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DERIAN CARTER AWOKE WITH HIS SHIRT front wet with blood and his head pounding. The floor on which he lay was damp and reeked so strongly of piss and vomit that his stomach roiled. The rough board planks also seemed to be rising and fallingan impression he was willing to dismiss given how the rest of him felt.
Derian had experienced his share of hangovers, but this one was the worst by far. His last coherent memory was of dancing with that pretty girl from Bright Bay. She'd suggested they go for a walk along the riverbank. Something in how she phrased her invitation hinted that she had activities in mind more interesting than merely strolling on the springthick sward. She'd been very pretty, the neckline of her gown cut very deep. Derian had followed with slightly tipsy alacrity.
How had he gotten here?
A husky voice broke into Derian's efforts to sort fragmented impressions into order.
"Fox Hair? You wake?"
The voice came from a short distance away, and for the first time Derian registered the dimness of the room. There was enough light for him to see his hands and the dark stain on the front of his shirt, but the light was diffuse, leaking into a chamber imperfectly sealed, rather than being shed by sunlight or lantern.
Where was he?
The voice, forgotten almost as soon as heard, came again.
"Fox Hair! Derian! I hear you move. Talk."
The words were gruff, urgent, words spoken from a mouth struggling to give shape to the sounds, strugglingagainst panic that would drive away the words and leave nothing but whimpers and howls.
A deeply ingrained sense of responsibility for the person who used that voice gave Derian his first breath of stability. He clung to it, grabbing his aching head between the curved fingers of his hands, forcing himself to remember. He found a word.
The sigh of relief that answered held a soft whimper, but when the voice spoke again there was no hint of tears.
A remembered image came with the voice, a woman, a few years younger than he. Dark brown hair slightly curly, cut unevenly, as from necessity rather than with any sense of style. Eyes very dark, figure slim, but no longer starvation skinny. Neither tall nor short, but somewhere in between.
Firekeeper, the woman who thought herself a wolf rather than a human. Firekeeper, whom he had taught to use the words she was in danger of losing. Firekeeper.
Memory almost sucked him from reality. The voice brought him back again.
"Fox Hair. You bleed. How bad?"
Derian touched his shirtfront, registering cold dampness there, stinging pain, but no fresh flow of blood. He'd already forgotten the wound until Firekeeper had reminded him. He wanted to forget it again now, but he forced himself to focus.
"I've been cut," he said, and heard the surprise in his voice. "Several times. Long, shallow slices. With a ... knife?"
Despite himself, the last word came out as a question.
Firekeeper answered from somewhere in the gloom. Derian wondered a little that she didn't come closer now that she knew he was awake, but then Firekeeper saw far better in the dark than he didthan any human he'd ever heard of did.
"Yes. A knife. They cut you to bring me here. To bring me and Blind Seer."
Impressions were flooding back into Derian's mind now, competing with the ache, making the space behind his eyes feel crowded.
Blind Seer, an enormous grey wolf with blue eyesnamed for those eyes, which his parents had thought meant he was blind until the staggering explorations of the pup had proven them wrong. A wolf with parents, not merely sire and dam. Born of beasts with sufficient intelligence to worry about a damaged pup, beasts possessed of the inhuman resignation to accept the handicap and the early death it promised for a pup Derian knew this meant as much to them as did any child to human parents.
"Blind Seer," Firekeeper's voice repeated. "He sleeps. They give us all to drink."
Derian processed this, enlightened by his throbbing head.
"We were drugged?"
Firekeeper snorted. Derian could almost see her toss her dark brown hair from even darker eyes. She was rarely patient with the human tendency to repeat what to her was obvious.
"Firekeeper," Derian said, and made his voice as stern as he could. "I feel like shit. My head wants to split open down the middle. Tell me what happened. Tell me slowly and carefully."
He heard a soft laugh.
"My head hurt, too," Firekeeper admitted. "I try to tell what happened, but keep voice down. We not want them come."
"Why don't you come sit next to me?" Derian felt almost frantic for physical contact.
