Zee: By an American and a Canadian well mostly the Canadian, it's her fault.
Windstar: Zee is, as usual, making things up. This story is completely her fault and a result of her imagination only. I claim no responsibility for this at all.
Feedback is always welcome at: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.orgPROLOGUE
From the Book of Exodus:
In the nineteenth year of Selene's reign as Queen of the North, a new tradition was brought into being, that of Rezan, or the Consort of the Queen. In that time the first children of those who had escaped the lands of men were becoming women themselves. This first generation of northerners was finding their way in the world. The Queen's daughter, Cassia, had grown up knowing that she too would be Queen and believed she was in love with a daughter of two scheming merchants, named Sable.
It is from this that the tradition of Rezan arose.
Tradition's Passage: From the second part of The Book of Exodus in the Queen's Castle.
It was odd, Selene considered as the three women made there way down the street through what had become a bustling town. The years together with Nix had been the happiest she could have imagined and when Nix had given birth to their daughter Cassia she thought she might die of happiness.
Then had come the teen years and problems had started in earnest. Culminating in their daughter's infatuation, she refused to call it love, with Sable. There was no way any of the other families were going to accept Cassia as Queen if she married an obvious idiot like Sable and her scheming, devious, money grubbing parents.
She looked up anxiously at the woman walking alongside her toward the still under construction temple. "I think Crow is onto something, Nix. We can make it so that anyone who wants to marry our little girl has to go through some sort of trial or challenge. This way we can weed out anyone who might not be worthy."
Looking at Crow, Nix said, "What if Sable completes these trials successfully? We'll have to accept her whether we want to or not."
"Runt," Crow said as she slapped Nix's head and immediately regretted it as her back protested the movement. "This is the best I can come up with under such short notice. Moreover, if she does complete the trial, don't you think that will prove that maybe she is the right girl for your little one? You could be wrong about Sable," Crow said.
Nix snorted, slowing down. "Maybe."
Selene tugged on Nix's arm. "Hurry, love. Let's go find Willow and see what she thinks."
The High Priestess had been one of the younger women to make the Exodus and retained some of that youthfulness. No silver graced her head yet, but her eyes held more wisdom than when they had first come here all those years ago. She was sitting by the entrance to the Temple, feet stretched out in front of her, while watching the beginnings of what promised to be a spectacular sunset.
As always, Selene smiled at the sight of her long-time friend. "Watching the sky again, Willow?" she teased, as they drew closer.
The High Priestess grinned, getting up and dusting off her simple robes. "Someone has to keep an eye out for more glowing rocks falling to the earth." The Priestess bowed as she saw the guest who was walking along with them. "Hello, Crow. It is good to see you again."
"As always, a pleasure, Priestess. So, has the Goddess told you anything exciting lately?" Crow asked.
Willow smiled, shaking her head. "You know that isn't the Goddess's way." She looked from woman to woman, taking in the lines of stress on their faces. "I take it that this isn't just a visit to say hello?"
Selene shook her head. "No, it's about Cassia."
Nix nodded. "She came home the other day with some absurd notion that she wanted to marry Sable."
"Runt," Crow said while clapping Nix on the back thus interrupting her. "Perhaps we should go inside Willow's house and away from nosy ears."
Willow agreed. "Come, please." She led the way to a simple log building built years ago when it became apparent that the attending priestess needed something better than just a tent when a woman wanted to become pregnant. Waving away an acolyte who had opened the door, she led the three other women into a sitting room inside.
"Kristin, why don't you go make sure we have enough candles for tomorrow's service." She turned back to the women. "Please sit and rest. Can I get anyone something to drink or eat?"
Three heads shook side to side.
Crow slowly sat down, her knees giving a loud crack. "It's hell getting old," she said simply.
Willow nodded. "Something that we will all experience, I fear. Before you go, let me give you some herbs that may help with your back. Now, what is this about Cassia and a commitment ceremony?"
Selene took a seat next to Nix, taking a large hand in her own for strength and support. "She thinks she's in love with Sable and wants to marry her." Selene looked genuinely upset at the idea.
"Sable's a mooncalf. And even if Cassia wasn't going to be Queen, I wouldn't want her to marry that girl," Nix broke in.
"Is it possible that she is in love with her?" Willow folded her hands on the tabletop.
"She's a big, walking hormone, a teenager. Of course Cassia thinks she's in love with this Sable," Crow said while rolling her eyes. "But the problem is, from what I understand, Sable would be a pretty poor choice as a co-ruler. Because of that, we have more than the whim of a young woman to worry about; we have the future of the North to consider."
"If I thought for an instant that Sable would make her truly happy, I wouldn't be this upset about it." Selene chimed in.
Willow considered the three of them, then nodded and sighed. "I could try to put off the ceremony until they were older. But I assume Sable's parents are pushing for this to go forward?"
"Of course." Nix raised an eyebrow at Willow. She knew Sable's mothers had been good friends with Laurel. "They think it's great. They have this notion of what a Queen should be," Nix said with distain. "They've been quite vocal with their opinion of the disgusting smith who dared to rise above her place."
Selene just gripped Nix's hand tighter. She'd heard those opinions as well.
"You look like someone with a plan over there, Crow," Willow drawled.
Crow made a face at the Priestess. "Yes, I think the solution is a series of tasks, or trials. That way, once completed no one will worry about a woman who will become the right hand of the Queen, who wishes to be a... um..." She frowned looking for a word. "… a Rezan." She smiled, that was a good word. "Tests for anyone who wishes to be the Queen's Rezan. They will prove devotion and loyalty to the Queen and the land she rules."
"And you want me, as High Priestess, to give my blessing to these trials?"
Three heads nodded again.
"Who would you have design these trials?" she asked Crow.
Crow looked at Nix and Selene. "The head families," Selene spoke up. "That way, none of them can disagree with who gets chosen if they all had a hand in shaping the trials."
Nix nodded. "That sounds fair. But this isn't open for anyone. Just by doing the tasks doesn't make you this Rezan. I don't want to force a loveless marriage on my daughter."
Willow considered the idea, finally nodding in assent. "For the good of the future, I will agree. Although, personally, I'm not comfortable with making someone prove that they love Cassia enough by going through whatever evil trials you and the others can come up with. Cassia has to agree to the women attempting the trials, and the rules must be made clear to all so no one can complain of favoritism afterwards."
Nix nodded, biting her lower lip in thought. "The heart of a young woman or the security of a whole land of people. Hmm. It's a tough call. But unless someone can think of something better, I agree with Crow's idea of the trials."
She wished she could come up with a better idea, but Selene didn't have one either. "I'm for it as well."
Willow bowed her head. "So be it. I'll publicly support it. You do realize we might be setting a precedent here. All the future Queen's consorts, um, Rezans might end up having to go through this."
"Hopefully, they will understand it's intended only to prove merit, heart and mettle." Crow said. "Those who rule have different needs. Was Selene not attacked by an ex-lover, but by a God as well? I would say Nix has proved herself to the Queen and its people by protecting and saving her from them."
"And would that be such a horrible thing?" Selene asked, smiling toward Nix. "Might stop people from complaining."
Nix blushed. She hoped no one else trying to be a Rezan would have to fight off Gods or ex-lovers.
Luna stood on the remains of the North's battle lines and watched the dawn arrive. With the gradual lightening of the eastern sky, she could see individual features of the land around her appear. When the first edge of the sun appeared above the horizon, Luna drew her sword. Without a backward glance, she walked down the earth mound, and started toward the southern lines.
"Yes?" she called back, not breaking her stride.
"Want a couple of Fire Warriors?" Fyre asked as she caught up to Luna, her own sword out. The twins came up on her other side, grinning roguishly at her.
"Good to see you." Luna gave her friends a smile. She glanced up at the cloudless sky. "It's going to be a nice day, don't you think?"
"Adrian would be here too, but the healer won't let her." Fyre glanced up. "Oh yes, a lovely day." Fyre turned her head and shouted. "Fire Warriors! Classic wedge formation!" The sound of hooves and feet moving drifted up behind them.
Ember yawned and scratched her unruly red hair. "Tasha's coming up on the flank with the Rangers. Gonna to give us a storm of arrows."
The quieter, more thoughtful Emily looked at Luna. "Tyra wanted me to give you a message. She said you have to believe she's still alive. Because she knows in her heart that Torrin still lives." Emily glanced at Luna shyly. "I hope that made sense to you." She blushed and then frowned when Ember poked her. She poked Ember back, but before the twins could get into it more, Fyre pulled Ember to stand over by her.
"Children," Fyre said with a shrug and then blocked the kick Ember had aimed at her shin.
Luna swallowed past the lump in her throat. She simply nodded at them, feeling a weight lifted from her chest. Tyra was right. Torrin was still alive. She had to believe in that hard enough so it would be true.
The Northern line grew as warriors, mothers, daughters and sisters joined them. Everyone who could wield a sword, carry a bow or hoist a shield, joined the line. The walk turned into a jog, and the jog into a run, as they streamed toward the Southern camp. Cries of alert from the camp slowly began to sound as the Northerners did the unexpected. In front of the advancing line, Southerners frantically swarmed into action. They swung the heavy cannons around and aimed them down at the charging Northerners.
Fear coil in Luna stomach. If Khelin's people had somehow figured out what had happened during the night and undone it, her people would die long before they reached the camps.
A stout Southern hefted the cannonball into the mouth of her cannon only to watch the belly of the cannon give way and the ball fell to the earth. She looked up at her fellow cannon operators in surprise. At the other cannon, a stouter soldier than the first woman lifted a heavy cannonball into the mouth of the cannon and then quickly grabbed a rod to pack it in tight. Moving to her right, she shouted, "Cannon ready!"
Another woman nodded at the confirmation and lowered the flame to the coiled wick. The flame leapt to the wick and quickly ate its way down the fiber. The woman turned and yelled "Firing!" The flame ate its way down through the cannon and to Torrin's trap. The cannon exploded in a deafening boom and covered the small area in thick black smoke.
Luna flinched at the blossoming explosion and watched debris hurtle upward into the air. She smiled in relief as her long legs ate up the distance between her and the main Southern lines. Beside her, ran her sisters in arms. Before the Southerners could react to the loss of their cannons, Luna's warriors rolled over them. Shouting war cries, they cut down everything in front of them, barely slowing as they continued towards the main camp. They swept through the two smaller southern camps like a wildfire. No quarter asked and none given as Luna and the Clan leaders led their troops. Only a few northern warriors fell during the attack due to the element of surprise and the distraction of the cannon blowing up.
Khelin shoved the priestess's body aside, and staggered outside as a wave of pain shot through her body. Whatever Torrin had done to her was spreading, weakening her. "Torrin!" she screamed, brandishing the bloody dagger.
A deafening boom rocked through the camp. For a moment, all was still until women began to scramble for their weapons. Khelin spun around, her eyes widening as she spotted the stream of Northern warriors heading towards the camp.
"My Queen!" the disheveled advisory shouted as she ran to Khelin's tent. She paused as she entered, taking in the two bloody bodies. "A busy night I see," she whispered to herself. "My Queen, are you okay?" She glanced around the huge tent.
"I'm here!" Khelin yelled as she reentered the tent, tossed aside the dagger and grabbed her sword. "What happened to my cannons?" she demanded.
"I-I-I'm not sure. I would guess sabotage. There is a large hole where the third cannon use to be and a lot of unattached body parts," the woman answered. "I'll go and make sure the generals are up and organizing your troops." With a quick bow, the woman fled.
"Useless," Khelin muttered, strapping on her sword. She made a mental note to dispose of this most recent advisor the next time she had a spare moment. Striding from the tent, she watched the Northerners overwhelm the two smaller camps. She bellowed for her warriors to gather around her.
As Luna led the charge towards the main southern camp, the element of surprise had passed. Southern warriors were creating a line of battle as Luna struggled to run faster toward them. Around her, the others forced themselves to keep up, legs and lungs burning from the strain. Halfway between the two camps, Luna waved her sword, still visible in the early morning gloom, a dim glow emanating from the blade. "Tasha! Now!" The Rangers stopped, drew arrows and began to fill the sky with them, pelting the still forming southern line with deadly accuracy.
Dazed and confused, Torrin staggered in a circle and ended up back at the tent from which she had escaped. She was vaguely aware of noises that sounded like battle nearby, but she didn't care. She was numb from her head to her toes and void of any emotions. Inside the tent, her feet sticking to the blood covered floor, she stared uncomprehendingly at the body of the priestess lying crumpled up to the side of the front tent flap.
"Stupid woman. Why couldn't you do what I asked and gone back to the Abbey?" Torrin croaked out. Another body caught her eye. Torrin knelt by her half-sister's side. "You think I endured all that just so you could die?" she whispered to the bloody body.
Rhain groaned. "Gods…, Torrin, always 'bout you."
Torrin blinked. "Oh, good Goddess, you're not dead!" With her good hand, she rolled Rhain's body over and saw the dagger jutting up from the woman's stomach. Blood flowed freely from the gaping wound.
Rhain's cloudy eyes cleared. " Didn't fail. You… free." She coughed for a moment, wincing as pain shot up her body.
Torrin gazed down at her sadly. "No, you didn't fail. Come on, we have to get you out of here and to a healer."
Rhain feebly smiled back. "Don't think so. Go… 'fore Khelin comes back. So much you… meant to do. Sorry … so long for me…to see you as you really are." She coughed again, blood rising to her lips. She gasped, "Torrin, you… my sister. Proud…that. Proud …found your way. The North… lucky to have you. Don't forget tha...".
Torrin got up from the lifeless body, her face expressionless. She ripped some of the fine cloth Khelin had draped around her tent and awkwardly bound her wounds to slow the bleeding. As she walked out of the tent, she snatched a short sword from the Southern Queen's weapon rack. She would have Khelin's blood.
Outside, in the midst of the battle Tasha watched as the rain of arrows fell and pierced the bodies of the hastily dressed Southern warriors. Notching another arrow, she cried out. "Again!" She drew her bow taut and then released.
Fyre set herself up to guard Luna's back. She knew Torrin would have wanted her to. She sighed mentally as she gripped her sword tightly. It was sort of her fault Torrin wasn't here and she knew bad things happened during war. Nevertheless, this simple logic didn't make her feel any better about it.
Luna continued to charge straight towards the main Southern formation, a scream coming from her lips as she closed to the last few feet. The Southerners, not as heavily armored as they usually were, fell quickly as the fully protected Northerners slammed into them. For a moment, Luna caught sight of Khelin, standing behind her warriors, yelling orders. Then there was nothing but blades and bodies pushing and attacking at her, and the twirl of her own blade slicing arcs of light through the air and drawing blood.
The battle became a swirling mass of chaos as the Southern line disintegrated. Even though the Northerners were badly outnumbered, they forced a wedge into the center of the Southern forces, curling them apart. The fighting deteriorated into small clumps of conflict. Luna cut her way through another Southerner, blood splattering across her armor as she frantically searched the camp for her target. There… she could see Khelin, trying to rally her troops. Luna's face set into grim determination she started to fight her way toward the Southern Queen, cutting down anything in her way.
Fyre suddenly realized she had been cut off from Luna and shouted for twins. "Ember and Emily! To Luna! Guard Luna's back!" Ember nodded and twisted around her opponent and raced to Luna's side.
Forced to fight this time, Khelin cut down the Fire and Earth warriors who came at her. Around her, a growing number of her own warriors were beginning to rally. Darkness seemed to spill from the black long sword she wielded, dimming the sunrise, and lengthening the morning shadows around her.
It seemed to Luna, as she fought her way that way, those shadows seemed to sap the strength of any of her people who entered them. "Khelin!" Luna screamed, ducking a sword slice from a Southerner, then cut the woman across the stomach and sent her tumbling to the side. "Khelin!" Luna yelled again, her sword glowing brighter with each step toward the mass of shadows. When the sword light met the dark shadows, they seemed to burn, writhing in the pure silvery light from her blade. Gradually, she forced them backward and ultimately driving them away from her warriors.
Ember raced to keep up with Luna but then stopped, stunned by the display of light and dark. Emily, coming from the other side, slashed out, blocking a warrior attempting to sneak up behind Luna.
Torrin's blood burned through Khelin's veins, robbing the Southern Queen of much of her strength. It should have been easy to force Luna's light aside. She was half god after all, but instead, it was all she could do to keep her own shadows gathered around herself.
By sheer force of will, Torrin kept her body moving toward the sounds of battle. A Southern soldier stared at the woman coming at her. Torrin looked like the dead brought back to life with blood streaking her body and dripping to the ground. Too late to react, Torrin's sword pierced her chest. With a grunt, Torrin removed her sword and kept moving forward.
Luna cut her way through the last of the warriors between her and Khelin, and attacked the Southern Queen. Light and dark blades met with a booming crash of sound and a flash of light that blinded those nearby. Shadow and light surged and enveloped the two women in an eerily, beautiful, writhing dance.
"Khelin," Luna snarled, slamming her blade against the Queen's sword.
