Brydon followed Toryn back to where Alyn was leaning against a tree. She was awake, but seemed very groggy. Brydon called to Fireling mentally and a moment later Alyn’s horse trotted up, followed by Darkling. Fireling whickered and nuzzled Alyn’s hair in a friendly greeting. She reached up a weak hand and touched his chestnut neck. Toryn lifted Alyn and set her atop the horse, testament to her weakened state. Brydon helped him sling Lavan’s limp form over Darkling’s back. Sellaris followed without comment as Toryn led the way back to the bandit’s encampment. Brydon trailed her. He could tell she was furious by the movement of her hips and the set of her shoulders.
The camp was a shambles from the horse charge—cooking items were scattered and a makeshift tent had been knocked from its pegs. Verana sat near a roaring fire and tended a dark-haired stranger whose hands were tied behind his back. Large bloody scratches covered his bare arms and chest. He looked up as they approached. “Sellaris!” he exclaimed. “Are you hurt?”
“No, Garyn,” she said in a dry tone with barely a glance at him. Brydon cocked a brow at the exchange. The man was obviously worried for her, but her voice seemed laced with contempt.
“Are there any others?” Brydon asked of Davin, who shook his head “Where is Reed?” Garyn asked.
“Gone,” Sellaris replied.
“He left us? The bastard! What about Flord and Snip?”
“Both dead,” she said shortly and threw an unfathomable look at Brydon. Davin dragged her brother from the horse and set him on the ground before locating some rope and tying him securely. Several packs lay near the fire; Davin must have collected the bandits’ belongings. Toryn helped Alyn dismount and then guided her over to sit near Verana.
“How is she?” Toryn asked.
“I have not even looked at her yet, Toryn. Perhaps you could heat some water for me? You might make some food, also. She is probably hungry.” Alyn seemed oblivious to their conversation; she stared into the flames and said nothing. For once Toryn made no protest, but went to do as Verana asked. Brydon sent the horses away with a mental nudge.
“You, sit,” Brydon ordered Sellaris. Without waiting to see if she complied, Brydon joined Toryn at the fire and watched him toss a variety of ingredients into a large cooking pot.
“Walk with me for a moment, Toryn.”
“Now? I’m cooking.”
“I need to tell you something.”
Toryn sighed and set the pot near the fire. “You’re not planning to confess your undying love, are you?”
Brydon punched him in the shoulder, nearly knocking the Redolian over. He rubbed his shoulder and snickered, but got to his feet. Brydon caught Davin’s eye and threw a pointed glance at Sellaris. Davin nodded—he would keep an eye on her.
Brydon and Toryn walked a short distance into the forest. The dry ground was a pleasant change from the interminable swamp they had left behind. Brydon put his hand on the smooth white trunk of a tree and picked at parchment-like bits of bark. He was not sure where to begin.
“She’s wearing a crystal,” Toryn said as if sensing Brydon’s difficulty. “Why hasn’t she disappeared?”
“Maybe she can’t. Toryn, there’s something I need to tell you.”
“About your strange ability to track people and animals by thinking about them?”
Brydon nodded. “Today I discovered there might be much more to it than that.” He explained his encounter with Reed in detail. Toryn listened with fascination.
“You mean he actually spoke words in your mind?” Toryn asked. “Can you do that?”
“I don’t know,” Brydon admitted. “When I called you earlier, you came as though I had called you aloud.”
“I thought you did call me. Were you speaking in my head?” Toryn was silent for a moment and he kicked at a root near his foot. Dust puffed into the air and settle on his boot. “Do you think you could you also get information from people, the way Reed tried with you? Can you hear my thoughts?”
Brydon studied him closely. “I would not have thought so, before. I thought my abilities were limited to sensing presences and sometimes knowing what people were feeling. Now, I think... maybe. Do you want me to try?”
Toryn backed away and his green eyes widened. “I don’t think so,” he said.
Brydon held out a hand to stay him. “I would never use it without your consent,” Brydon assured him.
