“It was nice of the queen to let you get away for a day,” Kyrian said as she helped Azhani paddle their small boat along the lake edge.
“Yeah, I thought I was going to be stuck watching morning court all week,” Azhani said, with a wry grin twitching at the corners of her lips.
Kyrian nodded and looked across the bow of the boat toward the shoreline where they planned to stop. “So what made you decide to drag us out here?” she asked curiously as Azhani leapt out of the boat. Water splashed into the boat, drenching the stardancer’s sandaled feet. She frowned, daintily lifted her feet and shook them dry.
Shrugging, Azhani said, “I’m not sure. I just wanted to get away from the city for a while and this seemed like a good place to go.”
The warrior dragged the boat up to the shoreline, helped the stardancer climb out, then grabbed their basket of goodies. Together, they made their way across the beach and into the woods. It was quiet, and the breeze that floated in from the lake was just cool enough to take the edge off the heat of the afternoon.
About a half candlemark later, they found a clearing that was small, yet warmly lit by the sun. By mutual agreement, each woman set about gathering deadfall for a fire. Soon, Kyrian had a pot of tea steeping beside the fire, while Azhani laid out a blanket and spread out their food.
“So, what’s next, Azhani?” Kyrian asked after they had eaten.
“What do you mean?”
“For you – for us, I mean. Have you decided how you’re going to deal with Arris yet?” The stardancer asked curiously.
Azhani toyed with the peace-cords on her dagger and stared into the forest. “I’d like to.” She sighed and bowed her head, shaking it slightly. When she looked up, there was a strangely haunted expression on her sharply featured face. “I don’t know what I want to do with Arris yet. I used to know, but now...” Her voice trailed off as she stared into the stardancer’s dark green eyes. Uncomfortably, she looked away. “I think I’d rather deal with the demons. At least I know what needs to be done with them.”
“Okay. I can understand that,” said Kyrian. What’s going on with her? She used to be so sure of herself.
“Of course, whatever I do will depend on what Lyssera wants,” Azhani temporized. Restlessly, she picked up a handful of pebbles and started pitching them at distant targets. “I agreed to work for her – to teach Allyn how to be a warrior, and he’s no where near competent enough to survive even a small fight.”
“He’s good though,” Kyrian said. “He nearly had me, the other day.”
“Yeah, but you’re better than he is, you just have trouble with-“
“Aggression, I know. Thanks, by the way, for listening to me, and not judging,” the stardancer said, reaching out to lay a hand on the warrior’s leg.
Azhani covered her friend’s hand with hers and gave it a slight squeeze. “It was no trouble, my friend. You listened to my story, and you’re still my friend. I could do no less for you.” I wanted to hear your story, Kyr. Can’t you see that? You’re not alone in this friendship – I want you to like me as much as I like you. Just how much she liked the stardancer was not a question Azhani was prepared to ask, or answer.
“Well, thanks, okay? It’s been a long time since I had someone I could really talk to,” Kyrian said. She stood up and shook out her robes, laughing as crumbs from their lunch rained down onto the blanket. “Oh, I’m such a mess! I hope I don’t have food smeared on my face. I’d hate to walk into Oakheart with jelly on my nose.”
Azhani stood as well and walked over to inspect the stardancer’s face. Smiling, she reached up to gently brush away a bit of dried food. “Just a little bit of something,” she said as her fingers grazed the other woman’s lips. “Right here,” she finished a bit breathlessly.
An electric tingle passed through them as their eyes met. Everything went still as the warrior continued to lightly stroke the stardancer’s lips. Azhani started to lean forward, drawn to the lips she was caressing.
Kyrian couldn’t breathe. Her lungs were screaming for air, but she dared not take a breath as the warrior moved closer, until she was almost close enough to- Is she going to kiss me?
“Hello? Master Azhani? Stardancer Kyrian? Are you out here?” Allyndev Kelani’s voice was never more welcome, or hated, than it was at that moment. The young, half-elven prince finally crashed into the clearing just as Azhani spun around to greet him.
“We’re right here, Allyn. What is it?” asked the warrior concernedly.
Smiling sheepishly, the prince reached into his belt pouch and pulled out a scroll. “Aunt Lyss thought you might want to see this right away,” he explained.
Azhani took the scroll, broke the seal and unfurled it, reading the text quickly. When she was finished, she crumpled up the message. With an oath, she threw it to the ground.
“Azhi? What is it?” Kyrian asked, stepping close to her friend and laying a hand on the warrior’s arm.
“It’s from my grandfather,” she said bitterly. “He wants me to meet with him later. Said something about protecting his grandson’s inheritance. As if I would accept one copper from that bastard!”
“I-“ Kyrian was stunned. The stardancer knew that the warrior was half-elven, but she had assumed that Azhani had no living relatives. “Maybe he just wants an excuse to meet you,” she said lamely.
Azhani bit off a bark of choked laughter. “We’ve met. After I told him exactly what I thought of him, he tried to have me arrested.”
“It’s all right.” Azhani sighed and looked up at the sky, gauging the time by the position of the sun. “We should be heading back anyway.”
“Okay. Allyn and I will pack this stuff up if you’ll put out the fire,” Kyrian said, giving the prince a pointed look.
“Yeah, I don’t mind helping, Master Azhani,” the young man said.
The warrior nodded and went over to begin shoveling dirt over the fire. As she worked, she reviewed the last moments before Allyn’s arrival. When she realized that she had been a heartbeat away from kissing her friend, she nearly dropped the shovel into the fire.
Goddess! I almost... gods, I can’t even think it, much less say it! What is going on with me? She looked up and saw that Kyrian and Allyn were finished with their task and were waiting patiently for her. Can’t think about this now, but soon, she promised herself. I’ve got to figure this out.
Should have known the old bastard was only worried about his money, thought Azhani as she stormed out of the inn where she had met with her grandfather. As she had assumed, the patriarch of the Oakleaf clan had come to Y’Syria to obtain her signature on some documents. The papers were legal forms that basically forced her to relinquish any claim she had on his estate. I gladly signed the damn things! She thought vehemently, glaring at a passerby until he moved out of her way. Should have let Kyr come with me, though. I hated sitting in that stuffy little room all by myself...
