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Commonwealth Universe: History: The Rebirth: The Order Series Book 1: Undying
by Michelle Levigne

Category: Science Fiction
Description: Marnya is a novice, traveling to a teaching enclave to expand her healing talents. But her life is changed forever when her traveling party is attacked by brigands. In defending herself and her friends, Marnya is critically injured -- but she does not die. She thinks she has hidden her remarkable healing from everyone, but two of the soldiers who rescue the novices belong to the Order of Kilvordi, and they know her secret. She is one of them, an Undying. Raf and his friend, Danal, give Marnya her first lessons in what it means to be an Undying -- unwilling heir of the genetic engineering that helped bring about the Downfall of First Civ. All the members of the Order are Undying, and under the leadership of High Scholar Kilvordi, their quest is to reclaim the lost knowledge of the ancestors and take civilization back to the stars. Marnya joins the Order and sets out on her journey of learning and healing and leadership. As the years go by, a new enemy arises from their own ranks -- Undying who believe they were born with their gifts to become rulers, not guardians. They want to dominate, to enslave the ordinary Humans around them. And if they have to destroy the Order to accomplish their goals, they will.
eBook Publisher: Writers Exchange E-Publishing, 2011
eBookwise Release Date: November 2011

eBookeBook

3 Reader Ratings:
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Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [442 KB]
Words: 102377
Reading time: 292-409 min.


Chapter One

Sister Ondra leaped to her feet, mouth frozen in a silent 'O', arms snapping wide as if in an embrace. Marnya reached for her teacher to steady her as the motion made the wobbly cart rock -- and froze as the head of a barbed arrow emerged from the woman's shapeless brown robe, just below her breastbone. The other eight novices in the cart shrieked, giving voice to the gush of blood from the woman's mouth and nose.

Protect the others, Sister Ondra mouthed, eyes meeting Marnya's, before the shock fled and her face paled, creased in pain.

"Down!" Marnya barked, imitating her brother, Anton, at his most soldierly and officious. She yanked on Catla, on her right, and Lissa on her left, pulling them off the narrow bench that lined their side of the cart. Sister Ondra folded like a rag doll, landing in a limp pile next to them.

Through the continuing shrieks of the novices in her cart and the other two carts in their small caravan, she heard the thunder of hooves and the blatt of a trumpet sounding the charge up the wide, rutted woodland road. Marnya could see nothing, but she had been raised among soldiers and she knew the stupidity of looking over the high sides of the cart and the scant protection of the thin boards. Someone attacked them, most likely the many bands that refused to obey the Territorial Overlord. It didn't matter who. She knew what they wanted. Three carts full of novices bound for the training school at Holy Silence could only offer one thing to a band of outlaws.

The arthritic driver of their cart let out a strangled yelp and jerked to his feet with an arrow in his side. Two more hit him, amid a hail of arrows flying across the body of the cart. He toppled from his seat, blood spurting in a thick rain, and vanished from Marnya's limited sight. Most of the novices went to their knees. One twisted sideways, flailing, her scream cut off with a yelp and an arrow in her throat. She fell across the laps of three other novices, who erupted from the cart at the same moment the ancient horses realized no one urged them to keep moving, and stopped.

Marnya spared a moment of disgust for the horses, lacking the spirit to react in fear to the bandits surrounding their traveling party with harsh cries and curses. Then she grabbed Catla and leaped from the cart. It was their only chance to get out with their skins intact. The novices and the Sisters escorting them had no weapons other than eating knives. The five men who drove the three carts and rode escort were too crippled with wounds, arthritis and old age to use the swords and crossbows they carried for anything except hunting. If any of the men were still alive. The only option left to the girls was to run.

She landed with bent knees as Anton had taught her, stumbled away a few steps, then turned back for the other girls. The three carts had stopped. The horses of the cart behind hers was so close, Marnya could see nothing of their attackers. The screams of the other girls, the protests from the elderly Sisters who escorted them, the harsh laughter and commands of the attackers, the clatter of their horses' hooves on the pebbly surface of the road told her more than enough to visualize what was happening.

Please, Fi'in, if you're real like Mama always said, help us!

