Blood and Honor
Disclaimer: This is going to be a long story. The longest that either of us have ever written. So if you want a little PWP, you might want to look elsewhere. This story will have violence, sex between consenting adults who just happen to be female, and a few swear words. In Canada this would get you a rating somewhere around 13+, but I think it would get an R rating in the States. We crave feedback. Please send any constructive criticism or just a note to say hi, to: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org
Willow glanced around the temple. It was a simple affair, the basic tent with a smooth stone altar and rough wooden benches. She had told Selene and the rest of the builders that a temple could wait. There were more important buildings that should be built, like aHealers hall.
Head bowed, Willow's small hands rested on the cool stone of the altar as she waited there. It had been almost two years since they had fled the man-filled lands of the Black Dragon God Korgon. And now, the sun-warmed spring air felt good after the bitter cold and snow of winter. She reflected on the dream the Goddess had sent her several nights ago. The ritual felt to her like an invasion of a couple’s privacy, yet she knew it was necessary and vital in order to keep their society going.
There was a small commotion outside the tent, and she heard two women quietly arguing.
"Are you sure she can help?" one voice asked, obviously doubtful.
"She's the Priestess, right?" the other answered only slightly more confident.
Willow smiled. Just as the Goddess had promised, outside was her first couple seeking guidance. Finding that her mouth had suddenly gone dry, she swallowed nervously.
A small, fair-haired woman poked her head in through the tent flap, looking around cautiously. The young woman smiled shyly as she spotted Willow.
Willow smiled back and stood up. "Hello. Is there something I can help you with?" she asked softly.
"Well, yes, we… I mean I... well, we wanted to..." The woman blushed and looked behind her for her companion. A dark, larger hand covered her shoulder and a tall, raven-haired woman poked her face through the flaps, and then stepped inside the tent to join her.
Willow looked at her visitors discreetly. A brand scar marred the taller woman's angular face, indicating she was once a field worker. The petite blonde was quite pretty and probably had been a bed servant before the Exodus.
The larger woman frowned at Willow and then asked defiantly, “We wanted to know if you and your Goddess could help us have a child.”
"Valla!" the shorter woman exclaimed with a shocked tone.
As Willow took a breath to steady her nerves, she noticed the hand that touched the other woman's side in reprimand had thick white scars around the wrist. She gave another smile to show she took no offense at the woman's tone.
"The Goddess foresaw that if we wished to continue as a People, we would need to have children to continue our legacy. She then blessed me with the insight to help."
The tall woman still looked skeptical, but her shorter companion beamed at the Priestess.
"I told you she would know, Valla."
Valla crossed her arms, still unconvinced. "She hasn't said how she can help, Kelsy."
Willow sat back down and uneasily licked her lips. She knew this would be the hard part, the explanation. “If only it weren't so intrusive!” she thought.
"Wel,l you see... um... well, normally a child is created by the mating of a man and a woman. Um, however, due to our interesting circumstances... having no men…"
Valla's eyes narrowed and she glared fiercely at the Priestess. "I will let no man touch Kelsy again," she growled and put her arm protectively around Kelsy’s shoulders.
Willow blew out a breath. She was not doing this right at all. "Oh, no, no. No men," she hastily assured her.
Taking a breath, the flustered Priestess started over. "The Goddess has enabled me, as her Chosen, to help the women in our society, if they chose, to have little ones. Through Her divine will and certain rituals, I can help you produce an offspring."
She smiled sheepishly at them, hoping she had done a better job of explaining this time.
Valla relaxed her hold on Kelsey and looked less skeptically at the Priestess.
"What do you need to do?" the shorter woman asked fearfully, unconsciously tugging down her sleeves to hide her wrist scars.
"Well, um...” Willow could feel herself blushing. "You and your partner have to... ah," she paused, looking for the right words, " be intimate while I perform the ritual’s chants." Then she studied the ground in front of her feet to avoid looking at the couple’s reaction.
There was a small silence, then Kelsy asked hesitantly, "Where will you be when we are... umm… intimate?" Her own pale features turning as red as Willow's.
Willow scuffed her toe into the packed dirt, now totally embarrassed. "I will need to be nearby, in hearing range,” she blushed again, “I don't have to be right there, but you two have to be able to hear the ritual’s words."
Valla and Kelsy briefly stared at each other and then came to a silent consensus. Turning back to face the Priestess, Kelsy's voice was steady as she spoke for both of them. "That seems like a small inconvenience for a child."
Valla hugged Kelsy and asked another question, "Who will bear the child?"
Willow sighed in relief. Bless the Goddess! She hadn’t done too badly. "Well, both partners must be in agreement to carry a child, then as I carry out the ritual, the Goddess's Sight will look at both women. The one found most able to bear the child will be the one blessed with it."
Valla smiled at Kelsy. She wasn’t entirely comfortable with the thought of the Priestess needing to be so nearby while they made love, but they both wanted a child very much. "Very well," she agreed. "When does it need to be done?"
Willow smiled at both women. "I can perform the ceremony at any time, but it would best during the full moon when the Goddess's power is the strongest."
"Tomorrow night then?" Kelsy asked hopefully.
"Yes, that should be fine,” she said warmly. “Both of you will need to take the ritual bath and after that the Goddess’s symbols will be drawn on your bodies." Then the Chosen Priestess grinned and hugged both of them.
Nine months later, under the light of another full moon, the first daughter of the Exodus was born.
Morning came too soon for Torrin. So in a rare indulgence, she chose to go back to sleep, snoring softly in the chair she had collapsed in the night before. She had stayed up late to pack and to prepare for leaving before another Assassin could find them. She was so tired she didn't hear Luna moving around the cabin.
