Toryn started awake as something pebble-sized bounced off his chest. He blinked for a moment and then looked over at Redwing suspiciously. Redwing conversed with Davin earnestly. He switched his gaze to Verana; she was still asleep.
Having no one to blame for his wakefulness, Toryn climbed grumpily to his feet.
“What goes on?” he asked Redwing.
“We are going to get Alyn back.”
“She is here?”
“I believe so.”
Toryn strapped on his sword. “What are we waiting for?” he demanded.
“You.” Redwing grinned.
Toryn, Davin and Redwing checked their weapons and proceeded into the jungle after awakening Verana. She assured them that she would stay with the horses. The rain started again, a fine mist that did not hinder them, but it made Toryn even more irritable.
“Do we have a plan, or are we just going to go in there and start slashing away?” Toryn asked. “How many of them are there?”
“Five men and a woman. We’ll go for the horses first. They should be watching the horses closely, expecting them to give warning of our approach.”
“And won’t they?” Toryn asked. “Give warning?”
“No. They won’t.” Redwing winked at him and grinned.
“Oh. Then what?”
“You’ll see. Now be quiet. We’re getting close.”
They walked around the bandit’s camp until they approached it from the west, behind the picketed horses. Darkling, Fireling, Fang, and Thistle stood within a group of horses. There were perhaps a dozen in all. The horses did not react to their presence; they merely continued to munch contentedly on their grain, though Darkling swiveled an ear at them as if in greeting. Toryn looked suspiciously at Redwing and was rewarded to see the look of concentration on the Falaran’s face. So, he was doing something to the horses. Toryn vowed to have another talk with Redwing when this was all over. He wanted to know exactly what Redwing could do with his strange abilities. Obviously, he could do far more than just utilize his ‘odd feeling’ to track people and animals.
They moved closer to the horses, but stayed within the concealing undergrowth. Redwing indicated Alyn’s position to Toryn, who nodded and crept off.
~~ O ~~
Brydon gave Toryn some time and then released the picket rope that held the horses tied in place. He sprang onto Darkling’s back and Davin mounted Alyn’s red stallion. Pulling out his sword, Brydon screamed an impromptu war cry and urged the horse forward. He and Davin galloped headlong through the clearing toward the surprised bandits. The outlaws were quick, however, and dove for cover, snatching weapons as they went. Brydon slashed at a man as he raced by and was rewarded by a strangled scream. He saw another man fall with Davin’s dagger buried in his forehead.
The two of them fled into the trees and the bandits’ horses trailed behind them, bumping into the shouting men and scattering the fire. Once in the trees, Brydon and Davin separated and the loose horses fled.
Brydon halted Darkling when he judged them safely away from the bandit camp. He reached down to pat the stallion’s neck and the horse tossed his head, ready to run again. Brydon calmed him with a mental touch and dismounted after sheathing his sword. The group had scattered, but now they would be hunting their attackers. The trees were thick and brush provided plenty of cover, which would be beneficial to both sides, unfortunately. Brydon walked a few paces from the horse and unslung his bow. He sent his mind outward on a quest for Toryn, but instead encountered another presence approaching. Before he could draw his senses back, he received an impression of astonishment. The newcomer had felt his mental touch! Brydon felt an inkling of anger and then satisfaction—neither emotion was his own. He returned to himself with a feeling akin to horror. The mind of the newcomer had followed him!
What have we here? an angry voice demanded inside Brydon’s head. He nearly dropped his bow from the unexpected pain of the intrusion. A fledgling. Here to rescue the Akarskan girl, I presume? How gallant.
Brydon cried out as the stranger forced himself into deeper levels of Brydon’s mind. In panic, he mentally pushed the newcomer’s presence away as if with an invisible hand. Incredibly, it worked. The presence departed and Brydon immediately closed his mind off, withdrawing behind a protective mental wall. He could feel the stranger trying to penetrate his weak defense, searching for a weakness like a rat seeking a hole in a wall. The probe was uncomfortable, but not unbearable, and Brydon began to relax when the man failed to gain entrance.
“You learn quickly,” the stranger called aloud and Brydon swung the bow toward the sound of the voice, working hard to maintain his mental shield. He tried to judge the man’s character from his voice—it had been deep and confident, hinting of arrogance. He fished an arrow from his quiver and was suddenly grateful that his skill with the bow took little concentration, for the mental probe did not relent. There was no sign of the man, though Brydon scanned into the trees warily. He eased himself away from Darkling and into some concealing brush.
“I do not appreciate you scattering my horses,” the man continued, drawing nearer but remaining out of Brydon’s sight. “It took Sellaris quite some time to gather them.”
