Azhani dragged herself to consciousness and blinked her eyes at the brightness of the overhead sun. Scrubbing a hand over her face, she shivered at the chill of the snow around her. Quickly sitting up, she looked around in confusion. Her sword lay less than a foot away, and there were ice crystals on her face from the snow.
By the position of the sun it was nearly noon. Arun wandered freely around the clearing, sticking his nose into icy bushes and snorting in derisive disgust when there was nothing to browse. Shaking her head, Azhani grabbed her sword and stood up and whistled for the horse. Gamely, he trotted over, allowing her to hitch him to the cart-turned-sleigh. Still puzzled, Azhani jumped up onto the driver’s seat and took up the reins, trying to recall if she had woken earlier for some reason.
Drawing the extra blanket over her legs, she sent out a silent prayer of thanks to Astarus - he who watches over fools - because she was not soaked to the bone by the snow. Better be more alert, warrior. You could catch your death out here, and there’s no Kyrian to conveniently come along, waiting to be rescued.
It was nightfall when she reached the outskirts of Barton. As she guided Arun down the main street, her every instinct was on high alert. The town, though not the size of Y’dannyv, was large enough to support a decent nightlife, even in the middle of winter. Stifling quiet cloaked the darkened streets. None of the lamps had been lit nor were there any drunks stumbling from tavern to tavern. No whores blithely hawked their wares from the second story windows of red light houses and there were none of the usual taciturn miners and trappers conducting business with the townsfolk. Everything was shut up tight and lightless.
Cautiously, Azhani slowly moved through the town, heading for the inn. It was the only bastion of man-made light in the town. The soft yellow glow of torches threw a small circle of light out on the snow outside of the door. The only noises were the whooshing of the cart’s runners on the snow and Arun’s hooves as they threw up small clods of ice.
When she reached the inn, she pulled the gelding to a halt and leapt down. No one came to greet her. Even the opportunistic stable boy stayed out of sight. Reaching for the door, she was surprised to find it locked. Her hand dropped to her sword, gripping the hilt tightly. Cautiously, she stepped to the side and knocked. Heartbeats pounded in her head as she waited for the door to open. It seemed like a lifetime until the bolt was drawn back and the door cautiously opened.
“Paul?” she said, shocked at her old friend’s appearance. An angry wound wrapped around the innkeeper’s head, cutting across his forehead and into the area where his left eye would be. A makeshift patch covered it. The injury continued on, crossing his nose and cutting into his right cheek.
“Blessed Twins, Azhani, you’re alive! Thank the gods! Come in, come in! You’ll not find much comfort in Barton, but what I’ve got, I’ll gladly share.” The innkeeper stepped away from the door and waved the warrior in.
Azhani stepped into the well-lit inn and blinked. The room was crowded with about thirty of Barton’s older inhabitants as well as ten small children. Paul’s wife, Orra, was dishing out bowls of stew while old Takk served drinks.
“Paul, what happened?” Azhani asked as she took in the bleak stares of the townspeople.
“Demons.” The innkeeper spat out the word. “Swept through town like Hell’s own fury. Killed and ate ‘til there weren’t no more t’kill.”
“How did you...” Azhani started to ask.
“Survive? Ran like a chicken on feast day ‘n grabbed anyone that’d run with me. Locked ourselves inna basements. Come out when the screamin’ stopped. Waited two more days ‘n then searched the town for survivors. Found them kids inna basement of the temple with th’ old priest. Priest been gnawed on though ‘n didn’t make it.” Paul’s simple, dry retelling of the decimation of Barton made Azhani’s heart drop into her stomach. “Others hereabouts hid as best as could, and now we all stick together like ticks on a sheep’s ass. T’rest of us be inna houses roundabouts, or keepin’ track o’the forest for more’o them monsters.”
“When did this happen?” she asked even as she thought, I should have been here! I should have come and checked up on them when I knew there were demons hunting the forest. Some great warleader I am.
Paul put a hand on her shoulder. “There weren’t nothin’ you coulda done, Warleader. They came so fast. Like the devil’s own wind, they were.”
“When?” Azhani’s voice grated on the word.
The innkeeper sighed heavily. “Five, mebbe six days, I think. Got my days ‘n nights a little mixed.” He gestured to his face.
The warrior nodded in sympathy. “What can I do to help?” she asked, knowing that her words came too late to really matter.
Paul looked at her, a gentle expression of understanding warming his blue eye before he said, “Well, didja happen t’bring yer ‘dancer friend wi’ ya? Got some that could use tendin’ ‘n young Mary’s about fair ready to burst with her first.”
Azhani shook her head and said, “No, she – “ the warrior looked away, quickly deciding whether or not to tell the truth, or to use the story she and Elisira had concocted. “She went back to her temple,” she finished lamely, not willing to tell the truth, but not willing to lay out a total lie, either.
Paul’s eyebrows rose in consternation, but all he said was, “Thought she were smarter ‘n that. Well, since ye ain’t got a healer wit’ ya, how about seein’ if you can help Tim and Mac get up enough food for us all? We was lookin’ to eat light tonight, but with you here, mebbe it’s worth the risk ta go outside. Mebbe check the houses that’re further out. See what’s left ‘n all.” The innkeeper quickly explained to the warrior that there wasn’t enough food in the surrounding houses to feed nearly five hundred people, most of which were children and elderly citizens, for more than a month, so every day or two, a couple of the stronger people would run out to the abandoned houses and search for supplies. So far, they had only risked going to the homes closest to their protected circle of homes, and only during the daytime, when the weak sunlight was some protection against the demons they could still hear prowling in the forest.
