Taking a deep breath of the cool morning air, Ariena smiled gently.  A beautiful fall morning was presenting itself in all its glory to a very appreciative audience with the vivid colors and crisp clearness that only autumn brings.  It had been a long, hot summer and the transformation to another season had been a most welcome one for most of the manor's residents. 
Ariena's smile widened at the thought that one of those residents would be home for a visit tomorrow.  Tegwyn was beginning her second year as one of the guards in Lord Rander's group and the blonde couldn't wait to see her friend again as it had been almost six months since the last visit.  Since ... Ariena almost bounced along the path to the fields where the horses were kept, the sun splashed pools of daylight between the trees and seemingly caressed the red gold hair that shone with a vibrant healthiness. 

The cool air wasn't the only thing to lend color to her cheeks as she remembered Tegwyn's last visit. It had been exactly a year since Ariena's fateful plunge into an icy pond and Tegwyn's subsequent rescue, but more importantly it was Ariena's birthday and Tegwyn had surprised the blonde with a picnic.  Since winter still had a firm grip on the countryside, they'd gone to their favorite meeting place - the barn. 

With absent familiarity, Ariena fingered the beautifully tooled belt that Tegwyn had given her that day.  A smile touched her lips as she remembered why the belt was the reason for her current flush... 

"Teg, it's gorgeous!  Did you make this?" Ariena asked, knowing the answer before the dark haired girl answered. 

Obviously a little embarrassed, Tegwyn replied, "Yeah.  I had lots of time with being stuck out on patrol a lot."

Leaning in, the blonde put her arms around her friend and moved to hug her tightly.  "I don't know what to say.  It's beautiful, thank you.  You know I'll treasure it."

Feeling Tegwyn's hesitant arms surround her, Ariena reveled in the warmth and closeness she was feeling and drew back her head, meaning to kiss Tegwyn's cheek in thanks.  That Tegwyn turned her head to see if something was wrong at the same time wasn't planned, nor was Ariena's apparent inability to catch a breath at their closeness. 

The soft lips meeting and the continued pressure, along with Teg's hands roaming her back had certainly not been planned, even if it had been thought of many times in the past.  Even if many dreams, both sleeping and waking, had involved exactly what was happening.  The feelings those dreams invoked paled to almost nothing in comparison to what she was feeling.

The fire burning through the cloth to her skin was almost shocking, the feelings that the exchange tempestuously stirred were something that Ariena had never dreamed would happen to her.  Not in her wildest dreams.  Her mind and body tumbled into a burning sea and she felt surrounded by ... well, Tegwyn.  Everything felt so very, very right.  As if the final piece of the puzzle had slipped from her hands to fall perfectly into place and complete her very soul.

Breaths mingled.

Lips searched.

Hands touched.

Until Ariena's fevered mind and body wasn't able to remember a time when she hadn't had Tegwyn's softness pressing into her own. 

Until the rough straw poking through the weave on the back of her blouse ceased to be noticed. 

Until the afternoon sunlight that had so recently captured her attention with the interesting slices of light cutting through the barn's dust faded into a sea of blue. 

Ari barely noticed the cooler air tickling her skin as her blouse began to move its way up her body.   Her hands, of their own accord, found themselves roaming over the warm body in her arms but Tegwyn's touch on her sensitized skin completely stole her breath away. 

Eyes focused on that spot in the past, Ariena had to allow herself a rueful smile as she realized that her heart was pounding that much faster than it had been before the memory had played out in her mind.  It had been sublime and only promised to be more so until ...  Ariena sighed. 

A shocking wash of noise had crashed down upon them both when a stable boy had entered the barn and dropped the two water pails he'd been carrying onto the stone floor beneath the loft they were in.   It had been enough noise to wake the dead and even enough to break through passion's thrall.

Ariena remembered quickly straightening her clothes, even as she frantically brushed straw from them.  She also remembered keeping her eyes firmly away from an equally flustered Tegwyn, and wavering between embarrassment that they'd almost been caught sharing something that the blonde had only dreamed of and an almost overwhelming desire to jump right back where they'd been.  Instead, they'd broken apart and hadn't been able to be alone together again as Teg had been called back to Lord Rander's estate later that afternoon. 

Not surprisingly, as many times as she had tried, her thoughts of that time had defied description in the poetry and stories that she sometimes wrote down.  Normally able to verbalize anything in her writing, the deep hunger the experience had created was something she simply couldn't find words for.  They never seemed to adequately describe the flames that crawled across her skin, the ache in her body for something she couldn't name and the breathlessness that made her light headed. 

Several scrolls had found themselves starting the normal type of fires after that day, with many starts to poems left unfinished or crossed out. 

It had been nothing like the kisses and increasingly heated exchanges the blonde had shared with Lord Rander's squire before that day, who had returned often to the manor with messages and made his interest in Ariena very well known.  That Brycen had pursued Ariena so ardently had been a constant source of amusement for the rest of the manor's inhabitants.  Bira often teased the blonde mercilessly after the squire had left some trinket or another.

Certain that she'd found the truth in her heart and soul, Ariena had been careful to gently discourage Brycen after that afternoon with Tegwyn.  He had continued to try and court her, of course, but there had been no more kisses or walks in the afternoon.  Flowers he left were distributed to the sick room and trinkets were returned or given to various members of the house. 

The blonde had tried to explain to her earnest suitor that she enjoyed his company and friendship but she despaired in her inability to get him to understand completely and realize she couldn't pursue a relationship with him.  Not when she'd realized the truth of where her heart belonged.  To her chagrin, the handsome, dark eyed squire had continued to try.  It never occurred to her that perhaps Brycen had recognized the truth of Ariena's feelings for Tegwyn a long time before and chose to not accept them.

Tegwyn wasn't one for writing often and the circumstances of patrol didn't leave too much opportunity but Ariena had appreciated her rare efforts with an almost heart stopping enthusiasm.  Only having difficulty in responses when her embarrassment over the situation with Brycen spilled over into her letters. 

There hadn't been any mail in the past few months, but Tegwyn had warned her that might happen when her patrols were moved closer to the Outlands.  It also left Ariena with few chances to send her own letters with the danger of delivery being so great that most mail was held until it could be read in safer locations.  In addition, assuming that Tegwyn probably wouldn't appreciate a trunk full of mail to read after her experiences, she'd written just a few letters since then but had exercised her writing skills in her journal with stories and poetry. 

Startled out of her reverie, Ariena looked up as she recognized Rascal's welcoming neigh and realized that her musings had led her to the fields.  Her birthday present from over a year ago, Rascal was a sleek, beautiful bay who adored his blonde owner like no other.  Completely ignoring most anyone else, he would race to the fence whenever his owner approached.  Now, he waited impatiently as she dug into a pocket for the carrots she had brought to him.

"She's coming home tomorrow," she whispered to Rascal as she brought one hand up to scratch a spot under his forelock where he particularly enjoyed getting attention.  With the other hand, she fed him the carrots she'd retrieved from her pocket and beamed at the feelings that Tegwyn's imminent return inspired as Rascal softly lipped the carrots from her hand. 

