soft clothes and herdsman’s hat, it was obvious this man hadn’t always been a Traveler. He was too sure of himself when confronting armed men. Andre’s hand rested lightly on his hip, within easy reach of the needle pistol, and his sword and knife in their well-worn sheaths had seen plenty of service. Everything about Andre shouted ‘Merc’ to the Sheriff, and he wavered. He had no lust to take on a trained Merc; he knew he would be the trained fighter’s first target in a fight. Damn that Sorris for a meddling Busybody. He hadn’t wanted to come all this way out here anyhow, he thought bitterly.

The decision was abruptly taken out of his hands. There came the thunder of heavy unicorn hooves, and Lewys rode smack into the middle of the dismounted riders, who scrambled to get out of the way. He wheeled the massive golden stud around to face them, not caring if the posse was trampled in the process.

“What the devil is going on here?” he roared, in his best Lord of the Manor voice.

Behind Andre, Rebecca put an arm around the shaking Selene’s shoulders.

Being dismounted was distinct disadvantage. The Sheriff was forced to look up into Lewys’ face. “I am Sheriff Korman of Wintermere. We are here in search of a wanted Magi.”

“A girl about that age,” the overdressed townsman pushed his way forward and started toward Selene. He stopped, backing off hastily when he suddenly found ten inches of fighting blade in his face. Andre held the knife in the easy grip of men who know steel.

“You’ve been told who she is,” Andre said softly. He stared directly into the townsman’s eyes, his own gone flat and hard.

“Sorris! Stand down!” the Sheriff shouted, correctly interpreting how close to death the townsman was.

Sorris backed away from Andre before turning on the Sheriff, blustering to hide his embarrassed fear. “See here, Korman, if you won’t do anything to find the girl, I will. I think these people are hiding her. I bet I have a flyer on them too. Look at this!” he thrust a sheet of paper under Korman’s nose.

Korman sighed. “Sorris, this plainly describes a party of four people. I count at least twice that number here. Get back on your unicorn before I decide to let this young man split you like a roasting bird. The rest you mount up also,” he added, going to his own mount.

“Sorry for the intrusion—” he waited for Lewys to supply the name.

“Dracon Lewys il’Maginogion of Ironlyn,” he was informed.

“Dracon Maginogion, my apologies to you and your family,” Korman said, reflecting sourly as he left that, he had probably just offended the Dracon of one of the strongest keeps in the area. Ironlyn was a long way from Wintermere, but the nobility had lingering memories.

As soon as the posse disappeared into the darkness, Selene jumped off her stool and threw her arms around Andre, sobbing, “Thank you.”

Taken aback, he patted her shoulder. “It’s okay, they’ve gone. You are safe with us.” He looked helplessly at Rebecca, who came and kissed his cheek.

“You were wonderful,” she told him smiling. “I knew you would keep us safe.”

“Hey!” her grandfather protested. “What about me? Didn’t I help too?”

Catrin laughed. “Yes, Grandpa, you’re wonderful too, and so is Owen. Thank you.”

WANT TO READ MORE? PRE-ORDER NOW SO YOU DON’T MISS OUT!

IT GOES TO PUBLICATIN ON JANUARY 31, 2018

 

A PREVIEW OF ALL OUR TOMORROWS

Welcome to the far future. Let me introduce you to the courageous women and dangerous men who carve a home on the alien world of Vensoog

A warrior/priestess teams up with a Bard from another world and genetic “designer” children to defeat a dangerous foe and keep their planet from an off planet takeover.

Lady Drusilla O’Teague, 3rd daughter of a powerful line of psychically gifted women, was trained from birth as warrior and Dragon Talker. She distrusts her own feelings because as child she was unable to shield herself from the seesaw emotions of others.

Lucas Lewellyn is an off-world survivor of the Karamine Wars. He is the hereditary Bard of his people with the ability to compel with his voice, but he is untrained in using his powers. He knows when he meets Drusilla that their destinies are linked, but will she admit it?

Their world of Vensoog is in danger. A prince of the Thieves Guild wants the deposits of Azorite—mighty crystals used to power spaceships and found in large quantities on Vensoog. To save their world, Drusilla and Lucas will need the help of “designer” children built by that same Thieves Guild.

Juliette Jones—created in the Guild’s Geno-Lab to be super smart, ruthless, wily and conniving: the perfect spy. But the Guild never realized they had also given her a loving heart.

Lucinda Karns—daughter of a Thieves Guild Lieutenant, she was given enhanced genes to make her the perfect icy thinker and planner, but those genes sparked a need for balance and gave her a moral compass at odds with her masters’ goals.

Violet Ishimara—constructed with a high degree of empathy to be a tool for the Guild, Her alliance with the Vensoog Sand Dragon Jelli gave her the courage to stand up to her masters.

Rupert, the intuitive chemist, and Roderick, the electronic genius—orphaned twins seen by the Guild as tools to turn into weapons, turned out to be a lot tougher than the Guild expected.

