Tahn rode for all he was worth and soon came to the rise where the firs thinned on the lea side of the hill. The road wound down to his and Wendra’s home, a stand of aspen on the near side. Lantern light shone in the windows and fell from an open door in a small rectangle. She waits on me, Tahn thought. But something deeper, something low in his belly put the lie to that.
An open door …
He began pulling his arrow, gripping Jole's sides tight with his legs. He descended into the shallow dale, the image of Ogea railing from atop the Fieldstone fixed in his mind. Bar’dyn, he’d said.
Then the road grew muddy again. Jole did not slow, his hooves throwing sludge. A bolt of lightning arced through the sky. The peal of thunder shattered the silence and pushed through the small vale in waves, each one louder than the last. It echoed outward through the woods in diminishing tolls.
Vaguely, the whispering sound of rain on trees floated toward Tahn. The soft smells of earth and pollen hung on the air, charged with the coming of another storm. Cold perspiration beaded on his forehead and neck.
An open door …
Wendra would not leave the house open to the chill.
Passing the stable, Jole began to slow. As Tahn prepared to jump, another bolt of white fire erupted from the sky, this time striking the ground. It hit at the near end of the vale. The thunder immediately exploded around him. Simultaneously, a scream went up from inside his home. Jole reared, tugging at his reins and throwing Tahn to the ground before racing for the safety of the stable. Tahn lost his bow and began frantically searching the mud for his dropped weapon. The sizzle of falling rain rose, a lulling counterpoint to the screams that continued from inside. Something crashed to the floor of the cabin. Then a wail rose up, a strange howl filled with glee and hatred. It sounded at once deep in the throat, like the thunder, and high in the nose like a child’s mirth.
Than’s heart drummed in his ears and neck and chest. His throat throbbed with it. Wendra was in there! He found his bow and the one arrow. Shaking mud and water from the bowstring and quickly cleaning the arrow’s fletching on his coat, he sprinted for the door. He nocked the arrow and leapt to the stoop.
The home had grown suddenly still and quiet.
Tahn burst in, holding his aim high and loose.
An undisturbed fire burned in the hearth, but everything else in his home lay strewn or broken. The table had been toppled on its side, earthen plates broken into shards across the floor. Food was splattered against one wall and puddled near a cooking pot in the far corner. Wendra’s few books sat partially burned near the fire, their thrower’s aim not quite sure.
Tahn saw it all in a glance as he swung his bow to the left where Wendra had tucked her bed up under the loft.
She lay atop her quilts, knees up and legs spread.
No, Will it not!
Then, within the shadows beneath the loft, Tahn saw it, a hulking mass standing at the foot of Wendra’s bed. It hunched over, too tall to remain upright in the nook beneath Tahn’s upper room. Its hands cradled something in a blanket of horsehair. The smell of sweat and blood and new birth commingled with the aroma of Wendra’s cooking pot.
The creature slowly turned its massive head toward him. Wendra looked too, her eyes weary but alive with fright. She weakly reached one arm toward him, mouthing something, but unable to speak.
In a low, guttural voice the creature spoke, “Quillescent all around.” It rasped words in thick, glottal tones, the way outlanders spoke when they hadn’t yet mastered the common tongue.
“Bar’dyn,” Tahn muttered. His disbelief fell away.
The Bar’dyn stepped from beneath the loft, its girth massive. The fire lit the creature’s fibrous skin, which moved as if independent of the muscle and bone beneath. Ridges and rills marked its hide, creating a natural armor Tahn had only ever heard of in story—armor said to surpass the mail worn by men. It uncoiled its left arm from the blanket it held to its chest, letting its hand hang nearly to its knees. From a leather sheath strapped to its leg, the Bar’dyn drew a long knife. Around the hilt the beast curled its hand—three talon-like fingers with a thumb on each side, its palm as large as Tahn’s face. Then it pointed the blade at him.
Tahn’s legs began to quiver. Revulsion and fear pounded in his chest. This was a nightmare come to life.
“We go,” it gurgled deep in its throat. Its cumbersome, halting speech belied a sharp intelligence in its eyes. When it spoke, only its lips moved. The skin on its face remained thick and still, draped loosely over protruding cheekbones that jutted like shelves beneath its eyes. Tahn glimpsed a mouthful of sharp carious teeth.
