Disclaimer: None. Mine. : )
This is not a buddy flick. These women are friends, yes, but at some point, they will be more than that.
Love it? Hate it? Think I fell asleep during English class? Razz the Writer: firstname.lastname@example.org.
There are so many people who deserve my thanks - I couldn’t do them justice. The goddess knows who you are, though, so bless you.
Leaning heavily on makeshift crutches, a stooped, rag-covered figure slowly shuffled down the road. Thick, muddy snow hindered the traveler’s progress as she struggled to drag her splinted right leg through the slurry. Sleet fell lightly, mixing with the road dirt, creating a morass of slippery mud that caused the transient to fight for every step. Muffled curses could be heard peppering the air each time she had to stop and pull her useless leg out of a puddle. The warning sound of hoof beats came almost too late.
Azhani Rhu’len cursed the rider’s ancestry and flung herself into a mound of snow that bordered the road. Pushing greasy strands of black hair away from her face, the drifter watched the horse pass. At the sight of the horse’s riders, her dark blue eyes narrowed in surprised anger.
In one hand, a darkly cloaked man clutched the reins of the horse. The other arm was wrapped tightly about the unconscious, scarlet robed body of a woman. The rich crimson color of the velvet robes, coupled with a flash of teardrop shaped tattoos on a pale, bruised face, told Azhani that the man had just broken kingdom law. Frustrated by her injury, the former soldier pushed herself up, considering her options.
Once the warleader of the kingdom of Y’dan, Azhani was now an exile and although she no longer served a king, her oaths of loyalty to the people were still locked deep in her heart. The warrior could not allow the rider to succeed in his crime, not when she still had two functional arms. Sparing a prayer to the goddess, she tossed one of her makeshift crutches aside and stripped the other down, revealing a fine, ash longbow. Layers of rags were hastily shifted aside, uncovering a small quiver of steel-tipped arrows.
Azhani took a deep breath and plunged into the thicket at the side of the road, praying that she remembered the pathways correctly. It had been many years since she had traveled its green depths, but if her memory served, there was a shortcut just behind the stand of trees on her left. Ignoring the pain that ignited as soon as she put pressure on her bad leg, the warrior loped across the snow-covered ground. Within minutes, she broke free of the forest, ahead of the horseman, but not by much.
It took only heartbeats to string her bow and nock an arrow. Quietly, she waited, breathing shallowly to control the agony shooting up her leg in fiery waves. They were close; she could feel the thud of the horse’s hooves in the balls of her feet. One breath, two, and then the stale, acrid stench of sweat tickled her nostrils.
Rounding the bend in the road at a gallop, the horse thundered past the spot where Azhani was hidden. The rider cracked a stick against the animal’s heaving flanks, attempting to inspire even more speed. Sweat mottled the light brown hide and the horse’s eyes were starting to roll in panic. When the rider turned his head, scanning the road behind him, Azhani made her move.
A single arrow hissed through the air, striking the man in the shoulder with enough force to knock him and his hostage off the horse. The animal reared, screaming in fear, and then galloped off down the road. Azhani ignored it, hobbling up to the man with another arrow readied in her bow. Struggling to sit, the man cursed loudly and reached for the arrow that had knocked him from his mount. Not far away from him, his victim lay in the dirt, moaning softly.
“Don’t move, lawbreaker!” Azhani said evenly. The irony of the situation did not escape the exiled soldier as she calmly watched the kidnapper.
Hearing her voice, the man looked up and swore vehemently. Five feet away, the rag-covered, bow wielding figure looked more like a crazed wild woman than a serious warrior. Yet her aim had been perfect, stopping his flight with one shot. Anger twisted his features and he started to reach for his dagger.
As soon as she saw his face, Azhani growled. Branded deeply into his left cheek was the mark of the Cabal. Long nurtured hate for the clan of villains, murderers and thieves bubbled up inside the warrior. When he went for his weapon, she loosed the second arrow, pinning his other shoulder to the ground. With a wild shout, Azhani twisted the bow around, smashing it into the kidnapper’s knees. The sickening crunch of bone, followed by the tortured scream of pain was music to her ears.
Placing the tip of the bow against his temple, she angrily demanded, “Who are you, lawbreaker? Why have you harmed one of Astariu’s chosen?”
Hate-filled brown eyes looked up into hers and he smiled mirthlessly. “Dance in hell, bitch.” Dark red blood bubbled up and spilled over his lips. His eyelids fluttered shut and he went limp.
“Shit!” Azhani cursed, dropping her bow aside and reaching for his hand. She was too late. The thick, golden band of a ring glittered menacingly. Tugging it off with a curse, the warrior was not surprised to see several tiny, poison coated needles lining the inside of the ring.
Anger suffused the warrior and she kicked the body. The pain was like a blast of icy water in the face, and she collapsed, whimpering brokenly. Fresh blood seeped through the rags binding her leg, staining the snow. Black spots obscured her vision as she panted, trying to will the pain away.
“Gods fucking damned mace carrying wet nosed excuses for pathetic soldiers!” she shouted at the uncaring trees. She forced herself to roll over, pounding the ground with a fist as fresh pain brought tears to her eyes. Looking over at the priest, she was heartened to see that the woman was still breathing.
Azhani gritted her teeth and slowly, one inch at a time, crawled over to the body of the kidnapper. Ruthlessly, she searched his body, hoping for anything that would explain why he had broken the kingdom’s oldest laws by harming a woman deemed sacrosanct by noble and peasant alike.
Finding nothing but a bag of mixed coins, a vial of poison and two knives, one of which was the wicked, hook-bladed dagger that was the trademark of a Cabal assassin, the warrior then pulled her arrows free and stowed them back in their quiver. Leaving the poison, she stowed the pouch of gold away under her rags.
Using the body as a lever, Azhani stood up and started to shuffle toward the softly groaning stardancer. Even though the kidnapper’s clothes were cleaner than hers, nothing in creation would convince her to don the garb of a Cabal. She had no desire to come under the scrutiny of the dark gods who favored those who slunk in the shadows and preyed upon society. That baleful gaze had already wreaked too much pain and havoc in her life.
A soft whicker from behind caused the warrior to slowly turn. The horse had returned and was standing only a few feet away, sides heaving from exertion. Slowly, carefully, Azhani began to cluck her tongue, limping toward him and speaking softly while reaching out for the horse’s bridle.
“That’s a good lad,” she whispered. Her hands came into contact with the slick leather and she reached up, scratching his head. Nodding in pleasure, the horse let out a happy sigh. The tack bore the starburst markings of Astariu’s Healer aspect. Surmising that the animal must belong to the unconscious priest, she gave him one last pat and looked over at the unconscious heap of scarlet velvet and sighed.
“All right lad, let’s see if you were trained properly,” she said warmly. “Support.” The horse immediately lowered his head, making it easy to grasp his mane tightly. “Slow,” she cautioned, and took a step forward, toward the stardancer. In this manner, she crossed the road to the fallen woman. Upon reaching the unconscious priest, the warrior calmly said, “Kneel.” The horse went down on its front legs, waiting for the warrior’s next command. “Steady,” she said, and steeled herself against the torture she knew was coming. As carefully as she was able, the warrior lifted the dead weight of the stardancer’s body to the horse’s back.
Before the pain could overwhelm her, Azhani dragged herself up behind the priest. The horse easily stood as Azhani wrapped her arms around the young woman, holding her close to prevent her from toppling over. The priest’s head lolled to the side, revealing a youthful face. Alabaster pale skin covered an archly angular bone structure. A mottled, dark purple bruise shadowed the edge of her jaw, causing the warrior to wince in sympathy. Thick, wavy amber-colored curls framed the woman’s delicate features and brushed the tops of her shoulders. Tiny, graceful points topped her ears, proclaiming her half-elven heritage. She’s beautiful, the warrior thought as she juggled the priest around until she was safely tucked against her body.
Nearly blacking out from nauseating pain, the warrior fought off a wave of dizziness. When she could finally see, she took the reins tightly and directed the horse onto the road.
Kyrian fought her way to consciousness slowly. Her first impression was of warmth, then movement and finally, the odd coppery tang of blood. Shaking her head to try and rid it of the foggy, cottony sensation that kept her from comprehending her surroundings, the stardancer groaned. Her mouth was coated with a sharp-tasting slime and her head felt as though she had been drinking for a week.