All Our Tomorrows

The Handfasting – Vol 3

Gail Daley

Opening Gambit

 

SOMETHING was wrong on Talkers Isle. Drusilla had known it almost as soon as she stepped off the shuttle yesterday. This Isle had always been one of her favorite places on Vensoog. It’s aura of peace and tranquility had provided solace to her angst-ridden spirit when she first set foot on it as a child. Now, someone or something, had poisoned that aura and Drusilla was going to make them pay for it.

The acute contrast between the atmosphere today and the feeling when she came here years ago as a traumatized child had been just nasty. When she had come as a child, it had been for further training in controlling the impact of the emotions she picked up from the people around her.

Today when Drusilla had come back to Talker’s Isle to bring some of the clan’s security forces here to take the Dragon Talker training, she had looked forward to immersing herself into the Isle’s peaceful aura for a few days. Apparently, that wasn’t going to happen.

“Alright,” Genevieve said, her voice jerking Drusilla out of her brown study. “Enough brooding. Are you going to tell me what’s wrong?”

“Can’t you feel it?” Drusilla questioned. “This whole place reeks of despair, dissatisfaction and anger.”

“I’m not a Dragon Talker,” her sister reminded her.

“Trust me, something is very wrong here.”

“Have you discussed this bad feeling with Mother Superior?” Genevieve asked.

Drusilla shook her head. “I don’t think she’s well, Genevieve. I don’t want to distress her. I know something is not right though. When I asked for a volunteer to go out to Veiled Isle, it was almost as if the Talkers were hostile to the idea. When I was training here, teachers used to trip over each other to volunteer for a sweet assignment like that.”

Her sister made a face. “Well I don’t think that sour-mouthed old bat who volunteered will be an asset. Why on earth did you choose her?”

“She was the only one to come forward, Genevieve,” Drusilla reminded her. “I can’t force anyone to come out to the Isle, you know that.”

“So, what are you going to do?” Genevieve inquired. She and Gideon were expecting their first child during the Planting Festival, and Drusilla had noticed she had developed a habit of patting her belly protectively. She did it now.

“Someone needs to find out what is going on, but I can’t stay here and root it out. I promised Katherine I would go back to Veiled Isle and help with tutoring Violet and some of the other children while Mistress Leona is laid up. I think I need to talk to Lucas,” Drusilla said thoughtfully. “He’s going to be here for at least eight weeks and he is a trained investigator. Once we know what is wrong, we can decide what steps to take.”

“That sounds like a good idea,” Genevieve remarked, reflecting with hidden amusement that over the past year Drusilla seemed to have developed a lot of confidence in Lucas. I do hope he’s on her List because I think they might make a good match after all, she thought. I’ll have to ask Katherine to check when we go back to Veiled Isle.

Drusilla had met Lucas, who was here to take the training, the first day he had arrived on Vensoog with Genevieve’s husband Gideon. Lucas was Gideon’s foster son and he had emigrated with him when Gideon married Genevieve. Gideon’s marriage to Genevieve, as well as that of many of Gideon’s unit who had chosen to take part in the Handfasting, had been necessary to restore a healthy genetic balance to Vensoog.

Although Drusilla and Lucas had been considered too young to participate, the two of them had spent a lot of time together. Lucas had been the first young man to pay her the kind of attention a man gives an attractive woman, and Drusilla had found herself immediately attracted to Lucas as well. His quirky sense of humor and sturdy common sense had appealed to her. He wasn’t bad looking either. Lucas was tall, with a born rider’s broad shouldered, narrow hipped build, but his body showed the promise of the heavy muscles that would come as he aged. Like his foster father Gideon, he had light hair that he kept short soldier fashion, sharp green eyes and clean cut features.

To Drusilla’s bewilderment and secret delight, Lucas had seemed to be charmed by her person and had spent as much of his time with her as he could manage. Lucas hadn’t been annoying but he had made it obvious he wanted her. She sensed he wasn’t going to be patient with her waffling about deciding forever.

For the past several months he had shown all the signs of a man who wanted more than just friendship, and Drusilla knew she was going to have to decide about her relationship with Lucas soon because the Makers were going to give them their Match Lists at the next Planting Festival.

Behind them, she could hear Genevieve’s two foster daughters, Ceridwen and Bronwen playing with a new litter of Quirka pups. Drusilla’s own Quirka, Toula, nuzzled her ear gently in sympathy with her unease. Quirka were native to Vensoog. They were about the size of a human fist, with thick, mottled yellow fur that changed color to match their environment. Originally making their homes in the trees and living on nuts, berries and insects, Quirkas had become avid hunters of the pests and creepy-crawlies who invaded human dwellings. Their main protection against predators was their retractable, venom tipped quills running down the backbone. They had a large bushy tail used for ballast when leaping from tree to tree. One of their chief attractions to humans though was the life bond they developed with certain men and women.

Leaving Genevieve and the children playing with the Quirka pups, she headed for the student dormitory area. Drusilla spotted Lucas’s tall form in one of the dormitory sections kept for temporary training classes. Tomorrow, she knew the incoming class would begin the rigorous conditioning designed to give them the mental and physical stamina needed to turn them into Dragon Talkers. Tonight however they were given free time to settle in.

