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Circle of Stone


The Story

Yvonne - 3/3/99

Hiring Hall:

For hire - two highly skilled Llowra bodyguards. Both are extremely competant in their sword work, and are unmatchable at hunting and tracking. A brother and sister team, they are well matched visually and will complement both a Lady's Train and a Lord's Guard equally well. Will double as scouts.

Danae - 3/3/99

To Hiring Hall:

Regarding the brother/sister team of Llowra guards for hire - I would be interested in hiring these guards for a fee of 50 eagles as protection in the caravan of my younger sister, the Lady Adriana Kaladaire of the House Talenis, who will be traveling to Torrigan on an extended visit.

Lord Lucian of House Talenis

Yvonne - 3/4/99

To the Lord Lucian of House Talenis;

I am deeply honored that a personage such as yourself would consider hiring from my humble Hall. I have spoken to the Llowra pair personally and they are willing to escort your sister into Torrigan for the mentioned fee, although they request the addition of a pair of calm, sturdy mounts and reimbursement for any outstanding fees that they may be required to spend on assignment.

By my hand,
Renwer Davifs, Owner of the Hiring Hall

Danae - 3/4/99

To Renwer Davifs, Owner of Hiring Hall;

I am sincerely pleased that I will be able to provide my sister with the very best protection that I am confident your pair will provide. As the two must know, House Talenis has long been known for its breeding of horses and I shall be happy to supply them with the proper mounts. I do request however that they spend a least a day before their departure with the horses and their trainer learning how to handle them properly in the manner they have been trained in. My sister will carry not only the purse of expenditure money but also the the strings to that purse. She will reimburse the pair as needed for their services along the way. I assure you that my sister in extremely level-headed and will not hesitate to pay where appropriate. If these terms are acceptable to your pair, I should like to have them arrive at my estate two fortnights from tomorrow.

Kindest regards,
Lord Lucian of House Talenis

Yvonne - 3/4/99

To the Lord Lucian of House Talenis;

My Llowra pair are on the road and will be arriving at your estate in approximatly nineteen days, depending on weather and other variables. They will be arriving on foot. I have supplied them with identification papers, but, like most non-humans, I doubt that they will realise that the paper is as significant as I have tried to explain, and so they may not be carrying them upon arrival. To prevent and confusion, I am entrusting you with their names. They are Diana and Deran R'Rasni, and are both recognisable by their yellow eyes, sharp teeth, and Llowran leather wear. The male is tall and dark, while the female is shorter and has a reddish cast to her hair. Again, I thank you for your desicion to hire through us, and a discount will be offered if you choose to do so again. Your business is much appreciated.

By my hand,
Renwer Davifs

Abby - 3/18/99

          Keleos woke to the scents of new earth and ozone.
          She lay facedown in freshly churned-up dirt, the faint tang of blood in her mouth. There was a sick, painful feeling in the back of her head, and the skin of her hands and forearms felt raw and scorched. A subtle stiffness in her back and shoulders told her she'd been that way for several hours, perhaps longer. Long enough, certainly, for the cool earth and cooler air to leech the warmth from her body.
          On the whole, Keleos could think of worse ways to wake up. She'd experienced a good many of them.
          Slowly, grimacing as stiff joints complained, she levered herself up onto her hands and knees, the motion making her head swim. Biting her tongue and vowing stubbornly not to be sick, she dragged herself fully erect and blinked her eyes clear of loose dirt.
          A vagrant breeze flowed across the landscape, and Keleos stood still, letting the cool, slightly damp air soothe and refresh her. It was a long moment before she again opened her dark blue-purple eyes and surveyed the scene before her.
          She stood at the outer edge of a small crater dug into the crest of an equally small hill. All around, stretching off as far as the eye could see, were the gently rolling hills and scattered trees and brush of the Melanan countryside. The sky was a ceiling of uniformly grey clouds, diffusing the sun's radiance into a cool grey light.
          At the bottom of the crater, the sandy earth was fused into crude glass, cracked, rippled, and bubbled, as though by some great force. Keleos lifted her hands, looking at them thoughtfully. The skin was mottled red with light burns, the palms blistered and raw, but each finger moved with no more pain than was to be expected. The sleeves of her white linen shirt, fluttering in charred ribbons around her elbows, had not fared so well.
          "Not bad," she murmured, voice sounding unusually loud in the stillness. "Not bad at all."
          She half-turned and, with slow, measured steps, made her way down into the crater. From a closer viewpoint she could make out the vague, misshapen figure of a man, thinly crusted with fused earth. Poking that crust with a booted toe split it, and the wind caught the ash that lay underneath and swept it gently away. A few shreds of charred silk and scorched, crumbling bone skittered briefly across the crater's floor, and on what had once been a hand and wrist, twisted knots of gold that had been jewelry were uncovered.
          "Looks like I won that one, Sevarius," Keleos remarked absently.
          She remained a moment longer, watching the wind scatter the remains of the black healer and occasionally prodding the lumps of ash and crude glass to help the process, before turning and walking away.

          She headed east, towards the coast, giving herself time to plot her next move and her next destination. Keep Moray, the nearest settlement, was--or rather, had been--Sevarius's hold. Keleos had complete faith that, when the Conclave of Magi looked into the matter of Sevarius's death, a number of interesting bits of information about the man would come to light. Melanos's Conclave was inclined to forgive a great deal, but they didn't look too kindly on mages who killed their own apprentices for powerful spells. Keleos had spent the better part of a fortnight undermining the considerable effort to which Sevarius had gone to conceal his actions; when the Conclave did investigate, she was confident that none of its members would blame her for disposing of him. But, in the meantime, Sevarius had some very loyal and none-too-ethical supporters who weren't going to be pleased with her. Keleos deemed it best to avoid Keep Moray and the local mages entirely, and leave Melanos as soon as possible.
          Over her years of traveling, Keleos had gained an acute appreciation for the fine line between honor and expedience.
          So, west--the direction of Keep Moray--was out. South would take her into the heart of Melanos, which wouldn't help her situation; besides, the nearest settlement to the south was a good thirty miles away. Too far to walk, in her current condition. East was the Sea of Hope, and the odds of finding a handy ship to sail away on were slim to none.
          That left north.
          To the north, a little less than ten miles away, was the small town of Ansleigh; farmers and local craftsmen mostly, and no mage-lord, which suited Keleos just fine. Better yet, Ansleigh was only a long day's ride from the border that Melanos shared with Torrigan. Keleos was rather fond of Torrigan and its governing Knighthood, which followed a code of honor similar to Keleos's own. She could spend time comfortably in Torrigan and the area around it until the confusion of Sevarius's death had been dealt with and forgotten.
          Keleos turned northwards, taking up a steady pace that would get her to Ansleigh an hour or two after sunset, if she was guessing the time correctly. She had enough money with her to pay for a night's lodging, a horse, and supplies to get her to Torrigan. Once there, she'd find herself a temporary residence and send for some of her belongings. What she'd left at Keep Moray, clothing and some other minor items, could be replaced.
          She brushed a lock of silken black hair away from her face, wishing that she'd arranged to confront Sevarius somewhere closer to where she wanted to go. It was a long walk to Ansleigh.
          Oh, well. Torrigan and the north.

Obsidian - 3/18/99

          Urging her horse, Toll, forward, Mia started up the road after readjusting her belongings for the thirtieth time. A light breeze filtered through her fiery red hair as Toll snorted obediently. Well, at least she could count on the horse, if not her dumb brothers.
          But then, they were long gone years ago when she said goodbye to her family for what seemed like a ten years ago to become a herbalist.
          Mia smiled somewhat proudly. It wasn't long before people realized her talent in herbs and medicine and allowed her to go off in search of her own work. That was the time when Mia packed up her belongings and money and set out in search to broaden her knowledge on medicines. But that was then.
          Nonchalantly, she fingered her large pouch she tied to her belt. It was true. She needed more money. She wasn't going to survive on fifty silver coins; it was going to run out sooner or later. It was time to use the knowledge that she was storing up.
          The best place at this point would probably be Torrigan. Right now there wasn't much of a choice; she was closest to it.
          She set Toll at a slow canter on the road to Torrigan where she hoped her lifelong dreams about being a professional herbalist were about to come true. Or so she hoped.......