Astariu, remind me not to drink the ale in Brenton again, she thought muzzily, bringing up a hand to scrub at her face. Then it hit her. She was on horseback, but she wasn’t the one holding the reins.
“What the?” she muttered, reaching for her weapon. The two foot long length of tempered steel still rode at her hip, carefully stowed in its dark leather sheath.
“Easy,” a deep, rumbling voice said from behind her, while a large, calloused hand covered hers.
Kyrian whipped her head around, meeting the hooded face of a dirty, rag-covered woman. Tightening her grip around her weapon, she demanded, “Who are you and what are you doing on my horse?”
A quick smile flashed across Azhani’s grimy face. She’s got spunk, I’ll grant her that. Not many people out there would take that tone with me. Azhani dropped the reins into the startled hands of the stardancer and then threw her bow down on the snowy ground.
Sliding off the animal’s back, the warrior nearly bit through her lip when her legs hit the ground. Grabbing for the support of a battered old fence, Azhani took several deep breaths, hoping the starbursts in her eyes would clear quickly. Home. She had ridden the horse, cuddling the unconscious priest against her until they had reached the gates of a ramshackle, sprawling homestead.
A broken down wall of stone encircled the deserted property. The warrior breathed a prayer of thanks. She had hoped that no one had moved in, claiming the place as their own.
“Who are you?” Again, the stardancer spoke, pressing for an answer.
“I am no one, my lady.” Azhani sketched a curt bow and reached for her longbow. Grasping it tightly, she turned to hobble inside. “Thank you for the ride. May the goddess guide your journey.”
Totally confused, Kyrian cried out, “Wait!” Letting go of the hilt of the baton, she said, “You’re injured – I’m a healer, let me help you.”
Azhani glanced over her shoulder at the pretty young woman. “It is not necessary, my lady, the injury is nothing that time will not handle.”
“Time may do, stranger, but my hands and skill are keener than it will ever be,” the stardancer pointed out, dismounting. “Besides, I think that you owe me the story of how we came to be doubling on poor Arun’s back. I am certain I did not see you sharing mugs of Gregor’s finest last night at his daughter’s handfasting!”
Azhani closed her eyes, and then reached up to pull back her tattered hood, revealing her face fully. Looking up into the stardancer’s almond-shaped green eyes, she grimly asked, “Would care to aid an Oathbreaker, healer?”
Kyrian hissed and drew back in fearful confusion. Harsh, angular cheekbones prominently defined a hawk-like face. Startlingly brilliant blue eyes looked out at the world, endlessly roving, taking in every tiny flutter of movement around the warrior’s tall, broad shouldered form. A thick, grimy mass of dark hair clumped around the warrior’s face and disappeared into the cloak. Telltale pointed ears marked the warrior as half-elven, just like Kyrian. Below the corner of the stranger’s right eye, was a thick patch of dark scar tissue that stood out starkly against the warrior’s dusky brown skin.
Unconsciously, Kyrian’s hand rose to touch the tattoo on her own face, as if seeking reassurance of its existence. Oathbreaker, the stranger had named herself. The horrible, puckered wound where once a noble mark of rank had rested gave credence to her words.
“Who are you, stranger, that you bear the brand of an Oathbreaker?” the stardancer asked wonderingly.
The warrior sighed, and decided to tell her. There was nothing to lose, because a stardancer would not kill in cold blood. “I am Azhani Rhu’len,” the warrior said proudly, bowing exaggeratedly. “At your service, my lady.”
Kyrian gasped softly. She had heard of the Banshee of Banner Lake, former warleader of Y’dan. For years, tales of the warrior’s bravery and ferociousness in battle had spread through the kingdoms, but now, those stories were mostly forgotten, replaced by the whispered horrors of her actions three months ago.
King Theodan the Peacemaker had died in his sleep, and his son, Arris, had inherited the throne. Instead of swearing allegiance to the new king, Azhani had plotted to overthrow him, murdering the ambassador of Y’Syr and attempting to kill the king. The warrior’s plot had been revealed, and Arris had sentenced her to die. Choosing defiance to the last, Azhani had opted for the Rite of the Gauntlet.
Blood drenched the banks of Banner Lake by the time the warrior had won her freedom, and Arris had declared her an outlaw, putting a huge bounty on her head. If the ragged, beaten, lamed woman before her truly was Azhani Rhu’len, then there wasn’t anyone who would condemn her for walking away.
Except Ylera - she would have wanted me to help her. Goddess bless you, Ylera, but your heart was so full of forgiveness. Ambassador Ylera Kelani, of the elven kingdom of Y’Syr, had been a good friend of the stardancer’s while she was still a student. They had not seen each other for many years, but Kyrian still fondly remembered their long nights spent studying by the light of a shared fire.
When she had heard of her friend’s murder, the healer-priest had raged in helpless anger. Kyrian had been in western Y’dan, performing weddings and healing the sick when Azhani’s betrayal took place. She had been unable to save Ylera and now fate was giving her a chance to exact a fitting revenge.
Her hand strayed toward her baton once more. Kyrian struggled to push her anger aside, to see beyond the red haze that clouded her vision and into the heart of the woman standing next to the gate.
Azhani’s lips curved into a sneer as she watched the play of emotion that flickered across the stardancer’s pretty face. “Go, healer, lend your skills to someone who is worth their learning,” she said harshly, and then turned away from the woman once more.
Kyrian watched as Azhani shuffled across the yard, falling every few steps, but doggedly pulling herself up and continuing to hobble toward the door to the cabin. Unconsciously, she winced, knowing the warrior was in excruciating pain. When she did, a burning ache thudded dully in her jaw. She reached up and probed the skin, hissing at the tenderness. What the? she thought curiously, reaching into the pouch at her side to withdraw a small silver mirror. A dark, purple bruise covered one side of her face. Ah goddess, how did that happen? She frowned, searching her memories for clues.
The ale was cold, and spiced with just a hint of nutmeg. It tasted good on Kyrian’s dry tongue. She had just finished the binding prayers of the handfasting ceremony and was thirsty enough to drink from a bog. Smiling happily at the sight of the newly ‘fasted couple dancing merrily in the center of the inn, Kyrian wandered outside with her drink, taking in a deep breath of the cool night air. Not far from her, a man in dark clothes was walking toward her, his gait oddly unbalanced.
That’s when she noticed the slightly off taste of the brew, a hint of something that the nutmeg and alcohol could not disguise. Cursing softly, she tossed aside the mug and was about to force herself to vomit when a large fist came out of nowhere and knocked her clean out.
Kyrian rubbed her jaw again. Okay, so how did I get from there, to here? she wondered. Azhani had not been her attacker. She had caught just enough of a glimpse of the man’s face to know that she had not been another one of Azhani’s victims. Another memory, this time of falling through the air and hitting the ground hard intruded. Kyrian struggled to grasp it, to seize any details that her addled brain had saved. As she fell, she had seen a bow wielding, monstrous form howl ferociously and leap on the man who had held her captive.
Looking across the yard to where the warrior was still struggling to reach the cabin, Kyrian realized that the bowman had been Azhani. There was a mystery here. Why would a woman branded as a traitor risk herself to save a healer? Yes, she was a stardancer, one of the few whose gifts were so great that Astariu empowered them with the magical ability to heal, but why should the warrior care? It obviously hadn’t been to beg succor for her injuries, since she had scornfully thrown Kyrian’s offer away.
Help her, an inner voice urged Kyrian. Azhani had fallen again, and was now crawling toward the door. Oh, what the hell. Whatever the warrior had done in the past, she wasn’t going to hurt the stardancer now, not as weakened as she was. Dismounting quickly, she dropped the reins, signaling to Arun that he could browse for wild grasses, but that he was not to go far.
“Guard,” she whispered, knowing the horse would raise one holy racket if something bigger than a rabbit came near the gate. Striding quickly to Azhani’s side, she declared, “I don’t care if you’re the Lord of Hell himself.” Efficiently, she knelt by the warrior’s injured side, offering her shoulder for support. Kyrian wrapped one arm around Azhani’s waist and waited for the warrior to grab hold of her. “You’re injured and I am a healer. It is my sworn oath to offer aid to those in need. You would not have me be an Oathbreaker, now, would you?” Reddish-blonde eyebrows rose challengingly.
