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Once an exile, Matthias returns to lead his home Enclave and settles into a new life with his beloved Solomon. Struggling with his new role and responsibilities toward the new town of Sanctuary and the people who had once rejected him, he knows that the relative peace he’s found is temporary — the forces that destroyed Haven are still out there, and he knows that they’ll come looking for him. Until they do, there are alliances to make, mouths to feed, and people who look to him to protect them. Then tragedy strikes, sending Matthias, Solomon and Tam out once more, seeking answers in the forbidden north; answers that may lead to new beginnings, or to the end of everything they’ve ever known.

Where Home Lies

Elizabeth A. Schechter


an imprint of

Fantastic Fiction Publishing

Copyright 2017 Elizabeth A. Schechter
Smashwords Edition


A ForbiddenFiction book

Fantastic Fiction Publishing Hayward, California

© Elizabeth A. Schechter, 2017

All rights reserved. No part of this work may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without permission from the publisher, except as allowed by fair use. For more information, contact publisher@forbiddenfiction.com.

Editor: Lon Sarver
Cover Design: Siolnatine
Cover photo: Original art by Natalya Nesterova.
Production Editor: Kaye O'Malley
Proofreading: G. Rose

SKU: ES1-1.000294-01 SW
ISBN: 978-1-62234-333-1

Published in the United States of America


This book is a work of fiction which contains explicit erotic content; it is intended for mature readers. Do not read this if it’s not legal for you.

All the characters, locations and events herein are fictional. While elements of existing locations or historical characters or events may be used fictitiously, any resemblance to actual people, places or events is coincidental. All characters depicted in sexual acts in this work of fiction are 18 years of age or older.

This story is not intended to be used as an instruction manual. It may contain descriptions of erotic acts that are immoral, illegal, or unsafe. Do not take the events in this story as proof of the plausibility or safety of any particular practice.

Such content should not be read as a depiction of the desires, opinions, or fetishes of the author or the staff of ForbiddenFiction.com.



Chapter 1. Unexpected Visitors

Chapter 2. Alliances

Chapter 3. Meeting of the Minds

Chapter 4. Weaving the Ends Together

Chapter 5. The Assembly Rules

Chapter 6. Balanced on the Edge

Chapter 7. Gathering the Broken Pieces

Chapter 8. How the Pieces Fit

Chapter 9. Theory and Practice

Chapter 10. Midwinter Sweet

Chapter 11. The Walls Come Tumbling Down

Chapter 12. Last Rites

Chapter 13. Uncomfortable Truths

Chapter 14. Into the Pyre

Chapter 15. Bound for the North

Chapter 16. Northern Veils

Chapter 17. First Impressions

Chapter 18. Bloodlines

Chapter 19. Family Matters

Chapter 20. Into Darkness

Chapter 21. Finding the Way

Chapter 22. Tangled Webs

Chapter 23. The Web Unravels

Chapter 24. Shadows in Shadow

Chapter 25. Unanswerable

Chapter 26. The Bonds We Choose

Chapter 27. Before the Fall

Chapter 28. Actions and Reactions

Chapter 29. On the Ground

Chapter 30. Rumors, Secrets and Lies

Chapter 31. Secrets Discovered

Chapter 32. Leavetaking

Chapter 33. Back to the Ruins

Chapter 34. Down the Stairs

Chapter 35. Stones

Chapter 36. Countdown

Chapter 37. Release

Chapter 38. Return

Chapter 39. Renewal

Chapter 40. Spring

About the Author

About the Publisher

Chapter 1: Unexpected Visitors

The deer was perfect. It was a buck, muzzle gray with age, its many-pronged antlers majestic in the early morning sun. It picked its path delicately along the snowy trail, blowing and grunting. This late into the mating season, the odds of the buck finding a receptive doe were slim, but it continued to call, a lonely sound in the still morning. Matthias watched from the blind he’d built in a low tree, raising his bow and waiting. He’d been awake and out here since before dawn, listening to the world stretch and yawn itself awake, and trying very hard not to think.

Matthias found peace in hunting these days, peace that didn’t seem to exist within the walls of the growing town they now called Sanctuary. Peace that hadn’t existed for weeks now, not since the reality of his new life sank in. Out here, at least, he didn’t have to worry about how they were going to feed the ever-increasing population of the town for the rest of the winter, or where they were going to house the next batch of ragged survivors who stumbled out of the forests, looking for a safe place to call home. He didn’t have to think about the friction between the newcomers, desperate for a new home, and the original inhabitants of Sanctuary, unwilling to trust the newcomers. He didn’t have to think about the burdens of leadership, a role that he’d never wanted. He didn’t have to fret over the fates of Linnea and the gryphons of Haven, or wonder if he was ever going to find out what had happened to them. He didn’t have to ask himself if today was the day that the nameless, faceless menace hiding somewhere in the north would finally descend on Sanctuary, would finally succeed in killing him. For a few hours, it was himself, his bow, and the quiet, sleeping forests. And perhaps, on a day like today, there would be a deer. He watched as the buck pawed at the snow, uncovering the sparse growth beneath the frost. It lowered its head to graze, turning just enough — Matthias drew, aimed and released the arrow all in a single breath. The buck heard the bowstring as it thrummed, and leapt to flee, but the arrow found its heart, and it fell with a mourning bleat and a heavy thump. Matthias let out the breath he’d been holding, a white plume in the cold air, then swung down from the blind and went to go collect his prize.

If there was one thing that magic was good for, it was making dressing a deer carcass a simple job. No more wrestling with a body weighing nearly as much as he did — he just lifted it off the ground and hung it in mid-air until he was done. Then he buried the steaming offal and started back to the town, the body floating behind him. He was halfway there when he saw someone on the path — a man, heavily bundled up against the cold. The man waved and called his name.


“Good morning, Samuel!” Matthias called back, relieved. “What brings you out this early?”

“The boys wanted to check the fish trap in the stream. They ran on ahead,” Samuel answered, waving his arm to indicate the path of the two orphaned boys that he and his wife had taken in a few weeks prior. “I couldn’t keep them at table this morning. Simon told me that he wants to be like you, and help provide for the town. He wants to ask if you’ll teach him to shoot, too.”

