Rising early, Azhani slipped on her mostly dry clothes and limped over to the stardancer’s room. She raised her fist to knock then decided she would just peek in, and see if Kyrian were awake. The door was unlocked, and she made a mental note to remind the stardancer to lock it at night.
Kyrian was awake, the shutters on her window open wide to allow in the morning sunlight. Clad only in a short, pale green tunic, the stardancer was involved in a strenuous workout. Pale skin rippled over lean muscles as she easily moved through a series of exercises that fell somewhere between dance and meditation.
Having spent a few years studying with the monks at Y’len, Azhani was familiar with the ritual. Kyrian’s skill and control in the art was nothing short of amazing, especially in one as young as the stardancer. Mesmerized by the grace in the stardancer’s movements, Azhani could only watch as Kyrian executed a flawless spinning kick that would have knocked an opponent through the window.
When Azhani leaned her crutch against the stardancer’s bed and stepped in to throw the counter strikes to the exercises, Kyrian automatically adjusted her speed and skill to accommodate the warrior’s injury. As they worked out, the calm sounds of early morning allowed each woman to concentrate on her opponent. Everything was going well until Azhani tried a bit of fancy footwork, lost her balance and fell.
“Ouch. Damn.” The warrior reached down and rubbed her leg. After their bath the night before, Kyrian had decided to let the warrior use just the crutch to walk. Without the splints for support, the muscles complained bitterly about the rough treatment.
Instantly, the stardancer was kneeling next to her, running warm hands over the bare leg, checking for signs of injury. “Sorry about that,” Kyrian murmured, wincing at the new bruise already purpling Azhani’s ankle. She began to hum softly, her hands flaring up in a soft yellow glow.
“You don’t have to do that,” Azhani said gruffly. “I can handle a sprained ankle.”
“I know, but I want to,” Kyrian replied.
Azhani shook her head ruefully. “Why are you doing this, Kyrian? Why are you helping a murderer?”
Abruptly, the stardancer’s song ceased. Looking up and meeting the warrior’s hard blue eyes, Kyrian said, “Because you’re not a murderer, Azhani. A killer, yes – I know you’ve killed. In defense of Y’dan, or in defense of yourself, I know you’ve taken lives, but I do not believe the woman who rescued me, the woman who treats me with such deference could have killed in cold blood. So, even if you don’t want to tell me your story, you’re stuck with me.” Standing, the stardancer rubbed her hands on her thighs and sighed. “I’d like to be your friend, Azhani. Will you let me?” She reached her hand out, waiting for the warrior to take it.
Azhani looked up into Kyrian’s face. Seeing only a gentle, welcoming smile, she accepted the other woman’s hand, allowing the stardancer to help her to stand. “All right, we’ll give it a try,” she said tersely. “I’m not an easy person to like, Kyrian, and I can’t always promise-“
“I don’t want any promises, Azhani. I just want us to stop crashing heads over every decision. Here, you’ll need this.” Kyrian bent to retrieve Azhani’s crutch. Stepping close to hand it to the warrior, she smiled as the warrior took it and shoved it under her arm, obviously grateful for its support.
“Thanks,” Azhani muttered, nostrils flaring as she caught the scent of the stardancer’s sweat-sheened body. No! Remember your beloved, Ylera? The heady burst of attraction faded almost instantly, replaced by the dark, fiery anger that burned ceaselessly in her soul. Arris had laughed at her tears, watching her from the outside of the cell door and mocking her weakness. Hatred swelled, and Azhani clamped down on the emotion, not wanting Kyrian to be exposed to that darkness.
Unaware of the rapid emotions streaming across Azhani’s face, Kyrian said, “You know how to fight like one goddess trained. Have you studied with the monks of Y’len?” Wrinkling her nose as she exchanged her tunic for the warmer crimson robes and brown leather boots, she added, “We need to make sure we buy enough extra clothes so that we’re not having to wear wet clothes all the time.”
“Yes, but it was a lifetime ago,” Azhani replied, shaken from her dark reverie. Gripping the crutch, she said, “Come on, we’ve got a long day ahead of us.”
By midmorning, Azhani’s bartering skills had bought them a rickety cart and half the supplies they would need to survive the winter. The gold from the kidnapper had gone far, but not quite far enough. Wondering if the stardancer would forgive her for getting hurt again, Azhani started heading toward the edge of town, where the rowdier element spent their days.
“Azhani, where are you going?” Kyrian asked, halting the warrior in her tracks. She had been staring at the Barton hospice contemplatively but had noticed when the dark skinned woman began limping off toward the seedier section of town.
“Never mind. I think that hospice across the way is Astariun. I’m going to find out, so, don’t go anywhere, okay?” Kyrian put her hands on her hips and gave the warrior a stern glare.
“Okay,” the warrior meekly agreed.
Smiling, the stardancer went across to the stone and timber building and went inside. Azhani frowned, wondering why the stardancer was suddenly so interested in the place. Then she shrugged and turned away, reaching out to pat Arun on the nose. The horse had been hitched to the wagon right after its purchase to get the gelding used to pulling its weight.
“Maybe she’s decided she likes it here, hey boy?” she muttered as Arun nosed her hands for attention. “Yeah, maybe. If that’s the case, I won’t have to go get my face smashed in after all. I can live off of what’s in the cart.” The cart! Oh shit, how the hell am I going to get that home? Arun belongs to Kyrian, and he’ll be staying with her... Astarus’ balls! Some demented looking donkey I’ll be, hauling the wagon down the road! Arun shoved his nose toward her pouch, hunting for treats. Laughing, she pulled out the carrot she had hidden there earlier and fed it to him.
Finely honed senses caused the warrior to simultaneously turn her head and fling out her arm, neatly catching a thrown object. A pouch, heavy with coin, fit snugly in her palm. She looked up to see the grinning stardancer jog across the street.
