"Ye say the air suddenly thickened and ye couldnae breathe?" Dulcan stared at him like he was crazy.
Varian looked away and drew a deep breath. They sat in an old tower. The windows had broken out long ago, and vines crept inside the stone room. But Dulcan insisted it was as solid as the day it had been built.
Some of the lairds weren't so sure. Benvahr and Sotar especially kept shifting their feet and looking at the floor, as if they expected it to crumble at any second.
"Aye, that's what I said. I dinnae know how else to explain it. I couldnae breathe, and it felt like Fleet and I were being sucked down into the maw of some sea-monster. I had nae strength. Fleet barely was able to snap free of it. I think it was a spell of some sort."
Raven scoffed. "A spell? Ye really think that Danilos, sorcerer thought he may be, could be so strong already? Ye're talkin' about a full-grown dragon, laddie! They arenae weaklings."
"Kamarils are always strong," Onna voice said.
Varian turned. She stood in the doorway, her arms crossed. Onna smiled at him.
"Fleet said you needed to talk to me. What happened? He's so shaken I could barely get a word from him."
Varian quickly described their narrow escape as Onna took a seat on the windowsill. The lairds stood around the map-table, all of them except Revan looking curious. When Varia had finished, Onna shook her head.
"That was foolhardy, Varian. But I probably should've known something like that was bound to happen. I should've warned you all. Kamaril sorcerers are not born weaklings, like the other sorcerers the legends tell us about. They invoke strong spirits to enter them, and though there are consequences for their evil deeds, for the most part they grow stronger the more they use their power. From what Varian encountered, I'd say Danilos is very strong already."
"What did he encounter, exactly?" Revan demanded.
"Some sort of draining spell, probably. I'm not too sure."
"How do ye know all this, Onna?" Mykale asked.
She looked him in the eye. "I am old and have traveled far. I've seen things that would make you grown men blanch. Besides, one of my best friends for a time was a repented Kamaril sorceress. She was one of the last of her kind, or so we thought. She taught me how to watch for Kamarils, and how to recognize them."
"Last of the Kamarils." Sotar snorted. "There had to have been one alive, at least, to teach Danilos. I wonder where he hid himself all the time."
Varian thought back, trying to remember if he'd ever seen a black-eyed, mysterious person living or visiting the Lowland court. Then he snapped his fingers. "I remember. He didnae learn it from a person. I'll bet he learned it from books."
"Books?" Everyone turned to him.
"Danilos has a daughter about my age. She use to—well—" Varian blushed. "She tried to impress me a lot. I havenae seen her for several years. She once told me that her father had a huge collection of old books. Some had pictures of dragons on the front. Some had runes on them, and weird symbols. I think she mentioned a crow's head."
Onna nodded. "A known Kamaril sign."
"Anyway, she said that Danilos kept them locked up in a large cupboard at his rooms in the castle. I dinnae know why we never looked at them. We planned to. But something always happened to keep us away."
"Well for ye," Dulcan said, "if what Onna tells us be true."
"Well, we've talked enough about Danilos' spells and sorcery," Revan said impatiently. "How far away did ye think they were, Varian?"
"Fleet thought they could be here by sundown."
"Then we'd best start preparin'," Mykale said. "Though I do wish I knew where Jokk and Archflame were."
They dispersed, each of the lairds hurrying away to rally his men. Onna caught Varian's arm as he walked past.
"You're worried about your uncle, aren't you?" she asked.
"Both of them. I wish they would be here. And I—I have this feeling, Onna. I feel like I'm going to face Danilos. To fight him. And I want Archflame's advice. Your's about the sorcerers will help, but I just want Archflame's advice."
Onna nodded. "Undestandable. To combat the supernatural, you must know the supernatural and know what will protect you spiritually. Archflame is quite wise in the ways of God—he may be able to help you there."
"If he comes back," Varian muttered.
"He'll come back," Onna said confidently.
