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16184693- Order-of-the- Nine The- Stone- Bearers by TAOSHOBUDDHA

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									Cover art courtesy of: Elisafox.deviantart.com
Order of the Nine: The Stonebearers




                               Prologue

    A fine mist fell as a result of the torrent of water spewing forth
from the newly ruptured ground. Before her, the dead lay strewn
over the broken earth as far as the eye could see. Tulbonae, the
Seer of Ubera turned and looked up at the cliff face, some hundred
men high, where only yesterday lay the gently rolling fields of ebro
trees, their fruit nearly ripe for harvest. The sheer cliff face
stretched off in either direction across the valley from the foothills
of the Uberan Highlands to the coastal mountains of the Kulkyri
Forest. One land now sundered in two. The realm would now grow
separate and distinctively different in the seasons to come.
    Tulbonae hung her head, heart heavy with sadness and guilt.
                                      pg. 2
Order of the Nine: The Stonebearers


She had foreseen this destruction, and her hand had guided the
events to their deadly conclusion, for it was the will of Taloria, the
Blessed Mother, and creator of them all. She turned back to the
dead at her feet.
     The rising water lapped at the rotting flesh of Aerbogal, the
once iridescent skin of the mighty Ulsgareth, now dulled by death.
His long, serpentine body stretched over the low rise, tail floating
listlessly in the muddy water. The head, blown from its long neck
had been carried away by the churning waters. Beneath his vast,
transluscent wings, the husk of Lord Carimar lay, his body burned
from the inside out by the immense conflagration of energy
released by the Spiritstone that rested with his broken ribcage. He
had done what was expected of him, fulfilling his role in the Order,
and would be forever immortalized in the lore of the realms.
     Tulbonae bent her tall, wispy body and lifted the wing, only to
have it tear and fall apart in her small, thin hands. She reached into
the body and lifted out the Spiritstone by its chain of golden links,
Carimar‘s bones breaking apart with the slightest effort. The
crystal, roughly the size of her fist, was now lifeless, its energy
drained in Carimar‘s final sacrifice to destroy the Chobelkan
Warlord and decimate the army of Hordelings that had come to
feast upon Taloria‘s children.
     Woe to the parent who lays waste to her own. Tulbonae‘s
knuckles grew white as she gripped the stone. ―I shall not conspire
to assuage your fears again, Mother,‖ she said, glancing westward
in the direction of Mt. Ubera where Taloria resided. ―My will is no
longer yours.‖
     This Change was done. The war was over, and it would be
many, many seasons before the realms would recover and rebuild
themselves into something capable of breaking free of Taloria‘s
misguided hand. It could be done. She had foreseen that possibility
as well, and that unique power would be the one thing to keep her
alive long enough to see that the next Change would be different.
Taloria‘s children would learn to grow beyond her will and make a
new world for themselves, with or without her presence. For she
                                      pg. 3
Order of the Nine: The Stonebearers


knew what no other did.
    Taloria could be destroyed.
    One day, perhaps hundreds or a thousand seasons from now,
one of Taloria‘s children would be born with the gift to alter the
Spiritstones, and Taloria‘s fearful mind would be unmade. She
would feel its coming, for the child would be one of the Order, and
Tulbonae knew she would be made to see to their destruction. She
would have to use Taloria‘s own fears against her, and hide her
deceptions well. Even though she was the Seer, and Taloria‘s most
treasured creation, Mother would suffer no such betrayal. Her life
such that it was, devoid of the aging flesh and tumultuous heart
that favored Taloria‘s mortal children, would be over.
    With a final, longing look upon Carimar‘s remains, Tulbonae
turned and began walking south and east, skirting the rising
floodwaters. The Spiritstone, to become known now as the Stone
of Carimar, had to be returned to its sacred place, where it might
regain its strength and be ready for the next child of Taloria, who
would unwittingly come to serve Taloria‘s will.




                                      pg. 4
Order of the Nine: The Stonebearers




                                Carimar
                                        I



    Talmar shook his head and sighed, ignoring the soft rustle in
the trees overhead. He willed Milarra to go away and went back to
preparing for his evening meditation. With a calm and practiced
precision, he retrieved the meditation candles from a chest outside
the door of the Keeper‘s Hall, and set them on plain, stoneware
plates at the four direction points around the edge of the
Lifespring. From a brightly painted jar, he placed a spoonful of
ground incense next to each candle.

                                      pg. 5
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                                   The arrangement was simple, but in
Carimar is a large, J-
                               the shadows of the waning sunlight, the
shaped valley, land-locked     four candles would create a warm,
by its geographical            peaceful glow, the sweet, earthy haze of
features. It‘s main cities     incense would surround them, and
are Achenar, Volonar, and      Talmar would dip his Spiritstone into
Westkeep. The people are
a peaceful folk, mostly
                               the dimly glowing water, and feel
farmers and craftsmen,         Taloria‘s essence soak into it and thus to
bound by the traditions        him. That small pool, lined with its
dedicated to worshipping       luminescent crystals was the center of
Taloria. The focal point for   Talmar‘s rather small world in the
most is around the many
Lifesprings scattered
                               Southern reaches of Carimar.
throughout, having a               The Springcircle was beautiful in its
higher concentration of the    simplicity. Moss covered rock encircled
magical springs than any       the spring where clear water flowed
other region on the            silently out over the lip and slipped
continent. They currently
wage a losing battle against
                               away to the south. Log buildings with
the influx of Takidor‘s        high-peaked roofs surrounded it on three
merchants, who bring their     sides. A low, ivy-blanketed, stone wall
strange mercantile ways to     connected the buildings and met at an
the unsuspecting and           arching gateway where the stream exited
gullible Carimarans, many
of whom are being caught
                               and the villagers entered up a flagstone
up in the tide of wealth and   walk. Above, the five great Lifetrees,
greed that they bring.         stretched their emerald leafed branches
                               out beyond the roofs of the buildings
In the southern reaches,
nestled against the            covering it all in soft, cool shade.
towering Ulsgareth Peaks,          The Lifetrees fed directly from the
is Springwood, a small         blood of Taloria, planted and nourished
forest and home to the         by the village from time out of memory.
village of the same name.      During these growing months, when the
It is where one of our
heroes, Talmar Woodborn        leaves overlapped to the point that no
begins his journey.            sunlight came through, Talmar was the
                               most content. The constant twilight was
                               tranquil, and would keep the growing
                               season‘s heat at bay.Talmar knelt on the
                                      pg. 6
Order of the Nine: The Stonebearers


soft moss and peered into the clear depths of the spring. It had
transfixed him since he first looked into it as a boy, forever being
admonished for sneaking into the Springcircle at night, to stare into
the ethereal glow of the Spiritstones growing on the walls.
    Talmar had felt the call of Taloria from the very first moment.
He could not explain it, even to Mendalar who understood such
things. There was a ―oneness‖ with the presence that defied words.
His mentor and Springkeeper of the village, had let him make his
secret, nightly vigils to the spring, until the day he invited Talmar
to be apprentice Springkeeper, and placed him upon the path he
was destined to follow.
    The sound of a snapping twig refocused his attention. Milara.
    She was spying on him again, hiding somewhere in the dense
canopy above. How or why she had become infatuated with him,
Talmar still did not understand. He was not handsome. He was
your typical brown haired, brown-eyed Carimaran male. He had
that rare touch of green in the eyes, but still, it was nothing to
gossip with the other girls about. He was an apprentice Keeper,
which was a very mundane and boring vocation to others beside
himself. He did not have the exceptional woodworking skills of his
father. There was just nothing about him that he would have
considered worth being infatuated about, and yet there she was.
    Milara was fifteen seasons old, and a very healthy fifteen at
that. Talmar was not beyond noticing, but much to her frustration,
he had little interest. The woman he was meant for lived in his
dreams. A woman with hair the color of honey, who always floated
up to him from the chill waters of the Lifespring, her eyes blazing
with blue fire. She never spoke to him, but the message was clear.
She needed him, and always beckoned for him to follow her back
into the glowing depths, but Talmar refused, afraid to enter, afraid
of what he might find down there, and that whatever need the
beautiful woman had, he would fail her.
    The dreams were almost always the same, and Talmar would
wake from them terribly afraid, sweating, his wool blanket
clenched up tightly under his chin. They were compelling to, and
                                      pg. 7
Order of the Nine: The Stonebearers


the woman fascinated him. Taloria was telling him something, if
only he could fathom its meaning, and he knew without doubt that
his future was linked with the mysterious woman. He had told no
one of his dream, even his mentor, who might have clearer
understanding of such things. Talmar wished to decipher it for
himself. It was Taloria‘s challenge to him as a Keeper.
     Milara seemed to be obsessed with him of late, taken to spying
on him at all hours of the day, always being there when he left the
Keeper‘s Hall in the evening, and always out on an errand at
sunrise to catch him by chance on his way in for his morning
meditation. It was flattering but mostly annoying, and Talmar did
not care for her breaking the village rules on his account. Nobody
was allowed to climb in the sacred Lifetrees surrounding the
spring.
     ―Milara,‖ he said, loud enough for her to certainly hear. There
was no response, but a faint rustling in the branches above.
―Milara, please. I know you are up there, and it is against the rules
to be climbing the Lifetrees.‖ There was another snap of wood and
a muffled cry. ―No need to hurry, Mila. It is nearly dark. You will
fall to your death if you keep that—‖
     He was cut off by a sudden, short scream and several bits of
twig tumbled down in front of him into the waters of the spring. He
would have to clean them out of the water before he could do his
meditation now. ―Milara, please be careful. This has got to stop.‖
     ―Tal,‖ she cried out. ―Help—‖
     He started to get up, but then a longer scream pierced the
shadows above, and then the harsh, sickening crack of bone
striking wood. He could see her coming down through the
branches in a shower of twigs and leaves, her limp body buffeted
back and forth. She flopped like a rag doll, tumbling headfirst and
Talmar cringed when her head narrowly missed the larger of the
lowest branches stretching over the spring. For a moment, Talmar
thought she might be dropping right on top of him, or worse,
landing on the stone ring around the spring. He was frozen, unable
to move from where he stood and could only turn and close his
                                      pg. 8
Order of the Nine: The Stonebearers


eyes as her shadowy figure plummeted down.
    By some fortunate quirk of fate, the body plunged down with a
loud, thumping whoosh into the middle of the spring, dousing
Talmar in a shower of cold water. When he turned to look, he
could only see the dim outline of her figure, sinking into the faint
glow of the pool, a smoky swirl of blood trailing up above her.
Talmar hesitated for only a moment. It was strictly forbidden for
anyone to enter the spring other than the Springkeeper. You could
not taint the blood of Taloria with mortal flesh. However, someone
was about to die, and that tipped the scales easily enough for
Talmar. Leaping forward, he arched in the air, landed with an
awkward splash, and swam madly down toward Milara‘s dim
outline.
    If I had just kept my mouth shut, he thought. Talmar bumped
into her slack body making its slow tumble down the narrowing
walls of the spring. Wrapping an arm around her torso, he turned
and began to kick his way toward the surface. It could not have
been more than three or four body lengths. In the twilight shade of
the circle, the opening above was a black, glass ceiling.
    He scraped his way up the crystal-lined wall, grimacing as the
sharp edges of the stones created dozens of tiny cuts along his
back. The flair of pain sharpened his focus and Talmar noticed a
subtle change. The water was brighter, and along with it came a
presence, stronger than he had ever felt, swimming in the waters
with him.
    The water took on an icy-blue tone, cold and intense, though
Talmar did not actually feel cold himself. The presence of Taloria
permeated through his skin, sank into his bones until she filled
every part of him, the intensity of her giving Talmar a burst of
energy that propelled him toward the surface.
    ―Save her, Talmar,‖ the soft feminine voice echoed in his head,
resounding off the walls, and nearly caused him to open his mouth
and draw in a lungful of water. ―Show them your gift, but then you
must come. She is dying.‖
    Dying? The nameless, unknown woman of his dreams. The
                                      pg. 9
Order of the Nine: The Stonebearers


