“I don’t believe this! At the rate we’re going, we’ll be lucky to reach Aln before next year!” Shandra shouted in frustration as she climbed down from the crazily tilted wagon. “Is everyone all right?”

Grabbing hold of a wagon wheel, Deral pulled herself up from the ground. “I’m still in one piece,” she said as a piece of the wheel came off in her hand. “But the same can’t be said of the wagon. Should we give it a proper burial?”

“Make sure the hole’s big enough for our poor banged up bodies.” Alandra was helping Raven sit up. “Shandra, you should’ve brought a healer along.” From her belt pouch, she took out a piece of linen, gently pressing it against Raven’s bloody left cheek. “The last jolt tossed everyone around and Raven’s face was rudely introduced to a shovel.”

“Guardian Shandra, should I go back to Haven House for help?” asked Deral, as she made her way to the back of the wagon.

Checking the left front wheel which now rested in a large hole, Shandra snorted in disgust. “Great! The axle’s broken too.” She weighed her options. “Here’s what we’ll do:  I’ll unhitch the horses and take them to Aln, since it’s closer; Alandra, you take the trainees to Ellyn and Tyor’s home. El can take care of Raven’s cut and with the three of you there, I don’t have to wonder if you’re getting into mischief.”

“How can you think that?” Alandra grabbed Raven’s hand. “Don’t touch it, the bleeding hasn’t stopped. Deral, hold this cloth in place. If Raven tries to pull away, sit on her.”

“Understood.” Taking the older woman’s place, Deral gave Raven a smile of reassurance. “I promise not to sit on you. You’ll have that happen enough in unarmed combat training.”

While the two trainees talked, Shandra and Alandra examined the two holes that had brought the wagon to an abrupt halt. “I’m wondering who dug these holes, Alandra. They’re too carefully spaced to be caused by rain.”

“They were well-concealed too. I noticed nothing out of the ordinary.” Kneeling next to one of the holes, Alandra passed her right hand over it and a ring she wore began to give off a reddish glow. “Magic! Someone deliberately dug these holes and used an illusion to hide them.”

“Damn! If the wagon had been loaded,  someone could have been hurt worse than Raven.” Shandra began unhitching the horses. “I bet I know who’s responsible.”

“Who?” Alandra got to her feet, wiping her hands on her breeches.

“The soldiers based in Aln. For the past four months they’ve been causing all sorts of trouble for us Guardians. Picking fights, blaming us for ‘missing’ items from their barracks.” Shandra shook her head. “And their captain is the worst of them! He’s never apologized for the false accusations against several Guardians saying they ran off in the middle of a battle against some raiders, simply saying that it was all a misunderstanding. I’d like to misunderstand him upside the head with a club.”

“So why not complain to the Baroness? She’s supposed to deal fairly with the Guardians.” Alandra stretched her arms above her head.

“You must be joking. The Captain and Baroness Kylal are sharing a bed. She’ll side with Eldrin Frosel no matter what.” Finished with the horses, Shandra kicked the left front wheel of the wagon. I’ll see about getting another wagon in the village and make arrangements to have this one hauled away. Val won’t be happy when I tell her about this.”

Deral and Raven joined the two woman. “Raven insisted on holding the cloth herself.”

Shandra opened her belt pouch and rummaged around. “I thought I had some,” she murmured, pulling out a small roll of bandages. “Raven, let’s see how the cut’s doing.” Shandra cut off a strip from the roll, then carefully took the cloth away from Raven’s face, eyeing the crescent-shaped cut. “Hmmm. Still bleeding and your eye’s nearly swollen shut again.” She placed the bandage against the cheek, using more pressure. “Does it hurt?”

“Yes,” Raven reluctantly admitted, resisting the urge to pull away. “Guardian Shandra, I can hold the bandage in place.” She disliked being fussed over.”

“Make sure you keep pressure on it.” Shandra turned to Alandra. “Once I’ve gotten a wagon, I’ll meet you at El’s.”

“Maybe Deral should go with you.” Alandra knew this road was relatively safe, but why take chances even in daylight?

“I’ve done this before, Alandra. Don’t worry about me.”

“Guardian Shandra, aren’t the soldiers supposed to maintain the road as part of their garrison duty?” Deral leaned against the side of the wagon.

“When Captain Tenia Droust was in command, the roads were kept in perfect condition. She was the best village captain that I ever met.” Shandra checked the horses’ legs for any injuries.

“What happened to her?” Alandra asked.

“She was leading a patrol of new soldiers to familiarize them with the area and the patrol was attacked by a orcs.” Shandra sighed heavily. “Tenia and two others kept the orcs busy while the others in the patrol could get organized. They found what was left of her body and that of her horse two days later.”

“Bad way to go.” Alandra muttered.

Shandra raised an eyebrow. “There’s a good way?”

“Sure. In bed of very old age, with all your loved ones around you.” Alandra grinned. “That’s how I plan on leaving this life.”

“May Celena grant you what you want.” Satisfied the horses seemed to be uninjured, Shandra sighed again. “You three get going. I’ll see you in a mark or so.”

Following the tree-lined road, Alandra kept a close eye on Raven. “After we get Raven healed, the three of us should have some time to poke around the village. Raven, is there any place you’d like to visit?”

“Didn’t Guardian Shandra say we’re supposed to wait for her?” Deral reminded her.

“It won’t hurt to go to the Open Market. You never know what new stalls have opened.” Grinning, Alandra slung an arm across Raven’s shoulders. “And I need to reacquaint myself with the place. You must always be aware of your surroundings, cubs.”

“We could also visit the  barracks so Raven can meet our four new classmates and I can introduce her to one of the new infantry trainees.” Deral suggested with a twinkle in her eye.

“Oh? And who is he?” Alandra twitched her right wrist and a stiletto appeared in her hand.

Deral smiled, cheeks red. “His name’s Jodarl Silvershield.”

“Silvershield? Of the Silvershield Family of Ramor?” Alandra asked.

“The very same. His father is in command of the queen’s personal guards. But Jodarl decided he would rather be a mercenary.”

