Blood and Honor
By Windstar and Zee
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: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com
Jinete had had left the Castle common room to escape the drinking contests and matches of strength. She just didn't understand the fascination with such things. It wasn't part of the Horse tribe history. Now, a race to prove steed fleetness or a lance contest to show power and accuracy, well that was something she could appreciate.
She was on her way to the makeshift stable to check on her horse, when she heard the music. She wasn't sure why, but it captivated her.
It was a sad melody full of longing for all things lost. Following the sounds, Jinete found the source of it, a slender, golden-haired woman playing a violin. The woman was sitting in a moon lit section off the main courtyard offering up her song to the night sky. As she played, she glowed with something so beautiful that Jinete couldn't help but be smitten.
As quietly as she could on her horse-bowed legs, Jinete crept closer to hear better. Leaning against the stone wall, she closed her gray eyes and listened, aching for this woman's sadness. As the song ended, she opened her eyes and was quickly ensnared into gray ones.
“I-I-I'm sorry I didn't mean to disturb you. I can leave if you want me to. It was just so beautiful and yet, sad.”
The woman was silent for a moment, and then spoke softly, “Can something be both beautiful and sad?”
Jinete took a step forward out of the shadows of stone into the moonlight. “Of course. You are.” Her eyes got huge at her words. “Forgive me. I-I… that was out of line.”
The woman laughed with a small rusty sound. “It is okay. It's nice that somebody notices.”
“It was the first thing I noticed about you. Then, it was the decidedly pompous woman attached to your arm at dinner.” Jinete stepped closer to the slender figure knowing she shouldn't but unable to stop herself. “Tell me, does she ever smile?” she whispered conspiratorially.
The blonde smiled bashfully. “She? Oh, Quinn. She use to smile and laugh. We had fun…” She trailed off her mind reliving happier times.
“Had fun?” Jinete slid behind the woman and couldn't help but take in her fragrant scent. She sat on a nearby stone bench. “Tell me. What has happened to the fun?” gesturing to the seat next to her as she asked
The woman stared transfixed at the short, dark-haired woman. She had heard tales of the People of the Horse and their suave ways. She eyed the bench with skeptical eyes.
Jinete laughed at her hesitation, “Your honor is safe. I swear to Amando, the God of Horses, I will not do anything to you unbidden. Besides, if I'm not mistaken, your Quinn is an advisor to the Castle. I don't fancy being strung up on one of those ramparts for the elements to have their way with me. By the Gods. It is too cold here for such things.”
Mollified by her statement, the woman sat down next to her. “I am Tyra.”
“Jinete. Ambassador from the South. Second daughter to the Horse Lord Jin.”
As they shook hands, Jinete did not want to let go. Finally after the appropriate length of time had come and gone, she released Tyra's hand. If Tyra noticed the delay, she didn't say anything.
“It's very nice to meet you, Jinete, daughter to Jin.”
They sat for a moment in the night silence with only the moon for company before Jinete broke the stillness.
“So what makes a beautiful woman such as yourself, play such heartbreaking music?”
Tyra ducked her head, letting her long blonde tresses cover her face.
The Southerner was sadden to see her distress and struggled to keep her hand from moving the hair away.
“Did you ever think you had everything you could possibly want? That this was it and your life would be happily ever after from that moment on?”
Jinete pondered for a moment, her forehead scrunched in thought. “I have had moments of happiness, but never one where I thought that this was it, that I had achieved everything I wanted out of life.”
Tyra gave a sad sigh. “I did. I came to Abnoa to deliver news from the Clan of Fire to the Clan of Earth. While here I met a young warrior named Quinn, she was…” Tyra smiled at the memory as she thought back on her first meeting of Quinn.
“Charming, strong, brave, and she made me feel like I was more wanted than the sun and the stars.”
Jinete bit her lip, “Ah, that is a special thing.”
“We have two children. They look just like Quinn, blonde, tall and strong, with blue eyes.”
The Horse tribe woman had to laugh, “You all are tall, blonde, and for the most part have blue eyes. At least to me.”
Tyra smiled. “Yes, I suppose we all look pretty much the same to Southerners.”
“Well, not all of you. You, my lady, have a shining soul and are a glowing beauty. You make all others look like common river rock.”
Tyra blushed and looked away. “You should not say such things.”
“Why not? I speak the truth. Plus, did it not make you happy to hear such truths spoken aloud?”
“I have heard about you Southerners and your smooth talk.”
Jinete laughed a full rich sound that seemed to come up from her toes. “Ah, it is true some of us have been born with a snake's tongue. But I tell you this, with the Moon Goddess as my witness, I speak no falseness.”
Tyra stood abruptly. “You should not make such pledge to the Goddess, she will punish you harshly.” And without another word, the Northern musician left.
Jinete slid from the stone bench to her knees. What a cruel fate the Horse God had given her. To be trapped all winter with this unattainable woman. She looked up at the moon hanging coldly in the sky.
“You think I play this woman for quick pleasure, huh? You think so lowly of me, you cold distant Goddess, because I worship you not? I tell you this. Look into my heart and tell me if this is a lie. I would give up ever riding another horse again for a woman like that and I would give up the warmth of my homelands for this Northerner. This, Quinn, does not deserve a woman like Tyra. Her coldness and indifference is killing Tyra's spirit. Now that is true cruelty. I would gladly give my life to make Tyra happy. Wouldn't you want that for one of yours?” She waited a moment but the moon remained silent.
With a sigh, Jinete stood and brushed off her leather trousers and made her way to the makeshift stable. Her horse nickered a greeting and Jinete stroked the fine curved neck. “Ah, Veloz Basa, you will always love me, won't you, boy?”
The horse shook his head and then nipped at her shoulder. “Such a frisky boy. Perhaps I have a treat for you.” With a laugh she pulled out an apple she had snuck from the banquet hall. As she fed it to her horse, sheburied her face in Veloz Basa's neck breathing in its animal scent. “It is going to be a long, cold, miserable winter,” she mumbled.
Luna woke up during the middle of the night to find herself alone at the fireside. The old Priestess had apparently left sometime earlier. Worried about the mercenary, she prowled the dark abbey with sword in hand, until she found Torrin curled up next to a stone wall sound asleep.
Surprised that the mercenary had fallen asleep during her watch, the warrior draped a warm blanket over the smaller woman. Then, taking her own bedroll from the fireside, and starting a new fire near the sleeping dark- haired woman, Luna spent the night half awake, half asleep. It was a trick Fengold had taught her. How to make it through the night awake enough to react to an attack, but asleep enough that you could travel the next day. A ‘Ranger trick' she had called it, and Luna had spent the entire summer of one year trying to practice it.
With the rise of the sun, she put a small pot full of snow on the fire to melt and cautiously crouched next to the sleeping Torrin.
Gently she shook her shoulder. "Torrin?"
Torrin grabbed the hand while trying to open gummed up eyelids. Peering up at Luna with bloodshot eyes she grumbled, "Why are you poking me?"
"Because it's morning."
Luna frowned. Torrin didn't look very good. "Are you all right? Do you feel sick?" Luna prayed to the Goddess that Torrin wasn't ill. Getting sick in the middle of the Ellris Pass was a recipe for disaster. The worst of the trip was still to come; the north face of the Pass chilled the bones of even the warriors from the Fire Clan. The biting cold wind sucked the heat from everything and more than one Ranger had failed to survive the trip.
Worried, the blonde pressed a hand to Torrin's forehead, trying to feel if she had a fever.
