An unfamiliar voice, deep and male, called nearby, startling Peter. On the table in front of him, a book lay open in a language he didn’t recognise. Where was he? He tried to look around, but had no control over his head. Could he be paralysed? The thought had him on the verge of panic.
No! No! He must be dreaming.
Then his hand moved to brush the hair from his eyes. To his amazement his fingers were long and slender and his hair hung in shiny brown ringlets.
“Kaitling, the cook’s daughter needs a remedy for monthly cramps.”
Now his head looked up and there in the doorway stood a tall Asian man dressed in a long flowing black robe. He wore his hair, which was shoulder-length and greying, tied back in a ponytail. His nose was strong and his chin wilful. His face appeared intelligent and kindly.
“Yes Father,” a girl’s lilting voice replied in a timbre so rich and enchanting, that he was enthralled. “Should I make the potion immediately?”
To Peter’s amazement, that delicious voice was coming out of his mouth. Good lord! Had he become a girl?
“As soon as you have finished your reading. You can also make a cream and a potion for Master Ting. He’s suffering from gout.”
Peter was confused. Was it so easy to become a girl? Surely not! If he had become a girl, he was a stranger to the world the girl lived in.
“Master Tyzi,” a tiny man greeted the first man, bowing gracefully. “Kaitling,” he said bowing to Peter.
Like the other man, the tiny man’s features were Asiatic but, unlike him, he was completely bald and his arms and legs were bared in a loose-fitting costume cut off at the shoulders and knees. He might have been small in size, but his limbs bulged with muscles.
“Master Zhuru,” the father said, bowing and, to his surprise, Peter bowed too.
“I bring bad news,” Zhuru said. “The Syvan army has invaded Drailong and is marching on the capital. You are summonsed to an emergency meeting of the Twelve in Navigon.”
“Bad news indeed, although not entirely unexpected. Those blasted Syvan priests have been massing an army for a while.” The man frowned, lines of worry forming around his slanted eyes. Their deep green colour astonished Peter. “If we can’t stop them in the next few days, the country will be overrun.”
A wave of anxiety flowed over Peter, leaving him feeling sick with worry. There’s no real danger, he tried to reason with himself, to no avail. He had no more control over his emotions than his head.
“I want you to keep to the house while I’m away,” Tyzi told him, placing a heavy hand on his shoulder. “And step up your combat practice with Master Zhuru.”
“But Father, do you really have to go? You will be in mortal danger. Can’t the Twelve be eleven for once?”
It was then that Peter realised that the voice was not saying his words. They were someone else’s. When the man leaned forward, it was someone else that he kissed on the forehead, although Peter felt those warm lips press against the skin as if it were his own. How troubling! He was in somebody else’s body. A girl’s!
In one lithe movement Zhuru disappeared out the door at the centre of the room, followed immediately by the girl’s father. The girl closed her book with a sigh and ran to join them, climbing the central stairs two at a time. Her nimble movements were exhilarating. Then he realised that it was her pleasure, not his. He could sense all her feelings even a slight stiffness in the small of her back from sitting too long. When she brushed her hair from her eyes again, he wished he could see her face.
Like the floor below, the one they reached was a large circular library with the spiral staircase in its middle continuing up to a floor above. The walls were full of shelves piled high with books and manuscripts. Kaitling gave it only a cursory glance as she hurried out and followed her father along a wide corridor to what must have been the front door. He hugged her tight, enveloping Peter in a cloud of pipe tobacco smoke and the pungent smell of assorted chemicals and herbs.
“Don’t worry, Kaitling. We’ll defeat those Syvan scum and I’ll be back soon.” The man kissed her again on the forehead and was gone.
The full brunt of her sadness and worry lashed Peter making him want to cry, as tears began to form in her eyes. She angrily brushed them away and ran to the library from where she hurried up the stairs.
She darted into what must have been her room. It was even bigger than their living room at home; only here the walls were curved following those of the library. The outer walls, draped with fine lace, were largely made of glass, revealing a splendid view over a small lake and rolling hills beyond.
Kaitling opened one of the windows and stepped out onto a wide balcony. She hurried around what must have been half the house until she could go no further. Stretching out over the rail, she searched till she caught sight of movement where the track plunged into the forest. It was her father galloping away.
She pursed her lips and cupped her hands, making the sound of a birdcall. Kaitling’s father must have heard because he rose in the stirrups and waved in her direction, then galloped out of sight.
