Looking around at the mountain country she traveled through, Kyrian decided that the scenery more than made up for the lingering chill. Huge, ancient trees stretched endlessly, reaching toward an ocean of sky that was marred only briefly by scattered drifts of clouds. There were times when those clouds would gather and the party would have to endure some rain, but the morning after such a shower, the trees and bushes would be decorated in a lace of ice that glistened in the bright sun.
Animals just waking from their winter hibernation provided tough but plentiful meat for the stewpot, and there were a few tuberous plants that added a bland but filling variety to the meals. Devon even managed to discover a cache of nuts that the owner had either lost or been unable to use, which Kyrian immediately used to make several loaves of hearty bread.
Carrying on the sleeping conditions of the cabin, Elisira and Padreg shared one tent while Thomas and Syrah shared another. Aden, having grown rather fond of young Devon, took the rapidly growing boy into his tent, treating him like a second son. It seemed only natural for Kyrian and Azhani to take the last tent. They had grown used to the other’s presence at night, having shared Kyrian’s rope bed at the cabin.
It was a small, but comfortable tent. Most nights, the women had different watches, but on the nights when they did end up sharing the space, Kyrian found that she was unable to keep from gravitating toward the warmth of the warrior’s body.
Azhani didn’t seem to mind being Kyrian’s rag doll, or if she did, she didn’t say anything about it. Mostly, the warrior kept a grueling schedule where she would practice late into the evening and rise before any of the others to run through the woods, battling imagined armies. Every other day, she would return and spar with the stardancer. Devon, who had just begun learning the basics of weaponless combat, loved to watch the two women spar.
Though he devoted most of his free time to studying his spell book, Devon readily absorbed whatever the adults around him thought to teach him. His magical skills improved daily, and on days when the wood was wet, it was his spells that started their fires. There were a few occasions when even his burgeoning control failed, and twice he had singed his eyebrows.
The friendship between Kyrian and Elisira grew, as did the easy camaraderie between Azhani and Padreg. While the two warriors spent their days talking about old battles, the stardancer and the noblewoman discussed music and art. One of their other favorite topics was Azhani, since both shared a deep affection for the former warleader.
Elisira was free with her memories, happily sharing bits of the past with Kyrian. The noblewoman’s stories about Azhani were the ones that the stardancer most appreciated and Elisira delighted in telling her about the warrior’s most embarrassing moments.
“Did I tell you about the time Azhani and I snuck into the kitchens to snitch pastries?” Elisira started off her daily round of stories, shooting a glance over at the darkly frowning warrior. “Hey, I could always tell her about the fishing trip.”
Rolling her eyes, Azhani turned to Kyrian and said, “I hope you don’t think I’m a total idiot by the time she’s through destroying my perfectly honed image.”
“Mm, I don’t know, Azhi... I think it would be pretty hard to tarnish that reputation of yours,” Kyrian said.
“You haven’t heard all my stories yet, Kyr. Anyway, so it was late and...” By the time she had finished, both women were nearly in tears, they were laughing so hard.
“Oh gods, Azhani, you must have looked like a ghost with all that flour covering you,” Kyrian said, spurring her horse up to ride beside the brooding warrior.
Azhani shrugged. “Probably. Theodan wasn’t amused when he had to come down and calm down the cook. I spent three days mucking out the royal stables for that one.”
Putting a hand on the warrior’s arm, Kyrian said, “You know, if it makes you uncomfortable for me to hear these stories, I’ll ask Eli to stop.”
Stop being such a brat, warrior. Kyr just wants to get to know you. Can you really deny her that? Looking into the earnest green eyes of her friend, she sighed. “No, it’s all right, Kyrian. I just... I haven’t thought of those things in a long while.”
“Okay, but to be fair, let me tell you some of my embarrassing stories,” the stardancer offered, smiling brightly.
Azhani never turned down a chance to hear about her friend’s past. “All right,” she replied, a tiny smile twitching at the corners of her mouth. “But nothing to do with baking ingredients, right?”
“Right.” Yes! Bringing out the warrior’s sweet, wry smile became one of Kyrian’s daily quests. Sometimes, she would relate an anecdote from her years of growing up in a monastery; others, she would bring some strange bit of rock or tree to the warrior and ask what it was. Azhani would then spend candlemarks telling the stardancer about it. If she didn’t know what it was, Kyrian would in turn spend the rest of the day coming up with the most ridiculous story about the item and then relate it to the group that night around the fire.
To pass the time as they rode, she told the warrior a rousing tale of chasing after a group of chickens that had escaped their coop.
Azhani laughed when the story finished. “Sounds like it was quite a day,” she commented, still chuckling.
“Yeah, I still have nightmares about being pecked to death,” Kyrian confided quietly.
“I promise to keep the chicken monsters out of our tent, Kyr,” Azhani said, her voice filled with mock seriousness.
“Thanks,” the stardancer returned drolly. Something wispy, sticking out of the bark of one of the huge trees, caught her attention. Carefully, she leaned over and removed it, softly crowing in delight when she discovered that it was a feather.
The plume had a grayish-purple tone and was banded in dark blue rings. It looked to be a down feather, though by the size, the bird that had shed it would be the largest she had ever seen. If it weren’t so large, Kyrian might have thought it was a pigeon feather, but this feather was nearly as long as her forearm and yet was as wispy as eiderdown.
Gently clutching her prize, she guided Arun up to Azhani’s side. The warrior had ridden on ahead, leaving the stardancer to retrieve the feather. “Hey, Azhi, check this out,” she softly called out, offering the strange plume to the other woman.
Eyes sparkling in mild amusement, Azhani took it, wondering briefly what the stardancer had found to vex her with now. The warrior slowly examined the feather, considering all of what she knew of the flying beasts that lived in the mountains.
“It kind of looks like a pigeon feather, but that would have to be some bird to have lost that!” Kyrian said, making an exaggerated size gesture with her hands.
One dark eyebrow rose at Kyrian’s description, but Azhani didn’t rise to the bait. Instead, she continued to examine the feather, certain she had seen something like it before.
Come on mulch-for-brains, dig around in that castle middens you call a memory and see what rises up to the surface. She closed her eyes and pictured the feather in her head, trying to conjure what it would look like on the bird – where it would be and what its purpose was.
Kyrian watched as Azhani’s mind worked, amazed at the peacefulness that utter concentration brought to the warrior’s scarred face. The stardancer was just barely able to stifle the desire to reach out and stroke the dark scarring that marred the warrior’s right cheek where her rank tattoo should have been. Mentally, Kyrian growled. If there was one reason for her to hate Arris, it was for taking away this hard-earned facet of her friend’s life. The rank-mark was something everyone strived for – its removal was almost worse than the imprisonment Azhani had suffered.
Unconsciously, her fingers strayed to her own face, lightly brushing the tattoo that rested just below the corner of her left eye. She vividly remembered her own Marking Day.
At just eleven summers old, Kyrian was young to be seeking her future, but like many of those whose blood was both elven and human, the goddess had woken her menses early. So, under the guidance of one of the starseekers, she went to the casting pool, to discover if her life was written in the stars. Though she was young, Kyrian was eager to see if she had a calling, or if she would be making her own destiny.