Coldly, Azhani looked up, meeting the open green gaze of the stardancer. Kyrian’s face had cleared of any uncertainty, and now only concern painted her sweet face. The harsh, acid comment on the warrior’s tongue dissolved. Looking back down at the snow, she mumbled, “No,” and settled her arm on Kyrian’s shoulder.
The stardancer was surprisingly strong. Her slight appearance hid years of well-trained muscles and she easily lifted the heavier, taller warrior, standing steady until Azhani had found her balance.
“I would not dishonor you so, my lady,” the warrior added, after catching her breath.
“Good. Now, is that a doorway, or are we going to get creative?” Kyrian asked, nodding toward the front of the house.
Despite herself, Azhani laughed. “It’s a doorway. “ She reached into her clothes and removed a rusty key. “This is my home, such as it is.”
“Home? I thought you lived in Y’dannyv,” Kyrian said while Azhani fumbled with the lock.
“I did. This is my father’s homestead. I grew up here, in the borderlands.” Nodding to the left, she added, “Ride about five days travel that way and you’ll hit the foothills of the Crest. If you go that way,” she indicated the other direction, “You’ll end up back in Y’dan. Satisfied? No laws to break here – because there aren’t any.”
Giving way with a sudden, rusty screech, the lock popped open. Kyrian took hold of the handle and gave it a good push, opening the door. Seasons’ worth of dirt and dust exploded outward, causing the stardancer to cough and fan the air in front of her face. Kyrian blinked several times, trying to see into the dimly lit room.
Years of debris littered the floor, yet not a stick of whole furniture remained. A musty odor clung heavily to the room, and Kyrian recognized the signs of animal habitation piled in the corners. Broken cobwebs thick with dust stretched across the ceiling, draping down into their faces as they slowly walked into the cabin.
“I thought you said you lived here,” Kyrian said uncertainly as she helped the injured warrior into the room.
Azhani used her bow to push some of the larger bits of trash out of her way. “I do – now.”
“How come there isn’t any-” Kyrian gestured around the room at the mess, “there’s nothing here but trash,” she finished curiously.
“The raiders took everything that wasn’t nailed down,” Azhani said softly as Kyrian lowered her to the ground next to the hearth.
Carefully, the stardancer inspected the fireplace, making sure that there wasn’t anything blocking the chimney. “Can I borrow that?” she asked, pointing at the warrior’s longbow.
Azhani wordlessly handed over the unstrung bow, wincing as the stardancer used it to poke and prod at the chimney until several ancient birds’ nests fell into the hearth, sending clouds of dust and soot flying.
Coughing and wheezing, the warrior snatched her bow back when Kyrian offered it to her with a sheepish grin. “Sorry,” she said, gathering several piles of broken twigs and laying out a fire. She looked around the room and nodded. Most of what was in here would probably burn, meaning she could clean quickly. Everything else she would toss into the middens. Hopefully, the raiders hadn’t taken the broom, too.
“All right,” Kyrian said, after she had gotten a small fire going. “Let’s see that leg.”
Azhani had drifted off into a light doze, but came awake quickly when the stardancer spoke. She attempted to swing her legs around toward Kyrian, but her badly damaged leg had frozen in place.
“I might need a little help,” she admitted quietly, trying to force her legs to move.
Gently, Kyrian helped the warrior to reposition herself so that her legs were stretched out. Tiny gasps and mews of pain escaped as Azhani moved, but she did it, collapsing to the floor when Kyrian signaled she could stop.
The stardancer knelt next to the warrior, quickly using her small knife to cut through the cloth that held the battered splints in place. When the wood and rags had fallen away, she sucked in a breath at the wound revealed. Mottled shades of black, green and red-streaked yellow covered the warrior’s entire leg from the knee down. Torn, putrefied flesh wept blood and puss and Kyrian could see the white, broken end of bone poking up through the wound. Swollen knots of torn muscle indicated where the bones had been broken more than once.
“Wasn’t this set?” she asked softly as she opened her haversack and began pulling out small pouches of herbs.
“Didn’t have much time,” Azhani said in between gasps of breath. Just the whisper-light touch of the stardancer’s warm fingers had sent daggers of pain up her leg. “I had to get out of Y’dannyv.”
“So it’s true then, what they say?” Kyrian asked conversationally, as she ground several herbs together.
Azhani didn’t answer.
Kyrian looked up from her grinding and stared at the warrior, but Azhani wouldn’t meet her gaze.
“Why?” Kyrian whispered. “Ambassador Kelani... the soldiers... dead. Why, Azhani?”
Still no answer came.
Sighing sadly, Kyrian stood and walked to the door. Arun amiably cantered over when she called out to him, poking his nose through the doorway and snorting his opinion of the cabin. Carefully, she removed her saddlebags, thanking the gods that the kidnapper had thought to steal her horse too.
The stardancer dug out a pot and scooped up some snow, setting it on the fire to melt. “I’m going to have to set the leg, you know,” she warned Azhani.
“I know,” the warrior replied dazedly. Lurid red spots flickered in front of her eyes as waves of pain and nausea threatened to render her unconscious. She was shaking uncontrollably, and cold chills wracked her body.
The stardancer noticed the warrior’s hands opening and closing spastically and she made a soothing noise. “Not much longer now. Once this steeps, I’ll put you under and you can rest,” she said softly.
“No. I’ll stay awake,” Azhani protested weakly. “Don’t waste your magic on me, healer.”
Kyrian poured the herbs into the pot of water, stirring them with her knife. “I’ll decide if it’s a waste, warrior.” She propped her bedroll behind Azhani’s head. “Close your eyes and try to rest. I’m almost ready.”
Briskly, the stardancer stood while Azhani relaxed into the softness of the woolen blankets. Kyrian quickly walked through the bottom floor of the small house, locating a battered straw broom in the storage area. Smiling happily at her prize, she returned to the main room.
“Looks like the bandits forgot something,” she crowed happily, waving the ratty broom triumphantly.
Azhani grunted in amusement. “Trust a stardancer to make a treasure out of a broom.”
Kyrian shot the warrior a bright smile, and then dropped the broom to hurry over to her pot, which was boiling merrily. “Okay, this is going to taste like the bottom of a chamber pot,” she warned, pouring the drink through a piece of clean linen into a mug. “However, it will help you to feel much better.”
Azhani sat up and sipped at the tea, making a face at the extremely bitter taste. “You don’t honey coat the truth, do you?”
“Why should I? If I had said that it tasted like ambrosia, would you have believed me?” Kyrian asked, raising one eyebrow curiously. “And after tasting it, would you trust my skills as a healer?”
The warrior chuckled ruefully. “No, I would not, to both questions. I have dealt with my share of chirurgeons, my lady.” She blinked her eyes sleepily. As she had suspected, there was something in the drink to make her drowsy. “I said I wanted to stay awake,” she protested mildly as the herbs took effect.
Kyrian caught the mug before it slipped from nerveless fingers. “I know, warrior. But I need you still to work this Healing,” she whispered as Azhani drifted off into the dream realms.
Setting Azhani’s leg took several candlemarks, and Kyrian knew that she would have to call upon Astariu’s gift at least one more time to truly heal the leg, because the bones were nearly shattered. Her candlemarks of work hadn’t been for nothing, though. Now that the necrotic tissue had been cut away, the angry red lines of infection had started to recede. Healthy red blood pooled around the wound, proving to the stardancer that the leg had a chance of survival.
With the first stage of the healing accomplished, Kyrian busied herself by cleaning out the small cabin. The home had three major areas. The main living area contained a fireplace and a staircase leading to an upper floor. A doorway led down to a storage room where another door led out to the back of the house. A shed was tucked alongside the cabin and when she saw it, Kyrian thought it might work as a stable for Arun.
The horse was grateful to escape the bitter cold of the night. Kyrian found a small brazier and filled it with debris, making a hot fire that warmed the shed quickly. Covering the brazier, she left Arun to rest and continued her exploration. She discovered an outhouse that, after only a candlemark’s work, was perfectly functional.
The remnants of a small vegetable garden yielded a few withered, but still edible carrots and potatoes. She found a handful of onions not far from the middens and added them to her bounty. After some work, a well provided fresh, clean water.
