“You’re sure of this, boy?” Arris leaned forward and looked down at the grubby, dirt and snow covered messenger that had been rushed into the courtroom only moments before.
“Yes, your highness. I have it from the mayor of Ynnych’s lips. There be demons in the forests!” the boy proclaimed, his voice only cracking slightly.
Mutters of “What?” and “Impossible!” rippled through the gallery.
“I guess the bitch wasn’t as thorough as father thought she was,” Arris commented mildly and then waved the boy away. “You may go now. Tell the mayor that as soon as he’s able, I’d like to have the honor of his company for dinner.”
“Right away, your majesty!” The boy bowed low and then raced out of the room.
“Derkus, call up the master-at-arms and tell him to come to my chambers,” the king ordered and then looked out at his court. The couriers were now whispering fearfully among each other. If the demons had come, that meant the northern border was dreadfully unprotected and all those towns – the towns where most of their families lived, where their money came from – were in serious danger. Good. That would keep them busy, and when they heard his plans, they wouldn’t try to interfere. It would be glorious. He would be a hero, and then no one would ever again doubt his gods given right to rule.
The king smiled in contented satisfaction and stood up. “Good day everyone. I must go and see to the defense of the land.”
Everyone stood as he descended the steps to the floor and then watched as he and his honor guard exited the throne room.
Porthyros was by his side as soon as the doors closed. He held out a cup of perfectly warmed tea and waited while the young man drank down its contents greedily.
“Thank you, old friend. You always know exactly what I need. Now, what do you think of the glorious opportunity that today’s news has brought us?” asked Arris as he removed his crown and haphazardly dropped it onto a waiting cushion. Together, they walked toward the royal chambers.
“I think, my liege, that properly considered, it will prove to be your greatest accomplishment.” The old scholar phrased his statement carefully, already having some idea of where the brash young man’s mind had gone, but not yet knowing what direction his true masters wanted it to go.
The king frowned and stopped just outside of his door. “What’s there to consider? I’ll raise the army and go north and smash them all! It will be magnificent! The bards will sing of my heroics for years, and the people will love me more than even my sainted father!”
Blinking at the vehemence in Arris’ tone, Porthyros cried out, “My king! Surely you can’t mean to risk yourself against the demons?”
Arris grabbed the diminutive man, threw him against the door and growled, “Are you saying that I’m not capable of warfare? That I’m some kind of pathetic little weakling that needs to hide behind castle walls while real warriors go out and die for the glory of Y’dan?”
“No, of course not, your majesty,” Porthyros croaked breathlessly. “All know of your skill with the blade and the bards will sing of your bravery. I swear it!”
Suddenly, the anger seemed to drain from Arris, along with his strength. He dropped his mentor and sighed heavily. “You are right, old man. Go now, and instruct the kitchens to send my lunch. I’m tired and hungry and my temper is fit for no man, and especially not our good master-at-arms!”
The older man nodded and scuttled off to do his lord’s bidding.
“So the pup wants to go to war, eh? Well, let him. Encourage him to wait until next winter, though. All will be in place by then, and this little bonus will seal things nicely. Who needs a puppet king, anyway?” Kesryn laughed, watching as Porthyros greedily counted the bright golden coins that were scattered on the ground. Pitching out another coin, he smirked when the scholar’s eyes automatically followed its arc.
They had met in an abandoned home near the edge of Y’dannyv and Kesryn had been pleased with his minion’s report.
“Any word on that piece of whore’s dung that calls herself a Warleader?” he asked as Porthyros returned to his visual coin counting.
“Not so far, my lord, but my spies may be hampered by the weather.” A freak snowstorm had come blowing down from the mountains, blanketing the city in white one last time before the spring thaw.
“No matter, I will find her, and when I do, I will send her screaming down into the pits of hell. Now, go back to Arris. Coax, cajole, bribe, beg or whatever it is you have to do, but get him to put off his little escapade up north, until next winter. I’ve got it! Hire an oracle to babble some nonsense about destiny and prophecies. He’ll enjoy that.” With that last order, he threw out the rest of the pouch and faded into the shadows, content to watch the scholar scuttle around the room, accurately retrieving each and every one of the gold pieces that were scattered about.
