“I can’t believe we're finally finished” Kyrian said as she huddled closer to the fire and sipped at a cup of mulled cider.
Azhani shrugged. “We worked hard and the place is small. I’m glad we were able to make the shed a little larger for Arun. I thought he was going to do back flips when I widened his stall.”
Kyrian chuckled at the image of her gelding acting like a circus acrobat. In truth, the horse had all but danced a jig as Azhani knocked out a wall on one side of the shed and used some of the supplies they had purchased in Barton to widen the area. The building now housed the horse and all their extra supplies comfortably.
In fact, the entire homestead had been cleaned and repaired. The main room that served as their sleeping, cooking and sitting area was as warm as any fine room at an inn and for that, the stardancer was grateful. Outside, the snow was waist deep and growing every candlemark.
Azhani’s leg had fully healed and the warrior took full advantage of that fact by going out almost every day, laying traps and seeking the odd fish that still swam in the stream that bordered the land around her father’s homestead.
Three days ago, just before the latest flurry of snow, the warrior had brought in the carcass of a bear. The animal had not found enough forage to hibernate and had attacked Azhani as she sat by the stream, fishing. After field dressing the meat, the warrior had dragged it home and between them, she and Kyrian had built racks to cure the hide and the meat.
Leaning forward, the stardancer stirred the pot of bear stew bubbling merrily on the fire. “You know, you shouldn’t have to go out for a few days, since we have all that bear meat now.”
“No, I suppose not,” mused the warrior, but Kyrian heard the hesitation in her voice.
“But you will anyway, won’t you?” She turned and grinned at her friend. Azhani looked away. “Oh come on, I know you by now. You love going out there in that awful weather and slogging through piles of snow! You’re as bad as a child, Azhani Rhu’len!” Kyrian teased gently.
When the warrior didn’t reply, Kyrian sighed softly. She had pushed too hard again. It happened far too often for the stardancer’s taste. Their personalities, while mostly compatible, could run afoul of each other at the oddest of moments, leaving the air between them colder than the storms outside. Opening her mouth to apologize, she was forestalled by Azhani’s voice.
“Yes, I do like being out there. It reminds me of the years I spent patrolling the kingdom. I’d rather be outside, riding under the open sky, than cooped up in a tiny cottage,” the warrior said quietly.
Kyrian nodded, accepting the tiny gem of information about her friend silently.
Azhani stood and paced around the room then reached for one of the practice blades that lined the wall by the door. “Spar with me?”
It was a new habit of theirs, to work out with each other, teaching what each knew of weapons-work and hand to hand combat. Azhani was, of course, far more knowledgeable than Kyrian with most weapons, but the stardancer had the advantage of spending her life learning what the priests of the goddess called “open fist”, a type of weaponless combat that relied on using an opponent’s strength against them.
“You bet!” Kyrian replied, shrugging off her robes and walking over to take up the short wooden rod that approximated the length and weight of her baton.
Wiping her face, Kyrian looked up at Arun and said, “Sweet goddess, but I wish you wouldn’t eat so much!” Today was her day to muck out the gelding’s stall and she had been working hard for nearly a candlemark. Azhani was out in front, cutting a walkway from the gate to the front door of the cabin. The stardancer could hear the steady, even crunching of the warrior’s shovel as it hit the snow. Smiling, she took a moment to look out the window and stare appreciatively at the warrior as she worked.
Clad only in a short-sleeved tunic and breeches, the warrior’s arms were bared and the chill had turned the normally dusky brown skin to a pale tan. Sweat ran down the center of her back, staining a dark line in the light blue fabric.
Azhani’s hair was tied back, the multiple braids loosely woven together and then held off her neck with a thick leather thong. Not far from where she was digging, the warrior’s sword was stuck in the snow, within easy reach. Kyrian noticed that the path had reached the gate and now the warrior was turning around and digging her way back, making a doubly wide walkway, large enough for the two of them to walk side by side.
A puff of warm air made her look up. Arun stuck his nose over her shoulder and watched Azhani dig. Reaching up, Kyrian patted the horse’s neck and said, “She’s beautiful, isn’t she boy?”
As if in agreement, the horse nodded.
“Yeah. I’m glad she’s my friend, too.” She nuzzled the horse, rubbing his soft nose. “You’re a great friend too, Arun, but Azhani’s special. She makes me feel... like I’m normal. I need that, Ar... I need to be normal.” The gelding lipped her fingers, searching for hidden treats.
“You want a carrot, boy? Let’s see what I’ve got in here.” Kyrian laughed at the tickly sensations and then looked down to search through her belt pouch. Coming up with a somewhat leathery carrot, she offered it to the horse. “It’s all I’ve got, and you’re not getting any more oats until supper.”
Greedily, Arun snatched up the vegetable and noisily chewed it up.
“Piggy,” Kyrian teased, making oinking sounds at the horse’s obvious enthusiasm. Taking one last glance at Azhani, she sighed heavily and put her back into her work. “I’m so glad there’s only one of you Arun,” she muttered as she cleaned.
Developing a rhythm, she sifted out the fouled straw and replaced it with new. Dusk was turning the sky outside a pale shade of indigo by the time she was finished. She was just about to stick the pitchfork into a bale of hay, when a crackling noise outside, echoed loudly in the shed.
The regular crunch of Azhani’s shovel had not ceased, so it was not the warrior she had heard. Suddenly fearful, the stardancer crept toward the door and peered out. Nothing but white snow and the dark bulk of the outhouse met her gaze. Passing it off as the wind, she turned away and drove the pitchfork into a hay bale, reaching for her crimson robe.
Just as her fingers brushed the heavy velvet, she was grabbed from behind. Massive, fur covered arms wrapped around her body. Whatever held her began to squeeze, crushing the air out of her lungs. A pungent, foul odor of decay overwhelmed her senses. Scarlet and black spots began to flash before her eyes as she fought for breath.
Kicking backwards, the heel of her foot connected with what felt like a knee, causing the creature to roar deafeningly close to her ears. It shifted its grip, giving Kyrian a chance to take in a huge gulp of air and then let it out in a terrified scream.