It was night, just after moonrise, and she was naked. A light breeze ruffled the shoulder-length curls of her reddish blonde hair, making her realize that it was time to cut it before it blocked her vision or before one of the brothers took a rod to her knuckles for her lack of personal care.
She could hear the wind rustling in the leaves, the rushing noise so loud, it was like being in the amphitheater after one of the Goddess Plays. Slowly, she approached the pool, kneeling beside it on the square of specially grown white grass.
Carefully, she began to recite the prayer that would activate the water’s powers.
“Astariu, lady of light, hear my voice tonight
Is my life thine to honor
or mine to hold?
Is the path written
or shall I carve the pen?
Astariu, lady of light, grant me sight
that I may serve all my life
in honor and in joy.”
Kyrian opened her eyes and stared down into the pond. Silvery ripples spread across the water, creating beautiful patterns in the dark pool. Thinking it only reflected moonlight, she started to stand. A misty fog began to rise, coalescing into a hazy shape. She blinked, rubbed her eyes and blinked again, willing the form to clear.
As she stared, the grayish shape twisted then dissipated to reveal her own face, hooded in the dark crimson fabric of a stardancer’s robe. On her right cheek, the distinctive three-teardrop tattoo of a Stardancer’s Mark glowed a light silver.
“A ‘dancer,” she whispered, reaching up to brush her mark-free cheek. Tears welled up in her eyes. To be called to serve the goddess so, was an honor that she would have never dared to imagine. Stardancers were revered above all other priests, having the ability to touch a person’s life in so many intimate ways. “Thank you, goddess!” she whispered exultantly. “I swear I’ll not use your gift lightly.”
Kyrian moved to leave, and then realized that the image in the pond was changing, shifting and revealing yet another picture. Mesmerized, she watched her future self fade to be replaced by a horrendous scene.
It was a battle – the dead and dying lay everywhere. A red robed figure moved from body to body, doing what little good it could to aid them. As they traveled along the field, Kyrian realized that the person was getting closer to the actual fighting. Several arrows whizzed by, narrowly missing the stardancer. Suddenly, the person was in the thick of the battle, using the heavy steel baton that was the stardancer’s only weapon, to defend against the attackers.
The enemy was fierce – demons and monsters straight from a child’s nightmare swarmed over the figure. Fangs and claws tore at the stardancer’s robes, shredding them and revealing a coat of studded leather armor beneath the fabric.
Still the stardancer pressed on, reaching the side of a dark-armored horseman. Together, they fought a hoard of monsters. They fought for what seemed like candlemarks, and blood and ichor thickly covered both figures. Then the horse was slain, sending the warrior tumbling to the ground. The stardancer helped the warrior up and they continued to hold off the monsters. Other warriors fought and died around them.
Suddenly, the ground in front of them erupted and a giant, monstrous form rose, reaching for and capturing the dark-armored warrior. Kyrian watched the pool in horror as the demon tore the warrior apart and then reached for the stardancer...
The young girl screamed and jumped away from the pool, shaking her head and chanting, “It’s nothing, just a dream, I’m sleeping, I’ve already gone back to the monastery and now I’m just asleep and dreaming, yeah, that’s it, I’m dreaming...”
Kyrian shuddered as the memory faded. She had nearly succeeded in banishing the nightmarish vision, but still, sometimes, it haunted her. This was the first time she had thought of it since meeting Azhani. A part of her wondered if it was because the warleader resembled the dark warrior in her dreams, or if it was because of all the stories she had heard of the demons that lived in the mountains they were now skirting.
“Hey, Kyr, you okay in there?” Azhani’s voice was tinged with concern. She had remembered where she had seen the feather before and had opened her eyes to tell the stardancer about it, when she realized that Kyrian was mentally miles away.
Kyrian blinked and smiled up at the warleader. “I’m fine. Just ... remembering stuff, that’s all.” Her smiled grew and she nodded toward the feather in the warrior’s hand. “Speaking of remembering... did you figure out what that thing is, or do I get to make it up?”
Azhani laughed and handed the feather back to Kyrian. “Not this time, healer. I remembered. It’s an owldragon’s feather.”
“Owldragon? What the heck is that?” Kyrian asked, wondering if Azhani were pulling her leg.
“It’s a bird – fairly large and rather rare. They’re nocturnal and solitary by nature like owls, but they’re scaled in places like a dragon. I think they’re probably a created race – some crazy old wizard playing around with parts and pieces got a little too tossed on some good ale and decided to pretend he was Astarus.”
“Really? You’re not just having some fun with me, are you, Azhi?” Kyrian asked, wonder in her voice.
“Nope,” Azhani replied, her wry smile breaking out on her face. “Maybe we’ll see the bird tonight and then you’ll believe me. Share watch with me, and I’ll see if I can find him for you.”
“You’re on,” Kyrian said, a challenge rising in her voice. Even if the warrior were just pulling her leg, it would still be nice to spend some time alone with her. Before Padreg and Elisira had shown up, the two friends would stay up talking about their childhoods. After their guests had arrived, Azhani had thrown herself into the role of a warleader and seemed to have less time to spend with Kyrian alone.
Azhani heard the dare and her smile widened. It would be nice to spend a few candlemarks with the stardancer, just the two of them, even if the owldragon didn’t show up. Maybe she could get Kyrian to open up a little about why she froze in battle. They hadn’t had time to talk in a long while, and the warrior still clearly remembered watching her friend turn into a statue when a group of bandits had attacked them last fall.
“I’m going to scout ahead. Tell the others that I’ll be back shortly,” Azhani said, spurring her horse into a light canter.
“Sure thing,” Kyrian said to the warrior’s departing back and then guided Arun back to Padreg, who was trying to teach Elisira how to weave grass into a basket.
“Ah, Kyr, have you come to save me from my own fumble-fingeredness?” Elisira asked as Kyrian drew up alongside them.
Kyrian laughed and shook her head. “No, actually, Azhani sent me to tell you that she’s gone to scout ahead.”
“All right. Aden, take point, please,” the Y’Noran king ordered softly.
Aden nodded and moved up to take the lead while Thomas dropped back, allowing Padreg, Elisira and Kyrian to ride together. Devon rode a little behind, his book open and resting on his saddle, but every so often, the youth would look up and make sure he was still on the trail.
“So Kyrian, have you found any new and wondrous items to share with us?” Padreg asked, his eyes dancing merrily.
Kyrian tugged at a lock of her hair and chuckled. “Actually, yes. I found an owldragon feather today.”
“An owldragon?” Elisira asked, disbelief plain in her voice.
“That’s what Azhani said it was. She even told me we could watch to see if we see it tonight,” Kyrian said. Shrugging, she held out the feather for them to examine. “I’m not sure if I believe her, but whatever bird it’s from, it’s pretty.”
Elisira took the feather and examined it and then passed it to Padreg, who studied it briefly before handing it back to Kyrian. “Well, it’s nothing I’ve ever seen,” the noblewoman said.
“Nor I, though I’ve seen larger feathers. There’s a type of bird that lives in the Y’droran Mountains that drops feathers twice as long as your arm. The Dwarves call ‘em great eagles. I’ve never seen one, but my father did, and brought back a fistful of the feathers to prove it,” Padreg said.
“Do you still have them?” Elisira asked.
