Chapter 4: Before the Storm

"Where is she?" Aren demanded, pacing outside the burnt inn. The other patrons and employees had long since gone, searching for medical help or family that they could stay with; Aren was alone. She had not seen her daughter since she had asked her to see if anyone was still inside.

"Mama? Mama, is everyone all right?" Ket asked from behind her mother.

Aren turned and wrapped her daughter in a relieved hug. "Oh, Ketrine, I was so worried about you! Don't ever scare me like that again!" Tears ran down her ash-covered face.

Everen, who was watching from a respectful distance, smiled with a mixture of relief and sadness. It had been difficult to get out of the inn with falling through the floor or being hit by a still-burning beam, but seeing the anxiety flow out of Aren's face at the return of her daughter had made every moment worth it. He sighed; he had never been that close to either of his parents. It was a time like this that made him regret not closing the gap between them.

Seemingly out of nowhere, Bark appeared. His hair was a trifle singed, and he was covered in ash, but he seemed to be well. "Is Ket all right?" he asked Everen earnestly. Everen nodded and pointed to where Aren and Ket were talking quietly.

"I'm sorry I frightened you, Mama," Ket was saying when Bark ran at her from behind. "Bark? Are you all right?" She turned and knelt so that she was at eye level.

Bark, of all people, was crying. "I thought you got hurt!" he sobbed, making no effort to wipe away the tears that coursed down his cheeks.

"Bark, I'm fine. Really. Are you all right?"

"I'm fine," he sniffed.

"Good." Ket gave him a hug, then produced a handkerchief from her pocket and wiped his face off with it. "Everyone's fine, so you don't have to cry. If you really want to, I certainly won't stop you, but. . ."

The young thief laughed weakly and brushed the remaining tears from his eyes.

"What's in that bag?" Ket asked curiously, eyeing the ashy bundle the boy carried.

"Oh." Bark reached around him and handed her the package. "I got those out for you." Ket, with an inquiring look, opened the bundle and gasped. Inside were her money pouch, cloak, and her da's rune books.

"Bark. . .how did. . .?" Ket fell silent, running her hands over the books' maroon covers.

The books were the only things she owned that had been her da's, who had disappeared one day when she was no more than four. Aren refused to speak about her father, and her only memories of him were sketchy. Despite the hurt and confusion she always felt at the thought of his apparent abandoning of his family, she was still able to recall his love for languages, one she had inherited, with a certain amount of fondness.

His rune books were his teaching tools; she recalled vaguely sitting on his knee and watching in wide-eyed fascination as his finger trailed along the lines of runes and characters, sometimes the choppy ones of the Lesandics, sometimes the smooth, curvilinear ones of the Dulambans. It had been their nightly ritual, she recalled slowly. He would read to her, and she would recite back what she had learned. He taught her.

"Ket? Ket, are you all right?"

She blinked. "I'm fine, Bark. How did you get these?"

Bark suddenly developed a keen interest in the ground. "I can get out of fire quickly, and I had plenty of forewarning. . ."

"Thank you. Didn't you get your things out?"

Bark looked away.

Ket bit her lip; her eyes shone with unshed tears as she caught Bark in a fierce hug.

Everen, who was, at this point, terribly uncomfortable with the situation, turned to Aren, who had moved a respectful distance away, and asked, "Mistress? Is there a fire brigade in the Greymare area?"

Aren's face went sour. "There should be," she grumbled. "But they're under the duke's control, just like the rest of this duchy. They're always carousing instead of earning their pay. I sent Ree to the ducal palace to alert the men, but chances are they won't listen to her."

"Is everyone out all right?"

"Yes. We had enough warning to get them all out. A few have minor burns and some smoke inhalation, but it's nothing that will permanently endanger their lives." She sighed and turned to look at the inn, now little more than a smoldering heap. "I don't know what I'm going to do. We have money, but not enough. I can't support Ket and Bark and Ree and all the employees."

"Don't they have homes?" Everen asked.

"Not most of them," Aren replied. "A lot of them were taken off the streets. They would come to the door, asking for food in exchange for work, and before I knew it, they had stayed. They're friends, really, not employees. I couldn't turn them out with nary a farewell."

"If there's anything I can do, Madame, I would be more than pleased to," Everen offered.

Ket's mother looked at him with tired eyes. "I appreciate it, but, if you'll forgive my saying so, you're just a traveler. I highly doubt that you could provide for everyone here until the inn can be rebuilt."

"I think that I could, Mistress, if you'd just give me the chance," he responded carefully. "There is much going on here that you do not fully understand. I could provide for everyone, I truly could."