The loft proved to be a bedroom. On one end, there was an adult sized pallet and on the other, a small, child sized bed. Stuffed under the child’s bed were the tattered remains of a rag doll. A squat woodstove lurked in the corner. Checking the flue, Kyrian satisfied herself that the appliance would work and headed for the stairs. The floor of the upstairs room was very unstable, so she quickly left, not wanting to injure herself.
Checking on Arun, she gave the horse some grain and scrounged up a pile of old hay for him to nose. In a corner of the shed, she found an old trunk. Inside the trunk she found a surprising wealth of clothes and blankets. Under the textiles, wrapped in a bundle of tattered silk, was a fine, elven made longsword.
Holding the naked blade, she considered dropping it down the well. Something stopped her and made her wrap it back up and stow it in the cabin with her things. Stardancers used no edged weapons other than the small knives made for eating, healing and other mundane tasks. As servants of Astariu’s Healer aspect, they carried batons – long, stout rods crafted of highly flexible steel. The weapons were just as deadly as swords, but in the hands of a master, they could be used to disable instead of kill. Death in the name of justice was the province of kings, not priests.
Kyrian had taken a life once, and that burden wore heavily upon her conscience. The healer had sworn never again to kill and had spent the last two years of her life going from place to place, wearing herself out trying to heal enough people to atone for the life she had ended.
Gathering up her treasures, Kyrian stopped to pat Arun one more time before returning to the cabin. The sun had long since vanished and a chill, biting wind whipped the healer’s robes about her body as she sprinted from the shed to the small house. She dropped her booty near the sleeping warrior and dug out her lantern, lit it and set it in the center of the room.
Scavenged wood fed the fire until there was a hearty blaze warming the room. The vegetables she had found joined a handful of jerky and spices in a pot of water and hung from a hook, cooking. Soon, the aroma of food filled the room, chasing out the last remnants of decay and dust.
Azhani woke to the scent of food. Her stomach growled eagerly, then churned sickeningly. She blinked her eyes open slowly, surprised when she wasn’t immediately assaulted by a wave of pain coming from her leg.
The warrior lifted her head and looked down at her leg, which was wrapped tightly in bandages. She did it, she thought, no little wonder creeping into the idea. She saved my leg.
“Thank you,” she croaked out, her normally smooth voice harsh from sleep.
Kyrian nearly dropped her bowl. Shooting the warrior an annoyed, yet amused, glance, she said, “You’re welcome, warrior. Are you hungry? There’s soup.”
“Does it also taste like yesterday’s chamber pot?” Azhani teased, pulling herself up into a sitting position. She winced as her bladder woke up, reminding her that it had been a good long time since she had seen the backside of a bush.
“No!” Kyrian replied, laughing at the warrior’s joke. “But I could add some bitterroot, if that would make you happy,” she added slyly. She watched the warrior fidget for a moment, and then covered a chuckle. “I bet you’d like to take a walk, wouldn’t you?” she asked delicately.
Azhani made a face. “I can do this myself,” she said before the stardancer could offer help. The warrior took hold of her bow and used it to lever herself to a standing position, then took one, feeble step forward while Kyrian stood off to the side, abortively reaching out to steady her.
Slowly, dragging her splinted leg with every, agonizing step, the warrior worked her way to the back door of the cabin.
“You’re quite a stubborn one, aren’t you, Azhani Rhu’len?” Kyrian whispered quietly, fascinated by the warrior, despite her violent past.
Azhani stepped out into the cold of the night and took in a deep breath, nearly weeping with the effort of staying upright. If her bladder weren’t telling her with every heartbeat that she was about to embarrass herself, she would have collapsed into a heap right there. Instead, she dug down into the well of strength that seemed to be growing weaker and weaker and pushed on until she reached the outhouse.
When she finally made it back into the house, Kyrian had set up two pallets near the fire. Next to one of the pallets was a bowl of thick, fragrant soup, a half round of dark peasant bread and cup of lightly steaming tea.
The warrior lowered herself to the ground, letting out a soft groan of weariness. Quietly, she began to eat. In between bites, she said, “Not bad,” and went back to shoveling down the food. She set her empty bowl down and tore into the rich, nutty bread. “Better than bugs and roots.”
Kyrian rolled over and stared at the warrior. “Why do I think you would say that about food served at the king’s table?”
Azhani’s face darkened rapidly. “I wouldn’t. Anything served in that castle would taste like ashes to me,” she said softly. Her appetite lost, she laid the last portion of her bread in her empty bowl and picked up her tea. Azhani knew she would need the painkillers that the pungent, herbal odor of the drink promised.
Not knowing how to respond to the warrior’s statement, Kyrian held her tongue.
“You can leave tomorrow. About a day to the north, you’ll find Barton. It’s a mining and trading town. You can get some supplies and go on to wherever you were heading before you were abducted,” Azhani said quietly as she drank her tea.
Kyrian looked around at the sad state of the cottage. Though her efforts had done much to restore a homey cheer, there was still a sense of bleak emptiness that called out for a loving hand. “I’d like to stay, and help you with this place, if I can.” She also knew that if Azhani’s leg were to heal properly, she would need the stardancer’s care for several more days, at the very least.
Azhani felt her jaw tighten. Didn’t the healer get it? Didn’t she understand that she was trying to give her a chance to get away? “I don’t need your help,” she said brusquely, laying down and pulling one of the woolen blankets over her.
“I didn’t say you did,” Kyrian readily pointed out. “I offered it – there is a difference, warrior.”
“Stop calling me that,” Azhani muttered darkly. “My days of fighting are over. I am a simple woman of the forest now, nothing more.”
“Warrior or not, you will still need someone to help you make this place livable. Winter is here, and it will be many weeks before your leg can bear your full weight. You may wish me to leave you here to rot, but my oaths as a healer will keep me glued to your side. I will be here tomorrow, and the days after that, until I’ve decided that you are able to care for yourself.” Kyrian spoke firmly, letting the warrior know that she would not be swayed. “Besides,” she added lightly, “You still haven’t told me why you saved me, and I want to hear that story.” She settled into her pallet, trying not to dislodge the hidden bundle of the silk-wrapped sword.
“I’m no tale-spinner, healer. The facts are simple enough. I saw one of Astariu’s Own in trouble and I had the means to act. Anyone who had sworn the vows I have would have done the same thing.”
“What care does an Oathbreaker have of allegiances?” Kyrian asked lightly.
“Perhaps none, but I’ll not be damned for spite,” Azhani retorted.
“Still, I sense a tale in the telling. Even if you threaten to run me off with your bow, I will stay,” Kyrian said resolutely. I would regret breaking your hand, warrior, but I would still stay. Touching the aura of the “Banshee of Banner Lake” had driven away any of the stardancer’s misgivings about helping Azhani. No one could be as evil as the stories claimed the woman was and carry as much pain and grief as Azhani did. Kyrian was drawn to help the woman, like a moth to a flame. She knew she would get burned, yet she could no more fly away from its influence than she could raise the dead.
The stardancer wanted to hate Azhani for the crimes she had committed, but her curiosity had been aroused. Why would a warrior of impeccable virtue turn against everything she had fought so hard to uphold? Kyrian found this fascinating. Pursuing this question would keep her from having to mull over her own past, something she desperately tried to avoid.
From the other pallet, Azhani’s half-asleep voice floated over to the stardancer. “Stay then, healer. I will not refuse you shelter. Whatever else you require you will have to provide on your own.”
“I think I can handle that,” Kyrian said, chuckling lightly, thinking of the soup she had made. In the morning, she would search the trees on the property for robin’s eggs. If she found nothing, she still had plenty of oats and Arun never minded sharing.
Newly formed icicles glittered from the branches of the tree that Kyrian agilely climbed. She spotted a woven pile of twigs and vines on her way to the privy and, after seeing to Arun, she decided to investigate it. A few leaves still clung tenaciously, rustling in her passage. Kyrian finally reached the branch containing the nest and was disappointed to find it empty. She was about to climb down, when she noticed a patch of wild mushrooms growing on the other side of the tree. Brightened by the possible find, she hurriedly made her way to the ground.
Carefully, she harvested the mushrooms and put them in a pouch. Laying the pouch on a warped shelf tacked to the side of the cabin, Kyrian wandered to another tree, smiling when she caught sight of several small, reddish-yellow fruits. Opening her haversack, the stardancer culled a dozen of the tart but tasty crabapples. Rubbing her hands to ward off the chill, Kyrian shivered. There was a bite to the air that spoke of the weather to come, and she realized that the meager supplies in her saddlebags would not last the winter. They would have to find more food to set aside, or they would slowly starve.
