The time has come. Ash bolted upright. Her heart pounded with a beat reminiscent of one created by a mad drummer. Her gaze swept the room. She saw the other young women slept. Had someone spoken on the winds or had the words been part of a dream she couldn’t remember? When her racing heart slowed she cautiously opened her senses to read the winds of the keep. Using her affinity for Air she searched. The only person awake was the doma and the cry hadn’t arisen from the elderly woman.
Fingers of moonlight slid through the shuttered windows. She moved to the edge of the bed and pushed her feet into her house boots. Ash crept to the window to peer outside. She knelt on the stone bench and opened the shutters a crack. A gasp pushed past her lips when she saw the birds, one light and the other dark. The pair circled the keep.
She rubbed her arms to banish the chill of the late winter night. “Mama, Papa,” she whispered. “What does your arrival mean?”
Since the destruction of the Wesren henge the birds had appeared at auspicious moments. Sometimes the pair signaled safety and other times they brought a warning of danger. What was the meaning of this sighting?
“The time has come.” Softly she whispered the words. Like a jolt of lightning a thrill of excitement swept through her. Did that mean her and her halfling companions were ready to leave the safety of the keep and venture forth against their enemies? There were more opponents than she cared to face. She considered the number of doms and domas who followed Dom Senet, the four halflings he’d trained plus Zand’s former step-mother and her two sons. A shudder rolled through her body. There was also the voice of evil she’d heard on the winds.
Two years and a season had passed since the return from the quests for the remaining halflings, the heirs and the talismans. The sixteen companions had worked hard to gain mastery of their affinities of the elements. Four whose element was Air, four Fire, four Earth and four Water united in four mixed quartets. A sliver of fear stabbed. Were they ready? She fought a desire to return to her bed and pull the covers over her head.
As the edge of the sun appeared above the distant mountains Ash closed the shutters. She thought about the birds and knew hiding was as impossible as a return to sleep. Not while her emotions rose and fell in waves. Should she wake the others and tell them about the birds? She frowned. If she did Ky, her younger sister, would scold and rouse everyone in the keep.
Ash grabbed her clothes and dashed to the necessary to wash and dress. Before she stirred the others into action she had to speak to Doma Jandia. Perhaps their teacher could interpret the meaning of the words and the arrival of the birds.
As she hurried down the stairs she quested for the doma. The elderly woman wasn’t in her room on the fourth level of the keep. The doma’s mind scent rose from the stillroom. When Ash dashed from the third level to the second she heard stirrings from the chamber where her brothers and the other male halflings slept. Since she wanted advice before those with affinities plied her with questions she grasped the railing and sped downstairs.
On the first level she scurried along the hall and opened the door of the stillroom. Shelves on one wall held jars of various herbs, spices and flowers. Ash tasted the air as she’d been taught and isolated attars of roses, lavender and the scent of rosemary.
The elderly woman who had taught Ash and her siblings since the day they’d found refuge with her sat on a bench at a stone table. She rested a pestle in the mortar, turned and smiled. Hair turned to silver by age framed the doma’s lined face. The gaze from her brilliant green eyes met Ash’s. In contrast to the copper-hued skin of the halflings, Doma Jandia’s was as pale as linen bleached by the sun. Until this moment Ash hadn’t realized how much the doma had aged.
“You’re astir early,” Doma Jandia said.
Ash nodded. “I heard a voice and saw the birds.”
The light of knowing flashed in the elderly woman’s eyes. “Tell me the entire story.”
In a few words Ash spoke of her awakening. “Do you think the time has come for us to leave the keep?”
The doma nodded. “I believe so. Though I would rather keep you here and safe you young people have a destiny. You have learned all I can teach you and more since you aren’t afraid to try new approaches. Yes, you’re ready to begin cleansing the princedoms. Once that is accomplished you can confront Senet and his allies.”
Those words caused Ash to straighten her shoulders. Fear and excitement slithered through her thoughts. Her breath caught. “Are you sure?” The time had come but she wavered between action and retreat.
