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Driven from their homes hundreds of years ago, the People have made their home inside caves at the top of the White Spike mountain range. Before She left, the Goddess created their laws and left a shadowy group of individuals to guide and protect Her chosen. Hundreds of years later, most of the outlying villages have forgotten whatever they might have known about the deadly Guadel whose word carries the weight of absolute law. An orphan nearly his entire life, Va'del wants nothing so much as to find a place in his village where he can belong. The invitation to join a visiting Guadel family initially feels like coming home, but events soon leave him more bitterly alone than ever. As a dangerous enemy circles ever closer, threatening the complete destruction of the People, Va'del is given the opportunity to avenge his adopted family and protect the things he's come to value above everything else.

The Trial

by Dean Murray

The Trial

Chapter 1

Va'del looked up at the tiny violet time sphere that provided the only light to the room and then hunched further down on his sleeping mat. The thin pad of woven gurra wool provided the only cushion between him and the cold stone floor of the sleeping chamber.

The chamber was barely three paces to a side, empty but for his one change of clothes and the dim time sphere that almost chased the shadows back to the far wall. There was barely room to stretch out let alone hide.

A private chamber was usually a sign of status. In his case it was just evidence that nobody else was willing to spend any more time in his company than absolutely required. He listened to the slow drip of water somewhere out in the darkness and wished there was a way to disappear. As much as he might desire otherwise, it was inevitable that Pa'chi would eventually show up and try to drag him to weapons practice.

She claims that she doesn't want me to get into trouble, but how do I really know that? Maybe she really wants to see me humiliated. Just like everyone else.

The lanky teenager felt a twinge of guilt at the thought, which was very nearly a betrayal of the closest thing he had to a friend in the village. Even that guilt couldn't keep his thoughts from the beating that was about to come.

The muffled footsteps echoing through the cold warren of tunnels gradually became distinctive enough to tell who they belonged to. Va'del's heart sank a little further as he realized that it wasn't Pa'chi that was coming to collect him.

Va'del scrambled to his feet just before Jas'per stepped into the dim violet light. "Come on orphan. Everyone already suspects that you're a coward. You wouldn't want to miss weapons practice again and give them out and out proof would you?"

"I practice just as hard as you do, Jas'per."

"And yet you lose every time. Don't you, orphan?"

Jas'per pushed Va'del along ahead of him. Through the chilly, dim caverns. Any time Va'del slowed too much for Jas'per's taste the older boy shoved him again. Several times it was all that Va'del could do to catch himself before he shredded his hands against the uneven walls. All too soon Va'del found himself stumbling into most well-lit section of the entire village.

Jas'per smiled at the flock of girls watching the boys warming up. They giggled and smiled back. Va'del tried to look for Pa'chi without being obvious, but Jas'per rolled his eyes.

"Your little girlfriend won't be here, darkie. She can handle being around you in the dark, but not even she likes to be reminded how much of a freak you are.

Ignoring the giggles and averted eyes that followed him, Va'del crossed over to the storage racks on the wall where the practice equipment was kept. Va'del winced a little as he shed his outermost layer of clothing. Once he actually started weapons practice he'd warm up in quick order, but until then he'd have to deal with more giggles at the way his teeth chattered in the cold.

As Va'del struggled into one of the padded jackets and simple helmets that would shield him from some of the fury of Jas'per's attacks, he tried to shy away from the bubble of resentment over the legacy his lowland mother had left him.

Before Va'del managed to work himself up too much more, Jas'per's father, the village headman who also served as their weapons instructor, finally arrived. A barely detectable grimace of distaste flickered across his face and then he began pairing the students off. As usual Jas'per and Va'del were matched against each other despite the fact that Va'del lost six touches out of seven.

Hefting his blunt practice sword with its elongated hilt designed to be usable when the user was wearing heavy mittens, Va'del waited for the command to attack, and then stabbed at Jas'per. The older boy knocked his blade aside and Va'del had to duck away from a riposte aimed at his head.

Feeling his stomach sink at the force of the blow, Va'del tried to convince himself that he'd be ok. A gasp of anticipation raced around the cavern from the watching girls.

Jas'per wasn't quite as tall as Va'del despite the fact that he was older, but like most of the People, he was more powerfully built. As always, he used that advantage ruthlessly. Each attack landed with a shock that made Va'del's palms tingle despite the fact that he was doing his best to parry so that the force of each swing was simply redirected instead of countered.

Completely on the defensive now, Va'del stepped back enough that a particularly furious attack went whistling past him, and then without conscious thought stepped forward and kicked Jas'per in the stomach before the older boy could recover.

Jas'per would have pressed the advantage ensuring that everyone was able to see his dominance. Va'del knew that would just result in him being hurt more seriously when they next squared off. He started to back away and then gasped in pain as the weighted end of the headman's training cord snaked out and found the back of his unprotected legs.

"This is weapons training you pagan monster. If you can't attack your opponent with your blade, don't bother attacking at all. Do it again."

There may have been a collective gasp as Jas'per regained control of his breathing and moved towards Va'del, but if so the younger boy was too scared to notice it. Jas'per's furry was a cold thing that always made him more dangerous rather than less. The last time Va'del had made him look foolish he'd put Va'del in the healer's care for a week.

Jas'per once again took the offensive, using his superior skill and strength to control the tempo of the fight. Before his blows had been marginally controlled, and more than a little sloppy. Now instead of going wide, they came at Va'del in short, brutal arcs that pressed his ability to defend to its absolute edge.

Even Va'del's slightly longer reach couldn't keep him out of range indefinitely, and finally a blow got through, a blow that wasn't pulled at the last second as it should have been. A dull crunch accompanied the sharp pain shooting up Va'del's left arm. He found himself falling the the ground as his weapon dropped from hands no longer strong enough to hold it.


Va'del woke to welcome darkness in a bed that was softer than his normal mat. The dull yellow light from the glow sphere was partially covered in deference to his preference for darkness.

A ginger attempt to move his arm caused him to gasp in pain despite the fact that it had been bound it to his side. Va'del tried to pull himself into a sitting position, and nearly fell out of bed as a sudden burst of vertigo and nausea wrenched a moan from him.

"There now youngster, don't be trying to move. Foolish thing for people to do, just confirms that they're still ill."

Sara, the enclave's healer, bustled in with an energy that belied her wispy gray hair, and uncovered the room's small glow sphere as she looked her patient over. "The arm will hurt for a while, but it should heal just fine. I'm more concerned about the knock you took on the head. The nausea and dizziness will probably last for a couple of days. I've already told your teachers and the kitchens that you'll be staying with me until you're better."

When Va'del didn't say anything the healer sighed in irritation. "Boy, I know exactly what happened, so there is no use remaining silent. That insufferable Jas'per can claim that it was an accident all he wants, but you've been in here more than any other three boys from 'training accidents'."

She'll start badgering me about going to the Capital again unless I can distract her.

"I suppose I'm just clumsier than any of the other boys."

Sara gave Va'del a hard look, but for once didn't argue. "You have a visitor, I'll send her in."

A useless protest died on Va'del's lips as Pa'chi shyly slipped around the divider that screened the sickbed from the rest of the room.

"It was so terrible, you were just lying there unconscious while Jas'per's preened as if he'd just brought down a snow leopard. Are you ok?"

From behind the divider Sara's voice drifted over. "It was Pa'chi who came and got me. Those motherless ruffians would have just left you there until weapons class was over."

Va'del wanted to stay mad at Pa'chi, at the whole world really, but he knew that wasn't fair.

"Thanks, Pa'chi. Nobody else would have gone and gotten Healer Sara. I hope that your dad won't be angry with you."

The smile that lit up Pa'chi's face transformed it from something plain and unremarkable to a thing of beauty, and Va'del found himself smiling in response.

"I'm sorry that I've been so difficult for the last little while."

"It's ok. I know you've been worried about the crafting decision for a while now."

Va'del's mind tried to twist away from thinking about the nearing deadline for the young men of the village to find a master who would teach them a trade.

"It's not as though worrying will change anything. After being passed up two years in a row I wasn't likely to be chosen. Now that I'm injured I probably won't even be allowed to stay and shovel gurra manure down in the mushroom farms."

Pa'chi shook her head, no doubt responding to this darkening mood. Her smile was an obvious effort to cheer him up. "You were too busy to notice, but some of the adults had arrived by the end of your fight. They didn't seem to impressed by Jas'per's beating on you. I think that some of the masters may take that into account when they consider who to take on as an apprentice."

Va'del found himself once more fighting to not snap at his friend. "I guess I'll just have hope that someone takes pity on me. I obviously can't make it on my own merits."

"It's not like that. People are good. You just have to give them a chance to do the right thing.

"Maybe. I guess we'll just have to wait and see." Va'del wasn't sure how his smile could convince anyone that it was genuine, but Pa'chi smiled back as if she believed him.

Chapter 2

Jas'per found Va'del within a few hours of his being cleared by Sara to begin walking short distances through some of the dark, unused corridors near her suite of rooms. "Oh, look. The orphan finally stopped hiding behind the old lady."

Va'del fingered the knife he'd concealed in the sling binding his left arm to his side. His victim's silence seemed to unsettle Jas'per for a second, but looking back at the two friends who'd come to see him torment Va'del, the bully quickly recovered his balance. "Maybe if you'd bothered to leave the healer's, you would've had a chance at getting a decent apprenticeship. Now I'll bet they don't even let you stay and carry waste rock up to the surface. You'll be just like a human gurra."

Va'del felt his anger spike at being compared to one of the gentle but stupid creatures that the people used to carry burdens both inside their caves, and also on the infrequent occasions when they traveled the mountain slopes to visit one of the other villages. Jas'per seemed to bask in the younger boy's fury, secure in the knowledge that Va'del would never dare attack him.

"At least whatever position I get will be earned on my own merits."

If Va'del's barb struck home there was no sign of it in Jas'per's eyes. "No, whatever position you get will be because someone felt sorry for you."

Long after Jas'per and his friends had left, Va'del sat alone fingering his knife in the cold darkness near the abandoned mining expansion. Not even his freakishly dark skin managed to hide the veins running mockingly close to the surface.


Va'del tried to convince Sara to let him go back to his own sleeping mat, but the healer wasn't moved by his reasoning that the sooner he was visibly up and about the more likely it would be that he'd get an appointment as an apprentice.

"The masters aren't as foolish as you think. They know what happened and why you are here."

Whether that means that I wouldn't get a position regardless, or whether I'll get one despite my status as an invalid she won't say.

Va'del was unhappily working his way through the readings that Pa'chi had brought him a couple of days before, when his friend came running into the healer's room.

"Actual, real Guadel just arrived. They're demanding to speak with headman Ma'del. Everyone says that there is going to be a testing."

Va'del felt his head spin, "Why would Guadel be coming now? There hasn't been a visit since before we were born."

Sara looked at Va'del and shook her head. "Guadel come to the village more than most of you realize. As for the testing, it's not the terror of blood and demons that you all seem to believe it is."

Pa'chi's expression was every bit as skeptical as Va'del imagined his must be. For a second Va'del thought that Sara was going to yell at them, but she took a deep breath and shook her head again. "Think back to the 'traveling healer that gives you a checkup at least once a year youngster. Do you really think that is something I can't do myself? Va'del at least has the excuse of never being tested before, but you girls should have figured something out by now. Would have if the adults hadn't all bought into Ma'del's edict."

Pa'chi shrugged and turned back to Va'del. "Almost everyone is there already. They are saying that the Headman will deny them guest right. People are scared of the Guadel, but they're almost as worried that the Goddess will smite us if they are denied."

Sara stood suddenly, and pulled Va'del onto his feet. "We'd better go now. If Ma'del denies them guest right the Goddess won't have to smite anyone, the Guadel will do it for her. At least they'll likely stop after killing that pompous oaf."

Seeing as how Sara was one of only three or four people in the entire village who would stand up to the Headman, it was unnerving to see her hurry out of the room obviously afraid of what was coming. Sara had once thrown a large man into a wall with nothing more than the power of her mind. If she was scared of the Guadel then maybe there was more to the old stories than anyone really believed now.

Pa'chi looked back into the dark corridors and then turned towards Va'del with a trembling lip. "What if she's wrong? For every story where the Guadel save a child from a pack of snow wolves, there are two more about them carrying people off to the Capital to serve as sacrifices."

Va'del faked a reasurring smile, "All of the stories can't be true. It isn't as if they are really twice the size of a normal man and have multiple wives after all."

Pa'chi ventured a tremous smile in return and then nodded and started after Healer Sara.

The pair joined the stream of people presumably headed towards the Guadel, and shortly found themselves in one of the larger central caverns typically used as a marketplace. Va'del was just tall enough to make out the healer's diminutive form on the edge of the cleared space. If the Guadel snapped and started killing people, standing just behind Sara was probably the safest place to be. Pa'chi followed along behind Va'del as he pushed his way through the crowd.

