Heart Stone, Chapter Three!

Happy Valentine’s Day! If you’ve missed the first 2 chapters of Act I: Safe Travels of For Whom the Heart Stone Burns (aka “The Opus”) you’ll find them posted in the Heart Stone Hub.

Since we last visited Becket, I pleaded most shamelessly for the highly talented Lou Harper to create a lovely, Lovely, LOVELY cover for my beloved opus, which she did, delivering something completely fabulous, just lookee!

SafeTravelsI’m in lurv — LOL. Thanks again, Lou! You are truly one in a million. 😀

And because I went to the trouble of begging and pleading for the cover, I’d figured I’d best get off my duff about slapping together some sort of blurb for my beloved opus so:

Becket built his life around unbelief in the magic Theo, his uncle and guardian, had devoted his all to…until Theo vanished. Grief-stricken, Becket followed Theo’s clues, sending him through a stone grid to Ket. With no magical ability, Becket must find Theo in a land where dragons roam the lowlands and magic evolved in men and women who aren’t apex predators and have settled in high aeries to survive.

Locating his uncle, however, is the easy part. Becket is a bibelot – non-magical. And Theo is recovering from a wild magic storm that hit his expedition to the lowlands. He can’t control his power.

They can’t go home.

Elders will permit a second expedition and Theo’s sole hope of obtaining frequency stone to stabilize his magic, but only if he allows seers to scry Becket’s sentinel first. Too bad the protector scried for Becket is Theo’s rival in this strange otherworld, another caster named Kellan Fik. And Kellan knows Theo and Becket aren’t what they seem.

While Becket travels to Kellan’s home in the tree canopy of Melaeum, Theo ventures to the lowlands for frequency stone, but reports of disaster come quickly.

Handfasting his enemy may be Becket’s last chance.

Goodness gracious alive, this set-up business is taking FOREVER. Okay, here’s the deal. I’m uploading the 6 chapters of Act 1: Safe Travels of the opus (oops, sorry, I mean, For Whom the Heart Stone Burns) on my website on holidays leading up to Beltane, May 1st. Chapter One was uploaded Christmas Day. Chapter Two was uploaded New Year’s Day. So if you haven’t caught either of those yet, just click on the links cause otherwise, Chapter Three below (and now included in the Heart Stone Hub here) might be a tad confusing. You can look forward to Chapter 4 on St. Patrick’s Day. Chapter 5 will be uploaded at Easter and finally, Chapter 6 and the end of Act 1: Safe Travels will go live on Beltane, May 1st. That’s about 32K of free altogether, but I’ve been in a very wtf-ever mood lately so…why the hell not? LOL.

All that said, here’s the next bits of Becket’s adventures (and misadventures) — I hope you’re enjoying your holiday and this trip of mine into freebie crazytown. 😉

My love to you all,
Kari

Chapter Three

A day passed while Becket waited for Toreth to scheme a means of sneaking Becket from Toreth’s room in the burrows of Nitcha to Theo in the top hold. “I can’t march you through the aerie and unbind the entrance of a top holder’s quarters,” Toreth grumbled into a bowl of thin soup flavored with chunks of unidentifiable root vegetables, a pebble-sized grain that tasted strongly of pine nuts, and crumbled basil Becket had shared from his trunk. “Even had I the power to gainsay a top holder’s protective wards, you can’t appear in public areas.” Toreth glared at him, as though all of this was Becket’s fault. “No low holder could resist the temptation. You would be handfasted or dead before we climbed the first spiral.”

“You resisted,” Becket pointed out.

“I am no typical low holder. Your presence proves that. I can cast.” Toreth’s brows lowered, a thunderous growl working from his chest. “You fouled the summoning at the last, but I managed the necessary magic.”

“You pulled me into your circle,” Becket agreed, focusing on his dinner. “I wouldn’t be here, if not for you,” he added to ensure Toreth knew exactly where Becket assigned the blame for his predicament.

