Prologue I pushed with all my remaining strength on the hatch above my head. The smoke from the flames was making breathing almost impossible, and the flames themselves crept within feet of my long black dress. The normally dark ship's hold was bright with flame. The hatch remained stubbornly stuck shut, weighted down with several barrels of heavy gunpowder, and I was fading fast. A nasty gash and several broken ribs slowed me down considerably. Even my black hair was brown with sweat and blood. I cursed the captain and his filthy crew of mutineers. They locked me in the hold, torched the ship, condemning me to die. There didn’t look to be much hope. But I refused to give up. Barrels of gunpowder can only weigh so much, right? I pushed again. Okay, wrong. I cast around a last desperate glance. The ship’s hold, lined with dried tar to keep it dry but that caused the flames to burn up ever higher, was designed to keep water out, but instead kept me in. The crew was long gone, with their spoils from the looted White Raven and the wealthy merchantmen aboard as passengers for hostages. Now I was trapped, alone and dying within a mile of the mysterious island of Mimidon. It was said that many strange and wondrous beings lived on the island, including the elves who had left my own country of Kaei centuries ago. The island itself was supposed to be twice the size of Kaei, leafy and green. I had done anything I could to get on this ship. I was determined to follow my mother, who had come to Kaei from this island almost twenty years ago. But, I thought, I’ll never see it. My sight was going dark from lack of air, and, even if someone found the ship, no one was crazy enough to try to board a burning vessel, survivor or no survivor. I gave the hatch a last desperate shove, and almost fainted as my ribs cracked. The hatch remained blocked. I pounded on the boards until my knuckles bled, yelling, but there was no one to hear me. I pulled my skirts away from the flames, leaned back against an empty barrel, and closed my eyes weakly. I couldn’t have done anything else if I had tried. The back of my head was covered in partially dried blood. A gash from a collapsing beam across my chest bled profusely, and another one, larger and wider, along my ribcage, was far more painful, and bled faster, and I had nothing that would even serve temporarily as a bandage. My back was on fire with the cuts of a whip, and I was dizzy and burning up from the heat. I took a scanty breath. The pirates had probably taken Piper from the deck; I heard no whinnies or screams of pain from him. I bid my beautiful white stallion goodbye, glad for his sake that he was gone. I had made my peace with the world, and had few regrets. After all, I was barely eighteen. There had been no time for regrets. The flames crept closer, but I didn‘t feel them. Instead of feeling the searing heat, I was as cold as though I was sitting in the snow. Finally, my body went numb and my vision went dark. Just before I sank into blackness, I imagined I could see stars above my head. I moved through them, became part of them, and the handsome face of Darien, the powerful star god of myth, watched me. ~~~~~ I heard a splintering crack; the smooth surface I lay on was rent down the center, and I dropped. Something icy cold hit me with the force of a hundred pound weight, and I slipped beneath the water like a fish. I opened my eyes. I was surrounded by fire and debris, the ship had finally collapsed. I flailed my arms helplessly, but only sank deeper beneath the burning water. My lungs gasped for air, and I tried to get above the water, but I only had time for a quick breath before a sledgehammer of water pushed me back down. I couldn’t see anything now, but all around me I heard the crackling, rushing sound of a busy fire. I grabbed onto something floating past me, and it turned out to be a wooden plank. I floated above the water for a few seconds, but my entire body was racked with the pain of my wounds hitting salt water, and my arms went weak. I slipped back under the freezing water. Everything became blurred, and I was seeing strange shapes and imagined images. I was almost certain that it was another mirage when a strong arm clamped around my waist, but not too roughly. I was dragged for a period of time that might have been a minute, but might have been a year, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you. I wasn’t aware of anything, and the water whirled around me in a dizzying swirl of shape and color. I’m not sure when I realized that I could feel something solid under my feet. I was dropped, and I half-walked, half-crawled until I was on my hands and knees, and the water was now barely to my wrists as I crawled. I collapsed as the gentle tide swirled around me. Airen I was just banking my fire for the night when I heard a strange sound. Somewhere between a groan and a sigh, it roused my curiosity. Without thinking about it, I got up, and began walking along the beach. It was a beautiful night, and the full moon illuminated the sand like liquid silver. The air was balmy, but not hot, and I would have been quite content were it not for the circumstances. I hadn’t gone far when I saw the source of the noise. At first, all I could see was a dark shape lying on the sand, like black against the gray sand. Even from here I could see that it was human, and it wasn’t moving, so I walked cautiously toward it. I was within a yard before I saw that it was a young woman, dressed somberly in black silk, and quite beautiful, in a dark way. She lay on her back in the sand. She was injured, badly. There was a deep cut across her chest, just below her collarbone, and another along her ribcage, her lovely face was covered in bruises and small cuts, and there was a wide cut on her temple that was less than a day old. I turned her over very carefully, and was rewarded with a faint moan of pain. I gasped. Her entire back from her neck down was scored with the wide cuts and bruises of a whip, the kind preferred by prison masters as a way to extract information from prisoners, cruel and woven with glass and barbs to tear at flesh. She was breathing shallowly, but when I touched her forehead it was burning with fever. I fumbled for her pulse in her wrist. It was beating sluggishly, as though not sure if the next beat was worth the effort. As I saw this, I noticed a set of footprints leading away from her and into the stand of palm trees that thickened into a heavy forest. I squinted after them, and saw a dark shape disappear between the trees. I had no inclination to go after it, however. I saw that there was a large bag lying near her, off to one side. I slung it over my shoulder; it wasn’t heavy at all. I picked the girl up gently, and carried her as carefully as possible back to my camp. I lay her down on a spare blanket near the fire. She murmured something I didn’t catch. Her eyes roved uneasily beneath her lids, as though she dreamed, but I knew it was the fever. I grabbed a water skin from beside the fire, and poured some of it onto a rag. This I squeezed over her sculpted lips. Water dripped into her mouth, but she didn’t swallow. I placed the cloth onto her forehead, and she seemed to relax a little. I left her and went to my saddlebags. I grabbed my healer’s bag and returned quickly. It promised to be a long night. Caela I wavered on the thin line between wakefulness and unconsciousness. My whole body burned with pain, but I shivered uncontrollably. I heard faint movement not far from me, but when I tried to turn my head, fire and ice streaked through me, and I sank back into blackness. I remember feeling as though I stood on the edge of a great chasm. Everything behind me was painted in softy, floating colors, a landscape of grass and sky. In front of me was a distant green shore, far over the black side of the chasm. It was bright and vibrant, and before me was a thin, unsteady-looking bridge. The distant land looked so enticing that I took a step over the bridge. And another. And another. But when I was about halfway over, something inside me clenched tight. I was dragged inexorably towards the other side of the chasm, and I struggled. I kicked and screamed against the clenching hand around my heart that pulled me away from the place I most wanted to go. But suddenly, everything around me was plunged into shades of gray and black. When next I awoke, I was aware of a bright, burning light shining through my eyelids. The pain was less now, and I could move again. My breathing remained shallow, for the sake of clear thinking, though, and my ribs throbbed unpleasantly. My first thought was that I had somehow gotten to the ship’s deck, and collapsed under the sun. But no, that couldn’t be. The ship was long gone, and the ground beneath me didn’t heave and rock the way a ship’s deck would. Suddenly, I felt a stiff wind, and the sun’s light was covered, by what I didn’t know. I opened my eyes. I lay on my good side, rolled in a blanket on a sandy beach, just below the shade of a small stand of palm trees, which had covered the sun. What happened? I thought weakly. I turned my head, and was surprised to see, about three feet away, a burning