by Norsebard




Go To Chronicles of the Empress Book 1


This Fantasy-Sword & Sorcery-Action Adventure story belongs in the Uber category. All characters are created by me, though some of them may remind you of someone.

All characters depicted, names used, and incidents portrayed in this story are fictitious. No identification with actual persons is intended nor should be inferred. Any resemblance of the characters portrayed to actual persons, living or dead is purely coincidental.

This story depicts a romantic relationship between consenting adult women. If such a story frightens you, you better click on the X in the top right corner of your screen right away.

This story contains some genre-typical profanity. Readers who are easily offended by bad language may wish to read something other than this story.

This story contains genre-typical violence and swordplay, some of which is directed at women. Readers who are disturbed by this type of depiction may wish to read something other than this story.






Written: January 25th - February 11th, 2014

- Thank you for your help, Wendy Arthur and Phineas Redux *Flower*

As usual, I'd like to say a great, big THANK YOU to my mates at AUSXIP Talking Xena, especially to the gals and guys in Subtext Central. I really appreciate your support - Thanks, everybody! :D

Description: Three moons on from Lady Bronwyn's misadventures in the Shadowlands, she has been confined to the castle keep as a bird in a golden cage, and her traveling companions have been banished from the walled city for their part in the Lady's safe return. Yearning for the Huntress, Lady Bronwyn plans her escape from Ashburne Castle, but seeking refuge among the banished in the Sarkhann Forest may not be the best or indeed the safest solution for her...






Following the fateful mission to Lord Lasar-Ihtreg's Shadowlands, the Huntress Caid Barlin, her family and the families of the other members of the team were all banished from Ashburne by Emperor Jin-Sarnos the Twelfth for failing to do their duty.

Led by former Senior Ranger and Count of the Crown Efrem Barlin, Caid's father, the exiled traveled to the dark Sarkhann forests two leagues south of Ashburne where they built a community with strict rules of non-violence that welcomed anyone who no longer felt at home under Jin-Sarnos' rule.

The Black Lance, the dreaded elite bodyguard units led by the fearsome and slightly insane Zai Allizadra, executed brutal cavalry raids against the new community until Efrem Barlin and the others built a sturdy log fence that encircled the camp's perimeter. Many of the exiled wished to fight back, but the pledge of non-violence was upheld.

At the castle, Jin-Sarnos' daughter Lady Bronwyn became a de facto prisoner who wasn't allowed to leave the castle under any condition, or even talk to strangers unattended. Although she had been granted the right to keep her senior handmaiden Tawna, they were under constant surveillance by a stern Matron who let no opportunity slip to treat Lady Bronwyn disrespectfully.

Through all that, Lady Bronwyn's dream of one day escaping her cage and reconnecting with the Huntress only grew stronger. As one moon became two, and then three, the dream turned into an intense, burning desire that nothing in the Empire could stop, not the Matron, not Zai Allizadra, and certainly not her father...




Afternoon was slowly turning into early evening when two riders - a white-haired man and a compact woman half his age - broke through the edge of the trees and left the dense Sarkhann Forest behind. Soon, they entered the wide open space between the woodlands and the imposing Ashburne Castle that was visible in the distance just under a league away.

The late autumn weather showed itself from its most inclement side by greeting the riders with a steady drizzle and a chilly breeze that caressed their skin and rustled the dark clothes they had chosen to blend in with the people they were scheduled to meet.

Both chestnut mares whinnied as the rain came down upon them, and one of them shook her head to show her displeasure with the whole thing.

"It's all right, Chestnut," Caid Barlin said, rubbing her faithful steed's neck. The rain had already made her shaggy, honey-blonde hair damp, and she knew it wouldn't be too long before large - and excruciatingly wet - drops would find their way under her collar and end up underneath her suede hunting jacket. "I'm not too fond of it, either. But I fear we have to endure it this time."

The woman who had been known as the Huntress when she was still Emperor Jin-Sarnos' favored Ranger - until she and her entire family had been banished from the city state - showed she had lost none of her skills by constantly scanning their surroundings to keep track of what was going on around them.

"Caid," the other rider said, "is that really necessary? We can see clear up to the castle. There's no one here."

"I would rather remain vigilant than grieve over not paying enough attention, father," Caid said without looking at the older man.

Efrem Barlin let out a grunt and pulled his woolen cape closer over his long-sleeved tunic. "Mmmm. I suppose you are right," he said, looking back at the colorful forest they had just left behind. The tall, proud trees hadn't yet shed all of their foliage which left the forest draped in blood red, dusty yellow and dark green.

He hadn't expected to start over at sixty-two, but when Jin-Sarnos had ordered the Barlin family to choose between leaving Ashburne or taking the lonesome, humiliating walk up to the gallows, the decision had been easy for the patriarch. Since then, he and his three children had lived in the forests like the outlaws they had become. Over time, they had been joined by many others who had suffered a similar fate, or who had simply decided against living under the Emperor's rule inside the walled city of Ashburne.

Sighing, Efrem looked back ahead with a dark frown across his fair features that were quite similar to his daughter's - apart from the white hair and his nearly groomed salt-and-pepper beard.

"Father," Caid said, noticing the dark, somber look her father bore, "please don't despair. We shall return to Ashburne sooner or later, that's a promise."

The two horses clip-clopped along the dirt trail they were on for a little while before Efrem sighed again and pulled his cape closer. "I fear I shall never return, Caid. Since Jin-Sarnos is only a few years older than me, even his death will not act as my salvation... at that time, I will be too old to-"

"Nonsense, father! Jin-Sarnos is a grotesquely obese man who eats, drinks and whores with equal abandon. I'm certain his heart will not outlast yours. And Lady Bronwyn will be a different ruler altogether. She is-"

"So you keep telling me, daughter," Efrem said, steering his horse around a puddle that had already formed on the dirt trail, "and yet, I cannot see it. Granted, I have only met her Ladyship twice when she was far younger, but then, she gave no hints of being an owner of any kind of backbone."

"Well, she has changed... grown stronger," Caid mumbled, concentrating on keeping Chestnut going steady. A few colorful images of how she and Lady Bronwyn had connected through sweet kisses on the mission that had brought the world crashing down for her and her family flickered past her mind's eye. While the images - and the kisses - had been lovely, what they had brought with them had been anything but. "Never mind. Father, tell me again why we need to be out in this poor weather?" Caid said in a voice that crept close to being a whine.

"Well, I hadn't expected it to be thus... my old friend Allan wishes to see me. Nothing more, nothing less."

"So we go," Caid said with a scowl.

"So we go," Efrem echoed. "After all, he is the only link we have to what's going on inside the city walls. He gave us important information the last time, remember?"

Caid sighed and resumed scanning their surroundings. "I remember. The news of the unfortunate fatal stabbing of one of my oldest friends. A mugging, pah... I will bet you a hundred Crowns the muggers wore black satin. The Black Lance, pah!"

While Caid spoke, something began to tickle at the back of her neck, but she was unable to see any kind of threat anywhere. When her old Ranger senses soon made a warning message jingle in her ear, she instinctively pulled Chestnut's reins and threw her clenched fist in the air like she had done countless times on hunting sorties.

Efrem whoa'ed his horse at once and put his hand on the hilt of his sword that was attached to the saddle in a leather scabbard. "What's wrong, Caid? There's nothing here," he whispered, trying to peer through the misty conditions at the flat terrain they were riding across.

Caid stared at a deep ditch some fifty fathoms to the left. The ditch had been formed naturally next to the dirt trail they were on, and she knew it was deep enough to hide an ambush. "I sense something," she whispered back, drawing her brand new blade - a Yonnae machete similar to the one she had lost when Lady Bronwyn had planted the old one in Lord Lasar-Ihtreg's back in Castle Blackston.

A split second later, an arrow screamed through the air and passed right between the two riders. "Archers!" Caid cried, slapping Chestnut's reins to get the mare to spin around. "Father, back to the-"

That was all she had time to say before the next arrow embedded itself deeply into the meaty flesh under her left armpit. She had no idea it was coming before she heard the hideous thwack and felt the mule kick when it entered the soft tissue. The white hot pain that spread out from the wound made her scream and nearly fall out of the saddle.

The reins fell from her limp hands and ended up draped harmlessly across the saddle horn. Chestnut seemed to sense the danger but struggled to turn around on the narrow path with no one being in control of her. Caid wobbled in the saddle but managed to sheathe the machete and grab hold of the reins through sheer anger. "Father..." she groaned, "we need- we need to..."

"Caid!" Efrem cried, trying to reach out to his daughter but could only watch in horror as the Huntress slowly keeled over. Wordlessly, she slipped off the saddle and fell into the ditch on the right side of the trail. "No! No, no, no!" he cried, yanking his own horse's reins to get it to turn around.

Even though he rammed his boots into his horse's sides, he only made it twenty fathoms back along the trail before he was intercepted by a group of Black Lance riders who came thundering towards him. Soon, Efrem was boxed in and had no choice but to surrender. Groaning in frustration, he handed over his sword to one of the officers.

Another of the Black Lance soldiers rose from the deep ditch where the ambush had taken place and ran across the trail to where Caid Barlin had fallen. The figure was clad in a black satin jerkin over a black, long-sleeved, hooded tunic, black ankle pants and black boots. After checking up on the Huntress, the figure strapped a longbow over the shoulders and took the pair of black gloves that had been pinned down by a leather belt.

As the figure reached the others, the hood was pulled back to reveal a shock of white-blonde hair and a pair of eyes that resembled chips of blue ice. "No more Caid Barlin," Zai Allizadra said coldly, putting on the gloves that she couldn't wear while she used the longbow. "She's still breathing, but the loss of blood and the conditions will soon see her traveling the well-worn path to Marpaxa's realm. On second thoughts, with her peculiar preferences, I have a strong feeling she shall find herself getting intimately acquainted with Phirax instead."

Efrem stared wide-eyed at the ditch in the vain hope of seeing his daughter's head popping back up from her involuntary hiding place. When nothing happened, he turned around and faced the assassin with dusty green eyes that shot fire at the cold woman. "Why did you have to kill her, you murderous bitch?!" he barked, spooking the horses of the guards that kept a close eye on him.

"Watch your tongue, Barlin, or I shall watch it for you... in my pocket!" Zai shot back, mounting the horse that was waiting for her. "Back to the castle!" she commanded in a strong voice, gesturing at the imposing castle in the far distance.

The Black Lance soldiers followed their Commander's orders and turned the horses around. Soon, the group trotted further up the dirt trail towards the castle.


Down in the ditch that was slowly turning muddy by the drizzle, Caid let out a rattling cough but regretted it instantly as the arrow that was still embedded in her side gnawed mercilessly in her flesh.

The white hot pain that spread out from the horrible wound was unpleasant, but at least a sign she was still among the living.

"Father?" she croaked, but the absolute silence that greeted her told her all she needed to know. "Wretched... I am not going to die in a muddy ditch... I am not!" she croaked, grabbing hold of a few tufts of grass with her good hand.

The first few weren't strong enough to support her, but she eventually found a path back up to the top of the ditch by grabbing hold of anything that seemed substantial enough. Inch by inch, she dragged and pushed herself up onto the trail. The ground was rough and dug into her hands and face, but she had no time to waste on such trivialities.

Once she reached the trail, her strength failed her and she fell down onto her right side where she huffed and puffed like she had climbed the keep of Ashburne Castle unassisted.

After catching her breath, she rolled over onto her back and attempted to probe the wound with her good hand. The sickening pain that flashed through it at the slightest touch, and the fact the arrow had broken off in the fall just outside the point of entry meant she was in deep trouble.

She tried to clench her left hand; she found that she could, but the gesture meant more blood pumped out of the wound and onto the coarse trail below her. Not only were her fingers coated in crimson, she could feel a warm tide spread out from the wound and seep into her clothes.

Groaning, she fell back flat and stared listlessly into the leaden sky above her. Her thoughts briefly visited her father and her younger siblings but eventually arrived at Lady Bronwyn and the kisses they had shared. On the first night back from their mission to the Shadowlands, she and the Lady had been in each other's arms from dusk to dawn, though the intimate relations had been emotional rather than sexual. Then Lady Bronwyn's father found out about the failed mission and set the events in motion that made everything turn to dust for Caid.

She stared into the sky and the rain that came down upon her. It would be so easy for her just to close her eyes and rest for a few moments, but an acute fear of dying meant she kept them wide open to see all she could before it was too late.

The steady drizzle stained her face and convinced her it was time to make up her mind - either she got on the move or she would die right there. Choosing life, she clambered into a sitting position and then, slowly, onto her knees so she could get up.

Once she was upright, she brushed the worst of the rain out of her wet hair and set off back to the camp she shared with the other outlaws. The stump of the arrow that was embedded deeply into her flesh gnawed atrociously when she walked, but she had no choice but to press on.


A short while later, two riders and a riderless horse broke through the edge of the forest and headed straight for the dirt trail where Caid was struggling along.

The Huntress groaned and drew her machete to be ready for anything. "Whatever else happens... I am not going back down into the ditch to protect myself... I would rather take my chances here," she mumbled, trying to peek through the misty conditions. "On the other hand, becoming a head shorter is no fun... no fun at all," she continued, twirling the machete and hunching over so she would present a smaller target.

In the end, her defensive stance was in vain - as the two riders came closer, she could see they were her allies and close friends Kheo Khammon and Deegan Arliss, both formerly of Jin-Sarnos' armed forces but now living in the forests with all the other poor souls who had been banished.

"Kheo!" she cried, waving her machete in the air. Only then did she recognize the third horse as being her own Chestnut. When the steed saw her, it whinnied loudly and nearly shook its reins out of Deegan's grip.

"Caid!" Kheo cried back and nudged his faithful Horsey's sides to get it to pick up the speed. Once the big man was close enough to the injured woman, he whoa'ed his steed and jumped off even before it had come to a full stop. "Caid... Phirax' balls! Yer soaked in blood, woman! Lemme see," he said and gently turned Caid around.

Finding the wound, the large man with the characteristic broad shoulders, bald head and foot-long full beard scrunched up his face and let out a groan. "Don't look all too damn good, there, Caid. There's a puncture wound right above yer left tit. Arrow. Broken off but the stump's still there."

"No kidding!" Caid said through teeth that were firmly clenched.

"Where's yer old man?"

"He didn't return to the camp?"


"Then he was taken by whomever attacked us. Wretched!"

In the meanwhile, Deegan had arrived and dismounted gracefully as befitting a retired cavalry Lieutenant. "Black Lancers," he said darkly, taking a brief look at the blood that stained Caid's suede outfit.

"Probably," Caid groaned. "I cannot ride with the stump still in there. I need you to dig it out. Here. Now. Before it goes in so deep you'll have to cut me open to get it."

Kheo and Deegan looked at each other and flashed identical grimaces. "Well, all right..." Kheo said and wiped his hands clean on his coarse, woolly peasant garb. "But it's gonn' hurtcha. And we's gonn' hafta take off yer upper body garments... maybe even yer top."

"So be it. Nothing there you haven't seen before. Anyone have any brandy?"

"I fear we don't, Huntress," Deegan said as he helped Kheo pull the injured woman to the side so they wouldn't have to undress her in the middle of the trail. "When Chestnut returned by herself, the blood on her saddle meant we left in a hurry."

The three people found a flat area just off the trail where they could work in solitude. "Mmmm. This was supposed to be an easy assignment. Just up to the castle wall and speak to Allan... we weren't even going inside. Wretched!" Caid said and unbuttoned her hunting jacket with her good hand. "Someone must have betrayed us."

"Allan himself, most likely. The Black Lance offers good Crowns in exchange for information that could lead them to us," Deegan said, taking the bloodied jacket once it was free of the Huntress' shoulders.

The white, sleeve-less jerkin Caid wore underneath was ruined, and it too was pulled off, revealing the many scars covering her upper body since the War of Great Expansion a decade earlier. The piece of cloth she had wrapped around her breasts was soaked in blood on the left side, but the puncture wound was just above the upper edge so she didn't have to strip down into nothing.

She clenched her teeth as the wound began to throb in a way she didn't like at all. "Mmmm. Sounds about right. I cannot say, though. I've only met him once. My father said he was an old friend," she hissed, gulping down the pain.

"Even old friends can rat out on ya," Kheo said, studying the blood and the dark, almost black entry wound. The jagged end of the arrow was still visible but it seemed to work itself into Caid's flesh. "It's hurtin', ain't it?" he said, raising Caid's left arm so it rested on his right shoulder.

"Like a whole row of rotten teeth!" Caid groaned. "Whatever you need to do, do it now before I pass out!"

"Very well," Kheo said and dug his fingers into the wound to grab hold of the butt of the broken arrow.

The pain hit Caid like a mule kick to the head. Her vision was riddled with little black spots that turned into bright, golden stars. Clenching her jaw, the tendons stood out so clearly around her face and neck that she looked like the brown monsters she and the others had fought and destroyed in and around Blackston Castle.

"Got it!" Kheo mumbled as he slowly pulled out the three inch-long fragment. As the wooden shaft left the wound, a plopping sound was heard, followed by a stream of blood that ran down Caid's left side. Kheo quickly held up the piece of wood to examine it. "No metal tip, just a carved head. Don't smell o' poison or nothin'. You wanna keep it?"

"Yeah," Caid groaned, "I wanna ram it into the heart of the son of a whore who sh- shot m- me."

Moments later, she gave up the unequal struggle and let out a long, slow sigh. With her eyes rolling back in her head, she fainted where she stood and was deftly caught by Deegan who had waited behind her for that exact eventuality.


Chestnut's rocking movements stirred Caid Barlin from her involuntary slumber. Groaning, she sat up straight only to discover she was sitting at the very front of the saddle with a strong arm draped across her stomach, and somebody pressed up against her back. "Huh... Deegan?"

"Yep. You couldn't sit on your own," the former Lieutenant's smooth voice said in Caid's right ear.

"Good thinking."

"Are you comfortable?"

"So-so. My side hurts like Phirax on a bad day."

"I fear you'll have to endure it for a little while longer. We're roughly four hundred fathoms from the camp."

Caid scouted ahead but could only see a gray mist that obscured everything hanging heavily among the trees. "I'll have to take your word for it. No, I'm just fine, Deegan."

As evening had fallen, the temperature had dropped accordingly and it was now just barely worth mentioning. The footfalls of the three horses were dampened substantially by the layer of fallen leaves that covered the forest floor on the approach to the camp, but the plumes of steam that exuded from the mouths of the six beings gave them away.

A few hundred fathoms further on, Kheo let out an angry growl when he spotted the man who was supposed to stand guard at the perimeter fence. Supposed to, because at the moment, the young man was fast asleep, sitting up against the thick logs they had used when they built the sturdy gate. A jug of brandy was lying on its side next to the sleeping man whose soft snores echoed through the small clearing.

The man - who was dressed in clogs, ankle pants and a dark brown cloak - coughed and mumbled a few unintelligible words before he rolled over onto his left side and let rip a thunderous brandy-fart.

"I swear, Huntress," Kheo said before he spat at the ground in front of the sleeping man's feet, "the recruits we get these days ain't worthy ta carry the pisspots of us old fellas. And old gals, o' course. Look at that slob! And where's the other one? Ain't there supposed to be two? Oh, ta Phirax with them fools."

Grunting in disgust, the big man dismounted his Horsey and jogged over to the massive wings of the gate. With a heave-ho, he did the work of two men and swung open one half of the gate to create enough of a gap for Chestnut and Deegan's horse to walk through.

"They're not professional soldiers, Kheo... and neither are we anymore. We're all in this together," Caid said on her way past her old friend.

"Huh, I know! But did we need ta attract every single drunkard out of Ashburne?" Kheo mumbled before he whistled Horsey through the gate so he could close and lock it behind them. The sleeping man was left to his own devices on the wrong side of the fence.


The news of Caid's horse returning without her had spread like wildfire and had stirred up the village of the exiled to the point of it resembling a beehive.

The village consisted of thirty irregular huts of varying sizes, most of them simple one-storey clay or mud hovels with thatched roofs, but a few of them were larger and sturdier log cabins with room for two families. The huts were spread out around a central square where Lady Fyonna had recommended they dug a well, and although the layout seemed quite random, they had followed a strict plan.

Kheo, Deegan, Caid and the strongest of the women and men who had joined them from Ashburne had toiled away for weeks to create the huts, only to see their hard work nearly ruined by a Black Lance cavalry raid that swept through the village with torches - following that scare, the exiled had built the strong log fence that encircled the entire area.

Two young women were standing at the torch-lit well pouring water into buckets when the riders came up the path from the main gate. One look at the swaying Caid made the first of them cry out and race over to one of the larger huts on the opposite side of the square.

Soon, the young, fair-haired woman came back out holding the hand of Fyonna, the Seer, to guide her down the single step onto the ground.

Like always, Lady Fyonna of Ashburne wore a dark blue cowl with a hood that covered the top part of her face. Like her previous cowl - that had been destroyed in the battle against Lord Lasar-Ihtreg - it was covered in letters from an ancient and long-forgotten language. Cocking her head, she pulled back her hood to reveal the familiar pale blue strip of cloth across her dead eyes that was there to protect anyone who wasn't a Seer from instantaneous combustion.

"Lady Fyonna! They- they're back... without father... and Caid looks poorly!" the young woman said, clinging onto Fyonna's arm like her life depended on it.

In her early twenties, the young woman was honey-blonde and her fair features - which included a pair of dusty green eyes - were quite reminiscent of Caid Barlin's though her manners seemed far softer. She was dressed in clogs and a coarse, brown ankle dress with a white apron and a matching bonnet that was tied under her chin.

"I know, Lady Alanna... please let go of my arm... I may need it to treat your sister. Please!" Fyonna said, trying to pry the impossibly strong fingers off her aging skin.

"I... I beg for forgiveness, Lady Fyonna!" Alanna said, letting go like she had been burned.

Fyonna had already moved on, moving across the uneven, smooth terrain like she wasn't blind at all. "Kheo!" she said, waving at the large man. "Where's Efrem?"

"Snatched by the Black Lance," Kheo growled, yanking Horsey to a stop.

"Wretched! How is the Huntress?"

"I can speak," Caid croaked. When Deegan released his iron grip around her waist, she wobbled high atop Chestnut but she grabbed hold of the saddle horn with her good arm to stay upright. "I nearly got an arrow in my tit. I've never been better."

"It may ha' missed her tit, but it caught her jus' under the armpit. The Huntress ain't doin' too well, Seer," Kheo said, winking at his old friend who shot him a dark glare in return.

Fyonna was soon at Chestnut's side and put a warm, crooked hand on Caid's thigh. Though the Huntress smiled down at her, the Seer could tell it was only a facade to keep up appearances. "She's too cold for my liking. Kheo, Deegan... please take her inside my hut. Put her on the examination bunk."

"Yes, Seer," Kheo said and dismounted in a hurry. He was soon standing on the other side of the horse and took the compact Caid around her waist while Deegan held her steady. Without any effort at all, he hoisted the woman down onto the ground and scooped her up in his strong arms.

"Put me down, you hairless brute!" Caid croaked half in jest, but the weakness of her voice undermined the humor she had attempted to put into her words.

"I will. On the examination bunk the Seer talked about," Kheo said and stomped across the central square to get into Fyonna's hut.

In his wake, Fyonna made her way back to the hut but stopped to get Alanna's attention. "Lady Alanna... has your brother returned from the hunt?"

"I d- do not know, Lady Fyonna..."

"Please go to the south gate and wait for him. As soon as he returns, you must bring him here. He needs to be told about your father's capture and your sister's condition," she said quietly, taking the young woman by the arm.

"Oh... oh no, is my sister that poorly?" Alanna said, wringing her hands.

"No, she's stronger than an ox. But with your father missing, your brother is now the man of your family... and Caid is the village elder."

"But... the village elder, Seer?" Alanna said, wringing her hands so hard it appeared her skin was about to come off. "There are many here who are far older than she!"