Torrin sat up rubbing her eyes. "It can't be morning I just sat down...” Blinking around she realized that indeed morning had come. "Shit. No, I'm fine." She scowled and tried to push Luna's hand away.
The warrior was unconvinced, but relented and backed off. "You sure?"
Torrin just leveled a bloodshot glare at Luna. "Yes, I'm sure."
Leaning back against the wall she looked around for any sign of her ghostly companion from the night before. "Luna...” she started then stopped. At Luna's questioning look, she shook her head. "Never mind. It's not important."
Giving an odd look to the younger woman, Luna started to pack up her things and asked, "What? Does it have anything to do with how bloodshot your eyes are right now?" Luna hoped that Torrin wasn't a drunk. She didn't think she could deal with her if the mercenary was addicted to drinking.
"I, um, saw something weird. Ahh, I saw..." She let out a breath. "Um, do you believe in ghosts?" She looked down, not wanting to see the look on Luna's face, and played with the blanket edge. She was certain the warrior would think she was losing it now.
That wasn't what Luna had been expecting her to say and she blinked in surprise. Then the warrior shrugged and continued to pack her things. "Of course I do." Her tone implied what a silly question she thought it was.
Torrin looked up trying to gauge the look in Luna's eyes. "Huh? You do? I think I met a ghost last night. It might have been a trick by Khelin, but this ghost, she knew about my mother, knew her by name." She let out a breath. "The experience was very… disturbing."
Understanding blue eyes met Torrin's confused gray one's. Luna wasn't about to let Torrin dismiss the entire thing as fantasy.
"You are lucky. The spirit of someone who loves you came to you. What did she say? Was she your mother? You should feel honored. Such visits seldom occur. My parents haven't ever visited me.” Although, Luna reflected, she wasn't sure if that was a good or bad thing.
"You think that ghost was my mother?" Torrin frowned. "She was an annoying Southerner, with a smart mouth and quick feet. There's no way my mother would fall for that kind of person." Her frowned deepened. Was she really her Muanya? She shuddered as her mind pictured her mother being intimate with a woman like that. As she rubbed her aching head, she said, "I think it was just the ghost of someone trapped here. She asked me to come back in the spring and dig up her bones. She wants to be buried somewhere warm and with horses."
Rubbing her head led to pinching the bridge of her nose. Too many things going on here for me. Letting out a sigh, she decided first things first. She needed to concentrate on getting Luna to the Queen's City. Then she could worry about the requests of a ghost.
Seeing that the other woman didn't want to hear any more comments, Luna held her tongue and simply slung her travel pack over her shoulders and said, "We should go. We can't be stuck in the pass at night. It's a good way to die from exposure.”
After checking to make sure the fire was out and glancing about once more to make sure the old Priestess wasn't just hiding somewhere, Luna waited patiently for Torrin to finish packing. Finally, after some thought, she blurted out, "If the ghost asked something of you, you should try to do it. Mezzarna often told me about stories of the ghosts of the dead, coming back to ask their children to right a wrong. I grew up with those stories.”
"Yeah, it would suck to be a Southerner trapped in this cold for an eternity. If Khelin hasn't taken control of the Pass by spring, I'll do my best to come back and honor her wish,” Torrin replied distractedly as she packed. “But who knows where I'll be when that time comes around. I can't go back to the Hawks until they are done with Khelin. I don't fancy being strung up for helping you."
Luna bit back her reply. It was on her lips to tell the dark-haired mercenary that she could stay with her, in the Queen's City. The suggestion died stillborn, though, as Luna reminded herself again that Torrin was only a mercenary, just in it for the treasure. Instead, she let Torrin finish her packing and looked out of the abbey window, studying the snow-blanked landscape they would have to travel today.
When Torrin was ready to go, they went outside and strapped on the snowshoes. Then, once again, they set off across the snow-covered trail.
While crossing the frozen terrain, Torrin started up her mental cursing at all that was cold and snowy as she followed Luna's path. For once, though, she was happy her hair had grown long enough to cover her freezing neck. Unconsciously, she whistled a tune as they traveled across what looked to her a bleak, washed out landscape. Soon she zoned out as she hummed, lifting one leg after another in and out of the snow, and watching Luna's ass move in front of her.
Every so often the Ranger glanced over her shoulder at the humming woman, who would give her a strange stare and a ghost of a smile. Wondering about the weird look on Torrin's face helped distract Luna from the cold. It was worse than she had expected. The wind howled up through the Pass, right into their faces, hurling snow at them. The few trees around them, small, stunted things, twisted by the endless wind provided little protection. On either side, the towering cliffs of the mountains rose into the sky, offering little cover. Near noon, she managed to find shelter in a chiseled out niche in one of the steep, cliff sides.
"Here.” Hands shaking with cold, Luna offered Torrin a piece of their dried meat. “Do we have anything else to eat?"
Torrin took the meat, with her own shaking fingers, "Not really, it's dried meat or meat that's dried. Well, maybe some dried up vegetables." Rubbing her frozen hands on her face, she tried to get her jaws unstuck so she could actually chew the meat.
"Great." Luna chattered, trying to stop shivering enough to chew her piece properly. "It's a little brisk out," she commented, forcing a smile as she tried to rip another piece of the frozen meat apart.
"A little brisk? I'm a walking icicle! Actually, I take that back. I think icicles are warmer than I'm feeling right now." She would have rolled her eyes but she was afraid they'd freeze mid roll.
"How much farther until we're out of this?"
Luna squeezed her eyes shut tight as a gust of wind made it into their somewhat protected hollow. When it had passed, she cautiously opened both eyes and finished chewing. "You want the truth or something to make you happy?"
Torrin just looked back at her with expectant eyes.
“Before nightfall. If we're lucky." If they weren't, Khelin would be thanking the night for their frozen corpses. "We really need to get going." She took another bite, leaving the meat in her mouth to try to warm it a bit before she tried chewing on it.
Torrin nodded tiredly and tried to chew her last piece of jerky faster. Swallowing, she said, "You know, dried deer meat kind of grows on you after you eat it for a few days in a row." She began humming a new song, preparing herself to go back into the bitter cold.
"Careful, you'll start to sound like a Northerner," Luna said with a smile. Then, bracing herself for the relentless wind, she started back to the Pass path. Breaking trail, she pushed as fast as she dared, glancing over her shoulder often to make certain that Torrin was keeping up. The dark-haired woman had quickly gotten used to her snow shoes, proving there was at least some northern blood flowing in her veins.
The Assassin watched the old woman struggle down the snowy path. The same path her prey had gone up. Gliding in and out of the thick shadows of the trees, she approached the woman. "Excuse me, old mother." Black eyes glinted with amusement as the woman stopped, clearly startled by her sudden appearance.
The Priestess leaned on her staff, squinting at the dark-eyed woman who had just appeared in front of her. Recognition dawned in her watery blue eyes. "You." The word was almost a curse as the Priestess straightened, her grip on the staff tightening.
The Assassin laughed. "No need for violence. I merely wanted to ask a question."
She held out both of her hands so the woman could see that she was unarmed. She snickered to herself knowing that it didn't mean anything. She was capable of being lethal without weapons.
"I was wondering if you had seen two women traveling together?"
"Your dark mistress has no business in these northern lands," the Priestess spat, her old wrinkled face twisting into a sneer at the young woman.
It wasn't clear to the Assassin whether she was speaking of Khelin or of the Mistress of Shadows.
"Darkness has a right to be everywhere. How else would you know what was light?" the assassin responded. "However, I'm sensing you don't want to answer my simple question. Perhaps I need to give you more incentive." She disappeared into a shadow, coming out behind the old woman, dagger in hand.
