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«Captives», Jean Lorrah

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He knew, of course, that the Reader was a double-edged sword: If he did not like the way the king treated him, he might run away to work against him with one of his enemies. Therefore he had the young man hamstrung, so he could not run away, and he tortured him to force him to Read for him.

In less than a year the king had conquered all the neighboring lands. He always knew the size of the enemies' armies, where they were located, all the battle plans. He also captured the fine, strong, warrior son of one of his enemies-a man who saw opportunity in ingratiating himself with a king he could not conquer. Soon plans were underway to marry the princess to the warrior-for she had learned well the lesson her father had taught her. The Reader might have been willing to give her her heart's desire, but he had not the strength to win her and then protect her. So she gave up her desire for someone to love her in exchange for someone who would be very much like her father, shower her with presents, and protect her against her enemies.

On the eve of the wedding, while the bridegroom and his prospective son-in-law were drinking themselves into a stupor with the wedding guests, the Reader was of course left alone in his room in the castle-what need to chain him in the dungeon once he was lamed? The treatment he had received for revealing his gift had worked on his mind in the past year-and he had learned to walk again, if with a hideous limp. When the revelers were thoroughly drunk, he set fire to the castle, went to the room where the princess lay guarded only by women, whom he killed, and carried the girl off into the night.

In the morning, the king and his would-be son-in-law were found dead, along with most of their guests. The princess was found in the woods nearby-she claimed to have been raped by the Reader, and nine months later she bore a son.

The princess ruled the land as her father had before her, for she had his army and she knew his methods. Her son turned out to be a Reader like his father… and it is said that all the Readers of what would become the Aventine Empire are descended from him. His father, however, disappeared without a trace. Here and there were heard tales of a strange lame man who could tell people's most secret thoughts, but no warlord ever held him again, and no one knows what finally became of him. Perhaps, bitter and disillusioned at the fate of his offer of true love, he is wandering still.

Chapter One

Where do I belong? What should I be doing with my life? Certainly not healing!

Magister Jason was wrong to encourage me. He should have let me quit the first time I lost a patient-then I would not be about to kill my best friend's son!

Looking down at the fretful child, Melissa wished she were anything else but a Reader in the hospital at Gaeta. Alethia trusted her to cure Primus, but how could she? The boy's appendix was inflamed; all their herbs, compresses, and cold packs had failed-and now she would have to try surgery as a last resort. What if Primus died?

She Read within the boy's body, wanting to moan with his pain and fever, studying the swollen, throbbing organ. If this went on, it would burst, spilling poisons throughout the child's system. Then there was no hope at all of saving him. She had to cut out that infected bit of intestine!

For the first time, she was sorry she and Alethia had been reunited. This was why a Reader still in training, like Melissa, was discouraged from keeping up associations with childhood friends who had dropped by the wayside.

Alethia, too, was a Reader, but she now wore the Sign of the Dark Moon, the badge of a Reader who had failed to achieve one of the two top ranks, and for whom a marriage had been arranged. Alethia and Melissa had been fast friends at the Academy. Melissa would never forget the day Alethia, aged seventeen, had been told that her powers had shown no increase in more than a year, and it had been determined that she would go no further.

Alethia had spent the evening sobbing on Melissa's shoulder. Her life was over-both girls were quite convinced of it. She would be married off to a similarly failed male Reader, to breed children who might have the talents they lacked. The loss of her virginity would diminish what powers she had; her badge-a black circle on a field of white-would be the only sign that she was a Reader… a failed Reader.

Melissa had absorbed Alethia's agonized fear that day, and applied herself thereafter with the greatest diligence. Never, she vowed, would she be taken like Alethia, to spend her life producing the children of a stranger and using whatever Reading power she retained to show non-readers where to dig wells or locate their lost sheep.

At eighteen Melissa passed her preliminary examinations and was sent to Gaeta for training in healing. She had arrived in fear, knowing that more than half the Readers who completed the medical training still eventually failed and were married off. It would be better to live as a healer than as a message service and finder of strayed children-but Melissa's heart throbbed to the vibrations of the great hospital. There was pain and suffering here-pain she shared with the patients when she Read them-but Reading the easing of that pain because of' something she had done was the most satisfying use she had ever made of her talent.

Her primary teacher was Magister Jason. They never met face to face, of course-no male and female Reader could unless one or both wore the Sign of the Dark Moon. Celibacy was the rule and the necessity for the upper ranks and those still in training; temptation was to be a voided.

But the touch of Jason's mind was an inspiration to Melissa. Disciplined yet vibrant, he Read with her as she examined patients and learned to interpret the data she gleaned. Medicines, bonesetting, manipulations of joint and muscle-these she learned from the other healers. Jason taught her to look deep within the human body and, when no other means would suffice, to cut into it and make repairs. She quickly progressed from sitting entranced while her mind looked through Jason's eyes, her hands feeling what his were doing, to the day when she herself held the knife, and Jason's mind guided her.

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