“Goddess knows where you would’ve presented if I hadn’t cast widely.” Toreth flicked his braid over his shoulder, irritated lines bracketing both side of his mouth. “And you were supposed to be a demon.”

Becket’s total void of demon ancestry had been an endless source of annoyance to Toreth, almost as problematic as Becket’s lack of magic. “Get me to Theo and I’ll guarantee your entry to the top hold, no matter whose fault the wrecked summoning was.”

Over the past day, Becket had learned a great deal about his host. For one, until Becket had intruded into Toreth’s circle, Toreth had worked as a miner, the lowest strata of the social hierarchy here and the young man’s lone alternative after leaving the security of his kinhold, which Becket had eventually surmised were extended family groups. He hadn’t been able to shake loose why Toreth had parted from his family. About that, Toreth remained tight-lipped, but of the mines, he spoke with loquacious contempt. Only those incapable of casting or lacking kinhold connections to an appropriate craft were relegated to digging stone from the mountain.

Toreth’s determination to cast proved his ambition. “No more tunnels, I promise,” Becket said.

Toreth rolled his eyes. “Without magic, you can swear no oath, bibelot.”

Becket’s nose wrinkled at the epithet, yet unsure whether this designation for one devoid of magical power was grave insult or high honor. Toreth’s attitude when he referred to Becket as a bibelot went either way, depending on his mood. Just now, Toreth was playful so Beck elected against taking offense, instead pressing harder. “Theo will be grateful.”

Snorting, Toreth returned his attention to his meal. “He abandoned you.” His critical tone relayed his estimation of Becket’s uncle. “And I’ve word of your kinsman as well.” He frowned as he picked at his food. “Caster Douglas has been secluded in his quarters since leading an expedition to the lowlands last season.” He glanced at Becket, growling in disgust at Becket’s blank stare. “At least pretend you know the dangers of which I speak.” He pounded the floor with a fist. “Have you no sense of self-preservation?”

Becket’s heart pounded. “Theo’s hurt?”

With a sharp wave, Toreth dismissed Becket’s concern. “Lowland storms,” he said through gritted teeth. “Your kinsman’s party is rumored to suffer the aftermath of wild magic from one of these storms. And I’ll wager Nitcha’s entire supply of dragon’s teeth you’ve no notion what that means.” He stabbed an accusing finger at Becket. “Physically, he is said to be fit, but if you don’t soon learn guile, you won’t long be—despite my efforts. Or his.”

Relief at Theo’s well-being jellied Becket’s knees. When he opened his mouth, Toreth lifted his palm to quiet him. “No! Listen and heed me. He can’t protect you,” Toreth said. “Not won’t. Can’t.

Becket bristled. “Theo knows what he’s doing.” If nothing else, Becket’s presence here proved that. “And I can take care of myself.”

Toreth grimaced. “Such claims only confirm you are in more trouble than you understand.” The room abruptly darkened, not just the night Becket was accustomed to on earth with its array of starlight and the moon’s waxing or waning glow, but the utter black of quarters deep in the guts of a mountain. “Charge the light stones,” Toreth commanded, voice implacable. “If you can fend for yourself, producing light should be no small task.”

Becket fumbled inside his tunic and thanks to his Bic, he produced some God damn light. In the flicker of the lighter, he smirked at Toreth.

Who snarled ill temper. “Swing open my door then. Leave. Try.” Toreth laughed, a bitter sound rather than one of genuine mirth. The light stones perched in shallow depressions along the walls of Toreth’s quarters suddenly flared, returning the room’s brightness. As Becket’s pupils adjusted, Toreth waved at the pool of water at his quarter’s center. “Go ahead. Scry your kinsman. Let him know where you are.’

“That’s not fair,” Becket grumbled, replacing the Bic in his tunic. “You can’t scry him, either.”

