Before they continued on their way the five companions gathered in a circle to discuss their strategy to retrieve the Golden Stone. Tere offered what he knew as a gesture of trust.
“The stone lies in the heart of the largest cave guarded by ten huge beasts. They are half man, half oxen and over seven feet tall. They’re very strong but not overly intelligent. I’d say that there would be close to one hundred men and beasts heavily armed and led by a Sorcerer named Rantec.”
Raef and Tarienne started wide eyed at the name Tere had given them.
Tarienne asked disbelief tingeing her words.
“Rantar’s offspring? But how?”
“The legend is that Rantar took a human woman. She bore his son then died or was killed, no-one knows for certain, immediately after the birth. They say that he was raised by Lacas’ pack but I never saw any evidence of a human in the pack while I was there.”
Raef swore then spoke with an anger in his voice that Tarienne had rarely seen him allow to surface except during battle.
“How did we miss this? If it hadn’t been for Tere we would have ridden to our death. Damn it, the prophecy mentions nothing of a son.”
Reaching over Tarienne layed her hand on his arm.
“Raef, you are not omniscient! We just need to rethink our plan of attack. Aidan?”
Tarienne turned to Aidan, the King, who rubbed his chin thoughtfully.
“We are outnumbered so we have to be clever about this. Daien, what say you and I set a series of traps? We can draw the men out and take down as many as we are able. Tarienne and Raef can use their magic to disable the rest and enter the cave to retrieve the Stone.”
Aidan’s gaze touched each member of the group, waiting for comments.Daien nodded, then surprised everyone by asking.
“What part will Tere play in this?”
Tere responded immediately.
“They’re looking for me, I can be your decoy get their attention and lead them through your traps.”
Aidan nodded approvingly
“You can help us set the traps so you know where and what they are that will help you avoid them.”
Tarienne nudged Daien, pleased with his inclusion of Tere into their plans. He pulled her to him, wrapping one arm around her waist and winked.
Raef smiled, his usual assurance returning.
“Ren, we need to take care using our magic. We must not exhaust ourselves before we reach the Stone. It’s highly likely that Rantec is in there waiting for us and we don’t know how powerful he is.”
Tarienne thought for a moment.
“If he is in there he’ll know the moment we use any magic so we need to make it count. We should destroy as many of the guards as we can at once. We will need something to achieve this and yet not take too long to gather and not drain us too much. We’ll need to join our magic like we did on the plain if we’re to have any hope of defeating him ...”
Tere interrupted Tarienne.
“I can return as soon as I’ve cleared the last of the traps and back you up.”
Tere’s gaze drifted around the group seeking approval for his suggestion.
Raef was first to respond.
“Perfect! Aidan and Daien can follow when they’ve finished. The last thing we need to decide on is which incantation to use.”
Tarienne, Raef and Tere sat silently deep in thought, Aidan and Daien watching them, waiting. Tarienne eventually spoke quietly, almost reluctantly.
“There is one spell that we could use. We could summon the Blade spirits.”
Tere’s eyes went wide and fear tinged his voice.
“You would summon the spirits to aid in destroying Rantec and his followers? How do you know that they won’t turn their magic on you?”
“We don’t but Ren is right it’s our best chance and while it will take both of us to call them it won’t tire us overly much. Aidan and Daien I know you do not know of the blade spirits so I cannot expect you to decide.”
Aidan’s voice wavered uncharacteristically, emotion shining in his eyes.
“We trust you with our lives so we will agree with what you believe to be right. I know I can speak for Daien when I say this.”
Daien nodded his agreement and brought Tarienne’s knuckles to his lips, kissing them gently.
“We have already agreed that we stay together no matter what happens so we’re in.”
Tarienne smiled at them both then all eyes turned to Tere as she spoke to him.
“You do not have the bond of love that we possess, Tere, do not feel compelled to do this.”
“You have accepted me despite our difficult beginnings, I will stand by you and do what I can to help.”
