Pain blossomed along Shea’s left side. She sucked in a sharp breath and gritted her teeth. She could already tell from the throbbing that a bruise was forming.
The person responsible for the blow watched her expressionlessly as he dipped the tip of the short wooden staff toward the ground.
From the sidelines an irate Trenton groused, “I’ve told you again and again not to drop your guard on that side. Anyone with half a brain will take advantage of it.”
So he had.
Shea kept the grimace off her face as she ignored the pain and lifted the sword. Her opponent wasn’t one to show mercy, and she’d already been caught off guard once with a follow up attack. She wasn’t going to make that mistake again. Her thigh still smarted from the last time.
Trenton leaned against a boulder with his arms crossed, his long, lean frame appearing relaxed even as he frowned at her. Not much older than her, his arms showed muscles built over a lifetime of wielding a sword with deadly accuracy. Considered one of the best swordsmen among the Trateri, he normally worked with her during training. Not today, though, as he was still recovering from several injuries derived from a long fall onto unforgiving rock. Chirron, the healer traveling with them, had strongly advised him against any vigorous activity.
Having been on the receiving end of Chirron’s brand of care, Shea chose to listen to his advice, figuring it would be easier and less painful than risking his displeasure in the event Trenton did further damage.
That had been her reasoning anyway, but she was beginning to think that Chirron’s anger would have been preferable to Braden’s brand of training—one that was as merciless and unrelenting as the man. As one of her warlord’s favored generals, Braden wasn’t known for his soft heart. After a close call at the beginning of their journey, it seemed he’d made her his personal project and had been relentless in whipping her sword skills up to par. That or he was using it as an excuse to work some of his frustrations out on her.
Every night after their group stopped for the day, Trenton and Braden tracked her down for practice. She didn’t even bother hiding anymore, knowing they’d find her eventually and when they did it would just mean a longer and more intense workout.
Sometimes the practices were an endless round of drills. Others it was sparring with the significantly more experienced general—a man who had built his life around the art of warfare.
It had left her body a patchwork of bruises, her muscles so sore the next day that she struggled to climb into the saddle. She couldn’t even argue with their reasoning. Not when her life might someday depend on what they were drilling into her body.
She was decent with a dagger and knew several moves geared toward unarmed self-defense. That had saved her life in the past, but she’d always preferred running from conflict to actually fighting. There were so many ways to solve a problem that didn’t involve blade and blood.
That way of thinking no longer worked as effectively as it once had. Not when it meant she’d be leaving behind the very people who now held more than a few pieces of her heart. She’d formed bonds as strong as steel with those she now traveled with and trying to get all of them clear of the type of trouble that usually came looking for her was nearly impossible—especially when many of her friends were warriors who preferred to meet their opponents head on.
Add to that her status as the telroi of a powerful warlord and it meant these people were as much hers to protect as they were his. Since he had as many enemies as allies—some of whom pretended to be friends even as they waited to stab you in the back—it meant she needed every tool in her arsenal, even if those tools had to be beaten into her tired and aching body.
Knowing the reasoning behind the training didn’t make the bruises hurt any less.
“Are you ready?” Braden asked in a calm voice. Unlike most Trateri who tended towards dark hair and eyes, he was blond, his hair cut short, making his already striking features even more memorable. Authority was stamped on every line, from the strong jaw to the intense eyes that seemed to pierce right through you.
Shea gave him a sharp nod, knowing that he would come even if she wasn’t.
Her hand tightened around the hilt of her wooden practice sword. Something Trenton had magically materialized during that first practice when she’d thought she’d gotten away with leaving it behind.
She centered herself, taking up the stance, one leg in front of the other, her weight evenly distributed in a way that would enable her to move in any direction at a moment’s notice. Her arms trembled just slightly, tired from the last few days of practice as well as the strenuous journey that day.
She watched her opponent carefully, alert to any signs of attack as he took his staff in a two-handed grip, pointing one end toward her, his stance a mirror of hers.
