Feedback is always welcome at: email@example.com, Adarkbow@yahoo.com
The first thing she noticed was the taste in her mouth. It was quite possibly
the vilest thing she'd ever tasted and waking up to it nearly made her gag.
The second thing she noticed, as she tried to turn over onto her side, was
that she couldn't. Blue eyes flew open at that and she tensed, tugging at the
ropes that bound her arms and legs to each corner of the large four-poster
"Khelin?" she rasped through a parched mouth. No answer, nothing else moved in the sumptuously appointed room.
The drapes fluttered hinting at the day that had come as golden beams snuck in through gaps in the fabric. There were no other sounds. The Palace seemed deserted.
Struggling to free herself, Luna hissed in pain as the ropes chafed against her already red and bleeding skin. What had happened last night? The entire evening was a blur of faces, wine and dancing at Khelin's latest party. Why did she hurt everywhere? Craning her neck, the blonde peered down her body, grimacing at the thin red welts that laced her skin. Maybe she didn't want to know what happened.
Somewhere she heard the sound of a door opening, and the scraping noise of wood on stone. Someone started to whistle a jangled, nonsensical tune. "Fucked another one until she was not but a bloodstain. Clean, clean, that's all your good for, Worm," a cold voice said mockingly. "But you remember this place, don't you, Worm. You were here once and the delight of our Mistress's eye. Yes, a pretty noble from Corisaco until the Mistress and her pets had their fun with you and now you're just Worm." The voice laughed. The laugh broke away, "Get to work, slave, before I don't want you either. Then you'll have nobody." The door slammed shut and the whistling slowly faded away.
A feeling of fear swept through Luna as she listened to the cold mocking voice in the hallway. Desperately she struggled against the ropes, succeeding only in making the skin on her wrists and ankles bleed more. Splintered memories from the night before returned, causing her to struggle harder. Faces she did not know, laughing cruelly as they used her and the feel of strange hands doing things to her body. She struggled harder and began to truly panic. Next to the bed, a vase teetered off a bedside table and shattered on the ground. The noise jerked Luna from her struggle and she lay panting on the bed. She shuddered, as more fragmented memories, ugly and disgusting, emerged.
The bucket slid across the floor occasionally water slopping over the sides, the figure trailing behind it with a mop was dressed in scant rags, covered in dirt and stains that looked like blood. At the noise, the figure froze, and the silence fell heavy and uncomfortable.
Shutting her eyes against the memories she did not want and tears streaking down her cheeks, Luna shook her head trying to shake them loose. How? How could she have been so stupid to let Khelin use her? A sob tore at her throat and she tugged half-heartedly on the ropes once again, ignoring the stabs of pain.
Dark brown eyes went wide at the sight on the bed. Normally they weren't alive once the Queen was done with them. Worm froze, at a loss of what to do. She should go back and let Madlin know. Yes, that was what good slaves did, and if she did good, perhaps Madlin wouldn't touch her tonight.
Blue eyes flew open at the sound of a door opening, a low gasp as she took in the pitiful figure holding the mop. "Wait!" Luna called as the figure started to turn away.
Worm halted, her body shaking, and she turned back, shutting the door. Her eyes again went to the bed. "I-I-I c-can't," she said, trembling with fear. And then she saw the tears and the blood, and she gasped. It was her, in this place again, tied to that horrible bed with Khelin laughing and mocking her.
"A princess? Oh no, my dear, you are a whore and I will use you as such."
Worm squeezed her eyes shut trying to get those memories to go away. They belonged to someone else, not her.
"Please," Luna whispered, begging. "Please, help me."
"I-I-I can't," she repeated. "I'm only a slave. If I help you, they'll hurt me again."
"Please, don't leave me here," Luna said pleadingly, hating how desperate she sounded. "You can come with me. They never have to know. Just undo one rope, that's all." She knew she was babbling, but she was terrified of remaining where she was.
Dark, matted hair swung as the young woman shook her head, fright etched on her face. "No. You're hers now. She owns you and no one leaves her until she's done with you."
"I belong to no one." Luna stated defiantly, struggling on the bed and nearly weeping in frustration. "Let me go! Please, I can't stay here."
Worm shook her head and crossed the room standing at the foot of the bed between Luna's spread open legs. "No, you don't understand, she owns you. You have her mark, branded into you skin." She leaned over and gently touched the raised hot flesh of Luna's upper thigh. Then remembering herself she stepped back.
"What?" Luna's voice had dropped to a whisper as she tried to see down where the other woman had touched. She now realized the skin on the inside of her upper thigh was raw and it hurt. "She branded me?" True terror set in. Suddenly Luna flung herself against the bonds, ignoring the pain as she struggled viciously. "I would rather die!" she yelled hoarsely, determined to break free.
"S-s-stop. You're going to tear your wrists open. What are you doing?"
Luna ignored her, struggling even harder, the burning on her wrists was beginning to equal that of her thigh.
Worm knew she should go get Madlin. "S-stop. You're bleeding." Tears ran down her face, she didn't know what to do.
"Then undo one of the ropes!" Luna hissed as she kept thrashing. She could not, would not, survive another night like the one before. She would do whatever it took to insure that she was never a part of Khelin's pleasures again. Even if that meant she had to bleed to death on the bed.
It was the command in the voice that made Worm stoop over and untie the rope at the woman's wrist before she realized what she was doing. Her fingers slipped on the blooded rope and a fingernail tore, but now she had started, she couldn't stop.
As the rope came undone, so did Worm. She began to hyperventilate and collapsed, sliding down the wall. "By the Gods, by the Gods," she said over and over.
Covered in sweat and blood, Luna quickly freed her other arm and then both legs. Only then did she pause to see the damage done by Khelin's brand. The red skin was raised and had crusted over. The pattern of the Southern leader's house had been burnt into her inner thigh. Gagging, Luna looked away and focused on breathing. Forcing herself up, she staggered about the room, retrieving what clothes she could find. Her weapons were gone, but she would manage without them. She had to. "Come on, let's go." Luna stooped, putting wet hands under the hyperventilating woman's arms, helping her up. "We have to go."
"No, no, no," the pathetic creature cried. "There's nowhere to go. She is the Queen. Her spies are everywhere, in every shadow."
Luna grabbed the stranger by both shoulders, shaking her once to get her to look up. "North. We'll go north to my people. She is not Queen there."
Worm's eyes got even bigger. "I can't go there. That's where the barbarian's live. They'll drink my blood and grind my bones for bread." She tried to pull out of Luna's grasp.
"I live there!" Luna refused to let her go, trying to get through to the other woman. They didn't have time for this. Any moment someone could walk in. Khelin could return at any time. "I promise. We'll be safe there. Please, trust me?"
Worm whimpered wringing her hands, "I'm damned no matter what I do now."
Brown eyes darted around. "Get dressed, get dressed! Madlin will come to check on me and make excuses to hurt me. Hurry!"
Quickly Luna tossed on a vest and pants, the only two pieces of clothing she'd been able to find. The vest wasn't even hers, but she didn't care. She wanted out. Out and free of this cursed place and its scheming leader. How, her mind cried, how had she fallen into this trap? "Okay. Let's go."
The slave, Worm, was disappearing and the princess from Corsico, who had
been overwhelmed in this room under Khelin's hands, was coming back. She grabbed
the oil lamp from the table and threw it on to the bed. The glass shattered
and the flame leapt out onto the smooth fabric. "That should help cause
some confusion. There should be a merchant cart leaving the Palace soon if
we can get to the kitchens."
"Lead the way." Luna's fingers itched to have her bow or a sword, just anything. Nearly naked and weaponless was causing her all sorts of problems with vulnerably. The memories from last night... no, she would not think about that yet. She forced them away again.
Worm inched the door open and scanned the hallway. Finding it clear, she looked over her shoulder. "Take the mop. It's not much, but in a pinch, it will do as a staff."
"My name is Luna" she said as she grabbed the mop and tested the heft of the shaft. It wasn't much, but it would last for a swing or two, she hoped.
"M-my name is... is... I am called Worm." The slave opened the door and motioned for Luna to follow her.
They crept down the opulent hallways together, down the stairs, across a small courtyard, past lounging courtiers, and into the kitchens.
Worm was sweating. "It was too easy," she thought, "too easy." Maybe Luna's Northern Goddess was looking out for them.
Behind them, shouting started as dark black smoke poured out of the palace rooms .
"Quicker," Luna hissed, well aware that the moment anyone took a close look at them, it would be over. Blood leaked from her wrists and ankles, and Worm wore what could only be considered remnants of rags.
"There." The slave pointed to a cart that was nearly empty, stacks of canvas covers draped in the back. She started to move when a soldier came from the kitchen, gnawing on a leg of goose. Worm's face went white, all her fears suddenly realized.
Without hesitation, the Northerner stepped past her, mop arching up and then down with as much strength as Luna could put into it. The wooden handle shattered against the surprised soldiers head, sending her bouncing down to the cobblestones.
Tossing the shattered remnants aside, Luna quickly started to strip the fallen soldier of weapons. Judging by the blood spreading out from where the Southern soldier's head lay, she'd put more force into the blow then she'd realized.
Worm was starting to hyperventilate again, "We're doomed, doomed. May the Goddess of the Sea Protect me." She made a strange gesture over her heart.
"Come on." Luna managed to wrestle the soldier's leather jerkin and pants off and tossed them to Worm. "We're leaving now." she headed around the wagon. "Can you drive this?"
Worm picked up the clothes where they had fallen and scurried after the strange Northerner. "I... I... slaves aren't allowed too," she said, staring at the huge, tri-horned oxen that were standing contentedly in the path.
"I'm not asking if a slave can." Luna finished belting on the soldier's sword. She felt a thousand times better with its weight at her side. "Can 'you' drive this?"
Worm was speechless. "Yes, well, I think I can. But these Southlander oxen are bigger than I'm use to."
They were a lot bigger than the Alcen's that Luna knew too. "Drive then." She got up on the side spot, where the escort usually rode and tried to bind her hair back so she looked somewhat respectable.
Worm pulled the guard's clothes on over her rags and scrambled into the driver's seat. There was more yelling, more chaos coming from behind them. She scooped up the reins, snapped them and gave a hoarse yell of "Gee…up!"
With the cart now empty of its load, the oxen quickly got it moving and soon they were bouncing down the road and out of the Palace grounds.
Peering ahead, Luna narrowed her eyes. "That could be a problem." She nodded toward the guard shack at the edge of the palace grounds ahead of them. Four guards had emerged from it and were staring at the chaos that was rapidly building behind them as shouts of "Fire!" were heard.
As they came closer, Worm didn't stop the cart. Instead, a commanding voice that sounded nothing like the slave, Worm, came from the woman. "Stop staring at it. Go help. The Palace is on fire! We're running to bring more water from the town as well as more help."
The Guards blinked and started to run toward the smoking Palace.
Luna couldn't help but turn in surprise at the woman beside her. That had sounded nothing like the woman who had been terrified of removing a single rope holding down Luna earlier. It was from someone used to having people obey her. "Well done" was all she murmured as they left the Palace behind them.
"I am a princess of Corisco. I am a Princess of Corisco. I AM A PRINCESS OF CORISCO!" she shouted as they bounced along in the cart. Worm had tears running down her face. She gave a joyful laugh and grinned at Luna.
The laugh surprised Luna. She'd forgotten there was such things over the past few weeks. "Well met Princess of Corisco." She glanced behind them, relaxing as she saw nothing but people running toward the Palace, not after them. "Will you come north with me?"
Worm shook her head. "No. I want to go home. Khelin made me forget what a wonderful thing it is, and I miss it." She slowed the cart down to a more manageable speed. "I will take you to Felda's Pass. That will take you home, barbarian," she said with a smile.
Luna snorted and turned around to sit down on the seat next to Worm. "I'm not a barbarian. We just left her behind us."
Khelin was enjoying her latest conquest for the night. She licked the blood off her lips, fully entertained by the young woman's pain and torment. The young woman was definitely a conquest. Her fighters had found the northerner spying on the castle and managed to capture her. The tall blonde was stretched out on the bed, arms and legs chained spread eagle to the corners.
"Now what shall I do next, hmmm?" The dark haired woman grinned, tracing a red line down the woman's already bleeding abdomen with the tip of her dagger.
The woman on the bed looked enough like Luna for Khelin to forget she wasn't. "Nobody leaves me," the dark queen suddenly hissed. Rage filled her as she reared up and plunged her blade to the hilt into the Ranger's breast. Blood splattered everywhere. The blood soaked Khelin ran her tongue over her lips again.
She climbed off the body and started cleaning her torso and chest with the woman's discarded shirt. The Southern Queen then tossed the bloodstained shirt into the fireplace as she walked to the door. The fire in the room had burned down into glowing hot coals. As the shirt hit the smoldering embers, red, fiery flames shot up the flume. After a moment, the fire turned blacker than a moonless night.
Khelin paused at the doorway when she heard the roar of the flames and glanced back at the fireplace. With a snort, she re-closed the door and waited, a hand on her hip, the other casually flipping the dagger she'd just used.
The flames twisted together faster and faster and became more solid. Then they flowed out of the fireplace and formed into a huge black serpent with eyes that shined and glistened in the light. Coiling into a ball, it reared up coming eye to eye with Khelin.
"Must you always make such a production when you make an entrance?" she drawled while cleaning the blood from her nails with the knife. Then the Queen swallowed uneasily and lowered the dagger as she recognized the feeling of dangerous anger filling the room.
"Must you kill off all the pets I've given you? I tried to warn you about the folly of pushing into the North. And now, not just one of my Chosen is dead but six of them have died." Every word dripped with anger.
The serpent reared up even taller, a black hood extending and flexing behind the head.
Khelin's lips twitched at that news. She'd hoped that Luna would be dead by now. Well, the best defense is a good offense she thought.
"You're the one who told me I had to keep them from finding a leader!" Despite her best efforts, she couldn't stop from taking a step backward from the menacing snake.
"I gave you all you needed to conqueror the North but you let her slip through your fingers and return here. You discount my Priestesses, and don't think I've failed to notice you've killed a few of them as well." The glowing eyes narrowed into slits.
"They insulted me, and they did not believe in you. Besides, what does it matter? We'll still slaughter them. It took us less than a day to take this castle." Khelin thought furiously, she might have to rethink her strategy.
"Yes, you did. But before, they were scattered and unfocused," the shadows hissed out, "now you have given them focus. You have found them a Queen and sent the Betrayer into their lands." The serpent's coils flexed and retracted in agitation.
"But Mother..." Khelin began, holding out her hands to either side, one still gripping the dagger, "have the blood sacrifices not been enough?"
"Blood sacrifices! You'll need more than blood. You are in my sister's lands!" The white eyes flashed. "I have very little power here. There are no pets to snap to attention."
Khelin scoffed. "Your sister does nothing for them! I crushed her followers in this castle, and I'll do the same to the rest!"
The serpent rose up, hissing in anger. "She is more cunning than you think. She was the only one brave enough to free your ancestors from Korgon. Do not underestimate my sister! She has a plan. I can feel it but I have no idea what it is."
Khelin's expression was doubtful, but she knew better than to push too far. "So, what would you have me do?"
"Perhaps I have been over-indulgent with you." The serpent deflated at bit. "You are my first and only child." The serpent's shadow flickered. "I love you and I don't want to see you taken from me by the others."
Dark eyes widened, and then narrowed furiously. "I will grind them into the earth!" Khelin flung the dagger back into the dead Northerner." I'll bleed them for you, Mother. Do not doubt that I will conquer the North in your name."
The snake's eyes glowed with an internal fire. "Then you need to find that Betrayer child. She was the one who brought Abnoa to its knees. Her hatred burned so brightly, she was almost her own dark star. She was magnificent!"
Khelin seethed at the praise given to the half-breed traitor.
"But that fire has dimmed and I can't sense her anymore. If you can find her and re-fire that rage, she will lead you to the orb and the North's defeat. That's all I can tell you." Then the black serpent slithered back into the fire pit, fading slowly into the burning orange fire. "Do… not… fail… me… again," the flames hissed.
Luna stretched her tired body, groaning and covering her eyes with an arm and then flopped back down on her bed. It had been an exhausting day. The morning had begun with what seemed to have been an endless stream of women who wanted Luna to decide on one thing or another. The issues had ranged from when to reopen the ferry service across the river to a dispute over a bow plus everything in-between. She hadn't left her rooms all day, with people coming in just as she thought she was finished.
"Are they all gone?" She cracked open an eye to peer at the other two women, raising an eyebrow. "Tasha? Is that the last of them? Please say yes."
"Yes," Tasha laughed. "Actually it is. We get a small break before tonight's moonrise ceremony." She rubbed her temple trying to soothe a headache. "Where's Torrin?" She asked not missing the dark look that crossed Eve's face. Tasha frowned and looked at the overeager Eve who practically hovered over Luna as the girl handed her a goblet full of wine. Any minute she expected the girl to start rubbing Luna's shoulders. Of course, Luna, she inwardly sighed, was unaware of the girl's crush.
Luna sat up and frowned at Tasha. "That's a good question." She wasn't entirely certain where Torrin had gone either. Just as she was about to get to her feet and go see if she could track down the dark-haired woman, someone knocked at the door. She groaned and hid her head again as Eve rushed to open the door.
She returned with a dark ceremonial garment in her arms. "I hope you don't mind, but I had a seamstress make you something for the procession tonight."
There was a small pause as the Wind Walker placed the midnight blue tunic and pants on the bed and touched Luna on the arm. "You will be in the procession, of course?"
"Um, thank you, Eve." Luna had not intended to be part of the actual funeral procession to the temple, but now, it seemed she didn't have a choice.
