The camp was a mess. Exhausted teams of soldiers worked day and night to remove the bodies of the dead. Demons were burned in a mass pyre, while fellow soldiers received full ceremony.
Telling the story of the battle on the mesa, took a great deal of time. Both Kyrian and Azhani had different viewpoints, and both women found it difficult to thoroughly explain their actions. Once the tale was told, however, others came forth with their own stories, adding to the rapidly growing legend.
The struggle with Ecarthus had lit up the sky, sending the bulk of the remaining demons scurrying for cover. Nearly all eyes had then turned to the mountaintop, to watch Azhani strike down the Eater of Souls. Only the mages had missed the spectacle. The forces unleashed by Kasyrin’s spells had been too much for the already taxed spellcasters to handle and to a man, they had collapsed.
While the camp recovered from the attack, Azhani seemed to be everywhere. The warleader wore herself out helping to rebuild tents and cart away debris, as well as joining a patrol every night to hunt down the demons.
Kyrian spent her time either with the chirurgeons and stardancers, healing those she could, or sequestered in her tent, talking to Starseeker Vashyra. After the rush of battle faded, the stardancer found that she was feeling some deep regrets about killing Kasyrin and Porthyros. Seeking comfort or absolution, she was not sure which, Kyrian went to Vashyra, and the starseeker willingly listened to the other priest’s confession.
Within three days of the battle, Devon was able to hobble around on a pair of crutches that Allyn had crafted with Syrelle’s help. Avisha, the hunting cat that had been found in Barton, joined the young mage. The mother cat’s kittens had all been weaned, allowing her to choose a human friend. A little uncertain of the cat’s intentions at first, Devon easily warmed up to her when she brought him the neatly caught carcass of a rabbit.
Allyndev spent all of his free time in the company of Princess Syrelle. It was obvious that the two were enamored greatly of each other. Azhani watched the two of them work together and felt a pang of sorrow. She carried a heavy burden that she would soon pass on to young Allyndev. The warrior hoped she had done her best to prepare him for it.
King Padreg and his lady, Elisira were both stuck in the chirurgeon’s tent. Padreg had taken a claw to his side and Elisira had broken her arm defending him until help arrived. Both were recovering nicely, though they hated being cooped up while everyone else worked.
For three more weeks, the army patrolled the mountains, until three full days and nights passed without the sighting of a demon. When her scouts assured Azhani that no more of the beasts hunted the hills and valleys, she turned the army toward Y’dan. Of the thousands of soldiers that had begun the journey, only four thousand men and women would be going home. The warleader sent word to those still in Barton to head south and join up with the main body of the army in Brenton.
As they traveled, messages arrived from both Queen Lyssera and Padreg’s regent, Aden Varice. From the elven queen came the welcome news that after the day of the eclipse, the black sailed ships had ceased to attack her harbors. Padreg was particularly relieved to hear that the bandits harrying his clans had also been driven off.
Other messages poured in via the starseekers. In Y’dror, the dragon suddenly vanished, leaving the dwarves confused but relieved. The nomads of Y’skan reported that the sandstorms had died down, allowing them to return to their beloved desert homes. King Naral of Y’Tol happily reported that all of the insects had been destroyed and his people’s crops saved. Lastly, a message finally arrived from High King Ysradan.
Garrulous to a fault, the man’s missive had been long and filled with gory and glorified descriptions of his defeat of the Killigarni pirates. Azhani sighed and rubbed her temples. For a long moment, she stared down at the other scroll that had been delivered alongside the message detailing Ysradan’s exploits.
It was a commendation and a grant of land. His message stated that he was on his way to Y’dannyv, to see about fixing Arris’ “bloody mess”. He also informed her that he did not consider her an Oathbreaker, and that he would do what he could to see that her former Y’dani title was restored to her.
Unsure of her feelings on that issue, Azhani laid the messages aside and took up her quill and began the arduous task of penning letters of condolence. The list of the dead was enormous and the warleader was certain she would be writing until her fingers fell off. The task was made doubly hard because Arris’ quartermaster was one of the men who had deserted, leaving behind a rat’s warren for record books.
By midwatch, Azhani had to quit. Yawning sleepily, she headed for her tent. Her sleep was short and restless. Dreams of the mountaintop battle plagued her, only vanishing when Kyrian wrapped her arms around her and sang her to sleep. Azhani’s body was still on the odd schedule she always kept when the ice demons rose, which was work by night, sleep by day. It was now nearing dawn and she was very ready to crawl between her blankets to sleep.
The weather spirits had been gentle, holding off the snow as much as they could, but every day, cold rain fell, drenching the encampment. The first, fat drops began to fall as Azhani entered her tent. Kyrian was already curled up on the cot, her robes tossed haphazardly over the back of a chair. Light snores vibrated the stardancer’s body, causing Azhani to smile.
Slowly, the warleader disrobed, hanging her battered scale mail on an armor block and setting her father’s sword on the table. Gormerath was truly gone. Nothing was left of the beautiful blade but some scorched metal and a couple of cracked gemstones. Azhani had offered the relic to Padreg, but he had insisted she keep it.
The warrior didn’t feel she had the right to drag the poor weapon from place to place, so she presented it to Starseeker Vashyra, who agreed that the sword should have a home in a special place. The priest of Astariu was pleased to have the legendary blade that was forged by one of the greatest women to serve in her order.
Azhani was happy to hand it over. She would miss the blade’s magical attributes, but her father’s sword was eminently serviceable. The finely crafted elven sword might only be a few decades old, rather than the hundreds of years Gormerath had existed, but it still had a nice balance, held a keen edge and was as beautifully constructed as any weapon had a right to be.
Stretching her neck and wincing as several of the vertebrae popped, Azhani stripped out of her damp clothes and climbed into the bed next to Kyrian. Her lover’s body was warm and smelled of wet cat. Suspicious, the warrior looked under the covers, chuckling when she found one of Avisha’s kits. A dark gray female kitten with charcoal markings on her face, paws, tail and ears was curled up against Kyrian’s knees.
Azhani rolled her eyes and pushed the kitten further down on the bed, already resigned to accepting the feline into the burgeoning family she and Kyrian were creating. The kitten, outraged at being dislodged, hissed and growled, standing up and arching her back as Azhani settled into the cot.
Pitching her voice to its lowest, Azhani growled back. The kitten suddenly dropped down onto the cot, its ears folded forward. Azhani growled again and the kitten rolled over, exposing her stomach.
“Are you going to torment Beshyra all night, or are you going to come here and show me how much you love me?” Kyrian asked sleepily.
Faced with the choice of taunting a kitten or making love to Kyrian, Azhani made the natural decision. Beshyra suddenly found herself another place to sleep as the warrior rolled over and began kissing her lover deeply.
“I do have one question,” Azhani said as she licked and nibbled her way down the stardancer’s throat.
“Uh, can it wait?” Kyrian asked, quickly becoming unable to concentrate on anything but how wonderful Azhani’s cool hands felt against the warm skin of her hips.
Raising herself up on one hand, Azhani looked down into Kyrian’s sparkling, dark green eyes and said, “Why’d you name her, ‘fierce’? She gave up after only two little growls.”
Smiling in amused tolerance, Kyrian reached up and ran her fingers along the furrows created by Azhani’s braids, a touch the warrior adored. The stardancer pushed up off the bed and nuzzled her lover’s neck, nipping at the bare skin covering Azhani’s collarbone.
“Mmm,” Azhani purred, sounding remarkably like the kitten.
Looking up at her lover, Kyrian reached out and tweaked the warrior’s nose. “You should see her protecting this tent. She growls at everyone other than you or me that tries to enter.” Her smile softened and she stroked Azhani’s face. “It reminded me of you – always protecting those you love.”
“Oh, okay,” Azhani said, dazed and touched by the stardancer’s words.
Kyrian’s smile grew into a playful grin. “Does this mean I get to keep her?”
Marching through snow, even on horseback, is probably the worst way to travel that anyone has ever invented. Kyrian shivered under her cloak and leaned over to pat Arun on the head before jumping down and accepting the fresh towel from the young soldier standing at her horse’s side.
The morning that Azhani had pegged as their return date dawned gray and cold. By afternoon, snow was falling. Since then, thick, icy flakes had blanketed the countryside, making travel difficult. Every few miles, riders would have to dismount their horses and rub down their legs, so the beasts wouldn’t falter. Travel was limited to only a few candlemarks a day, at the end of which everyone was exhausted and chilled to the bone.
If fevers and colds had been a problem before, they were now a nightmare. Kyrian usually spent the better part of each night moving from patient to patient, spending what magic she could spare to heal them. Since the battle on the mesa, her powers hadn’t fully recharged and she suspected that her gift might never be the same. Nevertheless, she was always willing to help, even when that help came in the form of spooning thick broth into the mouth of one cranky, tired and overworked warleader.
Unprepared for the cold, Azhani had traveled nearly a full day without a cloak, only wearing a padded gambeson and trousers to keep out the cool weather. Still recovering from battling Ecarthus, her body was unable to fight off the coughing sickness that spread like wildfire through the army.
Azhani took bed rest surprisingly well. After only two days of arguing, she had reluctantly given in to Padreg and Kyrian’s pleas to ride in the chirurgeon’s wagons with the rest of the invalids. Of course, now the stardancer was certain that her lover was planning a rebellion with the other men and women who were too injured or sick to ride. To keep Azhani from doing something unwise, she visited the wagon whenever possible.
Sticking her foot into the stirrup, Kyrian pulled herself up in the saddle and guided Arun toward the road. Two more days and they would be in Brenton. After thirteen days of cold and wet, she was looking forward to resting in the farming community. Vaguely, she recalled that there was a guard outpost on the outskirts of town. Perhaps there would be enough room for everyone to sleep indoors.
Padreg healed quickly. Because his wound was so terrible, the stardancers put him on the list to receive magical healing. Elisira also received care from the goddess’ own, but only enough to fuse the bones back together. She still had to wear a sling to keep the arm supported while the muscles and tissues healed naturally.
