Kalia watched the stranger walk to an empty table. The few moments when their gazes had meshed filled her with a need she couldn’t express. Who was he? The lines of fire on his skin glowed. During the short time she’d felt a connection she wanted to explore, yet she was afraid. He was a Defender, a man who dueled with sword and knife. Just like her father. Did the stranger also revel in causing death? She couldn’t live with such a man. Was he the one chosen as her bondmate?
Her hands tightened. Why would the Swordmaster not choose a man she could gladly accept? Though she had mastered the knife and sword skills, she had refused to join a patrol and be forced to duel.
She wanted to explore the tricks she had discovered. Stopping a wound from bleeding, drawing blood away from or to an area of the body where it was needed and how once she had changed a clot to flowing blood, saving a man’s life. Her mother had warned her not to tell her father how she used the lines of fire. Only Lasara had known and had also succeeded in halting the flow of blood.
“Dreaming of Ingathering Day?”
With a start her head jerked up to meet Petan’s leering stare. His knowing smile raised an anger and fear she dare not express.
“No.” She turned to her brother. “Walk me back to the Women’s Quarter.” Her tolerance for another moment in Petan’s company flew like birds migrating in the autumn.
“I’ll do the honors,” Petan said.
Kalia stared at Robec. The thought of being alone with Petan roiled her stomach. Would her brother agree?
“Not today.” Robec rose. “Being alone with my sister would compromise her. I’ll see her back. Meet me in the salle. Must practice in case I’m challenged tomorrow.”
The burly man ran a finger along Kalia’s arm. “Won’t be long before we’re together.”
Her skin prickled. She stared at the lines of fire on her arm. They had faded just like her mothers appeared after a visit to the Swordmaster’s suite. Petan’s words chilled her. She watched him swagger away.
Robec rose. “Why were you in a trance earlier?”
“That man.” She pointed. “Who is he?”
Robec grasped her arm. “He isn’t anyone you want to know.”
“Our father dislikes him. Tried to get him banished on several occasions but couldn’t prove he’d done anything wrong.”
“Does the Swordmaster need a reason? I’m afraid it’s my fault. During our training days, he was the best with sword and knife. Father didn’t like me to be second so he set Petan and me against him.”
Kalia whirled to face him. “Not fair. I don’t like Petan. There’s something wrong with his lines of fire.”
Robec grasped her shoulders. “Those aren’t to be mentioned where someone might hear. Seeing other people’s lines is forbidden. Didn’t Mother warn you?”
“She did but you and I both see them. Petan’s are almost black. I know he’s your friend, but open your eyes.”
“Kalia, put your dislike aside.”
“What do you know?” Her throat tightened and she could barely choke out the words.
He stared at the ground. “Father has promised you to Petan as his third mate.”
Her legs buckled. She pressed her hands against the table for support. “I’ll refuse.”
“Can you? Father will force you. He has his plans for us. When I’m the next Swordmaster, Petan will be my Right Hand. Lasara’s bondmate will be my Left.”
Kalia pushed away from the table. “And you’re happy with the plans?”
“Why wouldn’t I be?”
She rubbed her arms. “What you’ve been promised goes against tradition. I found some forgotten records from the early days. The best dueler among the Defenders is to be the next leader. Instead of a duel where Father allows you to win, you should have a real challenge. Petan should be banished. He’s already killed two bondmates.” Though angry her voice barely rose above a whisper.
“You don’t know that’s what happened.”
“And you don’t know if what he reported was true. There were no witnesses.”
Kalia ran from the refectory and dashed down the hall. Robec’s friend was a leech just like Father. Petan had sucked vitality from her lines. He had done the same to the two women chosen as his mates. Though the first had died after falling into an icy stream and the other had been killed during a duel, Kalia knew he had been the killer. But there was no proof.
“Kalia, wait.” Robec called.
She continued her frantic race through the winding corridors of the central area of the Hall until the door of the Women’s Quarters appeared. She opened the heavy oak door leaving her brother behind. She wouldn’t listen to his attempt to make his friend’s case.
She dashed across the large lounge and nearly collided with her mother. The older woman wore the clothes she donned when she went to meet her bondmate. Her lines of fire showed health and vitality but when she returned they would be drained.
“Daughter, what’s wrong?”
Kalia grasped her mother’s arm. “Don’t go. This time he might kill you.”
“Roban called for me. My honor is to serve him. He seeks another son should Robec fail. What troubles you? Did you quarrel with your brother?”
Kalia shook her head. “Father intends to bond me to Petan.”
Her mother backed away. “He mentioned he had chosen a mate for you. He said the man would be a power among the Defenders. Why are you angry? Your brother trusts this young man.”
“He shouldn’t.” Kalia grimaced. “I don’t like him.”
“How can your father be wrong? He’s clever at choosing those who are heart bound.”
“This time he failed. Years ago Father ordered Robec to become Petan’s friend. That was before they entered training. Who is Petan? No one knows where he was born.”
“Does that matter? He has shown skill with the sword and knife.”
“Don’t you worry about me? Petan killed two bondmates.”
“Rumors spread by men jealous of the favor this young man has found with your father.” She reached into her pocket. “Since you are to be bonded, this is for you.” She drew out a glittering bracelet.
“Where did you get this? I’ve never seen another like it.”
“My dearest friend passed it to me before she entered the abyss. Her bondmate was your father’s best friend. He fled to the rebels and broke their bond. Your father brought the news to her and offered comfort. She turned away and only spoke to her young children. They were sent to be fostered. There had been a third child who was stolen by his father.”
Kalia felt the weight of the bracelet with its links of silver, gold, electrum and copper. She had read of bracelets of other metals in the ancient records but they had been just made from a single metal.
“It’s beautiful.” She kissed her mother’s cheek and prayed the older woman wouldn’t be drained to death during her stay with the Swordmaster.
She watched her mother walk to the door. Robec had remained outside. Kalia wondered why her mother stayed in these quarters. Many bonded woman whose mates didn’t go on patrol lived with their mates.
A thought occurred. If her mother remained with the Swordmaster she would die. If I am bonded to Petan, so will I. She darted into her sleeping chamber and threw herself on the bed. What am I going to do?
The special knock announced her younger sister. Lasara didn’t wait for an invitation. She crossed the room and sat on the edge of the bed. “Are you excited? In three days you will choose your first bondmate.”
Kalia wiped her eyes on the blanket. “Excited, no. Scared, yes. I intend to refuse the man Father has chosen for me.”
Kalia sat up. “Would you bond with Petan?”
Lasara’s eyes widened. “Ugh. Why does Father get to choose?”
“Some plan of his to make sure Robec follows him.”
“What will you do if he tries to force a duel?”
“Saddle my bihorn and ride away.”
Lasara’s shoulders slumped. “Won’t you be afraid? You’ve never been away from the Hall except during the training exercises.”
“I will be frightened. Better scared than bonded to a man with tainted lines.”
“Where will you go?”
Since she had no real plans she shrugged. “Just away from here.”
Lasara stayed for a bit longer. After she left Kalia found the pack she’d used just once when she trained. She’d refused to be part of a patrol and only bonded women were sent with their mates to tour the sectors. She sat on the bed and tried to plan an escape.