Tyrnan Calla sat on a low wall at the edge of the village, whistling the chorus of an off-color tune he'd heard the previous night as he absently sharpened one of his daggers. The sound of hooves on the road caused him to look up in surprise. The sun was just starting to light the far edges of the distant horizon. Kirst was earlier than expected. Not only was he early, but he was considerably more loaded down than when he'd started out the previous evening.

Carefully, he stood on the uneven stone, trying to get a better view of the large bundle cradled against Kirst's chest. As Kirst rode closer, he could make out the shape of a young boy wrapped in Kirst's cloak. A nagging suspicion tugged at Tyrnan's mind and he frowned at Kirst.

"Don't tell me that's the Miyagi Chosen," he called.

Kirst said nothing as he rode up, not even slowing his horse's steady trot when he passed Tyrnan. A pale, delicate face flashed past Tyrnan and he caught a glimpse of fine golden hair under the hood of the cloak.

"Kirst!" Tyrnan called. "Who's that?"

"You didn't want me to tell you." Kirst had his back to Tyrnan but the hunter was certain that Kirst was smirking at him.

Jumping off the wall, he jogged to catch up with Kirst's horse. "What'd you do, keep the corpse as a souvenir?"

The comment earned him a glare and Tyrnan smiled, always glad to annoy his overly stoic friend. "Don't be grotesque."

"You did kill him, right?" Tyrnan shot a pointed glance up at his friend.

"I couldn't." The words were whispered softly, so low that Tyrnan would have missed them if he hadn't been watching Kirst closely. His eyes widened but he said nothing as Kirst rode around to the back of the village temple.

"Take him," Kirst ordered softly as he handed the Miyagi Chosen down to Tyrnan. He was surprisingly light, Tyrnan noticed. He couldn't discern the boy's figure through the thick cloak but Tyrnan'd wager a fair amount that he was thin, not at all what was expected as a warrior. As far as Tyrnan knew, every Chosen that had been picked thus far had been older than the boy by a good ten years at the least and probably around twice his size. Sending this boy as a Chosen was pure suicide.

Kirst took the boy back without a word as soon as he tied his horse to the post behind the temple.

"Get the door."

Tyrnan nodded silently and complied with the request without his normal attitude. The strange Miyagi Chosen was beginning to set his nerves afire. He knocked rapidly on the door, not even waiting for the priest to answer before he pushed it open. Priest Beryn looked up, startled, as the two warriors entered his cluttered workroom.

"What's the matter, boys?" The bald priest looked at Tyrnan curiously until Kirst moved past him into the priest's line of sight with urgent steps.

"This boy." Kirst laid the Miyagi Chosen out on the table in the middle of the priest's cluttered workroom. As he set the boy down part of the cloak slipped off, revealing bare legs only partially covered by the oversized shirt the boy wore.

"By the Goddess, Kirst. What'd you do, go and have a tryst with him?"

Kirst glared at Tyrnan, his eyes promising pain if Tyrnan didn't keep his mouth shut. Hastily he turned back to the priest, leaning over the boy with intent eyes. "Tell me if he's faradhim."

"What?" Tyrnan's eyes threatened to pop out of his sockets. The priest looked confused but he laid a hand on the boy's chest and closed his eyes. "You're kidding me, right Kirst? There's no way he's faradhim." Kirst didn't look at him. "Please tell me you're joking? Kirst?"

The priest's eyes opened suddenly and he nodded. "This boy has the touch of the Goddess on him. He's faradhim, no doubt about that." Priest Beryn stared at Kirst for a long moment, his face wrinkling into a frown. "What happened to the boy, Kirst?"

"He was Chosen."

"That's impossible," Beryn snapped. Tyrnan flinched slightly at the sharp tone. Beryn was well known for his infamous bad temper and Tyrnan was just glad he didn't seem to be mad at either of them. "Why would he be Chosen?"

"I don't know," Kirst replied calmly, or at least as calmly as he could manage. There was a light strain in the warrior's voice, though Tyrnan doubted the priest noticed. He wouldn't have noticed either if he hadn't know Kirst so well.

"Well, what did he say?"

Cold brown eyes regarded the priest intently, unfazed by Beryn's rising anger. "He didn't say anything, actually. He was drugged."

Tyrnan had to fight down the urge to step behind Kirst for protection as Beryn's eyes narrowed dangerously. "They set up a faradhim as a Chosen and drugged him so that he couldn't say anything? What'd they expect him to do, wave a sword and get slaughtered?"

