Banshee’s Honor Part 2 by sHaYcH

~Chapter Twenty~

After a fortnight of hard travel, they crossed into the Y’Syran forests. To celebrate their escape from the mountains, they spent the night in an old shrine, safe in the knowledge that Arris could not reach them there. The atmosphere was jubilant, filled with hope and expectation rather than fear of what lay around the next bend.

A keg of ale was opened and shared around the fire, and each person contributed a thankful prayer to the Twins for their blessings. Two elven scouts found them, and Padreg was able to convince them that they were just passing through, heading to Y’Nor for the spring foaling. Luckily, Azhani was in the trees, taking her turn at watch duty. Her distinctive scar would have given her away immediately.

The scouts wished them well and told them where to find the nearest villages. Thanking them, Padreg wished them good hunting and sent them on their way. After that, they traveled slowly, and took their time to pass through the forest.

Stopping in the villages provided them with a fresh source of food and clothing, as well as new shoes for the horses. They never stayed more than a day at any of the communities they visited, though it was tempting to spend a few days sleeping on a real bed.

What news they were able to hear of Y’dan, was discouraging. Arris’ prejudicial laws had driven all but the most stubborn non-humans from the kingdom. Rumors of a new religious cult surfaced, but neither Azhani nor Padreg could track down more than the haziest references to it. They left the forests after another two and a half weeks and entered the Y’Syran plains.

Staring out at the vast, green fronds of grass that waved gently in the breeze, Elisira gasped and whispered, “Is this what your homeland is like, my lord?”

“Aye, to a great degree. Y’Nor isn’t as flat. There are hills, smallish, to be sure, but they roll gently before the eye. However, even the beauty of the land cannot compete with the herds, milady.” He closed his eyes briefly, seeing memories of home play across his eyelids. “Thousands upon thousands of the most beautiful beasts share our lives, Eli. You will see, I promise.”

The lady’s hand unconsciously went to the mane of her horse, Windfoot. Sifting through the thick strands of hair, she lightly scratched the stallion’s neck. Windfoot blew out a pleased breath and moved closer to Padreg’s mare. “I think I could like that, my lord. Perhaps even love it,” she said, turning to look at the king, whose scruffy appearance made him seem more a bandit than a ruler.

“My lord, I hate to interrupt, but we need to decide where we are headed next,” Aden’s soft voice rumbled from behind the couple.

Padreg frowned, but nodded. “All right. What does Azhani suggest? Do we need supplies yet?”

“Syrah is checking the packs now, and Thomas and the Warleader are arguing about which is closer – the capitol, or Myr.”

“Myr is closer, if we’re where I think we are,” Kyrian said as she joined the small group. “It’s about a day and a half to the east, whereas Y’Syria is a bit more to the south and west. One way takes us back into the forest, the other to the edge of Banner Lake.”

“You’ve been to Y’Syr before, Kyr?” Elisira asked curiously.

“I grew up here. The monks at the temple in Y’len raised me and I… I spent some time traveling around the country before I moved to Y’dan.”

Elisira watched in amazement as a myriad of emotions danced just behind the shadows of Kyrian’s eyes. Something very tragic had happened to the young stardancer here in Y’Syr.

Whatever it was, aroused the lady’s curiosity. What evil had befallen Kyrian that even the mention of Myr put tears into her eyes?

“Which would you recommend, then, Kyrian?” Padreg was asking.

“If all we need are a few supplies, we would probably be better off going to Myr. Your face would be well known to the nobles in the capitol and your trip home would more than likely be severely delayed.” Kyrian heard herself saying the words, but felt as though she were hearing them from somewhere far distant. The last place on the planet she wanted to go was Myr, but logic had warred with fear and won. Going to Y’Syria would be more trouble than it was worth – even for a few supplies. If it were just she and Azhani, perhaps they could risk it, but with Padreg and the horses – horses that were easily identifiable as purebred Y’Norans, there was too much chance of being recognized. Kyrian knew that Azhani wasn’t ready for Arris to know where she was.

“Myr it is then,” Padreg said, turning his horse away to go and interrupt Azhani and Aden’s conversation.
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To Kyrian’s great relief, it was Syrah and Thomas who took the wagon into Myr, while the remainder of the party set up camp underneath a quiet grove of trees. Saying a silent prayer of thanks, Kyrian threw herself into making a good meal, using the last of their special treats to create a thick, rich stew.

At the edge of the clearing, Padreg and Azhani sat on a log and drank deeply from a waterskin. They had been sparing all morning and now were taking a break.

Handing the skin to Azhani, Padreg said, “There’s no easy way to bring this up, Azhani, so I’ll be plain. How did you come to be exiled?”

“I wondered how long it would take you to ask,” Azhani said quietly, looking down at her feet. A hundred emotions flickered on her face, but finally she said, “Much of what you heard about Banner Lake is true, my lord. I am guilty of slaying or maiming one hundred and six soldiers of the crown. What you will not hear is that I am innocent of the death of Ambassador Kelani.”

“I know,” Padreg interrupted. “Eli told me.” He shuddered, sickened by what his beloved had described.

A haunted, pain-filled look entered the warrior’s eyes. “Eli knows what happened?” she whispered haltingly.

“Aye, she does. Do me a favor, warrior. Never ask her to tell you about it,” the Y’Noran chieftain said pleadingly.

Looking away, Azhani whispered, “I can only imagine what she must have seen.” Tears gathered in the corners of her eyes and spilled over. Hurriedly, she dashed them away. “So then all you need to know is this: I was supposed to be Theodan’s heir, but Arris and his pet councilmen decided that I was lying.” Shaking her head, Azhani added, “I will regret, until my last breath, my decision to enter that council chamber alone. I was so arrogant, and so sure that they would accept the word of their king, that I never even imagined they would deny me.”

“Will you take the throne, then?” Padreg asked curiously. There was no question that her story was truer than any he had heard, either via the official proclamations or through rumor. He would accept her version with a clean conscience and stand by her side knowing that the Twins blessed his actions.

“I don’t know, Padreg. I don’t want it – I never did. All I ever wanted was to marry Ylera and teach the sword. Maybe have a few kids and see the kingdoms. Those dreams are ashes, and all that I have left is my hate.” Her gaze picked out the shapes of Kyrian and Elisira as they worked around the camp. Turning, she looked at him once more and quietly said, “And the friends who have clung to me, despite my churlish ways.”

Padreg cracked a smile. Clapping her on the back he said, “Well, warleader, when people love you, that’s what they do. They stick around, even when the shit gets knee deep. Now come on – it’s time for you to chase my lazy butt around the clearing again.”

She snorted and jumped up, taking the shaft of wood that had doubled as a practice blade with her. “All right, plainsman, you asked for it!”

While Azhani and Padreg sparred, Aden, Devon and Elisira concentrated on gathering firewood and repairing torn clothing. With the food cooking, Kyrian wandered the nearby forest, reliving memories.

A candlemark later, Azhani found her, sitting in the middle of a clearing, running her fingers through a patch of yellowed grass. Tears stained the stardancer’s face, which was haunted by a look of sadness so infinitely regretful, that it tore at the warrior’s heart.

“Kyr?” she called out softly.

Startled, the stardancer leapt up. “Sorry, I was just exploring the area. It’s been a while since I was here and I wanted to see how it had changed…” she babbled, edging away from the spot where she had been sitting.

There was a frantic, almost panicky quality to her friend’s voice, so Azhani didn’t press for details. “All right. I came to tell you that Thomas and Syrah are back. We’re all waiting breathlessly to try your new recipe,” she said, smiling brightly.

“Oh, yes, dinner! Of course, I’ll come right away,” said Kyrian, the sadness vanishing so completely it was as if it never existed. Yet Azhani could still see the stains on the stardancer’s face, and there were still shadows in her brilliant green eyes. Casually, she dropped an arm around her friend’s shoulders, pulling her into a loose hug. “Thanks for cooking today. I know Eli was getting tired of Aden’s ‘rat-on-a-stick’ routine.”

A sweet smile was her reward. “Thanks, I know how much you like my stew.”

“Hey, a girl’s gotta have one favorite, right? Just be glad it’s something simple, instead of some incredibly complex marzipan sculpture,” Azhani replied teasingly. They left the clearing, but the warrior painted the details into her memory, knowing that one day, she would ask what caused her friend so much distress.

When Azhani and Kyrian returned, Thomas and Syrah had just finished unloading the supplies from the back of the wagon. Barrels and wrapped packages lay piled near the rest of the party’s gear and the two exhausted horses were being treated to a rubdown and a hot mash.

Heading for the fire pit, Kyrian immediately started dishing out the meal. Fresh, warm bread spread thickly with butter complimented the thick, hearty stew, and soon everyone was busily eating.

Syrah spoke first, leveling a strangely respectful gaze at Azhani before saying, “Well, we’ve got some news. Most of it is bad, so I’ll try to be quick. First off, Warleader, you are worth quite a bit of gold to Queen Lyssera. If I wasn’t so loyal to his royal beardedness over there,” the warrior nodded at Padreg, who rolled his eyes, “I might be tempted to claim the money myself.”

“How much is my carcass worth?” Azhani asked lightly, spearing a bit of meat with her fork.

“Not that much, only 25,000 goldmarks, but the warrant specifically states to capture you alive.”

Everyone whistled at the princely sum.

Azhani only shrugged. “What’s Arris paying?”

“Ah, now there’s a man who knows the value of people. The king of Y’dan is offering 50,000 Y’dani gold coins to anyone who can bring him you or your head, he’s not very picky about it,” Syrah said, taking a long swig from an aleskin.

“So between them, I’m worth 75,000. That’s not too bad,” the warrior said nonchalantly. “Maybe I should turn myself in and use the reward money to start up a bookbindery.”

Everyone looked at Azhani like she was nuts.

“What?” the warrior returned their stares. “Am I not allowed to have a sense of humor? Come on guys, I know I’m usually as prickly as a cactus in a windstorm, but hell, I can enjoy a good joke, especially if it’s at the expense of the idiots I’d like to grind into bone dust.”

Elisira was the first to speak. She looked directly at Kyrian and said, “All right, Kyr, whatever special herbs you seasoned her food with, share!”

“I didn’t do it, I swear!” the stardancer protested.

“All right, if you didn’t do it, then,” she turned and mock glared at Azhani, “who are you and what have you done with Azhani?”

Laughing and shaking her head ruefully, the warrior said, “I guess you can’t change overnight, can you?” Fiercely, she narrowed her eyes and furrowed her brow, putting on her best, “I’m a bad-assed warrior” mask and growled, “Is this any better?”

Elisira tried hard not to laugh. “Oh, yeah,” she said solemnly, “much better. Now you’re the sourpuss we all know and love.” Though come to think of it, she’s never very sour. It’s only when she thinks about Arris, or Ylera, that her mood changes. Even then, if Kyr’s around, she’s not as tense. Thank you, Astariu, for bringing her into Azhani’s life.

“So what else did you find out?” Kyrian interjected, hoping to head off any unpleasantness. By the look in Azhani’s eyes, things were about to become very unfunny.

“Arris’ new laws are beginning to anger the nobility of other kingdoms – especially the ones regarding non-Humans,” Thomas said, tearing off a chunk of bread and dipping it into his stew. “There’s mutterings of trade embargos and the like. A few folks want to know why the High King hasn’t spanked the boy silly.”

“I’d like to know that myself,” Azhani muttered distantly, and got up to scrape her plate into the fire.

“I plan on sending messengers to Y’mar to discover that very thing, just as soon as I get home,” Padreg said as he leaned over to refill his plate. “I’m also going to send messages to the other kings – Arris’ actions should be shouted loudly by any who will speak, not hidden behind the trappings of royal decrees,” he added around a mouthful of food. “Good stuff, Kyrian. I’m almost tempted to steal you for myself – it’d be nice to have someone around who knows how to make four week old venison taste fresh.”

Kyrian stood to go and begin cleaning the mess from the dinner preparations. “As much as I’m flattered, your highness, I’m afraid settling for being a cook isn’t within my abilities – even if it was the cook of a king.”

Grinning cheekily, Padreg slyly asked, “Are you sure? I can promise you that you will have the finest that the clans can offer, so long as you keep feeding me like this.”

The stardancer laughed. “I’m sure. Besides, I think Azhani might have something to say about losing her chief cook and bruise fixer.”
The chieftain looked over at Azhani, who frowned and said, “You’re not trying to steal my best soldier, are you, Paddy?” Whoa, where did that come from? the warrior wondered. I meant to say that she was welcome to go with him. In fact, it would be the best thing for her if she went with him. Yet the very thought of Kyrian leaving her to face Queen Lyssera alone left a hollow ache in Azhani’s chest.

Chuckling, he scraped up the last of his food and shoveled it into his mouth. Kyrian reached for his bowl and he wiped his mouth, saying, “Nah, I was just funning you, Azhani. I’m not the kind to challenge the will of the gods, and from what I know of you and Kyr, your partnership is definitely divinely inspired.”

“Is that a comment about my priesthood or how difficult Azhani is to work with?” Kyrian asked lightly.

“Knowing Paddy, it’s probably both,” Aden grunted, causing everyone to laugh.

While Kyrian and Syrah cleaned up, everyone else readied the camp for the night. After tending the horses, Devon found a place well away from the fire and pulled out his book, conjuring a tiny ball of light that floated just above the text, making it easy to read.

Wood was stacked, dishes were dried and repacked and the fire was stirred until it blazed brightly. The sound of owls calling out in the night joined with the scratchings and scamperings of other nocturnal animals, blending with the noise of the camp and creating a pleasant hum of activity.

Padreg took up a jaunty whistle, quickly joined by Aden and Thomas while Syrah began to sing, adding words to an ancient tune. The song was old, and in a language that neither Azhani nor Kyrian had ever heard. Elisira barely recognized it as an archaic form of Firstlander, the tongue of the people who had settled the seven kingdoms of Y’myran.

It wasn’t long, though, before an oddly harmonic descant joined Syrah on the chorus. The whistling stopped as everyone looked over at Kyrian, who flushed darkly.

She shrugged and said, “Sorry, I’ve always had a talent for picking up languages and chants. I apologize if I made a mistake in the syntax.”

“No, it wasn’t bad, Kyr. You and Syrah should sing again,” Elisira said, reaching out to pat her friend’s shoulder. “In fact, I think I might have the general melody down and could probably play it on my flute.”

“Aye, and I’ve got a tambour hereabouts that I can add to fill the rhythm,” Aden said, shuffling over to his saddlebags and digging around in a pack.

Instruments were found and lovingly brought out. Padreg surprised everyone by producing a harmonica while Thomas improvised with a couple of wooden spoons. Devon’s nose was so far buried into his book that he barely acknowledged the others until Elisira let out a shrill trill on her flute. The young man blinked, set aside the book and grinned, gesturing at the small mage light. The little incandescent ball shivered and split into thousands of tiny, colorful specks and began to swirl around in the air, flowing jerkily with the joyfully cacophonous music.

Other songs flowed out of the musicians. Old favorites that were well known joined new tunes that were gladly taught. Merriment filled the small clearing, warming hearts and souls as the fire warmed their bodies. Only Azhani abstained from the tiny celebration, not having a decent voice or instrument to contribute to the entertainment. Instead, after gathering more wood for the fire, she patrolled around the camp, always within earshot of the revelers, but never close enough to disturb them.

No one noticed the warleader’s absence but Kyrian. Keenly, she felt the hole the warrior’s absence made in the warm circle of friends. A part of her wanted to go after Azhani, but she wasn’t sure how to extract herself without alarming the others.

An opportunity finally came when she drained the last of her tea and she realized that now would be a good time to locate a private bush. Politely, she excused herself, found that bush and then went off in search of the warleader.

“Bit of a chilly night to be out for a starlit stroll, don’t you think, healer?” Azhani’s deep voice asked from behind her.

Kyrian spun around and almost slammed into the warrior’s armor-clad chest. “Oof! Damn it, Azhi, don’t you ever warn a body before you send ‘em to the heavens?”

Azhani smirked and put a hand on the stardancer’s shoulder to steady her. “No. What would be the point? Anyway, what are you doing out here? Did Padreg hit a sour note and scare you away?”

Turning to look back toward the camp, Kyrian chuckled to see that everyone else had taken her leaving as a signal to stretch and refill drinks. Elisira and Padreg were snuggling, stealing a moment to enjoy the almost palpable connection that, even at this distance, Kyrian could feel. Empathy was one of her minor gifts, but the love that flowed between the two nobles was so strong, that even one who was sense-blind would swim in it.

A warm ripple of heat rolled over her and Kyrian stifled a shiver. Azhani was someone who she could not shield out, no matter how hard she tried. Cocking her head, she looked up at the warleader.

“No, I just missed you. We were having such a good time and I realized that I wished I could share the moment with you, but you weren’t there,” she shrugged, hoping her words didn’t sound as pathetic as she thought and added, “you’re my friend, Azhi. I was worried about you.”

“I’m not much for parties,” the warrior said, stepping away from her friend and starting to head back into the forest. “You go on back and enjoy yourself. I’ll keep an eye out for trouble – keep you all safe,” she said, her voice starting to fade as the shadows swallowed her up.

“No, wait, please,” Kyrian called out. The faint outline of the warleader’s aura was the only clue that the stardancer had that her plea had worked. “Join us, Azhi. You don’t have to sing, or play an instrument, just sit, and listen to us and be warmed by the fire.”

There was silence, followed by the rustling of some nocturnal creature in the tree overhead, and then, “I can you know.”

Kyrian frowned. “Well, yes, of course you can. So come on,” she said, reaching out for Azhani’s hand.

“Play, an instrument, I meant,” Azhani said haltingly. “It was the harp. She taught me, to keep up her own skill, she said. Though now I wonder if it was just another excuse to be near me.” Blue eyes clouded with tears and the warrior gritted her teeth, angrily dashing them away with a balled up fist. “Anyway, I didn’t join you because I didn’t want to, not because I can’t play. So go on back to your fire and your friends and sing the night away, because I would rather just be alone.”

Kyrian, who had half turned in preparation to return to the fire, stopped and turned to fully face the warrior’s shadowed form. Oh Ylera, I seem to always be chasing away your ghost. I don’t mean to, but her life needs to go on. “Then I will stay out here, with you. I’d like to spend some time with you, Azhani. You are my friend – Padreg and Elisira are my friends too, but I don’t get to see you much during the day. So, either come back to the fire with me, or put up with me out here in the dark – it makes no never mind to me.” Kyrian put her hands on her hips and cocked her head to the side, determination clearly written on her elfin features.

Azhani, taken aback by the vehemence in her friend’s words, could only stand and stare at the younger woman, her mouth slightly opened. The snapping of wood from the campsite startled the warrior, causing to close her mouth with an audible click. She sighed in consternation.

“Fine then, follow me and don’t get lost. I don’t feel like searching the entire forest for you, healer.”

Kyrian only smiled and slipped up behind her friend, determined to show the prickly warrior that she was quite capable of night walking.
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The High King’s silence bothered Padreg more than he let on, and in the morning he was more than eager to be on the way to Y’Nor. He already knew exactly which of his trusted men he would send out to which kings, and which of his spies he would dispatch to Y’dan. Whether or not he would support an open rebellion, or an assassination, he wasn’t sure, but he did know that he would trust Azhani’s judgment, should she ever have the chance to face the boy. Whatever was decided, he knew something had to be done about King Arris.

Other news from Myr worried him as well. The demons that had attacked Barton, as well as their small party, had also harried the small border towns in the northern forests of Y’Syr. Three villages had completely disappeared, and Y’skel, a town renowned for its artisans, had suffered major losses during the last few weeks of winter.

The unusual behavior of the demons, bothered the Y’Noran monarch. For though he had never fought the monsters on home soil, he had sent troops to fight alongside the Y’Syran, Y’dani and Y’droran armies who faced the creatures the last time they had come out of the mountains.

Strangely, it was only Y’dan and Y’Syr that saw any attacks by the demons. The dwarves had reported no caves filled with the egg sacks that the creatures spawned, nor had they lost any of their hill dwelling cousins to attack. Instead, their winter had been filled with the typical problems of cold, goblins and not enough ale.

Demons attacked in a pattern that had been known for centuries. Every five years, the northern kingdoms would make ready to repel the hellspawn. So why now, after all these years, were they concentrating on just two of the kingdoms? Why were there so few? When the ice demons swarmed, it was by the thousands, not the relatively few that had been reported over the past winter.

Even speculating on the answer, scared the plainsman. He had to get home to a place where information was a spy away, and not distributed by hearsay, rumor and gossip.

Azhani seemed to agree with his silent assessment of the situation; she was the first awake after spending most of the evening on watch and she worked the hardest in breaking camp. The pace she set, when she led the group out onto the road, was grueling and backbreaking. By day’s end, however, they were only another day’s journey from the border.

A night’s sleep, and the sun’s rising brought the somber attitude of those who know they will part, possibly never to meet again.

Elisira tried once more to convince Kyrian to join them. “Come with us, Kyr. I know that Paddy would love to have you at the wedding, and I know that it would be an honor to have your hands be the ones that welcome our first child to the light of the goddess.” The lady used her most persuasive tones.

Shaking her head, Kyrian took Elisira’s hands into her own and drew the noblewoman into a long, fervent hug. “I am grateful beyond speaking that fate gave me your friendship, Eli, but I belong by Azhi’s side. You know that.” The stardancer spoke softly, so that only her friend could hear. “I need to be there, Eli. I don’t know why, but she…” she fumbled for the words.

“She makes your soul burn,” said Elisira, awareness showing in the way her eyes locked with Padreg’s. “I understand, truly, I do.”

Knowing how the lady had given up everything to run away with the Y’Noran chieftain, Kyrian didn’t doubt Elisira’s words. “Then you know why I can’t be there. Though,” Kyrian’s eyes crossed as she concentrated, “you’re not with child – yet.”

Elisira giggled as they parted. “Of course not, silly. Paddy’s a gentleman.” Seriously, she added, “He takes great care that our bodies will be pure when we stand before the goddess.”

On the other side of the camp, Azhani and Padreg had their heads together, quietly discussing potential plans.

“If I find the people that Ambassador Kelani spoke of, I will send a messenger to you. It is my belief that the ice demons are a greater, more immediate threat than Arris, but I won’t know for sure until I can gather some information. Arris may require my attention first. I cannot stand by and let him harm his people out of a lust for power.” The warrior’s voice hardened. “I will not dishonor the memory of King Theodan that way.”

Padreg laid a hand on Azhani’s shoulder and squeezed. “You’re a fine Warleader, Azhani, I’ll not argue with you. You know what is best for your people, and I can’t stand in the way of your duty. However, the demons are a great threat – if they’re spawning early, what’s to keep them from moving lower next winter? What’s to prevent them from seeking to taste the flesh of my herds? I must protect what the gods have charged me to shelter. I will aid you in whatever way that I can, though. My agent in Y’Syria is a trader named Brannock Maeven. He’ll know the fastest way to contact me.”

Repeating the name until she was sure she had memorized it, she nodded. “All right. If you do not hear from me by midsummer solstice, then I am unable to be of any assistance.” She smiled wryly. “Have a good wedding, Padreg. Make the goddess proud.” They clasped arms and then parted, each turning to head for their packs.

“Azhani?” Padreg called out softly.

“Yes?”

A mischievous grin danced on the chieftain’s face. “I’ll wait until winter solstice if you promise to be there, and you bring Kyrian.”

Blinking in shock, she looked first at Padreg and then at her friend. An amorphous swirl of emotion rumbled in her stomach, forcing her to close her eyes. Her breath came in short, tight puffs as she considered what he was saying. Kyrian? As my mate? I…no! I love Ylera! Gritting her teeth, she shook her head slightly. She didn’t want to make that promise; couldn’t make that promise. Midwinter solstice was the traditional time of a warleader’s joining. How could he even suggest that she and Kyrian attend such an event? Her heart would always and forever belong to her lost Ylera.

“Milord, I –“ the warrior’s strong voice faltered and fell, swept away in a blast of air as she sighed.

Three strides had the king by the warrior’s side. “Don’t you be telling me that you can’t read the hand of destiny in your own life, Azhani. I’ve felt Her touch, and I know the lance of fear that strikes the heart when you contemplate life without Her gift.” His voice was soft, almost a hiss, but filled with such passion and fervor that the roiling emotion within Azhani burned to agree. When she didn’t respond, he shook his head disbelievingly. “You may not understand it yet, or perhaps you’re not ready to see it, but know this, warrior, as surely as your life is bound to Arris’ fate, so Kyrian’s is bound to yours. Now, I will be fair and rephrase my question. If fate will have it, will you promise to come to my joining in midwinter?”

The trap was still there, but the jaws didn’t seem as sharp, or as inescapable. “If the gods will it so, then who am I to fight the hand of fate?” she said in resignation. A promise I won’t have to break, if I can face Arris. I’ll gladly marry a frog if I live through killing the sniveling wretch who stole my Ylera.

A tiny, almost unheard voice within the warrior whispered, Would it be so terrible then, to share your life with Kyrian?

Allowing himself to be satisfied with the warrior’s answer, Padreg knew that time and the gods would prove him right. He had seen the korethka that burned between the stardancer and the warleader. Love of the soul was a fire that would rage, unchecked, until one or the other admitted their desire. What flared between Azhani and Kyrian was, to his eyes, as bright as what he and Elisira felt. Looking over at his beloved, he sighed and promised his heart that they would stand before the goddess by the following midsummer, no matter what the coming seasons brought.

Devon stood apart, clutching his book and his pack, watching as the group separated. He knew that he should be packing his horse, but what he really wanted to do was race off into the grasslands and cry. Near silent sobs wracked his chest as he watched his friends say good-bye to each other. Gods blast it, but he didn’t want them to leave. He didn’t want to have to say all those things that people said to each other when they knew they were about to die. He remembered his dad, and how on that last, terrible day, he had been called to the ailing warrior’s bedside to say good-bye. A sickly, crawling ache clutched at his throat. Well, he wouldn’t do it, not this time! Azhani was all he had left of his dad, and even though he would never be half the warrior that Polis Imry was, he would do everything he could to make his father proud.

Screwing up his courage, Devon made to walk over to the warleader.

“It’s hard to say good-bye to your friends, isn’t it, Dev?” Kyrian’s soft voice said.

The young man turned, surprised to see the red-robed stardancer standing behind him. Beside her, his horse was saddled and waiting.

“You were about to go and tell Azhani a million different reasons why you should go with us, weren’t you?” she asked gently, smiling at the consternation that sprung to life on the youth’s face.

He scuffed his foot in the grass and ducked his head. “So what if I was?” he asked sullenly. “I’m not useless, you know? I can do spells, and cook, and catch fish, and I know three languages, and –“ he impatiently listed his skills, dropping his book to the ground to tick them off on his fingers.

Kyrian reached out and closed her fingers around Devon’s, drawing the young man into an embrace. He fought her briefly, and then collapsed against her, crying. “I know. It would be wonderful to have you with us, Dev. But we need you to be with Eli and Padreg. They need your skills more than we do.”

“B-but I don’t want you to go away and never come back, Kyr. I don’t want to never see you or Azhani ever again. I can’t lose you now, not after I found you! I don’t want to be alone anymore,” Devon whispered brokenly, as he clung to Kyrian.

Kyrian, who knew only a bit of the boy’s history, felt tears prick in her eyes. She looked up to see Azhani gazing at them and shot the warrior a sad look while she held on to the crying child in her arms. At just barely fourteen summers, Devon tried so hard to be a grown up. They had all forgotten how young he truly was, and how hard it was for him to let go of all he had ever known.

“You won’t be alone anymore, Devon. No matter what, I will always be a part of you,” Kyrian said, her voice husky and soft. “And I promise to do everything I can to make sure that you see both me and Azhani again, okay? This isn’t good-bye forever, just good-bye for now.”

She cupped his face, wiping away his tears until he managed a half-hearted smile. “You mean it?” he hiccupped.

Nodding solemnly, she said, “I do. Now, go say good-bye to Azhani and make sure she gives you a good hug.” She turned him around to face the warrior and he scampered across the grass, nearly flying into the other woman’s surprised embrace. Smiling sadly, the stardancer bent and picked up the boy’s spell book, reverently packing the ancient tome in a saddlebag.

Kyrian watched as Azhani spoke to Devon, saying something that was so serious, the boy’s shoulders had stiffened to soldier-like straightness. Just when she thought the young man would topple over from trying to imitate Thomas, Azhani presented the boy with the dagger from her own belt. The warleader reached out and ruffled the boy’s russet hair fondly.

Faintly, the stardancer heard Azhani say, “G’wan you. Get your stuff together and go serve your king.”

Devon reverently slipped the blade into his belt, knelt before her and said, “I shall do as you ask, my lady, on my father’s honor.”

Azhani smiled approvingly and helped the young man to stand, hugging him briefly before sending him to his horse.
%%%
As they neared the border, Azhani sighted a patrol riding about a mile off from where they were. Obviously, the plainsmen had been searching for many days, hoping that their chieftain would appear.

“Paddy, you old she-goat, it took you longer than a mare in season to choose your path home!” a tall, hawk-featured man with soot black hair and agate green eyes said. He closed the distance between himself and the king, pulling the other man off his horse and into a rousing bear hug that involved much back thumping, laughter and loud exclamations of joy.

“Stefan, it makes my heart glad to see you here, in the tall grasses of our home. Come, I bring news heavy with both joy and sorrow,” Padreg murmured, draping his arm around his friend and walking him away from the others.

The horses nickered softly, rubbing nose to nose with the ones ridden by the other Y’Norans, almost as if they were exchanging their own, uniquely equine, gossip. Aden, Thomas and Syrah were surrounded by several of the other warriors and were led off to an area where a midday meal was hastily being assembled. Young Devon sat on his horse’s back, looking between the Y’Noran warriors and Azhani, with a lost and longing expression on his young face.

Kyrian closed her eyes and tipped her face up to the sky, letting the full heat of the sun beat down on her as she inhaled, breathing in the scent of the plains. This would be the last chance she would have to make a choice about her destiny. After today, her life would be inextricably tied to Azhani’s and she wanted fate to have the opportunity to change her mind.

“If you stare too long at the sun, Astarus will rain bird droppings on your face,” Azhani said as she pulled her horse up beside Kyrian’s. “Then your pretty white skin will turn red and blotchy – and you would be forced to take up the life of an unwashed zealot.”

Kyrian laughed and turned to bestow a bright smile on her friend, but Azhani was already moving on, riding over to speak to Elisira.

“Azhi, my friend,” said Elisira warmly, welcoming the warrior’s presence happily. The young noblewoman was eager to join the Y’Norans. She was anxious to show these people who loved Padreg, that she loved him too, and that she was ready to learn to love his land. “Have you come to say good-bye, finally? I know you must be impatient to leave us.”

The warrior dropped her head, shaking it abashedly. “You know me too well, old friend. Yes, I would rather feel the wind in my hair and have the sun at my back. But Padreg asked me to wait. He said something about getting me some supplies.”

Elisira nodded. “He would want you to have the best you could for your journey. He’s a good man, my Paddy.”

Azhani looked across the field at the Y’Noran king and smiled as he jovially slapped one of his men on the back. The warrior stifled a chuckle as Padreg, with arms akimbo, began to animatedly describe something. Several nearby Y’Norans had to duck to avoid their chieftain’s wildly flailing arms.

“He is a good man,” the warrior agreed softly, thinking back to the many quiet conversations she had enjoyed with the man over the last few weeks. Padreg Keelan was a man not unlike Theodan, whom she had served loyally for so long. If fate had carved a different path, she would be following him home to his herds and his tents.

No other choice had been left to her, though. Ylera had to be avenged. The people of Y’dan deserved a ruler that cared more for their well being than his own. Finally, the unusual attacks by the demons could not go uninvestigated – the safety of the northern kingdoms of Y’myran depended on the knowledge of the beast’s breeding patterns.

Life would go on, and she would do everything she could to honor the memories of her beloved and her king. She turned her gaze back towards Elisira and said, “So, when can I expect to hear of an Y’Noran heir?”

Elisira laughed wryly. “Not anytime soon, I’m afraid. Paddy has been nothing if not a total gentleman. You’d think that all that snuggling would be conducive to making heirs, but I’ve got to say that nothing could be further from the truth. Ground is hard, rocks leave bruises and there’s no way either of us were going to suffer through what should be the best night of our lives.” The lady leaned over and added mischievously, “Besides, shouldn’t one endeavor to be pure when one stands before the goddess on her joining day?”

Azhani chuckled, struck by a sudden memory of the flock of handmaidens Elisira’s dear father had ordered to follow his daughter. Ostensibly, they were there to aid the young noblewoman, but more than once, Elisira had commented that they were really there to be sure she didn’t accidentally discard her precious virginity. At least not before he could ransom it off to the highest bidder. “I never thought you bought into that horse manure, Eli. Don’t tell me that all this traveling has finally driven you insane.”

Sticking her tongue out at the warrior, Elisira said, “Not at all. I’ve discovered that having strong beliefs does not make a man mentally ill. Padreg takes his faith seriously, and he explained to me why he feels as strongly as he does. I’m willing to wait, because I love him and respect him. Maybe I don’t believe as he does, but I’m starting to understand a little of what makes his faith so special to him.” She looked across the gently waving grassland and sighed. “Perhaps being here, in this land that he loves so deeply, I’ll finally know what Father Meryth meant when he spoke of his love for the gods.”

Two dark eyebrows rose dramatically. “I guess he must be the right one, if he can inspire you so, Eli.”

Elisira made a face and then chuckled ruefully. “I suppose I deserved that one, Azhi. Well, lest you forget that I give as well as I get – how deeply does Kyrian inspire you, my friend?”

Gaping, Azhani stared at her friend. The carefully worn mask of control had been cracked, slipping away to reveal such a high level of astonishment that Elisira had to look twice just to be sure that it was still her friend sitting astride Kushyra.

“I know you care about her,” the noblewoman said quietly. “And I know that Ylera would not want you to be alone forever.”

The warrior looked away, stiffening her jaw and closing her eyes until the mask rose up again, hiding Azhani’s soul away once more. An agate hard blue gaze burned into Elisira as Azhani softly spoke. “Kyrian is just a friend, Eli; nothing more, nothing less. To believe otherwise would be foolish of you.”

With that, the warrior turned her horse and galloped away, heading toward Padreg and a small, heavily laden pack mule.

Elisira watched her go, a small, sad smile lifting the corners of her mouth. Her heart ached for her friend, but she knew she had pushed too hard, seen too far into the warrior’s secret heart. “Ride with the gods, Azhi, and may you find some peace in that journey.” Her eyes sought out Kyrian, who had hurried to join Azhani as the warrior took possession of the pack animal. “May the patience of Starseeker Ezrau go with you, Kyr.” Invoking the name of the Astariun priest, whose life’s work was the counting of the stars, could do no harm.
~Chapter Twenty-One~
Kneeling before his king, Derkus Glinholt pleaded with all his considerable skill. “Please, my glorious liege, I beg of you – let me go to Y’Nor and fetch my daughter.” With his head nearly pasted on the ground, the councilor waited for Arris’ answer.

The king’s attention was completely focused on a new gift. A merchant by the name of Kesryn Oswyne, a good friend of the scholar Porthyros, had brought this magical chessboard from one of his trips to the eastern kingdoms. Bestowing it on his king out of love and respect, the merchant had spent many candlemarks the previous evening discussing his travels.

Sighing, Arris barely lifted his eyes away from the magnificent gift. The pieces moved by themselves. Different commands would allow the king to play against an invisible opponent, or two such bodiless spirits could play at his order. The game was infinitely more interesting than the plight of his advisor, especially since he had never wished to marry the idiot’s cow of a daughter in the first place.

“His highness will take your request under advisement, my lord. For now, be contented with the knowledge that King Padreg has made no move to defile the girl,” Porthyros smoothly said.

“Yes, it is of much comfort to me that the barbarian has only stolen her body,” Derkus said bitterly.

Porthyros frowned. The nobleman’s tone bordered on being insolent, and yet it held just enough grief and outrage that the insult, if there was one, could be ignored. However, he would keep a stronger eye on the advisor, knowing that without his daughter as a hostage, Glinholt could easily be lost to their cause.

“Go now, Lord Glinholt, and see to your duties. I shall send word, if there is any news,” Porthyros said dismissively.

The nobleman rose, nodding his head at the king’s mouthpiece and then bowing deeply before the king. “Thank you, Lord Porthyros.”

Porthyros watched him leave and then turned his attention to Arris. The Y’dani monarch intently watched as the king piece strode across the chessboard, drew his sword, and bloodily skewered an ice demon pawn.

A smile of pure glee lit up the king’s face. “I’m going to do that,” he whispered. “I’m going to kill them all. One by one, they will die, until there’s no more threats to my people left.” He reached out, taking hold of a tall mug of tea that his old friend Porthyros had made just for him. Bringing it to his lips, he savored the scent of honey and spice then drank deeply of the brew. The king’s eyes glazed over momentarily and then cleared. He set the mug down and watched as the ice demon rook moved into a position that his king could easily take. “And once I’m done with the demons, I’m coming for you.” His gaze fell on the opposing Queen, a mounted figure that bore a strong resemblance to Y’dan’s former warleader, Azhani Rhu’len.

Porthyros allowed a small smile to cross his face as his king continued to lose himself in the game. Lord Kesryn’s gift was having the desired effect of keeping the king’s attention occupied. It was almost too easy to slip piles of documents, that needed to be signed and sealed, under the king’s uncaring hand. Arris never even bothered to read through the papers, signing and sealing wherever he was told, trusting his teacher’s counsel.

If any of the advisors and counselors complained, then they did so quietly, having had a strong taste of what speaking out against the king was like. No one forgot the lesson that Azhani Rhu’len’s trial and subsequent battle had taught.

Porthyros laid out a new pile of documents, and as he had been doing for several days now, Arris docilely began signing where the rat-faced little man indicated, all the while, his eyes never left the figure of the ice demon Queen.

When he finished signing the documents, he sighed and said, “You know, Thyro, I think after Azhani, I’ll sail on over to Y’Nor and kill Padreg, too. I’ll even bring jerky Derky his daughter back – after I’ve had my fun, of course.” The king smiled darkly. “She wouldn’t bed me before, but I’ve changed. Once she sees how wonderful I have become, she’ll be mine. She will always be mine.”

As he spoke, his gaze never wavered. The face of Azhani Rhu’len filled his vision.
%%%
Spring came to Y’Syr with a vengeance. Heavy, cold rains, that left both warrior and stardancer soaked to the skin, had punctuated the entire journey from the Y’Noran border to the edge of Banner Lake.

The gates of Y’Syria had never seemed more foreboding, though they were wide open. Azhani and Kyrian, riding side by side, entered the city at sundown, flowing in with the last of the trade traffic from the east.

Gulls flapped overhead, flying in their V patterns as the flocks hunted for places to roost for the night. Kyrian looked around, taking in the sights of the heart of the elven kingdom.

Y’Syria was a city of trees. Giant oaks, that were older than the oldest elf, filled the region. In ancient times past, forgotten elven builders had constructed a maze of homes and buildings that were as much a part of the trees as the leaves and branches.

Around the bases of the trees, other buildings had grown over the years, but their construction was always done to compliment the arboreal nature of the lakeside city. The docks, the lifeblood of the city, were over a mile away from the city center, so as not to mar the exotic setting.

Azhani had been here before, several times, in service to King Theodan. It wasn’t long before she was leading Kyrian to a dockside inn. The simple, two-story building was a favorite place of Y’dani and Y’maran sailors, and would provide an excellent place from which to start looking for Ylera’s friends.

After three days of inquiries, the warrior knew where she had to go. Lord Morvith Answyth had left the city three weeks before on a trading mission to Y’Tol and would not return until the following spring. Nara Vell, an Y’skani dancer, had returned to her homeland to marry. Only Tellyn Jarelle, an herbalist of some renown, remained in Y’Syria. With Kyrian at her side, Azhani went to visit the wisewoman.

The door was answered on the first knock, revealing a boy slightly younger than Devon. A mop of curly black hair fell into the typically narrow featured face of an elf, partially obscuring light gray eyes.

“Yes, may I be of assistance?” he asked politely.

“I would like to see Tellyn Jarelle,” Azhani said and gave the boy a look that should have sent him scurrying into the house as though the ground scorched his feet.

He shrugged. “She’s busy, come back tomorrow.” The door closed.

Azhani knocked again and waited until it was opened.

The boy’s head poked out and when he saw it was the warrior, he said, “I told you, she’s busy. Go away.”

Before he could close the door this time, Azhani stuck her foot in, and said, “I think you had better get your mistress,” she allowed a bit of menace to creep into her voice, “now.”

Kyrian reached out and put a hand on Azhani’s arm. “Azhi,” she said soothingly. “We can come back.”

Tensing, the warrior shrugged off her friend’s hand. “You’re welcome to go back to the inn,” she said distantly.

Stung, Kyrian stepped away and watched as the warrior’s will slowly dominated the stubborn young man in the doorway.

“Gyp, what’s going on boy? You’re letting out all the cool air,” a cantankerous, but affectionate sounding voice called out.

“Visitors, Tell. They won’t go away like you told me to say.” The boy pulled his head from the doorway and yelled back to the busy wisewoman.

“Well then let them in, if they’re so intent on interrupting an old woman on washing day,” Tellyn replied.

Shrugging, the boy threw open the door and snidely said, “Please come in and be welcome in Mistress Tellyn’s house.”

Azhani smirked and walked in. Meekly, Kyrian followed her, turning to the boy and whispering, “Sorry to disturb you.”

“Tell that to her,” the boy said, jerking his chin in the direction of an elderly elven woman who was busily scrubbing a pile of clothes.

“Tellyn Jarelle?” Azhani asked as she approached the woman.

“Yes, that would be me. You must forgive the lack of mystical robes or the stench of dead plants.” A tunic went into the hot, sudsy water and she began vigorously scrubbing.

Indeed, the house did smell less like a stillroom and more like a bakery. The sweet scent of cinnamon filled the air, broken only by the heavy smell of the soap from the laundry. The herbalist was dressed in simple peasant clothes – a light tunic liberally soaked with water and a pair of short breeches that were likewise drenched was her costume of the day.

Licking her lips, Azhani took a breath and said, “Ylera Kelani told me to seek you out and show you this, should I ever need help in Y’Syria.” Diffidently, the warrior held out her hand.

At the mention of the princess’ name, Tellyn ceased her scrubbing and looked up, pinning the warrior with a hard gaze. Taking Azhani’s hand in her own, she rubbed at the skin briefly and whispered under her breath. There was a flash of light and then a rune appeared, hovering over Azhani’s dark skin. Pursing her lips, Tellyn waved her hand over the rune and it vanished.

“All right, you’ve proven your claim, now what do you want?” The herbalist’s voice was surly, but also tinged with pain.

“I need your help in avenging Ylera,” the warrior said simply. “I am Azhani Rhu’len and Ylera was my beloved.”

“Yes, yes, I know who you are, Y’dani. Tell me why I should help you,” Tellyn said, waving her hands at the warrior. “Gyp, make us some lunch. Then you can finish the laundry.” The boy scrambled off into another room where the clanking of pots could be heard. “Now, let us go and sit. There is much to talk about.” Her eyes found Kyrian, who was trying her best to remain unnoticed. “You come too, stardancer. The presence of the goddess’ own is never to be ignored.”

The two women followed the herbalist into a tiny study.
%%%
Why did I ever think that Azhani would let me help her? Kyrian fumed silently as she calmly went about assisting Tellyn Jarelle. After a long discussion, the herbalist had been willing to aid the former Y’dani warleader and her stardancer companion.

For three days after Tellyn had welcomed them into her home, the two women alternately slept and ate; glad to be warm and dry. Once they were rested, Azhani began escaping into the city, leaving at first light before Kyrian had awakened. The stardancer learned to spend her days assisting the herbalist to tend her gardens or helping to mix highly sought after curatives.

Every night, she would swear to stay awake until Azhani returned, but each time, sleep overwhelmed her, dragging her off before the warrior could return. What she did, where she went and who she talked to were things that Kyrian wanted to know. The warrior, however, was frustratingly quiet on the subject, leaving the stardancer to fret and fume alone.

Today was like the last several days – Azhani was gone before dawn, and even though Kyrian had forced herself to crawl out of bed to try and ambush the warrior, she was unable to catch up to her friend. All she had found was a simple note in the warrior’s terse hand. Barely reading it, she had thrown it into the fire, watching the parchment blacken and crisp the words that meant her friend had abandoned her once more. Now she was doubly angered, first, because she wanted to help Azhani, and second because she was short on sleep.

Stifling a yawn, she continued to carefully grind tiny yellow flowers into a pungent powder. Bits of the delicate substance stained her fingertips and she had to be extra cautious, lest she bring those fingers anywhere near her eyes.

The flowers were useful in febrifuges, and even a tiny amount would make her eyes water incessantly. She finished powdering the herb and handed the bowl to Tellyn, whose grateful smile crinkled her face so much, it resembled the bark of an old, weathered tree.

Dumping the contents into a large ceramic bowl, the herbalist stirred the dry concoction until it was thoroughly mixed and then added three drops of a thick purple liquid. The bowl went onto a sideboard to ferment for a few days before the medicine was bottled.

“It will do you no good to fret, child,” Tellyn said, her ancient voice sharp and loud in the quiet atmosphere of the stillroom.

“I know, Master Tellyn, but I cannot help my ire. I promised to help Azhani, but all I seem to be doing is staying out of her way,” said Kyrian in frustration.

The herbalist dropped a kindly hand on the stardancer’s shoulder. “Perhaps, it is the fact that you wait, and that you are here, that is the aid that the warrior needs.”

Kyrian’s head drooped and she shrugged. “Maybe. But I still feel useless. I realize I don’t know anything about skulking around, or whatever it is she’s doing, but at least she could tell me what she was up to, instead of leaving me here to worry!”

“I would help if I could, young stardancer. It is honor that prevents me from using the memory of my friend Ylera to pry into the warrior’s business. I will do what I can to offer shelter and food, and content myself to be patient for details. Come, let us see what the day’s customers bring us.”

The old elven woman gathered her robes about her and shuffled out into the common room of her home, where Gyp was waiting with their first client.

Tellyn’s patrons varied from an older, kindly faced stardancer who had taken to bringing Kyrian books to read to fishermen who came for the herbalist’s stomach tonics.

Kyrian threw herself into Tellyn’s business, hoping that soon, Azhani would find the time to explain her plans.

“And if she doesn’t, well then, I’ll just have to do something drastic,” she muttered, handing over another bottle of tonic and accepting the fisherman’s coins.
%%%
Seated on a pile of soft carpets, surrounded by the familiar scents of grass, horse and cooking meat, Padreg Keelan sipped at his cup of dark tea and looked at his old friend curiously. Aden Varice, his oldest, most trusted friend, had just returned from Y’Nym, the plains people’s largest city. Built on the edge of Lake Y’mar, Y’Nym was one of the major trading sites for horses, which was largely what Y’Nor exported.

“Pirates? Aden, are you sure?” Padreg asked quietly. “It’s not like Ysradan to go haring off after a few measly bandits, even if they are sea-faring.” Outside, he could see his mother showing Elisira how to cut and fashion a plains style saddle.

“Yes, Paddy, I’m certain. Had it from Cragus One-Eye himself. The old man’s taken his best men, boarded ship, and is out chasing after a small fleet of Killigarni pirates,” Aden replied. He leaned back and puffed deeply on his pipe, waiting for his chieftain’s response.

Shock colored the king’s face. “Killigarns? I thought they’d been wiped out by the Cabal years ago.”

Killigarn Island, once used as a dumping ground for the Kingdom’s worst criminals, had evolved into a society of peoples whose only goal was to destroy the High King. Fifty years ago, they launched an attack on the coastlines of the lower kingdoms. Killigarni Pirates quickly became known for their complete lack of mercy, killing everyone from the smallest of children to the oldest of men.

Even livestock was put to the sword, and the earth salted to prevent anyone from salvaging the destruction. Eventually, Prince Ysradan, leading a navy comprised of soldiers from Y’mar, Y’Nor and Y’skan, defeated the pirate ships. It was rumored that afterwards, High King Erskandyr hired the Cabal to finish off the remaining Killigarns.

“Apparently, not even the Cabal could exterminate those vermin,” Aden said gruffly, spitting on the ground in disgust. “Word is that another pack has formed and they’re raiding the Y’maran coast. Ysradan is leading the navy himself, hunting down the rogue ships. He’s been at sea for nearly a year – he may not even know what’s going on in Y’dan.”

Shaking his head in disbelief, Padreg said, “Who is regent? Ysrallan is too young and Queen Dasia would never leave Ysradan’s side, even if it meant she had to paddle after the warships in a canoe.”

Aden laughed. “Korethka at work, hey Paddy?”

“It’s a powerful thing, Aden. Love like that is rare and Ysradan was right to cling to it.” Soberly, Padreg asked, “If Dasia’s at sea with Ysradan, is Syrelle the regent?”

“No, the High Council would never accept her. Pirellan Madros was chosen to warm Ysradan’s throne,” Aden said softly, visibly bracing for the chieftain’s response.

“What? How could Ysradan leave that overgrown windbag cousin of his in charge? Everyone knows that Pirellan’s incapable of tying his own boots, much less ruling a kingdom!” The plainsman jumped up and began pacing around the tent. “The High Council isn’t any help,

either. They’re a bunch of old men who care more for gold than justice. Damn!”

Aden shrugged, as if trying to say that the reasoning of kings was beyond him. “Ysradan might not have had much choice, Paddy. If Dasia wouldn’t stay behind, then who else could he trust? At least Pirellan is a known entity. Imagine if someone like Arris had been named? It’s not out of the realm of possibility. This way, Ysradan has some assurance that his kingdom will be there when he comes home.”

Padreg stroked his chin and nodded, accepting Aden’s words. As boys, they had fostered in the High King’s castle, serving Ysradan and Dasia as pages. They knew, better than most, how difficult a job the High King had, balancing the needs of Y’mar against the needs of all seven kingdoms. Only by constructing careful alliances with the nobles and merchants in the High Council, was Ysradan able to maintain order.

The greatest lesson Padreg had learned from his time as Ysradan’s page, and later as his squire, was to delegate power as evenly as possible. Only when it was shared, was power capable of great things.

The Y’Noran king shook his head sadly. “Ysradan needs to know what happens here. Perhaps Dasia can be persuaded to come home. Pack your gear, my friend, you’re going to sea.”
~Chapter Twenty-Two~
Taking a deep breath to still the butterflies fluttering in her stomach, Azhani quietly stepped into the lantern lit room. Though her boots made barely a whisper on the carpeted floor, the figure seated at an ornately carved desk ceased reading and turned to face the intruder.

Clear gray eyes blinked in surprised recognition. A whispered oath was followed by a harsh question. “Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t call out to my guards, murderer.”

Azhani Rhu’len, former warleader of Y’dan and beloved of Princess Ylera Kelani gave no spoken answer. Laying her sword at the feet of the woman behind the desk, she knelt before Queen Lyssera Kelani, Ylera’s sister. The elven women were twins, though Lyssera was the elder by half a candlemark. That accident of birth made her the ruler of Y’Syr, and brought her sister to Y’dan and into Azhani’s life.

Contemptuously, Lyssera ignored the blade. Leaning back in her chair, she crossed her legs and curiously considered the top of the warrior’s head. What does she want? Is she here to taunt me, to drive the wedge of pain deeper into my heart? Or am I to believe the words of spirits?

“So, you’re the bitch who got Ylera killed. Funny, you don’t look much like the vaunted Banshee of Banner Lake. In fact,” gray eyes flicked over the warrior’s body, taking in the woman’s general appearance, “I would say you would be better known as the Scarecrow of Banner Lake.” Though it had been several years since Lyssera had seen Azhani, the woman kneeling before her now bore no resemblance to the happy, healthy warrior that had first visited the elven city. This Azhani was leaner, sadder and carried an infinitely greater burden than Theodan’s warleader ever bore.

“I am whatever your majesty wishes,” Azhani said quietly, her voice devoid of emotion.

A cruel smile blazed across Lyssera’s face. “What I wish is for you to be flayed alive, and packed in sea salt, but I’ll have to settle for having you hung in the public square. That is how we punish murderers here in Y’Syr, or don’t you remember?”

Having visited Y’Syr many times, Azhani remembered. “I remember that your justice is merciful, your highness. I also remember that the accused was innocent until proven guilty.”

The elven woman’s relaxed posture dropped away, leaving behind the regal presence of the queen. “Are you claiming innocence?” she asked, cocking her head and watching the warrior’s body language. Oh Ylera, did you really come back? Were the words I heard the truth? Are you blameless in my sister’s death, Azhani Rhu’len? I hope it is so.

Azhani looked up, her face a studied mask of calm, even as tears pooled in her eyes. “I am, highness. I did not kill Ylera. She was,” her voice broke. Taking a shuddering breath, Azhani said, “She was my heart and soul, my queen.”

Lyssera stood and paced around the room, circling the still kneeling warrior. “And I am to believe you, just because you sit there, professing your love, when I have the sealed documents sent to me by King Arris himself? Do you know what they say, warrior? They say you are a traitor! They say that you –“ Lyssera’s voice rose and her fists clenched. “That you used my twin as a shield against the guardsmen who tried to arrest you.” The words were bitten off, filled with anger and hate. Stalking over to Azhani, she grabbed the warrior’s face in her hand and ruthlessly turned it up toward the light, exposing the darkened patch of scarring that was all that was left of a proud rank tattoo.

“Tell me,” Lyssera hissed, “How am I supposed to believe a branded Oathbreaker?”

Azhani’s hands balled into fists, but she made no move to fight back. Firming her jaw, she only said, “How’s trade with Y’dan, these days, my queen? Are your merchants profiting? Have your silks and spices sold by the crateful on Y’dannyv’s streets? Do your nobles enjoy vacationing in Y’dyth?” Lyssera’s hand dropped away as if burned.

Blue eyes flashing, Azhani stood and calmly asked, “When was the last time an Y’Syran child was fostered in an Y’dani home? When was the last time Y’Syran gold bought the same amount of wheat as Y’dani? Tell me, your highness; have you seen the Writ of Behavior? Could you follow all of its laws? Will you implement them here, so as to make Arris feel more comfortable, if he should visit?”

Lyssera winced and Azhani knew her words had penetrated the queen’s anger. The warrior knelt once more and reached for her sword, offering it to the woman who resembled her lost love so closely, it broke her heart to look at her.

“I am not guilty of murdering Ylera. I am, however, responsible for her death. To that end, I offer you what should have been hers – my sword and body are yours to command, my Queen. Do with me what you will, I will undertake any task you set me.”

The elven woman snorted and said, “What if I ordered you to fall on your sword? What then?”

“I shall fall upon my sword, and you will have to order your servants to mop up my blood,” the warrior replied evenly, though a tiny smile tweaked the corners of her mouth.

Lyssera closed her eyes. “Damn it, Azhani, can’t I win just one argument with you?” she asked plaintively. She never changes; all the years I’ve known her and she’s just as stubborn and honorable as ever. Ylera must have fallen hard enough to forget the stars.

Suddenly, the queen was kneeling next to the warrior, reaching for her as tears ran hotly down her face. “I don’t want your life, Azhi. I don’t want your sword. I know you’re innocent. Starseeker Vashyra was able to contact Ylera, briefly. Her spirit told us everything we needed to know about you, and Arris’ treachery. The last thing she said, before the gods called her on, was that she had loved you as best she could, but that she should have tried harder.”

The queen and the warrior held each other; sharing grief over the woman they had both loved.
%%%
“So you’re going to kill Arris.” Queen Lyssera had called for tea and a snack and now she and Azhani were comfortably seated across from each other.

“The thought has crossed my mind more than twice,” the warrior admitted, smirking. “It’s a nice dream, anyway. To have that bastard dancing on the end of my sword would be sweet, I admit.” An intensely focused gleam brightened the warrior’s indigo eyes.

The two women had been up all night, talking, reminiscing and discussing where to go from here. Though she had yet to commit anything to Azhani, after hearing the warrior’s side of the story, Lyssera knew that she would help her sister’s lover.

Azhani had gamely participated in the discussion, but a part of her kept wondering when the queen’s guards were going to burst in and carry her away. At least Kyr’s safe. She’s not going to be happy with me, but I’m glad she’s not here. The last thing she needs is to be found in the company of an Oathbreaker.

The soft crackle of the fire emphasized the silence that filled the room. Strong, mint scented steam curled up from the warrior’s cup, tickling her nose. If she listened closely, she could hear the creaking of the giant oak that was the queen’s home.

“If you’re going to kill a king, you’re going to need help,” Lyssera said, breaking the peaceful spell of the room. Stirring honey into her cup, she watched the warrior’s reaction.

“I certainly wouldn’t turn away a helping hand or fifty,” the warrior said, taking a sip of her tea.

Lyssera chuckled and set her cup down on the table by her chair. “You assume much, Azhi. Friends we are, but allies? That remains to be seen. No, I was just curious if you were traveling alone, or if the rumors I’ve heard were true.” The queen’s eyes met Azhani’s. “Are they?”

Azhani calmly held Lyssera’s gaze and replied, “I don’t know, your highness. I haven’t heard any rumors about my traveling companions, or lack thereof.”

“Ah, well, they say, when they’re not cursing your name, that you helped Padreg of Y’Nor kidnap a nobleman’s daughter. It doesn’t take a scholar to figure that meant you had traveling companions. I know that Padreg had at least one hundred men in his retinue when he passed through here on his way to Y’dan earlier this year. Since his ships came through here shortly after that, minus a few passengers, I figured he must be with you.” Turning to face the warrior, Lyssera pinned Azhani with her gaze, watching as she shifted uncomfortably in her seat. “So, my friend, I ask you again, where are your companions?”

“You read me better than Ylera, my queen,” Azhani grumbled sullenly.

Laughing brightly, Lyssera said, “Perhaps. I freely admit to calling on all the years we’ve sparred together as a key to your body language.”

“Master Delaye would be so proud, Lyss.” Azhani stuck her tongue out at the queen. “All right, yes, I was traveling with Padreg of Y’Nor. However, I left him and his people – safely – at the border a few weeks ago.”

“Then you are alone?” Lyssera pressed.

It was on the tip of Azhani’s tongue to say that yes, she was alone. Do you really want to hurt Kyrian that much, warrior? How much will it cost your friendship, should Kyr ever learn that you denied her companionship? The warrior was not willing to find out. Hesitating only briefly, Azhani shook her head. “No, I’m not alone. There is one other. A stardancer from Y’len named Kyrian travels with me.”

“I have heard of Stardancer Kyrian. She is deeply touched by Astariu’s fire. Where is she now?” Lyssera asked.

“With a friend.”

“Ah, well, if she counts you among her friends, perhaps you’re not as damned as you believe, my friend.” Lyssera stood and walked over to the tray of food, serving herself a plateful of snacks. “Your honesty means a great deal to me, Azhani. I will see what can be done to help you with Arris. Meanwhile, you and your friend are both welcome in Oakheart Manor.”

“If you don’t mind, I will take you up on your offer, but for now, I think that Kyrian should stay where she is. It will upset your court to have me here and I would prefer that she not become a target of hateful tongues,” Azhani said, keeping her voice neutral.

Steepling her fingers and pressing them to her lips, Lyssera nodded. “And my courtiers are not known for their reticence when it comes to those who ally with Y’dani outlaws. Age has given you wisdom, my friend. All right, for now, you may keep your friend’s whereabouts a secret, but I expect you’ll want her by your side soon.” She grinned wickedly. “I think I shall enjoy that day most exquisitely. My court could use a little shaking up.”
%%%
Many days passed. Azhani haunted the corridors and bridges of Oakheart Manor, staying out the way of curious courtiers and listening to the gossip of the servants. She did run into an old friend, Kuwell Longhorn, a dwarven blacksmith with a huge sense of humor and an even greater sense of honor. Now acting as the Y’droran ambassador, the dwarven man was more than glad to see her. He listened to Azhani’s story, and then immediately pledged his aid.

She attended an afternoon court session, though she stayed well hidden within the shadows of the massive chamber where Lyssera heard from her people. Azhani admired the way that the elven monarchy had turned what had been a foot-numbing tedium into a spectator sport. Lyssera’s Court Hall was massive. It was easily large enough to contain several hundred courtiers and their immediate staff, as well as the ubiquitous pages that always seemed to be nearby.

Azhani stood near one of the struts that made up the domed structure of the wooden room and marveled at the skill it must have taken the Gardeners to coax the trees to grow together in such a fashion. Roughly shaped like an oblong bowl, Court Hall had a long red carpet that extended from the foot of the throne’s dais to the double doors some five hundred feet away.

Lining the sides of the carpet were tiered, padded seats where the nobles and their entourage were allowed to sit while the heralds called out the schedule of the day. At the head of the room was a raised dais, upon which sat an elaborately carved throne. From there, Queen Lyssera would hear the desires and troubles of her people for a total of eight candlemarks a day. It was tedious, exacting work and Azhani’s appreciation of the elven monarch went up another notch.

On the evening of her fifth day in residence, a deal was struck. In exchange for shelter and a stipend, Azhani would agree to train the Queen’s Guard, as well as one special student. When the time came to meet Arris, the former warleader would be given command of a battalion of Y’Syran warriors, including a full complement of the nation’s vaunted archers.

With the support of Kuwell, Padreg and Lyssera behind her, Azhani knew that the time had come to make her move. Calmly, she agreed to take up the mantle of Sword Master and teach her skills to the students the queen had chosen. Along with those duties, the former Y’dani warleader began appearing in court as a member of Lyssera’s household. Knowing full well that Arris’ spies would bring word of her presence back to their king, Azhani brazenly paraded through Y’Syria. She hoped that the foolish king would be so enraged, he would demand to meet her on the field of battle.

For two weeks, the warleader did nothing to contact Kyrian or the kindly old herbalist who had taken her in. The stardancer was safer with Tellyn, out of the reach of those on the queen’s court who had not relished the sudden addition of a known Oathbreaker to Lyssera’s retinue. Azhani did her best to ignore the tiny ache that seized her chest whenever she thought of her friend, concentrating instead on late night conversations with the queen.

Lyssera was tireless in her need for Azhani’s presence. At first, she would talk endlessly about the “special” student, her nephew, Allyndev Kelani. Son of Lyssera’s youngest sister, Alynna, Allyndev was barely twenty summers old and had almost no experience with martial arts. Before she died, Alynna had been Y’Syr’s warleader. In the elven kingdom, the position was hereditary and Lyssera knew that the nobility would never accept Allyn if he could not even defend himself.

Currently, Allyn was visiting distant family in a small fishing village to the south of Y’Syria, but he would soon be home. Because of his mixed heritage as well as his scholarly tendencies, no one was willing to take him on as a student.

Azhani also heard that the young man was very standoffish and arrogant. Suspecting that his attitude was a mask, she readily agreed to train him. Once the subject of Allyndev was exhausted, they moved on to talking about Ylera.

At any time, Lyssera would have her hauled out of bed, just to share some tiny memory of the warrior’s beloved. At first, Azhani was confused, thinking that the queen was enacting some sort of emotional vengeance on her. As the days wore on, however, she realized that there was a purpose to the queen’s midnight meetings.

Comfortably ensconced in the queen’s study, Azhani and Lyssera enjoyed the warmth of a small, cheerful fire. On a table between them, a pot of tea, a loaf of sweet nut bread and a wheel of soft cheese, provided a tasty snack. Oil lamps dimly lit the room, casting a host of shadows, yet somehow still managing to illuminate the queen’s face. The warrior was struck, as she had been so many times during the past two weeks, at how closely Lyssera resembled Ylera.

Sitting next to the queen during court had been near torture. In unguarded moments, Azhani would find herself looking at Lyssera, and believing, for just a moment, that it was Ylera that sat beside her. Then, the queen would speak, or move, or one of a thousand little things and all over again, Azhani would know that this woman would never be her beloved.

Tonight was different. Sleep and shadow’s play tricked her eyes and her heart and Azhani had to fight the belief that it was Ylera’s soul that looked out of Lyssera’s gray eyes. The conversation drifted toward music. Lyssera spoke quietly, her eyes half closed as she remembered candlemarks of lessons with her sister.

“You play?” Azhani’s words were raw against the gentleness of Lyssera’s voice.

“I do,” Lyssera said, glancing over at a bookcase. A golden stringed harp lay cradled against it, its strings shimmering in the lamplight. “Though I have not exercised my fingers in months.”

“Will you,” the warrior hesitated, her characteristic calm wavering. She cleared her throat and said, “Will you play for me, my queen?”

Touched by the simple plea, Lyssera reached over and lifted up the harp. She played a short chord, checking the tune of the strings. When it sang to her satisfaction, she asked, “What would you like to hear?”

“Play something she knew.”