It roared again, covering the sound of her scream and she flung her head back, hitting it hard in the chest. Then she kicked back again, aiming lower and succeeded in driving the side of her foot into its shin. A bark of pain burst from its mouth and the grip was loosened. Putting all her strength into it, Kyrian tore herself free. Jumping away, she grabbed the pitchfork and turned to face her assailant.
Ugly yellow eyes gazed out from a body that had been twisted into something evil. Thick, gray fur curled and tufted around a pig-like snout. It stood hunched, one shoulder drooping lower than the other and at the end of its gnarled, misshapen paws, three inch long black claws gleamed in the weak lamplight. Its nostrils flared and it lunged for her.
Yelling, Kyrian swung wildly, scoring a scraping blow along the monster’s head.
When the creature had burst into the shed, Arun started kicking up a racket. Letting out a shrill scream, the horse crashed through his gate and raced into the yard, nearly bowling over Azhani, who was racing toward the shed at full speed.
The monster charged Kyrian, its arms reaching out for her. Using the hay bales as a bridge, the stardancer leapt up and ran over the straw toward the doorway while the creature flailed about, attempting to grab her.
She had just made it to the door when a hairy paw wrapped around her ankle and pulled her down. Dragging her back inside the shed, the creature crooned its pleasure while she ineffectually beat at it with the pitchfork. The monster’s gray fur was soon dappled with yellow ichor as wounds appeared in its thick, tough hide.
Crying and shouting, the stardancer tried valiantly to escape, but the monster’s grip was too tight. It had her half dangling by her ankle and was opening its mouth to take a bite when a long, piercing wail exploded in the shed. Kyrian went limp with relief. She had never heard a more beautiful sound.
Azhani raced through the door shouting, “Hang on, Kyrian,” and somersaulted over the beast’s head, swinging her blade down in a powerful arc, severing its paw.
Freed, the stardancer scrambled backwards, cowering in a corner of the stall, shaking uncontrollably. Sobbing, Kyrian wrapped her arms around her knees and tried to pretend that she was somewhere else.
“Come on you Twins forsaken piece of shit, come and get me!” the warrior yelled, leaping down from the bales and striking out at the same time. An ear went flying, spattering the wall of the shed with steaming blood and ichor.
Pain maddened, the demon threw back its head and let out a chillingly loud cry and then plowed into Azhani, knocking her down. Backing up, he smacked her in the head, tearing deep gashes down the side of her face and neck. Azhani shouted in pain and kicked upward, driving her boot heel into the gut. Carrion scented air exploded around the warrior and the monster choked.
“No! Get off her!” Kyrian, startled from her paralytic fear, surged upward, grabbing up the discarded pitchfork and swinging it in a double-handed arc. The forged iron tines, driven by the ferocity of fear and anger, penetrated deep into the monster’s back, tearing through muscle and bone. Giving the tool a vicious twist, the stardancer pushed as hard as she could, trying to force the monster off of her friend.
As soon as the demon’s weight was off her, Azhani rolled away and bounced up, bringing her sword blade down in a furious swing, cutting off its head. Without pausing, the warrior darted outside, immediately searching the property for more of the demons. When none appeared, she returned to the shed to see to Kyrian.
Numbly, Kyrian let go of the pitchfork and backed away, feeling her gorge rise. Panic and terror overwhelmed her once again and she raced out of the shed, crying and gagging. Falling to her knees in the snow, the stardancer vomited until her stomach was empty.
Azhani drove her sword into the snow and knelt next to her friend, rubbing her back until she had caught her breath. The stardancer was trembling violently and the warrior was deeply concerned for her friend but she knew that they had to get out of the blood stained clothes as soon as possible.
Already she could feel the caustic effects of the sickly yellow blood as it burned into her skin. Scooping up handfuls of snow, she began to wash as much of the ichor away as she could. Weakly, Kyrian tried to help her, but her efforts were mostly ineffectual.
This was worse than the bandits. Yes, the raiders had been monsters, but this thing, this hairy, foul smelling creature whose hunger seemed to be so focused on the stardancer had driven a bolt of fear straight into Kyrian’s heart.
“Wha-what was that?” she finally managed to choke out.
“Demon,” Azhani tersely replied. “Okay, healer, we need to get out of these clothes. They’re toast. Come on, stand up.” The warrior coaxed, keeping her voice firm but gentle. Like a newborn kitten, Kyrian blindly allowed Azhani to pull her up and then strip the clothes from her body.
Shivering from the chill now, Kyrian nonetheless felt better to have the sticky reminder of the monster gone. “Thanks,” she murmured, hugging herself tightly.
“Get into the house and see to your leg. I’ll take care of this,” Azhani ordered in a tone that brooked no argument.
Kyrian didn’t bother to reply, she just darted into the house, wincing in pain at every step.
Whistling for Arun, Azhani waited for the frightened horse to reappear. Shortly, he came trotting up the road and leapt over the low fence. Cantering up to her, he came to a skidding halt about five feet away.
“I know, boy. Stinks like death over here. You just wait there; I’ve got a job for you,” the warrior said soothingly.
Uncertain, the horse stood still, watching her.
Azhani ducked into the shed. Pulling the pitchfork from the demon’s back, she dropped the makeshift weapon aside. The warrior then grabbed hold of the demon’s feet and dragged it outside. Getting a large piece of canvas, she rolled the creature and its parts up and tied it tightly then attached a length of rope.
Patiently, Arun allowed her to saddle him and then, when she guided him over to the canvas and rope tied bundle, slowly picked his way through the snow.
“Come on, that’s it, just a little bit more,” Azhani coaxed softly. Her head ached fiercely and she knew she had to finish quickly, so it could be cleaned. Reaching down, she grabbed the rope and then wheeled the horse around.
They returned a candlemark later, after having burned the demon’s remains. By the time she led Arun in, Kyrian had taken care of herself and was just finishing the clean up on the shed.
The stardancer took charge of her horse, stabling him and brushing him down and then giving him a larger than normal portion of oats. When she came out of the shed, she found Azhani piling the fouled straw and setting it on fire.
“You’re hurt,” Kyrian said as she came around and saw the massive amount of dried blood on the warrior’s face.
“Yep. Feels like it tried to rip my head off,” the warrior said, wincing as the stardancer reached up and began probing the wounds.
“Need to get you inside, and clean that up. C’mon,” Kyrian tugged on Azhani’s hand.
