The Princess Syrelle soon proved to be an invaluable assistant to Azhani. Quiet, unassuming and able to find her way around the twisting corridors of Oakheart within a few days of arriving, the young woman was ideal as a messenger. It was her swift feet that the passing of news fell to and her High Court trained manners that kept even the rudest of Lyssera’s courtiers at bay.
As stubborn as her infamous mother, Queen Dasia, Syrelle was determined to prove that she could follow the army northward. Every day, she showed up in the practice room, dressed for weapons work.
Devon enjoyed her company, having spent the last several months sharing what he had learned from Kyrian with the princess, and the stardancer was only too happy to continue their lessons. Allyn too seemed quite happy to share his mornings with the High King’s daughter, though if the young man managed to spit out three words in a row, it was because she had taken him by surprise, rather than through any conscious effort on his part.
Only Azhani had any reservations about training the princess for war, but both Kyrian and Elisira convinced her that Syrelle could only benefit from the knowledge. “What the hell? I can always truss her up and lock her in her room when we leave,” Azhani said and reluctantly gave in.
Of course, Syrelle took pains to make sure that everyone around her knew that if any such thing were to occur, she would steal a horse and follow them.
“I’ve just as much right to defend my land as any of you,” she pointed out haughtily. “Moreover, it is my duty as one of Ysradan’s children to provide an example for all the sons and daughters of the Y’myran kings.”
The warleader only grunted and turned away, content to leave the morning’s training session to Kyrian. Today, she was planning to inspect the gathering army. Outside of Y’Syria, the combined Y’Syran, Y’droran, Y’skani and Y’noran forces were camped, waiting until the warleader’s precise combinations of soldiers had been met.
Several days had been devoted to speaking with the commanders of the various groups, studying the strengths and weaknesses of each unit. As she learned of their abilities, Azhani assigned men to different commanders, attempting to create a balanced force of warriors.
To confuse any spies, several trusted noblemen began hosting a tournament, and Azhani encouraged the soldiers to participate, even going so far as to fight in a few of the contests herself. Better that Arris think she were running a tourney than preparing for war.
In small groups, the army began to head north. Those that were bound westward would begin the dirty work of cleaning out the mountains, waiting just outside of the Ystarfe pass until Azhani joined them.
Kuwell’s group left three days after the last of the small patrols. With them went three starseekers, six stardancers and a dozen mages. Vashyra would go with Azhani, bringing a larger contingent of mages, mage-priests and healer-priests. The addition of spell casters meant that the two armies would be able to remain in almost constant contact, as well as being able to get messages back to Lyssera in Y’Syria.
Two weeks after Azhani’s ordination as Y’Syr’s Warleader, a protest arrived in the form of two Ecarthan priests. Their black robes bore the green and black striped sash of Arris’ personal household. Calmly, the men read the Y’dani king’s rambling, invective-filled message, which basically consisted of, “Give me Azhani and I won’t invade your kingdom.”
Lyssera’s response was a polite, if somewhat terse, “Shove it.”
Azhani happily detailed a dozen soldiers to escort their “guests” to the border.
As her guards hauled the smelly, black-robed men from the throne room, Azhani leaned over and whispered to Kyrian, “If nothing else, I have got to remember to bring lots and lots of soap with me to Y’dan.” She wrinkled her nose. “Because the people are starting to stink.”
“Good morning, granther,” Kyrian rose from her seat by the window and walked to greet the Y’skani ambassador. They embraced warmly.
“Good morning, lass. I trust all is well?” Iften asked, his eyes sparkling merrily. He had spotted Azhani sneaking out of the Stardancer’s room just as he was leaving his own rooms. Impulsively, he decided to see how his favorite person was doing.
Kyrian grinned and nodded. “Yes, exceedingly so. Please, have a seat.” She offered him the overstuffed chair by the fireplace.
Sinking into the chair with a groan of appreciation, Iften said, “Thank you, Kyrian. These old bones aren’t made for standing conversations.” He put his feet up on a hassock and looked at the stardancer, expectantly.
Kyrian sat in the chair opposite him and sighed. “I don’t really know how it happened granther, but Azhani came to me and...” she blushed deeply.
Nodding, Iften said, “And now you have the tender regard of the one you love. I am happy for you, lass.”
“It’s a miracle. I wake each morning expecting the night before to have been nothing but dreams, but am breathlessly surprised when the illusions are real. She is there, beside me, warm and soft and all the ways I imagined her to be, and beyond,” Kyrian said wonderingly.
“Miracle or not, the gods do not give their gifts lightly, Kyrian. Be certain this is where your heart lies,” the ambassador advised sagely.
“I can’t imagine any other place I would want it to be,” the stardancer replied firmly.
“Good. Remember though, that the road of love is full of sandstorms. Just because you get a little scoured, doesn’t mean you’re going to be lost forever,” he cautioned. Changing the subject, he said, “I understand you are leaving soon.”
“Yes, we leave in the morning,” she said softly, with the slightest tinge of fear coloring her voice.
Iften stood and shook his head. “I’m an old man, Kyrian, but damned if I wish I couldn’t go with you. It will be a glorious thing, to watch Azhani Rhu’len in battle!”
Kyrian stood as well and reached out to take Iften’s hands. “I don’t know when or if I’ll be back,” she quietly said, and then bit her lip. Falteringly, she added, “But I do want you to know that I will miss you.”
He drew her in for a gentle embrace. “I know, lass. I will miss you as well. Go with the gods, and may you always have clear skies.”
As the nobles left the council chamber, Azhani turned to Lyssera, who was poised to speak. The warleader sighed. She knew this had been coming for a while and was hoping to be gone before the elven queen could bring it up. Choosing her words carefully, Azhani began to speak.