Fighting a staff was different than defending against a sword. Braden’s blows had power and strength. The long reach of the staff meant she was constantly on the defensive, unable to return any of his strikes. Not that she could have even if he’d been carrying a sword. He was just that good.
She struggled to remember what they had told her as he advanced in a whisper of movement, the staff pivoting in his hands so that he came at her from the opposite side of what she’d guessed. She lifted the sword to meet him, parrying the staff as she stepped to the side and attempted to riposte.
There was a thunk as he easily blocked her with one part of the staff, as the opposite end whipped up to fly at her face. She ducked and stumbled away, falling out of her stance as she fought to get her blade back into a defensive position.
He granted her no mercy, advancing on her as he rained blows down, one after another. She fell into the rhythm of parry, stumble, parry, stumble, parry, as she backed up, her feet moving jerkily across the grass, trying to get enough distance between them so she could regroup. Loud meaty thunks sounded in the air as he hammered at her defenses.
Her heart beat sped up to match her breathing and sweat dripped down her temples. Her face was creased in a frown of concentration as she matched his movements, parrying his staff time and again.
“You cannot defend forever,” Braden said, his face still set in those calm lines. He was barely breathing hard. Keeping her on the defensive was evidently no more strenuous than a stroll across a meadow.
“Get distance and then reengage,” Trenton yelled from the sidelines. “Move faster!”
Shea gritted her teeth, his words prodding a nerve. She caught Braden’s staff with her sword and shoved hard, feeling satisfaction as he fell back a step. Seeing her chance, she stepped forward, swinging her sword at his torso.
The staff reversed, whipping up as he shoved the end into her stomach. Breath whooshed out of her, and she fought the instinctive reaction to curl in on herself. She lifted the sword, angling it to protect her head and shoulder. Just in time as the staff landed across it. Shea’s muscles strained as he bore down.
“That’s something, at least,” Braden said in a mild voice. The pressure from above abated as he stepped back, lowering the staff to his side. “Good job on keeping your defense up after that blow.”
Shea was too preoccupied with sucking in oxygen to appreciate the semi compliment.
The crow’s feet at the corners of Braden’s eyes deepened as he regarded her with a reserved expression. “However, your footwork was sloppy, your blows weak, and you need to work on your reaction time.”
Shea nodded as she calmed her breath.
There was a laugh off to her side that she ignored. Braden’s gaze flickered and an expression of annoyance showed briefly on his face.
Trenton ambled up. “You’re better than when you started, at least.”
She gave him a grateful smile, even if she didn’t entirely believe him.
“Barely,” Braden qualified. “There is still a lot of work to do.”
Trenton focused on something over Shea’s shoulder. The skin around his mouth tightened. Shea kept her sigh internal as she turned to see what had caught his attention.
Several pathfinders watched them. They lined the little spot of land Braden and Trenton had claimed for practice, reminding Shea of giant scavenging birds, waiting for lame prey to finally succumb to death.
“I find it unsettling when they do that,” Trenton muttered in a low voice.
“Indeed,” Braden agreed, his expression grave as he watched the others.
It wasn’t the first time the pathfinders had turned up to watch a practice session. In fact, they’d been present at all of them. Whether that was to watch Shea fall on her face or suffer a few bruises was up to debate. They never said anything. Just watched.
Not just the practices either. They were silent observers of everything the Trateri did or said. When the Trateri set up camp, when they got up in the morning, when they ate. The pathfinders never talked or interacted, even when a Trateri tried to engage them, their faces were blank and their mouths shut, never giving a response no matter the question or provocation.
It had created a certain amount of tension between the two groups, and Shea was stuck right in the middle.
“Shall we continue?” Shea asked, deciding to ignore the problem currently watching them.
Braden’s gaze was thoughtful as his eyes moved between her and the others before he gave a short nod. “This time concentrate on staying out of range of the staff until you need to strike.”