Luna had literally gotten up with the crack of dawn, eager to be off. Her feet felt better and were almost healed. Even though the wound in her side still hurt, she had recovered more of her strength. Carefully packing things in her travel pack, she gathered together everything she thought they might need for the long, cold trek. A spare set of armor and long sword for herself, along with heavier winter clothing for Torrin. The tall blonde had finished the snowshoes the night before. She stepped into the main room and grinned when she saw Torrin still bundled up, asleep, in the chair.
“Wake up! It's time to get going!" With that Luna tossed the heavy winter travel clothes onto the sleeping mercenary.
Torrin cracked and eye and groaned as she lifted her leaden limbs to hold off the clothing attack. She felt like Rock Wolf shit and probably looked like it as well. Her torso was a patchwork of black, blue and a few yellowing bruises. Her face didn’t feel much better, but her eyes weren't as swollen since she could see the smirking Luna.
"By the Mistress! Why are you so alert and chipper?"
"We're going out," was the simple answer.
The lure of the outdoors had been calling her for the last three days of her enforced confinement. Now, finally, Luna would be able to leave the cabin for more than just a quick, shivering trip to relieve herself.
Torrin sighed rubbing her eyes and slowly stood up stretching her back. She gave a happy grunt as it popped. Scratching her head, she dragged the clothes over to her pack, sorting what she would need to wear now and packing the rest. Unconcerned about her nudity, she stripped and put on the heavier winter clothes thrown at her. She sniffed them. They smelled much better than her current ones. Anything smelled better than the clothes the two of them had been wearing the past few days, she decided.
"It looks like we should have a few clear days at least before any more snow." The Northerner held up a pair of snowshoes. "I hope you learn how to use these quickly."
Blue eyes narrowed as Luna caught a glance of Torrin's naked torso.
"By the Goddess... who did this to you?" She reached toward the shorter woman's back, lightly touching one of the many criss-crossing scars on it.
Torrin instinctively twisted around, snatching Luna's hand, her other one going for a dagger that wasn't there. Realizing what she had done, she quickly dropped Luna's hand.
"I-I'm sorry. You surprised me." The dark haired woman finished pulling the new tunic down, hiding the scars. "I forget them most of the time. Um, some are from my training in the temple, others are...” her throat closed for a second, her right hand clenched in frustration. Even with Quinn dead she would never get over the fear that woman inspired. "It doesn't matter." She turned back around hefting her pack.
Luna hesitated, unsure whether she should push for the rest of the answer. Finally, she settled for nodding, hefting her own pack and stepping out onto the porch to put the newly made snowshoes on.
"If we move quickly enough we can make it to a good place to camp tonight," Luna stated, stepping out into the soft white powder.
Torrin laced her own up pair, but walking in them was a different story. It took her a few strides to get use to the shoes. She followed Luna. Grinning at how easy it seemed, she took another step and lost her balance as she realized that her left shoe was resting on top of her right one. Arms wind milling, she hopped around until she finally got her balance. She glanced up, hoping Luna hadn't noticed. However, the wide grin on the woman's face was proof that Torrin was going to be disappointed.
"It’s trickier than it looks," Luna said laughingly as she broke a path through the deep snowdrifts.
Torrin grunted and tried to keep up with the long limbed Ranger. “Great. Now my legs are going to kill me,” she grumbled to herself as she plodded in Luna’s footprints.
Instead of heading north, the Warrior went around to the side of the cabin and set off going slightly to the south. Perched on the top of the hill, covered by the blowing snow, were two simple grave markers. For a silent moment, the blonde stood beside them, watching the snow whirl around them.
When the trail ended, Torrin looked up wondering why. Noticing the markers half hidden in the swirling snow, she remained quiet and let Luna have as much time as she needed.
Luna didn't take long. After only a few moments, she tugged on and tightened the straps of her travel pack and began breaking trail towards the north.
"Keep staying in my path. Later on we can switch, if you feel up to it," the taller woman called back, heading north through the pine forest.
Torrin just grunted again, realizing she had spent too much time in the South. This traveling in snow was taking up too much of her energy. She sidestepped over until she was back in Luna's trail and staggered after her.
The snow had coated the trees during the night, and in some places was almost waist deep. Movement without the snowshoes would have been nearly impossible; with them it was merely exhausting.
After a time Torrin asked, "So where are we headed?"
"To a place where we can stop smelling like animals," was Luna's slightly enigmatic response.
Torrin rolled her eyes at the answer, but didn't saying anything. She went back to concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other. “Well not smelling like an animal would be a good thing,” she thought.
Moving through the snow, Torrin again was caught up in the quietness. Other than the sound of them moving through the snow, it was silent. But for the first time since she had been back, it didn't seem so disturbing.
The blonde followed no obvious trail, just simply weaved in and out of the trees. They came across a few fresh animal tracks. More than once Luna was tempted to try to hunt down more food for them, but since time was of the essence, she resisted. She consoled herself by remembering that they still had a good portion of the deer meat left.
Occasionally a birdcall would echo through the woods, but those were few and far between. It seemed even the birds had fled the snow filled land. However, Luna knew it was an illusion. The woods were filled with life around them a person only had to know where to look. She had spent a good part of her youth tracking and hunting in these forests.
They ate smoked deer meat as they walked since Luna continued to push the pace. The pale sun continued to move across the sky. It was nearly to the horizon by the time Luna slowed to a stop, scanning the trees around her. The terrain had changed into higher hills as the approached the towering mountains. They would have to pass through those mountains in the next few days to get to the Queen’s City.