Yvonne - 3/18/99

          Diana sighed and cast one last longing look down the road before trudging after her brother, her head down and reddish hair shrouding her face. Nothing would be better than undergoing vishava right now, to feel the earth under her paws, to feel the cool wind run it's fingers through her fur ... but no. Some rich wruria or another needed led into Torrigan, and therefore she was obliged to be on her best behavior. Most humans didn't like their guards showing up as ... not human. Foolish. I am the same no matter what form I wear.
          "Fifty eagles ..." Deran sighed, his yellow eyes lost in thought. "Just think what we coul--urg!"
          "Shut up." Diana said sharply, withdrawing her elbow from his midsection. "We've gone over this already. Yes, it will supply our Wreshalal for months. Yes, the Daminei will fawn over you. Yes, you'll have the pick of the dami. Yes, you'll be sung of by the Gherui for the next hundred years, you incompetant oaf. How close are we?"
          "Not telling." Deran glowered at her from under dark brows, his shoulders hunched warningly under his pack.
          Diana rolled her eyes and muttered something derogatory about too many nights with paid wruria that was too faint for Deran to hear, and therefore not worth a challenge. They plodded along the road for a while in silence, Diana watching the trees go by avidly and Deran lost in thoughts, a small half-smile flitting around the corners of his mouth.
          "Do you think that they'll be as bad as the last job?" Diana asked suddenly.
          "No. Why?"
          "Fifty eagles is a lot of money to give to Llowra. Usually we're cheated."
          Deran snorted. "Maybe they're scared of us. That toadish hiring hall man was."
          "That was because you kept stalking him." Diana sniggered. "Didn't you have enough money left over to hire someone better looking?" Her jest earned her a sharp cuff across the head that sent her staggering half ways across the road, still laughing.
          "Shut up, idiot." Diana's twin said threateningly.
          Diana managed to stop most of her laughter, but the occasional chuckle still crept up her throat and escaped into the open air.
          "No. They won't be as bad. I've heard some good things about this House when I was drinking."
          "That's a first. Hearing something useful while drunk. Did you also see little pink rabbits?"
          "Do you want to hear or no?"
          "Then shut up. Apparently the brother is very protective of his little sister, who may not be his sister at all." Deran said smugly. It wasn't often that he got to give his sister information.
          "Why isn't she?"
          "Different parentage. Wruria are funny about who their ancestors were."
          "Mmm." They walked in silence for a while, each enjoying the open air and birdsong and smell of the forest. Soon a small road appeared to their left, leading off into the trees. It was well rutted with wagon wheels and smelled strongly of horses and many people. There was also a very faint, musky scent that tickled at Diana's memory, but she couldn't figure out what sort of beast it came from, no matter how hard she tried. Eventually she gave up, instead following Deran's broad back as he strode off down the road, humming one of the hunting songs of her people. It seemed oddly appropriate for some reason. Faintly the breezes carried the smell of men and iron, and wine. She registered it and discarded it, deciding instead to trust her brother and let herself drift into a half-asleep sort of dream.
          "Hold! State your name and purpose."
          Diana jolted awake and peered around Deran, coming face to face with a swarthy man in dark clothing banded with white and silver standing before a small guard house. His companions were lounging in the shade nearby, ready should there be trouble. She licked her lips and smiled in a blatantly sensual way, making him shift uneasily and adjust his grip on his sword. "We're expected." she said, somehow managing to convey promise into two bland little words.
          Deran looked annoyed. "We've been hired by the R'Talenis House." he stepped towards the guard, effectivly blocking Diana's view and forcing her to move more around him to see the other men.
          "House Talenis hasn't hired anyone recently," the guard said tightly. "You'll have to leave unless you have papers proving your authenticity."
          "We're early."
          "Here. It's all there," Diana had dug out the papers that the man from the hiring hall had given them and handed them to the guard under Deran's disaproving stare.
          I wanted to play.
          Too bad. Diana signaled back, highly amused that the wruria guards were too dense to pick up on the fact that they were communicating and that they couldn't read the complex body language of the Llowra even if they had known. It had been confusing the first few months away from their wreshalal as the humans sent crude signals and yet were completely unable to read the Llowra's replies.
          The guard had taken the papers and was reading through them slowly and carefully, every so often grunting or nodding. "Hurry up. I'm hungry." she told him.
          "You're the guards that Lord Lucian hired, eh? Two days early. Huh," he shook his head wonderingly and handed the papers back to Deran, who handed them back to Diana. She stuffed them into her pack. "You'll have to wait here while I notify the Household."
          "But I'm hungry." Diana said plaintively.
          "You're just going to have to wait." The guard made a (very) shallow bow before striding down off the road, leaving Diana and Deran with nothing better to do than take off their packs and lounge in the shade on the opposite side of the road from the rest of the guards. Deran stared them down. Diana went looking for fieldmice.

Sorana - 3/18/99

          Amber hummed cheerfully to herself as she gathered up her jewelry cases and the pouch containing her annual Guild dues. Threading her way through the piles of boxes containing beads, jewels, wires, and various other items integral to her business, she pushed open her door and stepped out into the street.
          The section of town that Amber lived in was relatively quiet at this hour of the morning. A few early rising women were hanging out wet laundry to dry, and merchants were heading down to the market to set up their stalls. Amber would be joining the other merchants soon, but first she had to drop her dues off at the Guild Hall.
          As she hurried through the rapidly lightening streets, she called out cheerful greetings to the people she passed. Amber reached the Hall exactly ten minutes after it opened, just like she did every Due Day.
          "Good morning Rassin! Isn't it a wonderful day?" she asked the clerk cheerfully.
          "Morning Amber! On time as usual I see. A wonderful day? Only while you're around lass. When you leave, the sun darkens out of mourning."
          "You flatter me Rassin. I'm sure it does no such thing!"
          "Ah, but it does, lass, it does. Now, I assume you've come to drop off your dues?"
          "Well, it is Due Day after all." Amber put two of her cases on the floor and pulled the money pouch out of its hiding place in her wide belt. Handing it to the clerk she said, "Here it is. You can count it if you like."
          "Now why would I need to do that? I'm sure you've got got every last penny in there."
          "I'll see you next Due Day then. Have a lovely day, Rassin!"
          Amber picked up her cases, left the room, and ran smack into someone while turning a corner.
          "Oof," the smackee grunted.
          "Oh dear. I'm terribly sorry. Are you all right?" Amber asked worriedly.
          "I'm fine. No harm done here. Amber." The smackee smiled cheerfully, his blue eyes twinkling.
          "Got it in one! How've you been? I haven't seen you in ages!"
          "Tarlin!" Amber rushed forward to hug him, cases and all. "It's so good to see you again! I've been just great! My business is going great too! Everything is just wonderful! How have you been?"
          "Is anything ever less than wonderful with you? No, don't answer that. The answer might scare me. I have been off selling my wares in Melanos for the past several months."
          "Really? How did you do?"
          "Quite well actually. Not as good as you would if you ever decided to join one of our caravans, but quite well. I'm going to be heading out with another one soon. We'll be going to Torrigan. Do you want to come?"
          "You know I prefer to stay home, Tarlin. I'm quite happy here."
          "You've spent enough time at home. You should see at least some of the world before you die. If you join the caravan to Torrigan you could see the famous Circle of Stone. I know you've always wanted to go there."
          "Well.....I'll think about it."
          "That's the best I'm going to get out of you, isn't it?"
          "Well then, if you decide to come we'll be leaving in a sevenday. You'll have to show up just before dawn and bring your own equipment. That includes pack animals, wagons, horses... well, you get the idea."
          "I do. I'm really sorry, but I have to run. The market will have opened by now and I don't have my stall up. It was really nice to see you again and I'll think about the caravan. Goodbye!" Amber dashed off to the market before Tarlin could reply.

Abby - 3/19/99

          Keleos walked into Ansleigh three hours after sunset. Given the hour, it was no surprise that the streets were next thing to deserted, but she knew that business in the local inn would be at its peak. So now all she had to do was find that worthy establishment.
          She was somewhat the worse for wear. Road dust dried her mouth and clogged her throat; her eyes felt gritty. The soles of her feet had a dull, warm ache, her lower back was beginning to develop another, and her hands--well, she wouldn't think about her hands. All in all, Keleos felt--
          Like I spent the morning juggling lightning bolts, the afternoon unconscious, and the evening walking ten miles, she thought with a bit of scorn, turning down one of the wide streets. I didn't know I was turning into such a whiner. Well, it's no more than I deserve for ducking and running. And I hope that the next time something like this comes into my head the Powers That Be will drop a flaming boulder on me or something.
          Around the time Keleos ended her mental lecture, she found the local inn--as she had expected, lights were burning inside and out, and she could hear the rough, faintly discordant murmur of a dozen or so private conversations.
          The Bottomless Barrel. Joy and rapture. Well, so long as the food is edible and there's a decently clean room for me, I'll live. With a rueful wish for someplace like the Stone's Throw in Gateway or Ardath's Silver Chalice, she pushed her way into the common room.