“I’ll go alone,” said Azhani when Paul had finished speaking. “Just point me in the direction you want me to check.”
A dozen protests were raised, but Azhani’s stern face quelled them. “Yer a good woman, Azhani. Don’ matter none what King Arseface says,” Paul said, his rough voice softened by emotion. “G’wan up to the Baker’s ‘n see what’s left there. Gotta warn ya though, we weren’t able to do much cleanin’ up after them demons left. Ground’s too cold ta dig, ‘n firewood’s all we got to get through the winter.”
“I understand,” the warrior said grimly, slipping out the door. Arun whickered a friendly greeting and she patted his head. “Hard times, boy. I’ll rub you down and make you a mash when we’re done, okay?”
The horse’s ears flicked at the word, “mash” and Azhani took that to mean he was agreeing with her. Taking her seat on the driver’s bench again, she slowly made her way through town, paying careful attention to the snow for signs of tracks.
Even though she was only half-elven, she still had enough of the ancient race’s gift of night vision to be able to see clearly, thanks to a nearly full moon. No other tracks marred the snow beyond the circle of the townsfolk’s perimeter. Cocking her head, she tried listening for the telltale baying of demons on the hunt, but heard only the rustling sounds of a rodent. Maybe the danger was over. Maybe the beasts had gone back to their caves.
“Or maybe they’re having an Arris sandwich. Wouldn’t that just be peachy?” The warrior chuckled at her own bad joke. Arun stopped about ten feet in front of the Baker’s house, refusing to go any further. The cold could not completely stall the effects of time on the dead. Azhani wrinkled her nose in disgust, as her senses caught the edge of death’s rot. She dismounted and patted the horse gently, then let him pick his own spot to rest, rather than force him to stay someplace that scared him.
The walls of the home were painted soft ochre yellow, allowing it to stand out under the coat of snow and ice. A large brick oven dominated one wall, confirming that the former occupants were once actually bakers. Engaging all of her well-honed senses, Azhani crept up to the front door, listening for any out of place sounds.
A light wind rustled the limbs of bare trees. A brave owl hooted from the roof of a nearby home and the slight crunching sound of tiny animals scurrying through the snow was all that the warrior could hear. Carefully, she reached out and put a hand on the door, noting the absence of a handle. The brass hardware had been ripped out and was probably buried somewhere in the snow. Slowly, she pushed open the door, wincing and reeling back when she saw the carnage within.
The moon partially illuminated the room and everywhere the warrior’s gaze fell, evidence of the utter surprise of the demon’s attack abounded. Rusty stains coated the walls, flecking and running in lacey patterns that were almost horrifically beautiful. Once beautiful furniture lay in chaotic piles and blood and gore liberally congealed in the mass of shredded fabric and shattered wood. At the base of the stairs, Azhani could see the partially frozen body of a demon. Not far from the carcass was a heavy marble rolling pin.
Azhani closed her eyes and whispered a brief prayer for the souls of the Bakers, and then went inside. The bitter cold had only forestalled the inevitable. Before the bodies had frozen, hardy bugs and desperate scavengers had found their way into the house and to the remains inside. Partial decomposition had begun, giving the remains an even more horrific appearance. Skirting the demon’s carcass, Azhani reached down and picked up the rolling pin. Brief inspection identified it as the weapon that brought down at least one of the attackers.
Good for you, the warrior thought. Took one of the bastards with you. May the Twins show you honor. When she looked up on the stairs, she saw the demon’s victim. The remains of a woman, not very old by the bright yellow of the hair that still clung to the frozen skull, lay toppled against the wall. Behind her, Azhani could see the massive spray of blood from the wound that had taken her life, as well as the scattered bits of ichor from the demon at her feet. Something had interrupted the beast’s feasting, and Azhani was about to investigate further when her head began to pound.
Memory hit, overtaking her with the force of a hurricane. Whirling, chaotic images of blood and death replaced the destroyed living room. Whimpers, moans and screams drowned out the unnatural silence. The warrior froze in place, caught in the maelstrom.
They came. Faster than she could breathe, they came. A boy’s head wobbled out into the crowd, and a woman in patched chain surged forward, screaming for her blood. Azhani sidestepped and brought the sword she couldn’t remember picking up, to block the furious blows of her opponent. Calmly, the former warleader dodged every attempt the other woman made at striking her. The woman grew angrier and angrier, finally shouting, “Die you oathbreaking bitch!”
She lowered her sword and charged, managing to surprise Azhani with her audacity.
Barely able to turn aside the blow, she ended up taking a shallow cut along her ribs. It was the first time someone had gotten through her defenses. The crowd cheered, howling for her blood.
Emboldened, the woman turned and tried to charge again, but Azhani wasn’t going to allow it to work a second time. Neatly stepping away, she flicked her wrist casually, and gutted her opponent. The woman’s eyes registered shock even as her mouth dropped open, spilling blood on the already crimson snow.
Azhani turned away; ready to meet her next opponent.
Sound fractured the memory. Azhani whirled, drawing her blade and leapt through the doorway into the kitchen, sweeping the sword in an arc in front of her. The warrior blinked in the sudden darkness. Only a very little moonlight bled past the shutters, giving the room just enough light for the warrior to see several large, dark shapes. There was a heartbeat of silence and then...
Azhani’s gaze snapped to the corner where a smallish lump twitched and then rolled aside to reveal the dim form of a kitten. Shaking her head, she looked again, just to be certain her eyes weren’t deceiving her. Slowly, the warrior reached into a pouch for a candle and a box of matches. Fumbling slightly, she managed to set the candle on a nearby table and strike the match. The candle flared, brightening the darkness.