The words were so softly spoken, Lyssera had to strain to hear them.

Looking up at Azhani, Lyssera stared into the warrior’s fire lit blue eyes for a long moment and then nodded. A liquid trill of music filled the room. The queen played, not with the consummate skill of a bard, but with the pauses and stops of one who has not practiced in many months. Yet, the notes evoked memory, surrounding both Azhani and Lyssera in a timeless place where Ylera lived, breathed, laughed and loved.

The queen’s rusty fingers soon recalled their candlemarks of training, and true music rippled forth. It was a song that Azhani had not heard for a year. The tune was gentle, comforting and wonderfully, terribly familiar. And yet – it was not what she remembered. A misplayed note here, a differently timed chord there, and, though tears trickled down her cheeks at the pain of it, Azhani knew that she would never again hear Ylera play.

As the queen played, a band around Azhani’s chest loosened, and the warrior took what felt like her first real breath since that awful morning when she had been dragged away from the body of her beloved. When she exhaled, the sharp bundle of grief that had been her constant, unforgotten companion trickled away with the tears, leaving behind a muted ache. Tipping her head back, Azhani inhaled deeply, understanding that now she could try to heal. Ylera is dead, but I still live. And I want to keep on living. I miss you, Ylera, but I have to look ahead, now. I hope you are happy, wherever you are.

“Thank you,” Azhani said, wiping her eyes.

Fingers stilling on the harp strings, Lyssera quietly said, “You are welcome, my friend. I am glad you have found a measure of peace.”

Azhani smiled thoughtfully, and found that she wished Kyrian were there to share the moment.
%%%
A message from Padreg arrived the next day. Delivered by courier, the thickly rolled scroll was filled with news about the High King. The Y’Noran’s report matched with what Lyssera’s own messengers said. Dispatches from the other kingdoms also arrived, each of them bearing in one form or another, a message to the effect that, “We’re sorry you were wrongly accused. You are welcome to come and serve in our army, but we cannot spare anyone to help you defeat Arris. Our crops are bad, or the storms are terrible this year, or it is mead brewing time.”

Kuwell, the Y’droran ambassador, did have one small bit of good cheer for Azhani. He had sent word to his clan, and his cousin’s clans, and over the next few weeks, those dwarves who were interested in following the famed warleader to battle, would be arriving in Y’Syria.

At the end of the week, she received her biggest piece of news. Demon spoor had been found in the lower caves of the Crest of Amyra, just north of Y’Syr. Angry and depressed, Azhani digested the news and then sent a message to Padreg. Once again, Fate had played its hand, and it was a full house to her pair of two’s.

Sighing, the warrior gathered her padded gear and headed for the salle. A hum of expectation settled over her as she walked through the manor’s halls, nodding to servants and nobles alike as she passed. Perhaps breaking a few more practice swords would serve to lighten her mood.

Within the last two weeks, it had become a common practice by the queen’s guardsmen to toss blades of suspect manufacture into a special pile, just for Azhani to use on the pells. If one of the blunted swords made it through a session of the warrior’s grueling workouts, then any rank tyro could safely use them.

Her student, Allyndev, was already there, deeply engrossed in the regimen of exercises she had set him to following each morning. Meeting him had been interesting, and left the warrior feeling as though she were going to have to knock a few chips off of his young shoulders before he would truly listen to her.

That was not the case. After only one afternoon under the warrior’s tutelage, Allyn’s attitude was already beginning to show signs of changing, though he had moments where he lapsed into sullen silences. Figuring that his behavior was linked to his sense of self-esteem, Azhani was careful to give both praise and critique when working with him.

The warrior stood in the shadow of the doorway, watching as her student worked out.

The half-elven child of Lyssera’s sister Alynna and an Y’dani human, Allyn never knew his father. As with most children whose parentage was a mix of Y’dani and Y’Syran, Allyndev’s Y’Syran relatives had kept the name of his Y’dani family a secret. Azhani had asked about this, but had been told that it was not necessary for her to know the name of the young man’s father. Accepting that for now, the warrior concentrated on training Allyn how to defend himself.

Mixed heritage had given the young man pale blonde hair and a narrow, angular face. At just under twenty years of age, Allyn still bore the fleshy look of a child, though the daily workouts with Azhani were beginning to leave their mark. Tall, as tall as Azhani, whose six foot plus frame easily commanded attention, and fine boned, the young man was strikingly handsome.

Against her better judgment, Azhani had come to like the solemn young man, adding yet another person to her slowly growing circle of friends. His diffidence touched her, though she hoped that rising self-confidence would someday compensate for the young man’s peculiar mix of shy sullenness.

She wondered what Kyrian would have to say about the young man, when she finally met him. Lifting an arm, Azhani hailed him. Perhaps after a good workout, she would find out.

Ashamedly, Azhani admitted that it had long since passed the few days she had figured she would be gone. It was time to go back to Tellyn Jarelle’s home and offer the best apology she could manage. A hole had grown in her heart, one that would only be closed by the stardancer’s cheerfully bright presence. She missed the healer deeply; more so than she could even begin to understand.

As she began their training routine, Azhani once again cursed the elven sword masters who turned down the chance to train a gifted student like Allyn. Since he was just a “half-breed whelp”, there was no true glory attached to his success. Sadly, the warrior missed Master Delaye, who would have gladly taken the boy as a student, but the arms master had long since vanished.

So Allyn had been left to pursue his own interests, including gardening and stargazing. Though both avocations were admirable, especially in a city that lived in trees, Allyndev was a prince and the son of a warleader. He was expected to excel in the martial arts.

Lyssera had tried to teach him archery, but Allyn lacked the eye for it. He would never be more than a fair shot, barely able to hunt, and never good enough to join the elite squadrons of archers that made Y’Syran bowmen so famous.

Unlike the bow, the blade came almost too easily to Allyndev’s hands. From the first day, Azhani knew that this student would be one of her best. When nightmares invaded her sleep, leaving her shaking and crying, determination to see his skill come to fruition was one of the things that drove her to go on.

Today, she would show him a parry-strike combo that was particularly difficult, requiring fine motor control and precision timing. Azhani grinned suddenly. She was looking forward to being disarmed within the first few rounds of their lessons.

Splinters went flying over the floor of the large practice room as Allyn executed a particularly vicious smash and cut against one of the thick wooden pells buried in the ground. Hacking the post again, Allyn’s blade freed another chunk of wood, sending it flying across the room and nearly into Azhani’s chest. The warrior slapped the missile away with her sword and then stepped between the prince and the practice dummy.

Blocking his thrust easily, she shook her head. “Tsk, tsk, Allyn. Isn’t it a bit early to be putting in new pells? I thought we replaced them last week.”

A wild, gleeful grin spread over the young man’s face, neatly mimicking the one on Azhani’s as they sparred. “Oh, I don’t know, Master Azhani.” He ducked a strike and tried to pull her legs out from under her, getting tossed on his backside for his troubles. “I think Aunt Lyss has a bet going on with Captain Evern about how many pells I can go through. I was just trying to fill the crown’s coffers.”

“An admirable task, young Allyn, but your arms are better served by practicing your blocks, not your thrusts,” cautioned Azhani. She proved her point by easily sweeping aside his blade and tapping him on the chest with the point of her sword.

Nodding, Allyn said, “Yes, Master.”

“Good, now, try this,” Azhani said, demonstrating a move and then turning to guide the young man through it.

Steel clanged as they danced around the room, and Azhani calmly, but efficiently instructed on the proper way to cut and thrust. While she spoke, Allyn listened, nodding when what she said made sense, asking questions when it didn’t.

“But why, Master Azhani, must I turn this way?” he asked petulantly, when she showed him a dodge and parry move. “Especially when it would be more devastating if I were to press my attack?”

Azhani smiled knowingly. “Okay, let’s try it,” she suggested. “Attack me the way you propose.”

They moved apart, nodded at each other and began to spar. Allyn rushed in and thrust upward, toward Azhani’s chin. Neatly stepping back, Azhani turned to present a lesser target and slashed out at Allyn’s unprotected belly. Instead of dodging, he pressed forward, landing a solid blow on his teacher’s sword arm.

“See,” he said, panting a little, “I’ve disabled you.”

“So you have,” said Azhani. “But I have killed you.”

Frowning, Allyn looked down to see the flat of Azhani’s blade pressing against his stomach.

“Never put yourself in danger just to gain a momentary upper hand, Allyndev. It could mean your life,” Azhani cautioned.

The young man hung his head shamefully. “Yes, Master Azhani.”

Knowing that he had learned his lesson, Azhani smiled and said, “Now, how about I show you something interesting, huh?”

Once again, the young man’s bright smile danced across his face.
~Chapter Twenty-Three~
“She’s coming, Mistress Tellyn! The Queen is coming here!” Gyp shouted over the ringing noonday bells, as he ran into the shop.

Tellyn looked up from grinding her herbs, and chuckled. “Yes child, I know. I had a visit from her page this morning.”

Biting her tongue at the news, Kyrian softly asked, “Is there a reason why she comes, Tellyn?”

“Lyssera always has more than one reason for her actions, Kyrian. Her page informed me that she wished to purchase some of my restorative teas, but I believe she is using this as an excuse to meet you. It could also be that a certain mule-headed warrior has grown tired of playing nursemaid to the queen’s soldiers and has recalled that she has other friends,” the herbalist said gruffly, laying aside her mortar and pestle. With a rustle of skirts, the old woman moved across the room and began gathering a sampling of her unguents and potions, packaging them for transport.

Kyrian was silent, absorbing the information. She had not seen Azhani for weeks, and the only word of the absent warrior had been that she was now in the employ of the queen, much to the disgruntlement of many of the nobles. It hurt the stardancer deeply that Azhani had yet to come back for her. The warrior hadn’t even sent a note. What news she had heard came from the gossip of customers.

The stardancer’s gut churned painfully. Once again, she considered packing up and leaving. Y’len wasn’t far, and she knew that Tellyn would be happy to provide her and Arun with supplies. While stuck with the herbalist, Kyrian had gladly given of her healing knowledge, teaching Gyp various medical techniques while Tellyn dealt with the business.

Only her oath of friendship kept her from fleeing. Heart hammering in her chest, Kyrian took several deep breaths to calm down. The hurt flowed out of her, leaving behind the sharp sting of anger. She would stay in Y’Syria and help Azhani, even if all she were allowed was the sidelines.

Angry, healer? a tiny mental voice asked.

Just a touch, she answered, sighing softly. Lyssera is Ylera’s sister – there’s no mystery in why Azhani would rather spend her time with the queen. The “rather than with me” was left out of the thought, but deeply felt.

The muffled thud of mail-covered fists knocking on the front door, filtered into the room. Tellyn barely twitched an eyebrow as Gyp raced out of the stillroom to greet their visitors. Gyp’s breathless voice announced the arrival of their expected royal guest.

“Mistress Tellyn, Lyssera of House Kelani is here to see you.” The boy tried to make his voice sound as schooled as a court herald’s, causing Tellyn to wince at the shrillness in his tone.

Shaking her head ruefully, she looked at Kyrian. “Never stuff your patients heads with false praise, even by virtue of your respect, stardancer. Treat all equally and leave the poppycock to those who have the taste for it!” said the herbalist grumpily as she scooped up her skirts and made her way into the reception area.

Kyrian chuckled and began grinding another bunch of herbs.
%%%
Lyssera beamed happily, noticing that her old friend looked as cantankerous as ever. “Mistress Tellyn, it has been far too long,” she said, taking the old woman’s hands in hers and brushing a fond kiss on her wrinkled cheek.

“If those idiots in the high court would get their heads out of their collective asses, you’d have more time to visit, Lyss,” Tellyn griped, returning the queen’s embrace brusquely.

Lyssera’s tinkling laughter filled the room as Tellyn turned to greet the others who had accompanied the queen.

“Allyndev! Astariu’s tits, boy, you’ve been getting some sun! Is it a miracle? Has Astarus himself come to drag you from your dusty old library?” the old woman asked incredulously, accepting the young man’s strong embrace heartily.

Allyn blushed, his tanned cheeks flaming a deep scarlet. “Nah, nah, Gram, I’ve been tutoring under Master Azhani these past weeks. It has been a most illuminating experience. I have never felt so invigorated!” He spotted Gyp and let go of Tellyn, flashing a brief look at Lyssera before running over to the herbalist’s assistant. “Gyp! I have to show you this thing Master Azhani taught me…” The two young men immediately exited out a door that led to the rear of the house.

“Mind the gardens, boys!” Tellyn called after them, as the door slammed shut on their excited babbling.

Standing but a pace behind the queen was Azhani, who searched the room eagerly, hungry to see her friend. When she did not see the stardancer, she quietly asked, “Where is Kyrian?”

Tellyn’s eyebrows rose as a disapproving grimace perched on her lips. “Hello to you too, warrior. Your friend,” she emphasized the word, ”is working in the stillroom.” The herbalist lifted the flap to a belt pouch and removed several packets, handing them to the queen. “I believe this is what you’ve come for. If you’d care to stay a bit, I’ll see what I can scare up in the kitchen for us to drink while Azhani visits Kyrian. In fact, why don’t you tell your men to come in too – they’re probably cluttering up my porch with their armor.”

Gamely, Lyssera opened the door and motioned to the guards who had accompanied them. The men entered the herbalist’s house respectfully, easily taking up relaxed positions against a wall. Tellyn vanished into the kitchen, where much clattering and banging of pots could be heard.

Squaring her shoulders, Azhani took a deep breath, steeled her courage and went to face Kyrian. Now remember, warrior, this isn’t a fight. Don’t attack; let her lead the discussion. Be honest. She’ll know if you’re lying. She silently coached herself as she walked across the reception area to the little door that led to the herbalist’s stillroom.

A myriad of herbal scents swirled around the warrior as she entered the room, the most pungent being freshly ground mint leaf. Kyrian’s back was to the door, and she took a moment to admire the stardancer’s well-developed arms as she stirred a large, bubbling cauldron.

Okay, warrior, open your mouth and say something. You can do it, just don’t shove your foot in too deeply at first. Azhani searched for something to say, stalling for time. She continued to stare at her friend’s back, hoping for inspiration. Wavy locks of Kyrian’s reddish gold hair escaped a loosely tied ponytail, curling up and brushing her jaw. Perspiration soaked the fabric of her short-sleeved tunic, and as Azhani watched, Kyrian reached up and wiped her face with the back of her arm.

Here goes nothing… “Try this. It might help.” Azhani offered quietly, hanging a skin full of cool wine over the stardancer’s shoulder.

“Thanks,” Kyrian replied absently, taking the skin and drinking deeply before handing it back.

Well, I didn’t get it dumped on my head. That’s a good start, right? The warrior thought as she hung the skin on her belt.

Licking her lips, Kyrian said, “That stuff’s pretty good. They must treat you pretty well in the dungeon.” She looked up and over her shoulder at the warrior. Though lacking any rancor, there was a hard edge to the words that matched a similar gleam in the stardancer’s eyes. Azhani’s heart thudded painfully and she winced.

Ouch. I guess I deserved that. Okay, don’t say anything yet. Let her keep talking. Azhani silently coached herself.

Laughter breezed in from the reception room and Kyrian raised an eyebrow, listening as the queen and the herbalist exchanged bawdy jokes.

“You must be here to say good-bye before she has you hung.” Again, the words were free of anger, yet they struck Azhani like the sharpest blades.

Uh… oh shit! How do I fix this? I don’t want her to hate me. I don’t know what I would do if she hated me… “Kyrian, I-“ the words stuck in the warrior’s throat and she looked at her friend helplessly.

“Hmm?” Kyrian turned around fully, facing Azhani for the first time since she had entered the room. “You what? Are you here for some other reason? Are you telling me that you weren’t a prisoner; that wild dogs weren’t keeping you from visiting? That your hands weren’t broken beyond repair? Because that’s exactly what I’ve been thinking, even, goddess forbid, hoping had happened.” Now, acid etched the words as deep green eyes began to glisten wetly. Stubbornly, Kyrian held the tears back, clamping her jaw shut and gazing into Azhani’s face.

What? Flash fire anger sang in the warrior’s veins. Fuck this. I’m out of here. It was on the tip of her tongue to scathingly tell the stardancer to take her accusing looks, her teary eyes and wild speculations and stuff them up her ass. Fuck friends. Friends are for … but the thought faded away when Azhani saw the minute quavering of pale, pressed lips. The tiny flicker of hurt that had manifested as flippant anger, broke through Azhani’s defenses, drenching her ire. Astarus’ balls, I have truly screwed this. I need to say something, anything…

“Kyrian – Oh Kyr, gods, I’m sorry. I should have told you what I was planning, but I didn’t know what to expect.” She began pacing the room, but caught the narrowing of the stardancer’s eyes. “Not from you… never from you,” she said, forestalling the angry words she could almost see forming on the stardancer’s face. “No, from Lyssera and her people – I couldn’t know that she would not accept Arris’ story. If you had been damned with me, I could have never forgiven myself.” Please believe me. Please understand… she silently begged.

“But that’s the problem. You never even gave me the choice. I never had a chance to be damned or not. You took that away from me, and that hurt,” whispered Kyrian, pain lancing her statement. “I swore my friendship to you, Azhani Rhu’len – and my oaths don’t come lightly! I must have been imagining it when you returned that oath.”

Azhani flinched over the bitter words. Stepping forward, she gently placed her hands on Kyrian’s shoulders and said, “You did not dream it, my friend – and you are my friend. I-“ she shook her head regretfully. “There’s nothing I can say that will repair the hurt I’ve caused you, and I knew that when I made my decision. I will not regret keeping you out of danger, but I will always regret that what I did pained you. Please forgive me, Kyrian. Though I do not deserve it, I ask that you give me a chance to mend those hurts that I can.”

Ducking her head to avoid the warrior’s eyes, Kyrian bit her lip as her breath came in shuddering gasps.

“Kyrian.” Softly, yet commandingly, Azhani spoke her friend’s name. The stardancer looked up, meeting eyes so blue, they were almost purple. “Please, I need you. I don’t want to go back to Oakheart without you.”

Timeless seconds passed as the two friends shared their gaze, each trying to read the other’s soul.

Astariu, if ever there was a time for me to pray to you, it’s now. Please don’t let her leave, thought the warrior.

“I’m still mad at you,” Kyrian said, cracking a tiny smile.

“Okay,” Azhani replied, a grin breaking out over her face and lighting her eyes. Thank the twins! I wonder if I should do a dance of victory?

“I reserve the right to chase your butt around the practice field every morning,” the stardancer added. “I’m tired of beating up motionless pells.”

Maybe not. Ah gods, it feels good to know she’s coming home with me. “I’m all yours,” the warrior said happily. “Maybe you can even show my student a thing or two.”

“Student?” Two ruddy eyebrows shot up. “You’ve got some stories to tell, I’ll bet. Now, why don’t you introduce me to this woman you conned into giving you an army.”

Linking her arm with Kyrian’s, Azhani turned to head into the reception room. “Well, it’s not exactly an army…”
%%%
As Kyrian prowled her new room, Azhani stifled a grin. The stardancer’s face was a wash of pleasure and consternation. She looks so adorable! The thought fluttered through the warrior’s consciousness before she could stop it. Huh? Where’d that come from?

“But… this is just so huge, Azhi! I don’t need this much space, I-“

“Am grateful to the queen for her generosity?” Azhani interrupted when Lyssera opened her mouth to suggest a new placement. She gently enforced her statement by stepping on the stardancer’s toes. Come on, my friend, please don’t offend the elven queen in her own home on the first day.

Lyssera had given Kyrian a room that was near the warrior’s and Azhani liked the thought that her friend was only a few short steps away. At night, she pretended that she could hear the stardancer’s soft snores and the image lulled her to sleep. Come on, it’s a nice room, Kyr. Just take it. Please.

Closing her mouth, Kyrian nodded in agreement.

“All right, then if everything is fine, I’ll leave you to unpack. Afternoon court begins shortly. It would not do for the queen to be late,” Lyssera said, winking at Azhani. “You, on the other hand, have the freedom to stay and help your friend acclimate herself to Oakheart.”

Azhani sketched a short bow. “As your majesty commands,” she said, smiling wryly.

Light, airy laughter followed the queen out of the room.

Alone with her friend, Kyrian continued to look around the chamber, amazed at the simple beauty of its construction. As a part of one of Oakheart’s massive trees, the room was all of wood. Tapestries lined the walls, acting as decoration rather than insulation. On the floor were soft, thickly woven rugs from Y’skan, their brilliant hues giving Kyrian the impression she was standing on a field of wildflowers.

The room was actually three chambers linked together by short halls. One was a bathing area, another was where she would sleep and the third was a covered balcony that led to a private garden, which she shared with Azhani. Stepping outside, Kyrian inhaled deeply of the fresh fragrance of growing things.

“It’s magical,” she said as she felt her friend’s presence behind her. “This place, this city – it’s nothing at all like I imagined it to be.” Kyrian strode to a balcony and looked out to the lake. Two ships passed as she watched, their bright white sails catching the wind and taking them to new ports. “Y’len is not of the trees – not like it is here.”

Azhani joined Kyrian at the balcony rail. “I remember. There are more ground dwellings there – places where there are no stairs at all,” she said, smiling at the memory.

“The temple was like that – all one story, so that the acolytes could hurry, hurry, hurry to wherever the masters needed them to be,” Kyrian said, with a far away look in her eyes. “I remember having to hustle to make it to classes because inevitably, one class was always on the other end of the school from the others.”

Azhani chuckled lightly. “Do you miss it? Do you miss Y’len?” she asked. She bit her lip, waiting for the stardancer’s answer. Please… Azhani prayed, trying not to flinch under her friend’s searching gaze. Please say you want to stay. I need you, Kyr, though it pains me to admit it.

Kyrian turned, cocked her head to the side and looked up at the warrior’s face. Shadowed by the balcony overhang, Azhani’s eyes glittered brightly when she stepped forward and into the light.

“I do,” said Kyrian finally, keeping eye contact with the warrior. Just as Azhani opened her mouth to speak, the stardancer covered the warrior’s lips. “No, I don’t want to go back – I’m here, with you, and that’s where I want to be, Azhi.

“Bu-“ Azhani’s voice burred against Kyrian’s fingertips.

The stardancer giggled over the sensation. Lowering her hand, she twined her finger’s with Azhani’s. “When are you going to accept that I like you, Azhani Rhu’len?” Kyrian asked, a tinge of exasperation coloring her voice.

Shaking her head, Azhani shrugged and replied, “I don’t know, Kyr. I guess I’m just so amazed because you’re still here. I forget that you actually want to be around me.”

“Well, stop it, because it’s starting to piss me off.” The stardancer admonished, shaking the index finger of her free hand at the warrior.

Azhani’s eyes sparkled merrily, and she snapped her teeth at the offending digit teasingly. “Yes, Kyr,” she said, when she’d caught the tip of the stardancer’s finger between her teeth. Mm, tastes like sweet bread…

Kyrian laughed and gently withdrew her finger from Azhani’s mouth. Inwardly, she trembled, hoping that the flush of excitement she could feel creeping across her face, wasn’t visible to the warrior. Ah gods, I started this, now how do I finish it?

“So,” the stardancer said as she turned away from the view to look back into her room. “How about we get my stuff unpacked?”
%%%
As the ancestral home of the elven monarchy, Oakheart Manor was an astonishingly beautiful place, filled with the greatest treasures of the seven kingdoms. It was also, unfortunately, crawling with courtiers, diplomats, pages and hoards of other personnel that ran the machinery of the kingdom.

Okay, so maybe I should have stayed with Tellyn after all, Kyrian thought as she struggled to keep up with Azhani. Then she considered the alternative. No, wild dogs couldn’t make me leave Azhi’s side. The stardancer had moved into Oakheart the day of the queen’s visit to the herbalist. Years of working with small village councils and governors of larger cities did nothing to prepare the stardancer for the sheer mass of bureaucracy that filled the halls of the Lyssera’s castle.

At any given time of the day, the halls of the manor were filled with an amalgam of noble and servant that flowed in a dance that seemed ever changing and amorphous. For a person used to small towns and villages, it was utter chaos.

Factions controlled various members of the Queen’s Council, which were a group of men and women who had either inherited or been chosen for the position. Each advisor represented a group of towns and villages in Y’Syr and they were each convinced that their particular district was the heart of the kingdom. Loud arguments between the different groups could be heard peppering the halls, as delegations jockeyed and parlayed to get audience with their representatives, or most desirously, the queen.

As a member of Lyssera’s retinue, Azhani had access to all parts of Oakheart Manor, and she took it upon herself to familiarize Kyrian with the best ways to maneuver the large, maze like structure. For three days, they had been roaming the castle at all candlemarks, while Azhani kept up a running commentary about the different sections of the massive structure.

Built thousands of years before humans had ever set foot upon the lands that would become Y’myrani kingdoms, Oakheart Manor was a staggering complex of buildings and bridges, constructed in and around nearly fifty ancient oak trees. The highest rooms belonged to the queen and her family, but the lower halls and rooms teemed with life from every corner of the kingdoms.

In one alcove, Y’droran dwarves diced with Y’skani desert men, wagering bags of pure white sand against bags of gold and gems. Music from Y’Tolan lutenists blended with Y’Noran pipers, creating a pleasant, if somewhat jarring harmony that wove around the everyday sounds of people walking and talking in the halls and pathways.

Azhani and Kyrian were on a middle level, working toward the kitchen area that was located near the ground. Barely heard above the bustle were Azhani’s descriptions of the halls, pointing out which doorway lead where. Kyrian was grateful to the builders who had cleverly used various bits of wood and shell to create mosaic tapestries along the walls and ceilings. Each major hall had at least one unique work of art, and nearly everyone who lived in the manor learned to navigate by these mosaics.

The two women were in the Hall of Trees, passing a colorful mosaic of trees, birds and animals that surrounded a peaceful, functioning fountain. Seated on a bench in front of the fountain, was Prince Allyndev, the young nephew of Queen Lyssera. He jumped up upon seeing his instructor and her friend, standing at a smart attention as the two approached him.

“Master Azhani, Stardancer Kyrian, did you hear? Ambassador Kuwell challenged Ambassador Iften to a duel!”

Azhani groaned and Kyrian frowned, trying to place faces to the names that Allyndev had spouted off. Finally, the craggy features of the Y’droran Ambassador came into her memory, but the face of Iften evaded her.

Changing direction in mid stride, Azhani began fighting her way through the stream of people toward the ground level, and the courtyards. Traditionally, dueling was considered legal, but the queen frowned upon such actions, preferring diplomacy to blades.

Allyn easily kept up, leaving Kyrian to once more duck and dodge her way down the hall.

“Do you think they’ll kill each other?” the young man eagerly asked, seeming to relish the thought of bloodshed. “Will there be a lot of blood?”

“Not if I can help it,” Azhani growled.

Stairs were taken two and three at a time, and several banisters would never be the same, as three half-elves scandalized half of Queen Lyssera’s court by sliding, slipping or otherwise skidding down toward the ground. Finally, they reached the great hall and burst out the doors and into the main courtyard. A crowd had gathered, surrounding the two men who were loudly shouting epithets at each other.

“You dirt grubbing dwarf! I’m going to take a strip of your flesh for every one of these fake stones you tried to pass off on me!” Ambassador Iften’s menacing shout could be easily heard above the noise of the gathering courtiers. An ominous shattering sound echoed in the courtyard.

“Lies! You’re the thief, Iften! I bet you’ve stolen the real stones and switched ‘em out for glass. Just like a sand-eating desert raider to try and pawn his fakes off on a good, honest dwarf. Run home to your Cabal masters with your tail between your legs, dog!” the dwarven ambassador replied gruffly.

Iften screamed something incoherently, and charged the dwarf. Rolling her eyes and sighing heavily, Azhani easily leapt up and over the crowd, landing in front of the dwarven ambassador. The thud of studded leather was loud as Iften bounced off of the very solid body of the former Y’dani warleader. Dazed, the Y’skani man staggered back, shaking his head woozily.

“Is there a problem here?” Azhani drawled, turning to wink at Kuwell.

“Well,” Kuwell replied, hooking this thumbs in his belt and peering around the warrior’s elbow at the still stumbling desert man. “Not so’s you’d notice, m’friend. Though, that gentlemen there’s gonna need a red-robe soon, or like as not, he’ll be making an intimate acquaintance with them there cobbles.”

“I can’t leave you alone anywhere, can I Ku?” Azhani said aggrievedly, as she reached out to grab Iften and steady him. By this time, Kyrian had made her way through the crowd and gently took Iften’s arm and led him to a bench, where she sat him down and began examining him. Azhani watched, able to just catch the light yellow glow of the stardancer’s magic at work as her friend calmed the older man down.

After a few moments, she gave the dark-skinned man a bundle of herbs to chew and swallow along with a swig from a wineskin. Three other desert men approached and she spoke to them quietly, before stepping aside and allowing them to lead their now complacent leader to his quarters.

The stardancer made her way back to Azhani, who was slapping the dwarf on the shoulder and laughing uproariously at something he had said. The warrior looked up at her friend’s approach and her mirth immediately died at the expression on Kyrian’s face. Troubled, she moved to speak to her friend, but was forestalled by the stardancer’s upraised hand.

“No,” she said softly, so that only Azhani’s sharp ears could hear her. “Everyone should hear this.”

“All right,” Azhani said softly, stepping aside to allow her friend to take the center of the court.

Kyrian smiled grimly and faced Kuwell, who waited expectantly. “Good day, Ambassador Kuwell. I am Stardancer Kyrian of Y’len,” she said formally.

“Good day, Stardancer Kyrian. I am Ambassador Kuwell Longhorn of Shale Valley,” the dwarf replied, bowing. “The gods honor me with your presence.”

“Thank you. I have come to tell you that your friend, Iften Windstorm was not in his right mind today. His food had been poisoned by krill dust.”

A collective gasp filled the air. Krill dust was a very powerful hallucinogenic drug, outlawed in all seven kingdoms. The effects were random, always harmful and often, deadly.

Kuwell snorted in disgust, and said, “Figures that the old rat would lick the poison of his masters.”

Prince Allyndev pushed forward, loudly asking, “Are you accusing Ambassador Iften of collusion with the Cabal?”

“Allyndev, get Lyssera and ask her to join us in the swan garden,” Azhani ordered quietly, her voice brooking no argument. The young prince’s lips twisted to argue and then he visibly took hold of his temper, stiffly turning and walking back toward the manor.

Pointing to one of the many lurking pages, the warrior said, “Go to the kitchens and bring refreshments for,” she mentally tallied who would be there, “six. Bring them to the swan garden.”

The boy nodded and said, “Aye, Master, t’will be done as you say,” and then ran off.

Adjacent to Lyssera’s sitting room, the swan garden was about as private as they could get within the manor. Curious ears would find it hard to sneak into the heavily guarded residential floor of the Kelani family. Quickly, Azhani, Kyrian and the dwarven ambassador, made their way up the various levels until reaching the guarded doorway that led to the queen’s chambers.

The warrior was easily recognized and allowed in. Pausing, Azhani quietly gave the guard some instructions and then entered the Kelani residence. Queen Lyssera was waiting for them. The reason behind the name “swan garden” was immediately evident when the trio entered the treetop greenhouse. Beautiful ornaments from around the kingdoms, all depicting swans in one form or another, liberally littered the garden.

Letting out a low whistle of appreciation, Kyrian stared at the chair where Queen Lyssera sat. Made of white ash, the chair curved up behind the queen, cradling her in a cloak of painstakingly carved wings.

The table was another priceless piece, having a base of burnished copper depicting three swans arranged in a circle. Topping the table was a slab of rock crystal. As the sun streamed down overhead, millions of rainbows danced off the fracture lines in the quartz, bathing the small group in color. Not far away, the tinkling sound of a fountain could be heard, and above them were several overhanging tree branches, heavy with leaves providing welcome shade from the mid afternoon sun.

A page liveried in Lyssera’s personal colors, pulled out chairs for the arriving group of people, waiting patiently as each of them sat. When they had all arranged themselves comfortably, the young man turned to a cart and began serving drinks.

“So, a little bird tells me that Ambassador Iften suffered from krill poisoning,” Lyssera said, not bothering to dissemble as the rest of the small group settled into their chairs. Trays of finger foods were laid out on the table and then the page backed away, leaving his elders to their conversation.

Kyrian nodded, folding her hands in her lap and looking right at Vice-ambassador Kirthos, who was the Y’skani desert man that had come to represent his fallen leader. “Yes, he was. My cursory examination tells me that it is something that is long standing. I asked him if he knew he had ingested the substance, and his reply convinced me that he was as surprised by it as I was. Therefore, I would assume that he was unaware of the poison. Someone must have put it in his food.”

“Which leads me to wonder, Vice-ambassador, if anyone else knew of the Ambassador’s new spice?” Azhani asked, leaning forward. Her gaze was so pointed, the desert man flinched.

“Honored Master Azhani, I assure you that neither I, nor any members of Ambassador Iften’s clan, would dream of such a vile act! Krill dust is anathema to those who follow the Serpent – we would rather eat glass!” The Y’skani’s dark green tattoo – a coiled snake that wrapped the length of his arm with the head coming to rest on the back of his right hand – pulsed as he pounded the table emphatically.

Azhani nodded, accepting the man’s words. She looked to Queen Lyssera, who raised one dark blonde eyebrow and turned her gaze on the dwarven ambassador, Kuwell. “My friend from Y’dror. Would your honor be satisfied if I put the skills of Master Azhani to ferreting out who caused this debacle?”

“Aye, Lyssera. I have no doubts in the skills of our friend,” the Y’droran said simply, folding his arms and nodding in agreement.

Eagerly, Kirthos jumped up and began pacing the garden. “Yes, I too agree! Master Azhani is the only one who can fairly find the heinous poisoner!” His eyes darted from the warrior to the queen. “I am right in assuming that she is not a member of your court – that your relationship is that of an employer and employee? She holds no allegiance to Y’Syr?”

Turning her face so that the dark brown scar adorning her cheek flashed in the fading afternoon light, Azhani said, “You assume correctly, Vice-ambassador.” Her voice was hard-edged and Kyrian inwardly sighed, wishing once again she could reach the wound that had so deeply hurt her friend.

“Excellent! I accept then, that you will have an open mind and will not make assumptions based on political alliances.” He sat down, folding his hands on his lap and looking expectantly at the rest of the group.

He’s not as dumb as he looks, Azhani thought, impressed by the desert man’s savvy. Naturally, he will be the first suspect. Of course, I would be surprised to find that he is the poisoner – they tend to like the shadows. Turning to look at the Queen, Azhani sipped slowly at her drink.

“Good. I only ask that the results of this meeting not be spread. I’d like Master Azhani to have the freedom to move about without having to dodge arrows.” Everyone nodded. “Vice-ambassador Kirthos, I suggest you find someone that you trust to prepare the ambassador’s meals from now on.”

“Of course. I will speak to Starseeker Vashyra immediately. She will undoubtedly know someone who is qualified,” the desert man said arrogantly.

Azhani watched him as he spoke, trying to ferret out clues that might tell her whether or not Iften’s second reached for a higher position. After only a few heartbeats, she dismissed him as a suspect. Kirthos was young, brash and ambitious, but he spoke the truth when he voiced his distaste for the poison. Serpent clansmen revered the snake, including the tiny yellow creature found only in a mountainous region on the eastern coast of Y’skan. Krill dust was made from the desiccated corpses of these tiny snakes, which was an act so atrocious that it was unthinkable.

Kuwell too was ruled out. His clan and the DaCoure house had been friends for many years and she trusted the stout blacksmith implicitly. Barring Kyrian and a few others, this left the warrior with an impressive list of suspects to weed through.

“I’ll be happy to take care of the ambassador’s meals,” Kyrian offered quietly. “He shouldn’t eat anything really strong for a while, anyway. The krill needs to be cleansed from his system.”

“Bless you, Stardancer. You do my clan much honor,” the vice-ambassador said stiffly.

Azhani stifled a snort of laughter. At least Kirthos was one less pig-headed courtier she would privately want to smash for being rude to her friend.

“Since we are in accord, then I see no further reason to discuss this matter. Master Azhani, when you have your results, please let me know. Thank you,” Queen Lyssera said, dismissing the group with a wave of her hand.

They all rose to go, until the queen’s voice halted Kyrian.

“Stardancer Kyrian, would you mind staying?” asked the queen. “I have a matter to discuss with you.”

Shrugging her shoulders when Azhani looked at her curiously, Kyrian turned away from the door and said, “Of course, my queen. I am at your discretion.” Easily resuming her chair, Kyrian watched as Azhani, Allyn, and the two ambassadors exited the garden.

When she was sure that they were alone, Lyssera nodded toward the tray of snacks that sat, mostly untouched, in the center of the table. “Go ahead – you must be starving, I can hear your stomach from here!”

Chuckling ruefully, Kyrian reached for the tray, grabbing a handful of raw vegetables and a couple of meat-stuffed pastries. “Thank you. I am very hungry, though I think Azhani was ready to start chewing on the foliage. She hasn’t had anything since yesterday, while I managed to get in a bit of breakfast.”

“Well, then I’m surprised our warrior friend didn’t just start eating the vice-ambassador,” said Lyssera, a droll grin brightening her features as she spoke.

Kyrian giggled, envisioning Azhani leaning over and taking a chunk out of the supercilious desert man, and then said, “I don’t think she would have liked the taste. A bit too dry for Azhani.”

“True, she is much fonder of moister meat.” Lyssera observed suggestively. Her grin blossomed into a full-throated laugh when Kyrian blushed.

Politely, Kyrian coughed and asked, “You wished to speak with me about something, your majesty?”

Lyssera sighed heavily. “Don’t tell me she’s quashed your sense of humor already, stardancer?” Smiling sadly, she said, “I meant no offense. I, perhaps better than any, know how lonely Azhani is without my sister’s company. Ylera was one of those wonderful individuals who are larger than life. Everything she touched blossomed, and those whom her affections were directed at came willingly to her side.

Azhani has never been the kind of woman I would consider to be an aggressor in matters of the heart. If Ylera had not wanted to love her, then not even altering the course of the wind would have brought my sister to the warrior’s side.”

Nodding slowly, Kyrian said, “I know, your highness. Ylera was my friend. We were classmates at temple.” She sighed and smiled wistfully. “The princess’ conquests were stuff of legend among the acolytes.”

Lyssera sat forward, even more interested to know the enigmatic young woman who chose to side with Azhani Rhu’len. “Were you one of the ‘princess’ conquests’, Stardancer Kyrian?”

Taken aback by the boldness of the queen’s question, Kyrian stared, dumbfounded while her jaw worked to answer the question. Finally, she blurted out, “Not unless your sister was into children!” Seeing that her harsh words had wiped the good-natured smile from Lyssera’s face, Kyrian hastened to explain, “I was very young for an initiate, my queen. You could not have known. When Princess Ylera and I shared teachers, I was only thirteen summers old.” Closing her eyes, Kyrian allowed memories of that precious time to surface. “I think I might have gotten a crush on Lera, if I hadn’t had the chance to know her.” The stardancer smiled sadly. “After hearing her snore, tell bawdy jokes and belch louder than most of the boys, it was impossible to see her as an untouchable beauty. Ylera was more than just a flighty princess, she was a charming, friendly young woman.”

Opening her eyes, she smiled brightly at the queen. “She wanted so badly to make you proud of her, your majesty. She always knew she would be your envoy to the kingdoms, and she worked hard to learn everything she could about diplomacy. I suppose that was another reason why any tender feelings, I might have had, vanished. Ylera was very selfish. Not in a bad way, but everything she did was in furtherance of her aspirations.” Kyrian sighed sadly. “I wish I could have known her when she was with Azhani. From what Lady Glinholt tells me, Lera had changed – had started to allow her heart to lead her choices, rather than her political goals.”

Lyssera listened intently, shaking her head ruefully when Kyrian finished. “I suppose one more person should be added to the list of those who understand what Ylera’s loss means. Tell me more, stardancer. My sister spoke often of Y’len, and of the things she learned, but she rarely mentioned the people.” The queen’s jaw dropped, and her eyes widened as if a torch had just been lit inside her head. “You’re Kyr!” she blurted.

“Yes, that’s my name,” the stardancer laughed.

“No, no, Lera used to talk about a dancer initiate named Kyr all the time,” Lyssera explained, scooting her chair closer to Kyrian. “Unless there’s two Kyrs, it has to be you she was talking about.”

Wistfully, the stardancer said, “It’s nice to know she remembered me.”

“Oh gods, you are her. It’s your fault that my sister developed an unhealthy addiction to oatcakes and honey in the middle of night watch, isn’t it?”

Holding up her hands, Kyrian said, “Guilty as charged. It was the only thing we could make on the open fire while doing our last minute studying. The nights before a final exam were long and hunger-inducing.”

“I have never seen anything as funny as my sister trying vainly to recreate a recipe, all while soaking wet and covered in a thick coat of mud and moss! I nearly injured myself, I laughed so hard. I’m fairly sure it woke several of the initiates,” the queen said, going into a long description of one of Ylera’s many crazy outings. “I don’t know how she managed to convince me to leave the temple and go exploring the forest, but every time I visited, we had to see what new things were growing in the forest. I can only hope she didn’t drag poor Azhani out into the rain for mushrooms and mint leaves.”

Uncomfortably, Kyrian shifted in her seat mumbling, “She’s never mentioned anything to me.”

Lyssera nodded knowingly. “Me either, my friend. Our Azhani is as tight lipped as a moneylender’s purse when it comes to discussing my sister. I get bits and pieces, but never whole cloth.” The queen shook her head sadly. “We talked a little, but I can’t seem to get beyond the surface. Sharing our grief only seems to dull the edge of pain for her. I’m worried about her, Kyr. I’ve known Azhani for years, and though everything seems to be okay with her, something is missing. There’s an emptiness in her eyes that haunts me. I want to help, but I know how hard it is for her to be around me.”

Leaning forward, the queen took Kyrian’s hand in hers and stared earnestly into the stardancer’s eyes. “When I saw the two of you exit Tellyn’s stillroom, I thought my old friend had finally returned. The spark of life was in her eyes again, Kyr. It was having you by her side that unlocked her heart. I’m so very glad you’re here now.”

“So am I,” Kyrian whispered. “I missed her, and I worried about her.”

“I worried as well,” Lyssera said, getting up and pacing around the garden. “Before you came, she talked only of revenge, of seeking the head of Arris Theodan and presenting it to me on a platter, as if the bloody gift would somehow ease the loss of my sister!”

“It’s a goal,” the stardancer said, though her words were tinged with sarcasm.

“I hate it. Kyrian, I loved my sister dearly. She was my twin, and there’s not a moment that goes by that I don’t wish she were beside me, ready with an insightful piece of advice or witty comment.” She stopped pacing and slumped into her chair again. “She would never have wanted this single-minded plan for vengeance. Ylera would not want our countries to go to war over her.”

“Then what…”

“What am I going to do? I don’t know. Before you came, Azhani threw herself into every task as though it were ordained by fate. Now, I don’t know. I gave her the task of finding Iften’s poisoner, to see just how she handled it.” Lyssera rubbed her face wearily. “Tell me, stardancer, how can I give men to a woman I’m not sure wants to live to see the dawn, after the death of King Arris?”

“I don’t…” Kyrian shook her head and sighed. “I don’t think she has a death wish, majesty. I think she’s just very determined to have justice for Ylera.”

“Why? Why is it so important that she be the one to kill Arris? When she speaks of his death, it’s always in terms of his body on her sword.” The queen said the words as though she had heard them hundreds of times.

“Wouldn’t you want to be the one to deal the blow of vengeance, if it were your fiancée that were murdered?” Kyrian asked simply.

Surprise colored the queen’s face. “Fiancée? No, Kyr, I don’t think their relationship would have gone that far, had Ylera lived. My sister, bless her, was far too conscious of her place in Y’Syran society. The nobles would not have tolerated an Y’dani/Y’Syran match of that nature. The ink on Theodan’s treaty was still too wet.”

“Azhani does not know that. And who knows, the princess might have had a change of heart,” Kyrian pointed out rationally, inwardly cringing. I will forget this conversation; I will forget that I ever heard anything about this. Azhani never needs to know how lightly the queen views her sister’s relationships.

“You think me unkind,” Lyssera said solemnly. “Perhaps I am. I am a queen, Kyrian, and that means that I cannot forget for one moment that every word I speak, every action I take, will have infinite repercussions. This is why I must – I must,” she emphasized the word, “be sure of those in whom I have placed trust. I trust you, stardancer, because I know you love Astariu wisely. Therefore, I will trust your wisdom about Azhani. Reassure this queen that she has not let her own anger and grief cloud her judgment – tell me that the warrior’s desire to murder a king is not lunacy!”

“I wish I could ease your concerns with a word or two, majesty, but I can only offer the memories I carry up here,” Kyrian said, tapping the side of her head. “I cannot, in good conscience, speak words said in confidence, but perhaps I can share the tale of how I came to know Azhani Rhu’len. Maybe you will find something in the story to soothe your fears.” Calmly, the stardancer began to tell the queen of her adventures since leaving the village of Myr, up until the moment that she and Azhani had left the stillroom at Mistress Tellyn’s.

Lyssera listened, avidly clinging to any clues that gave her hope. They were few, but before Kyrian finished, the queen had heard enough to ease her mind for the time being. Azhani’s goals may seem single-minded, but the warrior still had a very strong sense of honor and duty. Perhaps she would not self-destruct, after all. I swear Ylera; I will not let your beloved go down the path of vengeance. Not that way, not like Father did…

Forcing herself to listen to the stardancer, Lyssera shoved away the painful memories of her father’s mad quest to avenge her mother’s death. Nothing would ever take away her last sight of King Ylesril chasing a badly mangled demon off a cliff. He had never even slowed down as the rocky escarpment crumbled away beneath him, just kept trying to hack at the creature’s bleeding body as they fell.

The queen would do most anything to see Azhani avoid such a fate.
~Chapter Twenty-Four~
Azhani tried not to fidget. She had crammed her tall frame into one of the tiny booths in this dockside tavern that she had frequented for many years. The Captain’s Hook was the most disreputable spot on Y’Syria’s harbor, and she had found that it was the best place to gather information.

Within moments of arriving, she had overheard enough clandestine talk regarding a lucrative smuggling operation, to keep the queen’s navy busy for weeks, if not months. Grimly, the warrior kept a mental tally of faces and names, intending on passing on the information to the captain of Lyssera’s guard. She had also seen two murderers and a moneylender wanted for graft, hiding in the tavern’s shadows. For those men, she had written notes to the commander of the dockside guard and sent them by messenger. One of the fugitives had already been apprehended as he tried to board a ship bound for Y’mar.

The warrior had a neat system in place. Three dock rats – children she had befriended three years ago on her last visit – sat by the door, ostensibly begging for coins. By using simple signals, they kept her apprised of those folks she should bend her ears to and those she should ignore. The kids happily performed the duty and Azhani made sure that some of the queen’s largesse made its way into their small pockets.

She nodded as one of the boys pointed to a newly arrived customer. Examining him, Azhani was not impressed. Typical of all sailors, he was barefoot, the soles of his feet so toughened from years of working on the decks of ships that he didn’t even notice the roughness of the straw-covered floor. He carried himself in a stoop that was indicative of a man who had spent many years rowing, and as he moved into the hazy light cast by a nearby torch, Azhani could make out the gnarled hands of an oarsman.

A voice whispered in her ear, “That’s Zekk. He’s with the Wave Queen.”

The warrior leaned back, letting the informant know that she had been heard, and watched as Zekk worked his way through the tavern, loudly greeting friends and strangers alike. Finally, he reached her table, staring into the darkened cowl of her hood as if trying to see into her soul.

“It likes me that you be seekin’ a bit o’ taste,” he said, in a rambling, lilted accent that was pure Y’maran docksider.

“Nef’ tay crawl the holes yonder,” she responded, mimicking the twisted vowels perfectly. “Take chair and yap; sup ye a bit o’ Jonny B’s blood and chew words,” she said, nodding at the pitcher of warm ale that rested in the center of the rickety table.

Deciding her offer was genuine, the sailor eased into the opposite chair and poured a large helping of ale into his own mug, then drank gustily. He belched and poured another. This one he drank slowly, seeming to savor every drop of the harsh, bitter beer.

Azhani calmly waited for the sailor to drink. It was no use to force the man to talk – Y’marans were notoriously close-lipped until they felt they had been adequately greased.

Three cups into the pitcher, Zekk set his mug aside and nodded. “Chew, woman, it likes me not to sit long.” His eyes roved the room, settling finally on one of the more obvious light skirts that dominated the end of the bar.

“Aye. Tis bitter shame to lay waste to time better spent. Short o’ it is – taste me dreams, I have. Flavor likes me and would it is have more. Landies call it wrecked though, leave me clinging to short sail. Likes me not,” she explained, putting just enough need and outrage in her voice to stimulate any good smuggler’s greed.

Zekk stared at her as though she had gone daft. “Lightening struck you are, woman. Dream dust taste demon’s filth!” He stood suddenly, making the bench creak ominously. Shaking his head, he cursed, “Kraken take you, I’ll not rot for hell’s droppings!” Angrily, he stormed away from the table, causing no few glances in Azhani’s direction.

The warrior shrugged and ignored the stares. After a while, the patrons turned their attentions elsewhere, finding more interesting things to amuse them.

“Zekk’s the last of ‘em, lady,” said a youthful voice.

“All right, what about the gambling hall? Is it still held in Tarvik’s warehouse?” she asked.

“Not since old man Tarvik went down in a squall two seasons ago. Yannev Ironfoot runs it out of an old sawmill outside of town now.”

“Great, I’ve had a hankering to go riding. Gather your friends, Skye, we’re going for a picnic.” The warrior untangled her body from the bench and gratefully made her way to the door.

A tow-headed child leapt down from her hiding place behind the warrior’s former seat and laughed. “A picnic? Azhi, I haven’t done that since last time!” Grinning hugely, the girl sped off to gather her friends.

Smiling, Azhani thanked the gods that her old contacts had not left the docks – it would have been twice as hard to gather the information she needed without them.
%%%
The sun had long set when Kyrian drained the dregs of a large pitcher of water and finished telling Lyssera about her life with Azhani Rhu’len.

“It hasn’t been boring, but neither have I seen any signs of the soul-sick madness of one who wants to die, your highness.”

For several minutes, the queen was silent, contemplating her words. Fastening her gaze on a point some yards beyond Kyrian’s head, she said, “You love her.” The statement fell out into the air between them, echoing madly in the stardancer’s ears.

The garden was silent as the words played over and over again in Kyrian’s head. Finally, she quietly said, “How could I not? I have tasted the color of her aura and swum in the energies of her essence. More than that, I have laughed with her, cried with her, saved and been saved by her.”

Lyssera’s eyes closed slowly as she said, “I wonder if that’s how Ylera felt? Her heart was so eager to love, that she was drawn, moth to a flame, to those whose energies were strong.” The queen didn’t ask if Azhani returned the stardancer’s feelings. The question would have been ridiculous – Lyssera wasn’t blind, and it was no secret that the warrior rarely left Kyrian’s side. If she did not love her, she would. Even a sense-blind human could see that destiny had written itself neatly into the women’s lives.

The questions that remained were – trivial, at best. Of course, she would give Azhani the men to destroy Arris’ hold on Y’dan. Whether that entailed a war, an assassination, or some other mission that had yet to be revealed, she was certain that the warrior deserved her support. To do otherwise would be to dishonor the memory of her twin.

With that settled, all that remained were personal, less political meanderings. Lyssera burned with curiosity. Would the warrior allow love into her life again? Elves were known for their passions and the queen’s was matchmaking. Not surprisingly, she had never had the chance to practice her skills on her sister, but perhaps, by helping her sister’s beloved, she would have some sense of what it would have been like.

Lyssera gave Kyrian an appraising gaze, wondering what could be done to make the half-elven stardancer appeal to Azhani’s tender side and whether or not she would be amenable to her plan. Imperceptibly, the queen nodded. Yes, a plan was definitely necessary, if she were going to get the stubborn warrior to crack the careful mask of non-emotion she had donned and allow the budding feelings underneath to flourish.

Fleetingly, the thought passed that she should, perhaps, let the gods choose whom Azhani’s affections would fall upon, but one look into Kyrian’s dark green eyes decided the queen. If she had anything to do about it, Azhani Rhu’len would be with Kyrian.

“Well, it’s no matter now. As to more political issues – will Ambassador Iften be all right? I understand that krill dust is very dangerous if taken too long.” The queen signaled, and her page drifted out of the shadows to refill their cups with a fresh bottle of wine.

“Now that the poisoning has been detected, so long as no more krill gets into his system, he should recover. In fact, I’ll be checking on him when you’re finished with me. Would you like me to send a page with a report?” Kyrian sipped at the chilled wine, licking her lips appreciatively over the fine vintage.

“I would appreciate that, thank you,” Lyssera said, turning to look out into the garden.

Kyrian set her goblet on the table and quietly left the queen to her musings.

It took some time to locate the ambassador’s quarters, but eventually, the stardancer was by the older man’s side, calmly assessing him when he woke. Pale hazel eyes blinked rapidly, and then he looked up at the red-robed young woman who was tending him.

“I am truly blessed, to have the honor of one of the Goddess’ Own, by my side,” he said, his voice sleep-roughened.

Smiling, Kyrian handed him a glass of cool tea, urging him to drink. Slowly, the man sipped at the sweet beverage and then tried to sit up. The stardancer gently assisted him and asked, “Are you hungry, Ambassador?”

For just an instant, a frown appeared on the old man’s face, then he cocked his head as if listening to something. A shy smile crept over his face. “My fears wish me to say no, thank you. However, my stomach has other ideas.” Sheepishly, the ambassador asked in a small voice, “Would you do an old desert rat a favor, Honored One? Would you see that whatever meal you allow me, is prepared properly? I fear that I can not trust even my own servants.”

“Actually, Ambassador, I will be making your meals for the next few days, if that’s acceptable?” He nodded, smiling gratefully. “Good. Would a bowl of grain cereal satisfy you? I can prepare it over your hearth, right here.” Kyrian offered diffidently, rising to seek a page.

“Please,” Iften asked humbly.

Standing, she stuck her head out the door, catching the sight of the ambassador’s page. Quickly, she asked him to fetch her what she would need to make the meal. Once he was gone, she turned back toward the ambassador’s room, grateful to see the slowly returning color to the man’s unnaturally pale skin. Several candlemarks of sleep, as well as a few doses of an antidote, had done wonders for him.

Crackling wood from the fire filled the room with a peaceful sound. A light snore echoed from the bed, as the ambassador dozed. Quietly drawing a chair close to the fire, Kyrian waited for the page to return. When he did, she softly hung the pot from a hook in the fireplace and filled it with water.

Soon, she had a thick, filling cereal cooking. The smell must have woken the ambassador, because his voice broke into her concentration.

“Was it Kirthos?”

“Pardon me?” Kyrian asked, dishing up a bowl of the thick grain cereal and adding healthy dollops of butter, maple syrup and dark brown sugar.

“The poisoner – was it my brother-in-law Kirthos?” A coughing spell shook the ambassador’s frame. Kyrian set the bowl down and rushed to his side, easing him to a sitting position until the spasms stopped. Reaching for the teacup, she carefully spooned in a grayish-blue powder and stirred it swiftly.

“Drink this,” she advised the older man, who was breathing in short, uneven spurts.

Slowly, he drank, wincing at the now sour taste of the drink. “Thank you,” he said, laying back against his pillows and taking longer, more even breaths.

The stardancer inclined her head. “No, I don’t believe it was Kirthos… but the truth has yet to be fully determined. The queen has set Master Azhani to seeking the information. I imagine she is doing so right now.”

Another light spasm of coughing shook the old man’s body, causing her to frown in consternation. Krill should not affect his system like this.

“Ambassador, may I read you?” she asked formally.

A sad smile crossed the old man’s face. “Nah, nah, child. ‘Tis nothing. You don’t need to waste your talent on me – I know that my time is short. ‘Tis the sand-lung, not anything you can help.”

Desire to help the ailing man warred with the knowledge that what afflicted him was incurable. Sand-lung – a disease that many desert dwellers suffered from – was painful, but not disabling. Yet, the respiratory sickness was always fatal, stealing years from the ends of Y’skani lives. The desert dwellers were otherwise healthy, hearty folk. Seeing the swarthy ambassador suddenly made pale by wracking coughs saddened the stardancer deeply.

Iften relaxed against his cushions, watching the emotions that flickered openly across his caretaker’s face and felt something wonderful stir in his old heart. She actually cares that I’m dying? Astarus bless me – I feel storm blinded! Before accepting the mantle of ambassador for his tribe, Iften Windstorm had lived the solitary existence of a Desert Walker – one of the hearty few who prowled the dark sands of the Great Y’skan, seeking clues to the massive wasteland’s creation.

The Serpent clan was the largest single group of the Y’skani nomads. Because of that, the other tribes looked to them to represent the clans to the outside world. Iften had come to Y’Syria to broker trade agreements between the elves and the desert men, as well as to learn about the other cultures that dominated the seven kingdoms. He longed to return to the land of shifting sands, but knew he would probably never study the ruins that dotted the desert again.

Eyes glistening with moisture, Kyrian cleared her throat and said, “I may not be able to cure you, Ambassador, but surely I could ease your discomfort.” The young woman didn’t understand why she was so drawn to this old man, but she had served Astariu long enough to know that when people touch your heart, there was always a good reason for it.

The old man’s face crinkled up in a bright smile. Shaking his head, Iften said, “Child, you go ahead and do what you can – I’ll not say no to a little coddling from the Goddess’ Own.”

Gently, Kyrian laid her hands against the ambassador’s chest. Softly, she began to chant, calling upon the goddess to attend her and open the inner eyes that allowed her to see into the bodies of her patients. The room tunneled away, replaced by the energy streams that pulsed with the life of Iften Windstorm. Kyrian’s trained mind quickly scanned the flowing lines, easily picking out where the foreign substance of the krill poison had entered and struck the healthy energies, burning and blackening the pathways that lead to the older man’s cognitive functions. Easily, she called lances of cleaning energy into being and began attacking the krill, burning it out of the ambassador’s system.

Lulled by the soft chanting, Iften fell into a light doze, watching the flames in the hearth dance merrily.
%%%
Oily smoke from dozens of torches scattered about the large warehouse, settled about the casino’s patrons. Azhani slowly worked her way through the room, losing and winning enough coin to keep the bouncer’s suspicions down as she listened to the thread of conversation that flowed around her. It didn’t take long to learn which of the men and women in the establishment would, for the right price, fulfill her every wicked desire.

Not that I have any wicked, wanton needs, the dark haired warrior thought, half sorrowfully, half in amusement. Azhani’s gaze flicked from whore to whore, measuring them against the remembered beauty of her Ylera, and found them wanting. Against the memory of her new friend Kyrian’s cheerful smile and lusty laugh, even those memories began to pale.

When she realized that little bit of personal information, the warrior stood stock still, staring down at the handful of copper coins she just won from a dice game and tried not to shake. Guilt wracked her, pushing her to just chuck the money and go running to the nearest temple to beg the goddess’ forgiveness. Sanity intruded at the very last moment, smacking her upside the head in the form of a drunkard who vomited loudly, narrowly missing her boots.

Disgusted, the warrior pushed around the gathering crowd and headed for the back of the gambling area, where the real action was taking place. A small pit had been dug and then surrounded by a thick, short wall. Inside the pit, two warriors would square off, each trying to beat the other bloody – all for a pittance in coin.

Standing around the pit, were several men and women, all clamoring for their favored fighter to smash his or her opponent into the dirt. Moving in and out of this crowd like well-oiled snakes, were boys who gathered bets and paid off winners. On the other side of the crowd was a cluster of tables. Men and women of varying size, pitted their strength against others, betting on who could lay their opponent’s hand down first. Azhani skirted past the pit fight arena and calmly slipped into a chair recently vacated by a very disgruntled man. Seated across from her was a bear casually masquerading as a man.

Bare from the waist up, muscles bulging and gleaming with sweat and oil, Eskyn Dowser was one of Yannev’s best arm wrestlers. Once an oarsman in the High King’s navy, the dusky-skinned native of Y’skan had broken his back during a storm and was useless aboard a ship. Yannev Ironfoot had seen profit in the sailor’s disability, and had encouraged the young man to build his upper body muscles until he was as he now appeared.

Sailors and soldiers from all over, lost and won good money either betting on or wrestling against the muscled man. Eskyn, not being dim, used his own profits from the scheme, to become head of a well-known smuggling operation, working just outside of the law to bring in otherwise illegal goods.

All this Azhani knew from her time as Y’dan’s warleader, having dealt with Eskyn many times over the years. Though a crook, the big man had some morals – and he would be her best lead to discovering who was behind the ambassador’s poisoning.

The wrestler was in the middle of a long, lusty kiss and paused only long enough to grunt, “Be right with ya, bud,” before returning his attention to a scantily dressed woman who eagerly leaned in for more kisses.

“Don’t fall in,” Azhani purred, hiding a smile when Eskyn suddenly shoved the flustered girl away from him and pounded his fists on the table.

“Astarus’ balls! Azhani Rhu’len!” he exclaimed loudly, a huge smile spreading across his dark skinned face. He looked up at the woman he had been kissing and said, “Why don’t you grab us a couple of beers, hon? And tell Yanny that I’m off for a while – I need to refuel.”

“You want something to eat, Essie?” the woman asked, running her fingers lightly over his bald head.

A deep, rumbling chuckle emerged from the man’s chest and he nodded. “Yeah, I think I’d like that – breaking bread with the former warleader of Y’dan isn’t something I do every day.”

“Bad news travels faster than Astarus’ hounds, old friend,” Azhani said, settling into her chair and sighing heavily.

“Ah, but good news flies on the wings of owldragons, no? Whispers come to me that our fair queen knows quality when she sees it.” The big man leaned back in his chair, cracking his neck and shoulders loudly.

Shrugging nonchalantly, Azhani said, “Well, I’m not exactly claiming poverty at the moment.”

“Ah, good. I am pleased to hear that.” He smiled at her, then turned his brilliant white smile up at his lady friend when she delivered a large tray of food and beer. “Beautiful, my sweet. Thank you. Why don’t you go and enjoy the bard, my dear?” he suggested, giving the woman a push in the direction of a shadowed stage. When she had gone, Eskyn lifted his mug of ale and said, “Now then, what is it I can do for my old friend? Unless you have brought the queen’s guard here to arrest me?” He made a show of peering into darkened corners while the warrior rolled her eyes. “Ah, but I do not see any trees about,” he said, using the docksider nickname for the warriors who served as the city guard.

“Krill, Eskyn, I need to know where I can find it,” the warrior said, not wasting any more time.

Surprised, the smuggler rolled his chair away from the table and over to Azhani’s side. A massive hand reached out to brush the skin of the warrior’s face before she could flinch away. “Hmm, not sick, no,” he said, searching her eyes briefly before adding, “and ye’ve not gone daft.”

“I’m not sick and I’m not crazy, Es – I just need some information.” Blue eyes glittered in the dim light. “I take it personally when my friends become ill,” she added, hoping that he would think she was on a personal vendetta.

Eskyn rolled his chair back to his side of the table, marveling again at the ingenuity of the gnomes his partner had hired. The chair was a simple construct. Sturdy and well built, it had two large and two small wheels that allowed him a freedom of movement he though he had lost forever when the mast had snapped and crashed into his oar box, pinning him to the deck.

A particularly loud cheer from the crowd around the pit arena gave him the moment he needed to gather his thoughts. Eskyn’s conscience and years serving in the navy urged him to spill all he knew about the seedy individuals that controlled the admittedly small drug trade in Y’Syr, but his hard-earned business sense cautioned him to silence. Earning the enmity of any one of those men and women would make doing his business that much harder.

The noise level faded down to its normal roar. Grasping his cooled sandwich, Eskyn took a big bite, chewing and swallowing slowly.

Azhani tapped her foot, waiting for the big man to wrestle his conscience into submission. It was like this every time – the dance the two played out echoed back to the very first time a young desert rat and an equally young landlubber had crossed paths at an Y’maran dock.

Finally, Eskyn said, “What’s in it for me?”

“Funds or favors?” Azhani offered, knowing the man’s greatest weaknesses.

Dark brown eyes scanned the warrior from head to toe. One thick brow rose challengingly. “Favors? Are you finally admitting that you find me irresistible, Azhani?”

“In your worst nightmares, Es,” the warrior replied, leaning forward, her glittering blue eyes boring into his face. “Look, I know that you’ve got a shipment coming in tomorrow – what if I could convince the trees to stay in their forest, instead of shading the lake?” It was a bluff – her position in Lyssera’s household was tenuous and undefined at best and no better than that of the commonest of servants at worst.

