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DarkFyre Chapter Twenty

Dangerous nights give way to hospitable days.
Silmaria’s heart beat violently, thudding unpleasantly in her breast. As the men stepped into their small camp she swallowed and fought to ignore the rising tide of panic threatening to drown her entirely. There were half a dozen of them, all armed and stepping with the confident, easy swagger of men who were comfortably acquainted with a great many kinds of violence.

Dark eyes roved over her. She saw a flare of desire here, a glint of lewd interest there. Mostly, they looked curious, and perhaps a touch surprised as well. One of the men nudged the other and pointed a short, notched iron blade toward her as he spoke in a thick, rolling tongue she didn’t recognize.

Silmaria’s gaze flicked to the movement in the shadows behind them and glimpsed Rael crouching behind the jagged rise of a rock formation a few yards away. He caught her eye, and gave a single, curt nod as he held up a hand: Wait.

The Haruke men spoke back and forth in their strange language, gesturing toward her. Deciding what they would do with her, she was sure. Silmaria bit her lip, trying desperately to be calm as she looked up at the men. Resisting the urge to bolt up and run, or to stare at Master Rael expectantly, was tormentingly difficult.

At last, the first man who spoke said in thickly accented, broken Common, “You. Woman. Woman is… is alone? Here?”

Silmaria swallowed and nodded. “I am alone,” she said slowly, and her voice cracked with fear.

One of the other Haruke men, the one with half his head scalped while the other hung with braids that dangled to his waist, scoffed. “Untruth. Women never alone, here. Reach. Is not to be doing.”

She could see the doubt in the other men’s eyes. Her eyes wanted badly to rebel and flicker to where she’d seen Master Rael. She forced her gaze to remain focused on the men. She did not know how to speak to the men without sparking some outburst. Oddly, the men did not seem in a rush to debase her. Indeed, the men seemed more thoughtful than the barbarians the stories made them out to be.

“This woman is doing,” she told them, and now her fear made her bold and gave a touch of defiance to her voice. “I am not the women you know. I am not afraid.”

“Woman is stupid, then,” the first man spat into the sputtering fire. “Bad things in Reach. Dangers. Dangerous men, too.”

“Woman stupid. And untrue. Not alone,” another of the men insisted vehemently. “Woman alone in Reach, alive? It is not to be doing.”

Another of the men spoke up. His common was much clearer, though his accent was still thick and rolling. He regarded Silmaria thoughtfully. “They are right. You are stupid if you are out here, alone. And if you were stupid, you would not be alive. There is a man here with you, somewhere, I am thinking.”

The men nodded agreement. Their eyes drifted at last from her and began to cast about in the darkness.

Knowing that this could be their undoing, Silmaria made a desperate gamble.

“There are no men here but you,” she said, struggling to keep her voice calm, and even suggestive. The Gnari woman stood, letting her blanket fall away, to stand naked before the men. She rested a hand on her curving, rounded hip, letting it jut seductively to the side. Once again, all eyes were on her, and the men drank in her body, all exotic coloring and toned, shapely curves, her smooth, flat belly and lushly formed hips and buttocks, her firm, strong thighs and generously soft breasts.

Silmaria’s heart was pounding so hard her chest hurt, but she showed nothing of that. “And that’s a shame, because I’ve been in terrible need of a man’s company lately.”

She half expected one or all of them to close the distance to her and take her then and there. She played a dangerous, deadly game, but it was the only hand she had left just then, and she would do anything to keep them from finding out her Lord.

With a sway in her step, Silmaria came a few paces closer. She regarded the men through hooded eyes, displaying her flesh fully and openly, even reaching up with one hand to meaningfully brush her fingers along her ripe, buxom breasts. “It’s just me out here…and it’s been very lonely.”

Most of the men’s expressions changed, losing the wariness and distrust in favor of unfeigned desire. She shivered as they stepped in closer, and bit her lip.

Hurry, Master, she thought frantically, willing Rael to act, and bracing for the worst.

“Something is not right here,” one of the men, the one who spoke coherent Common, said. His distrust lingered as he eyed her. He said something in the Haruke tongue. The man closest to Silmaria barked a guttural reply, and reached for her breasts with grasping hands. She went tense, shuddering.

Rael’s dagger whipped through the air to violently burry into the back of the reaching man’s neck at the base of his skull. The man gurgled around a throat full of blood. The crowd of Haruke warriors stared, momentarily stunned, as their comrade fell to the ground.

Before the men could fully react Rael was already on the man closest to him. He slammed into the Haruke’s back and grappled with him, gripping and holding the man from behind. The warrior let out a curse and struggled wildly, thrashing and twisting to try to face his unseen attacker. Rael’s face was a wrathful mask, his lips drawn up in a snarl. Silmaria saw the glint of violence in his silver eyes. The wild, savage spirit he kept tucked away was out and raging. He bore the man down beneath his powerful weight, driving him to the ground. When the man spun to face the Knight, Rael slammed his forehead into the Haruke’s nose, shattering it with a wet snap. As the man let out a wail of painful outrage, Rael tore the dagger from the man’s hands and plunged it into his skull.