Marnya shoved Catla under the cart. Another girl, who had joined them just that morning, threw tiny, black-haired Vina into her arms, then jumped down and ran into the bushes without a backward glance. Two bandits raced around the cart from opposite sides. Marnya shoved Vina under the cart. At the back of her mind, she noticed the filthy condition of the men, the patchy, muddy coats of their horses. These weren't members of the organized marauder bands patrolling the edges of civilized territory. She couldn't remember if that was a bad thing or a good thing, an advantage for the novices, or just another degree worse in their situation. What had Anton said in his last letter to her, about the new duties the Territorial Overlord had given him?

Think, idiot! Focus! Her unnatural talent for healing, which had landed her in the healing arm of the Church, would do her precious little good if she ended up with an arrow through her like poor Sister Ondra.

The lathered bandit horses swerved at the last moment. Laughing, the greasy, rag-clothed men leaped from their mounts and reached out dirty hands for the brown-robed novices still spilling out of the back of the cart.

"Too fat!" the balding one roared, and slashed high with his sword at Prisca.

The pockmarked novice fell back into the cart with a red river gushing from her throat. Her mouth opened soundlessly, her eyes rolled up in her head, and her fluttering hands grappled for her throat. The remaining novices in the cart shrieked and scattered in every direction, fleeing for the trees on either side of the road, some flinging themselves under the hooves of the oncoming horses.

"Mine!" the redheaded bandit said, and lunged at Marnya. She sidestepped him, in a daze, all her attention focused on the blood-soaked, twitching form of Prisca and the squelching sounds coming from under the horses' hooves. She had liked the other girl, despite her whiny voice. She was one of the few who liked to read, and she had shared her precious few books with Marnya without being begged.

Around her, bandits laughed and roared and leaped from their stomping, snorting horses to snatch at girls who shrieked and trembled so hard they couldn't run. Blood and dust and the rotten, salty-sweet smell of fear filled the air. Marnya fought to think, to be calm, to remember what Anton had taught her about defending herself. Then a hard hand caught at the plain collar of her gown and ripped it downward, and rancid breath gushed in her face. She twisted away, bringing up her knee at a strategic angle, with Anton's voice in the back of her mind to guide her. Fear ruined her aim. She jabbed her knee into the man's scabbard and let out a yelp as bone hit metal.

"Clever," the man said, laughing, and yanked her head-wrap off. He paused for two heartbeats, staring at the waist-length mass of honey-red curls that cascaded down. "You're a prize worth keeping alive," he crowed, and clutched her shoulders with bruising strength to yank her up against him.

The fury that had simmered deep inside, since the day her uncle took over their family estate, erupted and mixed with her terror. Marnya barely felt the rough hand yanking on her torn gown, seeking bare flesh. She flung herself backwards and snatched at the eating knife in her belt. The man only laughed at the finger-length blade, pinned her against the side of the cart and slammed his mouth full of brown teeth against hers.

Marnya stabbed hard into his ribs, driving upwards with all the angry strength she could muster. He roared and stepped back, one fist swinging hard against her head. The other hand clutched his red-stained side. She only staggered and refused to scream or go to her knees. He snatched his sword free and swung. Marnya dove to the ground, twisting aside, as the blade bit at the joining of neck and shoulder and slashed down her chest with teeth of fire. Breathless with pain, she curled into a fetal ball, instinctively pressing both hands against the gush of hot blood. He kicked her hard in the side, three times. She felt ribs snap and blood rose in her mouth, choking her.

He cursed and stepped over her to find another girl to rape.

Marnya heard the screams, the curses, the clash of swords and knives and the curses of the last cart driver, all falling into a strange rhythm that kept time with the racing of her heart. Her blood tasted sour in her mouth. Her flesh burned under her hands, following the line of her wound. She didn't have the breath to scream. She heard Anton laughing in her memory, telling her that screams were a waste of energy and helped the enemy find her. Trembling hands pressed against the hot flood flowing down her chest, into her torn clothes.

Catla tripped on Marnya's legs as she struggled to climb out from under the end of the cart. The force of the other novice's fall uncurled Marnya and jarred her from the numb daze enfolding her. Marnya looked up at the sky and realized she wasn't dead.

Rolling to her knees, she looked around, in time to see the balding bandit drop down on top of Catla. The man looked ridiculous, with his trousers around his knees and his scabby bottom bared to the sky.