Eskyn put his elbows on the table and leaned his chin on his fists. “You’re lying,” he said without preamble. “You could no more tell an owldragon not to shit on a rock, as send the trees to leaf. Show me the color of your money, or show me your backside.”

A pouch heavy with coin appeared on the table. Eskyn reached for it, but was stopped by a powerful hand grasping his wrist.

“This one, and two more if your information pays out,” Azhani said, her voice steely with determination.

She released him and he gathered up the pouch, mentally tallying its contents. Azhani Rhu’len had yet to stiff him; he trusted her not to start now. The leather bag vanished under the table, sequestered in a specially built compartment in his chair.

“All right, this is what I know,” he began carefully, telling her as much as he knew about the city’s drug trade.
%%%
When the big man had finished his low voiced report, Azhani closed her eyes and rubbed her forehead. What a goddess damned mess, she thought, standing and stretching to work out the kinks that sitting for over a candlemark in one position had put in her back.

Clasping Eskyn’s hand, she said, “Thanks, Es. I won’t forget this.”

The dusky skinned man laughed, covering her hand with his huge paw. “Nah, nah, forget it or not, just remember to be sending me my gold!”

“If I don’t, I’m sure you’ll be happy to send me a reminder, old friend,” Azhani said, smiling at the smuggler.

“Oh, aye. If’n your mem’ry heads the way of shark bait, I’ll not be slack-sailed in gaffing you,” he said, falling into the cant of his sailing days.

“Fash not, board man, ye’ll have yer butter,” she replied, using the same style of speech, though she spoke with a different accent.

Nodding in approval, Eskyn let the warrior’s hand go. “Good hunting, my friend,” he said as she turned to leave the casino.

Only the die-hard gamblers remained – the rest had won or lost what they could and had gone home. Azhani slowly made her way through the thinning crowds, knowing that it had to be approaching dawn.

Gray light filled the sky, promising a foggy dawn. Azhani paid Skye and watched as the urchin scrambled off toward the docks. I wish she would let me find a place for her and her friends… Wearily, Azhani began the long trudge back to the city, and the sprawling tree house that Queen Lyssera called home.
~Chapter Twenty-Five~
Arriving at Oakheart at pre-dawn, did nothing to improve Azhani’s standing within the queen’s court. Already, murmurs were flying around the packed chamber, causing Lyssera to briefly rub her eyes. Sending a quick prayer to Astarus, who looked after fools and their errands, she hoped that whatever had caused her weaponsmaster to stay out so late, would be worth the candlemarks of gossip she would have to endure. Lyssera stifled a sigh as yet another rumor reached her ears.

“Did you hear, my queen? Master Azhani has been out howling at the moon!” a wide-eyed merchant from the outer provinces whispered in shock.

Lyssera ignored him. According to Allyndev, the warrior was sleeping. Azhani had not answered her door when the young man had knocked to inquire after her health.

Kyrian was still with Ambassador Iften, making sure that there were no other ill effects from the krill poisoning. Without any new information, Lyssera had to deal with her court and her advisors alone. During the morning session, she easily dismissed their concerns by informing them that she had someone investigating the matter of Ambassador Iften’s poisoning. After talking amongst themselves, it was agreed by the court and council that she had done the right thing.

Of course they agreed. Lyssera’s thoughts were tinged with disgust. They don’t have to pay for it. As Lyssera’s weaponsmaster, Azhani earned a retainer. It was small, but more than enough to provide the warrior with the occasional frippery. Essentials, such as food, shelter and clothing were free. Before hunting for snakes in Y’Syr’s garden, Azhani had asked for and received extra funds.

Understanding the need to grease the wheels of information, Lyssera had willingly given the warrior access to some of her personal fortune. Now, she was understandably anxious to discover what her money had bought. Already, the morning’s gossip had brought news of three men in the Y’Tolan ambassador’s party who had fallen sick, though their ills were quickly proven to be weather related and not due to krill. I need to find the guilty parties quickly, before there’s a panic. The safety of Oakheart Manor is legendary, and I will not allow some skulking bastard to destroy that!

One of the courtiers leaned over to whisper some juicy bit of gossip but quickly changed his mind when he saw the expression that crossed the queen’s face. The count was a rumormonger, but he liked his head where it rested – decorating a pike was not something he had planned in his near future. Shuddering, the man turned to another one of the ever-present minor nobles, praying that whoever had put that look on Queen Lyssera’s face was not someone he knew.
%%%
Azhani was not asleep. Two guards standing in front of the door that led to Baron Draygil Var’s suite, were quite unaware that perched precariously above them, was the former warleader of Y’dan. The information that she had purchased from the smuggler Eskyn, led her to this minor noble from the southeastern town of Tarin. Two years ago, Baron Var’s father had died, leaving him a tumbled down mansion and a pile of debt. To pay the debt, what little monies there were left in the family treasury, went into a steadily thriving export business. Salted beef, cured leather and glue was purchased in Y’Nor cheaply and sold in Y’skan at tremendously inflated rates.

A little bit of discussion with the pages for both the Y’skani and the Y’Noran delegations, had given Azhani all the information she needed. One of the main goals of the Y’skani delegation was to cement a trade agreement with the plains people. Queen Lyssera had generously offered her services as a moderator, and over the last few months, had spent candlemarks at the treaty table, hammering out a mutually beneficial agreement.

The two kingdoms had dickered incessantly over concessions and as yet, they had not signed any documents. If those negotiations came to fruition, both kingdoms would reap the rewards. Baron Var, however, would be paupered.

Deeply in debt to the Cabal, Var’s options were limited. Over the course of the day, Azhani had followed a trail of clues, learning that the nobleman received many visitors from the infamous House. Ostensibly, they met for trade matters, but even men who are experts at misleading the law can make mistakes.

A wicked smile curved Azhani’s lips. No one paid any attention to the pages – the young boys and girls who were employed by the crown as an easy means of delivering messages around the ancestral home of Y’Syr’s nobility. Hearing and seeing everything in their duties, pages were never shy of sharing what they learned, for the right price, and Azhani was happy to take advantage of that.

There was no love lost between Baron Var and the page that had been assigned to serve him, and the boy quickly told Azhani all he knew of the young noble’s dealings with the House of Cabal. What she heard, caused the warrior to clench her hands into fists several times before she gave the boy a pocketful of silver and sent him off to the kitchens for a treat.

Now, she waited, poised to gather the rest of the information she would need to prove that Baron Draygil Var was a traitor. From her perch, Azhani watched silently as the nobleman exited the room, stopping only to share a crude joke with one of his guards before heading off to court. As soon as his men settled against the door, she dropped.

“Hello lads,” she purred, acting swiftly. Her hands shot out, grabbing both men by the collar and slamming their heads together with a resounding thud. Limply, they slid to the ground. Working fast, Azhani tied their hands together with a bit of leather thong and then dragged them into the baron’s rooms. Later, the queen’s guard could return and determine if Var’s men were involved in his crimes.

Seeking concrete evidence of Var’s crimes, she hurriedly searched the rooms. Minutes later, she found it, hidden between the mattresses of the baron’s bed. The lock on the baron’s cell door was a vial, not much larger than an arrowhead which was filled with a thick, grayish dust that smelled like citrus and tasted like soap.

Carefully, Azhani slipped the dangerous substance into a pouch at her hip. A bit more judicious searching turned up even more evidence – a signet ring from the House of Cabal, given only to those members of society who joined their criminal organization. Wrapped around the ring was a scrap of parchment with the words, ~The master is pleased with your efforts, Var. To complete your work – see that the old sand worm does not sign the treaty, and your debt is forgiven.~ written in a spidery, delicate script.

Just before she left the room, Azhani added another carefully applied thump to the heads of Var’s guards and then headed for Lyssera’s court. A brilliantly cheerful grin appeared and she began to whistle as she walked down the halls. Today was going to be so much fun!
%%%
The rumors were flying fast and furious when Kyrian finally made an appearance in the large chamber that served as the queen’s court. Lyssera, seated in a rigidly uncomfortable position on her throne, stood and walked down to greet the red-robed stardancer.

“My posterior thanks you for your timely arrival, good stardancer,” the queen muttered softly as she smiled politely at the men and women lining the sides of the aisle.

“It’s always a pleasure to serve your majesty,” Kyrian replied just as softly, smiling gently.

“And how is the good ambassador?” Lyssera asked in a normal voice?

The stardancer’s smile broadened. “He is well, your majesty – cranky and irritable and demanding that he be allowed to eat real cow, instead of just the drippings.”

Lyssera chuckled, her merry laugh infecting the stardancer until she too, was laughing. Returning to the throne’s dais, each woman took her accustomed spot – Kyrian on a low chair that sat to the queen’s side and Lyssera on the elaborately carved yet far less comfortable throne.

“I have had a letter from King Padreg,” Lyssera said conversationally.

Kyrian tilted her head interestedly.

“He and his lady send their love to you and Azhani. Padreg also wishes you to remind Azhani of their deal.” The queen’s dark golden eyes twinkled merrily.

Two amber colored eyebrows rose in confusion. “Deal? Oh boy, I wish Azhani would tell me these things. What deal?”

Shaking her head, Lyssera shrugged and said, “I haven’t the faintest clue. Ask the warrior yourself, she’s here.”

Striding up the red carpet toward the queen’s throne was the warrior, a jaunty grin on her face and whistling an infectious tune. Effortlessly sinking to one knee as she reached the foot of Lyssera’s throne, Azhani announced, “I have completed my task, my Queen.”

The crowd hushed as her words penetrated the fog of conversation. Stillness filled the room as everyone waited for the queen’s reply.

Inclining her head, Lyssera regally said, “By all means, my friend, share your findings. Tell us who slithers in our midst, seeking to destroy Oakheart’s peace.”

Rising, the warrior lifted her head and in a clear voice said, “After much investigation, I have determined that the poisoner of the good Ambassador Iften was Baron Draygil Var.”

A collective gasp echoed off the ceiling.

“Nonsense! She spouts lies, my queen!” The baron in question pushed his way to the throne, indignation bristling from every pore.

Calmly, Azhani turned to face the small-statured elven man, one eyebrow raised in curiosity. “If it is lies that I speak, my lord baron, tell then why it is that I discovered these in your quarters?” From the pouch at her belt, Azhani produced the vial of poison, the signet ring and the note.

Baron Var went white, fear and rage flickering across his face before sputtering, “You didn’t find that in my room, you planted it! I know who the poisoner is my queen – it’s this scum you’ve hired, Azhani Rhu’len. King Arris was right to call her Oathbreaker!” Disgusted, he sneered, “I am shamed that you allowed such a one into your household.”

The scar on Azhani’s face twitched as she ground her teeth, but she kept silent, waiting for Lyssera to speak.

The queen did not disappoint. Rising from her throne, she stepped gracefully out onto the carpet and circled the baron and the warrior. One elegant hand came up to cup her chin.

Attentions fully held by the drama playing out before them, the nobles were pinned to their seats as the queen’s eyes scanned the court.

“Baron Var, who I hire is none of your concern; however, your opinion is noted,” she said icily. “Azhani, your service to me thus far has been unimpeachable and all know that Theodan of Y’dan held you in the highest regard. Hence, I trust that your information is fairly gathered, but my court may not be so swayed by your reputation. Therefore, I ask, do you have any further proof of the baron’s guilt?” Not that Lyssera truly needed any more proof; Var’s greed, as well as his opposition to the Y’Nor/Y’skan treaty, was well known.

“I-“ Azhani started to reply when she was interrupted.

“Why don’t we ask the goddess to verify the truth?” Kyrian stepped forward, her words echoing through the room. Smiling sweetly at the fuming baron, she said, “I am sure that Starseeker Vashyra would be happy to oblige you, my queen.” The approving warmth in Azhani’s eyes made every word she spoke worthwhile to Kyrian, who was beginning to shake under the scrutiny of the hundreds of nobles that were attached to Lyssera’s court.

“An excellent suggestion, Stardancer Kyrian,” Lyssera praised, nodding at a page who scurried off to find the priest of Astariu who was assigned to the Y’Syran court.

Several tense minutes passed while Azhani and Baron Var stared each other down. The warrior wore an expression of unconcerned boredom while the baron struggled to keep his hands at his sides, away from the jewel-hilted dagger that rested against his left hip. Nervous chatter flitted from one end of the chamber to the other, as the nobles, growing bored by the hard silence, began to quietly whisper to each other.

Indifferently turning away from the fuming baron, Azhani casually bumped her elbow into Kyrian’s arm. The stardancer looked up, surprised, but then smiled at her friend.

“Hey,” the warrior whispered, her voice barely carrying beyond the stardancer’s ears. “Want to get something to eat after the manure hits the crowd?”

“Sounds good to me, tall, dark and dangerous. You can tell me what the hell you promised Padreg, while we eat,” Kyrian whispered back.

What I promised Padreg? Huh? Then it hit her. Oh shit! He must have told her about the midwinter joining. What the hell am I supposed to say? “Oh, it’s nothing, Kyr. Padreg just wants us to get married with him and Elisira during Winterfest?” Oh yeah, that would go over like a pig in a barrel.

Whatcha so freaked about, warrior? Telling Kyrian about your promise, or admitting that you find the idea of marrying her – intriguing? A mischievous internal voice prodded.

Azhani wanted to close her eyes and thump her head against the nearest wall, but she didn’t. No, you rutting satyr! I love Ylera! She is the only one I will ever love! The words felt strangely hollow, though.

The opening double doors at the end of the hall, saved her from having to argue further with her conscience. Starseeker Vashyra swept down the aisle, gathering all eyes to her tall, beautiful form. Taller than Azhani, but willow switch thin, with long, silver-touched black hair that flowed almost to the floor, the priest of Astariu was a formidable sight in her azure silk robes. A star tattoo emblazoned on her forehead, proclaimed her status as a starseeker. Vashyra was one of the goddess’ chosen intermediaries, and no one would dare call her word into question.

When she reached the small group clustered at the edge of the dais where Lyssera’s throne sat, Vashyra inclined her head and said, “I understand I am needed, your majesty?”

“Starseeker, I am pleased that you were able to join us so quickly,” Lyssera said, ascending the steps to her throne and seating herself in the great chair. “We have a matter of law before us that needs the goddess’ touch to clear up. Are you willing to aid us?”

“Of course, my queen. I am always proud to share Astariu’s gifts with the people of Y’Syr. What is it I may assist you with?” the priest asked serenely, her violet eyes looking from Azhani, to Kyrian, to the baron and back to the queen.

The room quieted down as the nobles all strained to watch and listen. Kyrian felt sweat break out on her palms and would have turned and run from the room if Azhani had not leaned over and whispered, “Hey, look at Var – I think he’s about to piss on his fancy velvet shoes.”

Covering her giggles with a sneeze, Kyrian looked at the queen and said, “I beg your pardon, my queen.”

Lyssera waved her hand as if it were nothing and said, “Starseeker, the issue is plainly thus: Master Azhani Rhu’len has accused Baron Draygil Var of poisoning Ambassador Iften Windstorm with krill dust. To prove her claims, she has produced a bottle of the poison, a signet ring marked with the seal of the House of Cabal and a note of ominous tidings. Baron Var has, in return, denounced Master Azhani as an Oathbreaker and claims that she has falsely accused him of this crime. I would ask that you intercede, calling upon your talents as a starseeker and bringer of truth.”

“It shall be as you have asked,” the priest calmly said, turning to take the evidence from the warrior.

“No! I refuse to submit to this charade! My queen, you must see that you have been placed under a cruel spell by this vile beast that has been allowed to live in your home!” Baron Var exclaimed, causing the crowd to murmur and mutter excitedly.

Around the room, nobles whispered, “It’s true. Didn’t she betray her own king? Did we not see the bodies of the slain burn in a weeklong bonfire just on the other side of the great Banner Lake? Was she not the one responsible for the death of the queen’s beloved twin, Ylera?”

“Silence!” Lyssera was standing, anger pouring off of her in waves. “You will accept the judgment of Starseeker Vashyra, or you will spend time in the dungeons!”

The creaking of the old manor’s walls was the only sound heard as the hall fell silent. Baron Var snapped his mouth shut and backed away from the dais, while the blue robed priest began to chant.

The bottle, the ring and the parchment took on a hazy, golden glow and slowly rose from Vashyra’s hand as she chanted, hovering in the air momentarily before shooting out and impacting Var in the chest. Unconsciously, he caught the items, dropping them hastily when he realized what his actions signaled.

Snarling, “This is your fault, you bitch,” he drew his jeweled dagger and lunged for Azhani, stabbing her deeply in the gut. As he shoved the blade in, the nobleman threw down a mirror, shattering it. “Master,” he cried, twisting his dagger viciously, “I need you!” The warrior’s blood spurted out over Var’s hand, spattering the shards of glass littering the floor.

Shocked by the man’s desperate attack, Azhani was unable to deflect the blow, staggering back into Kyrian, who caught the warrior and quickly lowered her to the ground. The stardancer’s hand went immediately to her baton, but indecision gripped her conscience. Should she attack the gibbering man who was laughing madly and waving his bloody dagger at anyone who dared to come close, including the queen, or should she stay by Azhani’s side and attempt to staunch the blood that flowed freely from the horrible wound in her belly?

The decision was torn from her as the man launched himself at Lyssera, only to be buffeted back by a wave of power from Starseeker Vashyra. Belatedly, Kyrian gripped her baton, casting a glance down at Azhani, who was weakly trying to sit.

“Baron Draygil Var, you are hereby declared guilty of treason. For this act, you shall be banished. Furthermore, you are charged and found guilty of the crime of attacking one of the Queen’s Guard, for this crime, you shall die.” Lyssera’s voice, cold and harsh, rang out through the court’s chamber.

Draygil laughed, drool and spittle flying from his mouth to spatter against Kyrian’s robes. “You think I care about your charges, Queen Listless? Your laws mean nothing to me, bitch, for I am of the Cabal. Master, I have done it. I have struck down your hated enemy!” he called out, almost pleadingly. “Come see, Master. See what I have done for you!” Madly, the baron slashed his blood-soaked blade across his own arm and began to sing a disturbing, off key melody. As he chanted, his blood dripped down his arm and onto the ground. Mingling with the warrior’s blood, it began to glow an evil reddish color.

Behind him, the air began to fill with a thick, grayish haze. Starseeker Vashyra’s chant changed and the sound of the two spellcaster’s chanting merged into a disharmonic music that caused everyone who could hear it to wince in pain. Golden beams of energy crackled at the edges of the fog, attempting to clear it, but the power behind the baron’s spell was strong. A face appeared in the mist, its lips moving in unheard words. Suddenly, the words became audible as the shadowy form of a man stepped out of the mist and into the throne room.

“Draygil you fool, I told you never to use that spell! What is it that you –“ the speaker’s words faded off when he noticed the crowd surrounding his servant. The sorcerer’s body flickered, fading in and out as golden arcs of lightening coruscated around him. Turning, he spotted Starseeker Vashyra. Eyes narrowing, he chanted a few guttural words and pointed, knocking the priest back and halting her spells.

Azhani Rhu’len staggered to her feet, crying out, “You!” and grabbing for her dagger. Her actions caused fresh blood to pour from her wound, sending the warrior reeling to her knees in pain.

Hollow, mirthless laughter followed. “Now that is exactly how I like to see the children of my enemies, Daughter of Rhu’len. Tell me,” he sneered, “How does it feel to grovel in the dirt?” Almost willing to forgive his puppet the transgression of summoning him to the Y’Syran throne room, Kasyrin Darkchilde smiled evilly. Ever since the Cabalian mage and Azhani’s father had first fought, he had longed to see this woman kneel before him.

Revenge truly was a dish best served ice cold. Are you rotting in hell yet, DaCoure? he thought nastily, feeling all over again the shame and anguish of his original defeat at the hands of Rhu’len DaCoure. I told you that day, that you would fail, and I was right. Look at me now, Rhu’len DaCoure. Look at me and weep for the loss of your House!

Hatred suffusing every line of the warrior’s body, Azhani dug down into her reserves and stood, cupping one hand protectively over her wounded abdomen. “One measly, half-assed cut from any of your flunkies, will never be enough to put me in the dirt, Darkchilde,” she said, with her voice grating through clenched teeth. A small, warm hand at her back, as well as soft, almost voiceless singing gave the warrior the courage to drop her hand. Clean, bright yellow energy wrapped around her body, encasing her in the healing spell of Astariu’s Own.

Kasyrin roared; his revenge thwarted. “Demons take you, spawn of DaCoure!” A rapid stream of harsh syllables followed and the mage’s hands lit with an ominously red glow.

“Darkchilde!” Starseeker Vashyra shouted, distracting the sorcerer. The star emblazoned on her brow pulsed with a brilliant golden light. “Begone, pawn of Hell,” she commanded, waving her hands dismissively.

A single amber beam of force erupted from the priest’s star-shaped tattoo and flew across the room, twisting into a cyclone before striking the ghost-like form of the mage. He reeled back, stumbling under the buffeting force of the priest’s psychic blow. Dark gray tendrils of slithering energy emerged from the swirling mists of the portal and caught the sorcerer. Ugly yellowish green sparks of energy began to twist through the crimson of Darkchilde’s hands.

“Get ye hence!” Vashyra’s voice rose to a piercing shriek, causing the cyclone of golden energy to strike once again.

Teetering at the edge of his portal, Kasyrin brought his hands out to release the spell, when something distracted him.

Flying through the air in a graceful arc, was Kyrian’s baton. Boiling red energy lanced out and knocked it aside, but that was all the time Vashyra needed to redouble her efforts to push Darkchilde through the gateway.

With a distinctive, sucking pop, the window closed, preventing the evil mage from unleashing any further magicks upon the Y’Syran court.

“Damn. Hate it when that happens,” Azhani commented wryly, slumping as pain washed over her body.

Gold-tinged purple eyes met the warrior’s weary blue gaze. “Azhani Rhu’len, hear the words of the goddess and heed them well,” Vashyra’s normally sweet voice had changed to something incredibly ethereal and impossibly familiar.

“The breaking is at hand. Upon the day when the sun stands still and the stars no longer spin with time, a battle will rage. Three chosen by fate shall unite to face the Beast. The Blade, the Heart and the Stringless Puppet shall cross paths. Upon that meeting, the Beast shall rise to seek his place. Stand well against the storm, and time shall sing of thy glory into the mists of forever. Fall, and all will blacken and fade.” At the end of her speech, Vashyra’s eyes rolled up into her head and she collapsed.

“Looks like a plan to me,” Azhani muttered as her knees started to give out. “Ow,” she added as Kyrian caught her and laid her on the carpet.

“Shh, I’ll take care of you, my friend,” the stardancer murmured, stroking her fingers through the warrior’s dark hair.

Smiling weakly, Azhani hazily mumbled, “I know you will.” The warrior’s voice faded away as she passed out.
~Chapter Twenty-Six~
Azhani opened her eyes and groaned weakly. Her side ached fiercely and her bladder was dangerously full. What happened? she thought blearily, yawning and blinking moisture from her eyes. As she came awake, memory returned. Oh yeah, traitors and sorcerers and stabbings, oh my!

“Ugh,” she croaked, trying to sit up.

The motion woke Kyrian, who had passed out in a chair next to the warrior’s bed. Rubbing her face, the stardancer reached for her friend, helping her to sit. “Sorry,” she said sleepily. “Must’ve fallen asleep.”

“S’okay, just need to find the privy,” Azhani said, yawning again. “Then you can go find your own bed. Chair’s not that soft.”

Staggering to her feet, Kyrian lifted Azhani up and helped her to stand. “Can’t. Gotta stay here with you, warrior. Queen’s orders.”

Azhani snorted. “I can take care of myself, Kyr. I don’t need a nurse-Ow!” A startled oath of pain was forced from the warrior when she tried to move too quickly toward the water closet. “Damn. I hate being injured,” she growled.

“It’s getting to be a routine with us, isn’t it, Azhi?” Kyrian said, making sure that the warrior had finally gotten positioned and then turning away. “You get broken and I fix you.”

“Hah-hah, very funny, Kyrian,” the warrior griped. “Ah gods, is there anything to drink in this room? I feel like I ate a sheep, wool and all.”

Kyrian laughed. “Yeah, there’s lots of water, my friend. I made sure of it.” The stardancer went over to the bed and poured a cup of water for the warrior and set it on the bedside table.

After she had been helped back to the bed, Azhani gratefully drank the water. “Thanks. Now, I suppose I get to have something foul tasting and good for me, right?” Lines of pain shadowed her face as she spoke.

“Oh yes, it’s time for your medicine, my friend,” Kyrian said, lifting a gently steaming pot from the fire. Expertly, she mixed a cup of pungent-smelling tea and handed it over to the grimacing warrior.

Closing her eyes, Azhani drank it down as fast as she could. “Gah!” She shuddered. “Do I get my spoonful of honey now?”

“Baby,” Kyrian said, her voice filled with warm amusement. “Here, open wide,” she put a spoon in the warrior’s mouth.

“Mm. Baby I might be, Kyr, but at least I don’t have to wake up with medicine mouth!” The warrior yawned. “Now, since you’re not going to leave me to sleep in peace, why don’t you at least climb in bed with me? It’s certainly large enough and I know you don’t kick in your sleep.”

“All right, if you insist,” Kyrian said, unbuckling her belt and shucking her stardancer’s robes. Underneath, the young woman was wearing a simple knee-length tunic, which was more than enough to sleep in.

The stardancer drank a cup of water and then slid into the bed on the other side of the warrior. Yawning, she said, “Goodnight.”

“Night,” Azhani murmured sleepily.

Kyrian dropped off to sleep almost immediately, but the warrior lay there, staring at the ceiling and listening to her friend’s deep, even breathing.

Go to sleep, warrior, she told herself, but her eyes wouldn’t shut. Lying just inches away, so close that she could feel the stardancer’s heat, was the woman who had grown from a nuisance into her best friend.

Ah goddess, what am I doing to myself? She’s just a friend. Why am I suddenly so aware of her? The stardancer turned in her sleep, her hand reaching out and wrapping around Azhani’s arm in a light, comforting embrace.

“Astariu,” Azhani whispered, shocked by the intense wave of desire that radiated outward from the point of contact. She closed her eyes, willing a vision of Ylera’s dead, battered body to appear. All she got was a hazy memory, tinged with sadness and disgust, but lacking the emotional impact that thoughts of her elven lover usually brought.

What the hell? Every muscle in her body went taut with the strain of staying under the covers. Instinct yelled at her to get up, to get out of the bed and away from the woman who was stealing her hatred, and yet she couldn’t move. I can’t blame Kyrian, she thought sadly as a tear leaked out of her eyes. I have to go on. I know this. I have to let go of the past.

She sniffled softly and wiped her nose on her sleeve. It’s so hard, though. She looked at her peacefully sleeping friend and smiled mournfully. I guess I’m just going to have to start getting used to noticing that my best friend is beautiful.

Reaching out, she brushed a stray lock of amber colored hair out of Kyrian’s face. And that she touches parts of my heart that I thought had died.

A gentle, sweet smile spread across Kyrian’s face, causing the warrior to wonder what dreams danced in the stardancer’s sleep.
%%%
Waking up wrapped in Azhani’s arms, was like scratching a bothersome itch for Kyrian. It felt wonderful and yet she knew there would be a painful aftermath. It was bliss to feel the softness of the warrior’s breath on her neck and at the same time, it made the stardancer feel sick knowing how much pleasure she was deriving from the gentle contact.

Do I love her? Why yes, my queen, I’m so in love with Azhani that I’ll make do with whatever scraps of emotion she’ll give me. Is that what you wanted to hear?

Kyrian was fairly certain that was not what Lyssera was asking. Sighing, the stardancer disengaged herself from Azhani’s embrace and rolled out of the warm bed. The room was temperate, but the heat of the warrior’s skin told her that a fire would be necessary. Azhani’s wound was mildly infected, something Kyrian hoped to address later that day.

Once the fire was stoked, she exited the room and headed for the kitchens, seeking breakfast. Pausing in the doorway, she looked back at the sleeping woman and burned the sight into her heart. In her sleep, the warrior had rolled over and grabbed Kyrian’s pillow, pulling it to her and cuddling it like she had cradled the stardancer only moments before.
%%%
While Azhani recovered, Lyssera spent time closeted with several of her courtiers. Surprisingly, a few of the nobles had recognized the face of Kasyrin Darkchilde as that of a well-known silk and spice merchant from Y’skan. Going by the name of Kesryn Oswyne, the sorcerer had ingratiated himself to the wealthy and elite of all seven kingdoms with gifts of rare spices and silks from the remote desert tribes.

Those nobles who became a part of Lord Oswyne’s “favored” circle, soon found that the merchant would pay handsomely for seemingly small favors. A waved fee here, an extra set of transport documents there, and no one went away from the deal unhappy. As quickly as she could, the elven queen began to interview those that were identified as Kesryn’s “chosen”, gathering what information she could about those supposed favors. Most of what she learned was harmless graft, but there were a few clues that pointed the way to a darker, more sinister plan by the sorcerer.

That plan remained a mystery to the queen and her advisors. This made Lyssera chafe and she wanted Azhani to heal as fast as she could, though she knew that Stardancer Kyrian would do all she was able to help the warrior recover. Using the warrior’s down time to her advantage, the queen spent candlemarks talking to her about Kasyrin, learning all she could about the mage.

Azhani knew very little, but what she did know she gladly shared. Thirty years ago, Kasyrin had risen through the ranks of the Cabal, starting as a street thief and working his way up to becoming an assassin and finally a sorcerer. Using his knowledge and skills, he challenged the Old Man, the nebulous leader of the House of Cabal. Very few people alive knew the Old Man’s true identity, and he used his power to keep it that way.

Immediately, the shadowy leader recognized Darkchilde’s threat and sought to have him eliminated. Calling on the skills of his best intriguers, the Old Man snared Rhu’len DaCoure, by then a captain in Theodan’s army, into a web designed to destroy the sorcerer. Through a trail of clues, rumors and half-truths, Rhu’len was led to believe that Kasyrin was responsible for the death of his beloved Ashiani.

The destruction of Kasyrin Darkchilde became one of the foremost goals in Rhu’len DaCoure’s life. His single-minded determination impressed many, scared some and gained the enmity of the Cabalian sorcerer. Every time Kasyrin attempted to gain a foothold in Y’dan, Rhu’len was there to stop him.

After several years of cat and mouse, it came down to a combat of arms. With his magical powers drained away by a starseeker, Kasyrin had to face Rhu’len with only a blade. The battle was frighteningly short. Rhu’len DaCoure was one of the best swordsmen of his time, and Kasyrin, though fair with a blade, was no match for him. As he lay dying, Darkchilde vowed revenge. Laughing, Rhu’len turned away, leaving the sorcerer to bleed to death.

It was only after Kasyrin’s death that Rhu’len learned the truth. The mage had never been responsible for Ashiani’s death – it had all been a product of the Old Man’s machinations. Rhu’len continued to rise within Theodan’s army, but he never forgot the lesson he learned. While he was alive, the Cabal found it very difficult to operate within the borders of Y’dan.

The events following Azhani’s wounding, proved that Kasyrin had not died, however, and this left the queen feeling very chilled. Obviously, the mage had retreated into the shadows, rebuilding his power base and planning his revenge. That he answered his servant’s call, revealing his identity, meant nothing good.

As Azhani and the queen talked, Kyrian came in to change the dressing on the warrior’s wound. Watching the two women interact, Lyssera realized that it was going to take an overt act to get them to acknowledge their feelings. She would have to convince Azhani to take a chance at love one more time. Kyrian’s emotions were easily read, though the stardancer tried hard to conceal them. The warrior’s feelings were more difficult to see, but careful observation revealed that they were there.

Confusion and longing flickered in Azhani’s eyes when she looked at Kyrian. The stardancer seemed oblivious to this and the warrior was quick to look away from her friend’s face. Yes, Lyssera decided, it was time to speak. Quietly, she waited for Kyrian to finish, wanting to talk to Azhani alone.

Meddler, she thought fondly. But it would be worth it, if some happiness arose from it.

“Thank you,” Azhani said quietly as Kyrian changed the dressing. “It’s almost healed, you know.”

A wry half grin twitched on Kyrian’s lips. “Yes, I know. This is what I do, you know. Now shush, and let me work, Azhi.”

Azhani chuckled and stretched her arms above her head, giving the stardancer plenty of room to work. “I’m just grateful for the quick healing you did back in the throne room, Kyr. I was about to fall down and kiss that damn mage’s ghostly boots.”

“I wish I could have been more thorough. What if you’d had to fight him?” Kyrian asked, wrinkling her brow comically as she tickled the warrior’s belly before pulling the tunic down over the freshly bandaged spot.

Squirming away from her friend’s agile fingers, Azhani replied, “Then I’d have tossed you at him first, so I could make a run for it!”

“Great, leave me to do all the heavy fighting while you run off into the woods like some demented rabbit. Thanks, but no thanks, Azhi. You’re the tall, dark and dangerous one, remember? I’m just the two-copper sidekick who follows you around like a mooncalf.” And if you knew how close to the real truth that was, you’d probably run faster than that rabbit I mentioned.

“I guess I’d just have to rescue you again, wouldn’t I, healer?” Azhani joked as she pushed herself up on the pillows. Ah gods, but it feels so good to have a friend like Kyr. How many other people would be willing to be a cranky warrior’s rag doll at night? Since the stabbing, the stardancer had stayed in the warrior’s room, rather than returning to her own quarters. The arrangement worked out nicely, giving Azhani a nighttime caretaker she trusted and Kyrian the reassurance that the warrior would not try to get up and hunt down Kasyrin Darkchilde in the middle of the night.

It was such a nice setup that Azhani regretted knowing that the day was soon approaching when Kyrian would move back to her room down the hall. The distance, though short, would mean a return of their roles as warrior and stardancer, leaving the easiness of their friendship to live only behind closed doors. Azhani wasn’t sure she could let that go, not now, not after she had allowed Kyrian to climb so far inside her heart.

And just when did that happen? How did you go from wishing only to see the death of Ylera’s killer, to staring at the golden highlights in your best friend’s hair? Oh, beloved, am I right to want to move on? Can I let you go?

“Good answer,” Kyrian praised, standing up and brushing her hands on her robe. “If you’ll excuse me, I need to see to Ambassador Iften.” She rolled her eyes and sighed dramatically. “That’s one thing I really have to thank you for, Azhi – you’re a good patient. You understand the need to lie still and let me do my work. The ambassador thinks he’s still a lad and can leap from his sickbed after only a few days rest.”

“My daddy always taught me to respect my elders, pay attention to my surroundings and to never, ever cross a medic,” Azhani said seriously, though her eyes twinkled merrily. “I’ve done pretty well with two and three, wouldn’t you say, my queen?”

Lyssera laughed gaily. “I can’t disagree with you there, old friend.”

“Well, two out of three isn’t too bad, as long as you always remember number three,” Kyrian said as she turned toward the door. “I’ll be back as soon as I can. Don’t do anything heroic without me, okay?”

“Okay,” Azhani agreed, watching as the stardancer left the room.

The spicy scent of cinnamon and apples drifted around the room, melding with the aroma of leather and the clean smell of the bed’s linens. Staring at the low fire that burned in the hearth, allowed Azhani’s mind time to wander and she found herself thinking of Kyrian, and wishing that she had stayed longer.

Theirs was an unusual friendship. Since escaping Arris’ clutches, all Azhani could think of was revenge; of putting the monster who had slain her beloved Ylera, into the ground where he could harm no other. Now, killing him wasn’t nearly so important. Thinking of revenge left her cold, with a bitter taste in her mouth. Yes, she wanted to get the bastard off of Y’dan’s throne, but her original plan of just attacking until he was dead, seemed so unimaginable.

Life in Y’Syr was good. Queen Lyssera treated her well; teaching Allyn and the other guards fulfilled the warrior’s need to hone her skills and being friends with Kyrian had done a lot to heal the rift in her heart.

“Did I ever love her?” she wondered aloud, startling Lyssera.

Gazing at Azhani’s face, Lyssera asked, “Deep thoughts, my friend?”

“I’m drowning in them,” Azhani admitted softly, as a troubled expression washed over her face.

“Your question – was it about Ylera?” Lyssera asked delicately, keeping a neutral tone in her voice.

“Yes,” the warrior replied sadly. “Pretty pathetic memory if I have to ask myself questions like that.”

“No, my friend. I’d say it was a healing heart trying to find its way back to living,” Lyssera said tenderly.

“How can I let go of my feelings for Ylera? She was everything to me. I must be an idiot or crazy to turn away from all the joy she brought me!” Azhani cried, burying her face in her hands.

“You’re neither crazy nor an idiot, my friend – only mortal. Life goes on, and so does the heart. We all need companionship, my friend. Even I do not always sleep alone. You could do worse than to let someone into your life,” said the queen gently.

Shocked, Azhani spluttered, “What?”

“You could do worse than to open your heart to someone like Kyrian.” Lyssera held up a staying hand. “I don’t want to hear that only Ylera holds your heart and that you would never dishonor her memory by doing something as wonderful as falling in love again. I think that’s owldragon dung and I know Ylera would agree! You could do my sister no greater honor than to love again.”

For a long moment, Azhani just stared at the queen, her jaw working as words tried to form. Tears gathered in her eyes, and then vanished to be replaced by a deep confusion. Shaking her head, Azhani said, “I don’t know what to say, Lyss. What I felt for Ylera was deeper than anything I had ever known before. Watching her die, leeched all the love in me away. For so long, I felt like I had no emotions; that they bled away and stained the stones of Y’dannoch castle.” Wide-eyed wonder shined out of the warrior’s face. “I like Kyrian, Lyss. She is so much to me, and she touches me in so many ways that I can’t begin to name them, but love? I don’t know. I just don’t know.”

Lyssera took Azhani’s hand in hers, cradling the warrior’s calloused fingers with her own. “All I’m asking is that you allow for the possibility of love, my friend. The heart and the mind don’t always speak the same language, but with love, translations aren’t necessary.”

“I’ll think about it. I wish my father were still here. He would know what to say,” the warrior said wistfully. Rhu’len had learned to love again, though before he died, he had been between relationships. “How’s Allyn?” she asked, changing the subject.

Releasing the warrior’s hand, Lyssera replied, “Anxious to have his teacher back. He’s been routinely defeating some of my better guardsmen and needs a serious challenge to knock some humility into his skull.”

“Oh? Why don’t you ask Kyrian to spar with him? Two or three rounds and she’ll have him praying for my return,” Azhani said, chuckling mischievously. “In fact, have her tell him it’s an object lesson.”

“Object lesson?” the queen asked, raising an eyebrow in curiosity.

“He’ll understand,” said the warrior, grinning wickedly.

“The stardancer must be very good, to inspire that kind of revenge.”

“She routinely kicks my butt at the Goddess Dance,” the warrior said. Though she does have that rather irritating habit of avoiding direct confrontation when weapons are involved. I need to address that. I wonder if being bedridden will get her to talk about it, because Astariu knows she’s as close-mouthed as a monk about it otherwise.

“This I have to see. All right, I’ll ask Kyrian the next time I see her.”

“I’m sure she won’t mind having a moving pell,” said Azhani. She and Lyssera shared a laugh over the image of Prince Allyndev running around the salle, trying desperately to protect his head from Kyrian’s well-placed attacks.
%%%
“You are so good to me,” Ambassador Iften said warmly, while Kyrian plumped pillows and straightened covers for him.

“Yes, and you return that kindness with your curmudgeonly ways, you know,” the stardancer teased, shaking her finger at him.

He chuckled. “Well, I’m just an old man trying to get a little tenderness from a beautiful woman before I die.”

The banter between Iften and Kyrian was natural, flowing out of a mutual admiration that had been in place since the stardancer had been caring for the old desert man. For Iften, Kyrian was like the granddaughter he had lost to a sandstorm many years ago and to Kyrian, the ambassador was the grandfather she never had. When she wasn’t with Azhani or spending time in the city’s hospice, Kyrian would while away her candlemarks with Iften.

As a Desert Walker, Iften had seen many marvels and wonders, and he never tired of sharing his experiences with the pretty young stardancer. Today, he had regaled her with his adventures inside of an obsidian cave high in the Y’oro Mountains.

Settling a tray over the man’s lap, Kyrian reached out and tweaked Iften’s nose. “You just keep hoping, Granther. Maybe Astarus will send a nymph to dance in your dreams.”

Greedily, Iften lifted the lid on his dinner tray and let out a squawk of delighted surprise when he saw a steaming, still sizzling steak with all the trimmings, waiting for him. A beatific smile lit up his face and he said, “Cow! It’s really cow! My nose was not deceiving me after all!”

Laughing and shaking her head, Kyrian tucked a napkin into the old man’s collar and then stepped back to settle in a comfortable chair while he fed himself.

A loud moan echoed around the room, proclaiming Iften’s absolute pleasure over the meal. “I take it,” he said, wiping his lips, “That I’m no longer in danger of feeding the worms?”

On the stand next to the stardancer’s chair, a cup of water sat, with beads of moisture gathering on the glass surface and dripping down to puddle around the base. Reaching for it, Kyrian drank deeply and said, “Yes, I think you’re out of the woods. I can find no trace of krill in your system and your aura’s as clean as it can be, considering.” She did not add that he was dying – the sand-lung was rooted deep, and nothing she tried would evict the stubborn disease completely. Her healing had given him years back, though, and with luck and care, the old man would see many more years before the desert born sickness took his life.

“So, what was all the hullabaloo out there, a few days back?” asked the ambassador between bites of his dinner. “Kirthos wouldn’t say – didn’t want to upset the old man and cause him to have a relapse.”

“Before or after Azhani got stabbed?” The stardancer’s voice was strangely hollow.

“Stabbed? What the hell? Is she all right?” His fork fell to his plate as his appetite vanished. Please no, don’t let the warrior be dead. It will break my little Kyr’s heart.

“She’ll be all right in a few days, but, oh gods…” the stardancer sobbed and her glass dropped to the floor as she buried her face in her hands. “I almost got her killed,” she whispered brokenly.

Pushing his meal aside, Iften levered himself off the bed and walked over to kneel beside the crying young woman. He took her hands in his and pulled her into his arms, clumsily patting her back and whispering comforting words until she could speak again.

“Tell me about it, sweet Kyr. Share your burden with an old man whose shoulders are strong,” he encouraged gently.

Slowly, the stardancer began to tell the story. “Azhani came to court to reveal who had poisoned you.”

“Yes.” Iften nodded. “I know that much. Kirthos tells me it was a courtier named Var. I remember him from the talks. Sly little man with too much love for money and not enough care for his people.”

“He accused Azhani of planting the evidence against him. The queen called on Starseeker Vashyra to cast a truth-seeking spell. When he was revealed as the poisoner, he attacked Azhani and st-st-stabbed her.” Kyrian shuddered. “I tried to help her, but he must have been some kind of mage, because he cast this spell that brought this other mage and oh gods, he was so powerful, granther!” The stardancer’s shudders grew violent as remembered fear gripped her. “I was so scared,” she whispered.

“Shh. It’s all right, he’s gone now,” Iften soothed. Whether or not the mage was truly gone, he did not know, but it seemed to be the right thing to say as Kyrian calmed down.

“There was a battle between him – Azhani called him Darkchilde – and Azhani, but it took Vashyra’s magicks to send his seeming back through the portal that Baron Var created.” Pulling away from the ambassador, Kyrian settled back in her chair and wiped her face on her sleeve. “I could have done something to help, but I just stood there, too scared to move a muscle.”

“There’s no shame in fear, lass. No one will fault you for that,” Iften said, infusing his words with as much assurance as he could.

“She could have died,” said the stardancer dully. “And I would have stood there, unable to even lift a hand to protect her. It was the queen who took my baton and threw it at the right moment, distracting the sorcerer long enough for Starseeker Vashyra’s spell to work. I could barely remember how to wield Astariu’s Fire, much less my own weapon!” Kyrian’s hands fisted and she pounded her legs in frustration.

“Is she dead, then?” Iften asked, using his voice like a whip.

“No! I healed her enough so that she could fight but-“

“Then you did your duty, stardancer. Scared or not, you did what the goddess blessed you to do and that’s to be commended. How many of the queen’s guard threw themselves in harm’s way to rescue Azhani? Can any of those court peacocks strut and preen about how they saved Azhani Rhu’len’s life?”

“No,” Kyrian whispered, as her shoulders slumped wearily.

“Let it go, lass. Life is too short to dwell on should-have-dones,” the ambassador counseled wisely.

“I know, but sometimes, when I go to sleep at night, and she’s there beside me, I have to reach out and touch her, just to be sure I’m not dreaming,” the stardancer said sadly.

“You’re a good lass, Kyr, with a gentle soul. I would be far more concerned if you blithely went on with your life, relegating the incident to the realm of the every day, and I would bet that Azhani feels the same way. A good warrior knows that the true test of friendship is the aftermath of battle, not the frenzy of death.” The old man struggled to stand, waving off the stardancer’s silent offer of help. Shaking out his tingling legs, he grinned wryly at the stardancer. Finally, he was able to totter back to his bed and pick up his forgotten meal.

“I’ve heard about battle lust, and battle fatigue – I guess I just never thought it would happen to me. It didn’t – I didn’t feel this lost after…” Burying her face in her hands, Kyrian let out a shuddering breath.

Iften sat, quietly waiting for her to talk. Kyrian stood and began pacing.

“I don’t know if I can talk about this right now, Granther,” she said helplessly as she drifted around the room, letting her fingers graze over the various bits of art and knickknacks that decorated the chamber.

“All right, I won’t ask you to bare your soul if you’re not ready to, lass. Would ye rather talk about something else? Your warrior friend, maybe?” he asked gently. “I rather think she’s a bit more pleasant subject, no?” A teasing grin tugged at the corners of the old man’s mouth.

“Granther!” Kyrian chastised, flushing a red almost as deep as the color of her robes.

Iften chuckled and shrugged his shoulders. “If you insist on giving me the name, I thought I might as well have the duties that come with being a pretty lass’ grandfather, Kyrian. You can’t blame me for wanting to see you happy.”

Startled, the stardancer stopped in her tracks and turned to look at the ambassador. “What do you mean?” Am I that obvious?

“Ah lass, to be young and in love again,” Iften said dreamily, winking at the outraged expression on Kyrian’s face.

Blessed Astariu, I am that obvious! she mentally wailed. WhatamIgonnado? Whatifsheknows? Ohgodsohgodsohgods… “Oh gods,” Kyrian whispered frantically as her thoughts spilled out of her mouth. “You can’t tell her. Please don’t tell her. She doesn’t know…” she babbled anxiously.

Holding up a hand to halt the stardancer’s tumbling words, Iften said, “Don’t fret yourself about it, lass. I’ll not give up your secrets; they are yours to hold and yours to tell. A load heavy to bear, I am sure, but as I have said, my shoulders are strong and I am willing to lend them to you.” A gentle smile creased his careworn face.

The stardancer examined the ground at her feet, noticing her empty glass sparkling in the firelight. It would be so easy to unburden her troubles to this man – already he had proven a capable and generous listener, though the stardancer was wary of spilling so much of her soul onto the newly healed ambassador’s admittedly broad shoulders.

Shuffling back to her chair, she realized she was thirsty. She considered digging around in her bag for the flask of brandy she kept to revive patients. Realizing she didn’t have the energy to stand up and walk the four or five paces to the table, she settled for giving the distant haversack a half-hearted glare. She sighed and mulled over the prospect of actually putting words to the morass of emotion whirling around in her heart.

Iften’s offer to listen was genuine and motivated only by his care for her – shouldn’t she return that generosity by treating it as the gift that it was? Hadn’t she been going in circles for weeks on her own, trying to tell herself that all she felt for Azhani Rhu’len was friendship? Didn’t the warrior’s face haunt her dreams, taunting her with what she would never be able to have? Iften deserved some truths from her, since he had been so willing to let her invade his secrets, and probe every corner of his mind and body for a cure to the sand-lung that was ravaging his life. Surely, talking about her feelings for Azhani had to be better than thinking about…

Than thinking about how you almost got her killed, right, Kyr? That’s what really has you in knots, isn’t it? You froze again, when the time to act came. You froze and it was Lyssera’s quick thinking that saved the day. She hasn’t said anything, but you know the queen’s itching to know why you didn’t act faster. Astariu’s blessed womb, Kyr, she even had to take your weapon from you and use it to distract Darkchilde. Sister Jerlayne would be mortified to learn that her best student couldn’t even concentrate hard enough to distract a mage’s seeming!

“Here now, Lass, if you go falling into the quicksand of your mind, even a sand storm will seem like a blessing. Drink up, and speak of what itches so terribly,” Iften said as he handed her a flask.

Without looking at the beverage, Kyrian drank deeply, coughing painfully as the harsh liquor burned all the way down. Wheezing, she asked, “What the hell is this?”

“Desert mead, and don’t ask what’s in it,” Iften replied, winking charmingly.

Shuddering as she took another drink, Kyrian capped off the flask and handed it back. “Thanks, I think I needed that.”

“Anytime, lass,” he replied, settling back on the bed and taking a swig of the harsh beverage.

“I’m in love with Azhani,” Kyrian said in an almost inaudible whisper. Then she shook her head ruefully. “And I don’t know how to forget my feelings, but I have to. She’ll never accept them, or return them. I knew Ylera Kelani and I am a pale shadow compared to the sunshine she was.”

“Kyrian, lass, love isn’t about filling a mould. You’re right – you can never be what Ylera was to the warrior, but that doesn’t mean Azhani is incapable of loving you,” Iften said gently.

Hope rose thickly in Kyrian’s heart, forcing her to swallow heavily and push the heady feeling away. “No, I don’t think so. We’re just friends. She’s not the kind to let someone that close to her heart. Ylera was special – she could get anyone to fall in love with her.” Closing her eyes, Kyrian smiled in memory. “It used to drive Sister Jerlayne crazy; all the acolytes used to slave to the princess’ beck and call, and Ylera loved every minute of it. The only time she didn’t care for the adulation, was when she wanted to study, and for that, she came to me. Everyone knew I was just plain old Kyr – boring and studious. They couldn’t imagine that Ylera and I could be friends, and that is exactly how she wanted it.”

“It was much the same here, I’m afraid,” Iften admitted. “Half the court wanted to marry her and the other half hated her for it. It’s no wonder that she jumped at the chance to visit Y’dan when she did.”

Lost in her memories, Kyrian wistfully said, “You know, I don’t think I’ve even told Azhani that I knew Ylera. When I first found out that they had been lovers, a part of me was jealous.” Seeing the expression on Iften’s face, Kyrian smiled ruefully. “Oh, not of what they had. I was only thirteen when I knew Ylera and she was more like a big sister than anything else. No, what really struck me was that Azhani knew Ylera as an adult, something that I’ll never be able to do.”

“I can’t tell you what you want to hear, Kyrian. All I can say is that you should talk to Azhani. Perhaps the best thing you can do for her is to be her friend. Love can grow from many foundations, and friendship is the best of them. Always remember: communication and honesty are the firmest building blocks a relationship can have. Let your heart be your guide, lass, and the gods will see you home.”

Looking at the old desert man and seeing the depth of knowledge reflecting back at her in his eyes, Kyrian could only nod her head in dazed agreement.
~Chapter Twenty-Seven~
Lord Kesryn Oswyne, well-known merchant and purveyor of fine goods, stood in the center of a maelstrom. Wreckage lay chaotically strewn about his manor house, and bits and pieces of his possessions were scattered around as if a tornado had thrown a party and invited the hurricane brothers to entertain. Brilliantly golden energy wrapped the sorcerer’s body, pinning him in place. Crackling through that aura was a haze of thick, crimson power that sent spitting, arcing streamers through the binding spell. The silence in the room was unearthly.

All at once, there was a shrill keening sound as a burst of dark force shattered the magical bonds, freeing the sorcerer from the starseeker’s spell.

“DaCoure!” he shouted harshly, kicking at the wreckage. “I will see you bleed, Azhani Rhu’len, I swear it!” he growled, summoning an army of invisible servants. Instructing them to clear away the destruction, he turned and strode purposefully into his study.

From a wardrobe, he removed a fresh set of tailored silks more properly fitting to a merchant of his station, tossing the bloodied, tattered rags he was wearing into the fire. Pouring a glass of thick, amber colored liquor, he went to his desk and sat down, picking up the messages that Baron Var’s summons had so rudely interrupted.

The first note was one from Var, coincidentally, informing Kasyrin of the Y’Syran nobleman’s continued success in poisoning the Y’skani ambassador. The sorcerer snorted and tossed it into the fire, watching it shrivel and blacken. A sneer twisted his lips. Var would have to be dealt with – it wouldn’t do for the mage’s other agents to hear that one of them had caused their master so much grief and gotten away with it.

Next he read and dealt with several business matters, finally coming upon a missive from his Killigarni contacts. Perusing it briefly, he felt a swift flash of pleasure from the death toll. At least he had one idiot who was worth the gold he wasted. No help would emerge from Y’mar at the crucial moment. Other messages from other operatives, said much the same; that his plans were moving forward, if at a snail’s pace.

A black scroll case, stamped with the dark red markings of the Ecarthan priests, drew his attention. Ah, excellent. The temples proceed as planned – the sacrifices have begun. Looking up, his gaze fell upon a tall obsidian obelisk, scored at regular intervals. At the very base of the tower, a thin, reddish glow was just barely visible.

Three fully operational temples now served the spiritual needs of the Y’dani people, and every day, more of the black-robed priests were coming into the kingdom. Astariun priests were being openly shunned by the populace, out of fear of reprisal from Arris’ new police force. A quick missive, suggesting that the Astariuns be encouraged to leave the kingdom, found its way into the scroll. A few muttered words sent it to the main temple in Y’dannyv, just a few blocks from his three-story home.

From Porthyros came the news that Arris had finally signed the Non-Human Restriction Act into law, forcing all non-humans to register with the border guards before they entered any city or town in Y’dan. A nasty, feral smile lit up the mage’s pale face. The idea that no matter what face Azhani wore, she would still have to submit to a “racial scan” by one of Ecarthus’ priests, made Kasyrin feel much better about the defeat he had just suffered.

Introducing Arris to the wonders of Ecarthan worship, had been a banner day for Kasyrin. As he and Porthyros long suspected, the fanciful trappings and panoply of the demon’s worshippers, appealed to Arris’ vanity, much more so than the plain, boring sermons of the Astariuns. The Eater of Souls was a fearsome creature, but he liked a good show.

He also thrived on the blood of the slain, and so, Y’dani criminals no longer swung from the gallows, feeding the carrion. Instead, they fed the fires that burned day and night in the three temples that had been constructed. Attendance at a daily mass was encouraged and rewarded; the poor were fed a hearty meal and nobles were rewarded with invitations to dine with their king. Merchants who attended, suddenly found it much easier to do business – those who did not, found their goods going astray.

Blood trickled sluggishly from a wound in Kasyrin’s forehead, sending anger rippling through the mage once more. The sorcerer expended a bit of precious energy to heal it and then spent several minutes daydreaming about flaying the skin from Azhani Rhu’len and her elven supporters, one strip at a time.

One final message remained. This was not a simple missive delivered by a rag-covered urchin, but rather, a magical message from the demon that claimed his soul. It burst into being as a fiery green orb and then melted away, leaving behind a black slate that was deeply etched with silvery runes.

~It is done, my servant. Soon, I shall waken and hunger. I trust you shall provide a first meal worthy of a god?~

Fear trickled lightly down the mage’s back. Ecarthus had fulfilled his end of the bargain. Demons would soon pour out of the mountains. A tidal wave of evil would engulf Y’Syr and any other who chose to stand against Kasyrin Darkchilde and his demonic master. Ruin and death would soon spread across the land, filling the matrix with enough magic to break the bonds of time. The day would come when he would stand before the gates of hell and strip away the bindings that had locked Ecarthus out of this world for eons.

Until then, he would maintain his persona as Lord Kesryn Oswyne, spice merchant, pulling the strings of many puppets, and enjoying their dance.
%%%
“In Ecarthus we are free, our blood is his blood, and we feed him gladly,” the priest chanted in a droning monotone while his gray robed acolytes dragged the bound and gagged prisoner up the steps to the black basalt altar that graced the center of the stage. Behind the altar, a cauldron was suspended over a hotly burning fire that seemed to leap and dance to every word the black-robed priest said.

Arris watched the show with a jaundiced eye. The ceremony had become commonplace. The blood no longer caused his stomach to twist brutally, nor left him with nightmare images that haunted his dreams for days. Beside the king sat his best friend Porthyros, his watery blue eyes fixed on the scene below them with fanatical glee. A table just to the scholar’s left, held a platter filled with a steaming pot of tea and a plate of sandwiches, which he would soon insist the young king consume.

Since the king was determined to lead his armies north during the next winter, Lord Oswyne had determined that the boy had to look the part of a great warrior. Arris was a scrawny, wiry young man with very little mass – Porthyros’ job now became that of nanny. Every day he had to make sure the king ate and exercised enough to build some muscle on his small frame. So far, he had done an adequate job – many of the noblewomen had noticed the king’s healthier appearance, and several of Arris’ favorite wenches had reported that his stamina had much improved.

Lord Oswyne also brought in a sword master who took over the king’s weapon’s training, pushing the young man to his limits. Arris complained, he pouted, and he threatened, but he finally started to see the light when a peasant, disguised as one of the king’s pages, broke into his room in the middle of the night. Armed with a dagger, the man had tried to slit the young king’s throat, but Arris had not only disarmed him, he had also easily turned the would-be assassin’s weapon against him, exacting justice personally.

The peasant’s head still graced a pike in front of Y’dannoch castle, serving as a warning to any who did not agree with the king’s laws. Porthyros was proud of his charge. He was maturing well, yet still remained very malleable to the scholar’s wishes.

“Tea, my king?” he offered quietly, handing over a large mug.

“Yes, thank you,” Arris said, drinking deeply.

The service below ended with a terrified scream as the priest drove a razor sharp blade into the chest of the sacrifice and opened him up from neck to navel. A crimson wash of blood spilled out over the altar, flooding down the steps and pooling in specially carved grooves along the edge of the stage. As the man’s life bled away, the fluid ran along the runnels, draining into large black urns set at either side of the stage.

As soon as the body was drained, it was unceremoniously rolled into the fire pit, filling the room with the fresh scent of a charnel house. Porthyros stood and inhaled deeply.

“Exhilarating, isn’t it, my king?”

Closing his eyes, Arris pictured the service again, sipping at his drink. Yes, the service was exciting, in a disturbing sort of way.

“Just think, that man will wake up in paradise, gifted with the eternal gratitude of Ecarthus himself!” the scholar enthused.

“The ultimate reward,” the king muttered hazily. Suddenly, he was very tired. “Is it lunchtime yet, Thyro? I’m a little sleepy and I’d like my afternoon nap soon.”

“Of course, my king. Here is a little snack for you to nibble while we return to the castle. Master Nallerack awaits you.”

Sighing, Arris accepted the sandwich and followed the scholar out of the temple. He was not particularly looking forward to his appointment with the sword master, but he recognized the need for the practice. After all, who knew when someone else would try to change the destiny of Y’dan, by removing its rightful king?
%%%
The dream came that night.

He was on a snow-covered mountaintop, wind ruffled his hair and snow coated his beard. Blood and gore covered his armor and his sword hung limply from exhausted arms. All around him were the bodies of his men, their green and black tabards shredded by the claws of the demons that still howled just beyond the edge of his vision. Waning sunlight kept the creatures at bay, but they would soon be free to attack.

Looking around, he did not see his mentor and friend anywhere. Not among the dead, nor among the living, was the man who had been by his side constantly since he was eight summers old. Slogging through the snow, he stopped by each man, checking for life. He was alone, wrapped in a cyclone of snow and wind.

The sun set, snuffing out the day. A victorious howl sent chills down his spine and he grimly took hold of his blade, setting himself to fight bravely until he met his end. Then, he heard it. Out of the realms of nightmare and his deepest fears, came a sound he had prayed he would never hear again.

A long, piercing wail cracked through the twilight, followed by the thundering of hooves. Erupting from the swirling snow she came, mounted on a beast the color of smoke. Her blade was flaming ice, and with it she carved a swath through the demons that circled his position.

Fear put wings on his feet and he raced away from the pursuing figure, running all the way across the mountaintop until he reached a cliff. Barely stopping himself, he watched chunks of ice and snow fall into the darkness. Turning, he faced the mounted woman, clenching his teeth to keep from biting his tongue.

The warrior’s apparition thundered right through him – it was not real. Relief flooded him and he sank to his knees, weeping in gratitude for his timely rescue. That’s when the sharp, wrenching pain tore through him. Gaping, he looked down to see the tip of a sword protruding out of his chest.

“What?” he gasped, as blood filled his mouth. Falling over, he caught just the faintest hint of golden eyes blazing into his mind before darkness took him away…

”No!” Arris bolted out of bed, grabbing his sword and slashing at the darkness. The door opened and Porthyros ran in.

“My king, are you unwell?” he cried, turning up a lamp to chase back the shadows in the king’s bedchamber.

Dressed only in a pair of light breeches, gripping his sword in both hands, the Y’dani monarch’s body was drenched in sweat. Blinking in the sudden light, Arris let his sword drop and then sank into a chair, panting heavily.

“It’s nothing, Thyro, just a dream. Bring me some tea and I shall be fine,” he ordered weakly.

“As you wish, my lord,” the scholar said, dashing out of the room quickly. Tonight, the king would get just tea – too much krill would cause the young man to lose his mind, and that was not in Lord Oswyne’s plans, yet.
~Chapter Twenty-Eight~
Azhani was seated at her desk, composing a message to Padreg, when a timid knock came on her door.

“Come in,” she called out, spreading a thin layer of sand over the parchment to dry the ink.

The door opened, revealing one of the castle’s many pages. “There’s a man to see you, Master Azhani. Says his name is Brannock Maeven.”

Nodding, the warrior said, “He’s a friend. Send him in.”

The page bowed courteously before scampering off, replaced by a man dressed in the colorful robes of an Y’Noran trader. Doffing his ridiculously oversized hat, the sandy-haired man bowed deeply and said, “I am always honored to be in thy presence, Lady Azhani.”

Amused, Azhani politely allowed the man to press a chaste kiss on the back of her hand. “Liar. Last time you saw me, I had you arrested for bribery. What can I do for you, Bran?”

Stepping back, the man produced a long, heavily wrapped package. “From the hand of King Padreg of Y’Nor, I bring you tidings. Hear now his words.” An accompanying scroll appeared, was unfurled, and Maeven began to read.
“My friend,

I hope this finds you and Kyrian in good health. My lady Elisira is out with the new foals, counting the blessings of the goddess to our clan this season. Young Devon has taken well to schooling under the wise Starseeker Miria and sends his love. Thomas, Syrah and Aden also send greetings and well wishes.

News of the Kingdoms is not good. Killigarni pirates continue to harry the Y’maran border; High King Ysradan and his lady, Queen Dasia, are out with the navy seeking the brigands at all costs. Pirellan Madros is regent for Ysrallan, while the Princess Syrelle has come to Y’Nor as a fosterling. Elisira is grateful to have her; the ladies here are a bit lacking in the skills to assist a woman of High Court bearing.”
Azhani laughed, interrupting Maeven’s easy brogue. “Which is Paddy’s way of saying that Y’Noran women don’t pamper each other.” The fact that Madros is known for his less than honorable tastes, probably has something to do with it as well. Having the princess in a safe place is a good idea. Azhani gave credit to the High King for knowing that his cousin was ill fit as a guardian.

The trader pulled a face, rolling his eyes in silent agreement and then continued reading.
“The dwarves of Y’dror, face the depredations of a monster they have called a dragon; though I do not know whether the creature is actually such a beast. In Y’skan, wild sandstorms rage through the sands, forcing the clans to unite at Ratterask until they pass. King Naral of Y’Tol, also sends ill news; a plague of insects has devastated the crops and all of his resources have been poured into recovering as much as possible, so that his people do not starve come winter.

It should come as no surprise when I say that we of Y’Nor have had our own troubles. Badly disguised bandits, men most likely of the Cabal or of Killigarn, have taken to attacking our clans, doing little damage yet keeping us all tired from long candlemarks of watch. I have not, however, forgotten my promise to you, and on the heels of this missive, shall come all that I can spare. May the gods speed your hand to the heart of our troubles.

I have saved the kingdom of Y’dan for last. I cannot break this to you lightly, my friend. The land you once served has become a place of sorrow and darkness. Our sibling gods have been cast aside in favor of a demon; he who is known as the Eater of Souls now holds the faith of Y’dan captive. Horrors unknown to common man for centuries, are now a part of their everyday lives. It is said that Arris himself visits these terrible shrines; let us hope that he is just mad, for if he is truly sane, then I quake to think of what his next move will be.