When she appeared in the doorway, Lucas immediately came toward her. “I need to speak to you,” she said softly, “Outside.”

This caused some good-natured teasing as he ushered her outside.

“Sorry about that,” he said smiling. “Most of them know I’ve got a special feeling for you. They don’t mean anything by it.”

She waved it away. “Look, there’s something funny going on here on the Isle. I can’t stay and root it out, but since you have to be here anyway, I thought maybe you could look around some.”

If he was disappointed at her reason for seeking him out, it didn’t show in his face. “Sure,” he said, putting an arm around her shoulders and giving her a one-armed hug. “I’ll keep an eye on things for you, but I want a real date when we get to the Festival.”

Drusilla almost stamped her foot in exasperation. “Honestly, is that all you can think about? I tell you there might be trouble brewing and you want to talk about our Match Lists?”

“Well, what is going on here on the Isle is important, but then I think we are too.”

“Oh, alright!” she exclaimed. “We can go to the Introductory Ball together, okay?”

“You got it Darling,” he said, managing to plant a quick kiss on her mouth before walking away. “Oh, by the way” he said over his shoulder, “I was going to keep an eye on things anyway; Gideon already gave me a watching brief on it.”

This time she did stamp her foot. How did he always manage to knock her off balance? No one else did that to her because she didn’t allow it. Somehow though, Lucas always managed it.                  Despite her irritation at falling for his trick, she watched him walk all the way back to the dormitory, unwillingly admiring the effortless way he moved. She couldn’t help but appreciate his cleverness, despite her irritation because he had tricked her again. Somehow, Lucas roused a response in her physically and emotionally in a way she had never allowed another man to do, and darn it, he had managed to kiss her again. Drusilla sighed in exasperation. The problem wasn’t with Lucas, she admitted. If she hadn’t kissed him back every time, he wouldn’t have reason to think she was falling in love with him. The real trouble, Drusilla acknowledged, was she was afraid he was right. She wasn’t exactly proud of her behavior; it wasn’t fair of her to allow him to kiss her and then push him away. It wasn’t Lucas’s fault she was afraid of the emotion growing between them—she knew was leery of her own power and what a loss of control could mean to others around her.

Irritably, she kicked a pebble off the path back to the guest quarters. She had looked forward to the peace and tranquility she had always found here, but she hadn’t found it on this trip. Yes, someone was going to pay for spoiling Talker’s Isle. Drusilla intended to make sure of it.

Pawn To Kings Four

LUCAS’S FIRST morning on Talker’s Isle started with being rousted out at dawn to run along the rocky shoreline. The beaches on Talker’s Isle were not made of smooth sand but of crushed pebbles intersected with up-thrust outcroppings of rocks, ranging from fist-sized stones to boulders. That made running the beach course set up by their instructor something of a hazard. The calisthenics teacher, Senior Talker Marian, plainly expected her new students to have difficulty with the course. To her surprise, Lucas and the rest of Gideon’s people not only ran the course without stumbling, none of them was out of breath when they finished. Some of the ex-military trainees even had energy left afterwards for a little horseplay.

Marian frowned at them when they ended the run. “You are in remarkably good shape,” she said to Tim Morgan, the leader of the group.

He smiled at her. “That little stretch? The courses we ran in training were twice as long and we carried eighty pound packs and weapons when we did it.”

“I see,” she said. “In that case, let’s start with the run most of our classes finish with. Follow me,” and she took off, running up the cliff trail from the shore. For the next hour, she led them up into the rocky hills above the Talker Compound, and then across the Isle and back down to the beach, ending up just outside the complex, where she stopped and ran in place while she took stock of her new class. They were all in wonderful shape, she admitted, admiring Tim Morgan’s physique as he jogged in place. This group might not be exhausted at the end of this run, but at least they now knew they’d had a workout.

“Okay,” she called, “cool down and then go in and have breakfast. Your first class in how to push and pull will begin in an hour in classroom four. Your teacher will be Senior Talker Terella.”

After breakfast, Lucas was a little surprised when he entered the room for the next class to find no chairs or desks. The teacher, Senior Talker Terella, must have been in her eighties. She was a wizened figure of a woman with thinning white hair twisted into a knot on the top of her head. However, her bright blue eyes were clear and sharp. For this class, they had each been issued a pair loose pants and a sleeveless pullover top. When he entered the room, Lucas was instructed to take off his shoes and stack them over by a row of woven mats piled against one wall. After everyone had taken a mat, they all lined up in rows with the mats at their feet. Terella walked around the class and shifted some of the trainees to different spots, sorting them (apparently) by the amount of room they might take up lying full length. Once she had the class arranged to her satisfaction, the students were told to step onto the mats. Terella began to lead them in some of the weirdest bending and stretching exercises Lucas had ever seen, let alone tried to perform.

When Terella decided it was time for them to start breathing exercises, Lucas was bent over backwards with his hands flat on the floor. Along with several others, he started to straighten up, and was told to stay in the bent backward position.

