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About K. I am an anglophone writer in Quebec province, Canada.

I like to write epic fantasy with romantic elements and particularly enjoy stories of relationships between men, though this is not my only reading interest. Let the children learn these lessons young, and learn them well, and perhaps fewer of them would find themselves in the same situation as the guilty woman. The guardsmen set the chairs they had brought from the castle in the proper place at the left side of the large, flat stone that old Bernivvigar would use as his dais, the customary spot for the Laird of Pryd to bear witness.

When Prydae took the chair center and forward of the others, the customary seat of his father, the gathering predictably began to murmur and whisper among themselves. Prydae stood up and stepped forward. Laird Pryd has bidden me to serve as the voice, the eyes, and the ears of Castle Pryd this evening.

He recognized the importance of this night then, all of a sudden. He was the obvious heir to Pryd Holding, as his two older siblings were female. There were rumors of half brothers, but they were all by women Laird Pryd had never formally recognized as wives, and so had no claim to the throne. The people of the holding had to believe in him as their protector and as their adjudicator. The crowd stirred and went quiet as the minutes turned to an hour. The bonfire marking the clearing before the stone—the signal from Bernivvigar of the significance of this night—burned low, casting them all in dim shadows.

Finally, a tall, lean figure made its way down the forest path and out onto the flat stone. And Bernivvigar was taller than almost any other man in Pryd, standing above six and a half feet.

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He had wild, almost shaggy, gray hair and a long, thin beard that reached halfway down his chest. He wore his simple light green robe, the Samhaist habit, and sandals that revealed his dirty feet and his red-painted toenails. He carried an oaken staff that was nearly as tall as he, with a knobbed end that made it look more akin to a weapon than a walking stick.

A necklace of canine teeth framed his beard and clacked when he walked or when he turned quickly to settle his sharp gaze on one or another of the onlookers. He looked at Prydae only once, gave a slight nod, then squared up to face the general gathering and lifted his arms high. The crowd went completely silent, all eyes turning to the left of the stone, near where the monks were sitting. The crowd parted and a group of men—soldiers of the Laird all—forced a young man and woman forward, prodding them with spears and slapping them with the flat sides of bronze swords.

Another man, a commoner, bearing a sack in one hand and a pole ending in a small noose in the other, came out after them and moved toward the low-burning fire. Prydae gave a profound sigh at the sight of the accused. He knew them, the woman at least, and understood that they were young—younger than he at eighteen by two or three years. Callen Duwornay was her name; he knew her family. She was quite a pretty young thing, and Prydae had many times thought of taking her for a night of his pleasure, as the laird and his offspring were wont and legally entitled to do. Her soft hair was the color of straw, and it hung below her shoulders, cascading from her face in silken layers.

Her eyes were not the customary blue of the folk but a rich brown hue—not dark, but true brown. Her smile was bright and even, and often flashed—there was a life and lustiness about her, a scent of womanhood and enthusiasm that all fit together, in light of these charges, to Prydae. Such a waste, he thought, and he worked earnestly to keep his expression impassive.

He was bearing witness and not passing judgment. Some traditions overruled even the desires of the son of the laird. As soon as her hands were untied, Callen brought them up to brush back the hair from her face, but since she was looking down, it fell right back.

He seemed as if he could hardly draw breath or as if he were about to burst into tears at any moment. And I paid good money for her. Silver coin and three sheep. The crowd began to laugh and taunt, but the monks kept praying, and Prydae did well to keep his composure. Prydae watched him with great interest, noting the emotions tearing at him. The man obviously loved that young woman, and he knew of course what his admission would do to her.

A long minute passed. Oh, but she bewitched me with her charms. She knew she was doomed, Prydae observed. She had gone past hope now, had settled into that resigned state of empty despair. They took the guilty man first, throwing him roughly to the ground.

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Two men sat on him to hold him still, while another pulled off his trousers. The cuckolded husband, meanwhile, went to the bonfire, where a flat-headed iron brand had been set in place, its end now glowing. By the time he lifted it in his gloved hand and turned, the guilty man was staked to the ground. He lay on his back, naked from the waist down and with his legs spread wide and held firmly in place by leather ties. The guilty man began to whimper, and all the louder when the cuckolded husband waved the glowing iron before his wide, horror-filled eyes.