Unsurprisingly, the Y’Noran king took up the reins of command while Azhani was ill, though at the warleader’s request, he included Prince Allyndev in all of his major decisions, seeking the young man’s opinion at every turn. At first, he was a little concerned, but as Allyn’s agile mind quickly grasped the concepts of running the day-to-day functions of an army, he began to understand.
The young nobleman was emerging as a leader, instead of a scholar with a sword.
Kyrian entered her tent, expecting to find Beshyra curled up on their cot, waiting for her. What she did not expect was one fully dressed warrior, playing, “chase-the-string” with the kitten. Azhani looked up at her entry and smiled sexily, though the effect was ruined by a bout of coughing that wracked her body.
Sighing, the stardancer dropped her mittens on a trunk and said, “You should be on the chirurgeon’s wagon, planning the invalid rebellion.”
“Well hello, I’m awfully glad to see you, too,” Azhani said, her voice hoarse from coughing.
“Azhi, why aren’t you on the chirurgeon’s wagon?” Kyrian asked, coming over and putting her hand against the warrior’s face. “You’re burning up.”
Azhani captured Kyrian’s hand in hers and kissed it. “I know where I should be, but I needed to be here, with you.” She pulled her lover down into her lap, cuddling her close. “And tomorrow, I will need to be at the head of the army. I have to present a strong front to any of Ecarthus’ lingering supporters.”
“Not to mention you like looking heroic in front of the masses,” Kyrian said, grinning at the indignation that flashed across Azhani’s face. “You know, I’ve never seen you around normal people. Not really, anyway... I mean, there was Barton, but that was like being with your family, because they knew you so well. I’ve seen you with nobility, I’ve watched you around your soldiers, but I’ve never seen how you behave around simple people like farmers and blacksmiths.”
“I don’t eat babies for lunch, Kyrian,” the warrior growled, a trace of hurt in her words. “And I don’t strike off people’s heads when they don’t do what I want them to.”
“Oh, I know that.” Kyrian played with the lacing to Azhani’s tunic. “What I meant was... it will be interesting to see how people who have called you both hero and murderer react, now that you’re a hero again.”
“I haven’t thought about it,” Azhani said as Kyrian stood up and began peeling off her traveling clothes. “I’ve tried not to.”
“Well, maybe you should. I mean, how do you want people to view us? Are we the conquering usurpers, or the returning heroes?” the stardancer asked as she tugged off a mud and snow-covered boot.
Azhani lay back on the bed. Beshyra took this as an invitation to come and snuggle, so she jumped up next to the warleader and began to roughly knead Azhani’s thigh.
“Hey, hey, stop that you little monster.” Azhani grabbed the kit by the scruff of her neck and sat up. Bringing the kitten up to eye level, she growled and said, “I am not your personal pincushion. Go puncture someone else!” Then she dropped the struggling kitten onto the ground and began coughing.
Beshyra, thoroughly confused and frightened, raced over to Kyrian and cowered behind her legs. Kyrian reached down, picked up the kitten, stroked her fur, and cooed over her until she started purring. “You’re such a meanie, Azhi. Beshyra was just trying to be nice to you and you had to go and get all nasty.”
“I was nasty?” Azhani asked incredulously, between coughing spasms. “The little monster tried to ventilate my leg!” She pointed down to her thigh where tiny pinpricks of blood seeped through the light cotton fabric of her breeches.
Kyrian set the kitten down on the floor and wandered over to look at the warleader’s leg. Rolling her eyes, she said, “They’re barely even scratches, Azhi. You’re such a baby. I’ve seen you deal with worse.”
“I can tell that I’m really loved by this room. First the cat tries to rend my flesh from my bones, and then instead of helping me, you call me a brute for defending myself!” Azhani pouted and affected a wounded look.
Laughing, Kyrian turned to hunt around in their gear for their teapot. A tiny brazier full of glowing coals in the center of the tent, provided both heat and a place to heat small amounts of liquid. The stardancer was privately pleased by Azhani’s playfulness over the kitten, though she would not show it. Instead, she played her role to the hilt.
“Well, if you insist on demanding healing, I guess I’ll just have to cook something up to take the pain away,” she said suggestively, looking back at her lover and wriggling her eyebrows.
“Now that’s more like it,” Azhani said, crossing her feet at the ankles and settling back against her pillows as if expecting scantily clad dancing girls to burst in, ready to serve her every need.
Grinning to herself, Kyrian began bustling about the tent, heating water and mixing a strong concoction of herbs that she knew would not only take away Azhani’s aches and pains, but would also calm the wracking cough. It made her feel awful that her lover was ill, but in a way, she was glad, because she enjoyed the chance to take care of her partner. Azhani had a tendency to mother hen her when she was under the weather. Not that she would ever complain, because she enjoyed the pampering. Azhani also craved gentle care, Kyrian realized while she worked. Perhaps it was okay to occasionally cluck over each other.
The stardancer poured the now hot water over the tea and let it steep. Beshyra had forgiven the warrior and crawled back onto the bed, and Azhani was now lazily stroking the kitten’s fur.
Outside, the wind howled forcefully, buffeting the thick canvas of the tent.
“I will be so glad to have solid walls around me again,” she said, bringing the tea over to Azhani. “Here, drink this, oh wounded warrior, and it shall heal thy hurts.”
Cautiously, Azhani took and sipped the beverage. When it didn’t immediately make her want to spit it out, she took another, deeper drink. “Not bad. What’d you do to hide the bitterness?”
“Added nearly an entire hive’s worth of honey,” Kyrian said ruefully, causing her lover to grin.
“I told you honey was the cure for foul tasting medicine.” She demonstrated her faith by draining the cup and holding it out. “More please?”
“You’re incorrigible,” Kyrian said fondly, but she still made another cup of tea for the warleader.
“Kyr, I think the army should try to approach Brenton as friends. After all, more than half of them are Y’dani. Maybe we should fly the banners, but leave off on the fanfare and panoply. We’ll be asking a great deal of the town as it is. I almost decided to skip it, but at least two hundred of the footmen are from this area and it’s only right that their families see them. What do you think?”
“I think,” Kyrian said, as she climbed into the bed and handed Azhani her tea. “That you should drink this tea and get some sleep. I’m sure Padreg and Elisira will have it all planned out for you in the morning.”
Beshyra grudgingly made room for Kyrian by crawling down to the end of the bed. Azhani drank her tea and then slid under the covers. Yawning, she lifted her arm, allowing Kyrian to snuggle up against her. “Okay, but I really don’t want to antagonize anyone tomorrow. I’d probably cough up something vital if I had to shout.”
Patting Azhani’s stomach lightly, Kyrian sleepily murmured, “So don’t shout.”
Azhani gritted her teeth and tried to put Kyrian’s advice to work. The Mayor of Brenton, while ecstatic to see the army, was adamantly against the large mass of people camping anywhere near his people’s farms. The hoped for barracks turned out to be large enough to hold half a dozen soldiers, if they were very friendly, but that was all. The men and women who had families in the area, were welcome to stay at their homes, but the mayor felt the others should move on to the city. Since it was another ten days travel at their current pace, neither Azhani nor the healers wanted to risk the sick on a journey that long. They needed a couple of days to rest in rooms warmed against the cold, not more nights of breathing super chilled air.
“Mayor Graystone, I don’t want to invade your town. I just want a place for my men and me for a few days.” When her words didn’t appear to budge him, she said, “Look, more than half of these people with me are Y’dani – by right of law, you have to allow us to camp here. It hasn’t been so long that I’ve forgotten what the army is due.” Unspoken was, “Like you.”
Shamed, Graystone sighed and grudgingly said, “All right. I’ll see about finding some empty barns. You and your lieutenants can stay there,” he pointed to the large town hall. “It’ll hold at least fifty, maybe more if you don’t mind close quarters.”
“I remember,” Azhani said, already beginning to turn her horse around. The young pikeman who had been assigned as her page that day, took her orders and raced off, holding his helm on his head to keep it from falling.
The warleader grinned fiercely. When they had arrived in Brenton, the temple to Ecarthus was in chaos. Word of their god’s demise had reached the priests and they were desperately trying to keep the masses in line by holding hourly services, which included the sacrifice of any who dared speak against the priests.
Azhani glanced at a passing soldier’s tabard and sighed at the blood that soaked a good portion of it. The morning had been spent routing the black-robed priests. Starseeker Vashyra and the other Astariun priests were now using their powers to destroy the evil building. Those few Ecarthan priests that had surrendered, were now awaiting judgment in the town’s jail.
Azhani had not participated in the hunt, though she had itched to take up her sword and gut a few of the murdering bastards. Instead, she let Allyn lead a group of the least injured of the soldiers, including as many Y’dani as she could, in ridding the town of the predatory priests.
Now she was on her way to meet with the prince. Allyndev had sustained a minor laceration to his face, and Kyrian wanted to stitch it up before the cold seeped in and caused it to infect.
Azhani found him sitting on the tailgate of a wagon, patiently holding still while the stardancer put several tiny, even stitches into his cheek. Princess Syrelle hovered nearby, berating him for being so careless. On the other side, Devon griped about not being invited to join the fun. After all, he could still ride.
“Afternoon, ladies,” Azhani said, bowing to both Kyrian and Syrelle, and then extending the bow to Devon, who blushed and shut up. “And Allyn.” To him, she offered her hand. He took it, clasping her wrist and grinning wildly, causing the stitches to pull. “I’d put that smile away for later, if I were you, Allyndev,” Azhani cautioned. “Because otherwise, you’re going to mess up all of Kyrian’s beautiful work and your face will scar.”
Instantly, the smile fell. “Uh, sorry,” he muttered, tipping his head up once more so that Kyrian could finish her work.
“Now, let me tell you how proud I am of you,” Azhani said approvingly. Slowly, she detailed exactly what she felt he had done right, as well as what he needed to do better the next time. Allyn listened intently. This was exactly the way she had always taught him, from the first day he had walked into the salle in Y’Syr, until just before he had led the soldiers off this morning. He liked that about her. She was stern, and strict, but he was never unsure whether or not he was doing well.
“All right, Master Azhani, I’ll remember to pull my visor down next time,” he replied as she clapped him on the shoulder. Kyrian finished up and motioned Devon to take his place.