When he'd finished, she rubbed his broad head with a hand and then fit her small body between the lengths of the wooden fence.  As usual, Rascal accompanied her to the tree she frequently found herself drawn to when the weather allowed.  Once there, she patted his flank and he moved a short distance away to munch contentedly on a small patch of green grass near the stream. 

After watching him fondly for a few moments, Ariena opened the journal she'd brought with her and found her place.  Letting her fingers trace over the last story she'd written, one she knew Teg would enjoy, she stared out into the distance for a time and then let her feelings put themselves on the paper.

You dominate my dreams, take my dreamscape and make it yours.
You dominate my dreams, suffuse my fantasies with your touch.
You dominate my dreams, light my visions with your fire.

You dominate my desires, claim my heart and make it yours.
You dominate my desires, arch my body with your touch.
You dominate my desires, blaze a path against my skin with your fire.

You dominate my thoughts, demand that I make them completely yours.
You dominate my thoughts, never let me forget your sweet touch.
You dominate my thoughts, sear my skin with lips born of desire's fire.


Tegwyn absently played with a leaf that tickled her cheek and sighed softly as she once more wondered how she would deal with going home in the morning.  Since she'd reached her eighteenth birthday, Teg had been required to move to Lord Rander's guard house and serve two years in the Guard.  Those duties kept her far too busy to have much private time, which was probably best now.  Now that she knew what awaited her.  Six months ago, she thought her dreams had come true and those dreams still invaded her mind, sleeping and waking... 

Feeling the sting of the blush in her cheeks, Tegwyn hesitantly put her own arms around the small body before her.  If her breathing increased and the blush deepened, she didn't notice because of the softness pressed into her.  The adolescent fumbling she'd experienced with some of the guards and stable hands hadn't prepared her for the instant sense of soul blessed wonder just from Ariena being in her arms.

When the blonde pulled back slightly, Teg instantly worried that she'd done something wrong and looked at the flushed face in front of her.  There was a surreal sense of slow motion as her blue eyes dropped to Ariena's full lips and Tegwyn leaned in without much further thought. 

Teg cut off the memories of that day with a savage blow to her senses.  It was too easy to remember how incredibly difficult it had been to control the instant searing flames of desire that had exploded inside her body when their lips had met.  How she'd instantly needed and taken more, that it had been completely willing on both sides had been barely noted.

The months after that had been so very difficult.  There had always been the lonely times when she'd missed Ariena and the others with a surprising strength.  However, sharing feelings that she'd kept hidden so long with an obviously willing Ariena had caused her heart to ache with an almost shattering force afterwards.  It was as if she'd known all along and only been waiting for the time to acknowledge it. 

They had parted with whispered words of shared love and prayers for a quick return.  If the truth were told, the knowledge that the blonde was waiting for her caused feelings inside herself that she had never known before.  She would find herself grinning at the silliest things and was teased mercilessly by the rest of the Guard who knew something was up, just not who had caused the reaction in the Heir.  Tegwyn couldn't recall a time where she'd been so happy, so ... free. 

The truth that she'd been in love with Ariena for a long time was easy to acknowledge now that the blonde had made her own feelings known.  That she'd be able to finally realize a dream she never thought had a chance of coming true was a power that rocked her to the core.

That power, however, had been nothing compared to the intense shock she'd had over the reports they'd gotten from the manor from Cerys' brother who, due to injury, lived permanently in the guard house assigned close to the Guild manor house. 

The letters had told how his best friend Brycen had been courting Ariena since the previous fall and had boasted how the acting head of the manor household would almost certainly be his wife soon.  Tegwyn hadn't believed the reports at first, usually choosing to go for a walk when Cerys had started to read any letters. 

However, the reports continued and Teg had to know, had to believe she hadn't been so very wrong.  One day, she casually asked Ariena about it in a letter.  Ariena's abbreviated but affirmative reply that Brycen had been very interested in her, with no further explanation, had brought rise to a full-blown jealousy that caught the dark haired woman completely by surprise.  She'd immediately planned a leave to return to the manor, which had been approved but couldn't take place for another three months.

Meanwhile, the sparring they had been experiencing with various bandit factions had gotten even deadlier than they'd seen thus far.  After weeks of intense fighting, several members of their patrol had been injured and the remainder had been sent to the Outlands to work with several groups of mercenaries. 

Cerys had brought her brother's latest letter with her and it had been the report from him that Brycen had finally proposed and Ariena had accepted that was the final straw.  That the guardsman who had brought the sack of mail had just spoken to Brycen and the squire had confirmed it had cut a gaping hole in Tegwyn's heart that was impossible to hide. 

In an oddly controlled maelstrom of denial, fury and intense hurt, she had spun on her heel, carefully opened and closed the door and headed off into the darkness.  Only wanting to find a spot that would swallow her whole, she had marched off in a precise step toward the forest until, with a sob, she flung herself at the closest tree.

The redhead had obviously understood what had happened and had followed Tegwyn.  Teg remembered how apologetic and remorseful Cerys had been, so much so that Tegwyn's initial rage and pain had been diffused in an effort to reassure the other guard.  How carefully the other guard had cleaned the fist that Tegwyn had slammed into a tree in her hot anger.

Cerys had spent several hours simply sitting with Teg that night and the next few days had kept them in near constant company as they traveled and tried to stay in one piece against the combined efforts of several roaming bandit groups. 

After one very difficult day of several small skirmishes, they'd ended up alone together in a small hut in the corner of a compound.  Cerys had made the right moves, not pushing or pressuring, until they fell together in a tangle of initial heat and bodies. 

Tegwyn had some previous experience at intimacy, but the juvenile fumbling she'd experienced at various times with some of the younger guards hadn't prepared her for the release that Cerys drew from her with the precision of a master surgeon.

Teg could easily recall just how patient and gentle the redhead had been as Teg cried out her passion in the dark of the night.  Could easily recall the sweat being sipped from her skin as Cerys enthusiastically mapped the tall woman's body with feather light touches of her fingers and lips, nips of her teeth and soft lashes of her tongue. 

That memory firmly in her mind, she allowed herself to relax as she sensed the wiry guard approach.  At times, Cerys could almost ... almost take away the pain that Ariena's loss had caused inside her heart.  Unfortunately, even in the best of times, the ache was still there and would sneak up to weaken her knees and catch her breath at the oddest of moments.

As short a moment in time as it had been, Tegwyn was sure that she'd never experience the sense of belonging and 'rightness', that she'd had that afternoon with Ariena, again.  Never be able to feel the same again, no matter how much she came to care for Cerys and now they were on their way back.   'What am I going to do?'   Unfortunately, nobody could answer that heartfelt plea.

The commanding officer had chosen to send most of their group, including Cerys, back with Tegwyn for a local rotation after months of very tiring fighting in the Outlands against the enemy commonly known as "The Riders."  The nastiest of these bandit groups were using the Outlands as a place to gather and launch attacks that could cause severe problems if allowed to proceed unchecked.  Therefore, Lord Rander and other Lords from surrounding lands had chosen to stake their own claim to the forsaken area and were finally beginning to see the turning point in a long battle. 

