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The silver siren, p.5
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       The Silver Siren, p.5

           Chanda Hahn
 

  I blinked and tried to make out what was happening, but I was still dazed from our severed sight connection. I crawled forward off of Kael. Another large shadow covered the small canyon and Kael shouted, “Watch out!”

  I lifted the blindfold off of my eyes in time to see Faraway’s large body on his rear quarters start to fall over backward toward me.

  Strong hands gripped me under my arms and yanked. The back of my legs scraped against the gravel and I cried out as Faraway fell onto the ground where I’d been lying only seconds ago. He twisted, turned, and tried to get his feet under him. I could see the terror in his eyes, but the canyon was impossibly narrow and perfect for an ambush. Someone came up behind us and pressed a knife to Kael’s throat. A similar brush of cold steel touched my neck.

  I froze.

  “Whose sword do you die for?” a raspy voice called out.

  I turned to look at the man clothed in black. His pants, shirt, and boots were black. His face was covered by a black mask as well. I could see a bandolier of weapons, but even the silver of the weapons were painted a matte black to keep them from glinting in the sun. Four more silhouettes of black stood behind him. I turned my head and followed the knife at my throat up the arm to my own attacker.

  He was smaller than the others by a good ten inches, and I stared up at the mask. Like the other man, this person’s face was wrapped with black except for the eyes. Oh. I was surprised at how much hate radiated out of those very feminine brown eyes. My captor was female.

  Kael’s strong voice answered the question without wavering. “My own.”

  “Whose land do you die for?” A second question came forth from the same man.

  “The land of the free.”

  “Welcome home, brother.” The man stepped back from Kael and withdrew his knife.

  “Alek?” Kael said.

  It took a few seconds for the woman who held the knife at my throat to back away, and I couldn’t help but feel her gaze on me long after I stood up. Her knife disappeared into the folds of her clothes and her hands gripped my forearm painfully. I knew better than to fight until Kael had given me an all-clear signal.

  I glanced over to Faraway and studied his legs and muscles for injuries. He limped a little and had a few cuts and scrapes but he appeared fine otherwise.

  It takes more than a fall to take me down, he said. I’ll be fine.

  Kael and the man spoke quietly with each other. I could see the stranger cast furtive glances over at me and shake his head furiously. Kael’s voice didn’t raise but I could see how angry he was. His body stiffened, his face deadpanned, and he barely moved.

  What’s going on? You’re closer to them.

  They’re arguing over you.

  Me?

  Yes, it is against clan laws for outsiders to come to the sanctuary. Ever. The one that Kael is talking to seems to be his brother.

  The woman holding my arm called out to them in a foreign tongue. An ancient tongue. I could only recognize a few words.

  Oh. It was beginning to make sense—all of the precautions, why Kael didn’t want to tell me where we were going.

  What Kael did is punishable by death. Faraway answered back.

  No. They wouldn’t kill their own member.

  Thalia, it’s not Kael’s life they are arguing over. It’s yours.

  Chapter 9

  Everything became crisp, clear, finite—the sounds of SwordBrothers closing in around me, knives being unsheathed and raised. Words heatedly passed back and forth between Kael and his brother. My captor’s hand pressed into my forearm. Even the sound of my blood rushing loudly within my ears heightened. My world stopped, froze, and all I could do was exhale. I concentrated on breathing and watching as my fate unfolded before me.

  Kael’s brother took off his hood and they stood face to face. He was a taller, more angular version of Kael. His features were more prominent. Whereas Kael’s hair was dark and long to his ears, his brother’s was lighter in color and cropped shorter. I couldn’t see the shade of his eyes, and I briefly wondered if they turned colors the way Kael’s did when he was angry.

  I didn’t have to wait long, because he turned and gave me the full focus of his deep green-gold fury. His hand rested close to his knife as he gave a short bark of command to my captor. She released my arm, and I ignored both the pain and the desire to rub the area where she had touched me. Kael stepped in front of me, his face once again devoid of emotion. I had no clue what had been decided, and he obviously wasn’t going to give me any hints.

