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Deals In the Downs

Chapter Text

The day had steadily become overcast and Dar was finally forced to begin searching for a place to stop and keep dry. Thankfully, they had reached an area in the Downs that Ruh was familiar with and it didn’t take too long to find a nice, warm cavern where they could wait out the storm. Silently, the two men went about their accustomed duties, Dar foraged for firewood while Tao gathered as many fruits and nuts as he could. On his third trip out, as he collected a pouchful of berries, Tao felt the rains begin and, gathering together his bounty, he began to head back to shelter. Stumbling to a stop just inside the cavern mouth, Tao shook the raindrops from his hair and face.

Stepping further into their shelter, he set his berries with the previous foods he had gathered and turned to watch as Dar efficiently built a fire. Resting against the back wall of the cavern was enough wood to last them during the storm that had begun to rage outside. Glancing around, Tao watched as Ruh curled into a ball near the mouth of the cavern while Sharak found himself a rocky ledge to perch on. Frowning, Tao cast his eyes about in an effort to find the ferrets. Unable to see them in the dim light of the fire, Tao turned to Dar, "Where are the little ‘rats’? Please tell me they haven’t gotten into the food."

Smiling over at his worried friend, Dar shook his head and pointed at Ruh. "Kodo and Podo are with him for warmth. They won’t bother the food, I promise."

Satisfied with the Beastmaster’s promise, Tao joined him beside the fire. "Do you want something to eat, Dar? We didn’t have a chance to eat the morning meal."

Settling back against the wall of the cavern, Dar nodded his head. "Would you mind? We should eat some of the berries that won’t last long."

"What? You expect me to go and get them for you? What am I, your servant?" With some good-natured grumbling, Tao rose to fetch their morning meal only to be pulled to a stop when Dar grabbed him.

"Do you really feel as if I’m treating you as a servant?"

The worry in his voice convinced Tao that Dar was serious and he rushed to reassure him. "No, Dar. I have never felt like a servant with you. I’m sorry I even joked about it. Please, I didn’t mean to upset you."

Tao’s sincerity rang in every word and Dar relaxed. "I’m sorry too, Tao. I should have realized that you were only joking."

Smiling at each other, the two friends took a moment just to reaffirm their bond before Dar stood up and walked over to the fruits and nuts that Tao had gathered. Picking up some berries, he returned to the fire. "Here. Have some food."

Tao accepted the berries that Dar handed to him with thanks and began to munch. Soon, a comfortable peace filled the cavern as both men ate and conversed quietly while listening to the rain falling outside their warm and dry shelter.

****************

A light-haired man stood staring out the window of his warm hut at the falling rain. The hut was silent but for the sounds of rain hitting its roof and the coughing of the young girl lying in the corner on a bed. The man turned often to keep an eye on the young girl but seemed engrossed in the falling rain. Some time passed and the girl had slipped into an easy rest, no longer troubled by coughs, when a dark-haired man quietly entered into the back room of the two-roomed hut.

"How is she doing, Edan?" The soft whisper reached the girl’s father, who turned away from the window to stare at the newcomer for a moment in silence.

Sighing, he walked over to where his daughter lay sleeping. "I don’t know. She was coughing until she fell into a deep sleep. Do you have any new ideas of what plagues her, Mosi?"

The despair in his voice touched Mosi and he felt useless as he shook his head. "No. I still don’t know what is causing her sickness. Don’t worry, Edan. I won’t give up until I have found a cure for Sima."

Edan closed his eyes at Mosi’s words and remained standing beside his daughter’s bedside as Mosi left the hut. He was still standing there when the wind died down and the rains began to abate.

Chapter Text

The rain had lulled the occupants of the cavern into a restful sleep and it wasn’t until Sharak screeched as he flew out of the cavern that Dar and Tao woke. Stretching out cramped muscles, Tao watched enviously as Dar sprang up quickly and easily. Shaking his head, Tao stood up and walked over to the fruits and nuts. Reaching down, he snatched a couple of apple-like fruits and, joining Dar, who was staring out at the lightly falling rain as he petted Ruh’s ears, handed him a fruit. Taking it with a nod of thanks, Dar and Tao both sat in companionable silence as the sounds and smells of the newly cleansed day reached them in their warm shelter.

"How much longer do you think the rain will last?" Tao asked mildly curious. Dar thought about it as he stared out at the day.

"Not too much longer. Sharak says he’s flying above the clouds and that they’ve begun to clear out. He says that there are more clouds towards the Mydlands, though, and that they’ll probably reach us tonight or early tomorrow. He says, and I agree with him, that we should plan to stay here for tonight."

Nodding his head, Tao continued to watch as the day cleared up and the sun began to shine through the raindrops still in the sky, creating a beautiful rainbow of colour. Pointing at it, Tao began to regale his silent audience on the way that rainbows were created and why you could only see them when there was rain in the air. Dar half-listened to him ramble on while his eyes saw through Sharak’s eyes high in the sky. Time passed slowly for the two friends as the rains eventually slowed and then stopped.

*********************

In a room, barred and locked from without, a prisoner awoke. Raising her head to stare around herself, Arina, former tracker to Voden of the Nords, glared at the chains that held her in place. Unable to get enough space to move, she was forced to remain in the position she had been placed in that first night. Unsure of how much time had passed since she had been imprisoned; Arina reached out for the jug of water that sat by her side.

A sloshing sound was heard as she grasped it and raised it to her mouth for but a moment. She could never be sure that the water would be refilled, as it seemed to her, alone in the locked room, that no one in the fortress remembered her existence. Sleeping became habit and the more she slept, the less time she spent awake thinking her dreamy thoughts. As she turned her head and listened, she was surprised at the sound she heard. "Rain."

Her voice, rusty with disuse, echoed in the silence of her prison. Her mouth watered as she listened to the falling rain but she forced herself to not reach for the jug of water again. In the silence a sound was heard, faint at first, but it began to grow in strength until the door to her prison was opened wide and a figure entered. The figure was clothed in a gown that swept the floor as it moved and, when it reached the prisoner, it rustled. Tired eyes tracked the movement of the figure, but not until it stood before her did Arina become aware of whom it was.

"Queen Keenaht. What brings you to my humble abode?" Sarcasm coloured her voice as she spoke to the wife of the man who held her captive.

A frown graced Keenaht’s face as she observed the prisoner and, moving quickly, she reached out and grabbed the chains that held her to the wall. A key grated in the lock before they snapped open and tumbled Arina onto the floor where she remained, woozy from the movement. A strong, slender hand reached out and grabbed her, helping her to her feet and she looked over to thank the queen. Instead, she realized that the hand that held her up belonged to another woman. Brown eyes stared into brown eyes and Arina felt a flash of recognition before she slumped forward into capable hands.

****************

As the rain stopped, so did the stillness that had enfolded the men. Movement came back to their bodies and they stepped out of the warm cavern into the bright day. Ruh lumbered forward as Kodo and Podo gamboled about his feet, rushing to and fro, smelling the clean, new smells that permeated the area. Sharak screeched high in the sky, inviting them to look at him and wish that they could join him.

Tao grumbled up at the eagle and then turned a warning eye towards Dar who just laughed at him. A moment of hesitation and then Tao charged his friend, managing to tumble him onto the ground. Laughter filled the air as Tao struggled to hold on to his advantage. Curious chattering from the ferrets distracted him just long enough for the Beastmaster to turn the tables on Tao and roll him under his body.

Trying to dislodge the heavier man atop him, Tao turned a pleading eye towards an indifferent Ruh. "Come on, Ruh, I helped you the last time. The least you could do is help me this time." When the tiger continued to turn a blind eye to Tao’s pleadings, he turned back to stare straight up at Dar, who was laughing down at him. "Tell him that unless he helps me, he can say bye-bye to the lovely little treat I have for him in my pack."

A rumble of curiosity came from Ruh and suddenly Dar found himself rolled off of Tao and under the gentle paws of the golden tiger. Shaking his head to clear it, the Beastmaster looked up at the tiger in disbelief. "How could you, Ruh?"