          Nobody paid Keleos much attention as she wove through the crowd towards the bar, for which she was grateful. "Your pardon..." she said to the sturdy brown woman across the scarred, age-darkened wood, voice pitched just loud enough to be heard.
          "Just a moment," was the reply. Keleos waited patiently while the bar-mistress distributed mugs of beer to the assortment of people--mostly men, probably mostly farmers--seated at the bar. Eventually, the other woman turned to her. "What'll y'have?"
          "How much would it be for dinner and a room for the night?" Keleos queried. "And what would the meal be?"
          "'S two nobles for dinner, a room, and a meal to break your fast in the morning besides," the brown woman answered, with the mellow dialect of farm stock everywhere. "Dinner's meat an' potato pie, with cider, wine, or beer, and breakfast is a good thick porridge."
          "Done," said Keleos promptly, fishing a pair of square silver coins from her hidden purse and laying them on the bar. "If you could have the dinner sent up to my room, with a glass of wine, I'd be grateful."
          The bar-mistress pocketed the coins with alacrity, and produced a key of rough-cast iron. "Sure, sure. I'll have one of the girls bring it up. Yours is the second on the left from the stairs."
          "My thanks." Keleos took the key, and asked one last question. "I don't suppose you could tell me where around here I might buy a good horse?"
          The woman grinned. "You've good timing, lass. There's a horse-trader what always comes through here, due the next day or so."
          Keleos chuckled at that. "Well. I do have good timing, it would seem. Again, my thanks."
          She turned away from the bar, heading for the stairs and treading heavily of the toes of a man who attempted to waylay her.

          The room was plain, and not very large, but it was clean--almost painfully so. Keleos sat down on the narrow bed to tug off her boots.
          She'd only gotten one off when someone knocked at the door; grumbling softly, she got up to answer it and was met by a serving girl bearing a tray. Keleos took the tray, thanked the girl, and closed and locked the door. Returning to her seat on the bed, she removed her other boot and settled back to pick at the gently steaming pie--not exactly to her taste, as Shenmiri fare tended to be rather light... She pushed away a wisp of bitterness and turned her mind towards her plans.
          Tomorrow she'd need to buy rations, and--she glanced ruefully at the singed sleeves of her shirt--spare clothes. She hoped the promised horse-trader would turn up tomorrow, since she really didn't feel like paying another two nobles; a good horse was going to take most of her ready money, and she'd need all that was left to get her to Torrigan. She had a few small things with her--bits of jewelry, mostly--that she could sell, but she'd really rather not have to, and they wouldn't bring near as much here as they would if sold to the right people in the right places.
          Eventually Keleos gave up on the pie, which sat like lumps of gluey mud in her stomach, and turned her attention to the glass of wine.
          So far, so good...

Obsidian - 3/19/99

          Obsidian looked behind him and sighed before brushing away a dark lock away from his pitiless black eyes.
          That was a close one.
          Another chase like that and he was afraid he wouldn't be able to survive it. He turned his face upward to look into the sky where the sun was setting. A cool breeze stirred the fallen leaves on the dirt road. A few birds chirped in the air as if trying to tell him all was okay. Not most likely. Not after that attempted assassination. Guards where everywhere.
          Obsidian grimaced. That was the first time he missed a shot. And the first time he ever got caught, which was no small blow in his pride.
          Sighing again, Obsidian started forward. Another mile till Torrigan and he was already feeling worn out. Wiping off his dusty boots, he started forward again.
          A while later, Obsidian was still trudging down the dirt road when he caught glimpse of a figure up ahead. Realizing the woman was waving to him Obsidian warily walked forward.
          The woman nodded, laughing, before running forward. "Gee, Sid, it's been a long time since I last saw you. How long was it? Six years ago?"
          Obsidian stared for a while before counting the numbers in his head. "Closer to seven, I daresay."
          "Well, that hardly matters now. Where are you going to?"
          Frowning, Obsidian dug a boot into the soil. He had two minds about telling Mia what he was really doing here. He shrugged. "Just looking for work. Decided to go north to Torrigan."
          Mia nodded eagerly. "Uh huh. That's where I'm going. I need work too you know--" she smiled shyly "--can't survive on a couple of silvers."
          It was meant as a joke, but Obsidian nodded his head gravely. "You said it-" he looked in back of him hurridly as if he suspected someone watching them in between the trees. Obsidian turned back to Mia trying to force a smile on his alabaster white face though his dark eyes didn't join in.
          But Mia, who was always filled with joy and happiness, didn't seem to notice. "Hey, you want to join me. We could go there together."
          "Er...." Obsidian glanced back at him for another look. "I.... I guess. Yeah. Let's go."
          Mia started ahead and Obsidian followed behind fingering his pouch. All was well. For now, at least...

Abby - 3/20/99

          Ansleigh's market was almost identical to every other small-town market Keleos had ever been to. By the time the sun had cleared the horizon and the last bright colors of the sunrise were fading to white and blue, stalls had been set up all up and down the length of the street called Market Way and it's immediate branches. People, most of them of the same stock as the barmistress whose acquaintance Keleos had made the night before, filled the street; women and men haggled over their chosen purchases, vendors cried their wares, livestock neighed, lowed, squealed, and cackled, and children gamboled and giggled underfoot. There were even a scant handful of street-musicians, though they couldn't be making their living on music alone in such a small town.
          Keleos, though she hated crowds, was in a decent mood. She'd managed to purchase the food and spare clothing she had needed without having to empty her purse or settle for low quality, and she hadn't had her pocket picked yet--though she'd felt fingers on her belt once or twice. The porridge that had been her breakfast had been surprisingly edible when cream and honey--both of which had, to her pleasure, been available--had been added, and her night's rest had been undisturbed. All Keleos needed now was a horse, and she had just learned of the promised horse-trader's location a few moments ago. Things were, all in all, going well.
          Keleos headed to the end of Market Way, where the buildings thinned out and gave way to open land. Here a small string of horses, widely varied in color and pedigree, were picketed, tended by Trader Devlin and his apprentice, Jorji.
          "Good morning!" the trader, a stout and weathered man with cheerful hazel eyes, greeted her.
          Keleos nodded politely. "Trader Devlin?"
          "That I am," he affirmed. "What can I do for you this morning?"
          "I need a horse," she told him. "A riding mount, with high stamina, an even temper, and not too much ginger. Preferably intelligent."
          "Hm." Devlin tapped his callused fingers together contemplatively. "I'll be honest with you; I haven't much by way of what you're asking. Most of my beasts are the sort farmers buy--work animals."
          Keleos quirked a wry half-grin. "I suspected as much. Quite frankly, I need a horse that will get me to Torrigan. One I'm there, I can sell it and buy something better suited to me. But I'd really prefer to get a mount I like now, and not have to go through all of the haggling three times over."
          "Well... I may have a beast for you. It depends on how far you're willing to trust me."
          "Your words do not inspire my confidence," Keleos noted.
          He chuckled. "I admit, that does sound a bit dubious. Here, though, come with me and I'll show you what I mean." Devlin led her down the line of horses, greeting some of the animals cheerfully as he went along. Keleos watched his easy manner with the horses, and the well-fed looks of them, and decided she was willing to trust him. To a degree, anyhow.
          "And here we are," he said, stopping at the end of the picket. "Lovely little lass, isn't she?"
          The grey mare Devlin indicated was, indeed, beautifully built. She only stood about fourteen or fifteen hands, a little smaller than Keleos liked in her horses, but had all the marks of Ronin breeding: slim, sleek build, with a deep heartgirth, short back, and compact hindquarters; fine legs; wavy silver-white falls of mane and tail; a vaguely high crest and proudly arched neck; a small head, large and wide-set eyes, the slight concave profile and petite muzzle that were the signature of good southern horses. More than that, there was a spark of intelligence in the mare's eyes and bearing that Keleos liked.
          She could see immediately, though, why Devlin had said it would depend on how much she trusted him. The mare's fine white coat was marred down the left side of her chest by a scar; by the looks of it, it had been no superficial wound. It ran like a bolt of lightning from the top of the near foreleg over the mare's chest and up almost to the top of her shoulder, the black skin in stark contrast to the white hair. Two more scars, thin, straight lines, were barely visible under the sleek coat, and a third was a black line on the mare's left cheek barely more than an inch under her eye. Keleos knelt to examine the mare's chest, and was rewarded by the small grey muzzle whuffling at the back of her neck.
          "What happened?" she asked Devlin.
          "I bought her from a nobleman down south, the blood still fresh on her. I'm fairly sure he'd stolen her--no Ronin would have trusted a jewel like her to a bastard like him. He'd been riding her to hunt, and tried to take her over a fallen log--not a sapling at all; it was near as big as one of those tree-giants up north, and all over broken branches. She'll jump anything you set her at, whether she ought to or not, and she tried to jump that log, but one of the broken branches caught her shoulder and tore it open. She fell on the other side, and he fell with her--well, he was furious. Took his whip to her, like you see, then dragged her back to the stables, both of them lame. I was there to sell some carthorses for farm work, and heard what had happened; he was going to slaughter her for dog meat, saying she was fair worthless now--I stepped in and took her off his hands. For a song, you might say. She healed up well enough and has been little enough the worse for it. But no one'll buy her, on account of the scars; they think she'll go lame on them if they work her any."
          "Will she?" Keleos asked seriously.
          "I've never seen her do it," he replied, with sincerity Keleos didn't think he could feign. "Not that leg nor any other--and I've taken her out for a few runs myself. It's a right shame no one's willing to take a chance on her. I daresay she's the best horse that'll ever come through my hands."
          "Well, I'll take a chance on her," Keleos pronounced, "but I'd like to try her out a bit if that's all right."
          Devlin positively beamed. "Not a problem at all. I bought her tack with her; I'll send the boy for it. Jorji, lad, fetch m'lady's tack, will you?"
          Jorji, a gangly tow-headed lad, obliged, and Keleos chuckled softly in approval of the Ronin-style saddle and hackamore. "Very nice," was her comment.
          "I rather thought so myself," Devlin agreed, as Keleos settled the saddle--more a glorified bareback pad than anything else, all layers of cloth and soft leather in black and white and grey, with a high cantle and a deep seat--on the grey mare's back. The hackamore slipped over the mare's head, and she made no fuss over it. Keleos led the mare away from the picket, watching for any sign of lameness and seeing none, then mounted.
          It didn't take her long to decide that Devlin was telling the truth. The mare's gaits were as smooth as butter, and she was as responsive and willing as Keleos could have wished. I'd be a fool to let a mount like this get away, Keleos decided. I'll never find another of this quality at a price I can afford. She reined the grey in beside Devlin. "All right, trader, I'll take your word on her. How much do you want?"
          He laughed. "She's worth her weight in silver, if not gold," he said, "but I expect I'll never have another chance to sell her, and she's wasted on me. Shall we say thirty-five royals?"
          Keleos did a quick mental inventory of her purse and decided she could afford it. The mare, if Devlin was telling the truth about her soundness, was certainly worth more. "Done," she said, and grinned at his surprised expression. She dismounted, digging into her purse and drawing out three platinum coins. "Will this do?"
          He blinked at her quick acceptence, but wasn't fool enough to question it. "Nicely, and thank you. Safe travels to you."
          "No fear of that," Keleos said dryly. "Does she have a name?"
          "I call her m'lady, but if she'd a name when I bought her, I was never told."
          "Then," Keleos mused, leading the mare away, "I suppose I'll have to give her one. Swift," she decided. "Swift you are and Swift you will be called. Swift."
          The grey mare whickered, and Keleos laughed softly to herself, well pleased with her purchase.