Another knock came to the door and then Torrin walked in with Fyre, both disheveled and sporting a few bruises. Both women were laughing and pounding each other on the back. "Hey, Luna... oh, hey lookie, the gang's all here. Eve. Tasha." Torrin gave a mock bow and a lopsided smile to both of them.
Leaving a frowning Eve, Luna grinned and walked toward the two newcomers. She nodded to Fyre, who she knew by sight but had not talked to before. "Hello to you both. You look like you had fun?"
"Thought you should know, about an hour ago, Fyre won the final fight. She's the new leader of the Fire Clan. Which I think is hilarious. Fyre, of the Fire Clan." Torrin and Fyre burst out laughing.
When she realized not everybody thought it was as funny as she and Torrin did, Fyre caught her breath and gave an embarrassed smile. Her gentle blue eyes took in the room, and she held out a hand to Luna. "Well met, Luna. My mother talked glowingly about you, which is rather amazing since she rarely spoke much."
Both blonde eyebrows rose in surprise at that and Luna returned the handshake as one warrior to another. "Your mother will be missed. Congratulations on winning your match. You know Tasha, I think, and this is Eve, daughter of Athena, new leader of the Wind Walkers."
Luna turned back to Torrin. "And of course you went out to celebrate during that hour?" she asked, secretly wishing she could have been there.
"Well, we might have celebrated a little," Torrin grinned at her, "and especially after Emily and Ember bought that last round. But then Adrian had to go be a party pooper.
Blue eyes narrowed slightly at the mention of Adrian, but Luna held her tongue.
"But I think the Water Clan will like the gift we wrapped and left on
their doorstep, don't ya think Frye?" The new Clan leader laughed and
Luna winced, she was certain she would hear about that soon enough.
Frye turned to Tasha. "Well met, Tasha." Then she turned to Eve. "I'm sorry for your loss."
Eve nodded back cordially. "Thank you. Please excuse me. I have to go get ready for the procession." The slender woman paused at the doorway. "Luna, I will see you later in the procession."
Confused why the younger woman had felt she needed to repeat that, Luna just nodded.
Torrin snickered but then went still as she watched the exchange with Eve. Her face darkened for a moment before she schooled her features into neutral mask.
Fyre started to say something but Tasha grabbed her hand. "Fyre, why don't I walk with you to the ceremony? I have some questions I'd like to ask you about your Clan."
Fyre nodded as looked over to Torrin, but the woman ignored her. With a sigh, she let herself be escorted out of the room.
Left alone in the room with Torrin, Luna awkwardly glanced around, trying to think of something to say. "Um, what exactly did Adrian do?" was her first brilliant thing to say.
"You're really integrating yourself into the Wind Walker culture, I see." Torrin said at the same time.
"What do you mean?"
Gray eyes slid away from Luna's frowning face. "Um, well, you just seem to be filling in for Wind Walker customs that a mother or partner would be doing."
Blue eyes darkened for a moment. "You're the one who told me that they expected me to be at Eve's ceremony, didn't you?" Luna placed the mug of wine down and paced to the window. "Besides, Tasha was here too, unless you've started to pretend you can't see your sister?"
"Yeah, you were expected to be there, but not stand at her side. And what does my half-sister have to do with anything... You know… oh, just forget it." Torrin rubbed her forehead moving to the bedroom. Normally she saw the barstools when they came at her, but Adrian's buddy had gotten in a luck shot. "I'm going to go lie down."
Luna stared in surprise at the smaller woman's retreating back. "What just happened here?" the Ranger muttered as she watched the door to Torrin's bedroom slam shut. She stood there for a moment, not sure what to do. As she covered a yawn, she decided she could afford a nap as well. Luna skimmed out of her shirt and pants, and slipped into the cool sheets. Promising herself only a short sleep, she'd closed her eyes and hoped that Torrin would be in a better mood when she woke up.
Torrin struggled as dark dreams forced themselves upon her. The dark-haired woman groaned and twisted around in the sheets.
The room was dark and smoky. Incense burned everywhere making one dizzy with the sweet scent. In the silky shadows, humanoid forms writhed and merged in and out of each other.
She watched her Queen move over the Northerner, grunting and sweating in a beautiful display of strength and control. When the bodies stopped moving, a dark hand moved to a table and picked up a cup sitting there. Its narcotic contents then forced down the throat of the woman underneath.
Then, she was motioned forward and she knelt at her Queen's side. She sighed as a hand caressed her head.
"You've been good, haven't you, my pet?"
"Good. Perhaps a reward?" Hands came down removing her shirt. Then the hands were back tracing the muscles in her back and arms.
"I want to watch you. Go on. Yes, I want to watch you fuck my tasty little Northerner."
She crept on to the bed, her hands holding Luna down. Her hands…
Torrin woke up, a scream working its way up from her toes. She shoved her hand into her mouth and bit down until she tasted blood. Getting up, she heaved into the chamber pot until her stomach was empty. Grimacing from the taste, she fumbled for a pitcher of water, rinsing out her mouth. Finally, she sat on the floor letting the cool stone soothe her body.
Anger, rage… it burned hotter than any fire in her gut.
Torrin breathed in and out. 'That wasn't really her. It was the memories that had seeped into her from the assassin,' she kept telling herself. After a while, she felt more in control of her emotions and stood up to get dressed. Retrieving her recently delivered pack from Wooten's Tavern, she pulled out a small box. Opening it, she took out two objects and pocketed them on her body.
Taking another breath Torrin opened the door of her room and moved out into the other room. She fully intended on going quickly to the Assassin's cell, but she paused, her eyes straying to where Luna slept. The covers were pushed down and long blonde hair lay pooled around her face. The fading afternoon light streamed in through the nearby window, dusting the entire scene in a golden hue.
The shorter woman's gray eyes held onto Luna's face. Her friend seemed so peaceful. Luna shouldn't have had those horrors visited upon her.
The Ranger twitched in her sleep, rolling over and muttering something as she snuggled deeper into the covers.
Unable to stop herself, she moved silently to the edge of Luna's bed and crouched down so her face was even with Luna's. Her lips moved into a small smile and she reached out moving a blonde strand out of her friend's face.
"Oh, Luna. I'm so sorry," she breathed out in a whisper.
The blonde whimpered in her sleep, twisting her head to the side as she faced whatever demons haunted her dreams.
"Shhhh." Torrin stroked Luna's forehead, easing the lines of tension.
Luna stilled at Torrin's touch, turning her head towards the contact. "Torrin," Luna sighed, her lips curling into a small grin as better dreams took over.
Blue eyes fluttered open and Luna gave Torrin a slow sleepy smile. Cupping the hand on her cheek, the ranger closed her eyes again.
"Is it time to get up?" she asked, her voice thick with sleep.
Torrin felt her breath catch as Luna smiled at her.
"What?" She blinked gray eyes. "Oh, um, I don't know."
Blue eyes opened a crack and Luna twisted a bit to glance at the window, checking to see how dark it was yet. "We don't have to be there until moonrise." Yawning, she stretched, bearing more than a bit as the blankets slipped.
Torrin swallowed as she watched the blankets slip down further. "Oh, okay." She willed her eyes up to Luna's face.
Luna tugged the blankets up around her, paused a second, then moved over and lifted the blanket up in an invitation. "You're getting cold," she explained, her cheeks heating in a blush as she did so.
"What were you just doing now?"
Torrin hesitated. "I had a… I was… you seemed to be having a bad dream. I..." She trailed off, not making any sense. After a moment, she climbed into the bed.
Luna was quiet for a bit then turned onto her side, propping her head up on a pillow and studied her friend. "I won't be in the procession if you think it's a bad idea."
Torrin sighed. "No, I'm sorry about earlier. It's none of my business. You should do whatever you think is best." She rolled on to her back and stared at the ceiling. Her nightmare was coming back to her and her hands began to tremble.
Misinterpreting the source of those tremors, Luna tucked the blankets around them both, willing to help warm her friend again as she had before.
"Told you that you'd be cold." Luna yawned and took pleasure in the peace and quiet after a moment of silence. "I don't know what is best," she whispered suddenly. "I don't know why people think I do, but I don't. Even Tasha's doing it now, asking me what to do. What do I know? I'm just a Ranger who lost a castle."
Torrin rolled back over to her side and looked into scared, blue eyes. "Luna, I don't know how I can make you see yourself as everyone else does. But you are a leader. You survived the enemy and you know how they fight. You may have failed, but you couldn't have known that Khelin would have someone who would have intimate knowledge of Abnoa." Her voice broke. "You didn't know she'd have me."
The silence stretched into minutes, and then Luna gently touched Torrin's cheek. "Then it's a good thing you're on my side now." She smiled slowly, lightly stroking the skin below her fingertips. "Right?"
Gray eyes flickered down to the fingertips. "Yes. You have me." She licked her lips looking back at Luna's face.
"Do I?" Luna whispered, her fingers sliding down to touch Torrin's neck, blue eyes fixed on Torrin's lips, suddenly aware of how close together they were and how little she was wearing.
Torrin's breath caught as fingers traced random lines on the skin of her neck. She closed her eyes trying to block everything out. She felt so out of control of the moment. Opening her eyes, she reached out a hand and cupped Luna's jaw, tracing the lips with her thumb.
"You do have me. I don't know why you'd want me, but here I am."
Luna marveled at how she could feel Torrin's pulse speed up, and the feel of her skin was intoxicating. Ignoring everything but the feel of that skin and the look in those gray eyes, Luna leaned forward. It seemed like an eternity before she slowly, hesitantly, brushed her lips against Torrin's, groaning at the softness and heat of them.
Torrin fought with herself not to push for more. She let the kiss just be
a kiss. She wanted to bury her hands in Luna's hair and pull her deeper. But
she resisted and let Luna have control, even as her heart speed up and her
hands began to sweat. She marveled how the kiss was nothing she had imagined
kissing Luna would be like. It was so much more.
Luna reluctantly pulled back, licking her lips as she did so, her heart hammering. She was tempted to pull Torrin closer, feel her skin pressed against her own. It was scary how much she wanted that.
"We should get ready." Her voice was unsteady and she was trembling
Torrin nodded. Somewhat dazed, she licked her lips tasting where Luna had been. "Yeah, ready. Ready for what?"
Luna stood with the others at the main gate of the Castle, waiting quietly as the Honor Guard assembled itself. Magda rested on a large shield while Athena was on a simple polished wooden stretcher. Twelve women then carried the bodies to the temple for the ceremony.
The crescent moon was just beginning to rise above the horizon when the procession began to move. The entire city gathered along the route, the way lit by torch light and the light of the rising moon. There was a somber silence as they walked. Luna uneasily straightened her dark formal garments. Her new sword hung at her side. She had no desire to go anywhere without it after the attack in the library. She also made a point of positioning herself behind Magda's family despite Eve's plea for her to walk with her.
The procession slowly wound its way through the city streets taking a full candle light to bring them to the temple, up the stairs, through the wide double doors and into the building itself. Inside, moonlight lit the beautiful stained glass work that Luna had appreciated on her first visit. She noticed Torrin positioning herself near the back by the main doors.
Torrin watched the procession from the entrance with hooded eyes. Rhain, her puffy nose taking over her face and still full of her own self-righteousness, glared fiercely as she passed by. Tasha flanked their mother's other side. She no longer wore bandages but her right eye was still swollen shut and her face was a patchwork of bruises. She smiled weakly at Torrin as they entered but seemed grateful Torrin had chose not to stand with the family.
Fyre, while still unofficially the Fire Clan leader was Magda's eldest and so she took the lead. Her sisters, Adrian, the twins Emily and Ember, and their Aunt carried the shield with Magda's body. She smiled back at the Fire Clan procession. For them, this was not a time of mourning. Their mother had died a warrior. She had died battling the enemy and that was a source of pride. She was happy to see Adrian was willing to put away petty jealousy at least for today. As they entered the Temple, she nodded to Torrin, not missing the way her friend's eyes moved to watch Luna.
Torrin nodded her head to Fyre and then sneered at Adrian. She really was unhappy with the woman. Last night Adrian had burst in on their happy drink fest and moaned about how she had been cheated out of the leadership. When she started to blame Luna, well, things had gotten nasty.
As she looked at Luna's face, Torrin resisted the urge to touch her lips in wonder as the memory of the kiss they had shared earlier came back to her. She finally shifted her gaze to the proceedings.
It was a simple ceremony. Both bodies were brought to the front of the Temple where the Priestesses anointed both bodies with oil and then wrapped them in white linens accompanied by chanting and incense burning. Once the bodies had been prepared and the chanting had finished, the procession reversed and went back out of the Temple.
Torrin stood silently as she watched them leave, still stunned at the fierce blossoming of emotion that had burst in her chest with just a look at Luna. It was almost scary in its intensity.
Luna moved slowly, her thoughts full of the killings she had seen in the recent past and the death she would see again soon. She paused as she got to where Torrin stood. As she met those gray eyes, she found the memories of death and the fear of the future disappeared.
With a smile, the Ranger moved on, following the silent procession as it made its way toward the packed central square. It was probably the largest gathering of the Northern tribes at a single place in generations. Once there, each body was placed upon newly constructed funeral pyres and carefully arranged by their families. Ceremoniously, the priestess's touched burning torches to the pyres, setting them aflame.
Only then was the silence broken as the best singers in the Wind Walker clan sang. Their voices soared with the flames, singing the two departed women to the sky and entrusting them to the Moon Goddess.
When the pyres became embers, the crowd slowly dispersed. Luna shook hands with Fyre and Tasha, got a surprising hug from Eve, and started to leave as well.
Only then did she realize she couldn't find Torrin.
When most of the people had left the Temple, Torrin moved into the street shadows. Her nightmare still rolled darkly around her head, and unhappily, she knew what needed to be done. Seeing that no one was paying her any attention, she slipped away from the crowd. Patting a pocket, she felt the forms of the tools she would need.
Torrin walked down the hallway toward the guard. Stopping just in front of the heavyset woman she nodded to her. Her eyes drifted to the closed door with light that brightly spilled out of cracks.
"She do or say anything?"
The guard shook her head. "Nope. Not a peep. I check on her once an hour to see if she's still there and alive. She just glares at me when I open the door."
Torrin nodded. "Has anybody been here to see her?"
The woman peered at the shorter, dark-haired woman. Torrin made her slightly nervous. Not that it mattered to her, but she had heard the stories and yet Torrin looked like just a girl who had seen too much in life. "Nope."
"Good. I'm going to go in and… talk with the prisoner."
The guard nodded. "Okay." She didn't have any orders to prevent that.
"If you could go to the end of the hallway it would probably be more pleasant for you. The Assassins are trained in pain repression. To get any answers, it might get, um, loud."
The guard grinned and moved down the hallway. When Torrin was confident that she would not be overheard, she opened the door and walked in.
The woman looked more gray than pale in the light. Torrin nodded approvingly as she glanced around the cell. Valarie had done a good job. There were still shadows but they were in the corners of the room far away from the Assassin to help her any.
The black clad figure looked up from the pole she was chained to and scowled at Torrin. "My, my, if it isn't the traitor," she hissed out. "The Mistress will hold you in her fire for all eternity for your betrayal."
Torrin shrugged and closed the door. "I'm not an Assassin. So I haven't betrayed anyone."
Black eyes blinked in surprise and then stared intently at the woman at the door. Under closer inspection, she saw Torrin spoke the truth. She wasn't an assassin. Her eyes were gray not black and the way she carried her body showed training but not enough. "How?"
"I don't know," Torrin answered. She had a good idea but since she knew how the Assassins shared their secrets to their Sisters, she kept that bit of information to herself.
The Assassin gathered herself. "You can torture me all you want. I won't tell you anything," she said with a sneer.
Torrin laughed. "So full of yourself. Your kind is always so arrogant. I've killed three of you now and still you can't give me any respect. Besides, I already know that Khelin sent you to kill the Council and the Leader of the North. It was fairly obvious when you attacked them in the Library."
"Then why are you here?"
Torrin crept closer, her eyes becoming cold and distant. "I was hoping you might tell me something useful about troop strength and when Khelin will start pushing for the Pass."
The Assassin smirked, "Is this the part where you threaten to torture me if I don't talk?" She gave a laugh. "I will escape. The longer I stay here, the greater my chance someone will screw up. Then I will be free to go back and tell Khelin that her whore is still alive and well."
Torrin's eyes grew colder and darker. She anticipated it would come to this.
"Ah, Luna. Khelin's whore," the woman continued. "We were always there watching when they were together. The things Khelin did to break that girl." She smirked. "How do you think the people would react to hear how intimate Khelin and Luna were? Sure, they'd try not to believe that sweet Luna could do such a thing, but rumors would spread, whispered over drinks in a tavern. How well would Luna be able to lead then?" She laughed at the cold face in front of her. "I do believe you're upset. But you, sweet little Northerner, are so noble you'd never kill me in cold blood. No, no, I must have a proper trial to be dealt with."
She laughed again. "Oh, shall I tell you how sweet Luna's flesh is. One night, our mistress got Luna so messed up and she invited some of us to join in…" She choked off as Torrin's hand came down and covered her nose and mouth.
"Yes I know," Torrin replied quietly in a voice without emotion. "I know that you're the last one alive besides Luna and Khelin to know such things. And you've brought up a very good point. If others knew, then yes, it could cause problems for Luna and in a time of war, we can have no doubts about our leader."
Torrin knew she was only justifying what she was about to do. She knew she wasn't a good person but she wasn't an evil-made body who could live with the visions that she had in her head. Luna, a young, na_ve woman, had been abused and drugged, repeatedly raped, and had other unspeakable horrors visited upon her by Khelin. She wouldn't sit by and let someone she cared about have the specter of fear and suspicion surrounding her. So she would wrap what she was about to do under the veil of protecting the new leader of the North so the war effort wasn't undermined before it had really started.
