The full moon glared down on the night landscape. Nix winced from the intense light. To her, it was as bright as any daylight hour. She had grown up and spent her whole life in the mines, working in them up until the night of the Exodus. Such work had made her nearly blind until well after the sun had set. She preferred being alone in the thick woods where the trees blocked out the never-ending, open sky.
Sadly, she didn't get much solitude anymore. She was one of the few women in this bewildering new utopia who could work metal; bend it, shape it, and make it take on fantastic forms. Most days, she worked long hours in the smithy where people came by, hour after hour, with jobs and requests. The women only talked to her when they had something they needed done. With upper body muscles overdeveloped from a life spent in hard labor in the mines, the smith knew she was odd to look and behaved differently than the others.
Nix sighed deeply, she should have followed her fellow sisters from the mines. They had traveled even farther north where they had found harsh, rocky hills much like their old home. But, something had told her to stay in this place, so regretfully, she had told them no and remained living uncomfortably with the strangers.
She got that same feeling tonight. She should be sleeping but something kept sleep at bay and told her to venture out into the inky, dark woods that she loved. So here she was, sitting on a boulder watching the moonrise into the sky like a courtly lady making a slow grand entrance to a ball.
Out of the corner of her eye, she caught movement in the night sky. She gulped, it looked as though part of the moon had broken off and was now falling to the earth.
Blue eyes with oversized black pupils watched the shining object streak through the sky. Her body flinched and she cowered as the streaking mass crashed into the nearby ground with a loud boom.
When her massive limbs ceased their trembling, she slowly made her way to where the forest and ground smoked and groaned. Trees were little more than black, standing ash, and she could feel the air grow warmer as she got closer. But since she was use to the great fire of the forge, Nix ignored the increasing heat and made her way to the edge of a smoking crater in the earth.
It wasn't very big, but a brilliant white light came from it making her eyes water in pain.
"Careful!" a voice called out from the other side of the steaming crater.
Nix drew up short at the voice. Squinting and peering across the glow, she asked, "Who's there?"
Instead of answering, the figure near the edge of the crater tried to step closer, but the heat drove her back. "Selene," she finally replied and peered at the strange silvery radiance that was slowly fading at the bottom of the hole.
Nix tried to say something but her throat had gone dry. "M-m-my Lady," she squeaked out.
Nix had never really met their savior, but had seen her plenty of times wandering through the village. She never figured they would ever meet. Selene, she figured, had far more important things to do than talk with a simple, misshapen smith.
Shielding her eyes from the glowing light, Selene tried to see who had ventured upon the crater. "My name is Selene, not 'my Lady'," the blonde teased, "and who are you that is so immune to heat?"
"I-I-I'm sorry, my Lady..." Nix flushed and wanted to kick herself. "I mean, Selene. Sorry, my... Selene." She shook her head. "Agh! Let me crawl under a rock and hide before I die of embarrassment!" she thought.
"Me...I'm... I'm Nix. I work in the smithy. I guess I am more resistant to heat than most, my La... er, Selene."
Selene smiled at the other woman's stuttered apology, dropping her arm as the bright light at the bottom of the crater slowly faded away to a dim glow. "Well met, Nix. What is that?" She kneeled and motioned toward the glowing hunk of rock that lay at the bottom of the crater.
Nix blushed harder at the greeting and then pulled out a thin, gauzy cloth and wrapped it around her face so she could look into the depression. The slight material filtered the light so it wasn't as bright on her oversensitive eyes. Eyes safely covered, she peered over the crater's edge.
"Looks like a glowing rock. I'm going to guess it's important since it came from the moon." She stood up and stared in awe at Selene before she remembered her last thought. " Um, did the Goddess send you any messages about...?" she waved her hand at the smoking hole.
Selene looked up in amazement at Nix. She was easily one of the tallest and most muscular women she had ever seen. "Ah, what?" She shook her head at the sight and then smiled at the smith. "Messages? No, the Goddess has not appeared to me since we began the Exodus."
"Oh..." Nix scratched her head. "So, you want it?" she asked nervously. She shuffled her feet as she spoke, uneasy at being so close to the North's leader.
Blue eyes followed the outline of Nix's muscles as the woman scratched her head. "Want it?" she asked stupidly. "Oh. No. I mean, well, it must be too hot to pick up?"
Nix bent down and placed a hand down into the softly glowing hole. Amazingly, she felt no real heat coming off the rock. With a mental shrug she climbed over the edge and picked it up. "Not really."
"I've never seen a rock glow before," Selene whispered.
Selene found herself holding her breath as the taller woman lifted up the glowing rock. Almost, as if her touch were a signal, the glow ceased leaving a large silvery rock in the smith's hands.
"Oh! By the Goddess, I broke it!" Nix was horrified and looked in shock at the stone in her hands. "Stupid, big, clumsy hands," she muttered to herself in chastisement.
Selene reached out and touched one of her large rough hands. "They aren't stupid. I think you have nice hands."
Nix blushed profusely. "Um, thanks." She quickly became interested in the strange rock. Her eye caught sight of a small crack in the stone and without thinking her fingers began to fiddle with it. "Uh... it was very nice to meet you. But, I think ..."
Suddenly the fissure widened and the stone split open in her hands. Nix wanted to crawl back into the crater. She looked guiltily at Selene. She was, single handily, destroying a gift from the Goddess in front of the most important woman of the North.
"What is that?" Selene asked quietly, stepping closer to the tall woman as the top half of the rock cracked off and fell to the ground. Revealed was a perfectly round, silvery orb still embedded in the remaining half of the rock.
"Huh?" Nix looked down. "A small shiny rock."
Gently Nix reached into the broken half of the stone and picked out the smaller object. It was beautiful with a pure pallor that was unblemished in anyway and she noticed it was much lighter than the surrounding stone.
Carefully the blonde reached out and touched the sphere that Nix held. The orb shimmered with a sparkling silvery glow. "You were right, Nix," Selene said. "It is a message from the Goddess."
