The challenge match had lasted longer than Alric thought possible. His opponent, one of the desert riders, had been chosen by his clan for the duel. Only one man could win. If Alric bested the other fighter, the local farmers would be spared raids on their crops and herds by the nomad band comprised of rebels against the laws of Investia. If he lost the raids would continue until another patrol arrived. Alric concentrated on the lines of fire flowing over the other man’s skin.
The younger man was agile and talented with the sword and knife. His hair, bleached by the sun, shone red-gold in the morning light. The lines flowed in changing scarlet patterns over his arms and bare chest.
Alric’s opponent’s quick responses to each move made him believe the young man read the lines, too. Someone had to make a mistake before they collapsed.
Sweat coated Alric’s skin. An occasional droplet stung his eyes and blurred his vision. The desert rider showed the same physical reactions. Exhaustion threatened Alric’s control. Then he found an opening. The lines of fire on the younger man’s sword hand faltered.
Alric lunged and caught the other sword sending the blade sailing through the air. He followed with a sweep of his leg. The desert rider sprawled on the ground. Alric pressed his knife against the man’s pulsing neck vein.
“Yield,” he demanded.
“Yielded.” The young man grinned. “Good fight. I’m Jens.”
Jens turned to the gathered clansmen and the crowd of cheering farmers. “Trade is good unless you try to cheat. We have wool, silver, gold, some gemstones, herbs and spices. We need grain, produce, honey and beer.”
“Do you have salt among the spices?” a man asked.
Moments later someone tapped a keg of beer. Alric opted for a mug of water. Once the formalities ended he searched the crowd for his current bondmate. Before he found her, Jens beckoned. They drew apart from the celebrating clan and villagers.
“I gather you see the lines of fire,” Jens said.
Alric glanced around to make sure no one stood close enough to hear. “It is said only those who are heart bound can see them. Among the Defenders I do not speak of my ability to anyone other than those I trust.”
“Why? I have no bondmate and my friends know of my ability. That’s why I’m chosen for these duels. You’re my first loss.”
Alric moved further from the celebration. “Seeing the lines is one of the reasons our forefathers used the mists to come to this land. Sorcerers sought to use their talents for evil.”
“An old wives’ tale I’ve often heard from the elderly riders.”
“Perhaps. I’m a Defender as I promised my father I would become. I believe what he told me when I was growing up.”
Jens frowned. “How fortunate to have known your father. As a small child I lived in the Defenders Hall. My mother died so I was fostered to a shepherd’s family when I was three. Soon as I could I ran. A penned life isn’t for me.”
Alric swallowed. “Did you have a sister?”
Jens shrugged. “My memories of the Defenders Hall are poor. What I remember is a tall man dragging me away and riding with him for days.”
Alric wished the younger man had more memories but he feared he would never know if this young man was his lost brother. “You might consider coming with our patrol. Though you’re older than most of the trainees, your skill would let you advance rapidly.”
Jens laughed. “You could leave the Defenders behind and join this clan of riders. We would welcome a man with your skills. You and I could be invincible as a team at the games.”
Alric studied the ground. There were times when he dreamed of leaving the Defenders. Some of the twelve years hadn’t been pleasant, especially when the leader placed obstacles in his way. He’d leaped over those stumbling blocks and succeeded. The promise he’d made to his father ruled his life.
Alric turned away and saw his bondmate waving. “I must go. Good riding and successful dueling.”
When Alric strode away from the younger man he scowled. The connection to Jens had been deeper than usual. Though the younger man had no memories of the past, he could be one of the missing sibs. In an instant Alric decided when he returned to the Hall he would search the Archives to see if the records held any information about his family.
His bondmate led him away from the crowd. “Where is the rest of the patrol?” he asked.
“I told them to head out and you would catch up.”
She wore no bracelet. A groan rumbled from his gut. Bracelets meant the bonding between mates stood. Since she had removed hers, that meant he’d been twice rejected. Once more and he would be banished from the Defenders. He opened the clasp on the brass one he wore.
“Seeks you won’t be returning with me.”
She stared at the ground. “I never wanted to be a Defender. I wanted to exchange bracelets with my childhood sweetheart. He’s here and wears no bracelet.”
With his thumbs, Alric tilted her head to see her expression. Though her decision was right for her, sadness shrouded his thoughts. “I wish you happiness.” He dropped the bracelet she had clasped on his wrist during the bonding ceremony into her hand. “Here’s your price.”
She shook her head. “I don’t want you to pay the fine. I never tried to see if our bond could last.”
“Neither did I.”
“You could have forced me to unite with you.”
Alric grimaced. “I wasn’t raised to grab what I wasn’t offered.”
“What will you do?” she asked.
“The patrol has finished the rounds of the southern sector of Investia. The Day of Ingathering for the returning patrols is just weeks away. I’ll ride to the Defenders Hall and choose another mate.”
“I wish you luck.”
Alric walked away. He touched the bracelet hidden beneath his shirt. His father had given him the unique piece just before his death. Perhaps this time he would find his heart bound mate.