“Mew?” the kitten cried again, jumping from the floor to the table and cautiously approaching the warrior.
“Hey there little cat,” Azhani said, sheathing her sword and reaching out to lift up the scrawny feline. A bone-jarring purr vibrated her hand as she tucked the kit into her vest. “Let’s see about getting you someplace warmer. A glance with the candle revealed that the rest of the litter, as well as the mother, had all frozen to death.
Quickly, Azhani began to search the kitchen, finding a large basket and filling it with an assortment of goods from the Baker’s larder. The warrior made a mental note to return in the morning and bring back as much as she could to Paul. She also made a note to search through the other houses for things to take back to the DaCoure homestead. The jewels she had, she would leave with Paul, with instructions to use them to buy supplies to build a wall around the town.
The kitten had curled up and was sound asleep by the time the warrior returned to the inn. She had filled up a good size portion of the wagon with food and supplies. When Paul and Orra saw what she had brought, they immediately called for several of the younger men to help carry the items into the inn. When they were done, Arun was carefully led into the stable and given a rub down and a hot meal.
Azhani wearily went inside and sat down, not noticing how quickly a spot was cleared for her. Carefully, she brought the sleeping kitten out and laid it on the table, stroking its soft fur lightly.
The kit was orange and white striped, with whorls of a deeper orange, almost reddish tone that streaked down its body and ended with a white tip on the tail. There was also a white splotch on the kitten’s face, giving it a somewhat comical expression.
Suddenly, the kitten woke up and stretched, its jaw opening so wide that Azhani feared that it might actually break. Blinking golden eyes, the kitten looked up at its rescuer and sleepily cried, “Mew?”
Azhani’s heart melted into a tiny puddle of goo. “Oh goddess, what am I going to do with you? Somehow, I just don’t think I can wreak the vengeance of the ages, on a tyrannical king, with a kitten tucked in my vest pocket,” she whispered as she stared into its inquisitive eyes.
One tiny paw reached out and rested against Azhani’s hand, claws extending and kneading the battle-toughened skin.
“Ouch!” Azhani jerked her hand away. “You’ve got needles on that thing,” she said, reaching out and tapping the paw in question.
The kitten thought this was an invitation to play and hunched up, hissing slightly and batting at the warrior’s hand. Azhani amused herself by playing ‘catch the mouse’ with the kitten until she realized that she had quite an audience.
The table was surrounded by at least two dozen children, all staring at the kitten with needy eyes. One brave child lifted her gaze from the kitten to Azhani’s face and said, “Do you think I could give him this?” In her hand was a piece of cooked chicken. Before Azhani could answer, tiny whiskers twitched curiously. Tiny muscles bunching, the kitten leapt agilely across the table, landing in front of the child. Delicately, it removed the strip of meat from her hand, eating it in two swift bites. The kitten then sat down on the table and proceeded to wash itself thoroughly.
The action was an invitation to the children. One by one, they each produced a treat until the kitten was stuffed full, its belly bulging outward on the sides. The bravest of them started to pet the sated animal, rewarded with a tiny, but loud purr. Soon, it was asleep, purring contentedly. There was a collective sigh of disappointment, but the children withdrew, leaving only the brave little girl behind.
“What’s his name?” she asked, hiking up onto a chair so she could watch the kitten sleep.
“I don’t really know,” Azhani said as she stared at the sleeping feline. “I wasn’t even aware he was a he.”
The little girl gave the warrior a look like she was the dumbest creature in the world. “Of course he’s a he! He’s orange! Only boy cats are orange!” she said, as if that explained it all.
Azhani nodded sagely and said, “Well then, I think since you know so much about orange boy kitties, you should go ahead and name him.”
The girl’s eyes ballooned into tiny saucers. “Really?” she asked incredulously.
Azhani smiled and said, “Yes, really. Go ahead. In fact,” she bit her lip quickly, fighting the urge to grab the kitten and run all the way home, “why don’t you keep him? He needs a good home.”
She squealed, waking the kitten and attracting the attention of the others who still sat in the taproom. Quickly, before the warrior could change her mind, the girl scooped up the bleary-eyed kitten and crooned, “It’s okay Toby, we’re gonna be okay now.”
The kitten, a little disconcerted at first, settled down nicely and began purring as the little girl petted and stroked him, softly babbling to him.
Orra came to the table with a plate of food and a mug of ale balanced on one arm. A tiny smile breached the stony mask that was her face and she said, “Looks like you got yourself a little friend there, Mattie.”
“Oh yes, Auntie Orra, this is Toby and we’re gonna be friends forever!” little Mattie said, not even looking up from her inspection of the now sleeping kitten’s fur.
A look of profound sadness washed over the older woman’s face, as she said, “Why don’t you take Toby upstairs and get some sleep, honey. It’s very late.”
Mattie looked up at her aunt and sighed. “Okay, good night.” She turned to Azhani, who smiled gently at her. “Thank you.” Her eyes scanned the warrior’s face for the tattoo that would denote her rank, but only found the scar.
“I am Azhani, Mattie,” the warrior said, keeping her voice calm.
“Oh! Uncle Paul talks about you all the time! Thank you so much Azhani, I’ll never forget this! Ever!” The little girl bounced out of her chair and raced up the stairs, the kitten firmly tucked against her chest.
Orra set the plate of food down and wiped away a tear. “That was a very nice thing you did, warrior. She lost her baby brother to the demons. His name was Toby.”
“I didn’t know,” Azhani said after taking a long drink of ale.
“I know, and that’s what makes what you did so special. Now eat. You’re in room twelve.” The older woman smiled fondly at her guest and then left to get another pitcher of ale for the remaining crowd.