"I no can. They have me in ..." The pause came that meant the wolf-woman was struggling for a specific word. "A cage. Blind Seer in cage, too. Not you, I think. Can you move?"
Derian tried, felt something tug at his ankle, tested and found a length of chain cuffed around it. By now he was hardly surprised.
"I'm chained," he reported. "What's going on?"
"I tell what I know," Firekeeper promised, her voice soothing. "We were at the night dancing. A man come to me in the dance. He say 'Derian needs you.' I am not sure, butthink maybe it is a king thing so I follow even when the man takes us from the bright spaces to the fields by the river."
Mentally, Derian fleshed out Firekeeper's words. She and Blind Seer had been participating in one of the large public dances being held to celebrate the naming of the firstborn son of Crown Princess Sapphire and Crown Prince Shad. The celebrations had been extensive, for not only was young Sun the first child born to the royal family of Hawk Haven for many years, but through his parents he was destined to unite Hawk Haven and Bright Bay, sibling kingdoms that had been rivals for over a century.
Sun of Bright Haven, a name filled with promise and hope.
Normally, Firekeeper would have shied from such loud and noisy gatherings, but among all human achievements she loved music and dancing bestand at the royal celebrations where she was welcomed, the finest of both were to be found. So she had joined in the festivities at the castle, and when these had spilled out into the square in front, doubtless shelike Derianhad followed.
Blind Seer would have paced her, unseen in the torchlit darkness, never far from his human pack mate.
"I wonder some at the man," Firekeeper went on, "for he is not one I know and he stink of fear, but," she added a touch complacently, "many is feared of me and Blind Seer."
Derian grunted. Bragging she undoubtedly was, but it was a brag rooted in truth. It was commonly known that Firekeeper had been raised by the wolves west of the Iron Mountains. In the two years since she had come east to learn about her human heritage the only thing more incredible than the stories told about her was, quite possibly, the truth.
"And," Firekeeper added, and Derian heard the sorrow that roughened her voice, "I was happy and thought good of everyone."
After a long pause during which Derian knew Firekeeper was swallowing her bitterness at this error, the wolf-woman went on.
"The man take us to place on river where is not so easy to see water, the bank goes down sharply. We see a boat of the river type, hiding in branches. There is no other boat nearand this boat is not such as king would have, so I am about to run and Blind Seer with me.
"Then the man who leads us raises his arm. He points and I see you. You are on the boat, a big man holding you against the wall, but you are not standing strong. I think maybe they have tied you there. As I look, the big man takes a knife and cuts you, long, across the chest. Blood comes, so I know you live, but I am not happy."
It took a moment for Derian's aching head to follow this last. Then he realized that what Firekeeper meant was that his blood flowing had confirmed he was alive. Dead things don't bleed, but certainly she could not have been happy to find him alive in such a circumstance.
Firekeeper went on, "Then the man with me say, 'You come and the wolf, too, or we'll let out all of Derian Carter's blood, and we'll do it slowly and make sure he's awake to feel it.'"
Derian rubbed his face with his hands again, trying to waken a memory of any of this, but there was none. He must have been well and truly drunkor drugged.
"And you came?" he said, hearing the disbelief in his own voice. "You came?"
"We come," the husky voice replied. "They would do what they say, and though after we kill them all there would be no saving you. And I remember what you tell me when first I come from my packhow Earl Kestrel use Blind Seer to make me do as he wishand I think these men know that trick, too, and if not you, then maybe Elise or Doc or some other. I would not buy my running free for your blood."
"Horse ..." Derian swore softly. He understood Firekeeper's reasoning, but it angered him to have been the hostage used to force her actions. She had come to him without any ties, unable to understand the concept of hostages until he had explained it. Now she was bound, and he hated being one of the ropes that bound her.
Firekeeper seemed to sense his anger, but misunderstood it. Her rough voice was almost tender when she next spoke.
"I think they want you for you," she said, "not just to useme. I hear them call you my keeper, and I think it good if they think this."
"Firekeeper," he said softly. "Do you think we can get away?"
"I not know," came the frank reply. "But I know no one of mine will look for us."