“My Queen, I know you wish to show your people that you are capable of defending their honor, but please, listen to me. I need you here, in the city. Banner Lake is Y’Syr’s biggest vulnerability to attack. The people need to see you here, proudly defending them against whatever may come.” She stared into Lyssera’s light gray eyes, silently pleading with her to understand. Sweat began to form on her forehead. For the first time in many weeks, her hair was undone, and the thick, black locks were allowed to trail past her hips. She was looking forward to ending this meeting and seeing Kyrian. Her lover had promised to wash and braid her hair tonight, so that it would be ready for the morning march.
Lyssera sighed and sat back in her chair, staring at the mosaics on the ceiling of the chamber. Azhani was right; duty required her to stay, to safeguard her people against a naval attack. Arris’ black-sailed ships could be seen just beyond the horizon, patrolling the waters ceded to Y’dan when the kingdoms had been formed.
The implied threat was enough to keep Lyssera’s and Padreg’s navies on their toes, their respective green and golden sailed ships pairing up to escort smaller merchant ships to and from the ports along the Banner. Sighing again, the queen looked at her warleader.
“You’re not making Padreg stay behind,” she griped softly.
“Because Padreg’s people view their king in a very different capacity. He is just a chieftain, the highest of the chieftains of the plains to be sure, but a chieftain all the same. You, my queen are just that – a Queen. All the attendant royal duties are tacked on for free,” Azhani explained gamely, knowing that she had won her point. Lyssera would remain to guard the water border.
“All right, I’ll stay,” the queen said reluctantly. “But there’s something you need to know.” Lyssera took a deep breath and began telling Azhani a story. By the time she was done, the warleader’s face was slack with shock.
“Well, I’ll be an owldragon feather!” she whispered. “Why wasn’t...”
“Anything said? You, better than any, should know.” Lyssera’s gray gaze pinned Azhani to her seat. “Think about it, my friend. When the time comes, this story will change lives.”
Travel northward was quick. Azhani employed the talents of her scouts to lead the massive army through the woods, avoiding all but the smallest of communities. As they traveled, the warrior noticed a disconcerting hum that seemed to emanate from sword she now carried wherever she went.
Since no one else had mentioned it, she said nothing, but she did note that the closer they got to the mountains, the more the frequency of the vibration increased. Kyrian continued to train Devon, Allyn and Syrelle. Besides the Goddess Dance, she instructed each of them in healing herbs and poultices, gratified by the attention each youth paid her.
Other stardancers joined her morning classes, providing many partners for everyone to choose from, and occasionally, Azhani would entertain the soldiers by letting her lover toss her around the practice ring.
Padreg and his riders trained men how to fight from horseback, while Elisira tried to join a little of everything, eventually finding herself with the elven archers. The longbow proved to be too difficult for her to pull, but she became relatively proficient with a short bow, under their solemn instruction.
The forest and foothills were teeming with life. Animals of the ground and skies teemed within the green depths, providing plenty of food for the mouths of the army. As they traveled, men and women from the villages joined them. Some came because they were soldiers on leave, but most came because they had heard the tales of demons in the mountains and they wanted to defend their homes.
Many of those who joined the army were former Y’dani citizens. Men and women who were of mixed blood or who had been sensitive enough to feel the dark direction Arris was taking his kingdom, had escaped before Arris effectively sealed the borders.
That made Azhani’s teeth ache from clenching her jaw. To prevent any “pure” humans from leaving, Arris had imposed a “tithe of loyalty” on any Y’dani citizen who wished to leave their homeland, no matter what reason they gave for exiting the kingdom. Every man, woman and child would have to pay five golden coins before they would be allowed aboard a ship, or through one of the many checkpoints established along the borders. It was just one more reason that she would be turning her army southward, when the demon threat was nullified.
The first day into the mountains, Gormerath seemed to wake up, and its song went from a mild buzz to a joyful shriek. As soon as Azhani gripped the blade’s hilt, she felt it pull her toward a nearby cave. Uncertain as to why she knew she had to investigate it, the warleader cautiously detailed ten men, one priest and one mage to come with her.
As soon as she reached the cave’s entrance, the stench of half-formed demon eggs, hit her nostrils. Shuddering at the sight of row after row of the leathery, slime-coated boulders, she turned to her men and said, “Follow me and move quickly. Break every shell and try not to get the fluid on your flesh. If you do, leave immediately and seek a chirurgeon or a stardancer. Starseeker Curvald, if you would please sing the blessings while Devon torches the cave after we’ve left, I would appreciate it.”
“Aye, Warleader!” they all shouted, clapping their fists to their breasts.
“Let’s do this,” she said grimly, drawing the humming blade.
The moment Gormerath was released from the sheath; the cave was lit by a brilliant glow. Azhani was so surprised that she nearly dropped the sword.
The rest of the army saw the glow and cheered.
“All right, I guess if I can handle the fact that you mumble like an old man, I can deal with this too,” Azhani muttered softly and dove into the cave, hacking at the first egg she saw. From behind her, men flowed into the cave, and soon the dull crunch of steel through shell, filled the tiny cavern.
Destroying demon hives was nasty, messy work. From sunup until sundown, Azhani and her men cut their way through the hardening sacks of goop, trying to avoid getting any of the thick, yellow slime on their skin. After the soldiers had hacked up the eggs, the priests would come in, chanting and singing away the soul-burning stench of evil. Then Devon and a few other young mages would set fire to the caves, letting them burn until not even ashes were left.
Only one thing made the long days trudging through the mountains bearable, and that was having Kyrian by her side. Every morning, the stardancer would make her lover a special breakfast. This morning, that breakfast came with some astonishing revelations.