But deep inside herself, she knew it was retribution. She was going to get
revenge, plain and simple. "Oh…and I'm not a true Northerner."
The Assassin struggled under Torrin's firm hand, her lungs burning.
Torrin pulled a small wooden tube out of her tunic. With a flick of her thumb, she popped the cork that sat firmly on the top. She lifted her hand off of the Assassin's mouth but kept the nose covered. When the woman opened her mouth to gasp for air she shoved the tube in and drained the contents down the woman's throat. Satisfied it all had been emptied out, she released her hand and stepped back.
The Assassin coughed and sputtered, her throat felt on fire. She opened her mouth to scream knowing the guard would here and then she could spill her guts about Luna but nothing came out but a puff of air.
"You'll never tell your secrets to anybody. Sorry." Torrin pulled out a small, brown piece of root. "Open up," she said with an evil smirk. The Assassin struggled with her chains, glaring murderously at the petite woman in front of her.
"Fine, we can do it the hard way again." She pried the woman's mouth open and flicked the root into it. Then she slammed the jaw closed and held it shut until she felt the woman swallow.
Letting go, she stepped back looking into now scared eyes. "You're all so conceited…thinking you're the best. 'An unstoppable killing soldier'. But while you can bring death, you're cowards at accepting it. I was a mercenary and I woke up almost everyday of my life knowing it could be my last. And here we are, I'm alive and you won't be. The black eyes widened. "Don't worry; unlike the way you kill, this will be painless. You'll just go to sleep in a few hours and never wake up."
The woman nodded and looked relieved.
Torrin turned her back to the woman, walked to the door and opened it. She looked back once and then shut the door behind her. She nodded to the guard down the hall.
"Anything?" she asked as she started walking back to her post.
Torrin paused. "No. They are hard ones to get to talk."
The guard nodded, not surprised. She opened the door to look at the prisoner. Her charge was right there where she was the last time she looked. Black eyes blinked back at her. With a shudder, she closed the door and watched Torrin walk away.
Luna had gone back to her…their…room after the funeral. She fully expected to find that Torrin had simply left the funeral early. Something she could certainly understand. When she found the room empty, she didn't know what to think. A part of her wanted to go searching for the ex-mercenary. "She's a grown woman, she can take care of herself," Luna muttered, pacing the length of the room. It hurt a bit that Torrin hadn't said a thing about where she was going.
"She's probably just out drinking with Fyre." Blue eyes narrowed as another thought entered the Ranger's mind. "Or Adrian." That wasn't a nice mental image.
It didn't take long for her to reach the conclusion that staying alone in her chambers, pacing, was not a good idea. Instead, she snatched up her sword, strapped it back on and set out to investigate the Castle.
Cordially, the Ranger smiled to the guards who were lounging near the entrance to the unoccupied portion of the old Castle. She'd noticed more warriors on guard duty since the assassination attempt. But considering the Assassins in question had been able to move in and out of the shadows at will, Luna wasn't certain how effective any of them would be.
The guards nodded and stood to attention. When they realized it was Luna's intention to enter the unused parts of the Castle, the one on the left cleared her throat.
"Um. Excuse me. Ma'am... uh, Luna. You really shouldn't be going into these parts of the Castle."
Luna stopped, looking at the Fire warrior with a raised eyebrow and asked, "Why not?"
The guard froze her mouth opening and closing a few times before she found a sentence. "Well, strange things have been reported. It's not too safe to go wandering in there by yourself."
The Ranger tilted her head to the side, studying the two guards. "You mean it's haunted?"
The two guards squirmed. "Well, we've never seen anything. But rumor has it that... well, yes." The last part said in a hurried mumble.
Luna smiled brightly to both of them and thumped them each on the shoulder pads of their armor. "Don't worry, I'll be fine." She went past them, paused looked back at them. "Oh, it is, you know. Haunted, that is." With another grin, she entered the dusty corridor beyond.
Both guards looked wide-eyed at each other. After a moment, they leaned their spears against the wall and played Rock, Parchment, and Sword.
The one on the left laughed as her rock beat the sword. "Great. If she disappears you get to tell the Council."
The other one just scowled.
Luna chuckled as she overheard the conversation, and then picked up her pace as she headed down the corridor. The talk of ghosts had decided the course for her. Earlier, she had been simply content to wander the empty hallways. Now though, she had a destination in mind, if only she could find her way back to it. The last time she had gone to the tower, she'd been lost.
It took her some time, but after a few false turns and lots of empty rooms, she found herself climbing a familiar set of stairs. Confirming Luna's hunch, the thick dust only showed one pair of tracks coming and going from the tower.
After she'd climbed past several floors and could see the fires lighting the city spread out below through the small arrow slits, Luna eased her pace.
"Old Mother?" she called out, not wishing to be attacked by the startled guard. She slowly climbed the last few steps and peered around the corner to the door that the blind, old woman had been guarding before.
"Back so soon?" the voice responded.
Taking that as an invitation, Luna climbed the last few steps to the short corridor in front of the doorway.
"I wanted to ask you a question," Luna said as soon as she spotted the shape of the old woman.
"Are you still lost?" the old warrior replied.
"There is a path laid out before me," Luna answered slowly, choosing her words carefully. "I don't know how much control I have over whether I walk it or not, but at least I see it now."
The warrior nodded and leaned her spear back on her shoulder. "It's good to see the path. But know, there is always a choice. We are free people. We may worship the Goddess, but she doesn't demand it of us." She smiled warmly at the young woman in front of her.
Luna frowned at her words, not convinced that she had much of a choice. "I swore to keep Khelin from winning and I will hold to that. No matter whatever sacrifice I must make."
The guard nodded. "Then do not make the mistake that the last Queen made. There is always danger. There are always those around you who will seek to do you harm. They may give you a pretty front, but underneath, they are darker than the shadows. One who has lived once in darkness will always remember its taste. Trust your heart and trust your heart's heart." The old woman straightened up, her back popping in places.
"I came to ask you about the last Queen," Luna said after a moment of trying to sort through the old woman's words. "And about this sword I wear." She touched the hilt of the sword at her side.
The woman squinted looking down to Luna's side. Tears gathered in her eyes as she recognized it. "The Queen's sword," she breathed out. "I thought El... I mean the Deceiver had stolen it."
"A ghost gave it to Torrin," Luna said quietly, drawing the sword to show it to the old woman who wasn't as blind as she appeared. Once again, the blade glowed from within, lighting the dim corridor and driving shadows from its corners.
The old warrior winced at the light. "A beautiful weapon. It provides light and hope even in the darkest of places, but only for a worthy heart."
"The ghost was the Deceiver wasn't it?" Luna asked to make certain.
The warrior frowned, her lips forming a thin line. "Yes, the Deceiver still haunts these halls with her presence."
Luna sheathed the sword and returned the hallway to its former darkness. "What happened to the last Queen? Please, I need to know."
The woman sighed and set her spear down. Moving over to a dusty, rotting chair, she eased herself down. "The last Queen... where do I begin?"
She sighed, "The last Queen was …weak. She knew about the pleasures of her position, but little about actual ruling."
"That isn't what we learned when we grew up. We were told as children how brave and valiant the Queen was, and how the Deceiver had cut her down in the prime of her rule."
The woman shook her head sadly. "Well, she was cut down in her prime but she wasn't a leader. She was no true Queen. She was a little girl playing at being leader. Still we did our jobs. We were her Royal Guard."
Luna perched on a very little used bench, listening intently to the old woman. "What happened?"
"She played with the hearts of people. The Deceiver was madly in love with the Queen, and thought her affections were returned."
"So she killed her?" the Ranger asked, her voice quiet in the darkness of the corridor. How was it that something that had happened so long ago felt so personal?
"Ella. She found the Queen in another's embrace. She disappeared for a week and then returned as if nothing had happened. We, the others under her command, thought she was okay, and let it go. That was our fatal mistake."
Luna studied the hilt of the sword, calloused fingertips tracing the elegant designs inlaid in it. "Where did she go while she was gone?"
"Nobody knows. But I caught her a couple of times talking into the shadows but there was no one with her. She told me she was just venting to the air and I let it go. But I should have known, her heart had been twisted and become dark. She deceived those of us on duty that night. She went into the Queen's private chambers and murdered her and her unfortunate lover for the evening."
She looked down at the dusty floor. "The Queen's lips moved even though her head was no longer attached to her body. She cursed us and this Castle."
Luna tried to imagine how twisted the Deceiver's love must have become, how seductively the shadows must have whispered. "And you've remained here, you and the Deceiver," Luna finished, letting out a sigh.
"Yes," the old warrior said as she got up.
"Although I've never seen Ella since that night, I've heard her screams of rage and grief, so I know she's still here. She really was the best of us all. To have her fall so low…" She looked sorrowfully at Luna. "It's sad really, she deserved better, but we can't help who we fall in love with." Walking back over to her spear, she picked it up and returned to her guard duty.
"Do you think that when you love someone, you love all parts of them?" Luna asked at the old woman. "Even the dark places in their soul?"
The guard snorted. "You have to or you don't really love them."
She blinked at Luna. "Girl, you don't have to like those dark places, but it's unrealistic to think nobody has 'em, so just accept them the best you can, and love the best you can. Just be honest and expect that honesty in return. Now be off with you. You still do not need to be here. Soon enough, but no need to rush things, things will come soon enough."
Luna nodded and got up. There were still gaps but she understood more what had come before. "Thank you, Old Mother." The ranger gave the guard a respectful bow then headed back down the stairs, leaving the old woman to her solitary guarding of the dead Queen's chamber.
Torrin sighed inside the empty room. She felt cold and empty. Part of her hadn't come back yet. Every time she killed, she put part of her being away so she could do the horrible things that needed doing. She once dreamed of a day when she wouldn't be a mercenary anymore. But even after she had paid off her servitude to Rya, she hadn't left. It was all she knew how to be.
She didn't want to go back to Luna's rooms just yet. She wasn't ready to face Luna. She felt dirty, unfit. After easily sneaking past the guards, she had wandered around the Castle. Now in the deserted ballroom, she poked around the dusty furniture. Coming upon a door behind a wall hanging she slowly opened it. She grumbled as she peered into the darkened room. Looking around the ballroom, she found a usable half-melted candle. Lighting it, she moved back to the room to investigate.
Her eyes widened as she saw it was the music room. Entering it carefully, her hand lovingly trailed across dusty drums, wooden and bone flutes, and stringed instruments. She bent over to pick up a few crumbling pieces of parchment. Her mind caught the pattern of notes even as the parchment broke apart and fell to the floor. Letting it go, she noticed a small brown leather case. Opening it, her breath caught. Reaching in with a trembling finger, she plucked a string.
The rich pure tone made her breath catch. Even after all these years, it was still in tune. Grabbing the case, she returned to the ballroom and set the candle down on a table. She reverently pulled the fiddle out of the worn holder. Searching inside it a bit, she found the bow under a flap. Setting it under her chin, she slowly pulled the bow across each string. Finding each one still in tune, she pressed the bow to the strings again but this time forcing a song out.
At first, the music was strained and dark, and seemed to flicker ominously with the shadows around the room. By degrees, the music began to change until it became sad and melancholy. In her head, she saw the notes floating. They hovered on the flames of the pyres that burned their tribute to the night sky. Inch by painful inch, she played the sadness and anger out of her system, and finally felt the locked up side of her come back.
With her fingers aching from playing, she collapsed to her knees and cried for what she had done. She knew she had lied to herself and now the noble excuses she had told herself fell apart in her heart. Tears ran down her face in regret and she cried for the look of repulsion she knew Luna would get on her face if she ever found out.
"Torrin?" Luna called out from the doorway of the dark room. She had followed the sound of the sad, melancholy music through the hallways of the old Castle. She was expecting to come across a ghost, not her friend.
Torrin wiped her face. Squinting she looked up to the doorway. She gave a weak smile.
Quickly crossing the dusty floor Luna crouched down next to her friend, worried blue eyes studying Torrin's red face.
"What happened?" Her eyes darkened. "Did Adrian do something? Or Rhain?" If they had hurt Torrin in some way, she would track them down and skin them. The burst of protectiveness was strong enough to make Luna shiver with emotion.
Torrin hesitated for a moment then replied, "Nothing. Just life catching up with me." She got up slowly and gently placed the fiddle back into the leather case.
"Want to talk about it?" Luna asked, watching Torrin's fingers as she replaced the fiddle. She was glad for the darkness as she felt her cheeks heat a bit at the sudden thought of what those fingers would feel like touching her.
Torrin shrugged. "Not right now." Turning around, she reached over to Luna and squeezed her arm gently. "But thanks for asking. Nobody has ever cared to ask."
Luna grasped Torrin's hand in her own and squeezed back. "Come on, how about we go get some rest? I don't know about you, but I'm tired." Biting back a yawn, Luna patted the shorter woman's hand one last time and then let go.
"You play very well." Standing up, Luna smiled. "Will you play for me sometime?"
"Thank you. I-I-I could play for you sometime if you wanted." Trying to hide how awkward she felt, she turned to pick up the fiddle case. She wasn't sure what she and Luna were. Were they courting, dating, or what? She had never done this, whatever this was. Normally, it was only about sex and then leaving.
The Ranger waited for Torrin to gather the last of her things and then followed her down the corridor back out of the unused portion of the Castle.
Curious as to where Torrin had disappeared to after the funeral, Luna asked, "Did you go celebrating with Fyre again?"
Torrin struggled for an answer. "Um, no. I went down to question the Assassin. But she wasn't forth coming about anything. After that, I was feeling restless so I decided to explore a bit." She winced internally; it wasn't a lie but not quite the truth either.
Luna nodded at the explanation. "You know, it just occurred to me that we missed dinner." She could see the doorway where the two guards were on duty.
Taking Torrin's hand in hers, she allowed herself to go with the impulse and tugged the shorter woman along.
"Come on, how about we hunt up some food first, and then get some sleep?"
Torrin blushed at the guards as their eyebrows rose at the pairing.
Taking a deep breath, she wound her fingers with Luna's, happy to let things be for the moment for however long it might last.
"Okay, food sounds good."
It started to rain the next day. The spring precipitation heralded the end of winter in the North and the beginning of the mud season. Within hours, the Winderling was a swollen torrent, and the few countryside roads were becoming huge pits of muck. Luna knew that would happen. It was only a matter of days before they would have to leave the city. She just hoped that Allysandra's ships would be able to brave the high spring waters to bring the warriors to the foot of the Ellris Pass. The top of it would remain closed for a while yet with winter snows, giving them time to trek up to the Abbey and set up a defense.
Luna lay in bed, listening to the rain pelt the windows and luxuriating in the feel of the warm body next to hers.
They had each gone to their respective beds during the evening, but Luna had awakened to the sound of her friend in the throes of a nightmare. It had seemed easier to stay after soothing Torrin out of the grips of whatever demons haunted her dreams.
She'd been glad last night, Luna realized, that Torrin's nightmare had given her the excuse to share the smaller woman's bed again. Now she found herself in Torrin's bed, loathing the idea of getting up.
Torrin awoke slowly. As she did, she became aware of the warmth next to her. Rolling over with a stretch, she stared at Luna and then gave a sleepy smile at the woman.
"Can't resist me, huh?" she teased with a sleep-roughened voice.
"Don't get too cocky there," Luna whispered, her voice cracking at the sudden wave of desire that flowed through her. Torrin, she had just realized, was beautiful in the morning.
"I'm always cocky, but I'm that good." She grinned, but her grinned turned into a yawn.
"Sorry." She laid her head back down on Luna's shoulder, snuggling into the woman's frame. Then she stiffened as she realized Luna might not be comfortable with it. "Um, is this okay?"
Luna couldn't resist reaching out to tuck back an unruly lock of black hair. "Yeah," Luna whispered back, wrapping her arms around the slender woman. "It's perfect." She meant it too. With a sigh, she relaxed, perfectly happy to remain where she was for as long as possible.
Torrin smiled into the shoulder. "Good, I'm glad." She wrapped a hand around Luna's waist and started to drift back into a light doze.
Part of her mind was amazed she was okay with this. She had never been one for cuddling either before or after sex. "This is new for me," she mumbled, unaware she had said her thoughts aloud.
Long, calloused fingers played with the dark hair and Luna smiled gently. "This is new for me, too." Her time with Khelin had definitely not been about cuddling or waking up holding one another. "We seem to be doing well so far, though."
Torrin blushed and hid her face deeper into Luna's shoulder.
A low chuckle resounded through the taller woman's chest. "Did I actually just see a blush?"
A muffled "No" was the response. After a moment to get her composure, Torrin turned over to look at Luna.
Her breath caught; Luna looked very sexy with her disheveled hair and her blue, sleepy eyes. Torrin swallowed. "I'm amazed you want to be here, like this, with me. Um, I'm thankful that you want to be."
"Where else would I be?" Luna whispered, ducking her head towards those inviting lips.
The kiss was just as good as the first one. If anything, it was even better. Wrapping her arms around Torrin, she held the smaller woman close as she at first, just gently brushed Torrin's lips. Then, tentatively, she deepened the kiss.
Torrin was taken aback for a moment. Luna seemed so shy and innocent, so when she initiated the kiss, it took Torrin completely by surprise.
Pulling back, Luna worriedly studied Torrin's face, not certain about the other woman's reaction. "Was that okay?"
Torrin blinked for a moment then realized Luna had asked her a question.
"Huh?" Exhaling, she grinned rakishly at Luna. "That was very okay. I'd like to do it some more if you don't mind."