The warrior sighed and chuckled wryly. She had specifically asked the stardancer to stay behind. Pride, or stubbornness, or both had forced her to meet with Lord Oakleaf alone. The man had been arrogant to the point of irritation, treating Azhani like she was the lowest piece of dirt in the kingdom.
“Sign this, bastard, and you’ll get a good sum for your time. My grandson’s future will not be sullied by your progeny,” Oakleaf said, thrusting a pen toward the glowering warrior.
“It’s always about money with you, isn’t it Grandfather?” Azhani snarled the word. She grabbed the pen and scribbled her name on the lines he indicated.
Satisfaction glittering in his eyes, he rudely shoved a leather pouch across the table toward her. “It’s always about money, child. When you understand that – you might be worthy to be an Oakleaf. Until then, get out of my sight!”
Spinning on her heel so that he would not see her tears – tears she bitterly refused to shed, Azhani left the room, and the pouch of money.
Gods, I’m glad that’s over. The warrior rubbed her temples in an abortive attempt to stop the headache she could feel building at the base of her skull. Don’t want to go back yet. It’s nice out here. Looking around, she spotted the gates to the local bazaar and decided to investigate. Soon, she was lost in the sights, sounds and smells of the trader’s market.
Gliding from shadow to shadow, Azhani Rhu’len prowled the streets of Y’Syria. Blue eyes drank in the fog-dusted sights, remembering, living in the past. There, at Banner Gate, she and Theodan had first entered the elven port. Twenty years and a little more it had been since the king and his soon to be warleader had come to see the Child of the Oaks made Queen.
The Y’Syran pennant flapped gently over the eastern gate. It was the first sign that she and Kyrian had made it through the plains. Not far from there, was the residence of Tellyn Jarelle. From there, Azhani had slipped out on a moonless night, driven by her honor to seek the queen’s audience.
In her pouch was the note she had left for Kyrian, its damning presence a daily reminder of how she had failed to maintain her vow of friendship. When the stardancer had forgiven her, they had laughed over the scrawled message’s terse words and Azhani had promised to never again leave without telling her friend.
Since then, their relationship had only grown stronger. The few weeks that she and Kyrian had been separated had felt like forever, and having her friend beside her again was wonderful in ways that were difficult to accept. The depth of her feelings for the stardancer, both disconcerted and delighted Azhani.
The night she had knelt in the dungeon, cradling Ylera’s lifeless body, had left her numb and wishing only for the peace of death. Facing the crowds the next day, hearing the trumped up charges that Arris and his cronies had leveled against her, woke a volcanic eruption of anger, shoving aside the numbness and letting out a demon. It was at that moment that Azhani realized that she had to live - live and exact the most incredible revenge since man had first come to Y’myran.
Spurred on by that resolve, it had been terribly easy to carve a path through the men and women who attempted to carry out Arris’ bloody wishes. Reaching the roadway had been both a blessing and a curse. Her bloodlust was barely sated yet what rational part of her mind was still in control knew she needed to escape. There was no way that the king would allow her to truly win free of the gauntlet. Seizing the first horse she spotted, Azhani rode like Hell itself had opened up and nightmares were pouring forth.
Doubling back on her route, she had left the dying horse on the roadside south of Y’dannyv. Slowly, she worked her way back to the lakeside city where the old blind woman took her in, keeping her hidden until Arris’ dogs lost her trail. It was during this time that she realized that her leg was shattered.
Azhani could not remember which of the blows had done the damage, but she knew she was lost if she tried to travel on it. Accepting a gift of bow and arrows, Azhani then used scrap bits she found littering her strange, but kindly savior’s home to fashion splints and a makeshift crutch. She had to leave Y’dannyv and there was only one place she could go. Northward lie her father’s homestead, and it was there she would head.
Since it was on the edge of the Y’dani border, she felt sure than neither Arris nor any of his servants knew it existed. By the time any information regarding its location did become known to the king, Azhani planned to be long gone. Y’Syr wasn’t far and she still remembered those names that Ylera had painstakingly taught her. Perhaps she would find succor there. If nothing else, death by the hand of Queen Lyssera, was far preferable to life as Arris’ whore.
Fate had thrown a wrench into her plans when it had put her in the path of that Cabalian kidnapper and his victim. It occurred to Azhani to wonder why the stardancer had been taken in the first place, but then the thought passed, replaced by the memory of their first encounter.
Unbidden, a smile rose to transform the warrior’s harshly planed face to that of striking beauty. Feisty was the only word she could use to describe the adorable young woman. Astariu moves in so many ways, and most of them mysterious and cunning, she thought wryly.
Not only had Kyrian stayed with Azhani after discovering who her rescuer was, she had used her Goddess-given skills to heal the warrior’s shattered leg. The act had sealed the warrior’s gratitude forever, for without the leg, she was useless as a fighter. Kyrian’s generous gift of healing had allowed the warrior to dream of the day that Arris’ blood would coat her sword.
Except now, that dream was silent; a translucent memory that faded away like the fog in the morning sun. A breeze drifted in from the lake, rattling the beads woven into the warrior’s braids. That was another benefit to befriending Kyrian; the stardancer seemed to adore playing with Azhani’s thick, black hair. Once a week, she would show up at the warrior’s door, armed with a brush, soap and towels.
At first, Azhani had tried to send her away, but memories of the first time Kyrian had brushed and braided her hair, flooded her mind. Forced to admit that she enjoyed the pampering, Azhani allowed the stardancer to style her heavy locks as she pleased. Now, Azhani looked forward to the weekly sessions with guilty pleasure. Kyrian’s hands were always gentle, always soft, and the stardancer seemed to come up with new ways to style and braid the hair, so that it fell loosely, yet remained out of the warrior’s eyes.
This week, there had been beads. For next week, Kyrian had promised feathers, freshly purchased from a trader in the bazaar. Snorting dryly, Azhani realized that she was looking forward to seeing just how barbaric she would look with her hair dressed up like one of the wild elves that lived in the forests of Y’dror. Unconsciously, she played with one of the small, ceramic beads that Kyrian had carefully woven into her hair. It was cool to the touch; the surface smoothly glazed a deep, indigo blue.