"Really?" Nix looked down at the smaller stone. She unwrapped the cloth from around her eyes and squinted at the rock. "How can you tell?"
"Because it looks like the moon," Selene answered simply, tracing a finger along the smooth exterior of the sphere. Everywhere her finger touched, the stone glowed brighter and then dulled as her finger passed by. "We should take it back to the city and show it to Willow."
Nix shrugged her massive shoulders. "Okay. Whatever you think is best."
So, it was on that bright moonlight-filled night that Nix and Selene brought the Orb of the Goddess to the first city of the North where it would become the mark of the Queen of the City.
The cold northern wind blew through the quiet city. A lone figure wandered around the wooden and stonewalls that encircled the town, occasionally pulling the fur cloak tighter around her face and body. Blue eyes stared accusingly at the moon.
"Why?" The question was whispered harshly and hung in the sky like the white plumes of her breath before it disappeared into nothing.
Rhain's thoughts were angry and dark. They had been that way since her Muanya had died. "This is so unfair," she thought. Just as she was starting to earn respect in the eyes of her Muanya, Quinn was so cruelly ripped away. "Quinn should be here," she cried out to the silent moon, "not Luna, not Torrin."
Especially not Torrin! White teeth ground together. Hatred flowed through her body. By the Goddess, how she hated her half-sister. Torrin was the reason that her mothers' relationship fell apart, and why her mother seemed so sad now. As far as Rhain knew, Torrin was the reason Abnoa was now in enemy hands.
"Actually you're more right than you know."
Rhain froze, had she imagined the words? They were spoken so softly that she wasn't sure they were just the sigh of the wind.
A laugh, strong and familiar, came from behind her and Rhain whirled around, her hand going for her sword. Her eyes went wide and she went still. Then in a voice close to a sob, she whispered, "Muanya?"
"Yes, girl. It's me."
"But, you're... I don't understand."
"Yes, I know. But hush now, my time is short."
Trembling, Rhain nodded silently as her eyes desperately took in the form of her Muanya. The Castle wall was barely visible through Quinn's spectral form. The woman standing before her looked as proud as always. Her blonde hair was braided in a thick long braid, armor hung with neat precision off her body, her thick arms hung loosely at her side, yet ready to draw her bow at a moment's notice. She looked exactly like the last time Rhain had seen her on that fateful morning when she left to lead the ambush.
"I knew that girl was going to be trouble the day she was born. With her dark hair, short size and gray eyes. She reeked of betrayal. And that's what she is girl, she's the betrayer!" Quinn exclaimed.
"From a false union shall the betrayer be born. She will exist of two worlds yet belong to none. She will crumble the earth and through her will, Queens be created and destroyed." Rhain quoted words from an old prophecy that was little remembered but for a handful of priestesses of the Goddess.
"Very good, girl."
Rhain puffed up at the praise. "Thank you." She thought over the old prophecy. "But Torrin? She can't be that important."
"What do you know, girl? I was there. I watched her open the gate at Abnoa. I watched her betray the North and could do nothing to stop her. But now, I can work through you to stop her taint from corrupting this place."
Rhain paled, "She... she... she..." Rhain had no words only rage. Finally, she choked out, "She will die."
Quinn smiled darkly. "That's my girl. A time for great things is upon us. Either a Northerner will take the place on the Queen's throne or that Southern bitch, Khelin, will be sitting there. If Torrin has her way, Khelin will be sitting there."
Rhain nodded digesting her Muanya's words. "I promise you, I will take care of Torrin. She will not be allowed to corrupt this place with her evil."
"I know you won't. That's why I came to you. You're the only one I can trust."
Rhain felt tears spring into her eyes as she finally felt worthy of her Muanya's great shadow that the whole family had lived under.
Dinner had been fun. Luna had laughed until she had cried over some of the stories Tyra had told about her daughters. It had felt good to laugh again. Once she had finished eating the warrior had wandered back to her chamber. That is, after checking in on Torrin. Although, there had been little change in the dark-haired woman's condition, Luna had stayed a while and talked softly about her day. After seeing Torrin finally ease her leg thrashing and moans, she went to her own bed and rest.
Up early the next morning, she had breakfast with Tyra and Tasha. Luna spent the rest of the morning finding out exactly how many of her fellow sisters had survived in reaching the Queen's Castle.
Torrin's fever finally broke sometime in the night freeing her from her restless nightmare sleep and she fell back into a deep, true slumber as the early morning light danced across the building tops.
She cracked a gummy eyelid. Torrin's throat felt dry and rough. Weakly, she struggled to sit up. As the covers slipped down, she shivered as cool air touched her skin. Raising an eyebrow at the fact she was naked, she spied a sleep shirt at the end of the bed. Muscles tight from being unused protested as she reached for it. Slipping it over her head, she blinked, noticing the room around her. The first thing that was apparent was that she wasn't in the stockade. She could only assume that they had actually made it to the Queen's City where she half expected to be locked up on sight.
The healer, still wearing a bandage around her arm where Torrin had sliced her, entered in time to see her patient sit up. "Ah, so you've decided to wake up," the older woman said with a grin, quickly crossing the room to check on her patient. "How do you feel?"
Torrin shrank back from the smiling woman. "I feel like Rock Wolf shit. Where am I? Who are you?"
The healer paused, not having expected that reaction.
"You're at the Queen's Castle," called a new voice from the doorway as Luna hesitantly stepped inside. The healer glanced at the Ranger, and then back at her patient, nodded and as she left the room, she whispered to Luna, "I'll let Tyra know that Torrin is awake."
Torrin felt her throat constrict. "Ty-ty? My mother is here?" Waking up was proving to be a tad overwhelming. She felt happy and yet terrified at the news.
Luna had stepped aside to let the healer pass by and then silently moved over to Torrin's side. Uncertain if she was welcome, she took a seat in the nearby chair. Remembering how she'd felt last time she had woken up from being injured, the blonde poured Torrin a mug of water from the pitcher by the bedside. "Here."