A gentle purr of apology was his only reply as the tiger trained all his attention on the Eiron’s actions. For his part, Tao had walked over to his pack and, reaching into it, grabbed a couple of objects before returning to the spot were Dar still lay prone beneath Ruh. With a smirk at his friend, Tao commented: "You know, I’m beginning to think that you like being on the ground."

Shaking off the heavy paws, Dar rose to a sitting position and returned the smirk with interest. "Ah, Tao. You’ll really have to watch out now; you never know when I might get Ruh to pull the same trick on you."

"Nah. I don’t have to worry about that." The smug satisfaction in his voice gave Dar pause and he watched as Tao reached out and handed something to the insufferably purring tiger. "Here you go, Ruh. I hope you enjoy your treat. Remember, there’s more of that as long as you don’t side with the Beastmaster against me – at least in play."

Dar frowned in displeasure as he realized what Tao had given Ruh. "Catnip?! You know that Ruh won’t be of any use if you give him that stuff, Tao."

"Oh, don’t worry so much, Dar. I only gave him a little; besides, we’re not going to be traveling too much for at least another day. He should get the opportunity to relax too."

Tao’s reasonable suggestion was met by a grumble of agreement from Ruh, who got up and padded back to the cavern were he settled down to enjoy his treat. Chattering from the ground brought both men’s attentions to the ferrets and Dar smiled. "Well, Tao, as you’ve given Ruh a treat, Kodo and Podo seem to think that they deserve one too. After all, they did stay out of our store of foods."

To Dar’s surprise all Tao did, after sending him a quick grin, was to hold out his other hand in which two big, juicy berries sat. "Do you think they’ll like these?"

Unsure what to make of the fact that Tao was voluntarily feeding, not only Ruh, but also the ‘pesky little rats’, Tao’s words not his, Dar just stared at him worriedly. "Are you feeling all right? Did something happen that I don’t know about that would cause you to treat even Kodo and Podo nicely?"

A slight blush stained Tao’s cheeks and he ducked his head, embarrassed. "Umm, yeah? You remember a little while back, after we left the Siyu? Well, they kinda helped me with some berry and herb hunting, so I figured I would give them a chance. Besides, you’re the one that called us family and I decided that it was in my best interest to become friendly with the other members." By the time he finished, Tao was staring at Dar defensively, daring him to say anything.

For his part, Dar was just happy that his two families were finally starting to merge into one and, since he didn’t want to ruin the start Tao had made, just smiled at his friend – and brother. "I think it’s great, Tao. But you’d better have something ready for Sharak or he’ll feel left out." The gentle teasing went a long way to reassure Tao that his actions were not only welcome but also appreciated.

*****************

Once the rains had completely ceased, Edan moved slowly away from his daughter’s bedside. Stepping out into the main room of his hut, he wasn’t too surprised to see Sima’s nursemaid already there.

"Rees. How are you today?" Edan couldn’t quite keep the tiredness out of his voice but Rees didn’t seem too upset, instead she looked at him with sympathy.

"I’m fine, Edan. You, however, sound like you haven’t been resting enough. You know that Sima needs you to be healthy; running yourself ragged isn’t going to help her any." Smiling slightly to take the sting out of her words, Rees nevertheless managed to make Edan feel like an errant child. Shaking his head at the memories her voice invoked, Edan just nodded obediently. "I know, Rees, and I will take care of myself. It’s just that this weather is hard on her, she has coughed so much this morning."

Shoulders slumped in dejection; he buried his head in his hands. "Mosi still doesn’t have any ideas. He’s close to giving up, the only thing keeping him from doing that is me. I’ve run out of options. What am I going to do?"

Fingering the charm that hung around her neck, Rees bowed her head in mute compassion. All of the sudden, she realized just what her fingers were doing and she stared down at the charm she wore with shock. "The Sri." She breathed with sudden hope and she focused her attention on Edan who was staring back at her, perplexed. "The Sri can help you. If you go to her and tell her that you are one of her people, she will surely send a way to help Sima."

Hope warred with doubt and then Edan made his decision. "At this point, I’m willing to do anything to save my daughter. How do I go about trying to contact the Sri? She hasn’t been seen in the village since my father’s father’s day."

Trying to remember how her own father had spoken to the Sri, Rees suddenly crowed in delight. "Ah! I remember! There should be an old altar where the forest and village meet; that’s where my father would go when he needed to speak with her. All you need to do is go there and ask for her help."

Finally handed an opportunity to do something for his daughter, Edan didn’t waste a moment in his preparations. Gathering together small pieces of jewelry and stones, he left the hut, with Rees watching his daughter, and headed for the long abandoned site of the Sri’s altar.

*****************

Gentle hands rubbing her chaffed wrists and cramped muscles brought Arina back from the soothing darkness that had cradled her and coaxed her awake. Prying leaden eyelids open with difficulty; Arina blinked in surprise to find herself no longer in the room that had been her prison for so long. Her new surroundings were adorned with the cheerful colours of numerous flowers, all of which created an image of brightness and comfort.

Wary of the image and unsure of how she had come to be where she was, Arina took another, closer look at her surroundings. Jars, pots and pans littered the area and the slightly herbal smell in the air pointed to the room being used as a sort of healing room.

A sudden noise drew her away from her contemplation of the room and reminded her of the reason she had been drawn out of the darkness. Turning her head slightly, she focused on the figure of an elderly man who was setting a jar down on the low standing table beside the couch that she was laying on. Unsure of his identity, Arina tensed in mistrust and then winced as her cramped muscles complained at the sudden tension.

Setting down the white bandages that he had picked up right before she had winced, the elderly healer turned his head and met her eyes.

"Ah. I see that you’re awake now, young lady. How do you feel?" The placid voice of the healer comforted her and she found herself relaxing.

Clearing her throat several times, Arina finally managed to croak out a "fine" before succumbing to a coughing fit that lasted several minutes. As soon as she was able to breathe without coughing, the healer held out a goblet filled with a sweet smelling liquid.

"Drink this, it will soothe your throat." His calm voice compelled her to trust him and she reached for the goblet and took a sip. Surprise caused her to look over at the healer who sat beside her.

"What is this? It actually tastes good." Arina was puzzled; after all she had intimate knowledge of healing drinks and knew that most of them tasted terrible.

A smile crossed the elderly healer’s face and he reached over for the bandages that he had set down earlier. "It has honey in it for flavor. The queen is very bad at taking any medication, especially if it tastes nasty, so I had to improvise." Twinkling eyes stared into Arina’s brown eyes and he took the empty goblet from her. "I think that this is the best idea I’ve come up with in all my years as a healer. Wouldn’t you agree?"

Not waiting for an answer, the healer gently took her left hand and, shaking his head at the state of her wrists, smoothed some paste on them and then wrapped them with the bandages. As soon as he had finished with her right wrist, the healer sat back.

"Well now, young lady, I think it’s high time we got to know each other. I am Banan, Healer to Queen Keenaht. And you are?"

"I am Arina, former tracker for King Voden and," smiling slightly at the irony, "his prisoner."

One white eyebrow quirked at her choice of wording but instead of asking her more questions, he focused instead on her injuries. "Your wrists will be painful for a while longer. You’ll need to put the paste on them at least twice a day until the roughness disappears. Your muscles will also ache but if you exercise daily, they should heal in no time."

"Thank you. I appreciate what you’ve done for me." Arina inclined her head in gratitude.

"Hmm, just make sure you do as you were told. I’d hate for all my hard work to go to waste." Standing up from his position beside her couch, Banan gathered together the leftover bandages, but left the jar of paste beside her, before heading for the door.

As if it were an afterthought, Banan stopped at the door and turned back to her. "Oh, yes. Queen Keenaht will be in to visit you now that you’re awake, she was rather concerned about your condition."

Arina’s jaw dropped in surprise and she stared as Banan walked out of the room, closing the door behind him.

