I sat high on horseback at the very crest of the hill. The wind was softly pulling at my hair and pushing me back the way I had just come. Wanting me to follow Yasminda to the safe haven of her kingdom to the South. I had to breathe deeply a few times to keep my composure. I was glad to be gone, but I was afraid to keep going. I was so far beyond the realms of anything that I knew. I was going into the middle of the strange kingdom that I lived on the border of. Northward this country got strange and women became scarce. I had no idea what to do or who to talk to and would never have done this by myself.
‘But not by yourself,’ the beast near my knee replied. He was more than a large cat, but not a man either. He had told me that his name was Sedric the day he had arrived.
I had wanted to go with him. He was the stuff of dreams and my life was more of a nightmare. I had always hoped to be swept away from that place by a knight in shinning armor; I just had never imagined it was the creature purring in my ear that I would have run off with. Sedric snorted at the thought.
“It’s not my fault that you have two wings instead of two legs,” I teased him patting him. “Had you come flitting in on two legs I would have thrown myself into your arms and run away with you just as enthusiastically.”
‘And promise me nice times in thanks?’ he teased back, looking up with a grin.
I laughed at him for that, “Not a man and yet you think with all the priorities of a sixteen year old boy. Let’s go get some food. I am very hungry.”
That was all it took and we were heading down the hill to the town below. As I rode into the town, a huge festival was going on. Every villager seemed to be dancing and celebrating in the streets. I stopped at the edge of the party and leaned down to tap a tall, very skinny, boy.
“Excuse me,” I greeted him.
He looked startled as he gazed up at me, “I’m sorry lady, and I should have noticed you.”
“No big thing,” I replied, “I just wanted to know what all the hullabaloo was about.”
“Oh, our village’s only girl just reached adulthood and can be promised.”
I blinked, “Is that a big occasion?”
He looked appalled, as if I had asked if the moon lit up the night sky or something equally as obvious, “Of course.”
I smiled at him; boy did I have a herd of things to learn about how things were done away from the borders.
“One more thing, Can you direct me to the inn?”
He pointed shocked silence on his face.
I weaved my horse through the crowds, having to stop frequently to keep from running over a small boy or deeply chuckling teen. It was easy enough to find the Inn, being somewhat of the center of the party. I left the horse to the innkeeper who was not at all fazed by Sedric or me. The innkeeper led me to the bathhouse and I took full advantage of its amenities. I was not used to being unclean even for a day. Thus, the last few had been more than a little unorthodox for me. When I got to my hair, I was at a loss. It was tangled and split from the wind and the riding. It was beyond help at that point. Even though I loved it, it had to go.
I pulled on scant clothes and went to find the innkeeper. He was bustling around the kitchen with quite a few other people.
“Excuse me sir,” I began. He immediately jumped to as I spoke, “Could you spare a pair of scissors and a looking glass?”
“I can do you one better than that,” He gleefully replied, then turned back to the others. He was bursting with pride as he introduced his daughter. It was such a huge thing to have a daughter especially in these parts, or so he said. Where I was from on the border, there was more intermarrying with the neighboring country to the South and women were not as uncommon, or as treasured. The smallest young woman I had ever seen came towards me with a pair of scissors in her hand. She led me back to the bathhouse and unveiled for me a mirror.
“What do you want to do to it?” she asked as she motioned for me to sit in the chair she had pulled to the mirror. I could not help but notice the promise band on her finger. She could not have been more than twelve, but she had probably been spoken for since the day she was born. It was such an odd custom, and still somewhat foreign to me even though these were my people.
“Off,” I replied, “It’s a huge mess and I should probably just start from the beginning.”
She scowled at me.
“You don’t approve?” I giggled at her.
“It’s not that. I am just deciding how to make starting over look intentional and not just an oops.”
I waited for her. She thought a bit longer and then went to work. Within a few minutes, there was a huge pile of mahogany hair piled on and around me.
I shook my head in delight. It was short, very short, but it worked and did not look at all like an oops.
“Thank you,” I told the young woman as I admired myself in the looking glass.
“Any time. I am Kalla,” She thrust her hand out to me.
“Thank you Kalla,” I replied, and then looked down at myself, “I think I need another bath.”