Suddenly, the warrior pulled the stardancer close, crushing her against her chest. Kyrian’s breath whooshed out in a gasp, but she gladly accepted the embrace, wrapping her arms around Azhani’s waist and clinging tightly.
“Thought I’d lost you,” Azhani murmured brokenly, shaking jerkily as hot tears dripped into the stardancer’s hair. “I don’t think I’d like that too much.”
“It’s okay, Azhani. I’m not going anywhere,” Kyrian said gently. I’m never going anywhere that doesn’t keep me by your side. “I’m so glad you were here. You saved my life, again.”
Azhani laughed, releasing the stardancer. “And you saved mine! Very impressive move, my friend. The beast never saw it coming.” Dropping her arm around Kyrian’s shoulders, she started walking toward the cabin. “Now, you mentioned something about fixing my face? Because it hurts like hell.”
“Yeah, come on. I’ve got stuff already waiting inside,” Kyrian said as they walked. “You know, I never thought I’d ever use that charcoal colored stuff that the Y’skani doctors gave me, but they really pressed how important it was to use it on any wounds received from a demon. Now that I’ve seen what kind of damage they do, I understand why.” She looked up at Azhani, who nodded.
“Infection. The claws are poisonous. I lost so many men that way,” Azhani said through gritted teeth. The adrenalin rush was wearing off and now the pain was eating into her, making her feel like someone was pouring streams of hot lava down the side of her head.
Hearing the agony in her friend’s voice, Kyrian increased her pace. I’ll take care of you, Azhani, just like you took care of me. The fact that the warrior seemed willing to forget that Kyrian had lost it, made the words of praise all that much sweeter.
Thick, driving rain snuck into the nooks and crannies of Elisira’s clothes, causing uncontrollable shivers to wrack her body. The noblewoman tugged her cloak tighter around her face and wished again that they had been able to stay in Brenton. Instead, knowing that Arris would not likely give up, they had returned to the chill embrace of the wilderness. Northward they rode, sticking to the trade routes as best they could. It had been at least a week since they had seen anything besides the occasional rabbit.
Barton was their goal - a tiny pinpoint on a crude map that the innkeeper in Brenton had made for them. If anyone had seen Azhani in the north, it would be the lawless folk of the free town. The innkeeper had spoken of the people of Barton in hushed, fearful tones, and at first, Elisira was reluctant to go to a place that inspired such trepidation. The achingly cold days and nights of travel had erased any fears, leaving her dreaming of the day she supped with the scoundrels of the kingdoms.
Two of Padreg’s men had taken ill during the journey. Alexander Payle had died in his sleep, his body unable to fight off the horrible coughing sickness. Syrah Jessup was still fighting, but her weakened body would not be able to last much longer. The loss of Alexander brought their party down to a mere handful, which did not afford the noblewoman much sleep at night.
Strange noises flitted around the camp at night, making the hairs on the back of Elisira’s neck stand at full attention, no matter how many layers she hid under. Barely warm nights were broken by bone shattering mornings of cold so intense that everyone’s faces were bright red within marks of waking. Stopping in Brenton had been their savior. Without the extra equipment Padreg had purchased, they would have all frozen. Their new tents clung to the ground, bending the arctic winds over them and creating a tunnel of comfort. Even the horses crawled in at night, gratefully laying wind-chafed bodies down on woven grass mats.
Elisira had almost gotten used to the scent of wet horse. It wasn’t as fuggy as the musty scent of wet dog, or as pleasant as the smell of dew-spattered grass. Still, she supposed life could be worse. Instead of spending her days and nights in the company of people she liked, she could be stuck in Y’dannyv, married to King Arris.
Looking up at Padreg, she weighed her absolute disgust over Arris with the way that the Y’Noran made her feel. Lightheaded, breathless and free easily won out over frightened, dirty and nauseated. As uncomfortable as her current life was, it was eminently more preferable to that of a pampered slave. Elisira wiped her nose and sighed. If only they could be free of the damnable cold.
Rain gave way to sleet and then to snow as they picked their way along the road. Elisira peered down the road, seeking Padreg’s scouts. The men were about a half-mile away, hopefully still following the right trail. None of them had ever been this far north and finding their way in the storm had been part luck and part skill.
Food was the one thing that none of them had considered thoroughly. Padreg knew that cold bodies required more fuel to stay warm. What the chieftain neglected to plan for was the bitter chill of the northern Y’dani wilderness. The supplies they had thought would last several months was now almost gone. Hunting had supplemented their meager stores, but the further they traveled north, the scarcer game became.
With less than a pound of dried meat and a few handfuls of rice, everything green was tested for edibility. Some of the trees had bits that could be boiled into a thick, bitter broth that while tasting horrible, provided some warmth and nutrition. Tonight though, they would have a bit of fresh meat for the party. Devon’s quick skill with a sling had brought down a family of quail and tracing the bird’s path had led the swiftly growing boy to their den.
Elisira sought out the face of the page, surprised to see the light down of a first beard hugging his narrow boned chin. He’s grown so much... In the weeks since leaving Y’dannyv, the gawky boy had sprouted almost two inches, meeting the noblewoman eye to eye. His voice was also undergoing the painfully embarrassing tonal changes. One moment, she would hear the enthusiastic boy and the next, the ghost of the man he would become, would echo from his mouth.
For Devon’s sake, as well as their own, the noblewoman prayed that they were as near to Barton as the map promised. She was coming to realize that close in the Y’dani woods could mean candlemarks or days, and they did not have days.
Freeing a hand to brush accumulated snow away from her face, she looked for Padreg and found him conferring with one of his men. It was Aden, she realized, recognizing the shorter man’s posture. The tall king gestured and Aden shook his head. Padreg gestured again, furiously, and again, Aden’s response was negative. The young noblewoman clicked to her horse, encouraging him to join Padreg and his liegeman.
“My lord, is there something amiss?” she called out softly as she drew closer.
Padreg turned and looked at Elisira, smiling unconsciously at her approach.
“Nay, my lady, it is nothing to disturb yourself with,” he said, his deep voice rough with the accent of his homeland.
She raised an elegant eyebrow. “Your man looks fair ready to burst, my lord. Please, do not think to protect me by hiding ill winds from my knowledge. They will still blow fetid and rank.”