Azhani ate slowly, savoring the warmth of the food and the chill of the ale. When she was done, she hauled her sleepy self upstairs and gratefully fell into bed.
The next day, Azhani did as she had mentally promised, making a round of several houses and returning with as much food as the cart could carry. At the end of the small town, she found something that inspired her. After quietly talking to Orra and Paul, she gathered several volunteers from the men, and together, they methodically went through every house, removing the remains of the former occupants.
In a small cabin that had once been inhabited by a retired miner, they laid out what they found, saying a prayer for the dead. When every house had been thoroughly explored, they boarded up the door to the cabin and began breaking furniture. The broken wood was piled around the house, and packed tight with old hay. Once that was finished, Paul brought everyone from the inn down and spoke quietly.
“Ain’t no use ‘n tryin’ ta blame the Twins for our sadness,” he said, his rough voice carrying across the crowd. “Tis the gods who we should be a-turnin’ to now, thankin’ ‘em for givin’ our families a place to go that’s safe and beautiful. ‘Tis the work of the demons that we hate, not the acts of our beloved gods. I say, Astarus and Astariu, bless my kin, take ‘em home and let ‘em know the peace of your valleys.”
At those words, just as the sun dipped behind a mountain, Azhani lifted her bow and fired two flaming arrows. They hit solidly and within moments, the cabin was ablaze. As the cabin burned, the remaining townsfolk began to sing.
“Bright sun has gone
and the pale moon comes.
Lift up high
Reach the sky
take my family home.
Earth and air
Fire and water
bind us all
Father and son
Mother and daughter.
Bright sun has gone
and the pale moon comes.
See up high
in the sky
they are home.”
Unbidden, tears dripped down Azhani’s face as the heat of the fire burnished her skin to a ruddy brown. Surreptitiously, she wiped at the tears as the crowd drifted away. Pulling her cloak tighter, the warrior settled in to stand vigil, praying that the souls of those within found the peace she herself refused to seek.
In the morning, Azhani went to the remaining people of Barton and made several pointed suggestions. By afternoon, all the able bodied were out in force, gathering rocks, snow, anything that could be piled up around the houses they had claimed as sanctuary. By evening, Azhani’s cart was stuffed to bursting with supplies, including an incredibly generous supply of medicines and bandages from the Y’skani doctors.
She inherited two more horses. One, a beautiful smoky gray mare, was a warhorse. Fully trained and armored, she was a gift from the hostler. Azhani was going to refuse the gift, but common sense kicked in and reminded her that she was, after all, going to wage war come spring. So with grace, the warrior accepted the animal, spending nearly two candlemarks with her so that she would know her scent and presence.
The mare’s name was Kushyra, which meant “strong spirit” in the old language. From the moment their eyes met, Kushyra and Azhani were friends. The horse lay her head on the warrior’s shoulder and sighed happily, knowing that she had found a kindred soul.
“Sorry Arun,” Azhani called out to the patently jealous gelding. “I’ll get you home to your mama, and you can get all the pampering you want.”
The other horse was a sturdy brown gelding of Arun’s breed, who immediately decided that Arun was his long lost buddy. Happy with her finds, Azhani prepared to return home.
Paul helped her get the horses into the sleigh’s harness and then reached out to take her hand.
“Ye’ve done not but good by us, Warleader,” he said, giving the warrior her former honorific. “I thank ye. Someday, the gods’ll repay your kindness. I knows it.”
The warrior shook the innkeeper’s hand firmly and said, “I’ve done nothing more than any decent person would do, Paul. Just remember what I said – keep inside at night and carry a torch wherever you go. Demons can’t stand the light. And build that damn wall!”
Paul nodded and stepped back while Azhani climbed up into the sleigh. Orra ran out of the inn just then, holding out a burlap wrapped package.
“Here, take this, warrior, with our thanks,” the innkeeper’s wife said, pushing the gift at the warrior.
Azhani accepted the package, smiling when the scent of pasties wafted up at her. The inn door opened once more and a small figure with an oddly orange lump on her right shoulder, picked her way across the yard to the sleigh.
“Toby wants to say good-bye,” Mattie explained, a cheeky smile working its way across her freckled face. “And so do I,” she added defiantly, one hand reaching up to steady the kitten, who was starting to wobble on the child’s small shoulder.
Azhani smiled and lowered her hand down to stroke the kitten’s soft fur and then ruffle the child’s flaming orange curls. “Be good, both of you,” she counseled sternly, “and mind your aunt and uncle.”
Bright green eyes sparkled as a freckled nose crinkled into a mischievous smile. “I’ll try,” Mattie said, sticking her tongue out at the warrior when Azhani frowned in mock anger.
Lifting her arm to wave, Azhani clicked her tongue at the horses and slapped the reins gently. The sleigh slowly began to glide away from the inn, cutting deep runnels in the snow.
She looked back once as she left. Men and women scurried about, working feverishly to construct the temporary wall. Nodding in approval, she turned her eyes toward home.
Snow began to fall almost immediately after the warrior left the protection of Barton’s buildings. Cursing her luck, Azhani pulled her hood up and tightened her cloak around her, hoping that the fabric would hold up against the dampness of the lightly falling flakes. The hood stayed put for approximately three heartbeats before it slid back, baring the warrior’s dark braids to the chill of the winter day.
“Damn it!” the warrior cursed, reaching up to settle the hood back into place. Silently, she wished she had remembered to pack one of her father’s knit caps. A smile stole across her face as she recalled finding the moth-eaten pieces of clothing.
“Azhani, did your father often keep rags under his bed?” Kyrian’s light voice floated down to the main room of the house where the warrior was busily cleaning out the hearth.