The old Priestess turned around slowly and lifted her chin defiantly. "I will never help you or the one you served. Go back to them groveling on your belly, serpent."
"I love you priestesses. You're all so full of righteousness. Humans can be serpents, too, you know. They are just better at hiding it. I'm just more honest than they are." She settled the poisoned blade softly on the skin.
The old woman opened her mouth to say something else, then paused. Blue eyes narrowed slightly as she stared hard into the eyes of the Assassin. With a light chortling laugh, she shook her head.
“All right," the priestess muttered, almost to herself. Then, looking at the Assassin again with a smile, she said, "They were in the Abbey last night. I spent part of the night sharing a campfire with them. I suspect they've gone over the Pass by now."
The Assassin stopped surprised, her eyes narrowed as she looked for the signs of a lie. She pulled the dagger away, feeling unsettled and unsure. Just for a moment, she wanted to kill the old woman anyway. But decided there was no point in killing a favored one of a Goddess. The Gods were funny about losing their chosen ones for no reason.
The Priestess smirked, turning her back to the Assassin and walked down the path, heading toward Castle Abnoa. "Oh, and one last thing, Assassin," the priestess called back as she reached a bend in the path. "You're going to die." With a smile the Priestess continued on her way.
The Assassin chuckled at her boldness. "We're all going to die, old mother. Especially you, if you insist on going down that pathway. There's a nest of serpents waiting to eat you at the end." And she disappeared from view, sliding in and out of the shadows up the mountain trail.
As she had thought, the wind didn't let up. Throughout the long hours heading down the other side of the Pass, it harassed them, trying to bleed the heat from them. In the northern winter, warmth was life. Luna was colder than she had ever believed she could be, and still be alive, by the time she and Torrin staggered into the grove of trees at the bottom of the Pass. Only in the shelter of the large pines did the wind abate.
Torrin was fairly certain that when she had gotten up in the morning she had toes and feet. She leaned up against a tree panting and shivering, "Oh, Goddess that was something I don't want to do again anytime soon. I don't remember being so cold."
“We have to start a fire before night falls,” Luna managed to say through chattering teeth, fumbling with twigs and half buried wood in the snow. “Otherwise, we'll freeze.”
Staring around her, Torrin wondered if there was shelter to be found. "Okay. I don't suppose there's another abbey to be found around here?" she asked hopefully.
Teeth chattering, Luna simply glanced at her, raising an eyebrow. Then she bent back to trying to pile twigs together with hands that were shaking. The light was starting to rapidly leave as the sun started to set behind the mountains, casting them into the colder shadows.
Torrin sighed and then leaped upwards, snagging the tree branch above her. Using her body weight, the branch bent and then snapped, sending her back down to the snow covered in pine needles. "We need a few good sized ones to help block the wind and snow." Not looking at Luna she continued, "I'm afraid you may have to snuggle with a lowly Merc to keep warm tonight." Leaping back up, she struggled with another branch, trying to convince it to leave the tree
Luna gave up on starting a fire and helped Torrin pull down a few more pine boughs. It wasn't much of a shelter, but the small lean to would block out most of the wind and help keep them warm. Ignoring the other woman's words, Luna crawled inside; it was going to be a tight fit. Squeezing to one side she made enough room for Torrin. Still shivering, she clumsily undid her travel pack, spreading out the bedroll so that they had something between them and the snow covered ground.
Torrin shoved her pack inside then attempted to find some dead fall to use for a small fire. After a few moments of freezing, she gave up and crawled inside. Looking around the cramped space she remarked, "Cozy isn't it." Shivering, she unpacked her bedroll.
"Home, sweet home," Luna agreed, helping to pull the second bedroll out. Wrapping it around them, they managed to block out most of the cold. By this time of their journey, they were well beyond any sense of privacy, and Luna gratefully leaned against the other woman, soaking up the warmth.
"I've never done the Pass in winter." Still shaking, she tried to move closer to Torrin. "It's colder now than hanging off the walls at Abnoa."
Torrin laughed. "Yes, this is much colder than being on the walls of Abnoa. Although, I'd have to say it's causing almost the same amount of adrenaline. We have to be insane. Who in their right mind would try this pass in the winter?"
Luna smiled, with both of them wrapped up together and the lean-to blocking the wind, she was actually getting warmer. "That pass will buy us time. Even if Khelin attempted it, her army would never survive."
Wincing as her limbs started to warm up, Torrin replied, "I hope so. Khelin is insane enough to try it, but I think if she did, her troops would desert her." Grimacing, she tried to stretch out her toes and exclaimed, "Oh there they are! I was afraid I lost them somewhere in the Pass."
Luna chuckled, nudging the other woman with her shoulder. "Yeah, I know what you mean.”
Tentatively, Torrin put her hands around Luna and burrowed into her warmth.
“I think I left some of my..." Luna missed a beat as cold arms wrapped around her. "Oph! You're freezing!" The warrior didn't try to move away though. Instead, she wrapped her arms around Torrin as well. For the warmth, she told herself.
Torrin smiled sheepishly. "Yeah, sorry. But I'm not sorry enough to move my hands. You're a big, bad, stoic northern-type warrior, I'm sure you'll deal with it." She gave a yawn. "I've been gone too long. There's no more northern ice in my blood. I think the South has melted it all out of me."
Luna was silent for a second, tentatively resting her cheek against Torrin's head. "It's harder to melt out than you think." Letting out a sigh, she relaxed into their position, giving into a yawn of her own. "We should get some rest."
"Yeah. Tomorrow's another day filled with more cold and snow." Torrin yawned again. Loath to let go of Luna, she eventually did, lying back with a small shiver. "What's tomorrow's plan?"
Immediately missing the other woman's warmth, Luna lay down as close to Torrin as she could manage so that they could share body heat. "We should be able to pick up the Winderling, and follow it all the way to the Queen's City. It's probably frozen solid by now."
In the summer time, the Wave Dancers always had ships going up and down the Winderling, bringing supplies to the Ellris pass for trade with Castle Abnoa.
"Mmmm, okay. Sounds cold and wet …should be a blast." Torrin closed a small gap by pressing her front to Luna's back and smiled at the warmth. Fiddling with Luna's long hair that she was practically inhaling, she asked, "Isn't it a pain to fight with such long hair? I could never understand why you keep it that way."
"Mark of honor. The longer the war braid, the longer you've been a warrior." Her own braids had been in complete disarray since the defeat at the Castle. She considered trying to redo them, but decided to wait until they reached someplace a bit warmer. "Besides, it keeps the base of your neck warm," Luna added with a grin. " I notice that yours isn't that short now either."
Torrin mumbled something about ‘when we get there' and snuggled closer to the warrior. Luna grinned to herself and wondered what Torrin would look like in braids.
With that last thought, the long bitter cold day of marching finally caught up with her. Warm and ensconced in bedrolls she followed Torrin into sleep.
Luna felt good. The night of full sleep after a hard day of exercise had invigorated the blonde warrior. The wound in her side was healing quickly; she was well on the way to mending completely. Although, she didn't think she'd be any good in a fight just yet. To top it off, the weather had turned out to be spectacular that morning, a bright sunny day that was even warm.
They followed the frozen Winderling River that wound back and forth across the northern landscape, every step taking them closer to the Queen's City. Soon Luna would be able to warn the other clans of what had happened and aid them in planning to stop Khelin. The Northern Warrior was dearly looking forward to stopping Khelin's army in their tracks come springtime.
