Banshee’s Honor by sHaYcH

Banshee’s Honor
by sHaYcH

Disclaimer: None. Mine. : )

This is not a buddy flick. These women are friends, yes, but at some point, they will be more than that.

Love it? Hate it? Think I fell asleep during English class? Razz the Writer: shaych3@yahoo.com

There are so many people who deserve my thanks – I couldn’t do them justice. The goddess knows who you are, though, so bless you.

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~Chapter One~

Leaning heavily on makeshift crutches, a stooped, rag-covered figure slowly shuffled down the road. Thick, muddy snow hindered the traveler’s progress as she struggled to drag her splinted right leg through the slurry. Sleet fell lightly, mixing with the road dirt, creating a morass of slippery mud that caused the transient to fight for every step. Muffled curses could be heard peppering the air each time she had to stop and pull her useless leg out of a puddle. The warning sound of hoof beats came almost too late.

Azhani Rhu’len cursed the rider’s ancestry and flung herself into a mound of snow that bordered the road. Pushing greasy strands of black hair away from her face, the drifter watched the horse pass. At the sight of the horse’s riders, her dark blue eyes narrowed in surprised anger.

In one hand, a darkly cloaked man clutched the reins of the horse. The other arm was wrapped tightly about the unconscious, scarlet robed body of a woman. The rich crimson color of the velvet robes, coupled with a flash of teardrop shaped tattoos on a pale, bruised face, told Azhani that the man had just broken kingdom law. Frustrated by her injury, the former soldier pushed herself up, considering her options.

Once the warleader of the kingdom of Y’dan, Azhani was now an exile and although she no longer served a king, her oaths of loyalty to the people were still locked deep in her heart. The warrior could not allow the rider to succeed in his crime, not when she still had two functional arms. Sparing a prayer to the goddess, she tossed one of her makeshift crutches aside and stripped the other down, revealing a fine, ash longbow. Layers of rags were hastily shifted aside, uncovering a small quiver of steel-tipped arrows.

Azhani took a deep breath and plunged into the thicket at the side of the road, praying that she remembered the pathways correctly. It had been many years since she had traveled its green depths, but if her memory served, there was a shortcut just behind the stand of trees on her left. Ignoring the pain that ignited as soon as she put pressure on her bad leg, the warrior loped across the snow-covered ground. Within minutes, she broke free of the forest, ahead of the horseman, but not by much.

It took only heartbeats to string her bow and nock an arrow. Quietly, she waited, breathing shallowly to control the agony shooting up her leg in fiery waves. They were close; she could feel the thud of the horse’s hooves in the balls of her feet. One breath, two, and then the stale, acrid stench of sweat tickled her nostrils.

Rounding the bend in the road at a gallop, the horse thundered past the spot where Azhani was hidden. The rider cracked a stick against the animal’s heaving flanks, attempting to inspire even more speed. Sweat mottled the light brown hide and the horse’s eyes were starting to roll in panic. When the rider turned his head, scanning the road behind him, Azhani made her move.

A single arrow hissed through the air, striking the man in the shoulder with enough force to knock him and his hostage off the horse. The animal reared, screaming in fear, and then galloped off down the road. Azhani ignored it, hobbling up to the man with another arrow readied in her bow. Struggling to sit, the man cursed loudly and reached for the arrow that had knocked him from his mount. Not far away from him, his victim lay in the dirt, moaning softly.

“Don’t move, lawbreaker!” Azhani said evenly. The irony of the situation did not escape the exiled soldier as she calmly watched the kidnapper.

Hearing her voice, the man looked up and swore vehemently. Five feet away, the rag-covered, bow wielding figure looked more like a crazed wild woman than a serious warrior. Yet her aim had been perfect, stopping his flight with one shot. Anger twisted his features and he started to reach for his dagger.

As soon as she saw his face, Azhani growled. Branded deeply into his left cheek was the mark of the Cabal. Long nurtured hate for the clan of villains, murderers and thieves bubbled up inside the warrior. When he went for his weapon, she loosed the second arrow, pinning his other shoulder to the ground. With a wild shout, Azhani twisted the bow around, smashing it into the kidnapper’s knees. The sickening crunch of bone, followed by the tortured scream of pain was music to her ears.

Placing the tip of the bow against his temple, she angrily demanded, “Who are you, lawbreaker? Why have you harmed one of Astariu’s chosen?”

Hate-filled brown eyes looked up into hers and he smiled mirthlessly. “Dance in hell, bitch.” Dark red blood bubbled up and spilled over his lips. His eyelids fluttered shut and he went limp.

“Shit!” Azhani cursed, dropping her bow aside and reaching for his hand. She was too late. The thick, golden band of a ring glittered menacingly. Tugging it off with a curse, the warrior was not surprised to see several tiny, poison coated needles lining the inside of the ring.

Anger suffused the warrior and she kicked the body. The pain was like a blast of icy water in the face, and she collapsed, whimpering brokenly. Fresh blood seeped through the rags binding her leg, staining the snow. Black spots obscured her vision as she panted, trying to will the pain away.

“Gods fucking damned mace carrying wet nosed excuses for pathetic soldiers!” she shouted at the uncaring trees. She forced herself to roll over, pounding the ground with a fist as fresh pain brought tears to her eyes. Looking over at the priest, she was heartened to see that the woman was still breathing.

Azhani gritted her teeth and slowly, one inch at a time, crawled over to the body of the kidnapper. Ruthlessly, she searched his body, hoping for anything that would explain why he had broken the kingdom’s oldest laws by harming a woman deemed sacrosanct by noble and peasant alike.

Finding nothing but a bag of mixed coins, a vial of poison and two knives, one of which was the wicked, hook-bladed dagger that was the trademark of a Cabal assassin, the warrior then pulled her arrows free and stowed them back in their quiver. Leaving the poison, she stowed the pouch of gold away under her rags.

Using the body as a lever, Azhani stood up and started to shuffle toward the softly groaning stardancer. Even though the kidnapper’s clothes were cleaner than hers, nothing in creation would convince her to don the garb of a Cabal. She had no desire to come under the scrutiny of the dark gods who favored those who slunk in the shadows and preyed upon society. That baleful gaze had already wreaked too much pain and havoc in her life.

A soft whicker from behind caused the warrior to slowly turn. The horse had returned and was standing only a few feet away, sides heaving from exertion. Slowly, carefully, Azhani began to cluck her tongue, limping toward him and speaking softly while reaching out for the horse’s bridle.

“That’s a good lad,” she whispered. Her hands came into contact with the slick leather and she reached up, scratching his head. Nodding in pleasure, the horse let out a happy sigh. The tack bore the starburst markings of Astariu’s Healer aspect. Surmising that the animal must belong to the unconscious priest, she gave him one last pat and looked over at the unconscious heap of scarlet velvet and sighed.

“All right lad, let’s see if you were trained properly,” she said warmly. “Support.” The horse immediately lowered his head, making it easy to grasp his mane tightly. “Slow,” she cautioned, and took a step forward, toward the stardancer. In this manner, she crossed the road to the fallen woman. Upon reaching the unconscious priest, the warrior calmly said, “Kneel.” The horse went down on its front legs, waiting for the warrior’s next command. “Steady,” she said, and steeled herself against the torture she knew was coming. As carefully as she was able, the warrior lifted the dead weight of the stardancer’s body to the horse’s back.

Before the pain could overwhelm her, Azhani dragged herself up behind the priest. The horse easily stood as Azhani wrapped her arms around the young woman, holding her close to prevent her from toppling over. The priest’s head lolled to the side, revealing a youthful face. Alabaster pale skin covered an archly angular bone structure. A mottled, dark purple bruise shadowed the edge of her jaw, causing the warrior to wince in sympathy. Thick, wavy amber-colored curls framed the woman’s delicate features and brushed the tops of her shoulders. Tiny, graceful points topped her ears, proclaiming her half-elven heritage. She’s beautiful, the warrior thought as she juggled the priest around until she was safely tucked against her body.

Nearly blacking out from nauseating pain, the warrior fought off a wave of dizziness. When she could finally see, she took the reins tightly and directed the horse onto the road.
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Kyrian fought her way to consciousness slowly. Her first impression was of warmth, then movement and finally, the odd coppery tang of blood. Shaking her head to try and rid it of the foggy, cottony sensation that kept her from comprehending her surroundings, the stardancer groaned. Her mouth was coated with a sharp-tasting slime and her head felt as though she had been drinking for a week.

Astariu, remind me not to drink the ale in Brenton again, she thought muzzily, bringing up a hand to scrub at her face. Then it hit her. She was on horseback, but she wasn’t the one holding the reins.

“What the?” she muttered, reaching for her weapon. The two foot long length of tempered steel still rode at her hip, carefully stowed in its dark leather sheath.

“Easy,” a deep, rumbling voice said from behind her, while a large, calloused hand covered hers.

Kyrian whipped her head around, meeting the hooded face of a dirty, rag-covered woman. Tightening her grip around her weapon, she demanded, “Who are you and what are you doing on my horse?”

A quick smile flashed across Azhani’s grimy face. She’s got spunk, I’ll grant her that. Not many people out there would take that tone with me. Azhani dropped the reins into the startled hands of the stardancer and then threw her bow down on the snowy ground.

Sliding off the animal’s back, the warrior nearly bit through her lip when her legs hit the ground. Grabbing for the support of a battered old fence, Azhani took several deep breaths, hoping the starbursts in her eyes would clear quickly. Home. She had ridden the horse, cuddling the unconscious priest against her until they had reached the gates of a ramshackle, sprawling homestead.

A broken down wall of stone encircled the deserted property. The warrior breathed a prayer of thanks. She had hoped that no one had moved in, claiming the place as their own.

“Who are you?” Again, the stardancer spoke, pressing for an answer.

“I am no one, my lady.” Azhani sketched a curt bow and reached for her longbow. Grasping it tightly, she turned to hobble inside. “Thank you for the ride. May the goddess guide your journey.”

Totally confused, Kyrian cried out, “Wait!” Letting go of the hilt of the baton, she said, “You’re injured – I’m a healer, let me help you.”

Azhani glanced over her shoulder at the pretty young woman. “It is not necessary, my lady, the injury is nothing that time will not handle.”

“Time may do, stranger, but my hands and skill are keener than it will ever be,” the stardancer pointed out, dismounting. “Besides, I think that you owe me the story of how we came to be doubling on poor Arun’s back. I am certain I did not see you sharing mugs of Gregor’s finest last night at his daughter’s handfasting!”

Azhani closed her eyes, and then reached up to pull back her tattered hood, revealing her face fully. Looking up into the stardancer’s almond-shaped green eyes, she grimly asked, “Would care to aid an Oathbreaker, healer?”

Kyrian hissed and drew back in fearful confusion. Harsh, angular cheekbones prominently defined a hawk-like face. Startlingly brilliant blue eyes looked out at the world, endlessly roving, taking in every tiny flutter of movement around the warrior’s tall, broad shouldered form. A thick, grimy mass of dark hair clumped around the warrior’s face and disappeared into the cloak. Telltale pointed ears marked the warrior as half-elven, just like Kyrian. Below the corner of the stranger’s right eye, was a thick patch of dark scar tissue that stood out starkly against the warrior’s dusky brown skin.

Unconsciously, Kyrian’s hand rose to touch the tattoo on her own face, as if seeking reassurance of its existence. Oathbreaker, the stranger had named herself. The horrible, puckered wound where once a noble mark of rank had rested gave credence to her words.

“Who are you, stranger, that you bear the brand of an Oathbreaker?” the stardancer asked wonderingly.

The warrior sighed, and decided to tell her. There was nothing to lose, because a stardancer would not kill in cold blood. “I am Azhani Rhu’len,” the warrior said proudly, bowing exaggeratedly. “At your service, my lady.”

Kyrian gasped softly. She had heard of the Banshee of Banner Lake, former warleader of Y’dan. For years, tales of the warrior’s bravery and ferociousness in battle had spread through the kingdoms, but now, those stories were mostly forgotten, replaced by the whispered horrors of her actions three months ago.

King Theodan the Peacemaker had died in his sleep, and his son, Arris, had inherited the throne. Instead of swearing allegiance to the new king, Azhani had plotted to overthrow him, murdering the ambassador of Y’Syr and attempting to kill the king. The warrior’s plot had been revealed, and Arris had sentenced her to die. Choosing defiance to the last, Azhani had opted for the Rite of the Gauntlet.

Blood drenched the banks of Banner Lake by the time the warrior had won her freedom, and Arris had declared her an outlaw, putting a huge bounty on her head. If the ragged, beaten, lamed woman before her truly was Azhani Rhu’len, then there wasn’t anyone who would condemn her for walking away.

Except Ylera – she would have wanted me to help her. Goddess bless you, Ylera, but your heart was so full of forgiveness. Ambassador Ylera Kelani, of the elven kingdom of Y’Syr, had been a good friend of the stardancer’s while she was still a student. They had not seen each other for many years, but Kyrian still fondly remembered their long nights spent studying by the light of a shared fire.

When she had heard of her friend’s murder, the healer-priest had raged in helpless anger. Kyrian had been in western Y’dan, performing weddings and healing the sick when Azhani’s betrayal took place. She had been unable to save Ylera and now fate was giving her a chance to exact a fitting revenge.

Her hand strayed toward her baton once more. Kyrian struggled to push her anger aside, to see beyond the red haze that clouded her vision and into the heart of the woman standing next to the gate.

Azhani’s lips curved into a sneer as she watched the play of emotion that flickered across the stardancer’s pretty face. “Go, healer, lend your skills to someone who is worth their learning,” she said harshly, and then turned away from the woman once more.

Kyrian watched as Azhani shuffled across the yard, falling every few steps, but doggedly pulling herself up and continuing to hobble toward the door to the cabin. Unconsciously, she winced, knowing the warrior was in excruciating pain. When she did, a burning ache thudded dully in her jaw. She reached up and probed the skin, hissing at the tenderness. What the? she thought curiously, reaching into the pouch at her side to withdraw a small silver mirror. A dark, purple bruise covered one side of her face. Ah goddess, how did that happen? She frowned, searching her memories for clues.
The ale was cold, and spiced with just a hint of nutmeg. It tasted good on Kyrian’s dry tongue. She had just finished the binding prayers of the handfasting ceremony and was thirsty enough to drink from a bog. Smiling happily at the sight of the newly ‘fasted couple dancing merrily in the center of the inn, Kyrian wandered outside with her drink, taking in a deep breath of the cool night air. Not far from her, a man in dark clothes was walking toward her, his gait oddly unbalanced.

That’s when she noticed the slightly off taste of the brew, a hint of something that the nutmeg and alcohol could not disguise. Cursing softly, she tossed aside the mug and was about to force herself to vomit when a large fist came out of nowhere and knocked her clean out.
Kyrian rubbed her jaw again. Okay, so how did I get from there, to here? she wondered. Azhani had not been her attacker. She had caught just enough of a glimpse of the man’s face to know that she had not been another one of Azhani’s victims. Another memory, this time of falling through the air and hitting the ground hard intruded. Kyrian struggled to grasp it, to seize any details that her addled brain had saved. As she fell, she had seen a bow wielding, monstrous form howl ferociously and leap on the man who had held her captive.

Looking across the yard to where the warrior was still struggling to reach the cabin, Kyrian realized that the bowman had been Azhani. There was a mystery here. Why would a woman branded as a traitor risk herself to save a healer? Yes, she was a stardancer, one of the few whose gifts were so great that Astariu empowered them with the magical ability to heal, but why should the warrior care? It obviously hadn’t been to beg succor for her injuries, since she had scornfully thrown Kyrian’s offer away.

Help her, an inner voice urged Kyrian. Azhani had fallen again, and was now crawling toward the door. Oh, what the hell. Whatever the warrior had done in the past, she wasn’t going to hurt the stardancer now, not as weakened as she was. Dismounting quickly, she dropped the reins, signaling to Arun that he could browse for wild grasses, but that he was not to go far.

“Guard,” she whispered, knowing the horse would raise one holy racket if something bigger than a rabbit came near the gate. Striding quickly to Azhani’s side, she declared, “I don’t care if you’re the Lord of Hell himself.” Efficiently, she knelt by the warrior’s injured side, offering her shoulder for support. Kyrian wrapped one arm around Azhani’s waist and waited for the warrior to grab hold of her. “You’re injured and I am a healer. It is my sworn oath to offer aid to those in need. You would not have me be an Oathbreaker, now, would you?” Reddish-blonde eyebrows rose challengingly.

Coldly, Azhani looked up, meeting the open green gaze of the stardancer. Kyrian’s face had cleared of any uncertainty, and now only concern painted her sweet face. The harsh, acid comment on the warrior’s tongue dissolved. Looking back down at the snow, she mumbled, “No,” and settled her arm on Kyrian’s shoulder.

The stardancer was surprisingly strong. Her slight appearance hid years of well-trained muscles and she easily lifted the heavier, taller warrior, standing steady until Azhani had found her balance.

“I would not dishonor you so, my lady,” the warrior added, after catching her breath.

“Good. Now, is that a doorway, or are we going to get creative?” Kyrian asked, nodding toward the front of the house.

Despite herself, Azhani laughed. “It’s a doorway. “ She reached into her clothes and removed a rusty key. “This is my home, such as it is.”

“Home? I thought you lived in Y’dannyv,” Kyrian said while Azhani fumbled with the lock.

“I did. This is my father’s homestead. I grew up here, in the borderlands.” Nodding to the left, she added, “Ride about five days travel that way and you’ll hit the foothills of the Crest. If you go that way,” she indicated the other direction, “You’ll end up back in Y’dan. Satisfied? No laws to break here – because there aren’t any.”

Giving way with a sudden, rusty screech, the lock popped open. Kyrian took hold of the handle and gave it a good push, opening the door. Seasons’ worth of dirt and dust exploded outward, causing the stardancer to cough and fan the air in front of her face. Kyrian blinked several times, trying to see into the dimly lit room.

Years of debris littered the floor, yet not a stick of whole furniture remained. A musty odor clung heavily to the room, and Kyrian recognized the signs of animal habitation piled in the corners. Broken cobwebs thick with dust stretched across the ceiling, draping down into their faces as they slowly walked into the cabin.

“I thought you said you lived here,” Kyrian said uncertainly as she helped the injured warrior into the room.

Azhani used her bow to push some of the larger bits of trash out of her way. “I do – now.”

“How come there isn’t any-” Kyrian gestured around the room at the mess, “there’s nothing here but trash,” she finished curiously.

“The raiders took everything that wasn’t nailed down,” Azhani said softly as Kyrian lowered her to the ground next to the hearth.

Carefully, the stardancer inspected the fireplace, making sure that there wasn’t anything blocking the chimney. “Can I borrow that?” she asked, pointing at the warrior’s longbow.

Azhani wordlessly handed over the unstrung bow, wincing as the stardancer used it to poke and prod at the chimney until several ancient birds’ nests fell into the hearth, sending clouds of dust and soot flying.

Coughing and wheezing, the warrior snatched her bow back when Kyrian offered it to her with a sheepish grin. “Sorry,” she said, gathering several piles of broken twigs and laying out a fire. She looked around the room and nodded. Most of what was in here would probably burn, meaning she could clean quickly. Everything else she would toss into the middens. Hopefully, the raiders hadn’t taken the broom, too.

“All right,” Kyrian said, after she had gotten a small fire going. “Let’s see that leg.”

Azhani had drifted off into a light doze, but came awake quickly when the stardancer spoke. She attempted to swing her legs around toward Kyrian, but her badly damaged leg had frozen in place.

“I might need a little help,” she admitted quietly, trying to force her legs to move.

Gently, Kyrian helped the warrior to reposition herself so that her legs were stretched out. Tiny gasps and mews of pain escaped as Azhani moved, but she did it, collapsing to the floor when Kyrian signaled she could stop.

The stardancer knelt next to the warrior, quickly using her small knife to cut through the cloth that held the battered splints in place. When the wood and rags had fallen away, she sucked in a breath at the wound revealed. Mottled shades of black, green and red-streaked yellow covered the warrior’s entire leg from the knee down. Torn, putrefied flesh wept blood and puss and Kyrian could see the white, broken end of bone poking up through the wound. Swollen knots of torn muscle indicated where the bones had been broken more than once.

“Wasn’t this set?” she asked softly as she opened her haversack and began pulling out small pouches of herbs.

“Didn’t have much time,” Azhani said in between gasps of breath. Just the whisper-light touch of the stardancer’s warm fingers had sent daggers of pain up her leg. “I had to get out of Y’dannyv.”

“So it’s true then, what they say?” Kyrian asked conversationally, as she ground several herbs together.

Azhani didn’t answer.

Kyrian looked up from her grinding and stared at the warrior, but Azhani wouldn’t meet her gaze.

“Why?” Kyrian whispered. “Ambassador Kelani… the soldiers… dead. Why, Azhani?”

Still no answer came.

Sighing sadly, Kyrian stood and walked to the door. Arun amiably cantered over when she called out to him, poking his nose through the doorway and snorting his opinion of the cabin. Carefully, she removed her saddlebags, thanking the gods that the kidnapper had thought to steal her horse too.

The stardancer dug out a pot and scooped up some snow, setting it on the fire to melt. “I’m going to have to set the leg, you know,” she warned Azhani.

“I know,” the warrior replied dazedly. Lurid red spots flickered in front of her eyes as waves of pain and nausea threatened to render her unconscious. She was shaking uncontrollably, and cold chills wracked her body.

The stardancer noticed the warrior’s hands opening and closing spastically and she made a soothing noise. “Not much longer now. Once this steeps, I’ll put you under and you can rest,” she said softly.

“No. I’ll stay awake,” Azhani protested weakly. “Don’t waste your magic on me, healer.”

Kyrian poured the herbs into the pot of water, stirring them with her knife. “I’ll decide if it’s a waste, warrior.” She propped her bedroll behind Azhani’s head. “Close your eyes and try to rest. I’m almost ready.”

Briskly, the stardancer stood while Azhani relaxed into the softness of the woolen blankets. Kyrian quickly walked through the bottom floor of the small house, locating a battered straw broom in the storage area. Smiling happily at her prize, she returned to the main room.

“Looks like the bandits forgot something,” she crowed happily, waving the ratty broom triumphantly.

Azhani grunted in amusement. “Trust a stardancer to make a treasure out of a broom.”

Kyrian shot the warrior a bright smile, and then dropped the broom to hurry over to her pot, which was boiling merrily. “Okay, this is going to taste like the bottom of a chamber pot,” she warned, pouring the drink through a piece of clean linen into a mug. “However, it will help you to feel much better.”

Azhani sat up and sipped at the tea, making a face at the extremely bitter taste. “You don’t honey coat the truth, do you?”

“Why should I? If I had said that it tasted like ambrosia, would you have believed me?” Kyrian asked, raising one eyebrow curiously. “And after tasting it, would you trust my skills as a healer?”

The warrior chuckled ruefully. “No, I would not, to both questions. I have dealt with my share of chirurgeons, my lady.” She blinked her eyes sleepily. As she had suspected, there was something in the drink to make her drowsy. “I said I wanted to stay awake,” she protested mildly as the herbs took effect.

Kyrian caught the mug before it slipped from nerveless fingers. “I know, warrior. But I need you still to work this Healing,” she whispered as Azhani drifted off into the dream realms.
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Setting Azhani’s leg took several candlemarks, and Kyrian knew that she would have to call upon Astariu’s gift at least one more time to truly heal the leg, because the bones were nearly shattered. Her candlemarks of work hadn’t been for nothing, though. Now that the necrotic tissue had been cut away, the angry red lines of infection had started to recede. Healthy red blood pooled around the wound, proving to the stardancer that the leg had a chance of survival.

With the first stage of the healing accomplished, Kyrian busied herself by cleaning out the small cabin. The home had three major areas. The main living area contained a fireplace and a staircase leading to an upper floor. A doorway led down to a storage room where another door led out to the back of the house. A shed was tucked alongside the cabin and when she saw it, Kyrian thought it might work as a stable for Arun.

The horse was grateful to escape the bitter cold of the night. Kyrian found a small brazier and filled it with debris, making a hot fire that warmed the shed quickly. Covering the brazier, she left Arun to rest and continued her exploration. She discovered an outhouse that, after only a candlemark’s work, was perfectly functional.

The remnants of a small vegetable garden yielded a few withered, but still edible carrots and potatoes. She found a handful of onions not far from the middens and added them to her bounty. After some work, a well provided fresh, clean water.

The loft proved to be a bedroom. On one end, there was an adult sized pallet and on the other, a small, child sized bed. Stuffed under the child’s bed were the tattered remains of a rag doll. A squat woodstove lurked in the corner. Checking the flue, Kyrian satisfied herself that the appliance would work and headed for the stairs. The floor of the upstairs room was very unstable, so she quickly left, not wanting to injure herself.

Checking on Arun, she gave the horse some grain and scrounged up a pile of old hay for him to nose. In a corner of the shed, she found an old trunk. Inside the trunk she found a surprising wealth of clothes and blankets. Under the textiles, wrapped in a bundle of tattered silk, was a fine, elven made longsword.

Holding the naked blade, she considered dropping it down the well. Something stopped her and made her wrap it back up and stow it in the cabin with her things. Stardancers used no edged weapons other than the small knives made for eating, healing and other mundane tasks. As servants of Astariu’s Healer aspect, they carried batons – long, stout rods crafted of highly flexible steel. The weapons were just as deadly as swords, but in the hands of a master, they could be used to disable instead of kill. Death in the name of justice was the province of kings, not priests.

Kyrian had taken a life once, and that burden wore heavily upon her conscience. The healer had sworn never again to kill and had spent the last two years of her life going from place to place, wearing herself out trying to heal enough people to atone for the life she had ended.

Gathering up her treasures, Kyrian stopped to pat Arun one more time before returning to the cabin. The sun had long since vanished and a chill, biting wind whipped the healer’s robes about her body as she sprinted from the shed to the small house. She dropped her booty near the sleeping warrior and dug out her lantern, lit it and set it in the center of the room.

Scavenged wood fed the fire until there was a hearty blaze warming the room. The vegetables she had found joined a handful of jerky and spices in a pot of water and hung from a hook, cooking. Soon, the aroma of food filled the room, chasing out the last remnants of decay and dust.
~Chapter Two~
Azhani woke to the scent of food. Her stomach growled eagerly, then churned sickeningly. She blinked her eyes open slowly, surprised when she wasn’t immediately assaulted by a wave of pain coming from her leg.

The warrior lifted her head and looked down at her leg, which was wrapped tightly in bandages. She did it, she thought, no little wonder creeping into the idea. She saved my leg.

“Thank you,” she croaked out, her normally smooth voice harsh from sleep.

Kyrian nearly dropped her bowl. Shooting the warrior an annoyed, yet amused, glance, she said, “You’re welcome, warrior. Are you hungry? There’s soup.”

“Does it also taste like yesterday’s chamber pot?” Azhani teased, pulling herself up into a sitting position. She winced as her bladder woke up, reminding her that it had been a good long time since she had seen the backside of a bush.

“No!” Kyrian replied, laughing at the warrior’s joke. “But I could add some bitterroot, if that would make you happy,” she added slyly. She watched the warrior fidget for a moment, and then covered a chuckle. “I bet you’d like to take a walk, wouldn’t you?” she asked delicately.

Azhani made a face. “I can do this myself,” she said before the stardancer could offer help. The warrior took hold of her bow and used it to lever herself to a standing position, then took one, feeble step forward while Kyrian stood off to the side, abortively reaching out to steady her.

Slowly, dragging her splinted leg with every, agonizing step, the warrior worked her way to the back door of the cabin.

“You’re quite a stubborn one, aren’t you, Azhani Rhu’len?” Kyrian whispered quietly, fascinated by the warrior, despite her violent past.

Azhani stepped out into the cold of the night and took in a deep breath, nearly weeping with the effort of staying upright. If her bladder weren’t telling her with every heartbeat that she was about to embarrass herself, she would have collapsed into a heap right there. Instead, she dug down into the well of strength that seemed to be growing weaker and weaker and pushed on until she reached the outhouse.

When she finally made it back into the house, Kyrian had set up two pallets near the fire. Next to one of the pallets was a bowl of thick, fragrant soup, a half round of dark peasant bread and cup of lightly steaming tea.

The warrior lowered herself to the ground, letting out a soft groan of weariness. Quietly, she began to eat. In between bites, she said, “Not bad,” and went back to shoveling down the food. She set her empty bowl down and tore into the rich, nutty bread. “Better than bugs and roots.”

Kyrian rolled over and stared at the warrior. “Why do I think you would say that about food served at the king’s table?”

Azhani’s face darkened rapidly. “I wouldn’t. Anything served in that castle would taste like ashes to me,” she said softly. Her appetite lost, she laid the last portion of her bread in her empty bowl and picked up her tea. Azhani knew she would need the painkillers that the pungent, herbal odor of the drink promised.

Not knowing how to respond to the warrior’s statement, Kyrian held her tongue.

“You can leave tomorrow. About a day to the north, you’ll find Barton. It’s a mining and trading town. You can get some supplies and go on to wherever you were heading before you were abducted,” Azhani said quietly as she drank her tea.

Kyrian looked around at the sad state of the cottage. Though her efforts had done much to restore a homey cheer, there was still a sense of bleak emptiness that called out for a loving hand. “I’d like to stay, and help you with this place, if I can.” She also knew that if Azhani’s leg were to heal properly, she would need the stardancer’s care for several more days, at the very least.

Azhani felt her jaw tighten. Didn’t the healer get it? Didn’t she understand that she was trying to give her a chance to get away? “I don’t need your help,” she said brusquely, laying down and pulling one of the woolen blankets over her.

“I didn’t say you did,” Kyrian readily pointed out. “I offered it – there is a difference, warrior.”

“Stop calling me that,” Azhani muttered darkly. “My days of fighting are over. I am a simple woman of the forest now, nothing more.”

“Warrior or not, you will still need someone to help you make this place livable. Winter is here, and it will be many weeks before your leg can bear your full weight. You may wish me to leave you here to rot, but my oaths as a healer will keep me glued to your side. I will be here tomorrow, and the days after that, until I’ve decided that you are able to care for yourself.” Kyrian spoke firmly, letting the warrior know that she would not be swayed. “Besides,” she added lightly, “You still haven’t told me why you saved me, and I want to hear that story.” She settled into her pallet, trying not to dislodge the hidden bundle of the silk-wrapped sword.

“I’m no tale-spinner, healer. The facts are simple enough. I saw one of Astariu’s Own in trouble and I had the means to act. Anyone who had sworn the vows I have would have done the same thing.”

“What care does an Oathbreaker have of allegiances?” Kyrian asked lightly.

“Perhaps none, but I’ll not be damned for spite,” Azhani retorted.

“Still, I sense a tale in the telling. Even if you threaten to run me off with your bow, I will stay,” Kyrian said resolutely. I would regret breaking your hand, warrior, but I would still stay. Touching the aura of the “Banshee of Banner Lake” had driven away any of the stardancer’s misgivings about helping Azhani. No one could be as evil as the stories claimed the woman was and carry as much pain and grief as Azhani did. Kyrian was drawn to help the woman, like a moth to a flame. She knew she would get burned, yet she could no more fly away from its influence than she could raise the dead.

The stardancer wanted to hate Azhani for the crimes she had committed, but her curiosity had been aroused. Why would a warrior of impeccable virtue turn against everything she had fought so hard to uphold? Kyrian found this fascinating. Pursuing this question would keep her from having to mull over her own past, something she desperately tried to avoid.

From the other pallet, Azhani’s half-asleep voice floated over to the stardancer. “Stay then, healer. I will not refuse you shelter. Whatever else you require you will have to provide on your own.”

“I think I can handle that,” Kyrian said, chuckling lightly, thinking of the soup she had made. In the morning, she would search the trees on the property for robin’s eggs. If she found nothing, she still had plenty of oats and Arun never minded sharing.
%%%
Newly formed icicles glittered from the branches of the tree that Kyrian agilely climbed. She spotted a woven pile of twigs and vines on her way to the privy and, after seeing to Arun, she decided to investigate it. A few leaves still clung tenaciously, rustling in her passage. Kyrian finally reached the branch containing the nest and was disappointed to find it empty. She was about to climb down, when she noticed a patch of wild mushrooms growing on the other side of the tree. Brightened by the possible find, she hurriedly made her way to the ground.

Carefully, she harvested the mushrooms and put them in a pouch. Laying the pouch on a warped shelf tacked to the side of the cabin, Kyrian wandered to another tree, smiling when she caught sight of several small, reddish-yellow fruits. Opening her haversack, the stardancer culled a dozen of the tart but tasty crabapples. Rubbing her hands to ward off the chill, Kyrian shivered. There was a bite to the air that spoke of the weather to come, and she realized that the meager supplies in her saddlebags would not last the winter. They would have to find more food to set aside, or they would slowly starve.

I wonder if Azhani will have any ideas? She did mention a trading post not too far from here; maybe I should ride up there tomorrow. Nodding to herself, Kyrian decided to talk to her patient about it when she woke. Patient? I guess that’s what she is, though she’d stubbornly deny it. But then, she’d probably just as soon skewer me as speak to me.

A candlemark’s search through the overgrown garden turned up a few last withered vegetables and some wild herbs. While she was gathering several long, tufted stalks of parsley, she spotted the pink nose of a rabbit. The animal was rooting through the snow, seeking greens of its own to nibble. Blessing her fortune, Kyrian sent a quick thanks to the animal’s spirit and used her baton to add some meat to their evening soup. After breakfast, she decided she would saddle up Arun and explore the forest around the ramshackle cabin.

Azhani was just waking when Kyrian poked her head inside the room.

“Morning, warrior,” she called out cheerfully, setting aside her bounty and walking over to lay a cool hand against the warrior’s cheek. No fever today, unlike the day before, when the dark brown skin had been like touching Astariu’s fires. Today, it was cool, bearing only the slight heat of sleep.

“Stardancer,” Azhani greeted warily as Kyrian reached over and drew a pot of tea off the hearth and poured out a measure of the warm liquid. Kyrian handed her the cup, chuckling when the warrior first poked her tongue into the drink. Relieved that it did not carry the bitter flavor of medicine, Azhani drank deeply of the soothing liquid. “Not trying to poison me today, hmm?” she asked, dry humor lacing her tone.

A surprised smile lit up the elfin features of the stardancer’s face. “No, not today, warrior. Today, you get willow bark and boneset, to help you mend. I added a touch of wild mint to ease the flavor.”

Azhani struggled to sit, waving away the stardancer’s hands when she tried to help. Grunting with the exertion, the warrior cradled the warm tea, taking a moment to relish being alive. I beat you, you bastard. I made it home, and now you can’t touch me! Ah gods, Ylera, I miss you so much…

“I’m going to look at your leg now, all right?” Kyrian asked as she carefully began to unwrap the rags that bound the warrior’s foot. The stardancer clucked in sympathetic pain at the sight of Azhani’s battered foot. She realized then that the woman wore no shoes, only layers of rags tied and bound to her feet with bits of rope. “This will not do,” she muttered softly. Standing, the stardancer went outside and fetched a battered bucket she had noticed earlier. Though it was not in very good condition, there was just enough of it left to hold a small amount of water. Carrying it back in carefully, she set the half-broken bucket down next to the warrior.

Curiously, Azhani watched as Kyrian then unwrapped her other foot. As the stardancer dipped a soft bit of cotton into the water, the warrior growled, “What are you doing?”

“Washing your feet. They’re disgusting, and need tending,” Kyrian answered absently as she began to delicately scrub the layers of dirt and blood away from the warrior’s skin.

When the cold water touched her flesh, Azhani jumped, hissing, “That’s cold!”

Kyrian shot the warrior a look and said, “Did you expect it to be otherwise? Now hush and let me work, warrior.”

Azhani grumbled, but did as she was asked, actually feeling a tiny trickle of gratitude well up inside of her. She hated being dirty, and having her feet washed and cared for was a step toward being able to hobble out to the well and clean up. She had realized that the stardancer must have found one of her father’s trunks when she came in the night before and noticed a small pile of clean clothes stacked on the floor by her pallet. When the stardancer finished caring for her feet, Azhani would trade her ragged clothes for the clean, simple peasant garb.

Kyrian gently washed the warrior’s feet, mindful of the splints holding Azhani’s right leg straight, and then rubbed in a soothing salve to help heal the myriad of cuts and abrasions that decorated the calloused skin. “When did you lose your boots?” she asked curiously as she piled the dirty rags to the side, to be burned later.

“This is how Arris wanted me to look, when he led me to the gallows,” Azhani said curtly, staring up at the boards that made up the floor of the loft above. She couldn’t look at Kyrian’s gentle, sweet face, not now when there was so much ugliness playing havoc in her mind.

It would be too easy to like that face, too easy to allow the stardancer’s vivid smiles to break the walls the warrior had carefully built on her journey northward. Azhani just couldn’t allow anyone else the chance to get that close again. Lowering her gaze without meaning to, she sighed as she looked down at the woman washing her feet. It was a nice face, though – full of innocence, and the beginnings of a wary trust. A sparkle of not quite hidden mischief danced in the stardancer’s pine green eyes and there always seemed to be a ready smile hovering on Kyrian’s soft, full lips.

Where the warrior had expected to see contempt, only weary confused sadness rested. “They took your boots?” Kyrian whispered, aghast. She had never considered how devastating the punishment for an Oathbreaker was. To be so stripped, not just of pride and honor, but also of the very basic necessities of survival, was terribly cruel. Blessed Astariu, how can we be so cruel, even to those who do not earn mercy?

“To teach me ‘humility’,” Azhani said, looking into the fire, and seeing the past.

The terrible, wrenching pain that filled the warrior’s indigo colored eyes reached out and touched the knots binding Kyrian’s anger, loosing them. All of the pent up anguish she had carried because of the actions of this woman – the rage of grief and loss she felt when she heard of Ylera’s death, as well as the anger over the massacre of so many of the king’s men, vanished. The look in Azhani’s eyes was not that of a murderer savoring a kill. No, the warrior’s eyes were empty, almost shattered by sorrow.

“Will you tell me what happened?” the stardancer asked, kneeling next to the warrior’s injured leg. Carefully she unwrapped the bandages, laying aside the splints and using the damp rag to sponge away the dried blood and dirt.

Azhani shook her head vehemently. “I don’t want to talk about it,” she growled, finishing the dregs of the now cold tea.

Kyrian nodded in acceptance, knowing that she would keep asking until the warrior relented, and told her side of the events. Whatever had caused the warrior to throw aside her honor at autumn’s end would make for a very intriguing tale. Softly, the stardancer began to hum, calling on the training that marked her as one of Astariu’s Own. The words of a lullaby came unbidden, shaping the forces that directed the goddess’ healing fire.

As she worked, her hands began to glow, an aura of pastel yellow limning the delicate, long fingers that slowly stroked the broken, damaged skin of Azhani’s leg. The warrior watched, awed as the stardancer expertly controlled her magic, the power channeling easily through her body. The glow flickered like flames, but the heat of Kyrian’s touch did not burn. Instead, the energy enveloped Azhani’s leg and chased away the ragged edges of pain that had haunted her every step since escaping Arris’ clutches.

The warrior would be forever grateful for this gift – not many would risk the wrath of a king to aid an Oathbreaker. Even Astariu’s priests had turned her away when she had crawled to their door, begging for help. Only the generosity of an old, blind woman had allowed Azhani to survive as long as she had. Sobbing in pain as she clawed her way through Y’dannyv’s alleys, the old woman had found her and taken her in, sharing the tiny crate she called home.

The beggar had been the one who had found the rags and twigs that had first splinted her shattered leg. She had even found someone willing to take the warrior’s blood drenched sword and axe – weapons she had grimly taken from the bodies of the soldiers she had slain – in trade for the longbow and arrows that had been her only means of protection as she traveled toward her father’s estate. The dagger that had been given to her was long since gone, buried in the sea of muck and blood that had formed that awful day.

Yes, the priest’s gift was beyond a miracle, and Azhani knew she would silently thank the stardancer every day of her life. Though she may not want my gratitude, when I use her gift to kill Arris. Bloody visions of slowly stripping every inch of skin off the king’s pain-wracked body flashed in her mind. He would pay for the misery he had caused – the warrior vowed it.

On his deathbed, Theodan had made Azhani promise to keep his son – a boy he knew to be weak and useless – away from the throne.
“Of all the things I regret the most in this world, my friend, it is my son. I ignored him in favor of my dreams, and he has suffered for it. Do not allow my mistake to hurt the people of Y’dan. Arris must not follow me to the throne!” Theodan whispered weakly, wheezing heavily. “You must care for the land now, old friend. I’ve done everything I can for her, and now it is your turn. I know you will make her thrive.”
That was the night he had pressed a very special scroll into her hands, forcing her to swear on her oath as a Warleader that she would present it to the council upon his death. Though little good it did me, Azhani thought sadly, remembering the absolute anguish of that day. Shying away from the painful memory, she looked down at the stardancer, who was nearly finished. She wiggled her toes, unable to hide the delighted grin that spread across her face when there was no accompanying flare of pain. Joy spread like wildfire through her. She would be able to walk, run, and even ride normally again. Arris, you are doomed. You should have killed me that first night, when I didn’t care about my life. Now, I will see you in hell!

Azhani opened her mouth to thank the stardancer and realized that she didn’t even know the woman’s name. Furrowing her brow, she thought, Who is this person, and why the hell are the Cabal so interested in her? Or was the abduction personal, for pleasure, rather than planned?

“Who are you, healer?” she abruptly asked as the stardancer’s song trickled away. The skin of Azhani’s leg was a healthy, pale tan and the pain that had been her constant companion was nearly gone. Only a slight, dull ache remained, but the warrior knew it would fade in time.

Kyrian took a deep breath, releasing it slowly as she began to arrange the splits and straps around Azhani’s leg.

Reaching down, the warrior stilled the stardancer’s hands with her own. Startled, the stardancer looked up, meeting Azhani’s steely blue gaze. “Leave off, healer. Answer me. Who are you?”
“My name is Kyrian. I am a stardancer and I serve the Healer,” was the priest’s simple reply.

“What are you, though? What makes you the target of the Cabal? Who is your family? What have you done that someone would pay a heavy blood price for you?” Azhani demanded, grabbing the startled woman by her shoulders and shaking her fiercely.

Fear lashed through her, forcing slashes of memory, painted crimson by time, to fill the stardancer’s mind. No, it can’t be…she pushed the memories aside and struggled to free herself from Azhani’s iron grip. “I’m nobody, I swear,” she gasped as she strained. “Let me go, warrior,” she warned dangerously.

Azhani searched the woman’s face, seeking a sign, some indication that Kyrian was more than she appeared. There was nothing, only fear and rising anger flushing the pale skin. Abruptly, she released the stardancer.

“My apologies,” she rumbled out contritely.

Straightening her rumpled robes, Kyrian resumed her spot next to the warrior’s newly healed leg. “Azhani,” she said, the word rolling strangely off her tongue. It was the first time she had used the warrior’s name since they had met. As if the name were magic, suddenly the warrior under her hands was no longer a patient, nor a killer, but just a woman who had risked death to save a stardancer’s life. “Why does it matter who I am? Why do you say that the Cabal took me? I can only remember a little bit about that day – just bits and pieces, really. There was wine, and dancing, and lots of really good food and I had just gotten a mug of cool ale. It didn’t taste right, and I was about to toss it out when something, or someone hit me.” She spread her hands helplessly. “So please, tell me what you want, because I just don’t know.”

The warrior pursed her lips, considering, and then said, “Fine. About a half-day’s journey south along the road there’s a corpse, rotting in the woods. The answers are there. Go and seek them if you will. If you are wise, you will turn east and not look back.”

“I’m not going anywhere until you’re well,” Kyrian protested in frustration, running her hand through her short, amber curls exasperatedly.

“Then I have no answers for you save one. I killed a man of the Cabal yesterday. It was he who held you captive. More than that, I do not know.” She lay back against the rolled blanket, closing her eyes against the shock scrolling across the stardancer’s face.

How can she just lie there and speak so casually of killing? Kyrian wondered, her gaze falling upon the pile of bloody rags she had yet to burn. How could she ignore her wounds to save me? I’m not worth that kind of agony. All the stories she had ever heard about Azhani Rhu’len, the finest warrior in Y’dan, crowded into her brain, clamoring for attention. The warrior had been a hero and the leader of King Theodan’s armies – ignoring pain would be second nature to her.

“You stopped him? You rescued me, and brought me here?” Kyrian asked after groping around mentally for something, anything to say to encourage the warrior to speak, to talk of what must have been a spectacular event.

Azhani grunted an affirmative. “Not much of a hero, am I?” she taunted, glancing down at the rags that made up her clothes, and the fading bruises of her leg.

Oh goddess, what happened to turn this honorable woman into a murderer? Kyrian was beginning to sense that the official version of the events of Banner Lake had no actual bearing on the truth. I hope I’m right about this, she thought, reaching out to place a hand on Azhani’s bare knee.

Bewildered blue eyes opened, and found her gaze. “Enough of one for me,” the stardancer said, her voice softened by gratitude. Smiling, she said, “How about I repay you by heating some water so you can wash?” Kyrian looked at the neatly folded pile of clothes still lying next to the pallet. “We can wait to rewrap your leg.”

A pathetic sense of gratefulness overcame the warrior, followed by annoyance. Shrugging, Azhani said, “I don’t care what you do with your time.”

Kyrian clucked her tongue disapprovingly as she stood up. Leaving the cabin, she returned shortly, carrying a large, rusty pot. “Found this in the shed. Looks like there are some things that even raiders won’t take.” She wiped the pot off, then filled it with water and hung it over the fire to heat.

While the water warmed, Kyrian cooked the vegetables. She hummed as she worked and Azhani found that she liked the stardancer’s voice. Sitting up, the warrior spotted the rabbit carcass.

“Hand me that and I’ll clean it,” she offered quietly, needing to do something to contribute, even if it meant getting dirtier. Kyrian’s willingness to do the chores made Azhani feel bad about her earlier nastiness.

Realizing that the warrior felt useless, Kyrian set aside her own protestations and reached over, grabbing the carcass and handing it to the warrior. “All right, but try not to damage the hide. I can use it to make a pouch.” She stifled a smile at the meticulous way the warrior set about skinning and boning the rabbit. I’ll bet that will be the most boneless rabbit I’ve had in an age, the stardancer thought, turning to serve the breakfast she had made.

Azhani traded the fur wrapped bundle of meat for a plate of vegetables and a fresh mug of tea. After sprinkling some herbs on the meat, Kyrian laid the bundle by the fire and focused her attention on her meal. When breakfast was done, she took the dishes out and cleaned them, then came back and added the meat to the dregs of the previous night’s stew. More vegetables, water and spices went into the pot, which she then hung over the fire to simmer.

“I’m going to have to hunt for some more food later,” she said, unhooking the pot of now very hot water and setting it on the hearth. “For now, let’s see about getting you clean.”

Reluctantly, Azhani allowed Kyrian to wash her. The stardancer had made it clear that she was not to move her leg, rendering her unable to clean herself. She was able to attend to her more private areas, but only after the stardancer made her promise not to jar her leg.

While Azhani washed, Kyrian took a pair of the rough homespun pants and cut away the right leg just above where the knee would be, to make it easier to care for the warrior’s injury. A few, quick stitches hemmed the fabric, to keep it from raveling. Politely, she turned her back while she worked, allowing the warrior a sense of privacy.

After the warrior was dressed, Kyrian used the remaining water to take a sketchy bath and exchange her crimson robes for a set of the same, simple garb the warrior now wore. Without the heavy velvet robes, the only thing that marked the stardancer as a healer-priest were the three small teardrop shaped tattoos dappling the skin below the corner of her left eye.

The ink had long since faded, going from a sharp black to a paler, charcoal color. Kyrian had served the goddess for many years; her oaths had been sworn when she was barely thirteen summers old.

Once, Azhani’s dusky face had bourn a tattoo as well, but it was gone now, replaced by a dark scar. Kyrian wondered what mark denoted the conundrum the warrior had become. Cleaned up, Azhani was striking. She was not beautiful, but Kyrian doubted she would ever forget the face that was now revealed. Intense, and grave, it was carved with an expression that the stardancer could only call deep sorrow.

“I’m going to take Arun out for a walk, can you manage here by yourself?” the stardancer asked after she had finished changing.

“I’ll be fine,” Azhani said remotely as she practiced hobbling around the room, using her longbow as a crutch. She wanted to see the place and get a feel for what needed to be done before the real winter settled in, closing her off from even the nearby trader’s village of Barton.

Shaking her head at the warrior’s stubbornness, Kyrian gathered her haversack and headed out to the shed. The weak sunlight had melted the snow, creating a mire of mud that she had to avoid just getting to where Arun was stabled.

“Hey boy,” she called out in greeting, opening the door. The sturdy brown gelding immediately came to her side, snuffling her hair and lipping her shoulder gently. Patting his side affectionately and scrubbing his ears Kyrian said, “Hungry, boy? Come on, let’s get you saddled up and go see what we can forage.” The two friends exited through the ruined front gate and headed into the forest.

It felt good to be out of the stuffy cabin, riding through the overgrown forest and breathing the cool, clean air. Soon, she dismounted, leaving Arun to wander while she foraged for what prizes the forest would offer. Around the bases of trees and hidden under sparse bushes she found many varieties of winter plants that would make excellent teas, and she was especially glad to find a large amount of an herb that was highly effective against lung inflammations. It was winter, and she knew the cabin would not keep out all the drafts. Either she or Azhani would probably suffer from the wracking cough that was usual result of taking a chill.

Kyrian didn’t question the notion that she would spend the winter with Azhani. Years of experience had taught her that the warrior would not heal overnight, and her weather sense told her that it would not be wise to attempt traveling to Y’Syr right now.

Arun let out an excited chuffing, causing the stardancer to go investigate what he had found. A small, fast moving stream cut through the forest floor. Around the stream grew armfuls of wild grass and other vegetation.

“Bless the Twins,” Kyrian whispered, pulling up the grass and loading it into a sack. There was enough here to feed the horse for several days. As she worked she noticed the sparkle of scales in the water and she resolved to try her hand at fishing some time soon. By the time she was ready to head back to the cabin, her haversack was bulging with soaproot bulbs, wild parsnips, some more of the small, sweet onions that she loved so much and four large brown potatoes. On her way to the cabin, she found a small bush bursting with tart, purple berries that tasted delicious.

Her treasures loaded on Arun, Kyrian found the trail back to the cabin, gathering deadfall as she went. She had already burned most of the larger chunks of debris littering the cottage, and it wasn’t getting any warmer.
%%%
After Kyrian had left, Azhani put aside her bow and limped around the cottage, trying to take stock of how much it had suffered from the years of neglect. As she surveyed, she cleaned up, making her pallet and tossing the disgusting pile of rags that had been her clothes for far too long onto the fire.

All in all, she was satisfied with the condition of the cabin. The roof was pretty stable, though there were parts where the thatching had fallen through. Up in the loft, she found the sad remnants of her first rag doll, and spent several heartbeats fighting tears. The floor would have to be reinforced if anyone were going to spend a lot of time in the room; but otherwise, the upper structure of the house seemed fairly solid.

All of the shutters would need work, both oiling and sanding to make them open and close without shrieking in protest. Above the storeroom, the roof had partially caved in, letting all manner of dirt and debris gather on the floor below. Azhani could see where the stardancer had already picked through the trash, searching for wood to burn. The shed and outhouse had fared the best; both were in solid condition, easily able to withstand another winter.

Counting the coins in the pouch she had lifted from the Cabal kidnapper, she figured that there would be enough to provision the cottage for winter – if she bargained well. If not, then she and the stardancer would have to tighten their belts. Unless I can convince her to stay in Barton, Azhani thought, already planning a trip to the trading village that was a day’s journey away. To get there, though, she would need a real crutch, not just the makeshift staff her bow made.

Thinking of the longbow reminded her to whisper a prayer in the name of the blind beggar who had sheltered her during those horrible days after Banner Lake. Her original weapons – the sword she had crafted with her own hands, working side by side with the castle smith and the armor her father had given her were gone, broken on that horrible day three months ago.
“Let the citizens of Y’dan take note: On this day, six hundred and thirteen years from the time our forefathers first set foot upon this golden land, Arris Theodan, rightful king of the glorious land of Y’dan, has declared Azhani, daughter of Rhu’len, Scion of the House DaCoure, an Oathbreaker. Let no succor fall upon this wretched villain, or suffer his wrath. No shelter, aid nor sustenance from this land shall she receive, for she is foresworn and anathema!” Arris’ herald, a shifty-eyed fellow who had gained his position by toadying up to the king while he was still a prince, proclaimed loudly. “Azhani Rhu’len, you are hereby found guilty of treason against the throne; for this crime you are sentenced to exile. May the gods spit forever on your soul, and may you never wash the blood of the beloved Ambassador Ylera Kelani from your murderous hands.”

Hearing her beloved’s name, the warrior wanted to shout, to cry out for all to hear, But I did not kill her! The wad of grimy fabric shoved forcefully in her mouth before the ceremony began had silenced her, though.

Patting her on the cheek, Arris had whispered, “So you don’t try something stupid, like attempting to convince the people of your innocence.” He had then turned and mounted the steps to the stage where an Astariun priest waited to sing the chants that would make him king.

Bound as well as gagged, Azhani could only glare at the king’s boots. She had been tossed up onto the stage and forced to kneel while the herald announced the decision. Above her, the new king smirked, though there was a tiny hint of unease playing about the corners of his eyes.

“As is her right by law, Azhani has requested the Rite of the Gauntlet, rather than the honorable death our glorious king offered as payment for her crimes. Let those who would be the hand of justice, come now!”

Dragged to her feet, the beaten, battered warrior still exuded a dangerous presence. Her bonds were cut, and she was finally able to spit out the gag, massaging her wrists until she could feel the tips of her fingers tingle painfully. Cracking her knuckles she gazed out at the crowd of soldiers and citizens, daring one to challenge her.

No one moved. Cracking a smile, she began to walk away; sure she was a free woman. Plans were already formulating; she would go south, to Ysradan, and beg for his audience. Maybe Theodan’s old friend would believe her…

From behind her, Arris snarled, “Oathbreaker!”

Azhani turned just in time to see her beautiful sword thrown into a bonfire, robbing it of its temper forever. As it heated, a blacksmith pounded the metal until it cracked and broke, shattering into hundreds of pieces.

Tears stung her eyes, but she did not allow her emotions to show, firming her jaw arrogantly, ready to take whatever the boy king would deal out next. In quiet anguish, she watched as Arris’ men broke her armor, burned her things, and destroyed everything that had been precious to her. Only her dagger remained untouched. One of the guards walked up to her, bowed mockingly and offered the blade to her. As she moved to take it, he dropped it, forcing her to bend over and pick it up. He would be the first to die, she decided as he backed up, laughing with his friends.

“Again, herald, tell them again!” Arris commanded impatiently.

“The Oathbreaker has claimed the Rite of the Gauntlet – will any step forth to face her? She’s only got a dagger,” he added quickly, knowing his king would reward him tenfold if he got a good show.

A well-dressed man suddenly shouted, “One thousand gold coins to the man who slays the Oathbreaker! My word on it!”

The crowd gasped. One thousand gold would make a pauper into a prince. Several soldiers, none of whom had ever served with the warleader, surged forward, each trying to be the first to claim the reward.

Gripping the dagger tightly, Azhani readied herself. There would be no easy escapes this day.
Azhani shook herself out of her reverie. Let it go; wallow later, now is the time to prepare for the future. She put the gold away and hobbled outside, searching the grounds for a straight, stout piece of wood that she could fashion into a crutch.

Behind the shed, hidden under a rotting pile of leaves and debris, she found what she was looking for. A long shaft of wood that had once been the arm of a wheelbarrow would easily lend itself to being carved into a crutch. Inside the shed, still laced to a broken curing rack was a beaver pelt that she could use to pad the support, so that the bruises under her arms would finally heal.

Azhani took her finds back into the house. After adding more wood to the dwindling fire and stirring the soup, she sat down on her pallet and took out her knife. Holding the shaft of wood in her hands, she roughed out the shape she wanted and began to carve, letting her shavings gather into a pile at her feet.

When Kyrian came in at nightfall, Azhani had lit the lantern and was seated on her pallet, working on carving the crutch.

“You’ve been busy, I see,” the stardancer commented, bending over to stir the pot of rabbit stew that had simmered all day. “Mm, almost done,” she said, smiling at the delicious smell of the soup. Her day in the forest had left her with a huge appetite.

“So have you,” Azhani replied, not bothering to look up at the stardancer. She was at a delicate junction, trying to remove a bit of wood around the handle of the crutch.

Yawning, Kyrian said, “Yeah, I found a stream not too far from here. There’s fish in it, but I’ve never been very successful at catching them, so we get to eat this scrawny bunny I caught this morning instead.”