She smiled and then went to picking up the masses of dark hair on the floor. I washed again and then actually got dressed and ready to keep riding with Sedric. I was presented with food for the trip and my name was noted on the records of entry as a female served, which would be dictated when the yearly records were given to the capital. I went to my room rather early since I was so exhausted from riding a long way and fell asleep.
I dreamed that I was standing in the middle of a huge inferno with voices all around me. I tried to find my way out to my family and could not. I cried and screamed as it ate into my skin. I felt the fire burning me and I knew I was going to die, but I was not ready to die. I screamed out in fear. Then woke up, panting.
Sedric landed on my blanket. “You are alright,” he asked me, “Get dressed we should go.”
I dressed, saddled my father’s horse, and we were off again.
I had no idea how far it was to the city of our destination, or how many days we would ride all day, but it was just nice to be free. I had no schedule to meet and no one to worry about pleasing. That was more than I could have asked for. It had been four days and we kept going onward to our unseen destination. It did not seem to bother Sedric’s padded feet or his fine spotted coat, but my rear end was hating life in the saddle.
“Can I bother you with a question, Sedric?”
He laughed in my mind, “I am here to help you, my lady.”
I smiled, “What a polite little cat you are. I was wondering why you picked me.”
There was an odd silence. Sedric sat down on his haunches as if he were thinking, “Well, His Majesty sends all of the Guardians out far and wide to look for the most gifted of people. You shine to us with a kind of inner light. I was sent and I found you. I liked you so I decided to bring you back with me.”
“So, power is the only criteria?”
“No,” He tipped his tufted ears toward me, “Power and being a good person. I could tell right away that we needed each other.”
I laughed, “Silly kitty, why would you need me?”
He laughed back, “Maybe I need you to help others that need you.”
I pursed my lips at him, “One of these days I will make you explain that to me.”
“One of these days you will realize that you understand,” He gave my mind a loving caress. “Come on, let’s get there already.”
We must have been getting close, because Sedric told the horse to pick up the pace, in what seemed like anticipation, near dusk.
We topped another rise to see a city on the other side of the valley. It was a sprawling place, with seemed to have an odd sort of order to it. We worked our way up to the main citadel. The interior walls and the solid fortifications that were so well hidden among the houses and bustle of a lively city getting ready to rest itself for the day surprised me. There were guards at the small gate in front of us. None of the other gates had been guarded. This man was like most of the other people in the city, medium tone skin, pale blond hair, but he had beautiful dark eyes. Somehow, just coming up against him made me nervous. I reached for my knife in reaction, but Sedric hissed at me without turning his heading from the guard.
The horse obediently stopped for the guard, following Sedric’s lead, who read his nametag and let the two of us in. Our eyes met for a moment as he pushed open the gate, and I had to swallow hard. He seemed to have noticed something odd about me, I hoped he was reacting to my dark hair and pale skin. It was even more drastic in the night. I smiled at him as I rode on. It was always nice to be noticed and in this city of so many men, I had been noticed, with every clop of the horses step. The guard was very good looking and he did not look that much older than I was.
Sedric made a noise at the horse that I did not understand, which caused him to double step and brake into a run. I clung to him from the surprise. Then I noticed the chaos ahead of me. There was a man spouting fire of an odd sort from his hands and then a scream cut the night. It echoed outside and inside of my head at the same time. I clapped my hands over my ears, but it made no difference. Sedric did not let us stop, but seemed to have the intention of riding down the man. I leapt from the saddle and rolled to the ground feet from the chaos. I grabbed for the power deep inside of me without thinking further than the need of the woman. I stumbled to a halt as I got near her. It was more than just a woman, there was a whole family there, scattered within yards of each other. I found my footing. The mother was fading fast.
“Not me!” she demanded, gasping, “the kids!”
I moved to the two motionless forms on the ground nearby. They were fair and small. I picked up the little girl and reached through her with my mind. Her spirit was not far from the body, as if it were reluctant to leave.
I pulled her back and she reacted with a sob. I grabbed her brother. He was not much farther than she had been. They clung to each other as I went to the mother again.