Azhani, my friend, it is not lightly that I speak of regicide; the king who seeks to slay another can, himself, be open for the knife. My Cousin is not well; his rule has poisoned the earth and caused a weeping in the land that even we of Y’Nor can sense. If ever there was doubt of Theodan’s choice, it has faded into history. Victory, I pray nightly, that it be yours to claim, ere Y’dan’s darkness spreads like a cancerous growth on the body of the kingdoms.

At the urging of those within the clans whose eyes are given to looking forward, I send to your hand, a gift of the ages. Gormerath, slayer of demons, blade of my ancestors and true forged weapon of Lyriandelle Starcrafter is yours now. Wield her well. May she love your hand as easily as she loved the mothers of my foremothers. Elisira wishes you to bear her against the darkness, for she cannot.

Speaking of my lady, she has joined me and wishes to add a reminder that we are to see you at midwinter. I know it was brash of me to suggest such a date, but my lady assures me that it was well intentioned, mayhap even prescient. I pray that this is so, for none deserve Astariu’s blessings more than you and Stardancer Kyrian. Peace, my friend. I await your reply.
Padreg, Clanleader of Y’Nor.

Lady Elisira Glinholt, his beloved.”

“Well isn’t that just peachy?” Azhani commented acidly, reaching for the cloth bound bundle. The news from Padreg, added to what the queen’s guard had discovered early that morning in Baron Var’s cell, made her day just that much brighter. Upon arriving at the nobleman’s prison cell, all that was found was a gooey puddle of flesh and bone.

Roused from her sickbed, Starseeker Vashyra and three acolytes visited the dungeon and cast a powerful augury, learning that the traitorous baron had been attacked and eaten by a lesser demon. The garolkoth beast, known for its taste for elven flesh, had entered the cell via a pentagram inscribed in Var’s own blood. What had caused the nobleman to summon his doom, the starseeker could not say. Azhani suspected that the demon’s presence was the work of Darkchilde, perhaps as a warning to whatever of his agents remained within the Y’Syran borders.

The baron’s remains were hastily scooped up and buried as far from the city as possible, in an unmarked grave. Several lesser Astariun priests presided over the quiet ceremony; speaking what prayers they could to ease the tortured man’s soul into a peaceful rest.

Maeven handed Azhani the package, and almost fearfully, she unwrapped it. She, like every other goddess-trained child, had heard all the legends surrounding the mystical blade. Gormerath, the blade of light, had been handed down through the ages from the hands of Lyriandelle Starcrafter. The famed weaponsmith was the firstborn daughter of Y’mareth Firstlander, the man who discovered the lands where Y’myran’s seven kingdoms now existed. With his six brothers, Y’mareth transformed the wild, demon-ridden continent into the prospering kingdoms that now existed. Lyriandelle, a priest of both Astarus and Astariu, forged Gormerath from a chunk of ore that fell from the sky, gifting it to her father. It became his greatest weapon against the hordes of demons that ravaged the land.

Upon his death, the blade came into the hands of Lyriandelle’s daughter, Y’Mara. Through her, the sword passed from woman to woman until it ended up in the hands of Padreg Keelan’s ancestors. The sword’s powers grew and its preference as a woman’s weapon, became legendary. Men could wield her, but she often did not grant her gifts to those wielders, choosing instead to lie dormant.

Azhani took her first look at the blade of legend and was highly unimpressed. A ratty, battered leather sheath and a hilt that appeared crusted in the mud and cobwebs of centuries, greeted her anxious gaze.

“She needs a bit of love and tenderness, I’d say,” Brannock Maeven commented, tucking his hands behind his back and bending over to peer at the revealed sword.

“It needs something, that’s for sure,” Azhani said. Narrowing her eyes, she looked up at the trader and asked, “Are you sure this is the same bundle Padreg handed you? You’re sure you didn’t decide to stop over at Ironfoot’s casino?”

“I swear on my beloved mother’s honor. I came directly from my good clansman’s tent to this lovely home. I haven’t even stopped to sample this fair city’s mead,” the man assured in a slightly hurt tone.

Reluctantly, Azhani accepted that the sword had indeed, come from Padreg. She reached into a drawer in her desk and pulled out a square of soft cotton cloth that she usually used to clean her own blade, and began to attempt to remove some of the years of dirt and grime from the crosspiece and hilt of the sword.

After only a few moments of scrubbing, the dirt began to flake off. Surprised at how quickly it cleaned up, Azhani concentrated on rubbing it clean. When the last traces of soil fell away, what remained showed the truly remarkable craftsmanship of its maker. The blade was a longsword, slightly wedge shaped and incredibly sharp, even after all the time it had spent in the sheath. The metal used to form the blade was unlike any the warrior had ever seen before. In the light, it glinted a rainbow of hues, but in shadow it was the dull gray of normal steel. Wave-like bands of color and shadow rippled up and down the blade, showing that the metal had been folded thousands of times, imbuing it with a supernatural strength.

The curving hilt was golden in color, yet harder and stronger than gold or brass. Inset in the center of the crosspiece was a single, sapphire blue stone that appeared to glow with an inner light. The handle was a solid hardwood, which, like the metal of the blade, Azhani did not recognize. The same golden toned metal finished out the sword, creating a pommel that was both beautiful and functional. Gormerath was half again longer than Azhani’s current blade, and she realized she would need some time to accustom herself to its greater reach. A sheath that could be worn on her back would have to be constructed, as well.

Gripping the handle tightly, the warrior stood and took a few experimental swings with the sword. She almost dropped it when she discovered that it was so perfectly balanced, that it seemed nearly weightless. As she worked through a series of easy strikes and parries, Azhani noticed a sensation of warmth creeping up through her hand and up her arm. It wasn’t uncomfortable or distracting; rather the feeling was welcoming, as if the blade were greeting her in its own way.

As her impromptu dance came to an end, she finished with a flourish, laying the sword down on her desk, but not quite letting it go. She could almost sense the fragile bond that was beginning to form between her and the sword and she did not want to do anything to disturb it.

“She’s beautiful,” Azhani whispered, staring down at the weapon in awe.

“Aye, that she is. A precious bit of work, there. Like the one who wields her, I’d think,” Maeven said, a touch of awe in his voice as well. Never had he seen a more graceful demonstration of the martial arts than he had just witnessed. The half-elven warrior’s skill with the blade, was a gift from Astariu. Of that he was certain.

Azhani didn’t seem to hear him, so lost was she in contemplation of Gormerath.

“Well, I’ll just let you two get acquainted. If you have any messages for Padreg, you-“ A rolled scroll was absently shoved in his direction. “Yes, thank you. I’ll see that he gets this. Have a nice day, my lady.”

Bowing, Brannock Maeven backed out of the room, and shut the door behind him.
%%%
“No, block, thrust, feint, parry then strike, Allyn. And turn your blade out a little more; it’s all fine and dandy to hit someone with the flat in practice, but in the real world, it’s the edge that does all the work. Now, try it again; hit me,” Kyrian ordered, stepping back and readying her staff.

The wood felt odd in her hands. The staff was not her best or even second best weapon, but her baton had been destroyed by Kasyrin Darkchilde’s spell. She didn’t feel like deflating young Allyndev’s ego by showing him just how easily she could take his sword away from him with her bare hands, so she had taken one of the many practice pikes and snapped off its head, twirling the shaft around easily. It would suffice, and Allyn’s padded armor would deflect most of her light blows.

Allyn sighed heavily. “When is Master Azhani going to teach me again?” he whined.

“When she has recovered from her wound, Allyn. Now, lay on!” Kyrian tried not to roll her eyes. Though a young man of nearly twenty summers, Allyndev Kelani was a study in mixed emotions. One moment, he was diffident and reclusive, the next, recalcitrant and rude. The loss of his mentor had come as a hard blow, softened only by his seeming ability to defeat the men who had, less than three months ago, laughed him off the practice field. Now, as he faced her, he was once again the object of their derision.

Kyrian had heard the men long before she reached the salle.

”What’s the matter, Ally, can’t fight so good without your half-breed master to back you up?” One of the men had taunted. He was a regular spectator during the stardancer’s lessons, never having taken up arms against her during her practice sessions.

The other guardsmen echoed the first man’s sentiments, causing Allyn to shout in fury and attack them. Only her arrival had forestalled an all out brawl. Daring a glance out of the corner of her eyes, Kyrian spared a thought to wonder where Azhani was. She had told her that she could come down and do some light sparring today, yet the warrior had not made an appearance. The crunch of booted feet on the straw-covered ground, brought her attention back to the young man she was facing.

Circling around each other warily, each of the combatants sized the other up. Allyn knew he was a good student; Master Azhani had praised his skill many times. Stardancer Kyrian was a different teacher, though. Her patience was greater than that of her warrior friend’s, but she was less apt to pull a blow that would sting more than the young half-elven nobleman’s honor. That morning Allyn had already learned several painful lessons. His knuckles ached terribly from the dozen or better whacks he had received for his carelessness. Now, he was attempting to disarm the stardancer, which was a task that at first had seemed easy, but as the day wound on, he realized was truly a challenge.

He struck; his practice sword twisting to block her counter move and then faked to the right. As Kyrian brought her staff around to block him, he reversed his motion, attempting the parry. Again, as before, his blade remained too flat and she easily tucked the end of her staff under it and knocked it from his battered hand, delivering another numbing blow to the knuckles.

Cursing under his breath, he held up his open hands in surrender. “Fine, you win. I’m done,” he grumbled crossly, waiting for her to back away. Was she trying to break his knuckles? He sucked on the throbbing digits and sulked. Master Azhani never treated him like this. He was a prince, damn it. Didn’t she know that? He opened his mouth to complain, but was interrupted.

The guardsmen started to jeer Allyn once again, but this time he did not respond because he was too drained to defend himself. The prince’s shoulder’s slumped and he turned away from the stardancer.

Standing in the shadows, watching the sparring session, Azhani shook her head and grimaced determinedly. Today, she would have some answers. The warrior reached out and prodded the first laughing guardsmen she could reach.

“Go, and take your friends with you,” she growled, nodding her head toward the door.

The man turned to protest, but when he saw who he faced, he nodded and saluted smartly. Quietly, he started tapping his friends on the shoulder and pushing them toward the exit. When they were gone, Azhani stepped out of the shadows and spoke.

“Kyrian, do not let honor stop you; in the real world, there’s no such thing as a time out. Allyn – true life scenario; no stopping until the kill strike is made.” Azhani’s commanding tone set both fighters into action.

Kyrian immediately dropped into a low crouch and feinted with the staff, leading Allyn to dodge left. He successfully evaded her and managed a half-hearted somersault over to his fallen blade, scooping it up as he tumbled. As he came up, Kyrian struck again, but this time, he was able to deflect her blow. For several, heart-pounding moments, the two fought neck and neck, trading heavier and heavier blows until, at the crucial moment, Kyrian again disarmed Allyn. Instead of taking the kill shot, though, she stepped away, with her hands shaking visibly on the shaft of the staff.

A half-strangled growl of frustration filled the room. “Damn it, Kyr, why do you do that?” Azhani demanded, striding into the open, wielding a practice blade of her own. Angrily, she swung at the stardancer, forcing her to defend herself.

Retreating and deflecting blow after blow, Kyrian stuttered, “Enough, Azhi, I don’t… I can’t…” but the warrior was relentless, delivering pounding strikes until Kyrian’s own anger overran her fear.

Letting out a shriek, Kyrian leapt away from the wall she was backing into and brought her staff down in a two handed blow. Azhani blocked the blow with some difficulty, and the force of Kyrian’s strike snapped the shaft in two. One end held in each hand, Kyrian twisted her wrists fluidly. This was like having two batons for the price of one, and the baton was her best weapon outside of her own fists.

Sweat dripped off both women’s faces, spattering on the floor. Both were panting heavily, and each seized a moment to catch their breath. Azhani looked at Kyrian’s face, which was a mask of anger and hurt.

“Mad at me?” she taunted. When Kyrian nodded in the affirmative, Azhani replied, “Good. Now, come get me. Because I don’t know why the hell you freeze up in battle, and I don’t particularly care, but from now on, I won’t allow it to happen.”

The warrior’s words struck a bitter chord in her. “Won’t allow it?” Kyrian shouted. “Who the hell are you to say such a thing?”

Whatever answer Azhani may have had was lost in the flurry of blows that were exchanged as Kyrian launched herself at the warrior, her sticks moving so fast, they almost blurred.

From the sidelines, Allyn watched his mentors in awe, praying for the day when he would come within a fraction of their abilities. I really am just a scholar with a sword, he thought, feeling the dregs of his self-confidence drain away. Maybe I should just go back to my stars and my flowers.

Azhani remained calm throughout the battle. As Kyrian grew more and more wild and frenetic, the warrior met each blow with calm resolve. “Talk to me, Kyr. Tell me why you hate this,” she pleaded softly.

Tears mixed with sweat, blinding the stardancer momentarily, but Azhani did not press the advantage. Instead, she backed away and harried Kyrian’s weakened defenses.

“No,” Kyrian grated out. “I can’t… it’s… gods, it hurts so much,” she whispered as she swung.

“That’s because whatever it is, has festered deep within you, Kyr. You’re a healer – you know how bad that is. Do yourself a favor, and drain that wound. Let it out. You can talk to me, Kyr. I’m your friend and I don’t care what it is, I just want you to feel better,” Azhani pressed.

“I…” Kyrian’s voice broke.

“Tell me, please,” Azhani pleaded, dropping her sword. Kyrian wavered and the broken staff pieces in her hands slowly descended until they hung limply at her sides.

Allyn silently racked his practice blade and left the room. His lesson was clearly over.

“I’m listening,” Azhani prompted.

The softly spoken words flattened the walls Kyrian had erected. Falling to her knees and flinging her weapons away, she whispered, “I killed a man.” She then curled up in a ball, as if waiting for blows to rain down from above.

Instead, Azhani knelt in front of her friend and drew her close. “I’m betting it wasn’t like winning the brass ring,” the warrior commented wryly. She well knew that no words would erase the deep guilt that lived in the stardancer’s gentle soul. Kyrian was a preserver of life. For her to carry the knowledge of death, no matter how well deserved, was a punishment far worse than any mortal laws could deliver. Wrapping her arms loosely around the stardancer, Azhani began stroking her friend’s sweat-soaked hair.

Kyrian looked up at Azhani, her eyes oddly dry. “I can’t even cry anymore. I’ve cried so much over it,” she admitted hoarsely.

“Tell me about it?” the warrior gently asked, settling more comfortably and cradling the shivering body of her friend against her.

At first, the words wouldn’t come, but as the warrior sat and rocked her, Kyrian found that she was able to speak. In bits and pieces, the story came out. She talked of her time in Myr, the elven village where she was accepted as a teacher; how she would take the children to the lake to swim every day and how, on one fateful day, she had encountered a raider.

“Afterward, gods, it was so horrible. I started to perform the passing on ceremony and it hit me. I knew, as clearly as I know my own name, that I had stripped that man of his life. From then on, nothing I did would balance the awfulness of that act.” She took a deep breath and sighed. “So that’s why I freeze up in battle. I always have that one moment of time where I have to consciously decide that I am going to hurt or possibly kill someone. Each time I do it, it gets a little easier and each time, I get a little more afraid.”

“What are you afraid of?” Azhani asked as she unconsciously ran her fingers through the tiny curls that brushed the edge of the stardancer’s collar. Her hair is so soft. It’s like wind.

“I’m afraid I’m going to stop caring; that one day, I’ll face someone in battle and I won’t have to decide whether I’m going to hurt them. On that day, I won’t be a healer; I’ll be a killer. On that day, I’ll cease to serve the goddess.” Guiltily, Kyrian leaned into the sweet caress. It felt so good, and although she hated herself for it, she greedily absorbed the warrior’s touch.

“Kyrian, you can’t beat yourself up over what might be. I’ve never seen someone more dedicated to serving Astariu – you worry over nothing. If you let your fears rule your life, you will always be running from them,” said the warrior. “Yes, it’s horrible when you have to make the decision to take someone else’s life, but there are times when that is what is necessary. Look at Arris – think of all the evil he and people like him have caused. Should you meet him in battle, would you spare him?”

“That’s not fair,” Kyrian complained, unknowingly snuggling into Azhani’s chest.

The stardancer’s embrace sent chills through the warrior, causing her heartbeat to increase. Swallowing heavily, she replied, “Life’s not fair; that’s what I’m trying to tell you, Kyr. Yeah, it’s like drinking from a dirty chamber pot sometimes but that’s what happens when you want to be the hero.”

“Ew,” Kyrian said, wrinkling her nose. “Not the best analogy you’ve ever come up with, my friend.” Pulling away and searching the warrior’s face, she said, “But maybe I do understand. I don’t know if I’ll keep freezing, and I don’t know if I’ll still be afraid of becoming a killer, but now I know you’re here, and that makes it a lot better.”

As she brushed Kyrian’s cheek with her knuckles Azhani said, “I’ll always be here. You’re my friend, Kyr.”

Looking into each other’s eyes, both women saw a flash of something. For Kyrian, it was enough to start a bonfire of hope within her heart. For Azhani, it was worse – for it started a maelstrom of questions that she feared to answer.

Kyrian closed her eyes and sighed. Covering the warrior’s hand with her own, she smiled sweetly when Azhani’s fingers opened, cupping her face lightly.

Two heartbeats echoed loudly as neither woman spoke, existing only to share the comfort of their friendship.
~Chapter Twenty-Nine~
“It was nice of the queen to let you get away for a day,” Kyrian said as she helped Azhani paddle their small boat along the lake edge.

“Yeah, I thought I was going to be stuck watching morning court all week,” Azhani said, with a wry grin twitching at the corners of her lips.

Kyrian nodded and looked across the bow of the boat toward the shoreline where they planned to stop. “So what made you decide to drag us out here?” she asked curiously as Azhani leapt out of the boat. Water splashed into the boat, drenching the stardancer’s sandaled feet. She frowned, daintily lifted her feet and shook them dry.

Shrugging, Azhani said, “I’m not sure. I just wanted to get away from the city for a while and this seemed like a good place to go.”

The warrior dragged the boat up to the shoreline, helped the stardancer climb out, then grabbed their basket of goodies. Together, they made their way across the beach and into the woods. It was quiet, and the breeze that floated in from the lake was just cool enough to take the edge off the heat of the afternoon.

About a half candlemark later, they found a clearing that was small, yet warmly lit by the sun. By mutual agreement, each woman set about gathering deadfall for a fire. Soon, Kyrian had a pot of tea steeping beside the fire, while Azhani laid out a blanket and spread out their food.

“So, what’s next, Azhani?” Kyrian asked after they had eaten.

“What do you mean?”

“For you – for us, I mean. Have you decided how you’re going to deal with Arris yet?” The stardancer asked curiously.

Azhani toyed with the peace-cords on her dagger and stared into the forest. “I’d like to.” She sighed and bowed her head, shaking it slightly. When she looked up, there was a strangely haunted expression on her sharply featured face. “I don’t know what I want to do with Arris yet. I used to know, but now…” Her voice trailed off as she stared into the stardancer’s dark green eyes. Uncomfortably, she looked away. “I think I’d rather deal with the demons. At least I know what needs to be done with them.”

“Okay. I can understand that,” said Kyrian. What’s going on with her? She used to be so sure of herself.

“Of course, whatever I do will depend on what Lyssera wants,” Azhani temporized. Restlessly, she picked up a handful of pebbles and started pitching them at distant targets. “I agreed to work for her – to teach Allyn how to be a warrior, and he’s no where near competent enough to survive even a small fight.”

“He’s good though,” Kyrian said. “He nearly had me, the other day.”

“Yeah, but you’re better than he is, you just have trouble with-“

“Aggression, I know. Thanks, by the way, for listening to me, and not judging,” the stardancer said, reaching out to lay a hand on the warrior’s leg.

Azhani covered her friend’s hand with hers and gave it a slight squeeze. “It was no trouble, my friend. You listened to my story, and you’re still my friend. I could do no less for you.” I wanted to hear your story, Kyr. Can’t you see that? You’re not alone in this friendship – I want you to like me as much as I like you. Just how much she liked the stardancer was not a question Azhani was prepared to ask, or answer.

“Well, thanks, okay? It’s been a long time since I had someone I could really talk to,” Kyrian said. She stood up and shook out her robes, laughing as crumbs from their lunch rained down onto the blanket. “Oh, I’m such a mess! I hope I don’t have food smeared on my face. I’d hate to walk into Oakheart with jelly on my nose.”

Azhani stood as well and walked over to inspect the stardancer’s face. Smiling, she reached up to gently brush away a bit of dried food. “Just a little bit of something,” she said as her fingers grazed the other woman’s lips. “Right here,” she finished a bit breathlessly.

An electric tingle passed through them as their eyes met. Everything went still as the warrior continued to lightly stroke the stardancer’s lips. Azhani started to lean forward, drawn to the lips she was caressing.

Kyrian couldn’t breathe. Her lungs were screaming for air, but she dared not take a breath as the warrior moved closer, until she was almost close enough to- Is she going to kiss me?

“Hello? Master Azhani? Stardancer Kyrian? Are you out here?” Allyndev Kelani’s voice was never more welcome, or hated, than it was at that moment. The young, half-elven prince finally crashed into the clearing just as Azhani spun around to greet him.

“We’re right here, Allyn. What is it?” asked the warrior concernedly.

Smiling sheepishly, the prince reached into his belt pouch and pulled out a scroll. “Aunt Lyss thought you might want to see this right away,” he explained.

Azhani took the scroll, broke the seal and unfurled it, reading the text quickly. When she was finished, she crumpled up the message. With an oath, she threw it to the ground.

“Azhi? What is it?” Kyrian asked, stepping close to her friend and laying a hand on the warrior’s arm.

“It’s from my grandfather,” she said bitterly. “He wants me to meet with him later. Said something about protecting his grandson’s inheritance. As if I would accept one copper from that bastard!”

“I-“ Kyrian was stunned. The stardancer knew that the warrior was half-elven, but she had assumed that Azhani had no living relatives. “Maybe he just wants an excuse to meet you,” she said lamely.

Azhani bit off a bark of choked laughter. “We’ve met. After I told him exactly what I thought of him, he tried to have me arrested.”

“Oh. Well…”

“It’s all right.” Azhani sighed and looked up at the sky, gauging the time by the position of the sun. “We should be heading back anyway.”

“Okay. Allyn and I will pack this stuff up if you’ll put out the fire,” Kyrian said, giving the prince a pointed look.

“Yeah, I don’t mind helping, Master Azhani,” the young man said.

The warrior nodded and went over to begin shoveling dirt over the fire. As she worked, she reviewed the last moments before Allyn’s arrival. When she realized that she had been a heartbeat away from kissing her friend, she nearly dropped the shovel into the fire.

Goddess! I almost… gods, I can’t even think it, much less say it! What is going on with me? She looked up and saw that Kyrian and Allyn were finished with their task and were waiting patiently for her. Can’t think about this now, but soon, she promised herself. I’ve got to figure this out.
%%%
Should have known the old bastard was only worried about his money, thought Azhani as she stormed out of the inn where she had met with her grandfather. As she had assumed, the patriarch of the Oakleaf clan had come to Y’Syria to obtain her signature on some documents. The papers were legal forms that basically forced her to relinquish any claim she had on his estate. I gladly signed the damn things! She thought vehemently, glaring at a passerby until he moved out of her way. Should have let Kyr come with me, though. I hated sitting in that stuffy little room all by myself…

The warrior sighed and chuckled wryly. She had specifically asked the stardancer to stay behind. Pride, or stubbornness, or both had forced her to meet with Lord Oakleaf alone. The man had been arrogant to the point of irritation, treating Azhani like she was the lowest piece of dirt in the kingdom.
“Sign this, bastard, and you’ll get a good sum for your time. My grandson’s future will not be sullied by your progeny,” Oakleaf said, thrusting a pen toward the glowering warrior.

“It’s always about money with you, isn’t it Grandfather?” Azhani snarled the word. She grabbed the pen and scribbled her name on the lines he indicated.

Satisfaction glittering in his eyes, he rudely shoved a leather pouch across the table toward her. “It’s always about money, child. When you understand that – you might be worthy to be an Oakleaf. Until then, get out of my sight!”

Spinning on her heel so that he would not see her tears – tears she bitterly refused to shed, Azhani left the room, and the pouch of money.
Gods, I’m glad that’s over. The warrior rubbed her temples in an abortive attempt to stop the headache she could feel building at the base of her skull. Don’t want to go back yet. It’s nice out here. Looking around, she spotted the gates to the local bazaar and decided to investigate. Soon, she was lost in the sights, sounds and smells of the trader’s market.
%%%
Gliding from shadow to shadow, Azhani Rhu’len prowled the streets of Y’Syria. Blue eyes drank in the fog-dusted sights, remembering, living in the past. There, at Banner Gate, she and Theodan had first entered the elven port. Twenty years and a little more it had been since the king and his soon to be warleader had come to see the Child of the Oaks made Queen.

The Y’Syran pennant flapped gently over the eastern gate. It was the first sign that she and Kyrian had made it through the plains. Not far from there, was the residence of Tellyn Jarelle. From there, Azhani had slipped out on a moonless night, driven by her honor to seek the queen’s audience.

In her pouch was the note she had left for Kyrian, its damning presence a daily reminder of how she had failed to maintain her vow of friendship. When the stardancer had forgiven her, they had laughed over the scrawled message’s terse words and Azhani had promised to never again leave without telling her friend.

Since then, their relationship had only grown stronger. The few weeks that she and Kyrian had been separated had felt like forever, and having her friend beside her again was wonderful in ways that were difficult to accept. The depth of her feelings for the stardancer, both disconcerted and delighted Azhani.

The night she had knelt in the dungeon, cradling Ylera’s lifeless body, had left her numb and wishing only for the peace of death. Facing the crowds the next day, hearing the trumped up charges that Arris and his cronies had leveled against her, woke a volcanic eruption of anger, shoving aside the numbness and letting out a demon. It was at that moment that Azhani realized that she had to live – live and exact the most incredible revenge since man had first come to Y’myran.

Spurred on by that resolve, it had been terribly easy to carve a path through the men and women who attempted to carry out Arris’ bloody wishes. Reaching the roadway had been both a blessing and a curse. Her bloodlust was barely sated yet what rational part of her mind was still in control knew she needed to escape. There was no way that the king would allow her to truly win free of the gauntlet. Seizing the first horse she spotted, Azhani rode like Hell itself had opened up and nightmares were pouring forth.

Doubling back on her route, she had left the dying horse on the roadside south of Y’dannyv. Slowly, she worked her way back to the lakeside city where the old blind woman took her in, keeping her hidden until Arris’ dogs lost her trail. It was during this time that she realized that her leg was shattered.

Azhani could not remember which of the blows had done the damage, but she knew she was lost if she tried to travel on it. Accepting a gift of bow and arrows, Azhani then used scrap bits she found littering her strange, but kindly savior’s home to fashion splints and a makeshift crutch. She had to leave Y’dannyv and there was only one place she could go. Northward lie her father’s homestead, and it was there she would head.

Since it was on the edge of the Y’dani border, she felt sure than neither Arris nor any of his servants knew it existed. By the time any information regarding its location did become known to the king, Azhani planned to be long gone. Y’Syr wasn’t far and she still remembered those names that Ylera had painstakingly taught her. Perhaps she would find succor there. If nothing else, death by the hand of Queen Lyssera, was far preferable to life as Arris’ whore.

Fate had thrown a wrench into her plans when it had put her in the path of that Cabalian kidnapper and his victim. It occurred to Azhani to wonder why the stardancer had been taken in the first place, but then the thought passed, replaced by the memory of their first encounter.

Unbidden, a smile rose to transform the warrior’s harshly planed face to that of striking beauty. Feisty was the only word she could use to describe the adorable young woman. Astariu moves in so many ways, and most of them mysterious and cunning, she thought wryly.

Not only had Kyrian stayed with Azhani after discovering who her rescuer was, she had used her Goddess-given skills to heal the warrior’s shattered leg. The act had sealed the warrior’s gratitude forever, for without the leg, she was useless as a fighter. Kyrian’s generous gift of healing had allowed the warrior to dream of the day that Arris’ blood would coat her sword.

Except now, that dream was silent; a translucent memory that faded away like the fog in the morning sun. A breeze drifted in from the lake, rattling the beads woven into the warrior’s braids. That was another benefit to befriending Kyrian; the stardancer seemed to adore playing with Azhani’s thick, black hair. Once a week, she would show up at the warrior’s door, armed with a brush, soap and towels.

At first, Azhani had tried to send her away, but memories of the first time Kyrian had brushed and braided her hair, flooded her mind. Forced to admit that she enjoyed the pampering, Azhani allowed the stardancer to style her heavy locks as she pleased. Now, Azhani looked forward to the weekly sessions with guilty pleasure. Kyrian’s hands were always gentle, always soft, and the stardancer seemed to come up with new ways to style and braid the hair, so that it fell loosely, yet remained out of the warrior’s eyes.

This week, there had been beads. For next week, Kyrian had promised feathers, freshly purchased from a trader in the bazaar. Snorting dryly, Azhani realized that she was looking forward to seeing just how barbaric she would look with her hair dressed up like one of the wild elves that lived in the forests of Y’dror. Unconsciously, she played with one of the small, ceramic beads that Kyrian had carefully woven into her hair. It was cool to the touch; the surface smoothly glazed a deep, indigo blue.
“To match your eyes, my friend,” Kyrian had explained, laughing when Azhani’s dark eyebrows rose in question over the decorative additions. “They’re so remarkable – I can’t help but notice when something comes close to their beauty.” Then she’d blushed, her fair skin easily pinking. “Sorry,” she’d muttered, shoving the bead back into a pouch. “I’ll just, um…”

“Get the damn bead out of that damn pouch and put it in my damn hair,” the warrior had growled. She laughed when Kyrian perked up and began to weave the baubles easily into the thick hanks of hair.

Kyrian hummed softly to herself, the melody so soothing that Azhani had found that she was drifting between a state of consciousness and somnolence. Perhaps that was why she had imagined that Kyrian’s fingers lingered longer than was necessary. Each tiny stroke had been paired with a gentle caress to the dusky bronze skin of Azhani’s neck. Yeah, that had to be it, right? Because she and Kyrian were just friends and she wasn’t attracted to the beautiful stardancer. Yes, that was it; it was a daydream. So why the hell did she suddenly want it to be real?
Once more, haunted blue eyes gazed out on the sun-drenched city, each highlighted rooftop inspiring memories that chased endlessly through her head.
%%%
The knock was almost soundless, yet it invaded Kyrian’s dreams and woke her from a sound sleep. Drowsily tumbling from her bed, she grabbed a sheer silk robe from the back of a chair and pulled it on. The material was thin and barely covered her nakedness, but was enough to satisfy the bounds of propriety.

Grumbling about wishing folks would keep decent hours as she padded through the room, she opened the door expecting to find one of the queen’s pages with an obscure message from Starseeker Vashyra. Instead, Azhani’s haggard, careworn face shocked the stardancer to full alertness.

“I need you,” the warrior whispered and then stood there, unable to ask, but clearly begging to come in.

“I am always here for you, my friend,” Kyrian said, stepping aside and allowing Azhani to enter.

The warrior stumbled in, collapsing on Kyrian’s bed like she was severely intoxicated.

Kyrian closed the door and slowly walked over to the bed, carefully sitting next to the warrior. “Are you drunk?” she asked, thinking over the various cures she had for hangovers and hoping one of them would work on the warrior’s strong constitution.

“Haven’t touched a drop in weeks,” Azhani said woodenly. Suddenly, she turned, taking a long, hard look at her friend. Kyrian felt her cheeks flush as the warrior’s gaze lingered over every exposed curve. Azhani’s eyes reached her face, and finally matched her gaze.

“Azhani, wha-what is it that you need?” Kyrian forced herself to say, as she tore her eyes away from drowning in a sea of cobalt blue.

“You,” Azhani whispered, one hand lifting to reach for Kyrian. “I need you, Kyrian.” The warrior’s gaze shifted to the floor and she whispered, “Are you in love with me, healer?”

The question ripped through the air and into Kyrian’s heart like a knife. Every shred of hope that the stardancer had bundled up and locked away in carefully constructed boxes, began to rattle, screaming for release. Oh, goddess…

“Azhi… I…” the words struggled to get out, but months of imprisoning her tongue made it difficult for them to escape.

Azhani took Kyrian’s lack of response as her answer and stood to leave. “I am sorry, Kyrian, to have awakened you. I shall see you in the morning, at breakfast.” She turned to leave, closing her eyes against the scorn that she was sure lurked in the other woman’s eyes. One step, two steps, just a few more and she would be out and away from the rejection that she could feel gathering in the room.

How could I have ever thought that someone like her would want a murderer like me?

Another step. She reached out and felt the shape of the doorknob under her fingers and gripped it, starting to turn it.

“Azhani, wait… I, yes, I am in love with you!” Kyrian leapt off the bed and raced across the room, somehow finding herself in front of the door and pushing the warrior’s hand off the handle. She looked up and put both hands on Azhani’s arms. “Do you… feel the same?” she brazenly returned the question, keeping her eyes locked on the warrior’s.

Blue eyes blinked and then a slow, sweet smile drifted across Azhani’s face.

“Yes,” she whispered simply. Azhani leaned into Kyrian, pressing her against the hard wooden door. The stardancer’s hands slid up Azhani’s arms until they cupped her cheeks. The warrior’s skin was hot under the delicate coolness of Kyrian’s touch.

An answering smile leapt from Kyrian’s face, making Azhani’s heart ache at its beauty. She reached out and brushed her knuckles along Kyrian’s cheek. Boldly, her friend leaned into the touch. “Mmm,” she purred as Azhani’s fingers skimmed across the skin to tuck several stray strands of hair behind her ear.

Azhani tipped her head down, her smile widening as Kyrian’s hands slid into her hair and flexed, gripping the braids. Their lips touched, brushed, painted each other lightly and then, joined fiercely. Tentatively, Kyrian slid her tongue into Azhani’s mouth, moaning when the warrior returned the passion tenfold. The bright edge of teeth clashed, as their kissing grew heated, until their ardor became almost painful.

Desire rose thickly in Azhani, forcing her to draw back and take in a ragged lungful of air. She licked her lips, tasting Kyrian on them and feeling the last remnants of the numbness around her heart crumble away. Smiling warmly, the stardancer pulled the warrior down for another kiss, pressing into her and wrapping her leg around Azhani’s.

Delicately, Azhani ran her tongue over Kyrian’s bottom lip, teasing the stardancer’s mouth into a soft pout, then plunged in, drinking deeply of her new love’s appreciative moans. Trembling wantonly, Kyrian surrendered to the warrior’s hunger, grinding her silk-clad hips against the warrior’s thigh.

Azhani groaned appreciatively. Tracing Kyrian’s lips with her tongue and then brushing a trail of kisses down her lover’s face to her throat, the warrior paused to suckle at the throbbing pulse she found there. After only moments of tenderly tasting the stardancer’s skin, Azhani retraced the still wet path back to the stardancer’s lips, crushing her mouth into Kyrian’s in a bruising, deeply passionate kiss.

Kyrian felt the change immediately. Their first kiss had been timid, with a sweetness that defied the near frantic need that she felt welling out of her, as Azhani’s fingers stroked her neck. This was different; this was a kiss of such awareness that Kyrian couldn’t help but respond to the desire coiling around her. Fiercely, the stardancer kissed Azhani, opening herself to the warrior’s passionate need, completely. She barely felt it when the warrior bit into her bottom lip, slightly piercing the skin.

A tiny whimper broke into Azhani’s concentration and she stopped kissing Kyrian and pulled away.

“Oh gods, I’m sorry, Kyr,” the warrior said, noticing a tiny trickle of blood that was oozing from a cut on the stardancer’s lip.

Kyrian dabbed at the wound with her fingers and shook her head. “Don’t be; I’m not. Kiss me again,” she whispered, pleading for more of the intoxicating touch.

“I don’t,” Azhani said, raining feather light kisses on the stardancer’s face, “ever want to hurt you, Kyr.”

“Won’t happen,” Kyrian promised, wrapping her arms around the warrior’s neck and capturing her lips for a long, uninterrupted period. “Because I understand.” She did. Somehow, she recognized that this was new; that the explosive emotions flooding the room were so raw and tender that they would have to tread lightly. Time would lay the ghosts and demons of the past to rest. Together, she and Azhani would slowly seek their future.

Azhani nuzzled her face against the top of Kyrian’s head, breathing in the scent of the fresh herbs that the stardancer’s soap contained. “I should go,” she whispered. “We … I…”

“I know, but… stay anyway,” Kyrian said, slipping away from Azhani but taking her hand and drawing her toward the bed. “Hold me. Be here in the light of morning so that I know I’m not dreaming,” she pleaded softly. “I don’t kick, remember?” She smiled softly.

If you stay tonight, warrior, you will stay every night. There’s no walking away after that. The thoughts raced through her mind. Stay, and you will be saying good-bye to Ylera for good, you know that. Kyrian is forever – you know how passionate she is. She will never be content to be just “for now”.

I’ve already said good-bye to Ylera. It’s not like I’ve never slept with Kyrian. Though nothing in the past will feel quite like lying with her in my arms, knowing she loves me as I love her. Goddess, I love her. I do. I never thought I could, but I do love her, and I am not going to take one more breath without her by my side!

“All right,” Azhani agreed after a few moments. Quietly, she surrendered to both the wishes of her heart and the wishes of her beloved, allowing Kyrian to lead her to the bed. There was some awkwardness once they reached the edge, but the warrior pushed the strangeness aside; after all, they had seen each other naked many times before in the baths.

It was different though, now, in the dim moonlight. Kyrian’s robe slithered away, revealing pale, almost colorless skin. When Azhani’s clothes joined the robe in a fabric puddle, the difference between them was mutely obvious. Scars liberally peppered the warrior’s dark brown skin, standing out starkly. Years as King Theodan’s warleader had left their mark on Azhani’s body.

“You are so beautiful,” whispered Kyrian, as she gazed into Azhani’s eyes. For the first time, she was able to put voice to the thought that had been with her since the very first time she saw the warrior.

“And you are a shameless flatterer who should spend more time looking into a mirror. You are the one who is beautiful, my Kyrian.” Reverently, Azhani stroked Kyrian’s face, stopping with her fingers just above the stardancer’s hammering pulse. “It’s time to sleep; is that okay?”

“Oh yeah,” Kyrian said breathlessly as Azhani slid into the mussed sheets and scooted over, making room for the stardancer. “It’s very okay.”

Skin on skin was a sensation that left both women fighting to cling to their unspoken agreement. Warmth cocooned around them, the covers both shielding and adding to the hundreds of tiny little jolts that skittered across their skin. Soon, they found the right joining of arms and legs, heads and shoulders and lay quietly. As they cuddled close, they could hear each other’s heartbeats diminish from hammer blows to gentle thuds. Rhythmically, their breath began to flow around them as sleep stole in on gossamer wings.

Thank you, they jointly prayed as they drifted off into the dreamrealms.
%%%
Daylight streamed in through the windows, flooding over the two women wrapped tightly around each other. Gazing sleepily at Kyrian, Azhani dared to touch what she was certain was a dream. Sun-warmed skin pebbled under her light caress. A soft, almost inaudible intake of breath let the warrior know that Kyrian was very aware of the touch. Reverently, Azhani stroked Kyrian’s arm from shoulder to wrist, then continued the caress down to her hip.

Drawing her fingers back up their previous path, the warrior nuzzled her cheek against Kyrian’s amber-tinted hair. Azhani’s heartbeat began to thunder loudly as the caress was returned. Butterfly soft kisses fluttered against her collarbone, creating tiny jolts of pleasure that buzzed pleasantly in her belly.

“Good morning,” Azhani rumbled, her voice harsh from sleep. I think I could wake up next to Kyr every day until the stars faded, and not feel like I’d done it enough.

Kyrian stretched, her naked body gliding sensuously against Azhani’s similarly nude form. “Morning,” she replied, yawning. Reaching over the warrior’s shoulder, she unhooked a water skin from the bedpost and took a long swallow, then offered it to Azhani. Their hands brushed, causing Kyrian to sigh dreamily. Can the havens be any better than this? Blinking sleepily, Kyrian watched as Azhani uncapped the skin and tipped it up, squirting a stream of clear water into her mouth.

The warrior drank, then laid the skin aside and drew Kyrian in for a kiss. Mapping newly familiar territory with her lips, Azhani used her hands and fingers to explore Kyrian’s body, igniting the stardancer’s desire to bonfire heights. Unlike the kisses of the previous night, this kiss was neither tentative nor passionate. Aware and teasing, the embrace added yet another new facet to their burgeoning love.

Kyrian opened her eyes, and passion had darkened forest green to emerald fire. Many questions danced in her head, and many fears pressed to escape. Gazing deeply into Azhani’s nearly purple eyes, Kyrian sought new answers to the questions that had been asked by moonlight.

For a moment, her heart froze as she waited for a response. Then, a gently crooked smile broke out over the harshly planed beauty of Azhani’s face. This smile was for Kyrian alone. This warming of indigo eyes was because of the stardancer’s love and touch. The ice that had rapidly formed inside of Kyrian evaporated, leaving behind only loving warmth.

Bravely, the stardancer unwound her fingers from the warrior’s braided hair and began to touch her, lightly caressing all of Azhani’s curves. Delicately, she traced the sharply defined slope of the warrior’s nose and lips, stopping to briefly slip her fingertip into the warrior’s mouth. Continuing her exploration, Kyrian skimmed her fingers down Azhani’s throat and over several tiny scars.

Azhani let out a soft groan of appreciation. Smiling, Kyrian leaned down and kissed the warrior gently and then let her fingers drift across the slope of Azhani’s breast. Lovingly, she stroked the warrior’s dusky nipples until they hardened.

“Gods, Kyr,” Azhani growled softly, causing the stardancer to smile.

Kyrian loved this. She loved the way the warrior’s muscles trembled under the tips of her fingers as she touched her. It was exciting, intoxicating even, to look up and see that her desire was mirrored in Azhani’s eyes. When Azhani threw her head back to moan with desire, Kyrian pressed delicate kisses along the revealed skin.

The warrior’s pleasure revealed itself as a deep groan that vibrated along her entire body. “Ah goddess,” she whispered, rolling onto her back and drawing the stardancer on top of her. She scraped her blunt nails lightly over Kyrian’s back, stroking her soft skin gently, then stopping to cup the firm smoothness of her lover’s buttocks. The fire between them was rapidly blazing out of control. Kyrian nipped and sucked at every bit of exposed skin she could reach. The shadows of the past were quickly vanishing under the stardancer’s loving caress.

Touching Kyrian was nothing like touching Ylera. Where Ylera had been long and thin, Kyrian was short and muscular. Azhani found that she wanted to lose herself in the shape and feel of the stardancer. Every new sound that Kyrian made was a gentle goad that drove the warrior to try harder.

Their breath came in broken gasps as they kissed, and both women were ignoring the ache of already bruised lips. The unspoken agreement of the night before melted away in the bright reality of waking naked in each other’s arms. Bathed in sunlight, any ghosts that lingered in the room vanished, leaving them free to express their desire.

Kyrian broke the kiss first, sliding off Azhani’s body and sitting up on the bed. “We should stop,” she wistfully said, though she continued to stroke the warrior’s abdomen. I wish we didn’t have to. Her brow wrinkled as she sighed heavily. The very idea of pulling her hands away, of ceasing to indulge in the delightful sensation of Azhani’s skin made her heart tremor painfully.

Staring up at the ceiling, Azhani laced her fingers behind her head and just let the sensations of Kyrian’s gentle touch have free rein. Fleetingly, she wondered if she were crazy to allow herself to fall in love again. Common sense intruded, forcing her to realize that, where Kyrian was concerned, she had no control over her heart. From the moment they had met until this very candlemark, Azhani knew that fate had been weaving them together.

Her first impulse was to stop, and let what her body was craving slide away to be explored another day. Would setting aside the desires of their hearts be wise? Or was she only punishing herself, and worse yet, Kyrian, for falling in love? Everything about loving Kyrian felt inescapably right; turning her back on that would be a slap in destiny’s face.

She closed her eyes as the stardancer’s feather-light caresses grew bolder and bolder, edging over the curves of her ribs, and down her side, to glide over the bones of her hips. The voices of caution blew away under the loving onslaught.

“I don’t want to stop,” she whispered as she captured Kyrian’s hand and brought it up to her lips, kissing the fingertips softly. She stopped at the stardancer’s index finger and began to suck on it slowly, running her teeth over the ridges of her lover’s skin. “Do you?” she asked, continuing to suckle the fingers lovingly.

“No,” came the barely audible reply. Kyrian was shaking. The touch, the desire, and the emotions she felt were caught up in a cyclone of sensation, and it sent her reeling.

Azhani opened her eyes to the sight of Kyrian’s face tipped up and her mouth parted in rapture. The vision broke a damn inside of Azhani. Driven by both love and desire, she rolled up to her knees, then leaned over and wrapped her arms around the stardancer, cradling her loosely and kissing her deeply.

“Oh goddess, I love you, my Azhi,” Kyrian whispered between the gently passionate kisses. Azhani’s braids tickled her face and the stardancer laughed joyfully, threaded her fingers through the warrior’s ebony hair, and affectionately pushed them away.

Pulling the stardancer down to the bed, Azhani whispered back, “I love you too, Kyrian.” Their legs twined as their hips arched and ground together. Soft gasps shuddered out lengthily as their fingers found sensitive spots and learned what touches caused pleasure to each other.

The sounds of their loving filled the room as their mouths and tongues retraced the paths of their fingers and hands. Sunbeams highlighted the bedding as it slipped to the floor, their warmth unable to compete with the rising tide of passion generated by two newly made lovers.
~Chapter Thirty~
For three days, Kyrian and Azhani luxuriated in their changed relationship. Alternately talking and loving, they forged an easy partnership. Yet even though she was able to bare her deepest fears regarding battle, Kyrian still found that she could not tell Azhani that she had known Ylera.

It seemed somehow disrespectful to mention the warrior’s deceased lover while she held her, loved her, in that lover’s home. Instead, Kyrian focused her mind on the future and where she and Azhani were going with their lives.

Afternoon sunlight bathed the two lovers as they were curled together in a chair, feeding each other bits of food.

“Azhi, if you could go anywhere in the Seven Kingdoms, where would you go?” Kyrian asked while painting the warrior’s lips with a dollop of honey.

Leaning up, the warrior shared the sweet, indulging in a long, tender kiss that left both of them breathless. Pulling back, she stroked her lover’s face and tweaked her nose, then replied, “I don’t know.” A shrug rolled off her shoulders. “I’ve never really thought about it. When Theodan was king of Y’dan, I had a place there and I always thought I would serve the people of Y’dan in one fashion or another – it never occurred to me to think that I would have the time to live elsewhere.” She scooped up a bit of scrambled egg on a fork and fed it to Kyrian.

Chewing thoughtfully, Kyrian swallowed and said, “I’d like to see the sea. I’ve never been to the coast and I imagine it’s breathtaking.”

“Smells like dead fish and there lots of sand and salt – it’s not everything the bards make it out to be,” Azhani commented as she sipped at a cup of warm tea. “But, if you’re still curious after,” she didn’t have to say after what, “We’ll take a vacation there.”

Snuggling against the warrior’s chest, Kyrian murmured, “Sounds nice.” Inside, she was wriggling with glee. She’s thinking of after! She’s actually looking beyond the next candlemark. The casual revelation sent a jolt of loving warmth straight to the stardancer’s heart and made her wish she could find the words to let Azhani know what that meant to her.

“You like that idea?” asked Azhani, chuckling at how cuddly her lover was. It was something totally new to the warrior; Ylera had enjoyed holding her, but Kyrian seemed to revel in physical demonstrations of her affection. Not a candlemark went by when she didn’t find some excuse to touch, brush or otherwise come into contact with the warrior. As she thought about it, measuring the puddle of candlemarks the stardancer had put into touching her, Azhani realized that Kyrian had been doing it since they had first met.

Grinning, Kyrian tilted her head up and planted a wet, sloppy kiss on Azhani’s chin. “I love that idea,” she said while Azhani made a face and wiped away the slobber.

The warrior gently tickled her lover’s side. “Good. I like thinking about it.” Soberly, she added, “You gave me a future to hope for, Kyr. If nothing else, I would love you for that.”

“Did you say that just to watch me turn into a pile of oatmeal, Azhi, or are you just being sappy?” Kyrian teased, though her eyes sparkled with a pleased smile.

“Mm, oatmeal,” Azhani purred, nibbling on Kyrian’s earlobe. “Pretty tasty horse food if you ask me,” she teased back.

“Azhi!” Kyrian exclaimed, slapping the warrior’s chest lightly.

“Well, don’t you two look like the picture of domesticity.” Queen Lyssera’s amused voice interrupted them. A tiny smile graced her lips, transforming her face from its usual austerity, to true pleasure. Thank you, Goddess! She has grabbed life with both hands. I can let my people follow her and trust that she will not throw away their lives.

As they scrambled to disentangle, Azhani and Kyrian both ended up sprawled on the floor, the remains of their breakfast liberally decorating their faces, hair and clothing. Kyrian buried her head under her arms and Azhani refused to look at Lyssera, staring up at the ceiling as if suddenly finding the mosaics and paintings that decorated the room of serious interest.

Clear, infectious laughter burst out of the queen. Clutching her sides, Lyssera laughed until her friends joined her, all three carrying on until they were prostrate with mirth. Grabbing for a chair, the queen sat down, suddenly grave faced.

Azhani and Kyrian helped each other up and found chairs of their own. Quietly, they brushed the crumbs of their interrupted meal off their clothes and waited for the queen to speak.

Sadly smiling, Lyssera said, “I am very happy that you found the door to each other’s hearts.” She sighed. “Perhaps that will make this news easier. I have had a letter from King Arris.”

Raising both eyebrows, Azhani quipped, “Well, what did the lunatic want?”

“Among his rambling declaratives about how great he was and how wonderful his life was now that he had given over to the worship of the true god Ecarthus, he blithely informed me that he was looking to go demon hunting this winter. Then he condescended to ask if I’d like to send over some of my ‘much vaunted but probably overrated’ elven archers.” Lyssera rubbed her face and shook her head. “You know, even if I didn’t know he was a madman, I’d tell him no. If he’s so sure that demons are spawning in his mountains, then I’ll just bet there are more than a few in mine.”

“I’m sure of it,” Azhani said, her voice deadly serious. “The mountains here are higher and they stay snow-covered all year; perfect breeding ground for those damned creatures. I would recommend…” the warrior’s voice trailed off

“Yes?” one blonde eyebrow rose inquisitively. “Your opinion is valid, Azhani. Do not be afraid to speak.”

“I do not serve you as a tactician, my queen, but I have many years of battling hell’s minions in my background. I would suggest that you send small scout groups into the mountains to seek breeding caves. If they are found now, the demons can be eliminated before they hatch.” The warrior’s tone was quiet and there was an emptiness to it that made both Lyssera and Kyrian look closer.

“You were going to go and look anyway, weren’t you, Azhi?” Kyrian asked.

The warrior looked away, unable to meet her lover’s eyes.

“Well, in the interests of my kingdom’s security, I’ll do as you suggest warrior. Stay here and enjoy your time with Kyrian. Let my scouts be our eyes. I will decide what to do when I have more information.” Lyssera gave the warrior a look that brooked no arguments.

Nodding, Azhani said, “Yes, my queen.”
%%%
When the queen’s scouts returned two weeks later, the news they bore was not good. In the lowest portions of the mountains where snow still dappled the rocks, they had found cave upon cave full of the smooth, rubbery sacks that contained the incubating life forms known as demons. Putting the ones they found to the torch, the scouts rushed back to Y’Syria to inform the queen of their discovery.

No matter how hard Lyssera tried to keep the information under wraps, the men talked, and soon the city was in a state of chaos. Panicking nobles gathered their families and headed to the southern provinces, convinced that come winter, the mountains would unleash a torrent of evil that nothing could stop. Those that remained behind grimly prepared for war.

In a decision that caused her Council to explode in an uproar, Lyssera named Azhani Rhu’len as the interim Warleader. Stating that the warrior was uniquely qualified to lead the elven army against the demons, Lyssera blithely ignored the furor and insisted that the ceremony be carried out immediately.

Not since Princess Alynna, Allyndev’s mother, had there been a Warleader in Y’Syr, and the people turned out in droves to see who had been chosen to protect their kingdom. Kneeling on a high platform in the center of Y’Syria, Azhani proudly accepted the queen’s commission.

As the sun reached its midpoint in the sky, Starseeker Vashyra dipped her fingers into a bowl filled with blessed water and ran her fingers through the warrior’s braids, liberally wetting them.

“I cleanse you before the gods, warrior,” the priest said solemnly, stepping back to allow the queen to take her place.

Lyssera lifted a sheathed blade, holding it out to Azhani hilt first. In a clear, ringing voice she said, “Azhani, daughter of Rhu’len, Scion of the House DaCoure, you have proven your worth to the people of Y’Syr. We are a land in danger from the minions of hell and we have no Warleader. Will you take up your sword and defend us? Will you accept the burden of command and pledge your life against our honor?”

“I will,” Azhani replied gravely, touching the hilt. Though she looked up at Lyssera, her mind’s eye saw a similar scene from nearly twelve seasons prior.
“You are the best damn warrior I’ve ever had the pleasure to serve with, Azhani Rhu’len. For that reason, as well as others, I want you to take up the flag of Y’dan and lead my armies. Will you do it?” Theodan’s kindly blue eyes sparkled with amusement at the shock written plainly on his favorite warrior’s face.

Standing on a field of battle, surrounded by a swath of death that would send lesser men running, the two had emerged victorious. The bodies of hellish demons and Y’myrani soldiers commingled in noxious piles of carnage. Cries and wails of the dying could be heard echoing around the mountains. The cost of life had been great, but Azhani had successfully led the combined armies of the kingdoms against the demons, slaughtering them to the last, rescuing Theodan’s small platoon.

“I don’t suppose I have a choice, do I?” the bloodied, gore spattered warrior replied, leaning on her sword and keeping a distrusting eye on the piles of the dead. Until the field had been torched, she wasn’t going to let her guard down. Somewhere out in that field lay Y’dan’s former warleader. Ketheryn Mor, Theodan’s younger brother, had died valiantly.

Smiling wryly, Theodan clapped her on the shoulder and said, “’Fraid not, my old friend. Come on, let’s get out of here and go find some cold ale. Let the priests deal with this mess.”

Together, they limped away, and headed for the king’s pavilion.
“So be it. Let all hear and rejoice. Arise Azhani Rhu’len, Warleader of Y’Syr!” Lyssera shouted, turning the sword enough to draw it and tap the rising warrior’s elbows with the flat of the blade.

Gasps could be heard as the audience viewed the sword for the first time. When Azhani had first told Lyssera about Padreg’s gift, she had laughed and said, “What I wouldn’t give to see Arris’ face when he finds out about it!”

Taking her sword, Azhani slowly raised the blade overhead, blinking as sunlight struck the metal, causing it to blaze with rainbow fire.

“By the Twins, I charge you to live with honor.” Starseeker Vashyra stepped forward and cupped her damp hands around Azhani’s face. “From this moment, all past deeds have no meaning; you are reborn, my child.” Bringing the warrior’s head down, she kissed her brow. The priest turned and faced the crowd.

Lyssera’s herald then cried out, “Let all stand and bear witness; three cheers for our Warleader! Hip-hip huzzah!”

“Huzzah!” the crowd shouted back.

Looking out at the mass of people, one face stood out to the warrior’s blurred vision. At the edge of the crowd, Kyrian gazed up; love and pride clear in her bright smile. The stardancer had been wary of Lyssera’s plan to give the title of warleader to Azhani, but now, seeing the way her lover proudly stood against the disapproving glares of the Y’Syran nobles, she realized that it had been the right idea.

Beside her, Prince Allyn fairly bounced with glee at seeing his mentor so honored. In their short time together, the young man had come to cherish the warrior’s terse wisdom and sharp sense of humor. He was doubly excited because Azhani had informed him that morning that as her squire, he would accompany the war party to the mountains.

“I knew you’d find a good use for that old relic!” a familiar voice boomed out over the crowd as Azhani hung Gormerath at her side.

Striding through a rapidly opening corridor came Padreg, chieftain of Y’Nor. He was followed closely by his lady, Elisira Glinholt and his squire, Devon Imry. Pleasantly surprised, Azhani surveyed her friends as they approached.

Young Devon had sprouted like a weed over the months; a tall, fine boned young man had replaced the gawky boy. Wavy brown locks had grown out, straightening and giving the boy a noble appearance. Hazel eyes still held the mischievous sparkle of youth, and a huge smile was plastered on his face as he struggled to keep his position behind his lord.

Weeks in the sun had darkened Elisira’s pale skin, leaving her more beautiful than before. Dressed in the traditional soft leather garments of plains nomads, she and Padreg stood out easily against the backdrop of Y’Syran silks and velvets. Geometric beadwork patterns decorated every inch of the suede leather clothes, depicting the clan chief’s tribal emblem. Padreg’s dark, muddy brown hair was tied back in a simple tail, while Elisira’s raven locks were allowed to flow freely, the strands of hair catching in the wind and buffeting her face. With them was a young woman that neither Azhani nor Kyrian recognized.

Lyssera descended from the platform, reaching her hands out to Padreg and embracing him warmly. “We are always pleased to greet our cousin from the south,” she said cordially.

Returning the queen’s greeting, Padreg said, “As I am always pleased to visit your fair city, cousin.”

Introductions were quietly made after the hastily ended ceremony. The unfamiliar young woman with Padreg and Elisira was Princess Syrelle of Y’mar. The princess was young, between Devon and Allyndev in age, but carried herself with a grace that belied her tender years. She was human, a little shorter than Kyrian and had a shock of curly red hair that fell to her waist in crimson rivulets. Brilliant blue eyes eagerly took in all the exotic sights of Y’Syria, staring in awe at the mighty oak trees that encapsulated the ancient elven city.

Kyrian joined Azhani, gleefully kissing her with abundant enthusiasm. When they parted, she turned to give welcoming hugs to her friends.

Preparing herself for the teasing she was sure to endure, Azhani looked over at Elisira. Her old friend smirked, but then smiled joyfully, whispering, “I’m happy for you, Azhi.”

Padreg wasn’t so easy on the warrior. “Guess we’ll be seeing you at midwinter after all, hmm?” he asked as the two friends clasped hands.

Flushing, Azhani fumbled for an answer.

“Not if we see you first,” Kyrian interrupted, smiling when both the king and his lady blushed.

Padreg laughed heartily and nodded at the stardancer. “I’ve missed you, Kyr. I’m glad our blade toting friend here kept you around.”
Bumping her hip against Kyrian’s, Azhani said, “Well, I like to think that she stayed out of her undying loyalty and affection for me.”

“I could have just been bored,” Kyrian offered serenely.

The warrior looked down at her lover, one dark eyebrow arched arrogantly.

“Yeah, definitely bored,” teased the stardancer, reaching up to tweak Azhani’s sharp nose.

The warrior growled and attempted to bite Kyrian’s pinching fingers. As soon as she captured one of the agile digits between her teeth though, she cupped her hand around Kyrian’s and bent her head down to kiss the stardancer’s palm. “I’ll just have to entertain you, then,” she purred.

Kyrian gnawed on her lip and flushed.

Looking at each other, Padreg and Elisira exchanged similar expressions. The noblewoman turned back to Azhani, cocked her head to one side and put her hands on her hips. “All right, warrior, what’d you do with my somber, morose friend? Are you putting the funny herbs in her tea again, Kyr?”

A smirk crossed Kyrian’s face. “Looking for something to jumpstart someone in the morning?” she asked teasingly.

Elisira only grinned wickedly.

Walking with them, Allyndev listened to their banter, but his gaze never left the face of Princess Syrelle. When she had first appeared, he had thought that Astariu herself had come to walk among them. She’s so beautiful. The beauty in question laughed, a hearty, joyful sound that made Allyn’s heart contract painfully. Please let her come with us, please, please, please! He prayed silently, vowing that he would find the courage to talk to her, somewhere.

They continued laughing and joking, poking fun and trading tales of their experiences since parting at the border, until they entered Oakheart Manor. Ambassadors Kuwell and Iften joined them on the way, Kuwell slapping Azhani heartily on the back and Iften offering Kyrian a grandfatherly hug.

“I didn’t expect you, granther,” Kyrian whispered as they walked.

A mischievous smile lit up the old man’s face. “Well, when Ku came by and mentioned that he was getting ready to head off to smash some demons, I couldn’t very well let him go alone, could I?”

“But you’re not –“ the stardancer protested.

“Of course not,” he chuckled. “I’m far too old to go running around in the mountains. However, Kirthos and his men are not!” The ambassador grinned wickedly. “For as long as Y’myran has been a land of seven kingdoms, we of Y’skan have answered the call of the High King. Though his wishes have not been made clear, it is my judgment that were he to speak, he would request our assistance in this matter.”

“Your men will be welcome,” Azhani said, having heard the whispered conversation.

Kyrian threaded her arm through her lover’s and smiled contentedly.

The constant buzz of activity that filled the Y’Syran castle never ceased. People streamed around them as they hurried through the halls, making their way to the War room.

Round in shape and housed in the center of one of the millennia old trees that made up the ancestral home of the Y’Syran royalty, the council room was almost shockingly plain in comparison to the rest of the luxuriously appointed areas of the manor. Smooth walls were covered in maps and charts and a large, oblong table dominated the center of the room. Engraved into the table, was a map of the Seven Kingdoms, each major city painstakingly picked out in precious metals and gems. Suspended above the table were magically created lights, their brilliance both smooth and heatless. As the group stumbled in, the precisely lined chairs were haphazardly pulled out, allowing each person to sit where they liked.

Azhani stationed herself at the head of the table, facing the door. On her right was Kyrian; to her left were Lyssera and Allyn. The rest of the group filled seats around the table, facing the warleader.

Leaning forward, Padreg put his elbows on the table and rested his chin on his fists. He sighed and then lifted his head a bit. “Now that prying ears have been limited, we can talk. We are all, I presume, here to speak of more than pleasantries.”

He looked around the room, seeing the heads of his fellows nodding in agreement. “War. It’s going to happen; Arris is a leech, draining the vitality from the earth and his poison is spreading beyond the borders of Y’dan. Twice have I sent away men that I trusted all my life. Men who to all outward appearances,” his voice broke some as he recalled the pain of turning his back on his friends, “had given their lives to the service of the Twins. Only, it was a lie. Ecarthus had rotted their souls long before they became servants of the gods.”

“Aye, plainsman. ‘Tis not just your land that turns out black-robes,” Kuwell said gruffly, stroking his beard thoughtfully. “Over the winter, many of the human settlements in our lowlands vanished. We were at first very worried, but investigation has proven that they left voluntarily. Recently, some of my brethren came upon a cache of horrible things – vile scrolls and books suggesting the most abominable rituals in service to a demonic master called Ecarthus.” The dwarf shook his head sadly. “It was found in the center of one of the abandoned towns.”

“It is much the same, for us of the sands,” Iften interrupted. “Small, rarely heard from clans have all but vanished, taking their people with them. The Walkers traced their tracks westward.”

Lyssera spoke next. “I had heard reports of the black-robed strangers moving through our lands, but had always pushed them aside in favor of more pressing matters. I shall begin reviewing them at once. Though with Arris’ “rules of race”, I sincerely doubt any of my elves would willingly go into Y’dan right now.”

Padreg grunted and fervently said, “Chaos is rising all around us, and I aim to see it squashed. I’ve brought those men I could spare – some two thousand cavalry, to add to what I am hoping is a move by you, Lyssera, to quash the bugs in Y’dan.”

Azhani listened to Padreg speak, and as he finished, she stood and began pacing around the room. “I wish it were that simple, Paddy.” Calmly, she filled him in about the caves full of incubating demons. When she finished, she leaned on the table, head bent down and shoulders bowing as if carrying a heavy load. “So, we can’t just march in and turn King Arris into sausages. If you’re still offering me the men, Padreg, I’ll take ‘em. Astariu knows I can use ‘em.” She stood up, shook her shoulders and walked over to a map that displayed the Crest of Amyra, the mountain range that extended across the northern reaches of Y’myran from Y’dan to Y’Tol.

Pointing at an area that lay directly on the Y’Syr/Y’dan border, she said, “This is the Ystarfe Pass. Hundreds of natural caves line the mountains that meet here.” She moved her finger a few inches to the east. “I want to split my forces in two and send Kuwell eastward, to Y’dror. I want you to cut and burn until you and your kin are assured that nothing but what the Twins created, lives in those mountains. Then you will return to Y’Syr and lend your strength to guarding her borders against invasion by Arris.