floating, pale body, with the undulating hair, and the glowing, eyes
that burned with a fire colder than ice. Talmar knew it was not
Milara that she referred too. Now it seemed, he knew the reason
Taloria had sent him the dream. He had to save her.
     ―Save her, Talmar,‖ she cooed again, with subtle, commanding
force. ―You are the only one who can.‖
     He could say nothing in response, his lungs burning for lack of
air, and even if able, he was not sure what the reply would be. All
that mattered was the wavering image of dark leaves through the
window of the surface above him. Finally, Talmar burst through,
sucking in a huge draught of air. He flailed his right arm up over
the rocky rim of the spring, clasping Milara against him with the
other. For a moment he could only lay there, her head against his
chest, the wet curls pressed against his cheek. Even in the dim
twilight, he could see her lips were dark, turning blue from the lack
of air. She was not breathing. Talmar could feel her spirit slipping
away with the murky cloud of blood that seeped into the water.
     ―Blessed Taloria, Milara,‖ he gasped, catching his breath.
Blood trickled from a vicious gash on her forehead, around those
usually soft, lively brown eyes, and into the wet curls of hair. ―You
cannot die. You will not die!‖ he commanded, as much to himself
as to her, gingerly touching the wicked gash on her head.
     There was heat, flashing right down into the marrow of his
bones, intense as smoldering coals pressed to his flesh, but nothing
burned. Still, he let out a startled yelp of surprise. The source was
his Spiritstone, pinned between Milara‘s head and his chest. It
glowed with a bright, green intensity he had never seen before, as
did Milara‘s. The water sang with the energy of their Spiritstones
and was joined by the voice of Taloria, a soft, resonating sound,
like the longest string on a harp. Talmar‘s head thrummed with it.
     Fear, awe, and cold had his body shivering. He was doing this,
whatever it was, and Taloria was somehow there with him, feeding
him more energy than he could ever draw on his own. Focus the
energy upon the person, let their body heal itself. It was a simple
tenet of Springkeeper work, and Talmar was so overwhelmed that
                                      pg. 10
Order of the Nine: The Stonebearers


he could only think in simple terms. So, he focused and opened
himself to Milara‘s need, willing her spirit to take what was needed
to heal itself.
    The moment the suffused green light vanished into the point
within the center of the stone about her neck, a sudden bright flash
consumed Talmar‘s vision and then was gone just as abruptly.
    Taloria was gone. Somehow, she had known and come to aid
him. Before he could dwell more than a moment on that thought,
Milara‘s body came to life with a spastic lurch as she gasped,
spluttered, and finally vomited up a torrent of water.
    ―Mendalar!‖ Talmar yelled, and to his surprise found his
mentor suddenly kneeling beside him, hooking his hands beneath
Milara‘s arms.
    ―Great Mother of us all,‖ he exclaimed, but said nothing else as
he dragged Milara out of the spring, laying her on the mossy
ground to examine her wounds.
    Talmar pulled himself out and knelt on the other side, his
breath coming in ragged gasps. The bloody gash on Milara‘s
forehead was no longer bleeding, a mere jagged pink welt of flesh.
The assortment of cuts decorating her body from her tumble and
subsequent brush along the crystalline walls of the spring were
now faded scratches. Mendalar clutched his spiritstone while his
free hand roamed over the wounds of her body. Finally he glanced
over at Talmar, a curious, stunned look on his face.
    ―Did you heal her, Tal?‖ he asked.
    Talmar was too overwhelmed to even think about what had
happened. It was too impossible to believe. ―I…I am not sure what
happened. She fell from the tree, cracked her head upon a branch,
but somehow managed to fall into the spring without hitting the
rocks. I dove in to pull her out. She was dying, Keeper! I could
feel her spirit drifting away, but then…‖ He stopped, struggling to
put the images into words. ―Taloria came and told me to save her.‖
    Milara hacked up more water, moaning tearfully as Mendalar
eased her on to her side to help drain water from her lungs. He
continued to tend to her body, checking all of the wounds, the
                                      pg. 11
Order of the Nine: The Stonebearers


long, graying tail of his hair draped over a shoulder and nearly
brushing the ground. His stone glowed faintly as he worked, and
he genuinely looked surprised, an expression Talmar seldom, if
ever saw on the generous, kind lines of his face.
    ―She spoke to you?‖
    ―Yes, Keeper.‖ It had been no figment of his imagination. He
knew. With the surety that the sun had set itself down in the east,
he knew. ―She told me to save her,‖ he said. The next part, Talmar
struggled to speak about, but he knew this had to be the time.
Mendalar had to know. ―She told me that this woman I have seen
in my dreams is dying, that I must come and save her.‖
    Mendalar‘s hands stopped, resting now on Milara‘s legs, and
he chuckled softly. ―I suppose I should have guessed all along.
You have always had something special, Tal.‖ He sighed, sitting
back on his heals. ―Ah, Blessed Taloria,‖ he said softly. ―He is not
ready.‖
    Ready for what? His words made little sense. People were
gathering outside the stone wall, and Talmar felt the unnerving
stares of the villagers upon him. Then the hysterical cries of
Terona, Milara‘s mother could be heard as she came running
through the gate. The ensuing chaos drowned out any effort to get
answers, and for the moment, Talmar could only sit in stunned
silence as Mendalar dealt with a mother frightened for the life of
her child.




                                      pg. 12
Order of the Nine: The Stonebearers


                                                   II
   Corvu Castle: Built at the
   head of a narrow pass in
   the Kulkyri Forest, Corvu
   has long been the entry to         Arrows rained down from the sky
   Carimar from the sea. But     and, except for one or two, bounced
   when Lord Corvu was
   assassinated and young
                                 harmlessly off of shields held
   Tarla Corvu stolen away       overhead or the thick, gray stone of
   by the Merchant Com-          Castle Corvu‘s walls. The cry of the
   panies, it became an          wounded man could be heard over
   impenetrable gate, guarded    the shouted orders of Captain of the
   with singular vengeance by
   Talshae Corvu. It is said
                                 Guard Pregar, and Lady Talshae
   that Talshae and Corvu are    Corvu walked across the rampart to
   a singular entity, but        her wounded guard, dressed in little
   whatever the case, the        more than a plainly adorned leather
   Merchants have been           jerkin, cloth breeches, and soft
   unable to breech its easily
   defended walls.
                                 leather boots. She shook her head at
                                 him with a mother‘s, ―I told you so‖
   Several attempts to gain      look on her tired and haggard face.
   entry and kill Talshae have
   failed. No amount of               ―Nolgar!‖ she shouted.
   stealth has met success.            A humorless grin etched her
   Most will say it is because   face, highlighting the lines that made
   of the Kulkyri, who side      her look seasons older than the
   with her in the defense of    twenty-seven she was. Her smile
   the pass. Attempts at
   diplomacy have been           betrayed the mad gleam in her dark
   fruitless, even from          blue eyes. Most thought her mad, but
   Carimar, where some           that was part of what inspired the
   desire the trade with         fiercely loyal men and women who
   Takidor. Some claim she is    still served her these past three
   mad, perhaps with grief
   over her loss, but those      seasons. Some even said she was
   who stay, are loyal to        more possessed of hatred for Takidor
   death, and see her as         than the former Lord Corvu. After
   something beyond mortal.      all, they had killed him and taken
                                 their only child. It made sense,
                                 though most would agree that she had
                                      pg. 13
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lost her mind back on that fateful day.
    ―You are in the front position up here, you dolt! The arrows do
not fall straight from the sky. Hold you shield, thus.‖ She picked
up the fallen shield and held it out before her, demonstrating what
she meant. Proving her point, another arrow came whispering in,
thunking into the tall, wooden shield. ―There, you see?‖
    Nolgar nodded painfully. ―Yes, my Lady. There seem to be
more of them lately. It is a day and night volley of arrows.‖ When
Talshae only stared at him, he quickly added, ―I shall be more
diligent.‖
    ―I should like to think so. Now then, what do you think of your
Lady‘s tits?‖
    ―Lady?‖ He stammered, a flush rushing up cheeks that was
readily visible even by the flickering flames of the braziers along
the rampart. ―Why would I even—‖ He broke off with a loud cry
of pain when Talshae snapped the haft of the arrow and yanked it
out the backside of his thigh. ―Blessed mother!‖
    Talshae laughed. ―That worked on you last time, Nolgar. Now
take yourself down to Toldan and let him bind you up. No doubt I
will have more foolish boys to see to up here.‖
    Nolgar cinched the strip of cloth around his thigh that she gave
him, and pushed painfully to his feet with the help of her steadying
hand. An arrow whizzed by to clatter against the wall of the guard
tower, which Talshae did not even notice. They said the sheer
force of her will deflected away arrows that would have struck
anyone else. Others said Taloria herself watched over her.
    Nolgar would serve to the death regardless of the reason, and
grinned at his commander and liege. ―At once, Lady.‖ He gave her
a painful bow and headed through the guard tower door.
    Talshae shook her head, and looked out over the ramparts and
down onto the dark field of trees that stretched two day‘s ride to
the sea. She could still feel his hand in hers, a ghostly
remembrance of when they used to watch sunsets from this very
spot. Those kind memories were scarcely there anymore, and his
image seemed to fade with each passing day, a depressing and
                                      pg. 14
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infuriating occurrence, fueled by the scattered campfires, stretched
out below in the clearing made by the Merchant Companies men.
Another arrow clattered off the stone beside her, and she knelt to
pick it up.
     Carimaran craftsmanship, bought with plenty of Takidoran
coin no doubt. Talshae frowned, pulled the bow off of her back
and notched the arrow in it. Slowly, she scanned the top of the
ridgeline on the south side of the clearing, where the Merchant‘s
archers casually threw arrows up over her walls just to keep
everyone on edge. Her uncanny sight found a shadowy target, a
lone archer, perched next to a dark stump of a tree, and drew back
the string. For a long moment she stood there, wiry body poised,
drawn taut, loosely holding her bow, and looking down the haft of
the arrow with a squinted, half-mad gaze. She closed her eyes,
relaxed, and felt the cool, swimming presence of them flow up
through her.
     Them. Her. It. She did not know. Did not care, to be honest.
The presence gave her strength to keep going and mete out
vengeance upon those who had destroyed the essence of her life.
Corvu was the last bastion against the swarming tide of the
Merchants, their corruption, greed, and lust for power, and damn it
all to the Wastes if she would not hold them off until every last one
of them was dead.
     She raised the line of the arrow until it felt right, until it told
her to let it fly. It was only the time it took draw in a breath, from
when she pulled her bow and that arrow sailed off into the night.
Talshae turned and headed for the tower door, without even
looking to see if her arrow found its mark. She did not have to
look. It knew. It told her she had killed him, and the corner of
Talshae‘s gaunt mouth turned up in a smile.




