Chapter 3

No!”

The scream tore through Mira’s raw throat as she jerked awake. She was hoarse from crying out and her cheeks were wet with tears. She held her head in her hands and let out a few more ragged sobs as she recalled the horrific dream that she hadn’t been able to wake herself from. It had only ended when there was no more to relive. She sat, shaking despite the warmth of the blanket around her, until it struck her – why was she warm?

That man! She swung her legs over the edge of the cot, but the room spun around her at the sudden movement. She stared at her bare feet and regained focus, and then a moment of panic passed through her. Where were her boots? There, propped against the foot of the bed. She sighed and pushed the palms of her hands into her eyes as her surroundings began to swirl again. She wasn’t sure if the dizziness was due to the drugs that had been so brutally catapulted into the side of her neck, or from the endless riding she had endured. She grasped the edge of the bed and things slowly came into focus as she concentrated on a single point. Blue – a bright turquoise that reminded her of a necklace her mother wore for special occasions. But now there were two. Maybe her vision wasn’t clearing after all. Mira shook her head in an attempt to uncloud it, and tried again. This time she was sure that there were two. Eyes. He sat just three strides from her bed, still as a statue and staring quite openly at her. He didn’t even blink. “He’d blink if I jabbed my fingers into those arrogant eyes” Mira thought.

A wide grin broke suddenly across his face, as if he had heard her silent jab, and he rose to his feet. The sudden movement surprised Mira and she jumped back, making her head swim again. “Tess! She’s awake. See to her will you?” he bellowed with no consideration to her pounding head. He strode to the door then flashed her another cocky smile, and was gone. Mira decided that she didn’t like him at all.

A tall, slender figure came quickly around the corner. She had long, straight, golden hair that worn loose down her back. Her soft brown eyes looked on Mira with compassion. “Isn’t he the rudest thing?” she said apologetically. She had a light, lilting accent that complimented her fair features and simple gingham dress. It also marked her as a born-and-bred Treslan. Had she really ridden as far as that? “I would have sat with you myself, but he insisted on doing it himself. Anyways!” She smoothed the front of her skirt and took in Mira’s disheveled state. She made a quick physical assessment then nodded to herself. “Right then. Bath first, then food. I know you must be famished but I promise it will taste better once you’re clean. Do you prefer a specific scent? Lavender? Honey? Or maybe just good ol’ clean soap? You strike me as the no-nonsense type. My favorite used to be White Clover – it grew all along the road by my house growing up. But it doesn’t grow here very well. I’ve tried and tried to plant some out back, but it just shrivels up. Must be too hot. But it’s not much hotter than where I grew up. I really don’t understand it. Then again, my mother used to always tell me I’m no good with plants. But really, it’s just that one I have trouble with. I use Magnolia now. That one grows just fine. It’s a softer scent and it takes a lot more petals to extract enough for the soap, but I really enjoy the result so a little extra work is worth it.”

Mira’s head pulsed harder as she tried to filter through the conversation. She suspected that the girl’s chatter was driven by nervousness, and she couldn’t blame her. Treslans and Oshyianans, though direct neighbors, didn’t typically associate much. The one thing they had in common was that the Treslans were also led by Spirits of Nature. Theirs dwelt in the trees and living things of the forest but Mira had never been able to keep any of their names straight. She was glad that Oshyian had only Agwe. The simple truth of their avoidance of each other was that Oshyian had never really needed Treslan, and Treslan had never needed Oshyian. She thought absently, “How strange, that the two civilizations who should understand each other best, can’t seem to relate to one another at all.”

But what about him. He was plainly Oshyianan. What was he doing in the Treslan forest?

Tess knelt and grasped Mira’s hand and jostled her out of her inner speculation. The gesture surprised Mira, but the girl’s voice was so kind that she remained still. “I’m Tess by the way. Please don’t be afraid.” she pleaded. “I am your friend as well as everyone else here. Sorren is a bit rough around the edges, but he’s a gem really.”