Five times! Prydae had seen several battles in his eighteen years. He had watched men chopped down, squirming and screaming to their deaths. He had seen a woman get cut in half at the waist by a great axe, her top half falling so that she could see her own severed legs, standing there for a long moment before toppling over.

But never in all the battles had the young nobleman heard a shriek as bloodcurdling and earsplitting as that from the man sprawled before him. The man jerked so violently that he yanked one of the stakes from the ground. That hardly did him any good, for as he tried to kick his leg over in an attempt to cover up, he merely brought the tender flesh of his inner thigh against the side of the hot iron. His face locked in a fierce grimace, the wronged husband pressed harder and slapped the flailing leg away.

Finally he stepped back, and the wounded man, sobbing and wailing in agony, flipped his leg over again, trying to curl up. The guards pulled him up from the ground, and when he tried to duck, one kicked him hard in the groin. He doubled over and fell back to the ground, and so they grabbed him by the ankles and unceremoniously dragged him away, through the jeering and laughing crowd, many of whom spat upon him.

When finally it settled again, Bernivvigar turned his hawkish gaze upon Callen once more. A nod from him had the guards eagerly stripping off her clothing. Her breasts were round and full and teasingly upturned, and her belly still had a bit of her girlish fat, just enough to give it an enticing curl.

Again the aggrieved husband went over to the fire, where the handler was preparing the adder, exciting it and angering it by moving it near the hot embers. With a wicked grin, the dirty man handed over the catch stick, its noose now securely holding the two-foot-long copper-colored snake right behind its triangular head. If you have any words of apology or remorse, this is the moment. Now she flailed wildly and struggled, until one of the guards kicked her hard in the back. They drew the drawstring of the sack, and kicked her again for good measure, and she lay there, sobbing quietly.

The crowd began to murmur, urging the husband on; and, indeed, there was a hesitation to his every step toward her. Prydae watched him intently, seeing him pause and imagining the tumult of feelings that must be swirling within him. That hesitation seem to break apart all of a sudden, as the cuckold painted a scowl on his face and moved to the sack with three quick strides.

One of the guards pulled up the tied end, and the other pulled open the mouth of the bag. The cheering grew louder; the husband looked around. With quick hands, the guards helped him force the rest of the squirming snake in, and the husband released one of the drawstrings and pulled back the empty catch-stick. The guard drew tight the string and tied it off, then jumped back, letting the sack fall over. The crowd hushed; Prydae found himself leaning forward in his chair.

For a long while, nothing. There came a slight movement as the snake began to stir. The woman screamed, and the sack began to thrash. They heard her cry out, and a sudden and violent jerk of the sack brought every onlooker to hold his breath and seemed to freeze the scene in place. The sack held still for a moment, then came another jerk, the woman within no doubt reacting to a second bite. And again and again. It went on for many minutes, when finally the bag went still.

The snake handler cautiously moved over and slightly opened the tied end, then jumped well back. Sometime later, the adder slithered out. Prydae sat back in his chair, chilled to the bone. One delicate bare foot had come out of the end and was twisting slowly in the dirt and twitching. Prydae finally managed to turn his eyes and consider the monks. Father Jerak was staring at the departing Samhaist, his expression obviously uncomplimentary. The prince noted the young and stern one, Bathelais, had his arms crossed over his chest, eyes set determinedly.

In times past, the adulteress would often have been spared the sack, with a confession and if she were properly broken of spirit before going in. But now, Prydae understood—as did his father, as did Bernivvigar and the monks of Abelle—this scene was about much more than the life of one pitiful little peasant girl. He tightened his grip on her hand and strode more boldly forward. Soon after, the couple had left all signs of the road behind them and moved along an even less defined trail, where underbrush obscured the cart ruts and great trees crowded overhead.

Even when I left, the beasts were all about. He squeezed her hand again, and they strode off along the forested trail. Bran slept soundly, his chest rising and falling in a smooth, contented rhythm. Their lovemaking had been particularly energetic that night, with Bran almost ferocious in his advances, and as urgent in the act itself as he had been in their first encounter, years before in the Walk of Clouds.

