Azhani woke during the night to find that she was being used as a pillow by one very asleep stardancer. As she watched wax drip down the side of the day candle resting on a pedestal across the room, the warrior took a deep breath, and absorbed the comfort of her friend’s touch. Sighing heavily, she carefully extricated herself from Kyrian’s death grip, padded over to the hearth, and then bent to stir the coals.
With the fire warmly blazing once more, she went upstairs to where Elisira was tending to Syrah Jessup. The Y’noran warrior’s illness was progressing rapidly and Azhani knew that someone would be by the woman’s side, caring for her. A hoarse cough and feverish chills wracked Syrah’s body. Elisira was awake, preparing a soothing poultice for her chest.
“Need anything?” Azhani asked without preamble.
Elisira looked up and sighed. “About ten ounces of an herb neither Kyrian nor I have, I’m afraid. Syrah’s cough is deep in the lungs and she’s started to bring up blood. Kyrian thinks she might have to Heal her in order for her to recover.”
“Okay. Well, I’m awake for a while so if you need anything...” the warrior let the offer dangle between them.
“I’ll call out softly, don’t worry. I know you’ll hear me,” Elisira said, smiling. “Oh, wait, there is one thing...”
“Could you bring me my cloak? I’m a little chilled up here.”
Azhani nodded, quickly retrieved the fur-lined cloak that she had seen Elisira wearing and handed it over to the noblewoman.
“Thank you,” Elisira said while wrapping up in the now dry folds of cloth and fur.
“Welcome.” Stopping at the woodstove, she opened the grate and added a few more chunks of wood to the glowing coals within.
Quietly, Azhani exited the house and ventured over to the makeshift stables to see how the horses were holding up in the cold. The animals were huddled close together, sharing their warmth. The brazier she and Kyrian had carefully set up in the center of the shed for Arun had gone out, so she added more wood and patiently blew on the tiny fragments of heat still held within the coals until flames blazed up, merrily snapping and crackling.
Over the window, she hung up a heavy piece of canvas, hoping to cut some of the air that snuck through the cracks in the shutters. The warrior swept out the old, dirty straw and replaced it with clean and then checked the horses’ feed buckets. Adding a bit of oats, she took the time to pet or scratch each of the animals.
Someone had cared for the equine’s hurts the night before, because there were bandages on legs and necks, and thick, black stitches closed a nasty gash on the side of a particularly beautiful butternut yellow mare. They seemed happy to see her, and Azhani appreciated their quiet affection.
While she worked, the warrior considered her options. Foremost on her mind was getting revenge on Arris. Visions of the man’s limply dangling body as it slid off her sword, entertained her for quite some time. Ylera...
Suddenly, her longing for her beloved was so strong, it hurt to breathe. Leaning against a wall with her head down, the warrior let the grief overwhelm her, drawing soft sobs from her body.
Goddess, when will this nightmare end?
She would have to kill Arris. Maybe then, her dreams would let her sleep. If she succeeded and if she walked away intact, then she would think about the future. Traveling, or maybe she would just retreat into the mountains. If she failed, then she would be dead, and in the havens, laughing with her lover once more.
Soft gray light seeped in through the door, marking false dawn. Azhani finished up with the horses, put the grill over the brazier, then walked outside. She paused and took a deep breath of the crisply cold air. The snow had stopped, and the sky was brilliantly cloudless.
Over the trees, she could see the sun’s first rays striking the snowy foliage, sparking rainbows off the icicles hanging from the boughs and eaves. A brief wind swirled across the yard, picking up her braids and rustling them together. Glancing up, she spotted lamplight glowing in the window, reminding her that there was more than her revenge at stake.
Padreg and his people needed to get home safely, before she dove headlong into her plans to avenge Ylera. Then there were the demons. The creatures were foul and evil, but they had a predictable life cycle. So why were they wandering the forest now? No one really understood where the beasts came from; it was assumed that they were the result of some terribly uncontrolled experiment left over from the long ago magical wars that had driven Prince Y’mareth and his brothers from their lands.
Even though she no longer wore the title of warleader, Azhani’s first instinct was to protect the land and its people. She ached to find an army and lead them into the hills to hunt down the monsters’ lairs and slaughter them where they slept. For a moment, she gloried in the thought. It wouldn’t be too hard to gather a small army of mercenaries and go into the mountains in the spring. Then, if there were any left, the beasts would be nothing more than egg sacks – leathery pouches of foul smelling liquid and slime that would be easily exterminated.
Her daydream shifted, becoming a vision of her at the head of that same army, facing Arris on the battlefield. In her dreams, she was dressed in the finest armor, set apart from everyone else like she was the goddess’ own vengeance come to collect payment from evil doers everywhere. Arris would quail before her, begging for mercy and it would be easy, oh so easy, to run him through, laughing all the while.
Could she do it? Could she walk away from the oaths that had bound her to the greater good for her entire life? Restlessly, she wandered out to the wall that bordered her property and climbed up it, using its width to practice her balance. With her eyes shut tight, she began to pace along the slick, snowy surface, trusting her instincts to keep her steady.
Padreg. He could be escorted to Y’Nor and then convinced to take his complaint to the High King. Elisira would obviously go with the plainsman. In just the short time she had seen the two together, Azhani knew that her old friend and the Y’Noran monarch were meant for each other. She could probably even convince Kyrian to go with them, freeing her to pursue her revenge.