“I’m not his kin. Or his fosterling.” Toreth crossed his arms over his chest. “As your elder kinsman, your heart stone should link you to him. It does not.” He tapped a foot. “You have no magic. Nor, apparently, does your kinsman, at least not reliably. How can you not grasp your peril?”

Oh, Becket appreciated that. “Just get me to Theo.” Everything would be okay, as long as he made it to his uncle. “He’ll vouch for you. You win your promotion to a higher level of the aerie. I win my uncle back.”

“Caster Douglas solicited a master seer before his expedition last autumn. The elders would never have permitted a foreigner to assemble a team of lowland explorers otherwise. The disturbance of his powers caused by the wild magic storm that overtook the expedition stalled the seer’s search, but the top hold’s patience is at an end.” Toreth blew out a long breath. “I can smuggle you into the top hold with the seer’s visit, but what then?”

“When?”

Toreth pinned him with a cold, assessing stare. “How old are you? Why is your hair shorn if your kinsman lives? From whence have you come? And why has there been no rumor of your existence until now?”

Becket waved the questions away. “When can you take me to Theo?”

“I have never met anyone so much a menace to himself.” Rubbing his temples, Toreth sighed. “Barring, perhaps, me. Fine. We’ll leave before dawn.”

* * *

Overruling Becket’s vehement protests, Toreth had left Becket’s trunk in his room when they crept from Toreth’s quarters while the rest of the aerie was largely still abed. “By the horn, stop fidgeting,” Toreth hissed in the quiet of a terrace in which they’d taken refuge after a terrifying but thankfully brief race through a series of narrow twisting corridors and cramped staircases.

“I’m not fidgeting. I’m shivering,” Becket whispered, teeth chattering as he crouched behind Toreth who, for all his arrogance and censure, was a good foot shorter than Becket. “You’re not much of a windbreak. Is it always so cold here?”

Toreth tossed an incredulous glance over his shoulder. “Yes.” He turned back to the towering cliff face in front of them. “If you swear to never again ask what conditions are normal, I’ll obtain a cloak and gloves for you on our way.”

Becket rubbed his palms together for warmth. “Done.”

Chuckling, Toreth shook his head. “Stay.”

While Becket shuddered in the chill morning, Toreth crawled into a maze of pillars dripping with the husks of dead and withered plants, all that separated them from the towering cliff wall. His shadowy form blended into the pre-dawn gloom. As soon as Toreth disappeared in the dark, Becket reached for the stone necklace Toreth had given him before opening the door to leave his rooms and, indeed, fidgeted. “Fairy stone,” the man had said, tying the necklace close to Becket so the rock, pierced by a weathered hole just off center, nestled in the hollow of Becket’s throat. “It’s the only sigil I have, save my blood, to disguise you as of my kinhold.” He flashed a tight smile. “Guards the bearer against ill fortune too.”

Becket hoped so. He had a feeling he’d need all the good luck he could scrounge.

When he spotted a Toreth-shaped silhouette scaling the cliff moments later, he changed his mind—Toreth needed the charm more than Becket did. Especially if Toreth had the insane idea that Becket would follow him up that wall. Uh uh. Not a chance. Heart stopped, breath locked in his lungs, he watched Toreth’s rapid ascent, like a spider scrambling up the sheer rock Becket would’ve sworn hadn’t the shallowest of fingerholds, but as the horizon blushed on the cusp of sunrise, he realized the escarpment had been smoothed only at the terrace’s level. Ten feet up, just out of reach, jutting edges and cracks gave Toreth leverage to heave himself upward. Becket’s heart didn’t start beating again until Toreth scooted over the top.

He craned his neck, staring up the dim mountain, where the tip of the aerie disappeared into wispy clouds. Theo was up there? How far? With the horizon lazily brightening as day chased away night, Becket’s gaze hopscotched upward right and left, tracing black lines of similar terraced gardens chiseled from the mountain marching skyward.