The first thing Va'del noticed when they made it to Sara, was just how large the man was. There were three of them in total, but the man was so imposing that one didn't notice the two women until some of the shock had worn off.

The man slowly surveyed the assembled villagers, and Va'del was struck by the sense of controlled menace that seemed to roll off of him in waves. He moves like a snow leopard. Like he's the predator and we're nothing more than the next meal.

The multiple light sources placed throughout the large cavern played off of the Guadel's face in a way that Va'del hadn't ever seen before, leaving strange, disturbing shadows that made him look wholly inhuman.

One of the wives placed a hand on the man's arm as if to restrain him, but he shook it off without looking and called out. "Where is the village headman? We come to claim hospitality right."

Jas'per's father arrived, accompanied by Jas'per and four of the other top weapons students. As the headman pushed his way to the front of the crowd, Va'del noticed that all six men were armed.

"You will of course be granted provisions and a place to stay according to the code. I will have to ask though that you follow more recent precedent and keep to your rooms. I'm afraid that your presence disturbs my people."

The Guadel dropped his heavy over-coat to the hard, gray floor of the cavern, revealing a frame that seemed nearly as wide as he was tall. He was more heavily muscled than even the village blacksmith. "That is unacceptable. The same laws that grant us hospitality right also demand that we move around the village freely. We must ensure there isn't anything that needs reported back to the Council."

Jas'per and the other guards had their hands on the hilts of their weapons, and were nervously spreading out now, but the Guadel seemed unconcerned.

Va'del had become fairly adept at reading the mood of large groups of people, he'd had to in order to avoid Jas'per's friends when they were in a truly foul mood, but now the villagers almost defied his ability to read them.

More than one of the packed crowd reached towards Ma'del as if they wanted to stop the headman from forcing the issue with the Guadel, but nobody stirred from their spots. Instead nearly every person gathered in the market square was looking at the Guadel as though they expected them to shed their human skins and begin devouring the villagers.

The Guadel on the other hand seemed impervious to the raging fear around him. One of the two women at his back crumpled to the ground, apparently overcome by the stress of the situation. The younger woman carefully lowered her fellow to the ground, but her manner was distracted. The sense of tension ratcheted up as Ma'del started to gesture his men forward.

The man shook his head, preempting the motion as he drew his weapon. "Your lack of answer can only be taken as a refusal of our ancient right."

The guards all dropped to a ready stance as they drew their own swords, but if anything the Guadel was moving with more grace than before. Suddenly no one present had any doubt but that he could kill them all in the blink of an eye.

Suddenly Sara's diminutive form was standing in the middle of it all, glaring at the headman. "This is foolishness. Of course the village will extend the full hospitality demanded by tradition and law."

The headman seemed to be calculating the odds that the villagers would join the fight against the Guadel. He frowned at what he saw, and then finally nodded. "Of course. I merely wanted to save our people from any undue alarm."

Gesturing for Sara to see to it, the headman turned to walk away, only to pulled up short as the Guadel's cold voice rang out. "I think it would be best if your men were careful not to bear arms other than the two guardsmen needed to cover the entrance. We wouldn't want for any kind of misunderstanding to occur."

Moving with a sudden rigidness that spoke of towering anger, the headman motioned for Jas'per and the others to follow him.

The Guadel seemed somehow to deflate. By the time he turned to help his wives with their things, the menace radiating off of him was only barely more than human.


Va'del and Pa'chi would have faded away into the corridors with the rest of the village, but Sara ordered them to help carry the Guadel's belongings to the guest rooms. Va'del found himself marveling at how incredibly large the suite was, but he suspected it was nothing less than tradition demanded be reserved for the Guadel

Once everything was settled Sara hugged the older of the wives and then slumped against a wall. "You can't understand how good it is to see you, even if you all do look like you haven't aged a day since I last saw you."

The younger of the two wives laughed, "And to think just the other day I was thinking how old the two of them were getting."

Sara shook her head, "I swear they must have little dolls hidden away in a closet somewhere that age in their place. I on the other hand feel like I've been aging at twice the normal rate. It's this never ending fight with Ma'del."

Mention of the headman killed the mirth that had been bubbling up from the two Guadel women, but Va'del had been watching their husband, and the forbidding man hadn't even smiled. Realizing that the Guadel was looking at Va'del and Pa'chi with something that bordered on suspicion Sara sighed. "The boy is almost as unloved and distrusted by the rest of the village as I am. The girl has a good heart, and for all that her father is a self-centered fool, there isn't any love lost between him and the headman. You need not worry about either of them."

Unreadable, gray eyes considered Va'del for a heartbeat longer, and then turned back to Sara.

The older of the two wives placed a gentle hand on her husband's arm. "I knew that Ma'del was becoming more of a problem, that is part of the reason that this village was left to Ja'dir's people for so long. I half though On'li was jumping at shadows when she demanded that we be the ones to stop by. Nobody on the Council seemed to know that he had nearly the entire settlement cowed into defying the Goddess' laws."

Sara shrugged. "I honestly don't know how he was elected headman. He's definitely gotten worse in the last couple of years though, maybe he started out reasonable."

The man spoke up for the first time since the confrontation out in the marketplace. "Will we have to worry about attack while we are here?"

Shrugging hesitantly, Sara looked like she wished she knew one way or another. "I don't think so. He has always been very careful not to violate the letter of the law at least. I suspect that he was mostly trying to bluff you into not exercising your full rights like he's done with every Guadel that's stopped by for the last decade or so."

Va'del was suddenly overcome by a spat of dizziness, but Sara and Pa'chi managed to catch him before he hit the ground. The concerned, pale, ice-blue eyes of the youngest wife were the last things that Va'del remembered seeing before he slipped into unconsciousness.


The calming darkness that greeted Va'del when he awoke signaled that he was once again in the sick bed. Thoughts of Sara of course led to questions about the Guadel. Va'del hadn't ever quite believed that the Goddess had chained demons to her service. It had seemed even more preposterous to think that the bargain allowed the Guadel to carry people off for unspeakable rituals that were the only thing keeping them from turning on the People. Seeing I'rone face down Ma'del had very nearly made him believe, but Sara hadn't seemed especially scared of them.

A nervous rustle behind the divider told Va'del that Pa'chi must be waiting for him to wake up. He wanted nothing more than to stay in bed for a while, but it wasn't fair to make her sit there. Craddling his useless arm in tight against his side, he struggled to his feet and tottered out from behind the privacy divider.

Surprisingly enough, although Pa'chi was indeed seated cross-legged in one of Sara's low chairs, the healer wasn't present. Sensing Va'del's question, his friend hurried to explain. "Sara will be back. She is with them-she said something about ensuring that they had a complete list of the children and youth so that they could test everyone."

I almost forgot about the testing. They'll examine all of the girls between twelve and eight, and all of the unmarried boys older than fifteen using their strange power. Then they'll take some of them away never to be seen again.

"Are you nervous about being tested?"

Va'del shrugged,but his friend had known him for too long to be put off by such a feeble attempt.

"It's not that bad, at least not if it is just the annual checkup like Sara indicated. It always only took a few minutes, and then it was done."

"What if they find whatever they are looking for inside me?"

Pa'chi looked uncomfortable. "I don't know. My parents wouldn't tell me anything about what happens to the people they take away, but it won't happen to you. All the stories say that almost nobody is taken away anymore. They can't be as terrible as everyone says they are."

He showed absolutely no emotion at the prospect of killing the guardsmen. I think you might be surprised at what they are capable of. How many people would you have to kill before it became so commonplace?

Va'del was saved from responding by the healer's return. "Good, you're awake. Lets go."

It wasn't until the trio turned into the corridor leading to the guest rooms that Va'del realized what must be happening. He stopped walking and thought about running, but Sara turned and looked at him with such terrible majesty and power in her eyes that he knew he wouldn't get very far. "I don't know what garbage your mind has been filled with regarding the testing, but none of that matters, you will come with us and be tested."

Sara told Pa'chi to wait outside the privacy bend to the guest rooms and then pushed Va'del along ahead of her. The strange trio seemed to be expecting them, for all that the husband didn't look up from the gurra harness he was repairing.

The wives looked at Va'del's as if they'd seen too many scared young men that morning, but their reactions were quite different. The older woman's manner suggested a resigned acceptance of a situation she couldn't control, while the younger wife seemed mad enough to strangle someone with her bare hands.

The way that the angry woman pointed to a low chair without saying a word wasn't reassuring in the slightest, but mindful of the fact that her husband could easily back up the command with force, Va'del did as he was commanded.

"I'm Jasmin. I've no doubt that you believe we are all looking for an excuse to take you out in the cold and eat you, or something equally stupid."

For just a second it looked as though Jasmin was going to say something else, but the man quietly cleared his throat, and her mouth slammed shut with an audible click. "Never mind. There isn't any point fighting decisions made centuries before any of us were born. Sit down and we'll get started."

Jasmin sat down in the chair positioned directly in front of Va'del and leaned back. "Try to relax. Don't be too alarmed if you feel a strange pressure inside your mind. It probably won't come to that, but don't fight it or you'll just make both of us tired. If you fall asleep that's acceptable."

Jasmin closed her eyes and sat motionless for several minutes. Va'del began to feel restless, but one look at the massive man, now sharpening his sword with a painful casualness, convinced him to remain motionless.

Va'del finally closed his eyes and tried to relax enough to go to sleep. As the teenager finally started to drift off he felt something alien slowly swimming through his mind.

A bolt of fear shot through Va'del as he reflexively shoved at Jasmin's presence inside his mind. None of the rumors even touched on the idea that they might be able to invade my thoughts.

The panic hammering away at Va'del's rationality spiked as he felt Jasmin strengthen her efforts and force him aside. Sharp knives of pain raked through his head as she sifted through memories and feelings that he'd thought would always be private.

The struggle raged on despite Va'del's realization that he couldn't win. Even the sheer pain involved in fighting wasn't quite enough to overcome the innate desire to maintain the sanctity of his mind.

When Jasmin finally withdrew from his mind, the young man opened his eyes and found that he was shaking, had a terrible headache, and blood was trickling from his nose.

Sara nonchalantly handed Jasmin a cloth to staunch her nosebleed, and then turned to Va'del and offered him one as well.

"Pa'chi, you can come inside the room now. Take Va'del back to my rooms please. Don't let Jas'per or any of his cronies give either of you any problems. Come get me if necessary, or if they won't let you get away make sure they understand that I've had it with their antics and will invoke healer's right to punish them if they push the issue."

Pa'chi's eyes widened in shock, but she curtsied respectfully and helped Va'del to his feet.


After the pair were gone for several minutes, I'rone rose to his feet and walked down the corridor to ensure that the two youngsters were truly gone. Once the quartet was all back in the room, Sara felt her strength leak away like melting snow, and collapsed into a nearby chair.

"Powers! Since you pushed yourself and poor Va'del so hard, am I correct in assuming that he has what you're looking for?"

Betreec, the older of the wives looked as though she were torn between old loyalties and present duty. "You know we can't tell you anything about what we're really looking for in a candidate."

Sara snorted, "Please spare me. I understand why the Council wants such a ridiculous level of secrecy regarding the Guadel in these backwards villages, but I'm from the Capital. Not only that I trained with you and remember perfectly well when you were moon-eyed over I'rone, and worried that he'd snatch up a second wife before the two of you had even made it through your first year together. I know exactly the kinds of things that drew you to him, and I think the boy has many of the same qualities."

"I never..." Betreec momentarily looked shocked until I'rone's hand on her arm calmed her down enough to realize that Sara was joking.

Jasmin pulled the cloth she was holding to her face away and checked to make sure the bleeding had stopped. "I don't see why we shouldn't tell Healer Sara, it isn't like most of what we look for isn't an open secret back at the Capital."

As the younger wife looked at Sara, the older woman suddenly got the feeling that beneath the pretty exterior and calm eyes, Jasmin was nearly ready to explode.

"Your boy Va'del was the easiest to link with of any male I've ever tested. Not just slightly easier, vastly easier. That being said, he still may not be a suitable candidate."

Sara started to bristle, "What do you mean he may not be suitable? That child is one of the least-judgmental people I've met. He's much more considerate than some of the potentials I saw come in while I was in training."

Jasmin held her hand up. "I won't argue with you there. You know, I'm sure, that we can't really read someone's thoughts. Another person's mind is too alien for any of us to really know for sure what a given thought means, but we can get a feeling for their emotional state, and their general character."

Sara nodded impatiently, knowing very well that she gave off the air of someone who thought she was too old now to be lectured. That was only fair, she hadn't particularly enjoyed being instructed when she was younger either.