Derian's memory was returning now with such dismaying clarity that he almost wished for the headache to dominate again.
"No," he said, forcing the words. "We were leaving tomorrow morning, first west, then on a buying trip. No one will miss me for a moonspan or more, and even then they'll just think I was delayed."
He cursed the ill luck that made this possible. How many other people could travel through isolated areas so completely alone? He might be the only man in Hawk Haven who couldand that was because Firekeeper would be with him.
King Tedric had wanted them to take a look at the new fortifications going up in the gap in the Iron Mountainsto make the kind of report only they could manage, for Firekeeper could ask her people if the measures were acceptable, while Derian could explain more clearly than anyone else just what was going on.
Most expeditions of this sort would involve pack trains and armed guards. The one Earl Kestrel had led two years before had done so. However, horses and mules were less than relaxed around Firekeeper and Blind Seer, so if she was to be involved, the fewer pack animals they used the better. Derian had access to a handful of horses and mules that had learned to tolerate the wolves, and after very little discussion had convinced the king to let them travel alone.
Derian suspected that Tedric had been easily convinced because the two of them arriving without fuss could more easily inspect"spy upon" was a more honest termthe garrison before the garrison put on its best manners for the counselor of the king.
Derian felt a guarded flicker of hope.
"Firekeeper, we may be missed. True, we'd already saidour good-byes, but there's Roanne and my pack horse, my camping gear, too. I left them west of Eagle's Nest."
Usually, he would have stabled at his parents' facilities, but Prancing Steed Stables was filled to overflowing. Its buildings were mostly grouped to the east of the city, and Derian hadn't wanted to guide Roanne and the pack horse through the streets that would be crowded with departing festivalgoers the next morning.
Far easier to move them the day before, taking them to a farm owned by friends of the Carter family who were more than happy to offer space in a back pasture.
"I forget this," Firekeeper said, and Derian was absurdly pleased to hear relief in her voice. "Then someone see we not take them and ask questions. Did any see you leave dancing?"
Derian shook his head, regretted the motion, and massaged his temples as he answered.
"Lots of people, but no one in particular. There was a young woman ..."
Firekeeper snorted again, the soft gust mingled exasperation and amusement. She seemed immune to sexual impulses, even though regular nourishment had filled her once slat-sided figure into small rounded breasts and gently curving hips. It wasn't a matter Derian felt comfortable discussing with anyone. He grew pink even thinking about it.
Doc, Earl Kestrel's cousin, was less shyat least where Firekeeper was concernedand had once commented that prolonged starvation might have slowed Firekeeper's development. Sometimes, though, Derian wondered if there was something more involved, if Firekeeper really didn't think of herself as human and so human sexual impulsesand the things they led humans to doreally were alien to her.
Certainly, while the wolf-woman understood perfectly well why his mention of a young woman meant that Derian hadn't been anxious to draw attention to his departure, Firekeeper did not understand at all why he should be so eager to be alone with that same young woman.
Firekeeper snorted again, more laughter in the sound this time.
"You not the only one who want to be alone together," she said. "There were many leaving the dancing with that scent about them. But this not help us, only tell us that if there is help, we must make it."
Derian couldn't but agree.
ALTHOUGH SHE DIDN'T WANT TO say anything to Derian, Firekeeper was very worriedand worry was not an emotion with which she was at all comfortable.
Firekeeper was accustomed to the urgency of a hunt. Indeed, Derian had called her obsessive and irresponsible when she was after something. She preferred to think of herself as undistracted.
Humans were so good at worrying about what might happen that often they did nothing rather than risk a wrong action. Firekeeper never forgot what she was after and went directly for it. At least that was how Firekeeper preferred to think of herself, lightly dismissing the times she had worried about the consequences of her actions but acted nonetheless.
Now, trapped in a metal-barred cage in a smelly boat heading who knew where, she was worried. To make matters worse, all of these worries conspired to keep her from doing what she wanted to do, which was break out of the cageif possibleand get out of this boat. She'd rather take her risks with the river than with these strangers.