As his eyes adjusted to the light within the house, Tahn looked again at Wendra. Blood spots marked her white bed-dress, and her body seemed frozen in a position that prevented her from straightening her legs. That’s when Tahn’s heart stopped. He realized what the Bar’dyn held to its bark-like skin; cradled in a tightly woven blanket of mane and tail was Wendra’s child.
Pressure mounted in Tahn’s belly: hate, helplessness, confusion, fear all a madness like panicked wings in his mind. He’d had only one job: watch safe his sister through her birthing time. The horror of what he saw roiled inside him. And it all came up in a rush. “No!”
His scream filled the small cabin, leaving it that much more silent when it echoed its last. But the babe made no sound. Nor did the Bar’dyn. On the stoop and roof, the patter of rain resumed, like the sound of a distant waterfall. Beyond it, Tahn thought he heard the gallop of hooves on the muddy road. More Bar’dyn!
He knew he must do something. In a shaky motion, he drew down his bow on the creature’s head. The Bar’dyn’s thick lips parted in the semblance of a smile, uneven teeth protruding at odd angles. It gave a rough, laughing snarl; instantly its eyes and face twisted in hatred.
“I’ll take you while I clutch the child. Velle will be pleased.” It growled, and swiped its blade through the air in an impossibly wide, vicious arc. The sound of its awful laughter stole into Tahn’s heart, and his arms began to fail, his aim floundering from side to side.
The Bar’dyn laughed again, and stepped toward him. Tahn’s mind raced, and fastened upon one thought. He focused on the mark on the back of his bow-hand, visually tracing its lines and feeling it with his mind. With a moment of reassurance, his hands steadied, and he drew deeper into the pull, bringing his aim on the Bar’dyn’s throat.
“Unhand the child,” Tahn said, his voice trembling even as his mouth grew dry.
The Bar’dyn paused, looking down at the bundle in its arm. Again it showed its hideous teeth. The creature then lifted the child up, causing the blanket to slip to the floor. Its massive hand curled around the baby’s torso. The infant still glistened from its passage out of Wendra’s body, its skin red and purple in the sallow light of the fire.
“Child came dead, grub.”
Sadness and anger welled again in Tahn, and his chest began to heave at the thought of Wendra giving birth in the company of this vile thing, having her baby taken at the moment of life into these wretched hands. Was the child dead at birth, or had the Bar’dyn killed it? Tahn looked again at Wendra, pallor in her face and sadness etching her features. He watched her close her eyes against the words.
The rain now pounded the roof. But the sound of heavy footfalls on the road was clear, close, and Tahn abandoned hope of escape. One Bar’dyn, let alone several, would likely tear him apart, but he intended to send this one to the Abyss, for Wendra, for her dead child.
He prepared to fire his bow, allowing time enough to speak old, familiar words: “I draw with the strength of my arms, but release as the Will allows.”
But he could not shoot.
He struggled to disobey the feeling, but it stretched back into the part of his life he could no longer remember. He had always spoken the words, always. He did not release of his own accord. He saw in his mind the elk of his afternoon hunt. Neither should that life have been taken; yet the man in the black cloak had suffered it to die, made certain Tahn saw him end a life that should not have ended.
Tahn relaxed his aim and the Bar’dyn howled in approval. “Bound to Will, and so will die!” Its words came like the cracking of timber in the confines of the small home. “But first to watch this one go,” the Bar’dyn said, and turned toward Wendra.
“NO!” Tahn screamed again, filling the cabin, even as the sound of others came up the steps. Tahn was surrounded. They would all die!
Just then the Far woman shot through the fallen door, a sword in each hand. Close behind her came Vendanj, a look of determination on his face that frightened Tahn. The man came to the center of the room, placing himself between Tahn and the Bar’dyn. The Far—Mira—moved so quickly that Tahn could scarcely follow her. At the door, Sutter and Braethen filed in, each brandishing a short knife.
“Hold, Foul!” Vendanj commanded, his voice a deep horn.
The Bar’dyn whirled, and Tahn thought he saw a worried look pass across its thick features. But it did not hesitate. It tossed the child onto the bed and lunged at Vendanj with speed Tahn did not think it possessed. Vendanj prepared to take the blow, but before the Bar’dyn reached him, Mira stepped in, crouching low and driving her swords up in a sharp thrust. One blade bounced harmlessly from the Bar’dyn’s thick skin, the other made a small cut in its chest. The beast came on, swinging its knife—as long as a man’s sword—in quick back and forth motions. Mira had no problem avoiding them, but the Bar’dyn forged a path toward them, causing Vendanj to retreat. The creature out of the Bourne was coming for Tahn. Helpless, he dropped his bow.
