“So, how cold is it going to get, really?” Kyrian asked curiously as Azhani handed her another sack full of trash.
“Cold,” Azhani replied tersely. She waited for the stardancer to carry the bag out, dump it onto the trash heap and return. “I’ve seen men freeze overnight during the winters up here, if they weren’t prepared right.”
“Brr. Okay, that’s not going to happen to us, though, right?” Smiling sheepishly, Kyrian added, “I grew up in southern Y’Syr. We sometimes had snow, but mostly, our winters were rainy.” She sighed. “I’m sorry to be such a pest about this, but I really want to help, and I can’t do that unless I ask questions.”
“It’s all right. No, we are not going to die from the cold. If necessary, we can bring Arun into the cabin with us and burn the shed, but I really don’t think that’ll happen. Barton will have supplies.” Azhani handed up the bag again and stood up. Looking around the room, she smiled in satisfaction. It had taken them most of the morning to get the garbage out, but now the floor was clear.
Kyrian returned and picked up the broom. Making shooing motions with her hand, she waited until Azhani went up into the main portion of the cottage and then briskly swept the storage room clean. When she was done, she leaned the broom in a corner and poked her head in to see what the warrior was doing.
Azhani had gone outside and was sitting on the low wall that surrounded the property, weaving a basket out of grass. The stardancer let her be, giving her some time alone. Instead, she went into the house and started shaking out their bedding.
Tucking the last ends of the basket together, Azhani slid off the wall and grabbed her crutch. Just on the other side of the fence, close to the back of the house, was a thicket of blackberries. If she were lucky, there would still be a few that were edible.
For breakfast, Kyrian had made oatmeal, adding the berries she had found the day before. Azhani had enjoyed it and wanted to ask the stardancer to make it again, but didn’t know how to ask. Figuring that if she provided the berries, Kyrian would provide the cereal, she made up a basket to bring home her hoped-for treat.
Azhani had decided to call a truce with Kyrian. The stardancer obviously intended to stay, and unless she wanted to incur the wrath of the goddess, the warrior wasn’t going to throw her out. So that morning, while they ate, she had suggested that they begin cleaning the storeroom... together.
The warrior rounded the corner of the fence, nearly tripping over a large, moss covered boulder. “How convenient,” she said wryly, sitting down and resting her crutch against the wall. Thorny, dry brambles tumbled along the stones, providing an excellent natural barrier against attack. A brown speckled bird hopped from branch to branch, pecking at the few dark, almost purple berries that still clung to the vine.
Smiling, Azhani let the sparrow eat, and when it flew away, she started poking around for more of the sweet berries. One candlemark and several puncture wounds later, she had a full basket of blackberries. As she was about to stand, she noticed the wriggling tail of a rabbit scurrying toward the forest.
A sharp, piercing scream was the only sound the animal made as Azhani’s dagger, hastily thrown, found its mark. It didn’t take long to clean the rabbit, and afterward, the warrior headed back to the cabin to present her contribution to the dinner pot.
Kyrian folded her blanket, rolling it tightly and then set it at the head of her pallet. Standing, she surveyed the room, liking the changes. She had moved their pallets so that the fire would warm both her and Azhani and then she had brought in the old trunk from the shed. Placing it by the hearth, she had filled it with as much wood as she could, so that there would be enough fuel for the night, rather than having to go down into the cold storeroom.
The stardancer itched to go out and find Azhani, just so she could talk to her, but she refused to indulge in the questions that percolated in the back of her mind just yet. Instead, she tried to balance rumor against reality. Kyrian was rapidly coming to the conclusion that the quiet, unassuming woman she was caring for and the arrogant, traitorous villain of Banner Lake were not the same person.
If I’m patient, perhaps I’ll hear the full story yet. She knew the old stories about Azhani – she had heard old Laric Talespinner maunder on and on about the “hero of Pine Ridge” often enough – and she knew the new ones, thanks to every would-be bard and minstrel from Y’dan to Y’Syr. Since the day that King Arris’ heralds had gone out from town to town, announcing Azhani’s crimes, the deeds of the past had gone unsung, replaced by whispered, hair-raising tales that named the warleader the Banshee of Banner Lake.
“I tell you true, my friends, t’was a cruel, cruel day, when the warleader rose against the land, casting down her oaths and spitting in the face of Astariu the warrior,” the craggy old voice filled the tavern, drawing in the crowd of listeners. “Like a banshee she was, sent by the Lord of Hell to steal the souls of good King Arris’ men.” Kyrian turned away from the bar, cocking her head to pay attention to what the bard was saying.
“Listen, and hear the tale of the fall of the Scion of DaCoure.” The skilled bard held his crowd lightly, raising his voice from the softest whisper to the boldest shouts to depict the battlefield at Banner Lake. Vividly, he described the vision of a woman gone mad with vengeance, drunk on power and treachery as she carved a bloody swath through hundreds of innocent men and women.
Pacing back and forth, the storyteller’s hands wove wild patterns, casting dancing shadows on the wall behind him. Everyone was glued to his performance, sitting on the edge of their seats while he pantomimed the battles.
“No soldier born could best the demon; no plea for mercy was heard,” he whispered, bringing his tale to a close. “From the first death, that of Princess Ylera Kelani, Y’Syr’s beloved ambassador, to the last, Joshua Toryn, who was just a boy, barely eighteen summers old, she murdered them all, screaming her victory with every blow.” The bard was on his knees now, mimicking the fallen soldier’s family.
“So heed my words, good friends, and take ye home carefully now. For if you should fall within the thrall of Astariu’s Forsaken, then the Lord of Hell shall come to call.”
Therein lay the conundrum, the stardancer decided. Not that Azhani had broken her oaths, but that she had supposedly forsaken Astariu. Kyrian was terribly confused by this. How could a woman who had accepted the tattoo that marked her as a follower of Astariu the Warrior, kill in cold blood? It went against every basic tenant preached by Astariuns since the Twins first created the world.
The gods of the Kingdoms of Y’myran were Astariu and Astarus, twin sister and brother, who had, out of love for each other, created the universe and all within it. To Astarus came the scholars, men and women who ferreted out the knowledge of the world and kept it safe for all to use. Astarus also had a strong sense of humor, and loved those who used guile and cunning to succeed in the world. Mages who did not hear the call of Astariu’s Starseekers also looked to the brother, speaking his name with reverent awe.
Astariu claimed the love of healers everywhere, granting Stardancers like Kyrian the ability to call upon Her fire to aid the sick and injured. Starseekers were those mages whose magic came from intense prayer rather than the study of grimoires. Of all who spoke Astariu’s name in reverence though, it was upon the shoulders of the warriors which She placed the largest burdens.
To be a warrior and swear to Astariu was to declare oneself a servant of the land and its people. If Azhani truly had forsaken this oath, then why did she bother rescuing Kyrian from the Cabalian kidnapper? This was what had the stardancer’s stomach in knots and her head throbbing with unanswered questions in the middle of the night.
Three days in her company and I’m already going insane, Kyrian thought, morbidly amused. This bodes well for the rest of the winter, I’m sure.
“Looks good in here, Kyrian.” Azhani’s softly spoken words caused the stardancer to jump. Giving the young woman an odd look, Azhani limped past her and laid the basket of berries and the rabbit meat on the hearth. “Found some stuff out there, thought it’d be useful,” she said gruffly.