Catla's shriek as he ripped her gown open cut through Marnya's shock at knowing she still lived. She scrambled to her feet and flung herself down on the man, kicking and punching. She forgot the knife still clutched in her hand. The would-be rapist roared in surprise, and dropped his sword. Marnya snatched it up and swung at him, putting her whole body into the movement and using the weight of the sword to help her, just as Anton had taught her.

The clear clarion of multiple trumpets sounded from further down the rutted old road, out beyond where the trees ended. Marnya swung, baring her teeth as the cringing man let out a shriek of terror. She snarled and followed the half-naked attacker as he scrambled backwards away from her. More hoofbeats filled the air. Men shouted and leaped at their horses, dragging screaming, struggling girls into the saddles with them. One bandit leaped into the lead cart, snatching at the reins of the ancient horses. He arched backwards, falling as three arrows hit his chest in rapid succession.

The familiar green and black uniforms of the Territorial Overlord converged from every side, erupting from the shadows and trees. Marnya followed the man she had sent fleeing, her chest hurting with silent laughter when his trousers caught on a root by the side of the road and he left them behind in his terror-stricken retreat.

"Careful, now!" A man in a dark blue uniform tunic entered Marnya's field of vision from the right. She twisted sideways, swinging the blade back, prepared to take on attack from a new direction. "It's all right," he said, sheathing his sword and spreading his arms to show he was unarmed now. His gray-blue eyes went wide in his tanned face as he looked her over, head to toe, and stared at her sticky, hot, bloody neck. "You don't have to fight anymore, Sister."

Marnya shuddered. She couldn't seem to release the sword, though the leather-wrapped grip burned her palm. Tears blurred her vision. She staggered backwards. A tiny shriek erupted from her when the soldier touched her arm. The ground wavered under her feet.

"You serve the Overlord?" she said, desperately searching for something to focus on until she could regain her inner balance. No, that was wrong. He wore blue, not green and black, like Anton. She needed Anton. Where was her brother?

"Soldier of the Order, servant of High Scholar Kilvordi." He touched the infinity sign embroidered in black thread on his collar. "And you are?"

"Marnya Sanjour." She almost started to curtsey, a leftover reaction from the days when she had been a nobleman's favorite daughter, but her knees threatened to fold completely. The soldier -- when had the Order, an arm of the Church, taken on its own army? -- wrapped an arm around her waist to hold her up. He smelled of clean sweat and wool and his teeth were white and sound, making her doubly conscious of her torn, bloody, sweaty, travel-stained robes.

"Raffel Thornen." He turned, his attention caught by a mewling sound behind them.

"Catla," she gasped, and jerked free of the comforting arm around her.

"Marnya?" Catla stared at her, her skin deathly white, emphasizing the new spots on her face and her three brown teeth. She wrapped trembling arms tight around herself, to close her torn robes. "What's going to happen to us?"

"We'll take care of you," Raffel said. He went to one knee in front of Catla, holding out his hand. The other girl cringed and reached for Marnya.

"He's from the Order," Marnya offered, glancing to the soldier for confirmation, still unsure she had heard right.

Around them, a last few bandits struggled and fought and men snapped out orders, but otherwise the scene of chaos and terror had gone quiet. The woodland road looked hazy in the dust raised by the conflict, but otherwise seemed untouched by the sudden violence, just as suddenly ended. Marnya didn't want to turn around to see what had happened to the Sisters and the old men and the remainder of the twenty-odd novices. She concentrated on Catla, who had joined the Church to escape a merchant who wanted her in payment for her dead father's debts.

"The Order?" Catla shuddered. "Fat lot of good anybody from the Church does us."

"You're alive, aren't you? Fi'in kept you alive, because he has something for you to do," Raffel added, focusing his oddly intent, blue gaze on Marnya.

She shivered, sensing he spoke specifically to her, with special meaning, and not just to comfort Catla.

"Everyone is going to be all right." He stood, still holding out his hands to help them both to their feet. "You're safe now."

They weren't all right, Marnya realized soon enough. Of their entire traveling party, only she, Catla and little Vina, who had huddled under the cart and almost got trampled by the horses, remained. The bandits had killed the Sisters and old men, the girls who weren't pretty or who had fought. Three had died under the hooves of the horses. When the bodies were collected and laid out under the spreading branches of a huge old oak by the side of the road, nine novices were missing. Either the girls had fled and vanished completely, or they were captives of the bandits who had escaped the soldiers. With the coming of nightfall, it would be impossible to track girls or bandits.