Tere gazed meaningfully around the companions emotion welling through him.
Raef’s voice held power.
“Then let us be off and may the spirits be with us all.”
Laying their hands together in the centre of the circle they declared loudly.
“DEATH TO OUR ENEMIES!”
Aidan, Daien and Tere left to set up their trap, while Raef and Tarienne slipped around to the wooded area close to the cave entrance. Raef and Tarienne waited and watched to determine how many guards were posted at the entrance. There appeared to be only four so they decided to eliminate them without magic. Tarienne pulled in a deep breath and slid out from the cover of the trees smiling provocatively at the guards.
Almost gagging from the stench of the men she forced a suggestive smile onto her face, sidling up to them. Like a silly chit Tarienne called out.
“Ooooh soldiers. I love soldiers. Wanna play?”
Fluttering her lashes at them she blew a kiss in their direction. The men ogled her salaciously the ugliest of them swaggering toward her, leering.
“I’ll play with you.”
Grinning he revealed yellow teeth huffing fetid breath in her direction. Tarienne forced herself not to take a step back. Gritting her teeth she held her hand out. He slapped his filthy hand into hers and she made a show of pulling him toward the trees. Repressing a shudder she allowed him closer.
“Give us a kiss.”
He grabbed her head attempting to pull her lips to his. Managing to maintain her ruse she skipped away calling over her shoulder suggestively.
“I’ll give you more than a kiss, if you follow me.”
Tarienne was grateful to see Raef quietly despatching the other three guards while they were distracted. Allowing the yellow-toothed man to catch up again she approached him swinging her hips indecently. He groped for her grinning lecherously. When she allowed him to pull her close he grabbed roughly at her breast. Bile rose in her throat as she slid one knife from its hiding place at her hip. His eyes widened in surprise when one of her knives penetrated the thick blubber of his stomach. Swinging her blade up in one smooth motionshe sliced his throat open. Gurgling softly he thumped to the ground face first. Blood poured from his wounds soaking the ground beneath him, his life force draining away into the parched soil.
Tarienne hurriedly joined Raef her stomach still churning. Slipping cautiously along the cold, damp walls of the cave they pressed themselves into the shadows. A raucous stomping and clanging emanating from the deep recesses of the cave heralded a large group of what sounded like foot soldiers approaching. Tarienne and Raef shrunk back into the wall hoping desperately to remain hundetected for a while longer. They hardly dared breathe when around fifty fell creatures trudged past. The creatures were half man half beast and all close to seven feet tall just as Tere had described but there were many more than they’d anticipated. Dressed in oily black skins and black studded boots their bare chests were covered in thick, coarse black hair. Tarienne shivered panic thundering in her ears. There were so many. How could they possibly defeat so many?
Raef met her eyes an unspoken question of readiness in his gaze. Tarienne nodded. The moment the creatures passed their hiding place, Raef and Tarienne stepped out and summoned the Blade Spirits.
“Yahalla onnia Blenidae en’i Lyuhta.”
They chanted in unison, their arms spread wide, their fingers touching. The air around the beasts shimmered and the Blade Spirits solidified. Confused the beasts turned clumsily drawing their weapons as the ethereal warriors cut a swathe through them. The creatures had little hope of survival, hacked to pieces by the unrelenting blades. The last of the beasts died bathed in their own black-red blood.
The Blade Spirits turned to face Raef and Tarienne. Raef stepped forward confidence written in every movement. Boldly meeting the eyes of the warrior spirits Raef bowed low.
“We thank you for your assistance great, Blade Spirits. You honour us with your presence. Thank you.”
Raef uttered the words to reverse the summoning spell.
The spirits straightened, snapped an unexpected salute with their swords then shimmered, disappearing in a shower of bright sparks.Tarienne let out the breath she hadn’t realised she was holding just asTere bounded up on four legs whining softly. His eyes holding a question his wolfish gaze slid over the bodies of the dead beasts. Tarienne kneeled stroking the soft fur on his head.