“Ah, there it is." Luna smiled and headed off toward what looked like a nondescript pile of boulders nestled between two small hills.
Torrin frowned not seeing anything but rocks in front of her. Squinting she tried again. "Is this a trick? I don't see anything, but more blasted rocks."
The Mercenary stopped suddenly. Licking her lips, Torrin sensed a change of moisture in the air. "Is there water nearby?" She shivered. Despite the chance to get clean, she was not looking forward to a cold bath.
Luna simply cast a smile over her shoulder at Torrin and continued toward the boulders. Only when they got closer did the sound of water reach their ears, and then as they reached the pile of jumbled boulders, they could feel the heat emanating from them.
"I told you I'd bring you to where we could get clean," the tall woman stated proudly and stepped aside to reveal a steaming pond nestled behind the piled rocks. "How does a warm bath sound?"
Torrin didn't answer since she was already stomping awkwardly to where the steam of the warm water met the colder air. The snow gradually thinned away to nothing near the boulders. Beyond them, green grass still grew despite it being winter.
Luna laughed as she watched Torrin tramp forward. Removing her travel pack and wincing as she set it aside, the blonde blissfully took a seat on a warm rock. Now if only she could work up the energy to undress and get in the heated water.
"We’ll rest here tonight."
Torrin grunted back at her, dropped her pack and fumbled with the snowshoes, which almost resulted in another awkward scene, but at the last moment, was able to contain her balance. After getting the shoes off, her clothes shortly followed. Digging around in her pack produced a small bar of soap.
Only after hissing and squirming into the water did she finally speak to Luna. "You're the best. I take back all those things I thought about you when you reset my nose."
With a snort of amusement, Luna slowly followed Torrin’s example. After removing her winter garments she gingerly pulled her shirt up over her head and tossed it aside with a wrinkled nose. Later they would have time to wash clothes. For now though... "Oh by the Goddess, that feels good," the blonde hissed, slipping into the hot, steaming water. Even the wound in her side felt better. Closing her eyes, she ducked her head under the water trying to rinse the last of the dried blood from her hair.
For the first time since her ass kicking by the Assassin, Torrin felt her muscles begin to loosen. With a happy sigh, she leaned back letting her hair get wet. She wasn't happy with how long it was getting. Long hair was just a liability in war. Scrubbing her scalp with the soap, she smiled. She could almost feel the dirt and blood being worked loose. Slowly she began to wash the rest of her body, frowning as she noticed the bruises were more blue and yellow now. She tried to wash her back. After a few twists and turns she gave up, it hurt too much to bend like that.
"Luna, a little help here. You wash my back, I'll wash yours." Realizing that her statement sounded a bit suggestive, she added a comic eyebrow wiggle.
Luna’s hands, busy from trying to work the dried blood from her scalp, froze. The expression on her face was comical as she gaped at the Mercenary. "Wash your back?" the blonde repeated dumbly.
Torrin nodded then spoke with exaggerated slowness. "Yes. Back dirty... please wash... if you do good job... me return favor."
A slow blush worked its way across Luna's cheeks as she hastily pulled her hands out of her hair. Holding out her hand for the soap, the Warrior licked her lips, "Umm, yeah, no problem."
Torrin snickered and handed her the soap. She turned, presenting Luna with her back. "Oh, come on, its just a back. Well, probably a filthy one, but I’m sure you've seen plenty of naked ones. If I remember right, the girls of the Castle were always sneaking off to the river to swim and skinny dip. Not that I was ever invited, but I spied on Tasha plenty of times."
Luna hesitated a second then started to scrub away days of filth and blood from the shorter woman's back. She did her best to be careful of the maze of scars that covered the slim woman, unsure if any of the old injuries still pained Torrin. She collected her thoughts while washing the Mercenary.
"I didn't get to go to the Castle much. My parents didn't like the fort. They said it wasn't healthy to have so many people in one place.”
Torrin stifle a yawn. "I'm sorry, I keep forgetting your parents were Rangers. Did you regret living outside Abnoa? Not having children your own age to play with?"
The tall woman thought back on her childhood. "No, not really. I got to see the other children sometimes, and I got to play and get into trouble with Tasha and her friends. And I had my own friends when I was home. She whispered to herself, “All sorts of imaginary friends."
Luna’s methodical washing of Torrin’s back while she was talking had her nearly purring like a lap cat. "You can scrub harder. The physical scars don't hurt anymore."
Luna's hands slowed as she took in the meaning of that simple statement. Then she began scrubbing in earnest. "I can't believe how filthy we got."
"Yeah, a few days running around for your life will do that. Fighting off the cold and snow… and the Assassin. Hopefully, the farther we get away from Khelin, the better things will get for us."
Luna finished scrubbing Torrin's back. "She won't stop, will she?"
Torrin’s relaxed state ended at Luna's question. She turned holding out her hand for the soap. "Your turn."
Luna handed it to her. Watching Torrin's face intently, she asked again, "Khelin won't stop until she has what she wants, will she?"
Torrin took the soap and looked into the Northerner’s worried blue eyes. "No, she won't. Khelin’s insane and is absolutely fixated on you. She was going to burn you alive for the sheer pleasure of watching you die in agony. She has the might to back up every one of her whims. But I promised I will get you to the Queen's City, and I'll get you there. Nothing can break that pact." She paused, clearing her throat, “Now turn around. She gave a leering grin, “Although, I have no problem washing your front if you want me to."
If Torrin was trying to get Luna to forget about Khelin for a while, it worked. Her eyes narrowed and Torrin got exactly what she expected, a splash of warm water in the face. Her cheeks red from blushing, Luna turned her back on the dripping Mercenary.
