Chapter 1KANIEV REINED MAI to a stop and looked at the lumpy red hill that was his destination. The hill and the complex of quaint, colorful buildings at its foot sat beneath a clear blue sky among green meadows dotted with flowers and fluffy white sheep. In the hot spring sunshine, Source Chaitrasse appeared peaceful, almost idyllic.
Unfortunately, Kaniev’s lodestone told a different story.
Kaniev took the smooth, flat, round stone, a little smaller than the palm of his hand, out of its pouch and looked at it again. The stone, normally a dark blue, was glowing, the glow whitest and brightest in the center. No doubt about it, there was trouble at Source Chaitrasse, trouble that it was his job to fix.
Ha. Kaniev snorted as he put the lodestone away. After his last half-dozen failures, he had no business telling anyone he could fix anything.
But being in possession of both the world’s only known Source lodestone, passed down through countless generations of Source-Fixers, and the rare set of abilities required to repair malfunctioning Sources, he had the responsibility, the duty, to present himself at any Source that his lodestone showed was having problems and fix it.
He’d been at it for nearly three decades now, first as apprentice, then, since his master’s retirement, as Tehovir’s only Source-Fixer. And he was good at his job. In nearly thirty years as both apprentice and master, he hadn’t come across a malfunctioning Source he couldn’t repair.
Until now. At each of the last six Sources he’d tried to repair, the malfunctions had resisted all his attempts to correct them. Feeling foolish and frustrated, he had finally been forced to give up and leave without being paid. For months, he had been wracking his mind, trying to pin down the reason for his failures. Had he allowed errors or sloppiness to work their way into his techniques? Or were his talent and skills degrading with age? Try as he might, he hadn’t been able to figure out what he was doing wrong.
Kaniev sighed, looking at the deceptively serene hill that lay before him. Making matters worse, the folk in the nearby town had told him that the priestess in charge at Source Chaitrasse, Sera Fransisa, was a stern battle-axe of a woman, not to be crossed by any man with a care for his dignity and his manhood. Not a woman any man wanted to make a fool of himself in front of.
He didn’t have to do it. He was only forty; he could go home to the fiords, find a nice wife who could bear him a few strong sons and beautiful daughters, and take up fishing like his father and grandfather and great-grandfathers going back as far as memory could tell. As a boy, the prospect of spending his life that way had made him want to scream with boredom. When he was thirteen, the previous Source-Fixer had discovered him and his talents and offered him an apprenticeship, and he had seized at the chance for a life of adventure and excitement.
And excitement he’d had, a life filled with travel to places he had never even imagined as a boy in the fiords and adventures like the ones in stories. Not to mention lovely priestesses, acolytes, and sorceresses at many of the Sources he’d visited, who were looking for a little excitement themselves.
Now, though, with his skills mysteriously deteriorating and the prospect of another embarrassing failure ahead of him, a little boredom didn’t sound so bad.
But if he quit now, before he found an apprentice who shared his unusual magical abilities, he would leave the entire continent of Tehovir without anyone who could keep its many magical Sources functioning properly. He would break a long, proud line that went back as far as humans had been using Sources. If he gave up just because of a few failures and a case of nerves at dealing with a formidable woman, he would never be able to hold his head up again.
He wiped sweat from his forehead; even with no shirt beneath his vest, the silver-trimmed black leathers he wore were not suited for the hot climate of the southern Independent Kingdoms. But they were expensive and looked it. Along with his collection of silver rings, bracelets, armbands, and earrings, his wealth worn on his body – what remained of his wealth, anyway, after months of no pay – the leathers proclaimed his status as a skilled and reputable tradesman.
And he looked good in them, if he did say so himself.
Girding up his resolve, he kneed Mai into a walk – the old girl had seen better days herself, and should retire soon even if he didn’t – and rode on towards the hill. This time, he would succeed in repairing a malfunctioning Source. And as for the forbidding Sera Fransisa, if he couldn’t charm her, he would eat his own sword.
* * *
THE ORDER AT Source Chaitrasse was housed in a collection of buildings as charming as the surrounding countryside, plastered in soft tints of yellow, rose, peach, blue, and sage. Balconies and flower boxes spilling over with a rainbow of colors added eye-pleasing interest and variety. Carved benches, beds and planters filled with more flowers, and splashing fountains graced the stone-paved courtyard.
Kaniev dismounted and hitched Mai to a post in the courtyard, then unstrapped his knapsack from behind the saddle. Trying to summon up the confidence that had deserted him over these last months, he strode towards the largest building.
More than a few acolytes in white robes, going about their business in the courtyard, stopped to stare at him. Though Kaniev had been told that those who served at Source Chaitrasse were under a strict vow of celibacy, there were both males and females present. Unusual; most orders dedicated to Sources that required celibacy drew their members exclusively from one sex or the other. But if there was one thing Kaniev had learned about Sources in the last twenty-seven years, it was that every Source was different.