"Luna," Khelin replied with a sarcastic smile. "Did you miss me, my pet?"
"I'm going to kill you." Luna grunted, blocking a swing.
The dark-haired woman laughed, slashing repeatedly at Luna, the blades sparking when they hit. "Don't forget, you wear my brand, Luna. That makes you Mine!"
On the edge of the battlefield, gray eyes stared at the Southern Calvary that was trying to gather itself. Torrin focused her will and commanded the horses to flee. Without warning, the horses began to buck and twist, losing their riders as they suddenly spooked.
Focusing in on a small, midnight-colored horse, Torrin asked for its help. Slowly, it made its way to her. Torrin stood quietly, letting the horse's breath wash over her. Then she slowly reached up and with a scream of pain, hauled herself up into the saddle. Torrin leaned against the horse's neck, her eyes closed and her breath shallow. The stallion picked his way through the dead and the dying looking for the person his mistress held in her mind.
"I'll never be yours." Luna growled, shoving Khelin back a step and going on the offensive.
The battle around them faded away as each concentrated on killing the other. Luna and Khelin fought their own private war, swords clashing as each briefly found an advantage, then slowly forced back again.
Fyre came up finally upon the Twins. "I thought I told you two to watch Luna's back."
Ember shrugged. Emily looked up to her big sister and then pointed to Luna. "I'm not going in there."
Fyre looked to where her sister pointed. "Oh shit. That's... that's... what is that?"
From the outside, little of the two women could be seen, only circling vortexes of light and shadow that danced and annihilated each other.
Luna winced as Khelin's blade drew blood along her chest, opening a small wound. Khelin grinned, pressing her attack. "My Mother will feast on your soul."
"I'm going to make you pay for what you've done to Torrin and me, Khelin," Luna grunted, blocking the series of blows the other woman was landing.
Khelin grimaced in agony and lowered her sword as the burning in her blood redoubled at the mention of Torrin's name.
Luna took advantage of the distraction. With a quick swing upward, and then a reverse, she sent Khelin's blade tumbling to the side. A slice to the legs brought Khelin to her knees with a scream.
"You'll always be Mine, Luna!" Khelin shrieked, as the pain Torrin's name caused overwhelmed her.
Luna brought her sword back, and then swung again. The blade sliced through the air with a shrill whistle, cutting cleanly through Khelin's neck and sending the Queen's head tumbling to the blood soaked ground. "I was never yours, Khelin," she spat as she kicked the head aside. "Never."
With the death of Khelin, the light and shadow pyrotechnics died as well. The suddenly bright morning sunshine highlighted the body of the dead queen and the victorious Northern Ranger.
A stunned silence fell upon the battlefield.
Luna raised her glowing sword, pointing the tip toward the nearest Southern officer she could see. With great effort, she held the sword steady. "Surrender," she called out.
Her response was the sound of the officer's weaponry hitting the ground.
The sound of dropped weapons rang out throughout the camp. Luna didn't know whether to laugh or weep. Wearily she turned, nodding to Fyre and the twins. "Anyone seen Torrin?" she asked hopefully.
Ember shrugged and shook her head.
Fyre smacked Ember. "When your Commander asks a question, you respond in a respectful manner."
Ember shoved Fyre back.
"Commander?" Luna asked, giving Fyre a bewildered look.
Fyre and Ember stopped their shoving and looked at each other. Then Fyre looked at Luna. "Um, Luna if you haven't noticed, we've been following your command for quite some time. We followed you into battle today even though there was a good chance we would all die. We did it because we believe in you and we knew our chances were better with you leading."
Luna blinked, opened her mouth, closed it and then shook her head. Later…she'd deal with this later. First, she had to find Torrin.
Emily answered her initial question and quietly said, "No, not yet. But we should probably look for her in the Queen's tent."
Luna didn't know if she had the strength for that. What if Tyra's intuition had been wrong? What if Torrin was dead? She struggled not to think of the anguish that would cause her.
Suddenly the shadows around Khelin's body seemed to gather and swirl. They spun faster and faster until they made the form of a body. Luna swiveled to face this new threat, tiredly lifting her sword only out of habit. She felt drained, barely able to think.
"You!" a voice wailed, thick with anger and grief. "You will pay for this."
Luna knew she should be afraid, but she just couldn't manage it. "Go away Shadow," she said tiredly. "You do not hold sway here."
"I hold more sway than you think." The Mistress of Shadow's stared at the body of her only child and felt an unfamiliar sadness piercing her breast. In a gentle movement, the Goddess picked up the body of her headless child. "You think your people are so pure of heart that I cannot gain a foothold, yet I held the heart of your very own warrior leader, Quinn." Shadows swirled around Khelin's head until it disappeared. "I am the Goddess of Vengeance and I will have it!" she vowed as she vanished with her child.
Luna closed her eyes at the threat. So, what she had feared about Quinn was true. She set aside the implications for the moment. Her primary goal now was to find Torrin.
"Fyre, see if you can find Janice and ask her to..." she trailed off, her attention caught by the sound of a horse whinnying nearby.
"Ask her to what?" Fyre questioned. "Um, Luna you okay?"
"Torrin!" Luna shouted, all fatigue forgotten as she sprinted toward the form slumped over the horse's back. "Tasha!" Luna called over her shoulder. "Get a healer!"
"Torrin? Where?" Fyre sighed as Luna took off. Frye looked at Emily. "You and your sister round up the other leaders and get them to start organizing this mess. I'll take care of Luna." The two younger women nodded and scampered off.
The stallion gave a soft whinny in worry. He whinnied again. The approaching woman looked like the one he had been commanded to find. The stallion stopped as the woman raced toward him. He laid his ears back and nervously stamped a foot.
"Easy, easy there." Luna tried to soothe the skittish animal. She sheathed her sword and held both hands out for the horse to sniff.
Fyre ran over to help Luna. "Here, let me get her down, you hold the animal."
Luna grabbed the dangling reins, doing her best to soothe the wary animal. "Shh, there you go, see, it's all right." All the while, she nervously watched Fyre lifted Torrin off the horse.
Fyre had seen many injuries as a warrior but she felt herself pale as she lifted Torrin up.
Luna gasped at the sight of her lover, letting go of the horse's reins as she rushed to Torrin's side. "Torrin, what did she do to you?" Luna whispered, helping Fyre lower her to the ground. Gently she brushed dark hair back from Torrin's face.
"By the Goddess, I never want to know what that bitch did to her," Fyre blurted out.
Tasha ran across the ground dragging a healer behind her. "What's going on?" She stopped in her tracks "Torrin? Oh my! What happened to her?"
Luna had a good idea from her own experience at Khelin's hand. With tears in her eyes, Luna looked up from where she knelt. "Quick, get her back to the Abbey."
Torrin whimpered and thrashed in the bed, tangling herself up in the bed sheets. Her eyes fluttered open and she tried to sit up. Finding her limbs trapped and thinking she was back in Khelin's tent, she began to scream.
Luna snapped awake and fell off the bed in her scramble to get to the thrashing Torrin. Cursing, she got up off the floor. "Torrin, it's all right, you're all right."
Torrin flinched as out of the corner of her eye, she caught a shape coming at her. "Noooo!" Torrin struggled harder with the sheets until she fell from the bed. Scrambling on all fours, she tucked herself into a small ball in a corner.
Luna froze, and then very slowly approached the terrified woman making low calming noises. Gently she touched Torrin's back, letting Torrin feel her warmth. "Torrin, it's me, it's Luna," she whispered, trying to draw Torrin out of her nightmares.
Torrin flinched and shrank against the touch. But after a moment, Luna's presence filtered through the fog in her mind. "Luna?" Torrin whispered, but she didn't look up… afraid it was another trick by Khelin.
Moving closer, Luna slid her hands down Torrin's arms, trying to reassure the other woman that she was there. "Yes love, it's me."
Torrin slowly began to shift her body out of its protective curve. "Luna?" She asked again as she lifted her head and looked at the woman behind her.
Luna brushed her hand through Torrin's short dark hair, waiting for those gray eyes to focus on her face. "I'm here."
Torrin didn't say anything but turned, wrapping her arms around Luna. Burying her face in Luna's hair, she breathed in its sweet scent. Finally, she knew it was not an illusion. "Luna," she whispered more to herself.
Luna closed her eyes, holding Torrin close, but mindful of the woman's still healing wounds. The healers had worked miracles, but even miracles needed the time to heal the damage that Khelin had wrought. Only when the cold of the stone floor started to seep into her, did Luna pull away. "Come on, let's get back into bed?"
Torrin just nodded her head and let Luna help her up.
Luna tucked them both back into the narrow bed in the Healer's room. "How do you feel?" Luna asked finally, breaking the silence as she carefully held Torrin close to her.
Torrin blinked and stared at the ceiling.
"Numb. I feel like I'm not really here." She searched her mind for clues to what had happened but came up empty. "What happened? Where's Khelin?"
"She's dead." Luna answered simply, wrapping her arms tighter around Torrin and offering her what comfort she could.
"Oh," Torrin mumbled. "I hope it was painful." Torrin shivered, remembering the needles placed in her skin with such glee by Khelin.
"I cut her head off." Luna said quietly, pressing her lips to the top of Torrin's head.
Torrin snorted. "Couldn't have happened to a more deserving person. She pulled back and looked at Luna. "She killed Rhain, you know. I told my stupid sister to go back to the Abbey and what does she do? She comes right back into the serpent's den."
Nodding, Luna softly replied, "She rescued you, Torrin."
A lone tear fell from Torrin's eye, followed quickly by others. "She saved my life actually," she sniffed. I was so far gone. Khelin was going to kill me and I really didn't care. Then, she and that Priestess was there… freeing me, urging me to leave."
Luna gathered the smaller woman into her arms and cradled her as she cried. She knew there was little for her to say.
Torrin just let herself be held and eventually cried herself to sleep.
It was daylight when Luna woke up, cramped and hurting but still holding Torrin. It was a sensation she wouldn't trade for anything. She found that she didn't want to let go and the thought scared her. For several minutes, Luna studied Torrin, tracing a finger down along her jaw and cheek. Torrin felt comfortable in her arms, warm and solid, a comforting reminder that they were both alive. Giving into her growing impulse, she leaned over Torrin and gently kissed her. She started with little nibbles and let her fingers traced paths across her body.
Waking up, Torrin shivered and then stilled. Warily, she assessed the touches to her body, but felt no violence in the caresses, only gentleness. "Luna?" Torrin breathed out.
"Hmm, hmmm?" Luna murmured, teasing an available earlobe with her teeth. "Good morning."
Air rapidly sucked into her lungs with the sensation and sluggishly, Torrin opened her eyes. She looked at Luna and felt warmth creep in and slowly fill up the hollowness in her soul. "It wasn't a dream. We won?" she said more to herself.
Luna smiled widely and nodded. She never expected to survive the battle either. To live and find herself holding Torrin was more than she had thought possible. She just knew she was going to explode from happiness.
"How do you feel?" Luna gently touched the bandages that covered the worst of Torrin's wounds.
"Better," Torrin answered, giving a small lopsided smile.
Luna ducked her head to press one last, lingering kiss to Torrin's lips, then threw aside the covers, stretched and stood up.
Torrin's smile disappeared into a frown. "Where are you going?" She was perfectly happy to stay in bed and let the rest of the world rot.
"We've got things to do." Luna answered brightly, stripping out of her nightshirt to begin dressing. "I want those southern warriors sent packing before they decide to cause anymore trouble. The sooner they are out of northern lands, the better. Then we have to send a party south to see about Abnoa, and of course, send word to the Queen's City about what happened." Luna paused to smile at the smaller woman. "It's going to be a great day."
Torrin pouted and stared at the ceiling. "A great day would be spent in bed… naked."
Luna drew on a shirt, and then went back to the scowling Torrin. With a wicked smile, she bent over and kissed Torrin thoroughly, enjoying the taste of the other woman's lips. Only when her own breathing became labored did she pulled back.
"We both fought a battle yesterday, and you've been seriously injured." She brushed her fingers lightly over Torrin's lips. "I want our first time to be when we can both enjoy it." Luna could feel her face heating as a blush rose, but she had managed to say the words without stuttering. She still wasn't certain she could give herself to Torrin that way, but she certainly wanted to try again.
Dazed, Torrin blinked back at Luna. "Um…okay," she agreed. She just wasn't sure what she had just agreed to.
"Good." Luna ducked her head to hide her blush and retreated to the other side of the room to finish dressing.
As Luna got farther away Torrin found her thinking improving. With a deep sigh, she attempted to sit up. Pain. Lots of pain radiated up and down her arms and hands. A few seconds ago, her mind might have been willing, but obviously, her flesh was weak.
After pulling up her pants and belting on her scabbard, Luna managed to slow her racing heart. She hadn't meant to take things quite so fast. Belatedly, she noticed Torrin's pain-etched face. "You all right?"
"Yeah," Torrin said, breathing heavily, "just forgot about the dagger Khelin repeatedly stabbed into me."
Luna crossed over to where Torrin was sitting up, and helped the shorter woman to her feet. "Hold still." She checked the bandages, making certain none of them had come off during the night. "The healers are going to want to change these soon." She traced over the angry red welts that Khelin's needles had left behind.
Torrin shivered at the touch and felt goose bumps jump up on her skin. "Needles," she said simply. "I must be rather ugly to look at. Scars on my back and now this on my front."
"No, you're beautiful," Luna whispered, her voice hoarse with emotion.
Torrin scoffed. "You're the one who's beautiful. Both inside and out, darkness doesn't touch you." She winced, remembering how the power of the shadows had enticed her before Khelin had striped them away.
Luna was silent for a moment as she helped Torrin put her shirt on. "You're wrong, you know, darkness touches me, too." The memory of Vladlin and his hounds rose in her mind and she shook her head to clear it.
"If it does, you're strong enough to push it away." Torrin winced as she tried to stretch her body. Although she could feel the fingers in her left hand, she still couldn't move that arm.
"So are you," Luna reminded her.
Torrin hugged Luna with her functioning arm. "Sorry I'm so... I don't feel myself yet," she said quietly into Luna's shoulder.
The taller woman wrapped her arms around Torrin, resting her chin on the dark head. "I think we both need some time."
A pounding at the door caused Luna to chuckle. "Ah, typical start of another day."
Torrin grinned back at her. "Should I tell them I'm naked again?"
"I don't think that will help." Luna muttered, and then called out, "Come in!"
Fyre barged in and promptly got a sheepish look on her face. "I'm sorry I didn't realize Torrin was up and you two were having a …moment."
"You're good at interrupting our moments, Fyre," Luna said, still upset at the Fire warrior and the others who had talked Torrin into going after the cannons.
Fyre snorted, "And you both are good at keeping me from sleeping, so we're even."
Torrin grumbled and detached herself from Luna. Slowly she lowered herself to the bed. Standing and dressing had worn her out a bit.
Fyre grinned good-naturedly at them. "Luna, if you can tear yourself away from the walking dead here, we're getting ready to send the Southern army packing."
That was the best news that Luna had heard for many cycles of the moon. "I've longed to hear those words said for a long time now. In fact, since last autumn," she said, glancing toward Torrin. "Are you up for a little walk?"
Torrin made a face at Fyre. "I don't really look like the walking dead. Do I?"
Fyre laughed. "No. But there's a handful of Southern Warriors who swear you rose up from the dead to get vengeance."
"Humph," Torrin grumped, "and yes, I suppose I'm up for a walk. Actually the fresh air would be nice."
Luna offered the injured woman her arm. "Care to have an escort?"
Torrin smiled. "Only if it's you. I don't trust Fyre. She'll let me fall so she can laugh."
"Come on then, old woman." Luna grinned helping Torrin stand back up. "Let's go take a stroll."
The remaining intact area of the Abbey's courtyard had been turned into a makeshift Healers ward. The healers, many of them Priestesses of the Moon Goddess, moved through row after row of injured women. Further down the Pass, row after row of funeral pyres burned. Once night fell, more would burn again.
Luna, her arm around Torrin's waist for support, followed Fyre past the injured filled cots.
Torrin let Luna lead her outside. As the sun hit her face, she blinked and then slightly tilted her face towards its warmth. Then after a moment, she realized what was going on around her. "How many women were lost?" she asked quietly.
"Too many," was Luna's troubled answer. Half of the women who had come to hold the Northern lines were either severely injured or dead. "We lost fewer than they did though." Luna motioned down toward the Pass. "Between the slaves sent against the northern lines, and all the fighting, they lost twice as many as we did.
Torrin nodded. "How long have I been out?"
"Three days." Luna answered, helping Torrin across a section of rubble that use to be the outer wall.
"Really?" Torrin was surprised. Out for three days? Strange. But, she figured, she'd never been hurt that badly before either. So, all and all, she decided, not too bad since she had been certain that she was going to die from her encounter with Khelin.
"Um, I saw Jinette," Luna said as they walked toward the area where the Southerners were contained.
Torrin's thoughts paused and she processed what Luna had said. "What? You saw my Muanya? How?"
