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In the torchlight surrounding the camp of a hundred Kalindons, Rhia could see the rope burns on Marek's neck.
The man who would soon be her husband slept quietly for the first time in several nights. Perhaps exhaustion had stolen his nightmares, or at least his body's ability to manifest them in twitches and starts.
The humid air draped over her like a second skin. Far above, the breeze murmured through the pines and spruces, but did not deign to descend to the ground.
She kicked off the covers of the bedroll, rolled her sleeves up to her shoulders and spread her limbs to dissipate the heat. To no avail. Summer's strength had reached even the high mountain forest near Kalindos.
Whispers came. Rhia's muscles jerked as if she'd been stabbed with a pin. Not again. She covered her ears, as if that would help. Please let me sleep.
But the voices of the dead would strengthen in her dreams, rumbles of discontent forming incoherent words. When she was awake they would whisper, or even silence when she spoke out loud or sang a distracting tune. Her traveling companions resented the latter, since her crooning voice was as melodic as that of her Guardian Spirit.
Only a few months had passed since the Spirit had bestowed her with His Aspect. Yet she had borne these dark gifts for a decade-since she was eight-when she first heard Crow come to carry a soul to the Other Side.
The whispers changed, and Rhia realized with relief that these belonged to the living. She rolled onto her stomach to peer through the darkness.
Beyond the torchlight, a man and a woman patrolled together, carrying hunting bows so naturally, the weapons seemed part of their bodies. Everyone's vigilance had heightened since the Descendants had invaded Rhia's home village of Asermos ten days ago. With the help of the Kalindons she now traveled with, the Asermons had repelled the Descendant invasion, but at a precious cost.
Rhia shoved back a sweaty brown lock that had fallen into her eyes. Cut above her nape in mourning, her hair was now too short to tie back.
The voices in her head returned, louder. A wave of nausea swept over her.
Rhia sat up. A hand grabbed her arm, snapping shut like an iron-jawed trap. She stifled a yelp and looked down to see Marek's blue-gray eyes staring up at her. He let go and blinked rapidly to rouse himself.
"Sorry," he whispered. "Where are you going?"
She wiped the cold sweat from her forehead. "I feel sick."
"From the baby?"
"Too soon for that."
"The voices again?"
"Feels like flies trapped inside my skull." She rubbed her ear, as if that would relieve the itch deep within. "Coranna said it would be like this the first few months, but I don't think I can stand another hour." She was only two weeks pregnant, with the voices the sole sign she had progressed to the second phase of her Aspect.
Her new powers required her to return to Kalindos to continue studying with her mentor. Right now she wished they were back at her father's farm in Asermos, instead of spending another night in the mosquito-plagued forest. Normally the journey to Kalindos took only a few days by horseback, but conveying those with battle injuries tripled the travel time.
She pushed away the blanket. "I'm going to the river to cool off."
He sat up. "I'll go with you."
"You should rest. I'll bring Alanka."
"I need a bath, too." He drew his legs out of the bedroll, wincing.
"You'll get your bandage wet."
"I'll stand on one foot."
She grasped his hand to help him up, secretly glad he would accompany her. He slung his bow and arrows over his shoulder as automatically as most people would put on shoes. They tiptoed out of the camp together, two sets of footsteps but only one sound. Even Marek's limp couldn't undermine his Wolf stealth.
His palm pressed warm against hers. With his left hand, he wiped the shoulder-length, light brown hair from his stubbled cheeks where sweat had adhered it. The gesture revealed a pale face contorting with the effort to hide the pain of every other step. Rhia pretended not to notice, but slowed her pace nonetheless.
She fidgeted with the leather cord around her neck, from which a crow feather hung. When they returned to Kalindos tomorrow she would remove it. Each of that tiny village's three hundred residents knew the others' names and Guardian Spirits, so they saw no need to wear fetishes. In the much larger villages of Asermos, Velekos and Tiros, courtesy demanded one display which powers one possessed. As much as she loved the Spirit who had chosen her, Rhia sometimes wished she could hide her death-awareness. It tended to make people nervous.
Marek stopped short, throwing a glare to their right, where his Wolf-sister Alanka sat hunched in the dark on a fallen tree trunk with her former mate, Adrek. Rhia couldn't hear their words, but obviously Marek could.
"They're supposed to be patrolling," he said.
"Look." Rhia pointed to their left, where another scout- a Bobcat, she thought-circled the camp. "Maybe Alanka and Adrek's shift is over."
Marek's mouth snapped into a taut frown, and she knew what bothered him. "None of my business." He squeezed her hand and led her toward the river again. "But I hate to see her make the same mistake twice."
For the first time, Alanka felt true sympathy for the deer she hunted. Not just gratitude for their sacrifice, or respect for the life they had given. Now she knew how it felt to sense the stalk of a Cougar in the night.
"I miss you." Adrek shifted to face her on the tree trunk.
"Fighting in that battle, almost dying, I realized what was important in life."