Mira remained against the wall, with her knees curled to her chest, and she blinked furiously as she felt hot tears prick her eyes. The last thing she had expected to find in this place was a friend. And despite her natural instinct to distrust, she found Tess deeply sincere and couldn’t help but like her. Words stuck in her throat, so she simply nodded. Tess smiled brightly at this. “Good, good – friends then?” She stood and helped Mira do the same. “Take your time. I think you have enough bumps and bruises on that little body of yours to last a lifetime.” Another thing Mira hadn’t expected was to be so sore and clumsy, and she was grateful for Tess’ support. “Just sit right over here and I’ll get you a warm cup of tea. See how sitting up treats you, and if it’s too much just let me know. I’m going to get things ready for your bath.” Tess sat Mira down at a small table in the corner and handed her a steaming cup. “The mint should prep your stomach a bit for food later. No sense filling you full of goodness if its all going to come right back up!” Tess chattered on as she bustled about, and Mira sipped her tea slowly. She was grateful for the excuse to keep quiet. Her throat was scratchy and hoarse from her nightmare, but the hot liquid seemed to be helping. She also took the opportunity to take in her surroundings. Tess’ home was neat and tidy with everything in its place. There wasn’t much to it really, but she had filled it with feminine touches that made it just that – a home. But that was a dangerous place to go; any thoughts of home threatened her fragile grasp of control. Instead, Mira focused on the bottom of her cup and breathed deeply.

“Tea gone then?” Tess’ cheery voice provided another distraction. “Let’s get you into the bath. Reagan – he and I are promised you know – has set up the most ingenious little contraption. We don’t have to heat the water on the stove, then haul it into the tub over and over again until it’s full. He’s put a reservoir up on the roof and the water is heated by the sun. Then there’s a little spigot that runs straight to the tub. He’s still working on a better way to get the water up to the reservoir. Right now he has to haul it up a ladder once a week, poor soul. But he never complains and I love the convenience. I’ve never felt so pampered in my life!”

“He sounds like my brother.” Mira surprised herself by speaking. Her voice came out in a rasp, but by the way Tess’ face lit up, you would have thought she had sung like the birds.

“Is he a tinkerer too then?” she asked brightly.

Mira nodded and found it not so hard to talk to Tess after all. “His name is Rainier, and my Mum says he’s been dreaming up gadgets since he could walk.”

Tess threw her head back in a merry laugh. “He sounds just like Reagan. People tease him endlessly about not talking much, but it’s usually because his mind is preoccupied with some new idea he’s caught hold of. Besides, I talk enough for the both of us!” Mira rewarded her comment with a small smile, which vastly improved the morose climate that clouded around her. Part of Mira’s smile was due to the small realization that Tess’ constant ramblings had nothing to do with being nervous around her – she was simply a chatterbox, and Mira liked her all the more for it.

After taking her empty cup, Tess again helped Mira to her feet and led her down a small hall to an even smaller washroom. “It’s a bit tight in here, but it helps keep the warmth close so you can soak longer without catching a chill. There’s a little shelf of soaps and things just to your right there – pick which one you like while I draw up the water.”

There was quite a collection to go through, and Mira took her time enjoying the different scents. Tess was asking about her brother then and Mira found herself answering absentmindedly. “There are five of them actually – all older than me. Leolin is the eldest; thirteen years my senior. He’s Eachann, like Da. The Eachann are Oshyian generals and expert horseman. On the day they are born, a foal is birthed at the exact moment. My family keeps one of the largest stables in Arrnava, so we have to keep close records of the births. When an Eachann comes of age, they come to us to find their match. They are linked so closely with their mount that some claim to be able to read their animals thoughts. The two lives are not only connected by birth, but by death as well. Eachann steeds live longer than most horses, and they pass on to the Spirit Realm on the same day as their rider. Eachann are also the only Oshyianan whose tatu differs from others of their calling, but it is always somewhere on the face. It branches out to mimic the markings of their warhorse. Leolin’s horse’s head is completely white against his brown body, so you can image how intimidating he looks when his tatus are lit. He’s had his own command since he was eighteen.” Tess made a small sound of wonder that made Mira laugh. “That’s exactly what he thinks too. But he’s really very good at what he does, so I suppose he has reason to be a bit arrogant.”