                                      pg. 15
Order of the Nine: The Stonebearers




Talmar: autobiography
I am a simple man, and not                         III
even quite that yet. I have
only ever wanted one thing
in my life, and that is to
become a Springkeeper.
For as long as I can                The incident had ruined Talmar‘s
remember, I have felt the       plans. Mendalar had been going north to
call of the Lifespring in the   the capital of Achenar to attend the
center of my village. My
                                yearly council of the Springkeepers
mother says I am blessed.
Father wishes I had the         during the Spring Festival, and Talmar
desire to follow his path,      was going to get his first chance at
but I just do not have the      being the village‘s Keeper. He had been
skills to shape wood as he      waiting an entire season for the
does.I am glad at least that
                                opportunity and now it was gone.
he understands. My sister
believes me just strange.           Mendalar refused to clearly state his
                                thoughts on the whole matter. He had
It is strange at times, and I   merely announced to Talmar that he had
do not understand it most
of the time. I only follow      to come with him to Achenar. The
this path because I know I      disappointment was overwhelming.
must. When I am at the          Two days later, Talmar had loaded his
Lifespring, I can feel          pack with spare clothing and said his
Taloria‘s presence, at once     goodbyes to his mother, father, and
peaceful and overpower-
ing. She speaks to me,          sister. They were far more excited by
though understanding            the prospect than he was. If there was
eludes me. I want to            any benefit to leaving, it was to put
understand, for if I am to      distance between him and Milara,
become a Springkeeper,          whose interest had blossomed into
when Mendalar deems me
ready, I want to be able to     professions of love. The village was still
use Taloria‘s Will to           buzzing with what had happened when
provide for my people. It is    Mendalar led their wagon out of
a simple want, as I am a        Springwood and on the path toward
simple man.                     Achenar.
                                    Tulchar‘s Way, a half day‘s ride
                                      pg. 16
Order of the Nine: The Stonebearers


north, had the benefit of two things, its location and its beer. It was
the central point for the farmers and tradesman of southern
Carimar. On any given day there were a number of travelers,
bringing in goods to trade at the village‘s central square,
equipment to be repaired, or just stopping along the way to
Volonar. One would have been hard pressed to actually call it a
village. In reality most folk stopped in Tulchar‘s to gossip, hook up
with old friends that one had not seen in many a moon, or any
other variety of contrived reasons to sit in the rambling, old inn
that served the best beer south of The Wall. The smattering of
population that had taken up residence over the seasons supported
the traders that came through, offering supplies, wagon repairs, and
the like.
     The inn was a sprawling, stone building, with a central two
story structure that constantly poured forth smoke from three
different chimneys. Two wings curved out from either side,
forming a rough half circle where the inn rooms were. The other
half of the circle comprised a supply store and a wainwright, as
well as a stable and smithy. It was loud, boisterous, and full of
activity as Talmar and Mendalar crossed the circle, with vendors
hawking their wares, the smithy and wainwright doing a brisk
business, and a lot of folk milling about as the day wound quickly
toward the evening meal.
     Talmar found all the activity a bit disconcerting as they made
their way into the Ulsgareth‘s Eye and found themselves a table far
from the door. They had hardly sat down when a pitcher of ale and
a basket of warm bread dropped on their table, courtesy of a
passing serving girl.
     Talmar filled their mugs and sampled the brew. Normally
avoiding it because of the effect it had on his mind for meditation,
he felt inclined to finish off an entire mug, perhaps even two.
―Well, at least the ale is good,‖ he said, licking his lips. ―Actually,
it is very good.‖
     ―Indeed it is,‖ Mendalar agreed. ―Annia is one of the best
brewers in Carimar. I shall have to see if she has a small cask we
                                      pg. 17
Order of the Nine: The Stonebearers


can take with us to Achenar.‖
    A group of musicians that had been preparing their instruments
began to play the drum heavy music popular in southern Carimar.
The ever growing crowd in the tavern raised their voices
accordingly. ―Perhaps I will get a small cask on our return trip for
father,‖ Talmar replied, his voice buried under the rising din.
    ―What?‖
    ―I said—‖ Talmar repeated, but then just waved his hand,
―Never mind! I cannot even think in a place like this.‖
    ―You are not suppose to, Tal,‖ Mendalar laughed. ―Just relax
and enjoy the food and music. If we are lucky, Annia will sing us a
song or two.‖
    Talmar sighed and drank his ale, gazing around the chaotic
dining area, and tried to enjoy the cacophony of color and sound.
Carimarans were a humble people, but they were always proud of
their work, and one had only to look at them to see it in intricate,
carved jewelry they wore, the fine tools hanging from their belts,
or the polished, pure sounding instruments that filled the air the
merry contentment typical of Carimaran life.
    After finishing off heaping bowls of fresh, fish stew, Talmar
did not even get a chance to say thank you before the serving girl
had grabbed their bowls and vanished into the crowd. Mendalar
pulled out his pipe and tobacco, looking thoughtful as he packed
the bowl. Talmar knew that look. He was pondering something
important or insightful to say to him. Talmar sat back and sipped at
his ale, the first two having given him a warm, fuzzy glow. He
eyed Mendalar expectantly.
    ―Tal,‖ he said, after lighting up the pipe and blowing out a
fragrant plume of smoke. ―You are troubled by our journey.‖
    ―I…‖ He stopped, taking a breath to avoid snapping out in
annoyance. Troubled was not the word, but Talmar hated to admit
that something so ambiguous scared him so much. ―I do not like
this feeling of knowing nothing.‖
         ―Yes.‖ He nodded, ―I understand. I had thought it best to
wait until we reached Achenar, but I see you will be troubled one
                                      pg. 18
Order of the Nine: The Stonebearers


way or the other, so…‖ he smiled wryly and sent a thick, smokey
ring up into the rafters. ―Let me at least let you feel troubled about
something rather than nothing.‖
    Talmar‘s expression softened into a bemused smile, and he
leaned forward. Mendalar‘s words were always truthful and wise.
―Thank you, Keeper.‖
    Mendalar cleared his throat and settled back in his seat. ―I told
you before that Taloria speaks to very few, that it is a unique
privilege.‖
        ―Yes,‖ he replied. ―I do not find that troubling. I am
honored by that, in awe even. I do not understand why. It is what
she said that troubles me most. That, and…‖ He paused, downing
half his mug of ale to work up the nerve to even halfway criticize
his mentor. ―and the fact that you have not been willing to tell me
anything. Either you do not trust me for some reason or you are
protecting me from something.‖
    ―And which do you believe, Tal?‖ he asked.
    ―You are protecting me from something,‖ he replied quickly.
―After I told you what happened, you looked…worried, and you
only look worried when something is very serious and generally
very bad.‖
    ―I have been,‖ he admitted. ―I am not completely certain, but I
believe the concern is justified.‖
    ―Why?‖
    ―Do you recall the legend of how Carimar and Takidor came to
be?‖
    ―Of the Great Wall and how Tulumbria was divided into
Carimar and Takidor?‖ Talmar asked.
    ―Yes. You have heard the popular folktale about Lord Carimar
and how he used the Spiritstone of Carimar to defeat the
Chobelkan Emperor, giving his life in heroic sacrifice. At least I
hope you have, or I shall have to beat your father over the head
with his carving tools.‖
        Talmar laughed, but eyed him thoughtfully. ―I heard it
many times as a child. Why are you telling me this, Keeper? Is the
                                      pg. 19
Order of the Nine: The Stonebearers


legend wrong?‖
     ―No,‖ he paused, drawing deeply from his pipe. ―I believe for
the most part that it is true. Only the Tel and their vast library of
knowledge likely know the truth of it. What the legend leaves out
is that Lord Carimar was but one of a group of Talorians, each with
a Stone signifying their lands. This group was guided by the Seer
of Ubera. During the Change, the Seer draws this group together to
fight back the Shadow of Taloria and keep it from plunging the
lands into a time of darkness and desolation. This group is called
the Order of Nine.‖
     Talmar‘s mouth creased into a thin line as the words tumbled
about in his head. He had heard something of this before, but why
was he telling him now? The implication of his words suddenly hit
him. ―Keeper! Surely you cannot think me one of these Nine?‖
     Mendalar raised his hand to quiet him, ―I believe that Taloria‘s
call to you is implying that you are to be Carimar‘s Stonebearer.
There is no other reason for you to be called to Ubera.‖
     ―That is the most absurd…‖ Talmar paused, his finger pointing
at Mendalar, and then dropped his arm to the table. There were no
logical, reasonable explanations. An icy shiver ran down his spine.
―That is not possible.‖
     Mendalar‘s brows arched as he shrugged, ―What I believe does
not matter, Tal. What I know is that Taloria spoke to you and told
you to come.‖
     ―Yes, but-‖ It was not about the Stone. She said to save her.
The woman from his dreams, but how did he tell Mendalar such a
thing?
     ―Regardless,‖ he waved him off, ―you were contacted, Tal.
Therefore you must go. I do not wish you to go without any
knowledge about what may be coming.‖
     ―To Ubera?‖ he replied, his voice shaky. ―I have never even
been beyond Volonar.‖
     Mendalar offered a comforting smile and lay his hand over
Talmar‘s. ―You have it in here, you know,‖ he said, tapping his
chest with the pipe.
                                      pg. 20
Order of the Nine: The Stonebearers


    ―Have what?‖ Talmar sighed.
    ―The courage to do this, the will and determination. I see it in
you all the time.‖
    Talmar rolled his eyes. He did not feel courageous at all, or
willful and determined for that matter. He felt frightened, pure and
simple. ―You cannot just pick up and go visit the Seer of Ubera.
Can you?‖
    ―No, not usually.‖ Mendalar chuckled and sat back in his chair.
―You have been called though, Tal. The way will be clear.‖
    ―Is it true that nobody has been to Ubera in over one hundred
seasons?‖
    ―Not from Carimar at least.‖
    Talmar groaned and buried his face in his hands. ―I do not
know what to make of all this.‖
    ―Nor do I, Tal,‖ Mendalar comforted. ―We must find out
though.‖
    Dropping his hands, Talmar looked out over the crowd, which
had suddenly erupted in applause. An attractive, middle-aged
woman had stepped up with the musicians, her hair pulled up in a
mousy tangle that fell attractively around her face.
    ―Oh, good!‖ Mendalar exclaimed. ―Annia is going to sing for
us.‖ He reached over and gave Talmar‘s shoulder a fatherly pat.
―There will be plenty of time to worry about this, Tal. For now let
us enjoy one of the loveliest voices this side of the Ulsgareth.‖
        Talmar sat back in his chair and let the smoky-sweet voice
of Annia wash over him, but it did little to cleanse him of the
nagging fear that he was doomed.