With his head hanging upside down, Lucas looked across at Morgan who had ended up in the same position across from him, and made a grimace, getting an eye roll in return. Terella laughed.

“You all are wondering why now we do meditation, yes? Well, to become a talker, you must learn to ignore your body’s sensations and work your mind. For the next ten minutes, I will count and you will breathe in and out. One, breathe in, two, breathe in, three, breathe in, one breathe out….”

When she finished this torture, she had them all sit cross-legged on the mat and repeat the same exercise.

Finally, she told them to sit and listen to the sounds around them, identifying each one silently and then to try to locate where it was coming from without opening their eyes. As he did this exercise, Taid’s crystal began to feel uncomfortably warm against Lucas’s skin. So much so that he finally pulled it out and let it lie against the shirt material instead of his bare skin. Terella noticed his discomfort and came by his station on the mat. She bopped him on the back of the head with the back of her hand. “Focus!” she said sharply. “Ignore the pain!”

When she finally allowed them to open their eyes, she explained to them that they had just undergone their first lesson in finding a pull. A pull, she explained is when you use your third eye to locate things close to you. “Later, we will work on doing a pull at a distance,” she said smiling.

Just before the class broke up, she let each of them feel her touch at the edge of their senses. Again, Lucas could feel the crystal heating up. This time he realized he was seeing Terella’s push as a ray of light yellow color that softly touched each student in the class.

When she dismissed the class to go to lunch, she stopped Lucas as he was about to leave. “Are you alright, My Lord?” she asked.

He nodded, hesitating and then he asked, “Has anyone ever reported seeing a push?”

“No,” she replied, “but I can sense you are unusually gifted in some ways. Could you see something when I pushed the class just now?”

“Yes. A very soft yellow stream of light touched everyone. This heated up too,” he added, indicating the crystal.

“May I touch it?”

When he nodded consent, she touched the crystal with the tip of a finger and then drew back quickly. “There is a great deal of power locked up in this. Where did you get it?”

“It’s a family heirloom. My grandfather left it with a friend to be passed on to me when I was old enough. It’s supposed to help me assume my family legacy,” he said, tucking the now cool crystal back inside his shirt.

“I suggest you be very careful when you open it up,” she warned him. “As I said, it’s very powerful. However, it seems to be tuned to you in some fashion so that should provide some measure of safety. Yellow did you say? Hummm…”

Lucas left, determined to do some research about his grandfather’s gift in his first spare minute. As it happened though, he didn’t have many spare minutes for the rest of the day.

The afternoon teacher was a man named Gerard Colson who insisted they address him as Senior Talker Colson, a formality none of the other teachers had bothered with. Colson was a tall, thin man with a narrow, long-jawed face. A plume of shiny black hair fell romantically over his forehead. It was obvious within the first few minutes of class that the Senior Talker didn’t believe this class had any worthy students.

“To be a Dragon Talker,” Colson stated arrogantly, “you must be able to focus your mind on the dragon’s emotions and tune out distractions. I doubt many of you will be able to do this, especially coming from a military background, but we’ll see.”

The next thing he did was slam a hard push of embarrassment and unworthiness straight at Lucas whom he apparently thought would be the weakest of the group. Lucas could see a wide black band push outward from Colson, and he could feel the pressure of the push like a physical blow. Taid’s gift flashed white hot, and when Lucas instinctively grabbed the front of his shirt to pull the crystal away from his skin, he found he could shove back at the negative feelings. As he pushed back, he could see the black wave beginning to turn grey. Gradually, the grey grew lighter and then began to creep back along the wave toward Colson. Colson staggered, catching himself on the edge of the teacher’s desk in the front of the room.

Giving Lucas a shocked look, Colson abruptly cut off push before the counter wave of light Lucas was generating reached him. He was very careful after that first attempt not to try to overpower Lucas when he pushed at him during the rest of the class. He said nothing about it however. No one had bothered to tell Colson that all the men and women taking this class had first been vetted by Drusilla to make sure they could handle the training. He became visibly more irate as the class progressed.

Lucas found the last class of the day self-defense and weapon handling, in particular, the Force Wand, a relief. Having seen one in action on Fenris, he already knew that a Vensoog Force Wand was made of titanium/steel, covered in the Rainbow tree hardwood.

“This is a standard Force Wand,” the teacher, a tough, wiry woman with a shock of short cut brown hair, informed them. “You will keep this one as long as you are here on Talker’s Isle. Once you graduate, you may want to have one made especially for you.”

“Watch this and do as I show you.” She held hers out with her right hand gripping the center handle, and pressed a raised crystal in the center with her thumb. “Most wands will extend to around four feet, which is the optimum length for close in fighting. Tap the same button twice and it will retract.”

She held one of the ends up so they could see it. “This end carries a knife which can be used for thrusting. I do not recommend using it unless your life is threatened; however, it is useful for cutting free a Dragon caught in rope or sea strands.” She touched another of the raised crystals and a four-inch blade snapped out. She walked up and down the line, making them repeat her actions until she was satisfied they could extend and retract the wand and the blade.