Luna smiled as they slowly made their way down the slope. "She came to me during a, um, a bad part of the night." Luna decided to leave out the part about Vladlin. "She told me you were alive." Luna still wondered if she would have folded had Torrin's Muanya not appeared.
Torrin smiled brightly. "I'm so glad she could be there for you when you needed someone." Torrin's smile fell and tears gathered in her eyes as she remembered trying to hold on so she could be with Luna again and how close she had come to failing in her promise to return.
"Hey," Luna whispered, turning her so that they faced each other. Gently she wiped Torrin's tears away with her fingertips and felt her own eyes water. "It's okay. We both made it," she whispered and wrapped her arms around Torrin.
"I'm sorry," Torrin mumbled.
"For what, love?" Luna asked.
Torrin sniffed and held back her tears. "Never mind. You're right. We made it. I'm just being silly."
Luna simply smiled and squeezed Torrin once more. Then she released her. "You want to keep going?" She motioned down the slope. "We could keep them waiting, I wouldn't mind."
Torrin squeezed Luna back. "No, let's get them sent back home. That way, they stop taking up valuable time we could be using to do other things."
Luna liked the sound of that. Making a face at a grinning Fyre, Luna continued to help Torrin down the slope again.
"You know, Tyra came to see you a lot, Torrin. She'll probably have a fit when she finds out you are awake and I didn't get her. Tasha came to see you too." Luna hesitated a moment then plunged on. " Um, Rhain's set to be sent back to the Moon Goddess tonight."
Torrin blinked back another onrush of tears. "I'm glad I can be here to honor her tonight." She gave a small sigh. "I'm not sure what happened to her, but I think the woman who came back to save me was the real her." She wiped a tear away. "And I'm glad I got a glimpse of that woman."
Luna wanted to ask more questions about what had happened, but this wasn't the time or place. With a few more steps, they reached the area where the majority of the surviving southerners were being held. Most had simply fled after Khelin's death. Those who didn't, were quickly rounded up, disarmed, and put under guard. It was this group of dirty, forlorn, and demoralized women that watched Luna and Torrin come to a stop in front of them.
Alyssandra, her arm bound from a nasty cut she had taken during the battle, met them with a nod. "Ladies." The head of the Wave Dancers gave Torrin a small wink.
Torrin frowned at Alyssandra. "Why did she wink at me?" Torrin whispered to Luna. "Isn't she married?"
Luna coughed, her face turning a brilliant red as she blushed. "I have no idea." she squeaked, giving Alyssandra a dirty look.
Fyre laughed at the exchange and slapped Torrin on the back as she walked past her.
Torrin winced and glared at Fyre, and then turned her attention back to the captive southerners. "How the mighty have fallen," she muttered. The soldiers were no longer preening Birds of Paradise. Instead, they looked more like plucked pheasants ready to be sent to the cook. "So, what are we going to do with them?" she asked Luna.
"We gave the mercenaries who switched side the option to leave. Most of them did right after the battle," Luna said, frowning slightly as she studied the women in front of her. She expected to feel hate or at least anger towards them, but instead, she could barely manage pity.
"Well, they can't stay here," Allysandra pointed out reasonably. "Even now it's taking a lot of women to guard them. The sooner they're gone, the better.
"Send them back with an escort of the Earth tribe," Torrin suggested. "They need to go back to Abnoa and clean out Khelin's stink." Torrin paused in thought. "Don't they have a Second in Command? You need someone to sign a treaty. It should be valid until someone fills Khelin's void… still plenty of time for them to go back home."
Luna nodded, and took a step forward, grinning as she saw that the guards nearest to her were Emily and Ember. "Who here is Khelin's second?" she shouted.
A dirty woman with a black eye spoke up. "Um, The Queen didn't really have a Second. She was... um... not into sharing her power. I was, however, her newest advisor."
"Lucky you," Luna muttered. "What's your name?"
She cleared her throat nervously, "I am Theoda."
"Well, Theoda, you get to sign a treaty with me. Come over here."
Luna spotted Eve emerging from one of the tents with a scroll. Ever since that earlier misunderstanding, she had been nothing but civil. Luna hoped the girl was over her crush. Eve made her way to the small group, giving Torrin a single, haughty glance, before smiling and offering Luna the scroll.
Luna sighed, took the scroll from Eve and scanned it quickly. Unlike most Wind Walker texts, this one was simple and to the point. She liked it. "Here, Theoda, take a look." She handed the scroll to the Southerner.
The ex-advisor took the scroll, opened it with a snap and began to read. She nodded her head as she read the listed points. "Hmmm, one thing. Once we reach the border to the South, I would like us to get our swords back. Under Khelin's longtime rule, there has been a philosophy of 'might equaling right'. To send us back unarmed gives us no defense against our own people." She looked up from the paper to the Northern leaders. "But other than that, I agree to these terms."
Luna didn't feel like being charitable, she'd rather see the oppressed Southerners rise up and wipe away every vestige of Khelin's rule. Still she turned to the others, raising an eyebrow in silent question.
Fyre frowned and looked to Tasha. Tasha looked back, shrugged and looked to Eve.
Torrin sighed and asked, "How many warriors are returning to Abnoa? Enough to defend it should these women decide to throw away this treaty when armed?"
The Advisor gave a sniff, "We would never..."
Torrin glared at the woman who shut up quickly. "I am well aware of what the South would and would not do… as you well know.
The advisor reddened and looked away. She wondered if the mercenary knew she had spent the early hours of the dawn listening to her screams.
"There aren't enough Rangers to hold Abnoa," Luna admitted, and then shrugged. "This means, we'll have to send some Fire warriors with them." Luna turned back to Theoda. "We agree to return just your swords and only when you reach the border. Make no mistake about this, though. I don't want to. I simply think there has been enough bloodshed today." Taking back the thick parchment scroll, she signed it quickly using a quill that Eve was holding. "Break this treaty, Theoda, and we will never show the South mercy again," she said.
Theoda nodded. "I thank you for your leniency." She picked the quill up, wrote her name and position, and handed the scroll back to Luna.
Luna handed the signed scroll to Eve, who bowed and tucked it away. "It will be placed in the library at the Queen's City," she said.
Fyre gave out a loud whoop. "About time!"
Luna relaxed a bit. It was almost over. "Fyre, see that these ladies are escorted out of the North." She hoped that Fyre would pick a good set of Fire warriors to help guard Abnoa until there were once again enough Rangers to hold the Castle and the surrounding countryside.
Fyre nodded. "I'm on it." She started discussing personnel with Tasha as they walked away.
Torrin rubbed her head as she heard that strange murmuring noise again. This time though, it was only one voice. She smiled. It was asking if she was okay. Torrin turned her head, looking around. Seeing everyone was busy with negotiations, she slowly made her way to where she thought the voice was coming from. Shuffling along, she spied a horse, black as a moonless night, tied to a tree. As she approached, he nickered and threw his head back. A few braids in the long mane showed that this horse belonged to the plains.
Torrin smiled and ignoring the pain, raised a shaking hand. The stallion sniffed her outstretched hand. "Hey. I vaguely remember you. You helped me get back here." The stallion nickered again and then gently head-butted Torrin in the chest causing Torrin to cry out in pain. "Please don't do that again," she whispered to the horse.
Noticing that Torrin was missing, Luna turned and looked around, finally spotting her some distance away with a black stallion. Following her friend, Luna said nothing as she watched Torrin talk to the stallion. Finally she asked, "Are you sure you're not a Ranger?" as she watched the two of them.
Torrin turned to look at Luna. "A Ranger... me? Surely you jest."
"You're good with animals," Luna said, motioning toward the stallion. "That's a good start."
Grey eyes looked over at Luna. "What's a good start?"
"I mean, if you were trying to become a Ranger, I would say you have a good start since you're good with horses."
Torrin's hands slowly stroked the midnight colored coat and she grinned at Luna. "Is that all it takes? A silver tongue with animals?"
The taller woman found herself smiling. "Pretty much. Well, besides all of that other training stuff…"her smile widened into a grin.
Torrin's smile fell a bit. "I think I'm too worn out for the life of a Ranger." She petted the stallion a bit longer. "Perhaps a musician's life. Even with one eye I can still read music."
"What?" Luna asked, not quite certain what she meant. "What do you mean, with one eye?"
Torrin gave the horse one last scratch to the nose and slowly made her way over to Luna. "If I close my right eye, you look like a dark blob on a gray background."
Luna frowned. "And when, exactly, were you going to let me know about this?"
Torrin shrugged then looked at the stallion now pawing the ground. "You know, I think I'll name him Pollux. You don't mind if I keep him do you?
"Of course not," Luna answered, reaching out and touching Torrin's cheek. "Anything else you want to tell me? I assume the eye injury was from the fight with the Assassins?"
Torrin let out a breath. "Yeah, that's when it started, when I cracked my head on the ice. Then there was Rhain punching me in the head, and then when I slammed into that tree on patrol. All and all my head has been busy." She looked at Luna and reached up to touch Luna's cheek.
Luna pressed a kiss to the palm of Torrin's hand, and sighed, "Come on, how about we get you back to bed? I know Tyra's probably going insane trying to find out where you are and you should rest before Rhain's sending ceremony tonight."
But when they returned to their room Torrin's mother swept her up in a fierce hug. Torrin gave a small squeal of pain as her mother squeezed her tighter and tighter.
"You're okay. You're up and walking and okay." Tyra babbled.
Tyra pushed her youngest to arms length. "You didn't come see me and you're out wandering around. Was it too much to come see me and let me know?"
Luna knew when to beat a strategic retreat, and now was the time. Meeting Torrin's gray eyes, Luna smiled, shrugged, and slipped into their bedroom to leave Torrin to her mother's tender mercy.
"Mom, well, um…I'm sorry."
Tyra studied her daughter's face. "Are you really okay? When they brought you back, you were barely alive. I was so worried."
Torrin hugged her mother gently and wiped away a few tears. "I'm okay now. Look. I'm right here. Safe and sound."
Tyra shook her head. "Physically you look okay, but a lot of things happened to you. How are you…" she tapped Torrin's head softly, "inside?"
Torrin looked down. She finally responded quietly," Better. But Mom, I don't want to tell you what happened...it's…"
"But if you want," Tyra broke in, "I'm here for you."
Torrin smiled wanly. "I know, but... it's just too much...." She fidgeted with her tunic as she tried to close off the horrific memories of that night. Finally she said softly, " Mom, at the end right…before Rhain saved me… I broke. Khelin, she broke me. She shattered who I was. I don't feel very worthy...," the tears started to fall, "and I feel hollow inside."
Trya gathered her sobbing child into her arms. "Shhh," Tyra soothed. "It will be okay. You just need time. Luna, your sister, Fyre, and myself… we are all here for you."
After a few minutes, Torrin was able to get herself where she felt in control again. "Thanks. She wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. "Thank you for still loving me after all these years."
Tyra sniffed back a few tears of her own. "You're my daughter. I never gave up hope that I'd see you again." She hugged Torrin again. "I'm so glad you came back home."
"Me too." Torrin kissed her mother softly on the cheek. "Do you mind if I go lie down? I'm kind of worn out."
"No. Oh no, not at all," Tyra said with an understanding smile. "I'm not so old I that I don't understand that some wounds can't be healed by a mother's touch."
Torrin flushed at her mother's comment. "Um, okay, I will see you tonight then."
"Of course." Tyra patted her daughter's hand. "Don't hesitate to come to me if you need anything. Or if you want to talk."
In the other room, Luna poured wine from a pitcher into two mugs. Then, setting them aside, she took off the sword and placed it within easy reach. Sitting down by the small fireplace, she took up one of the mugs, and waited for Torrin. She envied the other woman. She wished she could talk to her mothers.
Torrin smiled warmly at Luna as she entered the room. "Hey," she said softly.
Luna looked up, smiling in return. "Hey." She motioned to the other chair and the mug of wine next to it. "I thought you might need that."
"Yes. Very much so, thanks." She sat down and took a small sip of wine. "Mmm, very nice."
Luna nodded and took a sip of her own, her blue eyes studying Torrin. "You doing all right?"
"Me. I'm fine." However, her eyes darted away from Luna's searching look.
"Mmm, hmm," Luna hummed, taking another sip of wine before standing up. Crossing the short distance between them, she knelt by the side of Torrin's chair and took the other woman's hand in hers. She waited patiently until Torrin's eyes met her own. "You want to talk or take a nap?" she offered.
Torrin sighed. "I sense you don't believe my statement of being fine." Luna just smiled at her. "Okay, how about a nap to start off. Then we can see from there?"
"Agreed…for now." Luna stood up, drawing Torrin to her feet and led her to the bed.
As Torrin closed her eyes, wrapped in Luna's arms, she tried to shake that feeling of failure. Here the woman she had sworn to protect was tending her instead. "Damn you, Khelin," she whispered to herself as tears leaked down her face.
Torrin screamed as the needle was inserted into her skin. Hovering above her, Khelin laughed in joy at her pain.
Luna dropped the scrolls she'd been sorting through and dashed for the bed. She'd stayed with Torrin until the other woman had fallen asleep, and then gotten up to read through some of the scrolls Eve had sent her.
"Torrin, honey," She slid into the bed with the thrashing woman. "Torrin." Gently she touched the dark-haired woman's arm. "Torrin, wake up, it's just a dream."
Torrin's eyes flew open and she felt a scream trapped in her throat. For a moment, she didn't see Luna. It was Khelin was hovering over her, laughing at her pain. Then that image faded away, showing Luna with a concerned look on her face. With a whimper, Torrin closed her eyes and laid limply on the bed.
Luna hesitated, uncertain what to do, and then she simply gathered Torrin into her arms.
"A dream, just a dream," she croaked out and then started crying. "So much pain, Luna. She used these needles..." She began to cry harder.
Luna closed her eyes, feeling them moisten with her own tears. "I know," she whispered, well aware of her own failings with Khelin. She held Torrin tighter as the smaller woman kept on crying. "She doesn't own you, Torrin. She doesn't own either of us." Luna said.
Torrin clutched at Luna's arm. "I can't get rid of her. She's still with me and it's my fault!" Torrin cried harder. "It's my fault, 'cause I was weak and couldn't resist her. I tried to be strong, but I wasn't."
Luna pressed kisses to Torrin's forehead, shaking her head. "Why do you think you were weak?"
"She got to me. She pushed me to the end of my willpower and then she broke me. I would have spilled my guts about anything," Torrin gulped out. "Thankfully, she was so annoyed with me by then, all she wanted to do was just kill me."
"That's why you think you were weak? 'Cause she pushed you to your limit?" Luna whispered, tilting Torrin's chin so she could press a kiss to the other woman's lips. "Torrin, my love, don't you realize you're the reason the North won?"
Torrin sniffed. "I could have put us all at risk. I could have told her everything about our army."
"Torrin, she already knew everything about our army," Luna countered, sliding her fingers through Torrin's short, dark locks. "If you hadn't destroyed her cannons, we would not be here tonight. I'm certain about that."
"I could have told her about that."
"But you didn't, did you?"
Torrin started to feel calmer. "I-I-I... you're right, I didn't. It's just... I always thought I was stronger than that because of what Quinn did and then my training at the Temple. But Khelin, she blew both those experiences away like they were child's play."
"She had that effect on people. But remember, she was the daughter of the Mistress of the Shadows. She was trained that way too," Luna whispered as she stroked Torrin's back.
Torrin closed her gray eyes and concentrated on just breathing. Slowly she felt her heart rate go down and her fear dissipate. "Yeah, you're right. Khelin was a piece of work." Opening her eyes, she tried to give a smile but it was shaky. "I'm better now." Torrin curled around Luna, wanting that physical connection. "Thank you for putting up with me."
"You put up with me," Luna reminded her gently. "Remember the cabin? I'm amazed you didn't just leave me there."
Torrin snorted. "I gave my word that I would get you to the Queen's City."
"You are an honorable woman, Torrin. Don't ever doubt that," Luna murmured as she leaned closer and pressed her lips to Torrin's.
Torrin sighed into the kiss, enjoying the simple comfort given by it. She looked at Luna. "How things have changed. I never would have imagined this... us... well, together. Did you?"
Luna shook her head, brushing a long blonde strand behind her ear. "No. I never thought I'd actually live through the war."
"I feel better when I'm touching you. I don't feel scared anymore," Torrin mumbled, burrowing her face into Luna's neck, feeling her nerves soothed even more by Luna's scent.
Luna's breath hitched at those words and she hugged the smaller woman tightly. "What a path we traveled to get here," she muttered, pressing a kiss to the top of the head tucked under her chin.
A knock on the outer door caused Luna to lift her head. A voice called from outside "My lady, it's time."
Luna hugged Torrin once more. "You ready for this?"
Torrin huffed. "No. But Rhain deserves a proper good-bye."
Luna had her reservations about that but said nothing. She stood up. "Come on then, let's go say goodbye to your sister."