Catla, Vina and Marnya huddled together in a nest of blankets, safe inside a circle of soldiers and a square of watch fires. None of the three could sleep. None could talk. They held each other close and shivered and stared into the flames of the nearest fire. They picked at the stew and bread the soldiers gave them, and drank the tea liberally laced with strong spirits when Arina, the Order healer who rode with the soldiers, commanded them. The three sat in silence, holding each other's hands, and had no thoughts of their own and no control over their minds and bodies. Marnya welcomed the numbness. Thinking would let the horror return.

* * * * *

"She's one of us," Raf murmured, staring up at the starlight. He lay on his back in the wagon he and Danal guarded, with a pad of three blankets between him and the crates of precious, rare books they had been charged with transporting to the Order's headquarters.

He had silently grumbled when High Scholar Kilvordi asked him to take charge of bringing the shipment from the encampment of scholars four days away. Archeologists, Kilvordi called the ones who dug into the ruins of the ancestors' fallen civilization. Raf had been a soldier before he joined the Order, and he preferred spending his time fighting bandits and rescuing the innocent and defenseless, rather than guarding books and historical treasures. He had nearly laughed when the Territorial Overlord assigned a company of soldiers to help guard the shipment. He wasn't laughing now.

Fi'in, was this part of your plan, to have us here when the little novice needed us? Why couldn't we have been in time to save all of them?

"Too bad she had to find out this way. And so publicly, too," Danal said. He sat on the ground, reading one of those books by firelight. "What did you say her name was?"

"Marnya."

"Surname." His friend sighed, and Raf knew an exasperated smile accompanied the sound.

"Sanjour."

"There's a new man, just finishing his indoctrination at the Castle, with the same surname. Could they be family?"

"Possible." He sat up and looked over the side of the cart. Better to concentrate on Danal's idea than keep thinking about Marnya. Raf shivered every time he relived that moment when he had seen her chasing the half-naked bandit, sword in hand, hair flying like a bloody banner, fury on her face, and that long, curving, open wound, exposed for all the world to see. Before he even turned the three girls over to Arina -- thank Fi'in, she was an Order-trained healer and obeyed without question -- he wrapped a coat around Marnya and covered that wound before anyone could see how bad it was. Still, there was a chance that someone would see it before it healed completely, and know the novice should have died. Then the uncomfortable questions would start.

How many people had survived deadly wounds, by the grace of Fi'in and the double-edged 'gift' of their ancestors, only to be torn to pieces by a frightened mob who thought they were tools of the Dark Spirits?

"How much do you think we should tell her?" Danal slid a scrap of cloth between the pages of his book and stood. His dark eyes and nut-brown skin and hair made him a shadowy figure with the firelight behind him, but Raf knew well the concern on his long, angular face. "Ironic that we picked up some books from that new printing press, just to educate new members of the Order, but it probably won't do her any good."

"Not many of us know how to read, so I don't understand why Kilvordi wants our history and his theories printed, anyway. By the time most of us learn how, we already know the history." Raf shook his head, grinning, hearing in his memory the genial arguments between High Scholar Kilvordi and his right-hand assistant, Dactavian, over this very subject. Of course, Raf always sided with Kilvordi. He respected Dactavian, the aristocrat who seemed determined to know everything about everything and everyone, but that didn't mean he liked the man.

"We can't simply take her with us, straight to the Castle. That would raise more questions and problems than it would solve." His friend shook his head and reached under the thick canvas that covered the crates of books, to slide the precious volume he had been reading back into the nearest crate.

Three crates held freshly printed books; rough, childish creations compared to the sleek, multi-colored volumes in the other five crates in the wagon. Raf shivered, thinking about the history of those books. They had to be at least two hundred years old, dug out of yet another buried ruin in the devastated cities of their ancestors. In two hundred years, whatever material the books had been printed on had survived with barely any trace of damage. The new books in this cart, printed on presses that had only been re-invented and refined in the last decade, would be lucky to last ten or fifteen years, and that was if their owners treated them with reverent care. What secrets had the ancestors known to produce such durable books? What materials had they used that looked like paper, but didn't turn to mush, with ink running into an unsightly mess when it got wet?