"Why would Voden’s wife be concerned about me?" the silence in the room did nothing to comfort the warrior.

Chapter Text

On the outskirts of the village of Tor, Edan approached the site of the ancient altar. The jungle in the background was silent as he stepped into the circle that had been abandoned for almost his father’s entire life. Surprisingly, the overgrowth from the jungle had not touched the area and he felt a presence as he carefully laid out his offerings on the altar.

Stepping back a pace, Edan cast back in his memory for stories that his father had told him of asking for the Sri’s assistance. Taking a deep breath, he knelt before the altar and, raising both hands into the air, intoned the ritual words.

"Blessed Sri, founder of Tor. I, Edan, leader of the Makari beg your help in this time of need."

A shimmer appeared in the air beyond the altar and, as Edan watched in frightened awe, a figure stepped out of the purple shimmer. The figure took the shape of a beautiful woman dressed in a gown of pale blue that brought out the blue of her eyes. A fine golden thread that seemed to pale in comparison to the hair that spilled over bare shoulders bordered the gown.

Sucking in air at the realization that the Sri stood before him in all her glory, Edan watched awestruck as the figure from legend walked to the altar and caressed the precious stones he had laid out for her pleasure.

Suddenly, she looked straight at him.

"Edan of Makari. What aid do you seek?"

Her melodious voice seemed to bind him in a spell and he answered without thought. "My daughter is ill. Our healer has been unable to discover the cure. He has run out of ideas. I was reminded of your patronage of our people and have come to you for whatever aid you can offer."

Respectfully, Edan bowed his head at the end of his plea and waited with bated breath to see what the Sri would do.

*******************

Keenaht looked up eagerly as Banan walked into her sitting room. "Well, how is she?" Her impatient voice was unable to hide the concern from the two people who knew her best.

Banan laughed gently as he approached the divan were she lounged. "Ah, my queen, must you hide yourself even here? We," and he pointed to the other figure in the room, "are your allies."

"You should listen to him, my queen." Came a soft voice from the darkest corner of the room. "The council may have accepted the king as ruler, but we will always be loyal to you and you alone."

Stepping out of the shadows, a young woman wearing warrior garb smiled indulgently at her queen. "Do not hide your hopes and fears from us, my queen. As Banan says, we are your allies."

Kneeling before her queen, Ciara, huntress and companion to Keenaht, bowed her head. "We are your allies and have been since the day you decided to take the throne from your father. We have stood beside you through everything in the past, trust us that we will continue to do so in the future."

Brushing long, dark hair out of her face, Ciara lifted her head and smiled impishly at Keenaht. "Of course, you have to make sure that you don’t cut us out of your plans ever again."

Nodding his head, Banan added his opinion. "Listen to Ciara, my queen. We were displeased that you took so long to inform us of the prisoner." Shaking a finger at his headstrong queen, the healer gazed at her sternly. "You endanger yourself needlessly, my lady, we are here so that you need not to be alone."

Smiling at her companions, Keenaht laughed quietly. "Ciara, Banan, I understand and thank you for your concern, but I hardly think a prisoner poses much of a threat to me." A look of steel entered into blue eyes and her two companions gulped. "Do you not trust that I have complete control over this situation? I would think that after all this time you two would know better than to doubt my abilities."

Exchanging a quick look with Banan, Ciara turned back to the queen in apology. "We meant no disrespect to you or your abilities, my queen. We were merely concerned that we would fail you because we did not have full knowledge of what you have planned."

A quick motion from Keenaht halted her. "Oh, get off the floor already, Ciara. I know that you’re only doing your job. Just be careful about questioning me next time." Smiling at her two companions she promised, "No more secrets. I’ll make sure to inform you about my plans in plenty of time next time."

Turning back to the matter at hand, Keenaht questioned Banan regarding Arina’s condition. Banan gave the two women an account of the extent of injuries that the tracker had sustained as a result of her extended imprisonment but reassured the queen that they were all temporary.

"As long as she follows my orders and doesn’t overdo anything, she should be fully mobile by the end of a fortnight."

Encouraged, Keenaht stood and prepared to pay a visit to her prisoner turned guest. Walking to the door, she turned suddenly to Ciara and quirked an eyebrow in her direction. "Will you accompany me, huntress? I believe you have as much as I do to discuss with our visitor."

Taking a deep breath, Ciara inclined her head and joined the queen at the door. Without a backward look, the two women left the elder healer in the sitting room and headed for the healing room.

***********************

After giving Sharak his treat, Tao sat down and pulled his map out of his bag to add new details. While he was thus occupied, Dar checked on their surroundings. Abruptly, he stopped and stared out into the dense forest. When Ruh growled low in his throat, the hitherto oblivious Tao looked up and stared at the Beastmaster worriedly.

"What’s the matter?"

Looking over at his friend, Dar tried to keep the unease out of his voice as he answered. "Nothing, I hope."

"You hope?" Tao stuffed the map back into his bag and rose to his feet. "That really doesn’t reassure me, Dar. Tell me what is going on!"

Trying to calm the Eiron down, Dar smiled at him reassuringly. "Relax, Tao. It’s probably nothing. I’m going to go and check it out, you stay here."

Nervous, Tao glanced between the Beastmaster and the suddenly imposing forest. "Umm, can’t I just go with you?"

Dar shook his head. "I’d feel better if you were here, safe. Ruh and the ferrets will keep you company." Attempting to ease the scholar’s worry, he gently warned him not to follow the ferrets this time.

Troubled, Tao watched as the Beastmaster headed into the forest followed closely by Sharak in the sky. Sighing, he glanced over at the still on edge tiger. "I need to learn how to defend myself properly so Dar doesn’t have to worry about me so much."

Settling himself down beside the restless tiger, Tao focused his attention on his surroundings and waited for Dar to return.

*****************

Long shadows were dancing in the corners of the healing room when the door finally opened and Arina watched warily as two figures entered the room. The first was easily recognizable and she laughed. "Welcome to my second prison, Queen Keenaht. At least this one is more comfortable and I actually get to lay down."

Keenaht looked at the woman lying on the bed and smiled wryly. "Voden is a strange and unpredictable man. It took me awhile to find where he had sequestered you."

Walking up to the bed, Keenaht took a seat and stared at the warrior. "You are in no way a prisoner here, Arina. If you desire, you can walk out of this room and this fortress and I will do nothing to stop you." Tilting her head, she studied the prone woman. "However, I do not think that you would be able to evade the guards this time and, in your condition, you would be easily spotted and restrained once again. And the next time, I might not find you in time."

Sighing, Arina agreed. "Voden won’t be as gentle next time either. Fine, I won’t run, but I do want to know why you’ve decided to save me, even if it is only temporary."

At that, Keenaht looked behind herself. Following her gaze, Arina focused her attention on the second figure that, up until now, she had forgotten. Standing behind the queen was a woman, younger than Arina herself, who wore a warrior’s outfit. Long brown hair flowed down below her shoulders and was held away from her face with small braids while a strangely familiar set of feathers adorned the ends of the braids.

Confused, Arina looked between the queen and the woman.

Keenaht smiled. "This is my huntress and companion. Her name is Ciara."

A shock of recognition hit Arina and she struggled to sit up. "Ciara? But…no." she shook her head in disbelief. "That’s impossible."

For the first time, Ciara spoke up. "What’s impossible? That I survived? You must be so disappointed, sister of mine."

The barely hidden anger roused Arina from her spell and she stared at Ciara. "What are you talking about? Orpheo told me you were dead, that he saw you fall in combat. I’ve mourned for you and killed for you, why would I be disappointed?"

A startled look crossed Ciara’s face and she approached the bed. "Orpheo told you that? He was the one who tried to kill me. If it hadn’t been for my queen’s father, I would have died."

Saddened, Arina closed her eyes. "Orpheo told me that you fought bravely and that a Terron had run you through with a sword. I didn’t have the heart to search for you among the many dead and, so, I believed him." Tears filled her brown eyes as she searched her sister’s brown eyes. "I trusted Orpheo. I’m sorry."