Surprise caught the stardancer unawares. “You didn’t have to do that,” she blurted, then clapped her hand over her mouth. “Sorry, forget I said that,” she said a moment later. “Thank you, it’s nice to have someone around who doesn’t freak out over having to forage for food.” Thinking of Ylera, and the princess’ utter distaste at having to do anything resembling a chore made the stardancer smile.
Azhani shook her head, unable to fathom the stardancer’s moods. “Okay. Well, I’m going to poke around in the back – if I can find a flexible enough branch, I can make a fishing pole.”
“Can I help?” Kyrian offered readily.
I don’t need your help, was the answer that hovered on the warrior’s tongue, but Azhani’s earlier resolution, to work with the stardancer instead of against her, held it back. Instead, she said, “Sure, just look for anything that’s between one and three inches thick and flexible enough that a solid blow won’t snap it.”
Kyrian nodded and chose to go out to the front of the cabin. Arun whickered a greeting from his post near the shed. The horse wouldn’t wander off without her, so the stardancer had felt safe in allowing him free rein of the homestead. Newly pruned bushes showed the path of his wanderings and Kyrian decided to look over where her horse had explored.
Azhani watched the stardancer exit the cabin and sighed. In the three days that they had been together, she had already figured out that Kyrian was naturally exuberant. She was constantly asking questions – about the area, about the weather, about anything that seemed to be on her active mind. It was only a matter of time before she started asking about Banner Lake.
And what do I tell her - the truth? She’s surely heard the stories. I saw the fear in her eyes when I told her who I was. Yet she’s still here. What does that mean? Can I trust her? Do I want to trust her? Thoughts of all the warm smiles and gentle care she had received in the last three days danced in her head. Ah goddess, I do. I want to like her – and – I want her to like me. It would be nice to have a friend out here.
Azhani snorted and shook her head. You’re just not good at being mean and nasty, are you, warrior? Setting her crutch, the warrior headed to the back of the property.
She found Kyrian kneeling in the mud, admiring a spread of tiny, bright yellow flowers that had grown up between the cracks in the stones that made up the wall encircling the property. The stardancer was gently stroking the petals, a smile of such wonder on her face that Azhani had to grin in response.
“Demon’s blood,” Azhani said, startling the stardancer.
Kyrian looked up, frowning. “Why are they called that?”
Limping over to the stardancer’s side, Azhani replied, “Because legend says that they grow where demons have died.”
“You don’t strike me as someone who believes in legends,” Kyrian said as she stood up, brushing her knees off. “They are pretty though.”
Azhani grinned. “No, I’m not much for make-believe. I find the truth refreshing. My dad always used to pick the flowers and crush them to make dye. The saffron color they give is amazing.”
Volunteered information, Astariu, I think I might faint! “I’ll have to give it a try,” Kyrian said, smiling brightly. “Though I’m not sure what I’d do with saffron colored stuff, since I usually wear red.”
“It would look good on you,” the warrior said without thinking, and then wished she hadn’t.
Kyrian’s ears flamed scarlet. “Thanks for noticing,” she mumbled, turning to gather the flowers.
Watching as the stardancer gathered the blooms, Azhani cursed herself inwardly. Don’t go there, warrior. Stay friends, it’s safer that way. Visions of hair and eyes as golden as the sun and pale, soft skin that held the promise of spring taunted her memory.
Ylera Kelani laughed, a musical, tinkling sound that filled the stone chamber and warmed it far beyond the ability of the meager fire in the hearth. Standing next to her king, guarding his side as was her right and duty, Azhani tried not to stare at the elven ambassador.
King Theodan was gravely ill, but before he passed, he was determined to end the years of strife along Y’dan’s and Y’Syr’s borders. The monarch had made it plain to the court that they would hammer out an agreement that was mutually beneficial to the elves and the humans. Peace would bring trade, allowing both kingdoms to prosper. Everyone agreed that this was desirable, but convincing some of the border lords to give up the “sport” of elf hunting was taking some time.
Bright, cheerful and young enough to be flexible, Ambassador Kelani, and her twin, Queen Lyssera were both willing to hear the king’s plans for peace. Ysradan, the High King, had sent word that he would be very pleased if Theodan’s treaty were ratified, giving both sides even more reason to deal.
King Theodan had poured nearly twenty years of his life into the plan, sacrificing everything to see that his people would inherit peace. There were those who were against the treaty, so Azhani stayed close to her king.
Ambassador Kelani accepted a glass of brilliant scarlet wine from a page and toasted Arris, Theodan’s son and heir. It was the boy’s sixteenth birthday and Theodan had thrown a party. Presents from all of the courtiers were piled high on a table behind the boy’s chair and Azhani watched in mild amusement as he squirmed around, trying not to stare at the steadily growing pile.
Sitting next to the prince was Porthyros Omal, Arris’ teacher and guardian. The slight statured scholar leaned over and whispered to the prince, causing him to still in his seat. His youthful face suddenly very grave, Arris lifted his own goblet and accepted the ambassador’s toast.
Theodan observed his son, wishing all over again that he had insisted that the boy go to Y’len and study under the Astariun masters. The youth’s sharp-featured face was pinched and drawn, and his black eyes were glassy from lack of sleep. Porthyros was an exacting master, sometimes forcing Arris to stay up all night working on a math problem. Arris met his father’s gaze and flushed, brushing his overlong black hair away from his face.
“Happy birthday my son,” Theodan rumbled, and then coughed softly. Azhani handed him his drink, and after sipping at the mulled wine, the king added, “I hope you’ve enjoyed your party.”
“Oh yes, Father, thank you very much,” Arris beamed happily. He craned his head around at the pile of gifts and then looked at the courtiers seated at the other tables. “And thank you, my lords and ladies. It has been a true delight to spend the evening with you.”
Glasses were raised in a polite toast, but the diners soon returned to consuming their food and talking about the kingdom, leaving Arris to once again fidget in his chair. He looked over at Azhani Rhu’len, the Warleader of Y’dan, and sighed. He was powerfully, and completely, one hundred fathoms deep in love with the starkly beautiful woman.
Ambassador Kelani said something that made the warrior smile, and Arris watched, fascinated, as the sword-shaped tattoo on her right cheek crinkled up. He wanted to reach out and touch it, to feel the color and shape of it and know if it were as much a part of her as the blade slung on her hip seemed to be.
“Come on, my prince, we must finish your studies,” Porthyros murmured softly. “I’ll make you some of your favorite tea to help you concentrate.”
Hanging his head in shame, Arris rose from his seat. “Father, thank you again for a wonderful birthday. I must return to my studies.” He bowed to the king and then to the courtiers and left the hall.
Ylera watched him go, and sighed. The boy made her skin crawl, though she didn’t have any reason to dislike him. Porthyros Omal, on the other hand, was just about as slimy as a man could get and not slide on the stone floors of Theodan’s keep. From the first day she had been in Y’dannyv, the irritating little man had made it known that she was welcome in his bed. Shuddering delicately, the ambassador turned her eyes onto the very pleasant face of Azhani Rhu’len.
Now there was a bedroom she wouldn’t mind visiting. Whenever Theodan wasn’t monopolizing Azhani’s time, Ylera would grab the warleader and drag her off into Y’dannyv city proper, to shop or to sight see. She didn’t care that Azhani was half-elven – her peers in Y’Syria might have a collective fit, but the stain of Y’dani blood didn’t bother Ylera. Besides, that was what the treaty was all about – building a lasting peace between Y’dani humans and Y’Syran elves.