Torrin couldn't believe it when the next day turned out to be sunny and clear. She winced at the brightness. It was so intense. They trudged along following the frozen river and for the first time in days, Torrin was actually too warm. With each step they took, a blossom of dread slowly grew in her chest. Looking around furtively, she couldn't figure out why she felt that way. She hurried to keep up with the long-strided Ranger.
The Assassin grinned. Oh, it had been a good hunt and she sensed there was more fun to be had with these two. They would fight her until the bitter end. Her heartbeat quickened in anticipation. She watched them struggle along in the snow, her black eyes taking them in, the tall Northerner with her long blonde hair and the shorter, Southern woman. The blonde would have been her first target, but the memories from her Sister clearly showed her that the other should not be ignored. Besides, she was familiar Luna. Her mistress was obsessed with the Northerner. After disposing of the Southerner, she'd bring the blonde back - barely alive. She would be rewarded greatly for that gesture.
Not use to the quiet of the North the Assassin didn't notice when the wildlife went still and silent in her presence.
Torrin and Luna both paused, noticing the sudden silence. Luna's hand went to the hilt of her sword, blue eyes scanning the trees that they were passing through trying to spot the source of the disturbance. The smile she had on her face since she had gotten up that morning slipped away.
Torrin's heart sunk. She had been afraid of this since they had left Luna's parents home. “Keep moving,” she whispered. “Don't let her know we know she's there.”
Luna hesitated a moment, her instincts were to attack the threat, not to ignore it. But she knew she wasn't in any condition to fight. She'd tried to swing her sword at the Abbey and had ended up doubled over in pain as she pulled the scabbed-over wound in her side. And she was definitely in no shape to fight if it was another Assassin's assault. She started moving again.
Torrin's mind furiously tried to come up with a plan. After looking around, her heart sunk. The bright sun was creating long deep shadows among the trees. Then she noticed there were no shadows on the frozen crusts of ice they had been following. The trees stood too far away from its banks. “We have to get on the river. When she comes, I want you to keep going and stay on the ice.”
It was the best that she could come up with. She couldn't move as fast as Luna in the snow but she could slow the Assassin down. Maybe even long enough for Luna to reach the Queen's City.
The blue-eyed warrior glanced at her incredulously. "Are you out of your mind? There's no way I'm leaving you to face whatever it is alone!"
"Yes, you are. You hired me to keep you safe and get you to the Queen's City and that's what I'm doing. I'm doing the job you're paying me for!" Torrin hissed back angrily. "I trained in the Temple. I have a better chance of slowing her down than you do."
"You can go jump in the river if you think I'm running away from a fight!" the warrior countered, wincing as she drew her sword from her scabbard.
"Stop. Just stop. Put your sword back and listen to me. You're hurt. Maybe, just maybe, if you were at 100%, you could take on one of the Mistress's Dark Shadows, but you're not. I know this is hard for you, but our best chance is if you go alone. Now. I'll slow her down so you can make it to the Queen's City. I won't take any chances of you going back to Khelin!" Torrin was shocked at her outburst. Even more so since she meant it. She'd pay with her life if she had to. She would not let Luna to fall back into Khelin's hands.
Luna was tormented inside as she struggled with the thought of running away and leaving Torrin to a sure death. It was against all that she had been taught. But Southerner was right. She had to warn the others. And she never wanted to be in Khelin's hands again, either.
"You get away when you can, Torrin. I'll meet you at the Queen's City," she whispered. Even as she said them, Luna didn't believe her own words. Grasping the Mercenary's shoulder with one hand, she squeezed it. More words failed her, and with a sharp nod, the warrior set out at over the ice.
Torrin intently watched her go, knowing it would be the last time she would see the tall and blonde Northern.
The Assassin cocked her head then realized they knew she was there as they scrambled on to the sunny field of ice. She hissed in anger from having her advantage of the shadows taken from her. It didn't matter, she shrugged, they would be dead soon. She laughed not bothering to remain quiet. The sound rolled down the small hill, dark and more chilling than the winter landscape. “You're making this so much fun, I'm sad to see it end.” Then she popped in and out of shadows as she stalked her prey.
Torrin could sense the woman coming. She quickly whirled around, nearly slipping on the ice. “I killed your Sister and I'm happy to do the same to you, ” she called out. She struggled out of her pack, throwing it to the bank. Her sword and the snowshoes followed. Pulling the climbing claws from a pocket, she snapped them on her feet, happy that they indeed gave her more security on the ice.
“You were lucky with that kill,” the Assassin shouted back.
“I'm feeling lucky again today,” Torrin sneered as she slowly slipped into the place she went when it was time for battle. She settled her nerves to meet the woman who emerged all in black from the trees.
Torrin didn't move from her ready position. She laughed at the Assassin and taunted her to come out onto the ice with her. “I killed your Sister with her own knife. I'm surprised that the Mistress chose someone so incapable.”
The Assassin's face twisted into snarl of rage as she slid out on the ice, a dagger in each hand. and lunged for Torrin.
The Mercenary danced around the attack, relieved that the spikes on the claws gave her better traction. They slid around each other in a deadly dance, metal claws and poisoned daggers flashing around. Coming close to each other, but never connecting.
The Assassin's cold heart nearly burst at such a fight. It had been so long since she had fought someone so worthy.
Torrin focused on keeping the daggers away from her skin. She needed to draw this out to give Luna a good head start, to keep her ahead of the stalking Assassin. She ducked spinning low under a slice and came up in a solid kick to the woman's stomach. Her face split into a grin of joy as she felt the claws pierce the thin leather armor and drive into the flesh. It turned into fear as her foot got stuck there.
Not missing a beat, the Assassin absorbed the pain, went past it, grabbed the leg and yanked it.
Torrin's head hit the ice hard. Stars swam in front of her eyes.
Sheathing her daggers, the Assassin grabbed the fallen woman in a headlock. “There's more to you than what you present. What kind of Southerner would desert her army to help a Northern dog?” Fumbling with Torrin's tunic, she ripped the shoulder exposing the flesh. “Ah, I knew it. Your fighting style could have only been learned in the temple.” Slowly a finger traced the brand, and then sunk into the branded flesh. The Assassin's eyes rolled up but her grip never weakened.
Torrin fought against the hold, her thoughts fuzzy and thick. She felt her tunic rip and her struggles increased as the pain came. She felt like her memories were being torn from her mind. Screaming, she thrashed around.
“My, aren't you an evil girl.” the Assassin quipped pulling her finger out of the mark. “Does she know? Does she know you're the reason her Sisters are all dead? Maybe I should tell her. You know she hasn't gone that far.” She gave a chuckle.
Torrin screamed again.
Luna hurried through the trees, rushing back to where Torrin and the Assassin were fighting. Her side was in pain, but she pushed herself through it. She'd gone only far enough up the ice to be hidden by the trees when she heard the screams and started her desperate run back. She drew her blade as she got closer and snarled as she moved as fast as she could on her snowshoes. Her long legs ate up the distance and the snow flew around her.
“My dear Luna,” the Assassin shouted. “Khelin misses you dearly. I've been sent to bring you back. However, before that happens, I have an overwhelming urge to tell you about your so-called friend. I'm surprised you trusted your life to a Mercenary that single-handedly was responsible for bringing Abnoa to its knees. Oh, yes. How do you think the Southerners got the gate open? Why, it was our little friend here. Who better than someone who had been in the Castle before? Because of her, all your friends and sisters-in-arms are dead. Yet, you believed in her to get you to safety. How foolish.”
