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Chased by Fire
1. Tracks and Smoke
The sudden howl sent a shiver through Tan. The terrible sound echoed several times during the day, and each time he reacted the same. He checked his bow reflexively, feeling the reassuring weight of the smooth ash. Whatever was out there didnt belong in his forest.
There it is again! Bal cried. She started up the slope until Tan grabbed her.
He still couldnt believe he had found her wandering this high up in the mountains alone. Not the first time Ive heard it, he said, wiping an arm across his forehead, smearing away sweat from the unseasonable heat. Tracks piercing the dry earth traced up the slope, winding between massive oaks growing along the steep hillside. Farther up the oaks thinned, leaving the rock bare.
What do you think it is?
Tan studied the trees around him. They were mostly oak and pine, but began to thin the higher they climbed. Not sure. I dont recognize the tracks. Bals eyes widened. Not wolves, he said to reassure her. Ive crossed their tracks a couple of times already.
Youve seen wolves? She looked around, as if the huge mountain wolves were worse than whatever had made that horrible sound.
He pulled her back down the slope, keeping his hand on her wrist. What were you doing up here anyway?
Bal glanced over her shoulder before meeting his eyes. I dont want to say.
Tan snorted and shook his head, unable to suppress the smirk coming to his face. Typical response from Bal. He waited for her to answer rather than pressing.
I She bit her lip as she hesitated. I followed someone, she finished in a rush.
Tan frowned. Who would Bal have followed into the forest?
The harsh cry came again, keeping him from asking. He listened carefully, stretching out his awareness of the forest as his father had once taught him, focusing on the sounds of the forest, smelling the air. Closer. Much closer than the last.
The sound meant more than one of these creatures.
We should go, he said.
The hike back would take most of the day, and Tan dreaded seeing his mother when he returned so late. Since his fathers passing, she was short-tempered any time she couldnt account for him. The death of his father was the biggest reason he remained in Nor rather than leaving and taking an apprenticeship outside the village.
Bal bit her lip. What do you think you were tracking?
Ive never seen anything like it, he admitted. Maybe Cobin will know. Cobin had lived at the edge of the forest for longer than Tan had been alive, and if any in town would know, it would be Cobin.
You think my father will know if you dont know?
Maybe, but even if he doesnt, we should still head home.
Tan started off, moving back down the slope. Sweat poured off him and he wished he had brought more than just the single flask of water with him. The upper streams were infrequent here, and with the stifling air, he went through what he brought.
A sudden gust of comforting wind touched his arm, providing a brief relief. Galen was normally a windy land and the heat over the last few weeks was worse for the uncharacteristically stagnant days.
Bal trailed behind him, strangely silent.
What would you have done had I not found you? Tan asked, glancing back as they made their way down the slope. No trail worked through this part of the forest and they were far from Nor. Bal could have wandered lost for days.
Followed my tracks back down.
Tan sensed the hesitation in her voice. Bal, who did you follow?
She wouldnt meet his eyes. They moved much farther downslope before she finally answered. I didnt mean to follow him. Just sorta got away from me. I thought it strange hed come up in the hills. Not like him. Too dirty for his type.
Bal? Tan already thought he knew who she meant.
She looked up at him, defiance in her eyes. I followed Lins.
Tan laughed and shook his head. You know what hell do if he knew you followed him?
No worse than he does to you. Besides, just because hes Lord Alless son doesnt mean he can do whatever he wants. If the king knew some of the things he does
Tan swung around a stump and pointed so Bal didnt trip. The king doesnt care much what happens in Nor. And Lins well, Lins will eventually inherit his fathers house, so best we dont anger him too much.
Why do you say that?
Tan frowned. About Lins?
She shook her head. The king. Why wouldnt he care? Were right here next to Incendin. And Ethea likes our iron plenty.
Tan shook his head. The only time the king seemed to care was to summon them to service. Like his father. Ever seen a shaper here? If Nor is so important, seems wed be better protected.
Bal slipped on some loose dirt and Tan grabbed her wrist to keep her upright. Wish we had a shaper. Wouldnt be so blasted hot.
It doesnt work like that, Bal.
She jerked her arm away from him. Like you know. Youve seen exactly as many shapers as Ive seen.
Tan laughed and let her get ahead of him. Besides, she was right. Maybe shapers could control the weather. The only help Nor got were sensers, and there werent many of them. Fewer since Tans father died.
Did you see what he was doing? Tan asked. Bal had gotten too far in front of him and he didnt want her to get lost again. Talking slowed her down a little.
She turned and put one hand on her hip as she glared at him. Dirt somehow stained her brown shirt. Who?
Lins. Did you see what he was doing up there?
She shook her head. Just saw flashes of him when he got too far ahead. Then I lost him.
Tan started to say something, but motion at the edge of his vision startled him. Tan should have sensed it, but his ability was weak. Nothing like his father. He waved a hand at Bal, motioning for her to remain still. He crept forward, his awareness focused like his father had taught him while walking these hills. Doing so made him feel close to him again, however briefly. Long moments passed where he detected nothing.
Then he saw tracks again.
Tan hadnt followed them down the slope, choosing an easier hike down than the one he took up the mountain, but the tracks appeared anyway. Marked by three toes and in a shape he didnt recognize, there hadnt been other signs of these creatures except for the painful cries. Until now.
The forest seemed strangely silent, but Tan didnt sense anything else in the woods. He had practically grown up wandering the forest and hills of Nor, which made the vague sense of unease settling into his chest even more unnerving.
The odd footprint had initially just sparked his curiosity. The climb had begun as a diversion, a way of avoiding his chores for the day. Several sheep had gone missing and Cobin was convinced the wolves took them. So far, Tan saw no sign of wolves in the valley. It had not taken him long to find other prints as he had made his way upslope. Eventually, even tracking became difficult, forcing him to use his weak sensing to find the next print.
The creatures didnt follow an easy climb. In some places they moved quickly up sheer rock. Other times he went dozens of paces before finding another print. When he had come across Bal, he took it as a sign to turn back.
What is it? Bal whispered, edging up to him.
He stared through the trees. Was there something there? Was it Lins? Tan wouldnt have any easier a time than Bal if he ran into him up in the mountains, but at least hed have a reason to be here. Not sure. Thought I saw something.
Tan studied the ground as he crept forward, searching for the strange print he had been following. Nothing, I guess.