"The boy did seem prepared to die. He had a sword and pants when he arrived at the battlefield, but he left them in the forest somewhere. My guess is that he was escorted there. I found tracks of about four or five horses on the Miyagi side of the forest. Whoever left them was long gone by the time I got there."

Beryn's gaze shifted to the boy, but the fierce anger raged unabated. If anything, it seemed to get more intense as he lifted one slim arm and pushed back the cuff. In the bright light of the priest's workroom a red burn was visible around the boy's wrist. "Well, this gives us a good guess as to how the boy got there."

A sudden cough from the boy distracted the three men from their thoughts, and the priest turned away quickly to pour a cup of water from a pitcher sitting on one of the counters that lined the room.

Falen DeMorgan coughed harshly as what felt like a small furry rodent tried to push its way out of his throat. A large hand slipped under his back and Falen started fully awake, sitting up quickly as his eyes opened wide. He was in a strange sort of room. Cupboards and shelves filled the entirety of the room with the exception of two open doorways on opposite sides of the room to his right and a closed wooden door directly left of him. A wooden countertop ran around the room, scattered with various medical instruments. Beneath that ran a series of closed cupboards. Shelves filled with books and strange jars covered the walls above the counter. A large wooden table filled the center of the room and Falen seemed to be seated on top of the table with a thick cloak partially around him.

A muscular bald man stood beside him. Judging from the plain brown robe the man wore, he was most likely a priest. A look of startlement flashed across the priest's face, softening the vestiges of the angry grimace that had been there, but not completely wiping the look away. Two other men stood in the room. A lithe man with a long brown ponytail hovered around the door to Falen's right, a small smile etched onto his face. The Sakano Chosen stood just over Falen's shoulder, almost out of sight, but even without vision Falen would have recognized the man from his brooding presence.

"What..." The word croaked out painfully and Falen coughed again. He felt like he'd swallowed a muddy toad from the way his mouth seemed lined with grime.

"Here." The priest readily held out a cup.

Falen gratefully accepted the cup with a small smile, swallowing the cool liquid in slow sips. There was something laced in the water. He held a sip in his mouth for a minute, trying to get the taste of it. Raising the cup again he pretended to take a sip while he sniffed at the cup. It didn't smell or taste like anything bad he could remember, and he didn't feel any worse, so he guessed the liquid was safe to drink.

"What am I doing here?" He asked as he lowered the cup. The priest was watching him with an intent gaze, and Falen had a feeling the man had noticed him testing the water.

"I'm not going to kill a faradhim." A familiar voice answered Falen's question and he turned to glance over his shoulder at the dark and handsome warrior he had faced earlier in the night.

"But you have to." Falen let all emotion slip from his voice as he said the words, reminding himself of all the reasons why he was there and why he had to die. Not that he wanted to die, but it was the will of the Goddess apparently. That was the only reason he could think of for the Goddess to have allowed Falen to be Chosen. Well, there was another reason teasing at the edge of Falen's mind. He didn't dare think on that for too long.

"Bull's cock! I will do no such thing!"

"Kirst Jeswyn! Watch your language!"

Falen glanced back and forth between the Sakano Chosen and the priest, both seemingly enraged. The other Chosen's anger surprised him a little, really. He hadn't expected the Chosen who had killed so many of his clan's warriors to be so opposed to killing him.

After a moment the glaring war between the priest and the man named Kirst abated, leaving the warrior free to turn his glare to Falen. "I though you didn't want to die?"

"I don't," Falen answered calmly. His throat seemed to want to tighten up again so he took another sip from the cup of water still in his hand.

"Then why did you just ask me to kill you?" This man seemed fairly easy to aggravate, Falen noted. Or maybe it was just because Falen's actions deviated so greatly from the world of kill or be killed that the warrior was used to.

"I didn't ask you to kill me," Falen said calmly. Kirst's lips parted in protest but Falen continued speaking over it. "I said you had to kill me. It's the destiny of the Chosen. One of us has to die and I'm forbidden from touching a weapon."

"It's also against the Goddess' law to harm a faradhim!" Kirst shouted angrily.

"Calm, gentlemen." The brunette by the doorway spoke up for the first time, his hands raised placatingly to ward off any further argument. "Let me see if I've got this all straight." He pointed at Falen. "You were chosen by your clan to fight, correct?" Falen nodded. "And the Goddess validated the choice?" Falen nodded again.

"I didn't see her validate the choice, but I was able to enter the sacred forest." The Goddess had been suspiciously absent for a long time. Falen couldn't remember seeing the Goddess among the people for nearing five years, nor had he felt her presence at all time during the past year. Even the priest's spells seemed to lack their normal luster and didn't hold as well.