“The Blade Spirits helped us. Were the traps successful?”
Tere cocked his head sideways in what appeared to be a nod. Tarienne chuckled rising to her feet her hand resting on the head of the huge, vicious looking, black wolf. Running her hand through his thick coat provided an unanticipated comfort. Tere’s wolf leaned against her leg, seeming to sense her need.
Raef motioned them further into the blackness of the cave one finger on his pursed lips. Hiding in the cold shadows they watched a small, insignificant looking man with long silver hair reverently holding a huge, golden orb. The sphere sent out shards of amber light as he chanted in the old language, the language of magic. They guessed him to be Rantec, son of Rantar and he held the Golden Stone in his wizened grasp.
Moving from their hiding placeTarienne was so focused on her enemy that she did not hear Tere’s soft warning yip until it was too late. The moment she stepped from the shadows Rantec’s hawklike gaze shot to her. Before anyone could react he launched a ferocious blast of magic in her direction. Tere leapt across her, shielding her, the full force of the powerful spell slamming into his flank. Yelping he landed hard on the floor, motionless.
Biting back a cry Tariennes heart punched against her ribs. Desperately wanting to go to Tere she ripped her attention from Rantec to check on her friend. There was no movement, no rise and fall of Tere’s chest. A tear escaped despite the fury roiling within her. She knew what she must do. She began chanting the spell of unmaking. Raef screamed at her, panic in his voice.
Tarienne unleashed the full force of the ancient incantation at Rantec. He attempted to deflect it but it’s potency was fuelled by anger and easily overpowered him. A blood red light spread around him and a narrow black slit opened in the rock slowly sucking Rantec into the underworld. His agony fuelled scream filled the cave as his human body began to shrivel like a grape drying in the sun.
Too late Tarienne realised the danger. She’d underestimated him. Rantec fell lunging and grabbing her ankle. Her eyes flew to the incandescent glow creeping up her leg. Panic lanced through her crushing the breath from her lungs. Tarienne screamed as pain ripped through her body. Rantec’s vice-like grip on her leg unbalanced her and she fell, her hands scrambling for purchase in the dust frantically struggling for her freedom. Kicking hard she attempted to dislodge him but his nails bit into her leg, drawing blood. It trickled onto Rantec’s knuckles hissing like steam. Tarienne’s eyes rolled as her muscles began to spasm, the searing agony burned her insides. Convulsing, her body went rigid.
The insidious glow continued its excruciating journey up her body. She fought with every ounce of strength left in her to stay conscious. Rantec finally disappeared into the blackness the spell had created however his grip had not loosened. Tarienne’s chest tightened. She gasped for breath. Starved for air her lungs felt like they might burst. It was too much. Icy fingers of terror raced up her spine as she plunged into darkness. The last thing she heard was Daien’s anguished plea.
Aidan felled the last of the creatures. Both he and Raef spun around to see Tarienne convulsing on the ground. Daien was surrounded by an eerie light chanting unfamiliar words. Raef stepped forward but Aidan stopped him motioning silently to Tarienne who had already stopped convulsing and was breathing more easily.
Raef forced his attention to Tere’s limp body. He was in wolf form which told him he yet lived. He and Aidan crossed the distance quickly and Raef rested his hand on the wolf’s flank.
“He’s alive but badly injured. I’m not sure if I can heal him, but I’ll try.”
Raef focused his healing power on Tere placing his trust in Daien to take care of Tarienne. It was one of the hardest things Raef had ever done with every instinct telling him to go to his sister, to hold her and make it better as he’d done when they were children. Raef struggled to drag his attention back to the wolf who had saved his sister’s life. He had to fight to save Tere, for Tarienne, for the incredible selflessness and loyalty Tere had shown.
Tere’s wolf remained motionless as a warm glow emanated from Raef’s hands, first feeling for the extent of the injuries, then tentatively beginning to heal them. Raef’s eyes continually flicked to Tarienne, bathed in the glow of the magic that Daien had called.