He jumped, startled, when a coil of rope flew over the side of the high crag beyond which Toreth had disappeared. It unraveled on its way down, one end anchored with Toreth and the other puddling scant yards from Becket. Toreth’s head emerged over the side of the cliff. He waved Becket to the rope.

Becket shook his head. He wasn’t climbing, even with a safety line.

Toreth pointed an adamant finger down to the rope’s end.

“No way.” Becket flashed a finger of his own.

Apparently, the fuck-you finger required no extra interpretation on Ket. Toreth’s soft though no less furious snarl filtered from above. “Do it. Now.”

After two years of training and three more working a full roster of clients as a massage therapist, Becket was strong. He didn’t have the physique of a weightlifter and his back injury from the wreck still occasionally troubled him, but constant exercise of his hands and arms had developed muscle by the plenty. Wending slowly through the rows of pillars to the rock wall, he trailed his gaze along the rope from the bottom to Toreth waiting above him and knew he could physically handle the climb. He hadn’t hesitated because of anxiety that his body wouldn’t pass the test.

He’d said no because he was afraid of heights.

Well. Fear was such a strong word, wasn’t it? Not entirely accurate. He wasn’t afraid. High places just made him dizzy. And a little short of breath. Sometimes, his heart sped up and he broke out in a cold sweat. A panic attack halfway up a cliff didn’t strike him as an especially smart risk to take.

Closer up, though, he could see that Toreth had tied Becket’s end of the rope into a makeshift harness, which was a good deal more comforting than a simple safety line. When he glanced up, surprised, Toreth’s shadowy figure pantomimed threading his legs through the variously knotted loops and Becket’s relief warred with pride.

Relief—and his desperation to reach Theo—won.

He pulled the tangle of ropes to his hips, heeding Toreth’s exaggerated motions showing him how to cinch the harness tight. Positive he’d fastened himself in as best as he could, he gave Toreth a thumb’s up and the other man again disappeared above. Seconds later, the rope pulled taut and Becket lifted from the ground as Toreth hefted him upward.

Stupid, really. Becket was bigger than Toreth. Becket thought he had a fair shot at beating Toreth in a fist fight as long as magic wasn’t involved in the scuffle. Toreth was lean, fit, a body that had filled out with compact muscle from mining. But Becket was stronger. Toreth would wear himself out hauling Becket up terrace after terrace and Becket needed Toreth at one hundred percent. Becket certainly had no idea what he’d face in the top hold or how to gain access to Theo.

At the same time, the notion of scaling the hard granite unaided churned Becket’s stomach. Or maybe being so far from the ground had done that. He snapped his eyes shut, hoping if he didn’t see how high he was, then he might hold onto to his hurried breakfast of bland grains. Since he was no coward, he opened his eyes, though. Don’t look down. Skin crawling, he braced his feet against the rock, straightened his legs, and helped Toreth by rappelling up the wall.

Toreth must have been stronger than Becket had given him credit, because the man yanked him over the lip of the precipice fast. Becket abetted Toreth’s tug by digging his feet in and pushing while his fingers scrabbled at the hard unforgiving rock. At the top, he rolled to his back, stared up at the lightening sky, and willed his stomach to settle while he sucked in gulps of oxygen.

Toreth materialized above him. “Three more climbs,” he whispered. He made short work of stripping the harness down Becket’s thighs and his suddenly wobbly legs. “Thrice more and we’ll be high enough to access the interior spirals unimpeded.”

Shuddering, partly from the cold stone leeching into him through his thin clothes, Becket dragged himself to his feet. He staggered after Toreth who had already winded the rope around his torso. He reached up to begin his ascent. “Three,” Becket said, swallowing sour bile as Toreth scaled the next terrace’s cliff face like Spiderman. “Yeah. Right.”

He’d deal with it, though. If only to prove to Toreth that he could. No whining.

Becket almost broke that oath at the top of that escarpment. He’d scraped his hands and torn the leggings over his right knee on the way up. His palms stung, alarming Becket since he made his living with his hands. He would have complained then—if he’d managed to catch a lung full of air before Toreth scrambled up the next cliff’s face.

