I folded myself to the ground. Tuomas followed my fluid movement with a wary eye. My sitting on the ground indisposed him, which was totally my intention; he was too tall for me to reinforce my authority by towering over him. By lowering myself sufficiently, I destabilised him all the same. He left his seat and joined me on the dirt floor.
“The Hunt will return.” His swift exhalation was caught short by my hand reaching his cheek. Tears swelled in his widened eyes, my fingers’ imprint reddening quickly. He held silent, passing my test with a stiff lip and a squared jaw. If anger had overtaken him, this conversation would have ended.
My reply should have been: “How dare you speak of that to me?” Then, I should have snapped his neck. He uncovered my identity; he could be an instrumental part of a new Dianae genocide. But he aced all my tests, either announced or impromptu; he was loyal to our race.
“You said you needed my help.” He might have proven himself worthy of consideration, but I wasn’t about to display my internal terror to him. I could control my Personae if not my Animae who crawled in the woods, scanning sounds and smells alike in case an intruder showed. My tiger half was the easy target if the Hunt resumed.
“I do. If the Dianaes are challenged, or worst if they disappear, a lot of people will die along with you.”
The sincerity of his voice and his blood resonated at my core. He genuinely feared for us and for the people we ruled in the shadows. Dianaes were never queens; we ensured a reliable justice independent of rulers and their personal interests. My race extinct, tyrants would be harder to keep in check.
“What convinces you that someone will attempt to bring back the Hunt?” I channelled all my frailty toward my Animae to level my tone.
“I work, or worked, for Lord Kirlhan.” I cocked an eyebrow; the minor lord hardly had any influence. Or an army. “He’s going after the Moonstone Tables.”
In the forest, a white tiger growled in fury and broke into a sprint towards her kindred. In her shop onMain Street, a human shivered. My mind hovered somewhere between the two reactions, unsure which should prevail. Its torture ended when the front door’s bell rang.
“If you try to leave, I will track you down and carve you up,” I said, pulling myself up. Tuomas nodded. I knew where he lived, his friends and the girl he dreamt about but never dared approach; a Dianae’s judgement rested on her knowledge of the village she cared for. If he crossed me, I wouldn’t even need to sniff him out.
One of the shepherd’s daughters rocked on her feet in front of the counter, her fingers interlaced to keep them from betraying her stress – a vain attempt that fooled no one the least bit attuned to human emotions. A sigh of relief escaped her when I crossed the threshold.
“Mistress Sa’athy,” she curtsied. Her face, reddened by the recent run, disappeared behind a curtain of blond hair.
“Rita.” She straightened and gripped the edge of my counter.
“Father sends me. He hurt himself while cutting wood.”
Craig Donahue had the strength of a buffalo, sign under which he was born and exemplified magnificently. He shared the animal’s stubbornness too.
“How bad is it?”
“Not enough that he can’t cuss at the physician and put up a fight but the bleeding worries Mother.”
I nodded. Craig didn’t trust the local physician. I wouldn’t trust that old man either; he barely knew what he was doing. However, if the shepherd was bleeding to death and refused any treatment but mine, we had no time to lose. Unfortunately, I couldn’t leave Tuomas alone, not with what he knew and what he claimed.
“Tuomas,” I yelled toward the back room. “Grab the red bag and come here.”
There was a surprised grunt, a quick ruffle of fabric and the man stumbled in the shop with the requested bag, which he put on the counter in an uneasy stretch.
“Rita, meet Tuomas. He’s my assistant.”
The woman blurted a “He is?” while my newly assigned helper echoed with a “I am?” I soothed my growing impatience.
“Yes. I won’t be here forever. I need to share my knowledge. Tuomas follows me everywhere now.” I eyed my unwilling employee. He cleared his throat.
“Yeah, that’s me. The apothecary’s apprentice.” Tuomas brushed his messy hair back, trying to give his short black curls a semblance of respectability. I grabbed the bag and supplemented its content with a few additional decoctions from my shelves.
“We’ll be right behind you, Rita.” I gently pushed her toward the door, picking up one more flask on the way. I locked behind her and turned to Tuomas. “I ride without a saddle but I have one if you need it.”
Bewildered, he didn’t react until I pulled him out the back door and into the adjacent stable. Only then did his mind finally catch up with the urgency of the situation. I swung my bag across my back and whispered in a language only animals understood, instructing the horse I lent Tuomas to stay still as us humans speedily put a saddle on its back. It obeyed with a single whiny.
“Tejak is pleased to meet you,” I said. My own horse, Djaheh, already knelt so I could mount her.
I made sure that my skirts were tucked under me and that Tuomas was ready to ride, then I whistled, sending both horses out of the stable at an incredible speed. Our mounts adjusted their cadence to run side-by-side as I requested.
“Here is the deal,” I yelled to Tuomas over the pounding of the horses’ shoes. “You follow me. No allusions to who I am. No suspicious behaviour. Once Craig’s situation is resolved, you tell me everything you know.”
Tuomas nodded, his stern face showing his understanding of my seriousness. He wouldn’t break our deal; the Dianaes’ wrath was at least as famous as the harshness of our judgements or the origin of our powers. Our stories comprised a fair share of blood baths and vengeful wars. Legends blew the real events out of proportions, depicting wronged Dianaes as merciless animals who magically kept their victims alive while they tore them apart.
They thought we were savages.