Betreec stifled a smile, no doubt at how little her friend had changed, as her sister-wife, Jasmin, continued. "He does indeed have all of the attributes we normally look for in a candidate, but I think he's suicidal. There's a kind of darkness to him that I'm not completely comfortable with. Every man in our bloodline is more than capable of violence, but I can't tell for sure that he'll keep that capacity chained as tightly as I'rone does."

"Fifteen years ago I might have argued with you over the exact level of I'rone's restraint. I know better now. Fear is the only thing that keeps an ice wolf like Ma'del in line. If anything you dealt too softly with him. Eventually he'll slip his leash and when that happens people are going to be hurt. Doesn't Va'del's darkness have a place? He might have arrived at a more permanent solution to Ma'del than you or the Council."

Jasmin started to respond, but it was I'rone that answered. "Darkness is only valuable in as much as it is demanded by his duty. Otherwise he's no better than the headman."

The healer finally nodded jerkily, and then put her face in her hands. "I suppose I should have expected as much, I just so hoped when you arrived that it would be possible to get him out of here."

Betreec walked over to the healer and put and hand on her shoulder. "What has happened to him?"

It was I'rone who responded. "It is the headman and his people. They mistreat him to garner support with the rest."


Pa'chi had reported back with a steady stream of names as the rest of the young men and the girls of the appropriate ages were tested. None of the others seemed really shaken when she saw them, and Va'del had become fairly certain that what had happened to him must not have been unusual.

"I think we need to get you out of here for a while, Va'del. Being stuck in here for days on end would make anyone go crazy."

"It's not going to make any difference. We're less than a week away from the decision day and none of the masters have talked to me even once. They can't choose me if they haven't found out anything about me. At this rate I'll end up forced to go to the Capital, the one place I'm guaranteed to be even more of an outcast than here."

Pa'chi shook her head vigerously. "I don't want you to have to leave. I'll... I'll talk to my father. I can convince him to select another apprentice this year. It won't matter that Sara is keeping you sequestered away here."

Jas'per's words from the other day seemed to burn Va'del's mind and it was all he could do to stop himself from yelling at Pa'chi. "I don't want his charity. I want to make it on my own."

The words came out harsher than he'd meant for them to, and Pa'chi looked as though she was fighting tears when Sara came around the privacy turn and nodded at them both.

"You're up. Good, let's go, Va'del."

Va'del felt a surge of anxiety as he remembered the last time she'd dragged him somewhere, but even his slight delay at rising seemed to have kindled a spark of anger in her stern brown eyes.

Va'del's fears were confirmed as they turned off towards the Guadel's rooms, Jas'per's friends were loitering near the guest rooms and Sara was obviously ready and spoiling for a fight. Va'del decided against protesting her choice in destinations. I won't let them see me dragged into the guest rooms kicking and screaming like a child.

The Guadel seemed to be expecting him once again. Jasmin flashed him a kind smile, the older wife gave him an absent-minded one, and even the man seemed slightly less foreboding than usual. As before, Va'del was directed to a seat, but this time it wasn't Jasmin that sat down opposite him.

"My name is Betreec. Jasmin said that you did an excellent job trying not to fight her last time you were here, do you think that you can do as well or better for me?"

Va'del's fear of these people hadn't gone away, but Betreec seemed very kind. Besides, one look at Sara's face told him that he'd better say yes and mean it. He nodded hesitantly.

It seemed to take Betreec longer to touch his mind than it had Jasmin, but when Va'del felt the first alien tendrils touch his thoughts he found that he wasn't as alarmed as he had been previously. Jasmin has obviously told them what she found inside my mind, so in a sense this all doesn't matter anymore. There isn't really anything left to hide from these people.

When Betreec finally stirred in her chair, Va'del found that although he had the barest beginnings of a headache, he wasn't shaking this time, and neither he nor the Guadel were suffering from a nosebleed.

The older woman waved Sara away and looked at Jasmin for several seconds before the pair finally nodded at each other.

Jasmin came and kneeled before Va'del. "I'm so very sorry that we had to put you through that. I'm told that it is quite painful. I wish there was another way to accomplish the test, but for now, you'll just have to take my word for it that we didn't intend you harm. Luckily it shouldn't be necessary to put you through something like that again."

"So you won't have to get inside my mind again?" The question slipped out before Va'del had a chance to remember that these weren't the kind of people that suffered questions gracefully.

Jasmin's eyes went wide, and for a second her gaze flickered back to something outside of Va'del's field of vision. Sara, standing against the wall behind Jasmin, looked surprised for a second, and then emphatically shook her head.

A moment later Betreec's frail hand came to rest on Va'del's shoulder. "What do you mean, Va'del?"

It was too late to do anything other than tell the truth. Va'del hadn't ever been a decent liar, so he spared just a moment to curse the evil powers, and then cleared his throat hesitantly. "I'm not sure. It just seemed as though there was something inside my mind that didn't belong there. I thought it was you."

Jasmin recaptured his attention, giving him a smile that was surprisingly reassuring. "You're a very perceptive young man, Va'del. You're right that part of the test involved us getting an impression of your mind, but you need to know that we can't really read your thoughts, we just get a good feeling for the kind of person you are. Kind of like the things that a best friend would know."

Is she telling the truth? How would I ever really know?

Looking at Va'del with earnest blue eyes, the Guadel continued. "If you trust Sara, she will confirm that is the case, and that also that the four of us won't tell anyone else what we learned."

Va'del found himself cautiously nodding, and Jasmin seemed to relax slightly. "You need to make a choice now, you can either stay here, or you can come with us when we leave."

Va'del was amazed at how quickly his body responded to the fear that washed over him. It was suddenly hard to think over the pounding of his heart. Sara looked at his obvious fear and shook her head.

"These people aren't the ogres that you've made them out to be, child. I can't tell you as much about them as I'd like, they won't permit it in case you decide to stay here, but they aren't evil. What is more, it appears that you're right about the masters. That fool Ma'del and his son Jas'per seem to have them all bullied into treating you like a plague victim. This is your chance to be apprenticed. Go with them."

Fingering the knife concealed in its usual place Va'del realized that there really wasn't anything left for him at Bitter Rocks. Even Pa'chi would be better off without him.

Looking from one Guadel to another, Va'del finally nodded, and was surprised to find that it was the man's face which seemed to brighten the most at his decision.

Chapter 3

Jasmin woke Va'del while the time globe was still giving off a very faint green glow, but he'd learned that asking questions about what was happening was almost completely useless. He simply wiped the sleep from his eyes and gathered up his few possessions at her command. Once the decision to leave with them was made, Sara brought my things-they didn't seem to want to let me out of their sight. Was that because they are trying to protect me, or are they just trying to insure that I don't slip away?

Betreec bustled around the suit of rooms pulling shrouding cloths from a pair of light spheres, while her husband, I'rone, was packing the group's possessions into an endless series of bags that were cleverly designed to easily tie onto gurra harnesses.

For all that Va'del didn't have much in the way of baggage, the other three seemed to have an endless array of items, all of which took more than a color cycle to pack.

The time sphere had advanced to a dark yellow by the time the little bundles were all arranged to I'rone's satisfaction.

The massively-muscled Guadel looked at the time and then grunted at a number of empty bags. "Still no food, and we haven't seen the slightest hint of the other things we asked for."

Jasmin nodded sharply, "Nor have we seen their stock of trade jewels. You know that that sorry excuse for a headman has something dirty up his sleeve."

Betreec looked up from the chair and table where she'd been preparing their breakfast and made calming motions to her sister-wife. "None of us like it any more than you do, beloved. Especially in light of other things we've learned here." She looked at Va'del out of the corner of her eye as she finished speaking, but there was no way of knowing just how much of their unhappiness really had to do with Va'del.

Unaware of the thoughts crashing around Va'del's head, the older woman continued. "Despite that, we can't take the kind of direct, violent action you would like us to. The code and laws are too important to dispose of. We have to work inside them."

Jasmin's ice-blue eyes hadn't calmed down in the least. "Deciding to do away with the Captain of the Guard and then proceeding to make every able-bodied young man the equivalent to a part-time guardsman isn't normal. He's all but building an army. Rather than patting him on the back for suppressing any and all real information about us, we should bring in ten or fifteen Guadel and forcibly remove him from power."

Jasmin momentarily looked like she was about to continue her argument, but then looked at Va'del and sighed. "We'll do it according to the code of course, but I maintain that serious problems are going to be caused by this headman in the future. The council would be far better off making sure that this village is visited more than once every year. This hands-off policy they've adopted can only lead to trouble."

Va'del tried to file Jasmin's words away for later analysis, he didn't know enough to put them in the proper context yet.

Sara and Pa'chi were waiting for the group when they left the guest rooms. Va'del's friend looked up at him with green eyes that were shiny with unshed tears. "You're really going away then?"

Unable to speak past the lump that had suddenly developed in his throat, Va'del simply nodded.

In a whisper Pa'chi continued. "I won't see you again. Sara told me that you'll never be allowed to return to this village, and I already know I'll never get the chance to leave."

Va'del attempted to smile and lighten the mood a little. "It's ok, you'll be better off without me. Once you aren't always trying to stick up for me, Jas'per and the others will leave you alone."

Pa'chi shook her head violently. "None of that matters. Sara says that you'll be in a better place. I'll miss you Va'del. I'll miss you a lot."

Before he could think of anything else to say to try and comfort his friend, Pa'chi wrapped her arms around Va'del's neck in a desperate hug, turning and running away as the tears finally started trickling down her face.


Va'del reached up with mitten-covered hands and adjusted his hood slightly to try and keep the cold air further away from his face. It didn't seem to help much, there wasn't anything in the desolate landscape to serve as a windbreak. As far as the eye could see there was just snow and ice broken by the occasional rock crag that had been scoured clean.

He hadn't been outside since his parents had taken him out on short trips as a child. It had been so long ago he'd forgotten just how cold it was outside the shelter of the caves. The chill cut right through his gurra wool clothes, but the light was almost as bad. He'd never imagined that light could cause his eyes to hurt, but Jasmin had indicated that it was possible for things to get even brighter.

The argument in the guest rooms before they left had given Va'del a vague idea of what would happen, but events had still played out much differently than he'd expected. If Betreec and I'rone's course of action was the more peaceful, non-confrontational way of handling things, I hate to think of what Jasmin's plan was. Maybe for I'rone to start killing random people until their demands were met?

When I'rone demanded the customary parting gift of food, and sufficient clothing and equipment to outfit Va'del, the headman had looked as though he was nearly ready to attack the Guadel with his bare hands. It's possible if I'rone had been a hair less menacing, that Ma'del would have had Jas'per and the others attack him, but everyone in the cavern knew that I'rone was capable of killing them all without breaking a sweat. Even after Ma'del finally gave us the food and equipment, he curtly informed Betreec that since his village wouldn't be trading with the Capital any more they wouldn't be given any of the trade jewels scheduled to be sent down with the next caravan to the lowlands.

I'rone didn't display the slightest emotion when he told Ma'del that the testing of youngsters wasn't dependent on trading with the Capital, and that any attempts to prohibit the Guadel from continuing their traditional duties would be viewed as open rebellion. I've never seen Ma'del truly speechless before. It's a good thing that I'rone got us moving before I ruined everything by laughing.

For all that the day started out with excitement, it had quickly devolved unprecedented levels of monotony. Walking across the crusted snow was simultaneously made more difficult and easier by the steel-spiked platforms I'rone had helped him strap to his shoes as they'd left the caves. After just a couple of hours Va'del's legs were burning and tingling from the unaccustomed weight.

The gurra he was leading wasn't any happier to be out in the cold than he was, and frequently pulled back on its lead, tiring his arm and causing it to ache. And I can't switch hands because the other arm is broken. I don't think I've ever been quite this physically miserable in my entire life.

Just when the teenager felt that he could go no further the party reached a outcropping of rock that served to protect them somewhat from the wind if not the cold.

I'rone opened up one of the small bags on the gurra he was leading and pulled out objects which he passed to Betreec, who in turn handed them back to Va'del. "Drink this. All of it, and eat the dried meat too."

Va'del looked back to Jasmin who had taken the last spot in the party as they'd set out, and saw that she'd already secured provisions of her own, and was consuming them with a greedy abandon that seemed to indicate that he'd better get on with it or he'd miss his chance.

The break wasn't as long as Va'del had hoped, but it proved long enough for him to finish the curiously-sweet beverage inside the water skin and make substantial progress on the meat.

When the party set out once again, their path angled slightly upward and Va'del found that his breathing grew ragged and forced despite the fact that their pace was no quicker than before.

Time seemed to grind to a near halt, and for a while Va'del found himself looking back frequently to verify that they were really making progress. Eventually he ceased to care, it took all of his energy, physical and mental, just to pick up his feet and move them a few inches further up the trail.

