The Secret Mistress (Mistress, Book 3)

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That was quick thinking. Where is Jorun? A wave of worry washed over me. I was surprised that it had been Dalon and not the Horse Master himself who found the horses missing. My thoughts were interrupted by a cry of grief from across the green.

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My heart sank. We hurried across to the little house with its crooked doorframe and cheerful boxes of herbs hanging under the windows.

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Volya murmured quietly to the girls, urging them away from the door so that Andoc, Senovo and I could enter. Blood painted the walls of the small structure in ugly splashes, and I had to breathe deeply as my head started to spin again. Behind me, I heard Volya groan in dismay. I was right about him and Gretya , I thought, even as I struggled to draw breath. I found that I was backing away through the door unsteadily, my legs threatening to buckle beneath me and send me sprawling on the ground. Hands closed around my arms from either side, supporting me as I continued to stagger backwards, away from the terrible sight.

I tried, I really did—gasping for air that seemed too thick and stale with smoke from burned huts and burned bodies. I was vaguely aware of the sound of the three newly orphaned sisters weeping a short distance away. Andoc was in front of me now, taking my face in his hands as Senovo kept me upright.

You have people relying on you.

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I stared at him like some kind of simpleton. I was the what? Oh, gods. The fog in my mind cleared slightly, and I tried to focus on the throbbing of the bruise on my temple—grasping at the dull pain like a lifeline. Senovo, go to the temple and see if the healer needs any help with Rhystel.

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That same numbness kept me from reacting when Andoc pressed his lips briefly to my bandaged forehead before letting me go. My eyes sought Senovo, who dipped his chin in acknowledgement, his own face pale and haggard as he turned to leave for the temple barracks. I felt strangely detached from events as I turned to Volya, who had stepped back to give the three of us some privacy. He nodded. The rest are at your disposal.

I took my leave, barely able to feel my boots against the ground as my feet carried me toward the horse pens without any conscious direction on my part. Thinking about the details of what I would need to recapture the herd was good. It gave me something to focus on, forcing my mind into working again like a rusty wheel on a chariot axle. My own gelding, Kekenu, was loose with the herd. If I could get within whistling distance, he would come to my call, and we could let him lead us back to the others.

By the time I reached the pens, I had the bare outline of a plan. Between the wolf and the battle, the horses had been in a panic last night. We would look in the valleys at the base of the hills, and work our way out from there if necessary. Dalon and several of the other boys were clustered around the pens.

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Some of the younger ones were obviously fighting tears. I would have to lead them. I would have to do for them what Jorun had always done for us, before. The lads looked up in surprise, and I continued as they grudgingly gathered around. We need to go get them. There were several gasps and cries of denial. Favian burst into tears, and his friend Lundis put an awkward arm around him. Jorun had been like a father to many of these boys. I allowed the expressions of shock and grief to continue for several seconds before speaking up again.

Our warriors drove off a cowardly and dishonorable attack last night, saving the village from complete destruction. The boys were all quiet now—looking at me. Looking to me, though Dalon and a few others wore sour expressions. Favian, I want you and Lundis to stay here in case Chief Volya needs to send out a message. Favian will ready the pens with feed and water for our return, and Lundis, you will check in periodically with Volya in case he needs you to act as a courier. There was a split second of silence—just long enough for panic to thread through the pall of numbness hanging over me and start crawling up my spine—but then the little crowd broke up and started to carry out my instructions.

Releasing a quiet breath of relief, I went to gather extra ropes, halters, and whips, along with a pocketful of dried apples. Half an hour later, ten of us rode out along the track leading north away from the village. The foothills were more than an hour away on horseback, and our little group was largely silent at first.

Fortunately—or perhaps unfortunately—my hearing was excellent. It was already midday. If I was wrong and the horses were far away from the hills somewhere, we would lose the light before we could find them. It would have been all too easy to start second-guessing myself, which was exactly what Dalon wanted, I suspected. The fact remained though—I knew horses. I had been drawn to horses my whole life—their strength, their speed and power. I succeeded, and it was that success which gave me the idea to start somewhere new, living as a man.

Thinking of Jorun made my chest start aching, so I tore my mind away from that train of thought. The point was, I knew horses.

Clouds were moving in from the southwest, blocking out the afternoon sun. It would rain before the evening was over. The bay gelding shook his head in annoyance, but eventually peeled away from his herd mates obediently. Keeping to the ridge tops, I stood in the stirrups, craning around to scan the waves of green grass swept by the wind.

Every few minutes, I let out a shrill whistle, in hopes that Kekenu was within hearing distance. Food was not his only addiction. He maintained his affair with Teresa for five years. By the time she formally separated from her husband, however, he was tiring of her and he began to purge himself with laxatives again. One of his diet books recommended drinking soap dissolved in a glass of water. In , Byron was devastated by the death of his friend Shelley, who drowned when his sailing boat capsized.

Byron attended the cremation on the beach and then threw himself into the sea, embarking on a nearly suicidal three-mile swim.

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From this day on, Teresa wrote, he starved himself until he stopped eating completely. Teresa would put a finger in the hollow of her cheek, to emphasise how skull-like his face had become. His appetite began to recover only when, aged 35, he left Teresa, to join the Greeks in their war of independence against the Ottoman Empire in With male friends around him, he ate and drank heartily. But his health was broken and, after spending a huge sum on arming and training a regiment of mercenaries who ran away at the first opportunity, he fell ill.

He was obsessed with measuring his waist and wrist, to reassure himself that he was not putting on weight.