  But then he grabbed my arm and glared angrily at the woman who had just released me. A glare that I had been the recipient of on more than one occasion.

  “Are you hurt?” Kael asked. His eyes met mine and then flicked away toward the tall woman again. A second of regret flickered across his face. He continued to watch her as she moved to speak to his brother. I didn’t have to be a genius to figure I had just met Gwen.

  “No. I’m fine,” I said stiffly. “Nice family reunion.”

  Kael looked back to me and frowned.

  We were moving, or rather being forced to walk, down a narrow ledge barely large enough for a horse. Kael walked in front of me, his head held high, though I knew he watched his clan members warily. He was tense. Everyone was tense. My only consolation was that I didn’t have to wear the stupid blindfold again.

  But…maybe the reason I didn’t need to wear the blindfold was because I wouldn’t be alive much longer. My stomach plummeted.

  I wanted to ask Kael questions, but when we had turned a corner and entered a cave, he shot me a worried glance. All questions died on my lips, and I started to look for an escape route. The cave was only dark for a few hundred feet as it emptied us into a deep large valley. Lush trees and a small winding river filled the oasis. On the far side were towering pagodas, barely discernible against the surprising green when all I had seen for miles was brown and parched. This was it—the hidden camp of the SwordBrothers. We had tracked through barren lands and shale mountains through a land of nothing, where no one wanted to live.

  But in the middle of nowhere was life.

  From the higher view point, I was able to see the difference in the structure and design of the buildings. Many were large, possibly homes meant to hold more than one family with a central courtyard. They had sliding doors covered in rice paper, which were currently opened. That must be for allowing a cross breeze and battle the heat.

  The houses were built in groupings like the one I passed. Banners and flags of yellow and gold waved in the air and along the streets. We turned south down a packed dirt road, and I saw a high stone archway with two swords crossed above it, as if in battle. Through the stone arch, I saw what appeared to be a training arena. Bamboo mats lined the floor and racks of weapons were displayed. I watched with interest as two young men sparred, craning my neck to follow them. But we kept moving.

  People heard our group returning and more gathered around to greet them. A few called out to Kael in recognition, but they soon dropped their hand and turned away—when they saw me. Loud whispering and murmurs followed us. We were led into the largest house. Kael stayed close to me, even causing others to step around him, as he patiently waited for me to enter the dwelling.

  With Kael by my side I felt secure, so I entered, holding my head high. An old woman sat cross-legged on a mat, a small delicate tea set before her. Her eyes were closed in sleep or deep concentration. She didn’t move a muscle or even acknowledge the gathering now descended upon her.

  Kael was the first to kneel before the woman. He bowed his head, touching the floor. Others followed, but I stood there awkwardly, unsure of their customs.

  Instead, I focused on the old woman. Her long white hair, braided and draped over one shoulder, was a sharp contrast against the light blue of her wraps. I was fascinated by what looked like a silver sleigh bell attached to the white and gray trim on each of her sleeves.

  “Would you like some tea?” She spoke wit
hout opening her eyes.

  I really didn’t want any tea, but thought it would be impolite to say so.

  “Yes, please,” I answered.

  Her small arm slid forward out of her sleeve and reached for the handle of the white patterned teapot. She filled the ceramic cup to the brim with green tea, and I wondered how I would drink it without spilling any. I watched the bells on her sleeves. Her movements were not necessarily slow, just very balanced.

  Neither bell made a sound.

  The woman replaced the kettle and picked up the dainty teacup and saucer and handed both to me without making a single bell ring.

  The tea cup was warm in my hands and the aroma was relaxing, but again I was left with the problem of drinking it without spilling. I could slurp the top off but that would be crude. Instead, I held the cup up in the air with uncertainty. My own hands were shaking, and the liquid splashed over the top of the cup. The cup rattled loudly against the saucer.