Toryn took a deep breath, looking relieved. He picked up a stick and tossed it into the woods, obviously trying to look undisturbed. Brydon had to admit the thought of someone invading his mind would be unsettling. Sheol, it had been unsettling having Reed digging about in there. Toryn said, “Try it on the girl, instead.”
“What would be the difference if I tried to read her mind without her consent?” Brydon asked, exasperated.
Toryn was stymied for only a moment. “So, ask her.”
Brydon rubbed his temples with his fingers and shot Toryn a rueful look. The Redolian grinned guilelessly and made a shooing motion with his hands. Brydon returned to camp and knelt by Sellaris. She had dug up a blanket from somewhere and sat upon it cross-legged with her hands braced behind her. She looked bored, but that was probably an affectation.
“Do you know where Reed is now?” he asked her. She shook her head and her grey eyes revealed nothing.
“Does he... disappear like this often?”
“What do you mean?” she asked guilelessly.
Brydon did not believe for an instant that she was innocent of Reed’s abilities, although his certainty was based on nothing more than a feeling.
“He disappeared like a ghost before we could finish him off,” Brydon said mildly. “He wore a stone similar to yours.” He pointed to the green pendant she wore. She looked at him curiously and waited. Brydon frowned. He looked at Toryn, who had returned to his cooking. The Redolian gave him an encouraging nod.
Brydon despised the idea of invading anyone’s mind like an honorless spy, but it seemed unlikely that the three prisoners would willingly offer information. It would be unwise to reveal Brydon’s own abilities by asking permission, yet, it was imperative that he determine whether or not Reed would appear as suddenly as he had gone.
He turned his attention back to Sellaris. He relaxed and tentatively extended his senses—only to encounter a smooth wall! He probed lightly and searched for a weakness. Sellaris gasped and her grey eyes widened as she stared at him. She sat up and her hands clenched into fists atop her thighs.
“You--!” she breathed.
“You felt that?”
“Sorry,” he said, ashamed that he had been discovered. “I was trying to be subtle. Do you want to talk to me now, or shall I try to break through your barriers?”
She glared. “Do your worst,” she challenged. Brydon groaned inwardly. He would never force her. It would be like... like rape. Instead, he looked at Lavan. Even if her brother had the same power as Sellaris, perhaps it would not be functional while the man was unconscious.
There was no barrier and Brydon felt himself slip easily into Lavan’s mind. Nothing came to Brydon at first and then he found himself barraged with images: A village; a brown cat; four people around a campfire; a very young Sellaris; walking through a forest; a mug of ale and seven empty glasses on a table; Reed standing near a grey horse; a strange woman; an empty plain; slamming a fist into a tree trunk—Brydon yanked his mind back before he drowned in Lavan’s memories. How was he to make sense of it?
Sellaris lashed a foot out suddenly and kicked Brydon in the shin, nearly knocking him out of his crouch. He caught his balance and looked at her sharply. Her hair was in disarray and her grey eyes shone fiercely. Brydon found himself simply staring at her for a moment, nearly mesmorized by her beauty. He almost did not hear her words.
“Stop it!” she demanded in a hushed voice. “He has no defense against one such as you! Do you find it honorable to invade the minds of the helpless? What kind of Knight-Priest are you? Or do you only wear the adornment in pretense?” She jerked her chin toward the falcon symbol on his vest. He drew in a breath at her observation and his gaze shot to Toryn, but the Redolian was conversing intently with Verana and had not overheard. Brydon was not quite ready to divulge his status to Toryn, mostly to avoid a tirade of epic proportion. He doubted Toryn would be thrilled that Brydon had kept the information from him.