“Not that I recall,” she replied, trying to keep from being completely inundated by debris.
She was seated on the floor, scraping dust and soot out from inside the chimney.
“Well then, what do you call these?” Several balls of knitted, moth-eaten fabric tumbled down the stairs.
Azhani let her broom drop and went to look at the oddly shaped scraps, her face twisting into a look of confusion until she shook them out. They were caps, more precisely; they were her father’s caps. Tentative memories surfaced. Gnarled hands held two long needles that flew along, weaving the odd bowls that would keep their heads warm. Nearby, the fire crackled merrily in the hearth, holding back the winter’s chill.
“These aren’t rags. They’re my dad’s caps. He must have put them under his bed, intending to repair them and then never got around to it.” Azhani’s voice was tinged with sadness as she brought the scraps of fabric up to her nose and inhaled. Dust and dirt and the tiniest fragment of a scent, that was her father’s unique smell, impregnated the colorful yarn. She lowered the remnant and quickly suppressed a sneeze.
Kyrian had joined her, holding another two multicolored balls. “Oh, okay. Well, um, I can knit, so maybe I should try my hand at making one of those things? I mean, if your dad made them, that must mean they’re kind of necessary, huh?” the stardancer said, scuffing one foot against a brick.
Oh goddess, that is cute, Azhani thought, hiding a tiny smile. “Perhaps. They do work well at keeping the cold off your ears in the winter. Nothing worse than when your hood slips off and bares your head to the elements.”
“All right, then I’ll get started as soon as I can find some yarn,” Kyrian promised as she headed back upstairs.
Azhani grinned now, her teeth flashing white against the dusky darkness of her skin. “Guess we’ll see if Kyrian really can knit, hey?” she asked the horses, who twitched their ears back toward her, but never slowed their pace. A sigh of contentment slipped out as the warrior settled back against the seat, happy to be on her way home.
Home. What a strange concept, and yet, that’s exactly where I feel like I’m going. Not to dad’s place, not to the barracks, but home. Wonder why that is? A flash of a smiling face, green eyes and amber hair danced in her mind, but the warrior shook her head. Damn. Has she gotten that deep already? I’ve got to work on this, or else Arris will know. I will not lose another friend to that raving monster!
A faint tingle along the edge of her senses caused Kyrian to look up from her task of steadying Syrah Jessup’s faltering steps. She was walking the sickly warrior to the storeroom for a bath.
“Warleader’s home, eh?” the older woman said, smiling at the stardancer’s curious look. “You’re a ‘dancer, Kyr. I know you’ve got other senses.”
Shaking her head, Kyrian said, “I don’t know, Syrah. It’s almost like I can hear horses, but... Azhani only had Arun. Maybe I should go warn the others.”
“Nah, nah, horses it may be, it’s still Azhani all the same. Ye knows it, healer, same as ye knows I’m gonna lift a sword in defense of my king again. It’s knowledge burned in your heart.”
Kyrian stared blankly at the warrior, amazed at how insightful the taciturn woman really was. Over the previous days, nearly every waking moment of the stardancer’s time had been spent in the company of Padreg’s injured followers. Though she knew she had talked a lot about Azhani, she didn’t think her feelings had been so clearly evident.
“There’s no shame in cherishing good thoughts toward Azhani, healer. She be good people, na matter what the tale-tellers say. Now, let’s get me turned around and headed for the front. I want ta see your face when you realize that I be right,” Syrah joked slyly.
Kyrian sighed in frustration. “I just don’t get why people think she’s such a demon. If they’d spend even a few minutes in her presence, they’d know that she is a good woman.” Carefully, they maneuvered up the steps and into the main room.
“Sometimes being good isn’t enough,” Elisira said as she stood up to offer her arm as a counterbalance. With Syrah between them, she and Kyrian led the woman outside and helped her to sit on a bench that Devon had built out of spare planks. The day was sunny and clear, making the snow almost blindingly white and the icicles hanging from the eaves sparkle like polished jewels.
The stardancer turned to smile a welcome at her new friend. “Why do you say that?”
“Because I was there, and I remember how the lake turned crimson for a week after she won her freedom. If those memories are still on my mind, then there will be others whose charity will be for the slain, not the slayer. Keep that in mind, Kyr. Hardly anyone you meet will see Azhani for who she truly is. To an entire kingdom, she is still the Banshee of Banner Lake – an Oathbreaker and a murderer.” Elisira’s statement made Kyrian shiver.
The stardancer opened her mouth to ask another question, but quickly stifled it as horses burst into view, pulling the cart-turned-sleigh. Not bothering to hide her grin, she jumped off the porch and ran out to meet the sleigh.
Syrah looked up at the lady her king had chosen and remarked, “D’ya think the Warleader’s as smitten as the healer?”
Elisira’s light blue eyes watched as her old friend brought the sleigh to a halt and calmly stepped down, accepting an enthusiastic hug with stoic grace. “Perhaps not yet,” the lady mused as the two women began unloading the sleigh. “No, not yet,” she decided as darker blue eyes lifted from the back of the sleigh to meet her gaze. “But it will happen, I warrant, whether she wills it or no.”
As they unpacked, Azhani quietly described the devastation she had seen in Barton.
“I should go... maybe I can help,” Kyrian said, turning to head for the cabin.
Azhani’s hand on her arm stopped her. Shaking her head, the warrior said, “No, those that are left are well cared for by the Y’skani.”
“But I can’t just sit here and do nothing!” the stardancer protested.
“Pray, stardancer. Pray for the souls of those who are left, so that they make it through the winter.” The warrior’s dark eyes were saddened, but her voice was hard.