Va'del had long since passed the point where he thought he couldn't go on, by the time I'rone finally led the group into a smudge of darkness that turned out to be the narrow entrance to a fairly sizable cave.

By the way they moved, neither Betreec or Jasmin wanted to do anything other than collapse to the hard, rock floor, but they both joined a seemingly-unfatigued I'rone in stripping packs off of the gurra, and setting up camp.

One of the first things that Betreec did was to pull a thumb-sized ruby from a pocket hidden underneath her outer layer of clothing, and carefully position it near the mouth of the cave. Va'del suppressed his curiosity as Jasmin directed him in a variety of tasks, that kept him occupied until he noticed that his breath was no longer billowing out in a white cloud.

By the time the gurra were stripped, rubbed down and fed, Va'del found himself loosening the ties on his coat. Betreec continued to shuffle about placing several more dimly-glowing gemstones in different locations inside the cave. By the time camp was set up, not only had the air temperature reached comfortable levels, Va'del found that he was no longer gasping for breath.

Jasmin looked at the amazement on the young man's face and smiled as she shed her last bulky layer of cold-weather clothing.

"The stones are somewhat like the glow spheres in your village, but they serve a different purpose." Pointing to the one by the door, the Guadel continued. "That one holds the heat in and keeps the wind out. Others provide slight amounts of heat which we can use to cook on and warm the cave, and one of them holds the air in, making in a little thicker so we can breath more easily."

Magic, they're powered by magic. Overcome by amazement, Va'del found all kinds of questions charging to the surface of his mind, but he suppressed them. He was still unsure how Jasmin might respond to them.

Betreec looked over and must have divined what Va'del was thinking. With a laugh that sounded like tinkling bells, and kindness in her violet eyes, she pointed at Jasmin. "Don't be scared of this one, Va'del. She does get somewhat, um, excited from time to time, but she is also as patient as anyone I've ever met when it comes to those who have the great luck of being part of her family."

Sensing that he might finally get answers to some of the questions that had been building inside him for the last several days, Va'del plunged ahead.

"How do the spheres work?"

Jasmin smiled once again, and Va'del realized that those smiles somehow warmed her pale blue eyes. "That is quite the question. You knew, I assume, that Sara could do unusual things."

Va'del nodded, "Yes, healer magic."

I'rone shook his head from where he was examining harnesses. "Magic is magic."

Jasmin seemed almost as startled by the interjection as Va'del was, but she quickly continued with a nod to her husband. "There are those as would argue that magic isn't the proper name for it all, but he's right that it all flows from the same source. Healing, is just one aspect of a larger whole."

The slender Guadel had pulled a small gemstone of her own from a pocket somewhere while she was talking and placed it in a small hollow in the center of the cave floor. Pausing for a second in concentration, Jasmin smiled as the stone suddenly started to glow.

I'rone handed his wife a basin filled with snow, to which she added a small amount of water before placing it over the depression. "Those with the innate ability to perform magic, like Sara, Betreec and I, can with great effort eventually alter the nature of precious stones such that they tap into the same place we touch to perform the wonders that you would call magic."

Va'del nodded absently, not sure that he understood all that he'd just been told, but satisfied to let it simmer in his mind before asking for further clarification. "Why am I here?"

Jasmin looked at Betreec for a second before answering. "Va'del, just like not everyone has the ability to learn to become a healer, not everyone has the ability to become a Guadel like I'rone. You do, and that is why you are here. We hope to be able to train you to one day help protect the People."

Chapter 4

Va'del had been more than a little shocked at Jasmin's declaration that he might one day end up as a Guadel. A few days previous, the idea of becoming as terrifying as I'rone would have scared him more than just about anything else. Now however, I'm starting to see another side of these three They're all human, even I'rone. Somehow I don't think that he would have enjoyed cutting down Jas'per and the others. He may even have regretted the deed after the conflict was over, but he was definitely ready to kill whoever he needed to.

Betreec gently cleared her throat, and Va'del realized that his attention had wandered from the book he was supposed to be reading.

The older woman looked at him with a smile. "I know that reading about the laws and traditions surrounding the villages and their interaction with the Guadel isn't the most exciting past time, but the knowledge you'll find in there is vitally important to the People as a whole, and us as Guadel specifically."

Jasmin looked up from where she had been sitting motionless against the gray rock wall of the way cave for the last half hour and winked at Va'del. "You may never be the legal scholar that I'rone is, but I think if you give it a chance, you may find it all more interesting than you would have guessed."

Not likely, this is dryer even than the stuff I had to read back in the village.

The twinkle in Jasmin's eyes combined with her next comment almost made Va'del wonder if she was reading his mind again. "Trust me on this one, you just need to read it with the aim of understanding how the laws all work together to protect the rights of the villagers, from each other, from the Guadel, and most importantly from their headman. Once you approach it from that stance, it gets much less dry."

Va'del shrugged noncommittally, and shifted slightly, testing tired muscles for soreness. I never would have guessed that having an actual instructor for weapons training would make such a difference in how enjoyable it was. I'rone still doesn't say much, in fact sometimes his comments are more than a little cryptic, but even so I've learned more from him in the last two days than I did from Ma'del in the last three months.

I'rone had started with Ma'del's style of fighting, but promised that once Va'del's arm was healed the lessons would change. The Guadel's manner of fighting involved the use of not only the standard longsword that Va'del was familiar with, but also a longer dagger that was held in the left hand and used for parries and the occasional strike. It seems like it would be a little hard to mentally keep track of both weapons, but he says that with enough repetition that the proper strikes and counters will become reflexive.

If the study of law was the low point of the past two days, and the study of weapons was the high point, the things that Jasmin had asked Va'del to do really were more or less in the middle. I don't understand what possible purpose meditating could serve. She just makes me sit there and visualize a thick sheet of ice slowly melting away. Or a beaded curtain parting before me so that I can see the outside world. That and relaxing. She seems awfully concerned with me relaxing, and when I ask her about it, she just says that the mental will follow the physical.

As frustrating as the pointless exercises were, Va'del found that he couldn't really generate any ill feelings towards Jasmin after what had happened the first night they'd reached the caves.

Va'del had awaken partway through the night unable to catch his breath. Initially,he'd tried not to wake the others, but as his breathing had grown more and more ragged, he'd been overcome by a mounting sense of panic., and crawled over to where the other three were sleeping.

Jasmin had been the first to wake when he'd finally crawled over to the Guadel. She'd looked up at him with sleepy eyes for a second and then sworn and yelled for Betreec. Jasmin had hurriedly explained to Va'del that his lungs were filling up with liquid, and then joined Betreec in a trance. The better part of a cycle passed before the two women came out of the trance, but somewhere along the way Va'del found that he was once again able to breath.

Thinking about what had happened, Va'del took a deep, experimental breath and was pleased find that he still felt normal. Betreec looked up again, "Do you still feel ok?"

Va'del nodded, "Yes, I have since that night."

The older woman smiled, and looked back down at the book she was reading, but Va'del decided it was time to ask the question that had been on his mind. "It only took a few minutes for my breathing to ease, what were you and Jasmin doing for the rest of the time?"

Betreec suddenly had the look of someone who'd just realized something they'd thought trivial was about to come back and cause problems. "As we mentioned before, the reason you were having a hard time breathing was that the cold, thin air this high in the mountains was damaging your lungs and causing them to fill with liquid. While we were repairing the damage and helping your body to absorb the liquid, we made a few changes so that you'll be less prone to have problems of that sort in the future."

Va'del found his fear of the Guadel suddenly swept away by the greater fear of what he would become if they had their way with him. "You changed my body without asking? Like I was a piece of stone to be molded with no thought to what it might prefer?"

Leaning into the stone wall behind him, Va'del fought off tears. "You made me even more different from everyone else."

As the teenager turned away, he saw that Betreec looked positively devastated, but he didn't care. For once he suppressed his concern about how others felt, and instead rejoiced in the fact that someone else felt bad.

A few seconds later a gentle hand touched Va'del's shoulder, but he shook it off. Jasmin cleared her throat, but received not response. "We're sorry Va'del. We should have asked first, but among our people, it is a fairly common thing. We expected that you would be happy that you now have greater freedom to move about the mountains if you wanted."

Va'del continued to ignore the younger wife in the hope that she would leave him alone, and after a short time he heard her turn and walk away. The next hand to touch his shoulder wasn't feminine or gentle. I'rone carefully pulled the teenager around and then pressed a heavy coat into Va'del's arms. "Outside."

Still more than a little afraid of the larger man, Va'del pulled on the heavy coat and his ice spikes. I'rone strode out into the cold as soon as Va'del was properly attired.

The pair walked for several minutes, moon-lit snow crunching with each step, before I'rone stopped and found a seat.

"The women, they are different than men. I think that's good. Some tasks are better suited to our nature, and some are better suited to theirs."

Va'del listened in confusion-he wasn't sure that he'd ever heard so many words from I'rone at one time.

"Women are more apt to try and change things, to fix things and people. Sometimes they go to far, like they just did with you. When that happens, it is important to make sure that they know they've overstepped their bounds, but what is done is done. Nothing is to be gained by trying to make them feel worse than they already do."

Opening his mouth to respond hotly, Va'del was suddenly struck by the understanding displayed on I'rone's weathered face. "You have always been different, but only small, stupid people make those who are different feel bad simply because of differences. The Guadel, we are all different. That is what makes us special, and your difference from the rest of your village is the reason why we believe you may be able to become one of us."

The massive Guadel patted Va'del on the shoulder and then stood. "Rejoin us when you're ready."

After I'rone had left, Va'del spent a cycle outside staring at the moon before the cold finally drove him back to the way cave. What have I gotten myself into? When they are done with me will I even be one of the People anymore? Will I even be human?


Va'del's legs once again ached from the strain of trudging across the blindingly-white snow, but this time he wasn't quite as exhausted. I suppose that the last few days of travel have toughened me up more than I thought.

From his position in the front, I'rone pointed to a dark smudge signifying bare rock a little ways in the distance, and Va'del suddenly realized it must be the entrance to Screaming Wind Village.

Another half cycle passed before the tiny group made it to the entrance of the village caves, but time seemed to skip forward, and sooner than Va'del expected, they were stepping inside the caves. I wonder what creates the keening sound? Some property of the wind and rocks?

Ten feet into the cave, a pair of guards challenged the small group, stepping aside as I'rone removed his head covering. "Honored Guadel. Para'de will conduct you all to the guest quarters."

The guard that had spoken bowed briefly and then stepped aside so that his companion could guide the small party. Va'del lost track of all the turns they took, but after stabling the gurra, and meeting a villager who'd promised to rub the beasts down, the party picked up the bulk of the packages that had been on the beasts, and continued on. Soon enough they were inside the guest quarters, and the guard was backing out of the rooms.

Once they were alone Jasmin shivered. "That howling never fails to set my teeth on edge. If we were any closer to the entrance I'd never get a wink of sleep."

Betreec smiled as she and I'rone began unpacking the few things that they would need while in the village. "The first time we were sent here I nearly drug I'rone back out to the way cave two days early. There's something about the pitch that always knots up my shoulders something fierce."

Va'del found himself smiling in shared camaraderie as Jasmin examined his arm.

"It's looking much better. The bones seem to be healing cleanly-I would except another two weeks and we can possibly remove the splint."

Va'del could tell from her pause that she was trying to decide whether or not to say something. Finally after a couple of heartbeats had passed, Jasmin continued in a rush. "If you want, I could force the healing process. It is a simple matter which leaves no lasting change. I'd simply cause the bones to bind together more quickly than they normally would."

Trying to ignore the sudden queasiness in his stomach, Va'del did his best to examine the offer objectively, stomping on the fear that would lead to him offending her. "How quickly would it heal if you did this?"

Jasmin seemed to relax slightly, almost like a gurra trainer who'd managed to get the beast to accept a burden without kicking for the first time. "We could have the splint off in three days, and you could start training the day after that. It's possible to do it more quickly than that, but neither you or I would be much good for anything other than sleeping while you were healing if we did that. Healing magic takes energy from both the healer and the patient-that's why Sara typically uses non-magical methods and lets the body heal itself at a natural rate. If she exhausted herself and then someone more seriously hurt arrived, she might not have the resources to heal the life-threatening injury."

Va'del didn't doubt Jasmin's word, but the thought of Sara using mystical powers seemed so unnatural that his mind shied away from the thought.

"Can I think about it for a little while?"

Jasmin nodded, seemingly relieved that Va'del hadn't turned her down immediately, and turned to help with the last of the unpacking.