A whistling sound grew. Tahn turned toward the sound and saw Vendanj’s hands had begun to rotate. The man raised them in a swift gesture and pounded one fist into the other. Mira dove out of the way, and a streak of light shot into the chest of the Bar’dyn, driving him back. The smell of burning flesh immediately filled the room, attended by a horrible shrieking. At the sound, far out into the wood, a chorus of shrieks could be heard above the din of the rain. Tahn and Sutter looked toward the door, half expecting a band of Bar’dyn to crash in. None came.
Vendanj’s blow threw the Bar’dyn back into the nook beneath the loft. The beast got to its knees quickly, and reached onto the bed between Wendra’s legs, snatching the child’s body. Mira rolled out of her dive and came up prepared to strike. But the Bar’dyn stood, and with a great howl, rammed the wall with its arm and shoulder. The wood gave and the beast tumbled out through the sundered wall into the rain. Vendanj rushed forward, Mira a step ahead. Tahn finally found his legs, and came up between them at the hole in the cabin wall. Together they stared into the stormy night. The Bar’dyn, cupping Wendra’s babe in one hand, moved incredibly fast, following a path to the closest treeline. Lightning flared once, illuminating the Bar’dyn’s hulking form, as it barreled away. When the flash had vanished, so had the Bar’dyn, and only the sounds of rain and receding thunder could be heard.
Mira began to step through the hole, as if to give chase. Vendanj put a hand on her shoulder. “Patience.”
Tahn turned from the hole in the wall of his father’s home, and rushed to Wendra’s side. Blood soaked the coverlet, and cuts in her wrists and hands bore testament to failed attempts to ward off the Bar’dyn. Wendra’s cheeks sagged; she looked pale and spent. She sat up against the headboard, a pillow propped behind her head, crying silent tears.
Sutter brought a bowl of water and some cloth. As Braethen cleansed her wounds and wrapped them, Tahn sat at her bedside wordlessly reproving himself. He tried more than once to look at Wendra, but he could not meet her eyes. He had stood twenty feet away with a clear shot at the Bar’dyn and had done nothing, while the lives of his own sister and her child hung in the balance. He’d silently recalled the old words and known the draw was wrong. He’d followed that dictate over the defense of his sister. Why?
It was an old frustration, and a question to which he had never been able to find an answer.
It haunted him—had haunted him all his life, or what he could remember of his life.
Vendanj spoke softly to Mira. Tahn could not hear his words, but the Far listened close, then finally jumped through the same hole the Bar’dyn had used. Vendanj came to Tahn’s side, looking down at his sister. “Anais Wendra,” he began, using the old form of address rarely heard in the Hollows. “Was your child born still?”
Sutter gasped at the question.
“Hasn’t there been enough—” Tahn started to ask.
“Silence, Tahn, there are things I must know.” Vendanj never looked away from Wendra.
She put a hand on Tahn’s shaking fingers, and squeezed them warmly to reassure him. Tahn silently marveled at her strength.
Her voice strained and hoarse, Wendra managed, “Yes, the child came still.”
A dark look touched Vendanj’s face, and he raised a hand, placing it over Tahn and Wendra’s own. Finally he said, “You must leave the Hollows with us.”
“She can’t ride, Vendanj,” Tahn argued. “After what she’s just been through, how will she manage a horse? And I thought we were leaving the Hollows to protect our families. If she comes, she’s in more danger.”
Vendanj held up a hand to silence Tahn, then looked directly at Wendra. “Anais Wendra? Will you come?” She nodded. “Good. Sutter, gather the horses. Make them ready.” Sutter stared, uncertain. “I’ve no time to wait, root digger! Now go!” Sutter took halting steps backwards toward the door, finally turning and darting into the rain. Outside, the horses whinnied loudly at another crack of thunder.
Vendanj went to the broken wall and stared out into the night, his face cast in shadow, though Tahn could still see the man’s furrowed brow and clenched jaw. Without turning, Vendanj said calmly, “There is no time left to us.”