Using the stiletto, Alandra removed some dirt from under her nails, before returning it to its hiding place. “You seem rather pleased with the fact.” She wiped some sweat from her forehead. “Gods! Good thing this road is well-shaded. It’s getting hot out here.”

“Why didn’t you wear a sleeveless jerkin like Raven and I?” Deral asked, as she kicked a rock sending it skittering down the road.

“She wants to keep her wrist sheaths hidden.” Raven explained.

“What makes you think I use wrist sheaths?” Alandra eyed her young charge suspiciously.

Raven shrugged. “I saw how you flexed your right wrist when you brought out the stiletto. When you were finished with it, you slid the blade under the sleeve of your shirt.”

“Huh! I didn’t think trainees would notice such things. Raven, are you always so observant?” Alandra stopped walking to move a large branch off the road.

“If you’d been through what I have, knowing who’s near and what they’re doing is important to survival.” Raven replied sharply, tired of questions.

Using one of the few mind mage skills she had learned, Deral easily sensed Raven’s tightly controlled anger and fear. Since she wasn’t experienced enough to deal with Raven’s emotional state, Deral decided a change of subject was in order. “Raven, back at the stable you mentioned something about wulfin-trained horses. What makes them so different from those trained by others?”

“The training starts not long after the foals are born. Words, treats, and letting them watch older colts and fillies in training.” Raven smiled. “Foals are almost treated like wulfin cubs. Physical punishment never occurs. By the time a young horse is ready for a rider, only the smallest and lightest wulfin are permitted to ride.”

Deral was impressed. “And you think Darkfall has had the same sort of training?”

“I’m willing to bet what I have in my belt pouch right now. I wish I knew where he came from. If he’s been stolen from one of the wulfin horse trainers, Triust Lodro and the Triunts must be told.” Raven frowned at the thought of someone stealing from her people.

“Since Darkfall has no brand, I don’t see how you’ll be able to prove he was stolen.” Alandra rubbed her chin. “Maybe magic was used to remove the mark of the trainer. .”

“How do you know so much about magic? I didn’t think magic-users would be carrying a sword like you do.” Raven pointed to the sword hilt poking above Alandra’s left shoulder.

“My skills at magic-use is very limited. For the moment, let’s just say that my family has something to do, a duty that dates back  a few hundred years. The road is not the place for such discussions.”

Raven nodded. “Ketal.”

“I will tell you about it. Just not today.”

Deral scratched an ear. “Guardian Alandra, will you be one of the instructors this year?”

Before Alandra could answer, Raven suddenly stopped and drew her sword, intently staring at the trees to their left. Alandra rested a hand on the young half-elf’s shoulder, whispering. “What is it?”

“It’s too quiet. No birds or insects. And I think I heard footsteps” Raven softly replied. “I think someone or something is coming our way.”

Alandra drew her own sword, wishing she could see through the tree trunks. The sound of a stick snapping reached her ears and she took a step to the right and forward so the trainees were behind her. A tall figure emerged from the shadows, a broad grin splitting her face.

“Hellsfire, but aren’t you three a sight! Expecting an army to attack?” the newcomer stopped and leaned against a tree, arms crossed on her chest. She absently tugged on her right ear, which made the gold dagger earring she wore turn a bit.

“Gods! Celene, what in the Nine Hells do you think you’re doing, sneaking around like that?” Alandra sheathed her sword, scowling.

“Aren’t we on edge this morning?” Celene pushed away from the tree and approached the three. Raven still had her sword out and wasn’t inclined to return it to its scabbard. “Trainee Kael, unless you plan on attacking an unarmed Guardian, put that sword where it belongs.”

“Now you see why Myranna acts like a bully,” Alandra whispered to Raven. “I don’t know why Val allows Celene to remain a Guardian.”

Raven slowly replaced the sword in the scabbard but kept hold of the hilt. “Guardian Celene, maybe you need more practice sneaking through the forest. I heard you long before you stepped on that stick.”

“Huh. Maybe letting you come back was a good decision after all. The Gods know many of us didn’t want you back as a trainee. Just thought you should know.” Celene looked the tall half-elf over. “You look real foolish with that bandage sticking to your face.”

Alandra stepped between them. “What do you want, Celene? We three have to get to the village.”

“Just out for a walk. I heard voices and wondered who was on the road.” Celene took the longbow slung across her shoulder and set one tip on the ground leaning on it..

“We were on a wagon which now sits useless halfway between Haven House and Aln. Two magically-concealed holes put an end to it. From Haven House to where the wagon was ruined, we had filled in several large holes.” Alandra shook her head.

“You sure magic hid the holes?” All trace of humor was gone from Celene’s face.

Alandra pointed to the ring on her right middle finger. “The ring has never lied, Celene.”

“That’s why Ilene gave it to you.” Celene scratched her arm. “Any idea who’s responsible?”

“You get two guesses and the first one won’t count.” Alandra grimaced. “For some reason, the soldiers are upping the stakes in this undeclared war.”

“Maybe I’ll pay an visit to the barracks in the village. See if the captain has some time to spare for a little chat.” The smile Celene gave them was anything but friendly. “Who knows, maybe the queen’s soldiers will happily volunteer to pay for the wagon.”

Alandra’s smile matched Celene’s. “If I didn’t have to take Raven to Ellyn and Tyor’s, the three of us would join you.”

“I’d welcome the audience, but taking care of a trainee comes first..” Celene shouldered her bow. “I’ll either see you in the village later or back at Haven House tonight.”

“Just watch your back. Myranna would be slightly upset if anything bad were to happen to you.” Slapping Celene on the shoulder, Alandra motioned for the two trainees to continue walking.

“If anything happened to me, I think I’d be more upset than Myranna. Give my love to Ellyn and Tyor and tell them I’ll stop by soon to see them.” With a nod to the trainees, Celene headed back into the trees, as quiet as a whisper of air.

When Celene was out of sight, Alandra chuckled. “I hope she goes easy on the captain, but not too much. The villagers have no cause to hate the Guardians, since we purchase so much from the merchants and farmers. The village would probably wither and die if Haven House wasn’t here.”