"Older, obviously... but none more experienced in the art of conflict. Please, Alanna... I need to be with your sister."

"All- all right, Lady Fyonna. I shall fetch Markki," Alanna said and hurried away from the Seer, raising her ankle dress while she ran so she wouldn't stumble on it.

Inside the medical hut, Kheo placed Caid on top of a hard, wooden examination bunk that had been softened with a mattress filled with the finest goose down. Everywhere around her, shelves reached from the floor to the ceiling carrying all kinds of colorful vials, jars, jugs and various other crockery labeled with the oddest words and descriptions.

There was a peculiar smell in the air that she couldn't recognize but that undoubtedly came from whatever was in the cauldron simmering over an open fire in the far corner of the hut. The scent was enough to make her crinkle her nose, though not in the good way. "Ugh, what a smell..." she croaked, wiping her nose with the back of her good hand.

"Yeah..." Kheo said, grimacing at the sight of the blood that still seeped out of Caid's wound.

Behind the big man, Fyonna stepped into the hut and softly shut the wooden door. "Kheo, please stand guard," she said with a hand on the brass door handle. "Caid's brother and sister are allowed inside, everyone else must wait for my permission."

"It shall be done, Seer," Kheo said and quickly exited the hut.

When silence finally claimed the medical hut, Caid leaned her head back onto the down pillow and let out a long, slow sigh. "I could have lived without being shot today, Fyonna," she said, rubbing her brow with her good hand.

"I'm sure you could. Have all the wood fragments come out?" Fyonna asked, lighting a host of candles to have enough light for what she needed to do. Once a warm, orange hue filled the hut, she took several vials and jars from the shelves and shuffled over to a small desk close to the simmering cauldron. There, she put down the various remedies and took a heavy mortar in order to prepare a potion for the wound.

"I cannot say. I believe so. The arrow head wasn't frayed... nor did it have a metal tip for that matter. It was created for speed, not force."

"Mmmm," Fyonna said, touching all the items on the desk to make sure she had what she needed. "Good. Now... I fear I shall ask you to undress again. Undress so I can cleanse the blood off your body."

Caid groaned but went to work - slowly.


Once the blood had been washed off her bare torso, Caid let out a deep sigh and moved her bad arm behind her head to ease the Seer's access to the wound. She did so with a hoarse grunt as the tender skin was stretched, but it needed to be done.

At the desk, Fyonna was hard at work grinding the pestle into the cast iron bell to crush a couple of her special remedies. Now and then, she leaned down to sniff the contents to make sure she didn't overdo it.

When the concoction was ready, she reached into a drawer under the desk to find a strip of white cloth that she spread out onto the desk.

Working quickly and efficiently, she distributed the contents onto the cloth, added a few secret ingredients and proceeded to fold everything up carefully. "Caid, this may sting."

"May sting... it cannot hurt me compared to my injured pride. Fyonna, I let the Black Lance take my father!"

"Hush and lie still, Caid. If you move, I will have to start over," Fyonna said, holding the strip of cloth near the black puncture wound.

Caid shot the Seer an exasperated look but decided to follow orders. "Very well. I shall lie here and take what you have for me."

Without hesitation, Fyonna pressed the potion firmly against Caid's bare skin. As expected, the Huntress let out a shocked, pained hiss - and promptly fainted. "Don't say I didn't warn you about the stinging," Fyonna said with a most un-Seer-like giggle.


A turn of the hourglass later, Caid was seated on the examination bunk, trying to close the dark green cloth she used to protect her breasts. The bone hooks were mercifully on the back, well away from the wound, but the bandage Fyonna had applied to the raw spot under her left arm was so large she couldn't make the hooks reach. "Oh... I shall just have to wear my jacket," she said and gave up.

"I fear your jerkin is ruined, Huntress," Fyonna said, pointing at the torn, bloodied garment that Kheo had thrown onto the floor when they had arrived.

"So it seems," Caid said and slipped her good arm into the sleeve of her suede jacket. "Please...?" she said, turning slightly towards the Seer.

Fyonna smiled at her patient and helped her stick her bad arm down the other sleeve. "There. I shall prescribe you a sleeping potion, Caid. You need rest... plenty of rest."

"I fear I cannot allow myself any sleep when my father is held prisoner inside the castle," Caid said and hopped off the examination bunk. Even the gentle jerk upon landing on the wooden floor made her hiss in pain, and she had to lean against the bunk to get her bearings.

"Caid," Fyonna said flatly.

"I know, I know. I am not-"

A knocking on the door interrupted their conversation. To make sure no one would suffer from the sight of her bare torso, she buttoned the jacket as far up as it would go. "What is it?" she said strongly once her garments were in order.

'Yer brother an' sister are here, Huntress,' Kheo said from the other side of the door.

"Thank you, Kheo. Let them in."

Moments later, the door to the medical hut was opened and Alanna and a man in his mid-twenties rushed in. The slender young man was dressed in hunting fatigues - a brown leather cap, sturdy boots, dark green, wraparound ankle pants, and a brown jerkin with a leather utility belt over a dark green long-sleeved tunic - and he bore a deeply worried expression on his fair face that looked like a mirror reflection of his sisters', though with a budding full beard and mustache.

The moment he stepped inside, he took off the leather cap and the longbow he had strapped across his right shoulder. "Sister," he said and sought out Caid's hands. "How are you? What happened?"

"Hello, Markki," Caid said and pulled her brother into a half-embrace to protect her wound. "I took an arrow in the side. Our healer has treated me and I am already on the mend. Isn't that right, Seer?"

"Mostly," Fyonna said, wiping her hands on a rug near the desk. "She needs some rest, then she will be fine. It was a comparatively simple wound."

Alanna nodded hard and moved in to put a tender kiss on her older sister's forehead. "Rest she shall have. I guarantee it, Seer," she said, caressing Caid's hair and brow.

"Good," Fyonna said and made to leave the medical hut. "I shall visit the tavern so you can be alone for a while. Good eve, everybody. Caid... no heroics, you understand?"

"Yes, Fyonna," Caid said with a dark chuckle.

As the door closed behind the Seer, Markki bit down on his lips and shot his sisters a dark, worried glare. "But what about father?"

Caid sighed deeply and took Alanna's hands in her own. "I fear the Black Lance took him. We were ambushed. They were waiting for us in the deep ditch halfway to the castle. Someone betrayed us... possibly the man we went to see."

"There must have been something you could have done!" Markki cried, clenching his fists.

"Markki!" Alanna said sharply, but Caid gave her hands a little squeeze to make her calm down.

"Brother, your anger towards me is well placed," Caid said darkly. "I let our father down by not protecting him when it mattered. I failed him. I failed us all."

Markki ran both hands through his sandy hair and spun away from his sisters. After a few moments of silent rage, he spun back around and pointed an accusing finger at Caid. "I say we assemble a team tonight and head for Ashburne Castle to get him back. You are too weak so I shall lead it myself!"


"No? And?"

"And nothing. No means no," Caid said in a hard voice.

Markki rubbed his brow repeatedly before he went over to the door. "Is that your last word on this matter, dear sister?" he said with his hand clutching the handle so hard his knuckles turned white.

"I will not allow you to risk your life like this, Markki."


Summoning all her strength, Caid walked over to the door and put her hand on her brother's. "I cannot allow you to go because I shall go myself," she said with quiet but steely determination. "In the morrow when the guards have come off their high alert, and when I have regained some of my strength. I shall enter the castle and search for father. That I must do."

"Oh no, Caid... your wound...!" Alanna cried as she ran over to her siblings. "We don't want to lose you too! It's far too dangerous! If you are spotted by the Black Lance, they will throw you into the dungeon... or worse," she said, putting her own hand on top of Caid's and Markki's.

Connected through the touch, all three Barlins looked each other in the eye and grew quiet and reflective. A few moments went by where all they were able to do was to remember the good times and the bad times they had shared in the past.

"I shall be careful, Alanna," Caid whispered, pulling her sensitive sister into a half-hug. "Markki, you cannot come this time. But I would like you to help me by summoning Kheo and Deegan to my private hut in half a turn of the hourglass."

"Of course, sister," Markki said quietly, bowing his head at the Huntress.




Late the same evening in a bedchamber high up in the keep of Ashburne Castle, Lady Bronwyn sat passively on a chair in the center of the room, wrapped in her favorite white sleeping chemise while her hair was being done up for the night by her senior handmaiden, Tawna.

The bright green gown with the plunging neckline and the puff-cuffs in slightly darker green that she had been wearing until very recently was splayed across the four-post canopy bed that dominated the room.

Sitting stock-still, Bronwyn wore a dark expression on her face that had nothing to do with Tawna's work, and everything to do with the stern Matron who was watching them both.

The Matron, who was called 'the Bullmastiff' behind her back though her name was in fact Vittaria, was in her mid-fifties and was wearing a black utilitarian short-sleeved gown and a white bonnet rather than the coarse, brown frocks worn by the regular maids and servants. Her less than flattering nickname was brought on by the fact she was of no great beauty, nor did she possess any grace. On top of those dubious attributes, she took a surly approach to every task she was given - and no one had ever seen her smile.

After Bronwyn's unexpected return from the Shadowlands, her father had ordered the stern Matron to watch over his daughter and her handmaidens to make sure she wouldn't get into trouble of the intimate kind with any of them, nor with any other woman for that matter.

Bronwyn studied the Matron out of the corner of her eye and once again felt a sour hiccup bubble up from her stomach. The stern woman hadn't endeared herself in any way, shape or form to the Lady over the course of the three moons, and had in fact gone out of her way to stick her nose into all sorts of private things that Bronwyn had shared with her senior handmaiden in the past.

Sighing, Bronwyn looked down and shook her head slightly, but her gesture upset Tawna's work so she had to look straight ahead again.

Behind the Lady, Tawna worked efficiently at unraveling her mistress' long, dark locks from the elegant hairdo she had worn for the stately dinner she had only just come up from.

Bronwyn's father, Emperor Jin-Sarnos the Twelfth, was entertaining Count Frankko of Tantor, a senior member of the nobility in the capital city of one of the provinces conquered in the War of Great Expansion. The Count was a wealthy, if mind-numbingly dull, man in his early fifties, but that had not been the cause of the supposed headache that had made Bronwyn retire early.

What had been the root of her problems had been the underlying message that she was once again to be married off to a ruler of a distant land; in this case, the Count. Her father spoke of improving relations between the province and the Dinnigon territory, but Bronwyn knew it was simply an excuse to get her out of his sight. She had nearly died of shame at the dinner table when her father had boastfully relayed information pertaining to her status as a pure, untouched virgin.

Tawna eventually finished straightening out Bronwyn's dark locks and let the hair hang down the upper back. "There, Milady. Your hair is ready for the night. Is there anything else you need of me at this moment?"

"No thank you, Tawna. You have been most kind," Bronwyn said listlessly. With a sigh, she rose from the chair and shuffled over to her bed. "Oh... of course... would you mind taking care of the gown? I feel too tired."

"But of course, Milady," Tawna said and quickly took the exquisite gown and put it into the wardrobe at the other side of the bedchamber.

With the canopy bed clear, Bronwyn swept aside the thick winter quilt but stopped to stare defiantly at the stern Matron who didn't appear like she was going to leave any time soon. "Good eve to you, Vittaria," Bronwyn continued sharply.

It was the same game of defiance played out every night, with the same result. After a few moments where the Matron simply ignored the Lady, she nodded curtly and left the bedchamber without as much as a simple wish of a good night.

Once the door was shut from the outside, Bronwyn waved Tawna closer to her so they could share a few whispers. They both knew - from bitter experience - that Vittaria would be standing just outside eavesdropping.

"Tawna," Bronwyn whispered, "I cannot go on like this. My heart is crumbling each night I see her off and each morn she appears. If this is all my life has to offer, then I do not wish to live it. Please tell me what I should do to escape this insanity!"

"I fear I cannot, Milady," Tawna whispered back. "When she gives me those stares, all I want to do is to bury a hatchet in her back... or her head."

The confession brought a dark smile onto the Lady's lips but it soon faded into nothing. "Alas... though it would bring me great pleasure to see her off for good, I fear we cannot do that, Tawna. Oh, if only Caid were here... she would know what to do. I must confess I miss her so..."

"You yearn for her, Milady. It's obvious. Your eyes are shining whenever you think of her... please be careful, Milady... remember what happened the last time..."

An icy tendril of sorrow pierced Bronwyn's heart at the thought of the loss of her May-Linn. Sighing, she reached up to rub her brow. "I remember. I shall be more careful, Tawna. But you are right, I do yearn for Caid. I yearn for the sweetness of her lips upon mine, I yearn for her warm breath upon my skin, I yearn for her rich voice whispering sweet nothings in my ear... oh, how I yearn-"

A bump and a scrape at the door made Bronwyn and Tawna stand up straight and look at it. A mumbled curse from the other side proved that Vittaria had once again tried to listen in on a possible conversation.

Bronwyn sighed and sat down on the bed. She gave Tawna an exasperated look of being sick and tired of the whole thing before she kicked off her woolen slippers and moved her legs underneath the winter quilt. "Good night, Tawna. We shall resume this living nightmare in the morrow."

"I wish you pleasant dreams, Milady," Tawna said and performed a deep curtsey.


Because of the presence of Count Frankko's party, breakfast and lunch had been combined into a grand affair in the dining hall where everyone was expected - read required - to attend.

Bronwyn strode through the damp, dark corridors of Ashburne Castle on her way to the dining hall, looking very much like the Lady she was. She had decided to dress for the occasion and wore a dark crimson gown with golden highlights around the modest neckline and the frilly cuffs. A golden sash was tied asymmetrically around her waist with a puffy tassel on her right side that swayed along with her graceful hips when she walked.

Her face and upper cleavage had been powdered and made up in accordance with the Tantorian customs to show the proper respect to their guest - including a pair of red dots on her ghostly white cheeks that she thought looked mind-numbingly idiotic.

Tawna had spent the entire morning arranging Bronwyn's hair, and the 'do was flawless with a tall, bare forehead and an intricately woven tail hanging down her back. The whole thing was held in place by a gold barrette that matched the necklace with the flat, linked tiles that graced her upper chest.

In her wake, Tawna and Vittaria jostled for position to be the first behind the Lady with Tawna winning through her nimbler figure.

By the time Bronwyn arrived at the double doors to the dining hall and the two sentries who stood guard there, she had slipped into the role her father demanded she played - that of the cool, detached Lady Bronwyn of Ashburne Castle who wouldn't dream of looking an underling in the eye, and who couldn't be bothered to take a step without being bowed at.

The first of the two satin-clad sentries hurriedly bowed at the Lady before he opened the double doors to let her inside.

Bronwyn strode right past him on her way into the grand dining hall. Unusually in the depressively gloomy late autumn moons, the sun was shining which sent a fantastic array of bright colors down onto the marble floor from the stained glass windows high above.

Both fireplaces as well as all the nine-branched candlesticks were lit, creating a comfortable warmth for the people dining at the horseshoe-shaped table. As always, the throne of Emperor Jin-Sarnos was placed at the square end of the horseshoe, forcing everyone else to turn their heads to look at him.

Bronwyn slowed down when she saw Zai Allizadra sitting at her father's right. When the cold, slightly insane woman hadn't been present at dinner the previous evening, Bronwyn had hoped it meant she had left on a longer mission, but the black satin-clad woman with the shock of white-blonde hair and the ice cold eyes was right there, chatting with Jin-Sarnos and a dignitary from Count Frankko's party.

The rest of the Count's party sat at Jin-Sarnos' left, seemingly taking full advantage of the lavish brunch table that was stocked with all kinds of food and beverages appropriate for breakfast and lunch.

Lady Bronwyn came to an abrupt full stop when she looked up and saw a woman she knew was of dubious virtue come sashaying into the dining hall from the other side - from Jin-Sarnos' private chambers. The woman was dressed garishly in a red gown that revealed more than it hid, and she wore far too much jewelry for the time of the day.

'Tianna Bethan,' Bronwyn thought, involuntarily clenching her fists. ' 'Jewel' Bethan... how she got her claws into father, I shall never know. But why does she have to be here... now?!'

Sighing, Bronwyn resumed the stride and was soon at her father's side at the brunch table. "Good morn, father. You look good today, did you sleep well?" she said and followed tradition by going down into a deep curtsey that she had to hold until she was allowed up.

"Good morn, my daughter. You may rise," Jin-Sarnos said, waving a chicken drumstick.

The man in his mid-sixties - who had gained rather than lost weight over the past three moons - sat heavily on his throne wearing black shoes, white wraparound leggings, white knee pants, and a golden waistcoat over a white, long-sleeved tunic that was stretched quite dangerously over his considerable belly. His bulbous face with the double chins and beady eyes could never be referred to as charming or handsome, but he certainly had presence.

Bronwyn rose and stood by the chair next to the one occupied by Count Frankko, her prospective husband. At once, one of the maids from the small army of servants lining the walls rushed to her side and pulled out the opulent seating.

"Milady," the maid said, quickly wiping off the seat of the chair with a handkerchief.

Bronwyn merely grunted as she sat down, knowing her father frowned upon treating the staff with any kind of respect. A sly glance and a very quick wink at the maid told the young girl that Bronwyn was grateful for the support.

The blushing maid curtseyed and hurried back to the wall until the next time she was needed.

Before Bronwyn had time to even take a napkin, a manservant had come to her side and leaned in towards her. "Milady, would you like fresh water, milk, wine or sweet ale for your brunch?"

"Milk, thank you. Cold."

"Milady." After taking the correct jug from the table and filling Bronwyn's beaker with fresh, cold milk, the manservant took one of the gold plates and held it ready for her. "And your brunch, Milady?" he said quietly, waiting patiently for her reply.

"A small sausage, not too greasy, and two slices of warm rye bread. Butter, of course. And an apple for dessert," Bronwyn said, folding the napkin in her lap so her exquisite gown wouldn't get stained.

"As you wish, Milady," the manservant said and hurried over to the other side of the horseshoe where the trays with the food had been placed. He executed the order in graceful style and was back at Bronwyn's side in no time with the food.

"Thank you. That shall be all for now," Bronwyn said before she took the cutlery and began to dissect the steaming hot sausage. She suddenly felt a pair of eyes burning a hole in her forehead, but as she looked up, it wasn't 'Jewel' Bethan as she had expected but Zai Allizadra who raised a goblet at her once the connection had been established.

Bronwyn lost all appetite as she stared into the eyes that were like chips of blue ice. They seemed to twinkle with mirth, but Bronwyn was in no mood to ask the slightly insane woman what she thought was so funny. To follow etiquette and common politeness, she raised her beaker and returned the greeting.

The sausage didn't look so good after that little intermezzo, but Bronwyn forced herself to chew on it and gulp it down. As she sliced it with the sharp knife, she pretended it was Zai's throat.


While Bronwyn was engaged in a one-sided and mind-numbingly dull conversation with Count Frankko on the finer points of Tantorian architecture that seemed to specialize in square angles compared to the softer lines found primarily in Ashburne but also in other places throughout Dinnigon, Emperor Jin-Sarnos silenced the murmuring guests by tapping a spoon against his ruby-studded goblet. "Ladies and gentlemen... my friends, my companions, my honorable visitors from Tantor... my daughter. It has been two most enjoyable days, but with this brunch, I fear we have reached the end of the official program. The next time we will meet will most likely be at the engagement party of my daughter, Lady Bronwyn of Ashburne Castle and his most esteemed Count Frankko of Tantor."

The news made Bronwyn gulp nervously, but she had to shove all that aside when the Count next to her raised his goblet in the traditional greeting. With an awfully polite smile, she returned the greeting and chugged down the rest of the cold milk.

"And now," Jin-Sarnos continued, "I shall surrender the stage to the delightful Tianna Bethan who shall perform a ritual fertility dance for my sweet daughter in the hope her future marriage to his most esteemed Count Frankko will produce a great number of offspring."

With that, the woman known as 'Jewel' rose to a rapturous applause from the assembled brunch guests. Bowing several times, she walked on bare feet around the horseshoe until she reached the chairs where Bronwyn and Count Frankko sat. She had attached a pair of miniature brass cymbals to her fingers that she began slapping together to create an exotic backdrop to her dance.

Bronwyn knew she had to be on her best behavior, so she turned around and smiled for all she was worth at the dancing woman in the far-too revealing dress.

Smiling back, Tianna set off in a highly charged dance that left nothing at all to the imagination. The sultry woman in the skimpy dress wiggled this way and that, and performed all kinds of outrageous dance movements that wouldn't have looked out of place in a flea-bitten brothel in the seedy districts of the city - that's how Bronwyn felt, anyway.

'Oh, 'tis not that I despise her spirit,' Bronwyn thought as her eyes zoomed in on Tianna's sensually wiggling hips, heaving bosom and gyrating rear end, 'after all, she has only taken full advantage of the chance offered to her... but what I do not understand is why father feels the need to be involved with her on a whole... surely he can see she is only here for the wealth and not for romance? Perhaps her personal services are enough for him.... but... I surely could not live in such a ghastly, loveless relationship...'

As the dance reached its predictable orgasmic crescendo, Bronwyn cheered with the others, but her heart wasn't in it. Sighing, she turned back to the table and crumbled up her napkin in disgust. Across from her, Zai Allizadra was pinning her down with an ice cold glare that made Bronwyn's stomach do a flip-flop.

The brunch was slowly breaking up, but the official end didn't come until Jin-Sarnos rose from his throne, said goodbye to the guests and strode across the marble floor with Jewel in tow.

The door to her father's private chambers had barely closed before Bronwyn shot to her feet and turned towards her prospective husband. "My dear Count Frankko, I fear my headache from last eve has returned. I apologize profoundly for my appalling lack of manners, but I fear I must to go to my bedchamber and lie down for a while."

She was given permission to leave with a curt nod, and Bronwyn resolutely strode away from the table, walking so similarly to her father no one could be in any doubt she was his daughter.

Much to Bronwyn's despair, Vittaria, the stern Matron, quickly rose from the seat she had been given near the entrance to the grand dining hall. Even worse was the fact that Zai Allizadra had followed her as well and was now jogging along in her black satin uniform to catch up

"Lady Bronwyn, wait," Zai said, holding down her shiny blade that hung from her right hip so it wouldn't slap around. Once she had caught up with the Lady, she performed a slight bow and smoothed down a few strands of her white-blonde hair that had been disturbed by the jog.

"Commander," Bronwyn said with enough frostiness in her voice to freeze an entire bucket of water.

"Headaches should not be taken lightly. Please allow me to escort you to your bedchamber," Zai said and extended her arm.

Bronwyn stared at it with disgust. Then she looked up at Zai's hard, angular features and the blue chips of ice that were usually referred to as eyes. 'What is on her agenda today? I do not like that catty smile she has on her lips... she is dying to tell me something... but what?'

Bronwyn turned to look at Tawna who had joined them at the door. When the senior handmaiden couldn't offer any reply, Bronwyn sighed deeply and accepted the Commander's arm.


The four women walked up the staircase in complete silence. Now and then, a few of the maids and servants tried to greet the Lady, but cold glares by Zai convinced them not to.

Halfway up the staircase, the small group passed by an old, crooked beggar who held out a horrendously filthy hand from under a tattered, dark brown frock. "A penny for the blind, oh gracious Master?" the woman squeaked in a frail voice, turning her head towards the group of women. Although her face was mostly obscured by the hood, the rag she had tied around her eyes was clear to see.

"Get away from me, disgusting creature!" Zai said and gave the beggar a wide berth.

Bronwyn tried to smile at the old woman, but Zai was pulling her so hard she didn't have time for more than a slight creasing of her lips.

Once they reached the door to Bronwyn's bedchamber, Zai kept standing outside, obviously waiting for Vittaria and Tawna to leave them so she could have a moment alone with Bronwyn.

Tawna hurriedly did what was expected of her, but the stern Matron stood her ground and didn't move an inch.