Yvonne - 4/6/99

          The buzz of insects was very hypnotic as was the sun on his bare head. This Lucian character didn't seem to be showing up yet so Deran put his head down to take a little nap while Diana rustled about in the grass. He had long since intimidated the guards so what else was there to do? He closed his eyes and soaked up the heat.
          "Mmm?" he opened his eyes sleepily and glanced over at his sister. She was staring off down the road.
          "I think this may be our employer ... and a fine looking one at that."
          Deran rolled over onto his stomach, but it was only a lone man riding down the road on a grey horse. "I thought you said it was female."
          "No, just attractive." Diana's lips curved into a sensual smile.
          "Fine. You take him." he snorted as he rolled onto his knees and picked up his pack.
          "Oh, I will."
          Deran rolled his eyes. "Just don't get us fired. Again."
          "Shut up."
          "Lord Lucian!" one of the guards shouted and the figure waved and kneed his horse into a jarring trot. At least it looked that way to Deran, who's only riding experiance consisted on whatever horse would bear him, which wasn't many. Most horses hated the predatorial smell of the Llowra, which was why many of the species didn't ride.
          "Geric! I hear my new guards have arrived?" the man said once he was in comfortable speaking distance. He was dressed in green and white, set of with tiny silver accents. He looks like a dressed-up tree, thought Deran with amusement. And my sister actually think's he's attractive?
          "We're over here." Diana said, rising gracefully to her feet and shouldering her pack. The man, presumably Lucian, turned his horse to look at them and Diana smiled and managed a seductive walk. "I am Diana, and that's my brother and partner, Deran. I presume you are my employer, Lucian?"
          "Lord Lucian," corrected one of the guards.
          "That's right, I am. Please to meet you both." he smiled at Diana, ignoring Deran. He decided that he wasn't overly fond of this Lucian and shouldered his pack, moving over to glower behind his sister.
          "The pleasure belongs to me," purred Diana. She's being outrageous! thought her twin with disgust as Diana continued. "I've never met a Lord before, and you certainly live up to the tales that I've been told, in almost every way."
          "Oh?" the man said, raising an eyebrow. He looked intrigued. "What have these stories said?"
          "That your kind are as handsome as they are rich, as brave as they are handsome, and as kind as they are brave. The rest I will not repeat for fear of offending ... delecate ears." she said, sounding flirtatious. Her whole posture said <> One of the guards behind their Lord looked about ready to pound her, so Deran glared challengingly at him until he dropped his eyes.
          The Lord broke out into a wide grin. "Well, I think that you may have misjudged me-"
          "No. I am a very accurate judge of character." interputed Diana smoothly. "But I am keeping out on the road which isn't paticularily good of me as your guest. Shall we?" she took a few steps down the road before coyly glancing behind, a playful smile hovering around the edges of her mouth. Lucian kneed his horse to follow looking a bit flustered at Diana's taking charge but a bit intrigued at the same time. Deran obligingly took up the rear. Or rather, to the left of rear. The whole time Diana had been playing with the Lord the horse had been rolling it's eyes and it's ears were firmly pinned back. No doubt it would attempt to kick him if he got too close ... now there was a thought. Hiding a savage smile Deran took a step closer to the horse and nearly laughed as it pranced sideways rolling it's eyes and making the Lord scramble a bit to regain his balance. Maybe this wouldn't be such a bad trip after all...