The Assassin's words stopped Luna's frantic run at the edge of the river. Her sword tip trembled as she tried to decipher if the Assassin was lying. Fragments of memories flooded back through her mind, and she was once again back on the battlements of Castle Abnoa.
Watching a small, dark-haired mercenary rush towards the gatehouse, opening the main gate for the flood of Southern warriors. She lowered her sword.
Torrin struggled against the Assassin's grip, trying to look like she was trying to get loose. Instead, her hand found a dagger hidden on her body. Pulling it out, she stabbed it deep into the back of the Assassin's knee. Screaming, the woman in black went down.
Torrin grinned a dark smile. “For stealing my memories, I owe you pain.” With a powerful kick, Torrin snapped the Assassin's head to the right.
Spitting out blood, the fallen woman pulled a dagger out and threw it at Torrin. Torrin laughed and danced out of the way.
“I'm going to gut you,” the Assassin hissed. “Leave your insides decorating these trees. All will know what happens to traitors. The people of the North will spit on you, as will the South's. No one will remember you or give you a proper burial. No one will mourn you.”
Torrin rolled her eyes. “Shut up. All you Assassins do, is run your mouths.”
Mentally deadening the pain in her leg, the Assassin struggled to her feet, blood seeping from the wound.
Torrin could feel blood trickle down her neck and the vision in her left eye was blurry. They circled each other feinting attacks then pulling back at the last minute.
“All alone now. No Northern warrior to save you. How does it feel to be abandoned?”
“I probably feel the same as you. Hurt, tired, and cold and yet, I can't wait to see your blood on the ice,” Torrin growled, launching into a flurry of moves made sloppy from the icy footing. The Assassin easily absorbed the first punch, and then blocked the next two. She returned the attack with sidekick on her wounded leg knowing it would be blocked and spun around, snapping her fist into side of Torrin's head that had cracked on the ice.
Torrin staggered back from the punch desperately trying to track the Assassin's next movements but was having difficulty seeing her.
Grinning a blood-filled smile, the Assassin knew she had won. Swinging low, she kicked the Mercenary's feet out from under her and as Torrin landed heavily on her back, the Assassin leaped on her with her dagger drawn.
Torrin screamed as incredible pain exploded in her hand. She grabbed frantically at the body on top of hers but found only one hand would move. She looked up into black eyes.
The Assassin dipped her head low ignoring the groping hand on her side. She whispered into an ear, “Don't worry, I'm not going to kill your friend. I'm going to take her back to Khelin. I'll leave you to live your last moments envisioning what kind of torture your friend will endure because you failed.” She brushed the hand off of her and stood up.
“TORRIN!” Luna screamed, ripping away from the confusion of her memories and lunging out onto the frozen ice. “NO!” She couldn't move fast enough as she ran to where Torrin lay on the ice and the standing Assassin who turned towards her with a dark smile.
Torrin looked to her left and saw her hand pinned to the ice with the dagger. Already black tendrils of poison were creeping up her hand from where the dagger pierced the skin. Breathing slowly, she reached over and slowly pulled the knife out. She gritted her teeth so hard she was afraid they would break.
She was dead.
She had a small resistance to the poison due to her time in the Temple, but that only slowed its spread. She would still die, but more gradually and in greater pain. She stared at the Assassin's back as she looked down the center of the frozen river, her eyes scanning the ice for something. Mustering all her strength, she stood cradling her wounded hand to her chest. Moving slowly backwards, she tried to stay out of the Assassin's peripheral vision. She desperately hoped the ice was weaker toward the center of the river. Suddenly she was rewarded with a satisfying crack as the ice protested her weight.
The Assassin whirled around surprised that the Southern Mercenary wasn't dead yet.
Torrin lunged to tackle the Assassin and as they both hit the ice, it gave a horrible groan and crumbled away under them. Torrin grinned evilly at the Assassin as they fell through to the freezing water and whispered, “Looks like I'm lucky again.”
Wrapped around each other, they fought sluggishly under the freezing water, both found their strength ebbing away in the cold. Finally, Torrin pulled away from the killer and paddled upward. Breaking through the newly formed ice, she gasped for breath. She clawed at the thin ice only to have the edges break away under her weight. Suddenly, hands grabbed her from behind.
“I thank you for a worthy hunt, but I'm taking you with me,” the Assassin said before dunking them under again.
Twisting and turning, Torrin found hands around her throat trying to choke the precious air out of her lungs. Moving her frozen hands, she pressed her thumbs into black eyes.
The churning water went still. A few bubbles broke the surface and small chunks of ice bobbing up and down. Then, a dark head broke the surface gasping for air, breaking the quietness again.
Torrin struggled to the ice's edge and tried to climb out. Again, she found her numb hands and body weight working against her as the weakened ice crumbled. Spitting water out of her mouth, she tried to stay on the surface of the icy water but found it harder and harder to keep from sinking as the numbing cold bit by bit shut down her body. With a final gasp, Torrin slowly sunk back under the frigid river.
Luna skidded to a stop as close to the widening hole in the ice as she dared. The warm sun had weakened the ice, and all around her it groaned ominously. Quickly she tossed off her pack and her snowshoes followed a split second later. Then, before she could consider what she was doing, the blonde dove into the hole.
The cold water was a sudden shock, causing her entire body to seize up. She'd expected it, though. She'd fallen through the ice with Mezzarna once while they had been out on patrol. But the cold was even worse than she remembered it, and almost immediately her limbs started to go numb.
Forcing her body to move, Luna swam to Torrin's side.
“Hold on!” she yelled, grabbed the Mercenary's shirt and pulled her toward the edge of the ice.
The trick to getting out, her mother had taught her, was to keep your weight distributed as widely as possible on the ice. Kicking her feet, she pulled Torrin upward for her to land on her stomach.
The sun-warmed ice gave away, dumping them back into the freezing water. Focusing all her energy on escaping the river, Luna tried again to shove them up onto the frozen river. Once more the ice broke apart under them. Although, this time it seemed to take longer for the ice to crack.
Torrin had stopped moving and the frigid waters were sapping Luna's strength out of her. She knew she couldn't last much longer. Desperation lent her power and she lunged up onto the ice again.
This time it held.
Beyond shivering herself, she dragged Torrin off the ice toward the trees. She grabbed her discarded pack and tossed it ahead of them. As soon as she had dragged the unmoving Mercenary to it, she began working to save Torrin. She pulled out the bedroll and her spare clothes and set them aside. With shaking hands, she started to undress Torrin.
“Torrin, wake up. Don't you dare leave now!”
She caught sight of the younger woman's hand and winced at the sight of the darkness crawling up it.
Quickly she yanked off her belt, tied it around the young woman's wrist and pulled it as tight as she could make it. Hoping that would slow the poison's spread, she began tugging off Torrin's clothes again. The Mercenary's clothing was frozen solid, and finally, Luna had to use her dagger to slice them off of her. Then, stripping bare herself, she wrapped both of them in the bedroll and spare clothing.
Shivering violently as she tried to warm up Torrin, Luna chattered, “Torrin, don't you dare, don't you dare leave me!” She hugged the other woman close, trying to will her own body heat into the younger woman.
Torrin's body felt like a block of ice and she was still deathly white. Her chest rose and fell slightly, and Luna felt a thin, uncertain pulse.
She was losing her. Luna could feel the body in her arms growing colder despite everything she was doing. Although the belt wrapped around Torrin's arm had slowed the spread, the darkness crawling up it hadn't stopped.
