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The steele wolf, p.8
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       The Steele Wolf, p.8

           Chanda Hahn
 
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  “You were having a nightmare,” he said, interrupting my revelation.

  I nodded my head, unable to speak, as the tremors from my dream rocked my body, making me shake.

  “Brush it off,” he demanded. “You’re awake now. Whatever it was, it can't hurt you.”

  Sitting there quietly, I let myself adjust from waking up from a nightmare and almost being smothered to realizing that Kael was in my room. The shock of it made me stare at him in confusion.

  “What are you do—” I started to ask and then jumped to a different train of thought as I started to piece things together. “It was you fighting in the tournament today, wasn't it?” I found the strength to sit up in bed. “I wasn't imagining things. It’s been you the whole time. You saw me in the stable. You insulted me in the main hall. I hardly believe it.”

  Backing away from me, he sat on the edge of my bed. “Yes. And you were fighting as well.”

  “You stink!” I spoke without thinking.

  He looked at me and raised his eyebrow in question. “Well, so would you if you had to wear so many animal furs and were trying to impersonate one of your Stahler clansmen. I take it you haven't gotten close to many of them, because truthfully I did too good of a job; I fit right in. I infiltrated their party the day before they got to your village. Pretty easy; they aren’t that bright. All I had to do was listen and pretend to be drunk until I learned their heavy accent.” He grinned.

  This was a side of Kael that I hadn’t seen before and I wasn’t sure what to make of this nonchalant attitude. Maybe it was because we weren’t at the Citadel or maybe it was because Joss wasn’t here.

  I gave him a look of pure disgust as I got up and moved to my small fireplace and lit a fire. I had begun to get goose bumps from the night air that was let in by the window. But I refused to close it, because then I would be enclosed in the room with him. When the small fire was roaring away, I looked at him intently.

  “Why are you here?” I asked, tilting my head to the side.

  “I’m here because I don't take orders from you.”

  “No; I mean, why did you come to Valdyrstal? After we escaped the iron butterfly and prison, you could have gone home but you didn’t. You showed up in Calandry and now, here.”

  “I had to.”

  “What do you mean you had to? From what I’ve read about your clan, no one can make you do anything if you don’t want to do it.”

  “From what you’ve read?” He smirked, shaking his head as he walked past me to the bench by the window. He sat in my favorite spot and pulled one knee up and the other lay extended. He stared out into the darkness, and the moon illuminated his face. Looking at me, he crossed his arms and raised one eyebrow.

  “So you think that if you read some book that is probably full of lies, by the way, it would explain everything there is to know about a person? About me?” He rolled his eyes. “The things in whatever book you’re reading don’t apply to me anymore.” Looking across the village his voice deepened to a whisper. “I can hardly call myself a SwordBrother.”

  “Of course you are.”

  “How would you know; you’re not a SwordBrother, now are you?” he said sarcastically. “A SwordBrother wouldn’t have let himself get captured and drugged. A SwordBrother vows to protect the weak, which I was unable to do until it was too late.” He looked at me pointedly. “Listen, I didn’t forget my past like you so conveniently did. Now I wish I could.”

  “You think losing yourself, losing your memories, is convenient? You’re wrong.”

  “I know what happened down there. You think I’m some hero when I’m not. I couldn’t even save the boy, Tym. I found his body outside of the stable in the dark; he had been stabbed in the back.”

  Sitting on a small wooden chair by the fire, I looked across the room to him. He was angry, his jaw clenching and unclenching in his familiar way. His left hand flexed in anxiousness as if he longed to clutch a knife that I knew he had hidden somewhere on his body. My heart lurched at the reminder that Tym had only tasted freedom for a few minutes, but at least he was free now from the Septori.

  “But you saved me. That should count for something.”

  “Yeah, you would think so, huh. But it doesn’t. I have to save you.”

  “What did you mean you have to save me? And you never answered the question. Why did you come here to Valdyrstal?”