Raef was concentrating on healing Tere when Aidan nudged him. A soft moss crept across the bloodied floor cushioning Tarienne’s crumpled form. Their eyes widened as Ivy gently wove itself around her cradling her body with fresh green leaves and crisp white flowers sprouted from the stems encircling her head like a crown.
Slowly the colour returned to Tarienne’s face and Raef heaved a sigh of relief dragging his attention once more back to Tere. After a few minutes the wolf whined struggling to stand. Raef and Aidan gently held him down urging him to take a few moments to catch his breath. He looked up at them through wolfish, ice blue eyes and gave a little whine of thanks, dropping his head back to the ground. Raef nodded as they both stood leaving Tere to rest awhile. They turned to see an exhausted Daien stagger to Tarienne’s side.
“Ren, sweetheart, come back to me, please.”
Daien’s eyes were damp with unshed tears. Tarienne did not respond. His pleading gaze met the eyes of his friends despair etched across his face. Falling to his knees Daien’s shoulders slumped. His control shattering tears tumbled down his cheeks.
“Rantec has pulled her spirit into the afterlife with him. I was too late.”
Raef dropped to his knees at his beloved sister’s side. He placed his hands either side of her head sending pulses of his magic through her panic taking hold of him as it never had. Tarienne did not respond. Raef hung his head and whispered, heartbroken.
“My sweet baby sister, don’t leave us, we need you. I need you.”
Aidan scooted over grasping Tarienne’s hand his training bringing his common sense to the fore despite his fear for Tarienne.
“Her heart still beats. Tere, you helped her before, can you do anything now?
A shimmer of gold sparks indicated Tere’s shift to human form. He dragged himself to Tarienne’s side placing his hands over her heart. Tere closed his eyes searching for her spirit.
“She does not yet walk the after-world. Her spirit wanders lost. We can pull her back I think, if we do it together. Place your hands on her so she can feel you, all of you, and call her with your mind voice.”
Tere moved his hands to her stomach, Raef took one hand, Aidan the other and Daien cradled her head against his chest caressing the side of her face. They were all distantly aware of each other calling her back.
Daien pleaded with her.
My beautiful Ren come back to me. Please don’t leave me to an eternity without you. I love you. You are my soul, my life. Walk toward me, Sweetheart, be with me always, we all need you ...
He broke off, barely able to form a thought to send.
I can’t go on without you, Sweetheart, please ...
Tarienne wandered alone, unsure where she was when she noticed a shadowy figure approaching. She would know that tall, muscular warrior anywhere.
The shape became insubstantial, she couldn’t force it back into focus but the rich deep voice she loved reached her ears.
I love you, you are my soul, my life. Walk toward me, Sweetheart, be with me always, we all need you ...
The voice faltered, disappearing.
“Daien? Don’t leave me here. I’m lost. I don’t know the way back.”
Panic tinged her voice as she moved toward the place where she’d seen Daien fade from view. After a few moments she was certain that she could hear Raef and Aidan’s voices coming from somewhere ahead, so she continued on her path. Her eyes searched the foggy landscape, straining, desperately hoping to catch a glimpse of those she loved.
A figure took shape in the distance. Squinting Tarienne attempted to bring it into focus. She walked forward tentatively approaching the shadow her heart pounding. A black wolf with ice blue eyes gazed back at her.
“Tere, is that you?”
The wolf yipped, padding toward her gently taking her hand in his mouth, leading her toward the voices. She called out willing them to respond, the voices now louder and more distinct.
“Where are you?”
Tere pulled more firmly, his mouth gentle but strong around her wrist. Finally, Aidan, Daien and Raef appeared standing together. Their voices became clear and the wolf released her hand nudging her toward them.
The four men snapped their focus back to the moment pulling her with them. Tarienne sucked in a sharp breath. Her eyelids fliuttered open to see four pairs of worried eyes gazing at her.