"The deal was for our backs only."
Torrin wiped the water off her face, and gave a sniff. "Fine, fine, be that way." She continued, mockingly, "I don't know why that didn't work. You know the bar maids always go for it. With me being a dark and dangerous mercenary with the cool scars and tattoos proving it. You sure you don't want me to wash your front?"
"If you haven't noticed," Luna growled, keeping her back firmly to Torrin "I'm not a bar maid. So don't get your hopes up.” She continued, her tone just as mocking as Torrin's,” You should try that line on one of the Fire Clan warriors. I'm positive they'd love it."
Torrin laughed, glad that Luna's mind was away from the dark thoughts and she scrubbed Luna's back harder. "I'll have to try that. Some burly warrior and me can go off in some dark corner and share war wounds. How terribly romantic."
"Don't forget their piercings. Maybe the lucky warrior can help you acquire a few of your own."
Torrin grimaced at the word ‘piercings’. She had enough of sharp objects coming at her flesh on a daily basis that she had no desire to be pierced just for the style of it. Why would someone willingly stick metal into their body? She frowned. She just couldn't fathom it and finished washing Luna’s back.
Luna glanced over her shoulder and grinned at Torrin’s expression.
"I wish we could stay here for a while and rest," Luna sighed as Torrin finished with her back, "but we'll have to leave at dawn." She then dove under the water and resurfaced near the shore. Climbing out of the steaming water she did her best to dry herself with her spare shirt.
"It is a shame to have to move on so soon. I'll miss this place." Torrin agreed and climbed out as well, groaning as the cold air hit her body.
Shivering despite the warm air coming from the hot springs, Luna quickly dressed and then collapsed on a bedroll. The bath had helped the aches and pains of her body, but that same body now demanded sleep.
Leaning back on the blanket, she stared up at the brilliant stars above. " If we make good time, we can make it through the Ellris Pass in three days. Then another four to cross the White Plains, and then we'll reach the Queen's City within another day." Closing her eyes, she took a deep breath, "Your mother and all the others who escaped the Castle should be there."
Torrin stopped putting clothes on and swallowed hard. "You said you weren't sure where my mother had gone." Oddly, she found herself scared at the possibility of seeing her mother again. She finished getting dressed and curled up in her own bedroll. She decided she would just find out if her mother was okay, get the treasure and go. Torrin blinked back the moisture forming in her eyes. Where could she go? If the Hawks were still with Khelin she could not go there …unless she wanted to die.
Luna cracked open an eyelid, peering towards the other bedroll. "I lied." She shrugged and closed her eyes again. "I wasn't sure if you were going to go back to Khelin or not." Yawning, the warrior settled in to sleep. "You don't sound really happy about seeing her again."
"You lied!" Torrin sat up. "You..." She was torn between screaming at Luna or strangling her for her deceit. She lay back down. "I'm back to not liking you again,” she muttered and rolled over.
The other woman snorted softly and rolled onto her side, curling up in her blankets. Sleep came swiftly to both of them, exhausted from the long day’s march.
The Assassin crept around the house. She was positive it was empty but still, she preferred to be careful. Her sister had not returned. That itself hinted at a need for caution.
Breathing in the air, she smelled the snow and blood. Death had visited here. Her forehead scrunched into a frown, this was not good. She pulled her short sword free, as well as a poisoned dagger.
Placing a palm on the door, she felt nothing from the other side. The house was still and cold.
Moving down the hill, she flowed in and out of the shadows. In front of the barn the smell of blood and death was stronger. She opened the barn door slowly and found inside a hay bale stained with blood. Examining the floor and walls carefully, she found evidence of a struggle but still no physical evidence of her sister.
Exiting the barn, she circled around the building and found a faint trail not covered by the snowfall. Following it, she found the remains of a deer left for the carnivores.
The Assassin scowled. Was this the death she had been sensing? Searching the area carefully, she found a patch of ground that had been disturbed. She swept away the snow and a thin layer of dirt and found her sister. Examining the body, she found the injury that had ended her sister’s life.
Pulling the tunic away from the body, she frowned at the blackness around the bloody wound. This was bad, very bad. Her sister had been killed with her own poisoned dagger. This had never happened to one of her Order. Pulling the stiff, cold eyelids back, she pressed a fingertip to each black eye. The blackness seeped out of the eyes and poured on to her fingers. The Assassin hissed as she witnessed, first hand through her sister’s eyes, her death. The figure she was fighting was hidden in the dark but the moves were not. It was a student of the Mistress but one not chosen. Not a sister, but one possessing enough skills to make her formidable prey.
An evil grin crossed her face. It had been too long since she had a good hunt. Khelin had sent her after petty nobles and chieftains, but this; this would be a real test of her skills. She felt her heart speed up in anticipation.
Torrin was up before first light. She had scouted the hot springs area for any sign of another Assassin or Southern scouts who might have been sent on their trail. So far she had found nothing. When faint light touched the cold winter sky she found herself looking into the water trying to see her face. She wondered what her mother would see. Her little dark-haired girl? Or would she see the face of a killer, the woman who had brought Abnoa to ruin?
The Mercenary sighed in disgust and struck the water, distorting her reflection. The splash woke up her traveling companion.
Groggily, Luna rolled up into a sitting position. Gingerly, she started to stretch. The wound in her side felt a hundred times better than it had yesterday, although her entire body felt stiff. Raising her hands above her head she stretched, her back cracking as she realigned it. Blearily, she glanced over to Torrin, groaned and got to her feet. "Ahhh... morning."
Torrin looked up from her brooding. "Morning." Getting up, she walked back to the bedrolls and pointed to the weak fire. “I caught a rabbit and found some edible greens. The hot spring seems to be a great attraction for wildlife in the winter."