  Out of the corner of my eye I could see Kael on his knees before the woman, his posture stiff. The corner of his mouth made the lightest twitch. Was he laughing at me?

  Carefully, I placed the cup in front of Kael giving him the overly full cup of tea.

  Kael’s eyebrows furrowed in confusion.

  “May I?” I gestured to the tea pot and cups.

  She nodded.

  As politely as I could, I picked up the teapot and poured two cups half full. I replaced the kettle and handed one cup to the old woman, taking one manageable cup of tea for myself. Kael was now left staring at the same overflowing cup of tea that I had—and the same perplexing problem. Without waiting for prompting, I lifted the cup took a small sip and was instantly refreshed by the flavor.

  I glanced over at Kael and his full cup. “Is there something wrong with the tea Kael? I happen to think it’s wonderful.”

  Kael leaned forward and picked up the small cup, dwarfed by his large hands.

  He was about to attempt to take a sip off the top when the old woman clapped her hands and laughed loudly, her chuckle somewhere between a rasp and a wheeze.

  Other SwordBrothers joined in the laughter.

  Her shoulders shook mercilessly and her face turned pink in color. “Stop, enough! My heart can’t take much more.”

  The laughter from the others died down in the room, and Kael gave me a very proud look.

  The old woman wiped the tears out of the corner of her eyes and beamed at me. “My name is Alba, and never before has someone solved the tea test the way you did.”

  “This was a test?”

  “Yes, everything’s a test. If you are not constantly tested, then how will you expect to pass? Even life is a test. Only at the end will we find out if we have fulfilled our destiny accordingly.”

  I pointed to her sleeves. “So the bells? Are they also a test, or is that so they can hear you coming?” More laughter came from behind me, from the direction of the SwordBrothers.

  She smiled again. “Yes, this is a test of patience and balance. Learning to move about the world by not disturbing it.” Her pale hands rose again, and I watched as she spun them and intertwined her hands in a theatrical way, but one that looked very similar to a disarming technique that Kael had taught me.

  “Or a skill learned by a SwordBrother to make them a better assassin?” I crossed my arms and gave her a disbelieving look. I couldn’t help but picture Kael learning this as a young boy. No wonder he was so stealthy.

  Alba shrugged her small shoulders. “That too.”

  I bit the inside of my cheek to keep from chuckling. I could hear more stifled laughs behind me, and Kael put his cup down and watched our conversation with renewed interest. He still hadn’t spoken a single word, so I was beginning to feel nervous about my situation again. Why was I here?

  Alba didn’t seem to notice my discomfort but continued with her reading of my teacup test. “Such interesting problem solving skills you have. It speaks much of the way you live your life.”

  “How can the way I drink tea or not drink tea tell you anything about my life?” I had heard of some people reading tea leaves for fortunes but this was different.

  The elderly woman took a sip of the tea, her smile spreading. “To fill the cup to overflowing is a faux pas. It is considered bad manners on my part, but seeing how you deal with the problem of the overflowing cup tells me much about you. If you had leaned forward and sipped off the top of the cup, then I would know you are a hurried individual, but brave. The first to lead the charge, though prone to anger and rash decisions.”

  I turned and gave Kael a thoughtful look. He continued to smile, silently refusing to give me any kind of signal as to what he had done when he was first tested.

  The old woman continued. “If you had poured off the excess, then I would say you are a spirited individual who makes decisions based off of need rather than thought. If you used a spoon to drink off the extra, then you are a thoughtful problem solver. If you set the tea in front of you and never take a sip, then I can tell you are cautious, and fear of failure can be a major obstacle in your life.”

  “But what of Thalia’s choice?” Kael spoke up.

  With the speed of a cobra, a fan appeared out of Alba’s sleeve and she swatted Kael on the top of the head. He winced and bowed it again in subservience.

  “And you still haven’t changed! Can’t even wait for the end of the story. Why did it not surprise me that you slurped the tea, during your test?” Alba gave Kael a fond glare and slipped her fan back into her overly large sleeve. Again there was a lack of tinkling.