Azhani’s stomach twisted painfully as she thought of leaving Kyrian to ride down the road to certain death. Unbalanced, she wobbled, nearly falling into a huge drift of snow. Opening her eyes, she stared down at her now steady feet and sighed.
“I guess I can’t fight who I am,” she said, lifting her head and gazing up into the clear, blue sky. Another road would have to be found, another path to vengeance taken - one where her honor and her oaths were not compromised and one where Kyrian could stand beside her.
Decision made, she jumped down and headed for the cabin. I sure hope I can remember those names Ylera taught me.
Waking up cold and stiff, Kyrian muzzily searched for her blankets. The faintest traces of warmth in the linens next to her confirmed that she had not been dreaming and that she had shared the bed with Azhani the night before. The stardancer shivered, missing both the warrior’s body heat and the comfort of another person beside her. Fuzzily, she recalled Azhani coiled around her, the warrior’s body a wonderful buffer against the chill.
She stretched, wincing as sore muscles and joints creaked and popped. Longingly, she looked at the bed, but the fire was almost out, and daylight was starting to leak through the curtained windows. Yawning, she tried to decide what to do first. The patients upstairs certainly needed to be checked, but she was also curious about Arun. How was her companion handling the addition of strange horses? Besides, his stall probably needed cleaning.
Making the decision to see Arun first, she was startled by a voice that floated up from the storeroom.
“You should check on Padreg’s people, healer. They need your touch more than that oat monster you call a horse.” Appearing from around the corner, Azhani bent to remove mud and muck stained boots.
The mildly amused twinkle in the warrior’s eyes confused Kyrian momentarily, but then she noticed the mud still staining her friend’s boots, and sighed.
“Beat me again, huh?” she mock complained, standing up and heading up the stairs toward the sickroom. “Poor Arun’s going to think I don’t love him anymore.”
“I can’t help it if you’re a lack-about-the-bed, healer,” Azhani retorted haughtily, flipping her braids over one shoulder and then winking outrageously at Elisira, who was staring at the warrior like she had lost her mind.
Kyrian snorted derisively. “Oh, so it wasn’t you pinning me down to the mattress like a child with its favorite rag doll?” she taunted brazenly.
“Hardly. If anyone was doing any pinning, it was you, short stuff. Now get up there and amaze us all with your fabulous healing abilities.”
Elisira looked at Kyrian and said, “Whatever you’ve been feeding her, I want the recipe.”
Azhani watched Kyrian vanish up the stairs. “It’s not the food, though she is a great cook. It’s... I don’t exactly know what it is, other than that I feel very comfortable with her. I can smile with her, and it doesn’t hurt.” She shrugged and wryly added, “Besides, I’m always in a better mood after mucking out a stall, you know that.”
Elisira did know that the warrior enjoyed any time she spent with horses, even if the time was spent doing menial chores.
“Speaking of the four legs, how are they?” Elisira asked.
“On the mend,” Azhani replied, taking a cup of tea and sitting down next to her old friend. “I think Padreg must have taken care of them last night, because they’re all bandaged up this morning. I’m sure that Kyrian will check them later, and after that, she and Padreg will probably put their heads together and cook up noxious smelling tonics. I feel sorry for the horses. Kyrian’s of the opinion that medicine should taste bad.”
Elisira breathed a sharp sigh of relief. Traveling with the Y’Norans had taught her how much the plainsmen valued their four-legged friends. They treated them like family and she was beginning to feel the kinship bond with the stallion she had been riding.
“Looks like you’ve been infected with a plainsman’s horse-love, my friend.” Azhani grinned and wrinkled up her nose, making a silly face.
Elisira looked away, flushing slightly. “There is much to admire about those of the plains,” she said, more to herself than to the warrior.
Azhani’s smile twisted rakishly. “Especially one of those plainsmen in particular, eh?”
The flush deepened, but the noblewoman did not speak.
“Eh, well, I suppose you could fall for worse – certain of the king’s sycophants come to mind,” Azhani said, getting up and setting her empty cup to the side. “I have much to do. There is food in the storeroom should you wish to make breakfast.”
With that, the warrior left the lady behind to stare at her hands as they twisted in her lap.
Things were never so complicated before, Elisira thought, a little wistfully. Surely, it was the god’s own damnation to bite my tongue when my father allied with that brat Arris, but now what am I to do? I love a man who is, if not an enemy of a king, certainly not his nursing brother, either. The fact that he loves me in return and is a king in his own right, does nothing to erase the fact that I have cut all ties from my blood kin. A frown furrowed Elisira’s brow and she sighed sadly. I fear I shall not see the fields and halls of home again. She was working herself up to a good self-pitying cry when her stomach rumbled greedily.
Shaking her head and laughing lightly, the lady stood and spoke aloud. “What matter is it if I have a home and family, when there are issues of hunger to address? Let us see what Azhani and her healer have determined to be worthy rations for a winter in this blasted wilderness!”
Both Syrah and Thomas were very happy to see her when she reached the top of the stairs. The two warriors were awake, though deeply swaddled in their covers. There was a growing radiance of warmth spreading out from the woodstove and Kyrian sent a grateful thanks to whoever had thought to check the stove last. A large pot of water was bubbling merrily, so the stardancer moved it away, adding some soaproot and a bit of cooler water to make it comfortable. Taking a soft cloth, she moved to Thomas’ side and kneeled down.