Padreg, if you are willing, you will come with me, and we will burn our way to here,” she pointed to the edge of mountains north of Y’dan. “Or until winter comes, and the demons hatch. At that point, it will be true war, for I will not allow Arris to waste good Y’dani lives in pursuit of some misguided notion of glory.”

“And after the demons are gone?” Kyrian asked calmly.

“We deal with Arris, if we live,” Azhani said grimly.

“I’m ready to leave whenever you give the word, Warleader,” Kuwell said, thumping his chest proudly. “Let’s make this a year that the bards sing about forever!”

Elisira smiled and slipped her hand under the table, twining it with Padreg’s. “I would like to be a part of this,” she said softly.

Padreg nodded. “Yes, I agree. As bad as Arris is, the thought of demons overrunning Y’myran makes my blood run cold. I have seen their horrors first hand and I could no more turn my back to their threat than I could grow hooves and race my studs!”

There was a trickle of nervous laughter, followed by a round of agreement from those in the room.

Azhani sat down and laid her hands on the table. “Then let us make our final plans,” she said, reaching for a stack of parchment, pens and ink.
~Chapter Thirty-One~
The Princess Syrelle soon proved to be an invaluable assistant to Azhani. Quiet, unassuming and able to find her way around the twisting corridors of Oakheart within a few days of arriving, the young woman was ideal as a messenger. It was her swift feet that the passing of news fell to and her High Court trained manners that kept even the rudest of Lyssera’s courtiers at bay.

As stubborn as her infamous mother, Queen Dasia, Syrelle was determined to prove that she could follow the army northward. Every day, she showed up in the practice room, dressed for weapons work.

Devon enjoyed her company, having spent the last several months sharing what he had learned from Kyrian with the princess, and the stardancer was only too happy to continue their lessons. Allyn too seemed quite happy to share his mornings with the High King’s daughter, though if the young man managed to spit out three words in a row, it was because she had taken him by surprise, rather than through any conscious effort on his part.

Only Azhani had any reservations about training the princess for war, but both Kyrian and Elisira convinced her that Syrelle could only benefit from the knowledge. “What the hell? I can always truss her up and lock her in her room when we leave,” Azhani said and reluctantly gave in.

Of course, Syrelle took pains to make sure that everyone around her knew that if any such thing were to occur, she would steal a horse and follow them.

“I’ve just as much right to defend my land as any of you,” she pointed out haughtily. “Moreover, it is my duty as one of Ysradan’s children to provide an example for all the sons and daughters of the Y’myran kings.”

The warleader only grunted and turned away, content to leave the morning’s training session to Kyrian. Today, she was planning to inspect the gathering army. Outside of Y’Syria, the combined Y’Syran, Y’droran, Y’skani and Y’noran forces were camped, waiting until the warleader’s precise combinations of soldiers had been met.

Several days had been devoted to speaking with the commanders of the various groups, studying the strengths and weaknesses of each unit. As she learned of their abilities, Azhani assigned men to different commanders, attempting to create a balanced force of warriors.

To confuse any spies, several trusted noblemen began hosting a tournament, and Azhani encouraged the soldiers to participate, even going so far as to fight in a few of the contests herself. Better that Arris think she were running a tourney than preparing for war.

In small groups, the army began to head north. Those that were bound westward would begin the dirty work of cleaning out the mountains, waiting just outside of the Ystarfe pass until Azhani joined them.

Kuwell’s group left three days after the last of the small patrols. With them went three starseekers, six stardancers and a dozen mages. Vashyra would go with Azhani, bringing a larger contingent of mages, mage-priests and healer-priests. The addition of spell casters meant that the two armies would be able to remain in almost constant contact, as well as being able to get messages back to Lyssera in Y’Syria.

Two weeks after Azhani’s ordination as Y’Syr’s Warleader, a protest arrived in the form of two Ecarthan priests. Their black robes bore the green and black striped sash of Arris’ personal household. Calmly, the men read the Y’dani king’s rambling, invective-filled message, which basically consisted of, “Give me Azhani and I won’t invade your kingdom.”

Lyssera’s response was a polite, if somewhat terse, “Shove it.”

Azhani happily detailed a dozen soldiers to escort their “guests” to the border.

As her guards hauled the smelly, black-robed men from the throne room, Azhani leaned over and whispered to Kyrian, “If nothing else, I have got to remember to bring lots and lots of soap with me to Y’dan.” She wrinkled her nose. “Because the people are starting to stink.”
%%%
“Good morning, granther,” Kyrian rose from her seat by the window and walked to greet the Y’skani ambassador. They embraced warmly.

“Good morning, lass. I trust all is well?” Iften asked, his eyes sparkling merrily. He had spotted Azhani sneaking out of the Stardancer’s room just as he was leaving his own rooms. Impulsively, he decided to see how his favorite person was doing.

Kyrian grinned and nodded. “Yes, exceedingly so. Please, have a seat.” She offered him the overstuffed chair by the fireplace.

Sinking into the chair with a groan of appreciation, Iften said, “Thank you, Kyrian. These old bones aren’t made for standing conversations.” He put his feet up on a hassock and looked at the stardancer, expectantly.

Kyrian sat in the chair opposite him and sighed. “I don’t really know how it happened granther, but Azhani came to me and…” she blushed deeply.

Nodding, Iften said, “And now you have the tender regard of the one you love. I am happy for you, lass.”

“It’s a miracle. I wake each morning expecting the night before to have been nothing but dreams, but am breathlessly surprised when the illusions are real. She is there, beside me, warm and soft and all the ways I imagined her to be, and beyond,” Kyrian said wonderingly.

“Miracle or not, the gods do not give their gifts lightly, Kyrian. Be certain this is where your heart lies,” the ambassador advised sagely.

“I can’t imagine any other place I would want it to be,” the stardancer replied firmly.

“Good. Remember though, that the road of love is full of sandstorms. Just because you get a little scoured, doesn’t mean you’re going to be lost forever,” he cautioned. Changing the subject, he said, “I understand you are leaving soon.”

“Yes, we leave in the morning,” she said softly, with the slightest tinge of fear coloring her voice.

Iften stood and shook his head. “I’m an old man, Kyrian, but damned if I wish I couldn’t go with you. It will be a glorious thing, to watch Azhani Rhu’len in battle!”

Kyrian stood as well and reached out to take Iften’s hands. “I don’t know when or if I’ll be back,” she quietly said, and then bit her lip. Falteringly, she added, “But I do want you to know that I will miss you.”

He drew her in for a gentle embrace. “I know, lass. I will miss you as well. Go with the gods, and may you always have clear skies.”
%%%
As the nobles left the council chamber, Azhani turned to Lyssera, who was poised to speak. The warleader sighed. She knew this had been coming for a while and was hoping to be gone before the elven queen could bring it up. Choosing her words carefully, Azhani began to speak.

“My Queen, I know you wish to show your people that you are capable of defending their honor, but please, listen to me. I need you here, in the city. Banner Lake is Y’Syr’s biggest vulnerability to attack. The people need to see you here, proudly defending them against whatever may come.” She stared into Lyssera’s light gray eyes, silently pleading with her to understand. Sweat began to form on her forehead. For the first time in many weeks, her hair was undone, and the thick, black locks were allowed to trail past her hips. She was looking forward to ending this meeting and seeing Kyrian. Her lover had promised to wash and braid her hair tonight, so that it would be ready for the morning march.

Lyssera sighed and sat back in her chair, staring at the mosaics on the ceiling of the chamber. Azhani was right; duty required her to stay, to safeguard her people against a naval attack. Arris’ black-sailed ships could be seen just beyond the horizon, patrolling the waters ceded to Y’dan when the kingdoms had been formed.

The implied threat was enough to keep Lyssera’s and Padreg’s navies on their toes, their respective green and golden sailed ships pairing up to escort smaller merchant ships to and from the ports along the Banner. Sighing again, the queen looked at her warleader.

“You’re not making Padreg stay behind,” she griped softly.

“Because Padreg’s people view their king in a very different capacity. He is just a chieftain, the highest of the chieftains of the plains to be sure, but a chieftain all the same. You, my queen are just that – a Queen. All the attendant royal duties are tacked on for free,” Azhani explained gamely, knowing that she had won her point. Lyssera would remain to guard the water border.

“All right, I’ll stay,” the queen said reluctantly. “But there’s something you need to know.” Lyssera took a deep breath and began telling Azhani a story. By the time she was done, the warleader’s face was slack with shock.

“Well, I’ll be an owldragon feather!” she whispered. “Why wasn’t…”

“Anything said? You, better than any, should know.” Lyssera’s gray gaze pinned Azhani to her seat. “Think about it, my friend. When the time comes, this story will change lives.”
%%%
Travel northward was quick. Azhani employed the talents of her scouts to lead the massive army through the woods, avoiding all but the smallest of communities. As they traveled, the warrior noticed a disconcerting hum that seemed to emanate from sword she now carried wherever she went.

Since no one else had mentioned it, she said nothing, but she did note that the closer they got to the mountains, the more the frequency of the vibration increased. Kyrian continued to train Devon, Allyn and Syrelle. Besides the Goddess Dance, she instructed each of them in healing herbs and poultices, gratified by the attention each youth paid her.

Other stardancers joined her morning classes, providing many partners for everyone to choose from, and occasionally, Azhani would entertain the soldiers by letting her lover toss her around the practice ring.

Padreg and his riders trained men how to fight from horseback, while Elisira tried to join a little of everything, eventually finding herself with the elven archers. The longbow proved to be too difficult for her to pull, but she became relatively proficient with a short bow, under their solemn instruction.

The forest and foothills were teeming with life. Animals of the ground and skies teemed within the green depths, providing plenty of food for the mouths of the army. As they traveled, men and women from the villages joined them. Some came because they were soldiers on leave, but most came because they had heard the tales of demons in the mountains and they wanted to defend their homes.

Many of those who joined the army were former Y’dani citizens. Men and women who were of mixed blood or who had been sensitive enough to feel the dark direction Arris was taking his kingdom, had escaped before Arris effectively sealed the borders.

That made Azhani’s teeth ache from clenching her jaw. To prevent any “pure” humans from leaving, Arris had imposed a “tithe of loyalty” on any Y’dani citizen who wished to leave their homeland, no matter what reason they gave for exiting the kingdom. Every man, woman and child would have to pay five golden coins before they would be allowed aboard a ship, or through one of the many checkpoints established along the borders. It was just one more reason that she would be turning her army southward, when the demon threat was nullified.

The first day into the mountains, Gormerath seemed to wake up, and its song went from a mild buzz to a joyful shriek. As soon as Azhani gripped the blade’s hilt, she felt it pull her toward a nearby cave. Uncertain as to why she knew she had to investigate it, the warleader cautiously detailed ten men, one priest and one mage to come with her.

As soon as she reached the cave’s entrance, the stench of half-formed demon eggs, hit her nostrils. Shuddering at the sight of row after row of the leathery, slime-coated boulders, she turned to her men and said, “Follow me and move quickly. Break every shell and try not to get the fluid on your flesh. If you do, leave immediately and seek a chirurgeon or a stardancer. Starseeker Curvald, if you would please sing the blessings while Devon torches the cave after we’ve left, I would appreciate it.”

“Aye, Warleader!” they all shouted, clapping their fists to their breasts.

“Let’s do this,” she said grimly, drawing the humming blade.

The moment Gormerath was released from the sheath; the cave was lit by a brilliant glow. Azhani was so surprised that she nearly dropped the sword.

The rest of the army saw the glow and cheered.

“All right, I guess if I can handle the fact that you mumble like an old man, I can deal with this too,” Azhani muttered softly and dove into the cave, hacking at the first egg she saw. From behind her, men flowed into the cave, and soon the dull crunch of steel through shell, filled the tiny cavern.
~Chapter Thirty-Two~
Destroying demon hives was nasty, messy work. From sunup until sundown, Azhani and her men cut their way through the hardening sacks of goop, trying to avoid getting any of the thick, yellow slime on their skin. After the soldiers had hacked up the eggs, the priests would come in, chanting and singing away the soul-burning stench of evil. Then Devon and a few other young mages would set fire to the caves, letting them burn until not even ashes were left.

Only one thing made the long days trudging through the mountains bearable, and that was having Kyrian by her side. Every morning, the stardancer would make her lover a special breakfast. This morning, that breakfast came with some astonishing revelations.
Azhani lay yawning in her bed, and thought she smelled oatcakes and honey. Sitting up, the warleader shook out her braids and reached for the loop of leather she used to bind her hair back. Quickly scooping up the thick hank of braids, she affixed the thong in a tight knot and turned to see what had been left on the small table for her breakfast.

As she had suspected, a stack of honey-drizzled cakes awaited her consumption. Delighted by the treat, the warleader reached for the plate and fork, taking a huge bite. Flavor awoke memory and tears ran unchecked down her face.

“Ah gods, Ylera,” she whispered, setting the plate in her lap and wiping her eyes.

“I brought you some tea-“ Kyrian ducked into the tent, stopping when she saw her lover’s distress. “Astarus’ balls,” she cursed, setting the tea aside and walking over to their bed. Carefully, she eased down beside Azhani, moving the plate back to the table and reaching for her lover.

Azhani went to Kyrian willingly, seeking solace in the velvet-clad arms. “I-“ she sniffled. “Damn. Ylera loved those so much, Kyr,” she whispered.

“I know,” Kyrian said, her heart hammering in her throat. It’s time to tell her, Kyr. She deserves to know.

“What?” the stardancer’s words penetrated Azhani’s melancholy. “How do you-“

“Shh,” Kyrian placed a finger against the warleader’s lips. “Let me explain. I probably should have told you a long time ago.”

“Told me what?” Azhani asked, cocking her head curiously.

Kyrian smiled sadly, her green eyes dark with sorrow. “I knew her,” she whispered and sighed.

Frowning confusedly, Azhani said, “What?”

“Princess Ylera, Azhi. She and I – we were friends. In Y’len, we shared teachers, and classes, and eventually, a room.” Unable to stop the words, the story flooded out. The stardancer quickly related the tale of how an unlikely friendship had developed between a princess and a foundling, and how they had forged a lasting bond while each pursued their educational goals.

Kyrian told her lover how Ylera’s taste for oatcakes and honey had grown until one night, the princess had made the orphan stay up all night, teaching her how to make the treat.

“Ylera was the best friend I ever had, until you,” Kyrian whispered. Looking away, she added, “The last time I saw her, she was leaving for Y’Syria, to take up the role of ambassador to Y’dan. You know the rest of the story.” The stardancer’s shoulders slumped and she drew away, as if expecting a blow.

It never came. Listening to the stardancer’s story had been like plunging her hands into water of unknown temperature. Azhani was absolutely surprised to discover that the water was comfortable, a bit on the warm side, but easily withstood.

She did wonder if she should be angry – after all, she and Kyrian were lovers, and had declared their devotion every day since the night they had admitted their feelings, but she couldn’t find a reason to feel any ire. It was terribly, wonderfully important that Kyrian and Ylera had known each other. The deepest part of Azhani’s soul rejoiced knowing that her beloved Ylera had known and liked her new love and just as the warleader had lost a lover, so had Kyrian lost a friend.

“I’m sorry,” Azhani said, maneuvering until she was curled around the stardancer, cradling her in her arms. “I never knew – Ylera rarely spoke of her time at Y’len.”

Kyrian burrowed into her lover’s embrace and said, “I didn’t expect her to. I just feel guilty because I should have mentioned it earlier.”

Azhani dipped her head down and gently kissed her lover. “It doesn’t matter. I’m glad you told me. I’ll enjoy your oatcakes even more, now. Ylera loved them so much – we can celebrate her life with every bite.”

Kyrian nuzzled Azhani’s chest and sniffled, tears forming in her eyes. “Every time I think I know all the reasons I love you, Azhi, you give me one more.”

“I hope so, Kyr. Because the gods know that I love you so much it hurts.”
With the morning’s conversation still ringing in her ears, Azhani tiredly approached their shared tent. Kyrian was waiting for her, one lamp dimly lit and a plateful of cooling oatcakes sitting on her lap.

“To Ylera,” she said, offering a bite to her weary lover.

Azhani accepted the food and leaned in for a kiss. “To you, my beloved, for everything.”

Their lovemaking that night was particularly intense. Touching and kissing became a way to pay respect to the memory of a lost friend and loved one. As they fell into sleep, their heartbeats slowly blended into one solid rhythm.
%%%
Devon Imry looked up as two booted feet stopped in front of him. Standing before him was Prince Allyndev. The mage choked off a sigh of consternation. At first, he had tried to like the older youth, but found the prince’s standoffishness to be very off-putting.

Then there was the fact that Allyn’s gaze constantly followed Princess Syrelle whenever she was near, and that bothered Devon in ways he didn’t want to admit. Sy was his friend, and in his rarely admitted daydreams, more.

Allyn licked his lips, trying to find something to say that wouldn’t end up guiding his foot to his mouth. Ever since the army had left Y’Syria, he had found it harder and harder to maintain a veneer of polite civility. The journey was harder than he had ever imagined it would be, and the work of battle was tougher than the worst day of fending off Stardancer Kyrian’s lightning fast staff.

Realizing that he would have to make the first move, Devon stood and put out a hand. “Hi, I’m Devon Imry.”

Absently, Allyn took the proffered hand and shook it. “Yeah, I um, I think I knew that. I’m ah, Allyndev. Call me Allyn though,” he blurted, suddenly wanting this young man in the saffron colored robes to like him. It would be so nice to have one friend, and he set himself the task of winning the other boy’s trust.

“All right, Allyn. What can I do for you?” Devon asked curiously.

Shuffling his feet nervously, Allyn muttered, “Um, you know Princess Syrelle, right?” He smiled brightly, pasting his most sincere expression on his face.

Devon chuckled, and said, “Sure do, she’s been living with my friends for a few months now.” What does he want with Sy? The young mage pointed to an equipment trunk. “Have a seat, let’s talk.”

Allyn sank down. Pulling a purple silken scarf from a pouch he said, “I think she dropped this, but I didn’t want to bother her. I thought maybe you might know if it’s hers.” The prince offered the kerchief to Devon, who took it and examined it.

The scent of lilacs wafted up and he smiled wistfully. “Oh yeah, it’s hers. You want me to give it back to her for you?” She always smells so nice and this is her favorite scarf. I bet she’ll give me a hug for finding it.

Allyndev opened his mouth to say yes, but he really wanted to say no. Now that he knew it was hers, he wanted to see if he could get up the nerve to talk to her. “Well, uh, why don’t we take it to her together?” he suggested quickly. “You can, uh, reintroduce me and maybe we could all go get some lunch in the mess tent together.”

“Okay,” Devon agreed. There weren’t many others in the camp that were his age. Maybe he would try to get past Allyndev’s prickly exterior. It would be nice to have a friend besides Syrelle.
%%%
“Rise and shine, sleepy head,” Elisira sang loudly, tossing a pile of clean clothes down on her beloved’s chest.

Padreg grunted and rolled over. “Tell the slave driver that I’m not here today,” he mumbled sleepily.

The noblewoman chuckled. “What’s wrong, Paddy? Is Azhi’s pace a bit much for your old bones?”

“That woman’s pace would be more than my best racehorse could handle!” He sat up and rubbed his face, frowning at the thickening stubble that coated his chin. “Damn! I need to shave again! I never have to use the knife so much on the plains,” he complained.

“Maybe your body is just trying to get ready for the coming winter,” Elisira said softly, reaching out to stroke the chieftain’s jaw. “I kind of like you all scruffy, Paddy. It makes you look rugged.”

Rolling his eyes, the Y’Noran stood up, stretching until his back popped. Through the flap in the tent, he could just make out the vista of mountains that they were traveling. Snow capped the highest peaks, though it was still fairly temperate here. “Ah Eli,” he said, lifting his arm to allow her to snuggle against his chest. “I am coming to love these mountains, but I do miss the grass of home.”

Elisira rubbed his stomach gently. “I miss our home too, my lord,” she said softly. “I look forward to our return, and our marriage.”

The plainsman wordlessly hugged his beloved. Not once since they had admitted their feelings had he attempted to move their relationship beyond the bounds of gentle courtship. He allowed himself the pleasure of her kiss and the delight of her embrace, but he had held back, keeping the sanctity of their first night sacred. It was deeply important to him to show his love for Astariu by bringing himself and his chosen bride to her altar pure in both body and soul.

“I give thanks daily for you, Eli,” he whispered. “We will be joined, my love, though I am coming to believe that midwinter will not be the date of our celebration.”

Elisira nodded, lifting her head up to kiss Padreg gently. “That should be their day, my lord.” The noblewoman glanced over at Azhani and Kyrian’s pavilion. “Our day should be filled with the sunshine and warm breezes of the plains, not the chill of Y’dani snow.”

They stood together, quietly absorbing the love that flowed easily between them.
%%%
Just for a little variety, Azhani began dispatching small groups of soldiers into the hills, seeking out bandit enclaves and routing the dregs of society who flourished by preying on the weak. As a result of the warleader’s actions, Queen Lyssera suddenly found that the lawless men who usually ran from her dungeons to the mountains, took to honest trade, rather than cross to Y’dan or head for the mountains.

There was also the occasional troll, goblin or other mage-created leftover that stumbled onto Azhani’s army, though those creatures tended to live on the other side of Amyra’s Crest and only came down to the Y’myrani kingdoms when hunger drove them to cross the mountains.

In the weeks since leaving Y’Syr, the army had happened across one small group of the northern tribesmen who also made their home on the steppes above Amyra’s Crest. Led by a shaman, three warriors on their blooding journey stopped to share news with Azhani and Padreg.

They too had seen the caves filled with Hell’s children, and had sent word back to their kin to be watchful for the “snowfangs” that could wipe out an entire tribe in a night. One of the warriors decided to join with the army, a gesture to prove that those of the steppes had not forgot the treaty forged by Theodan of Y’dan. Azhani sent the shaman and his remaining warriors on with plenty of supplies, hoping the man would take her advice and head toward Y’dror. The dwarves had long dealt with the steppes people, and would know the best places for the young warriors to go monster hunting.

The army settled into a routine. Each time they arrived at a valley, they would set up a base camp and begin patrolling the hills, checking every cave for ice demon eggs. Azhani found that she was busiest, because Gormerath unerringly pulled her in the direction of any demons within miles, lighting the way with a fierce glow.

At base camp, the groups separated into concentric rings of smaller encampments, with the noncombatants and chirurgeon’s tents in the very center of the main campsite. The warleader’s encampment was one of the outer rings of camp, and it was there that Devon, Allyn and Syrelle pitched their tent.

Sharing their shelter came about by accident, when Allyn and Devon were assigned to the same overnight patrol and made into bivouac partners. While they were gone, the princess cared for Devon’s tent, a gift from the plains people, and much better made than the standard Y’Syran war pavilions. When it rained, Devon’s pavilion was one of the few that did not leak. Syrelle had quickly availed herself of the comfort of being dry, and moved her things into the young mage’s tent within a few days of leaving Y’Syria.

She could have bunked with Padreg and Elisira, or requested her own tent, but she felt uncomfortable sleeping near the couple whose restrained love seemed ready to burst forth, consuming all in its path. Having her own shelter would be nice, but it would mean forcing one of the warriors out of their home and into another, albeit larger, shared tent. Besides, sharing living quarters with Devon was a true pleasure. The young mage had always treated her like another soldier, without all the deferential bowing and scraping that seemed to occur when the person she was speaking to realized she was High King Ysradan’s daughter.

Allyn joined their sleeping arrangements late one night after stumbling in with Devon from a long patrol. The mage had invited the prince to crash on the floor rather than having to go back out in the drizzling rain and put up his own, smaller shelter. One night became two, and a third, after the three of them had stayed up late celebrating the destruction of a particularly large cave filled with the developing demon eggs.

On the evening of the fourth day, when Devon and Allyn returned from a short patrol, Syrelle had rearranged the tent and set up Allyn’s rope bed. Three of the walls now held the comfortable camp beds, while the center boasted a small brazier surrounded by thick reed rugs. A lamp hung from the center of the tent and their extra gear was either stowed outside in trunks or under the beds.

Allyn had come in and stared speechlessly at the new arrangement. Devon only raised an eyebrow, causing Syrelle to shrug and say, “Well, he’s been here for three days anyway. Might as well make it permanent. At least he doesn’t snore as loud as you do, Devvy.”

“I do not snore!” the mage protested, though his eyes sparkled merrily. This was an old fight between them, starting from the first night the young princess had moved to Y’Nor and found herself sharing a large tent with Devon and six other youths.

“Yes, actually, you do,” Allyn finally said, his voice softened by emotion. No one had ever just invited him in like these two crazy humans. Growing up as a prince of the realm, in a society that viewed half-breeds with a certain level of disdain, had left him an outsider in his own home. Invitations didn’t just happen; they were motivated by political gain, usually to curry favor with his guardian and aunt. He blinked back tears and swallowed around a solid lump in his throat. Friends. When was the last time I could say that about people around me?

“Well, Allyboy, are you staying?” Devon asked, clapping a hand on his friend’s shoulder, perfectly mimicking his lord, Padreg.

Even the hated nickname didn’t grate the way it did when spoken by one of the rough and tumble soldiers he spent most of his days with. Turning to face his new friends, he wrestled his emotions into place and said, “I’d love to.”

“Good, because I’d sure hate to move everything around again,” Syrelle said aggrievedly. “Those beds are a pain in the backside!”

Devon laughed, and shortly, Allyn and Sy joined him.

“Prince Allyn!” a voice called from outside.

The change over the young man was instantaneous. Gone was the easy smile and relaxed posture. Snapping erect, Allyn became every inch the prince. Stiffly, he ducked out of the tent to greet his visitor.

His commander, Sergeant Matthias stood waiting, an expression of bored disdain washing over his elven features. Though it had only been moments from his call to Allyn’s arrival, he sighed as though the prince had made him wait candlemarks.

“Boy, when I call you, I expect you to be here, double-time!” he growled, looking beyond the prince to the emerging mage and princess. Pale blue eyes lingered on the low cut of Syrelle’s bodice, making her wish that she had slipped on a cloak.

“Yes sir,” Allyn said tonelessly. “I’ll do better next time, sir.”

Matthias snorted as if that were impossible. “Whatever. This your billet?” At the prince’s nod he said, “Good. Get some chow and then go to bed. You’re on first patrol tomorrow.”

Devon cursed softly. That meant that he and Allyn would no longer be partners, making it harder for the two of them to continue their friendship. Anger rose hotly in him and he narrowed his eyes, searching the sergeant’s face for any sign that the reassignment was motivated by something other than necessity, but could not see a flicker of anything beyond the usual contempt that elves had for their half-human kin.

“Yes, sir,” Allyn said, bowing his head at the orders.

Allowing his eyes to linger once more on Syrelle’s chest, the elven commander returned the nod and left.
%%%
“You seen the landscape over at the Warleader’s camp, Hawkins?” a soldier grunted between bites of his trail rations.

Wistful groans of assent passed from man to man as the soldiers picked up on the conversation.

“Oh yeah,” another man said, making a lascivious gesture with his hands. “I can hear ‘em sometimes and I gotta tell ya – I am blessed that I’ve got a good friend in camp!”

Nauseated, Allyn tried to tune out the rough talk, but found that he was drawn to it anyway. They had been riding for three days, moving from small cave to small cave in this particular section of the mountains, burning out the demon eggs. The sergeant in charge of the group had put him back with the third unit – those men who went in last, before the priests and mages, and swam in the muck, making sure that every last egg had been cracked and scrambled.

Nothing he owned was clean and most of what he would be bringing back to the base camp was so worthless, it would doubtlessly end up on the rag pile. Sighing, he kept his mount on pace, making certain not to clip the rider in front of him.

“That Syrelle’s sure got her mother’s assets,” a woman said, shaping the air in front of her with lecherous hands.

“Does she now? Hey Allyboy, why don’tcha give us a personal run down of the princess’ attributes, since you’re so close t’her highness and all,” one of the men suggested.

Allyn bit back a harsh retort, noticing that Sergeant Matthias had his eyes on him.

“We’re waiting, boy,” the elven man said gruffly.

Suddenly, it just didn’t seem worth it to fight anymore. Maybe this was the way men were supposed to behave. After all, Sy’s not here. It’s not like she’ll hear anything, right? Besides, if he tried to fit in, he would get a little more respect. Then he might get better job assignments instead of clean up duty.

To his horror, he found himself hesitantly describing the princess in the crude fashion the soldiers around him seemed to relish.
%%%
Allyn’s new attitude did have its rewards. Instead of being swab crew, he now acted as the sergeant’s spotter, one of the first to enter a cave and test the hardness of the embryonic sacs.

“Hard boiled, Sarge,” he would call, if the leathery shell were stiff to the touch, meaning the soldiers used maces to break open the sacs. “Over easy,” meant that they were still soft enough for sword blades and “over medium,” gave the soldier a choice of mace or sword, depending on how much time the warrior wanted to spend on readying weapons.

Three more days passed as they swung around in their half-arc, clearing out a large section of mountain. As those days progressed, Allyn’s vocabulary grew coarser and coarser, and his acceptance into the macho group of men and women, seemed assured.

He was quite aware of the changes and felt very uncomfortable, but could not deny the greater role he was allowed to play in his unit. Every time he heard his voice saying something crude or coarse about a woman, he sighed inwardly, knowing that he would have a hard time readjusting to civility once they returned to the base camp. A part of him wondered if Devon had trouble fitting in with his new unit. When they were together, it didn’t matter that the others shunned them, because they could always turn to each other for conversation.

It suddenly struck Allyn that Devon had been a part of the groups since the first day, being the mage who had lit the first fires at Warleader Azhani’s command. The soldiers surely knew that the yellow-robed mage was one of the warleader’s personal friends, and that probably bought him some respect.

Allyn frowned unhappily. He was not one of Azhani’s friends. He was just a student and Azhani his teacher, another in a long line of professionals his aunt had hired to guide him for as long as he could remember. It didn’t matter that the warrior had called him one of her best students or that he had excelled under her tutelage, proving her skills as a sword master on the bodies of some his worst tormentors.

To the elves, he was still just Alynna’s bastard.
%%%
Devon and Syrelle found that they missed their new friend more than they thought they would. While the young mage delved into his studies, taking his assigned break to approach some of the other wizards in the army, the princess turned her attention to the Lady Elisira.

The noblewoman had organized a group of noncombatant men and women into an efficient corps of launderers, hunters and cooks. Syrelle joined the corps, putting her quick hand with a needle to good use, turning out the thousands of tunics and breeches that the army seemed to consume at an alarming rate.

When she wasn’t sewing cloth, Syrelle forced herself to get an education in the chirurgeon’s tents, learning how best to care for the small lacerations and bruises so often suffered by the men and women whose job it was to prowl among the rocks of the mountains.

In the evening, after dinner, she and Devon would retreat to his tent where they would mend their own clothes or play various card and dice games that the young man had collected from other soldiers.

Tonight, Syrelle had a new project. A pile of simple cotton fabric sat on her bed, waiting for her to cut and shape each piece.

Devon noticed the addition and, as he was sitting down on a pile of pillows, asked, “So, what’re you going to make, Sy?”

Fingering the fabrics, each a different shade of blue and weighted more for the cooler nights, she smiled and said, “Well, I remembered what your pack looked like after your first week out…”

“Yeah, oh yeah!” the mage said, nodding eagerly. “Everything but this robe was trash. That demon blood is like tanner’s acid – eats into stuff quickly. Allyn’s gonna need boots, too, but I bet he can get those from the quartermaster.”

“That’s what I had figured,” Syrelle said, lifting the first piece of fabric up and folding it to begin cutting out a tunic. “Want to help me make sure the prince has something clean and warm waiting for him?”

“Sure,” Devon said, scooting closer to the princess. He closed his eyes briefly, breathing in the light scent of lilacs that seemed to cling to her. Golden red hair glimmered in the wan light given off by the lantern and he suddenly grinned. “Hey, watch this,” he said, whispering a few guttural syllables.

Syrelle watched in delight as a ball of light about the size of a mace head formed in his hand, glowing with a soft, yet bright intensity that lit the tent up much better than the tiny oil lamp ever could. The globe of light then lifted off the young mage’s hand and levitated to the ceiling where it hovered motionless, chasing away all the shadows.

“Very nice, Devvy. You’ve finally got it,” she said, smiling happily and leaning over to kiss his cheek. “Erf, Dev, you need to shave again,” she groused, rubbing her lips which tingled from the tickly sensation that the young man’s stubble created.

Devon blushed and stroked his cheeks ruefully. “Sorry ‘bout that, Sy. I’ll take care of it tomorrow, okay? Now, show me what to do with this stuff.” He lifted the edge of a piece of dark blue denim.
%%%
Part of the everyday structure of any army on the move, is the preparation and consumption of mass quantities of food. Daytime meals were scrounged however a soldier could find the time, but the evening meal was sacred. As long as they were at battle rest, the army built huge bonfires and gathered around them, sharing food and good humor.

Dotting hillsides for miles, were the glowing beacons to the weary warrior just returning from a day of slogging through caves, as well as those noncombatants whose job it was to support the military. The atmosphere around the fires allowed for the men and women who served Azhani Rhu’len to nourish their souls as well as their bodies.

It was in the evenings when warriors could take comfort in the words of the gods, visiting the priests in their distinctively marked tents. If it was physical succor that was craved, then many of the men and women found release in the arms of their fellows.

Azhani stood on a hillside, looking out at the constellation that was her army, flickering against the gray and white background of the mountains, and smiled in satisfaction. This is where she belonged, here, in the field, where her skills meant something beyond a pretty ribbon or a fancy medal. From where she stood, she could see Allyndev’s patrol returning after their weeklong absence.

She smiled proudly, thinking of the young man who had come to her, green and raw, and was now gaining quiet praise from the best of the warriors in the field for his calm and poised manner on the battlefield. Sending him out with the small patrol, was her way of giving the prince a chance to find some of the self-esteem he sorely needed. The sound of pipes and a lute reached her and she sighed, knowing it was long past time to return to her camp.

Around the Warleader’s fire, Kyrian and Elisira became the cooks of choice, with the Princess Syrelle becoming an apt student. Others were prodded to take their turns, but Padreg was exempt after his one and only attempt made simple rabbit stew taste like old boiled shoes. He was relegated to slicing and dicing. The rest of the group shared out the chores.

Allyndev had just returned from a long week out cracking eggs and was regaling the group with some of his adventures. Devon and Syrelle listened intently, exchanging similar looks of wary confusion whenever the young prince’s words grew coarse and callous. Earlier, they had presented him with the painstakingly made suit of clothes and though he had seemed grateful, his gaze had barely taken in the garments, staying fixed on Syrelle’s purple-garbed chest.

A new aura of arrogant self-confidence seemed wrapped around the prince, replacing the diffident, shy boy that had gone away a week earlier. Allyn tried hard to keep from speaking the crude comments that fluttered about in his mind, only partially succeeding. Somewhere, a small voice was yelling at him to thank his friends for the absolutely astonishing gift of new clothes, but the words that tumbled out were all about his adventures. Finally, Master Azhani rescued him, dragging him off to take up her role as his teacher.

Syrelle watched him go, and her blue eyes were troubled. “And I used to like him,” she whispered quietly.

Devon put a hand on her shoulder and squeezed softly. “Yeah, I did too. He’s got to be in there somewhere, though. I mean, my first impression of him wasn’t very good either, but as I got to know him, I realized that he was a pretty good guy. Now – I don’t know. Something happened out there, Sy.”

The princess leaned into Devon’s touch, sighing sadly. “Yes.” She looked up at her friend. “We’ll get him back, Dev. We have to.”

After about a candlemark, the meal was served. A light banter sprang up around everyone, mixed in with light, teasing comments that had become the habit of those who shared the Warleader’s fire.

“I hear you ladies had to move your tent a few body lengths away from the edge of camp again,” Padreg rumbled around a mouthful of venison stew.

Kyrian flushed, Azhani shrugged and said, “What, jealous?”

Elisira laughed and patted the plainsman’s knee when he blushed.

Devon chuckled and looked at Allyn, saying, “Hey buddy, you know I love you but could you please leave your girlfriends in the caves when you’re done with them,” he said, holding his nose and pointing at the prince’s muck and grime coated boots.

Allyn retorted insolently with, “At least my clothes are being worn out by man’s work.” His gaze rested pointedly on the bare spots in the knees of the mage’s pants. Devon’s breeches had suffered the most from Syrelle’s inspired tailoring session, since he had been the one to crawl around on the tent floor, cutting out the bits and pieces that made up the prince’s new clothes.

Hurt, Devon turned away, suddenly uninterested in his dinner. Quietly, he got up and walked away from the fireside.

“That was rude,” Syrelle said, casting a withering look at the older teen.

“If he can’t take it, he shouldn’t dish it,” Allyn said, wiping his mouth on his sleeve and belching loudly.

Sharing a glance, Azhani and Kyrian each rolled their eyes and sighed. Evidently, the lesson Allyndev had learned, was one of boastful arrogance.

“Oh grow up, Allyn! He’s your friend and he was just playing with you. What you said was mean and spiteful,” Syrelle said. Allyn tried to scoot closer and put his arm around her to calm her down, but she pushed him away. Standing, she looked down at the young man and said, “When you’re inclined to treat your friends like friends, maybe I’ll be more willing to talk to you.” With that, she walked away, following after Devon.

“Looks like it’s time to do some serious groveling, boy,” Padreg commented, standing up and walking around to clap the young man on the shoulder.

Allyn shrugged noncommittally. “Maybe.” He shoveled a spoonful of stew into his mouth and added, “Maybe not.”

Azhani’s eyes narrowed. It was time to step in. Allyn’s attitude had just blossomed from irritating to intolerable. Putting aside her plate, she stood and brushed off her hands. “Prince Allyndev, please come with me,” she said, the tone of her voice brooking no argument.

Sullenly, the young man set his own dish down and joined her. They walked outside of the fire lit circle until they reached the edge of camp. Nodding a hello to the sentries, they moved beyond the campsite until they were walking along under moonlit trees.

“So, you want to tell me what’s going on?” Azhani asked, not being one for subtleties.

“Not really,” Allyn replied in a monotone.

“Too damn bad,” Azhani said, locating a large boulder and sitting on it. “Allyn, I’ve known you for a while and I have to tell you – you’re acting like a damn fool. You need to get your head out of your backside and start acting like the gentleman I know your aunt raised you to be.”

Sighing heavily, the prince kicked at some of the rocks, watching as they scattered down the hillside. All of his uncertainties, self-hatred and self-disgust came boiling up, making his dinner sit like a leaden lump in his stomach.

“I hate this,” he said softly. “I hate getting up before the sun every morning just so I can slog through something I wouldn’t feed a pig. I hate that I haven’t had a decent bath in weeks. I hate that I’m either cold and wet, or hot and sweaty.” He kicked at another rock, following its trajectory as it skimmed over the grass to lodge in a bush not far away. “I hate that I’m either the prince or a pariah, with no middle ground,” he said in a small voice. “Master, I hate wishing that I’d never been born.” Turning to look at his mentor, he whispered, “I just thought that if I tried to fit in, maybe I could be like everyone else – and I was right.” Defiantly he lifted his chin. “They respected me, once I started to act like them. I tried to tell myself that I could change back, once my patrol was over, but,” his shoulders slumped, “You saw what happened. I can’t seem to open my mouth without my smelly foot getting stuck in it.”

Azhani patted the boulder she was seated on. Reluctantly, Allyn hitched himself up next to her. “It’s not all legends and tales, is it, my prince?” she asked softly, looking into his youthful face.

Shock and consternation registered clearly in his bright blue-green eyes. The warrior had never once used that term with him, not even when they had first met. He had always been Allyn or Allyndev and she Master Azhani.

“No,” he cried softly.

“I wish I could tell you that being the good guy was all fun and games, Allyn, but it’s not. It’s dirty and it’s gross and sometimes you have to kill things. You also have to earn the respect of your peers – it’s not something that gets handed out because of an accident of birth. Anyone who thinks that way has never been hungry or looked into the eyes of a blood-maddened enemy who wants nothing more than to gut them alive.”

“But everyone loves Aunt Lyss,” he protested.

“Yes, and the queen gave hundreds of years to the betterment of Y’Syr. She earned her respect, only her method is different, Allyn,” Azhani pointed out.

“I just wish they’d all leave me alone!” Tears glittered in his eyes. “I never wanted to be a prince – I wanted to be a gardener, but Aunt Lyss said that it was my duty to learn. I wish she had spent one day in my shoes, hearing them laugh behind their hands when I couldn’t hit a target. If she could’ve heard how many times my teachers said, ‘This won’t apply so much to you, because you’re only a half-elf’, maybe she would’ve decided to just let me be a gardener.”

“Allyn, you’ll find out soon enough that the real world doesn’t give a fat damn about your ancestry. Out here, the only thing that matters is whether or not you’re going to drop your sword and run, or stand fast. You need to decide which one you’re going to choose, because when you do, you’ll find where you fit in.”

“Yeah?” the young man dared to ask hopefully.

“Yeah,” the warleader confirmed, smiling gently. “Or I’ll smack you around until you do,” she added with a mock growl. Then she shoved him off the rock.

Outraged, he stared at her.

“Well, you gonna sit there like a flower and eat dirt, or what?” Azhani taunted, crossing her legs and blowing on her knuckles.

“Buh…” he said, wrinkling his brow in confusion.

Azhani sighed and jumped down off her perch. “Look, kid, we’re gonna wrestle or we’re gonna spar – you pick. Do it quickly though, because I’ve got an appointment with a warm bed.”

Allyndev quailed. He was very familiar with this set of choices. They were Master Azhani’s way of letting him know he’d made a huge mistake. Allyn swallowed resignedly. He was about to get his butt kicked and have it called an “object lesson”. Shame rose up thickly, causing him to lower his head. It had been quite a while since his last “lesson” and he had hoped he was well beyond that stage of his education.

“Come on, come on, I don’t have until spring,” the warleader urged.

“Wrestling!” he blurted, knowing that tone as well. That was the voice that meant he was about to have the choice ripped from his hands, leaving him to face whatever punishment Azhani felt he deserved. Allyn had a very bad feeling that if he’d left it up to her, he would be sore for weeks, not days.

“Good. Now come and get me,” Azhani ordered. Hunkering down, she waited for Allyn to attack. It wasn’t long before he jumped for her, and soon, they were rolling around on the ground, wrestling. Azhani winced at all the bruises she could feel forming from the tiny rocks littering the ground, but hearing the young man’s laughter as they tussled made it worthwhile. By the time she had pinned him, they were breathing heavily, laughing wildly and covered in mud and leaves.

“We should get back,” Azhani said, looking up and noting the position of the moon, “Before they send the cavalry after us.”

“Yeah, I have some apologies to make,” Allyndev said ruefully.

“That you do, Allyn, that you do,” Azhani said affectionately, tousling his muddy hair.
%%%
When they got back into camp, only Kyrian remained awake. Yawning as she tended the fire, she squeaked out a laugh at the sight of her lover and her friend. Before the stardancer could speak, Allyn sprinted off to his tent.

“Oh goddess,” she giggled, “You look like something out of a demented bard’s tale.”

Azhani struck a pose and primped her matted, stick and leaf-infested hair. “What, you don’t like my new outfit?”

Kyrian couldn’t help it; she let out a howl of laughter. This brought Padreg and Elisira, both clad only in long tunics, running out of their tent. They too joined in the stardancer’s mirth until Azhani folded her arms and narrowed her eyes at them.

“Oh, so you think this is funny, huh?” she growled, advancing on the still laughing Kyrian.

“Yes, I do,” admitted Kyrian, standing her ground.

“Then you wouldn’t mind coming and giving me a nice kiss, now would you?” Azhani said, continuing to stalk her lover.

“Oh no, I’m not putting my lips anywhere near your body until you’ve had a nice, long bath,” Kyrian said, clapping a hand over her mouth.

Azhani pouted, sighing heavily, and mournfully said, “But I want a kiss.”

“Azhi, I love you dearly, but if I kiss you looking like that, I’ll have nightmares of bog monsters for a week,” Kyrian said dryly. “Come on, I just happen to know where there’s a tub.”

Azhani stuck her tongue out at her lover. “Spoilsport,” she complained, but gallantly allowed the stardancer to lead her away. After all, Kyrian always seemed to be able to find the hidden hot springs that dotted the mountains. Maybe she had found another one.

Padreg looked at his lady who was wiping her face. “I can’t believe the change – it’s like she’s a new person.”

Elisira shook her head and smiled. “No, my love, not new, just whole again.” She shivered as a chill breeze whipped through the camp.

Padreg wrapped warm arms around her and drew her close. “Ah, now that I can truly understand.” They huddled together next to the fire for a moment, staring up at the stars as they spun in the sky.

Reaching up to caress his face, Elisira drew Padreg’s head down and kissed him softly on the lips. “You’re a hopeless romantic, Padreg Keelan.”

“Only for you, my beautiful Elisira, only for you,” he said, brushing his lips over hers again.
~Chapter Thirty-Three~
As part of the mop up units, Devon and Kyrian naturally spent a lot of time together. The stardancer found the mild affection she had felt for the boy had grown into a genuine sense of respect and friendship for the young man he had become. Maturing rapidly under Padreg’s tutelage, Devon had all but left behind his childhood shyness, instead wearing an aura of quiet confidence.

As his studies in magecraft advanced, the young man was offered the rare chance to study with Vashyra and the other starseekers. He readily agreed, telling Kyrian that one of the first lessons both his father and Azhani had taught him, was never to spurn freely offered knowledge.

With that in mind, Kyrian continued her impromptu lessons in herbal lore, gratified to find more than a few members of the vast army trotting along behind Devon and her as they walked through the nearby woods, collecting samples.

Leaving behind a trail of blackened rock and gray smoke streaming heavenward, the army worked its way to the western sea. Spring became summer as days stretched out longer and longer, until they seemed to meld into one long space of candlemarks.

Time was not the only enemy the army fought. Weather in the mountains wildly vacillated, swinging from bitter cold to aching heat. The chirurgeons and stardancers were kept busy with respiratory problems as well as the usual broken bones, lacerations and muscle sprains that were endemic to any large military force.

Kyrian brushed her hair out of her eyes and blew out a tired breath. Stiffly rising from her kneeling position by a sick soldier’s bed, she realized that tonight would be another one of those nights where she was barely able to crawl back to her own tent.

A slow, secret smile crept across the stardancer’s face. Azhani made these days bearable. With her wonderfully large, strong hands, she would sweep Kyrian up in her arms and carry her off to be bathed, massaged and pampered until she was blissfully boneless.

Kyrian stretched ineffectually, glancing out over the half full chirurgeon’s tent, and mused about the last few days. The army had marched in a widespread fan, seeking more of the seemingly endless supply of egg-filled caves. Surprisingly, this valley seemed to hold fewer of the hellspawn than the others, but Azhani grimly assured her that they were just seeing the calm before the storm.

Over the crest of the next mountain lay the Ystarfe pass, their halfway point, and the location of more than three hundred caves and crevices that were perfect for demon breeding.

“Stardancer, we’re ready for you,” a familiar voice called from outside the tent. Kyrian waved to the chirurgeons and stepped out, seeing the tall form of Sergeant Matthias waiting impatiently for her.

“Thank you, Sergeant,” she said politely, secretly despising the arrogant ass that had been assigned to her today. After only a short time in his presence, she knew that he was one of those worthless idiots who had caused young Allyn’s attitude problem.

After that night where both Azhani and Allyn had come back from a long talk looking like bog creatures, the warleader had transferred the prince back to her own patrols.
“I can’t do anything about those men who made him feel so small,” she said, holding her lover close. “But I can make sure Allyn is around those that know how to appreciate the person inside the skin.”

“Mm, I think he’ll like that, love,” Kyrian said, stroking her foot down Azhani’s calf. “Devon’s with you now, right? That should give them plenty of time to mend any broken fences.”

“Exactly. Though – I’m afraid that things could get worse before they get better. Have you seen the way they both watch Syrelle?” the warrior asked, nibbling on Kyrian’s lips teasingly.

“Wha? Oh, yeah, um, I think –“ Kyrian gasped, and reached up to pull her lover’s head down for a long, lingering kiss. “I think that things will work out. Sy knows which one she wants, but it will be tough for her to break a friend’s heart.”

“Do you think,” Azhani paused her loving to look up at Kyrian, “that we should say something?”

Kyrian let her fingers dance along the bridge of Azhani’s sharp nose, tweaking it gently before brushing against her kiss-bruised lips. “No dear. They have to find their way, just like we did. All we can do is wait and be ready to support their choices.”

Azhani pouted, nuzzling the stardancer’s breast lightly. “We did get a push from Lyssera,” she said quietly, smiling at the instant hitch in her lover’s breathing.

“Lyss enjoys matchmaking, Azhi,” Kyrian whispered, letting out a soft moan of pleasure.

“Ah, and we don’t?” Azhani lifted her head to ask, one dark eyebrow rising comically.

Kyrian growled and rolled them over. “No, we don’t. We especially don’t right now,” she said firmly, capturing her lover’s lips in a searing kiss.

“Okay,” Azhani managed to say before speech became impossible.
Now that she was following the man, Kyrian had to agree with Azhani’s assessment. Sergeant Matthias was an idiot to have ignored the bright young man that Allyndev was. No matter – Azhani would be glad to have her student by her side, and the prince would benefit immensely by being with friends. As for Syrelle and her two suitors, well, she had told Azhani that they would leave them be, but that didn’t mean she wouldn’t keep a close watch on all three to make sure that nothing truly horrible happened.

When they reached the site of the caves, Kyrian let out a sharp groan of dismay. Lengths of knotted rope showed where she would have to climb up sheer faces of rock, and the first of the caves was nearly a mile up.

Matthias turned at the stardancer’s groan and hooked his thumbs in his belt. “Sorry ‘bout the inconvenience, ma’am. Demons ain’t an accommodating bunch.” His disdain was barely hidden.

Twins’ mercy, if I wasn’t wearing a red robe, he’d probably treat me worse than poor Allyn, Kyrian thought sadly as the soldier stepped aside, waiting for her to begin the ascent. As it was, he didn’t bother to offer any help, preferring to stay behind and watch as she struggled up the thick hempen ropes.

By the end of the day, her back was in more knots than the ropes now being carefully carried down by expert climbers. Her throat hurt from constant chanting and her eyes burned and watered from the acrid smoke that spilled out of the caves, choking the atmosphere.

With her stomach churning acidly, Kyrian picked her way down from the rocks and toward the campsite, while the sergeant easily ambled beside her, a supercilious smile touching the corners of his mouth every time he glanced over to view her flushed face. She was just taking a step onto the soft loam of the forest clearing, when a blessedly familiar voice surrounded her.

“By the Twins, Sergeant, where are your manners?” Prince Allyndev barked, stepping up and offering a supporting arm to the flagging stardancer. Coldly, he glared at Matthias and said, “One of Astariu’s Own required aide, man, and you ignored it,” he said bitterly.

Matthias’ skin reddened and his hands balled into fists. “Just what do you think you can do about it, Allyboy? A useless twit like yourself wouldn’t know the first thing about who to honor and when.”

“I know more than you will ever grasp, sergeant.” Allyn’s tone was as chill as the glacial ice.

“Prove it,” the elf taunted, dropping his hand to his sword hilt.

Allyn’s jaw clenched, but his hands never left off supporting Kyrian. “I have better things to do than engage in pointless brutality, sergeant.”

Kyrian opened her mouth to intervene, but a searing burst of fire from her back turned her words into a garbled gasp of pain. The world spun dizzyingly and spots danced in her vision, causing her to forget even the most basic of pain killing chants. Then she was there, strong, gentle hands lifting her up and cradling her against an armor-clad chest.

“It’s all right, Allyn, I’ve got her,” Azhani’s strong voice broke though the pain long enough for Kyrian to smile in relief.

Azhani would make it all better. She always did.

“Easy now, beloved,” the warrior whispered softly, dipping her head down to brush her lips across Kyrian’s fevered brow. Raising her gaze to encompass the sergeant and the prince, she said, “I’m going back to camp, gentlemen. I hope to see you for dinner later, Allyn.” Then she purposefully turned her back on the men, sparing a moment to pray she was doing the right thing. If not – well, then she would come back later and deal with the arrogant ass of a sergeant herself, but now, she wanted Allyn to prove to himself and others that he was made of sterner stuff than they dreamed.

As soon as the warleader was out of sight, Matthias turned to Allyn and drew his blade. “All right, boy, I’ve been waiting a long time for this moment.”

Allyn’s blade stayed in its sheath. Open handed, Allyn viewed the elven soldier with curiosity. “Why? Will it make you feel like a real man to beat up a half-grown boy?” he asked. “Or would you rather share your asinine fantasies with me?” he added tauntingly.

Lashing out in furious rage, the sergeant flicked his sword toward Allyn, intending to slap the boy across the face with the flat of the blade. Allyn ducked away, easily avoiding the blow. Keeping his eyes fixed on the sergeant’s chest, the prince waited for him to make his next move.

He didn’t want to draw his blade, because it would be more satisfactory, more honorable, for him to defend himself without it. From the corner of his eye, he could see several soldiers gathering to watch the contest and he grinned, realizing he wanted to give them a good show.

Dropping into a crouch, he rocked from foot to foot, waiting for Matthias to strike. The elf did not disappoint him. Faking inward with the hilt of his blade, the sergeant crowed triumphantly when the prince followed his move.

Almost too late, Allyndev danced away, narrowly avoiding a strike that would have sliced open his face. His eyes narrowed and he clenched his teeth angrily. That could have hurt.

Making his first aggressive move, Allyn lunged for Matthias’ left side. The elf brought his sword up to block. Allyn’s foot snapped out, connecting solidly with the sergeant’s elbow. There was a distinct crunch, followed by a howl of pain. Matthias’ sword dropped to the ground, as suddenly nerveless fingers went slack.

Warily, Allyn stepped back, watching for the sergeant’s next move. He had broken the man’s elbow, but he wasn’t dumb enough to turn his back now. Master Azhani’s lessons had taught him that. Half-heard whispers from the onlookers tickled his ears, but he ignored them.

With his gaze still firmly planted on Matthias, he bent and scooped up the man’s sword. Offering it to the sergeant hilt first, he said, “Do you yield, sergeant?”

Looking into the eyes of the boy who had so publicly humiliated him, the elven man nodded. He cradled his right arm against his chest, visibly clenching his teeth in pain.

“I yield, my prince,” he growled hoarsely.

“All right. I think we should visit one of the honorable stardancers, don’t you, Sergeant?” Allyn asked, awkwardly sheathing the man’s sword.

Shamed by the honor his prince showed him, Matthias nodded. “Yes, thank you, my prince,” he said, real respect for the young man tainting his voice for the first time.

The crowd dissipated as they walked back to camp.
%%%
“Oh goddess, it hurts,” Kyrian whimpered.

“Shh, we’re almost there, my love,” Azhani whispered as she carefully picked her way across the camp to their tent. The warrior had been sitting in front of a rapidly growing fire when she had the distinct sense that she was needed up at the cave site, immediately. Sprinting through the camp, she arrived at the edge of the hill just in time to see her lover’s face crunch up in an expression so painful, that her own face twinged in sympathy.

Kyrian burrowed her head into her lover, whimpering pathetically. “I hurt all over,” she murmured, clinging to Azhani’s tunic.

As she ducked into their tent, Azhani brushed a loving kiss over Kyrian’s forehead and said, “I’ll take care of you.”

“Mm, okay,” Kyrian hummed, snuggling against the warrior and sighing contentedly. I may hurt like hell, but at least I’m comfortable.

Laying Kyrian down on the bed, Azhani flashed a smile at her lover and said, “Be right back,” and sprinted out of the tent. Minutes later, the warrior returned with a steaming pot in her hands. Quickly, she set it down, reaching for the stardancer’s herb bag.

“No sleep-wort this time, okay Azhi? I don’t want to feel so wooly headed in the morning,” Kyrian warned just before the warrior was going to add the wispy fronded herb to a rapidly infusing concoction.

“All right, how about a little bit of honey instead? I know it’s supposed to taste like worm snot, but try it my way?” the warrior pleaded, reaching for a pot of thick, golden honey.

“Okay,” Kyrian sighed heavily, “but just this once.” It was, of course, an old joke. Azhani had been putting honey in Kyrian’s tea since the first time the stardancer had taught the warrior to make the stuff. Sweetening it was the only way that Kyrian could stomach the unholy brew.

While the tea steeped, Azhani rolled Kyrian over and gently rubbed her lover’s lower back until she let out a soft, “Oof.” A distinctive popping noise vibrated the warrior’s hands and Kyrian sunk almost bonelessly into the bed.

“Oh blessed Astariu, thank you,” Kyrian moaned in agonized relief.

“I’m not done yet,” Azhani said, her voice filled with promise. Carefully, she rolled the stardancer back over and lifted her up, standing up and letting Kyrian hang perpendicular to the ground. Kyrian stretched, and soft, kitten-like mews and gasps escaped from her lips, as bones and joints crackled loudly. “Better?” Azhani asked as the stardancer allowed her body to go completely limp in her lover’s arms.

“Uh huh,” Kyrian murmured, unable to say much else.

“Good.” Brushing a kiss across the top of her head, Azhani laid Kyrian back down on the bed and turned to check the tea.

Shortly, a steaming cup was held under Kyrian’s nose and she pushed aside her lethargy long enough to sit up and chug the tea. Falling back to the bed with a groan, she asked, “Are we there yet?”

Azhani laughed and began to strip off the stardancer’s boots. Frowning as she noticed several wear holes, she said, “Need to get you a new pair from the quartermaster, tomorrow.”

Kyrian shook her head. “I already tried that, love. He’s out of boots in my size – I get to wait an entire week while the cobbler makes me a new pair.”

“I bet your feet don’t like that,” Azhani said, dipping a cloth into the remainder of the hot water that she had brought and beginning to wash the feet in question.

Eyes fluttering shut at the intense sensation that the warrior’s almost too gentle touch had on her body, Kyrian muttered, “No, but they love that.”

Chuckling, the warrior finished cleaning her lover’s feet and set the cloth aside. Kyrian’s filthy breeches were the next thing to be removed, followed by her dusty, gory robe and sweat-stained tunic, to be replaced by a clean shift. Azhani carefully lifted her lover off the bed and helped her to sit in a chair while she stripped away the top blanket and replaced it with a clean one.

With her eyes still closed, Kyrian let her head tip back against the chair and just quietly breathed in the homey scents of the tent. It was nice to be pampered, and it was even nicer when it was her beloved doing the pampering.

She let out a soft “woof” of surprise when she felt herself being lifted out of the chair and laid on the bed again. Kyrian opened her eyes and found Azhani staring at her with a look of pure admiration on her face. All her remaining pain vanished under that loving regard.

“I love that, you know,” Kyrian whispered, allowing the warrior to gently roll her around and sponge off the worst of the day’s exertions.

“What?” Azhani asked as she then helped her lover to slip into a light cotton shift.

“When you look at me like that, the world goes away. You make me feel like there’s nothing else but you and me. It makes me feel unique.”

Azhani leaned forward and kissed Kyrian then suckled on her bottom lip until the stardancer’s hands seemingly rose of their own accord to tangle in the warrior’s braids.

“You are unique,” Azhani said while brushing kisses over Kyrian’s face and lips. “That’s why I love you. There’s no one else anywhere that reaches in and sets my soul on fire.”

Kyrian laughed weakly as Azhani’s hands slipped under her chemise and began stroking her rapidly hardening nipples. “Make a girl feel special, why don’t you?” she gasped as the shift, which had spent such a short time on her body, suddenly vanished and flew across the tent.

“Only this girl,” Azhani said, tracing a fiery path of bites and kisses from her lover’s neck to her breasts.

Kyrian moaned and held the warrior against her. “Gentle, my love. I’m still a little tender,” she quietly warned.

Azhani started to pull away. “We can stop…” She offered, though the pout she wore said that she would prefer it otherwise.

“After all that? Not on your legendary blade-swinging life! Get over here!” Kyrian demanded, reaching out and grabbing the warrior’s tunic. Efficiently, if slowly, the stardancer stripped Azhani’s clothes away, baring the dark skin to her admiring eyes. “You know, Azhi, I really do love what I see.”

Flustered, the warrior blushed and covered her embarrassment by leaning in for a kiss. “Yeah, well, that’s good, because this is what you get,” she finally said, lying down and pulling the stardancer into her arms.

“It’s all I want,” Kyrian assured her, stroking gentle fingers over the warrior’s angularly planed cheeks. “All I’ll ever want.” Reaching down, she drew the covers up over them and slipped her leg between Azhani’s, slowly gliding against her lover.

Every time they made love, it was perfect. Even when they fell out of the cot and ended up fighting the rocks for space, every touch, each whispered tenderness was like a gift from the gods. Yes, there had been more than a few times where one of them had inadvertently caused the other a little pain, but those tiny hurts easily blended with the entire symphony of experience, creating such a melody that those aches vanished into the song of their lovemaking.

Kyrian often wondered if Azhani felt the same depth of emotion that she did, but she had not had the courage to ask. Perhaps some day, when they could face the dawn knowing that their world was safe from monsters and madmen, she would give voice to the few remaining questions she had.

Today, she would forget those questions and concentrate on Azhani’s wonderfully loving touch.
%%%
Gormerath’s obvious fervor for killing demons became part of the rapidly growing legend that Azhani’s army created. Soldiers with a skill for crafting stories, found themselves trading many favors just for the opportunity to ride with the warleader’s patrol and to record the day’s events. Inadvertently, Azhani admitted to one of these would-be bards that the sword hummed, adding another facet to the sword’s mythology.

Doing her best to ignore the songs traded around the fires at night, Azhani focused on the blade’s ability to sense the presence of demons, learning to discern the varying pitches and shades in the hum and glow. Since it shined brightly until the very last sac had been turned to pulp, and sang dimly if a demon filled cave was within five miles of camp, it was an efficient system to follow.

Kyrian found the idea of a glowing, singing magical sword, funny enough to tease her lover occasionally. Most of the time, however, the abundance of daily magic overwhelmed her and it was just easier to accept the sword’s abilities as ordinary. For her part, the warleader accepted the mild teasing, understanding that the levity helped her lover cope with the constant state of battle readiness that the army traveled under. Not once did the stardancer volunteer to join any of the patrols, and Azhani never asked her to go, even when she herself left the base camp for days at a time. Better a cold bedroll than a terrified partner, was her reasoning.

Winter came early in the mountains. In a land where the snow never melted, all could feel signs of change. Those the gods had gifted with the ability to sense the turning of seasons, reported that autumn’s tide would soon wash away summer’s flame.

At midsummer, the army celebrated the longest day of the year by spending three full days at play. Games of skill and chance, bardic competitions and feasting on sweet cakes and wine, gave the army a chance to rest and relax, forgetting briefly the awful task that lay ahead.

On the eve of their crossing into the Ystarfe Pass, scouts made a grim discovery. Eggs in the higher altitude caves, had hatched. Though no one had yet to see or hear one of the hellish creatures, guards around camp were doubled and three groups of ten patrolled the encampment at all times.

Well cared for armor made an appearance as the men and women of the army sacrificed comfort for protection. Varying styles of mail marked the soldiers’ origins. Archers wore light, highly flexible coats of leather and chain, while the infantry strapped on thick coats of studded leather. Heavy plate mail was worn by a few hearty souls, and banded mail was a favorite of the cavalry.

The Y’Norans wore spectacularly designed coats of studded armor, the studs embedded in the leather forming fantastic shapes of birds, animals and geometrically amazing patterns. Y’skani soldiers preferred scale mail and dwarves wore whatever would fit, usually patching a motley of chain and plate to leather coats.

As they had since the journey began, priests and mages wore woven, spell-imbued robes. Starseekers, the mage-priests, wore brilliant blue. Stardancers were clad in dark scarlet, while the mages chose bright saffron. Chirurgeons tended to wear green or white, whichever they could find, though their clothes tended not to stay very clean. Mixed with the varying tabards, the army made for a very colorful sight when viewed from the top of a mountain.

Azhani’s armor was made especially for her. A gift from Kuwell, it was a combination of scale and plate, with plenty of chain and leather to protect all the vulnerable spots. The armor was lightweight and flexible, yet durable enough to withstand several attacks. The warleader was grateful for the gift. Her original armor was held in reserve, in case she should need to replace the scale. Besides the armor, she had a pair of steel-capped boots and a light helm.

Kyrian absolutely loved how Azhani looked in her regalia. On top of the silvery armor, the warrior wore a tabard embroidered with the arms of Y’Syr. Against a sky blue background, a golden crown was cradled in the branches of an ancient oak tree. An added decoration was a border of golden leaves, marking Azhani as the warleader.