Padreg nodded. “Yes. Mother had them made into this horrendous fan. She would pester father until he would fan her like she was some desert princess, and he was her eunuch servant. It was a source of great merriment in our clan. I think my sister may have the monstrosity now.”
“You have a sister?” Elisira asked, giggling lightly. “You didn’t tell me that. Should I expect her to be overprotective?”
As their conversation grew more private, Kyrian allowed her friends to move ahead. Looking about, she filled her eyes with the sight of spring’s touch on the vegetation. Everywhere her gaze brushed, there was a burst of color. Tiny flowers peppered the edges of the trail, while the scuttling of small animals shook the branches of the bushes and trees. The elven part of Kyrian rejoiced in the awakening of the forest after its winter nap.
“See it yet?” Kyrian whispered for the thirtieth time as she handed a steaming cup of tea to her watch partner.
“Nope, not yet. Don’t worry, Kyr. I’ll tell you if I see it,” Azhani said, taking the cup and sipping at the hot liquid. It was a cold night; the earlier wind had picked up and was now tossing the stardancer’s hair about quite viciously. “You should pull your hood up. You might catch cold.”
Kyrian automatically reached for her hood and then stopped. “If I do that, then I won’t be able to see or hear as well. I’ll be okay. But speaking of hoods – I owe you a cap.” Kyrian reached into her haversack and proudly pulled out a newly finished cap. “Here you go, one knit cap, specially crafted to fit your head.” She held out the garment, smiling when Azhani took it.
The warrior looked at the simple creation and smiled. Kyrian had expanded on her father’s design, enlarging the cap and adding a piece that would wrap around her throat, giving her that much more warmth. “Thank you,” the warrior said, honestly touched by the gesture. She set her cup aside and pulled the cap on, carefully wrapping the end pieces of the scarf around her throat. She turned her head a few times, pleased when the hat didn’t pull on her braids or come off. The scarf stayed in place as well, and she felt herself begin to grow warmer.
“You’re welcome. I, um, well, I figured that since you didn’t have a scarf, either, that I should just go ahead and make you a ranger’s cap,” Kyrian explained shyly.
“A ranger’s cap?” Azhani asked curiously, picking up her cup and taking another drink.
Kyrian nodded, and sat down next to the warrior. “Yeah. At the monastery, there is a group of monks who go off and live in the wild – they’re the ones who take care of the sick animals and downed trees and things. Anyway, it gets pretty cold in Y’Syr and one of the rangers designed this cap – said that having one item instead of two to pack, was good. The design caught on, and soon all of us novices were making and wearing them.”
“So this is high fashion for a monk, hmm?” Azhani asked, cupping her hands over her cheeks and making a silly face at her friend.
Warmth suffused the stardancer at the bantering tone of the warrior’s voice. She was caught between wanting to laugh and wanting to reach out and hug Azhani until she squeaked. Instead, she settled for shaking her head ruefully, chuckling lightly and patting the warrior’s knee. “That’s right, you’re wearing the monk version of velvet and silk brocade.”
“Well then, I feel like monk royalty!” Azhani said teasingly, primping and cooing like one of the many Y’dani courtiers she had seen over the years.
Kyrian couldn’t help herself - she started laughing.
Something rustled overhead and Azhani clapped a hand over the stardancer’s mouth. “Shh!”
Instantly, Kyrian quieted down. Azhani removed her hand and quietly stood, then silently moved away from their seat and into an open spot beyond the fire lit circle of their camp. Scanning the skies, she searched intently for the shape she knew was out there. When she spotted what she was looking for, she smiled and waved to Kyrian, signaling the stardancer to join her.
Sure that she was about to be made a total fool, Kyrian softly padded out to Azhani. As she reached the warrior’s side, Azhani pointed toward a tree some one hundred yards away.
“There,” she whispered, “on the top of that tree – see her?”
Kyrian squinted, trying to focus. In the distance, she spotted the beast, but it was so far away she wasn’t exactly sure how Azhani could see it as clearly as she obviously did.
The owldragon was a large bird, bigger than two good-sized turkeys. It was too far away and too dark for her to make out many details, but what she could see astounded her. Feathers and scales mixed in a way that was both disturbing and beautiful.
Silently, the two women stood together and watched the unusual avian as it moved about in its nest. Kyrian held her breath, hoped it would fly and nearly cried out when her hopes were realized. In flight, the owldragon was even more magnificent. It leapt off the branch and glided, flapping huge wings minimally to stay aloft. Suddenly, it folded its wings in and dove, to strike something on the ground almost a half-mile away. Kyrian heard the shrill death cry of a small animal and watched as the owldragon grabbed its kill and returned to its nest.
“Beautiful,” she whispered, tearing her eyes away finally and looking at Azhani. “Thank you.”
Azhani shrugged. “Told ya,” she said, her trademark smile flitting across her face.
“Yes, you did, and I’m very glad,” Kyrian said, smiling back at the warrior. “I guess this means that you earned a treat tonight.”
“Treat?” Azhani sounded remarkably like a child and her face lit up eagerly. “I love treats. We haven’t had treats in a long time. What’d you make?”
Kyrian chuckled. “Devon found a beehive today and somehow he managed not to get stung to death while retrieving the main ingredient for these.” The stardancer walked over to the fire and uncovered a pot. Inside were several small, honey-covered seedcakes.
“Ooo,” Azhani purred, reaching in and scooping out several of the sweet, gooey cakes.
“Not too many – we should save some for Aden and Thomas. Everyone else has already had their share,” Kyrian said.
Azhani pouted, and reluctantly only took a couple more of the treats before resolutely returning to her tree trunk perch.
Putting the treats next to the fire to stay warm, Kyrian lifted the teapot and brought it over to Azhani. “Refill?” she asked, offering the pot.
Azhani nodded, her mouth full of seedcake. Kyrian filled the warrior’s cup and then her own, setting the pot on the ground between them.
The rest of the watch was quiet. They talked softly, trading tales of their youth. Kyrian had grown up an orphan, but surrounded by other children at the monastery. Azhani had her father, but they lived in the cottage, only seeing others when they ventured into Barton for supplies. The warrior was six when they moved to Y’dannyv to live in King Theodan’s castle.
When she was twelve, she accepted the Mark of a warrior and entered the army, where she served as her father’s squire. As she spoke of her youth, Azhani would reach up and rub the scarred area where a sword-shaped tattoo had once been. In a burst of compassion, Kyrian reached out and covered the warrior’s hand with her own.
“Maybe you can have the Mark remade,” she said, as their fingers entwined.
Azhani closed her eyes and just leaned into their joined hands. I don’t know what I did to deserve her friendship, Astariu, but I’ll never stop thanking you for the chance to know her. The warrior took a breath, not bothering to hide the slight hitch of a sob.
Kyrian’s heart hammered in her chest when she heard the warrior’s cry. Hug her, you idiot! her mind screamed. Slowly, so that the warrior could pull away gracefully, the stardancer stood and opened her arms. “They’re free, if you want one,” she said, taking a small step toward Azhani.
“I do,” Azhani whispered, reaching for her friend and sobbing again when the other woman enveloped her in a long, soothing hug.
Kyrian rested her cheek on the top of the warrior’s head; the scratchy feel of the yarn enough of a distraction to keep her hormones in check. Engaging another aspect of her gift, she extended her empathy and wrapped Azhani in a circle of love and acceptance.