Alexia - 4/26/99

          Elexa snuggled closer to her horse, shivering but not from cold. The kitten on her shoulder mewed and rubbed its head at the side of her face and she reached a hand back, picking it up and sitting it on her knees, scratching an ear. The cat gave a little worried purr and leant into the hand. It was time to be moving on but it didn’t feel safe to move from where she was, sitting against her horse, knees drawn up to her chest. She hadn’t wanted to stop but had had to; she’d ridden for more than a day without a break except to rest her horse. But exhaustion had surpassed even the fear eventually and they’d stopped for a while. In the two and a bit days after that, she’d stopped to sleep twice, including this time, in a little clearing, close to the road but hidden from it.
          Elexa mewed back at the cat fearfully, placed the creature on her shoulder and stood hesitantly. The horse clambered to its feet and shook itself while she quickly mounted and pulled its head around towards the road. Tenderheart snorted as he picked his way through the brush and then out onto the road, breaking into a canter, glad to be moving again, wanting, as did his rider, to be as far from the ‘dark-thing’ as possible. Here they were riding through the woods, which were treed with beeches and oaks, inviting and light, which helped to calm both a little. Elexa shook her head as her thoughts wandered. She was not going to think about that. The cat on her shoulder made a little distressed noise, catching her mood as the pictures refused to leave her alone.
          Four days ago they’d all be safe at home, sitting in the little grove by the stream, close on the main house of the estate when something went wrong in the house. The feeling, unclear but growing worse had sent Elexa running, panicked, back to the house, catching up a stout tree limb on the way. As she rushed through the open front doors and towards the feeling, which was coming from Redel’s work room, she paused to snatch a knife from the desk in the anteroom then crept towards the workroom door, the feeling intensifying. Putting a shaking hand on the doorknob, she started, as Edex, her mage tutor, entered the room behind her. He’d come across to her and patted her shoulder, opening the door himself.
          The next part wasn’t quite certain in her mind now. She knew she had craned into the room, desperate to check if Redel was all right and to defend her if need be. Objects and papers were whirling around in the air and the room was dark, despite the curtains blowing out of the windows in the unnatural wind. And there had been something in the room with them. Something that radiated ‘dark’ and ‘thirst.’ Redel was lying on the floor and there was nothing coming from her; she was dead. Edex had tried to do something that she didn’t understand and then she lost all feeling of him as well.
          Then the was dark and flames and her on Tender, galloping down the road, the cat peeking up at her from the pommel of the saddle, where it was crouched down against her thigh. Tender had run all out for a long time and had been running for a long time even before that, she guessed. Eventually he slowed reluctantly, snorting and tossing his head unhappily. Elexa could feel the shape of the knife handle through the leather over the small pocket flap on the side of the saddle, and that was all she had with her except for the smell of smoke and fire. For food, Tender had been content with grass from the wayside and she had made do with early berries, but knew they would both need something more and soon. There would be a town or a village in about another hour’s ride, off to one side of the road. So far she had passed them at a canter, not wanting to be around people.
          She would have to stop eventually though: have to try going to a village... But the thought of being in a village alone was terrifying and she had no idea what to do next except ride and keep riding, though she realised she was now in the north of Melanos and headed towards the border with Torrigan. Torrigan where they didn’t like magic... But she couldn’t turn back. Maybe it was just remembered fear that made the hairs stand up on the back of her neck, but she thought she could still feel the dark thing somewhere behind them...
          But what would she do? What was there? She wished Redel were there: wished it so hard it hurt in her chest. The cat mewed at her strictly and she tried to regain some control and not think about it. Don’t think about it; don’t think about it, blank, blank, blank, blank, streams, bluebells... Eventually she opened her eyes again. She’d already set three fires along the way because of her roaming thoughts. If she was going to stop at a town she had to be in control. A town: with people, and men. Lots of people--all strangers--and without Redel.
          She swallowed at that thought and tried to push away wanting for her surrogate mother, but the bleakness was spilling in with questions of ‘what was there to do now? What was there left without Redel?’ Her whole life had been built around the safety of Redel’s presence--their estate and Redel with her whenever they went off it... or Edex. Sweet Edex, who could never seem to remember anything and had a mind as sharp as a bird’s eye when it came down to what was important. Tears threatened again and she pushed them down. Crying would only get her more upset and that might lead to a fire. But what was there for her? She hadn’t wanted anything more than what she’d had... She didn’t want to have to be out among people... She just wanted the two people who were her pillars of safety.
          What was she fit for? She couldn’t return to her own people in shame: just bringing trouble being no use for anything. And what else was there was would even be tolerable? Maybe it would be better to just find something high and jump off... if she wasn’t coward enough to use her wings, that was. They gave her little flight but enough to stop from dying from a fall... Tender snorted and turned his head, butting at her knee with his nose, the cat mewing constantly. Yes, she did have them but what else? Would she just live wild? She couldn’t earn a living, couldn’t be around people even if she could find a living in a town... if she didn’t die of fright being surrounded by so many people and so many chances for things to happen. Bad things like the hot, dusty place.
          Tender jumped and skipped sideways, whinnying in distress and stopped, pawing at the ground. Elexa stared at the bush that was being engulfed by flames to her left and wanted the flames to go out now. And when the fire was gone almost wanted it back again. Maybe one day it would all go wrong and she would catch fire and she didn’t want to die that way.
          She wiped a hand across her face angrily and tried to blink back the other tears; she was just exhausted. She had to stop and rest properly, get some proper food. The fear that had carried her this far wasn’t going to last much further. She’d decide what to do after she’d rested, whether the decision was, in the end, to die or not. She urged Tender into a canter, being too exhausted to deal with the bumping of a trot. Tender replied by tossing his name and complying. He was very tired too but he’d had more food than she had, being able to eat any greenery around them and he had reserves that her slight body didn’t hold out. Sired by the two Samaran horses Redel had taken with her when leaving her home country, Tenderheart was a ‘thoroughly unsuitable beast for such a little slip of a thing.’ That’s what the stable-master had once said, not realising she was rubbing Tender down and overhearing.
          She supposed she did look rather odd being so small and Tender being very high. But Tender loved her and wouldn’t have anyone else. The stable-master had been trying to break him and hadn’t succeeded. Elexa hadn’t had to. She didn’t believe in ‘breaking’ a horse. She had made friends and Tender had agreed to let her ride him; it was as simple as that. And Tender had kicked up dust in the stable-men’s faces as they took out on their first ride together. He was her horse. Or she was his. It didn’t really seem to matter. Tender tossed his main again, quickening his pace, probably smelling the town. Elexa knew he’d start prancing, tired as he was, as soon as they got there. He was terribly vain, though with good cause. Heavy muscled across the chest and front legs, he had narrow but powerful hind quarters and all the beautiful bone structure of the Samaran breed. Deep red coated, maned and tailed, he had a pretty gait and was all in all pretty much a perfect specimen. Except for the fact that he tended to bite and kick people he didn’t like, which was almost everyone because they didn’t defer to him or didn’t try to make friends. The stable-master had called him demon-breed, pretty as hell but wicked to the heart and therefore not worth a damn. Elexa did agree that he was fickle, obscenely vain and often stubborn and difficult, but he wasn’t wicked. Never with her, not in the three years she’d known him--from foal to stallion. The stable-master had crowed with laughter at the name she had given him, but it was what she ‘felt’ from him--that gentle feeling of caring that he offered out to her.
          Thinking about Tender helped until she was as calm as she thought was possible. Then the town came into sight. Her heart contracted within her and she swallowed hard on fear as Tender, true to form, picked up his pace and started prancing. “Silly horse.” Tender snorted. He might be tired but he’d been four days without company and there were females here. Elexa giggled as she realised that was the direction his images were turning. Tender was never that tired, not with a young male’s boundless energy. She closed her hands tight about the reins, feeling herself go stiff with fear and tension, eyes darting about as they passed the first houses. She hadn’t realised that it was quite dark until she saw the sky against the brightness of the torches burning in the streets here.
          It wasn’t a huge town though it didn’t seem so to Elexa, who hadn’t been off the estate at all in the past year except to ride in the woods. Redel had tried taking her into the next villages, hoping she would get used to them and then be able to progress to visiting the town, maybe making friends of her own age. Elexa had hated every minute of those journeys out with people staring and the barrage of bodies, noise and thoughts. She’d been asked to leave most of the villages rather quickly after setting minor fires and eventually Redel had given up, not wanting to infuriate their neighbours and Elexa had been quite content to remain at home. Redel, disappointed had to admit ultimately that she agreed with animals a lot more than with people and if that made her happy… Redel had helped her heal as much as she could but recognised that Elexa’s happiness in isolation, while not normal, was still happiness of a sort and one that kept the child safe. And, at the end of the day, the elderly mage had been lonely and having the child around all the time had been a true blessing. She’d never thought that Elexa would have to leave and so had never pushed her to prepare herself.
          But now Elexa was finding herself lost in the world that she hadn’t wanted to return to, epitomised by the town in front of her which made fear flutter in her chest and protective aggression well to the fore. Taking a deep breath, she tried to keep herself from bolting, relaxing marginally as she passed through the rather dark main street, craning to look deeply into the shadows at the bases of the houses. Eventually, homes gave way to shops and then she came out into a brightly lit square. It was a rather pretty place to look at, cobbled all over with a stone fountain in the middle. To one side an inn sign swung, creaking, and noise and light spilt out from the bay windows around the door. It was a larger version of the villages near the estate. This square would be full of stores during the daytime, she knew and was glad she’d come when it was dark and the market place was quiet.
          For a while she held Tender still as she looked around herself, trying to get used to the idea and the ‘feel’ of the place before venturing further. She would probably have to brave the inn for food as it looked like the only place that was open. But it would be crowded and loud--she could hear it from outside and didn’t know that she could manage to keep steady with people shouting around her. Loud noises in particular were fire hazards for her. But Tender was pawing at the cobbles, snorting and focused on ‘food’ and ‘females’. Sliding off his back, she took up the reins and faced the inn, taking a deep breath.
          Then the door opened, letting three men tumble out, still chuckling. Encouraged by the laughter she let Tender pull her forwards a few steps, not knowing if she could have stopped him if he wanted to. Then the street went silent. Tender stopped and backed up a few paces, snorting. The men were watching them now, silently, then their eyes turned hungry and one staggered forward a step. “Hello, my pretty. What is such a pretty little stranger doing here all alone? I dare say you’d like someone to be your friend… Show you around. Such a pretty little girl…” The other two moved forwards then and Tender skitted sideways. Elexa’s heart, which had frozen with terror at the feelings coming from the three men, jumped… She felt her breathing quicken dangerously and tried to think about streams and sunlight… She stepped closer to Tender and walked forwards a few steps, stopping when she saw that two of the men were standing on either side of her, the other in the front, leering. “Why so scared, my pretty?” She could smell the alcohol from where she was standing and the feelings coming at her intensified at this close distance. The man grinned, showing yellowed, cracked teeth. "Nothing to be afraid of my pretty,” he said. But his mind turned towards a picture… a picture that started just like this and ended just like the pictures from Samara… and everything went very cold and still in her mind.
          Then the stable of the inn burst into flames. The men started, looking round, swore and ran from her as fast as their drunken footsteps would let them as people burst out of the inn and the buildings around it, probably worried that people would blame them. Someone ran for the stable. Everyone was shouting, angry and frightened… Elexa slipped off Tender’s back and pressed into the shadow of a wall, trying to still her terrified breaths. There was something horribly familiar about the burning building, roof falling at one point, exposing timbers… She started shaking as she realised that it looked just like the estate, the last time she had seen it. People had been running from the staff quarters, shouting and screaming, while Tender had stood, nudging her with his noise until she mounted and then he took her away… The following blur probably had an equal amount to do with being drained as with shock… Her home… Her home burning…
          The cat dug its claws in, making her jump and bringing her back to the present. Tender whuffled gently into her hair and dropped his head over her shoulder as she fought for control to at least not fuel the blaze further. She didn’t think she could put it out. Not with the pictures from the drunk’s head floating around and intertwining with fragments of memories and the image of the estate burning. The fire did die down a bit but the pavement at her feet started sparking. Tender pawed at the flames, his fear just fuelling her own and stopping her from bringing herself further under control. She slid a hand under his mane and stroked his neck, projecting ‘blank’ as hard as she could without fearing that the townspeople would all forget about the fire. That had happened in one of the excursions to the village--she’d tried to calm herself with a projection and everyone in the bucket chain had stopped, blinking confusedly at each other, one dropping a bucket on another’s foot. She clapped a hand over her mouth as a thin, hysterical giggle tried to escape and tried to imagine Edex talking to her about control.
          Edex was eternally patient with her. When something went wrong, he’d just smile and pat her hair with a gnarly hand and tell her to try again. He had never told her off, even when she’d been waking everyone on the estate with projection dreams that had made several of the staff quit outright. She had never thought of him as a father but as a friend--her closest friend. There was something about Edex that was ageless, but very human, from his dry sense of humour to his life, which she’d seen all of. The idea of having a man around her, even one so gentle and old, had terrified her when they’d met. To get her to trust him, Edex had opened his mind and memories to her, fully, something that she later had been a great risk with how unstable she was. Her fear that he would want the same was thankfully dispelled when Redel asked the question; Edex had admitted quite freely that she was too unstable for that to be viable. And after that, the day they had met, they’d quickly become friends: Edex an avuncular, comforting figure, who found pleasure in her excitement and enthusiasm.
          The sparking was dying down slightly, she realised, rising when she wondered at her seeming lack of grief. She quickly tried to quell that and trace her thoughts backwards. Think of him alive and forget the rest: none of it happened… Loss boiled beneath a thin veneer of calm for a while, the sparking staying manageable, and all of this in little more than a few heartbeats. Time seemed to forget itself when she was so panicked, not operating to its usual parameters. Turning back towards the stable she saw someone duck out of an alley and run into the stable.