I wonder if Azhani will have any ideas? She did mention a trading post not too far from here; maybe I should ride up there tomorrow. Nodding to herself, Kyrian decided to talk to her patient about it when she woke. Patient? I guess that’s what she is, though she’d stubbornly deny it. But then, she’d probably just as soon skewer me as speak to me.
A candlemark’s search through the overgrown garden turned up a few last withered vegetables and some wild herbs. While she was gathering several long, tufted stalks of parsley, she spotted the pink nose of a rabbit. The animal was rooting through the snow, seeking greens of its own to nibble. Blessing her fortune, Kyrian sent a quick thanks to the animal’s spirit and used her baton to add some meat to their evening soup. After breakfast, she decided she would saddle up Arun and explore the forest around the ramshackle cabin.
Azhani was just waking when Kyrian poked her head inside the room.
“Morning, warrior,” she called out cheerfully, setting aside her bounty and walking over to lay a cool hand against the warrior’s cheek. No fever today, unlike the day before, when the dark brown skin had been like touching Astariu’s fires. Today, it was cool, bearing only the slight heat of sleep.
“Stardancer,” Azhani greeted warily as Kyrian reached over and drew a pot of tea off the hearth and poured out a measure of the warm liquid. Kyrian handed her the cup, chuckling when the warrior first poked her tongue into the drink. Relieved that it did not carry the bitter flavor of medicine, Azhani drank deeply of the soothing liquid. “Not trying to poison me today, hmm?” she asked, dry humor lacing her tone.
A surprised smile lit up the elfin features of the stardancer’s face. “No, not today, warrior. Today, you get willow bark and boneset, to help you mend. I added a touch of wild mint to ease the flavor.”
Azhani struggled to sit, waving away the stardancer’s hands when she tried to help. Grunting with the exertion, the warrior cradled the warm tea, taking a moment to relish being alive. I beat you, you bastard. I made it home, and now you can’t touch me! Ah gods, Ylera, I miss you so much...
“I’m going to look at your leg now, all right?” Kyrian asked as she carefully began to unwrap the rags that bound the warrior’s foot. The stardancer clucked in sympathetic pain at the sight of Azhani’s battered foot. She realized then that the woman wore no shoes, only layers of rags tied and bound to her feet with bits of rope. “This will not do,” she muttered softly. Standing, the stardancer went outside and fetched a battered bucket she had noticed earlier. Though it was not in very good condition, there was just enough of it left to hold a small amount of water. Carrying it back in carefully, she set the half-broken bucket down next to the warrior.
Curiously, Azhani watched as Kyrian then unwrapped her other foot. As the stardancer dipped a soft bit of cotton into the water, the warrior growled, “What are you doing?”
“Washing your feet. They’re disgusting, and need tending,” Kyrian answered absently as she began to delicately scrub the layers of dirt and blood away from the warrior’s skin.
When the cold water touched her flesh, Azhani jumped, hissing, “That’s cold!”
Kyrian shot the warrior a look and said, “Did you expect it to be otherwise? Now hush and let me work, warrior.”
Azhani grumbled, but did as she was asked, actually feeling a tiny trickle of gratitude well up inside of her. She hated being dirty, and having her feet washed and cared for was a step toward being able to hobble out to the well and clean up. She had realized that the stardancer must have found one of her father’s trunks when she came in the night before and noticed a small pile of clean clothes stacked on the floor by her pallet. When the stardancer finished caring for her feet, Azhani would trade her ragged clothes for the clean, simple peasant garb.
Kyrian gently washed the warrior’s feet, mindful of the splints holding Azhani’s right leg straight, and then rubbed in a soothing salve to help heal the myriad of cuts and abrasions that decorated the calloused skin. “When did you lose your boots?” she asked curiously as she piled the dirty rags to the side, to be burned later.
“This is how Arris wanted me to look, when he led me to the gallows,” Azhani said curtly, staring up at the boards that made up the floor of the loft above. She couldn’t look at Kyrian’s gentle, sweet face, not now when there was so much ugliness playing havoc in her mind.
It would be too easy to like that face, too easy to allow the stardancer’s vivid smiles to break the walls the warrior had carefully built on her journey northward. Azhani just couldn’t allow anyone else the chance to get that close again. Lowering her gaze without meaning to, she sighed as she looked down at the woman washing her feet. It was a nice face, though - full of innocence, and the beginnings of a wary trust. A sparkle of not quite hidden mischief danced in the stardancer’s pine green eyes and there always seemed to be a ready smile hovering on Kyrian’s soft, full lips.
Where the warrior had expected to see contempt, only weary confused sadness rested. “They took your boots?” Kyrian whispered, aghast. She had never considered how devastating the punishment for an Oathbreaker was. To be so stripped, not just of pride and honor, but also of the very basic necessities of survival, was terribly cruel. Blessed Astariu, how can we be so cruel, even to those who do not earn mercy?
“To teach me ‘humility’,” Azhani said, looking into the fire, and seeing the past.
The terrible, wrenching pain that filled the warrior’s indigo colored eyes reached out and touched the knots binding Kyrian’s anger, loosing them. All of the pent up anguish she had carried because of the actions of this woman – the rage of grief and loss she felt when she heard of Ylera’s death, as well as the anger over the massacre of so many of the king’s men, vanished. The look in Azhani’s eyes was not that of a murderer savoring a kill. No, the warrior’s eyes were empty, almost shattered by sorrow.
“Will you tell me what happened?” the stardancer asked, kneeling next to the warrior’s injured leg. Carefully she unwrapped the bandages, laying aside the splints and using the damp rag to sponge away the dried blood and dirt.
Azhani shook her head vehemently. “I don’t want to talk about it,” she growled, finishing the dregs of the now cold tea.
Kyrian nodded in acceptance, knowing that she would keep asking until the warrior relented, and told her side of the events. Whatever had caused the warrior to throw aside her honor at autumn’s end would make for a very intriguing tale. Softly, the stardancer began to hum, calling on the training that marked her as one of Astariu’s Own. The words of a lullaby came unbidden, shaping the forces that directed the goddess’ healing fire.
As she worked, her hands began to glow, an aura of pastel yellow limning the delicate, long fingers that slowly stroked the broken, damaged skin of Azhani’s leg. The warrior watched, awed as the stardancer expertly controlled her magic, the power channeling easily through her body. The glow flickered like flames, but the heat of Kyrian’s touch did not burn. Instead, the energy enveloped Azhani’s leg and chased away the ragged edges of pain that had haunted her every step since escaping Arris’ clutches.
The warrior would be forever grateful for this gift – not many would risk the wrath of a king to aid an Oathbreaker. Even Astariu’s priests had turned her away when she had crawled to their door, begging for help. Only the generosity of an old, blind woman had allowed Azhani to survive as long as she had. Sobbing in pain as she clawed her way through Y’dannyv’s alleys, the old woman had found her and taken her in, sharing the tiny crate she called home.
The beggar had been the one who had found the rags and twigs that had first splinted her shattered leg. She had even found someone willing to take the warrior’s blood drenched sword and axe – weapons she had grimly taken from the bodies of the soldiers she had slain – in trade for the longbow and arrows that had been her only means of protection as she traveled toward her father’s estate. The dagger that had been given to her was long since gone, buried in the sea of muck and blood that had formed that awful day.
Yes, the priest’s gift was beyond a miracle, and Azhani knew she would silently thank the stardancer every day of her life. Though she may not want my gratitude, when I use her gift to kill Arris. Bloody visions of slowly stripping every inch of skin off the king’s pain-wracked body flashed in her mind. He would pay for the misery he had caused – the warrior vowed it.
On his deathbed, Theodan had made Azhani promise to keep his son – a boy he knew to be weak and useless – away from the throne.
“Of all the things I regret the most in this world, my friend, it is my son. I ignored him in favor of my dreams, and he has suffered for it. Do not allow my mistake to hurt the people of Y’dan. Arris must not follow me to the throne!” Theodan whispered weakly, wheezing heavily. “You must care for the land now, old friend. I’ve done everything I can for her, and now it is your turn. I know you will make her thrive.”