Torrin was back in the sacred room at the Temple of Shadows. Before her the pit of black fire burned. Around the flame's edge, it seemed almost purple. "Will you walk through me? To be blessed by my touch?" a voice spoke from it.
Torrin shivered. She wanted to, she wanted to be worthy of something or someone, but she couldn't walk into that fire. The room became colder and colder. She took a step but then stopped.
"I can't! It's not my path!" she shouted to nothing. Abruptly, the room was gone and she was falling into darkness. It wrapped around her, pulling her downward.
A voice spoke quietly at Luna's side. “You know, I'm sure you'd both enjoy this a lot more if you weren't freezing and she wasn't dying."
Luna jerked, turning to look at the source of that voice. "Who...?"
He gave a little bow, his long black hair flipping back and forth with the movement. "I am Amando, although I doubt you've heard of me being so far North." His black eyes twinkled, "You seem to be in a dire situation and while my elder sister isn't inclined to step in at this moment, a certain Muanya kept pestering me, so here I am, to give aid."
"I'm seeing things," was Luna's first thought. "Never heard of a ghost called Amando, either." Ghosts didn't come out in the daylight, everyone knew that, and the person in front of her looked too solid, too different to be a ghost. Shivering, Luna ducked her head, worriedly trying to tighten the belt around Torrin's wrist. Her body shaking and blue eyes frantic as she tried to think up of a way to help Torrin. Finally, she said something to the figure.
"Okay, Amando what-ever-you-are, if you really can help, help me stop her from dying!"
He frowned and puffed up a bit. "I doubt you've seen a man before either, but lucky you, you not only get to see a man but a God." He made a gesture and suddenly Luna and Torrin were inside a rough hide tent with a small fire. "Ah, much better. You Northerners and your cold brisk lifestyles. Now, for my little one's deadly wound." He crouched over the smaller woman, undoing the belt.
Luna glanced around, startled.
There had been no sense of transition, one minute they had been outside in the cold, the next they had been inside a nicely built hide tent. Slowly the Northerner reached over and picked up her sword. This... thing… was a man?
Her eyes narrowed. It didn't look like one of the monsters the old grandmothers described. "What did you say you were?" The strange person kept examining Torrin's still form without acknowledging her question.
"Such an evil hobby my little sister has. Making evil, sinister things. You know she tried to make my little one here into one of her wicked dark followers. She and Vladlin are always poking their noses where it doesn't belong." He spoke quietly while investigating the wound. Looking up, he frowned darkly at her. "If you want your friend to live, I suggest you put that down and treat me with a little respect."
His eyes crackled with power. "I am doing a favor for someone. I can take it back at any moment."
Blue eyes studied him, then Torrin, then the male one again. Slowly she released her hold on her sword, leaving it on the floor. Whatever this thing was, he was her only hope for helping Torrin. "Can you heal her?"
He snorted, "I'm a God." He leaned back over examining the spreading darkness. Slowly he ran his finger from the top of the blackness down to the open oozing wound in her palm. A foul, black liquid began to trickle out.
His forehead beaded with sweat, and he murmured, "Oh, my sister is pissed at this one."
A sudden wind gusted against the side of the tent, and Luna could swear she almost made out a woman's howl. Feeling completely out of her depth, she stayed where she was, naked except for the bedroll slung over her shoulders and her sword within easy reach. If this God did anything to hurt Torrin, she'd attack. Then they would know if Gods bled.
After a moment he stood up blinking.
"That's all I can do. I've got the poison out but I can't do anymore healing. My sister, she's trying to block me. She's not real happy about two of her Chosen getting killed, or more exactly, that the one who killed them still refuses to serve her. He looked down at the now steadily breathing Mercenary. “Torrin would have been an excellent addition. Good thing my other sister and I have other plans," he said with a wink.
"Enjoy the tent. I'm afraid it will be gone in the morning. I'm sorry there's not more I can do for you, but my power is only so much when I'm away from the plains." With another wink, he disappeared.
Luna stared at the spot he had been in for a long moment, as if expecting him to reappear. When he did no such thing, she reached down and picked up her sword, using it to prod through the space where he had just been. Only when her blade touched nothing did she moved forward to kneel by Torrin's side. The other woman had more color to her now than she had before, and the blackness that had spread throughout her hand was gone. With a sigh of thanks to the Moon Goddess, Luna pulled the Mercenary closer to the fire. Then, wrapping the bedroll around them both again, she held her as the wind howled outside.
Torrin struggled in the darkness. She couldn't breath; the water was choking her trying to drag her down. With a scream she tried to sit up, then collapsed, too weak to hold her head up. Her eyes stared at the sky noticing it looked kind of brown and furry.
"Why is the sky brown and furry?" she croaked out.
"Because we're in a tent," Luna whispered, her mouth close to Torrin's ear. The fire had died down to a low bank of coals during the last few hours. Despite her exhaustion, Luna hadn't been able to do more than nod off for a few minutes at a time, her mind whirling with questions and implications.
"Oh." She coughed. "You had a tent with you this whole time and we didn't use it?" she asked, befuddled.
"No." The bedroll shifted as Luna pulled a small bottle of water free from her pack and held it to Torrin's lips for her to drink. Only when she had finished taking a sip did the Northerner continue.
"Amando made it." There was a slight pause. "I think."
"The Horse God? He's a little far from home. I wonder why he helped." She frowned. "Um, am I dead? If I am please feel free to lie to me. I was trying to be brave about the dying thing but I would rather not be dead." Torrin's thoughts were very disjointed; she couldn't seem to place what happened other than being cold and trapped in water.
Luna chuckled, wrapping them both in the warm bedroll. "You aren't dead. Go back to sleep." With a sigh, the blonde leaned her forehead against Torrin's shoulder, shaking her head. "We might as well stay here the night."
"Okay. But we won, right?" she asked trying to turn and look at Luna. "No more Assassins waiting out there to kill us?”
Luna nodded. "She's dead. We don't have to worry about her anymore." As for other Assassins, that question Luna couldn't answer. She didn't know how many of them Khelin kept around.
"Good." Torrin gave a weak smile. "I was afraid I wouldn't be enough of a deterrent and that she'd still get you. I was afraid I'd fail, and she'd take you back to Khelin." She yawned slipping away into sleep.
Gently, Luna brushed dark bangs away from Torrin's face, whispering. "Don't you ever do something like that again." In the morning they would have to talk. For now though, they would rest and recover.
The tent disappeared with the first rays of the sun, just as Amando had said. The sudden burst of cold air that accompanied its disappearance caused Luna to stir. Opening her eyes, she yawned. Still sleepy, she tried to burrow closer to the source of warmth next to her. Only when she encountered bare skin did the memories of the previous day flood back and she hastily started to try to extricate herself. It wasn't easy; the two of them had formed a human puzzle of sorts during the night, with the bedding wrapped all around them.
Torrin gave a low groan, and tried to open an eye as she felt someone moving. Her throat felt raw, and parts of her body throbbed painfully. Finally, getting an eye open she looked around trying to get the other open. She was slightly worried when her vision remained slightly blurry in her left eye.
Struggling with the blankets, the Mercenary sat up. As she placed weight on her wounded hand, she gave a cry of pain and crumpled back down to the bedroll.
Luna immediately stopped trying to escape and wrapped her arms around the other woman.
"Careful. I don't think it could completely heal. The poison is out though." Gently she cradled Torrin's injured hand, checking the bandages she'd wrapped it in last night before sleep had claimed her.
