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The silver siren, p.4
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       The Silver Siren, p.4

           Chanda Hahn
 

  “Okay, Kael. You lead, I’ll follow.”

  His face erupted into a smile of relief. A smile that rocked me to my very core. I forgot to breathe.

  Kael wrapped his arms around me in a completely unSwordBrotherly fashion and touched forehead to my temple. “Thank you,” he whispered. “Thank you.”

  Chapter 7

  We spent most of the rest of the day on horseback. When we stopped for a drink I switched places. Riding behind Kael, my hands lightly resting on his hips, was awkward at first. But I was tired and emotionally drained from destroying the barn. Frequently, I fell asleep leaning against his warm back. He let me rest and didn’t disturb me, only stopping when I needed a break. I could tell he was in a hurry to get to our destination, so I tried to not call for a rest too often.

  Faraway was tireless, as if he could sense Kael’s impatience, and we covered more ground than should have been possible. We didn’t stop until after the sun had set, and Kael had found a small out cropping against a rock wall.

  Kael dismounted first and without asking, wrapped his hands around my waist to lift me down. My legs were stiff and my back sore from riding in the same position all day, and I was grateful for the extra support from the ground. Stretching out my legs, I walked the perimeter of the camp Kael had chosen. There wasn’t much to shield us from the elements; large boulders and rocks covered most of the terrain other than the large outcropping. There was enough room underneath for two people to sleep if it rained, but we had no supplies. No bedrolls, food, or anything else.

  I turned around looking for Kael but he was gone. “Kael?” I called out.

  No answer. My voice echoed into the night, and the lack of response worried me. At night everything looked larger, darker, scarier. I had to remind myself that I had a SwordBrother nearby. Everyone was scared of them. Faraway had remained silent most of the day and even now had moved off to the edge and looked to be standing guard. I knew that my magnificent horse loved to pretend he was invincible but in fact was far from it. He was probably as exhausted as I was.

  You should find some food. You look terrible, I thought.

  His large equine head turned my way, snuffing at me. I look better than you. I was carrying two today. All you did was sleep.

  I felt myself grin as I took shelter under the ledge and pulled my feet up to my body for warmth. I plan on doing some more of that, I teased, my eyelids growing heavy. I was still recovering from the ordeal. My body needed sustenance and sleep to recover, and since there wasn’t any food, I was choosing the alternative. At least sleeping was better than blacking out.

  Then I’ll wait a few more minutes. He’s almost here.

  Where did he go? I asked yawning.

  It looks likes he went up.

  Up?

  He scaled the rock wall and is now coming down. He’s got a pretty proud look on his face. I’d say he probably found some dinner.

  Great! I’m starving.

  Pebbles began raining down around me and bounced off of the slab overhead to roll a few feet out in front of me. It didn’t take much to visualize his strong body, nimbly scaling down the rock wall above me. I could almost picture the serious expression he would have on his face, his jaw clenched in concentration, his blue eyes underneath a furrowed brow, with a sheen of sweat across his forehead. I imagined his muscles bunching as he neared the bottom, as he prepared to leap the rest of the way. My imagination was almost impeccably timed with Kael’s actual descent.

  He appeared by my side a few seconds later. It was a tighter fit under the ledge for him, and he had to duck his head so he wouldn’t scrape it across the top of the overhang. But he managed to squeeze himself impossibly close to me and pull his knees up like mine. Our sides touched and neither one of us pulled away. My breathing quickened, and I had to concentrate to get it back to a normal rhythm, which was happening more often the more time I spent with him.

  Kael reached into the satchel at his side and pulled out two large brown speckled eggs and handed one to me.

  “Dinner,” he smiled and took out one of his smaller knives that he kept under hidden away. He poked a small hole in the top of the shell, tipped his head back, and sucked. I watched him eat the large egg. When he was done he tossed the empty shell onto the ground.

  “What kind of—” I started to ask, but he shook his head cutting me off.

  “You don’t want to know.” Kael took the large egg out of my hand and with the tip off his knife cut a similar hole.

