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Part 2

See Prologue for disclaimers.

Alean moved quietly to the top of the rise and looked carefully over the landscape stretched out below her. From her place of concealment behind some rocks and bushes, she could see for miles in every direction. This was a perfect place to observe her surroundings. It was also a likely choice for any others wishing to scout the area. She had already decided that she would only stay here for a few minutes to look around and then return to the small hidden camp she had set up earlier.

For the last two years, Alean had spent most of her time in this desert. From the base camp hidden in the forest just inside their border, she had ventured into the harsh desert which cut through the center of Tharin. Under the guidance of Lesas and the other scouts, she had learned how to survive in this unforgiving place. Now, she would stay out for weeks at a time, tracking the movements of Tharin troops and guiding the occasional trader who wished to travel to Calanis with goods to sell and news of other lands which lay across the empty waste.

She could easily see the column of men coming from the north. While the surrounding plain provided enough places for one person to hide, there was no way to conceal the large mass of men approaching. The short clumps of grass and stunted trees in this part of the desert saw to that. Even at this distance she could tell that these were the same soldiers that had passed this way a few days before. They were not Tharins. The fact that the entire company was mounted was proof of that. Yet, they had gone towards the place Alean knew a large Tharin encampment was located only two days away. Now, they were returning along the same route they had taken.

Alean's brows furrowed as she considered the possibilities. 'It'll take a week to go back and report. Two weeks to get there and back here again. I'll never catch up with them if I did that. I could follow them now, but then no one will know where I am or what's going on.' She reached up to adjust the head covering that she wore and continued the silent debate she was having with herself. This was just too odd to ignore. The Tharins allowed no one to cross their borders unopposed. Yet these strangers were not only here, they had obviously been in contact with the Tharins who were too close by to not know of their presence. This was not a good sign.

She would have to wait for them to pass the high point she now occupied before she could leave the area undetected. She would use the time to decide whether the best course was to report to Reese or to follow them immediately. Looking carefully towards the spot she had chosen for a camp, she was pleased to note that it was invisible from this vantage point. Another look towards the moving column of soldiers told her it was time to go. As she backed away from the top of the cliff an odd rumble was her only warning that nature was about to decide for her.

One moment she was standing on the top of a seemingly solid cliff, the next she was tumbling down the crumbling wall of stone. The sudden landslide took Alean completely by surprise. As the rock face fell away, she barely had time to tuck herself into a tight ball as she tumbled towards the ground below. This protective position lasted for only a moment as a large stone hit her a solid blow on the back of her head, while at the same time another slammed solidly into her side. The rest of her descent was a graceless sprawl of flailing limbs as she landed on the ground in an unconscious heap.

Raneck moved his horse to the head of the column. "General, do you want some lookouts sent to that hill up ahead?" He enquired as he reached Kaia.

Kaia thought for a moment before replying. "Yes, I'll be going too. I want you to keep the men moving until they reach that gully we spotted last time we came through here. We'll stay there for the night. I'll be back at nightfall. If you have any problems send a runner to me at the lookout."

"General you don't need to waste your time with that." Said Darash as he rode beside the General "There's nothing to see. Just more sand and rock"

"And that's all I'd better see," Kaia sneered, "If your friend Malek is trailing me I'm going to have to teach him some manners."

"He wouldn't," Darash assured hastily, "He needs our help and he knows it. Besides in all the times I've met with him he's always been nothing but cordial."

Kaia directed a hard stare at the wizard before remarking, "Then there's no reason to worry about what we may see behind us, is there?" She turned the black stallion and rode away without waiting for a reply.

The tall woman slowed her horse to a walk when she noticed that the formation she was approaching had changed in the few days since her last visit. She circled slowly around the area where the rocks had recently fallen. As she rounded a small pile of stone and sand, she was startled to notice a body sprawled atop the debris with one leg trapped under a small boulder. Quickly motioning to Raneck and his men, she pointed out the body and waved them off to check for the possibility of more company. Once they had moved off, she dismounted and began to examine the area. Almost at her feet she found a wooden object a little more than three feet in length. Light carvings along its length gave it the appearance of a walking stick. Holding this item, which obviously belonged to whoever was lying ahead, she cautiously approached. As she worked her way towards the body she became aware of two things. This person was still alive and was definitely female.