Daien gathered her to him hugging her so hard that she could barely breathe. Tarienne turned her face up to him. Daien’s expression displayed a myriad of emotions, fear, love, fierce protectiveness. The depth of his love burned in his eyes as he lowered his mouth to hers. Tarienne’s lips parted willingly. Daien plundered her mouth with such intensity that she was forced to pull away to fill her lungs.
When their eyes met, Tarienne noticed Daien’s damp cheeks and was so touched by her warrior’s tears that her own eyes filled with moisture. Daien stole another kiss, a gentle tender one this time and Tarienne heard his voice across her thoughts.
I love you my beautiful, Ren. I wish we were alone so I could show you how much.
Tarienne smiled against his lips.
I will always love you, my sexy warrior. I pray for a waterfall or river, where we can swim together.
Daien pulled back, lifting one eyebrow and laughed at her boldness, a mixture of relief and desire flowing through him.
“You’re going to kill me woman.”
Tarienne turned, smiling at Raef and reached for his hand. Raef lifted her fingers to his lips, then held her hand to the side of his face, closing his eyes against the emotions she glimpsed in their depths. Leaning over she squeezed Aidan’s hand noticing the dampness in his eyes too. He sent her a watery smile. She then turned her attention to a now fully clothed, Tere.
“Your wolf brought me home.”
Daien, Raef and Aidan exchanged confused glances. Tarienne explained.
“I heard Daien calling but I only saw him for a moment and wasn’t sure which way to go. I walked toward where I’d seen him. Then I heard you all but I couldn’t seem to reach you until Tere’s wolf took my hand and showed me the way. Thank you, Tere you saved me, again.”
Tere smiled, humble in his response.
“Daien put you on the right path you just needed some encouragement to continue.”
“You have earned your place with us and our trust, Tere.”
Aidan’s expression was serious. This was the King speaking.
“As such, you should know us for who we really are.”
Tere was confused. He knew who they were, didn’t he? There were small nods from Raef, Tarienne and Daien. Aidan continued.
“I am Aidan, King of Therin.”
Tere’s eyes widened as shock filled him.
“Raef and Tarienne are the Crown Prince and Princess of the Fae of Darewood and Daien is the most trusted of my King’s guards, a dear friend, of Druid blood and betrothed to Tarienne.”
For a moment Tere was unable to speak as he absorbed what he had been told. Eventually, he bowed slightly, whispering.
“I am humbled and honoured to be in your presence ...”
Tere’s head snapped up. Tarienne continued, her tone softening.
“As Aidan said you have earned your place. We told you who we are to prove our trust in you not to change your attitude toward us. We are still Tarienne, Raef, Aidan and Daien, no more, no less.”
“Thank you all, for your trust and friendship.”
He didn’t, however, offer more information about himself. Not yet.
Tere glanced around the cave.
“Do we know what happened to the stone in all the confusion?”
Aidan produced a cloth which he unwrapped to reveal the Golden Stone. It glowed brightly, pulsing in his hands. Quickly, he covered it and rose to his feet.
“We should get as far away from here as we can before reinforcements arrive. Ren, are you well enough to travel?”
“Yes, I think so.”
Daien and Raef helped her up. She stood for a moment, testing her legs.
“I feel quite alright, considering.”
Eyeing Daien speculatively, she asked what everyone else was wondering.
“What did you do?”
“I don’t really know but somehow I believe that I called the earth spirits. I had no idea what I was doing it just ...flowed out of me.”
He’d never felt such fear as he when he thought he’d lost Tarienne. Something inside him had snapped into place and the words he’d spoken had popped into his mind followed by a swell of magic that had almost driven him to his knees. A vague feeling of familiarity had filled him and he wondered if his mother had tried to teach him how to wield the magic that he obviously possessed.
He’d been too young when she’d died, he couldn’t remember much about her at all. Wishing suddenly that she could have met Tarienne he felt certain that they would have been great friends. Tarienne grinned.