“I can fish. I’ll go tomorrow morning,” Azhani said, turning the crutch in her hand and using the rough, leathery side of the beaver pelt to smooth out the wood.

“Oh you don’t have to do that. You should really wait at least one more day before putting so much stress on your leg, Azhani,” Kyrian said reasonably. She was getting tired of fighting the warrior for every concession.

Azhani looked up at the young woman, biting back a sharp retort. Kyrian was a stardancer. It was her duty to advise her patient, just as it was once Azhani’s duty to council her king in war.

“All right, when can I expect to be able to travel?” she asked quietly.

“Two, maybe three days, but only for short distances. To the stream and back,” Kyrian said decisively, reaching up to push a stray curl out of her eyes. Yes! Maybe I’m finally getting somewhere. Now, what can I do to reward that … hmm, oh yeah, that would work. “Unless you ride Arun -then maybe, maybe a bit further. Why? Was there someplace you needed to go?”

Azhani set her half finished crutch aside and looked around the room, and then pointed up at the thatched roof. “Place needs work,” she grunted and then pulled out the hidden pouch, dumping the contents on her blankets. “The Cabal were good enough to provide me with the means to fix it.” She looked at Kyrian now, a challenge in her eyes. “Barton’s only a day’s ride from here. At this point in the year, there’s probably some traders, furriers and a few,” she paused, allowing a bleak grin to curve her lips, “outlaws. I can get supplies there. Thatch, food and clothes, mostly, and maybe a few extra things to make wintering here a little more pleasant.”

“All right, we’ll leave in two days.” Holding up a hand to forestall the warrior’s protests, Kyrian said, “Arun’s perfectly capable of hauling both of us, and I can walk if necessary. And unless you’re dying to buy an ox, Arun should be able to bring us home as well.” The garden in the rear was hardly large enough to take a spade to, let alone require a draft animal to plow it.

“Would you use a hammer to kill a fly?” Azhani asked rhetorically. She could tell she had lost the battle with the stardancer, again. How come I can’t seem to win here? I’m trying not to like her, but damn it, it’s getting harder each time!

Kyrian chuckled dryly. “I’d use whatever tool came to hand. After all, it’s not the shape so much as the will behind the instrument that decides the action, right?” She gave the warrior a pointed glance.

Azhani suddenly smiled, a true smile that put fire in her eyes and turned her harsh features to something worthy of any bard’s song. “So they don’t stuff your head with cotton in those monasteries after all,” she said, laughing lightly.

“No, we save the cotton for cranky old warriors with head injuries. The material swells nicely – helps the codgers feel like they’re kids again,” Kyrian retorted, her eyes dancing merrily. Gods, I missed this – bantering with someone who can count higher than ten without taking off their shoes first. Growing up, the stardancer always had someone in the monastery to trade jibes with, whether it was the older teachers or her fellow students.

Ordinary citizens tended to regard the stardancer as something holy, treating her with a diffident awe that left her lonely and longing for a friend. Saddened, Kyrian had turned inward for solace, but Azhani’s words had sparked a surge of hope. Maybe she could find a friend after all. Wait, what am I thinking? Can I befriend a murderer?

She doesn’t act like a murderer, Kyr. Look at her – she’s just as leery of you as you are of her. You already half way like her. Take a chance; forget about what you’ve heard. Let her tell you her side of the story. You might be surprised. The voice of reason whispered persuasively.

Kyrian had to admit that when the warrior wasn’t being grumpy, she was pleasant to be around. At least she treated the stardancer as a person and not like the physical embodiment of Astariu herself. The last time Kyrian had felt that way was when she had lived in that elven village.

Though not known for their tolerance of half-breeds, the elders of Myr had nonetheless welcomed her into their community. As a servant of Astariu, they knew they could come to her with their ills and she was glad to take the role of teacher to the small children in the village.

For several years, Kyrian lived in peace. Each day was a dream come true, allowing her to practice her gift as well as inspire hungry minds to explore the world around them. The spring of her fourth year, the dream became a nightmare.
The day had been warm, but now it was sundown, and time to bring the children home from a day of swimming lessons. Staying close to their teacher as they traveled, her students chattered excitedly, bragging of their watery feats.

Too late, Kyrian heard the whispery sound of booted feet on grass. The stardancer spun when the children cried out. A human male had stumbled onto their group and had taken the opportunity to grab what treasure he could. In his large hands, he held two of the village children. Their wide, fearful eyes pleaded with her as they struggled to free themselves.

The other children had already run off, screaming and crying in panic. Kyrian and the outlaw were alone on the road. The stardancer gripped the comforting weight of her baton and she brandished it, pleased that it had come to her hand so easily.

“By the grace of the goddess, I ask you to release the children,” she said evenly, stepping into the moonlight. The raider’s eyes widened when he saw her crimson robes, but narrowed when his gaze traveled up to her face and took in the youth of her features.

“G’home, girl, an grow ye up sum afore challengin’ a real man,” he slurred drunkenly, squeezing the two elven children close. “These here animals is mine, and I intend t’git good gold fer ‘em.” He looked her over again and leered. “Less a-ways you want t’trade?” His lascivious stare left no doubt as to what he would consider a “fair” trade.

Kyrian contemplated the offer for all of two heartbeats. “No, I don’t think so,” she said, shaking her head slightly and then looking the raider up and down. “I’ve had better offers from the village granthers,” she added dismissively.

Angered by the stardancer’s disdainful words, the man roared and hurled the children away. “If ye’ll not trade it, then I’ll be taking it!” he bellowed, reaching into his belt and drawing a short sword. The elves, free of his grasping hands, ran off.

“You can try,” she taunted serenely, easily fending off his first blow. Catching his blade on her baton, she used the side of her foot to deliver a solid, painful blow to his chest, knocking him back several feet.

Cursing, he dove for her, slashing wildly. Kyrian spun, avoiding the wild swing. The bandit swung again, and she blocked the blow, and punched his wrist twice, making him scream in pain.

Liquor imbued strength allowed him to hang on to his blade. He tried to punch her and she avoided the blow, but that gave him time to free his sword. Adrenalin was quickly burning away the ale in his system. A vicious grin spread across his face and the sword strikes became more controlled.

“I’m a-gonna git you, girl, and when I do, I’m a-gonna take what I want!” he threatened darkly.

Kyrian didn’t respond, she was too busy fending off a furious assault of blows. One strike came too close, and his sword caught her robes, cutting them open and revealing her naked body beneath.

His eyes pinned to her chest, the raider slowly licked his lips. “Now that’s exactly what I want to see, girl.” His blade began to droop as he grabbed his crotch lustfully.

Screaming in fury, Kyrian attacked. Bringing her baton down in an anger-driven blow, the stardancer shattered her attacker’s sword arm. As he reeled back in pain, she punched him in the throat, crushing his windpipe. Snarling, she brought her baton around and began pummeling his head.

He dropped like a stone. Convulsing violently, he died. Panting, Kyrian stood there, staring at the man’s corpse.

The reality of what she had just done crashed into her, driving her to her knees. Wracked by terrible sobs, she clutched her hair, yanking it out in handfuls and crying out, “Oh goddess, I’m sorry!”

Later, the elven scouts found her standing over the body of the slain raider, her weapon dangling uselessly by her side. A long, shallow gash ran from her shoulder to her hip, where the tip of the bandit’s sword had torn her skin. Another, deeper wound in her thigh bled freely, but she didn’t care. All that mattered, all that she could focus on was the broken wreck that used to be the man’s head.

She could hear blood slip down her baton and drip onto the grass. The sound was deafeningly loud.

“Stardancer Kyrian?” Her name, softly spoken, broke her gaze from the corpse. Looking up, she saw one of the village elders break through the trees and head for her.

The ground rose up quickly as her sight and consciousness faded away.
A week later, Kyrian left Myr behind, unable to stay where the ghost of the man she had slain wandered, even though he only walked in her nightmares.

Azhani’s voice broke the spell of the past.

“Hey, where’d you go?” Surprised by the worry she felt when the stardancer’s vibrant green eyes suddenly fixed on a point somewhere in the distance, the warrior finally spoke up, bringing Kyrian back to the here and now.

The stardancer shook her head, rubbing her eyes and surreptitiously brushing away tears. “Ancient history – it’s of no matter,” she muttered, turning back to finish preparing their supper.

Knowing quite a bit about history, Azhani let the stardancer keep her secrets, lifting her crutch up onto her lap to begin working on it once more.
~Chapter Three~
“So, how cold is it going to get, really?” Kyrian asked curiously as Azhani handed her another sack full of trash.

“Cold,” Azhani replied tersely. She waited for the stardancer to carry the bag out, dump it onto the trash heap and return. “I’ve seen men freeze overnight during the winters up here, if they weren’t prepared right.”

“Brr. Okay, that’s not going to happen to us, though, right?” Smiling sheepishly, Kyrian added, “I grew up in southern Y’Syr. We sometimes had snow, but mostly, our winters were rainy.” She sighed. “I’m sorry to be such a pest about this, but I really want to help, and I can’t do that unless I ask questions.”

“It’s all right. No, we are not going to die from the cold. If necessary, we can bring Arun into the cabin with us and burn the shed, but I really don’t think that’ll happen. Barton will have supplies.” Azhani handed up the bag again and stood up. Looking around the room, she smiled in satisfaction. It had taken them most of the morning to get the garbage out, but now the floor was clear.

Kyrian returned and picked up the broom. Making shooing motions with her hand, she waited until Azhani went up into the main portion of the cottage and then briskly swept the storage room clean. When she was done, she leaned the broom in a corner and poked her head in to see what the warrior was doing.

Azhani had gone outside and was sitting on the low wall that surrounded the property, weaving a basket out of grass. The stardancer let her be, giving her some time alone. Instead, she went into the house and started shaking out their bedding.

Tucking the last ends of the basket together, Azhani slid off the wall and grabbed her crutch. Just on the other side of the fence, close to the back of the house, was a thicket of blackberries. If she were lucky, there would still be a few that were edible.

For breakfast, Kyrian had made oatmeal, adding the berries she had found the day before. Azhani had enjoyed it and wanted to ask the stardancer to make it again, but didn’t know how to ask. Figuring that if she provided the berries, Kyrian would provide the cereal, she made up a basket to bring home her hoped-for treat.

Azhani had decided to call a truce with Kyrian. The stardancer obviously intended to stay, and unless she wanted to incur the wrath of the goddess, the warrior wasn’t going to throw her out. So that morning, while they ate, she had suggested that they begin cleaning the storeroom… together.

The warrior rounded the corner of the fence, nearly tripping over a large, moss covered boulder. “How convenient,” she said wryly, sitting down and resting her crutch against the wall. Thorny, dry brambles tumbled along the stones, providing an excellent natural barrier against attack. A brown speckled bird hopped from branch to branch, pecking at the few dark, almost purple berries that still clung to the vine.

Smiling, Azhani let the sparrow eat, and when it flew away, she started poking around for more of the sweet berries. One candlemark and several puncture wounds later, she had a full basket of blackberries. As she was about to stand, she noticed the wriggling tail of a rabbit scurrying toward the forest.

A sharp, piercing scream was the only sound the animal made as Azhani’s dagger, hastily thrown, found its mark. It didn’t take long to clean the rabbit, and afterward, the warrior headed back to the cabin to present her contribution to the dinner pot.

Kyrian folded her blanket, rolling it tightly and then set it at the head of her pallet. Standing, she surveyed the room, liking the changes. She had moved their pallets so that the fire would warm both her and Azhani and then she had brought in the old trunk from the shed. Placing it by the hearth, she had filled it with as much wood as she could, so that there would be enough fuel for the night, rather than having to go down into the cold storeroom.

The stardancer itched to go out and find Azhani, just so she could talk to her, but she refused to indulge in the questions that percolated in the back of her mind just yet. Instead, she tried to balance rumor against reality. Kyrian was rapidly coming to the conclusion that the quiet, unassuming woman she was caring for and the arrogant, traitorous villain of Banner Lake were not the same person.

If I’m patient, perhaps I’ll hear the full story yet. She knew the old stories about Azhani – she had heard old Laric Talespinner maunder on and on about the “hero of Pine Ridge” often enough – and she knew the new ones, thanks to every would-be bard and minstrel from Y’dan to Y’Syr. Since the day that King Arris’ heralds had gone out from town to town, announcing Azhani’s crimes, the deeds of the past had gone unsung, replaced by whispered, hair-raising tales that named the warleader the Banshee of Banner Lake.
“I tell you true, my friends, t’was a cruel, cruel day, when the warleader rose against the land, casting down her oaths and spitting in the face of Astariu the warrior,” the craggy old voice filled the tavern, drawing in the crowd of listeners. “Like a banshee she was, sent by the Lord of Hell to steal the souls of good King Arris’ men.” Kyrian turned away from the bar, cocking her head to pay attention to what the bard was saying.

“Listen, and hear the tale of the fall of the Scion of DaCoure.” The skilled bard held his crowd lightly, raising his voice from the softest whisper to the boldest shouts to depict the battlefield at Banner Lake. Vividly, he described the vision of a woman gone mad with vengeance, drunk on power and treachery as she carved a bloody swath through hundreds of innocent men and women.

Pacing back and forth, the storyteller’s hands wove wild patterns, casting dancing shadows on the wall behind him. Everyone was glued to his performance, sitting on the edge of their seats while he pantomimed the battles.

“No soldier born could best the demon; no plea for mercy was heard,” he whispered, bringing his tale to a close. “From the first death, that of Princess Ylera Kelani, Y’Syr’s beloved ambassador, to the last, Joshua Toryn, who was just a boy, barely eighteen summers old, she murdered them all, screaming her victory with every blow.” The bard was on his knees now, mimicking the fallen soldier’s family.

“So heed my words, good friends, and take ye home carefully now. For if you should fall within the thrall of Astariu’s Forsaken, then the Lord of Hell shall come to call.”
Therein lay the conundrum, the stardancer decided. Not that Azhani had broken her oaths, but that she had supposedly forsaken Astariu. Kyrian was terribly confused by this. How could a woman who had accepted the tattoo that marked her as a follower of Astariu the Warrior, kill in cold blood? It went against every basic tenant preached by Astariuns since the Twins first created the world.

The gods of the Kingdoms of Y’myran were Astariu and Astarus, twin sister and brother, who had, out of love for each other, created the universe and all within it. To Astarus came the scholars, men and women who ferreted out the knowledge of the world and kept it safe for all to use. Astarus also had a strong sense of humor, and loved those who used guile and cunning to succeed in the world. Mages who did not hear the call of Astariu’s Starseekers also looked to the brother, speaking his name with reverent awe.

Astariu claimed the love of healers everywhere, granting Stardancers like Kyrian the ability to call upon Her fire to aid the sick and injured. Starseekers were those mages whose magic came from intense prayer rather than the study of grimoires. Of all who spoke Astariu’s name in reverence though, it was upon the shoulders of the warriors which She placed the largest burdens.

To be a warrior and swear to Astariu was to declare oneself a servant of the land and its people. If Azhani truly had forsaken this oath, then why did she bother rescuing Kyrian from the Cabalian kidnapper? This was what had the stardancer’s stomach in knots and her head throbbing with unanswered questions in the middle of the night.

Three days in her company and I’m already going insane, Kyrian thought, morbidly amused. This bodes well for the rest of the winter, I’m sure.

“Looks good in here, Kyrian.” Azhani’s softly spoken words caused the stardancer to jump. Giving the young woman an odd look, Azhani limped past her and laid the basket of berries and the rabbit meat on the hearth. “Found some stuff out there, thought it’d be useful,” she said gruffly.

Surprise caught the stardancer unawares. “You didn’t have to do that,” she blurted, then clapped her hand over her mouth. “Sorry, forget I said that,” she said a moment later. “Thank you, it’s nice to have someone around who doesn’t freak out over having to forage for food.” Thinking of Ylera, and the princess’ utter distaste at having to do anything resembling a chore made the stardancer smile.

Azhani shook her head, unable to fathom the stardancer’s moods. “Okay. Well, I’m going to poke around in the back – if I can find a flexible enough branch, I can make a fishing pole.”

“Can I help?” Kyrian offered readily.

I don’t need your help, was the answer that hovered on the warrior’s tongue, but Azhani’s earlier resolution, to work with the stardancer instead of against her, held it back. Instead, she said, “Sure, just look for anything that’s between one and three inches thick and flexible enough that a solid blow won’t snap it.”

Kyrian nodded and chose to go out to the front of the cabin. Arun whickered a greeting from his post near the shed. The horse wouldn’t wander off without her, so the stardancer had felt safe in allowing him free rein of the homestead. Newly pruned bushes showed the path of his wanderings and Kyrian decided to look over where her horse had explored.

Azhani watched the stardancer exit the cabin and sighed. In the three days that they had been together, she had already figured out that Kyrian was naturally exuberant. She was constantly asking questions – about the area, about the weather, about anything that seemed to be on her active mind. It was only a matter of time before she started asking about Banner Lake.

And what do I tell her – the truth? She’s surely heard the stories. I saw the fear in her eyes when I told her who I was. Yet she’s still here. What does that mean? Can I trust her? Do I want to trust her? Thoughts of all the warm smiles and gentle care she had received in the last three days danced in her head. Ah goddess, I do. I want to like her – and – I want her to like me. It would be nice to have a friend out here.

Azhani snorted and shook her head. You’re just not good at being mean and nasty, are you, warrior? Setting her crutch, the warrior headed to the back of the property.

She found Kyrian kneeling in the mud, admiring a spread of tiny, bright yellow flowers that had grown up between the cracks in the stones that made up the wall encircling the property. The stardancer was gently stroking the petals, a smile of such wonder on her face that Azhani had to grin in response.

“Demon’s blood,” Azhani said, startling the stardancer.

Kyrian looked up, frowning. “Why are they called that?”

Limping over to the stardancer’s side, Azhani replied, “Because legend says that they grow where demons have died.”

“You don’t strike me as someone who believes in legends,” Kyrian said as she stood up, brushing her knees off. “They are pretty though.”

Azhani grinned. “No, I’m not much for make-believe. I find the truth refreshing. My dad always used to pick the flowers and crush them to make dye. The saffron color they give is amazing.”

Volunteered information, Astariu, I think I might faint! “I’ll have to give it a try,” Kyrian said, smiling brightly. “Though I’m not sure what I’d do with saffron colored stuff, since I usually wear red.”

“It would look good on you,” the warrior said without thinking, and then wished she hadn’t.

Kyrian’s ears flamed scarlet. “Thanks for noticing,” she mumbled, turning to gather the flowers.

Watching as the stardancer gathered the blooms, Azhani cursed herself inwardly. Don’t go there, warrior. Stay friends, it’s safer that way. Visions of hair and eyes as golden as the sun and pale, soft skin that held the promise of spring taunted her memory.
Ylera Kelani laughed, a musical, tinkling sound that filled the stone chamber and warmed it far beyond the ability of the meager fire in the hearth. Standing next to her king, guarding his side as was her right and duty, Azhani tried not to stare at the elven ambassador.

King Theodan was gravely ill, but before he passed, he was determined to end the years of strife along Y’dan’s and Y’Syr’s borders. The monarch had made it plain to the court that they would hammer out an agreement that was mutually beneficial to the elves and the humans. Peace would bring trade, allowing both kingdoms to prosper. Everyone agreed that this was desirable, but convincing some of the border lords to give up the “sport” of elf hunting was taking some time.

Bright, cheerful and young enough to be flexible, Ambassador Kelani, and her twin, Queen Lyssera were both willing to hear the king’s plans for peace. Ysradan, the High King, had sent word that he would be very pleased if Theodan’s treaty were ratified, giving both sides even more reason to deal.

King Theodan had poured nearly twenty years of his life into the plan, sacrificing everything to see that his people would inherit peace. There were those who were against the treaty, so Azhani stayed close to her king.

Ambassador Kelani accepted a glass of brilliant scarlet wine from a page and toasted Arris, Theodan’s son and heir. It was the boy’s sixteenth birthday and Theodan had thrown a party. Presents from all of the courtiers were piled high on a table behind the boy’s chair and Azhani watched in mild amusement as he squirmed around, trying not to stare at the steadily growing pile.

Sitting next to the prince was Porthyros Omal, Arris’ teacher and guardian. The slight statured scholar leaned over and whispered to the prince, causing him to still in his seat. His youthful face suddenly very grave, Arris lifted his own goblet and accepted the ambassador’s toast.

Theodan observed his son, wishing all over again that he had insisted that the boy go to Y’len and study under the Astariun masters. The youth’s sharp-featured face was pinched and drawn, and his black eyes were glassy from lack of sleep. Porthyros was an exacting master, sometimes forcing Arris to stay up all night working on a math problem. Arris met his father’s gaze and flushed, brushing his overlong black hair away from his face.

“Happy birthday my son,” Theodan rumbled, and then coughed softly. Azhani handed him his drink, and after sipping at the mulled wine, the king added, “I hope you’ve enjoyed your party.”

“Oh yes, Father, thank you very much,” Arris beamed happily. He craned his head around at the pile of gifts and then looked at the courtiers seated at the other tables. “And thank you, my lords and ladies. It has been a true delight to spend the evening with you.”

Glasses were raised in a polite toast, but the diners soon returned to consuming their food and talking about the kingdom, leaving Arris to once again fidget in his chair. He looked over at Azhani Rhu’len, the Warleader of Y’dan, and sighed. He was powerfully, and completely, one hundred fathoms deep in love with the starkly beautiful woman.

Ambassador Kelani said something that made the warrior smile, and Arris watched, fascinated, as the sword-shaped tattoo on her right cheek crinkled up. He wanted to reach out and touch it, to feel the color and shape of it and know if it were as much a part of her as the blade slung on her hip seemed to be.

“Come on, my prince, we must finish your studies,” Porthyros murmured softly. “I’ll make you some of your favorite tea to help you concentrate.”

Hanging his head in shame, Arris rose from his seat. “Father, thank you again for a wonderful birthday. I must return to my studies.” He bowed to the king and then to the courtiers and left the hall.

Ylera watched him go, and sighed. The boy made her skin crawl, though she didn’t have any reason to dislike him. Porthyros Omal, on the other hand, was just about as slimy as a man could get and not slide on the stone floors of Theodan’s keep. From the first day she had been in Y’dannyv, the irritating little man had made it known that she was welcome in his bed. Shuddering delicately, the ambassador turned her eyes onto the very pleasant face of Azhani Rhu’len.

Now there was a bedroom she wouldn’t mind visiting. Whenever Theodan wasn’t monopolizing Azhani’s time, Ylera would grab the warleader and drag her off into Y’dannyv city proper, to shop or to sight see. She didn’t care that Azhani was half-elven – her peers in Y’Syria might have a collective fit, but the stain of Y’dani blood didn’t bother Ylera. Besides, that was what the treaty was all about – building a lasting peace between Y’dani humans and Y’Syran elves.

The Y’Syran ambassador found the warleader’s mercurial nature extremely charming. At times, Azhani would be exuberantly cheerful, while at others, she would be deeply solemn, causing Ylera to wonder exactly what deep thoughts brewed under the surface of the warrior’s dusky brow. At first, the ambassador tried to avoid her feelings, striving to remain objective and friendly, because she knew just how poorly the nobles in Y’Syr would view her falling in love with an Y’dani. But it was already too late – she had fallen hard for Azhani Rhu’len and now she would do whatever it took to learn what made the enigmatic warrior tick.

Azhani met the ambassador’s gaze and smiled. Ylera made the warrior’s stomach turn flip-flops and caused her breath to come in short, painful gasps, but she couldn’t stay away, she had to be near the beautiful ambassador.

Noticing the warrior’s smile, Theodan poked his warleader in the leg and grumbled, “Go ask her to dance. I’ll be fine.”

Minstrels were setting up in an alcove off to the side of the hall, and soon, the light strains of music filled the chamber. Couples filled the empty spaces of the floor, moving in ancient, well-known steps. Swallowing, Azhani bowed her head to the king and approached the ambassador.

“Ah-um, Ambassador, would you li-like to dance?” she mumbled, staring at her feet.

The elven woman gracefully stood and took the warleader’s hand. “I’d love to.”

That night began the first of many nights of love and laughter.
Azhani remembered every second of her time spent bathed in the light of Ylera Kelani’s desire. Amber eyes and honey colored hair, the scent of wild roses and a silky smooth voice crying out her name in passion while spring rains drenched the city. She remembered spending long, lazy nights tucked against Ylera’s side, making promises to the unpredictable future.

Brilliant mornings spent laughing, dancing around each other in the practice ring while the warleader’s men stood by, delighted by the commander’s antics, painted the color of their summer together. The days melted away to an autumn full of making love all night long while spending their days working feverishly to finalize a peace that would be accepted by the nobles on both sides of the border. These were the precious candlemarks that now stood sentinel against the nightmares.

Azhani had never seen the cold eyes that burned in the shadows. There was no warning that her fragile peace was not to last.

Three weeks before Winter Solstice, the day she planned to ask Ylera to marry her, their idyll came to a crashing halt. King Theodan the Peacemaker died in his sleep. The ink on the Y’dan/Y’Syr treaty was still wet, but it had been signed into law.

The day after the king was laid to rest, she stood before the council, hating the news she carried, yet still honor bound to carry out Theodan’s last wishes. Facing the men and women who she had spent many candlemarks debating budgets with, as well as the Heir Apparent, Prince Arris, she unleashed the storm.
“It was King Theodan’s wish that his son not rule after him,” she said, her voice quiet as she passed the sealed scroll the king had made her swear to deliver upon his death.

Shocked silence echoed through the chamber, perforated only by Arris’ quickly indrawn breath.

“Nonsense!” the prince declared, not even deigning to read the document that was passed around the room. “My father loved and trusted me. There is no possible reason on this earth that he would not want me to take up the mantle of Y’dan and wear it proudly.” Black eyes scanned the Council, seeing only approving nods. Porthyros had coached him well, preparing him for the traitor’s announcement.

Arris never questioned how the scholar had known of the warrior’s treason. He acted, seizing the warleader’s co-conspirator and using every skill at eliciting information that he had been taught. In the end, he knew the truth, and now, he was ready to use it.

“I think,” he stepped away from his chair and padded slowly up to the warleader, “that you are trying something, something terrible, Warleader.” Again, he looked at the old men he had spent his entire life kissing up to and saw only approval. Good. They hated her as much as he did. There was a time, not long ago, that he did not hate this woman, this tall, proud warrior that stood before him, wearing only disdain on her face. Then, he would have done anything for her favor, but now he was a man, and ready to leave the petty desires of childhood behind him.

“I think, Warleader,” he turned the title into an epithet, “that you are trying to incite a civil war. I think that you are lying and attempting to seize control of the throne.”

Gasps echoed around the chamber, and Azhani raised one dark eyebrow. “And you’re so sure of this because?” That was her fatal mistake – cockiness. She believed that no one would betray her, because she was always trustworthy.

A cruel smile edged its way on to Arris’ face. “Why, I have heard it from the mouth of your whore, Oathbreaker,” he said, tarring her with the label that would be hers to wear for the rest of her life. The prince nodded to one of his personal guards and the man vanished out a door, returning shortly with the battered, bloody body of the elven ambassador. She was tossed carelessly onto the floor, where she rolled into the table, spattering blood and gore everywhere.

“See here the proof of the Warleader’s treason,” Arris cried gleefully, pulling a scroll from his belt and throwing it to the Lord High Councilor, Derkus Glinholt.

Azhani paid no attention to the scroll, her eyes only on her lover, lying broken and bleeding at her feet. Ylera’s beautiful golden eyes were closed, blackened by several blows to her face. Once soft lips were now bloodied and cracked and there was a slight cant to the elf’s neck that the warrior knew only too well. Rage boiled in her belly and she almost didn’t hear the prince’s next words.

“By the solemn oath of Ambassador Ylera Kelani, I declare you a traitor, Azhani Rhu’len. You are guilty of crimes against the Crown of Y’dan, you are guilty of plotting to rise above your goddess chosen station and you are guilty of breaking your sworn vows to the people of Y’dan to be its Champion. Furthermore, I hold you responsible for the death of Ambassador Kelani, for certainly had you not lured her into your wicked plan, she would be alive this day! Guilty, I say, you are guilty.”

“I second that statement,” Councilor Glinholt cried, eager to please his new monarch. Others of the council joined in, and before she could stop it, Azhani was taken prisoner by two of Arris’ burly guards.

She didn’t care. Her life lay in the pool of blood that surrounded Ylera’s lifeless body.
No, she wouldn’t allow Kyrian the chance to be burned by the flame of her life. A few smiles and a pair of gentle hands could not buy her heart. Azhani waited for the rage in her belly to boil over, filling her heart. The dark emotion overwhelmed the tiny bubbles of soft emotion that the stardancer’s presence had engendered. Turning from Kyrian, Azhani walked away, once again the hard, bitter warrior with a battered soul and scarred face.
%%%
Kyrian watched the warrior leave and knew something had changed. Perhaps it was the way the woman strode around the yard – tossing the crutch aside and forcing the splinted leg to bear her weight – or maybe it was the way she totally ignored Arun, even though the horse nudged her repeatedly.

The stardancer sighed and wandered toward the gate, stopping when she saw the tip of a branch sticking out from under a pile of rocks. Clearing the stones away, she pulled the stick out and was rewarded with a long, two-inch thick shaft of wood. Moss and spider webs decorated it, but when she flexed it, it snapped back easily.

“Will this do?” she called out, holding up the branch for Azhani’s inspection.

Striding over, her eyes agate hard and her face closed to all but the most cursory of expressions, Azhani took the pole and examined it. “Yes. Thank you.” The warrior took out her knife and immediately began stripping the bark off, walking off without saying another word.

“Damn it,” Kyrian whispered, reaching up to pat Arun absently. “How am I supposed to deal with this, Arun?” she asked the horse softly as she scratched his ears.

The gelding whickered and blew in her ear.

“Thanks, but I don’t think she’ll respond to that,” Kyrian said, laughing softly. “I was starting to like you, too, Azhani. You’re not what they say you are, and I’m going to prove it.” Shaking her head again, the stardancer led Arun back to the shed and went in to prepare dinner.

Later, after they had eaten and were readying for bed, Azhani looked up and tersely said, “Be ready to leave in the morning.”

Kyrian closed her eyes and turned away, not knowing whether she should salute or sigh.
~Chapter Four~
The next morning dawned clear and cold. There was a sharp wind that carried with it the scent of ice and snow. Azhani had already pulled herself onto Arun’s back when Kyrian exited the cottage, locking the door and tossing the warrior the key.

“It’ll snow before the week’s out,” Azhani commented softly as Kyrian mounted behind her. The warrior took Arun’s reins and clucked her tongue softly, causing the gelding to turn and head for the road.

“It’s been a nice break,” Kyrian said, looking at the melted puddles of slush that were all that was left of the first snowstorm that had blanketed the forest over a week ago.

“Let’s hope it lasts a little longer,” the warrior said curtly. She turned around and looked at Kyrian. “You could stay in Barton. There’s a hospice there, and they wouldn’t turn away a stardancer.”

Patting the warrior’s heavily clad thigh, Kyrian shook her head. “No. I’m staying with you, Azhani. You’re stuck with me, so get used to it.”

Both women were dressed warmly. Kyrian in her heavy velvet robes and Azhani in layers, but the stardancer still shivered as the warrior guided Arun out of the gate and onto the road.

Azhani kept her eyes on the road, refusing to acknowledge the woman behind her. The simple truth was that she wanted her to stay, even if she refused to admit it. She needed Kyrian – needed the stardancer’s able body and agile mind. Otherwise, the warrior knew she would end up going stark raving mad over the winter. How she was going to learn to live with the woman without becoming friends, she didn’t know, but she was glad that Kyrian was willing to be stubborn.

It would be very different, spending time with the stardancer. Azhani had only ever met one other who bore the marks of Astariu’s Own, and he had been old, and nearly blind when he had come to try and heal the dying king. The ancient stardancer’s tattoos had all but vanished into the folds of skin that wrinkled around his eyes, but his skills were clearly still at their best. Even he could not stop the strange wasting disease that had withered Theodan from a robust man to a tiny husk.

Azhani’s own tattoo, a single sword inked diagonally along her cheekbone, the blade pointing up toward the Twins in the sky, had been first cut out and then burned by Arris’ butchers. She still remembered how he had reached out and run his fingers along her cheek, caressing her almost lovingly, before taking a sharp knife and driving it into the skin.

Though the wound had scarred over, it still ached, especially in the cold.
%%%
Arun’s chuffing breath and the sound of his hooves on the road broke the stillness of the forest as they rode. As the sun rose higher and the day warmed, Kyrian found herself pulling away from Azhani’s stiffened body. It was far too easy to want to snuggle against the warrior. Consciously, she knew that Azhani was supposed to be a terrible criminal, guilty of killing one of Kyrian’s best friends, but her lonely heart reached for any comfort it could grab, clinging tightly for as long as it could before relinquishing control.

The wind changed and Kyrian frowned, realizing that they were both rather ripe. One of the things she hoped the warrior would purchase in the trading village was a bathtub.

“Azhani?” she called out softly.

The warrior grunted.

“Does Barton have a bath house?” she asked curiously.

The warrior chuckled wryly. “Yeah, at the inn. We should be able to get cleaned up there. If they let us in, that is. We’re a little on the pungent side.”

Kyrian laughed in response. Things were strained, but perhaps there was still a chance to break through the wall the warrior had put up between them. She still wanted the chance to hear Azhani’s side of the story, if for no other reason than to ask her why she had killed Ylera.

Forcing her thoughts away from the subject of the warrior, Kyrian instead thought about the kingdom. Y’dan was not the land of her birth, but she had been traveling through its cities and villages for almost two years and she had seen some changes recently that bothered her.

When Theodan was king, the smaller villages rarely saw a man wearing the livery of a soldier. King Arris was nothing like his father. When he assumed the throne, after the massacre at Banner Lake, he sent soldiers to every town and village, imposing a garrison on even the tiniest of farming communities.

In the two months since Theodan’s death, Kyrian had seen several of the black and green clad soldiers standing around, watching people with unveiled interest. The heralds claimed that the men were there to “protect the people”, but Kyrian now wondered about that.

What were the soldiers needed to guard against? Surely Arris didn’t think that Azhani was that big of a threat, did he? Another example prodded her. When she had been in Y’dannyv a month ago, she had seen first hand that Arris’ justice was both swift and merciless.
“Let it be known that on this day, by the laws of our glorious land, this man, ‘Lefty One-toe Allan’ is hereby sentenced to death by hanging!” the herald cried as two men dressed in hooded black robes escorted a smallish, trembling man toward the gallows. The prisoner wore only a loincloth and his body was covered by old and new lash marks.

Kyrian stood near a fruit seller’s stand, watching the proceedings with veiled distaste. She understood the necessity to remove certain criminals from the populace; she just couldn’t accept that it should be a public event.

Already a large crowd had gathered around the gallows. Some folks were muttering softly while others pitched rotting fruit and vegetables at the hapless prisoner.

“Barbaric,” the farmer said softly as he wrapped the stardancer’s purchases in a bit of old cloth.

“What is he accused of?” Kyrian asked curiously as she handed over a few copper coins.

The farmer’s lips twisted. “He was caught stealing bread from Lord High Councilor Derkus Glinholt’s kitchen.”

“Is that a hanging offense? I thought theft…” Kyrian broke off as the noose was lowered over the man’s head. She could see the man’s eyes – they held a look of absolute terror.

“The honorable Lord Glinholt was home and heard the man break in. There was a struggle and Lord Glinholt was injured. It is death to harm one of the king’s chosen advisors.” The farmer spoke disdainfully, but quietly. There were guardsmen everywhere, and to speak against the king’s justice was a swift way to suffer it.

“How badly was the lord injured?” Kyrian asked curiously. She had not heard any of the healers at the hospice talk about the man, which was strange because usually the chirurgeons were worse than fishwives when it came to gossip. Of course, Lord Glinholt might have his own personal doctor, but even then, she suspected she would have heard something.

“I doubt many know, but a good friend of mine is a guardsman at the palace and he says that old Derkus slipped and stubbed his toe on a table in his haste to chase old Lefty out of the house,” the farmer said, shaking his head sadly.

Kyrian’s eyes widened. “Isn’t it rather extreme to kill someone over a stubbed toe?”

The farmer nodded quickly. “That’s what most of us thought, too, my lady. But them councilors, they sends out the heralds and they tells us that the law is the law, and we all got to follow it, even when it’s cruel.”

Kyrian gaped at the farmer. As long as she had lived in Y’dan, she had never heard such a thing. King Theodan had been well known and loved for his kindness and his care of the citizens of his kingdom, and his laws were merciful and just. He understood that blind adherence to an ideal was akin to fanaticism, a road no monarch should walk.

The stardancer shook her head sadly. She knew that when old kings died and new kings took their place, changes were bound to happen; she just didn’t expect them to be so drastic. Maybe it was time to move on. Y’mar was not too far away, and in the spring, it would be easy to take passage on a trader’s barge.

She had to go to Brenton first, to take the place of the farming community’s starseeker, who had passed away in his sleep a few weeks back. Another priest was traveling from Y’Tol to take his place, but he was still a few weeks away.

A sickening crunch of bone and the cheering of the crowd confirmed that the man’s fate had been carried out with deadly efficiency. She and the farmer exchanged glances once again, both smiling sadly, and then she took her purchases and drifted off into the crowd, needing to find someplace else to be.
It didn’t make any sense at all. Could it be that Azhani’s crimes were not as dire as Arris portrayed? Could the king’s near-fanatic devotion to ancient laws have blinded him, making him paint her as something she was not?

Kyrian hadn’t studied the history of Y’dan for years, but she couldn’t think of any commonly known laws that required a man’s death for causing a stubbed toe. Azhani Rhu’len had been accused of much, much worse and yet – what if those accusations weren’t true? What if she had just been caught in someone else’s web?

The Y’dani warleader was known for her bravery and honor. Even the High King had come to Y’dan to personally commend the warrior for keeping the kingdoms safe from the depredations of demon and barbarian alike. As far as Kyrian knew, Azhani had never accepted any reward for her actions other than the gratitude of the men and women whose lives she had saved.

How did this woman of honor become an Oathbreaker? She had to know this story, and she wasn’t going to forget about it until she had her answers. Argh! I’m doing it again! Kyrian reached up and rubbed her face. I’m obsessing over this. I’ve got to talk to her or I’m going to lose it!

Kyrian absolutely loved a good story. As a child, she would toddle after the older stardancers and starseekers, begging them to tell her stories until one of them would finally relent and sit her down and delight her with tales of the past.

Sitting behind a living legend was enough to make the child inside of Kyrian dance with glee. She wanted, no needed to hear Azhani’s story, even if it meant putting up with a surly attitude.

A blast of cold wind ruffled the stardancer’s curly blonde hair and she shivered, leaning closer to the warrior. Azhani seemed to ignore the chilly air, but Kyrian knew that she would have to make certain the warrior bought herself plenty of winter clothes in Barton.

“Cold?” Azhani asked, her voice a dry rumble. The warrior felt the stardancer’s arms tighten around her waist and she suppressed the desire to push the woman away, knowing that it was better for both of them to share their body heat.

“A little,” Kyrian admitted shyly.

The warrior looked at the road, noting old landmarks. “We’ll be in Barton by sundown.”

Kyrian nodded sleepily, feeling the warmth that grew between them spread over her body and work with Arun’s comfortable pace to lull her back to sleep.

“Rest, healer. I will not let you fall,” Azhani said softly, closing one hand over Kyrian’s clasped wrists.

Those are not the words of an evil, oathbreaking traitor, Kyrian thought sleepily as her head dropped against Azhani’s shoulder.
%%%
Kyrian came awake with the sun high in the sky. Azhani had nudged Arun off the trail and was roughly shaking the stardancer. Rubbing her eyes, she jumped down from the horse and then reached up to help Azhani dismount.

The warrior glared, but accepted the stardancer’s strong arm, sliding off of Arun’s back slowly and then turning to pat the brown gelding lightly on the shoulder.

“We need to give him a break, he’s getting tired,” the warrior said quietly as she pulled her bow from the saddle.

“How did you know that?” Kyrian asked curiously as she silently wrapped an arm around the warrior’s waist and helped her to hobble over to a fallen log and sit.

“His gait. He was walking unevenly. You should check his shoes, too. He might have picked up a stone.” Azhani unwound the bowstring and said, “If you do that, I’ll go see about catching some fish.” She stood, using the bow to find her balance, and then stretched, pulling herself to her full height.

Oh damn, she’s tall. Kyrian blinked in surprise, realizing just how tall the warrior truly was.

The human side of Azhani’s lineage was clearly evident in her height, as she topped the compact stardancer by almost a head. Kyrian herself wasn’t short, at least not by Y’Syran standards, where most of the population were elven, and not likely to grow more than five and a half feet tall. Topping that by seven inches, Azhani even outstripped Kyrian’s generous height.

“You must be feeling better,” the stardancer noted in amusement as the warrior did a series of upper body stretches.

Azhani stopped her exercise, realizing she had an audience. A faint blush colored her tanned cheeks. She looked down at her splinted leg and wiggled her toes. “Yeah, actually, I do.”

Kyrian almost smiled at the warrior, but decided to keep her face impassive, hoping that the light mood dwelling in the dark warrior, would stay a while longer. She did not want a repeat of the cold woman she had shared a meal with the night before.

“You mentioned fish…” Kyrian prompted after watching Azhani string her bow with short, efficient movements.

“I did,” the warrior drawled slowly, closing her eyes and sniffing the air. Arun had ambled over to a growth of bushes and was nosing around them, searching for any bits of greenery that had been missed by the local deer.

Kyrian once again thanked the goddess that she had chosen one of the hardier breeds of horses, rather than one of the pretty, yet useless, parade animals. Arun let out a whicker of happiness when the stardancer walked up to him and began scrubbing his ears, leading him away from the bush and pulling out his feedbag. She dipped into her dwindling oat supply and allowed the horse to joyfully eat his lunch.

She noticed the warrior’s crutch was still lashed to the saddle, but when she turned to hand it to Azhani, the woman was gone. Raising an eyebrow curiously, Kyrian padded over to where she had last seen her and smiled when she saw telltale footprints in the mud.

Taking the crutch with her, the stardancer quietly followed the trail until she spotted the warrior standing on the bank of a small stream. One arrow was loosely knocked in the bow, and her entire concentration was focused on the water below.

Kyrian watched in amazement as Azhani fired the arrow. The shaft sang swiftly through the air, piercing the surface almost soundlessly. There was a burp of water and then, the warrior was pulling on a thin bit of twine, drawing the arrow, and the fish attached to it, out of the stream.

“Wow,” the stardancer said in amazement. “That was very nice shooting, Azhani,” she said admiringly, hopping over a few stones to stand next to the tall warrior. Holding out the crutch, she said, “You forgot something.”

Grinning, Azhani pulled the still flopping fish off of the arrow and whacked it against a tree trunk. Handing the now dead fish to Kyrian, she drawled, “Don’t need it right now,” and knocked another arrow, aiming it at the stream.

Setting the crutch aside, the stardancer sat down and began gutting the fish. By the time she was done with the first fish, Azhani had caught three more of the small, silvery trout.

“Lunch,” the warrior said succinctly, joining the stardancer on the log and pulling out her dagger to help clean fish.

Kyrian looked up and gave the warrior a quick smile. “That was really quite something, Azhani. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone fish that way before.”

“My father taught me,” Azhani said shortly as she gathered up the offal and dug a hole to bury it.

“Oh,” Kyrian said, not knowing how to answer that. The half-elven stardancer was an orphan, having been left on the monastery steps as a newborn. “Boiled or fried?” she ended up asking instead, gathering up the meat and walking over to where Arun was happily finishing his lunch.

Azhani carefully stood, brushing off her trews and running a hand through her wild black hair. The long locks were terribly tangled and she realized she would probably have to cut them off after bathing. Her leg barely ached now; the stardancer’s skill at healing was well proven. Kyrian’s devotion to Astariu was something she would never allow anyone to call into question. Azhani’s lips twitched into a tight smile. Strange that the deity who had forsaken her in her darkest candlemark should be so willing to see her healed.

A cool breeze blew up from the stream and the warrior suppressed a shiver. Sliding the bow over her shoulder, she took her crutch and hobbled back to where Arun stood, chewing contentedly on his oats. Removing his feedbag, she coaxed him to the stream and encouraged him to drink.

“Fried, I suppose,” the warrior said as she passed Kyrian, who was gathering bits of deadfall for a fire, arranging them in a neat tripod shape a few feet away from their log bench.

“Fried it is,” Kyrian said as she knelt, striking flint to steel and blowing on the resulting sparks, coaxing a flame out of the tinder.

Azhani leaned on a tree and watched the gelding drink, absently reaching down and scratching her bared knee. Her skin was pretty chilled and she tugged ineffectively on the cut off bottom of the pant leg. She was looking forward to reaching the trader’s village. A hot bath, a good meal and a decent bed were some of the first things on her menu. Tomorrow, she would deal with bargaining for the goods she would need to turn her father’s cottage into something that would survive the northern winter.

I need armor, and a weapon besides this bow, too, she reminded herself, feeling more than a little naked without the constant weight of chainmail on her shoulders and the slight thump of a blade against her thigh. I wonder if I can get Kyrian to help me with this hair of mine? wondered Azhani as a matted lock of black hair dropped into her eyes again. The warrior fidgeted with it, allowing a moment to wonder what Ylera would have said. Probably that I needed a bath, and a haircut, because I look like a pig in a wallow, that’s what! snorted the warrior, causing Arun to look up and gaze at her quizzically.

Azhani raised one eyebrow and snorted again. Arun shook his head, spattering her with water. A wicked grin edged onto the warrior’s face and she reached out with her bow and poked the gelding in the side, lightly. He sidestepped, and then deliberately turned away and stuck his muzzle back into the stream, drinking greedily.

The warrior chuckled silently. It felt good to play, even with a horse. She turned to watch the young stardancer, who, now that the fire was going, was busily frying up fish. Efficiently, Kyrian sliced vegetables into the pan, sprinkling herbs on top and adding a dab of lard to help the food cook faster.

I like her; she’s a darn good cook. We need rice. Maybe some flour. Yeah, flour, for bread. Bet she can make a decent loaf or two of that, Azhani considered, closing her eyes and allowing herself to slide down the tree.

She woke when she felt a hand on her shoulder, shaking her lightly.

“Azhani? Warrior, wake up, lunch is ready,” Kyrian said, trying hard not to smile at the sleep-fogged expression on the other woman’s face. She held out a plate full of fish and vegetables, teasing her with the scent of cooked food.

Azhani groaned and blinked. Wha…? I can’t believe I fell asleep. Damn body; heal already! she chastised herself. Taking the plate silently, she began to shovel the food in as fast as she could, slowing only to blow on what was too hot to immediately swallow.

Kyrian found a log to sit on and ate as well, watching as the warrior tucked into her food like she hadn’t eaten in weeks. She recognized immediately what was happening and smiled as she picked at her plate. Astariu’s healing took a lot out of both the stardancer and the patient. She chuckled, remembering how she had eaten three times what the warrior had for dinner the night before. It’s about time she felt it! She thought, grinning in amusement. Now I don’t feel like such a little piggy!
%%%
Lunch passed quickly. When they were done, Kyrian calmly spaded dirt over the fire until it was out and then helped Azhani to climb up on Arun, and then hopped up behind her. They continued on the road, talking softly about the various trees and animals they spotted on the way.

It grew colder as the day passed and Azhani found herself grateful for the warm presence of the stardancer at her back. Guiding the horse around a fallen tree, she caught the scent of garbage on the wind.

Kyrian made a face as she caught a whiff of it. “Ew, what’s that?” she asked distastefully.

“Barton,” Azhani answered succinctly.

They crested a hill and looked down into a small valley. Sprawled haphazardly, with jagged streets branching off in many directions, was the town. The warrior deftly guided Arun down the center of the roadway, expertly avoiding the contents of several chamber pots.

Kyrian looked up just in time to see a woman throw open her shutters and shout, “Ware the street,” then dump a container of noxious fluids out.

Shivering in repressed disgust, she turned away and peered over Azhani’s shoulder, trying to see what lay ahead. The streets were covered in refuse. The buildings were either made of dark gray fieldstone, or thick timbers and whitewash. Hurrying to and fro, the townspeople barely gave the newcomers a second glance as they moved along the planked sidewalks.

Thick wool and heavy leather seemed to be the fashion of the day, clothing the residents of Barton against the cold. Fur trimmed necklines, boots and gloves added a bit of colorful flare, but not much. The shapes of the roofs particularly fascinated Kyrian. They were all long peaked, as though some giant had come along and pushed the eaves down, nearly to the ground on a few of the taller structures.

A boy on stilts walked along, opening lampposts. He carefully added fuel and trimmed wicks and then, with the ease of long practice, sparked them to life. As the sun set, the streets began to glow in the soft light.

In the distance, she heard a man cry, “Five marks and all’s quiet.”

Azhani guided the horse around a corner and stopped in front of a three-story inn. Stiffly, they dismounted, each taking a few wobbly steps to try and work out some of the soreness in their muscles. Kyrian quickly retrieved Azhani’s crutch and then let the stable boy take Arun’s reins. The warrior unhooked the saddlebags and tossed them over her shoulder, then settled her crutch under her arm. Shifting her backpack, Kyrian looked to Azhani, willing to let the warrior take the lead.

“See that he gets a good rubdown,” Azhani said, tossing the boy a coin.

He easily caught it, nodding and flashing a smile at the warrior. “Aye, ma’am. He’ll be pampered right proper.” As the boy led Arun to the stables, the women headed for the door of the inn.

Tacked to the wall next to the door was a wooden sign which read, “Barton Inn.” Oil lamps illuminated the doorway and they could hear the disharmonic sounds of a rowdy drinking song coming from within. Pushing open the door, Azhani waited for Kyrian to duck inside, then followed her. The song stopped as the patrons looked up at them. Nervously, Kyrian smiled and a quiet murmur settled over the room.

The warrior hobbled up to the bar and talked softly with the bartender, and then passed over a few coins. Kyrian silently studied the crowd in the room. Several humans, a few half-elves, a dwarf and two green-cloaked elves sat around the room. A minstrel was seated on a stool in front of the roaring hearth, a tambour hanging limply from his hands.

Their eyes met and she offered him a sweet smile. A matching smile washed over his rough features and he picked up his drum and began to beat out a familiar cadence and started in on another popular drinking tune. Nodding her head to the beat, Kyrian listened to the simple words and quietly enjoyed the warmth of the inn.

By the time Azhani had returned to her side, holding two wooden placards, the folks in the room were once again singing along with the minstrel. The two women made their way up a flight of stairs, and down a hall. The warrior stopped before a door and handed the stardancer one of the cards with a key attached. She nodded across the hall at a bright blue door.

“That’s your room,” she stated quietly. “It’s paid up for three days. After that…” she left the statement hanging.

“After that, we should be heading back to your cottage, right?” Kyrian said brightly, slipping the key into the lock and giving it a turn. The lock clicked easily and the door swung open to reveal a spare, yet clean room.

Hooded blue eyes regarded her. “Right,” Azhani replied.

“Meet you downstairs for dinner,” Kyrian said as she vanished into the room, taking her pack and bedroll with her.

Azhani sighed aggrievedly. She had considered eating her meal in her room, alone, but she wasn’t about to let the stardancer be exposed to the rough element she knew the inn drew late at night. Out of duty to the goddess, she would stay by Kyrian’s side, and make sure that the stardancer went unmolested in the border town.

The warrior opened the door and limped in, leaning heavily on her crutch. Her leg and feet ached severely, and she was looking forward to a bath with almost painful longing. The soreness gave her something else to think about, at least. Pain was almost preferable to the nightmare visions of blood and death that had plagued her every day for three months.

Closing her eyes, Azhani took a deep breath, enjoying the sweet, clean scent of the room. How strange was it, then, that the only sight in her mind’s eye was that of a smiling, green-eyed face? Scowling as she tossed the saddlebags containing her meager belongings on the bed, she thought, I don’t like her. She is not my friend. She is my caretaker. She is with me out of Sacred Duty, not because she thinks I’m nice. And I’m so protective of her because my oath to the goddess makes me that way, right? Right.

A tiny corner of her heart spared half a second to wish, fervently, that duty and honor would take a hike, and that she could reach out to the friendly stardancer. An aborted sigh rumbled out of her chest, followed by a deeper rumbling from her belly. The opening and closing of the door across from hers reminded her that she had a Duty. Azhani closed her eyes, steeling herself against whatever the night would bring. Calmly, she left the room, heading downstairs to join the stardancer.
%%%
Kyrian stepped off of the last stair and searched for an empty table, and smiled when she spied one in the back, far away from the warm fire. Well, it might be chilly in the corner, but something tells me big, brooding and gimpy would prefer a quiet seat to a warm one. She quickly made her way to the table, seating herself before someone else could claim it.

A strong beat played on a hand drum accompanied the poem the minstrel on the stage was reciting. Kyrian smiled as a serving wench came to the table. Quietly, she ordered two bowls of stew and two mugs of ale. The woman nodded, offering the stardancer a brusque grimace before heading into the kitchen to fix her order.

Kyrian looked around the room, taking in the inn’s rustic, rough atmosphere with mild interest. Barton Inn was certainly not like the places she was used to, yet there was enough familiarity about the tavern that she didn’t feel too out of place. She easily spotted the regulars. The town drunk slumped off a chair at the bar, a petty thief slithered up and down the tables, seeking an easy pouch to lift and a whore lifted her skirts to catch the eyes of passerby.

Filling the rest of the inn was a mish-mash of trappers, miners and merchants. The minstrel, an average looking older man with sallow yellow hair and a pockmarked face, seemed quite able to earn his keep. Though he was not overtly striking, when the bard opened his mouth, it became very obvious why his tip hat was always full. The voice that filled the room, that sang and told stories with honey-smooth ease was low, mellifluous and deeply resonant. Kyrian could easily hear him, and he had to be at least thirty feet away.

The drum suddenly stilled, as he spoke the last lines of his poem.

“Azhani Rhu’len, the bitch with the sword

never a lady, never a lord

she’s the old king’s Warleader and your life she will take

if you dare cross her

the Banshee of Banner Lake!”

The stardancer’s lips pressed together thinly and she spared a hopeful thought that Azhani had not yet joined her. Looking up at the stairway, she saw that her hope was in vain. Leaning heavily on her crutch, she saw her patient’s tense face.

The warrior hobbled off the last step and looked around the room, spotting the stardancer immediately. She could feel the skin around her eyes tighten with the effort not to frown. The minstrel’s words rippled through the room, reaching Azhani’s ears. Memory boiled up, assaulting her with uneasy flashes of blood and death, making her nauseous.

Reaching the table at the same time as their dinner, she sat, staring at the steaming bowl of soup and piping hot loaf of dark brown peasant bread. Azhani swallowed convulsively, wondering if she would be able to eat, and if she did, if what she had eaten would stay down.

“It’s pretty good.” A soft, low voice reached across the table and tore her attention away from the clapping customers. Azhani looked up from the bowl to see Kyrian tear off a chunk of the bread and dip it into her bowl, and then nibble it, letting out a pleased sigh as she did.

Their eyes met and she unconsciously took a spoonful of the stew and lifted it to her lips. The smell of well-cooked food overrode the tightness in her guts and she opened her mouth quickly. The rich, gamy taste of venison hit her tongue and she gulped it down, amazed when it didn’t immediately come up.

Ignoring the other patrons in favor of their meal, they ate quickly. As soon as they were finished, Azhani hobbled over to the bar and handed over more gold in return for another key. A flicker of a smile graced her lips when she handed the key to Kyrian.

“Your bath, my lady,” she said, heading for the stairs.

Scrambling to catch up to the warrior, Kyrian rushed passed her, reaching the top of the landing out of breath. The stardancer quickly retrieved two of her clean, threadbare old acolyte’s robes. They were so worn that the color had been washed away, leaving the fabric an indistinct shade of gray. It wasn’t their color that the stardancer was after though, it was the size. Large enough to cover even the warrior’s tall form, it wouldn’t be perfect, but it would be much better than forcing Azhani to climb back into her dirty clothes.

Azhani was waiting for her in the hall, an amused smirk twitching at the corners of her mouth. Locking the door, she turned and held up the robes, grinning triumphantly.

“Now you won’t have to wear those after you get clean,” she indicated Azhani’s dirt and mud-stained clothes with a nod of her head.

“Thank you,” the warrior said sincerely. “We can wash our things in the water when we’re done. They should dry over night.”

Kyrian shot a smile at the warrior and together, they walked down the hall to a second set of stairs that led to the rear of the inn. Across the yard a small stone building was built under the shade of a stand of large pine trees. On the top of the building, the stardancer could just make out the shape of a water tower. Several doors lined the sides and it took a few minutes to find the right door.