Brydon did not reply. The man seemed to have no doubt of Brydon’s whereabouts, but Brydon hoped he was unaware of the bow which slowly began to draw back the string. Hopefully, the stranger’s initial mental invasion had gleaned only surface information.
“I am going to cut you to pieces, you know,” the man went on, “And then I will dissect your mind bit by bit and find out everything about you. When I am finished, you will be begging me to kill you, if you are still sane enough to speak, that is.” The man was close now and Brydon caught a glimpse of him as he moved through the trees.
The stranger laughed. “If I choose, perhaps I will pay a little visit to the all people you care for. Your wife? Sister? Mother? How much do you know about your ability, I wonder? Do you know what it feels like to make them beg for rape?”
Brydon’s control nearly slipped as horror nearly blinded him. His mental shield wavered and the man bored in, eager for an opening. At the same moment, however, he stepped from concealment and Brydon let the arrow fly.
The man’s mental assault ceased abruptly. Brydon felt a sense of surprise, almost like an afterimage. Incredibly the stranger flung himself aside and the arrow missed him by a hairsbreadth. Brydon caught a glimpse of dark hair and clothing as the man moved.
Brydon stared for a moment, shocked at the man’s agility. He steeled his mind again and readied another arrow. The stranger got to his feet and glared at him with no trace of amusement. Brydon studied him carefully, wondering where the man hailed from. It was impossible to tell from his clothing—the nondescript umber tunic could have come from anywhere and there were no adornments visible. The man’s black cape looked expensive, as did the highly polished black boots. He wore a white shirt open at the throat and a red sash around his waist. The man was tall and slender, black-haired and mustached, of indiscriminate age, although he seemed mature. His hair was cut shorter than Brydon’s, but his mustache was thick, although it seemed carefully trimmed. He carried a broadsword naked in his fist and the black sheath at his hip was also undecorated. No other weapons were visible, but Brydon knew the man’s most potent weapon was not made of steel. Even as the thought came to him, the stranger lashed another mental assault. Brydon reeled from the force of it, but the mental wall he had erected succeeded in keeping the stranger at bay. For the moment. However, the man strode forward once again, apparently intent on combating Brydon with steel as well.
Brydon grit his teeth and sent another arrow flying toward the man, who snarled and batted the missile aside with the sword. Steel rang as the arrow caromed away. Brydon notched another arrow and released it only to watch in perplexed amazement as the man sidestepped. The arrow whizzed harmlessly past. How could anyone move so quickly?
“Who are you?” Brydon demanded. He dropped his bow and unsheathed his sword as the man closed the distance.
“My name is Reed,” the stranger admitted. With that, he leaped forward and their swords clashed.
Brydon countered three testing blows before Reed spun, lightning-fast, and slashed at his right hamstring. Brydon twisted wildly and barely deflected the unexpected attack. He threw himself backward to avoid Reed’s follow-up, a strike that nearly took his head off—Reed’s blade missed his face by a whisker. At the same instant, the man tore through Brydon’s mental defenses—the sword battle had left him unable to maintain his mental wall.
Brydon screamed as Reed bore in. He tried desperately to fend off the mental assault while he deflected another sword-thrust. His arms moved more by instinct than by conscious volition as waves of pain drove into his skull. Reed drew back his sword for another strike and Brydon was only dimly aware of the danger to his body as Reed inexorably broke through each of Brydon’s hastily erected mental barriers.
Reed cried out suddenly and the mental attack ceased so quickly that Brydon reeled and sank to one knee. Reed leaped back to confront a new menace—Toryn! Brydon’s relief when he saw the Redolian was nearly palpable. He struggled to regain his feet—and his mental balance—through a blinding headache. Toryn circled Reed, subtly putting himself between Brydon and the foe. Reed faced Toryn and Brydon saw blood on the man’s shoulder where Toryn had nicked him. Brydon wondered why Toryn had not skewered the bandit and realized Toryn had probably tried, but Reed’s agility had allowed him to avoid most of the blow.
“You seemed to need some help, Falaran,” Toryn commented and took the attack to Reed, forcing him back with a wild flashing movement of his blade. Reed countered the blows smoothly and Brydon saw his dark eyes narrow. Reed was going to assault Toryn’s mind! Brydon instantly sent his own senses racing toward Reed. As expected, Reed’s smooth mental wall was partially down and his thoughts quested in the direction of Toryn. Brydon felt a moment of satisfaction. Reed had left Brydon an opening, apparently thinking the Falaran posed no threat. Brydon sent a wave of anger into Reed’s mind, envisioning it as a battering ram.