Cerys called out a soft greeting and ran a fingertip down Teg's mostly bare, muscled arm, then circled her waist with a warm arm.  Leaning in to nibble on Tegwyn's neck, she breathed, "You smell very good."

Teg smiled.  "Helps when there's somewhere to take a decent bath.  Smart idea, building and keeping up these compounds for us."

Interested in other things besides the state of compounds built to help provide a spot of basic comfort and safety to traveling soldiers, Cerys simply nodded and nipped lightly at the skin available to her. 

Teg tilted her head to the side slightly, allowing the redhead more room but that didn't last long.  Soon, Cerys' warm mouth covered her own and the other woman's tongue insisted upon entry. 

As she allowed herself to be pushed back against a large oak tree, Teg eagerly dueled with Cerys over domination of their conjoined mouths and let her hands glide over the rangy body pressing into hers. 

The other guard moaned as Tegwyn forced a hand between them and cupped a breast, rubbing the nipple between her fingers and creating an obviously welcome friction with the cloth tunic Cerys had on.  Using her other arm to pull the guard closer, Teg slipped her leg between the other woman's and began to press into Cerys with determined effort.

With flames licking at the edge of Cerys' mind, she began to rock herself against the hard muscle provided her; even as she loosened Teg's belt and slipped a hand between the cloth weave and warm, silky skin.

Allowing Tegwyn to support her, she slid her hand down the firm stomach muscles, feeling them tremble slightly at her touch, and quickly dipped her fingers into the silky moistness awaiting her, feeling Tegwyn's sharp intake of breath instantly. 

Her mouth curving into a grin, the redhead redoubled her efforts and Tegwyn matched her move for move. 

Tegwyn drew back slightly and nipped at Cerys' lips.  Then blazed a trail of heat down her jaw and neck before settling against her shoulder and biting gently down on the skin there and suckling.  As she did, she pulled Cerys just that much closer to her and they played out their passion with the quiet forest as their audience.


The moonlight sweeping in through the huge windows bathed the pacing form in an ethereal light.   Soft shimmers highlighted silver hair every time the figure stepped into the light from the shadows but did nothing to ease the anger and frustration that radiated from the tense man.   The dark stone walls, aged with soot in places and covered with intricate tapestries in others, caused an odd echo as his boots went from carpet to floor as he paced.

Laeron studied Lord Rander as he paced, not willing to interrupt his liege when he was in such a mood.   'I can't be recallin' a time when I've seen 'im this angry.' he thought.  'Not that 'e doesn't 'ave reason.' Laeron had not been too thrilled at the idea that he had to give him the latest information on the raids but he recognized that was his job.  He sighed quietly to himself at the memory of the fury the report had caused.

At the sigh, Rander stopped pacing and looked sharply over at his Guard Captain mentally berating himself for getting in such a state.  With a deep sigh of his own, he took a couple of tentative steps towards the Captain.  "I'll be by in the morning to talk with the survivors.  Get another couple of patrols out there, have them range between the outposts and maybe we'll get lucky.  We have to find out where their base is." 

The Captain studied the Lord as he gave his orders and marveled that the only sign of Rander's temper was his right hand which was still clenched tightly in a fist, and had been as he was pacing, making the knuckles stand out in a striking white relief.  He waited for a few moments in case there were other orders and then turned to leave, only to be stopped in his tracks by his Lord's voice, which had acquired an odd note.

"And, get me a runner.  There's something I should've taken care of a long time ago."

With barely a pause at the interesting admission, Laeron replied, "Aye, sir.  Right away." 

Rander watched as Laeron closed the door softly and cursed himself for being angry at Tegwyn's father for dying before his time.  He cursed the agreement he had made with his brother some years before; it had left him as the overseer of both his own and Telryn's land until Tegwyn had finished her duties and was able to take over herself.  'Twice the worry and twice the work,' he muttered and then sighed deeply. 

If only he were sure that his niece would be ready.  It wasn't that she hadn't performed unbelievably in battle.  Actually, she had won several honors and moved up the ranks in record time after proving herself to be a natural leader and phenomenal warrior.  Not that this was a surprise to her trainers, they had been sure that she would excel in her guard duty but even they had been surprised by the poise and skill she had shown in battle.

With a tiny shake of his head, Rander stalked over to the huge stone fireplace and placed a hand against the rough surface.  Leaning heavily against the well worn and soot blackened stone, he stared idly into the flickering light. 

There had been considerable resistance to having an only Heir on such dangerous duty but Telryn had insisted that if anything happened to him that she still must do the duty.  In fact, he had made Rander promise in writing that it would happen.  And now ... Tegwyn was so young to have seen so much.  Done so much.   They had never dreamed that Tegwyn would become so involved in the war with the Riders because of her guard duty.

Rander's wife had tried to warn him that he needed to pull their niece out of the Guard program to get her started on actually running her land but he'd insisted that he keep the promise he'd made with Telryn.  Although, he had made some concessions by having many of the decisions he'd made filtered through her and insisted she comment.  Sometimes, when there was time, he would wait for word from her before taking action and had repeatedly been surprised by his niece's eye for detail and intelligent responses.  Whether it was enough remained to be seen because it was obvious she would need to be ready sooner than anyone had anticipated. 


Leaning against the well kept wooden fence, Tegwyn immersed herself in the deep shadows from the trees and barn, quietly studying the blonde topped figure moving gracefully through a series of feints.  'Gods, how did she learn so fast?' she wondered with not a small bit of chagrin.

Ariena was intently concentrating on the complex series of moves that the Master's friend had been teaching them all, or at least those interested, earlier in the day.  She'd been embarrassed in that lesson when Master Shen had singled her out to show some of the defensive postures; yet had surprised even herself when she was not only able to recreate them exactly but put them in motion to show the effect.  Shen's approval had strengthened her resolve to learn more and that had brought her to the quiet glade so late in the afternoon.

If Teg were going to admit the truth to anyone, which wasn't likely, her heart was breaking again at watching the blonde.  The tall woman watched as Ariena laughed with the two others that had chosen to take more instruction.  It was more than obvious to Tegwyn that the blonde hadn't let their separation hold her back in any part of her life.  Wincing, Tegwyn wondered exactly why that thought still caused her chest to ache quite as much as it did.

Ariena grimaced as a prickle of awareness disrupted her concentration from the move she had been trying to copy from Master Shen. Stepping through the movement with a shake of her head, she noticed him working with another student and was able to surreptitiously glance around, in order to discern the cause of her unease. 

After but moments of searching, her eyes found a patch of living shadow under the trees and her heart picked up its beats as the form coalesced and became Tegwyn.  She could almost see the startling blue eyes against the inky darkness.  Could almost see the quirky grin and she caught her breath for just a moment before deciding to sprint off to see her friend.  It had been so long.