His eyes narrowed as he turned back to Sellaris and replied in an equally low tone. “I will not have my honor questioned by a common thief. I am a Knight-Priest and by my vows I am required to use whatever means I deem necessary to protect those under my care. Alyn was under my protection when she was kidnapped for the purpose of being sold to the highest bidder. As criminals captured by an ordained Knight-Priest, you are required by law to give me all possible information to aid in the capture of escaped members of your band. I am authorized to use whatever means necessary to extract that information.” Brydon paused for a moment as he tried to rein in his anger. Sellaris watched him expressionlessly, though her eyes were ice-cold. He continued in an even tone, “One way or the other, I will have what I seek. Now, shall we do this the easy way, or should I heat some irons and get the information the old-fashioned way?”
Her eyes showed surprise for a moment, quickly masked. “Torture? You are bluffing. You would not have the stomach for it.”
Brydon smiled humorlessly in acknowledgement. “Perhaps I would not.” He jerked a thumb toward Toryn. “But he would.”
She looked at the Redolian carving meat with a vengeance in preparation for their meal. Toryn caught her gaze and fixed her with one of his merciless glares, involuntarily playing right into Brydon’s hands. Her white teeth touched her bottom lip for a moment—Brydon wondered if she was even aware of the nervous habit. He found it fascinating.
Her gaze returned to Brydon and he snapped his eyes back to hers with a slight flush. “I will tell you what you want to know,” she said. “Upon your word that you will do no more prying into our minds.”
“Agreed,” Brydon said readily and concealed his relief. He had no desire to delve back into Lavan’s mind. “Upon my honor. Now, how did Reed disappear?”
“I don’t know,” Sellaris replied. “I am not privy to his secrets.”
“Then you cannot also vanish?” Brydon asked.
“Would I still be here if I could?”
“Possibly,” Brydon said with a grin. “I do not pretend to know the mind of a woman.”
“No,” she said and sneered. He felt a flare of satisfaction at annoying her and wondered if Toryn was contaminating him. “I cannot also vanish.”
“Will Reed return?”
Sellaris smiled a trifle maliciously and moved out of her cross-legged position to recline slightly. Brydon tried not to watch her long legs unfold and failed. “Maybe. It depends on how badly he wants what you have taken from him.”
Wonderful, thought Brydon. He could picture Reed popping up during the night and killing them all in their sleep. He sighed. He must keep his guard up at all times and his mind open for Reed’s presence.
“What does Reed want with Alyn and the Akarskan horses? Is he a simple bandit or something more?”
“I don’t know where he’s from.” She was silent for a long while, as if choosing what to tell him. “What are you planning to do with us?”
“That depends. I need to know if Reed will be a threat to us. Will he try to recover Alyn or rescue you? If you tell me the truth I will set you, your brother, and your companion free.” The promise was somewhat self-serving—he had no desire to drag them to the nearest authorities, which could be days away.
Sellaris looked over at Garyn and Bydon studied him, also. Garyn’s somewhat plain features were open and pleasant and he did not have the look of a seasoned warrior. He seemed more like the young men Brydon had encountered in taverns in Falara, playing dice and telling tall tales about the fish they had caught and the women they had toyed with. He looked too friendly and naïve for a villain. Then again, Sellaris did not exactly look evil.
Brydon’s gaze skimmed once more over her lithe form, her slender waist and slim, leather-bound legs. She did not notice, lost in thought, but Brydon’s throat felt suddenly dry. Her grey eyes met his and he wondered how she had gotten involved with Reed.
“Very well,” she said, a bit breathlessly. “I will tell you all I know of Reed. If it is not enough for you, will you still set us free?”
“I give you my word as a Falaran, as long as you intend us no harm and go your own way. I swear it by my king.”
She nodded, apparently satisfied. Brydon stretched out next to her, not quite touching the blanket. A twig dug into his backside and he removed it before tossing it at Toryn’s head. It pinged off the black hair and earned a venomous look from the Redolian. Sellaris began to speak, so Brydon ignored Toryn’s pantomimed threats. “Lavan and I met Reed in Bodor, our homeland. Our father is a minor noble there. We have three elder stepbrothers who stand to inherit everything. They always hated us, so Lavan and I decided to seek our own fortunes in Silver, or Penkangum. Garyn accompanied us. He has been our companion since childhood. We were traveling to Silver when we met Reed in a tavern. Flord, one of the men you killed today, was with him.