Had his mind played tricks on him? He slid forward, eyes focused, ignoring Bal as she spoke to him. There had been something herehe was certain of it. He only had to find proof.
Then he found the next print.
Tan glanced behind him and then turned, looking upslope from where they had come. Bal stared at him, a worried look to her face. Had the creature truly been this close to them? Tan turned, kneeling to look at the print, unable to tell how fresh it was.
Theres another print. Tan pushed on Bals shoulder, moving her downslope. I think you should get back to Nor. Follow the tree line to the next stream. You can use it to make your way back to town.
What are you going to do?
Im going to follow this a little further.
She shook her head. Not without me.
We dont know what this is. Ill have an easier time moving in the woods without He trailed off before finishing. Bal didnt need him to insult her too. And she would take anything he said about her slowing him down as an insult.
Without what? Me pestering you?
Tan sighed. I was going to say without worrying about you.
Well I wouldnt want you worrying about me, Tannen Minden! She stomped off down the slope, making enough noise to scare away anything he might have been tracking. She glanced back at him once, her eyes flashing anger, before disappearing.
He sighed, hating to anger Bal, but it was for the best. He would worry about her and she would slow him, but it still pained him to upset her. Part of him debated chasing her. Like her, he should return to Nor, but he still hadnt figured out what made the tracks. It gnawed at him that he hadnt.
Tan climbed upslope, watching for more prints. After a dozen paces, he saw another. Now that hed found them, he could clearly follow the tracks. The prints wound across the face of the slope, never moving completely upslope or down. No further howls echoed but the sounds of the forest still didnt return. Nothing resonated with his senses. Gradually, the sun dipped below the tree line. Soon he would need to abandon his tracking.
Then he found a second set of prints.
They were as unusual as the first, though in a different way. Long, almost as if made by a man, but with a strange dimple near the heel on each. When the print led over a rocky stretch of ground, he realized the dimple came from the nail of a sharp claw that had left scratches along the stone.
The uneasy sensation twisted his stomach and sweat slicked his palms. The original tracks mingled now with the new prints, as if they traveled together.
Was he the hunter or the hunted?
Tan looked around, the area unfamiliar. He focused on slowing his breathing, controlling his emotion, and extending his senses into the forest as his father had long ago taught him. Nothing moved in the forest around him. Something to that feeling bothered him.
Turning toward home, he felt an intrusion upon his senses like an itch at the back of his mind, a sense hed learned to trust over the years, and froze. Any sudden movement might frighten the animaleither to run or to attack. He didnt want to take any chances. Starting forward, he moved cautiously, and the sensation intensified. Tan scanned the forest for the source of his unease, but saw nothing.
Then the strange cry suddenly rang out through the forest, nearer than before. Near enough that the sound hurt his ears.
He ran. His steps were careful at first, but after another sharp braying sounded even closer, he tore through the forest. Nearing a rocky outcropping, he climbed up for a better vantage as the terrible howl came again.
It sounded almost upon him. Tan hurried up the rock and scraped his knees in his haste. He swore softly, knowing better than to press his luck tracking so far from home armed with only his bow.
The creature howled again, this time from behind him.
How did it get behind him?
That meant two of the creatures. Or more. Could this be a pack?
The idea terrified him. What of Bal? She should be far down the slope by now, but he knew her well enough to know she might have turned back to check on him. He prayed her anger carried her all the way back to Nor.
He couldnt run. The steep slope and the treacherous footing made him an easy target. On the rock, he was too visible and could be easily surrounded if facing a pack.
That left up.
The nearest tree was his best option. The huge oak had no low hanging branches that would allow another creature an easy climb. Tan scrambled up the rough trunk, tearing his knees more in the process, before settling into the crook of one of the large branches. He pulled his bow off his shoulder and nocked an arrow, setting it to the string without tension. Nothing moved below him.
Tan listened, sensing the forest. He struggled against his racing heart, but sensed another presence among the trees, one he didnt recognize. Another cry came, much closer.
A low growl answered, almost below him.
His arms prickled with a chill. They had his scent.
A smoky haze appeared near the base of the tree. With it came a dry heat pressing up at him, like a fire burning. A fetid stench wafted up that he didnt recognize. A flash of dark fur moved within the haze.
He brought his bow up and aimed, loosing an arrow into the smoke. A snarling yelp told him hed hit.
Tan waited. Maybe he could scare the creature off. With enough arrows, maybe the creatures would decide he wasnt worth it.
The heat pressing up the tree increased. Already hot, the day became unbearable. Several distinct voices howled below him, joining in a chorus. Definitely a pack.
The smoke began to obscure the forest floor. Heat left his skin feeling raw. He crawled further up the tree, hoping to get away from the fire, but the heat followed him.
Tan pushed down a rising panic as his father had taught. Steady his breathing. Use his senses. Listen, always listen. The answer would come.
This time it didnt.
The next tree was too far to offer any hope of jumping. Upper branches wouldnt support him if he crawled higher. And still the heat pressed toward him. What made the heat?
Each breath became painful. The skin on his arms turned red. If he couldnt get away, he would burn.
He closed his eyes again, forcing himself to focus. A wave of anxious nausea rolled through him that he ignored. A quiet sound whistled in his ears, slowly intensifying like a howling wind. The steady gust of wind picked up speed as it blew through the tree, a gale like the areas namesake. It blew faster, tearing through the trees.
Tan clung to his branch.
The heat blew away with it, disappearing like a candle snuffed out. Flashes of fur prowled around the base of the tree. For a moment, it seemed the heat fought the wind, then the animals howled again before streaking up the slope of the mountain and out of view.
The wind continued, its familiar pressure a relief. He shivered uncontrollably.
He climbed down carefully. Near the bottom of the tree, the ground looked darkened and scorched. The air smelled of char and sulfur. Even though the wind had finally returned, heat still clung to the air. Tan didnt linger and started down the slope toward Nor. His heart didnt slow until he was back in familiar land.
He found Bal about halfway down the mountain face sitting atop a flat rock, staring upslope. Her jaw fixed in a stern expression and she leaned forward, trying to look fierce.
I thought youd be back in Nor by now. He tried to hide the relief in his voice.
Bal frowned at him, jutting her jaw forward. Maybe I wont show you what I discovered, then.
Tan hesitated, uncertain he could stomach tracking anything else today. Whatever had happened, he felt lucky to survive. He needed to reach Nor and find Cobin. Hed lived here long enough, and hed know what to do. Whatever creature Tan had found didnt belong here. The next time, it might not only be sheep missing.