Inside was a bathing room. A carved stone tub sat in the center of the room. There were cisterns at both ends, but one had a hearth built under it that was blazing merrily, heating the water within. Small oil lamps sat in racks around the room, giving off a pleasant glow. Towels, soaps and scented bath salts sat on a shelf on one wall while a long, low bench lined another.

“This is quite a setup for a border town,” Kyrian commented, gazing approvingly at the room.

“The inn is owned by a couple of Y’marans,” Azhani said, by way of explanation.

“Oh, okay, I understand.” Kyrian smiled delightedly. The people of the First Kingdom were well known for their indulgence in all things hedonistic. A tiny thing like this bathhouse would be nothing to one used to the giant public spas in Y’mria.

Humming softly, the stardancer began filling the tub, testing the water a few times until it was the right temperature. It was large enough for the both of them, but Kyrian wondered if she should just let Azhani wash up first, and then use what was left. Looking over to ask Azhani her preference, she nearly swallowed her own tongue.

The warrior was nude, clad only in the briefest of loincloths and the splint. Flickering golden light dusted Azhani’s body in shadows that danced and played across her dark brown skin, weaving fascinating patterns of darkness and light. Barely healed scars were webbed over the warrior’s muscular form, a tracery of dark lines against dark skin that told a silent story of pain and suffering.

Goddess, she’s beautiful, Kyrian thought in wonderment, and then almost clobbered herself. Get over yourself, Kyr. You’ve seen her naked before, this is nothing new.

“Let me get you out of that splint, Azhani.” Kyrian slipped into her healer’s role, to steer her suddenly carnal thoughts in a different direction.

Dropping to her knees, she quickly unbound Azhani’s leg, letting out a pleased whistle at the marked difference in the way it looked. The bruising had all but vanished and the mottled knots of torn muscle and shattered bone had receded, leaving behind a smooth expanse of dark flesh.

Azhani looked down and grinned, shifting some of her weight off the crutch and onto the leg. Flare-like sparkles of pain rippled up her leg, showing that the limb was not as strong as it had been. Months of abuse had damaged muscles and nerves. However, just being able to look down, and see the leg straight, and whole, without the awful discoloration of infection and rot was a small miracle.

“I think with a few more days of taking it easy, your leg will heal as good as new, Azhani,” the stardancer pronounced softly as she stood and walked back over to the tub to check the temperature of the water one more time.

She’s so unafraid of my name. From “warrior” to “Azhani” in a heartbeat – can I be any less generous? Can I close my heart to what is freely offered, though it may cost me everything to tear down the walls? There were no easy answers to her questions. Looking around the room, she noticed the bath salts and smiled. Kyrian was gazing longingly at the jars and Azhani decided to be magnanimous.

“If there’s some sandalwood, go ahead and add it,” a low voice said from somewhere too close to the stardancer’s ear.

Kyrian’s head whipped around, almost cracking Azhani in the face. Reeling back quickly, Azhani grabbed the edge of the tub to keep her balance. Embarrassed by her jumpy reaction, Kyrian blushed.

“I apologize,” the warrior said abashedly. “I was attempting to read the labels.”

“No, I’m the one who should apologize, Azhani. I could have hurt you with my carelessness. I’m sorry,” Kyrian said in a quiet voice, reaching out and taking the vial with the bright yellow grains of salt in it and pouring a generous amount into the water. Stirring it with a fingertip, she said, “Here, climb on in. I’ll wash your back.”

The warrior shot the stardancer a strange look, and then muttered, “I’ve been bathing since I was three, Kyrian,” as she sat on the edge of the tub. Slowly, she slid in, settling back and letting out a sigh of hedonistic pleasure. The heat of the water bled into her aching muscles, making them tingle pleasantly.

Kyrian flashed her a quick smile and then reached for a scrap of cloth and a pot of soap, scooping out some of the fragrant herbal mixture onto the cloth. “Yeah, but, I bet your arms couldn’t reach your back then, either.”

Azhani grumbled, but allowed the stardancer to push her forward and gently scrub her back. When she leaned back, she took the rag from Kyrian’s hand and said, “Now your turn. Get in here.”

Dumbly staring at the warrior, Kyrian remained motionless.

“If you don’t move, I’m going to pull you in, clothes and all,” Azhani added in a deep growl that snapped the stardancer out of her shock and sent her reeling away from the tub.

“No, no, it’s okay, Azhani, you’re right, you can bathe yourself. I’ll … just … wait … outside?” Kyrian trailed off as the warrior pushed herself out of the water, sending sheets of water cascading down her body. Azhani reached for the crutch by the side of the basin and started to step out. “Whoa, wait, let me help you!” Once again, the healer in Kyrian forced her to move to Azhani’s side, but the warrior pushed her away.

“I’m fine,” she snarled. “I can do this.”

Stung, Kyrian moved away, wondering what she had done to offend the warrior. Azhani stepped out onto the woven reed mat that sat in front of the tub and stood there, allowing the rest of the water to sluice off of her body.

“Tub’s all yours,” she muttered, turning away from the stardancer.

“But you’re not finished,” Kyrian protested, knowing the warrior had barely had time to soak.

“You shouldn’t have to have a cold bath, healer. Next time, I’ll take second turn,” the warrior said, as she reached for one of the large cloth towels that hung off the peg on the wall.

“There’s plenty of water in the cistern, Azhani. What’s the problem?” Kyrian said, chewing on her lower lip thoughtfully. You don’t think that maybe she thinks that I don’t want to be near her? Nah. Come on, she knows I’m not scared of her. She knows that I’m not afraid to touch her, right? Kyrian spared a glance at Azhani, who was struggling not to slip on the wet floor while mopping herself dry.

The warrior’s back was still turned to the stardancer. Letting out a soft sigh, Kyrian shook her head. Of course not, you moon-eyed dolt! Skittish as a colt, this one is! Best get this done with now, as you’ll be wintering with her, Kyrian told herself firmly, and then stripped off her clothes.

The stardancer bent and drained away some of the now chilled water and added the remaining hot water from the cistern. When the water was at the steamy temperature she liked, the stardancer tipped her head to look at the warrior, who was about to slip into her robe. “Are you still willing to wash my back, Azhani?”

Turning to answer, she stopped when there was a soft knock at the door. From one breath to the next was the time it took for Azhani to move from the bench to the wall. Slowly, she reached for the bolt, drawing it back and opening the door. Outside waited the serving wench from the inn, a tray filled with wine and sweets balanced on one arm.

“Brought ya a snack, Azhi,” the woman said in a plain, nasally tone.

“Thank you, Orra,” Azhani said, taking the tray and then closing the door. It wobbled slightly as she fought to carry it and her crutch at the same time. Kyrian was by her side instantly, taking the tray and steadying it.

Azhani looked down at the stardancer’s nude body then quickly focused her attention on a spot somewhere over Kyrian’s right shoulder. A long, pale scar slashed diagonally across the woman’s body, bisecting her from left shoulder to right hip. A second, thicker wound marred Kyrian’s right thigh. Dark, angry energy swelled in the warrior. No one should have harmed her this way, she thought angrily, vowing to put whoever had hurt the stardancer in the ground.

“What’s this?” Kyrian asked softly as she looked over the tray’s contents, humming with pleasure when she noticed a plate of freshly baked sweet muffins.

Snagging the bottle of wine, the warrior poured herself a glass and replied succinctly, “Dessert.”

“Oh, and here I was thinking that a big, bad, warleader like yourself would eschew such fripperies.” Kyrian risked a mild tease as she unfolded the arms under the tray and settled it near the tub.

A dark hand shot out and snatched up a piece of the still warm sweetbread. “I like a treat as well as the next bloodthirsty, ravaging murderer,” Azhani replied, her voice filled with self-loathing.

“I never said you didn’t,” Kyrian said seriously, reaching out to touch Azhani’s arm lightly. The warrior flinched away from the touch. Kyrian ducked her head, and then looked up, seeking the warrior’s bright blue eyes. “I’m sorry about earlier, Azhani. I wasn’t trying to kick you out of the bath, and I certainly wasn’t saying that I didn’t want to share with you. I just thought you might want to have the tub to yourself for a bit.” There, and if I’m wrong, I’m wrong and the words are still said and I can just be embarrassed! Kyrian felt her cheeks heat and was grateful for the low light that hid the flush she knew was spreading from her face to her feet.

The fire popped and crackled. Water dripped from one of the cisterns into the tub. Distantly, the sounds of a rousing fistfight could be heard.

Studying the stardancer for a long, quiet moment, the warrior finally peeled off the robe and limped to the tub. Shyly, she said, “I could use a little help getting in.”

Kyrian’s breath expelled in a soft hiss. Thank you, Astariu. Walking over to the tub, she held out a hand, helping the warrior step into the water.

“Better hurry, it’s cooling off,” Azhani said as Kyrian poured herself a glass of the sweet yellow wine.

“Yeah, yeah, I know,” Kyrian said, climbing in with a sigh.

The warrior’s hands were gentle as they scrubbed at the stardancer’s back. Picking up a shallow bowl, she said, “Tip your head back.”

Kyrian closed her eyes and complied, allowing Azhani to wash her hair. When the warrior finished, she quickly scrubbed up and then slipped out of the tub.

“Slide forward, I’m going to wash your hair,” she said, pleased that the warrior chose not to argue. Climbing in behind the warrior, Kyrian settled in place and then dipped her fingers into the jar of soap and began liberally coating Azhani’s dirt-coated locks. Slowly, she scrubbed the warrior’s thick, matted hair, working hard to get it all clean.

The two women did not leave the water until they were both well wrinkled.
~Chapter Five~
Rising early, Azhani slipped on her mostly dry clothes and limped over to the stardancer’s room. She raised her fist to knock then decided she would just peek in, and see if Kyrian were awake. The door was unlocked, and she made a mental note to remind the stardancer to lock it at night.

Kyrian was awake, the shutters on her window open wide to allow in the morning sunlight. Clad only in a short, pale green tunic, the stardancer was involved in a strenuous workout. Pale skin rippled over lean muscles as she easily moved through a series of exercises that fell somewhere between dance and meditation.

Having spent a few years studying with the monks at Y’len, Azhani was familiar with the ritual. Kyrian’s skill and control in the art was nothing short of amazing, especially in one as young as the stardancer. Mesmerized by the grace in the stardancer’s movements, Azhani could only watch as Kyrian executed a flawless spinning kick that would have knocked an opponent through the window.

When Azhani leaned her crutch against the stardancer’s bed and stepped in to throw the counter strikes to the exercises, Kyrian automatically adjusted her speed and skill to accommodate the warrior’s injury. As they worked out, the calm sounds of early morning allowed each woman to concentrate on her opponent. Everything was going well until Azhani tried a bit of fancy footwork, lost her balance and fell.

“Ouch. Damn.” The warrior reached down and rubbed her leg. After their bath the night before, Kyrian had decided to let the warrior use just the crutch to walk. Without the splints for support, the muscles complained bitterly about the rough treatment.

Instantly, the stardancer was kneeling next to her, running warm hands over the bare leg, checking for signs of injury. “Sorry about that,” Kyrian murmured, wincing at the new bruise already purpling Azhani’s ankle. She began to hum softly, her hands flaring up in a soft yellow glow.

“You don’t have to do that,” Azhani said gruffly. “I can handle a sprained ankle.”

“I know, but I want to,” Kyrian replied.

Azhani shook her head ruefully. “Why are you doing this, Kyrian? Why are you helping a murderer?”

Abruptly, the stardancer’s song ceased. Looking up and meeting the warrior’s hard blue eyes, Kyrian said, “Because you’re not a murderer, Azhani. A killer, yes – I know you’ve killed. In defense of Y’dan, or in defense of yourself, I know you’ve taken lives, but I do not believe the woman who rescued me, the woman who treats me with such deference could have killed in cold blood. So, even if you don’t want to tell me your story, you’re stuck with me.” Standing, the stardancer rubbed her hands on her thighs and sighed. “I’d like to be your friend, Azhani. Will you let me?” She reached her hand out, waiting for the warrior to take it.

Azhani looked up into Kyrian’s face. Seeing only a gentle, welcoming smile, she accepted the other woman’s hand, allowing the stardancer to help her to stand. “All right, we’ll give it a try,” she said tersely. “I’m not an easy person to like, Kyrian, and I can’t always promise-“

“I don’t want any promises, Azhani. I just want us to stop crashing heads over every decision. Here, you’ll need this.” Kyrian bent to retrieve Azhani’s crutch. Stepping close to hand it to the warrior, she smiled as the warrior took it and shoved it under her arm, obviously grateful for its support.

“Thanks,” Azhani muttered, nostrils flaring as she caught the scent of the stardancer’s sweat-sheened body. No! Remember your beloved, Ylera? The heady burst of attraction faded almost instantly, replaced by the dark, fiery anger that burned ceaselessly in her soul. Arris had laughed at her tears, watching her from the outside of the cell door and mocking her weakness. Hatred swelled, and Azhani clamped down on the emotion, not wanting Kyrian to be exposed to that darkness.

Unaware of the rapid emotions streaming across Azhani’s face, Kyrian said, “You know how to fight like one goddess trained. Have you studied with the monks of Y’len?” Wrinkling her nose as she exchanged her tunic for the warmer crimson robes and brown leather boots, she added, “We need to make sure we buy enough extra clothes so that we’re not having to wear wet clothes all the time.”

“Yes, but it was a lifetime ago,” Azhani replied, shaken from her dark reverie. Gripping the crutch, she said, “Come on, we’ve got a long day ahead of us.”

By midmorning, Azhani’s bartering skills had bought them a rickety cart and half the supplies they would need to survive the winter. The gold from the kidnapper had gone far, but not quite far enough. Wondering if the stardancer would forgive her for getting hurt again, Azhani started heading toward the edge of town, where the rowdier element spent their days.

“Azhani, where are you going?” Kyrian asked, halting the warrior in her tracks. She had been staring at the Barton hospice contemplatively but had noticed when the dark skinned woman began limping off toward the seedier section of town.

“I-“

“Never mind. I think that hospice across the way is Astariun. I’m going to find out, so, don’t go anywhere, okay?” Kyrian put her hands on her hips and gave the warrior a stern glare.

“Okay,” the warrior meekly agreed.

Smiling, the stardancer went across to the stone and timber building and went inside. Azhani frowned, wondering why the stardancer was suddenly so interested in the place. Then she shrugged and turned away, reaching out to pat Arun on the nose. The horse had been hitched to the wagon right after its purchase to get the gelding used to pulling its weight.

“Maybe she’s decided she likes it here, hey boy?” she muttered as Arun nosed her hands for attention. “Yeah, maybe. If that’s the case, I won’t have to go get my face smashed in after all. I can live off of what’s in the cart.” The cart! Oh shit, how the hell am I going to get that home? Arun belongs to Kyrian, and he’ll be staying with her… Astarus’ balls! Some demented looking donkey I’ll be, hauling the wagon down the road! Arun shoved his nose toward her pouch, hunting for treats. Laughing, she pulled out the carrot she had hidden there earlier and fed it to him.

Finely honed senses caused the warrior to simultaneously turn her head and fling out her arm, neatly catching a thrown object. A pouch, heavy with coin, fit snugly in her palm. She looked up to see the grinning stardancer jog across the street.

Slung from Kyrian’s left shoulder was a heavily filled haversack, and she had a large roll of dark crimson fabric balanced on the other shoulder.

“Did you find what you were looking for?” Azhani asked curiously.

“Yep. Did you know that the hospice is run by a couple of doctors from Y’skan?” Kyrian asked.

“Yeah, I remember when they first arrived. A lot of people used to die of the coughing sickness during the winter, but after the Y’skani came, no one died.” The warrior looked over at the hospice, and smiled sadly in memory. “They saved a lot of people.”

“They’re not Astariun, but there’s a starseeker in residence. I turned in my marks and got my stipend.” She nodded at the pouch in Azhani’s hand. “I’m afraid I’m not a big spender, so, there was quite a bit to collect. It should be enough to finish buying our supplies, don’t you think? I’d really rather not eat Arun’s oats and hay.”

Azhani hefted the pouch again. Even if it were full of copper, there had to be at least six months worth of the stardancer’s stipend in there. “I can’t…”

A warm finger brushed over her lips. “Yes, you can. I pay my own way, warrior. Now, I think our next stop was the blacksmith’s shop, right? We need nails and bracing, if I remember correctly.”

Azhani nodded dumbly, unable to come up with a reason why she should deny the money. As they walked toward the sound of ringing metal, she realized that she no longer even wanted to. Kyrian was staying. Yeah, I think I like that.
%%%
I never did buy a sword, the warrior thought as she pulled up her blankets and settled into the bed sleepily. Tomorrow, they would leave Barton behind and return to her father’s cottage and begin the work that would restore the battered building to a place that would weather the winter storms.

In the dark, she could barely make out the shape of her new coat of studded leather. The armor had been her one extravagant purchase. It had hung on the wall at the smith’s, the steel studs glowing silver from the light of the forge. Reverently, she had fingered the circular studs, wondering what she could promise the smith in exchange for the beautifully made coat.

Kyrian had noticed how the warrior lingered over the armor and had quietly spoken to the smith about its price. Azhani didn’t know that the armor had been made for the blacksmith’s son. The boy had been badly gored by a wild boar early the previous summer. The Y’skani doctors could do nothing for the young man, so he had lain for nearly two seasons, dying of a slowly festering wound.

Hearing about the young man’s injury, Kyrian had immediately offered to heal him. The blacksmith was all too willing to let the stardancer see his son, and after six candlemarks of singing and chanting, the boy would not only live, he would walk again. The man’s gratitude had been immediate and gracious. He offered to give the armor to the warrior, cost free.

Neither Kyrian nor Azhani were willing to accept the coat without paying for it, so a token amount was agreed upon. It was still more than Azhani felt they could afford, but the stardancer had wordlessly handed over the gold.

For a first gift, it was a strange one. Yet, there was something so right about Kyrian stepping in and making sure Azhani’s back was protected. She smiled, feeling another tiny crack break in the wall around her heart.

They would winter together, and in spring, she would say good-bye to her new friend and travel to Y’Syr and see if Ylera’s eerily prescient conditioning paid out.
“Again, my love. Say them again, so I know you have them,” her beautiful lover instructed, drawing long fingers down her jaw.

“Tellyn Jarelle. Morvith Aneswyth and Nara Vell,” Azhani repeated gamely, turning her head and capturing a wandering finger between her teeth. She sucked on the digit briefly before letting it go and asking, “But what do they mean, my love?”

“They are names, my heart. Names of my friends who one day, may be your friends.” A brief flash of pure sadness flickered in the elven woman’s eyes before being overshadowed by a smile of pure adoration. “Someday, if you have need, you will go to Y’Syria and you will find them. When you do, tell them my name and show them this symbol.” Ylera turned Azhani’s hand over and sketched a design into the skin, chanting softly under her breath. The rune glowed and hovered above the surface, then sank into the warrior’s hand, leaving lighter colored lines in the skin. Soon, even they vanished, but when Azhani flexed her hand, the lines briefly reappeared.

Ylera smiled and kissed her lover gently. “Whatever aid you require, they will give, and more.”

“But why wouldn’t I just ask you, Ylera?” Azhani asked curiously. “Or were you planning on leaving me?”

“Of course not, my love, but fate and the gods have a way of conspiring to make our lives interesting. I would rather you were prepared for any eventuality than to have you show up in my land friendless,” she explained gently, pressing soft lips into the hollow of Azhani’s throat and stilling further questions with her insistent, loving touch.
Hot tears pricked at Azhani’s eyes and she angrily dashed them away. You couldn’t prepare me for your death, though, could you beloved?

The still silence of the room mocked her in answer.
%%%
Lying in bed, staring at the darkened ceiling, Kyrian sighed and rolled fretfully onto her side. The stardancer couldn’t sleep. The truce between Azhani and herself had grown into a budding friendship over the three days they had spent in Barton. Tomorrow, they would leave the trader’s town and head back to the warrior’s homestead, to spend winter together.

It was almost romantic, and Kyrian found herself looking forward to the solitude with an eagerness that surprised her. Romance. Goddess, Kyr, get your mind out of the bedroom will you? Azhani’s a friend, not some pretty wench you can charm for a night or two of pleasure!

She blushed, thinking of the many invitations she had received from two of the barmaids. Though she had turned them both down, she hadn’t realized until that moment it was because she was attracted to Azhani. Kyrian sighed again. Instead of the demon everyone claimed, she had found Azhani to be a person – a woman with a deep stain on her soul that called out to be healed. As one of Astariu’s Own, the stardancer was drawn to that cry like iron to a lodestone. Wondering what it would be like to kiss the warrior until she saw stars, would not cure what troubled Azhani.

“This isn’t fair,” she whispered into the empty room. “I’m not supposed to fall for my patients, damn it!”

Since then, Kyrian had tried every meditation technique she knew to stuff her raging hormones into a box and then lock that box away in a deep, dark closet in her heart. It had taken some doing, because her body was very reluctant to let go of its favorite new fantasy.

She realized some mild success when, after dinner, they had walked up to their rooms. Standing in the hall, Azhani wished the stardancer goodnight, and gave her a gentle, sweet smile. Instead of inflaming, it touched Kyrian that the normally dour warrior would gift her with such a treasure of emotion.

Something within the stardancer clicked and she decided right then and there that Azhani’s friendship would be a jewel that she would treasure, not cheapen with lustful thoughts. Kyrian still felt the attraction, though, and it drove her to distraction. Little things about Azhani got to her, like the warrior’s low, thrumming voice, or her badly tangled, soft black hair.

The stardancer sighed and threaded her fingers into her own, curly reddish blonde locks. She loved Azhani’s hair, it was so thick and dark that she just wanted to reach her hands out and twine the tangled strands around her fingers. Kyrian closed her eyes, imagining how it would feel. Azhani would look up at her, her blue eyes so bright and clear, like the midsummer sky, and Kyrian would want to drown in them. Her fingers, allowed free rein, would sift through the warrior’s hair, delighting in the crinkly soft feel of the sable strands.

Biting her lip as her heart rate increased dramatically, the stardancer firmly said, “Friends, Kyr, friends. That’s what you’re going to be, nothing more. Best put those thoughts away in a nice, strong box and forget about them, before your heart gets broken.”

Oddly, the words, spoken aloud, did more to calm her errant thoughts than a thousand silent remonstrances had. Stripping the attraction of any emotional connection, made it seem base and unworthy of the woman she admired. Azhani deserved more than a lovesick, scatterbrained stardancer’s misplaced affections.

“I can do this,” she said, turning over once more and pulling the blankets up to her chin. “I will be her friend.” Friends, yeah, I like that. I haven’t had a friend since Ylera… goddess, Ylera… I still need to know… Did you kill her, Azhani? Because I’m not sure I could forgive you for that… With that troubling thought, Kyrian drifted off to sleep.
~Chapter Six~
The sky was bleakly gray when they left Barton. Heavy, dark clouds rolled ominously overhead and Kyrian was doubly grateful for the extra warmth of her new clothes. She looked at the road ahead and sent a prayer of relief that the trip would take them less than a day to get home. Azhani was in the back, cushioned by the huge pile of goods in the bed of the cart. As they had packed, Kyrian had noticed that the warrior was starting to favor her newly healed leg, and had suggested that she ride with her leg stretched out, to give it a rest.

Cold, freezing wind whipped down the road, chilling Kyrian’s fingers as they gripped the reins. Shivering, she reached under the seat and pulled up her new fur-lined gloves and slipped them on. They were a present from Azhani. The warrior had given them to her just before they had left and Kyrian knew that the last of their gold had gone to pay for them. As they rode out of town, the stardancer noticed that the warrior’s eyes lingered on every sword they passed, which made her feel bad for not turning over the blade she had discovered in the shed.

At the time, it had seemed like the right thing to do. Some strange intuition kept the stardancer from giving the warrior a weapon so potent as a sword. Or maybe I was just scared she would use it on me… It was too late, now, to change that. She had the blade with her, though. For the trip to Barton, she had rolled it up in her bedroll and now it was hidden just under the driver’s seat, still cocooned in its sheath of ancient silk.

Comfortably seated in the bed of the cart, Azhani dozed, lulled by the steady, even pace of the gelding. Kyrian expertly guided the horse down the road, avoiding the larger ruts and stones, allowing the warrior to nap. The heavy chill, coupled with the dark clouds boiling overhead told the warrior that snow was on the horizon. Perhaps even as soon as that evening or the next day, the world would once again be wrapped in white. Sighing contentedly, the warrior tugged her blankets closer and snuggled into the warm bed of flour sacks.

Azhani listened to the sound of Arun’s hooves clip clopping on the dry ground, the even beat mixing pleasantly with the rustle of animals and birds in the trees and bushes. Overhead, she could see the lazy flight of an eagle, searching for a bit of food to take home to its warm shelter. The scent of sandalwood drifted over and she smiled, recalling the bath that she and the stardancer had shared.

Friendship… that was the magical talisman that the stardancer had offered, and greedily, Azhani had accepted it. Now, as they traveled homeward, she found herself hoping that the winter would temper their hasty bond into something that would make Kyrian want to stay.

It would not be easy to open up to Kyrian. Even the thought of talking about her story made Azhani queasy. She could feel the boiling darkness within her, raging as it ached to claw its way out and take over. The Banshee wanted to be freed. She wanted to run wild and carve a channel a mile wide for the river of blood that killing Arris and his toadies would spill. Azhani had to fight to keep that darkness at bay, because it would consume everything and everyone in its path, and not even the beautiful young stardancer would be able to escape.

If she were wise, she would spend the winter with Kyrian and then send her on her way. That would be the right and best thing to do. Making up her mind, Azhani nodded and steeled her will. The stardancer would stay for the winter and then, when the spring rains came and the northern road to Y’Syr opened up, the warrior would safely escort Kyrian to Y’len. After that, she would turn toward Y’Syria, and to Ylera’s promise of help.

The tiny, almost imperceptible ache that threaded through her stomach was probably from the amount of porridge she had eaten for breakfast. Azhani shifted once more and fell into a deeper sleep.
%%%
Taking a deep draft of cool water from her waterskin, Kyrian rubbed her eyes and looked down the road. They had been traveling for several candlemarks. Above, weak sunlight had pushed through the clouds to brighten the day. It was almost time to wake Azhani and stop for lunch. Looking over her shoulder, she smiled at the childlike peacefulness of the warrior’s face in sleep.

Kyrian was glad that she had taken the time to talk to Paul, the innkeeper of the Barton Inn. He was more than willing to share news with her. When Azhani was busy purchasing supplies, the stardancer had sat at the bar and spent a few coins on ale and talk.

According to the garrulous innkeeper, things in Y’dan were the same. Arris was slowly increasing the boundaries of the law, introducing new sanctions and restrictions that, when taken separately, seemed to be very beneficial to the populous. Hearing them listed together made Kyrian’s skin crawl.

The most disturbing trend was the alienation of the non-humans. Y’dani elves and dwarves, residents of the kingdom for years, were suddenly being forced to pay taxes, or buy special permits, just to live in the cities and towns. Non-human goods were inspected twice as much as that of humans, and non-humans could only sell their products on certain days of the week.

Many of them had already left, packing what they could and getting out of Y’dan even though travel in the winter was hard. Y’mar and Y’Syr both reported a steady influx of Y’dani non-human refugees. Half-elves were also being targeted, only for them, it was much worse. Not only were their movements regulated and their wares overtaxed, but those half-elves who had held high paying jobs suddenly found themselves demoted or out of a job. When those same half-elves would go elsewhere for employment, there would be no work.

With many of the non-humans already gone, the half-elves were sure to follow, leaving Y’dan a land of humans. A chill ran up Kyrian’s spine as she recalled the bartender’s whispered words.
“Aye, lass. ‘Tis a good thing, I be thinking, that you and yer friend be not in that place, now. I’m a thinking that the new king’s not cut from the same cloth as his Gods beloved father, now. And I be a-thinkin’ that the good lords and ladies of the Council are findin’ that out, too.”
The older man had looked around the empty inn, and then leaned forward to add something more.
“They say that our Azhani killed the elven ambassador when she went ‘n lost her mind at Banner Lake, but I’m a thinkin’ that mebbe there’s less truth an’ more tale to that story, cuz ain’t no one as been there can ‘member the lady’s face among the dead. I lets ol’ Takk tell his bloody poems cuz the customers like him, but I knew ‘Zhani as a child and well remember when her da would bring her with him to trade furs. An’ lemme tell you, stardancer, that I don’ believe for one half second that Rhu’len DaCoure’s little girl is the monster them fancy tales say she is!”

Kyrian leaned closer to the bartender and nodded solemnly. “I’ve been caring for her for a few days now, and I haven’t seen any signs of the ‘demon’ your Takk speaks of.”

“’N you won’t, neither! ‘Zhani’s a good girl,” Paul beamed happily, wiping out a glass and filling it with a draft of cool ale and then setting it on the bar in front of her. “But you mind and not spread ‘round who she be. There be unfriendly ears in Barton, and don’t think I didn’t notice the girl a-limpin’!”
Having someone refer to the powerful, strong willed warrior as a “girl” had almost been enough to send Kyrian into paroxysms of giggles. She smiled in reflex, considering how darkly Azhani would frown if she heard herself referred to in that manner.

Hearing that no one had seen Ylera at Banner Lake that day had confirmed her suspicions that there was more to Azhani’s story than what the heralds and bards had told. If Azhani wasn’t guilty of the princess’ murder, if, say, someone else had killed her for his own reasons and blamed it on the warrior to keep the Y’Syran army away, then Kyrian knew that everything else attributed to the “traitorous Warleader” was suspect.

Now more than ever, she had to hear the warrior’s story. Taking one last glance at the peacefully sleeping woman, she clucked her tongue and sent Arun down the road once more.

A cloud crossed the sun, darkening the day. Kyrian sighed and whispered, “Guess I’ll just have to prove to her that she can trust me, eh Arun?” As they traveled, she scanned the edge of the road, seeking a convenient place to pull off and have lunch.

Azhani came awake as Arun’s pace changed. Rubbing her eyes sleepily, she judged that she had slept for at least four candlemarks, far longer than she had planned. As she yawned, stretching out sleep-cramped muscles, an unexpected flash of light caught her attention. Standing, she strung her bow and knocked an arrow quickly, hunting the trees for her target.

Kyrian had just spotted a clearing when Azhani’s sudden movement caused her to pull up on Arun’s reins and turn around. Seeing the warrior’s militant stance, she dropped the reins and reached for her baton nervously. An electric tension filled the air; crackling off the warrior’s body in waves as she scanned the trees swiftly and then, let her arrow fly.

A muffled scream followed by a body falling from a tree signaled that Azhani’s arrow had found its mark. Men poured from the forest around them, yelling and shouting and waving deadly looking weapons. Kyrian watched in stunned amazement, as the warrior’s hands became a blur, knocking and loosing two more arrows in quick succession before she jumped off the cart, landing with a stifled groan of pain.

Frozen in place by fright, Kyrian could only watch as the first of the bandits reached the cart. Rolling the bow in a figure eight, Azhani used the weapon as a staff, blocking the bandit’s swords easily. There was a sharp twang, and a thin streak of blood crept down Azhani’s cheek, where the bowstring had hit her.

A filthy hand reached for the stardancer and a raspy voice commanded, “C’mere pretty thing, Skavitz got use for you.”

Cold dread clutched at Kyrian’s guts and the weight of her baton seemed to double as she sat, paralyzed. Dirty fingers brushed the hem of her robe, reaching under the fabric to stroke her thinly clothed leg.

“Mm, gots us a nice one, we do.” The man licked his lips, tightening his grasp.

Panic exploded, sending Kyrian scrabbling back on the seat, her baton falling to the floor, useless. Terrifying memory slashed her vision, overlaying the bandit’s face with the shattered remains of another.

“No,” she whispered hoarsely, blinking against the haze that fogged around her, cutting her off from reality. Kyrian flailed wildly about. The cool hardness of the baton intruded on her fear and she grasped it, striking out blindly, scoring a light hit to the bandit’s shoulder.

Shaking himself and backing away, he growled, “Got claws, eh? Well then, let’s be seeing how you like this!” A whip uncoiled and struck out at the stardancer, the spiked tip ripping the tender flesh of her throat.

A strangled yelp of pain erupted behind her, and Azhani spun, frowning angrily when she saw the man who was attempting to molest her new friend. Driving the heel of her foot into her opponent’s knee then sucker punching him in the skull when he bent over, she yelled, “Run, Kyrian!”

The warrior drew back and threw her bow at the man attacking the stardancer. The long shaft of stout yew cracked into the bandit’s skull, sending him staggering away from the cart, cursing and clutching at his bleeding head.

Snapped out of her funk by Azhani’s shout, Kyrian watched as the weaponless warrior took on the four remaining bandits. Running sounded like such a good idea to the stardancer. Killing that man in Myr had torn Kyrian up so badly that she didn’t think she could defend herself and if she stayed, then Azhani would have to worry about the both of them. The stardancer sheathed her baton and took up Arun’s reins, preparing to urge him on when one of the bandits pulled out a dagger and threw it at Azhani.

The warrior easily dodged the knife, but took a hard blow to her kidneys from a wickedly studded club. Damn it, Kyr, move! Viciously forcing her body to action, Kyrian reached under the seat and grabbed the silk-wrapped sword.

As she shucked the fabric, the stardancer shouted, “Azhani!” and tossed the blade.

The newly freed sword tumbled end over end. Blazing in the sunlight, the blade seemed alive with fire as it arced across the clearing. Blinded momentarily, the combatants ceased fighting.

Metal slapped flesh and laughter rippled across the road. An eerie, bone-chilling wail erupted from Azhani’s throat, startling the gelding. The hollow keening sound caused the hairs on Kyrian’s neck to stiffen. So this is why they called her the Banshee… she thought, shivering suddenly.

Unaffected by the warrior’s cry, the bandits resumed their attack, bent on killing the wickedly grinning woman.

“Oh yeah, bring it on, boys. I need this,” Azhani shouted, laughing merrily and dodging their best swings effortlessly. Her blade spun in tightly controlled arcs, each lightening strike biting deep into dirty flesh.

Blood sprayed, dappling the warrior’s clothes and face and she only laughed harder and threw her head back, letting out another one of those terrifying screams. Shuddering again, Kyrian turned away, unable to watch the carnage. She could easily believe that this was the woman who had been named the “Banshee of Banner Lake”. This was the warrior who could tear through hundreds of men, bathing in their blood gloriously, all without pausing for breath. She was awesome, and glorious, and terrifying all in one package. A headless body toppled to the ground and Kyrian nearly fainted.

Clamping her teeth down on the bile that threatened to rise, the stardancer steeled her courage and jumped down from the cart. The whip-wielding bandit had shaken off the earlier blow and was slowly approaching her once more. Braided leather flicked out, coiling around her baton. He yanked, pulling her within his reach and struck, punching her in the jaw.

Spitting blood, Kyrian shook off the blow and struck back, cracking him in the solar plexus and dancing away when the whip went slack. He doubled over, clutching his chest and wheezing in pain. The stardancer finished him, delivering a solid rap to the back of his head with her baton. As soon as he was down, she checked his pulse, reassuring herself that he was alive. A steady thrum answered her questing fingers and she sighed heavily and pulled out a length of super strong twine to bind his hands.

When she was done, she stood to help Azhani, and ended up watching in speechless awe as the warrior darted around the wild swings of the remaining bandit’s club and cleaved him nearly in half with one stroke of the sword.

The warrior stepped back and watched the man fall, the pieces of his body falling apart as they hit the ground. A primal snarl twisted Azhani’s face as she looked up and into Kyrian’s shocked face.

Kyrian staggered back under the force of the warrior’s powerful blue gaze. Slowly, she sheathed her baton and held her hands out to the warrior.

“Azhani? It’s over,” she called out soothingly.

The conscious bandit grabbed his bound buddy and dragged him off, running toward the trees in an attempt to get away from the blood-maddened warrior. Since it was far more important to break through the warrior’s battle haze, Kyrian let them go.

Keeping her eyes locked with Azhani’s, she took a step closer and closer until the other woman blinked and let her sword droop to the ground. The stardancer breathed a heavy sigh of relief and then dashed over to the side of the road and began vomiting violently.

Azhani watched Kyrian jog off with a bemused expression on her face. The coppery tang of blood speckled the air around her and she looked down to see her new clothes liberally spattered with it. She wiped her face and was stunned to realize that it was coated in blood and gore. Quickly checking herself, she was relieved to find that, although she was painted in the thick, rapidly congealing crimson fluid, none of it was hers. A tiny cut on her cheek was the only injury she had sustained and it was so small that it would be gone within days.

You can still slaughter ‘em like pigs, she thought to herself in disgust as she bent over to clean her blade on one of the bandit’s trouser legs. She was even more grateful now for the coat of armor, because it was all that had stood between her and the man with the wicked mace. The area hurt and she winced, knowing it would probably ache for a while.

She stood and tried to sheath the sword, then stopped herself. Wait… I didn’t take this from one of them… so… where did it come from? Curious now, she examined the blade, surprise coloring her features when she recognized it.

“My father’s sword,” she whispered haltingly, looking at the blade with a new reverence.

It was on the tip of her tongue to ask the stardancer where she had found it when she realized the young woman was incapacitated. Kyrian was still kneeling, her sides heaving uncontrollably. Azhani took three steps toward the scarlet robed figure then stopped, realizing the last thing the sickened woman needed to see was her blood drenched body. The blade in her hands became a hateful weight.

Azhani glanced down at the finely wrought blade and considered tossing it into the forest to rot, but resolutely grasped it tighter, feeling the wire wrap of the hilt bite into her palm. Carefully, she slid the blade into her belt, avoiding the razor sharp edge, and then slowly began to search the bodies of their attackers. She knew this type well – just the kind of scum that she and her men had chased out of Y’dan so many years ago, when she was just a young circuit rider with nothing more exciting in her future than a hard bed of dirt and rock.

The warrior pocketed the few coins that the bandits had in their pouches, having long since given up the fanciful notions of “honor” and “chivalry” when faced with the real horrors of hunger and disease. What goods that came from the dead could be used to feed her and her companion, and maybe, spread a little cheer into the hand of a grubby child or winter-starved adult, the next time she was near civilization.

Weapons, on the other hand, were at a premium for her. Daggers, knives, anything the dead men had, ended up on the cart. Anything not deemed good enough would be melted down and used to patch pots, make horseshoes, arrowheads or nails. Everything else could be cleaned, sharpened and added to her personal arsenal.

By the time she had finished looting the bodies, Kyrian was back from the roadside and only slightly green around the edges.

“Wh-what’ll we do with them?” the stardancer asked as she took a sip of water from her almost empty skin.

Azhani stared at the corpses, considering. She had thought to leave them lying as they were, but she realized that probably wasn’t the best of ideas. Disease was no one’s friend, and rotting bodies drew unsavory things.

“There’s a spade in the cart. It shouldn’t take long to bury them all.” In truth, it would add several candlemarks to their journey and they would not likely make it back to the cottage before it was very late, but it was worth it to see Kyrian’s shadowed face clear.”

The warrior stripped off her armor and rolled up her sleeves, preparing to get to work. Kyrian stepped closer and ran a hand through her disheveled curls.

“Can I help?” she asked softly. “Were you injured?”

“No, it’s okay, Kyrian, I can do this, I’m okay. See,” she turned, pulling on her shirt, “No holes. Take care of yourself and Arun.” The warrior nodded at the horse, whose left flank had taken a whip strike. Amazingly, the gelding had not bolted, but had stayed still, placidly waiting for his mistress to come and fix his sore backside.

The burial took several candlemarks, and by the time she was finished, Azhani ached in a dozen places, not the least of which was the fiery lance of pain in her side. Goddess, I hope I didn’t break a rib…

As she surveyed the newly turned earth, a sense of satisfied accomplishment seeped through her and left her feeling like she had done her duty. Toward the end, Kyrian joined her and helped her to drag the bodies of the men to the trench and roll them in. The stardancer hadn’t spoken aloud, but Azhani could see her lips move, singing the prayers for the dead as she worked.

It’s so easy to forget she’s a priest, Azhani thought wonderingly. Maybe that’s why she can forgive so easily – it’s part of the job description. She quietly watched as the stardancer sprinkled several drops of fragrant oil on the soil then poured out a libation of water.

Kyrian’s eyes fluttered shut as she completed the ritual. It was the first time she had done it since that awful day in the Y’Syran forest, and it seemed oddly fitting that her prayers were for the souls of bandits once again. The stardancer’s lips parted and a soft, wordless tune began to fill the air.

Azhani recognized the song, having heard it more times than not. The familiar, haunting tones brought back memories. Faces and voices, laughter and tears of the men and women who had fought and died with her came gliding back, carried by the notes of the tune.

Her own, bloody musk called up the memory of her father’s burial. Rhu’len had died saving a child from the clutches of a demon, the last time the foul creatures had come up from the bowels of their hellish homes, hungry for the flesh of mortals. Lastly, as the song faded away, Azhani remembered her beloved Ylera, who had not been sung on to the heavens by a priest, but by the warrior herself. The broken, tuneless warble had echoed pitifully throughout the dungeons. As he stood outside the cell, Arris had laughed and taunted her about her inability to carry a tune.

Azhani finally turned away, drained and saddened, yet ready to leave the graves behind her and head home.

A hand on her shoulder made her turn back, and she was briefly enveloped in a warm hug. Awkwardly, she hugged the stardancer back, patting her gently. Kyrian was shaking, tiny tremors of fear that she could feel were just aftershocks of a much greater terror.

“You saved my life,” the stardancer whispered as she clung to Azhani. “Thank you.”

It took all of five heartbeats for the warrior to decide that she really, really liked Kyrian’s hugs. Ah goddess… it’s been far too long… The last time anyone had touched her with anything other than contempt had been… Azhani swallowed and pushed the thoughts away with a massive force of will. Now was not the time to mourn. Later, when they were safely locked behind the doors of her father’s cabin, she would grieve. Then, she would tell the stardancer her story, and hope that Kyrian would see the truth in her words.

Letting go of the warrior was the hardest thing Kyrian had done in a very long time, but she slowly disengaged, taking deep, calming breaths. “Sorry,” she murmured, reaching for her robe. “I’m not usually so clingy.”

Azhani shrugged and said, “Did you hear me complain?”

Startled, Kyrian stopped in mid-motion and stared at the warrior.

Grinning, Azhani said, “Hey, I can like hugs, can’t I?”

“Uh, sure. I uh, just thought…”

“You just thought that since I’ve been a grumpy, moody, pain in the ass bitchy patient, that I’d probably cut your throat for touching me?” Azhani filled in the blanks.

“Well…” Kyrian searched for something to say.

“Sorry to burst your bubble, healer. I like hugs. I like flowers and children – not for breakfast, either – and I rather enjoy sunsets too. There, have I totally spoiled your image of me as a hard-bitten, soulless killer?” Azhani joked wryly.

“Okay, no more pigeonholing, got it,” Kyrian said and headed for the cart. “You’ve always done this, haven’t you?” she asked as she climbed up into the driver’s seat. “Fight bandits, I mean.”

Azhani considered Kyrian’s statement. “Among others, yes. It’s all I ever wanted to do,” she said, shrugging into her cloak and pulling herself into the back of the cart. Her armor was too gory to even consider putting back on. If those bandits had any more friends, they would have found them by now, so she felt relatively safe in going without the leather coat’s protection.

The warrior’s nose wrinkled. Her new clothes now smelled horrible. Blood, sweat and dirt mingled to create a miasma of death that was far too familiar to Azhani. It was both comforting and disturbing. Part of her exulted in it, reveled in the knowing that she still had the skills, and drive to be the best and part of her watched another piece of her soul slip away, given to the service of the sword.

The sword. Azhani reached over and picked up her father’s elven made blade – a gift from her mother – and began methodically cleaning it. She remembered how it had come to her hand, and calmly she asked, “Where did you get this?”

Kyrian looked over her shoulder at the warrior and bit her lip. “I – I found it in that trunk. The same place I found those clothes?” she answered softly.

The warrior grunted, then reached for the sheath she had taken from the body of one of the bandits and began cleaning it, too. “And you didn’t want me running you through with it in your sleep, is that it?” The question came lightly, but the words struck like hammer blows.

An answer hovered at the tip of Kyrian’s tongue, but she couldn’t make the words come out. No, I never was afraid of that… I just… oh damn it… Stopping the cart and dropping the reins, she turned to face Azhani. In a calm, even voice, she said, “I kept the sword because I didn’t want you racing out the door to go play the big, brawny warrior while you were still injured. I am not, by the goddess, nor ever will I be afraid of you, Azhani Rhu’len!

“Why?” The warrior’s voice was a breath away from cracking, slivers of it breaking away and piercing the air between them.

Their eyes met, green and blue depths that swam and melded, searching for something hidden in colored pools that was impossible to find.

“I don’t know. Maybe it’s because, of all the things you could have done that day on the road, you chose to risk your life to save me. Maybe it’s because even though it meant losing your only weapon, you readily stopped that guy from hurting me today, and maybe it’s because no matter how much you hated it, you sat with me every night in Barton, keeping the scum away from our table with just a glare. Now, it’s late, I’m tired and I don’t want to sleep on the ground. Let’s see about getting back before moonrise.”

Well, I guess she told you! Azhani thought, a tiny smile quirking the corner of her mouth.

I’m gonna throw up again, Kyrian thought, swallowing hard. Oh goddess, that was hard. Okay, breathe, Kyr, breathe. In, out, in, out, that’s it, she’s not gonna use your head for target practice. The stardancer silently talked her nerves down and concentrated on keeping Arun on the road.

“Hungry?” Azhani asked, fumbling around in a bag for something to eat.

Food. As in, eating, as in, I didn’t just bury four bodies and a head back there. Okay, Kyr, you can do this. “Sure,” the stardancer said, swallowing convulsively. Bread and jerky were passed forward, as well as a fresh skin of water. Kyrian picked at the bread and when it didn’t come flying back up, she dug in, chewing on the jerky and drinking the cool water gratefully.

It was very late by the time Kyrian turned Arun up the path that would take them to Azhani’s cottage. The warrior threw off her covers and jumped down, limping ahead of the cart with her sword held out at the ready. Kyrian drew the horse up short, allowing Azhani to search the place and make certain there was nothing amiss with the cabin.

It didn’t take long for the warrior to return, carrying a lamp. “All clear,” she said shortly, stifling a yawn. “I’ve opened up the shed. We can get Arun bedded down and carry in the bare necessities. The rest will keep until morning.”

Tiredly, Kyrian jumped down from the cart and began to gather the few things they would need to finish out the night. Azhani had already gone ahead and when Kyrian came around to the front of the property, she could see the warrior tying a length of rope across the break in the fence where a gate once hung.

The two women worked quickly, dragging in only two loads of things before stripping down and collapsing exhaustedly on their pallets.
%%%
Azhani was dreaming. She had to be dreaming, because Ylera was alive, touching her, kissing her, and brushing long, golden blonde hair over her bare torso like so many thousands of feathers.

“Goddess,” she murmured, cupping her hand around the elven woman’s narrow face and drawing her up for a long kiss. “What you do to me.”

“What do I do to you, Theodan’s Warleader?” Ylera whispered huskily, drawing her long, tapered fingers down Azhani’s bare torso.

“Everything,” the warrior replied honestly. Her blue eyes glowed in the firelight as they met her lover’s amber yellow ones.

Ylera laughed, wrapping her lover in the musical sound joyfully. “You amuse me so, Azhani, child of Rhu’len. Now, tell me about your mother, darling.”

Azhani closed her eyes and called up the faint, shadowy memories of her elven mother. Small in stature, fine boned like Ylera, but dark, where the ambassador was light. Eyes as green as the plains of Y’Nor in high spring, hair midnight dark, a voice that crooned the softest of lullabies and hands that always soothed away her tears. These were some of the only memories that remained of the woman who had given her life.

“I don’t really remember her,” she finally said.

“Your eyes tell me that you loved her,” Ylera said, a touch of jealousy coloring her tone. “Tell me more,” she commanded, her golden eyes blazing with inner fire. “Tell me of how your father met your mother.”

Azhani looked away, staring into the fire. “You should know that story. It’s nearly the same for all Y’dani half breeds.”

A finger captured the warrior’s cheek and drew her eyes back. “Perhaps so. I would hear from you, what the man who gave you life said in explanation.”

The warleader sighed. “All right. It was the border wars. Y’dan and Y’Syr were bickering over land rights, again. My father was part of a small patrol of Theodan’s men, given to guard a small section of the forest. One day, they came upon a group of elven merchants.

Flying a flag of truce, they stopped to trade news of the other kingdoms. My mother, Ashiani, was the daughter of a merchant in that party.

My father used to say that my mother was so beautiful, she had stolen his heart with a smile. The merchants and the soldiers camped together that night, finding a strange sort of peace under the cover of the trees. They danced many times and shared food from the same plate; drink from the same cup. When my father retired to his tent, my mother followed him.

In the morning, when he found out what his daughter had done, the merchant accused my father of rape. My father had to return to Theodan in shame while my mother was taken back to her family home to live in seclusion. King Theodan never believed my father was guilty of rape, but paid my mother’s family a handsome amount of gold anyway.

Before my father could go and beg for my mother’s release, the demons invaded, sending the kingdoms to war. It was during the war that my mother died – giving birth to me had weakened her, and she was never able to regain her strength. My grandsire, having no wish to raise a half-breed, had me delivered to my father.

Theodan allowed my father to take me to the mountains and let me grow up some before recalling him to Y’dannyv. From that moment on, I was never far away from my father. Even when he would go to Y’Syr to talk of peace, he would bring me with him and turn me over to the monks of Y’len. My father died two years ago in the mountains near his home. He was visiting friends when the demons came down and raided Barton. He saved a little girl, but his own life was the cost.” Azhani’s lips tensed, pressing together tightly as the memories overwhelmed her. Sighing, she looked at Ylera and said, “Is that what you wanted to hear, Ambassador?”

A hard, teasing kiss took Azhani’s breath away. “Yes,” the elven woman said, smiling before giving the warrior another kiss. Sharp teeth nibbled a trail down naked flesh. “I should have known that only great love could produce a great lover like you.”

“Do you love me, Ylera?” Azhani whispered as her lover used every bit of her considerable skill to bring pleasure to the warrior’s body.

The elf purred, nibbling a hip delicately. “I love your body,” she said, sliding her tongue along the crease of thigh and hip. “I love your taste,” she demonstrated her pleasure, taking the warrior’s breath away. A long, lithe form slid up Azhani’s body and whispered, “Do I love you, warrior? As much as I am free to love, yes, I love you, Azhani. Does that please you?” Ylera’s fingers dipped down, stroking relentlessly.

Azhani gasped and panted, “Yes!”

“And you, Azhani, do you love me?” Ylera whispered, continuing to stroke the woman below her, fiercely loving her.

“Oh goddess, yes! I love you!” Azhani cried out helplessly. “I love you, Ylera!” The beautiful elf smiled tenderly and the warrior returned the smile, reaching out to stroke a soft cheek. The skin under her fingers turned bloody and shredded, ruined and ravaged by torturer’s knives. “No,” Azhani whispered. “Ylera! No! Don’t…” the warrior watched helplessly as the fireside scene shifted, becoming the cold dungeon cell where Prince Arris had buried her dreams.

“It’s all your fault, Azhani,” Arris said mockingly, sneering at the dead body of Ambassador Kelani. “If you had only accepted my proposal,” he said wistfully.

Right after his birthday, he had been puffed up by his own importance and eager to please his father by choosing the perfect bride. He had come to Azhani and begged her to fulfill his dreams and rule Y’dan beside him when his father had passed. Gently, the warleader had refused him, thinking that his request was only a device to gain his father’s attention. She had not known of his true feelings, and had laughingly informed him that she planned to wed the ambassador of Y’Syr that winter.

“I loved you, Warleader, why did you not see that?” he added, in a soft voice. It was late and the prince had come to see her while she languished in his dungeon.

Azhani’s nostrils flared, but her eyes remained dead.

A hand appeared on the bars of the prison door. “I would have been content to allow your – liaison – with the elven harlot, Azhani. Why did you deny me? It would have made Father so happy,” he coaxed, staring at her almost pityingly.

“I have no desire to dally with children, Arris,” the warrior said dully. Arris was nearly half the warrior’s age – she had bounced him on her knee as a babe.

Black eyes flashed angrily. “A child? Is that all you see, Warleader? I will show you a child, Azhani. Before I am through, you will see. You will know that you chose wrong, Warleader, and you will regret that choice! Guards!” Arris gestured, and the door was flung open.

Ylera Kelani’s battered corpse was unceremoniously tossed into the cell, striking the brick walls with a sickly thud. Arris smiled wickedly. “Enjoy your last night with your lover, Azhani Rhu’len, tomorrow you will both feed the vultures.”
Azhani thrashed to wakefulness, sitting bolt upright and gasping for breath. Tears streaked hotly down her cheeks as she searched for the woman who loved her, but would never again be there.

Watching the warrior through partially closed eyes, Kyrian felt the overwhelming sadness of the warrior’s loss. She had wakened to Azhani’s ragged cries of, “Ylera, goddess, no, Ylera!” and had lain on her pallet, listening to the warrior sob brokenly.

She cries Ylera’s name like a lover, the stardancer realized sadly.

The anguish in Azhani’s grief moved Kyrian deeply and she rolled out of her bed and crawled over to the warrior’s side.

“Azhani?” she whispered, tentatively putting a hand on the woman’s arm. Azhani flinched, but did not immediately pull away.

“She’s gone,” the warrior whispered brokenly, covering her face with her hands. “She’s gone and it’s my fault. I killed her too, Kyrian. Just like I kill them all.”

Oh goddess… she killed Ylera… Astariu, please, give me strength… let me see this through… Kyrian prayed. As if in answer to her prayers, she remembered that she still hadn’t heard the whole story. She had to believe that somewhere, in that tale, would be the reason why Ylera Kelani had to die. For now, she wrapped her arms around Azhani and quietly held her, not even letting go when the warrior stiffened and tried to pull away.

“Shh,” the stardancer gentled, “You can’t hurt me.” She wasn’t sure why she had said those words, but they seemed to work, breaking through the warrior’s last barriers, allowing her to break down and sob. Kyrian held her, rocking her slowly until the lazy fingers of dawn tickled their way through the shuttered windows.
~Chapter Seven~
Days grew shorter and snow flurried lightly around the two women as they worked feverishly to restore the cottage. Azhani kept the pace hard and exhausting, assuring Kyrian that they worked so hard because the first true winter storm was right around the corner.

Working together, they first repaired the broken thatching on the roofs of the cabin and shed. Azhani would weave bundles of the thick grasses and Kyrian would climb up into the rafters and tie them down. Slowly, the warrior’s leg regained its strength, and every day, she used the crutch a little less. In the mornings, the women would exercise together, stretching tired muscles and staying limber.

Woven reed mats soon covered the floors and sturdy rope beds had replaced their hastily made pallets. All the rusted hinges and nails on the doors and shutters were stripped and exchanged for new and Arun now had a thick layer of hay in the converted shed.

A table and two chairs sat near the hearth and shelves were built into the walls of the storeroom, making food storage much easier. Brackets were nailed to the walls and small, slow burning oil lanterns installed. At night, instead of being dark and dank, the cottage now glowed cheerfully.

Azhani cut cords of wood and stacked them near the back door while Kyrian made heavy wool curtains, further insulating the home. Feeling inventive, the warrior designed a covered walkway between the house, shed and privy.

When it was finally done, she grinned and said, “Now, no more getting soaked while answering the call of the wild.”

Kyrian laughed, enjoying the unbound nature of Azhani’s spirit.

They could do nothing to shore up the upper floors – there had not been enough gold to cover the cost of the heavy timbers that it would take to restore the floor, so they had strung a rope across the stairs, closing it off for the winter. As they worked, they talked, speaking of the small things that made each of them who they were.

Kyrian told of her years in Y’len and as a traveling stardancer while Azhani spoke of battles she had fought in and of the men and women with whom she had served. Neither talked of Banner Lake or the events that occurred there.

Azhani’s nightmares returned several more times and each time, Kyrian held the warrior, humming soft, wordless lullabies until the warrior drifted back into sleep. Neither woman spoke of these moments, unable to find the words that could define what was happening. It was clear to Azhani that trying to push away the stardancer’s freely offered affection was an exercise in self-denial, and her will power was not that strong.

The warrior rebuilt the gate while the stardancer repaired breaks in the fence line. When the first heavy snows came, blanketing the forest in a thick white coat in less than a candlemark, Kyrian stood outside, just under the eaves and watched it fall in wonder.

To supplement the dried meats they had purchased in Barton, Azhani spent many early morning candlemarks by the stream, chopping holes in the ice and searching for fish. It was a clear morning after the first big snow and she had been lucky enough to catch several of the heavy, sweet trout that the stardancer adored.