“To match your eyes, my friend,” Kyrian had explained, laughing when Azhani’s dark eyebrows rose in question over the decorative additions. “They’re so remarkable – I can’t help but notice when something comes close to their beauty.” Then she’d blushed, her fair skin easily pinking. “Sorry,” she’d muttered, shoving the bead back into a pouch. “I’ll just, um...”
“Get the damn bead out of that damn pouch and put it in my damn hair,” the warrior had growled. She laughed when Kyrian perked up and began to weave the baubles easily into the thick hanks of hair.
Kyrian hummed softly to herself, the melody so soothing that Azhani had found that she was drifting between a state of consciousness and somnolence. Perhaps that was why she had imagined that Kyrian’s fingers lingered longer than was necessary. Each tiny stroke had been paired with a gentle caress to the dusky bronze skin of Azhani’s neck. Yeah, that had to be it, right? Because she and Kyrian were just friends and she wasn’t attracted to the beautiful stardancer. Yes, that was it; it was a daydream. So why the hell did she suddenly want it to be real?
Once more, haunted blue eyes gazed out on the sun-drenched city, each highlighted rooftop inspiring memories that chased endlessly through her head.
The knock was almost soundless, yet it invaded Kyrian’s dreams and woke her from a sound sleep. Drowsily tumbling from her bed, she grabbed a sheer silk robe from the back of a chair and pulled it on. The material was thin and barely covered her nakedness, but was enough to satisfy the bounds of propriety.
Grumbling about wishing folks would keep decent hours as she padded through the room, she opened the door expecting to find one of the queen’s pages with an obscure message from Starseeker Vashyra. Instead, Azhani’s haggard, careworn face shocked the stardancer to full alertness.
“I need you,” the warrior whispered and then stood there, unable to ask, but clearly begging to come in.
“I am always here for you, my friend,” Kyrian said, stepping aside and allowing Azhani to enter.
The warrior stumbled in, collapsing on Kyrian’s bed like she was severely intoxicated.
Kyrian closed the door and slowly walked over to the bed, carefully sitting next to the warrior. “Are you drunk?” she asked, thinking over the various cures she had for hangovers and hoping one of them would work on the warrior’s strong constitution.
“Haven’t touched a drop in weeks,” Azhani said woodenly. Suddenly, she turned, taking a long, hard look at her friend. Kyrian felt her cheeks flush as the warrior’s gaze lingered over every exposed curve. Azhani’s eyes reached her face, and finally matched her gaze.
“Azhani, wha-what is it that you need?” Kyrian forced herself to say, as she tore her eyes away from drowning in a sea of cobalt blue.
“You,” Azhani whispered, one hand lifting to reach for Kyrian. “I need you, Kyrian.” The warrior’s gaze shifted to the floor and she whispered, “Are you in love with me, healer?”
The question ripped through the air and into Kyrian’s heart like a knife. Every shred of hope that the stardancer had bundled up and locked away in carefully constructed boxes, began to rattle, screaming for release. Oh, goddess...
“Azhi... I...” the words struggled to get out, but months of imprisoning her tongue made it difficult for them to escape.
Azhani took Kyrian’s lack of response as her answer and stood to leave. “I am sorry, Kyrian, to have awakened you. I shall see you in the morning, at breakfast.” She turned to leave, closing her eyes against the scorn that she was sure lurked in the other woman’s eyes. One step, two steps, just a few more and she would be out and away from the rejection that she could feel gathering in the room.
How could I have ever thought that someone like her would want a murderer like me?
Another step. She reached out and felt the shape of the doorknob under her fingers and gripped it, starting to turn it.
“Azhani, wait... I, yes, I am in love with you!” Kyrian leapt off the bed and raced across the room, somehow finding herself in front of the door and pushing the warrior’s hand off the handle. She looked up and put both hands on Azhani’s arms. “Do you... feel the same?” she brazenly returned the question, keeping her eyes locked on the warrior’s.
Blue eyes blinked and then a slow, sweet smile drifted across Azhani’s face.
“Yes,” she whispered simply. Azhani leaned into Kyrian, pressing her against the hard wooden door. The stardancer’s hands slid up Azhani’s arms until they cupped her cheeks. The warrior’s skin was hot under the delicate coolness of Kyrian’s touch.
An answering smile leapt from Kyrian’s face, making Azhani’s heart ache at its beauty. She reached out and brushed her knuckles along Kyrian’s cheek. Boldly, her friend leaned into the touch. “Mmm,” she purred as Azhani’s fingers skimmed across the skin to tuck several stray strands of hair behind her ear.
Azhani tipped her head down, her smile widening as Kyrian’s hands slid into her hair and flexed, gripping the braids. Their lips touched, brushed, painted each other lightly and then, joined fiercely. Tentatively, Kyrian slid her tongue into Azhani’s mouth, moaning when the warrior returned the passion tenfold. The bright edge of teeth clashed, as their kissing grew heated, until their ardor became almost painful.
Desire rose thickly in Azhani, forcing her to draw back and take in a ragged lungful of air. She licked her lips, tasting Kyrian on them and feeling the last remnants of the numbness around her heart crumble away. Smiling warmly, the stardancer pulled the warrior down for another kiss, pressing into her and wrapping her leg around Azhani’s.
Delicately, Azhani ran her tongue over Kyrian’s bottom lip, teasing the stardancer’s mouth into a soft pout, then plunged in, drinking deeply of her new love’s appreciative moans. Trembling wantonly, Kyrian surrendered to the warrior’s hunger, grinding her silk-clad hips against the warrior’s thigh.
Azhani groaned appreciatively. Tracing Kyrian’s lips with her tongue and then brushing a trail of kisses down her lover’s face to her throat, the warrior paused to suckle at the throbbing pulse she found there. After only moments of tenderly tasting the stardancer’s skin, Azhani retraced the still wet path back to the stardancer’s lips, crushing her mouth into Kyrian’s in a bruising, deeply passionate kiss.
Kyrian felt the change immediately. Their first kiss had been timid, with a sweetness that defied the near frantic need that she felt welling out of her, as Azhani’s fingers stroked her neck. This was different; this was a kiss of such awareness that Kyrian couldn’t help but respond to the desire coiling around her. Fiercely, the stardancer kissed Azhani, opening herself to the warrior’s passionate need, completely. She barely felt it when the warrior bit into her bottom lip, slightly piercing the skin.