Azhani lay yawning in her bed, and thought she smelled oatcakes and honey. Sitting up, the warleader shook out her braids and reached for the loop of leather she used to bind her hair back. Quickly scooping up the thick hank of braids, she affixed the thong in a tight knot and turned to see what had been left on the small table for her breakfast.
As she had suspected, a stack of honey-drizzled cakes awaited her consumption. Delighted by the treat, the warleader reached for the plate and fork, taking a huge bite. Flavor awoke memory and tears ran unchecked down her face.
“Ah gods, Ylera,” she whispered, setting the plate in her lap and wiping her eyes.
“I brought you some tea-“ Kyrian ducked into the tent, stopping when she saw her lover’s distress. “Astarus’ balls,” she cursed, setting the tea aside and walking over to their bed. Carefully, she eased down beside Azhani, moving the plate back to the table and reaching for her lover.
Azhani went to Kyrian willingly, seeking solace in the velvet-clad arms. “I-“ she sniffled. “Damn. Ylera loved those so much, Kyr,” she whispered.
“I know,” Kyrian said, her heart hammering in her throat. It’s time to tell her, Kyr. She deserves to know.
“What?” the stardancer’s words penetrated Azhani’s melancholy. “How do you-“
“Shh,” Kyrian placed a finger against the warleader’s lips. “Let me explain. I probably should have told you a long time ago.”
“Told me what?” Azhani asked, cocking her head curiously.
Kyrian smiled sadly, her green eyes dark with sorrow. “I knew her,” she whispered and sighed.
Frowning confusedly, Azhani said, “What?”
“Princess Ylera, Azhi. She and I – we were friends. In Y’len, we shared teachers, and classes, and eventually, a room.” Unable to stop the words, the story flooded out. The stardancer quickly related the tale of how an unlikely friendship had developed between a princess and a foundling, and how they had forged a lasting bond while each pursued their educational goals.
Kyrian told her lover how Ylera’s taste for oatcakes and honey had grown until one night, the princess had made the orphan stay up all night, teaching her how to make the treat.
“Ylera was the best friend I ever had, until you,” Kyrian whispered. Looking away, she added, “The last time I saw her, she was leaving for Y’Syria, to take up the role of ambassador to Y’dan. You know the rest of the story.” The stardancer’s shoulders slumped and she drew away, as if expecting a blow.
It never came. Listening to the stardancer’s story had been like plunging her hands into water of unknown temperature. Azhani was absolutely surprised to discover that the water was comfortable, a bit on the warm side, but easily withstood.
She did wonder if she should be angry – after all, she and Kyrian were lovers, and had declared their devotion every day since the night they had admitted their feelings, but she couldn’t find a reason to feel any ire. It was terribly, wonderfully important that Kyrian and Ylera had known each other. The deepest part of Azhani’s soul rejoiced knowing that her beloved Ylera had known and liked her new love and just as the warleader had lost a lover, so had Kyrian lost a friend.
“I’m sorry,” Azhani said, maneuvering until she was curled around the stardancer, cradling her in her arms. “I never knew – Ylera rarely spoke of her time at Y’len.”
Kyrian burrowed into her lover’s embrace and said, “I didn’t expect her to. I just feel guilty because I should have mentioned it earlier.”
Azhani dipped her head down and gently kissed her lover. “It doesn’t matter. I’m glad you told me. I’ll enjoy your oatcakes even more, now. Ylera loved them so much – we can celebrate her life with every bite.”
Kyrian nuzzled Azhani’s chest and sniffled, tears forming in her eyes. “Every time I think I know all the reasons I love you, Azhi, you give me one more.”
“I hope so, Kyr. Because the gods know that I love you so much it hurts.”
With the morning’s conversation still ringing in her ears, Azhani tiredly approached their shared tent. Kyrian was waiting for her, one lamp dimly lit and a plateful of cooling oatcakes sitting on her lap.
“To Ylera,” she said, offering a bite to her weary lover.
Azhani accepted the food and leaned in for a kiss. “To you, my beloved, for everything.”
Their lovemaking that night was particularly intense. Touching and kissing became a way to pay respect to the memory of a lost friend and loved one. As they fell into sleep, their heartbeats slowly blended into one solid rhythm.
Devon Imry looked up as two booted feet stopped in front of him. Standing before him was Prince Allyndev. The mage choked off a sigh of consternation. At first, he had tried to like the older youth, but found the prince’s standoffishness to be very off-putting.
Then there was the fact that Allyn’s gaze constantly followed Princess Syrelle whenever she was near, and that bothered Devon in ways he didn’t want to admit. Sy was his friend, and in his rarely admitted daydreams, more.
Allyn licked his lips, trying to find something to say that wouldn’t end up guiding his foot to his mouth. Ever since the army had left Y’Syria, he had found it harder and harder to maintain a veneer of polite civility. The journey was harder than he had ever imagined it would be, and the work of battle was tougher than the worst day of fending off Stardancer Kyrian’s lightning fast staff.
Realizing that he would have to make the first move, Devon stood and put out a hand. “Hi, I’m Devon Imry.”
Absently, Allyn took the proffered hand and shook it. “Yeah, I um, I think I knew that. I’m ah, Allyndev. Call me Allyn though,” he blurted, suddenly wanting this young man in the saffron colored robes to like him. It would be so nice to have one friend, and he set himself the task of winning the other boy’s trust.
“All right, Allyn. What can I do for you?” Devon asked curiously.
Shuffling his feet nervously, Allyn muttered, “Um, you know Princess Syrelle, right?” He smiled brightly, pasting his most sincere expression on his face.