Biting back a retort, Kyrian nodded.
Very softly, Azhani said, “I’m sorry.” Stepping away, she lifted up a crate of goods and carried it into the cabin.
“How much time until spring?” Padreg asked as they guided the horses into the rather cramped shed.
“Six weeks, perhaps a bit more. We’ll have to wait at least a week after the snow starts to melt to avoid avalanche conditions,” Azhani said, hauling the sleigh over to the side of the cabin. “We should start planning where we’re headed before that. I found a map of the kingdoms in Barton that looks fairly recent.”
Clapping her on the back, the plainsman smiled. “Well done, warrior. Though I’m not beholden to Y’dan, I don’t feel comfortable leaving her to rot under Arris’ thumb. I’d like to see that he is removed.”
Aden spoke then. “What are you plannin’ on doin’ then, Paddy? ‘Tis hard true, but as you said, you’re not responsible for this land. Spring foaling is around the corner, as is the moving of the clans.” He flashed his gaze onto Elisira, leaving unspoken the fact that Y’Nor needed the security of heirs, and that the lady looked more than willing to be the mother of those heirs.
Padreg nodded, knowing well his responsibilities to his people. “I know, old friend. What troubles me, more than a king who cannot rule without iron in his hand, are demons that attack without cause. Though Y’Nor has never suffered their touch, there isn’t a one of us who hasn’t heard the tales of their last invasion. It strikes me as odd that they should be ready to feed so soon.”
“I share your feelings, Padreg,” Azhani said quietly as they entered the cabin. “In the past, we have had several years between attacks. It has only been two years, and I have never heard of them rising so soon.”
Thomas coughed and then said, “Well, I know that I wouldn’t mind having the chance to take a bite outta what killed Nadine and Roald.”
Syrah nodded her agreement and added, “Is it not the duty of any man to assess the threat of invasion by the demons?”
“I don’t think they’ll be coming back for a while,” Azhani said, surprising everyone.
Padreg looked at her curiously. “Oh, why do you say that?”
“When I was in Barton, I neither saw nor heard any sign that they had returned after the initial attack. Upon returning, I searched for their tracks, but found none. They’ve moved away from here. My guess is that they’ve died out. If they don’t eat, they die.” She looked around at the group. “But whether they are dead or just hiding is not what we should worry about. Even if we were to go out today and start hunting them, we are too few – we would all die in a matter of weeks. Y’dan would still be in Arris’ hands, and Y’Nor would mourn the loss of their clan chief.”
“All right, Warleader,” Padreg said, emphasizing the title, “then what would you recommend we do?”
Azhani’s smile broadened, “Rest. Heal. Practice and pack, and then plan our journey to Y’Nor. You need to get home to see to those baby horses.” Her gaze drifted over to Elisira, who was absently staring at Padreg. The king noticed and returned her smile.
“Aye, baby horses indeed! Elisira, my lady, how does that please you?” he boisterously asked.
Elisira smiled shyly. “It pleases me much, my lord. I should like to see the land I hope to call my own.”
Azhani let the couple bask in each other’s eyes for a few heartbeats and then said, “All right folks, let’s get this stuff unloaded so we can decide what goes where.”
“You owe me a cap.” A deep, warm voice purred into Kyrian’s ear, causing her to jump and almost spill the hot water she was about to pour over the herbs for her morning cup of tea.
“Ahh!” she choked out before the warrior’s hand covered her mouth.
“Ah-ah-ah, no waking up the whole house now, healer. It’s way too early for some of them to even consider it,” Azhani said, as Kyrian pulled away, glaring at her. The night before had been spent talking with Padreg and his men and there had been a keg of very good ale that had made its way around the small circle many times, causing the stardancer to glare at her more than once. Azhani had shrugged and mentally figured that if the Y’Norans were dumb enough to get sick from drinking too much, they shouldn’t expect anyone to feel sorry for them. For her own part, the warrior stuck to tea or water, needing a clear head to examine the map of the kingdoms.
By the time everyone had sought his or her beds, there was a working plan in place. They would wait until the first thaw and then, as quickly as they could, make their way to Y’Syr. Once there, they would quickly make their way to the Y’Noran border. Padreg and his people would continue with Elisira while Azhani and Kyrian returned to Y’Syr, to search for the friends that Ylera Kelani had told the warrior about.
Azhani had privately hoped that Kyrian would decide to go with Padreg, rather than follow her to the uncertain safety of Y’Syr. When she had mentioned it, the stardancer had firmly closed the door on that idea.
“No, Azhani, I don’t want to go to Y’Nor – no offense, your majesty – I want to go with you. I swore that I would stand by your side, and I will!” Kyrian’s face was flushed with indignation.
“You would be much safer if you go with Padreg,” Azhani tried to point out rationally.
“To the hells with safer, Azhani. I’m not going to run out on you just because it might get a little dangerous,” Kyrian retorted hotly.
“A little dangerous?” Azhani replied challengingly.
“Okay, so a lot dangerous. Like it isn’t already? Life in Y’dan isn’t exactly tea and crumb cakes for anything nonhuman, and I’m definitely not human. And even if it won’t be that way in Y’Syr or Y’Nor, I’d still rather be with you, working to make a difference!” Kyrian’s jaw clicked shut and she raised her eyes to meet Azhani’s steely blue gaze. The air nearly crackled with the energy that flowed between the two women, but in the end, it was the warleader who flicked her eyes away.
“Fine, I won’t stop you, but –“
“I won’t come crying to you when I stub my toe, mother,” Kyrian inserted jokingly, trying to defuse the tension.