“Next is Conell. He’s Aerfen and a genius when it comes to swordplay. Aerfen are our brute force on the battlefield. They are quick, steady, and unmatched in swordsmanship. They have a tatu on the inside of each wrist; each spreads upwards to form dulais sleeves. Conell used to practice his latest moves on me, but Mum put a stop to that when he blackened my eye so badly that I couldn’t open it for a week. Rainier and Tavis are twins, but besides their faces, they are different as day and night. Rainier, like I said, likes to create. He’s very good with his hands and could build you a house out of a few sticks and mud. He’s the only one of us that doesn’t have a military tatu. Not every Oshyian is graced with a militaristic dulais. Most are born with their tatu on their right shoulder. They can still channel a flow, but they are able to direct it any way they choose – the strength of the dulais however, is typically much less. Rainier is married with two little ones of his own and has a little leather shop just outside of Arrnava. Tavis, on the other hand is Iarr.”

“I’m not familiar with that one.” Tess interrupted.

“That’s how they like it.” Mira smiled. “Iarr are not often spoken of. They are secretive and cunning in everything they do. Their tatus lie on either side of the eyes and on the ankles, creating a mask that amplifies both sight and hearing as well as silent feet. Their dulais make them ideal spies. Tavis is as quiet as a mouse and even when he’s home to visit, you hardly know he’s there. He’s always off on top-secret missions and if I knew Tavis less than I did, I would think he romanticized half of the things he’s done. But he’s not one to exaggerate. Last is Finn. He is Eachann too, and just got his first command last year. He’s not quite as focused as Leolin, but he’s very likable and his men appreciate the comradeship he provides. He’s one of those figureheads that you can talk to like a friend without feeling like you’ve over stepped.”

“And you? What are you?”

“Fiach. I’m an archer – like my mother. Fiach are our hunters – legendary bowmen with unrivaled marksmanship. A Fiach’s tatu depends on their handedness. One lies on the side of the face, lining the eye, and the other on the inner wrist. The trace-work of our flow is much more delicate. It climbs like vines up one arm and out from the eye.”

Mira had almost made it through Tess’ entire collection by now, and decided upon a musky rose scent. She turned to hand the vile to Tess, when her new friend made the comment, “Your father must be proud of his family.”

With a loud crash, glass splintered across the floor. Tess shrieked, and it was only then that Mira realized that she had dropped the fragile container. Her entire being had seemed to freeze with Tess’ words, and they echoed slowly, over and over again, in her subconscious. It was making her sick. She tried, unsuccessfully, to blur the last image of Equain’s face from her mind.

“Sweetie, are you alright?” Tess asked gently.

“I…I’m so sorry.” Mira stammered. Tess tut-tutted and kept insisting it was nothing, but the wistful mood of the last few minutes had vanished.

“Please, don’t fret about it, honest!” Tess assured. “I’m not hurt. You’re not hurt. And I’ve got it mostly cleaned up now. So, why don’t you just hop right in the water there before it cools. Relax and clear your head a bit. I’ll be right outside the door if you need me.” Mira’s expression was pained, and she rubbed her temples with her fingertips in an attempt to control her emotions. She found herself again nodding wordlessly to Tess’ suggestion, this time praying that her compliance would hasten Tess’ departure.

“You’re sure you’ll be alright then?” Mira nodded again, but with more vehemence this time. Tess recognized the fragile grasp of control she held on her emotions, and hurried to the door. But before she could pull it closed, Mira attempted a faint sound.

“Pardon?” Tess asked politely.

“Mira. My name is Mira – I forgot to tell you.”

“Mira. That’s a beautiful name.”

The door clicked quietly closed and Mira undressed quickly. She slid into the deep basin with a sigh that turned into a ragged sob. Her composure gone, Mira put her hands to her face and wept bitterly. She had been enjoying the talk with Tess, but with the mention of her father the tender wounds of her heart tore open once again. He was gone. The others’ fates were yet unknown, which left a faint glimmer of hope for them. But he was well, and truly gone.

The water turned cold as Mira soaked in her misery. Her eyes were swollen and blotchy from crying, and her chest heaved with left over dry sobs every few minutes. She had cried more in the last few days than she had since infancy, and the effects were draining. A light ‘tap tap’ sounded at the door, and Mira immersed herself completely under the water to drown it out. The cold felt good on her face, and revived her enough to know that she didn’t, in fact, want to stay under forever. She broke the surface and inhaled deeply.