That was the night he had pressed a very special scroll into her hands, forcing her to swear on her oath as a Warleader that she would present it to the council upon his death. Though little good it did me, Azhani thought sadly, remembering the absolute anguish of that day. Shying away from the painful memory, she looked down at the stardancer, who was nearly finished. She wiggled her toes, unable to hide the delighted grin that spread across her face when there was no accompanying flare of pain. Joy spread like wildfire through her. She would be able to walk, run, and even ride normally again. Arris, you are doomed. You should have killed me that first night, when I didn’t care about my life. Now, I will see you in hell!
Azhani opened her mouth to thank the stardancer and realized that she didn’t even know the woman’s name. Furrowing her brow, she thought, Who is this person, and why the hell are the Cabal so interested in her? Or was the abduction personal, for pleasure, rather than planned?
“Who are you, healer?” she abruptly asked as the stardancer’s song trickled away. The skin of Azhani’s leg was a healthy, pale tan and the pain that had been her constant companion was nearly gone. Only a slight, dull ache remained, but the warrior knew it would fade in time.
Kyrian took a deep breath, releasing it slowly as she began to arrange the splits and straps around Azhani’s leg.
down, the warrior stilled the stardancer’s hands with her own. Startled, the stardancer looked up,
meeting Azhani’s steely blue gaze. “Leave
off, healer. Answer me. Who are you?”
“My name is Kyrian. I am a stardancer and I serve the Healer,” was the priest’s simple reply.
“What are you, though? What makes you the target of the Cabal? Who is your family? What have you done that someone would pay a heavy blood price for you?” Azhani demanded, grabbing the startled woman by her shoulders and shaking her fiercely.
Fear lashed through her, forcing slashes of memory, painted crimson by time, to fill the stardancer’s mind. No, it can’t be...she pushed the memories aside and struggled to free herself from Azhani’s iron grip. “I’m nobody, I swear,” she gasped as she strained. “Let me go, warrior,” she warned dangerously.
Azhani searched the woman’s face, seeking a sign, some indication that Kyrian was more than she appeared. There was nothing, only fear and rising anger flushing the pale skin. Abruptly, she released the stardancer.
“My apologies,” she rumbled out contritely.
Straightening her rumpled robes, Kyrian resumed her spot next to the warrior’s newly healed leg. “Azhani,” she said, the word rolling strangely off her tongue. It was the first time she had used the warrior’s name since they had met. As if the name were magic, suddenly the warrior under her hands was no longer a patient, nor a killer, but just a woman who had risked death to save a stardancer’s life. “Why does it matter who I am? Why do you say that the Cabal took me? I can only remember a little bit about that day – just bits and pieces, really. There was wine, and dancing, and lots of really good food and I had just gotten a mug of cool ale. It didn’t taste right, and I was about to toss it out when something, or someone hit me.” She spread her hands helplessly. “So please, tell me what you want, because I just don’t know.”
The warrior pursed her lips, considering, and then said, “Fine. About a half-day’s journey south along the road there’s a corpse, rotting in the woods. The answers are there. Go and seek them if you will. If you are wise, you will turn east and not look back.”
“I’m not going anywhere until you’re well,” Kyrian protested in frustration, running her hand through her short, amber curls exasperatedly.
“Then I have no answers for you save one. I killed a man of the Cabal yesterday. It was he who held you captive. More than that, I do not know.” She lay back against the rolled blanket, closing her eyes against the shock scrolling across the stardancer’s face.
How can she just lie there and speak so casually of killing? Kyrian wondered, her gaze falling upon the pile of bloody rags she had yet to burn. How could she ignore her wounds to save me? I’m not worth that kind of agony. All the stories she had ever heard about Azhani Rhu’len, the finest warrior in Y’dan, crowded into her brain, clamoring for attention. The warrior had been a hero and the leader of King Theodan’s armies – ignoring pain would be second nature to her.
“You stopped him? You rescued me, and brought me here?” Kyrian asked after groping around mentally for something, anything to say to encourage the warrior to speak, to talk of what must have been a spectacular event.
Azhani grunted an affirmative. “Not much of a hero, am I?” she taunted, glancing down at the rags that made up her clothes, and the fading bruises of her leg.
Oh goddess, what happened to turn this honorable woman into a murderer? Kyrian was beginning to sense that the official version of the events of Banner Lake had no actual bearing on the truth. I hope I’m right about this, she thought, reaching out to place a hand on Azhani’s bare knee.
Bewildered blue eyes opened, and found her gaze. “Enough of one for me,” the stardancer said, her voice softened by gratitude. Smiling, she said, “How about I repay you by heating some water so you can wash?” Kyrian looked at the neatly folded pile of clothes still lying next to the pallet. “We can wait to rewrap your leg.”
A pathetic sense of gratefulness overcame the warrior, followed by annoyance. Shrugging, Azhani said, “I don’t care what you do with your time.”
Kyrian clucked her tongue disapprovingly as she stood up. Leaving the cabin, she returned shortly, carrying a large, rusty pot. “Found this in the shed. Looks like there are some things that even raiders won’t take.” She wiped the pot off, then filled it with water and hung it over the fire to heat.
While the water warmed, Kyrian cooked the vegetables. She hummed as she worked and Azhani found that she liked the stardancer’s voice. Sitting up, the warrior spotted the rabbit carcass.
“Hand me that and I’ll clean it,” she offered quietly, needing to do something to contribute, even if it meant getting dirtier. Kyrian’s willingness to do the chores made Azhani feel bad about her earlier nastiness.
Realizing that the warrior felt useless, Kyrian set aside her own protestations and reached over, grabbing the carcass and handing it to the warrior. “All right, but try not to damage the hide. I can use it to make a pouch.” She stifled a smile at the meticulous way the warrior set about skinning and boning the rabbit. I’ll bet that will be the most boneless rabbit I’ve had in an age, the stardancer thought, turning to serve the breakfast she had made.
Azhani traded the fur wrapped bundle of meat for a plate of vegetables and a fresh mug of tea. After sprinkling some herbs on the meat, Kyrian laid the bundle by the fire and focused her attention on her meal. When breakfast was done, she took the dishes out and cleaned them, then came back and added the meat to the dregs of the previous night’s stew. More vegetables, water and spices went into the pot, which she then hung over the fire to simmer.
“I’m going to have to hunt for some more food later,” she said, unhooking the pot of now very hot water and setting it on the hearth. “For now, let’s see about getting you clean.”
Reluctantly, Azhani allowed Kyrian to wash her. The stardancer had made it clear that she was not to move her leg, rendering her unable to clean herself. She was able to attend to her more private areas, but only after the stardancer made her promise not to jar her leg.
While Azhani washed, Kyrian took a pair of the rough homespun pants and cut away the right leg just above where the knee would be, to make it easier to care for the warrior’s injury. A few, quick stitches hemmed the fabric, to keep it from raveling. Politely, she turned her back while she worked, allowing the warrior a sense of privacy.
After the warrior was dressed, Kyrian used the remaining water to take a sketchy bath and exchange her crimson robes for a set of the same, simple garb the warrior now wore. Without the heavy velvet robes, the only thing that marked the stardancer as a healer-priest were the three small teardrop shaped tattoos dappling the skin below the corner of her left eye.
The ink had long since faded, going from a sharp black to a paler, charcoal color. Kyrian had served the goddess for many years; her oaths had been sworn when she was barely thirteen summers old.
Once, Azhani’s dusky face had bourn a tattoo as well, but it was gone now, replaced by a dark scar. Kyrian wondered what mark denoted the conundrum the warrior had become. Cleaned up, Azhani was striking. She was not beautiful, but Kyrian doubted she would ever forget the face that was now revealed. Intense, and grave, it was carved with an expression that the stardancer could only call deep sorrow.
“I’m going to take Arun out for a walk, can you manage here by yourself?” the stardancer asked after she had finished changing.
“I’ll be fine,” Azhani said remotely as she practiced hobbling around the room, using her longbow as a crutch. She wanted to see the place and get a feel for what needed to be done before the real winter settled in, closing her off from even the nearby trader’s village of Barton.
Shaking her head at the warrior’s stubbornness, Kyrian gathered her haversack and headed out to the shed. The weak sunlight had melted the snow, creating a mire of mud that she had to avoid just getting to where Arun was stabled.