Zai narrowed her already chilling eyes and pinned the Matron to the spot. "Are you hard of thinking? Leave us or I shall make you taste the whip," she hissed.

Vittaria shook her head but began to wring her hands. "I fear I cannot. Emperor Jin-Sarnos has ordered me to-"

"Be gone, hideous woman!" Zai barked, pointing at the door to the bedchamber. Vittaria hastily curtseyed and stepped inside to join Tawna.

Once Zai was alone with the Lady, a cold smile spread over her features. She let go of Bronwyn's arm to walk over to the small window overlooking the city far below. "Milady... I must say you look dashing today. Crimson is your color. Though you must get rid of those stupid red dots on your face."

"Thank you, Commander," Bronwyn said, bowing her head.

"Mmmm. You shall be a fine wife for Count Frankko," Zai said, turning back around and leaning against the windowsill. "Yes, indeed. Soon, you shall be hard at work serving your new master's every whim and desire. Which reminds me, have you heard from Caid Barlin recently?"

'Caid? She knows something about Caid!' Bronwyn thought, almost biting her tongue in half so she wouldn't appear too excited. For once, the stupid red dots on her ghostly white cheeks came to her rescue because she could feel a deep flush spread over her skin. "I have not, Commander. Not since my father had the Huntress and her entire family banished from Ashburne."

"Ah yes, such a curious incident. However," Zai said and moved really close to the flushed Lady. The leader of the Black Lance took both Bronwyn's hands in her own in a move that was highly inappropriate considering Bronwyn's unique status among the Ashburne nobility. "Regrettably, I must once again be the bearer of bad news, Lady Bronwyn. Alas, Caid Barlin has passed. She was found late last night in a ditch on the southern trail to the castle. An arrow had pierced her chest... yes, it's true. The Huntress is no more," Zai continued in a voice that grew evermore menacing as she spoke the words.

Both corners of Bronwyn's mouth began to twitch and her eyes slowly grew wider and wider without her being able to do anything about either of those reactions. Then a wave of anger swept over her and she yanked her hands free of Zai's. "Liar! Wretched liar!" she said hoarsely, backing up against the door to her bedchamber.

Once again she felt her heart thundering in her chest; once again she found it difficult to breathe; once again, she faced the prospects of grieving over yet another woman who had meant far more to her than a mere passing acquaintance.

"A liar? Me? Oh come now, Lady Bronwyn," Zai said and straightened her black satin tunic that had been pulled slightly askew in the struggle. "Would I lie to you? I have no reason to lie. Caid Barlin is dead, mark my words. And with that, I bid you a most pleasant afternoon, Lady Bronwyn," she continued, gesturing flamboyantly while performing a deep bow.

A few steps down the staircase, Zai encountered the blind beggar who was crudely pushed into the wall. As the beggar crumbled to her knees, a heartfelt groan escaped her old lips and she seemed to clutch her left side.

Bronwyn bit down the scathing curse she held ready at the tip of her tongue and hurried over to help the blind beggar get back on her feet. "Oh, Sweet Marpaxa, I am profoundly sorry!" she said, moving two steps further down so she was at the right angle to help the frail, elderly woman upright. "Can you stand? Maybe I should call for help-"

"No, Sweet Mistress, I c- can stand... I can stand. Thank you. A penny for the blind, Sweet Mistress?" the beggar said and put out her filthy hand.

"Oh!" Bronwyn said and instinctively touched the golden sash around her waist where her coin pouch would ordinarily be when she was wearing less flashy garments. "I fear I have no Crowns on me, beggar..."

"How 'bout a kiss, then?" the beggar said and cocked her head.

"I- surely you would not expect me, the Lady of Ashburne Castle to kiss a... kiss a beggar!"

"You might like it, Sweet Mistress."

"I- I- I..." - While Bronwyn shied back across the staircase with her trembling hands firmly pressed to her bosom, she happened to look down at the beggar's footwear. Instead of the sandals, the wrappings or even the filthy bare feet she had expected to find, the tips of hand-made riding boots stuck out from underneath the frayed edge of the frock.

"Who's to say you wouldn't enjoy it, Lady Bronwyn?" the supposedly blind beggar said in a deeper and far richer voice that was full of warmth - and just a touch of mirth.

Bronwyn stared wide-eyed at the crooked figure opposite her. The boots, the voice, the mannerisms, the outline underneath the frock all pointed to the same conclusion - Caid Barlin. "Caid!" Bronwyn said in a croaking whisper, holding her clenched fists to her mouth.

" 'tis I, Milady," the Huntress said and performed a little bow.

"We cannot... oh! Oh, we cannot stay here... where should we... oh..." Bronwyn said, mopping her brow that had suddenly become quite clammy. "The- the study! The study downstairs! Come... come quick!" she whispered, hurrying down the staircase to get to the study before Vittaria found out she had gone missing.

Behind Lady Bronwyn, the blind beggar followed in a slower, more labored walk, but it didn't take long for the two women to arrive at the wooden door to the study. Bronwyn quickly ushered them inside and latched the door behind her, leaning against it with a chest that heaved from the excitement. "Oh... Caid... you cannot... simply cannot grasp my relief of seeing you here... with me... and alive. I am so... so pleased to see you again. So pleased!"

The blind beggar hobbled over to the table at the center of the room where she was magically transformed into Caid Barlin, the Huntress. Only using her right arm, Caid swept back the hood and unraveled the frock from her body. Underneath, she was wearing a dark brown outfit consisting of a wraparound tunic and ankle pants, all held in place by a leather belt. The cloth covering her eyes came off last.

When Caid's dusty green orbs came into view, Bronwyn's heart swelled and she couldn't stop herself from rushing forward into the arms of the smaller, yet far stronger, woman. She stopped short when she realized something was wrong with Caid's left arm. "Your... your arm...?" she whispered, tenderly stroking the outside of Caid's tunic.

Caid nodded with a small grimace. "I fear I really did get an arrow in my chest last eve, Lady Bronwyn... hence my less than optimal appearance. Kheo and Deegan found me and Fyonna cured me with her potions. It's better but still hurting like one of Phirax' bedsores. Oh, and you needn't fear the filth... it's just soot and ash from a cold fire. Nothing contagious."

"Oh! Oh, the bitch told the truth?" Bronwyn said strongly, blushing furiously when she realized the profanity that had slipped out without her noticing.

"Indeed she did," Caid said with a chuckle. "I was on my way up to your chamber when I noticed the commotion behind me. I saw your arm inside hers and I thought... well, it doesn't matter what I thought."

"It was to keep me in an iron grip," Bronwyn said with a shrug. Unnoticeably, she moved in closer to the Huntress.

"Who was that ungainly woman who walked with you?"

Bronwyn sighed and looked towards the heavens for guidance. "Vittaria. We call her the Bullmastiff. She is a Matron who has been assigned to be my watchdog so I shall not get intimately involved with any of the handmaidens," she said as her hands slipped around Caid's waist. "I swear to Marpaxa the woman never lets me out of her sight. She is ghastly. Simply ghastly!"

Bronwyn's eyes fell down onto Caid's inviting lips that were seemingly just waiting to be claimed. The two women moved even closer until their bodies touched. As Caid's right leg was pressed softly into the front of Bronwyn's gown, words became superfluous.

Sighing with joy and relief over being allowed to reconnect with the fair Lady Caid after such a long and enforced separation, Bronwyn leaned down and claimed Caid's soft lips in a warm kiss that sent such a jolt through her she had to pull back slightly just to make sure the woman in her arms was real rather than a mere figment of her late-night fantasies.

The firm hands around her own waist proved that Caid was real, and Bronwyn soon returned to the sweet lips before her to resume the kiss - a kiss that grew in intensity almost instantly. The connection between them was firmly established on every level and it didn't take long for them to yearn for more, as witnessed by their gestures that grew from passionate to heated and finally to frantic.

A few moaning sighs were proof of the growing fire within them, and when Caid reached up to pull Bronwyn even closer, thus moving her own leg deeply between the taller Lady's, they nearly went the last step.

"No... no, sweet Caid... we cannot do this. Not now," Bronwyn whispered, pulling back from the ferocious kiss and the protruding leg even though the highly charged blood that coursed through her veins screamed at her to take their relationship to the next, carnal level. "If we are discovered, I fear we shall both lose our heads. We cannot risk that. Not now. Caid...?"

"I agree, Lady Bronwyn. Reluctantly so... but I agree," Caid said, nodding. Her cheeks were flushed and there was a warm glow to her eyes that proved she had been on the brink of tearing off their clothes with her teeth.

Panting, Bronwyn sat down at the table with a bump. She picked up a handkerchief she found there and began to fan her face. "Goodness me... Sweet Marpaxa, I have never felt anything like it. I was afeared my body would catch fire. Is that normal, Huntress?"

"Oh, such a condition is quite normal, Milady. At least... I hope it is, for I feel the same," Caid said huskily. The Huntress moved stealthily behind the Lady and began to shower her exposed neck with kisses and little nibbles.

Bronwyn knew she had to ask for a respite, but the feel of Caid's sweet lips upon her heated skin felt so good she decided to keep mum about the thoughts and images that raced around in her mind at the speed of a thoroughbred stallion. Caid's hot breath down her neck was nearly her undoing, but she managed to lean forward to stop the sweet onslaught. "Please, Lady Caid," Bronwyn croaked with her eyes and legs firmly closed. "Please... I cannot take any more without... without..."

"I understand," Caid said and moved around the table to sit on the other chair. "But I must admit I have to cast iron shackles around my heart and mind to stop myself from ravishing you right here, on the rug in front of the fireplace."

Bronwyn's eyebrows and lips twitched once, then twice at the enticing suggestion, but she knew they had to wait, so she shook her head slowly and kept her hands firmly in her lap. "Alas... we must wait, Huntress. Instead... may I ask why you have dared come to the castle?"

The Huntress sobered and leaned back in her chair. "I fear my father has been captured by the Black Lance."

"Oh, no!"

" 'tis true, Lady Bronwyn," Caid said and thumped her clenched fist gently down onto the tabletop. "He and I were traveling to the South Gate last eve to speak with a friend when we were ambushed. I was shot, he was captured. I came here today to find out what happened to him... where he is being kept. And, of course, to see you, Milady."

Bronwyn offered the Huntress a brief smile before she reached out and put a warm, affectionate hand on the clenched fist. "I fear I cannot tell you where your father is. I have neither seen nor heard of him," she said while caressing Caid's knuckles with her thumb. "I spoke to my own father not a turn of the hourglass ago, but... well. He said nothing of such a high profile prisoner. Neither did Zai Allizadra."

"My best guess is they're keeping him in a cell in the dungeon."

"Oh! Surely not, Huntress! Surely they will not expose Efrem Barlin, a Count of the Crown and one of my father's most loyal supporters, to such awful conditions. Not to mention the people there! All sorts of degenerates are kept there... surely not Efrem Barlin..." Bronwyn said, but even as the words came past her lips, she knew her father and Zai were indeed capable of such an atrocity. As the truth dawned on her, she looked down and pulled back her lips in a disgusted grimace.

Caid grunted and returned the earlier gesture by reaching out with her good hand to stroke Bronwyn's arm through the exquisite crimson dress. "It's not your doing, Lady Bronwyn. Please do not despair."

"In a way," Bronwyn said quietly, "I feel it is my doing. If I had not resisted marrying Lasar-Ihtreg, none of this would have happened. Would you believe my dear father has already promised my hand to Count Frankko of Tantor? No, 'tis true, I am to marry his most esteemed Dullness in the Spring."

"Lady Bronwyn, if you hadn't resisted marrying the evil Seer, you would assuredly be carrying his offspring now. Tell me, would that really be an improvement?"

"No. You are right. Oh..." Bronwyn said and slapped her thighs as she rose from the chair. "I fear I cannot spend more time here with you, Caid. Too much of it has passed already. If Vittaria gets anxious and goes on a search for me, it will end in tears. Therefore, I need to bid you farewell. Much as my heart begs and pleads with me to remain in your arms... alas, we must say goodbye."

"For now, Lady Bronwyn."

"Yes. For now, Caid," Bronwyn said, deliberately stepping away from the Huntress so she wouldn't lose herself in the older woman's lips.

Sighing, she tip-toed over to the door to peek outside. "All clear," she whispered over her shoulder after a few seconds. Looking back, she could see the blind beggar had almost completed her return.

"A penny for the blind, sweet Mistress?" the crooked beggar said as she swept the brown frock over her shoulders, once again holding out her filthy hand.

The charade was cute, but it left Bronwyn with a growing fear for Caid's safety. She knew in her heart she would not be able to withstand another loss, or even a shock like the one she'd had on the staircase when Zai had lied to her. Her lips creased in a smile that never grew beyond faint as she slipped out of the door on her way up to her bedchamber.

A flight up, she briefly looked back and spotted a frail, hunched-over woman hobbling out of the study. The blind beggar didn't look up at her and was soon out of sight.


The usual game of butting heads between Bronwyn and Vittaria was played out at bedtime like it had been for nearly three moons. First, Vittaria simply ignored Bronwyn and refused to leave, then she nodded curtly and left, only to come back to eavesdrop at the door for the next half-turn of the hourglass.

On this night, Bronwyn was determined to have a different outcome to the game. As she waved Tawna over to her at her bedside, she held up a small vial containing a murky liquid. "Tawna... my dear, old friend," she whispered, patting the quilt covering the four-post canopy bed with her free hand, "please sit with me. What I am about to do shall change-"

"Oh, Milady! Please don't end it here... not with poison!" Tawna replied in a strong whisper, hurriedly reaching out for the vial.

"No!" Bronwyn whispered and yanked her arm back, pulling her sleeping chemise askew in the process. "No, Tawna, not poison... this is the last of the sleeping potion the healer Mirkko made for me earlier, after... after May-Linn's death. Remember?"

"Oh... yes, I remember, Milady," Tawna said quietly, letting out a sigh of relief.

"Good. Now... Tawna, I want you to find Vittaria and befriend her for tonight, as wretched and unpleasant as that may sound. I want you to offer her a drink... a toast... for working together for nearly three moons. A brandy."

"Oh! Oh, I don't even have to perform a charade, Milady," Tawna whispered excitedly, pushing a graying lock of hair behind her ear. "Vittaria drinks several cups of brandy each night. I could easily slip the potion into her mug without her noticing."

"You could?"

"Certainly, Milady. I- I beg for forgiveness for asking such a foolish question, but have you remembered to compensate for her vastly larger size?"

"Tawna, this is the rest of the potion... all of it. I took this much," Bronwyn whispered, holding her pinkie at the very top of the liquid, "and I slept the entire day. The remainder in here will knock her out for days. Maybe more."

Tawna nodded slowly. Then she furrowed her brow and looked her mistress in the eye. "Lady Bronwyn, you are eloping... aren't you?"

"I am, Tawna," Bronwyn said quietly. When her handmaiden responded by sighing and looking down, she reached over and took hold of the older woman's hands. "And I would like you to come with me. However, please understand you can say no if you do not wish to traipse around the countryside and the deep, dark forests on a quest to find the fabled outlaws."

"The outlaws are in the Sarkhann Forest, Milady... everybody knows that."

"I did not! You see? What should I do without you, Tawna?" Bronwyn said and gave the handmaiden a strong squeeze. "I simply cannot find words to describe what you mean to me. You are my dearest friend, my closest confidant, and I simply cannot imagine living without you now. Since mother was taken from us, you have been my guiding light. You have shaped me into the woman I am today, Tawna, please know that."

"I- I have no ties here to speak of... except perhaps Carrae and Mynere. And they will both understand. I hope," Tawna said quietly. "Yes... yes, I would like to come with you, Milady."

"Oh, that is such a relief! Good! Good, Tawna," Bronwyn said and leaned over to place a soft, tender kiss on her old friend's forehead - much to Tawna's surprise. "But first things first. Now the sleeping potion..." she continued, putting the vial into Tawna's open palm.

"Shall be dealt with immediately," Tawna said, closing her fist around the metal that was already warm from Bronwyn's touch. Getting up, she winked at the Lady and drew a deep breath. "Oh, I wish you a pleasant night, Milady. Sweet dreams!" she said loud enough for Vittaria to hear it on the other side of the door.

"Thank you and good night, Tawna!" Bronwyn said in an equally exaggerated style.


Half a turn of the hourglass later, Tawna rapped her knuckles on the door to the bedchamber with enough force to make Bronwyn hear it, but not forcibly enough to wake up the rest of the castle.

Bronwyn had been prepared for it and tip-toed over to the door on bare feet. Unlatching it, she briefly looked outside to check if Tawna was alone. She was, and was soon ushered inside. "So?" Bronwyn said as she applied the sturdy latch back onto the door's frame.

"She went out like a snuffed candle. She literally fell where she sat, Milady. She became so still I had to check her neck for a pulse, but it was there. After stealing these two frocks that she had hanging in her chamber," - Tawna held up two dark brown, hooded frocks - "I covered her with a third one so she wouldn't get too cold."

"Oh... good. Thank you. She was an unpleasant woman, but we should not resort to killing anyone... at least not to begin with. Very well."

" 'At least not to begin with' ?" Tawna croaked, but Bronwyn had already stuck her head into her wardrobe and was unable to answer. The handmaiden shivered and moved up to stand behind her mistress to take the clothes that would undoubtedly follow.

"Hmmm," Bronwyn said, studying what was available to her. "Although the outfit that served me so well on my trip to the Shadowlands was lost in that wretched place, I think I shall try to emulate it by... oh, by taking my new pair of wraparound ankle pants, here," - Tawna took the suede pants and put them on the bed - "And... let me see. Hmmm. The nights are cold. I shall need a warm undershirt in the shape of my double-layer, high-collared tunic. Dark, to ease our escape. Here," Bronwyn said, reaching behind her without even looking.

Tawna duly took the long-sleeved tunic and put it next to the ankle pants.

"On top of that, my new jerkin that I have yet to wear. Yes, this will be ideal for our endeavor. Yes... Tawna, please," Bronwyn said and handed the three-quarter length jerkin to her handmaiden.

"Undergarments, Milady," Tawna said as she folded up the jerkin and put it on top of the tunic.

Bronwyn looked back at her friend and offered her a smile. "Undergarments, indeed," she said and turned back around to raid her underwear drawers.


Another half-turn of the hourglass later, two shady figures dressed in dark brown, hooded frocks sneaked out of the bedchamber and made to close the door behind them.

Standing in the doorway, Bronwyn let her eyes roam over the contents of her bedchamber for what could possibly be the last time. 'If I can never return, I shall miss my elegant gowns... and some of the jewelry,' she thought, looking at the wardrobe and the dresser. 'At least I bring with me the most important item, mother's tiled gold necklace that I gave to May-Linn. If I had to leave that behind, I might as well leave my heart. Very well... in for a penny, in for a Crown.' - "Come, Tawna. New adventures await us, we must not keep them waiting," she whispered to a visibly nervous Tawna.

Bronwyn closed the door softly and moved into the center of the dead-silent staircase where Tawna was already on her way down the first steps. She briefly put a hand on Tawna's shoulder to let her know she was grateful for her support.

Nodding, Tawna set off down the grand staircase one step behind her mistress like she was accustomed to.

The two women quickly descended the deserted stairs until they were at the final landing above the main entrance. Bronwyn stopped Tawna short as she spotted two soldiers from the regular army guarding the doors. The two men seemed bored and inattentive, and the Lady knew they had to exploit that.

Bronwyn turned around and put her lips right next to Tawna's ears. "Follow my lead," she whispered so quietly her words were as faint as the flapping of a nightingale's wings.

When Tawna nodded, Bronwyn pulled the hood over her head to get her face almost fully obscured. Once her disguise was in place, she hunched over and walked down the final flight of stairs on legs that seemed a hundred years old.

"A penny for the ill, oh gracious Masters?" she squeaked once she reached the soldiers. Although her hand wasn't filthy like Caid's had been, she hoped the two men didn't have time to notice little things like that when faced with what appeared to be a pair of beggars.

"Ugh... get away from us, you smelly varmints," the first of the two soldiers said, pinching his nostrils. "Be gone... be gone with you. Now!" he croaked, kicking out after Bronwyn's rear end.

Bronwyn and Tawna took the cue and left the main entrance behind in a hurry, though both remembered to pull a labored walk for the first thirty fathoms or so. As soon as they were out of sight of the sentries, they stood up straight and hurried away from the castle.

Before long, they were on their way to the South Gate, protected by the deep shadows between the many flickering torches that lined Ashburne's narrow, cobbled streets.

"Smelly varmints! How indescribably rude!" Bronwyn mumbled in an insulted voice. "If we ever return, I shall give that man a stern talking to... smelly varmints, pah!"

"I am more concerned with running into the Black Lance... or ruffians, Milady."


"Indeed. There are many ruffians out on the streets and in the woods at this time of night, Milady."

"Oh..." Bronwyn said and briefly slowed down before she resumed her fast walk. "I wish you had mentioned that factoid earlier in my considerations, Tawna..."




In the early hours of the next morning, two horses broke through the gray mist that flowed gently among the many trees in the Sarkhann Forest. The muffled footfalls from the eight hooves were accompanied by the occasional creak and squeak from the leather harnesses and saddles, and by the horses shaking their heads and swishing their tails - beyond that, the Sarkhann was as silent as a tomb.

Caid Barlin sat high atop Chestnut, thoroughly scanning the forest around her to stay on top of any potential dangers before they could reach them. Next to her, Kheo Khammon rode on Horsey, scouting his side of the trail they were on in a similar fashion to the Huntress. Initially merely a dawn patrol, they had managed to come across breakfast as well, as witnessed by the two rabbits that hung from Kheo's saddle horn.

Caid put her clenched fist in the air which made Kheo pull Horsey to a halt. They were four hundred fathoms from the main entrance, but nary a sound wafted through the mist from the camp. The Huntress cocked her head and swept her entire surroundings, almost like her sixth sense had been triggered. When she didn't see anything, she spread out her fingers which told Kheo he should move away from her.

Kheo nodded and slapped the reins. He took off in a ninety degree angle from Chestnut, and before long, he was seventy-five fathoms away. Once again, he stopped and stared at Caid through the swirling mist. When nothing happened or moved for a long while, Caid signaled him back to her.

Grunting, the big man slapped Horsey's reins and rocked back towards his old friend. "Yer ears ticklin'?" he whispered once he was close enough for Caid to hear.

"Yeah. There's something out there, but I cannot say what... or even where. Well, whatever it is, it doesn't pose a threat to us. Let's return to camp. I'm starved," Caid said and nudged Chestnut's sides.

"Oy, if yer starved, whaddaya think I am, huh?" Kheo whispered, patting his belly that did indeed look a little flat.


The rest of their way to the main entrance went smoothly, and the two sentries manning the gates even proved to be awake, alert and sober once Caid and Kheo reached it.

As Caid waited for the men to swing the sturdy log gate aside, she turned around in the saddle and took a last peek out into the misty forest. Furrowing her brow, she absentmindedly scratched her ear that was still ticking, like Kheo had called it.

"Oy, Huntress!" Kheo said, having led Horsey through the gate. "Are ya gonna stand out there the whole day? All the more breakfast fer me, tho'!"

"I'm coming, Kheo. Yah!" Caid said and slapped Chestnut's reins. Before long, the two riders went up the final path to the central square. The camp was still quiet and the night torches were still lit, but it wouldn't be long before the early risers would be out of bed and into their regular routines.

Even as Caid dismounted in front of the open hut they used for the stables, several women came out of the nearby homes with buckets that were carried over to the well - one of them was Alanna who waved excitedly at her sister.

After waving back, Caid took off her leather gloves and reached in under her suede hunting jacket. She hissed with pain when the wound in her upper left side was still excruciatingly sore to the touch.