The world blurred into motion. One of the other warriors came at Rael, loosing an undulating battle cry. Silmaria didn’t have time to see what came next; naked still, she exploded into a sprint as the two men closest to her, one to her left and the other to her right, rounded on her. By then she was already moving, making for the mound of rocks to her left that formed a stretch of formation rising about forty feet overhead.

The Haruke on her left leapt into her path with an ugly curse. Reacting instinctively, Silmaria leaped forward with all her might, using her momentum to slam into the man. The man wasn’t ready for the reckless tactic and the feline projectile knocked the breath from him and drove him to the ground.

As it often did, desperation and fear made her fierce. The man brought the iron crudgel in his hand up, but he was dazed and Silmaria swifter, and the Gnari viciously slashed her frightfully sharp claws across the man’s throat, tearing open his airway. Blood burst forth as the Haruke clutched at his shredded windpipe.

Silmaria leapt to her feet, moving before she had time to watch the light die in the dead man’s eyes.

The rocks were treacherous, jagged and hostile. But Silmaria was well suited to climbing. She bounded up the rockface, her strong claws gripping at the tiny crevices too small for fingers to fit. She scrambled agile and sure footed up into the rocks. The Haruke chased her, but his pace was crawling compared to hers. Silmaria stared down at him and sneered unkindly, baring gritted teeth as her eyes flashed defiance.

“Cat Bitch!” The Haruke cursed her in his broken Common as he struggled up the cliff.

Silmaria found a loose stone the size of her fist and whipped it into the top of the man’s dark, braided head. He let out a cry and dropped with a weighty smack of meat onto the ground below, then rolled to the side, groaning miserably. Silmaria spat at him and then tossed another sizable stone at him for good measure.

Safe for the moment, her attention went to her Master. Rael had dispatched the Haruke who’d leapt at him, and now faced off with the last standing member of their group. It was the man who’d spoken clearly before, who had been the least inclined to fall for her ruse.

He was shorter than Rael by almost a foot, and much smaller of build, but he appeared capable nonetheless, with a sort of lean, solid strength. His hair was long, tied at the back of his neck into three thick black braids that fell half way to his waist. His eyes were lighter than his fellows, nearly hazel. Cunning, clear eyes that spoke of an experienced and calculating warrior.

The man had the foresight to stand between Rael and where the Nobleman’s weapons remained bundled with his pack. The Haruke shifted his grip on his dagger, holding it at the ready as the two warriors regarded one another. “You are far from your lands, Cold One. What does a Daleman do here?”

Rael didn’t flinch, didn’t let the keen edge of his focus slip for a moment as he slowly circled the man. “I could ask the same of you. Grasslander’s don’t take well to The Reach and its rocks. You’re a stranger here as much as I.”

“Our business is ours. It is not for Cold One’s to know,” the Haruke replied.

“It doesn’t matter,” Rael said. “I’ve no interest in Haruke’s affairs. I came to The Reach to avoid your folk, and I’d as soon let this be the end of my brush with you.”

“It cannot be. You are Daleman. I am Grassman. You kill my brothers. You see us. You will tell DarkFyre that Grassmen visit the Flyers. This cannot be.”

Something flittered, ever so briefly, across Rael’s face; a flash of confusion, or perhaps curiosity. Then his jaw set in that expression of unbending will.

“Then it seems we are at an impasse,” he said in a voice as calm and soft as a looming and patient death.

“Yes,” the Haruke agreed. Then, his eyes flickered to where Silmaria perched up in the rocks. “Your woman?”

Rael bristled, and he bared his teeth in a snarl. “Don’t look at her.”

The Haruke gave the ghost of a smile. “She kills like a man. A good woman. She does not try to kill again, we will let her live.”

Rael’s eyes narrowed. He stepped to the side, circling to the left. The Haruke followed his example, and the two men began the slow, purposeful steps of a dance that would end in death. “But we have seen you. We cannot live. You said it yourself.”

You cannot live,” the dark haired man corrected. “You are a Daleman. A warrior, I see this. You can tell the Cold One’s, and maybe they will act. Not she. She is a woman. Who will listen? No-one. If she does not try to kill, we will let her live.”

Rael studied the man intently for a moment, then nodded curtly, seeming to accept his words as truth.

“Novasio Farlock,” the man said in the Grassland Tongue.

“A good death,” Rael agreed.