Raf used the crates of books as a bed to help himself fight the reverence and fear he sometimes felt when he thought of the ancestors. No matter what marvels and wonders the ancestors had known, they had been arrogant fools. Kilvordi affirmed that. The ancestors had possessed the secret of flight, had traveled to worlds that revolved around the far distant stars in the night sky, had known the secrets of life and death -- but they had destroyed their empire, so their descendants inherited a world of chaos and barbarism. Such people, who had bred themselves like horses, trying to attain immortality and other so-called 'gifts', were fools and rebels against Fi'in's plan. They deserved no respect, no wonder, no admiration from Raf.

Because of them, he and Danal, the other members of the Order -- and now little Marnya Sanjour, an unsuspecting novice -- were the Undying. Kilvordi said Fi'in had chosen them to inherit the curse of healing and long life that their ancestors had left behind, turning it into a gift, to bring their world out of the chaos and take them back to the stars.

Raf wasn't so sure that was a wise idea. If the ancestors destroyed themselves so readily, what was to stop their heirs from doing it again? But Raf trusted Kilvordi, who had been granted the vision of rebuilding civilization, and he chose to support whatever the High Scholar did.

"We should contact the new man, Sanjour, as soon as we get back to the Castle," Danal said.

"Hmm?" Raf shook his head, shaken out of his thoughts.

"Find out if the new man is a relative. If so, we can use him to get the little novice away from Holy Innocence and safely into the Order before anything else happens to her."

"What more could happen to her?" Despite his resolve not to keep thinking about her, Raf's thoughts turned back to Marnya. She was in shock, and too busy taking care of her two friends, but eventually it would occur to her that she should have died. Would she try to kill herself, reacting in fear and self-loathing as others had done? Would she go mad? Or was she one of the sensible ones, like Kilvordi, who saw the impossible happen in their own bodies and found a logical reason that gave glory to Fi'in?

Please, blessed Fi'in, I don't ask for much. I don't listen much, either, Raf admitted with silent laughter. But I'm asking now. Give Marnya peace and courage. You've chosen her. Use me to guard her and guide her into your service.

* * * * *

"You'll feel better if you wash and change your clothes," the Order soldier said, coming from the mists when daylight returned. He squatted down in front of Marnya, with the embers of the fire at his back.

She sat upright, an arm around Catla on one side and Vina on the other. With the coming of dawn, the other two girls had finally stopped shivering long enough to fall asleep.

"Wash?" Marnya echoed. She looked down at herself and suddenly realized how she had to look, with blood and dirt and bits of leaves in her tangled hair. Her brown novice gown was torn and plastered to her chest with dried blood, under the borrowed coat. "Yes. Wash." She tried to smile, tried to think of what to say, but the words evaded her.

"I found these in the carts," he said, and handed her a basket with soaps and brushes and scrubbing mitts. "There's a spring just through those trees. The bushes are thick enough around it that no one will see you. A bath always works wonders for me, after a battle."

His name was Raf, she remembered. He had stayed close while the healer, Arina worked with the girls last night, as the cleanup after the attack slowly faded into the darkness and she sank deeper into the haze of shock and blood. He had asked some questions, told her something, but all she could remember was that he had asked her to call him Raf.

"Battle." Her attempted smile grew wider, a little more genuine. "I'm not --"

"You defended your friend. You did what needed to be done, and Fi'in was with you." Raf nodded, face solemn. Then a grin brightened his eyes. "I thought I would mess my pants, laughing at that scum you terrified. You're a good warrior, Sister. Too bad you're not heading for soldier."

"My brother is a soldier." The haziness in her mind began to roll back, like a curtain. "I would be a soldier if my uncle would let me. He sent me to the Church because some older folk on his estate and the villages that look to him are frightened of my book learning. And because I have a gift for healing. They say I'm too smart, that my gift comes from the Dark Spirits that look through my eyes." She snorted, welcoming the warmth of bitterness that seeped in as she remembered overheard conversations.

"The military can always use healers, like Arina. Especially Church-trained healers." He hesitated just enough to be noticeable. "Your brother is a soldier? Where? What's his name? I might know him."

"Anton Sanjour. He was assigned to the Territorial Overlord, the last time I heard from him. But novices aren't allowed any communication with their families for an entire year, until we complete our first training, so I don't know where he is now."