I'rone saw Va'del begin to unbuckle his sword belt and shook his head emphatically. Betreec smiled gently at the young man. "You'll need to remain armed at all times while we are in the village. There really shouldn't be any occasion for you to use a weapon inside, but there are those who bear the Guadel no love, and you should always be mindful of the possibility of an ambush in the darkness by someone who had a judgment go against them."

Jasmin frowned, "Sad to think that for all that our reception here is warmer than what we saw at Bitter Rocks, we still have to fear attack from our own people."

Va'del was about to ask for further clarification when a loud clap announced the presence of someone desiring entrance to their quarters. The man who appeared from around the privacy corner in the wall was a broad as he was garrulous, and it took Va'del only a moment to realize that the well-fed man was the village headman.

Betreec handled the introductions, presenting Va'del to the headman without any title or explanation of his presence.

He'lo, as Va'del had just learned the man was called, seemed nearly ready to ask for clarification regarding the young man's status, before nodding and turning back to Betreec. "I'd hoped you'd be bringing a shipment with you. We're starting to run low on some things, and now that Ma'del has stopped trading with us, it's getting to the point where the kitchens turn out nothing but mushroom stew for every meal."

Jasmin smiled, "You'll be glad to know that a caravan set out from the Capital about a week after we left. They shouldn't be too far behind us. Maybe another week and a half, and your people will be able to add some variety to their diets."

He'lo nodded, "That's good to hear. You'll take our gem harvest with you I assume?" I'rone nodded and, the headman continued. "We've got more than usual, I'll send an order with you as well, but what we'd really like to get is a light source that we could use to grow some grain. I know those are usually sent out on an as-needed basis, but we'd willing to forgo a substantial amount of the profit we'd otherwise see on this gem shipment if the council would be willing to provide us with one."

Betreec seemed slightly surprised at the offer. "As you say that's out of our hands, but we'll be sure to pursue the possibility with the council once we're back."

Once the talk turned to the testing of the young men and women, Va'del stopped paying as much attention, allowing his thoughts to wander until he heard Jasmin say his name.

"... Va'del and I can go look at the cavern where you'd like to begin farming. Possibly I'll have some suggestions on how you can maximize the yield if you're able to obtain a strong enough light source, and if nothing else it will allow us to report back the the council regarding the level of preparation you've already made."

He'lo held up a hand as Jasmin stood. "Before you go do that I should tell you that there is a matter requiring your judgment." The previously confident headman uncomfortably shifted his considerable bulk back and forth from foot to foot before continuing.

"My boy was involved in a business dealing with the widow of one of the miners who was killed in an accident last month. I'll be the first to admit that the terms of the agreement are quite complex and somewhat vague in a couple key parts, but when the two of them came for judgment, I found in favor of my son. The widow is appealing my decision to you."

Betreec nodded. "That is well within her rights, especially considering the close relationship between you and your son. We'll listen to both parties tomorrow and rely on the Goddess to guide us."

It seemed as though Jasmin had heard all she needed to hear. She gathered Va'del up with a glance and swept out of the room.

Mindful of the warning that he'd received before going out, Va'del tried to remain alert to his surroundings, and ready for possible trouble, but he found it somewhat difficult in light of the wonders he was shown in the next few hours.

They never let the youngsters see any of this back home. If I'd been apprenticed, I'd have seen one of these areas, possibly two if I was very lucky, but not everything.

The large cavern where the village wanted to start farming was the first thing Jasmin asked to see. Once there she showed him the clever way in which the villagers were using lichen to breach rock chips down into soil. "It is similar to how they start the mushroom farms below us. Once the mushrooms have had a go at the human and animal waste, what is left would actually serve quite well as a medium for growing grain. Notice how the rock here is lighter in color than most of the walls you've seen in the village so far? The lighter rock should reflect more light back to the plants, so a weaker light source could be used."

Their guide took them through a large opening into another room, and Va'del realized that there wasn't just one cave meant to be used for growing, but two.

"Won't they need two light sources if they have two rooms?"

Jasmin shook her head. Plants do best with alternate periods of light and darkness. They can move a single light source between the two caverns, and more than double the yield they'd otherwise get from their crops.

Va'del nodded, struck by the simple genius of the idea and realizing for the first time on a truly fundamental level just how self-contained each of the villages was. "Where does the village get it's water? Do they have hot springs like mine did?"

Jasmin shook her head. "They don't. Instead some of the heat from the village is allowed to escape up a slim hole to the outside. That results in the snow melting and trickling down into cisterns where it is stored until needed."

"If there aren't any hot springs, what provides the heat to keep the village from freezing?"

With a smile that lit up her pale-blue eyes, Jasmin asked the guard who was serving as their guide to take them to the heart chamber.

When the trio arrived, Va'del's breath was taken away by the sheer beauty of the fist-sized sapphire resting on the stone pedestal in the center of the room.

Stepping into the amazing heat of the room, Jasmin pointed at a series of holes bored into the top of the walls, barely visible in the soft, blue light provided by the sapphire. "Hot air rises, so these allow the heated air to circulate out to various parts of the village while the ones in the bottom allow cold air to come into the room."

Va'del shook his head in astonishment. "It is amazing. If it is so powerful though why doesn't give off more light?"

Jasmin laughed, but it was an easy sound, not at all reproachful like the Jas'per's braying, mocking laughter. "The creator of the Heart Stone could have made it so that it gave off more light, but only at the cost of reducing the amount of heat it provided."

Va'del momentarily got the feeling that Jasmin was going to say something else, but she looked at their guide, and then seemed to think better of it.

"We'll be fine to make it down to the mines on our own, I remember the way, and am well acquainted with Master Miner Bac'tra."

After the guard had bowed and left, Jasmin turned to Va'del. "The creator of the Heart Stone was a Guadel. In fact, she comes through our lineage."

Responding to the look of confusion on the young man's face, Jasmin continued. "There is very rarely any real family relationship between the various people in a given Guadel lineage. Instead, those trained by a specific Guadel are typically considered to be of that Guadel's bloodline. Ironically enough, although we may be quite different in appearance, generally speaking we choose to train people similar to ourselves, and consequently the men of the bloodline will have the same qualities, and seek out the same kinds of wives."

Va'del nodded despite the fact that he was sure there were subtleties that he wasn't grasping. Encouraged, Jasmin finished her explanation as they left the heart room. "We're of the bloodline of Stephens. It was one of his three wives that created the Heart Stone after he died and she took up residence in the Capital. It is said that it took her more than twenty years to finish it, despite being one of the most powerful magic users of her day."

Once the pair arrived at the mine entrance, they were met by a short man who was almost as heavily muscled as I'rone. Master Bac'tra greeting Jasmin with a nod, listen as she introduced him to Va'del and then looked him over with careful brown eyes. "You're a bit too tall to really be a miner, at least the way we mine around here."

I wonder if that was part of why the master miner at home never approached me about becoming an apprentice. He always seemed a relatively decent fellow.

For all that the mines weren't as exciting as the heart room, Va'del felt as though Bac'tra had casually poured weeks worth of knowledge into his head. Different types of rocks, the way that seams tended to come together, and the likeliest places to find gemstones. It was enough to leave Va'del's mind spinning but nothing stuck with him quite like Bac'tra's parting comment.

"Once we're done with an area half the work is complete towards turning it to livable space for when the settlement grows."


The mood when Va'del awoke was even more serious than normal among the Guadel. When the young man finally questioned Jasmin she explained as well as she was able. "The headman here is for the most part a good man. Usually he's scrupulously fair in his judgments, but he's also got a temper. Add in the fact that he's spoiled his son more than he should have, and this may very well be one of those instances in which the woman asking for us to review He'lo's judgment is right."

Va'del shrugged as he ate a piece of dried fruit from their food stores. "So the three of you will find against the son and that will be the end of it."

Betreec overhead the explanation and shook her head. "Sometimes it's not that easy. Tradition and law grant people the right to appeal decisions to us, but that doesn't mean the rest of the villagers, or the headman even, can't make life miserable for the person who asked for judgment."

Jasmin handed Va'del his sword as she continued. "Also, the balance of power between the Guadel and the headman is fragile thing. For all that it's carefully delineated, we've just come from an example of just how difficult the headmen can make things for us if they're so inclined."

Jasmin's last few words were said with a kind of studied casualness that Va'del suddenly realized signified some importance.

Before he could further examine the idea, I'rone led the four of them out of the guest rooms and off to the secluded cavern that would serve as the judgment room.

Although Va'del did his best to follow everything that was said, he found himself hard pressed to understand all of the particulars of what had happened. Even reading through the lengthy contract twice didn't let him wrap his mind completely around everything.

It took several cycles before I'rone finally nodded and sat back. He'd asked quiet questions about a variety of things that never would have crossed Va'del's mind, and Va'del wasn't sure of the cause of more than half of them.

Betreec asked the widow, the headman and his son to leave, and then signaled for Va'del to remain quiet.

Once the judgment room was empty but for the four of them, Jasmin closed her eyes briefly and then swayed as she opened them. "They won't be able to overhear us now, but let's be quick or I'll be so exhausted that you'll have to carry me back."

Betreec looked at Va'del. "I know that you aren't as well versed in law and the finer points of contracts as the rest of us, but what do you think about all of this?"

"I guess it all boils down to the question of whether or not the husband's death nullifies the agreement? If the contract is still in effect then the headman's son has to pay out a substantial sum, if now then the widow is left essentially penniless."

I'rone nodded, "So is it in effect?"

Va'del opened his mouth, thought for a second, and then shrugged. "I don't really know, but it seems to me that the son is a bit of a sneak who has just latched on the excuse that the husband died as a way of getting out of paying a substantial amount of money."

The honest answer startled a chuckle out of Jasmin. "I think you're right, but unfortunately the question is whether or not the law supports him on this or not. He took a gamble, but in all fairness so did the husband. It wouldn't be right to protect the husband, or his widow just because we don't particularly like the son."

"I don't know then."

I'rone picked up his copy of the agreement and pointed to a section, causing Betreec to nod in agreement. "I think you're right. The section detailing the kinds of things that would nullify the contract doesn't cover this instance. The fact that we've seen a number of contracts which do detail this kind of accident as nullifying a contract doesn't really serve as an excuse to nullify this particular one."

Despite her obvious weariness, Jasmin was nodding now too, "You're right other than to show that they should have included a provision of that nature if they really wanted the contract to dissolve under those circumstances."

Once the three Guadel were in agreement, Va'del was sent out to summon everyone back into the room, and I'rone, of all people, issued the final judgment.

The normally terse Guadel waxed incredibly eloquent as he explained the relevant points of the contract, and why they'd decided as they had. In fact, I'rone did such a good job that when all was said and done, even the son didn't seem overly upset.

For all that I'rone's speech was exactly the kind of thing that Va'del usually would have wanted to remember, when the massive man finished and sat down, the younger man found that he couldn't remember a word that had been said.

She was so grateful. The relief on her face was the most amazing thing I've seen. She really didn't have anywhere else to turn for help. If not for the Guadel she'd never have received justice. Jasmin and the others are trying to help me, just like they helped her.

The trip back to the guest rooms seemed to pass in a blur. Once the group had returned, Va'del turned to Jasmin. "I've thought about it, and if you're still willing I'd like you to make my arm heal faster. I'm sorry I got mad when you fixed my lungs. I'm ready now for whatever changes need to happen for me to become a Guadel if you'll all still have me."

Jasmin's expression instantly changed. It wasn't angry or unhappy with him in any way, but it was obvious that he'd just crossed over into serious territory.

"What's occasioned this change, Va'del?"

If the expression was merely stern, the words were almost accusatory, and Va'del suppressed a sudden flash of hurt that Jasmin, of all people, would suddenly turn on him.

"I don't understand. I thought that this is what you wanted. For me to become a Guadel, to be like you."

Jasmin shook her head. "What I want isn't an issue at the moment. Please answer the question. Why have you suddenly decided that you're willing to do things that were so distasteful to you just a few days ago?"

Va'del suddenly realized that the repercussions of failing this particular exam could be far reaching.

"I'm not sure. It's more of a feeling than anything that I can really pin down. I guess I just want to be able to help people. Like you all just did by sitting in judgment. There are so many people out there who don't have anywhere to turn for help, and the Guadel are the helpers of last resort. I guess I can't think of any other way I could help so many people."

Jasmin studied his expression for several seconds and then finally nodded as her face relaxed into it's usual smile. "Well then, I think it's time we see about getting that arm patched up so you can be ready to lend two good hands when they're needed."

Chapter 5

Between the long journey from Screaming Wind Village, and the two hours of one-armed weapons practice that I'rone had put him through, Va'del was possibly the most tired he'd ever been, but he didn't really care. Not even the normal cycle's worth of law homework was enough to discourage him.