When the wretched little man had left, Kesryn pulled out a pouch and hurriedly drew a protective circle on the floor around him. When it was done, he began chanting a string of harsh syllables. Immediately, he felt his limbs stiffen as his body was taken over by the being he called “Master”.
“Your efforts please me, toy. You are a worthy vessel.” His lips moved but the sound that came out was not any earthly voice. The sound seemed to swirl around the circle, echoing upon itself and making Kesryn’s ears ring.
“I will instruct my children to return to their nests, and breed. They have done their work well. Soon, my slave. The day grows nearer when I will walk among you and you will feel my love first hand. The barrier grows thinner every day. Begin the sacrifices soon, my slave. Harvest the power of their deaths. With it, you will forge the key that will unlock the gates that have held me from this world.”
Feeling the strength of his vessel wane, the dark god gave one final order.
“You must find the child of Rhu’len. Give her to me, and the power I shall bestow upon you will make what you control now seem like parlor tricks. Your vengeance is my vengeance, Darkchilde, for I too long to savor the screams of the Scion of DaCoure. She and all others who have laid a hand against my children, shall taste my wrath!” With that, he was gone.
Already, Kesryn was making plans. A list of names formed in his mind. Men and women he would contact and then bring to Y’dannyv to begin gathering the power necessary to raise Ecarthus from the depths of hell. The mage knew of several empty warehouses that would serve well as new temples to Ecarthus: eater of souls. Keeping the sacrifices quiet might be a problem, but if he started with the unsavory types – drifters, thieves, and other common criminals, no one would notice. Only when the supply of undesirables fell short, would he start on the innocent. The sorcerer felt his face tighten into a malicious grin. Arris should thank him. He was about to make Y’dannyv the most crime-free city in all of the kingdoms!
His mind still ringing with the words of his demonic master, Kesryn collapsed in a heap.
The mage’s blood hummed with the new powers that the contact had granted him, and with a flick of his wrist, he conjured up a cup of restorative wine. After drinking the restorative draught, he crushed the cheap tin vessel and threw it into the empty hearth. It was time to call in a few markers.
Peering into the darkened doorway of one of the city’s many run-down hovels, Arris used a soaking wet handkerchief to mop rainwater from his face. The king sighed unhappily and whined, “I still don’t understand why you’ve dragged me out to meet this crazy old witch, Porthyros! Why couldn’t she just come to the castle and see me in the throne room like any civilized person?”
“Madam Koresky would have gladly come to the castle my liege, but her magic is strongest here. Her home is filled with objects of wondrous powers, and she draws upon them for greater insight,” the scholar explained softly.
The door to the ramshackle house opened, revealing a stooped older woman. Silently, she waved them in, shooing away one of a dozen cats that swirled around her ankles.
“On your head it be, if this place falls down around my ears,” Arris growled as he hurried to follow the woman.
The home was far more comfortable inside than it appeared to be. The walls were buried behind layers of old tapestries and the floors well carpeted by rushes and tattered rugs. A cheerful fire blazed in a large hearth, casting odd shadows that danced around the room, partially illuminating the oddest collection of items Arris had ever seen gathered in one place. Stuffed owls huddled side by side with seashells and balls of oddly colored fur. Permeating everything was a musty odor, thick with dust and age, which made the young king sneeze furiously.
“Welcome to my home, my king,” the old woman said, curtseying as low as her aged bones would allow. Shuffling over to a large chair placed near the fire, she asked, “Will you permit an old woman to warm her bones?”
Arris gathered every shred of courtly training he had and added a good dollop of common sense. Madam Koresky was reputed to be a very powerful witch. Angering her would undoubtedly be less than the smartest thing he had ever done in his short life. Besides, she had something for him - something Porthyros claimed was terribly important.