What did you discover? Something about Lins? he asked.
Her jaw relaxed and a playful smile slipped onto her face. Not Lins. Better. She jumped up from the rock and started back up the mountain. Come on, Tan! she shouted as she ran.
Tan looked up the slope. The strange hounds were still up there, and with the fading light they needed to return, not risk running through the woods on another of Bals whims. Bal!
She didnt answer. Tan swore to himself and hurried after her, determined to drag her back to town if needed.
She stopped overlooking a slight ravine where two smaller peaks merged and turned back, a smile spreading across her face. Well?
Tan stared, uncertain what she wanted him to see. I dont see anything.
She tapped her head and then pointed out toward the ravine, a narrow pass through the mountains. How can you not see them?
Tan strained to see through the trees into the ravine. Finally, another sound carried on the wind. A light tinkling, like many tiny bells ringing, carried softly up to them from the pass. Only then did the fear that had been sitting in his chest since he first heard the strange howls finally lift.
Though it had been many years, he recognized the sound and felt a surge of excitement. The Aeta had returned.
2. Glimpse of the Aeta
The caravan slowly rumbled through the lower part of the valley, moving upon a barely visible trail. Brightly colored wagons flashed through the heavy foliage. Men and women sat atop the wagons, steering them through the valley, their clothes as brightly colored as the wagons they drove. Small bells hung from posts and it was their quiet tinkling that preceded them, a distinctive musical sound, and one that sparked memories of the last Aeta visit.
Tan could count on one hand the visits during his lifetime and remembered each vividly, the last nearly five summers ago. How had Bal even known what the Aeta looked like? She couldnt have been more than four or five at the time.
The Aeta were traders and different than the typical merchants traveling through Nor. Visits were almost festival-like when the Aeta came. People from nearby farmsteads would travel to Nor to trade with the Aeta, visit with friends, or simply come to see what new exotic items the Aeta had for trade.
Where do you think they travel from? Bal asked with barely restrained excitement.
Tan stared, imagining the direction of their wagons. There is nothing but mountains this way. But that wasnt quite right. Over the mountains and through the passes lay Incendin, though none in the kingdoms traveled to Incendin. The barrier between the two nations prevented all travel. And Incendin, he added.
Incendin? How would they have come from Incendin? Shapers stopped that long ago. Thats how the war was ended.
Tan laughed as Bal lectured to him. I know how the war ended. But no one travels there. The Aeta made the earlier fear a distant memory.
Bal smiled, the annoyance shed had with him now gone. They crept closer to the wagons, finding the small path the Aeta followed. Foliage covered it, but enough stone remained to mark the roadway it once had been. Tan didnt know a path into Incendin ever existed here.
The light tinkling of the Aeta bells grew louder as they neared. They hid among the trees as the caravan rolled closer. The Aeta were a happy people, exuberant traders, and part of the excitement with their visits was the carnival atmosphere they brought with them. But at this vantage, a tight expression strained the dirty faces of the Aeta and a dour mood emanated from them.
Maybe they were in Doma! Bal whispered.
Tan shook his head. More than just a mood, but also a darkness seemed to follow them. If they were, then it was long ago. And Im not sure how theyd get there from here.
How do you know they didnt just come through Incendin?
Beyond Incendin lay Doma, with Chenir to the north. The simple geographic barrier Incendin presented kept contact with their people limited in this part of the kingdoms. The kingdoms, once the separate nations of Vatten, Ter, Nara, and Galen, had been bound together nearly a thousand years ago and ruled by the king in the capital of Ethea. Within the kingdoms, the ports of Vatten imported goods from Doma and Chenir, but rarely did they make it this far. When they did, the cost was prohibitive to all but the manor lords. It was the fancy Doman silver Bal wanted to see, but he knew his mother would be more interested in Chenir woolens.
The barrier, he reminded her. A shaping so powerful it kept the kingdoms safe from Incendin. Not much was said to be able to pass through, at least not easily. Watching the Aeta, seeing the darkness on their faces, the edge of nervousness hed felt higher in the hills had returned.
Bal glanced from him to the Aeta before shaking her head. All I see are Aeta.
Tan looked away from her, wishing he could see the world through her eyes. As the caravan neared, one of the Aeta caught his eye. A woman sat straight-backed atop a bright red wagon. Her dark eyes darted around the forest. Full lips tilted in a slight frown and pale yellow hair pushed behind her ears, flowing down to her mid back. She was beautiful.
Tan stared and found himself sliding out from behind the trees. Bal grabbed at him too late. He stood openly in view of the caravan. The Aeta woman looked over and locked eyes with him.
She seemed unconcerned that he stared at her, hidden within the forest. Her lips parted slightly and the corners twitched, threatening to smile. One long-fingered hand touched the side of her face delicately.
Tan felt a brief fluttering within his chest. Hed never seen anyone like her.
Tan shook himself, as if awakening from a dream, and looked over at his friend. What?
Bal pulled on his sleeve. We need to get back.
He glanced at the sky. By the time they returned it would be getting dark. Now you want to return?
We need to be there when the Aeta arrive!
The train of wagons continued slowly past them. Tan made little effort to hide. The woman stared until her wagon was no longer visible, turning as she passed to keep her focus on him. When the wagons had finally disappeared, he said, We should hurry.
So we can see the Aeta arrive?
So you can. I need to see Cobin first.
Bal frowned at him, as if disappointed he would not be there with her as the Aeta arrived in town. Dont tell him I was up here.
Tan shook his head and chuckled as Bal started down the slope toward Nor.
Tan followed after her, unable to completely shake the vision of the beautiful Aeta from his mind.
The hike back down the mountain went quickly. The heat of the day slowly faded and a soft breeze filtered through the trees, cooling the sweat upon his face. Weeks had passed since a steady wind had blown through Galen and he welcomed its return. In spite of it, sweat still dripped from his brow.
Tan guided them through the woods downward and to the west, knowing almost instinctively how to find his way back. Occasionally, evidence of the strange creatures hed tracked triggered a memory of the fear he had felt following them. Each time, he felt a little flash of anxiety, a nervousness in the forest unusual for him. The sight of the strange prints only urged him forward faster.
Bal walked ahead of him, humming as she hurried toward home. Every so often she would dart ahead before returning to him. Tan suspected she searched for the Aeta but they saw no other sign of them. He didnt know the road they followed, but suspected it led into town. Other than Nor, no other towns were this deep into Galen.
