As part of the mop up units, Devon and Kyrian naturally spent a lot of time together. The stardancer found the mild affection she had felt for the boy had grown into a genuine sense of respect and friendship for the young man he had become. Maturing rapidly under Padreg’s tutelage, Devon had all but left behind his childhood shyness, instead wearing an aura of quiet confidence.
As his studies in magecraft advanced, the young man was offered the rare chance to study with Vashyra and the other starseekers. He readily agreed, telling Kyrian that one of the first lessons both his father and Azhani had taught him, was never to spurn freely offered knowledge.
With that in mind, Kyrian continued her impromptu lessons in herbal lore, gratified to find more than a few members of the vast army trotting along behind Devon and her as they walked through the nearby woods, collecting samples.
Leaving behind a trail of blackened rock and gray smoke streaming heavenward, the army worked its way to the western sea. Spring became summer as days stretched out longer and longer, until they seemed to meld into one long space of candlemarks.
Time was not the only enemy the army fought. Weather in the mountains wildly vacillated, swinging from bitter cold to aching heat. The chirurgeons and stardancers were kept busy with respiratory problems as well as the usual broken bones, lacerations and muscle sprains that were endemic to any large military force.
Kyrian brushed her hair out of her eyes and blew out a tired breath. Stiffly rising from her kneeling position by a sick soldier’s bed, she realized that tonight would be another one of those nights where she was barely able to crawl back to her own tent.
A slow, secret smile crept across the stardancer’s face. Azhani made these days bearable. With her wonderfully large, strong hands, she would sweep Kyrian up in her arms and carry her off to be bathed, massaged and pampered until she was blissfully boneless.
Kyrian stretched ineffectually, glancing out over the half full chirurgeon’s tent, and mused about the last few days. The army had marched in a widespread fan, seeking more of the seemingly endless supply of egg-filled caves. Surprisingly, this valley seemed to hold fewer of the hellspawn than the others, but Azhani grimly assured her that they were just seeing the calm before the storm.
Over the crest of the next mountain lay the Ystarfe pass, their halfway point, and the location of more than three hundred caves and crevices that were perfect for demon breeding.
“Stardancer, we’re ready for you,” a familiar voice called from outside the tent. Kyrian waved to the chirurgeons and stepped out, seeing the tall form of Sergeant Matthias waiting impatiently for her.
“Thank you, Sergeant,” she said politely, secretly despising the arrogant ass that had been assigned to her today. After only a short time in his presence, she knew that he was one of those worthless idiots who had caused young Allyn’s attitude problem.
After that night where both Azhani and Allyn had come back from a long talk looking like bog creatures, the warleader had transferred the prince back to her own patrols.
“I can’t do anything about those men who made him feel so small,” she said, holding her lover close. “But I can make sure Allyn is around those that know how to appreciate the person inside the skin.”
“Mm, I think he’ll like that, love,” Kyrian said, stroking her foot down Azhani’s calf. “Devon’s with you now, right? That should give them plenty of time to mend any broken fences.”
“Exactly. Though – I’m afraid that things could get worse before they get better. Have you seen the way they both watch Syrelle?” the warrior asked, nibbling on Kyrian’s lips teasingly.
“Wha? Oh, yeah, um, I think –“ Kyrian gasped, and reached up to pull her lover’s head down for a long, lingering kiss. “I think that things will work out. Sy knows which one she wants, but it will be tough for her to break a friend’s heart.”
“Do you think,” Azhani paused her loving to look up at Kyrian, “that we should say something?”
Kyrian let her fingers dance along the bridge of Azhani’s sharp nose, tweaking it gently before brushing against her kiss-bruised lips. “No dear. They have to find their way, just like we did. All we can do is wait and be ready to support their choices.”
Azhani pouted, nuzzling the stardancer’s breast lightly. “We did get a push from Lyssera,” she said quietly, smiling at the instant hitch in her lover’s breathing.
“Lyss enjoys matchmaking, Azhi,” Kyrian whispered, letting out a soft moan of pleasure.
“Ah, and we don’t?” Azhani lifted her head to ask, one dark eyebrow rising comically.
Kyrian growled and rolled them over. “No, we don’t. We especially don’t right now,” she said firmly, capturing her lover’s lips in a searing kiss.
“Okay,” Azhani managed to say before speech became impossible.
Now that she was following the man, Kyrian had to agree with Azhani’s assessment. Sergeant Matthias was an idiot to have ignored the bright young man that Allyndev was. No matter – Azhani would be glad to have her student by her side, and the prince would benefit immensely by being with friends. As for Syrelle and her two suitors, well, she had told Azhani that they would leave them be, but that didn’t mean she wouldn’t keep a close watch on all three to make sure that nothing truly horrible happened.
When they reached the site of the caves, Kyrian let out a sharp groan of dismay. Lengths of knotted rope showed where she would have to climb up sheer faces of rock, and the first of the caves was nearly a mile up.
Matthias turned at the stardancer’s groan and hooked his thumbs in his belt. “Sorry ‘bout the inconvenience, ma’am. Demons ain’t an accommodating bunch.” His disdain was barely hidden.
Twins’ mercy, if I wasn’t wearing a red robe, he’d probably treat me worse than poor Allyn, Kyrian thought sadly as the soldier stepped aside, waiting for her to begin the ascent. As it was, he didn’t bother to offer any help, preferring to stay behind and watch as she struggled up the thick hempen ropes.
By the end of the day, her back was in more knots than the ropes now being carefully carried down by expert climbers. Her throat hurt from constant chanting and her eyes burned and watered from the acrid smoke that spilled out of the caves, choking the atmosphere.