“Piper’s Tavern certainly gets enough of our patronage,” Deral added. “What better place to be after a day’s hard training? Music, wine and handsome young men are exactly what a trainee needs to relax.” She grinned slightly, “Even though scuffles do occur when two trainees pursue the same male.”

Raven made a face. “No thank you! I don’t need any more trouble, especially that kind.”

“No one looks for trouble, Raven. It lurks in dark corners waiting to waylay unwary victims,” Alandra remarked. “Which is why we’ll be eating at The Society. Just stay with me and you’ll be safe enough.”

Deral pointed. “Aln’s just ahead.”

Entering the village, Raven grimaced. All the streets were dirt and most buildings were made of wood. “Hellsfire! How can anyone live like this? No defensive wall, no guards at the entrances to the village. A wulfin-ruled community would never be like this,” she thought, jumping aside to avoid being run over by a horse-drawn cart. “Alandra, are all  non-wulfin villages like this?”

“Like what? Busy and full of people? I hope so, otherwise they wouldn’t exist.” Alandra turned right at the cross street.

“Dirt streets, no defensive walls, and wooden buildings don’t offer much to those who live or visit Aln. It’s probably impossible to get around here during the rainy season not to mention the fire hazard all this wood presents.” Raven curled her lip in disgust.

Deral spoke up. “I’ve been to other villages and they’re all more or less like Aln. It’s not a bad place to visit.”

“Or live.” At the next side street they went right again, and it ended at a large single-story house. Alandra walked up to the door. “Ellyn and Tyor have lived here for ten years and neither complain about the village.” She knocked twice. “Hello! Anybody home?”

The solid oak door was opened moments later by a petite woman with grey hair and blue eyes. In her right ear she wore a gold dagger earring with a small diamond set in the pommel. The smile on her face was warm and welcoming. “Little sister, it’s about time you visited.” The woman gave Alandra a hug. “And you brought company. We are honored. Come in, all of you. El! We have company, love.” Tyor shut the door once all three were inside.

As they followed her down the short hallway which led to a large living room brightly lit by several windows on the east wall, Tyor continued talking. “The three of you aren’t the only visitors we have this morning. Two scout trainees are out back enlarging Ellyn’s herb garden. They actually volunteered to do the digging in this oppressive heat.”

“Volunteered? That seems odd. Whoever heard of trainees volunteering to dig in the dirt on a free day?” Alandra remarked.

The other occupant of the home left the table she had been working at, saying,  “I believe they were requested to volunteer to help me this morning. They were caught snooping where they should not.” Ellyn walked over, her steps punctuated by a peculiar thump. She surprised Raven in how rapidly she moved with a wooden peg on what was left of her right leg. In her right earlobe she wore an earring that matched Tyor’s. She gave Alandra a hug. “Well met and good day to you, Alandra, and Guardian trainees. Please make yourselves comfortable.” Ellyn’s green eyes locked on Raven. “Scout Classleader, are you hurt?”

“Ellyn, this is Raven Kael. She has a cut on her cheek which needs attention.” Alandra pulled a reluctant Raven forward.

“Raven bravely fought and defeated an enraged shovel that tried to attack me,” Deral helpfully explained, easily avoiding the elbow jab Raven intended to give her.

“Maybe you should have brought the feisty shovel with you. It would probably be doing more work than one of the trainees out back.” Tyor had silently moved to Ellyn’s right. “Will you need your case?”

“Let me examine the injury first. Raven, come sit down. Your extreme height makes it difficult for me.” Ellyn pointed to the couch.

“El, I’ll call the workers in for a break and fetch refreshments for everyone.” Tyor offered.

Tossing her blondish-grey braid over her shoulder, Ellyn rested a hand on Tyor’s left arm. “The wulfin cub wine is on the second shelf over the pump. The Sidarel wine is on the shelf closest to the door.”

“Tyor, would you like me to assist?”

“No, Alandra. El gave me help enough.” Tyor slowly turned until she faced the direction of the kitchen door in the south wall, then walked towards it. Raven and Deral looked at each other, wondering what that was all about.

Alandra took Raven to the large couch to sit down. “Ellyn, Shandra will be coming by in a while. She’s making arrangements for a new wagon. The one we were riding in met its untimely end by two large holes in the road.”

“And where does the shovel come in? Did it refuse to fill in the holes?” Ellyn sat beside Raven.

Deral giggled. “Mistress, the shovel really didn’t attack anyone. When the wagon hit the holes, Raven and I were sitting in the back and were tossed about. One of the shovels slid into Raven’s face.”

“And I was thrown from the driver’s seat.” Alandra added.

“I thought you gave up falling off things when you were a trainee, Alandra.” Ellyn eyed the two trainees. “If the two of you haven’t guessed, Tyor was Alandra’s mentor and I was mentor to Shandra. They were a handful when they were young.” El reached for the bandage Raven held, surprised when the young half-elf drew back. “Triunal, unless you remove the bandage, I cannot help you.”

“How do you know?” Raven took the bandage off, wincing as it briefly stuck to the cut.

“The ring you wear on your left middle finger. The silver sword and gold shield surrounded by the wulfin runes of Truth, Valor, Honor, Life, and Loyalty are worn by only two in all of Kendror:  Triust Lodro and the Triunal.” Ellyn gently examined the cut. “Others may not know the significance of your position, but a number of Guardians do.”

Deral was sitting on the carpeted floor near Raven. “What’s a triunal? Is it like a classmate?”

Alandra reached over, tapping Deral on the head. “Youngster, you know the Kendror region now has a queen.”

Everyone knows that. Her name is Queen LeeAnn Aryla Lyndron and she married Richard Michal, son of the Duke of Nolarn. The coronation and wedding were eight months ago.” Deral glanced at Alandra. “Why the unscheduled lesson?”

“When the queen has a child, that one will be a prince or princess and the queen’s heir. Triust Lodro rules the wulfin living in Kendror and if he ever steps down or when he dies, Raven will take his place.” Alandra sat back in the cushioned chair.

“But she’s not wulfin. Not by a long shot,” Deral pointed out.

