Not wanting to admit his second failure to find a bondmate, Alric held his bihorn, Storm Cloud to a walk and avoided farms and villages. At night he camped in forest glades. Though the members of his patrol wouldn’t blame him for the failure he felt troubled. Somewhere in the Hall his heart bound waited for discovery. Would he have the time to find her or would the Swordmaster force him to make another unsuitable choice?
Two weeks after leaving the site of the duel with the desert rider, Alric neared the Guild House. He pushed his bihorn to a steady pace. By late afternoon he would reach his destination. Three days after that, Ingathering Day would occur. The other four patrols had already left on their rounds. When he arrived he had to report to the Swordmaster and face the leader’s gloating remarks over the failure of another bonding.
Tension centered between his shoulder blades. He pressed a hand against the bonding bracelet dangling from a chain about his neck. The links of the unusual piece were made from gold, silver, copper and electrum.
The sun reached midday. Storm Cloud slowed. Alric stroked his mount’s neck. “Not much further. Then grooming, food and a treat.”
The steed’s pace returned to a steady canter. Alric steadied his thoughts. He would reach the Hall in time to search the records for news of the sibs his father had mentioned years ago. He had avoided searching before but since meeting Jens, a need to know had arisen.
When he saw the massive stone wall surrounding the four halls belonging to the four guilds of Investia, foreboding entered his thoughts. Though his father had named the Swordmaster as an enemy, Alric didn’t understand the older man’s animosity. During the training days there had never been a word of praise. Even now Alric’s reports were searched for flaws.
He rode through the open gate leading to the Defenders Hall. He dismounted and led his bihorn across the courtyard to the stables. There he brushed Storm Cloud’s dark brown coat until it gleamed, polished the horns and checked the animal’s hooves. He filled the manger with hay and oats, adding a handful of the tart purple apelons. These fruits were the steed’s favorite treat.
After cleaning and oiling the saddle and tack, he hung them on a hook and lifted the pack and journal. Unable to delay any longer he strode to the central entrance. He paused outside the Swordmaster’s door and knocked. He braced for the lecture he didn’t deserve. Neither of his bondmates chosen by the leader had suited. They had returned to their villages. Though the leader should guard his men, the Swordmaster’s attempts to control Alric’s life were wrong.
Alric closed the door and stood in front of the highly polished mahogany desk. The dark wood was covered with record books. The Swordmaster glared. A liberal sprinkling of white, colored his sandy hair.
“Defender Alric, reporting.” He placed his journal on the desk.
The Swordmaster bent his head and read the short entries. “Your accounts agree with the others of your patrol. No fatalities and only one death among your four years on rounds of the sectors. You have quite a record.” He stroked his chin. “Why do young men not chosen for training attack from behind?”
Alric shrugged. “If I could read minds such tragedies could be avoided.”
“Where is your bondmate?”
Alric straightened. “She remained at the outpost village in the southern sector. She had no desire to be a Defender and her skills were mediocre.” He placed his hands on the desk. “This time the choice is mine.”
The older man’s jaw thrust forward. “There is no time for you to visit the Women’s Quarters and court any of the unbonded. There are important short assignments you can best fulfill. I have chosen the perfect mate for you. She has long admired your skills and she will bond permanently. When she names you, you will accept.”
Alric drew a deep breath. “According to the rules governing this guild, a man or a woman has the right to choose his third mate. Section 4, Rule 1.”
The older man smiled. “Rules can be overturned by the Swordmaster.”
A frown tightened Alric’s forehead. He had memorized the Defender’s rules. “Why have I never seen that written?”
“Unwritten and known only to the Swordmaster. Passed from my predecessor to me. Followed for several generations. Broken just once in my memory and the Defender who broke the rule ended in disgrace. The woman he chose walked into the abyss of death.”
Though Alric fought to control his reaction, he flinched. Had the incident been part of his father’s disgrace? Did the custom explain why the same family had ruled the Defenders for several generations? Were any rivals identified and bonded with unsuitable mates so they were banished when the bondings failed?