Slung from Kyrian’s left shoulder was a heavily filled haversack, and she had a large roll of dark crimson fabric balanced on the other shoulder.
“Did you find what you were looking for?” Azhani asked curiously.
“Yep. Did you know that the hospice is run by a couple of doctors from Y’skan?” Kyrian asked.
“Yeah, I remember when they first arrived. A lot of people used to die of the coughing sickness during the winter, but after the Y’skani came, no one died.” The warrior looked over at the hospice, and smiled sadly in memory. “They saved a lot of people.”
“They’re not Astariun, but there’s a starseeker in residence. I turned in my marks and got my stipend.” She nodded at the pouch in Azhani’s hand. “I’m afraid I’m not a big spender, so, there was quite a bit to collect. It should be enough to finish buying our supplies, don’t you think? I’d really rather not eat Arun’s oats and hay.”
Azhani hefted the pouch again. Even if it were full of copper, there had to be at least six months worth of the stardancer’s stipend in there. “I can’t...”
A warm finger brushed over her lips. “Yes, you can. I pay my own way, warrior. Now, I think our next stop was the blacksmith’s shop, right? We need nails and bracing, if I remember correctly.”
Azhani nodded dumbly, unable to come up with a reason why she should deny the money. As they walked toward the sound of ringing metal, she realized that she no longer even wanted to. Kyrian was staying. Yeah, I think I like that.
I never did buy a sword, the warrior thought as she pulled up her blankets and settled into the bed sleepily. Tomorrow, they would leave Barton behind and return to her father’s cottage and begin the work that would restore the battered building to a place that would weather the winter storms.
In the dark, she could barely make out the shape of her new coat of studded leather. The armor had been her one extravagant purchase. It had hung on the wall at the smith’s, the steel studs glowing silver from the light of the forge. Reverently, she had fingered the circular studs, wondering what she could promise the smith in exchange for the beautifully made coat.
Kyrian had noticed how the warrior lingered over the armor and had quietly spoken to the smith about its price. Azhani didn’t know that the armor had been made for the blacksmith’s son. The boy had been badly gored by a wild boar early the previous summer. The Y’skani doctors could do nothing for the young man, so he had lain for nearly two seasons, dying of a slowly festering wound.
Hearing about the young man’s injury, Kyrian had immediately offered to heal him. The blacksmith was all too willing to let the stardancer see his son, and after six candlemarks of singing and chanting, the boy would not only live, he would walk again. The man’s gratitude had been immediate and gracious. He offered to give the armor to the warrior, cost free.
Neither Kyrian nor Azhani were willing to accept the coat without paying for it, so a token amount was agreed upon. It was still more than Azhani felt they could afford, but the stardancer had wordlessly handed over the gold.
For a first gift, it was a strange one. Yet, there was something so right about Kyrian stepping in and making sure Azhani’s back was protected. She smiled, feeling another tiny crack break in the wall around her heart.
They would winter together, and in spring, she would say good-bye to her new friend and travel to Y’Syr and see if Ylera’s eerily prescient conditioning paid out.
“Again, my love. Say them again, so I know you have them,” her beautiful lover instructed, drawing long fingers down her jaw.
“Tellyn Jarelle. Morvith Aneswyth and Nara Vell,” Azhani repeated gamely, turning her head and capturing a wandering finger between her teeth. She sucked on the digit briefly before letting it go and asking, “But what do they mean, my love?”
“They are names, my heart. Names of my friends who one day, may be your friends.” A brief flash of pure sadness flickered in the elven woman’s eyes before being overshadowed by a smile of pure adoration. “Someday, if you have need, you will go to Y’Syria and you will find them. When you do, tell them my name and show them this symbol.” Ylera turned Azhani’s hand over and sketched a design into the skin, chanting softly under her breath. The rune glowed and hovered above the surface, then sank into the warrior’s hand, leaving lighter colored lines in the skin. Soon, even they vanished, but when Azhani flexed her hand, the lines briefly reappeared.
Ylera smiled and kissed her lover gently. “Whatever aid you require, they will give, and more.”
“But why wouldn’t I just ask you, Ylera?” Azhani asked curiously. “Or were you planning on leaving me?”
“Of course not, my love, but fate and the gods have a way of conspiring to make our lives interesting. I would rather you were prepared for any eventuality than to have you show up in my land friendless,” she explained gently, pressing soft lips into the hollow of Azhani’s throat and stilling further questions with her insistent, loving touch.
Hot tears pricked at Azhani’s eyes and she angrily dashed them away. You couldn’t prepare me for your death, though, could you beloved?
The still silence of the room mocked her in answer.
Lying in bed, staring at the darkened ceiling, Kyrian sighed and rolled fretfully onto her side. The stardancer couldn’t sleep. The truce between Azhani and herself had grown into a budding friendship over the three days they had spent in Barton. Tomorrow, they would leave the trader’s town and head back to the warrior’s homestead, to spend winter together.
It was almost romantic, and Kyrian found herself looking forward to the solitude with an eagerness that surprised her. Romance. Goddess, Kyr, get your mind out of the bedroom will you? Azhani’s a friend, not some pretty wench you can charm for a night or two of pleasure!
She blushed, thinking of the many invitations she had received from two of the barmaids. Though she had turned them both down, she hadn’t realized until that moment it was because she was attracted to Azhani. Kyrian sighed again. Instead of the demon everyone claimed, she had found Azhani to be a person – a woman with a deep stain on her soul that called out to be healed. As one of Astariu’s Own, the stardancer was drawn to that cry like iron to a lodestone. Wondering what it would be like to kiss the warrior until she saw stars, would not cure what troubled Azhani.
“This isn’t fair,” she whispered into the empty room. “I’m not supposed to fall for my patients, damn it!”
