Seeds of Enmity
Copyright 2013 by T.K. Anthony
Published by T.K. Anthony
Copyright 2013 Cover Art by Rachel Filbeck.
All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the author.
This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Also by T.K. Anthony
Forge – Book One of the Thrall Web Series
Seeds of Enmity
A Forge Prequel
For LCDR SusannAnn M. Freeh, USN (Ret.)
Thank you for your service.
And for your help.
And with gratitude to all those who have chosen to serve in defense of freedom.
April 28, 2544 AD, Scotian Calendar
The mindcall carried a tang of frustration.
Caught up in the tale of Captain Gabriel Adair’s discovery of Forge eighteen years before, Col tried to buy a little more time.
High King Conall, the story went, had Seen a planet—attended by two moons, orbiting a binary star, nested in a wormhole hub, the crossroad for trade and friendship among the three peoples: the Scotian Realm, the Xern Cluster, and the Tormin Accord. The high king had shared the vision with the captains sent to find it—
“Michael Colin Thomas Stuart Adair! You said that ten minutes ago, and five minutes ago, and your father’s still waiting for you and our guest.”
Pulled from the adventure, Col sighed. Let our guest find his own way to the flyer.
Lately, everything seemed to be about their guest, Arran Baliol, The Baliol of Clan Baliol—who also had the honor to be the Duke of Stair, the wealthiest duchy of Caledonia, a world whose wealth ranked second only to Scotia herself, throneworld of the six planets of the Realm. Duke Arran said so. Often.
For more than a week, Clan Adair had hosted the duke on behalf of the fledgling colony of Forge, while he looked about for investment opportunities for his plentiful coin. Col didn’t like him.
Col had looked forward to meeting Stair, the youngest duke in the Realm. He soon discovered the twenty-two-year-old noble adept had a way of making him feel childish, clumsy. Dim and dull. The ultimate insult, an adept’s reading of another’s life energy and finding it…lacking.
I’m not dim and dull. I thought he was supposed to be a powerful Earth adept. It’s not my fault my mindshield is stronger than his ability to see through it.
Col wished he would go back to his duchy and take his personal secretary with him. Vicka Clarke was quiet and unassuming around his parents. But Col’s mindshield was so strong, adepts had a tendency to overlook him in company. He’d caught glimpses of raw contempt in Clarke’s bland blue eyes when she thought no one was looking. Even a colony planet like Forge doesn’t need Arran Baliol’s coin, no matter how plentiful it is.
But his mother had used his entire name. A sure sign of patience stretched to the breaking point. Well and, mornings hadn’t been good for her the past five months. “Complete bed rest” wasn’t as easy as it sounded. Maybe this time…. After so many other losses, hope was too fragile to finish the thought.
Ashamed of his churlishness toward his mother, if not their guest, he capitulated.
“Aye, Mom. On my way.”
Col put down his book and stepped into his shoes, his mindshield slipping automatically into place. Shielding was the default mode for his talent, and he was supposed to practice keeping it open. But given the afternoon would be spent in close quarters with His Graceless the Duke of Stair, Col decided to let his talent have its own way. For no reason he could name, he’d as soon step naked into a Grey Mountain blizzard as go unshielded around Arran Baliol.
He grabbed his old weatherall off the hook on the back of the door and shrugged into it, his wrists sticking way out of the cuffs. This proof of his recent growth spurt spun a thread of satisfaction through his general irritation. At almost fourteen, he was at last growing out of the category “small for his age.” The extra inches more than made up for his temporary—he hoped—clumsiness. He ran down the stairs, the gleaming prismwood banister smooth beneath his hand, paying attention to where he put his feet. Try not to trip this time, eh?
Fate had other plans. Col plowed into their guest, standing at the bottom of the staircase. They fell in a tangle of limbs, muffled grunts, and—on Stair’s part—curses.
Col rolled to his feet, already reddening with embarrassment, extending a hand to help him from the polished wood floor. “Scorch, Arran. I’m sor—”
“Damn puppy, dim and dull,” the duke muttered, not quite to himself. He shook off his hand and stood over him. Tall, blond, blue-eyed, and handsome, Arran Baliol could be charming when he chose. The look he turned on Col was anything but.