Matthias felt his face warm, and found himself grinning. “I’d be happy to, but we’ll have to make a bow for him. He wouldn’t be able to draw mine yet. He’s how old?”

“He says he’ll be ten come spring thaw. Luke is a bit younger, we think.”

Matthias nodded. “And has Luke started talking yet?”

Samuel sighed. “Not yet. Soon, we hope. Once he really understands that he’s safe.” He shook his head. “Part of me wishes I knew what scared the words right out of him. And the rest is glad I don’t know. But he is coming around. This fish trap was his idea — he drew the plans in the dirt, then showed us how to make the basket. I think his people must have been fisher folk, or lived on the water.”

“Which means he’d walked a good ways before he reached us,” Matthias said, thinking of the map that now hung in the study of the Assembly house. “He’s lucky.”

“He’s not the only one. I’m a lucky man,” Samuel said. He glanced past Matthias and his eyes widened. “And you, too! You’ve been busy!”

Matthias looked back and smiled. “Sometimes, it’s like they ask for the arrow. I want to get this back to the tannery — it’s easier to skin while it’s still warm. Tell the boys I want to see this trap of theirs?”

“I’ll tell them,” Samuel said. “Just be prepared to have two shadows for the rest of the day.”

Matthias nodded. “How is that different from the rest of the time?” He laughed with Samuel, more in wonder than amusement. It had to be the most surprising part of coming back — that he was suddenly considered a hero to many of the children in Sanctuary. To go from having children hurried away from him, lest the touch of his shadow taint them with his mother’s sins, to having the newcomer children following him like a pack of puppies — well, he’d certainly never expected that! And, if he was being honest with himself, he was enjoying it. Some of the people who’d originated in Sanctuary, who’d lived under Cyrus, still looked at him as if he was going to sprout a tail and fangs.

The rest of the walk back to Sanctuary was quiet. He approached the gates, waving at the watchman who stood sentry over them. He couldn’t see if it was Tam or not, and there was another worry to add to the growing pile. Tam had taken on the training of young men and women to act as guards and peacekeepers, and had thrown himself into that role. But there was something missing, something that had been lost the night he and Ilane had walked away from the hut to enter the Enclave for the first time. Matthias was fairly certain that knew what it was. But since he was still searching for it himself, he didn’t know how to help Tam find it again. Or even, really, what to call it in the first place. The watchman waved back, and Matthias sighed and entered Sanctuary.

It was still early enough that the square was empty. The streets had been swept clear of snow since the last storm, and it was an easy walk across to the far side of the town, where the tannery backed up against the wall. The actual tanning sheds were a good distance outside the wall, but the Tanners lived within the walls, keeping their shop next door to the cobblers. As he passed the Samuel’s door, Matthias waved to Helen, Samuel’s wife.

“Good morning, Matthias,” she called. “Did Sam see you?”

“He did,” Matthias called back. “And I’ll go back out with your boys later to see this fish trap. Are the Tanners at home, do you know?”

“I saw Jonah going to the sheds, but I think Oscar is still at home.”

“And just about to head to the sheds myself,” Oscar Tanner called out. He came closer, then whistled. “That’s a fine looking buck. I’ll skin it here. Will you want the antlers for carving? Solomon was telling me he needed buttons—”

Matthias shook his head. “I don’t carve. I never managed the knack of it. I’ve always wanted to learn, though. But I barely have time to think any more, let alone learn to carve.”

Oscar nodded. “I’ll make sure Sam knows there’s to be a set of buttons for you, then. Unless you want a knife hilt?”

“If Solomon says we need buttons, then let’s have buttons,” Matthias said. “Two sets. And a straight length for Solomon. He wants to teach me to play the flute, which means he needs to make another one. I can wait and take the meat with me.”

“No, you’ve enough to do. I’ll bring him around once I’ve got his coat off, and Mistress Ilane can see to the distribution. Any word on the grain?”

Matthias groaned. “How did you know about that?”

“Samuel told me, but made me promise to keep it to myself. So?”

Matthias swore silently. So much for keeping things quiet until they figured it out. He’d have to talk to Samuel. No, no, he’d ask William to talk to Samuel about keeping Assembly business quiet until they had answers. “Not yet,” he admitted. “Grandmother didn’t even know they had a surplus, and Uriah won’t tell us where they hid it. If we hadn’t found Jubal’s records on it, we’d never have known.”

“Here’s hoping you find it.”

Matthias nodded. “While we’re hoping, how about for an early spring and for all the trees on the west side to disappear so we don’t have to do the work to clear them?”

Oscar laughed. “I’ll hope for that, too. Let me get the cart, and I’ll take the beast.”

Once the deer was safely in Oscar’s hands, Matthias walked back across the square, toward the Assembly house. At the gate, he stopped and looked up at the two-story structure. Creators, how he hated this place! There was no amount of cleaning that made it feel comfortable, no amount of magic he could pour into it to remove the feel that Cyrus was still haunting the place. At first, he and Solomon had stayed at the mill. He’d have been happy to stay there, getting to know his grandmother and learning how to work the mill. Now, though, there were a pair of young refugees staying with Rachel, the twin son and daughter of a miller from another Enclave. Both Gideon and Delilah knew far more about working the mill than Matthias did, and were more help to Rachel, so he’d ceded his place and he and Solomon had moved into Assembly house to join Tam and Ilane.

At least the nightmares weren’t as bad, he thought with a sigh, and passed through the gate. He skirted around the house to the kitchen door, letting himself in there. Inside, he stopped, smiling and leaning against the door frame. Solomon was working at the stove, his back to the door. Whatever he was making smelled amazing, and Matthias’ stomach rumbled.

Solomon went still, then laughed. “You left without eating again,” he said without turning. “Breakfast will be ready in a few minutes.” He glanced over his shoulder and grinned. “Left without eating and without combing your hair. Bad night?”

“Do I have any good ones anymore?” Matthias asked. He leaned his unstrung bow against the wall and dropped his quiver next to it, reminding himself to put both away after he’d eaten. He took off the scarf that he’d wound around his neck and hung it on a peg, then moved over to stand behind Solomon, wrapping his arms around Solomon’s waist, resting his cheek against Solomon’s back. “Yeah. Bad night.”