Since then, Kyrian had tried every meditation technique she knew to stuff her raging hormones into a box and then lock that box away in a deep, dark closet in her heart. It had taken some doing, because her body was very reluctant to let go of its favorite new fantasy.
She realized some mild success when, after dinner, they had walked up to their rooms. Standing in the hall, Azhani wished the stardancer goodnight, and gave her a gentle, sweet smile. Instead of inflaming, it touched Kyrian that the normally dour warrior would gift her with such a treasure of emotion.
Something within the stardancer clicked and she decided right then and there that Azhani’s friendship would be a jewel that she would treasure, not cheapen with lustful thoughts. Kyrian still felt the attraction, though, and it drove her to distraction. Little things about Azhani got to her, like the warrior’s low, thrumming voice, or her badly tangled, soft black hair.
The stardancer sighed and threaded her fingers into her own, curly reddish blonde locks. She loved Azhani’s hair, it was so thick and dark that she just wanted to reach her hands out and twine the tangled strands around her fingers. Kyrian closed her eyes, imagining how it would feel. Azhani would look up at her, her blue eyes so bright and clear, like the midsummer sky, and Kyrian would want to drown in them. Her fingers, allowed free rein, would sift through the warrior’s hair, delighting in the crinkly soft feel of the sable strands.
Biting her lip as her heart rate increased dramatically, the stardancer firmly said, “Friends, Kyr, friends. That’s what you’re going to be, nothing more. Best put those thoughts away in a nice, strong box and forget about them, before your heart gets broken.”
Oddly, the words, spoken aloud, did more to calm her errant thoughts than a thousand silent remonstrances had. Stripping the attraction of any emotional connection, made it seem base and unworthy of the woman she admired. Azhani deserved more than a lovesick, scatterbrained stardancer’s misplaced affections.
“I can do this,” she said, turning over once more and pulling the blankets up to her chin. “I will be her friend.” Friends, yeah, I like that. I haven’t had a friend since Ylera... goddess, Ylera... I still need to know... Did you kill her, Azhani? Because I’m not sure I could forgive you for that... With that troubling thought, Kyrian drifted off to sleep.
The sky was bleakly gray when they left Barton. Heavy, dark clouds rolled ominously overhead and Kyrian was doubly grateful for the extra warmth of her new clothes. She looked at the road ahead and sent a prayer of relief that the trip would take them less than a day to get home. Azhani was in the back, cushioned by the huge pile of goods in the bed of the cart. As they had packed, Kyrian had noticed that the warrior was starting to favor her newly healed leg, and had suggested that she ride with her leg stretched out, to give it a rest.
Cold, freezing wind whipped down the road, chilling Kyrian’s fingers as they gripped the reins. Shivering, she reached under the seat and pulled up her new fur-lined gloves and slipped them on. They were a present from Azhani. The warrior had given them to her just before they had left and Kyrian knew that the last of their gold had gone to pay for them. As they rode out of town, the stardancer noticed that the warrior’s eyes lingered on every sword they passed, which made her feel bad for not turning over the blade she had discovered in the shed.
At the time, it had seemed like the right thing to do. Some strange intuition kept the stardancer from giving the warrior a weapon so potent as a sword. Or maybe I was just scared she would use it on me... It was too late, now, to change that. She had the blade with her, though. For the trip to Barton, she had rolled it up in her bedroll and now it was hidden just under the driver’s seat, still cocooned in its sheath of ancient silk.
Comfortably seated in the bed of the cart, Azhani dozed, lulled by the steady, even pace of the gelding. Kyrian expertly guided the horse down the road, avoiding the larger ruts and stones, allowing the warrior to nap. The heavy chill, coupled with the dark clouds boiling overhead told the warrior that snow was on the horizon. Perhaps even as soon as that evening or the next day, the world would once again be wrapped in white. Sighing contentedly, the warrior tugged her blankets closer and snuggled into the warm bed of flour sacks.
Azhani listened to the sound of Arun’s hooves clip clopping on the dry ground, the even beat mixing pleasantly with the rustle of animals and birds in the trees and bushes. Overhead, she could see the lazy flight of an eagle, searching for a bit of food to take home to its warm shelter. The scent of sandalwood drifted over and she smiled, recalling the bath that she and the stardancer had shared.
Friendship... that was the magical talisman that the stardancer had offered, and greedily, Azhani had accepted it. Now, as they traveled homeward, she found herself hoping that the winter would temper their hasty bond into something that would make Kyrian want to stay.
It would not be easy to open up to Kyrian. Even the thought of talking about her story made Azhani queasy. She could feel the boiling darkness within her, raging as it ached to claw its way out and take over. The Banshee wanted to be freed. She wanted to run wild and carve a channel a mile wide for the river of blood that killing Arris and his toadies would spill. Azhani had to fight to keep that darkness at bay, because it would consume everything and everyone in its path, and not even the beautiful young stardancer would be able to escape.
If she were wise, she would spend the winter with Kyrian and then send her on her way. That would be the right and best thing to do. Making up her mind, Azhani nodded and steeled her will. The stardancer would stay for the winter and then, when the spring rains came and the northern road to Y’Syr opened up, the warrior would safely escort Kyrian to Y’len. After that, she would turn toward Y’Syria, and to Ylera’s promise of help.
The tiny, almost imperceptible ache that threaded through her stomach was probably from the amount of porridge she had eaten for breakfast. Azhani shifted once more and fell into a deeper sleep.
Taking a deep draft of cool water from her waterskin, Kyrian rubbed her eyes and looked down the road. They had been traveling for several candlemarks. Above, weak sunlight had pushed through the clouds to brighten the day. It was almost time to wake Azhani and stop for lunch. Looking over her shoulder, she smiled at the childlike peacefulness of the warrior’s face in sleep.