“Good, now, let’s see about turning that,” Azhani said as she pointed to the town hall, “into a temporary barracks.”
The army bivouacked in Brenton for ten days. While there, Allyn led several more successful raids against Ecarthus’ temples, destroying a total of ten of the heinous structures. During that time, no messages were sent to Y’dannyv or anywhere near the capital city. Azhani wanted to keep Kasyrin’s remaining forces guessing as to her next move.
Those farmers who had shut themselves up in their homes, came into Brenton by the dozens, to pay tribute to their liberators. The warleader solemnly accepted their praise and then pointed them to Prince Allyndev. Usually, he had a pile of the Ecarthan priest’s black robes bundled up, ready to be tossed onto what had become a daily bonfire.
Surprised and a little suspicious of the half-elven prince, the farmers nonetheless took their caps in their hands and thanked him. Azhani and Padreg had tried to prepare the young man for this eventuality, and he did them proud by graciously accepting the farmer’s words.
Around the fire one evening, Allyn, Devon and Syrelle were talking quietly. Avisha lay next to the young mage, her head pillowed on his foot. Devon had grown quite fond of his new companion, and the cat seemed to return his affection, as she rarely left his side.
“I don’t really understand it, Dev,” Allyn said, tossing another disgustingly decorated robe onto the fire. The garments had hideous designs embroidered into them. Picked out in lurid colors were scenes of death and torment that made the three youths ill if they looked at them too closely. “Why is Master Azhani suddenly giving me all this responsibility?”
Devon resettled his crutches, disturbing Avisha. The original bare wood had left raw, painful bruises under his arms and his friends had put their heads together to create something to protect him. Just that morning, Syrelle had given him a pair of thick pads to bind to the crutches, and he was still accommodating to the change in structure. “I don’t know, Allyn. Maybe she thinks you can handle it?” The hunting cat moved, but not too far away, keeping her favorite human within view.
“Yes, perhaps the Warleader is just allowing you to prove yourself. I notice that she often encourages you to choose men who didn’t see as much of the fighting up north, to go with you,” Syrelle pointed out as she pushed a lose ember back into the fire.
“Yeah, but these people are starting to treat me like I’m some kind of hero,” Allyn said shamefacedly. “And I’m not a hero. I know real heroes and they aren’t me.” He looked over at Azhani, Kyrian, Padreg and Elisira. The older adults were clustered around a smaller fire, enjoying the first night in weeks where it wasn’t snowing. Azhani leaned forward to kiss Kyrian, and in the firelight, the mark on the warleader’s cheek glittered momentarily. One of Avisha’s kittens lounged on Kyrian’s lap. It reached up a paw and batted playfully at the warleader, causing both the warrior and the stardancer to laugh.
The Y’Noran chieftain had been responsible for marshalling the army on the day the sun had been shadowed by the moon. When the demons came pouring down on the encampment, it was Padreg who had come barreling out of his tent, shouting orders left and right until the warriors were able to start deflecting the tide of monsters. His lady, Elisira, had been right beside him, shooting arrows and shouting encouragement.
Allyn had spent the long, terrifying hours defending the chirurgeon’s tents, determined not to let any of the wounded become easy prey for the demons. Beside him had been Syrelle and later, Devon. During the battle, some of the mages who had been struck down by Kasyrin’s spell had managed to regain consciouness and assist with the defense of the camp. Though his injuries were fierce, Devon had shown an impressive amount of strength and courage by encouraging the other walking wounded to help Allyn and Syrelle defend the chirurgeon’s tent.
By the time the monsters had been driven off, the friendship between the three was so strong that nothing would sever it. Not even Devon’s admission that he had a crush on Syrelle, had lessened their bond. The princess had only laughed gently and kissed the young mage on the cheek and asked him if he would accept her friendship.
Smiling, though his eyes were full of pain, Devon had nodded. Later, he told Allyn that he hoped he and Syrelle were always happy. Surprised at the sacrifice his friend was making, Allyndev had silently prayed that someone would someday erase the pain from Devon’s eyes.
The prince sighed and threw the last robe into the fire. “I’m not a hero,” he said again, daring his friends to defy him.
Two arms wrapped around his waist as he stared into the flames.
“Maybe not,” Syrelle said, laying her head on his shoulder and searching for whatever vision held Allyn’s attention so tightly.
“But you’re doing a credible imitation of one,” Devon finished, flashing a hearty grin at the startled look on Allyn’s face.
“I guess you guys are trying to tell me to shut up and take it like a man?” Allyn asked jokingly.
Syrelle smiled sweetly and looked over at Devon. “I think he’s got a brain in there after all,” she said, her tone full of mock surprise.
“Amazing, isn’t it?” Devon replied, his grin turning cockeyed. “The point is, Allyboy, you’re getting a chance to do something pretty cool by helping these people. My father said that nothing fills a man’s heart more than the love of his peers. So, fill your heart, my friend, because the love is flowing!”
A snappy retort jumped onto Allyn’s tongue, but he held it back. Maybe his friends were right. Maybe he should just accept the fact that not everyone saw him as the bumbling kid he knew he was. Yeah, and maybe I’m actually starting to learn something besides how to fall down properly when Master Azhani thumps me.
The last of the black robes turned to ash and blew away into the night.
On a clear, sunny morning, and with Kyrian, Padreg and Allyndev by her side, Azhani Rhu’len, the Banshee of Banner Lake, returned to the City of Y’dannyv. The lake sparkled brilliantly, and the silvery shimmer of the water took her back to a time when its banks ran red with the blood of innocents. Barely a year had passed since she had last laid eyes on the city, but the passage of time had wrought harsh changes.
Where once houses and buildings were draped in colorful banners, now only somber coats of gray dominated the landscape. Inns and taverns were conspicuously empty, and the townspeople looked at the small group whom the Warleader had chosen to bring in with her, with haunted, suspicious eyes.
Moving quickly from place to place, what folk that dared brave the streets stayed clumped together. Children were somber, clinging to the hands and legs of their parents, while the elderly peered out at the world from behind the safety of locked doors and drawn curtains. Men in the green and black of Arris’ personal guard stood side by side with the black robed priests of Ecarthus.
Azhani could feel the eyes of the Ecarthan priests take in the size of her force and widen in abject fear. She smiled mirthlessly. Soon the bastards would feel the bite of her hounds, but for now, she would let them tremble.
Behind her, Elisira and Mayor Graystone of Brenton rode, quietly talking. At her sides were Padreg and Kyrian. The Y’Noran king’s eyes were roving the streets, searching the shadows for hidden assassins. Quietly, Kyrian engaged Allyndev in small talk. Beshyra rode pillion behind Kyrian, clinging to a padded piece of leather and hissing comically at every new smell or strange sight.
The Y’Syran prince gawked openly at the brick and stone buildings. The elven born and raised young man was unused to homes that didn’t require a section of the population dedicated to keeping the dwelling alive. Having grown up in a city where houses were trees had not prepared him for the strange sight of a city of stone.
Riding next to Allyn was Princess Syrelle. Silently, she listened as Kyrian spoke of her first visit to the somber city. She tried hard to replace the gray, fear-clad reality with the more colorful images the stardancer’s story created. Just behind them rode the young mage, Devon Imry. His eyes filled with tears at the sight of the city of his birth. Many familiar landmarks were gone – the burbling fountain where children would play from sun up to sun down, the street vendors who would shout their wares and the gaily dressed minstrels that used to populate the city were nowhere to be seen.
The hunting cat Avisha rode proudly on Devon’s saddle, surveying the city with the disinterested gaze that only a feline can manage. A small contingent of three hundred soldiers marched behind their group, demonstrating to any enemies that they would be difficult to remove.
As they rode along the main street toward the city center, they were met by a group of men and women dressed in rich, colorful clothes. Unlike the rest of the city’s citizens, these people did not look defeated and frightened. Instead, they looked relieved.
Lord Councilor Valdyss Cathemon stood straight and proud, and his dark blue velvet doublet and hose were all that stood between him and Azhani’s sword. Beside him were thirty members of the King’s Council, each dressed in their finest clothes, in defiance of the dark clothes that the priests of Ecarthus had ordered the population to favor.
Lord Cathemon stepped forward. Speaking in a clear, carrying voice, he said, “Welcome to Y’dannyv, Azhani Rhu’len. In the name of the council, I greet you as the rightful Warleader of Y’dan.”
Those brave citizens who had peeked out of their doors and windows, now stumbled into the streets. Voices could be heard. Snatches of excited conversation peppered the air around Azhani and her people.
”Azhani? The Warleader is back? Wasn’t she exiled? Oh gods, has she come to free us from the Ecarthans?”
Azhani dismounted and walked up to Cathemon. Kneeling before him, she said, “Valdyss Cathemon, I have returned, in defiance of the King’s Law, to challenge his ruling. By my right as a survivor of the Gauntlet, I demand the chance to set right a terrible wrong.”
“Rise, Azhani, and be heard. You are granted that chance and more,” Cathemon said, looking over at the former Lord High Councilor, Derkus Glinholt, who was fairly vibrating with fear.
The other man’s gaze had fallen on his daughter, who was gaily speaking to Mayor Graystone of Brenton. A tanned, well-muscled woman who looked as though she could break her weaker father in two had replaced the once pale, fragile-looking girl.
Elisira spotted her father, and defiantly she nodded at him, then continued her conversation with the mayor. Councilor Glinholt seethed helplessly. He was so terribly tempted to march right up to his disobedient child but he clearly recognized the threat implied in the hard face of the Y’Noran chieftain.
Padreg had not missed the exchange between his beloved and her father, and he was not about to let the scheming little man get between him and the woman he loved. Nor was he going to allow the wicked man to escape, once the contents of Azhani’s pouch were revealed.
Rising, Azhani reached into the saddlebag on her horse’s side and withdrew one of the most damning of Arris’ journals. Flipping the pages, she settled on one section and handed it to Councilor Cathemon. “Read this, my lord, and you shall have proof of my innocence.” Handing him the book, she stepped back a pace.