“Aptly put, my lady,” Aden whispered, hiding a smirk.
Padreg sighed in resignation. “As you will, my lady. Aden brings word that we are being tracked – yet not by king’s men or bounty hunters. Ice demons hunt the snows, or so he claims. He has yet to see the creatures, so I cannot place full credit to his scouting.”
Elisira felt her heartbeat treble. “Demons, Aden? You are certain?”
The man nodded warily. “As certain as I can be, using only fire tales and book learning to guide me. I, myself, have never faced a demon, but I have studied the histories. I know the signs – shadows in wind, the smell of rot and most importantly, the ochre slime of their waste. See here,” the man held up a leather-wrapped object. Inside was a dagger coated in deep yellow ochre slime. “I found this not more than a candlemark ago.”
The foul substance steamed and bubbled in the cold, eating through the metal of the knife blade and leaving behind blackened, wasted pits. Elisira paled.
“We must seek shelter, my lord. Your man is correct in his tracking. Demons hunt this land,” Elisira said firmly, turning to scan the road ahead intently. “If they have our scent, it will not be long ere they feast on our entrails.”
Padreg reached out a hand to reassure the lady, but quickly withdrew it at the steely look of determination that settled on Elisira’s face.
“I will require a bow, my lord, and sturdily tipped arrows.”
“Of course. You can use Alexander’s,” Padreg nodded at Aden and the scout hurried off to retrieve the dead soldier’s weapon.
As the day wore on, Elisira tried not to regret stringing the bow that now lay across her saddlebow, the string chafing against the fabric of her breeches. She also tried to recall every lesson she had ever taken from Azhani on the use of the weapon, as well as the few tips her father’s huntsman had given her. On her hip rode the saber, its peace ties fluttering loosely.
Astariu grant me the skill to use these weapons well, and the courage to draw them under fire.
The snow had mercifully let up, but Elisira knew it was only temporary. Worse was yet to come. Hopefully, by then, the party would be in Barton, safely tucked away in an inn and warming their weary feet by a cheerful fire. Delightful visions of warmed honey mead and a thick beef stew floated just out of Elisira’s reach. She could almost smell it, rich, sweet and wonderfully hot. Her eyes fluttered shut as she savored the dream.
A fat, wet gob of snow plopped onto her nose.
Her horse suddenly reared, nearly throwing the lady to the ground. Elisira grabbed the reins, quickly getting the horse under control.
“Easy boy,” she muttered, using her knees to direct the suddenly recalcitrant stallion. Behind her, Padreg’s men were muttering as wind began to shake the branches of the trees.
“Demons!” A high-pitched yell broke through the unnerving silence. Elisira’s gaze snapped to Devon. He was pointing to a patch of snow that seemed just a bit grayer than the rest. The shifting wind brought the faintest hint of something putrid, causing the hairs on the back of the lady’s neck to rise in fear.
“Fire the torches men!” Padreg yelled. Each of his men carried a torch, the one known bane of the demons. Elisira pulled out her own torch and fumbled with her flint and striker, cursing the cold that made her hands clumsy. From the corner of her eyes, she could see that the others were having just as tough a time with the torches.
The smell grew stronger as the wind’s velocity increased. Large, shaggy masses of teeth and claws began to rise up out of the snowy ground and a low, thrumming hum joined with the whistle of the wind to create an eerie chorus. The horses all began to sidle, nervously shaking their heads and taking uncertain, frightened steps backward.
“Get those torches up, now!” Padreg’s fear tinged voice weakly pierced the hum of the demons. One by one, the creatures advanced on the party.
Devon, who was having just as much difficulty as the others, suddenly dropped his flint and striker, snapped his fingers and shouted, “Light damn you, light!”
The torches all lit with an explosive burst.
“Circle up and protect the lady,” Padreg ordered, grabbing his horse’s reins and pulling close to Elisira. His face was a mask of stoic determination. “We will not die today.”
The steady creak of bending wood filled the air as bows were knocked. There was a moment of absolute stillness as the arrows sliced through the air and then, as they struck their targets, chaos erupted. Roars of pain and fury blended with the wind as bows were dropped and blades drawn.
Elisira struck out at anything she could, praying that her blade bit deeply into the hides of foes, not friends. Bedlam danced madly around the party. Gray furred death reached out for the lives of Padreg’s men, carving pieces away from the group one by one. The screams of horse and man blended with the grunts and growls of the demons.
Blood and ichor puddled in the snow, vivid splashes of crimson and yellow that fanned out around the raging battle. Viscous slurry made footing traitorous for the horses and the weather turned even worse. Fighting blind, the Y’Noran party tightened their formation, trying to make a knot around their king and his lady.
A bloody, razor-taloned paw came out of the white haze and slashed at Elisira. She ducked, swinging her blade wildly. The sickening sensation of metal slicing through fur and flesh reverberated up her arm and she just barely kept herself from vomiting. She spared one moment to send off a quick prayer as she turned her head away to see one of Padreg’s men dragged from his horse and carried off into the woods. Grimly, she forced her head around and maneuvered into his spot, facing the next demon.
Azhani Rhu’len was hunting. Not for the rare bachelor buck or early risen bear, but for demons. It had been three days since the demon had attacked Kyrian and nearly taken the life of her only friend, and she was determined that nothing else would sneak up on them. Wincing, she pulled her scarf up around her face again. Thin, dark lines were all that remained of the painful slashes that the demon’s claws had left behind.
The stardancer had given freely of her magic, healing Azhani and then herself. Kyrian and Arun were now safely tucked away in the cabin. The door was barricaded and the warrior had admonished the stardancer not to let anyone in, nor was she to go out for any reason. There was even a makeshift chamber pot in the storage room, so that she would not have to even make the quick journey to the privy. The rest of the room had been converted into a makeshift stable for the horse.
Every day since the attack, Azhani had searched the woods, struggling through the snowstorm on foot until she could go no further. Then she had packed her bedroll and started an even wider circuit, praying that the blankets were as warm as they looked. Before leaving, she and Kyrian sat down and talked about her eventual return.
“Promise me you’ll be safe out there, Azhani,” Kyrian said quietly, pleading with her eyes. The stardancer’s hands were entangled in a piece of soft cloth that she had been using to dry the dishes.