campfire. Beyond it, two horses grazed peacefully on the short, tough dune grass. One was a lovely deep bay with points, a black mane and tail, and white socks, and the other one looked an awful lot like… “Piper?” I whispered. At the sound of his name, the stallion picked up his head, and pricked his ears at me, scrutinizing me through rare blue eyes. He was alive! He had been my companion since I was ten years old, when he had been foaled, and strangely, was my closest friend. I had trained him myself, disregarding traditional methods and riding astride, like a man. But, where did the bay come from? Almost on cue, I heard footsteps off to my left, approaching rapidly. Instinct made me try to push myself up. The pain renewed itself at my efforts, stabbing like lightning down my side. I gasped, which, of course, only made it worse. A strong but gentle hand pushed me back down. “Easy. Calm down.” A man’s voice, firm but gentle. The hand withdrew from my shoulder, and the footsteps walked slowly about five paces to my right. Strangely, I realized that I wore, not the solemn black silk dress off the ship, but my normal loose black shirt and black calfskin breeches. I was neither bloody, sweaty, dirty, or foggy. I closed my eyes and lay still for several seconds, calming my breathing and my racing heartbeat. Curiosity and wariness forced my eyes back open after about ten seconds. The figure was crouched in front of the fire, adding something to the pot rigged over it. From behind I could tell he was maybe two or three years older than myself. He had light brown hair falling straight a little past his shoulders. What skin I could see was dark tan with work and sun. He was dressed for comfort in a white linen shirt and breeches much like my own, but honey colored tan instead of black. I tried to speak to him, but was overcome with a coughing fit so violent that I sank back into blackness. When I came to, he was holding a cup to my lips. I swallowed in spite of myself, finding that it was water, clear and very good. I drained the entire cup. Refreshed, I could say, “Thank you” pretty clearly. “You’re welcome.” he said briskly. He studied me for a moment, and I noticed that his eyes were an extremely rare green. I probably noticed this first of anything else about his face, which was strong and handsome. In Kaei, you were identified by the color of your eyes. Brown was common, blue was noble. The royal family was characterized by clear violet eyes. Fortune tellers claimed to be able to see your future by looking into your eyes. My eyes were also a rare color, like silver, ghostly against my nearly white skin. I’ve been told that when I get especially emotional, my eyes change color, which in itself is not such a rare trait. People who do that are called chameleons, for they can pass among any class of people once they have mastered their power. What’s different for me is that, like when I was a small child, I would become extremely angry, and my eyes would turn stormy blackish-gray, like a thunderhead. Sorrow is dark velvet blue, exhaustion stony, happiness golden, pain the reddish-brown of clay, and, in one or two instances, in battle, blood-red. I have never seen that for myself, but I was told that no one would talk to me for days, which I do remember. Right now, they were probably somewhere between clay red and stone. I closed them and concentrated on getting them back to silver. I didn’t know this man, and my emotions could not be an open book, to anyone. I opened them again, and his face showed a small shock. “Who are you?” he asked. I got the feeling he thought he had made a mistake rescuing me, if indeed he had. “Caela.” I said quietly. He looked thoughtful for a moment. “Caela.” he repeated. I could almost hear him thinking it over. “Who are you?” I asked defensively. “Airen.” he said immediately. I stifled a gasp. An Elvin name. There were enough legends about them for me to recognize a name when I heard one. Once again I tried, stupidly, to rise, and was again pushed back down. I averted my eyes from his, and asked quietly, “How long have I been out?” His expression was immediately solemn. “Over a week.” I cursed violently, but only inwardly. I thought I saw him flinch, anyway. Yeah, it was that bad. I think I’ve spent a little too much time with soldiers. “That is bad?” he asked hesitantly. “Yes.” By now the pirates were halfway around the world, and many of my most recent friends were probably dead. I had never had a real family, but many of the couples of merchants and their wives had been as kind to me as if I had been their own daughter. My eyes gave the tiny itch I was accustomed to feeling before they changed color, and I fought it back, along with my tears. No one would see me cry. Ever. “Thank you for saving me.” I said quietly. He looked surprised. “I didn’t.” That woke me up. “What?” “When I found you, you were already lying on the beach. I thought I saw someone walking away, but was too preoccupied with you and didn’t follow them.” He seemed amused again, but only for a moment. “I assumed you were off the ship I had seen that afternoon, but I didn’t find any other passengers.” I shook my head sadly. “You won’t.” He sat down beside me, folding his long legs in around him. “Maybe you should tell me how you happened to come here.” “Fine, but I have to warn you; it’s a strange story.” I took a deep breath, and started at the beginning. I was born on a ship, the frigate SS Deliverance. To my mother, it was deliverance. Hers and mine. She had come back from a voyage to the very island in which I was now sitting, and left pregnant with me. She never told me who my father was, and I could tell it hurt her to talk about him. She came to the small village of Chiron in Kaei’s western edge, near the sea, where her brother lived with his family. When the baby was born, she named it Caela, and, I was told, went away almost instantly, taking me with her. For the next six years of my life, we were always moving from one place to another. But I never remember being frightened or hungry. Somehow my mother always managed for both of us. Then, one night, we were staying the night at an inn in the capital city Kaeisa when she heard shouting from the barroom. She got up, woke me very gently, and opened the door. She seemed very frightened, but I didn’t quite dare ask about it. The voices were approaching, and heavy footprints tramped up the stairs. Then came a very loud voice. It shouted something that I couldn’t understand, and my mother looked as though she was almost ready to faint. She pushed me over to the window, grabbed the bundle with our few possessions, grabbed me around the waist, and jumped. We landed on the cold stone of the streets. I must have hit my head, because I don’t remember any more of that night. When I woke up, I was lying on the grass far outside the city, with my mother’s pendant clasped around my neck, and my mother was gone. The pendant was probably the one valuable item she had ever possessed, silver in a strange symbol I didn’t recognize, and set with a large red stone known as a cat’s blood. It had been much too long then, and only just fitted now. I remember feeling sure that she wasn’t dead, just gone. I waited. And waited. But she never came back. I was found days later by a farmer passing in his cart on the way to market in the city. He took me with him, and brought me to the home of a man named Solom. I don’t know why he picked this particular place, but now I was glad he had. Solom took me in, and I didn’t learn until almost a year had passed that Solom was a weapons master. The warriors he trained often ended up in royal houses. Solom himself was stern but kind. He was known best for the silver dagger he kept hidden in his long horse-tail, sheathed in a small leather scabbard that matched his light brown hair perfectly. When I was eight years old, he took me aside and asked me what I wanted most from my life. A strange question for an eight-year-old to answer, but I remember saying, quite clearly, “I want to be a Weapon.” The Weapons were the very highest class of swordmaster, as dangerous with weapons as without, and very seldom staying in any one place for any length of time. It was a dangerous life, lonely and cold, but it was what I wanted. Solom agreed, not even trying to talk me out of it, but warning me it would take years. I persisted, though. We started the following day. For the next seven years I trained. Every day I became stronger, faster, and more dangerous. I had a temperament like cold steel, and Solom was very proud. I became very fond of the strangest, things, for a girl. I found that I had an aptitude for battle, loved the haunting sound of a flute, an instrument that, in Kaei, women were forbidden to play, and I was very happy to spend hours, or even days, if it was a holiday, wandering by myself in the woods that lay within about ten miles of the city. I was happy as long as I was working, but if, say, Solom suggested that I take a walk or if I had to run a message to one of his many contacts concerning a student who was ready for a job, I was haunted by many of the places I passed. I couldn’t get my mother’s face out of my