* * * * * * * * *

Mira wore a nightshirt that hung past her ankles and was wrapped tightly in a wooly robe. Her clothes were soaking in a basin of soapy water in hopes of erasing the affects of her long journey. Something would have to be done in the morning about outfitting her more appropriately, since none of Tess’ dresses would fit without serious alteration. Mira hated dresses anyways. She had worn them grudgingly until she was ten, when one of the neighbor boys had flipped up her skirt. Since then, she could probably count on one hand how many times Daralian had succeeded in convincing her to ‘dress nicely.’

A warm fire crackled as Mira and Tess ate a quiet dinner. Mira was ravenous and said little between bites, so Tess took the opportunity to try and excuse the actions of the girl’s captors. “They didn’t mean any harm really. Sorren just figured that you’d never be convinced to come here willingly, and you needed help so badly. So that’s why they used the dart. I’m not defending him. I hate the things myself, but I wanted to you know that it wasn’t done out of malice, just necessity. Anyways, when you fell you must have landed on your bow and it broke clean in two.” That explained the long bruise that ran down her arm and lower back. She must have fallen hard and awkwardly to have caused the snap. “That’s why you won’t find it among your things. I threw it out just in case seeing the pieces caused you distress. But Sorren’s promised to replace it just a soon as possible. I hope I did right.” The loss of the bow was a blow to Mira, but she smiled weakly and nodded so as not to upset Tess. It wasn’t her fault after all.

After washing up, the two girls opted to sit on the braided rug that lay just in front of the hearth in order to dry Mira’s hair more quickly. “Spring’s not here just yet and there’s often a real bite to the air at night.” Tess explained as she brushed out the tangles. Mira had declined the offer at first, but after only a few minutes of trying to do it herself, her arm and fingers had cramped around the handle of the brush and she’d been unable to continue. She had reluctantly passed the brush to Tess’ capable hands, and even more reluctantly admitted that the gentle strokes relaxed her. “Do you mind if I ask you a few questions, Mira?” Tess inquired softly. Mira shot her a wary glance, and she added quickly “Just history questions, if you will. Nothing personal I promise – you tell me all that when you’re ready.”

With relief, Mira consented. “Of course, Tess. What do you want to know?”

“Can you tell me about your du…du..”

Dulais?

“Yes! Sorry. I was afraid I’d slaughter the pronunciation.” Tess giggled a little at her ignorance.

“Well, little is known about how the dulais flow was used before our time of war, but we do know that a change was made. Agwe recognized our need and sanctioned our desire to live free, both within our walls and without. He gifted us with the ability to defend ourselves and each Oshyianan has since been marked from birth with a tatu that specifies their dulais flow. It is subtle mark – small and slightly lighter than the flesh – until their dulais is channeled.” Mira held her wrist out to Tess so that she could more closely examine the birthmark-like tatu. “The marking then streams outward to an elaborate design that is lit with a gleaming blue. There are seven tatu specifications. I’ve told you about the ones in my family – Eachann, Aerfen, Iarr, Fiach, and non-militaristic. The others are the Cahir who police and protect the city walls. They are always broadly built and intimidating. Their tatu is longer than most, and stretches across their chest. When it spreads, it encompasses their entire torso and down both arms. When they are on patrol they often go shirtless; the display frightens off potential offenders almost more than their size. The last, and most important faction of our defenses were the Healers – the Saol.”

“I’ve heard of the Saol.” Tess pronounced the foreign word awkwardly, but with respect. “What happened to them?”

“They held the keys to the city, both physically and spiritually linking our people to Agwe and his counsel. Thirteen men and women made up their Circle. When a Healer was approaching death, they would release their key and leave it in the keeping of the Circle until Agwe sent another to take their place. The Saol provided deliverance from the horrors of war. Not only did they heal those wounded and sick, but also they governed our people. The dulais within them was strong and good, and they guided our people and taught us to seek an inner peace despite the tumultuous world in which we lived. In them we found salvation, and yet our downfall as well.” Mira’s voice trembled slightly. As a child, this was the story she had loved to hear her father tell. She did not want to go on. Her mind screamed in agony with each remembered word. But Equain had always told her how his stories seemed to take on a life of their own; a phenomenon she now understood. Something within her would not let her end the tale here.