After a moment of silence, Ciara took the final step to stand beside her sister and extended her hand. Arina raised her own hand to clasp it. Staring down into her eyes, Ciara smiled. "I forgive you, my sister. Do not grieve so much because you thought you could trust Orpheo, I, too, thought he was trustworthy."

The sound of hands clapping intruded on the tender moment and the two sisters turned their eyes toward the other woman in the room.

"I’m sorry to ruin such a beautiful reunion, but don’t you think we should move on? We don’t have all day."

Keenaht’s irritated voice drew them apart and Ciara once more stepped into her queen’s shadow. Arina watched her sister’s action in silence before turning her attention back to the queen.

"What exactly was your purpose in releasing me from Voden’s prison? I don’t think that introducing me to my sister was your only plan." Arina was tired of being left out and not knowing what was going on around her and was determined that this time, she would get all the answers she needed.

A grim smile crossed the beautiful face of Voden’s wife and her blue eyes turned to stone. "I want you to help me kill Voden."

********************

Soon after Dar had entered the forest, the ferrets disappeared into the underbrush foraging for food. Ruh continued to pace restlessly while Tao anxiously waited for the Beastmaster to return. Suddenly, the tiger stopped moving and peered into the forest causing the Eiron to get to his feet and join Ruh. Trying to see what had disturbed the tiger, Tao cautiously approached the forest. Just as he reached the edge of the clearing, a voice called his name.

"Tao!"

Ruh growled once again before stilling unnaturally but Tao was to busy trying to see where the voice had come from to notice. Furrowing his brow, the Eiron tried to see into the gloom that seemed to permeate the forest all of a sudden. Once again the voice called out to him.

"Tao, come here!"

Convinced that the voice belonged to Dar, Tao stepped into the forest and began to run toward the voice. He was deep within the forest when the voice abruptly ceased and he came to a halt. Shaking his head to clear it, the Eiron looked around, puzzled. Unable to remember what had possessed him to leave the clearing and unsure of where he currently was, he began to search for a way back.

The more he moved, however, the further he seemed to get from the clearing until he stumbled upon another, smaller clearing. Stunned, he stared at the ornate altar in the midst of the unnaturally empty clearing. Curious, he walked up to it and peered at the designs carved into the stone. Engrossed in what he was seeing, Tao didn’t hear the man until it was too late and he dropped to the ground, unconscious, knocked out with a blow to his head.

Chapter Text

"Kill Voden?" Arina was stunned. "I thought you chose him to be king. Why would you want to kill the very man you chose?"

Flipping her hair over her shoulder, Keenaht began to worry the ends of her thick braid. "Voden is making grand plans to increase our kingdom, however, he has not placed enough importance on keeping our kingdom in shape." Agitated, she threw her hands into the air. "The only thing that Voden understands is war-fare. He continues to hire soldiers and is dangerously close to creating an army we will be unable to sustain."

Ciara nodded. "King Voden is obsessed with taking over the lands surrounding ours before marching against Sendar in Astarte and even Zad in Xinca while Queen Keenaht favors an alliance with one of the two kingdoms."

Arina furrowed her brow in thought. "Zad is unpredictable, he’s likely to decide that Voden is deranged and kill him on the spot. Sendar, however, I know little about. It’s possible that he would agree to an alliance."

Suddenly she stopped and looked over at the other women in surprise. "Did I just do what I think I did?"

Keenaht smiled in delight. "I knew you would have suggestions that would be worth hearing. Please, do continue."

"No, I’ve said too much as it is." Arina shook her head. "I won’t betray Dar anymore than I already have."

"Betray Dar?" Keenaht laughed. "The Beastmaster left you behind when he became king of Eldar. Who betrayed whom? All I am asking is for you to provide me with ideas and suggestions. You know the Terron king better than we do and the Astarte king is related to your friend; you are the perfect choice."

Arina wanted to deny the queen’s words but there was a small part of her that relished the chance to put her skills to use. After all, she hadn’t only been a tracker; Voden had also relied on her suggestions during his reign. But she was traveling with Dar now and was loyal to him. Or was she?

As if realizing the struggle that Arina was facing, Ciara approached the bed once more. "Are you worried about what your companions will think?"

Looking up, Arina nodded. "Dar would see any action I take against him as betrayal. I don’t even want to think about Tao’s reaction to all of this."

"Would it truly be betrayal?" Ciara questioned. "We know that you do not always travel with the Beastmaster; there are times when you do not see them for days on end. What harm could there be in you advising us?"

Keenaht took up the line of reasoning. "The Beastmaster is concerned with the plight of animals, not the world of people. You would not be telling us any secrets of his, all you would be doing is advising us on the best paths to take to insure that our kingdom is not destroyed and the people within are not killed. Surely even the Beastmaster would have pity for them?"

Arina was caught; torn between what she felt was right and what she thought she needed. "All I would do is advise you? I wouldn’t have to betray Dar?"

Keenaht laughed. "What use to me is a man who speaks with animals? Ciara and I hunt, I’m sure he would be very disappointed in us. The Beastmaster and his companion are safe from me, as long as they don’t interfere."

In one final bid for Arina’s aid, Keenaht offered her a deal. "What do you want, Arina? Whatever that is in my power to provide is yours. Name it."

Arina sighed in defeat. "Promise me that you will not hunt, at least while Dar is in the Downs and give me unfettered access to your fortress. I want to get to know my sister better. If you can promise me these two things, I will advise you."

Keenaht smiled in pleasure. "Done!"

She stood up and approached the bed, joining Ciara, and reached out for Arina’s hand. Grasping each other’s arms in warrior greeting, Keenaht welcomed her new advisor. "Welcome to the kingdom of Niall, Arina."

********************

Staring down at the man who lay crumpled at his feet, Edan looked around cautiously. Satisfied that he was alone, he reached for the man and, grabbing the bag that had fallen beside him, hefted him to his shoulder before heading back to the village and his daughter.

Taking a route that enabled him to reach his hut without running into any of the villagers, Edan entered with his burden.

Startled, Rees looked up from the fireplace where she was tending to a pot of soup and gasped. "Edan, what is going on?"

Edan lowered the man onto a seat, dropping the bag on the floor beside him, and then turned to the nursemaid. "There’s no need to worry, Rees. The Sri sent this man to help Sima."

Frowning, Rees approached and looked at the unconscious stranger. "How is he supposed to help if he’s knocked out?"

A sheepish look crossed Edan’s face and he shrugged helplessly. "I couldn’t think of any other way to bring him into the village without alerting anyone."

Rees tossed him a sharp look before going back to her pot. "There should be some smelly herbs in the other room. Why don’t you get them and wake him."

Nodding, Edan walked into his daughter’s room and, careful not to wake her, gathered the herbs. Returning to the main room, he questioned Rees. "How has she been?"

Stirring the soup, she shrugged. "There’s been no change. Mosi brought some more potions over and she drank them without complaint. Of course, she fell asleep soon after."

She watched as Edan crushed an herb and held it under the stranger’s nose. With a startled grunt, the stranger awoke.

Staring at his surroundings, Tao frowned in confusion before noticing the two strangers who were watching him carefully. Smiling uncertainly, Tao decided to do what he did best- talk. "Hello, my name is Tao. Who are you and how did I come to be here?"

Edan and Rees exchanged glances before Rees turned back to her pot and the older man took a seat beside Tao.

"I am Edan and this is the village Tor. I found you unconscious at the edge of the village and brought you to my home. Are you feeling all right, Tao?" Edan was uncomfortable with his white lie but he knew that the man wouldn’t take kindly to being informed that he had knocked him out. Besides, Edan was willing to do whatever he had to insure that his daughter recovered.

Fingering the lump on the back of his head, Tao frowned. "I was trying to get back to my friends and found an altar. And then…someone knocked me out." Looking up at Edan, Tao smiled. "My thanks to you, Edan. I don’t want to think about what could have happened had you not found me."

