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The beast’s jaws never reached Lilavati. Arrows sprouted from its face like the quills of a porcupine. Frost appeared on its skin. It staggered back, and then fled.
Strong arms held her as the horse was lifted and the saddle removed. Then the straps were unfastened and she was released. Manas held her to his chest. “My dark scholar, what happened? I told you not to leave your guards.”
“My horse was killed and then they rode past as if they did not see me,” Lilavati said, clinging to him. She sobbed into his shoulder. “The preester and your soldiers did not even look behind them as they rode past.”
“Ludger, send one of our riders to catch up with them. I want answers,” Manas snapped. Ludger nodded and went back to the company. Manas scooped Lilavati up and set her on his horse. He climbed up behind her. “My dark scholar. I will never let you out of my sight again.” This was said as a soft growl in her ear.
The company moved on down the road. Lilavati wept softly as they went. Manas continued murmuring quietly into her ear, comforting words that soothed her even as her fears and grief continued to overwhelm her. She wanted to lay down and go to sleep, but that would entail being put in one of the carts. Terror choked off the request as the memory of her dream returned.
It was an hour before Theda and those with her rejoined the group. All of them looked completely embarrassed. “Great Lord, forgive us,” Theda said, bowing her head. “Some dark magician must have charmed us, twisting our minds into believing the Great Lady continued to ride with us. It wasn’t until your messenger caught up with us that we knew she was gone.”
Manas shuddered. The mere mention of a dark magician seemed to cause him pain. Lilavati frowned. She’d seen no one else on the road, and the strange feline inside of her stretched and growled once more before subsiding.
Manas looked down at her. “Did you growl?” he whispered.
“It was what was awakened within me,” Lilavati said.
Manas nodded. He looked at Theda. “Preester, you are supposed to be immune to such things. How is it you were affected as my men were?”
“I don’t know,” Theda said. “The Blessings of the Twelve usually protect me from such things.” She frowned. “I’ll have to ask them for answers later because right now I have none.”
“Great Lord, the saddle is salvageable, but the mare is dead,” Ludger said.
“How did she die?” Lilavati asked.
“Lilavati wants to know how she died,” Manas said.
“There are no marks, but I can feel the presence of dark magic,” Ludger said. His face was grim. He held up his hand. “I know that isn’t a complete answer. I don’t know what else to say, Great Lord. I feel no presence of a dark mage.” He cocked his head to one side. “Not a mage, a cleric. This was done by a fell preester, Great Lord.”
“A cleric from another land?” Theda asked.
Ludger shook his head. “No, this definitely has the touch of the darker side of the Twelve, Preester. No outsider did this.”
Theda scowled. “How do you know the difference between a fell preester and an outsider, Ludger?”
Ludger stood up to his fullest height. “Because Preester, I am not a follower of the Twelve, in spite of all of your attempts to convert me. I have knowledge of more religions than you and your kind are willing to admit exist. So yes, Preester, I’m very certain this is was done by a fell preester since this magic reeks of the presence of the Twelve.”
“Enough, you two,” Manas said, his voice ringing out over theirs. “We don’t have time for this. The beast may return and I doubt we’ll be able to drive it off so quickly again. We ride. Now.”
Riding cradled in Manas’ arms wasn’t comfortable, but Lilavati refused to ask to be moved to a cart. Theda rode up next to them. “Great Lord, wouldn’t it be better for the Great Lady to be -?”
“Do not even attempt to finish that question, Preester,” Manas said coldly, looking over at her. “I’m far better equipped to protect my dark scholar than you seem to think. Also, should that fell preester – or another who practices evil magic – be in the area, I have no desire to leave her so exposed.”
Theda fell back. “She is so protective of me,” Lilavati said. “I have never had so many who cared for my well being.”
Manas kept his eyes on the road. “She’s overprotective, if you ask me. I’d rather she kept her distance if all she’s going to do is question my decisions.”
“Are you certain it is not you who has become overprotective?” Lilavati asked. She felt Manas stiffen but he said nothing. “My love, I am too fragile to be in conflict with you. I cannot debate what I think and feel with any sense of clarity. I also do not wish to anger you. I have never known what it meant to be protected, until the night before you came to claim me. Even then, I was only guarded because my father did not wish to return the great treasures you paid him.”
“I’m the one who got the greatest treasure out of the bargain,” Manas said.
“My love, listen,” Lilavati said. Manas sighed. “You have given me guards, Ludger has used both magic and medicine to protect me, and even the preester has done what she can to be certain I am safe. Yet still I have suffered more harm in the days I have been outside the borders of my own lands than I ever did inside them.”
“Do you blame me for this?” Manas asked through clenched teeth.
“Of course not, my love,” Lilavati said. She leaned back against him, feeling the powerful muscles in his chest shift as he adjusted his position to accommodate her. “I blame whatever force it is that seeks to destroy us both.”
“You don’t believe that you’re the only target of this,” Manas said.
“No.” Lilavati knew he heard her when the low growl rumbled through his chest but did not escape his lips.
to be continued…