The Y’Syran ambassador found the warleader’s mercurial nature extremely charming. At times, Azhani would be exuberantly cheerful, while at others, she would be deeply solemn, causing Ylera to wonder exactly what deep thoughts brewed under the surface of the warrior’s dusky brow. At first, the ambassador tried to avoid her feelings, striving to remain objective and friendly, because she knew just how poorly the nobles in Y’Syr would view her falling in love with an Y’dani. But it was already too late – she had fallen hard for Azhani Rhu’len and now she would do whatever it took to learn what made the enigmatic warrior tick.
Azhani met the ambassador’s gaze and smiled. Ylera made the warrior’s stomach turn flip-flops and caused her breath to come in short, painful gasps, but she couldn’t stay away, she had to be near the beautiful ambassador.
Noticing the warrior’s smile, Theodan poked his warleader in the leg and grumbled, “Go ask her to dance. I’ll be fine.”
Minstrels were setting up in an alcove off to the side of the hall, and soon, the light strains of music filled the chamber. Couples filled the empty spaces of the floor, moving in ancient, well-known steps. Swallowing, Azhani bowed her head to the king and approached the ambassador.
“Ah-um, Ambassador, would you li-like to dance?” she mumbled, staring at her feet.
The elven woman gracefully stood and took the warleader’s hand. “I’d love to.”
That night began the first of many nights of love and laughter.
Azhani remembered every second of her time spent bathed in the light of Ylera Kelani’s desire. Amber eyes and honey colored hair, the scent of wild roses and a silky smooth voice crying out her name in passion while spring rains drenched the city. She remembered spending long, lazy nights tucked against Ylera’s side, making promises to the unpredictable future.
Brilliant mornings spent laughing, dancing around each other in the practice ring while the warleader’s men stood by, delighted by the commander’s antics, painted the color of their summer together. The days melted away to an autumn full of making love all night long while spending their days working feverishly to finalize a peace that would be accepted by the nobles on both sides of the border. These were the precious candlemarks that now stood sentinel against the nightmares.
Azhani had never seen the cold eyes that burned in the shadows. There was no warning that her fragile peace was not to last.
Three weeks before Winter Solstice, the day she planned to ask Ylera to marry her, their idyll came to a crashing halt. King Theodan the Peacemaker died in his sleep. The ink on the Y’dan/Y’Syr treaty was still wet, but it had been signed into law.
The day after the king was laid to rest, she stood before the council, hating the news she carried, yet still honor bound to carry out Theodan’s last wishes. Facing the men and women who she had spent many candlemarks debating budgets with, as well as the Heir Apparent, Prince Arris, she unleashed the storm.
“It was King Theodan’s wish that his son not rule after him,” she said, her voice quiet as she passed the sealed scroll the king had made her swear to deliver upon his death.
Shocked silence echoed through the chamber, perforated only by Arris’ quickly indrawn breath.
“Nonsense!” the prince declared, not even deigning to read the document that was passed around the room. “My father loved and trusted me. There is no possible reason on this earth that he would not want me to take up the mantle of Y’dan and wear it proudly.” Black eyes scanned the Council, seeing only approving nods. Porthyros had coached him well, preparing him for the traitor’s announcement.
Arris never questioned how the scholar had known of the warrior’s treason. He acted, seizing the warleader’s co-conspirator and using every skill at eliciting information that he had been taught. In the end, he knew the truth, and now, he was ready to use it.
“I think,” he stepped away from his chair and padded slowly up to the warleader, “that you are trying something, something terrible, Warleader.” Again, he looked at the old men he had spent his entire life kissing up to and saw only approval. Good. They hated her as much as he did. There was a time, not long ago, that he did not hate this woman, this tall, proud warrior that stood before him, wearing only disdain on her face. Then, he would have done anything for her favor, but now he was a man, and ready to leave the petty desires of childhood behind him.
“I think, Warleader,” he turned the title into an epithet, “that you are trying to incite a civil war. I think that you are lying and attempting to seize control of the throne.”
Gasps echoed around the chamber, and Azhani raised one dark eyebrow. “And you’re so sure of this because?” That was her fatal mistake - cockiness. She believed that no one would betray her, because she was always trustworthy.
A cruel smile edged its way on to Arris’ face. “Why, I have heard it from the mouth of your whore, Oathbreaker,” he said, tarring her with the label that would be hers to wear for the rest of her life. The prince nodded to one of his personal guards and the man vanished out a door, returning shortly with the battered, bloody body of the elven ambassador. She was tossed carelessly onto the floor, where she rolled into the table, spattering blood and gore everywhere.
“See here the proof of the Warleader’s treason,” Arris cried gleefully, pulling a scroll from his belt and throwing it to the Lord High Councilor, Derkus Glinholt.
Azhani paid no attention to the scroll, her eyes only on her lover, lying broken and bleeding at her feet. Ylera’s beautiful golden eyes were closed, blackened by several blows to her face. Once soft lips were now bloodied and cracked and there was a slight cant to the elf’s neck that the warrior knew only too well. Rage boiled in her belly and she almost didn’t hear the prince’s next words.
“By the solemn oath of Ambassador Ylera Kelani, I declare you a traitor, Azhani Rhu’len. You are guilty of crimes against the Crown of Y’dan, you are guilty of plotting to rise above your goddess chosen station and you are guilty of breaking your sworn vows to the people of Y’dan to be its Champion. Furthermore, I hold you responsible for the death of Ambassador Kelani, for certainly had you not lured her into your wicked plan, she would be alive this day! Guilty, I say, you are guilty.”
“I second that statement,” Councilor Glinholt cried, eager to please his new monarch. Others of the council joined in, and before she could stop it, Azhani was taken prisoner by two of Arris’ burly guards.
She didn’t care. Her life lay in the pool of blood that surrounded Ylera’s lifeless body.
No, she wouldn’t allow Kyrian the chance to be burned by the flame of her life. A few smiles and a pair of gentle hands could not buy her heart. Azhani waited for the rage in her belly to boil over, filling her heart. The dark emotion overwhelmed the tiny bubbles of soft emotion that the stardancer’s presence had engendered. Turning from Kyrian, Azhani walked away, once again the hard, bitter warrior with a battered soul and scarred face.
Kyrian watched the warrior leave and knew something had changed. Perhaps it was the way the woman strode around the yard – tossing the crutch aside and forcing the splinted leg to bear her weight – or maybe it was the way she totally ignored Arun, even though the horse nudged her repeatedly.
The stardancer sighed and wandered toward the gate, stopping when she saw the tip of a branch sticking out from under a pile of rocks. Clearing the stones away, she pulled the stick out and was rewarded with a long, two-inch thick shaft of wood. Moss and spider webs decorated it, but when she flexed it, it snapped back easily.
“Will this do?” she called out, holding up the branch for Azhani’s inspection.
Striding over, her eyes agate hard and her face closed to all but the most cursory of expressions, Azhani took the pole and examined it. “Yes. Thank you.” The warrior took out her knife and immediately began stripping the bark off, walking off without saying another word.
“Damn it,” Kyrian whispered, reaching up to pat Arun absently. “How am I supposed to deal with this, Arun?” she asked the horse softly as she scratched his ears.
The gelding whickered and blew in her ear.
“Thanks, but I don’t think she’ll respond to that,” Kyrian said, laughing softly. “I was starting to like you, too, Azhani. You’re not what they say you are, and I’m going to prove it.” Shaking her head again, the stardancer led Arun back to the shed and went in to prepare dinner.