For just one second, it looked as if she had said the wrong thing, and then Azhani laughed, a short bark of surprised amusement. “Right. No tears for stubbed toes. Now, why don’t you help the lads to bed? It looks like they’re all about to topple into the fire.”
“You scared about three years off of me, warrior,” Kyrian accused softly, turning away to finish pouring the water into her cup and then stirring in a dollop of honey.
“Sorry,” Azhani replied in mock contrition. “But you still owe me a cap.”
Kyrian furrowed her brow in confusion. “I owe you a cap? Huh? Have you been sniffing my herbs again?”
Azhani sat down near the hearth and grabbed a mug, intent on making a morning drink. “No,” she said absently, “but I did remember that you promised to knit me a cap if I found you some yarn. Here, this should work, right?” From her haversack, she withdrew four medium sized skeins of fuzzy charcoal colored yarn and tossed them at the stardancer.
Kyrian awkwardly caught them, successfully juggling them away from the fire and into her lap. She held the last skein up and examined it closely. “Yeah, this should do just fine. It’s thick, so it’ll be warm, too,” she said approvingly.
“Good. How soon can you finish it?” Azhani finished stirring her tea and took a sip.
“It’ll take me a bit to remember all the right stitches, but after that, not long, I’d imagine,” Kyrian said, as she drank her tea.
A muffled rumbling noise startled both women and caused Kyrian to chuckle. “Guess you’re hungry this morning, hey, Azhi?” Surreptitiously, the stardancer crossed her fingers. Come on, prove to me that my hunch is right. I know we’re friends, Azhani. I know you care about me.
Azhani opened her mouth to say something about Kyrian’s use of the nickname, but then decided she liked the way Kyrian’s voice made it sound. Instead, she said, “Um, yeah, I guess I am. What have we got that’s convenient?”
Kyrian smiled and said, “Oats, bread, fruit and last night’s dinner.”
“Oh, and dinner was that delicious roast. Perfect,” Azhani said, jumping up to find some bowls and spoons while the stardancer moved the pot into the hearth to warm.
After breakfast, Azhani suggested that they head outside and stretch their muscles. Kyrian agreed, stripping off her robe so that she was only wearing a pair of short breeches and a lightweight tunic. Azhani donned her padded gambeson and the two headed out into the slight chill of the morning.
There was a thick blanket of snow on the ground, but that didn’t stop the two women from stretching and then wandering out into the first open area they could find. Slowly, they circled each other, seeking any weakness in the other’s defenses.
Kyrian made the first move, taking an open handed swipe at the other woman’s seemingly undefended shoulder, but Azhani neatly countered, returning a light tap of her own to the stardancer’s stomach.
“Point, warrior,” Kyrian said, her eyes never leaving the center of Azhani’s chest, watching for the tell-tale ripple of movement that would indicate the warrior’s next move.
“I always get the first point,” Azhani noted calmly, studying her opponent casually.
Kyrian’s eyes crinkled as she smiled. “Yeah, but I usually get the last,” she taunted.
Azhani attacked, leaping up and letting out a soft grunt as she attempted a spin kick. Kyrian easily deflected the blow, returning a light tap to the inside of the warrior’s left knee.
“Point, healer,” Azhani said, narrowing her eyes as they returned to circling each other again. Now that they had each proven the other was awake and ready to play, the match began in earnest.
Minutes passed as they traded blows and blocks, ending with Kyrian’s natural impatience getting the better of her. The stardancer lowered her head and charged, knocking a surprised Azhani into the snow.
She jumped back, laughing, “Hah! Point. I win!”
Azhani scowled indignantly, but stood up and brushed herself off. “All right. Again.”
“Go!” Kyrian danced away, waiting for Azhani’s attack. The warrior cracked her neck then shook her shoulders and watched the stardancer. Not moving, she just followed Kyrian’s movements with her eyes until her friend noticed. “Well, are you going to stand there all day, or what?” Kyrian asked, putting her hands on her hips.
Not even the barest hint of a grin gave her away. Azhani started to turn away, then flipped up and behind the stardancer. Hooking her left foot around Kyrian’s knee, she pulled back and shoved out with her hands. Quickly, she dropped down, straddling the other woman and flexed her arm, putting the point of her elbow into the nape of Kyrian’s neck.
“Do you yield?” she asked calmly.
Kyrian tried to buck her off, but Azhani’s greater weight gave her an advantage. She tried to twist away, but the warrior clamped her legs shut, holding the stardancer in place. Turning her head slightly, Kyrian blew out a mouthful of snow. “Cold,” she murmured.
“What’s that? Did you say, ‘I yield, Azhani, because you are the almighty great and powerful one’?” the warrior teased.
“No, I do not yield,” the stardancer said through clenched teeth. Without warning, she pushed back, knowing she was putting herself into a very vulnerable position.
Azhani immediately wrapped her arm around the stardancer’s throat and locked her head in place. Ignoring it, Kyrian now reached her hand back and casually tickled the warrior’s knee. The action so surprised Azhani that she jumped, loosening her hold. Swift as a fish, Kyrian slithered away.
Jumping up, she easily deflected Azhani’s punch, and they were at it again. Kyrian won again. Grabbing Azhani’s arm as she let go of a punch, she used the warrior’s weight to throw her and as soon as she hit the ground, the stardancer put her foot on the warrior’s neck.
“Do you yield?” The stardancer’s face was flushed with exertion.
“I yield,” Azhani said. As soon as her friend’s foot was removed, she bounced up and said, “Round three?”
Kyrian felt her heart beating hard and her breath came in short gasps, but she knew that Azhani liked at least three rounds. Waiting only long enough for her heart to slow down, she gave her assent.