“Please, m’lady, ease the chill and take your rest,” the king said graciously, waiting until the old woman had fully seated herself before snagging a nearby seat. Porthyros scurried up to stand behind him; one hand perched, claw-like, on the back of the chair.
“Thank you, your majesty,” the witch said, giving the young king a wide, toothless smile. She gestured, and a table appeared from nowhere, along with a bottle of wine and two glasses. “A drink, your highness? It is a good vintage, I assure you.”
Porthyros darted out from behind the chair and hastily poured two goblets, taking a quick sip before nodding and handing it to Arris. After the wine had been properly appreciated, the old woman waved her hand again, and a deck of fortune cards appeared on the table.
Shuffling the deck several times, Madam Koresky then held it out to the king. In a ritual as old as the kingdoms, Arris leaned forward and tapped the deck with his left hand, thinking only of his future. The witch shuffled the deck once more and then began laying out the cards.
As soon as the pattern was spread on the table, she shuddered, her ancient form trembling under the grip of some greater power. Her eyes slid shut and her body fell lax in its chair. From her mouth an unearthly, hollow voice began to speak.
“Hear me well, young king, and heed the wisdom of the ages: Three times shall ye reach for the heavens, three times shall ye fail, lest ye learn the rules of patience. Glory ye seek, glory ye shall have threefold if thou dost take arms against those who foul the night. Winter’s cover shall be your shield, spring’s lamb your feast and summer’s field your harvest. If thou dost heed these words, all that ye seek shall be thine.”
The old woman’s head flopped back against the chair and a line of thick drool slipped free of her mouth to puddle on the stained robes she wore.
Arris looked up at Porthyros, an uncontrollably gleeful smile stretching across his mouth and said, “Did you hear that? It’ll be mine, all mine! All the glory I ever wanted, there, waiting for me to snatch it from the bodies of the ice demons.”
“Yes, my king, I heard. I also heard her say that you should wait until winter to seek that glory,” Porthyros agreed softly, moving to pull the chair out from under the king as he anxiously stood and began to pace around the room.
“Yes, yes, of course, of course. It makes perfect sense! How else could I kill the demons, if not during winter when they will be most plentiful? Oh, Porthyros, my old teacher, it shall be such fun! I shall raise the largest army this kingdom has ever seen and I shall lead it to the edge of the world and I shall grind the demon’s bones deep into the mountains. Those foul beasts shall never again rise and seek to turn Y’dan into their personal buffet! The High King will surely make me his heir! I will rule all the kingdoms someday. I can feel it!” A feverish gleam had risen in the king’s eyes as he spoke and strands of spittle shot out of his mouth as he boasted of his coming glories.
Porthyros silently listened, nodding his head and agreeing monosyllabically with the young man, until Arris calmed down enough to take a long draught of wine.
“Will she wake up soon? Is she dead?” the young king demanded when he looked at the old witch and saw that she was still unconscious.
“I’m afraid Madam Koresky’s advanced age leaves her little choice but to sleep for many candlemarks after a reading,” Porthyros explained sadly.
“Ah, well then, leave the woman a few tokens of our appreciation and let us return to the castle. There is much to plan, old teacher. So much to plan!”
“You are one hundred percent all better now,” Kyrian pronounced as she came out of her healing trance.
Thomas laughed. “My thanks, stardancer.” He stood up and stretched, groaning in delight as several vertebrae snapped into place. “I was getting plain tired of lying around like an Y’skani pleasure servant.”
“Oh you loved every minute of it, you old faker,” Syrah said as she slid her leather tunic on, grimacing when the straps had to be tightened. “Looks like I’ll have to start taking seconds of those wonderful meals you make, Kyrian. My clothes don’t fit anymore!”
Kyrian laughed as she stood and said, “Thank you for the complement, however backhanded.”
“My pleasure,” Syrah said, bowing low and winking lasciviously at the young stardancer.
“You better watch her,” Thomas said to Elisira, who had just arrived at the top of the stairs, “or Syrah’s going to charm the robes right off young Kyrian here.” The stardancer immediately blushed a scarlet that matched her robes.