Devon chuckled, and said, “Sure do, she’s been living with my friends for a few months now.” What does he want with Sy? The young mage pointed to an equipment trunk. “Have a seat, let’s talk.”
Allyn sank down. Pulling a purple silken scarf from a pouch he said, “I think she dropped this, but I didn’t want to bother her. I thought maybe you might know if it’s hers.” The prince offered the kerchief to Devon, who took it and examined it.
The scent of lilacs wafted up and he smiled wistfully. “Oh yeah, it’s hers. You want me to give it back to her for you?” She always smells so nice and this is her favorite scarf. I bet she’ll give me a hug for finding it.
Allyndev opened his mouth to say yes, but he really wanted to say no. Now that he knew it was hers, he wanted to see if he could get up the nerve to talk to her. “Well, uh, why don’t we take it to her together?” he suggested quickly. “You can, uh, reintroduce me and maybe we could all go get some lunch in the mess tent together.”
“Okay,” Devon agreed. There weren’t many others in the camp that were his age. Maybe he would try to get past Allyndev’s prickly exterior. It would be nice to have a friend besides Syrelle.
“Rise and shine, sleepy head,” Elisira sang loudly, tossing a pile of clean clothes down on her beloved’s chest.
Padreg grunted and rolled over. “Tell the slave driver that I’m not here today,” he mumbled sleepily.
The noblewoman chuckled. “What’s wrong, Paddy? Is Azhi’s pace a bit much for your old bones?”
“That woman’s pace would be more than my best racehorse could handle!” He sat up and rubbed his face, frowning at the thickening stubble that coated his chin. “Damn! I need to shave again! I never have to use the knife so much on the plains,” he complained.
“Maybe your body is just trying to get ready for the coming winter,” Elisira said softly, reaching out to stroke the chieftain’s jaw. “I kind of like you all scruffy, Paddy. It makes you look rugged.”
Rolling his eyes, the Y’Noran stood up, stretching until his back popped. Through the flap in the tent, he could just make out the vista of mountains that they were traveling. Snow capped the highest peaks, though it was still fairly temperate here. “Ah Eli,” he said, lifting his arm to allow her to snuggle against his chest. “I am coming to love these mountains, but I do miss the grass of home.”
Elisira rubbed his stomach gently. “I miss our home too, my lord,” she said softly. “I look forward to our return, and our marriage.”
The plainsman wordlessly hugged his beloved. Not once since they had admitted their feelings had he attempted to move their relationship beyond the bounds of gentle courtship. He allowed himself the pleasure of her kiss and the delight of her embrace, but he had held back, keeping the sanctity of their first night sacred. It was deeply important to him to show his love for Astariu by bringing himself and his chosen bride to her altar pure in both body and soul.
“I give thanks daily for you, Eli,” he whispered. “We will be joined, my love, though I am coming to believe that midwinter will not be the date of our celebration.”
Elisira nodded, lifting her head up to kiss Padreg gently. “That should be their day, my lord.” The noblewoman glanced over at Azhani and Kyrian’s pavilion. “Our day should be filled with the sunshine and warm breezes of the plains, not the chill of Y’dani snow.”
They stood together, quietly absorbing the love that flowed easily between them.
Just for a little variety, Azhani began dispatching small groups of soldiers into the hills, seeking out bandit enclaves and routing the dregs of society who flourished by preying on the weak. As a result of the warleader’s actions, Queen Lyssera suddenly found that the lawless men who usually ran from her dungeons to the mountains, took to honest trade, rather than cross to Y’dan or head for the mountains.
There was also the occasional troll, goblin or other mage-created leftover that stumbled onto Azhani’s army, though those creatures tended to live on the other side of Amyra’s Crest and only came down to the Y’myrani kingdoms when hunger drove them to cross the mountains.
In the weeks since leaving Y’Syr, the army had happened across one small group of the northern tribesmen who also made their home on the steppes above Amyra’s Crest. Led by a shaman, three warriors on their blooding journey stopped to share news with Azhani and Padreg.
They too had seen the caves filled with Hell’s children, and had sent word back to their kin to be watchful for the “snowfangs” that could wipe out an entire tribe in a night. One of the warriors decided to join with the army, a gesture to prove that those of the steppes had not forgot the treaty forged by Theodan of Y’dan. Azhani sent the shaman and his remaining warriors on with plenty of supplies, hoping the man would take her advice and head toward Y’dror. The dwarves had long dealt with the steppes people, and would know the best places for the young warriors to go monster hunting.
The army settled into a routine. Each time they arrived at a valley, they would set up a base camp and begin patrolling the hills, checking every cave for ice demon eggs. Azhani found that she was busiest, because Gormerath unerringly pulled her in the direction of any demons within miles, lighting the way with a fierce glow.
At base camp, the groups separated into concentric rings of smaller encampments, with the noncombatants and chirurgeon’s tents in the very center of the main campsite. The warleader’s encampment was one of the outer rings of camp, and it was there that Devon, Allyn and Syrelle pitched their tent.
Sharing their shelter came about by accident, when Allyn and Devon were assigned to the same overnight patrol and made into bivouac partners. While they were gone, the princess cared for Devon’s tent, a gift from the plains people, and much better made than the standard Y’Syran war pavilions. When it rained, Devon’s pavilion was one of the few that did not leak. Syrelle had quickly availed herself of the comfort of being dry, and moved her things into the young mage’s tent within a few days of leaving Y’Syria.
She could have bunked with Padreg and Elisira, or requested her own tent, but she felt uncomfortable sleeping near the couple whose restrained love seemed ready to burst forth, consuming all in its path. Having her own shelter would be nice, but it would mean forcing one of the warriors out of their home and into another, albeit larger, shared tent. Besides, sharing living quarters with Devon was a true pleasure. The young mage had always treated her like another soldier, without all the deferential bowing and scraping that seemed to occur when the person she was speaking to realized she was High King Ysradan’s daughter.