Abby - 5/3/99

          Keleos grimaced, legs complaining loudly and bitterly. No, leaping onto the roof from the window of my room was not the best idea I've had today. I seem to have a death wish.
          Nevertheless, there was no way she'd have gotten down the stairs and through the gathering crowd in time to do any good. And though the stablehands were frantically dragging out animals and a bucket chain was in the process of forming, there was no way they were going to save all the horses in the stable before the roof fell in.
          Unless, of course, somebody did something stupid. Keleos felt somehow qualified for the role.
          A Shenmiri pyromancer could have killed the flames, as could have a hydromancer, a cryomancer, an aeromancer, or even a clever geomancer. Keleos, of course, was none of those things; though she could start a fire, she could neither control it nor put it out.
          Short of blasting it to the tenth darkness. Not the best option here, even if I did think I could pull it off.
          The growing roar of the flames and the acrid scent of smoke greeted her inside the burning barn, underlaid by the whickers and restless shifting of the nervous horses. At the far end of a row of stalls, Swift neighed, rearing up briefly on her hind legs to thump her forehooves on the door of her stall.
          Keleos seized a long-handled coachwhip from the wall and sprinted down to the mare. "All right. Time to show how good you can be, my new friend." She flung open the stall door and, as the grey mare leaped out into the aisle, caught hold of the silver mane and vaulted onto Swift's bare back.
          The mare tossed her head, dancing sideways, hindquarters bunching up beneath her. "Oh, no you don't," Keleos muttered, sitting back heavily and wrapping her legs around Swift's barrel. "We've got a job to do."
          Swift didn't seem concerned by the long, unwieldy whip, despite Keleos's initial fumblngs with it. The best pattern became clear quickly; smash open the stall-door latches--horses cost more than latches by far--with the hard heel of her boot, spook the beasts out with the whip, then drive them out of the barn with Swift's aid. She hoped someone outside was catching the animals once they emerged; the last thing she needed was panicked horses fleeing mindlessly back into the burning barn.
          The grey mare behaved like a born cutting-horse, chivvying her larger kin with nips and once or twice application of hoof when they stalled. Wheel, leap, and dodge--it was a dizzying ride, all the moreso because of the thick smoke that filled the air. Once or twice Keleos had to lean precariously over to cut loose a tied animal with the knife from her belt, but luckily none decided to put up a fight while the barn burned around them like a huge, hollow pyre.
          Finally the last animal was loose. Hands buried in Swift's mane, Keleos chased the dark gelding through the great doors, then kneed an extra burst of speed out of her mare as the hayloft above began to sag ominously.
          Too late.
          The loft began to collapse, with a great cracking and groaning. Swift shied sideways, leaping forward and unseating Keleos, who clung doggedly to the smooth flank before hitting the floor with a jarring thump. Instinctively she half-rolled, half-scrambled forward, ending up sprawled on the dirt witht he soles of her boots being scorched by the flames that had almost buried her.
          They don't come much closer than that, Keleos reflected, lying still for a moment and panting. Soon she picked herself up, getting out of the way of the bucket chains--several had formed while she had been playing 'blazing hero'--and retreating from the burning building. Swift was nowhere to be found.
          Lovely. Well, the mare probably wouldn't be inclined to take off running and leave all the horses here behind. Horses were, by nature, herd animals. As long as Swift hadn't been outright terrified by the collapsing loft, she'd be nearby. Keleos just had to find her.

Alexia - 5/5/99

          She drew even further back as she saw this, terrified at the thought of her fire killing someone. If she thought she could have controlled herself, she would have gone to help, but it was more than likely that she’d just make the fire spread faster, or set fire to something else. Frozen by fear of worsening the blaze, she stayed where she was, hoping desperately that the person would get out unharmed. She clasped her hands together at her chest, breathing fast and trying to squint through the glare of the fire to see inside the stable. Suddenly, a frightened horse ran out of the barn, breaking through the bucket chain, people throwing themselves out of the way of the panicked horse but quickly regrouping to carry on trying to douse the fire. Her heart shrank within her. She wasn’t suited to be near people. She could have killed all the horses there and everything else… She wasn’t fit to be among normal people but without Redel... Tears blurred her view of the burning barn as she reached out a hand, sending out a brief ray of comfort to the horse which was evading attempts to catch it. The animal jerked around, knocking the man, who had thrown a rope around its neck, of his feet and then quickly trotting over to her, two other horses that had just cleared the fire coming with it.
          She reached out with blind thoughts of comfort and safety, trying to calm the animals as a vain apology for what she had done, the feelings sending stronger and stronger as sorrow and despair rose within her. Soon, she was quite surrounded by milling horses, all trying to nose at her as she scratched an ear here and patted a neck there. Tender wasn’t impressed and was considering being very jealous but his mood was redeemed by the fact that there were now plenty of females for him to show off to. Unfortunately, they seemed much more interested in his rider than they were in him. He snorted with disgust and pushed through to Elexa and blew a warm, disgruntled breath onto the back of her neck, leaning his head over her shoulder.
          The horses circled, gently jostling each other as they quieted, keeping as close to her as possible. A pretty grey mare pushed through the rest and immediately started nuzzling her hand. Tender jerked his head up and tossed his mane at the mare, who gave him not the least bit of attention. Gently patting the mare’s shoulder, she saw the terrible scarring and paused, before leaning into the horse, one hand under its mane, stroking gently. Horses… She was OK with horses but people… She shook her head quickly before she started crying. There was no Redel here to wipe away her tears, no Edex to carry her and tuck her into bed when she was worn through with the tears that wouldn’t stop once they came… With the effort, sparks started at her feet again and the rest of the horses backed off anxiously, torn between fear of the little flashes of fire and the comfort that the stranger was sending. The mare didn’t budge, probably because she couldn’t see the fire as her nose and pushed into Elexa’s chest as she scratched behind an ear. She’d have to take this one with her. No sentient creature deserved to be treated like this horse’s owner obviously did… Elexa was all too well aware of how that felt and be damned if she didn’t try to do something, including burning the man (it had to be a man to behave with such cruelty to such a sweet creature) alive if she ever saw him. Maybe she should go now before she made more trouble for the town… and before the mare’s owner came looking for his horse.
          She was just trying to decide what was best when someone rolled out of the stable, just as it collapsed. She closed her eyes with relief… The horses were safe and the person who had gone in for them… And now she had better go before she did more damage and endangered further lives. But now she was too scared to move. What was she going to do even if she did leave? What good would she do the mare? What good was she for anything? How she wanted someone to step out of the crowd: Redel, or someone just like her--someone to look after her and to keep her safe and keep others safe from her. Her exhaustion was starting to catch up with her too, leaving her a shaking, scared, useless wretch and she couldn’t face being back on the road again, in the dark. She just wanted Redel and Edex and her bed… But all those were gone, just like the stable in front of her. She had to leave; she knew that… She just had to remember how to move her legs and push away the pain in her chest that was making it hard to breath. Over the mare’s ears, she saw the figure that had saved the horses slowly rise to its feet, quickly moving out of the way of the bucket-chain and then looking around slowly. A woman… Redel had been a woman just like that- she would have gone rushing into a burning barn too, not caring that it was a man’s job to be brave and do things like that…
          ‘Stop!’ she ordered herself, biting her tongue to try and distract her. She had to stop thinking about Redel and had to start thinking about leaving… Then she saw the woman spot her, pause and then start in her direction. Her heart leapt into her throat. She was still sparking- the woman had seen and was coming to get rid of the danger to the town and maybe it would be better to let her…

Abby - 5/5/99

          It wasn't hard for Keleos to guess where her horse had gone to. Most of the loose animals were grouped close together, milling about nervously but staying more or less in one place. Keleos caught a flash of pale silver-white between the darker steeds. So she's a born lead-mare. I shouldn't be surprised.
          But as she shoved her way between the sweaty, fidgeting horses, Keleos realized that Swift wasn't quite the center of the knot. Standing beside the mare, throwing off fitful sparks and looking like she hoped the ground would swallow her up, was--an avarel?
          A rather strange, unhealthy-looking avarel at that, with much-streaked hair and blue-tinted wings. And I think I know how this fire got started. Huh. I didn't think the avarel could work magic. Well, you learn something every day. This one's in desperate need of some training--probably got spooked and started throwing sparks everywhere. Unfortunately they're probably not really keen on that sort of thing around here...
          Dammit, Keleos grumbled to herself, I was looking forward to another good night's rest. Oh, well. Someone's got to take this child in hand before she gets anyone else hurt.
          She shoved her way through the horses, getting her foot trod upon once and grimacing at the pain of several stone of horse grinding down on her toes, until she reached Swift's flank. "Well," she said dryly to the mare, "you certainly do make friends in a hurry." She regarded the avarel girl thoughtfully, then queried, "And who are you?"