“A triust doesn’t need a body covered in fur and have facial features of a wolf, Deral. To be named triunal, what’s in a person’s heart, spirit and mind are the most important. One’s rank at birth among wulfin has no real meaning as it does among humans, elves, and half-elves” Alandra explained. “There have been three other triusts who were non-wulfin and one was a female half-elf. I can’t recall her name just now.”

“Triust Jelara Freln,” Raven supplied the name. “She lead the Kendror wulfin two hundred years ago.”

Deral looked up at Raven, eyes twinkling. “So we have royalty in our midst. Are we supposed to bow and ask permission before speaking to Raven?”

As Ellyn finished examining the cut and bruised cheek, she reached out and gently tugged Deral’s hair. “Young Deral, it’s not like that among wulfin.”

Before anyone could say more, the kitchen door swung open and Tyor emerged, followed by Ciel and Sharryl carrying trays. “Our two workers were more than eager to take a break and visit with their classmates.” The two workers were covered in dirt, but Sharryl was dirtier than Ciel.

Eyeing them, Ellyn shook her head. “I think I can figure out who has been doing most of the digging. Did the two of you wash up before coming in here?”

“Yes, Mistress Ellyn,” Sharryl replied as she set her tray on the table near the couch. “We’ve run into a bit of a problem, though. There’s a rather large, stubborn rock that we can’t budge.”

“I’ll take a look after I take care of Raven.” Placing her left hand over the cheek, El grasped a gold medallion hanging around her neck with her right hand. As she quietly prayed to the goddess Celena, she felt the healing power grow within and travel through her left arm to Raven. But instead of the usual feeling of a smooth transfer, the power seemed to hit a wall, penetrating it with great difficulty. Puzzled, Ellyn took her hand away from Raven’s cheek. “Interesting!” The bleeding had stopped, the cut slightly healed and the swelling was down, but not much more had changed. “Tyor, come here please. I need you to check something.”

Sharryl took the bottles that Tyor still held and placed them next to the tray. “I thought priestesses trained as healers could heal anyone.”

“Normally we can.” El replied, carefully standing. “Tyor, take my seat, then I’ll guide your hands.”

Sitting next to Raven, Tyor slightly smiled. “Alandra, did you tell the young ones about El and myself?”

“Never crossed my mind.” Alandra went to the table and helped herself to some wine. “Raven, Deral, Tyor is blind.”

Raven broke the sudden silence. “I-I didn’t realize. I’m s-sorry.”

“For what? You didn’t cast the fireball which took my eyesight and destroyed most of El’s right leg.” Tyor patted Raven’s arm in reassurance. “This happened ten years ago, Raven. We are thankful to be alive and have adjusted to our limitations. The same cannot be said of the sisters who lost their lives that day.”

El rested a hand on Tyor’s shoulder. “Don’t apologize for something you had nothing to do with, Raven.”

“Mistress Ellyn, what happened?” Sharryl asked as she moved to a seat on the floor next to Deral. Ciel sat as well.

“The two of us, plus ten other Guardians were on patrol in the Dark Hills.” Ellyn began, as she guided Tyor’s right hand to Raven’s left cheek. “We had just started up the Lastar Trail, when a flight of arrows and crossbow bolts slammed into the center of our group. While we scrambled to get under cover and help the wounded, a fireball exploded at the head of our patrol. Tyor and I survived because we were in the rear.”

“Who attacked you?” Ciel’s eyes were wide.

“We never found out. The attackers believed all of us were dead and instead of making sure or looting the bodies, they simply left.” Ellyn sighed, pain and sorrow evident in her eyes. “All of us were experienced in patrols and had patrolled that area before. Young ones, becoming a Guardian is much more than the gold-trimmed uniforms and glory. The dangers are many and often deadly.”

Alandra nodded emphatically. “El’s right. Whenever you go on assignment, you never know what or who you will face. Danger and death can lurk in trees, under rocks; even in someone you think you know.”

Tyor had closed her eyes, concentrating on Raven. As she did, a silvery-gold glow surrounded Raven, then it extended to Sharryl and Deral. Ellyn noticed it first. “By Celena! Alandra, look at Raven, Sharryl, and Deral.”

“Not just them, Ellyn. Look at me.” Alandra stood up, the same glow apparent around her. “Hellsfire! Why is this happening?” Her voice was tinged with awe and of fear.

Removing her hand from Raven’s cheek, Tyor sighed. “Love, I picked up three others in the spell.”

“Deral and Sharryl reacted as did Alandra.” Ellyn tugged on her ear, thinking. “Young ones, why don’t you take your wine and snacks and go out to the garden.”

The trainees looked at each other, baffled by what occurred. Ciel asked the obvious. “Mistress Ellyn, why were they glowing and why wasn’t I?”

“Ciel, as soon as we figure it out, we’ll explain. Now, do as Ellyn suggested.” Alandra’s carefree attitude had become serious.

Raven stood up. “Mistress Ellyn, thank you for healing my cut.”

“You’re welcome, Raven.” She watched the trainees take their wine and nutrolls, walking to the kitchen. In a low voice she said, “Alandra, when do you expect Shandra to arrive?”

“Hopefully soon.” Alandra sat next to Tyor. “Can either of you tell me what just happened here?”

Tyor put an arm around Alandra. “Since El had problems healing Raven, I cast a spell to check for magic resistance. The spell centered on Raven and extended out from her in a ten-foot radius. Anything within the range of the spell with magic resistance would react. Love, how strong were the auras?”

“Raven’s was the brightest and strongest. Alandra and Deral’s glow were much weaker, but Sharryl’s nearly equaled Raven.” Ellyn replied.

“Alandra, what do you about the three young ones?” Tyor yawned.

“About Sharryl, not much. Shandra’s her mentor. Deral is Lyta’s apprentice and as for Raven, well, she arrived yesterday to resume her training and has been in five fights with several classmates since then. Poor Val doesn’t know what to do about her, so she made me Raven’s mentor and made Raven leader of the scout class. She’s hoping that by putting the cub  in charge of her classmates will keep her too busy to get in more fights.” Alandra drank some wine, savoring the tartness.

You a mentor?” Tyor raised an eyebrow. “I should tell Raven of your past. Let her know what she’s getting into.”

