The midday sun of the late summer day beamed on the caravan consisting of three Rover wagons, several extra coursers and eight riders. Val tugged off his neck cloth and wiped his sweaty brow. Today he rode as rear guard and used his affinity for Water to search for emotions that spoke of strangers. As yet, the group seemed to be the only travelers for miles.
He scanned the horizon. The grassy plains stretched to the east and the west of the old rutted road leading toward a distant grove of trees. The forest could hide attackers, but as yet he sensed no unknown enemies.
The heavy loads stored in the wagons caused the slow progress. Val had to admit Doma Jandia was the best trader he had ever encountered. Not only did they have extra mounts there was enough food and grain to last a month or more along with the tools they needed to repair the abandoned keep. He grinned. They still had credit with the Rovers.
An outburst of angry emotions impinged on his peace. Val’s hands clenched. Four days of travel beneath a hot sun had brought tempers to the fore, especially from those whose affinity for Fire guided their actions.
Ky and her courser tore toward him. With one hand she held the reins. The other hand held a raised sword that blazed with flames. Behind her, Zand galloped. His sword showed a plume of fire. “Take that back,” he shouted.
Val rode toward the pair. “Enough,” he cried. “Dampen those flames. Do you want to set the grass aflame and endanger us all?”
“She called me a baby,” Zand said.
Val sucked in a breath. “What did you say to her?”
“That I was better with a sword.”
Val nodded. “Since you have been practicing with one since you could hold a blade, how else could you be? I say you’re both acting like children.” In some ways they both were, not only in age but in experience. “Why don’t the pair of you spar after evening meal when Dragen can watch and comment?”
The flames on Ky’s sword died. She turned to Zand. “A good idea.”
“Just blades. No flames,” Zand said.
The pair wheeled and rode off. Val watched them go. Sometimes he wished he could use his affinity for Water to empty a cloud on his friends’ heads. A longing for shade and coolness arose. Would they reach the trees in time to make camp for the night?
Why were there no farms or villages in this area? Was this part of the highlands? He knew the Rovers’ camp was in the neutral ground between the lowlands and the highlands. How much further must they travel to reach the deserted keep Dragen knew? The abandoned dwelling was to be a refuge where they could learn to use their affinities. This meant another change in his life.
His thoughts slid to the many times his life had undergone an upheaval. He had no recollection of his mother’s death and few from the years he and his father had lived off the land before joining the Rovers for several seasons. Those days had been ones of learning and of belonging.
Then his father had been drawn to Cedris. Flashes of memories from the day his father had died at the hands of Dom Senet made Val’s hands shake. He pushed his grief aside and tried to smooth the raw places.
One area remained abraded. He knew the children who had lived with him in Cedris were safe with the Rovers. They had been his family until his affinity had forced a chasm to separate them.
A shudder rolled through his body. A member of his adopted family had envied his talent. Had that been the reason for Larkea’s betrayal or had her dislike of Geni spurred the angry reaction? Larkea’s actions had resulted in his and Geni’s capture by Dom Senet and had placed all their friends in danger. When he recalled the coldness of the dom’s green eyes, Val felt ill.
He had been so deep in thought he hadn’t noticed Bran’s arrival. Val smiled at his friend. With their pale blond hair, green eyes and the deep copper of their skins they could have been siblings except their features were different. Even Bran and his twin had little facial resemblance. Val halted his courser. “Is there a problem?”
“Sort of. Your emotions are so loud I can’t block them. Ash and Kirlon said your bitterness scents the air. We’re worried about you.”
“Sorry.” Val stroked his steed’s neck. “I was thinking about all the changes in my life and lost control. I also miss the children.” How could he explain his losses to anyone?
Bran nodded. “About the children. You haven’t deserted them. Leaving them with the Rovers gives them chances they didn’t have in Cedris. It’s also better for them not to be with us.”
“I know.” Val smiled. “Larkea thrives and enjoys her new knowledge about plants and healing. The boys are gaining farming skills. Even Svana has found a place. Still, I miss them.”
A covey of grass hens erupted from the brush. Val used a slingshot to bring down several. Bran dismounted and gathered the birds. By the time the last one had been flushed they had eight.
“I wonder if any of our companions have been successful hunters, too.” Though sacks of dried foods were stored in the wagons, Val was glad to add to the larder.
“We’ll soon know.” Bran tied the fowl to his saddle, mounted and rode away.
Val followed at a slower pace. He remained alert and searched for stray emotions. The only ones he sensed belonged to his companions. By the time the sun sank toward the horizon, the wagons had reached the edge of the forest. Val tended to his steed and then joined Ash at the fire to pluck the birds.
The clang of swords and Dragen’s calling patterns accompanied his work. Val chuckled. “That should lessen their anger.”
“Being settled will help more.”
The three with Earth affinities arrived. Jay and Dyna carried greens and mushrooms. Geni appeared with huge ground nuts and a basket of summa berries. “I have cuttings and roots for a kitchen garden,” she said.
“Maybe there’s a growing house.” Jay put the greens in a bowl.
Val popped one of the berries into his mouth. “I wonder why the area is so deserted.”