"They forced you to fight." Falen turned his head at the priest's soft words. While it wasn't a question, Falen answered anyway.

"Yes. I refused to take the sword on my own so they made me carry it to the battlefield."

"Why?" Three sets of eyes turned intense gazes on Falen and he sat for a moment at a loss for words to explain.

"It's... complicated." He dragged out the last word. It seemed so inadequate to describe the situation surrounding Falen. Complicated was the least of it. There were questions and doubts circling around in the back of his head and the only possible solution to answer them all left a chill in the pit of his stomach. Things were wrong in the clan. More than just his own situation, he'd seen other injustices going unpunished as a man who should be dead reigned free over the clan.

"Complicated? That's all you can say? That it's complicated?" The Sakano Chosen raged, brown eyes blazing.

"Kirst." One word of warning from the priest was all it took for the warrior to back off. "Tell me child," piercing green eyes settled on Falen and he felt the familiar tingle of the Goddess' magic fall over him, though it was fainter than he'd ever felt before. "Why do you believe you were Chosen?"

The impulse to speak the truth fell over him and he didn't fight it. "I know too much. They feared I would speak out against the clan chief."

The priest's eyes narrowed and he stepped close to the table. "What do you know?"

Falen did fight the impulse this time. There were things in his past he did not want to tell these strangers, but the truth spell forced him to say something. "I know that the Goddess' law no longer holds in the Miyagi clan," he admitted. "I know that my chief has committed grievous sins and is still permitted to rule. I know that the Goddess allowed one under her protection to be sent to die and none in my clan could oppose the choice."

Quickly Falen shut his mouth before any more truths could come pouring out. What he'd said already was enough to get him charged with blasphemy against the Goddess but he saw a light flicker in the priest's eyes. He suspected as well but dared not speak about it.

"The council should know of this." The priest stared at Falen for a long moment, considering. "I must ask that you stay in the village, child. We will find someone suitable to house you."

"He can stay with me." Falen turned in surprise to stare at the Sakano Chosen.

"Aww, getting sentimental, Kirst?" The brunette teased, earning him a cold glare from the warrior.

"If his clan sent him to die, then he might be in danger when they learn he is not dead. As the current Chosen, I'm the best choice to defend him." There wasn't a hint of emotion in Kirst's calm words.

"Is this alright..." The priest left the sentence hanging, fishing for Falen's name.

"Falen DeMorgan," he supplied. "It's alright." The Sakano Chosen's vehement protests against harming him earlier filled Falen with a sense of comfort around the other man. He'd met too many warriors in his home village that jumped at the opportunity to cause him harm as soon as they'd learned the Goddess no longer protected him.

"I am Priest Beryn," the man explained before gesturing to the brunette and the Chosen in turn. "That's Tyrnan Calla, a hunter for the village, and you've already met but perhaps not been introduced to, Kirst Jeswyn, the current Sakano Chosen."

Falen nodded politely as the introductions were made.

"Now if you'll come with me, we'll see if we can find you something other than just that shirt to wear."

With a smile, Falen slipped off the table, leaving the cloak behind as he followed the priest through one of the open doorways to the right. The priest led him down a short hall, opening a door on the left side and entering what appeared to be a storeroom. Wrapped bundles and folded cloth filled the shelves that lined all but one of the walls of the room, with barrels and crates stacked against the remaining wall.

"I'm sorry that I don't have much to offer you. We don't usually cater to someone with your dress restrictions." The priest smiled kindly at him as he perused the left wall. "I'm afraid I don't have any white pants, though I do have a few robes of a decent fabric."

"That'd be fine." Falen smiled widely. The priest held out a selection of white robes and a pair of simple sandals. The robes were an assortment of fabrics, and Falen was surprised to notice one that felt almost like silk. He accepted the silken robe with a broad smile. As he let the shirt fall to the floor he saw a grimace cross the priest's face.

"Did you get those when you were forced to go to the sacred forest?"

Falen shook his head, knowing the priest had seen the scattered bruises that marked his body. "No, those were from earlier."

The priest stared at him intently, but Falen refused to elaborate. With a brief nod, the priest turned away to rummage through the shelves. Falen was fairly certain the priest was only relenting for the moment. He wouldn't be surprised if the priest found him later to drag more information out of him.

"Here." The priest turned around and held out a small wooden tablet to Falen. "My storeroom doesn't have much that would be of use to you, but if you present this tablet to any of the vendors in the village market they can give you whatever you need on church credit."