Torrin gave a whimper, "I feel like I've been dropped off a tall, rocky mountain peak." Her thoughts started to click back together giving her a view of what had happened yesterday. "Oh." She snatched her hand back giving a sob of relief at not seeing the black snaking tendrils of poison. "I don't understand. Nobody survives the poison. Its lethal." The hole in her hand still looked nasty, but it would probably heal well enough to give her a full range of motion.
Luna shrugged, "Hold out your hand." Taking out one of her spare shirts she shredded it to make more bandages. They certainly were going through a lot of these on the trip.
With just as much gentleness as before, she started to wrap the injury, keeping her attention focused on that job. "You opened the gate at Abnoa." It wasn't a question. It was a statement of fact. Not looking up, Luna continued to work on Torrin's hand.
Torrin blushed, swallowed hard and tried to take her hand back. "I can do that." Her eyes darted around, she felt trapped. Goddess, how could she have forgotten that part of the nightmare?
Ignoring her request, Luna looked at the wound, frowning at the ugly look of it. The warrior did her best not to put too much pressure on it. "Were you paid a lot?" she said as she carefully covered the hand with another bandage.
Torrin could feel her heart speed up and her gut churned. She licked dry lips. "I, we... Rya's Hawks are the best. So yes, we were paid a lot. I...,” she trailed off looking at her other hand that was playing with a loose thread on the bedroll.
The warrior's lips twitched. Tying off the bandage, she let go of Torrin's hand. Still not meeting those gray eyes, she asked the question that had haunted her all night.
“Was it worth it?"
The Mercenary cleared her throat and then opened her mouth, then closed it again. Finally she blew out a breath. "The Assassin didn't lie. I opened the gate. I'm to blame that your friends are dead." She paused, thinking back to her meeting with the ghost in the Abbey and allegations.
Luna finally looked up, her face emotionless. Blue eyes gone dark with emotion met Torrin's. "You didn't answer my question. Was it worth it?"
Torrin jerked back to the present and exclaimed, "It was a job! My job is war. And bad, evil things happen in war. Was it worth it?” She pushed back her uncut hair. “ It seemed like it when we got ready. It seemed like it when we were fighting, but after it was over...” She cleared her throat looking away. Torrin wasn't use to feeling remorse, and she hated the way it stabbed at her soul. She gritted her teeth, her hands forming fists, and grew angry. She growled, "What do you want me to say? I'm not a good person. I'm a hired killer. People employ me to do the things when they don't want to get their own hands dirty.”
The blonde's mind was full of the images of her Sisters lying dead and dying in the courtyard as the Southerners streamed in through the gate. Because it was a “job.” Luna shook her head to clear the painful memories.
"So, this,” she waved her hands around her, “is just another ‘job' for you? You're just upholding a contract? Well, if it is, I should have let you left me on the wall."
Abruptly she stood up, yanking her clothes free from the pile they'd slept in. Without a word she started to put them on, angrily cursing herself for being a fool.
Torrin stood up, ignoring her dizziness and snarled at Luna, "Of course, it's just another job for me! I don't have the luxury to think of it any other way because I don't belong anywhere! Not in the North. Not in the South. And at the end of my day, if I'm lucky, maybe there's bar maid who wants a thrill for the night, cuz I'm not the girl you make a life with. I'm not the sort that someone would take to meet their mother and their muanya.”
Torrin's head throbbed from her outburst. "I'm not like you, Luna. I don't get the luxury of having my world be so black and white. I don't have an untainted heritage. When this is over, you'll live out your life happily roaming the woods. Maybe settle down with another Ranger and someday you'll go to the Priestess and with her help, you'll have a couple of baby Rangers. So, don't you dare judge me or my life!"
She stood angrily in front of Luna. Goddess, if this woman wasn't a client... she wanted to hit the woman. What did Luna know about Torrin's life and the choices she never had?
Luna gazed at the small Mercenary with cool blue eyes as she finished dressing, yanking her clothes on with more force than necessary. She nearly tossed Torrin off the bedroll as she started to roll it up.
"Then I guess your job is almost over," Luna finally said, grabbing her travel pack and started to put on her snowshoes.
Torrin stiffened. Luna's remark hurt that small part of her that she had so carefully protected. She berated herself. This was why she didn't want to care about people. They should be either a client or an enemy. Stilling her emotions, she put them away. They would only cause her pain. She slid her inner mask on once again.
"Yeah, I guess it is."
She turned looking around until she found her own pack. Swallowing the lump in her throat, she dressed slowly, finding it hard because of her hand. Slinging her pack over her shoulders, she took stock of her body. With a sigh, she admitted she was just about worthless. Thankfully, she was ambidextrous so she could use either hand for her sword, but using her bow and arrows were out of the question.
Torrin's head still ached and she felt slightly feverish, but it was the blurry vision in her left eye that really bothered her. She tenderly felt along her scalp until she found the lump. Wincing, she gently examined it. Torrin hoped that when it healed so would her sight. Sadly, she realized she might be reaching the end of her career; she would be no good as a mercenary if she had limited vision.
She would do this job and then be gone. All that matter was that she would get paid. Her resolved hardened. Luna and the whole damn North could jump off a cliff for all she cared and then, Khelin and the Southern army could follow. She could go back to the South and be warm. Maybe find a tavern somewhere and drink until she lost track of the days or her money was gone.
Money was honest. Money didn't have feelings. Money wouldn't hurt her.
Luna stood off to the side, waiting for the Mercenary to gather her things. She stared out at the once more, frozen river. The spot where Torrin had fallen through with the Assassin had frozen during the night with a clear layer of ice covering it.
Mentally, Luna cursed herself for ever believing she was more than just client for the Mercenary. She was outraged and appalled that the woman had betrayed her former Clan for money and vengeance. Blocking out everything else, the blonde wrapped her anger and despair around herself like a cloak. Without looking back, she angrily set out along the riverbank towards the Queen's City. She stalked through the snow, gritting her teeth against the absurd feelings of sadness that were creeping up on her.
With her mask firmly in place, Torrin followed the trail that Luna made, ignoring Luna's tense posture. Absently, she hummed a tune that was occasionally broken by a cough.
The Windling was as good as its name, snaking back and forth through the countryside north of the mountains. They travel along its banks for the rest of the day, seldom stopping for anything other than a bite to eat. The quiet during those brief stops was strained and deafening. Luna refused to meet Torrin's eyes and as soon as possible, the Northerner would push on. They made good time, the snow wasn't too deep, and the day was warm for winter. The sun was just beginning to set when Luna spoke for the first time since that morning.
Stopping at the side of the river, her breath steaming the air, she pointed towards a dark shape on the ice in the distance. "The Queen's City. We're almost there."
The city itself was built upon an island in the middle of the Winderling. In the summer, boats would cross to either bank, upstream to the mountains or downstream to the ocean. In the winter, large wooden sleds pulled by mules would bring supplies and people across the ice. Even from where they were, they could see the huge, soaring gray towers of the Queen's Palace.
Luna smiled at the sight. Forgetting her anger for a moment, she turned toward Torrin to see her reaction. Belatedly she remembered her ire, and quickly turned away, picking up the pace once again through the snow.
Torrin said nothing. All that she was capable of was putting one foot in front of the other. Her head felt like it was stuffed with wool, and her lungs felt heavy, plus it was hard for her to breath. She blinked at the towers, seeing them but not caring. Looking back at the Ranger, she realized Luna had moved on again. Coughing, she spit a wad of phlegm into the snow and trudged after the quickly striding figure. She thought, before her thoughts began to wander even more, 'Note to self. Falling in a frozen river… bad.'