Cathemon cleared his throat, and then began to read.
“Half passed midwatch; spring, the six hundred and thirteenth year since landing, by the hand of Arris, King of Y’dan.
I have tasted great victory today. By my hand and will, Azhani Rhu’len, she who has scorned me for so many years, has been cast down. It is with fervor and joy that I write of the death of the thief of my desire. Ylera Kelani has passed from this realm to the lords of hell. She is the play toy of death now and can no longer block the road to Azhani’s heart. I will have her, or she will die.
I go now, to greet my lord councilors on the matter of my ascension to the throne of Y’dan. I shall be a great king. I shall make wonders happen, that my father’s ghost be banished from the realm forever! Legends shall be told of the deeds I do. Let history beware, for I am Arris, and I am King!”
“Keep reading,” Azhani prompted, her face a stony mask of control. Cathemon continued, reading how Arris had used his pet councilors to back a move to wrest control of the throne from the warleader. Several of the well-dressed men and women exchanged uneasy glances. They had supported Arris, though none but Derkus had known the extent of the king’s evil.
Cathemon read until the diary began to detail Arris’ reactions at Azhani’s trial and subsequent actions at Banner Lake. The councilor, visibly shaken, could not put voice to the crazed, addled words that his king had gleefully used to describe the way his people had died for him. Closing the book, he handed it back to Azhani and said, “I am satisfied that you are as innocent as you claim. Welcome home, Azhani.”
The words she had longed to hear for so long were bittersweet, bought, as they were, by the deaths of so many. Bowing her head, Azhani said, “Thank you, Lord Cathemon. I am glad to be here. I bring much news. Before we talk, I offer you the services of Prince Allyndev Kelani, son of Alynna Kelani of Y’Syr. Allyn, go get ‘em, lad!”
Turning, the warleader pointed at a congregation of black-robed men who were sneaking up to the town square, weapons furtively drawn. Allyn spurred his horse and drew his sword.
“Now, men!” He charged the Ecarthan priests, while two hundred of the finest Y’dani soldiers split away from the honor guard in a V formation, closing in on the priests.
Cathemon and the others watched in stunned horror as Allyn and his soldiers expertly butchered the evil priests. Starseeker Vashyra, observing the young man in action, only smiled wickedly.
“He’s terribly good at that, isn’t he, Azhani?” she commented silkily, raising one dark eyebrow.
Azhani grinned openly. “Oh yes. He’s an excellent student, a fast learner and he’s always eager to please.”
Indeed, Allyn fell on the priests, the last of the ilk that remained a threat to Y’dan, with a vicious fervor. Soon, it wasn’t just Allyn and the soldiers cutting the priests to bits. The citizens, seeing their salvation at hand, fell upon those few priests who managed to break free, and tore them to pieces.
It was violent. It was gory. It was deeply satisfying to the downtrodden people of Y’dannyv.
In other towns and villages across Y’dan, similar scenes were played out as the patrols that Azhani had sent out arrived and chased the Ecarthan scum from the land. Turning away from the carnage, Azhani nodded toward the castle. “Shall we?”
Shuddering over the bloodshed, Cathemon nodded. Turning his back, he tuned out the sound of the slaughter taking place not more than fifty yards away.
Before he could escape, the former high councilor, Derkus Glinholt was arrested and jailed. Twelve other councilmen resigned their posts and hurriedly left the city before they, too, learned first hand how big the rats in the castle’s dungeons were. Those remaining guardsmen who wore Arris’ colors, quickly stripped their tabards off and requested new ones bearing the golden wheat sheaf of Theodan’s forefathers.
Slowly, the people of Y’dannyv began to emerge. Many houses raised their pennants, the colorful banners snapping gaily in the breeze. Brightly colored clothing once again was the accepted norm instead of frowned upon. People laughed, talked and generally began to breathe a little easier.
Questions riding on the tip of everyone's tongues quickly spread through the city. Who will lead us? Who will take up the Crown of Ysradaran and keep us safe against those who would seek to harm us?
Azhani knew that the council would be more than willing to give her the throne. Even though Theodan’s proclamation had long since been destroyed, the evidence of its existence was easily found in Arris’ journals. Azhani didn’t want the throne, though. She wasn’t even very sure she wanted to bear the mantle of Warleader, for either Y’Syr or Y’dan. Mostly, she just wanted to find a nice, cozy inn somewhere by the sea, and love Kyrian.
On the fourth day after their arrival, High King Ysradan made his appearance. Unlike Azhani, he did not forsake the pomp and circumstance that was due his station. Sailing into the harbor flanked by four large warships, the High King’s personal ship far outmatched any other ship docked there.
Azhani hurried to meet Ysradan. It had been at least five years since she had last seen the high king. Princess Syrelle ran with her, a mixed expression of fear and joy warring for dominance on her face.
The High King stepped off his ship and onto the dock, breathed deeply and smiled. His aged, careworn face held a few new scars and he walked with a limp that hadn’t been there when Azhani had last seen him. Syrelle flew past her and into her father’s arms.
“Daddy!” she crowed, obviously delighted to see him.
Ysradan caught his daughter and lifted her up, swinging her around until she laughed. “Ah, how’s my beautiful angel?” he asked, bringing her down and hugging her close.
Syrelle grinned and said, “Better, now that you’re here. Where’s my brother, the demon?”
“Right here, fish breath!” said the high-pitched voice of a child. Behind Ysradan was the Y’maran Heir Apparent, Ysrallan. He stuck his tongue out at his sister, screwing up his face into a nasty parody of a demon’s mask. Then he grinned and ran over to Syrelle’s side, hugging her fiercely. “You’ve been gone forever and ever, Relly,” he whispered, clinging tightly.
Syrelle lifted her brother, hugging him close. “I’m back now, Rallie and I missed you too.” Looking over her brother’s shoulder, the princess asked, “Where’s mom?”
“Syrelle,” a warmly affectionate voice said.
The princess looked behind a group of her father’s guardsmen to see her mother being carefully escorted by two of her handmaidens. The High Queen had a bandage wrapped around her head, blocking out her eyes.
“Mother!” Syrelle set her brother down abruptly and raced to the approaching woman’s side. “What happened?” she asked frantically, reaching out to hug her mother and then stopping just shy of touching her.
Queen Dasia reached out and embraced her daughter. “It’s all right, honey. I’ll be okay,” she said, holding the shaking girl tight. “One of those damn pirates threw something into my eyes – blinded me temporarily. Stardancer Jezlyn has assured me that it will pass.”
Syrelle sniffled and drew back. “Well,” she said, daring to touch her mother’s face, “If Jez says you’ll be okay, then I guess it’s all right.”
Dasia smiled and said, “It’s wonderful to hear your voice, my daughter. Please, tell me of your adventures.”
Waiting patiently for his wife, Ysradan viewed the changed city of Y’dannyv sadly. Signs of Arris’ depredations on the populace were still visible in the way that many of the common men and women refused to meet his glance. In the distance, beyond the city’s western gates, he could see the pall of black smoke from the massive pyre where the priests were burning the remnants of Ecarthus’ worship. When Dasia reached his side, Ysradan wrapped his arms around his family and turned to greet the rest of the waiting delegation.
“Padreg, my gods, lad, you’ve grown like one of your damn weeds!” Transferring his wife’s arm to his son’s shoulder, the High King embraced his former fosterling.
“My King,” Padreg said, bowing after Ysradan released him. “I’m afraid I’m a little taller than even the grasses of my homelands now.”
Ysradan chuckled and looked up at the man he knew as a boy. “I would have to agree. But then, we always knew you were part giant.” He turned to the Lady Elisira and took her hands in his. “My lady, it does my heart good to gaze upon your beauty once more. How are you?”
Elisira leaned in for a kiss, and replied, “I’m doing well, you old charmer, and how are you?”
“Good, good,” Ysradan said, moving on to Kyrian. He smiled brilliantly at her, the full force of his charm in effect. “You will perhaps pardon me, for I do not know you, but your face shall haunt my dreams until the moment I look upon the perfection that is our beloved goddess.”
Kyrian looked at Azhani and whispered, “Likes to lay it on thick, doesn’t he?” Looking back at Ysradan, she said, “I am Stardancer Kyrian, your majesty.”
“Ah yes, then you are the very person that I owe the greatest thanks to, for it was your tender care that rescued Our beloved Warleader from the brink of death,” said Ysradan. He was happy to put a face to the name that he had read in so many of the messages that crossed his desk lately. Clasping her hand firmly, he leaned forward and kissed her cheek. “I am most humbled to make your acquaintance, revered Stardancer. It has come to me that you were very instrumental in the success of Astariu’s plans. I thank you – indeed, all of Y’myran shall thank you, good Kyrian.”
Taken aback, Kyrian replied, “It’s nice to meet you too, your majesty.”
As Ysradan moved on, Queen Dasia took his place, reaching her hand out to gently grasp the stardancer’s proffered arm. “He’s something of a talker, my Ysra is, but don’t let it twist your thoughts overmuch, young Kyrian.” She smiled warmly.
Kyrian returned the smile and said, “I’ll try not to, your highness.” Syrelle and Ysrallan were on the other side of their mother, watching as their father continued to act the diplomat and greet the various nobles of the Y’dani court. Finally, he came to Azhani.
For several heartbeats, Ysradan and the warleader looked deeply into each other’s faces. Then, the High King sighed sadly and said, “I miss him too.” Bowing his head, he surreptitiously wiped away a tear. “Theodan was a good man, filled with dreams of the future. It pains me that his legacy was so horribly corrupted.”
“Those dreams may yet live on, your majesty,” Azhani said quietly as she accepted a terse embrace from Ysradan.
Feeling very much like an outsider, Prince Allyndev stood to the side of the assembled nobles and aimlessly scratched at his jaw. Frowning, he scuffed the palm of his hand against the itchy beard stubble and sighed. The day before, Master Azhani had asked him to refrain from shaving for a few days. Accustomed to a neat appearance, he nonetheless acquiesced to her request. Now his face itched terribly and he was beginning to wonder why his mentor would make such a strange request.