A tiny whimper broke into Azhani’s concentration and she stopped kissing Kyrian and pulled away.
“Oh gods, I’m sorry, Kyr,” the warrior said, noticing a tiny trickle of blood that was oozing from a cut on the stardancer’s lip.
Kyrian dabbed at the wound with her fingers and shook her head. “Don’t be; I’m not. Kiss me again,” she whispered, pleading for more of the intoxicating touch.
“I don’t,” Azhani said, raining feather light kisses on the stardancer’s face, “ever want to hurt you, Kyr.”
“Won’t happen,” Kyrian promised, wrapping her arms around the warrior’s neck and capturing her lips for a long, uninterrupted period. “Because I understand.” She did. Somehow, she recognized that this was new; that the explosive emotions flooding the room were so raw and tender that they would have to tread lightly. Time would lay the ghosts and demons of the past to rest. Together, she and Azhani would slowly seek their future.
Azhani nuzzled her face against the top of Kyrian’s head, breathing in the scent of the fresh herbs that the stardancer’s soap contained. “I should go,” she whispered. “We ... I...”
“I know, but... stay anyway,” Kyrian said, slipping away from Azhani but taking her hand and drawing her toward the bed. “Hold me. Be here in the light of morning so that I know I’m not dreaming,” she pleaded softly. “I don’t kick, remember?” She smiled softly.
If you stay tonight, warrior, you will stay every night. There’s no walking away after that. The thoughts raced through her mind. Stay, and you will be saying good-bye to Ylera for good, you know that. Kyrian is forever – you know how passionate she is. She will never be content to be just “for now”.
I’ve already said good-bye to Ylera. It’s not like I’ve never slept with Kyrian. Though nothing in the past will feel quite like lying with her in my arms, knowing she loves me as I love her. Goddess, I love her. I do. I never thought I could, but I do love her, and I am not going to take one more breath without her by my side!
“All right,” Azhani agreed after a few moments. Quietly, she surrendered to both the wishes of her heart and the wishes of her beloved, allowing Kyrian to lead her to the bed. There was some awkwardness once they reached the edge, but the warrior pushed the strangeness aside; after all, they had seen each other naked many times before in the baths.
It was different though, now, in the dim moonlight. Kyrian’s robe slithered away, revealing pale, almost colorless skin. When Azhani’s clothes joined the robe in a fabric puddle, the difference between them was mutely obvious. Scars liberally peppered the warrior’s dark brown skin, standing out starkly. Years as King Theodan’s warleader had left their mark on Azhani’s body.
“You are so beautiful,” whispered Kyrian, as she gazed into Azhani’s eyes. For the first time, she was able to put voice to the thought that had been with her since the very first time she saw the warrior.
“And you are a shameless flatterer who should spend more time looking into a mirror. You are the one who is beautiful, my Kyrian.” Reverently, Azhani stroked Kyrian’s face, stopping with her fingers just above the stardancer’s hammering pulse. “It’s time to sleep; is that okay?”
“Oh yeah,” Kyrian said breathlessly as Azhani slid into the mussed sheets and scooted over, making room for the stardancer. “It’s very okay.”
Skin on skin was a sensation that left both women fighting to cling to their unspoken agreement. Warmth cocooned around them, the covers both shielding and adding to the hundreds of tiny little jolts that skittered across their skin. Soon, they found the right joining of arms and legs, heads and shoulders and lay quietly. As they cuddled close, they could hear each other’s heartbeats diminish from hammer blows to gentle thuds. Rhythmically, their breath began to flow around them as sleep stole in on gossamer wings.
Thank you, they jointly prayed as they drifted off into the dreamrealms.
Daylight streamed in through the windows, flooding over the two women wrapped tightly around each other. Gazing sleepily at Kyrian, Azhani dared to touch what she was certain was a dream. Sun-warmed skin pebbled under her light caress. A soft, almost inaudible intake of breath let the warrior know that Kyrian was very aware of the touch. Reverently, Azhani stroked Kyrian’s arm from shoulder to wrist, then continued the caress down to her hip.
Drawing her fingers back up their previous path, the warrior nuzzled her cheek against Kyrian’s amber-tinted hair. Azhani’s heartbeat began to thunder loudly as the caress was returned. Butterfly soft kisses fluttered against her collarbone, creating tiny jolts of pleasure that buzzed pleasantly in her belly.
“Good morning,” Azhani rumbled, her voice harsh from sleep. I think I could wake up next to Kyr every day until the stars faded, and not feel like I’d done it enough.
Kyrian stretched, her naked body gliding sensuously against Azhani’s similarly nude form. “Morning,” she replied, yawning. Reaching over the warrior’s shoulder, she unhooked a water skin from the bedpost and took a long swallow, then offered it to Azhani. Their hands brushed, causing Kyrian to sigh dreamily. Can the havens be any better than this? Blinking sleepily, Kyrian watched as Azhani uncapped the skin and tipped it up, squirting a stream of clear water into her mouth.
The warrior drank, then laid the skin aside and drew Kyrian in for a kiss. Mapping newly familiar territory with her lips, Azhani used her hands and fingers to explore Kyrian’s body, igniting the stardancer’s desire to bonfire heights. Unlike the kisses of the previous night, this kiss was neither tentative nor passionate. Aware and teasing, the embrace added yet another new facet to their burgeoning love.
Kyrian opened her eyes, and passion had darkened forest green to emerald fire. Many questions danced in her head, and many fears pressed to escape. Gazing deeply into Azhani’s nearly purple eyes, Kyrian sought new answers to the questions that had been asked by moonlight.
For a moment, her heart froze as she waited for a response. Then, a gently crooked smile broke out over the harshly planed beauty of Azhani’s face. This smile was for Kyrian alone. This warming of indigo eyes was because of the stardancer’s love and touch. The ice that had rapidly formed inside of Kyrian evaporated, leaving behind only loving warmth.
Bravely, the stardancer unwound her fingers from the warrior’s braided hair and began to touch her, lightly caressing all of Azhani’s curves. Delicately, she traced the sharply defined slope of the warrior’s nose and lips, stopping to briefly slip her fingertip into the warrior’s mouth. Continuing her exploration, Kyrian skimmed her fingers down Azhani’s throat and over several tiny scars.