“Thought so,” Solomon said, his voice a rumble in Matthias’ ear. “I might have another bruise or two from you tossing and turning.”

“Shit,” Matthias muttered. “Sorry.”

“No worries, magic-man. Go sit. There’s tea on the table. How was hunting?”

“Took a buck. Nice one, too,” Matthias answered. He let go of Solomon and went to sit at the table. “I took it to Oscar, who’ll bring it to you and Ilane later. He’ll also be bringing us a couple of sets of buttons from the antlers. He said you told him you wanted some.”

Solomon nodded, ladling something into a bowl. “He’s right. You need a new coat.”

“A coat would get in the way of my draw,” Matthias muttered. He poured a cup of tea and wrapped his hands around it. “I’d rather have a new vest. A heavy one.”

“Which you won’t wear, because if it’s heavy enough to keep you warm, it will still get in the way of your draw,” Solomon jibed gently. He brought the bowl over and set it down in front of Matthias, then tugged his messy braid. Obediently, Matthias tipped his head back, closing his eyes as Solomon kissed him. He could taste tea and honey on Solomon’s lips, and something spicy and warm, and underneath that, the unique flavor that he recognized as just being Solomon. He reached up and slid his hand around the back of Solomon’s neck, prolonging the kiss, feeling Solomon laughing against his lips.

Behind him, he heard the door open, then laughter. “Good morning, my dears,” Rachel called.

Reluctantly, Matthias let Solomon go. “Good morning, Grandmother,” he said, turning in his chair. “Have you eaten?”

“I invited her to eat with us,” Solomon said. “Eat with me, since I wasn’t sure when you’d be back. There’s tea, Rachel, and I’ll fill a bowl.”

“Thank you,” Rachel said. She sat down on Matthias’ left, and smiled as he poured tea for her. “I see you went hunting,” she said to him, reaching out and pulling a leaf out of his hair. “Really, Matthias, you should let me cut this — ”

“No,” Solomon said without turning.

“But — ”

“Not cutting his hair. No.” Solomon carried two bowls over to the table, handed one to Rachel, then sat down across from her.

Matthias grinned at his grandmother and shook his head. “I don’t want to cut it, Grandmother. Now eat. We’re meeting today, aren’t we?”

Rachel nodded. “The others should be along soon.”

“I saw Samuel out in the woods,” Matthias said, taking a spoonful of the thick stew. He chewed and swallowed, then sighed. “We’re going to have to talk to him again about not discussing Assembly business until we have it resolved.”

Solomon sighed. “Who’d he tell about Uriah and the grain?”

“Oscar Tanner.”

Solomon frowned. “He won’t spread it around, will he?”

“Probably not, no,” Rachel said. “We’ll talk to him. Eat, Matthias. They’ll be here soon.”

Rachel was right; by the time Matthias had finished his bowl, the rest of the Assembly had arrived. Solomon filled a large teapot and carried it into the dining room. Matthias followed him, taking his usual seat at the long table. The dining room had become their meeting space — the shelves that once held plates and bowls were now filled with books and papers, opposite a large map of the town tacked to the wall. Rachel sat down across from Matthias, and Ilane came and sat next to her.

“Oscar Tanner tells me that there’s a deer?” she said, helping herself to some tea. “That will help.”

“We’re still that bad?” Matthias asked. She grimaced.

“We’ll discuss that in a moment,” William Baker said as he took the seat at the head of the table. Samuel Cobbler took the chair to Matthias’ right, folding his hands on the table.

“Let’s begin,” William said. “Ilane, how many refugees did we take in yesterday?”

“Seventeen,” Ilane answered. “Five men, seven women, and five children under the age of ten. I have their names here, and I’ve found space for all of them. But three of the women don’t seem… well, they’re not typical.”

“Typical how?” William asked.

“Two of them came in armed, and they appear to know how to use their weapons,” Ilane answered.

Matthias coughed. “Then they’re not from an Enclave. Ask Tam to see if they’re from the Underground.”

Ilane scowled slightly, but nodded. “Once I see him. If I see him. Supplies are low, even with the deer Matthias brought in this morning, and the fish — ”

“The basket worked?” Matthias asked, turning toward Samuel.

“Better than I think even Luke expected,” Samuel answered, beaming. “He’s very proud of himself right now.”

“He should be,” Rachel said. “Now, go on, Ilane.”

“There’s very little grain left. Foraging has brought in acorns, honey, and some winter apples, but that’s hardly enough. Especially since we still have people refusing to accept the meat that Matthias brings in.”

Matthias sighed. “Not a surprise. They’re worried about it poisoning them.”

“That’s idiotic. They need to eat. I’ve got two pregnant women who are being refused proper meals by their husbands because of this stupidity.” Ilane scowled. Then she folded her hands on the table and sighed. “I don’t know. We need to do something, and I can’t think what.”

“What did you do in Haven?” Matthias asked. “I wasn’t there long enough to learn where the food came from.”

“There were large farms on the far side of Haven, and in some of the caves,” Ilane answered. “I don’t know much about them, other than the ones that grew the herbs I used to make tonics. They used special mage-lights and some technology I was never clear on.”

Matthias sighed. “So that’s no good.”

“Perhaps not. There might have been something similar in the Underground,” Ilane suggested. “Tam might know.”

“Will you speak to him?” William asked. Ilane sighed.

“It might be better if Matthias talks to him. Or if you do. I hardly see him anymore, and when I do, he barely speaks to me. I’ve had hardly ten words from him in the past week,” she said slowly. “I don’t know what I’ve done — no, this isn’t the place. That was a lovely deer, Matthias.”

“Thank you. Oscar said he’d bring it to you.”

“He’s butchering it for me now,” Ilane said. She looked down at her hands. “What are we going to do?”

Matthias looked up to see William looking at him. He swallowed, and nodded. “I know,” he said. His mouth felt dry. “I know what you’re going to say. I can make him tell us. I just — ”

“We understand your reluctance,” William said gently. “But what else can we do?”

Matthias swallowed around the lump in his throat. He nodded again, then rested his hands flat on the table. “May I be excused for a moment?” Once William nodded, he rose and went back to the kitchen. Solomon was sitting at the table; he looked up when Matthias came in, then jumped to his feet.