"That's not important now," Aren replied crisply, seeming to shake herself out of her haze. "What's important is not making the duke any angrier with this news. He was absolutely furious when he left, and if he gets his mind set to it, he could dismiss us all and send us to gods-know- where out of pure spite." She walked over to her daughter, who was conversing quietly with Bark, and said a few soft words. Ket answered just as quietly, then stood.

"I'm going to the stables," she told Everen. "Orlath's probably spitting fire still, and I'm not the most popular of people in the ducal palace. Don't you have a horse, Everen?"

Everen's eyes widened. "Rina!" He bowed hastily to Aren, waved as he muttered what was presumably a farewell, and bolted for the stables with Ket and Bark in tow.

The fire, luckily, had not harmed the stables; this meant that the employees of the inn could stay there without having to pay or work for other lodgings. The horses were spooked and still pawed and shifted nervously-that is, every horse except for Rina. She was ensconced in the far corner of the stables and was chewing sedately on a mouthful of oats.

"Hullo, girl," Everen said softly as he headed over to her. "Are you doing well?"

Rina neighed quietly and nuzzled Everen affectionately. He smiled and began to speak to her in a language that was liquid, musical, and strangely oracular.

"What's he saying?" Bark asked.

"I don't know," Ket replied. "It's beautiful, though, isn't it? It's liked the way I thought Elvish would sound."

Everen turned and smiled. "Close," he told them. "It's a Dulamban hybrid dialect. Came from northern Dulambic and a southern elvish tongue. It's fairly archaic, so not many people even know it anymore." He turned back to Rina and continued speaking.

Suddenly, he fell silent. The heavy sounds of hoof beats penetrated the air. "Is that the duke?" Everen asked.

"Probably," Ket said worriedly. "It sounds like he brought half of the army with him along with the firemen he was supposed to bring."

"He probably did," Bark muttered darkly. "Was he that angry?" His brow furrowed in confusion, he crept over to the stable wall and pressed his ear against the rough wood. "It's the duke, all right," he hissed. "Oily chap, isn't he?"

Ket snorted.

"Awful fire, wasn't it, dear Aren?" Orlath asked conversationally.

Back in the stables, Ket's face contorted with disgust. "Since when was he using terms of endearment with my mother?" she said. Bark shushed her.

"It was awful, but it could have been prevented," Aren replied, and the tone of her voice indicated that she was trying to keep a surge of irritation under control.

"Are you accusing me?" Orlath demanded.

"Do you think I am?"

"Well," the duke said, "it certainly seemed that way. Your anger is almost tangible. What is it that infuriates you so?"

Aren sighed. "You are incompetent, you cannot rule a duchy, you tax your people harshly, and you don't even keep control of your own men. If that fire brigade of yours was actually patrolling and not carousing, then this fire wouldn't have been so bad."

"I cannot," Orlath protested, "know exactly what activity my men are engaging in at any given moment."

"Then how is it that you know what my daughter is doing at any given moment?" Aren snapped.

"My son asked that I keep an eye on young Ket, so I obliged. Fatherly duties, you know."

"Your son is a poor excuse for a human being, and his fixation with my daughter is nothing more than animal lust. Lyon is a perfect example of the scum your rule has spawned."

"You wound me," Orlath purred. "I'm hurt. Speaking of Ket, where is she?"

Inside the stables, Ket froze.

"And you want to know because. . .?"

"I have some good news for her," the duke drawled, a smirk in his voice.

"What news?"

"Why, she is to be the next duchess of Greymare," Orlath informed the innkeeper. "My son spoke to me most passionately about her, so I've already taken the liberty of drawing up the marriage contract. All we need is Ket, and then everything will be taken care of, yes?"

"How dare you?" Aren demanded. "You know Ket hates Lyon. Why do you force her into a marriage that will end in rage? This is your son; I don't think you'd want her to kill him."

Ket could almost see the cruel, calculating smile that was sure to be twisting Orlath's mouth as he spoke. "Your daughter is my son's betrothed. Her own feelings matter not. Besides, if she or you tried to put up a struggle, rest assured her life or yours would be forfeit. You forget I am the ruler here, Aren Row'an, and I control the life of every citizen in this duchy-including you. You will do as I command. As for this marriage. . ." He trailed off as if savoring the disgust that radiated from Aren, "Lyon only needs Ket for the producing of an heir."

"You lecher!" Luckily, Ket shouted this at the same as Aren, so her voice was not heard.

"I refuse to let my daughter be married off to Lyon! She's only fifteen!" Aren yelled.

"You forget your place," Orlath sneered. "She will do as I command. And I think you should know that it is not the woman's place to decide things in such a matter."