Taking a deep breath, Torrin tried to center herself. She looked warily at the blonde woman seated next to her. Luna looked good. Rest had obviously done the woman a world of good. With shaking hands, Torrin took the mug. "Thanks," she whispered before taking a sip.
Her mind raced, now what? Now that they were at the city, Luna had no need for her. A momentary sadness flickered across her face before she pushed it away and softly said, "I don't remember much after my dunk in the river. I guess you didn't need my help after all to get here." It was lame but she was uncomfortable with the way Luna was looking at her.
Luna's eyes slid sideways away from Torrin's face. She'd been staring, and she knew it. Taking a breath, Luna opened her mouth to say something, anything to take away the uncomfortable silence that was growing between them. "Um..."
A commotion came from the other room startling both of them and then Tyra was at the door. Luna stood up, moving out of the way. Feeling completely out of place, she stood awkwardly in the doorway, not sure what to do. Luna's eyes suddenly narrowed as she spotted Rhain enter from the far set of doors. Leaving mother and daughter to themselves, she entered the hallway where Tasha waited behind Tyra and hurried to intercept Rhain and the two guards before they got closer to Torrin.
Tyra's frantic blue eyes searched the room for her daughter's open gray eyes. As she saw that her daughter was indeed awake, she smiled at her and then burst into tears.
Torrin was shocked at the sight of her mother. Tyra looked old, her blonde hair was faded, and she seemed smaller, more fragile. Then, as her mother broke into tears, Torrin felt bile creep up her throat. Her mother must be disgusted with her. She looked down at the mug in her hands so no one could see the tears that glistened in her own eyes.
While fighting her leaking tears, Torrin searched her brain for anything to say as she sensed her mother moving over to her bed. She licked her lips but couldn't bring herself to look up. After a second she croaked out, "I guess I'm kind of a disappointment to you." She felt a warm hand brush over the side of her face, wiping the wet trail away and then a gentle pressure moving her head up.
Tyra blew out a breath at Torrin's words and then gently touched Torrin's cheek again to reassure herself that her little girl was really here. She lifted Torrin's chin up and said softly, "Oh, Torrin, I love you no matter what you've done. I just can't believe you've come back to me."
Torrin's gray eyes searched her mother's and in those deep blue eyes she saw only love and acceptance. The words and touch were too much for her to deal with and she began sobbing. Tyra quickly sat down on the bed and held her little girl as she cried.
The dark-haired woman sobbed even harder as she felt her mother's arms surround her. It had been so long since she had experienced this connection, this sense of family that she had forgotten how it felt. Now, she realized she had been missing it all these lonely years.
Tasha could hardly keep up with her mother once the Healer had delivered the news. Trying to catch her breath from the frantic rush to the healer's room, she stood back from the doorway, still not ready to see Torrin but knowing eventually she owed the woman at least a long overdue apology. Startling her, Luna bolted from the room into the hallway and Tasha grimaced as she saw Rhain burst into the hall with guards originally from Abnoa. Nothing good could happen from this she thought as she quickly followed the long-striding Ranger. Hopefully, they could stop Rhain before her actions exploded into something that could never be set right again.
"Rhain, what is this about?" Luna demanded, blocking the pathway with her large frame.
Rhain stopped, looked up at the tall Ranger and sneered. "You know what this is about. She shouldn't be here. Now that she's awake, we are being put into a dangerous situation."
Tasha frowned at her younger sister. "Rhain, stop this. By the Goddess! She's our sister!" she exclaimed.
Luna's eyes hardened at Rhain's tirade, and she rested her hand on the hilt of her sword. "I don't know what you're talking about, but she is no danger to us."
Rhain's eyes flashed, and her face became an angry mask. Tersely, she spat, "How can you stand up for that piece of filth? I realize that you think she saved your life. But doesn't it seem the least bit odd to you that a Southern Mercenary paid to fight with Khelin's army, a Mercenary, who I might add, brought down the Castle at Abnoa, suddenly found a change of heart and helped you here to the last place we can make a stand against the Southern army?"
Shocked by the outburst, Luna rocked back on her heels. How had Rhain found out about Torrin's part in the fall of Abnoa she wondered? Luna had said nothing to anyone about it so far. Had Torrin talked in her fever?
Rhain continued to rant. " How blind can you people be?" Rhain said harshly. "It's a trick. It's all one big trick. She's a spy. Who better than the bastard daughter of a Southern noble who just happens to be half Northern, to worm her way into our graces while she pulls the same trick she did at Abnoa."
"Get out, Rhain." Luna said with her teeth clenched in sudden anger at the pure hatred that Rhain was spouting. "Torrin is still healing, she can barely sit up."
"Like that matters," Rhain snarled. You saw what she did to the healer's assistant." Her face was red in anger. How stupid could everybody be? Couldn't they understand she was right? Why couldn't they see the danger they were in with that woman here?"
"By the Goddess! She was hallucinating. She had a fever!" Luna retorted defensively. She kept glancing at the two guards who had accompanied Rhain. They were shifting uncomfortably and fingering their weapons. They didn't seem fond of any Southerner at the moment.
Tasha looked pensively at Rhain and then looked apologetically over at Luna. "Rhain actually has a few good points."
Rhain smirked at Luna when it looked like her sister was going to finally agree with her.
Luna scowled and put her hand back on her sword.
Tasha sighed while looking at the two angry women.
"However, Rhain, you know this really isn't a good time to discuss this. Let's not ruin this moment for Mother. You know she's been hoping for this day for nearly 11 years now." She watched Rhain's shoulders drop. "I will assign a guard to watch her, though, but I really do believe she's not going to do anything to harm us."
Luna was poised to defend Torrin again against Rhain's fury, but forced herself to relax at Tasha's words. Whatever it took to get Rhain to leave before someone's blood was shed was fine with her.
Rhain started to gesture for one of the guards to stay.
Tasha held her hand up. "Um, I think someone from the Fire Clan will do nicely. I would prefer that no accidents happen to Torrin before she is well."
Rhain's face started to turn red again. "You are making a terrible mistake," she shouted at Tasha. Then she glared at Luna and stomped back down the hall.