“Hey boy,” she called out in greeting, opening the door. The sturdy brown gelding immediately came to her side, snuffling her hair and lipping her shoulder gently. Patting his side affectionately and scrubbing his ears Kyrian said, “Hungry, boy? Come on, let’s get you saddled up and go see what we can forage.” The two friends exited through the ruined front gate and headed into the forest.
It felt good to be out of the stuffy cabin, riding through the overgrown forest and breathing the cool, clean air. Soon, she dismounted, leaving Arun to wander while she foraged for what prizes the forest would offer. Around the bases of trees and hidden under sparse bushes she found many varieties of winter plants that would make excellent teas, and she was especially glad to find a large amount of an herb that was highly effective against lung inflammations. It was winter, and she knew the cabin would not keep out all the drafts. Either she or Azhani would probably suffer from the wracking cough that was usual result of taking a chill.
Kyrian didn’t question the notion that she would spend the winter with Azhani. Years of experience had taught her that the warrior would not heal overnight, and her weather sense told her that it would not be wise to attempt traveling to Y’Syr right now.
Arun let out an excited chuffing, causing the stardancer to go investigate what he had found. A small, fast moving stream cut through the forest floor. Around the stream grew armfuls of wild grass and other vegetation.
“Bless the Twins,” Kyrian whispered, pulling up the grass and loading it into a sack. There was enough here to feed the horse for several days. As she worked she noticed the sparkle of scales in the water and she resolved to try her hand at fishing some time soon. By the time she was ready to head back to the cabin, her haversack was bulging with soaproot bulbs, wild parsnips, some more of the small, sweet onions that she loved so much and four large brown potatoes. On her way to the cabin, she found a small bush bursting with tart, purple berries that tasted delicious.
Her treasures loaded on Arun, Kyrian found the trail back to the cabin, gathering deadfall as she went. She had already burned most of the larger chunks of debris littering the cottage, and it wasn’t getting any warmer.
After Kyrian had left, Azhani put aside her bow and limped around the cottage, trying to take stock of how much it had suffered from the years of neglect. As she surveyed, she cleaned up, making her pallet and tossing the disgusting pile of rags that had been her clothes for far too long onto the fire.
All in all, she was satisfied with the condition of the cabin. The roof was pretty stable, though there were parts where the thatching had fallen through. Up in the loft, she found the sad remnants of her first rag doll, and spent several heartbeats fighting tears. The floor would have to be reinforced if anyone were going to spend a lot of time in the room; but otherwise, the upper structure of the house seemed fairly solid.
All of the shutters would need work, both oiling and sanding to make them open and close without shrieking in protest. Above the storeroom, the roof had partially caved in, letting all manner of dirt and debris gather on the floor below. Azhani could see where the stardancer had already picked through the trash, searching for wood to burn. The shed and outhouse had fared the best; both were in solid condition, easily able to withstand another winter.
Counting the coins in the pouch she had lifted from the Cabal kidnapper, she figured that there would be enough to provision the cottage for winter – if she bargained well. If not, then she and the stardancer would have to tighten their belts. Unless I can convince her to stay in Barton, Azhani thought, already planning a trip to the trading village that was a day’s journey away. To get there, though, she would need a real crutch, not just the makeshift staff her bow made.
Thinking of the longbow reminded her to whisper a prayer in the name of the blind beggar who had sheltered her during those horrible days after Banner Lake. Her original weapons – the sword she had crafted with her own hands, working side by side with the castle smith and the armor her father had given her were gone, broken on that horrible day three months ago.
“Let the citizens of Y’dan take note: On this day, six hundred and thirteen years from the time our forefathers first set foot upon this golden land, Arris Theodan, rightful king of the glorious land of Y’dan, has declared Azhani, daughter of Rhu’len, Scion of the House DaCoure, an Oathbreaker. Let no succor fall upon this wretched villain, or suffer his wrath. No shelter, aid nor sustenance from this land shall she receive, for she is foresworn and anathema!” Arris’ herald, a shifty-eyed fellow who had gained his position by toadying up to the king while he was still a prince, proclaimed loudly. “Azhani Rhu’len, you are hereby found guilty of treason against the throne; for this crime you are sentenced to exile. May the gods spit forever on your soul, and may you never wash the blood of the beloved Ambassador Ylera Kelani from your murderous hands.”
Hearing her beloved’s name, the warrior wanted to shout, to cry out for all to hear, But I did not kill her! The wad of grimy fabric shoved forcefully in her mouth before the ceremony began had silenced her, though.
Patting her on the cheek, Arris had whispered, “So you don’t try something stupid, like attempting to convince the people of your innocence.” He had then turned and mounted the steps to the stage where an Astariun priest waited to sing the chants that would make him king.
Bound as well as gagged, Azhani could only glare at the king’s boots. She had been tossed up onto the stage and forced to kneel while the herald announced the decision. Above her, the new king smirked, though there was a tiny hint of unease playing about the corners of his eyes.
“As is her right by law, Azhani has requested the Rite of the Gauntlet, rather than the honorable death our glorious king offered as payment for her crimes. Let those who would be the hand of justice, come now!”
Dragged to her feet, the beaten, battered warrior still exuded a dangerous presence. Her bonds were cut, and she was finally able to spit out the gag, massaging her wrists until she could feel the tips of her fingers tingle painfully. Cracking her knuckles she gazed out at the crowd of soldiers and citizens, daring one to challenge her.
No one moved. Cracking a smile, she began to walk away; sure she was a free woman. Plans were already formulating; she would go south, to Ysradan, and beg for his audience. Maybe Theodan’s old friend would believe her...
From behind her, Arris snarled, “Oathbreaker!”
Azhani turned just in time to see her beautiful sword thrown into a bonfire, robbing it of its temper forever. As it heated, a blacksmith pounded the metal until it cracked and broke, shattering into hundreds of pieces.
Tears stung her eyes, but she did not allow her emotions to show, firming her jaw arrogantly, ready to take whatever the boy king would deal out next. In quiet anguish, she watched as Arris’ men broke her armor, burned her things, and destroyed everything that had been precious to her. Only her dagger remained untouched. One of the guards walked up to her, bowed mockingly and offered the blade to her. As she moved to take it, he dropped it, forcing her to bend over and pick it up. He would be the first to die, she decided as he backed up, laughing with his friends.
“Again, herald, tell them again!” Arris commanded impatiently.
“The Oathbreaker has claimed the Rite of the Gauntlet – will any step forth to face her? She’s only got a dagger,” he added quickly, knowing his king would reward him tenfold if he got a good show.
A well-dressed man suddenly shouted, “One thousand gold coins to the man who slays the Oathbreaker! My word on it!”
The crowd gasped. One thousand gold would make a pauper into a prince. Several soldiers, none of whom had ever served with the warleader, surged forward, each trying to be the first to claim the reward.
Gripping the dagger tightly, Azhani readied herself. There would be no easy escapes this day.
Azhani shook herself out of her reverie. Let it go; wallow later, now is the time to prepare for the future. She put the gold away and hobbled outside, searching the grounds for a straight, stout piece of wood that she could fashion into a crutch.
Behind the shed, hidden under a rotting pile of leaves and debris, she found what she was looking for. A long shaft of wood that had once been the arm of a wheelbarrow would easily lend itself to being carved into a crutch. Inside the shed, still laced to a broken curing rack was a beaver pelt that she could use to pad the support, so that the bruises under her arms would finally heal.
Azhani took her finds back into the house. After adding more wood to the dwindling fire and stirring the soup, she sat down on her pallet and took out her knife. Holding the shaft of wood in her hands, she roughed out the shape she wanted and began to carve, letting her shavings gather into a pile at her feet.
When Kyrian came in at nightfall, Azhani had lit the lantern and was seated on her pallet, working on carving the crutch.
“You’ve been busy, I see,” the stardancer commented, bending over to stir the pot of rabbit stew that had simmered all day. “Mm, almost done,” she said, smiling at the delicious smell of the soup. Her day in the forest had left her with a huge appetite.
“So have you,” Azhani replied, not bothering to look up at the stardancer. She was at a delicate junction, trying to remove a bit of wood around the handle of the crutch.
Yawning, Kyrian said, “Yeah, I found a stream not too far from here. There’s fish in it, but I’ve never been very successful at catching them, so we get to eat this scrawny bunny I caught this morning instead.”
“I can fish. I’ll go tomorrow morning,” Azhani said, turning the crutch in her hand and using the rough, leathery side of the beaver pelt to smooth out the wood.