He definitely would have bitched about the last ascension, but Toreth thrust a hooded cape at him as soon as Becket joined him at the top. “We farm these outcroppings and workers occasionally leave items behind,” he said. “Don’t let the fabric billow during your climb.”

Becket hurriedly donned the promised garment, grateful for the extra warmth. The mindless panic during his ascents had gripped him so fiercely he’d little attention for the cold numbing his fingers. “Thank you,” he said…to Toreth’s shadow. The man was already several feet up the wall.

Did he not tire? He must be exhausted after hauling Becket’s dead weight up several hundred feet. Becket wasn’t a big guy, but at two hundred pounds, he was no dainty flower, either. Even recalling and imitating rappelling scenes in action/adventure movies, Becket’s efforts couldn’t have helped Toreth much. When he reached the top this time, Becket heaved to his hands and knees more quickly, fast enough to catch Toreth’s rapid untangling of the rope’s other end from a pulley.

Huh.

“My forebears designed and carved these terraces from the mountain,” Toreth said under his breath as he gathered the rope. He wedged the coil behind the pulley gears and snatched long gloves abandoned on a stone shelf beside it. He tossed the gloves to Becket. “My kinhold has been farming them ever since.”

His disparaging tone and the grim set of his jaw didn’t invite questions so Becket, shaking from nerves and the frigid temperatures, simply pulled the gloves up his forearms, frowning when he encountered two holes at the tip—a smaller one for his thumb. His fingers fed through the larger gap, as a grumbling Toreth demonstrated. “Roll the fabric down your fingers to warm them,” Toreth instructed and then eyed Becket balefully as sunlight finally glinted on the highest surrounding mountain peaks. He yanked, ungently, the hood of the cloak over Becket’s head and secured it at Becket’s throat. “Volunteer nothing inside. Say nothing. Do nothing unless I have done it first.” He gave the cloak a final jerk. “Follow my lead. As much as your kinsman’s seer may suspect you are not what you seem, she will not know unless you confirm it.”

Becket frowned. “You said Theo’s stone would mask my lack of magic only superficially, that I couldn’t hide that long.”

A corner of Toreth’s mouth curved. “I didn’t mean your status as a bibelot.”

“The only other thing that makes me different is coming through your circle,” Becket said, confusion swirling inside him. “Theo came through the stones and nobody—”

“—can ever know,” Toreth smoothly interrupted. Snickering, he clapped Becket’s shoulder. “Come. A seer’s power is strongest at dawn and dusk, when the influence of the sun on the physical and the moon on the spiritual intermix. We’ve no time to squander. Just do as I say and we will both finish this day with our positions considerably improved.”

* * *

Becket fretted over Toreth’s revelation so intently he barely noticed the path Toreth forged to the top hold, Toreth’s hand firmly gripping Becket’s and forcing Becket to keep pace. True, Becket only had Toreth and the sparse accoutrements of Toreth’s quarters to judge, but he’d believed all on Ket possessed the powers Becket had denied and Theo had coveted throughout Becket’s entire life. Technology had been noticeably absent. Becket had furtively tried his cell phone only once and hurriedly turned it off to conserve his battery before burying it in his trunk after he’d confirmed the phone was useless. Toreth’s magic powered everything, from the light stones perched within shallow depressions in the walls to speckled heat stones upon which Toreth cooked meals. Magic triggered the release of Toreth’s door. It activated the pool of water—a scrying pool, Toreth had explained, for communication and divining—in the middle of Toreth’s quarters.

Magic was everywhere.

Toreth calling him into his circle hadn’t struck Becket as extraordinary, not here and in this context. Theo travelling through his stones to Ket, either, for that matter.

But that was a big deal. Toreth’s warning that Becket should not speak of it testified to that. What could that mean?