  “Because of you.” He spat the words out and glared at me. Here was the side of Kael that I was used to—the angry side.

  Those words spoken from Joss would have melted my heart, and if Kael had said them in any other way, I probably would have smiled. But the animosity that was behind those words made me sit up, legs extended as if I was going to bolt.

  “You didn’t have to come here. I was fine. I still am. You can leave anytime; the door is right there. In fact, I will help you out.” I moved to the door.

  “No!” Kael jumped up and then slowly sat down. After a few minutes, he continued. “I tried to go home after we escaped. I did. I made it out of the barn and looked around and saw that the horses were gone, so I figured you were gone and took off on foot towards home. I began to feel an intense pain, and there was a strong pull on me towards the river and not home. I tried to fight it but the pain overcame me and wouldn't leave until I followed this strange pull.”

  He started to pick at a splinter on the windowsill, and I waited patiently until he was ready to go on.

  “So I followed the river until I came to the signs of a camp.”

  “But Darren and Joss hid any signs that we had camped there.”

  “They were hidden and only a SwordBrother would have noticed the signs. Your friend, this Darren, did very well.”

  Smiling in relief, I began to relax. “Good.”

  “I tried everything. All of my Clan’s herbal remedies and pain medicines, and nothing worked. I was covered with sweat and started to shake, and it didn’t release my body until I took off in the direction that you three had gone. I followed you to the Inn, and I was fine again. The next day I waited until all three of you left, and again the agonizing pain came back. I had no choice but to follow you three to Calandry.” He stood up and walked over to me by the fire. Putting his hands on the back of the chair, he leaned down and whispered to me.

  “It’s you.”

  I paled at his words; my mouth tried to form a rebuttal, but I couldn’t.

  “I can’t be more than a few miles from you without being brought down in agonizing pain.” His fingers dug into the wood of the chair in anger. I jumped up and moved to the fireplace, putting as much distance as I could between us.

  He grabbed a vase of roses off of the end table and threw it into the fire, the vase exploding into pieces and the water caused the fire to pop and boil. I watched as the roses caught fire and turned brown and then withered up into nothingness.

  “I’m so sorry, Kael.” Tears started to form in my eyes and I tried to turn away from him so he wouldn’t see me cry. “They must have done something to us in the prison.”

  “They did. The Septori bloodbonded us.”

  “Bloodbonded?” It took me a moment as I tried to process what Kael said. It came down to the book I borrowed from Adept Kambel. There was a chapter in the book that explained how SwordBrothers were the bodyguards of the Kings and Queens. The bravest SwordBrothers could choose to be bloodsworn to their charge through a process called bloodbonding. It would tie the people’s souls together. Sometimes, a royal would have up to three sworn SwordBrothers. Then, the SwordBrother would always be able to track their charge wherever they went. But if something happened and their charged died, the SwordBrother would inevitably die too.

  “But I thought SwordBrothers don’t do that anymore.”

  “Of course we don’t!” Kael huffed. “Not since one paranoid king many years ago, in a maddening fit had hundreds of SwordBrothers bloodsworn to him. You can imagine what happened next. He kept sending us into battle for him, using us as his
personal assassins to kill the children of his enemies. The horror stories are true, Thalia. The ones you heard about SwordBrothers being evil. It’s because the King forced us to be that way.”

  “That is horrible! I can’t believe someone would do that to the SwordBrothers.”

  “It’s one thing to choose to be bloodsworn of someone. It’s quite another to have that choice taken away from you.”

  “What happened?”

  “The SwordBrothers code of honor was broken and they couldn’t live with themselves. Finally, one of the king’s own bloodsworn, a man named Lake, was able to free the hundreds of SwordBrothers bonded to the king.”

  “He did? That’s fantastic, how did he do it?” I was getting excited. I hadn’t read this part in the book. I didn’t know there was a way to undo the bloodbonding.

  “He killed the King of Sinnendor.”

  My mouth dropped open in shock. When Lake killed the king, he also simultaneously killed the bloodsworn and himself, and that meant that the SwordBrothers were originally from Sinnendor, like my family.