Luna grinned and leaned down until her lips were only inches from the other woman's. "Maybe." Leaning closer until their breaths mingled Luna shivered and whispered, "What did you have in mind?"
Torrin felt her heart race, pounding in her chest like a drum. Slowly she licked her lips. "Hmm, what are you up for?"
Luna swallowed nervously, not sure how to answer that question. "How about more kissing?" Kissing seemed safe enough and she wasn't certain how far past that she could go.
Torrin nodded. "Whatever you want. No hurry. I'm not going anywhere." She lifted herself up and placed a gentle kiss on Luna's lips. Hands slid through her dark hair and pulled her back down as Luna moaned in appreciation.
Luna let the kiss deepen, groaning once more as she felt Torrin's mouth open. Her hands were shaking and her heart pounding. She couldn't seem to concentrate on anything other than the warm soft lips she was kissing and the warm, lithe body pressed against her own.
Torrin groaned as well. Who knew kissing could be so powerful just on its own? Letting a hand gently stroke Luna's back, she opened her mouth a bit, hoping Luna would be okay with that. But other than that move, she was going to let Luna dictate the pace. She gave a small whine in the back of her throat as Luna nails scraped along her scalp.
Reluctantly Luna broke the kiss, gasping for air as she stared wide-eyed at Torrin. With a shiver, she kissed the dark-haired woman again. Accepting Torrin's invitation, she hesitantly used her tongue to lick the other woman's lips and taste her.
Torrin sighed happily and wrapped both hands around Luna so they rested on her back and enjoyed the kissing. After a moment of pleasant torment, Torrin gently pushed Luna away. "Luna, I'm sorry but we need to slow down," she panted out, "because in a minute or two, my head is going to melt."
The other woman nodded, her chest heaving as she tried to catch her breath. She wasn't sure how much farther she could have gone anyway. "I wish I could just..." Frustrated, Luna sat up, her lips still tingling from the kisses they had just shared, and well aware of her own arousal.
Torrin, sensing Luna's distress, pulled her back down to her side. "It's okay. Whenever you're ready for more, we will do more. This is new to me, too." She blushed. "Normally, it's just sex in a dark room and then leaving." She gave a nervous laugh. "Makes me sound a bit, um, callous doesn't it? I haven't really done all this... uh... foreplay, er, slow stuff." She groaned and wondered if she could have made things any worse.
Throughout her ramble, Luna slowly relaxed, until she smiled at the end and pressed her lips to Torrin's in a chaste kiss. "We both have our problems." She said simply, sighing and snuggling back down into the covers.
"We'll figure it out." She certainly hoped so.
The day turned out to be gray and overcast with a constant drizzle. All in all, it was ugly to be outside and Luna was happy for once to stay inside the Castle. There was supposed to be a council meeting later that morning, and she idly wondered what the new council would be like as she and Torrin grabbed breakfast with a group of Fire warriors in one of the kitchens.
News had come up from the harbor that the lower waterways of the Winderling were free enough of ice that four more Wave Dancer ships had arrived early in the morning. Luna had shared a glance with Torrin at that news. The time to begin moving warriors and supplies to the Ellris Pass was upon them it seemed.
From there they had climbed the marble stairs to the main library. Luna smiled as she saw that no less than a half dozen guards were on duty this time. "Nothing like locking the barn door after the horse has left," she murmured to Torrin, nodding her head towards the guards.
Torrin leaned into Luna, getting a guilty thrill out of touching the other woman's body for a moment before whispering. "Are you sure you want me with you in the meeting?"
The taller woman stopped before they reached the guards and touched Torrin's arm. "Aren't you supposed to be keeping me out of trouble?" She let go of the dark-haired woman's arm when she realized the guards were watching them with great interest.
Torrin felt a slight stab of insecurity as Luna pulled away. She scowled at the guards and made a face. "I see your point. Libraries are hot spots for trouble."
"Don't make me laugh," Luna whispered. The guards stepped aside as they approached. The blonde nodded back uncomfortably as the Fire warrior in charge saluted them.
Torrin started when Fyre came up behind her and clapped her on the shoulder.
"You and our leader both disappeared at the same time last night. Adrian went on and on about it for hours before we spiked her drink to shut her up. So what's up with you and Luna?" Fyre asked, batting innocent looking blue eyes.
Torrin glanced swiftly at Luna, but the woman in question was thankfully too busy talking to Allysandra and Tasha, both of whom had ambushed her the second she'd entered the library, to hear Fyre's comment. Torrin turned around and grinned at her. Despite Fyre's size and prowess as a warrior, she still maintained a simple, childlike demeanor that made people underestimate her. "Don't try the eye thing, I'm on to you."
Fyre batted her lashes again, laughed and then pulled her friend to chair. "Come on, spill it."
"It's none of your business." Torrin replied.
"Okay then, tell me why you slept with my sister and then broke her heart. Now that is my business." She smacked Torrin on the back of the head. "What were you thinking?"
Luna glanced over to them, blue eyes narrowing slightly as she caught sight of Fyre hitting Torrin. Apparently convinced that Fyre wasn't about to start a fight, Luna went back to talking to Allysandra and Tasha.
"Ow!" Torrin rubbed her head. Leaning closer to the warrior, she whispered into her ear, "None of your business."
Fyre rolled her eyes, "Whatever. You had sex with her."
"I prefer to pretend that happened to someone else." Torrin grumped out wishing Fyre would let it drop.
Fyre's face went blank for a moment and then she doubled over laughing. "Oh, oh, that's too good. I can't wait to rub her face in that!"
Torrin smacked Fyre. "You will do no such thing. Your sister has enough issues. She'll be a total pain in the ass if that gets around."
Fyre looked heartbroken, "Oh come on. She deserves it."
"No," was Torrin's firm response.
Eve entered the room and breezed past Torrin and Fyre without a backward glance. She sidled up to Luna with a wide smile and insinuating herself into the conversation.
Torrin scowled at Eve. "You know, I don't think she likes me," she whispered loudly to Fyre.
Fyre laughed heartily. "Stop it! my stomach is starting to hurt."
They watched as Eve leaned toward Luna and whispered something into the other
woman's ear. Luna glanced at Eve with a confused expression, shook her head,
and then clapped Allysandra on the shoulder. Torrin frowned and wondered what
that was all about.
Tasha rolled her eyes and muttered something about "being in heat", before saying to Luna. "I guess we're ready to start now."
"Okay." and took her spot at the head of the scarred table. "Let's
get this moving, folks." Luna was thankful that Tasha still had the seat
to her right and Fyre now occupied the seat to her left. She didn't want to
be close to Eve right now.
Luna, not wanting to waste more time started without preamble. "We all know the river has melted. That means we can start shipping people up the Winderling. Allysandra, how long will it take your ships to get everyone there?"
The head of the Wave Dancers leaned forward, white blonde hair draping low across her face. "With the four that came this morning, we now have seven ships in port. More are on the way. The Osprey, Kestrel, and Hawk are ready to depart. I can start taking the Rangers and Fire warriors immediately."
She nodded at Fyre. "The first Fire warriors will be at the base of the Pass by tomorrow night."
Luna started to ask another question but paused as she noticed Eve frowning at something over Luna's shoulder.
"What is she..." The head of the Wind Walkers pronounced the word 'she' with distaste… "doing here at this meeting?"
Torrin knew Eve was referring to her but she kept her face emotionless. She hadn't sat at the table figuring she was not really part of the war council but only there as security for Luna.
"Why is she here for a war council meeting?" Eve asked again, her expression conveying what she thought of the Southerner's presence.
Tasha cleared her throat. "Is everyone okay with Torrin being here?" She hadn't been expecting her sister at the meeting but was glad she was.
Fyre face started to go red, losing some of that girlish charm as she bellowed, "I
"She's here for added security and because she knows more than the rest of us about the way the Southerners fight." Luna replied calmly, even though her fists clenched below the tabletop.
Tasha nodded. "Luna's right. She has lived in the South for awhile." She wasn't willing to divulge more at this moment.
As always, Allysandra held her peace, simply waiting for a decision to be made before continuing with matters that affected her.
Torrin remained slouched in the chair with an aloof look on her face, seemingly not caring that they were talking about her.
Outnumbered, Eve reluctantly gave up, sat back in her chair with a disgusted motion. Luna glanced over her shoulder toward Torrin, sighing at the other woman's expression. She'd known it wouldn't be easy. Hopefully, the worst was over now though.
"Okay, then. Fyre, Tasha, you both know what needs to be done. Get our warriors to the top of the Pass as soon as possible. We'll need to establish a base at the old Abbey as well. Allysandra, as soon as the warriors have been sent up to the Pass, we'll need your ships to bring a constant stream of supplies to us."
Luna paused to think, "Eve," calling the younger woman's attention away from Torrin, "Your people's healers and teachers need to come in the second wave along with any of the priestesses who wish to join us."
"You should spike the path up to the Abbey with some pit traps," Torrin said softly. "It will slow down the troops and hopefully take them longer to get those cannons up to the Pass.
Before Eve could comment on Torrin speaking during the meeting, Luna spoke up. "Good. We need to keep those cannons away for as long as possible." She knew the others didn't realize how big a threat those new southern weapons were.
"When the fighting starts, you should smear oil or something slick on the back wall of the Abby." Torrin broke in again, not looking at the table. "That's how the Merc's took Abnoa. The troops will act honorably, mostly, but Khelin's paid well for the mercenaries. They won't hesitate to pull underhanded tricks."
Luna said nothing to that, simply nodding in agreement, fearful that her voice might betray her emotions.
Fyre frowned but nodded, she knew the role Torrin had played in Abnoa's fall and was happy to see her friend turn her back on the South.
Tasha's jaw fell. She looked around the table. How did troops get up the back wall at Abnoa without being seen? How did they get up there at all?
Allysandra, to everyone's surprise, did comment. "Oh please. You warriors with your armor couldn't climb over a fallen tree. My girls could probably climb a wall like that and they haven't even trained for it."
At Eve's incredulous look, the head of the Wave Dancers laughed. "How do you think we change the sails, by magic?"
Torrin nodded at Allysandra. She liked the woman. She was practical. "Climbing claws don't hurt either. They spear right into the stone."
"Good. Tasha, we should start sending Rangers down the Pass to keep an eye on Khelin's movements as soon as we..." Luna paused, as there was a commotion outside in the hallway, followed by Rhain bursting in.
Torrin went still as she saw Rhain enter, pulling the guard from the cellars with her. She winced internally but showed no outward emotion.
Rhain's face turned red in anger as she saw Torrin sitting in on the meeting. "How dare you have that viper listening in on our war council!"
"Rhain, what are you doing here?" Luna countered with a frown. She
was trying to figure out why the guard had been dragged in by Rhain.
Tasha sighed at her sister's outburst. She didn't have much hope that this would be resolved peacefully. "Rhain, now is not the time for this."
Rhain glared at her sister, "She's the Betrayer and you have her sitting here like it's not a problem. Well, it is! And I'm not going to stand for it anymore. The Assassin is dead. She," Rhain pointed at Torrin, "killed her."
A resulting uproar engulfed the library as everyone immediately started to ask questions and demand answers.
Torrin sat silently; avoiding Luna's questioning eyes as she let everyone explode around her.
"SHUT UP!" Luna roared, glaring at everyone in the room. "I swear, it's like dealing with children."Taking a breath, the Ranger looked back at Rhain, "Why do you think Torrin did this?"
Rhain pulled the guard forward. "Tell them," she hissed.
The guard swallowed nervously. "Last night, she came down to question the Assassin. She was the last and only visitor. This morning when they went to feed the woman, she wouldn't wake up. She was dead."
Fyre stood up and bellowed, "What kind of lame accusation is that?"
"Fyre! Be still." Turning back to face the guard, Luna motioned to her. "So, why do you think Torrin did this?"
Rhain snorted. "She did it to keep us from questioning the Assassin ourselves. That way she couldn't spill the fact that Torrin is one of Khelin's lapdogs."
Fyre looked around and then sighed. "There's no way Torrin could have
killed the woman. The guard said it herself. Torrin saw the prisoner last night
she was dead this morning." She looked to the guard. "Was the woman alive when Torrin left?"
Torrin gazed at Fyre with a bittersweet smile. She was honored that her friend would defend her but sad that she knew how upset she'd be if she knew the whole truth. She could feel Luna's eyes searching for hers. She looked away, unable to look her.
Luna hung on the guard's answer, praying. The hope died in Luna's chest as Torrin refused to meet her eyes. Luna said nothing, simply sitting there and watching Torrin.
"Well, yes," the woman stammered .I checked her right after Torrin left and the woman gave me a scowl. So yes, she was alive."
Fyre laughed. "Oh yeah, Rhain. Torrin's the killer. The guards probably didn't search the woman good enough and she killed herself with some poison she had in her clothes for just such an occasion."
As much as Eve didn't like the southerner, she reluctantly spoke up. "The few books we have dealing with these southern Assassins agree that they would rather die than be captured."
Torrin sat very still waiting. If someone asked her, she wouldn't lie but she didn't want to reveal the why. She could feel Luna's eyes on her and for a brief moment, she glanced at her.
Rhain scowled and nearly howled in frustration. "She's fooling you all. Why can't you see this? I want her judged. I have 11 women who lost loved ones at Abnoa and they want justice. She opened the gate and let the South take our home, yet she walks around free of her crimes."
Luna took an angry step toward Rhain. "Torrin is redeeming herself by helping to keep Khelin out of the North." Luna stopped, forcing herself to calm down. "Let's end here. You all know what we have to do now that the Winderling has thawed." Looking at Rhain and the guard, she said. "Fyre, have someone help Rhain investigate the death of the Assassin. A healer perhaps?"
Fyre nodded. "I will see it done."
Torrin slowly relaxed. Fyre shook her head at her and made a crazy gesture with her hand. Torrin had to smile at that.
As the people began to leave, Luna stopped Rhain and hissed. "Unlike some people, Torrin is trying to stop Khelin."
Rhain shrugged. "You can't ignore this or what she's done." She pushed past Luna and sneered, "The people of Abnoa won't follow her."
Luna waited until the last of the women had left the library, leaving her and Torrin alone. Moving to the main doorway, she closed it, barring it from the inside. Hands still on the wooden doors and with her back to Torrin, did she speak.
"You had a hand in her death." Luna said. "You said you saw her last night."
Torrin rubbed her head and then in a quiet voice said. "Yes."
Luna leaned her head against the door, feeling the smooth polished wood against her forehead as she closed her eyes, her shoulders sagging. "Why?" she whispered.
Torrin looked sadly at Luna's back. She tried to hold on to the memory of the morning but she could see it all slipping away.
"She was a liability for you," she answered back simply.
"Did you kill her, or just help her kill herself?" Luna didn't know why it made a difference, but she needed to know anyway. Her hands, she noted absently, were shaking slightly as she pulled them from the door.
"Please don't ask this." Torrin's eyes pleaded with Luna's back. "I did what had to be done. Can't you just trust me on that?"
Luna gave a half sob, her shoulders shaking. Shaking her head she stood up, keeping her back to Torrin. "I don't know if I can," she said, her voice heavy with emotion.
Frustrated and hurt, Torrin got up and kicked the chair. She claimed hotly, "I killed her. I pried her mouth open and dumped poison down her throat. Is that what you want to hear? "
Luna stood still, staring at the door in front of her, and then closed her eyes at Torrin's words. She felt as if a dagger was sticking into her heart. "I have to go now," she heard herself say, as she began to unbar the door. Her voice sounded strangely flat and hollow even to her own ears.
Torrin's eyes widened as she realized what she had done and winced at the tightness in her chest. "Luna..." She trailed off as Luna got the door open and left without ever looking back at her. Numbly, she watched her go.
A grumpy Fyre opened her door. She blinked for a moment before she motioned Torrin in.
"Torrin, couldn't this wait…?" She trailed off seeing that Torrin was carrying her pack.
"I need a place to sleep. Can I stay here tonight?" Torrin asked hollowly.
Fyre nodded. "Yes, of course you can. But I thought you were staying with Luna."
Torrin shrugged. "I don't think she wants me there anymore." Torrin kept her voice calm belying the fact she was anything but that. She hurt inside. Luna walking away from her had upset her a lot. She knew she probably should have explained the details to Luna, but why didn't she just trust her?
"Oh ho, trouble in paradise," Fyre teased.
"Shove it, Fyre," she snapped back. "It's not your business."
"Oh come on. Don't tell me Luna believed that crap Rhain was spouting. She has to know it was that foolish girl's paranoia."
Torrin shrugged again and set her pack down with the new fiddle she had found. "We fought about the Assassin, yes."
Fyre blinked and then realized Torrin had never come out and plainly said she hadn't murdered the woman. Fyre's face grew dark in rage and without warning; she leveled a solid punch to Torrin's face just as the dark-haired woman started to turn around.
Torrin's head twisted back as Fyre's knuckles slammed into her cheek and the next thing she knew she was on her hands and knees on the floor.
"You lying bitch! I stood up for you! I defend you!" Fyre bellowed.
Torrin coughed and gasped trying to catch her breath. "I, Fyre, I never denied it."
"You lied to us all with your silence." Stooping over Torrin, the sturdy woman lifted her up by her shirt.
Torrin gasped and struggled weakly.
"My clan considers you one of us! Why would you use us so?" Fyre snarled out.
"I had to. You don't understand," Torrin choked out.
Fyre shook Torrin. "Help me understand before I go and tie you upside down to the Castle tower."
Torrin shook her head, sniffing back tears. "I can't. Please, I just can't."
Fyre just stood there with wavering emotions. "Come on Tor, give me something, 'cause right now I'm having a hard time with this."