Luna blinked in surprise as she was used to being up first. "Yeah, it is. If we had time to prepare it, we could easily get another deer here. She looked at the skinned rabbit. “You caught it, I guess I get to cook it?"
A short time later and with a flourish, she offered the first bowl of rabbit stew to Torrin. The tall blonde's cooking skills was barely passable for trail rations. Mezzarna had tried repeatedly to teach her daughter more than the basic fundamentals of cooking, but none of her lessons had stuck. Luna knew how to make an edible stew and soup, but that was about it. She figured that was good enough. At least she wouldn’t starve.
"Have you ever been through the Ellris Pass?"
Torrin gave a thin smile and took the still steaming stew. After blowing on it, she took a bite, hummed in appreciation, and then responded to the question. "Hmmm, uh, no, I haven't. I haven't been any farther north than Abnoa. Why? Is there anything I need to know? Like trolls or dragons living in the Pass?" she said jokingly.
"Let's not tempt fate, okay?" Luna answered, blowing on her own stew before taking a bite. Hmm, not bad. "There used to be an abbey at the top of the Pass dedicated to the Moon Goddess. We might be able to make it there tonight."
"Sounds like a plan. I'm not sure my ribs are up for digging a snow shelter yet.” Torrin scratched her ear in thought. “That is, if I can even remember how to make one."
"That's not something you’d forget." Luna grinned, "Like other things."
She stood up and started to break camp as the sun cleared the horizon and flooded the area with bright light. A glance and nod to the clear blue sky, she observed, "It's going to be a cloudless day. That means it's going to be bitterly cold tonight."
Torrin stood to help. "Then we best get going. I don't fancy becoming an icicle." She took one last lingering look at the hot spring; she was going to miss it.
It turned out that they would both miss the hot spring by the time the day was over. The cold air beyond the springs was a shock after the evening spent near the hot water. The trek only got worse as they began the hike toward the Ellris Pass. The snowshoes helped a little, but even with them, the going was bone chilling slow through the deep, powdered snow.
Gusts of wind frequently whipped the snow up, driving white sheets of it across the landscape. The higher they went, the worst the wind became as the sheltering trees thinned out and became shorter.
“You okay?" Luna had to yell over the wind as they struggled up another steep pitch of snow and ice.
As they marched through the heavy snow Torrin had taken up a constant stream of curse words in her head as she tried to navigate in her snowshoes. To her, it was just one more reason why she would never be a true Northerner. She glared at Luna noting how easy the Ranger made it look. And momentarily, Luna’s ass distracted her. She mentally slapped herself around for such a thought.
"What?" Torrin reddened when she realized Luna was looking at her and desperately hoped she would think it was just windburn. She yelled back, "I'm good, great, fantastic..." At Luna's raised eyebrow she conceded. "Um, I've been better," she muttered.
"We're almost there!" Luna hollered again raising a glove covered hand to point up toward a ridge above them. Through the swirls of snow they could just make out the straight lines of a solid barrier. "That's part of the abbey’s outer wall." Grimacing as another gust of wind drove a chill down her back, Luna picked up the pace, trying to out run the fading sunlight.
Torrin huffed as Luna started to widen the distance. "How the hell am I supposed to ensure her safety?" she grumbled. She tried to hurry but lost her footing on the ice. "By the Goddess, I'm going to kill her for making me wear these stupid...” She froze sensing something nearby. Her gray eyes darted around, but she couldn't find anything. Struggling to her feet, she followed Luna’s trail.
Luna paused just under the rock face, gasping for air she turned to wait for Torrin to catch up. As Torrin approached, she pointed back the way they had come. "Look at that."
Below them lay the lands of the Earth tribe. Pine trees, green with white dusting of snow, formed a dense forest as far as the eye could see. In the distance, against the horizon, a small prick point of dark stone jutted upwards, marking Castle Abnoa. The setting sun painted everything with golden colors. The Warrior had seen this sight four times before in her life, and this one was just as magnificent.
Taking a breath, her exhaled breath forming a white cloud, she smiled and said, "It's so beautiful."
Torrin quirked an eyebrow but turned around and looked. It was beautiful, but she only said, "Looks cold and full of snow."
Luna rolled her eyes and turned back to the wall. She stared up at the last steep incline leading to the abbey above them and then moved forward. Nearing the top, she slowed to a stop and crouched down next to marks in the snow. "Torrin," she called out quietly, "I don't think we're alone here."
Torrin's hand discreetly went to her sword. "Yeah, I know. Are there still Priestesses at the abbey?" Her eyes scanned around them. While she felt like they were being watched, she didn't feel the prickling feeling of any danger.
"The abbey's been closed since the High Queen died." Luna slowly rose to her feet, her own hand going to the pommel of her sword. "But travelers use it as shelter when they cross the Pass."
"Well, either we go in or we stand out here freezing. I'm all for going in. It’s probably just another traveler." However, she wasn't sure what kind of traveler would be moving about in winter.
Luna nodded and headed toward the remains of the abbey.
A large hole was all that was left of the main gate. The buildings inside had suffered from the passage of time. The only one still relatively intact was the main temple itself. It was toward this simple three-story stone structure that the Warrior headed.
Luna removed her snowshoes on its steps. With a glance to make sure Torrin was shoeless and ready, and a hand on her own sword, she pushed open the heavy wood door into the temple. The rapidly fading sunlight streamed through elaborate stained glass windows into the interior of the temple. Luna frowned and glanced around; the inside was different than the last time she had been here. Slowly, she worked her way toward the back of the room.