“Matt?” he asked. Then he groaned. “You’re going to do it?”

“No choice,” Matthias answered. “Either he tells us where the surplus grain is stored, or we all starve. I just… I don’t have to like it, Sol.”

“I know,” Solomon said. He poured a cup of tea and offered it to Matthias. “I know, love. Do you want me to go with you?”

Matthias shook his head. He took the tea and sipped it, then sighed. “No. I don’t want you to see me being like them. I’ll take William and Samuel, and then I’ll go be sick in the woods for a bit.”

“Are you sure?” Solomon asked. Before Matthias could answer, there was a commotion from the front of the house. Matthias glanced at Solomon, then started toward the door, pulling his shields around himself. As he reached it, the door swung open.

“There you are!” Tam exclaimed, breathless and red-faced, unkempt and unshaven, looking as if he hadn’t bathed or changed his clothes in days. “Come on. You have to see this. I saw them coming, and I still can’t believe it.”

“See what?” Matthias demanded. “See who? Tam, I haven’t seen you this worked up in weeks. What’s going on?”

“Come and see!”

Chapter 2: Alliances

Tam led the Assembly to the gates at the far side of Sanctuary, near where Matthias had been only that morning to deliver the deer. As they got closer, Matthias could hear the sound of voices, and the jingle of harness, but couldn’t see why until they reached the gates. Outside, and guarded by several of Tam’s peacekeepers, was a convoy — a string of four heavily-laden horse-drawn carts, accompanied by four mounted riders. On the first cart was an older woman, who climbed to the ground as the Assembly came into sight.

“Tam?” Matthias murmured. He stopped, and the rest of the Assembly drew in around him. “What is this?”

“That is Mother Selene,” Tam whispered back. “Head of the Underground Council. She told Zachary that she wants to talk to you. She specifically requested you by name.”

Matthias frowned. “They expect us to trust them? They expect me to trust them that far?”

“We can’t,” Ilane said. “They’ve tried to hurt you before, Matthias.”

“But they’re here,” William added. “Should we speak to them, or turn them away? Matthias?”

“Not my call to make,” Matthias said quickly. “I’m against it, but I’m biased.”

“I don’t have a say, but I say no,” Tam muttered. William nodded and looked around.

“Maybe a good idea to hear them out,” Samuel said. “I know they’ve been trouble before, but maybe they’ve come to make up for it? Maybe they can help us. Trade with us, or something?”

When Rachel nodded her agreement, William cleared his throat. “Then we talk,” he said. He turned and walked forward. Matthias hung back, letting the other members of the Assembly go first. He was hiding behind them, and he knew it. And, from the way Ilane took his hand, at least one other knew it, too.

William stopped a length from the first cart and the woman. “We are the Assembly of Sanctuary. I am William Baker, and I speak for us all. What do you want?”

Mother Selene hesitated, looking past William. Her gaze lingered on Matthias for a moment, then she looked past him. Then she looked away, focusing on William. “Alliance,” she said. “I am Mother Selene, and I speak — I spoke for the Underground. We existed outside the Elders’ rule, but we can no longer stand alone. We seek alliance against our common enemy,.”

Matthias felt Ilane’s hand shake, and squeezed her fingers gently. He swallowed and raised his voice, “Do you know who that enemy is?”

She looked at him, then looked around. “I ask that we speak on this in private. The very air is listening, we think.” She gestured to the carts. “We bring this — food and medical supplies. Gestures of our good will.”

William turned slightly. “Ilane, would you be able to tell if anything they brought is tainted?”

“Yes,” Ilane answered.

William nodded and turned back to face the group from the Underground. “On behalf of the Assembly, we offer you peace, and we will listen. We will find quarters for yourself and your companions — ”

“No need,” Selene interrupted. “I will be the only one who remains. The others were only my escort. Now that they have seen me safe, they will leave. We will not be a burden on you.” She walked toward the Assembly, her hands held out. “For now, I wish only to show you that you may trust me, and to offer you our trust in return.”

“We appreciate that, Selene,” William said. “Even though there are some who may feel that trust misplaced.”

Selene looked startled, then turned to look at Matthias. He gazed back at her, not moving, until she looked away. Her eyes seemed to focus on something behind him, and her face paled. Then she nodded. “I understand. And frankly, I cannot blame either of them.” She looked once more at Matthias. “I hope that I may change your minds.”

“We’ll see,” Matthias said softly.

“Not fucking likely,” he heard Tam mutter from behind him. Matthias glanced over his shoulder, saw Tam standing at his back, his arms folded over his chest.

“We don’t have a guest house,” Rachel said. “You’re welcome to stay with me, at the mill — ”

“Grandmother!” Matthias gasped. He went to her side and took her arm. “That’s not safe — ”

“We’re none of us safe, Matthias,” she answered. Then she pitched her voice low, “And if she says anything, or does anything, all those spells you’ve put on the mill to protect me will actually have a purpose.”

Matthias coughed. “Didn’t think you noticed those.”

“Silly boy. Of course I noticed. And I appreciate it.” She turned back to Selene. “You’re welcome to stay with me,” she repeated. “I’ll show you the way.”

“Thank you, Rachel,” William said. “Shall we meet to discuss this matter tomorrow morning?”

“No,” Selene said. She looked at them each in turn, her eyes again lingering longest on Matthias before looking back at William. “No, I’d like to meet as soon as we can. Immediately, if possible. It’s that urgent.” She folded her hands in front of her, and even at a distance, Matthias could see that they were shaking. He didn’t think it was from the cold. “Please?”

William nodded slowly, then turned to the others. “Any objections?” When no one answered, he cleared his throat. “Very well. We’ll meet — .”

“Two hours,” Matthias interrupted. “Give us time to go over the carts.”

William looked thoughtful. He looked at Selene, who nodded once, then turned back. “We’ll meet in two hours.”

Matthias spent the time before the meeting going over the carts and their contents, personally offloading each basket and box and examining them for spells and traps before passing them on to Ilane to check for poisons, all under the watchful eyes of Tam and his team of peacekeepers. Tam prowled around the carts like a watchful wolf, glaring at the vehicles as if he expected them to do something. As Matthias finished with the third cart, he realized that this was the longest Tam had spent around any of them since he’d healed from his injuries.