As the sun drifted toward the tops of the trees they saw the first signs of Nor. Areas where the woodcutters had felled the trees opened up the forest and the pale sky flashed through. In the distance to the east, above the mountain peaks, dark clouds threatened rain and occasional lightning flashes streaked across the sky. A slow rumble of thunder followed much later. Given the weather recently, chances were good that Nor would not even see any rain.
The cleared stretches of trees became more frequent. Finally Tan reached the main road. Bal ran ahead, waving as she hurried toward town. Probably to tell some of the other children about the Aeta. He had no doubt she would find him later. Since the time Tan had intervened and kept her from being bullied, shed clung to him.
Tan continued on to Cobins farm, pausing near the sheep pen to examine the prints there. They were the reason hed ventured up into the mountains in the first place. Now he saw the evidence of the same beast encircling the pen, and probably at least three of them by the different sizes.
Tan? Any reason youre crawling on the ground near the sheep?
Cobin stood behind him. The large man was only ten years his senior but had a weathered face with gray already speckling his dark beard. Tan had known him almost his entire life.
He motioned toward the prints as he stood. I found these prints this morning.
Cobin grunted before stepping over to him. A large axe hung loosely in his hand and his face was streaked with dirt. Wolf?
Not these. Look at the toes. Too small for our wolves.
Cobin squatted and stared at the dusty soil, his dark eyes squinting in concentration. He grunted again. Then what?
I followed them up the mountain
Cobin interrupted him with a deep laugh. That explains it, then.
The scuttlebutt coming from the lords house.
Tan looked at Cobin before staring off toward Nor, scrubbing his face with his hand. Mother? He already knew the answer.
Shes not pleased, Cobin answered before laughing again. Could be someone else drew her ire. Probably too late for you anyway.
If only Cobin were right that it was someone else. These tracked several miles up into the mountains before being joined by another type of print. Like this. He traced the strange print into the dusty soil, remembering the heel spike.
Did you find anything?
They found me.
Cobin looked up into the mountains and his face went slack for a moment. They? he asked. You mean a pack? Cobins hand squeezed the handle of his axe unconsciously and his knuckles turned white with pressure.
The appearance of the Aeta had pushed away most of the anxiety from his experience with the animals, but enough remained. Tan shivered, thankful that hed survived the encounter with the creatures. There were at least three, I think.
You didnt get a good look?
He shook his head. I saw only flashes of fur. I got chased and climbed a tree to get away. Everything got smoky, but it was probably dust from as dry as its been. I couldnt see anything.
Cobin grunted, making it somehow sound like a question.
Tan shrugged, understanding his friend. Not sure what it was. The wind picked up suddenly and scared them. I didnt give chase.
Cobin arched his brow at him. Glad I dont have to be there when you tell your ma where youve been.
Since his fathers death, she wanted him anywhere but in the mountains. Preferably in Ethea, studying at the university. Only, the idea of sitting and staring at books all day left him feeling anxious and fidgety.
Maybe not all of it, Cobin agreed.
Tan laughed and tapped the ground. What do you think this is?
Not entirely sure. He looked up at Tan. But you want to track it again.
I think we need to. If its come this close to town, we should know what it is.
Cobin hadnt taken his eyes off the track, his brow furrowed as he studied it. Youre probably right. Ill get Heller to come, as well. He paused. Dont tell your ma.
A bit of his anxiety eased. Cobin would provide support as they tracked it, and Heller, though nearly fifty, was a crafty old man and knew much about the woods. Plus, he was still one of the best shots with a bow in this part of Galen.
Tomorrow? Cobin asked.
Probably not tomorrow. Might want to give it a day.
Too long and well lose the track. You think your ma wont let you out of her sight once she hears what you were up to?
Tan grunted, lifting his eyebrows. Theres that, he agreed. And the other thing we found.
We? Bal with you?
Tan debated telling Cobin, but hed promised Bal he wouldnt say anything. Cobin wasnt quite as protective of Bal as his mother was with him, but it was a close competition. Just the lower hills. Shes the one who found the Aeta.
Whered they come from? Nothing there but Incendin.
Tan nodded. Came on an old road Id never seen.
Cobin nodded thoughtfully. An old trader road. Dont think anyone has used that path in more than twenty years.
The Aeta did.
I didnt think theyd be able to cross the barrier. Wonder where they came from?
Tan remembered the darkness that seemed to follow the Aeta. Not sure, but they should reach Nor tonight. Figured theyd get set up and trade
Cobin laughed. What, you think you get to trade with the Aeta?
Tan hadnt planned on trading anything. Not that he had much anyway. See you in town?
Cobin nodded at him absently, and as he left, his friend circled the pen, staring at the tracks, a troubled expression etched onto his face. Every so often he would glance up into the mountains and frown.
What did Cobin know and not share?
3. An Unlikely Threat
Tan would need to face his mother sooner or later, so he closed his eyes and took a deep breath, steeling himself before entering her room.
She looked up from her massive desk and eyed him, noting his dirt-stained face and clothes, before turning back to the stack of papers she was sorting through. A hand reached up and touched the jet-black hair pulled severely back from her face.
She ignored him while she sat stiff-backed, working through the house numbers. Tan waited quietly in front of her desk like all the other house servants she supervised, trying not to rock anxiously on his feet. Nervous energy welled through him at the thought of the visiting Aeta. Even his mother would be interested in their visit, wanting to see the items they had for trade, and he bit at his lip to keep from saying anything that might make his scolding worse.
You shouldnt chew your lip, his mother admonished without looking up.
Im not, he protested weakly, looking away. The walls of his mothers office were decorated simply, just a sigil of the Great Mother hanging. A large wrought-iron lantern rested on the corner of her desk, giving the room light.
His mother looked up at him and sighed. Tannen, you know better than to lie to your mother. She blinked a moment before setting her hands upon her desk and meeting his gaze. Where have you been?
Tan resisted the urge to turn away. He couldnt liehis mother would see through him easilyso he decided on the truth. I found some prints near Cobins pens and followed them.
Not all day. The last hour or so I was with Cobin.
You went into the mountains, then. When he didnt argue, she went on. What of the task you were assigned?