Kheo jumped off Horsey and took the string with the two rabbits off the saddle horn. "I'm gonna go over to Cook an' give him these two critters here. I cannot smell no smoke so the lazy bum prob'ly ain't up yet. Get some rest until breakfast is ready, Huntress. You look like something Phirax wiped off his ass."

"I know. Thanks, Kheo," Caid said and reached in under Chestnut to release the belly strap of the saddle. The large animal whinnied and shook its back as first the saddle and then the blanket were removed. Yawning, Caid walked into the stables and put down the items on a small table on the left of the eight boxes.

As she came back out, she spotted Kheo and Cook standing at the tavern hut, discussing the two rabbits. She suddenly sensed someone running towards her from behind, and she spun around like lightning with her hand firmly on the hilt of her machete.

Markki waved at his sister as he closed the distance between them. "Good morn, Caid... I am glad you have returned. There is an issue at the back door. A woman, one of the Forest Women by the looks of it, has captured two handmaidens from Ashburne Castle. She wishes to come in with her captives for food and shelter."

"Wait... a Yonnae? Here?"

"Yes. She is clearly one of the Forest Women, her face is tattooed," Markki said, nodding hard.

"Huh! Very well, Markki. Thank you. I shall be right there," Caid said and resolutely mounted Kheo's abandoned Horsey. She already knew the horse well, but the mare still needed a moment to adjust to the strange weight on her back - similarly, Caid had to adjust to sitting on Kheo's much larger saddle. The odd riding position gnawed into her thighs and buttocks, but for such a short distance, it wouldn't matter. "Yah!" she cried, nudging Horsey's sides which made the large mare whinny and set off down towards the back door to the camp.


Even before Caid had made it all the way there, she could see that Markki had been right about their female visitor.

The buff redhead who was standing on the other side of the log fence with a spear in her gloved hand appeared to be in her late twenties or early thirties. She was dressed in the traditional traveling garb of the Yonnae - high-legged boots with daggers strapped to both ankles, dark green high-waisted pants in a straight cut, a dark brown, quilted tunic with an integrated leather belt, and on top of it all, a woven cape in a camouflaged pattern that alternated between deep green and husky brown.

The woman's leathery face was indeed tattooed like Markki had claimed; nearly a dozen ancient symbols colored her throat, cheeks, nose and even up on her forehead.

Caid knew each symbol represented a year in the service of the Yonnae Queen, so the visitor appeared to be an experienced warrior. Arriving at the gate, Caid quickly brought Horsey to a halt and jumped off her. Next to the warrior, two sorry figures in hooded, dark brown frocks were huddled together like they were cold, hungry and miserable.

"Greetings, traveler. I am Caid Barlin, the community elder. May I ask your name?" Caid said, studying the women and her captives who suddenly seemed agitated.

"Sabia, elder," the warrior said. She shifted the spear which made her cape drift aside to reveal a Yonnae machete attached to her belt on her left side.

"Good day, Sabia. What brings you here?"

"I was on my way to Ashburne Castle when I came across these two pitiful excuses for women. They were lost in the Sarkhann. The tall one was whining so loudly I could hear her a league away. I had to gag and hog-tie 'em both."

"Mmmm. What are two handmaidens doing way out here?" Caid said, cocking her head at the somewhat familiar shape of the taller of the two captives.

"I cannot say, elder. Maybe they're spies for the Emperor?" Sabia said and unceremoniously yanked back the hood of the handmaiden nearest to her.

When Lady Bronwyn's familiar features came into view - she was gagged like Sabia had said - Caid's jaw became slack and ended up halfway down her chest.

Bronwyn's reactions were much the same: her eyes popped wide open and she let out a frantic, gurgling grunt from underneath the gag. When she began to wiggle around like she wanted to make a run for it, Sabia offered the Lady a fair-sized kick up the rear end that made her cry out in pain.

"Hey, treat the woman with some respect!" Caid barked, waving the sentry over to her so they could swing open the back door. "Don't you know who that is?"

"No, but you obviously do," Sabia said and whacked Bronwyn over the back with the blunt end of the spear.

Caid stormed out of the half-opened gate and yanked Sabia's spear aside. "Stop that right this instant!" she barked, shooting the Yonnae a full dose of green fire from her eyes.

The taller Sabia cocked her head and took a step back from her prisoners. "She must be of some value to you. By all means, take her. I fear you need to let the gag stay where it is. The bitch can whine like you wouldn't believe."

"Watch your tongue! She is Lady Bronwyn of Ashburne Castle!" Caid barked, hurriedly removing the gag from Bronwyn's mouth.

That tidbit of information made Sabia scrunch up her eyes and stare darkly at her captive. "I'll be a daughter of a whore... so the other handmaiden was telling the truth. Just goes to show you cannot judge a scroll by its cover. My, my... I was fooled. Shame on me," she said and slowly drew her machete.

A muffled cry from Bronwyn made Caid spin around and face the visitor who held the machete like she wanted to separate Bronwyn's head from her shoulders.

An arrow was suddenly planted in the ground right at Sabia's feet. All four women spun around and stared at Markki who was aiming the next arrow directly at the Yonnae's heart.

"I suggest you step away from my sister... now!" he said, and the dark look on his face proved there was substance behind his barely veiled threat.

Sabia narrowed her eyes and duly took a step back from Caid and Bronwyn. "Noted. I have no quarrel with your sister. All I ask for is a moment, a very brief moment, alone with her Ladyship. She owes me something that I would like to repay with interest."

The tension soon grew to unbearable levels. Caught in the middle of it all, Bronwyn stared wide-eyed at the menacing woman without understanding a single syllable of anything that was going on.

Exploiting the confusion, Caid pushed Bronwyn behind her while keeping an angry stare firmly fixed on the Yonnae. "You shall have nothing of the kind, warrior! The Lady is under my protection. If anything happens to her, I shall find you and slit your throat from ear to ear!"

Sabia growled at that challenge but seemed to come to terms with it fairly quickly. Nodding, she holstered her machete and put her hands in the air in a gesture of temporary defeat. "Fine. Do with her as you see fit. Just never let her out of your sight. I can see there's no room for someone like me here. I bid you farewell... elder."

Caid growled from somewhere deep in her chest as she tracked the tattooed woman leaving the log fence and disappearing into the swirling mist. As soon as they were alone - and even before she ungagged Bronwyn - she pulled everyone behind the fence and helped swing the heavy gate shut.

Once inside, Caid immediately untied the ropes holding Bronwyn's and Tawna's hands together; then she pulled out Bronwyn's gag and wiped off the excess saliva with her sleeve.

The moment Bronwyn was freed from her restraints, she immediately let out a pained cry and dove into Caid's arms for a crushing hug. "Oh, my sweet Caid! I was so afeared the brutal woman would slay us... we lost our way some time last night... we walked around in circles... just before dawn, she found us and treated us like animals! We have had neither food nor drink since last night... nor did we sleep at all..."

Bronwyn's voice trailed off into nothing when she realized she was rambling. Instead of speaking, she let her lips do the talking and pulled Caid in for a bruising kiss of utter relief that left everyone there stunned with its intensity.

Markki grimaced at the sight. When the women didn't seem to want to stop kissing, he put his longbow over his shoulder and walked away with a grunt.

Separating, Caid shook her head as she touched her bruised lips. "Lady Bronwyn... Tawna... what in the name of Phirax the Unholy are you doing out here?"

Tawna chuckled darkly after tearing the gag from her mouth. "We went from the frying pan and into the fire, Mistress Barlin. Lady Bronwyn and I have eloped."

"What?" Caid said sharply, turning back to Bronwyn.

" 'tis true, Huntress. After the wonderful encounter we had yesterday afternoon, you and I... I simply could not contemplate carrying on like nothing had happened. Like nothing was wrong," Bronwyn said and took Caid's hands in her own. "I beg for forgiveness, but my heart spoke to me. It said I needed to be near you."

Caid sighed but still gave Bronwyn's hands a squeeze. "I appreciate that, Lady Bronwyn. Did your heart tell you what to do when your father sends his elite units here to send us all to Phirax... one headless corpse at a time?"

"In all honesty, Huntress... when my father finds out, he shall be disappointed for a day or so that I will not marry Count Frankko. And then he shall throw a grand, lavish party to celebrate that I am out of his hair for good."

Behind them, Alanna came hurrying down to the back gate to see for herself what Markki had told her. She came to an abrupt stop when she saw her sister holding hands with the Lady of Ashburne Castle. With a dark frown gracing her fair brow, she wiped her own hands on her apron and stepped closer.

"Milady," she said and went down into a deep curtsey. "I am Alanna Barlin, Caid's sister. I am enchanted to meet you. Welcome to our community."

"Thank you, Lady Alanna. I am enchanted to meet you too," Bronwyn said and mirrored the curtsey, though hers looked slightly odd as a result of wearing the coarse, brown frock and her ankle pants. "I must say, you and your sister are very graceful and elegant women, indeed."

"Oh... goodness me, thank you, Lady Bronwyn," Alanna said and curtseyed again.

Caid rolled her eyes at the pleasantries, but still wrapped her arm around Bronwyn's waist. "Alanna, please find Fyonna and ask her to call a meeting of the elders. This changes quite a lot."

"Yes, Caid. I shall do that right away. Oh, should I also ask Markki to prepare a hut for our esteemed guests?"

Caid and Bronwyn briefly locked eyes but looked back ahead in a hurry. "Only for Tawna," Caid said. "Her Ladyship shall stay with me during her visit."

Alanna fell quiet and seemed to send a silent message to her sister; one that roughly said 'Are you sure people will accept this, Caid?' After a short delay, she nodded and hurried back to the camp.

"Tawna," Bronwyn said, "please follow Lady Alanna and make sure you get a comfortable hut. You have been through so much... I want you to be warm and happy while we are here. And please get something to eat, you must be famished."

"Yes, Milady. Thank you, Milady. Please do not forget you need to eat as well," Tawna said and performed a brief curtsey before she hurried up the path to the camp.

With a modicum of peace returning to the gate at the back door, Caid let out a deep sigh and put her hands on her hips. She turned around to shoot a look at the sentry that said he should leave them be and go back to the sentry box.

As soon as they were alone, she put a hand around Bronwyn's waist and pulled her close. "I'm happy to see you, Lady Bronwyn, truly I am. Yet... I cannot say I'm free of worry when it comes to our immediate future."

"I understand, Huntress. Though it may seem like one, my decision to come here was not made in the spur of the moment. I simply could not remain at the castle. Something had to give, and I feared it would be my sanity," Bronwyn said and returned the squeeze.

"No, no, it's... it's all right, Lady Bronwyn. We'll turn it to our advantage, I'm sure. Come, let's head up to the camp's tavern hut for some breakfast. Oh, I do believe Kheo and Deegan will be rather surprised!"

"I fear I must prepare my delicate ears for the colorful expressions that will undoubtedly come from Sir Kheo," Bronwyn said, snickering, as the two women began walking up the path that would lead them to the central square.

"While we're on that subject... do you have any idea, any idea whatsoever what the Yonnae warrior meant with her angry comment that you owed her something?"

"No," Bronwyn said with a shrug. "I have never met or even heard of her before, of that I am quite certain. Oh, it is so bitterly ironic. I have always admired and respected the Yonnae for their honor and courage, indeed for their Sisterhood. And yet, when I run into one, she wants to kill me! Thank Marpaxa for the idea of disguising ourselves as handmaidens. If I had worn my regular clothes, I fear the woman would have buried her machete in my heart at first sight."

Caid nodded - there was no need to add to that horrifying image.

Sounds of a commotion from up ahead wafted down to them - seemingly coming from the central square - but they didn't think anything of it and continued at their own, leisurely pace.

"Lady Bronwyn, I'm sure you will be pleased to hear Fyonna is here," Caid said and stole a quick glance at the Lady's profile.

"Oh, Lady Fyonna was banished too?"

"No, she has chosen to stay here of her own free will. Her husband, the healer Mirkko, needed to remain in Ashburne to continue to treat their regular patients, though."

"Why, joining us of her own free will is certainly admirable."

"Indeed so, Lady Bronwyn. You will speak to her soon. I asked for a meeting with the community- what in the name of Phirax the Unholy is that now?!" Caid said sharply, pointing ahead at a group of villagers who were clearly agitated.

'There she is!' someone shouted from somewhere in the group. 'Throw 'er in the cage!' another voice said. 'No, she must hang! Hang from our tallest tree!' a third voice cried, clearly the most agitated of them all.

"Oh... oh dear! I fear my day just went from bad to worse..." Bronwyn mumbled and came to a full stop with her hands firmly pressed to her bosom.

Caid rubbed her face and let out a highly frustrated groan. "I'll say! If it continues downhill like this, we shall have an earthquake by suppertime! What has gotten into those fools!?"

Bronwyn and Caid strode the last part of the way up to the central square. As the agitated crowd fanned out, an oddly shaped lump next to the well was revealed to be a large, wooden cage they had used with great success on a badger-hunt not long after they had settled down in the Sarkhann Forest.

"If this is in jest, I am not amused," Caid said in a steely voice as she slowly drew her machete.

Fyonna, Kheo and Deegan pushed their way through the throng of people and encircled the Lady to protect her, each wearing dark and gloomy expressions that told the people they went past that if anyone did anything rash, they would regret it.

Their presence calmed matters down somewhat, but it still took an occasional growl by Kheo to make everyone there realize the Lady would be defended with all means necessary if anyone was foolish enough to come at her.

Bronwyn stared at the unruly crowd, pale and highly worried over the unexpected development. When she looked at Fyonna, she offered the blind Seer a faint smile, but it never made it past a slight crease of her lips.

Fyonna bowed her head in return. "Enchanted to meet you again, Lady Bronwyn... or, to be exact, Empress Bronwyn. It seems your presence acts like a burr under the saddle for these people."

"Oh... please- please do not use that title. I am but the Lady of Ashburne Castle. I am enchanted to meet you, too, Lady Fyonna," Bronwyn said, unsuccessfully trying to grasp the old Seer's wrinkled hands.

'Let's hang that wretched bitch!' - 'Strip her nekkid and let the dogs have her!' - those and other curses and inflammatory insults were hurled at Lady Bronwyn incessantly, stirring the unruly crowd into an ever-increasing frenzy.

Caid finally had enough and swung her machete at an angry young woman who held several rocks in her hands with the clear intention of throwing them at the Lady. "Enough! Enough of this insanity! Disperse at once, or we shall do it for you!"

'We lost our homes because of that bitch!' someone shouted. Caid couldn't fully identify the voice, but she was certain it belonged to one of those troublesome elements who had chosen to leave Ashburne on their own free will - whoever it was, it hadn't been one of the few who had been ordered to leave.

'She's gotta hang for what her fat, disgusting father has done to us!' someone else shouted.

Caid spun around to try to find the culprit but she was unsuccessful. Growling, she stepped up onto the edge of the well so she could look above the heads of the crowd. "People! You judge Lady Bronwyn for the sins her father has committed? You judge Lady Bronwyn for the atrocities the Black Lance have committed?"


"Tell me, good people, do you judge your sons, your daughters for the sins you commit? When you eat to excess, or throw out food that could have fed an entire family? When you drink to excess and stagger home in a drunken stupor? When you copulate with a whore up in the district though you have entered into the sacred, unbreakable state of matrimony with a wife who's waiting for you at home? When you raise your hand in anger at that very wife who dares to pose questions to protect her family? You do not! So, tell me, good people, why do you judge Lady Bronwyn for the sins committed by Jin-Sarnos?"

'That ain't the same!'

"By Phirax it ain't!"

"Our sons and daughters don't live a pampered life in a castle!" a woman in her late twenties cried right next to Caid, "And we don't collect extortionate taxes and tributes, nor do we beat the life out of those who cannot pay! The Lady must taste the medicine we have been forced to take for generations!"

'She's of his blood! She's as twisted and sadistic as he is!' someone else shouted.

Bronwyn let out a small sob at the aggression permeating the central square. A cold chill swept down her spine as the mood around her changed from bad to worse to unbearable. She tried to look some of her opponents in the eye, but they refused, or sent her hateful glances in return. 'And all this because I wanted to be near Caid... wretched. I should not have listened to my heart. I should have stayed behind and taken what was given to me by Vittaria and Zai Allizadra. I cannot stay... and I cannot go back. Wretched!' she thought, biting hard on her lips. "Everybody, please listen to me," she tried, putting her hands in the air.

Her words were ignored by the crowd, but suddenly she heard a crystal clear voice in her head - it belonged to Fyonna, and it said: 'Have no fear, Empress Bronwyn. We shall all protect you to the death, if need be.'

Bronwyn turned around and offered the Seer a faint smile that was returned in kind.

Then Fyonna stepped into the circle and held up her hands. The unruly crowd still respected the Seer and fell quiet at once. "Thank you. Please, lend me your ears," she said in a calm, soothing voice. "I propose a compromise. For the time being, Lady Bronwyn must remain in house arrest in Caid Barlin's hut. She is not to leave the hut for forty-eight turns of the hourglass. During her house arrest, she is only to receive the most basic nourishment, bread, fruit and water. After the forty-eight turns of the hourglass are up, we, the community elders shall perform our solemn duty by judging her to see if she is truly a threat to us, or simply a refugee who left her home to seek a better life elsewhere. Like so many others here!"

An uneasy silence spread through the crowd and the people trying to protect the Lady. A few murmurs rose here and there, but all in all, everyone seemed to accept the Seer's proposal. Caid kept standing at the edge of the well, pinning the most vociferous of the men and women to the spot with several fiery, green glares.

One after the other, the crowd dispersed and went back to their daily routines. The men and women of the camp slowly moved away from the epicenter in twos or threes, many of them whispering to each other. Some spoke of leaving the camp since the enemy had now invaded it.

The sigh of relief that rushed from Bronwyn's chest was strong enough to shift several fallen leaves on the ground. Her knees started to shake quite badly, but she leaned in and supported herself on Kheo's sturdy frame.

"Oy, luv! Yer ain't lookin' too swell. You sure you ain't gonna upchuck or som'thin'?" Kheo said, brushing his hand up and down Bronwyn's upper arm. "Uh... nice ta see ya, by the way."

Bronwyn let out a dark chuckle that got stuck in her throat halfway up. "Nice to see you too, Sir Kheo," she croaked.

In two heartbeats, Caid was at Bronwyn's side and took the pale woman gently by the arm. "Come on, Milady. My hut awaits you. I do not fully agree with Fyonna's compromise, but I think it's the best solution for now."

"Y- yes, I agree. I have nothing to hide... oh, I fear I am so tired. This confrontation took the last out of me. I am such a weakling..."

Tawna and Alanna hurried over from the other side of the square to aid the reeling Lady. Working together, they were able to get Bronwyn shuffled over to the hut Caid led them to.

Behind them, Fyonna pulled Deegan and Kheo in for a huddle near the well. "My friends," the Seer said quietly, "I must ask you to keep a close eye on her Ladyship. I fear this calmness is deceptive. It can turn into a raging storm in a heartbeat."

"Yup," Kheo said, nodding.

Deegan briefly rose above the huddle to study some of the men and women who had been in the crowd and were now loitering around the stables, the tavern and the medical hut. Grunting, he went back down. "I think we need to do more than that, Seer," the former Lieutenant said quietly, "I think we must uphold a strong presence by the hut. I shall start, then Kheo, then Caid-"

"Oy, dontcha think Caid an' the Lady's gonn' be busy doin' the luv'ly fer the entire two days?" Kheo said, bumping Deegan with his elbow. "I know me an' my honey-girl would be if she had shown up here outta the blue!"

"Kheo," Fyonna said flatly, "I am quite sure the Huntress and Lady Bronwyn have other, more weighty things on their mind than carnal pleasure."

"Huh... naw, I mean-"

"ANYway," Deegan cut in, "I shall start the guard duty, then Kheo, then Caid if she is available. If she isn't, we can ask Markki. He's a levelheaded young man. In other words, rotate after four turns of the hourglass. Kheo?"

"Sounds mi'ty fine ta me, Deegan. Sure. Ya know, I never thought we'd be fightin' them people here... but if they come at her Ladyship, they gonna get hurt. Some of 'em gonna die. An' it's gonna be their own fault," Kheo said, looking at the hut where Caid and the others had gone in.


Inside her hut, Caid hurriedly cleared her bunk to make room for the Lady. Once everything was ready for her, Tawna and Alanna helped the tired woman down onto the mattress and took off her coarse, brown frock.

"Would that be all, Milady?" Tawna said, folding her hands in front of her chest.

"It would, thank you. And you, Lady Alanna," Bronwyn said, reaching out in the vain hope either of the two women would accept her hand. When none did, she let it fall into her lap.

Alanna curtseyed and pulled back to the door. "I shall bring you your bread, fruit and water, Lady Bronwyn. Tawna, are you coming?"

The senior handmaiden furrowed her brow and looked at the fair woman whose resemblance to Caid Barlin was striking, even if she was a slightly younger version of the Huntress. "But I cannot leave my mistress alone, Lady Alanna..."

"Oh," Bronwyn said and hurriedly reached up to take Tawna's hands in her own, "I shall be quite all right, sweet Tawna. Go. Enjoy your time away from your high and mighty mistress. I have Caid Barlin for protection, I promise it shall be just fine."

Tawna looked like she didn't know whether to leave or stay, but she eventually returned the squeeze and offered her mistress a proper curtsey before she left with Alanna.

Once they were alone in the hut, Caid smiled at the stylish outfit worn by the Lady. She stowed some of her own, meager belongings into an available corner and crouched down in front of Bronwyn. "I fear my quarters are not up to your usual standards, Lady Bronwyn. For starters, I do not have a four-post canopy bed nor a sleeping chemise for you to wear..."

Bronwyn looked around the hut with a tired smile on her face. As expected of a hut that was in reality a log cabin, everything was held in dark, earthy tones. With the floor a meager four by four fathoms, it only had room for the bunk which was up against the left wall of the hut, and opposite it, a chair and a small table upon which a candlestick and an opened book were placed in close companionship.

Three shelves were fastened to the walls with wooden nails, a long one above the bunk and two shorter ones above the table. Those above the table held a couple of books similar to the one Caid was reading.

The only natural light came from a two-pane window next to the door, but even that was covered by a woven piece of cloth.

"Oh, Huntress," Bronwyn said and offered her savior a smile, "fear not, this shall do nicely. But... where are your clothes? Or do you only have that one outfit?"

"Oh no, my garments are stored dryly in a drawer underneath the bunk," Caid said and reached down to tap an index finger against the lower edge of where Bronwyn sat. "It also stops most of the breeze coming up from the floorboards."

"My, that is clever!" Bronwyn said with a smile that soon faded from her lined face. "Huntress, have you heard news of your father? Were you able to find out anything after we parted company yesterday?"

"Alas, no," Caid said and got to her feet. She quickly crossed the small hut and sat down on the chair at the table. "My father is in the dungeon, of that I am certain. I have no proof, but it is the only logical place for him to be."

Bronwyn shook her head slowly. "Please accept my profound apologies, Huntress."

"There's nothing for you to apologize for, Lady Bronwyn. Like I said outside, your father's sins are not yours."

An uneasy silence spread through the small hut before Bronwyn took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "Lady Caid, will you please sit with me?" she said quietly.

Caid cocked her head and studied the Lady for a little while, but eventually moved over to the bunk. Sitting down on Bronwyn's left side, she wrapped her good arm around the slender waist and leaned into the touch.

"Oh, Huntress! Is your wound still bothering you? You look like... uh... I fear I was going to say something vulgar," Bronwyn said with a snicker.

"It does, but my fatigue comes from the dawn patrol Kheo and I were out on just before all this nonsense started to happen. Good thing we came back when we did, though. If we had arrived any later, I fear we would only have found the bloody remains of you and your handmaiden. If the Yonnae Sabia hadn't killed you, the crowd would have."

Bronwyn drew a sharp breath but knew Caid was only speaking the truth. Before she had time to find a suitable answer, someone knocked on the door.

"Who goes there?" Caid said sharply, getting up in a hurry.