mind, calm and pale, with bright blue eyes and blond hair. I had never really been much like her, but even the tiny reminders in my own face were horrible. Almost every night, I would have screaming nightmares, in which I was, once again, in the inn with her. This time, however, I would see the men who had been after us, for I was certain they were after us. I imagined them in every way possible (and some that were not), and every new way was more frightening that the last. I would suddenly be all alone, my mother was gone, and the footsteps tramped nearer. I tried to run, but my muscles would not move. Then they were upon me, and I would wake screaming. It became so that even when it had been years, when I was the most frightened, Solom or his wife would come in to make sure I was alright. I was embarrassed my the dreams, thinking I should have grown out of them, and I often woke the other pupils, and the smallest ones, those who had just started training, would be almost as frightened as I was, certain that something dreadful had happened. One thing bothered Solom, though. I refused to take any of the positions offered me, no matter for how brief a time, even when I was considered the best of Solom’s many students, and the offers became increasingly prestigious. Finally, after I turned down an offer from the young lord form the royal family, Solom confronted me about it. I was then fifteen, and told him that I didn’t want a position for a stuffy noble. I wanted to sail. I didn’t say so, but he understood that I needed to get away from the city where no matter where I went, I saw ghosts. He helped me find a job on one of the ships heading out of the country, the Fortune’s Chance, a ship full of rich merchants deciding to live out their days simply, far from the loud, dirty city. I thought it ironic that they had chosen to settle on probably the only known island where there were absolutely no human habitation. It was explained to me one evening after supper by a young sailor on board, whose name was Valin. I had just had supper, and was staring out over the water, watching the seabirds that had followed the ship almost since we had left port. My long, black silk dress was very tight, and I began to question the motives of the young widow who had given it to me, when I heard him quietly come up next to me, but didn’t look up. We stood silently for a while, simply staring out over the water, when the creaking of the door that led to the cabins caused us to look up. An old, very fat merchantman had emerged, and was strolling jovially across the deck, dressed in a very ugly brown vest and striped canvas breeches. I almost burst a lung trying not to laugh. Valin couldn’t help it, and spent the next several minutes trying to control himself. When he had stopped laughing, I asked quietly, “What do they see in this? Sailing for a place they’ve never seen, where they’ll be left to fend for themselves, without any way of knowing if they’ll live to see a new dawn.” He gave me a strange look. “You don’t like it?” “I do, but I have no home, and I have nothing to lose. They could be sitting in a comfortable house in the country, without a single care, and knowing exactly where they’ll be every day for the rest of their lives.” “Caela,” he said slowly, as though talking to a simpleton. “Most of these people have what they have from inheritance. It was through no good fortune or hard work of their own, and they are tired of it. Even perfect comfort can be boring sometimes. They came because they want a chance to see what they can do with their own two hands, without hiring a worker or buying a slave. They feel that this is their chance to show what their made of, what they can do, to prove their worth.” This was a very long speech, coming from the normally silent sailor, and I found myself very moved by it. Wasn’t this, after all, what I was coming here for? To get answers, yes, but I had everything I could possibly want, even if that was only a flute, Piper, and an endless road to travel. I was perfectly ready to be content with almost nothing. How were these merchants any different? I was still thinking on it when there was a shout of, “Land! Land!” The passengers and crew who had been at dinner came swarming up the dining room stairs, cramming together by the deck for an eager glance of the barely visible black line on the horizon. I wasn’t one of them. It would still be there later, and would probably get more interesting. There I had made a very unfortunate mistake. The next thing I knew, there was a blinding flash of pain at the back of my head, and I collapsed into blackness. When I awoke, I was bound and gagged with ship’s cord, slung against the wooden railing that ran the length of the deck. I realized instantly what had happened. Mutiny! The crew had been unusually restless these past several weeks, and I had spoken to several passengers who had actually started to fear for their own safety. I tried to call out, but was overcome with a wave of dizziness so severe that I retched. The gag was tied so tightly that I could barely breathe. I swallowed, tasting bitter bile, and glanced frantically around me. The deck was cast in shadow, without even a lantern to light the ship. I closed my eyes, and listened carefully. From every direction around me, I heard the rhythmic breathing of several people, either asleep or in the state I had been in only moments before; I suspected the latter. My wrists were chafed from the rough rope, and I could taste blood in my mouth. I felt around in the dark for a way to loosen the rope, and was surprised to find a very sharp something directly behind me. I blessed the sailors for their carelessness, and began rubbing my bound wrists up and down across the edge. I could feel the ropes weakening after interminable moments, but soon had them loose enough to slip a wrist out, untie the knot, and pull my gag off. I put a hand to the back of my head, and it came away wet. There was a cut on my forehead that dripped blood down my cheek. I started to move across the deck, picking my way by memory toward the captain’s cabin, where I could see a pinprick of light, and hear muffled voices, several times tripping over limp forms that grunted at the rude jarring. I came very close to falling off a gap in the deck railing, and edged away even more carefully. I came to the steps, where the voices were even clearer, and put an ear to the closed door. “- can they exist?” The voice had a hint of disrespect in it, a casualty that bordered on a threat. “Do you think we would have come all this way for nothing?!” This voice held an air of command, and I recognized in it the captain, Emory. I hadn’t believed that he would have been part of the mutiny, but now, I guessed, I had no choice. The men had started talking again “What about the rest of the crew? Those landlubbers who don’t know what’s good for ‘em?” “We leave them on the island. After all, dead men tell no tales.” I thought this was being rather overdramatic. After all, these were hardened seamen. They were pretty useless if they couldn’t so much as find a spring for drinking or hunt a few rabbits from time to time. “We’ll take the merchants with us, and maybe find somewhere to drop them off before coming back.” “What about Caela? “ I stiffened at hearing my name. “We don’t want her snooping around, and she’s dangerous, for a woman.” I suppose I should have been flattered, but was almost too angry to feel anything. “We feed her to the fishes. She’s too smart to keep around.” Hearing this, I began to edge away from the door. In doing so, I accidentally kicked a crate that was lying in the aisle between the captain’s study and the passenger’s cabins, causing a hollow boom. The voices inside stopped as though cut through with a knife. I froze, hoping they would forget about it, thinking it was only one of the sounds that a ship at rest makes, that their captives couldn’t possibly escape. But before I could move, the door in front of me opened wide, and I was temporarily blinded by the warm yellow light spilling out from it. There was a great shouting from inside. “Get her!” I fled down the deck, dodging kegs, barrels, and coils of rope. There was really nowhere to run, the captain knew the ship much better than I did, but I ran, anyway, ducking through an open door, and stopping dead in an empty room, gasping. I now had a very bad cramp in one lung, and my head was throbbing again. I heard a muffled groaning, and turned. There was a small lantern burning on a hook in the wall, and by it’s dim light I saw that I had found the crew, those that remained loyal. All were awake, though several showed signs of blood on their heads, just as I did. Valin was trying to speak through his gag, but I shut him up with a look. Pulling out a dagger from my belt, I cut their bonds. “Caela!” he cried. I clapped a hand across his mouth. “Shut up, you idiot! Do you want to be caught?” This was so unlike me that he silenced himself. Whispering urgently, I explained the situation, and they agreed that, somehow, we had to get off the ship. ~~~~~ I stopped for a breath. Airen had finally permitted me to sit up, and I was much more comfortable. There