Holding up the wand, which she held by the handle in the middle, she showed them how to move the power dial. “If a Dragon is particularly ornery, or stubborn, we sometimes find it necessary to provide an incentive, so the other end of your wand, is a shock stick. Before we are through, each of you will touch himself with it set on the mildest setting. The maximum setting, designed for use on the larger water dragons, is fatal to humans.”

The class spent the next few minutes playing with the adjustments on that end of the wand. Lucas found even the mild setting unpleasant. He remembered that Lady Katherine had in fact killed two of the thugs attacking her children with her wand, so he was very careful with his. Unfortunately, a couple of the others were seized with the urge to show off, and ended up burned by their own wands. Afterwards, when Lucas asked Senior Talker Loretta why she hadn’t stopped the two students, she smiled. “Some are more hard-headed than others and must learn by doing.”

The class wasn’t just physical. Loretta assigned the students to spend the last half of the class Reading up on the history of the Talkers. Here, Lucas found the Wands had been developed after it had been realized that unscrupulous clansmen would sometimes attempt to strong-arm Dragon Talkers to push both people and dragons into committing illegal or sometimes even dangerous acts. If the Talker could fend off most physical attacks, it discouraged this type of coercion.

That evening, Lucas realized he wasn’t going to be able to find any privacy to really open up Taid’s crystal and study its properties; the constant movement and talk of his bunkmates was too distracting and he did not want an audience when he explored it.

However, he felt what Drusilla had termed the ‘miasma of discontent’ that seemed to pervade the entire island. Even Gideon’s Talker unit had been affected; everyone was short-tempered and seemed to take offense much easier than they had before they came here. Both he and Tim Morgan reported it to Lord Zack on their nightly after hour’s reports.

Lord Zack had been put in charge of security on Veiled Isle, the closest of the Laird’s territories to Talker’s Isle. The rest of the team knew Lucas and Morgan were going out after the trainees’ curfew check, but they knew the pair had been chased with a task to look for something so the class ignored it.

When Gideon had asked him to keep an eye out for anything suspicious on Talker’s Isle, he had been glad to do it. Getting Drusilla to promise him a real date on their first official function during the Festival had just been a bonus. She had kissed him back too; although it was plain her own response bothered her for some reason.

During their third week on the Isle, Colson suddenly began bringing the unit a special morning drink that he said contained unique vitamins and minerals to help them survive the training. When Lucas took his first sip of it, the crystal Taid had given him got very hot against his skin and he was hit by a wave of nausea and a blinding headache. He barely made it to the bathroom and immediately threw up what he had swallowed. Not wanting to make a big deal of it, he hid the nearly full bottle in his footlocker.

His nausea and headache subsided during the usual grueling morning workout. He ate the high-protein breakfast provided for the trainees with a good appetite, suffered through Terella’s meditation exercises, and then went to the second class.

Of the two, he preferred Terella’s teachings to that of Senior Talker Colson. This morning Colson opened class with a discussion about the Clan system of government. Colson’s usual method of teaching them had been to start controversial discussions to distract them while he poked at them with a push. This morning, he kept urging the trainees to agree that it was unfair to exclude certain segments of the population from inheriting property or titles. Lucas could feel the man using an intense push to generate feelings of resentment and anger. A Push, Lucas had learned in training, was what the Clans of Vensoog called this method used to influence others. Looking around, he could see that most of the class seemed to be allowing themselves to yield to the unpleasant emotions Colson’s push generated. Since he knew Gideon’s people to be both stubborn and hard to influence, Lucas suspected some outside factor had to be involved in their too easy transition to resentment. It had to have been the drink. Taid’s crystal had caused him to throw up, he decided. Obviously, the crystal had the ability to detect harmful materials he ate or drank.

As Colson’s push grew stronger, Taid’s crystal began heating up again and Lucas could see the negative emotions being pushed by Colson as dark rays of color that touched everyone and everything. Instinctively, Lucas touched the crystal under his shirt and felt a surge of power lessening the influence behind Colson’s push. Not liking the angry feelings around him, Lucas instinctively pushed back against them hard enough to block it for himself and the others. As he did so, he could see his own push shifting the dark colored rays to a lighter hue.

Colson glared around, attempting to locate who was causing the change in the atmosphere he had been creating. He finally fixed on Lucas. “What do you think you’re doing?” he demanded, advancing on Lucas with a scowl.

Lucas shrugged and did his best to look innocent. “I don’t know what you mean. I think that the clan system seems to be working just fine, is all.” As he spoke, he again pushed a positive feeling out into the room spreading an even lighter wave of color that touched everyone but Colson. To his astonishment, several of the class who voiced agreement with Colson, now spoke up to disagree with him. Tight-lipped with anger, Colson abruptly ended the lesson.