With her stomach churning acidly, Kyrian picked her way down from the rocks and toward the campsite, while the sergeant easily ambled beside her, a supercilious smile touching the corners of his mouth every time he glanced over to view her flushed face. She was just taking a step onto the soft loam of the forest clearing, when a blessedly familiar voice surrounded her.
“By the Twins, Sergeant, where are your manners?” Prince Allyndev barked, stepping up and offering a supporting arm to the flagging stardancer. Coldly, he glared at Matthias and said, “One of Astariu’s Own required aide, man, and you ignored it,” he said bitterly.
Matthias’ skin reddened and his hands balled into fists. “Just what do you think you can do about it, Allyboy? A useless twit like yourself wouldn’t know the first thing about who to honor and when.”
“I know more than you will ever grasp, sergeant.” Allyn’s tone was as chill as the glacial ice.
“Prove it,” the elf taunted, dropping his hand to his sword hilt.
Allyn’s jaw clenched, but his hands never left off supporting Kyrian. “I have better things to do than engage in pointless brutality, sergeant.”
Kyrian opened her mouth to intervene, but a searing burst of fire from her back turned her words into a garbled gasp of pain. The world spun dizzyingly and spots danced in her vision, causing her to forget even the most basic of pain killing chants. Then she was there, strong, gentle hands lifting her up and cradling her against an armor-clad chest.
“It’s all right, Allyn, I’ve got her,” Azhani’s strong voice broke though the pain long enough for Kyrian to smile in relief.
Azhani would make it all better. She always did.
“Easy now, beloved,” the warrior whispered softly, dipping her head down to brush her lips across Kyrian’s fevered brow. Raising her gaze to encompass the sergeant and the prince, she said, “I’m going back to camp, gentlemen. I hope to see you for dinner later, Allyn.” Then she purposefully turned her back on the men, sparing a moment to pray she was doing the right thing. If not – well, then she would come back later and deal with the arrogant ass of a sergeant herself, but now, she wanted Allyn to prove to himself and others that he was made of sterner stuff than they dreamed.
As soon as the warleader was out of sight, Matthias turned to Allyn and drew his blade. “All right, boy, I’ve been waiting a long time for this moment.”
Allyn’s blade stayed in its sheath. Open handed, Allyn viewed the elven soldier with curiosity. “Why? Will it make you feel like a real man to beat up a half-grown boy?” he asked. “Or would you rather share your asinine fantasies with me?” he added tauntingly.
Lashing out in furious rage, the sergeant flicked his sword toward Allyn, intending to slap the boy across the face with the flat of the blade. Allyn ducked away, easily avoiding the blow. Keeping his eyes fixed on the sergeant’s chest, the prince waited for him to make his next move.
He didn’t want to draw his blade, because it would be more satisfactory, more honorable, for him to defend himself without it. From the corner of his eye, he could see several soldiers gathering to watch the contest and he grinned, realizing he wanted to give them a good show.
Dropping into a crouch, he rocked from foot to foot, waiting for Matthias to strike. The elf did not disappoint him. Faking inward with the hilt of his blade, the sergeant crowed triumphantly when the prince followed his move.
Almost too late, Allyndev danced away, narrowly avoiding a strike that would have sliced open his face. His eyes narrowed and he clenched his teeth angrily. That could have hurt.
Making his first aggressive move, Allyn lunged for Matthias’ left side. The elf brought his sword up to block. Allyn’s foot snapped out, connecting solidly with the sergeant’s elbow. There was a distinct crunch, followed by a howl of pain. Matthias’ sword dropped to the ground, as suddenly nerveless fingers went slack.
Warily, Allyn stepped back, watching for the sergeant’s next move. He had broken the man’s elbow, but he wasn’t dumb enough to turn his back now. Master Azhani’s lessons had taught him that. Half-heard whispers from the onlookers tickled his ears, but he ignored them.
With his gaze still firmly planted on Matthias, he bent and scooped up the man’s sword. Offering it to the sergeant hilt first, he said, “Do you yield, sergeant?”
Looking into the eyes of the boy who had so publicly humiliated him, the elven man nodded. He cradled his right arm against his chest, visibly clenching his teeth in pain.
“I yield, my prince,” he growled hoarsely.
“All right. I think we should visit one of the honorable stardancers, don’t you, Sergeant?” Allyn asked, awkwardly sheathing the man’s sword.
Shamed by the honor his prince showed him, Matthias nodded. “Yes, thank you, my prince,” he said, real respect for the young man tainting his voice for the first time.
The crowd dissipated as they walked back to camp.
“Oh goddess, it hurts,” Kyrian whimpered.
“Shh, we’re almost there, my love,” Azhani whispered as she carefully picked her way across the camp to their tent. The warrior had been sitting in front of a rapidly growing fire when she had the distinct sense that she was needed up at the cave site, immediately. Sprinting through the camp, she arrived at the edge of the hill just in time to see her lover’s face crunch up in an expression so painful, that her own face twinged in sympathy.
Kyrian burrowed her head into her lover, whimpering pathetically. “I hurt all over,” she murmured, clinging to Azhani’s tunic.
As she ducked into their tent, Azhani brushed a loving kiss over Kyrian’s forehead and said, “I’ll take care of you.”
“Mm, okay,” Kyrian hummed, snuggling against the warrior and sighing contentedly. I may hurt like hell, but at least I’m comfortable.
Laying Kyrian down on the bed, Azhani flashed a smile at her lover and said, “Be right back,” and sprinted out of the tent. Minutes later, the warrior returned with a steaming pot in her hands. Quickly, she set it down, reaching for the stardancer’s herb bag.