However, there was no way she could do this. Derian had lapsed back into semiconsciousness, before, she thought, he realized just how serious their situation was. For one thing, he hadn't seemed to register that they were aboard a boat, and that the boat was moving. She had little idea of how swiftly they were traveling, but the sound of water against the sides suggested a fair amount of speed.
The Flin River was in spate, channeling runoff from the spring snowmelt, and the current was swift. It did not take an experienced sailor to realize that they were probably movingfar more rapidly than anything ashore. Moreover, no one would notice one more boat among so many. Spring brought a return to river traffic, and with a new season nothing would be unusualor rather, everything would be. Moons would wax and wane before the riverside dwellers would register which boats ran usual routes and so notice those that did not.
To make matters worse, she had no idea where they were headed. Maps were something Firekeeper understood, though she tended to struggle a bit with them. She had seen maps of the local waterways, rivers drawn as bright blue curves that to her eyes bore little resemblance to the broad, powerful reality. From Eagle's Nest, the capital city of Hawk Haven, the Flin ran southeast before encountering the Barren River. The Barren river then continued northeast before emptying into the ocean at Hawk Haven's one harbor, Port Haven.
Then we are being taken, she thought, either to Bright Bay or to the ocean.
But this train of thought led her to no constructive conclusions about their captors. Bright Bay was officially friendly to Hawk Haven, but unlike in a wolf pack there were those who grumbled about the rulers, even when those rulers led strongly. She had heard few complaints about King Allister of the Pledge from those who had come from Bright Bay to celebrate the birth of his grandson, but then she would not have. She was known as Allister's friend, and in any case his enemies would not have made the long journey to celebrate the child's birth.
What if the boat was carrying them out onto the ocean? Firekeeper had seen the ocean, understood that somewhere across impossibly vast stretches of water were the Isles where Queen Valorano friend to Firekeeper or those she valuedruled. Firekeeper understood, too, that humans used the ocean as deer might a forest trail. Reaching the ocean might not be journey's end, but rather journey's beginning.
No. Thinking where they were going was useless. Only humans spent time planning hunts when the game had yet to be sighted. She would concentrate on what she did know.
That forced her to face uncomfortable facts she had beenavoidingthat Blind Seer was sleeping very deeply, showing no sign of waking. The wolf's breathing was steady and regular. Indeed, whereas Derian had vomited as he was waking, Blind Seer showed no distress at all. Although it should have reassured her, that lack of distress bothered Firekeeper. Were their captors using some sort of magic to keep the wolf asleep? In the past she had witnessed the use of magics both great and small, but although the possibility of magic being used against them was disturbing, there was another possibility that bothered her even more.
There had been one among their captors, a slim, dark man with the highest cheekbones she had ever seen, who had made Firekeeper very uneasy. He had seemed unusually ... She struggled to find the right word for the man's attitude. "Comfortable" didn't quite cover the idea, neither did "matter of fact," but there had been something of both in the man's actions as he gave orders. This bothered her. She had yet to meet any human whose initial encounter with Blind Seer had not been colored by fear. They might not show it, but Firekeeper knew the signs, knew the scent.
This man had not been afraid. Cautious, yes, but not afraid. He had emerged from inside the boat after Firekeeper and Blind Seer had come aboard. He had been the one who had measured out the drinks for her and Blind Seer.
The wolf's had been poured into a bowl of beef stock and set down on the deck. Firekeeper had been told to make certain Blind Seer drank it all before she drank her own. The man had watched with something of the same manner she had seen about Doc when the physician was dosing one of his patientsan air of analytical curiosity.
But no fear. No doubt. He had acted as if he knew what he was doing and had no question that what he planned would work. Was this merely confidence or was it something else?
It was a question Firekeeper knew she would not ask, even if opportunity presented itself. From the little she had overheard before the drug took her into sleep, she gathered that their captors might not be aware how clever she had become in understanding human ways. Best that they continue to think so. It might provide her a means of escape.
As much as Firekeeper disliked the possibility that magic had been used against them, she dreaded more the confidence she had perceived in the dark man. It had not been without cause. She had slept. Blind Seer still slept. Derian had slept, and though he had awakened sick, this could be because of the other things he had drunk earlier in the evening's entertainment rather than from whatever the dark man had done.