Tan had forgotten about that. Shed asked him to sweep Lord Alless barn on the edge of town. He had put it off, thinking he would have time after tracking the prints, but he had gone farther into the mountains than he had expected. Then the Aeta had pushed all thoughts of chores out of mind. I didnt do it, he admitted, but I saw something you need to know about
I am sure you did. Cobin told Davum it was probably wolves that got into his stock. The men should know how to protect their stock from wolves, especially in this part of the kingdoms. I dont need you tracking wolves and risking yourself like that while ignoring your chores. Theres a reason Lind allows you to remain in the manor house. If you ignore your responsibilities
Ill get them done. Wouldnt want Lord Lind upset that I didnt sweep the stables. He sighed and nearly turned away. Cleaning the stables felt like such a waste of his time. Had his father still been alive, he wouldnt have to do it. Tan didnt know what he would have ended up doing if his father still lived, but not that. Besides, it wasnt a wolf. I dont know what it was, but it wasnt a wolf.
His mother looked up again and pushed her papers away, focusing on him entirely. What was it, then?
Tan wasnt sure if she humored him or if she believed his concern. Cobin hadnt questioned. And his mother knew he was a skilled tracker and what hed learned from his father.
Some kind of hound, he answered, shaking his head. I couldnt see them clearly. There was some kind of smoke or cloud of dust.
She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, visibly calming herself. You came upon a pack while tracking an unfamiliar creature.
There was a heat to her words now. Tan needed to choose his answer carefully. We needed to know what had attacked the flock. Father would have done the same! Immediately, he knew that hed misspoken.
Her eyes flashed with a quick anger. She clenched her fists before slowly relaxing. Your father, she began, taking a deep breath before continuing, is no longer with us.
Tan knew she intended to say something different. Almost more than him, she still suffered daily from his fathers absence. Before hed gone, she smiled easily and laughed often. All that changed when he went to war at the kings bidding. When he didnt return, neither did his mothers mirth.
Tan, she said quietly. I cannot lose you, too.
I know. But she still wanted him to leave Nor. She wanted him to go to Ethea, learn at the university like his father had, but Tan wanted something different. Why should he go to the capital when everything he knew and loved was here?
She shook her head, touching a hand to her neck where a small locket hung. How did you get away?
He shook his head. It doesnt matter.
His mother didnt care what hed seen, only about his safety. But something about the creatures gnawed at his senses.
He sighed, knowing his father would have understood.
Sighing wont bring him back.
I know, he said softly.
She set her hands on either side of her desk and studied him a moment. Then she took a deep breath, letting it out slowly. Its time for you to think about your studies.
Tan swallowed before answering. But I dont want
You need to understand your gifts, Tannen. Like your father, the Great Mother gifted you as an earth senser. You can learn to master that gift in Ethea.
And have to serve like Father?
After what happened to his father, he didnt understand why she pushed him to study in Ethea. The other sensers in Nor never went to the university. Most are like metoo weak to do anything useful anyway.
How can you know how strong you can be if you never try?
He shook his head. His father would have understood. Had he not gone off for the king, he wouldve taught Tan himself. What can I learn at university that I cant in Galen?
The fact that you ask tells me how much you have to learn.
He blinked and took a deep breath. King Althem called Father to serve because hed studied at the university. Im just a weak earth senser. No use to the king.
Thats for King Althem to decide.
Hes not my king, Tan mumbled. He squirmed under the look she shot him. A moment of silence fell between them and he let it settle before speaking again. There was something else. She opened her mouth as if to say something, but Tan pressed forward. Bal saw Aeta.
Bal was with you?
He shook his head. Not with me, he said. I found her. She followed Lins Alles into the upper reaches but got lost. If I hadnt found her
Hopefully telling her about Bal would ease some of his mothers anger. She knew how impulsive Bal could be.
And she found Aeta?
Tans frustration continued to rise.
And where were they traveling from?
Came from Incendin direction. An old traders road.
His mothers sharp eyes closed for a moment, quickly considering what he had told her. They crossed through Incendin?
The question took him aback and made him think of the darkness that trailed after them. Can they cross the barrier?
His mother frowned at him. Another reason you need to go to Ethea. The barrier doesnt prevent all passage. Just some. Youd know that if you studied. She came around her desk and waved at him. Come.
She led him quickly through the manor house and to the lords office. The door stood open and she did not knock before entering, walking brusquely into the room. It was a large room with a fireplace in one corner and walls interrupted by large open windows, letting in the warm breeze that smelled of rain. Animal hides adorned most of the remaining wall space, though the horns of an elk were displayed proudly as if Lord Lind had caught the animal himself. The manor lord sat at his desk, poring over a stack of parchments, and looked up at the sound of her entrance, smiling when he realized who entered.
Ephra, he said warmly, setting down his pen. A dark red ink smudged his hand, looking almost like blood. What brings me this honor?
The quiet snort was such that Tan knew the lord would not have heard it. Lind Alles had been pushing his mother for marriage since she had joined his staff with an insistence that irritated him. He was reassured that it still was obviously so for his mother too.
My lord, she answered curtly. Lord Lind only smiled wider. Tan brings word of the Aeta. Likely traveling from Incendin. She said the last as if it were important. She didnt mention the strange beasts that killed Cobins sheep.
Lord Lind turned toward him and the smile was still painted across his face, yet his eyes narrowed and his shoulders tensed. Truly?
Tan nodded, not wanting to make eye contact but knowing his mother would be angry with him if he did not. I spied them in the mountains. Better not to admit to Lord Lind that Bal had been with him.
Lind scratched his chin and a bit of the dark ink stained it. He turned to look out one of the large windows of his office, staring out into Nor as if the caravans would already be arriving. See that they set up outside of town.
His mother tilted her head slightly and crossed her arms over her chest. You know custom allows the Aeta to trade in town.
Lind turned back and shook his head once. Not in town. They may set up outside of town only. When she didnt move, his face changed. Do not cross me in this, Ephra.
Lind looked down to the stack of papers upon his desk. The king has sent missives, he began. There have been skirmishes on the border of Nara. Some of his strongest shapers were sent to investigate. Lind shivered slightly.
Some didnt care for the abilities of the shapers and were uncomfortable with them. Usually they had no ability of their ownnot even a weak sensing like Tan. He hadnt known Lind was among them.
The king didnt pass along details, only that he worries these arent isolated incidents. I was instructed to remain guarded against any possible threat. So I am.
His mother shook her head. And you think the Aeta pose a threat?