Col was still only an elemental talent. He couldn’t see energy at all, not even the energy of lifeless matter like master talents could. All he could do was work with the element of Fire and its properties of light and heat on the physical plane. Col longed to come into his adept talent the way he longed for extra inches. Once he was an adept, he would be one step closer to becoming the confirmed heir to The Adair of Clan Adair, following in his father’s footsteps.
But that day had yet to come. At present, Stair sneered down at him from the advantage of his height and his noble adept status. Heat rose to the roots of Col’s hair, a very ordinary brown and certain to be sticking every which way. The duke’s golden hair, he noted with envy, was in perfect order.
“I haven’t made you free of my personal name, Michael.”
Anger sparked, burning away embarrassment. Using Col’s own name while insisting on his title was a double insult piled on the first.
Arrogant Bastard. He kept the epithet safe behind his shield. His parents insisted on courtesy and would have his ears if he insulted a guest of clan and kinhold. He reined in his temper and gave the duke a bow. “I beg your pardon, your grace.”
“I’m sure you do. Not that it matters.”
Col straightened, shocked at his open scorn.
“I have no great desire to pardon the upstart heir apparent to the upstart, colonial, cadet branch of Clan Adair. There are those in the wider Scotian Realm—the five worlds of the real Scotian Realm, not this so-called ‘protectorate’—who still mourn the passing of Clan Adair’s senior branch in the Ekossan Epidemic last year.” Stair glared at him through narrowed eyes. “Odd, how the deadly Spiral virus arrived on Ekosse at the precise moment of Duke Simon’s family vacation there. Very odd. Unless one considers that Gabriel Adair’s shipping company makes a regular run to Ekosse. With the death of Duke Simon and his family, his younger brother rose to the ducal coronet of Inverness.”
The almost naked accusation was so bizarre, so entirely outside his experience, it took Col a moment to process the words—then the enormity of Stair’s meaning finally hit him.
“You, you, you bastard! Take it back! Or—”
“Or what?” Stair’s eyes filled with derision.
“This.” Col stepped inside the larger man’s reach with a hard right jab to his lying mouth. The duke rocked back on his heels…and went down on his back. Standing over him, Col’s hand ached, but glee at his unexpected success sang along his nerves. “Get up, and I’ll hit you ag—”
No matter how strong, Col’s shield was not yet proof against his father’s authority. The Adair’s voice rang in his mind and ears, falling on Col’s fury like ice water on fire, freezing him in place.
The Baliol stood and spat blood.
The atmosphere took on the subtle tension of tight-shuttered shields. Col sensed his father’s shield settle around his own.
Stair gave his host a slight bow, recovering his composure. “Duke Gabriel. Does your son have a habit of assaulting your guests without cause? I don’t know what set him off.”
Col, breathing hard, shot him a look of deep disbelief. He turned to his father in heated explanation. “Pop, he said, he said you, you—”
“Not another word.” The Adair’s eyes held warning.
“Michael,” his father barked, “not another word! Unless it is to regret this shameful breach of our clan’s hospitality.”
Col gaped. He shut his mouth with a snap, as the Arrogant Bastard stood there with a look of injured innocence on his face—ready to be forgiving, if only Col would beg his pardon.
Taking a deep breath, he calmed his energy as he’d learned in the Tower schola. Stiffening his spine, he looked Stair in his pale blue eyes, meeting the malice within. His jaw firmed in determination.
He said nothing.
“Michael.” His name was a growl in his father’s throat.
“No, sir. I won’t. He said…unpardonable things. Violated guest right. He, he accused—”
“That’s enough, Michael.”
Col winced at his father’s sharp sending.
The Adair of Clan Adair turned a serious face to his guest. “Since my son’s courtesy is not equal to offering his own regrets, your grace,” he said in a voice of iron, “allow me to do so on his behalf.” He gave Stair a respectful bow, humbling himself and letting Col see it. “Please accept my regret, your grace, for the breach of hospitality between us.”
Stair managed the feat of looking gravely disturbed by Col’s behavior and mollified by The Adair’s apology—all while smirking at Col. “I would hardly hold your hospitality in contempt over the action of a bairn, Inverness.”
Bairn? Fists clenched, Col took a step toward Stair. His father’s hand on his shoulder brought him up short.