“No sleep-wort this time, okay Azhi? I don’t want to feel so wooly headed in the morning,” Kyrian warned just before the warrior was going to add the wispy fronded herb to a rapidly infusing concoction.
“All right, how about a little bit of honey instead? I know it’s supposed to taste like worm snot, but try it my way?” the warrior pleaded, reaching for a pot of thick, golden honey.
“Okay,” Kyrian sighed heavily, “but just this once.” It was, of course, an old joke. Azhani had been putting honey in Kyrian’s tea since the first time the stardancer had taught the warrior to make the stuff. Sweetening it was the only way that Kyrian could stomach the unholy brew.
While the tea steeped, Azhani rolled Kyrian over and gently rubbed her lover’s lower back until she let out a soft, “Oof.” A distinctive popping noise vibrated the warrior’s hands and Kyrian sunk almost bonelessly into the bed.
“Oh blessed Astariu, thank you,” Kyrian moaned in agonized relief.
“I’m not done yet,” Azhani said, her voice filled with promise. Carefully, she rolled the stardancer back over and lifted her up, standing up and letting Kyrian hang perpendicular to the ground. Kyrian stretched, and soft, kitten-like mews and gasps escaped from her lips, as bones and joints crackled loudly. “Better?” Azhani asked as the stardancer allowed her body to go completely limp in her lover’s arms.
“Uh huh,” Kyrian murmured, unable to say much else.
“Good.” Brushing a kiss across the top of her head, Azhani laid Kyrian back down on the bed and turned to check the tea.
Shortly, a steaming cup was held under Kyrian’s nose and she pushed aside her lethargy long enough to sit up and chug the tea. Falling back to the bed with a groan, she asked, “Are we there yet?”
Azhani laughed and began to strip off the stardancer’s boots. Frowning as she noticed several wear holes, she said, “Need to get you a new pair from the quartermaster, tomorrow.”
Kyrian shook her head. “I already tried that, love. He’s out of boots in my size – I get to wait an entire week while the cobbler makes me a new pair.”
“I bet your feet don’t like that,” Azhani said, dipping a cloth into the remainder of the hot water that she had brought and beginning to wash the feet in question.
Eyes fluttering shut at the intense sensation that the warrior’s almost too gentle touch had on her body, Kyrian muttered, “No, but they love that.”
Chuckling, the warrior finished cleaning her lover’s feet and set the cloth aside. Kyrian’s filthy breeches were the next thing to be removed, followed by her dusty, gory robe and sweat-stained tunic, to be replaced by a clean shift. Azhani carefully lifted her lover off the bed and helped her to sit in a chair while she stripped away the top blanket and replaced it with a clean one.
With her eyes still closed, Kyrian let her head tip back against the chair and just quietly breathed in the homey scents of the tent. It was nice to be pampered, and it was even nicer when it was her beloved doing the pampering.
She let out a soft “woof” of surprise when she felt herself being lifted out of the chair and laid on the bed again. Kyrian opened her eyes and found Azhani staring at her with a look of pure admiration on her face. All her remaining pain vanished under that loving regard.
“I love that, you know,” Kyrian whispered, allowing the warrior to gently roll her around and sponge off the worst of the day’s exertions.
“What?” Azhani asked as she then helped her lover to slip into a light cotton shift.
“When you look at me like that, the world goes away. You make me feel like there’s nothing else but you and me. It makes me feel unique.”
Azhani leaned forward and kissed Kyrian then suckled on her bottom lip until the stardancer’s hands seemingly rose of their own accord to tangle in the warrior’s braids.
“You are unique,” Azhani said while brushing kisses over Kyrian’s face and lips. “That’s why I love you. There’s no one else anywhere that reaches in and sets my soul on fire.”
Kyrian laughed weakly as Azhani’s hands slipped under her chemise and began stroking her rapidly hardening nipples. “Make a girl feel special, why don’t you?” she gasped as the shift, which had spent such a short time on her body, suddenly vanished and flew across the tent.
“Only this girl,” Azhani said, tracing a fiery path of bites and kisses from her lover’s neck to her breasts.
Kyrian moaned and held the warrior against her. “Gentle, my love. I’m still a little tender,” she quietly warned.
Azhani started to pull away. “We can stop...” She offered, though the pout she wore said that she would prefer it otherwise.
“After all that? Not on your legendary blade-swinging life! Get over here!” Kyrian demanded, reaching out and grabbing the warrior’s tunic. Efficiently, if slowly, the stardancer stripped Azhani’s clothes away, baring the dark skin to her admiring eyes. “You know, Azhi, I really do love what I see.”
Flustered, the warrior blushed and covered her embarrassment by leaning in for a kiss. “Yeah, well, that’s good, because this is what you get,” she finally said, lying down and pulling the stardancer into her arms.
“It’s all I want,” Kyrian assured her, stroking gentle fingers over the warrior’s angularly planed cheeks. “All I’ll ever want.” Reaching down, she drew the covers up over them and slipped her leg between Azhani’s, slowly gliding against her lover.
Every time they made love, it was perfect. Even when they fell out of the cot and ended up fighting the rocks for space, every touch, each whispered tenderness was like a gift from the gods. Yes, there had been more than a few times where one of them had inadvertently caused the other a little pain, but those tiny hurts easily blended with the entire symphony of experience, creating such a melody that those aches vanished into the song of their lovemaking.
Kyrian often wondered if Azhani felt the same depth of emotion that she did, but she had not had the courage to ask. Perhaps some day, when they could face the dawn knowing that their world was safe from monsters and madmen, she would give voice to the few remaining questions she had.
Today, she would forget those questions and concentrate on Azhani’s wonderfully loving touch.