is something about lying helpless on the ground and looking up at someone while talking that tends to steal one’s dignity. I completed this section of my story, and was about to start again, when he stopped me with a gentle hand on my shoulder. I looked up. Even sitting he was still taller than myself, if only by a few inches. “You don’t have to go on if you don’t want to.” he said quietly. I sighed. “No. It’s fine, I’ll finish. I’m almost done, anyway.” by then it was starting to get a little darker, and the insects were humming busily, but the smoke from Airen’s campfire kept the away from us. He was an avid listener, not speaking, but thinking over carefully everything that I said. When I mentioned that my mother had come from Mimidon, he appeared to have solved an intriguing puzzle, though what it was I couldn’t actually guess. Other than my eyes, there was nothing different about me than about any stolid Kaeian farmwife. I would ask him later. I began again. ~~~~~ Valin, a sailor named Bromley, and I crept silently along the deck. The chaos from my escape had died down, along with all the noise. The mutineers were busy trying to force the merchants and their wives and children into a small schooner that had appeared seemingly out of nowhere. Fortunately, the merchants were putting up enough of a fuss that we were completely ignored, of we were seen at all. Bromley knew the ship better than perhaps anyone than the captain, and was leading us to the room where the weapons were stored. We planned to stock ourselves up, and our followers, and try, maybe, to win the ship back. If not, we had land barely a mile away, and we could all swim. We would make for it if the battle looked bleak. Just in case, the bag holding all of my meager belongings was slung over my shoulder. I warned them that all of the mutineers, at least the ones that I had seen, were the ship’s hardest fighters, excepting for a very small minority. The ones still loyal were mostly the older men, cabin boys, and those unfit for fighting from illness or injury. They insisted that we try. I had chosen a few trustworthy men to sneak onto the schooner and find any merchants who were capable of fighting. There would be only a very few, but we certainly needed all the help we could possibly get. My scouts met us at the closet-sized room that was the weapons storage. “We got seven to fight off the boat.” hissed one. “Wonderful.” I whispered, impressed. I had only expected two or three; this went far beyond what I had hoped. We entered the room, and each of them grabbed a cutlass. They were clumsy things, made for slashing, not heavy fighting, but they would have to do. Our best marksmen got a bow and quiver. I was surprised by the bows, but welcomed them gladly. Even the broadsword that I carried tended to be rather messy and obvious. With arrows, half the mutineers could be dead before they knew what had happened to them, evening the odds in our favor, if only by a little. I sent out a scout to check the position of the sentries that I knew would be patrolling the deck, watching the ship like the guards of a battlement. When our entire force, about twenty men, was gathered in the storage room, I sent out the archers and prepared the foot soldiers to follow them. Soon we heard a huge commotion from above our heads, and the thud of the sailors already fallen. There was a great deal of shouting, and a great deal more of cursing. I heard someone bellowing orders, but was not sure if they were obeyed. “Get ready.” I whispered. We waited a little longer, but there was no signal from the archers, no shout, no nothing. “Let’s go.” I said. We swarmed out onto the deck like a small wave. We made so much noise, that a herd of charging elephants would have seemed quiet by comparison. But I no longer cared. We reached the small knot of our archers toiling, now with cutlasses, against the mutineers, and joined the fray. A man loomed up in front of me, a grinning giant with a sword in hand. He swung at my unprotected knees, and I blocked it, sweeping in a backwards arc toward his head. He slammed his sword against mine, and the force of the blow jarred my arms. I cursed inwardly; he was strong! He sensed my weakness, and swirled around, whirling his sword an a straight circle that would have been the death of me, had it landed on it’s target, my neck. I blocked it, then, in his moment of hesitation, I slipped a dagger out of my sleeve, and threw it into the thin knot of muscle in his neck. It hit it’s target easily, and he went down like a tree. I bent over him. He was probably dead, but just to be safe, I cut his throat. Moving on to the next target, I suddenly felt a shadow pass over the boat. I don’t mean like when a cloud covers the sun, I mean like when something so dreadful is about to happen that you have screaming nightmares just from the anticipation of it. I seemed to be the only one to feel it, though, and my moment of hesitation cost me dear. A thin, wiry sailor took the opportunity to stab a dagger into the web of muscle in the forearm of my sword arm. I dropped my blade, cursing. Before I could so much as move, an arm clamped itself around my waist. I gasped for air, but it wasn’t coming. Then I realized what I had done. And I knew that my little rebellion was worthless. ~~~~~ “What was it?” Airen asked carefully. “What happened?” I heard masked enthusiasm in his voice; I guess it did make a good story. I shook my head sadly. “Our archers were all either dead or captured by then. There was nothing to stop the captain and mutineers. They used me as bait, and forced the others to drop their weapons.” I said this in a matter-of-fact tone, but inside I burned with shame. How could I? I felt like I had betrayed my followers, and all because of my stupid instincts! “Most of us were lucky enough to just be dumped onto the schooner with the merchants,“ I continued. “But some of us were too much trouble to keep around.” “What about you? You survived.” he pointed out. I sighed. “Believe me, it wasn’t for lack of trying.” I realized what I had said, and hushed myself. What had happened was that I had been mercilessly stripped naked right in front of the crew, and whipped, seventy-five strokes of the lash across my shoulder blades, and locked in the hold. They set it on fire while I screamed like a frightened child. And, well, I sat there as the fire spread. A beam running through the middle of the ship collapsed on top of me, but I managed to push it aside. And then… nothing. Water, an arm clamped around my waist, then…nothing. I realized that there were still gaping holes in my memory. I knew who I was, and all that, but I couldn’t remember several details of my life, Solom’s face and things like that. Fortunately, of unfortunately, Airen seemed to guess some of this, or read it, and looked away. “That’s it,” I said. “At least, that’s all I remember.” He looked at me again. “You are right.” he admitted. “That is a strange tale.” He studied me again. “Even here, we have heard of the Weapons, and their many deeds. You seem to have done more than some.” I blushed, and looked down at the cloth of my blanket, biting my lip. By this time, I had been talking for along while, an hour or so, and things were starting to become hazy around the edges again. I grimaced as I shifted around. My entire back was on fire from the sting of the lash, and the blood was draining from my head. I couldn’t stop a soft moan from escaping me. I clamped my lips closed, cursing my tr****rous mouth as Airen turned quickly around. Airen handed me a cupful of something, and commanded me to drink it. I sniffed it, and found that it smelled vile “What did I ever do to you?” I muttered as I drank. He laughed. I found that the liquid did not taste as bad as it smelled, but it was definitely a close contest. As I handed the cup back to him, I noticed that I felt a blissful numbness slipping along my back and into my head. It was peaceful, and I slipped easily into sleep. I was briefly puzzled at a picture that formed before my mind’s eye; a dark shape looming far above me. A castle, or a mountain? From within there rose a chorus of haunting, chilling voices, like a chorus of those doomed for eternity. It filled me with dread, but I could do nothing with my mind drifting numbly into sleep. Before I was all the way adrift, though, I heard Airen’s voice. “Sweet dreams, Caela.” Airen I smiled to myself as Caela drifted off. She looked more peaceful as she slept. I could see that she was truly a remarkable woman, not anything like one of my own kind, who tended to be cold and standoffish, even to those they claimed to love. I scrubbed the cup out with sand, and placed it back with my pack and saddle. I called to Meria, and he trotted over to the camp, whinnying. Caela’s horse followed him. How he had gotten here from the ship was anyone’s guess, but I was glad. If Caela decided to come with me as I traveled, she would need him. I admit I hoped she would join me. Meria slowed as he approached, and sniffed my pockets, looking for a treat. “Sorry, boy.” I said. “Nothing now.” He snorted, and was going to head off for a more promising spot, but I grabbed hold of his