Chuckling, Elisira said, “Azhani’s ready for you downstairs, guys. Try not to get too bruised up.”
Instantly, the mirth in the room dissipated as the reality of sparring with one of the greatest fighters in Y’myran hit the two warriors square in the gut. Soberly, they trooped down the stairs and out into the chill of the morning.
“That was evil,” Kyrian commented as she cleaned up her things.
“They deserved it. After all, they’re the ones who were acting like a couple of raw recruits,” Elisira replied, gathering a pile of dirty rags. “How are you this morning? Do your ribs still hurt?”
Sparring with Azhani the day before, Kyrian zigged when she should have zagged. Without meaning to, the warrior’s blow had landed, leaving a long, quickly purpling bruise along the stardancer’s side.
Kyrian took a deep breath, exhaled and let out a slight whimper of pain. “Stiff, achy and still feeling like a tyro on her first day at the temple.”
“That’ll pass. It was a lucky shot,” Elisira said reassuringly. The other woman was right; she’d seen Azhani and Kyrian spar enough in the last three weeks to know that the stardancer was a master at her art. As good as she was with the sword, Azhani was no match for Kyrian when it came to the Goddess’ Dance.
Kyrian shrugged noncommittally. “I should have been paying attention,” she muttered, hefting her share of the laundry and carrying it downstairs.
Outside, Padreg watched as Azhani put his warriors through their paces. The king was highly impressed by the warleader’s efficient methods, stepping in to quickly correct a wrong movement and always ready to offer a word of praise when something was done properly.
Thomas and Aden had squared off while Syrah worked a makeshift pell. Padreg himself had gone several rounds with the battle-hardened warrior and was taking a well-deserved rest. The Y’Noran king took a deep breath and smiled at the hint of spring that scented the air. It was the smell of green things, of grass and sun and of the promise of home.
They would be heading out in the morning. The last of the snowstorms had been a week ago and Azhani had said that they could leave as soon as the creek began to melt. Early that morning, Padreg had gone out with a fishing pole and had spent a fruitless morning poking among the slushy water, hoping for some luck. All he had gotten was muddy boots and a handful of partially frozen bait. It was enough, though, to convince the warrior that it was time for their party to leave the safety of the homestead.
“Left and lift, Syrah, your foot is slipping,” Azhani counseled softly, slipping behind the other woman to put her hands on her hips and walk her through the pivot. “Like this.”
Syrah nodded in comprehension. “I got it, like this,” and then she executed the pivot and slash perfectly.
“Exactly! Excellent. Now, drop-slash-thrust, double time, twenty count.” The warrior barked out the orders as if they were on a battlefield. “Aden, watch his chest, not his hips. His actions are telegraphed here,” she tapped her breastbone in demonstration. “You’re only getting half the story if you look down.”
Aden sketched a quick salute and called out, “Aye, warleader!” Padreg’s armsmen had taken to calling Azhani by the title. The general consensus was that though Arris had stripped her of the rank, she was still the warleader.
He turned to face Thomas again, and this time, kept his eyes planted on the taller man’s chest. When he saw the muscles shift just before the bigger man’s sword arm made a full arc, he easily blocked the blow, stepped inside of Thomas’ longer reach, and scored a solid blow against his adversary.
The sparring began in earnest, with each circling the other warily, trading soft jabs and blows. Happy to be an observer, Padreg rested against a barrel near the door of the cottage. Elisira slipped outside and joined him, worming her way against his side and sliding an arm around his waist.
“The boys look serious,” she said, by way of greeting.
“Nay, milady, they’re just playing, like Syrah, only taking advantage of having a moving pell to strike,” Padreg said, draping an arm over Elisira’s shoulder. The plainsman breathed deeply of the noblewoman’s scent, enjoying the spiciness that it added to the fragrance of the day.
“Mmm, well, Azhi’s having more fun than a cat in a pigeon coop,” Elisira observed knowingly. She watched as Syrah was moved from the pell to a clearing in the yard where the warleader squared off against her.