Was he trying to reaffirm his love for her to himself? SenWi had to wonder. Was his insistence of action a way for him to defy the obvious disdainful glances that he knew the two of them would face among his unworldly, even intolerant, people? SenWi smiled the thought away, not over concerned. Had her beloved Bran Dynard felt any more at ease during his first days in Jacintha or among the xenophobic tribes in the desert of Behr?

Had he not been a curiosity of sorts when first he had come to the Walk of Clouds, with his chalky skin and strange ways, his words of Blessed Abelle and magical gemstones? SenWi understood. In making love to her that night, under the stars in the summer breeze, Bran had tried to prove to her that he loved her beyond anything else and that there could be no severing of that tie. And he had tried to prove to himself, she presumed, that the curious and doubting expressions of other people mattered not at all. His sleep was not restless.

She bent low over Bran and kissed him, and he gave a little grumble and rolled onto his side, drawing yet another amused smile from SenWi. She held faith in his love for her, and never doubted her own for him, and she was doubly glad of that now. For she knew. With her Jhesta Tu training, her senses attuned so well to the rhythms of her own body, the mystic knew. She brought a hand down to her belly. She was gaining a better command of the Honce language, for she and Dynard had been speaking that alone for the last week of traveling. She moved around the side of the rocky jut on the hillside to stand beside her husband, and followed his gaze to the distant dark shape of a formidable castle, anchored in the back by a wide, round tower.

The weather had been fine and the company better over the days since they had left the bustle of Ethelbert Holding. It had rained just once, a light sprinkle one dark night, but even in that, SenWi and Bran had huddled and laughed under the sheltering lower boughs of a thick pine, and barely a drop had touched them. The Jhesta Tu mystic had enjoyed the journey as much as her companion. They had laughed—mostly Dynard laughing at her as she struggled to master the language— and basked in the scents and sights of the unspoiled Honce wilderness in the late summer. They had been fortunate thus far, for the only monster or dangerous animal they had encountered was a single adder that slithered into their campsite one night.

Dynard had reached for a stick, but SenWi had intervened, moving low to face the serpent and swaying her hands rhythmically to calm it and entrance it. With a lightning quick strike, the Jhesta Tu had caught the adder in her grasp right behind its head, and had gently carried it far from the camp, where she then had released it.

She remembered now the image of Bran Dynard when she had returned to the camp, as he sat there, shaking his head and grinning widely and chuckling with obvious admiration. Since they had agreed that they need not make Castle Pryd that night, they walked leisurely and on a meandering road, with SenWi often rushing to the side to further explore some interesting sight or sound. For their camp, they chose a bare-topped hillock, and from its apex as the sunlight began to fade they could just make out the southernmost reaches of the new and expanding road, less than a mile away.

Better to take the healing powers of the soul stones to the ends of the land. She was Jhesta Tu, and so she had studied the history of the southern lands of Behr extensively. Many times over the centuries had empires arisen, building roads and marching their armies all about. Most of those roads were lost again now, as were the empires, reclaimed by the desert sands. History moved in circles, the Jhesta Tu believed, a hundred steps forward and ninety-nine backward, so the saying went; and that understanding was based on solid evidence and a collective, often bitter, experience.

How many people through the ages had thought themselves moving toward a better existence, toward paradise itself, only to be thrown back into misery at the whims of a foolish ruler or by the stomping of a conquering invader? SenWi wondered then if the roads of other empires had crossed this land of Honce, ravaged by time and swallowed by regrown forests. She expected as much. Like all Jhesta Tu, she had trained her body to remain alert to external stimuli even in the deepest sleep, and she awakened sometime near midnight to the distant sound of coarse laughter, drifting on the summer breeze.

She saw the flicker of a torch through the trees, perhaps halfway to the firelight glow showing in the windows of Castle Pryd. The commotion and new lights were somewhere down by the end of the road, she figured. She heard Dynard stir and crawl over beside her, where he wearily rose to his knees.

It was more taunting and wicked in timbre. She started off down the northern side of the hillock, pulling her silken shirt about her as she went. Dynard grabbed his clothes and rushed after, not wanting to lose sight of SenWi in the night. The woods could be confusing and disorienting, he knew, but he knew, too, that his wife could find her way unerringly. A few minutes later, the monk found himself crouching behind a bush beside SenWi. She motioned for him to hold his place, and she crept forward toward the flickering torchlight and harsh-toned conversation.