“I’m not that bad! Just–unconventional.” Alandra was rather pleased with how she described herself.

“More like incorrigible.” Ellyn grinned. “Is there anything else you know about the three that could help us understand what’s going on?”

Alandra stared into her cup. “Ellyn, you saw the scar on Raven’s neck and the ones on her arms. Raven had been sold as a slave after the patrol she was with was attacked — her cousin Tanera Saend was also in that patrol. Raven and Tanera were found at Queld Keep, but Raven is the only one left alive from that patrol.”

Before either could remark, the front door opened and Shandra came in. “I hope Alandra hasn’t drank all the wine. If she has, she’ll find herself swimming in the nearest well.”

“Shandra, dear child, sit down and I will personally serve you. But first, how about greeting your mentor?” Ellyn stood, turning to face her.

Shandra covered the distance in three long strides, giving Ellyn a hug and kiss on the cheek. “Well met, El. How’re you and your bondmate?”

“We’re doing quite well, Shandra.” Tyor answered. “Have a seat. We have something of interest to tell you.”

“Oh?” Shandra sat in a stuffed chair, propping her feet on a stool. She looked around the tidy room. “Where are the trainees? Alandra, did you turn them loose in the village?”

“Be at ease, Shan. The young ones are out in the garden,” Ellyn informed her, as she filled a cup with a dark red wine. “What we need to discuss concerns three of the trainees and Alandra.”

“El, did you take care of the cut on Raven’s cheek?” Shandra accepted the cup and quickly drank half of it. “Gods! The sun is beastly today.”

“Sort of. The bleeding is stopped and the swelling is down, but I couldn’t close the cut completely. Raven seems to posses a great deal of magic resistance and my healing spell was nearly blocked.”

“Not only that — Sharryl, Deral, and myself also possess magic resistance,” Alandra added, finishing off her wine.

Shandra chewed on her lower lip. “I don’t like the sounds of this, my friends. This should be dealt with by Valeri, Lyta, Ilene, and Siena.”

“But they’re not here and we made the discovery. By the way, the aura surrounding us was gold and silver.” Alandra left her seat to get more wine and another nutroll.

Shandra put her empty cup down and got up to wander the room, pausing by the table where Ellyn had been working. “El, Sharryl, and Ciel have expressed an interest in buying the leather collars you make.”

“Before you leave, I’ll give one to each of them. In fact, one I just finished would be perfect for Raven. It’s the one closest to you.” Ellyn eyed her former charge. “Shandra, I would like your opinion on this very rare occurrence. Something like this would normally run in families–between siblings, even first cousins.”

“I know, El. I know. I have two cousins who have bonds like that. Tyor, among us in this room, you have the most knowledge on this subject. Isn’t this an indication of a bond?” Shandra leaned back against the table, arms crossed on her chest.

“Yes. As to the type, strength and depth of the bond; I couldn’t say at this point.” Tyor sipped some wine, thinking. “From the way Ellyn described the glow surrounding Raven and Sharryl, there is definitely a bond between them – a family bond. As for Deral and you, Alandra..” She shook her head and shrugged. “.. I really can’t say where the two of you fit in.”

“And to think, I came to Aln just to pick up supplies. Silly me, I should’ve realized when Alandra comes along, nothing turns out simple.” Shandra sighed. “What should we do now?”

Alandra joined Shandra at the table, picking up leather collar with silver studs. “Why don’t I take the collars out to the young ones, while you three make the decisions.”

“Still avoiding adult responsibilities, Alandra Firesword?” Tyor turned her head, sightless eyes twinkling.

“Always, dear mistress. How else can I keep my youthful and carefree nature?” Alandra picked up three more collars which had steel studs. “Shandra, did you get a wagon?”

“Uh-huh, but it won’t be ready ‘til after the noon meal.” Shandra went to the chair Alandra had vacated.

“I’ll let Raven and Deral know.” Alandra entered the kitchen, humming. Passing the table, she paused long enough to grab a sticky roll covered with nuts. “Mmmmm! Wonder who does the baking?” At the door leading to the garden, she stopped to watch the trainees in the garden, wishing she were young again.

“Too bad Haven House doesn’t have a place like this.” Deral stretched out in the soft grass, putting her hands behind her head. “A nice quiet place to think.”

Looking around from her seat on a bench, Sharryl shook her head. “It wouldn’t be quiet for long with all the trainees at Haven House. And if Haven House did have such a place, we’d be the ones weeding and digging in it.”

“No thank you! I’ve had enough digging to last me for the next ten years!” Ciel looked critically at her hands. “Look at these blisters! Sword practice is going to be painful when training resumes.”

“If you practiced with your sword every day, you wouldn’t have the blisters.” Raven remarked from where she stood next to a rather large rock that was partially dug up.

Ciel glanced over at her. “Don’t tell me you’re taking being Classleader seriously?! And why did Lady Valeri name you our leader? You missed a year of training, after all.”

Sharryl slapped Ciel upside the head. “Ciel! It’s none of our business why Raven was chosen by the High Guardian, we just have to accept and do as told.”

“When the others find out, they’ll question the decision just as I am. And I can think of two or three others who will be angry at the news.” Ciel moved before Sharryl could hit her again.

Raven had been studying the rock. “Sharryl, if you place some logs at the edge of the hole, you could then use the shovels and a few of the longer pieces of wood as levers to lift the rock from the hole with little effort.”

Sharryl joined her. “I think you’re right, cosil. Ciel, let’s give it a try. Once we get the rock moved, we’ll be finished digging in no time.”

With a groan, Ciel got to her feet. “I thought we were taking a break.”

“The sooner we finish, the sooner we can go about the business of having fun.” Sharryl picked up the shovels, taking them back to the rock.

Raven and Deral fetched logs and some fairly long sturdy sticks from the woodpile and brought them to the herb garden. With the four of them working together, the rock was soon lifted from the hole and rolled to the edge of the garden. Sharryl slapped Raven on the back.

“That was a good idea, Raven! I thought we’d end up spending the rest of the day moving that thing.” Sharryl grinned at her roommate, then glanced at Ciel. “Ciel, aren’t you going to thank Raven for helping us?”