“We were sitting at a table when Reed came to us. He said that he had overheard us speaking and that he had a job if we were willing to work for him. I was annoyed at his eavesdropping, but Lavan invited him to sit down and talk to us.” She paused for a moment and then continued, “He said that he needed a couple of men, or women, to help him move a herd of horses from Penkangum to the southern border of Bodor. It was an odd request, but we figured that he worked for some rich nobleman who wanted horses. I asked him if the horses were legal, and he said that all of the Akarskan horses were marked and had been legally sold. He just needed help to transport them.”
She sighed. “It turned out he lied. The horses were not marked and we ended up fighting Akarskan hunters all the way to Bodor. We were nearly killed, but Reed paid us well enough that it seemed worth the trouble. It was even exciting. We turned the horses over to a strange hooded man in southern Bodor and stayed with Reed. He said the man wanted more horses and had given him enough gold to bargain with the Tar-Tanians. We went to Tar-Tan and bought more horses, delivering them again to Bodor. It was easier that time without Akarskan Hunters hounding us. Tar-Tanians will part with stolen horses for a price.
“We picked up Snip in Penkangum on our way to Terris to collect more horses. I don’t know who Reed works for, but I’m sure he is in it for the money like the rest of us. My guess is that someone is tired of all the horses being in Akarska and wants to start a little breeding farm of their own.”
Brydon nodded; it made sense. Horses were so scarce outside of Akarska that they commanded a huge price. He picked up a sharp-edged rock and drew aimlessly on the ground with it. “How many horses have you moved down there?”
“We have been at it for over a year. I would guess close to two dozen. Maybe more. It’s hard to move more than three or four at a time without people getting suspicious.”
“Two dozen? And still they want more? I’m surprised Akarskans haven’t come after you in force.”
“Many of them were legitimately purchased in Akarska; perhaps half of them. It was only recently that Reed started getting them from raiders here in Terris. He sent us up here when he received word of a planned raid.”
“Did he hire the raiders to steal the horses from Akarska?” Brydon asked.
Sellaris shrugged. “Possibly. I don’t inquire into his affairs. It’s enough that we’re paid regularly and well.”
“What about the girl? Why did he take Alyn?”
“It wasn’t his idea. Snip wanted to make some extra income on the side by selling her in Tar-Tan. Reed didn’t care.” She was silent for a moment and Brydon suspected she was not telling him everything. He wished he had not promised so quickly to refrain from using his powers; he might have been able to tell if she lied.
“You sound like you condone this.”
“I don’t condemn it,” she stated simply. “If Akarskans doted less on their damned horses and more on their people, they would not have to worry about being captured and sold.”
“Alyn was in Akarska when she was captured!”
“Then she should have been more careful,” Sellaris said coldly. “The raiders took her. If Snip had not bought her from them, they would have sold her to someone else and she would probably be in much worse condition, if you know what I mean.”
“Alyn would have been sold to the highest bidder?” Toryn asked, having approached silently. His voice was deceptively mild but Brydon could tell he was furious by the tightness of his jaw and the set of his shoulders. He looked like he wanted to throttle Sellaris. She nodded. Toryn snarled and stalked into the forest where the horses were grazing. Brydon assumed he would get no further information from Sellaris, so he tossed aside the rock he had been drawing with and followed the Redolian.
“Slavers!” Toryn exclaimed when they were out of hearing of the others. “For all we know, she could have been with the raiders when they took Alyn.”
“It’s possible. Such raids happen all the time, Toryn,” Brydon said. “You know Tar-Tanians hate Akarskans. Even you had no desire to enter Akarska. It’s not exactly a friendly place; they have enemies everywhere.”
Toryn flushed angrily. “That doesn’t make it right.”