Torrin followed Luna closely, her hand held loosely to the pommel of her sword. She shifted into mercenary mentality; she had a client to protect. Her face closed off and her gray eyes went cold and dark. Opening her senses, she still didn't feel anything menacing but she knew it was better to be safe than sorry. Now, without the cumbersome shoes, she moved silently, a shorter shadow to Luna's taller form. The temple seemed empty and was sparsely furnished but Torrin noticed a distinct lack of dust and debris. Someone was obviously taking care of the place.
Spotting an orange glow flickering in front of them, the Mercenary and the Warrior quietly crept forward. They peered into a back corner of the temple and found a small fire was burning brightly, the pillars around it casting shadows everywhere. Someone was bent over a pot hanging over the flames.
Luna couldn't make out whom it was. The figure wore a rough brown robe with a hood that covered her shape. Luna glanced at Torrin for direction, but instead, saw a stranger. The Mercenary’s face was completely devoid of emotion; her eyes were hard and dark. Luna took a step away from her in shock.
Torrin ignored Luna’s reaction. The woman would have to get use to it. She had hired a mercenary, and that’s what she got, a paid killer. She stepped forward, careful to make sure that her body was between Luna's and the stranger’s.
"Are travelers welcome?” she asked calmly.
Torrin really was hoping to see the woman's eyes. Assassins couldn't hide their eyes. The blackness in them was always there, a gift and a curse, from the Mistress of Shadows.
Warm green eyes in an ancient face looked up from the fire and the stranger smiled, white teeth glinting in the firelight. "Travelers are always welcomed. Come and have some tea," the elderly woman motioned toward the simple wooden stools placed around the fire, "you and your friend." She went back to tending the fire, humming a song under her breath.
Torrin’s eyes did another sweep of the room but found nothing amiss. She relaxed and a smile came to her lips. "Thank you. Tea would be most welcome. I think my blood has turned to ice." She motioned for Luna to come toward the stools. "You'll have to forgive my traveling companion, she’s shy."
That earned her a whack on the back from Luna as she moved to join them at the fire. The old woman smiled again and began pouring them tea into three cups already prepared. Luna raised an eyebrow at them and glanced questioningly towards Torrin, then back at the woman.
“My name is Luna, and this is Torrin. What's yours, old mother?" She gave their true names without even considering aliases.
The woman offered them each a cup before answering. “My name is Melina. May the Goddess bless you both, Torrin and Luna." With a small smile she raised her cup of tea in a salute to them and then took a sip.
Torrin glared at Luna. She'd have to talk to Luna about being so honest with strangers. But she raised her cup in salute, "Thank you, Melina." She took a sip, tasting the tea. Smiling in approval, she took another sip.
Luna also returned the gesture and took a sip of the hot tea, mirroring Torrin's appreciative smile at the hot drink.
"This is very cold weather to be traveling in, Priestess." A pendant around the old woman's neck had caught the Warrior’s attention, confirming her suspicions. Only the Moon Goddess’ priestesses wore the moon-shaped necklaces.
Torrin kept checking out the temple’s interior while sipping her tea and added, "Yes, what brings you here? Traveling during the winter can't be much fun."
The Priestess simply smiled at the women’s questions and sat down cross-legged at the fire. Stretching bony hands towards the fire, the old woman sighed as she heated them. "There is work to be done, and the Moon Goddess called me. I'm headed to your Castle Abnoa. Seems there are some babies that need conceiving." The priestess waggled her eyebrows at them.
Torrin blushed slightly at the older woman's suggestive look.
"Oh, you're that kind of Priestess." She raised the cup of tea and quickly took a sip, trying to hide her reddening face. There was something about a grandmotherly-looking woman talking about conceiving babies that was just... unsettling. It was on the tip of her tongue to ask how that sort of thing worked since her mother hadn’t found the time to explain to her about the birds, the birds, and the Priestesses. She was fairly certain she hadn't created any new lives, since she thought a blessing or ritual and priestess was needed.
"Yes dear, I'm that kind of Priestess. We are in demand. Without us none of you would be around."
Luna choked on a sip of tea, coughing and spluttering in surprise at the old woman's words. Eyes watering, she glanced away missing the amused look the old woman sent the two of them. The Warrior managed to get her coughing spell under control. "We know that, old mother. We just weren't expecting..." Her voice trailed off as she realized what the Priestess had said earlier. "You can't go to the Castle."
With a sad sigh, Torrin backed up Luna’s statement. "Yes, the Abnoa has fallen to the Southern Army."
The white-haired Priestess smiled gently, "Of course I can. I know the weather is a bit harsh, but I've traveled in worse. Believe me."
Luna glanced uncertainly at Torrin, then back at the tranquil Priestess. Not sure if the old woman was hard of hearing, she spoke a bit louder, repeating Torrin’s words, "Castle Abnoa has fallen to the Southern army."
The priestess shrugged. "The Goddess asked me to go to the Castle, and to the Castle I will go."
Luna stared at her incredulously, and then looked to Torrin for help.
Torrin sputtered sarcastically, "Right... so what did the Goddess say to you exactly? Thou shall go out and be road kill for an insane despot?" Torrin couldn't help her tone of voice, even though she expected to be turned into a toad for it.
Luna winced at the Mercenary’s harsh words.
Instead of flying into a fit of anger, which other priestesses had been known to do when their decisions were questioned, this one simply sipped her tea. Tranquil green eyes watched the two of them over the rim of her cup. "I had a vision," she finally answered.
Torrin took a sip of her own tea. "A vision of what? A need to help Northern women make babies in a castle over run with an army that will gut you? Those women are all dead. Your vision is wrong," she challenged. Taking another sip, she tried not to laugh at Luna's gaping fish impression.