Shea jerked her chin down and settled into her stance as Trenton backed out of the way. Braden and Shea assumed their positions and resumed their practice, ignoring their unwelcome onlookers as they went over the moves again and again and again. Braden sometimes stopping her to correct her form or show her where she had gone wrong.
It was over an hour later when they stopped for the night. Shea’s arms and back begged for respite even as her legs protested their abuse.
Their audience had thinned but not disappeared in that time, boredom and the promise of food drawing several away.
Shea turned toward their small camp, Trenton crossing over to follow at her back, taking up the position of protector even though he was injured. As one of the Anateri, elite warriors who answered directly to Fallon Hawkvale, the warlord of the Trateri, he could be missing an arm and still he would try to do the job his warlord had entrusted him with—protecting Shea.
They drew near the four pathfinders who still kept watch. Shea continued on without sparing them a glance, content to ignore them.
“Traitor.” The low word reached her just as they passed.
An ugly feeling crawled up the back of her neck, even as she straightened her shoulders and continued on, ignoring them. It wasn’t the first time that word had reached her ears in the week since they’d left Birdon Leaf, and she doubted it would be the last.
While the pathfinders might not be outright hostile to the Trateri yet, the same could not be said of her. She was once one of them and thus held to a higher standard. In their eyes, she had failed. Not only them, but the rest of the Highlands as well.
They might forgive the interlopers their stupidity but the same forgiveness would never be extended Shea’s way.
Trenton spun on them, a snarl on his face. “What did you say? Repeat that to our face.”
None of the pathfinders responded, their faces blank even as their eyes burned with suppressed emotion.
Trenton took a step toward them, one hand going to the sword at his belt. The pathfinders wouldn’t stand a chance if he drew that. They were like Shea, wise in the ways of the wild, hidden places of the world. Not always the best when it came to killing their fellow man. At least not with steel and iron.
Shea stepped forward and grabbed his arm. “That’s enough.”
“They insulted you.” The Trateri took honor very seriously. As the telroi of Fallon, an insult to her was an insult to him. Something no Trateri with them would countenance.
That was all very well and good, but they were heading into the stronghold of the pathfinders, Wayfarer’s Keep, where they’d be surrounded on every side by potential enemies. Their actions now could destroy the mission before it even got under way.
“I can defend myself,” she told him.
“I’m aware of that,” he responded. “That doesn’t mean I can’t help.”
She pulled him away. As much as she appreciated the sentiment, she didn’t need anyone to fight her battles.
She said over her shoulder, “You’ve gotten awfully brave since I’ve been gone, Eric. Or have you forgotten Lasden.”
Shea gave the pathfinders a sharp smile, noting the unhappiness on Eric’s face. He didn’t like the fact that she’d recognized his voice or that she’d called him out, putting a target on him for the Trateri around her.
She couldn’t bring herself to care. She was tired of their petty games. She’d forgotten how damn annoying her fellow pathfinders could be.
“Quite right, daughter,” said a tall man, one who’d gone unnoticed until now.
Stepping away from the shadow of the boulder Trenton had leaned against earlier, he gave the group a small smile, one that said he was harmless and invited the rest to share in his amusement. That smile was a lie. It was there in the hard eyes and the way he tilted his head as if he was already considering what recompense he should extract from his men. “They should know by now you have your ways of addressing the wrongs dealt you.”
The pathfinders stiffened. They watched the man as if he was the most dangerous thing in the clearing.
Her father’s smile deepened. “And if you don’t, I sure will.”
This time the pathfinder who’d made the comment flinched. “No insult was intended, Patrick,” the pathfinder said, sufficiently cowed.
“Come on, Trenton. Fallon will be wondering where we are.” Shea walked off before Trenton could respond or before her father could say anything further.
She noted that Braden had fallen behind and briefly thought about waiting for him but decided against it. She had too much pent-up energy from the encounter and her father’s interference to stand still. He could catch up. Or not. His choice.
Trenton trailed after her, a silent shadow for once. Normally, he teased and prodded, taking pleasure in poking at Shea, but today he was quiet. Shea was too in her own head to appreciate that like she should.