As Va'del shifted his sleeping mat so that it would shield him from the cold wall he was leaning against, Jasmin came over and asked to look at his arm. "It is healing up nicely now. I think we'll probably be able to pull the splint off tomorrow morning before we set out."

"Thanks, it will be nice to be able to switch which hand is holding Sleepy's guide rope."

Hearing her name, the gurra bleated from the darkened corner that served as a holding area for the animals.

Va'del and Jasmin both laughed, and then seeing that I'rone and Betreec were at the far end of the cavern and engaged in a discussion of their own, Jasmin leaned in and whispered. "Last night when I worked on your arm I also made a little change that will make it easier for you to put on muscle for the next little while."

The teenager felt his eyes go big, but remembering that he'd told her he was ready for whatever changes were necessary to become a Guadel, he stammered his quiet thanks as Jasmin continued. "It isn't quite tradition, we aren't supposed to make changes of that nature until you are approved by the council and become an actual Guadel. I'rone definitely wouldn't approve, he's a firm believer in pain and suffering, but as hard as you seem determined to work yourself, I thought that maybe you could use a little help. Besides, it isn't as though I'm building it for you like we do to keep I'rone in top shape, I'm just making it a little easier for you to put it on yourself."

Before Va'del could open his mouth to thank her, Jasmin shook her head. "This is the least I can do, I'm only sorry that we couldn't come sooner. Most of us suspected that things were getting bad at Bitter Rocks, but if I'd had any idea how poorly you were being treated I would have found a way to convince I'rone and Betreec to defy the Council and come put Ma'del in his place.

Va'del knew that most people tried to frame their past actions in such a way as to make themselves look better. Jas'per, for one, had excelled at the practice, but he somehow knew that Jasmin really meant every word of what she'd just said. Nearly overcome by emotion, and he momentarily found it a little hard to breath.

Smiling once again as if to relieve the seriousness of the moment, Jasmin handed him a piece of hard bread made from dried, ground mushrooms that they'd been given at the last village. "I'd better let you get back to work. You still need to perform your meditation and relaxation exercises."

A little more than a cycle later Va'del found himself in bed listening to the others breathing. Is this what it feels like to have a family? It has been so long, but I think so. Jasmin at least is starting to feel like an older sister.


Two days later, the group found itself in the last way cave before the village furthest from the Capital. Once everything was unpacked in the sprawling, multi-roomed cavern, Betreec went outside to get a feel for the weather while I'rone started into weapons instruction with Va'del.

Mindful of the fact that Jasmin had told him he should be starting to put muscle on more quickly than normal, Va'del tried to determine if it was any easier to hold his practice sword at the ready as his feet slowly crept across the rough surface of the cave floor. Maybe a little easier. It's hard to tell, but it's still pretty early after the change.

I'rone whipped the slender length of his steel practice weapon around in a cut at Va'del's head that the teenager ducked before riposting with a stab that the older man gently deflected to the side with his dagger.

The pair moved back and forth across the floor raining blows down on each other for half a cycle before I'rone signaled an end. The Guadel then set Va'del to practicing specific parries and blows by himself while I'rone began his own exercises.

I know that I'm not pressing him yet, and he's being very careful not to press me too hard, but I'm getting better. In fact I think with my longer reach I could probably take Jas'per now.

A cycle later I'rone patted Va'del on the back and gestured for him to go do his reading and meditation. After thanking the Guadel for instructing him, Va'del walked over to Betreec who'd been staring at a yellow sapphire since shortly after she had finished her portion of the unpacking.

Looking up with a smile, Betreec rubbed her temples. "I'm sorry, were you waiting long?"

Va'del shook his head. "No, I just came over. Can I ask what you were doing?"

"Jasmin said she showed you the Heart Stone when we were at the village?"

The teen felt a thrill of excitement. "You're making another Heart Stone?"

Betreec shook her head. "No, nothing so ambitious, just another sphere that will give off heat similarly to how the Heart Stone works, but not as powerful or hot. Each time we increase the number of Guadel on patrol we have to provide them with light, heat, a way to keep the wind out, and a way to thicken the air up if they have to spend the night at too high of an altitude."

Jasmin came over from where she'd been cooking dinner and ruffled Va'del's hair despite his attempt to duck away. "Alternatively anytime the Council decides to try and start a new village the same kinds of things are needed."

Va'del was suddenly struck by the amount of time associated with each sphere, and the sheer number of spheres in a given village. "That is incredible, how often do we establish a new village?"

The younger of the two women smiled at the teenager, once again seeming to know where his thoughts were headed. "Not very often. The women among the Guadel, especially those who are at the Capital for some reason or another, spend thousands of cycles preparing the things necessary for such an event. That is why He'lo's request was so unusual. Once a village is established the healer is the one who typically provides those kinds of things."

Betreec nodded, "On the other hand, if it allows the People as a whole to become less dependent on bringing food up from the lowlanders, the Council will be inclined to approve it. Especially if He'lo is really prepared to forgo a large amount of the goods that his jewels otherwise would entitle him to."

Jasmin rose to her feet again and gestured for Va'del to follow her back to his sleeping mat. "Betreec has agreed to forgo your usual legal instruction tonight so that we can spend some more time on your meditation."

Va'del suppressed a groan. "Great more hours of imagining curtain parting, ice melting and picks chipping away at rock walls. It's gotten to the point that I dream about those things more nights than not. I don't suppose you'll tell me the point behind all of this?"

Jasmin shook her head, "Nope, a little frustrated curiosity is good for you. If it makes you feel any better you seem to be doing quite well though."


The group had been traveling for about a third of the day across the hard snow when Va'del noticed a curious, high-pitched whistling. The sound was so unnatural, that he immediately fell back far enough to ask Jasmin about it.

Jasmin's eyes suddenly got big and then lost focus briefly. Va'del turned in time to see I'rone's coat whip through the still air as though in a wind. The curious action was repeated three times, but by the second I'rone had stopped walking and started scanning their surroundings with even more than his usual care.

Jasmin gave Va'del a gentle push to get him started, and the pair quickly rejoined I'rone and Betreec.

Panting slightly from exertion and nervousness, Jamsin leaned toward I'rone, speaking quietly. "Va'del heard high-pitched whistling ahead."

I'rone took a deep breath and then nodded. "Bag'ligs."

Va'del felt his blood run cold. I thought they were just myths, the kinds of things that parents threaten misbehaving children with.

I'rone handed his gurra's lead rope to Betreec, who sunk to the ground and closed her eyes.

Jasmin pulled on Va'del's arm to get his attention, her voice the barest whisper. "Don't panic. Do exactly as I'rone tells you, and we should have a chance unless it is a particularly large tribe."

Taking the lead rope to Va'del's gurra, Jasmin closed her eyes and sat down as well.

I'rone had drawn both of this weapons, and was moving with the deadly grace and controlled menace that Va'del remembered from back in Bitter Rocks.

The first squat, ugly shapes came around a spur of rock, and Va'del felt his heart speed up as they were joined by more and more of the hairy, long-armed beasts.

There are so many of them, too many of them.

I'rone gestured Va'del closer, and then looked at the teenager with a kind of grim anticipation. "They'll attack as a single group. Follow and guard my back. If we can keep them from surrounding us, we have a chance."

For all that the Guadel gave the impression that he was reigning himself back, his strides devoured ground at such a rate that Va'del had to nearly run to keep up. The teenager drew his weapons once he caught up to I'rone, and then the pair waited for the dark mass to reach them.

There can't be more than ten or so of them, it is all just like practice. Don't forget to breath.

One second the creatures were creeping towards the humans before them, and then suddenly they were running, and Va'del was too focused on staying alive to have energy for rational thought.

I'rone cut down the first two bag'ligs to reach him with brutal arcs of his sword that left gaping wounds, as he carried the fight forward. I'rone seemed to slide effortlessly around attacks, stabbing and slashing with an ease that made his heavy weapons appear weightless, but even his momentum was finally overcome by the sheer mass of biting and clawing forms before him, at which point, Va'del was able to catch up.

The teenager swung his sword as hard as he could at one of the creatures that was trying to edge through the bloody snow around I'rone's right side, and nearly lost his weapon as it sliced into the creature's flesh.

The next few minutes of fighting were a blur of dodges and desperate parries interspersed with blows that just served to keep the bag'ligs from swarming I'rone under.

As suddenly as the charge had started, it ended, and Va'del found himself collapsing to the ground, his weapons falling from numb hands, as I'rone gracefully dispatched the last of the creatures.

Va'del tried to get back to his feet, but his body seemed unwilling to respond. While he was still trying to find his feet I'rone easily picked him up and slung him over a shoulder. The sight of the bloody snow sliding away below him faded away to nothing as he momentarily passed out.

Va'del came to as Jasmin pulled what was left of his coat up to bind four large slashes that had somehow appeared on his ribs.

"I don't remember those. I guess I didn't dodge everything I thought I had."

Jasmin shook her head in exasperation as she worked but a sound off to the left captured his attention before he could ask her what was wrong."

Looking around, Va'del saw that I'rone was undergoing much the same procedure from Betreec, although for a collection of much shallower wounds. The massive Guadel looked over and once he realized that Va'del was awake, a broad grin flashed across his face. "Good job. Very good indeed."


The trip the rest of the way to the village was blessedly short, and once Jasmin had him properly bandaged, Va'del was able to make it under his own power with only a small amount of stumbling. Even so, when the group found itself inside the dark tunnel leading to the village, Va'del's knees nearly buckled with relief.

A greater than usual number of guards had been stationed at the mouth of the cave, and once Betreec explained that they'd already dispatched the bag'ligs, there was no end of hands that were willing to steady Va'del, help unpack the gurra, and carry the Guadel's bags to the guest quarters.


When Va'del finally woke, it was several cycles past mid morning. He felt more than a little sheepish at having slept in so late until he tried to sit up and the motion pulled at his wounds.

Betreec heard the teenager shuffling around as he tried to gather the things he'd need for a bath, and came to check on him. "How do you feel?"

Va'del's groan was quite theatrical, but he honestly felt better than he'd expected to and said as much.

"Jasmin accelerated the healing process and fought off an infection already. You should be more or less back to normal in a day or so."

The Guadel shifted from one foot to the other in a way that Va'del had come to realize meant that she was trying to figure out the best way to phrase a question. Finally the older woman sighed and just asked it.

"What is driving this sudden change? You've attacked your weapons instruction, the legal readings you've been given, and even your meditation with a gusto that is markedly different that the first little while you were with us? Frankly it has me more than a little worried."

"Va'del felt confusion settle on him. "I don't understand. I thought that you'd be happy that I was doing so much better. I thought you'd be pleased."

Betreec sighed, "I am happy, and I don't suppose that all of this really makes much sense, but the fact that you're doing better isn't any more important that the reason you've decided to change. Why is it that you're working so much harder."

Tears started to form in the corners of Va'del's eyes. "My whole life I've been picked on and ridiculed. I've always been different, and different has always been bad."

The teenager wiped the nascent tears away. "Now you tell me that those differences are part of what makes me potentially able to become like I'rone and I want that more than anything, so that I can help people too."

Looking Betreec in the eyes, Va'del tried to will her to know the truth of what he was saying. "The widow at the last village, we were her only hope of justice, and we gave it to her. I want to help those like me, the ones that don't have anywhere else to turn."

The older woman finally sighed and pulled Va'del towards her in a hug. "That is what Jasmin said you'd say, but we had to be sure. To be able to right wrongs, we have to have power beyond that of most people, and that power is easily misused by those who seek power simply for power's sake."

Va'del looked up at Betreec through eyes that were blurry once more. "Does that mean you aren't going to send me away?"

"No, we aren't going to send you away, and if you continue to be the same thoughtful, caring young man you are right now, I have every confidence that someday you'll make a very fine Guadel."


For Va'del the rest of the day had mostly been spent reading law books and meditating while Jasmin had tested a variety of scared-looking girls and anxious young men for the qualities that would make them potential Guadel or healers.

Under normal circumstances, the teenager would have been itching to get out of bed and do something physical, but whatever Jasmin had done to make him heal faster had exhausted him. Just a few cycles after he awoke for the day, he found himself lying back down and falling asleep for the night.

The next morning found Va'del awake at his usual time, keyed up and ready for weapons practice.

Surprisingly enough, I'rone had chosen to have Va'del practice with some of the guardsmen, and the teenager quickly realized just how much better he'd gotten since he'd left home. I'm not the best here, but I'm not the worst either, and some of the people he's matched me up against are blooded from fights against bag'ligs.

I'rone on the other hand was the best present, and not by a small margin either. The massive Guadel was skilled enough that he could take the two next best fighters three fights out of five, but watching his mentor in between fights, Va'del was struck not by I'rone's unquestionable skill, but rather by the fact that he seemed just a pale shadow of the warrior the teen had seen cut down eight bag'ligs with almost negligent ease.