Whistling a merry tune, she loped toward the cabin, enjoying the freedom of being able to walk unencumbered for the first time. Kyrian had pronounced her “fit as a hunting cat with all the attendant reflexes” and had told her to burn the crutch. As she rounded the path, she stopped to admire the snow-covered warmth of her home. Smoke curled up from the chimney, Arun’s head hung out the window in the shed and there was a crimson colored spot on the –

Splat! A handful of cold, wet snow smacked the warrior in the face and dribbled down the front of her sweater. Anger erupted, scorching through her veins like lava, and then she heard the bright, infectious laughter of her friend.

Kyrian was on the roof of the cottage, tying the last of the thatch patches in place. Near her right foot, a large chunk of snow was conspicuously missing from the drift blanketing the roof. Azhani’s eyes narrowed as she put down her fish and scooped up a large handful of snow. Gauging the distance, the warrior drew back her arm and aimed, then let the snowball loose and calmly watched as it caught the stardancer square in the backside, sending her sprawling into the slope of the roof.

“Oof!” Kyrian grabbed for a support brace and kept herself from falling through the rushes by the barest of inches. Her foot slipped though and for one, terrifying moment, she felt her body angling inward. This is going to hurt, she thought as she tried to get a stronger hold on the beam.

Azhani watched the stardancer struggle and felt her heart slam down to the ground. Now you’ve done it, you big idiot! You could have killed her! “Hang on, Kyrian!” she called out, running over to the ladder and flinging herself up, two rungs at a time.

Then she was on the roof and reaching for her friend, who was trying to push away from the beam, but her foot kept slipping on a patch of snow. Without pausing to think, Azhani grabbed hold of Kyrian’s belt with both hands, pulling the stardancer close and dropping away from the roof. Tucking the smaller woman’s body against hers, Azhani forced her body around, hitting the ground with a heavy thump.

When the warrior had grabbed her, Kyrian had frozen, but as she was pulled against a warm, strong body, she relaxed, going limp and allowing Azhani’s actions to dictate her movements. When the warrior’s body curled a certain way as they fell, Kyrian molded herself as close as possible to the warrior and closed her eyes, trusting that no harm would come to her.

Now on solid ground, the warrior released her friend, who laughed giddily. “That was fun. Can we do it again?” Kyrian asked impishly.

Azhani blinked several times rapidly, her mouth falling open in shock. “Again? I almost get you killed and you want to do it again?”

The stardancer laughed cheerily. “Oh come on, I wasn’t in any danger. I trust you. You wouldn’t hurt me.” Kyrian put her hands on her hips and looked up at the warrior. Azhani’s face was turning several different colors while her jaw worked soundlessly. Rolling her eyes, she turned away from Azhani, scooped up some snow then turned back and pelted the warrior.

Azhani spluttered as the cold, wet snow hit her in the face again. She looked at Kyrian, who slowly and precisely, stuck her tongue out at her. The warrior made a face and spit again then let a slow, wicked smile shape her lips. She wants to play, warrior, so play with her. A dark, persuasive thought percolated up, sparking the warrior to action.

Reaching for a handful of snow, Azhani leapt for the stardancer, grabbing her by the waist and bearing her down, rubbing the snow into Kyrian’s face with near vicious intent. Just as she was about to add more force to her hand though, she stopped, realizing that Kyrian had wormed icily cold fingers under her sweater and had started to twitch them. The light tickle felt strangely good. She could feel a laugh building inside of her and as much as she fought it, she wanted to let it go and just accept the playfulness of the woman beneath her.

Kyrian wiggled her fingers again, grinning maniacally as she felt the warrior flinch unconsciously. C’mon warrior, let it out. Relax, live a little, laugh, come on, she coaxed silently. Wrinkling her nose up in a goofy smile, she tickled Azhani again. It worked. A tiny chuckle escaped the warrior’s lips. Laughing, Kyrian wiggled her fingers.

Azhani couldn’t help it – a full-throated laugh ripped free, echoing across the yard. She grabbed for the stardancer’s squirming fingers but the young woman was quick and managed to get away, jumping up and easily dancing across the snow-covered ground. Giving a clear, “Come and get me” look, Kyrian grinned wickedly and then dashed away.

The warrior gave chase and soon, the two women were racing around the yard, pelting each other with snowballs and laughing merrily. They ended up collapsing in the storage shed on a pile of Arun’s hay, breathing heavily and still sharing muffled giggles whenever they looked at one another. Arun looked on, bemused by his mistresses, but willing to trust that one of them would remember to refill his oat bucket.

“Oh goddess, I haven’t played like that since I was a child,” Kyrian exclaimed, her voice cracking from exertion.

“Here.” Azhani unhitched a wineskin, took a quick swig and tossed it to the stardancer. “I can’t remember ever playing like that, Kyrian. Not even as a child.” The warrior took several long breaths and wondered if Ylera would have enjoyed the snow. She thought perhaps not. Her elven lover had found her delights in cleaner pursuits. Not that Azhani had minded the plays, or the candlemarks spent listening to some bard or another coax beautiful music from an array of instruments. She had even enjoyed the magic shows, though most of the illusions were tomfoolery and sleight of hand, rather than true magic.

Yet being here, with Kyrian, both of them liberally dusted with snow and dirt, lying in a pile of hay, was somehow just as right as dining by a moonlit lake, listening to the ethereal strains of elven harps.

“Ugh, I need a bath,” Kyrian muttered, wrinkling her nose as she caught a whiff of herself.

“If you start the fire, I’ll drag the tub into the storeroom,” Azhani offered softly.

“Done. And, I think tonight I’ll try to work through that bird’s nest you’re wearing – unless it’s some form of obscure warrior penance?” Kyrian teased mildly, pushing up from the ground and then offering a hand out to the warrior.

Azhani twisted her lips wryly and rolled her eyes. “If you consider this a penance, I’d hate to hear what you thought of my clothes when we first met.”

Kyrian blinked innocently. “Clothes? You mean that wasn’t sackcloth and ashes? I’m stunned.” I can’t believe we’re standing here, joking with each other after playing in the snow all day!

Azhani raised both of her dark eyebrows and then stuck her tongue out, mimicking the stardancer’s earlier gesture.

Kyrian’s eyes went wide and she shook her head slowly. “You have utterly amazed me, warrior. I think I like you.”

Clear blue eyes searched a dirt covered face briefly before the warrior softly replied, “I think I like you too, healer.”

“Are we friends now?” Kyrian offered her hand and was gratified when the warrior took it and clasped it gently.

“Yes, we are,” said Azhani, inclining her head in agreement. The warrior’s voice was soft and held a note of disbelieving amazement in it. Smiling brightly, Kyrian squeezed Azhani’s hand tightly, releasing it only when the warrior hesitantly returned the gesture.

Arun looked over at his people and whuffed lightly, reminding them that he had not yet been fed for the evening. Chuckling at the horse’s impatience, Kyrian poured some oats into his feed bucket. Taking it over to him, she gave his ears and mane a good scratch before leaving the shed to go begin heating water for their bath.
%%%
“Ouch,” Azhani griped softly as Kyrian tugged on another matt of hair.

“Oh hush. I can’t believe you let it get this bad, Azhani. This is worse than anything I’ve ever seen,” Kyrian said, carefully working the comb through the now tangle free section.

“Maybe I should just shave it all off and start over again,” she groused, sighing heavily and reaching for her mug of tea.

The warrior was seated on the floor in front of the fire while the stardancer sat on the edge of a bed behind her, patiently combing and braiding Azhani’s midnight black hair. Kyrian finished off another small braid and wound a bit of waxed cord around the end and then separated out another hunk of matted hair.

“We’re almost a quarter of the way through, Azhani. Don’t give up so fast. If we get tired tonight, we’ll work on it tomorrow, too.”

Azhani tilted her head to look up at her friend. “I just don’t want to take you away from something more important.”

Raising an eyebrow, Kyrian asked curiously, “What could be more important than making sure you don’t frighten Arun?”

“Funny, healer, very funny,” the warrior growled, tipping her head forward a bit so that Kyrian could get to a particularly nasty bit of snarling.

“So,” Kyrian asked after a while of silent combing, “who took care of your hair as a child? Or did you run around like a wild thing when you were young?”

Azhani looked up and stared at the fire in the hearth, thinking back to when her father had been alive and it had been his patient hands that had carefully combed out her snarls, gently brushing away her tears when the pulling became too much.

The warrior felt her eyes sting and she rubbed at her face to make the feeling go away. “My Dad helped for a while. Then I cut it all off when I went to Y’Syr to study with Master Delaye.”

A low, appreciative whistle ghosted past Azhani’s ear. “I once saw the Master give a performance in Y’len,” Kyrian said, her voice touched with awe. Master Delaye Kelani was one of Y’Syr’s finest swordsmen and only took the best and the brightest to teach the skill of sword mastery. He was a cousin to the royal family, though not part of the line of succession. Having the master as her teacher explained many things about Azhani’s style. “No wonder you’re so good.”

Accepting the stardancer’s honest praise, the warrior inclined her head and allowed the ghost of a smile to play about the corners of her mouth. She was good; Master Delaye would have expected no less of her. The question remained – was she good enough? I will see you bleed rivers, Arris, she promised herself silently.

Kyrian yawned and reached for her mug of tea, now grown cold. “So, will it get any colder now that the snow is well and truly flying? I don’t think I’ve seen it so thick before.”

“It will get colder, yes. That’s what all those furs are for,” Azhani murmured as Kyrian took up another chunk of hair. Feeling decadent as Kyrian’s fingers gently massaged her tender scalp, Azhani closed her eyes, sighing as the stardancer skillfully wove a hank of freshly combed hair into a delicate braid.

In Barton, Azhani had insisted upon buying two large fur blankets as well as several thick felt covers to go on their beds. Amazed by all of the heavy winter gear that the warrior had purchased, Kyrian had stood in momentary awe at the amount of fur and felt that Azhani loaded onto their cart.

“Okay, so, I guess I should get busy on the rest of those curtains, hmm?” teased Kyrian as she nodded toward a pile of heavy wool and canvas that had been another one of the warrior’s buys.

“Yes, actually, now that we’re finished with the roof, we can move on to making the inside a bit more comfortable. Arun’s shed should be fine, and if we notice any leaks, he can be moved into the storeroom. I also want to do some hunting for fresh meat – perhaps I can catch an older buck or a couple of pheasants.”

“Oo, yeah, I wouldn’t mind making some venison steaks instead of the usual stew, tomorrow,” Kyrian said dreamily, licking her lips thoughtfully. “Oh, and you should check by the river for some of that little purple flower I showed you – should either of us need it, the roots will make a good febrifuge.”

Setting the comb aside, Kyrian stood and stretched, squeaking in pleasure when the bones in her spine shifted and popped.

“You’re louder than a raw recruit on his first scouting mission,” Azhani commented wryly.

Kyrian chuckled and said,” I shouldn’t sit in one place for so long.” Walking to the hearth, she refilled her mug and added a healthy dollop of honey. Azhani lifted an eyebrow at the sweetener and the stardancer shrugged. “It’s not medicine, it doesn’t have to taste icky.”

Azhani laughed and stretched out her legs, gratified when the muscles only gave a mild protest at being pulled. Rising in one fluid motion, the warrior bounced on the balls of her feet, elated to feel some of her old flexibility return. She looked down at her leg and shook it, laughing joyously when the muscles didn’t wobble, but held steady.

“You know, I think it’s finally healed,” she sighed happily. “There’s hardly any pain. Just a bit of an ache is all I feel these days.”

After a few sips of tea, Kyrian set her cup down and nodded at the bed. “Sit down and let me take a look,” she said.

Smiling, Azhani sat on the bed and waited for the stardancer to grab a chair. Gently, she settled her leg in her friend’s lap, chuckling when light fingers tickled the back of her knee. Deftly, Kyrian lifted the leg to Azhani’s breeches, quickly scanning what she saw underneath.

Smooth, dark brown skin slightly marred by thin dark lines of scarring, and muscles that were slightly less developed than those of the left leg, were what she discovered. Laying her hand on the section of bone that had been damaged the worst, Kyrian began to chant the notes that would open her mind to her patient’s energy flows.

Slowly, the image of healthy tissue and bone filled her inner vision. A healthy, brilliantly yellow aura rimmed the warrior’s body. Empathically, the stardancer could sense the dark, harsh gray storms of emotion that haunted Azhani’s nightmares roiling beneath the surface. Sadly, Astariu’s Fire could only heal the hurts of the body. Time and love were the only curatives that could heal the hurts of the soul.

Pushing deeper into the image, Kyrian felt her own aura, the gentle, fuzzy blue energy that limned her entire body, merge with Azhani’s. It was like swimming in feathers, or flying through rain. Then, the sensation was gone, replaced by a clear picture of the stressed areas in the bones and muscle, showing that the warrior had pushed the newly healed tissues to their limits. The hurts were minor though, and would vanish by morning. The leg truly was healed.

A smile brightened Kyrian’s face as she opened her eyes and ran her fingers down Azhani’s leg lightly, singing the closing notes to a healing prayer. The tiny bit of extra energy would chase away the final bits of hurt, allowing the warrior to sleep well.

Looking up into sparkling blue eyes and a smile that caused her heart to stutter briefly, Kyrian licked her lips, whispering hoarsely, “All better now,” and patted Azhani’s leg gently.

“Thank you, healer. You honor me with your gift. May Astariu bless you,” Azhani said formally and then, shyly, added, “I really appreciate all your help, Kyrian. Not many would risk exile to help a traitor such as I.”

“I would be a poor representative of Astariu to not see the person you are, Azhani Rhu’len. Regardless of what the bards say, you are both honorable and trustworthy. Will you please tell me your side of the story? Grant me the gift of your tale and let me be the one to sift the strands of truth from the fabric of lies I have heard.” Kyrian stood and motioned for the warrior to move back to the floor so that she could continue brushing her hair.

Briefly touching the neat cluster of braids that brushed against her left shoulder, Azhani stared at her friend for a long moment. Finally, her hand fell away and she nodded. “You’ve got a gift for untangling things, healer. Perhaps you do deserve the tale.”

Kyrian settled onto the bed, sipping her tea slowly. It was late, and she was tired, but if Azhani were going to finally open up, then she would gladly lose a little sleep to hear the warrior’s story.

“I will tell you some of what I can, healer. It is not an easy tale to hear, and harder to tell,” Azhani finally decided, sitting down on the ground again.

“I will listen to whatever you’re willing to say,” promised Kyrian solemnly as she reached for a thick hank of tangled black hair.

“As all stories should, I start with the beginning, or, at least as much of a beginning as I have been able to piece together. “ Azhani closed her eyes and tipped her head forward, speaking softly, but clearly.

“Two winters ago, I returned to Y’dannyv after leading the Armies to victory over the spawning demons. That much is a part of our history. What has not been as popularized is the fact that the demons were harder than ever to drive back. We were decimated and yet, we prevailed.

Pleased by our victory, King Theodan soon turned his attention back to his first love – peace between Y’dan and Y’Syr. High King Ysradan visited, and the two friends talked long into the night, planning a legacy that would end the squabbling between our kingdoms once and for all.

By order of my king, I attended those discussions, but his son, Prince Arris, did not. Without breaking the confidences of kings, I can tell you that Ysradan’s and Theodan’s greatest wish was peace, both between our kingdoms and for the entirety of the Land. Y’mar has prospered so well under the hand of the High King that he wanted to spread that prosperity to all lands, bringing about an age the likes of which have not been seen on these shores since the Brothers first landed at Y’Syn all those years ago.

Another, deeper reason for peace was the demons. Rising from the bowels of Amyra’s crest, they would come down into the kingdoms and feed, and racial differences did not matter to their bellies. All were prey for the hunting. Our last tangle with the beasts had shown us that we could not stand alone against the monsters – our kingdoms had to be one united front. If we could manage that, perhaps then could we discover where the creatures originated.

My father had long been a visitor to Y’Syr’s towns and cities. Even Theodan had once visited the exotic delights of the elven city of trees, Y’Syria. I went to visit Queen Lyssera, and begged for peace. Lyssera Kelani has sat on the Oaken Throne for over three hundred years. Her wisdom is as great as her heart. Putting aside the centuries of death between our lands, she sent her sister, Ylera, to act as ambassador.

My king and The Ambassador liked each other immediately. Theodan knew Ylera’s half sister, Alynna, and he spoke of her with great affection. Writing the peace treaty did not take long, but getting the nobles on both sides of the border to agree to it, took many months. During that time, Theodan grew desperately ill.

Healers and stardancers came from around Y’myran, but none could track down the source of my king’s malady. Still, he went before the council each day and argued for peace. On the first day of autumn, he got what he had given his life to – the council ratified the treaty. In Y’Syr, Lyssera’s nobles did the same, and as sudden as that, the strife between our lands was over.

Of course, it was not that easy. Both Ylera and I traveled extensively, visiting the lords of our kingdoms to encourage them to meet and get to know one and other. While we were gone, Theodan grew even sicker, and I rushed home to Y’dannyv to be by his side as the goddess called him on. Before he died, he sent for me.

It was late, and I was engaged in,” here, Azhani’s shoulders tensed and she let out a heavy, pained sigh. “The ambassador and I were engaged in a romantic liaison, when Theodan’s page summoned me. That night, Theodan made me his heir, by writ and under the blessings of Starseeker Meryth Windwalker.”

Kyrian gasped, and drew breath to speak. Goddess… lovers… they were lovers! I have to tell her… I should tell her that Ylera was my friend… oh gods, I can’t… she’ll think I hate her…

“Meryth died in a hunting accident two days after I was made heir. With what has happened since then, I have come to suspect that there was nothing accidental about his death.” She drew in a shuddering breath and surreptitiously brushed away the tears that freely slid down her cheeks.

“Go on.” A warm hand was laid across Azhani’s bare neck. “I’m listening my friend,” Kyrian said softly. Whenever the warrior spoke of the elven ambassador, Kyrian’s heart ached over the pure anguish in Azhani’s words. There was no way that the relationship between Azhani and Ylera was as simple as a “liaison” as the warrior titled it. The love that Azhani felt for Ylera glowed like the sun in every breath the warrior took.

Ylera, my friend, I am so glad you knew this woman. Thank Astariu that you had this love, Kyrian thought, sparing a thought for the woman who had always dreamed of finding love that looked beyond the surface.

Kyrian’s simple declaration of friendship caused fresh tears to well in Azhani’s eyes. Not since Theodan’s last night, when he had held her hand and looked from this world to the next had anyone used those words to describe her.

Drawing in a shuddering breath, Azhani continued. “After Theodan died, I approached the council with the burden of inheritance that had been forced on me. I trusted them to understand and support me, but they did not. Prince Arris, who I had always seen as a rather weak-minded boy, sprouted poisonous fangs.

Somehow, even before his father’s death, he gained the trust of the council and when I came, protesting my claim, he used that trust against me. I-I had gone to visit the lake, to say good-bye to Theodan one last time and while I was gone, Arris had Ylera arrested.” Azhani turned and buried her face into Kyrian’s thigh, sobbing horribly.

The stardancer slid down the edge of the bed and onto the floor, drawing her friend close, rocking her and comforting her.

In between sobs, Azhani said, “She was tortured, oh goddess, Kyrian… what he did to her… I will never in my life forget what he did…” Her lover’s beautiful face… bloodied beyond recognition swam in her vision.

“You loved her,” Kyrian whispered gently. “And she loved you, remember that Azhani. Remember that she died loving you.”

Ylera, you better have loved her back, or I’m going to come to the havens and tickle you silly… Relieved that Azhani had not killed her friend, Kyrian allowed the anger and shock she had felt when she first heard of Ylera’s death to wash over her once more. Originally, she had thought that the princess was one of Azhani’s accusers and to learn differently… well, now she too wanted Arris’ blood. I’m with you now, Azhani. I’m with you until the end of this, and we’ll send Arris to hell together.

Light had begun to peek in through the shuttered windows before Azhani spoke again. “He tortured her and forced her to sign a confession that she and I had been working in secret to overthrow the throne of Y’dan,” Azhani said in a voice devoid of emotion. Abruptly, she pulled away from her friend’s embrace. Knowing that Azhani needed to gather her emotional armor before relating the rest of the tale, Kyrian quietly let her go.

The stardancer stood and began stirring the fire. When a good blaze was going, she wandered over to their stores of food and removed some things, bringing back a bowl full of items to mix while she listened to the warrior speak.

“The story is pretty much what the bards say, after that. I was arrested and confined to the dungeons.” She left out the part where Arris came to gloat, and how she spent the night sobbing over the body of her lover. “On the morning of his coronation, I asked for and was granted the Rite of the Gauntlet, thinking that maybe those that had served with me would see through the king’s lies and support me. Arris was more clever than I gave him credit for, though. After sending my men away, he filled the ranks with new recruits. Men and women who had never eaten or bled with me stood on the field that day, waiting to watch me die. To them, I was nothing more than the painted hero from some ale-soaked glory hound’s ramblings.”

Bleakly, Azhani lifted her head and looked into Kyrian’s face, which was screwed up in concentration as she slowly mixed the ingredients for Azhani’s favorite breakfast.

“It was a slaughter. I lost count after twenty,” her head fell again and a tiny fragment of a sob bubbled out. “I just wanted to get away, to come home, here, where I could be safe and think and…”

In Barton, Azhani had finally heard the toll her defiance of Arris had cost. One hundred and six men and women had fallen beneath her blades, dead or maimed beyond repair. If Kyrian had not been with her, if the warrior had not felt as though she owed a debt of gratitude to the stardancer, she would have opened a vein, giving her life to the goddess, rather than live with that stain of disgrace on her soul one minute longer.

However, Azhani’s honor would never allow her to waste the precious gift that Kyrian had given her. So, now, she would use that gift to exact the cost of those lives from those who had driven her to take them. Arris, and whoever else stood in her way, would fall.

Kyrian looked up from her mixing and shivered at the coldness in Azhani’s demeanor. The warrior had changed again – yet another facet surfacing as her body healed and her mind began to think beyond surviving another day.

“You are safe now,” the stardancer said slowly, getting up to make breakfast. Hanging the pot over the fire, she knelt to stir the cereal slowly, mixing the honey and jelly in with the oats and grains. “And your story makes a whole lot more sense than those I heard from ‘official’ sources, given what I already know of your deeds, Azhani. So, what are you going to do, Warleader?” She turned and fastened dark green eyes on the warrior, pitching her voice sharply and just loud enough to hit Azhani like a verbal slap.

“Do?” Azhani repeated dumbly. “I-“ Did she want to trust the stardancer? Lay out her plans for revenge like so many counters on the war table? No. She could not afford to trust anyone, no matter how innocuous they seemed. “I’m going to go to Y’Syr, and offer my services there. If they don’t want me, I will travel to Y’mar. High King Ysradan knows me and perhaps he will allow me to serve him.”

“But not until winter ends,” Kyrian said, flashing a smile at the warrior. “I will go with you to Y’Syr, to Y’mar, or where ever your quest takes you, I will be at your side.”

“No, I can’t let you do that, Kyrian,” Azhani said in a deathly calm voice. “I can’t let you tie your life to mine like that.”

“Whether you will or you won’t, makes no difference, Azhani. Arris is evil, and he must be stopped. I cannot be a servant to the goddess and stand by while he poisons everything around him. Beyond that, my oath of friendship would be meaningless if I let you stand alone against him. You will never face the storm alone again – not while I am here.” Kyrian banged the spoon against the pot resoundingly, causing Azhani to jump. “So you can take your noble self-sacrificing self and go jump in the snow!”

Absolutely dumbfounded at the fury and furor in her friend’s attitude, Azhani could only stare, mouth hanging open as Kyrian dished up their breakfast.

“Here, stick something in that mouth before a fly decides it looks like a good cave,” Kyrian said, handing her a bowl of the thick, sweet cereal.

“I… but… Damn it Kyrian, am I ever going to win an argument with you?” Azhani finally sputtered out.

Grinning hugely, the stardancer said, “Sure. You will always win the argument that says it’s your turn to clean out the shed. I’ll be glad to let you win then. Otherwise… you’ve got your work cut out for you, warrior.”

Shaking her head, “Oh no you don’t, healer, you aren’t getting out of your chores this time. It’s your turn to muck out the shed. I did it yesterday. As for coming with me…” She closed her eyes and sighed. “I wouldn’t have it any other way. I need you, Kyrian. You’re the only friend I’ve got.”

“Well, I’m not going anywhere, warrior, so don’t you worry. I’ll be right here, always,” Kyrian promised.

After eating their breakfast, they decided to get some sleep and then do their chores. Crawling into their beds, they reached out and joined hands, falling asleep with their fingers loosely laced together.
~Chapter Eight~
Arris Theodan, King of Y’dan, was throwing a temper tantrum.

“But I don’t want to bed that ghost-faced witch Elisira, Thyro… I want Azhani!” he shouted petulantly, throwing his mug across the room and smiling in wicked satisfaction as the scholar ducked to avoid being hit. The clay cup shattered as it hit the hearth, sending shards flying in every direction.

“Your majesty, the Lady Elisira is a truly beautiful woman, and she is very well known for her ability to make men… happy,” Porthyros Omal, Arris’ long time friend and companion, said calmly. He scurried to retrieve a new mug from a cupboard and filled it with more of the king’s tea. The lady was no light skirt, but it wouldn’t hurt to appeal to the boy’s sexual appetites. In the months since gaining the throne, Arris had not been lax about spreading his “favors” among those who would have him, and none denied him. None but one, and that one, that hated, awful one, was long since gone. Hopefully the bitch had fattened the wolves. Stirring the tea, the scholar surreptitiously added a special ingredient, one that would make Arris much more tractable.

“She is?” Immediately he was interested. “Has she… been with another man?” he asked indelicately.

“No, my lord, but I have it on good authority that she is yours for the asking.” Oh yes, Councilor Glinholt had all but thrown his daughter at him when he gently inquired as to her availability. The foolish man saw nothing but the power that having his daughter in the king’s bed would bring him, and Porthyros used that to his advantage.

“Well then, perhaps the lady isn’t so distasteful after all. It is so hard to find someone who truly understands what I want,” Arris said as he accepted his mug of tea. “Thank you, good Thyro, for once again teaching me the error of my ways.”

“Anytime, your majesty. I am yours to command,” the scholar said, his watery blue eyes shining zealously.
%%%
“Good evening, Porthyros. How goes our little project?” the resonantly deep voice asked.

Porthyros Omal, a small, undistinguished human of middling height and weight, and thinning sandy blond hair, knelt before an ornately carved chair and shuddered delicately. Above him, the man seated in the chair was messily enjoying a dish of bloody, uncooked chicken hearts.

“It goes well, My Lord Kesryn. As you ordered, the Hated One is now friendless and maimed. She will trouble you no more.” Bowing his head deeply, the scholar waited for his master’s reply.

Lord Kesryn Oswyne, dealer in antiquities and rare gems, smiled. The scholar had been a wonderful find. Lord Kesryn Oswyne was an upright man and true pillar of the community, but before he had worn the rich robes and chains of a successful merchant, he had been something else.

Once, he had worn the name of another, and then, he had been a man of the Cabal, an assassin paid by others to steal the lives of their enemies. Kesryn Oswyne had worn other names and other faces, but it was in his guise as Keskyn Nightblade that he had met the toadying little man kneeling before him. He must remember to send a token of his appreciation to the jailor in Y’Tol, thanking him for incarcerating the two men together.

Porthyros Omal had been easy to bend to his will. Bright, but lazy, the plain-faced man had only one goal – to be filthy rich. By preying on this desire, Kesryn had encouraged the man to seek status as a scholar of Astarus. When King Theodan had sent word to the library in Y’mar that he required a tutor for his eight-year-old son, Kesryn acted.

Using his newly developed guise of the Lord Kesryn Oswyne, he convinced the college of academicians to send his candidate, the highly trained Porthyros Omal. The college was grateful to do his bidding, especially after he donated a large sum of gold to their coffers.

Giving the man special instructions, Kesryn paid his scholar with the first of what would become many bags of gold. Porthyros gladly traveled to Y’dan and took up residence in the castle, adapting to the life of nobility with ease.

As soon as he had Arris’ trust, he began instructing him, not just in the lessons that his father, King Theodan, expected, but in other, less savory subjects. As an added insurance of the prince’s cooperation, he began drugging him with krill, a powerful narcotic that was highly addictive. Soon, Arris grew to love his new mentor, and without realizing it, he relied on the man for his nightly cup of “sleeping tea”.

Now that he was king, Arris kept Porthyros close to his side, relying on the amazing network of “spies” that the scholar had built up over the years. Though no such spies existed, Porthyros and Kesryn had worked hard to make it appear so. It was their plans that brought Arris to the granite throne.

“Excellent, my servant. And how is my favorite Kinglet?” The merchant stroked the gemstone tattoo that was the mark of his rank within the merchant’s guild. Scooping up another bite of his favorite snack, he gazed down at the kneeling man, considering whether to reward the sniveling bastard with gold or pain. It had taken Porthyros quite a bit of time to convince the spoiled Arris to give up his dreams of bedding that bitch, Azhani Rhu’len, and Kesryn was displeased.

“Arris is well, my lord. He flourishes and has all but forgotten his affection for the Hated One. His eye, does, as you ordered, turn to the Lady Elisira Glinholt,” Porthyros declared happily.

“Excellent. And the council, how are my favorite group of bickering old men and women?” he asked, taking a sip of a rich Y’Tolan wine.

“As you have commanded, Valdyss Cathemon no longer holds the left chair. His access to the king has been cut off. The honor to sit at the king’s side now rests with Councilor Glinholt. Arris was pleased by the councilor’s initiative in calling his daughter, Elisira, to Y’dannyv. Because Valdyss’ only daughter is still in swaddling, he cannot offer the same price for Arris’ attention,” Porthyros reported, when his master smiled encouragingly.

The lord laughed wickedly. “Poor, pathetic Cathe. Nothing he does now will succeed in ripping away what is mine!” Lord Oswyne and Lord Cathemon were in a deep battle over mining rights. A tiny coal mine in Y’oro suddenly began producing diamonds, right after Cathemon had sold the property to Kesryn. Since he had paid far less than it was now worth, the councilor had tried to use his position with Theodan to have the sale declared invalid. That would not happen now that he no longer held the place as favored advisor.

Nodding happily, he tossed the pouch of gold at the groveling man’s side. “Excellent my servant. I am pleased with your work. You may go.” Waving his hand, he dismissed the scholar, savoring his triumph.

When Porthyros left, Kesryn rose from his chair and paced the room, staring at the luxuriant finery that he had surrounded himself with over the years. Treasures of Y’myran glittered in every corner. He fingered a tapestry woven by the desert nomads and smiled, recalling the long journey that had brought him so much prestige and honor when he was just a young man. The smile turned vicious as the memories hazed over with blood. The small band of nomads had thought to stop him. His gaze went to the corner, where he could still see the rust red stains where the last man had fallen, clutching at his throat feebly.

Those days were long past, though. When he spilled blood now, it was for a purpose. A dark, evil grin spread across his saturnine face. His Master had shown him the true way. Blood was power and as Kesryn well knew, power was everything.

“You thought you had destroyed me, Rhu’len DaCoure, but you freed me instead,” he whispered, turning to grasp a broken piece of a sword blade. Dried blood still decorated the shard and Kesryn could almost taste the pain that had accompanied the strike that had shattered the blade.

It was nearing time – time to begin the rites that would bring him and his Master, the dreams of the ages. For him, he would have the mantle of Cabal Master, taking it from the wizened ancient who styled himself the, “Old Man”. Then he would be the one to control the secrets of the kingdoms; he would decide who lived and who died.

For his master – the reward would be freedom. The freedom to take whatever he wanted, the Twins be damned. Cold, black eyes narrowed as delightful visions of the future danced in his mind.

One glaring problem jumped out and, as a memory of Y’dan’s former warleader inserted itself into his dreams, Kesryn growled, “All I have to do is make sure Azhani Rhu’len is no longer a threat.”
%%%
A cool breeze from Banner Lake chilled the lakeside city of Y’dannyv, forcing the castle woodsmen to work harder to provide enough logs for the king’s fires. Arris Theodan, lord of the realm and master of all he surveyed, leisurely strolled up the blood red carpet that led to the Granite Throne.

“Good morning, Your Highness.” Lady Elisira Glinholt smiled vapidly as King Arris took his place on his throne. He smiled over at her, causing the dark haired girl to blush daintily. Fleetingly, his gaze drifted downward, greedily surveying the creamy white skin exposed by her décolletage.

“Morning, my lady.” He inclined his head politely and then turned to face her father, the Lord High Councilor Derkus Glinholt; his chief advisor. “Ahh, Councilor, a good morning to you, my lord. Tell me, what wonderful news have you to share with me today?”

Behind the throne, Porthyros Omal sat and listened avidly. The king had asked him to keep a low profile, using his well-developed hearing to collect the whispers of the couriers.

Today’s gossip included the rumors of four different cases of adultery, two of suspected graft and one wonderfully shocking tale of murder. None of the speakers or their subjects had anything to do with his master’s objectives, so he quickly forgot them, concentrating on the Lady Elisira and her maidservants.

Strangely, the lady had yet to react to her newly exalted place as Arris’ favorite, but Porthyros had high hopes that she would get over her skittishness soon. The lady’s servants were all agog, however, and quite willing to take his casual references to the king’s attributes.

Smiling nastily, he caught the attention of one of the cow’s flightier maidservants. One day, Elisira would thank him for this, he was certain of it. He would make a queen of her.

The girl flounced up, bending down low so that he could whisper in her ear. She nodded excitedly, easily manipulated by the scholar’s pretty blandishments. When he was finished, she nearly ran back to her mistress, eager to impart the latest gossip about Arris’ supposed affections.

It had been too easy to plant little rumors here and there about the young king’s desire to find a wife. Coupled with the well-known fact of Arris’ preference for dark haired women, and a few words of encouragement from Porthyros, and the Lady Elisira went from being the court wallflower to the center of everyone’s attention.

Now, if only the girl would cooperate and bed the king.

“Of course I’m ready to greet my royal cousin from Y’Nor! Please, show him in!” Arris declared loudly.

Porthyros sneered in distaste. Y’Noran herdsmen stunk worse than a cesspool at high noon in summer. Thank God it was winter! The diminutive man peered around Arris’ throne to watch the self-styled “King” of Y’Nor enter.

Padreg Keelan was a huge bear of a man, with long, braided hair that was the dark brown of rich earth and agate green eyes. His face, like all of his countrymen, was clean-shaven and tanned by long days spent under the sun. The Y’Noran’s clothing was typical of the region – finely cut and tailored leathers that clung to the man’s huge body like a second skin. Each piece was dyed a different shade of green and brown so that when he moved, he appeared to resemble grass waving in the wind. Fantastic designs picked out in careful embroidery rimmed the neck and cuffs of his tunic.

“Hail to thee, King Arris of Y’dan,” the tall man boomed out, his thickly accented voice sounding strangely musical to the ears of the Y’dani courtiers.

“And hail to thee, my Cousin, King Padreg of Y’Nor.” Arris returned the greeting just as heartily, rising from his throne and waiting for the man to draw even with him.

Padreg inclined his head to honor Arris and then the two men clasped arms. “I have brought you a gift, my Cousin. Come, you shall see what it means to be Chief of all the Y’Noran clans!”

Puzzled, but intrigued, Arris glibly followed the herdsman out of the main hall and into the courtyard. Porthyros scurried to follow his king, eager to see what riches the Y’Noran had added to the coffers. Standing on the cobbles, caparisoned in the finest tack, was a beautiful stallion. A black mane and tail highlighted the ochre red of his coat and he was unusually marked by a white star that his forelock just barely covered.

Arris’ jaw dropped. “Cousin! This is a horse truly fit for a king!” Inside, he seethed, for if this horse was the one that Padreg offered, then surely, the Y’noran king’s own mount would be even more spectacular. The young man decided right then that he would have Thyro keep a close eye on the visiting king. Perhaps he too, would fall under the laws of Y’dan, and then Arris could claim the man’s mount for his own.

“He’s a handsome lad, isn’t he?” Padreg crowed, patting the horse’s flank lovingly. “Come, saddle up, Cousin. Let us wander your fine countryside.”

Lord High Councilor Glinholt, who had accompanied his king to the courtyard, clapped his hands imperiously, and quickly, a unit of guards rushed off to the stables. In minutes, the two kings were mounted.

I was right. His mount is far finer! Arris thought jealously as he surreptitiously stole glances at Padreg’s horse, a butternut yellow mare with a pale beige mane and tail. She had a sweet gait that kept her positioned right next to Arris’ new stallion, who he had privately decided to call Tyr.

Joining them were the scholar Porthyros and Councilor Glinholt’s daughter, Elisira. The horses gamely trotted through the wooded area that bordered Y’dannyv, and Padreg seemed to delight in examining the icicle covered trees and the piles of snow that bordered the roadside.

Guardsmen fanned out on either side of the noble party, creating a protective barrier between the king and whatever dangers lurked in the tame forest. Porthyros rode toward the back of the group, cocking his head and listening to the scuttling of the small woodland creatures whose rest had been disturbed.

The sky was clear today, lacking the heavy gray clouds that had unleashed several inches of snow on the countryside for the last week. Out in the harbor, the scholar could see the Y’Noran king’s ships with their gray and black pennants snapping gaily in the breeze.

There was a harsh chill in the air that felt startling against the skins of the nobles, who were not used to being in the open. However, the Y’Noran seemed to be quite at ease, laughing and pointing at a startled jackrabbit loping down the road.

The Lady Elisira kept the scholar entertained with brainless comments about the countryside, their beloved king and the obnoxiously loud visiting monarch. Porthyros looked to their escort and shared a secret smile with the pretty young woman shadowing his horse. Elisira continued to prattle on while his mind provided the intoxicating memory of his previous evening.

“I’ve not seen so many trees as you share with fair Y’Syr,” Padreg said excitedly, gesturing to the massive oaks they rode under. “It is a marvel of the Twins’ creation, is it not?”

Arris smiled tightly. “It is,” he agreed. Theology was not one of the king’s stronger subjects. His eyes flicked around to his escort, landing on the Lady Elisira. “Ah, my lady, it is good of you to join us, but the cold has chafed you. Perhaps we should be returning to warm halls and fine mead?”

Elisira tittered vapidly. “Oh Your Highness, only if you wish,” she demurred, blushing and batting her eyelashes coyly.

Arris preened, enjoying the fawning prattle. He would enjoy bedding her – she entertained him.

Lady Elisira Glinholt looked around the drab woods and sighed. It was cold, her butt was sore and the bottom of her right foot itched badly. She wondered if she could get away with kicking Porthyros, who had attached himself to her like a leech. The sandy-haired scholar’s watery blue gaze had always made her shiver. It was as though he had decided that she was a particularly tasty looking dessert. Now that Arris was king, the scholar was insufferable, finding every excuse to insinuate himself into her life.

However, her dear, dear father held the intellectual in great regard and so kicking him in a fit of pique would not do. She considered kicking the king, but she dismissed that thought almost as soon as it came, not wishing to end up being the entertainment of the afternoon court. Elisira wished that Azhani was still here. The bright warleader and her beautiful lover, Ylera Kelani had at least kept life from being duller than a soldier’s boots around the castle.

Unfortunately, Azhani was now exiled, declared an Oathbreaker and forbidden from entering the kingdom again, and Ylera, the beautiful elven ambassador, was dead. The official word, of course, was that Azhani had slain the ambassador when she had revealed the warleader’s plot to overthrow Arris’ throne, but Elisira knew better. She knew the evil that lurked in the heart of Y’dan’s king, and it chilled her to the bone.

A tiny sigh escaped her lips as she rubbed her icy cheeks. The one rather nice side benefit to parading along in this little charade of a “pleasure ride” was that she got to spend time with that most intriguing man from Y’Nor. Elisira was no fool – she knew that maybe a total of six people within Y’dannyv recognized her true personality, and fortunately, they were all good friends, sworn to keeping her secret. Only one other knew of her intense dislike for her family and the masks she had to wear every day to survive, and that person was long gone, possibly even dead.

My friend, I pray to Astariu for your safety. May whatever road you travel be smooth and clear. Elisira spared a prayer for Azhani’s safety and then added one of her own. And may I soon follow that road! Sweet goddess, what I wouldn’t give for a man such as Padreg and to be swept off my feet! His eyes… so intelligent… I bet he would love talking about the patterns of the stars and arguing the reasons behind the Twins’ teachings.

She studied the plainsman covertly and sighed, turning her gaze toward Y’dannyv. I hate this city, I hate this kingdom and I most assuredly hate that man! Clear blue eyes slid sideways to glare briefly at the scholar, who was nattering about the virtues of a certain plant that only grew in the region around Y’dannyv.

Clanleader Padreg, the otherwise titled King of Y’Nor, listened to the weasel-faced man with half an ear. His true interest lay in the direction of the sweet-faced young woman who had chosen to forsake the warmth of the castle for the chill of the winter’s day.

Tall, well featured, with a strong face and body, she acted as though she was nothing more than a piece of baggage, but Padreg was a horseman, and he knew another excellent rider when he saw one. Lady Elisira Glinholt sat a horse like a woman born and bred to the plains, and that intrigued him. For a delicate flower of Arris’ court, the lady had the strength to easily control a rather nervous dapple-gray stallion. He was surprised, intrigued and spurred to investigate the lady further.

Padreg Keelan enjoyed a good puzzle, and if it included the covert inspection of a beautiful woman, well then, who was he to refuse Astarus’ gift? He looked over at the lady in question and was pleasantly surprised to see her glance his way. Their eyes met for a bare instant, but in that breath, Padreg felt his heart expand to fill his chest. Wind on the plains! She’s the one!

The Y’Noran’s thought vanished as soon as it came, but the feeling stayed with him, confusing him with its astonishing intensity. Ancient shamans, wise in the ways of the animal totems that guided his people, often spoke of korethku, the soul’s perfect mate, but he had never given credence to the tales before. Glancing again toward the lady, and feeling the way his lungs fought to breathe, he began to believe.

Lady Elisira flashed a brief smile at Padreg and then turned her eyes forward. Her heart was pounding and her breath came in slight gasps, as though she had just spent the morning trying to break every practice pell in the guardsmen’s barracks. It was very odd and she wasn’t quite ready to look again into Padreg’s eyes. It was far too easy to see forever written in the solid green depths.

King Arris was totally ignorant of the goings on around him, having spent the last several minutes planning out exactly how he would seduce and ravish Elisira, claiming her maidenhood for his own. He didn’t really wish to marry the useless cow, but it would be high sport to spoil her for anyone but the oldest codger’s pleasure.

The group had finished their circuit and was returning to the front gates of Castle Y’dan when both Padreg and Arris spoke at once.

“My lady Elisira –“ Arris turned and crooned smoothly.

“My lady –“ Padreg boomed.

Elisira didn’t know whether to laugh or be annoyed. She focused on each man in turn and waited.

“Please, my Cousin, you are the visitor, you should go first,” Arris said through clenched teeth, his voice betraying no hint of his annoyance.

“Nay, Cousin, it is you who should take precedence, as this is your home,” Padreg countered just as smoothly.

Ah, so the bumpkin understands courtly politics better than we had assumed, Porthyros thought as he watched the two men silently duel over which would speak to the lady first. His bet was on Arris, who never let things like propriety and social niceties stand in the way of what he wanted, and the teacher, who had known Arris for a long time, recognized the look of acquisitive glee that had washed over the young king’s face as he stole looks at the daughter of his favorite advisor.

Excellent. Porthyros’ smile of satisfaction trickled across his thin lips. Master will be so pleased. The smile grew as he envisioned many more of the small bags filled with gold joining the one he had received just a few days prior to the Y’Noran king’s arrival.

“My lady, would you do me the kind pleasure of joining me for lunch?” Arris leaned toward the young woman, who was fluttering her eyelashes appealingly. She’s mine, he thought, in triumph.

“Oh, Your Highness! I should be so very honored to sup with you! Of course, I will join you.” She turned and flashed a sweet smile at the visiting monarch. “Will our friend from the East be joining us? I should think that he would be delighted to partake of your excellent chef’s midday cuisine.” Corner me alone in a room with you? Not hardly, King Loose-breeches! The servant girls do talk to me, you know!

Arris barely kept himself from snarling. Invite that oafish churl to eat with me? The king felt his ears redden with impatience. This was not the way he had envisioned it. He would tender the most generous offer and Elisira, of course pleased at his attention, would nearly swoon at the honor of dining with her handsome king.

“My lady, I’m certain that King Padreg has matters of his own that he must attend to,” Porthyros interrupted smoothly, drawing even with Arris’ mount to forestall the youth from making any grievous mistakes.

Padreg, who was about to answer the veiled invitation, closed his mouth and sighed. “Aye, Master Porthyros, you remind me of my duties. You are truly a dedicated scholar and manservant. I’ve an instructor at home who would like you, I think.” He looked at the stable boy who had rushed up to assist him as he dismounted. “Go easy on her lad, she’s taken a stone, I reckon.”

The burly man knelt by his mare’s front leg and coaxed her to lift it, poking at the shoe with the tip of a small knife. “As I thought. She’s packed tight.” He rose and stroked his horse’s nose. The beautiful mare gently lipped his fingers, causing the man to laugh. “I’m sure they have some carrots for you, you big baby!” He gave her one last pat and watched as the boy carefully led her away to the stable.

Turning to face Arris and Elisira, he said, “My lord, my lady, I would gladly join you for supper, but my duty to my people calls me away. It is my hope that I will be able to join you for the evening meal instead. The gods be with you.” He gave a little bow and jogged off in the direction of the stables.

Arris’ face twisted into a facsimile of a pleasant grin. “My lady, would you allow me?” He leapt nimbly from his horse and ambled over to her, holding up his hand solicitously.

Elisira’s clear blue eyes watched Padreg briefly as he vanished into the stables then flicked to Arris’ waiting hand. Sighing softly, she allowed her king to assist her and then tucked her arm into his.

“I believe I should be truly honored to dine with you, Your Highness,” she murmured blandly as Arris’ grip tightened around her arm.
%%%
The garden was silent, stripped bare of its usual brilliance by winter’s chill. Elisira was still drawn to its sheltered spaces though, for it lay within the center of Y’dannoch castle and was the one place where no one would expect her to be.

Dressed warmly in a heavy fur cloak, the young noblewoman sat, picking leaves from the cool marble surface of the empty fountain. King Arris’ efforts at bedding her had not ceased and she had spent nearly every night for the past week avoiding his thinly veiled hints.

The time would come when his hints would be commands, and Elisira knew her father well enough to know that he would not deny his king what he wanted, even if the object desired was his only daughter. She sighed unhappily. Why couldn’t Arris be more like Padreg? Then she would have no trouble at all opening her heart to him.

Padreg Keelan, chief of the clans of Y’Nor… he was a man worth loving. Was there ever a time when she did not long to laugh at his wryly-clever jokes? Did there ever dawn a day when she did not seek his gentle company?

That was why she was here, now, in the empty garden. He was to meet her, to share a picnic lunch away from the prying eyes of the court and its gossips. Elisira sighed, damning the loose-lipped bunch of toadies to the lowest of hells. They had noticed Padreg’s eyes following her, and had not been silent about it.

Oh, the talking to she had received from her father, warning her about the dangers of barbarians! Elisira snorted in disgust. The barbarian in this castle wore a crown all right, but it was not one made of braided leather.

The slight clunk of a closing door made her look up and peer across the garden. Stepping out of the shadows, cloaked in a heavy leather tunic, was Padreg. He carried a basket and a thick, beautifully patterned blanket, and as he approached Elisira, his gaze roamed the garden, seeking hidden ears.

“Good day to you, my lady,” he called out softly as he took long strides to reach her.

“And to you, my lord,” Elisira replied, smiling brightly.

She rose and went to him, brushing a light kiss across his clean-shaven cheek. Yet another reason to like this man, she thought, lingering a bit longer than was proper. He shaves. Arris, like his father before him, had taken to wearing a beard, thinking it made him look manly. Elisira thought it made him look unkempt.

Padreg joyfully accepted Elisira’s embrace and then spread out the blanket, covering the cold marble bench she had been seated on.

“I hope you are hungry, my lady, for the bounty of your city is endless!” he said, opening the basket and removing covered dishes.

Quietly, they ate. Afterward, they put their heads together and spent the rest of their time arguing over the duty of a noble to his people.
~Chapter Nine~
Standing before the visiting monarch of Y’Nor, Lord High Councilor Derkus Glinholt tried to maintain a careful inflection of respect in his voice. “You wished to speak to me, your highness?” The nasal, high-pitched sound barely broke the silence of Padreg’s chambers.

The bear-like man took in the features of the man who had given life to the woman who had haunted his thoughts for nearly two weeks. The Y’Noran’s pale green eyes flicked from dull gray eyes to thinning pepper and salt hair. Derkus might have once been a decent looking sort, but rich living had added much girth and many lines to a face and body not designed for the stresses of ruling a kingdom.

“My Lord, I have an,” Padreg inhaled sharply then let out the breath and finished softly, “offer I would like you to consider.”

Derkus’ eyes shot around the room, seeking out the tiny spy holes he knew were carefully drilled into the walls of the guest quarters. Was it his imagination, or did he spot a pair of eyes peering at him from the tiny spot next to that torch rack, over there, near the tapestry of Ysradaran the Founder? The councilor felt a trickle of fear chase up his back and he had to forcibly restrain himself, to keep from rushing from the Y’Noran king’s quarters in abject fear.

Lord High Councilor Glinholt was a bought and paid for man. His life belonged, body and soul, to King Arris Theodan. For this man, this barbarian who called himself a king, to be propositioning him for any reason… well, it was surely something that would lead to trouble.

“I, well, all right, go ahead,” Derkus babbled, deciding that he would hear the man out then rush off to King Arris’ chambers and spill his guts. Or maybe he would wait until morning, since he knew that his daughter, the troublesome wench Elisira, was again sharing an evening with his king. The councilor nearly smiled at that. If luck and fate were with him, and he had been assured of this many times by that weasely little scholar, Porthyros, then the product of this night’s dalliance between his daughter and the king would be a royal wedding. Besides, hadn’t his wife always said that Eli would marry a king?

“A drink, M’lord? Perhaps a bit of this wonderful Y’Tolan wine?” Padreg nodded to a shadowy corner and one of his servants silently appeared, lifting the ewer of dark purple wine and pouring two glasses.

A chair was brought for the councilor and the two men drank in silence for a few heartbeats while King Padreg collected his thoughts.

“Your daughter is a beautiful woman,” the Y’Noran king finally said, setting his goblet aside.

Derkus’ eyebrows rose. My daughter? What does she have to do with anything? Aren’t we supposed to be talking about how close I am to the king? “I like to think she takes after her mother,” the councilor said calmly, injecting a curious tone to his statement.

Padreg nodded sagely. “She must be a great beauty, then.” A frown briefly darkened the Y’Noran’s brow and then he shrugged. “I am a simple man, Councilor Glinholt, and I am not used to politicking and bush beating. Forgive my plain speech, my lord, for my heart demands that I act quickly. I am prepared to offer a large dowry in exchange for the hand of your daughter, Elisira, in marriage.”

Derkus gasped, his brain going into overdrive. This was not supposed to happen! Elisira was supposed to catch the eye of Arris, not Padreg! This was a disaster! “Your Highness,” the councilor spluttered, taking a large draught of his wine. “I am, of course, honored, but-“

“But of course you must speak to your daughter and discover whether she would be amenable to my courtship?” Padreg guessed shrewdly. Inside, the tall king was trembling. He had never felt such a desire for any person or thing; it was as if his very soul burned to be near her. The thought of being turned down, of being told that he must spend the rest of his life yearning for the spark that ignited his soul was too much to bear. He was a man deep in the grip of korethka for sure. Open, green eyes fixed on Councilor Derkus. “Please speak to her about my request, my lord. That will be all.”

Derkus fled the room. He needed to find Porthyros and speak with him immediately.
%%%
“You flatter me shamelessly, Your Highness,” Elisira murmured, looking up at King Arris through fluttering eyelashes.

The king and the lady were comfortably ensconced in the king’s sitting room, sharing a tray of finger foods and a bottle of chilled Y’Tolan wine. In an effort to create a romantic mood, the young king had tried to feed the lady with his own hands. Demurely, Elisira had avoided his attempts, feigning a lack of appetite.

Instead, she delicately sipped her wine and let Arris carry the conversation. Switching tactics, he tried to get her drunk, but even that had no effect because the lady barely touched her drink, making it hard to keep refilling her goblet.

Arris was terribly frustrated. Why can’t the bitch just get in my bed and be done with it? I’ve never had this much trouble with a woman. Even Lady Allison went willingly. Recalling the night with the older woman made Arris even more determined to have Elisira, tonight.

For two weeks, it had been a constant battle between Arris and Elisira. He would invite her to dinner, she would come and he would regale her with grand tales of his plans for the kingdom. Yet however much he tried to insinuate that she could be a part of those plans, Elisira would always laugh giddily and tell him that his future wife would be a truly lucky woman.

Arris didn’t want a wife; he wanted a woman in his bed, every night. At first, the sparring was fun, but now it was just frustrating. Vapid, brainless cow or not, Elisira Glinholt would be his, for as long as he wanted her. Tonight, she would be his, or he would throw the bitch into the dungeon. There was a cell he was especially fond of; one that he was certain would give the recalcitrant noblewoman every reason to accede to his wishes.

If she didn’t, she would die. At this point, Arris really didn’t care.

What had started as an easy conquest, a sweet offering to take the taste of Azhani Rhu’len’s betrayal off his tongue was fast becoming a serious sting to his fragile pride. He would try once more to get Elisira to bend to his will and if she turned him down, however politely, he would be more forceful about his desires.

“My lady,” he said smoothly, lifting up a bit of bread that was covered in a delightful pate. “Please, try this. Poor Pyetro must be beside himself thinking you do not enjoy his cooking.” Luring King Naral of Y’Tol’s top chef away from the eastern kingdom had been one of Arris’ earliest conquests. As a boy, he had visited the kingdoms with his father and when they stopped in the far away land known for its fine wines and foods, he had been so taken with his dinner that he had gone in search of the cook.

Arris had toddled into the kitchen, at the tender age of five, and had climbed up on a stool to watch, fascinated, as Pyetro sculpted beautiful candies in marzipan. The boy’s attention had so delighted the chef that he had resigned his job with Naral to follow Theodan’s heir home.

Now the man labored long into the night, creating delicacies to delight the palate of his young master. Arris amply rewarded him, paying him more than even the High King’s cook made. He looked down at the pate in his hand. Wonderful stuff, spiced to perfection and light enough to melt as soon as it hit the tongue. If he could just get the lady to try it…

“Your Highness! Councilor Derkus has sent me with an urgent message!” A page, full of the exuberance of youth, burst into the chamber. He bowed deeply to the king and then turned to Elisira, and said, “Your pardon, my lady.”

Hiding a smile at the timely interruption, the lady covered her relief by taking a larger sip of her wine than she had previously allowed.

Arris was ready to chew horseshoe nails. With pained delicacy, he accepted the councilor’s missive, unrolling the scroll and quickly scanning its contents. When he was done, he nodded gravely to the eagerly waiting boy and said, “You did well, lad. Go tell Pyetro to allot you an extra ration of cocoa in the morning.”

Smiling happily, the page raced off.

Teeth gritted against what he must do, Arris smiled beatifically and said, “My lady, as much as it pains me to end our dalliance, I’m afraid the pressing matters of the kingdom must intrude upon our evening. I beg leave of you, and ask that you join me on the morrow.”

Elisira lowered her eyes and nodded her acquiescence. Inwardly, she sighed, hoping that Arris would weary of the game and turn his attentions elsewhere. She really was tired of being the subject of every hushed giggle, every polite glare and every secret whisper of the court. Ever since her friend, Warleader Rhu’len had been banished from Y’dan, she had been the object of intense fascination for the king. The man made her skin crawl and she was certain that the accusations laid against Azhani’s door were untrue, though she couldn’t prove it.

Ylera Kelani had not died by Azhani’s hand, of that Elisira was certain. She had seen the king’s guard enter the ambassador’s quarters, rooms that were stationed not far from her own, late at night and carry the struggling woman off. Hurrying to follow, Elisira ducked into a rarely used passageway and dogged the steps of Arris’ men.

What she had seen when they had reached their destination would haunt her nightmares until the day she died. Pushing the terrifying memories aside grimly, Elisira answered her king.

“No need for apologies, Your Highness. I understand that there are,” she injected a brainless giggle, “important things you must attend to.” She managed to add a vapid stare and a carefully innocent blush as she stood and allowed the king to escort her to the door.

Once there, he turned to one of his guards. “Make sure the lady returns home safely, guard.”

“At once, my liege,” the guard said promptly, snapping to attention. His loyalty to the king was so solid that he wore it like armor. Solicitously offering a mail-clad arm to Elisira, he escorted her to the suite of rooms that had been assigned to the Glinholt family.