                                      pg. 21
Order of the Nine: The Stonebearers



 On working with the                               IV
 Merchants:
 I go by Nalchek these days,
 travelling merchant and
 general trader of wares. It
 is the easiest disguise in          Nalchek watched the serving girl
 the backwater of Carimar.      weave through the crowd like a ghost.
 And I say to you, beyond a
 doubt, that I cannot wait to
                                She seemed to float in and out among
 be away from this insipid,     the people, and they miraculously
 depressing kingdom. It is      stopped, turned, and sidestepped around
 the lowest possible mission    her without even seeming to take notice.
 for a Merchant Company         She likely had a gift with the stones.
 assassin. Price one pays for
 sleeping with the niece of
                                Still, it was fascinating and stimulating
 the Denabbo family             to see someone perform exceptional
 patriarch. Honestly, I had     work. Nalchek could appreciate
 no idea at the time. Fatal     moving as she did. He could do it as
 error in judgement one         well. Killing for the Merchant
 might say.
                                Companies required a certain ghost-like
 I cannot blame Denabbo         ability.When she drifted back by his
 for it. If my niece was        table, his arm flashed out to stop her
 bedded by an assassin, I
 would be a bit beside          before she could sidestep and move on.
 myself as well. Some days      It felt as though his arm had pushed half
 I wish he would have just      through her body.
 killed me instead. I may            She looked down at him in surprise
 never get back in their        and a bit of dismay. ―Oh! Begging your
 good graces, and
 attempting to get in with      pardon, sir! Not watching where I was
 the Castinar‘s would be far    going.‖
 too dangerous. I miss the           Nalchek bunched up a bit of her
 life. Denabbo is a             skirt in his hand to hold her in place.
 gloriously depraved city.      Like smoke she was, and oddly
 There is enough intrigue
 and conspiracy in that city    attractive in a simple way. Nothing
 to serve a 1000 assassins. I   exotic about Carimaran women, but this
 shall return one day. I will   one could move. He wondered for a
 find a way.                    moment how her skills might work in
                                bed. ―Oh, you know exactly where you
                                      pg. 22
Order of the Nine: The Stonebearers


are going.‖ Nalchek gave her an admiring smile. ―You move like a
wisp of smoke. Why, I shall bet you ten taks that you could wrap
that sweet, little body clean around someone if need be.‖
     Her face flushed pink, and with a subtle shift, extricated her
skirts from his hand. ―You Takidor men! Always chasing
Carimaran women around. I should not like to take your coin like
that, good sir,‖ she grinned at him.
      ―I chase no woman. I was merely remarking on the
exceptional way in which you move through this crowd. I always
admire those who are good at their craft.‖
     She laughed, ―I would hardly consider serving girl to be a
craft.‖
     ―Ah, but you see,‖ he replied, pausing for effect, ―serving well
is indeed a craft, and one few excel at, my lovely girl. I can see by
how you move that you excel. One merely has to have an eye for
it to see.‖
     She nodded at him slyly, ―And you have an eye for watching
serving girls move do you?‖
     ―I have an eye for grace and subtlety, and you have both.‖
     She stared at him for a moment, taking in the slender nose and
a mouth, thin as a blade. Looking him in the eye, Nalchek could
say for certain that she knew the dark, almost black color marked
him as being born on Telnidor Isle.. It obviously appealed to her.
―Twenty taks, and I will show you later what grace is.‖ She
laughed and this time shifted away from his reach and was gone
into the crowd.
     Nalchek grinned and downed the rest of his ale in one long
gulp. Oh, how Carimar was changing! A few seasons ago he
would have been lucky to get served an ale, much less play
seduction games with a pretty serving girl. At least he would
spend this night in a bed warmed by a body that knew its moves as
well off its feet as on. Why, another ten seasons in this wretched
backwater country, and it might prove to have some passable
entertainment. Taloria forbid that he could possibly be here that
long, but then Merchant Company retribution could be
                                      pg. 23
Order of the Nine: The Stonebearers


uncommonly harsh. They might never let him back into the
family‘s good graces. How could he have possibly known that it
was Denabo‘s own granddaughter or that she had been unspoiled
by any man?
     He slammed the mug back to the table, disgusted at himself
and the situation he found himself in. It had been less than a
season, banished to the south of Carimar to bandy about as a
simple merchant, collecting information to use for when the
Merchant Companies finally achieved free trade access to Carimar.
Any time now, Corvu Castle would fall into their hands and the
coastal pass would be under their control. Any time now had been
going on for over three seasons, and short of declaring war on
Carimar, they had failed to depose that crazy bitch who hated
Takidor with enough zeal for the entire realm.
     Who could have known that killing her husband would actually
make the situation worse? Had to admire her though. She had
been kicking Merchant backsides for a long while, and…
     ―Stonebearer!‖
     The word came from the table behind him, an older man, a
Keeper by the look of him and his son or apprentice perhaps. He
had paid them little notice. Keepers were a dense, tradition-bound
lot, easily fooled and manipulated, but Nalchek was not one to
miss anything out of the ordinary. As a top Denabbo agent, albeit
a disgraced one, one could ill afford to not pay attention. You
never knew when some small and vital piece of information might
be there for the taking.
     Stonebearer was not a word one expected to hear, at least not in
the context it was currently being discussed. As he listened now,
tuning out the surrounding crowd and honing in on their
conversation, Nalchek could hardly believe what he was hearing.
He nearly turned to look at them to make sure they were not
making the whole thing up to entertain those around them. The
tone of their voices said otherwise. It was a serious and earnest
discussion.
      Something had happened to lead the Keeper to believe the
                                      pg. 24
Order of the Nine: The Stonebearers


young man was the Stonebearer. Far from being a historian,
Nalchek did not know the precise background of the Stonebearers,
but he knew enough to know that the last one had been none other
than Lord Carimar, nearly a millennia ago. The implications of
such being…Nalchek did not even know what those implications
were, but if it was true, it could be his way out of this nowhere-do-
nothing country and back into the Company‘s good graces.
    After they had grown silent listening to the local musicians, he
watched the Keeper and his boy weave through the now thinning
evening crowd, and stop for a moment to speak with the
Innkeeper. They then walked up the stairs toward the inn rooms.
After he was sure they were not coming down, Nalchek settled
back and smiled to himself. Life had a funny way of getting
interesting when you least expected it too. Feeling a bit
celebratory, Nalchek ordered another ale, imagining other ways
that deft and subtle body of the serving girl would shift and move,
and waited for closing time.




                                      pg. 25
Order of the Nine: The Stonebearers




                                               Tulbonae

                                    It is often a precarious thing to be
                               both loved and hated for something one
                               has no control over. Tulbonae, the Seer
                               of Ubera ruminated often on that
I have watched him             subject, while she wandered the
these past few seasons,        emptying halls of Ubera. She found it
from the first moment I        strange that her fellow Uberans
sensed his presence in         naturally gravitated to the deeper
the waters of the              caverns of the city, carved out of the
Lifespring, knowing that       rock in Mount Ubera. The air up top
he would be the one with       was far fresher. You could smell so
the power to heal. I have      many things drifting and blowing upon
given him visions of the       it, from the pungent smell of pine to the
Shadow, the one whom
                               sulfurous plumes of the Ulsgareth
he must save, for I have
foreseen their meeting,        Mountains. Sadly, it was a sensation
and I must conspire to         lost upon them all. None had lived long
make it so.                    enough to develop any sense of emotion
                               to attach to the sensation. Only
-Tulbonae, the Seer of         Tulbonae, over three thousand seasons
Ubera                          in age had reached the blessed state.
                               Mother always took the rest before they
                               had a chance. She would have been
                               gone too, drawn back into the womb of
                               the Goddess‘s energy to be spat back
                               out as one of her wretched, scorched

                                      pg. 26
Order of the Nine: The Stonebearers


Hordelings.What a horrid fate that would be.
    The smooth, stone halls lit with a faint, blue light as she
passed, slowly fading in her wake, casting a faint, slip of a shadow
from her willowy, long-limbed body. At the end of the hall, a
slender, arched doorway led into a small, round room, featureless
other than the polished stone. Tulbonae exercised a minute force of
will and the floor dropped away, traveling down through the heart
of the city, sliding along the perfect cylinder that ended in the heart
of the mountain where Taloria waited impatiently.
    Mother was in a foul mood today. The air had that slightly
acrid taint to it, more usual than not these days as the Change
encroached on them all. Century‘s worth of plans were coming to a
head over the next few moons, shadowy steps taken here and there
while Mother lay otherwise preoccupied with her own fears over
the demise of her children‘s faith. Things would be different this
time, or she would cease to be Tulbonae, Seer of Ubera, and the
Voice of Taloria. She would be drawn back into that murmuring,
chaotic miasma of energy that pulsed and surged like the ebb and
flow of the tides deep within Mt. Ubera.
    At the bottom of the lift, Tulbonae adjusted her sheer, violet
tunic, a habit of modesty she had picked up from Talorians over
the seasons, but only felt compelled to do in the presence of
Taloria herself. Standing under the omnipotent force of her will
made one generally feel exposed, and for most that was true, but
she had developed an immunity to it over the millennia, numbed
by the thousands of times she had stood on the balcony
overlooking the glowing heart of the thing calling itself Taloria.
    In the end though, she was the Seer, called thus for her limited
prescient ability, and the crutch upon which Taloria leaned her
weakening sanity. It had kept Tulbonae alive for an eternity, both
cursed and blessed, for she had seen some of the things twisting
out in the fabric of existence, and it made her heart clench in
trepidation and sadness. Things could end badly for everyone, but
there was still a strand of hope that her efforts would work, that
this Change would be different, and all of Taloria might survive to
                                      pg. 27
Order of the Nine: The Stonebearers


give birth to a new era of freedom from this thing that struggled
like a fearful mother wanting to keep her children close to hearth
lest they lose their love for her or worse, forget her entirely.
    Over the seasons, Tulbonae had come to know guilt for the
things she had done in Taloria‘s name, the blood of so many
thousands on her hands. Soon, it would end one way or another,
for better or worse, but at least she could go, knowing she had
done what she felt was right in her heart.
    Today would be the first true test of how firm the ground was
upon which she stood. Had she been as good a judge of Taloria‘s
will as she thought?
    ―Daughter,‖ the voice said, echoing both in the cavern and
inside her head. ―What news do you bring of the dark, shadow
child? The Sword has finally pierced the walls of her sanctum.‖
    Tulbonae shook her head. Why did Mother always insist on
cloaking everything in metaphor? It was not something she would
stoop to when discussing these matters. ―Kazare has gained access
to Belkara‘s chambers, Mother. The Queen decided she would be
well-suited to the task, given what transpired between them.‖
    ―She was supposed to kill the little spy!‖ Her voice rolled like a
sharp crack of thunder. ―You said the Queen would never let
someone so able gain access to her daughter. I believed you.‖
    And well that you did, Mother. I was counting on it. ―Her
desire to see Belkara fulfill her duty as Spring Maiden
overwhelmed any desire to kill Kazare. Besides, Mother. You said
yourself that you did not want war between Telmizare and
Takidor.‖
    ―I know what I said, and there will be war.‖ There was a pause,
and Tulbonae felt the pulsing waves of energy washing through
her, making her sway upon her feet. ―You knew the spy would
succeed. Or did you plant the notion in Kilara‘s head yourself?‖
    ―No, Mother.‖ It was not a lie. The seed had not been planted
there. So many others she had sewn of late, but Kazare had
performed as expected. She had envisioned the results and knew
that little was needed beyond giving her the impetus to reach
                                      pg. 28
Order of the Nine: The Stonebearers


Belkara. Afterward, well, she might have to plant a few more seeds
then, but she could wait and see. ―Kazare‘s success was of her own
making.‖
     ―Do not interfere with them anymore, do you hear me,
Tulbonae?‖
     ―I do what I believe is the best exercise of your will, Mother,
based upon what I have seen. I cannot do otherwise.‖
     The angry, frustrated rumble through the cavern had her hands
trembling. Tulbonae clasped them together behind her back, even
though the gesture would be fruitless. Here, in the center of her
being, Taloria could see and sense all things. ―Your will does not
always agree with mine, my daughter.‖
     The implication in her tone said enough. Quit meddling or else.
―My agenda, Mother, comes from a place even beyond your will. It
is my duty to you that guides my decisions based upon what I have
seen.‖
     Her voice became quiet and hard as a blade. ―See to it that your
duty does not contradict my will, Tul. I have had enough of your
manipulations and interference. Your ability will only protect you
to a point. Endanger my plans of Change, and you shall pass it. Do
you understand me?‖
     Tulbonae nodded. ―Yes, Mother. Your will is my own.‖
     ―Leave me. Your presence is no longer desired.‖
     She bowed quickly and turned on her heel, walking back to the
lift, pushing it as fast as she dared back to the safe heights of the
mountain top. The test had been passed. Her ability had once again
saved her, but care would have to be taken, more so than ever, as
things were rapidly coming together, and she would have to be
able to act quickly when needed. Her prim, thin mouth curved into
a smile. Despite herself, she was excited, and the sensation sent the
wonder of goosebumps rippling over her skin.