“Of course not. I just don’t want you to do anything rash. I told Sellaris that she and her companions could go free. I don’t think they’ll cause any harm without Reed. He seems to be the controlling force behind their operations.” If Sellaris had been truthful.
Toryn sighed. “I know. We don’t have the manpower to keep them all prisoner. What would we do with them? I doubt there are any Knight-Priest holdings in this swamp.”
“No. Kaneelis has the nearest outpost.” Brydon thought back to the story Sellaris had told him. They normally worked alone, she said, so why had Reed accompanied them this time?
“We could kill them all,” Toryn mused, rousing Brydon from his thoughts. He laughed before Brydon could speak. “I knew you’d make that horrified expression! I was only joking, stupid Falaran.”
“Very funny,” Brydon said with a sigh.
Lavan was awake when Brydon returned to the camp. The family resemblance was evident—both he and Sellaris were uncommonly attractive, and shared the same deep red hair. However, his forehead was deeply lined with a perpetual scowl and his lips were thin and set in an unattractive sneer. Sellaris was bent over him with his head in her hands. Someone had obviously untied her. That someone was Davin, who leaned against a tree and watched her closely with a dagger held casually in his hand.
“Are you all right?” Sellaris asked her brother.
Lavan nodded and she stroked his red hair away from his forehead. “No thanks to that black-haired devil,” he croaked.
“Is Reed going to come back for you?” Brydon demanded of Lavan, unmoved by the display of familial affection.
“Reed?” Garyn put in and snorted. “That is highly doubtful.”
Brydon looked at the brown-haired young man. “Where did he go?”
Garyn shrugged and winced at the movement. It likely had pulled at his large scratches, which were now bandaged tightly. “Who knows? The last time he disappeared we were in Tar-Tan; we didn’t him again until we’d gone to Kaneelis. Sometimes we won’t see him for months at a time. He has other interests.”
Sellaris nodded. “It took us nearly a month to locate him last time. The bastard left us in the middle of a tribal war. It took some fast-talking by Flord to get us out of there with our skins intact. Reed owed us money, too.”
“He betrayed you?” Davin asked.
“Let’s just say he knows how to save his own skin,” Sellaris said dryly.
“You said he sent you here to get the horses and that you usually worked without him. Why was he with you this time?”
“He did not join us until we acquired the Akarskan girl and the stallions. I think he wanted to see them. We seldom find horses of that quality and we had two of them,” Garyn said. “He has also surprised us before, appearing at will.”
“Why do you stay with such a reprehensible character?” Verana asked mildly as she began to dish Toryn’s stew onto an assortment of dishes.
“He pays very well.”
“Some things should never be bought,” Toryn said with finality, returning to camp. Lavan glared at him and Sellaris shrugged, but Brydon thought that Garyn looked a bit guilty. Perhaps there was hope for that one, anyway.
“What happened to you?” Sellaris asked Garyn.
“I was attacked by a jungle cat,” Garyn admitted and accepted a bowl from Verana with a nod of thanks. “I’m lucky it didn’t kill me. I’m not sure why it didn’t. I think that silver-haired fellow drove it away.” Brydon thought it strange that a wild cat would be hunting during their battle. He turned his gaze to Sellaris, promising himself another talk with her. He still had unanswered questions.
“Whether Reed returns or not, we are not going anywhere until Alyn recovers enough to be moved,” Brydon stated. He realized he had hardly bothered to check on her, so he walked quickly to kneel at her side. She lay on a thick pile of blankets and seemed about to doze off. She smiled at him in dreamy bemusement and Brydon realized Verana had probably dosed her with some sort of medicinal tea. He glanced at the Healer, who nodded. Brydon patted Alyn’s shoulder and left her to rest.
It began to drizzle, so Brydon and Toryn stretched a blanket from two trees and propped it up with branches to shelter Alyn and Verana. The others were left to their own devices, although they were all given blankets or cloaks to warm themselves. Brydon did not bother to tie Sellaris, since he and Toryn intended to take turns watching their prisoners. Night seemed to fall rapidly.