However, in the span of that moment, it was the sight of another figure approaching Tegwyn's back, hardly causing a ripple in her wake of grass, that Ariena's eyes settled on and held her back from moving.

The blonde blinked as she took in Cerys' features as the red headed guard moved through a tiny patch of sunlight, causing the red in the guard's hair to almost flare.  Eyes that Ariena knew were brown had been firmly set upon Tegwyn and a seductive smile shone like a beacon, even with how far Ariena was from the pair.

Someone listening intently might have been able to hear the breaking of a heart that afternoon as Ariena watched Tegwyn's head turn and the caresses the guard languished about Teg's neck and shoulders. 

Someone watching carefully might have seen the blood drain from the blonde's flushed face as she watched the guard lock her lips onto the dark haired girl's ... 'Woman, Ari.  Teg's a woman now,' her addled mind somehow provided helpfully, as the two women melted out of her sight.

Someone waiting for an opportunity such as this might have been a steady presence at Ariena's side, waiting to escort her back to the manor.  Oddly, right where Lord Rander's squire was.

Believing herself unseen, Tegwyn couldn't get her mind off the smile she'd seen on Ariena's face, how the blonde had seemed to light up as the smile took over.  It had been almost as if she had been smiling that wonderfully welcoming smile at her. 

'For me?'  Her heart had tremulously asked before her eyes caught Brycen approaching the blonde and her heart crashed, realizing the bright smile must have been for him. 

Then Cerys had arrived, immediately staking a claim with her hands and lips.

"I can't, Cer.  Not here," Teg breathed out, stilling the other woman's restless hands with her own.

"Afraid someone will catch us?" Cerys queried laughingly, still nibbling on the long length of neck available.

"Please, Cer.  I just can't."  Tegwyn pulled away and turned, immediately striding toward the manor.

Blinking stupidly, Cerys just watched in hurt silence as Tegwyn's long legs ate up the distance to the manor.  She'd never been refused before and they'd certainly been in much more potentially compromising locations when taking their pleasure from each other. 

Trying to understand what had just happened; Cerys exercised a small part of her keen intelligence and walked to the edge of the barn wall.  Peeking around, her dark eyes surveyed the field and immediately noticed Ariena also heading back to the manor with Brycen in close proximity. 

The redhead let out an explosive sigh.  She wanted Teg with a fervor she'd never experienced before and had thought she'd done a better than fair job of making the other woman forget about Ariena.  Unfortunately, obviously her efforts with Tegwyn hadn't been as successful as she'd thought.  The question was, what was she going to do about it. 


"Tegwyn, why aren't you at the main table?"

Dark hair fanned out as Tegwyn turned her head around to look up as the Master of the Bard's Guild spoke to her.  The well lit room had provided no hiding place for her; she'd also realized that it wouldn't hide anything from the extremely perceptive man and proceeded carefully.  "It seemed as if the guard table was the place I should be now, sir," she replied respectfully. 

The man had been nothing but kind to her for her entire life and it didn't matter that since the death of her father she was the lord of the land his guild house rested on, she was going to be respectful. 

"And a finer group of men and women can't be found," the Master replied with a gracious smile for all.  "Still, as the Lord of this land, perhaps we can ask for your presence during dessert?"  He looked around the table again.  "You wouldn't mind sharing her, would you?"

Put on the spot Tegwyn tried not to squirm under the Master's all too keen eyes.  Noting the smiles and nods around her, she quickly agreed to visit the high table for dessert.  Silently, however, she vowed to make sure that she wouldn't put herself in a spot that she'd have to talk to or even see Ariena.


The blonde focus of Tegwyn's troubled mind picked at her meal.  Barely tasting the food she normally relished.  If the truth were told, she would've remained in her room but as acting head of the manor household she really couldn't do that. 

Along with her plunge into the icy pond on her sixteenth birthday, she had also been told, during her recovery, that the Master was officially installing her as the head of the household since he had no intentions of ever marrying again and the manor needed a female touch. 

Even though it was a common enough practice in the land, when a Master of a house lost their husband or wife, to install a son or daughter in an equal position to assist with the running of the household, Ariena wasn't truly a relative and hadn't dreamed to be afforded that honor.  Although nobody else had been surprised, the blonde had been astonished at the time. 

In truth, a baby found in her dead mother's arms by a hunting party and fostered in the Bard's Guild Hall wasn't a normal choice for that position.  Even when a member of the hunting party had been the Master's wife and she had wrapped the child carefully in her own cloak before bringing her home. 

It had always been a source of sadness for Ariena that she didn't remember the Master's wife at all.  The blonde's savior had perished in a landslide the year after finding her but the manor's residents always spoke very highly of the striking woman whose portrait still hung proudly in the Master's study. 

Certainly, as a child, she'd overheard enough of their quiet conversations about how withdrawn the Master had become after his wife's death and how it seemed that only the laughter of the small blonde child had been able to bring him any happiness.

With Ariena's amazing talent for details, stories and story telling, it had turned out to be the best place she could have possibly ended up an orphan.  Truth be told, she'd never actually felt an orphan.  Always inquisitive, always friendly and warm, she'd had no problems finding people who welcomed her and watched after her.

In addition, her bardic talents had been recognized at a very young age and due to those talents and easy access, she was always years ahead of the rest of the trainees who came to the hall.  Never pretentious with her position of favor, nor the accolades she herself won as a Bard, combined with the fact that she was always willing to help out and had an insatiable curiousity, she had quickly risen through the ranks of Bards and learned the day to day operations of a Guild Hall from many different sources.  It was a foregone conclusion for many that she would become the next Bard Master when it became time.

As her hand moved peas from one side of the plate to the other, the blonde's mind went back to the first time she'd seen Teg, when she had been in her ninth year.  How she'd originally thought that the taller girl was a boy and had listened in shock as Tegwyn yelled at a stable boy for not being quick enough with helping her. 

Sticking up for the underdog had always been something that Ariena did without thought and she did so then as well...

"And what's wrong with your arms and legs, lad?" Ariena asked, her hands firmly placed on her hips as she interrupted the tirade the poor stable boy was being battered with.

The blonde had gulped as flashing blue eyes, belonging to what was now obviously a girl, whirled around and speared her to her spot with their intensity.  "Lad?" the girl had sneered.  "Is everyone deficient around here?"

Indignant, Ariena had replied, "Well, if you'd dress like a girl then maybe you'd be seen as one too!"

The blue eyes had gone wide as storm clouds brewed inside.  "I can dress however I want!  I'm the Heir to this land!"

A shaft of fear had traveled from Ariena's stomach to her toes at that declaration, she'd had no idea.  'Still,' she thought as her lips pursed angrily.  "An Heir to the land should have respect for those who do the work for them." 

"And who are you to tell me what I should and should not do, girl?" 

Ariena could easily see the anger and cruelty in the eyes of the older girl but stood firm and spoke with a maturity and sadness far beyond her years, "I'm saying that it doesn't cost anything to be kind.  But the price of cruelty will be something you live with forever."