' 'tis I, Alanna. I bring Lady Bronwyn her bread, apples and water,' the familiar voice said through the door.

Caid grunted and quickly went over to the door. Before she opened it, she peeked through the window to see if anyone was accompanying her sister. When the only other person outside was Deegan on his guard duty, she opened the door to let Alanna inside.

This time, Alanna didn't say a word to Bronwyn; instead, she simply went over to the table and put down a tray with half a loaf of bread, an apple that perhaps wasn't entirely fresh, a jug of water and finally a mug. She briefly curtseyed to the Lady before she looked at her sister as if to say: 'Look what you have done. I told you this would happen.'

"Thank you, Alanna. We shall talk later," Caid said and ushered her sister back out of the door.

Alone again, Caid poured water into the mug, then took the tray with the apple and the loaf of bread over to the bunk and sat down with it across her lap. "Here, Milady. I expect it has been a while since you have had bread and water?"

"Like this? Yes," Bronwyn said and broke a corner off the loaf. Smiling, she offered it to Caid, but the Huntress shook her head. "Caid, 'tis dreadfully impolite to brush off someone who simply wants to break bread with you."

"Lady Bronwyn, you said you hadn't eaten since last night... you must be famished."

"I am, but... here," Bronwyn said and took Caid's hand, opened her palm and put the bread into it.

The two women looked at each other for a few seconds before identical smiles graced their features - then they ate.


Once the bread and water had been consumed - and the overripe apple discarded - Caid brushed the crumbs off herself and the bunk, and moved over to the table with the empty tray.

In the meantime, Bronwyn unlaced her boots and took them off; then, she swung her legs up in the bunk. Snuggling down, she scooted over to the side the furthest she could go. Turning onto her left side, she patted the free space next to her.

Caid smiled wistfully at the offer, but shook her head. "We better not, Lady Bronwyn. If anyone saw us, I fear Phirax would have a field day here."

"I fear you may be right, Huntress. As usual," Bronwyn said and snuggled down onto her back. A chill was creeping up around her from the floorboards so she reached down to take the blanket. Once she was warm and comfortable, she put an arm behind her head and began to study the Huntress. "Caid, the things said by the agitated people out there... about my father. Are they true? Are the taxes extortionate? Do the Black Lance inflict bodily harm on people for no good reason? I know Zai Allizadra is a snake, but are the rest of her soldiers snakes, too?"

Caid leaned back on the chair and crossed her legs at the knee. She cocked her head to study the Lady just as closely as she had been studied herself. "I fear it is so, Lady Bronwyn. The taxes are indeed extortionate, but only for some. The families most loyal to the throne are saddled with far lighter burdens than those who are further down the food chain, so to speak. And yes, even the common men and women in the Black Lance are indeed thugs in a nicer uniform. I could tell you many stories that would make your stomach tighten into a knot, but I do not wish to-"

"Please do, Caid."

"No. They would only cause you pain, and I do not-"

"Please! I need to hear them," Bronwyn said and bolted upright in bed. "I need to understand why these people want to kill me. Please, Lady Caid..."

The silence between them turned oppressive. As the tension grew, Bronwyn's knuckles turned white from clenching the blanket while she waited to hear confirmation of the things that she may have suspected, but could never have had confirmed while she was at the castle. "Please, Caid... I feel I have a right to know," she whispered.

Caid licked her lips but remained silent. After a short while, she got up from the chair, took it, and moved it over to the bunk where she sat down to be close to the other woman. "Lady Bronwyn, my hesitation to tell you the sordid details is caused by a fear of you refusing to believe me. I beg for forgiveness, but I will not share these stories with you now. You shall learn them soon enough. Suffice to say, I know of criminal extortion, of arson, of torture, of rape, of murder... all committed by members or even entire units of the Black Lance. One of those murdered was a dear friend of mine from my childhood."

"Oh, Sweet Marpaxa," Bronwyn said and immediately put a hand on Caid's thigh.

"I am disgusted to tell you squads from the regular army have also been in a few of those cases, though not on a grander scale. The atrocities are mostly committed by the Black Lance."

"This is all Zai's doing, is it not? I sense Zai Allizadra's insanity has influenced them. I do not remember it being this bad under their previous commander... I cannot remember his name..."

"Trenton Kees. It wasn't. You are right, all this started under Commander Allizadra's rule. However, there may be a pinpoint of light in the darkness. From speaking covertly to General Galehr's daughter... we had the same tutor... I know that her father is losing faith in the Emperor. Several high-ranking officers in the regular army share his view and have drawn plans for taking out the Black Lance."

"Caid, the fanatical Black Lance will not surrender without a fight... and that fight will surely be bloody, mark my words. They are also fiercely loyal to my father, and I fear he will not allow anyone to challenge them. If Waleeri Galehr and his men fail their daring endeavor, they will all lose their heads."

"They are aware of the risks, Lady Bronwyn."

"But..." Bronwyn said and turned around on the bunk. When that wasn't enough, she swung her legs over the side to be as close to Caid as possible. "To follow the logic of such a plan, would it not imply starting at the top? Is General Galehr and the regular army plotting to overthrow my father as well? How would that improve the situation... and where would I fit in?"

"You ask far too many questions for this poor woman to answer," Caid said and shook her head. "However, I promised I would protect you from harm. That includes harm directed at you from the regular army. You are special to me, you know."

A warm smile graced Bronwyn's features and she reached up to put a hand on Caid's cheek. "And you are special to me, Caid," she said, caressing the smooth skin she found there.

Moments later, Bronwyn put her hands in her lap and let out a sigh that was so strong her shoulders slumped. "I rarely make demands, but I am about to now. If anyone is to claim the throne after my father, it should be my brother or I. Not General Galehr, respected though he may be. I realize fully that my father and Zai are buboes that need to be cut out before the flesh around them blackens and dies... Marpaxa knows I too have suffered at their hands... but the throne of Ashburne, Dinnigon, Tantor, Zigai and all the other lands you and Kheo... and Deegan... and indeed all your brothers in arms conquered for the Emperor rightfully belongs to my family!"

"Lady Bronwyn, I fear that may not be possible," Caid said quietly, reaching over to put her own hands on top of Bronwyn's.

"Ashburne Castle has stood for a thousand years. It cannot fall. My family has occupied the throne for twelve generations. We cannot fall, Caid," Bronwyn said and swung her legs back up into the bunk. "I do not wish to argue with you. I am too fond of you for such a matter to come between us. Now, I shall get some rest. If you care to join me in slumber, I shall be very pleased. If you decide you need to distance yourself from your prisoner, I shall be disappointed... but I shall overcome it."

Caid stared at the Lady who pulled the blanket way up under her nose in an obvious fit of pique. Wordlessly, the Huntress kicked off her boots and raised the corner of the blanket. "Care to move over?" she whispered, adding a little smile that was responded to in kind.




Forty-eight turns of the hourglass later, Caid opened the door to the hut to let Bronwyn out for the first time since she had been put under house arrest. For once, the sun shone down from a clear, deep blue sky, and Bronwyn had to shield her eyes from the harsh rays that lit up the desolate camp and its residents.

The first thing the Lady did was to take a deep breath of the crisp, cool, morning air. The second was to pull her frock closely over her shoulders like a cloak as a reaction to the plume of steam that escaped her mouth when she breathed.

The autumn colors on the tall, proud trees surrounding the camp were magnificent, but Bronwyn only had eyes for the crowd of people who had assembled near the well. The faces of the community elders were dark yet expectant of what the immediate future would hold for them all. Several of them had their heads together, whispering and pointing at Caid and Bronwyn.

Fyonna and Alanna soon arrived from the medical hut across the square. The Seer waved at Bronwyn who duly waved back. "Good morn, Lady Bronwyn," Fyonna said once she was close enough to be heard. "You look none the worse for wear. Have you had time to reflect?"

"I have indeed, Lady Fyonna. Good morn. Good morn to you, too, Lady Alanna," Bronwyn said and bowed her head at Caid's younger sister who gave her a cold shoulder in return.

From an adjacent hut, Tawna hurried out to stand next to her mistress. After curtseying, the senior handmaiden immediately began to fix the Lady's hair like she had done for decades, but for once, Bronwyn reached up to still her well-rehearsed gestures.

"Let wild locks be wild locks, please, Tawna. I fear my judges will not understand," Bronwyn said with a smile.

Tawna blushed and stopped working - but only after snatching the opportunity to smooth down the worst of the tousled hair. "Oh. I fear you are right, Milady. I beg for forgiveness."

"You have it. Have they treated you well over the past few days, my friend?"

"They have treated me exemplary, Milady."

"Good. With Caid being the community elder, I had expected nothing less... oh... what in the world?" Bronwyn said hoarsely as she happened to cast her eyes in the direction of the path to the main entrance.

Caid was standing a short distance away talking to Kheo and Deegan, but she couldn't help but notice the look of pure shock on Lady Bronwyn's face. Spinning around in the direction where the Lady was looking, Caid let out a deep growl when she spotted Sabia, the Yonnae warrior, walking up the main path. "What in the name of Phirax the Unholy is that woman doing back here? She apparently didn't get the message the first time! Kheo, Deegan... make sure Lady Bronwyn is safe while I speak to the warrior," she said and stomped over to the approaching woman.

"Will do, Huntress!" Kheo said and slapped his meaty paw down onto Deegan's far skinnier shoulder. "Looks like we's got us one bitchin' catfight comin' up, huh, buddy?"

"Looks like it, Kheo," the former Lieutenant said. Reaching down, he loosened the leather strap that held his sword in place in the scabbard he had on his belt.

Grinning at each other, the two men hurried over to Lady Bronwyn and fell into place on either side of her.

The Lady herself stared wide-eyed at the fearsome-looking warrior whose facial tattoos were even clearer because of her cheeks that had turned bright and rosy from the nippy weather. She was still holding the spear she had used to threaten Bronwyn and Tawna with, and her woven cape was wrapped around her body and held together by a wooden buckle. Now and then, the warrior cast a glance in Bronwyn's direction, but she didn't seem as hateful as she had been before.

Although Caid and Sabia spoke, their conversation didn't seem agitated and there were no shouted words or wild gestures at all. After a while, Caid pointed at one of the huts on the same side of the square as the medical cabin. Sabia nodded and began to move over there - and the disappointment was tangible in the dejected moan Kheo let out when he realized there wouldn't be a catfight after all.

"With that little hiccup out of the way," Caid said and moved between Deegan and Lady Bronwyn upon her return, "let us continue with the reason we are gathered here today. Lady Bronwyn?"

"I am ready, Huntress," Bronwyn said in a strong voice.

"Good," Caid said out loud, but then leaned in towards the Lady while glancing around to see if anyone could hear what she was about to whisper: "Please, do not get shocked at anything Fyonna or I will say."

Bronwyn wanted to find out what the Huntress meant by that cryptic remark, but the proceedings had already started, halting her quest for more information.

"Community elders... Fyonna," Caid said and jumped up onto the edge of the well that seemed to be her favored place to address the people of the camp. "I take it you have arrived at a judgment?"

"We have, Huntress," Fyonna said solemnly.

"Please, Seer, share it with the rest of us."

Fyonna turned to Bronwyn and cocked her head. A few moments went by in silence like she wanted to read the mind of the younger woman, but then she turned back towards her fellow elders. "You see before you Lady Bronwyn of Ashburne Castle. A young woman who has chosen to settle for her modest title though she could rightfully be known as the Empress Bronwyn of Blackston, of Multrovia, Lotzan and Onilia, and the Sovereign of Palkor through her marriage and subsequent slaying of His Excellency Lord Lasar-Ihtreg."

A shocked gasp rippled through the community elders, a gasp that was joined by a rather surprised grunt from Caid.

"Forty-eight turns of the hourglass ago," Fyonna continued, "we sent her into house arrest while we debated her fate. In the intervening hours, nothing untoward has happened here. No raiding party has found us, no unusual activity has taken place in the Sarkhann Forests... in short, there have been no threats against us at all. It would seem to correlate Lady Bronwyn's story of only being a refugee from the terrors brought upon her by her father, the Emperor Jin-Sarnos. Huntress, Lady Bronwyn," Fyonna said and raised her hands in the air. "Our judgment is that you spoke the truth. You are no threat to us. You may walk freely among us if you wish."

Bronwyn let out a long, hard breath she hadn't even realized she had been holding. Her head was spinning from the lack of oxygen, and when she opened her mouth to reply, she could only croak. "I thank you, Lady Fyonna. And you, the noble elders of this proud community," she said in a voice that didn't sound like her own at all.

"Mmmm," Fyonna continued, folding her hands under her cowl. Drawing a deep breath, she spoke in a lower and far more menacing register: "But if you betray us by going back to your father... if you betray us by revealing information about us that will enable him or the Black Lance to hunt us down and destroy us, we shall bestow no mercy upon your life. We shall find you and hang you until your neck snaps, so help us Marpaxa the Almighty."

Bronwyn stared wide-eyed at the menacing figure before her. An ice cold chill washed over her from the top of her head to the tip of her toes. She tried to nod, but all her neck was capable of was a sudden, awkward jerk. She couldn't tear her eyes away from the Seer, but even as she was watching, Fyonna raised her head and was transformed back into her regular, friendly self.

"Community elders," the Seer said to her associates, "the session is adjourned. Let us relocate to the tavern for a little refreshment. Or two."

The cheer that rose from the other elders was unmistakable, and soon, the entire group shuffled off down to the tavern hut to wet their whistles.

Lady Bronwyn kept standing, completely frozen to the spot. Although Caid had warned her about the things that would be said, she still had to swallow more than once to get the nervous lump in her throat to go away. She briefly ran her hands over her neck just to be sure the rope hadn't magically appeared around it. When all she could feel was her chilled skin, she came back to reality and looked up at the Huntress.

"You're a free woman, Lady Bronwyn, but you better heed the warning," Caid said on her way over to the Lady and Tawna. "Betrayal is a capital offence. I do not wish to, but if I must, I shall carry out that gruesome task personally."

"I understand," Bronwyn said and reached out for the Huntress. Once the compact woman was close enough, the two women fell into a brief embrace. "I promise that I shall never betray you, Caid, nor any of the people in this camp. Going back to my father under my own, free will is the last thing on my mind."

"I know. But it needed to be said, Lady Bronwyn."

"Again, I understand your dilemma. Now... what did the Yonnae warrior want?" Bronwyn said and craned her neck to search for the easily recognizable figure who seemed to have vanished from the square.

"She wanted to join our fight. Seems she had a poor reception at the castle."

"Oh? I am not surprised considering her rather abrasive personality... not to mention her appalling attitude. Did you explain the situation to her? Come, I would really like to have a brandy," Bronwyn said and pulled Caid over towards the same hut the elders had gone into.

"I did. I believe she understood. At least, she said killing you had been pushed down her list of things to do here."

Bronwyn lost a step but soon recovered and continued her stroll. "They all have it in for me. Peculiar, really. I have never been cruel to either man, woman or beast. In fact, it appears my only crime is to be the child of a hated man. If I had been the daughter of a cobbler or a stonemason, or a traveling trader for that matter, none of this would have happened."

"True. Alas, we cannot choose our parents, nor do we have any control over what others think of us," Caid said and grabbed hold of the brass handle on the door to the tavern hut. "After you, Lady Bronwyn."


The next day, the sun had once again gone into hiding and had sent its distant cousin rain to greet the residents of the small camp. A steady drizzle came down from the dark gray clouds that seemed to reach so far down the crowns of the proud trees surrounding the camp were obscured. The fallen leaves on the ground glistened with the raindrops that had already made the journey from the skies to the land, and here and there, small puddles had formed.

All around the camp, people carried out their regular morning routines; several women stood at the well to fill their buckets, a few children were playing with piles of colorful fallen leaves and hopping about in the puddles, and a handful of men were on their way to the tavern hut.

At the tavern hut, the men intercepted Caid and Bronwyn who came out after enjoying breakfast. The men cast dark, distrustful glances at the tall Lady, and one even bumped his shoulder into her - completely by accident, of course - when they moved past each other.

Bronwyn rubbed her shoulder as she watched the door close behind the men. She chose not to say anything, but it was clear as day from the expression of frustration on her face she hadn't particularly enjoyed the unwanted contact that had pushed her an entire step to the side.

"Let it go, Lady Bronwyn," Caid said and put a hand on the Lady's elbow. "A heated word will lead to another, then another, and eventually, I'll have to separate a fight. We do not have time for a fight today... we have work to do."

Bronwyn mumbled a few unintelligible words but eventually turned around to smile at Caid. "What an odd conundrum. You say we do not have time for a fight, and yet, we are on our way to spend the entire day watching men and women locked in near-mortal combat."

"Watching and participating, Lady Bronwyn," Caid said as she and the Lady began to walk towards the medical hut and the sparring ring they had set up just beyond it.

"I must say, I am quite looking forward to seeing you in action, Caid. Oh... I fear I can barely conceal my excitement when I think about it!"

Caid looked up at the taller woman as they passed by the well where so much had taken place over the past few days. "That's good, Lady Bronwyn. Of course, you shall also be squaring off against someone."

Lady Bronwyn stopped abruptly, spun around, and began to head back to the tavern hut.

"No, no, no, wait up, Lady Bronwyn... I am not sending you up against Kheo or Deegan! I am going to teach you a few moves myself," Caid said and grabbed hold of Bronwyn's elbow before she could put her long legs to good use.

"I am not a fighter, Huntress!" Bronwyn squeaked.

"I know, and yet you carried yourself admirably in that nasty melee in Blackston Castle. Have faith in me, Lady Bronwyn. We shall be using blunt staffs, not sharp blades, and we shall only go as far as your abilities stretch. I promise I will not hurt you."

"I know you will not, but... oh, Caid, I am but a babe in diapers compared to the skills the rest of you possess."

"While that's true, everyone can learn a few defensive moves. And who knows, they may end up saving your life at some point. Please, Lady Bronwyn..." Caid said and held out her hands.

Bronwyn looked towards the heavens almost like she was waiting for the great Marpaxa to send her a sign. When nothing came, she nodded, took Caid's hands and shuffled along to the medical hut.


In and around the sparring ring on the other side of the hut, there was already plenty going on. Kheo and Deegan were playfighting with a couple of crooked sticks, laughing out loud and appearing to have a great time. Their clothes had leaves sticking out of them proving they had both tasted the ground more than once.

The ring was in reality only eight logs laid out in a square roughly fourteen by fourteen fathoms. Inside the boundaries, the ground had been rammed flat and all rocks and protruding roots had been removed. It was covered in a layer of fallen leaves that would add a modicum of protection for those unfortunate enough to be knocked on their rear.

Other logs had been laid out beyond the boundaries for people to sit on while they watched the fights, and a table stood near a wooden rack that carried a wide variety of staffs; some short, some long, and some were even connected in the middle by a metal chain.

Caid's siblings Markki and Alanna were sitting on one of the logs watching Kheo and Deegan mess around inside the ring. Markki was fiddling with his longbow with a long staff leaning against the log next to him, and Alanna was straightening out the tail feathers of one of her brother's arrows.

On the other side, Sabia stood like a statue with her camouflaged cape wrapped tightly around her. The tattooed warrior didn't move a muscle as she watched Kheo and Deegan, and it was impossible to see if she was even awake.

Bronwyn took in all the sights with worried eyes and a nervous twitch on her lips - she even began to bite her fingernails. "Oh, Caid... do you really feel this is such a good idea? Until now, the only experience I have wielding a blade has come from practicing novice moves against some of my father's soldiers... and I know for a fact they always treated me with kid gloves..."

"A moment ago, you were quite excited, Lady Bronwyn."

"That was before I knew I would stare Death in the eye today... our old, hideous opponent who never-"

"I promise no harm shall come to you. Now, for starters, we shall choose your weapon," Caid said and moved over to Kheo's leather belt that he had left on one of the logs. "Kheo, may I borrow your blade for a second?" she said loudly to be sure the large man heard her.

A frantic wave in between a duck and a weave was the only answer, so Caid pulled the shiny, well-kept sword out of the sheath and turned it around so she offered the hilt to the Lady. "We're obviously not going to spar with real weapons today, but please try this on for size, Lady Bronwyn."

Bronwyn smiled nervously and reached for the blade. The moment she had it in her right hand, her wrist failed to hold it up and she had to put both hands on the grip to even keep it in the air. On her first modest swing, she lost control of it which dropped it right down onto the wet leaves. "Oh! Oh, I beg for forgiveness, Sir Kheo!" she said and hurriedly brushed off the leaves that had gathered on it.

From the other side of the ring, a sound akin to a mocking laugh was suddenly heard from Sabia, but Bronwyn chose to ignore it.

Caid picked up the sword and put it back into Kheo's sheath. "To be truthful, I knew that would happen. Perhaps my machete is more to your liking, Lady Bronwyn? You have already proven yourself with such a weapon... much to the detriment of my original blade, I might add." Reaching behind her, she drew the characteristic blade from the hidden sheath she had on her back.

Before Caid could give it to Bronwyn, Sabia had stomped over to them and broke in between the two women. "Only a Yonnae can be allowed to wield the sacred machete," she said darkly.

Bronwyn stared nervously at the intense warrior, but Caid was less impressed. "Perhaps you have missed I am not a Yonnae?" she said and handed the blade to Bronwyn.

"You are an honorary Yonnae. This girl isn't."

Caid and Sabia stared each other down for a little while before the warrior took a step back with a look of sublime annoyance on her tattooed face. Growling, she stomped back to her original position at the far side of the ring.

Bronwyn tracked her with her eyes as she tried a few modest swings with the machete. "Sweet Marpaxa, that woman needs to lighten up," she mumbled. She swung the far lighter machete in a few patterns and quickly discovered it suited her really well. The grip was a good fit in her palm, and the length of the blade felt natural to her compared to the far longer and heavier sword. "When did you learn to fight with the machete, Caid?" she said and handed the blade back to the Huntress.

"Oh, when I was eight. Remember, my father was senior Ranger for Jin-Sarnos for nearly a generation."

"Eight?! Goodness me! You must have hurt yourself many a time learning it!"

"No. The first thing you learn is to be cautious. The machete stops at nothing. If you foul up, you'll lose the entire hand, not just slice open a finger."

"Ah... right. I am glad I did not know that fact when I was forced into using it. I think I shall wait a while before I take it into combat," Bronwyn said, chewing on her cheeks.

Caid chuckled and moved over to the rack with the wooden staffs. She thought about it for a while before she selected two long staffs. Weighing them in her hand, she turned back to Kheo and Deegan. "My friends, may Lady Bronwyn and I take over the dance floor?"

"You betcha, Huntress," Kheo said, huffing and puffing. "I buried this little critter so deep into the ground his slick hair don't even stick up! Eh!"

Deegan laughed out loud and took the opportunity to thump Kheo in the gut with the butt of his staff. "Like Phirax you did!"

"Oh!" Bronwyn gasped, staring wide-eyed at Caid who stepped into the ring and held her second staff ready for someone - someone that Bronwyn had a hunch might be her. "But... Caid! You cannot expect me to spar against you with staffs!"

"We're not going to spar. I just want to show you a few defensive moves. Come on," Caid said and waved Bronwyn into the ring. While she was waiting for the apprehensive Bronwyn, she began to go through several different swings, stabs and parries to get her back and her muscles warmed up. The wound in her side still gave her a bit of trouble when she performed a certain swing, but she put it at the back of her mind and let the weapon speak to her instead.

Bronwyn stepped over the logs and into the ring with knees that were knocking so hard she thought everyone present could hear them. When she glanced up at Markki and Alanna who had put down their work to follow the show, she did indeed feel that Caid's siblings were aware of her nervousness.

"Here," Caid said and handed Bronwyn a staff.