Torrin cradled her head in her hands. "Khelin and Luna… they have a past, an abusive, cruel one. The Assassin threatened to tell everybody about it. Do you see how damaging that could be to Luna, especially now everyone has put her in command? And don't tell me you don't jump when she tells you to do something."
Fyre paused to think. "No, you're right. I don't know how she became our Leader, but she is." Fyre bit her lip; she was at heart just a simple warrior. The in's and out's of politics were too complicated for her, but she could see Torrin's point. That kind of information could be damning and undermine people's confidence in Luna. "You shouldn't have done it, but I can understand why it was necessary."
With a heavy sigh, she turned walking over to the washbasin and rung out a cloth. She threw it at Torrin. "Goddess, Torrin, we're warriors, we don't cry. Get yourself cleaned up."
Torrin nodded her thanks and sat up against the stonewall wiping her face.
Fyre winced seeing the bruising already starting on Torrin's cheek. "I'm sorry, Torrin. I should have heard you out before losing my cool."
Torrin smiled cautiously. "It's okay. You couldn't help it. You're a Fire warrior."
Fyre returned the smile. "That we are. You're one too, don't forget. We've adopted you."
Torrin beamed for a moment. "Thank you." She got up slowly and looked around the room. "You got a sharp knife?"
Confused, Fyre looked at Torrin. "Duh, of course I do. Why?"
Running fingers through her long dark hair, she replied. "We're going to war. Its time for a hair cut."
Fyre paled. "Hey, no need for that."
Torrin chuckled. "Long hair and battle don't mix. I think I proved my point at Wooten's."
The Fire clan chief frowned and grumbled, "It's just not right, Torrin."
Luna ran out of the library, sprinted down the stairs and out into the street, oblivious to the startled looks of those she passed. Her eyes burned with unshed tears and her heart shattered. Once out of the Castle, her sprint turned into a ground-eating run as she sought distance from the Castle and her own thoughts.
It was an ugly day outside, a light rain keeping most people inside. The weather fit her mood. Almost blindly and as if the very demons of the abyss were behind her, she ran down the streets with little regard to the healed wound in her side. Her feet choose the course, and she soon found herself headed into a part of the old city that she didn't recognize. Many of the houses looking like they'd been abandoned for a long time. Her legs ate up the ground beneath her as she pressed onwards, the drizzle hiding her tears.
Only when she could run no further did she stumbled in a large walled garden and collapsed on the ground. Then she let the tears freely come, clutching her arms around herself at the heartbreaking pain. Finally, Luna slowly stopped sobbing. She shivered as the drizzle had soaked the indoor clothes she was wearing. The feeling of betrayal remained, but she was in better control of her emotions. Sniffling, she wiped a wet hand across her face, trying to clear her eyes.
"Do you feel better, child?" a quiet voice asked from behind Luna.
With a start, Luna half stood then sat back down as she spotted the source. Lucinda, the old priestess from the Temple, sat nearby under the overhang of a nearby shed.
Shivering, Luna shook her head. "No, it hurts." Swallowing she wiped at her face, irritated at the tears that streaked down it again.
The Priestess patted the rock next to the one she was sitting on. "What hurts?"
"What are you doing here?" Luna countered, not ready to talk about it yet. But she got up and took a seat on the rock next to the priestess. At least it was out of the rain.
Lucinda handed the soaking wet woman a heavy cloak. "Here child, put this on. We can't have you sick, too much is already in motion."
After Luna took the cloak, she stared off into the wet sky. Luna sighed, bracing her head in both her hands. "I'm not sure how I got to this place. But since you are here now, I assume it's where I should be." She looked down and mumbled, "I think I fell in love."
"Falling in love can be painful. But it's also very pleasurable. We sometimes forget, though, love is never easy. It's more like a delicate flower; a strong breeze can destroy it."
"What if the one we fall in love with someone who does something horrible?" The words tasted like ash and she turned away, closing her eyes tightly.
The old woman shrugged. "Our last Queen was killed because of love. Luna, lots of horrible things can come out of or because of love. Did this horrible thing cause you to stop loving her?"
"I don't know," she whispered, and that was the truth. How could she feel the same for Torrin? Luna didn't know why she had done it, however she still couldn't bring herself to ask her.
"There are reasons for everything. But before you beat yourself up any further, you need to figure out if you still love this person and want a future with her. If the answer is no then there is no need to be hurt over it." She patted Luna's knee. "If the answer is yes, then you need to look under the surface of things and see if they are as terrible as they seem on the top."
Luna could only shake her head in acknowledgement, her emotions too confused. "Thank you," she managed to say, then stood up and wrapped the cloak tighter around herself.
"Child." The priestess spoke up again. "One should never be with one whose nature it is to do and enjoy horrifying things. However, on occasion, there are stand-alone events that happen. But I do agree that if she is truly an evil person, no matter if you are still in love, you should take it elsewhere."
Luna paused, and then nodded, not trusting her voice. Leaving the priestess sitting on her rock, the cold and soaked Ranger started to find her way back to the Castle. It was a long, wet walk back. She felt totally drained and emotionally exhausted by the time she staggered into her room.
The sight of Torrin's bedroom door open and the room beyond empty caused another
bolt of pain. Stripping out of her wet clothes and leaving them where they
fell, Luna curled into her bed and cried. She cried for a future she feared
she would never share with a certain dark-haired woman who held her heart.
Before the morning sun had made it over the mountain peaks, Torrin was helping Fyre, and the twins Emily and Ember organized the masses of arriving Fire warriors. The docks were a scene of organized chaos. They were busier than they had been in generations, with hundreds of people working to load supplies, animals, and warriors onto the first five ships, while the second group of ships took on their own supplies.
"Stop that." Torrin slapped Fyre's hand as it yet again came up to feel the smooth, shaved back of her neck.
Fyre shrugged. "It's just so wrong, I can't help myself."
Torrin glared back. "Well, try."
"Fine, I won't give you the present I found for you," Fyre replied smugly.
"What do you have?" she asked as she turned around and looked at the Fire Warrior.
Fyre moved out of the way and Wooten was standing there. Torrin fought back the tears that sprung into her eyes upon seeing the older woman.
Wooten came up giving her a hug. "I've heard you've been busy since you left my fine establishment."
Torrin shrugged sheepishly. "Here and there."
"Good. But you need to come back. It's not the same without my musician."
"If I survive the war, I will, I promise."
Wooten nodded. "I'll keep you to that. Now, since I'm too old for such things like wars and fighting, I have something for you. I see you could use some added protection to help you keep that promise." Giving a motion with her arm, the twins came up carrying beautifully made Fire Warrior armor. "It may seem hard to believe, but once I was a small thing like you. And Weslen, Goddess bless her, well she's not a warrior."
"Mom!" Weslen's voice called out indignantly."
"Right, dear. As I was saying, I want you to wear this. It will keep you safe."
Torrin blinked. Then she reached out touching the gold scales. "I couldn't."
"I know it's not your customary black, but you know a change in color would be good for you. Go on, put it on. It's not that crap the other Clans make. We fire warriors know how to make armor."
Torrin nodded and held up her hands so the twins could slide it on her. Emily checked the back, adjusting it, while Ember checked the front. "Well, she's more on the wiry side, but we think we've got a good fit," Ember said.
Wooten smacked the girl. "Did you just call me fat?"
Ember smiled. "Nah, I called you thick, er, muscular."
Weslen came up clearing her throat. In her hands, she held a white jersey with a sword surrounded by a red flame of fire on it and a sword. She gave the cover to Ember who slid it over the scale mail.
Fyre took the sword. "Torrin, daughter of Tyra and Jinete. You have proven yourself to us of the Clan of Fire. In our eyes, you have fought back for atonement and, we of the Clan, understand the stigma of deceit and the hard road of redemption. We acknowledge your past, we cheer at your actions in the present, and we look to the future and still see you as one of us. You can out drink and out fight most of us, and to that, we say welcome, Torrin, daughter of the Fire."
Holding the sword out, she made a shallow cut in her palm, then did the same to Torrin, and then grasped bloody palm to bloody palm.
Around them on the docks, the Fire Clan cheered.
Letting go, Fyre handed Torrin the sword. Torrin fumbled with it for a moment before placing it at her side.
Fyre laughed. "I think we broke that cool demeanor, girls."
The women laughed before coming forward to slap an embarrassed but beaming Torrin on the back in welcome.
Luna, expressionless, watched the gathering from the deck of the Osprey. She'd barely slept at all last night, only too aware of the empty bed in the room next-door. "How long until we can set sail?" she asked the woman next to her, her eyes not moving from Torrin's smiling face. Allysandra started to say something else, then paused, and answered the question instead.
"These ships will be ready by mid-afternoon."
Luna nodded in understanding, ignoring the expression on Allysandra's face. Five more Wave Dancer ships had made it to the city that morning, but they wouldn't be fully loaded until the next day with warriors, Alcens, and supplies.
Torrin thanked everybody but was still a bit dazed at what had happened. Feeling eyes on her, she looked over at the ship close to where she had been working. Her smiled slipped as she caught Luna watching her, and with pain-filled eyes, she tore her gaze away.
She needed to get away for a bit. "Fyre? Can you handle everything for a bit? I want to go show my mom my stuff."
The woman nodded and went back to yelling at people. As Torrin left the docks, someone slammed into her. She started to yell but held her tongue when she realized it was Rhain.
Rhain sneered. "You may have them all fooled, but not me. Quinn was right. You are nothing but a disgrace. I'm watching you."
Torrin rolled her eyes. "Have fun then," she quipped before walking off.
Fyre looked over at the Osprey and waved, she shouted up to the standing women. "You two should have come down. It was quite the event."
"I saw it, Fyre." Luna called back, blue eyes watching Torrin until the shorter woman was out of sight.
"Although we probably have everyone wondering why we adopted a braidless baby, but I couldn't stop her from cutting it." Fyre mused. "Well, I figured you and Torrin, being close and all, she would have liked a word of congrats." Fyre knew she was fishing but wanted to help her friend.
Luna said nothing, her fingers gripping the rail turned white as she flexed them.
Fyre shrugged, took the hint and went back to work.
"Tasha?" Luna called out, spotting Torrin's eldest sister in coming up the gangplank. "How long until the Rangers are all on board?"
Tasha frowned in thought. "Not too much longer, they should be all on soon."
"How many came?" Luna asked quietly once the leader of the Earth tribe was on board the large ship.
Luna's eyes followed where Tasha motioned and saw the group of women standing uneasily further down the dock. The Ranger's heart constricted at how small a group they seemed. Swallowing, she whispered to herself, "Is this what we've come to?" There were girls and old mothers among them. Some of the girls were barely taller than the bows they carried.
"Did you talk to Torrin today?" Luna found herself asking, anxious to know if the dark haired woman was really all right. "She cut her hair, I see."
Tasha's eyes flicked back to Luna. "I talked to Fyre earlier. She asked me whether mother had designs on her for the Wind Walker Clan."
Luna nodded, her eyes drifting back to the street where Torrin had disappeared. "Tyra will be proud when she hears about it."
Tasha motioned for some warriors to move something out of the way to a new
spot. "And yeah, I saw her hair." Tasha laughed, "I can't wait
for someone to give her grief over that."
All Luna could think was that Torrin looked good with or without long hair. But she couldn't imagine cutting her own hair that short. With a shake of her head, she turned away from the railing to see what she could help with.
Torrin had never been on a boat before but she equated it to the rolling gait of a horse. Unlike some of the other Fire warriors, she found her sea legs quickly. She had taken great pains to be placed on Luna's boat without having it look like it. She did not seek Luna out, but she had made a promise to see that Luna was safe. To her dismay, Rhain, with much yelling, had been placed on the same boat and was staring daggers at her. Rubbing the spray of water off her cheek, she winced when she touched the bruise that Fyre had given her. She didn't blame Fyre one bit. If truth be told, she felt she deserved it. She only wished Luna had hit her instead of walking out. Sighing, she leaned against the rail and watched the women row. In another few minutes, it would be her turn.
A huddled form in a thick waterproof traveling cloak stood near the back of the boat and leaned over the railing. She dry heaved again. The swollen river was causing the large ship to toss and bob as it forged its way upstream. The sails were of little use, and so the Wave Dancers, along with a few Fire warriors, were working the oars. Luna was simply miserable. Her stomach twisted in knots and every motion causing her to lean over the railing. Her breakfast in the Castle was long gone.
Wincing in sympathy, Torrin watched Luna get sick again. She wished she could do something for her but she doubted Luna would welcome her help. Torrin spotted Allysandra and walked over to the woman. She nodded in greeting. "Is there a remedy for sea sickness?" she asked, leaning into the woman's ear, so her words were not lost to the cold wind.
The bronzed-skinned leader of the Wave Dancers smiled her teeth white against
the color of her skin as another gust of cold wind tugged at hair white from
endless days in the sun. "Time," Allysandra said, keeping an eye
on their course. The Winderling was challenging enough during the summer, but
now swollen with melting snow, it was proving very difficult. They crept up
stream, their progress marked by feet. "Why?" She glanced sharply
at her daughter who was keeping a hand on the helm, gesturing sharply toward
the approaching bend. The girl nodded, rolled her eyes and starting to correct.
She'd seen the approaching bend, just like the dozen or so before it.
"Our glorious leader is giving an offering to the river… frequently." Torrin responded with nodded of her head in Luna's direction.
Allysandra craned her neck around to glance towards the aft, chuckling as
she returned her attention to the river ahead of them. Floating trees were
a danger. "She'll get over it, or she won't. If she doesn't, then it's
a long ride to the base of the Pass." A Wave Dancer who couldn't get over
her seasickness quickly never traveled on her family's ship for long. "This
is nothing. You should see what it is like upon the ocean." The older
Wave Dancer smiled at the memories. "Now those are waves." Her eldest
daughter just rolled her eyes.
Torrin grinned. "I'd love to see the ocean. This reminds me of the one time I rode a horse. The motion of the water, it's kind of like being on a horse." She explained, realizing almost nobody in the North knew what a horse was.
"Then you should come with us after this is over. There are sights we can show you that only a few mortals have seen. The pillars of the Gods, the Frozen Sea..." Allysandra trailed off, her eyes squinting. "Watch it, Megan!" But Megan already had started to turn to avoid the floating tree trunk barreling past them on the river current. A hit from the huge log could have put a hole in the hull.
"Perhaps I will. However, I have promised to return my Muanya's remains to the Plains of Drakemore but after that, we will see." Sighing, she looked at Luna out of the corner of her eye. "Well, I hope she gets her sea legs soon. Can you send somebody back to her with some water so she doesn't get dehydrated?"
Allysandra nodded absently, her eyes on the ships behind them, making certain that each of them had avoided the tree as well. Only when the last of the five had passed it safely did she ask, casually. "Why don't you?"
"Because she wants nothing to do with me," Torrin responded, then turned and walked back to relieve one of the rowers.
Thoughtful eyes watched the Southerner go before glancing back to where the tall blonde was leaning over the rail again. With a shake of her head, she relieved her daughter from the helm. "Go get a healer. Luna will be useless if she's sick all the way to the base of the Pass."
A sharp glance silenced the girl's whine. "And do it quietly, Megan. No need for the others to hear she was sick." Wave Dancers generally considered seasickness a weakness.
Tapping the woman on the shoulder to alert her that she was there, Torrin took a moment to strip off her heavy outer layer leaving her with the sleeveless under-tunic. Her armor was stored away with her pack until they landed. Quickly, they swapped out and Torrin bent her back to the task.
The Osprey crept northward, the mountains coming closer with every hour they spent upon the river. Snow still covered the banks of the river although the ice was breaking up now. Every once in a while, a piece would float past them on the river current. They saw no sign of anyone in the trees or on the river itself but that was common for this early in the spring.
The sun rose to its spring zenith only slightly higher in the sky than it was in winter. By summer, the day would be many hours longer. It was almost dusk by the time the Osprey approached the end of her journey. The Fire warriors and Rangers already there had put out a single makeshift dock into the Winderling. It would take all night to unload the ships.
Never before had Luna been so glad to see the end of the voyage. Even with the herbs she'd been given, she had been nauseous all the way north. She had been unable to even look at food, and barely able to drink anything. It had been a miserable trip.
Torrin was happy that Luna had kept some water down, and figured she would eat once she was on solid ground again. Her arms ached from the rowing and she was happy when the horn sounded for them to put up oars. Not the most favorite thing she had ever done, but she had felt the needed to pitch in and help.
The nearest Wave Dancer stretched well-muscled arms over her head and gave Torrin a cheerful smile. Then she readjusted the patch over her eye and got up. "Nothing to it," she announced, pounding Torrin on the back before going to attend to other duties.
Torrin smiled back. "Yep, nothing to it." Getting off the bench, she fished out her heavy outer tunic and with a groan slid it over her head
Luna nearly fell over as the ship slowed to a stop next to the dock, its anchor splashing into the water at Allysandra's shouted orders. Steadying herself on the nearest person, the pale-faced Ranger mumbled an apology, and then froze when she realized whom it was she was holding onto. "Sorry," she mumbled, backing away from Torrin.
It stung to have Luna so disgusted as to not even want to touch her. "It's okay." Torrin replied giving a weak smile before she stopped trying and let it fade away. "I'm sorry, I'll get out of your way," Torrin said moving away from the Ranger. She quietly stood looking out on the raging river as the boat was being secured. She wanted to look at Luna but decided one should torture themselves only so much.
The Ranger hesitated, confused by her emotions, and not certain what to do.
She tried to say something, but after the third attempt, she let herself be
hustled to the blessedly immobile, waiting dock. With one last glance towards
the shorter woman she started down the gangplank had been placed over the side
of the ship.