The dark man had reason for his confidence, and Firekeeper was wise enough to dread that confidenceand to wonder at its source.
Firekeeper had a wolf's patience when necessary, but she also had a wild animal's aversion to being trapped. Just because she couldn't see any way to escape now didn't mean she didn't want to be prepared in case the opportunity presented itself.
The square cage in which she was held was generously proportionedif you were feeling charitable. She could lie down fully stretched out, even stand without stooping. The base and top were wood, the bars iron. A faint odor clung to the floor, but it wasn't one she could place. She'd ask Blind Seer about it when he woke. Compared with the wolf, she was nose-dead, just as compared with most humans she was astonishingly sensitive.
The reminder of her companions' drugged state gave a fresh urgency to her desire to break free. One by one she tested the bars. Each was solid in itself, but a few moved promisingly within the sockets that held them in the wood. If she had her Fang, she could have enlarged the hole, but the knife, along with the small pouch in which she carried flint and steel, had been taken from her.
She patted herself down to see what remained to her. She wore a long-sleeved cotton dress, certainly soiled by now. Originally, it had been pale blue with red trim, the colors of House Kestrel, the Great House into which she had been adopted. She had refused the matching slippers, but accepted a strand of coordinated glass beads. These had gone the way of her knife. The little cap that had started the evening pinned to her hair had been missing long before she'd been lured from the dancing.
Not much to work with. She was wondering if Derian had been as thoroughly disarmed when she heard footsteps on the deck directly above. These stopped and a moment later a square of light appeared off to one side. Almost as soon as it appeared, it was occluded by the shape of a man climbing down the angled steps of a ladder. He was followed by an arm that handed down a lantern, and then the owner of the arm also climbed down. Finally, a third man descended. With a chill, Firekeeper recognized the dark man.
Blind Seer and Derian were well and truly out of it, and she decided it would be to her advantage to appear at least somewhat disoriented. She debated pretending unconsciousness, but decided against that immediately. Although she had been doing her best to ignore it, she was very thirsty, and if the men did not offer her water, she must ask.
Another advantage of not pretending to be asleep was that she could see everything they did. So when the circle of lantern light came over by the cages Firekeeper was sitting up, her arms wrapped around her knees, her chin resting on her folded arms.
"Rarby, hang the lantern up," the dark man said. He spoke Pellish, the language common to Bright Bay and Hawk Haven, but with an accent Firekeeper had never heard before. "I may need your assistance."
"Right, Harjeedian," Rarby said.
Rarby was a big man, both tall and broad. The bright blueand-white-striped sweater he wore emphasized that breadth. His accent was familiar, though with more of the sound of Bright Bay to it, Firekeeper thought. Not surprising, since he and his companion were both obviously sailors and Bright Bay traditionally followed the sea.
The other man resembled Rarby closely enough that Firekeeper guessed they were brothers. This second man was a touch taller, but not as broad as Rarby. He wore a knit cap in the same blue and white, pulled tight to his ears. His chin seemed both pale and reddish. Firekeeper realized after a moment's thought that he must have very recently shaved off a heavy beard.
Then she recognized him. The newly shorn man was theone who had lured her from the dancing. Rarby was the man who had cut Derian. She swallowed a growl. They must think her weak.
Harjeedian saw Firekeeper move and crossed to stand in front of her cage. Firekeeper noticed that he stopped an arm's length away. She didn't think this was accidental. In the lantern light, she got a far better look at him than she had at their first encounter.
He was of medium height, his build slim, though lithe and muscular. His jet black hair was very straight, parted in the center, left to hang loose to just above his shoulders. The blunt weight of it emphasized the sharp angle of his cheekbones and the tilt of his eyes, so that the eyes seemed squashed to slits between cheekbone and eyebrow. His skin was a deep, warm brown, without the extensive weathering evident on both the sailors, so she thought the darker color must be natural.
"How do you feel?" Harjeedian asked in his precise Pellish.