“Good morrow, stardancer,” the young man whispered, his throat still raw from screaming.
“Good morning, Thomas. I’d like to wash off some of that dried blood so that I can see the wound better. Do you mind?” Kyrian dipped the rag into the soapy water and wrung it out slowly.
“Not at all. It would be nice to be clean,” he said wistfully.
She smiled at him and pulled back his covers. Removing the blood-soaked bandage, she slowly began to work off the caked blood and dirt around the swollen, weeping wounds that covered his chest and abdomen. She had done a lot for the injuries the night before, but today, now that there was better light, she would see about getting them Healed. The blond warrior grunted a few times when she rubbed too hard, but otherwise remained quiet while she worked.
“Good morning, Stardancer Kyrian, would you like some breakfast?” came a gentle tenor.
Kyrian looked up to see Devon standing at the top of the steps, a tray of food floating before him. The boy’s narrow face was screwed up in concentration and his lips moved slightly. Steam curled up from three bowls of cereal, and the scent of honey set her mouth to watering.
“I’d love some. Thanks Devon,” she said, standing up to take the tray.
The young man looked around the room, noticing that even though the curtains were pulled back, there were still many shadowed areas. “May I help?” he offered, noticing the pan of murky water.
“You could help Syrah eat her breakfast,” Kyrian said, nodding at the woman who was feebly trying to sit. Devon was immediately by the scout’s side, helping her to sit up. Taking one of the bowls of cereal, he carefully began to offer her small spoonfuls, which she gratefully took.
Kyrian set the extra two bowls on the edge of the stove to keep warm and returned to tending Thomas. Curiously, Devon watched the stardancer, impressed by the calm way that she soothed the warrior when he would inhale too much and cause the gashes in his chest to pull. Once the dried blood had been washed away, Kyrian reached out for the lamp, holding it above Thomas’ chest and shaking her head sadly.
As she inspected the puffy, red and purple scratches and bite marks, a clear, bright light suddenly filled the room. Startled, she glanced up at Devon, who had pulled out his book and was reading softly from it. Syrah watched the boy, a smile of delight on her face.
“Boy’s got the gift, he does,” she murmured, noticing Kyrian’s stare.
“Yes, he does,” the stardancer affirmed, setting aside the oil lamp and getting back to work on Thomas. “Thank you, Devon,” she added quietly.
“You’re welcome, my lady,” he said, his young man’s tenor breaking to boyish soprano. Stretching stiffly, he turned to Syrah and said, “Your pardon, Syr. I thought the extra light would assist the stardancer.”
She waved him off. “No worries boy, I was almost full anyway. Just a few more bites and then I’d like to sleep some.” Obligingly, he spooned up the cereal.
“All right Thomas, I know this must hurt like hell, so let’s do something about it,” she whispered, reaching out to lay a cool hand on the young man’s burning forehead.
He nodded tensely. As she had worked, the skin had seemed to come alive, and now it was burning, spreading sharp crackles of fire from his neck to his hips. “Okay. What do I have to do?” he whispered through clenched teeth.
“Just close your eyes and think of someplace peaceful,” the stardancer said. Bowing her head, she began to sing. The soft, gentle notes of a child’s lullaby filled the room. Thomas’ face went slack as he drifted off to sleep.
Watching in awe, Devon could only stare as a pale yellow-orange glow limned the stardancer’s hands. She then laid those flaming hands on Thomas’ ravaged flesh; her lips shaping the words to an ancient prayer. As the goddess’ healing fires caressed the horrible wounds, they pulsed with dark red light and black, evil smelling smoke puffed away from the skin, leaving behind healthy pink flesh.
“Wow,” the boy whispered. His face was flushed and his eyes sparkled with amazement. This was what he knew magic was for – to help people, not hurt them. The book he always carried was filled with spells. Small cantrips, such as the mending magic he had used earlier, as well as a few harder enchantments filled the book’s vellum pages. However, nothing in the ancient grimoire came close to miracle of healing he had just witnessed.
Sweat-soaked ringlets of hair clung limply to the stardancer’s face as she worked. Her cotton tunic was damp and her breath came in heavy, deep gasps. Unceasingly, Kyrian used her gift to heal Thomas, until there were only several bright pink scars decorating the Y’Noran warrior’s chest.
Kyrian slumped away from the bed, panting and shaking her hands as if they burned. “Damn, I’m glad that’s over,” she whispered, reaching for the waterskin that hung from her belt. Taking a long, grateful drink, the stardancer collapsed against the wall and stared out at the stairwell.
After a few moments, the young warrior woke. Sitting up without pain, Thomas looked down at his chest, touching the scars in wonder. He and Syrah exchanged glances and then he turned to Kyrian.
“My thanks, chosen. I’ll not forget this blessing,” he said, his voice beginning to take on a sleepy afterglow. He yawned, blinking in surprise.
“You are welcome, Thomas. Eat then sleep – Healing is draining to both stardancer and patient. Rest, and you will be well.” Kyrian finally had enough energy to stand and gather the bowl of still-warm cereal into her hands, cradling the heated ceramic dish as if she could leach some strength from the contact alone. She looked over at Syrah and smiled weakly. “I’ll be with you as soon as I’ve had a bit of this,” she held out the bowl.
Nodding, Syrah pulled her covers up and said, “Eat, ‘dancer. You’ll do me no good if you’re reeling from drain-shock.”