“Although it’s not my place to say so, your grace—” Stair dabbed at his bloody lip with a fine handkerchief. “—he wants discipline.”
His father’s hand tightened. “Aye, I suppose he does.” He turned to face Col. “You won’t be joining us on our tour of the minehold, Michael. And I’ll have your word that you’ll attend me in my study tonight at 1730, local time.”
Although he hadn’t raised his voice, The Adair’s brown eyes were stern. Behind his back, Stair’s pale eyes mocked him.
Hurt, furious, Col slipped his shoulder out from under his father’s hand. He gave The Adair his best bow, rising from it to stand with his chin held high. “Aye, sir. You have my word.”
Ignoring Arran Baliol, he turned his back on them both and walked out the front door of the kinhold, toward the forests of Dare Mountain. When he was certain he was out of sight, Col started to run.
April 28, AD 2344, Scotian Calendar
“Singe, sear, scorch, and char!”
Col’s mutter became a shout by the last word, and he kicked a blameless stone into an innocent tree. He sat heavily against the tree’s trunk, laying a hand on it in a kind of apology. Arms wrapped around his knees, his chin propped on his forearms, Col sat in sullen contemplation of the forest valley stirring to rebirth under the urgings of spring.
Far below his rocky ledge, the Dee River roiled in its bed, waters swollen and surging from the snowmelt. The evergreens of the mountains were still winter-dark, untouched by bright new growth. In the valleys and foothills, early buds clothed the trees in pale green gauze. On the banks of the Dee, a small grove of rare prismwood trees glinted red-blue-purple-green-gold, a gaudy jewel suspended from the turbulent river’s baroque necklace. He breathed in the sweet and musty odor of fresh earth released from winter’s grip as Forge tilted its continent toward the double suns. Rapt in the glowing beauty of the noonday forest, surrounded by a roaring, rushing peace, the hard knot of anger in Col’s chest eased.
A piping trill pierced the silence. Col glimpsed a black-and-gold mingrif flitting through the trees, clutching a limp chippie in his rear talons. He smiled, feeling a kinship for this distilled version of the giant gryphons of Scotia, claimed by Clan Adair as the badge of their house. Small as a kinhold cat, swift and fierce, mingrifs responded to threats with deadly force. Other Forge predators were not so nice about their targets. Some were downright nasty, out of all proportion to their size.
Col scanned the underbrush. He hadn’t planned to come so far. He had no food, or water, or even a satcom. He’d just kept going until he’d lost the last sense of contact with the kinhold. Along with his height, his talent had also grown, so he’d had to run farther than ever. His smile grew to a gratified grin. Filling his lungs with fresh air, he let go the last of his anger on the exhale.
“Attend me in my study tonight at 1730, local time.”
The interview with his father didn’t precisely loom. The only serious hiding Col had ever gotten in his life was when he’d first come into his elemental Fire talent three years ago. Learning to control his Element, he’d played with Fire too near the storage shed—the storage shed filled with the minehold’s explosives. The fire had moved so fast. Steward Matthew Dunbar had hastily smothered it under loose dirt, but he’d strained his low-level affinity Earth talent to the breaking point. If the healer-adept hadn’t arrived in time, Matthew would’ve died of talent fever and his burns.
The discussion preceding his hiding had left a bigger impression on Col than the hiding itself.
“Your carelessness nearly killed someone, Michael, and you haven’t even grown into your full adept potential. How will you serve the Realm if you can’t be trusted in the use of your talent?”
Not serve the Realm? He shivered in remembered horror. Looking back on it, Col thought the harder lesson had been to face Matthew Dunbar and apologize—even though the steward had forgiven him readily, murmuring he’d been ten once, too.
Col turned the episode over in his mind, thinking of his current difficulty. The Adair had come upon the scene of his heir apparent attacking a kinhold guest, and Col had refused to apologize.
Throughout the Scotian Realm, hospitality was an honor and obligation. On Forge, a colony planet shared with alien races, the Xerni and the Tormins were sticklers for social status and propriety to a degree that even Scotian nobility found tedious. As the three peoples of the sixteen planets struggled to live and work together on Forge, courtesy and hospitality buffered strange customs and strange ways among the Scotians and the “extees.”