The doma left the table. “Senet is on the move. I don’t know what he plans but the air in the highlands shimmers with strange energies.”
Ash’s hands clenched. “How much danger do he and his cronies pose for us?”
Doma Jandia grasped one of Ash’s hands and uncurled the tightened fingers. “He has full use of all four elements. Alone he can overpower any two or three of you unless you are joined in quartets of both mixed or a single element. When you are he cannot overcome the meld formed even when you are distant from each other. Know that to be the truth.”
Some of the churning in Ash’s gut subsided. “Where should we go first?” The desire to avoid Dom Senet was foremost in her thoughts. She fought dark waves of fear threatening to engulf her. She couldn’t forget the times he had invaded her thoughts in attempts to lure her into his web. A vision of a huge black spider with the face of the dom made her shiver.
He’s not here. You have barriers against him.
What if he can break them?
Doma Jandia stroked Ash’s hand. “You are safe. Though in the days to come you will face danger you are strong enough to defeat him."
“I pray you’re right.” Ash swallowed. “Where must we go first?”
“The four princedoms must be cleansed. Begin in Easren, then Soutren, Nortren and Wesren in that order. By the time the four are cleansed the sixteen of you will be ready to face Senet.”
“Why in that order?”
“’Tis the order of the destruction of the henges and the murders of the doms and domas who lived in them. In Easren the damage has lasted the longest. With the approach of spring the conditions have become dire.” The doma stepped back. “Assemble your companions and tell them the time for action has come. Use the inner room where the layers of protection are the strongest. Set no plans in the open.”
“Lest you be over heard by Senet when he’s reading the winds.”
“How will we know where to go?”
“Let your gems lead you.”
Ash paused in the doorway. “Do you think the barriers over the keep have eroded?”
The doma pressed a hand on the long table. “I pray not but where Senet is involved there’s no reason to take chances. As you have discovered there are places in the highlands where the winds cannot be read.”
Ash nodded. “Do you think he’s present in one of those places?”
“Perhaps. I will seek but I may not learn.” The doma smiled. “Go, break your fast, see to your chores and make your plans.”
Ash hurried to the huge kitchen where the sounds of meal preparation and the aroma of cooking food scented the air. She listened to the chatter of her friends and knew her news would end their banter.
Her twin, Bran and their friend, Zand, stood at the fireplace and swung a huge kettle from the flames. Together they carried this to the serving table. Ky and Jay, her younger siblings, stood at a brazier and turned flatcakes and slices of cured shoat. Other friends gathered near the serving table and selected the food they needed to break their fast.
Ash joined the line. She carried a bowl of porridge to the granite table. She sat on a bench and reached for honey. When all were seated she cleared her throat. “We must meet in the inner room when our chores are finished.”
Zand arched a brow. “Why?”
“Tell you when we’re all there.” She bent her head and ate. When she finished she began her day’s chore of cleaning the kitchen and starting soup for the midday meal. As soon as she completed her share she scurried to the room behind the tower stairs. Here, no windows were present. When sealed the single tightly fitted door prevented spying. Even the stones of the wall were bonded with a sealant.
Several stacks of pillows rested against one wall. Ash chose one and then walked to the shelves holding books and maps. She selected a rolled one of the princedom of Easren.
Before long her companions arrived. Sydli, the last to enter, used her affinity for Air to seal the door. Now, no one other than those in the room could hear what was said. Neither could any sound from outside enter the sanctuary.
The others chose their places. Ash noticed how they clustered in their mixed quartets. She waited until everyone sat. In one hand she clutched the map. “The time has come for us to leave the keep.”
Gasps greeted the announcement. Zand leaned forward. “Are you sure?”
Ash nodded. “This is what I heard and saw.” She related the tale of the voice and the appearance of the birds.
“That’s not fair.” Ky glared. “Why didn’t you wake me? I wanted to see them.”