As they walked, Elisira stared at the drab stone walls of the castle, wishing they would magically turn into the warm wooden walls of her coastal home. With her mother dead, and her father now holding an important position on Arris’ council, there was no way a marriageable asset like herself would be allowed any freedom to choose where she lived.

The guard kept his eye on the lady by his side. She was dangerous, though not many would agree. However, he remembered that Elisira Glinholt had been one of Azhani Rhu’len’s few friends. He also knew that the lady had never publicly denounced the warleader for her actions, and that made him wary. His hatred for Azhani Rhu’len was scored deep, carved into his bones by the memory of his brother, dying in his arms on the field at Banner Lake.

It was easy to believe that the woman by his side might also carry the same seed of treachery that had infected the warleader. She would bear watching.

They reached the door to Elisira’s chambers and the guard bowed, leaving her to enter alone. The lady paused, considering. Should she head to bed, or should she sneak off to Padreg’s chamber and enjoy a candlemark or two of enchanting conversation with the Y’Noran man?

Since their ride in the forest, they had stolen every moment together they could. It was wrong, and possibly dangerous for Padreg, but the heart had a way of supplanting the mind, causing her to do the most ridiculous things. Elisira closed her eyes and shook her head. No. Not this night. Feeling tired, and slightly tarnished by Arris’ barely hidden desires, she decided that all she wanted was to get lost in her dreams. A wistful sigh ruffled her hair as she opened her door.
%%%
“All right, Derkus, what’s so important that you had to interrupt my evening?” asked Arris as he breezed into the council chamber.

Pacing the empty room, circling around the oratory stage like a caged animal was the Lord High Councilor Glinholt. Hair in disarray, and muttering to himself, he looked up as the king entered. For a moment, his eyes bugged out and he fearfully peeked behind Arris, as if looking for guardsmen. When he didn’t see them, he threw himself at the young man’s feet and began babbling.

“I swear, my lord, it was not my idea! I am always loyal to you, always!” wailed the older man pathetically.

Arris’ lips twitched into a nasty grin before he shoved the groveling man off his boot and snarled, “What are you prattling about, old man?”

Still on the ground, Derkus fearfully replied, “King Padreg asked to speak with me, sire.”

“And? I still don’t see the problem here, Glinholt,” Arris said, disengaging himself from the man’s grip and sauntering over to his throne.

Crawling over to kneel at the foot of the carved granite monstrosity, the councilor whispered, “He asked about Elisira.”

Intrigued, Arris wondered, What would a barbarian from Y’Nor want with a useless slip of a girl like Elisira? A lascivious smile brightened his face. Other than the obvious, that is. His mind drifted off to pleasant thoughts of ravishing the nobleman’s daughter.

“He wishes to marry her, my lord!” Derkus whined, bashing his head against the stone floor. “I have not given him my answer; he believes it is in deference to the girl.”

Both of Arris’ eyebrows shot up. Y’Norans don’t buy nags. He must see something in Elisira that no one else does. The king stroked his chin thoughtfully. Interesting, and how can I use that to my advantage? Arris briefly considered trumping the barbarian and asking for Elisira’s hand. As her king, his claim would outweigh the Y’Noran’s.

Marrying now would be a terrible mistake, though. Three of the other kingdoms currently had marriageable daughters – girls who were the only living heirs of their kingly fathers. Expanding Y’dan’s borders could be accomplished in many ways, not all of them via the battlefield. A tractable princess would do the job nicely. Porthyros might be surprised to hear him say such things, but he had listened when the scholar had lectured about the laws. Oh yes, Elisira would be a fine diversion, but Arris wanted more than just to rule Y’dan, he wanted all of the kingdoms.

“We must talk, my friend. Please, come and sit. I will send for wine.” Speaking quietly to the page, he sent the boy off in search of a bottle of the councilor’s favorite wine. He also ordered him to find Porthyros. His mentor would surely have some enlightening insights to add to the situation.
%%%
I must be a damn fool, Padreg thought to himself as he stared into the fire. Yet, what else could he do? The Y’Noran was a man of action and sitting around waiting for the gods to dump a solution on his lap was not the answer to his predicament.

In the two weeks since they had met, he was as certain as he would ever be that the Lady Elisira’s feelings for him were as intense as his were for her. Padreg Keelan was an honorable man, and there was no other course but to barge ahead and seek the noblewoman’s hand in marriage.

Aden Varice, his most trusted companion since childhood, had discovered that King Arris also had a desire for the lady, and this had caused Padreg’s heart to plummet to the floor. Surely she would choose the man who was in her homeland over a man who would take her away from all she had known. The crackling fire offered no answers to his questions.

A light tap at the door tore his mind away from its musings. Rising, he opened the door to reveal one of the many pages that served the Y’dani court. The boy bore no message, but rather seemed to be trying to decide whether or not he should flee.

“Yes, what is it lad?” he asked gently, purposefully keeping his voice low and even so as not to startle the coltish youth.

Devon Imry looked up at King Padreg’s six and a half foot frame and gulped audibly.

“M-my lord,” he stuttered softly, darting his eyes from side to side. He was terrified. At only fourteen winters, he knew that his words carried less weight than even the lowest soldier, but his father had raised him to know right from wrong.

Polis Imry had served the old king for many years before succumbing to the coughing sickness the previous winter. Always, he had encouraged Devon to do the right thing, even if it meant facing that which frightened him. Not even his first attempt at conjuring fire scared him as much as facing the bear-like Y’Noran king. Except for what they were talking about in the council room… Horrific, bloody visions stole his voice. He could still remember Banner Lake, and the awful, sickening smell that covered the city for weeks afterward.

“Well, come on lad, don’t be standing there letting out all the heat, come in or speak, but be quick about it!” Padreg said, standing aside to let the boy enter.

The boy looked familiar. He had seen the sandy brown hair and narrow featured face many times. All the servants of Y’dannoch castle wore green and black tabards, so the boy’s livery was no clue to his origins. Devon bit his lip, and in that gesture, Padreg recognized him.

Elisira had called him one of her father’s shadows, explaining that each of the councilors had special pages that served them exclusively. Looking the boy over with more interest, the Y’Noran waited for him to make his decision. The king’s heart started to pound as he imagined, Perhaps he is here with an answer to my proposal. Perhaps she has said yes!

Heart sinking rapidly, he realized that if that was the case, it was likely a denial, rather than the joyful acceptance his heart prayed for. Padreg couldn’t imagine sending a page to deliver anything but sad news.

Devon looked around once more and then slipped inside the king’s chambers. “My lord,” he whispered softly and then swallowed again. Screwing up his face tightly, he gathered his courage. “My lord, you’re in danger!” he finally blurted, and then looked around the room as if he expected demons to leap from the corners to rend his flesh from his bones.

One dark eyebrow lifted as Padreg regarded the boy curiously. The plainsman wasn’t given to seeing shadows in full sunlight, but in this kingdom, shadows had a way of appearing in odd places. He still couldn’t understand why, only a few months ago, the honorable and heroic warleader had staged a near successful coup.

“I am? And are you here to rescue me?” he scoffed teasingly. Then winced as the memory of his mother’s voice needled him sharply.

“What do you think you’re about, Paddy-lad, tauntin’ the poor lad so? Isn’t it enough that he’s suffered your beastly great shape to bring you news? Be kind, boy, or I’ll horsewhip you!” A sudden grin flashed across his face. Even from hundreds of miles away, his mother could still make him feel ten seasons old.

“My apologies, lad. Speak, and fear me not,” he said, returning to the gentle tones of his greeting.

Devon stared at him for a moment and then, the words came tumbling out of his mouth. “I was in the council chambers, preparing for the session in the morning – I like to make sure there’s a fresh supply of pens and ink and that there’s enough paper because sometimes the scribes don’t always replace what they use and I’m not so good at remembering stuff and when it comes to midday meal, boy, those councilors sure can eat!” He took a breath and went on, “Anyway, so I was in the scribe’s box when I heard Councilor Derkus come in and he was pacing and walking and mumbling something about having his,” the boy blushed, “privates in a crushed codpiece and then King Arris came in and they started talking and, my lord, did you really ask for Lady Elisira’s hand in marriage?”

Chuckling, Padreg said, “Yes, I did.” He studied the boy, whose face had gone white at his confirmation. “Did I ruffle a few feathers? Was she already promised to someone else?” he asked weakly. “To Arris?” he added, almost too softly for Devon to hear him.

“No, Your Highness,” the boy squeaked out. Since Padreg had not made a move to hurt him, nor had he called out for the guards to come haul him away, he bravely continued. “They talked about you and the lady – they said some very bad things that my father would have switched them for – and then they decided that you must be trying to make a fool of King Arris because everyone knows he’s interested in Elisira, except that he isn’t, not really, I mean.” The page’s young face hardened in a very adult defiance. “Then Porthyros,” Devon sneered the name, “I hate him. He smells funny and he’s always touching the chambermaids. Anyway, he shows up and they talk.” The page’s hands had wound and wrung his tabard into crumpled knots as he spoke. “My lord,” he whispered now, “You must flee. They plan to use the lady against you – to hurt you.”

The fire popped loudly, startling them.

“Lad, you’ve made a very serious accusation,” Padreg said carefully, searching the boy’s face for any sign of trickery. None existed, and the Y’Noran shook his head sadly. His mother would tan his hide if she knew he had forsaken the opportunity to learn more about the kingdom. Instead of spending time speaking to the people, he had rushed to confirm Arris’ inheritance.

Padreg stroked his chin thoughtfully and then gestured to the two men who had served him faithfully for years. “What think you? Do the boy’s words match what you know of the men he claims spoke them?”

Aden Varice spoke first. “I do believe the lad’s a fair speaker, Paddy. There be a scent hereabouts that reeks of rot and it is not the kitchen middens.”

Thomas Gould was next. “Aye. Aden speaks it well, m’lord. The servants are all a’feared of their masters and the people are tighter lipped than a trout pullin’ bait.”

“What say the others? The same?” Padreg asked, knowing that the men and women who served him would have done their homework, even if he had not.

Two slow nods.

“All right, then this is what we will do,” he said, and slowly began to devise a plan of escape.

Eyes widening, Devon listened in rapt awe, realizing that he was the cornerstone to the success of Padreg’s plan. There was no question that he would help the Y’Norans. Not only was it the right thing to do, it was the good thing to do.

Still, if it succeeded, he would be taken far away from the only home he had ever known. Papa, he prayed silently, Let me make you proud!
%%%
“I’m not sure if I want to kill him or not, Thyro,” Arris mumbled sleepily as Porthyros helped him undress and slide into his linen bedding.

“But your majesty, no one should to touch that which belongs to you. The lady Elisira is yours, is she not?” the scholar suavely explained as he tucked the silky sheets around his monarch, fondly brushing a strand of limp black hair out of the king’s eyes.

“Yes, she is mine. You gave her to me,” Arris said, his face losing the cruel edge it always held when he was in public, becoming that of a very young man.

“That’s right, I did. And I never take my gifts back,” Porthyros crooned gently. Arris’ eyes fluttered and he yawned. So trusting, so easy to control… that’s my boy, the scholar smiled as he reached over to a tray and removed a steaming cup.

“Is zat m’tea?” Arris asked thickly, sleepiness slurring his speech.

“Yes, my king. I made it for you, just like always,” Porthyros said, handing over the cup and watching as the king greedily sucked the liquid down.

“Mm. No one else makes tea like you, Thyro. You gon’ teach m’wife t’make it, too?” he asked drowsily.

I doubt she’ll add the “special” ingredients I do, boy. “Of course, my king,” he said reassuringly.

Arris smiled sweetly. “Good ol’ Thyro. You’re the best, always were.” Arris yawned again and closed his eyes, surrendering to sleep.

“Sweet dreams, my king,” Porthyros whispered, stroking the young man’s face once more before tearing his hand away and exiting the king’s chambers. He had to see his master quickly, before word of tonight’s revelations reached him.
%%%
Elisira Glinholt woke up in shock at the feeling of a heavy hand on her mouth.

“Shh, my lady, do not be troubled, you are in no danger,” a low, lightly accented voice she had come to recognize as belonging to Padreg said quietly.

Calmly, Elisira nodded. It was still dark, yet she could see by a flickering candlelight that she was not alone. Padreg, a page and two manservants dressed in Y’Noran livery were in the room with her. The Y’Noran took his hand away from Elisira’s mouth and she inhaled deeply.

“Well, my lord, what brings you to visit?” she asked with as much aplomb as she could muster, swaddled as she was in silks, velvets and bedclothes.

Padreg smiled approvingly at the young woman’s spirit. “There is trouble, my lady. This lad here has brought me a tale of treachery and deceit. I fear I must depart your fair city, but before I go, I have one question of you.”

“Ask it,” Elisira said, fear clutching her heart. Leaving? No, please, Astariu no, he can’t go…

“My lady, in you I have found a woman without equal, and now I find myself having to ask, do you feel anything for me?” The plainsman’s face was filled with hope.

Elisira looked around the room, anywhere but into the sweet green eyes of the man to whom she felt so drawn. Though their interaction had been limited, Elisira could not deny the tangible attraction she felt for this man. Finally, she met his eyes and saw only gentleness and patience there.

Swallowing, Elisira said, “If my life were my own, your highness, it would belong to you.” The words felt incredibly strange, even foreign on her tongue. The young woman had never given herself to fantasies of love before, always knowing that as the daughter of one of the king’s councilors, she was far more likely to be the tie binding a lucrative deal for her father. Yet when she looked at Padreg, or listened to him speak longingly of the plains and grasslands of his kingdom, she felt her mind slipping off to dream of a life where she was free to fall in love as she chose.

An amazingly vulnerable look passed over Padreg’s face as he accepted her words in silence. The plainsman and the noblewoman spent precious moments lingering in each other’s eyes. “You should hear what sends me off. I would take you with me, my lady, if you will go.” He turned to the page and said, “Speak, lad.”

The boy, who Elisira recognized as Devon Imry, one of her father’s “shadows”, hurriedly began to tell a horrific tale of murder plots, intrigue and regicide. Listening patiently, Elisira only interrupted once, when the page related how her father had thrown himself at Arris’ mercy, offering up his daughter’s virtue as a guarantor of his own life.

“That slimy, bilge-sucking snake!” she cursed, and then laughed at the stunned look on Devon’s face. “My apologies, Dev. Go on.”

The use of his nickname stirred a memory in the young boy and he blurted, “You’re the lady that warleader Azhani always talked about with papa, aren’t you?”

Elisira smiled sadly at the mention of her old friend. One of the few people in Y’dannyv to pierce her painstakingly constructed act of brainlessness, Azhani Rhu’len quickly become dear to the noblewoman’s heart. The death of Ambassador Kelani, Azhani’s beloved, caused the noblewoman a great deal of grief.

Though the elven princess had not been free to love the Y’dani warleader openly, their union had been a good match. Elisira had enjoyed many candlemarks in their company, free from the tedious rigmarole of courtly life. It was an arrangement that was mutually beneficial, giving the lovers a chance to escape from the long candlemarks spent arguing with the council. Memory stirred and lifted gossamer wings, quelling the rising sadness thickening in her throat.
“Mm, I love you so much, Ylera,” Azhani whispered as they sat, curled up in the parlor of Elisira’s chambers. The young woman had invited them over for dinner and afterward, the three had settled down to play a game of cards.

Elisira had risen to summon a page for more wine when she overheard the warleader speak her heart to the elven ambassador.

A gentle, loving smile brightened the ambassador’s face. Tenderly, she reached out and ran her fingers through the warrior’s unruly braids of hair. “I love you too, my Azhi. In the moments when my heart rules my mind, it is your face that I see.”

Watching the two lovers, Elisira knew all too well the source of Ylera’s inability to love freely. Like twins, they were, their noble birth acting as a shield against self-determination. Ylera was ruled by the prejudices of the elven nobles and Elisira’s life was in the hands of her father, Lord High Councilor Derkus Glinholt.

A fleeting moment of pain flickered in Azhani’s eyes and Elisira felt herself ache for the older woman. The warleader was deeply taken by Ylera, and had more than once expressed the desire to seal their bond with vows of marriage. Yet, viewing the couple as they snuggled on the couch, Elisira was reluctant to label what passed between them as “true love”.

However, since both women were content to be together, that was all that mattered.
The melancholy passed and Elisira smiled warmly. “Yes, Dev, I am.”

Devon’s smile matched hers and then he let out a contented sigh. The page continued his story, telling Elisira of Arris’ plans to use her to lure Padreg into a trap, and kill him.

“Just how did he think to do that, I wonder?” the lady wondered softly.

Padreg’s cheeks flushed slightly. “It would be an easily done job, my lady. He has but to hold you ransom and I would sell my soul to the Lord of Hell himself, to have you returned safely.”

Elisira blinked and then burst out laughing. “Oh, you dear, dear man!” She shook her head ruefully. “I am not worth anyone’s soul, especially not as a ransom to that slimy excuse for a king!” Seeing the dejected look on Padreg’s face, Elisira snuck a hand out of her blankets and stroked his cheek lightly. “I thank you, though, for your chivalry.”

Capturing her hand and holding it against his cheek, Padreg stared into Elisira’s eyes and said, “My lady, you are worth more than my soul, but it and all else I have are yours.”

The Y’Noran’s men coughed at the display of excessively fanciful words coming from the mouth of their usually blunt spoken king. Even Devon had the grace to blush.

Touched by Padreg’s attempt at poetry, Elisira smiled sweetly.

“It seems, my lord, that there is trouble brewing in Y’dan,” the lady said, retrieving her hand from Padreg’s grasp and sitting up in the bed. “What are we going to do to stop it?”

Padreg grabbed a chair and sat, smiling widely. “Now that’s exactly the spirit I knew you had!” he exclaimed excitedly. “We’ve reasoned out that there are two courses of action. Of course, we will leave, and take Devon and now you, with us. It is once we have escaped the castle that we have not decided which road to take. Should we head south, to Y’mar and the High King’s justice, or east, to Y’Nor, and prepare for war? Either course will have its dangers.”

Swinging her legs free of the quilts, Elisira reached for her dressing gown. “Your plans are sound, my lord. I wonder, though, how you plan on exiting Y’dannoch without notice? Have you not noticed Arris’ personal guards roaming the halls?

Privately, Elisira began planning to search out Y’dan’s former warleader. If Azhani still lived, then she would be the one who would know how best to handle the villainous king. First, they must escape the castle, and for that, she also had a plan.

The lady quickly rummaged in her wardrobe, producing a rather worn pair of breeches, an old tunic and a heavy black leather jerkin. Dutifully turning their heads, the men carefully studied the artwork adorning the walls and tables of the noblewoman’s room while she went behind a privacy screen to change.

A few moments spent at the dressing table gave Elisira the appearance of a beardless boy. A dark gray wool cloak helped to complete the image. Regretfully, she left her heavy velvet and fur wrap behind, knowing that its very richness would mark her as unusual.

Devon grinned at her transformation. “Da told me how you used to sneak off with Azhani and practice your sword work. He said you were the prettiest boy he’d ever crossed a blade with.”

“Your father was quite the scamp and I believe you shall follow in his footsteps, young man,” Elisira said, laughing fondly and reaching out to tousle Devon’s hair. The lady turned her attention to Padreg. “My lord, if I may offer a suggestion?”

“Of course. I welcome it,” Padreg replied.

Elisira looked around her room, taking in the sumptuous, overdone décor and nodded slightly. “This castle has a wealth of secret passageways. Some are in frequent use; others have not seen the passage of feet for many years. Most are well known to the pages,” she fastened an eye on Devon, who smirked and looked at his shoes. “They are known to me, as well. In fact, I would hazard that I know of a few that young Devon here, has not yet discovered.”

Devon’s head came up as he shot her a surprised look.

“How do you think I snuck away those many times, youngling? ‘Twas not through the front gate, I’ll grant you that,” Elisira said wryly as she gathered a few things into a rucksack. She stared at her jewels, thinking to leave them, but then decided that they could come in handy should they need easy cash. Scooping them up, she wrapped them in a large square of silk and then stowed them at the bottom of her pack. Finally, she turned to her bed, lifting the mattress to reveal a curved saber hidden under the ticking. “My lord, if you would have your men go to the kitchens and ask for provisioning for a picnic – no one will think it odd that you wish to spend a day by the lake. They can meet up with us by the eastern gate.” The noblewoman belted the sword on, giving the men a look that dared them to say otherwise.

Padreg nodded and waved his men off to do as she instructed. Quietly, they exited, leaving the others to carefully slip through a hidden door in Elisira’s wardrobe and make their way down a cramped, darkened passageway.

Elisira held one candle out, careful to brush away any cobwebs before taking a step. Devon practically clung to the lady’s back, worrying silently that they would be caught and punished. He knew what his punishment would be – he would be caned and then thrown out of the castle to find his own way, but he worried about the nobles. What they were doing could be considered eloping – or it could be treason. Either way, the king would take a dim view of everyone involved.

With a dagger clenched tightly in his fist, Padreg brought up the rear, his gaze constantly flicking over his shoulder to the empty corridor behind them. If it came down to a battle to get away, he had no compunctions about maiming or killing anyone who stood in his way, but he wondered if his retinue would be as inclined to precipitate an inter-kingdom incident. He knew they would stand by their king, but whether they would agree with his reasoning gave him a moment’s pause. Rushing headlong into a situation because of his heart was not something a clan leader was known to do, and here he was, the chief of all the clan leaders, allowing his heart to rule his head.

I could always tell them it was korethka, he mused, halting his steps just before running into the young page’s back. No one would argue with a man who has been snared by spirit love.

Elisira paused and ran delicate fingers over a joint of stone and mortar, feeling the cracks until she came to a slight depression. A gentle push and another passageway opened up, leading the group right past the main hall. Eyeholes set at regular intervals caused Padreg to stop and stare. Devon leaned forward, putting his eye up to one of the holes and then giggled.

“They spy on the court?” Padreg spluttered, unable to comprehend such a thing as spying upon your own people.

Devon nodded. “All the time, my lord. I have often brought food and drink to the official court spies as they recorded the various goings on there in the hall.”

“Official spies?” Padreg choked out, while Elisira covered up a laugh, continuing to lead the way.

“Oh yes. It’s quite a wonderful position, especially for a page who is small and has good ears.” Something about the way Devon spoke the words made Padreg think that the boy had probably served as a spy a time or two in the past.

Closing his eyes briefly, the Y’Noran king sent up a prayer to the gods asking that he be allowed to escape this kingdom and their strange ways. All he wanted was to return to his lands with his life, and the lives of his friends, intact.
~Chapter Ten~
The small party broke away from the castle and sprinted across the darkened common, making it to the shadowed wall of the stables before anyone had noticed them. The day was approaching, and everyone was eager to be free of Y’dannoch and its murderous king.

Skulking through the hidden passageways, there had been one too many close calls. Other pages scurrying to and fro had nearly discovered them several times. Only Devon’s quick thinking had allowed the tiny group to duck into unused rooms, and once, into a storage closet.

Padreg, as tall and broad shouldered as he was, was doubly relieved to be walking in the open, unencumbered by narrow walls forcing him to walk in a back wrenching crouch. The passages had been designed for secrecy and not comfort, and the Y’Noran had fought down a severe sense of claustrophobia several times before Elisira’s knowing fingers found the exit.

Inside the stables, Padreg’s men were waiting, their horses already saddled. False dawn was beginning to paint the horizon in hazy blues and grays and the horses were restless, and eager to be off.

As quietly as a group of thirty could, they mounted, moving toward the front gate of the castle. The guards, sleepy-eyed and surly from a long night’s watch, let them through without a word.

Y’dannyv was cloaked in a thick gray mist, obscuring the harbor from view as the party slowly moved through the city, heading for the eastern gate. They passed a few early risers, but traveled in near silence, speaking only in hushed tones. The sky grew lighter as they rode, and the sound of lake birds calling heralded the dawn.

The scent of rain was heavy in the air, warning the riders that their trip would not be a pleasant one. Fishermen, on their way to the docks, passed them, calling out good-natured hellos. As the sky lightened to a misty gray, the eastern gate came into view.

Aden and Thomas met them there, and their faces were grim. Stealing away from the city by ship would not be possible, as Arris had ordered an “honor guard” of his own choosing to stand watch upon the Y’Noran vessels.

The two men had quickly revised the plan and were now distributing several days’ worth of food to the riders. Elisira tucked the package away, mentally vowing to ration what she had, so that they could travel faster.

Easily, the group exited Y’dannyv, heading in the direction of the lake. So far, no one had tried to stop them, but everyone understood that it was only a matter of time before their absence was noted. Passing farmers, bringing fresh eggs and other goods in for the market, bade them good day and warned of the rain to come.

There was a definite chill in the air. The fog was cold, seeping into the traveler’s clothes and settling into their bones. Breath frosted in front of horses and riders as they carefully picked their way along the lake’s edge. Elisira drew her cloak about her tighter, wishing she had been able to find a warmer tunic.

Padreg fell back from the lead and drew even with the lady. “Are you chilled, my lady?” he asked softly.

A brief nod answered him.

“I can send someone back to the city to purchase you a heavier cloak, if you would like?” he offered. They had left Arris’ castle without much in the way of extras.

She was just about to answer when a shrill whistle silenced her. Both she and Padreg turned to look behind them, spotting a swiftly moving rider. It was one of Padreg’s men – a rear scout.

Her panting mount drew even with the group and the rider quietly said, “We’re being followed,” before she slipped from her horse’s back and began to carefully walk the animal until it calmed down.

Padreg issued a few low voiced orders and the group vanished into the thickets at the side of the road. Shortly, a small group of green and black liveried guardsmen galloped up, led by Porthyros Omal.

“Quickly, now, men! We can’t let these scoundrels escape! Arris wants them all alive! They have taken his chosen lady hostage and her life may be in mortal danger if we let them get away!” He exhorted the guards, who dismounted to search the area for clues.

One of the men was very close to discovering Devon’s hiding place, and Elisira tensed, ready to stand up and reveal her position to save her friends. A jauntily whistled tune stopped her though. From around a bend in the road, a green-robed man appeared, leading a well-laden donkey behind him. He stopped at the sight of the king’s men beating at the bushes with their swords.

Catching Porthyros’ eye, he called out, “Good morrow, citizen. Have you lost something?”

The scholar’s features darkened, but he returned the priest’s greeting courteously. “Good morrow, Brother Jalen. We are seeking the Lady Elisira Glinholt. Our good king has cause to fear that she has been kidnapped by that foul Y’Noran dog, Padreg Keelan.”

The priest nodded sagely. “Well then, citizen, you should by all means do your duty to your king. How can I be of assistance?”

Elisira bit her lip, tasting blood. If the priest used magic, they would surely be found. She moved to get away from Padreg and save him from Arris’ men.

“Nay my lady, bide a while,” a ghostly whisper made her look up into Padreg’s calm green eyes.

Reluctantly, Elisira settled back against the large man, sparing only a moment’s thought to how comfortable a backrest Padreg was. Generously, the plainsman pulled his cloak about the both of them, sharing his warmth.

The priest had closed his eyes and was chanting softly. A tiny blue glow formed in the air in front of his face, circled the clearing once and then shot off in the direction of the castle. The priest’s eyes opened and he looked at Porthyros, who sat on his horse and stared sourly at the streaking ball of light.

“Well don’t just sit there, man! Follow it! It’s a trail finder! Surely you have heard of the magic that seeks what is lost?” the priest scoffed lightly.

Porthyros glared at Brother Jalen and then called to the guards, “Mount up and follow the priest’s guide!”

The men did as ordered, thundering off back toward the castle. Porthyros said, “I hope this trick of yours works, Brother Jalen, or it is your head the king will mount on a pike!” With that, he wheeled his horse around and galloped off to catch up to the guards.

Jalen waited until the searchers were out of sight and then calmly said, “You may continue on your way, my friends. Goddess bless your journey.” He then turned and walked away, leaving the roadway to the Y’Norans and the Y’dani noblewoman.

“How did…”

“I have friends in many places,” Padreg said calmly.

“But he wasn’t a starseeker. How did he create that spell?” Elisira asked questioningly.

“It wasn’t a spell,” Devon said as he approached their hiding place. “I don’t know what he did, but it wasn’t magic. I would have heard it.”

Both Padreg and Elisira turned surprised faces toward the page.

Shrugging bashfully, Devon said, “I kind of found this book one day, and well… it was really interesting and I tried one of the exercises and it worked…” babbling, he eagerly told his rapt audience about his limited success with magic. “So, anyway,” he finished up as the group gathered their mounts and started up the road, “I can sort of hear this sound whenever something magical happens.”

Padreg clapped the boy on the shoulder approvingly. “Aye lad, you’re proving to have some good paces in you. I’m pleased, surprised, but pleased. Now, is there anything you think we should know?”

Grinning proudly, Devon shook his head. “Nope. Well, I sort of brought that book with me… I thought it might be useful?” He looked up at Padreg hopefully.

“Good lad, study well. When we get to Y’Nor, I know someone that will be very interested to meet you.”
%%%
“My lord, I truly believe this is the best course of action,” argued Stefan Payle, Padreg’s second in command, as they stood facing the fork that would either lead them north or further east. “King Arris’ men have not given up their search and I have not seen your friendly priest since that day in the forest.”
It had been three long, hard days of travel. Traveling by night after the first day of their escape, they had so far managed to avoid the king’s patrols. The group had managed to acquire a few meager provisions from a traveling tinker’s wagon and now Elisira was properly cloaked against the inclement weather.

Padreg fumed in frustration. “Stef, it seems fruitless to go miles out of our way to evade some green soldier running seek and find on my dust trail.”

Stefan looked as though he were about to marshal yet another argument when Elisira stepped forward.

“My lord, it seems as though good Stefan is right. If we go north, will we not confuse the scoundrel’s men? Stefan can go east into Y’Syr, taking with him the main part of your entourage. Surely the diversion will send Arris and his bullies off to create a defense against the accusations of the elven queen?” The lady crossed her fingers under her cloak. North would take them near the old DaCoure homestead, one of the few places that Azhani would run to for sanctuary.

“But it is winter, and snowing!” Padreg blustered, though he knew his argument was feeble, at best. He had survived winters on the plains, summers in the desert and even a storm at sea. A narrowed glance from Stefan told the plainsman that his second knew that his words were bluff and bluster. Padreg blew out a long breath. “Blast you both! All right, we ride north!” He looked at Stefan, who would be responsible for leading Arris’ men away from their trail. “Go with the gods, my old friend. I want to see you hale and hearty at the spring foaling.”

Solemnly, they clasped arms, and then embraced. Padreg then touched or embraced every one of his people that had been chosen to go with Stefan. Sharing a word, or a memory, or just a genial hug. Elisira knew that this was what made the plainsman’s people love him.

When he turned away from the group, his green eyes were dark and clouded with emotion. “May the Twins preserve them.”

Elisira reached out and put a chilled hand on his arm, favoring him with a brief smile. “They will be fine, my lord. The gods will see to that.”

“I hope so, my lady, I truly hope so.” He covered her hand with his larger, warmer hand and they bent their heads together in a near embrace.

“My lord, they have gone. We must hurry before Arris’ guards find this spot,” Aden said quietly.

Padreg nodded. “So be it. Let us ride.”
%%%
Scholar Porthyros Omal scurried down the dark streets, praying for his life. Three days the lady had been gone, and no one had found her. Curse that damned priest to the lowest hells! He thought harshly, wishing nothing but ill toward the all too helpful Brother Jalen.

Even the priest had vanished, though many had claimed to see him enter the city. When the scholar had sent guards out to arrest the Astariun brother, he was gone, though none had heard him speak of leaving. Arris was furious, tearing into his scholar and refusing to calm down. Only large amounts of his favorite tea had finally reduced the king to a tractable surliness.

Lord Kesryn Oswyne, hearing of the “abduction” had summoned his servant, seeking to find the truth behind the rumors flying about the city. Putting a little more fire into his step, Porthyros continued to hurry through the darkness. They couldn’t even arrest the Y’Noran entourage, for those that had not escaped with their king had lifted sail and floated out of the harbor before Arris’ men could stop them. Not wishing to bring the wrath of the High King down on his head for warmongering, Arris had held his black and green-sailed ships in port and allowed the Y’Norans to escape.

There was nothing, not one item to hold as a ransom against the plainsmen’s people. Councilor Glinholt was beside himself. The older man had locked himself into his rooms and refused to come out, fearing for his life. Porthyros knew it would take some serious negotiating on his part to get the merchant to emerge, providing of course, that he lived out the night.

If his master were in a charitable mood, he might escape with a beating. The scholar had placed his hope in the fact that the town was abuzz with the news of Oswyne Shipping Inc.’s new partnership with the House of Argent. Lord Kesryn would be very pleased that the silversmith’s guild had finally acceded to his wishes and joined their coffers to his.

He rounded a final corner and stepped into a shadowed doorway. Looking out at the docks, he sent one final prayer off, and then rang the bell.
%%%
Thick globs of snow flew up as Padreg’s party rode into Brenton. The farming community was blanketed, hidden beneath a layer of snow and ice. Warmly wrapped villagers looked up at the newly arrived group and then ignored them, hurrying home to their cozy fires. Even the green and black clad soldiers turned away, uninterested in what looked to be a minor noble’s hunting party.

Padreg surveyed the town, seeking the inn. Originally, he had decided to pass through the small town, but both Elisira and Aden had persuaded him to stop. The travelers all needed warm meals and a change of clothes.

Knowing that Arris’ men were snapping at their heels, Padreg had only agreed to stay in the town if they could do so without notice. It was Devon who came up with the plan to cast a minor illusion on the party. Padreg gave the boy the chance to attempt the spell and was pleasantly surprised to see that it worked.

Devon’s spell was not a true change, rather the illusion worked on the basis that the townsfolk were used to seeing the nobility hunting for sport at all times of the year. When the Y’Noran party rode up, the locals hardly gave them a second glance.

Brenton’s cheerfully lit inn was a welcome sight to the frozen travelers. As Padreg’s new page, Devon raced inside to inquire about the rooms. As she waited, Elisira looked around the town, considering her actions.

Have I made a mistake? Am I risking my life for nothing? She watched Padreg as he paced back and forth next to his horse. He spotted her, and flashed her a quick grin. The plainsman’s stony, worry-lined face became something beautiful when he smiled, and Elisira knew that his smile was for her alone.

Memories of sitting in the garden, sharing wine and dreams, made her return that smile. Maybe I’m living a dream, she decided, forgetting her questions in favor of observing Padreg.

Restlessly, he scanned the village, seeking any sign that their group had drawn more than cursory notice, but so far, they were safe.

Devon returned and spoke to the king in low, hurried tones. Padreg nodded and passed the boy some coins, which he quickly covered and carried back into the inn. He returned quickly, carrying four wooden chits.

Padreg took them gravely and patted Devon’s shoulder warmly. Then he turned to Elisira and spoke.

“My lady, we have rooms. Shall we go in and get out of the weather?” He reached out a hand to help her down from her horse and then escorted her into the inn.

Inside, there was a warm fire burning. Only a few patrons dotted the common room, each more concerned with consuming their bowls of stew than with the new arrivals. One man looked up at their entry, but quickly returned to his meal, unconcerned with the party.

Padreg led the lady to a table at the back of the room, waiting until she had sat down, to sit near her, with his back to the wall and his eyes on the door. Two of his men bracketed them while the rest of the group took up another table nearby.

A serving girl quietly took their orders, returning promptly with their meals. The group ate in silence, absorbing the heat of the food and the warmth of the inn like sea sponges.

It had been a cold journey, with no fires and few nights without the constant fall of rain or snow. When they had done with their meal, Padreg escorted Elisira to her room.

“My lady, I know that this rude place is most likely not what you are used to –“

“As I am so accustomed to the royal hospitality of abandoned barns and rocky hollows?” the lady tartly interjected.

Padreg had the grace to look abashed. “You are right. My apologies. If I could, I would keep you in rooms of silk and lace, my lady.”

“I’d prefer fur and a warm fire, my lord,” she said, and then added with an impish smile, “And you.” Greatly daring, she allowed a bit of the chaotic emotion roiling inside her heart to show in her eyes.

A large finger tremblingly reached out to trace her cheekbone and she leaned into it, cupping his hand against her face.

“You must allow young Devon to share your room, my lady. It would not do for a lady of your stature to be without a manservant,” Padreg said huskily.

“Then I shall suffer his presence,” Elisira said lightly, a smile gracing her lips to reassure the Y’Noran that she was not at all put off by the suggestion. Sharing the room with the boy would be like sharing a room with her cousin, back at home. If she could handle little Dirk’s childish imperiousness, surely Devon would be no trouble. After all, the boy had been near ghost-like on the trip so far, yet he had wormed his way into service to the Y’Noran king in enough ways that he seemed nearly indispensable. He bears the mark of his upbringing well, Elisira thought, remembering fondly the old guardsman who had been Devon’s father. And he’s just as full of surprises as Polis was. Fondly, she recalled the old guard’s last gift to her – the saber she now wore on her belt.

Padreg gestured and the boy took the key to the room, entering and lighting a fire while the two nobles stood outside. By the time Devon had brought up the few things that Elisira carried as baggage, the fireplace was crackling merrily and all the unspoken words between the Y’Noran and the Y’dani filled the hall with a heavy silence. As Padreg turned to go, Elisira was moved to act. Quickly, she turned and placed a single, chaste kiss into the palm of his hand.

“Keep that against the day when what is felt can be spoken, my lord,” she said quietly then entered her room and shut the door.

Padreg carefully closed his fist and brought it up to his heart, closing his eyes and bending his head in silent prayer.

“I am a broken fool,” he whispered, a broad smile washing over his face.
%%%
“Ran off, you say? Into the winter snows? Interesting.” Lord Oswyne stroked his rank tattoo slowly, looking down at the back of Porthyros’ head. There was a mole that throbbed in time with the scholar’s pulse peeking out above the collar of his tunic. Kesryn’s fingers twitched restlessly. The dagger secreted up his left sleeve could be so easy dropped, so quickly shoved into the throbbing tag of flesh.

Rich, crimson blood would flow, staining the carpet and floor. The sorcerer’s nostrils flared. Agony tainted power would rise, filling the room and charging through his bloodstream. But no, replacing the scholar now would mean more work, more time spent in gaining access to Y’dan’s king. Porthyros would live, for now.

“Yes, my lord. I take full responsibility, my lord.” The scholar’s voice wavered, but was loud enough to reach Kesryn’s ears.

The sorcerer rose and began pacing the room. “Perhaps this is best. If that cow Elisira is so easily strayed by that brute of a king Padreg, it is best we are rid of her. We need a woman we can ride easily. So be it. Let them go for now, Porthyros. If they return to the city, alert me at once, but for now, stay by the king and keep your eyes open for any of the women who might be more amenable, shall we say, to our patronage. That will be all,” he said dismissively, waving his hand.

Leaping up and backing out, the scholar tried hard not to shake, unable to believe his good fortune. The deal with the silversmiths must have been wonderfully lucrative after all!

“Oh, and Porthyros?”

“Yes, my lord?”

The lord’s eyes hardened to ice chips. “If you fail me again, I will have you drawn and quartered, slowly.” Without looking, Kesryn tossed his man a pouch – filled only with silver and not the usual gold, but enough to keep up Porthyros’ private pharmacy until they met again. There would be nothing left for the scholar to enjoy, but that was not important. He would have to be satisfied with his life.
%%%
King Arris Theodan sat staring at his empty throne room. The carved granite chair under his backside was harder than he ever thought it would be to sit upon. The gold leafed curly-cues and decorations poked and pinched him in uncomfortable spots all day, and the solid gold crown weighed down on his brow like a band of lead. He lifted the crown off and rubbed at the red spot that had formed where the edge had rubbed his skin off, leaving a thin but painful line of sores across his forehead.

“I hate this thing,” he groaned wearily.

“The weight of the crown is a burden only those chosen by gods can bear, my liege,” Porthyros said as he entered the room from behind the throne.

Arris turned his gaze on his old mentor and winced. “But why must I wear this old thing? Why can’t I make a new crown? This was my father’s crown! I want to make my own, just like King Ysradaran did when he founded the kingdom!”

Porthyros opened his mouth to argue with the grumpy monarch only to close it when the idea struck him as a good one.

“Perhaps you should, indeed, do that, your highness. What a wonderful way to celebrate Winterfest! You can display your new crown to the court then!” Porthyros said eagerly.

Arris was nodding. “Yes, and this time, the crown will be light, and comfortable. Perhaps a thinner band and maybe less decoration, what do you say, old friend?”

The professor cocked his head and pretended to study Arris’ brow. “I think it would be magnificent, your highness.”

“Excellent. Now, with regards to those pesky Y’Norans and that bitch, Elisira – I think I would like to have them declared outlaws. Let someone else hunt them down. Enough of the crown’s resources have been wasted on them.”

Since that was what Porthyros was going to suggest, the professor only nodded in agreement and said, “A wise decision, my liege. A good king knows how to delegate. Once again, you have proven yourself worthy to bear the burden of royalty.”

Arris flushed under the praise and then rubbed his eyes. “I am tired, Porthyros. Would you escort me to my chambers and then make some of your wonderful tea?”

“Of course, my liege,” Porthyros said, reaching out to take the king’s arm and lead the now tired monarch to the royal bedrooms.

Arris patted Porthyros’ arm gently. “What would I do without you, old friend?”

Porthyros did not reply.
~Chapter Eleven~
“I can’t believe we’re finally finished” Kyrian said as she huddled closer to the fire and sipped at a cup of mulled cider.

Azhani shrugged. “We worked hard and the place is small. I’m glad we were able to make the shed a little larger for Arun. I thought he was going to do back flips when I widened his stall.”

Kyrian chuckled at the image of her gelding acting like a circus acrobat. In truth, the horse had all but danced a jig as Azhani knocked out a wall on one side of the shed and used some of the supplies they had purchased in Barton to widen the area. The building now housed the horse and all their extra supplies comfortably.

In fact, the entire homestead had been cleaned and repaired. The main room that served as their sleeping, cooking and sitting area was as warm as any fine room at an inn and for that, the stardancer was grateful. Outside, the snow was waist deep and growing every candlemark.

Azhani’s leg had fully healed and the warrior took full advantage of that fact by going out almost every day, laying traps and seeking the odd fish that still swam in the stream that bordered the land around her father’s homestead.

Three days ago, just before the latest flurry of snow, the warrior had brought in the carcass of a bear. The animal had not found enough forage to hibernate and had attacked Azhani as she sat by the stream, fishing. After field dressing the meat, the warrior had dragged it home and between them, she and Kyrian had built racks to cure the hide and the meat.

Leaning forward, the stardancer stirred the pot of bear stew bubbling merrily on the fire. “You know, you shouldn’t have to go out for a few days, since we have all that bear meat now.”

“No, I suppose not,” mused the warrior, but Kyrian heard the hesitation in her voice.

“But you will anyway, won’t you?” She turned and grinned at her friend. Azhani looked away. “Oh come on, I know you by now. You love going out there in that awful weather and slogging through piles of snow! You’re as bad as a child, Azhani Rhu’len!” Kyrian teased gently.

When the warrior didn’t reply, Kyrian sighed softly. She had pushed too hard again. It happened far too often for the stardancer’s taste. Their personalities, while mostly compatible, could run afoul of each other at the oddest of moments, leaving the air between them colder than the storms outside. Opening her mouth to apologize, she was forestalled by Azhani’s voice.

“Yes, I do like being out there. It reminds me of the years I spent patrolling the kingdom. I’d rather be outside, riding under the open sky, than cooped up in a tiny cottage,” the warrior said quietly.

Kyrian nodded, accepting the tiny gem of information about her friend silently.

Azhani stood and paced around the room then reached for one of the practice blades that lined the wall by the door. “Spar with me?”

It was a new habit of theirs, to work out with each other, teaching what each knew of weapons-work and hand to hand combat. Azhani was, of course, far more knowledgeable than Kyrian with most weapons, but the stardancer had the advantage of spending her life learning what the priests of the goddess called “open fist”, a type of weaponless combat that relied on using an opponent’s strength against them.

“You bet!” Kyrian replied, shrugging off her robes and walking over to take up the short wooden rod that approximated the length and weight of her baton.
%%%
Wiping her face, Kyrian looked up at Arun and said, “Sweet goddess, but I wish you wouldn’t eat so much!” Today was her day to muck out the gelding’s stall and she had been working hard for nearly a candlemark. Azhani was out in front, cutting a walkway from the gate to the front door of the cabin. The stardancer could hear the steady, even crunching of the warrior’s shovel as it hit the snow. Smiling, she took a moment to look out the window and stare appreciatively at the warrior as she worked.

Clad only in a short-sleeved tunic and breeches, the warrior’s arms were bared and the chill had turned the normally dusky brown skin to a pale tan. Sweat ran down the center of her back, staining a dark line in the light blue fabric.

Azhani’s hair was tied back, the multiple braids loosely woven together and then held off her neck with a thick leather thong. Not far from where she was digging, the warrior’s sword was stuck in the snow, within easy reach. Kyrian noticed that the path had reached the gate and now the warrior was turning around and digging her way back, making a doubly wide walkway, large enough for the two of them to walk side by side.

A puff of warm air made her look up. Arun stuck his nose over her shoulder and watched Azhani dig. Reaching up, Kyrian patted the horse’s neck and said, “She’s beautiful, isn’t she boy?”

As if in agreement, the horse nodded.

“Yeah. I’m glad she’s my friend, too.” She nuzzled the horse, rubbing his soft nose. “You’re a great friend too, Arun, but Azhani’s special. She makes me feel… like I’m normal. I need that, Ar… I need to be normal.” The gelding lipped her fingers, searching for hidden treats.

“You want a carrot, boy? Let’s see what I’ve got in here.” Kyrian laughed at the tickly sensations and then looked down to search through her belt pouch. Coming up with a somewhat leathery carrot, she offered it to the horse. “It’s all I’ve got, and you’re not getting any more oats until supper.”

Greedily, Arun snatched up the vegetable and noisily chewed it up.

“Piggy,” Kyrian teased, making oinking sounds at the horse’s obvious enthusiasm. Taking one last glance at Azhani, she sighed heavily and put her back into her work. “I’m so glad there’s only one of you Arun,” she muttered as she cleaned.

Developing a rhythm, she sifted out the fouled straw and replaced it with new. Dusk was turning the sky outside a pale shade of indigo by the time she was finished. She was just about to stick the pitchfork into a bale of hay, when a crackling noise outside, echoed loudly in the shed.

The regular crunch of Azhani’s shovel had not ceased, so it was not the warrior she had heard. Suddenly fearful, the stardancer crept toward the door and peered out. Nothing but white snow and the dark bulk of the outhouse met her gaze. Passing it off as the wind, she turned away and drove the pitchfork into a hay bale, reaching for her crimson robe.

Just as her fingers brushed the heavy velvet, she was grabbed from behind. Massive, fur covered arms wrapped around her body. Whatever held her began to squeeze, crushing the air out of her lungs. A pungent, foul odor of decay overwhelmed her senses. Scarlet and black spots began to flash before her eyes as she fought for breath.

Kicking backwards, the heel of her foot connected with what felt like a knee, causing the creature to roar deafeningly close to her ears. It shifted its grip, giving Kyrian a chance to take in a huge gulp of air and then let it out in a terrified scream.

“Azhani!”

It roared again, covering the sound of her scream and she flung her head back, hitting it hard in the chest. Then she kicked back again, aiming lower and succeeded in driving the side of her foot into its shin. A bark of pain burst from its mouth and the grip was loosened. Putting all her strength into it, Kyrian tore herself free. Jumping away, she grabbed the pitchfork and turned to face her assailant.

Ugly yellow eyes gazed out from a body that had been twisted into something evil. Thick, gray fur curled and tufted around a pig-like snout. It stood hunched, one shoulder drooping lower than the other and at the end of its gnarled, misshapen paws, three inch long black claws gleamed in the weak lamplight. Its nostrils flared and it lunged for her.

Yelling, Kyrian swung wildly, scoring a scraping blow along the monster’s head.

When the creature had burst into the shed, Arun started kicking up a racket. Letting out a shrill scream, the horse crashed through his gate and raced into the yard, nearly bowling over Azhani, who was racing toward the shed at full speed.

The monster charged Kyrian, its arms reaching out for her. Using the hay bales as a bridge, the stardancer leapt up and ran over the straw toward the doorway while the creature flailed about, attempting to grab her.

She had just made it to the door when a hairy paw wrapped around her ankle and pulled her down. Dragging her back inside the shed, the creature crooned its pleasure while she ineffectually beat at it with the pitchfork. The monster’s gray fur was soon dappled with yellow ichor as wounds appeared in its thick, tough hide.

Crying and shouting, the stardancer tried valiantly to escape, but the monster’s grip was too tight. It had her half dangling by her ankle and was opening its mouth to take a bite when a long, piercing wail exploded in the shed. Kyrian went limp with relief. She had never heard a more beautiful sound.

Azhani raced through the door shouting, “Hang on, Kyrian,” and somersaulted over the beast’s head, swinging her blade down in a powerful arc, severing its paw.

Freed, the stardancer scrambled backwards, cowering in a corner of the stall, shaking uncontrollably. Sobbing, Kyrian wrapped her arms around her knees and tried to pretend that she was somewhere else.

“Come on you Twins forsaken piece of shit, come and get me!” the warrior yelled, leaping down from the bales and striking out at the same time. An ear went flying, spattering the wall of the shed with steaming blood and ichor.

Pain maddened, the demon threw back its head and let out a chillingly loud cry and then plowed into Azhani, knocking her down. Backing up, he smacked her in the head, tearing deep gashes down the side of her face and neck. Azhani shouted in pain and kicked upward, driving her boot heel into the gut. Carrion scented air exploded around the warrior and the monster choked.

“No! Get off her!” Kyrian, startled from her paralytic fear, surged upward, grabbing up the discarded pitchfork and swinging it in a double-handed arc. The forged iron tines, driven by the ferocity of fear and anger, penetrated deep into the monster’s back, tearing through muscle and bone. Giving the tool a vicious twist, the stardancer pushed as hard as she could, trying to force the monster off of her friend.

As soon as the demon’s weight was off her, Azhani rolled away and bounced up, bringing her sword blade down in a furious swing, cutting off its head. Without pausing, the warrior darted outside, immediately searching the property for more of the demons. When none appeared, she returned to the shed to see to Kyrian.

Numbly, Kyrian let go of the pitchfork and backed away, feeling her gorge rise. Panic and terror overwhelmed her once again and she raced out of the shed, crying and gagging. Falling to her knees in the snow, the stardancer vomited until her stomach was empty.

Azhani drove her sword into the snow and knelt next to her friend, rubbing her back until she had caught her breath. The stardancer was trembling violently and the warrior was deeply concerned for her friend but she knew that they had to get out of the blood stained clothes as soon as possible.

Already she could feel the caustic effects of the sickly yellow blood as it burned into her skin. Scooping up handfuls of snow, she began to wash as much of the ichor away as she could. Weakly, Kyrian tried to help her, but her efforts were mostly ineffectual.

This was worse than the bandits. Yes, the raiders had been monsters, but this thing, this hairy, foul smelling creature whose hunger seemed to be so focused on the stardancer had driven a bolt of fear straight into Kyrian’s heart.

“Wha-what was that?” she finally managed to choke out.

“Demon,” Azhani tersely replied. “Okay, healer, we need to get out of these clothes. They’re toast. Come on, stand up.” The warrior coaxed, keeping her voice firm but gentle. Like a newborn kitten, Kyrian blindly allowed Azhani to pull her up and then strip the clothes from her body.

Shivering from the chill now, Kyrian nonetheless felt better to have the sticky reminder of the monster gone. “Thanks,” she murmured, hugging herself tightly.

“Get into the house and see to your leg. I’ll take care of this,” Azhani ordered in a tone that brooked no argument.

Kyrian didn’t bother to reply, she just darted into the house, wincing in pain at every step.

Whistling for Arun, Azhani waited for the frightened horse to reappear. Shortly, he came trotting up the road and leapt over the low fence. Cantering up to her, he came to a skidding halt about five feet away.

“I know, boy. Stinks like death over here. You just wait there; I’ve got a job for you,” the warrior said soothingly.

Uncertain, the horse stood still, watching her.

Azhani ducked into the shed. Pulling the pitchfork from the demon’s back, she dropped the makeshift weapon aside. The warrior then grabbed hold of the demon’s feet and dragged it outside. Getting a large piece of canvas, she rolled the creature and its parts up and tied it tightly then attached a length of rope.

Patiently, Arun allowed her to saddle him and then, when she guided him over to the canvas and rope tied bundle, slowly picked his way through the snow.

“Come on, that’s it, just a little bit more,” Azhani coaxed softly. Her head ached fiercely and she knew she had to finish quickly, so it could be cleaned. Reaching down, she grabbed the rope and then wheeled the horse around.

They returned a candlemark later, after having burned the demon’s remains. By the time she led Arun in, Kyrian had taken care of herself and was just finishing the clean up on the shed.

The stardancer took charge of her horse, stabling him and brushing him down and then giving him a larger than normal portion of oats. When she came out of the shed, she found Azhani piling the fouled straw and setting it on fire.

“You’re hurt,” Kyrian said as she came around and saw the massive amount of dried blood on the warrior’s face.

“Yep. Feels like it tried to rip my head off,” the warrior said, wincing as the stardancer reached up and began probing the wounds.

“Need to get you inside, and clean that up. C’mon,” Kyrian tugged on Azhani’s hand.

Suddenly, the warrior pulled the stardancer close, crushing her against her chest. Kyrian’s breath whooshed out in a gasp, but she gladly accepted the embrace, wrapping her arms around Azhani’s waist and clinging tightly.

“Thought I’d lost you,” Azhani murmured brokenly, shaking jerkily as hot tears dripped into the stardancer’s hair. “I don’t think I’d like that too much.”

“It’s okay, Azhani. I’m not going anywhere,” Kyrian said gently. I’m never going anywhere that doesn’t keep me by your side. “I’m so glad you were here. You saved my life, again.”

Azhani laughed, releasing the stardancer. “And you saved mine! Very impressive move, my friend. The beast never saw it coming.” Dropping her arm around Kyrian’s shoulders, she started walking toward the cabin. “Now, you mentioned something about fixing my face? Because it hurts like hell.”

“Yeah, come on. I’ve got stuff already waiting inside,” Kyrian said as they walked. “You know, I never thought I’d ever use that charcoal colored stuff that the Y’skani doctors gave me, but they really pressed how important it was to use it on any wounds received from a demon. Now that I’ve seen what kind of damage they do, I understand why.” She looked up at Azhani, who nodded.

“Infection. The claws are poisonous. I lost so many men that way,” Azhani said through gritted teeth. The adrenalin rush was wearing off and now the pain was eating into her, making her feel like someone was pouring streams of hot lava down the side of her head.

Hearing the agony in her friend’s voice, Kyrian increased her pace. I’ll take care of you, Azhani, just like you took care of me. The fact that the warrior seemed willing to forget that Kyrian had lost it, made the words of praise all that much sweeter.
%%%
Thick, driving rain snuck into the nooks and crannies of Elisira’s clothes, causing uncontrollable shivers to wrack her body. The noblewoman tugged her cloak tighter around her face and wished again that they had been able to stay in Brenton. Instead, knowing that Arris would not likely give up, they had returned to the chill embrace of the wilderness. Northward they rode, sticking to the trade routes as best they could. It had been at least a week since they had seen anything besides the occasional rabbit.

Barton was their goal – a tiny pinpoint on a crude map that the innkeeper in Brenton had made for them. If anyone had seen Azhani in the north, it would be the lawless folk of the free town. The innkeeper had spoken of the people of Barton in hushed, fearful tones, and at first, Elisira was reluctant to go to a place that inspired such trepidation. The achingly cold days and nights of travel had erased any fears, leaving her dreaming of the day she supped with the scoundrels of the kingdoms.

Two of Padreg’s men had taken ill during the journey. Alexander Payle had died in his sleep, his body unable to fight off the horrible coughing sickness. Syrah Jessup was still fighting, but her weakened body would not be able to last much longer. The loss of Alexander brought their party down to a mere handful, which did not afford the noblewoman much sleep at night.

Strange noises flitted around the camp at night, making the hairs on the back of Elisira’s neck stand at full attention, no matter how many layers she hid under. Barely warm nights were broken by bone shattering mornings of cold so intense that everyone’s faces were bright red within marks of waking. Stopping in Brenton had been their savior. Without the extra equipment Padreg had purchased, they would have all frozen. Their new tents clung to the ground, bending the arctic winds over them and creating a tunnel of comfort. Even the horses crawled in at night, gratefully laying wind-chafed bodies down on woven grass mats.

Elisira had almost gotten used to the scent of wet horse. It wasn’t as fuggy as the musty scent of wet dog, or as pleasant as the smell of dew-spattered grass. Still, she supposed life could be worse. Instead of spending her days and nights in the company of people she liked, she could be stuck in Y’dannyv, married to King Arris.