Another twinge of guilt caused Edan to grimace but he quickly changed it to a smile. "It was nothing. I’m just glad that you are all right. It would have been terrible if the altar to the Sri had been desecrated by violence and death."

Ever curious, Tao jumped on the name. "The Sri? Who is that?"

Rees chuckled as she approached the table with two bowls of hot soup. "I see that you are a curious person, Tao."

Smiling ruefully, Tao agreed. "Yes, I’m afraid that it is my greatest flaw. My second is that I talk too much."

"Those are not flaws." Smiling, she set a bowl before him. "Have some food and relax. Oh, and since Edan has lost his manners, I am Rees."

Edan looked at her chagrined. "I’m sorry, Rees, I can’t believe I forgot to introduce you." Turning to the watching Tao, he explained. "Rees has been with the village for as long as I can remember. She serves as nursemaid for young children and, right now, is helping me with my daughter."

"Daughter?" Tao looked around curiously. "Where is she?"

Edan gazed into his bowl and sighed. "Sima, is in the other room resting. She has been ill for a very long time."

Rees nodded sadly. "The village healer has been unable to determine the cause and every day she gets worse."

Tao looked at his host in sympathy. "Perhaps there is something I can do to repay you for your kindness. Allow me to see your daughter and," shrugging, "maybe I can help."

Edan brightened at his suggestion. "Would you?"

Rees frowned in confusion. "Help, how? Are you a healer, Tao?"

Edan turned a look of disbelief on Rees but Tao just smiled. "I am an Eiron scholar and, as such, I have had extensive training in the art of healing. I can at least try."

Rees nodded her head. "My apologies for doubting you, Tao, but Sima is precious to me and I wouldn’t have felt right if I hadn’t asked."

Tao shook his head in understanding. "That’s perfectly understandable. I would have asked if I were in your place."

"You make me feel as if I’d done something wrong by not questioning it." Edan’s irritated voice focused their attention on the man and he frowned at them. "I just want to find out what is wrong with my daughter. Forgive me if I’m too trusting."

Rees laughed. "Oh no, Edan, I don’t blame you for jumping at the chance, but I also know what kind of stress you have been under. That is why I took it upon myself to question this young man. Of course, I should have realized that he most likely had some knowledge since he did mention that he was gathering herbs when he was knocked out."

Tao smiled at her. "That’s right, I said that."

Edan just shook his head. "As soon as we’re done eating, I’ll take you to my daughter."

Faced with a mystery that was in his power to solve, Tao forgot about Dar and how worried he would be and excited, but serious, he nodded his head. "Perhaps you can tell me about her condition while we eat? When it started, what symptoms she has, anything that will help me understand what she’s going through."

The rest of the meal was spent with Edan and Rees filling Tao in on the condition of his new patient while outside, the clouds began to gather and darken the sky. Soon, the rains started up once more.

**********************

Dark, ominous clouds gathered in the sky and, with a rumble of thunder, the rains began to fall, drenching the small clearing and the man who stood there. When a gentle nudge from Ruh failed to elicit any movement, the tiger headed into the warmth and dryness of the hidden cavern.

Into the stillness echoed the shrill screech of an eagle and, as if released from a spell, Dar lifted his wet head and stared up into the dark sky searchingly. As he watched, the shape of an eagle emerged from the darkness above and dove for the cavern. Moving eagerly towards the cavern, he soon joined the eagle and tiger within the mouth of the cave.

"Any sign, Sharak?" Dar’s voice was anxious but Sharak’s answer did nothing to reassure him and he closed his eyes in despair.

"Tao." His voice was little more than a whisper as he crumpled to the ground in exhaustion. "Where are you?"

As he sat on the cold and wet floor, Dar was alerted to another presence by the low growl from Ruh. Opening his eyes, he was surprised at who he saw.

"Sorceress? What are you doing here?"

To his surprise, the Sorceress ignored Sharak and walked up to him, kneeling beside him on the wet floor. Her pale blue gown slowly darkened as the water soaked into it while she knelt beside him. Her blue eyes looked into his hazel eyes and Dar almost choked at the emotion he saw within them. Sorrow and guilt warred for supremacy as she continued to gaze at him until he couldn’t take it anymore.

"Why are you here, Sorceress?"

Sighing, the Sorceress looked over at Sharak for the first time and spoke. "I don’t suppose you’ll be too happy with me, my love."

At her words, Dar tensed and glared at her. "What are you talking about?"

"I know where Tao is."

Her calm voice tore at his restraint and, unable to stop, he grabbed her by her shoulders. "Where is he?! What have you done to him?!"

Struggling to loosen his hold, the Sorceress tore her shoulder out of his grasp and waved a hand. Frozen, Dar could only watch as she gently removed his hands from her and stood. She walked a little ways away from him before releasing the Beastmaster, who quickly rose to his feet.

"I have done nothing to the Eiron scholar. I’ve only borrowed him." Waving a hand to stop any further questions, she walked back and stared at him. "I have a deal for you, Beastmaster."

A frown creased his forehead at her words. "What do you want from me?"

"Leave the Eiron here and I will give you anything you desire."

Dar looked at the Sorceress in surprise. "You want me to abandon my friend here, with you?"

The Sorceress was sincere. "I will help you recover your family and reverse their spell. I will stand by your side and help you regain your lost kingdom. I will do anything in my power, if you will only leave Tao with me."

Shocked, Dar could only stare at her. "Why do you want Tao?"

The Sorceress turned away from the Beastmaster and walked toward the entrance of the cavern where she gazed out at the falling rain. The silence stretched on until Dar took a step forward and opened his mouth to question her again.

Ignoring the irate Beastmaster, the Sorceress addressed Sharak. "Do you remember the Makari, my love?"

The Beastmaster looked to the eagle for clarification but Sharak was silent. Frustrated, Dar turned to the Sorceress and demanded an explanation.

Sighing, she complied. "There is a village called Tor, where a people known as the Makari live. They are my people."

A frown creased Dar’s forehead. "Your people? Do you mean that they are your creations?"

A tinkling laugh echoed in the air as she smiled at him. "You have a high opinion of my powers, Beastmaster. I can no more create a human than I can communicate with the animals. No, the Makari are the people from whom I came many centuries ago."

Surprise held him immobile as he stared at her. Finally, he spoke. "You came from a tribe of humans? I had thought that you were created by the Ancient One or else just were."

She laughed again. "Oh no, even the Ancient One was once human. In his case, it was so long ago that he had forgotten what it meant to be human." Turning a sad look on the forever cursed form of her lover, she sighed. "I was chosen, much like Sharak, because I possessed a talent that the Ancient One felt would be useful. I don’t even remember what is was anymore."

Dar wondered what Tao’s reaction would have been to the news and then remembered that Tao wasn’t here, that the Sorceress had taken him. Ignoring the voice within that suggested he listen to all that she had to tell him, Dar turned the conversation back to his missing friend. "What does any of this have to do with Tao?"

The Sorceress ignored his interruption. "The leader of the Makari is a man named Edan. His daughter is ill and he came to me for aid. I offered it."

After a moment, Dar realized exactly what she had meant by that and he growled. "You gave them Tao?! What right do you have to play with people’s lives? Take me to him!"

Surprised at his reaction, the Sorceress turned and stared at him fully. "Why are you so angry, Beastmaster? I will not allow any harm to befall the Eiron. I have already told you that I will pay any price to ensure that he remains with the Makari as their new healer."

Struggling with his emotions, Dar asked. "What makes you so certain that Tao will be able to heal this child? Or that he’d want to stay?"

The Sorceress frowned. "Do you not realize just how talented your friend is? Tao is a Healer. I can think of no greater honor than to offer him a village in which he will be revered and where he can use his skills to their greatest potential. Why do you persist in binding him to your side? How long will you continue to deny Tao the right to live his life?"