Luna relaxed as the two guards went with Rhain. She frowned and shook her head. "There's going to be trouble with that one," she muttered, running a hand over her face. "Thank you, Tasha."
Tasha let out the breath she was holding and slumped against the nearest available wall. "You know, I think she becomes more and more like my Muanya everyday." After a moment she looked over at Luna and gave her a weak smile. "You do realize that some of the points she made were valid. However I respect your judgment, Luna. But you're sure this isn't a set up? Because, trust me, Torrin has nearly 11 years worth of reasons to hate the North."
Luna hesitated for a second, glancing back toward where Torrin and Tyra were. There was still that small part of her that kept reminding her exactly what role Torrin had played in the fall of Abnoa. Ignoring that voice as best she could, she sighed and shook her head. "I don't think so." The warrior forced a smile at Tasha. "I'll leave you to your reunion." With one last lingering glance toward Torrin's room, Luna departed the hallthrough the same door Rhain had used. She intended to find out how many guards from Abnoa were actually listening to Rhain these days.
"Have you seen Torrin?" Luna asked.
Tasha shook her head as they started up the stairs together, heading toward their meeting.
"Not since this afternoon. You?"
Luna shook her head worriedly.
"No. I tried to find her just a little while ago to see how..."
Her words faltered. Luna wasn't certain why she had tried to find the mercenary after her fever had broke. Perhaps it was just to see if Torrin was getting stronger from her ordeal in the river. That and she felt she still owed the dark-haired woman for saving her from Khelin's cruelty. At least, that's what she was telling herself.
"I'm sure she'll turn up."
Luna's nod was uncertain as she kept glancing down hallways.
Tasha's eyebrow rose as she noticed Luna's preoccupied state. She tried to regain Luna's attention by changing the subject.
"Don't expect too much from this meeting, Luna. We've been trying to decide on what to do ever since Magda showed up three days ago. So far, there's only been arguing and someone's walked out of the meeting every time."
"Don't they realize they have to work together?"
Tasha shrugged at Luna's question as they approached the doors to the library. "They do. But they're just used to their leadership roles. It's familiar and comforting, I guess. Then, of course," she smiled slyly, "Some of them really don't like each other."
Luna snorted, "Well, I'll tell them what I can about Khelin's tactics. Maybe I can get them to understand how much trouble we're in."
Tasha muttered something under her breath that sounded too much like 'don't bet on it' to reassure Luna. Before she could ask anything else they were at the doors to the library, and the four guards stationed outside it, one from each Clan, stepped aside for them to enter.
The library was located inside of a part of the Queen's Castle that was still in daily use. Unlike the rest of the palace, this section didn't smell of decay and rot from the long period of disuse. The library had been closed for the meeting, despite the protests of Wind Walker scholars who had resented being removed from their studies.
It was, Luna thought, one of the most beautiful rooms she had ever seen. The large space was full of warm polished wood. A huge stained glass window, depicting the Exodus in loving detail, dominated the entire southern wall. The true treasures of the room, however, were the books. Shelf after shelf of them, two floors worth, filling the room with their dry, musty smell. They represented more knowledge than Luna had thought could exist. The Wind Walkers, who worshipped this library, had lovingly maintained everything. She had never seen so many manuscripts in her entire life. Abnoa's small library had held only a handful of jealously guarded volumes. Even at Khelin's castle, the library had not been as large as this one.
Here, surrounded by the knowledge of the past, it was somehow fitting that they gather to discuss the future.
In the very center of the room stood a massive oaken round table, its top covered by a tile mosaic depiction of the Queen's City at the height of its power. Chairs had been gathered around it with a place for each Clan leader and their aides.
Luna mentally nodded approval at the set up. The round table insured that no one Clan leader felt ignored or slighted. Things were going to be prickly enough as it was. There hadn't been a truly successful meeting of the four Clans since the assassination of the last Queen years before.
Led by Tasha, Luna made her way to the table, taking a seat that had clearly been left for her.
An uneasy silence dominated the gathering, with wary looks between Clan members. It was obvious they distrusted each other. The Ranger recognized most of the faces at the table. Magda, sitting across from her and next to her eldest daughter, Fyre, was the head of the Fire Clan, well known for her fierce temper and strength in battle. Next to them sat Allysandra, Chief captain among the Wave Dancers, and her partner. Sitting next to her was Tasha of the Earth Clan. On the other side of Luna was Athena who, with her second, her daughter Eve, represented the Wind Walkers.
Magda was the first to break the uneasy silence by leaning forward in her chair and glaring around the table.
"Well, what are we going to do about this mess?"
Allysandra, who lounged in her chair more than sat in it, feigned a disinterested voice as she replied.
"Are you telling me you don't know the answer? I thought you knew everything."
Luna winced at the snide remark. It was obvious that there was bad history between the two.
Tasha did her best to bring things back on track. "No one here knows everything, Allysandra, not even Athena."
The regal blonde head of the Wind Walkers nodded with a small smile in response to the reference to her Clan's attributes.
Magda refused to be placated so easily. She retorted, "If your Rangers had done their job, Tasha, we wouldn't have to worry about it. Instead, they lost Abnoa. I knew it was a mistake trusting you Earth types with holding the key to the Ellris Pass!"
Things went downhill quickly from there.
The remarks soon became vicious and the shouting started to get louder. Luna sat back in her chair, watching the proceedings around her with a sense of detachment. Anger slowly coiled its way through her stomach as the insults flew back and forth.
She scowled at the arguing women. Her sisters had not died for nothing. She had not fought and clawed her way over the Ellris Pass in the middle of winter for nothing. Everything that had happened to her and Torrin for them to get to the Queen's Castle to warn these people of what was coming was not going to be in vain. Not if she could help it.
Pushing back her chair, she wordlessly slipped away from the table. Near the entrance to the library there was an old display of weapons, some of them allegedly from the great Exodus itself. The tall blonde picked up a heavy ax, weighed the heft of the thing in her hands, turned around and stalked back toward the loud voices that had turned into screaming match.