He felt SenWi tense before him, then he moved past so that the scene came into view. A group of five powries stood at the end of the road, prodding, poking, and taunting a young woman, naked and battered, who had been strung up by her wrists, her feet a foot off the ground. One powrie said something Dynard could not understand, and the others began to laugh. The powrie poked her naked belly, sending her into a little swing, and the others laughed again.

Now she did cry out, softly and pitifully, and she tried to wriggle away, but the powrie caught hold of her and slapped his beret against the flowing blood. The other dwarves hooted. SenWi leaped out of the brush, bringing forth her magnificent sword. The powries stared at her for just a moment, then howled and lifted their own weapons. She retracted her sword immediately, then flashed it left to right, parrying a swinging powrie axe.

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SenWi let go and left the sword out there, engaged with the axe, as she spun a tight circle, catching the blade back in her right hand as she came around. Using her momentum, she slid the blade hard across the axe and thrust ahead, forcing the powrie to suck in its belly and scramble back. Across went her sword, slashing the tip from the iron-headed spear and forcing the newest attacker into an overbalanced posture. The other powries came in hard. She spun and she leaped, kicking out and punching as often as thrusting her sword.

Blades came at her from every angle, but she bent and swerved, dodged and parried, with precision. Brother Dynard had hardly registered that his wife had even moved! Still crouched in the brush, he tried to make sense of this whirling and furious combat before him, tried to call out to SenWi.

Up SenWi went above a pair of thrusting spears, and she kicked out, scoring solid hits on the faces of each attacker. Dynard knew that he had to help. He started to come forth, but stopped cold, wondering what in the world he might do. He had no weapon, and even if he had, Dynard understood all too well that he was no match for the average powrie. Dynard brought forth the smooth gray stone and held it up before his eyes. The soul stone. Her fighting was completely defensive now. SenWi ducked and turned from weapons that came in at her from every side.

The dwarves coordinated their attacks well, leaving her little opening, but one of the five was lagging, she noted. In her initial attack, she had hit him hard, her sword digging a deep wound. He was trying to keep up with his four friends, but his thrusts shortened every time, as he winced and curled over that torn side. SenWi wanted to focus on him and finish him off, but the other dwarves had her turning continually.

She leaped over one swiping axe and threw her leg out wide to avoid the stab of a spear.


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As she landed, she brought her forearm up to accept the smack of the spear she had beheaded, for the dwarf was now using it as a club. As her arm connected, she shoved it out wide, then stepped in and stabbed at the dwarf with her sword. But again, she had to pull up short and spin to deflect the charge of another, the dwarf lowering his shoulder and trying to bowl her right over. She hit him with three short jabbing punches to turn him, then crossed hard with the snake hilt of her sword, cracking his jaw. The tough little creature staggered backward but did not fall.

Brother Dynard chanted and clutched his soul stone, trying to find his concentration and his center, seeking his chi so that he could send it fully into the swirling gray depths of the magical stone. He heard his love grunt as a powrie connected with the wooden shaft of its spear, and he opened his eyes. He snapped them shut immediately and concentrated again on the issue at hand. Thus, he had to go out there spiritually. He had to find his center and free his spirit through the use of the soul stone.

The sounds of battle grew distant suddenly, and Dynard felt as if he were falling through cool water. And he was standing there, looking back at himself, on his kneeling physical body. His spirit turned and willed himself forward into the fray. He denied his trained revulsion as he approached one powrie and accepted the invitation of its corporeal form. In he went, against his understanding that this usage of the soul stone—insinuating himself into the body of another free-willed creature—was among the most trying and repugnant possibilities offered by the gemstone.

To possess another was the temptation of the stone and the danger of the stone, and was an act frowned upon by the brothers of Blessed Abelle, an act specifically damned by Abelle himself in his writings. But this time, with SenWi in so difficult a position, Dynard accepted the danger and the moral ambiguity and fought past his revulsion. His spirit dove into the powrie. But for just a moment, the powrie was off guard, confused, and in that split second, Dynard took control. He saw through its eyes; he felt its limbs as if they were his own. He made the dwarf throw its axe to the ground, turn, and leap upon the dwarf nearest him, bearing both to the ground.

