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The forest engulfed Lormere in dappled light and shadow as she followed the narrow path between the trees with silent, practiced ease. She loved the solitude of the woods, bathed in the slanting rays of golden light that filtered through the trees. A musky scent rose from the leaves she crushed beneath her sandals. Life burst from the ground all around her, filling her with a clean, pure energy. The healing khi power flowed from her without effort in this quiet refuge. If only she could stay in these woods forever, but the path she followed would lead her out of this hushed, leafy sanctuary. Ahead lay her home.
Her stomach tightened. Once home had been a sanctuary too; then, she'd announced her decision not to enter the House of Lohenrin and the quarrels had started.
Her mother and father were determined that she should become a perceptor. She was just as determined to follow her own path. Now, the bright carpet of fallen leaves littering the forest floor reminded her that autumn neared its peak. Winter would soon follow and snow would close the mountain passes. Her parents were sure to renew their argument tonight. They would want her to leave soon for Chitan. The journey over the mountains would take at least two weeks, and she must reach the House before the change of seasons when the new initiates would begin their classes.
She climbed a steep hill and paused to catch her breath. Here, the path curved near the edge of a cliff. She could see most of the western half of the valley stretched out below her. The forest cascaded down the hillside before it thinned and gave way to fields. Crops and pastures formed a patchwork across thelandscape. The maize had turned a ripe gold in the setting sun. Beyond, she saw smoke rising from chimneys in the thatched roofs of Beutemeld. The women of the village had lit their fires to begin the evening meal.
Lormere's jaw set in a stubborn line. This was her home and she didn't want to leave it. The village, she suspected, was about equally divided on the question of whether she should go. Some still clung to the old ways and wanted the prestige that Beutemeld would gain by providing a perceptor to the House. Others agreed with her that she already knew enough about the power to heal. The people of Beutemeld relied on her for healing. If she left for the House, she would not return, and what would she learn there that she did not already know? She cared nothing for the more esoteric uses of the khi power.
No, she didn't want to enter the House, and her parents couldn't make her. The old ways of Atlaua had died with the departure of the S'hazons. Once society had expected those with a strong khi gift to enter the House, but the world was changing and there were other choices.
A welcome breeze stirred the heavy air. She fanned her face and pushed back the sweat-dampened strands of hair that had fallen free of her thick braid. As she tucked them behind her ears, she heard a soft giggle.
Lormere knew that giggle. She slipped between the trees at the side of the road and moved toward the sound, careful not to make any noise. A few paces farther, she stopped and peeked around a thick trunk. Her sister Shadora and Micent, one of Shadora's suitors, stood in the road beneath the shadow of a tree. They were locked in an embrace, kissing. Both were absorbed in their love play and did not notice Lormere's silent approach.
Shadora's long, honey-brown hair fell down in her back in loose curls and her thick lashes fluttered over sky-blue eyes as she giggled between kisses. She was petite like Lormere, and looked like a doll in Micent's arms, but even her formless gray shift and the pale blue tunic she wore over it couldn't hide the womanly curves that had shaped her figure in the past year.
Micent was almost a head taller than Shadora, big and brawny. He had on tight brown pants that emphasized his muscular thighs and a sleeveless jerkin. His curly black hair was tied back in the braid of an apprentice. He caressed Shadora's face and stared at her with adoring eyes. They kissed again and Shadora said something, laughter in her voice. They broke apart and Micent took her hand as they resumed their walk.
Watching, Lormere swallowed the tight knot that had formed in her throat. She licked dry lips, painfully aware of a dull empty stabbing deep within her as though a knife twisted through her guts. No young man had ever brought her into the woods or courted her in the shadow of a tree. No man had ever kissed her. She was plain, lacking Shadora's physical attractions, and her khi power made her too different. She knew her chances of ever finding someone to love in Beutemeld were slim.
Withdrawing further into the shadows, Lormere watched the young couple pass by. Her shoulders tensed as she held her body still. Where were they headed? Deeper into the forest for a bit of lovemaking? If Shadora fancied a tryst with Micent, it was none of her business. Shadora might be two years younger, but she was a woman, old enough to make a choice when it came to love. Already she had the young men of the village battling for her favors. Micent was the firstborn son of the village elder-if Shadora married into that family she would have a comfortable life and escape the grinding poverty of their home. Who could deny her that?
"Wait here." Shadora's voice, low and lilting, drifted back to Lormere.
She stood on tiptoe and whispered something in his ear. Micent's head jerked around, his eyes narrowing as he scanned the woods. Lormere stiffened. Her heart sank when Shadora turned and walked toward her with a gentle sway of her hips. Somehow, her sister had spotted her.
"Come out," Shadora commanded with a slight upturn of her lips. "It's obvious your khi powers don't extend to making you invisible."
Lormere stepped out from the trees and joined her sister on the path. "I was on my way home, but it looked like you two were in search of privacy, so I stepped aside."
She scowled as she spoke. She hadn't been spying. She'd done nothing wrong. Shadora tilted her head to one side. Her honey-colored hair gleamed in the late afternoon sunlight.
"Papa's been asking for you all day. Where did you go?"
"Into the woods to practice my khi power."
"Well, you'd better hurry home. He has that serious look in his eye."
Lormere bit her lip. She knew what Shadora meant. Their father was a stubborn man who wanted his daughter to enter the House of Lohenrin. That look foretold another night of arguing.
"Well, what a sour face you're wearing," Shadora observed, putting her hands on her hips. "Anyone would think becoming a perceptor was a punishment instead of a rare privilege."
"I don't see you volunteering. Would you want to leave your family behind and travel to a distant city where you don't know a soul? Would you want to be trained in some mystical art that will change you and set you apart forever from everyone you love?"
Shadora gave her head a little toss. "I don't have any khi power."
"And a good thing, too." Micent had come up behind Shadora. He placed a possessive hand on her waist. "I couldn't bear it if you left the valley."
"But no one will miss me, I suppose." Lormere couldn't keep the anger from her voice. She clenched her fists and looked down at the ground, dragging the toe of her sandal in the dirt. Was she so different that even her family wanted to be rid of her?
She didn't want to become a perceptor. The perceptors were forever set apart from the common people. Oh, some of them were loved-the ones who practiced the gifts of healing-but most of them were feared. They had other powers besides healing, powers that made normal people uneasy in their presence. They controlled the wind and the rain, could scry out hidden secrets, and even read a person's innermost thoughts.
"Of course we'll miss you." Shadora sounded exasperated. "But it's an honor to become a perceptor and serve Atlaua with the power."
"Not the honor it once was," Lormere objected. Once, when the S'hazons had come to teach the power to the perceptors, the House had been the heart of Atlaua, but the demiurges had abandoned their world when they'd mended their long quarrel with the Sky Gods. Together, the S'hazons and Sky Gods had ascended to the Timeless Sphere. Atlaua had lost its gods-and much of its faith in the House-that day.
"Well, even so, there's the money."
Copyright © 2006 Jeanine Berry.