A pale moon was rising above the horizon when the funeral processions set forth from the Abbey courtyard. The priestesses led the way as the mourners carried the bodies toward assembled pyres. Singers, raising their voices in praise to the Moon Goddess, trailed after them.
Torrin marched silently next to the platform that held Rhain's body. Tasha walked on the other side while Tyra followed behind. She noticed that Luna, along with the other Clan leaders, followed the singers. All of them were present since each had lost members during the war. How strange, she mused, the battle and the loss of so many had actually united the Clans together in a way they had not been since the last High Queen had ruled over the North. How twisted could fate be, Torrin thought. Rhain had been so cruel and mistrusting of her since she had first arrived, and yet, in the last minutes of her life, she redeemed herself. Her eyes roamed the crowd until they fell on Luna, and Torrin felt her heart flutter in her chest. For a minute, she forgot everything, focusing on the weird feeling, and then she released a great breath. So… this was what being in love felt like. Her lips quirked. It was almost scarier than being in Khelin's tent.
As the bodies were placed on top of the funeral pyre, Luna met Torrin's eyes. It seemed as if only the two of them standing there. Then the first of the pyres were lit and she was back at the funeral procession surrounded by mourners. The singing chant changed. High musical notes sent the freed souls on their journey home to the Moon Goddess. Tasha was consoling Tyra, with a suitably, grave-looking Valarie nearby. Without thinking, Luna moved over to where Torrin stood and wrapped her arms around Torrin's waist and held her while the fire burned.
Torrin hugged Luna back and then kissed her just under her ear. "I love you," she whispered quietly. "It just hit. And yes, this might seem like an odd time to have such a revelation, but I am completely and utterly in love with you." She cleared her throat. "And I understand if what I said, just freaked you out."
Luna gave a choked laugh, burying her face in Torrin's short hair and closed her eyes against the sudden flood of tears those simple words brought. "I love you, too." She stood there, holding Torrin, surrounded by people from different Clans who had all become her family, and rejoiced in living.
Luna sat in the chair by the bed and watched the sun edge above the horizon. Like a curtain opening, the sunlight spread across the land below the Ellris Pass. Frowning, she stared out the window. Her home was down there, or at least it had been. Castle Abnoa and the wild forest around it had been Earth Clan territory for generations. She glanced toward the sleeping form on the bed. The trauma of Torrin's capture and torture was still evident. The smaller woman had tossed and turned often throughout the night, and twice nightmares had broken her sleep.
Luna looked back at the brightening landscape, her thoughts whirling as she struggled to figure out what was her next move. Khelin was gone, killed by her own hand. The Southern army was in tatters and sent home. She felt some joy in that, but also felt confused. Since before the winter, all her waking moments were dedicated for this moment of victory. Now that it was over, what was she supposed to do? Go back to Abnoa?
"Do you really feel you could return to your old life as a simple Ranger?" a soft, masculine voice asked.
Her fingers had just grasped the hilt of her sword when she realized it was Armando, not Vladlin, who stood nearby. He held his hands out so that Luna could see he was unarmed. "Like I could do anything to a God," she thought. Relaxing, she let go of the blade, and sat back down.
"I am a Ranger," she answered.
"Really? It's part of who you are, but is it the whole part?" he questioned, a mysterious smile tugging at his lips.
Not enjoying the teasing question, her blue eyes narrowed at the God. "What are you getting at?"
"You can stop now if you want. Go back with Tasha. Return to skulking around the forest. However, you're almost to the end of the race. But if you want to go back to your old life, now is the time to make that decision."
She stood up at that, eyeing the Horse God with curiosity. "And what is it you see…when you look at me? What else am I other than a Ranger? It's all I've ever known how to be."
"I see a realm of possibilities when I look at you. But it's up to you to decide what you do. I am not your God and my Sister, well, she believes in choices for her people. With either decision, my great-grandchild will love you and follow you without question. But there is still a final act to be played out." He smiled pleasantly and walked closer.
Not certain what he had in mind, she stiffened as he approached.
"You see, the first act happened long ago. My Sister helped free all the women that would inhabit this land. While we other Gods scraped and fought for followers in the Southern lands, she was alone her in her cold Northern wastes."
Luna nodded slowly. "Vladlin… that's why he wanted me to worship him. He wants to come to the North."
"No need to fear, I am not my Brother. I do not need to recruit you. I can let my little one sway you into the ways of the Horse Clan." He smiled down at his sleeping granddaughter, happy that she finally was having some peace.
She smiled back and looked over his shoulder toward the still sleeping form of her love. "True."
Armando cleared his throat. "Yes. My Sister is the eldest, well ... older than us siblings. Korgon is the oldest. She preferred this place and we did not fight her on it. It is cold and remote. I prefer the grasslands where my horses can run. At first, when your ancestors showed up, all was good. We were happy to have people to worship us. Soon though, the squabbles started. All of us were fighting to gain more followers. Some of us grew jealous of our distant Sister, the Moon, who did not have to fight with others for her worshipers."
Luna listened intently, knowing this would be more than any mortal would ever know of what had happened so long ago. Maybe she'd discover the reason for Khelin's madness and insistence on invading the North.
"Vladlin sent an army many, many years ago but was stopped at Abnoa. He was sent home with his tail between his legs." He looked sad for a moment.
Luna nodded; she had heard stories told by the older Rangers of that war.
"Then my Sister drew upon the power of prophecy to stake her claim into her Sister's land and people. Prophecy is a powerful tool and rarely used. It calls upon primal powers older than us."
Luna blinked in confusion. "Which sister?"
"Oh sorry." He flushed slightly. "Ethelinda, the Mistress of Shadows. She desperately wanted into your land." " The Mistress prophesied that, through a dark hand, the line of Queen would be no more until one of her blood rendered the Orb from the North and place herself as Queen of two lands."
Luna frowned, that wasn't the prophecy she had heard. "I thought there was supposed to be a Deceiver?"
"Yes, well, my Moon Sister, Hala …" he paused as Torrin sighed and rolled restlessly in the bed, a hand sleepily searching for Luna. Luna crossed the room, sat on the side of the bed and caressed Torrin's back until she stilled. "While a prophecy cannot be unmade, giving the people a choice can alter it. Thus, the Deceiver and the Betrayer were created as counters to the Mistress's prophesy. But there was still the possibility the darker prophecy would be chosen over the fork that the Moon Goddess created."
"But she didn't," Luna countered, keeping a hand on Torrin's back while the dark-haired woman slept on, "the North is safe still."
"Yes, Torrin was my darker Sister's way of getting back at me for taking Hala's side. Once she heard the new prophecy, she choose a child of my blood and put things in motion, grooming Torrin to take her daughter's side. Torrin was supposed to be a bodyguard for Khelin after she failed to walk through the black fire of the Shadow Temple. But with some godly interference, she was sold to Rya's Hawks." He smiled broadly. "All she has left is to fulfill her destiny and place a Queen on the Throne of the North."
For a brief instant, Luna had a vision of how different things would have been if Torrin had been one of Khelin's bodyguards instead of a mercenary. She shivered at the insight and mercifully, it left her quickly. "Then you have my thanks for that as well as the other things."
He nodded and gave her an enigmatic smile. "I didn't really come here to tell you all this. I came to thank you for taking care of my great grandchild." He reached out and gently touched Torrin's head. "I failed Jinete, I could not bear it if I failed again. So thank you. And perhaps, I shall see you again." Slowly he faded out of sight.
"Perhaps," she whispered, watching the place where the Horse God had been. With the full sunlight flooding the room, she curled up next to Torrin, deep in thought as she watched the rise and fall of the Torrin's chest.
Under the watchful eyes of the healers, the wounded were carried down the Pass to Wave Dancer ships where they sailed down the Winderling to the Queen's City. The surviving Wave Dancers accompanied them, eager to get back on their ships and away from the cold mountain pass. A group of priestesses, mostly Wind Walkers, wished to stay at the Abbey so they could rebuild and renew the temple. That left only the Fire warriors and Earth Clan Rangers. And nearly half of the warriors and Rangers who had survived the battle, were escorting the defeated Southerners out of the northern lands. Thus making certain that Abnoa was once more in the possession of the North. As a result, on a bright clear morning, only a small group of women gathered in the Abbey's courtyard to say their last goodbyes.
Luna tightened the last strap on her travel pack, listening quietly to the chatter around her. The remaining Earth Clan members were going to Abnoa, heading down the south side of the pass while the Fire warriors would head north, back to the Queen's City. What direction would she and Torrin take?
Torrin stood in the garden. The events of the morning had left her drained and out of sorts. Tasha was leading the women back to Abnoa while her mother headed to the Queen's City by ship.
Scuffing her toe in the newly thawed ground, she stared hard at the oak tree. "Well, we won. I'm not real sure I understand all the undercurrents that were going on, but I know Khelin is dead." She paused, placing a hand on the bark. "I know I promised to take your remains back to the plains when I came back here, but I don't feel like things are quite done. I just wish I knew what they are."
Gray eyes looked around the garden that was struggling to go into bloom against the chilly nights. "This is a beautiful spot. Can you stand it for little bit longer?" She waited for a response. Finally, she said, "I guess I'll be going, Luna is waiting for me. I will be back to fulfill my promise to you." Slowly she turned and walked back to the Abbey.
Luna, wanting to give Torrin her privacy during this last goodbye, was waiting for her by the door to the courtyard. "You all right?"
Torrin smiled. "Yes. I made a promise that I can't quite see through yet. I was just explaining everything."
She wrapped her arms around Luna, giving her a quick hug. "You ready to leave?"
Luna hesitated, sighed, and then nodded. This wasn't an easy choice. She returned the hug and said, "I think so. You?"
"Good and well, it's not like I won't be back. I need to get my Muanya's remains back to her homeland."
Luna fidgeted with her pack strap. "I'm still not certain which way to go though, North or South," she admitted.
Torrin left one arm around Luna's waist as she watched the women around her in the Abbey say their good-byes. "Which way to go?" Torrin looked up at Luna in question. "Which way do you want to go?"
"All of my life, my home was Abnoa and the forests around the Castle." Luna brushed a stray lock behind her ear and looked down to meet Torrin's eyes. "But, um, I, um, I think need to go back to the Queen's City," she said tentatively, "I think something has yet to be finished."
Torrin grinned at her. "You know, I have that same odd feeling. I feel like things are still left unfinished." Torrin squeezed Luna. "I'm glad I wasn't the only one who felt this way."
Luna smiled in relief and picked up her travel pack. That feeling of something left undone was overwhelming her. She'd been afraid that Torrin would want to return her mother's bones to her people immediately. And even though Luna hated traveling by ship, it was still the quickest way to get back to the Queen's City. "Let's go then. Allysandra said the Osprey would be back for another load. We can probably catch them if we hurry."
Letting go of Luna completely, Torrin bent over retrieving her pack. "She better have room for Pollux or I'm going the long way back to the City."
Luna laughed and waited until Torrin stood up straight to kiss her. "I think that she'll make room."
"Good." She grinned and kissed Luna back. "He did help save my life and all. I'm scared to see what he'd do if I left him."
"Ugh! You two are going to make me sick," Janice called out from a nearby group. Luna could feel her face get hot.
Torrin looked over at Janice and shouted back, "I'm sensing some jealousy here, Janice. What's the matter? Can't get your own beautiful woman?"
The women around Janice laughed uproariously, pounding her back as she struggled to come up with a comeback.
Torrin couldn't help the overprotective feelings that rose up in her when someone teased Luna. Her cheeks turned pink and she glanced over at Luna. "Sorry, I was probably out of line."
Luna stared at Torrin, and as her blush faded, a smile appeared on her face. "I love you, you know that, right?" which of course only served to set Janice and her group off again with further comments and suggestions.
Torrin glared at the amused rangers. "Don't you people have lives of your own?"
As one, they all chorused, "No!"
Luna rolled her eyes. "Let's go before they decide to sing for us."
Torrin turned to Luna and gave her a brief wink. Then she leisurely kissed Luna's lips and then pulled back. "They're just jealous because I have you now and they can't." She kissed Luna again and then grinned evilly at the smirking women. "And when they least expect it, they will all wake up one morning with the runs and a nasty rash. I guarantee it."
Janice and the others looked at each other uneasily and decided it was a good time to leave. "Take care, Luna. See you at Abnoa!" Luna, still reeling from the sudden kisses, managed to nod in agreement as the Rangers scurried off.
Torrin resumed kissing Luna as her hands trailed up the sides of Luna's thighs to her stomach. "Mmm…when do we have to go?"
Luna swallowed. She was very tempted to stay right where she was and encourage Torrin's fingers to stray even further. "Depends if we want to catch the Osprey," she moaned as Torrin's fingers found a sensitive spot.
"Uh, huh," Torrin responded before kissing the corner of Luna's lips and inched down to just under Luna's jaw to place another kiss. "It's not like we haven't traveled it on foot before," Torrin murmured. She aimed another kiss lower, onto Luna's neck.
"We..." Luna lost her train of thought as the other woman's breath heated her skin. She was about to give in when she realized they weren't alone. Glancing up at the doorway, Luna froze.
"Did you two ladies want me to start chanting?" the young priestess asked in amusement.
Torrin squeaked and jumped back from Luna. "Um, I...well...um." Who knew one could switch from being horny to being mortified so quickly. "We were just..." she trailed off at the priestess's smile.
"Oh, I know what you two were doing. I asked you if you want me to chant?"
"No, no children yet," Luna managed to squeak out.
"Yeah, um, no, I'm good," Torrin responded hastily, "and, ahh, what she said." Tugging on Luna's arm, she started to back away from the young priestess. "We need to go now or we'll miss the ship. It was nice meeting you. Um, hurry up, Luna."
The priestess's gentle laughter chased them from the Abbey courtyard. Hiding her red face, Luna was giggling as she stumbled after Torrin down the northern slope of the Ellris Pass.
Torrin scowled out at the water as the ship moved through the water. It had to be a curse to do no more than just kiss Luna. Granted that was getting really, really good, but still, some things were just too cruel. She sighed and rested her chin on hand.
Luna came to lean against the railing of the ship alongside Torrin. The fresh air was doing her good. As soon as they had set sail heading down the Winderling, she got sick over the side of the ship. Allysandra's daughter, Megan, had offered her a tea that had helped settle her stomach. She was still moving slower than usual but felt a lot better. "I just spoke with Allysandra. Pollux is all set, she has Megan checking on him."
"Good. He's loving the attention and pampering."
"You sound pretty certain about that," Luna said quietly, leaning closer to Torrin until their shoulders touched.
A ghost of a smile tickled at Torrin's lips, softening her scowl. "He can be really chatty."
Luna raised her eyebrows at Torrin, and then looked down at the water streaming past the Osprey. Behind her she could hear Allysandra shouting orders as the ship navigated her way down the Winderling. After a few minutes, she glanced shyly over at Torrin. "Do you?" she cleared her throat nervously, "want children someday?"
The smile on Torrin's face became more pronounced. "Hmm, we've had this conversation before, and I think the answer was 'no' then."
Luna nudged her shoulder. "We did have this conversation, but things are a bit different now."
Torrin turned away from the water and looked at Luna. "I wasn't in a place where kids were an option. Even thinking of them scares me… I might be like Quinn."
"You wouldn't be like her at all," Luna said, sliding her arms around Torrin and drawing the shorter woman against her.
Torrin let herself relax into Luna's body. She sighed in pleasure as Luna's scent drifted up into her nose. "You know, I think I believe that now. For a long time, I hated and feared Quinn. But now, it seems silly that I let Quinn have so much power over me."
Luna let silence rule for a while. The bright spring sunlight reflected up off the blue sparkling water as the ship bobbed down the Winderling. When she finally spoke, her thoughts were on their destination. "When we get back to the Queen's City, I want to see that old woman again, the one at the top of the stairs."
Torrin nodded and sighed. "Oh boy, that should be fun. More ghosts."
Luna chuckled and released the shorter woman from the hug. "It can't be that bad."
"Who says?" Torrin chuckled, "You like setting yourself up for trouble."
"Isn't that what you're for?" Luna teased, "keeping me out of trouble?"
Torrin laughed again. "Yes, I suppose that's what I'm for. But take smaller risks, okay? I only have one good eye to see trouble coming."
Luna just smiled at Torrin. Keeping an arm around the smaller woman's shoulders, she watched as the tallest of the towers from the Queen's City gradually appeared above the treetops.
There was a crowd cheering at the dock when the Osprey pulled into her slip. Luna blinked in amazement as she stared at the sea of faces. She had expected the city to begin emptying out now that the Southern threat was over. If anything, it seemed as if the city was livelier than ever.
Torrin stared at the people on the dock. This was a new experience for her. As a mercenary, when the fight was over, there was never any cheering or anyone happy to see her return. Normally it had just been a trip to the nearest tavern, lots of ale, and a willing bed partner for a quick tumble.
Allysandra made her way over to the two stunned women, grinning. "So far," she gestured towards the crowd below, "it's been like this every trip we've made."
Torrin swallowed nervously and stuttered, "I, I didn't know there were so many women in the Queen's City."