As one, the men exploded into motion, lunging forward to meet in a tangle of limbs and power and fire-lit death. Silmaria watched, breathless and anxious. The Haruke slashed with his dagger, the blame gleaming and flashing in the night. Rael weaved away, slipping out of the blade’s reach and then skipping forward to try to bear the smaller man down with his body. But the dusky skinned warrior was no fool and circled, balanced on the balls of his feet. His blade whipped about, cutting and then stabbing. Rael retreated, and the man pressed the advantage, aggressively stabbing with his blade, moving swift and deadly.

A flurry of movements later, Rael caught the man overextending. He looped his arm around the Haruke’s lead arm, gave a twisting jerk, and the dagger fell to the dirt. The Grassman fought back, and the two warriors grappled, struggling one against the other. Rael was larger and more powerful, but the smaller man was experienced enough not to try to match the big Knight with power. Instead, he used his small, nimble size, and his cunning. He twisted around Rael and kept moving, not allowing the bigger man to get a sure grip and apply his full strength. He drove his forehead into Rael’s face, making the Nobleman curse and spit blood.

So it went, for several moments, the Haruke using his speed and his wits to stay a step ahead of Rael. But Rael was patient and tenacious, unrelenting. At last, he managed to get a good hold of the smaller man and drove forward as his leg swept the Haruke’s feet out from under him. Rael drove his weight down into the man, slamming both of them into the ground with the Haruke caught beneath him. The air went out of the Grassman’s lungs in a wheezing rush.

Before the man could suck in a lungful of air and twist free, Rael was on him. He straddled the man and gripped him about the throat with one hand, pinning his head to the dusty ground. Rael’s huge fist came down, driving a thunderous blow into the man’s vulnerable face. And another, and again, dropping his weight and size behind each blow. The Haruke jerked and writhed, trying desperately to escape, but each blow made his struggles weaker, until he went limp, unresisting.

Silmaria swallowed softly, watching as Rael beat the man into the ground. Blood from the Haruke’s shattered nose soaked into the clay, red on red.

At the foot of the rock formation, the Haruke she’d stoned was struggling slowly to his feet, spitting dirt from his mouth and reaching with confused fingers to the wet surging of blood from the rip in his scalp. The Gnari moved quickly and slipped down a short way along a slope in the rockface, grimacing at the graze of the rock along her bare backside, then launched herself from the rocks, arching through the air to land atop the man. She smashed into his back and bore him down to the ground again.

The Haruke cried out in painful surprise, sprawled face down with the Gnari on his back. Before he could even begin any feeble struggles, Silmaria gripped a handful of his hair and smashed his face into the ground. He went quickly limp, senseless.

Rael was standing over the motionless warrior, shaking the ache from his bloodied hand. Silmaria came to him and wound her arms tightly around his.

“The other one? The one who chased you to the rocks?” Rael asked.

“He’s out. Might be dead. I don’t know, I didn’t check. I think he’s just unconscious, though.”

“Good enough,” Rael nodded.

She looked down at the prone man. His swarthy face was battered, his nose broken, and a large cut bled across his brow.

“Is he…?”

“Alive,” Rael grunted. “Though he won’t thank me for it. He’ll be shamed, when he returns to his clan. Might even be exiled.”

Silmaria reached up and wiped the blood from where it dripped from Rael’s split lip. “Why didn’t you just kill him, then?”

“He fought well,” Rael said with a shrug. “His code of honor says to fight well means he should die well. My code of honor says if a man fights well, you don’t kill him if you don’t have to. If I’d had to kill him, I would have. But he’s no threat now. His brothers are dead. By the time he or that other one get their senses back enough to be any kind of threat, we’ll be long gone from here.”

Silmaria nodded, then pressed against him tightly, wrapping her slim arms around Rael’s waist in a desperate hug. Rael put his arms around her, squeezing her tight, letting her feel his tired strength. She soaked in his solidness for a moment, saying a silent praying to whoever was listening, thankful that he was alright.

“We’d better get out of here if we plan on being gone when they wake,” she said at last. Rael nodded, brushing her hair back.

“You did well,” he said.

“I managed,” Silmaria said with a frown. “I ran. You could have been killed, and I wouldn’t have been a damn bit of help.”

Rael gripped her shoulders in his powerful hands, meeting her eyes firmly. “You were unarmed. They had you surrounded, surprised, and naked. And you still took care of two armed warriors. You did the best thing you could have. Getting away from them meant they couldn’t use you as a hostage against me. It was the wise thing to do. We’re both alive, and got out of that unharmed. I count that a win any day. Give yourself credit where it’s deserved, because I do. Understand?”

“Yes, Master,” Silmaria nodded slowly, staring up into his eyes.

“Good girl,” he nodded, and bent to kiss the top of her head. “I’ll get our things packed up and we can get the hell out of here. Throw some clothes on and keep lookout. I’ve had enough surprised for one night.”

***

“Are you sure this is a good idea, Master?”