With a grunt, she brought the ax up and over with a vicious swing, slamming the still sharp head down into the center of the tabletop. The tiled mosaic shattered into a thousand pieces, pelting the women sitting around the table. Leaving the blade buried in the wood, Luna released the wooden handle. The silence was sudden and deafening. All their eyes were upon her, all wondering if she had lost her mind.
"Enough! All of you! You whine like babies!"
When the shock lessened, they all had enough grace to look ashamed. Some even muttering apologies as they sat back down.
"Now, Tasha, how many archers do we have?"
The de facto leader of the Earth Clan frowned. To admit that in front of the others would show how weak the Earth tribe was now.
"Luna I don't think..."
Furious blue eyes pinned her to her seat.
"How. Many. Do. We. Have?"
The number hung in the air, revealing exactly how many warriors the Earth tribe had lost at Abnoa, and how little protection was left now.
"Don't you think we should send messenger falcons to every Ranger station telling them to come here?"
Slowly, Tasha nodded. "I'll send the messages tonight."
Luna turned to face the rest of the group, an eyebrow raised. "Now, what are the rest of you doing to help?"
Luna left the ax buried in the center of the table, a reminder to everyone there to behave.
The meeting started to run better after that, not smoothly, but at least there was no more shouting involved. They ended up talking about everything from numbers of warriors, to equipment, reserves, and number of ships available to help out. They discussed it grudgingly, but they discussed it.
Castle servants, hesitant at first, then with growing surprise at the lack of yelling and storming out, came and went with mugs of water and food.
By the time daylight had turned into darkness and the large oil lanterns had been lit, the conversation had turned from what forces they had, to what to do with those forces. Luna had stayed out of most of the conversations up until that point. She had merely listened to the reports from the other Clan leaders on the amount of resources they had to offer. She was certain that everyone had held something back from their expressed totals. Magda had been easy enough to figure out, the Fire Clan leader was obviously holding back some of her warriors as a reserve. Allysandra was a bit harder to decipher, but Luna was fairly convinced she was leaving some of her ships uncounted.
The enigmatic Athena was harder to understand. She revealed nothing behind her cool façade and Luna made a mental note never to play a game of twical with her. Luna was certain she was hiding something, but the blonde couldn't figure out what the Wind Walkers could have in reserve.
"We should hold the City. The Queen's Castle has never fallen to an enemy, not once since it was built," the leader of the Wind Walkers said and basically summing up the general feelings of the Clan council expressed during the past hour of debate.
Luna sat back in her chair, frowning as she saw more than a few heads around the table nod in agreement.
"That's your solution? Hide behind these walls?"
She hadn't realized she'd spoken out loud until Athena arched a sculpted eyebrow in her direction, and imperiously demanded, "You believe you have a better idea, Ranger?"
"If we wait for them, we will lose the North to Khelin and her Southern army."
Magda snorted contemptuously at the idea.
"What are you thinking, girl? No Southerner is ever going to hold the North."
Luna's voice was quiet as she spoke. "Who said she wants to hold the North?"
"What are you implying, Ranger?"
The blonde gave Athena a dangerous look and replied with a steely voice. "First off, my name isn't Ranger. Second, I'm surprised you haven't figured it out. She wants the Orb of the Moon Goddess. Once she has that, she won't have to worry about us at all."
By the uneasy looks going around the table, Luna realized, that possibility had been considered by them, and probably ignored simply because they hadn't wanted to face that risk.
"Look. Khelin is insane, but she's not stupid. She knows it's here. She'll tear this Castle apart, stone by stone to find it.
Magda gave a short bark of a laugh. "Oh? How do you think she'll do that with the Winderling between her and us? Your archers and my warriors can turn any trip across it into a death trap. She'll never get close to us!"
"She won't have to," Luna replied coldly. "If she traps us here long enough, she can starve us out." Luna held up a hand to stop the rebuttal she knew was coming. "But, Khelin won't have the patience to wait that long and she won't have to. The Southerners have weapons none of you have ever seen before. These weapons can hurl large pieces of iron long distances with devastating force. They can easily launch these things across the Winderling."
Luna leaned forward, her blue eyes deadly serious. "All she has to do is get within range and start attacking us. She won't have to cross the river until she's brought the Castle down around our ears. Then she can storm in whenever she wants, take the city, and find the Orb."
There were skeptical glances around the table. Luna rolled her eyes. "Even disregarding that, imagine how much damage her army can do marauding at will across the rest of the North while we are trapped inside these walls?"
That argument carried more weight with them than the previous one did if the increase in voices were a judge Luna noticed. Although privately, she considered it a less compelling one.
"What do you suggest, Luna?" Allysandra asked, her hooded eyes watching the blonde intently.
"We should stop them at the Ellris Pass." Before any of them could raise an objection, Luna hurriedly continued, "We bring everyone up the river by ship, along with our supplies, to the base of the Pass. Then climb it as fast as we can. We use the old abbey as our base, and form our defenses from there. We could hold Khelin at the bottom of the Pass and make her climb up to us."
Magda sat back, an objection dying on her lips as she considered it.
The others were less enthused by the idea, especially Athena, who complained vocally about how that plan stripped the City of its defenders.
Luna sighed, tiredly rubbing a hand across her forehead. It had been a long day, and the meeting showed no sign of ending anytime soon. Which was actually a good thing, she realized in afterthought.
Tasha touched Luna's arm. Leaning in closely, she whispered, "Why don't you go rest? We won't decide anything else tonight. It's a miracle we've actually gone through as much as we have, thanks to you"
Eyeing the debates that were taking place and pleased that they were actual discussions, Luna nodded slowly. Her body was still recovering and more rest was exactly what she needed. Sparing a thought to wonder what Torrin was up to, and if she might be able to track down the mercenary, Luna slipped away from the meeting, leaving the Clan leaders to their deliberations.
Torrin moved slowly, feeling like a toddler again with her hand firmly gripping her mother's arm. She didn't know why she had agreed to go for a walk with her mother. It was cold and she ached all over. But the way her mother's face had lit up made it seem worth it.
