by Rob Steiner
When Taran, Edoss, and his men rounded a bend in the road, Taran saw several scarlet-sashed priests milling about near a fallen tree off to the right side, one of them with her hand raised and a shield surrounding them. Ten Tuathan Heshmen leaned on their spears, all watching the forest in different directions. The dark pine trees were closing in on either side of the road so that it was no more than ten paces from the muddy track. The priests started murmuring when they saw Pomar in the arms of one of the Shadarlak, and the Heshmen assumed a more alert posture with their spears held at their sides.
“Pomar Wielded too much,” Taran called out as he approached them. “She needs help.”
Several priests rushed forward, along with some of the Heshmen, who had returned their drawn spears into the quivers on their backs. One of the men took Pomar from the Shadarlak and carried her to a spot on the side of the road beneath a low hanging branch, which made the ground beneath it relatively mud-free. Taran noticed that Melahara and the priests who stayed behind, including the Heshmen, all stared at him. Taran decided to get his apologies over with.
Three priests tended to Pomar, while Melahara and five other priests—one of which maintained their shield with a dreamy look—faced Taran. The red-bearded Heshmen watched him, all keeping a tight grip on their spears. Once Taran was within the radius of their shield, he released Ahura. The fatigue was non-existent now, but the despair that came with losing Ahura’s peace was as terrible as it had always been.
Taran glanced at the priests tending to Pomar. “Will she be all right?”
“Maybe,” Melahara said. “Although she might never Wield again if she recovers.”
Taran sighed. He could not imagine never being able to touch Ahura—
There was a chuckling from the dark voice in his mind. So much for that ‘I’ll never Wield again after I’m home’ promise, it said. You will never let it go.
Ignoring the voice, Taran said, “It was my fault. I should have watched her more—”
“Where did you go?” Melahara asked.
Taran decided it was best to tell her as much of the truth as possible. He would leave out the part about calling on Angra. It was something he did not even want to admit to himself.
“I saw my daughter,” he said. “Or what I thought was my daughter. It turned out to be a harrower trick.”
“Obviously,” Melahara said. “And what were you doing out there for an hour all by yourself in woods crawling with Tainted and harrowers?”
Taran said, “I looked for my daughter. But the harrower responsible for the trick attacked me, and so I killed him.”
“And who was this harrower? Was there only one?”
“I did not know him,” Taran snapped. “And yes, there was only one.”
Melahara looked at Edoss and asked, “How did you find him, Edoss? Was he fighting this harrower?”
Edoss stepped between Taran and Melahara. “Say what you mean rather than continue with this interrogation.”
“Very well, Speaker,” Melahara said. “Taran Abraeu abandoned us. He left several hundred innocent people to die just as the harrowers attacked in earnest. That is quite a coincidence, yes?”
Edoss laughed. “Are you suggesting that Abraeu is a harrower? From what I know of your powers—and it is very little, I grant you—no one can Wield Ahura and Angra.”
Melahara gazed at Taran with an icy stare. “That is true. For the most part.”
“I am not a harrower,” Taran said.
He said this mostly to Melahara, but partly to silence the quiet laughter in his mind. The laughter only increased.
One of the priests tending to Pomar said, “Mother Seat, she is awake.”
Melahara glanced back to where Pomar lay. Then she looked back at Taran, and said to the priest, “Ask her how many trails of Angra she saw when she found Taran Abraeu.”
They got you now, the dark voice whispered in Taran’s mind. Kill them all now before they kill you. Angra will show you how.
Stop, Taran screamed in his mind.
The priest asked Pomar Melahara’s question, then leaned near Pomar’s mouth. When Pomar had whispered her answer, the priest stood and said, “Two. Pomar said she saw two Angra trails.”
Melahara said to Taran, “I thought you said you only faced one harrower?”
Kill them now, the voice screamed, its urgency so painful that Taran almost did call for Angra. Instead he fell to his knees and grabbed his shirt with both hands to keep a hand from reaching for the black ring in the sky.
“No!” he screamed back to the dark voice.
When he looked up, he saw the priests all had their hands raised and were Wielding Ahura. The guns from all five of the Shadarlak flew into the outstretched hands of the priests. The remaining Heshmen had sprung forward and had their spears at the necks of Edoss and every Shadarlak before any could draw their sabers. Taran felt a tingling sensation all around him, as if he were encased in static electricity.
“We are not your enemy, Melahara!” Edoss yelled.
“Maybe you are not, Speaker,” Melahara said. “But Taran Abraeu is. He has Wielded Angra. I could smell the Taint on him as soon as he was within five paces. He cannot be allowed back among my people.”
“So you’re just going to leave him out here?”
Melahara’s face grew hard. “He cannot be freed either.”
I told you, the dark voice mocked. To silence the voice, Taran shot his hand up to Ahura, seeking to disarm the Heshmen just as the priests had disarmed the Shadarlak…but nothing happened. Ahura did not respond.
Seeing Taran’s confusion, Melahara said, “That tingling you feel is similar to what the Barrier was, albeit on a vastly smaller scale. While it surrounds you, you cannot Wield Ahura. Or Angra.”
Edoss growled, “If you do this, Melahara, if you kill a Compact man in cold blood, your people will never be welcome in my country. You need us. Don’t throw it away.”
Melahara pointed to Taran. “This man is a danger to both our peoples. He can Wield Ahura and Angra with a strength that has not been seen since before the Barrier. We cannot trust him, therefore he is too dangerous to be allowed to live.”
There was a rustling in the forest on either side of the road, and then twenty Shadarlak, ten on the left and ten on the right, emerged from the woods with their revolvers aimed at the Tuathans.
Captain Laesh yelled, “If I see one hand go up, we’re firing. You men, drop the spears.” When none of the Heshmen moved, Laesh screamed, “Now!”
Laesh strode forward and aimed his revolver at Melahara’s head. “Tell them to drop their spears, madam.”
“You can kill me if you want, Captain,” Melahara replied in a serene voice, her hands tucked into cloak. “But my men will take your Speaker with me before you can shoot them all.”
Taran knew Laesh had not touched the Crucible bowl, so the Shadarlak captain had no idea what Melahara just said. When Laesh cocked the revolver, Edoss cried, “Wait, Captain!”
Laesh never took his eyes off of Melahara. “What are your orders, sir?”
“Melahara,” Edoss said, this time in more conciliatory tones. “We are surrounded by harrowers and Tainted who could attack us all at any moment. Must we do this now? Can’t we resolve this once your people are out of harm’s way?”
Melahara’s lips tightened as she considered Edoss’s plea for compromise.
See how they barter for your life as if you weren’t even here, the dark voice said. Trust none of them. They don’t deserve your help.
“Stop,” Taran whispered, shaking his head. The voice was growing stronger by the moment, and Taran was starting to doubt his sanity. He focused all of his concentration on Melahara, as she stood silently, considering Edoss’s words.
After an eternity, Melahara said, “Here is the compromise. Taran Abraeu will be taken into our custody while we march to the sea. Once my people are safe, he will be judged. I will not make any promises on the outcome of that trial, but it will be fair. This is my only offer, Speaker.”
Edoss glared at Melahara a moment, and then nodded once.
The Heshmen took hold of Taran’s arms and marched him toward the center of the Tuathan column. Though he was now a prisoner of the Tuathans, he was relieved that their personal Barrier surrounded him.
The temptation to use Angra to kill them all had become too hard to resist.