Blinking, the dark haired girl had looked at her as if she had two heads and hotly responded, "Well ... I'll teach you about cruelty!"

Tegwyn rushed forward and barreled into the unbelievably surprised smaller girl.  Knocking her to the ground in one shocked lump. 

Flashing green eyes focused on her attacker as Ariena began to scramble to her feet.  She pushed the sleeves of her comfortable shirt up to her elbows and had every intention of knocking the block off this stupid girl, no matter who she was. 

Before she could move, a shadow appeared behind a laughing Tegwyn.  Ari's eyes immediately focused up and behind the girl, into eyes older but just as bright a blue and obviously not happy.

Ariena couldn't help the shot of perverse pleasure she felt when the man's voice rumbled out the girl's name and the other girl jumped, then turned with a barely perceptible wince.  At least the dark haired girl was afraid of someone.

Heartbeat racing in her ears, Ariena toyed with following them and trying to listen to what they were saying.  Realizing that wasn't an option, she wondered if she shouldn't go to the Master and let him know what she'd done.  The aching sadness that filled her at the thought of the Master's disappointment in her stilled her feet with ease. 

No.  She would face whatever punishment she was going to get.  Never doubting for a moment that she would be in the wrong for questioning the actions of an Heir.  After all, she'd seen the whip marks on the boy who had come from another land and how the kitchen had been ripe with rumors about how the Lord had administered the lashes himself when the boy hadn't been quick enough to respond to a request from the Lord's Heir.

Ariena could still remember how someone could have knocked her over with a proverbial feather when the sullen dark haired girl had walked back, eyes firmly on the ground and apologized for her actions. 

Her own spluttered start of an apology had been cut short by that arrival of Tegwyn's father, who had looked kindly upon her and politely asked if Ariena would assist Tegwyn with fitting into the life of the Guild Hall.  The blonde had been speechless at the time, never expecting the Lord of the land to support her and not his daughter's actions but also that the Heir was coming to live with them.

With the Lord's words still echoing in her ears, Ariena looked up from the sure to be an award winning pea and potato sculpture she had been unconsciously building and finally looked over at Tegwyn's table. 

Ariena swallowed hard as she looked.  It physically hurt the blonde to see Cerys lean close to Teg's ear and whisper something, to see the obvious intimate familiarity between them.  Each action that showed the relationship between the two other women was akin to taking a punch and Ari wasn't sure how long she could take even knowing they were both there, never mind looking at them. 

A tiny part of her began to burn like a growing flame.  The part that wanted to confront Tegwyn and find out why the tall woman couldn't have simply told her that their burgeoning romance was over before it truly began.

Ari took a shaky breath, burgeoning romance didn't even begin to cover what she'd felt with the Heir.  Something deep inside that surged to recognize Tegwyn with a welcoming fanfare and still rocked her when she thought about it.  Still caused her skin to tingle and face to flush. 

'How could she?  Please let me understand.'   Something very deep inside herself grieved.  Why her former best friend had chosen to so brazenly display her new relationship instead of doing the right thing and breaking Ari's heart privately would be something she could never understand.  Because that was certainly what Tegwyn had done, Ari mused as tears pooled in her eyes.  Broken her heart into a million pieces.


Discerning dark brown eyes surveyed the melancholy tableau as Tegwyn sat at the Master's right hand.  In a scene right out of a theater that Cerys had once been dragged to and swore to herself she'd never revisit, the major players collected at the high table.

She couldn't help but notice how Tegwyn refused to look in Ariena's direction and how Ariena was trying very hard to hide the fact that she was close to tears.  It was easy to see that the Master Bard had picked up on the tension at the table and had quickly discovered where it was coming from and how Brycen ... In a flash of insight, Cerys focused on the squire.  Specifically on how he was constantly brushing up against Ariena and how the blonde seemed to be so deep in misery that she was completely ignoring him. 

The redhead's eyes sharpened their focus as Brycen's brown head leaned towards Ariena and quietly said something to the blonde and then Cerys shook her head slowly, lowering her eyes to the table in front of her.  At that moment in time, she was sure that she would easily bet her next month's wages that something was very, very wrong and another month's worth that she wasn't going to like what she would find out.  However, find out she would.  What to do with that information would be something she'd have to face when she came to it.

After one last sweep over the high table, Cerys stood and headed for the one person she thought would have a good idea what was going on.



Teg looked up, startled.  "Yes?"

The Master leaned over and placed a concerned hand on her shoulder before asking very quietly, "You were leagues away.  That was the third time I called you.  Are you not feeling well?"

Immediately sensing the perfect opportunity to leave early, Teg responded, "I think I could use some sleep, Master Ithel.  Would you mind?"

"No, no.  Of course not, Tegwyn.  You must take care of yourself.  Should I have the Healer sent up?"

Already standing, Tegwyn replied, "I'm sure I'll be fine after some sleep.  Thank you."

"Very well," the Master conceded, knowing full well how stubborn the dark haired girl could be.  Still, his eyes took in her form as the tall woman stood.  'So proud,' he thought as his gaze turned inward.  'So like her father, both in looks and manner.'

However, it was the vision of a blue eyed woman who had never returned from a visit back to her own homeland that Ithel saw with startling clarity as Tegwyn turned to move away.  The same bearing, same raven hair and those eyes.  Yes.  Tegwyn might not remember her mother and he doubted she would ever forgive the woman for not returning but, Deirra had also placed her stamp on her daughter. 

The memory of being summoned to the Lord's Manor so many years ago was still firmly etched in his mind.  He'd received the message from the Lord's steward to come immediately and had headed for the Manor right away.  It had been a shock to see the destruction when he'd been bustled inside by the steward.  It was also a shock to see Telryn's state.  Ithel had never seen the Lord blindingly drunk and it was a sight he'd never see again.

"Ah, Ithel.  Should've known they'd send for you," Telryn spat to the new arrival, waving around a piece of parchment in his hand and then turning away from his visitor.

Somewhat in shock, Ithel blinked as he took in the scene.  Pieces of broken glass shone a burnished orange as they reflected the fire from their scattered positions around the hearth.  A well loved tapestry had been partially torn from the wall, threads stretching in places and broken in others. 

Books lay scattered about the room, pages torn from some and one even lay partially burning in the fireplace.  Ithel scurried over and removed the book quickly, pulling at the portion not in flames and stamping out the flame with his thick soled boot. 

It was with a shot of anger at the useless desecration of something that represented his life's work that he noticed that the steward had both left and closed the door behind him.  No doubt assuming that the Guild Master would deal with whatever the problem was. 

Sighing, Ithel turned and focused his attention on the still raging Lord of the land he lived on and felt his heart drop in his chest.  Telryn's eyes were red rimmed and bloodshot, his normally clean and tidy clothes were less than pristine but the thing that drew the most attention was the look of utter loss on the Lord's face. 

Knowing that Deirra had left on a trip to her homeland some weeks before, Ithel assumed the worst.  "My Lor ..." Ithel paused and began again, hoping his friend would confide in him, "Telryn, please tell me what's happened."