  “He freed hundreds of souls and prevented more wars. And because of that one king, the few remaining unsworn SwordBrothers and their families disappeared. They went into hiding, refusing to be bloodsworn again.”

  “And that is why, your clan is in hiding to this day. And you think that is what the Septori did to us?”

  “I’m not sure. Everything between us feels like I’m bloodsworn to you, but I don’t know how they would have gotten the knowledge to do it. We destroyed all of the books and history when Lake killed the king.”

  “I’m sorry,” I whispered.

  “Do you understand now? I’m free from the Septori but now I’m tied to someone who seems to have some sort of death wish.” He chuckled sardonically.

  “Is that why you wanted to kill me?” I asked and understanding finally dawned on me.

  “Yes.” He grabbed his head in frustration and stormed around the room and then stopped, dropping his hands in defeat. “And no. I want to go home to my family and friends.”

  The word family made me wonder if Kael had a wife back home. He was certainly old enough to marry. A sour feeling hit the bottom of my stomach at the thought of Kael bonded to someone.

  “But then I’m scared because I don’t know what would happen to me if you died. Would I die? If I am truly Bloodsworn to you, then I would. But I don’t know if it is the same kind. It feels like it, which makes me wonder. SwordBrothers don’t feel fear. We are taught that to fear is to hesitate and to hesitate is to die.”

  “Maybe there is a way to reverse it,” I said, trying hard to not cry.

  “If there was a way to do it, we would have done it hundreds of years ago instead of committing mass suicide. But I don’t know. I had hoped to find the answers with the Adepts. So I presented myself to Adept Pax and he thought of ways to pay me for my services so I could stay close to you and test our boundaries. And then you told me quite emphatically to get lost and that you never wanted to see me again.” He rubbed the back of his head to remind me of our parting ways.

  “Yes, I did, didn’t I.” I chewed on the bottom of my lip, feeling terrible.

  “Well, you can see how that’s going to be a problem. Not to mention that you decided to go run off to the Shadow Mountains. I didn't even know that you had left the Citadel until the bloodbond kicked in, sending me reeling in pain. I took a horse from the stable and I left the next day. I followed the pull until I found you, knowing that you would somehow get yourself into trouble again.” He snorted and rolled his eyes. “Only this time, it was some sort of contest in which you were giving yourself away.”

  “That reminds me,” I interrupted. “If it was such a stupid contest, why did you enter it?”

  “To stop you from having to marry the winner, of course.” He raised his hands palm up and the look on his face bespoke truth. “Why else? If you had to marry the winner, then you would be forced to stay here and get married. I can't let that happen.”

  “What do you mean, you can't let that happen?” I argued, feeling my famous temper start to rise at his nonchalant attitude. “What gives you the right to decide my future?”

  “Everything,” he yelled out. “Because I am tied to you until we reverse this. So right now, your future includes me. I need you free and not tied down to travel and find a way to break this curse. And once the bloodbond is broken, you can then be free to make whatever stupid mistakes you want to with your own life.”

  “What if I don't want to help you?” I said in anger, because I hated that he was deciding my future without even asking me. “What if I want to stay and marry and rule my clan?”

  “You want to marry the brute that did this to you?” He said in disbelief, pointing to my face.

  My chin jutted out in defiance, and without thinking I blurted out, “It's better than the alternative.”

  He snickered. “Ha! I'm not that bad. I'm not even going to marry you. So what if I win, I just delay your plan a little bit. You can have another stupid Kragh Aru tournament in a year, after you've helped me.”

  That wasn't the point; he didn't understand my feelings of trying to prove to my family that I was strong enough to run the clan by myself. He didn't even ask me why I had entered the competition. I was too tired to fight with him, and I was getting more annoyed with him every minute; plus I was feeling overwhelmed.

  “Well, your plan will only work if you win tomorrow,” I said slowly, trying not to betray my feelings in my voice. He looked at my change in mood with confusion and started walking towards me.