  I took his suggestion and didn’t dwell on what kind of egg it was. I closed my eyes, plugged my nose in a childish show of being grossed out and tipped my head back. The texture was slimy and I had to calm down the gag reflex. After a few more swallows, I was able to ignore my distaste for the egg and focus on counting instead. I got to twenty, and I was done. I tossed the shell away like Kael’s and gave him an odd grimace.

  “Want another one?” he asked and pulled out another egg.

  “No,” I shook my head and burped. I covered my mouth in embarrassment but Kael only smiled and began to open the other egg. In record time he was done and wiped his hands on his pants.

  “I’ll go see to your horse.”

  “Don’t worry about it. He’s gone.”

  “Gone?” Kael didn’t wait, but scrambled out of the shelter and started running to where he had left Faraway. “We need him. It’s too far to go on foot.”

  “Kael! He’s fine. He’ll be back after he’s found food.” Kael stopped running and stared into the darkness. I could see his indecisiveness. He wanted to track my horse, but he didn’t want to leave me alone.

  A few minutes later, he joined me back under the ledge. Once again he sat unnaturally close to me, but by now I was starting to get cold and craving the warmth of companionship.

  “How far?” I asked, leaving it up to him to decide how much to tell me.

  “We covered more ground today than I thought we would. A few days travel and we’ll be there.” Kael turned his head to look at me, his dark hair looked pitch black in the moonlight. I wanted to reach out and touch it. I kept my hands to myself, wrapping them around my knees.

  “Will you tell me about them? About your family?” He didn’t deny that we were heading to the sacred SwordBrother sanctuary.

  Kael sighed and leaned his head back. “What do you want to know?”

  “Only what you are comfortable sharing. You once mentioned being in love.” Of course I was referring to the story he’d shared in Skyfell.

  He looked at me, a knowing twinkle dancing in his eyes. “Yes I did. Her name was Gwen. We were betrothed. We trained under the same Master. She was the best female fighter, and I was the second best male fighter.”

  “You weren’t the best? I find that hard to believe,” I teased, nudging Kael in the rib with my elbow.

  He didn’t acknowledge the poke, but his face and voice became serious. “No, there was always one who was better than me—stronger, faster. No matter what I did, I couldn’t beat him.”

  “Who was he?”

  Kael’s eyes held a hint of irritation, “My brother.”

  “Oh,” I intoned and thought a moment. “So…there are female SwordBrothers?”

  “Well, not everyone in our clan is meant to grow up and be trained as an elite warrior. We are a clan like any other—we need blacksmiths, tanners, and more—but our heritage calls for the firstborn to be dedicated to our call. The others can choose. Most of the women don’t choose that lifestyle. They choose to marry and have children with the intent to keep our SwordBrother clan filled with strapping young boys, ripe for the initiation.”

  I was about to ask about the initiation but he interrupted me. “It’s a test that all of our prospects that are not firstborn go through. And no, I will not discuss it further.”

  My mouth pressed into a firm line of impatience, and I elbowed him in the stomach, a sign of my displeasure. He didn’t even grunt or make any movement to signify he felt it.

&nbs
p; His dark eyes stared into mine and I could see how desperately he wanted to pour out his heart, his feelings. But I knew that he would recover and close up again.

  I was right.

  Seconds later, his back stiffened and he broke eye contact. “Tomorrow, I have to blindfold you.”

  “What? No!” I argued. “You said we were days away still. You don’t mean to—I can’t possibly—” My heart pounded loudly and I could feel myself start to panic. Without realizing it, I’d grabbed on to his tunic.

  “Thalia.” His warm hands wrapped around mine as he gently pried them off, although he didn’t let go of my hands right away. “I have to protect what is precious to me. No one can know where they are.”

  What is precious to him? They? Was he referring to his family? I silently groaned. Of course he was probably referring to Gwen. A sour feeling hit my stomach and I began to doubt everything. The kiss was an accident. It had to be.