He was going to have to find out exactly what Taid’s crystal was and how to use it, Lucas decided grimly. Gideon had said it was some kind of psychic teaching tool, but after Terella’s warning, he had been reluctant to explore it without someone to watch his back while he did so. Drusilla was the most experienced psychic he knew and she had asked him to look into things here on the Isle. If he asked her to make an excuse to return they could discuss a time and place for him to really open up the crystal and find out what he needed to learn. At last, he had something to report to Lord Zack. Because of Veiled Isle’s proximity to Talker’s Isle, Gideon had asked Zack to receive any communications about what was wrong on Talker’s Isle.

At least Lucas now had a concrete suspicion to report about what was causing the disaffection on the Isle. Zack could pass the information on to Warlord Gideon.

The next morning before Colson had a chance to bring in any more of his special drink, Lucas told Morgan that he thought there had been something in the ‘vitamin’ cocktail that had helped Colson manipulate the class’s emotions. Morgan frowned, but he had been one of the few in the class Colson hadn’t been able to influence easily and he agreed to tell everyone not to drink it. Morgan had been a staff Sargent in the unit during the war so it was natural for the rest of Gideon’s trainees to obey him.

This time when Colson started a critical discussion of the clan system, the entire class had been forewarned and most of them were able to recognize the push for an attempt to influence them and successfully resisted. Those that had difficulty withstanding it were assisted by their companions. Colson left the class after a few biting comments concerning their inability to use what he was attempting to teach them.

That night after lights out, Lucas and Morgan slipped out of the dormitory to contact Zack. They had been giving nightly reports, but until now, there had been nothing but vague feelings of disquiet to report.

“Well, now,” Zack observed when they had reported their suspicions. “I certainly think that stuff needs to be tested. Did you keep any of it?”

“Yes,” Lucas answered. “We both have the bottle that was given out this morning and I have part of yesterdays. How do you want us to get the sample to you?”

“Neither of you can interrupt your training to bring it here without alerting Colson so I think it will be best if I send someone over to you to test it instead,” Zack responded. A thought occurred to him and he grinned. “I’m going to send someone this guy Colson won’t suspect.”

Morgan’s eyebrows rose. “Who did you have in mind?”

Zack’s smile turned feral. “It’s time Lucas got a visit from his girl. Drusilla was just saying that the new Sand Dragon calves should be appearing with their mothers. She was talking about taking the kids on a field trip over there to see them. If she arranges for the trip to happen on your rest day, Lucas can go with her to help ‘supervise’ the kids. Rupert can test the stuff in the bottle while you’re away from the area. No one will suspect a thing.”

“Who is Rupert?” inquired Morgan.

“Rupert is my nephew,” Zack explained. “Katherine had all the kids’ skills and aptitudes tested back on Fenris and I understand he tested out over level three hundred in chemistry. The kid’s good, trust me. He’ll be able to tell if Colson added something like Submit to the drink.”

“A kid tested out over three hundred?” Morgan asked. “That’s master level.”

“It sure is,” Zack said proudly.

“Wow. Well, our next rest day is the day after tomorrow,” responded Morgan. “Having Lady Drusilla come over with the children is a good idea; that way everyone will just think Lucas is getting a booty call.”

“Just don’t do anything I wouldn’t do, Lucas,” Zack said grinning. “Business first—courting later.”

“That covers quite a lot of territory,” Lucas retorted smartly.

The Bard Of Lewellyn

 WHEN DRUSILLA and the children arrived to visit Lucas, it did cause some good-natured envy and teasing comments among the trainees, but most members of the unit were fond of Lucas and glad to think his courtship of Drusilla was prospering.

Drusilla had come prepared for the children to learn something from this field trip as well as enjoying a fun picnic outdoors. Besides the large picnic basket, the floater Lucas was pulling held several study tablets, a portable pop up canopy, as well as a folding table and chairs. Rupert had hidden his portable testing gear in with the picnic supplies.

It was unfortunate that they ran into Senior Talker Colson as they were leaving the Talker compound for the rocky beaches where the Dragons nested. An ugly expression crossed his face as he spotted them. Lucas had been proving an obstacle to his plans and he badly wanted to take that young man down a peg or two. After his first attempt to dominate Lucas had failed however, a strong sense of self-preservation had prevented him from trying it again. Pure spite made him decide to take his spleen out on what he thought of as a weak target.

“How dare you bring that monster here,” he shouted, pointing at Violet’s Sand Dragon Jelli in her accustomed place at Violet’s heels. “What if she escapes and attacks someone?”

Violet drew herself up disdainfully and looked him over from his head to his heels. “She isn’t a monster. Jelli won’t attack anyone unless I tell her to do so,” she informed him very much in Katherine’s manner.

“Who taught you manners, girl?” Colson demanded. “How dare you speak to me in that fashion?” He sent an angry push at the child, trying to frighten her.

Lucas and Drusilla both felt the push, and he stepped forward to intervene, but was checked by Drusilla’s hand on his arm. “Watch,” she said softly and they waited, both of them enjoying Colson’s shock when Violet easily deflected his push.

“Are you responsible for this—this foul mannered child?” Colson asked turning furiously on Drusilla when his attempt to overawe Violet failed.