A candlemark later, the rustling of bushes broke them apart. Looking up, they spotted a sleepy-eyed Elisira, stumbling off into the woods for privacy. They shared a grin at the lady’s loud sigh of relief that echoed through the camp only moments later.
Kyrian reached out and silently ran two fingers down Azhani’s face. The warrior closed her eyes, bowed her head and muttered, “Thank you.”
Stumbling into the firelight, Elisira looked up, squinting at the sky. “I guess my internal clock is getting better. Go to bed you two, I’ll go get my grumpy bear up for our watch.” The noblewoman waved as her friends bid her goodnight and crawled into their tent. Smiling, she filed away the memory of their sweet embrace. “Please let them be happy,” she softly said and walked over to her tent to wake Padreg.
After a fortnight of hard travel, they crossed into the Y’Syran forests. To celebrate their escape from the mountains, they spent the night in an old shrine, safe in the knowledge that Arris could not reach them there. The atmosphere was jubilant, filled with hope and expectation rather than fear of what lay around the next bend.
A keg of ale was opened and shared around the fire, and each person contributed a thankful prayer to the Twins for their blessings. Two elven scouts found them, and Padreg was able to convince them that they were just passing through, heading to Y’Nor for the spring foaling. Luckily, Azhani was in the trees, taking her turn at watch duty. Her distinctive scar would have given her away immediately.
The scouts wished them well and told them where to find the nearest villages. Thanking them, Padreg wished them good hunting and sent them on their way. After that, they traveled slowly, and took their time to pass through the forest.
Stopping in the villages provided them with a fresh source of food and clothing, as well as new shoes for the horses. They never stayed more than a day at any of the communities they visited, though it was tempting to spend a few days sleeping on a real bed.
What news they were able to hear of Y’dan, was discouraging. Arris’ prejudicial laws had driven all but the most stubborn non-humans from the kingdom. Rumors of a new religious cult surfaced, but neither Azhani nor Padreg could track down more than the haziest references to it. They left the forests after another two and a half weeks and entered the Y’Syran plains.
Staring out at the vast, green fronds of grass that waved gently in the breeze, Elisira gasped and whispered, “Is this what your homeland is like, my lord?”
“Aye, to a great degree. Y’Nor isn’t as flat. There are hills, smallish, to be sure, but they roll gently before the eye. However, even the beauty of the land cannot compete with the herds, milady.” He closed his eyes briefly, seeing memories of home play across his eyelids. “Thousands upon thousands of the most beautiful beasts share our lives, Eli. You will see, I promise.”
The lady’s hand unconsciously went to the mane of her horse, Windfoot. Sifting through the thick strands of hair, she lightly scratched the stallion’s neck. Windfoot blew out a pleased breath and moved closer to Padreg’s mare. “I think I could like that, my lord. Perhaps even love it,” she said, turning to look at the king, whose scruffy appearance made him seem more a bandit than a ruler.
“My lord, I hate to interrupt, but we need to decide where we are headed next,” Aden’s soft voice rumbled from behind the couple.
Padreg frowned, but nodded. “All right. What does Azhani suggest? Do we need supplies yet?”
“Syrah is checking the packs now, and Thomas and the Warleader are arguing about which is closer – the capitol, or Myr.”
“Myr is closer, if we’re where I think we are,” Kyrian said as she joined the small group. “It’s about a day and a half to the east, whereas Y’Syria is a bit more to the south and west. One way takes us back into the forest, the other to the edge of Banner Lake.”
“You’ve been to Y’Syr before, Kyr?” Elisira asked curiously.
“I grew up here. The monks at the temple in Y’len raised me and I... I spent some time traveling around the country before I moved to Y’dan.”
Elisira watched in amazement as a myriad of emotions danced just behind the shadows of Kyrian’s eyes. Something very tragic had happened to the young stardancer here in Y’Syr.
Whatever it was, aroused the lady’s curiosity. What evil had befallen Kyrian that even the mention of Myr put tears into her eyes?
“Which would you recommend, then, Kyrian?” Padreg was asking.
“If all we need are a few supplies, we would probably be better off going to Myr. Your face would be well known to the nobles in the capitol and your trip home would more than likely be severely delayed.” Kyrian heard herself saying the words, but felt as though she were hearing them from somewhere far distant. The last place on the planet she wanted to go was Myr, but logic had warred with fear and won. Going to Y’Syria would be more trouble than it was worth – even for a few supplies. If it were just she and Azhani, perhaps they could risk it, but with Padreg and the horses – horses that were easily identifiable as purebred Y’Norans, there was too much chance of being recognized. Kyrian knew that Azhani wasn’t ready for Arris to know where she was.
“Myr it is then,” Padreg said, turning his horse away to go and interrupt Azhani and Aden’s conversation.
To Kyrian’s great relief, it was Syrah and Thomas who took the wagon into Myr, while the remainder of the party set up camp underneath a quiet grove of trees. Saying a silent prayer of thanks, Kyrian threw herself into making a good meal, using the last of their special treats to create a thick, rich stew.
At the edge of the clearing, Padreg and Azhani sat on a log and drank deeply from a waterskin. They had been sparing all morning and now were taking a break.
Handing the skin to Azhani, Padreg said, “There’s no easy way to bring this up, Azhani, so I’ll be plain. How did you come to be exiled?”
“I wondered how long it would take you to ask,” Azhani said quietly, looking down at her feet. A hundred emotions flickered on her face, but finally she said, “Much of what you heard about Banner Lake is true, my lord. I am guilty of slaying or maiming one hundred and six soldiers of the crown. What you will not hear is that I am innocent of the death of Ambassador Kelani.”
“I know,” Padreg interrupted. “Eli told me.” He shuddered, sickened by what his beloved had described.
A haunted, pain-filled look entered the warrior’s eyes. “Eli knows what happened?” she whispered haltingly.
“Aye, she does. Do me a favor, warrior. Never ask her to tell you about it,” the Y’Noran chieftain said pleadingly.
Looking away, Azhani whispered, “I can only imagine what she must have seen.” Tears gathered in the corners of her eyes and spilled over. Hurriedly, she dashed them away. “So then all you need to know is this: I was supposed to be Theodan’s heir, but Arris and his pet councilmen decided that I was lying.” Shaking her head, Azhani added, “I will regret, until my last breath, my decision to enter that council chamber alone. I was so arrogant, and so sure that they would accept the word of their king, that I never even imagined they would deny me.”
“Will you take the throne, then?” Padreg asked curiously. There was no question that her story was truer than any he had heard, either via the official proclamations or through rumor. He would accept her version with a clean conscience and stand by her side knowing that the Twins blessed his actions.
“I don’t know, Padreg. I don’t want it – I never did. All I ever wanted was to marry Ylera and teach the sword. Maybe have a few kids and see the kingdoms. Those dreams are ashes, and all that I have left is my hate.” Her gaze picked out the shapes of Kyrian and Elisira as they worked around the camp. Turning, she looked at him once more and quietly said, “And the friends who have clung to me, despite my churlish ways.”
Padreg cracked a smile. Clapping her on the back he said, “Well, warleader, when people love you, that’s what they do. They stick around, even when the shit gets knee deep. Now come on – it’s time for you to chase my lazy butt around the clearing again.”