Long after her father had gone, she lingered on the balcony, draped in sadness, unmoving, watching the empty road. Had he been able to, he would have snuggled up close and held her hand to comfort her. Instead, all he could do was suffer her pain in silence. Only when the wind got up and she began to shiver, did she turn away and enter her rooms. He expected her to fling herself on her bed and cry. That’s what he would probably have done. Instead, she took another stairway down two floors to the kitchens.
“My Father will not be with us for dinner this evening,” she told a plump woman wearing a white apron over her charcoal coloured dress and a large chef’s hat on her head. “I will entertain the guests in his stead.”
The girl sounded so serious and grown up, Peter was intimidated.
The cook bowed, saying: “Very well, Mistress Tyzi.”
It was only when Kaitling returned to the kitchen door that Peter caught a glimpse of her in a darkened window. Despite a faint resemblance to her father, her face was almost equine, bordered on both sides by shoulder-length brown hair that hung in large ringlets. He had imagined she would be cute, rather like Fi. He didn’t generally like horsey girls, as he called them, but her face was deeply attractive in a way that troubled him.
Her skin was pale white, not yellow like her father’s, and she had freckles, just like Peter. Despite a couple of extra inches in height, she couldn’t have been much older than him. She had the same wilful chin he’d seen in her father and her eyes were a bright mixture of grey and green and blue. The shadows under her eyes made her look weary. One thing was sure; she had an infectious smile.
She wore no black robe like her father. Instead she was wearing an ankle length charcoal skirt with brightly coloured dragons crawling over it. Judging from its smoothness against his skin, it must have been made of silk. It was held up by a wide grey belt buckled tight about her waist. She was also wearing a white, silk blouse. It did not fit as snuggly as those of some of the girls at school, but he could still see she had a sizeable chest for a girl of her age.
Zhuru stopped her at the kitchen door. Bowing, he said: “With the Syvans nearby, we need to call the gamekeeper back to the house. Will you come with me?”
Peter could feel her pleasure at the prospect of getting out, but she dutifully replied: “My father ordered me to stay indoors.”
“The exercise will do you good, Kaitling.”
Kaitling ducked into a small antechamber, stripped off her skirt and blouse and donned a pair of knee-length shorts and a short-sleeved blouse.
Zhuru handed her a bow and a quiver of arrows. She slung the quiver on her back and grasped the bow in her hand. The little man had a bow too. They ran side by side along the same track her father had taken. The air flowed cold around her bare limbs, but they quickly warmed at the brisk pace Zhuru was setting.
Once inside the forest, in the shade of the tall oaks, the man had them stop. “There may be enemy scouts,” he whispered and cocked his head to listen. Peter could hear nothing but the rustling of leaves and the occasional bird song. Zhuru signalled for silence and pointed along a narrow pathway that headed off to the left. He took the lead and Kaitling ran close behind him, constantly darting nervous looks left and right and behind her. Neither of them seemed out of breath. Peter was amazed at the soundless way they ran.
The little man came to an abrupt halt near a clearing and took cover behind a large tree. Kaitling did likewise.
Two enemy scouts, Zhuru said, his voice startling Peter because the man had not opened his mouth. It was as if he had some way of speaking directly into Kaitling’s head, mind to mind.
Kaitling pulled an arrow from her quiver and set it to her bow.
Peter was terrified. What would happen if the girl died while he was in her body? Would he die to?
Kaitling peered cautiously around the trunk and, sure enough, two men with swords drawn lounged on the far side of the clearing.
I’ll take the one on the left, the little man spoke in her head. You take the other one. Both took aim and on a faint whispered ‘Now’ in her head they fired together. Peter heard the whistle of the arrows cutting through the air followed by a distant thud. Neither man let out the least cry. He was relieved to think the arrows must have hit their marks, but he was horrified that he’d had a hand in wounding or even killing someone.
Neither Zhuru nor Kaitling moved. Why didn’t they hurry to see how well they’d shot? Instead, concealed behind their respective trees, they reloaded their bows and waited, listening. All was silent for a long moment. Then Kaitling abruptly turned her head at the sound of a bird cry off to the right across the clearing.
Is that the gamekeeper?
Yes, Zhuru replied in her head.
The two still did not shift from their hiding place. Peter itched to move forward and see what had happened. He had to admire Kaitling’s skill and calm. He’d have been dead long ago at the hands of the enemy. It was a sobering thought.
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