Against the wishes of Padreg, Elisira donned both armor and arms, proudly bearing the device of Y’dan. Standing alone in the Y’Noran contingent, the wheat sheaf badge seemed very lonely in the sea of gray capes emblazoned with a rearing horse.

As Elisira helped Padreg to clip his capelet to his armor, the Y’Noran king said, “I still don’t see why you’re wearing those colors, Eli.”

Turning him around a few times to take in the overall effect of his look, Elisira sternly replied, “Because Arris no longer bears these arms and because something of the real Y’dan should be represented. The gods should see that not all have turned away from them.”

“You shame me, Eli,” Padreg said roughly, drawing her into a hug.

Careful not to be stabbed by the studs on his armor, Elisira snuggled against her beloved. “There is no need for shame, my love,” she said, drawing out a rectangle of fabric. “I thought of you, too.” She held up a small belt favor bearing the same arms that she proudly wore on her chest.

Smiling, Padreg gamely slipped the favor onto his belt and then leaned in to kiss Elisira.

Y’droran and Y’skani devices reflected individual clans, peppering the army with a variety of hammers, serpents, scorpions, dragons, helms, forges – a veritable cornucopia of cultural iconography.

Clustered together, Allyn, Devon and Syrelle held hands and tried not to appear frightened by the sudden changes. Soon, the two young men would join Azhani on the first patrol since hatched eggs had been discovered. The sky was darkening rapidly as the sun set, and the warleader was certain that tonight the demons would hunt.

The princess was terrified for her friends. Alternately fighting back tears and anger, she wanted to cling to both Allyn and Devon, though it was Allyn’s embrace she craved the most. Once his horrible attitude vanished, he became everything she had dreamed – honorable, caring, and brave. The Y’Syran prince made her young heart flutter.

Only one thing kept her from singing her affections out loud, and that was Devon. The mage’s feelings for her were clearly written in his eyes, though he never once spoke of them. Instead, his actions betrayed his heart, and Syrelle had yet to find a way to gently let him down. Allyn’s emotions were almost as transparent as Devon’s, which made her dilemma that much sharper. Her lips longed to feel the sweetness of his, and her arms ached to hold the prince’s slimly muscled body close.

Syrelle sighed softly, and was echoed by both of her friends. Devon cautiously wrapped an arm around the princess, smiling ruefully when Allyn mirrored his action. It struck him suddenly that his friend was just as deeply in love with Syrelle as he was. Jealousy swept through him, nearly seizing control. It was the thought of how much it would hurt Syrelle to see him fight with Allyn, that stopped his wildly careening emotions.

Pasting a smile on his face, he forced himself to find something to say. “Hey, I bet I get one of the bastards before you, stick swinger.” He allowed the slightest hint of mock derision to taint his voice.

“In your dreams, sparkle fingers,” Allyn shot back, smiling to show that he was teasing as well. He had struggled to leave behind his churlish ways and it was still hard for him to joke with his friends without feeling guilty.

Syrelle rolled her eyes and wrapped her arms around both her friends. “So long as you both come back in one piece. I will be quite happy if your night is boring.”

Letting go of the princess, Devon reached for his belt and baldric, strapping on the saber he carried in case his spells failed. “Ah, don’t worry so much Sy. We’ll come back just fine, won’t we Allyn?”

“Of course we will,” the prince said, taking a moment to relish the contact with Syrelle. “Master Azhani won’t let anything happen to us,” he added confidently.

Passing by, Kyrian overheard the conversation. Casting her eyes heavenward, she silently prayed, Oh let that be so, Astariu. Let them have a successful first night. Keep them all safe, especially my beloved. She continued on her way to join the other stardancers. With only about thirty of Astariu’s Own in the army, each of the priests would have the chance to ride with a patrol before long. Kyrian would stay behind and work with the chirurgeons and herbalists, readying the field hospital for possible casualties.

Kyrian spotted Azhani among the gathering forces and reveled in the flush of love and pride that raced through her. Sitting arrow-straight on the back of her horse, the warrior’s face held an expression of utter calm as she observed the men and women of her army scurry about, making last checks before their first armored patrol. Turning away, Kyrian closed her eyes against the prick of tears, not able to watch as the patrol rode out of the camp. A part of the stardancer wanted to go over and beg her lover to give her one last kiss, but they had already said their goodbyes.
“I’m not going with you tonight, my love,” Kyrian said as she helped Azhani arm.

“I know,” Azhani said, turning and putting her hands on the stardancer’s shoulders. “Would it seem terribly selfish of me to say that I’m glad? I don’t want you in any more danger than you have to be.”

A crooked smile lit up Kyrian’s face. “You mean you’re not going to stand there and give me a pep talk about putting aside my small-minded fears and racing out there, glory bound to die?”

Rolling her eyes, Azhani said, “No. There is no glory in seeking death. This is a hunt, plain and simple. We are going out there to destroy the monsters, and I will be happier knowing you are here, safely tucked away.”

Briefly, they kissed, a whisper soft passage of lips that deeply conveyed the importance of Azhani’s return.
~Chapter Thirty-Four~
Azhani’s jaw ached from the constant hum the sword gave off. Its song was so loud, she was tempted to ask if anyone else could hear it. Not that they would – as long as she had carried the damn thing, it had sung only for her. For a moment, she feared what would happen when she drew the magical blade. If Gormerath lit up like a torch to scramble eggs, what would it do in the presence of the whole demon?

She was about to find out. Crackling bushes exploded outward as three-dozen gray-furred shapes burst out onto the path around her patrol. The demons crooned eerily as they circled the mounted warriors, preparing to attack.

Looping the reins around the saddle horn, Azhani quickly strung her bow and fired twice. One arrow struck a demon in the center of its thickly furred chest. The monster staggered back briefly, keening in pain. The other shot was a signal arrow, whistling off into the darkness to alert the other patrols that first contact had been made.

Bowstrings twanged as the other warriors feathered the attacking monsters with as many arrows as they could. As soon as the demons were too close for clear shots, the bows were dropped in favor of melee weapons. Swords, maces and battle-axes were drawn and swung. Clouds of hot blood and ichor sprayed out, coating the foliage.

Blanking her mind, Azhani ignored everything around her, seeing only the blazing form of Gormerath as it severed limbs and sent chunks of demonic flesh flying. On her left arm was a small round shield, which she used to deflect the vicious claws and teeth of the beasts.

Kushyra fought as fiercely as her rider, kicking and biting at the demons as they attacked. Before the patrol rode out, all of the warhorses had specially forged shoes fitted onto their hooves. The heavy iron covering acted as both protection and weapon, inflicting devastating blows with each kick. Aside from the special horseshoes, the mounts all wore barding. Heavy leather and plate armor designed to shield the horse’s hide from the demon’s razor sharp claws, creaked and clanked as the riders fought off the advancing monsters.

The telltale scream of a horse, shook Azhani from her battle haze. Sparing a prayer for the rider, she pulled her blade from the body of the demon she was fighting, tipped her head back and let out a long, piercing wail. Around her, the shouts and cries of her soldiers joined in as they fought. Laughing, she twirled her sword and wheeled Kushyra around to face the next monster.

Distantly, the warleader noted the sounds of other whistler arrows, but she forced herself to concentrate on the battle before her. It seemed like for every demon she killed, two more sprang up to take its place. The thick, coppery scent of blood misted the air and gurgling screams of the dying filled her ears. Then there was a moment of peace when all sound ceased and the foes before her were dead or dying.

Turning toward the rest of her patrol, Azhani caught a glimpse of Allyn on the ground, reeling back from a devastating blow. Spurring Kushyra forward, she yelled and charged the demon. The force of the horse’s body hitting the monster, threw it back several yards into the side of the mountain.

“Hop on!” she shouted, reaching out for Allyn’s hand.

Wordlessly, he pulled himself up behind her, sitting with his back to hers and preparing to fend off any blows. The position was awkward, but he was a consummate rider and managed to keep his seat.

The battle rolled on. The graying of false dawn brought an end to the fighting, as those demons still alive scattered into the mountains. Unable to stand the touch of the sun, the hellspawn sought shelter until night fell again.

Of the men and women she started the night with, all but three horses and one soldier would return to the camp. No one escaped injury. Field dressings covered gaping wounds and bound broken bones, while healers and stardancers fought to keep those whose injuries were the gravest from dying.

Exhausted but proud of a good night’s work, Azhani returned to her tent. Her wounds were minor compared to others, so she decided to tend them herself. Numerous small cuts and scrapes and one long gash extending from her left hip to the inside of her knee, were the extent of her injuries. Filling a pot with water, the warleader set it on the brazier to warm while she searched for a needle and thread. Half a candlemark later, Kyrian found her lover seated on the edge of their bed, hunched over and trying to stitch up the wound in her leg.

“Azhi?” she called out as she entered. “Are you in here? I didn’t see you… oh goddess, Azhani, why didn’t you come and get that taken care of?” she chided, rushing in and kneeling next to the warrior, taking the needle from her.

Tipping her head back and sighing as Kyrian began to stitch the wound, Azhani said, “It’s just a scratch. I didn’t want to take away valuable time from those who were more injured.”

Kyrian looked down at the four inch long, nearly one inch deep gash and said, “A scratch? Honey, this isn’t a scratch, it’s a laceration. Did you clean it out first?”

“I splashed a little of that stuff you got from Ambassador Iften on it,” the warrior said, wincing as the stardancer started to prod the wound.

“Dear goddess, Azhi, and we didn’t hear you scream? You’re stronger than I thought,” Kyrian said wryly, pulling out a packet of herbs. It was the last of the dozens she had stuffed in her pouches as the soldiers started trickling back into camp. Now she was grateful she had held one back. The herbs had been specially blended to fight the infectious properties of the demon’s claws and teeth.

“I was too busy trying not to black out,” the warrior admitted, grunting as Kyrian sprinkled the herbs on her wound.

The stardancer didn’t answer, only began to softly sing. A child’s lullaby carried the magic of her healing touch as she carefully stitched up the rest of the wound. As mentally drained as Azhani was physically, the stardancer had just enough magic left to burn away the poison in the warrior’s system.

“Thanks,” Azhani said as she stood. “Gotta go meet with the others.” She yawned and rubbed her eyes. “Be back in a bit, unless you want to come with?” Azhani and her other patrol leaders needed to go over the night’s battles and tally the lists of dead and injured. Bleakly, she realized that it would probably take her candlemarks to finish all the letters to the families of the slain.

“Sure,” Kyrian responded, forcing a chipper edge to her voice, though she was longing to crawl into their shared cot. “Someone’s got to keep you warriors sober enough to find your tents.”

Arm-in-arm, the two women slowly walked to the mess tent where the others were already gathering.
%%%
Oh goddess, twelve dead, one hundred and thirty six wounded. Azhani numbly drank a cup of lukewarm tea and stared down at the tally sheet in her hand. To her right, Kyrian was snoring softly, her curly golden red hair sticking out in all directions as she slept. A few other hearty souls peppered the tent, but the rest of the patrol leaders had already gone to bed. The morning breakfast rush had yet to stagger in, leaving Azhani alone with her thoughts.

The list of casualties struck her like a blow. Name by name, she called their faces to mind, searching her memories until an elusive smile or frown was associated with the terse letters that shaped the final moment of their lives. The ink blurred through her angry tears and she dashed them away, hardening her heart against the pain of loss. Twelve had given their lives so that hundreds of demons would no longer threaten the kingdoms.

During the meeting, she and her top lieutenants had decided to stay in the area for three more days, then move westward, continuing to burn out caves, as well as running night patrols. Messengers to Y’Syr had left only moments ago, carrying strongly worded warnings to the small communities that dotted the borderlands. Starseeker Vashyra had promised to send word to Kuwell and Lyssera, as well.

Padreg was the last of her seconds to leave, stopping by her chair as she held the list of the dead, to put a heavy hand on her shoulder. “Grieve for them later, warleader. ‘Tis time for rest and recovery, not to bellyache over should haves. Take your lady home and hold her close, Azhani, for that is what I intend to do. When we rise, we will seek out more of the bastards and send them screaming back to hell!” he had whispered softly and walked away.

Azhani sighed, wishing she could heed his advice. Too much needed to be done, and giving the dead their last respect was one of the duties that she left to no one else. Best to take the time now, while she still had it, rather than later, when she was up to her ears in demons. Those with weather sensitivity had given her a bare six to eight weeks before the winter snows fell, and by then she hoped to be in the mountains above Y’dan.

Dipping her quill into a pot of ink, she began her first letter. To the family of Ariana Wintersky: I regret to inform you that your daughter has perished in battle. She gave her life courageously, defending her land from the forces of evil…

A candlemark later, twelve scrolls lay in a pile in the center of the table. Twelve reminders of the price paid to destroy the demons. Stoically, Azhani drained the dregs of her tea and shook Kyrian.

“Come on Kyr, it’s time to go to bed,” she said, her voice no more than a dull shadow of its usual robustness. The warrior was used to it, though. After every battle, she drank gallons of tea to sooth her savaged vocal chords. The cry that so identified her on the field, often left her voiceless for days after a battle. Kyrian woke reluctantly, but was able to toddle with Azhani back to their tent.
%%%
“Ah, gods, that hurts,” Allyn groaned as Syrelle used a soft cloth to wash away the dried blood from around the wound in his shoulder. A careless turn had cost him the use of his shield arm and now he lay on his stomach in their tent, waiting for the feeling to return.

“Hush! If you hadn’t stopped to woolgather, we wouldn’t be here,” Syrelle chided harshly, scrubbing a bit harder than she meant to in her ire. When he had come in that morning, his arm bandaged to his side and blood coating most of his armor, she had been certain he was going to die. Pale features were ghostly white as the young prince stoically tried to bear the pain and stay seated on his exhausted mount.

Beside him, Azhani had kept a firm grip on his reins, talking softly and keeping him awake and mostly alert. The princess had raced across the camp, bracing herself to hold him up as he slid off the horse, but Azhani beat her, gathering her student up in her arms and striding purposefully toward the chirurgeon’s tent.

Kyrian had quickly set aside the mortar she was grinding herbs in and helped her lover lay the prince down on a cot, using a small but very sharp knife to cut away the damaged armor and clothing. As soon as she saw that Allyn was in the hands of the healer-priest, Azhani had taken Syrelle by the shoulders and steered the princess outside to wait.

“Come on, we’ll do more good out here, helping the others find their tents, than in there. Kyr’s got him now and he’ll be just fine,” she had said confidently. Syrelle believed her and blindly followed the warleader outside.

“Wasn’t woolgathering,” Allyn protested weakly. “Thought it was dead and …”

“Yes! I know all about it! You’ve said nothing else for three days, Allyndev Kelani,” Sy spoke bitterly. She packed on a new poultice and laid a clean bandage over the wound. After singing out the poison and stitching the gash closed, Kyrian had carefully explained to the princess what she would have to do. Keeping Allyn in bed for a couple of days was one of those things, and between her and Devon, they had managed to keep the prince occupied for two days so far.

Allyn was getting restless though, and only the fact that he could barely raise his arm kept him away from the battlefield. He wanted to be out with Azhani, sending demons to their maker, not lying on his stomach, staring at the woven mats that covered the floor of their tent.

Finishing up the dressing, Syrelle gently ran her fingers through Allyn’s hair. The long, blonde mane was matted with dirt and dried blood. “I’m going to find some way to wash this out, Allyn, or I’ll have to cut it all off.”

“Okay,” Allyn said dreamily, not really paying attention to the princess’ words. Her touch had driven away all his pain, leaving him floating breathlessly. He could feel the heat from her hand as it rested lightly on his back, just to the side of the bandage. Trying to breath shallowly, he prayed she wouldn’t move just yet.

Syrelle stared down at her hand, seemingly dark against the pastiness of Allyn’s skin. His color was better today than yesterday, when he had seemed so ghostly that she could see blue lines in his neck. Alternately, she wanted to shake, strangle, kiss and hug him. He was alive, but he was hurt, and that fact drove her to distraction.

“Hi kids, I’m home!” Devon’s voice broke the quiet spell in the tent. Ducking inside, the freshly washed young mage tossed his still damp robe onto his cot and walked over to kneel beside Syrelle. “How’s it going?” he asked, gently putting a hand on her knee.

The princess lifted the edge of the bandage and said, “It’s a little better today. Look.”

Devon tilted his head to see, and nodded. “Yeah, it doesn’t look so puffy. You got lucky, Allyboy.” He reached out and ruffled his friend’s hair. “Ew! You’re a mess!” he exclaimed when flakes of blood and dirt clung to his hand.

“Tell me something I don’t know?” Allyn growled impatiently. It was all right when Sy pampered him, but it made him feel silly to have the younger Devon acting as though he were the wise elder brother.

Pulling his hand away as if it had been burned, Devon stood up and said, “Well, I can see someone is feeling cranky.”

Allyn sighed. “Sorry. It’s just – I feel so useless lying on my face.”

“Hey, I understand, buddy. But you’ve got to relax and rest. Give your body a chance to heal. Can you move your arm yet?” Devon asked as Syrelle stood and walked out of the tent. The mage took her place, using his stronger hands to massage the joint around Allyn’s shoulder.

“Sort of, but not really. Stardancer Kyrian says that it’s probably going to take one more song to heal, but I feel so bad asking her to do it, because she’s always so tired!” the prince said wistfully. “There are so many folks whose injuries are worse than mine… it would be wrong of me to ask for the goddess’ touch when they need it more.”

“Nobility becomes you, Allyndev.” Azhani’s voice floated into the tent. The warleader stepped inside, ducking under the low roof and coming over to kneel beside the cot.

Allyn snorted derisively. “It’s not nobility, it’s practicality, Master. My arm is not worth the lives of the soldiers that your lady’s magic can save.”

“Ah, you are right, it is not nobility – it is self pity. I stand corrected,” Azhani said quietly. She stood and looked at Devon, who continued to massage the prince’s arm. They shared a moment of empathy, each understanding that Allyn’s mood would improve with his arm. Sharply, the warleader said, “When you’re done wallowing, Kyrian will see you in the chirurgeon’s tent.”

Devon was nearly thrown from the cot, Allyn stood up so quickly. “On my way,” the prince said tightly, reaching for a clean shirt to wear. As he sprinted out the door, he narrowly missed Syrelle, who was carting a heavy bucket filled with steaming water.

“Sorry m’lady,” he said, grinning cheekily as he headed toward the tall white pavilion in the center of the camp.

“Allyn –“

“Don’t bother trying, Sy,” Devon said as he came outside, taking the heavy container from her and setting it on the ground. “He’s been called by Stardancer Kyrian.”

“Oh, well, I was going to wa– er – I was going to help him wash his hair,” she explained, indicating the water filled bucket.

“I’m sure he’ll appreciate that, princess,” Azhani said as she joined them. “After he’s seen Kyr.”

“Can she really heal his arm?” the Y’maran princess asked, biting her lip hopefully.

Azhani shrugged nonchalantly. “I don’t see why not. She healed my leg up perfectly.”

Having heard from Devon the story of how the two women met, the princess nodded silently. Still chewing her lip, she watched Allyn run into the chirurgeon’s tent and greet the stardancer jubilantly.

Comfortingly, Devon wrapped an arm around her shoulders and drew her close, allowing her to lean on him. “It’ll be all right, Sy,” he promised quietly. “Come on, let’s get that bath ready. I’m sure Allyn will be more than ready for it when he comes back.”
%%%
Kyrian laughed as Allyn, flushed from his run, stripped off his shirt and knelt to present his wounded shoulder to her. “You could have stopped to put shoes on, Allyn,” she scolded lightly, carefully removing the bandage from his back.

“I didn’t want to keep you waiting, stardancer,” he murmured softly, pulling his matted hair off his neck. He was so nervous and so excited, that he wondered why he hadn’t vibrated a hole in the ground yet. Though his left arm was useless, his right one was perfectly healthy and quite able to grip his thigh with crushing force. Wincing, he struggled to pull his hand off his leg, and ended up pressing his fist into the ground as the first strains of Kyrian’s song stole away his awareness.

When he came to, he was lying on his own cot once more. Devon’s hands were supporting his head and Syrelle was gently washing away the blood and dirt from his hair. Blinking his eyes open, he groaned and unconsciously made a fist with his left hand as he tried to stretch.

“Nice to see you back among the living, my friend,” Devon said calmly, continuing to hold onto the prince’s head with gentle firmness.

“Ugh. I’m starving,” Allyn said hoarsely, licking his dry lips. “And thirsty. Gods, I’ve never felt anything like that before.”

“Here, the stardancer said you could have this,” Syrelle reached over and handed the prince a skin.

Allyn carefully opened it and drank slowly, sighing in relief at the cool, sweet water that moistened his parched throat. “Thank you,” he said, tipping his head back at her gentle direction, so she could rinse out the soap. “And thank you both for this,” he said quietly, humbled by their generosity. He wasn’t sure he would be able to wash Devon’s or Syrelle’s blood out of their hair so calmly.

“No problem, buddy,” Devon said, releasing his friend’s head now that he was more awake. “I’m going to go get our dinner. I’ll be back shortly.” The mage smiled briefly and then was gone before either of the nobles could speak.

“I can’t believe how hungry I am,” Allyn said, to break the odd silence that had sprung up as soon as Devon had left.

“Stardancer Kyrian says that it’s typical after a Healing,” Syrelle mentioned casually, wringing out Allyn’s hair. “Here, sit up and towel it dry.” She handed him a towel, trying not to hold her breath. So far, he had been able to move his left hand slowly, but she had to know if the priest’s magic had worked.

Allyn calmly accepted the towel and took a deep breath and then used both hands to briskly dry his hair. When he pulled the cloth away from his face, his smile lit the tent brighter than Devon’s spell.

“I can move it and it doesn’t hurt!” he whispered excitedly, dropping the towel and flexing his arm. Lifting it above his head, he winced. “Okay, so it mostly doesn’t hurt.”

“Yeah, you’ve still got the stitches, but you’ll heal fast and…” Syrelle’s voice faded a bit and she sighed heavily. “And you can go patrolling again tomorrow.”

In the process of putting on his tunic, Allyn almost didn’t hear the hesitation in her voice. He let the fabric slither down and shook his shoulders to settle the light blue tunic. “Sy?” he asked curiously, cocking his head and looking at the still kneeling princess. “Don’t you want me to be better?”

She stood up angrily. “Of course I do!” she hissed softly. “Why would you think otherwise?”

Standing, he walked over and put a hand on her shoulder. “Because you’re so mad now, and because you didn’t sound happy that I could patrol again.”

A tiny noise of frustration erupted from her throat and she spun away from him. “I’m perfectly elated that you’re feeling better, Prince Allyndev,” she said bitingly. “I am not, however, at all pleased that you are able to be demon fodder again!” Then she bent and lifted the bucket of dirty water and ducked out of the tent.

“Sy wait!” Allyn scrambled to follow, but the princess was quickly moving away, heading for the place where those who camped at the warleader’s site, dumped wastewater. Standing in just a tunic and short breeches, the prince could not hope to follow her over the hard, rocky ground. “But…” he whispered, stunned at the vehemence of her statement. A confused expression colored his face and he sighed then returned to the tent.

Devon, watching Syrelle’s departure, sighed heavily and carefully juggled the three bowls of hot stew. He didn’t know what irked him more – the fact that he was so deeply in love with the princess, or the fact that she was in love with Allyn. It meant pain for him either way, but as long as nothing was said, he could continue to fantasize that she might suddenly decide that he was the one who she truly loved.

The young mage shook his head sadly. He had seen the look on Allyn’s face as Syrelle dashed off. The Y’Syran prince was as hopelessly in love with the princess as he was. Swallowing resolutely, Devon put that thought out of his head and pasted a cheerful smile on his face, ducking inside the tent with the food.

“Dinnertime!” he sang out enthusiastically, handing a bowl to Allyn, who was listlessly sitting on the edge of his bunk.

“Thanks,” the prince murmured, automatically taking the food and lifting the spoon to his lips.

Devon watched him eat mechanically, not even seeming to taste the food that he chewed and swallowed. Almost, he opened his mouth to ask about it, but he couldn’t quite bring himself to be that charitable. Quietly, he ate his own meal, silently praising the lady Elisira’s skill with venison.
~Chapter Thirty-Five~
“My king! I bring news!” shouted a young man as he raced across the campsite, heading pell-mell for Arris, who was slouched on a pile of cushions. Sliding to his knees as he came within sight of the king, the messenger bowed his head and mumbled, “I hail thee, Arris the Demonslayer, overlord of Y’dan.”

“Yeah, yeah, the news, boy, let’s have it.” The king was bored. Though the army had been camped in the mountains for weeks, he hadn’t seen so much as a demon’s toenail, much less a living, breathing example of the scions from hell.

“Demons, your majesty, hundreds of them!” the young man exclaimed breathlessly. Now he dared to look up and was rewarded with the sight of Arris leaping from his chair.

“Well, why didn’t you say so?” he shouted exuberantly, jumping up and pacing to and fro, erratically. “This is fabulous – I mean terrible news! We must attack them at once.” The king ceased his pacing and grabbed the messenger, shaking him forcefully. “Tell me more, at once!”

Briefly, the messenger stammered out what the half-dead scout had told him and then handed over the scout’s proof – an ichor stained, broken sword blade.

Barely able to contain himself, Arris accepted the blade, shaking with glee. “Demons,” he whispered. Reverently, he dipped his fingers in the ichor, cursing when the thick yellow fluid burned his flesh.

Behind him, the scholar Porthyros emerged from the king’s tent. He was carrying a large tankard filled to the brim with freshly made tea. His gaze went from the messenger to the sword in Arris’ hand and a tiny smile sprang up on his sallow features. It was about time. Now maybe the brat would stop whining. For weeks, all he had heard was, “Thyro, when do I get to kill one?” and he was heartily tired of it. Soon, he thought in satisfaction, I will no longer heed the words of this puling boy who dares think he is the next master of the world! Rich visions of gold and jewels taunted him as he approached his king and diffidently proffered the beverage.

“Did you hear, Thyro? Demons!” Arris babbled, absently taking the mug and draining it dry.

“I did, your majesty. Shall I call the squad leaders?” he asked, accepting the tankard back with a small bow.

“Yes, at once! I must prepare!” Arris dove into his tent and shortly, the clatter of armor and weapons could be heard.

“You heard him, boy. Go find the generals.” Porthyros dismissed the messenger with a wave of his hand. Oh master, your plan goes so perfectly. The scholar scanned the mountains to the east, wondering if all was going according to plan. If so, then shortly, he would leave Arris to his fate and join his master high in the snows and watch the dawning of a new era.

Does she come? he wondered, searching for any sign that his master’s plans were coming to perfect fruition. She must come! Is it not written? How many times had he heard his master muttering about crazy prophecies and destined events? Azhani would be here with an army, because the fates willed it so.

The bitch had to die by Arris’ hand, or kill the king. Then the victors would find themselves surrounded by an army of demons, all waiting to kill for their master. Ecarthus would have his key, and he, Porthyros Omal, would have a kingdom! I must make ready. It will soon be time to leave Arris to his fate.

A self-satisfied smirk settled on his narrow-featured face, making passersby shudder and avoid the rat-like little man.
%%%
Azhani’s army left the Ystarfe Pass after three weeks of bathing in blood and gore. The hatchings grew more frequent until there were no more egg-filled caves, only long nights of fighting demons and praying for the sun. Two thousand men and women gave their lives to the fangs and claws of the spawn of hell, leaving a bare four thousand to face the horrors still to come.

Each loss deeply scarred the warleader’s heart. Every time she had to stand pyrewatch and listen to the priests sing the death chant, tears scorched her cheeks and anger flamed in her gut. For days following a funeral, Azhani would be fierce in battle, fighting with a frenzy that seemed almost otherworldly.

Tales of her fighting spread as those in the army compared what they had seen of their warleader before and what now walked among them, blue eyes brightened by some inner fire that fueled them to face the demons every night. They loved her. From the lowest cook to the lieutenants that gathered every morning to give the death tolls, they revered their Warleader. There wasn’t a man or a woman among them, who wouldn’t follow her to the gates of Hell itself, had she asked it of them.

Whispered over cups of warmed mead or mulled wine, was the tale of how Azhani had single-handedly held back a wave of demons when her entire patrol had gone down. The warleader had been a whirlwind of death, holding the monsters back until King Padreg’s patrol could race to their rescue. Of the forty soldiers in the unit that went down under the demonic onslaught, thirty-eight lived.

One of the soldiers who had lived through the assault made a song about it, taking the warleader’s hated nickname and turning it into a title of pride. The Banshee of Banner Lake became Banshee to the men and women who fought and died for her. Y’dani minstrels had christened her with the name to drive fear into the hearts of all who heard the tale of her defiance of Arris. The soldiers took that fear and turned it around, making the warleader’s cry into the balm that was sent to shield their souls from destruction. Azhani Rhu’len, Y’Syr’s Banshee.

Azhani despised it, but she allowed the name to stick because it gave them something to cling to when they were staring into the glowing eyes of death. Padreg tried to tease her about it, until he heard what he and those who were considered to be a part of the warleader’s camp were called. “Banshee’s Pride” they were, the warleader’s steadfast pack of followers, whose loyalty was never to be questioned.

Knowing of the warrior’s dislike, Kyrian never addressed her lover by the hated nickname. She understood that part of her lover’s reluctance stemmed from humility and part came from remembered pain. Azhani was one of the most humble people the stardancer knew, and that kept her from basking in the glow of worship that seemed to permeate the entire army.

Gormerath’s lengthy legend increased as well. The ancient sword flamed like a torch when Azhani wielded it in battle, cutting through demon after demon without ever needing the touch of a whetstone. The warrior privately swore to Kyrian that the sword knew when demons were near, emitting a bone jarring hum when the evil beings came within a certain distance of her.

Kyrian also felt that the blade must have some kind of healing properties. Wounds that should have bedridden the warrior for days, mended overnight, with no magical help from any of the stardancers.

Thus far, the stardancer had managed to avoid direct confrontation with the demons, though she had seen the remains of the devastation daily. Each time one of the soldiers passed, she stood with Azhani and sang the songs of ascendancy, wordlessly holding on to the warrior’s hand as she cried. Those were the nights they loved the fiercest, clinging tightly to one and other and seeking solace in their love.

The stardancer glanced down the road they traveled, spotting her lover at the head of the column. Yesterday, a plume of smoke in the distance had caught their attention and today, they were following an old mining trail toward Barton town. The sun was just beginning to set when they rode into the town.

The smell was terrible. A thick miasma of death shrouded the once thriving trading community. Azhani’s descriptions of the place after the demonic invasion the previous year, were nothing close to what they saw now.

Around the town stood the ruins of a wall, the wood splintered and smashed by massive forces. Not one house remained standing. Fires still smoldered, adding a thick, oily smoke to the noxious atmosphere. There was no sign of life, anywhere. Liberally littering the streets were the corpses of mutilated bodies, the stench of decomposition making it difficult to get close enough to the piles of flesh to determine whether they were mortal or demon.

The army rode in horrified silence, some with tears staining their smudged faces as they passed the destruction. An aura of evil pervaded the town, making the atmosphere oppressive and chilling. Shaking uncontrollably, Kyrian guided Arun to the center of town, relieved to see Azhani and her lieutenants gathered around the remains of a well.

The warleader’s face was deeply lined by sorrow and heartbreak and Kyrian nearly cried out at the bleakness in her lover’s dark indigo eyes. She didn’t need words to tell her that Azhani needed her. Leaping from Arun’s back, Kyrian carefully picked her way through the rubble until she was beside her lover, worming her way under the warrior’s arm and wrapping her arms around her.

Azhani looked down at the sudden appearance of her lover and smiled wearily. How does she always know when I need her?

“Hey,” the warrior said, returning the hug one-armed while keeping the other free. Gormerath’s song was distant, but present.

“Hi,” Kyrian said, continuing to snuggle against the warrior’s side. “I missed you, so I just had to come find you.”

The tips of Azhani’s ears turned bright pink, causing Padreg and the others to smile.

“You are well and truly snared, my friend,” Padreg said, clapping Azhani on the shoulder.

“Look who’s talking,” Azhani said as Elisira joined them, catching Padreg’s mail-covered hand in her own.

Smiling sheepishly, Padreg brought his lady’s hand up and kissed it. “Well, at least we were caught by the best.”

“No argument there,” Azhani agreed, brushing a quick kiss over Kyrian’s forehead. I know you’re gone, Ylera. I swear that Arris will die for his crimes, but I no longer feel as though killing him will bring you back.

Commotion at the other end of the town sent the group scrambling. Four scouts were hurriedly running into the street, carrying a blue-robed figure.

“We found him in a shrine,” one of the scouts was saying as Azhani arrived, seconds after Kyrian.

The stardancer was already singing, her hands limned in a brilliant yellow aura as she tried to heal the other priest’s numerous wounds. Padreg gasped in shock as he recognized his old friend Jalen, the scholarly priest who had helped him escape Arris’ guards the year before.

Opening his eyes, the man looked around and tried to speak, but all that came out was a rough croaking noise. Azhani ripped the waterskin from her side and drizzled a few drops into his mouth. He swallowed and finally, hoarse, wheezy words emerged.

“Azh-ani Rhu’len? Paddy? Am I hall-ucinating?” he mumbled, faltering over the words.

A cot had been set up and the scouts laid the priest’s broken body down while Kyrian continued to sing. Another stardancer appeared, linking his hand with Kyrian’s and singing a descant to her song. Starseeker Vashyra also arrived, kneeling beside her fellow priest and took his hand, praying softly.

Dropping to his knees next to Kyrian, Padreg took up his old friend’s hand and squeezed it gently. “We’re here, Jae,” he whispered, forcing back the tears that burned in his eyes. Jalen looked terrible. Blood sluggishly flowed from deep cuts in the priest’s belly, and through the crimson fluid, the chieftain could see the pale pink of ravaged bowl and intestine. Elisira put a hand on her beloved’s shoulder and squeezed, lending him her support as tears slipped down his cheeks.

“Couldn’t stop them,” Jalen said, his voice stronger now that Kyrian’s healing had taken effect. “Came in at night and destroyed everything.”

A strangled howl came from Azhani and she buried her head in her hands, sobbing brokenly. Paul, Orra, Mattie – they were all dead?

Allyndev, seeing his mentor in pain and knowing Kyrian could do nothing for her while she was singing, handed Azhani a skin filled with elven wine. “It’s not an answer, but it may help,” he murmured, bowing his head.

The warrior drained it in three swallows.

“…Sent them to the elves three months ago, when the mines were overrun with larvae. A few of us stayed behind, to tend the shrine,” Jalen coughed and blood flecked his lips. “I couldn’t let the Ecarthans win; I had to keep the Twins alive in Y’dan.”

“Of course, my friend,” Padreg soothed. “Rest now; let the stardancers work.”

Only now noticing Elisira, Jalen managed a smile. “So you finally found the one, hmm, my friend? Did you marry her?”

Padreg smiled sadly. “Not yet, Jae. We wanted to wait until the time was right.” He reached up with his free hand and covered Elisira’s. She squeezed his shoulder silently.

Kyrian and the other stardancer stood, their song ended. “We’ve done all we can; it’s in the hands of the gods now,” she said, going over and burying herself in Azhani’s desperate embrace.

“It will feel good to sleep,” Jalen said drowsily.

“Then rest, my friend. We will be here when you wake,” Padreg assured him. The priest’s eyes fluttered shut.

Azhani clung to Kyrian. They weren’t dead. Her friends – the people she had known since she was a child were still alive, safely ensconced across the border, in Y’Syr. Her heart was hammering in her chest and tears continued to fall, but it was relief that flooded her now, not sorrow.

The fear that had ridden on her shoulders since they had entered the shattered town, vanished, and was replaced by a giddy sense of release that made her feel as though she was floating. Yes, there were dead to mourn, but they were few; only a small group of miners and trappers had refused to leave their homes behind. Paul, Orra and their family, as well as many other families, had fled, rather than face the demons again.

Azhani wallowed in her lover’s embrace, trading soft kisses until she felt able to face the army. Taking a deep breath, the warleader looked up and began giving out orders.

“Vashyra, take the mages and cleanse this place. Padreg, you and Eli gather the men and set patrols of no less than fifteen soldiers each, no more than three miles outside of town. Allyn, take fifty men and find us a place to camp.”

“What about outside the shrine?” one of the scouts suggested. “It’s still intact and it’s upwind of this place. There’s a well and plenty of space.”

“Perfect. Allyn, take those men and go check it out.” Azhani frowned, trying to place the scout’s name. “Tal, you go with them; show them the way.”

Everyone scattered to his or her various jobs. A chair was brought for Kyrian, who flopped into it tiredly. Brother Jalen slept peacefully and Kyrian wondered if she should bestir herself enough to clean him up, or wait until he woke.

“Sit and rest, my love. I’m going to find us something to eat and search for survivors,” Azhani said quietly, squatting down to kiss her lover quickly.

“Okay,” Kyrian agreed willingly, letting her head drop back. Cloudy gray skies suddenly parted, allowing the barest sliver of the setting sun through. The golden light bathed the small town all too briefly and then vanished behind the clouds once more.
%%%
Over several candlemarks, the ruined town of Barton vanished. Priests, mages and soldiers worked in concert to remove the miasma of destruction that clouded the tiny valley where the trade town was housed. The structures that had withstood the damage were taken over by the army as housing and headquarters, though the main body of troops camped a few miles away in the forest.

In the town square, a bonfire burned. The ruins fed the flames, helping to send on the souls of the townsfolk. Demon carcasses were left where they lay, or brought into areas where the sun’s rays would work to dissolve the hellish corpses.

Any useful items found buried in the rubble were immediately cleaned and brought to the shrine to be put into service. Chairs, clothing, linens – everything was treated to a thorough cleansing and then distributed to the soldiers for use. Surprisingly, many large stores of foodstuffs were discovered. The priests gave thanks for the bounty while the cooks took the windfall and added some variety to the meals.

Trapped under the fallen roof of the old inn stable, a gaunt, near-dead female hunting cat and her young kits were found, near dawn. As the debris was removed, her weak cries could be heard, driving the soldiers to work nonstop until she and her family were extricated. Coaxed into the arms of the waiting men and women with food scraps, the large mother cat and her kits quickly won the hearts of the army.

Throughout the day, wherever she wandered in the camp, warm, dry spots were hastily offered and plenty of food shared. A small platoon of men and women even volunteered to risk life and limb to bathe the knee-high cat and her kittens.

Azhani took the existence of the cats as a sign that the gods approved their mission. The gift of precious animals like hunting cats was not one she would lightly ignore. Trained to hunt alone, or alongside partners, the felines could easily bring down a deer on their own. The animals had been created centuries earlier by Firstlanders who discovered that their ship cats did not fare well on land. A larger species of native feline proved capable of breeding with the ship cats, producing a strong, agile, smart and loyal hunting animal. Already, the kits were gravitating toward the men and women who would be their handlers and friends for the rest of their lives.

The mother cat, named “Avisha” by the soldiers, was lying by the warrior’s side, her head pillowed on Azhani’s boot and her dark golden eyes slowly roving the camp. Reaching down, the warleader rubbed the cat’s thick, chocolate brown furred skull, smiling at the thundering purr she received in turn.

Avisha, whose name meant “miracle”, was a welcome addition to the hunting squad. After only two days of recovery, the skilled huntress had helped take down a large wild boar, the meat of which was a welcome addition to stew pots around the camp.

Sitting back in the chair, Azhani allowed her head to roll about on her shoulders, wincing as several loud pops and cracks echoed around her. She sighed wearily. The cleanup of Barton had taken candlemarks and yet there was always more to do. Azhani could see the first twinkling of stars and knew that soon, she would lead another patrol into the surrounding mountains. Tempted to visit her homestead, she had purposefully assigned herself to the northerly route, asking Padreg to take the southern quarter. It would be too painful to see the home she could not live in, and even more devastating if that home had been destroyed.

Earlier in the day, Starseeker Vashyra had received a magical sending from Queen Lyssera. The Y’Syran navy, with help from Y’Nor’s ships, was engaged in battle. Dark ships sailed by Ecarthan priests and Killigarni pirates, were infesting Banner Lake and its larger tributaries.

On the plains of Y’Nor, priests disguised as bandits were attacking the clans, keeping the plainsmen from sending more than token assistance northward. Regardless of their troubles, Lyssera promised to send supplies and reinforcements. The other message to come in that day was from Ambassador Kuwell. His news was welcome indeed. On the morning that Azhani’s people had ridden into Barton, Kuwell and his men had arrived in the Y’droran Mountains, having cleansed the land of demons.

The warleader heaved a great sigh of relief, satisfied that she would not have to look over her shoulder so much. Not that she would ignore that avenue completely – that would be sheer folly – but she could rotate the rear guardsmen forward, leaving the soldiers more time to rest during the day.

Avisha reached up and playfully batted at the warrior’s fingers. Smiling, Azhani spent some time wrestling with the big cat, careful not to incite the feline’s more ferocious instincts. The hunting cat had a vicious set of very sharp teeth and claws and Azhani did not want to become a pincushion.

Over by the fire, Kyrian and Elisira worked on dinner and quietly talked. The stardancer looked up and watched her lover play with the cat and smiled gently, amused by the precious sight. Elisira followed her friend’s gaze and chuckled lightly.

“She’ll be something with children, don’t you think?” the noblewoman quietly commented.

“Yeah,” Kyrian said dreamily.

“You’ve found yourself a good one, Kyr, I’ll grant you that. Always thought you would, too,” Brother Jalen said, smiling fondly at the stardancer.

In a corner of the campsite, Padreg was teaching Allyn the finer points of Y’Noran combat. The distant thunk of practice swords clashing heavily against padded armor, threaded past Azhani’s senses. Turning, she looked at the amazing shrine that Brother Jalen and the Barton townsfolk had built.

Set outside of the protective town wall, the single story structure spread out in a rambling sprawl under three large trees. In the very center of the building was an altar dedicated to Astariu and Astarus, who were the twin gods of Y’myran. Rising up from the altar were two intricately carved statues. Cradling a rock crystal bowl filled with water, the serene expressions of Astariu and her twin brother Astarus gazed out into the temple, welcoming all. Fragrant incense burned in tiny cups, the blue-gray smoke wreathing upward to enshroud an oil lamp that was suspended from the ceiling.

Spread outward from the altar were bedrolls filled with priests and mages in various states of sleep. Flashes of saffron, crimson and azure fabric peeking out from under dark woolen blankets, denoted the men and women who had drained themselves working to set Barton town to rights. Suppressing a smile at the symphony of snores coming from within the temple, Azhani reached down and grabbed her gorget and began removing a broken buckle.

Princess Syrelle exited the chirurgeon’s tent, bearing a heavy load of bloodied bandages. Seeing the warleader, she nodded a hello as she passed by to toss the ruined cloth onto the fire. Azhani waved back, approving of the way the young woman had fearlessly undertaken the task of learning battlefield medicine. The princess passed by Allyn and the two nobles exchanged shy smiles.

Hmm, it looks like Allyn has mended his fences, the warleader thought, smiling in satisfaction as she watched them interact. It was easy to see that Allyn and Syrelle were moving from friendship toward something more, and Azhani spared a moment to wonder if she should interfere. No, let it happen. Those Y’Syran stuffed tunics need a little shaking up.

“Food’s done,” Kyrian called out, holding up a steaming bowl of stew and wobbling it enticingly.

Setting aside the busted piece of armor, Azhani stood and meandered over, taking the bowl and a kiss from her lover.

“Mm, smells great,” the warrior muttered, nuzzling Kyrian’s ear.

The stardancer chuckled throatily, tipping her head to capture her lover’s lips again. “Glad you like it,” she said, pulling away to serve up another bowl for herself. They sat together on a bench that had been saved from the town.

Padreg and Allyn showed up about then, drenched in sweat but grinning like a couple of kids who had just gotten away with eating an entire handful of sweets.

“Have fun, boys?” Azhani asked as she took her first bite.

Allyn’s grin got even bigger. “I knocked him flat on his backside, Master Azhani!”

Raising an eyebrow, Azhani looked to Padreg for confirmation of the young man’s boast.

The chieftain nodded and said, “Kid’s fast, Azhi. I’m impressed.”

“Maybe you’re just getting old, Paddy,” Brother Jalen piped up, chuckling at the expression on his friend’s face.

“Old? If you didn’t look like three day old cartwheel fodder, I might be tempted to show you just how old I am!” Padreg teased, walking over and leaning down to gently embrace the priest.

Elisira found a chair and shoved it under Padreg’s bottom and ordered, “Sit down you big ninny.” Flopping back, the Y’Noran king laughed and accepted his bowl of stew graciously.

“Dev still sleeping?” Allyn asked, looking over at the shrine, searching for his friend.

“Yeah, I can see his feet sticking out from under his blankets,” Kyrian said around a mouthful of food. “But I think Syrelle is still over at the chirurgeon’s, if you’d like to tell her that dinner’s ready.”

She didn’t have to mention it twice. Allyndev dropped his armor and his practice weapon in a pile outside of his tent and raced across camp to the large, white pavilion that served as the chirurgeon’s tent.

Shaking his head, Padreg wondered aloud, “Did he just grow wings on those feet, or am I seeing things?”

Azhani shrugged. “Love makes you do the strangest things, Paddy.”

The Y’Noran chieftain shared a smile with his fiancée and nodded. “I suppose you are right, my friend.”

Clearing his throat, Jalen asked, “Speaking of love, Paddy-me-boy, why is it that you chose midwinter to stand before the goddess?”

Padreg flushed and looked down at his feet. “Well, ah, I was actually going to marry Elisira as soon as we returned to Y’Nor, but, ah, I got to watching Azhani and Kyrian and you know how meddlesome we Y’Norans can be…” he laughed weakly. “Well, anyway, I thought maybe I could spread a little of my happiness around and…” his voice petered away under the intense gazes of the group.

Azhani grinned openly. She was very interested in hearing this. Beside her, Kyrian added her own smile and attentive gaze.

Fidgeting uncomfortably, Padreg hurriedly said, “Eli told me how deeply Azhani had loved Ylera Kelani, and how wonderful it was that Kyrian had come into her life. I thought, maybe, that I could tempt the fates into giving Azhani a measure of happiness.” He shrugged and looked at Azhani, then at Jalen. “So I planted a seed and hoped for a lovely flower.”

“You are a sap, Paddy. I love you, but you are a sap,” Elisira said, leaning over to plant a kiss on his cheek.

“So that’s what Lyss meant by a promise,” Kyrian said abruptly. At Azhani’s look of confusion, she added, “Just before you revealed Var’s treachery, the queen told me about a letter she had received from Padreg. She mentioned the promise and neither of us could figure out what it was about. I had forgotten about it until just now.”

Everyone stared at Kyrian, amusement sparkling on their faces in the form of teasing grins.

“What?” the stardancer asked innocently and then took a bite of her food.

“I love you, Kyr,” was Azhani’s response.

“I love you, too,” Kyrian replied, though the response was somewhat garbled from the food she was chewing.

Nodding his head, Padreg said, “Yes, asking Lyssera to pass on the message seemed to be the best way to gently remind our sword swinging friend that life moves on.” He shared a look with the warleader.

“I hadn’t forgotten,” Azhani said quietly, reaching out to take Kyrian’s hand in hers, their fingers automatically twining together.

Padreg only smiled.

“Well, now that you don’t have to wait, why not have the ceremony now?” Jalen blithely suggested, causing both Padreg and Azhani to turn ghostly white.

Elisira and Kyrian exchanged glances, both biting their lips to keep from laughing.

“Should we be insulted?” Elisira slyly asked, giving both Padreg and Azhani arched looks.

“Elisira, beloved, I would be happy to bind my fate with yours.” The Y’Noran bowed his head and sighed heavily. “Yet, I would rather not taint such a blessed event with the blood of war. If it would please you, though, I will lay aside my misgivings.”

The noblewoman reached her hand out and laid it against Padreg’s bearded face. “No, my love. I agree with you. Our day should be filled with sun and the scent of home. I am content to wait until midwinter or beyond. What about you, Kyr?”

Caught with her spoon halfway to her mouth, Kyrian dropped the utensil into her bowl and pretended to ponder the question. “Well, I think,” she lingered on the word, tilting her head to look at Azhani. Sweat glistened on the warrior’s brow and she returned a hopeful look to her lover. “I think that whatever the two of you decide to do is wonderful, Eli, but I’m not sure Azhani and I are ready to make any kind of commitment.”

Surprising herself, Azhani calmly said, “No, that’s not true. I am ready.” She looked into Kyrian’s startled eyes and smiled. “I was ready the night I came to you, my love.” They shared an intense look and then Azhani rose to begin pacing around the fire. “My friends,” she said quietly, “May whatever day you choose to join, be special.”

“Thank you,” Elisira said.

“With my lady by my side, it could not be anything else,” added Padreg simply.

Azhani smiled and turned away, kneeling before Kyrian. Taking the stardancer’s hand, she stroked her thumb along the palm before bringing it up and pressing her lips against the warm skin. Kyrian smiled lovingly and cupped the warrior’s face in her hand.

Nuzzling her lover’s hand, Azhani quietly said, “My beloved; every day I wonder what kindness I did to the gods. When the darkness nearly overwhelmed my soul, you soothed both the hurts of my body and my heart. I called you friend and you came, standing beside me when I was alone. Now I call you my love, for you are that and so much more – what name can you give the healer of a soul? There would be no greater honor I could do than to stand before the gods on winter’s solstice and name you my wife. Will you share my life and claim the right to cherish our love together and in the company of friends?”

As if the warrior’s words had touched Heaven itself, rain began to fall. Tears pricked at Kyrian’s eyes and by the time Azhani reached up to touch her cheek, they had spilled over and were dripping into her stew. The warrior brushed a tear away and Kyrian leaned into the touch, her eyes drifting shut.

She blinked away the rest of her tears as she opened her eyes and whispered, “I have no words, my love.” Bending her head forward so that her brow touched Azhani’s she said, “Everything and the universe in your eyes; that’s what I see when I look at you, Azhi.” She drew back, shaking her head slightly. The bowl of stew dropped away as she slid to her knees and took Azhani’s hands. “I’ve never met anyone who could make me forget the rain. In the circle of your arms, the sun is always shining.” Looking up, she smiled blissfully and whispered, “Yes, Azhani, I will join with you on Winter Solstice.”

Elisira leaned over and whispered to Padreg, who was surreptitiously brushing tears from his eyes, “If you can top that, I’ll eat my shoe.”

A gleam of something wicked sparkled in the Y’Noran’s eyes and he whispered back, “Have you acquired a taste for old leather, my lady?”

Startled, Elisira replied, “No, but…”

“An unwise wager made in haste, will flatten a pouch quickly,” he advised smugly, wriggling his eyebrows suggestively.

She playfully shoved him and said, “You really think you can be more romantic than that?”

Shrugging, Padreg said, “Of a sureness, my lady. T’would be of light labor.”

Azhani and Kyrian, who were still locked in each other’s eyes, suddenly stood and walked away from the fire, heading for their tent.

Archly, Elisira said, “Oh really?”

A wide grin spread across Padreg’s face. “Yes, love. It is but a matter of applying the lessons of the heart.” Putting actions to words, he stood and lifted Elisira up, cradling her in his arms. “My lady,” he said gruffly, juggling her slightly to get his balance. “It has become chill. Allow me to escort you to the warmth of our humble abode.”

Carefully, he walked the few steps to their tent, ducked inside and then gently laid her on their bed. Taking one of their soft towels, he slowly began to dry her off, helping her to remove the damp clothes and slip into her sleepwear.

“Eli, from the moment I saw you I knew that you were something special. You spoke with educated grace and your words had more than merit – they had sense. Astride an uncommon horse, you rode with the poise of one born to the hoof. Your beauty outshone the brightest bird in Arris’ unfriendly flock and when you smiled, blessed Astariu, I was truly lost!” A shy, almost wondering smile transformed his rough-hewn face. “I had to travel across the kingdoms to find you, but when I did, I knew the journey was worth the ride. It would please me, my lady Elisira, if you would consent to wed.”

Breathless and quite well warmed by Padreg’s gentle care, Elisira reached her hand out and drew the Y’Noran down beside her. “I’m glad you didn’t take my bet,” she whispered, kissing him gently. “Because I would have lost.” They kissed until their muscles cramped.

“Well?” Padreg prodded teasingly as he stood and began changing into his nightclothes.

Sitting up, Elisira rested her chin in her hand and pretended to think about it. “Hmm, I don’t know… do I want to spend the rest of my life with a wild Y’Noran barbarian who thinks living in tents and chasing horses is fun?” A grin spread across her face as his expression grew worried. Leaping up and wrapping her arms around him, she blurted, “Of course I do! I love you, Padreg, oh goddess, but I love you!”

“I love you too, my sweet,” he murmured, kissing her fervently. “With all that I am.”
%%%
The news of the double proposals spread through the encampment like wildfire. Soon, all anyone was talking about was the upcoming nuptials and the damned rain. Harvest came and went. Night after night, Azhani’s army clashed with the forces of hell and destroyed them.

Supplies from home arrived early one morning via a mass teleport spell. Reinforcements, food and equipment appeared in three giant pops that had all of the mages and several of the priests running from their tents wondering what was causing the magical racket.

Calmly assuring everyone that this delivery had been scheduled, Starseeker Vashyra quickly assigned several of the acolytes to escorting the newly arrived soldiers to their posts. Confusion reigned in the camp until everyone had been settled, causing several minor altercations. Surprisingly, Allyndev, Syrelle and Devon stepped in to aid Azhani and Padreg in settling the minor disasters, until all were satisfied.

Having decided to wait until they were home in Y’Nor to marry, Padreg and Elisira spent time talking with Brother Jalen about the kind of ceremony they wished to have. Both agreed that they wanted to stand on the plains, surrounded by their loved ones. Kyrian and Azhani, however, avoided discussing any details, preferring to concentrate on ridding the mountains of demons.

It was late morning and Azhani and her lieutenants were gathered in the building that served as their headquarters. Standing as the last of her men entered the room and sat down, the warleader quietly greeted the room. “Good day, all. Unless there’s something pressing, I’d like to begin today’s meeting by hearing from our recently returned scouts.”

Tal Gwyeth, the elven leader of the scouts, stood at the warleader’s nod. “My lords, ladies… and Banshee, I bid you good morrow. I trust you are all rather tired, so I will make this brief.” As people nodded, he smiled thinly and walked over to a large map that was tacked to the wall. Pointing to a valley three days westward, he said, “This is the farthest point of our last mission. We have cleared out all caves we could find, though those were precious few. The demons have risen, and they are hungry, though you surely know this. What you may not know is that here, here and here,” the scout tapped three places along the map, each within a short distance of the other. “King Arris and his army have engaged the demons. We believe that his tactics are unsound and will shortly result in his defeat. Without reinforcements, or a change in battle plans, the king’s men will be overrun in six days.” He turned and faced the room.

Azhani stepped up and tapped the star that marked Barton town. “So they’ll come for us next,” she said calmly.

“Or head into Y’dan unhindered,” Padreg said quietly, his words carrying through the room easily.

The group erupted. Questions and speculations flew around the tent for several minutes while Azhani just stared at the map.

Arris is out there, fighting demons? All of Azhani’s conceptions of the selfish, power mad king, started to waver on their foundations. And losing, too, she thought, looking over Tal’s written report.

He’s probably just doing it for the glory, a more cynical side of her said.

Oh goddess, what do I do? I can’t just let them slaughter Arris’ people, no matter how much I hate him.

But wouldn’t it be so sweet to ride up with salvation at your back, and just sit there, and let him die? the same voice taunted.

Standing, Azhani cleared her throat, getting everyone’s attention. “Prepare the troops; we ride in the morning.”
%%%
“I’m going with you,” Kyrian said as they exited the command tent and headed for the shrine.

Azhani stopped and looked at her lover. “Kyr, this isn’t going to be like it has been. I’m planning to make an all out attack on the demons that are harrying Arris’ men.”

“I understand,” the stardancer said, nodding her head slowly.

Shaking her head, Azhani said, “Love – I know how you feel about fighting, and –“ she fought for words that wouldn’t offend.

Kyrian’s fingers on her lips stilled her speech. “I know,” she said calmly. “And I’m scared, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t be useful. Maybe I won’t be on the front lines, guarding your back, but there are going to be a lot of injuries that need tending; injuries that the chirurgeons can’t handle. You know that, and you know that most of the other Stardancers have to stay here, to take care of our own injured.”

Azhani stepped forward and cupped her hand over Kyrian’s cheek. Stroking the healer’s face with her thumb, she said, “There’s no one I’d rather have at my back, Kyr.” She sighed heavily and bent her head down to briefly kiss the stardancer. “I wish I didn’t need you so much. It would be easier to argue with you.”

Kyrian smiled wryly and shrugged. “Well, I told you I’d follow you through the forest.”

A long ago conversation filled Azhani’s mind and she smiled in memory. “I almost left you that night, you know. Just a few minutes more, and I would have been gone, lost in the woods,” she said sadly.

Reaching up to cover Azhani’s hand, Kyrian said, “I’m glad you stayed.”

“Me too,” Azhani said, bending down to kiss her lover once more. “Me too.”
~Chapter Thirty-Six~
Gods blasted, useless piece of … words escaped the young king just then as he drove off another demon, evading its wickedly gleaming claws and hacking off a chunk of flesh and fur. Cackling madly, he spurred Tyr’s sides and chased the monster down and skewered it over and over again. The beast collapsed, emitting an eerie shriek before dying.

“Por-“ the name was on his lips briefly before he clamped his mouth shut, biting his tongue until he felt blood. Porthyros was gone. Anger and fear tussled inside his chest, until anger won out and he cursed the scholar once more. Damn you, Thryo! Damn you for abandoning me just when I needed you the most!

Wheeling around on his horse, he hunted the battlefield for another demon to kill. There was a brief lull, so Arris took the time to shake the demon’s caustic blood from his blade and unhook his waterskin. Swishing the lukewarm fluid around in his mouth, he once again mourned the loss of his mentor and friend. Since the scholar had left, there had been no one to make him his favorite tea. He had tried to duplicate Porthyros’ recipe, but so far, all he ended up with was a musty tasting brew that a drunken man wouldn’t touch.

Spitting out the now fouled water, he took another drink and slung the skin around the saddle horn. He yawned, hearing his jaw crack. Killing was exhausting work, something he had not realized until he and his army were forced to fight from sundown to sunup every day.

A patch of shadows moving over the snow, caught his attention. “To me!” Arris cried out. The king watched as a new wave of demons poured down a crevice and into the valley. What soldiers that could break away from their battles, joined him, desperately trying to hold back the tide of gray, noxious smelling bodies.

Arris fought the walking nightmares, grateful to face a demon he could easily slay. Since the day his mentor vanished, leaving the camp and the king’s life without even a note of good-bye, the king had found little peace. It wasn’t enough that he fought real monsters in the darkness – in the light of day, his dreams were as chaotic. Storm tossed and filled with luridly horrible visions, his sleep gave him little rest. Without the soothing presence of his friend, and the calming tea that had been his constant companion for nearly ten years, Arris felt torn apart by the day to day demands of being king.

Supply reports, the lists of the dead and injured, even the accounts of enemy dead that had once held his attention, now palled, forcing the king to play intricate mind games with himself just to stay awake while his lieutenants spoke. It was during one of those sessions that the first bubble of memory burst open, creating a vision of time that seemed to slip and meld, forming pictures that couldn’t possibly belong to him.

Blood soaked his hands and tunic, and he was looking down at the body of a beautiful elven woman, but her name escaped him. In his vision, he heard himself say, “Bitch!” and watched as he viciously kicked the body. The tiniest of groans escaped the woman and he felt how he had grown excited by her pain. Revulsion rippled through him, as the memory sparked that excitement anew.

Other memories arrived on the wings of dreams, the most terrifying of which was the one that he wanted so desperately to believe was a lie, yet knew deep in his soul was the truth. The dream would begin with the sound of footsteps as he walked quietly down the castle halls and entered his father’s study. The king would be seated at his desk, oil lamps burning low and a fire crackling on the hearth. Spread before Theodan was a scroll, filled with the florid black calligraphy that his father had insisted he learn. Arris would greet his father softly and offer him a cup of tea – a cup that he had prepared and carried to Theodan as a special treat.

The young king always shuddered in his sleep as he watched his father drink the soothing draught, for he knew what no one else did – that cup was laced with the most toxic of poisons. Honey and mint masked the taste, and the results were slow acting, but gratifying all the same to the scheming young man in Arris’ dream. Theodan died, and with his death, Arris ascended the throne of Y’dan.

Shaking his head to clear away the encroaching memories, Arris hacked at the reaching claws of a demon, allowing himself to feel deeply satisfied at the gout of ochre yellow blood that spurted from the stump of the monster’s arm. The king grinned wickedly. No, he had not killed his father. The old goat had simply kicked his last, leaving the kingdom in the capable hands of his brilliant, heroic son.

Arris beheaded the demon, watching silently as its furry body crumpled into the moonlit snow. Blood pumped out of the neck, spattering Tyr’s legs, causing the horse to dance away. Blood on the snow… New memory erupted, blacking out Arris’ vision. Azhani Rhu’len, standing before him, her chin raised defiantly as he proclaimed her to be an Oathbreaker. He shivered and tried to thrust the vision away. Gods, no… I can’t… I don’t want to see her face.

He silently begged the gods to steal away the images, but they marched on relentlessly. The woman he had loved turned away from him, denying him his deepest dreams – to share the rule of Y’dan by his side. Her love belonged to another – to…to Ylera Kelani, the elven ambassador from Y’Syr. Beautiful, intelligent, and a gentle soul, Princess Kelani was a joy to be around, and Arris would admit that he genuinely liked her.

Bile rose in his throat. So why was it so easy to see the elven woman’s blood staining his hands? How was it that he knew, intimately, how loud she could scream for mercy? Why was it that the image of blood on the snow brought up images of his father’s warleader tearing through a mass of men and women, leaving behind torn and bloody chunks of quivering flesh? Why was it that those images both satisfied and enraged him?

Arris struggled to rein in his thoughts, to control them and direct them toward the present, but all he could do was watch helplessly as flashes of the past drowned out the sight of the present.

What had he done? Pressing the heel of his hand to his aching temple, Arris felt his world twist nauseatingly.

Where are you, Thyro? I can’t stand the hole in my head!

A horn sounded. Was it Porthyros? Had he returned with reinforcements? Did his oldest friend not abandon him, but leave to seek help instead? Arris whipped his head around to greet the new arrivals and nearly fell off his horse.

It was Azhani Rhu’len, riding at the head of an army. Y’Syran, Y’Noran and even, Y’droran banners snapped in the wind that was raised by the thundering of hooves along the snow. Sitting proud atop a beautiful warhorse, garbed in the traditional armor of the elven nation’s warleader, Azhani Rhu’len, the woman he had banished from Y’dan, the woman who had scorned him, spared him but one brief, hate-filled glance. Judgment on a horse’s back, had just ridden into his valley.

Arris watched in amazement at the surreal sight of the warleader confidently leading her people in and driving back the demon tide. His nearest lieutenant took the gods’ gift and began using Azhani’s soldiers to draw out the wounded men and women of the Y’dani army.

It began to snow. Soon, the field was slippery, and staying mounted was nearly impossible. Endlessly, the demons charged on, pouring out of the mountains, seeming to rise up from the stone itself. The screams of the dead and dying echoed around Arris, yet he stayed still, letting the battle wash around him.

Suddenly, Tyr went down, his throat torn out by crimson-coated claws. Time slammed into the king in a rush, snapping the sense of shocked lethargy away and replacing it with raw anger. Rolling away, Arris shouted in rage and charged the demon, hacking it to bits.

His vision blurred, but he continued to fight on, his sword flickering in the moonlight. Death paced him as he blindly carved his way through demon after demon, until he was fighting side by side with the woman he both loved and hated. He looked at her, seeing her face clearly through the battle haze. She was beautiful, she was terrible and she was everything he had dreamed she would be, since the moment he realized he was in love with her.

She ignored him.

He wanted to speak, to say the words that puddled in his throat and begged to drown his tongue, but his voice had left him. What could he say? How could he defend his actions? What excuses would cause her to forgive him for stealing her life, her love and her honor?

I’m sorry. I had to do it. I had to kill your beloved and strip you of your title so that you would love only me? Insanity. She would never hear the real truth behind the words, only the hurt that they had caused. He laughed brokenly.

Was he insane? Arris couldn’t grasp reality anymore. It shivered and fled his touch like a wild bird escapes the falconer’s jess. Without Porthyros – without the man whose calm voice and soothing tea had always made him feel as though he could conquer the world, he was only half there.

That damned, stinking tea! I never wanted it, Thyro! You made me drink it! Clarity blazed across his mind as he remembered – saw what he would not see – that the drink had bourn the same toxin that had taken his father’s life, only in milder, less deadly doses.