Falen's eyes widened and he waved his hands in protest. "I can't take something like that. You're been kind enough to me already."

"Nonsense." Priest Beryn took Falen's arm in a strong grip, pressing the tablet into his palm. "You won't find a single person in this village that will condone what was done to you, Goddess' approval or not. Take the tablet and use it."

"But..." The priest's generosity was more than he deserved. It felt wrong to use the temple's funds for his personal benefit.

"No. I mean it." The look the priest shot him brooked no further argument. "Take it and use it as you need. The temple can more than afford to be generous with one of our own."

That surprised Falen and he shook his head quickly. "I'm not a priest."

"No, but you are touched by the Goddess nonetheless. That makes you the same in my book." The priest paused with his hand on the doorknob as he regarded Falen with a smile. "It's always been my opinion that priests, faradhim, and keyshal all serve the Goddess, each in their own distinct ways. That makes you a brother, child."

The priest's arm slung companionably over Falen's shoulders as he led them back to the workroom. Falen couldn't help but smile brightly at the priest's words, and he felt a bit of the tension that seemed to have been locked inside of him from when he lived with the Miyagi slip away. Things were different here, he could tell. For a little while at least he was safe from the terrors of his past.

Kirst looked up as he heard voices in the hall, his gaze fixing on the doorway as he waited for the priest and the young boy to return. The Miyagi Chosen, Falen, seemed a lot more at ease when he returned with the priest. A wide smile split his face and Kirst was tempted to think that the room got brighter with Falen's presence. It did suit the boy well he noticed, and then berated himself for the thought. Yes, he was quite beautiful, Kirst admitted to himself, more to keep the thought from nagging him than from any real acceptance of what came with that thought. But Falen was also young, hardly past his manhood by Kirst's estimates, and an enemy of sorts. He still thought this whole thing felt like a trap, but he regarded that as an irrational worry. A faradhim could no more hurt Kirst than Kirst could rightly do the same.

But someone had hurt the faradhim, he reminded himself, and got away with it unpunished as well. Instinctively, Kirst's hand went to the hilt of his sword, tightly gripping the fabric wound there. The faradhim's smile slipped slightly as he glanced over at Kirst and he realized he must be scowling. Forcing himself to relax, he let go of his sword and turned towards the door.

"Let's go."

The quiet conversation the priest and Falen were having broke off at Kirst's words. Beryn looked a little perturbed at him, but Kirst ignored it. He'd faced the priest's wrath before. It didn't scare him. The priest held out a hand to Falen, but instead of taking it the faradhim pulled the priest into a tight hug. The smile on Beryn's face was the largest Kirst had seen there in a long while as he released the small boy.

Tyrnan and Falen followed him as Kirst walked out of the door. Unhitching his horse, he led the way towards his house without saying a word. People were just starting to emerge from the houses for the day as they walked deeper into the village, and Kirst was stopped every foot or so by someone congratulating him for winning last night. He didn't bother to correct them. More than a few people cast strange glances at the faradhim trailing behind him. He ignored that as well.

"So that was Priest Beryn's temple." Tyrnan started offhandedly, gesturing back to the stone church they'd just left. "There's two novices that study with him, but they're not normally around until later in the day." Kirst had the feeling that Tyrnan was going to babble all the way to Kirst's house unless Kirst stopped him. He figured it would be better if he let Tyrnan talk. It saved Kirst from having to explain the village to the boy. "They're probably around your age. One's fifteen, the other's sixteen."

Out of the corner of his eye Kirst saw the faradhim smile. "I'm twenty-two."

Kirst's eyes widened at the words but that was the only visible sign he gave of how surprised he was. That old? From the boy's weight and complexion he'd guessed the boy to be nearing eighteen at the maximum.

"Really?" Tyrnan didn't bother to hide his surprise, though his smile never faltered. "I wouldn't have guessed."

A hint of shyness crept into Falen's smile. "I get the same reaction every time I go someplace new."

"It must just be your beautiful face. Keeps you looking young." Kirst's eyes narrowed at the flirtatious tone Tyrnan used but the hunter didn't pursue it any further. "Well, this area is mostly residences." Tyrnan jumped into the topic as if they'd never stopped talking about the area. "Kirst lives not far down, so it's a fairly straight walk if you ever need to talk to Beryn. The market area is farther down the other way on the road. My house..."

"He doesn't need to know where your house is, Tyrnan," Kirst interrupted. He knew what Tyrnan was doing and he didn't need the faradhim falling prey to Tyrnan's advances.

"Now, Kirst, no need to get jealous." Kirst mentally reminded himself of all the reasons why he shouldn't strangle his friend.

