A flash of lightning brightened the sleeping chamber. Ash woke with a start and burrowed into the pillows. The scent of trouble rode the air currents that threaded through the open window slats. Her heart thudded in her chest. Like the beating of a giant’s club against a massive drum, thunder sounded. Again, lightning flashed and cast green, red, white and blue slashes across the sky.
The air held no threat of rain. ‘Twas like the heat storms of summer, unnatural at this time of year, for the waning days of autumn marked the season.
Ash calmed her racing thoughts and tasted the air, for that was her element. A frown formed within and without. From the land beyond the four walls of the henge, she caught the odors of fires, animals and men. From inside the keep, there was little except the aromas of her parents and siblings.
Something was wrong. Where were those who served the Dom and Doma of Wesren? Ash propped herself against the pillows. If she had her younger brother’s affinity for things of earth, she could read the stones of the ancient tower and know what had passed while she slept. Where were the men servants and maids? ‘Twas as though the henge had been abandoned by those who lived within the four walls.
The chamber door creaked. Ash froze until a familiar scent reached her. “Mama, what’s wrong?”
The Doma Calanda slipped across the room and sat on the bed. “Ashlea, still your thoughts.”
Ash struggled to obey the sharp command. Her mother seldom spoke this way. “Why?”
“Thoughts travel on the wind and may be read by those who wish us ill.” She grasped Ash’s hand.
“Dress in your warmest clothes. As soon as you’ve finished, go to the inner room
”The urgency in her mother’s voice raised fear. “What’s happening?”
“We’ve been betrayed. An army surrounds the henge. Your father and I believe the secret of the openings in the walls is known by those who seek to force us to use our powers for their ends.”
“Who has done this? Do I know the enemy’s smell? Have I seen his face?”
“Several years ago, your father’s step-brother came to the henge. He’s one of those who stand against us.”
Ash thought about her step-uncle. His face slipped into her thoughts. Prince Zedron had brought gifts for her and her siblings. He’d seemed nice, but she had a vague memory of hearing voices—his and her parents’—raised in argument.
Why would he want to destroy the henge? When Papa had shown affinities for the elements, he’d given up his claim to Wesren. Zedron of the House Wesren had been named prince. As well as being papa’s step-brother, they were distant cousins.
Ash grasped her mother’s hand. “Why did he send the army here? Doesn’t he know what you and Papa do?”
“He doesn’t believe or care. Greed, envy and a lust to rule where once four henges held the land in balance drive him. He doesn’t act alone. Your father and I fear he’s aided by one of the Doms.”
“The one I suspect has no ties of kinship to us.”
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“Why not someone from the low lands?”
Her mother sighed. “Though at times, those with affinities like your father are born in the low lands, I believe someone from the high lands has allied with darkness.”
Ash swallowed. “Why would anyone who could do good want to do evil? Where are the people of the henge? Their scents are gone.”
“Away to safety.”
“Mama, what will we do?” Ash caught the edge of a thought and feared the Doma’s answer. She held back tears and hoped she’d misheard. After all, her talents was just emerging, as were those of her siblings.
Ash and her twin would celebrate their fourteenth name day on Winter Day. Her younger siblings had seen their twelfth on Summer Day. How could they stand against one whose talents were fully developed?
“You and your siblings will leave the henge.”
This time, the thought behind the words was clear. “Alone?”
“You must. Your father and I will remain lest the destruction of the henge brings complete disaster.”
Ash caught the picture of a place of sand and stone where not even a stunted plant grew. “Where?”
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“Soutren where the henge stood. That will not come to pass here.”
“If there’s an army and they know the secret of the walls, how will we leave without being caught? We can’t change into birds, fish or beasts the way the Doms and Domas in the old tales did.”
“That way isn’t for you. Remember the path beneath the mesa where you and I walked this spring? Remember the way and the refuges of the forest on the road to Cedris?”
Ash shivered. They’d been a day, a night and most of another day in the subterranean passage. “Must we take that road?”
“’Tis the only outlet yet unblocked. Enter Cedris through the gate I showed you and seek shelter in the hidden garden. Come, dress. I must wake Kylandra. You know how she hates being roused from sleep.”