He envisioned a dwarvish shadow tearing at the fabric of his own spiritual silhouette. But he held on stubbornly, with willpower and with the dwarf arms he controlled. Her sword went out to the right to block a spear, then she rolled her blade about the weapon repeatedly in rapid succession.

Instead of retracting, the dwarf came forward, but SenWi had anticipated the move. She retracted her arm, then struck straight out, like a serpent, once, then again and again. The dwarf staggered backward.

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SenWi sprang into the air, tucked her legs, and went right over backward as the dwarf opposite her, the wounded one with the knife, charged in with a roar. She landed lightly right behind the creature as it stumbled past, a perfect opportunity to strike hard. The dwarf tried to get its axe up to block, but SenWi seemed one movement ahead of it each time, her sword coming across and down repeatedly.

And she stopped suddenly, reversed her grip on the sword, and thrust it out behind her, just in time to meet the roaring charge of the knife wielder. For a moment, he seemed frozen in time, impaled to the hilt on her blade, and then his eyes slowly turned up to meet hers. He roared and tried to strike, but SenWi whirled and ducked under the blow, moving out to the side of the dwarf, where she gave a great tug on her sword. It tried to cry out, but only a thick flow of blood rushed out of its mouth.


SenWi spun her sword, using its momentum to center her own balance once more as she turned. That dwarf was down and dying; as was the one she had slashed so many times; as was, she was glad to see, the one she had poked thrice. That one was still alive, kneeling and groaning. The other two were up again, off to the side, staring at her incredulously. They turned and ran off.

SenWi took one step to follow, but stopped at once, turning to regard the hanging woman, then glancing over at the bushes where a shaken Dynard came stumbling forth, soul stone in hand. SenWi responded with an absent nod, but was already focusing on and moving toward the woman. She looked up at the rope and then at her sword, but then snapped the sword back into the scabbard across her back, recognizing that the woman was too near death to handle the trauma of a fall.

The Jhesta Tu brought her palms together before her and again fell into that line of energy, that center of power, that ran from the top of her head to her groin. With a deep exhalation, SenWi breathed that power forth into her arms, coursing down to her hands and her trembling fingertips. She felt the heat building in her hands even as she reached out to the dying woman. She felt something then, in the blood, some uncleanliness. She glanced over her shoulder to see an ashen-faced Dynard staring at her wide-eyed. But this is not our province. This justice is the tradition of the land, since long before Blessed Abelle walked the ways of Honce.

In the half century of our Church, we have made some gains and offered some concessions. This is the doing of the Samhaists, who once presided over all the folk as the clerics of Honce. The lairds have not seen fit to change. The woman was convicted, no doubt, and given to the snake. She understood then the sensation of uncleanliness in the blood, for it was rife with poison.

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She swallowed hard and stared at the woman, who seemed more alive, just a bit, as if the healing hands had made some progress. The poor, battered girl gave another little groan. A moment later, to her great relief, Brother Dynard was beside her, soul stone in hand. With a look and helpless smile at SenWi, he pressed his free hand against the woman and began his own healing, using the magical stone. A few moments later, the two looked at each other again, and SenWi nodded and motioned for Dynard to grasp the woman.

SenWi then pulled forth her sword and leaped into the air; and with a sudden and swift strike, she cut the woman free. She helped Dynard guide the poor girl to the ground. Then Dynard picked her up gently in his arms. Nor would Dynard, in all good conscience, even involve the others of his order in this crime. No, this burden was his own.

He was of medium build, a bit shorter than most men, with a shaggy head of black and gray hair, and with several days of beard evident on his face. One of his eyes was quite dead, showing only milky white, but the other held a lustrous bluegray sparkle. Brother Dynard put on a wide smile. The house was built in two parts, with this, the lower level, right at the lakeside, and a higher, drier structure a dozen feet above and farther from the shore, on the higher rocks.

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Back from his travels around the world! He stepped forward and clapped Dynard hard on the shoulder, then wrapped him in a great hug, which Dynard comfortably returned. Garibond leaped back. You must tell me every detail. I—we—met powries dancing about her, ready to take her blood. Probably better that way than from the slow poison of the snake. Your own brothers of Abelle were there in attendance, bearing witness. A moment later, SenWi appeared at his side in the doorway.