Kearah sifted through a large wooden crate, gingerly handling the packets of dried herbs. How they had escaped being battered to dust in the jostling of the cart, she wasn't sure. She stacked them on the stone shelf running the length of the wall and looked around. Three other young women were engaged in the same task, setting up the infirmary in a sheltered, strong portion of the fortress.
Kearah ganced out the door and saw Varian amble past. He backed up and looked in, smiling at her. Her heart leaped and she inwardly scolded it. Ye havenae reason to do that. Stop bein' like a silly schoolgirl.
Her heart didn't obey. But she ignored it and spoke to Varian. "Hello. Are ye all right? Solvar said ye spotted the enemy."
Varian's eyes focused over her shoulder, then he nodded his head. "Come walk with me?"
Kearah placed bundles back inside the crate and hurried after him. She caught up to his side and they walked into the courtyard without speaking. Soldiers moved past them, each carrying a stack of javelins. Others tossed bundles of arrows to their comrades on the walls. Varian led her to a quiet set of steps to the walls. He sat down and looked up at her.
Kearah felt her heart twist. His eyes were dark and frightened. How had she missed that at first?
"Fleet and I flew over Danilos' army. I saw him and was going down to try o kill him. I thought maybe if I killed him then, the war wouldnae be so bad." Varian shrugged. "That probably wasnae guided by anything more than revenge. But when we went down, we kept going down. It felt like somethin' was suckin' us down through the air. Fleet barely managed to get away from it, and it made me loose my breath so that I was worthless."
Kearah sat down beside him and brushed loose strands of her braid away from her face. Her heart was pounding. "What was it?"
"Onna said it was some kind of drainin' spell that Danilos was usin', probably to protect his army."
"Oh my. He's that strong?"
Varian nodded and leaned his head on his arms. "I donnae, Kearah. He's so strong…"
"Donnae ye give up now," Kearah said. "The hope, Varian, remember."
"But what if God's will isnae for us to succeed?"
Kearah bit her lip and loked at the cobblestone floor. "I guess I'll be seein' my father," she said quietly. "I guess ye'll be seein' yer father and mother. That isnae so bad a way to look at it, is it?"
Varian gave her a half-smile. "Maybe nae."
"Besides, if God doesnae have victory in mind for us, then it's His will. We cannae fight it. And it's for the best. Sometimes I have a hard time believin' that. Sometimes I wish that we knew for certain what God had for us. But we donnae, so I try not to waste time by worryin' about it. I promised to follow Him—what kind of follower would I be if I didnae trust his Leadership?"
Varian smiled again. "Ye're right. Thank ye." He stood. "I donnae know when I'll see ye again. But be careful. It's almost sunset, and Danilos' army could be here soon."
"I will be. But ye promise to be careful yerself. I dinnae want the next time to see ye to be in my infirmary," Kearah said.
Varian gripped her hand. "I'll try to stay out of the infirmary for ye."
Kearah smiled, staring into his eyes. Varian stared back, and again that little spark zapped between them. Kearah gasped. Varian realized he was holding her hand, and he let go.
"I, uh—I have to go," he said quickly. "Have to help on the walls—I've been absent enough. I'll see ye soon, Kearah."
Kearah watched him mount the step and disappear among the chaos on the wall. She smiled and ran her thumb over the palm of her hand, the one that he'd held.
How had he managed to draw the first nightwatch? Varian lounged against the battlement and glared over the rider into the dark. With the aid of the moon, he could barely see the dark mass that was Danilos' army. They'd stopped on the other side of the river at twilight and pitched their camp. The lairds had all hoped that meant that they wouldn't try to attack in the dark. Varian thought it meant that Danilos had some scheme up his sleeve.
He scanned the dark landscape again and sighed. Nothing was moving. The camp across the river was still and silent. He found himself wishing for Kearah's presence to make the night pass by quickly. She was so easy to talk to. Even talking to Onna hadn't felt as good as sharing his douts earlier with Kearah—though he regretted it now and hoped he hadn't worried her.