She snorted and jumped up, taking the shaft of wood that had doubled as a practice blade with her. “All right, plainsman, you asked for it!”
While Azhani and Padreg sparred, Aden, Devon and Elisira concentrated on gathering firewood and repairing torn clothing. With the food cooking, Kyrian wandered the nearby forest, reliving memories.
A candlemark later, Azhani found her, sitting in the middle of a clearing, running her fingers through a patch of yellowed grass. Tears stained the stardancer’s face, which was haunted by a look of sadness so infinitely regretful, that it tore at the warrior’s heart.
“Kyr?” she called out softly.
Startled, the stardancer leapt up. “Sorry, I was just exploring the area. It’s been a while since I was here and I wanted to see how it had changed...” she babbled, edging away from the spot where she had been sitting.
There was a frantic, almost panicky quality to her friend’s voice, so Azhani didn’t press for details. “All right. I came to tell you that Thomas and Syrah are back. We’re all waiting breathlessly to try your new recipe,” she said, smiling brightly.
“Oh, yes, dinner! Of course, I’ll come right away,” said Kyrian, the sadness vanishing so completely it was as if it never existed. Yet Azhani could still see the stains on the stardancer’s face, and there were still shadows in her brilliant green eyes. Casually, she dropped an arm around her friend’s shoulders, pulling her into a loose hug. “Thanks for cooking today. I know Eli was getting tired of Aden’s ‘rat-on-a-stick’ routine.”
A sweet smile was her reward. “Thanks, I know how much you like my stew.”
“Hey, a girl’s gotta have one favorite, right? Just be glad it’s something simple, instead of some incredibly complex marzipan sculpture,” Azhani replied teasingly. They left the clearing, but the warrior painted the details into her memory, knowing that one day, she would ask what caused her friend so much distress.
When Azhani and Kyrian returned, Thomas and Syrah had just finished unloading the supplies from the back of the wagon. Barrels and wrapped packages lay piled near the rest of the party’s gear and the two exhausted horses were being treated to a rubdown and a hot mash.
Heading for the fire pit, Kyrian immediately started dishing out the meal. Fresh, warm bread spread thickly with butter complimented the thick, hearty stew, and soon everyone was busily eating.
Syrah spoke first, leveling a strangely respectful gaze at Azhani before saying, “Well, we’ve got some news. Most of it is bad, so I’ll try to be quick. First off, Warleader, you are worth quite a bit of gold to Queen Lyssera. If I wasn’t so loyal to his royal beardedness over there,” the warrior nodded at Padreg, who rolled his eyes, “I might be tempted to claim the money myself.”
“How much is my carcass worth?” Azhani asked lightly, spearing a bit of meat with her fork.
“Not that much, only 25,000 goldmarks, but the warrant specifically states to capture you alive.”
Everyone whistled at the princely sum.
Azhani only shrugged. “What’s Arris paying?”
“Ah, now there’s a man who knows the value of people. The king of Y’dan is offering 50,000 Y’dani gold coins to anyone who can bring him you or your head, he’s not very picky about it,” Syrah said, taking a long swig from an aleskin.
“So between them, I’m worth 75,000. That’s not too bad,” the warrior said nonchalantly. “Maybe I should turn myself in and use the reward money to start up a bookbindery.”
Everyone looked at Azhani like she was nuts.
“What?” the warrior returned their stares. “Am I not allowed to have a sense of humor? Come on guys, I know I’m usually as prickly as a cactus in a windstorm, but hell, I can enjoy a good joke, especially if it’s at the expense of the idiots I’d like to grind into bone dust.”
Elisira was the first to speak. She looked directly at Kyrian and said, “All right, Kyr, whatever special herbs you seasoned her food with, share!”
“I didn’t do it, I swear!” the stardancer protested.
“All right, if you didn’t do it, then,” she turned and mock glared at Azhani, “who are you and what have you done with Azhani?”
Laughing and shaking her head ruefully, the warrior said, “I guess you can’t change overnight, can you?” Fiercely, she narrowed her eyes and furrowed her brow, putting on her best, “I’m a bad-assed warrior” mask and growled, “Is this any better?”
Elisira tried hard not to laugh. “Oh, yeah,” she said solemnly, “much better. Now you’re the sourpuss we all know and love.” Though come to think of it, she’s never very sour. It’s only when she thinks about Arris, or Ylera, that her mood changes. Even then, if Kyr’s around, she’s not as tense. Thank you, Astariu, for bringing her into Azhani’s life.
“So what else did you find out?” Kyrian interjected, hoping to head off any unpleasantness. By the look in Azhani’s eyes, things were about to become very unfunny.
“Arris’ new laws are beginning to anger the nobility of other kingdoms - especially the ones regarding non-Humans,” Thomas said, tearing off a chunk of bread and dipping it into his stew. “There’s mutterings of trade embargos and the like. A few folks want to know why the High King hasn’t spanked the boy silly.”
“I’d like to know that myself,” Azhani muttered distantly, and got up to scrape her plate into the fire.
“I plan on sending messengers to Y’mar to discover that very thing, just as soon as I get home,” Padreg said as he leaned over to refill his plate. “I’m also going to send messages to the other kings – Arris’ actions should be shouted loudly by any who will speak, not hidden behind the trappings of royal decrees,” he added around a mouthful of food. “Good stuff, Kyrian. I’m almost tempted to steal you for myself – it’d be nice to have someone around who knows how to make four week old venison taste fresh.”
Kyrian stood to go and begin cleaning the mess from the dinner preparations. “As much as I’m flattered, your highness, I’m afraid settling for being a cook isn’t within my abilities – even if it was the cook of a king.”
Grinning cheekily, Padreg slyly asked, “Are you sure? I can promise you that you will have the finest that the clans can offer, so long as you keep feeding me like this.”
stardancer laughed. “I’m sure. Besides, I think Azhani might have
something to say about losing her chief cook and bruise fixer.”
The chieftain looked over at Azhani, who frowned and said, “You’re not trying to steal my best soldier, are you, Paddy?” Whoa, where did that come from? the warrior wondered. I meant to say that she was welcome to go with him. In fact, it would be the best thing for her if she went with him. Yet the very thought of Kyrian leaving her to face Queen Lyssera alone left a hollow ache in Azhani’s chest.
Chuckling, he scraped up the last of his food and shoveled it into his mouth. Kyrian reached for his bowl and he wiped his mouth, saying, “Nah, I was just funning you, Azhani. I’m not the kind to challenge the will of the gods, and from what I know of you and Kyr, your partnership is definitely divinely inspired.”
“Is that a comment about my priesthood or how difficult Azhani is to work with?” Kyrian asked lightly.
“Knowing Paddy, it’s probably both,” Aden grunted, causing everyone to laugh.
While Kyrian and Syrah cleaned up, everyone else readied the camp for the night. After tending the horses, Devon found a place well away from the fire and pulled out his book, conjuring a tiny ball of light that floated just above the text, making it easy to read.
Wood was stacked, dishes were dried and repacked and the fire was stirred until it blazed brightly. The sound of owls calling out in the night joined with the scratchings and scamperings of other nocturnal animals, blending with the noise of the camp and creating a pleasant hum of activity.