"I'm not jealous." He wasn't. Not at all. Thankfully they arrived at his house before Tyrnan could say anything else. He tied his horse off temporarily and led the faradhim into his house. The main room was far more cluttered than he would have liked with someone else now living there. He certainly hadn't expected to gain a housemate when he left for the battle the previous evening.

"That's my bedroom." Kirst pointed to the door on the far left of the opposite wall. "This was a storeroom, but you can use it for the time being." Kirst opened a door directly across from the front door, showing Falen the small room. There was a bed pushed back against the far wall, and that was all that was in the room. The bed had been there when he moved in and he hadn't really found much else to put in the room. He pointed to the small door in the floor. "That's the cellar. Help yourself to anything you find down there." Kirst made a note to stop for provisions while he was out. There wasn't much food left in the house since he hardly ever ate there. "There's an outhouse in the back. Bathhouse is down the road, near the marketplace."

The faradhim merely nodded to it all without saying a word.

Turning, Kirst walked past the faradhim to leave the house. "You're free to leave the house but stay in the village. I'll be back before nightfall." Tyrnan didn't automatically follow him out of the house so he grabbed his friend by the shirt and pulled Tyrnan after him.

Shutting the door firmly, he pulled Tyrnan to the low wall in front of his house and turned to face his friend. "Leave him alone, Tyrnan."

"What?" Tyrnan gave him an innocent, affronted look and Kirst snorted.

"I know your reputation Tyrnan. Stay away from him."

The smirk that crossed Tyrnan's face made him want to smack his friend but he restrained himself. "Want to keep Falen all to yourself, eh?"

One hand bunched in the front of Tyrnan's shirt as Kirst pulled Tyrnan close to him. "Shut. Up." Kirst bit the words out angrily though even that didn't manage to wipe the smirk off Tyrnan's face. With a warning glare he let his friend go and untied his horse. "I'd appreciate it if you'd keep an eye on the boy, make sure he doesn't do anything strange or try to leave the village."

"Or in case someone tries to hurt him." Tyrnan added with a smile. Kirst admitted to himself that that was another reason he wanted Falen followed, but he didn't say it aloud.

"Stay back and stay out of sight. We don't want him to know he's being followed in case he's got some ulterior reason for being here. Give him some room so we can see what he's really up to."

Tyrnan frowned at him. "Kirst, you're being unreasonable. I doubt there's a conniving bone in that boy's body."

"I don't care. Just watch him." Kirst started to walk away, horse in tow. He halted a step away and turned back to shoot a warning glance at Tyrnan. "And stay away from him."

Tyrnan just smiled and waved as he headed the other direction down the street. With a sigh Kirst headed towards the village stables to return his horse. He had too much to do to worry about Tyrnan hitting on the faradhim. Not that it was really any of his business what the faradhim did. He just didn't want to deal with a lovesick boy on top of everything else. Or at least that's what he tried to tell himself, but there was a corner of his mind that wouldn't stop laughing at him.

Falen glanced around at the disarray that surrounded him. So typical of a bachelor, he thought as he automatically started bustling around the room picking objects up off the floor and trying to find their proper places. He almost gagged when he found a dirty bowl underneath a pair of pants, but he simply set the bowl on a table full of similar dirty dishes by the fireplace as he tried to figure out if the pants were clean or dirty. Well, no matter what state they were in before, Falen judged them dirty just from being over the bowl. With a sigh he started a pile near the door for dirty clothing. There was a wooden tub under the table in the section of the large room that seemed to be the kitchen area. If he found a well nearby he could probably do some laundry before the Sakano Chosen got back.

Glancing out of the two large windows set in the wall with the front door, he could see a patch of forest set not far back from the row of houses opposite Kirst's own. In a corner to his right stood a mostly empty bookshelf and Falen randomly shoved any small objects he found onto the shelves. The fireplace took up most of the far right wall, with a large black pot suspended from a hook over the cold stones. Shelves and cabinets were scattered around the room, more of their intended contents lying on the floor than on the fixtures. Falen took a second glance around the room and smiled wryly, the clutter reminding him of his friend Cedrin's tent back in the Miyagi village.

But Cedrin had left, and that seemed to have been the signal for Chief Dyne to pick Falen as the next Chosen. Sighing, Falen forced the depressing thoughts away as he methodically cleaned the house. He glanced once at the open door to the room Kirst had given him and shuddered. There was no way he'd be able to sleep in there. The room was too small, worse even than the little tent he had lived in after his sister left. It was strange standing in a room surrounded by wooden walls instead of slopping cloth. The small room reminded him too much of the caves near the edge of the grasslands the Miyagi roamed and Falen knew if he spent a night in the room he'd feel the wall pressing in on him, trapping him there in the darkness while the air slowly seeped away and...