At the entrance of the largest building, Kaniev pulled on a rope dangling next to the door. Somewhere deep inside the building, a bell rang.
A moment later, a girl in a white robe opened the door. She blinked up at Kaniev with big green eyes set in a pale, thin face. “Yes?” she asked in a sweet, barely audible voice.
She looked very young, maybe thirteen years old or so, and her fair hair and coloring suggested that she was a long way from home. Most likely, she was the youngest of several daughters, put into service here because her family couldn’t afford a dowry for her. Poor child, shut away here for the rest of her life at such a young age. “I would like to see Sera Fransisa, if you please,” Kaniev said gently.
The girl blinked again. “May I ask –”
“Aislinne.” A stern female voice cut off the girl’s words. “Return to your studies. You are to let the stewards open the door and greet visitors.”
The girl’s cheeks reddened. “Yes, Sera Fransisa. I was only –”
“Now. Don’t argue with me. It is inappropriate for the Source’s Chosen to be speaking with strangers, especially strange men.”
The girl’s flush deepened, and she lowered her gaze. “Yes, Sera Fransisa,” she answered, her voice reduced nearly to a whisper. She backed away from the doorway, making room for the woman who took her place.
“Can I help you?” Sera Fransisa asked without the slightest sign of interest or any emotion other than irritation.
The first thing Kaniev noticed was the priestess’s ample bosom, impressively corseted beneath her elaborately draped and pleated white robes. He certainly wouldn’t call her fat, but she did have substance to her, something he appreciated in a woman.
The priestess was under a vow of celibacy, he reminded himself sternly. Whatever his other faults, and they were many, he wasn’t in the habit of seducing women who had made such vows.
Unless they wanted to be seduced. And, of course, only if being seduced wouldn’t damage the Sources they were pledged to.
Kaniev dragged his gaze to the priestess’s smooth, olive-skinned face, which was still considerably below his own eye level. Brown eyes met his with a stern, humorless look. Her rich chestnut hair, done up in elaborate braids and curls, had no more than a scattering of gray in it, and only a few faint lines showed at the corners of her eyes and mouth. She wasn’t young; neither was she far into middle age. Probably about his age, Kaniev guessed, give or take a year or two.
“Can I help you?” she repeated, more impatiently this time.
This one clearly had no interest in being charmed. Still, Kaniev rose to the challenge. With any luck, he could awe her enough with his stunning good looks and masculinity that she wouldn’t laugh at him too much when he failed to fix her Source. “My name is Kaniev. I…”
“If you’re begging, you can go work in the fields, and at suppertime we’ll give you a meal and ten pennies.”
Kaniev’s mouth dropped open, then he quickly closed it again. Did he look like a beggar? He was a little travel-worn, true, and it had been some time since he had shaved, and he had had to sell some of his jewelry, but could a beggar afford these clothes? “No, I’m sorry, you misunderstood. I’m not begging. I’m a Source-Fixer. I detect Sources that aren’t functioning properly and repair them.” Or not. “My lodestone indicates that there’s a problem with Source Chaitrasse.”
Sera Fransisa raised one dark, arched eyebrow; otherwise, her face remained as filled with emotion as a somewhat annoyed stone. “A problem.”
“Yes. Here, look.” He took the glowing lodestone from its pouch in the front pocket of his knapsack. “See? Here in the middle.” He pointed to the center, where the stone was glowing brightest. “That means it’s at the location of a Source that isn’t working correctly.”
The priestess peered at the stone, frowning slightly. “What is that?”
“It’s the Source lodestone. It’s attuned to the powers of all the Sources of Tehovir. I’m not sure exactly how it works; there’s a tale that it was mined from the legendary Great Source where, it’s said, the powers of heaven and earth come together to create Source-power. I don’t know about that, but I know it’s been used by scores of generations of Source-Fixers, and I know that in the twenty-seven years I’ve been in the trade, the lodestone has never been wrong.”
Her eyebrows furrowed together. Kaniev felt the stirring of magic in use. “It’s channeling Source-power,” she said after a moment. “So this isn’t just a trick.”
“Not a trick.”
Sera Fransisa studied the stone a little longer, her shapely lips pursed. Kaniev tried not to stare at them, imagining how they would feel pressed against his own.
“I suppose you sound sincere,” the priestess finally said. “Something about the Source has seemed a little off recently. Normally I wouldn’t pay it any mind, for if you do know anything about Sources, you know that the flow of power in a Source waxes and wanes according to the season and the phase of the moon. But tomorrow night is our most important ritual of the year, so I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to take extra precautions to make sure everything is in order. Come with me.”
Before Kaniev could respond, the priestess strode out the door past him.
Copyright 2017 Kyra Halland. All Rights Reserved.
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