“Oh you don’t have to do that. You should really wait at least one more day before putting so much stress on your leg, Azhani,” Kyrian said reasonably. She was getting tired of fighting the warrior for every concession.
Azhani looked up at the young woman, biting back a sharp retort. Kyrian was a stardancer. It was her duty to advise her patient, just as it was once Azhani’s duty to council her king in war.
“All right, when can I expect to be able to travel?” she asked quietly.
“Two, maybe three days, but only for short distances. To the stream and back,” Kyrian said decisively, reaching up to push a stray curl out of her eyes. Yes! Maybe I’m finally getting somewhere. Now, what can I do to reward that ... hmm, oh yeah, that would work. “Unless you ride Arun -then maybe, maybe a bit further. Why? Was there someplace you needed to go?”
Azhani set her half finished crutch aside and looked around the room, and then pointed up at the thatched roof. “Place needs work,” she grunted and then pulled out the hidden pouch, dumping the contents on her blankets. “The Cabal were good enough to provide me with the means to fix it.” She looked at Kyrian now, a challenge in her eyes. “Barton’s only a day’s ride from here. At this point in the year, there’s probably some traders, furriers and a few,” she paused, allowing a bleak grin to curve her lips, “outlaws. I can get supplies there. Thatch, food and clothes, mostly, and maybe a few extra things to make wintering here a little more pleasant.”
“All right, we’ll leave in two days.” Holding up a hand to forestall the warrior’s protests, Kyrian said, “Arun’s perfectly capable of hauling both of us, and I can walk if necessary. And unless you’re dying to buy an ox, Arun should be able to bring us home as well.” The garden in the rear was hardly large enough to take a spade to, let alone require a draft animal to plow it.
“Would you use a hammer to kill a fly?” Azhani asked rhetorically. She could tell she had lost the battle with the stardancer, again. How come I can’t seem to win here? I’m trying not to like her, but damn it, it’s getting harder each time!
Kyrian chuckled dryly. “I’d use whatever tool came to hand. After all, it’s not the shape so much as the will behind the instrument that decides the action, right?” She gave the warrior a pointed glance.
Azhani suddenly smiled, a true smile that put fire in her eyes and turned her harsh features to something worthy of any bard’s song. “So they don’t stuff your head with cotton in those monasteries after all,” she said, laughing lightly.
“No, we save the cotton for cranky old warriors with head injuries. The material swells nicely – helps the codgers feel like they’re kids again,” Kyrian retorted, her eyes dancing merrily. Gods, I missed this – bantering with someone who can count higher than ten without taking off their shoes first. Growing up, the stardancer always had someone in the monastery to trade jibes with, whether it was the older teachers or her fellow students.
Ordinary citizens tended to regard the stardancer as something holy, treating her with a diffident awe that left her lonely and longing for a friend. Saddened, Kyrian had turned inward for solace, but Azhani’s words had sparked a surge of hope. Maybe she could find a friend after all. Wait, what am I thinking? Can I befriend a murderer?
She doesn’t act like a murderer, Kyr. Look at her – she’s just as leery of you as you are of her. You already half way like her. Take a chance; forget about what you’ve heard. Let her tell you her side of the story. You might be surprised. The voice of reason whispered persuasively.
Kyrian had to admit that when the warrior wasn’t being grumpy, she was pleasant to be around. At least she treated the stardancer as a person and not like the physical embodiment of Astariu herself. The last time Kyrian had felt that way was when she had lived in that elven village.
Though not known for their tolerance of half-breeds, the elders of Myr had nonetheless welcomed her into their community. As a servant of Astariu, they knew they could come to her with their ills and she was glad to take the role of teacher to the small children in the village.
For several years, Kyrian lived in peace. Each day was a dream come true, allowing her to practice her gift as well as inspire hungry minds to explore the world around them. The spring of her fourth year, the dream became a nightmare.
The day had been warm, but now it was sundown, and time to bring the children home from a day of swimming lessons. Staying close to their teacher as they traveled, her students chattered excitedly, bragging of their watery feats.
Too late, Kyrian heard the whispery sound of booted feet on grass. The stardancer spun when the children cried out. A human male had stumbled onto their group and had taken the opportunity to grab what treasure he could. In his large hands, he held two of the village children. Their wide, fearful eyes pleaded with her as they struggled to free themselves.
The other children had already run off, screaming and crying in panic. Kyrian and the outlaw were alone on the road. The stardancer gripped the comforting weight of her baton and she brandished it, pleased that it had come to her hand so easily.
“By the grace of the goddess, I ask you to release the children,” she said evenly, stepping into the moonlight. The raider’s eyes widened when he saw her crimson robes, but narrowed when his gaze traveled up to her face and took in the youth of her features.
“G’home, girl, an grow ye up sum afore challengin’ a real man,” he slurred drunkenly, squeezing the two elven children close. “These here animals is mine, and I intend t’git good gold fer ‘em.” He looked her over again and leered. “Less a-ways you want t’trade?” His lascivious stare left no doubt as to what he would consider a “fair” trade.
Kyrian contemplated the offer for all of two heartbeats. “No, I don’t think so,” she said, shaking her head slightly and then looking the raider up and down. “I’ve had better offers from the village granthers,” she added dismissively.
Angered by the stardancer’s disdainful words, the man roared and hurled the children away. “If ye’ll not trade it, then I’ll be taking it!” he bellowed, reaching into his belt and drawing a short sword. The elves, free of his grasping hands, ran off.
“You can try,” she taunted serenely, easily fending off his first blow. Catching his blade on her baton, she used the side of her foot to deliver a solid, painful blow to his chest, knocking him back several feet.
Cursing, he dove for her, slashing wildly. Kyrian spun, avoiding the wild swing. The bandit swung again, and she blocked the blow, and punched his wrist twice, making him scream in pain.
Liquor imbued strength allowed him to hang on to his blade. He tried to punch her and she avoided the blow, but that gave him time to free his sword. Adrenalin was quickly burning away the ale in his system. A vicious grin spread across his face and the sword strikes became more controlled.
“I’m a-gonna git you, girl, and when I do, I’m a-gonna take what I want!” he threatened darkly.
Kyrian didn’t respond, she was too busy fending off a furious assault of blows. One strike came too close, and his sword caught her robes, cutting them open and revealing her naked body beneath.
His eyes pinned to her chest, the raider slowly licked his lips. “Now that’s exactly what I want to see, girl.” His blade began to droop as he grabbed his crotch lustfully.
Screaming in fury, Kyrian attacked. Bringing her baton down in an anger-driven blow, the stardancer shattered her attacker’s sword arm. As he reeled back in pain, she punched him in the throat, crushing his windpipe. Snarling, she brought her baton around and began pummeling his head.
He dropped like a stone. Convulsing violently, he died. Panting, Kyrian stood there, staring at the man’s corpse.
The reality of what she had just done crashed into her, driving her to her knees. Wracked by terrible sobs, she clutched her hair, yanking it out in handfuls and crying out, “Oh goddess, I’m sorry!”
Later, the elven scouts found her standing over the body of the slain raider, her weapon dangling uselessly by her side. A long, shallow gash ran from her shoulder to her hip, where the tip of the bandit’s sword had torn her skin. Another, deeper wound in her thigh bled freely, but she didn’t care. All that mattered, all that she could focus on was the broken wreck that used to be the man’s head.
She could hear blood slip down her baton and drip onto the grass. The sound was deafeningly loud.
“Stardancer Kyrian?” Her name, softly spoken, broke her gaze from the corpse. Looking up, she saw one of the village elders break through the trees and head for her.
The ground rose up quickly as her sight and consciousness faded away.
A week later, Kyrian left Myr behind, unable to stay where the ghost of the man she had slain wandered, even though he only walked in her nightmares.
Azhani’s voice broke the spell of the past.
“Hey, where’d you go?” Surprised by the worry she felt when the stardancer’s vibrant green eyes suddenly fixed on a point somewhere in the distance, the warrior finally spoke up, bringing Kyrian back to the here and now.
The stardancer shook her head, rubbing her eyes and surreptitiously brushing away tears. “Ancient history - it’s of no matter,” she muttered, turning back to finish preparing their supper.
Knowing quite a bit about history, Azhani let the stardancer keep her secrets, lifting her crutch up onto her lap to begin working on it once more.
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