Why do I have to let my beard grow out? Is this supposed to be another object lesson? Allyn’s eyes narrowed as he tried to pinpoint a time within the past few weeks when he had done something to merit one of Azhani’s famous impression making exercises.
Nothing came to mind. So why am I standing here in front of the High King, looking like a soldier fresh off a three-day drunk?
With her brother in tow, Syrelle left her mother’s side and sidled up next to the prince. “Hey,” she said, biting her lip shyly.
“Yeah?” He smiled warmly, looking into her brilliant blue eyes and seeing everything he wanted for the future shining back at him.
“I, um, this is my little brother, Ysrallan,” she mumbled, thrusting the boy forward. “Rallie, this is Prince Allyndev.”
Shyly, the boy prince held his hand out to the older prince. “Hello?” he smiled, his lips curling in an unconscious echo of his sister’s uncertain grin.
Clasping the boy’s hand warmly, Allyn knelt down and bowed his head to Ysrallan. “Good day, my prince,” he said solemnly, causing the lad to giggle. “How was your trip?”
Ysrallan’s face screwed up and he rolled his eyes comically. “It was yucky! I don’t like boats.” The young prince covered his mouth and puffed out his cheeks, managing a credible imitation of seasickness.
Allyn chuckled. “I can remember my first few times on a ship – the scenery was all water!” He winked and stood up, taking Syrelle’s hand in his and pressing a gentle kiss to the palm. “My lady,” he murmured.
“Allyn, not now!” she hissed softly. “They’re going to want to meet you soon.” Smoothing her hand on her dress, she frowned. “You look very scruffy. Why didn’t you shave?” she added hurriedly.
“Master Azhani asked me not to, remember?” he whispered back, his hard earned self confidence fading, and leaving him to feel very much like a gangly boy who had just been caught lifting ladies skirts at the bazaar.
“Oh yeah, well, stand up straight and act like you always have a beard,” Syrelle hastily advised.
Suddenly, his face itched worse than before. It was just blind luck that Ysradan chose that moment to take his wife’s arm and head their way. Pasting a smile on his face, Allyn stepped up to greet them, nicely evading Syrelle’s poking fingers.
“Mother, Father, this is Prince Allyndev Kelani. He’s my friend,” she said shyly, looking sideways at Allyn before facing her parents.
The High King pumped Allyn’s hand. “Good to meet you young man, very good. Heard about how you made those black-robed bastards dance. Good show, lad, excellent.” Ysradan released Allyn’s hand and moved on before the Y’Syran prince had a chance to respond.
High Queen Dasia took a moment longer to embrace the half-elven prince. “Hello Allyn. I believe I knew your mother, Alynna. It is good to finally meet the man who my daughter fancies so well,” she said warmly.
“Thank you, your highness,” he mumbled, unable to think of anything else to say.
She smiled. “Come, Syrelle. Your father tires, and I find that I too would welcome the warmth of a fire and the comfort of a cushioned chair.”
Taking a firm hold of Allyn’s arm, Queen Dasia allowed her daughter to guide them toward Y’dannoch Castle.
There was a day of boring, sleep-inducing ceremonies, in which High King Ysradan confirmed Azhani’s pardon. The people were immediately happy to accept their beloved Warleader back, especially since the contents of Arris’ diaries had been made available to the public. In bars and taverns, the soldiers who had fought the Battle of Shield Mountain, as the day had become known, eagerly told tales of Azhani’s bravery. The stories spread faster than rumor, carried out into the countryside of Y’dan by the newly returned army.
Y’dannyv dug in and had itself a good party, celebrating the destruction of the final Ecarthan temple. Across the lake, the elven city of Y’Syria also celebrated the end of the Ecarthan nightmare. Queen Lyssera made ready to travel, to attend the confirmation of Y’dan’s new ruler. She arrived in the city two days after the High King, though she did not display the same panoply as Ysradan.
The council room was crowded and stuffy, though snow blanketed Y’dannyv. Azhani stifled a yawn and looked over at the day candle, counting the remaining lines. There were only three days until winter’s solstice and the warrior was deathly tired of the interminable meetings that Y’dan’s nobility demanded take place to determine who would take up the mantle of king.
Nervously, she doodled on a piece of old parchment, smiling slightly when Kyrian reached under the table and squeezed her knee. Having her lover by her side during the long sessions was the only thing that made them bearable. The stardancer leaned over and whispered, “How much longer, do you think?”
Listening to the latest round of arguments, Azhani rolled her eyes and whispered back, “Not too much, if I have anything to say about it.”
Lord Cathemon and his supporters were firmly rooted in the belief that Azhani should be given the crown of Y’dan while others wanted to have the High King choose from among his many distant relations. Any trace of royal blood was preferable to a woman who had been responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Y’dan’s citizens, even if she was a hero.
As far as Azhani was concerned, they could take their stupid crown and shove it. As the bickering came to a head, she realized it was time to act. Standing, she threw back her head and let out her distinctive war cry. As the echoes of the eerie howl died away, she looked around at the stunned crowd.
Once all eyes were firmly upon her, she put her hands on her hips and haughtily asked, “Did any of you idiots think to ask me what I wanted? Or would you even care if I told you that I don’t want your damned crown?”
Gasps flew around the room, and everyone looked at Ysradan. Kyrian was grinning and shaking her head, while the High King just shrugged. The discussion had gone on for candlemarks, and his royal posterior was very sore. Even a pillow couldn’t hide the fact that the Y’dani throne was as hard as a rock. The fact that it was carved out of a single block of granite might have something to do with that perception, but Ysradan wasn’t about to suggest such a thing to the tradition bound council.
To one side of him sat Queen Lyssera. The elven ruler had been invited as a courtesy as well as a concession that the former ruler had deeply wounded the Kelani family. Ysradan was determined that Arris’ terrible legacy would not be continued by whomever stepped up to claim the Y’dani crown. At his left, sat his wife, Dasia. The High Queen had quietly listened to the proceedings while her scribe took careful notes. At night, she and her husband would debate the merits of each of the Y’dani noble’s speeches.
In the gallery were King Padreg and Lady Elisira. Interested to see if their friend would accept the crown, they viewed the proceedings, but did not actively participate. They were just as shocked as everyone else when Azhani turned away from the honor.
Pacing around the room, Azhani stopped in front of a page. “Find Prince Allyndev and ask him to join us, would you please?” she said, smiling as the boy eagerly raced off. She turned to Ysradan. “My king, would you like to stand and stretch? I know that I relish the thought of moving around, after sitting for so long.” She directed her gaze to the councilors, willing them with her eyes to get up and stretch so that the High King wouldn’t feel self-conscious.
They got the message. Several of the council members immediately stood, stretching and yawning loudly. Ysradan hid a smile and pushed himself out of the uncomfortable throne. The warleader was wonderfully astute and he wondered what it would take to get her to come and work for him. He always had a need for alert people.
Dasia and Lyssera bent their heads together and began quietly talking.
Kyrian stood and walked over to her lover, wrapping her arms around the warleader’s stiff-muscled back. “You’re all in knots, Azhi. Relax. This will end,” she promised.
Holding the stardancer close, Azhani murmured, “Yes, I know.” She smiled enigmatically when Kyrian looked up, searching her face.
Allyndev Kelani wandered the halls of the castle, studying the paintings and tapestries that marked the different secret passageways. His friend Devon had been guiding him on a tour of the old keep, but had been called away to meet with the other spellcasters as they planned for the upcoming Winterfest celebration.
His beard no longer itched, which was a relief. Instead, the castle staff gave him the oddest looks and a few of the older nobles had stared at him long and hard before turning away and continuing on their way. Allyn was on his way to the kitchens to see if he could charm a snack from the cook, when Azhani’s page caught up to him.
“M’lord Allyndev, please, wait,” the boy cried out, racing pell-mell down the hall.
Allyn smiled, recalling his own days as a page for his aunt, Queen Lyssera. Stopping, he called out, “All right, lad, what is it?”
Puffing and panting, the boy slid to a halt in front of Allyn and sketched a hasty bow. “Warleader Azhani,” he wheezed several times, without success.
“Easy now, lad. Take your time.” The prince wondered if he would have to thump the boy on the back to get him to take a decent breath. Gratefully, the page took several deep, calming breaths.
“It’s the warleader, sir,” the boy said once he could breathe again. “She’s asked for you to join the council. It’s this way,” he added, turning to head back to the large room where the grand council was meeting.
“Hold up there, lad. Let’s stop by the kitchens first. I’ve got a sudden desire to say hello to the cook,” he said, winking at the page, whose response was a wide, excited grin.
The council chamber fell silent when Allyndev entered. Milling council members had grouped off in twos and threes during the break, and now they turned to look at the intruder. Walking with sure, firm strides, the prince made his way through the room. The young man was dressed in simple, yet elegantly tailored tunic and breeches.
Sharing a proud smile, Azhani and Lyssera were pleased with the young man that now stood before them, each remembering the half-grown boy that had been given into the warleader’s care. Months of hard work in the sun had hardened youthful muscles and tanned pale skin to a golden brown. The fullness of boyhood had given way to the fine, narrow features of his elven ancestry. Though a beard now shadowed his face, Allyn was still strikingly handsome. Pale blonde braids loosely framed a pair of bright green eyes, that in spite of everything he had seen, regarded the world as a wonderful place.
Stopping first to bow to his queen, he then presented himself to his mentor. Respectfully, he smiled at his teacher, then bowed deeply.
Azhani smiled back and said, “Glad you could make it.”
The smile stretched into a full grin. “I was hungry so I stopped to grab a quick bite to eat. I hope I didn’t keep you waiting long?”
Kyrian chuckled. “Allyn, you’re as bad as Beshyra – always thinking with your stomach.” The kitten in question was curled up on her lap, sleeping peacefully
Since the councilors had just finished a light snack themselves – one surprisingly delivered by the kitchens, though it had not been requested, Azhani was not angry.
“No, not too long. It was brilliant of you to feed us, though. Now maybe Lord Jaffes won’t look quite so bored.” Azhani nodded toward a man whose gaunt, nearly skeletal face belied his deep and abiding interest in the pile of snacks that he was slowly devouring.