Luna glanced at Torrin, then at the crowd below who were cheering even louder as the first of the Fire warriors descended to the dock. "I didn't know there were so many women in all of the North."
Allysandra leaned over the railing to study the scene below, and gave a low laugh. "I don't think those Fire warriors are going to be lacking in company for a while."
Indeed, a confused looking warrior suddenly found herself surrounded by a small group of giggling and admiring women.
Torrin laughed nervously, "Good for her. Um, I'm going to go get Pollux. Excuse me."
Luna looked at Torrin in surprise as she bolted toward the cargo hold. "Torrin?" Luna called. She tried to go after her, but the press of people forced her back. Unlike the Torrin, Luna wasn't small enough to slip through the crowd.
Torrin wormed her way through the women clamoring to get off ship. Finally, she made her way down to the storage area. She felt her nerves begin to settle down now that she was away from crowd of people. Pollux nickered softly at her.
"Yeah, it's me. Did Megan take good care of you?"
He nodded his head, his dark mane bouncing.
She gave a chuckle and moved over to him. Gently she rubbed his nose. She was startled by a voice coming from the other end of the cargo hold.
"You didn't betray us like I thought you would." Eve walked down the length of the hold, keeping her distance from the animals waiting to be unloaded and an even healthier distance from the Alcens and their horns.
Torrin didn't turn but her hand stilled. "Eve," she said quietly. "Somehow, I'm not surprised. You want to take a swing as well? I think you're the only one who hasn't."
"A week ago and I would have taken you up on that," Eve admitted as she leaned against an empty stall and studied the other woman. "It's hard for me to say this." She paused, still struggling with the words, "but I was wrong."
Finally, Torrin turned so she could see Eve with her good eye. "At least you're honest and by the way, I would have hit you back."
An expression of distaste flittered across the aristocratic woman's face. "As long as we're being honest, I still think I would be better for Luna then you are."
A grin tugged at Torrin's lips. "Once upon a time, I would have agreed with you, but not now. Eve, you'll find someone someday, but you can't have Luna. She's mine."
"We'll see." Eve sketched a courtly bow toward Torrin, stood up, twirled, and carefully walked back, avoiding the animal pens as best she could along the way.
Torrin snickered and turned to Pollux, "Look at her trying not to get dirty, but still it was nice for her to let me know I wasn't nearly as worthless as she first thought." She laughed and hugged her horse. "I know I feel better now." She put his halter on and started out the ship's hold. With the soft lead rope gathered in one hand, Torrin sent calming thoughts to help get Pollux down the gangplank. Looking around, she was happy to see that most of the people were gone. A few still stopped and gaped at the unfamiliar animal. She knew he was small for a horse. The Horse People rode ones that were much larger than him, but she wasn't complaining. He fit her just fine.
He stamped his feet when the wooden planks sagged under his weight and tried to pull back on the rope.
Torrin sighed softly and scolded him. "Always causing a scene, eh, boy?"
"That is the last time I ever ride on a boat." Luna swore, stepping off the gangplank after the bulk of the crowd had ebbed away. Other than a few last sailors who were still coming down off the Osprey, the dock was almost deserted. Like the first time, her legs were a little unsteady for a while as her body got used to standing on land again. Her color was improving now that she was on land too. Luna smiled as she watched Torrin talk to the horse. "I guess we better find him a stall," she called out.
"Um, yeah..." Torrin looked helplessly around, wondering where the nearest stable was.
Luna studied the other woman for a moment, and then got to her feet. Stepping in front of Torrin, Luna cupped the smaller woman's cheek.
"What is it?"
Torrin took a deep breath to calm the rising panic in her body. She suddenly felt lost inside. When they had docked, all her insecurities had bubbled to the surface. "I... I... it just kind of hit me..." She went quiet for a moment, and then said in small voice. "I'm free."
Luna nodded, but not comprehending why Torrin seemed so upset.
She looked up at Luna and then dropped her eyes. "With Rya dead, I really am free. But without her telling me what to do, I'm not sure what to do next. "She cleared her throat. "War use to have a pattern. Me and the Hawks would train. Rya would tell us our new job, then Rya would tell us what we would do in the war, and then after the war, Rya would send us either to a healer, the bar, or the whore, er, Temple." Torrin looked up, a smiled tugging at her lips.
Luna snorted at that slip. She slid her hand down Torrin's arm until she could clasp the other woman's hand. "We don't have to stay here in the City," she said, not certain if that was also bothering Torrin. "We can go anywhere you want. Besides," Luna smiled, "you can always tell me what to do if that helps."
After a moment Torrin started to laugh as Luna's statement hit her, "During the whole big scramble to get to the Queen's City, when did you ever do what I told you to?"
Luna grinned. "I must have at some point. I remember you telling me so many things, I must have followed one of them at least once."
Torrin started to laugh even harder.
Luna smiled, happy to see Torrin lose her distressed look. "What? You don't believe me?" she demanded in mock offense.
"Well, I'm happy you didn't all the time. Like that time with the assassin on the ice. Without you coming there, I would have surely died."
That sobered Luna and she stepped forward until their bodies were nearly touching. "I'm glad you didn't," she whispered.
Torrin reached up caressing Luna's cheek, "I'm glad you feel that way now. I know you weren't quite sure at the time. Especially after she told you what my role was at Abnoa."
Luna gave her a small, sad smile. "My sisters would have died anyway. And without you rescuing me, I would have died on those walls, and we would never have warned the other clans about what had happened. Khelin would be ruling from the Queen's Castle right now."
Torrin nodded and then winced when Pollux made known his unhappiness loudly in her head. He was not a water creature and he wanted to be far away from the moving stall.
"Let me get him settled. Then a bath and food sounds good. How about it?"
"I don't know." Luna said, stepping aside so Torrin could lead the horse into the City. "Will I have a bathing companion this time?"
Grey eyes widened and Torrin gulped. "Th-that could be arranged."
Luna ignored the rising heat in her cheeks. "Then, how about I meet you at our old rooms?"
"Um, okay, I..I'll just take care of grumpy here and, um, meet you there," Torrin stuttered and then took off with a snorting Pollux.
Luna hurried up the stairs toward the rooms she'd occupied before in the Queen's castle. It had taken her twice as long to get to here than she had expected. Every few feet, someone would stop her on the street and thank her. It was an interesting, but embarrassing experience. Now though, the vision of sharing a bath with Torrin quickened her steps. Unlike the last time they'd shared a bath, she intended to be a lot closer to Torrin this time. Luna grinned in anticipation as she went down the hallway, only to stop in surprise at the sight in front of her.
"Eve, what are you doing?"
Eve ushered the last of the servants down the hallway. She smiled proudly at Luna. "I was getting things ready."
Luna frowned slightly, peering past the slender woman into the vacant room behind her. "Eve, that room is empty."
The elegant blonde nodded quickly, clearly delighted with herself.
Luna sighed. All she wanted was some time with Torrin alone. Was that too much to ask for?
Eve was clearly waiting for her to say something, so Luna mentally rolled her eyes and asked. "All right. What were you getting ready?"
"Come with me," Eve said, taking three steps down the hallway before she realized Luna wasn't following. "I promise it's a good thing. Come on."
"There better be a bathtub at the end of this." Luna muttered as she followed Eve down the hall.
Torrin wearily made her way up to Luna's old rooms. She had brushed and fed Pollux, and felt slightly more settled now. Finding the door open, she paused and looked inside. The room was very much empty. Feelings of insecurity started to the surface.
"Lady Torrin?" a young child about 8 years old in black and silver livery called out from the hallway.
Puzzled, Torrin turned. "Lady who?"
The girl shifted from foot to foot, her blonde hair done up in a small ponytail. "Ummm, are you Lady Torrin?" she asked hopefully.
Torrin chuckled. "I'm Torrin, but the Lady part is debatable."
The girl brightened immediately. "Oh, good!" then she remembered her manners. "I mean, I'm pleased to have found you. I've been asked to es…escro... er... bring you to your new rooms."
"Oh. Oh!" Torrin's demeanor brightened in relief. "Well, lead on, young lady."
The girl beamed at Torrin, then led her back to the staircase and started to climb. "What's it like being a hero?" she asked as they passed the second floor.
"Um, well, um...," Torrin floundered at the unexpected question. "I'm not really a hero. Now Luna is the one you should talk to about that sort of thing."
The young girl frowned. "But my Muanya says you're a hero."
"Your Muanya said that 'I' was a hero?" Torrin blurted out.
The young girl nodded seriously, ponytail bobbing.
"Well... I... I guess if I'm a hero I certainly don't feel like one. I did what I did because I wanted to make things right, and I was the best person qualified to do them." Torrin spoke slowly, trying to wrap her mind around the concept that someone considered her a hero. "Not because I thought they would make me into some legend."
The girl stared at her blankly for a second, clearly not following what Torrin had just said. "I want to be a hero someday," she said hopefully instead.
Torrin frowned and put a hand on the young girl's shoulder. When she had the girl's attention, she said softly. "I hope you never have to be a hero because of war or violence. I hope you become a hero because you created something that would benefit people. Like a great healer."
The girl made a face. A great healer wasn't her idea of a hero. Finally, they reached the top floor. Two Fire warriors stood on either side of an ornate doorway, they stiffened as Torrin, and the girl approached
"Come on, it's right here," she said and then she bounded back down the stairs, leaving Torrin behind.
Torrin sighed at the departing girl and then looked at the Fire warriors. "Kids". The two warriors shared an understanding glance over Torrin's head. Then they moved aside and let Torrin go through the doorway.
The room beyond was easily twice the size of the rooms Luna and Torrin had shared before. The smooth polished wood floors recently had been cleaned as had the tapestries dominating the walls. Two bookcases rounded out the walls, on either side of a huge marble fireplace. Elegant chairs clustered around a circular table in front of the fireplace. Doorways at the back of the room indicated that even more rooms lay beyond.
"Hello? Luna?" Torrin called out as she took in the ornate furnishings.
"Back here!" The call came from one of the doorways.
"Wow. Defeat the Southern army and you definitely get an upgrade on the room," Torrin muttered as she moved through the room to the back doors.
The first doorway gave way to another large room with an equally large four-poster bed. The next doorway led Torrin to her goal. The full bathroom had huge stain glass windows bathing the room in warm muted light. An oversized sunken marble bathtub was currently full of hot water and a lounging Luna.
A line of clothes showed where Luna had started stripping as she headed for the water. "I'm in the afterlife." Luna sighed with pleasure from her position in the bathtub. She looked at Torrin through half lidded eyes.
"You're beautiful," Torrin whispered.
A soft lazy smile crossed Luna's lips as she moved to the side of the tub, her long blonde hair trailing behind her in the hot water. Her eyes roamed over Torrin's body. "You're wearing too much."
"Really? Let me see what I can do to remedy that." Torrin sat down and quickly removed her boots, and then started on her trousers.
Luna made a small sound from the tub, her eyes riveted on Torrin's body, taking in the exposed skin. "You have no idea how much I want to touch you right now," she whispered.
Torrin expelled a breath she didn't even know she was holding. Her shirt dropped to the floor. She carefully sunk down into the tub, its heat immediately turning her skin pink. Moving through the water, she made her way to Luna. "I think I have a pretty good idea. Probably as much as I want to touch you." The steam rising from the hot water added an almost ethereal touch to the moment.
Luna swallowed, licking lips gone dry. "Like the new rooms?" she whispered as Torrin drew closer, her eyes tracing Torrin's contours.
"Yes, very nice and they have a bathing area that we don't have to share with anyone. Now that shouts "important person"," Torrin whispered onto the damp flesh of Luna's neck.
Luna shivered, her arms coming up and around Torrin's body, pressing their flesh together. She moaned at the contact. Dipping her head, she found Torrin's lips and slowly explored them. Fingertips slid along Torrin's sides, in and out of the water, tracing patterns along the wet skin. Then slowly Luna inched her hands upwards, circling and then touching Torrin's breasts. "No interruptions this time." she whispered, breaking their kiss long enough to watch her hands at work.
Torrin whimpered as Luna explored her. "No interruptions. Or bad, bad, horrible things will happen." Her fingers dug into the flesh of Luna's back. Then her fingers traveled down Luna's back leaving faint red lines until they disappeared under the water.
Air hissed as Luna sucked in a breath between her teeth at the move. For a second she panicked and grabbed onto that hand, then, meeting Torrin's eyes, she let go of it, steadying herself in those loving, gray eyes.
Torrin stilled her hands under the water. Gently, she bestowed a series of kisses on Luna's lips, neck, throat, and collarbone. "I'm not going anywhere," she whispered reassuringly, "so we can take all the time in the world."
"I don't want to take my time," Luna murmured, capturing Torrin's lips again in a heated kiss as her own fingers slid beneath the water. Torrin was doing a wonderful job of distracting her from memories with Khelin.
. "I'm glad," Torrin gasped, "but just so you know, if you want to, we can." She went back to giving Luna slow kisses all around her body.
"Thank you." Luna arched into the kisses, her hand cupped between Torrin's legs. She wanted to touch, taste, and feel Torrin everywhere. Holding her breath, Luna slowly entered Torrin. "By the Goddess," Luna whispered, gasping as she pressed herself firmly against the short lithe body.
Torrin's body tensed for a moment, her hands digging into the firm muscles of Luna's butt. As she relaxed, her forehead came down to rest on Luna's chest. "By the Goddess is right," she mumbled.
It was, Luna decided, the most pleasant way to wake up. The sheets and the small body pressed against her were warm against her skin. The scent of their lovemaking was still in the air and she felt deliciously sore. The best part though, was that she had been able to enjoy it. She had always worried that she would never be able to make love to anyone since Khelin marked her as belonging to her.
"You were wrong," Luna whispered, as she pressed her lips to Torrin's exposed shoulder.
Cracking an eyelid, Torrin mumbled, "Wrong? Me?"
"No, Khelin," Luna answered, squeezing Torrin as she cuddled closer to the other woman.
Torrin opened her other eye and slowly rolled over to face Luna and smiled. "Khelin was wrong about a lot of things. But I understand that happens a lot when one is completely insane." Her smile got wider and she rolled over Luna, lying on top of the taller woman. She kissed the hollow of Luna's throat and then snuggled into the other woman's body. "Um, can we stay just like this until the rest the world disappears?"
Luna opened her mouth to say yes but someone knocked on the door to their room. With a laugh, Luna let her head fall back. "I don't think that's up to us."
Torrin growled softly into Luna's skin, before turning her head to shout. "Go away! Luna saved the North. Give her a break. Leave her alone!"
There was a pause, and then the door opened a crack. "My ladies? I brought you some breakfast," an unfamiliar voice called out.
Luna raised a questioningly eyebrow at Torrin.
"Um...," Torrin hesitated. She didn't care about being seen in bed with someone, but she wasn't sure how Luna felt about it. "Just set it down inside the door. I'll get it in a minute." After a second, Torrin lamely added, "Thanks."
"Oh no, I'll just set it down inside," the woman answered, shoving the door open and bustling in with a fully loaded tray.
Luna let out a startled sound and pulled the blankets up over both herself and Torrin.
"Or that works too," Torrin mumbled. She lay back down so her cheek rested on Luna's upper chest.
The young woman, dressed in the livery of a Castle servant, did not bat an eyelid at them as she set the tray down on a nearby tabletop. Then she beamed at them. "There, and I'll see about getting clean clothes for both of you." She opened the heavy drapes and then closed the door behind her.
"Thanks." Torrin mumbled out from under the covers. "Take your time." Inhaling, she caught Luna's scent mixed in with the smell of their lovemaking. She flushed slightly as her brain drifted back to last night. Since she was already under the covers, and from the sounds of things, the over-helpful maid had moved on to the other room, Torrin decided to take advantage of the situation. There were areas of Luna's skin she had yet to map because she'd been too worn out the night before. She started by kissing Luna's hip and moving upwards from there, decorating all the flesh she could find with kisses.
"I could get used to this." Luna said, her hands cupping Torrin's backside and drawing her tight. "Think we can stay in bed all day?"
"Hey, dare to dream big," Torrin replied, before going back to her task at hand.
Luna moaned as Torrin continued her exploration. She decided the outside world could deal with itself for a while and she burrowed under the blankets with Torrin. There were far more pleasant things to be doing than getting up and Luna intended to do all of them before they had breakfast.
They finally managed to eat the breakfast brought to them many hours before. Luna offered Torrin a piece of some sort of pastry. It was too sweet for her tastes. Eggs and a hunk of meat was the universal breakfast at her home.
Torrin took the food, licking her lips, "Mmmm, almost as good as mom makes."
"You like those?" Luna looked at her in surprise.
She nodded and then wiped her chin. "Yeah. I grew up eating these. You make the pastry first and then you can fill it with anything. If mom was in a good mood, she'd fill it with sweet apples."
Luna wrinkled her nose at them and then grinned as she offered the entire bowl to Torrin. "They are all yours then."
Torrin's eyes widened as Luna gave her the pastries. "Wow, thanks."