“Is she now,” Padreg drawled, as he turned to give his lady his full attention. “Think she’s having more fun chasing young Syrah than she did with me?”
Elisira laughed lightly, patting Padreg’s armor-clad stomach. “No, but I warrant Syrah wishes she had your mail coat right about now.”
The king turned to see the young warrior rubbing her shoulder where a blow from Azhani’s practice sword had landed heavily. “I’m sure she does,” he agreed readily. “And if Azhani hadn’t already told me that I wasn’t done being pounded on, I’d gladly be a gentleman and offer to let the lass wear it.”
The lady smiled affectionately and pushed Padreg out toward where Syrah and Azhani were sparring. “Then at least be gentlemanly enough to perform a rescue, before your armswoman drops from exhaustion! I’ll warrant that she won’t quit before Azhani, and Azhani never quits.”
Grumbling good-naturedly, the plainsman eased away from the comfort of Elisira’s embrace to amble out into the yard.
“Hey there you big bad bully, how about picking on someone your own size?” he called out tauntingly as he approached the two sparring women.
Smiling wickedly, Azhani looked the approaching plainsman up and down. Gamely, she shrugged and said, “Well, you’re a little runty for me, but you’ll have to do. Syrah, stand down and take a rest. Thomas you too, and Elisira, since you’re out here, you can go get that bow of yours and try to kill a few hay bales.” The words tumbled out of the warleader’s mouth easily; clearly, she was used to giving instruction and having it followed.
Without looking to see if her orders were carried out, Azhani smoothly turned away from Syrah, and attacked Padreg. The Y’Noran chieftain easily blocked the blow, and returned one of his own. Effortlessly, they slipped into the rhythm of strike, thrust and parry.
Syrah and Thomas wandered over to sit on the porch, each grabbing and taking long drinks from waiting waterskins. Elisira sighed and pushed away from the railing and headed over to where Azhani had set up a makeshift target and picked up her bow and arrows. Soon, Aden joined her and began quietly assisting her. The noblewoman wasn’t a bad shot; she just hadn’t had as much practice with the bow as with the saber. Shrugging her shoulders, Elisira focused on her task of sending arrow after arrow toward the man-shaped straw figures.
Inside the cottage, Kyrian and Devon worked to clean and prepare the group’s gear for the upcoming journey. The horses had been groomed and inspected until they nearly quivered with excitement. They knew that they would soon be out and about, and moving forward instead of standing still, cramped together in a space that was better suited to inanimate objects like carts and barrels.
Or maybe it was just Kyrian’s imagination. After all, she was the one who, like the more visibly twitching Azhani, was just about ready to rip the lips off of anyone who asked, “Is it snowing again?” The Rhu’len family home was nice enough, but very close quarters for the small group.
Kyrian reached under a bed and swept out a pile of clothing and dirt. A particularly fragrant brown tunic found its way into her hands. Wrinkling her nose, Kyrian threw the offending bit of clothing into the pile she had mentally marked, “wash today.” The chill of winter had made it difficult to bathe regularly, because heating enough water for the entire group had been impractical.
Another tunic, one not nearly so offensive to the nose, found itself tossed into the stardancer’s pack. Kyrian looked down, smiling at the jumble of faded royal blue fabric. Tall, dark and broody won’t miss this. As she pushed the tunic into the bag, she chuckled to herself. Actually, broody doesn’t really fit her anymore - not since early winter, at least. Having Eli and the guys here has really helped her come out of her shell. Shrugging, Kyrian moved on to the next item of clothing. At least I get a new sleep shirt out of all this clean up. It’s my favorite color too... A yell of frustration startled the stardancer out of her reverie and sent her to the window to see what was amiss.
Outside, Elisira was rubbing her forearm where the bowstring had been painfully tenderizing the flesh for the last candlemark. Looking down at the weapon in her hand, she briefly considered snapping it in half. Instead, she took a deep, calming breath and handed the bow to Aden.