“My wonderful Druid!”
Wrapping her arms around Daien’s neck she lifted up on her tiptoes to kiss him. Daien groaned softly, the contact bringing his body to life. Slipping his arms around her he pulled her close unable to resist deepening the kiss. Aidan cleared his throat loudly remarking loudly.
“Take no notice, they’re always doing that.”
Laughter erupted and they hurriedly collected their belongings in readiness to leave. Tarienne sensed Raef moving quietly up beside her. He tugged on her hand. Tarienne turned to face her brother, the evidence of his fear and pai, reflected in his eyes, urging her into his arms. Raef hauled in a deep breath burying his face in her hair, his voice breaking as he whispered.
“I thought I’d lost you, Sweetling. Please, never do that to me again.”
Tarienne hugged her brother fiercely allowing her courage and love to flow through their sibling bond. She spoke across Raef’s thoughts.
I love you, dear brother and I have no intention of leaving you, ever. You’d never manage without me to boss you around!
Raef snorted a laugh. Releasing her, he roughly wiped his arm across his eyes.
Raef and Aidan rounded up the horses. Tere stripped behind a tree handing his clothes to Daien. Tarienne smiled at the unlikely friendship developing between Daien and Tere. Tere shifted, breaking into a run to put a little distance between himself and the horses. Tarienne admired the sleek gait of the wolf, wondering what his story was. She supposed he’d tell them eventually.
Aidan placed the wrapped Golden stone safely in his saddle bag and lifted himself up into the black leather saddle cinched tightly around his stallion’s girth. Riding off at a gallop they remained alert for a potential ambush. Thundering down the side of the mountain they distanced themselves from Rantec’s headquarters.
Almost an hour later, as the landscape started to level out and trees appeared either side of the track a chilling howl pierced the silence. Pulling up quickly they listened and waited. Daien reined his stallion in beside Tarienne his hand on the hilt of his sword. She sent him a worried glance.
Tere’s wolf suddenly burst out from between the trees, panting hard. His tongue lolled out the side of his mouth as he hurtled toward them. He spoke into their minds.
The group wheeled their horses and took off,pushing their steeds as fast as they could go. Instead of following the path Tere lead them down the side of the incline through a thick belt of trees.
Emerging onto a short, grassy plain leading down to the river Tarienne saw Tere, standing face to face with a huge, slate grey wolf. The hackles along Tere’s back were erect, his lips, drawn back in a snarl. At least thirty other wolves were fanned out either side of the grey. Across the river around one hundred horses ridden by all matter of creatures stomped and snorted. The riders were all armed with deadly crossbows aimed in their direction. Tarienne pulled in a steadying breath, nudging Lacey closer to Daien’s stallion.
Aidan and Daien both swore colourfully, yanking their horses to a halt. They drew their swords, a resounding, metallic ring filling the air. Raef murmured the beginnings of a spell. Several things happened simultaneously. Tere and the grey, launched into a vicious battle. The riders across the river unleashed their arrows. Raef stood in his saddle shouting the last words of his incantation and Aidan dove at Daien intercepting an arrow hurtling toward him. Horror lanced through Tarienne.
Momentarily disconnected from the events playing out around her she didn’t react immediately. Reality slammed into her brain and she screamed a spell flinging a blast of power to halt the arrow’s trajectory. Tarienne held her breath but she was too late. Aidan shoved Daien out of the arrow’s path as ir thumped into Aidan’s chest, knocking him off his horse. Aidan grunted, the air leaving his lungs with a whoosh as he landed on the ground with a bone crunching, thud, bright red blooming across his chest.
Chaos broke out around them. Raef unleashed his invocation with a powerful pulse. The thunderous boom created a shockwave rocking the ground beneath their feet . The surrounding trees shuddered against the immense blast creaking and groaning their protest. Many of the wolves and riders were knocked to the ground the confusion scattering their forces.