  I was afraid to speak after her exchange with Kael. Would she whack me with a fan? She settled back down and refused to go on. Part of me wanted to ask, another wanted to sit quietly and wait till she spoke first. But the third part wanted to get up and walk out. Just leave this whole farce behind. I chose a fourth option.

  Without being obvious, I sent a thread of power to the bell closest to me and knocked it hard. It didn’t make a sound, so I was somewhat confused.

  “Impatient and a bit rude, aren’t you?” She looked at me full in the face. She knew what I had done.

  “I picked up a few traits from a certain SwordBrother,” I said.

  “Very well, then. I’ll tell you. There was only one other person that I know of that served someone else the tea. That was me.”

  Alek spoke up from behind Kael. “Alba, you never told us that.”

  “Of course not. Why would I tell you? You didn’t choose that method, now did you,” she chastised. “Your choice, Thalia, tells me you don’t wait for others to tell you what to do. You forge your own path and make your own choices, but you are rarely prepared for the consequences.”

  I swallowed as a cold finger of fear ran up my spine. She could be guessing.

  Alba turned and addressed Kael. “Now your actions, Kael, on the other hand—abandoning your brethren and family, forsaking your calling, bringing outsiders into the sanctuary—these are all serious offenses. You know this. You know that no one is allowed to know where we live, and despite how charming this one may seem, she is still an enemy. Not one of us, nor born of us.”

  “No, you’re wrong. I’ve been training her in our ways. She’s strong. I think, given time, she could adapt to living here and be one of us.” Kael had jumped out of his kneeling position and was standing over Alba.

  I gasped. Not once had Kael ever mentioned the possibility of us not leaving.

  Alba shook her head sadly. I looked over my shoulder and watched Alek’s and Gwen’s reactions. Alek was stone-faced with anger. Gwen looked hurt and confused. So much for the lighthearted laughter from earlier.

  “Kael, you know the laws we live by. She can’t stay. We’re not even supposed to let her to live.”

  The sound of swords being drawn made me jump to my feet. I took a defensive stance and stepped away from the delicate tea set to where I would have more room to fight and keep my back to a wall. Alek and Gwen had not moved an inch, but a fe
w of the other SwordBrothers had moved forward to surround me.

  I did not want to fight and kill Kael’s people.

  “Then my life for hers,” Kael answered back. His voice rang deep with anger. He strode over and stood in front of me. I assumed he was reaching for his dagger from his bandolier, but instead I watched as he unfastened the leather buckle and began to disarm himself. He wrapped up the bandolier with the knives, took his knife out of his boot, and placed everything in a neat pile on the floor.

  He turned to face me, his deep, dark eyes filled with pain. “I’m sorry, Thalia. I had hoped we would have a different reception.” He reached forward and gently brushed my cheek with his thumb. Alek stepped up behind Kael and pulled his wrist away from my face, bracing it behind Kael’s back. Others came forward to secure the SwordBrother, but all I could do was stand there frozen in shock. This couldn’t really be happening.

  His hands were manacled and chains put around his feet. He wouldn’t look at me. He wouldn’t raise those beautiful stormy blue eyes to even try and tell me that we would be okay.

  “No!” I turned back to Alba. “You can’t do this! I didn’t know that by coming here, I was putting anyone’s life in danger—mine or Kael’s. You must reconsider.” I kneeled on the floor before her and bowed low, my forehead touching the cold wood floor as I pleaded for Kael’s life. “I can’t let him die for me.”

  “Child, why are you so upset over this one? If it wasn’t him, it would be you.”

  “Because he saved me,” I cried out. My chest felt heavy with emotion. “Over and over again he saved me. I owe him my life. And frankly, if he died right now because of this, I would never be able to forgive him. I would hate him till the day I died.”

  Alba shook her head at my stubborness. “If it’s not death, then his punishment at dawn is to the very brink. Tortured and beaten till he wished for death. Would that suit you?”

 
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