halter. “Oh, no you don’t. You’re getting some exercise.” I told him. I swung on his back, and, using my legs and voice, I guided him down the beach. Caela’s horse followed again, and I could see that he and Meria had become fast friends. Her horse was a beautiful animal, purely white with blue eyes, and a spark of intelligence that mirrored Meria’s own. Wait a minute… I slipped off Meria’s back, and walked over to her horse. He approached me with a puzzled air, and sniffed the hand I stretched out. I walked around him in a slow circle, picking up his hooves and running a hand down his legs. There. On his back right foreleg, there was a black scar in the shape of a complex knot, as though it had been painted on. I stared at his leg with growing confusion. How did Caela get an Elvish horse on the mainland? He was the kind of horse that my people’s horse masters strived to breed, fine and tall and muscular. There was much I had to learn about her. If only I had known how much, then. Caela When I finally woke again, almost two days had passed. I noticed as I awakened that the pain was almost gone, but I thought it would probably return if I tried to do too much. I guessed from the sky that it was probably just before dawn, and I figured that my old habits of rising before the sun would die harder than I had thought. I sat up carefully, and saw that Airen was still asleep, rolled in a blanket a little ways from the fire. The blaze was still burning brightly, but there didn’t seem to be anything for it to burn. It was making me sweat in my blanket, and I pushed the cloth off my legs to stand up. I found that I wasn’t the least bit tired, and stood eagerly, anticipating something I couldn’t name. I looked into the forest. The trees were damp and leafy, and the first tendrils of dawn tinted them orange against the deep shadowy green. There was a strange, articulate whisper running through it, like a secret told to an audience not knowing the importance of it. As a result, I found myself feeling small and ignorant, not worthy of whatever it was I was being told. The world of the forest was dark and mysterious, and I felt a silent call, like the music of a pipe. I was suddenly curious of whatever hid within the deep shadows of the trees. I stepped cautiously into the moist darkness, walking confidently through undergrowth and over fallen logs. It took over my reason, pulling me deeper into the shadows. I seemed to be in a trance, moving without telling myself to, walking without knowing where I was going. I was drawn irresistibly toward the center of the forest. Pale shafts of light fell like liquid gold through the canopy of leaves, and I walked on. I realized dimly, somewhere deep in my mind, that I had no idea where I was going, and, even more dimly, I was alarmed at the thought. I struggled consciously against the haunting music, but it seemed to compensate for my reluctance, becoming more insistent and seductive until any qualms I might have had disappeared like a day-old rainstorm. I quickened and quickened my pace until I was running, dodging trees and bushes as though they weren’t there. I ignored thorns that tore at my clothes, trees that loomed up in my path, and even once a root that tripped me to the ground. I simply got up and ran on. It was several minutes later that I realized that call was lessening, and I could think for myself again. I shook myself off, as though wakening from a dream, and looked around. My back was starting to sting again, and the gash on my chest had bled through its bandages. There was a wet, but thankfully invisible stain on my black shirt. I looked around. I was in a good-sized clearing, abounding with rich grass and wildflowers. It would have been beautiful. But there was a huge stone structure right in the center. I guessed it could only be a tomb. I walked up to it, and faintly, I thought this must be where the strange, unearthly music had come from. Etched onto every smooth part of the stone were glyphs. Most of them were so covered by moss and worn by the elements that they were impossible to read, and the ones that could be made out were horrible, scenes of blood, death and gore, scenes of betrayal and evil, scenes that could give a grow man nightmares. I took a shocked step backwards, and saw that there was a dark hole in the stone, about at ground level, and wide enough to admit two or three people at once. A flight of wide stone steps descended into the blackness. I peered into it, but saw only shadow. Still, something made me walk down the stairs, and, as my sight compensated for the darkness, and I could dimly make out my surroundings, the same something made me walk still further, through a vast antechamber and through yet another room, until I entered the largest chamber of all. The walls were dotted with brackets in which to hold torches or lanterns, and there was an ancient stone table in the center. This wasn’t a tomb; it was some kind of meeting house. There was still a torch, prepared to be lit in one of the brackets near the entrance. I couldn’t stop myself from glancing over my shoulder, as if to make sure no one was there, before wrenching it out of the iron, and, holding it up near my face, I whispered, “Hakan.”[i/] It flared, lit and burning. I was drained of a small amount of energy, but It didn’t worry me, since I had been expecting it. This was another interesting fact about myself. From the time I was a little girl, and my mother taught me words from one of the lost languages, I seemed to be able to command the elements, if only to a degree. For instance, if I tried to set fire to something wet, nothing happened. Or if I tried to create a storm or tempest, only a light breeze would appear, and only in a space about a foot wide. I held the torch aloft. There were no more gory images on the walls, but there was an oddly shaped outline against the stone on the far wall, like a burn mark. I approached it, holding the torch still higher. It had roughly the shape of a man, but a bear-like man, and he was almost a foot shorter than myself. I took a step closer. Wham! The force hit me like a ton of bricks, slamming me back into the wall. The air whooshed out of my lungs, and my back began to bleed anew, and to sting like fire. Spots danced before my eyes, and I suddenly felt something thick, like honey, slip over me. My struggles turned leaden, and I found that talking was now completely impossible; I could barely breathe. Then, suddenly, my pendant, the one my mother had left with me, flashed as though filled with fire. The red light illuminated the stone chamber, and I saw that there was a strange, creeping darkness issuing from the outline on the wall. I saw all this in a fraction of a second, for the darkness retreated, and the air became clear again, I could now breathe and move, and I ran from the tomblike place as fast as my feet would carry me. Outside, I stopped, gasping for air and in pain. I knelt on the ground, hugging my ribs. After several minutes, I looked up. I was back in the clearing in front of the tomb, and there was no sign of where I had entered. I looked up at the sky, but there was so little of it visible through the trees that I couldn’t even tell where the sun was in the sky. It had certainly risen by now. How far had I gone, exactly? The forest was knee-deep in growth where I was, so I was probably a pretty good ways from the beach. The question was, which way was the beach? I didn’t want to take a random guess, because I would probably end up more lost than I was now. Once again, though, my good sense was outvoted by my idiocy. I looked through the bushes on the side of the clearing, trying to find a broken limb or a trampled bush to give away my entrance. Wait…I crossed the clearing. I could have sworn I came in on the other side, but… There was a bush trampled like a flower on the opposite edge of the clearing, and there was a huge hole in the stone. This one didn’t look planned, with jagged edges, and a pile of rubble lining the outside. I didn’t approach it this time, and, having gotten my bearings, I went back to the other side of the clearing, and reentered the forest. Judging from the fact that I had entered the clearing facing the entrance to the tomb, this was about where I should leave. I set off, and was comforted by the sight of my own footprints in the moist earth. I followed them, and though I lost the trail several times, I always found it a little ways ahead. It continued like this until I could see light through the fringe of trees, and knew I was finally back on the beach. I burst through the trees as though fleeing demons. I tripped over a sand dune, and kneeled in the sand for a moment, gasping. I wiped my streaming eyes, and found that I had broken out in a cold sweat. What exactly had scared me so badly was easy to figure out. There was a single phrase that ran constantly through my mind; what in the stars of Darien was that thing? It had felt so…tainted, tainted like a starry night draped in thunderclouds. Wait… I had seen something like this before. But, when? I put a hand to my temple, a habit of mine when I’m trying to think. When I had fallen asleep last night, or yesterday, really, I