Devon looked at his friend; his face a study of curiosity.
Syrah shrugged, a rustle of movement that caused her blankets to slide down, exposing her fever-flushed face. “My gram’s a ‘dancer.”
Thomas ate quickly, talking quietly with Syrah and Devon. When he was through, he set his bowl aside. Soon, soft snores filled his side of the room.
The conversation around her faded away as the thick, hearty cereal filled her up. Kyrian sighed contentedly, blinking owlishly at the brightness of Devon’s mage light. It was always like this, after a major Healing. Closing her eyes, the stardancer listened to the thud of her own heartbeat mix with the sound of Thomas’ even, sleep tainted breathing. Slowly, the cereal worked its magic, pushing away her exhaustion and restoring enough energy for her to stand and move around to Syrah’s side.
Kneeling beside the scout, she looked up at Devon and said, “Thanks for the light, Devon.”
He blushed and looked at his feet. “You’re welcome,” he managed to stammer.
The stardancer laid her hand against Syrah’s cheek, sighing at the amount of heat radiating from the Y’Noran’s tanned skin.
Cursing softly, she muttered, “If only that lungwort hadn’t rotted.” The herbs she had been so careful to gather and store in a safe, dry place had been accidentally knocked off their shelf, landing in an open barrel of water. Even hanging the bundles by the fire had not saved them from the thick, pasty slime that had developed on the dark green leaves. She looked up and saw that Devon was still in the room. “Dev, could you see about getting me a cup of tea – add two spoons of honey to it, please. Also, bring up,” her stomach rumbled and she rolled her eyes, sighing resignedly. “Bring up another bowl of the cereal, or some bread and cheese, if that’s gone.”
Scrambling, the boy hastened to obey her requests. Devon returned shortly, with Elisira on his heels. On his tray this time was balanced a loaf of dark bread, a wedge of bright yellow cheese and a large, steaming mug of tea.
Kyrian rose and gratefully accepted the food.
“I came to see if I could help,” Elisira said, looking over at the sleeping form of Thomas Gould.
Sitting with the tray balanced on her folded legs, Kyrian smiled and said, “If you could take Thom’s bandages and put them in the fire, I’d appreciate it.”
Without a word, the noblewoman gathered the blood and puss soaked rags and began tossing them into the belly of the woodstove, watching them as they burned. A fuggy, cloying scent filled the air.
Kyrian ignored the smell and dug in, slicing off a piece of cheese and a chunk of bread. Beside her, Syrah dozed, her breath rasping in her chest painfully. Faintly, Padreg could be heard calling for his page, so Devon bowed quietly and left.
“You healed Azhani.” Elisira stated matter-of-factly. “Thank you.”
Around a mouthful of food, Kyrian said, “I’m glad I did.”
Smiling, the noblewoman shoved another handful of the ruined bandages into the stove. “I wasn’t sure what I would find when Azhi said she had a houseguest. You’re a gift I wasn’t expecting, healer.”
Kyrian didn’t seem to know how to answer that, though her cheeks pinked brightly.
“It’s nice that Azhi found a friend out here. Everything ... was so awful, and I...” Elisira fumbled for words. “I wasn’t able to be the friend she needed.” A strained tightness around the lady’s eyes made Kyrian curious, but she didn’t ask. Elisira canted her head to the side, staring back at the stardancer while she ate. “It is a good thing that you and Azhi are outside of Y’dan.”
Frowning, Kyrian said, “Why is that? I mean, I understand about Azhani, but why me?”
“There were... many stories told in Brenton of Arris’ new laws. For some unknown reason, our ‘beloved’ king has a problem with non-humans. Anyone loyal to the crown would treat you as the lowliest of filth, good healer. Even though you wear the robes of the goddess herself.” The noblewoman’s distaste for the king and his problems was evident in her tone.
“I take it that you are not one of those who are loyal to the crown?” Kyrian asked, raising an eyebrow curiously.
Elisira sighed and shook her head. “No, I’m loyal enough to the crown, I suppose. It’s just that I don’t give a rat’s ass about the man who’s wearing it right now. King Theodan was a wonderful man but his son is an uncouth bastard who deserves to be horse whipped!”
Waking at just that moment, Thomas let out a bark of laughter and said, “Nay Lady, tell us how you truly feel!”
Elisira shrugged. “I don’t like him. He’s slimy and arrogant and no woman should have to spend more than two heartbeats in his presence!” The lady’s ire exploded into the room.
“Good afternoon, Thom. Did you sleep well? Are you hungry?” Kyrian asked, to defuse the situation.
“Afternoon, healer, and yes, I slept well. Yes, I am hungry. How long did I sleep?” The warrior sat up and stretched, smiling brightly when he found he could take a full breath without much pain.
“Not too long – maybe a candlemark. I suspect that you will sleep again after eating. Don’t try to fight it – sleep and food are what you need the most right now. Even though the goddess’ fire has healed your wounds, your body has had a tremendous shock and it needs time to recover.”
Giving him half of her bread and cheese, as well as some cool water from a pitcher near the bed, the stardancer stood and brushed her hands off on her breeches. She looked down at Syrah, who was still sleeping fitfully and sighed. “I’ll be back. I’m going to check the storeroom again to see if I overlooked a bundle of lungwort last night.”
