Then from the corner of her eye, Talinea caught a glimpse of the old man slowly approaching the fire. When he reached the rocky ground just past the circle of firelight she asked, “Are you hungry?”
He squatted on his bare heels and stared at her without replying. An errant wind plucked at wispy strands of white hair, blowing them across his craggy face and tangling them in his beard. He absently brushed them away.
“Perhaps you would like something to drink?”
“No. Thank you.” His voice was harsh from long disuse. “Who are you?”
“I am Talinea,” she replied calmly.
“What do you want?”
She shrugged. “In a vision I was shown this place. So. As you see, I am here.”
His body swayed to and fro as he considered her explanation. She noted the threadbare clothing and absence of shoes and marveled at his stoic toleration of the terrible cold.
“Tell me of the king,” he demanded abruptly.
“Romaden? No one knows if he lives or dies.” A rush of bitter wind howled through the small clearing, nearly extinguishing the tiny fire. She tugged her thick chintain closer about her shoulders. “As for his siblings, I have heard nothing. There are rumors he is raising an army, but I’ve seen no evidence of it. On the other hand, if he is, he would do well to keep it a secret.”
“You are a Heart.”
It was a statement of fact she was tempted to deny. At the last moment, she changed her mind, nodding instead. “Yes.”
“If he fights, will you guard his back?”
Her body froze as she pondered his disturbing question. The king’s guardian was usually a mighty warrior—unless he or she was also a Heart. In that case, because they were bound body and soul for life, the warrior’s skills were not required. The binding was less—and more—than a marriage, for the intimacy of the mind-to-mind bond was far stronger than any physical touch.
From the time her talents matured, her thoughts had centered exclusively on her own survival. She’d steadfastly denied her true calling. Yet here, with one penetrating challenge, the old man flung down the gauntlet of destiny. Fragmented visions and ideas coalesced into crystalline conclusion. Her breath caught, and her heart seemed to stop. She pondered the irrefutable call to commitment posed by the old man.
As the king’s Heart, her personal survival would always be secondary, her own dreams and wishes would always be deferred for her king. Then with a sigh, she surrendered to fate. Wherever he was, she must find Romaden. But before that happened, her first responsibility was to find a priest willing to take her oath of fealty to her king and the crown.
Meeting the old man’s eyes, she solemnly vowed, “I will guard his back.”