Rael tossed another log onto the building fire and wiped the dust from his hands. “We still have to be careful, of course. But we’re two days march from where we left the Haruke, and we covered a lot of ground. They have no idea which direction we were going, and besides, they weren’t in much condition to pick another fight any time soon. We need to cook the kills we made today, and we need to keep warm. It’s been getting pretty cold at night lately. It’ll be fine.”

“If you say so, Master,” Silmaria nodded. She continued to skin one of the plump hares she’d taken down earlier that afternoon. “Do you think there are any more of them out here?”

“Not likely,” Rael replied as he retrieved their cooking supplies from one of the packs. “Their little group was sent into The Reach for a specific purpose. The quick and quiet sort.”

“Any guesses on what that would be?”

Rael shrugged his broad shoulders. He took the hare Silmaria hadn’t skinned yet and got started on it while Silmaria began cooking. “It’s pretty hard to say. But the Grassman I left alive… the smart one. He said something… I don’t recall exactly what it was. But it was something about the Grassmen visiting the Flyers.”

“The SkyRacers?” Silmaria asked.

“Right,” Rael confirmed. “It would make sense. There’s not a whole lot in The Reach of interest aside from the SkyRacers. The Human and DemiHuman settlements out here are small and inconsequential. Outside of Ser, there’s no real kingdoms or organized nations.”

“What do you think they would be meeting with the SkyRacers for?” Silmaria asked as she cut up one of the hares to throw into a stew.

Rael looked up into the fire. It was blazing merrily, now, the flames cracking and popping aggressively. A strong, willful fire that cast shades of orange and gold to overlay the reds of clay and rock. The fire reached skyward, stretching toward the legions of resplendent stars with hot fingers.

“I can only speculate. The only thing that makes any sense to me is, they’re looking to the SkyRacers to form an alliance against the Dale.”

Silmaria looked up with a touch of alarm. “They’re trying to get the SkyRacers involved in the war? Would they even do that?”

“No idea,” Rael replied. “The SkyRacers don’t typically get involved with foreign conflicts. But then, I’ve never heard of the Haruke seeking aid from non-Grasslander’s. They’re getting desperate. Or the war is reaching a turning point.”

“And if the SkyRacers allied with the Haruke…”

“It could be bad,” Rael finished for her. “Very bad. The SkyRacer’s don’t have the military numbers that DarkFyre or the Haruke have, but attacking from the sky gives them an advantage the DarkFyre’s military isn’t prepared for. With Haruke on the ground, DarkFyre’s forces would be hit high and low. It could change the tide of the war.”

“And there’s nothing we can do, is there?”

Rael’s silver eyes turned thoughtful. “Whenever we get to a settlement, I’ll try to see if I can get a messenger raven sent to the Dale with a message for Galin. It may not help; I don’t know how much pull the old dog has anymore, and he said the Knights are watching him closely. And hell, all this speculation may be completely wrong. We just don’t know. But that’s the best we can do. They’re certainly not going to listen to me if I come running with a report.”

Silmaria nodded and bit her lip, worried. It was all guesswork and hearsay of course, but she had learned some time ago that Rael had a good sense about these kinds of things, and his logic was sound. She hoped that he was wrong. Maybe the Haruke’s visit to the SkyRacers was about something entirely unrelated to the North.

She didn’t want to think about the very real possibility that, when all this was done, they may not have a home to go back to.

***

The midday sun beat down on the red land of The Reach with ambitiously sedated heat, a false-start of summer days yet to come. Rael and Silmaria emerged from a shallow and jagged edged valley that took the better part of the morning to navigate. Rael had been on guard during the whole march through the valley, his greatsword propped on his shoulder at the ready while he and Silmaria scanned the rocks rising around them. Too many vantage points and hidden crevices rose around and above them on all sides. Too many places bandits or worse could lurk, waiting to ambush the unwary. Rael would have preferred to avoid the valley altogether, but the land spat out dense cliffs and rock formations and miniature mountains in an overbearing rush to stretch before them on their southbound trek like piles of coagulated blood. It was the risky exposure of the valley, or days of extra travel through the treacherously inhospitable rocky terrain.

When they emerged from the valley back onto flat land a clearly defined road took shape, the first real road they’d seen in The Reach thus far. It had the distinct rut of well-worn cart tracks grooving the dusty road. It extended off into the distant southward, gently winding and shimmying across the landscape as it scratched a slender slinky line toward the horizon.

Rael and Silmaria paused in the shade of a tall old tree beside the road, sheltering beneath the gnarled boughs and stubborn foliage defying the dry heat of the land while they drank from their waterskin’s and watched the road spin its way out before them.

Silmaria stowed her waterskin back in her pack and peered out over The Reach. The road extending out before them and there was a range of red mountains in the distance. Around them was the undulating, ever-changing terrain of hills and valleys and twisting clusters of rock. Her sensitive ears twitched, bothered by the dust that frequently swirled through the air on the hot breeze.