Later, after they had eaten and were readying for bed, Azhani looked up and tersely said, “Be ready to leave in the morning.”
Kyrian closed her eyes and turned away, not knowing whether she should salute or sigh.
The next morning dawned clear and cold. There was a sharp wind that carried with it the scent of ice and snow. Azhani had already pulled herself onto Arun’s back when Kyrian exited the cottage, locking the door and tossing the warrior the key.
“It’ll snow before the week’s out,” Azhani commented softly as Kyrian mounted behind her. The warrior took Arun’s reins and clucked her tongue softly, causing the gelding to turn and head for the road.
“It’s been a nice break,” Kyrian said, looking at the melted puddles of slush that were all that was left of the first snowstorm that had blanketed the forest over a week ago.
“Let’s hope it lasts a little longer,” the warrior said curtly. She turned around and looked at Kyrian. “You could stay in Barton. There’s a hospice there, and they wouldn’t turn away a stardancer.”
Patting the warrior’s heavily clad thigh, Kyrian shook her head. “No. I’m staying with you, Azhani. You’re stuck with me, so get used to it.”
Both women were dressed warmly. Kyrian in her heavy velvet robes and Azhani in layers, but the stardancer still shivered as the warrior guided Arun out of the gate and onto the road.
Azhani kept her eyes on the road, refusing to acknowledge the woman behind her. The simple truth was that she wanted her to stay, even if she refused to admit it. She needed Kyrian – needed the stardancer’s able body and agile mind. Otherwise, the warrior knew she would end up going stark raving mad over the winter. How she was going to learn to live with the woman without becoming friends, she didn’t know, but she was glad that Kyrian was willing to be stubborn.
It would be very different, spending time with the stardancer. Azhani had only ever met one other who bore the marks of Astariu’s Own, and he had been old, and nearly blind when he had come to try and heal the dying king. The ancient stardancer’s tattoos had all but vanished into the folds of skin that wrinkled around his eyes, but his skills were clearly still at their best. Even he could not stop the strange wasting disease that had withered Theodan from a robust man to a tiny husk.
Azhani’s own tattoo, a single sword inked diagonally along her cheekbone, the blade pointing up toward the Twins in the sky, had been first cut out and then burned by Arris’ butchers. She still remembered how he had reached out and run his fingers along her cheek, caressing her almost lovingly, before taking a sharp knife and driving it into the skin.
Though the wound had scarred over, it still ached, especially in the cold.
Arun’s chuffing breath and the sound of his hooves on the road broke the stillness of the forest as they rode. As the sun rose higher and the day warmed, Kyrian found herself pulling away from Azhani’s stiffened body. It was far too easy to want to snuggle against the warrior. Consciously, she knew that Azhani was supposed to be a terrible criminal, guilty of killing one of Kyrian’s best friends, but her lonely heart reached for any comfort it could grab, clinging tightly for as long as it could before relinquishing control.
The wind changed and Kyrian frowned, realizing that they were both rather ripe. One of the things she hoped the warrior would purchase in the trading village was a bathtub.
“Azhani?” she called out softly.
The warrior grunted.
“Does Barton have a bath house?” she asked curiously.
The warrior chuckled wryly. “Yeah, at the inn. We should be able to get cleaned up there. If they let us in, that is. We’re a little on the pungent side.”
Kyrian laughed in response. Things were strained, but perhaps there was still a chance to break through the wall the warrior had put up between them. She still wanted the chance to hear Azhani’s side of the story, if for no other reason than to ask her why she had killed Ylera.
Forcing her thoughts away from the subject of the warrior, Kyrian instead thought about the kingdom. Y’dan was not the land of her birth, but she had been traveling through its cities and villages for almost two years and she had seen some changes recently that bothered her.
When Theodan was king, the smaller villages rarely saw a man wearing the livery of a soldier. King Arris was nothing like his father. When he assumed the throne, after the massacre at Banner Lake, he sent soldiers to every town and village, imposing a garrison on even the tiniest of farming communities.
In the two months since Theodan’s death, Kyrian had seen several of the black and green clad soldiers standing around, watching people with unveiled interest. The heralds claimed that the men were there to “protect the people”, but Kyrian now wondered about that.
What were the soldiers needed to guard against? Surely Arris didn’t think that Azhani was that big of a threat, did he? Another example prodded her. When she had been in Y’dannyv a month ago, she had seen first hand that Arris’ justice was both swift and merciless.
“Let it be known that on this day, by the laws of our glorious land, this man, ‘Lefty One-toe Allan’ is hereby sentenced to death by hanging!” the herald cried as two men dressed in hooded black robes escorted a smallish, trembling man toward the gallows. The prisoner wore only a loincloth and his body was covered by old and new lash marks.
Kyrian stood near a fruit seller’s stand, watching the proceedings with veiled distaste. She understood the necessity to remove certain criminals from the populace; she just couldn’t accept that it should be a public event.
Already a large crowd had gathered around the gallows. Some folks were muttering softly while others pitched rotting fruit and vegetables at the hapless prisoner.
“Barbaric,” the farmer said softly as he wrapped the stardancer’s purchases in a bit of old cloth.
“What is he accused of?” Kyrian asked curiously as she handed over a few copper coins.
The farmer’s lips twisted. “He was caught stealing bread from Lord High Councilor Derkus Glinholt’s kitchen.”
“Is that a hanging offense? I thought theft...” Kyrian broke off as the noose was lowered over the man’s head. She could see the man’s eyes – they held a look of absolute terror.
“The honorable Lord Glinholt was home and heard the man break in. There was a struggle and Lord Glinholt was injured. It is death to harm one of the king’s chosen advisors.” The farmer spoke disdainfully, but quietly. There were guardsmen everywhere, and to speak against the king’s justice was a swift way to suffer it.
“How badly was the lord injured?” Kyrian asked curiously. She had not heard any of the healers at the hospice talk about the man, which was strange because usually the chirurgeons were worse than fishwives when it came to gossip. Of course, Lord Glinholt might have his own personal doctor, but even then, she suspected she would have heard something.
“I doubt many know, but a good friend of mine is a guardsman at the palace and he says that old Derkus slipped and stubbed his toe on a table in his haste to chase old Lefty out of the house,” the farmer said, shaking his head sadly.
Kyrian’s eyes widened. “Isn’t it rather extreme to kill someone over a stubbed toe?”
The farmer nodded quickly. “That’s what most of us thought, too, my lady. But them councilors, they sends out the heralds and they tells us that the law is the law, and we all got to follow it, even when it’s cruel.”
Kyrian gaped at the farmer. As long as she had lived in Y’dan, she had never heard such a thing. King Theodan had been well known and loved for his kindness and his care of the citizens of his kingdom, and his laws were merciful and just. He understood that blind adherence to an ideal was akin to fanaticism, a road no monarch should walk.
The stardancer shook her head sadly. She knew that when old kings died and new kings took their place, changes were bound to happen; she just didn’t expect them to be so drastic. Maybe it was time to move on. Y’mar was not too far away, and in the spring, it would be easy to take passage on a trader’s barge.
She had to go to Brenton first, to take the place of the farming community’s starseeker, who had passed away in his sleep a few weeks back. Another priest was traveling from Y’Tol to take his place, but he was still a few weeks away.
A sickening crunch of bone and the cheering of the crowd confirmed that the man’s fate had been carried out with deadly efficiency. She and the farmer exchanged glances once again, both smiling sadly, and then she took her purchases and drifted off into the crowd, needing to find someplace else to be.