Allyn joined their sleeping arrangements late one night after stumbling in with Devon from a long patrol. The mage had invited the prince to crash on the floor rather than having to go back out in the drizzling rain and put up his own, smaller shelter. One night became two, and a third, after the three of them had stayed up late celebrating the destruction of a particularly large cave filled with the developing demon eggs.
On the evening of the fourth day, when Devon and Allyn returned from a short patrol, Syrelle had rearranged the tent and set up Allyn’s rope bed. Three of the walls now held the comfortable camp beds, while the center boasted a small brazier surrounded by thick reed rugs. A lamp hung from the center of the tent and their extra gear was either stowed outside in trunks or under the beds.
Allyn had come in and stared speechlessly at the new arrangement. Devon only raised an eyebrow, causing Syrelle to shrug and say, “Well, he’s been here for three days anyway. Might as well make it permanent. At least he doesn’t snore as loud as you do, Devvy.”
“I do not snore!” the mage protested, though his eyes sparkled merrily. This was an old fight between them, starting from the first night the young princess had moved to Y’Nor and found herself sharing a large tent with Devon and six other youths.
“Yes, actually, you do,” Allyn finally said, his voice softened by emotion. No one had ever just invited him in like these two crazy humans. Growing up as a prince of the realm, in a society that viewed half-breeds with a certain level of disdain, had left him an outsider in his own home. Invitations didn’t just happen; they were motivated by political gain, usually to curry favor with his guardian and aunt. He blinked back tears and swallowed around a solid lump in his throat. Friends. When was the last time I could say that about people around me?
“Well, Allyboy, are you staying?” Devon asked, clapping a hand on his friend’s shoulder, perfectly mimicking his lord, Padreg.
Even the hated nickname didn’t grate the way it did when spoken by one of the rough and tumble soldiers he spent most of his days with. Turning to face his new friends, he wrestled his emotions into place and said, “I’d love to.”
“Good, because I’d sure hate to move everything around again,” Syrelle said aggrievedly. “Those beds are a pain in the backside!”
Devon laughed, and shortly, Allyn and Sy joined him.
“Prince Allyn!” a voice called from outside.
The change over the young man was instantaneous. Gone was the easy smile and relaxed posture. Snapping erect, Allyn became every inch the prince. Stiffly, he ducked out of the tent to greet his visitor.
His commander, Sergeant Matthias stood waiting, an expression of bored disdain washing over his elven features. Though it had only been moments from his call to Allyn’s arrival, he sighed as though the prince had made him wait candlemarks.
“Boy, when I call you, I expect you to be here, double-time!” he growled, looking beyond the prince to the emerging mage and princess. Pale blue eyes lingered on the low cut of Syrelle’s bodice, making her wish that she had slipped on a cloak.
“Yes sir,” Allyn said tonelessly. “I’ll do better next time, sir.”
Matthias snorted as if that were impossible. “Whatever. This your billet?” At the prince’s nod he said, “Good. Get some chow and then go to bed. You’re on first patrol tomorrow.”
Devon cursed softly. That meant that he and Allyn would no longer be partners, making it harder for the two of them to continue their friendship. Anger rose hotly in him and he narrowed his eyes, searching the sergeant’s face for any sign that the reassignment was motivated by something other than necessity, but could not see a flicker of anything beyond the usual contempt that elves had for their half-human kin.
“Yes, sir,” Allyn said, bowing his head at the orders.
Allowing his eyes to linger once more on Syrelle’s chest, the elven commander returned the nod and left.
“You seen the landscape over at the Warleader’s camp, Hawkins?” a soldier grunted between bites of his trail rations.
Wistful groans of assent passed from man to man as the soldiers picked up on the conversation.
“Oh yeah,” another man said, making a lascivious gesture with his hands. “I can hear ‘em sometimes and I gotta tell ya – I am blessed that I’ve got a good friend in camp!”
Nauseated, Allyn tried to tune out the rough talk, but found that he was drawn to it anyway. They had been riding for three days, moving from small cave to small cave in this particular section of the mountains, burning out the demon eggs. The sergeant in charge of the group had put him back with the third unit – those men who went in last, before the priests and mages, and swam in the muck, making sure that every last egg had been cracked and scrambled.
Nothing he owned was clean and most of what he would be bringing back to the base camp was so worthless, it would doubtlessly end up on the rag pile. Sighing, he kept his mount on pace, making certain not to clip the rider in front of him.
“That Syrelle’s sure got her mother’s assets,” a woman said, shaping the air in front of her with lecherous hands.
“Does she now? Hey Allyboy, why don’tcha give us a personal run down of the princess’ attributes, since you’re so close t’her highness and all,” one of the men suggested.
Allyn bit back a harsh retort, noticing that Sergeant Matthias had his eyes on him.
“We’re waiting, boy,” the elven man said gruffly.
Suddenly, it just didn’t seem worth it to fight anymore. Maybe this was the way men were supposed to behave. After all, Sy’s not here. It’s not like she’ll hear anything, right? Besides, if he tried to fit in, he would get a little more respect. Then he might get better job assignments instead of clean up duty.
To his horror, he found himself hesitantly describing the princess in the crude fashion the soldiers around him seemed to relish.
Allyn’s new attitude did have its rewards. Instead of being swab crew, he now acted as the sergeant’s spotter, one of the first to enter a cave and test the hardness of the embryonic sacs.