She was almost gone at that point so I just pushed my mind to hers. All she kept saying was the ‘babies’. I searched through her and saw that she was pregnant. There were two babies there. They were tiny, but very strong. They were trying to hold on as their mother’s heart began to falter. I knew I did not have the will to pull them all back. I could probably bring the mother back after I had rested up for a day or so, but the babies had to be saved immediately.
Sedric nudged me with his velvet nose. I opened my mind to him and he presented me with a startling idea. I needed his help to manage it, but it could be done. I reached into her womb with my will and held onto the two little babies there. I took a few deep breaths and moved them as quickly as I could think into myself. I crumpled with pain as they expanded an inexperienced body. Sedric took over from there and tied them to my life force.
The woman breathed a last sigh and left her body. I crawled back to the older children in total exhaustion.
The buildings had boiled out with hordes of people in the moments it had taken me to pull the family back as much as I could. I pulled the little kids into my lap and they cuddled down into the protected place. I was soon surrounded by intent strangers, demanding information. Some hostile, some not.
I just sat there and looked at them without understanding. I was more tired than I had ever been and I ached, as I never had before. Eventually, the guard I had seen on the way in approached me and took the kids from my lap, handing them one at a time to waiting people. He reached down with his gloved hand and picked me up. I had no strength left in my bones and wavered, even with his help.
“She just got here with Sedric,” he announced to the crowd.
They seemed a bit placated by that, but still wanted answers.
“Saw them attacked,” I whispered to him, trying not to let my head lean against his available shoulder. “Tried to help.”
He nodded and announced to the crowd what I had said. He picked me up at that time and carried me into the building. I did not know where he was going, but I liked the soft bed on which I was placed. It was so nice that I fell soundly asleep within moments.
I dreamed again about being consumed in fire that I had to save someone from this time. I woke biting back a scream. It was morning. The sun was peeking through the stone windows and between he curtains…Curtains? I could not imagine anyone in the castle adding curtains. I began to slowly come back to the last night’s and week’s experiences. Had it been real? I looked around me. The quarters were stark and very clean, almost too clean. I tried to sit up and the insides of my head began to pound. I felt very empty. I remembered using up all my power last night, but it should have regenerated more than this by morning, especially with how well I had slept.
Then I felt my abdomen. It was definitely bigger. I stretched my sore mind to it and there were definitely two little people in it. I had made myself pregnant last night with the babies of someone I had never met. How strange was that? I had tried to avoid just this situation, yet here I was. Fate had a funny sense of humor. I was sure fate was more than a little bit amused.
I swung my feet out onto the floor. There was hot tea waiting for me by the bed, but I had to pass it by in case it could hurt the babies. How odd to be instantly so protective of them, when I did not know their mother, or father, or have any other tie to them.
‘They are living under your heart. Isn’t that a rather powerful tie?’ asked Sedric from his perch by the bedpost. It had been perfectly constructed for a cat just his size. A larger one, like the lions or cougars would never have been comfortable, but little Sedric was content.
“I suppose so,” I replied aloud.
“What? Are you awake?” asked a voice from the other room. Moments later the head of the guard popped around the corner.
I was immediately very shy of seeing him in my unclean state.
“We weren’t properly introduced last night,” he began as he tried to brandish a welcoming smile. I stood up on the other side of the bed and waited.
“My name is Jason, and yours I have been told by my ever so obliging Guardian, is Alexa. Thank you for your help last night.” He had not moved.
“Thank you.” I replied, still rather uncomfortable with the situation.
“You will probably want to get clean and have something to eat before you meet with the college Dean. He is waiting ever so impatiently for you to be up and going, but I don’t think we have to tell him that you need some private time first,” he was trying to win me over, but I was still a little skittish of him.
My brothers and time in the border wars had taught me that men, especially overly friendly ones were not to be trusted. “Again thank you. Can you show me the way to the baths?” I no more than whispered to him.
“There. Just through that door.” He had pointed to the other side of the room, which was closer to me than to him.
“I’ll be out here making you something to eat for when you get done. But take your time. No hurry.” He smiled again, glanced at Sedric and nodded.
I watched as he turned to leave, still more than a little unsure about why he was being nice to me. I looked up to Sedric, who rolled over, pulling his paws up into the air, “You go. I’ll wait here. This is nice.”