Torrin was aware as Luna moved farther and farther away. She rubbed herself and told herself it didn't matter. All that matter was keeping Luna safe and winning the war. Straightening up, she moved into the line to disembark.
The unloading of the ships did indeed take all night. One full of the cursing women, the baying of annoyed Alcens, and the occasional splash as someone dropped something in the river. Torches lit the bank and dock, casting shadows everywhere making the Fire warrior guards all the more tense. But, by the first rays of dawn, the five-ship fleet had been unloaded and was on its way back to the Queen's City to pick up the next load and the women had started their way up to the Ellris Pass.
Near mid morning, Luna paused as they approached the base of the Pass, her eyes widening as she recognized the area. This was where the Assassin had attacked them on that desperate flight to the Queen's City, where Torrin had gone through the ice, and where the Horse God Armand had first appeared to them. Blue eyes sought out the smaller shape of her companion. She owed that small woman more than she could repay, yet she couldn't figure out how to talk to her now. With one last, wistful glance toward Torrin, Luna started to walk again.
Torrin trudged on along the path, cursing the snow under her breath. It was
even worse now that it was all runny and slushy. She shivered as she looked
at the cold running water. Somewhere a body floated and it could have been
her. She paled as thoughts ran through her head of what would have happened
had she failed. She stepped out of the line to get her bearings. The idea of
them taking Luna back to Khelin made her angry as once again the nightmare
floated through her head. Khelin would never touch Luna again if she could
help it. She closed her eyes and rubbed her aching temple, then reached out
with her other hand as she caught Fyre's before she could rub the shaved part
of her neck again.
Cracking an eyelid, she looked at Fyre. "Stop that."
Fyre batted her eyelashes. "But it's just like a baby's butt."
Torrin sighed. "Then go find a baby's butt to touch." Then in a quick move, she dumped Fyre into the wet snow. Looking down at angry blue eyes, she grinned and then took off running.
Luna and the group of warriors spent their second night setting up a temporary camp at the base of the Ellris Pass. The tent city would be the forward base for healers and most of the Wind Walkers. It would also serve as a supply depot for everything that the ship brought up the Winderling. Luna spent the night dealing with issues brought to her by Fyre, Allysandra's daughter Megan, Eve and Tasha.
Finally, on the second morning after the trip upstream, as more warriors streamed in from the recent arrival of more ships at the river docks, they set out to go up to the Pass. It was a lot warmer than Luna remembered from the last time, though the wind was still bitterly cold. The higher they traveled up the wind scoured Pass, the colder it got. Luna was glad to see the walls of the old Abbey in the distance. It felt odd returning here with so many warriors around her. The last time she had been fleeing, now she was here to fight. A small group of Fire warriors and Rangers, glad to have their sisters arriving at last, called out to them from the Abbey walls as they approached. Luna barely had time to step into the old Temple before there was a torrent of questions. Where should they set up? Who should go on patrol and how far should those patrols go?
Torrin walked out in the snow around the Abbey. She was aware of Rhain following her. She could complain but figured there was no point. If Rhain wanted to waste her time by stalking her, let the girl waste her time. What really amused her was that Rhain thought she was being sneaky. But there wasn't a time when Torrin wasn't aware that she was there.
Going into the back of the Abbey, she wandered into the snow-covered gardens. She noticed the untended, wild disarray of the plants. She wondered what happened to the old woman. Standing near the wall in the back, she saw the oak tree. It was old, thick, and devoid of any leaves, making it appear sad and alone. Coming up to the tree, she touched the cold bark with her hands and then circled it. Stopping, she leaned her forehead into the bark, and stood still, letting the last few days catch up with her.
"You know, you could have just told me who you were," she mumbled into the bark. "I figure since Rhain is following me around, you won't show yourself now. But I wanted to say thanks for talking Armando into helping out. He kinda hinted it was your doing." She took a breath and let it out slowly.
"Um, if we win this... well, if we win and I live. I want you to know I'll be back." For a moment, she thought she felt a hand touch her cheek. Startled, she jumped back from the tree and looked around but she only felt the wind.
"There you are," Tasha called out from the door of the Abbey, her cloak wrapped tightly around her to ward off the chill in the air. Since she was not completely sure of her reception from Torrin, the leader of the Earth clan stepped hesitantly out into the garden. "I thought you'd be with Luna."
Torrin looked away from the tree to her half-sister. She worked out an acceptable response in her head before she replied. She shrugged, but then winced from the movement as the rowing from previous days still left some sore muscles. "Luna has better things to do than hang out with me."
A whisper of movement in the hallway behind her distracted Tasha for a moment, but then she firmly shut the door as she was intent on having a talk with her younger sister.
"I haven't seen you with her since that Council meeting." There was no need for her to specify which one.
Torrin's face took on a cool, bored look, "So? Look, somehow you all made her in charge, so she's in charge. You're keeping her busy. Really busy. For every pissant little problem, you folks go crying to her instead of acting like the leaders you all are. She needs people to help her make good decisions, not solve all your petty squabbles. You know, you're going to burn her out and then you won't have a leader, period." She hadn't meant to vent. She was just trying to change the topic, but once she had gotten going, it had been hard to stop.
Tasha frowned at the unexpected rant and even if she agreed with her, she wasn't going to get sidetracked.
"She was busy at the Castle too, but you were always with her then." Tasha crossed her arms, determined to find out what was going on. She'd failed Torrin twice now; if she could help it, she wasn't going to do it a third time.
"I talked to Mother before we left," Tasha said before Torrin could answer. "She's very proud of you."
Torrin's eyes went wide and she felt tears gather. "You're such a shit. You know that, Tasha? I'm trying to be all unattached and then you go and bring up Mother." Growling in exasperation, she started walking to the Abbey door.
Tasha took a step sideways and blocked Torrin's path to the door. "What's going on, Torrin?"
"Nothing is going on. I'm doing the best I can. Luna doesn't want anything to do with me, and it sucks. But I made a promise to her that I would watch out for her, and I'm trying to. I really am trying. But it's between Luna and me and not any of your business." She scowled at Tasha, "And it's a little late to start playing caring, older sister." She gave Tasha a small push to move her out of her way, and started for the door again.
Tasha shoved her back hard. "Why? Because it's so hard for you to believe that I care?" Her voice was harsh with sudden resentment.
"Yeah, it is hard to believe. Torrin shoved Tasha back. "I only have a couple dozen scars on my back for playing scapegoat for you while growing up! You want to see?" she screamed, her temper boiling over.
The taller woman shoved her away with a sneer. "Oh, poor Torrin. 'Life was so hard for me, pity me'. None of us had it as bad as you, right?" She laughed bitterly. "Mother only thought of you! She loved you best. Muyana only wanted us to be just like her… Quinn's little warriors. You don't know what happened after you left. I'm sorry it happened, but I was a child, Torrin, I didn't know what to do!"
Torrin lashed out with a right hook, catching Tasha in the jaw. "You bitch. You had a home, you had friends, you weren't treated like a disease, you weren't beaten almost everyday. Fuck you!" Spinning on her heel, she brought her leg up in a hook kick.
The fist caught Tasha unaware and she went flying backward and only barely avoided the follow-up kick. With an enraged shout, she lunged, tackled Torrin and sent them both thrashing into the mud. They pummeled and screamed obscenities each other.
Torrin wrapped her legs around Tasha's waist and forced her over on her back. Pinning Tasha's arms with her knees, she ignored the swinging legs. She laughed darkly. "You really think you can take me on? I spent my teenage years being taught how to be the best killing machine money can buy." She cocked her arm back, intent on slugging Tasha senseless.
A shape loomed up in the shadows behind Torrin. Tasha blinked her eyes and focused them on the upraised sword poised behind her sister's head. With a shout, she twisted desperately, shoving Torrin to the side as the sword sliced downwards cutting through the air with a whistle.
Torrin rubbed the wet snow and mud out of her eyes. She stared until her brain comprehended what she was seeing. "What have you done?" She looked up, her eyes trailing up the sword.
"What have you done?" she shouted again.
Tasha blinked, not comprehending what she was seeing. A sword was stuck into her shoulder. She weakly tried to say something but the burning pain overwhelming her. She looked up in the eyes of her sister holding the hilt of the sword.
Rhain stared down her, eyes huge in horror. "It wasn't... you…I…." She shook a finger at Torrin. "You were trying to kill her," she said defensively.
"Shut up!" Torrin yelled. "Just shut up and for once in your useless life, do something that matters. Go get help!"
Rhain's face went red and both hands went back to the pommel of the sword.
"Touch the sword again and I'll gut you," Torrin growled as she ripped off her outer tunic and wrapped it around the front and back of the wound. Looking up she saw Rhain's hands were still on the sword.
"Rhain?" Tasha whispered, "Why?"
Rhain looked down at her sister. "She was trying to kill you. I was just... just... I was trying to save you."
There was the sound of distant shouts through the closed doorway as people came running toward the sound of conflict.
Fyre and Luna flew through the doors, sliding to a stop at the scene in the garden. There was Rhain, with her hands on the sword buried in her sister and Torrin crouched next to Tasha trying to stem the flow of blood. The other women following piled into them, all stopping and staring in silent confusion.
Torrin ignored everybody and pulled back the tunic to see if the blood spurted or not. Happy to see it was not, she put pressure back on the exit wound around the sword. Looking up at Rhain, she yelled. "Get a healer, you piece of shit!"
Rhain's eyes narrowed as she let go of the sword hilt. "This is all your fault. You attacked her, I saw you." Rhain yelled out to the women that were watching. "Torrin attacked Tasha. I saw her hit her and then they were fighting .I was just... I was just trying to save my sister."
Ignoring Rhain rants, Torrin looked around frantically. "Help me! Stop standing around and help me! She's losing blood." She pressed her right hand down tightly and wrapped it around the sword as it entered her back, while her left did the same in the front.
That snapped the group of watching women out of their shock. Rapidly, they converged on Tasha and Torrin, many hands helping to stop the flow of blood. Others went running for the nearest healer while two of the Fire warriors pushed Rhain back away from the group.
Luna touched Torrin's shoulder gently. She leaned down closer when Tasha tried to speak. "She didn't mean to..." Luna wasn't completely sure who the injured warrior was talking about and looked inquiringly at Torrin.
Torrin looked back at her heatedly. "No, she didn't. Rhain meant to stick it in me. So I suppose that would have been all right." With a growl, she turned back to tend Tasha. "Don't pull that sword out until the healer says it's okay," she barked out to the other women.
"I'm sorry," Tasha whispered, her bloodstained hand reaching up to touch Torrin's shoulder. Her face contorted in pain as they tried to stem the steady flow of blood.
Torrin felt tears trail down her cheeks. "Don't be sorry. Just be okay. Please? Cause you're part of the only family I have and I just found you again."
A half-asleep healer rushed in and took in the scene with a glance. The young woman pushed her way through the crowd and crouched down to examine the sword and wound.
Luna, not sure what to say or do, stood aside silently as she let go of Torrin's
shoulder. She looked toward Rhain's angry face. There was one thing she knew
she could take care of though.
While the healer got several of the warriors to help slide a stretcher under the injured woman, Luna drew her sword. The light from the long blade illuminated the garden as she stalked toward where the two warriors kept Rhain at bay.
"Grab her," she snapped at them. Startled, they seized the yelling Rhain and held on to her tightly.
Rhain fumed. "She attacked my sister. I saw her punch her and then, she, ah, she said something about her being a trained killer. I was just protecting my sister."
"You cut down the leader of your own Clan!" Luna snarled furiously. Reaching out, she grabbed a hold of Rhain's braided hair and yanked it up over her head. Then, with a swift slash, she cleanly sliced the braid off. With contempt, she tossed the braid aside.
Shocked, Rhain stopped her struggling. Then after a moment, she started to thrash around again. "You bitch. How dare you! You're nothing! If my Muanya were still alive, none of this madness would be happening. You think I would really try to kill my own sister? It was an accident, I tell you. I was trying to save her!"
Luna re-sheathed the sword with the blade sliding home with a soft snick. "Get her out of my sight." The two warriors dragged the hysterical woman away.
The young healer nodded to the women around her. "Gently." She kept a hand on the sword, making certain it didn't move as they picked up the cot. Even as gently as they were, the movement caused Tasha to cry out in pain.
Torrin followed them numbly. She had been certain her life couldn't get worse in the emotional department, but apparently she had been wrong. It was ironic, she thought, as she trailed behind the healer and covered in Tasha's blood. With Tasha cut down in front of her, it made her realize how much she did care about her half-sister. Why did it take a terrible act to make her realize this?
"Lucky you, you're our first patient," the healer said as the group of women gently laid down the stretcher in the healer's tent.
An older priestess moved over to the patient, tsking as she probed the injury. Then, before Tasha could say a thing, she yanked the sword blade free, tossing the blade aside with obvious distaste. Tasha gasped, then her eyes rolled up and she passed out from the pain.
The older healer nodded to the younger one, and they began stitching the wound and cleaning it.
Torrin sat down in an uncomfortable chair as the healer took Tasha into a room and shut the door. She watched as a few pale-faced warriors came out, but that couldn't even give her amusement.
Luna found her there, sitting outside the tent in the ruins of the temple. She moved to stand next to her. After three false starts, she managed to ask her question. "How is she?"
Torrin looked up, her eyes glassy. "I don't know," she mumbled out, before looking back down at the floor.
Luna looked around uncomfortably, very aware of the abyss that seemed to separate the two of them. She couldn't think of the words to bridge it. She didn't even know how to begin.
"I cut Rhain's braid." Then she forced herself to walk away, not wanting to make Torrin feel worse by staying nearby.
Torrin looked up and watched Luna leave. "I'm sorry," she said too softly for Luna to hear. She didn't know how to fix things. All she seemed able to do was break them.
A little bit later, the young healer stuck her head out the door and smiled as she spotted Torrin still sitting there. "You can come in and see your sister now if you want."
Torrin got up and moved inside. "Is she going to be okay?"
"She won't be able to use her arm for a while, but she should be fine." The older healer, just finishing wrapping the wound, glanced up as Torrin entered.
"Good. There was so much blood, I was worried." She took a breath, exhaled, and felt her nerves relax.
The old woman patted Torrin on the shoulder as she passed. "I'm going back to sleep. Wake me if she develops a fever, Ingrid." The younger healer nodded, pulling a chair over to keep watch over the Earth warrior.
Torrin looked around then noticed the blood on her hands and for the first time, felt the cold. "I'm going to go wash and change. Can somebody find me if there is a problem?"
"I will. Don't worry, I'll sit with your sister tonight," Ingrid said with a smile and motioned her toward the door of the tent.
Luna managed to slip away from the group of women who had surrounded her for the past two days after the incident with Rhain. It actually had started as soon as they had set out from the Queen's City. Question after question, many of which she had no idea how to answer. Finally she would asked what their opinion was, and then told them to do what they thought was best. It was beginning to be more than she could deal with.
Luna had hoped that she could talk with Torrin on the way up to the Pass, but every time she'd tried, words failed her.
Feeling lonely and sad, an unusual feeling for her, she crept out of the temple and began exploring the rest of the abandoned Abbey. Time had been cruel to the once popular retreat. The main temple was the only building to survive with all of its walls intact. The only thing left of the outbuildings was the foundation.
High above her, a nearly full moon shone, and Luna took it as a good sign. The silvery moonlight lit her path as she wandered with her thoughts for company. The hilt of her sword lent her comfort as well, a solid presence under her fingertips.
Had she over reacted at the news of what Torrin had done?
She didn't think so. The ex-mercenary had killed someone in cold blood, even if that person had been an Assassin sent to kill her and the war council. Where was the honor in that?
Luna was certain that Torrin had done it to protect her from something, but did that mean she had to forgive the other woman? What if this was how Torrin handled threats? By killing every time? She had no answer for these and other the questions that swirled through her head. In a way, it would be a relief to find out what Khelin's forces were doing. Then she could turn her focus on trying to counter the Southern army and finding a way of keeping them from coming through the Ellris Pass.
Luna stopped on the edge of the outer wall and peered down into the darkness. Beyond the wall lay the other side of the Ellris Pass, and further on, Abnoa. Soon enough she knew that Khelin would force her way up that path, and then blood would flow.
A figure, still as a statue, stood silently in the night. It was incased in black studded armor, with cruel spikes tipped in red that jutted outward. At the figure's feet laid three massive hounds, their panting sides giving life to the scene. The hounds watched with bright red eyes but did not move from their master's feet.
Catching sight of a large shape out of the corner or her eye, Luna froze. It hadn't been there a second before. The Ranger carefully wrapped her fingers around the hilt of her sword. The Ranger licked lips gone dry, and took a step backwards away from the wall. Whatever this was, she wanted no part of it.
One hound, gaunt to the point its ribs were visible through the skin lifted its head and growled, showing off dangerous fangs. The figure didn't move but the hound looked up, whined softly then lay back down. Slowly hands came up and removed the helmet. He was a handsome man with short blonde hair and a boyish face. But his eyes were red like old blood and hard. He studied Luna, sizing her up. "You can smell it in the air. It's like dawn, far away… yet coming, the death, the blood, and the sadness. Think of the heroes and cowards that will be made… all deciding on the turning of a blade and the strength of people's souls."
He spoken softly but his voice carried to her. His voice brought with it the images of wars fought since the beginning of time. Her feet would not obey her, and she could not turn away from the man. She would have wept at the horror his words conjured, if she was able to. Only the feel of the hilt under her fingers grounded her, and she squeezed it tightly. The warm metal seemed to pulse in her hand and little by little, she regained control of her body, panting from the effort.
"Who are you?" she gasped weakly.