The first, gentle swing Bronwyn attempted on her own ended in her losing her cumbersome weapon because she wasn't prepared for the centrifugal forces - then she was laughed at by Markki and Alanna on the log as well as Sabia who was still standing at the other side of the ring. A red blush spread over Bronwyn's cheeks as she bent down to take the staff. This time, she held it with both hands so she wouldn't lose it again.

"A thousand apologies for the following inappropriate suggestion, Lady Bronwyn, but you need to spread your legs and crouch down slightly. Like this," Caid said and went into the defensive stance to show what she meant.

Bronwyn studied the Huntress and tried her best. She felt highly awkward as she stood there with her crotch strangely exposed and her rear end pointing out in an odd angle, but some of her discomfort was taken away by Caid standing in the exact same pose.

"Good. Then move the staff up horizontally, like this. Hold it in a two-handed grip at chest level with your thumbs below the staff," Caid said and raised her own weapon. "Excellent. Now stay in that position while I come to crack your skull wide open," she continued, slowly swinging her own staff up and taking a long step towards the Lady.

"Wh- wh- what?!" Bronwyn cried and promptly jumped out of the defensive stance, thus dropping the staff and once again earning herself a mocking laugh from the spectators.

Caid poked the butt of her own staff into the ground and leaned against it. "I was merely trying to set the scene, Milady. Of course I would never have swung at you for real."

"Oh... I beg for forgiveness. Oh, Lady Caid, I fear I am not cut out for the life of a warrior!" Bronwyn said, wringing her hands.

From the other side of the ring, Sabia let out a mocking snort and a stinging: "I'll say!"

Caid shot the Yonnae warrior an Evil Eye on her way over to Bronwyn. "It's all right, Lady Bronwyn. I feel we should try again at some point when you and I are alone. Too many cooks spoil the broth," she said, picking up the errant staff.

"Thank you, Caid," Bronwyn whispered, but before she had time to say more, Sabia had come over to them and laid her hand firmly on the unclaimed staff.

"Huntress, let's spar," the warrior said in a growl.

Caid glared hard at the intense woman. Once again, the two warriors tried to stare each other into submission until the Huntress nodded and took a step back. "Fine by me, Yonnae. At full speed."

"But of course," Sabia said and released the buckle and the chain on her camouflaged cape. When the woven garment fluttered to the ground, it was revealed she was still wearing the same outfit she had worn when she had delivered Bronwyn and Tawna to the camp; dark green high-waisted pants and a dark brown, quilted tunic with an integrated leather belt.

After rolling her shoulders for the fight, she reached up to loosen the upper part of her tunic, thus bringing the top of her cleavage and the dark blue tattoo of the representation of the Great Mother adorning it into view.

The two fighters each took a staff and began to circle each other inside the ring, each waiting for an opening to make the first strike.

Bronwyn began to bite her fingernails. She looked worriedly at the combatants, but didn't know whether she should interrupt the fight or not. Around her, Markki and Alanna, as well as Kheo and Deegan, had risen to their feet to see better.

Then Sabia delivered the first strike and the fight was on. The staffs of the two experienced warriors clashed repeatedly, high, low and everywhere in between. Sabia favored brute strength; Caid the leg sweeps and deep thrusts. The sound produced by the staffs slamming into each other was a hollow clunk that echoed off the back wall of the medical hut to create a strange, repeating effect.

A fake thrust by Caid made Sabia jump to the side and break off the attack. As the two fighters began to circle each other again, the audience cheered loudly, all supporting Caid.

Bronwyn was so busy chewing on her fingernails she had no time for cheering. One part of her felt like running away in a panic, but another told her to remain where she was to watch the actions of the woman who meant so much to her. In the end, the latter won out and she stayed at ringside.

Out of sight of everyone there, one of the sentries from the back door hurried into the area behind the medical hut and looked around for someone to speak to. When he noticed the senior figures all being busy, he went over to Markki and whispered a few words into his ear. Soon, the two young men left the sparring match behind.

Round two was on when Caid performed a leg sweep on Sabia that took the older warrior by surprise. The clunk that was produced by the staff hitting her knees made the audience go 'ooooh', but to everyone's astonishment, Sabia stayed on her legs and was able to bring her own staff up to give Caid a fair whack across the gut in an immediate retaliation.

The two separated again to find a better angle of attack. It came almost at once when Sabia lunged at Caid in a wild swing that she changed at the last moment to an underhand thrust meant to drive the air out of the Huntress' lungs.

Caid was too experienced to fall for the fake and did a quick side-step. She immediately brought the staff up to pay back the earlier gesture.

Sabia wasn't fooled either and parried it easily, but what the Yonnae couldn't know was that Caid continued the stroke upwards until the butt of her staff hovered just at her opponent's jaw. Had it been a real fight, it would have been a knockout blow. Caid lowered the staff and took a step back. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see Markki coming to the sparring ring with an older man in tow.

"Break," the Huntress said and shifted her staff to her other hand. With a nod at the warrior to acknowledge the fair fight, she stepped aside and moved over to the boundary. "Greetings, Harlan! Do you have any news for us from the castle?" she said loudly, waving at the older man.

A moment later, she was on her hands and knees, wheezing hard and groaning in pain from the hard whack she had received across her back from Sabia's staff.

The Yonnae calmly moved her staff back and stood up straight, once again wearing a passive expression.

A stunned silence spread among the spectators, one that wasn't broken until Kheo let out an angry roar and stormed towards Sabia. Before he could make his way to her, Bronwyn raced past him and went into the warrior's face.

"You miserable daughter of a whore!" Bronwyn barked right next to the slightly taller woman, grabbing hold of her tunic. "What kind of coward are you? Hitting a woman in the back?! I thought honor meant everything to the Yonnae?"

Sabia briefly glared at the irate woman before she calmly reached up and released herself from the grip. "Honor is for old crones. There is no honor on the battlefield. If it moves, we kill it. She turned her back to me so I-"

"This is hardly a battlefield!"

"Life is a battlefield, silly child. Why don't you return to your cozy castle where you have servants acting on your every whim from dawn to dusk... to make you warm milk or to wipe your ass when you're done shitting? You won't find that in the real world."

"I do not know what you are, but a Yonnae you most certainly are not!" Bronwyn barked. When Caid rolled over onto her rear end and coughed a couple of times, Bronwyn let warrior be warrior and hurried over to the Huntress.

Kheo just stood there, staring with wide open eyes and a slack jaw at the tigress that seemed to have claimed Bronwyn's skin.

Leaning down, Bronwyn put her hands under Caid's arms to pull her up. Once they were erect, she brushed her hand through the soft, shaggy hair a couple of times to comfort the hurting Caid.

"Kheo," Caid wheezed, "show the Yonnae the door, if you please."

"Yup," the big man said and turned towards the tattooed warrior. "Ya heard the Huntress. Really smart o' ya... that's what I call outstayin' yer welcome, luv. Now scram."

Sabia ground her jaw a couple of times but ultimately admitted defeat. Grabbing her cape and her spear, she stomped out of the ring and up towards the medical hut. Kheo and Deegan followed her at a safe distance.

Bronwyn shook her head slowly and went back to examining Caid very, very thoroughly - much to Markki's and Alanna's slightly embarrassed astonishment. "What a strange woman. I fear she is not all there. She is so unlike the other Yonnae I spoke to... perhaps she is a renegade?"

"Could be," Caid said and cocked her head. "Now tell me, when did you speak to a Yonnae, Lady Bronwyn?"

"Oh..." Bronwyn said and stopped with a jerk. Her eyes shifted from Caid and over to the other two Barlins before she looked down with a blush tingeing her cheeks. 'Oh, I should not have said that! It was supposed to have been a secret... why I cannot remember to think through what I want to say, I do not know!' - "Ah... ah... some years ago. I had a few questions that she helped me with. Personal questions."

"Say no more," Caid said and patted Bronwyn's hand.

While all that had been going on, Harlan had been waiting patiently holding a rolled-up scroll, but now the elderly man stepped forward and presented himself to Caid. "Huntress," he said, unrolling the scroll. "We have found your father."

Caid sobered instantly and took the document the man held up. After reading it thoroughly, she locked eyes with the spy. "In the dungeon as I expected."

"Yes, in cell block one. He is fairly weak because they won't allow him to sleep for more than a few turns of the hourglass at a time. Also, he's only served old bread and stale water like the other prisoners."

Clutching her head, Bronwyn let out a pained moan at the news. "Sweet Marpaxa! That's horrible! Barbaric!"

"Very true, Lady Bronwyn," the elderly man said with a solemn nod.

"Wait... you know me?" Bronwyn said, studying the man. He was in his late fifties, and although his face and eyes were friendly, his features were completely generic, as fit for a spy.

"But I do, Milady. I work in the kitchen of Ashburne Castle. I'm one of the cooks. My brother chose to follow the banished here, but I stayed behind to be the eyes and ears of the Huntress and her companions."

"Oh, that's admirable... I beg for forgiveness, I did not hear your name...?"

"Harlan, Lady Bronwyn."

"Enchanted to meet you, Sir Harlan," Bronwyn said and curtseyed to the cook.

The elderly man looked like he couldn't quite believe the reception he got from the Lady, but he soon snapped out of the stupor and bowed to the younger woman. "Enchanted to meet you, too, Lady Bronwyn."

"Bronwyn," Caid said, holding the scroll, "I need to confer with Fyonna. I fear we shall have to postpone your training to another day. Harlan, you better get back before they notice you're missing." - With that, Caid spun around and walked up towards the medical hut where she was soon out of sight.

"Farewell, Lady Bronwyn," Harlan said and bowed again before turning around to leave as well.

"Farew- oh! Oh, please wait, Sir Harlan," Bronwyn said and hurried after the cook. "Please, Sir, do you know if my father has soldiers out searching for me?"

"I fear I do not, Milady. In the kitchen, we are generally not privy to information involving the members of the military."

"Oh... of course not. I beg for forgiveness. Farewell, Sir Harlan," Bronwyn said and came to a halt right next to the medical hut.

Left alone, Bronwyn shuffled back down towards the sparring ring. Symptomatically, the rain returned and soon became a steady drizzle that soaked everything in its path. As she came to a stop at the glistening logs, she cast a somber glance at the two staffs that had been abandoned inside the ring. "This is not going like I had expected it to..." she said quietly to herself as she reached down and picked up the two staffs. Sighing, she made her way over to the rack where she deposited the weapons in their proper brackets. "In fact, I would say it is going diagonally opposed to what I had expected. Wretched. Perhaps I should have stayed at the castle after all and tried to work with that insufferable Vittaria... alas, I shall never find out."

Sighing again, she shuffled back up towards the central square to find Caid.


The remains of the day never reached the same giddy heights as the action-filled period after breakfast - mostly as a result of the persistent rain but also because Caid and Bronwyn were both unusually subdued, though for different reasons.

After supper and an uneventful evening patrol, Caid returned to her hut to find Tawna hard at work fixing Bronwyn's hair. Standing behind the Lady who sat in the chair, the senior handmaiden knew exactly what she needed to do to get the wild locks back in shape, and she went about her business with visible pride in her work.

When Bronwyn noticed Caid coming in, she looked up and offered the Huntress a blinding smile. "Oh, you look wet and miserable... it must still be raining?"



"No, it's pouring down."

"Oh... I fear we can do very little about that, Caid."

Caid brushed the excess water out of her short, shaggy hair and began to unbutton her jacket. "Except to put on some dry clothes and stay inside... and that's exactly what I am going to do for the rest of the eve."

Smiling at the strangely comforting scene, Caid took off her soaked jacket and hung it to drip-dry from the edge of one of the shelves above the table. "Good eve, Tawna. I see you have plenty to do there," she said, sitting down on her bunk where she unlaced and took off her boots.

"Good eve, Lady Caid," Tawna said and did a quick curtsey.

"Oh, don't mind me. Please continue," Caid said and waved dismissively. Her tunic had been soaked as well near the hem and at the cuffs, so she began to take it off. She paused briefly while she debated with herself whether or not she should take off her clothes in the presence of the handmaiden, but decided to continue onwards. The tunic was soon hanging next to the jacket.

Tawna eyed the many poorly healed scars covering Caid's upper body but knew better than to ask or make a comment. The angry red wound just above the upper hem of the cloth protecting the Huntress' breasts stood out clearly against the paler color of her skin.

"Caid, did you find anything out there?" Bronwyn said with her eyes closed.

"No, everything is quiet. Should be, really, in this rotten weather."

"You would think so. How is your back where that dreadful, dreadful woman hit you?"

"Sore like Phirax' head after a wild night," Caid said and knelt down at her bunk to pull open the drawer with her garments. A red stripe across her back confirmed her statement. "Lady Bronwyn, once you're done here, would you like to come over to the tavern for a little chat with the boys? We could play a few hands of One-Two-Three."

"Oh, I would like that, yes," Bronwyn said, careful not to upset the hair. "Tawna, you are invited too, of course."

The handmaiden briefly looked up from her work to shake her head. "Thank you, Milady, but no thank you. I would like to make it an early night."

"Oh... of course."

"Yes. Just two more combings and I am done." While she spoke, Tawna moved the twin combs expertly through Bronwyn's hair in a artistic pattern that would only last until Bronwyn undressed for the night. "There," she said, carefully removing the bone combs from the dark hair.

"Oh, thank you, sweet Tawna. My hair really suffers from all this fresh air," Bronwyn said and stood up. At once, she turned around and placed a kiss on her handmaiden's forehead.

Caid pulled a dry, off-white tunic down over her scarred body and quickly tied the leather laces on the deep V-neck and the lower sides. "All set," she said and tucked it down her suede pants.


The spirits were already high in the tavern when Caid and Bronwyn arrived. The tavern hut was built like the other two-storey huts in the camp, apart from not being equipped with a second floor. Instead, it had a double-height inner ceiling to allow the smoke from the open stoves to escape upwards rather than spread out among the twelve tables at the front of the single room.

Sawdust covered the crude floorboards where the gaps between the planks used were large enough for entire dinners to fall through. The chairs and tables were equally crude, but all in all, it fulfilled the task it had been built for.

Kheo, Deegan and Markki were sitting at a table with two other men. The group was in the middle of a noisy, boisterous game of One-Two-Three where Kheo seemed to be losing - as always.

The back half of the hut beyond the long, wooden counter that nearly reached from one side of the hut to the other was the kitchen that Harlan's brother Harsomme ran like a little king - or indeed Emperor. Standing between filthy pots and pans from the supper, he barked commands left and right at the young men and women who worked for him to get everything cleaned up like it should.

"Good eve, Harsomme," Caid said to the cook. "Two easy brandies, please. Put 'em on the tab."

"Good eve, Huntress. Comin' right up," the cook replied, reaching down below the wooden counter to find two tin beakers. Once he had them in his hand, he shuffled over to the brandy kegs at the far side of the kitchen to find a blend suited to the women's tastes. Finding it, he unplugged the cork and poured a murky brown liquid into the beakers.

Soon, Caid carried the two beakers back down to the table Bronwyn had chosen. A disappointed roar from the other table proved that Kheo had once again lost the hand.

"Here we go," Caid said and put the beakers down on the table. "And remember, Lady Bronwyn, sip... don't chug."

"Oh... I shall never forget. Never forget for as long as I live," Bronwyn mumbled, sniffing the contents of the beaker before sipping from it carefully. "Ah, this is nice and warm," she said, rubbing her chest as the brown liquid made its way down her pipe.

"Indeed. Now... shall we play?"

"We shall indeed!" Bronwyn said and moved the candlestick away from the center of the table to have room for the parchment needed for the game.


A turn of the hourglass later, Caid and Bronwyn had won ten and nine games respectively - a feat they were both quite pleased with. Unlike the game played at the men's table, no stakes had been involved so no Crowns had exchanged hands.

Bronwyn sat with her tongue stuck firmly in the corner of her mouth, attempting to maintain the perfect symmetry by winning the last hand. "Oh... ah... I... huh. Oh! I have it, now behold, sweet Caid... from here, to here, to there... One-Two-Three!"

Caid chuckled and emptied the last of her easy brandy. "Great work, Milady. If only life could be dealt with by drawing three lines on a sheet of parchment."

"Alas, it cannot," Bronwyn said and put away the utensils needed for the game.


Over at the men's table, the game had fizzled out as well with Kheo the clear loser, the other two men only winning a few hands, and Deegan and Markki tied on thirteen wins each. Predictably, Kheo grumbled hard while the other two congratulated each other.

With the game over and done with, Markki changed tables and went over to his sister. "Caid," he said, sitting down next to the Huntress. "I have a proposition for you. It's something I've given a lot of thought and I know it's feasible."

"Go on," Caid said and turned around in her chair so she didn't have to crane her neck.

"The disguise you used to sneak into the castle... the blind beggar?"


"It worked well, didn't it?"

Bronwyn nodded hard. "If I may interject, Markki, that disguise worked fantastically well. It completely fooled the Commander of the Black Lance. It fooled me, too!"

"Thank you, Milady. Caid, I guarantee the disguise can be used to rescue father," Markki said and thumped his fist down onto the tabletop.

The sigh that emanated from Caid was so deep it sounded like it came from the bottom of her heart. "Markki... we have already-"

"Hear me out, Sis! Please! Lady Bronwyn, do you not agree that we should at least attempt to rescue our father?"

Bronwyn looked from Markki to Caid and back again. She briefly bit her lips, but decided to speak what was on her mind. "Markki, I... I better stay out of this discussion. I hope you understand."

"Oh... I see," Markki said with a dark frown marring his smooth forehead.

"My brother," Caid said and let out another sigh very similar to the first one. "We have already discussed this. Indeed, we have already tried this approach! Yes, the blind beggar worked well, but a blind beggar will not be allowed into the dungeons, no matter what."

"Then we take off the disguise once we reach the dungeon and carry on from there!"

"But they already know me, Markki! Wake up!" Caid said sharply, leaning forward to be closer to her brother. "If I, or Kheo, or Deegan, or anyone else for that matter stroll into the dungeon and demand the release of one of the prisoners, don't you think the warder will call for the Black Lance? He will, my friend. Mark my words."

"Then we take him back by force, Sis... Phirax' balls, it's almost like you don't even want father back!"

Within a heartbeat, the air turned frosty, then heated up to a severe thunderstorm. The muscles on Caid's jaw worked hard as she tried to keep back the stream of anger that was sure to follow.

Behind them, Kheo had noticed the clash and leaned against the table to add his two pennies worth before the inevitable shouting match could start. "Caid, I have another idea. How 'bout dressin' up as a couple-a healers? There's all kinds of diseases an' stuff down there. Them warders ain't the smartest o' soldiers, ya know that. There's a chance they ain't gonna recognize ya until it's too late if you play yer hand right."

Caid leaned back in her chair and let out yet another deep, sorrowful sigh. "I need to think long and hard about it... but healers might work, Kheo, I'll give you that."

"Good!" Markki said and thumped his fist down onto the tabletop.

"Caid," Bronwyn tried, reaching over to touch the Huntress' arm. "Anything I can do to help... anything at all, I shall be more than willing to do for you. Please know that."

"I do, Lady Bronwyn... thank you," Caid said and gave Bronwyn's hand a solid squeeze. "I need to think it through before we attempt anything. Contacts need to be established... we need to source the proper outfits... if we rush through this, we will either die right there or end up next to father in his cell."

"Yup," Kheo said, nodding. "This whole thing is a mess, awright, but there's jus' one little issue I ain't gettin'... why in the name of Phirax the Unholy did they even snatch Efrem in the first place when they ain't used him fer nothin'? They ain't even tried ta use him as a chip ta get her Ladyship back! Are they just holdin' him for kicks or what? Don't make no sense to me... don't make no damn sense at all! Ah... that's too big a question fer my puny brain. Anybody wan'some fermented brew? My treat!"

The humorous comment broke the tension and everybody chuckled and let out the breaths they had been holding. The only person not laughing was Markki. Instead, he leaned back in his chair with a look on his face that said he was thinking very hard about something.




The torches that had been ignited earlier in the evening had nearly all burned down, and those meant for the morning hours had yet to be lit. Exploiting the lingering darkness, Markki Barlin opened the door to his hut and peeked out onto the deathly quiet central square.

The torch next to his hut was almost gone, as was the one outside where Caid and Bronwyn were sleeping. Kheo's torch was still burning brightly, but his hut was clear over on the other side of the square which meant the large man wouldn't be able to see much of anything if he happened to come out. Finally, two of the four torches at the well had gone out, creating the perfect cover for what Markki had in mind.

After taking a leather bag from inside the hut and wrapping a dark brown cloak around his shoulders, he made sure his longbow and the quiver of arrows were still accessible. Then he put his hand on the cold hilt of the steel blade that was flat against his thigh to check if it was still there. With everything in place, he shut the door behind him so quietly he couldn't even hear it himself.

He stood still for a brief moment to see if anyone had been visiting the well or the outhouse, but everything was still deathly quiet, with the gentle rustling of the leaves and the random calling of a raven somewhere in the trees the only signs of life. The air was decidedly nippy which created a plume of steam when he breathed.

The flickering cones of orange light from the weak torches didn't add much illumination to the ground, but he knew where he was going so it didn't matter. Once he had reached the stables, he untied his horse and led it away from the hut. The many fallen leaves on the ground meant he didn't have to muffle the hooves by wrapping them in cloth.

Once he had gone past the central square, he picked up the pace and jogged next to his horse. The two beings were soon at the main entrance where he saw - much to his relief - that the sentry was once again fast asleep, leaning against one of the fence poles with a tipped-over bottle of brandy next to him.

The gates were closed, but by pushing with all his strength, he was able to get one wing to swing open just enough for him and his horse to slip though. On the other side, he tried to get it to swing back, but the angle was poor and he couldn't get enough momentum to make it close fully. He decided to give up and carry on.

After looking back to see if he had been detected, Markki put his boot into the stirrup and swung himself up on the horse. He patted its neck a couple of times while the creature side-stepped on the slippery leaves.

Everything was still deathly quiet so he nudged the horse's sides and took off in a walk that soon turned to a regular canter once they were far enough away from the camp. The characteristic three-beat rhythm of the horse's hooves slowly disappeared into the night.

A dark figure rose from the shrubbery a short distance from the camp's main entrance. Concealed by the dark shadows created by the tall trees beyond the shrubbery, the figure appeared to track Markki as he rode off.

The figure briefly looked back at the camp before the sound akin to a surprised grunt was heard. The figure stepped out of the deepest shadows and was revealed to be Sabia, the Yonnae warrior, who pulled her camouflaged cape closer around her muscular shoulders.

Her intense eyes followed Markki until he was just a shadow down on the trail that led to the castle. Cocking her head, she looked back at the main entrance to the camp and the guard that looked like he was sleeping. Only she knew he wasn't; she had snapped his neck when he had accidentally spotted her while he took a leak in the shrubbery.

The lone rider didn't seem to herald anyone else coming from the camp, so after a few moments of silence, Sabia ran out into the middle of the path and tried to spot the horse down on the trail to see where it went.

Grunting again, she quickly closed the buckle on her cape and set off in a fast jog towards Ashburne Castle. Her powerful frame and muscular legs were put to good use, and she appeared to be able to keep going at that tempo until she reached the end of the world.


Caid rolled over onto her back and let out a quiet sigh, blissfully unaware of the dramas that had taken place in and around the camp only minutes earlier. Even Lady Bronwyn's tender hands on her body under the blanket weren't enough for her to relax. Sleep had eluded her since they had said goodnight, and now, a dull ache from her back where the Yonnae had whacked her snatched away the last shreds of sleepiness.

Rolling her eyes, she raised the blanket and swept her bare legs over the side of the bunk. The night was chilly so she found her pants at once and crept into them.

Behind her, Bronwyn mumbled a few unintelligible words in her sleep as a result of her soft toy being taken away from her. The Lady soon smacked her lips and patted the empty side of the bunk. "Huh...?" she mumbled, raising her head though her eyes were still comically closed.

"It's all right. Go back to sleep, Lady Bronwyn," Caid whispered. "I'm just going to walk around for a while. Sweet dreams."