"Anton Sanjour." Raf nodded, and Marnya had the distinct feeling he recognized the name. "I doubt someone who could fight like you would meekly let yourself be sent into the Church if you didn't want to be here. Do you have any suitors who could have rescued you?"

"Several, but it wouldn't be rescue if I didn't want to live with any of them, would it?" She felt better when he grinned and snorted in amusement at her words. "I insulted three men who came to look me over as a prospective bride, so Uncle is afraid no one will take me. It was a relief when the Holy Silence Enclave asked for me, because I have some talent for healing. Of course, if I don't marry and I stay with the enclave after my novitiate, Uncle gets to keep half my dowry. He wouldn't get any if I died conveniently." Marnya bit her lip to stop talking. That was far more family business than anyone needed to know.

"He was probably as terrified of you as that fool you were chasing when I found you yesterday," he said with a chuckle.

Marnya stared at him a moment, then a rough, half-choked chuckle escaped her. Yes, Uncle Jaysran was probably afraid of her. He couldn't control her like he could her older sister, Sanya; he couldn't browbeat her until she rebelled and joined the Overlord's soldiers, like Anton had, so he had sent her away. Not to punish her for her sharp mind and independent spirit, but to protect himself. Any other man would have kept her on as a healer, because she truly did have a gift. Marnya believed the Bright Spirits spoke to her, guiding her hand when she tended to the wounded and sick, whether man or beast. Yes, her uncle had been acting out of fear as much as greed, when he sent her to devote her life to the Church as a healer and teacher, rather than keep her on his estate and make use of her talents, and run the risk of her marrying and taking her dowry from his coffers.

"Come on, you'll feel better if you wash. You'll be more comfortable if you wash before the camp wakes," Raf said. He stood and stepped back and held out his hand to help her to her feet.

Marnya slid out between Catla and Vina, leaving the two girls in a limp pile together. She tucked her blankets around them and followed Raf to the carts to look for her few possessions and a blanket to dry herself. He carried the basket of soaps and brushes for her, and tugged aside the branches of the trees to show her the path to the spring he had mentioned. In moments, Marnya was alone, kneeling in the damp grass. The woodlands were quiet at that time of the morning, with dawn still painting the sky rose and gold. She thought she could hear the softest footstep if someone were to try to sneak up and spy on her.

The water collected in a deep hole, perhaps twice the width of her spread arms. Marnya saw that someone had already come here to prepare the place for bathing, because two buckets sat by the side of the spring, and a rough channel had been dug to guide the dirty water away so it wouldn't foul the spring for others. She peeled out of her crusty, torn clothes and gasped as she put a hand into the chill water. For a few heartbeats, all she could do was sit and force herself to stay until she grew used to the cold. Then, taking a deep breath, she knelt and dipped up a bucket and poured it over her head. She nearly screamed at the icy touch. Then as warmth raced through her skin, she wanted to laugh. She felt amazingly alive.

During her second scrubbing, when she used the soap in her bare hand instead of the harsh mitt, Marnya felt the ridge of flesh curving around her neck and extending down between her minimal breasts, She splashed herself to rinse the soap suds away and stared at the dark pink ridge of scar against her pale skin. Her fingers followed the path up and around her neck. Through the chill of the water, she felt the extra heat of healing in the scar tissue.

How could she have a scar there already? Wasn't it only yesterday that the bandit had slashed at her?

How had she survived such a long, wide wound? Such a deep wound, as the scar suggested? How had she grown such a scar so quickly?

Marnya had always been a quick healer. It had come in handy when her boyish escapades, trying to follow Anton on his adventures, gave her scraped knees and cuts and bruises. She had fallen once, trying to climb down the vines outside her second-story bedroom window. The pain had been incredible, and she was sure she had broken a leg at the very least. By the time her nurse appeared in answer to her screams, Marnya was able to get to her feet and hobble into the manor house -- where she had been unable to sit for half an hour, after being thrashed with a willow switch on her bare bottom for scaring her parents and nurse so badly.

She hadn't thought of that day in years. Marnya remembered now, as if the words had never made sense before, what Anton had said when she finally dried her tears and sat down to eat her noon meal.