“You’re welcome. I remember how devastated the kitchens looked after the last council session. I thought I might get in a pre-emptive strike and give the cook a chance to prepare something more filling for later,” Allyn said. He tucked his hands behind his back and looked curiously at her. “So, what did you need, anyway?”
Azhani’s face suddenly became very serious. “Do you trust me, Allyndev?”
The prince’s eyebrows rose in surprise. When Azhani took that tone with him, he knew something heavy was coming. “Yes, I do, Master Azhani. I’ve never trusted anyone in my life more than I trust you,” he said sincerely.
The warleader nodded. “All right. Sit down and listen. Try not to act too surprised because I’m about to tweak a few Y’dani noses.” She winked mischievously and then added, ”Oh, and Allyn?”
“Yes, Master Azhani?” The young man was half way between sitting and standing. He stood up again, waiting for the warleader to speak.
“Stop calling me that, will you? You make me feel like an old woman. My name is Azhani. Use it,” she mock growled at him. “Now, sit.”
“Yes, Ma-Azhani,” he swallowed, nearly stumbling over his chair in his haste to find the seat. Azhani... He looked over at his mentor, awestruck. She’s giving me the right to use her name. Honored by this gift, he sat, waiting patiently for the meeting to begin. On light feet, the memory of the first day he had met the remarkable woman beside him snuck up and tapped him on the shoulder.
Sweat poured off his neck as he knelt, weeding the base of the Father tree. The massive oak was the cornerstone of the entire Oakheart complex. Strangle vines were wrapped tightly around one of the tree’s smaller roots and he was viciously attacking them with a hatchet, taking large, sticky green chunks out with each stroke.
It was backbreaking labor, but Allyn loved it. He enjoyed the sense of peace he felt when he was mucking about the wildlands, helping things to grow. Recently, he had begun to work with the Gardeners guild. The men and women who were specially trained to protect and care for Oakheart Manor, the city of Y’Syria, and its environs, had welcomed him despite his half-blooded heritage . He felt proud to be a part of such a noble enterprise and hoped that one day, he would be allowed to work in the boughs high above, pruning leaves and maybe, someday, singing the rooms into being. His grandfather was a stardancer and perhaps enough of the Astariu’s gift had passed through the generations to grant him that honor.
“Allyn,” a voice interrupted his work. Glancing up, he saw his aunt, Queen Lyssera, approach with a tall, intimidating woman walking behind her. He blinked and used a cloth to wipe his face and hands. He had never seen the woman before, but she was clearly half-elven. Taller than his generous six-foot height, with dark, almost black skin and piercing blue eyes, the woman wore a plain green tunic and dark brown leather breeches. A sword was casually slung from her belt and she walked with the simple grace of one who was intimate with the dance of battle. Her sharp, hawk-like features were expressionless as she sized him up with the appraising eye of one who was about to buy a horse.
The young prince sketched a quick bow, “My queen, I am honored by your company,” he said warmly. Aunt Lyss was one of his favorite people in the whole world. She had raised him since he was a baby, because his mother, Alynna, had died giving birth to him. He never knew his father, but Lyssera tried to make sure he knew the love of at least one parent.
Lyssera briefly hugged her nephew and then turned to the woman who was with her. “This is the boy I told you about, Azhani. He is to be your student. Allyndev, this is Master Azhani Rhu’len. She will hopefully be able to instill in you some sense of how to defend yourself.”
The warrior nodded, giving him one last, dismissive look and said, “All right. Meet me in the salle at dawn, boy, and don’t be late.” She turned to go.
Angered by her attitude, he sullenly replied, “Yes, Azhani.” The name sounded familiar, and he knew he would spend much of his free time for the rest of the day, talking to friends about her.
Suddenly, he was thrust against the tree, his hatchet ripped from his hands, and the blade pressed perilously close to his throat. “Master Azhani, boy. Always remember, I hold your life in my hands – until you can stand with me on the field of battle and walk away, you will call me Master Azhani.”
Ever since that day, he had always been careful to call her Master Azhani, because he never wanted another lesson like the one he had gotten that first morning.
“Woolgathering, boy?” a voice interrupted him.
“What? Oh, no sir,” he sat at full attention as High King Ysradan chuckled and took his seat on the granite throne of Y’dan. Queen Lyssera looked over at her nephew and winked, while Queen Dasia smiled serenely, waiting for the council session to begin again.
The half-elven prince took a breath and tried to relax.
Kyrian leaned over and whispered to Azhani, “Allyn couldn’t have been more surprised if you’d smacked him with a dead fish, Azhi. What’s up?”
Azhani patted Kyrian’s leg. “Just wait. You’ll see.” She winked, causing the stardancer to roll her eyes and sigh in exasperation.
“All right ladies and gentlemen, let’s try to be brief. The respite was nice, but I’ve got to admit that my backside can’t take too much more of this chair. Warleader Azhani, I do believe you had something to tell us?” Ysradan said, looking over at the coolly relaxed warrior.
Azhani stood and walked down to the center of the room, knowing that all eyes were on her. She drew in a long, cleansing breath, washing away the faint, ghostly memory of Ylera’s body lying crumpled at her feet. The rug was new, but the table where she had flung down Theodan’s proclamation, was still there, and if she looked closely, she could imagine she saw blood dripping down the carved wooden leg... Firming her jaw, Azhani lifted her gaze away from the scarred table leg and up into the beautiful green eyes of her beloved. Kyrian smiled gently and mouthed, “I love you.” Don’t look, Azhi, it’s the past. Buried and mourned. You have a future waiting outside that door that belongs to you and Kyrian.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, I have a story to tell you,” she began, her deep, even voice spreading out over the room like a warm blanket. “Twenty years ago, I was just a child, living here in the palace and serving some of your predecessors as a page. My father, Rhu’len DaCoure, served his majesty Theodan as a sort of jack-of-all-trades. When something needed doing, the king knew my dad would perform that task without question.
King Theodan was a man of peace, living in a time of strife. Between the northern barbarians, the Killigarni pirates and the skirmishes of human and elf, this land was constantly at war. Theodan wanted that to change. With his friend Ysradan’s help, they drove off the Killigarni pirates, freeing our shores for trade.
Theodan’s next goal was to end the ongoing troubles between the kingdoms of Y’dan and Y’Syr. There had been distrust between the races since First Landing, and Theodan felt that it was time to end that chapter in our history. Queen Lyssera of Y’Syr agreed with him and allowed him to send a delegation into the elven capitol city of Y’Syria.
Y’dani citizens had not been inside Oakheart Manor for many centuries when my father met with Lyssera, and I am sure that he met much resistance from her people. My father was a gentle man, though, and his kindness, his politeness and his utter sincerity must have made an impression, because the queen invited him back.
When my father returned, King Theodan was pleased, and he made the decision that he would go with my father the next time he visited Y’Syria. I remember that trip, ladies and gentlemen. My father felt that it would be showing the utmost faith in the Y’Syrans, by taking me to their beautiful city.
What wonders I saw. I, who had known only the mountain cabin of my father, or the bustling streets of Y’dannyv, now frolicked with elven children in the boughs of their ancient tree homes. It was a magical time - one I cherish deeply.” Azhani looked at Ysradan and smiled sadly. “King Theodan had yet to wed and had no heirs. He was a fair-faced man, though, and my own memory of him carries the impression of a strong, and inspiring personality. I am not surprised that he caught the eye of a woman of Lyssera’s court.”
There was an audible inhalation of breath and Kyrian was nodding as if suddenly understanding everything.
Azhani let the tension in the room grow, and then continued. “This woman was as fine a person as any one of you would have admired, but for one thing: she was elven.” Her eyes pinned the older councilors. They had the grace to look away as she went on. “The lady knew that their love was doomed, so, though it tore her soul to pieces, she sent Theodan away, telling him she did not love him. He left, heartbroken, and returned to Y’dan.
His dream of peace did not die, however, and he worked tirelessly for years to convince the border lords to stop raiding elven lands. He put rewards out for those caught poaching in Y’Syr’s forests and he encouraged trade between our two kingdoms. We flourish today because of his efforts.
Two years later, Theodan met and married Queen Siobhan. We all loved her. Kind, generous, loving and full of life was our Siobhan. How much did we all weep when she drowned in that sudden squall on Banner Lake? Young Arris was only eight, and Theodan, his heart broken for a second time, threw himself into his work.
By then, I was serving with Theodan’s army. The barbarians and the demons were turning our northern borders into a zone of death. It was then that Theodan took up his arms and led us north, to the Ystarfe Pass and into the barbarians’ territory.
We fought. For an entire summer, we chased the barbarians through our mountains until they threw down their arms and begged for peace. Satisfied, Theodan took us home. Arris, now in the care of the scholar Porthyros, grew. I became Warleader.” She turned now, and looked at Allyndev.
“And you, young prince, you aged as well. You were learning your letters and your numbers and you learned to love the earth and its growing things. You felt drawn to the stars whirling in the heavens above, but the pull wasn’t so strong that Astariu’s seekers came for you, nor did Astarus’ seers ask you to join their hallowed halls. You learned to love the memories of your mother, Alynna Kelani, that your aunt, Queen Lyssera gave you.
But you never learned of your father, Theodan, Peacemaker of Y’dan. My story has been for you, Prince Allyndev Kelani, son of Theodan. Ladies and Gentlemen, my lord High King, I do not want the legacy of Y’dan’s throne. King Theodan willed it to me, but I say, had he known of this son, he would have joyfully given him the crown.”
The silence of the room was stifling. Allyn felt the walls pressing against him as if they were trying to force him from his seat. My father... King Theodan? He looked around the room, scanning faces, searching the walls and tapestries for hidden answers.
The councilors looked back. They studied Allyndev intently, seeking those same answers in his face. High King Ysradan stood and slowly approached the half-elven prince.
“Stand up, boy, and let me look at you,” he said hoarsely, his eyes full of tears.
Slowly, as if fighting his way up through water, Allyn stood.
Ysradan circled him, finally coming to a stop in front of him. Reaching out, he took Allyn’s face in his hands and turned it toward the lantern light.