Luna had gone a dozen steps before she realized Torrin wasn't following closely behind her anymore. Annoyed, she turned around to call back to her, only to pause as she watched the shorter woman staggering with her every step. With a longing look to the gray towers in the distance and every fiber of her being wanting to push on until they reached the city walls, she sighed and headed back toward the other woman.
"We should camp here tonight," Luna announced.
Torrin blinked trying to understand what Luna was saying. She shook her head. She replied neutrally, " No. I wouldn't want you to spend any more time with a murderer than you need to. We should keep going. We're almost there, anyway." She started to walk in the direction Luna had come from.
Luna's lips thinned at her words and with a snort, she turned and continued her rapid pace again. "Fine. Just keep up, will ya?"
Torrin grunted a “yeah, sure” and struggled to follow Luna's quickened gait.
There were four of them waiting for them.
They must have been hiding there all day for an unlucky traveler to come across them on the way to the Queen's City. Luna only had time to let out a yell of warning as the figures erupted from the trees on either side of the path that they had been following for the past hour.
Luna's sword was in her hand before she knew she'd drawn it, and the first thief's neck blossomed open as Luna swung. The second thief was nowhere as foolhardy as the first one and feinted at Luna with a wicked looking set of daggers.
Torrin's head snapped up and let her pack slid off her shoulders. Drawing on all her remaining energy, she drew her sword. "Oh, sure. Now that you're in a bit of trouble, you need me."
"Behind you!" Luna yelled, ducking under a swing from the woman she was facing, while blocking a thrust by one of the others.
Torrin tried to spin around to get at her attacker but she over rotated and fell down just as her attackers sword sliced the air where her head had been. Grunting, she lifted a snowshoe and planted it in the bandit's midsection. "By the Mistress! Look what you've done. Now I look like a incompetent newbie in front of a client," she shouted shoving the woman back into the snow.
"I don't think they really care!" Luna shouted back, ducking another swing, and impaling another bandit on her sword. There were more of them emerging from the trees, and Luna's heart dropped as she realized how out numbered the two of them were.
As thieves went, these were fairly well trained. Luna had to give them that. They were still far below either her or Torrin's ability with a weapon. On a good day, Torrin and Luna could have driven them off easily.
This was, unfortunately, not a good day.
Luna barely ducked another slice at her head, wincing as she pulled the wound in her side. Fighting in snowshoes wasn't doing her any good either.
Staggering upright, Torrin barely blocked another attack. The woman growled at her. Torrin rolled her eyes and then figuring her head was well padded with wool, she headed-butted the woman, breaking the other woman's nose.
Torrin fumbled for a dagger, closed her bad eye as she let it fly at the woman sneaking up behind Luna. She frowned as it hit the woman in the shoulder and not in the kidney as she had hoped.
Trying to clear her vision that had been covered in red stained snow, she blinked rapidly. Torrin pulled out another dagger and launched it at another bandit. She looked around for her sword. She gave a smile as she noticed her sword gleaming in the snow near her. "Oh, there you are," she spoke cheerily and picked it up. A few of the bandits paused their attack, unsure if they wanted to deal with an insane person.
Torrin laughed twirling her sword and then frowned when she missed grabbing it and it fell back into the snow. "Hold on a second. When I do this right, it looks really cool." One of the thieves decided Torrin had just been lucky with her daggers and rushed her.
Scowling, she pulled her sword out of the snow and growled at the woman coming towards her. "Come on! I haven't got all day.” In the distorted vision from her left eye, she saw another come at her from the side. She tried to block the attack but misjudged. The sword sliced her heavy tunic but, luckily, not reaching her skin. "That's it. I'm running out of clothes!" Torrin howled and tackled the surprised woman.
Luna spun her sword in a deadly arc, slicing down a fourth thief. With a snarl, she flipped her hold on it, driving it backwards into the belly of another who was trying to sneak up behind her. Wrenching it free, she spun to attack the next one, only to find herself and Torrin alone. The last of the thieves had decided to call it a night and were fleeing through the trees, leaving behind the bodies of their fallen.
After taking care of her clothes-shredding thief, Torrin picked up her sword again and looked around. She asked Luna, "Where did they go?"
Luna kicked one of the bodies, sneering at the seven bodies that lay around them. Blood had turned the white snow red, and its smell was heavy on the air. Scavengers would come soon. By morning, little would remain of the bodies.
Sheathing her sword, Luna held out her hand for Torrin to help her up. "They've fled." With the aftermath of the fight, the Warrior's hurt and anger was gone, replaced by a bone deep weariness. "Come on, we're almost there."
Sheathing her sword, Torrin looked around at the bodies. All that red on white. Feeling something wet run down her forehead, Torrin wiped it away. It came away red. She stared at both her hands. The wound in her other hand had reopened and the bandage was stained red. She frowned and just stared at her hands. How many people had she killed with her hands? How much blood was on them? She trembled, her eyes rolling around staring at the bodies and then down at her hands. She doubled over, retching.
Luna hesitated for the space of a heartbeat before placing a hand on Torrin's back. When the Mercenary had finished being sick, the blonde silently handed her the last of their water to wash her mouth out.
"Come on, just a little further." Helping her to stand up, Luna asked Torrin, "Can you walk?"
Torrin nodded disheartened, and handed the water skin back. Picking up a handful of snow she scrubbed her hands, hoping the blood would go away. After a moment, she started to follow Luna.
After her first sideways lurch, Luna gave up letting the younger woman walk on her own. "Okay, let's do it this way." Taking the smaller woman's arm she slid it around her waist. She was too tall for her to sling Torrin's arm over her shoulder.
"Come on, Torrin. Keep moving. When we get to the city, we can get healers to look at you."
Torrin did as Luna directed. Her thoughts were thick and she was weaving in and out of awareness. Blinking her eyes, she looked around, catching blonde hair out of the corner of her eye. She stiffened then tried to move faster. "Come on, Tasha," she urged. "We're going to be late again. I told you to hurry up!" Torrin pulled at the arm around her waist trying to urge Tasha to move faster. "Come on. I know it's fine if you're late, but Quinn will blame me. She always blames me. Last time I let you talk me into staying out late playing I couldn't sit for a week, and you just had to go without supper."
Torrin's steps were starting to slow down more and more.
Luna swallowed, fear blossoming in her chest. This was not a good sign.
"I'm so sorry, Torrin," Luna whispered as she picked up the smaller woman and started to move as fast as she could, her breath coming in harsh grunts. Night would be upon them any moment now, and with it, the plunge of the temperature. Neither of them would survive a night outside in their current condition. The city seemed impossibly distant, the tall towers set against the red sunset, isolated by the ice of the Winderling.
The second time she fell, the moon had risen above the horizon. She had slipped on the ice and both of them went tumbling to the hard, slick surface. The blonde let out a scream of pain as the wound in her side reopened, she could feel the wetness seeping down her body. "Goddess, please," Luna prayed, weeping with pain as she struggled to pick up Torrin once more.
The wind swirled snow around her feet as she mechanically plodded along the road. Time lost all meaning. There was only the snow-covered road a step ahead of her. Nothing else mattered than continuing to move.
"Torrin," she panted, calling the other woman's name to see if she had regain consciousness. The form in her arms was frightfully still.
The third time she fell she couldn't get back to her feet.
Sobbing, Luna grabbed Torrin's jacket by the neck and started to drag her as she slowly crawled across the snow.
The guard patrol found them on the bank of the Winderling; Luna curled around Torrin's still form, trying to shelter them both from the biting cold and wind.
TBC…Return to Main Page