With a small cry, Falen forced his eyes away from the room, shutting the door firmly. He didn't need to be thinking that way. It wouldn't help anything. Sighing, Falen grabbed a bucket by the door and went out in search of a well.

Tyrnan straightened as he saw Falen exit Kirst's house, but the boy only went to the well two houses down the street and then headed back. He was sorely tempted to go fetch the water for the boy, but Kirst had been adamant about him staying away. Not that that would have stopped Tyrnan under normal circumstances, but Kirst had had a point about seeing what the boy would do when left alone. Probably washing dishes or something considering how messy Kirst's house was. So sinister, Tyrnan thought, and he chuckled to himself.

Two hours later Falen actually emerged from the house without a bucket in hand and Tyrnan pushed away from the wall. He followed Falen into the village, staying well hidden in the shadows between the houses with practiced ease. Tyrnan was an expert at hunting the most elusive prey that hid in the forests surrounding their village. Few men had ever been able to spot him when he was in full stealth mode, so it was a simple feat for him to follow the young faradhim without being spotted.

Tyrnan found that he didn't mind following the faradhim. The boy moved with a natural grace, almost elegant in his measured steps and ease of movement. Tyrnan wondered absently what the boy would look like in some proper clothing instead of that baggy robe. From the brief glimpses of the boy's figure he'd seen that morning, his guess was that the boy would have been stunning.

Falen seemed entranced by the sights of the village, pausing every so often to stare with slightly widened eyes as each new sight presented itself. Most likely he had never left the rainbow tents of the Miyagi clan for any extended period of time. A smile shined from the boy's face, echoed in his sparkling eyes and the easy laughter that trailed back to grace Tyrnan's ears. He was friendly, chatting amiably with any of the villagers that approached him.

Tyrnan followed about two houses back as Falen headed towards the market place. This late in the morning it wasn't hard to find the marketplace, the crowd could be heard all the way to Kirst's house. As soon as Falen reached the center of the village Tyrnan approached closer to keep track of the boy in the ever-shifting crowd. There didn't seem to be any devious intent in the boy's actions. He wandered through the market with ease.

The sign for the village seamstress seemed to catch the boy's eye and he headed inside with a confident air. An easy smile flashed across Falen's face as the seamstress met him at the door. They moved into the building and Tyrnan settled himself by a small ale stand a short distance down the street. He leaned casually against the side of the building as he waited with a pint in hand for the boy to finish his business.

Tyrnan was immersed in light conversation with the owner of the ale stand by the time Falen emerged nearly half and hour later. He almost choked on his ale as he noticed the change in Falen's outfit. The robe had been modified into a long sleeveless dress, reaching down to the boy's ankles but slashed on the sides to reveal tantalizing flashes of bare leg. A white sash gathered the fabric tightly around the faradhim's waist, showing off almost feminine hips with a hint of curve in the back that made Tyrnan's mouth water. Biting his lip, Tyrnan turned away to keep from whistling aloud. That outfit was striking.

Apparently Tyrnan wasn't the only one who thought so. An appreciative whistle sounded from the market crowd and Tyrnan turned to see one of the other village warriors talking easily with Falen. Tyrnan was tempted to intervene but the boy seemed able to handle himself and he walked away seconds later with a smile and a backwards wave. At least half the crowd stopped to watch Falen walk away and Tyrnan smiled to himself. If the boy stayed here, he'd probably have the entire village enamored with him before a month was over.

The thought of Kirst's reaction to the dress had Tyrnan grinning widely. Kirst had it bad, even if he didn't see it himself. Tyrnan planned on having as much fun with that as possible.

Kirst was surprised to see smoke rising from the chimney as he returned to his house. Tyrnan detached himself from the shadows as Kirst reached the low wall outside his house and he was a little unnerved by the wide grin Tyrnan shot him. Something had happened to make Tyrnan that happy, and Kirst had a feeling it wasn't something he would like.

"Anything happen?"

Tyrnan shook his head slightly, still grinning. "Nothing dark and sinister if that's what you're asking about. He came out to get some water, went in to Seamstress Alga's and bought some vegetables from Farmer Gedyn."

"Bought?" Kirst's brow wrinkled in confusion. The boy hadn't had any money on him when Kirst had brought him here.

"Probably Beryn's doing." Tyrnan shrugged.