Drusilla’s eyebrows rose. “Indeed I am, and I can’t agree with you about her manners. Senior Talker Colson, if Lady Violet was truly ill mannered, she would have returned your use of an illicit push on her quite painfully, but she did not. Shall I convey your apologies to my sister Katherine on your behalf for your attempt to use coercion on one of her children? An action, I might add, that you know very well is against our protocols. Children,” Drusilla’s voice was cool, “this is Senior Talker Colson. He is a teacher here and I am sure he wishes to express his regret for ignoring Talker etiquette by setting such a bad example. I am afraid you will have to excuse us Senior Talker. We are taking a field trip out to see the Sand Dragons. Come along kids.”

She slipped her hand into the one Lucas was holding out to her and turned toward the sounds of the waves crashing onto the rocks, followed obediently by the children. Glancing back, Lucas observed Colson glowering after them in angry impotence. Using some of his new lessons, he scanned Colson’s emotions, reading the man’s powerless rage and hate. He said nothing to Drusilla in front of the children, but he did file it away for future reference.

Once free of the compound, the children raced ahead of them up the hill.

“Why does Colson hate you so much?” Lucas asked her.

Drusilla made a face. “It isn’t just me, it’s all of us. Colson has always had a reputation for—well for developing hero worshipers among some of the students. I was always too close to Mother Liana for him to try it with me, but when Katherine studied here, she discovered that hero worship happened because he was influencing some of the students’ emotions. One of her friends developed such a case on him that she killed herself when he rejected her for another student. Katherine never forgave him and she raised such a stink about it that Mother Liana sent him away to work with the teams exploring Kitzingen. I suppose when he was wounded in the war she had to let him come here.”

The sandy path to the beach where the dragons nested was covered with boulders and small rocks, but a flat area above the cliffs gave a good view of the beach where the dragon cows were teaching their calves to swim. This was important because in the wild the Sand Dragons would swim from Island to Island to find food. Sand Dragons were omnivores, eating a variety of fish, small game, roots and grasses. Hard skin plates resembling scales covered much of their body except their head and underbelly. It had been discovered that like the Quirka the sand dragons were empathetic. If they were exposed to humans as calves they usually developed life-long bonds with them. Like many of the animals native to Vensoog, they could match the color of their coat to their environment.

After setting up the tables and chairs under the portable canopy, Drusilla directed the children to the best place for observation. Jelli lay down sadly beside Violet and put her head in Violet’s lap with a deep sigh. Violet stroked her face and ears consolingly. “I know,” she said softly. “You miss your own mother, don’t you?”

Drusilla knelt beside them. “Does she want to join them?”

Violet shook her head. “She’s just missing her own Mom, but she wouldn’t be welcome down there and she knows it. They aren’t her herd.”

Drusilla patted Violet consolingly on the shoulder. “You are her herd now.”

“Why is that one not swimming?” inquired Roderick, pointing at a Sand Dragon who seemed to be on watch.

“A Sand Dragon herd always has at least one sentinel,” Drusilla explained. “Like the Water Dragons, they need to watch out for the really large Dactyls that hunt them from the air.”

“Are those Dactyls dangerous to humans as well?” Lucas asked.

“Well they can be if they are hungry enough. However, a good hard push can drive them away. That’s why Dragon Talkers are in such demand.”

Watched by the curious Dactyls, Rupert had set up his portable testing kit and was explaining to an interested Lucinda how he was going to test the drink in the bottles Lucas handed to him. Both their Dactyls leaned forward to see better as he scanned the water bottles, spreading their hairy wings for balance and cocking their heads to the side in identical gestures of fascination. Dactyls were four legged mammals but they had an additional set of skin covered wings. Unlike Quirka who had short plush coats, the Dactyls fur was long, more like human hair. It was unknown just how intelligent the Vensoog animals were. Although the four Dactyls accompanying the children were small, Dactyls had a wide variety of sizes. Generally, Sand Dragons, Quirka and Dactyls seemed to understand a great deal of human conversation, and were intensely curious about the world around them.

Juliette and Roderick had settled down at the cliff edge beside Violet and Jelli to watch the calves play in the water.

Seeing that the children were now well occupied, Lucas drew Drusilla to the back of the canopy and took out the crystal to show her. “I really need to find out how this works,” he told her, “but I want someone with experience standing by when I open it up.”

She took the green gem in her hands, sending a surface probe into it.

“There is something here,” she admitted, “but it isn’t tuned to me. Here,” she held out the hand holding the gem, “grab onto it with me and try. I’ll anchor you while you do it.”

As soon as his hand touched the gem, a surge of power swept Drusilla up and flung her into a maelstrom of rainbow colored lights. It felt as if the light was actually touching her naked body, leaving her flesh exposed and incredibly sensitive. Frantically she tried to put on the brakes, but only succeeded in slowing down what was happening. Lucas! Her mind screamed reaching for him.

I’m here, his mental voice sounded amazingly calm and he appeared beside her, catching her hand with his own. It’s alright. There’s someone here I want you to meet.

Are you okay? She asked.