The rain continued as Tahn aided his sister into a loose pair of his trousers and a heavy coat. He helped her pull on a pair of boots, but before she tried to stand, she reached beneath her bed and took a small wooden box from a hidden shelf. Wendra then tried to get up. She grimaced as she put weight on her legs and fell into Tahn. He shot a worried and angry glance at the tall man still watching the night through the hole, but Vendanj seemed not to notice. Why was he making Wendra come with them? A shrill cry erupted from somewhere in the woods.
Sutter hurried through the door. “The horses are tethered out front. But I don’t think they’ll be good to run far.” He pulled back his cowl and brushed the water from his nose. Still, Vendanj did not turn. Tahn gave Sutter a fretful look, and nodded toward Vendanj.
“Her cloak is behind the door,” Tahn said finally. Braethen took the garment from its peg and helped Tahn drape it around Wendra.
Vendanj pivoted sharply and surveyed the room. “Watch there for Mira,” he said, pointing first to Braethen and Sutter and then toward the hole in the wall. They did as they were told.
Vendanj took two long strides toward Tahn and Wendra, gripped one of her hands and eased her into a chair beside the overturned table. He knelt before her and looked intently into her face. He released her hand and then deliberately re-clasped it, interlocking the bottom two fingers and folding her thumb into his palm. With his other hand he touched her brow. Almost inaudibly he began to speak, never allowing Wendra to look away. A soft glow appeared in his face as he spoke, and Wendra’s own face mirrored the luminosity. A look of wonder spread across Braethen’s features, and Tahn suddenly remembered what Braethen had called the man back in the townsmen’s council room . . . Sheason.
Even in the Hollows it was known that the Sheason were hunted. The League of Civility had branded them spies for the Quiet. The Sheason were expected either to keep their gifts hidden, or to openly disavow their use of the Will; if caught rendering, they were executed; otherwise they were tolerated. Tahn involuntarily took a step back. What if this man was the figure he’d seen in the trees early that morning? Few could summon the Will; it was a gift that had to be conferred, and that only after years of training and careful study.
Vendanj reached for Wendra’s other hand and helped her to her feet. Tahn’s sister stood on her own, a combination of amazement and gratitude in her thin smile. “I—”
“You’re welcome,” Vendanj said. “Sutter, can you see Mira?”
Another shriek rang through the storm, this one deeper and more anguished.
“We can’t wait,” he said, moving toward the door. “Leave her horse tied to the stoop; we must be gone.”
Sutter came away from the wall and rejoined them.
“How can we run the horses, Vendanj?” Braethen asked.
“I’ll see to the horses,” the Sheason replied. “Now listen carefully. We go to Recityv. I did not speak it in town where someone may have overheard. But fix it in your minds. Much depends on us getting there.”
Vendanj took a moment to look at each of them, then strode through the door into the night.Tahn looked at Sutter, whose jaw hung agape. Recityv! The thrill and fright of such a journey, such a large place, made his heart race! The revelation of where the Sheason meant to take them seemed to hit them all like another strike of lightning. In silence, they exchanged questioning looks.
A moment later, they all followed Vendanj through the door. They clambered onto their horses in the pouring rain. Wendra came last.
Vendanj went from mount to mount, removing sprigs from his small wooden case and giving one to each horse as he went. Again, Tahn thought he caught a whiff of peppermint. The Sheason then jumped onto his horse. Tahn looked back at the lone mount still tied to the stoop post—Mira’s.
In the darkness, a lusting, hate-filled cry arose.
“We no longer all need to return to town. Mira provisioned your horses before we left. And we have enough extra for Anais Wendra. Only Braethen need return.” Vendanj sidled up beside him. “Ogea’s satchels. Can you manage to retrieve them alone?”
The insult sliced through the downpour.
“Meet us on the North Road. Move fast. We’ll be leaving the road soon.”
Breathen didn’t wait for further instruction, and was gone. As he raced away, Mira appeared as if from nowhere, jumped into her saddle and kicked her horse into a dead run.
“Stay close.” The Sheason kicked at his mount, and disappeared into the rain after her. Lightning flashed in the sky. As thunder pealed and rolled across the Hollows, Tahn looked at his friend.
“This is what you wanted, Nails.” He kicked Jole to follow. The rest came after them in a dark blur of rain, wind, and fleeing hooves.
Soon the lights of the Hollows faded behind them.