Incredulous eyes slowly looked up from their perusal of the curling wisps of smoke from the book that Ithel had saved and simply stared at the Guild Master for several seconds.

Ithel's breath caught as he saw the dangerous glint in Telryn's eyes and then he relaxed ever so slightly as the glint visibly faded into hopelessness.

"She's gone," Telryn stated simply and sat down heavily on the padded chair by the fire.  The parchment hung precariously by two fingers and his chin drooped toward his chest.

Once again assuming the worst, the Guild Master replied gently, "Something has happened to Lady Deirra?" 

A muted exclamation of obvious anger and a shake of the head were the only reply. 

Ithel moved closer, brow furrowed in concentration as he tried to unobtrusively read the fluttering parchment in the Lord's hand.  His problem was solved when Telryn shoved the paper at him, head still bowed as if the weight of the world lay on his shoulders.

The Guild Master carefully slid the parchment from the other man's shaking fingers and turned it over to read.  Immediately, he noticed that Lady Dierra's signet was at the bottom of the letter and that it did indeed appear to be her writing.  She had a distinctive style that was both flowing and simple, one that Ithel had envied instantly when he'd seen it and immediately asked her to help teach to his students. 

He could still hear the ring of her laughter as she listened to his pleas and agreed soon after.  That made his shock even more profound as he read the words.  It wasn't that she was injured or anything had happened to her.  She simply wasn't returning.  She stated quite simply that her life was back in her homeland, that she had always loved another and couldn't live the lie any longer, and prayed that Telryn would forgive her eventually.  Her last words were to her daughter, telling her that she loved her and asking her forgiveness for leaving her but it was for the best.  Simple, blunt words that changed so many lives. 

The words had caused a change in the Lord of the land that would last until his untimely death.  Although Telryn had briefly considered going after his wife and her lover, Ithel and others had managed to delay him with every tactic in the book and then an illness had swept through and caught him in its awful grip as well. 

To this day, the Bard Master would swear that the only reason Telryn got through that time was because his only child also became ill and the Lord had somehow found the strength to fight the illness that threatened to suck him into the depths he had seemed so eager to greet.  With renewed energy, he had cared for Tegwyn with a fervor that had shocked most of the household staff.

As Ithel watched Tegwyn's powerful strides lead her away, he mused at how the bond between father and daughter had been forged during that time, it had remained unbelievably strong until Telryn's death.  Tegwyn had grown up revering her father and had been mortified when she'd done something to bring his ire upon her.  Now, he could only hope that whatever was plaguing Ariena and Tegwyn would be solved quickly and he'd once again be able to hear Telryn echoed in his daughter's laughter.


Trying to ignore the stinging in her eyes and the offensive heat that never seemed to dissipate, Cerys watched as Cook chopped one onion then another into remarkably equal sized pieces with ruthless efficiency.  She had been working on getting the answers she wasn't sure she wanted from the cook for some time but had only gotten bits and pieces about Brycen's pursuit of Ariena. 

During that time, she had been put to work kneading dough that was set to rise for the next morning's bread and chopping up various vegetables for whatever use the kitchen staff would put them to.  Her patience, never truly great, was at its limit with the current line of questioning that had just gotten to the last time Tegwyn had been home.  Still, she bit back a deep sigh and asked calmly, "So, what happened then?"

"Well, lass, he used to come in here and ask me to make her favorite things but I'll not be a party to that nonsense."

"Because you're busy, you mean?"

Letting loose a snort of disgust the cook allowed a quick glance at the guard and shake of his head and then bent back down to his task.  "As if me bein' busy would stop me from doin' somethin' that Ariena would like." 

Cerys noticed with interest that the cook looked slightly uncomfortable with his declaration and winced when his knife hit the cutting board hard as he cut through a potato and then another before beginning to chop them into cubes. 

"No, she's a good lass.  Can't find better but ... "

"But?" Cerys queried.

Sharp eyes peered up at Cerys, as if taking her measure.  "Why do you want to be knowin' all this?"

Cerys couldn't help but be grateful that her experiences as a guard had given her experience in facing down even more experienced intimidators as she saw the cook's gray eyes focus squarely on her.  A wrinkle formed in her brow as she realized she'd never know the man as anything but 'the cook' or 'Cook' and that interested her but wasn't something she could pursue right now.

The problem was, the truthful answer about why she wanted the information on Ariena wasn't something she wanted to share at this point.  Not when she had no idea what she was going to do and didn't want to alert anyone to something going on that she wasn't sure she wanted stopped.  "Just curious, you know.  Been out for a long time and trying to catch up on the news."

"And you're just suddenly very interested in the happenin's here?"

Not squirming, as she was pinned by the all too knowing gaze, was a difficult task but she managed.  "Well, have to have gossip to take back you know.  I sometimes think half the Guard that's been here is in love with Ariena, so they'll want to know what's going on." 

Pausing in his attack on the vegetables, the cook placed his knife down precisely in line with the edge of the board, wiped his hands on his apron and gave his full attention to the redhead.  "I'll not be havin' anyone cause her trouble."

'Crap.'  Soulful brown eyes dipped to the floor for a few seconds, tracing a nonsensical pattern in a light dusting of flour that had fallen to the floor, and then back up again.  She realized that she wasn't going to get anything unless she came forth with the truth and a decision was made. 

"All right," she said quietly and then paused to gather her words, realizing with a touch of chagrin that the deceptively perceptive man had spent years cultivating his methods of ascertaining information and gauging someone's actions and reactions to discover their true reasons for doing what they did. 

"Tegwyn's my business and you'd have to be buried at the bottom of a mud pit to not see she's upset.  When she's upset, I want to know what's going on.  Something's up with Ariena as well and I think ... well, that it might be whatever's bothering Teg."

The cook raised his hands to the edge of the counter and leaned slightly forward.  "You be thinkin' that, do you?" 

Cerys let loose a gust of annoyed air.  "All right, yes.  Something's going on with the two of them and I want ..."

"To fix it or make it worse?" the cook interrupted in a brisk tone.

The guard blinked at the blunt words and, after a long look at the man, cast her eyes about the kitchen and then fixed her attention firmly on the dough she'd so recently kneaded.  Words were needed if she wanted to go any further, if she wanted to find anything else out.  Unfortunately, what those words were exactly she wasn't sure.  "I ..."

"Want Tegwyn for yourself," the deep voice gentled, as if understanding the dilemma that Cerys was in. 

Bringing her gaze back to the older man she realized the battle was lost and said very softly, "Is that so very wrong?"

As if getting to the truth had snipped the strings he held inside, the cook's face lost some of the tension that had been gathering and he replied with infinite care, "No, lass.  But do you really think she's for you?"

The redhead had to swallow back the lump that stuck in her throat and her teeth clamped together with undeniable force before she opened her mouth to reply that she did indeed believe Tegwyn was for her.  The blinding truth of the cook's gaze gripped her firmly and, instead, she just took a breath as the words crashed like heavy rocks around her. 