He gave a gentle pull and they moved into the heart of the light, where a tall, whitehaired man waited for them.

Taid, this is Drusilla. Drusilla, this is my grandfather, Owen Lewellyn.

     The old man he had called Taid peered searchingly into her face. You chose well, he said. Welcome Granddaughter.

What? Who are you? She asked.

The image of Owen Lewellyn laughed. Ah, I see you’re still circling each other. Don’t be afraid of your feelings child.

     I cannot stay long Lucas. It is time for you to take my place as the Bard of Lewellyn. The ceremony I performed when you left Gwynedd transferred your heritage to you. It is a powerful one and you were still a child, so I placed a barrier against the power and the teachings until you were old enough to handle them. It is time to release that barrier. He gestured to a wall that had suddenly appeared. It looked as if it was made of river rocks. Taid pointed to a stone in the center. That one, that is the keystone. Touch it and say ‘meddwl agored, and the wall will come down.

Keeping hold of Drusilla’s hand, Lucas stepped forward, touched the stone and repeated the words. Slowly at first, the stones began to melt and dissolve. A whirlwind of rainbow colored light began to swirl around Lucas, faster and faster, enclosing him. The lights began to look like words, and then sentences written in a foreign language. Lucas stumbled as if he was going to fall and Drusilla stepped into the whirlwind and caught him to steady him. She wobbled too but as she was only being hit by the edge of that storm of knowledge, she could keep them both on their feet. Lucas was receiving the entire load and he sagged against her. Even the edge of it stripped her bare, leaving her whole being raw and sensitized. Her mind and body felt as if their naked bodies were being melded together. She could feel his bare skin pressed against hers and his emotional and sexual arousal just as he felt hers. When his mouth found hers, she answered the need they both felt, opening her lips for his kiss and flinging her arms around his neck. An exquisite tension built between her legs and when he lifted her up against him, she wrapped her legs around his hips. She could feel his swollen shaft against her nether mouth and tightened her legs to bring more pressure. Lucas groaned and rocked her against his engorged manhood, increasing the pleasure they both felt through the psychic link that bound them together. The release came in an intense groundswell of delight that was almost pain, and tiny waves of pleasure echoed through her body for minutes afterward.

When she came back to herself, Drusilla realized Lucas was kneeling, with her on his lap and her legs dangling limply on either side of his. She felt his hand stroking her hair and he pressed a soft kiss on her temple. She buried her face in his neck so she wouldn’t have to look him in the face, but Lucas wasn’t going to allow that. He tilted her chin up so she had to meet his eyes. He was smiling down at her. Hello Darling, he said.

A rush of consternation as well as embarrassment hit Drusilla all at once. Your grandfather—the children—did we just broadcast all that? Are we inside the crystal?

     Well, we are sort of inside it, but we’re still sitting under the tree too. He stood and pulled her to her feet. Much as I enjoyed this last part, I think it’s time we got back to the real world.

     How?

     Close your eyes and concentrate on seeing the crystal.

Obediently Drusilla pictured seeing the crystal in their clasped hands. When she opened her eyes, she was back in the real world and Violet was standing beside them.

Lucas glanced down at himself and then stood up, letting go of her hand as he did. “Ah—I’ll be right back. I need to go and clean up. Or something.” He grabbed a package of hand wipes out of the picnic basket and disappeared around behind a large boulder.

“Are you alright?” Violet asked.

Guiltily Drusilla looked up at the girl. “Oh, Goddess Violet, did you feel all of that? I’m so sorry. It must have been awful—”

Violet shrugged. “Don’t worry about it. As soon as I realized what was happening, Jelli and I shielded all of us.

“It shouldn’t have happened where you kids could be exposed to it though,” Drusilla said. “I’m so sorry. Katherine is going to kill me—”

“Why is your sister going to kill us?” Lucas had returned.

Drusilla glared at him. “Don’t you realize we pushed everything that happened out to everyone around us? If Violet hadn’t been able to raise a shield, the children would have lived it right along with us!”

All of it?”

Yes!”

Violet eyed Drusilla critically. “Geeze, don’t be such a drama queen. Jelli helped me shield us so we really didn’t feel anything we shouldn’t.”

“Thank you for your help Violet,” Drusilla said wryly. “You’re quite a kid. Katherine is lucky to have you as a daughter.”

“I’m hungry,” announced Rupert coming up to them. “Can we eat now?”

“That’s a good idea,” Lucas hastily agreed. “While we eat, you can tell me what you found in the bottle.”

“It isn’t pure,” Rupert announced around a mouthful of cold Ostamu, the huge flightless birds raised on Veiled Isle, “But it’s got a lot of the same stuff Submit has in it, so it probably does something similar. I looked up the formula on the City Patrol’s website before we came,” he explained.

Lucas looked over at Drusilla. “I’m going to call Zack. And then I guess we need to talk to Mother Superior when we get back. Colson can’t be allowed to keep drugging trainees.”

She nodded soberly.

Lucas pulled out the com Gideon had given him and contacted the Veiled Isle com center who promised to notify Zack.

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