                                      pg. 29
Order of the Nine: The Stonebearers




                                Takidor
                                        I



    Kazare of Telmizare brushed an errant wisp of midnight black
hair out of her face, and drew in a nervous breath. Her small,
delicate hand, balled into a fist, poised a hair‘s breadth before the
tower door. It hung there motionless, wanting to fall against the
thick, banded wood, but other forces held it at bay. Laughter
bubbled up in her throat, but she refrained and exhaled slowly,
attempting to calm her usually steady nerves.
                                      pg. 30
Order of the Nine: The Stonebearers


                                     These were not the nerves of
                                impending danger. Death could be
Takidor is a vast stretch of
fertile, coastal plain that     tapping her on the shoulder and not a
wraps itself around the Bay     muscle would flinch. No, these nerves
of Shadows.It‘s seat of         were all together different and not to be
power lies in the middle of     expected from a Telmizaran spy. They
this bay on the Isle of
                                were the nerves of youth, which she no
Shadow in House Arrador.
It is ruled by a King and       longer was. They were the nerves of
Queen, but controlled for       first kisses, which… well, she had done
the most part by the            a lot more than that over the seasons. It
Merchant Companies, who         was absurd that she, on the verge of
fight amongst themselves
and everyone in Taloria to
                                becoming the youngest Collector her
gain the upperhand in the       Guild had seen in living memory, about
burgeoning world of trade       to succeed where the other Guilds had
that ischanging the cultures    not, could feel like a young fool in love.
of every kingdom in the              Stranger still, she had never met the
lands.
                                young woman living beyond the door. I
The hills of the Uberan         have lost my mind, Kazare thought.
Highlands and Kulkyri           Worse, Fate was playing one of her cruel
forest are mined for shards,    jokes, tempting her beyond reason for
the crystals with the innate    her final mission, and daring her to fail.
ability to store the energies
given off by all living
                                     It wasn‘t love. Lust perhaps, for she
beings.Within House             could readily admit the young woman
Arrador, the daughter of        was a remarkable beauty. The spark of it
the Queen uses her unique       had been felt the first moment she laid
gift to alter shards with the   eyes on Belkara Arrador, seeing her on
right structure into magical
stones with the ability to
                                the first day of her arrival at House
draw magical energy             Arrador, home to the Queen and King of
instead of purely absorbing     Takidor. She did not realize who she was
it. They are running out,       looking down upon from the stair
and Carimar is the richest      leading to the Queen‘s chambers., The
known source for the
spiritstones.
                                lighting in the central courtyard was by a
                                single brazier, and it cast flickering
                                shadows across her half submerged
                                body. Her head rested upon the smooth
                                      pg. 31
Order of the Nine: The Stonebearers


stones surrounding the precious Lifespring, while her naked body
lay mostly beneath the clear, softly glowing water.
    Belkara‘s eyes had been closed, and in her hands she held a
crystal submerged beneath the surface. A straight, flowing sheen
of honey brown hair spilled around her shoulders, the ends of
which floated lazily like seaweed in the water. She had a wide,
sensuous mouth, creased together in concentration. She could not
have been twenty seasons old, but something emanated from her,
an intense spiritual energy that Kazare could feel straight down to
her core.
    She had a talent for sensing the energies of people, which lent
itself well to being a spy. This woman‘s aura however, was a
smoky, fiery mix of tangy and sweet. If she had not been grasping
the rail at the time, she might have fallen to her knees. It was
unlike anything Kazare had ever experienced, and in that moment,
standing on knees gone loose and wobbly, she was certain of one
thing. She was meant to be with her. Somehow, in some way, she
was going to be with the mysterious beauty floating in the water.
    And now, seventy-three days later, after enduring the
Hordeling pit known as the Queen‘s bedchamber, Kazare stood on
the threshold of success and a new life, trembling like a virginal
girl about to enter the bed of her promised.
    Kazare of the First Tower had never failed. She was not going
to back out on the last and greatest moment of all because of a little
giddy moment over a young, beautiful woman.
    She shook her head, willing away the doubt that washed over
her. Doubt and Kazare did not mix. They did not share a bed or
know one another at all. After everything she had endured at the
hand of the Queen? A faint snort escaped her lips as she
remembered the humiliating and frequently painful experience. It
would be one of the most popular entries in her library no doubt,
but what was done was done, and now the real mission was at
hand. Kazare tightened her fist and rapped on the door three times.
    The pause lasted so long that Kazare raised her hand to knock
again, but it opened finally with a soft swoosh of cool air, and the
                                      pg. 32
Order of the Nine: The Stonebearers


breath she had been holding in anticipation of the moment rushed
out in disappointment, as she caught the back of Belkara returning
to the room. Not even a greeting.
    It did not bode well.
    There were few places in Taloria that a Tel spy had not been at
some time or another. The Isle of Ancients was one such place.
No Talorian, living or dead had been to the ancient home of the
Kulkyri. No Tel had been to Ak‘Malfaan, lost home of the Ultan‘s
that fled Chobelka during the last Change. It was buried in the
Burning Gorge, the way to its door lost and forgotten many
centuries past. There were perhaps a few other notable exceptions,
and the living chambers of Belkara Arrador was one of them.
    Kazare had actually found a sketch in her Tower‘s library,
giving rough detail to what it once was. It had been the home of
Alikar, Keeper of Telnidor, and followed a long line of
predecessors who tended to the needs of Telnidor‘s people. Alikar
had died, and the Shadow Keepers stepped in. Before being turned
into House Arrador, it had been a simple three story tower that
made the corner of a square, stone wall surrounding the Lifespring.
For Belkara, it was her entire world.
    Her chambers were a stark contrast to the opulent grandeur of
the rest of House Arrador. There were no rich, velvety curtains
adorning the windows or rugs so plush your toes disappeared into
them. The walls had no decorations, as they were covered floor to
ceiling with shelves of books. There were hundreds of them,
stacked every which way, more than any other place in Takidor. It
would have been impressive almost anywhere. For a young
woman of barely eighteen seasons, Kazare found it oddly
endearing under the circumstances, and yet another thing that set
Belkara apart from everyone else. A doorway opposite the one she
had entered led outside to the spring and the morning light coming
in through it was the only illumination for the room.
    Belkara shuffled over to a couch that curved before a large
hearth and flopped down on the cushions. It was big enough for
two people to lie on end to end. She was wearing a plain, thick
                                      pg. 33
Order of the Nine: The Stonebearers