“Don’t bother; I already checked,” Elisira said with an apologetic smile. “It was the first thing I did this morning.”
“Okay, well, I guess that leaves one thing. Listen, I’m going to be worthless afterwards, so, if you could see that my pillow and blanket are brought up, I’d appreciate it,” Kyrian said, arranging herself in a comfortable position next to Syrah.
“You do your robe much honor, Kyrian,” Elisira said as she added a small chunk of wood to the stove.
Shaking her head, Kyrian replied, “It’s not for honor. I must do this – I can’t not heal, not when the goddess has given me the ability to channel Her fire.”
“She’s right, healer. You serve Astariu well,” Thomas said as he nibbled on a piece of cheese. “It’s rare, this far from Y’Syr or Y’mar.”
Kyrian’s attention snapped to the warrior. “Oh?”
Thomas sighed and tipped his head back, closing his eyes in memory. “Afore we left the capitol, we would hear of things in the city. Padreg, he did nae hear of such in the castle, I’m sure. Came from the common folk. We heard tales of healers in black robes who’d come to the city and instead of giving their healing to all, they charged large fees for the privilege of their services.”
Kyrian could not quite wrap her mind around the idea of any healer using their skills to aid for something as tawdry as common gold. The gift of medicine came freely from the gods, and they expected their practitioners to show no favoritism when it came to sharing them.
Shaking her head, Kyrian said, “A darkness is growing in Y’dan.”
“Aye. There’s worse, too. Those who follow the Twins are leaving the kingdom as fast as the nonhumans. We passed two empty shrines on the way north. Not one single acolyte had been left behind to tend the gardens or clean the altars. They were just empty, almost lifeless,” Thomas said sadly.
Kyrian’s mind flashed back to the beginning of winter and waking up, bouncing over Arun’s shoulders like a sack of unwanted grain. “This is a disturbing thing you have told me, but it does not contradict my own experience.” Briefly, she outlined how she had met the former Y’dani warleader. Thomas and Elisira nodded as she spoke.
“’Twas a wise thing Azhani did, keeping to her vows as a defender, even though she not be in service to the crown. Astariu bless her, she’ll gain by that, I’ve no doubt,” Thomas said, putting a hand over his heart solemnly.
Kyrian made a face. “Oh, I’m not so sure she doesn’t regret her decision,” she muttered softly.
“No, healer, she does not. You offered her something that Arris had stolen away – her honor.” Elisira’s quiet words echoed in the stardancer’s heart.
“I...” A particularly wracking cough from Syrah interrupted her. “I’ve got to take care of her,” the stardancer said resolutely. “But... whatever rescuing me did for Azhani, I’m glad she did. I’m positive I don’t want to know what that man had planned.”
Elisira nodded and left Kyrian to quietly work.
Three candlemarks later, Thomas staggered downstairs, his ruined breeches clinging in tatters to his still bruised body. “Healer’s down,” he said groggily. “And I need something to wear that doesn’t smell like dead demon.”
Padreg leapt up to assist his man to a chair.
“I bet a bath would feel pretty good too, eh?” the Y’Noran king slapped the still dazed warrior on the back.
“Aye, it would,” Thomas agreed sleepily.
Upon hearing of Kyrian’s condition, Azhani had sprinted up the stairs and was now carrying the unconscious stardancer down, being careful not to jostle her. The warrior carefully tucked her friend into bed, frowning at the dark lines of weariness that creased Kyrian’s face.
A hand on her shoulder made her look up. Elisira was standing behind her, a soft smile on her face. “Don’t be alarmed. She warned us that this would happen. Let her sleep, Azhi. She’ll be fine.”
Still, the warrior kept her eyes on Kyrian’s still form. The stardancer’s face started to relax, and her breath exhaled slowly. Sleep settled onto Kyrian, and Azhani breathed a sigh of relief.
Idly, Azhani reached out and brushed away a lock of the stardancer’s curly red hair and said, “I need to go to Barton.” Her eyes were pinned on the fading sunlight that showed through the open window. No snow had fallen that day, and it was not likely to for many more, at least not according to the warrior’s northern weather sense.
“Why? What’s in Barton?” Elisira asked curiously.
“Supplies. She can’t keep draining herself like this and if my leg is any indication, Thomas and Syrah won’t be healed in one session. She needs that stuff she was so upset about.” Azhani looked around the room, mentally tallying what foodstuffs they had against how many mouths there were to feed. “And unless we want to eat the horses, we’ll need more food.”
“All right. I have some jewels you can trade for the supplies then,” Elisira said quietly.
Azhani nodded, accepting the noblewoman’s offer. “I’m going to tell Padreg. If the weather holds, I can leave in a few days.”
Kyrian fell out of bed at midnight. Literally fell, since she was in the midst of a running dream, where she felt like the spirit of the man she had killed was chasing her through the snow covered forest and she had just tripped over Azhani’s dead body and...whump! She was on the floor, staring at a dust bunny the size of a child’s fist.
“Bleh,” the stardancer rolled over onto her back and poked her tongue out between her lips. Her mouth felt like the Y’skani desert at high noon on midsummer’s day. Gradually, she sat up, weakly running her hands through her massively tangled hair. Yawning so hard her jaw popped noisily, she looked around the room. Padreg and Elisira were curled up on Azhani’s bed, though they had separate blankets. On the floor in front of the fire, Aden and Devon were snoring away, having a contest to see how many logs they could saw.