If I had been beaten that severely, little sister, I wouldn't be able to sit until nightfall. You're sterner stuff than I, to sit so quickly.

Marnya had thought her adored elder brother was only trying to cheer her up by exaggerating. What if he had spoken only the truth?

"Please, Fi'in, what is happening to me?" she whispered.

Then the growing brightness of daylight intruded into her dazed thoughts. Marnya imagined one of the soldiers coming upon her, naked. She dried herself halfway before sliding into her only other gown, charcoal gray, saved for evening prayers and song worship services. She combed out her hair, ignoring the stinging in her scalp when the comb caught on tangles, and hurried to bundle up her torn, bloody clothes and bath provisions and return to the camp.

Who could she talk to about this? There was really no one but Anton she could tell her strange discovery to, and she still had seven moons of enforced silence left in her novitiate. Even if she managed to smuggle a letter out to Anton, how would he get in to see her? Holy Silence Enclave was a major hub for training novices to be teachers and healers, and stringent rules kept intruders -- and visitors -- outside.

"Fi'in, please, tell me what I should do," Marnya whispered. Then a snort of disgust for herself broke through the first stirrings of panic.

When her uncle first exiled her to the Church, Marnya had pleaded with Fi'in for her freedom in her prayers every night for three moons. At the start of the fourth moon, she decided that if Fi'in wouldn't listen to her prayers for help, then she wouldn't talk to the Creator any longer. Even when Sister Ondra decided to send her on to Holy Silence for training -- rather than finish the traditional cloistered year of her novitiate -- she hadn't changed her resolve or considered the change an answer to her prayers.

"There's not much to say for my resolve and strength of will, or even my common sense, is there?" she murmured. A chuckle caught in her throat, feeling raw. Had she screamed much yesterday in the attack? She couldn't remember. She pushed her thoughts and questions aside, to deal with the reality of her situation, and went back to the camp.

Catla and Vina didn't want to take the time or the effort to wash, though Marnya encouraged them by telling how much better she felt. They nibbled at their morning biscuits and sipped at the tea the healer gave them, and resolutely kept their backs to the carts the soldiers filled with dead bodies. All they wanted was to finish the trip to Holy Silence and hide safely behind its walls.

They came to an impasse when it was time to climb up into the carts and continue their journey. There was no room in the carts themselves, because of the dead bodies piled under torn and bloody blankets. The only place to ride was on the driver's bench at the front of each cart. The three could fit onto one bench together, but if a soldier drove each cart, the three girls would have to separate. Catla and Vina uttered little shrieks and clung to Marnya when Raf and Arina tried to separate them.

"I can drive," Marnya said, fighting an urge to either cover her ears or slap the girls into silence.

"You can?" Raf bowed to her, a courtly flourish that made her wonder what kind of family he came from. "A lady of many talents. If you can read, as well -- can you read?" he asked, lifting his head quickly.

"I used to get in trouble for reading too much," she admitted with a smile.

"No wonder your uncle sent you away. You likely made his daughters look like ignorant little monsters by comparison."

Marnya said nothing, but she had to bite her lips to keep from laughing. It seemed so inappropriate, with carts full of cold, dead bodies just a few steps away.

Still, the idea of her graceful, beautiful, witty cousins being called ignorant little monsters delighted and amused her. Janiece and Joreen had been sympathetic and dismayed for her when their father announced Marnya was being sent to the holy orders. They had always been kind and generous, from the day their father took over the manor house and estate that had belonged to Marnya's father, as the head of their family. The sisters hadn't tried to persuade their father to change his mind -- they were too busy scheming how to marry the men they wanted, rather than their father's choices, to profit him just as Sanya's marriage to the influential merchant, Creagan, had done. But at least they had been kind.

In many ways, Marnya had been glad to leave the estate. Maybe this disruption in her life was a punishment for valuing her family so little? She had been very selfish, despite the efforts of the Sisters to cleanse her soul. Hadn't she?

No. She refused to believe that. Fi'in didn't let people suffer and die simply to punish one person or teach a lesson.

Still, why had yesterday's attack happened? Why hadn't she died from her wound?

Marnya discretely ran her fingers down the scar under the thin material of her gown. She could barely feel it under the cloth. The healing heat had faded enough to be noticeable.

Why did she only have a scar? What did Fi'in want of her, to intervene when she should have died?


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