“Anything?” Matthias asked Ilane as he walked over to a table that had been set up inside the gates. Solomon sat at the table, bundled up to his ears against the cold, writing down what was in each cart as Ilane declared the contents safe.

“Nothing at all,” Ilane answered, handing Matthias a cup of lukewarm tea. “How do you feel?”

“Tired, but not from the magic,” Matthias answered, draining the cup. He turned to look at the carts. So much food! Bags of dried fruits and nuts. Jars of preserved fruit and of pickled vegetables. Baskets of dried meat and fish, and casks of salted. Great tubs of butter and cheese. The sight of the cheese had made Matthias’ mouth water. “How did she know to bring food?”

“Ask her?” Solomon suggested. “One left cart, right?”

“One left,” Matthias agreed. “Are you sure you don’t want a warming spell?”

“You’re busy enough,” Solomon looked down at his papers. “Don’t waste the energy on me.”

“It’s never a waste,” Matthias said. Solomon smiled up at him, and waved him on. Matthias laughed and went to the last cart, holding one hand over the canvas cover and probing with his magic the way that Melora had taught him. Again, nothing, and he tugged the cover free, only to stop and stare at the heavy burlap bags. He tugged one open and plunged his hand in, crowing with laughter.

“Matthias?” Ilane came and joined him. “What is it?”

“Grain!” he answered. He pulled his hand out and let the groats run like water through his fingers. “These bags — I think they’re all grain!”

Ilane stared, wide-eyed. “That’s — is it enough?”

“Not for the rest of the winter, I don’t think. But enough to feed us for a while.” He counted the bags twice, then called, “I have to check each bag, but there are twenty here.” He frowned, letting his magic flow through the bags, searching for traps that he was almost certain he wouldn’t find. He shook his head and looked at Ilane. “Nothing. They’re safe, at least in terms of traps or spells.”

“We’ll take these directly to the mill once I’m done with them,” Ilane said. “Then I’ll join you at the meeting. You go on, Matthias. It’s almost time.”

Matthias looked up, squinting as he judged the angle of the weak, winter light. “I think you’re right.”

“Even if I’m not, you need to get washed up. You look like a wild man — there are still leaves in your hair from this morning.” Ilane made shooing motions with her hands. “I’ll be along as soon as I’m finished and we get these moved.”

“She’ll be along sooner,” Solomon called out. “I’ll take over once Ilane is done, get these things where they need to be. And Tam can help me get the grain to the mill and get the horses seen to.”

Tam looked like he was going to object, but closed his mouth before he said anything. He nodded once and turned away. Matthias glanced at Solomon, who nodded.

“All right,” Matthias said. “I’ll see you at the house.” He trotted back in through the gates, heading for Assembly house.

Solomon was watching him. Tam knew without looking — it was like an itching between his shoulder blades. He knew. He always knew. He knew why, too. Solomon was worried about him. They all were, and they all watched him. It was to the point that he couldn’t bear the itch any more, the knowing that they were going to watch him and wonder. Just knowing made it harder to go back to the house when he wasn’t on duty. They’d worry, and they’d wonder. And they’d watch him.

It had been hard, at first, to not give in to their worry. To admit his weakness and to let them take care of him, the way they’d all cared for Matthias when he’d needed it. But he couldn’t. Couldn’t tell them the truth, couldn’t let them know what had happened in the mill. He had betrayed them, and that was unforgivable. He didn’t deserve their care, or their worry. He didn’t even deserve the healing that Ilane had lavished on him, because he deserved everything that had happened to him, and more. Knowing that made it easier to ignore the worry he saw in Solomon and Matthias. If only it was as easy to ignore Ilane. She swore that she’d come through the ordeal without serious harm, that she didn’t blame him at all. But she didn’t know the truth. If she ever found out how easily he’d turned, and why, she’d hate him, and that was something he couldn’t bear.

At least she had healed him before she found out the truth. That had done much to ease his mind, to know that she’d undone the damage that North had inflicted. It had been a relief, albeit cold comfort when he considered what now could never be.

He stopped in the mill-yard, tugging on the bridle of the lead horse. Solomon had asked him to help bring the wagon full of grain to the mill. No. No, Solomon had told him that he was going to help bring the wagon full of grain to the mill, and Tam was tired enough that he couldn’t think of a reason he needed to be elsewhere. Being in the mill-yard wasn’t so bad. There weren’t memories here. And it wasn’t as if he needed to go inside —

“Tam, help me drag these things in,” Solomon called. “We can get them set for Granny Rachel and the kids, so that they can get to work.”

Tam swore softly. He should have known that Solomon would ask him for help — no one else was around, and both twins working together couldn’t lift one of these bags. But helping meant going into the mill. He looked at the doorway, remembering the darkness inside, feeling cold panic creeping over him. He shook his head. “I have to get back on watch — ” he started.

“You weren’t on watch to start out with,” Solomon pointed out, his voice mild. “When those wagons rolled up, you’d just come off the overnight watch.”

Tam scowled at him, panic overcome by anger. “You’re keeping an eye on my schedule?” he demanded.

“I know you didn’t come in to sleep last night,” Solomon answered, his voice infuriatingly calm. “And you weren’t there for breakfast. That happens, it means you had the overnight shift. So help me with these things.”

“I’ve seen you lift Matthias,” Tam grumbled. “You don’t need my help.”

“Will you stop pissing and moaning and help?” Solomon snapped. “Twenty bags, it’ll take me all day to get them into the mill and offloaded. You helping me, it’ll take half the time.”

For a moment, the temptation to lash out at Solomon was overwhelming. He saw Solomon’s eyes widen, saw the other man step back, and only then realized that his fists were clenched, his feet set. His mouth went dry as a wave of shame washed over him. Attack Solomon? What was he thinking? If he did anything to hurt Solomon, Matthias wouldn’t hesitate to turn him inside out so that his bones rattled in the wind. And he’d be right to do it, too. For a moment, Tam considered it, then he shook his head. He turned away and grabbed one of the bags, hefting it up into his arms. “Where am I going?”