“I was so entranced by the sight I couldn’t move,” Ash said. “They haven’t appeared since we began our studies. When they vanished I dressed and went to Doma Jandia. She said we’re ready to begin. First we must cleanse Easren where the first henge was destroyed and the keepers died.”
“All of us?” Zand asked.
Ky bounded to her feet. “When do we leave?”
Ash waved her impetuous sister down. She unrolled the map of the princedom of Easren. After removing the clear white gem identifying her affinity as Air she held it over the map. “Where should my quartet go?” Slowly the stone revolved. The chain stiffened and pointed north and east. Ash moved along the side of the map. Once again the chain drooped and the stone spun. Ash marked the spot on the map. “This is my group’s destination.”
One by one the others with an affinity for Air used their gems to find the spot in the princedom where they must go. Sydli’s stone halted above Easrenton where the palace stood. Kirlon’s group would travel to where the
vanished near Soutren. The final group was Mikel’s. They would travel to the
lake surrounding the drowned henge. Ruran River
“What now?” Mikel asked.
“We need to make plans,” Ash said.
Ky bolted to the door. “Let’s go.” The others with a Fire affinity followed her.
“Not yet,” Ash called. “We can’t run around like emmets stirred from their nest.”
“Who has the furthest to go?” Jay asked.
“Kirlon’s group,” Bran said.
Ash drew a deep breath. “We need plans. We’ll need supplies. People in Easren will have little to share.”
Jay nodded. “Fire affinities should check the coursers and see if they’re fit. If any need shod Earth affinities can help. They should also see to the panniers.”
“What are you going to do?” Zand asked.
“See to food supplies.”
Bran rose. “Water affinities will make medicinal packs for us and for the animals.”
“Then Air will see to clothes, tents and sleep saques,” Ash said.
Ky reached the door. “What are we waiting for? Zand, Rogier, Tamlia, come with me.”
Bran halted beside Ash. “Since rain and flooding are the problems in Easren I believe the Water affinities will take the lead in the cleansing. We should discuss this before we leave.”
Ash nodded. “If we can keep Ky from galloping off with her sword spouting flames.”
He chuckled then pointed to the map. “If lines are drawn from the other foci, they meet at the edge of the drowned henge. Do you think that will be true in all the princedoms?”
“I’m not thinking of any place other than Easren.”
He groaned. “You know how I hate surprises.”
Ash piled the pillows at the side of the room. What were the conditions in Easren? She knew about the rain and floods. But what about the people? She decided to search the winds.
Not in here. If she closed the door the barrier would prevent a search. If the door remained open the protection could be destroyed.
She hurried from the keep into the forecourt. There she turned and stared at the gray stones of the tower. Sadness blossomed. The keep was home and family. She brushed her hand over the rough stones. With a sigh she sank on a bench and leaned against the wall. Warmth and comfort seeped from the surface.
Ash opened herself to the winds of thought. Without warning, a stab from the highlands touched her. Like the sting of a scorpon’s tail someone tried to jab into her mind. Help! She slammed her barriers tight. Who? Not Dom Senet. His touch felt oily and tempting. This had been crude and demanding.
Mikel and Kirlon slid onto the bench on either side of her. Sydli crouched before her. Their arrival brought comfort to ease the chill of fear. “What was that?” Sydli asked.
Ash released a held breath. “Not the dom. Rougher. Greedier.”
“What were you trying to do?” Mikel asked.
“Listening to the winds of Easren.”
“Good idea but we should form a circle,” Kirlon said. “I’ll block against intrusion.”
They clasped hands. Ash felt the merge form. She reached for the winds of Easren. Cries of hunger, fear and despair echoed through the meld. Rain fell two days out of four. Rivers and streams overflowed their banks. Soon melt from ice and snow in the highlands would add to the deluge.
When Ash broke the circle she met the gaze of her friends. “The doma was right. If we don’t go now there will be no spring planting. Famine and death will follow.” She rose. “The time is now.”