  He lifted my chin and saw the tears that I wasn’t able to hide from him. Brushing them away with his thumb, I felt a small jolt of electricity at his touch.

  “I don’t like to be tied down.” He then copied the same movement that Joss did weeks ago and ran his roughened thumb over my lips. The spark was undeniable, even if it was obviously only one sided. His eyes narrowed and were void of emotion.

  “Please…leave,” my voice had become husky with warring emotions.

  “And go where? You’ve imprisoned me,” he whispered.

  I turned my face away and he dropped his hand as if I had stung him. Kael walked to door and let himself out. The door closed with a soft click.

  My legs felt like rubber and I slowly collapsed to the floor in front of the fire. I realized that his stealth abilities would let him sneak by anyone downstairs without being caught. In fact, he probably liked the challenge. Lying with my cheek pressed against the soft rug, my fingers grasped hold of it. I stared at the flickering fire and let the tears flow.

  I cried silently for the pain that I had seen in Kael’s eyes at his inability to be free of me, I cried the tears that I knew Kael himself would never shed.

  Chapter 13

  The scream of a horse woke me a few hours after Kael left. This night was bound and determined to never end. I rolled over on the rug by the fire and noticed that it had died down to a mere burning ember. So if my fire had burned out, why was my room still alit with a glow? Then, the scent of burning hay reached my nose and the sound of another horse screaming made me jump up in panic. Something was on fire.

  Quickly donning my clothes, I looked outside and could see flames in the distance through the trees, dancing on the rooftop of Aldo's house and barn. My first concern was my horse.

  Faraway?

  I'm okay, I'm in the field, he responded. I wanted to be near our new friend.

  Breathing a sigh of relief that he was safe, I rushed into the hall and half slid, half fell down the steps and caught myself at the last moment, but not before spraining my ankle.

  “Father!” I yelled through the house.

  “He's not here,” a soft feminine voice echoed from downstairs. “He's already outside helping the others.” The voice became louder as it got closer and Siobhan turned the corner and came into view. Her eyes were red rimmed and puffy as if she had been crying. “I've come to help you.”
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br />   “Are you okay, cousin?” I asked in concern.

  Shaking her head, she came closer. “I'm sorry,” she said. “Aldo's dead.”

  “What? I don't understand.”

  “It was the fire,” she cried, starting to hiccup. “He died while trying to save the stupid horses. Now the fire has spread to the next house, and everyone is trying to contain it. We must leave, cousin, because if they can't then your house is next. Your father wants you safely away.” She came over to me and I tried to stand but cried out as I put weight on my ankle.

  Stupid, stupid stupid, I thought angrily at myself. “I'm gonna need help.”

  Siobhan quickly wrapped her arm around my shoulder and helped me stand and walk towards the back door. It was when she was standing shoulder to shoulder to me that I noticed a fresh bruise on her face, but didn't comment on it as she deftly led me out.

  The noise, light and heat from the fire were definitely weaker at the back of the house. I let Siobhan lead me away from the fire and into the dark. I could hear the sounds of people and animals crying out.

  “How much farther?” I asked, as I limped along.

  “I'm sorry, Thalia. Not much farther,” she went on.

  “Siobhan, I never got a chance to apologize for how I treated you over the years. I really don't remember it too much, but Father says I was downright horrible.”

  She froze mid step and listened. I quickly went on. “I was told I did it to prove my place as the next clan leader, but I don't know and really I don't care. I've had time to think it over and I was wrong, no matter what the reasons, no one should treat another poorly.”

  Siobhan continued walking, although this time slower. I wished she would take faster steps so we could get to wherever we were going and I could sit.

  “A lot of things have happened to me over the last few months and I've tried, I really have, to be the old Thalia that father wants me to be.” I took a quick intake of breath as I stumbled again, before finishing. “But I can't be her. I don't know her. I only know who I am now. And frankly, I don't want to go back to the way I was.”

 
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