Azhani nodded, smiling ruefully. “I can’t promise that, but I swear that I will return.”
Kyrian accepted the compromise. “All right. How will I know you’re back? If I lock the door, and I have the key, how are you going to get in?”
The warrior whistled piercingly, a long, four-note burst that echoed through the cabin.
“Oh,” Kyrian said, nodding wisely. “I see. Yes, I think I’d be able to hear that even in the middle of a good dream.”
Grinning, Azhani said, “And if I’m not alone, you’ll hear this.” She added a trill. Slowly, patiently, Azhani went through several different whistle combinations for danger, friend, injury and every other possible eventuality she could imagine. When she was through, she stood up and Kyrian stood with her.
Wordlessly, the stardancer wrapped her arms around her friend, hugging her tightly. “Come back soon, Azhani Rhu’len. I don’t want to spend too much time talking to Arun.”
Azhani sighed softly, petting Kyrian’s soft, curly tangle of hair. It had grown out since they had met, and now the amber-golden locks cloaked the stardancer’s shoulders. “Well, I hope poor Arun doesn’t get too bored listening to your addlepated ideas,” she said teasingly.
“Azhani!” Kyrian squawked, pulling away. “Be nice!” She smacked the warrior’s shoulder, and then cursed when the palm of her hand caught the edge of one of the burnished metal studs in the armor. “Ow,” she whimpered exaggeratedly.
“Poor baby. Here, let me see,” Azhani took the stardancer’s hand and turned it up, seeking signs of injury. A faint red mark marred the pale skin of her friend’s palm. “Mm, this looks bad. I think I’m going to have to use one of my father’s favorite remedies.” A twinkle of mischief sparkled in her eyes. She looked into Kyrian’s open face and said, “Now, just close your eyes, Kyrian, and count to ten, and by the time you’re done, the pain will be all gone.”
Gamely, Kyrian closed her eyes. Her palm really didn’t hurt that much, but it was heartbreakingly wonderful to see this playful side of Azhani peek out from behind those indigo blue eyes. She started counting, “One, two, three...”
As Kyrian counted, Azhani brought the stardancer’s hand up to her lips and waited.
“Ten,” Kyrian breathed, and then felt the wonderful sensation of soft lips brushing her skin.
“There now, all better?” Azhani asked, her voice seemingly deeper than before.
“Oh yeah, fine, thanks, yeah, that’s some wonderful trick there, Azhani,” Kyrian babbled, suddenly eager to reclaim her hand.
“Good. Now, as much as I hate to say it, I have to go,” Azhani turned and gathered up her heavy cloak, wrapping its furry warmth around her like an extra suit of armor. “Stay safe, I’ll be back.” With those words, she left to begin her search.
This morning, she had seen her first signs that the search was not in vain.
She very nearly stumbled into a jellied puddle of demon spoor. Azhani squatted down, studying the substance with a practiced eye. Just the very sight of the stuff brought back enough memories to make her teeth hurt. It’s too soon. They shouldn’t be rising for another two years. She poked at it with an arrow, grimacing when the caustic matter melted the perfectly good arrowhead.
Looking up, she saw that she was staring into the burned out bowl of a tree. A patch of mushrooms, thick and dark lined the interior. Reaching in, she casually snapped one off and sniffed it. A musty, but sweet scent tickled her nose and she smiled in delight. A treat for Kyrian. Thank you, goddess. Carefully, she harvested the mushrooms, tucking them away in her pouch for safekeeping.
Living with the stardancer had become the most pleasurable part of the warrior’s existence. The younger woman’s natural enthusiasm and exuberance for life had infected Azhani, making each day seem a little lighter. Life wasn’t perfect and there were many things yet to be done, but for this winter, perhaps the gods would not object if she took some small comfort from Kyrian’s friendship.
She glanced down at the puddle of slime slowly melting through the snow and smiled grimly. It started snowing again, dappling her shoulders with a dusting of white. The wind began to pick up and Azhani breathed deeply, snarling when she caught the faintest trace of a very familiar scent. Coupled with the distinctive pool of the demon’s hunting spoor, Azhani knew that something – or worse yet – someone was in danger.
“I knew you weren’t alone, you piece of slime. Now, let’s see what your brothers have cornered,” she whispered, drawing her blade and moving on silent feet through the woods.
Blinking through the blood trickling into her eyes, Elisira desperately tried to hold back the demon that was attacking her. The noblewoman felt like she was caught up in a whirlwind. Demons howled around her, their teeth and claws shredding into flesh and throwing out bright crimson fans of blood. Suddenly, she tried to break free, spurring the horse toward an opening in the trees. Rising up before her, the demon roared, causing the stallion to rear and dance backward on his hind legs.
Wheeling back, Elisira huddled up with the rest of the party, doing her best to keep the demons at bay. Curling her lip into a feral snarl, she growled. Trapped. She hated being trapped. Whether it was disguised as the false nobility of King Arris or revealed as the hunger driven rage of hellish monsters, she didn’t care. A rumble of anger and frustration worked its way up from her belly, ripping free to become a shout of pure adrenalin.
“Everyone, concentrate on breaking free! If we can get them to fall back, we can run!” Elisira’s voice penetrated the chaos.
A smile sprang to Padreg’s blood and ichor spattered face and he nodded. “She’s right, lads! Press on!”
Renewing the fight, they strove to throw back the onslaught. Wildly yelling, laying about them with new vigor, the Y’Norans drove the demons back. The tightly pressed circle of horses expanded, giving them more room to fight.
Then Devon went down, knocked from his saddle by a demon that leaped from the trees.
“Devon!” Elisira yelled, trying to break away and ride to his defense. The beast in front of her cut her off, swiping at the horse’s head.
A sound heard in the nightmares of many, the dreams of few and the prayers of one, burst into the clearing. Somersaulting into the fray came a blue and white clad figure; a sword flashing about with such deadly ferocity that one of the demons’ heads was cleaved from its body.
The newly arrived warrior let out another ear splitting wail and leapt over the falling demon’s body to skewer the one facing Elisira. The noblewoman barely had time to see a flash of indigo blue eyes and dusky brown skin before the warrior was gone, running toward the remaining demons.