“Why do I get the feeling you’re not as pleased to see this road as I am?” she asked, arching a brow at him.

Rael smirked and scratched thoughtfully at the short length of coppery red beard dusting his jaw. “I wouldn’t say I’m displeased. This is a good sign, really. If there’s a road, it has to lead to somewhere. And it seems to get a fair bit of traffic by the look of it. But that means we have to be cautious. There’s less cover from here on, and where there’s a road and travelers, there are bandits looking for easy prey.”

“I feel sorry for whoever decides we’re ‘easy prey’,” Silmaria quipped, leaning into him.

Rael smiled, putting an arm around her and squeezing. “It definitely wouldn’t be the encounter they anticipated. Still, I’d as soon not deal with the hassle.”

“So do we avoid the road, then?” she asked.

Rael thought for a moment. “No,” he decided at last. “By the looks of it the road will get us south and close to the Weeping Lands a lot faster than hiking through the countryside. We take the road. But we stay cautious, and alert. Keep your bow at the ready, and be prepared to make for the high ground at the first sign of trouble.”

“You need to teach me how to fight,” Silmaria asserted as they gathered their things and made their way down the road once more, both of them scanning their surroundings constantly for any sign of life, hostile or otherwise.

“Based on how many men you’ve managed to take down so far, I’d say you know how to fight quite well already,” Rael pointed out.

“That’s not the same,” Silmaria protested. “I managed, in desperation, using surprise. I caught all of those men off guard. It’s not the same as fighting someone directly.”

“Isn’t it?” Rael challenged. “I’ve got news for you, my lovely one. If you think it’s a good plan for you to take on a man head on, blow for blow, then you’re making a big mistake. Don’t get me wrong. You’re a strong woman, and tough and very capable. But you aren’t as strong as a man, especially a trained warrior. Your strength will give before his, every time.”

Silmaria frowned, hurt. “Well, thanks. That gives me a lot of hope.”

“You aren’t listening,” Rael said, gently but firmly. He reached out and gripped her shoulder, bringing her eyes up to stare at him. “You’re not as strong as a man, Sil. The sooner you accept that, the sooner you won’t be crippled by it. What you are is fast, and agile, and cunning. You have a talent for taking people by surprise. You act quickly and decisively, and you have a good sense of when to strike to take advantage of someone’s vulnerabilities. On top of all that, those claws of yours are an inborn weapon that no man is prepared for.

“All of these things can make you deadly, Sil,” he explained. “Strength and power are not the only way to fight. You saw the Haruke we left alive. He was much smaller and weaker than me, but using his skill and cunning and speed, he was able to hold me off better than most men.”

“But he still lost,” Silmaria pointed out stubbornly.

“Not for lack of being a capable and talented fighter, or from being less of a threat for being weaker,” Rael explained. “He lost because I was more experienced than him.”

Silmaria shrugged, feeling petulant even as she tried to get past it. “I understand what you’re saying. I guess.”

“But you still feel like you need to be better prepared for trouble,” Rael offered.

“Yes,” Silmaria nodded.

“Then I guess we’re going to have to start preparing you,” the Nobleman replied.

Silmaria looked up at him, and a wide grin spread across her face. “Really?”

“You’re strong enough and tough enough to handle learning to fight,” Rael replied. “And the better trained you are, the less I’ll have to worry about you.”

“Oh, Master, thank you!” Silmaria laughed and turned to launch himself at him, curling her arms around him and hugging him tightly.

Rael returned her embrace, crushing her up in his strong arms before lowering her to her feet and looking down into her face. “It won’t be easy. It’s going to be miserable pretty often, actually.”

“I know,” Silmaria said soberly. She stared up into her Lord’s face with serious emerald eyes. “But I want to learn. I want to help. I know I’ll never be the warrior you are, but I need to be able to help you and do my part. That shouldn’t stop just because a fight breaks out. I’d be doing a poor job of serving you if I did any less.”

“You know you don’t have to serve me in anything, Sil,” Rael pointed out.

“No. I don’t have to. I choose to,” Silmaria replied. She stood up on her tiptoes, reaching for a kiss. “It’s my way. I want to love you the best way I know how.”

“Who am I to argue with that?” Rael chuckled, and bent to kiss her.

***

The sun dipped to kiss the horizon. The many shades and glossy bursts of crimson lacing through the clouds and smearing across the heavens like so much spilled paint matched the land of The Reach perfectly. Silmaria slowed her pace beside her Lord love and stared hard into the distance.

“There’s a building, Master. There, along the roadside.”

“Is there?” Rael replied, his brows raised curiously. “Can you make out any details?”

“Not much just yet,” Silmaria replied. “It looks like some kind of small compound. There’s more than one building. They’re larger than a hut…tall. That’s all I can tell from this distance.”

Rael rubbed his bearded chin thoughtfully.

“What do you think?” Silmaria asked. “Could it be safe?”

