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Authors: Karleen Bradford

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BOOK: Whisperings of Magic
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Catryn curled back up on the pallet that was her bed, but she did not fall asleep again. What had Bruhn been doing there? It was possible he had not been able to sleep either and had gone down to sit by the fire for a while. It was possible that his encounter with the hooded man had just been by chance.

Even as she tried to convince herself, Catryn knew
she did not believe it. Somehow that man had arranged with Bruhn to come down after all were asleep and meet with him. He could have done it easily enough. Bruhn had stayed at the table for a while to finish his ale after she and Dahl had retired. The man could have spoken to him then.

But why would Bruhn meet him secretly?

CHAPTER 8

The next morning, as they were taking up their way again, Catryn moved to stand beside Bruhn.

“Who was that you were speaking with last night?” she asked, not bothering to give him a morning greeting.

“What do you mean?” He stared at her, eyes wide.

“I saw you talking with a man some time after we retired. Who was he?”

“No one. I do not know. Just a man …” Bruhn dropped his eyes, unable to meet hers. Then he blustered on, “Why were you spying on me?”

“I was not spying,” Catryn began, but Bruhn whirled away from her.

She stared after him. His guilt was only too apparent. But Dahl would not see it, she feared. This was a problem she must solve without him. So when Dahl joined them she said only, “It would seem we should visit this Mavahn.”

“Most assuredly,” Dahl agreed. “Perhaps the lad will speak with us.”

“What lad?” asked the Sele, yawning a little as he rummaged in his saddlebags for grain.

Catryn told him.

“He might speak with me,” the Sele said.

Both Catryn and Dahl looked at it in surprise.

“With you?” Dahl asked. “I mean no offense, but why would he speak with you and not with any other man?”

“Precisely because I am not a man,” the Sele answered. Its words were slightly muffled by the handful of grain it was chewing. “We Sele know something of what it is to be afraid of your kind.”

“You are right, of course,” Dahl said quickly. “Unfortunately, you speak the truth, my friend. Forgive me for questioning you.”

“It is of no matter,” the Sele replied. “We know you humans often take some time to see the obvious. It is not your fault.”

Dahl looked taken aback for a moment, then managed a wry smile.

Catryn hid a smile of her own. I would wager no
one has talked to Dahl the king in that manner for a while, she thought. But aloud, all she said was, “Let us be off, then.”

Mavahn’s house was a poor cottage. Beyond it the forest loomed. There was a small patch of garden in front with a few scraggly vegetables growing in it, but they looked to be sadly in need of care. Dahl and Catryn dismounted just outside the tumbledown fence and motioned to the others to do the same, then they started up the path to the doorway.

Catryn caught a glimpse of a face at one cracked and dirty window. The door opened before they reached it.

“What do you want?” The woman standing in the doorway was thin. She stooped as if the strength to stand straight had deserted her completely. Her voice was flat and sounded as tired as she looked.

“Mavahn?” Dahl asked.

“I am,” she replied.

“We have come to speak with your son, if we may,” Dahl said.

“He speaks to no one,” the woman replied. She made as if to shut the door in their faces.

“Please,” Catryn broke in. “We wish to help if we
can. We want to find out what is happening in the north.”

Mavahn’s face closed. “You cannot help us. And the less said about the goings on north of here the better. Whatever it is, it has robbed my poor son of his wits.”

At this, although her voice was shrill, Catryn saw the woman’s eyes fill with tears. Catryn made a move toward her.

“But we might be able to do something. We have helped this land before …” She stopped as she caught Dahl’s warning glance.

“If I could speak with your son,” the Sele said, stepping forward. “Perhaps he might be able to tell me what happened to him.”

Mavahn looked at the Sele, her eyes widening now with astonishment.

“I am a Sele,” Sele the Plump said with its usual dignity. It had become used to the people of Taun thinking it was some kind of pet. “We live in a country to the south of here,” it explained yet again. “We are a peaceful race. We can be trusted completely.”

Mavahn stared at it for one long moment. The Sele returned her stare placidly.

She must have seen something to reassure her, Catryn thought, because her manner slowly changed.

“I believe you,” Mavahn said, but there was a wonderment in her voice, as if she had no idea why she should do so. She stepped aside. “Come in, then, all of you.”

Catryn strained to see in the darkness of the room. The solitary window let in little light. No candle burned to lessen the gloom. She made out a table made of planks and a bench beside it. A basin and a pitcher sat on another bench under the window. Some few items were hanging from hooks on the back wall, but otherwise the room was bare.

“I did not used to be so rude,” Mavahn said. “But things have changed. My son, Norl …” She stopped, then took a deep breath. “Would you like a cool drink? Water’s all I can offer, but it’s good and pure. Our well is a deep one and hasn’t failed us yet, although everything else has, truth be told.”

“Water would be most welcome,” Catryn answered. Dahl and Bruhn both nodded as well.

“Not for me, thank you,” the Sele said. “I would rather speak with your son—Norl is his name?—if I may.”