Gormerath’s obvious fervor for killing demons became part of the rapidly growing legend that Azhani’s army created. Soldiers with a skill for crafting stories, found themselves trading many favors just for the opportunity to ride with the warleader’s patrol and to record the day’s events. Inadvertently, Azhani admitted to one of these would-be bards that the sword hummed, adding another facet to the sword’s mythology.
Doing her best to ignore the songs traded around the fires at night, Azhani focused on the blade’s ability to sense the presence of demons, learning to discern the varying pitches and shades in the hum and glow. Since it shined brightly until the very last sac had been turned to pulp, and sang dimly if a demon filled cave was within five miles of camp, it was an efficient system to follow.
Kyrian found the idea of a glowing, singing magical sword, funny enough to tease her lover occasionally. Most of the time, however, the abundance of daily magic overwhelmed her and it was just easier to accept the sword’s abilities as ordinary. For her part, the warleader accepted the mild teasing, understanding that the levity helped her lover cope with the constant state of battle readiness that the army traveled under. Not once did the stardancer volunteer to join any of the patrols, and Azhani never asked her to go, even when she herself left the base camp for days at a time. Better a cold bedroll than a terrified partner, was her reasoning.
Winter came early in the mountains. In a land where the snow never melted, all could feel signs of change. Those the gods had gifted with the ability to sense the turning of seasons, reported that autumn’s tide would soon wash away summer’s flame.
At midsummer, the army celebrated the longest day of the year by spending three full days at play. Games of skill and chance, bardic competitions and feasting on sweet cakes and wine, gave the army a chance to rest and relax, forgetting briefly the awful task that lay ahead.
On the eve of their crossing into the Ystarfe Pass, scouts made a grim discovery. Eggs in the higher altitude caves, had hatched. Though no one had yet to see or hear one of the hellish creatures, guards around camp were doubled and three groups of ten patrolled the encampment at all times.
Well cared for armor made an appearance as the men and women of the army sacrificed comfort for protection. Varying styles of mail marked the soldiers’ origins. Archers wore light, highly flexible coats of leather and chain, while the infantry strapped on thick coats of studded leather. Heavy plate mail was worn by a few hearty souls, and banded mail was a favorite of the cavalry.
The Y’Norans wore spectacularly designed coats of studded armor, the studs embedded in the leather forming fantastic shapes of birds, animals and geometrically amazing patterns. Y’skani soldiers preferred scale mail and dwarves wore whatever would fit, usually patching a motley of chain and plate to leather coats.
As they had since the journey began, priests and mages wore woven, spell-imbued robes. Starseekers, the mage-priests, wore brilliant blue. Stardancers were clad in dark scarlet, while the mages chose bright saffron. Chirurgeons tended to wear green or white, whichever they could find, though their clothes tended not to stay very clean. Mixed with the varying tabards, the army made for a very colorful sight when viewed from the top of a mountain.
Azhani’s armor was made especially for her. A gift from Kuwell, it was a combination of scale and plate, with plenty of chain and leather to protect all the vulnerable spots. The armor was lightweight and flexible, yet durable enough to withstand several attacks. The warleader was grateful for the gift. Her original armor was held in reserve, in case she should need to replace the scale. Besides the armor, she had a pair of steel-capped boots and a light helm.
Kyrian absolutely loved how Azhani looked in her regalia. On top of the silvery armor, the warrior wore a tabard embroidered with the arms of Y’Syr. Against a sky blue background, a golden crown was cradled in the branches of an ancient oak tree. An added decoration was a border of golden leaves, marking Azhani as the warleader.
Against the wishes of Padreg, Elisira donned both armor and arms, proudly bearing the device of Y’dan. Standing alone in the Y’Noran contingent, the wheat sheaf badge seemed very lonely in the sea of gray capes emblazoned with a rearing horse.
As Elisira helped Padreg to clip his capelet to his armor, the Y’Noran king said, “I still don’t see why you’re wearing those colors, Eli.”
Turning him around a few times to take in the overall effect of his look, Elisira sternly replied, “Because Arris no longer bears these arms and because something of the real Y’dan should be represented. The gods should see that not all have turned away from them.”
“You shame me, Eli,” Padreg said roughly, drawing her into a hug.
Careful not to be stabbed by the studs on his armor, Elisira snuggled against her beloved. “There is no need for shame, my love,” she said, drawing out a rectangle of fabric. “I thought of you, too.” She held up a small belt favor bearing the same arms that she proudly wore on her chest.
Smiling, Padreg gamely slipped the favor onto his belt and then leaned in to kiss Elisira.
Y’droran and Y’skani devices reflected individual clans, peppering the army with a variety of hammers, serpents, scorpions, dragons, helms, forges – a veritable cornucopia of cultural iconography.
Clustered together, Allyn, Devon and Syrelle held hands and tried not to appear frightened by the sudden changes. Soon, the two young men would join Azhani on the first patrol since hatched eggs had been discovered. The sky was darkening rapidly as the sun set, and the warleader was certain that tonight the demons would hunt.
The princess was terrified for her friends. Alternately fighting back tears and anger, she wanted to cling to both Allyn and Devon, though it was Allyn’s embrace she craved the most. Once his horrible attitude vanished, he became everything she had dreamed – honorable, caring, and brave. The Y’Syran prince made her young heart flutter.
Only one thing kept her from singing her affections out loud, and that was Devon. The mage’s feelings for her were clearly written in his eyes, though he never once spoke of them. Instead, his actions betrayed his heart, and Syrelle had yet to find a way to gently let him down. Allyn’s emotions were almost as transparent as Devon’s, which made her dilemma that much sharper. Her lips longed to feel the sweetness of his, and her arms ached to hold the prince’s slimly muscled body close.