Hmm... where’s Azhi? Swiveling her head around to look at her own bed, she peered hopefully up into the covers. Not there... then... hmm... drink. Thirsty.
Kyrian stood and shuffled down the three small steps in the storeroom to dip a cup of very cold water.
“Ah goddess that’s cold,” she muttered, and dipped another cupful. Thirst assuaged, she wandered back into the main room, searching for whatever remained of the group’s dinner. On the hearth, she found a pot with a scrap of parchment tucked under it. ~For the healer.~ It said, in a rich calligraphic hand. Lifting the lid, she smiled at the contents. Someone had made a shepherd’s pie. Flaky dough cooked to a nice golden brown covered a delicious smelling stew. “Yum,” the stardancer said softly, taking her prize, and a cup of the tea steeping in another pot, over to her bed.
Replete, she ventured upstairs to check on her patients. Thomas was sound asleep, as was Syrah, but here was where she found Azhani. Propped back in a chair, covered with just a single blanket, the warrior was dozing lightly. Kyrian walked over to her friend and gently laid a hand on her shoulder.
Azhani woke instantly. Shaking her head, she said, “Trouble?”
“No, no trouble, Azhani. You just looked uncomfortable. Why don’t you go sleep downstairs? My bed’s empty now.” Checking on the stove, she stirred the coals some and refreshed her tea from the pot sitting on top.
“I’m leaving for Barton in a few days. Will you make a list of what you need?” Azhani said, standing up and folding the blanket she had been using over the back of the chair.
“Sure,” the stardancer replied. Kneeling between the pallets, she extended both her arms outward over Thomas and Syrah, the palms hovering just inches over their sleeping forms. “Catch me if I tumble?” she queried, smiling up at her friend.
“Always,” Azhani rumbled in reply, coming to stand in front of the stardancer. “Go ahead and make your magic, healer.”
Nodding, Kyrian closed her eyes and began to hum softly. Her entire body was slowly enveloped in a pale pink glow. The aura faded quickly, and true to her prediction, the stardancer pitched forward, to be gently caught in Azhani’s strong arms.
The warrior held her friend up, as she began to shake and shudder. “You can’t keep doing this, Kyrian,” she whispered, running nervous fingers through the stardancer’s sweat-dampened hair. “You’re no good as a healer if you kill yourself.”
“Had... to,” Kyrian managed to get out between shudders. “Needed to know... how healed they were.”
Understanding, but not liking it, Azhani nodded. “And?”
“Thomas will be fine with a few day’s rest and some willow tea. Syrah still needs lungwort. Knew I didn’t get it all.” She sighed and yawned. “Damn, just woke up, too.”
“Doesn’t matter. You’re going back to bed now. Thom and Syrah will be fine for the night,” the warrior reassured her, standing up easily. Juggling Kyrian lightly to settle her against her chest, Azhani headed for the stairs.
“Whoa! Has anyone ever told you that you’re way too strong?” Kyrian asked between yawns.
“A few people, yes, but I never listen,” the warrior said, her tone light but soft.
“Right, can’t let the masses know that you’re in on the secret,” Kyrian retorted, breathing in the sweet scent that seemed to cling to Azhani like honey.
“Of course not. It ruins the mystique.” They reached the bed and Azhani gently lowered Kyrian down, pulling the covers up and tucking them around the stardancer.
“Stay. You can sleep over here,” Kyrian murmured, patting the empty side of the bed. “I promise not to kick.”
Azhani’s lips twitched into a wry grin. The bed did look very inviting, and she knew from experience that Kyrian was a pleasant companion, even in the most honorably platonic sense. Ah gods, Kyrian... It’s getting very hard to resist you. If you don’t stop being so nice to me, I’m going to end up liking you a whole lot.
“’Zhani?” the stardancer burred sleepily. “Woudja get me some water ‘fore you come to bed?”
“Sure,” Azhani brushed her knuckles against Kyrian’s face and stood up. Quietly, she found the stardancer’s cup and dipped some water. When she brought it back, Kyrian was fast asleep. Setting the cup down on the floor, the warrior kicked off her boots and climbed over the sleeping woman. “Sleep well, Kyr,” she whispered, and then pulled the extra blanket up over her shoulder. It didn’t take long for sleep to claim her.
After Kyrian had handed over her carefully prepared list, she went outside to look over the horses. Padreg, Aden and Devon were already in the yard; chasing each other and throwing snowballs like kids. Laughing, the stardancer entered the shed and greeted the horses.
“Good morning, my siblings. I am Kyrian, and I am here to care for you,” she whispered in the elven tongue, knowing that all of them would understand her. Arun’s ears twitched at the sound of his mistress’ voice and he whickered excitedly.
Caring for him first, Kyrian spoiled him with love and carrots, which were his favorite treats. Next, she checked and filled feed buckets and the water trough. Finally, she approached the worst of the injured horses, Padreg’s beautiful yellow mare, who tossed her head and shied away from the red-robed stardancer as she approached her wounded side.
“Be at ease, fleet-footed sister. I offer no harm, only aid,” Kyrian murmured, using the same language. Settling immediately, the horse’s ears only flicked forward in annoyance when the stardancer began to peel away the bandages covering a large area of stitches.
"You speak the language of the horse-kin as though you were born to it,” came Padreg’s admiring voice.