Looking up at Padreg, she weighed her absolute disgust over Arris with the way that the Y’Noran made her feel. Lightheaded, breathless and free easily won out over frightened, dirty and nauseated. As uncomfortable as her current life was, it was eminently more preferable to that of a pampered slave. Elisira wiped her nose and sighed. If only they could be free of the damnable cold.

Rain gave way to sleet and then to snow as they picked their way along the road. Elisira peered down the road, seeking Padreg’s scouts. The men were about a half-mile away, hopefully still following the right trail. None of them had ever been this far north and finding their way in the storm had been part luck and part skill.

Food was the one thing that none of them had considered thoroughly. Padreg knew that cold bodies required more fuel to stay warm. What the chieftain neglected to plan for was the bitter chill of the northern Y’dani wilderness. The supplies they had thought would last several months was now almost gone. Hunting had supplemented their meager stores, but the further they traveled north, the scarcer game became.

With less than a pound of dried meat and a few handfuls of rice, everything green was tested for edibility. Some of the trees had bits that could be boiled into a thick, bitter broth that while tasting horrible, provided some warmth and nutrition. Tonight though, they would have a bit of fresh meat for the party. Devon’s quick skill with a sling had brought down a family of quail and tracing the bird’s path had led the swiftly growing boy to their den.

Elisira sought out the face of the page, surprised to see the light down of a first beard hugging his narrow boned chin. He’s grown so much… In the weeks since leaving Y’dannyv, the gawky boy had sprouted almost two inches, meeting the noblewoman eye to eye. His voice was also undergoing the painfully embarrassing tonal changes. One moment, she would hear the enthusiastic boy and the next, the ghost of the man he would become, would echo from his mouth.

For Devon’s sake, as well as their own, the noblewoman prayed that they were as near to Barton as the map promised. She was coming to realize that close in the Y’dani woods could mean candlemarks or days, and they did not have days.

Freeing a hand to brush accumulated snow away from her face, she looked for Padreg and found him conferring with one of his men. It was Aden, she realized, recognizing the shorter man’s posture. The tall king gestured and Aden shook his head. Padreg gestured again, furiously, and again, Aden’s response was negative. The young noblewoman clicked to her horse, encouraging him to join Padreg and his liegeman.

“My lord, is there something amiss?” she called out softly as she drew closer.

Padreg turned and looked at Elisira, smiling unconsciously at her approach.

“Nay, my lady, it is nothing to disturb yourself with,” he said, his deep voice rough with the accent of his homeland.

She raised an elegant eyebrow. “Your man looks fair ready to burst, my lord. Please, do not think to protect me by hiding ill winds from my knowledge. They will still blow fetid and rank.”

“Aptly put, my lady,” Aden whispered, hiding a smirk.

Padreg sighed in resignation. “As you will, my lady. Aden brings word that we are being tracked – yet not by king’s men or bounty hunters. Ice demons hunt the snows, or so he claims. He has yet to see the creatures, so I cannot place full credit to his scouting.”

Elisira felt her heartbeat treble. “Demons, Aden? You are certain?”

The man nodded warily. “As certain as I can be, using only fire tales and book learning to guide me. I, myself, have never faced a demon, but I have studied the histories. I know the signs – shadows in wind, the smell of rot and most importantly, the ochre slime of their waste. See here,” the man held up a leather-wrapped object. Inside was a dagger coated in deep yellow ochre slime. “I found this not more than a candlemark ago.”

The foul substance steamed and bubbled in the cold, eating through the metal of the knife blade and leaving behind blackened, wasted pits. Elisira paled.

“We must seek shelter, my lord. Your man is correct in his tracking. Demons hunt this land,” Elisira said firmly, turning to scan the road ahead intently. “If they have our scent, it will not be long ere they feast on our entrails.”

Padreg reached out a hand to reassure the lady, but quickly withdrew it at the steely look of determination that settled on Elisira’s face.

“I will require a bow, my lord, and sturdily tipped arrows.”

“Of course. You can use Alexander’s,” Padreg nodded at Aden and the scout hurried off to retrieve the dead soldier’s weapon.
%%%
As the day wore on, Elisira tried not to regret stringing the bow that now lay across her saddlebow, the string chafing against the fabric of her breeches. She also tried to recall every lesson she had ever taken from Azhani on the use of the weapon, as well as the few tips her father’s huntsman had given her. On her hip rode the saber, its peace ties fluttering loosely.

Astariu grant me the skill to use these weapons well, and the courage to draw them under fire.

The snow had mercifully let up, but Elisira knew it was only temporary. Worse was yet to come. Hopefully, by then, the party would be in Barton, safely tucked away in an inn and warming their weary feet by a cheerful fire. Delightful visions of warmed honey mead and a thick beef stew floated just out of Elisira’s reach. She could almost smell it, rich, sweet and wonderfully hot. Her eyes fluttered shut as she savored the dream.

A fat, wet gob of snow plopped onto her nose.

Her horse suddenly reared, nearly throwing the lady to the ground. Elisira grabbed the reins, quickly getting the horse under control.

“Easy boy,” she muttered, using her knees to direct the suddenly recalcitrant stallion. Behind her, Padreg’s men were muttering as wind began to shake the branches of the trees.

“Demons!” A high-pitched yell broke through the unnerving silence. Elisira’s gaze snapped to Devon. He was pointing to a patch of snow that seemed just a bit grayer than the rest. The shifting wind brought the faintest hint of something putrid, causing the hairs on the back of the lady’s neck to rise in fear.

“Fire the torches men!” Padreg yelled. Each of his men carried a torch, the one known bane of the demons. Elisira pulled out her own torch and fumbled with her flint and striker, cursing the cold that made her hands clumsy. From the corner of her eyes, she could see that the others were having just as tough a time with the torches.

The smell grew stronger as the wind’s velocity increased. Large, shaggy masses of teeth and claws began to rise up out of the snowy ground and a low, thrumming hum joined with the whistle of the wind to create an eerie chorus. The horses all began to sidle, nervously shaking their heads and taking uncertain, frightened steps backward.

“Get those torches up, now!” Padreg’s fear tinged voice weakly pierced the hum of the demons. One by one, the creatures advanced on the party.

Devon, who was having just as much difficulty as the others, suddenly dropped his flint and striker, snapped his fingers and shouted, “Light damn you, light!”

The torches all lit with an explosive burst.

“Circle up and protect the lady,” Padreg ordered, grabbing his horse’s reins and pulling close to Elisira. His face was a mask of stoic determination. “We will not die today.”

The steady creak of bending wood filled the air as bows were knocked. There was a moment of absolute stillness as the arrows sliced through the air and then, as they struck their targets, chaos erupted. Roars of pain and fury blended with the wind as bows were dropped and blades drawn.

Elisira struck out at anything she could, praying that her blade bit deeply into the hides of foes, not friends. Bedlam danced madly around the party. Gray furred death reached out for the lives of Padreg’s men, carving pieces away from the group one by one. The screams of horse and man blended with the grunts and growls of the demons.

Blood and ichor puddled in the snow, vivid splashes of crimson and yellow that fanned out around the raging battle. Viscous slurry made footing traitorous for the horses and the weather turned even worse. Fighting blind, the Y’Noran party tightened their formation, trying to make a knot around their king and his lady.

A bloody, razor-taloned paw came out of the white haze and slashed at Elisira. She ducked, swinging her blade wildly. The sickening sensation of metal slicing through fur and flesh reverberated up her arm and she just barely kept herself from vomiting. She spared one moment to send off a quick prayer as she turned her head away to see one of Padreg’s men dragged from his horse and carried off into the woods. Grimly, she forced her head around and maneuvered into his spot, facing the next demon.
~Chapter Twelve~
Azhani Rhu’len was hunting. Not for the rare bachelor buck or early risen bear, but for demons. It had been three days since the demon had attacked Kyrian and nearly taken the life of her only friend, and she was determined that nothing else would sneak up on them. Wincing, she pulled her scarf up around her face again. Thin, dark lines were all that remained of the painful slashes that the demon’s claws had left behind.

The stardancer had given freely of her magic, healing Azhani and then herself. Kyrian and Arun were now safely tucked away in the cabin. The door was barricaded and the warrior had admonished the stardancer not to let anyone in, nor was she to go out for any reason. There was even a makeshift chamber pot in the storage room, so that she would not have to even make the quick journey to the privy. The rest of the room had been converted into a makeshift stable for the horse.

Every day since the attack, Azhani had searched the woods, struggling through the snowstorm on foot until she could go no further. Then she had packed her bedroll and started an even wider circuit, praying that the blankets were as warm as they looked. Before leaving, she and Kyrian sat down and talked about her eventual return.
“Promise me you’ll be safe out there, Azhani,” Kyrian said quietly, pleading with her eyes. The stardancer’s hands were entangled in a piece of soft cloth that she had been using to dry the dishes.

Azhani nodded, smiling ruefully. “I can’t promise that, but I swear that I will return.”

Kyrian accepted the compromise. “All right. How will I know you’re back? If I lock the door, and I have the key, how are you going to get in?”

The warrior whistled piercingly, a long, four-note burst that echoed through the cabin.

“Oh,” Kyrian said, nodding wisely. “I see. Yes, I think I’d be able to hear that even in the middle of a good dream.”

Grinning, Azhani said, “And if I’m not alone, you’ll hear this.” She added a trill. Slowly, patiently, Azhani went through several different whistle combinations for danger, friend, injury and every other possible eventuality she could imagine. When she was through, she stood up and Kyrian stood with her.

Wordlessly, the stardancer wrapped her arms around her friend, hugging her tightly. “Come back soon, Azhani Rhu’len. I don’t want to spend too much time talking to Arun.”

Azhani sighed softly, petting Kyrian’s soft, curly tangle of hair. It had grown out since they had met, and now the amber-golden locks cloaked the stardancer’s shoulders. “Well, I hope poor Arun doesn’t get too bored listening to your addlepated ideas,” she said teasingly.

“Azhani!” Kyrian squawked, pulling away. “Be nice!” She smacked the warrior’s shoulder, and then cursed when the palm of her hand caught the edge of one of the burnished metal studs in the armor. “Ow,” she whimpered exaggeratedly.

“Poor baby. Here, let me see,” Azhani took the stardancer’s hand and turned it up, seeking signs of injury. A faint red mark marred the pale skin of her friend’s palm. “Mm, this looks bad. I think I’m going to have to use one of my father’s favorite remedies.” A twinkle of mischief sparkled in her eyes. She looked into Kyrian’s open face and said, “Now, just close your eyes, Kyrian, and count to ten, and by the time you’re done, the pain will be all gone.”

Gamely, Kyrian closed her eyes. Her palm really didn’t hurt that much, but it was heartbreakingly wonderful to see this playful side of Azhani peek out from behind those indigo blue eyes. She started counting, “One, two, three…”

As Kyrian counted, Azhani brought the stardancer’s hand up to her lips and waited.

“Ten,” Kyrian breathed, and then felt the wonderful sensation of soft lips brushing her skin.

“There now, all better?” Azhani asked, her voice seemingly deeper than before.

“Oh yeah, fine, thanks, yeah, that’s some wonderful trick there, Azhani,” Kyrian babbled, suddenly eager to reclaim her hand.

“Good. Now, as much as I hate to say it, I have to go,” Azhani turned and gathered up her heavy cloak, wrapping its furry warmth around her like an extra suit of armor. “Stay safe, I’ll be back.” With those words, she left to begin her search.
This morning, she had seen her first signs that the search was not in vain.

She very nearly stumbled into a jellied puddle of demon spoor. Azhani squatted down, studying the substance with a practiced eye. Just the very sight of the stuff brought back enough memories to make her teeth hurt. It’s too soon. They shouldn’t be rising for another two years. She poked at it with an arrow, grimacing when the caustic matter melted the perfectly good arrowhead.

Looking up, she saw that she was staring into the burned out bowl of a tree. A patch of mushrooms, thick and dark lined the interior. Reaching in, she casually snapped one off and sniffed it. A musty, but sweet scent tickled her nose and she smiled in delight. A treat for Kyrian. Thank you, goddess. Carefully, she harvested the mushrooms, tucking them away in her pouch for safekeeping.

Living with the stardancer had become the most pleasurable part of the warrior’s existence. The younger woman’s natural enthusiasm and exuberance for life had infected Azhani, making each day seem a little lighter. Life wasn’t perfect and there were many things yet to be done, but for this winter, perhaps the gods would not object if she took some small comfort from Kyrian’s friendship.

She glanced down at the puddle of slime slowly melting through the snow and smiled grimly. It started snowing again, dappling her shoulders with a dusting of white. The wind began to pick up and Azhani breathed deeply, snarling when she caught the faintest trace of a very familiar scent. Coupled with the distinctive pool of the demon’s hunting spoor, Azhani knew that something – or worse yet – someone was in danger.

“I knew you weren’t alone, you piece of slime. Now, let’s see what your brothers have cornered,” she whispered, drawing her blade and moving on silent feet through the woods.
%%%
Blinking through the blood trickling into her eyes, Elisira desperately tried to hold back the demon that was attacking her. The noblewoman felt like she was caught up in a whirlwind. Demons howled around her, their teeth and claws shredding into flesh and throwing out bright crimson fans of blood. Suddenly, she tried to break free, spurring the horse toward an opening in the trees. Rising up before her, the demon roared, causing the stallion to rear and dance backward on his hind legs.

Wheeling back, Elisira huddled up with the rest of the party, doing her best to keep the demons at bay. Curling her lip into a feral snarl, she growled. Trapped. She hated being trapped. Whether it was disguised as the false nobility of King Arris or revealed as the hunger driven rage of hellish monsters, she didn’t care. A rumble of anger and frustration worked its way up from her belly, ripping free to become a shout of pure adrenalin.

“Everyone, concentrate on breaking free! If we can get them to fall back, we can run!” Elisira’s voice penetrated the chaos.

A smile sprang to Padreg’s blood and ichor spattered face and he nodded. “She’s right, lads! Press on!”

Renewing the fight, they strove to throw back the onslaught. Wildly yelling, laying about them with new vigor, the Y’Norans drove the demons back. The tightly pressed circle of horses expanded, giving them more room to fight.

Then Devon went down, knocked from his saddle by a demon that leaped from the trees.

“Devon!” Elisira yelled, trying to break away and ride to his defense. The beast in front of her cut her off, swiping at the horse’s head.

A sound heard in the nightmares of many, the dreams of few and the prayers of one, burst into the clearing. Somersaulting into the fray came a blue and white clad figure; a sword flashing about with such deadly ferocity that one of the demons’ heads was cleaved from its body.

The newly arrived warrior let out another ear splitting wail and leapt over the falling demon’s body to skewer the one facing Elisira. The noblewoman barely had time to see a flash of indigo blue eyes and dusky brown skin before the warrior was gone, running toward the remaining demons.

Elisira watched in awe as the warrior made quick work of the monsters that had been, up until now, making mincemeat of the party. With a ferocity shown by few, the warrior engaged the demons, ripping chunks of fur and flesh from the bodies of their attackers.

Riding over to assist a fallen comrade, Elisira dared not question this gift from the gods. Whether their strange savior was Azhani, or someone using her trademark battle cry did not matter at this moment. What was important was escape.

The strange warrior moved from demon to demon, never spending more than a few breaths on their deaths. The creatures seemed to sense that this new warrior was one who they could not defeat and began backing away from the newly energized party.

“Your bows, men! Feather their hides!” Padreg shouted, lifting his own short bow and quickly firing off two arrows, hitting one of the demons in the flank.

The demon howled and made to attack the Y’Noran king but was quickly brought down by a hail of arrows from the other men.

Leaping in front of a demon attempting to run, the warrior thrust deeply into the beast’s side, spilling fresh ichor onto the snow. The creature howled in frustration, slapping a paw out at the warrior and following it with a vicious head butt. The warrior sidestepped and slashed, opening up a nasty gash along the creature’s shoulder. Standing to charge, it was brought down by arrows from Padreg’s men. The remaining two demons scrambled off into the forest, leaving the group to lick its wounds and catch their breaths.

They let them go. Too injured and too sickened to fight on, the party needed to find a place to heal and mourn. Two men were dead, torn to ribbons by the demon’s claws. Four of the horses were also gone, leaving the party short by two mounts. No one, man or beast, was spared injury.

Elisira felt her sword arm begin to tremble in exhaustion and was about to drop her blade when Azhani’s voice echoed in her mind, “Never drop a weapon. The minute you do, you’re dead. Your blade is the one thing standing between you and whatever is trying to kill you. It is a part of you and should never be forsaken.” Her slackening grip tightened automatically and instead, she laid the blade across the pommel of the saddle.

After a few breaths of the rank, coppery air, the noblewoman felt queasy. Breathing shallowly, she turned her gaze on the warrior who had rescued them. It had to be Azhani. No other moved quite like the former warleader did – as though her feet only brushed the surface of the ground, rather than pounded into it. She was going from corpse to corpse, neatly beheading the demons.

Elisira guided her shaking mare over to the warrior. “My thanks to you stranger.”

She looked up and the cowl of her cloak fell away to reveal a heartbreakingly familiar face.

“Azhani?” the noblewoman whispered disbelievingly. Sliding off her horse and slowly walking toward the blood spattered figure, she held out a hand and whispered, “Azhi? Goddess, please, is that you?”

Padreg, drawn by the pain and hope in his beloved’s voice, strode over to them. “Is she right, stranger? Be you the one called Azhani Rhu’len?”

Azhani stood there, staring at her old friend. From the corner of her eye, she saw the boy she remembered as Devon, Pol Imry’s kid, looking at her with such hope in his face that she could not turn away. Raising her gaze to Elisira’s, she nodded.

With a tiny cry, Elisira leapt across the remaining space and gave her a tight, one-armed hug. “Thank you,” she whispered, several times.

“Azhi!” Devon cried out in joy, as he raced pell-mell to her side. Bouncing happily, he hugged her, released her and hugged her again. “It’s you, it really is you! I knew it! I knew you weren’t dead! I knew those cranky old bastards couldn’t kill you!” Tears streamed openly down his face and he threw his arms around her again, burying his head in her shoulder. “I missed you,” he whispered.

She ruffled his hair affectionately. “Missed you, too, squirt.” The warrior wrapped her arms around Elisira and brushed her lips over the noblewoman’s forehead. “Missed you, as well, Eli.”

Gruffly, Padreg said, “I’m glad to find you, warrior. I have need of your services.”

Releasing the warrior, Elisira began cleaning her sword off in the snow. Dark pits on the blade appeared wherever the demon’s caustic blood had eaten through the metal. Frowning, she sheathed the saber and looked up at Padreg, who was waiting for Azhani to reply.

Azhani was staring at Padreg, eyeing him narrowly, as if trying to decide if he were daft.

Turning to the warrior, she dropped to one knee. “Master,” she said, waiting for Azhani to acknowledge her. “I have not lost your lessons.”

The warrior looked down, noting that the noblewoman had cleaned and sheathed her blade. She had also remained calm, even after the danger had passed, which impressed Azhani deeply.

“Then my teaching was not in vain. I am grateful,” Azhani replied in a solemn tone, reaching out to touch Elisira on the shoulder. “You are injured, my friend. Let me tend your wounds.”

The lady scuffed her knuckles across the slash on her head, wincing when they came away bloody. “I’ll be all right. There are others who need your skills more.”

Azhani nodded and let Devon go. “I need to go help your friends, Dev. Do me a favor and find some bandages, okay?” she said after quickly making sure that the boy was not injured. His injuries, like Elisira’s, were light. He nodded and ran off to look over the packs.

“Why is it you seek me?” Her gaze fell on the horseshoe-shaped tattoo that adorned his left collarbone. “Who are you, Plainsman?”

Bowing, Padreg said, “I am Padreg Keelan, Clan chief of Y’Nor and I seek you because I need shelter.” The plainsman grinned wryly. “It seems I have become an outlaw in your kingdom.”

One dark eyebrow rose, telegraphing Azhani’s curiosity. “How does a king become an outlaw in one of the seven kingdoms?”

“With korethka, all things are possible,” he replied softly. Looking at Elisira, he smiled as she helped Devon rip up tunics for bandages. “Though there is more than just the sting of soul’s love that taints our problems, my lady warrior. I daresay that King Arris’ darkened soul would have found other cause to despise me. Be that as it may, it was upon my request to court yon lady that I learned of a plot to assassinate me.” He nodded at Devon. “The young man there, he came to me at great risk to expose the machinations of Y’dan’s monarch.

I should have perhaps fled, taking only those loyal to me with, but my heart cried out to beg the companionship of the lady Elisira. She agreed, for she has no love for Arris, though he desires her for his own.”

“He’ll not have her,” Azhani said through clenched teeth, her hands opening and closing in fists.

Padreg started at her reaction, but continued. “As we have traveled north, I have returned my mind to my stay at Y’dannyv, and found that the king’s intentions toward the lady were perhaps less honorable than those of a dog caught in mid rut. I wondered then, if he were so driven to attack me over a tumble in the hay, why he had ousted you from your honorably held position? If my own branding of outlaw was done so cheaply, was the label affixed beside your name any richer?”

The warrior sorted through the king’s statement and shrugged. “I killed a lot of innocent men. I did it to escape the king’s justice. Draw your own conclusions.” She shrugged and began to turn away.

“A king like Arris knows not what true justice is, warrior. Upon this day, in the sight of the Twins, for naught but the sake of what was good and right, you proved your innocence. You are a true servant of Astariu, Azhani. It would honor me greatly to have you at my back,” Padreg said solemnly, offering the warrior his arm.

Hesitantly, she clasped it, grunting at the surprising firmness of the Y’Noran’s grip. “Thank you, your highness,” she murmured, granting him the respect of his title.

“Padreg’ll do, warrior. I’m not one to stand on ceremony, especially when I’m freezing my manhood off in the middle of a snowdrift the size of an Y’skani sand dune.”

A genuine smile creased the warrior’s face. “Follow me then, Padreg. What shelter I have is small, and already shared, but what room you can find, you are welcome to use.”

“Shared?” Elisira, who had finished with the bandages and was walking up to bind a cut on Padreg’s hand asked, loading the word with a thousand questions.

“Someone I met on the road. An Y’Syran stardancer called Kyrian,” Azhani said, grinning brightly. “She saved my leg with her care.” Lowering her voice for Elisira’s ears only, “And her friendship has rescued my soul.”

The depth of pain in the warrior’s crystal blue eyes was visible for the briefest of moments, vanishing quickly to be replaced by a hard calm that sent a chill down the other woman’s spine. Elisira fervently wished that she would never be at odds with the woman whose glare could cut as deep as any knife.

“If you would warrior, lead us on to this place of refuge,” Padreg said and then turned to give his remaining warriors orders to gather the slain. “I like it not to leave good Y’Noran blood to teeth and fang. We’ll build a cairn some ways from here, if that be all right with you, warrior?”

“Call me Azhani. Yes, that’s fine. We can leave the demons – if anything out here is willing to stomach them, they’re welcome to the remains,” the warrior replied absently. Mentally, she mapped out the route they would take back to her father’s homestead. She knew just the place where they could find a nice, open area with plenty of rock and debris suitable to build cairns for the fallen.
%%%
Traveling was difficult, yet easier than it had been. With Azhani to lead them, the scouts no longer hunted blindly for half-remembered landmarks. The innkeeper in Brenton had been helpful, but it was terribly hard to locate every burnt out tree stump and moss covered boulder he had described as popular markers along the route to Barton.

After a candlemark, they stopped and buried the bodies of Padreg’s men. Azhani approved of the Y’Norans; they were quiet, hard working and efficient in their actions. Unlike the boisterous Y’dani she had served with most of her life, the Y’Norans followed orders without question. Yet, when one of the men had a suggestion, they did not hesitate to approach their king with it.

As the last stone was laid in place, Padreg stepped up and put his hand on the cairn. Closing his eyes, he took a deep breath and began to speak.

“Far from home, my brothers, but close to heart, you’ll be. Alexander, brother of Stefan, fair of hair and bright of eye, always with a joke in your heart, may the goddess never tire of your uproarious spirit. Nadine, daughter of Gwenneth, with your brown eyes and red hair like fire, and a spirit to match, may you dance with Astarus. Finally, to Roald, be he ever so brave, be he ever so old, no one knew mead like my good friend Roald!”

There was laughter, and more than few tears, as Aden, Thomas and Syrah each went to the cairn and said their goodbyes. Azhani, Elisira and Devon watched the proceedings, and as the Y’Norans turned away, the noblewoman and the page each stepped up to the cairn and laid wreathes of tiny white flowers on the dark gray stones.

It was nearing sunset as they approached the gate and Azhani gave out the four note whistle that meant she was home, adding a trill that she hoped the stardancer would remember meant that she was not alone. The warrior looked at her father’s homestead and felt no little sense of pride. She and Kyrian had cleaned it up, taking the ramshackle buildings and fence line and making it livable once again. Smoke chuffed merrily from the chimney and there was a cleared path through the snow that led from the gate to the door of the house. Branching off from the side were covered pathways that went to a shed and a privy.

A light came on near a window and Azhani winced at the stardancer’s seeming lack of caution. The door creaked open and Kyrian exited the building, dressed in full stardancer regalia, down to her steel baton and Twins token. A grin pricked Azhani’s lips briefly before the warrior’s customary mask of calm settled in its place.

“I’m home,” she simply said.

“And you’ve brought guests, I see. Wonderful, welcome and please in the name of the goddess, enter in peace.” Kyrian’s natural charm quietly threaded its way through the group, putting to rest whatever trepidations remained. This was not the home of a known fugitive, but the sanctuary of a stardancer, one of Astariu’s most beloved servants.

As they entered, Kyrian immediately went to the man whose injuries were the worst and carefully helped him off the horse and into the cabin.

Azhani watched the stardancer go and then turned to Padreg. “You can bring the horses to the shed. There’s not much room – the building wasn’t meant to be used as a stable, but I’m sure Arun won’t mind the company.”

Padreg nodded, but his eyes, as well as Elisira’s, were glued to the rapidly moving form of the crimson robed stardancer.

Elisira turned to Azhani and admiringly said, “She’s good, for one so young.”

“She does all right,” Azhani admitted.

Before long, the group was nicely ensconced in the main room of the house. The most stable portion of the upstairs loft was quickly turned into an infirmary. Downstairs, the walking wounded huddled around the fire, grateful to shuck layers of blood and grime encrusted clothing.

Young Devon was fast asleep, his head pillowed on his folded hands and two blankets draped over his exhausted body. Azhani moved from person to person, doing what she could for their injuries while Kyrian and Elisira handled the severely wounded.

The creaking of the floor above them made Azhani nervous. Unable to repair the supports, neither she nor Kyrian had been upstairs since they had closed it off for the winter. We can’t keep them up there; we have to move them into the storeroom maybe, but…

A sharp cracking noise interrupted her thoughts.

“Look out!” Azhani yelled, grabbing the sleeping boy and rolling away from the hearth. The splintering sound of wood, followed by a drift of cobwebs and several choked off oaths filled the room. Looking up, it was easy to see the stardancer’s booted foot and cotton clad leg sticking out of the ceiling.

There was a moment of stillness and then Kyrian’s bright laughter caused everyone else’s mirth to be set free.

“Aw damn it, Azhani, wouldn’t you know that I would remember about this weak spot just about the same time I put my foot through it?” she called down, causing further gales of laughter.

“Azhi, do you think you could get your warrior butt up here and help me?” Elisira could be heard moving around carefully. “Your friend’s no lightweight, you know.”

“Yeah, it’s time for you to play hero and rescue me again, warrior,” Kyrian added, between her giggles.

Azhani rolled her eyes, let the now wide-awake Devon go and climbed upstairs.

“Azhi? I think I like that,” Kyrian said, wiggling her toes to make sure nothing was seriously damaged.

“I wouldn’t call her that until you’re certain she loves you,” Elisira whispered quietly in the other woman’s ear. The words were so fleeting, Kyrian wondered if she had imagined them.

Smiling as Azhani’s tall form appeared at the top of the stairs, she called out, “Hey there, stranger. How’s about giving me a lift?” She wriggled her eyebrows comically and raised her arms into the air, smiling beseechingly.

From her temporary bed against the wall, Syrah Jessup cackled, then wheezed in pain as a round of coughing overtook her. Elisira quickly went to her side and helped her to drink a soothing tea.

Rolling her eyes and blowing out a stream of exasperated air, the warrior reached down and pulled Kyrian out of the hole. As she pulled, the stardancer’s pant leg tore, the sound echoing loudly in the room.

“Guess I’ll have to be using that needle and thread again,” Kyrian joked weakly as Azhani gently set her down on a more stable portion of the floor. Examining her leg, the stardancer made a face and sighed. Three angry red, weepy scratches cut into the pale skin of her calf. “Ow.” She looked over at Elisira, who was still with Syrah and then to Azhani and shook her head. “Somehow I don’t think your father’s excellent remedy will fix this one, Azhani.” The floor creaked again, and she scrambled over toward the wall. “Damn. I guess we can move them into the storeroom, though it’s not as comfortable in there. I certainly don’t want them falling through the roof on us while we’re sleeping some night.”

“That would be uncomfortable,” Elisira said, stroking her chin in thought. “How much of the floor is rotted? Can we just keep them in one area?” she gestured to Thomas and Syrah, the two injured warriors who were bundled on straw pallets.

“No, the floor is rotting in many places, we’ll have to move them again. I don’t like it, but it’s the only,” Azhani broke off as Devon’s wavy brown locks appeared at the top of the stairs. “Dev, what is it?”

The young man stared at the three women, dazed. “I think I can help. This book,” he hefted a large, battered tome, “has a spell for fixing stuff.”

Azhani narrowed her eyes. “A spell? I’m not certain I’d like to trust my father’s house to the vagaries of magic,” she said disdainfully.

Kyrian raised one eyebrow in question, but Azhani didn’t explain her attitude. “Well, I think it couldn’t hurt to try,” the stardancer said softly, trying not to push her friend into something she didn’t want, but hoping for some kind of explanation as to why she didn’t like magic.

Elisira nodded, “I agree with Kyrian, it’d certainly save time and space if Thomas and Syrah could sleep up here.”

The grinding of the warrior’s teeth was audible. She turned her gaze on Elisira, her eyes diamond hard. “You, of all people, should understand,” she said, her voice a low hiss of remembered pain.

Elisira winced. Her old friend was right. She did know why Azhani had no love lost for the arts arcane. It was the magic of Cabalian sorcerers that had caused so much trouble for the warrior’s father, Rhu’len DaCoure. Through the machinations of that evil house, the good man had spent much of his free time chasing shadows. When he had finally cornered the man responsible for most of his grief, Keskyn Nightblade, it was only to discover that Keskyn himself was a pawn in a much greater game. Because of that, the older warrior had instilled in his daughter a deep loathing for traditional magic.

“I know you have no love for magic, my friend, but Devon is not Keskyn Nightblade. He only wishes to aid, not injure,” the lady said, her voice soothing.

Azhani looked away, muttering, “Fine, do whatever. I’ll go get some more blankets.” She turned to go and then noticed Kyrian still sitting on the floor, wrapping her injured leg in some bandages. Without asking, she easily lifted her up and carried her down the stairs.

Kyrian let out a startled squawk and said, “Azhani, what are you doing?”

“You shouldn’t put any pressure on that leg for a while. Might have strained something,” Azhani replied gruffly.

“But…” Kyrian started to retaliate, and then noticed the set expression on her friend’s face. Silence is the better part of valor in this instance, Kyr. She needs to feel like she’s doing something to take her mind off of what’s happening with Devon. Just let her be, girl, let her be.

She settled down, allowing Azhani to carry her down the stairs. Besides, a rarely heard inner voice commented, this feels rather nice. Kyrian had to agree, being so close to the spicy-scented warrior’s body was much more pleasurable than she should admit to, but could hardly deny.

Azhani settled Kyrian into her bed and said, “Wait here,” and then wandered over to the fire, where she made a cup of tea for her friend.

Kyrian glanced up the stairwell and could just barely make out the glow of magic. Quickly, she allowed her gaze to scan the ceiling, where she could see the bluish-gold threads of power creeping across the wood, mending and supporting the ancient timber. Before her eyes, cracked and broken wood stretched and melded, growing into firm flooring once again.

“Very cool,” she whispered, nodding slightly.

Azhani made a plate of stew for the stardancer and then carried it back over to where Kyrian had settled on the bed. Even though she tried not to, Azhani could see the threads of arcane power rippling across her ceiling. Just the thought of someone performing magic in her house made her skin prickle and her shoulders ache with tension.

“Here,” she thrust the plate at Kyrian, “eat.”

Taking the food, Kyrian smiled her appreciation. “Thank you. This was very kind of you. Sit down with me?” She patted her bed softly.

Azhani was about to say no, but decided to allow her friend’s calming presence to soothe her jangling nerves.

The quiet sounds of people eating and sleeping began to fill the room and soon, Azhani dozed off where she sat.
~Chapter Thirteen~
Azhani woke during the night to find that she was being used as a pillow by one very asleep stardancer. As she watched wax drip down the side of the day candle resting on a pedestal across the room, the warrior took a deep breath, and absorbed the comfort of her friend’s touch. Sighing heavily, she carefully extricated herself from Kyrian’s death grip, padded over to the hearth, and then bent to stir the coals.

With the fire warmly blazing once more, she went upstairs to where Elisira was tending to Syrah Jessup. The Y’noran warrior’s illness was progressing rapidly and Azhani knew that someone would be by the woman’s side, caring for her. A hoarse cough and feverish chills wracked Syrah’s body. Elisira was awake, preparing a soothing poultice for her chest.

“Need anything?” Azhani asked without preamble.

Elisira looked up and sighed. “About ten ounces of an herb neither Kyrian nor I have, I’m afraid. Syrah’s cough is deep in the lungs and she’s started to bring up blood. Kyrian thinks she might have to Heal her in order for her to recover.”

“Okay. Well, I’m awake for a while so if you need anything…” the warrior let the offer dangle between them.

“I’ll call out softly, don’t worry. I know you’ll hear me,” Elisira said, smiling. “Oh, wait, there is one thing…”

“Hmm?”

“Could you bring me my cloak? I’m a little chilled up here.”

Azhani nodded, quickly retrieved the fur-lined cloak that she had seen Elisira wearing and handed it over to the noblewoman.

“Thank you,” Elisira said while wrapping up in the now dry folds of cloth and fur.

“Welcome.” Stopping at the woodstove, she opened the grate and added a few more chunks of wood to the glowing coals within.

Quietly, Azhani exited the house and ventured over to the makeshift stables to see how the horses were holding up in the cold. The animals were huddled close together, sharing their warmth. The brazier she and Kyrian had carefully set up in the center of the shed for Arun had gone out, so she added more wood and patiently blew on the tiny fragments of heat still held within the coals until flames blazed up, merrily snapping and crackling.

Over the window, she hung up a heavy piece of canvas, hoping to cut some of the air that snuck through the cracks in the shutters. The warrior swept out the old, dirty straw and replaced it with clean and then checked the horses’ feed buckets. Adding a bit of oats, she took the time to pet or scratch each of the animals.

Someone had cared for the equine’s hurts the night before, because there were bandages on legs and necks, and thick, black stitches closed a nasty gash on the side of a particularly beautiful butternut yellow mare. They seemed happy to see her, and Azhani appreciated their quiet affection.

While she worked, the warrior considered her options. Foremost on her mind was getting revenge on Arris. Visions of the man’s limply dangling body as it slid off her sword, entertained her for quite some time. Ylera…

Suddenly, her longing for her beloved was so strong, it hurt to breathe. Leaning against a wall with her head down, the warrior let the grief overwhelm her, drawing soft sobs from her body.

Goddess, when will this nightmare end?

She would have to kill Arris. Maybe then, her dreams would let her sleep. If she succeeded and if she walked away intact, then she would think about the future. Traveling, or maybe she would just retreat into the mountains. If she failed, then she would be dead, and in the havens, laughing with her lover once more.

Soft gray light seeped in through the door, marking false dawn. Azhani finished up with the horses, put the grill over the brazier, then walked outside. She paused and took a deep breath of the crisply cold air. The snow had stopped, and the sky was brilliantly cloudless.

Over the trees, she could see the sun’s first rays striking the snowy foliage, sparking rainbows off the icicles hanging from the boughs and eaves. A brief wind swirled across the yard, picking up her braids and rustling them together. Glancing up, she spotted lamplight glowing in the window, reminding her that there was more than her revenge at stake.

Padreg and his people needed to get home safely, before she dove headlong into her plans to avenge Ylera. Then there were the demons. The creatures were foul and evil, but they had a predictable life cycle. So why were they wandering the forest now? No one really understood where the beasts came from; it was assumed that they were the result of some terribly uncontrolled experiment left over from the long ago magical wars that had driven Prince Y’mareth and his brothers from their lands.

Even though she no longer wore the title of warleader, Azhani’s first instinct was to protect the land and its people. She ached to find an army and lead them into the hills to hunt down the monsters’ lairs and slaughter them where they slept. For a moment, she gloried in the thought. It wouldn’t be too hard to gather a small army of mercenaries and go into the mountains in the spring. Then, if there were any left, the beasts would be nothing more than egg sacks – leathery pouches of foul smelling liquid and slime that would be easily exterminated.

Her daydream shifted, becoming a vision of her at the head of that same army, facing Arris on the battlefield. In her dreams, she was dressed in the finest armor, set apart from everyone else like she was the goddess’ own vengeance come to collect payment from evil doers everywhere. Arris would quail before her, begging for mercy and it would be easy, oh so easy, to run him through, laughing all the while.

Could she do it? Could she walk away from the oaths that had bound her to the greater good for her entire life? Restlessly, she wandered out to the wall that bordered her property and climbed up it, using its width to practice her balance. With her eyes shut tight, she began to pace along the slick, snowy surface, trusting her instincts to keep her steady.

Padreg. He could be escorted to Y’Nor and then convinced to take his complaint to the High King. Elisira would obviously go with the plainsman. In just the short time she had seen the two together, Azhani knew that her old friend and the Y’Noran monarch were meant for each other. She could probably even convince Kyrian to go with them, freeing her to pursue her revenge.

Azhani’s stomach twisted painfully as she thought of leaving Kyrian to ride down the road to certain death. Unbalanced, she wobbled, nearly falling into a huge drift of snow. Opening her eyes, she stared down at her now steady feet and sighed.

“I guess I can’t fight who I am,” she said, lifting her head and gazing up into the clear, blue sky. Another road would have to be found, another path to vengeance taken – one where her honor and her oaths were not compromised and one where Kyrian could stand beside her.

Decision made, she jumped down and headed for the cabin. I sure hope I can remember those names Ylera taught me.
%%%
Waking up cold and stiff, Kyrian muzzily searched for her blankets. The faintest traces of warmth in the linens next to her confirmed that she had not been dreaming and that she had shared the bed with Azhani the night before. The stardancer shivered, missing both the warrior’s body heat and the comfort of another person beside her. Fuzzily, she recalled Azhani coiled around her, the warrior’s body a wonderful buffer against the chill.

She stretched, wincing as sore muscles and joints creaked and popped. Longingly, she looked at the bed, but the fire was almost out, and daylight was starting to leak through the curtained windows. Yawning, she tried to decide what to do first. The patients upstairs certainly needed to be checked, but she was also curious about Arun. How was her companion handling the addition of strange horses? Besides, his stall probably needed cleaning.

Making the decision to see Arun first, she was startled by a voice that floated up from the storeroom.

“You should check on Padreg’s people, healer. They need your touch more than that oat monster you call a horse.” Appearing from around the corner, Azhani bent to remove mud and muck stained boots.

The mildly amused twinkle in the warrior’s eyes confused Kyrian momentarily, but then she noticed the mud still staining her friend’s boots, and sighed.

“Beat me again, huh?” she mock complained, standing up and heading up the stairs toward the sickroom. “Poor Arun’s going to think I don’t love him anymore.”

“I can’t help it if you’re a lack-about-the-bed, healer,” Azhani retorted haughtily, flipping her braids over one shoulder and then winking outrageously at Elisira, who was staring at the warrior like she had lost her mind.

Kyrian snorted derisively. “Oh, so it wasn’t you pinning me down to the mattress like a child with its favorite rag doll?” she taunted brazenly.

“Hardly. If anyone was doing any pinning, it was you, short stuff. Now get up there and amaze us all with your fabulous healing abilities.”

Elisira looked at Kyrian and said, “Whatever you’ve been feeding her, I want the recipe.”

Azhani watched Kyrian vanish up the stairs. “It’s not the food, though she is a great cook. It’s… I don’t exactly know what it is, other than that I feel very comfortable with her. I can smile with her, and it doesn’t hurt.” She shrugged and wryly added, “Besides, I’m always in a better mood after mucking out a stall, you know that.”

Elisira did know that the warrior enjoyed any time she spent with horses, even if the time was spent doing menial chores.

“Speaking of the four legs, how are they?” Elisira asked.

“On the mend,” Azhani replied, taking a cup of tea and sitting down next to her old friend. “I think Padreg must have taken care of them last night, because they’re all bandaged up this morning. I’m sure that Kyrian will check them later, and after that, she and Padreg will probably put their heads together and cook up noxious smelling tonics. I feel sorry for the horses. Kyrian’s of the opinion that medicine should taste bad.”

Elisira breathed a sharp sigh of relief. Traveling with the Y’Norans had taught her how much the plainsmen valued their four-legged friends. They treated them like family and she was beginning to feel the kinship bond with the stallion she had been riding.

“Looks like you’ve been infected with a plainsman’s horse-love, my friend.” Azhani grinned and wrinkled up her nose, making a silly face.

Elisira looked away, flushing slightly. “There is much to admire about those of the plains,” she said, more to herself than to the warrior.

Azhani’s smile twisted rakishly. “Especially one of those plainsmen in particular, eh?”

The flush deepened, but the noblewoman did not speak.

“Eh, well, I suppose you could fall for worse – certain of the king’s sycophants come to mind,” Azhani said, getting up and setting her empty cup to the side. “I have much to do. There is food in the storeroom should you wish to make breakfast.”

With that, the warrior left the lady behind to stare at her hands as they twisted in her lap.

Things were never so complicated before, Elisira thought, a little wistfully. Surely, it was the god’s own damnation to bite my tongue when my father allied with that brat Arris, but now what am I to do? I love a man who is, if not an enemy of a king, certainly not his nursing brother, either. The fact that he loves me in return and is a king in his own right, does nothing to erase the fact that I have cut all ties from my blood kin. A frown furrowed Elisira’s brow and she sighed sadly. I fear I shall not see the fields and halls of home again. She was working herself up to a good self-pitying cry when her stomach rumbled greedily.

Shaking her head and laughing lightly, the lady stood and spoke aloud. “What matter is it if I have a home and family, when there are issues of hunger to address? Let us see what Azhani and her healer have determined to be worthy rations for a winter in this blasted wilderness!”
%%%
Both Syrah and Thomas were very happy to see her when she reached the top of the stairs. The two warriors were awake, though deeply swaddled in their covers. There was a growing radiance of warmth spreading out from the woodstove and Kyrian sent a grateful thanks to whoever had thought to check the stove last. A large pot of water was bubbling merrily, so the stardancer moved it away, adding some soaproot and a bit of cooler water to make it comfortable. Taking a soft cloth, she moved to Thomas’ side and kneeled down.

“Good morrow, stardancer,” the young man whispered, his throat still raw from screaming.

“Good morning, Thomas. I’d like to wash off some of that dried blood so that I can see the wound better. Do you mind?” Kyrian dipped the rag into the soapy water and wrung it out slowly.

“Not at all. It would be nice to be clean,” he said wistfully.

She smiled at him and pulled back his covers. Removing the blood-soaked bandage, she slowly began to work off the caked blood and dirt around the swollen, weeping wounds that covered his chest and abdomen. She had done a lot for the injuries the night before, but today, now that there was better light, she would see about getting them Healed. The blond warrior grunted a few times when she rubbed too hard, but otherwise remained quiet while she worked.

“Good morning, Stardancer Kyrian, would you like some breakfast?” came a gentle tenor.

Kyrian looked up to see Devon standing at the top of the steps, a tray of food floating before him. The boy’s narrow face was screwed up in concentration and his lips moved slightly. Steam curled up from three bowls of cereal, and the scent of honey set her mouth to watering.

“I’d love some. Thanks Devon,” she said, standing up to take the tray.

The young man looked around the room, noticing that even though the curtains were pulled back, there were still many shadowed areas. “May I help?” he offered, noticing the pan of murky water.

“You could help Syrah eat her breakfast,” Kyrian said, nodding at the woman who was feebly trying to sit. Devon was immediately by the scout’s side, helping her to sit up. Taking one of the bowls of cereal, he carefully began to offer her small spoonfuls, which she gratefully took.

Kyrian set the extra two bowls on the edge of the stove to keep warm and returned to tending Thomas. Curiously, Devon watched the stardancer, impressed by the calm way that she soothed the warrior when he would inhale too much and cause the gashes in his chest to pull. Once the dried blood had been washed away, Kyrian reached out for the lamp, holding it above Thomas’ chest and shaking her head sadly.

As she inspected the puffy, red and purple scratches and bite marks, a clear, bright light suddenly filled the room. Startled, she glanced up at Devon, who had pulled out his book and was reading softly from it. Syrah watched the boy, a smile of delight on her face.

“Boy’s got the gift, he does,” she murmured, noticing Kyrian’s stare.

“Yes, he does,” the stardancer affirmed, setting aside the oil lamp and getting back to work on Thomas. “Thank you, Devon,” she added quietly.

“You’re welcome, my lady,” he said, his young man’s tenor breaking to boyish soprano. Stretching stiffly, he turned to Syrah and said, “Your pardon, Syr. I thought the extra light would assist the stardancer.”

She waved him off. “No worries boy, I was almost full anyway. Just a few more bites and then I’d like to sleep some.” Obligingly, he spooned up the cereal.

“All right Thomas, I know this must hurt like hell, so let’s do something about it,” she whispered, reaching out to lay a cool hand on the young man’s burning forehead.

He nodded tensely. As she had worked, the skin had seemed to come alive, and now it was burning, spreading sharp crackles of fire from his neck to his hips. “Okay. What do I have to do?” he whispered through clenched teeth.

“Just close your eyes and think of someplace peaceful,” the stardancer said. Bowing her head, she began to sing. The soft, gentle notes of a child’s lullaby filled the room. Thomas’ face went slack as he drifted off to sleep.

Watching in awe, Devon could only stare as a pale yellow-orange glow limned the stardancer’s hands. She then laid those flaming hands on Thomas’ ravaged flesh; her lips shaping the words to an ancient prayer. As the goddess’ healing fires caressed the horrible wounds, they pulsed with dark red light and black, evil smelling smoke puffed away from the skin, leaving behind healthy pink flesh.

“Wow,” the boy whispered. His face was flushed and his eyes sparkled with amazement. This was what he knew magic was for – to help people, not hurt them. The book he always carried was filled with spells. Small cantrips, such as the mending magic he had used earlier, as well as a few harder enchantments filled the book’s vellum pages. However, nothing in the ancient grimoire came close to miracle of healing he had just witnessed.

Sweat-soaked ringlets of hair clung limply to the stardancer’s face as she worked. Her cotton tunic was damp and her breath came in heavy, deep gasps. Unceasingly, Kyrian used her gift to heal Thomas, until there were only several bright pink scars decorating the Y’Noran warrior’s chest.

Kyrian slumped away from the bed, panting and shaking her hands as if they burned. “Damn, I’m glad that’s over,” she whispered, reaching for the waterskin that hung from her belt. Taking a long, grateful drink, the stardancer collapsed against the wall and stared out at the stairwell.

After a few moments, the young warrior woke. Sitting up without pain, Thomas looked down at his chest, touching the scars in wonder. He and Syrah exchanged glances and then he turned to Kyrian.

“My thanks, chosen. I’ll not forget this blessing,” he said, his voice beginning to take on a sleepy afterglow. He yawned, blinking in surprise.

“You are welcome, Thomas. Eat then sleep – Healing is draining to both stardancer and patient. Rest, and you will be well.” Kyrian finally had enough energy to stand and gather the bowl of still-warm cereal into her hands, cradling the heated ceramic dish as if she could leach some strength from the contact alone. She looked over at Syrah and smiled weakly. “I’ll be with you as soon as I’ve had a bit of this,” she held out the bowl.

Nodding, Syrah pulled her covers up and said, “Eat, ‘dancer. You’ll do me no good if you’re reeling from drain-shock.”

Devon looked at his friend; his face a study of curiosity.

Syrah shrugged, a rustle of movement that caused her blankets to slide down, exposing her fever-flushed face. “My gram’s a ‘dancer.”

Thomas ate quickly, talking quietly with Syrah and Devon. When he was through, he set his bowl aside. Soon, soft snores filled his side of the room.

The conversation around her faded away as the thick, hearty cereal filled her up. Kyrian sighed contentedly, blinking owlishly at the brightness of Devon’s mage light. It was always like this, after a major Healing. Closing her eyes, the stardancer listened to the thud of her own heartbeat mix with the sound of Thomas’ even, sleep tainted breathing. Slowly, the cereal worked its magic, pushing away her exhaustion and restoring enough energy for her to stand and move around to Syrah’s side.

Kneeling beside the scout, she looked up at Devon and said, “Thanks for the light, Devon.”

He blushed and looked at his feet. “You’re welcome,” he managed to stammer.

The stardancer laid her hand against Syrah’s cheek, sighing at the amount of heat radiating from the Y’Noran’s tanned skin.

Cursing softly, she muttered, “If only that lungwort hadn’t rotted.” The herbs she had been so careful to gather and store in a safe, dry place had been accidentally knocked off their shelf, landing in an open barrel of water. Even hanging the bundles by the fire had not saved them from the thick, pasty slime that had developed on the dark green leaves. She looked up and saw that Devon was still in the room. “Dev, could you see about getting me a cup of tea – add two spoons of honey to it, please. Also, bring up,” her stomach rumbled and she rolled her eyes, sighing resignedly. “Bring up another bowl of the cereal, or some bread and cheese, if that’s gone.”

Scrambling, the boy hastened to obey her requests. Devon returned shortly, with Elisira on his heels. On his tray this time was balanced a loaf of dark bread, a wedge of bright yellow cheese and a large, steaming mug of tea.

Kyrian rose and gratefully accepted the food.

“I came to see if I could help,” Elisira said, looking over at the sleeping form of Thomas Gould.

Sitting with the tray balanced on her folded legs, Kyrian smiled and said, “If you could take Thom’s bandages and put them in the fire, I’d appreciate it.”

Without a word, the noblewoman gathered the blood and puss soaked rags and began tossing them into the belly of the woodstove, watching them as they burned. A fuggy, cloying scent filled the air.

Kyrian ignored the smell and dug in, slicing off a piece of cheese and a chunk of bread. Beside her, Syrah dozed, her breath rasping in her chest painfully. Faintly, Padreg could be heard calling for his page, so Devon bowed quietly and left.

“You healed Azhani.” Elisira stated matter-of-factly. “Thank you.”

Around a mouthful of food, Kyrian said, “I’m glad I did.”

Smiling, the noblewoman shoved another handful of the ruined bandages into the stove. “I wasn’t sure what I would find when Azhi said she had a houseguest. You’re a gift I wasn’t expecting, healer.”

Kyrian didn’t seem to know how to answer that, though her cheeks pinked brightly.

“It’s nice that Azhi found a friend out here. Everything … was so awful, and I…” Elisira fumbled for words. “I wasn’t able to be the friend she needed.” A strained tightness around the lady’s eyes made Kyrian curious, but she didn’t ask. Elisira canted her head to the side, staring back at the stardancer while she ate. “It is a good thing that you and Azhi are outside of Y’dan.”

Frowning, Kyrian said, “Why is that? I mean, I understand about Azhani, but why me?”

“There were… many stories told in Brenton of Arris’ new laws. For some unknown reason, our ‘beloved’ king has a problem with non-humans. Anyone loyal to the crown would treat you as the lowliest of filth, good healer. Even though you wear the robes of the goddess herself.” The noblewoman’s distaste for the king and his problems was evident in her tone.

“I take it that you are not one of those who are loyal to the crown?” Kyrian asked, raising an eyebrow curiously.

Elisira sighed and shook her head. “No, I’m loyal enough to the crown, I suppose. It’s just that I don’t give a rat’s ass about the man who’s wearing it right now. King Theodan was a wonderful man but his son is an uncouth bastard who deserves to be horse whipped!”

Waking at just that moment, Thomas let out a bark of laughter and said, “Nay Lady, tell us how you truly feel!”

Elisira shrugged. “I don’t like him. He’s slimy and arrogant and no woman should have to spend more than two heartbeats in his presence!” The lady’s ire exploded into the room.

“Good afternoon, Thom. Did you sleep well? Are you hungry?” Kyrian asked, to defuse the situation.

“Afternoon, healer, and yes, I slept well. Yes, I am hungry. How long did I sleep?” The warrior sat up and stretched, smiling brightly when he found he could take a full breath without much pain.

“Not too long – maybe a candlemark. I suspect that you will sleep again after eating. Don’t try to fight it – sleep and food are what you need the most right now. Even though the goddess’ fire has healed your wounds, your body has had a tremendous shock and it needs time to recover.”

Giving him half of her bread and cheese, as well as some cool water from a pitcher near the bed, the stardancer stood and brushed her hands off on her breeches. She looked down at Syrah, who was still sleeping fitfully and sighed. “I’ll be back. I’m going to check the storeroom again to see if I overlooked a bundle of lungwort last night.”

“Don’t bother; I already checked,” Elisira said with an apologetic smile. “It was the first thing I did this morning.”

“Okay, well, I guess that leaves one thing. Listen, I’m going to be worthless afterwards, so, if you could see that my pillow and blanket are brought up, I’d appreciate it,” Kyrian said, arranging herself in a comfortable position next to Syrah.

“You do your robe much honor, Kyrian,” Elisira said as she added a small chunk of wood to the stove.

Shaking her head, Kyrian replied, “It’s not for honor. I must do this – I can’t not heal, not when the goddess has given me the ability to channel Her fire.”

“She’s right, healer. You serve Astariu well,” Thomas said as he nibbled on a piece of cheese. “It’s rare, this far from Y’Syr or Y’mar.”

Kyrian’s attention snapped to the warrior. “Oh?”

Thomas sighed and tipped his head back, closing his eyes in memory. “Afore we left the capitol, we would hear of things in the city. Padreg, he did nae hear of such in the castle, I’m sure. Came from the common folk. We heard tales of healers in black robes who’d come to the city and instead of giving their healing to all, they charged large fees for the privilege of their services.”

Kyrian could not quite wrap her mind around the idea of any healer using their skills to aid for something as tawdry as common gold. The gift of medicine came freely from the gods, and they expected their practitioners to show no favoritism when it came to sharing them.

Shaking her head, Kyrian said, “A darkness is growing in Y’dan.”

“Aye. There’s worse, too. Those who follow the Twins are leaving the kingdom as fast as the nonhumans. We passed two empty shrines on the way north. Not one single acolyte had been left behind to tend the gardens or clean the altars. They were just empty, almost lifeless,” Thomas said sadly.

Kyrian’s mind flashed back to the beginning of winter and waking up, bouncing over Arun’s shoulders like a sack of unwanted grain. “This is a disturbing thing you have told me, but it does not contradict my own experience.” Briefly, she outlined how she had met the former Y’dani warleader. Thomas and Elisira nodded as she spoke.

“’Twas a wise thing Azhani did, keeping to her vows as a defender, even though she not be in service to the crown. Astariu bless her, she’ll gain by that, I’ve no doubt,” Thomas said, putting a hand over his heart solemnly.

Kyrian made a face. “Oh, I’m not so sure she doesn’t regret her decision,” she muttered softly.

“No, healer, she does not. You offered her something that Arris had stolen away – her honor.” Elisira’s quiet words echoed in the stardancer’s heart.

“I…” A particularly wracking cough from Syrah interrupted her. “I’ve got to take care of her,” the stardancer said resolutely. “But… whatever rescuing me did for Azhani, I’m glad she did. I’m positive I don’t want to know what that man had planned.”

Elisira nodded and left Kyrian to quietly work.
%%%
Three candlemarks later, Thomas staggered downstairs, his ruined breeches clinging in tatters to his still bruised body. “Healer’s down,” he said groggily. “And I need something to wear that doesn’t smell like dead demon.”

Padreg leapt up to assist his man to a chair.

“I bet a bath would feel pretty good too, eh?” the Y’Noran king slapped the still dazed warrior on the back.

“Aye, it would,” Thomas agreed sleepily.

Upon hearing of Kyrian’s condition, Azhani had sprinted up the stairs and was now carrying the unconscious stardancer down, being careful not to jostle her. The warrior carefully tucked her friend into bed, frowning at the dark lines of weariness that creased Kyrian’s face.

A hand on her shoulder made her look up. Elisira was standing behind her, a soft smile on her face. “Don’t be alarmed. She warned us that this would happen. Let her sleep, Azhi. She’ll be fine.”