Syrelle sighed softly, and was echoed by both of her friends. Devon cautiously wrapped an arm around the princess, smiling ruefully when Allyn mirrored his action. It struck him suddenly that his friend was just as deeply in love with Syrelle as he was. Jealousy swept through him, nearly seizing control. It was the thought of how much it would hurt Syrelle to see him fight with Allyn, that stopped his wildly careening emotions.
Pasting a smile on his face, he forced himself to find something to say. “Hey, I bet I get one of the bastards before you, stick swinger.” He allowed the slightest hint of mock derision to taint his voice.
“In your dreams, sparkle fingers,” Allyn shot back, smiling to show that he was teasing as well. He had struggled to leave behind his churlish ways and it was still hard for him to joke with his friends without feeling guilty.
Syrelle rolled her eyes and wrapped her arms around both her friends. “So long as you both come back in one piece. I will be quite happy if your night is boring.”
Letting go of the princess, Devon reached for his belt and baldric, strapping on the saber he carried in case his spells failed. “Ah, don’t worry so much Sy. We’ll come back just fine, won’t we Allyn?”
“Of course we will,” the prince said, taking a moment to relish the contact with Syrelle. “Master Azhani won’t let anything happen to us,” he added confidently.
Passing by, Kyrian overheard the conversation. Casting her eyes heavenward, she silently prayed, Oh let that be so, Astariu. Let them have a successful first night. Keep them all safe, especially my beloved. She continued on her way to join the other stardancers. With only about thirty of Astariu’s Own in the army, each of the priests would have the chance to ride with a patrol before long. Kyrian would stay behind and work with the chirurgeons and herbalists, readying the field hospital for possible casualties.
Kyrian spotted Azhani among the gathering forces and reveled in the flush of love and pride that raced through her. Sitting arrow-straight on the back of her horse, the warrior’s face held an expression of utter calm as she observed the men and women of her army scurry about, making last checks before their first armored patrol. Turning away, Kyrian closed her eyes against the prick of tears, not able to watch as the patrol rode out of the camp. A part of the stardancer wanted to go over and beg her lover to give her one last kiss, but they had already said their goodbyes.
“I’m not going with you tonight, my love,” Kyrian said as she helped Azhani arm.
“I know,” Azhani said, turning and putting her hands on the stardancer’s shoulders. “Would it seem terribly selfish of me to say that I’m glad? I don’t want you in any more danger than you have to be.”
A crooked smile lit up Kyrian’s face. “You mean you’re not going to stand there and give me a pep talk about putting aside my small-minded fears and racing out there, glory bound to die?”
Rolling her eyes, Azhani said, “No. There is no glory in seeking death. This is a hunt, plain and simple. We are going out there to destroy the monsters, and I will be happier knowing you are here, safely tucked away.”
Briefly, they kissed, a whisper soft passage of lips that deeply conveyed the importance of Azhani’s return.
Azhani’s jaw ached from the constant hum the sword gave off. Its song was so loud, she was tempted to ask if anyone else could hear it. Not that they would – as long as she had carried the damn thing, it had sung only for her. For a moment, she feared what would happen when she drew the magical blade. If Gormerath lit up like a torch to scramble eggs, what would it do in the presence of the whole demon?
She was about to find out. Crackling bushes exploded outward as three-dozen gray-furred shapes burst out onto the path around her patrol. The demons crooned eerily as they circled the mounted warriors, preparing to attack.
Looping the reins around the saddle horn, Azhani quickly strung her bow and fired twice. One arrow struck a demon in the center of its thickly furred chest. The monster staggered back briefly, keening in pain. The other shot was a signal arrow, whistling off into the darkness to alert the other patrols that first contact had been made.
Bowstrings twanged as the other warriors feathered the attacking monsters with as many arrows as they could. As soon as the demons were too close for clear shots, the bows were dropped in favor of melee weapons. Swords, maces and battle-axes were drawn and swung. Clouds of hot blood and ichor sprayed out, coating the foliage.
Blanking her mind, Azhani ignored everything around her, seeing only the blazing form of Gormerath as it severed limbs and sent chunks of demonic flesh flying. On her left arm was a small round shield, which she used to deflect the vicious claws and teeth of the beasts.
Kushyra fought as fiercely as her rider, kicking and biting at the demons as they attacked. Before the patrol rode out, all of the warhorses had specially forged shoes fitted onto their hooves. The heavy iron covering acted as both protection and weapon, inflicting devastating blows with each kick. Aside from the special horseshoes, the mounts all wore barding. Heavy leather and plate armor designed to shield the horse’s hide from the demon’s razor sharp claws, creaked and clanked as the riders fought off the advancing monsters.
The telltale scream of a horse, shook Azhani from her battle haze. Sparing a prayer for the rider, she pulled her blade from the body of the demon she was fighting, tipped her head back and let out a long, piercing wail. Around her, the shouts and cries of her soldiers joined in as they fought. Laughing, she twirled her sword and wheeled Kushyra around to face the next monster.
Distantly, the warleader noted the sounds of other whistler arrows, but she forced herself to concentrate on the battle before her. It seemed like for every demon she killed, two more sprang up to take its place. The thick, coppery scent of blood misted the air and gurgling screams of the dying filled her ears. Then there was a moment of peace when all sound ceased and the foes before her were dead or dying.
Turning toward the rest of her patrol, Azhani caught a glimpse of Allyn on the ground, reeling back from a devastating blow. Spurring Kushyra forward, she yelled and charged the demon. The force of the horse’s body hitting the monster, threw it back several yards into the side of the mountain.
“Hop on!” she shouted, reaching out for Allyn’s hand.