“Astarus’ blood, but she’s right,” the High King whispered. “His look is strong in you, lad. Especially with the beard – Theo never could remember to shave.” Suddenly, the older man grabbed the young prince and pulled him into a long, hard embrace.
The hug reached through the cotton that had wadded around Allyn’s consciousness and he clung to Ysradan, weeping openly. He had a father! He was not just the product of some casual affair or the shameful result of an act of rape. His father was noble, and kind, and wise and all the things he had only dared to wish for when he was a boy.
“Ah gods, Theo, life is cruel,” Ysradan murmured, missing his friend all over again. He released Allyndev and walked over to Queen Lyssera. Hope and fear wrestled on his careworn face. “My lady – my friend, is it true? Is Allyndev Theodan’s son?”
Smiling sadly, Lyssera nodded. “Yes, my King, it is. Alynna confided the story to me before she died, and Starseeker Vashyra has verified the claim.”
“Thank you, Lyss,” he said calmly. Ysradan looked at his wife, noticing the tears that dampened the bandages around her eyes. Taking her hand and drawing her up beside him, he announced, “The word of a starseeker is more than enough proof for us.” Facing Allyn as well as the councilors, he proclaimed, “I, Ysradan Ymarych, High King of Y’myran, do hereby accept Prince Allyndev Kelani as the right and true heir of Theodan. Y’dan’s throne lies empty, young prince, will you take it?”
It was happening way too fast. Allyndev stared at the portrait of his father, trying to imagine what it would have been like to grow up seeing his parents together. He would give anything to have one memory of his mother and father holding him, or to hear his name spoken by the man who had given him life.
Azhani walked up to her protégé and put her hand on his shoulder. “Go on,” she said, giving him a slight push toward the throne. “He would have been so proud to see you on it.”
Stumbling blindly, Allyn forcibly put one foot in front of the other until he stood before the carved granite throne. He turned and looked at Ysradan, who only smiled.
“Go on lad, it’s yours. It’s not the coziest place in the room to sit, but she’ll support you whenever you need it.” Ysradan and Dasia stepped aside, leaving Allyndev to stand alone in front of the massive throne.
“Aunt Lyss...” he whispered, looking at the woman who had raised him. Rising, the Y’Syran queen went to her nephew and cupped his cheeks.
“Your mother...” Lyssera drew a shuddering breath and searched Allyn’s face. What she saw made her smile. “Alynna would have shoved you into that chair so hard that your backside would have hurt for weeks, Allyndev. Make her proud; make us all proud.” The queen stretched up on tiptoes and kissed his cheek, whispering, “I believe in you, Allyn.”
Lyssera let Allyn go and joined Ysradan and Dasia. Allyndev turned and looked out at the council chamber. Everyone had stood and were now looking at the young man expectantly. Valdyss Cathemon had come down to the chamber floor and now walked up to Allyn and knelt.
Looking up at the young man, the merchant said simply, “My king, your throne awaits.”
The other council members came to the floor, all kneeling, looking up at Allyn expectantly. Azhani and Kyrian, hand in hand, also walked down to the floor. Together, they knelt. Even Padreg and Elisira came down to kneel before Allyn.
Allyndev Kelani, King of Y’dan, sat on his throne.
Pages scurried through the castle. A coronation and a wedding were being hurriedly planned, both events to take place on the same day. Starseeker Vashyra, as the ranking member of Astariu’s church, graciously agreed to perform both ceremonies.
Sitting in their room, gratefully avoiding the mass of people filling the streets below, were Kyrian and Azhani. The two women had happily withdrawn from the chaos of the city and were snuggled up in front of the fire, watching it burn.
“What next?” Kyrian asked, turning over and staring into her lover’s dark blue eyes.
Azhani leaned in, kissed her and said, “I don’t know. We can go wherever you want, I suppose. I’ve already resigned as Warleader to both Y’dan and Y’Syr.” Neither Lyssera nor Allyndev had been particularly happy about relinquishing her services, but both had understood why the warrior wanted her freedom. “I’ve given too much of my life to others. Now it’s my turn. I want to be with you, Kyr, and I can’t do that and lead an army.”
The stardancer smiled and stroked the silver-toned mark on Azhani’s face. “I know, and I’m honored that you chose to be with me.”
“What was there to choose? I am with you. That is all that is necessary,” Azhani said, as she stole another kiss.
Beshyra padded up and let out a tiny mew, butting her head against Kyrian’s feet. The stardancer sat up and scooped up the rapidly growing cat. “Oof, you know, I’m not going to be able to do this much longer,” she warned the kitten while cuddling her close.
Azhani reached out and stroked the soft, gray fur of the cat’s back. “She’ll keep coming back as long as you keep picking her up, love,” the warrior warned.
Beshyra’s purr vibrated along her entire body. She and Azhani had come to a grudging understanding. The cat would not try to ventilate the warrior’s body and Azhani wouldn’t attempt to hurl her off the balcony. Now the half-elf and the cat got along perfectly.
“I know, but she’s so soft and she loves this so much,” Kyrian said wistfully, continuing to scratch the kitten’s ears.
Azhani chuckled. “I can certainly see why. There’s no place I’d rather be than held in your arms, being stroked lovingly.”
Kyrian cocked an eyebrow and said, “Is that a proposition, Azhi? Because if it is, too bad. We promised Vashyra that we would be good until tomorrow morning.”
The warrior looked down at the rug. Grumbling, she said, “I can try, can’t I?”
Putting the kitten down, Kyrian reached out and tweaked the warrior’s nose. “Yes, you can, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to let you get away with it.”
Azhani captured Kyrian’s fingers in her hand and kissed the tips. “Are you sure?” she purred, nibbling on the digits tortuously.
Drawing in a ragged breath of air, Kyrian pulled her hand away and firmly said, “Yes, I’m sure.”
“Rats,” Azhani said, though she was smiling.
Kyrian lay back down, snuggling up to her lover’s side. Azhani tucked an arm over Kyrian and cuddled her close. In moments, they were asleep. Beshyra climbed up and draped herself over both of her people, closed her eyes and started purring contentedly.
Snowflakes painted the windows as the small family slept peacefully, basking in the heat of the fire.
“Good morning, citizens of Y’dan.” Starseeker Vashyra spoke softly, but powerfully. The tall priest’s voice carried out into the crowd, easily catching everyone’s attention. Striding across the hastily built stage, Vashyra held her head high and looked out at the assembly. Y’dannyv’s streets were crammed with people.
Men, women and children had swollen the city’s population until it nearly burst. Now, on this chilly, wet morning of Winter Solstice, they were jammed dozens deep, waiting to see their new king. Nearby buildings were decorated with throngs of people who clung to awnings and stood on rooftops. Windows and doorways were jammed until their frames cracked.
Allyndev’s soldiers kept the peace as best as they were able, but the army was outnumbered three to one. Even the docks were full. Boats and people piled up until the wooden structures groaned under their weight.
“Today, is a day of celebrations,” Vashyra began, schooling her face to serenity. “You, who have suffered much at the hands of darkness, are now free to walk in the light. Today is a day of remembrance, as we mourn those whose lives fell into shadow. Let us both celebrate and remember those we loved, for their lives enriched each of us immeasurably.”
Vashyra bowed her head. Kyrian, leading the other stardancers, walked onto the stage, singing the Rite of Passing. The song was to comfort the departed and remind them that they were loved.
“Bright sun has gone
and the pale moon comes.
Lift up high
Reach the sky
take my family home.
Earth and air
Fire and water
bind us all
Father and son
Mother and daughter.
Bright sun has gone
and the pale moon comes.
See up high
in the sky
they are home.”
At the end of the song, Vashyra read a list of the dead. She started with Ylera Kelani, and continued until the last name echoed through the city. The sun was setting when the priest, whose voice had grown hoarse, looked up and out into the crowd. Very few eyes were dry. “And finally, let us remember Arris, son of Theodan, whose life on this earth was short and filled with pain. May he find peace in the arms of the gods.”
“Peace!” the crowd cried back thunderously.
“Now,” Vashyra said, after having a sip of soothing tea. “Let us celebrate. You are kingless no more.” The priest turned and looked at Allyndev, who had sat through the entire ritual, hidden behind several well-armed guards. “Rise and approach, your majesty. Let your people greet you, Allyndev Kelani, King of Y’dan!”
Allyn stepped up and slowly climbed onto the platform.
“Allyndev, Prince of the House Kelani, you are recognized as the rightful and true ruler of this land. Do you solemnly swear to keep and defend her, protecting her from all that would rise against the people that love her?” Vashyra asked, taking Allyn’s hand and placing it over her heart.
“I do,” Allyn said clearly.
“Do you promise to promote law, encourage commerce and provide heirs to the throne?”
“Then Allyndev, of the House Kelani, I bless you in the name of Astariu and call you my King,” Vashyra said, dropping the young man’s hand and kneeling before him.
An acolyte offered a pillow upon which rested a coronet. Vashyra took the crown and stood. “Will you kneel before me, my king, that I may act as the hand of Astariu and crown you before the eyes of your people?”
“I will.” Allyndev knelt, looking up at Vashyra nervously. The priest flashed him a smile.
“Your humility honors us all, my King,” the priest said, placing the crown upon his head. “Rise and greet your people, your majesty.”
Allyn stood and turned to face the crowd.
The Y’dani herald stepped forward, took a deep breath and announced, “All hail King Allyndev. Long live the King! Hip-hip-“
“Huzzah!” the crowd cheered. Fists, swords, caps, even children were hoisted high into the air, celebrating their new monarch. Many of those in the crowd knew their king from the days he had spent rooting out the evil priests who had turned their lives upside down. He was a hero to them and they loved him already.
Allyndev let them cheer for a while and then held his hands up for quiet. Slowly, the crowd calmed.