Kyrian tilted her head to the side, allowing the curls of her amber-hued hair to fall away and reveal the slight points to her ears. “I was,” she murmured as she worked.
“Your pardon, healer. I did not expect to see one of elvish descent still living in Y’dan, after what Arris has done,” the Y’Noran king said, thinking back to the tales they had heard on their journey north.
“We are not in Y’dan, precisely,” Kyrian said, moving on from the king’s mount to an injured stallion.
Padreg laughed boisterously, clapping his massive hands together animatedly. “You have me there, healer! I guess I must be bold and ask what you were doing in a land that sought to turn you out?”
Kyrian tore off a bit of bandage with her teeth and answered, “I was here before Arris’ idiotic rules of race were introduced.”
“They are recent, then?” Padreg asked curiously.
“Yes. I had not heard of the rules before you arrived, my lord,” she said absently, taking a skin filled with a cleanser out of her haversack and squirting it over the shallow cut in the horse’s flank.
The Y’Noran let out a huge sigh of relief. “I had hoped the blasted rules were a sign of Arris’ unfitness to rule and not of a cankered mentality in the moral heart of Y’dan. I am reassured that my late esteemed cousin Theodan was not the cause of these blasphemous changes!” he said as Kyrian wiped her hands on a clean rag. The Y’noran monarch combed his fingers through his scruffy beard and sighed. “Of course, this means that I must now plan my next move with this fact in mind. What say you, healer; would it be cowardly of me to take my people and return to my land? Or shall I turn to Y’mar and the High King? Elisira talks of bringing Arris’ crimes to the court of Ysradan for judgment, but I am uncertain.”
Kyrian frowned, her brow furrowing deeply. “Why ask me, highness? I am just a stardancer. I know nothing of politics or of the machinations of kings. What does my opinion mean against the counsel of your men?” she asked quietly, bundling up dirty bandages to be washed.
“A clan leader listens to the wisdom of great and small alike, allowing no rank to cloud the truth his heart knows to be right. Your words weigh as equally in my mind, young healer, as any battle hardened warrior’s. Speak your mind; I would hear it,” Padreg replied, leaning against the wall of the shed and waiting patiently for Kyrian’s answer.
Swallowing several times, she spent several moments just staring at the bandages in her hand. No one had ever asked her opinion in matters so grave before. Saving lives was one thing; something that the young woman was intimately familiar with and had no problem dealing with, but telling a king what she thought he should do about a political situation – well that just wasn’t something they trained for at the temples.
She began to pace, thinking about her answer. What would she do, in the Y’Noran king’s place? On the one hand, it was winter, and heading south would mean escaping the freezing cold of the snow and ice storms that blanketed the northern wilderness. On the other hand, south was where King Arris and his armies lay, waiting for any excuse to put their new laws into swift and lethal action. On another hand, not that she had three hands, but she supposed she could borrow one of Padreg’s; there was the very obvious affection between Padreg and the Lady Elisira. The affection ran deep and strong – feelings that would lead a man to do anything to protect the object of his emotions, and vice versa. It would be all too easy for Padreg or Elisira to attempt to sacrifice themselves for one another.
It was too complicated for Kyrian to think about clearly. She shook her head again, attempting to knock away the conflicting thoughts. “Your highness –“
Padreg held up a hand. “Nay healer, call me Padreg or Paddy, but please, drop the fancy words. I am a plain man – I need no pretty words to shine me up.”
Kyrian grinned and said, “All right, Padreg, then, but you must call me Kyrian.”
“Done! Now, what did you wish to say?”
“I – I’m having a hard time coming up with an answer that pleases everyone, risks no one and satisfies the desire to make things right. I don’t think I have an opinion that means anything to you.”
“I think you might be shoeing the horse with wooden nails, Kyrian. You have not the look or the actions of a dunce; therefore, your thoughts matter. Speak on.”
The stardancer’s face twisted in a contortion of frustration and she began to wave her hands around wildly. “I don’t know, Padreg! I think I would probably go back down into Y’dan and find out if things are as bad as they are rumored to be and if they were, I’d go find out if the High King knows about it. But then, I’m a meddler; it’s my nature to pry into other people’s business. I’m not responsible for the welfare of thousands of subjects. If I was, I might think differently. I might be more worried about them, than I was about someone else’s kingdom.”
Kyrian’s pacing affected the horses, making them toss their heads and sidle nervously each time the stardancer passed by them. Padreg wondered if he should get the suddenly volatile young woman out of the building.
“I might also wonder about the safety of those with me, especially if I felt about one of them the way you so obviously do about Elisira – I’m not sure I could risk the life of my beloved simply to satisfy some vague notion of chivalry. And besides, what happens if you go against Arris? He’s got an army and you’ve got, what, a couple of injured men?” Kyrian’s voice had risen until it was almost a shout. “Where are you going to get an army in the middle of nowhere?” she finished, her voice taking on a slyly satisfied edge, as if she had just proven some important point.
“He doesn’t need an army. He’s got me,” came a surprising response as Azhani entered the makeshift stable.
Kyrian turned and looked her friend in the eyes. Azhani’s normally alert gaze had sharpened to sword’s edge keenness and there was a predatory gleam that sparkled when she added, “I intend to face Arris anyway. I might as well do it at the side of a good king. You are intending to do something about Arris, aren’t you, your highness?” She turned to Padreg, raising her eyebrow in challenge.