Wordlessly, he pulled himself up behind her, sitting with his back to hers and preparing to fend off any blows. The position was awkward, but he was a consummate rider and managed to keep his seat.
The battle rolled on. The graying of false dawn brought an end to the fighting, as those demons still alive scattered into the mountains. Unable to stand the touch of the sun, the hellspawn sought shelter until night fell again.
Of the men and women she started the night with, all but three horses and one soldier would return to the camp. No one escaped injury. Field dressings covered gaping wounds and bound broken bones, while healers and stardancers fought to keep those whose injuries were the gravest from dying.
Exhausted but proud of a good night’s work, Azhani returned to her tent. Her wounds were minor compared to others, so she decided to tend them herself. Numerous small cuts and scrapes and one long gash extending from her left hip to the inside of her knee, were the extent of her injuries. Filling a pot with water, the warleader set it on the brazier to warm while she searched for a needle and thread. Half a candlemark later, Kyrian found her lover seated on the edge of their bed, hunched over and trying to stitch up the wound in her leg.
“Azhi?” she called out as she entered. “Are you in here? I didn’t see you... oh goddess, Azhani, why didn’t you come and get that taken care of?” she chided, rushing in and kneeling next to the warrior, taking the needle from her.
Tipping her head back and sighing as Kyrian began to stitch the wound, Azhani said, “It’s just a scratch. I didn’t want to take away valuable time from those who were more injured.”
Kyrian looked down at the four inch long, nearly one inch deep gash and said, “A scratch? Honey, this isn’t a scratch, it’s a laceration. Did you clean it out first?”
“I splashed a little of that stuff you got from Ambassador Iften on it,” the warrior said, wincing as the stardancer started to prod the wound.
“Dear goddess, Azhi, and we didn’t hear you scream? You’re stronger than I thought,” Kyrian said wryly, pulling out a packet of herbs. It was the last of the dozens she had stuffed in her pouches as the soldiers started trickling back into camp. Now she was grateful she had held one back. The herbs had been specially blended to fight the infectious properties of the demon’s claws and teeth.
“I was too busy trying not to black out,” the warrior admitted, grunting as Kyrian sprinkled the herbs on her wound.
The stardancer didn’t answer, only began to softly sing. A child’s lullaby carried the magic of her healing touch as she carefully stitched up the rest of the wound. As mentally drained as Azhani was physically, the stardancer had just enough magic left to burn away the poison in the warrior’s system.
“Thanks,” Azhani said as she stood. “Gotta go meet with the others.” She yawned and rubbed her eyes. “Be back in a bit, unless you want to come with?” Azhani and her other patrol leaders needed to go over the night’s battles and tally the lists of dead and injured. Bleakly, she realized that it would probably take her candlemarks to finish all the letters to the families of the slain.
“Sure,” Kyrian responded, forcing a chipper edge to her voice, though she was longing to crawl into their shared cot. “Someone’s got to keep you warriors sober enough to find your tents.”
Arm-in-arm, the two women slowly walked to the mess tent where the others were already gathering.
Oh goddess, twelve dead, one hundred and thirty six wounded. Azhani numbly drank a cup of lukewarm tea and stared down at the tally sheet in her hand. To her right, Kyrian was snoring softly, her curly golden red hair sticking out in all directions as she slept. A few other hearty souls peppered the tent, but the rest of the patrol leaders had already gone to bed. The morning breakfast rush had yet to stagger in, leaving Azhani alone with her thoughts.
The list of casualties struck her like a blow. Name by name, she called their faces to mind, searching her memories until an elusive smile or frown was associated with the terse letters that shaped the final moment of their lives. The ink blurred through her angry tears and she dashed them away, hardening her heart against the pain of loss. Twelve had given their lives so that hundreds of demons would no longer threaten the kingdoms.
During the meeting, she and her top lieutenants had decided to stay in the area for three more days, then move westward, continuing to burn out caves, as well as running night patrols. Messengers to Y’Syr had left only moments ago, carrying strongly worded warnings to the small communities that dotted the borderlands. Starseeker Vashyra had promised to send word to Kuwell and Lyssera, as well.
Padreg was the last of her seconds to leave, stopping by her chair as she held the list of the dead, to put a heavy hand on her shoulder. “Grieve for them later, warleader. ‘Tis time for rest and recovery, not to bellyache over should haves. Take your lady home and hold her close, Azhani, for that is what I intend to do. When we rise, we will seek out more of the bastards and send them screaming back to hell!” he had whispered softly and walked away.
Azhani sighed, wishing she could heed his advice. Too much needed to be done, and giving the dead their last respect was one of the duties that she left to no one else. Best to take the time now, while she still had it, rather than later, when she was up to her ears in demons. Those with weather sensitivity had given her a bare six to eight weeks before the winter snows fell, and by then she hoped to be in the mountains above Y’dan.
Dipping her quill into a pot of ink, she began her first letter. To the family of Ariana Wintersky: I regret to inform you that your daughter has perished in battle. She gave her life courageously, defending her land from the forces of evil...
A candlemark later, twelve scrolls lay in a pile in the center of the table. Twelve reminders of the price paid to destroy the demons. Stoically, Azhani drained the dregs of her tea and shook Kyrian.
“Come on Kyr, it’s time to go to bed,” she said, her voice no more than a dull shadow of its usual robustness. The warrior was used to it, though. After every battle, she drank gallons of tea to sooth her savaged vocal chords. The cry that so identified her on the field, often left her voiceless for days after a battle. Kyrian woke reluctantly, but was able to toddle with Azhani back to their tent.