Kyrian was glad that she had taken the time to talk to Paul, the innkeeper of the Barton Inn. He was more than willing to share news with her. When Azhani was busy purchasing supplies, the stardancer had sat at the bar and spent a few coins on ale and talk.
According to the garrulous innkeeper, things in Y’dan were the same. Arris was slowly increasing the boundaries of the law, introducing new sanctions and restrictions that, when taken separately, seemed to be very beneficial to the populous. Hearing them listed together made Kyrian’s skin crawl.
The most disturbing trend was the alienation of the non-humans. Y’dani elves and dwarves, residents of the kingdom for years, were suddenly being forced to pay taxes, or buy special permits, just to live in the cities and towns. Non-human goods were inspected twice as much as that of humans, and non-humans could only sell their products on certain days of the week.
Many of them had already left, packing what they could and getting out of Y’dan even though travel in the winter was hard. Y’mar and Y’Syr both reported a steady influx of Y’dani non-human refugees. Half-elves were also being targeted, only for them, it was much worse. Not only were their movements regulated and their wares overtaxed, but those half-elves who had held high paying jobs suddenly found themselves demoted or out of a job. When those same half-elves would go elsewhere for employment, there would be no work.
With many of the non-humans already gone, the half-elves were sure to follow, leaving Y’dan a land of humans. A chill ran up Kyrian’s spine as she recalled the bartender’s whispered words.
“Aye, lass. ‘Tis a good thing, I be thinking, that you and yer friend be not in that place, now. I’m a thinking that the new king’s not cut from the same cloth as his Gods beloved father, now. And I be a-thinkin’ that the good lords and ladies of the Council are findin’ that out, too.”
The older man had looked around the empty inn, and then leaned forward to add something more.
“They say that our Azhani killed the elven ambassador when she went ‘n lost her mind at Banner Lake, but I’m a thinkin’ that mebbe there’s less truth an’ more tale to that story, cuz ain’t no one as been there can ‘member the lady’s face among the dead. I lets ol’ Takk tell his bloody poems cuz the customers like him, but I knew ‘Zhani as a child and well remember when her da would bring her with him to trade furs. An’ lemme tell you, stardancer, that I don’ believe for one half second that Rhu’len DaCoure’s little girl is the monster them fancy tales say she is!”
Kyrian leaned closer to the bartender and nodded solemnly. “I’ve been caring for her for a few days now, and I haven’t seen any signs of the ‘demon’ your Takk speaks of.”
“’N you won’t, neither! ‘Zhani’s a good girl,” Paul beamed happily, wiping out a glass and filling it with a draft of cool ale and then setting it on the bar in front of her. “But you mind and not spread ‘round who she be. There be unfriendly ears in Barton, and don’t think I didn’t notice the girl a-limpin’!”
Having someone refer to the powerful, strong willed warrior as a “girl” had almost been enough to send Kyrian into paroxysms of giggles. She smiled in reflex, considering how darkly Azhani would frown if she heard herself referred to in that manner.
Hearing that no one had seen Ylera at Banner Lake that day had confirmed her suspicions that there was more to Azhani’s story than what the heralds and bards had told. If Azhani wasn’t guilty of the princess’ murder, if, say, someone else had killed her for his own reasons and blamed it on the warrior to keep the Y’Syran army away, then Kyrian knew that everything else attributed to the “traitorous Warleader” was suspect.
Now more than ever, she had to hear the warrior’s story. Taking one last glance at the peacefully sleeping woman, she clucked her tongue and sent Arun down the road once more.
A cloud crossed the sun, darkening the day. Kyrian sighed and whispered, “Guess I’ll just have to prove to her that she can trust me, eh Arun?” As they traveled, she scanned the edge of the road, seeking a convenient place to pull off and have lunch.
Azhani came awake as Arun’s pace changed. Rubbing her eyes sleepily, she judged that she had slept for at least four candlemarks, far longer than she had planned. As she yawned, stretching out sleep-cramped muscles, an unexpected flash of light caught her attention. Standing, she strung her bow and knocked an arrow quickly, hunting the trees for her target.
Kyrian had just spotted a clearing when Azhani’s sudden movement caused her to pull up on Arun’s reins and turn around. Seeing the warrior’s militant stance, she dropped the reins and reached for her baton nervously. An electric tension filled the air; crackling off the warrior’s body in waves as she scanned the trees swiftly and then, let her arrow fly.
A muffled scream followed by a body falling from a tree signaled that Azhani’s arrow had found its mark. Men poured from the forest around them, yelling and shouting and waving deadly looking weapons. Kyrian watched in stunned amazement, as the warrior’s hands became a blur, knocking and loosing two more arrows in quick succession before she jumped off the cart, landing with a stifled groan of pain.
Frozen in place by fright, Kyrian could only watch as the first of the bandits reached the cart. Rolling the bow in a figure eight, Azhani used the weapon as a staff, blocking the bandit’s swords easily. There was a sharp twang, and a thin streak of blood crept down Azhani’s cheek, where the bowstring had hit her.
A filthy hand reached for the stardancer and a raspy voice commanded, “C’mere pretty thing, Skavitz got use for you.”
Cold dread clutched at Kyrian’s guts and the weight of her baton seemed to double as she sat, paralyzed. Dirty fingers brushed the hem of her robe, reaching under the fabric to stroke her thinly clothed leg.
“Mm, gots us a nice one, we do.” The man licked his lips, tightening his grasp.
Panic exploded, sending Kyrian scrabbling back on the seat, her baton falling to the floor, useless. Terrifying memory slashed her vision, overlaying the bandit’s face with the shattered remains of another.
“No,” she whispered hoarsely, blinking against the haze that fogged around her, cutting her off from reality. Kyrian flailed wildly about. The cool hardness of the baton intruded on her fear and she grasped it, striking out blindly, scoring a light hit to the bandit’s shoulder.
