Authors: Karleen Bradford
for Jessica, Courtney and Brittney
Dahl, ruler of Taun, sat secure and confident on his throne, surrounded by his council, his friends and his subjects. His reign had brought peace and prosperity to this world during the past three years, doomed before that for so long to the shadow of the Usurper. He looked up as a sudden commotion broke out.
A small orange cat that moved with the grace of a tiger and seemed to have a blaze about it stalked into the chamber. As it progressed, it created its own corridor of stillness through the multitude of people gathered there. Voices faltered, then grew silent. Faces grew wary. The air was suddenly thick with magic.
The cat advanced to the foot of Dahl’s throne and sat. It raised a paw, gave its whiskers and one ear a brisk lick, then shook itself and dissolved into a ball of light, so bright that all assembled there were forced to turn their eyes away.
When they could look back, a young woman with hair the color of flame stood in the animal’s place.
“You have been summoned, Dahl,” said Catryn, Seer of Taun.
“It has been a long time, Catryn,” Dahl said. He had spared not a moment in dismissing everyone who waited upon him in his council chamber, and now he and Catryn walked alone in the palace garden. His eyes were questioning, but he said nothing, only reached for her hand and smiled. He seemed willing to wait until she was ready to speak about that which had brought her here. The scar upon his cheek was so faint she could hardly make it out.
“It has, indeed, Dahl,” she replied. “Three long years.” She returned his smile, but behind the curtain
of her wild and tangled hair, she looked at him closely. This was not the boy she remembered.
Of course, he looks older, she told herself. Still, it seemed as if it were more than just time that had changed Dahl. He paced beside her with confident strides, head thrown back, his light hair long and curling over his shoulders. His cloak billowed out behind him. Although almost of a height with him, Catryn had to make a conscious effort to match her steps to his.
He has become a king, she thought, and for a moment was almost shy. Then she caught herself. King of Taun he might be, but
was the Seer and as Seer of Taun it was her duty to help safeguard and protect this world. Dahl would need her and the magic she had learned during the past three years. He would need the powers she had striven so hard to develop.
For a moment, the reminder of why she had returned dimmed her pleasure at seeing Dahl again, but she pushed it out of her mind. We will come to that soon enough, she thought almost angrily. For now, for just a few precious moments, I will allow myself this indulgence.
“May we talk later, Dahl?” she asked, acknowledging his concern. “Could you first show me your city? Show me what you have wrought here? I have been away so long, there is much I would like to see and hear about.”
“That I will do gladly, but tell me only, is aught amiss?”
Catryn’s face clouded. “It would seem so.” She shook her hair back out of her eyes. “It will take some time to tell. I would rather we speak of it later,” she repeated. “Will you humor me?”
“Of course, Catryn. How could I not?” Dahl smiled, but his eyes remained troubled. He must know, Catryn thought, that she had a message of utmost importance for him. If he was anxious to hear it, however, he had his impatience well under control.
He has grown into his kingship so certainly, Catryn thought. He walks with such assurance. But then, she reminded herself, Dahl had known from birth that kingship was his right. He had been taught and groomed for his future role by the Protector since he was a babe. It was only to be expected that once he had conquered the Usurper who had taken his place as rightful king and enslaved his people, he would know well how to rule.
But she … How different these past years had been for her. A lowly kitchen maid—she had never dreamed of the powers that would be hers. Had never had a chance to prepare herself for them …
She set her lips and tilted her chin high. These doubts were not worthy of her. She had worked hard. Had learned well. She was as ready as Dahl to face what lay ahead of them now.
They walked through the gardens, then made their way through the streets of Daunus before they turned back toward the palace. As they neared it, the setting sun lengthened their shadows ahead of them.
Dahl was a well-beloved king, Catryn realized. He strolled amongst the townspeople comfortably and they greeted him with love and respect. Many curious glances were darted her way, but none dared speak to her. That was as it should be. A Seer should be held in awe.