Tyra bit her lip and wondered how to start a conversation with her youngest. She had missed out on so many mother-daughter talks over these past years. Her baby was now an adult. Finally she blurted out, "You look so much like your Muanya."
Torrin's eyes went wide and she stopped moving.
Tyra smiled and patted her daughter's hand then lead them over to a crumbling piece of garden wall to sit on. "She would have loved you, no matter where your life has led you, just like I do." Light blue eyes tried to look into dark gray ones to see if the message she was trying to relay was being accepted.
Her dark hair covering her face, Torrin looked away and muttered, "How do you know? I've not led a very respectable life."
"Your Muanya was no Priestess of virtue, either. She did seduce a married woman," Tyra said with a smile.
Torrin's face turned red in embarrassment. She finally asked quietly.
"Why did you...?"
Tyra frowned not expecting the conversation to take this direction.
Torrin scowled at her. "Do you know how many times I wish I had never been born? All because you couldn't keep to your vows!" Anger burned inside her, pushing out the words and questions that had been unanswered all her life.
Tyra sighed with dismay, but knew her angry child deserved an answer. "We both broke our vows. Quinn stopped loving and honoring me, and at the end, we were both unfaithful. However, mysteriously, I became pregnant with you. You may have been unplanned, but you were not unwanted." Tyra smiled somewhat wickedly remembering the night of Torrin's conception. "Having sex in a temple has its consequences, I guess," she laughed.
Forgetting her anger, Torrin turned even redder. "Mother, ewwww."
"I knew that Quinn and I no longer loved each other. However, I knew Quinn would not just let me leave. She didn't want the dishonor it would bring to her image. So, your Muanya and I made plans to escape. But one night, Jinete just left and never came back." Tyra wiped a tear away at the hurtful memory.
Torrin paled and looked at her mother. "Did you say 'Jinete'?"
"Yes. I'm sorry. She patted Torrin's hand. "I guess I never told you your Muanya's name," she apologized. "I knew better while Quinn was alive. And then you disappeared..." She shook her head sadly. "Well, your Muanya's full name was 'Jinete, Third Daughter of the Horse Lord Jin..."
Tyra kept speaking but Torrin's head was spinning with disbelief. She thought back to the encounter at the Pass, " There is no way the ghost at the Abbey could..."
"... Torrin, I don't care what you've done up to this now. I have missed out on so much of your life." Tyra smiled ruefully, "I had all these speeches made up in my head for you: the 'you're turning into a woman talk', the 'dating rules' talk, and the sex talk. I've lost so much of your growing up years. So, from this point on, we start over."
Torrin just nodded at her, trying to process everything. Finally, overwhelmed by all the mixed emotions, she began crying.
There was an unfamiliar guard stationed outside the door to the healer's hall. The short, blunt-faced woman had a no-nonsense look about her that even caused Luna to slow her approach. Then, feeling foolish, the tall blonde continued walking to the door. Nodding to the guard, she stated, "I'm here to see Torrin."
The guard shrugged and said, "Leave your sword with me and then you can go in." Privately, she wondered why the woman inside even needed a protecting guard. She winced, remembering the kick she had taken to her kidneys when Torrin had realized why she was there. As a Fire warrior, she had to respect someone who could get the drop on her like that. She hadn't expected that at all. But Tasha had instructed her to watch out for the woman, so she would.
Luna frowned, but undid her belt and handed her sword and scabbard over to the guard. Feeling naked without its comforting presence, the blonde entered the healer's hall, looking around for a certain dark-haired mercenary. She headed for an open door.
Torrin slowly moved her arms in a series of blocks. She hated feeling weak and useless. Muscles protested as her feet slid into a cat stance, her hands held up in a knife block.
"I didn't know you could dance," Luna said, hoping her attempt humor would defuse some of the awkwardness she had felt earlier with Torrin. Stepping inside, she closed the door behind her, leaving the guard outside in the hallway.
Torrin's eyes widened in startlement and she quickly raised her hands up in defense. For a second, all she saw was a face with the blonde hair and blue eyes. So like every Northerner I've known, but yet very different. She let her hands fall to her side. Being out of it for three days, having the tearful, emotional moment with her mother and then finding a guard at her door, made her feel very vulnerable and since old habits die hard, she retorted sharply, "Of course, I can dance. One never knows what skills might be handy in my trade."
Luna's hopeful smile faltered and died. Searching for something to say besides what she wanted and feared to talk about, the Northerner switched tactics. "You look better. How do you feel?"
Torrin leveled a look at Luna and snapped. "I look like shit. I feel like shit. I have a guard to make sure I don't go off and murder anybody or steal precious northern barbarian treasures. Although my mother says she loves me, she doesn't know that I'm a murder yet so that will probably change. Besides that, I'm great. How the hell are you, Luna?" Torrin knew she needed to stop her harsh words but she felt like she was trapped in this place. She moved to the bed sitting down holding her head in her hands.
The taller woman stiffened at the sudden verbal attack. Blue eyes narrowed angrily. "Considering what you did at Abnoa, I think a single guard isn't too bad. Don't you?" Luna spat out before her tired mind realized could stop the cruel words.
Torrin looked up, stung and hurt by Luna's words. "You agree with them that I need to be guarded like a criminal? she exclaimed hotly. "I saved your life, not once, but I think it was a grand total of three times!" Torrin clenched her fists. 'That's why you don't let yourself care about people' a voice whispered in her head. ''There are no friends or family for mercenaries, only clients.' Hurt was giving way to anger.
Hastily Luna held up a hand to explain what she had just said before Torrin exploded. "Wait, that's not what I meant. It's just that people don't trust you." The blonde mentally cursed, "Goddess, this is the best I can come up with?
Torrin got off the bed glaring at Luna. "What else is new? They've never trusted me. Only maybe this time they have reason. After all, I am a killer. All your sisters are dead because of me, so maybe what you're really saying is, you don't trust me?" Crossing the room she moved until she was planted in front of Luna. Torrin refused to back down from the warning look she was getting from the warrior.