had seen, something, something that reminded me of this for some reason. I tried to think, but the memory slipped like water through my fingers. Dismissing it for the moment, and tucking away the thought for later, I stood. Pain shot like fire through my back, but I gritted my teeth and ignored it. I glanced down the beach. I hadn’t come out of the forest exactly where I had gone in, and the camp was some distance down the sand. I began to walk towards it, crossing in and out of the water to cool my aching feet. I wouldn’t tell Airen about it. I could hope he would be too polite to ask about my little encounter, even if he could read my mind. I realized suddenly that I was now sweaty, dirty, and bloody, but didn’t quite see what I would do about it just yet. I heaved a sigh, whether of relief or exhaustion was anyone’s guess. I could see Airen’s shadowy form sitting near the fire, facing away from me, either staring into the flames or watching something I couldn’t see. I came up behind him, not wanting to be too obvious as to where I had been. I scooted around him, but he barely looked up, and when he did, it was with something alarmingly like annoyance. He said nothing, fortunately, and I was glad as I sat back down on the blanket of his that I was using. I heaved another sigh, this one definitely of relief. Dawn was well on it’s way above the horizon now, and the sky was painted in hues of pink and orange. I noticed as I sat down that my bag was sitting in the sand near me, and opened it carefully. At least now I knew where these clothes had come from. I went through it hesitantly, and was pleasantly surprised that most of my things were intact. My clothes were pretty dry, and there was no food in my bag to be spoiled. I dug worriedly into the bottom of the bag, and was relieved to see a dark wooden box, half-buried under the clothes and trinkets. I pulled it out, and opened it. Inside was a set of jewelry, twisted bright silver set with onyx and cat’s blood to match my mother’s pendant. There was thin chain and teardrop-shaped stone for my hair, a thin, hard band of silver set with another stone for around my neck, a large pair of teardrop earrings, and a set of about five very thin bracelets designed to be worn all together. My bow was safe, protected from the damp in it’s buckskin tube, but all my arrows were so wet that they would no longer aim true, the feathers twisted with the salt water. I would have to make new ones. The irregular mementos that I had acquired over time were randomly scattered along the inside of the bag in no particular order. There were twisted bits of wood I had found on a beach, several sea-worn pieces of colored glass, and a small wooden book of pressed flowers, which, miraculously, had stayed dry through all of this. There were an abundance of the small dark red flowers prominent along the coast called heart’s blood. They had small velvety petals like a rose, open to the sun, and the ones I had dried were a red so dark that they were almost black. I shut the book and checked carefully through the rest of my things. Everything was perfectly fine, if a little damp; even my small book of drawings was fine, wrapped in it’s waterproof canvas. I flipped through it, smiling at the sketches of familiar places and friends, there was even one of my favorite cat, Selena, whom I had named when I was only ten. Unfortunately she had run away not long before I had boarded the White Raven for this island. Not that anyone but me had missed her much; she had had an unfortunate habit of biting and clawing all those who got on her bad side, which seemed to encompass almost everyone but me and Solom. I felt him before I saw him; Airen looked over my shoulder. “Those are lovely.” he said. I shrugged. “Most of them are old; I haven’t found much time lately.“ He still seemed interested, so I went through them with him, telling him who it was of, or where, and giving him a bit of background to go with them. Several of the stories, especially those of Solom’s younger students, had him, and then me, laughing until tears ran down our cheeks. There was an especially funny one of my young friend Dagger, nicknamed for the jeweled knife she never went anywhere without. I actually think she slept with the thing. She was about twelve years old, and she managed to sound as world weary as any old merchant. Once we had had to go down to a tavern on the wharf to speak to a contact of Solom’s about another student ready for a job. A man in a tattered over coat had come in and demanded all the valuables in the tavern, pulling out a dagger. Everyone had started panicking, Dagger had leapt into action, but just before she could get him, the man pulled off his hood. It was Solom! They had been playing a joke on us. I honestly thought Dagger was going to have a heart attack from trying to kill her mentor. This story had me laughing so hard that, quite literally, it hurt, until I was crying in pain more than mirth. After a moment, I calmed myself, and took several deep breaths to calm my racking sobs. Airen put a comforting hand on my shoulder, his expression intensely concerned. I quickly straightened from my bent-over position, and tried to regain some semblance of dignity. I tried out a shaky smile; he wouldn’t have bought it for a copper penny. I shut the book and placed it carefully back in the bag, folding a couple of silky black shirts over it. Airen sat silently in his previous place by the fire, staring wordlessly into the flames. I got the feeling that he was doing something very important, and had no desire to be disturbed. The feeling was forbidding, and I gave an involuntary shiver. “Marmol, edril, senil…” I whispered to myself, finding that the words gave me comfort. They were from an old song, and I found myself repeating it when something troubled me, although I really didn’t know what the words meant. I repeated it over and over now, and gradually the unsettled feeling subsided, and I was calm again. I glanced over into a sandy hollow where the horses were picketed, and realized that although I would definitely have to ride him, Piper had no saddle and no bridle, and no way to secure a pack for traveling. Well, if I had some rope and a bit of leather, maybe I could rig something up. I could ride without a saddle if need be, actually I found it was preferable to riding sidesaddle, which was the normal mode of transportation for young ladies in Kaei, of which, fortunately, I was not one. I have already mentioned that I loved to roam the woods at home, and this was often done on Piper’s broad white back. There was still the matter of carrying a pack, but all I had was in my sea bag, which I could carry on my back, and I could hunt well enough, although I didn’t relish the thought of nothing but meat for the rest of my life, barring the occasional fruit, if I could find any that I knew were safe to eat. The jungle-like landscape here was very different from Kaei’s calm deciduous forests. I heard an odd scraping noise, and turned to see Airen scooping something into bowls. It was some kind of porridge, like what Solom’s school had every morning, but with a different texture. He handed me one, and I ate with relish. It was very sweet, with maybe a hint of cinnamon. I finished, rinsed off the bowl in the salt water, then brought it back and slipped it into the leather saddlebag where the dishes were kept. Airen washed his and deposited it in the same place, then sat down across from me. He stared at me, and his gaze was so disconcertingly intense that I looked away. After a moment, I could still feel him watching me. “Well,” I said, looking up at him. “Now what?” He blinked, as though awakening from a dream, and then looked thoughtful. “Well, even if you don’t want to stay with me,” he began. “We both ought to stay here for a while, at least until you’re well enough to ride. Then, if you want to, you could come with me, or if you don’t, you can go off by yourself. “ I could have pointed out then that I knew nothing about this island, that I would simply be wandering about with no idea where I was going, but I held my silence. There were easier ways to make a point. I guessed that, even if Airen didn’t tell me where, that there was civilization on this island, at least on the other side of it. I could probably find it, if I looked hard enough. Then again, think of the time I could save if I had a guide. Why save time? I asked myself. You’re not in any hurry, are you? I thought of this somewhat dreary prospect, me wandering all alone, except for my horse, until I died, and I gave another involuntary shiver. No one would even find my bones. Airen noticed my disquiet, and gave me a questioning look. I shook my head violently, which made me a dizzy. I ignored it, however, although I could see that Airen saw. Why did he have to be so observant? I thought. Why couldn’t he be like the men in my old village, long before I met Solom, who were ignorant and unkind? Although, I reminded myself, if he had been like them, I might very well have been dead right now. I glanced up, and saw that he was still watching me expectantly, and realized that I still hadn’t answered him. “I think I