Still, the warrior kept her eyes on Kyrian’s still form. The stardancer’s face started to relax, and her breath exhaled slowly. Sleep settled onto Kyrian, and Azhani breathed a sigh of relief.

Idly, Azhani reached out and brushed away a lock of the stardancer’s curly red hair and said, “I need to go to Barton.” Her eyes were pinned on the fading sunlight that showed through the open window. No snow had fallen that day, and it was not likely to for many more, at least not according to the warrior’s northern weather sense.

“Why? What’s in Barton?” Elisira asked curiously.

“Supplies. She can’t keep draining herself like this and if my leg is any indication, Thomas and Syrah won’t be healed in one session. She needs that stuff she was so upset about.” Azhani looked around the room, mentally tallying what foodstuffs they had against how many mouths there were to feed. “And unless we want to eat the horses, we’ll need more food.”

“All right. I have some jewels you can trade for the supplies then,” Elisira said quietly.

Azhani nodded, accepting the noblewoman’s offer. “I’m going to tell Padreg. If the weather holds, I can leave in a few days.”
~Chapter Fourteen~
Kyrian fell out of bed at midnight. Literally fell, since she was in the midst of a running dream, where she felt like the spirit of the man she had killed was chasing her through the snow covered forest and she had just tripped over Azhani’s dead body and…whump! She was on the floor, staring at a dust bunny the size of a child’s fist.

“Bleh,” the stardancer rolled over onto her back and poked her tongue out between her lips. Her mouth felt like the Y’skani desert at high noon on midsummer’s day. Gradually, she sat up, weakly running her hands through her massively tangled hair. Yawning so hard her jaw popped noisily, she looked around the room. Padreg and Elisira were curled up on Azhani’s bed, though they had separate blankets. On the floor in front of the fire, Aden and Devon were snoring away, having a contest to see how many logs they could saw.

Hmm… where’s Azhi? Swiveling her head around to look at her own bed, she peered hopefully up into the covers. Not there… then… hmm… drink. Thirsty.

Kyrian stood and shuffled down the three small steps in the storeroom to dip a cup of very cold water.

“Ah goddess that’s cold,” she muttered, and dipped another cupful. Thirst assuaged, she wandered back into the main room, searching for whatever remained of the group’s dinner. On the hearth, she found a pot with a scrap of parchment tucked under it. ~For the healer.~ It said, in a rich calligraphic hand. Lifting the lid, she smiled at the contents. Someone had made a shepherd’s pie. Flaky dough cooked to a nice golden brown covered a delicious smelling stew. “Yum,” the stardancer said softly, taking her prize, and a cup of the tea steeping in another pot, over to her bed.

Replete, she ventured upstairs to check on her patients. Thomas was sound asleep, as was Syrah, but here was where she found Azhani. Propped back in a chair, covered with just a single blanket, the warrior was dozing lightly. Kyrian walked over to her friend and gently laid a hand on her shoulder.

Azhani woke instantly. Shaking her head, she said, “Trouble?”

“No, no trouble, Azhani. You just looked uncomfortable. Why don’t you go sleep downstairs? My bed’s empty now.” Checking on the stove, she stirred the coals some and refreshed her tea from the pot sitting on top.

“I’m leaving for Barton in a few days. Will you make a list of what you need?” Azhani said, standing up and folding the blanket she had been using over the back of the chair.

“Sure,” the stardancer replied. Kneeling between the pallets, she extended both her arms outward over Thomas and Syrah, the palms hovering just inches over their sleeping forms. “Catch me if I tumble?” she queried, smiling up at her friend.

“Always,” Azhani rumbled in reply, coming to stand in front of the stardancer. “Go ahead and make your magic, healer.”

Nodding, Kyrian closed her eyes and began to hum softly. Her entire body was slowly enveloped in a pale pink glow. The aura faded quickly, and true to her prediction, the stardancer pitched forward, to be gently caught in Azhani’s strong arms.

The warrior held her friend up, as she began to shake and shudder. “You can’t keep doing this, Kyrian,” she whispered, running nervous fingers through the stardancer’s sweat-dampened hair. “You’re no good as a healer if you kill yourself.”

“Had… to,” Kyrian managed to get out between shudders. “Needed to know… how healed they were.”

Understanding, but not liking it, Azhani nodded. “And?”

“Thomas will be fine with a few day’s rest and some willow tea. Syrah still needs lungwort. Knew I didn’t get it all.” She sighed and yawned. “Damn, just woke up, too.”

“Doesn’t matter. You’re going back to bed now. Thom and Syrah will be fine for the night,” the warrior reassured her, standing up easily. Juggling Kyrian lightly to settle her against her chest, Azhani headed for the stairs.

“Whoa! Has anyone ever told you that you’re way too strong?” Kyrian asked between yawns.

“A few people, yes, but I never listen,” the warrior said, her tone light but soft.

“Right, can’t let the masses know that you’re in on the secret,” Kyrian retorted, breathing in the sweet scent that seemed to cling to Azhani like honey.

“Of course not. It ruins the mystique.” They reached the bed and Azhani gently lowered Kyrian down, pulling the covers up and tucking them around the stardancer.

“Stay. You can sleep over here,” Kyrian murmured, patting the empty side of the bed. “I promise not to kick.”

Azhani’s lips twitched into a wry grin. The bed did look very inviting, and she knew from experience that Kyrian was a pleasant companion, even in the most honorably platonic sense. Ah gods, Kyrian… It’s getting very hard to resist you. If you don’t stop being so nice to me, I’m going to end up liking you a whole lot.

“’Zhani?” the stardancer burred sleepily. “Woudja get me some water ‘fore you come to bed?”

“Sure,” Azhani brushed her knuckles against Kyrian’s face and stood up. Quietly, she found the stardancer’s cup and dipped some water. When she brought it back, Kyrian was fast asleep. Setting the cup down on the floor, the warrior kicked off her boots and climbed over the sleeping woman. “Sleep well, Kyr,” she whispered, and then pulled the extra blanket up over her shoulder. It didn’t take long for sleep to claim her.
%%%
After Kyrian had handed over her carefully prepared list, she went outside to look over the horses. Padreg, Aden and Devon were already in the yard; chasing each other and throwing snowballs like kids. Laughing, the stardancer entered the shed and greeted the horses.

“Good morning, my siblings. I am Kyrian, and I am here to care for you,” she whispered in the elven tongue, knowing that all of them would understand her. Arun’s ears twitched at the sound of his mistress’ voice and he whickered excitedly.

Caring for him first, Kyrian spoiled him with love and carrots, which were his favorite treats. Next, she checked and filled feed buckets and the water trough. Finally, she approached the worst of the injured horses, Padreg’s beautiful yellow mare, who tossed her head and shied away from the red-robed stardancer as she approached her wounded side.

“Be at ease, fleet-footed sister. I offer no harm, only aid,” Kyrian murmured, using the same language. Settling immediately, the horse’s ears only flicked forward in annoyance when the stardancer began to peel away the bandages covering a large area of stitches.

“You speak the language of the horse-kin as though you were born to it,” came Padreg’s admiring voice.

Kyrian tilted her head to the side, allowing the curls of her amber-hued hair to fall away and reveal the slight points to her ears. “I was,” she murmured as she worked.

“Your pardon, healer. I did not expect to see one of elvish descent still living in Y’dan, after what Arris has done,” the Y’Noran king said, thinking back to the tales they had heard on their journey north.

“We are not in Y’dan, precisely,” Kyrian said, moving on from the king’s mount to an injured stallion.

Padreg laughed boisterously, clapping his massive hands together animatedly. “You have me there, healer! I guess I must be bold and ask what you were doing in a land that sought to turn you out?”

Kyrian tore off a bit of bandage with her teeth and answered, “I was here before Arris’ idiotic rules of race were introduced.”

“They are recent, then?” Padreg asked curiously.

“Yes. I had not heard of the rules before you arrived, my lord,” she said absently, taking a skin filled with a cleanser out of her haversack and squirting it over the shallow cut in the horse’s flank.

The Y’Noran let out a huge sigh of relief. “I had hoped the blasted rules were a sign of Arris’ unfitness to rule and not of a cankered mentality in the moral heart of Y’dan. I am reassured that my late esteemed cousin Theodan was not the cause of these blasphemous changes!” he said as Kyrian wiped her hands on a clean rag. The Y’noran monarch combed his fingers through his scruffy beard and sighed. “Of course, this means that I must now plan my next move with this fact in mind. What say you, healer; would it be cowardly of me to take my people and return to my land? Or shall I turn to Y’mar and the High King? Elisira talks of bringing Arris’ crimes to the court of Ysradan for judgment, but I am uncertain.”

Kyrian frowned, her brow furrowing deeply. “Why ask me, highness? I am just a stardancer. I know nothing of politics or of the machinations of kings. What does my opinion mean against the counsel of your men?” she asked quietly, bundling up dirty bandages to be washed.

“A clan leader listens to the wisdom of great and small alike, allowing no rank to cloud the truth his heart knows to be right. Your words weigh as equally in my mind, young healer, as any battle hardened warrior’s. Speak your mind; I would hear it,” Padreg replied, leaning against the wall of the shed and waiting patiently for Kyrian’s answer.

Swallowing several times, she spent several moments just staring at the bandages in her hand. No one had ever asked her opinion in matters so grave before. Saving lives was one thing; something that the young woman was intimately familiar with and had no problem dealing with, but telling a king what she thought he should do about a political situation – well that just wasn’t something they trained for at the temples.

She began to pace, thinking about her answer. What would she do, in the Y’Noran king’s place? On the one hand, it was winter, and heading south would mean escaping the freezing cold of the snow and ice storms that blanketed the northern wilderness. On the other hand, south was where King Arris and his armies lay, waiting for any excuse to put their new laws into swift and lethal action. On another hand, not that she had three hands, but she supposed she could borrow one of Padreg’s; there was the very obvious affection between Padreg and the Lady Elisira. The affection ran deep and strong – feelings that would lead a man to do anything to protect the object of his emotions, and vice versa. It would be all too easy for Padreg or Elisira to attempt to sacrifice themselves for one another.

It was too complicated for Kyrian to think about clearly. She shook her head again, attempting to knock away the conflicting thoughts. “Your highness –“

Padreg held up a hand. “Nay healer, call me Padreg or Paddy, but please, drop the fancy words. I am a plain man – I need no pretty words to shine me up.”

Kyrian grinned and said, “All right, Padreg, then, but you must call me Kyrian.”

“Done! Now, what did you wish to say?”

“I – I’m having a hard time coming up with an answer that pleases everyone, risks no one and satisfies the desire to make things right. I don’t think I have an opinion that means anything to you.”

“I think you might be shoeing the horse with wooden nails, Kyrian. You have not the look or the actions of a dunce; therefore, your thoughts matter. Speak on.”

The stardancer’s face twisted in a contortion of frustration and she began to wave her hands around wildly. “I don’t know, Padreg! I think I would probably go back down into Y’dan and find out if things are as bad as they are rumored to be and if they were, I’d go find out if the High King knows about it. But then, I’m a meddler; it’s my nature to pry into other people’s business. I’m not responsible for the welfare of thousands of subjects. If I was, I might think differently. I might be more worried about them, than I was about someone else’s kingdom.”

Kyrian’s pacing affected the horses, making them toss their heads and sidle nervously each time the stardancer passed by them. Padreg wondered if he should get the suddenly volatile young woman out of the building.

“I might also wonder about the safety of those with me, especially if I felt about one of them the way you so obviously do about Elisira – I’m not sure I could risk the life of my beloved simply to satisfy some vague notion of chivalry. And besides, what happens if you go against Arris? He’s got an army and you’ve got, what, a couple of injured men?” Kyrian’s voice had risen until it was almost a shout. “Where are you going to get an army in the middle of nowhere?” she finished, her voice taking on a slyly satisfied edge, as if she had just proven some important point.

“He doesn’t need an army. He’s got me,” came a surprising response as Azhani entered the makeshift stable.

Kyrian turned and looked her friend in the eyes. Azhani’s normally alert gaze had sharpened to sword’s edge keenness and there was a predatory gleam that sparkled when she added, “I intend to face Arris anyway. I might as well do it at the side of a good king. You are intending to do something about Arris, aren’t you, your highness?” She turned to Padreg, raising her eyebrow in challenge.

The Y’Noran king nodded once. “Aye. ‘Twill do the kingdoms no good to leave the brat on the throne, poisoning the land against its peoples. It likes me not to think that I called him ‘cousin’.”

“Good, then you have one more sword,” Azhani said and then added, “The winter here is harsh but if I can get to Barton, we’ll be all right.”

“What’s in Barton?” Padreg wanted to know.

“Supplies and information,” Azhani replied succinctly. “I’ve got some sleigh skids for the cart, and Arun’s proved he can pull it fully loaded already. Kyrian and Elisira have provided me with shopping lists. If we get the skis on today, I can leave tomorrow.”
%%%
Azhani threw herself into getting ready for her trek through the snow to Barton. Attaching the skids to the cart was fairly easy, with the help willingly provided by the able bodied men. Kyrian busied herself with baking pasties the warrior could easily eat while traveling, even if they got cold. Elisira became the stardancer’s assistant, working with both Thomas and Syrah, helping them to use the privy and get something to eat. Both of the injured warriors were able to move around, but Syrah’s cough and inability to handle the cold kept her either in bed or hunched by the fire. Thomas did small tasks, like cleaning the upstairs room, but had to sleep every few candlemarks. Between him and Kyrian, they ate enough for five.

When Azhani was ready to go, the small group gathered outside to see her off. Syrah and Thomas leaned on Devon and Padreg for support as Elisira and Kyrian fussed over her, making certain she had her food and her warmest clothes. Weapons were stowed in easily reached places and another blanket was accepted with amusement.

“To tuck around your legs as you drive,” Kyrian said as she placed the folded fabric on the driver’s bench.

“Hurry back, my friend. I’ve just found you again and I’d rather not lose you so soon,” Elisira said softly, stepping forward to hug Azhani briefly.

Azhani flashed the lady a reckless grin and said, “Don’t worry – I’m like a bad cold. It takes forever to get rid of me.”

Kyrian had stepped away, but now she looked up and said, “I hope no one’s found a cure for the cold then.”

“Ah don’t you worry, healer, you’ll not be out of a job so easily,” Azhani said, winking broadly and then turning to begin her trek.

She made good time in the snow, even with the strangeness of piloting a wagon on skis underneath her. Arun seemed to get right into the swing of it, cantering along at a decent clip. All the lessons about living in the northern wilds that her father had painstakingly taught her, filtered back, echoing across the years in the whooshing sound the skids made as they flew over the snow.

Because of the snow, she forced herself to stop before sunset, locating a stand of trees to pitch her tent. Arun got the tent; Azhani laid out her bedroll and blankets on the bed of the cart and then stretched a piece of canvas over the top. A small fire gave her some tea and the gelding a hot mash and then she climbed into her cocoon, forcing her body to slow down enough to sleep.

She woke to the brightly sparkling snow. Climbing out of her makeshift tent, she went immediately to Arun, who eagerly stepped out of his tent and shook himself off.

“Morning boy. Hungry?” She took a soft towel and rubbed him down then gave him some food.

Nibbling on one of Kyrian’s pasties, she did a few stretches and exercises to get her blood pumping. There was an almost magical feel to the forest. Ice crystals shrouded the barren trees, turning ordinary bark and snow into a web of spun glass. The morning sun sent rainbows glittering all around the clearing where she had slept and Azhani inhaled the crisp air and thanked the goddess for the gift of her life.

“I know I haven’t exactly been the most reliable of believers, Astariu, but I’d like to think that when I believe in you, I do it without reservation. Today, in the shadow of this morning, I believe. Thank you,” Azhani said softly and then turned to gather her gear.

::Why?:: An echo filled, music laced voice erupted all around the warrior.

Azhani’s sword was in her hand instantly. Her neck protested loudly as she nearly ripped her own head off her shoulders, scanning the clearing.

::Why do you fight belief, my warrior?:: the voice came again. Azhani gaped as sunbeams refracted off of icicles, forming a glowing pool of water in the center of the clearing. Flowing, silvery ripples appeared on the surface, rolling from the edge to the center of the small pond. Two tentacles suddenly burst out of the water, rising and twining together, shimmering to form the shape of an armored woman.

Awe rippled through the warrior as she gazed at the apparition. A sword of multi-colored glass hung at the goddess’ side, glowing with its own inner light.

Azhani’s jaw worked but no sound came out. Finally, she whispered, “Astariu?”

::It is a name I wear.:: A smile flickered across the alien, yet beautiful features of the figure. ::You don’t need that,:: the goddess said, inclining her head toward the blade of Azhani’s sword. ::I mean you no ill.::

Every hair on the warrior’s body was standing at firm attention and there was an icicle growing in the pit of her stomach. Something about the spirit was causing every instinct in her body to catch fire and burn with the white-hot intensity of a dwarven smithy’s forge. There was something so utterly right about the goddess that it reached inside the warrior’s soul and plucked a chord she had thought long dead.

“What do you want, then?” Azhani asked through gritted teeth.

::I wanted to see what it was about you that had the minions of the Dark scuttling around like crabs after the tide.:: The goddess set her gaze on Azhani for several heartbeats, causing the normally calm warrior to fidget uncontrollably. Astariu nodded curtly and said. ::You’ll do, I suppose. You’re not ready, but you’ll do. You may sleep now.:: The apparition flicked her fingers negligently and the warrior crumpled to the ground, deeply asleep.
~Chapter Fifteen~
Azhani dragged herself to consciousness and blinked her eyes at the brightness of the overhead sun. Scrubbing a hand over her face, she shivered at the chill of the snow around her. Quickly sitting up, she looked around in confusion. Her sword lay less than a foot away, and there were ice crystals on her face from the snow.

By the position of the sun it was nearly noon. Arun wandered freely around the clearing, sticking his nose into icy bushes and snorting in derisive disgust when there was nothing to browse. Shaking her head, Azhani grabbed her sword and stood up and whistled for the horse. Gamely, he trotted over, allowing her to hitch him to the cart-turned-sleigh. Still puzzled, Azhani jumped up onto the driver’s seat and took up the reins, trying to recall if she had woken earlier for some reason.

Drawing the extra blanket over her legs, she sent out a silent prayer of thanks to Astarus – he who watches over fools – because she was not soaked to the bone by the snow. Better be more alert, warrior. You could catch your death out here, and there’s no Kyrian to conveniently come along, waiting to be rescued.

It was nightfall when she reached the outskirts of Barton. As she guided Arun down the main street, her every instinct was on high alert. The town, though not the size of Y’dannyv, was large enough to support a decent nightlife, even in the middle of winter. Stifling quiet cloaked the darkened streets. None of the lamps had been lit nor were there any drunks stumbling from tavern to tavern. No whores blithely hawked their wares from the second story windows of red light houses and there were none of the usual taciturn miners and trappers conducting business with the townsfolk. Everything was shut up tight and lightless.

Cautiously, Azhani slowly moved through the town, heading for the inn. It was the only bastion of man-made light in the town. The soft yellow glow of torches threw a small circle of light out on the snow outside of the door. The only noises were the whooshing of the cart’s runners on the snow and Arun’s hooves as they threw up small clods of ice.

When she reached the inn, she pulled the gelding to a halt and leapt down. No one came to greet her. Even the opportunistic stable boy stayed out of sight. Reaching for the door, she was surprised to find it locked. Her hand dropped to her sword, gripping the hilt tightly. Cautiously, she stepped to the side and knocked. Heartbeats pounded in her head as she waited for the door to open. It seemed like a lifetime until the bolt was drawn back and the door cautiously opened.

“Paul?” she said, shocked at her old friend’s appearance. An angry wound wrapped around the innkeeper’s head, cutting across his forehead and into the area where his left eye would be. A makeshift patch covered it. The injury continued on, crossing his nose and cutting into his right cheek.

“Blessed Twins, Azhani, you’re alive! Thank the gods! Come in, come in! You’ll not find much comfort in Barton, but what I’ve got, I’ll gladly share.” The innkeeper stepped away from the door and waved the warrior in.

Azhani stepped into the well-lit inn and blinked. The room was crowded with about thirty of Barton’s older inhabitants as well as ten small children. Paul’s wife, Orra, was dishing out bowls of stew while old Takk served drinks.

“Paul, what happened?” Azhani asked as she took in the bleak stares of the townspeople.

“Demons.” The innkeeper spat out the word. “Swept through town like Hell’s own fury. Killed and ate ‘til there weren’t no more t’kill.”

“How did you…” Azhani started to ask.

“Survive? Ran like a chicken on feast day ‘n grabbed anyone that’d run with me. Locked ourselves inna basements. Come out when the screamin’ stopped. Waited two more days ‘n then searched the town for survivors. Found them kids inna basement of the temple with th’ old priest. Priest been gnawed on though ‘n didn’t make it.” Paul’s simple, dry retelling of the decimation of Barton made Azhani’s heart drop into her stomach. “Others hereabouts hid as best as could, and now we all stick together like ticks on a sheep’s ass. T’rest of us be inna houses roundabouts, or keepin’ track o’the forest for more’o them monsters.”

“When did this happen?” she asked even as she thought, I should have been here! I should have come and checked up on them when I knew there were demons hunting the forest. Some great warleader I am.

Paul put a hand on her shoulder. “There weren’t nothin’ you coulda done, Warleader. They came so fast. Like the devil’s own wind, they were.”

“When?” Azhani’s voice grated on the word.

The innkeeper sighed heavily. “Five, mebbe six days, I think. Got my days ‘n nights a little mixed.” He gestured to his face.

The warrior nodded in sympathy. “What can I do to help?” she asked, knowing that her words came too late to really matter.

Paul looked at her, a gentle expression of understanding warming his blue eye before he said, “Well, didja happen t’bring yer ‘dancer friend wi’ ya? Got some that could use tendin’ ‘n young Mary’s about fair ready to burst with her first.”

Azhani shook her head and said, “No, she – “ the warrior looked away, quickly deciding whether or not to tell the truth, or to use the story she and Elisira had concocted. “She went back to her temple,” she finished lamely, not willing to tell the truth, but not willing to lay out a total lie, either.

Paul’s eyebrows rose in consternation, but all he said was, “Thought she were smarter ‘n that. Well, since ye ain’t got a healer wit’ ya, how about seein’ if you can help Tim and Mac get up enough food for us all? We was lookin’ to eat light tonight, but with you here, mebbe it’s worth the risk ta go outside. Mebbe check the houses that’re further out. See what’s left ‘n all.” The innkeeper quickly explained to the warrior that there wasn’t enough food in the surrounding houses to feed nearly five hundred people, most of which were children and elderly citizens, for more than a month, so every day or two, a couple of the stronger people would run out to the abandoned houses and search for supplies. So far, they had only risked going to the homes closest to their protected circle of homes, and only during the daytime, when the weak sunlight was some protection against the demons they could still hear prowling in the forest.

“I’ll go alone,” said Azhani when Paul had finished speaking. “Just point me in the direction you want me to check.”

A dozen protests were raised, but Azhani’s stern face quelled them. “Yer a good woman, Azhani. Don’ matter none what King Arseface says,” Paul said, his rough voice softened by emotion. “G’wan up to the Baker’s ‘n see what’s left there. Gotta warn ya though, we weren’t able to do much cleanin’ up after them demons left. Ground’s too cold ta dig, ‘n firewood’s all we got to get through the winter.”

“I understand,” the warrior said grimly, slipping out the door. Arun whickered a friendly greeting and she patted his head. “Hard times, boy. I’ll rub you down and make you a mash when we’re done, okay?”

The horse’s ears flicked at the word, “mash” and Azhani took that to mean he was agreeing with her. Taking her seat on the driver’s bench again, she slowly made her way through town, paying careful attention to the snow for signs of tracks.

Even though she was only half-elven, she still had enough of the ancient race’s gift of night vision to be able to see clearly, thanks to a nearly full moon. No other tracks marred the snow beyond the circle of the townsfolk’s perimeter. Cocking her head, she tried listening for the telltale baying of demons on the hunt, but heard only the rustling sounds of a rodent. Maybe the danger was over. Maybe the beasts had gone back to their caves.

“Or maybe they’re having an Arris sandwich. Wouldn’t that just be peachy?” The warrior chuckled at her own bad joke. Arun stopped about ten feet in front of the Baker’s house, refusing to go any further. The cold could not completely stall the effects of time on the dead. Azhani wrinkled her nose in disgust, as her senses caught the edge of death’s rot. She dismounted and patted the horse gently, then let him pick his own spot to rest, rather than force him to stay someplace that scared him.

The walls of the home were painted soft ochre yellow, allowing it to stand out under the coat of snow and ice. A large brick oven dominated one wall, confirming that the former occupants were once actually bakers. Engaging all of her well-honed senses, Azhani crept up to the front door, listening for any out of place sounds.

A light wind rustled the limbs of bare trees. A brave owl hooted from the roof of a nearby home and the slight crunching sound of tiny animals scurrying through the snow was all that the warrior could hear. Carefully, she reached out and put a hand on the door, noting the absence of a handle. The brass hardware had been ripped out and was probably buried somewhere in the snow. Slowly, she pushed open the door, wincing and reeling back when she saw the carnage within.

The moon partially illuminated the room and everywhere the warrior’s gaze fell, evidence of the utter surprise of the demon’s attack abounded. Rusty stains coated the walls, flecking and running in lacey patterns that were almost horrifically beautiful. Once beautiful furniture lay in chaotic piles and blood and gore liberally congealed in the mass of shredded fabric and shattered wood. At the base of the stairs, Azhani could see the partially frozen body of a demon. Not far from the carcass was a heavy marble rolling pin.

Azhani closed her eyes and whispered a brief prayer for the souls of the Bakers, and then went inside. The bitter cold had only forestalled the inevitable. Before the bodies had frozen, hardy bugs and desperate scavengers had found their way into the house and to the remains inside. Partial decomposition had begun, giving the remains an even more horrific appearance. Skirting the demon’s carcass, Azhani reached down and picked up the rolling pin. Brief inspection identified it as the weapon that brought down at least one of the attackers.

Good for you, the warrior thought. Took one of the bastards with you. May the Twins show you honor. When she looked up on the stairs, she saw the demon’s victim. The remains of a woman, not very old by the bright yellow of the hair that still clung to the frozen skull, lay toppled against the wall. Behind her, Azhani could see the massive spray of blood from the wound that had taken her life, as well as the scattered bits of ichor from the demon at her feet. Something had interrupted the beast’s feasting, and Azhani was about to investigate further when her head began to pound.

Memory hit, overtaking her with the force of a hurricane. Whirling, chaotic images of blood and death replaced the destroyed living room. Whimpers, moans and screams drowned out the unnatural silence. The warrior froze in place, caught in the maelstrom.
They came. Faster than she could breathe, they came. A boy’s head wobbled out into the crowd, and a woman in patched chain surged forward, screaming for her blood. Azhani sidestepped and brought the sword she couldn’t remember picking up, to block the furious blows of her opponent. Calmly, the former warleader dodged every attempt the other woman made at striking her. The woman grew angrier and angrier, finally shouting, “Die you oathbreaking bitch!”

She lowered her sword and charged, managing to surprise Azhani with her audacity.

Barely able to turn aside the blow, she ended up taking a shallow cut along her ribs. It was the first time someone had gotten through her defenses. The crowd cheered, howling for her blood.

Emboldened, the woman turned and tried to charge again, but Azhani wasn’t going to allow it to work a second time. Neatly stepping away, she flicked her wrist casually, and gutted her opponent. The woman’s eyes registered shock even as her mouth dropped open, spilling blood on the already crimson snow.

Azhani turned away; ready to meet her next opponent.
Sound fractured the memory. Azhani whirled, drawing her blade and leapt through the doorway into the kitchen, sweeping the sword in an arc in front of her. The warrior blinked in the sudden darkness. Only a very little moonlight bled past the shutters, giving the room just enough light for the warrior to see several large, dark shapes. There was a heartbeat of silence and then…

“Mew?”

Azhani’s gaze snapped to the corner where a smallish lump twitched and then rolled aside to reveal the dim form of a kitten. Shaking her head, she looked again, just to be certain her eyes weren’t deceiving her. Slowly, the warrior reached into a pouch for a candle and a box of matches. Fumbling slightly, she managed to set the candle on a nearby table and strike the match. The candle flared, brightening the darkness.

“Mew?” the kitten cried again, jumping from the floor to the table and cautiously approaching the warrior.

“Hey there little cat,” Azhani said, sheathing her sword and reaching out to lift up the scrawny feline. A bone-jarring purr vibrated her hand as she tucked the kit into her vest. “Let’s see about getting you someplace warmer. A glance with the candle revealed that the rest of the litter, as well as the mother, had all frozen to death.

Quickly, Azhani began to search the kitchen, finding a large basket and filling it with an assortment of goods from the Baker’s larder. The warrior made a mental note to return in the morning and bring back as much as she could to Paul. She also made a note to search through the other houses for things to take back to the DaCoure homestead. The jewels she had, she would leave with Paul, with instructions to use them to buy supplies to build a wall around the town.

The kitten had curled up and was sound asleep by the time the warrior returned to the inn. She had filled up a good size portion of the wagon with food and supplies. When Paul and Orra saw what she had brought, they immediately called for several of the younger men to help carry the items into the inn. When they were done, Arun was carefully led into the stable and given a rub down and a hot meal.

Azhani wearily went inside and sat down, not noticing how quickly a spot was cleared for her. Carefully, she brought the sleeping kitten out and laid it on the table, stroking its soft fur lightly.

The kit was orange and white striped, with whorls of a deeper orange, almost reddish tone that streaked down its body and ended with a white tip on the tail. There was also a white splotch on the kitten’s face, giving it a somewhat comical expression.

Suddenly, the kitten woke up and stretched, its jaw opening so wide that Azhani feared that it might actually break. Blinking golden eyes, the kitten looked up at its rescuer and sleepily cried, “Mew?”

Azhani’s heart melted into a tiny puddle of goo. “Oh goddess, what am I going to do with you? Somehow, I just don’t think I can wreak the vengeance of the ages, on a tyrannical king, with a kitten tucked in my vest pocket,” she whispered as she stared into its inquisitive eyes.

One tiny paw reached out and rested against Azhani’s hand, claws extending and kneading the battle-toughened skin.

“Ouch!” Azhani jerked her hand away. “You’ve got needles on that thing,” she said, reaching out and tapping the paw in question.

The kitten thought this was an invitation to play and hunched up, hissing slightly and batting at the warrior’s hand. Azhani amused herself by playing ‘catch the mouse’ with the kitten until she realized that she had quite an audience.

The table was surrounded by at least two dozen children, all staring at the kitten with needy eyes. One brave child lifted her gaze from the kitten to Azhani’s face and said, “Do you think I could give him this?” In her hand was a piece of cooked chicken. Before Azhani could answer, tiny whiskers twitched curiously. Tiny muscles bunching, the kitten leapt agilely across the table, landing in front of the child. Delicately, it removed the strip of meat from her hand, eating it in two swift bites. The kitten then sat down on the table and proceeded to wash itself thoroughly.

The action was an invitation to the children. One by one, they each produced a treat until the kitten was stuffed full, its belly bulging outward on the sides. The bravest of them started to pet the sated animal, rewarded with a tiny, but loud purr. Soon, it was asleep, purring contentedly. There was a collective sigh of disappointment, but the children withdrew, leaving only the brave little girl behind.

“What’s his name?” she asked, hiking up onto a chair so she could watch the kitten sleep.

“I don’t really know,” Azhani said as she stared at the sleeping feline. “I wasn’t even aware he was a he.”

The little girl gave the warrior a look like she was the dumbest creature in the world. “Of course he’s a he! He’s orange! Only boy cats are orange!” she said, as if that explained it all.

Azhani nodded sagely and said, “Well then, I think since you know so much about orange boy kitties, you should go ahead and name him.”

The girl’s eyes ballooned into tiny saucers. “Really?” she asked incredulously.

Azhani smiled and said, “Yes, really. Go ahead. In fact,” she bit her lip quickly, fighting the urge to grab the kitten and run all the way home, “why don’t you keep him? He needs a good home.”

She squealed, waking the kitten and attracting the attention of the others who still sat in the taproom. Quickly, before the warrior could change her mind, the girl scooped up the bleary-eyed kitten and crooned, “It’s okay Toby, we’re gonna be okay now.”

The kitten, a little disconcerted at first, settled down nicely and began purring as the little girl petted and stroked him, softly babbling to him.

Orra came to the table with a plate of food and a mug of ale balanced on one arm. A tiny smile breached the stony mask that was her face and she said, “Looks like you got yourself a little friend there, Mattie.”

“Oh yes, Auntie Orra, this is Toby and we’re gonna be friends forever!” little Mattie said, not even looking up from her inspection of the now sleeping kitten’s fur.

A look of profound sadness washed over the older woman’s face, as she said, “Why don’t you take Toby upstairs and get some sleep, honey. It’s very late.”

Mattie looked up at her aunt and sighed. “Okay, good night.” She turned to Azhani, who smiled gently at her. “Thank you.” Her eyes scanned the warrior’s face for the tattoo that would denote her rank, but only found the scar.

“I am Azhani, Mattie,” the warrior said, keeping her voice calm.

“Oh! Uncle Paul talks about you all the time! Thank you so much Azhani, I’ll never forget this! Ever!” The little girl bounced out of her chair and raced up the stairs, the kitten firmly tucked against her chest.

Orra set the plate of food down and wiped away a tear. “That was a very nice thing you did, warrior. She lost her baby brother to the demons. His name was Toby.”

“I didn’t know,” Azhani said after taking a long drink of ale.

“I know, and that’s what makes what you did so special. Now eat. You’re in room twelve.” The older woman smiled fondly at her guest and then left to get another pitcher of ale for the remaining crowd.

Azhani ate slowly, savoring the warmth of the food and the chill of the ale. When she was done, she hauled her sleepy self upstairs and gratefully fell into bed.
%%%
The next day, Azhani did as she had mentally promised, making a round of several houses and returning with as much food as the cart could carry. At the end of the small town, she found something that inspired her. After quietly talking to Orra and Paul, she gathered several volunteers from the men, and together, they methodically went through every house, removing the remains of the former occupants.

In a small cabin that had once been inhabited by a retired miner, they laid out what they found, saying a prayer for the dead. When every house had been thoroughly explored, they boarded up the door to the cabin and began breaking furniture. The broken wood was piled around the house, and packed tight with old hay. Once that was finished, Paul brought everyone from the inn down and spoke quietly.

“Ain’t no use ‘n tryin’ ta blame the Twins for our sadness,” he said, his rough voice carrying across the crowd. “Tis the gods who we should be a-turnin’ to now, thankin’ ‘em for givin’ our families a place to go that’s safe and beautiful. ‘Tis the work of the demons that we hate, not the acts of our beloved gods. I say, Astarus and Astariu, bless my kin, take ‘em home and let ‘em know the peace of your valleys.”

At those words, just as the sun dipped behind a mountain, Azhani lifted her bow and fired two flaming arrows. They hit solidly and within moments, the cabin was ablaze. As the cabin burned, the remaining townsfolk began to sing.
“Bright sun has gone

and the pale moon comes.

Lift up high

Reach the sky

take my family home.
Earth and air

Fire and water

bind us all

Father and son

Mother and daughter.
Bright sun has gone

and the pale moon comes.

See up high

in the sky

they are home.”
Unbidden, tears dripped down Azhani’s face as the heat of the fire burnished her skin to a ruddy brown. Surreptitiously, she wiped at the tears as the crowd drifted away. Pulling her cloak tighter, the warrior settled in to stand vigil, praying that the souls of those within found the peace she herself refused to seek.
%%%
In the morning, Azhani went to the remaining people of Barton and made several pointed suggestions. By afternoon, all the able bodied were out in force, gathering rocks, snow, anything that could be piled up around the houses they had claimed as sanctuary. By evening, Azhani’s cart was stuffed to bursting with supplies, including an incredibly generous supply of medicines and bandages from the Y’skani doctors.

She inherited two more horses. One, a beautiful smoky gray mare, was a warhorse. Fully trained and armored, she was a gift from the hostler. Azhani was going to refuse the gift, but common sense kicked in and reminded her that she was, after all, going to wage war come spring. So with grace, the warrior accepted the animal, spending nearly two candlemarks with her so that she would know her scent and presence.

The mare’s name was Kushyra, which meant “strong spirit” in the old language. From the moment their eyes met, Kushyra and Azhani were friends. The horse lay her head on the warrior’s shoulder and sighed happily, knowing that she had found a kindred soul.

“Sorry Arun,” Azhani called out to the patently jealous gelding. “I’ll get you home to your mama, and you can get all the pampering you want.”

The other horse was a sturdy brown gelding of Arun’s breed, who immediately decided that Arun was his long lost buddy. Happy with her finds, Azhani prepared to return home.

Paul helped her get the horses into the sleigh’s harness and then reached out to take her hand.

“Ye’ve done not but good by us, Warleader,” he said, giving the warrior her former honorific. “I thank ye. Someday, the gods’ll repay your kindness. I knows it.”

The warrior shook the innkeeper’s hand firmly and said, “I’ve done nothing more than any decent person would do, Paul. Just remember what I said – keep inside at night and carry a torch wherever you go. Demons can’t stand the light. And build that damn wall!”

Paul nodded and stepped back while Azhani climbed up into the sleigh. Orra ran out of the inn just then, holding out a burlap wrapped package.

“Here, take this, warrior, with our thanks,” the innkeeper’s wife said, pushing the gift at the warrior.

Azhani accepted the package, smiling when the scent of pasties wafted up at her. The inn door opened once more and a small figure with an oddly orange lump on her right shoulder, picked her way across the yard to the sleigh.

“Toby wants to say good-bye,” Mattie explained, a cheeky smile working its way across her freckled face. “And so do I,” she added defiantly, one hand reaching up to steady the kitten, who was starting to wobble on the child’s small shoulder.

Azhani smiled and lowered her hand down to stroke the kitten’s soft fur and then ruffle the child’s flaming orange curls. “Be good, both of you,” she counseled sternly, “and mind your aunt and uncle.”

Bright green eyes sparkled as a freckled nose crinkled into a mischievous smile. “I’ll try,” Mattie said, sticking her tongue out at the warrior when Azhani frowned in mock anger.

Lifting her arm to wave, Azhani clicked her tongue at the horses and slapped the reins gently. The sleigh slowly began to glide away from the inn, cutting deep runnels in the snow.

She looked back once as she left. Men and women scurried about, working feverishly to construct the temporary wall. Nodding in approval, she turned her eyes toward home.
%%%
Snow began to fall almost immediately after the warrior left the protection of Barton’s buildings. Cursing her luck, Azhani pulled her hood up and tightened her cloak around her, hoping that the fabric would hold up against the dampness of the lightly falling flakes. The hood stayed put for approximately three heartbeats before it slid back, baring the warrior’s dark braids to the chill of the winter day.

“Damn it!” the warrior cursed, reaching up to settle the hood back into place. Silently, she wished she had remembered to pack one of her father’s knit caps. A smile stole across her face as she recalled finding the moth-eaten pieces of clothing.
“Azhani, did your father often keep rags under his bed?” Kyrian’s light voice floated down to the main room of the house where the warrior was busily cleaning out the hearth.

“Not that I recall,” she replied, trying to keep from being completely inundated by debris.

She was seated on the floor, scraping dust and soot out from inside the chimney.

“Well then, what do you call these?” Several balls of knitted, moth-eaten fabric tumbled down the stairs.

Azhani let her broom drop and went to look at the oddly shaped scraps, her face twisting into a look of confusion until she shook them out. They were caps, more precisely; they were her father’s caps. Tentative memories surfaced. Gnarled hands held two long needles that flew along, weaving the odd bowls that would keep their heads warm. Nearby, the fire crackled merrily in the hearth, holding back the winter’s chill.

“These aren’t rags. They’re my dad’s caps. He must have put them under his bed, intending to repair them and then never got around to it.” Azhani’s voice was tinged with sadness as she brought the scraps of fabric up to her nose and inhaled. Dust and dirt and the tiniest fragment of a scent, that was her father’s unique smell, impregnated the colorful yarn. She lowered the remnant and quickly suppressed a sneeze.

Kyrian had joined her, holding another two multicolored balls. “Oh, okay. Well, um, I can knit, so maybe I should try my hand at making one of those things? I mean, if your dad made them, that must mean they’re kind of necessary, huh?” the stardancer said, scuffing one foot against a brick.

Oh goddess, that is cute, Azhani thought, hiding a tiny smile. “Perhaps. They do work well at keeping the cold off your ears in the winter. Nothing worse than when your hood slips off and bares your head to the elements.”

“All right, then I’ll get started as soon as I can find some yarn,” Kyrian promised as she headed back upstairs.
Azhani grinned now, her teeth flashing white against the dusky darkness of her skin. “Guess we’ll see if Kyrian really can knit, hey?” she asked the horses, who twitched their ears back toward her, but never slowed their pace. A sigh of contentment slipped out as the warrior settled back against the seat, happy to be on her way home.

Home. What a strange concept, and yet, that’s exactly where I feel like I’m going. Not to dad’s place, not to the barracks, but home. Wonder why that is? A flash of a smiling face, green eyes and amber hair danced in her mind, but the warrior shook her head. Damn. Has she gotten that deep already? I’ve got to work on this, or else Arris will know. I will not lose another friend to that raving monster!
~Chapter Sixteen~
A faint tingle along the edge of her senses caused Kyrian to look up from her task of steadying Syrah Jessup’s faltering steps. She was walking the sickly warrior to the storeroom for a bath.

“Warleader’s home, eh?” the older woman said, smiling at the stardancer’s curious look. “You’re a ‘dancer, Kyr. I know you’ve got other senses.”

Shaking her head, Kyrian said, “I don’t know, Syrah. It’s almost like I can hear horses, but… Azhani only had Arun. Maybe I should go warn the others.”

“Nah, nah, horses it may be, it’s still Azhani all the same. Ye knows it, healer, same as ye knows I’m gonna lift a sword in defense of my king again. It’s knowledge burned in your heart.”

Kyrian stared blankly at the warrior, amazed at how insightful the taciturn woman really was. Over the previous days, nearly every waking moment of the stardancer’s time had been spent in the company of Padreg’s injured followers. Though she knew she had talked a lot about Azhani, she didn’t think her feelings had been so clearly evident.

“There’s no shame in cherishing good thoughts toward Azhani, healer. She be good people, na matter what the tale-tellers say. Now, let’s get me turned around and headed for the front. I want ta see your face when you realize that I be right,” Syrah joked slyly.

Kyrian sighed in frustration. “I just don’t get why people think she’s such a demon. If they’d spend even a few minutes in her presence, they’d know that she is a good woman.” Carefully, they maneuvered up the steps and into the main room.

“Sometimes being good isn’t enough,” Elisira said as she stood up to offer her arm as a counterbalance. With Syrah between them, she and Kyrian led the woman outside and helped her to sit on a bench that Devon had built out of spare planks. The day was sunny and clear, making the snow almost blindingly white and the icicles hanging from the eaves sparkle like polished jewels.

The stardancer turned to smile a welcome at her new friend. “Why do you say that?”

“Because I was there, and I remember how the lake turned crimson for a week after she won her freedom. If those memories are still on my mind, then there will be others whose charity will be for the slain, not the slayer. Keep that in mind, Kyr. Hardly anyone you meet will see Azhani for who she truly is. To an entire kingdom, she is still the Banshee of Banner Lake – an Oathbreaker and a murderer.” Elisira’s statement made Kyrian shiver.

The stardancer opened her mouth to ask another question, but quickly stifled it as horses burst into view, pulling the cart-turned-sleigh. Not bothering to hide her grin, she jumped off the porch and ran out to meet the sleigh.

Syrah looked up at the lady her king had chosen and remarked, “D’ya think the Warleader’s as smitten as the healer?”

Elisira’s light blue eyes watched as her old friend brought the sleigh to a halt and calmly stepped down, accepting an enthusiastic hug with stoic grace. “Perhaps not yet,” the lady mused as the two women began unloading the sleigh. “No, not yet,” she decided as darker blue eyes lifted from the back of the sleigh to meet her gaze. “But it will happen, I warrant, whether she wills it or no.”
%%%
As they unpacked, Azhani quietly described the devastation she had seen in Barton.

“I should go… maybe I can help,” Kyrian said, turning to head for the cabin.

Azhani’s hand on her arm stopped her. Shaking her head, the warrior said, “No, those that are left are well cared for by the Y’skani.”

“But I can’t just sit here and do nothing!” the stardancer protested.

“Pray, stardancer. Pray for the souls of those who are left, so that they make it through the winter.” The warrior’s dark eyes were saddened, but her voice was hard.

Biting back a retort, Kyrian nodded.

Very softly, Azhani said, “I’m sorry.” Stepping away, she lifted up a crate of goods and carried it into the cabin.

“How much time until spring?” Padreg asked as they guided the horses into the rather cramped shed.

“Six weeks, perhaps a bit more. We’ll have to wait at least a week after the snow starts to melt to avoid avalanche conditions,” Azhani said, hauling the sleigh over to the side of the cabin. “We should start planning where we’re headed before that. I found a map of the kingdoms in Barton that looks fairly recent.”

Clapping her on the back, the plainsman smiled. “Well done, warrior. Though I’m not beholden to Y’dan, I don’t feel comfortable leaving her to rot under Arris’ thumb. I’d like to see that he is removed.”

Aden spoke then. “What are you plannin’ on doin’ then, Paddy? ‘Tis hard true, but as you said, you’re not responsible for this land. Spring foaling is around the corner, as is the moving of the clans.” He flashed his gaze onto Elisira, leaving unspoken the fact that Y’Nor needed the security of heirs, and that the lady looked more than willing to be the mother of those heirs.

Padreg nodded, knowing well his responsibilities to his people. “I know, old friend. What troubles me, more than a king who cannot rule without iron in his hand, are demons that attack without cause. Though Y’Nor has never suffered their touch, there isn’t a one of us who hasn’t heard the tales of their last invasion. It strikes me as odd that they should be ready to feed so soon.”

“I share your feelings, Padreg,” Azhani said quietly as they entered the cabin. “In the past, we have had several years between attacks. It has only been two years, and I have never heard of them rising so soon.”

Thomas coughed and then said, “Well, I know that I wouldn’t mind having the chance to take a bite outta what killed Nadine and Roald.”

Syrah nodded her agreement and added, “Is it not the duty of any man to assess the threat of invasion by the demons?”

“I don’t think they’ll be coming back for a while,” Azhani said, surprising everyone.

Padreg looked at her curiously. “Oh, why do you say that?”

“When I was in Barton, I neither saw nor heard any sign that they had returned after the initial attack. Upon returning, I searched for their tracks, but found none. They’ve moved away from here. My guess is that they’ve died out. If they don’t eat, they die.” She looked around at the group. “But whether they are dead or just hiding is not what we should worry about. Even if we were to go out today and start hunting them, we are too few – we would all die in a matter of weeks. Y’dan would still be in Arris’ hands, and Y’Nor would mourn the loss of their clan chief.”

“All right, Warleader,” Padreg said, emphasizing the title, “then what would you recommend we do?”

Azhani’s smile broadened, “Rest. Heal. Practice and pack, and then plan our journey to Y’Nor. You need to get home to see to those baby horses.” Her gaze drifted over to Elisira, who was absently staring at Padreg. The king noticed and returned her smile.

“Aye, baby horses indeed! Elisira, my lady, how does that please you?” he boisterously asked.

Elisira smiled shyly. “It pleases me much, my lord. I should like to see the land I hope to call my own.”

Azhani let the couple bask in each other’s eyes for a few heartbeats and then said, “All right folks, let’s get this stuff unloaded so we can decide what goes where.”
%%%
“You owe me a cap.” A deep, warm voice purred into Kyrian’s ear, causing her to jump and almost spill the hot water she was about to pour over the herbs for her morning cup of tea.

“Ahh!” she choked out before the warrior’s hand covered her mouth.

“Ah-ah-ah, no waking up the whole house now, healer. It’s way too early for some of them to even consider it,” Azhani said, as Kyrian pulled away, glaring at her. The night before had been spent talking with Padreg and his men and there had been a keg of very good ale that had made its way around the small circle many times, causing the stardancer to glare at her more than once. Azhani had shrugged and mentally figured that if the Y’Norans were dumb enough to get sick from drinking too much, they shouldn’t expect anyone to feel sorry for them. For her own part, the warrior stuck to tea or water, needing a clear head to examine the map of the kingdoms.

By the time everyone had sought his or her beds, there was a working plan in place. They would wait until the first thaw and then, as quickly as they could, make their way to Y’Syr. Once there, they would quickly make their way to the Y’Noran border. Padreg and his people would continue with Elisira while Azhani and Kyrian returned to Y’Syr, to search for the friends that Ylera Kelani had told the warrior about.

Azhani had privately hoped that Kyrian would decide to go with Padreg, rather than follow her to the uncertain safety of Y’Syr. When she had mentioned it, the stardancer had firmly closed the door on that idea.
“No, Azhani, I don’t want to go to Y’Nor – no offense, your majesty – I want to go with you. I swore that I would stand by your side, and I will!” Kyrian’s face was flushed with indignation.

“You would be much safer if you go with Padreg,” Azhani tried to point out rationally.

“To the hells with safer, Azhani. I’m not going to run out on you just because it might get a little dangerous,” Kyrian retorted hotly.

“A little dangerous?” Azhani replied challengingly.

“Okay, so a lot dangerous. Like it isn’t already? Life in Y’dan isn’t exactly tea and crumb cakes for anything nonhuman, and I’m definitely not human. And even if it won’t be that way in Y’Syr or Y’Nor, I’d still rather be with you, working to make a difference!” Kyrian’s jaw clicked shut and she raised her eyes to meet Azhani’s steely blue gaze. The air nearly crackled with the energy that flowed between the two women, but in the end, it was the warleader who flicked her eyes away.

“Fine, I won’t stop you, but –“

“I won’t come crying to you when I stub my toe, mother,” Kyrian inserted jokingly, trying to defuse the tension.

For just one second, it looked as if she had said the wrong thing, and then Azhani laughed, a short bark of surprised amusement. “Right. No tears for stubbed toes. Now, why don’t you help the lads to bed? It looks like they’re all about to topple into the fire.”
“You scared about three years off of me, warrior,” Kyrian accused softly, turning away to finish pouring the water into her cup and then stirring in a dollop of honey.

“Sorry,” Azhani replied in mock contrition. “But you still owe me a cap.”

Kyrian furrowed her brow in confusion. “I owe you a cap? Huh? Have you been sniffing my herbs again?”

Azhani sat down near the hearth and grabbed a mug, intent on making a morning drink. “No,” she said absently, “but I did remember that you promised to knit me a cap if I found you some yarn. Here, this should work, right?” From her haversack, she withdrew four medium sized skeins of fuzzy charcoal colored yarn and tossed them at the stardancer.

Kyrian awkwardly caught them, successfully juggling them away from the fire and into her lap. She held the last skein up and examined it closely. “Yeah, this should do just fine. It’s thick, so it’ll be warm, too,” she said approvingly.

“Good. How soon can you finish it?” Azhani finished stirring her tea and took a sip.

“It’ll take me a bit to remember all the right stitches, but after that, not long, I’d imagine,” Kyrian said, as she drank her tea.

A muffled rumbling noise startled both women and caused Kyrian to chuckle. “Guess you’re hungry this morning, hey, Azhi?” Surreptitiously, the stardancer crossed her fingers. Come on, prove to me that my hunch is right. I know we’re friends, Azhani. I know you care about me.

Azhani opened her mouth to say something about Kyrian’s use of the nickname, but then decided she liked the way Kyrian’s voice made it sound. Instead, she said, “Um, yeah, I guess I am. What have we got that’s convenient?”

Kyrian smiled and said, “Oats, bread, fruit and last night’s dinner.”

“Oh, and dinner was that delicious roast. Perfect,” Azhani said, jumping up to find some bowls and spoons while the stardancer moved the pot into the hearth to warm.

After breakfast, Azhani suggested that they head outside and stretch their muscles. Kyrian agreed, stripping off her robe so that she was only wearing a pair of short breeches and a lightweight tunic. Azhani donned her padded gambeson and the two headed out into the slight chill of the morning.

There was a thick blanket of snow on the ground, but that didn’t stop the two women from stretching and then wandering out into the first open area they could find. Slowly, they circled each other, seeking any weakness in the other’s defenses.

Kyrian made the first move, taking an open handed swipe at the other woman’s seemingly undefended shoulder, but Azhani neatly countered, returning a light tap of her own to the stardancer’s stomach.

“Point, warrior,” Kyrian said, her eyes never leaving the center of Azhani’s chest, watching for the tell-tale ripple of movement that would indicate the warrior’s next move.

“I always get the first point,” Azhani noted calmly, studying her opponent casually.

Kyrian’s eyes crinkled as she smiled. “Yeah, but I usually get the last,” she taunted.

Azhani attacked, leaping up and letting out a soft grunt as she attempted a spin kick. Kyrian easily deflected the blow, returning a light tap to the inside of the warrior’s left knee.

“Point, healer,” Azhani said, narrowing her eyes as they returned to circling each other again. Now that they had each proven the other was awake and ready to play, the match began in earnest.

Minutes passed as they traded blows and blocks, ending with Kyrian’s natural impatience getting the better of her. The stardancer lowered her head and charged, knocking a surprised Azhani into the snow.

She jumped back, laughing, “Hah! Point. I win!”

Azhani scowled indignantly, but stood up and brushed herself off. “All right. Again.”

“Go!” Kyrian danced away, waiting for Azhani’s attack. The warrior cracked her neck then shook her shoulders and watched the stardancer. Not moving, she just followed Kyrian’s movements with her eyes until her friend noticed. “Well, are you going to stand there all day, or what?” Kyrian asked, putting her hands on her hips.

Not even the barest hint of a grin gave her away. Azhani started to turn away, then flipped up and behind the stardancer. Hooking her left foot around Kyrian’s knee, she pulled back and shoved out with her hands. Quickly, she dropped down, straddling the other woman and flexed her arm, putting the point of her elbow into the nape of Kyrian’s neck.

“Do you yield?” she asked calmly.

Kyrian tried to buck her off, but Azhani’s greater weight gave her an advantage. She tried to twist away, but the warrior clamped her legs shut, holding the stardancer in place. Turning her head slightly, Kyrian blew out a mouthful of snow. “Cold,” she murmured.

“What’s that? Did you say, ‘I yield, Azhani, because you are the almighty great and powerful one’?” the warrior teased.

“No, I do not yield,” the stardancer said through clenched teeth. Without warning, she pushed back, knowing she was putting herself into a very vulnerable position.

Azhani immediately wrapped her arm around the stardancer’s throat and locked her head in place. Ignoring it, Kyrian now reached her hand back and casually tickled the warrior’s knee. The action so surprised Azhani that she jumped, loosening her hold. Swift as a fish, Kyrian slithered away.

Jumping up, she easily deflected Azhani’s punch, and they were at it again. Kyrian won again. Grabbing Azhani’s arm as she let go of a punch, she used the warrior’s weight to throw her and as soon as she hit the ground, the stardancer put her foot on the warrior’s neck.

“Do you yield?” The stardancer’s face was flushed with exertion.

“I yield,” Azhani said. As soon as her friend’s foot was removed, she bounced up and said, “Round three?”

Kyrian felt her heart beating hard and her breath came in short gasps, but she knew that Azhani liked at least three rounds. Waiting only long enough for her heart to slow down, she gave her assent.

As soon as the stardancer nodded, Azhani rushed with a series of punches. Hard pressed to block or avoid the blows, Kyrian ended up pinned against the side of the cabin.

“Do you surrender?” Azhani growled, leaning her body into the smaller woman and looking down into sparkling green eyes.

Kyrian’s already reddened cheeks flamed even brighter as the weight of the taller woman’s body against her own set fire to overheated nerve endings. Swallowing hard, she returned her friend’s intense blue gaze, projecting an aura of calm she did not feel.

Oh goddess, why do you have to be so beautiful? ran through her mind as she struggled to control her raging hormones.

Kyrian wriggled, attempting to push the warrior away, but Azhani only pressed closer, slipping her leg between the stardancer’s. Warm breath mingled, filling the space between them with white puffs of air.

Leaning in closer, Azhani whispered, “Do… you… surrender?”

Kyrian held the warrior’s gaze, battling for the right to claim victory. Frustrated, she banged her head against the wall, but she did not answer. A grin slipped across Azhani’s face; she knew she was going to win this one. Then, just as the warrior thought the stardancer was going to say the words that would signal the end of the match, she got a face full of snow.

“Never!” Kyrian said, laughing as the warrior reeled back, spluttering.

Azhani watched Kyrian ease away from the wall, still laughing, and felt her own temper begin to fray. Hands clenching and leg muscles tensing, she stood there panting, as if readying for combat.