The pathfinder’s words had stung, perhaps because they carried more than a small thread of truth to them. The sad fact was that by the strictest definition of the word she was a traitor. Perhaps that hadn’t been her intention in the beginning, but her decision to remain with the Trateri, to share secrets the pathfinders kept carefully concealed, were all done despite knowing it would be considered a betrayal by her former people. She didn’t regret it and would do the same if it meant saving the people she’d come to care about, the people of her heart.
She put the thoughts in a box and locked it. What was done, was done. She could handle the barely veiled hostility as long as it didn’t spill into action against Fallon and his warriors. But make no mistake, the moment they came after her friends, she’d teach them exactly what Lasden had learned all those years ago.
She was in the middle of camp in only a few steps. It was too dangerous up here to venture far from the others. It meant there was little privacy when Braden and Trenton kicked her ass every day, but it did mean help was always in reach if they should need it.
She noted small details about the camp with a quick glance. The way the pathfinders and Fallon’s people milled around, the divisions between them clearly marked. Neither one making any effort to cross the invisible lines that divided them.
Shea’s lips tightened. If this was a preview of what was to come, she was starting to think they should turn right around. An alliance between the Trateri and the pathfinders would never work if they couldn’t even share a simple camp site.
There wasn’t a lot of room for the divisions, but somehow, they’d managed it in the small clearing where they’d set up for the night. It was a simple space, not much more than a few packs on the ground with their horses grazing only feet away. Since they were moving fast and the area was dangerous, they hadn’t bothered with tents. There weren’t even campfires since no one wanted to draw the notice of any deadly beasts in the area. It meant dinner was going to be cold, probably dried meat and bread, just like every other night for the past week.
The Highlands weren’t like the Lowlands. It was rarely entirely safe to travel and less so at the moment given the upheaval that was currently taking place. Something that many were quick to lay at Shea’s feet.
Beasts had been on the rise since her sojourn in the Lowlands. They’d attacked several villages, leaving nothing alive in many instances.
She wasn’t really responsible for the attacks that were happening or the way the beast population had risen almost three times its normal amount in the last year. Not entirely at least. Unfortunately, she could see how it might seem that way since all eyes had turned to the Badlands and what waited there as the culprit. Since she was the only person to come out of that place alive, it was thought that something she’d done there might have woken old enemies and sparked the current climate.
Hence, the reason for this alliance that her father had convinced Fallon was possible. One that conveniently got Fallon and Shea to the stronghold of the pathfinders. Shea would still be half convinced all this was a ruse if not for the fact that they’d been attacked on a nearly daily basis. Whatever had stirred up the beasts in the Lowlands had done the same here as well. Only it was worse since the beast population up here was considerably greater.
A familiar pair of whiskey colored eyes were trained on her, their owner giving her a small smile that made her heart flutter in that familiar way. Just like that, some of the tension she’d been carrying fell away and a piece of her that had been tight relaxed.
She still wasn’t used to that feeling he gave her with just a small look—one that left her feeling oddly like she’d been punched in her chest. It was like his smile told her she wasn’t alone. Whatever trouble they found, they’d face it together. For someone who had spent the majority of her life going it alone, it was nice to know that someone was in her corner no matter what might come.
Her warlord wasn’t traditionally handsome, his charisma more potent than beauty ever could be. He looked like what he was, a warrior. Strong. Fierce. Dangerous. This was helped by the small scar along his jaw and the deadly grace with which he moved. Every line of his body, every feature, the intense focus he used to watch the world, all said this was not a man to be trifled with, that he wasn’t the sort you wanted as an enemy unless you had a very clear way of ending him.
“Your practice went long today.” His voice was a slow rumble as she drew near. His eyes went to Trenton beyond her, and he tipped his chin down in acknowledgment. She knew without looking that Trenton would head off to get food now that she was safe with Fallon.
“Braden thought my attacks could use work.” Her voice betrayed her grumpiness.