The one evening they'd ridden together hung in his mind—her curly hair blown here and there by the wind, her eyes laughing as they swooped and turned. The sunset had fallen on her hair once, highlighting it with bold red colors. Her pensive quietness as she'd watched the sunset and remembered her father's words about the stars.
With a start, Varian realized that he'd mentally used a word for her that he'd never applied to any girl before; beautiful. He ran his hand through his hair, then remembered Solvar's words the day they'd visited the Lowland dragons.
How does Kearah 'like' me? he wondered. Does she think about me as often as I seem to think about her? Does she wish I was everywhere doing everything with her, like I think? Does she—does she like me as much as much as I like her? Does she like me like a brother? Or does she like me more? Like I—he exhaled. Love her.
This wasn't like the stories. He hadn't felt awkward or flushed or tongue-tied in her presence—well, except for that one time flying together. In fact, she was the most likely one to get him acting silly, or make him laugh and talk until he thought his jaws might fall apart. She was the easiest person to be around and to talk to.
Then there had been that spark. Twice now. Varian had no idea how to explain it. It seemed to be such a deep connection, a deep emotion, that he couldn't even wrap his mind around it, much less explain it in words. But he knew what it was. It was love. He loved Kearah. He loved her because she was funny and cheerful and loving. He loved her because she was the only person he could really open up to and share his soul with. Instantly, he realized that was why he was restless. He needed to be around her, to make sure she was all right, to protect her.
Unfortunately, he had a duty to remain on the walltop. Varia sighed.
I love her. Varian rolled the thought around for a moment, then tried it out loud. "I love her. I love you."
I love you. What a strange power those words have.
"I love you, Kearah."
"Good," Solvar's voice came from behind him. "It's about time ye realized ye did."
"What did ye two do to yerselves?" Kearah demanded, glaring at her brother and friend.
They looked at each other and grinned sheepishly. Varian sported a bruise covering his jaw, and Solvar had a black eye.
"Well, if the dragon's got yer tongues, I'll fill it in for ye," Kearah said, roling her eyes. "Let me guess—ye got in a fight."
"Never!" Varian said indignantly.
"Before a battle?" Solvar snorted.
Kearah planted her hands on her hips. "Well, what did happen then? Who sent ye in? And why in heaven's name did ye come to infirmary in the middle of the night with wounds ye cannae explain?"
"We can explain them well enough," Varian said. "Ye see, I was on the wall, keepin' watch, ye know. And Solvar came up and—" He cut off and blushed.
Kearah raised her eyebrows. "Aye?"
"I made a smart-alecky comment to him about sittin' up there daydreamin'," Solvar said hastily. "Then he tried to tackle me and we were wrestlin' around a bit. Only to expend pent-up energy, ye know."
"I've managed to survive to nineteen with several brothers, Solvar. Of course I know," Kearah said drily. She struggled to keep the corners of her mouth turned down. "And?"
"And, well, we didnae realize that the stair was right behind us—so we kind of toppled down it. Mykale found us tryin' to untangle ourselves with a bit of the masonry we knocked down, and he sent us in here," Solvar said.
Kearah couldn't hold it any longer. She dropped onto one of the pallets and burst into laughter. She drew her knees to her chest and buried her face in her skirt, shaking as she struggled to keep it under control. "Ye two—are the worst!" she gasped.
"The worst what?" Varian prodded.
She lunged up and pushed them out of the room. "Ye only need treatment for yer daft brains. Now get up there and no more trippin' down stairs."
"Aye aye, ma'am," Solvar said, making a face at her. They turned and started walking away, pretending to swagger.
She sobered, but before she could call a warning to them, they turned a corner and disappeared from view.
"Ye say the air suddenly thickened and ye couldnae breathe?" Dulcan stared at him like he was crazy.