Sun WarriorP. C. Cast
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This book is lovingly dedicated to my Companions—some who are still with me and some who have gone ahead: Badger, Cammy, Chloe, Kirk, Khan, Claire, Kimmy, Khaleesi, Patchy Poo the Pud, Tiberius, Peechia, and Xena Warrior Princess Cast. I will always hold you close in my heart.
Thank you to my wonderful agent and friend, Meredith Bernstein, for your support and your belief in me.
As always I send a big I HEART YOU to my brilliant editor, Monique Patterson. Thank you for your crazy brainstorming skills and for helping to make this the best book it could be!
I appreciate my St. Martin’s Press family! Sally Richardson, Jennifer Enderlin, Alexandra Sehulster, Brant Janeway, Jessica Preeg, the production staff, marketing team, and cover artist. GO TEAM CAST!
I love hearing from my fans and have especially enjoyed that this series has inspired so many of you to share pictures and stories of your beloved Companions with me. You make me smile!
Thank you to my friend Teresa Miller, for her unchangeable support and her words of wisdom. I love you, Tess!
I appreciate my father, Dick Cast, and his expertise in biology and botany. Thank you, Mighty Mouse, for answering my crazy questions and helping me to create awful, awesome, weird creatures, plants, and people to populate this new world!
And last, but eternally first in my heart, thank you Kristin Cast, for your support and love. Mommy—Baby! Now, let’s luncheon!
The world was smoke. Like winter fog in the pine forest, it thickened the air, roiling around and over Mari and Nik. The choking smoke blanketed and then cleared as the pernicious wind lifted and fell while thunder echoed in the distance, teasing them with the possibility of rain.
“There!” Mari pointed. “We are almost at the shore. I can see it when the wind shifts.”
“Can you tell if we can beach the boat, or is it still too rocky?” Nik said between heavy breaths. He didn’t look up but kept stroking powerfully against the turbulent current. A big Shepherd lay as close as he could get to Nik, watching him with wise amber eyes shadowed with sadness.
“Yes, it’s more mud than rocks and there’s a bunch of scrub brush, but that should be good for hiding the boat,” Mari called to Nik. Beside her, a young version of the adult Shepherd pricked his ears at the shoreline and then sneezed heartily. Mari smiled at her Companion and ruffled his ears. “I know, but the worst of the smoke is over there.” She jerked her chin to the south. Then she glanced over her shoulder at the young man who was struggling so earnestly to row them to shore. “Nik, do you really think we should land here? We’re still awfully close to the fire.”
He didn’t pause in the rowing but looked up at her, grim-faced and drenched with sweat. His eyes met hers. She hated the sadness she saw there—hated it because she understood it so well. He’d lost his father hours ago. She’d lost her mother weeks ago. Perhaps in the not too distant future they could mourn together—heal together. Right now their shared misery was no help at all, especially with the danger that surrounded them—as thick and cloying as the smoke that filled the air.
“I’m sorry, Mari,” Nik said. He hesitated and then blurted, “I’ll jump out here. The current will take you farther downstream—farther away. Laru can stay with you and Rigel. I’ll find the three of you when this is over.”
Mari blinked in surprise. As she understood what he had to mean, she shook her head back and forth, back and forth. “No, Nik. You can’t—” she began, but he dropped an oar and reached forward and grasped her hand, cutting off her words.
“I have to. I have to go to my people. There might be something, anything I can do to help.”
“And you might get killed! It would be a simple thing for Thaddeus to use the confusion of the fire to put an arrow in your back,” Mari said. “You can’t help any of them if you’re dead.”
“Thaddeus will be too busy trying to save our city from the fire to bother with me. But I’ll watch my back,” Nik assured her.
Mari closed her eyes, calming her emotions. She wouldn’t imagine what might happen to Nik. She wouldn’t let herself be overcome with fear for him. She wouldn’t be a liability. She opened her eyes and met his gaze.
“Take Laru. I trust him to watch your back, especially when you’re too busy to keep an eye out yourself.” She smiled bravely at Nik and the big Shepherd, Laru, who leaned against his side.
“I don’t know if he’s well enough. I haven’t checked to see if his paws are burned. I can see that some of his fur was scorched, which doesn’t seem too bad, but I really don’t want him to travel on—” Laru’s impatient bark interrupted Nik as the big Shepherd stared at the shore, seeming to will it closer.
Mari forced her tone to be light, almost kidding. “See, he’s on my side. No way is he going to let you go back there by yourself.”
“All right then. I’ll get us to shore.”
Nik bent his back to the job of rowing, propelling them toward the muddy bank, and Mari put her arm around her Companion—the son of adult Laru—drawing comfort and strength from the bond that joined them for life. She understood Nik’s need to go to his people, to try to save as many of them as possible from the terrible forest fire that was devouring their beautiful City in the Trees, but she hated the danger it put him in. Mari hugged Rigel to her. I’ve just found Nik. I can’t lose him—not after losing so much so recently. Rigel whined softly and licked her cheek as the little boat ran aground.
In an instant Nik jumped from the boat and was dragging it up on the mud and rocks. Laru and Rigel followed him as he helped Mari clamber onto the bank.