“Right. Thanks a lot, Classleader Raven. Not only do I have blisters, I now have a splinter in my hand. Thank you so very much!” Ciel plopped on the ground and began emptying her belt pouch. “Where did I put that small knife?” she muttered as she began pulling out various items. “Ink vial, ten silver commons, dice, scrap of parchment, charcoal stick.” She placed them on the ground. “I should look in here more often. I thought I’d lost my lucky talart stone.” Some string, a handful of pebbles, and a sling followed the light blue stone.

Watching Ciel bring out an arrowhead, Deral shook her head. “Ciel, do you have anything of real use in there? I thought an arrowhead belongs on an arrow.”

“You never know what’ll come in handy, Dera,” Ciel replied with a grin. “Roll of bandages…Ah ha! Here it is!” She pulled out a small knife and soon had the splinter removed from her hand. She then rinsed the wound with some leftover wine and wrapped some of the bandages around her hand. “Much better!”

Sharryl pointed at a small plant with white star-shaped flowers. “Ciel, you could have used a leaf from that plant on your hand instead of the wine.”

“Shar’s right. Starlight is excellent for keeping a wound from festering.” Raven looked at Sharryl. “How did you know what to use? Trainees don’t start learning these things until later.”

“My milta is an herbalist for the Nest of Life in Parn. She taught me many things about healing plants and such.” Sharryl eyed Raven curiously. “How did you know what plant is what?”

“Priestess Kiya is my milta. She lessoned me in basic herbalism and healing skills.” Raven picked up one of the logs they had used. “Milta says every scout should know such things for when they are in the field.”

“What’s a ‘milta’?” Deral asked as she grabbed the other log.

“It means ‘mother’ in wulfin, but in more than one way,” Raven explained as she walked toward the woodpile. “Most wulfin have more than one. There’s your birth milta; then there’s the one who’s in charge of your Lesson Litter and then there’s the milta who oversees your Training Litter. Priestess Kiya is considered my birth milta.”

“Can’t you speak common like the rest of us? The way you’re talking, it sounds like you’re discussing dogs or something.” Ciel picked up a shovel. “Shar, let’s finish the digging so we can get out of here. Raven may be the scout Classleader, but it doesn’t mean I have to spend my off time around her.”

Alandra walked over before a fight could start. “Ciel Diost, if I remember correctly, your father is a member of the Council of Elders in Arda. He is also good friends with Triust Lodro and a number of other wulfin in Kendror. He would be very disappointed in you right now. So you can have plenty of time to think about what you’ve been saying, you can finish the digging.”

“Guardian Alandra, I’m only saying what others are thinking. How is it that only Raven survived her time at Queld Keep? What agreement did she make with the slavers? Why didn’t Tanera, Gianala, and Myrna live? What about the other Guardians who lead the patrol?” Ciel jabbed the shovel in the dirt. “She should have died with the rest of them.”

Raven grasped the hilt of her sword and started to draw it, but Sharryl grabbed her wrist, whispering, “Don’t, cosil! Ciel’s acting like a fool. Let your mentor deal with her.”

Alandra paused and handed the collars to Deral. She then walked over and grabbed Ciel by the ear forcing her to walk to the far side of the garden. “You listen to me, Trainee Diost! By right, Raven could call you out to a challenge for your words!” Alandra glared at her, her voice harsh. “And I have half a mind to let her! I hear blood is a good fertilizer, and Raven would spill a great deal of yours! If you make one more remark about Raven being the sole survivor of the patrol,  I will tell High Guardian Valeri everything that you said here today and you can forget about being a Guardian. Understand?”

“Understood,” Ciel sullenly replied, staring at the ground.

“You better, because I will also write to your father and let him know how his daughter is behaving.” Alandra glanced over to where Raven was standing with Sharryl and Deral. “Ellyn is giving each of you trainees one of the collars that she makes. Though you don’t deserve it. I’ll leave yours on the bench.” With that, Alandra turned her back on Ciel and returned to the others.

Sharryl still had hold of Raven’s wrist, but was puzzled by what she was feeling. Anger, shame, fear, and uncertainty were emanating from Raven and she couldn’t understand why she could sense them. As Alandra approached, Raven’s emotional turmoil seemed to die down a bit and Sharryl gave a small sigh of relief. “Guardian Alandra, I should help Ciel finish digging. It’s not fair if she does it by herself.”

“The work won’t kill her and Ciel needs to think about some things that I said.” Alandra retrieved the collars from Deral. “As I told Ciel, so I’m telling the three of you;  Ellyn would like each of you to have one of the collars she makes.” She gave the one with silver studs to Raven and two of the three steel stud ones to Deral and Sharryl.

Seeing the wary look on Raven’s face, Alandra spoke. “Raven, have you thought about how people stare at you because of the scar on your neck?”

“Many times and I also think about the slave collar that put it there.” Raven held it out. “It’s bad enough I have to wear the silver torque.”

“I didn’t want to bring this up, but the scar  marks you as an ex-slave and there are those out who would think nothing of putting the iron collar back on you.” Alandra reached out, resting a hand on Raven’s shoulder. “There are a number of Guardians who have also worn the slave collar and now wear one of these. Val’s even been considering making them part of the uniform, so everyone looks the same. If no one sees the scar on your neck, they won’t stare and won’t make plans to send you back to the slave market.”

While she thought this over, Raven studied the black leather collar. It was well-made and she discovered runes engraved between the studs. “Alandra, there are wulfin runes on this!”

Taking a look, Alandra nodded. “So there is. Let’s see if I get them right:  Truth, Valor, Honor, and Life.”

“Runes found on all weapons, armor and jewelry made for wulfin,” Sharryl put in for Deral’s benefit. “I didn’t know that non-wulfin would do such a thing.”

“If you knew Ellyn as well as I do, you wouldn’t be wondering about it. Ellyn grew up in Jid and spent much of her time with wulfin cubs.” Alandra went and placed Ciel’s collar on the stone bench, then picked up the half-empty bottle of cub wine. She took a drink, then passed it to Raven.