"We could go see your mother later, if you want?" Luna said, as she looked for something a bit less sweet to eat. She found a grain muffin and took a bite. She stopped chewing and frowned down at the muffin. "Torrin? Why did we have to come back?" she asked abruptly. What are we supposed to be doing here?"
Torrin happily munched on the pastries. Swallowing, she said, "I have no idea why we are here. Other than you are the almighty hero of the war against the Southern army and the people love you."
Luna tossed a strawberry at her. "So are you."
Torrin opened her mouth, ducked her head and snagged the strawberry out of the air. "Whatever. I was tied up to a table in Khelin's tent with needles stuck in my body. I was hardly a hero."
Luna just raised an eyebrow at that. "And who, exactly, took out the Southern cannons then?"
"Oh well, that was, a team effort." Torrin's eyes dropped.
Luna snorted and leaned over the short table, capturing Torrin's lips in a brief but deep kiss. "I really like the team leader then."
A grinning Torrin looked back up. "Thanks, I'm glad." Torrin dropped her gaze to the table where she traced random patterns with a finger. "Um... I... um... I was wondering..."
"What?" Luna asked, moving around the table so she could sit next to Torrin.
Torrin coughed nervously. "Um…are you okay with everything? I mean, are you happy with me, er… us."
Luna froze. This didn't sound good. "I love you," she answered carefully, watching Torrin closely for some sign as to where this conversation was going.
Torrin smiled. "I love you too, but I just needed to know that now... now that we aren't running from emergency to emergency, that you are okay with us." Torrin hugged Luna. "I'm sorry, Luna. I'm not doing this very well. I've never been part of a couple and I don't know what to do."
"This is new territory for both of us," Luna said, her hand finding Torrin's and curling around it. "But yes, I'm very good with us, this, whatever this turns out to be." She squeezed Torrin's hand.
Torrin squeezed Luna's hand back. "I've seen enough strange things happen during war and I know we have this strange relationship…" Torrin paused and then said softly. "I just know that I want to be with you from now on.
With a relieved look on her face, Luna said, "You just really scared me there for a moment, you know that? But yes, I want to be with you, too." She gave Torrin a gentle kiss. "Come on, how about we go see your mother. Let her know how you're doing?" Luna stood up, tugging on Torrin's hand that she was still holding. "Oh, and later tonight I want to go see the old woman in the tower."
"Great, more ghosts," she mumbled. Then she grinned. "Okay. Maybe mom can fix us a snack. For some reason, I'm still really hungry" and she let herself be pulled up by a laughing Luna.
At the kitchen table, Torrin sighed again, her chin resting on a fisted hand while she watched her mother bustle about. "Mom, for the 35th time, I'm okay. Luna's okay, and we're planning on staying here in the Queen's City for a little while longer."
Tyra dished some soup out of the pot on the stove making sure Torrin's bowl was mainly broth. "Here eat this broth, it's good for you." She placed another bowl full of meat and vegetables in front of Luna. Going back to check on her youngest again, she placed a hand on Torrin's forehead. "You sure you feel okay? You're a little warm."
Torrin scowled. "I'm fine." She stared at her bowl of broth.
When Tyra went back to the counter to finish making the biscuits, Luna discretely spooned some meat and vegetables from her bowl into Torrin's. Torrin smiled gratefully at her and quickly ate them.
"I know you're fine, but when they brought you back to the Abbey," Tyra's voice cracked and her shoulders started to tremble, "unconscious and bleeding, I-I-I thought I lost you again."
Torrin scrambled off her chair and moved over to her mother. "I'm sorry. I should be more sensitive." She hugged her mother tightly.
Tyra turned, hugging her daughter fiercely before waving her off. "I'm just being silly," she said as she wiped her eyes. "I'm very happy to see you both. Everything was so chaotic after the fighting and I was shipped back here without getting to say much of anything to you. Her voice softened. "I wasn't sure if you two would even be coming back to the Queen's City."
She eyed the pair for a moment and gave them a knowing look. "So, when is the ceremony?"
Torrin had sat back down and was playing with her food. Spoon to her lips, she started choking on the broth she had just swallowed. "What? What ceremony?" she coughed out.
"Ceremony?" Luna echoed weakly.
"Yes, ceremony," Tyra said. "When are you two being hand-fasted to each other?"
"Oh, that ceremony." Luna knew her face was blazing red color.
"Mother!!" Torrin squawked out indignantly.
Tyra turned to her youngest child. "Don't 'mother' me. You do intend to let Luna make an honest woman out of you?" She looked down at Torrin with her best mom look.
Torrin shrank back in her chair and inspected her bowl. "Um, yes, of course... eventually... I'm sure..." she stuttered.
"Let me?" Luna asked faintly.
Tyra sighed. "I'm not getting any younger and I only have you and Tasha left to give me grandchildren."
Torrin blushed and began searching for the meaning of life in her soup.
"Yes. You know, when two women who love each other go to a Priestess and ask for the Moon Goddess' blessing."
"Mom, please stop." Torrin choked out. Children. As in more than one. Dear Goddess, someone save us. "Mother, Luna and I just now, finally, have time to our selves without danger breathing down our necks. Can't we have just a little time to ourselves?"
Tyra sniffed started rolling out the dough. "Well that's understandable but you could still get hand-fasted. Don't piddle around with Luna dear, there are plenty of women sniffing around who will pick up the slack and make her an honest woman."
Torrin let her forehead rest on the cool tabletop. She was afraid to look up at Luna. She thought she just might die from embarrassment.
"Grandchildren?" Luna knew she and Torrin had talked about it briefly before, but that was completely different from having the same conversation with Torrin's mother. "Umm…what if we were hand-fasted first, then we could talk about… er... umm... children later?" she offered. It sounded like a good compromise to her. Then she quickly added in an attempt to divert the conversation, "Will you be coming to the ball, Tyra?"
"Of course I wouldn't miss it. It's been so long since I've had an opportunity to get dressed up." Tyra smiled broadly.
Torrin looked up from the table, confused. "Ball?"
"Oops." Luna smiled sheepishly at Torrin. "I forgot to tell you last night..." she trailed off as her face grew red again as images from the night before popped into her head. She noticed a glassy-eyed Torrin shifting uncomfortably in her chair.
"Um. Mom, we're going to go so Luna can update me on this ball," Torrin said as she got up and pulled Luna after her.
Tyra grinned knowingly and smirked. "Heathens" she said as she started to cut out the biscuits.
"Anyway," a blushing Luna continued as she left the kitchen, "the Wind Walkers are throwing a Ball in celebration of the end of the war...ooof!" Torrin yanked her down the hall.
Tyra laughed at their antics. "Young love."
By the time they got outside, Luna was giggling. "I think I love your mother."
Torrin pouted and then pulled Luna into a shadowed alley. "Not more than me, I hope," she said before attacking Luna's lips.
Only when Torrin finished did Luna shake her head, her knees weak from the sudden onslaught. "Never," she whispered, pulling the short woman closer and ducking her head to return the favor.
"Mmmm. Someone I know just had to bring up last night. I thought we should leave before I embarrassed us both in front of my mother." She groaned out under Luna's pleasant assault.
Luna grinned wickedly. "Sorry about that," even though she wasn't sorry at all as her hands wandered.
"Uh huh." Torrin said into the skin on Luna's throat, her hands wandering as well. A few minutes later Torrin stepped out of the alley slightly flushed and straightening her shirt. She turned to make sure Luna was following.
Luna stepped out, trying to keep the bottom of her shirt together and scowling slightly. "I lost a button." With a sigh, she tried to tuck the shirt in to her pants to hide the missing fastener.
"Um...you know…" Torrin ducked her head and scratched the back of her neck. "My mom is just right here I could go ask her to mend it."
"No!" Luna's near shout drew a few interested looks from nearby people. Grabbing Torrin's arm she hurried them back towards the castle. "There is no way I am going back to your mother's to get this fixed."
Torrin just laughed and let Luna drag her a bit down the street.
"As I was saying earlier," Luna said as they walked up the road to the castle, "there's going to be a grand ball tonight, hosted in the castle's ballroom. It hasn't been used since the last queen died. People from all of the clans are invited."
"Okay. I guess so." Torrin paused and then made a face. "I suppose this means I have to dress up."
It was in the middle of the afternoon and they were still lying in bed. Luna had a very satisfied smile on her face as she idly traced designs on Torrin's bare stomach. "I thought you were supposed to help me find a button for my shirt, not rip more of them off."
Torrin shrugged lazily. "Your shirt was in the way. Besides it was your fault."
"Really?" Luna arched an eyebrow.
Torrin grinned. "Yep. You were having a particular sexy moment, I couldn't help myself and that shirt wasn't being helpful at all. It was teasing me by showing a bit of skin and then hiding it again." Torrin added regretfully, "I'm sorry but that shirt had to die."
Luna laughed, resting her head on Torrin's shoulder and draping a long lean leg over the other woman's legs. "As long as it died for a good reason."
"Oh yes, a very good reason," Torrin exclaimed.
The taller woman smiled mischievously, slid over, straddled Torrin and grinned down at her. "I think you owe me for killing my shirt."
"Really? And what kind of payment are you thinking?" Torrin arched slightly into the body above her.
A sudden sharp knocking at the doors caused Luna to bolt in surprise, knocking her head against Torrin's. She grabbed her forehead and with a curse, rolled off Torrin. She yanked on a blanket, grabbed it off the bed and wrapped it around herself.
Torrin yelped in pain and grabbed her nose and fumbled for the disappearing blanket but missed. Grumbling she held her nose and laid on the bed in all her naked glory.
To their dismay, several old women entered the room and were making themselves at home, setting down bundles of clothing on the tables. One of them hobbled over to where Torrin lay, drawing out a measuring rope as she did.
"Can I help you ladies with something?" Torrin asked, warily eying the rope.
"Why, we're here for the fittings, young lady."
""Fitting for what?" Torrin asked as she slapped away a few prying hands. "Could I get dressed, please."
"Actually, it's better like you are, dearie," one of them answered, trying to measure Luna's arm.
"Why for the ball gowns, of course," another piped up from where she was setting out material.
"Wait a second, what ball gown? Hey! Stop that!" Luna tried to squirm away from hands that were now trying to get at her legs.
"Ball gown?" Torrin's face shifted into a look of horror. "Absolutely not!" she nearly shouted.
The assault stopped as six old women stared at Torrin. "The ball gown for the ball tonight, of course. We have to hurry to get them finished in time," one of them explained.
Torrin scowled and got off the bed. "Do I look like a ball gown sort of girl?"
"Well..." one of them voiced, hesitantly, looking Torrin up and down.
"I will find something to wear on my own," she snarled.
"You most certainly will not!" the old women said in unison.
Torrin crossed her arms over her breasts and glared at them. "You are so lucky I'm naked" as she thought about her pants that still had one knife hidden in the fabric.
"Absolutely no ball gowns," Luna said quite firmly.
"Are you certain you don't want a nice ball gown? Imagine how pretty you will look" as one of them tried to sway Luna.
"No ball gowns," was the repeated answer.
Torrin nodded. "What she said" and sat back down on the bed, pulling Luna down with her.
The group of seamstresses formed a huddle and started whispering plans while glancing at them every few seconds.
Finally, the oldest of them hobbled toward the two women on the bed with a mostly toothless smile. "We have the perfect idea..."
Torrin looked over at Luna and groaned, "That's it, we're doomed."
"How did I get talked into this?" Luna asked, staring at the stranger in the mirror. The old women had kept their promise; the long slender blue dress was not a formal ball gown. Nevertheless, with her hair loosely bound back in a slender silver circlet and wearing the elegant dress, Luna hardly recognized herself. A new, tooled leather belt for her sword completed the outfit. She had to fight tooth and nail with the seamstresses to keep the sword at all. But Luna had refused to go without it and they relented. With a deep sigh, she stepped out of the bathroom. "Torrin?" she called. Luna awkwardly rubbed her bare arms, wondering if it was too late to change into something more comfortable... like leather armor.
Torrin was lounging in a nearby chair and tugging on her high collar. "Yes?" she answered.
"I, umm... you look really good." Luna eyed her companion appreciatively.
Torrin stopped pulling on her shirt collar and smiled nervously. "You think so?" Her hands brushed over the soft blue material of her shirt smoothing out invisible wrinkles.
"Yes, I do." Luna moved over to her, smiling as she brushed her hands along Torrin's shoulders. Um, do you think it's a coincidence that we match?" she asked, comparing Torrin's shirt with her own dress.
Torrin's forehead wrinkled in thought. "Knowing the old ladies? Probably not." In a gentle movement, Torrin rested her hands on Luna's hips and gave her quick kiss. "You look very lovely as well. But they still got you into a dress, I see."
"Yes." Luna's blue eyes narrowed as she studied Torrin. "Strange how you managed to avoid that."
A large grin appeared on Torrin's face. "Funny what can be avoided when one is sharpening a knife."
"But I had a sword!" Luna pouted, gesturing at the moon blade that hung at her side.
Torrin shrugged. "Just lucky then."
Luna snorted in disbelief.
Shifting up onto her toes, Torrin placed another, longer kiss on Luna's lips. "But I think you look absolutely stunning in this dress," she whispered in Luna's ear.
Luna shrugged. "Well, I suppose I could wear it for tonight."
Torrin grinned again. "Good. After tonight I'll never bring up you wearing a dress again, I promise." She played with her collar again.
"Stop that." Luna grinned, pushing aside Torrin's hands and straightening the collar. "There, you look very nice." She smiled. "If you aren't careful, the ladies are going to swarm all over you."
Torrin chuckled. "I doubt that. I'm going to have to stand next to you and look threatening in order to keep the women away from you."
Luna impulsively hugged Torrin tightly, and then let her go. "We better go."
"Okay." Torrin stood there for a moment then awkwardly held at her arm. "Um, may I-I escort you... my Lady.
With a sappy grin, Luna took Torrin's arm. "I would be honored, my love."
The bells of the city began to ring to signal moonrise and the start of the Grand Ball. There would be celebrations tonight throughout the Queen's City and in towns across the North. Servants had been busy cleaning the castle ever since news of the northern victory had reached the city by one of the Wave Dancer ships.
The grand ballroom, not used since the death of the last Queen, now bustled with energy. No hint of the previous disuse remained. Guards, in their formal dress uniforms with newly polished weapons, lined the hallway leading to the entrance.
"Wow. They really cleaned this place up," Torrin said as she stared down the gleaming hallway. The thick layer of dust had vanished.
One of the nearby guards grinned at them. Luna looked twice. The woman's face was half-hidden beneath the elaborate dress helmet. "Wasn't that Ember?" she asked as they continued down the newly brightened hallway.
"Um...," Torrin's head whipped back as she tried to look. "Your guess is as good as mine."
Then there was no time for guessing as they stepped out into the ballroom. They paused by the door and looked in amazement at the huge room. The entrance was a raised dais, with the polished wood floor of the ballroom set several feet lower in front of them. Soaring arches curved upward to form a ceiling several dozen feet above them. Opposite where they stood was another dais dominated by a simple white marble throne. A black cloth covered most of the throne as it had since the assassination of the High Queen. As they stood there, the dance floor stilled, with the hundreds of gathered guests staring up at them. It was all eerily familiar and Luna felt confused by a sudden feeling of having seen this scene before, somewhere. Bewildered, she took Torrin's hand in hers and stepped down onto the polished wooden dancing floor. A Wind Walker stood nearby and announced their entrance.
"Lady Luna, daughter of Mezzarna and Feingold, with Lady Torrin, daughter of Tyra and Jinete." Luna was pleased by her introduction that included Torrin's Mothers. Suddenly the crowd started to applaud. Out of the corner of her eye, she spotted Eve and Allysandra, and senior Fire Clan warriors joining in. The applause rose, the sound was deafening, crashing against the vaulted ceiling, and echoing through the large ballroom.
Torrin felt the short hairs stand up on the back of her neck. It unnerved her that first everyone stopped to look up at them and now this embarrassing clapping. She tightened her clasp and stepped closer to Luna. "Don't eat the food. I think they've all been drugged," Torrin whispered to Luna as they moved down to the dance floor.
Luna nodded in agreement as the applause died out, replaced by music from the band in the far corner. Dancers who had stopped as Torrin and Luna entered resumed, and a low din of conversation began to fill the hall again. People pressed in close, eager to talk to them.
Torrin smiled and nodded, but never strayed far from Luna. She felt overwhelmed by all the attention.
Luna had a bit of a wild look in her eyes when they finally managed to break free from the crowd and find shelter outside by the balcony. "That," Luna whispered as they stepped into the night air, "was too many people."
Torrin nodded in agreement, looked around and then snagged some chairs on the balcony. "Who knew you were so popular. I mean, you only defeated Khelin single handedly," she teased.
Luna snorted, and then followed Torrin, pausing briefly to reach inside the room and snag two mugs from a surprised servant. "Half of them wanted to talk to you, I noticed," she said, taking a seat next to Torrin. "Wine?" She offered a mug to Torrin.