My wife. A boy when you left. A man now. A young warrior with as much fight and metal as the father ever knew, who makes his reputation daily against the goblins and the powries. He looked at SenWi and gave a helpless laugh and shake of his head. That explanation did little to alleviate either her confusion or her disdain, however. A short while later, with SenWi tending Callen by the hearth in the upper house, Dynard and Garibond sat opposite each other in comfortable chairs of wood and skins a few feet back, telling the woman of Behr the tales of their long friendship.

The two had been fast friends since childhood, and Garibond had even tried to enter the Church of Abelle at the same time as Dynard. Their friendship had not been as tight when Dynard had returned a few years later, the two explained to SenWi, and they both blamed circumstance and no lessening of their almost-brotherly love. Dynard had been busy in the town and chapel, right up to the time when he had departed for the southland, after all; and Garibond only very rarely went to the town, preferring the solitude of his small farm east of the community.

Poor girl indeed. Garibond shrugged. The name likely meant nothing to anyone north of the mountains, Dynard knew. He spoke with passion and true admiration as he detailed those years spent at the Walk of Clouds with the devoted mystics, and his story lasted until the eastern sky had begun to lighten with the coming dawn. But the land is not tamed—less so than even when you left, I would say. He paused and looked curiously at his friend. Mayhap they think my dirty old blood will soil their berets.

The lairds chose not to confront them, but parlayed instead, granting the dwarves a region of the coast as their own. We have come to regret that generosity. Rumors say that Brother Bathelais has assumed most of his duties now. Nor did it alarm him in any way. He and Bathelais had been friends before he had left, and, from what he knew, Bathelais was possessed of a good heart and a clear mind.

Day by day sees the rise of Prydae. His courage against the powries cannot be dismissed, and the soldiers of Castle Pryd follow him with great loyalty. He is as proud as he is fierce, some say, but whether that will prove a strength or a weakness in these days of change, who can know? Had he ever gone to the place after the monks had turned him away, except on that one occasion to see Dynard off on his mission?

The conversation drifted away then, and so did the three companions, falling into light sleep right where they sat. Dynard looked to SenWi. He looked all about, then reached into his pack and pulled forth his most-prized possession, the transcribed Book of Jhest. He stared at it for a few moments, wondering whether he should reveal it to Father Jerak immediately upon his return to Chapel Pryd. A nagging thought in the back of his head, undefined but forceful, made him reconsider, and he glanced all around. He moved to the back of the two-roomed upper house and pulled open the partially hidden trapdoor, revealing a narrow shaft.

He tenderly wrapped the tome and went down the hole with it. He returned a moment later without the book, to see his two companions, particularly Garibond, watching him intently. Workers and soldiers were all around, some studying the myriad tracks, others looking to the empty pole where Callen had been strung. He noted that the powries had apparently returned after the fight and retrieved the bodies of their fallen. Still, the signs of the struggle clearly remained, a puzzle that the folk milling about the area were trying hard to decipher.

The dress was normal for the land, true, but wearing it, SenWi hardly seemed like any normal Honce citizen. SenWi looked up at him, her typically calm expression telling him all he needed to know. He took her hand and rose, then crossed out onto the open ground before the work area. The soldiers approached cautiously, fanning out to flank the couple. Nods of agreement came from all around and the warriors relaxed. The monk recoiled.

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Too long have I been out on the road. I will speak with Father Jerak, and will come to the summons of Laird Pryd, of course, if I am so called. Dynard took SenWi by the arm and led her along quickly before the soldiers could reconsider, before they perhaps grew more interested in, and concerned about, the weapon strapped across her back. In short order, the couple were long out of sight of the workmen and the soldiers, walking quickly down the road.

Dynard slowed their pace when they came to the outskirts of Pryd Town and in clear sight of Castle Pryd, considering again the expressions on the faces of those folk at the battle scene, looks from soldier and peasant alike, as they regarded his foreign wife. How might his brothers of Abelle respond to her? He wondered if perhaps he should have left SenWi with Garibond. She gave you healing. Callen rose, unsteady for a moment. Garibond nodded at the foot of the bed, where a tunic and traveling cloak were set out.

Callen stared at him for a few moments, then tightened her lips and shook her head. She was afraid, he could plainly see.