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Authors: Karleen Bradford

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The city slept as they rode out early the next morn. Dahl and Catryn led, Sele the Plump and Bruhn followed, with the Sele leading Catryn’s mare. Once outside the city gates they fell silent. The sun rose; their shadows lengthened and kept pace with them. To the north, where they were headed, they could see cloudless blue skies. It looked calm and inviting, but nevertheless Catryn shuddered. She felt a prickling begin at the base of her neck and run down along her arms to her fingertips. The horse sensed it and danced a few nervous steps. Catryn calmed it with light strokes and quiet words, then settled her knees in behind its wings. Wings that were furled now and covered her legs with the softness of their feathers, but wings that could spread in an instant and carry them both skyward. She shook off the urge to do just
that. To rise into the soft morning air and speed ahead. To see clearly what lay before them.

Not yet, she whispered to herself and to the horse. Not yet.

CHAPTER 4

Broad fields surrounded the city of Daunus. They stretched out flat and orderly until they ended at the thick forest that encircled the city. Although the hour was early, men and women were already working in them, tilling and weeding, tending small shoots of plants. Catryn was interested to see that Bruhn could address almost every person by name and that they responded with a polite respect.

“The people know you well,” she said, falling back to ride beside him for a while.

“I have worked side by side with them during these
past years,” Bruhn said. “They have taught me much about farming, and in return I have given them such assistance as I could. And I have been able to make Dahl aware of their needs,” he added, a note of pride in his voice.

Catryn nodded, then spurred her horse on to rejoin Dahl. Bruhn had, indeed, made himself indispensable. She resisted the temptation to probe his mind again. She would not invade Dahl’s privacy in that way; why should she then, with no good reason, invade Bruhn’s? Still, a worm of worry gnawed at her. It was she whom Dahl would have to depend on now, not Bruhn, no matter how important he had become to Dahl. Would Bruhn resent that? Resent her for it? Behind her, she could hear him conversing with the Sele.

“I have heard much of your kind,” Bruhn was saying as they entered the trees and began to make their way deeper into the forest, “and I would know more about you. Do you live so far away from here then?”

“Not so far,” Sele the Plump replied. “We live on the other side of this forest through which we are riding. There the land opens up and there are vast fields of tall grasses. We live in them, but you will not see us unless we choose to allow you to.”

“Why not?”

“The Sele keep to themselves. We give free passage to Dahl and his people, but do not show ourselves unless it is necessary. We have agreed that I should
accompany you on this journey. The rest will help us if we need them, but only then. We are a peace-loving race and do not approve of violence.”

Catryn listened to their talk but kept alert to the forest around them. There was something in the air that bothered her. She sniffed, almost as a wild animal might. There was one scent among the many others that did not belong there, but in her present form she could not make it out.

“Lead my horse, Dahl,” she said quietly. “I must leave you for a while.”

As if it understood her words, the horse stopped. Before Dahl could question her, Catryn slipped off its back. She took a few steps into the woods, then her figure seemed to shimmer slightly in the darkness of the trees. She disappeared. In her place, a lithe young wildcat padded off softly into the gloom.

She cast her head from side to side as she loped along, trying to separate the myriad of scents that assailed her nostrils now. Here a bird had rested briefly. Here a small woodland creature had crossed the trail. Suddenly she bristled. Here was the scent of a fleetfoot, one of the delicate animals that resembled the deer of her old world. The animal had been in flight, and Catryn’s nostrils were filled with the smell of its fear. But flight from what? There were few predatory animals in Taun, and hunting for sport had been forbidden ever since Dahl had come to power. The Usurper’s men had hunted before then. Hunted even the Sele. But that was finished now.

She froze and stared unblinkingly into the woods before her. One ear caught the slightest whisper of a sound. She whisked it in that direction. Nothing. She raised her muzzle to sample the air yet again. There was the scent that had bothered her. Alien, unidentifiable. Then, deep within the trees, one shadow, darker than the darkness surrounding it, moved. Catryn reacted with the instincts of the wildcat whose body she wore. One mighty leap landed her in the spot where the shadow had been, but it was no longer there. Vanished as if it had never existed. Frustrated, she padded in circles around and around the spot, but the figure was gone. Gone, too, was its smell.

“It just disappeared, Dahl,” she said when she had returned and resumed her own form. Bruhn and the Sele had ridden on ahead and were still deep in conversation. They seemed not to have noticed her absence. Catryn kept her voice low. She did not want Bruhn to hear what she had to say.

“Perhaps there is a portal there?” Dahl asked. He frowned at the thought.

“Perhaps.” But if there was it was well shielded. She could sense no trace of it.

There were portals in Taun. Doors that only those with the powers of magic could find. It had been through one of these portals that Dahl, Catryn and the Protector, who had cared for Dahl during all his young years, had come from her old world to this one. It was through such a portal that those who
knew the secret could visit the cave of the Elders. But the thought that their enemy held a portal so deep inside their own land was frightening.

“I fear the evil that possessed the Usurper has been working hard these past years, Dahl,” Catryn said. “You are not the only one who has been rebuilding.”

“So it would seem,” Dahl answered. He straightened in his saddle, his face grim. One hand tightened on his horse’s reins; the other reached beneath his cloak to clutch the pommel of his sword. “You were right, Catryn. I have not been vigilant enough,” he said. “But I am warned now.” The cloak he wore was poor and threadbare, his tunic well-worn and patched, but, despite this poor man’s attire, there was no disguising the nobility of his bearing or the iron strength of his determination.