"When it concerns my daughter, it is the woman's so-called place to decide," snapped the innkeeper, "and I refuse to allow this!"

"You dare defy me?"

"I'll rip that contract into shreds and sprinkle it on your grave."

There was no return comment, so growl of anger, only the crack of a whip and the sickening lash of leather striking and biting into flesh. Aren screamed. The whip cracked again; it was followed by the solid thud of rod hitting bone.

"You will not insult me, woman," Orlath said coldly. His voice was carefully controlled. There was another crack as the whip struck her again, and Bark, Ket, and Everen could clearly hear the sound of blood splashing onto the cobblestones outside.

Ket's knees gave way, and she sank to the floor. "Mama. . ." she whispered. Her face contorted in anger as she struggled to her feet, her fear repeatedly draining the strength from her legs. "That bastard."

"Don't you dare." Everen grabbed her arm; Bark gave him a funny look but said nothing. "Your mother tried to protect you; you can't go out there now. That duke would kill you!"

"That is my mother, Everen, and if you think I'm going to sit inside her and let her die, you're utterly mistaken. Let me go." Her voice was not dangerous, or loud and angry; rather, it was an icy and neutral tone that was somehow more frightening than any raging.

"Your mother is trying to protect you, and if you think that I'm going to let you go out there and die, you're utterly mistaken," he shot back. "I doubt you can even use a sword!"

"I don't care!" she protested. "I'll kill him with my bare hands!"

"You will not," he corrected. "You are going to stay inside until- " He was cut off by another crack of the whip. Bark watched as conflicting emotions chased across his face. "I changed my mind. I am going to go out there and make Orlath very aware that beating your mother is not wise. Bark, if you could do me a favor and get Rina ready to leave, I would appreciate it. Thank you."

Bark shrugged and loaded up the white mare quickly as Everen left. Ket stared at him then began pacing, muttering to herself all the while. This lasted only a few moments; she stopped and glanced at Bark. "How difficult is it to use a sword?" she asked.

Bark flopped down on a mound of hay. "It's harder than you'd think," he answered. "Slashing and hacking doesn't really do that much good."

She resumed pacing. "Bark, I really don't care. That's my mother out there." She stopped again. "Do you realize that I've just entrusted my mother's life to a young man I haven't even known for a day?"

"Is that a problem?"

Ket stared at him. "Yes, it is, as a matter of fact. How can you trust him? You don't even know him!"

Bark sighed and sat up. "Ket," he explained slowly, "I am a thief. Surprisingly, we trust everyone until they give us a reason not to-and that doesn't usually take very long at all. You've got to have good instincts to survive in this business, and I have some of the best. I trust Everen."

Ket struggled to find a response.

"Sometimes things don't work out the way you want them to," Bark said quietly, "and sometimes people die when you'd rather them not. You can always grieve, but you have to keep moving. A still target is the easiest one to hit. I'm not going to interfere. Everen knows what he's doing, and I trust him. He'll make sure your mother is all right."

"But . . ."

Bark smiled, and the smile was that of an old man who has seen a little too much of the world. "Things will be as they will be." He paused and glanced sideways at her. "Of course," he said, sounding much more like his normal self, "that's not saying that we couldn't go outside and see if Everen or Aren needs any help. . ."

* * * *

Meanwhile, Everen had stalked out of the stables, anger boiling in him. 'No gentleman or anyone of noble upbringing should be treating anyone like that,' he thought. 'It isn't right, and it's not honorable.' It was more than the lack of honor that infuriated him, he knew; the innkeeper had been kind to him, and she had accepted him even after he had shown that he wasn't who he seemed to be. That was rare indeed, and he couldn't let that go without a reward.

He drew his sword and then was halted by two men dressed completely in black. They were tall and muscular, and there were three red bands on each of their sleeves. What he noticed first, though, were the swords that were pointing at him.

"Who are you?" one asked. "What is your business?"

Everen didn't answer.

"If you do not tell us, we will have to kill you," the second informed him. "You intend our lord harm."

"Let me assure you that any harm I would inflict would be fitting, if not justified," Everen said.

"We cannot allow you to harm our lord," the first replied. "Will you fight?"

Everen considered this. "No, actually, I won't. That is, not unless you really feel we need to."

The two guards reacted instantly, one moving to attack with an overhand stroke, one going for a stabbing thrust. Everen darted backwards and raised a hand. "My quarrel is not with you," he said. "So I think it would be best if we just pretended that I wasn't here so no one gets hurt." He traced a few shapes in the air and spoke a few quiet words. The guards went blank- faced, and they slowly lowered their swords. "That's better. Excuse me."