Padreg took up a jaunty whistle, quickly joined by Aden and Thomas while Syrah began to sing, adding words to an ancient tune. The song was old, and in a language that neither Azhani nor Kyrian had ever heard. Elisira barely recognized it as an archaic form of Firstlander, the tongue of the people who had settled the seven kingdoms of Y’myran.
It wasn’t long, though, before an oddly harmonic descant joined Syrah on the chorus. The whistling stopped as everyone looked over at Kyrian, who flushed darkly.
She shrugged and said, “Sorry, I’ve always had a talent for picking up languages and chants. I apologize if I made a mistake in the syntax.”
“No, it wasn’t bad, Kyr. You and Syrah should sing again,” Elisira said, reaching out to pat her friend’s shoulder. “In fact, I think I might have the general melody down and could probably play it on my flute.”
“Aye, and I’ve got a tambour hereabouts that I can add to fill the rhythm,” Aden said, shuffling over to his saddlebags and digging around in a pack.
Instruments were found and lovingly brought out. Padreg surprised everyone by producing a harmonica while Thomas improvised with a couple of wooden spoons. Devon’s nose was so far buried into his book that he barely acknowledged the others until Elisira let out a shrill trill on her flute. The young man blinked, set aside the book and grinned, gesturing at the small mage light. The little incandescent ball shivered and split into thousands of tiny, colorful specks and began to swirl around in the air, flowing jerkily with the joyfully cacophonous music.
Other songs flowed out of the musicians. Old favorites that were well known joined new tunes that were gladly taught. Merriment filled the small clearing, warming hearts and souls as the fire warmed their bodies. Only Azhani abstained from the tiny celebration, not having a decent voice or instrument to contribute to the entertainment. Instead, after gathering more wood for the fire, she patrolled around the camp, always within earshot of the revelers, but never close enough to disturb them.
No one noticed the warleader’s absence but Kyrian. Keenly, she felt the hole the warrior’s absence made in the warm circle of friends. A part of her wanted to go after Azhani, but she wasn’t sure how to extract herself without alarming the others.
An opportunity finally came when she drained the last of her tea and she realized that now would be a good time to locate a private bush. Politely, she excused herself, found that bush and then went off in search of the warleader.
“Bit of a chilly night to be out for a starlit stroll, don’t you think, healer?” Azhani’s deep voice asked from behind her.
Kyrian spun around and almost slammed into the warrior’s armor-clad chest. “Oof! Damn it, Azhi, don’t you ever warn a body before you send ‘em to the heavens?”
Azhani smirked and put a hand on the stardancer’s shoulder to steady her. “No. What would be the point? Anyway, what are you doing out here? Did Padreg hit a sour note and scare you away?”
Turning to look back toward the camp, Kyrian chuckled to see that everyone else had taken her leaving as a signal to stretch and refill drinks. Elisira and Padreg were snuggling, stealing a moment to enjoy the almost palpable connection that, even at this distance, Kyrian could feel. Empathy was one of her minor gifts, but the love that flowed between the two nobles was so strong, that even one who was sense-blind would swim in it.
A warm ripple of heat rolled over her and Kyrian stifled a shiver. Azhani was someone who she could not shield out, no matter how hard she tried. Cocking her head, she looked up at the warleader.
“No, I just missed you. We were having such a good time and I realized that I wished I could share the moment with you, but you weren’t there,” she shrugged, hoping her words didn’t sound as pathetic as she thought and added, “you’re my friend, Azhi. I was worried about you.”
“I’m not much for parties,” the warrior said, stepping away from her friend and starting to head back into the forest. “You go on back and enjoy yourself. I’ll keep an eye out for trouble – keep you all safe,” she said, her voice starting to fade as the shadows swallowed her up.
“No, wait, please,” Kyrian called out. The faint outline of the warleader’s aura was the only clue that the stardancer had that her plea had worked. “Join us, Azhi. You don’t have to sing, or play an instrument, just sit, and listen to us and be warmed by the fire.”
There was silence, followed by the rustling of some nocturnal creature in the tree overhead, and then, “I can you know.”
Kyrian frowned. “Well, yes, of course you can. So come on,” she said, reaching out for Azhani’s hand.
“Play, an instrument, I meant,” Azhani said haltingly. “It was the harp. She taught me, to keep up her own skill, she said. Though now I wonder if it was just another excuse to be near me.” Blue eyes clouded with tears and the warrior gritted her teeth, angrily dashing them away with a balled up fist. “Anyway, I didn’t join you because I didn’t want to, not because I can’t play. So go on back to your fire and your friends and sing the night away, because I would rather just be alone.”
Kyrian, who had half turned in preparation to return to the fire, stopped and turned to fully face the warrior’s shadowed form. Oh Ylera, I seem to always be chasing away your ghost. I don’t mean to, but her life needs to go on. “Then I will stay out here, with you. I’d like to spend some time with you, Azhani. You are my friend – Padreg and Elisira are my friends too, but I don’t get to see you much during the day. So, either come back to the fire with me, or put up with me out here in the dark – it makes no never mind to me.” Kyrian put her hands on her hips and cocked her head to the side, determination clearly written on her elfin features.
Azhani, taken aback by the vehemence in her friend’s words, could only stand and stare at the younger woman, her mouth slightly opened. The snapping of wood from the campsite startled the warrior, causing to close her mouth with an audible click. She sighed in consternation.
“Fine then, follow me and don’t get lost. I don’t feel like searching the entire forest for you, healer.”
Kyrian only smiled and slipped up behind her friend, determined to show the prickly warrior that she was quite capable of night walking.
The High King’s silence bothered Padreg more than he let on, and in the morning he was more than eager to be on the way to Y’Nor. He already knew exactly which of his trusted men he would send out to which kings, and which of his spies he would dispatch to Y’dan. Whether or not he would support an open rebellion, or an assassination, he wasn’t sure, but he did know that he would trust Azhani’s judgment, should she ever have the chance to face the boy. Whatever was decided, he knew something had to be done about King Arris.
Other news from Myr worried him as well. The demons that had attacked Barton, as well as their small party, had also harried the small border towns in the northern forests of Y’Syr. Three villages had completely disappeared, and Y’skel, a town renowned for its artisans, had suffered major losses during the last few weeks of winter.
The unusual behavior of the demons, bothered the Y’Noran monarch. For though he had never fought the monsters on home soil, he had sent troops to fight alongside the Y’Syran, Y’dani and Y’droran armies who faced the creatures the last time they had come out of the mountains.
Strangely, it was only Y’dan and Y’Syr that saw any attacks by the demons. The dwarves had reported no caves filled with the egg sacks that the creatures spawned, nor had they lost any of their hill dwelling cousins to attack. Instead, their winter had been filled with the typical problems of cold, goblins and not enough ale.
Demons attacked in a pattern that had been known for centuries. Every five years, the northern kingdoms would make ready to repel the hellspawn. So why now, after all these years, were they concentrating on just two of the kingdoms? Why were there so few? When the ice demons swarmed, it was by the thousands, not the relatively few that had been reported over the past winter.
Even speculating on the answer, scared the plainsman. He had to get home to a place where information was a spy away, and not distributed by hearsay, rumor and gossip.
Azhani seemed to agree with his silent assessment of the situation; she was the first awake after spending most of the evening on watch and she worked the hardest in breaking camp. The pace she set, when she led the group out onto the road, was grueling and backbreaking. By day’s end, however, they were only another day’s journey from the border.