Catryn felt her heart lift in spite of her misgivings. This was the Dahl who had faced and conquered the Usurper. Surely, together, Dahl and she could face this new threat. Surely, nothing could withstand the two of them. With Dahl’s bravery and her power combined, how could they not triumph?

Then Dahl flinched. His hand dropped from the sword’s hilt and, with a smothered cry, he raised it to his brow as if in sudden pain.

“What is it …?” Catryn began, but in that instant the vision she had seen flooded back into her mind. The voice seemed to speak again. So real was the impression that she whipped her head around to find the source. No one was there. Nothing but dark
emptiness and shadows. But Catryn knew with total certainty they were being watched. And in her mind she heard a mocking laugh.

The birds woke Catryn early the next morning. In the domain of the Elders she had lived amidst perfection, but there had been no birds. The gardens there bloomed perpetually, and the sun shone down from a clear sky, its blueness unmarred by so much as a wisp of a cloud. The land was green and verdant but curiously two-dimensional. It had taken a while for Catryn to realize what was missing: there were no shadows. It was a world of its own, silent and still, except in the deep recesses of the cave where the Elders dwelt. Only there was the rushing of water heard, the murmur of voices. In the three years that Catryn had lived with them she had never seen any being other than the Elders and the Protector. Food and every comfort they needed appeared as if by magic. And, of course, it
was
by magic. Theirs was a haven of magic. The core of this world. The center around which Taun revolved.

She crawled out of her shelter, stood and raised her face to the calling of the birds. Whiskers of wind brushed her cheeks and lifted tendrils of her hair. She drew in the deepest breath possible. Oh, how she had
missed this! Then she shivered. Spring was coming to Taun but it was still cold in the pre-dawn darkness. She had forgotten about cold.

They had camped in a grove of trees shortly before sunset. Their evening meal had been pleasant. Bruhn, who seemed to be the best cook amongst them, had prepared a savory stew that had been more than welcome after the long day’s journey. As they sat around their campfire, well-fed and warm, Catryn found that even she had begun to relax, in spite of her fears the day before. She could sense no presence near them other than the small animals native to Taun who preferred to hunt at night. Dahl and Bruhn had talked easily together and she found that she could join in. For the first time since she had arrived back at Daunus, Bruhn seemed easy in her presence. Perhaps she had been worrying unnecessarily about him, she thought. Seeing problems where none existed. She, Dahl and Bruhn each made themselves rudimentary shelters out of branches and moss and grouped them around the campfire, but Sele the Plump elected to sleep out in the open. It lay curled up as far away from the fire as possible. The Sele lived in grasslands that were dry during most seasons of the year; they were not fond of fires. They relied, instead, on their thick fur to keep them warm, and they would never dream of spoiling good grain by cooking it.

Catryn had slept well.

Now, in the early morning dampness, the banked campfire still gave off wisps of smoke. Catryn picked
up a stick and stirred the ashes until they glowed. Then she began to feed the fire small twigs and encourage it back to life.

“Good morrow, Catryn.” Dahl’s greeting startled her. He bent to help her fan the tiny flames, then spread his cloak and threw himself down upon it beside the growing fire.

“Come, sit with me,” he said. He held up his hand and drew Catryn down beside him. “I would talk more with you before the others waken. We had but a short time when you arrived, and there was much we did not speak of. I have missed you, Catryn,” he added. His eyes shone clearly and luminously again. The darkness that lurked behind them, that tormented him so when it fought for control, slept now.

“And I you,” Catryn answered. The feel of his shoulder next to hers was comforting.

“I had hoped you would return before now,” Dahl went on.

“I could not,” Catryn replied. She began to pleat the folds of her shift between her fingers, smooth them out, then pleat them again. “It was necessary to immerse myself completely. To forget all else but what I had gone to learn.” She paused, remembering the last time she had stood in Dahl’s court. After she and Dahl had conquered the Usurper, Dahl had refused the reward offered to him by the Elders of Taun—the gift of magic and immortality. But, as much to her own surprise as Dahl’s, Catryn had
demanded it instead. Her claim had been honored.

There was a silence. Was Dahl remembering, too?

“I understand,” he said finally. “But tell me then, how does my Protector fare? He sent word to me regularly about your progress, but he did not come, either. I hoped he would. I have missed him, too.”

Catryn hesitated a moment longer. She knew it would sadden Dahl to hear what she had to say now. The Protector had shielded Dahl from all harm while Dahl lived in Catryn’s world. A shapeshifter, he had been the trusted companion who had prepared Dahl for his true destiny. No one else in that world, not even Catryn, had known the truth about the large brown dog that had guarded Dahl so faithfully.

“He could not come, Dahl,” she answered finally. “He suffered more than you or I knew when the dragon you slew burned him in his hawk form. You know how long it took for him to recover—as long as it took you to face the Usurper and overcome him—but what neither of us realized then was that he did not recover fully. His strength was taken from him. Also …” her voice dropped and she lowered her eyes to her hands, fingers still busily pleating and smoothing, pleating and smoothing. “Also … he lost much of his power. He could teach me, but he can no longer shapeshift himself. No longer do battle with any enemy other than time.”

BOOK: Whisperings of Magic
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