That seemed like something Beryn would do. He'd probably slipped the boy a few coins out of pity. "That's all he did?" Kirst frowned. He'd almost expected the boy to try to sneak away during the day. After all, weren't there people he missed back at the Miyagi encampment or at least something he'd want to return for? Then again, considering what had happened, perhaps there really wasn't anything good there for the boy.

"Well, he got hit on a bit, but no one came home with him. Besides me, that is."

Tyrnan's smile only seemed to get wider as Kirst glared at him. Shaking his head, Kirst walked into the house. He was looking forward to his bed. He'd been up all of last night and had spent a good portion of the day speaking with the village elders. He'd expected to be back hours ago, but his conversation with the elders had dragged on for longer than he'd thought it would.

Light shone from the twin windows in front of Kirst's house and he was greeted with the smell of roasting vegetables when he opened the door. Kirst stopped in the doorway, staring at the room in amazement. He almost thought he'd walked into someone else's house considering how clean the place was. All the dirty laundry that had been scattered around the room hung in neat lines by the fire or was folded in front of Kirst's bedroom door. The dirty dishes were gone, and everything seemed to have been put away. He almost didn't recognize the room. It hadn't been this clean in years, probably not since he had first moved in.

"Impressive, Falen." Tyrnan's eyes sparkled as he pushed past Kirst to enter the room. "You're a true miracle worker."

Kirst couldn't find the energy to glare at his friend, he was too amazed at the change in his house. Slowly, he closed the door behind him as Falen set aside a sock he was mending and rose. The white fabric around Falen moved strangely, and Kirst belatedly realized Falen was no longer wearing the robe Beryn had given him. Or maybe it was still the same robe, the fabric looked similar, but it was altered into a dress that moved with the faradhim like a second skin. The effect was... breathtaking.

"Wow." The word slipped from Kirst's lips and he turned hastily to glance around the room, pretending to study the floor instead of the faradhim. "Thank you for cleaning. You didn't have to."

Falen smiled one of the sweetest smiles Kirst had ever seen and he felt his insides melt just slightly. "It was my pleasure. Thank you for allowing me to stay here." The faradhim turned to smile at Tyrnan, and for a second Kirst though the smile lessened a bit, as if the boy was happier to see Kirst than Tyrnan. Kirst disregarded the though instantly, he was just being jealous. Wait, no, not jealous, that would imply that Kirst was attracted to the faradhim in the first place and he firmly told himself he wasn't.

"Thank you for following me today. Strangers make me a little nervous, so it was comforting to know you were watching over me."

Kirst blinked, his attention focusing back on the people around him at the faradhim's words. An equally surprised look crossed Tyrnan's face. "Wait, you knew he was following you?"

Falen looked between the two of them curiously before his expression fell with worry. "Was I not supposed to? I'm sorry."

With a wry shake of his head, Tyrnan chuckled. "No, it's alright. You've got good eyes."

Falen brightened instantly at the praise. "I was one of the best trackers in my village before I became a faradhim."

"What made you become faradhim?" Kirst wasn't sure what made him ask the question, but he was suddenly very curious.

A troubled look flashed quickly across the boy's face before he covered it with a smile. "I couldn't stand to harm any of the animals." Falen turned away suddenly, changing the subject as he headed towards the fire pit. "I made some stew, if that's alright. It was all I could think to make."

Kirst came up to stand beside the boy as he ladled the contents of the pot over the fire into three bowls. "Thank you," he said quietly. The boy looked up at him and smiled as he handed Kirst one of the bowls. "I appreciate all you've done here, but I want you to know it isn't necessary. I'm not going to kick you out if the house is messy or you don't cook." He held the boy's blue eyes for a long moment, staring until the boy blushed suddenly and nodded.

"I wanted to," Falen answered quietly as he turned back to the low table set in the middle of the room. He set the bowls in front of the table and started to turn around, but Kirst handed him a spoon before the boy could fetch them. With a smile, Falen sank onto the cushion with a boneless grace that made Kirst's mouth suddenly turn dry. Out of the corner of his eye he could see the pale curve of the boy's legs were they slipped free of his dress. Kirst found his eyes following the pale expanse of flesh all the way up to the boy's waist.

Alright, he admitted, he was attracted to Falen. The boy was beautiful and exotic and graceful and somewhat perfect in Kirst's mind. But that didn't mean he was going to do anything about it. The boy had enough pain in his life without Kirst forcing himself on the faradhim.

"This is delicious, Falen." Tyrnan's words distracted Kirst and he realized the faradhim was watching him quietly. The boy smiled at Tyrnan but he didn't seem to fully relax until Kirst took a bite of the food.