A night’s sleep, and the sun’s rising brought the somber attitude of those who know they will part, possibly never to meet again.
Elisira tried once more to convince Kyrian to join them. “Come with us, Kyr. I know that Paddy would love to have you at the wedding, and I know that it would be an honor to have your hands be the ones that welcome our first child to the light of the goddess.” The lady used her most persuasive tones.
Shaking her head, Kyrian took Elisira’s hands into her own and drew the noblewoman into a long, fervent hug. “I am grateful beyond speaking that fate gave me your friendship, Eli, but I belong by Azhi’s side. You know that.” The stardancer spoke softly, so that only her friend could hear. “I need to be there, Eli. I don’t know why, but she...” she fumbled for the words.
“She makes your soul burn,” said Elisira, awareness showing in the way her eyes locked with Padreg’s. “I understand, truly, I do.”
Knowing how the lady had given up everything to run away with the Y’Noran chieftain, Kyrian didn’t doubt Elisira’s words. “Then you know why I can’t be there. Though,” Kyrian’s eyes crossed as she concentrated, “you’re not with child – yet.”
Elisira giggled as they parted. “Of course not, silly. Paddy’s a gentleman.” Seriously, she added, “He takes great care that our bodies will be pure when we stand before the goddess.”
On the other side of the camp, Azhani and Padreg had their heads together, quietly discussing potential plans.
“If I find the people that Ambassador Kelani spoke of, I will send a messenger to you. It is my belief that the ice demons are a greater, more immediate threat than Arris, but I won’t know for sure until I can gather some information. Arris may require my attention first. I cannot stand by and let him harm his people out of a lust for power.” The warrior’s voice hardened. “I will not dishonor the memory of King Theodan that way.”
Padreg laid a hand on Azhani’s shoulder and squeezed. “You’re a fine Warleader, Azhani, I’ll not argue with you. You know what is best for your people, and I can’t stand in the way of your duty. However, the demons are a great threat – if they’re spawning early, what’s to keep them from moving lower next winter? What’s to prevent them from seeking to taste the flesh of my herds? I must protect what the gods have charged me to shelter. I will aid you in whatever way that I can, though. My agent in Y’Syria is a trader named Brannock Maeven. He’ll know the fastest way to contact me.”
Repeating the name until she was sure she had memorized it, she nodded. “All right. If you do not hear from me by midsummer solstice, then I am unable to be of any assistance.” She smiled wryly. “Have a good wedding, Padreg. Make the goddess proud.” They clasped arms and then parted, each turning to head for their packs.
“Azhani?” Padreg called out softly.
A mischievous grin danced on the chieftain’s face. “I’ll wait until winter solstice if you promise to be there, and you bring Kyrian.”
Blinking in shock, she looked first at Padreg and then at her friend. An amorphous swirl of emotion rumbled in her stomach, forcing her to close her eyes. Her breath came in short, tight puffs as she considered what he was saying. Kyrian? As my mate? I...no! I love Ylera! Gritting her teeth, she shook her head slightly. She didn’t want to make that promise; couldn’t make that promise. Midwinter solstice was the traditional time of a warleader’s joining. How could he even suggest that she and Kyrian attend such an event? Her heart would always and forever belong to her lost Ylera.
“Milord, I –“ the warrior’s strong voice faltered and fell, swept away in a blast of air as she sighed.
Three strides had the king by the warrior’s side. “Don’t you be telling me that you can’t read the hand of destiny in your own life, Azhani. I’ve felt Her touch, and I know the lance of fear that strikes the heart when you contemplate life without Her gift.” His voice was soft, almost a hiss, but filled with such passion and fervor that the roiling emotion within Azhani burned to agree. When she didn’t respond, he shook his head disbelievingly. “You may not understand it yet, or perhaps you’re not ready to see it, but know this, warrior, as surely as your life is bound to Arris’ fate, so Kyrian’s is bound to yours. Now, I will be fair and rephrase my question. If fate will have it, will you promise to come to my joining in midwinter?”
The trap was still there, but the jaws didn’t seem as sharp, or as inescapable. “If the gods will it so, then who am I to fight the hand of fate?” she said in resignation. A promise I won’t have to break, if I can face Arris. I’ll gladly marry a frog if I live through killing the sniveling wretch who stole my Ylera.
A tiny, almost unheard voice within the warrior whispered, Would it be so terrible then, to share your life with Kyrian?
Allowing himself to be satisfied with the warrior’s answer, Padreg knew that time and the gods would prove him right. He had seen the korethka that burned between the stardancer and the warleader. Love of the soul was a fire that would rage, unchecked, until one or the other admitted their desire. What flared between Azhani and Kyrian was, to his eyes, as bright as what he and Elisira felt. Looking over at his beloved, he sighed and promised his heart that they would stand before the goddess by the following midsummer, no matter what the coming seasons brought.
Devon stood apart, clutching his book and his pack, watching as the group separated. He knew that he should be packing his horse, but what he really wanted to do was race off into the grasslands and cry. Near silent sobs wracked his chest as he watched his friends say good-bye to each other. Gods blast it, but he didn’t want them to leave. He didn’t want to have to say all those things that people said to each other when they knew they were about to die. He remembered his dad, and how on that last, terrible day, he had been called to the ailing warrior’s bedside to say good-bye. A sickly, crawling ache clutched at his throat. Well, he wouldn’t do it, not this time! Azhani was all he had left of his dad, and even though he would never be half the warrior that Polis Imry was, he would do everything he could to make his father proud.
Screwing up his courage, Devon made to walk over to the warleader.
“It’s hard to say good-bye to your friends, isn’t it, Dev?” Kyrian’s soft voice said.
The young man turned, surprised to see the red-robed stardancer standing behind him. Beside her, his horse was saddled and waiting.
“You were about to go and tell Azhani a million different reasons why you should go with us, weren’t you?” she asked gently, smiling at the consternation that sprung to life on the youth’s face.
He scuffed his foot in the grass and ducked his head. “So what if I was?” he asked sullenly. “I’m not useless, you know? I can do spells, and cook, and catch fish, and I know three languages, and –“ he impatiently listed his skills, dropping his book to the ground to tick them off on his fingers.
Kyrian reached out and closed her fingers around Devon’s, drawing the young man into an embrace. He fought her briefly, and then collapsed against her, crying. “I know. It would be wonderful to have you with us, Dev. But we need you to be with Eli and Padreg. They need your skills more than we do.”
“B-but I don’t want you to go away and never come back, Kyr. I don’t want to never see you or Azhani ever again. I can’t lose you now, not after I found you! I don’t want to be alone anymore,” Devon whispered brokenly, as he clung to Kyrian.
Kyrian, who knew only a bit of the boy’s history, felt tears prick in her eyes. She looked up to see Azhani gazing at them and shot the warrior a sad look while she held on to the crying child in her arms. At just barely fourteen summers, Devon tried so hard to be a grown up. They had all forgotten how young he truly was, and how hard it was for him to let go of all he had ever known.
“You won’t be alone anymore, Devon. No matter what, I will always be a part of you,” Kyrian said, her voice husky and soft. “And I promise to do everything I can to make sure that you see both me and Azhani again, okay? This isn’t good-bye forever, just good-bye for now.”