Hand in hand and flanked by the two Shepherds, they climbed up the bank to find a small deer path that snaked along the lip of the Channel. They stood, hands clasped, as Nik caught his breath and stared up the path as if he was trying to see through the enveloping smoke to the burning city.
“I’d go with you if you asked me to,” Mari said softly, drawing Nik’s gaze.
“No!” he almost shouted before he steadied himself and continued in a more reasonable tone. “No, Mari. They might try to blame you for the fire.”
Mari frowned. “But I didn’t start it. I didn’t have anything to do with those cages catching fire.”
“I know that. You know that. But I can promise you Thaddeus will be spreading a different story. I’ll make sure the truth is known, but not now. Not today while we’re battling a forest fire. And there was also the figure in the smoke.”
Mari’s eyes widened in surprise. “You did see it, too.”
Nik nodded. “It seems almost like a dream now, but I swear I saw the smoke and fire take on the form of a woman.”
“Not a woman,” Mari corrected. “A Goddess.”
Nik lifted a shoulder restlessly. “Okay, a Goddess. Maybe. You’re the Goddess expert, not me.” He tempered his words with a gentle curiosity instead of the accusation Mari had feared.
“It isn’t me
who is the expert. It was Mama. The Great Earth Mother has never spoken to me—never even seemed interested in me.”
Nik’s smile was poignant. “She was interested today. She saved you.”
“Us,” Mari said firmly. “If it was the Goddess, and not just a trick of smoke and fire forming a strange image; then she saved the four of us. Maybe—maybe she’ll do it again. Maybe I should come with you and help you try to save your people.”
“No,” he repeated. “There are too many ifs and maybes. I won’t risk it. I can’t—” Nik began, and then broke off when his voice began to shake. He drew a deep breath and wiped sweat from his brow before continuing. “I can’t let anything happen to you, Mari. Do you understand?”
“I do,” she reassured him. “I understand completely.”
“Good.” He breathed more easily, his shoulders relaxing. “Laru and I will go, and when we’ve done all we can to help we’ll come to you at your burrow.”
“Please, please be careful,” she said.
He touched her chin, lifting her face so that their eyes met. “You do know why I have to go, don’t you?”
She nodded, blinking hard against threatening tears. “Your friends are there. O’Bryan and Sheena. You have to try to save them.”
His smile was slight and sad. “Yes, but not just them. Mari, many of my people are good. I know it doesn’t look like it from where you stand, but it—it’s like your friend Sora.”
“Sora? What do you mean?”
“Well, when I met Sora she wanted to kill me, or at least let me die of my injuries, just because she saw nothing but an enemy. It was only later that she saw me. I’m asking you to understand that it’s the same with my people. Trust me, Mari. Please.”
Mari drew a deep breath. “I trust you. Remember, you can count on me—and Rigel—to have your back. Save your friends, Nik. And then return to me.”
“I will, Mari. I give you my oath.”
Nik framed her face with his hands and pressed his lips to hers. Mari tasted smoke and sweat and sadness in his kiss. She clung to him, willing strength to flow into him, to bolster him, to bring him home to her.
“I accept your oath,” she said as she broke off the kiss and hugged him close. “I’ll be waiting for you.”
Nik held her for another moment, and then he released her, turned, and with Laru at his side sprinted down the path, disappearing into the smoke and the trees.
At her side, Rigel whined softly as he stared after Nik and Laru, and Mari knelt beside him, putting her arms around the big pup’s sable-colored neck and pressing her cheek against his thick, soft fur. “I know, I know. I’m worried about them, too. But Nik’s right. It’d probably do more harm than good for us to go with him. Plus, we need to get back to Sora. If the wind shifts in the wrong direction that fire could spread into our territory. Also, we need to find the women freed from Farm Island. They’ll need our help.” She squeezed her Shepherd again and kissed the top of his head before releasing him. “All right, let’s get going.”
* * *
Nik paused as he and Laru stepped into a stream that was close enough to the City in the Trees to be familiar, even in a world that had turned dark and smoke shrouded. He ripped a strip of cloth from his tunic and dunked it in the water, thoroughly soaking it while he splashed water quickly over himself.
“Laru, lie down here. Soak yourself. We’re going to need every advantage we can muster against that fire.”
Obediently, the big Shepherd entered the stream, lying to submerge all but his nose, his eyes, and the tips of his sable-colored ears.
“Good. You’re a good, smart boy. I love you, Laru. I love you,” Nik murmured, taking a moment to stroke Laru’s head affectionately. The Shepherd met his gaze, and Nik felt the weight of their new connection as sadness, regret, and pure, unconditional love flowed from the big canine into him. There, in the middle of the cleansing stream, Nik knelt beside Laru and looked into his intelligent amber eyes. “I miss him, too. I’ll always miss him.”
Nik fought against debilitating despair. Just a few hours before, his father, Sol, Sun Priest and Leader of the Tribe of the Trees, had stood strong and proud with his Companion Shepherd, the Tribe of the Trees Alpha canine, Laru, by his side. He’d faced Thaddeus and Cyril and spoken against the Tribe’s prejudice and ignorance and for Mari and releasing the Earth Walkers his people had enslaved for generations.