"Thanks." Torrin took the wine and sipped some. "Mmmm, this tastes good. Swallowing, she continued, "Yes. I'm quite surprised. Somehow there's this horrible story that's gotten out that I'm a hero."
"Imagine that," Luna nearly purred as she rearranged her dress to stretch out her legs. The light from the full moon bathed the balcony and Luna leaned her head back, staring up at the moon. "When I was little, I used to go out at night when it was warm and climb onto the roof of the barn and watch the moon."
Torrin smiled softly and turned her face up to the moon. "Remember that hollow with the thicket we hid in a lifetime ago?" she asked quietly.
Luna nodded. Her memories of the escape were fuzzy around the edges from the shock and wounds she'd had, but that part was clear in her mind.
"When the moon was full in the spring time, I use to go there and watch coyote pups romp in the meadow. Some seasons, their parents didn't mind and they let me actually play with the pups. Other seasons they refused, and I had to just sit and watch. That's how I learned to be stealthy."
Luna let her head turn to one side so she could study Torrin's profile in the darkness. "No wonder we couldn't track you."
Torrin grinned in the moonlight. "Yep. I'm a sneaky one." She leaned back into the chair and unconsciously tugged on her shirt collar again.
In the comfortable silence, Luna leaned back and watched the night sky. The music from the ball drifted through the open doorways onto the balcony along with the sound of laughter. She debated whether to ask Torrin if she wanted to dance. Suddenly something caught her eye and she sat straight up in her chair. Tilting her head to one side she studied the sky, trying to understand what she was seeing. She frowned. "What is that?" A shadow was beginning to creep across the full moon. At first, it was only a small sliver of darkness, then it slowly spread, finally consuming the moon's brightness. "I've never seen this happen before," Luna said as she stood up and moved to the balcony's railing. Below her, she could hear gasps from other guests in the gardens as they looked upward at the disappearing moon. More people, drawn by the strange happenings, began to join them out on the balcony.
Torrin tilted her head back and looked up. She furrowed her brow. "That's not right. The Moon Goddess isn't due to hide her face for at least another two weeks." Then Torrin's gut clenched as she recognized the tainted smell of the Mistress of Shadows in the air. She thought she would never experience the enclosing and suffocating feeling of dry, scaly coils sliding against her skin again and yet now, it was getting stronger and closer.
"Inside!" Torrin barked out to the gathering crowd. "Stop gaping and get inside where it's safe."
"Torrin?" Luna turned away from the balcony.
"Just get inside. Hurry!" Torrin screamed, trying to push people inside.
Sensing Torrin's near panic, Luna started to help herd people back inside. With the two of them pushing and ordering people in, it didn't take long to clear the balcony. Luna slammed the balcony doors shut. Above them, the large chandeliers that illuminated the ballroom shuddered, their flames flickering.
"What do you think it is?" Luna asked, her hand on the hilt of her sword as she warily watched the balcony doors.
"It's the Mistress of Shadows," Torrin gasped as she leaned against the balcony doors her head bowed, her longer bangs hanging down and hiding her face. "You never really forget the feel of her presence. Not ever," Torrin added with a shudder.
As the crowd turned in terror toward the exits to flee, all the chandeliers' flames finally sputtered out, plunging the ballroom into total darkness. Outside, the eclipse of the moon cast the city into gloom as the street flames flickered and died, snuffed out by the advancing shadows.
At the far end of the ballroom, an unlit fireplace burst into flames. The orange fire quickly turned deep blue black and the glistening flames twisted together faster and faster until they took on the shape of a large black serpent. It rose out of the fire pit, its hood flaring out.
Luna's blade sang as she drew it from her scabbard, but even its glow was muted, barely shedding any light at all. "By the Goddess," Luna whispered, her fingers clenched about the hilt of her sword. Screams echoed through the ballroom as guests turned to run, forcing back the guards who tried to rush toward the serpent.
"You think I would let you go unpunished? You think I would let all my plans die with my daughter?" hissed the serpent. "You gave me pain and I now return it to you ten-fold." From behind the large serpent, smaller black snakes began to wiggle up out of the fireplace and onto the ballroom floor toward the huddle crowd. The Goddess slithered out of the fireplace and across the floor, her ghostly white eyes never wavering, intently focused on Luna.
"Torrin," Luna whispered, trying to force her body to move. It took all her strength, but she managed to raise the blade, keeping it between her and the huge snake. The tip was trembling and the faint light from the blade barely illuminated anything. "Torrin!" she called again. Her blue eyes widening as the serpent slithered closer.
Paralyzing coldness had seeped into Torrin's body when the Goddess had first appeared, her limbs frozen in dread. "I, I'm here." Torrin forced the words out.
At the sound of Torrin's voice, the serpent's hooded face shifted as she recognized her former pupil. "So, you live. The Betrayer lives," and altered her direction toward Torrin.
"No!" screamed Luna. The shift gave Luna new strength, and with her sword held out, she lunged between the huge creature and Torrin. She felt Torrin moved over until Torrin's front pressed into her back.
All around the giant serpent, smaller black snakes slithered forward, hissing and feinting venomous strikes to the various women in the ballroom and herded the dancers away from Torrin and Luna.
The serpent raised up hissing, exposing large fangs. "You think to hold me back with a glowing sword?"
"This isn't your land." Luna's voice trembled as she pushed aside the panic that was creeping around the edge of her sanity.
"True. Still, I can come because my mark is here. Here, inside your precious Castle," she gloated. "And my desire for vengeance makes me stronger." The serpent's eyes bored into Luna's blue ones. "I will see your blood splattered and covering the ground."
"Any ideas?" Luna whispered to Torrin, her eyes on the massive hooded head.
The serpentine embodiment of the Mistress of Shadows grinned evilly at Luna. "First, at Abnoa and now here. You're all alone with only the Betrayer at your back."
Torrin's mouth gaped open in shock. "I-I I'm not!
Luna managed a sneer at the snake. "Be gone, serpent. You won't drive us apart that easily. Go slithering back to the south where you belong." Trickles of sweat ran down her back as she tried to keep the terror away.
The serpent laughed. "You don't think I so carefully put all of this in motion only to lose it all with the death of my child? Even if my darling Khelin lost, even if the Betrayer had chosen another path, I hedged my chances."
"What are you talking about?" Luna started pressing Torrin backward, trying to get them moving toward the doorway.
The serpent drew closer, seemingly unafraid of Luna's sword. "She bears my mark. A brand made from my blood, mixed and heated in my fire of shadows. Torrin gave me my entrance."
"I don't believe you," Luna snarled, horribly aware of how far it was between their position and the doorway. She could hear screaming from the other guests, and the sound of swords striking wood as the guards tried to kill the smaller serpents.
Torrin's face turned purple in anger and in a quick movement, she pulled a knife out of her boot and side stepped out from behind Luna's body. She started to charge, intent on driving the knife into the serpent.
The move was so sudden and suicidal that it caught Luna by surprise. "Torrin!" she cried out, trying to rush after her.
The Goddess only laughed. "And now I have no further need of you, Torrin. And you, Luna, my child's murderer, shall know what it feels like to lose a loved one."
"Nooooo!" Luna screamed as the serpent slammed into Torrin and sent her flying through the glass doors where she disappeared into the moonless night.
Some of the small black snakes quickly squirmed together and covered up the hole, thus blocking a potential escape route.
Luna made a lunge toward them anyway, frantic to find Torrin, only to dive quickly to the side as the Goddess struck, her fangs gouging the wood floor where she had just been.
The serpent hissed and moved in a hypnotic pattern around Luna. "Does it hurt? Do you feel as if a part of you is gone?" The serpent laughed taking pleasure from Luna's anguish.
Ignoring the tears that streaked her face, Luna swung at the serpent, who only danced backward with an unnatural swiftness. "Bitch," she cried. Somewhere in the background she could hear Allysandra yelling orders, but she had no time to see what the Wave Dancer was doing as the Goddess struck again.
Glass tinkled as small pieces fell from the doorframe and slowly fell to the red stained floor of the balcony. A small body covered in glass laid motionless on the stone as blood ran from various cuts. Soon, the flow of blood ebbed. A spark of life came first from the twitch of a ring finger, then the hand, and then the arm rose up and brushed glass off the face and eyes.
Torrin rolled over while gritting her teeth. Gingerly, she got to her hands and knees ignoring the glass grinding into her palms and slowly got to her feet, swaying once she was upright. She coughed and nearly screamed at the pain in her chest. Turning around, she met a wall of hissing snakes. "Not this way," she mumbled. Looking around, she tried to get her fuzzy brain to come up with a plan. Up or down, those were her options. She went with down since she figured it was a shorter fall. She missed her climbing claws as she traversed the stone face of the wall. Her muscles and chest screamed in pain as she finally reached the rocky flower patch. The gardens had emptied out with the lunar eclipse, leaving Torrin alone in the darkness. She leaned against the wall just wanting to lie down but the thought of Luna and the danger she was in, spurred her back into action.
Finding a small door at the end of the wall, she reentered the Queen's castle. A red trail followed her unsteady steps as she tried to find warriors to help her. "Hello?" she called out. "I need help. Th-there's been an attack. The Mistress of Shadows has people trapped in the ballroom." She paused listening for a reply.
Hello!" She called out a bit louder. "I'll take another gods be damned ghost. Anybody. How about a mouse with a lot of courage?" she muttered.
"This way," a voice called from one of the nearby doorways.
Torrin pushed away from the wall that was holding her up and staggered toward the door. As she started to fall in the darkness, gauntlet covered hands caught and supported her, then helped her down the corridor. They went deep into the castle, through pitch darkness, in a never-ending series of twists and turns.
"You know, the danger is in the ballroom," Torrin slurred out as they moved further and further away from Luna.
"But the answer is here," the voice said, giving her a small push forward. The door in front of her was a massive sheet of stone. She was surprised it opened easily under her hesitant touch. Inside, a pure white light illuminated the simple room. Unlike every other source of light in the city, this one still blazed brightly.
The old woman who had helped her stepped into view, milky white eyes staring towards the source of the light. In the middle of the room stood a stone pedestal, and upon it sat the Orb of the Goddess. It was a sphere the size of a southern cannonball. Two other figures emerged from the light, flanking the pedestal.
Grey eyes widened and she tried to turn away in sudden fear. "I can't. It's so... so pure… untainted. I'm not worthy to be near it."
The old woman seized Torrin's arm in a surprisingly strong grip. "You must or Luna will fail, and the North will fade into the shadows as prophesied."
Torrin took a deep breath and then turned back toward the pedestal. With each shuffling step toward the sphere, she felt her fear rise. The only thing that kept her going was thoughts of Luna. Then she was standing next to it, her hands poised. She hesitated and looked around. "I know I cursed you a lot while growing up, and I know I haven't led a very respectable life, but this," she nodded at the Orb, "isn't for me. I need to help Luna and this old woman says this can do it."
The two guards on either side of the pedestal stepped backward as Torrin closed her fingers around the Orb.
Brilliant and beautiful burned through her body.
Healing as it flowed, chasing the darkness from her.
The tattoo of the Shadow Goddess burned away, leaving behind a, faint-colored crescent moon-shaped scar on her shoulder. Then the brightness enfolded her as if it were warm, loving arms.
The three ghosts began fading away as the light receded, leaving Torrin standing over the pedestal, her hands still resting on the Orb. She blinked, startled by her improved vision, and took in her surroundings. "Okay, that was... unexpected."
The one who had led Torrin to the Orb saluted her and smiled.
Torrin's eyes widened as the women became translucent. "Hurry! End the curse," they whispered.
"Hey, wait a minute... Stupid ghosts," she muttered as the women disappeared.
Hefting the Orb, she was surprised how light it was. She tucked it under her left arm and took off for the ballroom.
Somewhere along the darkened corridors, she grabbed an old sword from a suit of armor. Finally, she skidded to a halt in front of the large ballroom doors. "Now to get these open."
With a frantic leap, Luna dove forward just as the serpent slammed into the space behind her. The polished wood floor of the ballroom buckled upward under the impact, and wooden shards rained everywhere. Staggering to her feet, Luna kept moving, running as the serpent gave chase. She knew the Shadow Goddess was simply toying with her. "Moon Goddess, help me," she whispered, as she tried to lead the giant snake away from the cornered guests.
Then the serpent hesitated, flinched and then hissed as if in pain. "It doesn't matter, it will be too late," she gasped. The Goddess re-gathered her strength. Without Torrin's brand, she had no physical tie to her sister's realm. She continued striking at Luna. "You're tired now, aren't you? So tired. Why fight me?"
She was right, Luna thought, she was exhausted. The constant dodging and fighting had taken its toll. Limping and doing her best to duck between the smaller snakes, she kept trying to head for the back door to the ballroom. The snakes covering the door might be a problem but Luna hoped her sword would at least kill the smaller ones. If she could just hold off the Shadow Goddess for a little while longer then maybe she could help the others escape.
She wasn't sure at first, but the snakes seemed more brown than black now, and then she saw a beam of light working its way through the snake bellies. The door seemed to writhe as if it were a living thing. The smell of burning of meat became harsh in the air and the snakes began to drop from the door with small hollow thuds. Luna scrambled toward the doorway only to be cut off as the massive serpent slithered into her path.
Just as the Goddess arched for a final strike, a piercing white light overwhelmed the ballroom doors. When it died away, the small snakes and the doors were gone and the figure standing in the doorway was Torrin.
Torrin reopened her eyes after the light had faded. Blinking through the bright spots still visible, she gazed about the room. Her eyes fell immediately on the huge serpent standing between her and Luna.
"Torrin!" Luna was overwhelmed with relief at seeing her alive.
"Luna!" Torrin shouted back. She held the orb up high, waiting for it to do its thing, but the orb resting in her outstretched hand remained dark.
The monstrous snake hissed at the interruption and turned her full attention on Torrin and the orb she held. With a swift slither, she moved toward ballroom doorway.
"No!" Luna shouted, slamming her sword against the armored scales of the Goddess's side.
The black serpent hissed again, her strange white eyes and her large, flared, black hood growing larger. She turned her head back around and then snapped her tail into Luna's stomach. With a cry of pain, Luna went flying backward, tumbling across the wooden floor. Her sword skittered across the floor away from her. Then the Goddess quickly slithered back toward Torrin.
Torrin's grey eyes grew large and she shook the Orb, hoping to wake the thing up. "Shit!" Torrin growled. She needed her hands free for her sword. "Luna, heads up," she shouted, before throwing the Orb at her.
The snake snapped at it, missing it by mere inches as the Orb arched upward over the Goddess's head and hit the floor a few inches from Luna's side. It kept rolling away from the stunned Luna as she struggled to get back up. The Goddess quickly reversed her direction. If she could get to the Orb first, then she would have some of her sister's power to add to her own.
"Frack," Luna wheezed, still trying to catch her breath as she scrambled after the Orb on her hands and knees.
As the serpent turned, Torrin brought her sword down with all her might. It struck scales and shattered leaving her with a stump of a sword. Cursing, she threw it down. "Luna, hurry! She's coming!" Torrin shouted.
Cursing the dress that had wrapped around her legs, Luna could feel the floor shake as the snake slithered closer. The polished wooden boards groaned under the Shadow Goddess's sheer weight. The huge snake was nearly upon her as she lunged forward, her fingers just grazing the Orb.
The Goddess reared above her, her cobra's hood flaring out as she hissed, ready to pounce on the sprawled figure below her.
Grasping it desperately, Luna pulled the Orb to her chest.
With a sound a thousand times louder than that of any avalanche, light exploded from the Orb. It brushed away the smaller snakes with contemptuous ease. The Goddess serpent screamed a long wailing sound as she floundered in the sudden, pure white light. Her physical body burned. Her dark light completely wiped out by her Sister's brighter light. The light ate her shadows and chased the dark away.
Rising to her feet, Luna held out the Orb. At first, she felt infused by the radiating light and bathed in it. Yet subsequently, she experienced a strange, altered feeling, and no longer in control of herself. Then she heard words from her mouth. "Leave the North, Sister. They are not yours."
The Shadow Goddess tried to fight back but felt herself getting weaker and weaker, her serpentine body coming apart. "They should all be mine," she hissed. "This should all be mine. You leave them alone to waste away their lives in worthless pursuits."
"I allow them to choose," the voice coming from Luna answered, with each word ripping layers away from the Shadow Goddess's form.
"You waste your existence. You could be a Queen of the Gods, but no." The Mistress of Shadow's voice grew weaker. She struggled against the light but in absolute light, her shadows could not exist.
"Goodbye, Sister," the voice called out as a final wave of light exploded outward from the Orb. It washed out over the Mistress of the Shadow's body, sweeping away the last vestiges of her shadow and continued to spread outward over the city. Wherever it touched, light once more existed and the candles and lanterns burst into flame again. Then it was gone and Luna crumpled to the floor in its sudden absence.