would rather come with you.” I said truthfully. “That is, if you don’t mind.” He shook his head vigorously, which I took to mean he would gladly have me along, and, to tell the truth, I was glad. I found that I was very easy with him, more so than I would have possibly thought I would be. He seemed….Just like anyone else, if I tried to come up with a term for it. He was just like any young lad of a normal village in Kaei, before they became brutish men, and I liked him. I startled myself with this last thought, then tested it to see if it was true. Yes, I liked him, very much. He was kind, and subtle, neither of which was an average quality in Kaei’s less refined males. “I have a question, though.” I said. “Where are you planning on going?” He looked relatively surprised. “What do you mean?” It was my turn to be surprised. “Well, you can’t very well wander without purpose forever, can you? I assume we are planning to go somewhere?” He shrugged. “I guess we’ll eventually have to return to my kin, over the mountain, but I was hoping, for now, that we could just travel for a while.” Alright, then. I thought. Inwardly I sighed with relief. I didn’t think I was ready to tangle with more than one elf just yet, however normal this one seemed. As long as he had an eventual plan, then I guessed it was okay with me if a little wandering took place first. I had every intention to learn as much about this island as possible, and it would be a lot quicker (and probably less painful,) if I had someone to show me. We sort of just sat there for a few minutes, staring at each other, I wondered what he was thinking, and I think he was wondering the same thing about me. I admit I wondered if he could read minds, another story about Elvin powers, but I assumed it was only an exaggeration, born from the depths of the teller’s imagination, and dismissed the thought. I shrugged, looking back down into the dying flames. The roar and hiss of the ocean was loud in our own silence. I glanced at the bright blue waves, and a floating piece of wood made me shiver. It was probably from the Raven, my only connection with my faraway home. I thought of the pirates, and the many friends who were now probably halfway round the world by now, alone and frightened. My eyes itched, and I clenched them tightly shut. I stood, gritting my teeth against the itching, burning feeling in my back and chest, and walked to the water’s edge. My reflection looked back at me, shifting with the waves. I had been right to leave; my eyes were dark sapphire blue with sorrow and homesickness. I stared at myself and concentrated until they were back to ordinary molten silver, and then stood for a moment, looking out over the horizon, where puffy white clouds sat like giant white sails on the dark blue of the distant ocean. Far beyond the horizon, six months time on a fleet ship, lay my homeland, along with everything I had ever known. I gave myself a mental shake. Stop that, or you’ll start blubbering again. I told myself harshly. I turned back to the campfire, and, this time biting my lip so hard that the skin broke under my teeth, sat down again. Airen gave me a questioning look, then, deciding not to pry, he looked away. I surreptitiously put a hand to the gash on my ribcage. It had stopped bleeding, and was comfortably numb, although I was disgusted by the crusty stain on my shirt. Fortunately it was neither thick enough nor red enough to warrant notice. I glanced into my bag again, and was surprised to see a folded edge of paper sticking out of a fold of black silk. I leaned over, picked it up, and unfolded it. It was a note, written in a neat, masculine shorthand, and it read: I see you’ve come home, Caela. Welcome back. There are a few things you’ll need to know if you plan to succeed, and I have taken it upon myself to tell you. Trust in the ancient words you know. They have more power than you could possibly imagine. Also, trust Airen. He may be a little misguided, but he’s all right. He will be helpful. When you get to the Mountain of Fire, make your way to the main hall, and wait there until dark. I will meet you there at sundown. There was no signature, but I was thoroughly bemused even without another piece to the puzzle. Who would have left a note like this inside my bag? There was no one here except Airen and I, and I was pretty sure he wouldn’t have done this. Besides, if he had something important to tell me, he could just say it. Right? And what did this person mean by welcome back? I had never been here before! And where was the Mountain of Fire? Who would want to meet me there? What interest did this person have in me? How did they know that I knew the ancient languages? How much did they know about me, exactly? The questions whirled around my head so fast that I felt slightly sick. I stayed staring at the note, but not really seeing it, until I noticed something I hadn’t before. There was a strange symbol drawn onto one corner. It looked like the complicated type of knot that sailors had made into tattoos, tied with a rope of twisted black and red, but, when I looked more closely, I could see that one end of the rope ended in the head of a snake, fangs open, and dripping red. I don’t know how I could have missed it, as it took up most of the otherwise clear space before the letter started. I recognized it immediately. Contrary to my love of privacy, I had a tattoo over my collarbone that matched this symbol perfectly. The thought made me touch the spot. This disturbed me immensely; that someone would know enough about me to even know about my very-difficult-to-see tattoo. If they knew about that, then how much else did they know about me? If they were trying to frighten me then, they had definitely succeeded. I had the sensation of being watched, and looked up to find Airen staring at something with an expression of someone who has just seen something completely unasked-for and unpleasant. I followed his gaze to the parchment in my hand. “Where did you get that?” he demanded. I looked up in alarm at the sharpness of his tone. “I…” I searched for a plausible explanation before coming out with the truth. “I found it in my bag. Just now, actually.” I said simply. If I didn’t hide it from him; would he still be angry at me? But his expression didn’t soften. He snatched the paper out of my hand with such force that my wrist cracked. I stared at him in surprise. This wasn’t like him; or it wasn‘t from what I had seen so far. He stared at the note, and I bit my tongue to stop myself making a sharp comment on the etiquette of reading others’ mail, or lack thereof. He apparently finished, and handed the parchment back to me. I looked at the paper, then did a double take. It was completely blank except for the symbol in the corner. And somehow, I wasn’t the least bit surprised. I looked up at Airen, who shrugged. “I don’t know why someone would go to the trouble to slip you an almost blank piece of paper.” he said. My hand went, without any signals from me, to the tattoo on my collarbone. Airen noticed, obviously. “What?” he asked. I got the feeling that he suspected something just like what I was about to show him. I very gently, so as not to disturb the bandage wrapped around my chest, pulled aside the fabric of my shirt from my tattoo. I caught a stifled gasp from him, and he leaned forward so close to me that I felt like I was under a magnifying glass. I realized then just how perfect the likeness was between my tattoo and the symbol on the paper. It was so close; even the drops of blood from the snake’s fangs were perfectly matched; far too perfect to be a coincidence, not that I had ever thought it was. I had gotten the tattoo on a dare from one of Solom’s other students, but since I hadn’t liked any of the other tattoos in the parlor, I had designed one of my own. It just came to me, as though I had been thinking about it for weeks, when in reality it had only been a few moments. I had thought it was something original, and, later, everyone had said it suited me, although I had never seen exactly why. Airen was still staring, but I covered the tattoo back up, blushing a bit. He shook himself, and leaned back again. He looked slightly embarrassed, and to tell you the truth, I didn’t blame him. Personally, I don’t spend time staring at another’s bare flesh, although, I guessed, he was pale enough to make up for the embarrassment. Why was he so frightened? What did the snake stand for, anyway? Airen was still staring at the same spot on my collarbone, even though there was nothing visible but black silk, and I was staring at the shocked, and somewhat bewildered, expression on his handsome features. “Well?” I asked abruptly. I could see that Airen was thinking, but the word was out of my mouth before I could stop it. “Well what?” he asked, not looking up. “Well, what is it that has you looking as though you’d seen a ghost?” I demanded. He finally looked up, a little startled. “That symbol is the crest of the ruling family of Vira.” he said the words in a whisper, as though afraid someone would hear. Maybe I didn’t look properly horrified, because he deigned to elaborate. “The Vira are a race that live inside the Mountain