Shaking himself and backing away, he growled, “Got claws, eh? Well then, let’s be seeing how you like this!” A whip uncoiled and struck out at the stardancer, the spiked tip ripping the tender flesh of her throat.
A strangled yelp of pain erupted behind her, and Azhani spun, frowning angrily when she saw the man who was attempting to molest her new friend. Driving the heel of her foot into her opponent’s knee then sucker punching him in the skull when he bent over, she yelled, “Run, Kyrian!”
The warrior drew back and threw her bow at the man attacking the stardancer. The long shaft of stout yew cracked into the bandit’s skull, sending him staggering away from the cart, cursing and clutching at his bleeding head.
Snapped out of her funk by Azhani’s shout, Kyrian watched as the weaponless warrior took on the four remaining bandits. Running sounded like such a good idea to the stardancer. Killing that man in Myr had torn Kyrian up so badly that she didn’t think she could defend herself and if she stayed, then Azhani would have to worry about the both of them. The stardancer sheathed her baton and took up Arun’s reins, preparing to urge him on when one of the bandits pulled out a dagger and threw it at Azhani.
The warrior easily dodged the knife, but took a hard blow to her kidneys from a wickedly studded club. Damn it, Kyr, move! Viciously forcing her body to action, Kyrian reached under the seat and grabbed the silk-wrapped sword.
As she shucked the fabric, the stardancer shouted, “Azhani!” and tossed the blade.
The newly freed sword tumbled end over end. Blazing in the sunlight, the blade seemed alive with fire as it arced across the clearing. Blinded momentarily, the combatants ceased fighting.
Metal slapped flesh and laughter rippled across the road. An eerie, bone-chilling wail erupted from Azhani’s throat, startling the gelding. The hollow keening sound caused the hairs on Kyrian’s neck to stiffen. So this is why they called her the Banshee... she thought, shivering suddenly.
Unaffected by the warrior’s cry, the bandits resumed their attack, bent on killing the wickedly grinning woman.
“Oh yeah, bring it on, boys. I need this,” Azhani shouted, laughing merrily and dodging their best swings effortlessly. Her blade spun in tightly controlled arcs, each lightening strike biting deep into dirty flesh.
Blood sprayed, dappling the warrior’s clothes and face and she only laughed harder and threw her head back, letting out another one of those terrifying screams. Shuddering again, Kyrian turned away, unable to watch the carnage. She could easily believe that this was the woman who had been named the “Banshee of Banner Lake”. This was the warrior who could tear through hundreds of men, bathing in their blood gloriously, all without pausing for breath. She was awesome, and glorious, and terrifying all in one package. A headless body toppled to the ground and Kyrian nearly fainted.
Clamping her teeth down on the bile that threatened to rise, the stardancer steeled her courage and jumped down from the cart. The whip-wielding bandit had shaken off the earlier blow and was slowly approaching her once more. Braided leather flicked out, coiling around her baton. He yanked, pulling her within his reach and struck, punching her in the jaw.
Spitting blood, Kyrian shook off the blow and struck back, cracking him in the solar plexus and dancing away when the whip went slack. He doubled over, clutching his chest and wheezing in pain. The stardancer finished him, delivering a solid rap to the back of his head with her baton. As soon as he was down, she checked his pulse, reassuring herself that he was alive. A steady thrum answered her questing fingers and she sighed heavily and pulled out a length of super strong twine to bind his hands.
When she was done, she stood to help Azhani, and ended up watching in speechless awe as the warrior darted around the wild swings of the remaining bandit’s club and cleaved him nearly in half with one stroke of the sword.
The warrior stepped back and watched the man fall, the pieces of his body falling apart as they hit the ground. A primal snarl twisted Azhani’s face as she looked up and into Kyrian’s shocked face.
Kyrian staggered back under the force of the warrior’s powerful blue gaze. Slowly, she sheathed her baton and held her hands out to the warrior.
“Azhani? It’s over,” she called out soothingly.
The conscious bandit grabbed his bound buddy and dragged him off, running toward the trees in an attempt to get away from the blood-maddened warrior. Since it was far more important to break through the warrior’s battle haze, Kyrian let them go.
Keeping her eyes locked with Azhani’s, she took a step closer and closer until the other woman blinked and let her sword droop to the ground. The stardancer breathed a heavy sigh of relief and then dashed over to the side of the road and began vomiting violently.
Azhani watched Kyrian jog off with a bemused expression on her face. The coppery tang of blood speckled the air around her and she looked down to see her new clothes liberally spattered with it. She wiped her face and was stunned to realize that it was coated in blood and gore. Quickly checking herself, she was relieved to find that, although she was painted in the thick, rapidly congealing crimson fluid, none of it was hers. A tiny cut on her cheek was the only injury she had sustained and it was so small that it would be gone within days.
You can still slaughter ‘em like pigs, she thought to herself in disgust as she bent over to clean her blade on one of the bandit’s trouser legs. She was even more grateful now for the coat of armor, because it was all that had stood between her and the man with the wicked mace. The area hurt and she winced, knowing it would probably ache for a while.
She stood and tried to sheath the sword, then stopped herself. Wait... I didn’t take this from one of them... so... where did it come from? Curious now, she examined the blade, surprise coloring her features when she recognized it.
“My father’s sword,” she whispered haltingly, looking at the blade with a new reverence.
It was on the tip of her tongue to ask the stardancer where she had found it when she realized the young woman was incapacitated. Kyrian was still kneeling, her sides heaving uncontrollably. Azhani took three steps toward the scarlet robed figure then stopped, realizing the last thing the sickened woman needed to see was her blood drenched body. The blade in her hands became a hateful weight.