Alexia - 5/6/99

          The woman pushed her way through the horses, coming closer and closer, until she finally stopped beside the grey mare. Elexa felt the woman examine her closely, and knew she had seen the sparks. As she tried to steel herself for the inevitable, the woman suddenly turned to the mare, putting a hand on its neck. "Well, you certainly do make friends in a hurry."
          Elexa blinked as she slowly processed the fact that the woman was talking to the horse, not her, and that she didn’t sound angry at all. Then the woman turned back to her and she stepped back reflexively, drawing into herself as much as possible, shoulders hunched protectively and hands clamped together in front of her mouth.
          "And who are you?" the woman asked.
          All she got in reply was a lot of rapid blinks as Elexa tried to comprehend the question as it filtered slowly through her fear-clouded mind. ‘Who are you?’ That wasn’t an aggressive question… rather friendly given the circumstances… But what was there to answer that? Who was she unless it was Redel’s adopted daughter, Edex’s student? She had to give some sort of answer if she wasn’t going to jeopardise her situation further with this woman who was offering her, for at least the moment, a chance. Moving her hands down to her neck, she opened her mouth to speak and nothing came out.
          The sparking grew worse, unsettling the horses. Of all the times for her to forget how to speak… It often happened when she was scared and panicked like this… but she had no way to explain that to a stranger and what was this woman to think of her, sparking everywhere and not able to say a word? The woman was waiting patiently for the moment but that wouldn’t last too long without some sort of reply. Swallowing hard, she tried again and got out a quiet, “ A…”
          The woman would probably kill her as a demented menace to the town’s safety, and she wouldn’t be too far wrong at that. She was panting slightly starting to shake, at which she swallowed down hard again and closed her eyes briefly, not daring to keep them shut for fear of being attacked. ‘Come on, Elexa. Calm down. Now, breathe… Yes, that’s right… Now tell me what’s going on… Just tell me nice and slowly…’ She could hear Redel’s voice, coaxing her through finding her voice, like she had done so many times in the past. ‘Think about the words. Now think about how they sound…’ “ S-s-s-s-s-s….” She drew in a quick breath and tried to focus. “ S-s-s-s-s-s-s…” Nothing else would come out and she closed her mouth, drawing even further back. Why couldn’t she remember? She had to remember, but her mouth wouldn’t seem to obey her brain and even those slight, stuttering sounds, had seemed so terribly loud and frightening. Fixing her eyes on the woman, she told herself she wouldn’t cry. She’d just have to wait to see what the woman did.

Abby - 5/6/99

          Keleos frowned slightly in thought. The avarel child was all but cowering at her feet--oddly-colored wings folded tightly, shoulders hunched, hands over her mouth. The sparks flared up briefly, and a few of the nearest horses snorted in mild alarm.
          She's terrified, that's what it is. Just like a poorly-controlled pyromancer, when she gets upset or excited, things start going up in flames... must have gotten spooked by something out here and set the barn off by accident. And now she thinks she's in trouble for causing so much damage.
          For a moment it looked as though the girl was going to reply to Keleos's query, but all that emerged from her mouth was soft, incoherent stuttering.
          Lord of Storms, she must think I'm after her as a danger to the town. Bloody hell, what a mess. Where is this child from, anyhow? Her clothing is Melanan--well, Keleos amanded, sort of Melanan. I didn't think the avarel lived this far south. And I've never heard of an avarel who could work magic, either, or who had that sort of coloring.
          At long length, Keleos shook her head. The girl obviously needed a protector and a trainer, and having been presented with the problem Keleos was all but honor-bound to at least try to help. Damn.
          Gently as possible, she said to the girl, "My name is Keleos, child, and I'm not going to hurt you. I take it you're responsible for that blaze?" She didn't wait for a response. "That's going to cause you some problems here, if anyone else figures out something of what happened. I'm headed north tonight--why don't you come with me? You need someone to help you control that power of yours; I'm no Master but I'm not a complete novice, and I'm good at getting out of messy situations. I can help you find someone to train you, so this sort of thing doesn't keep happening." She kept her face calm and her voice gentle, hoping to calm the girl enough to stop the sparks from flaring. If she trailed embers all about her, the crowd--which had not yet dispersed even though the fire had been reduced to a tumble of coals and small flames--would have no trouble coming to the same conclusion Keleos had.
          The last thing Keleos wanted was a riot.
          Slowly, she offered a hand. "Why don't you come with me? If you don't like me, you can always leave later, but it looks like you could use some help."
          Child, child, don't you know what Shenmiri are? We don't hurt frightened young girls who've done nothing wrong except to have too much power and too little control...

Sorana - 5/6/99

          Amber was sitting at her stall in the market considering one of her works in progress when she heard a familiar male voice.
          "How much for this piece here miss?"
          Amber looked up quickly. "Tarlin! What are you doing lurking around my stall?" she teased.
          "I would hardly call it lurking," he said with a grin, "after all, I did inquire as to the cost of this piece."
          "Hmmmm...." she pretended to frown disapprovingly at him. Amber couldn't maintain a frown like that for very long though, and the hurt expression he affected just made it worse. She collapsed into giggles after a few seconds. "You--you should've seen your face!"
          "Well you should've seen yours! Who knew that a sweet creature like yourself could have such a fierce expression? So, have you decided if you're going to join the caravan yet?"
          "I knew you had an ulterior motive for being here! No, I haven't decided yet."
          "You don't have much time left you know. We'll be leaving in two days."
          "I suppose you'd like a decision now, wouldn't you? Fine. I'm coming."
          "You are?" Tarlin blinked in surprise at her swift decision.
          "Didn't expect me to actually take you up on your offer did you?" she asked with a mischievous smile. "Well, surprise, I did. I don't suppose you'd be willing to watch my stall while I go look at wagons and horses would you? It's all right if you can't. I can just close it down for the day. I'd really rather not though, I'm not sure how much all my supplies will cost and I might need all the money I can get." Amber looked at him hopefully after this explanation, and Tarlin found he couldn't possibly say no.
          "It would be my pleasure, Fair Lady."
          Amber laughed. "Thank you so much Tarlin. I really appreciate this. The prices are all in that blue book right there, and I'm sure you know what to do." She smiled brightly at him, kissed him on the cheek, and ran off through the crowd.