Azhani let out a soft groan of appreciation. Smiling, Kyrian leaned down and kissed the warrior gently and then let her fingers drift across the slope of Azhani’s breast. Lovingly, she stroked the warrior’s dusky nipples until they hardened.
“Gods, Kyr,” Azhani growled softly, causing the stardancer to smile.
Kyrian loved this. She loved the way the warrior’s muscles trembled under the tips of her fingers as she touched her. It was exciting, intoxicating even, to look up and see that her desire was mirrored in Azhani’s eyes. When Azhani threw her head back to moan with desire, Kyrian pressed delicate kisses along the revealed skin.
The warrior’s pleasure revealed itself as a deep groan that vibrated along her entire body. “Ah goddess,” she whispered, rolling onto her back and drawing the stardancer on top of her. She scraped her blunt nails lightly over Kyrian’s back, stroking her soft skin gently, then stopping to cup the firm smoothness of her lover’s buttocks. The fire between them was rapidly blazing out of control. Kyrian nipped and sucked at every bit of exposed skin she could reach. The shadows of the past were quickly vanishing under the stardancer’s loving caress.
Touching Kyrian was nothing like touching Ylera. Where Ylera had been long and thin, Kyrian was short and muscular. Azhani found that she wanted to lose herself in the shape and feel of the stardancer. Every new sound that Kyrian made was a gentle goad that drove the warrior to try harder.
Their breath came in broken gasps as they kissed, and both women were ignoring the ache of already bruised lips. The unspoken agreement of the night before melted away in the bright reality of waking naked in each other’s arms. Bathed in sunlight, any ghosts that lingered in the room vanished, leaving them free to express their desire.
Kyrian broke the kiss first, sliding off Azhani’s body and sitting up on the bed. “We should stop,” she wistfully said, though she continued to stroke the warrior’s abdomen. I wish we didn’t have to. Her brow wrinkled as she sighed heavily. The very idea of pulling her hands away, of ceasing to indulge in the delightful sensation of Azhani’s skin made her heart tremor painfully.
Staring up at the ceiling, Azhani laced her fingers behind her head and just let the sensations of Kyrian’s gentle touch have free rein. Fleetingly, she wondered if she were crazy to allow herself to fall in love again. Common sense intruded, forcing her to realize that, where Kyrian was concerned, she had no control over her heart. From the moment they had met until this very candlemark, Azhani knew that fate had been weaving them together.
Her first impulse was to stop, and let what her body was craving slide away to be explored another day. Would setting aside the desires of their hearts be wise? Or was she only punishing herself, and worse yet, Kyrian, for falling in love? Everything about loving Kyrian felt inescapably right; turning her back on that would be a slap in destiny’s face.
She closed her eyes as the stardancer’s feather-light caresses grew bolder and bolder, edging over the curves of her ribs, and down her side, to glide over the bones of her hips. The voices of caution blew away under the loving onslaught.
“I don’t want to stop,” she whispered as she captured Kyrian’s hand and brought it up to her lips, kissing the fingertips softly. She stopped at the stardancer’s index finger and began to suck on it slowly, running her teeth over the ridges of her lover’s skin. “Do you?” she asked, continuing to suckle the fingers lovingly.
“No,” came the barely audible reply. Kyrian was shaking. The touch, the desire, and the emotions she felt were caught up in a cyclone of sensation, and it sent her reeling.
Azhani opened her eyes to the sight of Kyrian’s face tipped up and her mouth parted in rapture. The vision broke a damn inside of Azhani. Driven by both love and desire, she rolled up to her knees, then leaned over and wrapped her arms around the stardancer, cradling her loosely and kissing her deeply.
“Oh goddess, I love you, my Azhi,” Kyrian whispered between the gently passionate kisses. Azhani’s braids tickled her face and the stardancer laughed joyfully, threaded her fingers through the warrior’s ebony hair, and affectionately pushed them away.
Pulling the stardancer down to the bed, Azhani whispered back, “I love you too, Kyrian.” Their legs twined as their hips arched and ground together. Soft gasps shuddered out lengthily as their fingers found sensitive spots and learned what touches caused pleasure to each other.
The sounds of their loving filled the room as their mouths and tongues retraced the paths of their fingers and hands. Sunbeams highlighted the bedding as it slipped to the floor, their warmth unable to compete with the rising tide of passion generated by two newly made lovers.
For three days, Kyrian and Azhani luxuriated in their changed relationship. Alternately talking and loving, they forged an easy partnership. Yet even though she was able to bare her deepest fears regarding battle, Kyrian still found that she could not tell Azhani that she had known Ylera.
It seemed somehow disrespectful to mention the warrior’s deceased lover while she held her, loved her, in that lover’s home. Instead, Kyrian focused her mind on the future and where she and Azhani were going with their lives.
Afternoon sunlight bathed the two lovers as they were curled together in a chair, feeding each other bits of food.
“Azhi, if you could go anywhere in the Seven Kingdoms, where would you go?” Kyrian asked while painting the warrior’s lips with a dollop of honey.
Leaning up, the warrior shared the sweet, indulging in a long, tender kiss that left both of them breathless. Pulling back, she stroked her lover’s face and tweaked her nose, then replied, “I don’t know.” A shrug rolled off her shoulders. “I’ve never really thought about it. When Theodan was king of Y’dan, I had a place there and I always thought I would serve the people of Y’dan in one fashion or another – it never occurred to me to think that I would have the time to live elsewhere.” She scooped up a bit of scrambled egg on a fork and fed it to Kyrian.
Chewing thoughtfully, Kyrian swallowed and said, “I’d like to see the sea. I’ve never been to the coast and I imagine it’s breathtaking.”
“Smells like dead fish and there lots of sand and salt – it’s not everything the bards make it out to be,” Azhani commented as she sipped at a cup of warm tea. “But, if you’re still curious after,” she didn’t have to say after what, “We’ll take a vacation there.”
Snuggling against the warrior’s chest, Kyrian murmured, “Sounds nice.” Inside, she was wriggling with glee. She’s thinking of after! She’s actually looking beyond the next candlemark. The casual revelation sent a jolt of loving warmth straight to the stardancer’s heart and made her wish she could find the words to let Azhani know what that meant to her.