Luna edged away from Torrin just in case the Priestess, the Moon Goddess or both, suddenly turned the shorter woman into something nasty.
The Priestess, again not doing what the Northerner had expected, laughed at Torrin's statement. "Vision's are many things, but they are never wrong. Difficult to see the truth in them or vague and puzzling, yes. Wrong, no."
"But what if you misinterpreted this one? I may be a merc but I’m not big on innocent people walking into a war zone. I'm fairly certain your Goddess wouldn't do that to you."
"If the Goddess wishes me to go to the Castle, then I shall go to the Castle." Keen green eyes glanced towards the mercenary. "It's called faith. You have to trust in something."
Torrin rolled her eyes at the old mother's stubborn attitude but she could tell the Priestess was challenging her. So, if the old woman insisted on being a martyr, far be it for her to stop her.
"I trust myself and my sword. Now people and Gods, they're a little trickier." Torrin glanced over at Luna raising an eyebrow at the increased distance between them. "What? Do I smell that bad?" she teased.
"I'm just not sure I want to be sitting next to you right now, in case I get caught in the crossfire," Luna shot back, embarrassed have been caught by Torrin. To cover her dismay, she began to rummage through her travel pack for some rations for dinner.
Torrin laughed at Luna. "I'm sure if the Moon Goddess gets upset at me, she'll let me know. Since she didn't kill me at birth, I’m thinking my chances are good she'll let this pass."
The Priestess shrugged at the conversation, pulling over her own smaller pack to contribute to the night’s meal. The old woman produced slices of dried fish that she passed around for them to try. "A day may come when you will have to trust someone else to save your life. That’s faith. "
Luna was watching the two of them oddly, not quite certain where the conversation was going, but she was ready to jump in if it looked like it would end up in a major confrontation.
Torrin laughed, "Not likely. No offense, but the people you give your trust to, let you down the hardest. On the other hand, money is dependable. It always has value and you know that someday it will leave you. It’s honest. My blade will do its best until it breaks. It’s honest. I live each day knowing I might not see the end of it and that is also honest." Then she nibbled on the offered fish, smiling at the flavor. It was a nice change from their rations.
Luna made a sound that was halfway between a denial and a choked cough. The Priestess patted the blonde on the back, grinning in spite of Luna's expression.
Turning back to the dark-haired mercenary, the grin faded. "What a sad way to live your life. I hope someday you find something or someone to have faith in. Someone to trust."
Torrin looked over to Luna, checking to see if the taller woman was really all right. Then she leaned over and picked up the water skin, handing it to her. She smiled back at the Priestess. "It may be sad to you, but it’s my life, and it’s a lot better than the one I had...” She almost said 'here' but decided it was none of the Priestess’s business.
The Priestess merely smiled and said nothing as she helped Luna pool their rations to create something a bit more appetizing.
Once dinner was done, the old woman simply wrapped her cloak around herself and nodded off to sleep.
Luna raised an eyebrow at how fast the Priestess fell asleep, then inched closer to Torrin, whispering, "Are you out of your mind? You practically told her to go jump off a rampart."
Torrin grinned. "Yeah, it was fun, wasn't it?" she whispered back. Leaning back against the wall, Torrin pulled out a sharpening stone, a cloth and unsheathed her sword. Looking back up at Luna, she asked, "So, what's the big deal? The old mother seemed to enjoy a good verbal sparring and nobody got turned into a newt."
The blonde glanced across the fire at the sleeping priestess then shook her head at Torrin. “She’s a Chosen of the Moon Goddess. You know what they say about crossing them.” She reached for the whetstone in her bag.
"No, what do they say about crossing a priestess?" Torrin asked, enjoying how worked up Luna was getting. She didn't see the big deal. The old mother had loved the verbal exchange. She had seen the grin on that wrinkled face.
Luna paused, stone in one hand, her blade in the other, and stared at Torrin as if she had gone mad. Then shaking her head, she went back to work. "Just be careful. They control who gets to have children." She paused, frowning, and looked back at Torrin. "Who does that in the South?"
"Oh." Torrin's eyes got huge. She gave a cough. "Um, I believe it’s the Goddess Amai. She is the Goddess of Love and Lust. She has a few brothel... er... temples one can worship at. Some of the High Priestesses travel about performing rituals I assume are to help couples have children. I don't really know since I've never been in a situation to have, er, um, kids." She studious inspected her sword.
Luna's smile transformed itself into a grin as she studied the other woman. "You don't know how it works, do you?"
Torrin huffed. "Of course I do. I've been around. Lived a full life. Traveled extensively...” She trailed off and sheepishly admitted, "No, not really. Mercenaries aren't big on families. I've heard… you know stories about Creation, but I figured if one isn't a Priestess or committed to another that, you know one doesn't really need to understand such things." She scrubbed her face trying to get the blush to go away. 'Hardened mercenaries don't blush' she told herself, but it didn't help.
Luna snickered at Torrin’s discomfort. "There aren’t any little Torrins running rampant in the South then?"
"By the Mistress, I hope not!" the mercenary blurted out.
Luna laughed, set aside her blade, added another log to the fire and leaned back against the wall. Judging by the soft snores from the other side the Priestess was out for the night. "I always wondered what it would be like to have children."
Torrin’s eyes went distant. “I haven’t. Being a merc isn’t exactly a good lifestyle for having a family. Plus, I always have this fear in the back of my mind I’d be the kind of Muanya that Quinn was.” With a start, her mouth snapped shut. She’d said too much. “I’ll go scout around just to make sure we’re safe.” With quick efficient movements she packed up the sharpening stone, cloth and sheathed her sword.