Kaia reached the small body and crouched to examine her more closely. 'She's small, maybe not even full grown yet.' The bruising along her jaw and the dried blood caked in the girls hair and the rock her head rested on made it obvious that she had been laying in this spot for a while. 'Not too long though. Maybe since this morning or last night. The heat would have killed her by now if it had been any longer. She's lucky, if that cliff had been any higher she'd be dead.' Gingerly turning her head to the side Kaia could see a large knot and a small deep cut at the base of the girls skull. She noted that, aside from a lot of bruising, the only injury seemed to be the bump on her head. Any possible damage to the girls left leg would be revealed once the stone pinning it was removed. Unable to free her trapped leg without help, Kaia spent the time waiting for the return of her scouts by examining the girl and the pack she had found still strapped to her back. The pack revealed nothing of interest. Some clothes and several wrapped bundles of dried fruits and herbs were all that Kaia found.

She next turned her examination to the girl herself. The one visible foot was encased in a soft leather boot. She was dressed in a tan tunic and pants. A slightly darker rectangle of cloth draped across the girls head and down to her shoulders in the back was still being held more or less in place by a black cord around the girls forehead. On a wide belt circling the slim waist a sheathed dagger. Leaning closer to remove the dagger, Kaia remembered the description she had been given of the Calani. Though young, the girl fit the description she had been given perfectly. She sat down beside the girl, unable to do more that simply stare at the possible opportunity now presented to her. 'I wanted a Calani, now I've got one. If she lives.'

She was still sitting beside the girl, watching her when Raneck rode up with the other soldiers. "She's the only one here." He reported. "There's no signs of any others. I think she was out here alone."

"Good. Now come here and help me lift this," Kaia said, indicating the boulder which still held the girls leg. She then pointed to one of the scouts, "You, get a litter. Bring it and the healer back with you. Now go."

"Yes General," the man replied and left.

Kaia and Raneck both moved to the boulder. They moved to stand side by side and, once in position, they quickly rolled it away from the girls leg. Once her leg was free Kaia quickly examined her. While there was one deep gash and several smaller cuts on her calf, the leg was not broken.

The examination of her leg caused Alean to moan as the movement caused pain to jolt through her body. More movement as she was lifted and carried....somewhere.....brought more pain and more moaning. She woke briefly as her wounds were tended. Not aware enough to understand what was happening, she tried to feebly move away from whatever was causing her to hurt so much, only to find that she didn't have the strength to do so. Then, something was pressed to her mouth and she felt cool water passing her lips. She drank a few swallows, then fell into the darkness once again.

Kaia watched as the girl woke briefly during her treatment by Taloc, the healer. The pain and confusion in the green eyes was clear. He had cleaned the numerous cuts as well as sewn up the gash in the girls leg and the one on her scalp. He noted that she had a concussion and that she had no broken bones. Her ribs and left leg were deeply bruised and would take longer to heal than the surface bruising that covered the rest of her body. Further examination revealed that there were no internal injuries and Taloc declared that with proper care for her head wound she would recover fully. Alean was then lifted onto the litter and, with one man each holding a corner, they started towards the tents that had been set up in the distance.

As they entered the camp many men stopped what they were doing to stare at the sight of a strange woman being carried into their midst. Darash noticed the commotion and stepped from his tent just as the odd procession passed him. Recognizing the wounded girl as Calani he frowned deeply and hurried to catch up.

Taloc was about to direct the soldiers to take the girl to the tent that served as an infirmary when Kaia spoke. "Take her to my tent."

"You can't do that!" Darash practically shouted as he finally pushed his way to the front of the gathering crowd.

"I can and I just did," She answered, with a glare at Taloc who now hurried to comply with the General's wishes. As Taloc took his patient into her tent, Kaia took the time to order her men back to their duties before she turned her attention to Darash. "You were saying?" she asked icily once they were alone.

"She's Calani, they can't be trusted. You heard what Malek said. She'll kill you in your sleep the first chance she gets if you keep her in your tent. You should have killed her," Darash responded angrily.