“The original wars began thousands of years ago with the Sarthians. They were a harsh, uncouth people, and known for their utter lack of mercy. Our people were unprepared for any kind of battle, but the city kept them safe within its walls. The Sarthians were followed by the Vaticants, the Haysiths, the Baryygons…each different yet cruel in their own right. The constant onslaught continued for two hundred and fifty years. Our enemies thought our people were holed up, cowering from their might behind our thick wall. Some thought we had all perished from starvation. None however, were wise enough to understand our imposed isolation. We could have lasted forever behind our stone haven – Agwe had given us water, in ourselves and in our city – that would sustain us independently from all outside influences. But we are a strong people and hiding has never appealed to us. It was now the water inside us, dulais, that motivated our separation from our enemies and the world outside our walls.”

Mira took a deep breath as she continued. “Evil motives drove our enemies to our walls where we were always able to defeat them. What we were unprepared for was the evil growing within our city walls. Lucian was a man of humble parentage and he was not born with a military assignment. His dulais didn’t claim a specific channel making the choice of his profession his own. Even at young age, Lucian was vastly displeased with this verdict. Commoners, as he thought them, rarely were in the position to rise to greatness and this was what he desired more than anything. He envisioned himself as the High Healer, ruler over all – a position that existed only in his lofty dreams. This small boy grew into a dangerous man, though none were aware of his schemes until much too late. As his profession, Lucian chose to be a scribe and scholar and from this guild, the Saol often chose apprentices. Luck, or ill will as it was, seemed to smile upon the young Lucian, eHeaHlkgaining him favor among the Healer’s circle and he soon became apprentice to Phineon, one of the eldest. Phineon took pleasure in the young man’s ambition and spoke to him often about the art of healing, as well as the aspects of the position little known to most in Oshyian. For instance – the legend of uniting the thirteen keys into a single one that would contain not only the power of the Saol, but would control the dulais that flowed through every Oshyian of every talent.” Mira couldn’t help but shudder at the thought.

“The holder of the single key would also be granted life eternal. This was the very information that Lucian had hoped to gain from his associations with the Circle. He lay in wait until the first of spring. Agwe had asked his people for one day a year to cleanse the city where all would camp just outside the walls and the gates would be locked from sunrise to sunrise – the day of Dhuval. The people looked upon this day as a new beginning and a promise for a flourishing year to come. The Saol would camp together in a large tent and throughout the day they invited the people to come to them with their ailments. Lucian saw this as his opportunity. On the day of Dhuval, before the second sunrise, Lucian crept into the tent of the Healer’s where he slaughtered twelve of the Circle while they slept and stole their keys. It is unknown what power he used to rip the keys from the Saol’s souls, but hate is a power in and of itself and can have strength beyond imagination.”

Tess had scarcely moved during Mira’s narration, but her hands jerked suddenly to her flushed cheeks as Mira described the graphic scene. “Oh, Mira! How could he?”

“In the silence of the night, our people’s lives were changed forever. Lucian saved Phineon for his last victim, which is the only reason we are here today. He underestimated the strength of his master, and Phineon was able to escape the tent – mortally wounded but still in possession of his key. As he stumbled toward the tents of the Oshyianan’s, the first being he happened upon was a ‘commoner’ ironically enough – a small boy named Sphiro. Bloody and fading quickly, Phineon released his key to the unsuspecting young man and told him of the treachery of Lucian before taking his last breath. Lucian had succeeded in gaining twelve of the thirteen keys, dealing a terrible blow to the people of Oshyian. But, one was left; although we had no Healer to harness its power. Lucian escaped and began to build his forces – the vile Drochan. He had gained great strength and power from the keys he had so ruthlessly stolen, but was unsatisfied without the last. The boy Sphiro was guarded and kept safe by all of our forces. He had been designated as the Keeper of the Key, and though he could not wield the dulais as the Saol had, it was decided that the power would be safest where it lie, in a person who would not be tempted by the call of power as Lucian had. A council of twelve was established – the Ealdred. It was intended to be seated only until the boy grew into manhood and could govern without their aid, but their guidance remained respected and the council still sits today. After a time, Keeper Sphiro grew to be an old man, and the time came at his passing to bestow the key to another. Agwe had yet to send another Healer to the people and another ‘commoner’ was elected as the Keeper. And so it has been even until now. The pattern continues and so we wait for their return, all the while protecting what we have left from Lucian, who still threatens. He may not have attained life eternal by his theft, but the twelve keys united have given him unnaturally extended years, allowing his assault on our people to continue. And we do so without our Saol. But we were robbed of more than a mere channel of dulais that night.”