          "Excuse me sir," Amber called to the Horse Trader. "Excuse me, but do you have any..." She paused for a moment as she tried to remember what sort of horse had been recommended to pull her new wagon. It was there, she knew it was in there somewhere, but she couldn't seem to find it. Sighing, she said, "Nevermind. Could you please show me your horses?"
          "Why of course, milady. If you'll just walk this way?" The Horse Trader gestured in the direction of his stables, then lead the way inside.
          He stopped first at the stall of a lovely little roan mare. "This here is Lyada. Her dam was Glorymorn and her sire Lightningstrike..." Here he went on for sometime about Lyada's lineage until Amber finally interrupted him.
          "That's all very nice, but I don't want to buy Lyada. I need a horse that can pull a wagon."
          "Well why didn't you say so in the first place?" he asked, and led her to another stall further down.
          This stall held what had to be the ugliest horse Amber had ever seen. It was a dull, dirty brown in color and had a coarse mane. The head and body looked like something that someone, having just picked up a hammer for the first time in their life, had attempted to smash out of a block of stone.
          While the Trader went on about the virtures of this...specimen, Amber looked around rather desperately for another, any other horse. In the back corner stall, she saw beautiful, strong looking horse.
          "Stop," she told the Horse Trader. "What about that horse over there? Would it be strong enough to pull a wagon?"
          The trader looked over at the horse she was indicating and siezed the opportunity to get rid of an unwanted animal.
          "Ah, yes. That would be Corby. He's a beauty isn't he? And he's plenty strong enough to pull a wagon about." The trader droned on in this vein for a rather long time before finishing with, "And I'll sell him to you for only two hundred fifty silvers."
          Amber gave him one of her special Looks that she saved for bargaining, and said, "That is far too much. I'll give you seventy-five silvers."
          "I suppose I could part with him for two hundred," the horse trader replied.
          "One hundred," Amber countered.
          "One hundred fifty. That's rock bottom for a horse of this caliber."
          Amber gave him a regretful look and started to turn away.
          "Wait! One hundred twenty-five slivers. That's my final offer. Deal?"
          Amber turned around and shook the trader's hand. "Deal."
          She gave the Horse Trader his money and he handed her the horse's lead-rein; which he had connected to the horse's halter. Amber opened the stall door and led Corby out. Or rather, tried to lead him out.
          "Corby," a rather massive creature the color of polished jet, planted all four hooves and refused to budge. Oh no you don't, human. I'm not that kind and you're not that stupid. Find some other 'dumb beast' to labor for you.
          Amber tugged a few times on the lead rein unsuccessfully. The Horse Trader had dissapeared rather quickly after recieving his money; obviously signifying that he'd washed his hands of the situation.
          Okay, he obviously does not want to leave his stall... But why? Maybe he was mistreated by his previous owner. Would that be the trader or someone else? On the other hand, it could just be part of his nature. I hope not. I wouldn't want to have to get rid of him... Well at any rate, I can't just stand here in front of his stall all day. I'll have to coax him into following me. I can deal with whatever his problem is once I get him to his new home.
          Amber went and stood next to Corby. Stroking his nose and shoulder, she whispered sweetly into his ear. "What's wrong Corby? Huh? Why don't you want to go with me? Do you think I'll mistreat you? I won't. I'd never mistreat anyone. Not on purpose anyway. I'm sure you're really a very sweet horse. I know you're the perfect horse for me, that's why I bought you. Unfortunately, we can't stay here forever. If you'll just follow me, I can take you to your new home. I'll make sure you get some nice grain, and carrots... What do you think of that, huh? Will you come with me? I'd be so happy if you did. You're such a beautiful horse..."

Alexia - 5/6/99

          The woman frowned slightly and continued to study her, while Elexa’s heart beat a frantic pattern. Why didn’t the woman just get it over with, quickly? Why was she just standing there, watching her? This waiting was sending her fear soaring to new heights and she felt herself frozen to the spot. Couldn’t move, couldn’t speak, and just waiting to find out what was going to happen to her like so many other times before. Then the woman shook her head, at which she would have flinched if she had been able to move, but, instead of hitting her, the woman relaxed her expression into one of calm, gentleness. So like Redel that first time… She’d come walking into the underground cavern, robes flying around her, face like stone: hard and cold. Her mentor had looked around with an express of disgust until she spotted her, cowering behind a rock, one hand stuffed in her mouth so she wouldn’t make any noise. And then her face had just changed… Redel had coaxed her out of her hiding place, picked her up and carried her out to her carriage, not minding the terrified clinging. And then they’d gone home, and she’d had a nice cool bed and no men and no one to hit her… But no one else was like Redel. She’d been lucky to have Redel for as long as she did. Another person with such kindness… what were the chances of that?
          But this woman looked friendly and she had a nice, gentle voice… Tender liked her, as he was sniffing a little in her direction but not in an antsy way. And the grey mare, too, was quiet under the woman’s hands and contented. Seeing this, she felt a slight hope rise in her and she focused hard to understand what the woman was saying, which was hard work, in and of itself, when she was this scared.
          "My name is Keleos, child, and I'm not going to hurt you. I take it you're responsible for that blaze?” Thankfully, the woman carried straight on from that question. “That's going to cause you some problems here, if anyone else figures out something of what happened. I'm headed north tonight--why don't you come with me? You need someone to help you control that power of yours; I'm no Master but I'm not a complete novice, and I'm good at getting out of messy situations. I can help you find someone to train you, so this sort of thing doesn't keep happening."
          Oh, she wanted to believe that: wanted to believe that this woman’s intentions were good and she was as kind as she appeared… but how likely was it for her to find someone like that? At least it wasn’t a man, which gave her a good deal of comfort. And it would be so good to have someone else to be with on the road… It didn’t matter where this woman was heading, after all. Keleos, her name was, and, slowly, that gentle voice was winning her over, grudgingly cautious and wary. But what was there to lose? And to just believe that, for a moment, she had met someone who was kindly inclined towards her… that was worth the risk, however it ended. After all, what else was there now? And if this woman really meant what she said…
          "Why don't you come with me? If you don't like me, you can always leave later, but it looks like you could use some help."
          Being able to leave. She’d not had that option before, but now she did, with Tender. She wasn’t locked up anymore and could run away if need be. Then the woman offered her hand slowly. It was probably stupid and she should have known so much better, but she couldn’t resist the gesture and the hope that what lay behind it was genuine. Two fingers attached themselves to her lip as she slowly raised the other hand, watching the woman closely and warily, pausing before touching. She didn’t like touching or being touched, except by Edex and Redel, but she wanted that comfort again… being touch and held without the other person wanting anything more. Slowly, she put her hand over Keleos’, watching her for what she would do next.

Danae - 5/10/99

          Adriana sighed as she watched her maid lovingly fold up the last of the dresses she would be taking with her. "That's the last one dearie," said the nurse cheerfully. "How are you holding up?"
          "I'll be just fine. It will be an adventure for me. And more importantly it will be better for my brother if I am gone so that he can concentrate on learning how to rule properly. Not that he can learn that from father... but still..."           Adriana laid down on her white bed covers and shut her eyes, thinking of all the things her father had done. As always, she began to think of how he had been to her as a child, the closeness they had shared, and then the change in him as she grew up to look more and more strikingly different from him. Her eyes began to water slightly as she wondered for the millionth time what she could do to make her father love her again. She angrily rubbed her eyes and sat up, determined not to let him hurt her again, not when she was finally getting away from everyone and everything that could hurt her. She would be able to start over maybe, at least for a little while. Just at that moment there was a polite tap at the door and Adriana quickly checked herself in the wall mirror to be sure of her appearance. As the maid let the visitor into the room she was suddenly put at ease when she realized it was only Rody. Her best friend in the world, she was comfortable around him as she was around no one else...

          As he waited patiently outside the door Rody's mind raced with all the details of the trip they were about to take. He hoped he would find Adriana in a good mood this morning for he had his hands full with so many things that he didn't have time to deal with any histrionics. Over all she was a level headed girl, incredibly intelligent, but also of the upper class and used to getting her own way. She was not spoiled by any stretch of the imagination, if anything she was a little neglected, but she was still nobility and she knew it. It was understandable though. After all, she had been forced to pull rank at an early age simply to keep herself from being stepped upon.
          As the maid opened the door all of his reveries flew out the window at the sight of his beautiful lady. Before him he saw no wilting flower or weak child. He saw a self-possesed and self-assured young woman who was ready to face the world. It took his breath away for an instant, as it always did, and his heart almost burst with love for her.
          As he looked closer at the child he had all but raised, he noticed that there was a slight mist on her long black eyelashes. Her hair was slightly disheveled from the feverish pace of her morning packing session and he longed to be able to smooth it back the way he used to when she was just a child, although obviously for different reasons.
          He got himself under control very quickly and walked into the room, eyeing her and the nurse's packing job and trying to judge whether it would have to be redone. Suprisingly she had packed very little, only the necessities, which gave her the upper hand... as usual...

          As she watched him inspect her bags, Adriana smirked a little to herself. I did a good job and he knows it, she thought to herself, and he can't think of anything to criticize. He was expecting to have to come in here and tell me to cut down and make me repack.
          "So," she interrupted his analysis of the baggage, "what shall we do for the next few hours until Lucian returns with my new gaurds, since I'm obviously all packed. I still don't understand why Lucian had to hire anyone else. You are all I need. He knows that..."

          As Rody stared at her for a moment he was a little amused by her naivete. For all she thinks she knows everything people have been saying, it's a good thing some of the latest rumors haven't gotten back to her or she would understand just why I'm not enough to keep her safe anymore.
          At this his mind turned back to racing in circles over the new guards as he gently asked her how she wished to spend her last few hours home for a little while. The more he dwelled on the new gaurds the more frustrated he became. He didn't know how to feel about them. He knew he should be glad that there was going to be more, better, higher-paid protection for his lady but he also couldn't help feeling jealous of their new position. After all, he had been enough to protect her for more than a decade, why should she need more than him? And he had heard that the male half of this fancy twin guard, Deran was it?, was rather good looking. Perhaps it was the feline side of him rising up but he couldn't help but feel the hair on the back of his neck rise at the mere thought of his unseen rival...

          "Well, what do you think?" Adriana stood with her hands on her hips, well aware that Rody had not heard one word she said. "What are you so pensive about? We'll be on the road soon and away from here for awhile. So, do you want to go for a ride or not. Havens knows our riding trips are going to be the only thing I'll really miss about this place, beside Lucian of course."
          Without waiting for a response from Rody, she walked out the door, knowing full well that he would follow her into a fire if she asked him to, and very content with that knowledge...


The World
The Cast
The Rules


Copyright © 1999 Abigail Laughlin and the members of the Circle of Stone.