Disclaimer: This is based on the characters and places invented by Tamora Pierce. I'm using them to my own ends.

A/N: Here it is, the sequel to "Mitigating Circumstances". This takes place in December between EM and ROTG.


Chapter One – Spidrens and a Stranger

Onua and Daine stood back to back, quiver to quiver, in the middle of the fray. Onua could hear each pull and release of Daine's long bow. They made a strange pounding rhythm, offbeat to the sounds of her own crossbow. The cries, curses and battle sounds had melted away and all that remained was the internal focus as she fired bolt after bolt. She saw the flashes of the sword belonging to the king's champion, Alanna. Occasionally, she became aware of Buri's presence as she came through swinging her battle axe. It was a simple thing – when surrounded by Spidren's you kept your mind on fighting for your life.

Suddenly an owl swooped down from above next to the two women and flew off in a mad pace toward the west. "Onua, roll!" she heard Daine shout and felt a hand grab her collar and pull her over. A huge spidren dropped right on top of where the two women had been standing. It had most likely been hiding in the trees above and Onua knew she would be dead if not for the owl's warning and Daine's quick hands. In the close quarters, the bows were now pretty useless and the thing seemed to be right on top of them when the air filled with purple fire which crept into the monster's mouth and eyes until it was completely smothered. It crumpled and lay twitching in the night.

Adrenaline pushed her to her feet again and she brought her crossbow up in time to loose a bolt into a spidren that had grabbed Buri with its long, hairy legs. She felt, rather than heard Daine's last shot. It was close to her ear, but right on target as it dropped a monster that would have caught Onua unaware. And then it was over. The four women were still standing and the fourteen immortal beasts were mere carcasses in the night.

Even dead they were still frightening. They looked like man sized spiders from the back. That would be terrifying enough. But spidrens had human heads and necks and the long, sharp teeth of a carnivore. Their webbing melted away and the man, whose screams had brought them into this clearing, was freed at last.

Onua took a sharp intake of breath. They were taking replacement ponies to the 7th rider unit. That unit had run into their own problems with immortals and lost most of their ponies and two of their riders. That, in itself, was a painful reality. Onua knew all of the riders and considered most to be her friends. Also, she had cared for their ponies personally and had picked them out from the fair in Cria' two years ago. As Horsemistress, replacing mounts for riders in the field was one of her duties. Onua's assistant, Daine, had offered to come along even though Onua had told her she didn't have to. Alanna was carrying some kind of private message from the king to a King's Own unit that would meet them in two days. She had traveled with them until it was time to rendezvous. Buri, was going to stay with the 7th rider unit until March since they were short in number. If this trip brought any more hazards like the one they had just faced, Onua wasn't sure how she and Daine would be getting back to Corus safely after the other two women left them.

Onua ran a hand over her head, raking fingers through her dark hair. She was dreading the thought of dealing with spidren carcasses as she watched Alanna kneel to examine the man lying there. He was about six feet tall, and wore a black robe which looked to her a great deal like the black robe her friend Numair wore. There were only seven black-robe mages in the world. Could this man actually be another? And if so, how had he come to be entrapped without putting up a fight?

"You're going to be all right," she heard Alanna tell the man. "I have healing magic and I'm going to tend to your wounds. Lie still."

The man nodded and groaned a thank you. His voice was hoarse. Onua wasn't sure if he had been yelling for help for long or if he had heard them. They had just put up camp before his cries for help had summoned them. It was nearly winter and nightfall came early. They had ridden past dusk to reach this location.

The purple glow of Alanna's magic filled the clearing. When she was done, she helped the man stand. He looked so tired. "Thank the Gods for you. I have never seen women who could fight, let alone the way you four did. I am humbled." He bowed. "I am Cearl de Romondo and I am in your debt."

"Alanna of Pirate's Cove and Olau, Champion to King Jonathon of Conte'," Alanna introduced herself. "That is Buriram Tourakem, Commander of the Queen's Riders, Onua Chamtong, Horsemistress for the Queen's Riders, and Veralidaine Sarrasri, Assistant Horsemistress and wildmage." Alanna pointed to each person in the party and he bowed in turn until she got to the part of "wildmage" and his jaw dropped.