  I nodded in understanding and pulled away. Anger replaced the sour feeling. Anger that after all we had been through Kael couldn’t trust me. That he was going to blindfold me for days—was asking me to go without one of my most important senses. I hated the idea. It would leave me vulnerable. I had to remind myself that thought wasn’t true. I was Thalia Valderstal. I’d killed a small army of Septori just the other night. I—

  Was the reason that the kind farmer and his wife were murdered in their home.

  Guilt was a heavy burden to bear, and at that moment, I decided being blindfolded was nothing compared to living with innocent blood on my hands. I scooted farther from Kael so we were no longer touching, but I could still feel his body heat.

  He watched me, saying nothing. He wouldn’t.

  Just then, a large shadow fell across our feet. I didn’t move, but Kael pulled out a knife, at the ready.

  I heard the shuffling of hooves, as Faraway positioned himself and kneeled down in front of the outcropping. If I stretched out my arm I could touch his white mane. I had been so occupied by my guilt that I hadn’t sensed his approach. He didn’t have to sleep on the ground—it would be much colder for him—but I was grateful for his sacrifice as we could immediately feel the cold night air cut off and replaced by warm equine body heat.

  Kael put away his knife, and I gratefully turned my body so that I could lay my head on Faraway.

  “He came back,” Kael said with a surprised chuckle.

  “Of course. I never doubted it.” I said.

  Kael reached out and patted Faraway’s backside. “Thank you.”