Lind shrugged. Probably not, but I wont chance some attacker posing as the Aeta and gaining easy access to town.
There is little chance someone could imitate the Aeta, my lord, she chided. There are few folk like them. And do you really think we have anything in Nor valuable enough to attack?
Lind turned away and did not disagree.
Thats not your only reason. What is it?
He said nothing and she pressed.
He looked up at her stern tone. Tan was surprised, unaccustomed to the familiar note his mother used with the man, and suddenly uncomfortable with what it meant.
Why must the Aeta trade outside our walls?
Lord Lind sighed, closing his eyes as he did before turning to meet Ephras gaze. I dont trust them, he said simply. Trades always seem to work in their favor.
His mother stifled a smile. The same could be said about any merchant, my lord, she answered, her tone softening. They are traders, and shrewd ones at that.
Lind sniffed. There is more to it than that, I think. He shook his head. No, Ephra. They are to remain outside of town.
His mother didnt argue, instead taking Tans arm and leading him from the lords chambers. She pulled him along, stepping quickly through the manor house. The occasional servant stepped out of her way, bowing as she passed. His mother didnt acknowledge them, barely slowing until she reached her quarters. Only then did she release Tans arm.
Why are we hurrying? He rubbed his arm where her firm grip pinched him.
His mother paced in front of her desk, her long skirt swishing as she did, and one hand clutched the necklace at her neck. There is something Im not seeing, she mumbled to herself.
Tan doubted she meant for him to hear.
She stopped and closed her eyes, focusing inward, and her lips moved as if speaking. She stood like that for long moments before she opened her eyes again and turned to him with a fire in her eyes.
She frowned, though the angry look in her eyes softened. She shook her head. He doesnt know the insult he gives, having the Aeta camp outside our walls. Not that hed care. I must see if I can soften it somewhat.
Where are you going? he asked.
You are coming too.
To talk to the Aeta.
4. Greeting Mother
Tan followed his mother out of the sprawling manor house on the north end of Nor and down the cobbled street until they reached the edge of town. She walked with a purposeful stride, her back straight as always, and her hair pulled tight so the light breeze filtering through town didnt disturb it. She didnt glance back as she walked, trusting he followed, and Tan dared not defy her now that he saw her mood. There was a quiet intensity about her and an undercurrent of anger, though he didnt know why.
Reaching the low wall encircling the town, they passed through the open wooden gate. Tan had never known it to be closed. His mother stopped just outside the gate and looked up the road into the mountains. She crossed her arms over her chest. One foot began tapping impatiently while she stood. Otherwise, she stood completely still.
Tan had no choice but to stand with her. Why wont Lord Alles let the Aeta into town?
She didnt look over. Hes a fool.
And you think to ease the message? Why do you need me here? He didnt object, but was surprised his mother had brought him along.
She looked over and her eyes flashed briefly. You dont wish to visit with the Aeta?
He shrugged and pretended to turn away.
She snorted. You cant fool me. Not like you did your father.
I could never fool Father.
He might have been a powerful senser, but he had a blind spot when it came to you. Gone a year, Tan heard how much she missed him. Had he not, he would have pushed you to the university two years ago.
I was only fifteen then.
Old enough. Older than I was when I went.
Tan wanted to ask more, but his mother never spoke of her time at university other than to say that the one good thing she took away from there was his father. And in spite of your experience, you want me to go.
She fixed him with a hard look. I want you to go because of my experience. She sighed and turned to look back up the road. It may be hard for you to believe, but there is more to this world than just Nor. You can experience only so much wandering the woods.
What if I dont want to experience anything more? I like tracking and hunting. I like Galen. Its my home.
She looked at him again and didnt say anything. She didnt have to. Since his father died, Galen hadnt felt the same for either of them. That, more than anything, was why she wanted him to go.
If I went to Ethea, what would you do? he asked.
She blinked slowly, her face fixed in a mask. I would stay and serve.
Because of the king?
She turned her attention on him again. There is a price to everything, Tan. This is the price I agreed to pay.
He shook his head. She still didnt understand. But its not one Im willing to pay. I wont blindly go off like Father.
She smiled at him sadly. If you think he went off blindly, then She trailed off.
She swallowed and debated her answer. I wish he were still here to explain.
They stood in silence. After what seemed an eternity, the soft tinkling of bells touched the air. Brightly colored wagons drifted out of the shadows and rolled down the lower foothills and rumbled toward town. As they neared, his mother glanced at him, her eyes warning silence, before turning to face the slowing wagons.
She waved a hand in greeting and the nearest wagon driver waved a response. The rolled sleeves of his bright green jacket revealed tattoos on his massive scarred forearms. Greetings, his mother called. The man nodded but did not answer. A small smile tugged at the corners of his mothers mouth. I hope the winds of Galen have treated you well and welcomed you to Nor. The man nodded again and remained silent. We look forward to trading with the fair Aeta, but before we do, I request to speak to the Mother.
The wagon drivers eyes widened a moment at the request. There was a creak and the light tinkling of bells as a door opened on a cart further down the line. A tall woman with streaks of silver in her dark hair strode confidently toward them. She wore a bright red dress and large hoops of gold hung from each ear. A wide silver band circled her throat. As she approached them, the lead wagon driver climbed down to stand next to her. He towered over the woman, standing protectively near her. Muscles strained the seams of the jacket he wore.
Greetings, Mother, Tans mother spoke as the Aeta woman neared. You are welcome in Nor.
The Aeta woman smiled and, with it, her face became radiant. Am I? Yet you meet us along the edge of town.
Tans mother nodded. I serve the manor lord and the king. While here, I can attend to any needs you may have.
The Aeta woman tilted her head in a slight bow. I am the Mother.
I am Ephra.
The Aeta stared at her for a moment before a curious look came to her face. That is an interesting name, she said, pausing and considering his mother. I knew of a woman once, a powerful shaper, similarly named.
Oh? Her arms tensed slightly.
Similar, though different. She traveled among us for a time. She was not Ephra, though.
She tilted her head. And Im no shaper. Only Ephra.
The Mother smiled, narrowing her eyes as she nodded. Still, you serve the king. That makes you a senser of some value. His mother waited and the Mother smiled. I thank you for your welcome, Ephra. Amusement touched her words, mixing with a musical quality.