He stepped past them and up to Orlath just as the duke raised his whip once more. "I wouldn't do that if I were you," he said conversationally. "It might have some unpleasant repercussions."

Orlath whirled around. "You!" he snarled. "What do you want?"

"I want you to cease your whipping of Aren immediately," Everen replied. "Beyond that, things are up for debate."

"Are you trying to be clever?" Orlath asked, not dropping his whip.

"Do I need to try?"

The duke laughed mockingly. "I see. That's the way you want to play. It's really too bad I have no intention of doing anything you tell me." He turned back to Aren and raised his whip again.

"I don't think," Everen said quietly, "that is the wisest of ideas."

"What are you talking about now?" Orlath groaned, turning back around. It can be said for him that he didn't even flinch when he found himself with Everen's sword pressed against his nose, though his eyes did widen a bit. His guards took an involuntary step forward, but he waved them back. "No, don't bother, boys. I think I'll take him on." The guards shifted uneasily and muttered amongst themselves.

Orlath smirked and dropped his whip. Slowly, he drew his own sword and gestured to the street. "Perhaps it would be best if we take this little duel of ours out there."

"Concern for the general populace?"

The duke half-smiled. "There's more room this way."

"Oh. I see. Shall we start, then?"

"I think we shall."

And the deadly dance of the swordfight began.

* * * *

Ket slunk out of the stables behind Bark. Her heart beat rapidly with apprehension. Bark had informed her that it was very unlikely that they could be of any use to Everen but that it was possible that they could help Aren. That was all well and good, but where was her mother?

"Ket, breathe," Bark reminded her. She sucked in a sharp breath. "That's better. Aren's over there-see?" He pointed to wear Aren lay. His companion bit back a gasp. Aren was little more than a bloody mass now.

"Mama . . ." Her fists clenched. "Bark, what should we do?"

"I'm all for the 'nothing right now' option, myself," Bark answered. "He brought the Shields with him."

"Yikk," Ket swore. The Shields were Orlath's personal guards, and they were the most elite swordsmen in all of Rebanda. Clad in black and silent as the grave if they chose to be, these men, trained as they were in all manners of fighting, were armed even without a sword; their hands were weapons enough for them. Orlath's whims were their laws, and anyone who dared to bring up an objection usually found themselves missing their heads. "What do we do, then? If we try to get Mama, they'll see us."

Bark paused and considered the situation. "The best thing to do," he said finally, "would be to wait until they are thoroughly distracted. There are only seven of them, but that's more than enough. We can't do anything unless their attention is on something else."

"Like what?" Ket demanded.

The young thief rolled his eyes. "The fight, Ket. Everen and Orlath are fighting, if you haven't noticed." He fell silent for a moment. "Once they're distracted, I can get Aren out of there. Then, we can find a safe place for her."

Ket bit her lip. "That sounds dangerous."

"Ket, we're dealing with the Shields. Danger is a part of the game."

She sighed. "All right."

They watched in silence as the fight progressed. The Shields were thoroughly involved in the watching, since they could be called on at any time to aid their lord. "Now," Bark breathed. "Find a place to put Aren besides the stables. That will be the first thing they'll search." He darted out towards the innkeeper before Ket had time to reply.

She waited only a few moments longer before moving as well, nearly tripping over some loose cobblestones by the stables. She knew the layout of the inn and surrounding buildings, but she did not know what was burned and what had survived the fire. "I don't know where to put Mama," she muttered to herself as she searched. The buildings were either too small or too charred to be of any use. Finally, she remembered the small shed used for keeping extra linens. It was possible that it, too, had burned, but if it hadn't, it would a good place to hide her mother.

She headed to the shed, being as quiet as possible. She had no desire to be noticed. The shed had not been burnt, and she breathed a sigh of relief. 'A blessing,' she thought. 'Thank the Four for that.'

Bark came up to her, supporting a half-conscious Aren. "These wounds are bad," he said softly. "We'll need to get her to a healer as quick as we can." He grunted and shifted his burden. "I'm surprised the Shields didn't notice me," he told her. "They're supposed to be very good. Then again, the fact that they couldn't see me might have had something to do with it. Did you find a place?"

"We can put her here till she wakes up," she told him. "I don't think anyone would think to look for her here. And did you go invisible again?"

"The linen shed?" Bark asked dubiously, ignoring her last question. Ket nodded. "If you say so." Carefully and with a good deal of help, he nestled Aren in amongst the towels and tablecloths. "I hope that's good enough." He gestured for her to follow him back to the stables. "I should make sure Rina's all right," he whispered.