After taking a sip, Raven passed it to Sharryl. With her hands free, she put on the leather collar. Its lightweight and softness surprised her. “Gods! I can barely tell I’m wearing it!”

“Ellyn’s leather goods are the best around,” Alandra said as she helped Deral on with hers. “You know, I think I’ll get myself one before we leave here. Wonder if she has another like yours, Raven. With gold studs, of course!”

“Of course! An oathed Guardian wouldn’t dare look like a trainee, after all.” Raven grinned impishly.

“I knew I was right!” Deral shouted.

“Right about what?” Sharryl was surprised at the sudden outburst.

“That Raven had a sense of humor! No one could be a trainee and go through training without one.” Deral smugly pointed out.

“That’s true.” Sharryl agreed.

Raven was only half-listening as she tried to figure out what was glittering through the trees at the back of the garden. Alandra noticed her young charge’s preoccupation and smiled. “Something catch your eye, cub?”

“There’s something past those trees.” Raven pointed.

“Then why don’t we go see what’s there.” Alandra led the way along a stone path.

As they walked, Deral posed a thought that was on the minds of the four of them. “Guardian Alandra, what exactly happened in the house? Why were the four of us glowing?”

“Damned if I know, Deral. I’ve never seen anything like it before.” Alandra shrugged. “Don’t you know anything about bonds and such?”

“Very little, so far. Mistress Lyta’s given me some basic instruction concerning bonds between twins, but nothing else.” Deral clasped her hands behind her back. “I could ask her about what happened when we get back to Haven House.”

Sharryl scratched her head. “I could ask Col and Sulnt about their twin bond. I know Guardian Lyta has worked with them during the past year to help them sharpen their abilities.”

“Aren’t there certain magic spells that can create bonds between people?” Raven asked, knowing that finding out what was going on was important.

“Yes, but from what I’ve been taught, spells such as those are only for a short time and those involved have to be within three feet or so of each other.” Alandra glanced at Raven. “Raven, you said that Siena had difficulty healing you this morning. Has this happened before?”

“Yes. Priestess Kiya can only do a partial healing on me. She says I’ve always been like this, but I do seem to heal faster than others.” Raven paused at a bush to sniff  the reddish-orange flowers that were in full bloom. “Mmmmm! A rosal bush! The aroma always makes me want to eat the flowers.”

Deral inhaled deeply. “You’re right. Do herbalists and healers use this?”

Sharryl nodded. “It helps a sick person get their appetite back and I think it can also be used in cooking.”

Alandra got a wicked gleam in her eye. “There’s a third use for the oil you can get from the flowers, but the three of you are a bit young to hear about it.”

Sharryl and Deral blushed a very deep red, while Raven merely rolled her eyes. “We’re not that young!” Sharryl protested.

“I wonder if Val should have the male trainees continue living in the village. Once they get to Haven House, you females will be concentrating on things other than your training,” Alandra said with a smile.

Deral gave a sly look to the older woman. “Mistress, I’ve heard some stories about when you were a trainee and your distractions weren’t caused by males.”

Alandra grinned broadly. “How true! And I can still get distracted like that without putting my mind to it.”

It took Raven a moment to realize what was just said. “Oh! Are you ‘wylorn’, Alandra?”

“Sure am, cub.” Alandra rubbed her right ear. “If you’re wondering why I don’t wear the silver dagger earring, well, I don’t like the idea of having a needle stuck through my earlobe. The gold dagger earrings are worn by bondmates.”

Before any of the trainees could comment, the sight beyond the trees brought them to a halt. Raven slowly approached the three-foot tall piece of granite. On the front was a gold crescent moon and a silver sword with a dark blue shield background. The most unusual aspect, however, was the fountain of water spraying from the top. Alandra grinned at how carefully Raven was examining the stone without touching it. “Youngsters, this is a fountain of vision.”

Raven knelt before the block and touched the grass. “Alandra, why isn’t the grass or stone wet?” She glanced up at her mentor. “Is it an illusion?”
“The water’s real enough. If you held a bowl or cup in the fountain it would be filled. But since there’s no container, the water simply disappears.” Alandra knelt beside her. “If you touch Celena’s symbols on the front, whatever or whoever you’re thinking about the most will appear in the water. Care to try, cub?” She saw Raven stretching out her hand.

Raven snatched her hand back. “No. Where did the fountain come from?”

“A bondmate gift from Tyor to Ellyn. El sometimes uses it for working on prophecies and such. Both are priestesses of Celena, but Tyor is also trained as a magic-user.” Alandra reached out her right hand, lightly touching the symbols. “Watch the water.”

Four pairs of eyes stared intently at the spray. At first nothing happened, then the spray began gathering until it formed a large circle above the granite block. The surface of the circle rippled and the image appeared of a young female half-elf wearing silver-trimmed leathers; a silver circlet resting upon her short black hair. What was most remarkable was the light of laughter and life in the half-elf’s dark grey eyes and the genuine smile on her face.

Sharryl stared. “Raven? Is that Raven?”

“Yes.” Alandra took her hand away from the symbols. “This is what she looked like after the Oath of Triunal Ceremony. Her joy outshone the sun that day. A sight I’ll never forget.”

Raven spoke in a low voice. “Master Lodro could’ve chose any wulfin to be his heir but he chose me. I never expected such an honor.” She stared at the grass at the base of the stone. “When the silver circlet was placed on my head, I wanted more than anything to be a real wulfin.”

“If your birth parents were alive, I bet they’d be very proud of you, Raven.” Deral softly said.

“Who said they’re dead? My birth parents are alive and well in Arda, though I’ve never seen them after I was sent to Parn.” Raven harshly said. She got to her feet, glancing at Deral. “Sorry. I don’t mean to sound like that.”

Deral took Raven’s right hand in both of hers. “I should apologize, my friend.”

Sharryl placed a hand on over Deral’s. “Raven, no matter what Ciel or anyone else says, Deral and I are your friends and cosils. You can always count on us. Remember that.” She sighed. “I wish I could have been there at the Ceremony.”

“You weren’t?” Raven gently pulled her hand free and stuck her hands in her pockets. “I thought everyone in Parn was there.”