"In case you hadn't noticed, she's unconscious. Right now she can't even hurt a fly," Kaia snorted, "I think I'll be safe enough. Besides we need information, so unless you can find me some other source she's it."

"Information? Do you seriously believe she'll tell you anything? I doubt she even knows anything worthwhile. Let me just have her killed now I'll....."

Darash stopped when he suddenly felt the tip of Kaia's sword against the flabby skin of his neck. "I really don't like you challenging my decisions," Kaia began conversationally as she pressed into the mans neck just enough to draw a trickle of blood, "Let me make things a little more clear for you. One. She stays with me. I don't trust the men to leave her alone if I put her anywhere else. Two. It's going to be a while before she'll be in any shape to cause trouble and I really don't think some half grown girl can do anything that I can't stop. Three. I need information. We don't know anything about them. Hell, until today I've never even seen one. Trust me, anything we can learn from her will be useful. Four. I don't kill women and children. However, I do kill anyone foolish enough to question my orders. Is that clear?"

Darash felt the blood running down his neck and saw the look in Kaia's eyes. He knew better than to argue further. "Yes, General," he said weakly.

Kaia re-sheathed her sword, turned, and started walking. Once she reached her tent she went inside to see that the still sleeping girl was now resting on a cot directly across the tent from her own bed. From the time that she had been discovered she had woken briefly several times. Each movement as she was moved had caused green eyes to open, glazed in pain and uncomprehending. Each moment of awareness was accompanied by moans and small whimpers as the girl gave voice to her pain. Taloc had finished cleaning the girls wounds and had already left the tent. The girl seemed to be resting comfortably, now that her battered body was no longer being moved.

With the blood and dirt removed Kaia could see that the girl's face had, luckily, only received a single bruise along the left side near the jaw. Moving closer Kaia was surprised to note that, if anything, she seemed even younger than when she was first found. 'She's just a kid! What is a child doing out here alone?' The questions raised by the apparent youth of her "guest" only served to heighten Kaia's curiosity. She was determined, that as soon as the girl was well enough, she would learn everything she could about her.

Setting aside her questions, for now, Kaia turned her attention to the girls belongings which were now sitting on her desk. Having already found nothing of importance in the pack the girl had worn she turned her attention to the belt the girl had been wearing and the odd walking stick which she had found near the girl. Lifting it, she was a little surprised to note that it was a little heavier that it's length indicated it should be. It was wrapped with rawhide in alternate six inch sections for its entire length and carvings ran along its exposed surface. There were spirals and other shapes as well as animals carved into the wood though none were engrave too deeply. Concluding that the decidedly fancy walking stick served no real purpose Kaia set it aside. Next she reached for the belt containing the sheathed dagger she had noticed earlier.

Though the walking stick had stuck Kaia as odd, what she found next totally stunned her. There, protruding from the back side of the wide belt, were the handles of twelve small daggers. Each small knife was only three inches in length with the handles being one inch of that length. The two inch blades were double edged and razor sharp. It was obvious that these weapons were meant to be thrown. Taking one of the small heavy knives Kaia threw it at the center post of the tent where it struck with a solid "thunk". A slow feral smile crossed her face as she contemplated the implications of a seeming child being in possession of such a deadly weapon. 'I think I'm going to be learning a lot from this one,' she though as she went to retrieve the blade. Returning to her seat, she quickly dismissed the sheathed dagger still attached to the belt. It was a simple affair much like any traveler would wear.

After removing the spare clothing from the pack Kaia quickly locked everything, except the walking stick, in a large chest at the foot of her bed. Then she went in search of Darash. It was time for her magic practice. Her curiosity about the girl would have to wait until she was awake to give answers.

Darash was ready for Kaia's arrival. He had already placed the amulets they would be working with on a small table to the side of the space he had cleared for today's session. Hearing Kaia approach he quickly schooled his features into an impassive mask. When she entered, the sneer that he had worn up to this point was carefully concealed behind a stoic mask.

"Good afternoon General. Are you ready to begin?" He asked as he bowed deeply before her.

"What do you think? I'm certainly not here for a social call." Kaia drawled.

"As you wish." Darash replied.

He motioned to the space he had cleared. As Kaia seated herself on the carpets he picked up the first amulet and the lesson began.

© sparx

Part 3