of Fire. They live on blood taken from my kind, or yours, and never leave the mountain except in the dark of night, and then only to hunt. They cannot be killed, and have killed more elves in the past generation than anything else, including war. The snake is called the Soulstealer, and is their emblem. It is one of their most treasured myths.” I was now duly chastised for my pertness. Whatever that meant. I had jumped at the mention of the Mountain of Fire, and was now, obviously, certain that these Vira had some sort of connection with me. Why would one of them want to meet me? And why did I have the crest of the royal family, the Soulstealer, tattooed over my collarbone? I hadn’t known what it was at the time, but now that I did, it was more than a little frightening. If I was somehow connected to the worst thing ever to happen to this island (or at least this was how it sounded,) then, what did that make me to Airen? Or anyone else, for that matter? I put a hand up to my temple. All this was giving me a monster of a headache, in addition to the one that was just fading from pain, emotional upheaval, and blood loss, and all this talk of Vira and snakes was making my head spin. I felt Airen’s eyes on me, and tried to gain some semblance of my dignity. I toyed with the pendant around my neck, ignoring his still questioning stare. I remembered suddenly how it had flashed in that cave in the forest, and was wondering what had caused it. I was about to ask Airen where the mountain of Fire was, regardless of the questions he might ask. I had actually opened my mouth, when, suddenly, my throat constricted as though someone was choking me. I gasped, clutching my ribs, which began to throb, making the gashes on my ribs and chest, and the slashes on my back scream. My lungs constricted, until I couldn’t breathe. I gasped again, this time for air, and, little by little, it came. It felt like I had had the wind knocked out of me, and my breathing was still shaky, and was about to try asking Airen again, when the choking hit me again. This time it was so bad, with every nerve screaming like it wanted to be heard first, that everything went first dark around the edges, then completely black, and blissfully numb. The last thing I saw was Airen’s startled, worried face over mine. Airen Caela was much too worried about this for me too believe that she barely knew what I was talking about. There was something she wasn’t telling me. I watched as she played with that strange necklace she wore. It wasn’t any rune that I recognized, but it seemed vaguely familiar. I couldn’t quite place it, but I had seen it somewhere. As I was still thinking, Caela doubled over. I had been rather worried about the shock this would give her, but I hadn’t‘t thought it would be this severe. Her pale skin flushed horribly. For a second, she seemed about to recover herself, but then she went limp and quiet, and I knew she had passed out. I laid her out on her own blanket, expecting her to awaken soon, doused the fire with sand, and packed everything away in my saddlebags. I had expected to be moving, no sooner than tomorrow, but now I thought we had better wait a little longer. Caela had been plenty well enough to walk off alone earlier, though, and although she had come back looking pale and somewhat frightened, she seemed all right, and I didn’t want to press her. She could tell me if she wanted, but in the meantime, I could take a guess. Caela I awoke about twenty minutes later, again staring up into the blazing sun. I jerked away, closing my eyes, but blue spots danced before them from the white light. I could breathe again, but I was extremely sore from head to toe. I felt an unfamiliar pressure on my neck, looked down, and let out a soft gasp. Beneath the bright, shiny silk of my black shirt, the skin of my throat was patterned in black and blue bruises like fingerprints. Breathing wasn't difficult, but when I touched the bruises, they were as sore as the rest of me. I sat up, buttoning my collar closer around my neck. Airen was a little way down the beach, swimming in the gentle waves. He was naked from the waist up, splashing happily in the clear blue water. I couldn’t help but notice how muscular he was, and how easily he swam in the chest-high water. As I stared absently at him, thinking of nothing in particular, he turned toward me. Our eyes locked, and I realized that he was giving me a very strange look, somewhere between fondness, a sort of fatherly interest, and another emotion that took me off guard, one that I couldn’t read. The strength of this emotion frightened me almost as much as my own inability to read it, and I looked away. I grabbed up a change of clothes and a small cake of white soap, and headed a long way down the beach. Airen watched me go, and I suddenly got the feeling that there was much more to him than met my extremely inexperienced eye. I went so far down the beach that I passed the horses where they grazed in the same sandy hollow, and was almost a mile from the camp when I stopped. The camp was barely visible against the shimmer coming up from the hot sand, and Airen was completely invisible. I left my clothes lying on the warm sand and waded into the water. I was as careful as I could be when washing beneath the bandages wrapped around most of my upper torso, but they still stung awfully when I touched my wounds with the warm water and soap. The salt water stung even worse, but I knew that the sea brings healing, and the pain was nowhere near unbearable. My long hair was not easily managed, but I struggled with it until it was clean and fully rinsed. Afterwards, I pulled my clothes on and lay on the beach for a while, the hot sun’s rays quickly drying everything except my hair, which I bound off my face with a leather thong; it still hung halfway down my back. I stood and took a deep breath of warm, heady sea air, and, I think, for the first time since I had landed on that island, I was truly happy. Piper came trotting over the sand to where I was standing, and greeted me with a snort. I patted him for a while, and he lazily closed his eyes, enjoying the attention. As I scratched the crest of his neck, I began to wonder if I could ride yet. I felt almost normal, and there was nothing wrong with my legs, anyway. Making up my mind, I grabbed my clothes off the sand, snatched up a handful of Piper’s mane and swung up onto his back. It was much easier than I had expected, and I urged him into a gentle canter along the beach, further away from the camp, thrilling in the feeling of the wind in my face, driving tears from my eyes. Piper responded as easily to my commands as if he was under saddle and bridle, and I felt a surge of pride in the horse I had trained. I swerved him into the spray, and he snorted, splashing with a fore hoof. The spray dotted my hair, splashing on his shoulders to soak me in salt water. I laughed, patting him on the neck and leaning forward a little more over his withers as we sped through the water back towards the camp. Airen I was walking near the edge of the forest when I saw Caela heading back down the beach. She shone like a black star against her gelding’s snow-white hide, head thrown back, eyes closed and raven hair streaming out behind her. The water splashed up behind them like a glittering curtain in the noonday sun. I shook myself before I went too far, but continued to stare at her as she approached. It occurred to me that she shouldn’t be riding yet, but she seemed perfectly fine, and I let the matter go. The air on Lakasha, the Elvish name of the island, tends to have a healing affect on humans, or so I’ve heard, anyway. Before I met Caela, I had never known any humans well enough to find out. I realized that, in fact, I had never really known a human personally. I had seen them, obviously, been in a few human villages, but had never actually known one. Caela was hardly what I had expected. Any hyumans I had been introduced to were so intimidated by me, adn whoever happened to be with me, that they never managed to get out more than a "hello" for staring. I hadn't really thought elves were so imposing, but then again, you never know. Caela I swung off of Piper's back, still gripping a handful of mane for balance. I gave him the command to stay, and moved over to where Airen was, once again, sitting thoughtfully by the circle of gray ash that used to be a fire. "Do you always think so much?" I asked. He looked up, looking a little startled. "Not really. But I do have plenty to think over." he pointed out. I shrugged. I heard a sound and glanced over to where Airen's horse, the bay, was trying to make his way over the sand to where Piper stood obediently, hoping for the release command. I didn't give it to him. I sat down next to Airen on the ground. He looked up, so suddenly that I jumped. He stared at me, for long enough that I began to feel a bit self concious. I turned pointedly away, and felt his eyes slide off of me, thank goodness. There was something in his face that unnerved me. Not the emotion I couldn't name from earlier, but a sort of dreadful realization, as though something he had known all of his life had become something deadly.