He considered his father’s apology. “Please accept my regret, your grace, for the breach of hospitality between us.” The tone, the wording…. Col began, almost, to look forward to his appointment with The Adair. The discussion might be worth whatever followed after. A glance upward showed the suns riding high in the sky, large, yellow Stoke plodding after small, red Ember. His stomach growled. It wouldn’t hurt to be home early.
Hah. Maybe Pop will make the ungracious Duke Arran apologize to me.
He whipped his head around at the sudden rustling in the nearby brush. A tritusk? Knee-high on a man, tritusks were mean-tempered, fast-moving horrors with a three-tusked snout, armor, and a wicked long tail ending in a spiked club. Even side arms sometimes failed to get their attention.
“‘Col-Col!” The small, clear voice demanded attention.
Not a tritusk, then. He bowed his head into his arms with a sigh. The voice piped again, in his ear, accompanied by an insistent tug on his weatherall.
Col-Col. I suppose there could be worse variations on Michael Colin. Praytrin, she never thinks of them. Even his parents called him “Col.” Well, when he wasn’t in trouble. Stifling a second sigh, he raised his head and beheld his small tormentor. “Katy, little bird, what are you doing out here alone?”
Katlyn Dunbar gazed at him out of wide blue eyes. “I’m not alone, Col-Col. I’m with you,” she answered with the relentless logic of a five-year-old.
“So you are, little bird.”
He smiled in exasperation. So she always seemed to be. Katlyn Dunbar followed him with the devotion of a puppy. No. Like a bairn who’s lost her mother. He would be a poor heir to The Adair if he tried to evade the bairn of a yeoman sept that looked to his noble clan for leadership and service.
Tendrils of Katlyn’s reddish-brown curls had escaped her untidy braids. He brushed them away from her chubby cheeks, gently flicked her pert nose, and gave her a genuine smile. “What brought you out here? Won’t your papa be worried?”
“I told Da I would be with you. He said it was s’allri’, so long as I wasn’t a bother.” Her eyes were child solemn. “I’m not a bother, am I, Col-Col?”
He pulled the little girl onto his lap and tickled her. “You, Katy-bird, are an unconscionable pest!”
She giggled, and he hugged her tight, glad to forget his own troubles in her merry laughter. “Why didn’t you tell me you were following me?”
She peeped up from under her dark lashes. “You looked mad.”
He reddened. Fine thing, to scare a five-year-old lass. “Oh. Well. I guess I was. But not at you, Katy-bird.” He stood and set her on her feet, holding out his hand. “Let’s get you back to your nest.”
She started out willingly enough. But soon, her dragging steps showed she was already tired from the hike up the mountain. She shivered in her light sweater, chilled even while the suns were at their zenith. Stopping, he took off his weatherall and held it for her.
“Here, little bird, you need warmer feathers.” He rolled up the sleeves for her. The tail dragged on the ground. There really was only one way to fix that. Kneeling, he turned his back to her. “Up you get, Katy-bird.”
She crowed in delight and wrapped her arms around his neck, her legs around his waist. Clasping his hands behind his back under her butt, he gave her a seat and set off for home. If he kept a steady pace, they would be at the kinhold in plenty of time.
A standard hour passed, frequently punctuated by a simple litany.
“Col-Col, I’m hungry. An’ thirsty.”
“I know, little bird”.
“Will we be home soon?”
Praytrin, soon enough. The cooling air smelled like rain—not surprising for a spring day in the Green Mountains. He pushed the pace a little more. Sighting the final hairpin turn in the steepest part of the trail, he breathed a sigh of relief.
“Col-col, I’m hungry. An’ thirsty.”
“I know, little—” Rounding the corner, he stopped short. There on the trail was a grounded mingrif.
A griflet, actually. The creature would fit in the palm of his hand with room to spare. She was bright green from nose to feather-tufted tail, with piercing gold eyes, and a sharp little gold beak. The feathers of her crest were laid back flat against her head as she squeaked and eeped her distress. Fallen from her nest. I wonder where her parents—
A winter-hungry tritusk crashed through the underbrush, straight toward the griflet.