Suddenly bits and pieces of things that Jasmin had said over the last few weeks combined with observations he'd made, and formed a picture that he somehow knew was right. His wives, they're somehow making him more than human.

Once I'rone released him from practice, Va'del sought out Jasmin. "You and Betreec did something to make I'rone so much faster during the fight with the bag'ligs didn't you? You make him faster and stronger.

Jasmin put the harness she's been mending down and nodded. "You're right. I'rone is amazing by himself, but it is the augmentation that Betreec and I do that make him capable of fighting off three or four opponents. Of course, you must not ever let anyone in the villages know that. If they find out the female Guadel would be even more vulnerable than they are already."

Va'del nodded in understanding, "So the exercises you are having me do are what makes it possible for someone to link?"

Jasmin's eyes suddenly lit up. "Yes, and now that you know what they are for there isn't any reason we can't link to show you what it is like."

Stretching tired muscles, the teen shrugged. "If you say so, I would have thought that it would be proscribed for some reason."

"Well, it is frowned upon. Usually you wouldn't link until just before you were accepted by the council, but Stephens' bloodline has always been more than a little unorthodox. I'rone and Betreec have more or less approved the idea, so lets give it a try. If this all works go back out to I'rone and he'll put you through your paces."

Va'del soon found himself meditating cross-legged on one of the thick rugs that protected the guest rooms' inhabitants from the icy cold of the rock floor.

Having a purpose to the exercises somehow made it easier to focus on the melting walls of ice, to ignore the vague sense of pressure on the outside of his mind. Va'del found that he was able to vividly picture the trickling streams of water rolling down the ice, weakening it to the point where a simple push would shatter it, and then Jasmin was suddenly inside his mind.

The Guadel's presence seemed to snap into place with a mental pop, and tired muscles were suddenly energized as everything slowed down to a snail's pace. The web of light Jasmin was creating inside Va'del's mind became more intricate, and the effect increased until his body seemed to hum with power and energy.

Rising to his feet and snatching up his practice weapons, the teenager found that even a task as mundane as walking had somehow changed. The faster Va'del tried to walk, the more the cool air seemed to resist his efforts, but it didn't matter as much as it would have otherwise because his body felt strong and seemed to welcome the fight. If nothing else, it represented a way to bleed off some of the energy flickering back and forth between his limbs.

The walk out to the cavern where I'rone and the guards were practicing seemed to take far longer than normal, but once Va'del arrived and saw how slowly everyone was moving he realized just how faster he was really moving.

I'rone looked up from the practice forms he'd been doing, and Va'del had the satisfaction of seeing the Guadel's eyes slowly widen.

At I'rone's command, the guardsmen in the cavern stopped what they were doing and fell back to create a circle. The process was slow enough that Va'del found his attention wandering to other things, like the subtle tightness of his skin where his muscles had swollen beyond their normal size, or the pleasant sense of warmth that seemed to flow from his navel out to the rest of his body.

Looking up Va'del saw that three of the guardsmen had remained in the circle, and were slowly bringing their weapons up in a salute to him. An incredible sense of eagerness washed over the teenager, and he drew his own practice weapons and returned their salute while walking towards his opponents.

Normally it would have looked like the guardsmen attacked as one, but Va'del found he had plenty of time in which to analyze their expressions and determine who would strike first. It then became a simple matter to intercept the first blow with his sword while sliding far enough to the right that the second guardsman's strike was easily parried with his dagger.

The normally complicated task of monitoring two weapons had become easy due to the simple fact that Va'del found himself with plenty of time to shift his attention back and forth between the two so that he could ensure each was moving in a perfect arc to land where he wanted it.

The third guardsman was a heartbeat behind his fellows, and Va'del took advantage of their dispersion to snap his foot out in one of the powerful kicks I'rone had been teaching him. The blow took the guardsman in the side and launched him back into the spectators.

The first two guardsmen had disengaged and attacked again, but Va'del easily dodged the first blow while parrying the second with his dagger. Before either opponent could recover, Va'del's sword licked out and gave each what would have been mortal wounds.

A sudden whistling sound from behind the teenager clued him into a new attack, but the air seemed to push against him as he tried to spin around, slowing him just enough that I'rone's sword gently bounced against his ribs.

As quickly as that, the world suddenly returned to normal, speeding up until it was just as he remembered it, and Va'del was left panting from exertion.

I'rone clapped his protege on the back. "Good. The blade you don't see will be the one that ends up marking you." Giving the young man a gentle push, I'rone sent him back to the guest quarters, where he found Jasmin asleep.

Betreec came out of the other room and smiled at Va'del. "The poor thing is exhausted, but she'll be ok after a good day's rest. She burned up her reserves during the fight with the bag'ligs and with the testing we've been doing hasn't had a good chance to replenish them yet."

The euphoric high that Va'del had been feeling after seeing how the guardsmen had been looking at him came crashing down as he realized what it had cost Jasmin. "You're sure she'll be ok?"

The older wife nodded. "She's fine. She has a good heart that one, but even so, she wouldn't exhaust herself like that for just anyone. You're important to her, important to us all really, but especially her."

Va'del nodded past the lump in his throat. The feeling that he'd finally found a family was back, and somehow he didn't think it would ever leave. As long as I have these three, I'll never be quite so alone again.

Chapter 6

The leave taking from the village earlier that morning had been harder than Va'del had expected. It was obvious the villagers still didn't know everything about the Guadel and their powers, but they knew much more than the people in Screaming Wind, and as a consequence, their welcome had been warmer, and their stay much more relaxed.

They were actually sorry to see us go. It is amazing how such a slight difference in the perception of the Guadel can make their lives so much harder or easier I wonder why they go to so much effort to remain a mystery.

The path that the small group followed had broadened out considerably, enough so that Jasmin and Va'del were able to walk side by side.

The heavy coat and hood that they all wore made it hard to tell much about what a person was thinking, but Va'del nevertheless had the feeling that Jasmin was deep in thought about something. As reluctant as he was to interrupt her solitude, the questions pulling at Va'del's thoughts were so insistent he finally cleared his throat.

"I thought that bag'ligs were lowland beasts, what brought them up so high?"

Jasmin picked her way across the hardened snow, her breath frosting the air before her, for nearly a minute before answering. "They are lowland beasts, but they do sometimes come up this high when they have reason."

"What kind of reason would drive them up where there isn't really any food?"

The hooded figure next to him stopped for a second before pulling on her gurra's lead and continuing on. "I don't know for sure, none of us really know why such a large group would come up this high, but I'rone suspects that they were driven up here. Possibly as a kind of weapon. There aren't many lowlanders who can survive up here, but if they wanted to make life more difficult for us they could always push the bag'ligs up the mountain. The elevation doesn't bother bag'ligs as much as it does people."

Va'del's question as to why someone would hate the People so much was cut short as I'rone suddenly stopped, his head sweeping rapidly back and forth, scanning an arc before them. Betreec had already taken the lead to I'rone's gurra by the time the tiny party was all together.

Jasmin took Va'del's lead and tapped his sword hilt as she gave him a nervous smile. Within moments both women had sunk into the trances that would allow them to augment I'rone's speed and strength, and Va'del's heart was racing.

As the now-familiar sense of deadliness and grace settled on I'rone, the Guadel pulled Va'del to him. "Be ready to protect the women if I fall."

While the teenager was still processing the words, I'rone took off at a run through the snow towards the still as-of-yet-unseen danger. The whole situation seemed so surreal to Va'del that he had a hard time believing that it wasn't all a dream until six rough-looking men rose from behind a snow drift and pointed crossbows at the lone figure running toward them.

Heart in his throat, Va'del watched six quarrels leap from the crossbows and streak towards I'rone. He's dead, maybe if I charge them before they can reload?

Amazingly, none of the deadly projectiles found I'rone. Instead, he dodged some of them and even seemed to knock one or two out of the air with his weapons before rushing forward to engage the attackers.

Va'del nearly stopped his headlong flight towards the attackers, thinking that if I'rone had been able to handle eight bag'ligs that he'd be able to handle six men. But the bag'ligs were shorter and didn't have swords of their own. Once they've cut him down they'll use the crossbows to kill the rest of us.

I'rone cut down the first bandit before anyone else could reach him, but the next three engaged him at the same time, and he was only able to kill one of those before the last two attackers joined their fellows.

Va'del was now half way to the battle, his lungs burning from the cold air and his legs starting to tremble slightly from the effort of running with ice spikes strapped to his boots.

The four men seemed to be pressing I'rone sorely now, he still moved so quickly that Va'del couldn't follow what was happening with his eyes, but streaks of red were starting to appear on the Guadel's massive body as more and more of the blows he was dodging didn't quite miss.

Va'del stumbled and fell down as a particularly complex exchange resulted in one of the men reeling away with what appeared to be a mortal wound. The teenager stumbled back to his feet just before a scream from behind him brought his head around in time to see Betreec slump backwards, a stubby quarrel protruding from her chest as a pair of gurra fled back the way they'd come.

Oh, Powers! There was one more. He circled around behind us.

A flicker of motion as the bandit disappeared behind a snow drift to reload his crossbow told Va'del where the shot had come from, and he once again broke into a run.

Jasmin is still ok, maybe that will be enough.

Questions about whether or not Betreec was already dead, or if I'rone was still capable of facing three men with only Jasmin's help were secondary to the need to run, to put his body between Jasmin and the crossbow.

Under other circumstances, Va'del might have been able to make it, but tired as he already was, hindered by the snow, the teenager hadn't quite covered half of the distance to the crossbowman before another quarrel sliced through the air and tore into Jasmin.

The sounds of fighting from behind had grown fainter, but there was no time to check whether or not I'rone had managed to kill his attackers before the loss of his wives had made him nothing more than a normal man facing incredible odds.

Maybe she can still heal herself.

The bitter wind pulled at Va'del, but couldn't disguise the sound of footsteps behind him as he neared the bandit enough to hear the man swearing at his weapon and the bulky windlass that served to ready the crossbow for it's next shot.

Just as the teenager felt a sliver of hope that he'd make it before the crossbow was ready for another shot, a scruffy face appeared above the snow drift and leveled the deadly weapon.

Va'del tried to throw himself to the side, only to realized as it flashed past that the quarrel wasn't aimed at him. A crashing sound announced that I'rone had been hit, and then Va'del was upon the bandit.

Nearly overcome as he was by rage, it was fortunate his opponent wasn't very skilled with a sword, or Va'del would have been killed in the first careless exchange of blows.

Once the bandit lay dead at his feet, Va'del dropped his weapons and ran over to Jasmin. Oh, Powers, she isn't breathing. There isn't a pulse either.

Betreec was already starting to cool, and Va'del felt his world start to crumble as tears formed in his eyes and then coursed down his face.

"Boy, Va'del, come here." The words were weak and full of pain, but recognizable, and Va'del blindly started back towards the sound of I'rone's voice.

"They're dead, they're both dead. I'm so sorry, it was my fault. I should have stayed where I was."

I'rone shook his head, which started him coughing weakly. "Don't blame yourself. Jasmin wouldn't have wanted you to think it was your fault."

Looking at the smooth shaft protruding from the Guadel's heaving chest, Va'del wondered how long I'rone could last. "The gurra ran off, and I can't carry you. Can you walk?"

I'rone shook his head. "Go back to the village. They'll send a group out with a litter."

Va'del felt tears start down his face again. "No, I won't leave you."

"You have to. There isn't any other way to get help."


The trip back was a thing of nightmare. Va'del couldn't run, but he pushed himself to the point where his legs trembled and his lungs burned, and then tried to find the energy to go faster. Halfway back to the village, the hint of breeze that had been present all morning became something strong enough to provide a solid push. It brought a measure of relief to the teenager's tired body, but also increased the risk that he'd be pushed into a misstep that would send him tumbling down the mountain to his death.

I can't let that happen, I'rone is depending on me, and I can't let him down again.

Despite the tears still flowing down Va'del's cheeks, dropping to his coat to freeze unnoticed, he got the feeling that he was in a state of shock, that his mind was protecting him from feeling the full effects of the loss he'd just experienced. Even so, the exhaustion he felt as he stumbled the last few steps to the village entrance was a much emotional as it was physical.

Concerned guardsmen caught Va'del as he collapsed, and as soon as they recognized him a runner was sent for the village headman. Va'del's strength was exhausted, but he tried to choke out his message around coughs before the darkness claimed him. As he heard footsteps running down the corridor towards them, the teenager lost his battle and slipped into unconsciousness.

Author's Note: I hope you've enjoyed what you've read so far of The Trial. The full version is available on http://www.aburt.com/ifiction/stories/ for just $2.00.




