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CHAPTER SEVEN

Elisandrya was taller than her older sister, taking after their father's strong Shaaryan blood. She was long of limb and lithe, her skin an exotic blend of the yellowish Shaaryan and her mother's dark Arkaiun tones. Both sisters bore the thick auburn hair of their mother, long and curled in natural ringlets, but while Dreslya's was contained and pulled back, Elisandrya's was free and flowing, at the mercy of the wind. As they approached one another on the crowded field of hunters, each reflected on their long separation from one another.

Dreslya fairly ran to meet her sister. Elisandrya stood in place, half-smiling and even happy, but nervous. She had always felt the irony between the two of them more, that Dreslya was an oracle and saw far less than her hunter sister. Elisandrya had fallen far from the scared and skittish little girl she'd been before joining the hunters and seeing much of the harsh world beyond Brookhollow's well-ordered lanes. Her eyes had become older than the face that framed them, like those of the hunters who had trained her in their ways. Those eyes were at peace with the world they viewed, but they understood that only the sword and bow procured that peace. Life and freedom on the edge of the Qurth, more often than not, was bought with death. Being called to Brookhollow in the midst of such storms and spreading plague brought that martial knowledge to the forefront of her thoughts. The mere idea of a gathering, tendays before the traditional Feast of the Moon, set her on edge, and she found she could focus on little else.

Dreslya's easy smile faded as she approached her sister, and Eli felt instantly guilty for banishing the spirit of their reunion. Years could not erase the events which had taken their parents, nor the vast difference with which Eli had dealt with the loss compared to Dres.

Always, she felt burdened with secrets, though it was in Brookhollow where they seemed stored. "It's good to see you, Eli," Dreslya said hesitantly, as if addressing a distant acquaintance. "Would that it could be under better circumstances, Dres." Elisandrya heard the tone in her own voice and felt ashamed. "I-I'm sorry, Dres. It's been a long ride and things-" "It's all right, Eli. I know we all know."

"It's good to see you, too," Eli managed, but she struggled to reconcile the memory of her older sister with the woman she now saw.

Was she truly happy to be back in Brookhollow? The white walls of the temple loomed above the wooden and stone barrier of the main perimeter. Eli avoided looking at them, content to wrestle with matters of family and time before confronting those of memory and faith. She instead studied Dreslya's face and almost smiled, seeing the image of their mother. That understanding look had driven her to indignant rage at times, and at others it had been all that she longed to see again. It was pleasant now but bittersweet. Only days ago had she visited their parents' graves to the north along an empty stretch of the Low Road to Littlewater. Turning away, she fidgeted at her horse's saddle and bags, avoiding that familiar emerald gaze. "How are signs of the blush within the city?" Eli asked while working at a loose harness on the saddle. "The plague is evident in some, but not so much as the rumors from the north are telling. We do what we can, but a cure is still elusive at best." Eli was quiet for a moment, attempting to choose her words, but then felt little need to as the narrow line of darkness on the horizon rumbled with thunder.

Well-chosen words will do us no favors now, she thought. "There are no rumors from the north, only truths." Eli stopped and stared blindly at the worn leather of her saddle, remembering. "I chanced upon a merchant caravan just north of Littlewater. It had been through Logfell and Targris and was turned away at the gates of Derlusk. "The hired guards spoke to me when I rode near to inquire of their business and wares. They said Logfell was lost, completely overrun with the disease, and that Targris had its fair share of victims as well.

Several of their own caravan weren't feeling well, and they suspected those at Derlusk knew something but would not even open the gates to them." "Turned away at Derlusk? But surely the sages there have some information, some knowledge of a cure?" Eli knew the defeated and confused tone in Dreslya's voice, had known the same when confronted by these horrible truths. "The sages have their books and magic, Dres, but the merchant princes hold the gates and the money. They'll not see their decadence ruined by plague, and I suspect Littlewater will hold much the same opinion-too long have they courted Derlusk's nobles and favor." Dres was quiet, absorbing the news as Eli thought a moment.

Then the hunter leaned forward to whisper in her sister's ear, "What is happening here? Why have we not heard news from the high oracle?"

Dres pulled back quickly, her eyes darting in all directions. She shook her head as if to say, Not here, not now. Eli's concern grew at her sister's strange reaction, though something within her already sensed the nature of her anxiety. After a moment, she nodded and dropped the subject. Dreslya calmed, then turned as the long horns on the walls began to trumpet across the field, announcing the arrival of the lord hunter. In older times, the Lord Hunter of the Hidden Circle had been selected from the greatest and most respected warriors-those renowned for prowess on the field of battle and powerful devotion to Savras and his temple at Brookhollow. As the unarmored figure of Lord Hunter Baertah rode through the ranks of the assembled hunters, it was apparent that recent times had seen the rise of politics and finances as the measures of virtue and title. Baertah had a slight build, thin and wiry. His hands were well manicured, as was the fashion among the nobility in larger cities. His pale, unblemished face, perfumed with oils, contrasted with his deep black eyes, making them appear larger and giving him a feral look. Across his back was slung a bow and a quiver of arrows. The blade he carried was a thin rapier, an impractical weapon for a hunter, but popular in Derlusk and Littlewater. Dreslya nodded to Elisandrya and walked to meet Baertah at the gates. Eli continued to needlessly check her packs and saddle harness. She felt no desire to watch Baertah ride by. She'd been at odds with the lord hunter on more than one occasion and had no need to rekindle old conflicts. She did not envy her sister's duty. As the acting Sibylite of the temple, Dreslya would accompany the lord hunter in the procession through the streets. Elisandrya waited for the horns to be sounded again, the signal for the gates to be opened so the hunters could enter the city. She mounted Morningstar, her loyal steed named for the bright patch of white on his otherwise pitch black forehead. Reigning him in line with the other hunters, they approached the gates to make their way slowly to the temple. Her eyes focused on the looming white walls of the temple, the center of Savras's faith in Shandolphyn's Reach, and she hoped to end this ordeal as quickly as possible. Curiosity, though, made her anxious to hear the high oracle's message. Rumors held that Sameska would be stepping down and naming a new high oracle due to her long absence of true prophecy and vision. Eli, however, had no such illusions about the woman. She knew Sameska too well to expect anything but total piety and barely concealed arrogance. Eli's patience and nerves were already on edge here, in such close proximity to the people and places of her worst memories. She had more than one reason for dreading this return-the primary one waiting at the end of the hunters' parade to the temple.

Dres must have the resolve and fortitude of a hundred hunters, she thought, to face these things on a daily basis. But then, Dres never really found out what had happened. Shouldn't find out. Eli lowered her head and rode on. Taking a deep breath, she banished her demons and tried to calm herself amid the confining walls and rigid lanes of the populated city. She felt a mild claustrophobia away from the open grassland of the Reach. The eyes of Brookhollow's citizens seemed to bore into her as they stood alongside the route of the hunters, silently casting fethra petals in front of the horses' hooves. The scattering of the flowers before the host of hunters was a sign of dark times, as if saying the petals were useless and the faithful sought the blessings of their leaders. Eli noted that the onlookers threw down the petals, but each home kept a bundle of the dried leaves by the door in preparation for the growing sickness and the debilitating fever that was no doubt coming.



***** | Bloodwalk | *****