Ash rubbed her hand and recalled the morning she’d been sent to wake her sister. The scar on her palm showed proof of Ky’s first calling of fire.
When the door closed behind her mother, Ash slipped from the bed and hurried to her wardrobe. By touch, she found a woolen riding skirt, a silk undertunic and an overtunic of mamar wool. She pulled on heavy stockings and picked up fur-lined boots and her cloak.
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At the door, she paused, then ran back to her chest for the sack of coins her father had given her on each of her name days. Since the garden her mother had shown her was nearing the dormant season, coins might be needed in the city.
She stepped into the hall and tasted the air to be sure all was safe. Tonight, no torches burned. Deep shadows filled the space. She caught her twin’s scent and waited for him at the top of the spiral staircase that led to the keep’s lowest level.
“Ash,” Bran whispered.
“Here.” She gulped a breath. A tickling stirred in her head. She grasped his hand and pressed against the wall. “Shield your thoughts. Someone spies.”
Warmth rose from the massive stones at her back. Even in the deepest cold of winter, no fires were needed to provide heat. Only in the kitchen were there fireplaces. The accomplishments of the ancient builders awed her.
The spying sensation vanished. Ash tugged on Bran’s hand. “Let’s go.”
He put one hand on her shoulder and the twin bond clicked into place. Ash grasped the raining to use as a guide. When she paused on the third landing, a glimmer of light beckoned like a friend. She used the connection to her
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twin instead of speaking aloud. What did you sense outside?
No one is in the henge. Beyond the walls, men full of anger and greed are camped. The vapor in the air holds the bitterness of their sweat.
More than I had time to count.
Ash reached for the railing and started down the last flight of stairs. At the bottom, she halted so abruptly Bran nearly knocked her down. The usually open entrance to the inner chamber had vanished.
Before long, Doma Calanda and Ky arrived. The Doma’s fair hair hung to her waist. Each of the multitude of braids was tipped with a colored bead.
Ky rubbed her eyes. “Mama, I’m so tired.”
Ash turned and watched her father and Jay descend the last few steps. Her father’s bronze skin was the color of hers, but she had her mother’s near-white hair. So did her siblings. Ash and Jay had their mother’s facial features, while Ky and Bran favored their father.
Doma Calanda sang a series of notes. The edges of the wall parted to allow access to the inner room. A table in the chamber’s center was a slab of polished red stone. The walls were paneled with sheets of alabaster. Green marble
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shelves held talismans and other items used by the Doma and Dom to balance the elements of the Wesren quadrant. Beneath Ash’s feet, the blue stone floor felt cold. She sat on one of the chairs to pull on her boots.
Dom Jonden called fire to light the wax tapers set in sconces along the walls. He set the braziers burning. The aromas of herbs and spices filled the air. As though this were a lesson, Ash tried to isolate each scent to learn the blend and the purpose. Once the six had gathered around the table, the wall re-sealed. No thought or spoken word would be heard outside the room.
Ash sat beside her twin. Ky and Jay were on the other side. Before her parents took their seats, they carried talismans from the shelves and placed two before each child.
Ash saw a silver flute, not the wooden one she used in practice, but one whose notes would stir the air. Were the ones before her siblings gifts to activate their powers?
The Dom and Doma sat at either end of the oval table. Doma Calanda took Ash’s and Ky’s hands. Dom Jonden held Bran’s and Jay’s hands. Ash felt the energy pulse between them.
“We have been betrayed and you, the hope of the future, must leave the henge,” the Doma said. “Remember the things we have taught you. Ashlea will lead you on a road she
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has traveled before. In Cedris, you will find a place of safety. There, you will wait until a person comes for each of you and takes you to where you can learn and master your elements.”
Ash swallowed against the lump in her throat. The idea of being separated from her siblings brought tears to her eyes. There’d been no other children in the henge. The four had become more than siblings. They were friends. She saw the tear-glistened eyes of the two across the table. Bran’s hold on her hand tightened.