Pensive blue eyes watched the shorter woman gathered her things. Quinn's death had nearly gutted the morale of the remaining warriors in the Castle. Luna couldn't help but keep wondering what Quinn would have done differently in defending the Castle? Would Abnoa still be in her tribe’s control with Quinn in charge? "She was a good leader, despite whatever else she did."
Her anger and hatred of Quinn flared. Torrin couldn't stop the words as they spilled out. "Quinn was a bastard. A mean, cruel bitch who, more than anything else, loved being important. Wait, no, she loved beating people up more, but not by much." She turned and fled into the dark of the abbey before she lashed out at Luna again.
"I'll take second watch," the blonde called to the fleeing figure. Luna sighed and crawled into her bedroll. That hadn't gone well.
Torrin paced around the deserted abbey, her thoughts disjointed and dark. Unable to control her anger, she lashed out, hitting the stone wall in front of her. With a growl, she punched the cool stones again and again, wishing it were Quinn she was beating.
“What did that wall ever do to you?”
The quiet question took Torrin by surprise. She whirled around baring fists with bloodied knuckles. Standing in front of her was a slightly bow-legged, petite woman with black hair and gray eyes, her red lips quirked in an amused smile.
“You’re a Southerner!” Torrin exclaimed.
“My, you’re a quick one,” the woman responded.
Torrin pulled her blade free, her dark eyes narrowing. “Quick enough to know that I have most of the Southern army looking for my ass right now.”
The woman laughed, an open rich sound. “Actually, the Southern army cares little for you. That insane bitch is more interested in your friend’s ass. And it’s a nice ass, I admit. So, I can see why Khelin is going to all this trouble.” The woman laughed again at the dark look she received. “However, I am not your enemy.”
“Right.” Torrin rolled her eyes. She left her sword pointed at the strange woman.
“It’s the truth. Right now, the only enemy here is you.” The woman held up her hands as she could see the storm cloud of anger brewing on the younger woman’s face. “Before you blow up, hear me out. You let Quinn mold and shape you. You took all that vile woman’s anger and rage and made it a part of you. Now, it lives inside you, making you no better than she was. You lashed out at your home and your people. You brought Abnoa to its knees. Without you, the attack would not have been successful. You opened the gate. You let the foreign army in. You have the blood of all those people on your hands.”
“I did my job, what I get paid for. People die in war,” Torrin said defensively.
“You were given the option to sit this battle out. But you let your anger at one woman rule your actions. You weren’t meant for this mercenary life and I think you know it.”
Torrin snorted, “This is the only thing I’m good at.”
The stranger lifted an eyebrow and pointed to the room where the two other women slept. “You seem to be good at protecting the ranger.”
“She’s paying me for a job. There’s no difference. Each one was for services rendered.”
The woman laughed again and sneered, “So you’re a whore?”
Torrin hissed and slashed at the woman with her sword. With a laugh the woman danced back.
“I don’t think Tyra would raise her daughter to be such a thing.”
Torrin leapt at the woman with a growl, her sword meeting only air. The woman danced away from each of her attacks. Her bent legs much quicker than Torrin expected. A swift kick from one of them knocked her sword from her hand infuriating Torrin into carelessness. With a quick move and a twist by the diminutive woman, Torrin found herself pinned to the wall.
Gray eyes filled with concern looked into Torrin’s stormy ones. “Torrin, daughter of Tyra, you need to let go of your anger. Even more, you need to let go of the past. That’s all the remembered pain, hurt and anger is, the past. It can’t hurt you anymore. Recognize how it helped you get here, recognize how it helped shape you as a woman, but don’t let the past and one bitter woman’s anger control your life.”
For the first time in a long time, Torrin began to cry, unable to handle any more guilt and blame. The woman eased her hold so she could embrace Torrin in a hug. Slowly patting Torrin’s back and giving her comfort like she would to a grieving child, she whispered softly, “ There, there, let it out. Trust me, you’ll feel better. It’s been bottled up inside you for too long.”
Torrin gave a hiccup and asked raggedly, “Who are you?”
“Someone who has been waiting a very long time to meet you. Someone who loves you. When you see your mother again, tell her… tell her that Jinete never stopped loving her. Tell her I didn’t run away.” With that said, the woman dropped her arms and let Torrin go.
Torrin looked at her with red-rimmed eyes and grew slightly afraid, as now, she could clearly see through the woman.
“By the Mistress! What trick is this?” Her hands fumbled around, searching for her fallen sword. She scooped it back up and confronted the spirit.
“In the spring, Torrin, if you could come back here, there is an old oak tree in the gardens behind the abbey with a shallow grave next to it. It would be nice to be buried someplace warm, perhaps in my ancestral home in the plains. I do miss the horses.” With a laugh at the Torrin’s shocked expression, “Shut your mouth, daughter, you’ll attract bugs. I’m sorry I can’t stay longer but it takes so much energy to show myself. But I will try to watch you the best I can.” With that promise, the woman vanished.
Twisting her sword back and forth in confusion, Torrin wasn’t sure what had just happened. She had seen a ghost, a ghost that had tried to mess with her head, she thought bitterly. She wondered if it was Khelin doing dark magic. Perhaps she was slowly losing her sanity. Or, maybe not, she mused, thinking of the comforting arms and the warm gray eyes. She slid down the wall to sit on the floor. If she ever found her mother and they were still willing to talk to each other, she would have to ask about Jinete. Feeling overwhelmed by her exposed emotions and the spirit’s disconcerting words, she placed her head in her hands began to cry again.
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