Mirin cursed and rolled her eyes as the cart bumped and jolted its way up the road to the mountain. Drawing her cloak more tightly around her shoulders, she glanced at her driver.
He was big. He was stupid. He was perfect.
"Be certain that you are alone when you enter," Lucian had said. "No one must know."
As the man turned to her with a gap-toothed grin, she forced herself to smile sweetly. She couldn't decide which was uglier, him or the sway-backed nag pulling the cart with alarming speed.
The cart lurched crazily; had it not been for the driver, she would have flown right out of it. When she recovered her balance, she looked pointedly at the man's arm around her shoulders. He removed it with a shrug. "Sorry 'bout that, m'lady." He grinned.
Mirin drew a deep breath and fixed her eyes straight ahead on the mountain. It loomed above them, its snowcapped peak crowning the bare gray stone. She closed her eyes and asked herself again what she was doing here. She must have been mad to listen to a voice in her head! Yet here she was. The Wild Lands some called it, others simply the West. As the wind howled down from the jagged peak, she shivered and cursed Lucian, cursed the peasant she had paid to bring her here, mostly cursed herself.
The loud voice of the driver startled her. "Are you sure, m'lady, that you want to go up there?" He pointed a grimy finger at the mountain. "Nobody ever goes up there."
"Yes, I'm quite sure, thank you."
"But there's nothin' up there." He looked at her out of the corner of his eye.
Mirin sighed in exasperation. "Really, I appreciate your concern, but I know what I'm doing."
The driver shrugged and rubbed his nose on his sleeve. Then, snorting, he raised his brows and twisted his mouth into a crooked grin. "Say, I know what yer up to. Yer gonna meet someone up there, private-like." He chortled and slapped his thigh. "Maybe get all nice and cozy with 'im at old Mog's place. Nobody's lived there for years."
Mirin looked down her nose and fixed him with a hard stare, then raised her chin and turned once again to the granite cliff growing ever closer, ever larger.
The old road, barely passable before, abruptly ended in a patch of rocks and winter weeds. The cart jerked and shuddered as the driver brought his horse to a halt. "End of the road, m'lady," he said brightly.
Mirin swallowed hard, then gathered her gown and put one foot out. She glanced back at the man. "Thank you."
"Y'know, if you've changed yer mind, I could, ah, take you back." His mouth hung open and his small eyes got very round. "I'd give you a real bargain for the return fare."
"No, thank you." She lowered herself from the cart and reached back for her satchels.
The driver grabbed them. "Now, I know yer a bit short of funds, m'lady." His eyes grew hard, glinting like bright, black beads in his filthy face. "I, ah, had a little somethin' else in mind to reward me for my troubles."
Mirin shuddered. Determined not to let him see her fear, she simply held her hands out for the bags. With a shrug, the driver threw the satchels at her feet. "Well, suit yerself, Miss High-and-Mighty."
Somehow he managed to get both the horse and the cart turned around, and bumped back down the road. "Yer crazy, lady, there ain't nothin' up there!"
Mirin watched the cart until it could no longer be seen. Her teeth were chattering now. Her hands were turning blue. Indeed, the man was right, she was mad.
She had sold everything she owned except her amethyst ring and the clothes on her back to make this journey. It had taken all the coins: for days of travel in broken-down carts pulled by broken-down horses, for miserable nights in stinking country inns where she'd had to fend off the vulgar advances of the filthy peasants, for food that she would have thrown to the dogs in Avacar, for crude torches and frayed blankets and all the other things Lucian had told her to bring.
The mournful howl of a wolf, or perhaps only the weird wailing of the wind through the mountain passes, spurred her forward. She stumbled and slipped as she made her way up the path, dragging the heavy satchels behind her. At last, she stood shivering before the sheer cliff face.
She marveled at the accuracy with which Lucian had described it. "The entrance would have been disguised, or disfigured, my dear, you can be sure of that. But you will see it." His voice had grown soft, almost reverent. "You are Chosen."