Azhani glanced down at the finely wrought blade and considered tossing it into the forest to rot, but resolutely grasped it tighter, feeling the wire wrap of the hilt bite into her palm. Carefully, she slid the blade into her belt, avoiding the razor sharp edge, and then slowly began to search the bodies of their attackers. She knew this type well – just the kind of scum that she and her men had chased out of Y’dan so many years ago, when she was just a young circuit rider with nothing more exciting in her future than a hard bed of dirt and rock.
The warrior pocketed the few coins that the bandits had in their pouches, having long since given up the fanciful notions of “honor” and “chivalry” when faced with the real horrors of hunger and disease. What goods that came from the dead could be used to feed her and her companion, and maybe, spread a little cheer into the hand of a grubby child or winter-starved adult, the next time she was near civilization.
Weapons, on the other hand, were at a premium for her. Daggers, knives, anything the dead men had, ended up on the cart. Anything not deemed good enough would be melted down and used to patch pots, make horseshoes, arrowheads or nails. Everything else could be cleaned, sharpened and added to her personal arsenal.
By the time she had finished looting the bodies, Kyrian was back from the roadside and only slightly green around the edges.
“Wh-what’ll we do with them?” the stardancer asked as she took a sip of water from her almost empty skin.
Azhani stared at the corpses, considering. She had thought to leave them lying as they were, but she realized that probably wasn’t the best of ideas. Disease was no one’s friend, and rotting bodies drew unsavory things.
“There’s a spade in the cart. It shouldn’t take long to bury them all.” In truth, it would add several candlemarks to their journey and they would not likely make it back to the cottage before it was very late, but it was worth it to see Kyrian’s shadowed face clear.”
The warrior stripped off her armor and rolled up her sleeves, preparing to get to work. Kyrian stepped closer and ran a hand through her disheveled curls.
“Can I help?” she asked softly. “Were you injured?”
“No, it’s okay, Kyrian, I can do this, I’m okay. See,” she turned, pulling on her shirt, “No holes. Take care of yourself and Arun.” The warrior nodded at the horse, whose left flank had taken a whip strike. Amazingly, the gelding had not bolted, but had stayed still, placidly waiting for his mistress to come and fix his sore backside.
The burial took several candlemarks, and by the time she was finished, Azhani ached in a dozen places, not the least of which was the fiery lance of pain in her side. Goddess, I hope I didn’t break a rib...
As she surveyed the newly turned earth, a sense of satisfied accomplishment seeped through her and left her feeling like she had done her duty. Toward the end, Kyrian joined her and helped her to drag the bodies of the men to the trench and roll them in. The stardancer hadn’t spoken aloud, but Azhani could see her lips move, singing the prayers for the dead as she worked.
It’s so easy to forget she’s a priest, Azhani thought wonderingly. Maybe that’s why she can forgive so easily – it’s part of the job description. She quietly watched as the stardancer sprinkled several drops of fragrant oil on the soil then poured out a libation of water.
Kyrian’s eyes fluttered shut as she completed the ritual. It was the first time she had done it since that awful day in the Y’Syran forest, and it seemed oddly fitting that her prayers were for the souls of bandits once again. The stardancer’s lips parted and a soft, wordless tune began to fill the air.
Azhani recognized the song, having heard it more times than not. The familiar, haunting tones brought back memories. Faces and voices, laughter and tears of the men and women who had fought and died with her came gliding back, carried by the notes of the tune.
Her own, bloody musk called up the memory of her father’s burial. Rhu’len had died saving a child from the clutches of a demon, the last time the foul creatures had come up from the bowels of their hellish homes, hungry for the flesh of mortals. Lastly, as the song faded away, Azhani remembered her beloved Ylera, who had not been sung on to the heavens by a priest, but by the warrior herself. The broken, tuneless warble had echoed pitifully throughout the dungeons. As he stood outside the cell, Arris had laughed and taunted her about her inability to carry a tune.
Azhani finally turned away, drained and saddened, yet ready to leave the graves behind her and head home.
A hand on her shoulder made her turn back, and she was briefly enveloped in a warm hug. Awkwardly, she hugged the stardancer back, patting her gently. Kyrian was shaking, tiny tremors of fear that she could feel were just aftershocks of a much greater terror.
“You saved my life,” the stardancer whispered as she clung to Azhani. “Thank you.”
It took all of five heartbeats for the warrior to decide that she really, really liked Kyrian’s hugs. Ah goddess... it’s been far too long... The last time anyone had touched her with anything other than contempt had been... Azhani swallowed and pushed the thoughts away with a massive force of will. Now was not the time to mourn. Later, when they were safely locked behind the doors of her father’s cabin, she would grieve. Then, she would tell the stardancer her story, and hope that Kyrian would see the truth in her words.
Letting go of the warrior was the hardest thing Kyrian had done in a very long time, but she slowly disengaged, taking deep, calming breaths. “Sorry,” she murmured, reaching for her robe. “I’m not usually so clingy.”
Azhani shrugged and said, “Did you hear me complain?”
Startled, Kyrian stopped in mid-motion and stared at the warrior.
Grinning, Azhani said, “Hey, I can like hugs, can’t I?”
“Uh, sure. I uh, just thought...”
“You just thought that since I’ve been a grumpy, moody, pain in the ass bitchy patient, that I’d probably cut your throat for touching me?” Azhani filled in the blanks.
“Well...” Kyrian searched for something to say.
“Sorry to burst your bubble, healer. I like hugs. I like flowers and children – not for breakfast, either – and I rather enjoy sunsets too. There, have I totally spoiled your image of me as a hard-bitten, soulless killer?” Azhani joked wryly.
“Okay, no more pigeonholing, got it,” Kyrian said and headed for the cart. “You’ve always done this, haven’t you?” she asked as she climbed up into the driver’s seat. “Fight bandits, I mean.”