A black-and-gold mingrif streaked out of the tree canopy, rear talons scrabbling for a hold on the tritusk’s armored hide while his fore talons raked its eyes. Another mingrif, green and gold, arrowed down to rescue her nestling. The tritusk, spinning and bucking under the first attack, struck her a blow with its spiked tail. She fell from the air, right wing shattered. Dragging it behind her, she lurched to put herself between the tritusk and her nestling.
Col backed hastily up the path to the nearest tree. Peeling Katlyn off his back, he boosted her up to its lowest branch with a whispered reassurance.
“Wh-what are you gonna do?” Blue eyes wide with fright, she squeaked like the griflet.
“I’m going to help that mama and her baby, little bird.”
Heart thudding in his chest, the sound of battle in his ears, he ran back toward the grounded griflet, calling up his Fire talent.
The mingrifs shrieked defiance. The tritusk’s answering squeal skittered down Col’s nerves. At the hairpin turn, he slid to a stop on the scene of life-and-death combat. The tiercel beat upward, dodging the predator’s three horns, turning in midair to plunge down and claw at its eyes.
With a sudden burst of speed, the tritusk charged a bitterthorn thicket, trapping the smaller black-and-gold male in the branches and impaling him on its largest tusk. Flinging the tiercel’s body away with a shake of its head, it sniffed the air and turned to deal with his larger mate. Razored hooves tore through the muddy ground.
The mingrif reared up and piped a battle cry. Her griflet, hissing and squeaking in furious terror like a miniature teakettle on the boil, snapped at the tritusk from behind the shelter of her mother’s one good wing.
They didn’t have a chance.
Col couldn’t protect them beneath his shield—he hadn’t yet mastered the art of projecting it beyond his own skin. He thought of his parents. But even if he could reach the kinhold with a mindcall, they would never arrive in time, even if they ported. All he had was his Fire.
He concentrated his energy, building the Fire in his mind, condensing it, solidifying it. He raised his hand, focused, and pushed. A gout of talent-driven flame spurted from his hand. When the smoke cleared, the tritusk’s head was a charred stump.
Katlyn jumped up and down, cheering. “You saved them! You saved them!”
Her blue eyes shone with admiration, and Col felt he had somehow grown to heroic proportions. But he hadn’t meant for her to see the battle. “Katlyn Dunbar, what are you doing here?”
Immune to his stern tone, she gave him the guileless look against which he was powerless. “I followed you.”
“You can explain that to your Da. Right now, we need to take them back to the kinhold and get them some help.” First step—make friends with the valorous mama and her nestling. The smell of cooked tritusk offered a solution.
He hacked off a smoking gobbet of meat with his utility knife. Crouched as small as possible, he slowly approached the wounded mingrif, doing his best to trill to her. He dropped his shield and concentrated on a litany of friendship, soothing as a lullaby. It’s all right, Valor, I won’t hurt you. Or your snip of a nestling. You’ll be all right. Just let me help you. He wasn’t sure if he was encouraging the mingrif or himself.
She left off hissing and watched him warily. He held out his hand, offering scorched tritusk. She sniffed, took a precautionary snap an inch away from his fingers then sniffed again. In the next snap, the meat was gone. She shredded it into bite-size strips for Snip, softly trilling to soothe her nestling’s terrors.
Col shuffled backward and stood, swaying a little dizzily on his feet. I put more into that Fire working than I realized.
When he opened his eyes, Valor had dragged herself toward the base of a longfir tree, Snip hopping after. She fixed him with a penetrating stare then turned her gaze slowly up, a clear demand to follow where her eyes led. Col craned his neck to stare up, and up, and up. At least eighty feet. He swallowed. Maybe more. Up, in the fork of a slender limb, was a mingrif nest. Listening hard, he could just make out the panicked squeaks of an abandoned griflet too young to fly. The mingrif regarded him again, the weight of her plea—no, expectation in her eyes.
Westering Ember was just above the Green Mountains, Stoke still high in the sky. He had time. Just.
“All right, Valor. But I’ve got make this fast.” He turned to Katlyn. “You keep the mingrifs company. Don’t even think of following me up the tree, or your Da will have both our hides. True said.” He waited for her gulped agreement before he began the climb.