robe tied at the waist. Not only did the wine red color make a
perfect accent to the long cascade of hair spilling over her
shoulders, but it also rippled open down the front, and Belkara
could see the swell of one breast beneath the edge. She had to
force her gaze back to Belkara‘s face. A low, rectangular table in
front had a cup of something that gave off faint wisps of steam.
The single log, cackling in the hearth did little to offset the
morning chill spilling through the doorway.
    ―Close the door. You are causing a draft.‖
    Kazare realized she was still standing in the doorway, watching
her walk across the room, taking in the surroundings, and
registering all the pertinent information into her perfect memory.
―Apologies, my Lady-‖
    ―Call me Lady again, and you will leave,‖ she said, cutting her
off. ―I am no member of the ‗Royal‘ family, so do not address me
as such.‖
    Kazare arched her brows. ―As you wish. How shall I address
you, then?‖
    ―By my name of course.‖ Her tone indicated Kazare had just
asked the stupidest possible question.
    ―Very well, Belkara.‖ She stepped in and quietly shut the door.
    ―Talea and I had a fine arrangement together. She took care of
the few things I require.‖ She paused to sip at the cup, ―And then
she left me alone. You would have talked to her already, so you
know this. Then mother will get frustrated and bored with her
plan, whatever it may be, and you can go back to slapping each
other‘s nuchaes.‖
    Kazare winced. Kilara had forced Kazare more than once to
pleasure her on the balcony overlooking the courtyard. In her time
up there, she had come to realize the jealousy Kilara had for her
daughter‘s strange power, and the fear of her dependence upon it
for her own reign as Queen. Belkara was as beautiful and smart as
her mother, more so if she were any judge, and there was certainly
no love lost between them.
    I have less than a moon here, Kazare thought, pondering on
                                      pg. 34
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Belkara‘s less than cooperative attitude. She had expected it.
Talea had informed her as much. ―The most sullen, bitter, and
lonely girl I have ever seen,‖ she had told her. ―You would think
her sixty seasons old and never been with a man, the way she
acts.‖ Sullen and lonely seemed likely, but this girl was not bitter.
She was sad and angry, much like her mother. Fingering her
spiritstone, Kazare could see that similar dark aura, smoky black,
but Belkara‘s churned with a fiery red, like burning embers flung
about in a whirlwind. It made her head swim.
     ―Coming here was my own idea,‖ Kazare said, and Belkara
finally looked at her for the first time.
    ―Really,‖ she said, pondering it for a moment. ―I did not realize
I had such a wonderful reputation.‖
    Kazare watched her mouth purse with annoyance, and her eyes
narrow imperceptibly. Even in her mother, it was an attractive
family trait. Belkara‘s eyes were a much paler blue, soft and
frozen like ice, and despite all of the standoffishness and feigned
ambivalence, there was an obvious, almost compelling attraction
about her. Of course, perhaps it was just Kazare. The stomach
fluttering appeal made little sense. Maybe it was more the aura or
the mystery of her than a physical attraction, but the drifting pull of
her gaze toward the parted robe said otherwise.
    ―Truth be told, my…Belkara, you do not. I was curious and
desired some relief from your mother.‖
    Belkara snorted, ―We all desire relief from my mother, and
curious about what?‖
    ―About you of course,‖ Kazare gave her a demure and
disarming smile.
    The whirling aura suddenly picked up momentum, the fiery
embers now spinning bands of reddish-orange color. Belkara
leaned up and gave Kazare a wary stare. ―What do you mean by
that?‖
    She walked over, pulled out the high backed chair from one
end of the large table that occupied the other half of the room and
sat down. ―Do you know why the Tel travel the land?‖
                                      pg. 35
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    ―It is a right of passage to adulthood,‖ she replied immediately.
―A Tel seeks to gain new knowledge not yet known by their
ancestors, and improve the standing of their Guild.‖
    True enough, and oddly eager to impress me with her
knowledge. Yes, we do. Knowledge is the true power. You are
well read by the looks of things here.‖
    She shrugged, ―What else am I going to do locked up in this
cage?‖
    Belkara rarely ever left the confines of her tower and
courtyard. A pang of sympathy shot straight through Kazare‘s gut.
Her instinct told her to go ahead and just lay it out there. There
was something implicitly trustworthy about Belkara, which had to
be a singular anomaly on Telnidor Isle, the center of lies, deceit,
and greed, but there it was nonetheless, buried behind a swirling
defensive wall of anger and fear. Her instincts rarely failed her in
such instances.
    ―You are an unknown to the Tel. In fact, nobody seems to
know anything about you, not for sure anyway. The Tel do not
take rumor and speculation for fact. We can document only the
truth.‖
    ―Ha!‖ She laughed loudly with no humor in her voice. ―There
is no truth here. There are only lies; violence, hatred, and lies.‖
    The malic in Belkara‘s voice spoke volumes, of someone who
knew firsthand what that was all about. She would have to tread
carefully. ―Agreed. I shall never have so pleased as the moment I
step foot off of this wretched island.‖
    ―So,‖ Belkara started, and then paused, unsure of herself, ―you
do not actually care for my mother?‖
    Obviously someone had been telling her differently. ―Belkara, I
loathe your mother. I am bound to her service due to a signed
contract, but nothing could please me more than to bring her
misery and ruin.‖
    Her eyes widened with surprise. ―You are indentured to my
mother? That seems a strange thing for a Tel to do.‖
    Trust. She needs to trust, Kazare told herself. Make yourself
                                      pg. 36
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appear vulnerable, seem to give in to their hands that which could
ruin you. ―It was the only way that I could get myself here.‖ She
wondered if Belkara realized the power she was handing her, but
she did not care. She wanted Belkara to know everything, and had
to restrain herself from just spilling out with any and all
information. The feeling was entirely unnerving.
    ―In House Arrador?‖ Belkara asked. ―I would think it very easy
to spy-‖
    ―No, Belkara. Here.‖ She motioned to the room around them.
―My mission is right here.‖
    Belkara settled back on the couch, looking dumbfounded.
―Me? You put yourself under my mother‘s hand just to see me?‖
    ―Unfortunately, yes.‖
    ―I do not know if I should be flattered or worried or just think
you are crazy,‖ Belkara said. ―Mother must have been drooling at
the prospect of a Tel servant. You must be good though. Most of
her servants do not last long.‖
    All too true. Most of Kilara‘s servants left her service in an
unpleasantly permanent manner. ―I am good and perhaps a little
crazy,‖ Kazare smiled. She is curious. All other feelings aside,
that would propel them forward for now. ―I am proficient at many
things.‖
    ―I had heard some things about you from Talea. She loves to
gossip, and that is about all she knows how to do well.‖
    Kazare laughed. ―One of the things I do well is being a
servant. So, if you will allow me to set about my morning duties, I
will be finished sooner, and perhaps we can gossip about one
another‘s lives as opposed to everyone else‘s.‖
    ―Are you this forward with Mother? She must really like you.‖
    Kazare mouth curved into a smile. Hate would not truly begin
to define Kilara‘s feelings for her. She would be lucky if the
woman did not try to have her killed before she left Telnidor. This
was a better start than she had hoped for. ―Only when I need to be,
and I would certainly say your Mother does not really like me.‖
    Belkara‘s smile matched Kazare‘s. ―I think I should like to
                                      pg. 37
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                                 hear that story. Mother would be furious
House Arrador. The
                                 if she knew you were here to see me.‖
world‘s most lavish prison.          Or not, Kazare thought. ―Another
I have been stuck here for       time. It is a sordid, depressing tale, and I
ten seasons now, if I have       have work to do here.‖
kept track correctly. It is
my curse or rather my
curse is what keeps me
here. I do not understand
why Taloria would see fit                             II
to give me this ‗gift‘ but I
wish I could curse her for
it. I cannot be the only one
who hates her Will. If I can
take anything from this              Belkara slept the morning away
retched existence it is the      buried beneath the rakdal fur. After
fact that mother and father      cleaning the ashes from the hearth and
would be takless ebro            preparing it for the evening, Kazare made
farmers without me. If only
I knew how to use this
                                 quick work of the tower. The second
power I have to my               floor was her bedroom and little more
advantage and escape this        than a large bed with an intricately
place.                           carved, Carimaran headboard, a bureau,
Or at least I could use it to    and a wardrobe. She could not have had
kill them. It is not fair that   more than ten outfits between them.
they have garnered lives of      Another rakdal fur spread across the
privilege at my expense.         down filled mattress proved to be the
Have I seen any reward?
No. Only pain and a              only real luxury in the bedroom.
miserable existence.                 A single window overlooked the
Taloria taunts me with it.       courtyard below, filled with abundant
She comes in my dreams,          greenery, and the young blooms of early
but I only have faint
                                 spring. In the center, the Lifespring
remembrances and hope
that something good will         seeped up from softly glowing depths,
come of all this. I know not     spilling out over the rocks and burbling
what it means, but if there      across the yard until it vanished beneath
is no answer soon, I shall       the wall. The pools never ceased to
be ready to end this.            intrigue and disturb Kazre. The source of
                                 so many strange mysteries, and likely
                                      pg. 38
Order of the Nine: The Stonebearers


part of this one as well.
    For someone who had lived in the same space for nearly ten
seasons, it was remarkably bare. There were no paintings or
hangings upon the walls. There were no personal baubles or
treasures sitting around, just stacks of books. Belkara could easily
have moved in a moon ago for all the signs there were of the space
being lived in. Perhaps she does not really live here, Kazare
thought, not in any real sense of considering this her home. It
made her feel suddenly sad for Belkara. She would have to inquire
about what her life was like before House Arrador.
    With little to do once her rooms were cleaned and midday meal
prepared, Kazare left it sitting next to Belkara on the table and set
about going through the hundreds of books stacked every which
way around the room. She had a great love for myths and legends
dating back to the last Change. Kazare had read many of the
volumes herself, or knew of the truths behind the myths and
legends, because the Tel had recorded the actual events when they
had happened. It was all stored within the vast libraries of her
Guild.
    Surprisingly she even had a tome on Chobelkan Firekeepers.
There had been lots of rumor floating about regarding Chobelka.
Supposedly the Fireborn were back. To her knowledge nothing
definitive had been found, but it had been several moons since she
had inquired. Certainly something to look into once this mission
was finished. The young woman was certainly well read, even if
her reading tended toward the overly heroic and romantic.
    ―What are you doing?‖
    The tone of Belkara‘s voice told Kazare that moving the books
around had been a mistake. ―Ah. I apologize, Belkara. I did not
realize you had awakened. I took it upon myself to start
organizing your library.‖
    She sat up, her full lips drawing tightly together. ―You can just
put them back on the shelves and leave them alone. I do not care
what order they are in, as I happen to know where they all are.
Though now I probably do not since you have now rearranged half
                                      pg. 39
Order of the Nine: The Stonebearers


of them by the look of it. Oh!‖ she exclaimed noticing the tray of
food on the table beside her. ―Are those sugared ebros?‖ Picking
up one of the firm, yellow fruits that had been sliced thin and
dipped in sugar, she ate several slices all at once, groaning with
delight as she did so. ―Oh Taloria, those are good! Talea never
brings me good food.‖
    Kazare smiled. ―The kitchen staff likes me.‖ The image of
Belkara sucking the sugar from each finger burned itself into her
memory. All of her actions, however slight seemed to leap to the
foreground of her awareness. It was uncanny. She hardly knew
this young woman, and yet everything about her drew her focus,
appeared to be more important than anything else around her.
Why? What about her was so compelling? Could her spiritual
energy have such a draw?
    ―I prepared the meal however, not the kitchen. They have
orders from Kilara about what you should be eating. I am under no
such order.‖
    Belkara looked hard at her, the pale blue glare softening a bit.
―You are not like any of the other servants.‖
    ―Happily, no,‖ Kazare agreed. ―I would not wish this place as a
home on anyone. It corrupts people. Taloria‘s shadow weighs
heavier than the wretched fog this island is always covered in.‖
She chuckled. ―I actually use to like fog before I came here.‖
    Belkara looked away. ―You are right, Taloria‘s shadow is in
everything here. Everything is corrupted.‖
    As though I could not see that coming. Like a snuffed out
flame, the burning embers of her aura faded to the dimmest
pinpoints, and the black swirling smoke thickened and churned
around her like a boiling tar pit. Kazare found it impossible to tune
out the woman‘s spiritual energy.
    Despite the usual rules of conduct regarding servants, Kazare
went over to the couch, reaching over to place a comforting hand
on Belkara‘s shoulder. She flinched at the touch, drawing away
like she had been expecting something other than the reassurance it
was meant to be.
                                      pg. 40
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    ―I did not mean you, Belkara. I can tell you are not like them.‖
    She tensed and turned on Kazare. ―You can tell? How? From
a single morning of watching me sleep? From rearranging my
books? From your perceptive Tel ways? You must think me a
fool that I would believe that.‖
    ―Far from it.‖ She moved around to sit on the couch, feeling a
sudden need for close, personal contact. Belkara was pushing her
away, the defensive anger coming from something sensitive being
touched upon. Kazare had seen it before, having used it to her
advantage, but unlike then, it was not a desire to illicit information
that drove her, but a need. It clenched her stomach in a knot to see
that pained and desperate expression in Belkara‘s eyes. She locked
her gaze with those cold, pale blue eyes. ―I observe. It is what I
have done and trained for my whole life. I will see things that
most others would not because I know what to look for, and
sometimes…well, I just know.‖
    ―See what? What can you possibly see here that makes me any
different than anyone else in this Taloria forsaken place, and why
do you care for that matter?‖
    The bitterness in her voice squeezed on her heart. Kazare
waved at the room around her. ―These books for example. One
might think you read out of boredom because you are forced to
stay here. That might be the case sometimes, but deeper down,
you read them because you love history. You want to learn, and
you love grand adventures. I looked through the titles you have,
and some of them you must have taken some effort to procure
because they are rare. They speak of other lands and people, of
their heroes and heroines, and sacrifices they made during the last
Change. The books are the only thing of importance in your tower
here, except perhaps for this,‖ she smiled and rubbed the soft
rakdal fur with her hand, avoiding direct contact with Belkara.
    ―I like the history and the stories,‖ she replied quietly, looking
down at Kazare‘s darkly shaded hand. ―Reading them…takes me
away from here.‖
    ―And who could blame one for wanting that? You spurn
                                      pg. 41
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everything about this place by how you live, spare, plain, and
utilitarian. House Arrador stands for all that you despise, which is
embodied by your mother. Your father...‖ she shrugged, ―I admit I
personally know little of Ulthas, and of your relationship to him,
only rumor and speculation, but he is not a nice man, and I rather
suspect he does not dote on his little girl.‖
     ―No,‖ Belkara whispered, staring intently at Kazare, her voice
tinged with something dark and hateful. ―He does not dote.‖
     Kazare pressed on. There was an opening, a lowering of her
guard. ―They treat you poorly, and being their child, you suspect
and likely believe that somehow you deserve to be treated as such,
and hate both them and yourself for that. They do not love their
child, they only love what she can do for them. This place is not
home, it never has been, and never will be. You wish desperately
to be anywhere but here, but some part of you believes that
perhaps you do not deserve it.‖
     The words poured out. She had not put words to these
impressions until now. It had only been a sense, based on what she
saw now and all that she had heard from others before, but the
haunted, stunned look in Belkara‘s watery eyes revealed them for
the truth. It turned her stomach to know that she could not give her
what she so desperately wanted. Freedom. A Tel did not interfere
with the subject of the mission. It tainted the information
collected, distorted the facts, changed the truth of the story. It was
considered a failure of the mission, and a serious blow to ones
standing in their Tower. Even now, what she had done could be
ruining things for her.
     ―You see too well,‖ Belkara muttered, and turned away to
drink some water. ―You did not come here just out of curiosity and
relief from my mother, did you?‖
     ―I came here…‖ Kazare began, but then stopped. She was
revealing too much, and found she could hardly shut up. There
was something peculiar at work she did not quite understand, could
not get her mind around. She wanted to tell her everything, reveal
herself, let her see everything. It was that desperate desire for the
                                      pg. 42
Order of the Nine: The Stonebearers