Azhani considered Kyrian’s statement. “Among others, yes. It’s all I ever wanted to do,” she said, shrugging into her cloak and pulling herself into the back of the cart. Her armor was too gory to even consider putting back on. If those bandits had any more friends, they would have found them by now, so she felt relatively safe in going without the leather coat’s protection.
The warrior’s nose wrinkled. Her new clothes now smelled horrible. Blood, sweat and dirt mingled to create a miasma of death that was far too familiar to Azhani. It was both comforting and disturbing. Part of her exulted in it, reveled in the knowing that she still had the skills, and drive to be the best and part of her watched another piece of her soul slip away, given to the service of the sword.
The sword. Azhani reached over and picked up her father’s elven made blade – a gift from her mother – and began methodically cleaning it. She remembered how it had come to her hand, and calmly she asked, “Where did you get this?”
Kyrian looked over her shoulder at the warrior and bit her lip. “I – I found it in that trunk. The same place I found those clothes?” she answered softly.
The warrior grunted, then reached for the sheath she had taken from the body of one of the bandits and began cleaning it, too. “And you didn’t want me running you through with it in your sleep, is that it?” The question came lightly, but the words struck like hammer blows.
An answer hovered at the tip of Kyrian’s tongue, but she couldn’t make the words come out. No, I never was afraid of that... I just... oh damn it... Stopping the cart and dropping the reins, she turned to face Azhani. In a calm, even voice, she said, “I kept the sword because I didn’t want you racing out the door to go play the big, brawny warrior while you were still injured. I am not, by the goddess, nor ever will I be afraid of you, Azhani Rhu’len!
“Why?” The warrior’s voice was a breath away from cracking, slivers of it breaking away and piercing the air between them.
Their eyes met, green and blue depths that swam and melded, searching for something hidden in colored pools that was impossible to find.
“I don’t know. Maybe it’s because, of all the things you could have done that day on the road, you chose to risk your life to save me. Maybe it’s because even though it meant losing your only weapon, you readily stopped that guy from hurting me today, and maybe it’s because no matter how much you hated it, you sat with me every night in Barton, keeping the scum away from our table with just a glare. Now, it’s late, I’m tired and I don’t want to sleep on the ground. Let’s see about getting back before moonrise.”
Well, I guess she told you! Azhani thought, a tiny smile quirking the corner of her mouth.
I’m gonna throw up again, Kyrian thought, swallowing hard. Oh goddess, that was hard. Okay, breathe, Kyr, breathe. In, out, in, out, that’s it, she’s not gonna use your head for target practice. The stardancer silently talked her nerves down and concentrated on keeping Arun on the road.
“Hungry?” Azhani asked, fumbling around in a bag for something to eat.
Food. As in, eating, as in, I didn’t just bury four bodies and a head back there. Okay, Kyr, you can do this. “Sure,” the stardancer said, swallowing convulsively. Bread and jerky were passed forward, as well as a fresh skin of water. Kyrian picked at the bread and when it didn’t come flying back up, she dug in, chewing on the jerky and drinking the cool water gratefully.
It was very late by the time Kyrian turned Arun up the path that would take them to Azhani’s cottage. The warrior threw off her covers and jumped down, limping ahead of the cart with her sword held out at the ready. Kyrian drew the horse up short, allowing Azhani to search the place and make certain there was nothing amiss with the cabin.
It didn’t take long for the warrior to return, carrying a lamp. “All clear,” she said shortly, stifling a yawn. “I’ve opened up the shed. We can get Arun bedded down and carry in the bare necessities. The rest will keep until morning.”
Tiredly, Kyrian jumped down from the cart and began to gather the few things they would need to finish out the night. Azhani had already gone ahead and when Kyrian came around to the front of the property, she could see the warrior tying a length of rope across the break in the fence where a gate once hung.
The two women worked quickly, dragging in only two loads of things before stripping down and collapsing exhaustedly on their pallets.
Azhani was dreaming. She had to be dreaming, because Ylera was alive, touching her, kissing her, and brushing long, golden blonde hair over her bare torso like so many thousands of feathers.
“Goddess,” she murmured, cupping her hand around the elven woman’s narrow face and drawing her up for a long kiss. “What you do to me.”
“What do I do to you, Theodan’s Warleader?” Ylera whispered huskily, drawing her long, tapered fingers down Azhani’s bare torso.
“Everything,” the warrior replied honestly. Her blue eyes glowed in the firelight as they met her lover’s amber yellow ones.
Ylera laughed, wrapping her lover in the musical sound joyfully. “You amuse me so, Azhani, child of Rhu’len. Now, tell me about your mother, darling.”
Azhani closed her eyes and called up the faint, shadowy memories of her elven mother. Small in stature, fine boned like Ylera, but dark, where the ambassador was light. Eyes as green as the plains of Y’Nor in high spring, hair midnight dark, a voice that crooned the softest of lullabies and hands that always soothed away her tears. These were some of the only memories that remained of the woman who had given her life.
“I don’t really remember her,” she finally said.
“Your eyes tell me that you loved her,” Ylera said, a touch of jealousy coloring her tone. “Tell me more,” she commanded, her golden eyes blazing with inner fire. “Tell me of how your father met your mother.”
Azhani looked away, staring into the fire. “You should know that story. It’s nearly the same for all Y’dani half breeds.”
A finger captured the warrior’s cheek and drew her eyes back. “Perhaps so. I would hear from you, what the man who gave you life said in explanation.”
The warleader sighed. “All right. It was the border wars. Y’dan and Y’Syr were bickering over land rights, again. My father was part of a small patrol of Theodan’s men, given to guard a small section of the forest. One day, they came upon a group of elven merchants.
Flying a flag of truce, they stopped to trade news of the other kingdoms. My mother, Ashiani, was the daughter of a merchant in that party.