“Ah, gods, that hurts,” Allyn groaned as Syrelle used a soft cloth to wash away the dried blood from around the wound in his shoulder. A careless turn had cost him the use of his shield arm and now he lay on his stomach in their tent, waiting for the feeling to return.
“Hush! If you hadn’t stopped to woolgather, we wouldn’t be here,” Syrelle chided harshly, scrubbing a bit harder than she meant to in her ire. When he had come in that morning, his arm bandaged to his side and blood coating most of his armor, she had been certain he was going to die. Pale features were ghostly white as the young prince stoically tried to bear the pain and stay seated on his exhausted mount.
Beside him, Azhani had kept a firm grip on his reins, talking softly and keeping him awake and mostly alert. The princess had raced across the camp, bracing herself to hold him up as he slid off the horse, but Azhani beat her, gathering her student up in her arms and striding purposefully toward the chirurgeon’s tent.
Kyrian had quickly set aside the mortar she was grinding herbs in and helped her lover lay the prince down on a cot, using a small but very sharp knife to cut away the damaged armor and clothing. As soon as she saw that Allyn was in the hands of the healer-priest, Azhani had taken Syrelle by the shoulders and steered the princess outside to wait.
“Come on, we’ll do more good out here, helping the others find their tents, than in there. Kyr’s got him now and he’ll be just fine,” she had said confidently. Syrelle believed her and blindly followed the warleader outside.
“Wasn’t woolgathering,” Allyn protested weakly. “Thought it was dead and ...”
“Yes! I know all about it! You’ve said nothing else for three days, Allyndev Kelani,” Sy spoke bitterly. She packed on a new poultice and laid a clean bandage over the wound. After singing out the poison and stitching the gash closed, Kyrian had carefully explained to the princess what she would have to do. Keeping Allyn in bed for a couple of days was one of those things, and between her and Devon, they had managed to keep the prince occupied for two days so far.
Allyn was getting restless though, and only the fact that he could barely raise his arm kept him away from the battlefield. He wanted to be out with Azhani, sending demons to their maker, not lying on his stomach, staring at the woven mats that covered the floor of their tent.
Finishing up the dressing, Syrelle gently ran her fingers through Allyn’s hair. The long, blonde mane was matted with dirt and dried blood. “I’m going to find some way to wash this out, Allyn, or I’ll have to cut it all off.”
“Okay,” Allyn said dreamily, not really paying attention to the princess’ words. Her touch had driven away all his pain, leaving him floating breathlessly. He could feel the heat from her hand as it rested lightly on his back, just to the side of the bandage. Trying to breath shallowly, he prayed she wouldn’t move just yet.
Syrelle stared down at her hand, seemingly dark against the pastiness of Allyn’s skin. His color was better today than yesterday, when he had seemed so ghostly that she could see blue lines in his neck. Alternately, she wanted to shake, strangle, kiss and hug him. He was alive, but he was hurt, and that fact drove her to distraction.
“Hi kids, I’m home!” Devon’s voice broke the quiet spell in the tent. Ducking inside, the freshly washed young mage tossed his still damp robe onto his cot and walked over to kneel beside Syrelle. “How’s it going?” he asked, gently putting a hand on her knee.
The princess lifted the edge of the bandage and said, “It’s a little better today. Look.”
Devon tilted his head to see, and nodded. “Yeah, it doesn’t look so puffy. You got lucky, Allyboy.” He reached out and ruffled his friend’s hair. “Ew! You’re a mess!” he exclaimed when flakes of blood and dirt clung to his hand.
“Tell me something I don’t know?” Allyn growled impatiently. It was all right when Sy pampered him, but it made him feel silly to have the younger Devon acting as though he were the wise elder brother.
Pulling his hand away as if it had been burned, Devon stood up and said, “Well, I can see someone is feeling cranky.”
Allyn sighed. “Sorry. It’s just – I feel so useless lying on my face.”
“Hey, I understand, buddy. But you’ve got to relax and rest. Give your body a chance to heal. Can you move your arm yet?” Devon asked as Syrelle stood and walked out of the tent. The mage took her place, using his stronger hands to massage the joint around Allyn’s shoulder.
“Sort of, but not really. Stardancer Kyrian says that it’s probably going to take one more song to heal, but I feel so bad asking her to do it, because she’s always so tired!” the prince said wistfully. “There are so many folks whose injuries are worse than mine... it would be wrong of me to ask for the goddess’ touch when they need it more.”
“Nobility becomes you, Allyndev.” Azhani’s voice floated into the tent. The warleader stepped inside, ducking under the low roof and coming over to kneel beside the cot.
Allyn snorted derisively. “It’s not nobility, it’s practicality, Master. My arm is not worth the lives of the soldiers that your lady’s magic can save.”
“Ah, you are right, it is not nobility – it is self pity. I stand corrected,” Azhani said quietly. She stood and looked at Devon, who continued to massage the prince’s arm. They shared a moment of empathy, each understanding that Allyn’s mood would improve with his arm. Sharply, the warleader said, “When you’re done wallowing, Kyrian will see you in the chirurgeon’s tent.”
Devon was nearly thrown from the cot, Allyn stood up so quickly. “On my way,” the prince said tightly, reaching for a clean shirt to wear. As he sprinted out the door, he narrowly missed Syrelle, who was carting a heavy bucket filled with steaming water.
“Sorry m’lady,” he said, grinning cheekily as he headed toward the tall white pavilion in the center of the camp.
“Don’t bother trying, Sy,” Devon said as he came outside, taking the heavy container from her and setting it on the ground. “He’s been called by Stardancer Kyrian.”
“Oh, well, I was going to wa– er – I was going to help him wash his hair,” she explained, indicating the water filled bucket.