Raef leapt from his stallion running toward Tere who was locked in battle with the grey wolf. Plunging his hand between them Raef grabbed the huge, grey wolf by the scruff. Grunting, the muscles of his arm and chest bunched with the gargantuan effort. He hauled the grey off Tere launching it toward the closest tree. The wolf slammed into the tree trunk bones cracking, the breath expelled from its lungs with a whoosh. The grey dropped motionless to the ground. Raef’s hawk-like gaze landed on Tere who had shifted and collapsed to the ground, his chest heaving. Raef saw that Tere’s neck was bleeding from the puncture wounds inflicted when the grey wolf had grabbed his throat in its jaws, but judged them not to be critical.
Raef’s eyes snapped to Aidan on the ground, an arrow in his chest. Tarienne cradled Aidan’s head, frantically uttering healing spells. The battle fury engulfed Raef’s calm. Swirling the magic around him, harnessing its whirlwind, he sensed Tere’s magic joining the maelstrom. Daien moved up beside them. Sword drawn Daien brought its tip to his forehead calling on the earth and tree spirits for aid. The immense combined power that they wielded smashed into their attackers, forcing them to a halt. The small army turned as one retreating, realisation of the power they faced driving them.
A thick churning mist surrounded them. Beasts and men alike coughed violently. Horses reared dumping their choking riders on the ground. The viscous, magical fog crept slowly up the bodies of the terrified army. Daien briefly noted the fear in their eyes, before the mist enveloped the army, completely.
The ground rumbled beneath the riders. Raef’s chanting escalated. Magnificent and terrifying in his fur, Raef shouted a triumphant battle cry. Daien jammed his raised sword into the ground, shouting the Druid word for death.
The crack spread from Daien’s feet, opening a wide chasm in the earth. The screams of the men and beasts falling into its depths pierced the dense cloud. The chasm finally closed with a crack and the mist gradually dissipated leaving no sign of the army.
Daien yanked his sword from the hard ground re-sheathing it. Raef spun toward Tarienne and Aidan, running to their side. Daien sprinted to Aidan dropping to his knees beside his King’s still form. Tere dragged his battered body to Aidan’s feet. Aidan barely held onto consciousness.
Tarienne lifted her eyes to Raef for a second quickly returning to her attempts to heal the extensive damage the arrow had caused. Raef’s considerable magical ability flowed through Tarienne,boosting her healing power. Her ragged nerves calmed a little, Raef’s gift to her. Finally Tarienne sensed some progress, Aidan’s internal bleeding now barely a trickle. Her heart clenched with renewed fear for Aidan. Would her healing abilities be enough? She could not, would not lose Aidan. Tears sprang to her eyes and her hands trembled violently.
Tarienne hadn’t realised that tears were streaming down her face until Daien gently wiped them away. His tenderness was a salve to her frayed nerves. Moving away to give her room he gathered wood for a fire. Tere joined him despite his injuries. Tarienne spared a quick assessing glance at Tere. His body would heal quickly without her intervention thanks to his escalated changeling metabolism.
Daien and Tere worked silently together building a makeshift camp, lighting a fire and cooking a meal. Tarienne’s stomach churned, she didn’t think she could eat anything.
Hours later Tarienne and Raef beckoned Daien over.
“When we tell you, can you pull the arrow out, straight up, as quickly as you can?”
Tarienne sent him a weary half smile.
Tere moved up behind Daien as he braced himself over Aidan, his hands tightly around the arrow shaft. His heart pounded. Fear clenched in his gut. This was his King, his friend, he had to live.
Daien grunted, exerting such force on the arrow to dislodge it that he almost lost his balance when it broke free from Aidan’s once again, bleeding body. Tere grabbed him halting his backward trajectory. Daien straightened inspecting the bloodied shaft of the arrow. He held it out to Tere, offering his gratitude.
“Thank you, Tere, I’d have landed flat on my backside if you hadn’t caught me.”
They chuckled quietly. Tere took the arrow, examining the tip for signs of poison. He sniffed it, declaring.