I sighed and went to the door he had offered.
I was more comfortable when I got into the bathroom and there was a lock on the door. I slid the bolt home and went to the tub. It was good to be clean again. I looked at myself in the mirror and ruffled up my short hair. I took one side-view look at my belly and shook my head. At least they did not know that I was not normally a little round in the front. For all I knew with their love of women, they would like me even more for it. They would not know the difference until this was all over. I would get the mother and father back as soon as I could and wash my hands of the situation before anyone knew the difference.
Once I was clean, I dug through my pack of clothes that had nicely been put by the door for me. I opted for dark grey leather pants, high boots, my last clean shirt, and a low belt from which to hang my knife. It was rather dashing even if I said so myself.
‘What do you think Sedric?’ I asked quietly in my head.
He laughed at me, ‘I think, other than not having a fine coat of fur, you look just wonderful. Or I would if I could see you.’ Somehow, I had forgotten that he was closed out of the room.
I nodded to myself on that note. I had to go brave the presence of this Jason and find out what I could about those kids last night.
I made my way out to the front room where the most delicious smells were wafting out to meet me. He was taller than I had remembered with dark sandy colored hair that was managing to misbehave more than a little bit. His back was to me and he was humming to himself over a stove. There were bits of chopped food strewn hither and yon across the counters of the kitchen. I watched for a moment as he worked. He also had a Guardian who lay on the top of the cabinet he was working under. But it was so comfortable that it did not even bother to look at me. Well at least he was a good person. No one with a Guardian could be otherwise. The smells were beginning to overcome my desire to observe.
“Is part of that for me?” I asked from a few feet away. He jumped more than a little and then turned to look at me.
He looked, not very subtly, at my whole attire.
“Is that a request?” I teased, thrusting out one hip to the side.
He met my eyes in an instant, “That’s not a normal outfit for the palace.” He tried to explain. “How old are you anyway?”
I laughed, grinning back in glee. There was nothing dangerous about this man. He was no more than a little boy, and I could read not a single bad intention in his mind.
‘You think I would have let any other type of person put you in their bed while you were unconscious?’ retorted Sedric with great indignation swishing his tail as he came out of the bedroom.
“Well?” he demanded turning back to his cooking.
“Well, what?” I shot back, as I pulled a chair up to the counter.
“Age.” He responded.
“Eighteen,” I told him as I put my elbows onto the counter and sat my chin in my hands to wait for him to finish. He looked at my hands in confusion and looked frustrated, returning to his work.
Moments later, he plopped the plate down in front of me.
It looked good, but I had no idea what it was, “What is this called?” I asked as I cut my first bite.
“An omelet,” He told me, “How do you not know that?”
“We never got much fancy stuff to eat even when there was a lot of food around. None of the men in my family had any idea what to do with food other than shove it down their throats at all available moments. Life is hard on the border and we got by without much extra.” I began eating as quickly as I could manage, seeing as how the food was hot and very good.
“You act like you haven’t eaten in a year,” he watched intently as I wolfed down his creation.
“I feel like it has been longer. Besides… with five brothers… you have to eat fast to…. Get any food at all.” I was stuffed, “Thank you.” I told him wiping my mouth with a napkin.
“Your brothers ate at the same time as you?” he demanded, looking shocked.
“Of course, no use cleaning the table twice. My mother had enough work as it was.”
“Your mother cooked and cleaned? How odd.” He blinked as if in real shock, taking the empty plate and washing it in the basin.
“Would you plan on doing all the house work for your wife?” I grinned at him, putting my elbows on the counter and batting my eyes teasingly.
He smiled back before checking his actions, “Of course, any good husband would. But I am not sure that marriage is on the list of things His Majesty is planning to allow for me.”
I grinned, “Are you a determined old bachelor at what twenty-five?”
He turned and frowned, “Determined old bachelors are made in this town at birth, and then concreted at twelve.”
That made no sense. How was a young person supposed to fall in love at twelve with any sense, let alone at birth? I decided that it would be better to change the subject, “Where do I meet this Dean?”
“I’ll show you the way. Are you sure you’re eighteen?” He was tugging on his shoes, when he looked up at me again an odd emotion crossing lightning quick in his eyes. But then it was gone before I could name it.