other to know, a desire that usually came with feelings of…love,
which was impossible, but the words kept coming out of her
mouth. ―I came here because you are my mission, Belkara. I was
sent from Telmizare, by my Collector to find out about you
because there is something important about you they want to
know.‖
     ―Important? Like what?‖ Belkara asked, bewildered and
obviously a bit annoyed now. ―I do not do anything here other
than…‖ she glanced out the door and then back to Kazare, the soft,
lush mouth that was a moment ago on the verge of trembling with
tears, suddenly creased into an angry frown. ―The shards. You
want to know about the shards.‖ There was venom in her voice.
     ―They are only a part of it,‖ Kazare admitted, trying
desperately to subvert that element of the conversation. She
should have lied, should have said nothing at all. Oh Kazare, you
dumb, lusting fool! ―I am here to find out about you. The shards
are merely a part –‖
     ―No,‖ Belkara shook her head, and her lip did tremble now. ―It
is always the shards. Find the good ones, Bel darling. Find us the
good ones and I will be nice. Find us the good ones and I will not
be so angry.‖ Her fists clenched into tight balls of rage now, her
arms shaking with the effort of it.
     Talea had warned her about this, but was too dimwitted to
know why. Now she knew. Some of the rumors must be true then.
The embers were back, flying like mad demons around her. The
strength of her aura was overpowering this close. Kazare swore if
she reached out she would be struck by it.
     ―Belkara, I am not here merely to find out about the shards.
I—‖
     ―Out!‖ she screamed, pointing at the door. ―Get out, get out,
get out!‖
     Kazare knew better than to argue. She had crossed a line she
did not know was there, and now was not the time to discuss it.
―My apologies, Belkara. I shall return later.‖
     She bowed quickly and made her way to the door, closing it
                                      pg. 43
Order of the Nine: The Stonebearers


                                  quietly behind her. The dish of sugared
 I am at the end of a long
                                  ebro shattered beside the door as it
 road, and glory waits in the     clicked shut.
 wings. I‘ve had but one
 goal my whole life, since I
 was perhaps five seasons
 old in the jungles of
 Telmizare, and that was to
                                                     III
 become the youngest
 Loremaster of the First
 Guild. My library of
 information shall be sought          She gave Belkara until the evening
 after like none before me
 in living memory, save
                                  to calm back down. From the kitchens,
 perhaps Nukaze, the              she loaded up a tray for dinner,
 greatest of all masters in       consisting mostly of sugary confections.
 the First Guild. I have lived    When it was ready, the tray looked to
 with singular purpose,           be entirely drizzled in honey.
 sacrificed no small amount
 of myself to this task, and
                                      Dolbrek, who did all of the cooking
 done things I will both          for the Arradors, winced when she was
 boast about and regret as I      done. ―If Kilara sees that, she will have
 grow old and teach the           your hide, girl.‖
 next generation of Tel               Kazare patted his soft, pudgy
 spies the craft of gathering.
                                  cheeks. ―You just keep making this
 I am good at what I do, too      wonderful food, Dolbrek. You let this
 good some might say, but         girl worry about her hide.‖ She headed
 that is only envy from
 which they speak. I am           for the door with the loaded tray in her
 proud to say I have only         hands, ―And save me some stuffed
 had to kill one person in        Nubla, that sauce is worth killing for.‖
 the completion of my                 Rounding the corner of the short L-
 missions, in order to avoid
                                  shaped hall before Belkara‗s door,
 corruption of the truth I
 seek, for it is only the truth   Kazare was pondering what she would
 of all things that matters       say by way of apology when the large,
 and that may only be             hulking form of King Ulthas came
 gathered if the source is        stomping in the other direction. Her
 ignorant of the gathering.       own thoughts and the sounds from the
                                  servants quarters behind her had
                                      pg. 44
Order of the Nine: The Stonebearers


distracted her attention from his otherwise obvious presence. She
barely sidestepped in time, spinning away with her tray and
somehow managed to keep the food from flying everywhere, but
Ulthas seemed to be in a particularly foul mood, and gave her a
hard shove in the back, sending her careening into the stone. The
tray of treats flipped up against her.
    A hand flashed out and cuffed Kazare upside the head, leaving
a sharp ringing in her right ear, and knocking her to the ground.
―Stupid, Telmizaran whore! Keep your mind on something
besides Kilara‘s barbed titties.‖
    ―Yes, your majesty,‖ Kazare bowed and nodded. ―My
apologies for being so clumsy.‖
    Ulthas did not bother to respond and marched out, hollering at
one of the servant girls to come up to his chambers. The man was
in a perpetual state of anger. Everyone in Takidor knew who had
the real power, and many made it painfully clear to Ulthas that
they knew he knelt before the Queen just like all others.
    Kazare sighed, letting the flash of anger rush out along with it.
Nothing a well placed kick to the groin would not solve, she
thought, while scraping up the mess from the floor. A young
servant girl, Borodanian by the look of her and not more than
twelve seasons old brought a bucket of water and a mop.
    ―I will clean this, Kazare,‖ she said. ―Lady Belkara was
screaming and crying in there. King Ulthas…he is not nice to
her.‖
    Kazare winced at that knowing pause and squeezed her hand.
―I know, Glenny. Ulthas and Kilara do not love her, and they do
not treat her well.‖
    Tears welled up in Glenny‘s eyes, ―I hope to see my mum and
dadda again soon. They said it would not be long, no more than a
season and their debt would be paid. Then I can go home.‖
    Kazare leaned over and kissed the girl on the forehead. She
had seen and heard this story far too many times. The Merchant
Companies were going too far. It was thinly veiled slave trading
and was going to cause war soon if something did not change. ―I
                                      pg. 45
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know, darling girl. Perhaps less if you are lucky.‖ Sadly, she
knew Glenny would be lucky to go home at all. ―Thank you for
your help. I will bring you a treat from the kitchens. Just finish up
here and I will be back.‖
    Other than a frown from Dolbrek, Kazare remade her tray of
food with an extra helping of a honey soaked sweet bread for
Glenny, who was quite happy with the treat after Kazare returned,
gobbling it down by the time she had left the room. Inside
Belkara‘s tower, she found the living chamber empty save for a
few books and pages strewn about on the floor.
    The fire was dying, so Kazare stoked it back up and added
another log from the wood box next to the hearth. After a few
moments, it was blazing nicely. The door to the courtyard was
open, letting in the cool evening air, and when she went to close it,
realized from the dancing ember glow of Belkara‘s aura that she
was sitting out at the spring.
    Every emotion and state of being played itself out in those
smoldering shadows around her. There was hurt, frustration,
anger, and pain… physical pain. Kazare growled. Ulthas must
have hurt her, and she was out here in the chill night air. A
protective rage boiled up through her, and her hands clenched in to
angry fists. The little, sniveling, swine faced…
    Kazare marched out to the spring. Belkara was seated on the
edge of a flat stone, her feet dangling in the water. She was
hunched over, face buried in her hands, the long, golden brown
hair slipped over her like a veil. Beside her was a basket filled
with crystalline shapes. The shards she so hated.
    ―Belkara,‖ she said quietly, kneeling down beside her. She
made no move, did not reply. ―Belkara, what did he do?‖ When
she reached out to lay her hand upon Belkara‘s arm, she jerked
away.
    ―Go away, Kazare!‖ she rasped, her voice still half choked on
tears. ―I do not need you.‖
    Ah, Taloria! You poor girl. The desire to take her in her arms
and hold her was nearly overwhelming. The ache to care for her
                                      pg. 46
Order of the Nine: The Stonebearers


was almost palpable. ―Belkara, look at me, please. You are hurt.
I need to see-‖
    Belkara whipped around on her, streams of her hair still stuck
across her face from the tears…and blood. ―I am fine. Just get
out!‖
    Her lip was split and swollen, and even in the darkness, the
dark swelling around her left eye was apparent. More disturbing,
her simple, cotton tunic was torn open down the middle to her
navel.
    ―No,‖ Kazare replied firmly. ―You need this tended too. Let us
go inside-‖
    ―Leave me alone.‖ She sobbed, pulling out of her grasp. ―I do
not want you here.‖
    ―Yes, Belkara, you do. Now come,‖ she repeated, and
physically hooked her hands beneath Belkara‘s arms and hoisted
her up from the pool. She was too surprised and overwrought to
resist.
    ―What are you doing?‖
    ―Just come inside, Bel,‖ Kazare coaxed. ―Let me see what he
did.‖
    She began to cry again, and spoke with a trembling voice, ―No.
I don‗t want--‖
    ―Come inside, baby,‖ she cooed. ―You are starting to shake.‖
    Kazare knew if she really did not want her there, she would
have insisted, but Belkara reluctantly followed along. After laying
her down on the couch and propping her up with pillows, Kazare
retrieved the healing ointments and salves she kept in her sleeping
quarters. Frequenting Kilara‘s bed required it. She returned to
find Belkara sitting up, looking a bit bewildered and still in pain.
Her gaze would not meet Kazare‘s.
    ―Going somewhere?‖ Kazare asked, putting forth her best
motherly tone.
    ―I need to check the stones,‖ she whispered. ―It will take most
of the night.‖
    ―They can wait. I will take care of that,‖ she assured.
                                      pg. 47
Order of the Nine: The Stonebearers