“Hard boiled, Sarge,” he would call, if the leathery shell were stiff to the touch, meaning the soldiers used maces to break open the sacs. “Over easy,” meant that they were still soft enough for sword blades and “over medium,” gave the soldier a choice of mace or sword, depending on how much time the warrior wanted to spend on readying weapons.
Three more days passed as they swung around in their half-arc, clearing out a large section of mountain. As those days progressed, Allyn’s vocabulary grew coarser and coarser, and his acceptance into the macho group of men and women, seemed assured.
He was quite aware of the changes and felt very uncomfortable, but could not deny the greater role he was allowed to play in his unit. Every time he heard his voice saying something crude or coarse about a woman, he sighed inwardly, knowing that he would have a hard time readjusting to civility once they returned to the base camp. A part of him wondered if Devon had trouble fitting in with his new unit. When they were together, it didn’t matter that the others shunned them, because they could always turn to each other for conversation.
It suddenly struck Allyn that Devon had been a part of the groups since the first day, being the mage who had lit the first fires at Warleader Azhani’s command. The soldiers surely knew that the yellow-robed mage was one of the warleader’s personal friends, and that probably bought him some respect.
Allyn frowned unhappily. He was not one of Azhani’s friends. He was just a student and Azhani his teacher, another in a long line of professionals his aunt had hired to guide him for as long as he could remember. It didn’t matter that the warrior had called him one of her best students or that he had excelled under her tutelage, proving her skills as a sword master on the bodies of some his worst tormentors.
To the elves, he was still just Alynna’s bastard.
Devon and Syrelle found that they missed their new friend more than they thought they would. While the young mage delved into his studies, taking his assigned break to approach some of the other wizards in the army, the princess turned her attention to the Lady Elisira.
The noblewoman had organized a group of noncombatant men and women into an efficient corps of launderers, hunters and cooks. Syrelle joined the corps, putting her quick hand with a needle to good use, turning out the thousands of tunics and breeches that the army seemed to consume at an alarming rate.
When she wasn’t sewing cloth, Syrelle forced herself to get an education in the chirurgeon’s tents, learning how best to care for the small lacerations and bruises so often suffered by the men and women whose job it was to prowl among the rocks of the mountains.
In the evening, after dinner, she and Devon would retreat to his tent where they would mend their own clothes or play various card and dice games that the young man had collected from other soldiers.
Tonight, Syrelle had a new project. A pile of simple cotton fabric sat on her bed, waiting for her to cut and shape each piece.
Devon noticed the addition and, as he was sitting down on a pile of pillows, asked, “So, what’re you going to make, Sy?”
Fingering the fabrics, each a different shade of blue and weighted more for the cooler nights, she smiled and said, “Well, I remembered what your pack looked like after your first week out...”
“Yeah, oh yeah!” the mage said, nodding eagerly. “Everything but this robe was trash. That demon blood is like tanner’s acid – eats into stuff quickly. Allyn’s gonna need boots, too, but I bet he can get those from the quartermaster.”
“That’s what I had figured,” Syrelle said, lifting the first piece of fabric up and folding it to begin cutting out a tunic. “Want to help me make sure the prince has something clean and warm waiting for him?”
“Sure,” Devon said, scooting closer to the princess. He closed his eyes briefly, breathing in the light scent of lilacs that seemed to cling to her. Golden red hair glimmered in the wan light given off by the lantern and he suddenly grinned. “Hey, watch this,” he said, whispering a few guttural syllables.
Syrelle watched in delight as a ball of light about the size of a mace head formed in his hand, glowing with a soft, yet bright intensity that lit the tent up much better than the tiny oil lamp ever could. The globe of light then lifted off the young mage’s hand and levitated to the ceiling where it hovered motionless, chasing away all the shadows.
“Very nice, Devvy. You’ve finally got it,” she said, smiling happily and leaning over to kiss his cheek. “Erf, Dev, you need to shave again,” she groused, rubbing her lips which tingled from the tickly sensation that the young man’s stubble created.
Devon blushed and stroked his cheeks ruefully. “Sorry ‘bout that, Sy. I’ll take care of it tomorrow, okay? Now, show me what to do with this stuff.” He lifted the edge of a piece of dark blue denim.
Part of the everyday structure of any army on the move, is the preparation and consumption of mass quantities of food. Daytime meals were scrounged however a soldier could find the time, but the evening meal was sacred. As long as they were at battle rest, the army built huge bonfires and gathered around them, sharing food and good humor.
Dotting hillsides for miles, were the glowing beacons to the weary warrior just returning from a day of slogging through caves, as well as those noncombatants whose job it was to support the military. The atmosphere around the fires allowed for the men and women who served Azhani Rhu’len to nourish their souls as well as their bodies.
It was in the evenings when warriors could take comfort in the words of the gods, visiting the priests in their distinctively marked tents. If it was physical succor that was craved, then many of the men and women found release in the arms of their fellows.
Azhani stood on a hillside, looking out at the constellation that was her army, flickering against the gray and white background of the mountains, and smiled in satisfaction. This is where she belonged, here, in the field, where her skills meant something beyond a pretty ribbon or a fancy medal. From where she stood, she could see Allyndev’s patrol returning after their weeklong absence.
She smiled proudly, thinking of the young man who had come to her, green and raw, and was now gaining quiet praise from the best of the warriors in the field for his calm and poised manner on the battlefield. Sending him out with the small patrol, was her way of giving the prince a chance to find some of the self-esteem he sorely needed. The sound of pipes and a lute reached her and she sighed, knowing it was long past time to return to her camp.
Around the Warleader’s fire, Kyrian and Elisira became the cooks of choice, with the Princess Syrelle becoming an apt student. Others were prodded to take their turns, but Padreg was exempt after his one and only attempt made simple rabbit stew taste like old boiled shoes. He was relegated to slicing and dicing. The rest of the group shared out the chores.