Elisira watched in awe as the warrior made quick work of the monsters that had been, up until now, making mincemeat of the party. With a ferocity shown by few, the warrior engaged the demons, ripping chunks of fur and flesh from the bodies of their attackers.
Riding over to assist a fallen comrade, Elisira dared not question this gift from the gods. Whether their strange savior was Azhani, or someone using her trademark battle cry did not matter at this moment. What was important was escape.
The strange warrior moved from demon to demon, never spending more than a few breaths on their deaths. The creatures seemed to sense that this new warrior was one who they could not defeat and began backing away from the newly energized party.
“Your bows, men! Feather their hides!” Padreg shouted, lifting his own short bow and quickly firing off two arrows, hitting one of the demons in the flank.
The demon howled and made to attack the Y’Noran king but was quickly brought down by a hail of arrows from the other men.
Leaping in front of a demon attempting to run, the warrior thrust deeply into the beast’s side, spilling fresh ichor onto the snow. The creature howled in frustration, slapping a paw out at the warrior and following it with a vicious head butt. The warrior sidestepped and slashed, opening up a nasty gash along the creature’s shoulder. Standing to charge, it was brought down by arrows from Padreg’s men. The remaining two demons scrambled off into the forest, leaving the group to lick its wounds and catch their breaths.
They let them go. Too injured and too sickened to fight on, the party needed to find a place to heal and mourn. Two men were dead, torn to ribbons by the demon’s claws. Four of the horses were also gone, leaving the party short by two mounts. No one, man or beast, was spared injury.
Elisira felt her sword arm begin to tremble in exhaustion and was about to drop her blade when Azhani’s voice echoed in her mind, “Never drop a weapon. The minute you do, you’re dead. Your blade is the one thing standing between you and whatever is trying to kill you. It is a part of you and should never be forsaken.” Her slackening grip tightened automatically and instead, she laid the blade across the pommel of the saddle.
After a few breaths of the rank, coppery air, the noblewoman felt queasy. Breathing shallowly, she turned her gaze on the warrior who had rescued them. It had to be Azhani. No other moved quite like the former warleader did – as though her feet only brushed the surface of the ground, rather than pounded into it. She was going from corpse to corpse, neatly beheading the demons.
Elisira guided her shaking mare over to the warrior. “My thanks to you stranger.”
She looked up and the cowl of her cloak fell away to reveal a heartbreakingly familiar face.
“Azhani?” the noblewoman whispered disbelievingly. Sliding off her horse and slowly walking toward the blood spattered figure, she held out a hand and whispered, “Azhi? Goddess, please, is that you?”
Padreg, drawn by the pain and hope in his beloved’s voice, strode over to them. “Is she right, stranger? Be you the one called Azhani Rhu’len?”
Azhani stood there, staring at her old friend. From the corner of her eye, she saw the boy she remembered as Devon, Pol Imry’s kid, looking at her with such hope in his face that she could not turn away. Raising her gaze to Elisira’s, she nodded.
With a tiny cry, Elisira leapt across the remaining space and gave her a tight, one-armed hug. “Thank you,” she whispered, several times.
“Azhi!” Devon cried out in joy, as he raced pell-mell to her side. Bouncing happily, he hugged her, released her and hugged her again. “It’s you, it really is you! I knew it! I knew you weren’t dead! I knew those cranky old bastards couldn’t kill you!” Tears streamed openly down his face and he threw his arms around her again, burying his head in her shoulder. “I missed you,” he whispered.
She ruffled his hair affectionately. “Missed you, too, squirt.” The warrior wrapped her arms around Elisira and brushed her lips over the noblewoman’s forehead. “Missed you, as well, Eli.”
Gruffly, Padreg said, “I’m glad to find you, warrior. I have need of your services.”
Releasing the warrior, Elisira began cleaning her sword off in the snow. Dark pits on the blade appeared wherever the demon’s caustic blood had eaten through the metal. Frowning, she sheathed the saber and looked up at Padreg, who was waiting for Azhani to reply.
Azhani was staring at Padreg, eyeing him narrowly, as if trying to decide if he were daft.
Turning to the warrior, she dropped to one knee. “Master,” she said, waiting for Azhani to acknowledge her. “I have not lost your lessons.”
The warrior looked down, noting that the noblewoman had cleaned and sheathed her blade. She had also remained calm, even after the danger had passed, which impressed Azhani deeply.
“Then my teaching was not in vain. I am grateful,” Azhani replied in a solemn tone, reaching out to touch Elisira on the shoulder. “You are injured, my friend. Let me tend your wounds.”
The lady scuffed her knuckles across the slash on her head, wincing when they came away bloody. “I’ll be all right. There are others who need your skills more.”
Azhani nodded and let Devon go. “I need to go help your friends, Dev. Do me a favor and find some bandages, okay?” she said after quickly making sure that the boy was not injured. His injuries, like Elisira’s, were light. He nodded and ran off to look over the packs.
“Why is it you seek me?” Her gaze fell on the horseshoe-shaped tattoo that adorned his left collarbone. “Who are you, Plainsman?”
Bowing, Padreg said, “I am Padreg Keelan, Clan chief of Y’Nor and I seek you because I need shelter.” The plainsman grinned wryly. “It seems I have become an outlaw in your kingdom.”
One dark eyebrow rose, telegraphing Azhani’s curiosity. “How does a king become an outlaw in one of the seven kingdoms?”
“With korethka, all things are possible,” he replied softly. Looking at Elisira, he smiled as she helped Devon rip up tunics for bandages. “Though there is more than just the sting of soul’s love that taints our problems, my lady warrior. I daresay that King Arris’ darkened soul would have found other cause to despise me. Be that as it may, it was upon my request to court yon lady that I learned of a plot to assassinate me.” He nodded at Devon. “The young man there, he came to me at great risk to expose the machinations of Y’dan’s monarch.
I should have perhaps fled, taking only those loyal to me with, but my heart cried out to beg the companionship of the lady Elisira. She agreed, for she has no love for Arris, though he desires her for his own.”
“He’ll not have her,” Azhani said through clenched teeth, her hands opening and closing in fists.