As he listened to the Sorceress speak, Dar began to feel afraid. What if he was binding Tao to his side and denying him his own life? Dar knew that Tao was a scholar, one who spread knowledge to other people, and he knew that he wasn’t always the greatest of pupils. What if he was hurting more than Tao by keeping him at his side? How many other people could benefit from Tao’s gifts of knowledge and healing?

*********************

After Arina had agreed to become her advisor, Keenaht had ordered Ciara to fetch them some food in celebration. The three unlikely allies ate their meal in a comfortable silence until Arina spoke.

"I don’t think you should kill Voden."

Keenaht looked up from her meal with interest. "Why do you say that?"

"Sendar doesn’t strike me as the type that will willingly partner with a woman, small minded as he is." Arina shrugged before grinning evilly. "Besides, Voden will make a much better scapegoat if you decide to betray Sendar."

"Hmm." Keenaht thought about it for a moment before nodding. "I agree that Sendar will probably be more comfortable dealing with Voden, however, I am not sure that I will betray him. What happens if I decide to continue the alliance with Sendar? Voden will still be in my way."

Arina frowned. "Well, Sendar might become accustomed to the idea of working with you over time. If you make sure to impress him with your suggestions, he may come to rely on you more than on Voden. Maybe you could even seduce him and get him to kill Voden for you."

Keenaht laughed. "You place too much confidence in my ability to seduce men, Arina. Whatever gave you that idea?"

"You seduced Voden." Arina pointed out. "Remember, I used to work for him. He didn’t really like to listen to women; the only reason he ever listened to me was that I had proven myself to him as a tracker and a warrior. If you could make such a man agree to share a kingdom, then I doubt that any other man will stand a chance against you."

Ciara smiled at her queen. "I agree. I have only known King Voden since he has been in the Downs but I can read the signs. He is besotted with you, my queen. He hangs on your every word and nothing is too good for you."

Arina nodded. "I think that Voden is a useful tool right now. You should have no trouble convincing him that it is in his best interests to ally with Sendar."

Keenaht frowned in thought while the sisters waited to see what she would decide. Finally, she looked up at them and smiled. Her smile was cold, dark and evil while her voice, when she spoke, stirred within Arina fear and dread.

"I rather like the idea. I can use both Voden and Sendar for my purposes and dispose of them when the time is right." Her smile grew until she was laughing quietly. "Thank you for your suggestions, Ciara, Arina. I will convince Voden to ally with Sendar."

‘I don’t know what she’s capable of.’ Arina realized. ‘If she could so easily kill her own father and contemplate the additional murder of two men, what else might she do?’ For the first time, she wondered just whom she had made her deal with and whether she would survive the alliance.

********************

As he listened to Edan and Rees list Sima’s symptoms and the methods that Mosi had taken to treat them, Tao began to frown. By the time the meal was over, Edan and Rees were casting worried looks in his direction. Finally, Edan couldn’t take it anymore.

"Why are you frowning, Tao? Is there something wrong?"

Looking over at the worried father, Tao smiled gently. "No, there’s nothing wrong. I’m just not sure that your healer, Mosi, is doing the right thing. If I didn’t know better I would think that he’s keeping her sick."

Rees began to frown as well. "What do you mean, Tao?"

"The symptoms you described, chills, sniffles and laziness, makes me think that she was suffering from spring fever. However, spring fever is easily cured, you just have to have the right combination of medication, exercise and rest. Every healer should know how to treat it. The fact that Mosi prescribed so many different potions and she hasn’t gotten any better makes me suspicious." Tao was apologetic. "I am sorry. I know that I am a stranger and that you have no reason to trust me."

Edan shook his head. "No, you speak only that which has plagued my thoughts for awhile, Tao. As I watched Sima get worse instead of better, I began to wonder whether there was more to her illness than I could see. That is why I went to the Sri and begged for her help. I found you by her altar, there is no doubt that she sent you to me."

Pushing his chair away from the table, Edan stood and motioned to Tao. "Come, I will take you to my daughter. Perhaps you will be able to tell more by looking at her and the potions that Mosi has been feeding her."

Rees began to clear the table while Tao rose from his chair and, after thanking her for the meal, followed Edan into the darkened sickroom.

The two men looked down at the sleeping child before Edan pointed out the potions that Mosi had been feeding her. Lifting the lids on the vials, Tao began to smell them, even going so far as to taste several of them. When he was finished, the frown was back.

Edan sighed. "He hasn’t been treating her, has he?"

Tao shook his head. "Several of these vials contain the right potion but the others, they only increase the symptoms. I don’t know why but your healer has been deliberately keeping your daughter sick."

********************

The incessant chattering of the ferrets broke Dar out of his dismal thoughts and he looked down at Kodo and Podo. Suddenly, his mind was filled with images of Tao; helping him, laughing with him, scolding him, worrying about him and healing him. Dar shook off the images with difficulty before turning back to the Sorceress.

"You’re right, Tao could do so much more if he weren’t with me. However, he chose to come with me and until he chooses not to, I will not leave him behind. I’m sorry for your village, Sorceress, but I can’t leave Tao with them."

The Sorceress wasn’t surprised; she had known that Dar wouldn’t leave his friend behind but she had still needed to try. "I hope you don’t regret your choice, Beastmaster."

Turning away from him, the Sorceress waved her hand and began walking toward the purple shimmer in the air but was stopped by Dar.

"Where are you going?" Dar was annoyed. "I need you to tell me where the village is so I can get Tao back."

Sighing, the Sorceress pointed outside. "It’s raining, Dar. I think you can wait until morning to get him; the rains should stop by then."

Dar frowned. "Tao is alone and you expect me to just wait here? It’s only rain; I’ll just get wet. Tell me where he is!"

The Sorceress frowned at him. "You aren’t usually so irritating, Beastmaster. Why are you so worried about him?"

"I’m not worried," denied Dar. "I’m just uneasy. This village, Tor, has connections to you and anything with connections to sorcery is something to worry about. Especially since he’s alone."

"You still don’t trust me?" The Sorceress was hurt. "After all this time I had hoped that we had at least developed a working relationship."

"I’d trust you more if you didn’t go around offering my friends to other people." Dar stated.

Opening her mouth to refute his statement, the Sorceress suddenly froze. Staring at her in confusion, Dar reached toward her but was startled when she moved, whirling toward him in a cloud of blue. Grabbing his outstretched hand, the Sorceress pulled him toward the shimmer, pausing long enough to snap out an order.

"Tell the animals to follow us, we’re going to Tor."

Questioning eyes met hers and darkened as the fear in her blue eyes registered. Soon, the only thing that remained to show that the cavern had been occupied was the firewood still stacked up in a corner and the waiting fire pit. The rain continued to fall outside as thunder rolled and lightning lit the sky.

Chapter Text

Deciding that Arina and Ciara were right, Keenaht left the healing room and sought Voden out, leaving the sisters alone. Grateful for the time, they began to fill each other in on their lives since they had been separated. Arina was thrilled to discover that Ciara was betrothed to another hunter in Keenaht’s kingdom and that the two of them were planning on exchanging vows sometime in the winter.

For her part, Ciara was grieved to hear that the Terrons had killed many of her kinsmen. She couldn’t help but feel vindicated when she learned of Orpheo’s death but was saddened at the loss her sister had suffered. She laughed appreciatively as Arina shared how she had first met Voden and impressed him.

The sisters then made plans to pit their hunting and tracking skills against each other as soon as Arina was feeling better. As they sat and talked, they shared stories of their most embarrassing moments in their chosen careers. In the midst of their laughter, the door was flung open and Voden entered, followed closely by Keenaht. Silence fell over the sisters as they waited with bated breath.

Voden looked at the bedridden warrior before turning a smirk on his wife. "I see that you have deceived me, my love. You told me you had no knowledge of Arina’s whereabouts."

A smirk was her response. "I did not deceive you, my lord. At the time you questioned me about her, I had no knowledge of her whereabouts." Motioning to her huntress she continued. "Besides, I wanted Ciara to have the opportunity to meet Arina before you disposed of her, after all they are sisters."