"Ms. Sarrasri, you are part of the reason I'm in this country," he said. "A former teacher of mine, Lindhall Reed, wrote and told me of you. I am bound for the City of the Gods to meet with him and Master Numair Salmalin to help with the barrier. But I was most intrigued by news of you and hoped to convince your teacher to introduce us." He had that look that Onua had seen on Numair's face many times when he was intrigued by some new concept or experiment.

"You are a mage then? How did you get caught like this?" Buri asked pointedly.

The man blushed. "I stopped to camp. Got absorbed in a book and was caught unaware. I blew a couple of them up, but never having dealt with Spidren's before I used my gift foolishly and drained myself."

"He is pretty dry," Alanna confirmed.

"Well, you're unsafe by yourself then," Onua stated matter-of-factly. "Why don't you join our camp?"

He smiled warmly. "I would be most grateful." He bowed again. This time Onua noticed that his hair was stuck to his head with something sticky.

"In case you didn't already know, there is a hot spring hidden behind the trees. You can wash up first."

He smiled even brighter, dimples creasing each cheek. Onua thought he was probably handsome under all the dirt.

By the time Cearl emerged from his wash, Onua and Daine were sitting by a crackling fire. Alanna and Buri had taken hunting duty and returned with two sage hens. Onua and Daine had looked after the ponies and dug the latrine. Onua's dog, Tahoi was laying beside her watching the flames shoot up.

"We're quite lucky to not be traveling in snow," Onua said to Daine.

"I know. After that blizzard in mid-November, I was sure this was going to be an awful trip," Daine answered.

"But I'm still not looking forward to the chill," Alanna added as she walked toward the fire. Daine took the sage hens from Alanna. It was her turn to cook. "I assume sage hens are all right?" Alanna sat down next to the fire. Buri grabbed a saddle bag from her things and joined them.

"They are just wild chickens," Daine answered happily. Daine's diet had become very restrictive in recent months due to her own ability to shapeshift into various animals and the subsequent sympathy she felt for them. She had mostly eliminated game from her diet and stuck to chicken, fish and some domesticated animals. Daine pulled a sack of rice from a pack and some dried fruit and began to prepare the meal.

"May I join you at your fire?" Cearl asked politely. The women looked up at him and four jaws dropped open. He was quite handsome but that wasn't why they were staring. This man could easily be Daine's father. His hair was curly and a similar shade of chestnut. He had fair skin with a smattering of freckles on his nose and a solidly stubborn chin. He had obviously shaved as well as washing.

"Please," Onua answered and made room for him beside her. When he sat down, she noticed his eyes were gray with a hint of blue around the outside.

Noticing their expressions, he asked, "What is it?"

"Have you ever been to Galla?" Alanna asked him. She looked back and forth between Cearl and Daine.

"Yes, a long time ago. I think it might have been a little over 15 years" he answered.

"Not sixteen years maybe?"

Daine stared and looked confused. "Did you ever travel to Snowsdale?"

"I've heard of it. But I was never that far up. I traveled to the City of the Gods after I got my Mastery in Carthak and spent a little time with the priests, studying. One spring my friends and I traveled into Cria for Beltane."

Daine stared at him for a little longer and then finally said, "It's a fair likeness, but it's coincidence. I – I think I might have an idea who my father is anyway." The girl looked uncomfortable and continued her cooking duties.

That drew Onua's curiosity. "You've never said anything, Daine." Daine just shook her head. She clearly didn't want to discuss it at this time.

Cearl in the meantime was studying Daine's features. "We do look a bit alike, don't we? But I'd like to think I'd know if I had any children hanging around."

Buri chuckled under her breath. "You said you knew Lindhall Reed. Do you also know Numair Salmalin?"

"I knew him a little as a boy. He was Arram Draper then. But you can see I'm a bit older than he is." He did look to be about forty. "We both attended the University in Carthak, but I left after I got my Mastery, as I said. I have been back a couple of times for visits. I heard things about him, but it doesn't sound like the boy I knew or the man Lindhall describes."

"Ozorne was a liar and evil man. You can't believe anything you heard from him," Daine said coarsely. Alanna shot Onua a significant look.