“I can detect no evidence of any poison.”
A sliver of relief washed through Daien even though Aidan was still in danger of succumbing to his injuries, despite Raef and Tarienne’s tireless efforts. Daien’s eyes flicked to Tarienne, assessing her. She was exhausted. He wished he could tuck her into his arms to rest. His gaze drifted over Aidan an overwhelming sadness threatening to consume him. He raked his hands through his hair, stringy with perspiration and dirt. His thoughts drifted back to making love with Tarienne in the cool, clear lake only a few days ago. How quickly things changed. He sighed quietly settling his back against a young field maple tree.
Tarienne and Raef eventually pulled away from Aidan, collapsing near the warmth of the crackling fire. Daien’s brow furrowed with concern.
“How is he?”
Raef responded, his tone flat, exhausted.
“He’s alive, that’s all we can say for now. We need help, we can’t heal him completely.”
Raef slumped down onto the bedroll that Daien had laid out for him. Tarienne, barely able to walk returned to Aidan. Her face drawn, her eyes held a deep sadness. Daien offered her a cup of hot soup, crouching beside her.
“Sweetheart, drink this. There’s no more you can do right now.”
Tarienne looked up, her eyes shadowed with exhaustion. Absently accepting the cup she wrapped her hands around the warmth of it, her hands shaking slightly. Daien covered her hands with his own willing his strength into her. She smiled weakly at him. Tere rose, handing Raef a mug of the soup.
Daien liberated the cup from Tarienne’s freezing hands, placing it on the ground and hauled her onto his lap resting his back against the maple, gathering her hands in his, rubbing them gently to warm them. Tarienne immediately curled up laying her head on his chest. Daien enveloped her in a strong embrace the instinct to protect her burning through his weary body. Retrieving the soup he handed it to her again curling her fingers around the mug so she didn’t drop it.
Tarienne sipped the hot liquid, sighing. Daien smiled down at her kissing her tenderly on the tip of her nos, feeling her sag a little in his lap. He lifted her chin with one finger, she was half asleep. Grabbing the almost empty cup to prevent it from spilling its contents over her, he tossed it behind him and settled a sleepy Tarienne against his chest, leaning back against the tree and closing his eyes.
After they’d rested for awhile, Tarienne rose from Daien’s lap to check on Aidan.
“His body is so hot, he needs a cool compress.”
Her gaze slid over the others concern etched across her face. Daien fished around in his pack, producing a cloth which Tere took from him pouring some cold water on it from his water bottle. He wrung it out and handed it to Tarienne. Smiling at Tere in thanks she folded the cloth across Aidan’s forehead. Tarienne’s dismay escalated as a distressing thought occurred to her.
“Do you think there could have been something on the arrow?”
Tere’s eyes lifted. He took another sip of his soup.
“Changelings often poison their arrow tips, but the riders were not changelings and Daien and I checked it thoroughly after he pulled it from Aidan’s chest. There didn’t seem to be anything on it.”
A tiny sliver of relief inched through Tarienne. Raef sat up.
“Whatever it is, we need to get Aidan to someone who can help him more than we are able to. We’re about one week from Darewood, I suggest we get Aidan there as soon as possible.”
Tarienne turned to face Raef.
“I agree, but how are we going to transport him?”
“We can build a travois and I could ride his horse.”
They all considered Tere’s suggestion for a moment then Daien asked the question they’d all been thinking.
“So you can ride a horse with the wolf thing?”
“The horses don’t seem to mind me in human form, I can mask my scent so I don’t frighten them.”
“Good. We’ll rest for a few hours, build the travois and be on our way.”
Raef leaned back and closed his eyes.
“You should all get some sleep. I’ve set some wards that will warn us if anything approaches.”
Tarienne curled up on Daien’s lap again needing his comfort and warmth. Daien’s arms snaked around her tucking her into the protection of his toned body. She sighed drifting into a deep, fitful slumber.