"Sisters?" a raised eyebrow was Voden’s only reaction before turning to other matters. "Why would you think that I would dispose of Arina? I told you we were going to deliver her to Sendar, king of Astarte, as bait for the Beastmaster and convince him to leave us alone until such time as I decide that we are ready to wage war against him."

Keenaht frowned. "I do not think that is wise, my lord. Sendar is unpredictable, as Arina has said, and his army is larger than ours. I believe an alliance will better suit our goals."

"An alliance?" A speculative look crossed his face and Voden approached the bed and motioned Ciara out of her seat. As soon as she had vacated it, he sat down and stared into space. The three women looked at each other and wondered what he was thinking. When the silence became too heavy, Keenaht spoke up. "What are you thinking of, my lord?"

Light blue eyes stared up at her and Voden smiled. "It’s perfect! We will form an alliance with the King of Astarte and wage war against Zad." Rubbing his hands together in delight, he stood and walked toward Keenaht. "Your brilliance astounds me, my love. Now, don’t forget to set a guard on Arina."

Motioning Keenaht out the door ahead of himself, Voden continued to lavish praise on his queen. Arina watched his actions with skepticism and looked toward her sister to see if she shared in her apprehension, but Ciara just appeared relieved. Not trusting Voden’s easy capitulation, Arina warned her to keep an eye on him.

Ciara laughed. "You are afraid that King Voden will harm the Queen? He knows better than to do that. The first time they met, he tried to take her hostage and received an injury from her for his troubles."

"But he has many loyal guards." Arina argued. "You can’t be sure that he won’t convince them to harm her."

Ciara just smiled. "It is true that King Voden has loyal guards, however, they fear her more than him and are unlikely to endanger their lives needlessly. My queen was trained in the art of self-defense and, as I’m sure you’ve heard, was behind her own father’s poisoning. The men believe that she is a sorceress and stay out of her way as much as possible."

Convinced that Ciara would know the queen’s abilities better than she did, Arina let her fear go and began to discuss an exercise routine with her sister. She was determined to get on her feet as soon as possible. Ciara added her suggestions and the remainder of the night was spent in light-hearted conversation.

*******************

Tao had just barely begun to explain which of the vials contained the real medicine when the door to the sickroom was flung open and a dark-haired man, accompanied by several other men, entered.

Edan turned an outraged look on the man in front. "Mosi? What are you doing? This is a sickroom and my daughter is sleeping. You should know better than to make so much noise."

The dark-haired man laughed. "Ah, but Edan, you know that Sima is not ill. In fact, the young man beside you has been informing you that I have been poisoning her. Isn’t that so, stranger?"

Edan looked at the healer in surprise. "How?"

Mosi shook his head in mock-sympathy. "You should know better than to try and hide things from me. I had a couple of men watching your hut and when you brought the stranger, they listened to you."

Tao listened in horror to what the healer was admitting to and couldn’t quite find anything to say to him. That a healer would go against everything that he was taught and poison. And then, on second thought, he had plenty to say.

"Why?" Tao was furious, but also curious. "What possible reason could you have for poisoning a young girl and turning your back on your healing vow? Greed, guilt, what were you planning to do when she died?"

Mosi was startled when the stranger began to speak, but had to smile at the questions. "You want to know why, stranger? Very well, as a gift, I will tell you just what I have been doing."

Telling one of his men to stay in the sickroom with Sima, Mosi gestured for Edan and Tao to be taken into the main room. There they were surprised to see that some more of his men were guarding a fuming Rees.

Taking a seat beside her, Edan soothed her and made sure that she was unharmed. Then, he turned his attention back to the healer. "Answer Tao’s questions, Mosi. Why have you betrayed me and poisoned my daughter? What possible gain could have for doing this?"

"Tao? Your name is Tao?" Mosi was surprised. "What are you doing back in the Downs, Eiron?"

Tao was stunned. "How do you know me? I have never before seen you."

"The Terron camps are great places to visit. You learn a great deal of things there." Mosi smirked at his audience. "I have had dealings with King Zad in the past and heard tales of an Eiron slave who had escaped and joined forces with the Beastmaster. Where is your companion today, Eiron? Got tired of your company?"

Tao had just decided that he would use his friend’s imminent arrival to frighten the man off when Edan spoke up.

"Who is this companion you speak of?" Edan was puzzled. "Tao was alone when the Sri honored my request and sent him to me."

"The Sri?!" Mosi was incredulous. "You would have me believe that the Sri appeared before you and handed this man to you?"

The men surrounding him exchanged concerned looks and one of them was bold enough to speak. "I thought she was only a legend?"

Mosi glared at the man who had spoken. "She is! Now, shut up!"

Grumbling could be heard among the men, but they knew better than to try his patience. Once they were silent, Mosi turned back to his prisoners.

"Wait a minute." Tao turned to stare in surprise at Edan. "The Sri led me to you? Then you must have been the person who knocked me out. But why?"

With a heavy sigh, Edan apologized. "I am sorry, Tao, but I couldn’t take the chance that you would say no to my plea. The Sri only told me that the first person to arrive at the altar was the person who would help me in my time of need."

"That explains the reason I found myself at the altar." Tao realized. "I was led there, probably by magic or sorcery."

"As fascinating as this discussion is, can we get back to my explanations?" Mosi was impatient and it showed. "We could always just kill you."

"My apologies, Mosi, please tell us why you did horrible things to Edan and his daughter before you kill us." The sarcasm dripped from his words and caused Mosi to glare at Tao.

"I wanted Edan to be focused on something other than the village and my actions for awhile. It was pure chance that Sima developed spring fever and I used it to my advantage." Mosi gestured at the men with him. "Recognize them, Edan? They used to be villagers here until you found them stealing from visitors. You banished them and left me without workers."

At Edan’s startled look, Mosi laughed. "That’s right, they worked for me. Do you honestly think I was satisfied with village life? I am not a servant for others to use as they see fit! Often, they would not pay me and when they did, what use are cows and goats to a healer? I needed other things, precious stones or pelts in order to be successful at the market places."

By this time, Mosi had taken a seat facing his prisoners and was waxing eloquently. "I convinced the sons of the villagers to steal from their parents, or from unsuspecting travelers and even some of the visitors. I was doing so well and then you found out. If you had stayed out of my business, I wouldn’t have had to poison your daughter, Edan."

Sighing, Mosi tipped his head back and looked up at the ceiling of the hut. "Oh well, in the morning I will tell the villagers that this stranger," pointing at Tao, "killed you all and by the time I got here the only thing I had been able to do was stop you from escaping. My men will then kill you and I will tell the villagers that they came back to warn our leader but were too late. I think they’ll believe that, don’t you?"

Without waiting for a reply, Mosi ordered his men to "kill the girl first."

Edan half rose in his seat at Mosi’s order but was pushed back down by one of the men. He turned and found that his companions were similarly restrained.

"Please, leave her alone." He begged Mosi. "My daughter is no threat to you, she has no knowledge of my actions as village leader. Let her live, Mosi, I beg you."

Mosi felt a rush of pleasure as he listened to Edan beg for his daughter’s life and gestured for the men to halt. "We’ll see what Edan has to offer us in place of his daughter first. If I like it, we’ll leave her alive."

One of his men frowned. "Do you think that’s a good idea? What if she knows more than her father thinks she does?"

Mosi glared at the man. "Do I pay you to think? I don’t think so. If Sima knows something, she can always be taken care of. The villagers won’t suspect a thing since she’s already so ill."

Turning back to Edan, Mosi smiled. "So, what do you have to offer me, Edan? Do you have any precious stones or anything of like value that you can give to me in exchange for your daughter’s life?"

Just as Edan was opening his mouth to speak, Tao interrupted. "Don’t, Edan. Mosi has already shown us that he won’t stop from killing your daughter once you are gone. Offering him stones or anything else won’t change that."

Mosi was enraged. "You think you’re so smart, Eiron? Fine, you can be the first to die."