Brydon smiled in grim satisfaction when Reed cried out and snapped his mental shields back into place. He held them tightly while Toryn used the momentary distraction to his advantage. The Redolian pressed forward with a series of thrusts and slashes that Reed scrambled to counter. A blow caused Reed to throw himself backward in order to avoid disembowelment. Brydon was suddenly glad he had never fought Toryn with a sword—the Redolian was magnificent.
It was Brydon’s turn to hammer away at Reed’s mental defenses. He sought relentlessly for a weakness, not daring to let up for an instant, lest Reed lay waste to Toryn’s unprotected mind. Toryn’s continuous attack made it impossible for Reed to lash a mental attack at Brydon—it seemed to take all of his skill to fend off Toryn’s blows. Reed ducked a cut that looked close enough to shave a bit of hair from his head. Toryn chortled gleefully.
“The next one takes an ear!” the Redolian predicted and aimed a jab at Reed’s throat that was nearly fatal—deflected by a narrow margin with Reed’s uplifted sword. Reed had to be tiring but Brydon sensed more rage than fear radiating through Reed’s still-tight mental shield.
The bandit suddenly launched himself backward into the air in a somersault worthy of the most accomplished acrobat. He landed on his feet some ten feet from Toryn, who had stared at the maneuver with something akin to admiration. Apparently, Reed was not as tired as he seemed even though he panted heavily, as did both Toryn and Brydon.
Toryn took a step forward. Brydon could see a grin twist the Redolian’s handsome features as he moved to renew the attack, but Toryn paused when Reed reached in to the open neck of his tunic. Brydon expected Reed to draw a throwing dagger, but the bandit’s hand revealed a large red crystalline stone that dangled from a chain around his neck. It was too large for a ruby, Brydon thought. He half-expected another mental attack during Reed’s brief respite and was not disappointed. Brydon clenched his teeth against an outcry as Reed mentally struck at him again.
Brydon held Reed at bay after a moment’s struggle and then the offensive ceased as suddenly as it had begun. Toryn circled Reed once more and then halted with a startled oath when Reed’s crystal began to glow with an unholy red light. Brydon quickly sent his thoughts back toward Reed even though he wondered if he could protect either himself or Toryn from whatever the man planned. Toryn raced forward with a loud yell.
“I will not forget you two,” Reed snarled and then seemed to grow insubstantial, ghostlike. Brydon’s mind encountered a sense of Reed’s presence just as Toryn’s sword cut through the Reed’s intangible form with no resistance. Then Reed was gone, both mentally and physically. Brydon cast his mind in all directions, bewildered.
Toryn spun about wearing the same expression. “Where did he go?” the Redolian demanded.
“He’s gone! Completely gone.” Brydon said with amazement. “I can’t sense him anywhere around!”
“How could he just vanish? Was he a phantom? Or a demon?”
Brydon shook his head. “I think not. He was far too real. When you cut him he bled.”
Toryn looked relieved at Brydon’s words. “That’s true! What was that red stone?”
“I don’t know. Maybe it aided his escape.” Brydon wondered if Reed’s strange abilities had contributed to his disappearance.
“Damn!” Toryn said suddenly. “I should retrieve Alyn. I left her in the woods.”
“I’ll meet you back at camp,” Brydon said and sheathed his sword. “I need to recover my arrows.”
“Try not to get into any more fights without me,” Toryn suggested with a grin.
“Count on it.”
Toryn trotted away. Brydon picked up his bow and gathered the arrows he had launched at Reed. One of them was difficult to find—he finally located it tangled in the branches of a bush. Brydon fished it out, replaced it in his quiver and then cast his mind out carefully. He did not trust that Reed was truly gone.
His mind encountered Toryn and Alyn before he sensed two more people approaching. One of them was a woman. Brydon plucked an arrow back out of his quiver and notched it to his bow. He stood back and waited, holding his breath until she came into view. She saw him and tried to duck away—too late. The arrow sliced through her leather shirtsleeve and into the tree behind her, pinning her there. She looked at him with a surprisingly calm expression. She had red hair, he noted, and held a sword. He did not think he’d injured her, especially when she reached up and tried to pull the arrow out with her free hand. A man was close behind her, also ginger-haired. He was faster than the woman and hurled himself to the ground when he saw the arrow aimed at him, but to no avail. Brydon simply waited until he was down and pinned him to the ground with feathered shafts.
He switched his attention back to the woman as she snapped off the end of the shaft and drew her clothing away from it. She left the broken end embedded in the tree. Brydon cursed silently; arrows were precious.
“I would not move if I were you,” Brydon suggested as she poised herself to flee. “Drop the sword.”