“I had a fever, so milta stayed at the lair with me. My brunar and silar went with fatorn. Was King Gildon really there?” Sharryl’s eyes were wide at the thought.

Raven nodded. “He was there. So were a number of other non-wulfin nobles and rulers; both from the Kendror region and from places east.”

Deral sat on the grass next to Sharryl. “So what was it like? Was there feasting, games, singing and such?”

“Uh-huh. The celebration lasted three days. I liked the games and competitions the best.” Raven grinned. “I even bested several young elves in the archery competition. They weren’t  too pleased with that. They were with the elves who accompanied King Gildon. I think they had family members on the Council of Elders in Arda.”

Alandra chuckled. “I remember that. One of them claimed Raven was cheating with a magically enhanced bow and demanded a rematch. So Raven used his bow and beat him again. He was supposed to be the best archer for his age group. If you ask me, the only thing he was good at was walking around with his nose in the air. Arrogant little bastard.”

“I won’t argue with that,” Raven said. “It was all I could do to keep from beating him up when he kept making these snide remarks about wulfin.”

“Raven, do you remember his name?” Alandra asked, taking a seat as well.

“No.” Raven drew her dagger, using it to clean some dirt from under her nails.

Sharryl sensed uneasiness coming from Raven and something else she couldn’t quite put her finger on. Not fear or anger, but…”Gods! What is going on? Why am I sensing what she’s feeling?” Suddenly uncomfortable sitting near Raven, Sharryl stood and walked over to the fountain, holding out her hand to the strange water. “My brunar participated in the foot race and won in his group. I was so happy for him.”

Raven watched her roommate play with the water, “If you had gone to the celebration, what competitions would you have entered?”

“Archery and dagger throwing. I was also thinking of the obstacle course.” She grinned, “One thing my brunar couldn’t beat me at.”

The four continued talking about the celebration, while Shandra, Ellyn, and Tyor made some plans concerning what happened. Ellyn leaned back in her chair with a sigh, “So it’s agreed. We tell Val, Siena, Ilene, and Lyta what happened here. I will send a letter to Priestess Kiya and High Priestess Thalea in Parn. I know Kiya will tell Triust Lodro, so no need to write him.”

“Anything we should do about the three trainees?” Shandra asked, finishing her wine.

Tyor shook her head. “For now, just keep an eye on them. With Deral as Lyta’s apprentice, there should be nothing that Lyta can’t handle. Raven and Sharryl are roommates, correct?”

“Yes.” Shandra replied.

“Since you are Sharryl’s mentor, you can keep close tabs on her. As for Raven, Alandra will keep an eye on her.” Tyor instructed.

Ellyn laughed. “And who will keep an eye on Alandra?”

All three laughed at that. “Well it won’t be Celene, that’s for sure. Those two can barely stand to be in the same room together. Maybe Ilene or Siena should have the burden of Alandra.” Tyor suggested.

A bell in the village tolled the hour and Shandra got to her feet. “Time for us to get going.”

Ellyn and Tyor stood as well. “Shandra, remember, our home is always open to you. Don’t be a stranger.” Ellyn gave her a hug.

“I know, Ellyn. But sometimes time gets away from me when dealing with the trainees and now with young males being added to the mix…” She shook her head. “It’s going to take some getting used to.”

The three women went out to the yard, finding the digging had been completed. “Very nice job, young ones.” Ellyn nodded in approval. “Next time I need help like this, I’ll know who to send for.”

Ciel groaned in dismay. “Please, Mistress Ellyn, pick another trainee. Raven would be a good selection.”

Alandra glared at the trainee, “Remember what I said, Ciel Diost.”

Ciel hung her head, “Sorry, Guardian Alandra. It won’t happen again.” And to herself “At least not when you’re around.”

As the group walked to the gate leading out of the yard to a small side street, Ellyn moved up to Raven’s side. “Raven, before you leave, may I have a word with you?”

“Sure.” Raven stepped off the stone path so she wouldn’t block any one’s way. “Mistress Ellyn, I want to thank you for the collar. If I can do anything to repay you…”

“It’s a gift, young one.” Ellyn made sure no one else was in earshot. “I just want you to know that if you ever need to talk, Tyor and I are always available. We’ve helped Guardians who had been slaves and we are good listeners. You are always welcome in our home.”

“I will remember, mistress.” Raven gave her a half smile. “I don’t suppose you have a cure for nightmares.”

“Unfortunately no. But I can tell you that nightmares are your mind’s way of dealing with what happened to you. When you next have a free day from training and duties as Classleader, come over and we’ll talk. All right?” Ellyn rested a hand on Raven’s shoulder.

Instead of pulling away, Raven nodded. “I promise, Mistress Ellyn. I’ll even bring a bottle of wulfin wine for you and your bondmate.”

“I look forward to your visit, Raven. Run along now and be careful when loading the wagon.” Ellyn patted her shoulder, then went to join Tyor at the gate. The others said their good byes, the trainees thanking Ellyn for the collars.

With a thoughtful look on her face, Raven followed the others out onto the side street.

Guardian Blades Trilogy Book 1 copyright 2013 Anna M Dobritt

About Anna Dobritt

Anna Dobritt is an independent eBook author and an indie publisher of RPG PDFs and fantasy maps through Cartography Unlimited for RPGs. She loves to read and write, and lives in Michigan. Anna enjoys watching Dr. Who, both the classic episodes from the 1960s-1980s and the current episodes. Anna has three trilogies in the queue: Ravynwyng Chronicles Universe – Volume 1: The Beginning has been released, and Volume 2: Discovery, is going through the editing and revision process, with plans to self-publish in 2016. Volume 3: Truth is currently being written. Two other trilogies are The Archivist — Lenara Lenquil Adventures, and the Guardian Blades Trilogy. Anna has self-published Volume 1 of the Ravynwyng Chronicles Universe titled The Beginning; three short stories: The Hunter, First Raven, Raven Voice; a novelette titled Raven Flight, and a collection of short fiction titled Whispers from Within. Where the imagination soars on glowing wings! May the words ever flow!
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