As soon as the stardancer nodded, Azhani rushed with a series of punches. Hard pressed to block or avoid the blows, Kyrian ended up pinned against the side of the cabin.
“Do you surrender?” Azhani growled, leaning her body into the smaller woman and looking down into sparkling green eyes.
Kyrian’s already reddened cheeks flamed even brighter as the weight of the taller woman’s body against her own set fire to overheated nerve endings. Swallowing hard, she returned her friend’s intense blue gaze, projecting an aura of calm she did not feel.
Oh goddess, why do you have to be so beautiful? ran through her mind as she struggled to control her raging hormones.
Kyrian wriggled, attempting to push the warrior away, but Azhani only pressed closer, slipping her leg between the stardancer’s. Warm breath mingled, filling the space between them with white puffs of air.
Leaning in closer, Azhani whispered, “Do... you... surrender?”
Kyrian held the warrior’s gaze, battling for the right to claim victory. Frustrated, she banged her head against the wall, but she did not answer. A grin slipped across Azhani’s face; she knew she was going to win this one. Then, just as the warrior thought the stardancer was going to say the words that would signal the end of the match, she got a face full of snow.
“Never!” Kyrian said, laughing as the warrior reeled back, spluttering.
Azhani watched Kyrian ease away from the wall, still laughing, and felt her own temper begin to fray. Hands clenching and leg muscles tensing, she stood there panting, as if readying for combat.
Whoa there warrior. She’s just playing with you. Don’t lose your head over this! Her inner voice grabbed her temper by its reins and hauled it in. Kyrian continued to laugh, walking away from the wall and over to a barrel where a couple of skins of water rested.
Azhani’s temper wouldn’t let the stardancer get away clean, though, so she carefully gathered a large handful of snow and silently crept up behind Kyrian as she drank. A slight crunching of footsteps in the snow was the stardancer’s only warning. She was just about to turn around when she got a double handful of snow down the back of her tunic.
“Gah!” she shrieked as the cold snow slid down the center of her back. “Azhani! No fair!”
Azhani smirked, crossing her arms and giving the stardancer a raised eyebrow. “S’amatter? Shoe not fit so well on that other foot?”
“Ooooo! You big goof! I didn’t shove it down your gambeson!” Kyrian retorted as she shook her tunic out. If I were going to shove anything down your gambeson right now, Azhi, it wouldn’t be snow!
Azhani stuck her tongue out. “So hire a barrister and sue me.” She’s kind of cute when she’s mad. The thought appeared out of nowhere, surprising the warrior. Shaking her head slightly, she pushed the thought away and refocused her attention on playing with her friend.
Kyrian blinked, surprised at the playful tone to the warrior’s usually solemn voice. She smiled. “Nah, barrister’s cost too much for a poor little priest like me. I think I’ll stick to personal retribution.” Scooping up a handful of snow, she rolled it up and tossed it, scoring a direct hit on the warrior’s thigh.
The snow on Azhani’s breeches slowly flaked away. Azhani looked down, watching the bits of white crystal melt into the fabric, and chuckled. Reaching for a large handful of snow, she felt the beginnings of a smile tug at the corners of her mouth. The warrior let out a huge laugh, giving in to the joy of playing with a friend.
Elisira found the two women rolling around, gleefully stuffing handfuls of snow into each other’s clothing. Covering her mouth to keep from laughing, she waved to Padreg who was curiously poking his head out of a window.
He joined her, casually slipping an arm around the lady. “I’m almost jealous. I should think it would be most stimulating to roll around in my all-unders with you, my lady,” he whispered softly.
“We can certainly go out and give it a try, my lord. Though, I’m not certain I can guarantee the safety of your crown jewels,” Elisira replied while leaning into the plainsman’s embrace.
“All right. Let’s go see how much trouble we can find in the snow,” he said with a wicked smile lighting his face.
They dashed outside, skirting around the wrestlers until they found their own nicely formed drift. Then they stopped, not knowing where to begin.
“Uhm, well, yes, let’s see. If I give you a light push,” Padreg said, reaching out to nudge Elisira’s arm.
“Then that gives me the right to push back,” she said, thrusting her arms outward with all the force she could muster and sending him sprawling into the drift.
He let out a squawk of surprise, flailing his arms and legs as he fell. The snow whooshed up and then came down in a white sprinkle.
“Oh no. Are you all right my lord?” Elisira cried, rushing to his side.
Laughing uproariously, he said, “Fine, my lady, just fine. A bit damp, and now,” he grinned wickedly, “I’ve got you right where I want you!” His hand shot out and caught the lady by the waist and dragged her down on top of him. With his other hand, he smeared a bunch of snow into her face.
She struggled, crying out indignantly, causing him to laugh even harder. Arching one eyebrow, she swiftly reached up and grabbed a double handful of snow, dropping it onto his face. As soon as he released her, she jumped up and ran away, gathering more ammunition and packing it into a snowball.
Making his own balls, Padreg stood up and hopped over the fence, using the stone barricade as a form of protection. He pelted her. She pelted him, and soon they were dashing across the yard, scooping up snow and flinging it wildly.
Seeing their friends, Azhani and Kyrian easily split up with Kyrian taking Padreg’s side and Azhani joining Elisira. Syrah, Devon, Thomas and Aden came out to play as well, and shortly, there were snowy fortifications all over the yard.
Utter snowball chaos erupted then. Candlemarks later, all of them, wet, winded, and covered with mud trooped into the house. Elisira and Kyrian immediately marched the two still recovering warriors back upstairs for a quick change of clothes and a return to their pallets, while Azhani and Padreg began the arduous task of hauling in enough water for everyone to get clean.