“You like that idea?” asked Azhani, chuckling at how cuddly her lover was. It was something totally new to the warrior; Ylera had enjoyed holding her, but Kyrian seemed to revel in physical demonstrations of her affection. Not a candlemark went by when she didn’t find some excuse to touch, brush or otherwise come into contact with the warrior. As she thought about it, measuring the puddle of candlemarks the stardancer had put into touching her, Azhani realized that Kyrian had been doing it since they had first met.
Grinning, Kyrian tilted her head up and planted a wet, sloppy kiss on Azhani’s chin. “I love that idea,” she said while Azhani made a face and wiped away the slobber.
The warrior gently tickled her lover’s side. “Good. I like thinking about it.” Soberly, she added, “You gave me a future to hope for, Kyr. If nothing else, I would love you for that.”
“Did you say that just to watch me turn into a pile of oatmeal, Azhi, or are you just being sappy?” Kyrian teased, though her eyes sparkled with a pleased smile.
“Mm, oatmeal,” Azhani purred, nibbling on Kyrian’s earlobe. “Pretty tasty horse food if you ask me,” she teased back.
“Azhi!” Kyrian exclaimed, slapping the warrior’s chest lightly.
“Well, don’t you two look like the picture of domesticity.” Queen Lyssera’s amused voice interrupted them. A tiny smile graced her lips, transforming her face from its usual austerity, to true pleasure. Thank you, Goddess! She has grabbed life with both hands. I can let my people follow her and trust that she will not throw away their lives.
As they scrambled to disentangle, Azhani and Kyrian both ended up sprawled on the floor, the remains of their breakfast liberally decorating their faces, hair and clothing. Kyrian buried her head under her arms and Azhani refused to look at Lyssera, staring up at the ceiling as if suddenly finding the mosaics and paintings that decorated the room of serious interest.
Clear, infectious laughter burst out of the queen. Clutching her sides, Lyssera laughed until her friends joined her, all three carrying on until they were prostrate with mirth. Grabbing for a chair, the queen sat down, suddenly grave faced.
Azhani and Kyrian helped each other up and found chairs of their own. Quietly, they brushed the crumbs of their interrupted meal off their clothes and waited for the queen to speak.
Sadly smiling, Lyssera said, “I am very happy that you found the door to each other’s hearts.” She sighed. “Perhaps that will make this news easier. I have had a letter from King Arris.”
Raising both eyebrows, Azhani quipped, “Well, what did the lunatic want?”
“Among his rambling declaratives about how great he was and how wonderful his life was now that he had given over to the worship of the true god Ecarthus, he blithely informed me that he was looking to go demon hunting this winter. Then he condescended to ask if I’d like to send over some of my ‘much vaunted but probably overrated’ elven archers.” Lyssera rubbed her face and shook her head. “You know, even if I didn’t know he was a madman, I’d tell him no. If he’s so sure that demons are spawning in his mountains, then I’ll just bet there are more than a few in mine.”
“I’m sure of it,” Azhani said, her voice deadly serious. “The mountains here are higher and they stay snow-covered all year; perfect breeding ground for those damned creatures. I would recommend...” the warrior’s voice trailed off
“Yes?” one blonde eyebrow rose inquisitively. “Your opinion is valid, Azhani. Do not be afraid to speak.”
“I do not serve you as a tactician, my queen, but I have many years of battling hell’s minions in my background. I would suggest that you send small scout groups into the mountains to seek breeding caves. If they are found now, the demons can be eliminated before they hatch.” The warrior’s tone was quiet and there was an emptiness to it that made both Lyssera and Kyrian look closer.
“You were going to go and look anyway, weren’t you, Azhi?” Kyrian asked.
The warrior looked away, unable to meet her lover’s eyes.
“Well, in the interests of my kingdom’s security, I’ll do as you suggest warrior. Stay here and enjoy your time with Kyrian. Let my scouts be our eyes. I will decide what to do when I have more information.” Lyssera gave the warrior a look that brooked no arguments.
Nodding, Azhani said, “Yes, my queen.”
When the queen’s scouts returned two weeks later, the news they bore was not good. In the lowest portions of the mountains where snow still dappled the rocks, they had found cave upon cave full of the smooth, rubbery sacks that contained the incubating life forms known as demons. Putting the ones they found to the torch, the scouts rushed back to Y’Syria to inform the queen of their discovery.
No matter how hard Lyssera tried to keep the information under wraps, the men talked, and soon the city was in a state of chaos. Panicking nobles gathered their families and headed to the southern provinces, convinced that come winter, the mountains would unleash a torrent of evil that nothing could stop. Those that remained behind grimly prepared for war.
In a decision that caused her Council to explode in an uproar, Lyssera named Azhani Rhu’len as the interim Warleader. Stating that the warrior was uniquely qualified to lead the elven army against the demons, Lyssera blithely ignored the furor and insisted that the ceremony be carried out immediately.
Not since Princess Alynna, Allyndev’s mother, had there been a Warleader in Y’Syr, and the people turned out in droves to see who had been chosen to protect their kingdom. Kneeling on a high platform in the center of Y’Syria, Azhani proudly accepted the queen’s commission.
As the sun reached its midpoint in the sky, Starseeker Vashyra dipped her fingers into a bowl filled with blessed water and ran her fingers through the warrior’s braids, liberally wetting them.
“I cleanse you before the gods, warrior,” the priest said solemnly, stepping back to allow the queen to take her place.
Lyssera lifted a sheathed blade, holding it out to Azhani hilt first. In a clear, ringing voice she said, “Azhani, daughter of Rhu’len, Scion of the House DaCoure, you have proven your worth to the people of Y’Syr. We are a land in danger from the minions of hell and we have no Warleader. Will you take up your sword and defend us? Will you accept the burden of command and pledge your life against our honor?”
“I will,” Azhani replied gravely, touching the hilt. Though she looked up at Lyssera, her mind’s eye saw a similar scene from nearly twelve seasons prior.
“You are the best damn warrior I’ve ever had the pleasure to serve with, Azhani Rhu’len. For that reason, as well as others, I want you to take up the flag of Y’dan and lead my armies. Will you do it?” Theodan’s kindly blue eyes sparkled with amusement at the shock written plainly on his favorite warrior’s face.