It didn’t make any sense at all. Could it be that Azhani’s crimes were not as dire as Arris portrayed? Could the king’s near-fanatic devotion to ancient laws have blinded him, making him paint her as something she was not?
Kyrian hadn’t studied the history of Y’dan for years, but she couldn’t think of any commonly known laws that required a man’s death for causing a stubbed toe. Azhani Rhu’len had been accused of much, much worse and yet – what if those accusations weren’t true? What if she had just been caught in someone else’s web?
The Y’dani warleader was known for her bravery and honor. Even the High King had come to Y’dan to personally commend the warrior for keeping the kingdoms safe from the depredations of demon and barbarian alike. As far as Kyrian knew, Azhani had never accepted any reward for her actions other than the gratitude of the men and women whose lives she had saved.
How did this woman of honor become an Oathbreaker? She had to know this story, and she wasn’t going to forget about it until she had her answers. Argh! I’m doing it again! Kyrian reached up and rubbed her face. I’m obsessing over this. I’ve got to talk to her or I’m going to lose it!
Kyrian absolutely loved a good story. As a child, she would toddle after the older stardancers and starseekers, begging them to tell her stories until one of them would finally relent and sit her down and delight her with tales of the past.
Sitting behind a living legend was enough to make the child inside of Kyrian dance with glee. She wanted, no needed to hear Azhani’s story, even if it meant putting up with a surly attitude.
A blast of cold wind ruffled the stardancer’s curly blonde hair and she shivered, leaning closer to the warrior. Azhani seemed to ignore the chilly air, but Kyrian knew that she would have to make certain the warrior bought herself plenty of winter clothes in Barton.
“Cold?” Azhani asked, her voice a dry rumble. The warrior felt the stardancer’s arms tighten around her waist and she suppressed the desire to push the woman away, knowing that it was better for both of them to share their body heat.
“A little,” Kyrian admitted shyly.
The warrior looked at the road, noting old landmarks. “We’ll be in Barton by sundown.”
Kyrian nodded sleepily, feeling the warmth that grew between them spread over her body and work with Arun’s comfortable pace to lull her back to sleep.
“Rest, healer. I will not let you fall,” Azhani said softly, closing one hand over Kyrian’s clasped wrists.
Those are not the words of an evil, oathbreaking traitor, Kyrian thought sleepily as her head dropped against Azhani’s shoulder.
Kyrian came awake with the sun high in the sky. Azhani had nudged Arun off the trail and was roughly shaking the stardancer. Rubbing her eyes, she jumped down from the horse and then reached up to help Azhani dismount.
The warrior glared, but accepted the stardancer’s strong arm, sliding off of Arun’s back slowly and then turning to pat the brown gelding lightly on the shoulder.
“We need to give him a break, he’s getting tired,” the warrior said quietly as she pulled her bow from the saddle.
“How did you know that?” Kyrian asked curiously as she silently wrapped an arm around the warrior’s waist and helped her to hobble over to a fallen log and sit.
“His gait. He was walking unevenly. You should check his shoes, too. He might have picked up a stone.” Azhani unwound the bowstring and said, “If you do that, I’ll go see about catching some fish.” She stood, using the bow to find her balance, and then stretched, pulling herself to her full height.
Oh damn, she’s tall. Kyrian blinked in surprise, realizing just how tall the warrior truly was.
The human side of Azhani’s lineage was clearly evident in her height, as she topped the compact stardancer by almost a head. Kyrian herself wasn’t short, at least not by Y’Syran standards, where most of the population were elven, and not likely to grow more than five and a half feet tall. Topping that by seven inches, Azhani even outstripped Kyrian’s generous height.
“You must be feeling better,” the stardancer noted in amusement as the warrior did a series of upper body stretches.
Azhani stopped her exercise, realizing she had an audience. A faint blush colored her tanned cheeks. She looked down at her splinted leg and wiggled her toes. “Yeah, actually, I do.”
Kyrian almost smiled at the warrior, but decided to keep her face impassive, hoping that the light mood dwelling in the dark warrior, would stay a while longer. She did not want a repeat of the cold woman she had shared a meal with the night before.
“You mentioned fish...” Kyrian prompted after watching Azhani string her bow with short, efficient movements.
“I did,” the warrior drawled slowly, closing her eyes and sniffing the air. Arun had ambled over to a growth of bushes and was nosing around them, searching for any bits of greenery that had been missed by the local deer.
Kyrian once again thanked the goddess that she had chosen one of the hardier breeds of horses, rather than one of the pretty, yet useless, parade animals. Arun let out a whicker of happiness when the stardancer walked up to him and began scrubbing his ears, leading him away from the bush and pulling out his feedbag. She dipped into her dwindling oat supply and allowed the horse to joyfully eat his lunch.
She noticed the warrior’s crutch was still lashed to the saddle, but when she turned to hand it to Azhani, the woman was gone. Raising an eyebrow curiously, Kyrian padded over to where she had last seen her and smiled when she saw telltale footprints in the mud.
Taking the crutch with her, the stardancer quietly followed the trail until she spotted the warrior standing on the bank of a small stream. One arrow was loosely knocked in the bow, and her entire concentration was focused on the water below.
Kyrian watched in amazement as Azhani fired the arrow. The shaft sang swiftly through the air, piercing the surface almost soundlessly. There was a burp of water and then, the warrior was pulling on a thin bit of twine, drawing the arrow, and the fish attached to it, out of the stream.
“Wow,” the stardancer said in amazement. “That was very nice shooting, Azhani,” she said admiringly, hopping over a few stones to stand next to the tall warrior. Holding out the crutch, she said, “You forgot something.”
Grinning, Azhani pulled the still flopping fish off of the arrow and whacked it against a tree trunk. Handing the now dead fish to Kyrian, she drawled, “Don’t need it right now,” and knocked another arrow, aiming it at the stream.
Setting the crutch aside, the stardancer sat down and began gutting the fish. By the time she was done with the first fish, Azhani had caught three more of the small, silvery trout.
“Lunch,” the warrior said succinctly, joining the stardancer on the log and pulling out her dagger to help clean fish.
Kyrian looked up and gave the warrior a quick smile. “That was really quite something, Azhani. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone fish that way before.”
“My father taught me,” Azhani said shortly as she gathered up the offal and dug a hole to bury it.
“Oh,” Kyrian said, not knowing how to answer that. The half-elven stardancer was an orphan, having been left on the monastery steps as a newborn. “Boiled or fried?” she ended up asking instead, gathering up the meat and walking over to where Arun was happily finishing his lunch.
Azhani carefully stood, brushing off her trews and running a hand through her wild black hair. The long locks were terribly tangled and she realized she would probably have to cut them off after bathing. Her leg barely ached now; the stardancer’s skill at healing was well proven. Kyrian’s devotion to Astariu was something she would never allow anyone to call into question. Azhani’s lips twitched into a tight smile. Strange that the deity who had forsaken her in her darkest candlemark should be so willing to see her healed.
A cool breeze blew up from the stream and the warrior suppressed a shiver. Sliding the bow over her shoulder, she took her crutch and hobbled back to where Arun stood, chewing contentedly on his oats. Removing his feedbag, she coaxed him to the stream and encouraged him to drink.
“Fried, I suppose,” the warrior said as she passed Kyrian, who was gathering bits of deadfall for a fire, arranging them in a neat tripod shape a few feet away from their log bench.