With a small groan, Luna swam back to consciousness. For a few moments, she lay where she was, gathering enough strength simply to open her eyes. She felt drained, hollowed out, and confused.
"Shhhh," Torrin whispered and gently caressed Luna's blonde hair with her hand. "Just stay still."
"Torrin?" she whispered, "why…what...?"
Torrin's eyes lit up in relief. "You, my lovely were the living, human vessel for the Moon Goddess." She bent down and kissed Luna's temple. "Not an easy task, I might add. You so kicked that serpent's ass."
"Huh?" Luna blinked, opening her blue eyes to stare up at Torrin in confusion. "I was. I did?" She teared up. "I thought you..." she swallowed at the memory of Torrin flung through the glass doors. "I thought you were dead."
"Nah, you know me. I take a beating and still keep coming back. Gotta love those God-like family genes." She leaned over to kiss Luna's nose. "Besides, I just found you."
Luna let out a sigh of relief and struggled to try to sit up. "So, what else happened? Is everyone all right?"
"I think so. In all honesty, I didn't really care about anybody else after I saw you drop. I wrangled up some healers and been with you here until you were ready to come back to the world."
Sitting up in the large bed, Luna pulled Torrin closer so she could kiss her slowly. "How could I leave you?" She glanced around the room. "Umm, so how long has it been?"
"Ah, a day and a half, almost two," she answered distractedly, leaning over for another kiss. Torrin stroked Luna's hair letting her fingers run through the blonde strands. With each movement, she felt more relieved.
The strange empty feeling in Luna's chest loosened with every touch and she moved as close to Torrin as possible. Sighing in pleasure, she closed her eyes, leaning into the touch. "Did anything else happen?"
Lips brushed against Luna's temple. "You know, the usual. You kicked ass. Got some new magical object to play with and obliterated the Mistress of Shadows. But it was all much more exciting than the way I'm telling it."
Luna snorted, happily basking in the warm feelings. "I seem to remember you're the one who found the..." Luna trailed off and her body stiffened. "You found the Orb of the Goddess?"
"Well, um...It's more like it found me. Well, there were these ghosts, um… warriors and..." She trailed off. "It's pretty fuzzy, actually. But I do know that there are no more ghosts in the wandering around the Castle now. As soon as the Mistress of the Shadows disappeared, those old women we keep running into? They were standing by the door, smiled and waved goodbye."
Luna let out a strangled laugh, burying her face in Torrin's side. "I don't want to have any dealings with any Gods and their curses for a long time. No more Goddess of Shadows, Vladlin or even that Horse God, all right?"
Torrin laughed, "No argument from me." She hugged Luna tightly. She was tired of almost dying, getting beat up, and always being in danger. Her body relaxed next to Luna's as she snuggled into the bed. "In a couple of days, after everybody calms down, how about we sneak away? Go dig up my Muanya's remains and take her back to the plains for a burial. Ah, that sounds kind of icky." Torrin giggled. "The digging up part…but you know what I mean. Then, I can show you the South, more than that pit, Thulis."
Luna chuckled, "I know what you meant. As long as we avoid Thulis, I think it sounds like a great idea." She slid her fingers across Torrin's stomach, enjoying the feel of her warm skin and the steady breathing. Hmm, she felt something else was different. Flipping off the blanket, Luna peered at her thigh, her grin widening. "The brand, the one Khelin gave me, it's gone!"
"Really?" Torrin peered down her nose getting closer and closer to Luna's thigh. "Hey, look at that!" She looked up with a grin before ducking back down to give the unmarked piece of skin a kiss.
Luna took in a sharp breath of air in surprise, then grinned and pushed Torrin over so she could pin her to the bed. The tiredness and empty feeling she awoke with vanished. "I think we should stay here for a while," Luna purred, her fingers tugging on Torrin's clothing.
"Hmmm, I'm not certain the healers have cleared you for this sort of activity," Torrin said with a laugh.
Luna tried her best persuasive smile as she managed to undo most of Torrin's shirt, "but I thought love healed all?"
Torrin motioned to Luna with her finger. When Luna got closer, she whispered quietly, "If you get my shirt off, it might surprise you."
Luna's smile widened as she undid the last two buttons and pushed Torrin's shirt off. "What sort of surprise?"
"The surprise depends on how good a memory you have about my body."
"I've done my best to memorize every inch," she answered, curious about what Torrin was referring to.
Torrin laid back on the bed. "Well, are you noticing anything different?"
Slightly puzzled, but enjoying the opportunity to stare at Torrin's naked chest, Luna tried to figure out what she was looking for. Understanding dawned as she saw a faint quarter moon scar on the shoulder no longer blemished by the brand of the Shadow Goddess.
Covering the spot with her fingers Luna met Torrin's gray eyes. "When?"
"When I got the Orb. It burned the darkness out of me. And I can see better now," she grinned.
"Then I think we should celebrate, don't you?" Luna whispered. A wicked look appeared in her blue eyes as she lowered her head toward the exposed skin. She paused, lips a hairs breadth away from Torrin's chest. "Do you hear something?"
Torrin cocked her head to listen. "Let's see, we're about to get intimate, so I'm going to say it's a committee of busy bodies coming our way," Torrin said plaintively.
Luna nodded, waiting, but no committee burst in on them. The sound did start to grow louder though, and Luna could swear she heard people yelling at each other. "Maybe we should go see what's going on?"
"Do we have too?" Torrin whined.
"You really want them to come in here and find us like this?"
"Wouldn't be the first time," she mumbled back.
Luna laughed, but got up anyway. Picking up Torrin's shirt, she offered it to the dark-haired woman. "Come on, let's see what has them all upset."
"All right. But trust me, you don't want go out there." Torrin sighed as she grabbed her shirt and put it back on.
Luna gave her a funny look, but headed out into the main room. The sounds of a large argument were unmistakable now. Frowning, Luna wrenched open the door to the corridor. The hallway beyond was filled with women from all the clans, but predominantly from the Wind Walkers. After Luna opened the door, they fell silent and just stared at her.
More than a little unnerved, Luna shut the door and turned toward Torrin as the sounds of arguing outside picked up again. "What is going on here?"
Her shirt now re-buttoned, Torrin wandered to the door wincing at the noise. She wasn't clueless. She had been aware of the muttering going on around the city regarding Luna and her ability to use the Orb.
"Torrin, why are all these people outside our door?" Luna opened the door and gestured out into the hallway as the women once again fell silent.
Torrin stared out at the silent mob of women. "Um..." She scratched her head. "I think what these women are too scared to say is..." She paused, waiting to see if someone would dare speak up. "Since you can use the Orb to do things like, oh... send a Goddess fleeing." She rushed out the last part. "TheywantyoutobetheQueen."
Luna stared at Torrin, blue eyes going wide as she started to back away. "No! No, no, no, no! Oh, no! Are you all insane?"
Torrin shrugged. She wasn't surprised by their choice. Luna had been a natural leader of the Clans since the day they had made it barely alive to the Queen's city. She also didn't care either way. Luna was just Luna to her, and she wanted Luna naked and in bed for snuggles. "That's what they've been whispering about." She scowled at the crowd, "when they think no one is around."
A few women did their best to look innocent. Allysandra didn't even try. The head of the Wave Dancers simply smiled as she leaned against the side of the hallway. Eve had the good grace to look embarrassed. Luna glared at them, and then looked back to Torrin.
"You knew about this?"
"Well... kind of... I was hoping we could sneak away before they got the courage up to start things in motion." Torrin crossed her arms over her chest and stared at her feet.
With another glance at the crowd who were hanging on their every word, Luna slammed the door shut. Moving closer to Torrin, she took the smaller woman's hand and laced their fingers together. "You don't want me to do it?"
Grey eyes examined their fingers before looking up to meet Luna's eyes. "I want you to do whatever you want. I'm not surprised by this, not really, but..." She looked back down.
"But what?" Luna asked quietly.
"It may sound petty, but I want some time with you. Time I don't have to share with anyone else."
Blue eyes studied the woman she had come to love. "What a pair we make," Luna whispered, ducking her head and pressing her lips to Torrin's. "I'll tell them to go away."
Torrin looked up. "You sure? 'Cause I'll love you and be by your side whether it be Queen or Ranger; it matters very little to me." The dark haired woman paused, searching for her words. "And this whole Orb of the Moon Goddess… Queen thing seems kind of like destiny, 'cause if I we're to pick someone to be Queen, I'd choose you."
Luna contemplated the idea. It would be a hellish job… keeping the Clans united with all their differences. True, the war had brought them together, but how long would it last? The taller woman shook her head, smiling faintly at her love's words. "I don't know about the Queen thing. I don't want to lose you."
Torrin pulled Luna to her hugging her. "You're not going to lose me. I'm thinking your council may try to bounce me…try to get someone more respectable as Royal Consort." She grinned into Luna's shoulder.
Luna had to laugh at that. "Let them try. You have to keep me out of trouble right?" She pulled back enough to meet Torrin's eyes. "I..." she paused shaking her head. "I still don't know, love."
"It's up to you. Besides, maybe you should talk to them and see what they have to say." She blushed slightly. "I could have misunderstood the whole conversation I overheard when I was stealing pies out of the kitchen."
Luna laughed. "All right, but not today. Today, you and I get alone time." She yanked open the door, not surprised to find that the entire crowd had crept closer. "Come back tomorrow!" and then slammed the doors shut.
Torrin pulled Luna to her for a big kiss. "That's my woman." She grinned. "And oddly, that really turned me on."
The hot sun beat down on the courtyard of the Castle. A breeze from the Winderling caused the ships in the harbor to rock back and forth, and brought relief from the heat. There were more ships now, and even more that went up and down the river. The traveling ships tied the Northern provinces together during the summer months, bringing news up and down the Winderling to the Queen's City. The city was full of sounds of life.
Leaning back against the warm stone wall in the courtyard, Luna watched the breeze stir the leaves in the great Oak while she was waited for Torrin who was visiting her mother. She was still sitting there and thinking of a future with Torrin when a small group of women came out of the now, ghost-free Castle. With a sigh, Luna sat up straight, and watched the War Council headed in her direction. Tasha had returned yesterday with Fyre and Valarie after making certain Abnoa was back in Northern hands. Allysandra, Eve, and the Head Priestess of the Moon Goddess from the Temple rounded out the group. "Ladies," Luna greeted them, but making no move to stand up from the stone bench as they formed a semi circle around her.
"Luna," Fyre replied with a faint quirk to her lips. "Where's that sex slave of yours? You leave her tied up somewhere?"
Luna's cheeks turned red but she retorted, "Fyre, who says she's the slave?" Luna grinned at their reactions.
Fyre shrugged her massive shoulders. "Well, Torrin's a bit of a control freak so I figure she likes... omphfff," she grunted out as Tasha elbowed her in the gut.
Tasha glared at the Fire warrior. "Stop talking about my baby sister like that." Tasha growled out. "I can't... I'd like to believe she's pure like newly fallen snow, so don't ruin that for me."
Fyre's face turned red trying to contain her laughter.
"I'm going to assume you aren't all here to talk about my love life?" Luna asked, giving Fyre a look. Spotting Torrin coming into the courtyard, she called out, "Hey, love!"
Grey eyes eyed the semi-circle around her lover suspiciously. With lazy, rolling steps, Torrin none to gently pushed council members out of her way as she made her way to Luna. "Hey." She kissed Luna lightly on the lips before turning to Fyre. "I'm what?"
"Right here with us, um, sitting?" Fyre stumbled with an explanation.
"Uh, huh," Torrin responded, not believing a word. "I don't want to know, do I?" she questioned Luna.
"They were just telling me about how you're my..." Luna trailed off as she caught sight of the Priestess's face, "err...I'm in love with you."
"I bet." Torrin drawled out giving Fyre a look that made the other woman gulp. "We're so sparring later, Fyre" and grinned at the discomfited Fire warrior
Luna eyed the gathered women as they stayed silent. "All right, so what's on your minds?"
Tasha opened her mouth and then closed it.
Fyre grinned. "Nice day" was all she said.
The old priestess, her white robes bright in the midday sun, shook her head, muttered something that sounded like 'children' and stepped forward. "You were Chosen by the Orb of the Goddess. The Goddess spoke through you. You are the Queen that was foretold, Luna, whether you like it or not."
Luna turned her head so she could watch Torrin's face. "Maybe," she answered, and then smiled, "But Torrin and I have unfinished business to take care of before that happens."
Torrin's smile got bigger.
The Priestess glanced at the others in puzzlement. Allysandra shrugged, not sure what Luna was talking about either. Fyre scratched her head while Eve asked "What unfinished business?"
Luna slid her hand over Torrin's arm. "I have to go south with Torrin, she has a promise to keep."
Fyre's face took on an expression of puzzlement. "Let me get this straight. The Moon Goddess has chosen you to be Queen, and you're turning it down?"
Tasha elbowed Fyre again. "Don't you ever listen? She didn't say no. Right? You didn't say no?"
"No, I didn't," Luna shook her head, meeting each of their eyes, "Just delaying it. Torrin made a promise to her Muanya, and I won't leave her side. So, we'll be back before the first snow falls. The Goddess should understand that?" The priestess nodded at Luna's questioning look. "I think… hope…, that you all can keep things going at least that long?"
She was met by a series of dubious nods. Suddenly Eve smiled. "That means we get all summer to plan the coronation!"
"What?" Luna asked, mortified.
Luna glared at her love. "Don't forget the commitment ceremony," she smiled innocently.
Eve scowled at the thought, but the prospect of planning both events won out over her dislike of Torrin and she immediately began planning things aloud. "We could have the procession through the entire city. Oh! The choirs should..."
Torrin's smile dropped and her eyes became huge. "Wh-wh-what? Wait, um..."
Fyre started laughing, "Torrin, there are going to be several Fire warriors who will be heartbroken to hear such a statement."
The priestess was already nodding. "Good, the Queen should have a Rezan."
"Rezan?" Luna wasn't familiar with that term.
"A what?" Torrin echoed.
"The wife of the Queen, the consort, her partner…" Eve explained off handedly, still planning the events in her mind.
Fyre laughed harder tears coming to her eyes. "Oh, by the Goddess! I think Torrin is going to faint."
"Am not," Torrin grumbled, but her skin had lost some color.
"Don't worry, Torrin," Luna laughed, wrapping an arm around her. "We have to return your Muanya's remains to the South before anything will happen here."
Tasha nodded in acceptance, and then gathered herself for an official proclamation as the leader of the Earth Clan. "Then, before the first snow fall, Luna shall be crowned Queen, and begin a new reign thus giving life to a place that has been empty for so long. All here are in agreement?" as she looked at the War Council members. The leaders of the Wind Walkers, Wave Dancers and Fire Warrior clans all nodded their consensus.
Then Tasha's eyes zeroed in on Torrin. "And Torrin, daughter of Tyra and Jinete shall be placed before the council to be judged of her worth to stand as the Queen's Rezan. Are all here in agreement again?"
"What?" Luna said, frowning. "Wait a second."
Torrin's eyes narrowed. "What do you mean worthy and judged? Nobody else is going to be Luna's Rezzzi... consort... whatever." She scowled at the group. "Bad things will happen to anybody who tries it."
Fyre shook her head. "It's just a formality thing. I'd have to re-read my protocol for the exact words, but it's just a thing to make sure you're not trying to take the Queen for a ride and empty out the treasury."
Eve agreed. "We need to make sure our Queen isn't taken advantage of…She smirked at the frowning Torrin, "and our assets are safe from plunder."
Luna didn't like the idea of anyone trying to judge Torrin' worthiness, but she figured they still had several months before any of that would happen. "Fine, now could you all go away so Torrin and I can leave? We have to get back here before the first snow falls remember?"
"Of course, Luna. You gave us your word." The priestess gave them an inexplicable smile. "Travel safe, the future of the North goes with you."
Torrin eyed the Priestess suspiciously. She didn't trust that smile. It was a good thing they were getting away from all these unpredictable people.
They watched the War Council returned to the Castle with Eve still lost in her planning, Fyre arguing with Tasha, and Allysandra grinning and waving goodbye to them. Luna glanced at Torrin questioningly. "You all right with this? I know I didn't have time to ask you about the commitment ceremony...." She trailed off and slumped against the bench.
"It's a bit overwhelming for someone who never thought they would ever have the chance to settle down, but..." She took Luna's hand and kissed the palm, "…with you, it feels right."
Luna smiled, then stood up, and tugged Torrin to her feet. "Come on, we better get going then. I hear it's a long way to this Horse Clan land."
"Mmm, yes, it's quite the trek. Not much to do or see. Rather boring, I'd say." Torrin said as she let Luna pull her to her feet.
Luna laughed. "Boring is not a word that describes being with you, Torrin."
"Hey, I'm dreadfully boring" protested Torrin. "Nothing exciting ever happens when I'm around," Torrin said, pulling Luna into a hug. She looked around, and then whispered in her ear. "There's nobody around now. Quick, let's leave before someone else interrupts and needs our attention."
Luna grinned. "Just how quick are you?" she said as she bolted for the door.
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