Firekeeper paused before answering. Let them think her slow.
"Not good," she said. "They worse, though. Fox Hair stink and Blind Seer no wake."
"Put your arm through the bars where I can reach it," Harjeedian said. "I need to feel the pulses."
Firekeeper had seen Doc do this, and knew degrees of health could be read through the art. She had tried to learn it, but never was certain she felt any pulse but her own. Reluctantly, she thrust her arm through the bars, determined to seem cowed.
Harjeedian grasped her wrist in one long-fingered, lightly callused hand, positioned his fingers, and stared at nothing.
"Somewhat fast," he said, "but nothing to worry about. Does your head hurt?"
"Much," Firekeeper lied.
"Hmm. I thought I judged the dose better than that. I understood that you did not drink alcohol. I must have misjudged the relative ratio of muscle to fat."
Firekeeper stared at him. The words were Pellish, butmade little sense to her. All she was certain of was that Harjeedian didn't think she should have a headache.
"I'm thirsty," she whined.
"That could account for the headache," Harjeedian said. "Shelby, draw water for Lady Blyssewhile you're at it, draw enough for all of our guests."
The man in the knit cap nodded and left. His steps were quick, and Firekeeper was certain he was glad to be away.
What is he afraid of? she thought. Me? I am locked. Perhaps he fears Harjeedian. Harjeedian gives the orders.
Harjeedian let her hand drop and stepped back from the cage.
"Has Derian Counselor or the wolf awakened?"
"Derian did, for a little. Blind Seer, no."
She heard the worry in her own voice. Harjeedian looked pleased.
"The wolf still sleeps? Very good. I will look to him last. First, the king's counselor."
He walked to where Derian lay sprawled on the deck, knelt, and lifted the young man's head. As before, Harjeedian spoke his conclusions aloud, though Firekeeper was uncertain just who was intended to be his audience. Rarby never responded to anything said, nor did Harjeedian seem to expect a response.
"Breathing. That's good. A bit shallow. Vomit on mouth and face, but not sufficient to choke him. The purge worked as planned then, but there must have been too much alcohol already in his blood."
Derian moaned, stirred, and tried to sit up. Harjeedian did not restrain him, and Derian succeeded in propping himself onto one elbow. The chain securing his ankle clanked as he moved.
"Who the ... What?" Derian managed rather incoherently. "Firekeeper?"
He blinked and his hazel eyes focused on Harjeedian. He paused as he registered the unfamiliar face, Rarby standing a few paces beyond, and Shelby coming from above with waterskins slung over his shoulders and a bucket in one hand.
"Who are you?" Derian asked, sounding more angry than afraid.
"Harjeedian will do," the man said, leaning forward to grasp Derian's free wrist. "I am your escort."
"Escort?" Derian wrested his wrist free and pulled himself into a sitting position. "Kidnapper is more like it! Escort where? To whom? Did you ever think about issuing more usual invitations?"
"The ones who sent me do not think that way. They desire something, and what they desire will be acquired for them. You will learn more of this in time."
Harjeedian smiled and Firekeeper was uneasily aware that this man was dangerous.
She was also unhappily aware that Harjeedian had spoken of whoever it was he served as "they." In the back of her mind she had thought that their enemy was somehow connected to Queen Valora of the Isles, but Valora would never be mistaken for more than one. Her husband was most definitely not a power who could be spoken of in one breath with her as one might Princess Sapphire and her consort, Prince Shad.
Harjeedian extended his hand for Derian's wrist.
"Cooperate with me and I will do what I can to eliminate any physical discomfort you are feeling. The dosage of the drug my agent administered to you could only be estimated. I could not account accurately for the alcohol in your system and though I took measures to ascertain that you would not be harmed, I could not ..."
"Who are you!" Derian roared, surging to his feet. "I want answers."
"You want something for your headache," Harjeedian said, rising with effortless grace. "You want a bath and clean clothing. I can obtain these things for you, but only if you cooperate."