“Fried it is,” Kyrian said as she knelt, striking flint to steel and blowing on the resulting sparks, coaxing a flame out of the tinder.
Azhani leaned on a tree and watched the gelding drink, absently reaching down and scratching her bared knee. Her skin was pretty chilled and she tugged ineffectively on the cut off bottom of the pant leg. She was looking forward to reaching the trader’s village. A hot bath, a good meal and a decent bed were some of the first things on her menu. Tomorrow, she would deal with bargaining for the goods she would need to turn her father’s cottage into something that would survive the northern winter.
I need armor, and a weapon besides this bow, too, she reminded herself, feeling more than a little naked without the constant weight of chainmail on her shoulders and the slight thump of a blade against her thigh. I wonder if I can get Kyrian to help me with this hair of mine? wondered Azhani as a matted lock of black hair dropped into her eyes again. The warrior fidgeted with it, allowing a moment to wonder what Ylera would have said. Probably that I needed a bath, and a haircut, because I look like a pig in a wallow, that’s what! snorted the warrior, causing Arun to look up and gaze at her quizzically.
Azhani raised one eyebrow and snorted again. Arun shook his head, spattering her with water. A wicked grin edged onto the warrior’s face and she reached out with her bow and poked the gelding in the side, lightly. He sidestepped, and then deliberately turned away and stuck his muzzle back into the stream, drinking greedily.
The warrior chuckled silently. It felt good to play, even with a horse. She turned to watch the young stardancer, who, now that the fire was going, was busily frying up fish. Efficiently, Kyrian sliced vegetables into the pan, sprinkling herbs on top and adding a dab of lard to help the food cook faster.
I like her; she’s a darn good cook. We need rice. Maybe some flour. Yeah, flour, for bread. Bet she can make a decent loaf or two of that, Azhani considered, closing her eyes and allowing herself to slide down the tree.
She woke when she felt a hand on her shoulder, shaking her lightly.
“Azhani? Warrior, wake up, lunch is ready,” Kyrian said, trying hard not to smile at the sleep-fogged expression on the other woman’s face. She held out a plate full of fish and vegetables, teasing her with the scent of cooked food.
Azhani groaned and blinked. Wha...? I can’t believe I fell asleep. Damn body; heal already! she chastised herself. Taking the plate silently, she began to shovel the food in as fast as she could, slowing only to blow on what was too hot to immediately swallow.
Kyrian found a log to sit on and ate as well, watching as the warrior tucked into her food like she hadn’t eaten in weeks. She recognized immediately what was happening and smiled as she picked at her plate. Astariu’s healing took a lot out of both the stardancer and the patient. She chuckled, remembering how she had eaten three times what the warrior had for dinner the night before. It’s about time she felt it! She thought, grinning in amusement. Now I don’t feel like such a little piggy!
Lunch passed quickly. When they were done, Kyrian calmly spaded dirt over the fire until it was out and then helped Azhani to climb up on Arun, and then hopped up behind her. They continued on the road, talking softly about the various trees and animals they spotted on the way.
It grew colder as the day passed and Azhani found herself grateful for the warm presence of the stardancer at her back. Guiding the horse around a fallen tree, she caught the scent of garbage on the wind.
Kyrian made a face as she caught a whiff of it. “Ew, what’s that?” she asked distastefully.
“Barton,” Azhani answered succinctly.
They crested a hill and looked down into a small valley. Sprawled haphazardly, with jagged streets branching off in many directions, was the town. The warrior deftly guided Arun down the center of the roadway, expertly avoiding the contents of several chamber pots.
Kyrian looked up just in time to see a woman throw open her shutters and shout, “Ware the street,” then dump a container of noxious fluids out.
Shivering in repressed disgust, she turned away and peered over Azhani’s shoulder, trying to see what lay ahead. The streets were covered in refuse. The buildings were either made of dark gray fieldstone, or thick timbers and whitewash. Hurrying to and fro, the townspeople barely gave the newcomers a second glance as they moved along the planked sidewalks.
Thick wool and heavy leather seemed to be the fashion of the day, clothing the residents of Barton against the cold. Fur trimmed necklines, boots and gloves added a bit of colorful flare, but not much. The shapes of the roofs particularly fascinated Kyrian. They were all long peaked, as though some giant had come along and pushed the eaves down, nearly to the ground on a few of the taller structures.
A boy on stilts walked along, opening lampposts. He carefully added fuel and trimmed wicks and then, with the ease of long practice, sparked them to life. As the sun set, the streets began to glow in the soft light.
In the distance, she heard a man cry, “Five marks and all’s quiet.”
Azhani guided the horse around a corner and stopped in front of a three-story inn. Stiffly, they dismounted, each taking a few wobbly steps to try and work out some of the soreness in their muscles. Kyrian quickly retrieved Azhani’s crutch and then let the stable boy take Arun’s reins. The warrior unhooked the saddlebags and tossed them over her shoulder, then settled her crutch under her arm. Shifting her backpack, Kyrian looked to Azhani, willing to let the warrior take the lead.
“See that he gets a good rubdown,” Azhani said, tossing the boy a coin.
He easily caught it, nodding and flashing a smile at the warrior. “Aye, ma’am. He’ll be pampered right proper.” As the boy led Arun to the stables, the women headed for the door of the inn.
Tacked to the wall next to the door was a wooden sign which read, “Barton Inn.” Oil lamps illuminated the doorway and they could hear the disharmonic sounds of a rowdy drinking song coming from within. Pushing open the door, Azhani waited for Kyrian to duck inside, then followed her. The song stopped as the patrons looked up at them. Nervously, Kyrian smiled and a quiet murmur settled over the room.
The warrior hobbled up to the bar and talked softly with the bartender, and then passed over a few coins. Kyrian silently studied the crowd in the room. Several humans, a few half-elves, a dwarf and two green-cloaked elves sat around the room. A minstrel was seated on a stool in front of the roaring hearth, a tambour hanging limply from his hands.
Their eyes met and she offered him a sweet smile. A matching smile washed over his rough features and he picked up his drum and began to beat out a familiar cadence and started in on another popular drinking tune. Nodding her head to the beat, Kyrian listened to the simple words and quietly enjoyed the warmth of the inn.
By the time Azhani had returned to her side, holding two wooden placards, the folks in the room were once again singing along with the minstrel. The two women made their way up a flight of stairs, and down a hall. The warrior stopped before a door and handed the stardancer one of the cards with a key attached. She nodded across the hall at a bright blue door.
“That’s your room,” she stated quietly. “It’s paid up for three days. After that...” she left the statement hanging.
“After that, we should be heading back to your cottage, right?” Kyrian said brightly, slipping the key into the lock and giving it a turn. The lock clicked easily and the door swung open to reveal a spare, yet clean room.
Hooded blue eyes regarded her. “Right,” Azhani replied.
“Meet you downstairs for dinner,” Kyrian said as she vanished into the room, taking her pack and bedroll with her.
Azhani sighed aggrievedly. She had considered eating her meal in her room, alone, but she wasn’t about to let the stardancer be exposed to the rough element she knew the inn drew late at night. Out of duty to the goddess, she would stay by Kyrian’s side, and make sure that the stardancer went unmolested in the border town.
The warrior opened the door and limped in, leaning heavily on her crutch. Her leg and feet ached severely, and she was looking forward to a bath with almost painful longing. The soreness gave her something else to think about, at least. Pain was almost preferable to the nightmare visions of blood and death that had plagued her every day for three months.