The longfir’s wide-spaced limbs spiraled around the thick trunk, as regular as a giant’s staircase. Col pulled himself from branch to branch. At the halfway point, Ember fell behind the mountains, and the weather changed with the swiftness of a Green Mountain spring. A stinging north wind brought fine mist and plummeting temperatures.
By the time he reached the nest’s limb, the mist had become a soaking drizzle. Beginning to shiver, he inched toward the mingrif nest on the rain-slick branch, longfir needles piercing his clothes, their citrusy tang tickling his nose. The limb sank under his weight.
Below, the mingrif scolded him anxiously.
Aye, I know. Don’t fall. Beads of water shook free from the trembling branch. His goal laid an arm’s length away. He reached toward the small black nestling—a boy. The griflet squawked, flapped, and fluttered away. Col stretched in a final lunge to pluck him from his nest. The limb rocked and swayed.
“Got you!” He grinned in triumph. But now, he had to get back down the way he came. And the drizzle had turned into an icy rain. Sleet. The only curses that seemed suitable, he wasn’t allowed to say.
One-handed, he crawled back to lean against the tree’s wide trunk. While his heart dropped out of his throat and back down inside his ribs, he caught his breath, his hands cupped around the tiny ball of velvety fur and fluff. He looked into the golden eyes. The shivery nestling emitted a plaintive eep.
“You’re almost an ice cube!” Col wiped him dry with his shirttail. “That’s better. But I need to give you a perch for the ride back down.” He gently tuckedhim into his breast pocket. The griflet latched his talons, sharp as tacks, through the fabric, pricking Col’s skin.
Taking a breath to center himself, he raced the setting sun down from the sky. Risking a quick glance down, he glimpsed Katlyn’s pale upturned face, the weatherall pooled around her like the train of an evening dress dragged in the mud. Valor and Snip huddled in the nest she’d made of her sweater.
The griflet squirmed upward, leaving pinhole tracks in Col’s chest, until his head emerged from the pocket and he climbed for Col’s shoulder. Col’s hands were too full of tree to put the griflet back where he belonged. And he was almost down. Ten, maybe fifteen feet to go. His arms were leaden with fatigue, his hands numb with cold. Forcing his frozen fingers around the icy branch, he dangled, swinging free, kicking and scraping the ice off the branch beneath him until he had a clear a place to stand. Trinity, it’s slippery. He let go of the branch and grabbed for the trunk.
The griflet, nearly falling, made an equally desperate grab, his claws sinking deep into Col’s neck, his beak clamped on an earlobe.
“Awk!” Col lost his grip and his footing.
April 28, AD 2344, Scotian Calendar
Something warm, wet, and insistent tapped his left cheek. His right cheek was cold and wet. There was mud in his mouth. With a soft moan, Col peeled back an eyelid. He looked straight into Katlyn Dunbar’s scared blue eyes.
She patted his face while tears tracked down her cheeks. “Col-Col, wake up! Wake up!”
He lifted his head and spat mud. “I’m awake, Katy. S’allri’. Just…just give me a minute.”
He couldn’t have been out too long. Stoke skimmed the top of Dare Mountain, slanting golden light into the forest. He took a deep breath, and sent a mindcall toward his parents. No good. Between his shield and draining his talent to roast the tritusk, the current effective range of his mindvoice allowed him to talk to himself. He nearly blacked out again just sitting up to lean against the tree. Someone had rammed a hot poker into his right arm, and left it there. His chattering teeth bit off little bits of groans. “Aagh. Aagh. Aagh.”
Katlyn stared at him, wide-eyed.
Col bit his lip, closed his eyes, and breathed through his nose. When the nausea had settled a little, he opened his eyes to survey his situation. One small, scared bairn; one damaged mingrif; two nestlings; me and my broken arm. Exhaustion, hunger, and thirst were common problems. The weatherall kept Katlyn warm, but everyone else in the party was in danger of hypothermia. He needed to find some way to share the weatherall’s heat. Designed to serve as a temporary tent in emergencies, it would have been perfect for overnight shelter. But it was too small for him, much less his charges, who also needed food and water. And I’ll be scorched before I break my word to The Adair. Col shut his eyes again, willing himself to calm. One thing at a time.