The Knight shrugged. “One way to find out.”

The cluster of buildings were of modest quality but sturdily made. There were three buildings, all of them large and expansive and housing many rooms. Two of the buildings stood side by side settled back away from the road. A courtyard and garden divided the two buildings from the third, larger building which stood alone at the roadside. All three buildings featured roofs shingled from the red clay found all throughout the land. The wooden walls were freshly varnished and clean. Fanciful and intricately worked carvings etched the borders of the buildings by someone with a deft hand for woodcraft and an artistic flare. The west most building in back had a finely made oval stained glass window set to catch the light of the rising sun. A long enclosed corridor joined the two buildings in back, allowing traffic to move in comfort between the buildings even during the region’s short but aggressive rainy season.

The building with the stained glass window and the building close to the road were both two storied, while the eastern building in back was short and wider than the others. A wrought iron gate enclosed all three buildings, with a tall double gate that was thrown wide open. The iron crest hanging over the gate matched the crest carved into the solid oak door set on strong iron hinges at the front of the building closest to the road; a tower with a flame dancing atop the uppermost battlements, with the doors at the foot of the tower open in welcome.

Silmaria stared at the crest, her smooth brow furrowing thoughtfully. “I know that sign.”

“You do,” Rael nodded as they stepped through the iron gates. “It’s the crest of Sren of The Twelve, god of travelers, roads, and the unknown.”

“Sren of The Tower,” Silmaria nodded slowly. “His Sigil means sanctuary and security and succor for travelers and the lost and those away from home.”

“Just so,” Rael nodded. “This is probably a place of worship for Sren.”

Silmaria chewed lightly at her full lower lip. “Do you think they’ll help us?”

“Sren’s biggest precept is aiding weary travelers,” Rael stared at the big building before them. “I think they’d be open to doing what they can, at least. Let’s go see how agreeable they are.”

As it turned out, the Brothers of the Tower were very agreeable. Rael led the way into the building by the roadside and they found themselves in the open space of what was clearly an inn’s common room, complete with a scattering of scar-topped tables and wobbly old chairs, lanterns hanging from the low beams in the ceiling, and a hearth with a small kettle hanging from a hook arm over the flames that bubbled out a richly aromatic scent that set both their bellies to growling. A man stood behind a bar to their left that led back into what could be reasonably assumed to be a kitchen. Beside the bar, nestled into the corner shadows, was a staircase that ascended to the floor above.

The man standing behind the bar top with a shining bald pate and a round face looked for all the world a typical bored innkeep, except he wore the robes of a monk-priest under his flour dusted apron instead of common clothes, and the copper choker clasped around his neck was engraved with Sren’s Sigil.

The Brother-turned-innkeeper spotted them and gave a wane but kindly smile. There were a few other patrons seated around the common room, but it was largely abandoned.

“Be at peace, my young friends. You are welcome here. Please make yourselves at home.” The monk wiped his hands with a cloth that hung from his apron and nodded them to a set of stools set at the bartop. Rael and Silmaria sat, Silmaria glancing about warily as Rael nodded to the Brother behind the bar.

“Good afternoon, Brother…?”

“Ricard,” the brother-named-Ricard supplied, and held out a work-rough hand, which Rael shook firmly. “What brings you two to our fair home?”

“A long road, low supplies, and too long spent between beds and proper baths,” Rael replied, to which Silmaria nodded vigorously.

“Well you two are in luck, then,” Ricard smiled a bit wider. “We of the Brothers of the Tower have all those things to offer in plenty, for as long as you wish to stay.”

“What is this place?” Silmaria asked the man. “It seems strange that Monks would run an inn. Or that an inn would be the chosen place of home and worship for monks. Whichever it is.”

“It is both,” Ricard explained. “We of the Brotherhood are an order devoted to offering shelter and succor to travelers. It is our mission and our sworn duty as followers of Sren, who is the father of all travelers and nomads.

“Our Brotherhood make our homes and worship halls in remote places that see many travelers coming and going. We host inns and lodgings and places of rest with our temples and worship halls, that we may worship our god and contemplate his mysteries, while carrying out his virtues of offering shelter and sanctuary.”

“That’s very kind of you,” Silmaria offered.

“It is our duty, and our privilege” Ricard said.

“Thank you, Brother,” Rael nodded. “How much is it for a night and whatever food is fresh?”

Ricard motioned the question away with one hand. “We do not charge wayfarers for that which we are blessed to provide. Shelter and food are free, the holy gifts of Sren. We do accept donations, however. Whatever you might wish to give. Donations help us purchase supplies to run the inn and our own lodgings, and go toward the eventual building of our Tower.”

“Your tower?” Silmaria asked, arching a brow.

“Indeed,” Ricard’s smile was generous, and the subject was obviously dear to him. “All worship halls of the Brothers of the Tower strive to build a Tower. It is the highest honor a sect of Brother’s can attain, and the truest monument to Sren there is.”