Bronwyn's reply was predictable: "Sweet dre- ZZzzzzzz..."

Chuckling, Caid changed out of the loose, old tunic she had slept in and found a new one that was more appropriate for guard duty. Taking her boots, she sneaked over to the chair and put them on. Her still-damp jacket was next, and then she tip-toed out of the hut.

Outside, not a sound was heard from anywhere in the camp, but she had a strange feeling in her gut that told her something was wrong somewhere - or at least out of place. She took a lungful of the nippy air and watched as a large plume of steam drifted away from her mouth, reminding her of the boundless enthusiasm she'd had the first time she had experienced that strange phenomenon as a little girl.

Too many of the torches around the central square had gone out for her liking, so she moved over to the utility shed next to the stables to get a set of flints.


Half a turn of the hourglass later, she had patrolled the entire central square and every hut lining it. She had found nothing untoward, and yet, she couldn't shake the feeling that something was off.

Standing at the well to re-ignite the torches that had gone out, she suddenly spotted a small light flicker to life inside the medical hut. The light appeared to come from a regular candle and couldn't be at the root of her discomfort, but she decided to check it out anyway.

It didn't take long for her to shuffle over there, but even before she had reached the two-storey hut, she had seen Fyonna through one of the windows. Puzzled over why a blind woman would need a candle when she appeared to be on her own, Caid knocked softly on the door and waited for the Seer to open it.

Fyonna did after a brief delay. Sticking her head out, the elderly woman who was far older than she appeared - two centuries old rather than the sixty-five years or so she looked to be - lit up in a smile when she saw who it was. "Good eve, Huntress. Trouble sleeping?"

"Indeed I have, Seer."

"Would you like some warm milk? Or perhaps a sleeping potion?"

"None of the above, thank you. Perhaps a few answers to the thoughts running around inside my head would serve me better...?"

"Ah yes. Your father," Fyonna said and stepped aside. "Come in, come in. Make yourself comfortable."

"Much obliged, Seer," Caid said and stepped into the medical hut. Fyonna only had the single candle going so the room was poorly lit, creating creepy shadows and false reflections that played in the many glass vials and crockery jars on the shelves.

While Fyonna closed the door behind them, Caid found a chair and sat down at the examination bunk in the central part of the room. She briefly patted the mattress like she was thanking it for the service it had provided for her when she had been shot by the arrow. "Tell me, Seer, how come you lit a candle when you have no use for it?" she said, closely observing the ancient woman.

"Oh, I knew you would come, Huntress."

"Huh... how could you when I only made up my mind when I saw your candle!" Caid said with a grin.

Fyonna turned around and tapped a crooked index finger against the blindfold as if it would explain everything.


"Are you sure I cannot tempt you with anything, Caid?" Fyonna said, donning a cape over her sleeping gown.

"I am sure, thank you."

"I think I'll have a special brew," Fyonna continued and shuffled over to the cauldron. After pouring water into it from a bucket below the table, the fire was quickly ignited with her flints. While she waited for it to come to boil, she lined up a variety of ingredients that she wanted to add to the mix.

"What are all those things?" Caid said, sniffing the air out of curiosity.

"Oh, a little of this, a little of that. Toad's blood, cobwebs and crow's feet."


Fyonna turned to her guest and shot her a wide grin. "Merely jesting, Huntress. Herbs for a sleeping potion," she said with a most un-Seer like giggle.

Caid's eyes shifted back and forth between the Seer and the many vials and jars on the shelves. "Oh. I see," she said, though the hesitation in her voice proved she didn't quite know if Fyonna was jesting after all.

"Your father," Fyonna prodded, turning back to her special brew.

Caid sighed and propped her head up on her arm. "My father. Late last eve, I practically had to restrain my brother or he would have upped and left for the castle right then and there. He blames me for not trying to rescue our father."

"How do you feel?" Fyonna said, stirring the cauldron.

Caid sighed and rubbed her face. "In all honesty, I agree with him. I cannot say why I haven't yet taken my blade and headed to the castle to kill everyone standing in my way... I only know that I haven't. Kheo is eager to go into action, so is Deegan."

"Mmmm. But now you have other obligations that weigh heavily on your heart and mind."

"I suppose I do. The camp... and Bronwyn."

"Indeed. Do you love her?"

Caid looked up in a hurry and pinned the Seer to the spot with a puzzled green gaze. She opened her mouth to speak but found she really didn't have anything to say to the fair question. Instead, she got up from the chair and walked around the examination bunk, trailing an index finger along the buttons and seams. "Do I love her? I cannot say, Fyonna. I know I care for her a great deal... but honest love? I cannot say. There is something stirring in my heart, that is a fact."

"She loves you."

"She may be infatuated with me, but-"

"It's more than that. She loves you on a deeper and more emotional level, Caid. Far deeper than mere puppy love, though she is certainly and clearly smitten with you. She worries about you. I heard she challenged the Yonnae when you had been knocked down."

"She did, yes," Caid said with a chuckle. "That was quite a sight. She used language unfit for a Lady, let's leave it at that."

"I'll bet. How does she feel about rescuing your father?"

"I sense Bronwyn too is eager to set things right. I have rarely seen her as shocked as when she was told of the conditions my father has to endure. But I understand it is different for her."

"Father against father, daughter against daughter," Fyonna said and put a dipper into the concoction. Sniffing it, she could tell it was ready and poured the contents into a mug.

"I dearly hope it will not come to that."

"What if Jin-Sarnos has to die before this story is concluded?"

"By whose hand?" Caid said, narrowing her eyes. "If I kill her father, it needs to be for a better reason than simply to rescue my own. The ramifications of Jin-Sarnos' untimely death would be... by Phirax... so massive I cannot even begin to grasp them."

Fyonna leaned against the only free spot along the wall and took a sip from the mug. "I cannot say who will slay him. That part has yet to be written. But die he will."

Caid leaned forward to put her elbows on the examination bunk. She looked at the Seer in the hope she could deduce something from the older woman's body language, but nothing came to her. "I hope it will not be Bronwyn. Daughters shouldn't kill their fathers."

"True," Fyonna said and took another sip of the sleeping potion. "Regarding your father... he can be saved, but it shall come at a price. A high price."

"For whom?"

"For everyone involved, but mostly for Lady Bronwyn. For Empress Bronwyn, rather."

"So it will be Bronwyn who slays Jin-Sarnos?"

"Like I said before, I cannot see that yet. And an Empress Bronwyn already is. Another few realms will make no difference on a grander scale."

Caid scrunched up her face as she thought of what Fyonna meant. When she had figured it out, she let out a deep, long sigh. "Her marriage to that creepy old fellow surely doesn't count, Seer!"

"It surely does count, Caid... as does her slaying of him. As I have tried to explain to her Ladyship time and time again, sacred, ancient traditions simply cannot be broken because one doesn't want to accept what they bring."

Fyonna suddenly cocked her head and stood up straight. Putting down the mug, she walked into the center of the medical hut and looked like she was listening to sounds beyond the human range. "Now that was an unusual feeling," she said after a few seconds of heightened tension. "I believe I saw a flash of the future. Someone was screaming. Dull, throbbing pain. A man."

"My father?"

"Hard to say, Caid."

Caid thumped her fist into the mattress in frustration. "I do not have your skills, Seer, but I've had an odd feeling in my gut for several turns of the hourglass now. Whether we like it or not, whether we are prepared for it or not, the endgame is approaching."

"I fear you are right. Oh..."

"Now what? More visions?"

"No, Lady Bronwyn is coming," Fyonna said and went over to the door to open it before Bronwyn could knock.

Behind her, Caid rubbed her face - this was all getting just a bit too creepy for her tastes.

"Good eve, Lady Bronwyn," Fyonna said and ushered in her second guest of the night.

"Good eve, Lady Fyonna," Bronwyn said. Like Caid, she had put on her day clothes, though she hadn't bothered to tuck the tunic into her pants. She had thrown the brown frock she had used for her escape over her shoulders, but even the coarse garment couldn't hide her regal stance or appearance. "Caid, I saw there was a light on here... I hoped I would find you."

"Is something wrong, Milady?"

"No... I am just lonely and feeling melancholy. Will you come back to bed?"

Caid looked at Fyonna who flashed her a big grin in return. "We can talk later, Caid. Such a request should only be denied by the pious or the stupid. And you are neither."

Grinning, Caid put her arm around Bronwyn's waist and led her over to the door. "Indeed I am not. Good eve, Fyonna."

"Good eve, Caid. Lady Bronwyn," Fyonna said and took her mug with the sleeping potion.


"Would you care to join me for a stroll around the well before we head back to bed, Lady Bronwyn?" Caid said and sought out the Lady's hand.

Bronwyn took Caid's hand at once and swung it back and forth a couple of times. "I would be delighted to, Lady Caid."

"I seem to recall telling you once upon a time that I prefer not to be addressed like that...?"

Snickering, Bronwyn leaned in to bump shoulders with the shorter woman. Once the shoulders had been duly bumped, she gave Caid's hand a little squeeze. "Did you?"

"I am quite sure I did. In the study the first time we met."

"I cannot remember," Bronwyn said and crossed her fingers behind her back, well out of sight of the Huntress.

They smiled at each other and did indeed stroll around the well that Kheo had shed plenty of blood, sweat and curses on when he dug it out nearly single-handed at the time of the camp's founding.

The night had grown no less chilly, but being in each other's presence seemed to make the two women forget all about the cold.

Smiling for all she was worth, Bronwyn took a deep breath and puckered up her lips when she let it out, almost creating a mythical creature that floated away in the night until it dissolved into mere vapors.

"My, how the stars are magnificent tonight. Do you not think so, Caid?" Bronwyn said, looking up at the myriad of little white dots that peppered the black sky.

"I do."

"From my bedchamber in the keep, I only had a limited view of the sky. And yet, in the old days when I was younger and more innocent, I used to love to sit by the window and just dream myself away. Dream of other territories and continents, of other peoples and races... and indeed of other worlds."

"Oh, I doubt there are other worlds out there, Lady Bronwyn."

"Do you not think the stars are suns like our own? If they are suns, they are bound to have planets as well. Perhaps somewhere out there, someone like you and I could be looking this way right now! We surely cannot be alone in the vastness of space. I must admit I believe in the notion of many worlds, many beings."

"Read that in your, ahem, many books, did you?"

"Well," Bronwyn said with a slight blush tingeing her cheeks, "philosophy was among the things my tireless, yet long-suffering tutor tried to install in my head, yes. Romantic notions pertaining to the stars and the beings there were simply favorite subjects of mine. Far greater than the art of diplomacy and negotiation I was supposed to learn."

"Life elsewhere is certainly a romantic notion, however I fear I am not a romantic, nor a philosopher. Come, it's too cold out here now."

When they walked away from the torches and over to their hut, traces of the galaxy their planet was in came into view as long streaks of milky white matter across the dark sky. The last thing Bronwyn did before she went into the hut was to wink and wave at the people she just knew would be watching her from afar.

Inside, Caid took off her jacket and let it hang from the shelf like before.

"Caid," Bronwyn said as she sat down on the bunk and began to unlace her boots. "Did you have a happy childhood?"

Stopping in the middle of the floor, Caid seemed taken aback by the relatively simple question. "I suppose I did, yes. How come you ask me that?" she said, cocking her head.

"Oh, for no particular reason. I would just like to know a little more about you," Bronwyn said shyly.

"Huh. I see. Well, my childhood wasn't quite like that of other little girls. My father was away for weeks or even moons at a time. In effect, my mother reared Alanna, Markki and myself on her own. But I was proud of my father, that's an undeniable fact," Caid said and quickly slipped out of the new tunic to put on the loose one she used to sleep in. Her pants went the same way, and before long, she was only half-dressed, though the tunic was long enough to hide her undergarments.

Bronwyn blushed at the amount of skin before her. Shyly looking down, she started fumbling with her own bindings. "I believe I have heard Lady Alanna mention you have lost your mother?"

"Alas, we have, Lady Bronwyn. The coughing illness claimed her, oh, five years ago. That was a terrible experience, and not one I wish to live through again. Even Fyonna couldn't do much for her, except to ease her pain when the coughing fits became too hard to bear."

"You have my deepest sympathies, Caid."

"Thank you, Milady. You know of loss, too."

"I do... sadly, I do," Lady Bronwyn said and allowed herself a brief moment to think of the important people she had lost - her mother and May-Linn among them. Clearing her throat, she looked back up at Caid. "Now, to return to a lighter subject, I wonder if we ever met when we were children?" she continued, sweeping the dark brown frock away from her shoulders. The tunic followed, as did her boots that she had already loosened.

"I fear I cannot remember, Lady Bronwyn. We may have. Oh, but I do remember a humorous anecdote," Caid said and knelt down in front of the Lady. She eyed the cloth that covered the taller woman's mounds, but didn't pursue it. "Would you like to hear it?"

"I would very much like to hear it, yes!"

"All right. First, your pants," Caid said and tugged at the ankle pants like she wanted to help Bronwyn take them off. When the Lady nodded in return and lifted her rear off the bunk, Caid pulled at the pantlegs until they were free.

Bronwyn hurriedly put her hands in her lap so she wouldn't be so exposed though she was wearing her undergarments like any proper Lady should. The chill soon crept up her bare skin which made her sweep her legs up in the bunk. "Are you not coming to bed, Caid?"

"I am, I am!" Caid said and folded the ankle pants neatly before she put them across the backrest of the chair. Grinning at her Ladyship's apparent eagerness, she slipped into the bunk and pulled the blanket on top of them both.

At first, they and their cold feet were engaged in a snickering battle royal, but it didn't take long for a pleasant warmth to spread around the two women.

"Oh, Lady Caid... I do believe you owe me an anecdote!" Bronwyn said, poking an index finger into Caid's stomach before caressing it to make it good again.

"Very well. At first, my father didn't want me to follow in his footsteps. I was a girl, you know... but when I turned ten, I convinced him to allow me to be tested for the Rangers."

"Say no more... I know you too well. I am willing to bet good Crowns that you were able to stay hidden in the forests for several days, and an entire battalion of experienced soldiers were unable to find you! And that was when your father understood you were an unpolished gem. Am I right?"

"Ah, not quite. In fact, I was thrown out of the tests for being too short. I never got further than speaking my name."

"Oh, no... how rude! Sweet Marpaxa, that was so rude," Bronwyn said and leaned in to kiss Caid on the cheek.

Caid chuckled and scooted closer to the warm Lady. "Yes. I went home and pouted for a week."

"But you still ended up as the senior Ranger...?"

"Years later, the War of Great Expansion broke out, Lady Bronwyn. When I joined the armed forces, I used a false name so people wouldn't get the impression I was trying to get an easy ride because of my father's connections."

"I remember you mentioning that," Bronwyn said and carefully ran her hand over some of Caid's many poorly healed scars. "And the incident where you got these dreadful scars."

"Yes. The war brought good moments, too, though they were few and far between. I remember an instance from a campaign where Kheo was trying to teach me how to load the trebuchets. Now, the ordnance we used was far, far heavier than I was, typically one hundred and fifty or two hundred pound boulders, so I couldn't do anything with it... well, apart from sit on it."


"Indeed. But in this instance, when Kheo was trying to teach me the safety features of the catapults, I must have done something I shouldn't have because the boulder suddenly ran off on its own... backwards... even before it had been tipped into the sling. It flattened the Commander's tent. Luckily, he wasn't in it."

"Oh, goodness me... I cannot imagine Kheo being too happy with that?"

"He wasn't, and neither was I. For the next ten days, I was confined to field kitchen duty that I spent peeling root vegetables for the entire unit.

"Ohhhh," Lady Bronwyn said and hugged her compact friend.

"But enough about me," Caid said and shuffled over onto her right side so she was face to face with the Lady. "Now I would like to hear a little about your childhood."

Bronwyn smiled wistfully and leaned in to kiss Caid's nose. "My childhood was rarely all that wonderful, Caid. My brother was always my father's favored child. I was the second choice. Sometimes not even that. If Tawna had not been there to support and encourage me, I fear I would have been a basket case before I was fifteen. Tawna was the only one I could trust... still is, to be honest. Well, now I trust you, too, of course."

"Thank you," Caid whispered, reaching over to return the kiss on the nose.

They fell silent and were content with simply looking into each other's eyes. After a little while, Bronwyn leaned over and claimed Caid's lips in a warm, tender kiss.

Separating, they went back to looking at each other, though the mood had changed to a more intimate one. "Are you aware," Bronwyn said with a husky snicker, "that your eyes change color depending on your mood and your surroundings?"

"They do?" Caid said and crossed them grotesquely to see for herself.

"Yes. Right now, they are dark green, but I have seen pale green, dusty green and even hazel."

"Have you been watching me that closely?"

"Oh, gazing deeply into your eyes is one of my most enjoyable pastimes, Huntress. 'Tis such a wonderful way to spend my life. I shall never grow tired of looking at your eyes... or indeed the rest of you."

Caid chuckled and leaned in to steal a kiss. "You really are a romantic, Lady Bronwyn."

"But I am!"

A contented silence once again fell over them, a silence they took full advantage of by nibbling at each other's lips.

Winking repeatedly, Bronwyn pulled back an inch or two and shot the Huntress a funny look. "This is where you are supposed to say my eyes are pretty, too, Caid!" she whispered in a mock whine.

"Oh! I beg for forgiveness, Lady Bronwyn. Your eyes are pretty, too."

"Thank you."

"And they're blue."

"Are they really?" Bronwyn said and snickered into her hand.

Caid suddenly looked like she'd had the proverbial tallow candle light up in her head. Furrowing her brow, she pulled back slightly and studied Bronwyn's regal face. "Seers... I could dress up as a Seer!"

"I do not underst- oh, for your visit in the dungeons?"

"Indeed. Kheo's plan was to disguise ourselves as healers, but healers need to carry medical apparel or else it'll look too suspicious. Seers don't necessarily carry anything along with them..."

"Oh! And better still, everyone is mortally afeared of being too close to a Seer in case they get cross with you and take off their blindfolds!"

"Indeed... indeed, Lady Bronwyn," Caid said and rolled over onto her back. There, she stared at the ceiling with a thoughtful look on her face.

From a distance, Bronwyn could see all kinds of emotions race across the Huntress' expressive face. Nervousness, anger, even excitement were present, but perhaps most of all an edginess brought on by the many years spent fighting opponents that needed to be outwitted for the victory to be earned.

"Maybe we can borrow the proper garments from Fyonna?" Caid said thoughtfully.

"Maybe, but Caid... I am profoundly sorry, but dressing Kheo up as a Seer would not fool anyone."

"No... I fear you are right, Lady Bronwyn. Maybe Deegan or Markki-"

"Or I could go with you. I know every shortcut, every secret passage, every corridor, every pathway, every-"

Caid closed her eyes and pinched the bridge of her nose hard. "Lady Bronwyn, you are hardly an unknown presence at the castle. Everyone there knows you far too well..."

"But not as a Seer! Look how well you were disguised as a blind beggar! I did not recognize you at all until you spoke in your regular voice. If we whisper hoarsely or employ another theatrical gimmick like that, we shall fool them all, I am certain of it!"

When the Huntress didn't seem too convinced, Bronwyn leaned halfway across the other woman and pinned her down with her weight. "I could be a tremendous help to you, Caid," Bronwyn said, gently pushing her hands underneath Caid's body. "If we are successful in springing your father out of the dungeons, I can make us disappear into the bowels of the castle... like this," she said and hurriedly leaned down to steal a kiss. "I guarantee that even father himself would not be able to find us. My dearest, dearest friend, it will work."

"There's danger involved. I fear it will simply be too dangero-"

"No, Lady Caid. I am not a little girl any longer. Some things are worth risking your neck for... and saving your father is one of those things. We shall go as Seers. I promise it will be a success."

"If you feel it will, how can we fail?" Caid said in jest, but the worried frown across her brow told another story.

"Mmmm," Bronwyn said and suddenly noticed she had the Huntress in the perfect position for an intimate encounter. She leaned down and began to nibble at Caid's throat and the side of her neck.

A warm sigh escaped Caid's lips and she reached up to pull the Lady even closer. "Lady Bronwyn... perhaps we shouldn't-"

"The time for talking is no longer. Take heed, the time for loving has come," Bronwyn whispered, claiming Caid's lips in a kiss that soon deepened. Before long, they moaned gently into each other's mouths and let their hands go on journeys that introduced them to all the glorious dips, curves and swells of the woman they held onto.

Bronwyn's hands in particular roamed the body beneath her; from the tender mounds, across the flat, muscular stomach and onto the searing heat that came through the undergarments.

"Wait, Lady Bronwyn," Caid whispered around a kiss. "Wait... I feel like I'm taking advantage of you..."

Bronwyn pulled back with a puzzled look on her face. "I fear you are grossly mistaken, Huntress. Is it not my lips against yours? Is it not my breath upon your skin? Is it not my hand upon your-"

"Ah, yes, it most decidedly is, but-"

"I am on top. By definition, the one on top cannot be taken advantage of. Now put those thoughts aside and let us make love. I have waited far too long to feel you, Caid. I will not wait any longer. And you can consider that an Imperial Decree!"

"Yes, my Empress," Caid said with a snicker before her lips became far too busy with matters far more delightful than talking.

Even while they were kissing, their hands began to explore the possibilities of losing some of the layers of clothing they were wrapped in. Bronwyn's fingers tried to loosen the cloth around Caid's breasts, but she had no luck in finding the little hooks that would liberate the Huntress' mounds.

Similarly, Caid tried to reach down to push off Bronwyn's undergarments, but they got stuck to her own, and her arms weren't long enough to reach around Bronwyn's rear end to pull hers all the way down first.

Then their tongues clashed for the first time and they promptly forgot all about bone hooks or stubborn undergarments. The powerful muscles danced against each other, exploring the damp caves like a sweet premonition of what would come for them both.

Moaning into Caid's mouth, Bronwyn had to pull back to catch her breath. Panting, she stared long and hard into the eyes of her lover-to-be, almost daring the compact woman to do the first moves.

She suddenly remembered the wrappings and tried again to find the hooks that would set Caid's mounds free.

"It's on my back," Caid whispered and moved up so Bronwyn could get her hands onto her back.

Access to the bone hooks didn't exactly ease Bronwyn's way to Caid's breasts, and she fumbled incessantly with the tight clasp. "Ohhh... oh!" she groaned, moving her hands too frantically to be effective.

"Be still, Lady Bronwyn... I shall do it," Caid said and reached behind herself to unhook the clasp. The cloth protecting her chest became loose and fell into her lap.

Bronwyn stared at the peaks that had come into view. A husky smile spread over her features as she dove down and kissed her way along the exposed cleavage and onto the right breast. "Oh... so beautiful," she breathed.

"Now you... please, Lady Bronwyn. I want to see you too," Caid said, tugging at Bronwyn's undergarments that had finally released their iron grip on Caid's hip-wraps.

Bronwyn snickered and hurriedly loosened her top. Once the cloth had been taken care of - and thrown onto the floor - she shoved her undergarments down to reveal she was quite ready for whatever the Huntress could think of doing with her.

"Oh, you are so beautiful," Caid whispered, eyeing the Lady's naked body while she ran a hand down from Bronwyn's side and onto her bare rear end. There, she couldn't resist grabbing a little flesh which earned her a husky snicker.

Bronwyn's silky smooth, shapely peaks with their pink nipples that had already grown erect almost cried out to be fondled and caressed, and Caid did what she could to get Lady Bronwyn back down to her.

"Thank you," Bronwyn whispered, throwing her hair to the side and trailing her fingers down Caid's cleavage. "You are beautiful too," she continued, gently kneading the Huntress' left breast.

"Alas, I know I am not, Lady Bronwyn," Caid said, reaching up to pull the Lady back down towards her.

The skin on the older woman's breasts was as scarred as the rest of her torso, telling a gruesome story of what had happened to her when she had been captured during the war.