Standing on a field of battle, surrounded by a swath of death that would send lesser men running, the two had emerged victorious. The bodies of hellish demons and Y’myrani soldiers commingled in noxious piles of carnage. Cries and wails of the dying could be heard echoing around the mountains. The cost of life had been great, but Azhani had successfully led the combined armies of the kingdoms against the demons, slaughtering them to the last, rescuing Theodan’s small platoon.
“I don’t suppose I have a choice, do I?” the bloodied, gore spattered warrior replied, leaning on her sword and keeping a distrusting eye on the piles of the dead. Until the field had been torched, she wasn’t going to let her guard down. Somewhere out in that field lay Y’dan’s former warleader. Ketheryn Mor, Theodan’s younger brother, had died valiantly.
Smiling wryly, Theodan clapped her on the shoulder and said, “’Fraid not, my old friend. Come on, let’s get out of here and go find some cold ale. Let the priests deal with this mess.”
Together, they limped away, and headed for the king’s pavilion.
“So be it. Let all hear and rejoice. Arise Azhani Rhu’len, Warleader of Y’Syr!” Lyssera shouted, turning the sword enough to draw it and tap the rising warrior’s elbows with the flat of the blade.
Gasps could be heard as the audience viewed the sword for the first time. When Azhani had first told Lyssera about Padreg’s gift, she had laughed and said, “What I wouldn’t give to see Arris’ face when he finds out about it!”
Taking her sword, Azhani slowly raised the blade overhead, blinking as sunlight struck the metal, causing it to blaze with rainbow fire.
“By the Twins, I charge you to live with honor.” Starseeker Vashyra stepped forward and cupped her damp hands around Azhani’s face. “From this moment, all past deeds have no meaning; you are reborn, my child.” Bringing the warrior’s head down, she kissed her brow. The priest turned and faced the crowd.
Lyssera’s herald then cried out, “Let all stand and bear witness; three cheers for our Warleader! Hip-hip huzzah!”
“Huzzah!” the crowd shouted back.
Looking out at the mass of people, one face stood out to the warrior’s blurred vision. At the edge of the crowd, Kyrian gazed up; love and pride clear in her bright smile. The stardancer had been wary of Lyssera’s plan to give the title of warleader to Azhani, but now, seeing the way her lover proudly stood against the disapproving glares of the Y’Syran nobles, she realized that it had been the right idea.
Beside her, Prince Allyn fairly bounced with glee at seeing his mentor so honored. In their short time together, the young man had come to cherish the warrior’s terse wisdom and sharp sense of humor. He was doubly excited because Azhani had informed him that morning that as her squire, he would accompany the war party to the mountains.
“I knew you’d find a good use for that old relic!” a familiar voice boomed out over the crowd as Azhani hung Gormerath at her side.
Striding through a rapidly opening corridor came Padreg, chieftain of Y’Nor. He was followed closely by his lady, Elisira Glinholt and his squire, Devon Imry. Pleasantly surprised, Azhani surveyed her friends as they approached.
Young Devon had sprouted like a weed over the months; a tall, fine boned young man had replaced the gawky boy. Wavy brown locks had grown out, straightening and giving the boy a noble appearance. Hazel eyes still held the mischievous sparkle of youth, and a huge smile was plastered on his face as he struggled to keep his position behind his lord.
Weeks in the sun had darkened Elisira’s pale skin, leaving her more beautiful than before. Dressed in the traditional soft leather garments of plains nomads, she and Padreg stood out easily against the backdrop of Y’Syran silks and velvets. Geometric beadwork patterns decorated every inch of the suede leather clothes, depicting the clan chief’s tribal emblem. Padreg’s dark, muddy brown hair was tied back in a simple tail, while Elisira’s raven locks were allowed to flow freely, the strands of hair catching in the wind and buffeting her face. With them was a young woman that neither Azhani nor Kyrian recognized.
Lyssera descended from the platform, reaching her hands out to Padreg and embracing him warmly. “We are always pleased to greet our cousin from the south,” she said cordially.
Returning the queen’s greeting, Padreg said, “As I am always pleased to visit your fair city, cousin.”
Introductions were quietly made after the hastily ended ceremony. The unfamiliar young woman with Padreg and Elisira was Princess Syrelle of Y’mar. The princess was young, between Devon and Allyndev in age, but carried herself with a grace that belied her tender years. She was human, a little shorter than Kyrian and had a shock of curly red hair that fell to her waist in crimson rivulets. Brilliant blue eyes eagerly took in all the exotic sights of Y’Syria, staring in awe at the mighty oak trees that encapsulated the ancient elven city.
Kyrian joined Azhani, gleefully kissing her with abundant enthusiasm. When they parted, she turned to give welcoming hugs to her friends.
Preparing herself for the teasing she was sure to endure, Azhani looked over at Elisira. Her old friend smirked, but then smiled joyfully, whispering, “I’m happy for you, Azhi.”
Padreg wasn’t so easy on the warrior. “Guess we’ll be seeing you at midwinter after all, hmm?” he asked as the two friends clasped hands.
Flushing, Azhani fumbled for an answer.
“Not if we see you first,” Kyrian interrupted, smiling when both the king and his lady blushed.
laughed heartily and nodded at the stardancer.
“I’ve missed you, Kyr. I’m
glad our blade toting friend here kept you around.”
Bumping her hip against Kyrian’s, Azhani said, “Well, I like to think that she stayed out of her undying loyalty and affection for me.”
“I could have just been bored,” Kyrian offered serenely.
The warrior looked down at her lover, one dark eyebrow arched arrogantly.
“Yeah, definitely bored,” teased the stardancer, reaching up to tweak Azhani’s sharp nose.
The warrior growled and attempted to bite Kyrian’s pinching fingers. As soon as she captured one of the agile digits between her teeth though, she cupped her hand around Kyrian’s and bent her head down to kiss the stardancer’s palm. “I’ll just have to entertain you, then,” she purred.
Kyrian gnawed on her lip and flushed.
Looking at each other, Padreg and Elisira exchanged similar expressions. The noblewoman turned back to Azhani, cocked her head to one side and put her hands on her hips. “All right, warrior, what’d you do with my somber, morose friend? Are you putting the funny herbs in her tea again, Kyr?”
A smirk crossed Kyrian’s face. “Looking for something to jumpstart someone in the morning?” she asked teasingly.
Elisira only grinned wickedly.
