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« Simus gave a nod, and looked over at Eloix, summoning her closer. “Set camp,” he instructed. “A temporary one, for the night. Let’s not have those warrior-priests thinking we will wait patiently.”

“Another rise or so to the north and you should be far enough off for the damned warrior-priests,” Ultie said. The big man’s weathered skin hadn’t lost its tan over the winter months; his brown hair and beard were still long and shaggy.

“I’ll see to it.” Eloix nodded respectfully to all of them, and lead the warriors off.

Osa leaned forward and tied the bells in her horse’s mane. All four of them drew their horses close, and cast a wary eye on the grasses around them.

“Who knows if the elements-forsaken warrior-priests would even honor the privacy of the bells,” Ultie growled. “They shift like winds, and are not to be trusted. »

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« But neither Osa or Ultie had expressed more than a passing interest in Keir’s schemes, although both of them had courted the Warprize before her confirmation.

Before she’d formally chosen Keir as her Warlord.

Osa was the first to approach, looking ravishing as she always did, her hair like flame and her pale skin contrasting with the browns of her leather armor. Her whip was at her waist, her slight smile reflected her eyes. “Simus.” She nodded. “You have come for the Trials then?”

“If these warrior-priests ever allow it.” Ultie scowled, glancing off in the direction of the Heart.

“You were driven off as well?” Simus asked.

“They’ve prevented anyone from raising their standard,” Osa said. “Of the few that intend to.”

“What?” Simus asked sharply.

Osa raised an eyebrow in the direction of his warriors, and reached back into her saddlebags for a strip of bells. “We’d have private words, Simus. With Joden of the Hawk as well, if he is willing. »

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« Keir’s plans required a weaving of new patters between Xy and the Plains, binding the lands together. No longer would Xy be subject to raids from the “dreaded Firelanders”. No longer would those of the Plains be dependent on the raids for survival. But for those plans to come to pass; for Keir and him to hunt this prey successfully, Simus needed to enter the Spring Trials, face all challengers, and become Warlord.

Nothing would stop him from earning that status in his own right, with warriors sworn to his service.

Nothing stood between him and that goal except his survival of the Trials and this arrogant bragnect standing there with his curled lip and vivid tattoos. »

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« I say again,” the warrior-priest said, his eyes as dark as Simus’s own skin. His lip curled with disdain. “The Eldest Elder Hail Storm has decreed that all shall pull back, out of sight and sound of the Heart.”

Simus focused behind the man, trying to let his anger go with the wind. Behind the warrior-priest, the Plains stretched out with the splendor of new, green grasses and the flowers that danced in their midst. They’d only to ride a few more miles, over a few more rises, and they would be at the Heart of the Plains.

Simus took another breath, letting the man wait. The spring air, the flowering grasses crushed under their horses’ hooves, made every breath a pleasure. Especially after a long winter spent in the dark lodges, with naught to do but sharpen weapons, and talk and plan with Keir of the Cat as Xylara, his Warprize, grew heavy with their child. »

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« It took everything Simus had not to plunge his sword into the chest of the arrogant warrior-priest who barred his way.

But that had been the exact mistake that Keir of the Cat had made when he had conquered Xy, hadn’t it. Simus wasn’t about to do the same.

Instead, he eased back in his saddle, took a long, deep breath of the sweet air of the Plains, and let his glare sweep down over the bragnect before him.

The warrior-priest stood, unimpressed. His hair hung in long, matted braids; his face, neck, and chest were covered with swirling red, green, black, and brown tattoos. Nothing marked him from his fellows except a long scar that ran along the side of his face, puckering the corner of his lip. He’d offered no name, no token, no courtesy. »

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