Closing her eyes, Azhani took a deep breath, enjoying the sweet, clean scent of the room. How strange was it, then, that the only sight in her mind’s eye was that of a smiling, green-eyed face? Scowling as she tossed the saddlebags containing her meager belongings on the bed, she thought, I don’t like her. She is not my friend. She is my caretaker. She is with me out of Sacred Duty, not because she thinks I’m nice. And I’m so protective of her because my oath to the goddess makes me that way, right? Right.
A tiny corner of her heart spared half a second to wish, fervently, that duty and honor would take a hike, and that she could reach out to the friendly stardancer. An aborted sigh rumbled out of her chest, followed by a deeper rumbling from her belly. The opening and closing of the door across from hers reminded her that she had a Duty. Azhani closed her eyes, steeling herself against whatever the night would bring. Calmly, she left the room, heading downstairs to join the stardancer.
Kyrian stepped off of the last stair and searched for an empty table, and smiled when she spied one in the back, far away from the warm fire. Well, it might be chilly in the corner, but something tells me big, brooding and gimpy would prefer a quiet seat to a warm one. She quickly made her way to the table, seating herself before someone else could claim it.
A strong beat played on a hand drum accompanied the poem the minstrel on the stage was reciting. Kyrian smiled as a serving wench came to the table. Quietly, she ordered two bowls of stew and two mugs of ale. The woman nodded, offering the stardancer a brusque grimace before heading into the kitchen to fix her order.
Kyrian looked around the room, taking in the inn’s rustic, rough atmosphere with mild interest. Barton Inn was certainly not like the places she was used to, yet there was enough familiarity about the tavern that she didn’t feel too out of place. She easily spotted the regulars. The town drunk slumped off a chair at the bar, a petty thief slithered up and down the tables, seeking an easy pouch to lift and a whore lifted her skirts to catch the eyes of passerby.
Filling the rest of the inn was a mish-mash of trappers, miners and merchants. The minstrel, an average looking older man with sallow yellow hair and a pockmarked face, seemed quite able to earn his keep. Though he was not overtly striking, when the bard opened his mouth, it became very obvious why his tip hat was always full. The voice that filled the room, that sang and told stories with honey-smooth ease was low, mellifluous and deeply resonant. Kyrian could easily hear him, and he had to be at least thirty feet away.
The drum suddenly stilled, as he spoke the last lines of his poem.
“Azhani Rhu’len, the bitch with the sword
never a lady, never a lord
she’s the old king’s Warleader and your life she will take
if you dare cross her
the Banshee of Banner Lake!”
The stardancer’s lips pressed together thinly and she spared a hopeful thought that Azhani had not yet joined her. Looking up at the stairway, she saw that her hope was in vain. Leaning heavily on her crutch, she saw her patient’s tense face.
The warrior hobbled off the last step and looked around the room, spotting the stardancer immediately. She could feel the skin around her eyes tighten with the effort not to frown. The minstrel’s words rippled through the room, reaching Azhani’s ears. Memory boiled up, assaulting her with uneasy flashes of blood and death, making her nauseous.
Reaching the table at the same time as their dinner, she sat, staring at the steaming bowl of soup and piping hot loaf of dark brown peasant bread. Azhani swallowed convulsively, wondering if she would be able to eat, and if she did, if what she had eaten would stay down.
“It’s pretty good.” A soft, low voice reached across the table and tore her attention away from the clapping customers. Azhani looked up from the bowl to see Kyrian tear off a chunk of the bread and dip it into her bowl, and then nibble it, letting out a pleased sigh as she did.
Their eyes met and she unconsciously took a spoonful of the stew and lifted it to her lips. The smell of well-cooked food overrode the tightness in her guts and she opened her mouth quickly. The rich, gamy taste of venison hit her tongue and she gulped it down, amazed when it didn’t immediately come up.
Ignoring the other patrons in favor of their meal, they ate quickly. As soon as they were finished, Azhani hobbled over to the bar and handed over more gold in return for another key. A flicker of a smile graced her lips when she handed the key to Kyrian.
“Your bath, my lady,” she said, heading for the stairs.
Scrambling to catch up to the warrior, Kyrian rushed passed her, reaching the top of the landing out of breath. The stardancer quickly retrieved two of her clean, threadbare old acolyte’s robes. They were so worn that the color had been washed away, leaving the fabric an indistinct shade of gray. It wasn’t their color that the stardancer was after though, it was the size. Large enough to cover even the warrior’s tall form, it wouldn’t be perfect, but it would be much better than forcing Azhani to climb back into her dirty clothes.
Azhani was waiting for her in the hall, an amused smirk twitching at the corners of her mouth. Locking the door, she turned and held up the robes, grinning triumphantly.
“Now you won’t have to wear those after you get clean,” she indicated Azhani’s dirt and mud-stained clothes with a nod of her head.
“Thank you,” the warrior said sincerely. “We can wash our things in the water when we’re done. They should dry over night.”
Kyrian shot a smile at the warrior and together, they walked down the hall to a second set of stairs that led to the rear of the inn. Across the yard a small stone building was built under the shade of a stand of large pine trees. On the top of the building, the stardancer could just make out the shape of a water tower. Several doors lined the sides and it took a few minutes to find the right door.
Inside was a bathing room. A carved stone tub sat in the center of the room. There were cisterns at both ends, but one had a hearth built under it that was blazing merrily, heating the water within. Small oil lamps sat in racks around the room, giving off a pleasant glow. Towels, soaps and scented bath salts sat on a shelf on one wall while a long, low bench lined another.
“This is quite a setup for a border town,” Kyrian commented, gazing approvingly at the room.
“The inn is owned by a couple of Y’marans,” Azhani said, by way of explanation.
“Oh, okay, I understand.” Kyrian smiled delightedly. The people of the First Kingdom were well known for their indulgence in all things hedonistic. A tiny thing like this bathhouse would be nothing to one used to the giant public spas in Y’mria.
Humming softly, the stardancer began filling the tub, testing the water a few times until it was the right temperature. It was large enough for the both of them, but Kyrian wondered if she should just let Azhani wash up first, and then use what was left. Looking over to ask Azhani her preference, she nearly swallowed her own tongue.
The warrior was nude, clad only in the briefest of loincloths and the splint. Flickering golden light dusted Azhani’s body in shadows that danced and played across her dark brown skin, weaving fascinating patterns of darkness and light. Barely healed scars were webbed over the warrior’s muscular form, a tracery of dark lines against dark skin that told a silent story of pain and suffering.
Goddess, she’s beautiful, Kyrian thought in wonderment, and then almost clobbered herself. Get over yourself, Kyr. You’ve seen her naked before, this is nothing new.
“Let me get you out of that splint, Azhani.” Kyrian slipped into her healer’s role, to steer her suddenly carnal thoughts in a different direction.
Dropping to her knees, she quickly unbound Azhani’s leg, letting out a pleased whistle at the marked difference in the way it looked. The bruising had all but vanished and the mottled knots of torn muscle and shattered bone had receded, leaving behind a smooth expanse of dark flesh.
Azhani looked down and grinned, shifting some of her weight off the crutch and onto the leg. Flare-like sparkles of pain rippled up her leg, showing that the limb was not as strong as it had been. Months of abuse had damaged muscles and nerves. However, just being able to look down, and see the leg straight, and whole, without the awful discoloration of infection and rot was a small miracle.