He chuckled as one hand touched the small of her back, giving it a brief massage of sympathy. “He says the same about mine.”
Shea craned her head back and gave him a skeptical look. Amusement tinged his eyes at her expression.
“It’s true. He’s even said something similar to Caden.”
“No,” Shea said. Both men were extremely efficient warriors. Shea had seen them practicing against each other before, it was a graceful dance as they moved with a deadly grace.
“Ask him.” Fallon tipped his head to where Caden listened to one of the Anateri, a frown on his face.
“Caden, what advice does Braden give you about your sword work?” Shea called out to him. She gave Fallon a significant look as if to say ‘there, your bluff is called.’
Caden was short, his body stocky and built for power. He was a lethal warrior, one of the best among Fallon’s Anateri. Shea thought only Trenton might be capable of challenging him. With his hair half pulled back to tame the curls they reverted to when loose and the skin beneath the half poney shaved, he looked as fierce and intimidating as his reputation suggested.
Blue eyes flicked to Shea as he rumbled, “He always harps on the slowness of my attacks.”
Shea’s head whipped around so she could glare at Braden as he joined them. If he thought Caden was slow, there was no way she would ever be able to gain his approval.
He lifted one eyebrow at her. “Just because it is a common piece of advice, doesn’t make it any less true.”
“It is also true that Braden is a stickler for the basics,” Fallon said, giving the other man a wry smile. “But that is why he is known for turning out highly disciplined warriors with strong foundations.”
Braden inclined his head at the praise before looking at the chasm between the two groups. “This division has made some uneasy.”
“I, for one, will be glad when we get to our destination,” Caden murmured as he drifted over, fixing the pathfinders with a hard stare.
From the other two men’s grunts, it sounded like they agreed. The Trateri were finding the Highlands even less hospitable than they had previously thought. Their horses were not as useful here as they were on flatter ground. The journey was taking longer because they had to find paths that the horses could traverse since they wouldn’t leave them behind. That, coupled with several beast attacks and their traveling companions hidden and overt hostility had meant that more than one temper had flared in the intervening days.
“We should be getting close now,” Shea said. “I recognize the area. It’s no more than three days ride.”
“Somehow, that’s not the relief it should be,” Braden said. “Not when our end destination means we’ll be walking into a pit of vipers.”
On that Shea agreed.
“Did your father find you?” Fallon asked in a quiet voice.
Shea looked away as she nodded. Her eyes flicked to the other two men. She would prefer to be alone if they were to discuss her father. Actually, she would prefer to leave the topic untouched, if she was being really honest.
Fallon jerked his chin in dismissal and the other two men excused themselves. “What did Patrick want?”
Shea jerked up one shoulder as she folded her arms in front of her. “Who knows? He didn’t really say much. Just took some of his men to task for something they said.”
Fallon’s face was thoughtful as he cast a glance at their reluctant companions. “And what did they say?”
Shea stilled, his mild tone not fooling her for a moment. There was a dark threat there, one that only someone who knew him really well might detect.
“Nothing of importance.” Knowing that wouldn’t stop him from trying to find out if he really wanted, she fixed him with a hard stare. “And if you’re smart, you’ll leave it at that. I’m perfectly capable of taking care of myself. You interfering wouldn’t help matters. You’d just make them worse.”
“Aren’t you the one who is always saying that we’re partners? Partners share things,” he said in that same silky voice. It was made all the more menacing because of the utter reasonableness of it.
“Does that mean you’ll share whatever it was you were discussing with your men when I walked up?” she asked with an arched eyebrow.
“You only have to ask,” he murmured.
She let out a sigh. She hated when her words were turned back on her. Worse was that he was right. Partners, good partners, shared their troubles even when the other could do nothing to help.
“They called me a traitor,” she said, her voice barely audible. Even saying the words brought back that ugly feeling deep in her stomach.
Fallon was quiet for a long moment. “I can see how they might think that.”
Shea looked away. He wasn’t telling her anything she didn’t know.