I just smiled at him, “That’s what my mom told me.”
He shook his head and walked around me to yet another door across the room, holding it open for me to walk through. He led me down countless halls and passages to an older part of the building. Each time there was a turn he would stop and wait for me looking back and then going ahead when he was sure that I was still following. There began to be bustling youths all around us, mostly male of course. They were yelling at each other and hurrying on their ways in various directions. Even a few couples had the audacity to be kissing in the halls. I guessed they must be married already, even being so young. I blushed hard when we passed one pair, causing Jason, who was waiting for me again, to chuckle.
“You’ll get used to it. I’m sure before long you will be enjoying your own part of the entertainment.” He grinned, and then when he looked back at me his smile faded into a frown.
I blinked, “Would you like me to join in or not?” I asked.
He just turned on and kept walking.
I was not sure what I had done wrong.
We climbed a set of stairs and the silence began to descend again. At the top of the stair was a single overly warn door. One knock and it was opened to me.
“I will come get you again in an hour and help you get settled into your own room,” Jason promised then shut the door behind me.
Behind the desk was a man that was more than average looking. He was so plain that no one would notice him or remember him as remarkable in any way.
He rose and shoved his hand out to shake mine, “I am dean Elcott. We need to talk and see what classes you will need and which you will not. So, have a seat and we will get going.”
“I suppose the first thing we need to discuss is a social problem that may seem like none of my business. But I need to know about your intended.”
I shook my head, “No. There is no one.” I was surprised that the confession was a bit painful. Somehow, in this place not having someone made me feel like less of a person. Why would the absence of something I had never known now be so suddenly painful.
He frowned, a bit but said nothing more. He noted it down and went on.
Our conversation ranged far and wide over everything from growing food to court etiquette, from swordplay to language. By the end of the hour, he had a page full of notes and a list of classes in front of him.
Another hollow knock rang through the door, and Jason opened the door towards me. “Do you need more time?”
“Just another moment, but you can come in anyway.” Then he turned back to me, “Here are your classes. I will have one of your classmates meet you in the morning to show you around. Your chores are also listed with your classes and you are expected to do them every day. Today, I think Jason here would be a good tour guide of the grounds and buildings. You will also need to go meet the swords master for his evaluation at the end of your tour.”
It was a clear dismissal so I took my papers and without so much as a by your leave, I went out into the hall.
“That was curt of you,” Jason chastised as he followed me down the stairs, but the criticism was soft, not angry. More like he was amused with a disobedient child than irritated with a rude teenager.
I looked at him in confusion.
“You should at least say thank you or good-bye when you leave,” he informed me.
“I guess I am just not that used to such niceties,” I looked down at my feet in apology. “We don’t bother on the border.”
“Don’t worry.” He chuckled. “He understands. He’s a borderer himself. This way for your tour.” He put his hand between my shoulder blades on my back, to steer me in the right direction, but a current of electricity passed between us as he did and I jumped away from him. My heart raced, angry from the current and my lungs hurt for attempting to keep up. He looked just as startled as I did. We stood very far apart for a while looking at each other, people passing between us.
“Why did you do that?” he asked, still feet away.
“I didn’t.” I replied defensively.
He looked at me a little sideways and then began walking back in the direction of the dean’s office holding out a hand for me to follow. “I think that calls for a little side track.”
I nodded, not really wanting to touch him until I knew that it would not happen again. He led me to a quiet place among the trees not far from the building where the Dean was officed. It was quiet there and no one was going to bother us. But being in a secluded place with anyone made me anxious after the last months, so I called out to Sedric, trying not to look too stressed.
‘Are you coming?’ I asked Sedric as I saw us nearing the trees.
He did not put the affirmative response into words, but was shortly within site with Jason’s Guardian. They matched stride as they came to meet us.
“You two would make a pretty pair of buggy horses.” I laughed at them relaxing at their carefree attitude.
“Just a pair of show offs,” teased Jason.
They swished their tails in unison, as no regular felines could, like two friends doing a dance they had practiced for a long time.
I just laughed at them again and then found a nice place to sit under one of the trees, “I assume there was something that you wanted to say here in the grove?”