Another approaching Aeta interrupted her. Tans eyes widened in recognition. The girl from atop the wagon. Pale yellow hair fell gently around her face and she brushed back a stray strand. A thin band of silver, like the Mothers, circled her delicate neck. Wide eyes took everything in. A light smile turned her full lips. She was not as tall as the Mother, though she had similar features. Seeing her in the forest, he had thought her attractive; up close, she was beautiful.
Something about her pulled at him and his heart began to flutter. His mouth went dry and the back of his throat threatened to close. A soft whistling echoed in his ears. He took a deep breath to steady himself, looking toward his mother to avoid staring.
Mother, the Aeta said, unconcerned about interrupting.
The Mother turned to her and frowned. Amia. You were not summoned.
I wasnt? Amia smiled. But I must observe.
The Mother shook her head once and laid a gentle hand upon Amias arm, turning her back toward the wagons. Not this time. Wait until youre summoned.
Amia resisted, turning to Tan and smiling. He felt the pounding in his chest anew. Looking back to the Mother, she asked, How will I learn to be Mother if I cant observe?
The Mother ignored the question and pushed her softly back toward the wagons. We will talk later, Amia. Her tone brooked no argument. Amia considered a moment before nodding and returning to the wagons. The Mother watched her until satisfied that she was safely back within the lead wagon before she turned her attention back to Tans mother.
She is young, Tans mother commented.
She is headstrong, the Mother countered.
His mother laughed. Probably. The young often are. His mother stared at the wagon for a moment before facing the Aeta. It is not often that one so young is named successor.
The Aeta paused and considered his mother again before smiling tightly. It is not often one of the kingdoms understands the ways of the Aeta.
Perhaps. The two women stood facing each other for a long moment before his mother spoke again, glancing again to the wagon where Amia had disappeared. Regardless, she started, turning her attention back to the Mother, you are welcome in Nor. If your wagons are burdened, know that you will find us eager traders and helpful hosts. Anything you may need is simply a question away.
The Mother tilted her head carefully, watching his mother with suspicious eyes, waiting, as if knowing there would be more.
As you prepare to trade, Lord Lind requests your wagons be set up on the edge of town.
The Mother sniffed softly and a dark smile crossed her lips, as if expecting the offer his mother had made. Hands moved to her hips and her fingers gripped the cloth belt wrapped around her waist. It appears we are not welcome in Nor, she said carefully. Rather, we are welcome near Nor.
The large wagon driver frowned as well, looking over at the low wall circling the town.
Im very sorry. Lord Lind has received missives from our king warning of attacks along the borders to the south and east. He prefers caution and asks you respect his request.
The wagon driver laughed, incredulity clear in the low rumble, and shook his head. He fears the People? he asked. The Mother looked sharply at him and his laughter died as the man raised his hands in surrender. Its an insult, Mother, and you know it. And after everything weve been through
The Mother shook her head, cutting the man off. Nonetheless. Well respect the request and remain available for trade. Maybe its for the best. Our stop will be regrettably brief. We are able to stay only a short time. Tell your lordship we will soon depart from his lands. Her manor shifted, her demeanor brightening. But our wagons are burdened and heavy. Wed welcome trade, especially for your Nor steel.
You will find the people of Nor eager to trade with the Aeta.
The Mother nodded once before turning and striding back to her wagon. The large wagon driver paused a moment, staring at Tan and his mother as if about to say something, before he turned and returned to his perch atop the wagon. With a whistle, the caravan started forward, moving off the road to form a wide circle on the edge of Nor.
Tans mother watched wordlessly, staring intently at the wagon the Mother had disappeared into, before turning back to Tan and sighing. She shook her head as she did. He doesnt know what hes done, she said quietly, frowning.
She looked at him as if realizing that he had been there the entire time, shaking her head again. Hair that had been pulled tight did not move with the motion. She lightly touched the locket at her neck before answering, taking a deep breath as she did. Its customary to allow the Aeta to trade within the walls of town.
The only other times the Aeta had visited, their wagons had circled the town square and a weeklong festival had accompanied the trading. The Mother had said the visit would be brief and he wondered now how long the Aeta would stop in Nor.
They are the wanderers, his mother continued, and their history is one marked with much sadness. She shook her head, staring at the Aeta now departing their wagons. Its customary to provide shelter and give them a sense of home, if only briefly. She sighed, as if thinking of a terrible memory, before turning back to face town. There is something off here.
How do you know?
She sniffed. Tannen, she scolded, I know you sense it. In spite of their past, the Aeta are a happy people. Something has happened thats made them somber and careful. I worry what that might be.
Tan looked back at the Aeta and saw the beautiful Amia staring unabashedly at him from behind one of the wagons. As he turned, his heart started hammering wildly again. He turned away and hurried to catch up to his mother.
She looked over, as if knowing his thoughts. Finish your chores before you chase that girl.
Im not chasing he protested.
I saw your eyes. And I know how young men think. A distant note came to her voice as she hurried back to the manor house.
5. A Pig and a Rat
Tan cleaned the stables faster than he had ever managed before. Thoughts of missed opportunities to watch the Aeta hurried his work. But more than just the Aeta, he wanted to see Amia again. Even the thought of her made his palms sweaty.
The moon shone brightly in the cloudless night sky. The sound of laughter and hundreds of voices all talking at the same time echoed from the edge of town. Had he finished the chore hed promised his mother before tracking the prints into the forest, he would have been free to watch the trading. Now he missed some of the early excitement.
He followed the sounds, passing the small shops at the center of town and the rough stone homes on the edge of town, until he reached the low town wall and passed through. As he did, he realized his mother was right. It felt wrong for the Aeta to camp on the other side of the wall. Why should the wall separate them from Nor, if even for a night?
The scene was much different than it had been earlier in the day. Lanterns blazed bright, illuminating wagons and traders. The wagons formed a circle, and each had a table folded down and stacked with items for sale or trade. The Aeta stood beside each table and called out to passersby, though truly most were already engaged in conversation. A large throng of people moved through the middle of the wagons, most talking and laughing. Some locals pushed carts through the crowd, selling food or crafts. Several fire pits had been erected and their wide flames lit the night.
In spite of the trading, something seemed off. Tan couldnt quite place what he felt. Most of the Aeta were quick to make a sale or traded easily for the steel local craftsmen were known for. There was not the joy upon the faces of the Aeta he remembered, nor the frantic energy from them as they pressed each transaction.
Tan tripped and bumped into someone as he moved through the circle of wagons. Im sorry He trailed off as he turned and saw Amia. The thin band of silver at her neck gleamed softly in the lantern light.