The Y’Noran king nodded once. “Aye. ‘Twill do the kingdoms no good to leave the brat on the throne, poisoning the land against its peoples. It likes me not to think that I called him ‘cousin’.”
“Good, then you have one more sword,” Azhani said and then added, “The winter here is harsh but if I can get to Barton, we’ll be all right.”
“What’s in Barton?” Padreg wanted to know.
“Supplies and information,” Azhani replied succinctly. “I’ve got some sleigh skids for the cart, and Arun’s proved he can pull it fully loaded already. Kyrian and Elisira have provided me with shopping lists. If we get the skis on today, I can leave tomorrow.”
Azhani threw herself into getting ready for her trek through the snow to Barton. Attaching the skids to the cart was fairly easy, with the help willingly provided by the able bodied men. Kyrian busied herself with baking pasties the warrior could easily eat while traveling, even if they got cold. Elisira became the stardancer’s assistant, working with both Thomas and Syrah, helping them to use the privy and get something to eat. Both of the injured warriors were able to move around, but Syrah’s cough and inability to handle the cold kept her either in bed or hunched by the fire. Thomas did small tasks, like cleaning the upstairs room, but had to sleep every few candlemarks. Between him and Kyrian, they ate enough for five.
When Azhani was ready to go, the small group gathered outside to see her off. Syrah and Thomas leaned on Devon and Padreg for support as Elisira and Kyrian fussed over her, making certain she had her food and her warmest clothes. Weapons were stowed in easily reached places and another blanket was accepted with amusement.
“To tuck around your legs as you drive,” Kyrian said as she placed the folded fabric on the driver’s bench.
“Hurry back, my friend. I’ve just found you again and I’d rather not lose you so soon,” Elisira said softly, stepping forward to hug Azhani briefly.
Azhani flashed the lady a reckless grin and said, “Don’t worry – I’m like a bad cold. It takes forever to get rid of me.”
Kyrian had stepped away, but now she looked up and said, “I hope no one’s found a cure for the cold then.”
“Ah don’t you worry, healer, you’ll not be out of a job so easily,” Azhani said, winking broadly and then turning to begin her trek.
She made good time in the snow, even with the strangeness of piloting a wagon on skis underneath her. Arun seemed to get right into the swing of it, cantering along at a decent clip. All the lessons about living in the northern wilds that her father had painstakingly taught her, filtered back, echoing across the years in the whooshing sound the skids made as they flew over the snow.
Because of the snow, she forced herself to stop before sunset, locating a stand of trees to pitch her tent. Arun got the tent; Azhani laid out her bedroll and blankets on the bed of the cart and then stretched a piece of canvas over the top. A small fire gave her some tea and the gelding a hot mash and then she climbed into her cocoon, forcing her body to slow down enough to sleep.
She woke to the brightly sparkling snow. Climbing out of her makeshift tent, she went immediately to Arun, who eagerly stepped out of his tent and shook himself off.
“Morning boy. Hungry?” She took a soft towel and rubbed him down then gave him some food.
Nibbling on one of Kyrian’s pasties, she did a few stretches and exercises to get her blood pumping. There was an almost magical feel to the forest. Ice crystals shrouded the barren trees, turning ordinary bark and snow into a web of spun glass. The morning sun sent rainbows glittering all around the clearing where she had slept and Azhani inhaled the crisp air and thanked the goddess for the gift of her life.
“I know I haven’t exactly been the most reliable of believers, Astariu, but I’d like to think that when I believe in you, I do it without reservation. Today, in the shadow of this morning, I believe. Thank you,” Azhani said softly and then turned to gather her gear.
::Why?:: An echo filled, music laced voice erupted all around the warrior.
Azhani’s sword was in her hand instantly. Her neck protested loudly as she nearly ripped her own head off her shoulders, scanning the clearing.
::Why do you fight belief, my warrior?:: the voice came again. Azhani gaped as sunbeams refracted off of icicles, forming a glowing pool of water in the center of the clearing. Flowing, silvery ripples appeared on the surface, rolling from the edge to the center of the small pond. Two tentacles suddenly burst out of the water, rising and twining together, shimmering to form the shape of an armored woman.
Awe rippled through the warrior as she gazed at the apparition. A sword of multi-colored glass hung at the goddess’ side, glowing with its own inner light.
Azhani’s jaw worked but no sound came out. Finally, she whispered, “Astariu?”
::It is a name I wear.:: A smile flickered across the alien, yet beautiful features of the figure. ::You don’t need that,:: the goddess said, inclining her head toward the blade of Azhani’s sword. ::I mean you no ill.::
Every hair on the warrior’s body was standing at firm attention and there was an icicle growing in the pit of her stomach. Something about the spirit was causing every instinct in her body to catch fire and burn with the white-hot intensity of a dwarven smithy’s forge. There was something so utterly right about the goddess that it reached inside the warrior’s soul and plucked a chord she had thought long dead.
“What do you want, then?” Azhani asked through gritted teeth.
::I wanted to see what it was about you that had the minions of the Dark scuttling around like crabs after the tide.:: The goddess set her gaze on Azhani for several heartbeats, causing the normally calm warrior to fidget uncontrollably. Astariu nodded curtly and said. ::You’ll do, I suppose. You’re not ready, but you’ll do. You may sleep now.:: The apparition flicked her fingers negligently and the warrior crumpled to the ground, deeply asleep.
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