He laughed grimly, a sound that made the hounds at his feet whine. "I have, of late, been your companion. I am Vladlin, God of War. These are my Hounds: Death, Fear, and Famine."
His laughter washed over her colder than the winter wind, and she shivered uncontrollably. Again, the hilt of the sword gave her comfort and she stood fast, although, everything inside twisted in fear and a primal urge of self-preservation screamed at her to flee.
"Why are you here?" she managed to chatter out.
"I am where I need to be." He looked her over again. "You are a rare breed. I watched you during the battle of Abnoa. You never gave up, even when you faced greater odds. You fought and kept fighting even when death was upon you. There are thousands of warriors out there but few that are truly worthy of the name." He grinned rakishly and then he lowered his voice so it was more intimate. "I could help you. I could help you use that sword and cut Khelin's head right off from her shoulders."
"I don't want to be worthy for you." Luna took comfort that he hadn't struck her down yet. She shook her head, trying to shake his clawing words from her ears. "You would just be offering me more carnage and killing."
His eyes narrowed and each of the hounds rose to their feet. "Don't fool yourself. You are already on that path of bloodshed and death." He inhaled her scent, "Already your soul is filled with hatred and the desire for vengeance. I can guide you. I can help you. He smirked at her. "Trust me, Khelin's parentage will make her hard to kill."
So the rumors were true, Luna thought. She'd half feared they would be. A
part of her was so very tempted to agree. He offered her a power she'd longed
for, a chance at revenge for her parents, friends and fallen comrades. She
would become so very strong. None would ever dare take anything away from her
Then, over his shoulder, she caught sight of the moon. It steadied her and the lust for vengeance and blood eased. "No," she said quietly, clearly. "I am the servant of the Moon Goddess, none other."
The hounds started circling. "Really? Then, where is my sister in your time of need? How has she given you aid and help? I've sensed my brother's hand and my dark twin's but not hers."
That was true, she had seen far too much of the other Gods and Goddess.
"I have only my faith." Luna admitted, shivering from the cold that radiated from the hounds that surrounded her.
They growled and snapped at her. The pommel of the sword grew hot in her grasp and she drew the sword. The light shining from it forced them back, keeping them at bay outside the circle of light.
"Faith." He mocked her. "That is how you purpose to win a war? On faith? Didn't you have faith in that murderer of yours...Torrin. We see how that well that turned out." He laughed and the hounds whined. "Didn't you have faith in Khelin once? Perhaps you just have poor taste and judgment. You won't be the first woman to enjoy the caress of a killer." He whistled and the hounds retreated. "When you want to rethink you position on faith, I'll be waiting." In a sudden, bright flash, he and the hounds were gone.
In the sudden silence, Luna collapsed to her knees, the sword dropping from fingers gone numb. The worst, though, was that she feared he was right about her.
Tasha frowned, trying again to pick up her spoon of what looked like smashed apples. Her right arm was nearly worthless and her fine motor skills weren't as controlled with her left. As she picked up the spoon, it started to shake and by the time she had it to her mouth it most of the food was gone. Growling in frustration, she swiped the bowl off the desk in front of her. It made a nice noise as it smashed into the wall. She grinned and felt better now. Her smile fell as her stomach gave a hungry rumble.
"Hey! What's with throwing your food around?" a voice from just outside the doorway called, followed a second later by its source, Valarie. The Fire warrior looked relieved to see Tasha up. "You can't be that badly injured if you are throwing things."
Tasha blushed and looked down at the desk. "I'm getting better but..." She trailed off and flapped her right arm bound in a sling to her body. Tasha winced as that move pulled stitches.
"I'm right handed and..." She blew out a breath. "I think I've pissed off all the healers and their assistants. They're all avoiding me."
"Imagine that," the red head replied wryly. Taking off her travel pack, the Fire warrior set it aside inside the doorway. Fearing the worse from the moment she'd heard about Tasha's injury, she'd taken the first ship going up the Winderling. There had been no other information before she'd boarded the Hawk at the Queen's City. From there, the Fire warrior had done a forced march up the Ellris pass, leaving her group behind to follow tomorrow.
"I guess I could help since you haven't pissed me off yet."
Tasha looked up then back down. "Oh, you don't have to do that, I'm sure you're needed for more important things elsewhere," she mumbled while absently tracing designs on the desktop.
"Since I am here earlier than planned," she said sheepishly, I don't have anything to do. So let me help. All right?" The Fire warrior bent down to pick up the hurled bowl. Going over to a nearby tray, she cleaned it out and refilled it. How did you get hurt? You zig when you were suppose to zag?"
Tasha blew out a breath then in a quiet voice said, "Rhain stabbed me." It hurt her deeply that her own sister had done this.
Valarie stopped dishing out the food. "Rhain?" She turned to look at the injured blonde, eyes darkening in anger, her long red braid swaying as she moved. "Why?" There was a carefully controlled edge of steel in that question.
Tasha sighed and was surprised when she felt herself almost break into tears. "It's such a mess. Torrin and I were fighting. Rhain came upon us and thought Torrin was trying to kill me."
Leaving the bowl where it was, Valarie pulled a chair over to Tasha's side and sat down. "And then what?"
Tasha felt a tear slide down her cheek and she quickly wiped it away. "Rhain was going to stab Torrin. I was on the bottom so I could see Rhain coming up behind us with her sword drawn. I couldn't let Torrin be hurt again over something that was my fault. I had pushed us into the confrontation, so I rolled Torrin over but it was too late..." She trailed off.
A warm, calloused hand touched Tasha's cheek that drew her look up to Valarie's face. She caught a glimpse of the lingering anger there.
"Where is Rhain?" The Fire warrior's voice promised swift justice for the person who had hurt Tasha.
Tasha shrugged. "I don't know. Luna told me she cut Rhain's braids." It hurt that her sister hadn't even come to see her. "My own sister, our Mother will be outraged." She couldn't help it and she started crying again. She tried to jerk her face out of Valarie's hand. She had wanted, for the longest time, to feel any sort of touch from Valarie but not like this.
Valarie deflated a little. She'd been ready to seek justice for Tasha, but if Rhain's braid had already been cut there was little more she could do. Uncomfortably, she looked around for help, not quite certain what to do with a crying Tasha. Give her a battle over tears any day. "I'm sorry," she said awkwardly, placing a hand on Tasha's shoulder. "Shhhh, please don't cry. I hate it when you cry." That was the truth.
Tasha started to hiccup as she tried to stop crying. "I know. You're a Fire warrior and now, the first time I finally get your undivided attention, I'm crying." She sniffed and took a few deep breaths.
"That's not true, you know," Valarie said quietly, snatching a nearby cloth and offer it to Tasha for her tears. "You always have my undivided attention."
Tasha gave a hollow laugh, and took the cloth. "Could have fooled me. I thought you just kind of tolerated my presence."
Valarie glanced to the side, struggling with her words. Goddess, how she'd rather be in a battle!
"I... I'm a warrior. That's all I am. You, though... I mean, you're the head of your Clan." Valarie gave a little grin. "I was honored but I always thought you'd... find someone else." She knew she wasn't explaining herself well. Disgusted, she leaned back, frowning.
Tasha laughed again. This time with more spirit. "Could two women be any sillier? No, my dumb warrior. No one else. I have been putting myself in places all over the Queen's City just so our paths would cross."
Valarie smiled a little. "Really?"
Thinking back on all the things she had done to get Valarie's attention, she grinned. "Yes, really."
"Well..." Valarie shifted in her chair, flashing the injured woman a grin. "I know this isn't how it's supposed to go, but can I feed you dinner?"
Tasha grinned back. "That would be really nice."
Luna hadn't been able to sleep at all the rest of the night. Her mind kept replaying Vladlin's visit. She was sitting in front of a fire trying to warm herself when Eve came in. She nodded to the leader of the Wind Walkers and wondered why she was still up. She didn't have to wait long as Eve grabbed her and kissed her soundly. In her surprise, Luna let it go on longer than she should have.
"Eve!" Luna pushed the girl back, staring at her in dismay.
"What's wrong, Luna?" Eve asked plaintively, taking a step toward the Ranger who was frowning and keeping her at arms length.
"Eve... why did you just kiss me?" She really should have seen this coming but had tried to ignore the warning signs.
Eve just smiled up at her, "Because we should be together, of course."
The little voice in her head started to laugh hysterically at that, making Luna wonder if she'd lost her sanity during the night. She firmly told it to shut up and tried to figure out a way to fix the situation.
"Eve, we have to talk…"
Not able to sleep, Torrin wandered around the halls of the Abbey. Ever since Tasha had been hurt, she found sleep to be elusive. She knew she was not to blame for the injury, but still it gnawed at her. And she felt helpless and hurt about the situation with Luna. The gulf between Luna and her was a painful one.
Finally, she couldn't take it anymore, so she changed her aimless wandering to certain direction and navigated her way to Luna's section of Abbey. Rounding the corner to Luna's quarters, she saw two women in a... upon closer inspection… a romantic embrace. Blushing, she started to back up quietly when she realized that the women were Luna and Eve. Gray eyes widened, then not caring about the noise, she turned and fled. In her haste, she stumbled and crashed into a messenger. She snarled at the young woman as she got up and ran again, ignoring the tears and the pain in her chest.
Torrin crumpled up against the outside wall and slid down it. She shouldn't be surprise, but still it hurt to see that Luna had moved on. Eve was everything she wasn't. The young Wind Walker had no dark, bloody past, no mercenary's mark branded onto her shoulder, and was free of crimes against the North.
She should be pleased Luna had moved on and found someone who could make her happy. She should be, but she wasn't. She hurt inside. Feeling like the walls were closing in on her, she got up and stumbled to Fyre's door. After pounding on it, a sleepy Fyre opened. "Torrin it's... it's early." She blinked sleepy eyes. "Goddess you look like shit. What happened?"
"Fyre I don't want to talk. I just want a favor."
"Huh?" Fyre wasn't following.
"I know you have patrols going out and scouting the area for any sign of Khelin. Put me on a patrol."
Fyre pulled her friend into the room and shut the door. "What is going on?"
Torrin started crying. "It's too much. I keep screwing everything up. Luna and now Tasha. I just need to get away."
Fyre sighed. "Stop crying. You're a Fire Warrior now and we never cry in front of one another. So just stop." She rubbed her temples as Torrin sniffed and quieted her tears.
"Now tell me what happened."
Torrin wiped her eyes and took a deep breath. "I guess Eve and Luna are a couple."
"A couple of what?"
Torrin glared at her friend.
"Oh, no way." Seeing her friend's sad and dejected face, she blew out a breath. "Well, shit. Okay, I have a patrol leaving today. Tasha was supposed to be on it but now that she's down you can take her place. All right?"
Torrin managed a wan smile. "Thanks. It's just too much right now. I just need to get away before I do something stupid and ki... hurt Eve."
Fyre nodded. "Well, good. Go get your stuff and I'll go talk to Robin."
Watching Torrin leave her room, all Fyre wanted was a nice, cold ale. Her life had gotten this messed up only since befriending Torrin. She shook her head and went to find the patrol leader.
Impatiently, Luna banged on the door. She banged on it again when it didn't open. Not caring that it was long past the evening meal and most people were asleep, she called out loudly, "Fyre!"
Rubbing sleep out of her eyes, Fyre opened the door. "What? I'm trying to sleep! Does everyone like waking me up around here?" Blinking sleepily, she realized it was Luna. "Oh, it's you."
"Where's Torrin?" Luna demanded, craning her neck to see past Fyre to see if the woman was hiding in Fyre's room. "Someone said they saw her come here this morning. I haven't been able to find her anywhere today."
"She's away. Now if you excuse me, I'm going back to bed." She tried to shut the door but Luna didn't move back.
"What do you mean, 'away'?" Luna growled.
Fyre sighed, "What do you care? You've wanted nothing to do with her since the Assassin was found dead. Now leave the girl alone, I know it may not seem like it, but she's very fragile when it comes to matters of the heart. And I think you've done enough." She glared at Luna.
Luna blinked in surprise her manner becoming more uncertain.
"Is she... I mean, is she all right?" Luna had feared the worse when she couldn't find Torrin. "I haven't been avoiding her… I just, I didn't know how to talk to her." She knew she was sounding desperate, but after last night, she was exhausted and then finding Torrin was missing had nearly broken her.
Fyre frowned in confusion. "Torrin's fine. She came to me before dawn asking to be placed in a patrol group. The patrol left early this morning."
"Patrol group? Why would she..." Luna trailed off, blue eyes widening as she realized what else had happened that morning. "She saw Eve." Luna whispered in sudden understanding, closing her eyes in pain.
"Yes, she saw you and Eve. Just tell the girl, Luna. She's head over heels for you." Fyre sighed, rubbing her head. This was a Wind Walkers job. Why was she doing sensitive chats? "Anybody with eyes in their heads and half a brain can see it. So if you and Eve are together now, just tell her. Don't string her along. She deserves better."
Luna let out a bitter laugh. "Eve and me?" She shook her head, her smile tight. "There is no Eve and me."
She laughed without humor. "Eve was mistaken. I set her straight." The talk had been difficult. She liked the young Wind Walker, but not like that.
"Eve's going down to the base camp for a while, to oversee things there." She had left in the late afternoon.
"Oh. Well... I... um..." Fyre wasn't sure what to say. "She'll be back in nine days," she finally said.
"Nine days?" Luna asked in dismay. The Ranger stared at Fyre for a second, her shoulders sagging, and then nodded. "Thank you, Fyre."
"Um, glad to help." She slowly shut her door. "Oh Muanya, why
would anybody want to be a leader?" she wondered silently.
Khelin was starting to hate the North with its long, cold winter. Now that spring was approaching, she had thought they could leave immediately for the Pass that would her and her army to the Queen's City. Unfortunately, she and her generals had not counted on another northern phenomenon. The mud.
The Queen of the South stared in disbelief at the advisor cringing in front of her. Her lips curled in a sneer. "Are you telling me you can't move the siege engines or the cannons because of the mud?" Her voice rose to an incredulous yell.
The woman swallowed nervously. "Yes. The equipment is too heavy. It, uh, sinks." In the south it rains but mud never lasted very long once the sun was out. She was just as dumbfounded by this as her leader.
"Must I always be surrounded by such incompetence?" Khelin screamed, lashing out at the nearest person.
The serving slave had only a second to realize she was in danger before the insane woman grabbed her head and twisted sharply. The body spasm once, and then slumped to the ground, the chains around her ankles jingling on the marble floor.
The advisor's only reaction to the outburst was to step to the side to avoid the falling body. She was very happy it hadn't been her.
"We will leave by the end of this month, do you understand me?" Khelin said her voice low and dark. "In fourteen days, we are going to the mountain pass. Even if I have to lay your body and the commanding officers on the ground so I can run the equipment over them to get there!"
The woman gulped and nodded. "I'll let the generals and the others know right away." She all but sprinted out of the room.
Torrin, wet and cold, slogged through the melting snow. They were on their fourth day of the nine-day patrol of the woods and area around the Abbey. To her knowledge, there had been no evidence that Khelin or her army had started the push to the Pass yet. But Torrin would be surprised if they had started moving. The heavy siege equipment and the cannons - she shuddered at the thoughts of the new weapons and the damage they would do - would bogged down and get stuck in the wet earth. No, Torrin suspected Khelin would wait a little longer.
There were only seven members in the scouting party. Four of them were Fire warriors and the other three, Rangers. One Ranger, Tamra gave Torrin a bad feeling. It was nothing the woman did, but at times, Torrin would catch the woman giving her dark looks.
This time away from Luna was good and bad. She felt her head clearing and the longer she was away from everything, the better she was able to put it all in prospective. The worse was that she missed Luna. She couldn't shake the feeling that she wasn't where she should be. How could she be looking out for Luna, if she wasn't at the Abbey? But then, Luna had Eve to help her now, right?
Torrin stopped moving. Something was wrong. Cocking her head to the right, she listened but didn't hear anything but the cool early spring wind moving through the trees. She took a step and paused again. There… the creaking of wood on wood but not from the trees. She opened her mouth to shout a warning but it came too late as a crossbow bolt sprung out of Robin's chest.
Even as Torrin drew her sword, figures wearing the South's colors emerged from the woods. Slashing out, she parried a sword strike then lashed out with a foot knocking the attacker back.
She barely caught the words "… for Abnoa." Turning toward the voice, she caught the arrow in her upper chest instead of her back. She staggered back a few steps, nearly going down in the snow. Grey eyes locked on to angry blue ones. Torrin snapped the shaft of the arrow off and then picking up her sword. She stabbed at the woman as she fumbled to notch a new arrow.
Blue eyes widened in fear, as she knew she was too late to do anything. Then as the sword stroke missed her, she turned with wide blue eyes and looked behind her. There impaled on Torrin's sword was a Southerner.
Torrin growled at the woman. "Kill the enemy. Already two of ours are down when you could have saved them." Kicking the enemy off her sword, she turned, blocking another strike.
Torrin felt dizzy from blood loss. The wound in her chest bleed freely, too slowly she lowered her sword to block a desperate slash at her thigh. Her leg gave out under her and she pitched forward into her attacker. For a moment, they stood still then the compact Southerner slowly started to slide back, slipping in the snow. Wide brown eyes stared into gray.
Looking over the woman's back, Torrin grimaced at the nearness of the embankment's edge. They struggled for a moment, the woman trying to stab Torrin and Torrin trying to keep the sword away. Then without warning, the dirt gave way under their weight.
During the downward, tumbling fall, Torrin and her attacker broke apart and Torrin came to an abrupt stop as her body slammed into a thick tree trunk. She cried out in pain, and then everything went dark.
Faintly, she heard voices.