Mavahn bit her lip. “He won’t speak,” she repeated. “Not even to me.”

“I know,” the Sele replied. “But if I might try …?” Its voice was soft, but there was something in it that spoke of an implacable stubbornness.

Mavahn seemed to sense it. She sighed as she poured water from the pitcher and offered each a cup. “I don’t know what good it will do,” she said,” but I don’t suppose it can do harm. He went north,” she said, looking up to include Dahl and Catryn, “to seek work. There is little to be had around these parts, and we had heard things were better to the
north. That was before the stories started drifting back.”

“Stories?” Catryn asked, but Dahl interrupted her. “Why is there no work? What is wrong here?”

“It is because of the bad times.”

“The bad times?”

“Yes. You know. You must know. When the evil king they now call the Usurper ruled. He sent his soldiers to capture our young men to work for him and none were left to follow the trades here. My husband was taken and, like most of the others, did not return when our good King Dahl conquered the Usurper. We heard most of that evil man’s slaves died. I can only suppose my husband did as well.” Her voice broke.

Catryn glanced sideways at Dahl, but he was staring at the woman. His face betrayed nothing, although the dragon scar flared briefly. He raised his hand instinctively to hide it, but Mavahn seemed not to notice. She made an effort to control herself, then continued. “The men who were left were old and there were no young ones to pass their knowledge on to. We have no blacksmith now, so our horses go unshod and cannot work. We have no miller, so our mills grind no grain. We have so few young men that our young women leave the village to seek husbands elsewhere. My son, Norl, was but a child then, almost a babe. He escaped being taken into slavery, but now there is no one left to teach him a craft. He was desperate and believed the rumors we heard that
there was work to be had in the north. Much too young, he was, but he ran off without telling me, determined to go there and find a way to earn some coins. But the rumors were lies—all lies! Whatever happened to him there, it has all but destroyed him. He has come back broken, but he cannot tell of it. Not even to me.”

Mavahn turned back to the Sele. “I know not why it should be any different with you, but there is something about you that inspires confidence. I believe that you can be trusted.” Her eyes filled again and spilled over. Tears made their way down her cheeks. “If there is anything you can do to help him …”

Catryn caught a sudden movement out of the corner of her eye. Beside her, Bruhn was staring at Mavahn, his face twisted in pain. Suddenly, he turned on his heel and stumbled back out the door. The fate of the young men of Mavahn’s village must have been all too real for him, Catryn realized. He had lived most of his younger years in slavery to the Usurper; he knew all too well what it had been like. For a moment she was tempted to follow him. Perhaps now he would speak to her. This might be her opportunity to reach him. But there were questions she had to ask. The mystery of the old men in the tavern was solved, but she had to learn more about the danger that threatened them all. She let Bruhn go and turned back to Mavahn.

“What
are
the stories are coming out of the north now?” she asked.

Mavahn’s face closed again. “Impossible tales. Tales of monsters and sudden darkness and the dying of the sun. I will not listen to them. They are lies, just as the promises that were made before were lies. They must be. Such things do not happen.”

“But something did happen to Norl,” the Sele persisted. “Will you take me to him?”

“Very well. Try if you must.” Mavahn’s voice had gone dead again. Whatever faint hope there had been in it before had vanished.

“That I will,” the Sele said.

Mavahn led the way into the other room, with Sele the Plump following closely behind.

Dahl looked around. “Where is Bruhn?” he asked.

“He left,” Catryn replied. “He was upset at hearing what Mavahn had to say.”

“As am I,” Dahl replied. “It seems you and the Elders saw truly, Catryn.”

At that moment, Mavahn reentered the room.

“That Sele—it is a remarkable animal,” she said.

“It is not an animal,” Catryn said.

“Forgive me, I do not quite know what it is,” Mavahn said. “But it was right. Norl does seem to trust him. He did not speak while I was there, but for the first time since his return I saw some of the fear leave his eyes. That boy was a gift that came to me in answer to my prayers—I pray now your Sele will be able to help him.”

Catryn sat on the bench beside Dahl, staring at the door to the room where the Sele spoke with Mavahn’s son. They had been sequestered in there for a very long time now. What was going on? Mavahn seemed possessed of an urgent nervousness that would not let her remain still. She paced the small confines of this room without ceasing. It grated on Catryn’s own nerves to such an extent that it took all of her willpower not to shout at the woman—command her to stop—but she held her tongue. She could only imagine the pain the woman must be suffering. To lose her husband, and now her son. She was young, too, not as old as Catryn had originally believed. Dahl seemed sunk in thought. Bruhn had not reappeared.

Both Catryn and Dahl jumped when the door to the other room finally opened. Mavahn stopped in mid-stride. Sele the Plump walked out, followed by a boy. Probably not more than twelve years of age, Catryn judged, and small even for that. His dark hair fell over downcast eyes. He wore a short, woolen tunic, much patched but clean. His hands fidgeted with the folds and wound themselves around the rope that encircled his waist.

BOOK: Whisperings of Magic
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