“I think with a few more days of taking it easy, your leg will heal as good as new, Azhani,” the stardancer pronounced softly as she stood and walked back over to the tub to check the temperature of the water one more time.
She’s so unafraid of my name. From “warrior” to “Azhani” in a heartbeat - can I be any less generous? Can I close my heart to what is freely offered, though it may cost me everything to tear down the walls? There were no easy answers to her questions. Looking around the room, she noticed the bath salts and smiled. Kyrian was gazing longingly at the jars and Azhani decided to be magnanimous.
“If there’s some sandalwood, go ahead and add it,” a low voice said from somewhere too close to the stardancer’s ear.
Kyrian’s head whipped around, almost cracking Azhani in the face. Reeling back quickly, Azhani grabbed the edge of the tub to keep her balance. Embarrassed by her jumpy reaction, Kyrian blushed.
“I apologize,” the warrior said abashedly. “I was attempting to read the labels.”
“No, I’m the one who should apologize, Azhani. I could have hurt you with my carelessness. I’m sorry,” Kyrian said in a quiet voice, reaching out and taking the vial with the bright yellow grains of salt in it and pouring a generous amount into the water. Stirring it with a fingertip, she said, “Here, climb on in. I’ll wash your back.”
The warrior shot the stardancer a strange look, and then muttered, “I’ve been bathing since I was three, Kyrian,” as she sat on the edge of the tub. Slowly, she slid in, settling back and letting out a sigh of hedonistic pleasure. The heat of the water bled into her aching muscles, making them tingle pleasantly.
Kyrian flashed her a quick smile and then reached for a scrap of cloth and a pot of soap, scooping out some of the fragrant herbal mixture onto the cloth. “Yeah, but, I bet your arms couldn’t reach your back then, either.”
Azhani grumbled, but allowed the stardancer to push her forward and gently scrub her back. When she leaned back, she took the rag from Kyrian’s hand and said, “Now your turn. Get in here.”
Dumbly staring at the warrior, Kyrian remained motionless.
“If you don’t move, I’m going to pull you in, clothes and all,” Azhani added in a deep growl that snapped the stardancer out of her shock and sent her reeling away from the tub.
“No, no, it’s okay, Azhani, you’re right, you can bathe yourself. I’ll ... just ... wait ... outside?” Kyrian trailed off as the warrior pushed herself out of the water, sending sheets of water cascading down her body. Azhani reached for the crutch by the side of the basin and started to step out. “Whoa, wait, let me help you!” Once again, the healer in Kyrian forced her to move to Azhani’s side, but the warrior pushed her away.
“I’m fine,” she snarled. “I can do this.”
Stung, Kyrian moved away, wondering what she had done to offend the warrior. Azhani stepped out onto the woven reed mat that sat in front of the tub and stood there, allowing the rest of the water to sluice off of her body.
“Tub’s all yours,” she muttered, turning away from the stardancer.
“But you’re not finished,” Kyrian protested, knowing the warrior had barely had time to soak.
“You shouldn’t have to have a cold bath, healer. Next time, I’ll take second turn,” the warrior said, as she reached for one of the large cloth towels that hung off the peg on the wall.
“There’s plenty of water in the cistern, Azhani. What’s the problem?” Kyrian said, chewing on her lower lip thoughtfully. You don’t think that maybe she thinks that I don’t want to be near her? Nah. Come on, she knows I’m not scared of her. She knows that I’m not afraid to touch her, right? Kyrian spared a glance at Azhani, who was struggling not to slip on the wet floor while mopping herself dry.
The warrior’s back was still turned to the stardancer. Letting out a soft sigh, Kyrian shook her head. Of course not, you moon-eyed dolt! Skittish as a colt, this one is! Best get this done with now, as you’ll be wintering with her, Kyrian told herself firmly, and then stripped off her clothes.
The stardancer bent and drained away some of the now chilled water and added the remaining hot water from the cistern. When the water was at the steamy temperature she liked, the stardancer tipped her head to look at the warrior, who was about to slip into her robe. “Are you still willing to wash my back, Azhani?”
Turning to answer, she stopped when there was a soft knock at the door. From one breath to the next was the time it took for Azhani to move from the bench to the wall. Slowly, she reached for the bolt, drawing it back and opening the door. Outside waited the serving wench from the inn, a tray filled with wine and sweets balanced on one arm.
“Brought ya a snack, Azhi,” the woman said in a plain, nasally tone.
“Thank you, Orra,” Azhani said, taking the tray and then closing the door. It wobbled slightly as she fought to carry it and her crutch at the same time. Kyrian was by her side instantly, taking the tray and steadying it.
Azhani looked down at the stardancer’s nude body then quickly focused her attention on a spot somewhere over Kyrian’s right shoulder. A long, pale scar slashed diagonally across the woman’s body, bisecting her from left shoulder to right hip. A second, thicker wound marred Kyrian’s right thigh. Dark, angry energy swelled in the warrior. No one should have harmed her this way, she thought angrily, vowing to put whoever had hurt the stardancer in the ground.
“What’s this?” Kyrian asked softly as she looked over the tray’s contents, humming with pleasure when she noticed a plate of freshly baked sweet muffins.
Snagging the bottle of wine, the warrior poured herself a glass and replied succinctly, “Dessert.”
“Oh, and here I was thinking that a big, bad, warleader like yourself would eschew such fripperies.” Kyrian risked a mild tease as she unfolded the arms under the tray and settled it near the tub.
A dark hand shot out and snatched up a piece of the still warm sweetbread. “I like a treat as well as the next bloodthirsty, ravaging murderer,” Azhani replied, her voice filled with self-loathing.
“I never said you didn’t,” Kyrian said seriously, reaching out to touch Azhani’s arm lightly. The warrior flinched away from the touch. Kyrian ducked her head, and then looked up, seeking the warrior’s bright blue eyes. “I’m sorry about earlier, Azhani. I wasn’t trying to kick you out of the bath, and I certainly wasn’t saying that I didn’t want to share with you. I just thought you might want to have the tub to yourself for a bit.” There, and if I’m wrong, I’m wrong and the words are still said and I can just be embarrassed! Kyrian felt her cheeks heat and was grateful for the low light that hid the flush she knew was spreading from her face to her feet.
The fire popped and crackled. Water dripped from one of the cisterns into the tub. Distantly, the sounds of a rousing fistfight could be heard.
Studying the stardancer for a long, quiet moment, the warrior finally peeled off the robe and limped to the tub. Shyly, she said, “I could use a little help getting in.”
Kyrian’s breath expelled in a soft hiss. Thank you, Astariu. Walking over to the tub, she held out a hand, helping the warrior step into the water.
“Better hurry, it’s cooling off,” Azhani said as Kyrian poured herself a glass of the sweet yellow wine.
“Yeah, yeah, I know,” Kyrian said, climbing in with a sigh.
The warrior’s hands were gentle as they scrubbed at the stardancer’s back. Picking up a shallow bowl, she said, “Tip your head back.”
Kyrian closed her eyes and complied, allowing Azhani to wash her hair. When the warrior finished, she quickly scrubbed up and then slipped out of the tub.
“Slide forward, I’m going to wash your hair,” she said, pleased that the warrior chose not to argue. Climbing in behind the warrior, Kyrian settled in place and then dipped her fingers into the jar of soap and began liberally coating Azhani’s dirt-coated locks. Slowly, she scrubbed the warrior’s thick, matted hair, working hard to get it all clean.
The two women did not leave the water until they were both well wrinkled.
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