Solomon picked up another bag, grunting under the heavy, awkward weight of it. He nodded toward the mill. “There are bins in the mill. Granny showed us where.” He kicked the door to the mill open and walked inside. Tam swallowed and followed him, stopping just inside the door to let his eyes adjust to the dim light. He blinked, and saw the empty gin arm, and felt a rush of icy memory.

Exhausted, he dangled in the chains like a marionette, hearing Uriah cursing over the crack of the whip. He grunted as he felt the impact, and felt a new river of warmth running down his side and over his hip. He’d long since stopped screaming — there didn’t seem to be a point anymore. The gag muffled his voice, and they didn’t stop. No matter how much he tried to beg, they never stopped.

My turn,” North said. “Rest your arm.”

There’s no point to it anymore,” Uriah grumbled. “Weak little bitch can’t pull worth shit. We might as well just slit his throat and throw him out in the woods.”

He’s been amusing, at least.”

Amusing? That what you call it? Shit, North, that’s what girls are for.”

Dusty boots came into blurry view in front of Tam. Uriah and his whip was bad, but North was worse, so Tam tried to brace himself. But nothing happened. North knelt in front of him, grabbing a fistful of Tam’s hair and holding his head up.

You’re starting to bore me,” North growled. “What are we going to do about that?”

Tam just stared at him, too tired, too broken to even try to pull away. North sniffed, then smiled and held up his other hand. “I think I can still get a reaction out of you,” he murmured, as his upturned palm filled with blue light. Tam heard a crackle of lightning, and whimpered.

“I knew it was bad. I didn’t think it was this bad.”

The voice was quiet, gentle. Tam still flinched away from it, brought abruptly back to the here-and-now as Solomon walked over to him, took the bag of grain from his arms and set it down.

“You son of a bitch,” Tam wheezed. “You did this on purpose.”

“You haven’t been back in here,” Solomon said softly. “Not since we brought you out. Whenever we eat with Granny Rachel, you find somewhere else to be.”

Tam swallowed and shook his head. “I don’t want to be in here. I don’t need to be in here. There’s no purpose for me to be in here. I don’t have the skills they need, and there’s nothing in here for me but memories.” He swallowed again, not looking at Solomon. “I understand Matt a little better these days, you know. Why he did what he did. I get it.”

Solomon swore under his breath. “They — ”

“No!” Tam answered quickly. He took a deep breath. “No. Not that. Just… I understand now.”

“Then you know that talking about it helped him,” Solomon said. “You haven’t talked about it. None of us knows what happened in here, Tam. And the way you’ve shut us all out — you’re scaring us, Tam.” Solomon rested one hand on Tam’s arm. “Tam, what happened?”

Tam shook his head. “Not ready yet. Just… let me be.” He finally looked at Solomon and forced a smile that felt as brittle as the rest of him. “For now. Matt needed time. So do I. Once I’m ready — ”

“We’re here,” Solomon said. “Promise. We’re all here. You know Ilane is waiting for you, right?”

It was the wrong thing for him to have said. Ilane may have been waiting, but she never want him once she knew the truth. She’d hate him. They all would. Tam shuddered and shook off Solomon’s hand. “Let’s get this finished before I torch this place myself,” he snarled. He looked around, and all his anger flowed away like water. Like blood, the blood he’d shed here. All that was left was the fear. He swallowed, and turned toward the door. “Let’s get these inside — ”

“No,” Solomon said. “No, you’ve had enough. I’ll get someone else to help. Look, they’re talking to that Selene woman in a bit. You’ve got every right to sit in on that. Go get cleaned up. Get some clean clothes on. And get some answers.” He rested one hand on Tam’s shoulder. “I’m sorry, Tam.”

“Don’t ask me to come back in here after this.” Tam glanced at him. “Leave me alone, Solomon. Let me deal with this.”

Solomon looked like he was going to object. Then he nodded and let Tam go.

Tam walked out of the mill without looking back.

Chapter 3: Meeting of the Minds

Matthias trotted down the stairs, still pulling his hair back into a tail as he did. He could hear voices from down the hall as he reached the bottom stair.

“Matthias?” William called. “Is that you?”

“Yes,” he called back. “Coming.” He hurried down the hall and into the dining room, seeing the rest of the Assembly and Mother Selene. Ilane smiled up at him as he came inside.

“There’s tea. And I’ve got Solomon’s notes,” she said. “He went to take the grain to the mill.”

“Good. I’m sorry I’m late,” Matthias said as he took his seat. “You haven’t been waiting long for me, have you?”

“Not long,” Samuel said. “And we’ve been looking at the list of gifts that Mistress Selene brought.”

“Gifts?” Matthias asked, looking around the table. “Or bribes?”

“Matthias!” Rachel gasped.

“He has good reason to be skeptical of me, Rachel,” Selene said. “My people have caused him and his friends a great deal of grief.”

William cleared his throat. “Matthias, I realize that you must have a number of questions. Will you hold them until she is done?”

“That’s fair,” Matthias agreed. “She might very well answer them as she explains.”

Selene nodded. “I’ll tell you anything you want to know,” she said. “And, if I might ask that you place me under a truth spell?”

Matthias sat up straighter, surprised. “You want a truth spell?”

“You’d have no reason to trust me otherwise. Please, and the strongest one you know.”

Matthias looked around, only to see that the other members of the Assembly were waiting for him. He swallowed, then cast the spell, feeling it surround Selene and take hold. “All right,” he said. “I’m ready.”

“Thank you,” Selene said. “Now, first, Matthias, I regret the trouble we’ve caused you, and I am sorry. All I can say to explain is that we were truly frightened, and truly desperate.” She folded her hands on the table. “That was why we tried to take you from Haven, and why I am here now.”

Matthias could feel the truth from her, and he nodded. “I want to know why, before I accept that apology.”

“Why did we try to take you from Haven, or why I’m here now? Because it’s the same reason,” Selene answered. “We need you. We need your power, to protect us. I came here today in the hopes that we might form an alliance. There is someone out there. They are powerful, and they have weapons and equipment that are far beyond anything we have ever seen. None of us can stand alone.”

“But you’ve betrayed your allies before.” Matthias frowned. “How can we trust you? You betrayed Tam, Linnea and Balthazar to the Elders.”

Selene closed her eyes. “I saw Tam, when I arrived. What of Linnea and Balthazar?”