“The separation will not be for all time,” Dom Jonden said. “You will find each other and others of your kind. For in you and the ones you discover is a uniting of high and low lands.”
“Once there was one land with high and low united,” Doma Calanda began. “Came those who now dwell in the low lands. Came they seeking refuge from disaster. Those who now dwell in the high lands were rovers and most called no place home. Gladly they ceded the plains to the newcomers. They built four henges, each a home for a Dom and Doma.”
Dom Jonden took up the tale. “Some of my people were discontented with a simple life. They formed Houses and battled for the land. The four Great Houses could not defeat each other, so Wesren, Soutren, Nortren and Easren divided the land into four quadrants and each
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named one of their own as prince. Years later, three of the houses sought to seize the henges within their borders. Those henges fell and there was disaster in those quadrants. Only House Wesren refused to take arms against their henge. Where the other quadrants suffered, Wesren prospered. Alas, they now seek to destroy. Thus you children must leave.”
Questions without number bombarded Ash’s thoughts. Bran’s thoughts echoed hers. She saw the same puzzlement on Ky’s and Jay’s faces.
“In a secluded canyon at the foot of the mesa, there are ponies and supplies enough to last several weeks,” Dom Jonden said. “When you reach Cedris, free the ponies. You will have no need of them in the city.”
Doma Calanda rose. “Ashlea, to you is the mastery of Air. The flute and this stone are yours.” Over Ash’s head, the Doma slipped a silver chain with a crystal so clear it seemed nearly invisible. “To you the things of the mind, the reading of thoughts carried in the air, the knowing of aromas, the calling of the wind, music to stir the air into patterns to influence others and to open hidden doors.”
Dom Jonden stood behind Bran. “Brandien, to you is the mastery of Water. The scrying cup and this crystal are yours.” He fastened a blue-white chain holding a clear blue
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stone around Bran’s neck. “To you are matters of the heart, the reading of emotions and the balancing of fluids within and without. In the scrying cup, you will see images of what occurs in the land. Potions brewed in the cup will gain strength. To you, the ability to balance unstable minds and bodies, to take and feel the emotions of others. You will be able to find sweet water, no matter how deep.”
The Doma moved to Jay. “Jaydren, to you is the mastery of Earth. The staff of living wood and this crystal are yours.” A green stone dangled on a gold chain. “From beneath the earth and above, you will know when things are right. To you, the feeding of men’s bodies. With the staff, you can enhance the growth of all plants. You can unearth the riches of the earth. Stone, metal, crystals are yours to use for the wellbeing of others.”
The Dom placed a crystal on a red-gold chain around Ky’s neck. “Kylandra, to you is the mastery of fire. The flame sword is yours to bear. Fire is light and light brings courage. You are action and will know how to fire the spirits of others. You will mesh with all manner of beasts. Fire brings both life and death. This sword can be used for war or for peace. To have one, you must face the other.”
“Now, children, the time grows short,” Doma Calanda said.
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Ash watched her parents’ faces change from Dom and Doma to the visages of the ones who had loved and raised her and her siblings. Grief showed in their eyes and subtly altered their scents.
A cup appeared in her mother’s hands. “Come, share this cup. Then you must go.”
“Mama, Papa, come with us,” Ky cried.
Dom Jonden held Ky in his arms. “The henge will fall. Your mother and I must remain to see the ending causes as little harm as possible to the land and the people.”
Ash drank from the cup. Warmth infused her. She kissed her mother’s cheek and was enfolded for a moment.
“Be brave. Be wary. Trust not the ones whose thoughts are completely shielded. Trust the crystals for should you meet those who mean you harm, the stones will grow warm against your skin.”
She left her mother and went to her father. He kissed her forehead. “Go. Know you are loved now and forever. Make haste on your journey through the passage for we don’t know how long we can hold.”
Ash donned her cloak, took a bundle of torches, a packet of journey food and a flask of water from one of the shelves. She lifted her flute and played the notes her mother had taught her. The wall of stone at the rear of the chamber
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parted. The torch she’d freed from the bundle flared. Though she wanted to remain, at the head of her siblings, Ash stepped into the darkness.