  Faraway turned his large head and stared at Kael, blinking once. That was probably the only communication he would give to him.

  ~~~

  Being blindfolded wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. Kael had taken off the headband he wore to keep the sweat off his brow and unfurled it. He positioned the dark blue material around my eyes. The cloth was slightly rough and it smelled like a sweaty Kael.

  He insisted I ride in front of him so he could make sure I didn’t try to take the blindfold off. It was terribly hot and uncomfortable, and my hands kept wiping away the sweat from under my eyes. And that was what I was grateful for, the freedom of my hands. I was being careful to not lift the blindfold but use the edge of my sleeve to wipe at the drips of sweat.

  His hands came up and would press down over my eyes whenever I did this.

  It was awfully hard not to smile and give away my secret the whole day. After two hours, I had found myself having problems breathing. I kept feeling like every step we were taking we were going to fall off a cliff or slip down an invisible embankment. Impossible, I know, but the imagination can wreak havoc on your senses. An hour later I had given in to the temptation and was now cheating. I stretched out to Faraway and connected with him mind-to-mind, sight-to-sight.

  The feeling of falling stopped as soon as the horizon and the solid earth came into view. I sighed contentedly and relaxed. I could now see everything Faraway did.

  About midday, Kael had turned and started heading southeast. It was slowly getting warmer and the ground became rockier. When we stopped, Kael would forage, hunt, and cook dinner. I disconnected from Faraway during these times, so I spilled frequently and my shirt was a mess. The second night we made camp out in the open, and Kael was nice enough to remove the blindfold so I could sleep.

  As long as I didn’t spend too much time studying the surroundings.

  I stretched out along the ground, surprised at how warm the earth was. Heat slowly radiated from the it, and I didn’t need Faraway’s body heat or anyone else’s. I was amazingly warm, which told me that we were indeed heading farther south. As warm as the ground was, I could only surmise that we were somewhere south of the mountains, near the hot springs.

  The next day by noon, I was no longer warm, but hot. Sitting in front of Kael became almost unbearable. I was now sweating not only through the bandana but through my shirt and back. And I was starting to go crazy from having my eyes covered.

  Loudly, I called a halt and scrambled down from in front of Kael. Kael was worried I was going to take off the blindfold, but I just grabbed at the shoulder seam of my dress and yanked until I heard a satisfying rip.

  I heard Kael’s masculine laugh as I attacked the seams on my other shoulder, until the dress resembled what my own clan wore. We were used to harsh winters and cold climate from living in the mountains. Sleeveless jerkins, dresses, and tunics were common. Now in the opposite, the extreme heat, I couldn’t handle it. Stifling.

  The slight breeze danced across my now bare skin and I felt slightly cooler. I plopped down on the ground and reached for the hem of my skirt. Hands touched mine, and I jumped as Kael placed a small blade in my hand. I used the knife to take a hand’s length off of the bottom. Enough I would feel a breeze when riding, but not enough to be indecent.

  “You continue to surprise me.” Kael spoke softly and helped get me situated on my horse again.

  “I continue to surprise myself,” I said. I’d probably regret this later. After all, I hadn’t gotten many dresses from Skyfell, but for now it felt good.

  Later that day we rode toward a large red rock formation that looked like a fist being shaken angrily at the sky. I was careful to keep my head down as I studied the unique landmark. We continued to head toward the fist as our paths started to ascend. I could smell...something odd. Sulfur? We must be closer to the hot springs. Kael must know that I would be able to figure out where he was going based on the temperature and smells. So why did he still continue to blindfold me? What wasn’t he telling me?

  “Talk to me.” I said.

  “What do you want to know?”

  “Anything, everything. How did you become captured by the Septori all those months ago?

  Kael stilled, and I felt embarrassed by my insistence. I had let him hide behind walls to long. It was time to start breaking them down.

  “Or not. But I thought after all we’ve been through, I at least deserved the story.”

  “It’s not a pleasant story, and it doesn’t have a happy ending,” he whispered under his breath.

  “What story does? But I’m sure it has a great hero in it, and daring escapes and a damsel in distress,” I teased referring to myself.

  “Aye, that’s true. You always did cause me lots of distress,” he spoke slowly. “I had chosen Gwen to be my bondmate, and she agreed. We were happy—at least I thought were. We had set a date, and the closer it came to our union date, the more distant she became. I had no clue that her feelings were changing. Until I found them one evening, hiding in the shadows wrapped in a heated embrace. I was furious. I wanted to kill the man she was with. In anger and without thinking, I challenged him to a battle of honor, to the death. He stepped out of the shadows and I was confronted with my older brother Alek.”

  “No!” I gasped out. “What did you do?”

  “Gwen came to me and begged me to leave. She was sorry, but she didn’t want either one of us to die. If I didn’t leave our cl
an, I would be bound to fight to the death, and I told you, I always lost to my brother. So instead of staying and facing my death with honor, I left in the night. I shamed my clan, I shamed my family, and the choices I made stripped me of my title. When you first asked me all those months ago if I was someone important, I told you the truth. I was no one. It’s why I took the job training the Denai at the school.”

  “Where did you go when you left?”

  “I wandered for weeks, trying to find my honor again.”

  “Kael, you can’t be serious.” I said in disbelief.

  “Because the Valley of Swords was no longer my home. I couldn’t go back, because I was disgraced. I became a sword for hire—only the first job I took, I ended up drugged and in an underground facility. And you know the rest.”

  “So why are we going back now?”

  “Because I need to explain what has happened between you and me—the bond—to my clan. The clan members must be warned against others being blood-bonded against their will.

  “What do you think is coming, Kael? What do you know that I don’t?”

  “That the time is coming for the SwordBrothers to come out of hiding.”

  Chapter 8

  We were in a canyon or what felt like one. Steep cliffs rose high on either side of us and different veins would break off. He took the first fork right, the third left fork, a second right. There was no way to tell where we were going, and I doubt I could get out again without his help. The walls were so close that I could reach out and touch them on either side, but I was proud of my restraint.

  “Thalia,” Kael spoke softly into my ear, “I know that you are smart enough to know where we are, and you’ve probably now know enough to make it back, but please, for once in your life, play dumb.”

  “I have no idea what you are talking about. And why should I play dumb Kael, what is the big idea—” Something shot into the ground in front of Faraway, startling him and making him rear up in fright. There was too much weight with both of us riding double. I felt Kael slide off Faraway’s back. Kael hit the ground hard, and I landed on him. In Faraway’s panic, I lost the connection with his mind. Now I was blind and terrified. I heard my horse’s scream and froze.

 
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