She cupped his face, wiping away his tears until he managed a half-hearted smile. “You mean it?” he hiccupped.
Nodding solemnly, she said, “I do. Now, go say good-bye to Azhani and make sure she gives you a good hug.” She turned him around to face the warrior and he scampered across the grass, nearly flying into the other woman’s surprised embrace. Smiling sadly, the stardancer bent and picked up the boy’s spell book, reverently packing the ancient tome in a saddlebag.
Kyrian watched as Azhani spoke to Devon, saying something that was so serious, the boy’s shoulders had stiffened to soldier-like straightness. Just when she thought the young man would topple over from trying to imitate Thomas, Azhani presented the boy with the dagger from her own belt. The warleader reached out and ruffled the boy’s russet hair fondly.
Faintly, the stardancer heard Azhani say, “G’wan you. Get your stuff together and go serve your king.”
Devon reverently slipped the blade into his belt, knelt before her and said, “I shall do as you ask, my lady, on my father’s honor.”
Azhani smiled approvingly and helped the young man to stand, hugging him briefly before sending him to his horse.
As they neared the border, Azhani sighted a patrol riding about a mile off from where they were. Obviously, the plainsmen had been searching for many days, hoping that their chieftain would appear.
“Paddy, you old she-goat, it took you longer than a mare in season to choose your path home!” a tall, hawk-featured man with soot black hair and agate green eyes said. He closed the distance between himself and the king, pulling the other man off his horse and into a rousing bear hug that involved much back thumping, laughter and loud exclamations of joy.
“Stefan, it makes my heart glad to see you here, in the tall grasses of our home. Come, I bring news heavy with both joy and sorrow,” Padreg murmured, draping his arm around his friend and walking him away from the others.
The horses nickered softly, rubbing nose to nose with the ones ridden by the other Y’Norans, almost as if they were exchanging their own, uniquely equine, gossip. Aden, Thomas and Syrah were surrounded by several of the other warriors and were led off to an area where a midday meal was hastily being assembled. Young Devon sat on his horse’s back, looking between the Y’Noran warriors and Azhani, with a lost and longing expression on his young face.
Kyrian closed her eyes and tipped her face up to the sky, letting the full heat of the sun beat down on her as she inhaled, breathing in the scent of the plains. This would be the last chance she would have to make a choice about her destiny. After today, her life would be inextricably tied to Azhani’s and she wanted fate to have the opportunity to change her mind.
“If you stare too long at the sun, Astarus will rain bird droppings on your face,” Azhani said as she pulled her horse up beside Kyrian’s. “Then your pretty white skin will turn red and blotchy – and you would be forced to take up the life of an unwashed zealot.”
Kyrian laughed and turned to bestow a bright smile on her friend, but Azhani was already moving on, riding over to speak to Elisira.
“Azhi, my friend,” said Elisira warmly, welcoming the warrior’s presence happily. The young noblewoman was eager to join the Y’Norans. She was anxious to show these people who loved Padreg, that she loved him too, and that she was ready to learn to love his land. “Have you come to say good-bye, finally? I know you must be impatient to leave us.”
The warrior dropped her head, shaking it abashedly. “You know me too well, old friend. Yes, I would rather feel the wind in my hair and have the sun at my back. But Padreg asked me to wait. He said something about getting me some supplies.”
Elisira nodded. “He would want you to have the best you could for your journey. He’s a good man, my Paddy.”
Azhani looked across the field at the Y’Noran king and smiled as he jovially slapped one of his men on the back. The warrior stifled a chuckle as Padreg, with arms akimbo, began to animatedly describe something. Several nearby Y’Norans had to duck to avoid their chieftain’s wildly flailing arms.
“He is a good man,” the warrior agreed softly, thinking back to the many quiet conversations she had enjoyed with the man over the last few weeks. Padreg Keelan was a man not unlike Theodan, whom she had served loyally for so long. If fate had carved a different path, she would be following him home to his herds and his tents.
No other choice had been left to her, though. Ylera had to be avenged. The people of Y’dan deserved a ruler that cared more for their well being than his own. Finally, the unusual attacks by the demons could not go uninvestigated – the safety of the northern kingdoms of Y’myran depended on the knowledge of the beast’s breeding patterns.
Life would go on, and she would do everything she could to honor the memories of her beloved and her king. She turned her gaze back towards Elisira and said, “So, when can I expect to hear of an Y’Noran heir?”
Elisira laughed wryly. “Not anytime soon, I’m afraid. Paddy has been nothing if not a total gentleman. You’d think that all that snuggling would be conducive to making heirs, but I’ve got to say that nothing could be further from the truth. Ground is hard, rocks leave bruises and there’s no way either of us were going to suffer through what should be the best night of our lives.” The lady leaned over and added mischievously, “Besides, shouldn’t one endeavor to be pure when one stands before the goddess on her joining day?”
Azhani chuckled, struck by a sudden memory of the flock of handmaidens Elisira’s dear father had ordered to follow his daughter. Ostensibly, they were there to aid the young noblewoman, but more than once, Elisira had commented that they were really there to be sure she didn’t accidentally discard her precious virginity. At least not before he could ransom it off to the highest bidder. “I never thought you bought into that horse manure, Eli. Don’t tell me that all this traveling has finally driven you insane.”
Sticking her tongue out at the warrior, Elisira said, “Not at all. I’ve discovered that having strong beliefs does not make a man mentally ill. Padreg takes his faith seriously, and he explained to me why he feels as strongly as he does. I’m willing to wait, because I love him and respect him. Maybe I don’t believe as he does, but I’m starting to understand a little of what makes his faith so special to him.” She looked across the gently waving grassland and sighed. “Perhaps being here, in this land that he loves so deeply, I’ll finally know what Father Meryth meant when he spoke of his love for the gods.”
Two dark eyebrows rose dramatically. “I guess he must be the right one, if he can inspire you so, Eli.”
Elisira made a face and then chuckled ruefully. “I suppose I deserved that one, Azhi. Well, lest you forget that I give as well as I get – how deeply does Kyrian inspire you, my friend?”
Gaping, Azhani stared at her friend. The carefully worn mask of control had been cracked, slipping away to reveal such a high level of astonishment that Elisira had to look twice just to be sure that it was still her friend sitting astride Kushyra.
“I know you care about her,” the noblewoman said quietly. “And I know that Ylera would not want you to be alone forever.”
The warrior looked away, stiffening her jaw and closing her eyes until the mask rose up again, hiding Azhani’s soul away once more. An agate hard blue gaze burned into Elisira as Azhani softly spoke. “Kyrian is just a friend, Eli; nothing more, nothing less. To believe otherwise would be foolish of you.”
With that, the warrior turned her horse and galloped away, heading toward Padreg and a small, heavily laden pack mule.
Elisira watched her go, a small, sad smile lifting the corners of her mouth. Her heart ached for her friend, but she knew she had pushed too hard, seen too far into the warrior’s secret heart. “Ride with the gods, Azhi, and may you find some peace in that journey.” Her eyes sought out Kyrian, who had hurried to join Azhani as the warrior took possession of the pack animal. “May the patience of Starseeker Ezrau go with you, Kyr.” Invoking the name of the Astariun priest, whose life’s work was the counting of the stars, could do no harm.
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