“That’s it. I can’t do this anymore today. Would you be so kind as to take this and stick it someplace I don’t have to look at it for at least a week, please? Because if you don’t,” the lady said with forced politeness, “I’m going to shove it somewhere very uncomfortable in our esteemed warleader’s body.”
“My lady...” Aden said in a tone meant to calm, but was interrupted by a hand on his shoulder.
“Well, well, what have we here? Throwing a tantrum all proper and lady-like, now, Eli? Think that just because I’m all the way across the yard smacking the pants off of your beau that you can get out of target practice, hmm?” Azhani’s amused voice caused Elisira to roll her eyes and sigh.
Turning, the noblewoman gave her old friend a long look of severe irritation before putting her hands on her hips. A stray hair drifted down into her face, and exasperatedly, she blew at it. Sighing once more, she said, “Well, Warleader, if you would deign to instruct me on how to fill that,” she nodded toward the straw target, “with blunted arrows without turning my arm into meatloaf, I’d be ever so grateful.” A syrupy smile ended her statement.
“Tcha, you’ve been sharpening your tongue when you should have been honing your aim, my friend,” Azhani replied, casually taking the bow from Aden and silently nodding the man off to go wash up. “Now, let’s see what we can do about that meatloaf problem, hmm?”
Kyrian watched as Azhani handed the bow back to Elisira and then wrapped her arms around the lady. A sharp jab of jealousy cut through the stardancer and she angrily pushed it aside.
Stop that! You’ve got no right to be feeling the way you do, knowing how she felt about Ylera. The seldom spoken of, but often felt presence of Azhani’s lost lover was palpable even to someone as sense blind as Aden. Once, when Elisira had made the mistake of asking about that particular subject, everyone had felt the anguish that bled out of Azhani’s eyes. Even though her answer had been curt, they had all gotten the message that the subject was to be forgotten.
Yet, the priest inside of the stardancer knew that some day, more than likely very soon, Azhani would have to come to terms with losing her lover. Otherwise the anger that smoldered just under the surface would explode, possibly with horrible consequences. Which was one of the many reasons Kyrian secretly swore she would stay by the warrior’s side, even after they had escorted Padreg safely home. Azhani would need a friend. That’s right, a friend, Kyr, and don’t you forget it. Closing her eyes, she willed the unwanted emotions into a ball and then stuffed that ball in a strongly locked mental box. When she opened her eyes once more, Azhani had stepped away from Elisira and was quietly encouraging her to fire the bow.
The snap of the bowstring was audible across the yard, and so was the cheer of joy that Elisira let out when her arrow not only hit the target, but also did it without smacking the bruises on her arm.
Kyrian smiled at her friend’s victory and pushed away from the window, heading for her medical bag. She had just the right thing for that nasty bruise and if her memory proved true, she would also soon have something to prevent future injuries.
“Kyrian, you are a goddess!” Elisira groaned as the stardancer liberally applied a salve to the sorest parts of her arm.
Chuckling at the praise, Kyrian said, “No, but I serve one. I’m glad it’s helping.”
Elisira stretched, and groaned when several joints cracked noisily. “I sound like some decrepit old war hound,” the lady complained softly, arching her back once more and wincing as her spine popped.
“You sound like someone who has been at practice all morning, nothing more, my lady,” Kyrian assured her as she put away her medicines.
Sighing as she settled back into her chair, Elisira said, “I don’t know, Kyrian. Maybe Father was right. Maybe I should have just stuck to needlework. Sore fingers and dry eyes are nothing compared to what I feel right now.”
“I think you may revise your opinion about that, should you ever bear children, my lady. You’ll be glad of strong muscles then.” The stardancer looked over at Padreg, who was staring at Elisira, with affection written plainly on his bearded face.
Elisira noticed the direction of Kyrian’s gaze and smiled shyly. “If Astariu is kind, stardancer, I will indeed agree with you. Until then, I think I shall sit here and dream wistfully of a large, hot bath and the soothing hands of my handmaidens.”