She nodded and followed him. They moved quickly until, all of a sudden, Bark stopped in his tracks. "What is it?" she asked urgently.

Bark didn't speak, only gestured to the two Shields standing in front of the stables.

"Yikk," Ket swore quietly. "Now what?"

"Hope for a miracle," Bark muttered, his hand dipping inside his shirt. He produced a small knife. "And then pray."

Ket opened her mouth to reply, but as she did, she heard a quiet footstep behind her, then another. A sudden sense of foreboding prickled at her skin, and she turned slowly. Standing behind her were three Shields and Lyon Shieldsbane.

"Why, dear Ketrine," Lyon drawled, smirking. "What a pleasant surprise." He stepped up to her, and he was looked so smug she wanted to retch. "And what might you be doing here, my dear?"

"I fail," she replied, ignoring the quaver in her voice, "to see how that is any of your business." Behind her, Bark shifted slightly and fixed his grip on his knife.

"We are betrothed now, Ket. I think that makes any business of yours automatically mine." He tilted his head and smiled condescendingly at her. "For example, I think that you should be telling me about that companion of yours, the young man who is currently fighting my father."

She bit her lip. 'I don't know what to do,' she thought desperately. 'How do I manage to survive this? Three Shields and Lyon . . . I can't do anything. If they decide to hurt me, that's it.'

"Well?" Lyon stroked her cheek, smirking at her involuntary shudder of disgust. "Tell me, pet. Oh, and Eridnan? Take Bark into custody, would you? There's a good lad."

A Shield with dark hair and eyes and olive skin-Eridnan, presumably- stepped towards the boy and drew his sword. "If you do not fight," he said softly to Bark, his voice slightly accented, "then you will not die."

Bark glared but tucked his knife back into his shirt.

"Give me the knife," Eridnan commanded. Grumbling, Bark handed it over. Eridnan slipped the knife in his belt and then produced a length of rope from his belt pouch. He bound Bark's wrists and then placed a restraining hand on his shoulder. "He is in custody, milord," he said to Lyon.

"Excellent," Lyon purred. He turned back to Ket. "Now tell me about your companion. Everen, wasn't it? I thought I heard you address him like that."

"I don't know anything," she told him. 'Other than the fact that he knows magic, orders people around, and is not what he seems,' she added in her mind.

"Really?" the duke-heir drawled. He gestured to the other two Shields, one fair-haired, the other with auburn locks. "Perhaps Rikue and Pairast could persuade you to know something, then." The two Shields did not move, but their glares and the way their hands rested on their sword hilts inspired the imagination. Ket gulped.

"I don't know anything about him."

Lyon considered this. "Perhaps you don't know that you something. Let's take it from the beginning. What is his name?"

"Everen," she answered hesitantly. 'He already knows that,' she thought, 'so I don't think that's bad.'

"No, no," Lyon snapped. "His full name."

"I don't think I know it."

The duke-heir made another gesture, and suddenly Eridnan's sword was pressed against Bark's throat.

"All I have to do is give the word," Lyon said, "and Bark will be no longer with us. I want that information, Ketrine. And after I get it, you and I will be going back to the palace, and Bark as well as this Everen will be. . . dispatched, shall we say." He grinned as Ket paled. "So, tell me what you know."

"I don't know his full name, I don't know where he's from, and I don't know why he's here. I don't know anything that could be of use to you," she said desperately, not taking her eyes off the sword at Bark's neck.

"Ah," noted Lyon, "but that means that you know something." He gave a slight signal to Eridnan, and a thin line of red trickled down Bark's neck.

"He knows magic," she blurted out.

Lyon smirked and made another signal, and the sword was no longer pressed against Bark. "Go on," he urged. Rikue and Pairast moved to flank her. There was a brief scuffle, and when it stopped, the Shields each had a hold of one of her arms and she had mussed clothes and a frightened look on her face. "What else do you know?"

Ket thought quickly. 'I really don't know anything. I don't even know his homeland. There's no accent to his voice.' "I don't know anything else."

"Ketrine, don't lie to me. What else do you know?"

"I'm not lying. I don't know anything else!"

Lyon shook his head in mock disappointment. "I think you do."

"I swear to you I do not!"

He gestured sharply to Rikue. The Shield drew his sword and placed it at her throat. Eridnan pressed his sword against Bark's neck again. "I think you'll find something to tell me, and you'll find it fast," Lyon said coldly. "If you do not, the consequences will be. . .unpleasant."

* * * * *

A/N: A revised Chapter 4. It's better, I think. I hope it's not so confusing. Thanks again to everyone who reviewed; you all help so much. Thank you!