He went to throw down his weapon and drop to his knees to beg for Azhani’s mercy. His mind, still in the thrall of the drug, refused to allow the muscles in his hands to unclench. Instead, they tightened further and Arris watched in horror as the sword raised to strike down the woman who had haunted his dreams.

Arris pivoted to face Azhani, scathing words of hatred poised on his tongue.

Cold, dark eyes met his, boring deep into him, daring him to make a move. His drug-controlled will fought to overpower her calm determination. The krill thrall gave way, leaving Arris drained and unable to speak.

Turning away from Azhani, he sought another enemy, one he could face with impunity. The half-elven warrior was an opponent he would never master. Somewhere, out in the wilds of Y’myran, another Arris wandered. That Arris would know how to be a king. He would have no trouble charming the headstrong warleader into serving him.

This Arris could only fight, and pray that he saw the dawn.
%%%
The first rays of sunlight touched the mix of snow, blood and muck and sent the demons scurrying off to their caves. Azhani nearly dropped where she stood. A full day of riding, only to fight all night, had exhausted her very last reserves.

Across from her, no more than six feet away, was Arris. He too looked absolutely drained. Leaning on his sword and panting, he looked up at her. Blood trickled from a scalp laceration, staining half of his face in red.

“Oathbreaker,” he croaked. It might have been a taunt, but it sounded more like a plea.

“We’re not on Y’dani soil,” Azhani sneered weakly. “So stuff your false accusations up your ass, Arris. You’re lucky I haven’t got the strength to rip your intestines out and feed them to the crows.”

He shook his head. “I have no more quarrel with you, Azhani. I-“ he wiped his face and looked down at it. “So much blood. There’s so much – gods, how can there be so much blood?” The king broke, tortured sobs tearing out of him and wracking his entire body.

Azhani watched him, pity and hatred wrestling with her conscience.

Kyrian walked over and handed Azhani a cup of warm tea. She looked over at the weeping king and asked, “Is he okay? Should I-“

“Leave him,” Azhani said coldly. “He’s not worth your time.” She turned away and sipped at her drink, watching as the sun’s first rays painted the horizon in pale amber hues.

The stardancer couldn’t just let the man sob like he was. Her heart broke each time Arris cried out and she started walking toward him to try and offer some comfort.

Through his tears, Arris could see the crimson robed priest come for him. Red – like blood – blood, the thick, coppery fluid that stained his hands and painted the altars of Ecarthus’ unholy temples. He shrank back, quavering in fear. Those memories – the shockingly vivid images of the carnage that took place in one of that demon’s temples, was more than enough to send him screaming into the forest.

The rising sun glimmered off the silver Astariun token on Kyrian’s chest, catching Arris’ attention. Goddess. Good. Astariu, blessed lady of life and healing. The chants of childhood echoed in the king’s mind, breaking through is fear.

He staggered toward her, intending on falling at her feet and begging her to forgive him for his sins, when out of the corner of his eye, he saw something gray and huge dart out of a clump of bushes.

“No!” he shouted. Drawing on every last reserve, he raised his sword and leapt in front of the startled stardancer.

Skin popping and bubbling under the sun’s light, the demon hit Arris at full speed. The king ignored the acidic ooze that coated him, eating through his armor and clothing, trying with all his flagging strength to push the beast off of him. The priest was trapped beneath him – he could feel her struggling to get away. Her movement told the king that she was alive, allowing him to focus on the dying monster that held them down.

The demon got one leg up and between them, kicking downward like a cat with its razor sharp claws. Blood filled Arris’ mouth as he screamed. “No!” he shouted hoarsely. “There will be no more blood on my hands!” With a last burst of power, he thrust his sword upward at an angle, pushing until he felt the blade break through the monster’s ribs and pierce its heart. The demon roared once, and died.

Kyrian finally freed herself and Arris rolled his head up in time to see her scramble away. “Did… it,” he wheezed, and then passed out.
%%%
“Hello, my son,” said King Theodan as he turned to greet the man who his boy had become.

“Fa-father?” Arris stuttered, staring into the face of the first man he had killed.

Death had washed the years from Theodan’s face, leaving behind the smooth, calm visage of a handsome man. The elder king bowed his head.

“Oh my son,” he whispered, reaching out to touch Arris’ battered face. “I’m so sorry.”

“No, father. It is I who am sorry,” Arris cried, feeling tears gather in his eyes. “I’ve been so bad, father. I’ve done so much…” The young king’s throat convulsed, as bile rose at the memories of his actions.

Theodan drew his son into his arms. “I know, son. I know it all. It’s all right, though. Don’t you worry.” He comforted the weeping boy.

“You’ll pay for all of your evils.” The voice changed, rising from his father’s deep baritone to the silken tones of Ylera Kelani.

Pulling out of the embrace, Arris stumbled away. Where his father had been, now sat the elven princess. Once beautiful, now the ambassador was a ghoulish sight. Pale skin had turned waxen, sagging to reveal the white of bone. Maggots crawled over the never-healed wounds that his daggers had made and silken hair now fell in matted clumps over a blood soaked dress.

“What’s the matter, Arris? Don’t you want to lie with me? You seemed so willing before. Or is it my Azhani you want? Does she still excite you, my lord? Come, my king. Show me how much you want my body.” The ghastly form reached for him and he cried out, scrambling back.

“No! You’re dead! Go away! No!”

Claw-like hands grasped his ankle and drew him back into the dead woman’s embrace. Rubbery, cold lips pressed against his and an ice-like tongue thrust into his mouth. He gagged and struggled, fighting with all of his strength.

“You’re mine now, dead man. Your soul is mine!” Once again, the creature holding him metamorphosed, only now he was held in the clawed hand of Ecarthus, eater of souls. Glittering red eyes gazed into Arris’ and a wicked grin cracked the demon’s face.

Fear choked the young king and Ecarthus laughed, opening his mouth wide and letting the eerie sounds of mirth fill the air. “Yes, feed me, boy. Your terror is so delicious!”
%%%
Arris awoke to the sound of singing. Blinking open his eyes, he saw that the red-robed priest was kneeling over him, her hands hovering inches above his abdomen. An aura of a bright, almost painful shade of yellow limned her hands and she was softly chanting a healing prayer. Her hands came down to rest on his ravaged flesh and ice-fire pain lanced through him. It was unlike anything he had ever experienced, surpassing even the ripping agony of the demon’s claws.

“Oh gods, stop, please!” he begged as tears flowed from his eyes. The dream was still very real and he didn’t know whether or not this torture was a part of that, or something new and even more hideous. Miraculously, the priest backed off, though confusion clearly marked her face.

Kyrian looked up at Azhani and said, “I don’t understand. I can’t heal him.”

The warleader stared at her lover helplessly.

“I,” Arris spoke slowly, pain lacing his words. “I belong to Ecarthus now,” he whispered, bitterness acidly plain on his tongue. “The goddess cannot touch my soul. Ah gods, what have I done?” he cried plaintively. With his dream still fresh in his mind, he looked over at Azhani. Her eyes were hard, unreadable and he sighed heavily. “You hate me. I don’t blame you. I would –“ he coughed and blood flecked his lips. “I would ask you to forgive me, but it’s too late. Just… promise me, Warleader. Promise me that you’ll save them. Save my kingdom, Azhani Rhu’len. The armies are yours.”

Spotting his squire, Arris lifted his head and weakly shouted. “Hear that? You’re hers now, boy! All of you! Hers! I command it. Follow Azhani. She is the Warleader now.” He fell back, displacing a drift of crimson stained snow.

“Yes, my king!” the boy smartly saluted and ran off to tell everyone else.

Arris coughed, wincing at the pain in his stomach. “Damn that Porthyros to the lowest hell! I would do murder for a pot of his tea right now!”

Azhani offered him hers, but he only spat it out.

“Gah, too sweet.” His eyes started to glaze as he stared up at the gray sky. Light snow drifted down, coating his lashes. He closed his eyes and sighed. “I can feel him, you know,” he said, his voice deepening. Arris’ eyes popped open and he stared up at Kyrian, the intensity of his gaze causing her to shiver. “He’s eating my soul,” he whispered. He smiled beatifically. “I wonder… what it will be like…” As his voice faded off, he took one, shuddering breath and then went limp.

Sadly, Kyrian looked down at the dead king, covered him with his cloak and said, “He might have been a monster, but he saved my life.”

Mixed emotions roiling plainly on her face, Azhani whispered, “I know.” She stood and walked away, heading toward the Y’dani army.

“I hope you find your peace, Arris of Y’dan,” Kyrian said softly, stroking the fine black hair off of his face. She moved to stand, but stopped when something caught her attention. Lowering herself to her knees once more, she lifted his hand and curiously inspected it.

The king’s hands were coated in blood and muck, but she could clearly see that the fingernails were a ghastly shade of greenish black, one of the signs of krill poisoning.

“Oh goddess…” Kyrian whispered breathlessly, still staring at the dead man’s hand. “That tea… I wonder if…” Expending just a little more power, the stardancer hummed a few short notes and scanned Arris’ body. Eyes widening at what she saw, Kyrian was hard put to contain a whistle of surprise.

The king had been krill-thralled for years. The drug had meshed completely with the young man’s system, tainting every breath with its hallucinogenic poison. Wearily, the stardancer stood, letting Arris’ hand fall.

Looking down at the dead king, Kyrian said, “No wonder you were loonier than a box of square wheels.” She shook her head sadly. “I’ve got to tell Azhani. It’s not an absolution, but it might help her to understand you, Arris Theodan.”
~Chapter Thirty-Seven~
Combining the two armies took some time.The Y’danis, many of whom only knew Azhani as the killer who had slain so many of their brethren, were uncertain of their king’s true wishes.After all, he was the one who had named her Oathbreaker in the first place.

On Azhani’s side was the fact that she had all of the priests of Astarus and Astariu with her.For a people held spiritually captive by the horrifying rituals of Ecarthus, it was a chance at freedom.Five days passed while the Y’danis argued amongst themselves.

Some of the men deserted; the horrors they had faced were too much and the idea of marching on in the dead of winter, did not inspire loyalty.Azhani let them go, praying they made it to safety.Many of the soldiers immediately joined her army; these were the men and women who had served with her or knew her reputation as something other than the Banshee of Banner Lake.These she welcomed with open arms, finding places for them quickly.

Of the Ecarthan priests, there was no sign.The black-robed men had vanished soon after Arris’ death.Since the king’s passing, Azhani had been very distant.The warrior went about her days as if running through fog; she would say and do all the right things but it was obvious, at least to Kyrian, that her soul wasn’t in it.

When the stardancer tried to broach the subject, Azhani waved her off, saying that she “needed some time”.Even after Kyrian had told her about the krill-thrall, Azhani had sent her away.Gritting her teeth, Kyrian allowed Azhani her space and worked with the other stardancers and the chirurgeons to heal as many of the soldiers as they could.

Eventually, the armies meshed, bringing the total number of fighting men and women to nearly five thousand.The merger was none too soon.Night after night, demons harried the patrols, waging a war of attrition on the weary soldiers.Tonight would be no different and Kyrian set off toward the chirurgeon’s tent, preparing to care for the onslaught of new patients that were sure to fill the large white pavilion before dawn.

The young mage Devon raced across the camp, heading for the picket lines where the horses were being readied.Tonight was his night to ride with the patrols and he did not want to be late.Azhani had chosen him to be on her squad and he did not want to disappoint his old friend.A flash of red hair caught his attention and he stopped, turning to stare at the space between two tents.

There, in the shadows, partially illuminated by torchlight, were Syrelle and Allyndev.Their heads were together and he could just make out their soft conversation.Guiltily, the young mage strained his ears, listening to the quiet talk.

“Be careful,” Syrelle said, buckling Allyndev’s sword belt tightly.“I don’t want you to get hurt again.”

Allyn captured the princess’ hands and brought them up to his lips, brushing a gentle kiss over her knuckles.“I will be chary of my health, my lady, I swear.”

Syrelle rolled her eyes and pulled her hands away from him.“I don’t need oaths, Allyn.I just want you…” she looked down at her feet and then back up into his eyes.“I just want you to come back,” she whispered.

“Sy-“ Allyn said, reaching up to brush his fingers over her cheek, a wondering smile fluttering across his lips.“I-“

She nuzzled his hand and stepped close to him.He enfolded her into his arms and she clung to him, shaking.Tilting her head back, she quietly commanded, “Kiss me, Allyn, please.”

Devon tried to turn then, tried to not see the sight that would forever banish his dreams of loving Syrelle, but he could not look away.Prince Allyndev gently tipped his head down and kissed the princess.

Now able to tear his gaze away, Devon continued on to the horses.His heart was hammering in his chest and he felt tears sting his eyes.Yet, the pain was not as great as he feared it would be.The great sorrow he was so sure he would feel if Syrelle did not choose to love him, just wasn’t there.He loved her, but there was no desire to wring Allyn’s neck, like he had heard some of the other mages say they would do if anyone ever took away the objects of their affections.

Smirking mirthlessly, he wiped away his tears.Maybe I’m just weird, he thought as he reached the side of the horse he would ride.The saddle was trimmed in saffron, marking it as an animal that would not spook if he started tossing around lighting bolts.Putting his foot into the stirrup, he lifted his leg over the saddle and settled into the leather, making sure it had been cinched tightly.Satisfied, he wrapped the reins over the saddle horn and began the calming exercises that would ready his mind for spell casting.

Besides, it’s not like I’ll never love again.Just look at Azhani.She loved Ylera so much, and yet … even her heart opened again.He opened his eyes to see the woman he was thinking of kiss her lover good-bye and then mount up on Kushyra.

“Hey, don’t run off without me!” Allyn called out, causing Devon to turn and look at his friend.The young prince was jogging toward the horses.

Devon leaned over and grabbed the reins of the mare that had been assigned to Allyn.“Oh, never, Allyboy.We’d be lost without you,” he said dramatically as he led the horse over to the prince.

“Funny, sparkle fingers,” Allyn retorted, mounting up on the mare’s back.

Devon flashed him a bright grin and said, “So, was that Syrelle I saw you with?”

A soft grin washed over the prince’s handsome face.“Yeah, she uh…” he flushed deeply.

“Ahh, well, congratulations,” Devon muttered, wondering why he had even mentioned it.The pain, though less than wrenching, still managed to make his eyes tear up and his heart squeeze painfully.

Allyn watched his friend’s face cloud over and looked at him curiously.What the…

Azhani’s sharp whistle cut into his thoughts.“All right, ladies, listen up.It’s going to be really cold tonight, so be on your guard.The colder, the deader, isn’t just a joke tonight.Ready?”She looked at each of her men, waiting for them to nod.“Let’s go!”

They rode hard, pounding along the pathway that had been traveled for many nights.Heading northward, they didn’t have to ride for long before the eerie howling of a pack of demons raised the hairs on everyone’s necks.

Allyn scanned the sides of the trail, seeking the glimmer of heat that meant a demon was lurking in the bushes.Twin arcs of energy lit up the night behind him and he wheeled the horse around, ready to face whatever caused Devon to fire off his spell.

Demons leapt from the bushes, surrounding the patrol.Azhani’s piercing battle cry split the night, causing the prince to shiver briefly before he ripped his sword free of its scabbard.Raising it high, he yelled, “For Y’Syr!” and charged the pack of monsters.

Chanting at the top of his lungs, Devon willed the arcane energy to split again, striking two of the beasts.Beside him, another mage, a young man named Jasyn, was tossing small fireballs at the horde of monsters.Suddenly, one of the gray-furred beasts leapt out of the bushes behind them, grabbing onto Jasyn and pulling him to the ground.

They tumbled several feet and Jasyn tried to free himself, but was trapped by the beast’s heavier weight.The demon rose, grappling the young mage.Jasyn continued to chant, raining down small bolts of energy that cut deeply into the demon’s body.Roaring in pain and fury, the monster lifted Jasyn over its head and threw him across the clearing.

Devon watched his friend fly more than fifty feet and impact the side of the mountain.“Jas!” he cried out, turning his lighting onto the monster that was now running for him.

Engaged with battling one of the monsters, Allyn almost didn’t see Devon’s danger until it was too late.Three demons were converging on the mage’s position, growling and slavering like rabid dogs.

Astarus’ balls!he had time to think, before he kicked his horse’s sides and raced over to rescue his friend.“Devon!” he cried out, standing in his stirrups.

As the horse got close, he leapt, knocking the mage out of the way of the leaping monsters.Two sailed over their heads, but the third managed to halt its leap, coming down with an open mouth.Helpless to stop it, Allyn watched as it bit down into Devon’s leg, picked him up, and brutally shook him.

There was an awful tearing sound and then a crunch, and then Devon went flying, landing in a drift not more than five feet away.The demon continued chewing and then let out a piercing howl.

“Devon!No!” Allyn shouted, leaping to his feet and hacking at the demon blindly.

Across the clearing, the young mage lay on his back, staring at the stars in the sky, watching them dance and morph into odd shaped patterns.His leg throbbed dully, and his knee felt as though it were on fire, and there were other parts of him that hurt, but the pain was oddly detached.A breeze blew across his face, chilling him.Shivering, he blinked his eyes, and huddled into his robe.He tried to recall the words to a warming spell, but the phrases deserted him.The wail that marked his warleader’s battle cry sounded, coming from very close by, and he tried to sit up to see what was happening.

He had no strength though, so he just lay there, making pictures in the heavens.
%%%
It was late afternoon and Kyrian was just waking.The night before had been filled with several terrible injuries, including one to her friend, the mage Devon.His left leg had been bitten off, severed below the knee.It had been a struggle to save him – for a long, breathless moment, she had been unsure if she could save him, but eventually, she got the bleeding to stop, and with the Goddess’ Fire, was able to start the healing process.

In fact, if it hadn’t been for Azhani’s quick thinking in the field – she’d gotten one of the remaining mages in the party to cauterize the young man’s wound before they brought him back to camp – Devon would have died.She was on her way now to check in on him.

Ducking into the tent, Kyrian noticed Allyn and Syrelle sleeping in a couple of chairs next to the young mage’s bed.

“Hey you,” Kyrian said as she knelt and began inspecting the bandages.“How are you?”

Weakly, Devon said, “I feel like I just got my leg bitten off.”

Since that was what had happened, Kyrian only nodded.

“I’m okay, I guess.It just… gods, it hurts,” Devon quietly admitted.

Kyrian nodded sympathetically.“I know, and I’ll see what I can do to help, okay?”

“’Kay,” he said, biting his lip as she prodded the wound gently.“So, uh, you hear any good, ah gods, gossip, lately?” he asked, trying for a bit of levity.

“No, you?” she answered absently, already humming softly.

Relief flooded through the young mage as the stardancer’s magic began to work.“Oh, blessed Astariu, thank you!” he whispered breathlessly.

She smiled and pulled the covers back over him.

“Well, uh,” he looked at his friends, who were still sleeping.“I saw Allyn kiss Syrelle yesterday,” he admitted softly.

Kyrian smiled sadly and licked her lips.“And?” she prompted.

“It hurt – almost as bad as having my leg chewed off, but not quite,” he joked weakly.Frowning, he said, “You knew, didn’t you?”

Nodding, the stardancer quietly said, “I’m empathic, Dev.It would be hard for me not to know.Especially since I’ve healed both you and Allyn.”

“Oh, well, uh, could you, not say anything?” he asked.

“Of course,” she replied.“If you ever need to talk about it, though…” she offered.

“Thanks.So, how’s Jasyn?”He looked over at the cot that contained the other mage that had been injured.

“He won’t be fighting anytime soon, but he’s going to live,” Kyrian assured him gently.

Suddenly, every mage in the tent convulsed in pain.Devon grabbed his ears and shouted, “Dear goddess, make it stop!”

As if from a distance, Kyrian could faintly hear what sounded like the dying wail of thousands.Azhani! was her only thought as she ran out of the tent, eyes scanning the crowd for her beloved.

Oddly, the first thing she noticed was the sky.It was nearly charcoal gray.She quickly counted the marks on a nearby candle, frowning as she came to the startling conclusion that it should be near midday, not midnight.Then the demons attacked.

The creatures swarmed the guards, howling eerily and overwhelming them quickly.Dimly, the stardancer slapped at her side, but her baton was long gone; she had never replaced it after Kasyrin’s shade destroyed it.

“Kyrian!”

She turned at the shout and saw Devon standing in the doorway of the chirurgeon’s pavilion.He was leaning on a chair, blood rapidly pooling on the ground below him.“Here,” he held out a Stardancer’s baton that shined with an intense yellow light.“I made this for you with Starseeker Vashyra.I know it’s not much, but it’s the best I can do, since I obviously can’t go with you.”Seeing her startled look, he shrugged.“I had it in my haversack.Meant to give it to you before, but never found the time.Now’s the time – go!”

Lifting her robes to run through the mud, Kyrian grabbed the baton and asked, “Why is it glowing?”

Devon shook his head, “I don’t know.I found the spell in my book; it claimed to be for hopeless situations and well… gods,” he leaned over and vomited, “I can’t explain it now, but go… go find Azhani, she will need you before this day is through.”

Torn between the desire to find her lover and staying to help Devon, Kyrian stood, staring down at the weapon in her hand.Around her, men and women grabbed whatever weapons that came to hand and fought back against the surprise invasion of demonkind.

Death and chaos swirled through the camp.Above the shrieking of blood maddened demons, the stardancer could hear her heart hammer like a drum in her chest.

Can I do this?She tried closing her fingers around the baton’s handle and found it easier than she remembered.I have to. There’s no one else.

Kyrian turned away from Devon.A chirurgeon stuck his head through the tent flap, grabbed the young mage, and pulled him back inside.Gritting her teeth, Kyrian started to hunt determinedly for Azhani.
%%%

On a ridge above the camp, Azhani Rhu’len stared down at her army, the mixed banners of Y’dan, Y’Syr and Y’Nor dotting the snow-covered ground like tiny pins tacked to a territory map.These were her people now.

King Arris the Kinslayer was dead.Among the crazed monarch’s things, a journal had been found that detailed in gleefully insane terms, every bizarre and evil act the man had committed, all at the urging of his childhood mentor, Porthyros Omal.The very last entry had gone on, in intimate detail, about how Arris had systematically poisoned Theodan until his father had died.

Padreg had lost no time in making that little detail a well-known fact.The army, which had still been having troubles in getting along, suddenly became a lot easier to command.Azhani supposed she should be grateful, but all she could feel was an abiding sense of disgusted pity.

Ylera’s death had been just an amusement for the annoying little man whom Arris had insisted stay by his side at all times.Porthyros had told the prince that if Ylera wasn’t around, Azhani would love him instead, and wasn’t that exactly what he wanted?Azhani ground her teeth in anger.So blind, trusting, and drugged to his gills, Arris, had eagerly gone along with Porthyros’ plans.Destroying the one person that the warleader cherished, was only a minor piece of the total plan.

Gaining control of Y’dan was the main goal.With it, Porthyros’ friend, the merchant Kesryn Oswyne, would be able to introduce Arris to a new god; a being that Porthyros promised would give Arris everything he ever wanted.Kesryn Oswyne, also known as Kasyrin Darkchilde, had brought Ecarthus to Y’dan.

Tears stained the warleader’s cheeks.Reading the passages that lovingly described how Arris, at Porthyros’ urging, had violated her lover, tore a hole in her heart that bled until she could cry no more.She ran from the camp, seeking a tiny corner of peace, needing the silence of the wilderness.

Gormerath’s song shattered the stillness.The sword’s usual hum suddenly became a shrill shriek that rivaled Azhani’s battle cry. She looked down into the camp and nearly leapt from her rock perch at the sight of the demons that were overrunning the unprepared soldiers.

The blade was in her hand, blazing like the noonday sun.

The sun!Where is the sun?Azhani knew it had to be midmorning.It had been at least two candlemarks since the last patrol arrived.

Memory, swift as eagle’s wings, caressed her mind.“The breaking is at hand.Upon the day when the sun stands still and the stars no longer spin with time, a battle will rage.”Searching the sky, Azhani was astounded to find it gray, almost like twilight.The sun, which should be overhead, was rapidly vanishing, cloaked by the shadowed form of the moon.

Gormerath tugged her forward anxiously, but not toward where the army was camped.Instead, the blade urged her up higher, toward a curiously flat-topped mountain where she could just now see an orange glow beginning to form.This must be it.The breaking is here.I love you Kyrian, remember that forever.A wild grin ripped across the warrior’s face.

In the camp below, where chaos reigned, the soldiers stopped and took heart when the sound of their Banshee’s wail filled the valley.
%%%
Kyrian raced through the camp, dodging demon and soldier alike.Her robes were already thick with gore.Blood from those she had stopped to help and the yellowish slime that the demons bled, mixed to form a sickening paste.When she heard her beloved’s battle cry, she looked up, spotting Azhani on the ridge of a hill.Watching as the warrior waved her flaming blade once, Kyrian immediately started running for her, needing to get to Azhani’s side.

The stardancer picked her way up the mountain, slipping and sliding as she went, cursing the new, smooth soles of her boots.Finally, she made it up and started running down a small trail.Other soldiers had come before; their boots had gouged up chunks of mud and snow as they ran.Bodies were everywhere – demons as well as the men and women of the army, had fought and died very recently.Ahead, Kyrian could make out the sounds of fighting.

She ran on, ignoring everything until she spotted Azhani.The warrior was fighting six demons at once, defending one of the soldiers who had gone down.Putting on a burst of speed, Kyrian slipped in and brought the baton down on a demon’s head in a two handed strike that pulped its skull.

The fight was vicious.Azhani danced a lethal series of steps around the demons, avoiding their attacks easily.Kyrian immediately recognized the style – it was one that they had practiced together many times.The stardancer spun, putting her body at Azhani’s back, and together, they took on the remaining demons.

When it was over, Azhani and Kyrian turned and spent several heartbeats staring into each other’s eyes.

Finally, Azhani broke the gaze and pointed to the mesa.“I need to be there.I love you,” she grabbed Kyrian and kissed her fiercely.“Go back to camp, Kyr, please.”Then she let her lover go and sprinted off, running so fast that Kyrian would be unable to follow in her heavier robes.

“Not on your life, Azhani Rhu’len,” Kyrian whispered determinedly.Gripping the gore-caked baton firmly, the stardancer set out to follow her lover to the mountaintop.
~Chapter Thirty-Eight~
She didn’t know how long she had climbed and walked.The journey blended together, becoming a cacophony of the dead and dying, that left her numb.Making it to the top of the mesa, Kyrian looked around.Not far from her, Azhani was picking her way through tumbled rocks to where a stone obelisk of matte black obsidian thrust its way upward from the broken ground.

The stardancer’s gaze flicked from her lover to a man in robes so black, they seemed to swallow the shadows.He stood next to the obelisk, his arms upraised as he chanted.The stench of blood magic filled the air.Kasyrin Darkchilde’s chant echoed around the mesa, causing Kyrian to shiver.Behind him, another man clutched his hands and cackled with insane glee.As Kasyrin’s spell wove over the obelisk, the stone began to take on an ugly reddish tone.Sickly yellow runes appeared, crawling from the base of the tower to the very tip.

Azhani saw Kasyrin, and snarled.Clutching Gormerath tightly, the warrior understood that this was the reason she had been chosen.

“I always knew you were too lucky for your own good, Kasyrin,” the warleader said calmly.

The dark mage turned, outrage painting his features into an ugly snarl.

“You,” he spat.“You’re supposed to be dead – stuck like a pig on the end of my puppet king’s sword.”

Porthyros danced back and forth, worry clouding his face.“Dead, yes, dead you are,” he gibbered madly, shaking a finger at the warleader.“Arris is a good boy, he does what he’s told.”

Looking over at the scholar, Azhani shrugged apologetically.“Sorry, didn’t happen that way.Your toy king cut his strings and gave his life saving another from your master’s dogs.”The memory of Arris throwing his body into Kyrian and taking a blow meant for her lover, still rang harshly in Azhani’s mind.Focusing on Darkchilde, she taunted, “Perhaps you should instruct your minions on proper care and feeding of puppets before they run off to play?”

“Fine,” Kasyrin hissed, “then this is between you, me and,” he muttered something in a guttural tone while smashing a vial of greenish liquid against the side of the obelisk, “My Lord Ecarthus.”

The eerie glow within the obelisk began to pulse, throbbing like a heartbeat.Azhani gasped as the ground started to shake and a terrible groan filled the air.The ground in front of the obelisk suddenly ruptured and split, sending up a plume of noxious smoke and ash.Shielding her eyes, the warrior stepped back a pace, feeling the cold hand of fear sharply grasp her heart.

Rising from the rift, came a demon whose countenance was so hideous that the warrior staggered back another step.Muscles wrapped over a twisted and bent body that was colored the shade of freshly spilled blood.Fangs and horns decorated a face, that on a mortal, could have been beautiful.Eyes that glowed a putrid green, gazed out on the world and flashed in triumph.

The monster ripped his hands from the earth, thrusting the six-inch clawed fingers up toward the sky in defiance.Bony, charcoal colored scales covered his chest and stomach.From the waist down, the beast was still entombed in the earth, but as Kasyrin chanted, more of the demon rose.

The demon’s aura was so powerful that Azhani flinched and staggered back even more, fear overwhelming her.

Kasyrin looked up at the beast and smiled, “Behold, my lord, I have brought you the mortal bitch, Azhani Rhu’len!”

Ecarthus didn’t bother to even look at his slave as he growled, “Keep chanting, you fool!Finish the incantation!Now!”

Laughing eagerly, Kasyrin opened his mouth to do his master’s bidding.

Across the mountaintop, Kyrian felt the awesome tide of evil that rolled off the demon in waves.Fear held her fast, pinning her feet to the ground.Though she had fought her way to this place, killing her share of demons, the aura of pain and death that permeated the mesa, brought back the keen-edged memory of watching that bandit’s life blood drip from her baton.

The image triggered her fear, and she stood, unable to even blink as the demon continued to rise from the ground.Kyrian watched as the dark mage’s underling began edging away from his master’s shadow and toward where Azhani stood, just as frozen as the stardancer.

Something inside the stardancer snapped when she spotted the wickedly curved dagger clutched in the man’s hand.Anger shattered the chains that fear had shackled around her soul.Gripping her baton tightly, Kyrian’s eyes narrowed as she surveyed the mountaintop and tried to come up with a plan.

Devon’s gift felt warm in her hand.The stardancer recalled what he had said about hopeless situations, and grinned.I can’t think of anything more hopeless than this.

“Okay, Dev, here’s where we find out whether or not that spell’s worth the power it cost you,” Kyrian muttered, lifting her arm and heaving the baton outwards.

End over end it tumbled, cutting gracefully through the air, easily crossing the distance between the stardancer and the sorcerer.The baton shimmered as it picked up speed.Kyrian blinked, then winced as she heard the distinctly sickening crunch of a skull shattering.She didn’t stop to see what happened next.Instead, she began running for the man with the wickedly curved knife.

Kasyrin stumbled, his words faltering as pain exploded into his head.He reeled, trying to continue the chant, but the words wouldn’t come and it was agony to think.Blearily, he looked at Ecarthus.“My lord…” he whimpered, reaching out in feeble supplication.

The demon spared a glance at his slave and snarled, “Finish the chant, dog, and maybe I will save you.”

“As you will it,” he said, gasping thickly.His voice dropped to soundlessness, but his lips slowly continued to move and the demon’s form began rising from the earth once more.
%%%
::Now warrior, now it is time for you to decide if you believe,:: Azhani felt the goddess’ words in her mind.::Do you have faith in me, warrior?::

“Yes,” Azhani whispered.There was no other answer she could give, not after the sacrifice she had seen her most hated enemy make in Her name.

The warrior heard the sound of far-off bells and then…
…She burned.A suffusion of fire hotter than the forges that warmed the Mountains of Y’dror, rushed through her being.She was pulled, guided toward a goal that she could not see, but knew she was inevitably moving toward…
The warleader watched in fascinated detachment as her whole body was bathed in the azure aura of the goddess Astariu.This was when she realized that she was no longer in her body; instead, she was a part of Gormerath.
The words of Vashyra’s prophecy sang out in her mind.
“Three chosen by fate shall unite to face the Beast.The Blade, the Heart and the Stringless Puppet shall cross paths.Upon that meeting, the Beast shall rise to seek his place.Stand well against the storm, and time shall sing of thy glory, into the mists of forever.Fall, and all will blacken and fade.”
No description would fit Arris Kinslayer better than “stringless puppet”, since he had managed to throw off the bonds of drugs and lies that the worthless Porthyros had fed him for too many years.The heart could only be Kyrian – the woman whose love and patience had worn down Azhani’s carefully built walls, until she was as much a part of the warrior as breath.

Which left…

::I am the Blade,:: she spoke voicelessly, wonder and fear tingeing her words.It had nothing to do with the ancient hunk of spellbound metal that she had carted across half a kingdom.

::Yes, my child, you are.So it was written and so it is.::

If she had been still in her body, Azhani would have nodded.She would give her life to fight Ecarthus.::I understand, but what about Kyrian,:: she asked dispassionately, trying not to let the emotion that roiled just under the surface of her thoughts, taint her question.

The goddess smiled and said, ::My Dancer loves you deeply, warrior.She will not lightly accept your loss.This test is yours, my blade – her sacrifice has yet to come.::

The goddess’ words did not give the warrior much comfort, but it was far too late to change her mind.::All right, let’s get this over with,:: Azhani said resolutely.

The goddess nodded, but it was Azhani’s head that moved.She turned and tried to take a step toward the demon, only to find that there was an invisible shield blocking her way.Then she noticed that Kasyrin, though nearly dead, was still blindly chanting.

“Ecarthus, I stand to defy you.You may not enter this world unchallenged,” Astariu/Azhani yelled.

The demon turned its gaze away from its slave to look upon the warrior, seeming to notice her for the first time.Its eyes grew wide as it realized who the warrior was.

“No,” he growled angrily.“You shall not interfere this time, Astariu.” One demonic hand lifted and pointed toward the sorcerer.A bright orange beam of energy shot out and struck Kasyrin in the chest, jerking him upright.Suddenly, the sorcerer’s once fading voice strengthened.

“Kothos ectos necros.Askir nomay ifdrell.”The words were meaningless to all but Astariu.A barrier of shimmering force rose to encircle the goddess/warrior.

Porthyros had almost reached Azhani when Kyrian pounced on him, delivering a single, vicious chop to his throat.Gagging, the scholar dropped his knife and fell back, clutching his neck.His eyes rolled back in his head and he collapsed.Kyrian spared him a brief glance, feeling almost no remorse over his death and then searched the ground for her baton.Spotting it on the grass beside the demented sorcerer, she whispered, “Come here,” and reached her hand out.

The metal rod shivered, then, slowly rose and gracefully returned to her hand.Grinning, the stardancer continued to creep across the mesa.

A contest of wills played out as Astariu/Azhani tried to force their way through the spell shield that blocked them from reaching the demon.Kasyrin, unaware of anything but his master’s bidding, chanted on.

“You gods think you’re so special,” Ecarthus said bitingly as he watched the goddess’ will surpass the strength of Kasyrin’s spell, allowing her to take two steps forward.“You take control of the mortals and claim their adulation for yourselves, leaving only the pathetic murmurings of beasts to myself and my brethren.Your days of being drunk on the wine of Faith are over.I shall rise, and when I do, I will herald in a new era where fear and hatred replace love and tolerance.Then it will be we who sup from the table of mortal misery and you who shall have to suffice on the dregs!”

“Hate and intolerance shall never supplant the blessings of love and faith,” Astariu/Azhani said, her words chiming across the field.

The demon snorted, raising his arms and gesturing expansively.“Then stop me, godling.Strike me down where I stand.”

Reaching her goal, the stardancer lashed out.

“Ecarthus unbound… Ecarthus unbound… Ecarthu-“

The sorcerer’s chanting was abruptly cut off, as Kyrian, who had managed to sneak up next to him, brought her baton down on his head, crushing his skull like an overripe pumpkin.

“I already have,” the goddess said, smiling viciously and nodding at Kyrian, who brought her bloody weapon up and saluted the warrior.The demon gawked at the stardancer and then at the slowly crumpling body of his minion.

There was momentary silence, and then a shriek that rivaled the warleader’s famous war cry, burst from the demon’s mouth.

“No!” Ecarthus wailed, shooting beams of orange energy at the lifeless body of Kasyrin.“You must live.It is time! You must raise me so I can feed.I hunger, slave, so get up and chant!”

The mage did not rise.

Kyrian looked down at the blood and brain encrusted baton in her hand and then up at the half-formed demon and said, “Guess this must be one really messed up day for you, huh?”The stardancer’s voice was hollow and emotionless.

As a sword, Azhani did not have eyes.If she had, she would have closed them in sympathetic pain.The roil of emotions that her beloved must be feeling… it tore at the warrior’s heart.However, she could not help Kyrian now.Whatever happened, Azhani knew that her lover was strong enough to survive.

Ecarthus looked at the stardancer.“You.You did this?You took my vessel from me?Prepare to meet your goddess, priest, for you shall pay for your insolence with your life!”The orange glow of the demon’s hand began to darken to an unfriendly looking black.

“Hey, Ecarthus, you wretched excuse for a hell-spawned demon, have you forgotten about me?” Azhani/Astariu leapt the remaining few feet to the demon and struck, shoving her blade deep within his chest.

Azhani felt herself penetrate the demon’s nearly solid flesh, felt the fire that was her essence pour out of the blade and into Ecarthus, mingling with his spirit in a bizarre dance of attraction and revulsion.She understood, with the clarity of the gods, that this was the ultimate being responsible for the death of her first love, Ylera Kelani. It was because of Ecarthus that Kasyrin had sent Porthyros to Arris, and ultimately, caused Ylera to be executed.He was also responsible for the death of her king, Theodan, and for the deaths of countless others.All her anger, all the hatred and pain she had felt toward Arris, coalesced into a bright blade that sliced deep into the demon’s soul.

::You wished to enter the mortal plane, Ecarthus.Then so be it, enter and die!::

The demon only had a heartbeat to realize that his transformation had been completed before…

“No,” he whispered, looking down.What had once been his healthy, muscled body began to wither and shrink.

::Yes.You are not immortal anymore, beast.Now, you feel the effects of time unbound.You are mortal, Ecarthus.That is my gift to you; in payment for all the bitter tears you gave to me.Enjoy it, for it shall be your last.::

The demon whimpered one last time before collapsing inward and crumbling into a pile of dust.

Kyrian stepped toward the warleader, whose body was glowing a strange silvery blue.“Azhi?” she whispered, reaching for her lover.“Is it over?”

Astariu turned to face her Stardancer.“Yes, child, it is.”

Kyrian froze upon hearing the warrior’s tone.The voice was, yet was not Azhani’s.The timbre was wrong, too musical, and too ethereal to belong to the woman who whispered her name in love.Clues clicked into place and Kyrian nearly prostrated herself.

Astariu nodded as the answers to the stardancer’s unspoken questions flashed across Kyrian’s face.“Yes, my Healer, you are correct in your assumption.”

Wonder and awe suffused Kyrian’s face.“But, where is Azhani?” she whispered, as her gaze fell to the sword that now hung, blackened and broken, from the goddess’ hand.

“She fulfilled the prophecy, as it was written,” Astariu said, sorrow and pride mingling in her voice.

“The prophecy?” Kyrian said, and the words of Starseeker Vashyra echoed in her memory.Tears gathered in her eyes.“Azhani.She’s the Blade, isn’t she?”

The goddess did not answer, but that was enough of a reply for the stardancer.

“Damn you, Astariu.Damn you for taking the one person whom I loved enough to fight for,” she hissed and then turned away from her goddess.

Astariu winced at the stardancer’s words.::Brother, it is time for you to make good on your promise,:: she let the words drift into the ether.

There was a flash of light, and then standing before the stardancer was a man of such incredible ugliness that she actually flinched.

“Hiya, sweet cheeks,” the man said, winking at her.“It looks to me like you’ve got a real mad on going right now.Well, howza ‘bout I give ya something to help that.”

“Who are you?” Kyrian asked, amused by the little man, despite everything.Though, there was something oddly familiar about the way he walked.

“Never you mind about that.I’m a askin’ if you be a-wantin’ anything round about now?” the man said, waving his arms about in a crazy fashion.

Kyrian looked at the man, uncertain what his motives were, but the day had been just long enough and just devastating enough that she spoke before thinking, “I want my lover back.”

“Oh, is that all?Well, then, so be it.”The man waved his hand and blew the stardancer a kiss.

Kyrian watched in amazement as the man’s lips actually flew off his face, fluttered across the clearing and smacked her straight on the mouth, then flew back to his face.He grinned delightedly.

“Ya might want to be passin’ that one on quick-like, cuz it won’t be a-lastin’ long.”

Confused, Kyrian turned to face the goddess who wore the body of her lover, only to find that the warrior was no longer standing, but crumpled in a heap on the ground.

“Azhani!” she cried, running to her lover’s side.Her lips began to tingle as she rolled the warrior over.Azhani’s head flopped about lifelessly.Blood trickled from the warrior’s eyes, ears and nose.Kyrian reached out and caught her lover’s head, cradling it against her chest.“Beloved,” she whispered.“This isn’t happening,” she said, tears dripping down her cheeks and mingling with the blood and dirt on the warrior’s face.

The tingling in her lips grew to a buzzing sensation.

“You can’t die, you can’t leave me now.Not after you promised me a future.I need you with me, Azhani and I won’t let fate steal the life that we earned,” Kyrian whispered fiercely and then bent her head down to place a single, chaste kiss upon her lover’s rapidly cooling lips.

Almost immediately, the tingling vanished.The lips under hers warmed and opened as a tiny gasp of air escaped.A sob of joy erupted from the stardancer as she clutched the warrior close.Her gift engaged and she sensed that the warrior’s life force was fragile at best.Closing her eyes, Kyrian used her magic for the last time that day.Her essence blended with the warrior’s and felt every small hurt and wound that Azhani had taken while battling the demons.Those, she easily healed, drawing energy from the earth and focusing its power on them.There were other, deeper hurts, that even her Goddess-given powers could not touch, and those wounds she tended the only way she knew how.

She loved.She opened her heart and loved, and without restrictions or reservations, she let the warrior Feel what she felt.She prayed.

“Come back to me, my love.Come home, Azhani,” she whispered, rocking the warrior gently.

Hours seemed to pass as she held the warrior close, praying silently and singing until her throat went hoarse.Kyrian closed her eyes and continued to pray, calling for her love to return to her.

From a distance, she heard her name.It sounded so far away, that she almost didn’t think she had heard anything at all, and then, she felt a hand on her face.

Kyrian opened her eyes to see Azhani looking up at her, a strange, almost peaceful, smile stretching across her face.

“That’s it, beloved, open those pretty green eyes of yours and tell me you love me,” Azhani rasped.

Kyrian sobbed and rained kisses down on the warrior’s face and lips, slowing only when Azhani’s fingers laced into her hair and held her still, so that she could lazily kiss the frantic stardancer’s lips.
%%%
When Azhani finally let her go, Kyrian stood and walked over to the ugly little man.“Thank you,” she said quietly and then kissed his cheek.

“Ah it was nothin’, toots,” he said, blushing deeply.“I’ma glad I dunnit.”

“What a day,” Kyrian murmured as she looked around the top of the mesa.The obelisk was now a pile of cracked and pitted rubble.The bodies of Kasyrin and his servant were gone. All that remained of the mage and his underling were dark depressions in the snow.Above, the sun shined brightly, and illuminated the entire plain of the mesa.The stardancer looked over at the strange little man, who put a finger to his lips and smiled wickedly.

Confused, Kyrian smiled blankly.

The strange man returned her smile and skipped over to the pile of rocks that had been the obsidian tower, and began sifting through the wreckage.

Azhani slowly elbowed herself up, getting to her knees and then finally standing.Gormerath, now only a blackened hunk of metal, lay forgotten on the ground, the blue gem in its hilt winking in the returning sunlight.She bent down and picked up the broken blade and sheathed it.Whether or not it could be salvaged, the sword deserved a better fate than to be left lying on the top of an icy mountain.

“Azhi?I have a question.”

“Okay.”The warrior limped over to her lover’s side and draped her arm around her shoulders.

“Who was that man with Kasyrin?” the stardancer asked, a strange sadness coloring her voice.

“Porthyros Omal,” Azhani said, a hint of steel creeping into her voice.

Kyrian had seen the journals.“Oh.I’m glad,” she said, her voice still tinted oddly.

Startled, Azhani looked down at her lover.“Why?”

The stardancer shrugged.“Because I killed him.”

“What?” the warrior blurted.“Kyr – are you, okay?”

Closing her eyes, the stardancer leaned into her lover and shivered.“I don’t know, Azhi.I – I killed them both, and it didn’t even bother me.”Fearfully, she looked up into her lover’s face and asked, “Does that make me a killer?”

“Ah gods, Kyr – you’ll never be a killer.Not like me – never like me.You didn’t kill because you wanted to, you killed because you had to.”

The stardancer’s lip quivered, then firmed.“I don’t know, but it doesn’t matter.I don’t regret killing them.”

Azhani didn’t know how to answer that.Instead, she just held Kyrian close and reveled in the fact of being alive.

A long, appreciative wolf whistle interrupted their embrace.“Well, now, lookit what we got here.Two of the foxiest lookin’ ladies I’ve seen since, well gosh and tarnation, since the last one of these here eclipses!”The hideous man wandered over to speak with the two women.

Amusement sparkling in her eyes, Azhani said, “Just who have we the pleasure,” she emphasized the word, “of entertaining?”

“Yeah, who are you?” Kyrian asked curiously.

A huge grin split the man’s face.“Ah, ‘ere now, lass.P’raps you’ll best remember me this way.”His form wavered, then shifted, changing into a black-robed man with a death’s head tattoo on his face.“Is this better?” he growled, his voice low and ominous sounding.

Confusion twisted Kyrian’s face.“No, I don’t think so.”Though, again, something about the way the man stood was so familiar.

“I know you,” Azhani said, her voice low and dangerous.“I killed you.”

The man’s shape wavered once again, this time shifting into the form of a middle-aged scholarly-looking gentleman.“That’s right, you did.And might I say, you shoot a mean bow, toots.”He rubbed his shoulder, wincing in remembered pain.

“You’re Astarus!” Kyrian blurted, her studies as a priest having finally caught up to her brain and tapped it gently with a boulder-sized clue.

“That’s right!”Ghostly bells and whistles appeared, playing a loud fanfare.“And for your correct guess, let’s see what you’ve won, lass.”An envelope appeared in his hand, with a tiny pop.With a flourish, the man opened the envelope and read the contents.“Kyrian Stardancer, you’ve won an all expenses on you, trip of a lifetime by the side of your beloved, Azhani Rhu’len.Thank you very much for playing, and have a nice day!”

The god vanished and so did the remains of the obelisk, leaving behind only a tiny piece of parchment.Gingerly, Kyrian bent to retrieve the note.In gold leafed lettering it said, “The bards shall sing of this day until the stars no longer shine. ~Astarus”

“You know something Kyrian?” Azhani said as she started looking for the best way down from the mountaintop.

“What’s that, Azhi?” the stardancer replied, folding up the note and putting it into her pouch.

“Being a hero is exhausting work.”
%%%
Halfway down the mountain, Kyrian signaled for a halt and gratefully sank down onto a convenient boulder.Stretching out her legs and massaging trembling calf muscles, she wistfully said, “Ah gods, I’m thirsty.I wish I had something to drink.”

“Your wish is my command,” Azhani replied gallantly.She angled away from the trail, hiking toward a rock outcropping.

Too tired to follow, Kyrian watched her lover disappear around the rock face.Sighing wearily, she continued to massage her sore legs.Lacking a sheath, the baton had left a large bruise in her thigh and Kyrian winced as she prodded it.She was utterly drained.Astariu’s fire would not heed her call for a long while.A lazy search of her haversack produced a large bundle of pain killing herbs.Silently, the stardancer prayed that Azhani would be able to find water.

The warrior returned a few moments later carrying a full waterskin.“Look what I’ve got,” she crowed happily.“I emptied my skin on the way up here, but there’s a little waterfall just over there that hasn’t quite frozen yet.”She wouldn’t mention that she had nearly fallen in as she tried to fill the skin from the tiny trickle.

Kyrian accepted the waterskin, smiling her thanks and sipped from it thirstily.“Oh gods, this is cold!” she exclaimed.

“Yeah, feels great on my throat,” Azhani admitted, taking back the skin to drink herself.The warrior’s voice was still quite roughened.

“Here, this should help even more.”Kyrian offered her lover a twisted bit of herbs.“Just chew quickly and swallow it with some of that water.”

Azhani took the herbs and put them in her mouth and then nearly spit them back out.“Oh, this tastes like dirty feet,” she complained, but dutifully swallowed them anyway.

“I know,” Kyrian said sympathetically as she chewed her own share.“It’s better than the pain, though.”

Nodding, Azhani slid down onto the ground between Kyrian’s legs and rested her head against the stardancer’s knee.Icy wind buffeted the mountainside and Azhani shivered.“Just a few moments rest, love,” she said, idly stroking her lover’s leg.“Or we’ll catch cold.”

Lifting Azhani’s braids away from her face, Kyrian said, “I know, but it feels so nice to just sit here with you.”She touched Azhani’s cheek, brushing away dirt and blood.The warrior blinked and yawned sleepily.A large clump of mud fell away, revealing the lighter, scarred area where Azhani’s tattoo used to be.As the skin below was revealed, Kyrian gasped in surprise.

The exclamation startled the warrior.Nearly loosing her balance, she jumped up and spun around.“What? What is it? More demons?Quick, Kyr, toss me your baton!”

The stardancer shook her head.“No, honey, there’s no demons.I just,” she shook her head.“Here, look.”She reached into her pouch and drew out a small silver mirror that she used to check if an unconscious patient was breathing.Handing it to Azhani, she said, “Look at your face, my love.”

Bewildered, Azhani took the mirror and looked in it.Bits of dirt and blood still clung haphazardly to her skin, making it appear even darker than usual.Her braids were in dire need of washing, and several of them had come undone.A thin, dark scar marred her left cheek where a demon’s razor sharp claws had split her face open to the bone.On the other side… Azhani nearly dropped the mirror.Where once a small, disk shaped scar had marked the skin below her eye, now a brilliant, silvery mark in the shape of a sword rested.

The warrior reached up to stroke her face disbelievingly.The mark was real; she could feel its raised edges under her fingertips.

“But… how?” she whispered in amazement.

Kyrian shrugged.“I guess Astariu felt you were missing something?” she offered by way of explanation.She stood up and brushed her hands off on her robe.“I don’t think it matters, love. It looks beautiful on you.”The stardancer walked over to her lover and took the mirror gently, putting it away.Reaching up, she stroked the ridged area of skin and said, “I love it and I love you.”

Still bewildered, Azhani nonetheless smiled happily.“I love you, too,” she said.Dipping her head, she kissed her lover warmly.“Now, let’s get back to camp.I’ve a feeling that there’s much work to do.”

Together, they continued down the mountain.
~Chapter Thirty-Nine~
The camp was a mess.Exhausted teams of soldiers worked day and night to remove the bodies of the dead.Demons were burned in a mass pyre, while fellow soldiers received full ceremony.

Telling the story of the battle on the mesa, took a great deal of time.Both Kyrian and Azhani had different viewpoints, and both women found it difficult to thoroughly explain their actions.Once the tale was told, however, others came forth with their own stories, adding to the rapidly growing legend.

The struggle with Ecarthus had lit up the sky, sending the bulk of the remaining demons scurrying for cover.Nearly all eyes had then turned to the mountaintop, to watch Azhani strike down the Eater of Souls.Only the mages had missed the spectacle.The forces unleashed by Kasyrin’s spells had been too much for the already taxed spellcasters to handle and to a man, they had collapsed.

While the camp recovered from the attack, Azhani seemed to be everywhere.The warleader wore herself out helping to rebuild tents and cart away debris, as well as joining a patrol every night to hunt down the demons.

Kyrian spent her time either with the chirurgeons and stardancers, healing those she could, or sequestered in her tent, talking to Starseeker Vashyra.After the rush of battle faded, the stardancer found that she was feeling some deep regrets about killing Kasyrin and Porthyros.Seeking comfort or absolution, she was not sure which, Kyrian went to Vashyra, and the starseeker willingly listened to the other priest’s confession.

Within three days of the battle, Devon was able to hobble around on a pair of crutches that Allyn had crafted with Syrelle’s help.Avisha, the hunting cat that had been found in Barton, joined the young mage.The mother cat’s kittens had all been weaned, allowing her to choose a human friend.A little uncertain of the cat’s intentions at first, Devon easily warmed up to her when she brought him the neatly caught carcass of a rabbit.

Allyndev spent all of his free time in the company of Princess Syrelle.It was obvious that the two were enamored greatly of each other.Azhani watched the two of them work together and felt a pang of sorrow.She carried a heavy burden that she would soon pass on to young Allyndev.The warrior hoped she had done her best to prepare him for it.

King Padreg and his lady, Elisira were both stuck in the chirurgeon’s tent.Padreg had taken a claw to his side and Elisira had broken her arm defending him until help arrived.Both were recovering nicely, though they hated being cooped up while everyone else worked.

For three more weeks, the army patrolled the mountains, until three full days and nights passed without the sighting of a demon.When her scouts assured Azhani that no more of the beasts hunted the hills and valleys, she turned the army toward Y’dan.Of the thousands of soldiers that had begun the journey, only four thousand men and women would be going home.The warleader sent word to those still in Barton to head south and join up with the main body of the army in Brenton.

As they traveled, messages arrived from both Queen Lyssera and Padreg’s regent, Aden Varice.From the elven queen came the welcome news that after the day of the eclipse, the black sailed ships had ceased to attack her harbors.Padreg was particularly relieved to hear that the bandits harrying his clans had also been driven off.

Other messages poured in via the starseekers.In Y’dror, the dragon suddenly vanished, leaving the dwarves confused but relieved.The nomads of Y’skan reported that the sandstorms had died down, allowing them to return to their beloved desert homes.King Naral of Y’Tol happily reported that all of the insects had been destroyed and his people’s crops saved.Lastly, a message finally arrived from High King Ysradan.

Garrulous to a fault, the man’s missive had been long and filled with gory and glorified descriptions of his defeat of the Killigarni pirates.Azhani sighed and rubbed her temples.For a long moment, she stared down at the other scroll that had been delivered alongside the message detailing Ysradan’s exploits.

It was a commendation and a grant of land.His message stated that he was on his way to Y’dannyv, to see about fixing Arris’ “bloody mess”.He also informed her that he did not consider her an Oathbreaker, and that he would do what he could to see that her former Y’dani title was restored to her.

Unsure of her feelings on that issue, Azhani laid the messages aside and took up her quill and began the arduous task of penning letters of condolence.The list of the dead was enormous and the warleader was certain she would be writing until her fingers fell off.The task was made doubly hard because Arris’ quartermaster was one of the men who had deserted, leaving behind a rat’s warren for record books.

By midwatch, Azhani had to quit.Yawning sleepily, she headed for her tent.Her sleep was short and restless.Dreams of the mountaintop battle plagued her, only vanishing when Kyrian wrapped her arms around her and sang her to sleep.Azhani’s body was still on the odd schedule she always kept when the ice demons rose, which was work by night, sleep by day.It was now nearing dawn and she was very ready to crawl between her blankets to sleep.

The weather spirits had been gentle, holding off the snow as much as they could, but every day, cold rain fell, drenching the encampment.The first, fat drops began to fall as Azhani entered her tent.Kyrian was already curled up on the cot, her robes tossed haphazardly over the back of a chair.Light snores vibrated the stardancer’s body, causing Azhani to smile.

Slowly, the warleader disrobed, hanging her battered scale mail on an armor block and setting her father’s sword on the table.Gormerath was truly gone.Nothing was left of the beautiful blade but some scorched metal and a couple of cracked gemstones.Azhani had offered the relic to Padreg, but he had insisted she keep it.

The warrior didn’t feel she had the right to drag the poor weapon from place to place, so she presented it to Starseeker Vashyra, who agreed that the sword should have a home in a special place.The priest of Astariu was pleased to have the legendary blade that was forged by one of the greatest women to serve in her order.

Azhani was happy to hand it over.She would miss the blade’s magical attributes, but her father’s sword was eminently serviceable.The finely crafted elven sword might only be a few decades old, rather than the hundreds of years Gormerath had existed, but it still had a nice balance, held a keen edge and was as beautifully constructed as any weapon had a right to be.

Stretching her neck and wincing as several of the vertebrae popped, Azhani stripped out of her damp clothes and climbed into the bed next to Kyrian.Her lover’s body was warm and smelled of wet cat.Suspicious, the warrior looked under the covers, chuckling when she found one of Avisha’s kits.A dark gray female kitten with charcoal markings on her face, paws, tail and ears was curled up against Kyrian’s knees.

Azhani rolled her eyes and pushed the kitten further down on the bed, already resigned to accepting the feline into the burgeoning family she and Kyrian were creating.The kitten, outraged at being dislodged, hissed and growled, standing up and arching her back as Azhani settled into the cot.

Pitching her voice to its lowest, Azhani growled back.The kitten suddenly dropped down onto the cot, its ears folded forward.Azhani growled again and the kitten rolled over, exposing her stomach.

“Are you going to torment Beshyra all night, or are you going to come here and show me how much you love me?” Kyrian asked sleepily.

Faced with the choice of taunting a kitten or making love to Kyrian, Azhani made the natural decision.Beshyra suddenly found herself another place to sleep as the warrior rolled over and began kissing her lover deeply.

“I do have one question,” Azhani said as she licked and nibbled her way down the stardancer’s throat.

“Uh, can it wait?” Kyrian asked, quickly becoming unable to concentrate on anything but how wonderful Azhani’s cool hands felt against the warm skin of her hips.

Raising herself up on one hand, Azhani looked down into Kyrian’s sparkling, dark green eyes and said, “Why’d you name her, ‘fierce’?She gave up after only two little growls.”

Smiling in amused tolerance, Kyrian reached up and ran her fingers along the furrows created by Azhani’s braids, a touch the warrior adored.The stardancer pushed up off the bed and nuzzled her lover’s neck, nipping at the bare skin covering Azhani’s collarbone.

“Mmm,” Azhani purred, sounding remarkably like the kitten.

Looking up at her lover, Kyrian reached out and tweaked the warrior’s nose.“You should see her protecting this tent.She growls at everyone other than you or me that tries to enter.”Her smile softened and she stroked Azhani’s face.“It reminded me of you – always protecting those you love.”

“Oh, okay,” Azhani said, dazed and touched by the stardancer’s words.

Kyrian’s smile grew into a playful grin.“Does this mean I get to keep her?”
%%%
Marching through snow, even on horseback, is probably the worst way to travel that anyone has ever invented.Kyrian shivered under her cloak and leaned over to pat Arun on the head before jumping down and accepting the fresh towel from the young soldier standing at her horse’s side.

The morning that Azhani had pegged as their return date dawned gray and cold.By afternoon, snow was falling. Since then, thick, icy flakes had blanketed the countryside, making travel difficult.Every few miles, riders would have to dismount their horses and rub down their legs, so the beasts wouldn’t falter.Travel was limited to only a few candlemarks a day, at the end of which everyone was exhausted and chilled to the bone.

If fevers and colds had been a problem before, they were now a nightmare.Kyrian usually spent the better part of each night moving from patient to patient, spending what magic she could spare to heal them.Since the battle on the mesa, her powers hadn’t fully recharged and she suspected that her gift might never be the same.Nevertheless, she was always willing to help, even when that help came in the form of spooning thick broth into the mouth of one cranky, tired and overworked warleader.

Unprepared for the cold, Azhani had traveled nearly a full day without a cloak, only wearing a padded gambeson and trousers to keep out the cool weather.Still recovering from battling Ecarthus, her body was unable to fight off the coughing sickness that spread like wildfire through the army.

Azhani took bed rest surprisingly well.After only two days of arguing, she had reluctantly given in to Padreg and Kyrian’s pleas to ride in the chirurgeon’s wagons with the rest of the invalids.Of course, now the stardancer was certain that her lover was planning a rebellion with the other men and women who were too injured or sick to ride.To keep Azhani from doing something unwise, she visited the wagon whenever possible.

Sticking her foot into the stirrup, Kyrian pulled herself up in the saddle and guided Arun toward the road.Two more days and they would be in Brenton.After thirteen days of cold and wet, she was looking forward to resting in the farming community.Vaguely, she recalled that there was a guard outpost on the outskirts of town.Perhaps there would be enough room for everyone to sleep indoors.
%%%
Padreg healed quickly.Because his wound was so terrible, the stardancers put him on the list to receive magical healing.Elisira also received care from the goddess’ own, but only enough to fuse the bones back together.She still had to wear a sling to keep the arm supported while the muscles and tissues healed naturally.

Unsurprisingly, the Y’Noran king took up the reins of command while Azhani was ill, though at the warleader’s request, he included Prince Allyndev in all of his major decisions, seeking the young man’s opinion at every turn.At first, he was a little concerned, but as Allyn’s agile mind quickly grasped the concepts of running the day-to-day functions of an army, he began to understand.

The young nobleman was emerging as a leader, instead of a scholar with a sword.
%%%
Kyrian entered her tent, expecting to find Beshyra curled up on their cot, waiting for her.What she did not expect was one fully dressed warrior, playing, “chase-the-string” with the kitten.Azhani looked up at her entry and smiled sexily, though the effect was ruined by a bout of coughing that wracked her body.

Sighing, the stardancer dropped her mittens on a trunk and said, “You should be on the chirurgeon’s wagon, planning the invalid rebellion.”

“Well hello, I’m awfully glad to see you, too,” Azhani said, her voice hoarse from coughing.

“Azhi, why aren’t you on the chirurgeon’s wagon?” Kyrian asked, coming over and putting her hand against the warrior’s face.“You’re burning up.”

Azhani captured Kyrian’s hand in hers and kissed it.“I know where I should be, but I needed to be here, with you.”She pulled her lover down into her lap, cuddling her close.“And tomorrow, I will need to be at the head of the army.I have to present a strong front to any of Ecarthus’ lingering supporters.”

“Not to mention you like looking heroic in front of the masses,” Kyrian said, grinning at the indignation that flashed across Azhani’s face.“You know, I’ve never seen you around normal people.Not really, anyway… I mean, there was Barton, but that was like being with your family, because they knew you so well.I’ve seen you with nobility, I’ve watched you around your soldiers, but I’ve never seen how you behave around simple people like farmers and blacksmiths.”

“I don’t eat babies for lunch, Kyrian,” the warrior growled, a trace of hurt in her words.“And I don’t strike off people’s heads when they don’t do what I want them to.”

“Oh, I know that.”Kyrian played with the lacing to Azhani’s tunic.“What I meant was… it will be interesting to see how people who have called you both hero and murderer react, now that you’re a hero again.”

“I haven’t thought about it,” Azhani said as Kyrian stood up and began peeling off her traveling clothes.“I’ve tried not to.”

“Well, maybe you should.I mean, how do you want people to view us?Are we the conquering usurpers, or the returning heroes?” the stardancer asked as she tugged off a mud and snow-covered boot.

Azhani lay back on the bed.Beshyra took this as an invitation to come and snuggle, so she jumped up next to the warleader and began to roughly knead Azhani’s thigh.

“Hey, hey, stop that you little monster.”Azhani grabbed the kit by the scruff of her neck and sat up.Bringing the kitten up to eye level, she growled and said, “I am not your personal pincushion.Go puncture someone else!”Then she dropped the struggling kitten onto the ground and began coughing.

Beshyra, thoroughly confused and frightened, raced over to Kyrian and cowered behind her legs.Kyrian reached down, picked up the kitten, stroked her fur, and cooed over her until she started purring.“You’re such a meanie, Azhi.Beshyra was just trying to be nice to you and you had to go and get all nasty.”

“I was nasty?” Azhani asked incredulously, between coughing spasms.“The little monster tried to ventilate my leg!”She pointed down to her thigh where tiny pinpricks of blood seeped through the light cotton fabric of her breeches.

Kyrian set the kitten down on the floor and wandered over to look at the warleader’s leg.Rolling her eyes, she said, “They’re barely even scratches, Azhi.You’re such a baby.I’ve seen you deal with worse.”

“I can tell that I’m really loved by this room.First the cat tries to rend my flesh from my bones, and then instead of helping me, you call me a brute for defending myself!”Azhani pouted and affected a wounded look.

Laughing, Kyrian turned to hunt around in their gear for their teapot.A tiny brazier full of glowing coals in the center of the tent, provided both heat and a place to heat small amounts of liquid.The stardancer was privately pleased by Azhani’s playfulness over the kitten, though she would not show it.Instead, she played her role to the hilt.

“Well, if you insist on demanding healing, I guess I’ll just have to cook something up to take the pain away,” she said suggestively, looking back at her lover and wriggling her eyebrows.