They winded up stairs cut into stone and corkscrewing steeply within the mountain, each stair’s edge weathered by the march of countless feet over time. After Toreth dragged him up what felt like thousands of spiraling steps, Toreth led him through an arched door and into a higher level of the aerie. The stairway’s exit opened into an airy hall, astounding because wide spaces with cathedral ceilings had been noticeably absent in the burrows below. Instead of cramped, gloomy corridors, the hallways branching off this boundless chamber stretched wide enough to comfortably receive several men and women side by side. Lifting his gaze in amazement as Toreth shepherded him through the cavernous space, Becket mentally contrasted the elegant stone flourishes that detailed the area against the sparse lines in the burrows from which they’d come. Here, too, the people strolled, some in purposeful marches but most ambling lackadaisically. The haste of below wasn’t in evidence in the top holds. Becket blended in with the embroidered trim on his tunic. Others, like Toreth, in basic clothing meandered through the hall, but damned few.

“Let me do the talking,” Toreth said as he steered Becket to a side corridor. “Master Seer Hannick,” he called ahead to a woman dressed ostentatiously in a purple tunic and leggings, the color as vivid as Toreth’s startling eyes. Unlike Toreth and many of the others they’d passed in the hall, her honey blonde hair hung freely to her waist, with only thin braids at either side framing her face. Purple threads, intermittently wrapped around the slender braids, caught the morning’s first light. “Master Seer Hannick,” Toreth said again.

She slowed, whether to greet them or in surprise to be hailed, Becket didn’t know. Toreth slipped by her side, his sure grip tugging Becket along. “You are to the quarters of Caster Douglas? We’ve business there as well.”

“Have we met?” The seer narrowed her eyes—also purple, if more a pale lavender—on Toreth. “I’d been told Caster Douglas has received no visitors since his return from the lowlands.”

Smiling, Toreth raised the hand he’d clasped with Becket’s. “We aren’t visitors.”

Hannick’s eyebrow arched. “Indeed?” At Toreth’s nod, her chilly scrutiny shifted to Becket. He resisted the urge to straighten his clothes at the critical line wrinkling her forehead and the frown that thinned her lips. “The elders and seers have not been apprised of kin to Caster Douglas.”

Toreth deflected the criticism with a beaming smile bright enough to melt the rock under their boots. “It’s a surprise.”

Becket snorted. You bet. But he kept his yap shut, belatedly mirroring Toreth’s manufactured smile when the seer stared at him. “Well, he’s the look of Caster Douglas and his power, though not as strong, shares the same strange warble…” She scowled, leaning toward Becket. She flicked the hood from his head with a darting finger. “Whatever has he done to his hair?” Hannick glared at Becket and Toreth both. “If Caster Douglas presumes a death in his until now non-existent kinhold will delay our long-deferred consultation—”

“Not at all,” Toreth said, the wooden smile increasing its wattage to supernova intensity. “Hearing tales of the expedition and believing his kinsman had crossed over, the boy cut his hair as his mourning sigil. As is proper.” He stopped at another arched doorway and bowed to Hannick. “Mistaken, of course. Caster Douglas survived the disaster and now, here we are.”

“Yes, here we are.” Toreth’s effusiveness didn’t fool the seer, judging by her frown. Nervous flutters stirred in Becket’s stomach when Hannick pinned her assessing stare on him. “He doesn’t know you’ve come, does he? Nor want you in Nitcha. He hasn’t sent for you. I’d know.”

Becket gulped, shifting his glance to Toreth for guidance, but the man just smiled. “Uh…No,” he admitted, shifting on his feet in the uncomfortable boots made for Theo. “But he’ll be glad to see me.”

The seer chuckled. “I sincerely doubt that, but his reaction will be entertaining nonetheless.” She nodded at the door, which swung inward. She waved to the unbarred entrance. “By all means, after you.”

* ~ * ~ *

You can look forward to more of Becket’s adventures (and misadventures!) on Ket on St. Patrick’s Day, March 17th so…mark your calenders! 🙂

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