She looked down at the man who struggled to free himself from Brydon’s arrows.
“Are you injured, Lavan?” she asked. Brydon was entranced by her voice—it was as deep and smooth as fine wine.
“No,” the fallen man replied in a voice filled with rage. “But I cannot move.”
She looked back at Brydon, who stepped closer, arrow held steady. She tossed her sword away. “If you had injured my brother I would have been forced to fight you,” she stated.
The man on the ground sighed disgustedly. “Stop defending me, Sellaris. I can fight my own battles.”
“You can’t fight your way out of a spider’s web, Lavan.”
The man loosed a few choice words.
“Have you met Reed?” the woman asked of Brydon, whose jaw tightened. “I see you have,” she said with a humorless smile. “Yet, you live! You must be skilled. Where is he?”
“Maybe I killed him,” Brydon suggested. Sellaris laughed and the bell-like tones sent a strange thrill down his spine. Lavan snorted and thrashed. Brydon knew it would not take long for the man to free himself. He sent a quick mental call to Toryn and wondered what to do with his prisoners.
“I’m afraid I’ll have to tie you up,” he told the woman. She shrugged and he sensed her waiting for the proper moment to attack him. He cast about for something with which to bind her and was slightly mortified to spy only one possible item.
“Ah… lacking a rope, it appears I’ll need the laces from your shirt.”
Her eyes—grey, he saw—flashed and darkened to almost black. He had finally sparked some real emotion in her. After a tense moment, she reached up and began unthreading the laces. Brydon reflected that it would have been a very interesting moment if her brother were not ten feet away, thrashing and cursing. He should have sent a blunt arrow against the man’s skull and knocked him out. He could still do so, he supposed, but he didn’t want the woman to misconstrue his actions.
She finished and held the lacing out to him. The movement caused her unlaced blouse to gape open and reveal much of a cream-colored breast. A very nice looking cream-colored breast, Brydon noticed as he clamped his jaw shut to keep it from dropping.
She smiled slightly, an almost seductive smile, and Brydon knew she planned to attack him the instant he got close enough to take the laces from her hand. There was no need to read her mind—he could see it in her eyes. He was saved from indecision by Toryn’s approach.
“Did you call me?” the Redolian asked before he stopped short and whistled appreciatively.
“Now I know why you stayed! Am I interrupting something?” He leered.
“Tie her up, Toryn.”
Toryn tied Sellaris. Despite his lusty demeanor, his hands did not wander. She did not try to fend him off and kept a wary eye on Brydon’s arrow. Toryn bound her hands behind her back and cut the excess leather with his dagger before handing it to Brydon.
“I’ll take care of the man. You may want to fasten her shirt together with this. She will thank you for it later,” Toryn murmured with a smirk and walked over to the cursing Lavan.
“We don’t have any rope to tie him with,” Brydon said.
“I’ll manage,” Toryn called. Brydon put the arrow back in his quiver and slung the bow over his shoulder. He walked to Sellaris, who watched as Toryn knelt over her brother.
Brydon cleared his throat. “I think we should tie your… ah, this… back together.” Her shirt had fallen even farther open since her hands were tied behind her. Brydon tried to keep his eyes on her face.
The grey eyes flashed back to his, expressionless. She was stunningly beautiful, he noticed. Her skin was a flawless golden tone and her dark red hair flowed down her back and over her shoulders in thick curls. Her lips were full and her face was like a marble statue of an angel. Except, of course, for the slate-colored eyes that glared icy murder at him.
He took her silence for assent and threaded one end of the lace through a hole, an action that forced him to look down at his task. It was then that he noticed her pendant. She wore an emerald green stone about the size of his thumb hanging from a golden chain. It was teardrop shaped, too large to be an emerald. Crystal, he supposed, like Reed’s. He looked at her penetratingly for a moment, but knew it wasn’t the time for a mental probe. He did not dare let his guard down, in case she had the same abilities as Reed. His hand brushed her breast as he tugged at the cloth. He felt heat rise in his face and dropped his eyes back to his task. It was a moment before he noticed the pale pink flush creeping from the woman’s chest up into her cheeks.
He pulled the shirt closed hurriedly and threaded the other side before tying a clumsy knot to hold the two parts together. He backed away quickly, trembling slightly, and cursed himself for acting like some half-schooled squire. Sellaris watched him through half-lidded eyes.
Brydon smiled brightly. “There,” he said. He looked over at Toryn, who tossed aside a rather large rock. Brydon noticed Lavan was lying quite still.
“Who needs ropes?” Toryn asked and began to pull arrows away from the unconscious man.