“Balthazar is dead,” Matthias answered. “Murdered by his father. Linnea was taken when Haven fell.”

“Fell?” Selene looked alarmed. “Haven is gone?”

Matthias looked across the table at Ilane’s expressionless face, then back at Selene. “Haven was attacked and destroyed just before the first big snowstorm. We barely escaped. And you haven’t answered the question. Well?”

Selene nodded. “Celeste, who was Mother before me, she ordered it done, and none of the rest of the Council knew until it was too late. From what we know now, she had been planning to eliminate the rest of the Council for some time before Balthazar came to us. His quest to save you allowed Celeste to start moving against the rest of us, starting with her removal of Linnea. Linnea — ”

“Should have been on the Council.”

Matthias turned in his chair to see Tam in the doorway. He looked slightly ill, and Matthias wondered why. Ilane must have noticed it, too, because she was out of her chair and around the table before Matthias realized she was moving. She stopped in front of him, reached for his hand, then stopped.

“Tam?” she murmured softly. He looked at her as if he’d never seen her before, then took her hand and pressed it against his chest, lowering his head so that his unkempt hair fell forward to hide his face.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered, just loud enough for Matthias to hear. “I just — ”

“I know,” she answered. “I miss you, Tam.”

He laughed, once, a bitter sound. “I miss me, too. I wanted to hear this,” he said, turning to face the rest of the Assembly. “I mean, if anyone has the right to hear her excuses, it’s me.”

“Truth,” Matthias murmured.

“I’ve no objections,” Selene added. “Tam, for what it’s worth, I am sorry.”

“Have a seat, Tam,” Rachel said, moving over so that there was an empty chair next to Ilane. Tam looked at Ilane, then led her around the table and held her chair for her. He sat down next to her, and didn’t pull away when she took his hand again.

William cleared his throat. “Where were we?”

“Tam was finishing my sentence,” Selene smiled at Tam, then looked back at William. “Linnea should have been on the Council. Her mother had been Mother before Celeste, and now I am not entirely certain that Lenore’s death was the accident we all thought it was. But that’s not relevant. Celeste abandoned Linnea to die, along with her greatest supporter.” She nodded to Tam, who nodded back. “Balthazar was considered expendable, and his insistence on going with Linnea may have saved his life when Celeste moved against the rest of the Council.”

“So what happened?” Tam asked. “We know that Celeste told the Elders we were coming to the School — ”

“What?” Selene gasped. “No, she couldn’t have! She abandoned you, that I knew. But contacted them? No. We had no way to contact them. Not without revealing ourselves.”

Matthias looked at Tam, who looked skeptical. “She’s telling the truth, Tam.”

“Then who told the Elders we were there?” Tam demanded. “Cyrus said someone contacted them, told them about us. And the pilots, they knew where they were going — ”

“Oh, we knew where the School was. It was the only man-made structure in the middle of the plains, and there were no concealment spells,” Selene answered. She smiled slightly. “The Elders were very arrogant in that regard. But as to who contacted them? I can’t answer that.” She paused to take a sip of tea. “When the School fell,” Selene continued. “Celeste moved to take control of the Council and the Enclaves simultaneously. But she wasn’t ready, and she failed.” Selene paused for a moment, then sighed. “She and her compatriots were executed, and the surviving Council chose me to lead. I will admit that I didn’t want the role — ”

Matthias grinned. “I understand the feeling.”

Selene returned the smile. “My first act was to contact Linnea. I wanted her to bring you back to us, Matthias. I had hoped that if you came to the Underground, we could convince you of the rightness of our cause — ”

“And that cause was?” Matthias asked.

“I hoped to unite the Underground and the Enclaves,” Selene answered. “Your people and mine had been at war too long. We could accomplish so much more together. But Linnea didn’t return to us, and I turned instead to stabilizing my place as Mother and to keeping my own people safe. We didn’t yet know of the viper in our midst, you see. I thought our only threat was from the Elders who remained.”

“Then who followed us to Haven?” Tam asked. “There were two, weren’t there?”

“The Elders were tracking us, and there was another magical source,” Matthias agreed. “Selene, that was you?”

“No, it wasn’t,” Selene said, looking confused. “I sent no one after you. I didn’t have anyone to send — we had no transports left, nor any mages to spare. I didn’t even think about you for months, except when the firestorm hit. Then I thought you dead.” She paused again. “A month after, I think, I found out about Celeste’s men in Haven. I contacted them, and that was when I found out that you were still alive. I gave them their instructions to try and bring you out of Haven.”

“Why?” Matthias asked. “You gave up on me once. Why change your mind?”

“Because there is someone else out there,” Selene said, pitching her voice low, as if afraid she’d be overheard. “The enemy I spoke of. We don’t know where. I was afraid. I thought that if we had you, you could help us. But the plans to bring you out of Haven failed, and now it’s too late.” She drew herself up. “Perhaps it was only just, after what we’d done to you. But we were betrayed. I am the last member of the Council — my sisters are dead. The Underground is broken, my people scattered. I came to you for help. And if you will not help, then at least I can bring warning.”

“Those women,” Ilane murmured. “The new refugees, the ones who came in armed.”

“You mentioned them this morning, yes,” William said.

“I’d no idea how many of my people might have survived, or if any of them would come here,” Selene murmured. “If you like, I can identify them.”

“It’s not necessary. They’re here now, and so long as they fight for us and not against us, we’re not really caring where they came from,” Samuel said.

“Well said,” William murmured. “Selene, we already knew that there is another out there.”

“You know? But how?” Selene asked.

“They’ve made an attempt here, and failed,” William answered. He glanced at Matthias and grimaced. “We prevailed, but at a cost.”

Selene sighed. “I’m sorry. It appears that I was right to come. Please, I beg that you grant me sanctuary?”

Matthias looked around the table. “Everything she’s told us has been truth.”

“In that case, what says the Assembly?” William asked. “All in favor?”

Hands raised around the table, and Selene sagged in her chair. “Thank you. Thank you all. I will do whatever I can to help.”

“The Underground is broken, you said,” Tam said. “What about the Warren?”

“Destroyed,” Selene murmured. “I’ve never seen such weapons — the mouth of the caves were melted closed. We escaped through the hidden routes. They may still be passable, if you’re thinking of reconnaissance.”