Padreg started at her reaction, but continued. “As we have traveled north, I have returned my mind to my stay at Y’dannyv, and found that the king’s intentions toward the lady were perhaps less honorable than those of a dog caught in mid rut. I wondered then, if he were so driven to attack me over a tumble in the hay, why he had ousted you from your honorably held position? If my own branding of outlaw was done so cheaply, was the label affixed beside your name any richer?”
The warrior sorted through the king’s statement and shrugged. “I killed a lot of innocent men. I did it to escape the king’s justice. Draw your own conclusions.” She shrugged and began to turn away.
“A king like Arris knows not what true justice is, warrior. Upon this day, in the sight of the Twins, for naught but the sake of what was good and right, you proved your innocence. You are a true servant of Astariu, Azhani. It would honor me greatly to have you at my back,” Padreg said solemnly, offering the warrior his arm.
Hesitantly, she clasped it, grunting at the surprising firmness of the Y’Noran’s grip. “Thank you, your highness,” she murmured, granting him the respect of his title.
“Padreg’ll do, warrior. I’m not one to stand on ceremony, especially when I’m freezing my manhood off in the middle of a snowdrift the size of an Y’skani sand dune.”
A genuine smile creased the warrior’s face. “Follow me then, Padreg. What shelter I have is small, and already shared, but what room you can find, you are welcome to use.”
“Shared?” Elisira, who had finished with the bandages and was walking up to bind a cut on Padreg’s hand asked, loading the word with a thousand questions.
“Someone I met on the road. An Y’Syran stardancer called Kyrian,” Azhani said, grinning brightly. “She saved my leg with her care.” Lowering her voice for Elisira’s ears only, “And her friendship has rescued my soul.”
The depth of pain in the warrior’s crystal blue eyes was visible for the briefest of moments, vanishing quickly to be replaced by a hard calm that sent a chill down the other woman’s spine. Elisira fervently wished that she would never be at odds with the woman whose glare could cut as deep as any knife.
“If you would warrior, lead us on to this place of refuge,” Padreg said and then turned to give his remaining warriors orders to gather the slain. “I like it not to leave good Y’Noran blood to teeth and fang. We’ll build a cairn some ways from here, if that be all right with you, warrior?”
“Call me Azhani. Yes, that’s fine. We can leave the demons – if anything out here is willing to stomach them, they’re welcome to the remains,” the warrior replied absently. Mentally, she mapped out the route they would take back to her father’s homestead. She knew just the place where they could find a nice, open area with plenty of rock and debris suitable to build cairns for the fallen.
Traveling was difficult, yet easier than it had been. With Azhani to lead them, the scouts no longer hunted blindly for half-remembered landmarks. The innkeeper in Brenton had been helpful, but it was terribly hard to locate every burnt out tree stump and moss covered boulder he had described as popular markers along the route to Barton.
After a candlemark, they stopped and buried the bodies of Padreg’s men. Azhani approved of the Y’Norans; they were quiet, hard working and efficient in their actions. Unlike the boisterous Y’dani she had served with most of her life, the Y’Norans followed orders without question. Yet, when one of the men had a suggestion, they did not hesitate to approach their king with it.
As the last stone was laid in place, Padreg stepped up and put his hand on the cairn. Closing his eyes, he took a deep breath and began to speak.
“Far from home, my brothers, but close to heart, you’ll be. Alexander, brother of Stefan, fair of hair and bright of eye, always with a joke in your heart, may the goddess never tire of your uproarious spirit. Nadine, daughter of Gwenneth, with your brown eyes and red hair like fire, and a spirit to match, may you dance with Astarus. Finally, to Roald, be he ever so brave, be he ever so old, no one knew mead like my good friend Roald!”
There was laughter, and more than few tears, as Aden, Thomas and Syrah each went to the cairn and said their goodbyes. Azhani, Elisira and Devon watched the proceedings, and as the Y’Norans turned away, the noblewoman and the page each stepped up to the cairn and laid wreathes of tiny white flowers on the dark gray stones.
It was nearing sunset as they approached the gate and Azhani gave out the four note whistle that meant she was home, adding a trill that she hoped the stardancer would remember meant that she was not alone. The warrior looked at her father’s homestead and felt no little sense of pride. She and Kyrian had cleaned it up, taking the ramshackle buildings and fence line and making it livable once again. Smoke chuffed merrily from the chimney and there was a cleared path through the snow that led from the gate to the door of the house. Branching off from the side were covered pathways that went to a shed and a privy.
A light came on near a window and Azhani winced at the stardancer’s seeming lack of caution. The door creaked open and Kyrian exited the building, dressed in full stardancer regalia, down to her steel baton and Twins token. A grin pricked Azhani’s lips briefly before the warrior’s customary mask of calm settled in its place.
“I’m home,” she simply said.
“And you’ve brought guests, I see. Wonderful, welcome and please in the name of the goddess, enter in peace.” Kyrian’s natural charm quietly threaded its way through the group, putting to rest whatever trepidations remained. This was not the home of a known fugitive, but the sanctuary of a stardancer, one of Astariu’s most beloved servants.
As they entered, Kyrian immediately went to the man whose injuries were the worst and carefully helped him off the horse and into the cabin.
Azhani watched the stardancer go and then turned to Padreg. “You can bring the horses to the shed. There’s not much room – the building wasn’t meant to be used as a stable, but I’m sure Arun won’t mind the company.”
Padreg nodded, but his eyes, as well as Elisira’s, were glued to the rapidly moving form of the crimson robed stardancer.
Elisira turned to Azhani and admiringly said, “She’s good, for one so young.”
“She does all right,” Azhani admitted.
Before long, the group was nicely ensconced in the main room of the house. The most stable portion of the upstairs loft was quickly turned into an infirmary. Downstairs, the walking wounded huddled around the fire, grateful to shuck layers of blood and grime encrusted clothing.
Young Devon was fast asleep, his head pillowed on his folded hands and two blankets draped over his exhausted body. Azhani moved from person to person, doing what she could for their injuries while Kyrian and Elisira handled the severely wounded.
The creaking of the floor above them made Azhani nervous. Unable to repair the supports, neither she nor Kyrian had been upstairs since they had closed it off for the winter. We can’t keep them up there; we have to move them into the storeroom maybe, but...
A sharp cracking noise interrupted her thoughts.