He looked at his feet. “I wanted to ask about the shock when I touched you. Did you not want me to, touch you, I mean?”
“I didn’t mind, but I also didn’t do it.” I retorted to him, throwing back my shoulders.
“Then touch me again and show me that it wasn’t you.” He whispered looking at the cats, who were curled up together looking interested but not phased.
I uncurled and rose as gracefully as I could. I strolled to him, very slowly. I could see his breathing had increased and I enjoyed that bit of control over this Harbinger, especially since he was confusing me so much with his contradictory actions, and my sudden overpowering feelings for him. I stopped a few inches from him and held up my hand just between us. Then, waited for him to make the next move. It took more than a moment before he moved his hand to intertwine with mine. As soon as he did, the energy began to race into me. It was more than just a powerful electrical current. It filled me with love, worry, history, and possibilities between us. More than anything, it reaffirmed my desire to do anything to make him happy.
His eyes widened and he stepped closer. I kept waiting, the power making me feel more than a little euphoric. He seemed to be feeling the same effects, because he wrapped his arms around me and kissed me full on the lips. There was a noted power spike as he did so. I was not sure how long it lasted. Most likely only a few seconds, but it also felt like an eternity there in the most perfect moment that I could never have imagined, when he pushed back from me. My head was spinning, and I liked it. I liked him. More in a moment than I imagined I could in a year.
“You did that for certain this time!” there was accusation there, but more directed towards himself than at me. And something more. He was not acting like he was enjoying the powerful euphoria that I was. He almost seemed afraid.
“Sedric,” I turned to my Guardian, startled and a bit worried but his response. “Was that my doing?”
“It looked as if he started it,” he agreed, “What do you think Cassie?” turning his head to the other Guardian.
“He definitely started it,” she agreed with a tilt of her small speckled head.
Jason blinked in surprise. “I did?”
I wondered if the euphoria only came opposite the instigation, “Well, maybe I should start it this time and see if it still works. What do you think?” I asked the two Guardians lying together.
“Sounds like a reasonable experiment,” Cassie replied.
I turned back to Jason and kissed him fiercely. The influx of energy erupted violently between us. I pulled him closer and he wrapped his arms around my waist pulling me tightly to him. I let myself follow the flow of the racing energy and pulled myself hard up to his mouth. Enjoying that I was at peace and at home at the same moment that I was in the midst of a roaring inferno.
After a moment, he pushed away panting.
I was doing the same; I leaned forward with my hands on my knees trying to catch my breath.
“Very interesting,” Sedric observed.
“Yes,” I agreed between breaths caught between whether I should glare or grin. Somehow, the presence of my Guardian and his was making me brave in ways I normally was not.
“I wonder how that would go if my dear Harbinger didn’t get so terrified of his reaction to it,” Cassie teased bobbing her head at him.
Jason turned eight shades of bright red in a moment and was probably giving Cassie what for in his mind.
“You know this is strictly not allowed,” Jason informed me with defiance in his eyes.
“It isn’t? Why not?” I asked, “No one seemed to mind the people in the halls. Aren’t you interested in me?”
“You are a student and I am a Harbinger.” He turned away and began pacing. I hoped he was trying to convince himself of what he was saying. It appeared to be the case. “You are a woman and I am a man. It is not permitted without prior permission from a member of the counsel.” He was adamant that this could not go on.
“So ask,” I replied, smoothing down my hair and patting Sedric’s silky head. I was sure he was who I wanted. My brothers could not have come up with objections. My Guardian was definitely approving.
He looked as if he were ready to swallow his tongue. “It’s not that simple.”
“And why is it so complicated?” I demanded, a little hurt that the feeling was not mutual.
“Technically,” Cassie broadcast, “His majesty’s Guardian would be as much permission as was needed for you to keep exploring this phenomenon.”
Jason turned and glared at his Guardian.
“I understand,” I told him as I swung a tree limb back, “You are just not attracted to me like that. I respect that. Do not worry, I’ll find my way to the arms master. You don’t have to help me anymore.”
I turned and walked away, but not before looking askance at his Guardian. Sedric seemed to sigh as he got up to follow me, padding along in the soft grass.