"She's probably dead. We're wasting our time, Robin and Vella need to be taken back to the Abbey. They might not make it as it is."
"Shut up, Tamra."
"I found the Southerner, neck's broke."
"Found her. Hurry up, she's alive."
Torrin felt warmth on her cheek and open gray eyes for a moment before giving up and going back into the darkness.
Torrin's patrol group returned four days early. In a panic, people rushed to the front of the Abbey as the healthy members of the group yelled out frantically for help and for the healers as they carried their wounded comrades,.
Luna emerged from a war council meeting and broke into a run as she spotted the commotion. Behind her, the other leaders, including Eve who had returned from the base camp, hurried after her. Tasha, still recovering in the healers chambers was the only one absent.
"What happened?" Luna shouted as she reached the chaos, then stepping aside as the healers came running as well. Her breath caught in her throat as she spotted the first casualty. Robin, if she remembered the Fire warrior's name correctly. The warrior was on a pallet, her face white, and gasping for each breath. Luna felt her own face go white as she spotted the next injured woman. "Torrin." she whispered.
Torrin hobbled along, barely lucid. She stayed upright with the help of a large branch and the Fire warrior who had wrapped her arm around her waist for support. Torrin really wished she could remember the woman's name but her head felt thick. The new cut on her leg and the arrow wound in her shoulder were infected. She had used what herbs she had for Robin, but Torrin knew the patrol leader was in critical condition. A small smile came to her face as she saw the Abbey. "Almost there," she whispered out.
The fire warrior grasped Torrin tighter as she swayed and just grunted. As they got closer, the woman yelled out, "A little help here!"
Luna was moving before she realized it, breaking into a run down the path towards Torrin. The ground was a blur as she ran, tears pooling in her eyes. Skidding to a stop on the other side of the injured woman, she carefully took her other arm, replacing the large branch.
"Easy, I've got you."
Torrin blinked then turned her head to look at the person who had just made her other side warm. "Oh good, cause in all honesty, that branch wasn't much of a warrior."
The Fire warrior rolled her eyes and whispered to Luna. "She's been like this since last night."
The Ranger gave a strangled laugh, tightening her hold on Torrin, mindful of the woman's injuries. "Come on. Let's get her to the Healer's quarters." More healers had arrived in the days since Tasha's injury. They were gearing up for casualties from a major battle. Two injured warriors were well within their capabilities.
The Fire Warrior nodded and gently led Torrin up the path.
Worried blue eyes took in the obviously infected wounds, wincing at the look of them. Judging by the heat radiating from Torrin's body, the woman had a fever as well.
Torrin's head spun, and she groaned. "Can somebody please take the arrow out of me? It hurts." She turned her head to look at Luna. "I offered to do it, but they wouldn't let me, something about a forced march to get back here as soon as possible." She paused for a moment. "You know, Luna, you have really pretty eyes. I've missed them."
The Fire Warrior rolled her eyes again. "Yes, Torrin, we know all about Luna and her eyes. Now be quiet and let us get you to the healer."
Luna swallowed, her eyes misting over. "I missed you too," she whispered as she helped get Torrin up to the Abbey and inside.
Once she was at the Healer's room, Torrin was efficiently stripped, given a draught for the pain and the arrow in her side removed. Through it all, Luna hovered in the corner, never more than a few steps away from the bed where they had placed Torrin.
The healer frowned examining the arrowhead for a moment then waved Luna over.
"Is she going to be all right?" Luna asked as soon as she moved over to the healer's side.
The woman smiled. "Yes she will be fine. The infection hasn't spread too far. We will need to keep an eye on the wounds. They will probably need to be flushed a few more times, but I expect her to be up and about in no time." She blew out a breath and her face became serious. The woman whispered softly so only Luna could hear and held up the arrowhead. "Tell me if I'm wrong, but this is a Northern design, isn't it?"
Luna's relief in the healer's first words was short lived as she focused on the arrowhead. Frowning, she took it from the old woman and studied it closely. Her shoulders stiffened and her lips thinned into a snarl.
"Yes, it is. It's from a Ranger's arrow."
"I thought as much. It could be an accident in the heat of battle, or, Torrin being in the wrong place at the wrong time. However, you may want to talk to the Rangers that were on the patrol. I don't know about you, but I would rather not have to treat people wounded by our own." The woman gave a soft smile and patted Luna's hand. "I have confidence that you will get to the bottom of it."
Long fingertips traced a mark imprinted on the base of the arrowhead. "I even know whose it is," she whispered to herself, barely hearing the healer's words. Glancing towards Torrin, she hesitated. "Tell her I'll be back if she wakes?"
"I will, but I doubt she'll be awake for awhile," the healer replied.
Luna paused by Torrin's bedside, studying the wounded woman. Tenderly she brushed a lock of black hair away from a pale brow. "You and I need to talk," she whispered. Then, clutching the arrowhead in her fist, she swept out of the room.
It only took a curt question to a startled Wind Walker to find out where Tamra was. Those who crossed her path made way for the Ranger as she strode rapidly toward Fyre's room. The expression on her face did not bode well for the person she was angry with.
Fyre frowned and tried to follow the babblings of a thin, blonde woman named Tonya, Tabra, or something like that who had been on that patrol. The only thing Fyre had understood so far was 'not her fault and ambush.'
Fyre didn't miss how twitchy the woman seemed. "Um, how about you take a deep breath and start from the beginning?" Fyre listened carefully as the woman started up again. She sighed. "Whoa! One word at a time. Don't bunch them up."
"Yes," Luna called out as she entered the room, slamming the door shut behind her. "Why don't you start from the beginning? And while you're at it, how about you explain why your arrowhead was in Torrin's chest!"
The woman paled and her eyes darted between the two women. Her mouth opened and shut hastily.
Fyre's eyes narrowed. "Yes, I'm really interested now."
"Talk quickly," Luna growled her fingers wrapping around the hilt of her sword.
"Y-y-you see, it was accident," she blurted out, looking down at the floor.
"Little girl, having your arrow in one of your own people is not an accident!" Fyre yelled out.
"An accident?" Luna said disbelieving. "Ranger's do not accidentally shoot anything."
Tears sprang into Tamra's eyes. "No we don't." Her shoulders slumped, and then she looked up, "I was just so angry, at her. She gets to walk around free and unpunished while my sister died at Abnoa. I've been trying to avoid her but then being stuck on patrol with her. I-I-I don't know something snapped and I saw a chance for vengeance for my sister. I saw a way to avenge her murder."
She started crying again. "I'm sorry. Even after I shot her, she, I... I thought she was going to strike me down, but instead, she saved my life." Tamra truly felt confused. She should hate that small woman, but how could she when the woman had just saved her life?
The rage that had possessed Luna fled as quickly as it had come and she removed her hand from the sword hilt. "If you ever shoot one of 'our' people again," Luna stressing the word "our ", "you will be made an outcast. Understood?"
Tamra nodded her head wiping away her tears.
Fyre just snarled, "I think you're getting off light. Get out of my sight before I hurt you."
As the woman scrambled away, Fyre blew out a breath. "What a mess."
Luna nodded, sinking into a chair with a groan. "Yes, it is. Torrin's going to be all right though. The healers said they got to the infections in time." Wearily Luna scrubbed a hand over her face.
"Well that's a bit of good news then." She looked at Luna. "I'll go wrangle this mess, you go sit with Torrin. And I don't want to see you or Torrin until you get your problems sorted out." Fyre tried to look fierce but knew she was failing when Luna snorted at her.
With a slap to Fyre's shoulder, she said, "Don't kill anyone" and started down the hallway and back toward the healers quarters.
"Oh sure, take all my fun away." Fyre sighed as she went out into
the fray. "Yeah, I'll try not to kill anybody."
Night had fallen, cloaking the room in shadows. Only the torches and the small fire provided any light. Sitting beside the bed, Luna kept a silent vigil by her injured friend's side. The healers came and went; mostly working on Robin whom they weren't certain they could save. The Priestess's had come as well to bless the injured.
Torrin shivered even as sweat gathered on her forehead. "Can I have another blanket?" she asked sleepily.
Luna stirred, having been half-asleep in the chair. Reaching over to the next bed, she grabbed a spare blanket, spreading it out over the dark haired woman. "That better?"
Torrin's arms and legs felt heavy, they didn't want to move, and her mouth tasted awful. Cracking an eye open at the voice, she looked around, finding everything was blurry. Torrin realized she was looking with her bad eye. She closed it and opened the other one. In the dimly lit room, she was aware of someone next to her. She smiled as Luna came into focus. "I think so. Thank you."
Her smile fell as she remembered Luna was with Eve now. "Thank you for sitting with me. But you don't have to stay. I'm sure you're needed at other more important places."
Gently Luna brushed back a curly lock of dark hair, and smiled at Torrin, glad she was finally awake. "Hush. Here, how about some water?" Picking up a nearby mug, she helped Torrin drink a little.
Torrin lay back, exhausted from the effort. But her throat did feel better. "How is Robin?" she asked.
The Ranger hesitated, setting the mug of water aside before answering. "Not so great." She pulled her chair closer to the bed. "They say if she makes it through tomorrow she should live…"
Torrin shivered again and tried to wrap the blankets around her more securely.
"…and, thanks to you, it's probably the only reason she's alive now." Luna fussed, tucking the blankets around Torrin.
"I'm tired of getting my ass kicked." Torrin blurted out. "Really, I am a very good warrior. People use to shell out lots of money for my services." Torrin flushed when she realized what that sounded like.
"I know." Luna whispered, tracing Torrin's cheek with her fingertips. "I thought we agreed that you wouldn't run away again?"
"Wha-what are you talking about? I didn't run away." She shivered, but this time it was because of Luna's touch on her skin.
Luna moved closer until she could peer into gray eyes, studying Torrin's face intently, her fingers cupping a warm cheek. "You mean to tell me, you didn't run away on a patrol?"
"I-I-I... well, if you put it like that, I might have. Um, I don't think Eve would like you doing this," as Luna touched her cheek. It felt very intimate, but wasn't hers to have.
"Eve?" Luna whispered, blue eyes dancing with amusement. "Eve who?" She found herself enjoying this. It wasn't often she got to tease Torrin.
"Eve who?" Torrin frowned. "Tallish, but you are all tall to me, book smart, and she hates me. That Eve." Torrin knew she was missing something, but she had no idea what.
"You saw her kiss me, didn't you?" Long fingers stroked Torrin's cheek.
Torrin looked up at the ceiling. "Yes, I did," she said coldly.
"You didn't wait to see me push her away though, did you?"
"Huh?" Torrin tried to turn on her side to see Luna better but yelped as she pulled the stitches on her chest.
Gritting her teeth, she settled for moving just her head. "Um, no I didn't see that part."
Leaning in even closer until she was certain she had Torrin's undivided attention Luna continued. "You also weren't there when I told her that there was only one person I have feelings for."
"Oh." Torrin swallowed nervously as Luna grew nearer. "You do... I mean you did... I mean. I'm not sure what I mean."
"Don't run away again, okay?" Luna whispered, and then pressed her lips to Torrin's in a slow kiss. In that one kiss, she tried get across how much she'd missed Torrin, and how worried she had been.
Torrin, surprised by the kiss, returned it after a moment. "I missed you," she mumbled against Luna's lips.
"Then stop running away from me," Luna muttered back, before kissing her again. Only then did she pull back, mindful of Torrin's injuries.
"I wasn't... I didn't want anything to do with me. Luna, you've been avoiding me. I was on my way to make you talk to me when I saw you kissing Eve. What was I supposed to do? Beat Eve up?" Torrin grumbled back, frustrated. This wasn't all her fault.
Blue eyes glanced away guiltily; Luna was more than aware that this was her fault as well. Then taking Torrin's hand in hers, she gathered her thoughts.
"I'm sorry," she said at last. "I didn't... I didn't know what to do or think after the Assassin's death." She still didn't want to think about that.
Torrin sighed nodding. "I don't blame you. It's a horrible thing to digest. I'm sorry I had to do it, but I'm not unhappy I did." Torrin held Luna's hand letting her thumbs stroke the skin. "Not all things are black and white. Sometimes there are darker things that need to be done to keep a country and its people safe."
"Is that why you did it? To keep us safe?" the other woman asked, fascinated by the feel of Torrin's hand in hers.
"Kind of. In all honesty, I did it mostly to keep you safe. But other parts were to keep everyone focused on the battle at hand. The words the Assassin was willing to tell would have brought division and infighting." Torrin was doing her best to explain.
Luna licked dry lips, fearing what words those were. "What would she have said?"
"It's not important," Torrin said closing her eyes.
"Yes, it is, Torrin. Please, what did she tell you?"
A single tear fell from her eye. She uttered in a quiet, toneless voice, "She told me that she was going to tell everybody who would listen, about you and Khelin and what Khelin did to you."
Luna ducked her head, letting long blonde hair hide her expression. Softly she said, "So you killed her?"
"Yes." She opened her eyes looking up at Luna. "I'm sorry it upsets you. I really am. But I would do it again."
In the silence that followed, there was only the sound of their breathing and the crackling of the fire filling the room. Finally, Luna nodded, lifting her head, her expression lit by the firelight. "Thank you, but I can't tell you it's easy for me to accept that."
With a sigh, she squeezed Torrin's hand, which she hadn't let released. "I'll try though. I really will."
Torrin shuddered, remembering her dreams. No, she wouldn't feel remorse. The woman was a rapist and a murderer. "You don't have to accept it, and I don't want you to." Torrin took a breath. "But know that I will do whatever I have to keep you safe. Khelin's orders to them was to kill the council and then to bring back your heart. I swear, Khelin never will hurt you again."
"That's right," Luna whispered with a ghost of a smile. "You're going to protect me, right?"
Torrin smiled and lifted Luna's hand to her lips. She gave it a kiss before whispering, "yes, that's right."
Luna's breath caught at the simple movement, and then she grinned. "Good."
Leaning forward, she brushed her lips across Torrin's forehead and noticed her temperature had gone down a little. "Rest. Tonight it's my turn to watch over you."
Torrin yawned. "I bet if we're careful and we squeeze together real close, you could get in here." She looked hopefully at Luna. "Um, for some reason I sleep better when I'm with you."
Without comment, Luna slipped off her boots, took off her sword belt, and slipped under the covers next to Torrin. As long as they didn't mind being that close together, they would fit. And Luna most certainly did not mind.
"I'll tell you a secret," she said once they had managed to find a position that didn't hurt Torrin's wounds. "I sleep better when I'm with you too."
Torrin grinned and eased her head onto Luna's shoulder. "Good."
Rhain was scowling as she talked to Tamra.
"I can't believe you wasted an opportunity to get revenge for your sister. If they place Torrin back on your Patrol, I don't want you to fail again." She ran an agitated hand through her now short hair pulling at the ends in frustration. Damn Torrin! She didn't see how this was her fault at all. Torrin had attacked Tasha. By the Goddess, Torrin had attacked Abnoa.
Tamra glanced around quickly, wishing that the other woman would keep her voice down. She was in enough trouble already. "I don't know, Rhain..." she said, not certain if that would truly bring her satisfaction for her sister's death.
Would anything ease that ache? The Ranger was beginning to think that the idea of killing Torrin had just been a way for her to avoid grieving. Besides, there was another problem now. "She saved my life."
Rhain blinked in surprise. "What?"
Part of her wanted to believe Torrin had changed, but then she remembered what her Muanya had told to her. She retorted, "It's all just a trick so she will be in position to betray us here when Khelin's army marches on us. Mark my words, she'll pull the same stunt she did at Abnoa. I won't fail, I will make Quinn proud." The last part mumbled more to herself than Tamra.
Tamra looked at the other woman with dismay, not sure what to make of her mumblings. Rhain was doing that more and more often these days Tamra realized. It didn't speak well for the woman's state of mind. And what, Tamra wondered, did it say for her own that she'd followed Rhain's plans so far?
"Quinn is gone, Rhain. So is my sister. Nothing will bring them back." Her eyes misted over at that, but she made herself say it.
Another woman broke out of the shadows. "Rhain, give it a rest. You had us throw her in a cell. If she hadn't gotten out, the whole council would be dead. We haven't seen anything suspicious with her behavior. In fact I'm beginning to wonder about you."
Rhain's eyes darted between the two women. "Quinn's presence is still with me and I will do my best to honor her wisdom. Don't you see Torrin is the Betrayer? Don't any of you remember your teachings?"
Tamra shrugged. "She saved my life, Rhain." As far as the Ranger was concerned, that went a long ways to wiping the slate clean between the two of them.
The other woman shook her head. "They're ramblings of a Priestess driven to insanity. Let it go, Rhain. I am. I'm not going to end up braidless like you." The woman snorted, "Torrin screwed up, but she's done nothing but save lives while she's been here. Give it up, Rhain, before you cross a line that can't be undone." The woman walked off.
"Ezra is right Rhain, let it go." Tamra urged her.
Rhain's face went purple with rage. "Don't you see its all tricks and lies?"
"What I see is that you are losing your mind!"
"Me! I'm the only one still using common sense here. Get away from me. Weak! You are all weak. I will take care of things myself."
"Don't make things worse, Rhain!" Tamra called out as she walked away.
Rhain was left alone with the specter of her Muanya. She rubbed her short hair and then looked up at Quinn. "Why can't they see?"
Quinn scowled down at Rhain. "Because you're a pathetic leader. Perhaps I should have gone to Tasha."
Rhain's face paled. "No. She is like them, she doesn't see Torrin for the threat that she is. I will do this. I will save the North from the Betrayer."
Quinn's ghost looked at her daughter skeptically. "Best move quickly before Torrin has a chance to show her true colors."
Rhain nodded and moved off to find a quiet place to make plans.
Return to the Academy