“Look out!” Azhani yelled, grabbing the sleeping boy and rolling away from the hearth. The splintering sound of wood, followed by a drift of cobwebs and several choked off oaths filled the room. Looking up, it was easy to see the stardancer’s booted foot and cotton clad leg sticking out of the ceiling.
There was a moment of stillness and then Kyrian’s bright laughter caused everyone else’s mirth to be set free.
“Aw damn it, Azhani, wouldn’t you know that I would remember about this weak spot just about the same time I put my foot through it?” she called down, causing further gales of laughter.
“Azhi, do you think you could get your warrior butt up here and help me?” Elisira could be heard moving around carefully. “Your friend’s no lightweight, you know.”
“Yeah, it’s time for you to play hero and rescue me again, warrior,” Kyrian added, between her giggles.
Azhani rolled her eyes, let the now wide-awake Devon go and climbed upstairs.
“Azhi? I think I like that,” Kyrian said, wiggling her toes to make sure nothing was seriously damaged.
“I wouldn’t call her that until you’re certain she loves you,” Elisira whispered quietly in the other woman’s ear. The words were so fleeting, Kyrian wondered if she had imagined them.
Smiling as Azhani’s tall form appeared at the top of the stairs, she called out, “Hey there, stranger. How’s about giving me a lift?” She wriggled her eyebrows comically and raised her arms into the air, smiling beseechingly.
From her temporary bed against the wall, Syrah Jessup cackled, then wheezed in pain as a round of coughing overtook her. Elisira quickly went to her side and helped her to drink a soothing tea.
Rolling her eyes and blowing out a stream of exasperated air, the warrior reached down and pulled Kyrian out of the hole. As she pulled, the stardancer’s pant leg tore, the sound echoing loudly in the room.
“Guess I’ll have to be using that needle and thread again,” Kyrian joked weakly as Azhani gently set her down on a more stable portion of the floor. Examining her leg, the stardancer made a face and sighed. Three angry red, weepy scratches cut into the pale skin of her calf. “Ow.” She looked over at Elisira, who was still with Syrah and then to Azhani and shook her head. “Somehow I don’t think your father’s excellent remedy will fix this one, Azhani.” The floor creaked again, and she scrambled over toward the wall. “Damn. I guess we can move them into the storeroom, though it’s not as comfortable in there. I certainly don’t want them falling through the roof on us while we’re sleeping some night.”
“That would be uncomfortable,” Elisira said, stroking her chin in thought. “How much of the floor is rotted? Can we just keep them in one area?” she gestured to Thomas and Syrah, the two injured warriors who were bundled on straw pallets.
“No, the floor is rotting in many places, we’ll have to move them again. I don’t like it, but it’s the only,” Azhani broke off as Devon’s wavy brown locks appeared at the top of the stairs. “Dev, what is it?”
The young man stared at the three women, dazed. “I think I can help. This book,” he hefted a large, battered tome, “has a spell for fixing stuff.”
Azhani narrowed her eyes. “A spell? I’m not certain I’d like to trust my father’s house to the vagaries of magic,” she said disdainfully.
Kyrian raised one eyebrow in question, but Azhani didn’t explain her attitude. “Well, I think it couldn’t hurt to try,” the stardancer said softly, trying not to push her friend into something she didn’t want, but hoping for some kind of explanation as to why she didn’t like magic.
Elisira nodded, “I agree with Kyrian, it’d certainly save time and space if Thomas and Syrah could sleep up here.”
The grinding of the warrior’s teeth was audible. She turned her gaze on Elisira, her eyes diamond hard. “You, of all people, should understand,” she said, her voice a low hiss of remembered pain.
Elisira winced. Her old friend was right. She did know why Azhani had no love lost for the arts arcane. It was the magic of Cabalian sorcerers that had caused so much trouble for the warrior’s father, Rhu’len DaCoure. Through the machinations of that evil house, the good man had spent much of his free time chasing shadows. When he had finally cornered the man responsible for most of his grief, Keskyn Nightblade, it was only to discover that Keskyn himself was a pawn in a much greater game. Because of that, the older warrior had instilled in his daughter a deep loathing for traditional magic.
“I know you have no love for magic, my friend, but Devon is not Keskyn Nightblade. He only wishes to aid, not injure,” the lady said, her voice soothing.
Azhani looked away, muttering, “Fine, do whatever. I’ll go get some more blankets.” She turned to go and then noticed Kyrian still sitting on the floor, wrapping her injured leg in some bandages. Without asking, she easily lifted her up and carried her down the stairs.
Kyrian let out a startled squawk and said, “Azhani, what are you doing?”
“You shouldn’t put any pressure on that leg for a while. Might have strained something,” Azhani replied gruffly.
“But...” Kyrian started to retaliate, and then noticed the set expression on her friend’s face. Silence is the better part of valor in this instance, Kyr. She needs to feel like she’s doing something to take her mind off of what’s happening with Devon. Just let her be, girl, let her be.
She settled down, allowing Azhani to carry her down the stairs. Besides, a rarely heard inner voice commented, this feels rather nice. Kyrian had to agree, being so close to the spicy-scented warrior’s body was much more pleasurable than she should admit to, but could hardly deny.
Azhani settled Kyrian into her bed and said, “Wait here,” and then wandered over to the fire, where she made a cup of tea for her friend.
Kyrian glanced up the stairwell and could just barely make out the glow of magic. Quickly, she allowed her gaze to scan the ceiling, where she could see the bluish-gold threads of power creeping across the wood, mending and supporting the ancient timber. Before her eyes, cracked and broken wood stretched and melded, growing into firm flooring once again.
“Very cool,” she whispered, nodding slightly.
Azhani made a plate of stew for the stardancer and then carried it back over to where Kyrian had settled on the bed. Even though she tried not to, Azhani could see the threads of arcane power rippling across her ceiling. Just the thought of someone performing magic in her house made her skin prickle and her shoulders ache with tension.
“Here,” she thrust the plate at Kyrian, “eat.”
Taking the food, Kyrian smiled her appreciation. “Thank you. This was very kind of you. Sit down with me?” She patted her bed softly.
Azhani was about to say no, but decided to allow her friend’s calming presence to soothe her jangling nerves.
The quiet sounds of people eating and sleeping began to fill the room and soon, Azhani dozed off where she sat.
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