Dragen joined them. “In answer to your question, this area is part of the neutral land. To the west there are several villages where people of the highlands and lowlands have settled.” He nodded to Ash. “You and your siblings stayed near one of the villages when you lived at the farm with my sister.”
“And this keep?” Val asked.
“Is on the edge of the highlands. The place was once the home of distant relatives. When the refugees fled some disaster in their homeland and arrived on our shores, the family of Rangers, farmers, doms and domas decided to move higher into the mountains. Occasionally Jandia visits them. Several members of the family have been her students. One is a talented healer. Ilvan is his name.”
Val spitted the birds and set them over the fire. If the doma visited these people, he hoped they remained friends. With Dom Senet and his cronies, there were enough enemies in the land.
“How long before we reach the keep?” Val asked.
The older man looked up. “Two or three days if we all rode. Five days should see us to what was the home farm and then several hours to the keep.”
Val wondered if any of the crops had gone wild and could be harvested. Living in the Cedris garden had spoiled him. Having fresh fruit and vegetables had been wonderful. For a moment he thought about Cook and her family. Were they safe?
The moment he finished the meal he grabbed his sleep saque and retreated to a spot beneath the trees. As he drifted to sleep, he wished the days until they reached their new home would fly past. An impatience to be settled and to learn more about his affinity, filled him.
Five days later they emerged from the forest into a field of stunted grain. Their travel had been marked by halts to clear fallen trees and brush from the old road.
Val examined the seed heads on several varieties and grinned. Though not prime grain, they could harvest enough for the coursers and themselves. He stared at the distant walls of the keep. Tomorrow, he thought.
Peels of laughter startled him. Geni and Dyna gathered dark blue berries from a tangle surrounding the fields. Ky and Jay pulled crispins and pesches from trees.
“Would you stop,” Ash called. “I can’t catch what both of you throw and there’s nothing to put them in.”
Val grabbed an empty basket and ran to help. “Don’t be so greedy,” he called to the twins.
The pair jumped to the ground. “There are olla trees, too.”
Val made a face. “We’ll have to pick and render them. Outside, I hope.”
Ash’s grimace matched his. “Agreed. I hope we find a growing house. With three who have an affinity for Earth tending the plants, we can have fresh food all year. I can’t wait to reach the keep.”
Val lifted the basket of fruit. “We need to approach the walls with caution. According to Dragen, the place has been empty for generations. Who knows what pests have taken refuge there. Bran and I should go first and see what creatures we can send away.”
“Sending them away might not be a good idea. What if they return?”
Bran strolled toward them. “She’s right. Ash and Kirlon can scent the air. You and I can call them.
Zand and Ky can send fire to burn them. I imagine we’ll encounter ratis.”
Val considered both plans and realized Bran’s was more sensible. “Sounds like your idea is the best one. We need to discuss this with Dragen and Doma Jandia.”
“With everyone.” Ash walked toward the fire.
The next morning, the six sent out for the keep. Ash and Kirlon led the group. The walls drew closer. Val saw parts of the structure had gaps where stones had fallen. They entered where there had once been a wooden gate and halted. The tall central tower seemed intact as did the single story building that ran from the front and around the sides of the tower.
Ash looked at them, “I smell ratis and several scents I don’t know. They are foul.”
“Spiders, snakes and other vermin,” Kirlon said.
“Are they hostile to the ratis?” Bran asked.
“I don’t know. Their odor is unpleasant,” Ash said. “Maybe there are scorpons lurking.”
A yowl startled Val. He turned to see both pair of forstcats move toward the building. He drew a deep breath. “Are we ready?”
“Yes,” the others said.
Val sent a call message. He heard Bran’s urging join his. A swarm of black, brown and white mottled creatures poured from the building. How had so many survived when there were no people? Then he became too involved in destroying the pests to find an answer.
Lashes of flame shot from the swords Ky and Zand carried. Val, Kirlon and Bran used slingshots to pelt the mass. The forstcats caught the stunned creatures and snapped their necks. The stench of burning fur made Val’s stomach lurch. Slowly, the stench faded. He realized Ash stirred the air to drive the odors away.
Val continued to call ratis until only nestlings appeared. The forstcats shredded these with their claws and ran into the single story annex of the keep. Val and the others followed. The four felines flowed into narrow cracks in the walls. They drove vividly colored lizards and bronze striped snakes into the open.
Once the lower level was clear of vermin, the six escorted by the forstcats, moved from level to level of the tower making sure each of the four floors were vermin-free before moving to the next.
The tower stairs were on the right-hand side of the building and had openings on each level into a hall. On the first two floors of the keep tower a large chamber and a bathing room provided sleeping space for groups. The young women chose the first level and the young men the second. On each of the other floors there were four chambers and a bathing room. Doma Jandia and Dragen would be comfortable there.
By mid-afternoon, Val stepped through the door and stood on the walled space of the roof. He stared at the vista and saw fields, forest and the rising mountains.
Ash sent a message to Doma Jandia on the winds. Soon everyone was engaged in cleaning the keep for occupancy. Val smiled. They were here and safe. At least for now.