Tam nodded. Then he frowned. “The food — why did you bring food? And where did it come from?”

“I was going to ask the same thing,” Samuel said. “Not to appear ungrateful, but how did you know?”

Selene nodded. “Given what I knew of the Enclaves, and when things happened, I thought that food might not be the worst peace offering — harvest and hunting would have been the last things on your minds when fires were raining from the skies and the Elders were being struck down. My escape route took me through the eastern storage caverns, and I took all the carts that we could find, and everything that the horses would draw.” She smiled. “My guard thought me insane — when one is running for their life, one usually does not stop to check the pantry.”

Matthias smiled as the others laughed. He released the truth spell as William cleared his throat. “We are very grateful that you did think of it. Our own supplies are very limited, and we’ve more mouths to feed every day. The mill has stood still for days now.”

“It’ll be starting back as soon as we possibly can. Twenty bags?” Rachel sounded delighted. “And, is there more, in your eastern storage caves?”

Matthias coughed — he hadn’t thought of that! “Is there more?” he echoed. “Or other storage caves that we could reach safely?”

Selene smiled. “Yes to the other storage caves. As to the safely part? I could argue that none of us is safe, not anymore.”

“Were we ever?” Tam muttered, just loud enough to be heard around the table.

Her tale told, Selene asked if she could be excused; Rachel walked her back to the mill, then returned to the Assembly house.

“I think the poor thing will sleep for a week, she’s that wrung out,” she said, taking her seat. “Do we believe her?”

Matthias folded his hands. “I do. She didn’t even try to lie. And she knows about whoever was behind the attack on Haven, but didn’t know about Haven being destroyed, or about Kestrel. She didn’t know about what was happening here.” He leaned back in his chair. “I wonder — ”

“What are you thinking, Matt?” Tam asked.

“Remember how we thought that the people of Haven were the Other? Because they came from the mountains, and they had mages?” Matthias asked.

“And gryphons. Gryphons would definitely count as other,” Tam added. Matthias grinned.

“Yeah. What if we were wrong?” He paused, licked his lips, then reached for his cup of tea. It was cold, but he drank it anyway. “What if the warning about the Others was a warning about whatever was behind Kestrel?”

“You’re grasping at straws, son,” William said. Matthias shrugged.

“Grasping at straws it may be, but what else do we have to go on?” Samuel asked. “We don’t really know a damned thing!”

Matthias frowned, not wanting to say anything. He looked across the table, saw Rachel looking at him. Not saying anything. Just looking. He groaned and ran one hand over his face. “We don’t. But Uriah does,” he said.

“Uriah?” William repeated. “Oh… oh, yes. He must, mustn’t he?”

“He knows more than we do, in any case,” Matthias said. “Right. How do we do this? If I cast the truth spells, he won’t be able to tell a lie. But what’s the procedure? How do we make it so that no one thinks we’re making him into a sacrifice? And how do we make them trust my word on it?”

“We do it in public,” Ilane said. “In the middle of the square. Tonight, when we light the bonfire.”

Matthias considered the idea, then nodded. It had become a nightly ritual — a bonfire was lit in the middle of the square, and the Assembly would make any announcements and hear any complaints or news from the day before the shared evening meal and the next day’s rations were portioned out. It made sense that something of this magnitude would be handled then.

“Any other ideas?” William asked. “Because I favor this plan.” When no one else spoke up, he turned to Tam. “Tam, you’re our Peacekeeper. But I also know that you might not be willing to take charge of Uriah — ”

“William, if it means he gets what’s coming to him, I’ll frog-march him from here to the mountains and back,” Tam interrupted. “I’ll bring him out. I’ll get Zebadiah and Dennis to help me. They’ll love it, especially if they don’t have to be gentle.” He smiled wolfishly, and Matthias had a good idea why — the blacksmith Zebadiah was a mountain of a man, his son Dennis was nearly as big, and both had a grudge against Uriah. Neither had told Matthias why, but Rachel had mentioned something about a daughter who had vanished in the madness directly following the firestorm. Matthias wasn’t clear if it was Zebediah’s daughter or Dennis’, and he wasn’t going to ask.

“No violence, Tam,” Rachel murmured, sounding worried. Matthias reached over and touched her hand. She glanced at him, then looked back at Tam. “I know he deserves it, but we’re trying to be better than the Elders were. That would be their way.”

“Truth,” William said. “No force without need.”

Tam snorted. “I know how to steal sheep, you two. All right. Sunset, we bring him out. You get him to tell what he knows. Then what?” He looked around the table. “We know he’s a rapist and a murderer. Everyone in this town knows it. Something needs to be done about that. We can’t keep him locked in the shed for the rest of his life, and the rations we’re giving him would be better served feeding someone else.”

For a moment, no one answered. Rachel covered her mouth with her hand. Matthias looked at William, who shook his head. “I don’t know,” William said at last. “I don’t want to follow the ways of the Elders. But that’s what we know.”

“Not that we ever had to deal with murder,” Samuel added. “I can’t remember hearing about anyone ever killing someone before.”

“Because it wasn’t done,” William said. He rubbed his face. “The Codex says that evildoers shall be punished, but it doesn’t exactly offer suggestions.”

“What does it say?” Ilane asked.

Matthias cleared his throat. “Those who transgress against the rule of law shall know the wrath of the righteous.” When Ilane just stared at him, she shrugged. “That’s all it says.”

“By Elders’ rule, miscreants and criminals were sent to the School,” William added. “We no longer have that option. Ilane, what would your people have done?”

Ilane shook her head. “Remember, we were on a mountain, and inside a dome. When someone admitted under truth spell to a crime of this magnitude, they were exiled.”

“Exile,” William murmured. “That just makes him someone else’s problem, though. He’ll find another group of survivors, and it will start over again.”

“Or worse, he’ll find another gang of rowdies who feel the way he does, and he’ll be back,” Tam said. “Really, people cast out of Haven weren’t exiled, no matter what Ilane calls it. They were executed. There was no way they could have survived for long outside the dome, especially in winter.”

William looked around the table. “Is that our option, then? Take him out into the woods and leave him there to die?” He shook his head. “I don’t like it. But what else can we do?”

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