"Are you one of the black-robes then?" Onua asked.

"Yes," he said proudly. I know Numair Salmalin is also one."

At that point Daine started handing out plates. But the moment she sat down with her own plate, Onua saw her look up into the night sky at something no one else could see. She stood, set down her plate, and held out an arm. A carrier pigeon came out of the night and landed on her arm. Daine's face lit into a huge smile. Clearly she was talking with the bird as she pulled a letter from its ankle pack, though the conversation was inaudible to the rest of them. She then set the bird down on a log near the fire and gave it some dried fruit. "Numair wrote me," she said beaming. "This is Snowbelle. She is one of the carrier pigeons Lindhall had me train when he was down in October."

"Numair wrote you again? It's only been a week. What could he possibly have to say?" Alanna seemed to be teasing Daine. Onua saw an unusual twinkle in Alanna's violet eyes.

"He promised he would. He's got Kit with him after all. She decided his errand was more interesting than mine. So he promised he would write every week to let me know he's taking care of her and not forgetting about her while he's absorbed in all those books."

"Your teacher?" Cearl asked. "I wonder, could I send something back with Snowbelle?"

"Sure," Daine answered, "Or if you need more time, I can always find a bird to carry your message."

"That's right, you can talk to them." He looked amazed.

Daine sat back down with her dinner and began to open her letter. She unfolded three sheets of paper. Onua noticed that every side was covered in Numair's writing.

"Horse Lords! He wrote you a book," Onua said. She laughed and Daine, Alanna and Buri joined in.

As they sat talking with Cearl, Daine was completely absorbed in her letter and nearly missed her mouth with her fork a couple of times. Onua and Alanna giggled at her. Buri was busy braiding some leather for a new bridle. Cearl sat nervously watching all four women. "You are an amazing bunch of ladies," he said finally.

"Oh?" Alanna asked smirking. "What makes you say that?"

"Well, I don't know what I expected. I suppose I thought you would sit around telling provocative jokes the way most soldiers do. Right now though, I doubt if any observing villain would realize you capable of cutting him into pieces in the blink of an eye."

Alanna let out a hearty guffaw. Buri chuckled too. "Jokes come later," Onua observed all with a twinkle. Daine was too engrossed in her letter to even hear the conversation.

"That must be some letter," Buri said.

"Hmmmm?" Daine looked up and smiled, blushing slightly. "Did I miss something?"

"You could say that, youngling," Alanna answered. "Does he say anything in there you feel like sharing?"

"Well, it's probably mostly boring to anyone but me. He talks a lot of the spells they're working on and the City of the Gods. He did say Kit ate some eyebright that Harailt had. Now every time somebody tells an untruth, she sparkles. Numair apologized a lot for letting that happen but swears she won't come to harm." She paused for the howls of laughter. "He also talks a lot about Lindhall's new pets. I guess Lindhall is collecting birds left and right. But it is mostly just Numair-talk. It's nice -- like he's here with us now." She shrugged a little and smiled. "You can read it if you wish."

"That's all right," Buri, Onua, and Alanna said simultaneously and then laughed.

"I think you've let her spend too much time with Numair, Onua," Buri said, eyes twinkling. "She's actually starting to enjoy his ramblings." Daine blushed scarlet.

Onua began to worry. A little over a month ago, while everyone thought Numair was dead, Daine had been devastated. Onua had concluded that Daine's feelings for her teacher might have grown a little too affectionate. But Daine had started dating a few boys her own age and Onua thought that she might be letting the crush go. Now, she wasn't so sure.

"It's all right," Alanna said. "Somebody's got to listen to him talk." She patted Daine on the shoulder.

"Better Daine than me," Buri teased. She got up and walked over to her horse.

Cearl, who had sat there observing for some time asked, "I don't mean to eavesdrop, but is this Kit a child your teacher is babysitting?"

Everybody laughed now. "Can you imagine?" Onua said to Alanna. "No, she is a baby dragon."

"A dragon," he repeated with awe.

So Alanna, Buri and Onua launched into the whole story of how Kit came into Daine's life. Onua didn't know why Daine didn't help. She wandered over to her bedroll, and lay on it on her belly. She appeared to be rereading her letter.



Okay, please review