My father used to say that my mother was so beautiful, she had stolen his heart with a smile. The merchants and the soldiers camped together that night, finding a strange sort of peace under the cover of the trees. They danced many times and shared food from the same plate; drink from the same cup. When my father retired to his tent, my mother followed him.
In the morning, when he found out what his daughter had done, the merchant accused my father of rape. My father had to return to Theodan in shame while my mother was taken back to her family home to live in seclusion. King Theodan never believed my father was guilty of rape, but paid my mother’s family a handsome amount of gold anyway.
Before my father could go and beg for my mother’s release, the demons invaded, sending the kingdoms to war. It was during the war that my mother died – giving birth to me had weakened her, and she was never able to regain her strength. My grandsire, having no wish to raise a half-breed, had me delivered to my father.
Theodan allowed my father to take me to the mountains and let me grow up some before recalling him to Y’dannyv. From that moment on, I was never far away from my father. Even when he would go to Y’Syr to talk of peace, he would bring me with him and turn me over to the monks of Y’len. My father died two years ago in the mountains near his home. He was visiting friends when the demons came down and raided Barton. He saved a little girl, but his own life was the cost.” Azhani’s lips tensed, pressing together tightly as the memories overwhelmed her. Sighing, she looked at Ylera and said, “Is that what you wanted to hear, Ambassador?”
A hard, teasing kiss took Azhani’s breath away. “Yes,” the elven woman said, smiling before giving the warrior another kiss. Sharp teeth nibbled a trail down naked flesh. “I should have known that only great love could produce a great lover like you.”
“Do you love me, Ylera?” Azhani whispered as her lover used every bit of her considerable skill to bring pleasure to the warrior’s body.
The elf purred, nibbling a hip delicately. “I love your body,” she said, sliding her tongue along the crease of thigh and hip. “I love your taste,” she demonstrated her pleasure, taking the warrior’s breath away. A long, lithe form slid up Azhani’s body and whispered, “Do I love you, warrior? As much as I am free to love, yes, I love you, Azhani. Does that please you?” Ylera’s fingers dipped down, stroking relentlessly.
Azhani gasped and panted, “Yes!”
“And you, Azhani, do you love me?” Ylera whispered, continuing to stroke the woman below her, fiercely loving her.
“Oh goddess, yes! I love you!” Azhani cried out helplessly. “I love you, Ylera!” The beautiful elf smiled tenderly and the warrior returned the smile, reaching out to stroke a soft cheek. The skin under her fingers turned bloody and shredded, ruined and ravaged by torturer’s knives. “No,” Azhani whispered. “Ylera! No! Don’t...” the warrior watched helplessly as the fireside scene shifted, becoming the cold dungeon cell where Prince Arris had buried her dreams.
“It’s all your fault, Azhani,” Arris said mockingly, sneering at the dead body of Ambassador Kelani. “If you had only accepted my proposal,” he said wistfully.
Right after his birthday, he had been puffed up by his own importance and eager to please his father by choosing the perfect bride. He had come to Azhani and begged her to fulfill his dreams and rule Y’dan beside him when his father had passed. Gently, the warleader had refused him, thinking that his request was only a device to gain his father’s attention. She had not known of his true feelings, and had laughingly informed him that she planned to wed the ambassador of Y’Syr that winter.
“I loved you, Warleader, why did you not see that?” he added, in a soft voice. It was late and the prince had come to see her while she languished in his dungeon.
Azhani’s nostrils flared, but her eyes remained dead.
A hand appeared on the bars of the prison door. “I would have been content to allow your – liaison – with the elven harlot, Azhani. Why did you deny me? It would have made Father so happy,” he coaxed, staring at her almost pityingly.
“I have no desire to dally with children, Arris,” the warrior said dully. Arris was nearly half the warrior’s age – she had bounced him on her knee as a babe.
Black eyes flashed angrily. “A child? Is that all you see, Warleader? I will show you a child, Azhani. Before I am through, you will see. You will know that you chose wrong, Warleader, and you will regret that choice! Guards!” Arris gestured, and the door was flung open.
Ylera Kelani’s battered corpse was unceremoniously tossed into the cell, striking the brick walls with a sickly thud. Arris smiled wickedly. “Enjoy your last night with your lover, Azhani Rhu’len, tomorrow you will both feed the vultures.”
Azhani thrashed to wakefulness, sitting bolt upright and gasping for breath. Tears streaked hotly down her cheeks as she searched for the woman who loved her, but would never again be there.
Watching the warrior through partially closed eyes, Kyrian felt the overwhelming sadness of the warrior’s loss. She had wakened to Azhani’s ragged cries of, “Ylera, goddess, no, Ylera!” and had lain on her pallet, listening to the warrior sob brokenly.
She cries Ylera’s name like a lover, the stardancer realized sadly.
The anguish in Azhani’s grief moved Kyrian deeply and she rolled out of her bed and crawled over to the warrior’s side.
“Azhani?” she whispered, tentatively putting a hand on the woman’s arm. Azhani flinched, but did not immediately pull away.
“She’s gone,” the warrior whispered brokenly, covering her face with her hands. “She’s gone and it’s my fault. I killed her too, Kyrian. Just like I kill them all.”
Oh goddess... she killed Ylera... Astariu, please, give me strength... let me see this through... Kyrian prayed. As if in answer to her prayers, she remembered that she still hadn’t heard the whole story. She had to believe that somewhere, in that tale, would be the reason why Ylera Kelani had to die. For now, she wrapped her arms around Azhani and quietly held her, not even letting go when the warrior stiffened and tried to pull away.
“Shh,” the stardancer gentled, “You can’t hurt me.” She wasn’t sure why she had said those words, but they seemed to work, breaking through the warrior’s last barriers, allowing her to break down and sob. Kyrian held her, rocking her slowly until the lazy fingers of dawn tickled their way through the shuttered windows.
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