Allyndev had just returned from a long week out cracking eggs and was regaling the group with some of his adventures. Devon and Syrelle listened intently, exchanging similar looks of wary confusion whenever the young prince’s words grew coarse and callous. Earlier, they had presented him with the painstakingly made suit of clothes and though he had seemed grateful, his gaze had barely taken in the garments, staying fixed on Syrelle’s purple-garbed chest.
A new aura of arrogant self-confidence seemed wrapped around the prince, replacing the diffident, shy boy that had gone away a week earlier. Allyn tried hard to keep from speaking the crude comments that fluttered about in his mind, only partially succeeding. Somewhere, a small voice was yelling at him to thank his friends for the absolutely astonishing gift of new clothes, but the words that tumbled out were all about his adventures. Finally, Master Azhani rescued him, dragging him off to take up her role as his teacher.
Syrelle watched him go, and her blue eyes were troubled. “And I used to like him,” she whispered quietly.
Devon put a hand on her shoulder and squeezed softly. “Yeah, I did too. He’s got to be in there somewhere, though. I mean, my first impression of him wasn’t very good either, but as I got to know him, I realized that he was a pretty good guy. Now – I don’t know. Something happened out there, Sy.”
The princess leaned into Devon’s touch, sighing sadly. “Yes.” She looked up at her friend. “We’ll get him back, Dev. We have to.”
After about a candlemark, the meal was served. A light banter sprang up around everyone, mixed in with light, teasing comments that had become the habit of those who shared the Warleader’s fire.
“I hear you ladies had to move your tent a few body lengths away from the edge of camp again,” Padreg rumbled around a mouthful of venison stew.
Kyrian flushed, Azhani shrugged and said, “What, jealous?”
Elisira laughed and patted the plainsman’s knee when he blushed.
Devon chuckled and looked at Allyn, saying, “Hey buddy, you know I love you but could you please leave your girlfriends in the caves when you’re done with them,” he said, holding his nose and pointing at the prince’s muck and grime coated boots.
Allyn retorted insolently with, “At least my clothes are being worn out by man’s work.” His gaze rested pointedly on the bare spots in the knees of the mage’s pants. Devon’s breeches had suffered the most from Syrelle’s inspired tailoring session, since he had been the one to crawl around on the tent floor, cutting out the bits and pieces that made up the prince’s new clothes.
Hurt, Devon turned away, suddenly uninterested in his dinner. Quietly, he got up and walked away from the fireside.
“That was rude,” Syrelle said, casting a withering look at the older teen.
“If he can’t take it, he shouldn’t dish it,” Allyn said, wiping his mouth on his sleeve and belching loudly.
Sharing a glance, Azhani and Kyrian each rolled their eyes and sighed. Evidently, the lesson Allyndev had learned, was one of boastful arrogance.
“Oh grow up, Allyn! He’s your friend and he was just playing with you. What you said was mean and spiteful,” Syrelle said. Allyn tried to scoot closer and put his arm around her to calm her down, but she pushed him away. Standing, she looked down at the young man and said, “When you’re inclined to treat your friends like friends, maybe I’ll be more willing to talk to you.” With that, she walked away, following after Devon.
“Looks like it’s time to do some serious groveling, boy,” Padreg commented, standing up and walking around to clap the young man on the shoulder.
Allyn shrugged noncommittally. “Maybe.” He shoveled a spoonful of stew into his mouth and added, “Maybe not.”
Azhani’s eyes narrowed. It was time to step in. Allyn’s attitude had just blossomed from irritating to intolerable. Putting aside her plate, she stood and brushed off her hands. “Prince Allyndev, please come with me,” she said, the tone of her voice brooking no argument.
Sullenly, the young man set his own dish down and joined her. They walked outside of the fire lit circle until they reached the edge of camp. Nodding a hello to the sentries, they moved beyond the campsite until they were walking along under moonlit trees.
“So, you want to tell me what’s going on?” Azhani asked, not being one for subtleties.
“Not really,” Allyn replied in a monotone.
“Too damn bad,” Azhani said, locating a large boulder and sitting on it. “Allyn, I’ve known you for a while and I have to tell you – you’re acting like a damn fool. You need to get your head out of your backside and start acting like the gentleman I know your aunt raised you to be.”
Sighing heavily, the prince kicked at some of the rocks, watching as they scattered down the hillside. All of his uncertainties, self-hatred and self-disgust came boiling up, making his dinner sit like a leaden lump in his stomach.
“I hate this,” he said softly. “I hate getting up before the sun every morning just so I can slog through something I wouldn’t feed a pig. I hate that I haven’t had a decent bath in weeks. I hate that I’m either cold and wet, or hot and sweaty.” He kicked at another rock, following its trajectory as it skimmed over the grass to lodge in a bush not far away. “I hate that I’m either the prince or a pariah, with no middle ground,” he said in a small voice. “Master, I hate wishing that I’d never been born.” Turning to look at his mentor, he whispered, “I just thought that if I tried to fit in, maybe I could be like everyone else – and I was right.” Defiantly he lifted his chin. “They respected me, once I started to act like them. I tried to tell myself that I could change back, once my patrol was over, but,” his shoulders slumped, “You saw what happened. I can’t seem to open my mouth without my smelly foot getting stuck in it.”
Azhani patted the boulder she was seated on. Reluctantly, Allyn hitched himself up next to her. “It’s not all legends and tales, is it, my prince?” she asked softly, looking into his youthful face.
Shock and consternation registered clearly in his bright blue-green eyes. The warrior had never once used that term with him, not even when they had first met. He had always been Allyn or Allyndev and she Master Azhani.