Chosen! She didn't even know who had given her life. She, who had grown up on the dirty back streets of Avacar, running with a pack of wild children with no homes, no family, no future, was Chosen.
All her life, she, like everyone in Brennor, had been in awe of the Chosen, had marveled at their powers, had revered them as the favored of the gods.
True, she, too, had power. The first time she'd lain with a boy, she'd seen the effect of that power, and had learned, and studied, and trained as thoroughly and diligently as the Chosen. She was at the height of her power.
Yet tears stung her eyes as she saw again the image of the Defender in her mind. She could not believe, for a moment, that she was favored by the gods, not her! She huddled into her cloak, wishing she hadn't sold her furs.
She had no choice but to go on. When she had stood and watched the peasant's cart bump down the road, she had made her choice. She tossed her hair back and faced the cliff. Forcing herself to stop shivering, she drew herself up to her full height, stood straight and proud. Hope and fear mingled on her face.
She followed Lucian's instructions: she closed her eyes, took a deep breath, tried to block from her mind anything but the existence of the entrance. He had said she would see it; he had said she was Chosen. She tried very hard.
Mirin opened her eyes. There was no entrance. A solid granite wall loomed before her, above her. He had said she would see it!
She gasped, shaking with fear, and threw herself against the cliff face, pounded it with her fists. It did no good. She slid to the dirt and lay weeping, cradling her bruised hands against her breast.
It would be dark soon. Dark and even colder. The wolves she had heard would be about. The nearest village was very far away, too far. The peasant was gone, long gone. She would die here in this lonely place. She had made her choice.
Lucian had lied! She was not Chosen. How could she have ever believed it? It was that damnable silky voice of his! That voice that caressed and persuaded and lied. She blinked and lifted her head. That voice!
She could speak to him!
He'd taught her the technique to block her thoughts, to block his. He'd said she had only to close the door to her mind, to lock it shut. She had done it; she'd have gone mad if she hadn't. It had been simple.
Mirin struggled to her feet and wiped the tears from her eyes. In her mind, she fit the key into the lock, turned it. Slowly, she opened the door. Nothing lay beyond but a dark, dark room, vast, empty. The voice of her thoughts shook as she whispered, "Lucian, are you there?"
Instantly, the room blazed with light; colors swirled and sparked with dizzying speed. Mirin felt her mouth drop open, her eyes grow wide. She leaned against the cliff face to keep from falling.
Lucian spoke, and his voice was as brilliant as the light. "You have come, my dear!"
She'd forgotten what the voice of his thoughts did to her. It frightened her; it compelled her. Again, she burst into tears. "Lucian, I cannot find the entrance. I tried to do what you told me but it isn't there. I can't see it, I can't!"
"Now, dearest, you must calm yourself," said Lucian, and his voice wrapped around her and held her tight. "You are Chosen. The entrance is there. You can see it."
Mirin felt dizzy. His voice was so soothing, so warm. She cocked her head and sighed.
"Turn now, my dear, and look to the cliff face. Together we will see it. Together we will open the door."
She looked. There was no entrance, only solid, unyielding stone. "No," she sobbed.
"Close your eyes, dearest, just close your eyes," whispered Lucian.
She closed her eyes.
"Breathe deep. Yes, that's it, again. Slowly, slowly."
She drew in great breaths, held them, let them out.
"Now you must put all other thoughts from your mind. Yes, even mine. Yes, even of me."
Mirin began to tremble.
"No, no, dearest, it is only for a moment, only that." His voice was like a kiss: long, luxurious, tender beyond belief. "You will see the entrance. You will open it. You will come to me. You are Chosen."
She swayed on her feet as his thoughts embraced her, cocooned her.
"Now, Chosen, come to me."
Her chest heaved with the depth of her breaths, but Mirin let her thoughts fall away from her, one by one. Only the thought of Lucian remained.
"Come to me, dearest, Chosen."
She let it go. And saw the entrance in her mind.
Her eyes flew open. There, before her, clearly outlined in the stone, was a door.
"Come to me."
She reached out and gently pushed. The door swung open wide.