Whoa there warrior. She’s just playing with you. Don’t lose your head over this! Her inner voice grabbed her temper by its reins and hauled it in. Kyrian continued to laugh, walking away from the wall and over to a barrel where a couple of skins of water rested.

Azhani’s temper wouldn’t let the stardancer get away clean, though, so she carefully gathered a large handful of snow and silently crept up behind Kyrian as she drank. A slight crunching of footsteps in the snow was the stardancer’s only warning. She was just about to turn around when she got a double handful of snow down the back of her tunic.

“Gah!” she shrieked as the cold snow slid down the center of her back. “Azhani! No fair!”

Azhani smirked, crossing her arms and giving the stardancer a raised eyebrow. “S’amatter? Shoe not fit so well on that other foot?”

“Ooooo! You big goof! I didn’t shove it down your gambeson!” Kyrian retorted as she shook her tunic out. If I were going to shove anything down your gambeson right now, Azhi, it wouldn’t be snow!

Azhani stuck her tongue out. “So hire a barrister and sue me.” She’s kind of cute when she’s mad. The thought appeared out of nowhere, surprising the warrior. Shaking her head slightly, she pushed the thought away and refocused her attention on playing with her friend.

Kyrian blinked, surprised at the playful tone to the warrior’s usually solemn voice. She smiled. “Nah, barrister’s cost too much for a poor little priest like me. I think I’ll stick to personal retribution.” Scooping up a handful of snow, she rolled it up and tossed it, scoring a direct hit on the warrior’s thigh.

The snow on Azhani’s breeches slowly flaked away. Azhani looked down, watching the bits of white crystal melt into the fabric, and chuckled. Reaching for a large handful of snow, she felt the beginnings of a smile tug at the corners of her mouth. The warrior let out a huge laugh, giving in to the joy of playing with a friend.

Elisira found the two women rolling around, gleefully stuffing handfuls of snow into each other’s clothing. Covering her mouth to keep from laughing, she waved to Padreg who was curiously poking his head out of a window.

He joined her, casually slipping an arm around the lady. “I’m almost jealous. I should think it would be most stimulating to roll around in my all-unders with you, my lady,” he whispered softly.

“We can certainly go out and give it a try, my lord. Though, I’m not certain I can guarantee the safety of your crown jewels,” Elisira replied while leaning into the plainsman’s embrace.

“All right. Let’s go see how much trouble we can find in the snow,” he said with a wicked smile lighting his face.

They dashed outside, skirting around the wrestlers until they found their own nicely formed drift. Then they stopped, not knowing where to begin.

“Uhm, well, yes, let’s see. If I give you a light push,” Padreg said, reaching out to nudge Elisira’s arm.

“Then that gives me the right to push back,” she said, thrusting her arms outward with all the force she could muster and sending him sprawling into the drift.

He let out a squawk of surprise, flailing his arms and legs as he fell. The snow whooshed up and then came down in a white sprinkle.

“Oh no. Are you all right my lord?” Elisira cried, rushing to his side.

Laughing uproariously, he said, “Fine, my lady, just fine. A bit damp, and now,” he grinned wickedly, “I’ve got you right where I want you!” His hand shot out and caught the lady by the waist and dragged her down on top of him. With his other hand, he smeared a bunch of snow into her face.

She struggled, crying out indignantly, causing him to laugh even harder. Arching one eyebrow, she swiftly reached up and grabbed a double handful of snow, dropping it onto his face. As soon as he released her, she jumped up and ran away, gathering more ammunition and packing it into a snowball.

Making his own balls, Padreg stood up and hopped over the fence, using the stone barricade as a form of protection. He pelted her. She pelted him, and soon they were dashing across the yard, scooping up snow and flinging it wildly.

Seeing their friends, Azhani and Kyrian easily split up with Kyrian taking Padreg’s side and Azhani joining Elisira. Syrah, Devon, Thomas and Aden came out to play as well, and shortly, there were snowy fortifications all over the yard.

Utter snowball chaos erupted then. Candlemarks later, all of them, wet, winded, and covered with mud trooped into the house. Elisira and Kyrian immediately marched the two still recovering warriors back upstairs for a quick change of clothes and a return to their pallets, while Azhani and Padreg began the arduous task of hauling in enough water for everyone to get clean.
~Chapter Seventeen~
“You’re sure of this, boy?” Arris leaned forward and looked down at the grubby, dirt and snow covered messenger that had been rushed into the courtroom only moments before.

“Yes, your highness. I have it from the mayor of Ynnych’s lips. There be demons in the forests!” the boy proclaimed, his voice only cracking slightly.

Mutters of “What?” and “Impossible!” rippled through the gallery.

“I guess the bitch wasn’t as thorough as father thought she was,” Arris commented mildly and then waved the boy away. “You may go now. Tell the mayor that as soon as he’s able, I’d like to have the honor of his company for dinner.”

“Right away, your majesty!” The boy bowed low and then raced out of the room.

“Derkus, call up the master-at-arms and tell him to come to my chambers,” the king ordered and then looked out at his court. The couriers were now whispering fearfully among each other. If the demons had come, that meant the northern border was dreadfully unprotected and all those towns – the towns where most of their families lived, where their money came from – were in serious danger. Good. That would keep them busy, and when they heard his plans, they wouldn’t try to interfere. It would be glorious. He would be a hero, and then no one would ever again doubt his gods given right to rule.

The king smiled in contented satisfaction and stood up. “Good day everyone. I must go and see to the defense of the land.”

Everyone stood as he descended the steps to the floor and then watched as he and his honor guard exited the throne room.

Porthyros was by his side as soon as the doors closed. He held out a cup of perfectly warmed tea and waited while the young man drank down its contents greedily.

“Thank you, old friend. You always know exactly what I need. Now, what do you think of the glorious opportunity that today’s news has brought us?” asked Arris as he removed his crown and haphazardly dropped it onto a waiting cushion. Together, they walked toward the royal chambers.

“I think, my liege, that properly considered, it will prove to be your greatest accomplishment.” The old scholar phrased his statement carefully, already having some idea of where the brash young man’s mind had gone, but not yet knowing what direction his true masters wanted it to go.

The king frowned and stopped just outside of his door. “What’s there to consider? I’ll raise the army and go north and smash them all! It will be magnificent! The bards will sing of my heroics for years, and the people will love me more than even my sainted father!”

Blinking at the vehemence in Arris’ tone, Porthyros cried out, “My king! Surely you can’t mean to risk yourself against the demons?”

Arris grabbed the diminutive man, threw him against the door and growled, “Are you saying that I’m not capable of warfare? That I’m some kind of pathetic little weakling that needs to hide behind castle walls while real warriors go out and die for the glory of Y’dan?”

“No, of course not, your majesty,” Porthyros croaked breathlessly. “All know of your skill with the blade and the bards will sing of your bravery. I swear it!”

Suddenly, the anger seemed to drain from Arris, along with his strength. He dropped his mentor and sighed heavily. “You are right, old man. Go now, and instruct the kitchens to send my lunch. I’m tired and hungry and my temper is fit for no man, and especially not our good master-at-arms!”

The older man nodded and scuttled off to do his lord’s bidding.
%%%
“So the pup wants to go to war, eh? Well, let him. Encourage him to wait until next winter, though. All will be in place by then, and this little bonus will seal things nicely. Who needs a puppet king, anyway?” Kesryn laughed, watching as Porthyros greedily counted the bright golden coins that were scattered on the ground. Pitching out another coin, he smirked when the scholar’s eyes automatically followed its arc.

They had met in an abandoned home near the edge of Y’dannyv and Kesryn had been pleased with his minion’s report.

“Any word on that piece of whore’s dung that calls herself a Warleader?” he asked as Porthyros returned to his visual coin counting.

“Not so far, my lord, but my spies may be hampered by the weather.” A freak snowstorm had come blowing down from the mountains, blanketing the city in white one last time before the spring thaw.

“No matter, I will find her, and when I do, I will send her screaming down into the pits of hell. Now, go back to Arris. Coax, cajole, bribe, beg or whatever it is you have to do, but get him to put off his little escapade up north, until next winter. I’ve got it! Hire an oracle to babble some nonsense about destiny and prophecies. He’ll enjoy that.” With that last order, he threw out the rest of the pouch and faded into the shadows, content to watch the scholar scuttle around the room, accurately retrieving each and every one of the gold pieces that were scattered about.

When the wretched little man had left, Kesryn pulled out a pouch and hurriedly drew a protective circle on the floor around him. When it was done, he began chanting a string of harsh syllables. Immediately, he felt his limbs stiffen as his body was taken over by the being he called “Master”.

“Your efforts please me, toy. You are a worthy vessel.” His lips moved but the sound that came out was not any earthly voice. The sound seemed to swirl around the circle, echoing upon itself and making Kesryn’s ears ring.

“I will instruct my children to return to their nests, and breed. They have done their work well. Soon, my slave. The day grows nearer when I will walk among you and you will feel my love first hand. The barrier grows thinner every day. Begin the sacrifices soon, my slave. Harvest the power of their deaths. With it, you will forge the key that will unlock the gates that have held me from this world.”

Feeling the strength of his vessel wane, the dark god gave one final order.

“You must find the child of Rhu’len. Give her to me, and the power I shall bestow upon you will make what you control now seem like parlor tricks. Your vengeance is my vengeance, Darkchilde, for I too long to savor the screams of the Scion of DaCoure. She and all others who have laid a hand against my children, shall taste my wrath!” With that, he was gone.

Already, Kesryn was making plans. A list of names formed in his mind. Men and women he would contact and then bring to Y’dannyv to begin gathering the power necessary to raise Ecarthus from the depths of hell. The mage knew of several empty warehouses that would serve well as new temples to Ecarthus: eater of souls. Keeping the sacrifices quiet might be a problem, but if he started with the unsavory types – drifters, thieves, and other common criminals, no one would notice. Only when the supply of undesirables fell short, would he start on the innocent. The sorcerer felt his face tighten into a malicious grin. Arris should thank him. He was about to make Y’dannyv the most crime-free city in all of the kingdoms!

His mind still ringing with the words of his demonic master, Kesryn collapsed in a heap.

The mage’s blood hummed with the new powers that the contact had granted him, and with a flick of his wrist, he conjured up a cup of restorative wine. After drinking the restorative draught, he crushed the cheap tin vessel and threw it into the empty hearth. It was time to call in a few markers.
%%%
Peering into the darkened doorway of one of the city’s many run-down hovels, Arris used a soaking wet handkerchief to mop rainwater from his face. The king sighed unhappily and whined, “I still don’t understand why you’ve dragged me out to meet this crazy old witch, Porthyros! Why couldn’t she just come to the castle and see me in the throne room like any civilized person?”

“Madam Koresky would have gladly come to the castle my liege, but her magic is strongest here. Her home is filled with objects of wondrous powers, and she draws upon them for greater insight,” the scholar explained softly.

The door to the ramshackle house opened, revealing a stooped older woman. Silently, she waved them in, shooing away one of a dozen cats that swirled around her ankles.

“On your head it be, if this place falls down around my ears,” Arris growled as he hurried to follow the woman.

The home was far more comfortable inside than it appeared to be. The walls were buried behind layers of old tapestries and the floors well carpeted by rushes and tattered rugs. A cheerful fire blazed in a large hearth, casting odd shadows that danced around the room, partially illuminating the oddest collection of items Arris had ever seen gathered in one place. Stuffed owls huddled side by side with seashells and balls of oddly colored fur. Permeating everything was a musty odor, thick with dust and age, which made the young king sneeze furiously.

“Welcome to my home, my king,” the old woman said, curtseying as low as her aged bones would allow. Shuffling over to a large chair placed near the fire, she asked, “Will you permit an old woman to warm her bones?”

Arris gathered every shred of courtly training he had and added a good dollop of common sense. Madam Koresky was reputed to be a very powerful witch. Angering her would undoubtedly be less than the smartest thing he had ever done in his short life. Besides, she had something for him – something Porthyros claimed was terribly important.

“Please, m’lady, ease the chill and take your rest,” the king said graciously, waiting until the old woman had fully seated herself before snagging a nearby seat. Porthyros scurried up to stand behind him; one hand perched, claw-like, on the back of the chair.

“Thank you, your majesty,” the witch said, giving the young king a wide, toothless smile. She gestured, and a table appeared from nowhere, along with a bottle of wine and two glasses. “A drink, your highness? It is a good vintage, I assure you.”

Porthyros darted out from behind the chair and hastily poured two goblets, taking a quick sip before nodding and handing it to Arris. After the wine had been properly appreciated, the old woman waved her hand again, and a deck of fortune cards appeared on the table.

Shuffling the deck several times, Madam Koresky then held it out to the king. In a ritual as old as the kingdoms, Arris leaned forward and tapped the deck with his left hand, thinking only of his future. The witch shuffled the deck once more and then began laying out the cards.

As soon as the pattern was spread on the table, she shuddered, her ancient form trembling under the grip of some greater power. Her eyes slid shut and her body fell lax in its chair. From her mouth an unearthly, hollow voice began to speak.

“Hear me well, young king, and heed the wisdom of the ages: Three times shall ye reach for the heavens, three times shall ye fail, lest ye learn the rules of patience. Glory ye seek, glory ye shall have threefold if thou dost take arms against those who foul the night. Winter’s cover shall be your shield, spring’s lamb your feast and summer’s field your harvest. If thou dost heed these words, all that ye seek shall be thine.”

The old woman’s head flopped back against the chair and a line of thick drool slipped free of her mouth to puddle on the stained robes she wore.

Arris looked up at Porthyros, an uncontrollably gleeful smile stretching across his mouth and said, “Did you hear that? It’ll be mine, all mine! All the glory I ever wanted, there, waiting for me to snatch it from the bodies of the ice demons.”

“Yes, my king, I heard. I also heard her say that you should wait until winter to seek that glory,” Porthyros agreed softly, moving to pull the chair out from under the king as he anxiously stood and began to pace around the room.

“Yes, yes, of course, of course. It makes perfect sense! How else could I kill the demons, if not during winter when they will be most plentiful? Oh, Porthyros, my old teacher, it shall be such fun! I shall raise the largest army this kingdom has ever seen and I shall lead it to the edge of the world and I shall grind the demon’s bones deep into the mountains. Those foul beasts shall never again rise and seek to turn Y’dan into their personal buffet! The High King will surely make me his heir! I will rule all the kingdoms someday. I can feel it!” A feverish gleam had risen in the king’s eyes as he spoke and strands of spittle shot out of his mouth as he boasted of his coming glories.

Porthyros silently listened, nodding his head and agreeing monosyllabically with the young man, until Arris calmed down enough to take a long draught of wine.

“Will she wake up soon? Is she dead?” the young king demanded when he looked at the old witch and saw that she was still unconscious.

“I’m afraid Madam Koresky’s advanced age leaves her little choice but to sleep for many candlemarks after a reading,” Porthyros explained sadly.

“Ah, well then, leave the woman a few tokens of our appreciation and let us return to the castle. There is much to plan, old teacher. So much to plan!”
~Chapter Eighteen~
“You are one hundred percent all better now,” Kyrian pronounced as she came out of her healing trance.

Thomas laughed. “My thanks, stardancer.” He stood up and stretched, groaning in delight as several vertebrae snapped into place. “I was getting plain tired of lying around like an Y’skani pleasure servant.”

“Oh you loved every minute of it, you old faker,” Syrah said as she slid her leather tunic on, grimacing when the straps had to be tightened. “Looks like I’ll have to start taking seconds of those wonderful meals you make, Kyrian. My clothes don’t fit anymore!”

Kyrian laughed as she stood and said, “Thank you for the complement, however backhanded.”

“My pleasure,” Syrah said, bowing low and winking lasciviously at the young stardancer.

“You better watch her,” Thomas said to Elisira, who had just arrived at the top of the stairs, “or Syrah’s going to charm the robes right off young Kyrian here.” The stardancer immediately blushed a scarlet that matched her robes.

Chuckling, Elisira said, “Azhani’s ready for you downstairs, guys. Try not to get too bruised up.”

Instantly, the mirth in the room dissipated as the reality of sparring with one of the greatest fighters in Y’myran hit the two warriors square in the gut. Soberly, they trooped down the stairs and out into the chill of the morning.

“That was evil,” Kyrian commented as she cleaned up her things.

“They deserved it. After all, they’re the ones who were acting like a couple of raw recruits,” Elisira replied, gathering a pile of dirty rags. “How are you this morning? Do your ribs still hurt?”

Sparring with Azhani the day before, Kyrian zigged when she should have zagged. Without meaning to, the warrior’s blow had landed, leaving a long, quickly purpling bruise along the stardancer’s side.

Kyrian took a deep breath, exhaled and let out a slight whimper of pain. “Stiff, achy and still feeling like a tyro on her first day at the temple.”

“That’ll pass. It was a lucky shot,” Elisira said reassuringly. The other woman was right; she’d seen Azhani and Kyrian spar enough in the last three weeks to know that the stardancer was a master at her art. As good as she was with the sword, Azhani was no match for Kyrian when it came to the Goddess’ Dance.

Kyrian shrugged noncommittally. “I should have been paying attention,” she muttered, hefting her share of the laundry and carrying it downstairs.

Outside, Padreg watched as Azhani put his warriors through their paces. The king was highly impressed by the warleader’s efficient methods, stepping in to quickly correct a wrong movement and always ready to offer a word of praise when something was done properly.

Thomas and Aden had squared off while Syrah worked a makeshift pell. Padreg himself had gone several rounds with the battle-hardened warrior and was taking a well-deserved rest. The Y’Noran king took a deep breath and smiled at the hint of spring that scented the air. It was the smell of green things, of grass and sun and of the promise of home.

They would be heading out in the morning. The last of the snowstorms had been a week ago and Azhani had said that they could leave as soon as the creek began to melt. Early that morning, Padreg had gone out with a fishing pole and had spent a fruitless morning poking among the slushy water, hoping for some luck. All he had gotten was muddy boots and a handful of partially frozen bait. It was enough, though, to convince the warrior that it was time for their party to leave the safety of the homestead.

“Left and lift, Syrah, your foot is slipping,” Azhani counseled softly, slipping behind the other woman to put her hands on her hips and walk her through the pivot. “Like this.”

Syrah nodded in comprehension. “I got it, like this,” and then she executed the pivot and slash perfectly.

“Exactly! Excellent. Now, drop-slash-thrust, double time, twenty count.” The warrior barked out the orders as if they were on a battlefield. “Aden, watch his chest, not his hips. His actions are telegraphed here,” she tapped her breastbone in demonstration. “You’re only getting half the story if you look down.”

Aden sketched a quick salute and called out, “Aye, warleader!” Padreg’s armsmen had taken to calling Azhani by the title. The general consensus was that though Arris had stripped her of the rank, she was still the warleader.

He turned to face Thomas again, and this time, kept his eyes planted on the taller man’s chest. When he saw the muscles shift just before the bigger man’s sword arm made a full arc, he easily blocked the blow, stepped inside of Thomas’ longer reach, and scored a solid blow against his adversary.

The sparring began in earnest, with each circling the other warily, trading soft jabs and blows. Happy to be an observer, Padreg rested against a barrel near the door of the cottage. Elisira slipped outside and joined him, worming her way against his side and sliding an arm around his waist.

“The boys look serious,” she said, by way of greeting.

“Nay, milady, they’re just playing, like Syrah, only taking advantage of having a moving pell to strike,” Padreg said, draping an arm over Elisira’s shoulder. The plainsman breathed deeply of the noblewoman’s scent, enjoying the spiciness that it added to the fragrance of the day.

“Mmm, well, Azhi’s having more fun than a cat in a pigeon coop,” Elisira observed knowingly. She watched as Syrah was moved from the pell to a clearing in the yard where the warleader squared off against her.

“Is she now,” Padreg drawled, as he turned to give his lady his full attention. “Think she’s having more fun chasing young Syrah than she did with me?”

Elisira laughed lightly, patting Padreg’s armor-clad stomach. “No, but I warrant Syrah wishes she had your mail coat right about now.”

The king turned to see the young warrior rubbing her shoulder where a blow from Azhani’s practice sword had landed heavily. “I’m sure she does,” he agreed readily. “And if Azhani hadn’t already told me that I wasn’t done being pounded on, I’d gladly be a gentleman and offer to let the lass wear it.”

The lady smiled affectionately and pushed Padreg out toward where Syrah and Azhani were sparring. “Then at least be gentlemanly enough to perform a rescue, before your armswoman drops from exhaustion! I’ll warrant that she won’t quit before Azhani, and Azhani never quits.”

Grumbling good-naturedly, the plainsman eased away from the comfort of Elisira’s embrace to amble out into the yard.

“Hey there you big bad bully, how about picking on someone your own size?” he called out tauntingly as he approached the two sparring women.

Smiling wickedly, Azhani looked the approaching plainsman up and down. Gamely, she shrugged and said, “Well, you’re a little runty for me, but you’ll have to do. Syrah, stand down and take a rest. Thomas you too, and Elisira, since you’re out here, you can go get that bow of yours and try to kill a few hay bales.” The words tumbled out of the warleader’s mouth easily; clearly, she was used to giving instruction and having it followed.

Without looking to see if her orders were carried out, Azhani smoothly turned away from Syrah, and attacked Padreg. The Y’Noran chieftain easily blocked the blow, and returned one of his own. Effortlessly, they slipped into the rhythm of strike, thrust and parry.

Syrah and Thomas wandered over to sit on the porch, each grabbing and taking long drinks from waiting waterskins. Elisira sighed and pushed away from the railing and headed over to where Azhani had set up a makeshift target and picked up her bow and arrows. Soon, Aden joined her and began quietly assisting her. The noblewoman wasn’t a bad shot; she just hadn’t had as much practice with the bow as with the saber. Shrugging her shoulders, Elisira focused on her task of sending arrow after arrow toward the man-shaped straw figures.

Inside the cottage, Kyrian and Devon worked to clean and prepare the group’s gear for the upcoming journey. The horses had been groomed and inspected until they nearly quivered with excitement. They knew that they would soon be out and about, and moving forward instead of standing still, cramped together in a space that was better suited to inanimate objects like carts and barrels.

Or maybe it was just Kyrian’s imagination. After all, she was the one who, like the more visibly twitching Azhani, was just about ready to rip the lips off of anyone who asked, “Is it snowing again?” The Rhu’len family home was nice enough, but very close quarters for the small group.

Kyrian reached under a bed and swept out a pile of clothing and dirt. A particularly fragrant brown tunic found its way into her hands. Wrinkling her nose, Kyrian threw the offending bit of clothing into the pile she had mentally marked, “wash today.” The chill of winter had made it difficult to bathe regularly, because heating enough water for the entire group had been impractical.

Another tunic, one not nearly so offensive to the nose, found itself tossed into the stardancer’s pack. Kyrian looked down, smiling at the jumble of faded royal blue fabric. Tall, dark and broody won’t miss this. As she pushed the tunic into the bag, she chuckled to herself. Actually, broody doesn’t really fit her anymore – not since early winter, at least. Having Eli and the guys here has really helped her come out of her shell. Shrugging, Kyrian moved on to the next item of clothing. At least I get a new sleep shirt out of all this clean up. It’s my favorite color too… A yell of frustration startled the stardancer out of her reverie and sent her to the window to see what was amiss.

Outside, Elisira was rubbing her forearm where the bowstring had been painfully tenderizing the flesh for the last candlemark. Looking down at the weapon in her hand, she briefly considered snapping it in half. Instead, she took a deep, calming breath and handed the bow to Aden.

“That’s it. I can’t do this anymore today. Would you be so kind as to take this and stick it someplace I don’t have to look at it for at least a week, please? Because if you don’t,” the lady said with forced politeness, “I’m going to shove it somewhere very uncomfortable in our esteemed warleader’s body.”

“My lady…” Aden said in a tone meant to calm, but was interrupted by a hand on his shoulder.

“Well, well, what have we here? Throwing a tantrum all proper and lady-like, now, Eli? Think that just because I’m all the way across the yard smacking the pants off of your beau that you can get out of target practice, hmm?” Azhani’s amused voice caused Elisira to roll her eyes and sigh.

Turning, the noblewoman gave her old friend a long look of severe irritation before putting her hands on her hips. A stray hair drifted down into her face, and exasperatedly, she blew at it. Sighing once more, she said, “Well, Warleader, if you would deign to instruct me on how to fill that,” she nodded toward the straw target, “with blunted arrows without turning my arm into meatloaf, I’d be ever so grateful.” A syrupy smile ended her statement.

“Tcha, you’ve been sharpening your tongue when you should have been honing your aim, my friend,” Azhani replied, casually taking the bow from Aden and silently nodding the man off to go wash up. “Now, let’s see what we can do about that meatloaf problem, hmm?”

Kyrian watched as Azhani handed the bow back to Elisira and then wrapped her arms around the lady. A sharp jab of jealousy cut through the stardancer and she angrily pushed it aside.

Stop that! You’ve got no right to be feeling the way you do, knowing how she felt about Ylera. The seldom spoken of, but often felt presence of Azhani’s lost lover was palpable even to someone as sense blind as Aden. Once, when Elisira had made the mistake of asking about that particular subject, everyone had felt the anguish that bled out of Azhani’s eyes. Even though her answer had been curt, they had all gotten the message that the subject was to be forgotten.

Yet, the priest inside of the stardancer knew that some day, more than likely very soon, Azhani would have to come to terms with losing her lover. Otherwise the anger that smoldered just under the surface would explode, possibly with horrible consequences. Which was one of the many reasons Kyrian secretly swore she would stay by the warrior’s side, even after they had escorted Padreg safely home. Azhani would need a friend. That’s right, a friend, Kyr, and don’t you forget it. Closing her eyes, she willed the unwanted emotions into a ball and then stuffed that ball in a strongly locked mental box. When she opened her eyes once more, Azhani had stepped away from Elisira and was quietly encouraging her to fire the bow.

The snap of the bowstring was audible across the yard, and so was the cheer of joy that Elisira let out when her arrow not only hit the target, but also did it without smacking the bruises on her arm.

Kyrian smiled at her friend’s victory and pushed away from the window, heading for her medical bag. She had just the right thing for that nasty bruise and if her memory proved true, she would also soon have something to prevent future injuries.
%%%
“Kyrian, you are a goddess!” Elisira groaned as the stardancer liberally applied a salve to the sorest parts of her arm.

Chuckling at the praise, Kyrian said, “No, but I serve one. I’m glad it’s helping.”

Elisira stretched, and groaned when several joints cracked noisily. “I sound like some decrepit old war hound,” the lady complained softly, arching her back once more and wincing as her spine popped.

“You sound like someone who has been at practice all morning, nothing more, my lady,” Kyrian assured her as she put away her medicines.

Sighing as she settled back into her chair, Elisira said, “I don’t know, Kyrian. Maybe Father was right. Maybe I should have just stuck to needlework. Sore fingers and dry eyes are nothing compared to what I feel right now.”

“I think you may revise your opinion about that, should you ever bear children, my lady. You’ll be glad of strong muscles then.” The stardancer looked over at Padreg, who was staring at Elisira, with affection written plainly on his bearded face.

Elisira noticed the direction of Kyrian’s gaze and smiled shyly. “If Astariu is kind, stardancer, I will indeed agree with you. Until then, I think I shall sit here and dream wistfully of a large, hot bath and the soothing hands of my handmaidens.”

“Add a tub for me, and I’ll leave you to dream in peace, my lady,” Kyrian said, grinning widely.

The other woman snorted and then looked at Kyrian as she turned to head over to Thomas and Syrah, both of whom had several minor cuts and bruises. “You got it. Oh, and Kyrian, call me Eli. It’s what my friends call me, and I’d like to consider you a friend.”

Kyrian nodded and said, “All right, but you must call me Kyr, in return.”

“Deal. Now, go doctor our mighty warriors. They’ve had a rough morning and might decide to kidnap the nearest stardancer and cart her off into the wilderness. Oh, and don’t let Azhi fool you – she’s probably got a bruise or two of her own that could use a bit of that miracle salve.”
%%%
Dawning clear, cool and blessedly snow free, the morning of their departure was everything the warrior could have hoped. Loaded and ready to travel, waiting just beyond the end of the walkway, the horses stamped their feet and snorted, eager to be on their way. Even the two horses hitched to the cart snorted and pawed at the ground, pulling lightly on the reins that Syrah casually held.

Azhani stood outside the door to the cottage and placed her fingers against the worn wood and whispered, “I’ll make you proud, papa. I’ll make this land whole again, I swear.” Resolutely, she turned away from the building that had sheltered her for the winter.

Kushyra sidled nervously as she approached, but Azhani easily grabbed her mare’s reins and whispered soothingly. Gray ears twitched at hearing a familiar voice. This one was the one that her friend had given her to; this one was the one who would be her new friend.

Laying a gentle hand against the mare’s flank, Azhani continued to speak softly, her tone slowly calming the horse. “That’s it, girl. You remember me, right? Yes, you do.” A bright smile rippled across the warrior’s face as the horse pushed into her stroking hands. “Hey, how about a treat? I’ve got an apple for you.” From her haversack, Azhani retrieved a wrinkled, but still edible yellow apple. “Here, girl, nibble on this.”

She fed the fruit to Kushyra, who greedily chewed it up. Slowly, Azhani put her foot in the stirrup and pulled herself into the saddle, speaking softly and scratching the short, stiff hair continuously. The horse seemed content to carry her rider now, so Azhani deftly guided her toward the gate. Leaning forward, she whispered, “Come on, Kushyra, let’s show ‘em what we can do!” Using her knees and legs to signal the warhorse, she directed her up and over the fence in a smooth jump.

Looking back at the others who were watching their antics with amusement, she said, “Well, shall we? It’s not getting any warmer out here.”

Devon was the first of the group to join the warleader, guiding his smaller gelding to the gate and leaning down to open it. He smiled shyly at Azhani, who grinned in return.

“Good to see you’ve got some of your father’s spirit, Dev,” she said, moving her mount aside so that the others could join them.

He shrugged and said, “Well, Da always said that a man could only eat three feet of sword once before he learned how to get out of the way. I never quite understood him, but I always took it to mean that you had to be prepared to take chances.”

Azhani nodded sagely. “That’s as good an interpretation as I would give, lad. So tell me, how go your studies?”

Having spent most of his winter either burying his nose in a book or learning herb lore with Kyrian, Devon had needed considerable prodding to take up weapons practice. The call of magic was stronger in his blood than the call of the blade, but the boy strove to impress all of his teachers.

“Eh, well, I still can’t seem to twist my sword the way Aden wants me to; Syrah thinks I’ll never be a decent wrestler; Thomas says I could burn water and milord Padreg thinks my horsemanship to be passable.”

Azhani eyed the boy’s slight form, noting the way he held himself in the saddle. “You’ll do better once you’ve gotten your growth spurt. As for Aden’s instruction – tell him to try you on the rapier instead of the broadsword. Your strength will lie in your speed, and the rapier can be as deadly as the claymore in the hands of a skilled fencer.”

“Okay,” the boy said, clearly relieved that the warleader wasn’t going to give him a lecture about his priorities. Shyly, he said, “The lady Elisira did say that my needlework was some of the best she’s seen.”

“Good,” Azhani said, nodding approvingly. “Now, tell me what Kyrian says about your progress.”

He grinned and launched into how pleased the stardancer was with how quickly he was picking up the herbalist’s skills.
%%%
Three days worth of travel found the group entering a radically changed Barton. The once thriving trade town was now nearly empty. Circling the town, the shell of a wall could be seen being erected by those who had survived the winter. The hastily built barrier around the inn and the other “safe houses” was slowly being demolished and few children played in the streets.

Everywhere they looked, people worked hard, racing to rebuild what the demons had destroyed. Azhani’s group was stopping for the day, to trade what would not travel for what the townsfolk could spare. As they rode in, they could see the tracks of trappers and miners who had lived through the winter.

Down a side street, they could see some of the trappers set up in stalls, selling cured hides and jerked meats. Kyrian and Elisira split away from the group, heading for the booths. Padreg and Aden went to see the hostler, hoping the man would have some spare oats for the horses.

After their trades were done, the group met in the center of the village and talked over where they would camp that night. A familiar face caught Padreg’s eye and he shouted out, “Jalen, it’s good to see you, my friend!”

After introductions had been made, Brother Jalen explained how he had come to Barton. “’Twas a dream from Astariu herself, Paddy. She said go, so I went. I’ve been here a week so far and I haven’t regretted it yet.”

“Well, it’s good to see you finally slipping away from that stuffy old library of yours,” the Y’Noran king said jovially.

“When the goddess calls, I can only but answer,” Jalen said, shrugging noncommittally. “I would be a poor servant of Hers indeed if I did not heed Her requests. Isn’t that right, young Kyrian?” The priest turned his attention on the red-robed stardancer.

“Of course, Brother Jalen. Everyone knows how selflessly you devote yourself to servitude. Why, who could forget how you tirelessly shared the good Abbot’s wine with the novitiate? I assure you, the memories of the next morning linger on and on.” Kyrian said, causing the good brother to laugh.

“Ah, Kyr, how did I ever let you go? You always know exactly what to say to take the wind out of my sails.”

“I had a lot of practice,” the stardancer replied cheekily, which just made the older priest laugh even harder.

“Ah Padreg, my old friend, leave it to you to find the one person in the kingdoms who can carve strips from my hide faster than an Y’droran tanner.” Brother Jalen thumped Padreg on the back heartily. “So, what brings you so far north? I seem to recall that you and yours were hightailing it out of Y’dannyv. I figured you’d be back on the plains by now.”

“Plans have a way of shifting like grass in the wind, old friend. After we ran into that patrol, my men and I separated so that we would all have a better chance of getting home safely. Some of those who accompanied me, will only return in spirit, goddess bless them.” His eyes glistened as he spoke.

“Are you headed back to Y’Nor now?” the priest asked.

Padreg carefully considered his answer. Even though he trusted Brother Jalen with his life, there were many ears in the open market where they had run into the priest. “Eventually. My lady and I – we decided to enjoy the mountains.”

Jalen’s eyebrows shot up in surprise. “Your lady? Are congratulations in order, my friend?”

Elisira interrupted then. “Not quite yet, good Brother, but goddess willing, and my lord’s courage providing, I’ll soon call Y’Nor home.”

Jalen’s booming laugh once again filled the space around the small group.

“Brother Jae! Brother Jae! Come quick! Toby’s stuck in the tree again!” a small child shouted as she ran up to the group.

“Oh dear, that is a problem isn’t it?” the priest said, excusing himself and racing to follow the tow-headed child who scampered down the road.

Padreg looked at Azhani, who was watching the priest’s progress. “Should we lend a hand? A child in trouble is never good.”

Azhani shook her head. “No, I think he can handle it. Toby’s a cat – probably gets himself into trouble once a day. I’m sure Jalen’s got a system all worked out. Besides, it’s getting late. We should go if we want to make it to the cave before nightfall.”

“Then let us be on our way,” the Y’Noran said, easily mounting his horse and heading for the other side of town.
~Chapter Nineteen~
Looking around at the mountain country she traveled through, Kyrian decided that the scenery more than made up for the lingering chill. Huge, ancient trees stretched endlessly, reaching toward an ocean of sky that was marred only briefly by scattered drifts of clouds. There were times when those clouds would gather and the party would have to endure some rain, but the morning after such a shower, the trees and bushes would be decorated in a lace of ice that glistened in the bright sun.

Animals just waking from their winter hibernation provided tough but plentiful meat for the stewpot, and there were a few tuberous plants that added a bland but filling variety to the meals. Devon even managed to discover a cache of nuts that the owner had either lost or been unable to use, which Kyrian immediately used to make several loaves of hearty bread.

Carrying on the sleeping conditions of the cabin, Elisira and Padreg shared one tent while Thomas and Syrah shared another. Aden, having grown rather fond of young Devon, took the rapidly growing boy into his tent, treating him like a second son. It seemed only natural for Kyrian and Azhani to take the last tent. They had grown used to the other’s presence at night, having shared Kyrian’s rope bed at the cabin.

It was a small, but comfortable tent. Most nights, the women had different watches, but on the nights when they did end up sharing the space, Kyrian found that she was unable to keep from gravitating toward the warmth of the warrior’s body.

Azhani didn’t seem to mind being Kyrian’s rag doll, or if she did, she didn’t say anything about it. Mostly, the warrior kept a grueling schedule where she would practice late into the evening and rise before any of the others to run through the woods, battling imagined armies. Every other day, she would return and spar with the stardancer. Devon, who had just begun learning the basics of weaponless combat, loved to watch the two women spar.

Though he devoted most of his free time to studying his spell book, Devon readily absorbed whatever the adults around him thought to teach him. His magical skills improved daily, and on days when the wood was wet, it was his spells that started their fires. There were a few occasions when even his burgeoning control failed, and twice he had singed his eyebrows.

The friendship between Kyrian and Elisira grew, as did the easy camaraderie between Azhani and Padreg. While the two warriors spent their days talking about old battles, the stardancer and the noblewoman discussed music and art. One of their other favorite topics was Azhani, since both shared a deep affection for the former warleader.

Elisira was free with her memories, happily sharing bits of the past with Kyrian. The noblewoman’s stories about Azhani were the ones that the stardancer most appreciated and Elisira delighted in telling her about the warrior’s most embarrassing moments.

“Did I tell you about the time Azhani and I snuck into the kitchens to snitch pastries?” Elisira started off her daily round of stories, shooting a glance over at the darkly frowning warrior. “Hey, I could always tell her about the fishing trip.”

Rolling her eyes, Azhani turned to Kyrian and said, “I hope you don’t think I’m a total idiot by the time she’s through destroying my perfectly honed image.”

“Mm, I don’t know, Azhi… I think it would be pretty hard to tarnish that reputation of yours,” Kyrian said.

“You haven’t heard all my stories yet, Kyr. Anyway, so it was late and…” By the time she had finished, both women were nearly in tears, they were laughing so hard.

“Oh gods, Azhani, you must have looked like a ghost with all that flour covering you,” Kyrian said, spurring her horse up to ride beside the brooding warrior.

Azhani shrugged. “Probably. Theodan wasn’t amused when he had to come down and calm down the cook. I spent three days mucking out the royal stables for that one.”

Putting a hand on the warrior’s arm, Kyrian said, “You know, if it makes you uncomfortable for me to hear these stories, I’ll ask Eli to stop.”

Stop being such a brat, warrior. Kyr just wants to get to know you. Can you really deny her that? Looking into the earnest green eyes of her friend, she sighed. “No, it’s all right, Kyrian. I just… I haven’t thought of those things in a long while.”

“Okay, but to be fair, let me tell you some of my embarrassing stories,” the stardancer offered, smiling brightly.

Azhani never turned down a chance to hear about her friend’s past. “All right,” she replied, a tiny smile twitching at the corners of her mouth. “But nothing to do with baking ingredients, right?”

“Right.” Yes! Bringing out the warrior’s sweet, wry smile became one of Kyrian’s daily quests. Sometimes, she would relate an anecdote from her years of growing up in a monastery; others, she would bring some strange bit of rock or tree to the warrior and ask what it was. Azhani would then spend candlemarks telling the stardancer about it. If she didn’t know what it was, Kyrian would in turn spend the rest of the day coming up with the most ridiculous story about the item and then relate it to the group that night around the fire.

To pass the time as they rode, she told the warrior a rousing tale of chasing after a group of chickens that had escaped their coop.

Azhani laughed when the story finished. “Sounds like it was quite a day,” she commented, still chuckling.

“Yeah, I still have nightmares about being pecked to death,” Kyrian confided quietly.

“I promise to keep the chicken monsters out of our tent, Kyr,” Azhani said, her voice filled with mock seriousness.

“Thanks,” the stardancer returned drolly. Something wispy, sticking out of the bark of one of the huge trees, caught her attention. Carefully, she leaned over and removed it, softly crowing in delight when she discovered that it was a feather.

The plume had a grayish-purple tone and was banded in dark blue rings. It looked to be a down feather, though by the size, the bird that had shed it would be the largest she had ever seen. If it weren’t so large, Kyrian might have thought it was a pigeon feather, but this feather was nearly as long as her forearm and yet was as wispy as eiderdown.

Gently clutching her prize, she guided Arun up to Azhani’s side. The warrior had ridden on ahead, leaving the stardancer to retrieve the feather. “Hey, Azhi, check this out,” she softly called out, offering the strange plume to the other woman.

Eyes sparkling in mild amusement, Azhani took it, wondering briefly what the stardancer had found to vex her with now. The warrior slowly examined the feather, considering all of what she knew of the flying beasts that lived in the mountains.

“It kind of looks like a pigeon feather, but that would have to be some bird to have lost that!” Kyrian said, making an exaggerated size gesture with her hands.

One dark eyebrow rose at Kyrian’s description, but Azhani didn’t rise to the bait. Instead, she continued to examine the feather, certain she had seen something like it before.

Come on mulch-for-brains, dig around in that castle middens you call a memory and see what rises up to the surface. She closed her eyes and pictured the feather in her head, trying to conjure what it would look like on the bird – where it would be and what its purpose was.

Kyrian watched as Azhani’s mind worked, amazed at the peacefulness that utter concentration brought to the warrior’s scarred face. The stardancer was just barely able to stifle the desire to reach out and stroke the dark scarring that marred the warrior’s right cheek where her rank tattoo should have been. Mentally, Kyrian growled. If there was one reason for her to hate Arris, it was for taking away this hard-earned facet of her friend’s life. The rank-mark was something everyone strived for – its removal was almost worse than the imprisonment Azhani had suffered.

Unconsciously, her fingers strayed to her own face, lightly brushing the tattoo that rested just below the corner of her left eye. She vividly remembered her own Marking Day.
At just eleven summers old, Kyrian was young to be seeking her future, but like many of those whose blood was both elven and human, the goddess had woken her menses early. So, under the guidance of one of the starseekers, she went to the casting pool, to discover if her life was written in the stars. Though she was young, Kyrian was eager to see if she had a calling, or if she would be making her own destiny.

It was night, just after moonrise, and she was naked. A light breeze ruffled the shoulder-length curls of her reddish blonde hair, making her realize that it was time to cut it before it blocked her vision or before one of the brothers took a rod to her knuckles for her lack of personal care.

She could hear the wind rustling in the leaves, the rushing noise so loud, it was like being in the amphitheater after one of the Goddess Plays. Slowly, she approached the pool, kneeling beside it on the square of specially grown white grass.

Carefully, she began to recite the prayer that would activate the water’s powers.
“Astariu, lady of light, hear my voice tonight

Is my life thine to honor

or mine to hold?
Is the path written

or shall I carve the pen?
Astariu, lady of light, grant me sight

that I may serve all my life

in honor and in joy.”
Kyrian opened her eyes and stared down into the pond. Silvery ripples spread across the water, creating beautiful patterns in the dark pool. Thinking it only reflected moonlight, she started to stand. A misty fog began to rise, coalescing into a hazy shape. She blinked, rubbed her eyes and blinked again, willing the form to clear.

As she stared, the grayish shape twisted then dissipated to reveal her own face, hooded in the dark crimson fabric of a stardancer’s robe. On her right cheek, the distinctive three-teardrop tattoo of a Stardancer’s Mark glowed a light silver.

“A ‘dancer,” she whispered, reaching up to brush her mark-free cheek. Tears welled up in her eyes. To be called to serve the goddess so, was an honor that she would have never dared to imagine. Stardancers were revered above all other priests, having the ability to touch a person’s life in so many intimate ways. “Thank you, goddess!” she whispered exultantly. “I swear I’ll not use your gift lightly.”

Kyrian moved to leave, and then realized that the image in the pond was changing, shifting and revealing yet another picture. Mesmerized, she watched her future self fade to be replaced by a horrendous scene.

It was a battle – the dead and dying lay everywhere. A red robed figure moved from body to body, doing what little good it could to aid them. As they traveled along the field, Kyrian realized that the person was getting closer to the actual fighting. Several arrows whizzed by, narrowly missing the stardancer. Suddenly, the person was in the thick of the battle, using the heavy steel baton that was the stardancer’s only weapon, to defend against the attackers.

The enemy was fierce – demons and monsters straight from a child’s nightmare swarmed over the figure. Fangs and claws tore at the stardancer’s robes, shredding them and revealing a coat of studded leather armor beneath the fabric.

Still the stardancer pressed on, reaching the side of a dark-armored horseman. Together, they fought a hoard of monsters. They fought for what seemed like candlemarks, and blood and ichor thickly covered both figures. Then the horse was slain, sending the warrior tumbling to the ground. The stardancer helped the warrior up and they continued to hold off the monsters. Other warriors fought and died around them.

Suddenly, the ground in front of them erupted and a giant, monstrous form rose, reaching for and capturing the dark-armored warrior. Kyrian watched the pool in horror as the demon tore the warrior apart and then reached for the stardancer…

The young girl screamed and jumped away from the pool, shaking her head and chanting, “It’s nothing, just a dream, I’m sleeping, I’ve already gone back to the monastery and now I’m just asleep and dreaming, yeah, that’s it, I’m dreaming…”
Kyrian shuddered as the memory faded. She had nearly succeeded in banishing the nightmarish vision, but still, sometimes, it haunted her. This was the first time she had thought of it since meeting Azhani. A part of her wondered if it was because the warleader resembled the dark warrior in her dreams, or if it was because of all the stories she had heard of the demons that lived in the mountains they were now skirting.

“Hey, Kyr, you okay in there?” Azhani’s voice was tinged with concern. She had remembered where she had seen the feather before and had opened her eyes to tell the stardancer about it, when she realized that Kyrian was mentally miles away.

Kyrian blinked and smiled up at the warleader. “I’m fine. Just … remembering stuff, that’s all.” Her smiled grew and she nodded toward the feather in the warrior’s hand. “Speaking of remembering… did you figure out what that thing is, or do I get to make it up?”

Azhani laughed and handed the feather back to Kyrian. “Not this time, healer. I remembered. It’s an owldragon’s feather.”

“Owldragon? What the heck is that?” Kyrian asked, wondering if Azhani were pulling her leg.

“It’s a bird – fairly large and rather rare. They’re nocturnal and solitary by nature like owls, but they’re scaled in places like a dragon. I think they’re probably a created race – some crazy old wizard playing around with parts and pieces got a little too tossed on some good ale and decided to pretend he was Astarus.”

“Really? You’re not just having some fun with me, are you, Azhi?” Kyrian asked, wonder in her voice.

“Nope,” Azhani replied, her wry smile breaking out on her face. “Maybe we’ll see the bird tonight and then you’ll believe me. Share watch with me, and I’ll see if I can find him for you.”

“You’re on,” Kyrian said, a challenge rising in her voice. Even if the warrior were just pulling her leg, it would still be nice to spend some time alone with her. Before Padreg and Elisira had shown up, the two friends would stay up talking about their childhoods. After their guests had arrived, Azhani had thrown herself into the role of a warleader and seemed to have less time to spend with Kyrian alone.

Azhani heard the dare and her smile widened. It would be nice to spend a few candlemarks with the stardancer, just the two of them, even if the owldragon didn’t show up. Maybe she could get Kyrian to open up a little about why she froze in battle. They hadn’t had time to talk in a long while, and the warrior still clearly remembered watching her friend turn into a statue when a group of bandits had attacked them last fall.

“I’m going to scout ahead. Tell the others that I’ll be back shortly,” Azhani said, spurring her horse into a light canter.

“Sure thing,” Kyrian said to the warrior’s departing back and then guided Arun back to Padreg, who was trying to teach Elisira how to weave grass into a basket.

“Ah, Kyr, have you come to save me from my own fumble-fingeredness?” Elisira asked as Kyrian drew up alongside them.

Kyrian laughed and shook her head. “No, actually, Azhani sent me to tell you that she’s gone to scout ahead.”

“All right. Aden, take point, please,” the Y’Noran king ordered softly.

Aden nodded and moved up to take the lead while Thomas dropped back, allowing Padreg, Elisira and Kyrian to ride together. Devon rode a little behind, his book open and resting on his saddle, but every so often, the youth would look up and make sure he was still on the trail.

“So Kyrian, have you found any new and wondrous items to share with us?” Padreg asked, his eyes dancing merrily.

Kyrian tugged at a lock of her hair and chuckled. “Actually, yes. I found an owldragon feather today.”

“An owldragon?” Elisira asked, disbelief plain in her voice.

“That’s what Azhani said it was. She even told me we could watch to see if we see it tonight,” Kyrian said. Shrugging, she held out the feather for them to examine. “I’m not sure if I believe her, but whatever bird it’s from, it’s pretty.”

Elisira took the feather and examined it and then passed it to Padreg, who studied it briefly before handing it back to Kyrian. “Well, it’s nothing I’ve ever seen,” the noblewoman said.

“Nor I, though I’ve seen larger feathers. There’s a type of bird that lives in the Y’droran Mountains that drops feathers twice as long as your arm. The Dwarves call ‘em great eagles. I’ve never seen one, but my father did, and brought back a fistful of the feathers to prove it,” Padreg said.

“Do you still have them?” Elisira asked.

Padreg nodded. “Yes. Mother had them made into this horrendous fan. She would pester father until he would fan her like she was some desert princess, and he was her eunuch servant. It was a source of great merriment in our clan. I think my sister may have the monstrosity now.”

“You have a sister?” Elisira asked, giggling lightly. “You didn’t tell me that. Should I expect her to be overprotective?”

As their conversation grew more private, Kyrian allowed her friends to move ahead. Looking about, she filled her eyes with the sight of spring’s touch on the vegetation. Everywhere her gaze brushed, there was a burst of color. Tiny flowers peppered the edges of the trail, while the scuttling of small animals shook the branches of the bushes and trees. The elven part of Kyrian rejoiced in the awakening of the forest after its winter nap.
%%%
“See it yet?” Kyrian whispered for the thirtieth time as she handed a steaming cup of tea to her watch partner.

“Nope, not yet. Don’t worry, Kyr. I’ll tell you if I see it,” Azhani said, taking the cup and sipping at the hot liquid. It was a cold night; the earlier wind had picked up and was now tossing the stardancer’s hair about quite viciously. “You should pull your hood up. You might catch cold.”

Kyrian automatically reached for her hood and then stopped. “If I do that, then I won’t be able to see or hear as well. I’ll be okay. But speaking of hoods – I owe you a cap.” Kyrian reached into her haversack and proudly pulled out a newly finished cap. “Here you go, one knit cap, specially crafted to fit your head.” She held out the garment, smiling when Azhani took it.

The warrior looked at the simple creation and smiled. Kyrian had expanded on her father’s design, enlarging the cap and adding a piece that would wrap around her throat, giving her that much more warmth. “Thank you,” the warrior said, honestly touched by the gesture. She set her cup aside and pulled the cap on, carefully wrapping the end pieces of the scarf around her throat. She turned her head a few times, pleased when the hat didn’t pull on her braids or come off. The scarf stayed in place as well, and she felt herself begin to grow warmer.

“You’re welcome. I, um, well, I figured that since you didn’t have a scarf, either, that I should just go ahead and make you a ranger’s cap,” Kyrian explained shyly.

“A ranger’s cap?” Azhani asked curiously, picking up her cup and taking another drink.

Kyrian nodded, and sat down next to the warrior. “Yeah. At the monastery, there is a group of monks who go off and live in the wild – they’re the ones who take care of the sick animals and downed trees and things. Anyway, it gets pretty cold in Y’Syr and one of the rangers designed this cap – said that having one item instead of two to pack, was good. The design caught on, and soon all of us novices were making and wearing them.”

“So this is high fashion for a monk, hmm?” Azhani asked, cupping her hands over her cheeks and making a silly face at her friend.

Warmth suffused the stardancer at the bantering tone of the warrior’s voice. She was caught between wanting to laugh and wanting to reach out and hug Azhani until she squeaked. Instead, she settled for shaking her head ruefully, chuckling lightly and patting the warrior’s knee. “That’s right, you’re wearing the monk version of velvet and silk brocade.”

“Well then, I feel like monk royalty!” Azhani said teasingly, primping and cooing like one of the many Y’dani courtiers she had seen over the years.

Kyrian couldn’t help herself – she started laughing.

Something rustled overhead and Azhani clapped a hand over the stardancer’s mouth. “Shh!”

Instantly, Kyrian quieted down. Azhani removed her hand and quietly stood, then silently moved away from their seat and into an open spot beyond the fire lit circle of their camp. Scanning the skies, she searched intently for the shape she knew was out there. When she spotted what she was looking for, she smiled and waved to Kyrian, signaling the stardancer to join her.

Sure that she was about to be made a total fool, Kyrian softly padded out to Azhani. As she reached the warrior’s side, Azhani pointed toward a tree some one hundred yards away.

“There,” she whispered, “on the top of that tree – see her?”

Kyrian squinted, trying to focus. In the distance, she spotted the beast, but it was so far away she wasn’t exactly sure how Azhani could see it as clearly as she obviously did.

The owldragon was a large bird, bigger than two good-sized turkeys. It was too far away and too dark for her to make out many details, but what she could see astounded her. Feathers and scales mixed in a way that was both disturbing and beautiful.

Silently, the two women stood together and watched the unusual avian as it moved about in its nest. Kyrian held her breath, hoped it would fly and nearly cried out when her hopes were realized. In flight, the owldragon was even more magnificent. It leapt off the branch and glided, flapping huge wings minimally to stay aloft. Suddenly, it folded its wings in and dove, to strike something on the ground almost a half-mile away. Kyrian heard the shrill death cry of a small animal and watched as the owldragon grabbed its kill and returned to its nest.

“Beautiful,” she whispered, tearing her eyes away finally and looking at Azhani. “Thank you.”

Azhani shrugged. “Told ya,” she said, her trademark smile flitting across her face.

“Yes, you did, and I’m very glad,” Kyrian said, smiling back at the warrior. “I guess this means that you earned a treat tonight.”

“Treat?” Azhani sounded remarkably like a child and her face lit up eagerly. “I love treats. We haven’t had treats in a long time. What’d you make?”

Kyrian chuckled. “Devon found a beehive today and somehow he managed not to get stung to death while retrieving the main ingredient for these.” The stardancer walked over to the fire and uncovered a pot. Inside were several small, honey-covered seedcakes.

“Ooo,” Azhani purred, reaching in and scooping out several of the sweet, gooey cakes.

“Not too many – we should save some for Aden and Thomas. Everyone else has already had their share,” Kyrian said.

Azhani pouted, and reluctantly only took a couple more of the treats before resolutely returning to her tree trunk perch.

Putting the treats next to the fire to stay warm, Kyrian lifted the teapot and brought it over to Azhani. “Refill?” she asked, offering the pot.

Azhani nodded, her mouth full of seedcake. Kyrian filled the warrior’s cup and then her own, setting the pot on the ground between them.

The rest of the watch was quiet. They talked softly, trading tales of their youth. Kyrian had grown up an orphan, but surrounded by other children at the monastery. Azhani had her father, but they lived in the cottage, only seeing others when they ventured into Barton for supplies. The warrior was six when they moved to Y’dannyv to live in King Theodan’s castle.

When she was twelve, she accepted the Mark of a warrior and entered the army, where she served as her father’s squire. As she spoke of her youth, Azhani would reach up and rub the scarred area where a sword-shaped tattoo had once been. In a burst of compassion, Kyrian reached out and covered the warrior’s hand with her own.

“Maybe you can have the Mark remade,” she said, as their fingers entwined.

Azhani closed her eyes and just leaned into their joined hands. I don’t know what I did to deserve her friendship, Astariu, but I’ll never stop thanking you for the chance to know her. The warrior took a breath, not bothering to hide the slight hitch of a sob.

Kyrian’s heart hammered in her chest when she heard the warrior’s cry. Hug her, you idiot! her mind screamed. Slowly, so that the warrior could pull away gracefully, the stardancer stood and opened her arms. “They’re free, if you want one,” she said, taking a small step toward Azhani.

“I do,” Azhani whispered, reaching for her friend and sobbing again when the other woman enveloped her in a long, soothing hug.

Kyrian rested her cheek on the top of the warrior’s head; the scratchy feel of the yarn enough of a distraction to keep her hormones in check. Engaging another aspect of her gift, she extended her empathy and wrapped Azhani in a circle of love and acceptance.

A candlemark later, the rustling of bushes broke them apart. Looking up, they spotted a sleepy-eyed Elisira, stumbling off into the woods for privacy. They shared a grin at the lady’s loud sigh of relief that echoed through the camp only moments later.

Kyrian reached out and silently ran two fingers down Azhani’s face. The warrior closed her eyes, bowed her head and muttered, “Thank you.”

Stumbling into the firelight, Elisira looked up, squinting at the sky. “I guess my internal clock is getting better. Go to bed you two, I’ll go get my grumpy bear up for our watch.” The noblewoman waved as her friends bid her goodnight and crawled into their tent. Smiling, she filed away the memory of their sweet embrace. “Please let them be happy,” she softly said and walked over to her tent to wake Padreg.

 

Continued in Chapter Twenty

To find more of sHaYcH’s writings go to Shay’s Playground

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