    ―No.‖ Belkara shook her head, and then winced when she went
to brush the hair from her face. ―Father will be even angrier if I do
not.‖
    Kazare sighed, squatting down in front of her so she could
catch her gaze. ―I will take care of your father,‖ she answered.
―Trust me. Belkara, look at me.‖ She reached up and gently placed
her fingertips on either side of her chin, easing her back to face her
again. ―Your father will not do this again.‖
    ―No,‖ she said, sad resignation in her voice. ―There is nothing
to stop him.‖ The tears began to stream again, ―People know.
Mother knows, and they do not care. Nobody cares about the girl
locked in the tower who makes their precious little stones.‖
    ―I will speak with Kilara. He will not be back for a while,
believe me.‖ Reaching up, Kazare brushed away the hair from her
face, tucking the strands back behind her ear. ―Now then, sit back
and let me fix up this mess.‖
    Belkara choked back a sob and fell back against the pillows.
Whether or not she believed Kazare, or did not have the strength to
fight back, she did not care. With a calm, soft touch, Kazare
applied the balm around the blackening eye. It was half swollen
shut now, and an imprint, likely from some ring Ulthas wore had
tore at the flesh high on the cheekbone. Kazare cleaned the
abraded skin, and Belkara hissed between her teeth when she
applied the ointment to prevent any infection, but said nothing.
    ―I will get your sleeping robe, Belkara,‖ she said. ―Do not
move.‖
    When she returned, Belkara lay there with her eyes closed, half
of her face swollen, discolored, and shining with the glaze of the
ointment. She looked so vulnerable like that, and Kazare again felt
the yearning pangs to have someone to care for. Yet another
reason she had ensured this to be her last mission. Thirty seasons
was a long time to be unmated. It had been a reason for her
success and a constant thorn of loneliness and despair, needling her
at odd moments, but this pang wrenched straight through her gut to
something deeper. Why now, of all times? Kazare wondered. It
                                      pg. 48
Order of the Nine: The Stonebearers


made little sense, but when did such matters ever make sense?
     Ripping the remaining part of the tunic jolted Belkara back to
reality, and the startled, frightened look in her wide-eyed stare
quickly vanished when she realized who it was.
     ―I am sorry,‖ Kazare smiled feebly. ―I was trying to be gentle
about it, but the fabric at the hem did not give easily.‖
     ―Burn it,‖ Belkara said with quiet anger.
     Kazare understood. ―Very well. Let us get you into this robe
first…‖ She paused at the ugly bruises forming upon one of her
breasts. ―Ah, Taloria, Bel. If I were not a servant here and under
contract, I would make Ulthas eat his balls for this.‖
     That brought a soft chuckle from Belkara. ―You would not.‖
     Kazare looked her square in the eye, her mouth creased into a
frown of outrage. ―I could, and would, Bel. I swear to you now, as
long as I am here, he will not touch you again.‖
     Belkara smiled and closed her eyes again. ―Thank you, Kazare.
It…‖ she smiled, ―it almost makes you sound jealous.‖
     To her amazement, Kazare realized she was right. ―No, I was
not being jealous. I was just…‖
     ―Do not say it,‖ she cut her off. ―You will ruin my moment. I
rather like the notion. No one has ever has been jealous of me.‖
Her hand went to her temples, rubbing them gingerly. ―Do any of
your balms work on headaches?‖
     Kazare removed the torn tunic and was pulling her breeches off
when she saw something that caught the breath in her throat. ―No,
but…are these scars your father‘s handiwork as well?‖
     There was a crisscrossing pattern of thin, white scars on both
inner thighs. New cuts layered over old ones with the topmost
scars still pink. None longer than her finger, the scars were very
precisely layed down, too much so to be random. Without
thinking, she reached out to touch them, sympathy blinding her
judgment, and Belkara flinched, tightening her legs together.
     ―No, uhm…‖ she was suddenly flustered, embarrassed. ―Just
an accident from when I was younger.‖
     She was lying, but now was not the time to press the matter.
                                      pg. 49
Order of the Nine: The Stonebearers


The scars were purposeful, likely from a blade, and if she had to
guess, inflicted by Belkara herself. Self-loathing turned inward.
She had seen it before, but not in such a soft and sensitive place.
Sympathetic pangs quivered through her groin at the thought, and
it suddenly came to her, a great sense of unease and trepidation.
Belkara would die here in this tower. The fear and hate for
everything around her, and above all for herself would lead to one
end. Some day soon, not tomorrow or next moon, but in a season
or two, the blade which marred that soft, luxuriant skin would find
its way too deep, and the life would drain out of her. Worst of all,
there was no one here that would mourn her passing.
     Kazare sighed, tying the soft, silk cord about the robe. She
covered, Belkara in the rakdal fur and sat at her feet, placing them
in her lap.
     ―What are you doing?‖ Belkara murmured.
     She smiled, rubbing a warming balm into her hands. ―A well
known cure for headaches, at least in Telmizare. Just rest, Bel.
You need to rest.‖
     A smile quirked her sensuous mouth. ―You keep calling me
Bel.‖
     ―I know,‖ Kazare shook her head. ―I am being too—‖
     ―No, no,‖ she sighed at the fingers kneading into her feet. ―I
like it. Makes us seem more like…friends. Ah, Taloria!‖ She
moaned at the touch of Kazare‘s fingers on her feet. ―You are
good at that.‖
     Kazare leaned back against the cushions, letting her hands
instinctively do what they had been doing for eighteen seasons.
More than just seems, Bel, she thought sadly, the growing sense of
unfortunate fate creeping upon her. She realized then that she was
going to break every rule a Tel lived by. She was going to
interfere with the mission goal. The truth was going to be altered
because it had to be. Something important was happening, but
Kazare could not quite tell what it was. In time it would come to
her. She knew it would, but regardless, the mission had changed.
Somehow she was going to get Belkara out, and Taloria help her
                                      pg. 50
Order of the Nine: The Stonebearers


                                 for the consequences.
Spiritstones:
The crystal rock is common
throughout the lands of
Taloria. They grow within                            IV
the many natural springs
and underground caverns
found in the kingdoms.
Their benefit comes from
the ability to absorb the             Belkara sent her will into the shard,
ambient energy given off by      holding it between both her hands. The
all living things. It is         energy within the water helped her to
common throughout most           focus it and the intricate structure of the
cultures to wear these stones    stone‘s crystals came to light.
in some fashion, usually as
a necklace, where it will        Gathering up more strength she sent
gather this lifeforce over       out the dark, probing fingers of her
time. For those adept at         power, feeling her way through that
harnessing this energy, it       structure, pushing, bending, until she
allows for beneficial uses       realized that yet again, the stone was
like healing, which is its
most common purpose. Like        normal. Straightening up, Belkara
all power, it can be used for    reached over and set the stone in the
bad as well as good.             basket sitting at the edge of the spring.
Trueshards are a unique          It had been three moons since she had
item, formed by altering the     found one. They were coming along
internal crystalline structure   fewer and far between it seemed, and
of the spiritstone so that its   nobody was happy about it. Of course,
innate effect is amplified to
                                 for some reason she was at fault. She
the point that it doesn‘t just
absorb ambient life force,       was doing it on purpose.
but actually draws upon it.           She touched her swollen lip and
It takes an unflawed             winced. Damn you, father! Damn you
spiritstone to do this, which    to the fires of Chobelka! Tears of rage
is a very rare find. Belkara
                                 welled up in her again, but Belkara
Arrador is the only one who
can do this.                     swallowed hard and fought them back
                                 down. Kazare was watching her,
                                 sitting idly on a bench by the tower
                                 door, offering a faint smile whenever
                                      pg. 51
Order of the Nine: The Stonebearers


she glanced in her direction. She did not dare look that way now
or she was sure she would burst into tears. Instead, Belkara shoved
herself off the submerged stone seat and sank into the cool, dim
glow of the spring.
    Remembering the feel of Kazare‘s small, firm hands as she
applied her healing ointments to her wounds, Belkara gingerly
touched her face again They had been the softest, gentlest hands.
She had been genuinely concerned about her. It would have been
so easy to just brush it off as selfish interest. Kazare was a Tel,
sent here to gather information, but there was more. Even now she
could feel something, sense Kazare up there watching, sense
something from the power within the spring, not quite speaking to
her, but whispering somewhere in the lonely depths of her spirit
that Kazare was a friend. Even if she had selfish interests in being
here, Belkara knew how precious that notion was, and how truly
desperate she was to have a real friend. Such a short time, and
Belkara knew without a doubt that Kazare was the best thing that
had happened to her in the entire ten seasons she had been living
within the wretched square of stone. Yet someday, tomorrow or a
moon from now, Kazare would leave. The thought struck a chord
of fear in Belkara that threatened to undo her. Could she make her
stay? As much as she wanted too, she knew she could not. Her
mother would. Her father would. She could not do that, be like
them. It was the only thing she could do, since there was nothing
else, nothing at all. Letting the tears wash away in the spring,
Belkara pulled herself up out and headed for the tower door.
    ―What?‖ She paused, looking at Kazare. She was watching
her, head tilted slightly to one side, an oddly pleasant expression
on her face.
    After a moment, Kazare straightened up and snapped back
from whatever far away place she had been. ―What?‖
    She was too tired to bother, ―Nothing. Whatever you were
thinking must have been pleasant.‖ She forced a smile, because she
wanted to be able to smile at Kazare, and was rewarded with an
embarrassing flush in her cheeks. Nice thoughts indeed. I wonder
                                      pg. 52
Order of the Nine: The Stonebearers


if she has some lover back in Telmizare waiting for her?
     Kazare had hot tea waiting for her on the table, and Belkara
tied off her robe, flopping down on the couch to pour herself some.
Her head ached as it always did after attempting to find a
trueshard, but even more so at the moment, in large part due to the
fist her father. Closing her eyes, she sipped at the soothing tea, and
let the blaze from the hearth warm her. Kazare joined her, laying
the cherished rakdal fur across her legs. Kazare‘s presence
warmed the soles of her feet, and the blissful memory of what she
could do with her fingers down there had her sighing at the
thought.
     ―Did you find any of the shards you were hoping for?‖ Kazare
asked quietly.
      ―I do not hope for anything,‖ she said bitterly, the reply
snapping forth before she could even think to contain it. ―I am
sorry. I do not like to talk about the shards. Father and mother are
the ones who hope. But no, they were all normal shards again.‖
She pulled the rakdal fur up to her chest and grabbed an ebro fruit
from the table. ―Could you do that thing again to make this
headache go away?‖
     Kazare smiled, ―It is called centering, and yes, I can.‖
     Belkara moaned softly at the fingers kneading into her feet, and
drifted into a hazy, half dreamy slumber. The headache quickly
began to melt away into a faint, dull throb. The whispers of
Taloria chanted in beat with her headache, soft and insistent, and
just beyond the limit of understanding. She grasped at them,
wanting to know what she said, feeling it was important, but no
amount of effort would bring them into focus, so finally she
succumbed to the melodious drone, and the expert fingers that
slowly began inching their way up her legs. The fingers burned
with sweet, firm pressure on her tired muscles, climbing with slow,
effortless skill up to her thighs. Belkara moaned again at the
delicious feeling creeping through her, as those fingers climbed
ever closer to the delicate heat between.
     With a start, Belkara snapped her eyes open and found Kazare
                                      pg. 53
Order of the Nine: The Stonebearers


lying there, head on her thigh and her hands draped casually
around her feet. Her breathing was deep with sleep. She wanted
to laugh. Oh, Taloria! What was I thinking? She tried desperately
to cling to the dreamy sensations, but they faded quickly. Was it
her or Taloria‘s Shadow that was compelling that thought? She
stared down at Kazare‘s sleeping face, the softly smiling, pouty
lips and felt mildly embarrassed. What would Kazare say to that?
She heard them through the balcony high above that looked down
upon her little courtyard. Did Kazare like mother‘s bed games?
The thought spoiled the sleepy, pleasant mood, so Belkara picked
up the book of Esperian poetry she had been reading through the
past several days, and enjoyed the feeling of Kazare lying against
her, deftly ignoring the fact she knew the moment was fleeting and
would never last. Nothing good could last in House Arrador.




                                      pg. 54

								
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