Mira felt her voice raise dramatically. The indignation she felt for Lucian and his Drochan up until now had been based merely on histories and ancient tales; her military ventures hadn’t given her many face-to-face encounters with the enemy’s army as of yet. But now as she recited their origin, scenes from the attack on her home began to blur past her vision and ignite a new anger inside.

“The Saol held the keys to the city and Agwe, and they are no more. The city remains locked to its own people with no hope of penetration. Oshyian is gone, and its people are desolate with loss, even after all this time. We suffer from the separation from Agwe and our great city. Yet, we are a strong people and we began again and continue to fight for what was taken from us. The city of Arrnava sprang up along the outer wall of Oshyian, but we have never adopted any other name than that of Oshyianans, for that is who we truly are. Some have said that we should have left the city all together, but the looming walls, now empty of their light, provide us with a reminder of what we lost, and what we strive to regain.”

Involuntary tears leaked from the eyes of both girls as Mira finished speaking. Tess hiccoughed a little as she tried to swallow a lump in her throat. “By the trees. I know a little of your people’s history, Mira, but I’ve never heard it told like that.”

Mira bit her lip and smiled weakly. “My Da loved to tell stories.” As more tears blurred her vision, Mira felt an escaped tendril of dulais pulse through her tatus. Even her tears seemed to glow with its gossamer blue light.

Tess offered a comforting hand and Mira took it gratefully. Her new friend curiously traced the scroll-work on her arm and asked lightly, “Tell me about it please. I’ve seen the markings light up, but how does it work? And what does it do to you?”

Mira let out a small laugh and silently thanked Tess for changing the subject so expertly. “It doesn’t really do anything to me – it’s more what it does for me. I’ve never really had to explain it before, so I’m not sure exactly how to start.” Mira paused for a moment and looked into the fire where an idea suddenly sprung into her mind. “When the fire’s flame dies, there are residual embers that burn unnoticed. But, if someone were to lightly blow on those embers, the flame would reignite for all to see. That’s what my dulais is like. It’s inside me always, flowing through my veins. And, when I need it, I blow it a bit.”

Tess was clearly enthralled. She had put down the brush and was kneeling in front of Mira with rapt attention. “That’s fascinating, Mira! How does it feel?”

“It’s like taking a drink of cold water on a hot day.”

Tess let out a low whistle. “That must be something.”

“It is. Though, I’m ashamed to say that I take it for granted most of the time. Mine comes to me so easily. I usually spend more effort keeping it in than I do keeping it flowing.”

Like a school girl hiding a secret she could no longer contain, Tess blurted “I heard what you did to Knox.”

Mira shook her head a bit in confusion. “Who’s Knox?”

“Only the biggest boob in history! But you did get him pretty good. You should have seen him hobbling in like he’d been shot in the leg, not scratched on the face.” Tess laughed loudly until an unladylike-like snort escaped, which brought her composure back in a hurry. “He was lucky you started to fall before you took your shot though. Your dulais must give you pretty good aim.”

“Oh!” Mira declared as she suddenly remembered the rouge arrow she had sent flying into the trees. “Agwe help me. Did I hurt him badly?”

This made Tess laugh even harder. “No, only his pride. He’s got a few stitches and it’ll only scar if he wants it to – which I’m sure he will see to, just to make you feel badly.” Mira rolled her eyes a bit at the suggestion and Tess slapped her leg to applaud the reaction. “Good girl! Don’t you dare take pity on that rascal. But tell me seriously now, was it your dulais that guided the arrow?”