Derian stared down at Harjeedian, but for all the difference in their heightsDerian was a very tall manto Firekeeper it seemed that Harjeedian was the larger. Perhaps Derian too felt the force of the dark man's personality. Perhapshe simply became aware of Rarby standing ready a few paces away, or felt the weight of the chain around his ankle, but Derian suddenly held very still.
He thrust out his arm, wrist turned upward. Harjeedian smiled slightly and took it.
"Quick and erratic," he commented. "No great surprise there."
He raised a hand to Derian's forehead.
"Damp. Fever broken, though. You are a strong young man. I think even without my assistance you would soon be in good form. Shelby, did you bring sufficient water for washing?"
"Good. Pour a little into this cup, then give a wet rag to Counselor Derian. You can handle the deck."
For Firekeeper, the next few minutes were almost dreamlike in their ordered practicality. Derian washed, then was given a change of clothes, and a cup into which Harjeedian had mixed some powder. Shelby thoroughly scrubbed the stinking deck; then the damp area was covered with a heap of clean straw. A blanket was placed over that, and Derian was invited to sit. He did so without comment, his movements so contained that Firekeeper wondered if he were feeling ill once more.
"There is a covered pail for waste behind you," Harjeedian concluded. "I suggest you use it, if at all possible. Now I shall look to the wolf."
From inside his shirt, Harjeedian pulled a chain that glittered gold in the lantern light. He removed one key from a small assortment that hung upon a ring and tucked the rest away again.
"Rarby, Shelby, ready the crossbows. Rarby, orient yours on Lady Blysse, Shelby, on the wolf."
As much as Firekeeper hated Harjeedian for his foresight, she also had to admire him. There was a distinct possibility that if Blind Seer attacked their captors he could take out all three men before any injuries he took significantly slowed himand although she hated to admit it, his devotion to herwas such that he might well risk his own life to win her freedom.
Rarby moved to where any shot from his bow would be instantly fatal for Firekeeper.
Shelby grunted his own readiness.
Harjeedian turned to Firekeeper before stepping close to Blind Seer's locked cage.
"I think he is still asleep, but if he is not, I suggest you tell him of my arrangements."
Firekeeper did not say a word. She had resolved some time before that her early attempts to convince humans of the intelligence of her Royal Beast companions had been an error. What she would not admit to in the company of allies she would not do in front of enemies.
Harjeedian's thin lips shaped a small, humorless smile. Without further comment, he opened the cage and went inside.
Almost without volition, Firekeeper found herself drawn close to the bars of her own cage, as close as she could get to the wolf. She heard Derian gasp, and knew that her movement must have startled Rarby as well, but the crossbow remained unfired.
Harjeedian placed his hand on Blind Seer's head, peeled the lid back from the wolf's eye and inspected the pupil, grunted something, then inspected the gum, pressing the skin above the shining white fangs. He pushed back fur to expose the skin below and pinched there, then lifted the bushy weight of the tail and inspected beneath. Examination completed, he rose to his feet and left the cage.
After Harjeedian had locked the door behind him, he said, "The wolf is somewhat dehydrated, not surprisingly, given the amount of time he has slept. It will be to your advantage if you convince him to drink when he awakens."
"You not," Firekeeper asked, "make him sleep again?"
"Not yet, at least," Harjeedian replied. "There would be no advantage in that. You will be fed and given fresh water to drink for the duration of our voyage. Later, there will beopportunities for exercise as well. However, let me make clear here and now that the quality of the food and the quantity of the exercise will be awarded in proportion to your good behavior."
Firekeeper blinked, tilting her head to one side in confusion.
Derian gave a dry cough of a laugh. "You'll get fed better if you don't give them any trouble."
Harjeedian gave him a nod of thanks.
"We will be going now. Food will be brought later. You have sufficient water."
Rarby raised a hand to take down the lantern.
"Wait!" Derian said. "Surely you can leave us some light."
Harjeedian paused, considering.
"I think not. Fire is a dangerous thing to leave untended, especially on a wooden vessel with all this straw about. Your eyes will adjust to what daylight comes from above."
With that the three men departed, lowering the trapdoor above and shooting home the bolt.
Copyright © 2004 by Jane Lindskold