A'vril: Female Guadel from the L'ea Bloodline. A'vril is married to Jas'on and is currently serving as the Goddess' Heart.

Ah'bi: A Guadel from the H'il Bloodline. Married to Fi'lin.

Al'ice: A female Guadel who currently leads the Glor Bloodline with the help of her husband Va'ma. Al'ice currently has two sister-wives, Tani and Verona.

Alir: Male Guard trainee in charge of teaching weapons skills to second year Guard trainees at the Capital.

Arching Crystal Village: One of the villages most recently established by the People.

Allen: Headman of Arching Crystal Village

Ba'loc: A male Guadel from the Stephens Bloodline who is married to Pavir.

Ba'tier: A formalized type of dueling in which the object is not to kill one's opponent, but to humiliate him by demonstrating a decisive superiority without causing serious injury. Of particular popularity with some younger members of the Guard.

Bac'tra: Master Miner of Screaming Wind Village.

Bay'del: A female Guadel from the Stephen's Bloodline. Piter's wife.

Be'ter: Guadel candidate sponsored by a pair of Guadel from the Klein Bloodline.

Betreec: A middle-aged member of the secretive Guadel. Eldest wife to I'rone and sister-wife to Jasmin.

Bitter Rocks Village: One of the villages first established when the People began expanding out of the Capital. Because of the village's age, and a progression of stronger than average healers, Bitter Rocks is one of the few villages which does not need to import food from the lowlands by way of the Capital. Notable personages include Ma'del, the village headman, and Sara, the village healer.

Bloodlines, Guadel: Little hard information is known by those living outside the Capital regarding Guadel bloodlines, but common belief is that the Guadel are segregated into different groups based on their powers or possibly their personalities. Some argument exists as to whether only the worst Guadel bloodline is allowed out of the Capital, or whether there is a much more terrifying bloodline which never leaves the concealment of the deepest caves there.

Branar: Male arms master at the Capital in charge of training all Guard trainees.

Callan: Stable Master at the Capital. Callan walks with a slight limp most likely received during the time he served as a member of the Guard.

Candidate, Guadel: Passing references to 'candidates' made by the Guadel have resulted in more than a little speculation as to their purpose or roles. Much like the Daughters, little is known about candidates or their purposes other than passing references in the Teachings, and verbal histories which have been steadily fading away now for centuries.

Capital, the: The largest city populated by the People, who historical tradition maintains were led there by the Goddess. The Capital is located in the upper reaches of a mountain in the White Spike range, and consists of a series of natural and man-made caves which are heated by an extensive array of hot springs.

Capital, the Layout of: The growth of the Capital largely followed ancient mining cuts which were expanded out to form large corridors with suites of rooms branching off of smaller cross tunnels. The large amount of trade gems required to pay for imported lowland food has resulted in a massive underground complex that is many times the size required for current population levels. Each craftsman guild has a separate district assigned to it, with the Guadel and Guard sharing a district which is physically located near the entrance to the Capital.

Council, the: Nominally the ruling body of the People, the Council is located in the Capital, and is responsible among other things, for all trade with the lowlanders. The Council by and large allows the village headmen to pursue their own agendas, but there have been several times during the history of the People when a headman has been forcibly removed from office by the Guadel at the Council's orders.

Cycle, Color: A measure of time as tracked by the glowing gemstones used to provide light in the caves of the People.

Daughters, the: Occasionally healers or Guadel make reference to the Daughters. Little if any hard knowledge concerning the Daughters has survived among the villagers to the present day, but ancient stories, and a few vague passages from the Teachings seems to indicate some type of connection between the Daughters, the candidates, and the Guadel. Some individuals speculate that the Daughters may represent the sacrifices rumored to chain the Guadel to the service of the People.

Exodus, the: 1. Referring to the People's journey from the lowlands to the White Spike mountain range. 2. Referring to the period of time in which the journey to the White Spike mountain range took place.

Fi'lin: The Guadel arms master at the Capital. He is a member of the H'il Bloodline, and married to Guadel Ah'bi.

Gia'to: A male Guadel from the Glor Bloodline.

Guadel: A poorly understood, but extremely deadly group whose responsibilities seem to include aiding the Guard in protecting the villages and Capital. For all that they are largely reluctant to share information about themselves or their purpose, Guadel as a whole seem quite concerned with protecting tradition and historical precedent inside each village. Rumor has it that the Guadel also can be appealed to as a court of last resort, but relatively few villagers would be willing to do so because of their reputation for sudden, lethal violence. The practical duties which the Guadel fulfill, such as escorting food caravans from the Capital, are largely overlooked because of the abundance of legend and mystery surrounding them. The Guadel hold a unique role as both the heroes and villains in the mythology of the People, and for every tale where a Guadel pair, or trio saves an innocent, there is another in which they cut down a well-loved headman for violating the shadowy traditions that constrain them. Travel between villages is heavily restricted, but on those infrequent occasions where villagers meet without the supervision of a Guadel, it isn't unusual for on side or the other to refuse to speak about their shadowy guardians.

Guard, the: The organization largely responsible for the policing and physical protection of the various villages and the Capital. The Guard is made up of residents from the village sponsoring the Guard unit. There is no central, directing authority for the individual Guard units, and no real cooperation or dialog between units sponsored by different villages. It is not uncommon for the relationship between the Guard of a given village, and the Guadel who happen to pass through, to be very strained.

Gurra: A long-legged domestic animal highly prized by the People for it's utility as a pack animal, and its ability to survive temperature extremes which would kill most other animals. Gurra are covered with a very fine, fast-growing wool that serves as excellent insulation when sheared from the animal and woven into cloth. The highest concentration of gurra is found at the Capital, but most villages have at least a few of the animals so as not to be forced to import raw wool or clothes from the Capital, which is viewed with varying levels of distrust by most of the villages. Female gurra can be milked, but gurra milk is so scarce that most villagers go years without being able to obtain any.

Goddess, the: The individual responsible for the Exodus, and leading the People to their mountain homes when war threatened to destroy all that they'd known. Believed to have been possessed of incredible powers, the Goddess is said to have spent nearly a decade with the People, ensuring their ability to survive in the extreme environment of their new home before disappearing leaving in some manner. The Goddess is allegedly responsible for the content of the oral histories which went into the creation of the Teachings, but it is unclear whether she ever explicitly proclaimed her divinity, or whether it was assumed by later generations.

Goddess Touched: 1. Referring to someone possessed of blond hair, which is the color of hair the Goddess is traditionally believed to have had during her time among the People. 2. Referring to those women possessed of the spark necessary to wield magic. Among the People all healers are possessed of this spark, and on very formal occasions may be referred to as being Goddess touched.

Goddess' Arm: The husband to the elected leader of the Council, who is also referred to as the Goddess' Heart. The Goddess' Arm is responsible for the physical security of all council meetings.

Goddess' Heart: The elected leader of the Council, who serves more as a first among equals and tie breaker than a dictator. The husband to the Goddess' Heart always serves as the Goddess' Arm.

Guardsman: A member of the Guard.

He'lo: Village headman of Screaming Wind Village.

Headman: See Village Headman.

Hom'ly: Female Guadel married to Ja'dir. Hom'ly serves as co-Head of the Klein Bloodline.

I'rone: A middle-aged member of the secretive Guadel. Married to Betreec and Jasmin. Part of the Stephens Bloodline.

Ja'dir: Male Guadel married to Hom'ly. Ja'dir is currently serving as the co-Head of the Klein Bloodline.

Ja'mi: The Arching Crystal Village healer.

Jas'on: A male Guadel from the L'ea Bloodline. Currently serving as the Goddess' Arm due to his marriage to A'vril.

Javin: A male Guadel who is co-Head of the Stephens Bloodline. Married to On'li and Mar'li.

Jain: One of the Daughters currently in the last two years of her training at the Capital.

Jas'per: Ma'del's son. Currently a Guard trainee in the expanding Bitter Rocks Guard, he is granted latitude similar to what is received by a full guardsman, largely due to his father's position as village headman.

Jasmin: A member of the secretive Guadel. Second wife to I'rone and sister wife to Betreec.

Lowlands: Name by which the People refer to the geography surrounding the White Spike mountains.

Lowlanders: 1. Name used by the People to refer to the inhabitants of the lands surrounding the White Spike mountain range. 2. Mild insult used to convey the belief that one is not worthy of being one of the People.

Ma'del: Village headman of the Bitter Rocks Village. Father to Jas'per. In a tradition breaking move has recently eliminated the position of Captain of the Guard in Bitter Rocks. The Guard now reports directly to Ma'del.

Mali: One of the Daughters currently completing her last two years of training at the Capital.

Mar'li: Female Guadel married to Javin as his second wife. Mar'li is sister-wife to On'li, and a member of the Stephens Bloodline.

Mich'a: A male Guadel from the H'il Bloodline. One of Fi'lin's assistants.

On'li: Female Guadel, co-Head of the Stephens Bloodline. On'li is Javin's Eldest wife, and Mar'li's sister-wife.

Pa'chi: A 16 year-old young woman from Bitter Rocks Village. Pa'chi's father tends the small heard of gurra at Bitter Rocks, and has transferred his dislike of Va'del's late parents to Va'del. Despite this, Pa'chi has become Va'del's only real friend.

Pati: One of the healers serving the portion of Capital assigned to the Guadel.

Pa'tric: Male Guadel from the Klein Bloodline.

Para'de: Guardsman at Screaming Wind Village.

Pavir: A female Guadel from the Stephens Bloodline. Currently married to Ba'loc.

People, the: Name by which the small nation of individuals living in the top of the White Spike mountain range refers to itself.

People, the, History of: The People remember relatively little of how they came to live in the White Spike mountain range. Tradition claims that a group of several thousand people were led into the mountains by Goddess in order to save them from a catastrophic war raging in the lowlands. During the time immediately following the Exodus to the mountains the People faced a near-constant fight against of starvation and freezing. As a result information from the time directly after the Exodus remains only as half-understood traditions and fragmented oral histories.

People, the, Appearance of: The People are generally pale-skinned with dark hair. There are very few exceptions, typically children involving blond hair, who are referred to as Goddess touched. Eye color is quite varied among the People, often involving jewel-like colors not found in other parts of the world.

Per'ce: Male Guadel from the H'il Bloodline.

Piter: A male Guadel in the Stephens Bloodline. Married to Guadel Bay'del.

Sara: Healer of Bitter Rocks Village. Originally from the Capital, she arrived at Bitter Rocks several years ago, but is still largely treated as an outsider. She has spent most of her time at Bitter Rocks trying to stop Ma'del from assuming powers beyond those traditionally granted a village headman.

Sister-Wife: Occasionally one of the female members of a trio of Guadel have been heard to refer to the other female in the group as her sister-wife. All indications are that to whatever extent the Guadel practice marriage, that they also permit polygamy, which is oftentimes held up as yet more evidence of their inhumanity and unnatural natures.

Screaming Wind Village: A relatively-old village geographically located between Bitter Rocks and Arching Crystal villages.

Ta'lor: The Captain of the Guard at Black Rocks Village.

Tani: A female Guadel married to Va'ma as his Second Wife. Tani is part of the Glor Bloodline, and is sister-wife to Al'ice and Verona.

Teachings, the: Although no written records survive from the time immediately following the Exodus, a large collection of verbal history surrounding the Goddess and her instructions to the People was later codified into a book of scriptures which is referred to as the Teachings.

Va'del: A 17 year-old ward of the Bitter Rocks Village, whose parents died while he was still very young.

Va'ma: A male Guadel co-Head of the Glor Bloodline. Married to Al'ice, Tani and Verona.

Verona: A female Guadel who is part of the Glor Bloodline. Verona is the youngest of Va'ma's three wives, and is sister-wife to Tani and Al'ice.

Village Headman: The individual elected to a long term as the leader of a particular village. The range of power granted to village headmen varies largely from village to village based on tradition and historic precedent, but they all at the very least serve in a judiciary capacity.

White Spike Mountain Range: A very rugged and steep mountain range located in the northern hemisphere, which is home to the People. The People popularly believe that the White Spikes are the tallest mountains in the world, and that their Capital is located in the tallest of the peaks in the range, but they have no real proof of that fact. The mountain range covers such a large area, that even the People have not explored the western-most peaks.


Thanks needs to go out to a number of people who've served as advanced readers. Cassy, Monika, Mark, my brother Matthew, Natalie, and my Dad.

Additional thanks needs to go out to several people who have otherwise supported or believed in me. Nate, Vaughn and Brian for reasons they'll understand, and Aburt for hosting Critters and iFiction.

Finally thanks to my wife, Katie, who is my most dependable reader, and who puts up with me being locked away behind my keyboard more than is healthy.



Copyright © 2009 by Dean Murray . All rights reserved unless specified otherwise above.

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