“I’m sure he’ll appreciate that, princess,” Azhani said as she joined them. “After he’s seen Kyr.”
“Can she really heal his arm?” the Y’maran princess asked, biting her lip hopefully.
Azhani shrugged nonchalantly. “I don’t see why not. She healed my leg up perfectly.”
Having heard from Devon the story of how the two women met, the princess nodded silently. Still chewing her lip, she watched Allyn run into the chirurgeon’s tent and greet the stardancer jubilantly.
Comfortingly, Devon wrapped an arm around her shoulders and drew her close, allowing her to lean on him. “It’ll be all right, Sy,” he promised quietly. “Come on, let’s get that bath ready. I’m sure Allyn will be more than ready for it when he comes back.”
Kyrian laughed as Allyn, flushed from his run, stripped off his shirt and knelt to present his wounded shoulder to her. “You could have stopped to put shoes on, Allyn,” she scolded lightly, carefully removing the bandage from his back.
“I didn’t want to keep you waiting, stardancer,” he murmured softly, pulling his matted hair off his neck. He was so nervous and so excited, that he wondered why he hadn’t vibrated a hole in the ground yet. Though his left arm was useless, his right one was perfectly healthy and quite able to grip his thigh with crushing force. Wincing, he struggled to pull his hand off his leg, and ended up pressing his fist into the ground as the first strains of Kyrian’s song stole away his awareness.
When he came to, he was lying on his own cot once more. Devon’s hands were supporting his head and Syrelle was gently washing away the blood and dirt from his hair. Blinking his eyes open, he groaned and unconsciously made a fist with his left hand as he tried to stretch.
“Nice to see you back among the living, my friend,” Devon said calmly, continuing to hold onto the prince’s head with gentle firmness.
“Ugh. I’m starving,” Allyn said hoarsely, licking his dry lips. “And thirsty. Gods, I’ve never felt anything like that before.”
“Here, the stardancer said you could have this,” Syrelle reached over and handed the prince a skin.
Allyn carefully opened it and drank slowly, sighing in relief at the cool, sweet water that moistened his parched throat. “Thank you,” he said, tipping his head back at her gentle direction, so she could rinse out the soap. “And thank you both for this,” he said quietly, humbled by their generosity. He wasn’t sure he would be able to wash Devon’s or Syrelle’s blood out of their hair so calmly.
“No problem, buddy,” Devon said, releasing his friend’s head now that he was more awake. “I’m going to go get our dinner. I’ll be back shortly.” The mage smiled briefly and then was gone before either of the nobles could speak.
“I can’t believe how hungry I am,” Allyn said, to break the odd silence that had sprung up as soon as Devon had left.
“Stardancer Kyrian says that it’s typical after a Healing,” Syrelle mentioned casually, wringing out Allyn’s hair. “Here, sit up and towel it dry.” She handed him a towel, trying not to hold her breath. So far, he had been able to move his left hand slowly, but she had to know if the priest’s magic had worked.
Allyn calmly accepted the towel and took a deep breath and then used both hands to briskly dry his hair. When he pulled the cloth away from his face, his smile lit the tent brighter than Devon’s spell.
“I can move it and it doesn’t hurt!” he whispered excitedly, dropping the towel and flexing his arm. Lifting it above his head, he winced. “Okay, so it mostly doesn’t hurt.”
“Yeah, you’ve still got the stitches, but you’ll heal fast and...” Syrelle’s voice faded a bit and she sighed heavily. “And you can go patrolling again tomorrow.”
In the process of putting on his tunic, Allyn almost didn’t hear the hesitation in her voice. He let the fabric slither down and shook his shoulders to settle the light blue tunic. “Sy?” he asked curiously, cocking his head and looking at the still kneeling princess. “Don’t you want me to be better?”
She stood up angrily. “Of course I do!” she hissed softly. “Why would you think otherwise?”
Standing, he walked over and put a hand on her shoulder. “Because you’re so mad now, and because you didn’t sound happy that I could patrol again.”
A tiny noise of frustration erupted from her throat and she spun away from him. “I’m perfectly elated that you’re feeling better, Prince Allyndev,” she said bitingly. “I am not, however, at all pleased that you are able to be demon fodder again!” Then she bent and lifted the bucket of dirty water and ducked out of the tent.
“Sy wait!” Allyn scrambled to follow, but the princess was quickly moving away, heading for the place where those who camped at the warleader’s site, dumped wastewater. Standing in just a tunic and short breeches, the prince could not hope to follow her over the hard, rocky ground. “But...” he whispered, stunned at the vehemence of her statement. A confused expression colored his face and he sighed then returned to the tent.
Devon, watching Syrelle’s departure, sighed heavily and carefully juggled the three bowls of hot stew. He didn’t know what irked him more – the fact that he was so deeply in love with the princess, or the fact that she was in love with Allyn. It meant pain for him either way, but as long as nothing was said, he could continue to fantasize that she might suddenly decide that he was the one who she truly loved.
The young mage shook his head sadly. He had seen the look on Allyn’s face as Syrelle dashed off. The Y’Syran prince was as hopelessly in love with the princess as he was. Swallowing resolutely, Devon put that thought out of his head and pasted a cheerful smile on his face, ducking inside the tent with the food.
“Dinnertime!” he sang out enthusiastically, handing a bowl to Allyn, who was listlessly sitting on the edge of his bunk.
“Thanks,” the prince murmured, automatically taking the food and lifting the spoon to his lips.
Devon watched him eat mechanically, not even seeming to taste the food that he chewed and swallowed. Almost, he opened his mouth to ask about it, but he couldn’t quite bring himself to be that charitable. Quietly, he ate his own meal, silently praising the lady Elisira’s skill with venison.