Walking with them, Allyndev listened to their banter, but his gaze never left the face of Princess Syrelle. When she had first appeared, he had thought that Astariu herself had come to walk among them. She’s so beautiful. The beauty in question laughed, a hearty, joyful sound that made Allyn’s heart contract painfully. Please let her come with us, please, please, please! He prayed silently, vowing that he would find the courage to talk to her, somewhere.
They continued laughing and joking, poking fun and trading tales of their experiences since parting at the border, until they entered Oakheart Manor. Ambassadors Kuwell and Iften joined them on the way, Kuwell slapping Azhani heartily on the back and Iften offering Kyrian a grandfatherly hug.
“I didn’t expect you, granther,” Kyrian whispered as they walked.
A mischievous smile lit up the old man’s face. “Well, when Ku came by and mentioned that he was getting ready to head off to smash some demons, I couldn’t very well let him go alone, could I?”
“But you’re not –“ the stardancer protested.
“Of course not,” he chuckled. “I’m far too old to go running around in the mountains. However, Kirthos and his men are not!” The ambassador grinned wickedly. “For as long as Y’myran has been a land of seven kingdoms, we of Y’skan have answered the call of the High King. Though his wishes have not been made clear, it is my judgment that were he to speak, he would request our assistance in this matter.”
“Your men will be welcome,” Azhani said, having heard the whispered conversation.
Kyrian threaded her arm through her lover’s and smiled contentedly.
The constant buzz of activity that filled the Y’Syran castle never ceased. People streamed around them as they hurried through the halls, making their way to the War room.
Round in shape and housed in the center of one of the millennia old trees that made up the ancestral home of the Y’Syran royalty, the council room was almost shockingly plain in comparison to the rest of the luxuriously appointed areas of the manor. Smooth walls were covered in maps and charts and a large, oblong table dominated the center of the room. Engraved into the table, was a map of the Seven Kingdoms, each major city painstakingly picked out in precious metals and gems. Suspended above the table were magically created lights, their brilliance both smooth and heatless. As the group stumbled in, the precisely lined chairs were haphazardly pulled out, allowing each person to sit where they liked.
Azhani stationed herself at the head of the table, facing the door. On her right was Kyrian; to her left were Lyssera and Allyn. The rest of the group filled seats around the table, facing the warleader.
Leaning forward, Padreg put his elbows on the table and rested his chin on his fists. He sighed and then lifted his head a bit. “Now that prying ears have been limited, we can talk. We are all, I presume, here to speak of more than pleasantries.”
He looked around the room, seeing the heads of his fellows nodding in agreement. “War. It’s going to happen; Arris is a leech, draining the vitality from the earth and his poison is spreading beyond the borders of Y’dan. Twice have I sent away men that I trusted all my life. Men who to all outward appearances,” his voice broke some as he recalled the pain of turning his back on his friends, “had given their lives to the service of the Twins. Only, it was a lie. Ecarthus had rotted their souls long before they became servants of the gods.”
“Aye, plainsman. ‘Tis not just your land that turns out black-robes,” Kuwell said gruffly, stroking his beard thoughtfully. “Over the winter, many of the human settlements in our lowlands vanished. We were at first very worried, but investigation has proven that they left voluntarily. Recently, some of my brethren came upon a cache of horrible things – vile scrolls and books suggesting the most abominable rituals in service to a demonic master called Ecarthus.” The dwarf shook his head sadly. “It was found in the center of one of the abandoned towns.”
“It is much the same, for us of the sands,” Iften interrupted. “Small, rarely heard from clans have all but vanished, taking their people with them. The Walkers traced their tracks westward.”
Lyssera spoke next. “I had heard reports of the black-robed strangers moving through our lands, but had always pushed them aside in favor of more pressing matters. I shall begin reviewing them at once. Though with Arris’ “rules of race”, I sincerely doubt any of my elves would willingly go into Y’dan right now.”
Padreg grunted and fervently said, “Chaos is rising all around us, and I aim to see it squashed. I’ve brought those men I could spare – some two thousand cavalry, to add to what I am hoping is a move by you, Lyssera, to quash the bugs in Y’dan.”
Azhani listened to Padreg speak, and as he finished, she stood and began pacing around the room. “I wish it were that simple, Paddy.” Calmly, she filled him in about the caves full of incubating demons. When she finished, she leaned on the table, head bent down and shoulders bowing as if carrying a heavy load. “So, we can’t just march in and turn King Arris into sausages. If you’re still offering me the men, Padreg, I’ll take ‘em. Astariu knows I can use ‘em.” She stood up, shook her shoulders and walked over to a map that displayed the Crest of Amyra, the mountain range that extended across the northern reaches of Y’myran from Y’dan to Y’Tol.
Pointing at an area that lay directly on the Y’Syr/Y’dan border, she said, “This is the Ystarfe Pass. Hundreds of natural caves line the mountains that meet here.” She moved her finger a few inches to the east. “I want to split my forces in two and send Kuwell eastward, to Y’dror. I want you to cut and burn until you and your kin are assured that nothing but what the Twins created, lives in those mountains. Then you will return to Y’Syr and lend your strength to guarding her borders against invasion by Arris.
Padreg, if you are willing, you will come with me, and we will burn our way to here,” she pointed to the edge of mountains north of Y’dan. “Or until winter comes, and the demons hatch. At that point, it will be true war, for I will not allow Arris to waste good Y’dani lives in pursuit of some misguided notion of glory.”
“And after the demons are gone?” Kyrian asked calmly.
“We deal with Arris, if we live,” Azhani said grimly.
“I’m ready to leave whenever you give the word, Warleader,” Kuwell said, thumping his chest proudly. “Let’s make this a year that the bards sing about forever!”
Elisira smiled and slipped her hand under the table, twining it with Padreg’s. “I would like to be a part of this,” she said softly.
Padreg nodded. “Yes, I agree. As bad as Arris is, the thought of demons overrunning Y’myran makes my blood run cold. I have seen their horrors first hand and I could no more turn my back to their threat than I could grow hooves and race my studs!”
There was a trickle of nervous laughter, followed by a round of agreement from those in the room.
Azhani sat down and laid her hands on the table. “Then let us make our final plans,” she said, reaching for a stack of parchment, pens and ink.
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