As if the darkness would hide the pain, she closed her eyes.  Unfortunately, it didn't help.  She knew the truth.  She'd known it all along.  Tegwyn's devastation had allowed her temporary residence somewhere inside the tall, dark haired woman's heart and given her access to the glorious body but ... 'Damn everyone to hell in a hand basket.  Damn it.  Damn it.' 

It wasn't fair, it just wasn't fair and unless she wanted to make trouble there was nothing she could do about it.  Even if she did want to make trouble, the damned cook would know, she would certainly know and ... 'Aw hell.' 

A rhythmic chopping noise brought her awareness back to the kitchen.   She opened her eyes and peeked to see the cook back chopping even more vegetables.  Nodding to herself, knowing that she cared deeply about Tegwyn but also painfully understanding that sometimes that wasn't enough when the other person's heart was firmly located elsewhere, she cleared her throat and stated, "All right.  I'll tell you what I know if you'll tell me what you know.  Then we'll figure out what to do about this mess."

Her answer was a quick appraising glance and gentle smile, followed by the barest hint of a nod as the man got back to his work of both feeding and caring for the Manor's residents.


Several hours spent tossing and turning had finally given way to a fitful sleep for the dark haired Heir to the land.  Unfortunately, that abbreviated sleep was further interrupted by the arrival of several horses and men.  By the time the door to the guard house opened, Tegwyn was up, dressed and sliding a dagger into the sheath at her waist.

She watched as a leather clad, mud splattered and obviously tired guard looked around the room until his gaze fell upon her.  Tensing as he reached for something on his waist, she mentally chastised herself when he removed a message pouch and reached out to hand it to her.

"Urgent from Lord Rander," he stated simply.  Fatigue was evident in his very stance but his light brown eyes betrayed none of it.  "I'm to wait for a response."

Blinking in surprise, Tegwyn stood there awkwardly for a few moments until her years of watching her father and some of her own training took over and she instructed the messenger to rest and get whatever he needed until she was ready for him.  As he gratefully moved away, she thanked him and immediately turned to better lighting to open the pouch.

After adjusting the wick in the lamp to provide better lighting, she carefully drew out the rolled scroll, immediately noting that it was sealed.  An eyebrow rose high on her forehead at that highly unusual revelation.  Apart from the scroll she received on her eighteenth year celebration declaring her official right as Heir and beginning her Guard service, she had never received a sealed scroll for herself. 

Knowing that many of the other guards had woken up at the arrival of the messenger and were now watching her with intense interest, she reached for the slim dagger at her waist and brought it up to the seal.  Praising herself for the lack of extraneous movement, she carefully slid the dagger under the seal and broke the wax away with a twist that appeared as if she'd been doing it all her life.

As she opened the larger scroll, she was surprised again to find a smaller sheet of parchment nestled within.  Glancing quickly at the two, she easily recognized Lord Rander's flowing script on both from updates he sent on the land he was holding for her and oftentimes requested information and input.

Both eyebrows crawled up her forehead when she read that the beginning lines of the larger scroll began with "Lord Tegwyn."  Tegwyn's heart began to beat faster, she had never received a message that began with her full and formal title.  This couldn't bode well.  Putting that aside for a moment, she placed the larger scroll on the wooden table by the lamp and turned to the smaller.  Hoping that itıs apparently more personal nature would explain what was going on.


Forgive my inability to speak with you in person about something of this importance.  As you may have already read from the other missive, the situation with the Riders has turned a corner that we did not expect.  Last eve, Gullen Bay was viciously and decisively attacked.  There are many casualties and the town is in ruin."

Tegwyn's breath caught.  She had been through Gullen Bay many times in her life and knew some of the townspeople by name.  The Riders had never struck so deeply into the lands and the fact that it was so close sent chills skittering down her spine. 

"As I am sure you realize, although on lands under my protection, Gullen Bay is within a day's ride of both your own Lord's Manor and the Guild Hall.  In addition, we were able to obtain information from two captured Riders that they have plans to strike deep into the heart of your territory and possibly attempt to subvert your rule.

As such, as one of the last two official duties as Holder of your land - I am garrisoning your unit at your Manor. 

In addition, with the actions being taken by the Riders and the fact that your own home is in danger, I can no longer ask you to serve out the remainder of your guard duty.

Therefore, as the ultimate Commander of Rhyllen and Colwyn's Guard, I am releasing you from the remainder of your service with the honors you definitely deserve and releasing command of Rhyllen's Guard to you as the Lord of the land.  The formal wording and information can be found in the other scroll.

Finally, as your uncle, I stand with you in this time of great danger in our lands and pray that we all find the strength to persevere and put an end to the blight that plagues us.  When the danger is past, I look forward to a time that we can celebrate you becoming Lord of the land with the joy and fanfare that it deserves. 

Take the greatest care, Teg.  You have become a woman that your father would be so proud of and one that I am blessed to call family. 

Rander - Lord of Colwyn."

Swallowing a sudden lump in her throat, Tegwyn read the last few lines again and, with precise care, placed the scroll on the table beside the other and glanced at the larger scroll to see that it did indeed make her Lord of the land. 

It was as if a heavy weight had just descended upon her shoulders and the first person she thought of sharing it with had betrayed her.  Looking beyond the lamp's warm safety and into the darkness beyond, she whispered, 'Ariena.'

Tegwyn's eyes closed in renewed pain but her black thoughts were interrupted by a voice close behind her.

"Teg, is everything alright?"

Her back to Cerys, the tall woman's jaw clenched tightly and she could see the muscles flexing on her face in the reflection in the window.   'Buck up, Teg.  Time to stop playing around and grow up.'

After her talk with the cook, Cerys had gone to find Tegwyn and figure out what she was going to do.  Only to walk into the guard house and have her thoughts completely derailed by the disheveled appearance of the messenger who was obviously waiting for Tegwyn and the whispers and somewhat veiled looks directed at the tall woman. 

After questioning Tegwyn softly and waiting for several moments, Cerys watched in fascination as the Heir's bearing changed from someone obviously reeling over something that had obviously rocked her world to a confident and in control leader.  She had seen this change hit Tegwyn on the battlefield before but never had the chance to observe it in such detail. 

It was truly amazing.  As if the tall woman had suddenly grown even taller and the guard knew that when Tegwyn turned, there would a look of utter control in her pale eyes.  Most of the guard knew to stay away from her when that happened but Cerys stood firm as the wide shoulders began to turn.

Drawing a slow breath, Tegwyn let her eyes flicker over the obviously expectant occupants of the room before saying softly, amazed that there was no quiver evident in her voice, "This unit will be moving to the barracks at the Lor... my Manor in the morning.  I'll be moving the permanent guard from Legli to these barracks as soon as I can get a messenger there.  Until they arrive, I'll be leaving several of you here to protect the Guild Hall." 

Blue eyes came to rest on the redheaded guard.  "Cerys, consider yourself in charge of the move.  You have my authority ..."  Tegwyn paused involuntarily at what she was about to say, "as Lord of Rhyllen to requisition anything you need."