“A noble cause,” Rael nodded. “We do not have much. But I will gladly donate fair compensation for any assistance the Brothers can provide.”

“Wonderful,” Ricard nodded. “What will you be needing from us?”

Brother Ricard brought them two generous bowls of the thick corn chowder hanging over the fire. It had chunks of roast duck, fatty and rich and filling. Rael and Silmaria ate slowly and happily as he and Brother Ricard discussed their needs, including lodging, food, and a good deal of supplies they would need for the road ahead.

Silmaria sipped from a flagon of spiced mead. It was weak, but the flavor was very fine. Then again, after so long drinking nothing but water, Silmaria was sure anything short of fermented goat piss would taste fine.

“I can’t believe in a few short hours, I’m going to be able to sleep in an actual bed. It’s going to be heaven.”

Rael reached up to lightly rub the tip of one of her ears between his thumb and forefinger affectionately. “Traveling can give you a real appreciation for the simple things. The oldest, most worn out straw mattress can feel finer than the finest goose down pillows and beddings when you’ve been sleeping on rocks for the past month.”

“Damn the goose down,” Silmaria smiled at him, her tears twitching not-unpleasantly from his attention. “I’ll give goose down up for life for a bath.”

Rael couldn’t help but chuckle; she as much as he was utterly caked in a thick, clinging layer of red dust, grime, and dirt. Clay was clumped into the creases of her clothes and matted into her fur. It colored the fierce tangle of her curling hair, startling red on black. Her clothes were in desperate need of a more thorough washing than the occasional rare stream could provide. Honestly, Rael doubted their clothes would ever be completely free of the memory of red.

“You’re lucky,” Silmaria said as if reading his thoughts. “You can hardly tell the difference in your hair and your beard. It just makes the red redder.”

“Yes, but it shows up just as well on my clothes as yours,” Rael smirked.

Silmaria waved him off in feigned annoyance. “So you look like you’ve been on the road awhile. You’re a man. You can pull off the weathered, road worn survivalist look. I just look… grungy.”

Rael took her small hand and kissed the back of her red dusted knuckles, his bright eyes staring at her. “You, my little one, could walk straight out of a mud pit and still look ravaging.”

Silmaria broke into a broad, radiant grin. She found herself thankful for the coloring of her pelt, for once, as it quite effectively hid her blush. “You Nobles and your sweet words and silver tongues.”

Rael laughed and leaned in to press his lips to hers in a sweet, soulful kiss. It was unhurried and relaxed and drew her in, pulling the Gnari into the press of his lips that quietly took possession of her.

His tenderness, as much as anything, was her undoing.

When the Knight pulled slowly away, the Gnari girl nearly pitched forward on her stool as her lips instinctively followed.

“Why don’t we get cleaned up and refreshed,” Rael suggested into her ear in that tone of voice, all knowing and coyly devious. “And I’ll show you the meaning of sweet words, and the true nature of a silver tongue.”

A thrill ran rampant through Silmaria’s being, trembling its way like quicksilver in her veins, pumping from her racing heart and settling like a heavy, sensuous weight in that special place in her belly. She licked her pouty lips and nodded, vigorously, while regarding Rael with great big cat-eyes full of want.

“Yes, please.”

Rael gave her a lazy, casual smile filled with the sort of patience that made her frantically impatient. “Go on upstairs, my love. I’ll tend to a few more bits of business, and be right behind you.”

“Yes Sir,” she agreed readily. She leaned in to kiss him, unable to hide the depth of her hunger when she tasted his lips. His mouth tasted of summer in the Dale, clear bright days with sunlight glinting off the ice capped mountains ringing their homeland. He tasted of kindness and crushing strength, fresh, cold springs and mountain pines. He smelled of oiled leather and gleaming metal, armor and swords and war and blotted ink staining his warrior’s hands. He smelled of old vellum and fresh parchment and delicately rolled scrolls.

He smelled of knowledge, and action.

He smelled of his father. Maybe that should have been troubling, but in truth, it was comforting.

Silmaria’s slender fingers were wound in the copper of his hair before she realized it. Rael kissed her back firmly, and then gently, purposefully disentangled himself from her. He chuckled softly, smiling down at her, and there was love, and amused affection, and the burnished darkness of lust in his gaze.

“Go,” he told her gently, “Or we’ll skip the baths entirely, and we’re both sorely in need of one.”

Silmaria nodded, grinning happily. “Yes, Master.”

Clearing her throat, Silmaria looked up at the inn keep as he returned from the kitchen. “Excuse me, Brother Ricard. I think I would very much like a bath now, if it’s not too much trouble.”

“No trouble at all,” Ricard smiled, wiping his hands on the cloth hanging from the front of his apron. “I’ll have the tub brought to your room and hot water drawn for you right away.”