“My friends, my people, I am honored by your welcome. Thank you. I know that it is late, and you have all stood here for so long, but let me ask you to stand just a while longer.” He began striding back and forth over the stage, making eye contact with as many people as he could. His voice was strong and calm, and his smile lit up his face. “As you know, today is the Winter Solstice. Autumn’s harvest has left the land, allowing her to sleep. Today is usually a day of festivals and games, of presents and family. It is also the day when those men and women who offer their lives to guard the land come home to marry. Though she no longer serves Us, I can think of no greater way to offer Our thanks to one who has sacrificed so much for this land, than to grant Azhani Rhu’len the traditional right to marry on this day. What say you?”
“Huzzah!” the crowd cheered. They loved the warrior. She would always be their Warleader, especially now that her name had been cleared.
Grinning, Allyndev turned and looked over at Azhani. Dressed in her newly refurbished scale mail, with her midnight black hair freshly braided, the warrior cut a striking figure as she mounted the steps to the stage proper.
Kyrian, who was already on the stage, joined her. The stardancer was outfitted in a thick, crimson velvet robe. A saffron-colored silk belt was wrapped around her waist. From that was slung an ornately decorated sheath for her baton. A brightly polished Astariun token, a medallion of silver filigree that represented Y’myran’s twin gods, rested against her chest.
Azhani’s sword was slung on her back to keep it from smacking Kyrian in the hip as they walked across the stage to stand before Starseeker Vashyra and King Allyndev. Neither woman was particularly nervous. They had spent their night sleeping peacefully, knowing that whatever came, they would face it together.
Vashyra smiled and began to speak. “It is said that gods and destiny do not spin the wheel of fate lightly. So it behooves each of us to cherish the lives we intersect. Azhani, daughter of Rhu’len, you stand before me, asking for what boon?”
“I ask for nothing more than the right to walk the road of life by the side of my beloved, Stardancer Kyrian,” the warrior replied in a clear, deep voice.
Nodding, Vashyra then turned to face the stardancer and asked, “Kyrian, of Y’len temple, you stand before me, asking for what boon?”
“I ask for nothing more than to greet the sun’s rise each day by the side of my beloved, Azhani Rhu’len,” Kyrian replied, her voice high and pure, carrying easily across the crowds.
The starseeker reached out and joined Azhani and Kyrian’s hands, drawing them up until they were parallel to the ground. Wrapping a silver cord around their wrists, she said, “As the gods have willed, so I demonstrate for all to see. As this cord binds your hands, so have your lives entwined. Azhani and Kyrian, you stand here, watching the tapestry of your lives weave a future. Do you swear that you shall walk together, pledging to treat each other with humility, love and understanding?”
Bowing her head, Azhani said, “I do.”
“I do.” Kyrian echoed her.
“Then it is my honor to proclaim before gods and men that you, Azhani Rhu’len and you, Stardancer Kyrian, are joined as partners until death and beyond.”
Azhani turned, facing Kyrian. “My beloved.” She closed her eyes, seeing for just an instant, another face. Ylera’s amber and honey visage dissolved, replaced by the brilliant fire that was her Kyrian. Azhani opened her eyes and said, “Your friendship has been my greatest gift. Your strength and faith in me have been the cornerstone to my soul. Because of you, I am alive. I look toward tomorrow, knowing that I am not alone. I love you, and the stars blazing in the heavens will die before my love for you fades.”
Kyrian’s face was wet with tears. “My beloved,” the stardancer said, drawing their bound hands together and brushing her lips over Azhani’s knuckles. “You are the best friend I have. Your belief in me, gave me courage to stand and face the storm. Because of you, I will no longer fear the unknown. Now, I greet each day eagerly, knowing you are there beside me. I love you, and all the mountains in all the lands will be dust before my love for you fades.”
Stepping toward each other simultaneously, Azhani and Kyrian put their heads together, smiling shyly. Kyrian slowly tilted her head up, closing her eyes. Just as slowly, Azhani tilted her head down, her eyes fluttering shut as their lips brushed.
The stardancer’s tongue darted out, tasting her lover’s mouth, and Azhani moaned softly as she pressed into the kiss, deepening it. The world around the lovers melted away, leaving only the sweetness of their embrace.
The crowd went wild. The silver cord slipped from their hands as they reached for each other, continuing to kiss. Kyrian’s fingers found Azhani’s braids, twining within the mass easily. Azhani cupped the back of Kyrian’s head, leisurely stroking the skin at the nape of the stardancer’s neck. When they parted, it was only because Vashyra had softly cleared her throat.
Sheepishly, the two women grinned.
Vashyra smiled back and held out two intricately formed silver bracelets. “These tokens shall represent the cord, which you shall carry with you until the end of your days.” She offered one to the warrior and one to the stardancer. “Wear them and remember this day and the promises made.”
Solemnly, Azhani slid the bracelet on Kyrian’s wrist and then allowed Kyrian to do the same for her.
The herald, prodded awake by the king, coughed and said, “To Azhani and Kyrian. May they be eternally happy. Hip-hip-“
The city of Y’dannyv partied for days. Snow came and went and the city was still in the throes of celebration. High King Ysradan and his family left for Y’mar while Queen Lyssera returned to Y’Syr. King Allyndev settled into the task of learning how to be a good ruler. With able advisors like Valdyss Cathemon by his side, he quickly absorbed the best ways to handle the most truculent of his people.
Azhani and Kyrian agreed to stay in Y’dan until the spring, when they would then journey to Y’mar, to visit the sea. From there, their plans were open.
It was late evening, and the newlyweds were sharing a meal with their friends. Padreg and Elisira were scheduled to sail back to Y’Nor the next day, taking what remained of Padreg’s men with them. Devon and the hunting cat Avisha were joining them, so that he could continue his studies in mage craft. Also in the party was Princess Syrelle. The young Y’maran planned to finish her fostering and then return to Y’dan. Allyndev would meet her half way across Banner Lake and bring her back to Y’dannyv, where they would marry.
On the summer solstice, Padreg and Elisira would stand before the clans and pledge their troth. They invited everyone to attend, and Azhani and Kyrian immediately agreed to be there. Allyn and Syrelle were fast on their heels, assuring the Y’Norans that their day would be filled with friends and loved ones.
“We wouldn’t miss it,” Kyrian said, laughing at Avisha and Beshyra’s antics. The two cats, mother and daughter, were stalking a “mouse” that Azhani had cleverly crafted out of scraps of leather and fur. Beshyra pounced on the mouse, letting out a tiny yowl of frustration when it “leaped” away from her, drawn across the floor by a thin piece of twine attached to it.
Elisira looked at her friends and said, “I am so happy for you two. The ceremony was so,” she sighed wistfully. “I can’t wait for ours.” She glanced over at Padreg lovingly.
Allyndev laughed. “Oh boy, cousin, you’d better start running now. Cook tells me that Eli was the reason why there were five different kinds of honey cakes for the reception.”
Affecting an outraged expression, Elisira touched her chest and said, “A girl’s got to have options, you know. Honestly, your majesty, how could you expect me to just eat honey walnut cakes? Why, I might want honey oat instead!”
Everyone chuckled appreciatively.
“If you think that’s bad, Allyn, just wait until you see the menu for our feast,” Syrelle said, grinning wickedly.
Feigning fear, the king ducked behind Devon and loudly whispered, “Save me, oh worthy mage, protect me from the evil menu toting beasts!”
Licking his fingers of the crumbs from his dessert, Devon burped and said, “Sorry, your maj - no can do. I like food way too much to get in the way of its production.”
The teasing went on late into the night until one by one, each of the companions said their good nights and made their way to bed.
Kyrian stood on the balcony overlooking the darkened courtyard, and sighed, thinking of all that had passed to bring her to this place. She thought of the men and women whose lives had been lost along the way. She thought of poor, drug-maddened Arris, and wondered how different life would have been if Porthyros Omal had never come into his life. A strong, northern wind skated across the city, ruffling the stardancer’s hair and sending a wave of chills over her thinly clad body.
Come on Kyr, get your butt back in bed with that gorgeous hunk of a partner you’ve got, and forget about all this stupid soul-searching, she quietly told herself, yet, she did not move.
Sleepless eyes continued to stare, seeking hidden meanings to the sound and shadow of the darkness. Too many had paid with their blood, so that she could stand here and look down upon the night-shadowed pennants that fluttered and snapped in the breeze.
She didn’t know how long it was that she stood, buffeted by the wind, but suddenly, a beautifully warm body was behind her, and two long arms were wrapped lovingly around her.
“Mm, what’re you doing, looking for owldragons? They don’t fly in the city,” Azhani murmured sleepily, nuzzling the side of Kyrian’s head gently.
Kyrian exhaled deeply, almost chuckling. “No,” she whispered, not quite willing to put her thoughts into words.
Azhani’s hands slipped up under Kyrian’s light silk robe and began to slowly chafe the stardancer’s nipples. “Oh? Then what is it?”
Kyrian’s response was a staggered groan as she leaned into her lover’s caress. Azhani’s touch grew heated, her fingertips gliding from breast to hips and back. Head falling forward, Kyrian moaned loudly. All her dark thoughts melted away at the tender touch of her beloved.
Seizing her opportunity, Azhani quickly began covering her lover’s bared neck with kisses until finally, Kyrian spun around and fiercely whispered, “Love me.”
Blue eyes, glittering with desire, gazed into uncertain green eyes. Azhani grinned joyfully, replying, “Every day, for the rest of my life.”
Kyrian let out a soft sob and stepped into Azhani’s kiss, nearly bowling the warrior over with the force of her embrace. Staggering backward, Azhani cradled Kyrian against her, returning her kiss eagerly and trying to guide them safely to their bed.
When dawn’s golden fingers painted across the harbor, nudging the sleeping city to wakefulness, the two women, curled tightly around each other, slept on, their dreams filled with the gentleness of loving peace.
I finished my first book! Yay! I can’t begin to thank all the people responsible for getting me to this point, but there are two specific women who deserve my greatest thanks.
First, to Cie: ~Are you still gonna shoot me?~ <grin> Woman, you pestered me, picked on me and generally kicked me around until this monster was finished. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart.
Second, but never finally, to my mother: ~Everything.~ All the good that I am, is because of your love and support. Thank you, forever.
If you liked this story, or if you hated it, I’d like to know. Razz the writer: email@example.com.
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