The taller woman stared down at those angry gray eyes, her own blue eyes narrowing in anger. Luna's patience had left her during the war meeting and she snarled, "Why should I trust you, Torrin? It's obvious that you don't trust me either!"
Torrin retorted hotly, "What the do you mean 'I don't trust you'? What's to trust? You offered to pay me to save you, remember? You're just a client to me." Her jaw snapped shut when she realized how that sounded.
Luna stiffened as if she'd just been slapped. "I see," her tone was completely cold, devoid of any emotion, "I'll make certain you get your payment then." Seething, Luna whirled around and stalked towards the door.
Torrin berated herself over the loss of control of her temper as she caught at Luna's cold look. "Luna... wait..." She ran after the Ranger, catching her arm.
"What?" Luna growled, keeping her face towards the door, not wanting to, or able to, deal with the stricken expression on Torrin's face. "Are you going to tell me how much I owe you now?"
Torrin's face hardened into a expressionless mask. "Never mind," she said curtly, "Pay me what you think is fair." She quickly turned away from Luna and went back to lay on her bed.
Luna paused slightly at the doorway and then walked out of the room, angrily snatching her belt and sword back from the startled guard.
The blade sang through the air as Luna blocked a particularly vicious slash at her mid section. Metal clanged off metal and her hand tingled from the force of the impact. With a shove she sent the blade and its wielder back a few steps, earning her some desperately needed breathing room.
"Remind me why I agreed to this?"
Valeria grinned, the expression reminding Luna of a wolf's smile.
"Cuz you were angry?"
Lunging forward, she tried to drive the Fire warrior backwards, only to nearly have her knees cut out from under her. With a grunt she leapt over the attack, slicing downward with her own blade, just to have Valeria spin away easily from the attack.
"Not bad," the shorter, red-haired woman called out, still grinning as she twirled her long sword.
The tall blonde couldn't help but grin back.
After the blow up with Torrin, Luna had abandoned any attempt at sleeping. Still seething from the hurtful words, she had stalked down the hallways, finally emerging in one of the castle smaller courtyards that the Fire warriors used for training. Drawing her sword, she'd set about hacking at one of the wooden training posts, trying to vent her anger. The cold night air had helped to lessen it, but not completely. The ranger realized she wasn't alone as Valerie had sauntered towards her, a cocky smile on her face, and twirling her blade. It was all the invitation Luna had needed; it had been far too long since she'd sparred.
"Want to talk about it?" she asked as she swung her sword at Luna.
Luna kicked the woman in the chest, sending her backward and then pressed her attack.
With a grunt, Valeria blocked her swing, then managed to turn Luna's attack against her, forcing the taller woman to defend herself.
" Does it have anything
to do with that Southerner you came here with?"
Blue eyes narrowed sharply and suddenly Valeria found herself forced back into defensive moves.
"She isn't a Southerner," Luna growled, pressing her attacks.
Valerie had no time for a verbal response as she instead ducked to the side, letting Luna's slash go wide, and kicked the blonde in the side to get some breathing room of her own. The kick landed on the tall woman's still healing side and she gasped in pain, nearly doubling over.
The spar instantly forgotten, Valerie lowered her sword.
"You all right?"
Luna nodded, with a grimace, and stumbled to one of the low wooden benches.
The Fire warrior sat down besides her, silently offering her a water skin which the blonde gladly sipped from. Finally, she leaned back, closing her eyes and let her head lean against the solid stonewall behind her.
Valeria laughed. "I knew it was about a woman, it's always about a woman."
Patting Luna on the shoulder, the other woman levered herself back to her feet.
"Let me know if you want to spar again. You're pretty good...for a Ranger."
Luna snorted at Valerie's words, taking a swipe at her, which the Fire warrior easily dodged.
"Get some rest, Luna."
Then she was gone, leaving Luna alone in the courtyard to contemplate how things had gotten so complicated in her life.
Torrin was in such a foul mood now that none of the healer's assistants would come into her room anymore. The only one that was with her was the guard who stood quietly, stoically, at the door. When she left the room, the guard followed her, when she pissed, the guard was standing there attentively, and when she ate, the guard was nearby. It made Torrin feel like a prisoner and increased her surliness. Paranoia blossomed in her head. She fully expected a guard detail, lead by Luna and her sisters, to show up at any moment to drag her away to the stockade.
She passed the time by training with her sword and by working on her hand-to-hand skills. Her mother wanted to spend time with her but she kept excusing herself. Torrin was in no mood to make nice with a woman she hardly knew anymore. Sometimes she just wandered the city streets fully aware of the stares she received by the passer-bys. Some were curious, others, hostile or fearful.
And Luna had never come back to her room.
On one of those lonely, early morning walks, Torrin turned a corner and abruptly pulled up short. Standing in the road was Luna talking with someone. Torrin made a decision, took a deep breath and started to approach her with an apology on the tip of her tongue. But then Torrin saw who Luna was deep in conversation with. Her sister, Rhain.
Her anger returned as well as another unfamiliar emotion. She tasted it, not sure what it was. It couldn't be that she was jealous that Luna would prefer Rhain's company to hers? "How could she?" Torrin wondered. Rhain had gone out of her way the few times they had met, to let Torrin know that the only place she rightfully belonged was in a small, locked cell.
Turning on her heel, her eyes watering, she quickly walked away from the couple, her guard racing to keep up.
That afternoon, as she was going back to her room, she saw Luna walking down the hallway by herself. She quickly caught up with the Ranger.
She tried again. "Um, Luna, I'm..."
Luna stopped and looked at her coldly, "Torrin, I'm really busy at the moment." And she turned on her heel and walked away rapidly. She soon caught up with an approaching Tasha and Rhain.
Torrin slunk into the shadows, frowning at the way Luna laughed at something that Rhain had said. She slowly wandered back to her room.
Then she had stretched until her muscles burned. She had even run up and down a set of stairs while carrying a large rock, but still the anger and hurt had not left her. She plopped down on her bed and stared at the ceiling.