“In a way I guess. For the Fiach, dulais heightens our sight, hearing, and sense of direction or aim. It’s different depending on your tatu though. The Cahir’s dulais enhances their strength, the Iarr are able to be better in matters of stealth, and those who don’t have a military mark can use it to better their chosen trade. Basically, whatever natural talents we are born with, the dulais enhances them. But I can’t hear or see everything just because I want to. I have to be engaged in an activity specific to my dulais.

“So, you are a Fiach then.” Tess clarified. “But do you have to be?”

Mira frowned a little at the question. “I’m not sure I know what you mean.”

“Well, do you have to be? You are born with your tatus, am I right?” Mira nodded and Tess continued. “So have you ever wanted to do something other than what Agwe gave you specifically.”

The question surprised and puzzled Mira. “I have never really thought about it. Ever since I can remember, I was enthralled with the idea of being a Fiach. Everyone I know has pretty much felt the same about their tatu. It seems to me that Agwe knows our souls before we know them ourselves, and gifts us accordingly. And I’ve never heard of someone being forced to honor their tatu. I’m sure it is not required by the Ealdred. However, a tatu cannot be changed – just because you want to be something doesn’t mean that you can will the dulais to do something it wasn’t intended to do. You can choose not to use your gifts, I suppose. But to me that seems like a huge waste.”

Tess nodded her head slowly. “Interesting.” The fire by now had died down to a small flame and Mira’s hair was dry and frizzing. She pulled it back and braided it as usual. Tess cried out suddenly, “Don’t do that! It looks so beautiful, and it frames your face so nicely.”

Mira snorted a bit. “You sound like my mother. She’s always trying to get me to leave it free. But it gets in the way and at this time, there is no one I care to impress with my appearance.” She finished the braid and sat back on her hands. Weariness was starting to creep over her limbs again, but she did not want to be rude to Tess who had shown her such hospitality. “I have told you all about our strange Oshyian ways – now it is your turn. How many Treslan Spirits are there?”

“I am impressed Mistress Mira!” and her compliment was a genuine one. “I don’t believe I ever once told you that you were in a Treslan camp. Quite impressed indeed. There are in fact one hundred and thirty-three Nature Spirits that dwell in our forest and, though you have proved to have a sharp mind, you are too tired tonight to listen attentively. Especially since there will be a quiz after I do tell you of them all.” She smiled teasingly, but was all business in hustling Mira to her feet. “I changed the linens while you bathed, so you won’t smell like old shoes in the morning.”

Tess’ house consisted of a front room, the tiny bathroom, a decent sized kitchen area, and a room for Tess. That left few options for the placement of Mira’s sleeping quarters, but Tess had hung a thick curtain around her small cot to provide a little more privacy. The bed creaked under her weight as Mira lay down, but it was blissfully soft. She hadn’t been able to appreciate it before since her senses weren’t quite her own when she arrived. But she relished in it now and was on the verge of sleep before she knew it. She was semi-conscious when she heard a male voice conversing with Tess.

“How is she then? You did a crack job of cleaning her up. I wasn’t sure if she had a face beneath all that grime.” Mira thought maybe she should be offended by this.

“She’s perking up. I think she got everything cried out and she’s started talking. Don’t be a brute to her, Sorren or I swear I’ll beat you myself. She’s been through a lot. More than any of us realize I’m sure.”

“I know, Tess. I don’t mean to make light of it. I’m just as worried about her as you, believe it or not. It’s good for her to be here and I’m grateful to you.”

“Oh don’t mention it, please. She’s charming as anything and I’m loving having someone to talk to. Now shoo! I don’t want you to wake her.”

“Right, sorry. I’ll come by again tomorrow then; just to check in.”

They talked a bit longer, but Mira’s hearing became fuzzy with exhaustion. She wondered at his apparent concern for her, but decided that it was something that could be addressed in the morning when she was thinking more clearly. Letting go at last, Mira drifted off to sleep. For all his beastly behavior, he did have a nice voice. And he was coming back…not that she cared.

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