The Swordmaster half-rose. “Go to your suite. Sleep well. In three days the gong will summon the patrols for the Ingathering. You will meet your final bondmate.”
Alric backed to the door. He didn’t trust the older man not to throw the knife he held. For an instant he studied the lines of fire on the Swordmaster’s skin. Dark, turgid and touched with evil. The state of the leader’s lines meant he had turned toward the ways of darkness. If challenged, could he be defeated?
As he stepped into the hall, tension shot along his spine. His chest felt as though iron bands circled his ribs. Two men he wished to avoid approached. Robec, the leader’s son and Petan, the bully, sauntered along the corridor. Alric glanced at their arms. Both remained unbonded. He’d heard about Petan’s ill-fortune with his bondmates. Robec had never been chosen. Why?
“Country boy,” Petan drawled. “No bracelet?”
The band around Alric’s chest prevented him from drawing a deep breath. “Just as you have none. At least my former mates are alive. Didn’t both of yours suffer tragic accidents?”
Anger flashed in the beefy man’s dark eyes. “Stupid gits. Last one tried to take a duel I’d marked as mine.”
Had Petan taken the young woman’s life rather than the killer being the man she’d fought? Petan had killed the fighter so there was no one to say what had happened.
Alric turned to Robec. “Do you have taunts to add?”
A flash of color stained Robec’s face. During their training years, he had been Alric’s closest rival for honors. Alric had usually emerged the winner. He believed his rival saw the lines of fire though he failed to use them. Was the reason personal? Did Robec see the dark lines of his father and his friend and refuse to believe what they meant?
When he refused the Swordmaster’s choice, which of his rivals would issue the challenge? He knew Robec’s style. Petan had been a year ahead of him so he and Alric had never dueled.
Robec cleared his throat. “Successful trip?”
“Five duels. No deaths. I’ve only one on my record.” He grinned. “There was a sixth duel but no Justicar was present. Was with a desert rider. He was good but not good enough.”
“Should have killed the scum.” Petan clamped Robec’s arm. “Come on. We’re due at the Women’s Quarters. Kalia’s waiting.”
“You’re right.” Robec’s voice sounded devoid of emotion. “She doesn’t like to wait for anyone.”
Alric’s hands fisted. Who had given Petan permission to enter the area where many of the unbonded women and a few of the bonded ones had chambers? Robec’s mother and sisters stayed there. Petan had no female kin living in the Hall. Was this another exception to the rule?
He hurried along the corridor to the south wing of the sprawling building. In his suite he opened windows to clear out the stale air. He set his pack on the bed and removed dirty clothes. He carried them to the baths and dumped them in the hampers. Some would be washed and mended. Others turned to rags. The soft buckskin trousers would be cleaned and brushed.
He stripped and stepped into the hot pool. After a quick scrub of his body and his hair, he plunged into the warm rinsing pool. After drying and donning a change of clothes taken from the shelves, he combed and braided his hair, binding the ends with a strip of leather.
Food next. He’d missed the nooning. His stomach growled. He headed to the refectory. Taking a wooden tray and mug he moved along the line selecting a hearty meal of sliced beef, tubers and fresh greens.
At the end of the line he filled two mugs with citren and scanned the tables. No members of his patrol were to be seen. His gaze locked with one belonging to a young woman with touches of fire in her brown hair. Time fled. The degree of connection nearly caused him to drop the tray. She was perfect. Who was she? He had to learn her name.
When she lowered her gaze he noticed her companions. Was she Robec’s sister or his chosen bondmate? If so, a problem existed. Another thought made him ill. Had she been chosen by the Swordmaster as Petan’s third mate?
Alric clutched the tray. He refused to think she had any connection to Petan. The lines of fire on her skin showed the vivid scarlet of health and vitality. Alric walked to a small empty table. He had seen a woman he would gladly choose.
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