“Add a tub for me, and I’ll leave you to dream in peace, my lady,” Kyrian said, grinning widely.
The other woman snorted and then looked at Kyrian as she turned to head over to Thomas and Syrah, both of whom had several minor cuts and bruises. “You got it. Oh, and Kyrian, call me Eli. It’s what my friends call me, and I’d like to consider you a friend.”
Kyrian nodded and said, “All right, but you must call me Kyr, in return.”
“Deal. Now, go doctor our mighty warriors. They’ve had a rough morning and might decide to kidnap the nearest stardancer and cart her off into the wilderness. Oh, and don’t let Azhi fool you – she’s probably got a bruise or two of her own that could use a bit of that miracle salve.”
Dawning clear, cool and blessedly snow free, the morning of their departure was everything the warrior could have hoped. Loaded and ready to travel, waiting just beyond the end of the walkway, the horses stamped their feet and snorted, eager to be on their way. Even the two horses hitched to the cart snorted and pawed at the ground, pulling lightly on the reins that Syrah casually held.
Azhani stood outside the door to the cottage and placed her fingers against the worn wood and whispered, “I’ll make you proud, papa. I’ll make this land whole again, I swear.” Resolutely, she turned away from the building that had sheltered her for the winter.
Kushyra sidled nervously as she approached, but Azhani easily grabbed her mare’s reins and whispered soothingly. Gray ears twitched at hearing a familiar voice. This one was the one that her friend had given her to; this one was the one who would be her new friend.
Laying a gentle hand against the mare’s flank, Azhani continued to speak softly, her tone slowly calming the horse. “That’s it, girl. You remember me, right? Yes, you do.” A bright smile rippled across the warrior’s face as the horse pushed into her stroking hands. “Hey, how about a treat? I’ve got an apple for you.” From her haversack, Azhani retrieved a wrinkled, but still edible yellow apple. “Here, girl, nibble on this.”
She fed the fruit to Kushyra, who greedily chewed it up. Slowly, Azhani put her foot in the stirrup and pulled herself into the saddle, speaking softly and scratching the short, stiff hair continuously. The horse seemed content to carry her rider now, so Azhani deftly guided her toward the gate. Leaning forward, she whispered, “Come on, Kushyra, let’s show ‘em what we can do!” Using her knees and legs to signal the warhorse, she directed her up and over the fence in a smooth jump.
Looking back at the others who were watching their antics with amusement, she said, “Well, shall we? It’s not getting any warmer out here.”
Devon was the first of the group to join the warleader, guiding his smaller gelding to the gate and leaning down to open it. He smiled shyly at Azhani, who grinned in return.
“Good to see you’ve got some of your father’s spirit, Dev,” she said, moving her mount aside so that the others could join them.
He shrugged and said, “Well, Da always said that a man could only eat three feet of sword once before he learned how to get out of the way. I never quite understood him, but I always took it to mean that you had to be prepared to take chances.”
Azhani nodded sagely. “That’s as good an interpretation as I would give, lad. So tell me, how go your studies?”
Having spent most of his winter either burying his nose in a book or learning herb lore with Kyrian, Devon had needed considerable prodding to take up weapons practice. The call of magic was stronger in his blood than the call of the blade, but the boy strove to impress all of his teachers.
“Eh, well, I still can’t seem to twist my sword the way Aden wants me to; Syrah thinks I’ll never be a decent wrestler; Thomas says I could burn water and milord Padreg thinks my horsemanship to be passable.”
Azhani eyed the boy’s slight form, noting the way he held himself in the saddle. “You’ll do better once you’ve gotten your growth spurt. As for Aden’s instruction – tell him to try you on the rapier instead of the broadsword. Your strength will lie in your speed, and the rapier can be as deadly as the claymore in the hands of a skilled fencer.”
“Okay,” the boy said, clearly relieved that the warleader wasn’t going to give him a lecture about his priorities. Shyly, he said, “The lady Elisira did say that my needlework was some of the best she’s seen.”
