High gray stone walls surrounded the citadel. The ones around the hareem courtyard where the women spent most of their days were lower. As a chill rippled along her spine, Lorana raised her head to appraise the danger. She glanced at the grilled gate separating the women’s area from the outer courtyard. A burly man leaned against the wall with his arms crossed. Lust radiated from his stare. Moments later the austere figure of the chief wizard joined the first man. Mecador’s sly smile added to her discomfort.
Lorana’s hands clenched. She vowed to find an escape before the day arrived when she was destined to be given as a reward to one of the two young men competing for the vacant spot on the wizard’s council.
Since the day her father had sole her to the wizards of the
, she had made the same promise. For
four years she had hoped for a way to escape these evil men. She couldn’t wait
much longer. Last evening hag Mother had told her the two senior fledglings
would soon fight for the vacant seat. Island of Fyre
A third man entered the outer court and stood at a distance from the staring pair. For some reason the tall, lean trainee failed to cause her as much alarm as the burly one. From the gossip among the women the husky one had the favor of Mecador. No matter. She had no desire to remain as a prisoner to be owned by a wizard and used as the man willed.
Lorana’s hands clenched. Resentment churned her gut. She hated her position in life. Not forever, she vowed and walked to the work area.
She poured several cups of dried fyrethorn berries into a mortar. She slid the pestle over the surface crushing the berries to a powder to be added to the cauldron bubbling over the first fire. The result would be a cordial.
The acrid aroma of brewing fyrethorn poison rose from a second kettle in a spiraling pattern. Lorana hated working with the death-bringing liquid. The wizards sold the poison and the cordial to the slavers for supplies. They also sold captured desert clansmen and women. Her hands tightened on the pestle and ground more berries to dust.
She added the powder to a simmering pot and stirred. A hand with long slender fingers grasped her shoulder. She stiffened. The chief wizard turned her to face him. The stirring stick clattered on the stones. Her eyes met the cruel cold gaze of Mecador, also called Supreme.
“I’m pleased to see you hard at work. You always seem to be busy, not like these other creatures.” He indicated the women seated in clusters around the courtyard.
She kept her gaze steady. “Keeping busy makes the days pass.”
He chuckled. “See that you remember your place.”
His oily voice made her want to look away. She dare not. To do so would court punishment, something she had avoided since her first year here. “I do what I’m told.”
His smile raised her to near panic. He stroked her face with a finger. Fear galloped like a runaway burden beast. She fought to control her racing emotions. This man savored fear. She hoped to hide the revulsion she felt.
“So my dear, I hope you’ve made enough poison. The traders find it useful during their travels. If the jugs fetch prime goods I’ll bring you a special gift.” His hand brushed her chest.
Lorana willed herself not to flinch. “There are four jugs of poison. The fifth is cooking. There will be three of the cordial.”
“Not enough. We need six jars of poison and four cordial. If you can’t fulfill our needs you will be punished.” He pointed to a woman tied to a cross. “Like her.”
“There are sufficient berries for the cordial but more thorns are needed. They should be picked before they fall so they have more potency and fewer are needed.” She stared into his eyes. “I could leave the hareem and gather them.”
His eyes hardened. “The tangle is no place for any woman, especially one soon to be claimed.” His gaze caressed her body. “You’ll be a tasty morsel. The young wizards who compete for a place on the council will be glad to become your master. Which one do you prefer?”
She wanted to say she had no desire for either man. “The choice isn’t mine to make.” His laughter reminded her of the cry of a carrion crow, the huge black birds she’d seen at home hovering over dead animals.
“How true. Mine is the choice.” He cupped her breasts. “You are so unlike the women of the hareem. Hair like the dark of night and eyes like the skies of day.” He leaned closer. “I will be the first to taste your sweetness.”
“You?” She hadn’t meant to speak.
“Hasn’t Hag Mother told you about the duties of a woman who is a reward?”
She shook her head. “Just that I would belong to one of two young men.”
“That’s true. As Supreme I will school you in your duties to the man who will own you.”
Lust dissolved the frost in his gray eyes. He licked lips surprisingly thick for his gaunt face. Lorana wanted to run but she couldn’t show her fear. Her hands shook. She clasped them behind her back.
“Don’t fear. You will learn how to satisfy me. Your owner will be enchanted by your skill. The day after trading ends and the competition is completed you will begin your training. The winner will observe and learn.”
Lorana forced a smile. Thoughts of him touching more than her face made her ill. “What happens to the one who fails?”
“He will be driven from the citadel. If he survives on his own until spring he can return. Weak wizards are of no use. Soon all men and women of the
will fear us. As will men of other
lands.” Island of Fyre
What good was fear when the wizards never traveled farther from the citadel than their twice yearly trips to the desert and the occasional trek to hunt or fish? She bowed her head. “I must stir the cordial and add more water and berries to complete the amount needed for trade.”
“Go then. Remember the day comes closer when you will face your destiny. Cregan and Arton face a testing time of their abilities and the power they can elicit from the stones. Cregan will win. He is my student and son. Arton’s mentor died before he completed his student’s training.” He strode away.
Lorana returned to the fire to stir and complete the simmering cordial. She added water and selected more berries to crush. As she breathed in the aroma a memory arose.
During her first year at the citadel, an elderly wizard had died. His student and son, Mecador, had taken the vacant council seat. Why hadn’t Arton been granted his mentor’s seat? The chief of the council must have a plan.
Her hands shook. The stirrer clanged against the sides of the cauldron. She feared he planned to invade her homeland using the power of the wands to breach the blocked harbor. Was there a way to stop him? She knew of none.
She left the cordial to simmer and walked to the kettle of poison. The brew thickened. She pulled the vessel from the fire. Taking a large jug she poured the liquid into the container. Cutting a strip of wax from a block she sealed the cork. Until more thorns arrived she could brew no more. She finished the cordial and filled and sealed two smaller jugs.
Lorana rubbed her eyes. With weary steps she plodded to her narrow cell and lay on the pallet. The only furnishings in the room other than the narrow cot were a small table with a pitcher and basin and a small dresser. Her dresses hung on hooks.
Though exhausted from her labors in the courtyard sleep remained as illusive as a will-o-wisp. Her thoughts dwelled on her only reason for remaining alive.
How could she find the perfect time? Twice at night she’d crept from the hareem to use a secret exit from the storeroom and left the citadel. She had gathered things she would need to stay alive in the wilds. Her spoils lay in the center of the fyrethorn thicket and were safe from discovery. She prayed for a time when most of the council left.
Lorana turned and turned. Cregan and Arton appeared in her dreams. Cregan grasped her arm and scowled. His meaty fingers dug into her flesh. Arton held her other arm and pulled. Mecador appeared in front of her. He laughed.
With a gasp she sat up. She had to finish her preparations and flee before those dire dreams became her reality and her chance of freedom vanished.