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Author's Note:

This story is meant as a prequel to "Sirach". It's set in the early 1600's, or nearly 500 years before Sirach's birth.

For those who have never read anything else of mine and thus have no idea what I'm talking about, don't worry. You don't need to have read "Sirach" in order to understand this story. Though, if you like this one, you might try reading that as well.

Hope you enjoy!

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Note: This chapter was updated on 24. May 2006.

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Chapter One: From the Depths of Despair

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"Why should we risk it all, to trust you?" Raylf asked.

"Because you need a place," Merlor replied, "and I can give it to you."

"We have a place," Raylf declared flatly. Despite his fine clothing and expensive rings, Christian Merlor was a stranger. And with things as they now stood, Raylf was hardly in a generous mood. He could no longer afford to be.

"This?" The wealthy man snorted. His soft fingers toyed with the blindfold he now held – the one that Sir Nelson had removed from his eyes just moments earlier. He shook his head. "This forest is a pit, not a home. Do you plan on raising your children here? They'll be dead of disease in a year. Dead faster still, if Faril catches up with you again."

Raylf kept his face impassive, but his eyes involuntarily roamed the forest scene behind the stranger. The man was right. The wretched piece of land where they had hidden would grow deadly, come winter. The snow in the region was known to pile up to a grown man's height, even in good years. It was only September, but already the nights were cold enough to lace their camp with frost each morning. And their rugged canvas tents had made for poor shelter against the previous week's shrieking winds.

He wanted to scream. Forty years of stability, of peace and safety for their children, destroyed. Everyone had thought it would last forever.

But then Lord Faril's youngest son had been found hanging gruesomely from a wide oak bough, less than five leagues from the Bavarian towns of Geisthof and Vertingar – the only places where Mind-Seers lived openly. Faril had hardly seen the mystical symbols written on the tree before he sent his armies after those he thought responsible. Never mind that none of them had ever seen or used such writing. Never mind that they had been innocent. Ronwald's castle, Vertingar, had been flamed – town and all – and no one had survived. Raylf's people had only escaped because Ronwald himself had stayed to use the water wheel to warn them. Because Ronwald had died to send his friend, Lord Raylf Kirost, a desperate message of warning.

Even knowing that his friend lay dying in his castle across the river, Raylf had pulled the people of Geisthof together. They could never have stood against Faril's massive forces, so Raylf had made the hardest decision of his life: they would abandon his ancestral home of Geisthof. And then, as they began the flight eastward away from Faril's lands and allies, Raylf Kirost had made himself a promise. He would not fail Ronwald. He would take the warning his friend had given and make full use of it. Whatever it took, he would find a haven for the Mind-Seers. Even if it cost him his life.

Their flight had been a desperate one, and would have been impossible without help from others at the start. But though Raylf's people had managed to evade Lord Faril's troops, their allies had not. Faril had hunted them down one by one and hung them, just as his son had been. After that, fewer had come forward with aid, and many of those who did turned out to be paid spies and assassins for Faril. Raylf had taken to hiding and avoiding people altogether.

Which was way Lord Merlor's appeal to Sir Nelson during a hunting trip had been such a shock. Merlor should have known better. Simply meeting with Raylf could bring devastating consequences down upon his family; they were too prominent for Faril to ignore if Christian was caught. They were a respected merchant family whose claim to the trade dated back hundreds of years. Had Christian come to Raylf while he had still owned his family's castle and lands, he would have been welcomed. But now... Now, things were different. Raylf Kirost was no longer a lord, and he could no longer afford to be so trusting. Faril's spies had taught him that.

"Mina," he summoned, as gently as he could. The poor girl was frightened enough already, he could tell. None of them trusted strangers anymore. As Mina stepped out of the forest's shadows and into the small clearing, Raylf returned to Merlor. "If you wish to be involved with us, then you won't mind us testing you."

"What... what are you talking about?" Merlor asked, stepping back and nervously twisting a ring around his finger as he spoke. "What do you mean, 'testing'?"

"Mina will search your mind," Raylf clarified. He could not trust this man, though he had been desperate enough to set up a meeting. Even now, Sir Nelson and his boys were watching from the shadows, crossbow at the ready. There would be no trust until Raylf understood what had made Merlor seek him out. "Mina will look to see if you're being honest, or if you plan to betray us." He paused. "Of course, if you wish to retract your offer and leave without being Scanned, I'd certainly understand. On the grounds that none of this is discussed elsewhere, naturally."

Merlor's adam's apple bobbed repeatedly and he made no response for a long moment. Then, in a parched voice, he answered, "I'll stay. You can test me."

Raylf blinked, just once, in surprise. He had expected the wealthy merchant to fold. Briefly, he considered pulling Mina back and letting their visitor go without a Mind-Scan – since, apparently, Merlor had nothing to fear – but he forced himself to go through with it anyhow. He could no longer afford to take on people without testing their loyalty, and Mina was their best Mind-Scanner. She would cause him no harm, but still get all the information they needed.

The young woman walked nervously towards the foreign man and folded his two hands inside her own small ones. "Greetings, milord," she said softly. "Don't be afraid. I won't change your thoughts at all. Just look at them."

Merlor nodded nervously, then closed his eyes at Mina's bidding. She kept hers open and focused on his face. Raylf could sense the moment that she broke into Merlor's mind. It was as if someone had poked a hole in a dam, and all of its water suddenly rushed out through that tiny opening. Except, here, Mina's mind was the dam, and she had pierced it herself, in a very specific place, so that the water of her thoughts flowed directly into Merlor's mind. As she swam through his thoughts, the merchant gasped. Raylf knew from experience that what he was feeling was more shock than pain, but he allowed himself a twinge of sympathy nonetheless. The mind was a sacred place, and Mina's invasion was, in some ways, profane. Profane but necessary.

He's telling the truth! Mina's mind exclaimed. He wants to help us. Faril didn't send him!

Raylf nodded and relaxed by the tiniest margin. He waved a hand, signaling the concealed Sir Nelson to stand down. Thankfully, violence would not be necessary this time. Good, he replied, sticking to telepathic speech. You've done well, Mina. Thank you.

The girl smiled shyly. You're welcome, milord. But there's something else you should know... He's got Armor, too. Real Mind-Armor, not just the natural kind that normal people've got. Maybe it's just an oddity, milord, but it might be he's got our kind of Talent, too.

Raylf stared at her for a second, then re-appraised the man standing before him. Perhaps there was more to Christian Merlor than met the eye. Interesting. You've done very well indeed. But don't tell anyone about that part of it, just yet.

Yes, Lord Kirost. The young woman smiled at Merlor as she closed her mind and let go of his hands. "Thank you, Lord Merlor. We trust you." Then, with another shy smile at Raylf, she turned and melted back into the trees.

Raylf Kirost just looked at the visitor. "Come," he said simply, hardly daring to hope after the last few months. "Let me show you where we live. You can speak to the Council, and we will decide together what to do about your proposal."

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