“I would like you to consider this,” he said with a thoughtful look. “Your actions have not led to any harm being visited on them. In fact, I think it is just the opposite. I would have invaded long before now had you not been part of my life. Even with their weapons and knowledge of the terrain giving them a distinct advantage, I would have dealt them a severe blow. One, I sense they would not easily have recovered from. At least not for several generations. It is only because of my love for you, and your own actions, that they have avoided that fate.”
Shea wasn’t sure of that. She had a feeling it might have just been a matter of time before Fallon turned his sights on her homeland. He was too much the conqueror to leave a job half finished. He had a vision, and while seeing the Broken Lands united might be a worthy cause, it would take a lot of bloodshed to accomplish. Something that she had a strong objection to.
“To them you may be a traitor, but to our people you are considered a hero.” He gave her a crooked smile. “Or did you forget jumping on that golden eagle to save Mist?”
She snorted. She doubted she’d ever forget that little debacle. Trenton certainly wouldn’t. He still got a vexed look on his face whenever someone brought it up. It had admittedly not been one of her better plans, but it had ended well as she’d been able to save a child from being carried off and fed to the eagle’s young.
“So, your father came to your defense,” Fallon said, his voice thoughtful.
“Doubtful. He is willing to drag me before the council to answer to similar charges.” Shea’s voice held a tinge of bitterness. A part of her would always crave her father’s approval, and knowing he was willing to bring her up on charges of treason burned.
“I’m not so sure of that,” Fallon said, his focus turning to where her father was moving among the pathfinders.
“What makes you say that?”
“I suspect that was little more than a ruse to get me to fall in line with what he wanted. He strikes me as being very cunning.”
“You’ve got that right. I’d say he’s as adept at mind games as any of your clan elders,” Shea said. Having lived through some of those mind games, she could attest to that.
He slid a look her way. “And yet such a talent seems to have skipped a generation.”
Shea shrugged. “I’ve never been very good at thinking sideways. No point in it in my prior life. If what you’re saying is true, how would he know such a threat would motivate you in the direction he wanted.”
“That is a good question,” Fallon said, studying her father with the kind of focus he usually reserved for particularly tricky opponents.
“Is that all you’ve got? A feeling?” Shea asked.
“My feelings are rarely wrong,” he said, giving her a censorious look. “Reading people accurately is how I’ve gotten to where I am today.” He tapped her nose. “Perhaps next time you should stop to talk with him rather than avoiding him. You might learn something interesting.”
She frowned at him, before looking over to where her father stood watching the two of them with astute eyes.
“Now, point out this person who said this thing to you,” Fallon said without missing a beat, his expression bland.
A laugh escaped her, surprising her. She glanced up at him “Nice try, Warlord, but I know you better than that.”
If she revealed that person’s name, it was almost guaranteed they’d end up dead or seriously injured before the night was through. Fallon didn’t allow anyone to threaten those he considered his, even by something as simple as a few stray insults.
He gave her a disgruntled look under lowered brows. “This will only allow me to keep an eye on a potential threat.”
She snorted as she walked off. “Right, and if I believed that, I would also believe that a revenant can be reasoned with.”
He grumbled as he followed her. “You know I can just ask Trenton.”
She gave him a smug smile over her shoulder. “Too bad he didn’t see who said it.”
He frowned at her; she frowned back until her lips tilted up in a crooked smile. She slapped him on the arm. “Now, feed me before my stomach tries to crawl through my back.”
He moved before she could dodge, wrapping his arms around her and pretending to gnaw on her neck. She shrieked with laughter as she wiggled free. It was rare for him to act playful while in view of others, especially when some of their companions could be considered potential enemies.
He gave her a slight smile, his face already back to the one she termed his warlord face, an unreadable expression that he normally regarded the world from. It had intimidated more than one Lowlander into surrendering before a single blow had been struck.
She touched his wrist in thanks before they walked through camp, visiting with their people and sharing in the cold meal. It wasn’t long before night fell and they could find their beds.