Sol had been brave and wise and had done what he knew was right. Without a moment’s hesitation he had saved Mari’s life, though it had cost him his own.
Nik thought he’d replay the scene forever in his memory—Thaddeus raising the crossbow to aim at Mari, Sol shoving Mari out of the way so that the arrow meant for her pierced his heart instead. And then the fire devouring the dock, the floating homes, Nik’s father’s body—and almost, too close to almost, devouring Laru as well.
Nik gently lifted the canine’s head in his hand. Laru’s muzzle was beginning to be flecked with silver, but the mature Shepherd’s body was massive and strong. His coat was thick and glistened with health. He was just entering the prime of his life.
“Thank you for choosing me. Thank you for not dying with Father.” Nik spoke softly, earnestly. His voice shook and tears leaked slowly down his cheeks. His earliest memories were daydreams of the Shepherd who would one day choose him as a lifelong Companion—a choice that couldn’t be manipulated, predicted, or changed. In recent years he’d hoped that one of Laru’s pups would choose him—had actually believed for a while that Rigel was going to choose him.
Nik had never, for so much as a brief heartbeat in time, thought that Laru would outlive his vibrant, healthy father and choose him as Companion.
“To be chosen by a Shepherd was all I ever dreamed about. Now that it’s happened I’d give it back—I’d give it all back if Father could be alive.” Canine and human bowed their heads together and shared a moment of loss and misery. It was Laru who pulled them out of their despair. Abruptly he stood, shaking water from his fur. He bounded from the stream and onto the path that would lead them to their Tribe, looking back at Nik and adding an encouraging bark to the flood of love and reassurance he sent his new Companion.
Nik stared into Laru’s eyes and saw a future there—a future formed from the ashes of an old, cast-aside life—a future that could be brighter than his father’s sun, if he had the strength to rise from the rubble and rebuild.
A vision of Mari’s steady gray eyes flashed before him, and he knew he had to be strong enough. For his father and Laru, for Mari and Rigel, even for himself, Nik had to be strong enough.
Silently he pledged to himself and his new Companion, I am strong enough!
“All right, we can do this!” Nik wrapped the sodden strip of cloth around his neck, tying it so that he could lift it over his nose and mouth, and then he followed his Shepherd.
They jogged steadily on. The wind had risen again, and with it came the teasing boom of distant thunder. Nik joined Laru, who was waiting for him on a rise in the path. Breathing hard, the two of them paused. At that moment, the wind whined ominously and changed direction.
At first Nik was relieved as the smoke was blown away from them. He and Laru drank in gulps of cool, clean air, and then Nik’s breath caught in his throat as the smoke continued to part, revealing a city ablaze in the trees. The northernmost section of their city was completely engulfed in flame. He could see that the Tribe had managed to fell several of the largest and most ancient of the trees—ones filled with the exquisite nests his people called home—attempting to make a break in the path of the encroaching fire. And it had seemed to work, especially as the wind had shifted and was blowing away from the heart of the city.
But already the Tribe had paid an unthinkable toll.
“No,” Nik whispered brokenly. “No,” he repeated as he dropped to his knees in sick despair, sobbing impotent tears while he watched fire destroying his people and the only home he’d ever known.
pressed against him. Nik put his arm around the big canine, finding comfort in his nearness—grounding himself with his Companion’s strength and love.
“I have to stop it, Laru. Somehow I have to stop it!”
Laru whined sadly, and then he, too, rallied. He barked sharply and moved out of Nik’s embrace, padding a few feet farther down the path before stopping to look expectantly back at his Companion.
“You’re right, big guy. I can’t stop anything here on my knees.”
Nik sprinted forward, Laru at his side. Within minutes he was met by soot-stained, frightened members of the Tribe fleeing for their lives. Some of them were burned. Some were bruised and broken. They trudged on blindly as if their souls had been consumed by the blaze behind them.
“Nik! Oh, God, Nik. You are alive.” A woman staggered to him. Automatically he took her elbow, though he didn’t recognize her through the soot and sweat until the Shepherd at her side greeted Laru.
“Sheena! You and Captain made it. Have you seen O’Bryan? Is he okay?”
“When I last saw him he was alive.” Sheena nodded, struggling to catch her breath as more and more of the Tribe, moving as if they were sleepwalking through a nightmare, passed them. “But he went back into that.” She made a weak gesture behind her at the blazing forest. “He said he heard Fala’s pups crying. He said—he said he was going to save them,” she sobbed. “How is he going to do that? How is anyone going to be saved from that inferno?”
Nik grabbed both of her shoulders and forced her to look into his eyes. “Sheena, you have to breathe and calm down. Now. These people need you.”
Sheena ran a trembling hand across her filthy face, wiping away sweat and tears and soot. “Okay. Yes. You’re right.” She nodded shakily. Then her gaze locked on Nik as if he was her lifeline. “What can I do?”
“You’re going the right direction. Keep following this path back to the Channel. If the wind shifts again this whole forest will catch. The Channel is your only hope.”