"It's very good," he agreed, and Falen smiled brightly at him before finally starting to eat from his own bowl. Kirst was honestly surprised at the quality of the food. It reminded him of his mother's cooking when he had been a child.

The boy shifted on his cushion, his dress moving slightly down Falen's leg and Kirst's eyes narrowed as a spot of black on the boy's leg.

"Where did you get that bruise?"

Falen looked up in surprise and then followed Kirst's gaze down to his leg. With a blush the boy shifted, covering the bruise with his dress. "It's nothing." The lie was more than apparent.

Tyrnan looked across the table with an intent gaze. Carefully he placed his spoon in his bowl before speaking. "The warriors of your clan hurt you."

A startled look crossed the boy's face and he opened his mouth to speak. The words seemed to die on the boy's lips and he looked away quickly.

"You know that no one here will hurt you?" Kirst asked softly.

Falen nodded but he still didn't look up. "You've said as much."

"It's more than just words, Falen." Slowly the faradhim turned to look at Kirst and there was pain hidden away behind sky blue eyes. "The warriors of this village know the law. None would dare harm a faradhim."

"Even when the penalty for their actions is gone?" Falen whispered quietly, his eyes focused intently on Kirst, waiting for a response.

"Our warriors hold the code of the law," Kirst stated coldly. "With or without the Goddess' backing. You are safe."

A flood of emotions crossed the boy's eyes. His lips curled up in a smile even though his eyes threatened tears. "Thank you," Falen whispered quietly.

"What did you mean when you said the penalty is gone?" Tyrnan asked quietly. "You said something like that earlier with Beryn. That the Goddess' law no longer holds."

Falen's hands clenched in the fabric of his dress and he stared at the table in front of them. "There is chaos in my village," he started quietly. "The warriors who aligned themselves with my chief can get away with anything as long as the chief approves."

"Like hurting you?"

Slowly Falen looked up and nodded. "Like hurting me, or taking from the markets without paying for what they take."

Tyrnan's eyes widened and Kirst felt an equal measure of astonishment at the boy's words. "And the goddess doesn't step in? Why?"

The boy's mouth hung open for a moment and then he shook his head. "I don't know. The Goddess... She seems to approve of the actions of my chief."

"What?" Kirst felt anger boil inside him. He wanted to storm out of his horse and ride to the Miyagi village that very moment so that he could chop off this chief's head.

"I've seen her," Falen said quietly. "Or what looks like her, going in to the chief's tents late at night at least once a month."

"What looks like her? How can you not recognize the Goddess?" Tyrnan asked curiously.

A troubled look crossed the boy's face and Kirst nodded at him in encouragement. There was something strange going on in the Miyagi encampment, and they needed this boy to be honest with them if they were going to figure it out.

"The woman looks like the Goddess, complete with the golden aura the Goddess has but..." Falen faltered slightly, searching for words. "She doesn't feel right. My eyes tell me the Goddess is there, but I can't feel her presence. The priests of my village agree, but they dare not say anything for fear of the chief's wrath."

Kirst remembered something the faradhim had said earlier. "What did your chief do?"

"What?" Falen looked at Kirst in surprise at the change in subject.

"You said earlier," Kirst started slowly, "that your chief committed a grievous sin and is still allowed to rule. What did he do?"

A guarded look crossed the boy's face, all emotion draining from his face to leave behind a blank mask. "He was part of a group of villagers that were to be exiled for a crime they committed, but his father spared him."

"I'm guessing his father died," Kirst commented.

Falen looked at Kirst and nodded. "Killed by a lion in the grassland."

Tyrnan whistled. "He must have really pissed Her off. If the Goddess' wrath still held then, what changed?"

Falen frowned. "The Goddess' wrath was slow when the previous chief was killed, nearly six months after he contradicted her law. Her presence was muted after that, as if she'd gone away, and it kept getting weaker since then. The new chief was never punished for his actions, so he got cocky. That's when he and his warriors started making their own laws for the village."

The boy had completely skipped over what the Miyagi chief had done in the first place but Kirst let it go. Falen seemed to want to avoid talking about it, and Kirst didn't think it'd be a good idea to press the matter. The offense had to be fairly bad to warrant exile. Judging from the boy's guarded expression, it probably involved someone close to him.

"We'll protect you," Kirst whispered softly. He wasn't entirely sure why he said that but it seemed appropriate. "I promise."

Tyrnan added his own vow quickly and Kirst watched as a gentle smile chased away the pain in the boy's face.