“Now that’s more like it,” Azhani said, crossing her feet at the ankles and settling back against her pillows as if expecting scantily clad dancing girls to burst in, ready to serve her every need.

Grinning to herself, Kyrian began bustling about the tent, heating water and mixing a strong concoction of herbs that she knew would not only take away Azhani’s aches and pains, but would also calm the wracking cough.It made her feel awful that her lover was ill, but in a way, she was glad, because she enjoyed the chance to take care of her partner.Azhani had a tendency to mother hen her when she was under the weather.Not that she would ever complain, because she enjoyed the pampering.Azhani also craved gentle care, Kyrian realized while she worked.Perhaps it was okay to occasionally cluck over each other.

The stardancer poured the now hot water over the tea and let it steep.Beshyra had forgiven the warrior and crawled back onto the bed, and Azhani was now lazily stroking the kitten’s fur.

Outside, the wind howled forcefully, buffeting the thick canvas of the tent.

“I will be so glad to have solid walls around me again,” she said, bringing the tea over to Azhani.“Here, drink this, oh wounded warrior, and it shall heal thy hurts.”

Cautiously, Azhani took and sipped the beverage.When it didn’t immediately make her want to spit it out, she took another, deeper drink.“Not bad.What’d you do to hide the bitterness?”

“Added nearly an entire hive’s worth of honey,” Kyrian said ruefully, causing her lover to grin.

“I told you honey was the cure for foul tasting medicine.”She demonstrated her faith by draining the cup and holding it out.“More please?”

“You’re incorrigible,” Kyrian said fondly, but she still made another cup of tea for the warleader.

“Kyr, I think the army should try to approach Brenton as friends.After all, more than half of them are Y’dani.Maybe we should fly the banners, but leave off on the fanfare and panoply.We’ll be asking a great deal of the town as it is.I almost decided to skip it, but at least two hundred of the footmen are from this area and it’s only right that their families see them.What do you think?”

“I think,” Kyrian said, as she climbed into the bed and handed Azhani her tea.“That you should drink this tea and get some sleep.I’m sure Padreg and Elisira will have it all planned out for you in the morning.”

Beshyra grudgingly made room for Kyrian by crawling down to the end of the bed.Azhani drank her tea and then slid under the covers.Yawning, she lifted her arm, allowing Kyrian to snuggle up against her.“Okay, but I really don’t want to antagonize anyone tomorrow.I’d probably cough up something vital if I had to shout.”

Patting Azhani’s stomach lightly, Kyrian sleepily murmured, “So don’t shout.”
%%%
Azhani gritted her teeth and tried to put Kyrian’s advice to work.The Mayor of Brenton, while ecstatic to see the army, was adamantly against the large mass of people camping anywhere near his people’s farms.The hoped for barracks turned out to be large enough to hold half a dozen soldiers, if they were very friendly, but that was all.The men and women who had families in the area, were welcome to stay at their homes, but the mayor felt the others should move on to the city.Since it was another ten days travel at their current pace, neither Azhani nor the healers wanted to risk the sick on a journey that long.They needed a couple of days to rest in rooms warmed against the cold, not more nights of breathing super chilled air.

“Mayor Graystone, I don’t want to invade your town.I just want a place for my men and me for a few days.”When her words didn’t appear to budge him, she said, “Look, more than half of these people with me are Y’dani – by right of law, you have to allow us to camp here.It hasn’t been so long that I’ve forgotten what the army is due.”Unspoken was, “Like you.”

Shamed, Graystone sighed and grudgingly said, “All right.I’ll see about finding some empty barns.You and your lieutenants can stay there,” he pointed to the large town hall.“It’ll hold at least fifty, maybe more if you don’t mind close quarters.”

“I remember,” Azhani said, already beginning to turn her horse around.The young pikeman who had been assigned as her page that day, took her orders and raced off, holding his helm on his head to keep it from falling.

The warleader grinned fiercely.When they had arrived in Brenton, the temple to Ecarthus was in chaos.Word of their god’s demise had reached the priests and they were desperately trying to keep the masses in line by holding hourly services, which included the sacrifice of any who dared speak against the priests.

Azhani glanced at a passing soldier’s tabard and sighed at the blood that soaked a good portion of it.The morning had been spent routing the black-robed priests.Starseeker Vashyra and the other Astariun priests were now using their powers to destroy the evil building.Those few Ecarthan priests that had surrendered, were now awaiting judgment in the town’s jail.

Azhani had not participated in the hunt, though she had itched to take up her sword and gut a few of the murdering bastards.Instead, she let Allyn lead a group of the least injured of the soldiers, including as many Y’dani as she could, in ridding the town of the predatory priests.

Now she was on her way to meet with the prince.Allyndev had sustained a minor laceration to his face, and Kyrian wanted to stitch it up before the cold seeped in and caused it to infect.

Azhani found him sitting on the tailgate of a wagon, patiently holding still while the stardancer put several tiny, even stitches into his cheek.Princess Syrelle hovered nearby, berating him for being so careless.On the other side, Devon griped about not being invited to join the fun.After all, he could still ride.

“Afternoon, ladies,” Azhani said, bowing to both Kyrian and Syrelle, and then extending the bow to Devon, who blushed and shut up.“And Allyn.”To him, she offered her hand.He took it, clasping her wrist and grinning wildly, causing the stitches to pull.“I’d put that smile away for later, if I were you, Allyndev,” Azhani cautioned.“Because otherwise, you’re going to mess up all of Kyrian’s beautiful work and your face will scar.”

Instantly, the smile fell.“Uh, sorry,” he muttered, tipping his head up once more so that Kyrian could finish her work.

“Now, let me tell you how proud I am of you,” Azhani said approvingly.Slowly, she detailed exactly what she felt he had done right, as well as what he needed to do better the next time.Allyn listened intently.This was exactly the way she had always taught him, from the first day he had walked into the salle in Y’Syr, until just before he had led the soldiers off this morning.He liked that about her.She was stern, and strict, but he was never unsure whether or not he was doing well.

“All right, Master Azhani, I’ll remember to pull my visor down next time,” he replied as she clapped him on the shoulder.Kyrian finished up and motioned Devon to take his place.

“Good, now, let’s see about turning that,” Azhani said as she pointed to the town hall, “into a temporary barracks.”
%%%
The army bivouacked in Brenton for ten days.While there, Allyn led several more successful raids against Ecarthus’ temples, destroying a total of ten of the heinous structures.During that time, no messages were sent to Y’dannyv or anywhere near the capital city.Azhani wanted to keep Kasyrin’s remaining forces guessing as to her next move.

Those farmers who had shut themselves up in their homes, came into Brenton by the dozens, to pay tribute to their liberators.The warleader solemnly accepted their praise and then pointed them to Prince Allyndev.Usually, he had a pile of the Ecarthan priest’s black robes bundled up, ready to be tossed onto what had become a daily bonfire.

Surprised and a little suspicious of the half-elven prince, the farmers nonetheless took their caps in their hands and thanked him.Azhani and Padreg had tried to prepare the young man for this eventuality, and he did them proud by graciously accepting the farmer’s words.

Around the fire one evening, Allyn, Devon and Syrelle were talking quietly.Avisha lay next to the young mage, her head pillowed on his foot.Devon had grown quite fond of his new companion, and the cat seemed to return his affection, as she rarely left his side.

“I don’t really understand it, Dev,” Allyn said, tossing another disgustingly decorated robe onto the fire.The garments had hideous designs embroidered into them.Picked out in lurid colors were scenes of death and torment that made the three youths ill if they looked at them too closely.“Why is Master Azhani suddenly giving me all this responsibility?”

Devon resettled his crutches, disturbing Avisha.The original bare wood had left raw, painful bruises under his arms and his friends had put their heads together to create something to protect him.Just that morning, Syrelle had given him a pair of thick pads to bind to the crutches, and he was still accommodating to the change in structure.“I don’t know, Allyn.Maybe she thinks you can handle it?”The hunting cat moved, but not too far away, keeping her favorite human within view.

“Yes, perhaps the Warleader is just allowing you to prove yourself.I notice that she often encourages you to choose men who didn’t see as much of the fighting up north, to go with you,” Syrelle pointed out as she pushed a lose ember back into the fire.

“Yeah, but these people are starting to treat me like I’m some kind of hero,” Allyn said shamefacedly.“And I’m not a hero.I know real heroes and they aren’t me.”He looked over at Azhani, Kyrian, Padreg and Elisira.The older adults were clustered around a smaller fire, enjoying the first night in weeks where it wasn’t snowing.Azhani leaned forward to kiss Kyrian, and in the firelight, the mark on the warleader’s cheek glittered momentarily.One of Avisha’s kittens lounged on Kyrian’s lap.It reached up a paw and batted playfully at the warleader, causing both the warrior and the stardancer to laugh.

The Y’Noran chieftain had been responsible for marshalling the army on the day the sun had been shadowed by the moon.When the demons came pouring down on the encampment, it was Padreg who had come barreling out of his tent, shouting orders left and right until the warriors were able to start deflecting the tide of monsters.His lady, Elisira, had been right beside him, shooting arrows and shouting encouragement.

Allyn had spent the long, terrifying hours defending the chirurgeon’s tents, determined not to let any of the wounded become easy prey for the demons.Beside him had been Syrelle and later, Devon.During the battle, some of the mages who had been struck down by Kasyrin’s spell had managed to regain consciouness and assist with the defense of the camp.Though his injuries were fierce, Devon had shown an impressive amount of strength and courage by encouraging the other walking wounded to help Allyn and Syrelle defend the chirurgeon’s tent.

By the time the monsters had been driven off, the friendship between the three was so strong that nothing would sever it.Not even Devon’s admission that he had a crush on Syrelle, had lessened their bond.The princess had only laughed gently and kissed the young mage on the cheek and asked him if he would accept her friendship.

Smiling, though his eyes were full of pain, Devon had nodded.Later, he told Allyn that he hoped he and Syrelle were always happy.Surprised at the sacrifice his friend was making, Allyndev had silently prayed that someone would someday erase the pain from Devon’s eyes.

The prince sighed and threw the last robe into the fire.“I’m not a hero,” he said again, daring his friends to defy him.

Two arms wrapped around his waist as he stared into the flames.

“Maybe not,” Syrelle said, laying her head on his shoulder and searching for whatever vision held Allyn’s attention so tightly.

“But you’re doing a credible imitation of one,” Devon finished, flashing a hearty grin at the startled look on Allyn’s face.

“I guess you guys are trying to tell me to shut up and take it like a man?” Allyn asked jokingly.

Syrelle smiled sweetly and looked over at Devon.“I think he’s got a brain in there after all,” she said, her tone full of mock surprise.

“Amazing, isn’t it?” Devon replied, his grin turning cockeyed.“The point is, Allyboy, you’re getting a chance to do something pretty cool by helping these people.My father said that nothing fills a man’s heart more than the love of his peers.So, fill your heart, my friend, because the love is flowing!”

A snappy retort jumped onto Allyn’s tongue, but he held it back.Maybe his friends were right.Maybe he should just accept the fact that not everyone saw him as the bumbling kid he knew he was.Yeah, and maybe I’m actually starting to learn something besides how to fall down properly when Master Azhani thumps me.

The last of the black robes turned to ash and blew away into the night.
~Chapter Forty~
On a clear, sunny morning, and with Kyrian, Padreg and Allyndev by her side, Azhani Rhu’len, the Banshee of Banner Lake, returned to the City of Y’dannyv.The lake sparkled brilliantly, and the silvery shimmer of the water took her back to a time when its banks ran red with the blood of innocents.Barely a year had passed since she had last laid eyes on the city, but the passage of time had wrought harsh changes.

Where once houses and buildings were draped in colorful banners, now only somber coats of gray dominated the landscape.Inns and taverns were conspicuously empty, and the townspeople looked at the small group whom the Warleader had chosen to bring in with her, with haunted, suspicious eyes.

Moving quickly from place to place, what folk that dared brave the streets stayed clumped together.Children were somber, clinging to the hands and legs of their parents, while the elderly peered out at the world from behind the safety of locked doors and drawn curtains.Men in the green and black of Arris’ personal guard stood side by side with the black robed priests of Ecarthus.

Azhani could feel the eyes of the Ecarthan priests take in the size of her force and widen in abject fear.She smiled mirthlessly.Soon the bastards would feel the bite of her hounds, but for now, she would let them tremble.

Behind her, Elisira and Mayor Graystone of Brenton rode, quietly talking.At her sides were Padreg and Kyrian.The Y’Noran king’s eyes were roving the streets, searching the shadows for hidden assassins.Quietly, Kyrian engaged Allyndev in small talk.Beshyra rode pillion behind Kyrian, clinging to a padded piece of leather and hissing comically at every new smell or strange sight.

The Y’Syran prince gawked openly at the brick and stone buildings.The elven born and raised young man was unused to homes that didn’t require a section of the population dedicated to keeping the dwelling alive.Having grown up in a city where houses were trees had not prepared him for the strange sight of a city of stone.

Riding next to Allyn was Princess Syrelle.Silently, she listened as Kyrian spoke of her first visit to the somber city.She tried hard to replace the gray, fear-clad reality with the more colorful images the stardancer’s story created.Just behind them rode the young mage, Devon Imry.His eyes filled with tears at the sight of the city of his birth. Many familiar landmarks were gone – the burbling fountain where children would play from sun up to sun down, the street vendors who would shout their wares and the gaily dressed minstrels that used to populate the city were nowhere to be seen.

The hunting cat Avisha rode proudly on Devon’s saddle, surveying the city with the disinterested gaze that only a feline can manage.A small contingent of three hundred soldiers marched behind their group, demonstrating to any enemies that they would be difficult to remove.

As they rode along the main street toward the city center, they were met by a group of men and women dressed in rich, colorful clothes.Unlike the rest of the city’s citizens, these people did not look defeated and frightened.Instead, they looked relieved.

Lord Councilor Valdyss Cathemon stood straight and proud, and his dark blue velvet doublet and hose were all that stood between him and Azhani’s sword.Beside him were thirty members of the King’s Council, each dressed in their finest clothes, in defiance of the dark clothes that the priests of Ecarthus had ordered the population to favor.

Lord Cathemon stepped forward.Speaking in a clear, carrying voice, he said, “Welcome to Y’dannyv, Azhani Rhu’len.In the name of the council, I greet you as the rightful Warleader of Y’dan.”

Those brave citizens who had peeked out of their doors and windows, now stumbled into the streets.Voices could be heard.Snatches of excited conversation peppered the air around Azhani and her people.

”Azhani?The Warleader is back?Wasn’t she exiled?Oh gods, has she come to free us from the Ecarthans?”

Azhani dismounted and walked up to Cathemon.Kneeling before him, she said, “Valdyss Cathemon, I have returned, in defiance of the King’s Law, to challenge his ruling.By my right as a survivor of the Gauntlet, I demand the chance to set right a terrible wrong.”

“Rise, Azhani, and be heard.You are granted that chance and more,” Cathemon said, looking over at the former Lord High Councilor, Derkus Glinholt, who was fairly vibrating with fear.

The other man’s gaze had fallen on his daughter, who was gaily speaking to Mayor Graystone of Brenton.A tanned, well-muscled woman who looked as though she could break her weaker father in two had replaced the once pale, fragile-looking girl.

Elisira spotted her father, and defiantly she nodded at him, then continued her conversation with the mayor.Councilor Glinholt seethed helplessly.He was so terribly tempted to march right up to his disobedient child but he clearly recognized the threat implied in the hard face of the Y’Noran chieftain.

Padreg had not missed the exchange between his beloved and her father, and he was not about to let the scheming little man get between him and the woman he loved.Nor was he going to allow the wicked man to escape, once the contents of Azhani’s pouch were revealed.

Rising, Azhani reached into the saddlebag on her horse’s side and withdrew one of the most damning of Arris’ journals.Flipping the pages, she settled on one section and handed it to Councilor Cathemon.“Read this, my lord, and you shall have proof of my innocence.”Handing him the book, she stepped back a pace.

Cathemon cleared his throat, and then began to read.
“Half passed midwatch; spring, the six hundred and thirteenth year since landing, by the hand of Arris, King of Y’dan.

I have tasted great victory today.By my hand and will, Azhani Rhu’len, she who has scorned me for so many years, has been cast down.It is with fervor and joy that I write of the death of the thief of my desire.Ylera Kelani has passed from this realm to the lords of hell.She is the play toy of death now and can no longer block the road to Azhani’s heart.I will have her, or she will die.

I go now, to greet my lord councilors on the matter of my ascension to the throne of Y’dan.I shall be a great king.I shall make wonders happen, that my father’s ghost be banished from the realm forever!Legends shall be told of the deeds I do.Let history beware, for I am Arris, and I am King!”
“Keep reading,” Azhani prompted, her face a stony mask of control.Cathemon continued, reading how Arris had used his pet councilors to back a move to wrest control of the throne from the warleader.Several of the well-dressed men and women exchanged uneasy glances.They had supported Arris, though none but Derkus had known the extent of the king’s evil.

Cathemon read until the diary began to detail Arris’ reactions at Azhani’s trial and subsequent actions at Banner Lake.The councilor, visibly shaken, could not put voice to the crazed, addled words that his king had gleefully used to describe the way his people had died for him.Closing the book, he handed it back to Azhani and said, “I am satisfied that you are as innocent as you claim.Welcome home, Azhani.”

The words she had longed to hear for so long were bittersweet, bought, as they were, by the deaths of so many.Bowing her head, Azhani said, “Thank you, Lord Cathemon.I am glad to be here.I bring much news.Before we talk, I offer you the services of Prince Allyndev Kelani, son of Alynna Kelani of Y’Syr.Allyn, go get ‘em, lad!”

Turning, the warleader pointed at a congregation of black-robed men who were sneaking up to the town square, weapons furtively drawn.Allyn spurred his horse and drew his sword.

“Now, men!”He charged the Ecarthan priests, while two hundred of the finest Y’dani soldiers split away from the honor guard in a V formation, closing in on the priests.

Cathemon and the others watched in stunned horror as Allyn and his soldiers expertly butchered the evil priests.Starseeker Vashyra, observing the young man in action, only smiled wickedly.

“He’s terribly good at that, isn’t he, Azhani?” she commented silkily, raising one dark eyebrow.

Azhani grinned openly.“Oh yes.He’s an excellent student, a fast learner and he’s always eager to please.”

Indeed, Allyn fell on the priests, the last of the ilk that remained a threat to Y’dan, with a vicious fervor.Soon, it wasn’t just Allyn and the soldiers cutting the priests to bits.The citizens, seeing their salvation at hand, fell upon those few priests who managed to break free, and tore them to pieces.

It was violent.It was gory.It was deeply satisfying to the downtrodden people of Y’dannyv.

In other towns and villages across Y’dan, similar scenes were played out as the patrols that Azhani had sent out arrived and chased the Ecarthan scum from the land.Turning away from the carnage, Azhani nodded toward the castle.“Shall we?”

Shuddering over the bloodshed, Cathemon nodded.Turning his back, he tuned out the sound of the slaughter taking place not more than fifty yards away.
%%%
Before he could escape, the former high councilor, Derkus Glinholt was arrested and jailed.Twelve other councilmen resigned their posts and hurriedly left the city before they, too, learned first hand how big the rats in the castle’s dungeons were.Those remaining guardsmen who wore Arris’ colors, quickly stripped their tabards off and requested new ones bearing the golden wheat sheaf of Theodan’s forefathers.

Slowly, the people of Y’dannyv began to emerge.Many houses raised their pennants, the colorful banners snapping gaily in the breeze.Brightly colored clothing once again was the accepted norm instead of frowned upon.People laughed, talked and generally began to breathe a little easier.

Questions riding on the tip of everyone’s tongues quickly spread through the city. Who will lead us?Who will take up the Crown of Ysradaran and keep us safe against those who would seek to harm us?

Azhani knew that the council would be more than willing to give her the throne.Even though Theodan’s proclamation had long since been destroyed, the evidence of its existence was easily found in Arris’ journals.Azhani didn’t want the throne, though.She wasn’t even very sure she wanted to bear the mantle of Warleader, for either Y’Syr or Y’dan.Mostly, she just wanted to find a nice, cozy inn somewhere by the sea, and love Kyrian.

On the fourth day after their arrival, High King Ysradan made his appearance.Unlike Azhani, he did not forsake the pomp and circumstance that was due his station.Sailing into the harbor flanked by four large warships, the High King’s personal ship far outmatched any other ship docked there.

Azhani hurried to meet Ysradan.It had been at least five years since she had last seen the high king.Princess Syrelle ran with her, a mixed expression of fear and joy warring for dominance on her face.

The High King stepped off his ship and onto the dock, breathed deeply and smiled.His aged, careworn face held a few new scars and he walked with a limp that hadn’t been there when Azhani had last seen him.Syrelle flew past her and into her father’s arms.

“Daddy!” she crowed, obviously delighted to see him.

Ysradan caught his daughter and lifted her up, swinging her around until she laughed.“Ah, how’s my beautiful angel?” he asked, bringing her down and hugging her close.

Syrelle grinned and said, “Better, now that you’re here.Where’s my brother, the demon?”

“Right here, fish breath!” said the high-pitched voice of a child.Behind Ysradan was the Y’maran Heir Apparent, Ysrallan.He stuck his tongue out at his sister, screwing up his face into a nasty parody of a demon’s mask.Then he grinned and ran over to Syrelle’s side, hugging her fiercely.“You’ve been gone forever and ever, Relly,” he whispered, clinging tightly.

Syrelle lifted her brother, hugging him close.“I’m back now, Rallie and I missed you too.”Looking over her brother’s shoulder, the princess asked, “Where’s mom?”

“Syrelle,” a warmly affectionate voice said.

The princess looked behind a group of her father’s guardsmen to see her mother being carefully escorted by two of her handmaidens.The High Queen had a bandage wrapped around her head, blocking out her eyes.

“Mother!” Syrelle set her brother down abruptly and raced to the approaching woman’s side.“What happened?” she asked frantically, reaching out to hug her mother and then stopping just shy of touching her.

Queen Dasia reached out and embraced her daughter.“It’s all right, honey.I’ll be okay,” she said, holding the shaking girl tight.“One of those damn pirates threw something into my eyes – blinded me temporarily.Stardancer Jezlyn has assured me that it will pass.”

Syrelle sniffled and drew back.“Well,” she said, daring to touch her mother’s face, “If Jez says you’ll be okay, then I guess it’s all right.”

Dasia smiled and said, “It’s wonderful to hear your voice, my daughter.Please, tell me of your adventures.”

Waiting patiently for his wife, Ysradan viewed the changed city of Y’dannyv sadly.Signs of Arris’ depredations on the populace were still visible in the way that many of the common men and women refused to meet his glance.In the distance, beyond the city’s western gates, he could see the pall of black smoke from the massive pyre where the priests were burning the remnants of Ecarthus’ worship.When Dasia reached his side, Ysradan wrapped his arms around his family and turned to greet the rest of the waiting delegation.

“Padreg, my gods, lad, you’ve grown like one of your damn weeds!”Transferring his wife’s arm to his son’s shoulder, the High King embraced his former fosterling.

“My King,” Padreg said, bowing after Ysradan released him.“I’m afraid I’m a little taller than even the grasses of my homelands now.”

Ysradan chuckled and looked up at the man he knew as a boy.“I would have to agree.But then, we always knew you were part giant.”He turned to the Lady Elisira and took her hands in his.“My lady, it does my heart good to gaze upon your beauty once more.How are you?”

Elisira leaned in for a kiss, and replied, “I’m doing well, you old charmer, and how are you?”

“Good, good,” Ysradan said, moving on to Kyrian.He smiled brilliantly at her, the full force of his charm in effect.“You will perhaps pardon me, for I do not know you, but your face shall haunt my dreams until the moment I look upon the perfection that is our beloved goddess.”

Kyrian looked at Azhani and whispered, “Likes to lay it on thick, doesn’t he?”Looking back at Ysradan, she said, “I am Stardancer Kyrian, your majesty.”

“Ah yes, then you are the very person that I owe the greatest thanks to, for it was your tender care that rescued Our beloved Warleader from the brink of death,” said Ysradan.He was happy to put a face to the name that he had read in so many of the messages that crossed his desk lately.Clasping her hand firmly, he leaned forward and kissed her cheek.“I am most humbled to make your acquaintance, revered Stardancer.It has come to me that you were very instrumental in the success of Astariu’s plans.I thank you – indeed, all of Y’myran shall thank you, good Kyrian.”

Taken aback, Kyrian replied, “It’s nice to meet you too, your majesty.”

As Ysradan moved on, Queen Dasia took his place, reaching her hand out to gently grasp the stardancer’s proffered arm.“He’s something of a talker, my Ysra is, but don’t let it twist your thoughts overmuch, young Kyrian.”She smiled warmly.

Kyrian returned the smile and said, “I’ll try not to, your highness.”Syrelle and Ysrallan were on the other side of their mother, watching as their father continued to act the diplomat and greet the various nobles of the Y’dani court.Finally, he came to Azhani.

For several heartbeats, Ysradan and the warleader looked deeply into each other’s faces.Then, the High King sighed sadly and said, “I miss him too.”Bowing his head, he surreptitiously wiped away a tear.“Theodan was a good man, filled with dreams of the future.It pains me that his legacy was so horribly corrupted.”

“Those dreams may yet live on, your majesty,” Azhani said quietly as she accepted a terse embrace from Ysradan.

Feeling very much like an outsider, Prince Allyndev stood to the side of the assembled nobles and aimlessly scratched at his jaw.Frowning, he scuffed the palm of his hand against the itchy beard stubble and sighed.The day before, Master Azhani had asked him to refrain from shaving for a few days.Accustomed to a neat appearance, he nonetheless acquiesced to her request.Now his face itched terribly and he was beginning to wonder why his mentor would make such a strange request.

Why do I have to let my beard grow out?Is this supposed to be another object lesson?Allyn’s eyes narrowed as he tried to pinpoint a time within the past few weeks when he had done something to merit one of Azhani’s famous impression making exercises.

Nothing came to mind.So why am I standing here in front of the High King, looking like a soldier fresh off a three-day drunk?

With her brother in tow, Syrelle left her mother’s side and sidled up next to the prince.“Hey,” she said, biting her lip shyly.

“Yeah?”He smiled warmly, looking into her brilliant blue eyes and seeing everything he wanted for the future shining back at him.

“I, um, this is my little brother, Ysrallan,” she mumbled, thrusting the boy forward.“Rallie, this is Prince Allyndev.”

Shyly, the boy prince held his hand out to the older prince.“Hello?” he smiled, his lips curling in an unconscious echo of his sister’s uncertain grin.

Clasping the boy’s hand warmly, Allyn knelt down and bowed his head to Ysrallan.“Good day, my prince,” he said solemnly, causing the lad to giggle.“How was your trip?”

Ysrallan’s face screwed up and he rolled his eyes comically.“It was yucky!I don’t like boats.”The young prince covered his mouth and puffed out his cheeks, managing a credible imitation of seasickness.

Allyn chuckled.“I can remember my first few times on a ship – the scenery was all water!”He winked and stood up, taking Syrelle’s hand in his and pressing a gentle kiss to the palm.“My lady,” he murmured.

“Allyn, not now!” she hissed softly.“They’re going to want to meet you soon.”Smoothing her hand on her dress, she frowned.“You look very scruffy.Why didn’t you shave?” she added hurriedly.

“Master Azhani asked me not to, remember?” he whispered back, his hard earned self confidence fading, and leaving him to feel very much like a gangly boy who had just been caught lifting ladies skirts at the bazaar.

“Oh yeah, well, stand up straight and act like you always have a beard,” Syrelle hastily advised.

Suddenly, his face itched worse than before.It was just blind luck that Ysradan chose that moment to take his wife’s arm and head their way.Pasting a smile on his face, Allyn stepped up to greet them, nicely evading Syrelle’s poking fingers.

“Mother, Father, this is Prince Allyndev Kelani.He’s my friend,” she said shyly, looking sideways at Allyn before facing her parents.

The High King pumped Allyn’s hand.“Good to meet you young man, very good.Heard about how you made those black-robed bastards dance.Good show, lad, excellent.”Ysradan released Allyn’s hand and moved on before the Y’Syran prince had a chance to respond.

High Queen Dasia took a moment longer to embrace the half-elven prince.“Hello Allyn.I believe I knew your mother, Alynna.It is good to finally meet the man who my daughter fancies so well,” she said warmly.

“Thank you, your highness,” he mumbled, unable to think of anything else to say.

She smiled.“Come, Syrelle.Your father tires, and I find that I too would welcome the warmth of a fire and the comfort of a cushioned chair.”

Taking a firm hold of Allyn’s arm, Queen Dasia allowed her daughter to guide them toward Y’dannoch Castle.
%%%
There was a day of boring, sleep-inducing ceremonies, in which High King Ysradan confirmed Azhani’s pardon.The people were immediately happy to accept their beloved Warleader back, especially since the contents of Arris’ diaries had been made available to the public.In bars and taverns, the soldiers who had fought the Battle of Shield Mountain, as the day had become known, eagerly told tales of Azhani’s bravery.The stories spread faster than rumor, carried out into the countryside of Y’dan by the newly returned army.

Y’dannyv dug in and had itself a good party, celebrating the destruction of the final Ecarthan temple.Across the lake, the elven city of Y’Syria also celebrated the end of the Ecarthan nightmare.Queen Lyssera made ready to travel, to attend the confirmation of Y’dan’s new ruler.She arrived in the city two days after the High King, though she did not display the same panoply as Ysradan.
%%%
The council room was crowded and stuffy, though snow blanketed Y’dannyv.Azhani stifled a yawn and looked over at the day candle, counting the remaining lines.There were only three days until winter’s solstice and the warrior was deathly tired of the interminable meetings that Y’dan’s nobility demanded take place to determine who would take up the mantle of king.

Nervously, she doodled on a piece of old parchment, smiling slightly when Kyrian reached under the table and squeezed her knee.Having her lover by her side during the long sessions was the only thing that made them bearable.The stardancer leaned over and whispered, “How much longer, do you think?”

Listening to the latest round of arguments, Azhani rolled her eyes and whispered back, “Not too much, if I have anything to say about it.”

Lord Cathemon and his supporters were firmly rooted in the belief that Azhani should be given the crown of Y’dan while others wanted to have the High King choose from among his many distant relations.Any trace of royal blood was preferable to a woman who had been responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Y’dan’s citizens, even if she was a hero.

As far as Azhani was concerned, they could take their stupid crown and shove it.As the bickering came to a head, she realized it was time to act.Standing, she threw back her head and let out her distinctive war cry.As the echoes of the eerie howl died away, she looked around at the stunned crowd.

Once all eyes were firmly upon her, she put her hands on her hips and haughtily asked, “Did any of you idiots think to ask me what I wanted?Or would you even care if I told you that I don’t want your damned crown?”

Gasps flew around the room, and everyone looked at Ysradan.Kyrian was grinning and shaking her head, while the High King just shrugged.The discussion had gone on for candlemarks, and his royal posterior was very sore.Even a pillow couldn’t hide the fact that the Y’dani throne was as hard as a rock.The fact that it was carved out of a single block of granite might have something to do with that perception, but Ysradan wasn’t about to suggest such a thing to the tradition bound council.

To one side of him sat Queen Lyssera.The elven ruler had been invited as a courtesy as well as a concession that the former ruler had deeply wounded the Kelani family.Ysradan was determined that Arris’ terrible legacy would not be continued by whomever stepped up to claim the Y’dani crown.At his left, sat his wife, Dasia.The High Queen had quietly listened to the proceedings while her scribe took careful notes.At night, she and her husband would debate the merits of each of the Y’dani noble’s speeches.

In the gallery were King Padreg and Lady Elisira.Interested to see if their friend would accept the crown, they viewed the proceedings, but did not actively participate.They were just as shocked as everyone else when Azhani turned away from the honor.

Pacing around the room, Azhani stopped in front of a page.“Find Prince Allyndev and ask him to join us, would you please?” she said, smiling as the boy eagerly raced off.She turned to Ysradan.“My king, would you like to stand and stretch?I know that I relish the thought of moving around, after sitting for so long.”She directed her gaze to the councilors, willing them with her eyes to get up and stretch so that the High King wouldn’t feel self-conscious.

They got the message.Several of the council members immediately stood, stretching and yawning loudly.Ysradan hid a smile and pushed himself out of the uncomfortable throne.The warleader was wonderfully astute and he wondered what it would take to get her to come and work for him.He always had a need for alert people.

Dasia and Lyssera bent their heads together and began quietly talking.

Kyrian stood and walked over to her lover, wrapping her arms around the warleader’s stiff-muscled back.“You’re all in knots, Azhi.Relax.This will end,” she promised.

Holding the stardancer close, Azhani murmured, “Yes, I know.”She smiled enigmatically when Kyrian looked up, searching her face.
%%%
Allyndev Kelani wandered the halls of the castle, studying the paintings and tapestries that marked the different secret passageways.His friend Devon had been guiding him on a tour of the old keep, but had been called away to meet with the other spellcasters as they planned for the upcoming Winterfest celebration.

His beard no longer itched, which was a relief.Instead, the castle staff gave him the oddest looks and a few of the older nobles had stared at him long and hard before turning away and continuing on their way.Allyn was on his way to the kitchens to see if he could charm a snack from the cook, when Azhani’s page caught up to him.

“M’lord Allyndev, please, wait,” the boy cried out, racing pell-mell down the hall.

Allyn smiled, recalling his own days as a page for his aunt, Queen Lyssera.Stopping, he called out, “All right, lad, what is it?”

Puffing and panting, the boy slid to a halt in front of Allyn and sketched a hasty bow.“Warleader Azhani,” he wheezed several times, without success.

“Easy now, lad.Take your time.”The prince wondered if he would have to thump the boy on the back to get him to take a decent breath.Gratefully, the page took several deep, calming breaths.

“It’s the warleader, sir,” the boy said once he could breathe again.“She’s asked for you to join the council.It’s this way,” he added, turning to head back to the large room where the grand council was meeting.

“Hold up there, lad.Let’s stop by the kitchens first.I’ve got a sudden desire to say hello to the cook,” he said, winking at the page, whose response was a wide, excited grin.
%%%
The council chamber fell silent when Allyndev entered.Milling council members had grouped off in twos and threes during the break, and now they turned to look at the intruder.Walking with sure, firm strides, the prince made his way through the room.The young man was dressed in simple, yet elegantly tailored tunic and breeches.

Sharing a proud smile, Azhani and Lyssera were pleased with the young man that now stood before them, each remembering the half-grown boy that had been given into the warleader’s care.Months of hard work in the sun had hardened youthful muscles and tanned pale skin to a golden brown.The fullness of boyhood had given way to the fine, narrow features of his elven ancestry.Though a beard now shadowed his face, Allyn was still strikingly handsome.Pale blonde braids loosely framed a pair of bright green eyes, that in spite of everything he had seen, regarded the world as a wonderful place.

Stopping first to bow to his queen, he then presented himself to his mentor.Respectfully, he smiled at his teacher, then bowed deeply.

Azhani smiled back and said, “Glad you could make it.”

The smile stretched into a full grin.“I was hungry so I stopped to grab a quick bite to eat.I hope I didn’t keep you waiting long?”

Kyrian chuckled.“Allyn, you’re as bad as Beshyra – always thinking with your stomach.”The kitten in question was curled up on her lap, sleeping peacefully

Since the councilors had just finished a light snack themselves – one surprisingly delivered by the kitchens, though it had not been requested, Azhani was not angry.

“No, not too long.It was brilliant of you to feed us, though.Now maybe Lord Jaffes won’t look quite so bored.”Azhani nodded toward a man whose gaunt, nearly skeletal face belied his deep and abiding interest in the pile of snacks that he was slowly devouring.

“You’re welcome.I remember how devastated the kitchens looked after the last council session.I thought I might get in a pre-emptive strike and give the cook a chance to prepare something more filling for later,” Allyn said.He tucked his hands behind his back and looked curiously at her.“So, what did you need, anyway?”

Azhani’s face suddenly became very serious.“Do you trust me, Allyndev?”

The prince’s eyebrows rose in surprise. When Azhani took that tone with him, he knew something heavy was coming.“Yes, I do, Master Azhani.I’ve never trusted anyone in my life more than I trust you,” he said sincerely.

The warleader nodded.“All right.Sit down and listen. Try not to act too surprised because I’m about to tweak a few Y’dani noses.”She winked mischievously and then added, ”Oh, and Allyn?”

“Yes, Master Azhani?”The young man was half way between sitting and standing.He stood up again, waiting for the warleader to speak.

“Stop calling me that, will you?You make me feel like an old woman.My name is Azhani.Use it,” she mock growled at him.“Now, sit.”

“Yes, Ma-Azhani,” he swallowed, nearly stumbling over his chair in his haste to find the seat.Azhani… He looked over at his mentor, awestruck.She’s giving me the right to use her name.Honored by this gift, he sat, waiting patiently for the meeting to begin.On light feet, the memory of the first day he had met the remarkable woman beside him snuck up and tapped him on the shoulder.
Sweat poured off his neck as he knelt, weeding the base of the Father tree.The massive oak was the cornerstone of the entire Oakheart complex.Strangle vines were wrapped tightly around one of the tree’s smaller roots and he was viciously attacking them with a hatchet, taking large, sticky green chunks out with each stroke.

It was backbreaking labor, but Allyn loved it.He enjoyed the sense of peace he felt when he was mucking about the wildlands, helping things to grow.Recently, he had begun to work with the Gardeners guild.The men and women who were specially trained to protect and care for Oakheart Manor, the city of Y’Syria, and its environs, had welcomed him despite his half-blooded heritage .He felt proud to be a part of such a noble enterprise and hoped that one day, he would be allowed to work in the boughs high above, pruning leaves and maybe, someday, singing the rooms into being.His grandfather was a stardancer and perhaps enough of the Astariu’s gift had passed through the generations to grant him that honor.

“Allyn,” a voice interrupted his work.Glancing up, he saw his aunt, Queen Lyssera, approach with a tall, intimidating woman walking behind her.He blinked and used a cloth to wipe his face and hands.He had never seen the woman before, but she was clearly half-elven.Taller than his generous six-foot height, with dark, almost black skin and piercing blue eyes, the woman wore a plain green tunic and dark brown leather breeches.A sword was casually slung from her belt and she walked with the simple grace of one who was intimate with the dance of battle.Her sharp, hawk-like features were expressionless as she sized him up with the appraising eye of one who was about to buy a horse.

The young prince sketched a quick bow, “My queen, I am honored by your company,” he said warmly.Aunt Lyss was one of his favorite people in the whole world.She had raised him since he was a baby, because his mother, Alynna, had died giving birth to him.He never knew his father, but Lyssera tried to make sure he knew the love of at least one parent.

Lyssera briefly hugged her nephew and then turned to the woman who was with her.“This is the boy I told you about, Azhani.He is to be your student.Allyndev, this is Master Azhani Rhu’len.She will hopefully be able to instill in you some sense of how to defend yourself.”

The warrior nodded, giving him one last, dismissive look and said, “All right.Meet me in the salle at dawn, boy, and don’t be late.”She turned to go.

Angered by her attitude, he sullenly replied, “Yes, Azhani.”The name sounded familiar, and he knew he would spend much of his free time for the rest of the day, talking to friends about her.

Suddenly, he was thrust against the tree, his hatchet ripped from his hands, and the blade pressed perilously close to his throat.“Master Azhani, boy.Always remember, I hold your life in my hands – until you can stand with me on the field of battle and walk away, you will call me Master Azhani.”

Ever since that day, he had always been careful to call her Master Azhani, because he never wanted another lesson like the one he had gotten that first morning.
“Woolgathering, boy?” a voice interrupted him.

“What? Oh, no sir,” he sat at full attention as High King Ysradan chuckled and took his seat on the granite throne of Y’dan.Queen Lyssera looked over at her nephew and winked, while Queen Dasia smiled serenely, waiting for the council session to begin again.

The half-elven prince took a breath and tried to relax.

Kyrian leaned over and whispered to Azhani, “Allyn couldn’t have been more surprised if you’d smacked him with a dead fish, Azhi.What’s up?”

Azhani patted Kyrian’s leg.“Just wait.You’ll see.”She winked, causing the stardancer to roll her eyes and sigh in exasperation.

“All right ladies and gentlemen, let’s try to be brief.The respite was nice, but I’ve got to admit that my backside can’t take too much more of this chair.Warleader Azhani, I do believe you had something to tell us?” Ysradan said, looking over at the coolly relaxed warrior.

Azhani stood and walked down to the center of the room, knowing that all eyes were on her.She drew in a long, cleansing breath, washing away the faint, ghostly memory of Ylera’s body lying crumpled at her feet.The rug was new, but the table where she had flung down Theodan’s proclamation, was still there, and if she looked closely, she could imagine she saw blood dripping down the carved wooden leg… Firming her jaw, Azhani lifted her gaze away from the scarred table leg and up into the beautiful green eyes of her beloved.Kyrian smiled gently and mouthed, “I love you.”Don’t look, Azhi, it’s the past.Buried and mourned.You have a future waiting outside that door that belongs to you and Kyrian.

“Ladies and Gentlemen, I have a story to tell you,” she began, her deep, even voice spreading out over the room like a warm blanket.“Twenty years ago, I was just a child, living here in the palace and serving some of your predecessors as a page.My father, Rhu’len DaCoure, served his majesty Theodan as a sort of jack-of-all-trades.When something needed doing, the king knew my dad would perform that task without question.

King Theodan was a man of peace, living in a time of strife.Between the northern barbarians, the Killigarni pirates and the skirmishes of human and elf, this land was constantly at war.Theodan wanted that to change.With his friend Ysradan’s help, they drove off the Killigarni pirates, freeing our shores for trade.

Theodan’s next goal was to end the ongoing troubles between the kingdoms of Y’dan and Y’Syr.There had been distrust between the races since First Landing, and Theodan felt that it was time to end that chapter in our history.Queen Lyssera of Y’Syr agreed with him and allowed him to send a delegation into the elven capitol city of Y’Syria.

Y’dani citizens had not been inside Oakheart Manor for many centuries when my father met with Lyssera, and I am sure that he met much resistance from her people.My father was a gentle man, though, and his kindness, his politeness and his utter sincerity must have made an impression, because the queen invited him back.

When my father returned, King Theodan was pleased, and he made the decision that he would go with my father the next time he visited Y’Syria.I remember that trip, ladies and gentlemen.My father felt that it would be showing the utmost faith in the Y’Syrans, by taking me to their beautiful city.

What wonders I saw.I, who had known only the mountain cabin of my father, or the bustling streets of Y’dannyv, now frolicked with elven children in the boughs of their ancient tree homes.It was a magical time – one I cherish deeply.”Azhani looked at Ysradan and smiled sadly.“King Theodan had yet to wed and had no heirs.He was a fair-faced man, though, and my own memory of him carries the impression of a strong, and inspiring personality.I am not surprised that he caught the eye of a woman of Lyssera’s court.”

There was an audible inhalation of breath and Kyrian was nodding as if suddenly understanding everything.

Azhani let the tension in the room grow, and then continued.“This woman was as fine a person as any one of you would have admired, but for one thing:she was elven.”Her eyes pinned the older councilors.They had the grace to look away as she went on.“The lady knew that their love was doomed, so, though it tore her soul to pieces, she sent Theodan away, telling him she did not love him.He left, heartbroken, and returned to Y’dan.

His dream of peace did not die, however, and he worked tirelessly for years to convince the border lords to stop raiding elven lands.He put rewards out for those caught poaching in Y’Syr’s forests and he encouraged trade between our two kingdoms.We flourish today because of his efforts.

Two years later, Theodan met and married Queen Siobhan.We all loved her.Kind, generous, loving and full of life was our Siobhan.How much did we all weep when she drowned in that sudden squall on Banner Lake?Young Arris was only eight, and Theodan, his heart broken for a second time, threw himself into his work.

By then, I was serving with Theodan’s army.The barbarians and the demons were turning our northern borders into a zone of death.It was then that Theodan took up his arms and led us north, to the Ystarfe Pass and into the barbarians’ territory.

We fought.For an entire summer, we chased the barbarians through our mountains until they threw down their arms and begged for peace.Satisfied, Theodan took us home.Arris, now in the care of the scholar Porthyros, grew.I became Warleader.”She turned now, and looked at Allyndev.

“And you, young prince, you aged as well.You were learning your letters and your numbers and you learned to love the earth and its growing things.You felt drawn to the stars whirling in the heavens above, but the pull wasn’t so strong that Astariu’s seekers came for you, nor did Astarus’ seers ask you to join their hallowed halls.You learned to love the memories of your mother, Alynna Kelani, that your aunt, Queen Lyssera gave you.

But you never learned of your father, Theodan, Peacemaker of Y’dan.My story has been for you, Prince Allyndev Kelani, son of Theodan.Ladies and Gentlemen, my lord High King, I do not want the legacy of Y’dan’s throne.King Theodan willed it to me, but I say, had he known of this son, he would have joyfully given him the crown.”

The silence of the room was stifling.Allyn felt the walls pressing against him as if they were trying to force him from his seat.My father… King Theodan?He looked around the room, scanning faces, searching the walls and tapestries for hidden answers.

The councilors looked back.They studied Allyndev intently, seeking those same answers in his face.High King Ysradan stood and slowly approached the half-elven prince.

“Stand up, boy, and let me look at you,” he said hoarsely, his eyes full of tears.

Slowly, as if fighting his way up through water, Allyn stood.

Ysradan circled him, finally coming to a stop in front of him.Reaching out, he took Allyn’s face in his hands and turned it toward the lantern light.

“Astarus’ blood, but she’s right,” the High King whispered.“His look is strong in you, lad.Especially with the beard – Theo never could remember to shave.”Suddenly, the older man grabbed the young prince and pulled him into a long, hard embrace.

The hug reached through the cotton that had wadded around Allyn’s consciousness and he clung to Ysradan, weeping openly.He had a father!He was not just the product of some casual affair or the shameful result of an act of rape.His father was noble, and kind, and wise and all the things he had only dared to wish for when he was a boy.

“Ah gods, Theo, life is cruel,” Ysradan murmured, missing his friend all over again.He released Allyndev and walked over to Queen Lyssera.Hope and fear wrestled on his careworn face.“My lady – my friend, is it true?Is Allyndev Theodan’s son?”

Smiling sadly, Lyssera nodded.“Yes, my King, it is.Alynna confided the story to me before she died, and Starseeker Vashyra has verified the claim.”

“Thank you, Lyss,” he said calmly.Ysradan looked at his wife, noticing the tears that dampened the bandages around her eyes.Taking her hand and drawing her up beside him, he announced, “The word of a starseeker is more than enough proof for us.”Facing Allyn as well as the councilors, he proclaimed, “I, Ysradan Ymarych, High King of Y’myran, do hereby accept Prince Allyndev Kelani as the right and true heir of Theodan.Y’dan’s throne lies empty, young prince, will you take it?”

It was happening way too fast.Allyndev stared at the portrait of his father, trying to imagine what it would have been like to grow up seeing his parents together.He would give anything to have one memory of his mother and father holding him, or to hear his name spoken by the man who had given him life.

Azhani walked up to her protégé and put her hand on his shoulder.“Go on,” she said, giving him a slight push toward the throne.“He would have been so proud to see you on it.”

Stumbling blindly, Allyn forcibly put one foot in front of the other until he stood before the carved granite throne.He turned and looked at Ysradan, who only smiled.

“Go on lad, it’s yours.It’s not the coziest place in the room to sit, but she’ll support you whenever you need it.”Ysradan and Dasia stepped aside, leaving Allyndev to stand alone in front of the massive throne.

“Aunt Lyss…” he whispered, looking at the woman who had raised him.Rising, the Y’Syran queen went to her nephew and cupped his cheeks.

“Your mother…” Lyssera drew a shuddering breath and searched Allyn’s face.What she saw made her smile.“Alynna would have shoved you into that chair so hard that your backside would have hurt for weeks, Allyndev.Make her proud; make us all proud.”The queen stretched up on tiptoes and kissed his cheek, whispering, “I believe in you, Allyn.”

Lyssera let Allyn go and joined Ysradan and Dasia.Allyndev turned and looked out at the council chamber.Everyone had stood and were now looking at the young man expectantly.Valdyss Cathemon had come down to the chamber floor and now walked up to Allyn and knelt.

Looking up at the young man, the merchant said simply, “My king, your throne awaits.”

The other council members came to the floor, all kneeling, looking up at Allyn expectantly.Azhani and Kyrian, hand in hand, also walked down to the floor.Together, they knelt.Even Padreg and Elisira came down to kneel before Allyn.

Allyndev Kelani, King of Y’dan, sat on his throne.
%%%
Pages scurried through the castle.A coronation and a wedding were being hurriedly planned, both events to take place on the same day.Starseeker Vashyra, as the ranking member of Astariu’s church, graciously agreed to perform both ceremonies.

Sitting in their room, gratefully avoiding the mass of people filling the streets below, were Kyrian and Azhani.The two women had happily withdrawn from the chaos of the city and were snuggled up in front of the fire, watching it burn.

“What next?” Kyrian asked, turning over and staring into her lover’s dark blue eyes.

Azhani leaned in, kissed her and said, “I don’t know.We can go wherever you want, I suppose.I’ve already resigned as Warleader to both Y’dan and Y’Syr.”Neither Lyssera nor Allyndev had been particularly happy about relinquishing her services, but both had understood why the warrior wanted her freedom.“I’ve given too much of my life to others.Now it’s my turn.I want to be with you, Kyr, and I can’t do that and lead an army.”

The stardancer smiled and stroked the silver-toned mark on Azhani’s face.“I know, and I’m honored that you chose to be with me.”

“What was there to choose?I am with you.That is all that is necessary,” Azhani said, as she stole another kiss.

Beshyra padded up and let out a tiny mew, butting her head against Kyrian’s feet.The stardancer sat up and scooped up the rapidly growing cat.“Oof, you know, I’m not going to be able to do this much longer,” she warned the kitten while cuddling her close.

Azhani reached out and stroked the soft, gray fur of the cat’s back.“She’ll keep coming back as long as you keep picking her up, love,” the warrior warned.

Beshyra’s purr vibrated along her entire body.She and Azhani had come to a grudging understanding.The cat would not try to ventilate the warrior’s body and Azhani wouldn’t attempt to hurl her off the balcony.Now the half-elf and the cat got along perfectly.

“I know, but she’s so soft and she loves this so much,” Kyrian said wistfully, continuing to scratch the kitten’s ears.

Azhani chuckled.“I can certainly see why.There’s no place I’d rather be than held in your arms, being stroked lovingly.”

Kyrian cocked an eyebrow and said, “Is that a proposition, Azhi?Because if it is, too bad.We promised Vashyra that we would be good until tomorrow morning.”

The warrior looked down at the rug.Grumbling, she said, “I can try, can’t I?”

Putting the kitten down, Kyrian reached out and tweaked the warrior’s nose.“Yes, you can, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to let you get away with it.”

Azhani captured Kyrian’s fingers in her hand and kissed the tips.“Are you sure?” she purred, nibbling on the digits tortuously.

Drawing in a ragged breath of air, Kyrian pulled her hand away and firmly said, “Yes, I’m sure.”

“Rats,” Azhani said, though she was smiling.

Kyrian lay back down, snuggling up to her lover’s side.Azhani tucked an arm over Kyrian and cuddled her close.In moments, they were asleep.Beshyra climbed up and draped herself over both of her people, closed her eyes and started purring contentedly.

Snowflakes painted the windows as the small family slept peacefully, basking in the heat of the fire.
%%%
“Good morning, citizens of Y’dan.”Starseeker Vashyra spoke softly, but powerfully.The tall priest’s voice carried out into the crowd, easily catching everyone’s attention.Striding across the hastily built stage, Vashyra held her head high and looked out at the assembly.Y’dannyv’s streets were crammed with people.

Men, women and children had swollen the city’s population until it nearly burst.Now, on this chilly, wet morning of Winter Solstice, they were jammed dozens deep, waiting to see their new king.Nearby buildings were decorated with throngs of people who clung to awnings and stood on rooftops.Windows and doorways were jammed until their frames cracked.

Allyndev’s soldiers kept the peace as best as they were able, but the army was outnumbered three to one.Even the docks were full.Boats and people piled up until the wooden structures groaned under their weight.

“Today, is a day of celebrations,” Vashyra began, schooling her face to serenity.“You, who have suffered much at the hands of darkness, are now free to walk in the light.Today is a day of remembrance, as we mourn those whose lives fell into shadow.Let us both celebrate and remember those we loved, for their lives enriched each of us immeasurably.”

Vashyra bowed her head.Kyrian, leading the other stardancers, walked onto the stage, singing the Rite of Passing.The song was to comfort the departed and remind them that they were loved.
“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.”
At the end of the song, Vashyra read a list of the dead.She started with Ylera Kelani, and continued until the last name echoed through the city.The sun was setting when the priest, whose voice had grown hoarse, looked up and out into the crowd.Very few eyes were dry.“And finally, let us remember Arris, son of Theodan, whose life on this earth was short and filled with pain.May he find peace in the arms of the gods.”

“Peace!” the crowd cried back thunderously.

“Now,” Vashyra said, after having a sip of soothing tea.“Let us celebrate.You are kingless no more.”The priest turned and looked at Allyndev, who had sat through the entire ritual, hidden behind several well-armed guards.“Rise and approach, your majesty.Let your people greet you, Allyndev Kelani, King of Y’dan!”

Allyn stepped up and slowly climbed onto the platform.

“Allyndev, Prince of the House Kelani, you are recognized as the rightful and true ruler of this land.Do you solemnly swear to keep and defend her, protecting her from all that would rise against the people that love her?” Vashyra asked, taking Allyn’s hand and placing it over her heart.

“I do,” Allyn said clearly.

“Do you promise to promote law, encourage commerce and provide heirs to the throne?”

“I do.”

“Then Allyndev, of the House Kelani, I bless you in the name of Astariu and call you my King,” Vashyra said, dropping the young man’s hand and kneeling before him.

An acolyte offered a pillow upon which rested a coronet.Vashyra took the crown and stood.“Will you kneel before me, my king, that I may act as the hand of Astariu and crown you before the eyes of your people?”

“I will.”Allyndev knelt, looking up at Vashyra nervously.The priest flashed him a smile.

“Your humility honors us all, my King,” the priest said, placing the crown upon his head.“Rise and greet your people, your majesty.”

Allyn stood and turned to face the crowd.

The Y’dani herald stepped forward, took a deep breath and announced, “All hail King Allyndev.Long live the King!Hip-hip-“

“Huzzah!” the crowd cheered.Fists, swords, caps, even children were hoisted high into the air, celebrating their new monarch.Many of those in the crowd knew their king from the days he had spent rooting out the evil priests who had turned their lives upside down.He was a hero to them and they loved him already.

Allyndev let them cheer for a while and then held his hands up for quiet.Slowly, the crowd calmed.

“My friends, my people, I am honored by your welcome.Thank you.I know that it is late, and you have all stood here for so long, but let me ask you to stand just a while longer.”He began striding back and forth over the stage, making eye contact with as many people as he could.His voice was strong and calm, and his smile lit up his face.“As you know, today is the Winter Solstice.Autumn’s harvest has left the land, allowing her to sleep.Today is usually a day of festivals and games, of presents and family.It is also the day when those men and women who offer their lives to guard the land come home to marry.Though she no longer serves Us, I can think of no greater way to offer Our thanks to one who has sacrificed so much for this land, than to grant Azhani Rhu’len the traditional right to marry on this day.What say you?”

“Huzzah!” the crowd cheered.They loved the warrior.She would always be their Warleader, especially now that her name had been cleared.

Grinning, Allyndev turned and looked over at Azhani.Dressed in her newly refurbished scale mail, with her midnight black hair freshly braided, the warrior cut a striking figure as she mounted the steps to the stage proper.

Kyrian, who was already on the stage, joined her.The stardancer was outfitted in a thick, crimson velvet robe.A saffron-colored silk belt was wrapped around her waist.From that was slung an ornately decorated sheath for her baton.A brightly polished Astariun token, a medallion of silver filigree that represented Y’myran’s twin gods, rested against her chest.

Azhani’s sword was slung on her back to keep it from smacking Kyrian in the hip as they walked across the stage to stand before Starseeker Vashyra and King Allyndev.Neither woman was particularly nervous.They had spent their night sleeping peacefully, knowing that whatever came, they would face it together.

Vashyra smiled and began to speak.“It is said that gods and destiny do not spin the wheel of fate lightly.So it behooves each of us to cherish the lives we intersect.Azhani, daughter of Rhu’len, you stand before me, asking for what boon?”

“I ask for nothing more than the right to walk the road of life by the side of my beloved, Stardancer Kyrian,” the warrior replied in a clear, deep voice.

Nodding, Vashyra then turned to face the stardancer and asked, “Kyrian, of Y’len temple, you stand before me, asking for what boon?”

“I ask for nothing more than to greet the sun’s rise each day by the side of my beloved, Azhani Rhu’len,” Kyrian replied, her voice high and pure, carrying easily across the crowds.

The starseeker reached out and joined Azhani and Kyrian’s hands, drawing them up until they were parallel to the ground.Wrapping a silver cord around their wrists, she said, “As the gods have willed, so I demonstrate for all to see.As this cord binds your hands, so have your lives entwined.Azhani and Kyrian, you stand here, watching the tapestry of your lives weave a future.Do you swear that you shall walk together, pledging to treat each other with humility, love and understanding?”

Bowing her head, Azhani said, “I do.”

“I do.”Kyrian echoed her.

“Then it is my honor to proclaim before gods and men that you, Azhani Rhu’len and you, Stardancer Kyrian, are joined as partners until death and beyond.”

Azhani turned, facing Kyrian.“My beloved.”She closed her eyes, seeing for just an instant, another face.Ylera’s amber and honey visage dissolved, replaced by the brilliant fire that was her Kyrian.Azhani opened her eyes and said, “Your friendship has been my greatest gift.Your strength and faith in me have been the cornerstone to my soul.Because of you, I am alive.I look toward tomorrow, knowing that I am not alone.I love you, and the stars blazing in the heavens will die before my love for you fades.”

Kyrian’s face was wet with tears.“My beloved,” the stardancer said, drawing their bound hands together and brushing her lips over Azhani’s knuckles.“You are the best friend I have.Your belief in me, gave me courage to stand and face the storm.Because of you, I will no longer fear the unknown.Now, I greet each day eagerly, knowing you are there beside me.I love you, and all the mountains in all the lands will be dust before my love for you fades.”

Stepping toward each other simultaneously, Azhani and Kyrian put their heads together, smiling shyly.Kyrian slowly tilted her head up, closing her eyes.Just as slowly, Azhani tilted her head down, her eyes fluttering shut as their lips brushed.

The stardancer’s tongue darted out, tasting her lover’s mouth, and Azhani moaned softly as she pressed into the kiss, deepening it.The world around the lovers melted away, leaving only the sweetness of their embrace.

The crowd went wild.The silver cord slipped from their hands as they reached for each other, continuing to kiss.Kyrian’s fingers found Azhani’s braids, twining within the mass easily.Azhani cupped the back of Kyrian’s head, leisurely stroking the skin at the nape of the stardancer’s neck.When they parted, it was only because Vashyra had softly cleared her throat.

Sheepishly, the two women grinned.

Vashyra smiled back and held out two intricately formed silver bracelets.“These tokens shall represent the cord, which you shall carry with you until the end of your days.”She offered one to the warrior and one to the stardancer.“Wear them and remember this day and the promises made.”

Solemnly, Azhani slid the bracelet on Kyrian’s wrist and then allowed Kyrian to do the same for her.

The herald, prodded awake by the king, coughed and said, “To Azhani and Kyrian.May they be eternally happy.Hip-hip-“

“Huzzah!”
%%%
The city of Y’dannyv partied for days.Snow came and went and the city was still in the throes of celebration.High King Ysradan and his family left for Y’mar while Queen Lyssera returned to Y’Syr.King Allyndev settled into the task of learning how to be a good ruler.With able advisors like Valdyss Cathemon by his side, he quickly absorbed the best ways to handle the most truculent of his people.

Azhani and Kyrian agreed to stay in Y’dan until the spring, when they would then journey to Y’mar, to visit the sea.From there, their plans were open.

It was late evening, and the newlyweds were sharing a meal with their friends.Padreg and Elisira were scheduled to sail back to Y’Nor the next day, taking what remained of Padreg’s men with them.Devon and the hunting cat Avisha were joining them, so that he could continue his studies in mage craft.Also in the party was Princess Syrelle.The young Y’maran planned to finish her fostering and then return to Y’dan.Allyndev would meet her half way across Banner Lake and bring her back to Y’dannyv, where they would marry.

On the summer solstice, Padreg and Elisira would stand before the clans and pledge their troth.They invited everyone to attend, and Azhani and Kyrian immediately agreed to be there.Allyn and Syrelle were fast on their heels, assuring the Y’Norans that their day would be filled with friends and loved ones.

“We wouldn’t miss it,” Kyrian said, laughing at Avisha and Beshyra’s antics.The two cats, mother and daughter, were stalking a “mouse” that Azhani had cleverly crafted out of scraps of leather and fur.Beshyra pounced on the mouse, letting out a tiny yowl of frustration when it “leaped” away from her, drawn across the floor by a thin piece of twine attached to it.

Elisira looked at her friends and said, “I am so happy for you two.The ceremony was so,” she sighed wistfully.“I can’t wait for ours.”She glanced over at Padreg lovingly.

Allyndev laughed.“Oh boy, cousin, you’d better start running now.Cook tells me that Eli was the reason why there were five different kinds of honey cakes for the reception.”

Affecting an outraged expression, Elisira touched her chest and said, “A girl’s got to have options, you know.Honestly, your majesty, how could you expect me to just eat honey walnut cakes?Why, I might want honey oat instead!”

Everyone chuckled appreciatively.

“If you think that’s bad, Allyn, just wait until you see the menu for our feast,” Syrelle said, grinning wickedly.

Feigning fear, the king ducked behind Devon and loudly whispered, “Save me, oh worthy mage, protect me from the evil menu toting beasts!”

Licking his fingers of the crumbs from his dessert, Devon burped and said, “Sorry, your maj – no can do.I like food way too much to get in the way of its production.”

The teasing went on late into the night until one by one, each of the companions said their good nights and made their way to bed.
~Epilogue~
Kyrian stood on the balcony overlooking the darkened courtyard, and sighed, thinking of all that had passed to bring her to this place.She thought of the men and women whose lives had been lost along the way.She thought of poor, drug-maddened Arris, and wondered how different life would have been if Porthyros Omal had never come into his life.A strong, northern wind skated across the city, ruffling the stardancer’s hair and sending a wave of chills over her thinly clad body.

Come on Kyr, get your butt back in bed with that gorgeous hunk of a partner you’ve got, and forget about all this stupid soul-searching, she quietly told herself, yet, she did not move.

Sleepless eyes continued to stare, seeking hidden meanings to the sound and shadow of the darkness.Too many had paid with their blood, so that she could stand here and look down upon the night-shadowed pennants that fluttered and snapped in the breeze.

She didn’t know how long it was that she stood, buffeted by the wind, but suddenly, a beautifully warm body was behind her, and two long arms were wrapped lovingly around her.

“Mm, what’re you doing, looking for owldragons?They don’t fly in the city,” Azhani murmured sleepily, nuzzling the side of Kyrian’s head gently.

Kyrian exhaled deeply, almost chuckling.“No,” she whispered, not quite willing to put her thoughts into words.

Azhani’s hands slipped up under Kyrian’s light silk robe and began to slowly chafe the stardancer’s nipples.“Oh?Then what is it?”

Kyrian’s response was a staggered groan as she leaned into her lover’s caress.Azhani’s touch grew heated, her fingertips gliding from breast to hips and back.Head falling forward, Kyrian moaned loudly.All her dark thoughts melted away at the tender touch of her beloved.

Seizing her opportunity, Azhani quickly began covering her lover’s bared neck with kisses until finally, Kyrian spun around and fiercely whispered, “Love me.”

Blue eyes, glittering with desire, gazed into uncertain green eyes.Azhani grinned joyfully, replying, “Every day, for the rest of my life.”

Kyrian let out a soft sob and stepped into Azhani’s kiss, nearly bowling the warrior over with the force of her embrace.Staggering backward, Azhani cradled Kyrian against her, returning her kiss eagerly and trying to guide them safely to their bed.

When dawn’s golden fingers painted across the harbor, nudging the sleeping city to wakefulness, the two women, curled tightly around each other, slept on, their dreams filled with the gentleness of loving peace.

 

fin
If you want to see more of sHaYcH’s writings visit Shay’s Playground 

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