She tilted her head, considering him for a moment. You.
Im sorry, he said again. His mouth suddenly felt dry. He licked his lips, trying to force moisture back onto his lips.
The corner of her mouth tilted slightly in a hint of a smile. Ive seen you before. Her voice was musical and soft, though a hidden vein of steel ran through it. Someone who was accustomed to having her way.
Im Ephras son and was with her when she met with the Mother earlier today.
Amia closed her eyes and nodded. You were, but that wasnt the first. The comment was not a question. There was an air of curiosity to what she said.
In the forest as well, he acknowledged. He had forgotten the sounds of the trading around him, unable to focus on anything other than Amia.
You spied upon us as we traveled?
I wasnt Tan sputtered. I was tracking an animal that had killed some of our sheep.
What kind of animal?
Tan shook his head, remembering the unusual tracks upon the ground and the strange beasts that had trapped him in the tree. I dont know.
Disappointment swept through him when Amia frowned. She glanced from him to look back toward the mountains looming behind them, a darkness shadowed against the night. Were you successful? Did you find your creature?
More like they found me. When she frowned, he went on. I followed their tracks up the mountain, following their howls. She winced briefly as he said this and Tan wondered why. They surrounded me, chasing me into a tree.
Youre safe now. She eyed him up and down, as if appraising a horse.
He nodded. I am. Something scared them off.
She frowned again, a sad tip of her full lips, still managing to remain beautiful. What did you do to scare them off?
I didnt do anything. I shot arrows at them but it didnt do any good. A gust of wind, I think, scared them.
Im surprised you were able to track them.
It wasnt easy.
She shook her head and opened her mouth as if to speak, but was interrupted by the sudden appearance of three large figures slowly emerging from the shadows to hover behind Tan.
Minden, one sneered, out of your element, here, dont you think?
Lins, Tan acknowledged.
Lins Alles was Lord Linds son and carried himself as if he were related to King Althem himself, bullying and taking whatever he wanted. It was unfortunate his father never disciplined him. Truth be told, fewif anyof the often cruel and just mean-spirited things he did made it to his fathers ears for discipline. Most were too scared to say anything. Tan had once made the unfortunate decision to complain about Lins to his mother, who promptly spoke to Lord Lind.
Lins never forgave Tan for the insult, ignoring the beating that had been the impetus for Tans grumbling. Now Lins and his ever-present friends Rapen and Niles used every opportunity to pick on or humiliate Tan. Usually Tan had the presence of mind to steer clear of the lords son, but occasionally he could not be avoided. He closed his eyes, wondering what humiliation Lins would think to bestow upon him tonight, and worse, in the presence of Amia.
Lord Lins, Lins said proudly, turning toward the Aeta. Rapen and Niles remained silent, only grunting to note their presence.
Not yet, Tan muttered, shaking his head. Maybe by that time hed finally leave Nor. Or maybe something would happen to Lins, though that seemed too much to hope for.
Lins glared at him and turned to Amia. He offered her a toothy smile. She tilted her head carefully and studied him. Tan felt a sudden pressure behind his ears that passed quickly before she smiled a half-smile.
And you are? Lins asked.
Amia shook her head slowly. No one near as important.
Lins laughed, a harsh and grating sound. Nonsense. His tone gave lie to his words. He turned his attention back to Tan, though remained facing Amia as he did. Finish cleaning my stable, Minden?
Its your fathers.
Its the same. He smiled quickly at Amia. At least my father has something of value to pass on to me. Rapen and Niles laughed with Lins.
Amia watched him carefully, ignoring the smile Lins offered and the brutish forms of Rapen and Niles. Pressure built behind his ears again that passed quickly. She crossed her arms over her chest and turned suddenly to Lins, returning his smile with an almost feral one.
And what have you done of value today, my lord? Her voice retained its musical quality but carried an edge with it.
Linss smile faltered. I aid my father in the running of Nor.
Tan suppressed a laugh. If chasing the young women of Nor and bullying the boys helped his father, then Lins indeed aided him. Lins glanced over to him and glared again.
The horses find value in what Tan has done today, Amia said.
The horses? Lins asked, laughing.
Im sure the horses care that their manure has been shoveled.
The Aeta shrugged. Perhaps, but they enjoyed the hay. Her smile hardened. Theres value in such work. I dont know if theres value in a pig-faced boy who thinks insulting others makes him appealing. I will ask the Mother.
Lins wore a look of shock that Amia would dare insult him. Tan felt certain he would not take it well. Rapen and Niles laughed in spite of themselves, stifling it suddenly when Lins glared at them. They both raised their hands in submission before backing away.
Lins looked from Amia, who now smiled innocently, to Tan, who had found the sense to close his mouth, his face reddening with anger. His jaw worked to speak before he finally found his words. Minden, he sputtered, focusing his rage upon Tan, as Tan knew he would. I will leave you with this Aeta rat and will find you later.
When Lins left, Tan sighed, fearing the truth of the statement. Lins wouldnt rest until he felt this wrong was righted. Tan was certain it would be a painful correction. Thank you. Im not able to speak so freely.
Amia smiled warmly at him and Tan felt his heart race again. I sensed that, she answered simply.
She looked at him again and Tan remembered what shed said before Lins appeared. Why were you surprised that I tracked the creatures?
Amia frowned. They arent easy to track. Few manage to do so. She paused, tilting her head and staring intently at him. And I thank you.
Tracking them. I think it scared them off.
I doubt I scared them, he began before a question came to him. What are they?
Theyre fearsome hounds. They followed us from Incendin. She stopped at the sudden approach of another shadowed figure that appeared out of the fading light of the lamps and fire pits.
Amia, a stern voice said, interrupting the young Aeta as she spoke to Tan.
Tan looked up and recognized the regal features of the Aeta Mother, who stood staring at him while holding firmly to Amias arm.
Mother, Amia acknowledged.
The Mother smiled, though it did not reach her eyes. Come, Daughter. Youre needed to observe.
Amia considered the Mother for a moment and as she did, a rising pressure built within his ears. She glanced to Tan before turning her attention back to the Mother. I am?
The Mother nodded curtly. You are. Come. The Mother turned to Tan and nodded once. Son of Ephra, she said respectfully before turning away and leading Amia off.
Amia looked back as she followed. Tan wondered if he would ever see her again.