“Good,” Azhani said, nodding approvingly. “Now, tell me what Kyrian says about your progress.”
He grinned and launched into how pleased the stardancer was with how quickly he was picking up the herbalist’s skills.
Three days worth of travel found the group entering a radically changed Barton. The once thriving trade town was now nearly empty. Circling the town, the shell of a wall could be seen being erected by those who had survived the winter. The hastily built barrier around the inn and the other “safe houses” was slowly being demolished and few children played in the streets.
Everywhere they looked, people worked hard, racing to rebuild what the demons had destroyed. Azhani’s group was stopping for the day, to trade what would not travel for what the townsfolk could spare. As they rode in, they could see the tracks of trappers and miners who had lived through the winter.
Down a side street, they could see some of the trappers set up in stalls, selling cured hides and jerked meats. Kyrian and Elisira split away from the group, heading for the booths. Padreg and Aden went to see the hostler, hoping the man would have some spare oats for the horses.
After their trades were done, the group met in the center of the village and talked over where they would camp that night. A familiar face caught Padreg’s eye and he shouted out, “Jalen, it’s good to see you, my friend!”
After introductions had been made, Brother Jalen explained how he had come to Barton. “’Twas a dream from Astariu herself, Paddy. She said go, so I went. I’ve been here a week so far and I haven’t regretted it yet.”
“Well, it’s good to see you finally slipping away from that stuffy old library of yours,” the Y’Noran king said jovially.
“When the goddess calls, I can only but answer,” Jalen said, shrugging noncommittally. “I would be a poor servant of Hers indeed if I did not heed Her requests. Isn’t that right, young Kyrian?” The priest turned his attention on the red-robed stardancer.
“Of course, Brother Jalen. Everyone knows how selflessly you devote yourself to servitude. Why, who could forget how you tirelessly shared the good Abbot’s wine with the novitiate? I assure you, the memories of the next morning linger on and on.” Kyrian said, causing the good brother to laugh.
“Ah, Kyr, how did I ever let you go? You always know exactly what to say to take the wind out of my sails.”
“I had a lot of practice,” the stardancer replied cheekily, which just made the older priest laugh even harder.
“Ah Padreg, my old friend, leave it to you to find the one person in the kingdoms who can carve strips from my hide faster than an Y’droran tanner.” Brother Jalen thumped Padreg on the back heartily. “So, what brings you so far north? I seem to recall that you and yours were hightailing it out of Y’dannyv. I figured you’d be back on the plains by now.”
“Plans have a way of shifting like grass in the wind, old friend. After we ran into that patrol, my men and I separated so that we would all have a better chance of getting home safely. Some of those who accompanied me, will only return in spirit, goddess bless them.” His eyes glistened as he spoke.
“Are you headed back to Y’Nor now?” the priest asked.
Padreg carefully considered his answer. Even though he trusted Brother Jalen with his life, there were many ears in the open market where they had run into the priest. “Eventually. My lady and I – we decided to enjoy the mountains.”
Jalen’s eyebrows shot up in surprise. “Your lady? Are congratulations in order, my friend?”
Elisira interrupted then. “Not quite yet, good Brother, but goddess willing, and my lord’s courage providing, I’ll soon call Y’Nor home.”
Jalen’s booming laugh once again filled the space around the small group.
“Brother Jae! Brother Jae! Come quick! Toby’s stuck in the tree again!” a small child shouted as she ran up to the group.
“Oh dear, that is a problem isn’t it?” the priest said, excusing himself and racing to follow the tow-headed child who scampered down the road.
Padreg looked at Azhani, who was watching the priest’s progress. “Should we lend a hand? A child in trouble is never good.”
Azhani shook her head. “No, I think he can handle it. Toby’s a cat – probably gets himself into trouble once a day. I’m sure Jalen’s got a system all worked out. Besides, it’s getting late. We should go if we want to make it to the cave before nightfall.”
“Then let us be on our way,” the Y’Noran said, easily mounting his horse and heading for the other side of town.
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