She marveled at the color and brightness of the town. Where before, under the crushing rule of the Usurper, all had been cold and dead and empty, now all blossomed and luxuriated in the profusion of flowers, the bustle and noise of cheery, confident people. Dahl took pride in pointing out the changes. His voice brimmed with enthusiasm as he recounted all that he had accomplished in the past three years. But, even as she listened to him, the sun set and the air grew cold. She knew they could no longer postpone the inevitable.
“It is time,” she said. “We must talk now.”
Dahl nodded. “We will go to my chambers,” he said. “We can speak there.” He was suddenly tight-lipped; the enthusiasm drained from his face. For a moment—just a fleeting moment—he looked almost as he had when the Usurper’s messenger had found him in Catryn’s old world. But the moment passed. The glimpse of the boy she had grown up with disappeared. Dahl the King took command once more.
When they entered the palace, servants were lighting torches and candles. The hallways were filled with flickering ghosts of shadows as they made their way up a winding staircase to Dahl’s own private
rooms. A light supper of cold fowl, cheese and bread had been laid out for them on a low table before the fire that fought against the encroaching evening chill. A pillow-strewn couch was drawn up beside it, a flask of wine waiting on yet another small table. But Catryn had no mind for food or drink. Dahl dropped onto the couch and drew her down beside him.
“It is so good to be with you again,” he said, and sighed. Once more, for an instant, the friend of her youth looked out at her, but once more Dahl forced him back. “Now you must tell me what has brought you here,” he said. “I fear it cannot be good.”
“Nor is it,” Catryn replied. She did not relax back into the softness of the cushions as Dahl had, but sat tensed and upright, facing him. “Time has caught up with us, Dahl. Once again it seems we might have to do battle.”
Dahl leaned forward to pick up the flask. He filled two goblets, then placed it back on the table with the utmost care, but even so it spilled. He dipped his finger into the small puddle and traced a circle on the wooden surface with it. “You said I was summoned,” he said.
“Yes,” Catryn answered. “The Elders have sent me to bring you to them. We fear that Taun is in peril again.”
“That is difficult to believe,” Dahl said. A frown creased his brow. “You have seen for yourself. All here is peaceful and well-ordered. I have worked hard to make it so. And it is the same wherever I go.”
Catryn jumped to her feet and began to pace the room, forcing herself to think, and not to speak unwisely. It would not do to imply that Dahl had been remiss in his duties. Nor had he been, she was certain of it. Still, she felt a twinge of impatience at his complacence.
“All that you say is true, Dahl, but you have not traveled far enough. Your duties have kept you here in the south, and rightly so. But there is something far to the north with which you have not come into contact. Something that we can only believe is evil.”
“You have been there? You have seen this for yourself?”
“No, not exactly.” She stopped. How to explain? How to describe the training she had undergone? The training that had taken the whisperings of magic she had felt before and taught her to use and develop them to the point where she could rightfully be called Seer? This was something that Dahl could not understand, could never understand, king though he might be.
Dahl watched her, waiting. His eyes, usually so luminous, were dark.
“If I could tell you… tell you something of what I have been learning,” Catryn said, willing the hesitancy out of her voice. “The Elders and the Protector have been teaching me how to recognize and develop the powers that were sleeping within me. Powers that I never knew I had but that I inherited, I am certain, from my mother, Ethelrue.” She paused. In her old
world, the world she and Dahl had lived in until he had been summoned home to Taun, her mother’s magic had been feared. Feared to such an extent that she had been burned as a witch while Catryn was still a child. Catryn took a deep breath, waiting for the pain of that memory to subside before continuing. “The Elders taught me to cast my spirit into the farthest reaches of our world, Dahl. To see with my mind that which is occurring elsewhere. When I explored here to the south where you rule so splendidly, I could see nothing but peace and tranquillity. But when I started searching farther north, I encountered something strange.”
She stopped as the curtain in the doorway was drawn back and a young man entered. He was dressed in a simple, coarse-woven tunic and leggings. A shock of untidy, almost black hair fell over his forehead. His skin was bronzed as if he spent much time outdoors, but he was obviously no servant.