“No,” he cried softly.
“I wish I could tell you that being the good guy was all fun and games, Allyn, but it’s not. It’s dirty and it’s gross and sometimes you have to kill things. You also have to earn the respect of your peers – it’s not something that gets handed out because of an accident of birth. Anyone who thinks that way has never been hungry or looked into the eyes of a blood-maddened enemy who wants nothing more than to gut them alive.”
“But everyone loves Aunt Lyss,” he protested.
“Yes, and the queen gave hundreds of years to the betterment of Y’Syr. She earned her respect, only her method is different, Allyn,” Azhani pointed out.
“I just wish they’d all leave me alone!” Tears glittered in his eyes. “I never wanted to be a prince – I wanted to be a gardener, but Aunt Lyss said that it was my duty to learn. I wish she had spent one day in my shoes, hearing them laugh behind their hands when I couldn’t hit a target. If she could’ve heard how many times my teachers said, ‘This won’t apply so much to you, because you’re only a half-elf’, maybe she would’ve decided to just let me be a gardener.”
“Allyn, you’ll find out soon enough that the real world doesn’t give a fat damn about your ancestry. Out here, the only thing that matters is whether or not you’re going to drop your sword and run, or stand fast. You need to decide which one you’re going to choose, because when you do, you’ll find where you fit in.”
“Yeah?” the young man dared to ask hopefully.
“Yeah,” the warleader confirmed, smiling gently. “Or I’ll smack you around until you do,” she added with a mock growl. Then she shoved him off the rock.
Outraged, he stared at her.
“Well, you gonna sit there like a flower and eat dirt, or what?” Azhani taunted, crossing her legs and blowing on her knuckles.
“Buh...” he said, wrinkling his brow in confusion.
Azhani sighed and jumped down off her perch. “Look, kid, we’re gonna wrestle or we’re gonna spar – you pick. Do it quickly though, because I’ve got an appointment with a warm bed.”
Allyndev quailed. He was very familiar with this set of choices. They were Master Azhani’s way of letting him know he’d made a huge mistake. Allyn swallowed resignedly. He was about to get his butt kicked and have it called an “object lesson”. Shame rose up thickly, causing him to lower his head. It had been quite a while since his last “lesson” and he had hoped he was well beyond that stage of his education.
“Come on, come on, I don’t have until spring,” the warleader urged.
“Wrestling!” he blurted, knowing that tone as well. That was the voice that meant he was about to have the choice ripped from his hands, leaving him to face whatever punishment Azhani felt he deserved. Allyn had a very bad feeling that if he’d left it up to her, he would be sore for weeks, not days.
“Good. Now come and get me,” Azhani ordered. Hunkering down, she waited for Allyn to attack. It wasn’t long before he jumped for her, and soon, they were rolling around on the ground, wrestling. Azhani winced at all the bruises she could feel forming from the tiny rocks littering the ground, but hearing the young man’s laughter as they tussled made it worthwhile. By the time she had pinned him, they were breathing heavily, laughing wildly and covered in mud and leaves.
“We should get back,” Azhani said, looking up and noting the position of the moon, “Before they send the cavalry after us.”
“Yeah, I have some apologies to make,” Allyndev said ruefully.
“That you do, Allyn, that you do,” Azhani said affectionately, tousling his muddy hair.
When they got back into camp, only Kyrian remained awake. Yawning as she tended the fire, she squeaked out a laugh at the sight of her lover and her friend. Before the stardancer could speak, Allyn sprinted off to his tent.
“Oh goddess,” she giggled, “You look like something out of a demented bard’s tale.”
Azhani struck a pose and primped her matted, stick and leaf-infested hair. “What, you don’t like my new outfit?”
Kyrian couldn’t help it; she let out a howl of laughter. This brought Padreg and Elisira, both clad only in long tunics, running out of their tent. They too joined in the stardancer’s mirth until Azhani folded her arms and narrowed her eyes at them.
“Oh, so you think this is funny, huh?” she growled, advancing on the still laughing Kyrian.
“Yes, I do,” admitted Kyrian, standing her ground.
“Then you wouldn’t mind coming and giving me a nice kiss, now would you?” Azhani said, continuing to stalk her lover.
“Oh no, I’m not putting my lips anywhere near your body until you’ve had a nice, long bath,” Kyrian said, clapping a hand over her mouth.
Azhani pouted, sighing heavily, and mournfully said, “But I want a kiss.”
“Azhi, I love you dearly, but if I kiss you looking like that, I’ll have nightmares of bog monsters for a week,” Kyrian said dryly. “Come on, I just happen to know where there’s a tub.”
Azhani stuck her tongue out at her lover. “Spoilsport,” she complained, but gallantly allowed the stardancer to lead her away. After all, Kyrian always seemed to be able to find the hidden hot springs that dotted the mountains. Maybe she had found another one.
Padreg looked at his lady who was wiping her face. “I can’t believe the change – it’s like she’s a new person.”
Elisira shook her head and smiled. “No, my love, not new, just whole again.” She shivered as a chill breeze whipped through the camp.
Padreg wrapped warm arms around her and drew her close. “Ah, now that I can truly understand.” They huddled together next to the fire for a moment, staring up at the stars as they spun in the sky.
Reaching up to caress his face, Elisira drew Padreg’s head down and kissed him softly on the lips. “You’re a hopeless romantic, Padreg Keelan.”
“Only for you, my beautiful Elisira, only for you,” he said, brushing his lips over hers again.
Like what you're reading? Want to see a map? Or pictures of the characters? Or learn more about the different kingdoms? Check out The Visitor's Guide to Y'myran!