Getting up from his seat, Mosi walked toward the door where his healing bag lay and, reaching in, pulled out a vial. Ordering his men to hold the Eiron steady, Mosi approached him and jerked his head back.

"You really should learn to watch your tongue, Eiron." Mosi laughed. "You won’t be doing too much speaking once I’m done with you."

Opening the vial, Mosi held it under Tao’s nose. "Do you recognize the smell, Eiron?"

Tao whispered. "Belladonna."

"Good, at least you’ll know what’s happening to you." Mosi held Tao’s mouth open as he tipped the vial and watched impassively as the thick liquid began to flow out. Just as the first drops landed on Tao’s tongue, a shimmer appeared in the air.

******************

The first thing that Dar saw as he stepped out from behind the Sorceress was a man holding Tao still while forcing something into his mouth. Dar moved fast and, with a quick motion of his staff, the vial fell out of the man’s hand and shattered on the floor.

The men turned startled eyes on the intruders but, at an order from Mosi, attacked. To their surprise, a tiger, an eagle and two ferrets soon joined the man. Once they got a taste of the tiger’s large paws, the eagle’s sharp talons and the ferrets’ bite, the men were more than ready to fight the lone man with the staff.

Twirling the staff over his head, Dar wielded it as if it were but an extension of his arms. His graceful movements were the counterpart to the uncoordinated and clumsy movements of the attacking men. The knobbed end of the staff knocked several of the men out in one smooth swing while the bladed end jabbed and parried the weapons they used to attack.

Soon, the fight was over and ten of Mosi’s men were scattered, in various stages of consciousness, on the floor. As Dar looked around for the dark-haired man who had been leaning over his friend, a laugh was heard. Turning their heads in the direction of the sickroom they watched in horror as Mosi exited followed closely by the last of his men. In the man’s arms was Sima.

Edan walked toward Mosi with outstretched arms and once again begged for his daughter’s life. "Please, don’t do this. You are a healer, you must remember what that means. If you want to take a hostage, take me, just spare my daughter."

Mosi just laughed. "Oh Edan, you poor fool. I don’t care that I am a healer. There are too many other exciting things in life than serving others. If you follow me, I will kill her."

Walking carefully toward the door, Mosi was surprised when a woman he hadn’t noticed before stood before him. "Get out of my way, woman, or you’ll meet the same fate as this little girl will." He warned.

A slow smile crossed her face as the Sorceress waved her hand. Frozen, Mosi and his man could not stop her from retrieving the sleeping child and taking her to Edan.

"Oh, thank you, Sri. Thank you." Edan clutched his daughter to his chest and murmured his thanks over and over again.

At that, the hitherto silent Tao looked at her in surprise and tried to speak. As the word ‘Sri’ left his mouth, he clutched his throat in pain.

Startled, Dar laid his hand on Tao’s shoulder and asked him what was wrong. Tao shook his head and pointed to his mouth. Rees, who had been silent throughout the whole affair spoke up. "Mosi gave him something called Belladonna. Perhaps that has something to do with his muteness."

An expression of thanks crossed Tao’s face and he nodded. Pointing toward the bags lying beside the door, he motioned Dar toward them. Trying to get his point across, he was startled when the Sorceress approached him.

"As the Beastmaster has pointed out, you wouldn’t have been in this situation if it were not for my meddling." Laying a gentle hand on Tao’s throat, the Sorceress murmured for a moment and then removed her hand. "How does it feel now?"

"Uh, much better, thank you." Tao was still a little leery of her and couldn’t quite keep a sigh of relief to himself when she smiled and walked away. Turning to Edan, Tao looked at Sima and then began issuing orders.

"Edan, take Sima back to her room. Rees, I need you to heat some water. Dar, grab my bag please." As soon as he had the bag, Tao began to pull out herbs and flowers all the while glaring at the still frozen form of Mosi.

Soon, the water was heated and Tao began to add herbs and flowers to it instructing Rees to stir it carefully. Watching his friend work, Dar was once again faced with the fear that he was holding him back and, unable to watch any longer, turned back to the thirteen men that the Sorceress had frozen.

"So, what are you going to do with them?" Dar was curious to see how she would deal with the situation.

The Sorceress sighed. "I cannot take life, it would go against everything that I have been taught as a sorceress. But, I can ensure that they never do anything like this again." Looking back at an anxious Edan, who stood in the doorway to the sickroom, the Sorceress smiled. "When you visit the altar next time, remember to bring stones with you."

Edan looked down sorrowfully. "I do not have any more precious stones, Lady Sri. I used the last of them when I visited you."

"What do you mean, Edan?" the Sorceress questioned. "I see stones on your floor. Bring them with you."

Startled, Edan looked up and stared in wonder at the place where Mosi and his men had been. Instead of men however, he saw stones of many colors scattered around. Tao and Dar exchanged a look of surprise while Rees began to laugh. "Well, Mosi did want to get lots of precious stones. I just wonder if he realized he’d be such a strange color."

The Sorceress laughed in pleasure before turning to Tao. "I apologize, Tao, for involving you in this situation. Accept my thanks for helping my people and if you ever need help, call me."

Open-mouthed amazement was his reply and she laughed again. Looking over at Dar, she inclined her head. "Until next time, Beastmaster."

With a shimmer, she was gone.

Chapter Text

A fortnight later, Dar and Tao left the village of Tor behind, reassured that Sima was well on her way to recovery. As they traveled, Dar filled Tao in on the story behind the Sorceress’ involvement with the Makari. Tao was as surprised as Dar had been to discover that the Sorceress and even the Ancient One were both once human.

Toward evening, Dar began looking around for a good place to camp. Finally, at the edge of the forest, they found a likely spot.

"How long are we going to be camping here?" Tao asked.

Dar shrugged. "Probably only for the night. I want to get back to looking for Arina as soon as possible."

Casting about for any signs of recent occupation, Dar was immediately alert when he saw the remains of a campfire. Reaching for his staff, he motioned Tao to stay behind him as he advanced on an area of the camp that was protected by rock formations. To his surprise, a familiar figure emerged.

"Arina?"

"Dar?"

Arina dropped her bedroll and reached out to hug Dar. "It’s good to see you again. I heard about your mother and your brother. I’m so sorry."

The Beastmaster stepped back and glanced at his male companion with an unsettled look. Tao smiled before wisecracking; "News travels faster than we do."

This seemed to tame Dar’s apprehension long enough to hug her back. "It’s good to see you too, Arina, and you have nothing to apologize for."

"I heard you nearly died." Stepping back from him, Arina looked him over and then frowned. "Where did you get that mark, Dar?"

Glancing down at his chest, Dar realized that she was talking about Curupira’s reminder and shrugged. "It’s a long story."

Laughing, Arina nodded. "Everything is with you."

Dar just smiled before taking a good look at her too. "Well, I’m glad to see you’re in one piece. When I found out that you had gone looking for Voden, I was worried."

Neatly side-stepping the inherent question, Arina turned to the silent man beside Dar and winked. "Tao! You’re so quiet; I’d almost forgotten you were there. Why are you so quiet?"

Tao smiled at her. "I was surprised to see you. Besides, as people have been pointing out to me lately, I talk too much. I decided to work on it."

Laughing, Arina reached out and hugged her friend. "Well, keep on trying, Tao. We’ll see just how long you can keep your tongue still."

Tao frowned. "Do you both think that I won’t be able to keep quiet?" With a look of hurt, he turned away from his friends. "Why don’t the both of you enjoy your reunion without me." And he walked away in a self-righteous huff.

Exchanging startled looks, Dar and Arina hurried toward their friend.

"Tao, we were only playing with you." Dar explained.

"Yeah, Tao." Arina added still teasing. "I know that you can do whatever you set your mind to, it’s just that I can’t imagine you not talking."

Tao stopped beside the campfire and turned to look at his concerned friends and then laughed. "Gotcha!"

Soon the camp echoed with the sound of laughter.