"I've never been important in your life." The catch in her voice betrayed her resentment. "And last I heard, sprained ankles weren't lethal."
He fidgeted with the hunting bow between his knees, eyebrows pinched. She almost regretted her retort. The battle for Asermos had been hard on everyone-even Adrek, who hadn't lost family. She turned away from his pout, knowing the effect it still had on her even after two years.
"I'm sorry," he said quietly. "I've done this all wrong. I just thought we could talk."
Alanka crumbled a shard of bark that had come loose in her hand. She needed to talk about the killing, too, with someone who had done the same, with someone else called by the Spirits to take the lives of animals, not people.
But not until she was ready. "You never told me how you got hurt during the battle." She tried not to smirk-one of the Bobcats had told her what had happened, but she wondered if Adrek would invent a cover story to save face.
He slapped a mosquito on his arm. "I stepped in a hole."
His green eyes flashed at her. "I was too busy shooting arrows into Descendants to watch where I was going."
There it was again, the thing that turned her stomach and kept her awake no matter how tired she was. She pushed it away.
"Something snapped when I fell," he continued. "Next thing I know, someone loads me onto a skid and I'm in the healers' tent, covered in another soldier's blood." A corner of Adrek's mouth turned down. "But nothing compared to what you went through." He reached for her hand. She moved it away, pretending to test the tension on her bowstring.
Adrek's spurned hand scratched the back of his head. "Is this because of Pirrik?"
Her shoulders tensed at the name of her most recent mate. "You know I'm not with him anymore." She held her voice low, in case Pirrik lay awake in the camp.
"He should have been more understanding."
"My father killed his father. What's to understand?"
"That wasn't your fault. No one should blame you for anything your father did-that murder, starting the war with the Descendants. You're not him."
Her fingers trembled, vibrating the bowstring at the farthest depths of her hearing range. The sound made the memories flare in her mind, like wind over a campfire. She thrust the bow away. It toppled onto the needle-covered ground. Adrek gasped and lunged to pick it up.
"Are you two guarding the camp or reminiscing?"
Alanka looked behind her to see Endrus and Morran approach. Bobcat Morran had been her second mate, and the brown-haired Cougar, Endrus, who had just spoken, had followed soon after. She had loved neither man-Adrek had shown her that Cats were good for only one thing besides hunting-and had therefore remained friends with both.
Morran vaulted over the fallen tree trunk to land lightly beside her. "Good thing we weren't Descendants, or you'd be dead by now."
"If you were Descendants," she told him, "I'd have heard you before you saw me, and you'd be dead by now."
"They are loud, aren't they? Maybe they carry bricks in their shoes." Endrus perched on the trunk behind her and surrounded her with his legs, his left knee blocking Adrek. He squeezed her shoulders, and she groaned at the sudden release of tension. "Ooh, Morran, I made her purr."
"But can you make her scream?" The lanky Bobcat reached for her waist, his hand forming a tickling claw. By reflex, her foot shot out and swiped his legs from under him. Morran sprawled in the dirt with an "Oof!" Endrus pointed at him and stifled cackles that quaked his body.
"Boys," Adrek said, "we were trying to have a serious conversation."
Endrus snorted. "And we were seriously trying to keep her out of your clutches."
"I can take care of myself," Alanka snapped at him, with more annoyance than she felt. Her friends' interruption had broken the morose spell Adrek had begun to cast.
"It's our turn to keep watch." Morran rolled to his feet and pulled a dead leaf out of his long blond hair. "So you two can get some sleep."
"Yes, sleep," Endrus directed at Adrek.
Alanka patted Endrus's knee and slid out of his grasp.
Adrek followed her toward the camp. "So, back to my original question."
"And my original answer, which is no, you can't sleep next to me." She quieted her voice as they approached the slumbering Kalindons. "I need to be alone."
"What can you do alone that you can't do with me?"
He took her arm. "Alanka-"
"Remember what I did to Morran. You'll get worse." Adrek dropped his hand. "Who taught you that move you used on him?"
"My brothers. Lycas, I mean." Her throat clutched her other brother's name, as if releasing it would kill him all over again.
Adrek's face softened at the sight of her grief-she had never been good at hiding her emotions. "You sure you want to be alone?"
"I didn't say I wanted to be alone. I said I needed to. Good night."
Alanka turned away, relieved that he didn't follow and not caring that he still held her bow. She never wanted to look at it again.
She found her bedroll where she had left it next to Rhia and Marek's. After clearing stones from a space on the ground, she spread the blanket and wrapped herself inside, using the next day's clothing as a pillow.
She stared at the shadows glimmering on the mossy gray boulder to her left, knowing that when her eyes closed, the same scene would dance on the back of her lids.
Her brother Nilo, sprawled in the mud and blood of the battlefield, giving his life to save hers.
She owed it to him to be brave, to be proud of what she'd done to defend his village. But her mind still flickered with the vacant faces of the dead.