By the time he was ready to go, Stoke had almost dropped behind the Green Mountains, leaving only a thin, rain-grayed twilight. Katlyn clung to his back as before, except the weatherall’s belt, slung over his left shoulder to his right hip, supported her butt. At mid-chest, the mingrifs, lured with seared tritusk, rode in a pouch made of Katlyn’s sweater and tied by its sleeves to his bandoliered belt. He fastened the weatherall, barely, over himself and his passengers, leaving one button undone. Digging his front teeth into his lower lip, he slipped his broken arm through the opening of his makeshift sling. And then he wondered if he could get up off his knees.
Katy sniffled softly in his ear. With a grunt of effort, Col hauled himself up with the aid of a branch he’d broken on his way down. He stood, panting and swaying, while the weight of his passengers settled. The belt strap bit into his left shoulder. His right arm…. Better not think about the arm.
The kinhold laid about two miles away. An easy walk of maybe one long hour. Seventy standard minutes. Under normal circumstances. Not in the icy dark, broken-armed, and burdened like a packhorse. In the last light of Stoke, he set out for home. He was going to be late.
Sleet transformed the trail’s gentle slope into a malicious invitation to a disastrous tumble. If he fell, Col was sure he couldn’t get back up again. He emptied his mind of everything but the effort to lift one numb foot after the other, stepping firmly, breaking through the thin crust of ice to the muddy earth. Katlyn had been scared silent. He didn’t even have her pestering to mark the passage of time. Only fatigue, pain, and the small patch of treacherous trail before him remained, one frozen minute blending seamlessly into the next.
Sometime in the haze of unreality, his right foot hit the bottom step of the kinhold’s front porch. Toppling to his knees, he dropped his makeshift cane and grabbed at the handrail, pulling himself up the three steps and through the front door. He realized Steward Dunbar had opened it for him, but he had no time for anything but a breath of thanks. He’d given his word, and he was late. He left a trail of ice, water, and mud over the polished floor on the way to his father’s study. Voices and the warm glow of light came through the open door.
“Still no sign of Michael, your grace?”
“No, Duke Arran. Thank you for your concern.”
“Perhaps it was unwise of you to let him run like that.”
Run? Arrogant Bastard.
“Something’s wrong, Rel.” Mom sounds worried. “I’ve been trying to mindcall him for thirty minutes. If he’s hurt and shielded, he could be right under our noses in this trin-forsaken weather. If only one of us were a Water tal—”
Col stepped into the study and dripped on the luxurious rug. A glorious fire blazed in the grate. The icicles in his hair began to melt, cold water snaking down the back of his neck. The room had a disturbing tendency to spin. He focused on his parents’ faces, where naked emotions danced in a split second—relief-worry-anger-love.
“Col! What happened to you? Is that Katlyn on your back?”
“I’m s-sorry I’m late, sir.” He fumbled, left-handed, at the buttons of his weatherall. “I c-could use s-some help getting K-Katlyn off.” His teeth chattered, making it hard to talk. “She’s hungry and thirsty. T-tired, too.” Like me.
“Am not!” She denied sleepily from under the shelter of the weatherall’s hood.
“You’re hurt.” His mother came to help, blue eyes anxious, her hand warm along his cheek.
She shouldn’t be up. She should be in bed. She’ll lose the twins, like all—
She lightly touched his broken arm, shattering thought.
Somewhere in the process of getting the weatherall off and Katlyn down, he wound up on the floor, not sure how he’d gotten there. He looked up at the knotwork carved into the wide ceiling beams. His mother and father knelt beside him while Stair loomed above.
Before he could move to stop him, Stair reached for the bundled mingrifs. Emerging from the sweater, Valor growled, slashing the duke’s thumb and sinking her beak into his index finger. Stair yelped, recoiling.
Snarling, he grabbed for the mingrif. “Vermin!”
Col raised his good hand to protect Valor, but he was too late. The Adair already held the duke’s wrist in an iron grip. Matthew Dunbar came to carry his young daughter to her dinner and bed, leading a sullen Duke Arran away to have his hand bandaged until the healer should arrive.
With her griflets under her good wing, Valor sat on Col’s chest, spitting at the departing duke like a feral cat.
He tried to smile up at his parents. “They followed me home. Can I keep them?”