“Thank you, Brother,” Silmaria smiled at the man, and with one last peck on her Master’s cheek, she slipped up the stairs.

Rael’s eyes followed his love’s steps, and he was quite certain the rolling, swaying sashay of her hips that set her firm, juicy ass to bouncing was no accident at all.

The Nobleman turned his attention back to Brother Ricard and nodded to the man. “If you wouldn’t mind, before you draw the bath, do you have any messenger ravens here?”

“We do,” Ricard replied. “Brother Victus maintains a roost of messenger ravens behind the Brother’s dormitories.”

“Can any of them make the flight over the Teeth?”

Ricard looked thoughtful for a moment. “To DarkFyre Dale? I believe so, yes.”

Rael nodded. “If you have pen and parchment to spare, I’d like to write a missive to a cousin in Trelling’s Rest.

“Certainly,” Brother Ricard nodded. “Give me a moment and I’ll retrieve them.”

Shortly, Ricard returned with the writing tools Rael requested. The Nobleman penned out a short letter in his tight, cramped hand. As he wrote he said, casually, “Tell me, Brother. Any news in The Reach these days?”

The look Brother Ricard gave Rael was touched with befuddlement. “The Reach? I’m afraid there’s not much in The Reach to make news of. Red rocks and red dirt and dry days and tired travelers passing between towns that realized too late that The Reach isn’t a good place to live out your days.”

“And what of the Airborne?” Rael asked as his pen scrawled across the sheet.

“The SkyRacers?” Ricard asked, then shrugged and scratched at his nose. “They’re as they ever are, I suppose. Isolated. Alone. Quiet, and scornful, just the way they like it.”

“Pity,” Rael mused. “I’d thought of going to Ser. I’ve heard it is a place of wonder. But I guess they’re no more welcoming to outsiders than the stories claim, then?”

“Probably less,” Ricard grunted. “The SkyRacers keep their own council, and don’t suffer visitors lightly. It is a shame, though, as you said. I’ve heard the tales myself. The city is said to be unlike any other.”

Rael nodded and fell silent, satisfied that he would get no answers about the SkyRacer’s from the monk. He sprinkled the pinch of sand that Ricard provided onto the ink to dry it, shook the excess off, and read quickly over his missive.

Galin,



Greetings, Cousin.



The road finds the kitten and I well and in warmer climes. We rest our weary soles for a spell before resuming our march on the long road.



I heard the most interesting news. The unending tide from the Grass Sea we both sailed on is on the move. It went east to the great hermit birds in the Red Nest.



I don’t know what became of that visit, but I find it passing strange.



Isn’t that interesting, Cousin? I’m sure you and I are not the only ones who would find it so. There must be others who watch the patterns of the Grass Sea’s tide, and would find this a most unusual development.



The road goes on. Our rest will be brief, but a swift reply might reach me before I gather my cat and move on.



I would be very interested to know your thoughts on this matter.



Your wandering Cousin,



Ed.



Rael grunted. It was vague and intangible, but that was as specific as he dared be. Any number of spies could put eyes to the message before it was in Galin’s hands. He had to trust that the old Knight would be able to take some meaning from his words.

“Here we are,” Rael nodded. He folded the parchment and handed it to Brother Ricard, who took it with a gentle smile.

“I’ll see it to Brother Victus. The raven will be gone at first light.”

“Thank you, Brother,” Rael smiled. He fished a silver from his coin purse and slid it across the bar top. “I do believe that bath sounds mighty fine right now.”

“Very good, sir,” Brother Ricard smiled, pocketing the silver. “Very good, indeed.”

***

The moon hung heavy that night, low and full of portent. The great old face in the sky was swollen, and there were flecks of blood about its pock marked face.

Brother Ricard sat in the modest den in the dormitories of The Brotherhood of The Tower.

His eyes, an overpoweringly ordinary sort of brown in the daylight, shone burgundy in the soft fire of the small, simple hearth.

The burgundy eyes scanned the tight, cramped hand writ out over the short letter one more time.

The Brother wordlessly flicked the letter into the fire.

“You are sure it is him?” the man in the shadows of the den asked. His voice held the cracking whisper of breaking glass.

“I’m sure,” Ricard nodded.

“It will take a few days for The Empty to gather,” the glass-voice said, fracturing, screeching, shards rubbing together and grinding their edges in a dark throat.

“I can stall them,” Ricard assured his visitor. “They will stay. All will be in order.”

“Do not fail us,” the voice popped like the splintering of the stained glass of the temple outside.

“Never.”

The voice was gone.

Ricard began to shake. Failure would be death, and so much worse.

He raised his left hand and his sleeve fell away, leaving him staring at the intricate, long-forgotten runes burned into his skin.

***

…Yeah, then that had to happen.

Please keep up the comments and critiques and love and criticism, everyone. It is, as always, the driving force behind these writings.

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