She rubbed her eyes feeling them burn. What in the world was wrong with her? She felt like... like crying and hitting something all at the same time. She wanted to choke her sisters for making Luna happy when she herself couldn't. All I do is hurt people.
Her thoughts were disrupted by a knock at her door. Getting up, she opened the door only to be frozen by Rhain's cold gaze.
Torrin stared into the angry eyes of her sister and shivered, her sister's eyes reminded her so much of Quinn's.
Rhain shut the door and Torrin took a step back. She kept her limbs loose and relaxed just in case Rhain was here to kill her. She wouldn't put it past anyone, let alone, this particular sister.
"I want you to leave."
Torrin frowned. "You what?"
"I want you to leave. I'd rather throw you into a cell but I know how much that would hurt Mother so I want you to leave of your own free will."
"Go eat Rock Wolf shit. I am not leaving here in the middle of winter."
Rhain glared back. "If you don't leave I'll tell everyone that you're the reason their sisters at Abnoa are dead."
Torrin paled and Rhain grinned evilly, "Yes, I know full well that you were the one who opened the gate."
Torrin's mind flinched. The only person who knew that was Luna. She tried to grasp any reason that Luna would tell her sister that.
Rhain's blue eyes narrowed and she smiled wider know Torrin was making the connections she wanted her half-sister to make.
"Luna and I have become quiet close lately with all the planning for war."
Rhain couldn't help but make the next dig. "I think we've even discussed her flight from danger on occasion. Truly remarkable and quite disgusting. I had to comfort her from the memories."
Torrin's eyes narrowed at the admission. "Don't judge me."
"You couldn't even manage the strength of character to save her just because it was the right thing to do. Your black Southern heart obviously over-ruled your Northern half. No, you needed payment like a common whore. The fact that we share blood makes me sick." Rhain stood up and looked down on Torrin. "I know how much your kind depends on money for services rendered. I'll make sure that you are compensated from the treasury. But then, I want you gone."
"You can't kick me out. I want to speak with Luna." Torrin retorted harshly, her hands clenched in a fist.
Rhain laughed. "Don't you get it, sister mine? Luna doesn't have time for a filthy murderer like you now that she's among her own people. You've served your purpose. So now, go."
Torrin stood glaring up at her sister. "Luna's not that cruel. She's not like you. She's kind, fair, and a good person..."
"Exactly. What would someone like that want with someone without honor like you?" Rhain sneered.
Torrin blinked and looked away, her shoulders slumped in agreement. Her sister was right. Why would Luna want to be associated with a Southern mercenary?
Rhain, sensing victory, continued on. "But she wanted to make sure you got paid. That way, there are no debts left hanging between you."
Rhain opened the door again and looked out. A few minutes later a small chest filled with gold was brought in. Rhain grinned in triumph as she quietly shut the door, leaving her sister alone.
Torrin stared at the wooden box as if it was a poisonous suisun. Finally she turned away from it. She felt funny, like she was caught in the middle of a whirling river eddy. Everything around her felt like it was moving at a different speed and she couldn't keep up.
Not knowing how to deal with all the emotions and strangeness surrounding her, she began to pace the room trying to sort out her conflicting feelings. Part of her wanted to find Luna and see if this was what the Ranger really wanted but she knew Luna was still angry with her about their argument and was still ignoring her.
"I'd probably say something else that I would regret," Torrin thought pensively. But the idea of Rhain being with Luna when she could not made her lose her all rational thought. Why would she tell Rhain about the gate? How close had they become?
In a rage she flew around the room destroying the furniture until finally, exhausted, she sat slumped at the foot of the bed and cried. She cried for things she didn't even know she had wanted, she cried until there was nothing left.
Rhain was right. She could not stay here, it was too much like being a child again and having the Abnoa bullies encircle her. She calmly got up and went to her carry pack. She unpacked it, examining everything very carefully. She put the clothes Luna had given her so long ago in a pile on the foot of the bed. She took out her mother's torque and the bag of gold she had received for the fall of Abnoa and placed it on another corner of the bed.
Torrin slowly slid into her black leather trousers and black shirt. Lastly, she slid the thin, scaled armor over her shirt. It reminded her of the black scales of a snake and bile rose in her throat. She looked down at her outfit feeling somewhat like an assassin dressed all in black. She shivered remembering the woman with the black eyes frozen at the bottom of the Winderling.
With quick efficiency, she repacked her pack and strapped her sword to her waist. Checking her various daggers and knives, she smiled at their familiarity. Pausing, she stared at her bow and arrows and after a moment, decided to leave them. They reminded her of the North and what she would never be.
Torrin picked up a parchment and quill and looked around until she had found the bottle of ink that had some how managed to remained unbroken. In a neat, tight script she wrote. "Keep your gold and stick it up your righteous Northern ass." Then she laid it next to the carved chest.
For a moment she stared at the note. By doing this, by refusing payment, she was breaking faith with the only life that she had really known. She wasn't really sure what to do or where to go, but she did know she could not stay in this place. Maybe in the summer, she would try to get back to the Abbey and honor Jinete's request but until then, she would wander around the North and explore the other side of her heritage.
With a sigh, she pulled a small pouch out of her pack, opened it and gave a sniff. Carefully she dumped a small amount of brownish powder into her hand. Stowing the pouch away, she opened the door with a slight smile.
The guard turned, a reddish eyebrow rising in question at Torrin's choice of dress. Then without warning, Torrin raised her hand and blew the powder into the woman's face.
The world quickly went black for the guard and Torrin caught her with a grunt, then pulled her back into the room.
In her black clothes she had no problem leaving the city unseen. She winced at the thought, and for a brief moment, worried for Luna's safety. If she could sneak out so easily, then surely an assassin could sneak in just as easily.
She pushed that worry down. "The mighty warrior obviously doesn't want my help, so let her fellow sisters deal with an assassin if one shows up," she muttered.
Once outside the light from the city, Torrin got out her heavy cloak, wrapped it around her and made then her way into the cold, winter night.
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