Tegwyn didn't react to the many widened eyes watching her, just continued to lay out the information for the group.  Letting them know about the attack on Gullen Bay and noting their reactions, which ranged from utter horror, to fright and anger.  By the time she was finished, the men and women were a somber group and most had picked up on Tegwyn's manner and references to her now being Lord. 

However, to be sure they all realized how serious this was, she added, "As most of you have already guessed, I have been released of my duty to the Guard and am now officially Lord of Rhyllen.  I need to advise Master Ithel and the Hall of that and also of what to expect."  She took one last look around the room and found a comforting wall of support facing her.  She nodded slightly and felt herself relax ever so slightly as she padded toward the door and opened it, then stopped and turned slightly.  "Be ready for an early morning departure."

As she stepped confidently into the semi-darkness, split only by spluttering torches, she heard Cerys already ordering people about before the door swung shut.  Marveling at her own control, it occurred to her that the mantle of leadership would be a heavy burden but it seemed to fit her quite well.  At least for the moment.


This is indeed a grave time, Te... Lord Tegwyn."  The master of the Bard Hall looked every one of his years as he trailed off and stared into an infinity of grief at the news of Gullen Bay. 

Even as his heart worried about the many friends he had in the town, his mind was planning the trip he would make the next day.  If nothing else, he could explain it as needing to check up on the two fledgling bards he had sent to Sardi's care and training there. 

He sent out a prayer for all of them and closed his eyes against the almost crippling pain he felt at the thought of losing Sardi.  Ariena might have been the light that kept him going right after his wife's untimely death but Sardi had been a growing flame that had made him want to live and experience again once the pain and grief of his wife's passing had finally began to diminish. 

However, Sardi had made no bones in stating that she was not interested in being the head of a household and planned to enjoy her preceptorial position for as long as they would allow her to continue.  Often stating that teaching was where her heart truly belonged and as much as she cared for Ithel she wouldn't be tied down. 

After observing Sardi's teaching methods and the extraordinary results she garnered from her students, Ithel couldn't do anything but agree that his lover was happiest doing what she loved most and the land at large benefited from her gifts. 

Once the Riders had started to step up their attacks, the numbers entering the Bard's Guild had taken a sharp decline with so many signing up to help protect their families and livelihoods.  Understanding the need but not willing to lose the rich heritage that the Bards provided, Ithel had worked with Rander and Telryn to form a mutually beneficial Bard training program that had journeyman Bards training in each other's halls and lands. 

It was a situation where the commonly held belief that the Bard's Guild held history in their hands had truly been a benefit.  Especially when the Merchant's Guild had been reminded of such by Telryn.  The Merchant's Guild had initially been against such a sharing of both resources and people but had caved in under the weight of both valid arguments and those who supported the idea.  As it turned out, it had been a very successful venture for all involved and one that had allowed Ithel and Sardi to meet regularly.  That had been a bonus effect that Ithel hadn't even dreamed would be possible but had worked out well.  With a start, he realized the Tegwyn was speaking to him again. 

"I'm leaving early in the morning but some of my guard will remain until we're able to get Legli's group garrisoned here."

"Thank you for taking care of us.  Of course, I'll send some of the household staff with you since the Lord's Hall has been operating with a skeleton staff and might not be prepared."

Tegwyn stopped her pacing to think about that.  The flickering light from a lamp positioned on one of the intricately carved wooden tables turned blue eyes a slate gray as she stopped closed by.  Her first and immediate instinct had been to say no and refuse the offer, as kind as it was.  If it were just here, she would say that but the fact was that she had everyone else to think about now.  There would be lots of people to take care of, from the Guard, to visiting dignitaries, to people looking for shelter, to ... 

Her mind began to whirl.  It was so much, so fast.   So much and so many things to think about.  Too much.  The Master Bard and where she was faded into the background as the true weight of leadership slammed itself down on her shoulders like a proverbial ton of bricks.

She stayed that way for several very long moments until a single voice whispered through the depths of responsibility and fear that were threatening to bury her.  A single thread that her mind reached out to grasp, as it had done for so long.

"Teg?  Teg, are you alright?"

It was the touch on her back that really stabilized her world and brought her back to reality.  A touch her body knew, even after so long away from it. 

Ariena looked worriedly at Tegwyn.  She had received a message to come to the drawing room as soon as possible and had been completely unprepared for Tegwyn being there.  She's almost dropped the piece of tapestry that she'd been trying to figure out how to repair and still held when she arrived at the room. 

Her attention had been firmly captured by the tall woman immediately; Tegwyn's body was simply radiating huge waves of tension that had threatened to overwhelm the blonde even from her position at the doorway.  Yet, all of that had been pushed away and forgotten as soon as she saw the look on her friend's face. 

Without even thinking, she had called Tegwyn's name.  Upon receiving no answer, she had moved closer and tried again.  Placing a hand on the tall woman's back, again without any thought to what she was doing beyond trying to find out what was wrong.

Blinking, Tegwyn's jaw worked but no sound came out as she struggled to regain her composure from her descent into a place she had rarely been.  A place that filled her with doubt and fear, and made her want to turn to the one person she had always found support, loyalty and... 

Mentally shaking her head, Tegwyn reminded herself that things had changed and that cold slap of reality crashed into her with a force that brought her right back to the present in a split second.

Even with the dose of reality still dripping through her veins, she was unable to meet Ariena's eyes and moved away from the other woman.  "Yeah.  I'm fine." 

Ariena felt the dismissal down to her bones and she swallowed down a gulp of pure acid in her stomach as the hand that had been so warm just a second before turned ice cold.  With one hand against the door jamb to steady her shaky legs, sad eyes followed the tall form as it paced to the other side of the room.

After taking a couple of calming breaths, Tegwyn turned.  "There's much to do before we leave."  Looking at the Bard Master, she spoke softly, "Thank you, for everything."  It was too difficult to keep eye contact with the gentle and far too perceptive man and looking at Ari as the warmth on her back refused to fade was impossible, therefore, she looked away to the safety of the fire.  ³Iım sure I'll be contacting you very soon and will, as always, rely on your wisdom and talents."

"The land is in good hands, Tegwyn.  I've always known it would be."

Lifting her eyes and her spirits, Teg smiled a warm smile that didn't quite melt the ice that had formed around her heart.  "Thank you.  Take care of yourselves and be sure to send updates regularly.  As well as being informative, they'll be an extra security check.  If you miss sending any messages, I'll be on my way in a hurry."

"Then I'll make sure we don't miss any.   Take care, my Lord."

Teg blushed slightly as the Master Bard showed her the respect deserved of her station by performing a full and gracious bow. 

Two pairs of eyes, one containing pooled tears, watched as the dark haired woman left the room after a slight nod. 

It wasn't too many seconds later, just enough for Tegwyn to be out of ear range, when Ithel spoke up, "Are you going to tell me what's going on?"

Ariena's neck bent low enough for her chin to almost touch her chest as she bore the weight of that question, knowing that the time for saying nothing was in the past. 

Concluded in Part Three