Bronwyn felt the poorly-healed tissue under her fingertips as she trailed the underside of both Caid's breasts. "Please tell me if I cause you pain... I do not wish to hurt you, sweet Caid."

"You are not. Now, for the love of Marpaxa, will you please come down here so we can continue where we left off?"

"Your wish is my desire," Bronwyn said and quickly leaned down to steal a kiss. "But first, your undergarments. I cannot wait to see the whole you. I am sure your body is just as perfect as I have pictured it to be... please?"

Caid grinned and raised her rear end off the mattress so she could push down her underpants. Bronwyn helped to get them off her legs, and soon, the whole Caid came into view.

Bronwyn's face creased into a mask of shock when even the skin at and below Caid's golden patch of hair was marred by white scars. She looked up and felt such love and support flow between them she couldn't hold back a gasp.

To show what was in her heart, she leaned down and placed a tender kiss on Caid's patch of hair. Lingering there, she took in the searing heat and musky scent of her lover-to-be before she eventually slid up the damaged body to place a loving kiss on Caid's lips. "You are beautiful... no imperfections can ruin that. You mean everything to me. Everything. My beautiful woman, I cannot say how much I love thee..."

"Then hold your tongue, Lady Bronwyn, and show me instead," Caid said and ran her hands up and down Bronwyn's back.

"Hold my tongue? Alas, I fear my tongue shall be the part of me working the hardest this eve," Bronwyn said with a husky snicker - then she dove down and claimed Caid's lips in a deep, passionate kiss that soon led them to the eternal dance of love.


"Ohhhh," Bronwyn breathed, sweeping away her damp hair from her eyes. Moving onto her side, she pulled Caid up towards her and gave her new lover a warm hug. "Glorious... simply glorious," she whispered before claiming Caid's lips in a tender kiss that tasted sweetly and salty at the same time.

The warm wave that rolled through her made her want to remain in that position, in that bunk, in that state of mind forever and a day. Closing her eyes, she snuggled down into Caid's arms and felt the first tendrils of sleep falling over her like a shroud.

"Thank you, Milady..." Caid breathed, returning the kiss.

"Thank me? Thank you!"

"No, thank you. You're a natural."

"Oh, you say that to all the girls," Bronwyn said and snickered huskily.

Caid leaned in and placed a tender kiss on Bronwyn's damp forehead. "No," she whispered as she kissed her new lover again, "only to those who truly are."

A few moments went by with no activity from either of them, but then Bronwyn cracked open an eyelid and studied the compact woman in her arms. "Lady Caid," she whispered, "just out of complete curiosity... how many-"

"It was merely a figure of speech, Lady Bronwyn."

Bronwyn nodded like she had just understood the mechanics of why the world was round. "Ohhh. I see. I will bet you say that to all the girls, too!"

"Oh, you!" Caid said and wrapped her legs around Bronwyn's underneath the warm blanket. The two women playwrestled back and forth for a brief while before they settled down with Caid on top.

Grinning huskily, she let her hands slide up Bronwyn's long torso until they were just below her breasts. The mounds proved too hard to resist and she covered them tenderly with her hands.

Bronwyn let out a lusty sigh and reached up to hold Caid's hands exactly where they were. They looked at each other for a very brief moment before Bronwyn raised her abdomen off the mattress and up against Caid's glistening body to show she was ready, willing and able to commence round two.

"Are you ready for more?" Caid said, teasing the two pink nipples before her by running her thumbs over them.

"Yessss," Bronwyn breathed, gazing so lustfully at the Huntress it was utterly impossible to misinterpret the look.

The plea was too strong to overhear, and Caid soon dove down to pick up where she had left off, much to Bronwyn's vocal satisfaction.


A few turns of the hourglass later, footfalls were heard running up to the hut.

'Caid! Caid!' a female voice shouted from the outside. 'Caid! You must hurry! Come, Caid! Wake up!' the voice continued. Soon, the person thumped long and hard on the door.

Jerked out of her sleep, Caid bolted upright in the bunk and rubbed her sleepy and highly confused face. "Wh- what?" she croaked, trying to focus. It was still dark out so she hadn't slept in, but there were no other clues as to what was going on. "Who- who goes there?" she said loudly, but no answer was forthcoming.

Bronwyn woke up by the hubbub and rolled over onto her left side. "What's going on, Caid?"

"I have no idea... stay in bed for now. I'm going to- to- ugh, I got caught up in the wretched blanket!" Caid croaked and tried to release herself from the blanket that suddenly seemed to be fifty fathoms long. "Oh, to Phirax with this!" she barked, throwing the obstinate blanket clear across the bunk, thus pulling it off Bronwyn as well.

'Caid! Come quick!' the female voice shouted from somewhere beyond the door. Once again, the thumping was resumed.

"Oh, I gotta get this mess sorted!" Caid said and swung her bare legs over the side of the bunk. She tried to find her undergarments, but decided she had wasted enough time already and stood up as naked as the day she was born.

She only made it two steps away from the bunk when the door was flung open and Alanna barged inside. She was holding a lit candlestick in her hand, but it was nearly dropped on the floor when she caught an eyeful of her sister.

"Caid, Markki is-" Alanna cried, but she never made it further than that - her eyes grew wider and wider as they locked onto Bronwyn's naked form on the bunk.

The Lady hurriedly pulled the blanket over her, but there had been no mistaking her nakedness.

Alanna's chin and the corners of her mouth twitched as she turned back to her sister. Wordlessly, she spun around and stomped out of the hut without stating her business.

"There must be something wrong with Markki," Caid said and hurried back to the bunk. Instead of wasting time on putting on her undergarments, she slipped into her ankle pants and her tunic.

Behind her, Bronwyn let out a shriek and fully dove for cover under the blanket at the sight of Kheo Khammon entering the hut. The only part of her outside the blanket was her endless right leg, but the nudity proved she wasn't wearing anything elsewhere, either.

"Oy! Sorry, luv! Didn't mean ta catch ya in the act or nothin'," the large man said, slapping a hand over his eyes.

"Enough of this!" Caid barked, "Tell me what in the name of Phirax the Unholy is going on here!"

"Markki is missin'. An' his horse, too. For how long, nobody knows," Kheo rumbled. "The main gate has been opened tho' we cannot say if it's been opened from the inside or the outside. An' get this, the sentry is dead."

That piece of news made Caid come to a jerking stop in the middle of the floor, balancing on her left leg while she tried to put on her other boot. "Dead?"

"Like a doorknob, Huntress. Broken neck."

"Wretched! I cannot believe Markki would kill the sentry!"

"Well," Kheo drawled, scratching his neck while trying not to be too overt as he sneaked a peek at Lady Bronwyn's long, bare leg that she couldn't find room for underneath the blanket. "Somebody did, that's fer damn sure, 'cos he is most cert'inly dead."

"Is anyone else unaccounted for?"

"Naw. Only Markki. And his horse."

"Wretched. He must have gone to Ashburne Castle," Caid said and sat down with a bump on the chair. Closing her eyes, she leaned back her head and let out a long, pained groan. "That damned young fool. That damned fool! He will only get himself killed! Wretched!"

"Yeah. Deegan is organizin' a search party, but..."

"There's no point, Kheo," Caid said and stomped her foot down into the boot. "He's at the castle. That's the only logical place for him to be now. Kheo, I want you and Deegan to... no, scratch that. I shall take care of it myself. Thank you, my friend," she said and got back up.

"Uh... anytime, Huntress. Lady Bronwyn," Kheo said, waving at the lump underneath the blanket. Right on cue, Bronwyn stuck a hand out and waved back.

Outside, the quiet camp turned into a beehive of activity, but Caid shut the door and shuffled over to the bunk. "Bronwyn, I am profoundly sorry for the undignified way our wonderful eve came to a conclusion," she said, gently pulling down the blanket so she could speak to Bronwyn face to face.

"Oh, this was not your doing, Lady Caid," Bronwyn said and caressed the Huntress' cheek as she sat up. "My only hope is your brother will be found safe and sound. Are you going to search for him?"

"No. I know exactly where he is. He's at Ashburne Castle," Caid said quietly.

"Oh. In that case, do you not want to undress and be cleansed before you go anywhere...? I surely need some water on my body after the glorious love we made, and I can imagine you do, too."

"Alas, I have no time," Caid said with a half-shrug. "I am the community elder, I need to be seen in a time of crisis. And I need to speak with Alanna. Her behavior cannot go uncommented. She insulted me... and she insulted the woman I care for so dearly," she continued, leaning down to place a kiss on Bronwyn's lips.

Bronwyn closed her eyes and let the touch take her back to the time where she and Caid had been one being, not two. A golden glow spread over her cheeks as she raised herself off the bunk and deepened the kiss. Separating, she winked at her new lover. "Go, my brave Huntress... but I wish you would consider at least putting on your undergarments. Your suede pants might chafe you. I grew rather fond of that part of you this eve and I would like to see it remain unharmed."

Grinning, Caid eyed her discarded undergarments down on the floorboards. Kicking off her boots, she decided that since the horse had already bolted, there was no rush to close the stable door - Alanna and the others would simply have to wait until she was properly attired.




A turn and a half of the hourglass earlier.

In the early hours of the morning, Jin-Sarnos adjusted his puff cuffs and his waistcoat to make them line up just right as he stepped out of his special chamber in the vaults below the keep. Based on his own sketch, he had commissioned the brightest architect in all of Dinnigon to design and build the special chamber for him: an outhouse, only indoors, and with fully functioning plumbing.

As the Emperor of Dinnigon, Tantor and Zigai, he simply couldn't squat over a small waste bucket like his servants, or even sit on a wooden board over a two-man bucket like his officers, no, nothing less than a real bowl leading to a hole in the floor would do. Shaped like a throne and made of the finest white marble shipped by oxcart from the mountains near the southern province, his personal waste bowl was the grandest in the land. It even had a jug of water so he could flush and wash his hands - not that he always bothered to.

Having done his business brought on by the exquisite seven-course meal he had consumed at dinner, he was about to turn back to the staircase that would take him upstairs to his private chambers when he heard two men arguing somewhere deeper into the vaults. The voices were both young, but he couldn't recognize either of them.

Grunting, he became intrigued and decided to take a stroll in the bowels of his own castle.


He soon discovered the voices had come from the anteroom of the dungeons below the keep. When he walked around one of the mammoth support pillars carrying the massive keep, he spotted the men who were still talking.

One was the warder on duty who was sitting behind a desk near the reinforced door to the dungeons. Though the overweight man from the regular army wore the regulatory uniform in the shape of a red tunic and matching ankle pants - and a leather apron to avoid having his uniform splattered by this and that - he wasn't wearing his headpiece, nor did he appear to have a comb at his disposal. His gloves were lying on the desk, but that was a minor offense.

The other man present was a healer wearing a white, hooded robe held together by a pale blue sash around his waist. The sash proudly carried three tassels that hung down his right thigh. The robe itself was long enough to conceal every bit of the man's body and legs except the tips of his boots.

Jin-Sarnos furrowed his brow when the healer's hood briefly fluttered to the side to allow him to catch a glimpse of the man's surprisingly young face. Although bearded like most healers, his was merely fine down and not a real beard, proving he was still a youngling.

The Emperor's eyes slid back to the three tassels below the sash. He knew that each tassel represented the seniority the healer had achieved: one tassel for younglings who were still being taught the art of medicine, two for those who were actively practicing medicine, and three for those whose active careers had ended, but who had turned to research or the honorable task of updating the various medical scrolls and tomes.

"Hmmm," Jin-Sarnos said, rubbing his wobbling double-chins as he considered why a youngling would carry three tassels. He understood that he wouldn't get to the bottom of that particular mystery without coming forth, so he cleared his throat and stepped out from his hiding place.

"Your Majesty!" the warder cried, jumping to his feet and bowing so deeply his forehead nearly slammed into the table he had been sitting behind - from the way his knees knocked, it was clear he was in a state of shock at having his supreme ruler show up at his post in the middle of the night.

The healer turned around a bit more sedately, though he still bowed deeply at the Emperor.

"Good eve, soldier. At ease," Jin-Sarnos said to the warder but soon turned his attention to the young man in the white robe. "Good eve to you, too, healer. I do not believe we have met before."

Smiling at the Emperor, the young man swept his wide sleeves over his arms which concealed his hands completely. "Actually we have, Sire, though it has been a few moons. Naturally, you cannot be expected to remember a mere healer such as I. Quintaine is my name, Sire. Enchanted to meet you," the healer said and bowed again.

"Enchanted to meet you too, Quintaine. Warder, please inform me of what is going on here?" Jin-Sarnos said, turning back to the soldier behind the desk.

"Uh... he-al... ahem," the warder said, discreetly mopping his soaked brow while trying to slick down his wild hair. "I mean, the healer came a short time ago and told me he had been summoned to the dungeons. He told me one of the prisoners needed urgent medical attention. Naturally, Your Majesty, I told him I could not let him inside the dungeons at this time of the day. Or... or ni- night, even."

"Good," Jin-Sarnos said and turned back to the healer. "Quintaine, who summoned you here?"

"Watch Commander Tarsi, Sire."

Jin-Sarnos furrowed his brow and began to run an index finger across the scraggly stubble on his upper lip. "I see," he said after a brief delay. "And who were you here to service?"

"Efrem Barlin, Sire."

"The Count of the Crown? Well, I cannot allow any harm to come to my prized possession. Alas, what the warder has told you was true. No one is permitted inside the dungeons at night. Even I, the great Jin-Sarnos the Twelfth, cannot set foot in there. And it's my signature on the decree! Pray, do you know why, Quintaine?"

"I do not, Sire."

"Because of the rats, young man! The rats that scurry around in there only come out at night, but when they do, they come in droves! Ah, yes. Ashburne Castle is such an old building the rats have nearly claimed it as their own. They are everywhere down here... but they prefer the filthy, disease-ridden dungeons. I fear my Imperial ankles and calves would be a wonderful target for any well-bred rodent. I would rather not risk that!"

"Oh, that is highly understandable, Sire. But the prisoners-"

"Are so scrawny they serve no purpose for the rats. No fat on their bones, healer. So... I fear you have been, and are, wasting your time here. Come, young man, come with me back up into the real world," Jin-Sarnos said and held out his hand like he wanted to wrap it around Quintaine's shoulders.

The healer briefly looked back at the reinforced door but eventually nodded and followed the Emperor out of from the anteroom, pressing his hands together inside the wide sleeves.

The two mismatched men walked over to the foot of the grand staircase that ran the entire way up the keep. Fitting for an Emperor, Jin-Sarnos ascended the stairs first but made sure to stay well ahead of the healer to be out of his reach.

Two storeys up - at the same floor as the dining hall - Jin-Sarnos stopped and pretended to be winded. In reality, he studied the young man's face closely. He had to admit there was something familiar about the healer's features, but he had problems making any sort of connection.

Taking a deep breath, Jin-Sarnos shuffled along one of the corridors that led off from the landing. He knew his own footfalls and could tell the younger man was still following him.

He turned right and briefly walked down the corridor that would lead him to the dining hall. Once at the double doors that were unguarded at that time of night, he cast a glance over his shoulder and noticed he was still being trailed like a shadow.

"Ah, Quintaine," he said and turned towards the healer. "It just occurred to me I should be a good host and offer you a chamber and perhaps a wench for the eve though there are only a few turns of the hourglass left...?"

"Thank you, Sire, but no thank you. To neither. I live here in Ashburne so my home is only a stone's throw away... and with regards to female companionship of the dubious kind, I fear I have sworn an oath of celibacy."

"A celibate healer? How curious," Jin-Sarnos said and cocked his head. "Of course, it would explain why a youngling like you would wear three tassels. I have always thought three tassels meant the man carrying them was an old, dry fellow. Interesting. Come," the Emperor said and suddenly walked away from the double doors. In a few heartbeats, he had gone past Quintaine and was headed for the staircase they had only just come from.

"Wh- where to, Sire?"

"To see my Watch Commander," Jin-Sarnos said, shooting Quintaine a dark, distrustful look. "I would like to ask him why he sent for a healer at this time of night. He knows full well the doors to the dungeon are closed to keep in the rats. Oh, and also how he knew Efrem Barlin was poorly when even I did not. Come! It isn't far."

With that, Jin-Sarnos turned around and strode down the corridor.

Quintaine chewed on his lips and stared wide-eyed at the retreating, bulbous form of the Emperor. He briefly eyed the closed double doors to the dining hall before he set off after Jin-Sarnos, hoping to catch him before they could run into a patrol from the regular army, or even worse, the Black Lance.

"Wait, Sire!" Quintaine cried, waving his left hand in the air at the Emperor. "Perh- perhaps we have both been fooled! I didn't speak to Watch Commander Tarsi in person... I received a scroll that stated quite clearly I should come to the castle. It was a bit of a nuisance, to be honest, for I had just settled into bed after having been called out late to a troublesome delivery," he continued as he caught up with the overweight man.

In the meanwhile, the two men had reached the staircase. Around them, the activity of the residents and the staff of the castle slowly rose to the levels seen in the daytime, and an early maid got the fright of her life when she bounded gleefully down the stairs with an armful of linen only to nearly bump into her master.

"A scroll?" Jin-Sarnos said, watching the shapely maid who curtseyed deeply and took off down the next corridor. "Quintaine, you wouldn't happen to have brought the scroll with you, would you? Perhaps I can recognize the signature or the hand in which it was written."

"Ah... alas, I did not, Sire. I left it at home. I didn't think it was important. Now I can see that it was. Woe, I should have brought it," Quintaine said and put a hand on his forehead for effect.

"Mmmm. I would still like to see the Watch Commander. Come."

Markki knew his charade was up and reached in under his robe to draw the iron blade he was hiding there. As the bulbous Emperor turned away from him, he jumped forward and pressed the blade hard into the overweight man's back.

"You listen to me, you fat slug," Markki hissed quietly into Jin-Sarnos' ear. Though he appeared to be only a tenth of the large man's bulk, he was an inch or two taller which meant he had the upper hand. "You and me are gonna go back downstairs and get Efrem Barlin released right now! You hear me... right now!" As he spoke, he added even more pressure to Jin-Sarnos' back.

"Young pup! Do you think I wasn't telling the truth before when I spoke of the rats? I was! If you want to kill yourself by going in there, be my guest... I, however, shall remain out here!"

Markki narrowed his eyes and stared at the fat man in his custody. He knew his plan was falling apart like a house of cards, but he had no plan B to enable him to get out of the mess.

Jin-Sarnos tried to move away from the blade, but Markki grabbed hold of the large man's waistcoat and kept up the pressure. "So be it. Then we shall go to your chamber," he said and began to pull the Emperor back down towards the double doors.

"My chamber? What nonsense! What kind of assassin are you? Run me through right here, you little turd, and be done with it!"

"I'm not an assassin... now come, you fat glob of slime!"

Jin-Sarnos used his greater bulk to quite literally put down his heels and prevent his much lighter opponent from dragging him any further. As he dared the young man to make the next move by staring at him contemptuously, he studied his youthful features and came to the conclusion he had undoubtedly seen and even spoken to him before, though where was still a mystery.

Markki became increasingly nervous, and eventually yanked so hard at the Emperor's waistcoat to get him to move that it tore. "To your chamber!" Markki said hoarsely, holding the tip of the blade against Jin-Sarnos' considerable belly.

With a grunt, the Emperor relented and reached for the brass handles on the double doors. "You have me now. Oh, I cannot wait to see the outcome of this little act of defiance," he said as the two men walked across the dining hall's marble floor.

At the two fireplaces, servants were already busy lighting and stoking the fires to heat up the vast room for when breakfast would be served a few turns of the hourglass later. "You know," Jin-Sarnos said as he noted his staff bow and curtsey at him with highly puzzled looks on their faces, "it is never too late to make plans for your future. How would you like to be executed? Would you like to hang, or perhaps to be drawn and quartered? Oh, but you're nothing but skin and bones... you would be no challenge for my dray horses. No. How about drying in the sun on the outside of the battlements for a fortnight? Ha! Perhaps the good, old ax will be more to your liking?"

"Shut up!" Markki growled, pressing the concealed sword into Jin-Sarnos' belly.

When they reached the door to the bedchamber, Markki shoved the large man over to it and signaled he should open it.

Once inside, Markki gave Jin-Sarnos such a kick in the Imperial rear he nearly stumbled onto a king-sized, four-post bed that stood up against one of the walls of the chamber. A shapely young woman who was lying on the bed in a sheer, red sarong shrieked and tried to protect herself from the large man in case he would fall on top of her.

Quickly shutting the door behind him, Markki stared around at the chamber with wide open, manic eyes. Far larger than any bedchamber he had ever been in - nearly twenty by twenty fathoms - it was opulently decorated with vases, sculptures and other priceless artifacts on low tables that were placed seemingly at random around the room. The splendor of the bed proved that it was a pleasure chamber in nature, rather than a regular bedchamber.

Colorful draperies and tapestries covered three of the four walls, and it even had a wall to wall carpet to combat the cold that would inevitably seep up from the floor which was a combination of marble and boulders. Unusually, the chamber had no windows, but the fourth wall saw several adjustable air vents.

A hallway went off to the left and out of sight, but Markki reckoned the room it led to would be no less impressive than the one he found himself in.

Jin-Sarnos chuckled as he lit a candlestick and put it on the bedside table to create a flickering cone of light in the semi-darkness. Holding up his torn waistcoat, he swept away the woman's legs and sat down at the foot end of the king-sized bed. "And now what, assassin?" he said, caressing the half-undressed woman's legs. "Are you going to kill me, cut off my head for proof and rape my woman here to leave your mark?"

Tianna 'Jewel' Bethan let out an indignant cry and covered her breasts that were quite visible through the sheer sarong. "Assassin?" she said, revealing that her voice carried an accent from the southern province. "He doesn't look much like an assassin to me!"

"I am not an assassin! I am not here to kill or rape anyone," Markki said hoarsely as he took off the healer's robe that had suddenly become a burden. "I am here to get Efrem Barlin out of the stinking hole you call a prison down in the dungeons. But now this fat slug here tells me that I cannot get him until the day has arrived... so we shall wait!"

"By Phirax' balls," Jin-Sarnos said and shook his head enough to make his double chins wobble. He studied the dark hunting fatigues worn by the young man and suddenly narrowed his eyes in a gesture of recognition. "I know who you are. You are one of those I banished three moons ago... of course you're here for Efrem Barlin! Ha! You're his son, are you not?"

"His son I am. Markki is my name," Markki said and wiped his sweaty brow.

"You really are the most immature and stupid boy I have ever encountered," Jin-Sarnos said and moved to get up from the bed. "Did you honestly think you could come in here and-"

"Silence! And stay where you are or I shall gut you like a fish!"

"-come in here and pluck one criminal out of jail? Hardly, son! You wouldn't make it to the door." While Jin-Sarnos spoke, he poked Tianna's leg out of sight of their captor. When he had her attention, he winked at her; a gesture that was responded to in kind. "And what have you planned to do now? Keep us locked up in here until the cows come home?"

Before Markki had time to come up with any kind of answer to the rather good questions, Tianna suddenly swung her mostly bare legs over the side of the bed and clenched her hands in front of her chest. "I don't wanna die! I don't wanna get raped... please! You have to let me go! I cannot stay here... please!"

The scantily clad woman jumped up from the bed and hurried over to Markki who took an involuntary step back.

"Please, young Sire, I am willing to do anything... anything at all for you if you would only let me out of here," Tianna howled, throwing herself to her knees in front of Markki and grabbing hold of his pant legs.

Markki groaned in frustration and looked down at the hysterical woman to get her to let go of him - but when he spotted Jin-Sarnos moving his arm back, he knew he had made a bad mistake.

When he looked back up at the Emperor, a ceramic sculpture came straight for him. He tried to duck out of the way, but Tianna held onto his legs. A split second later, the heavy sculpture slammed into his upper chest and made him cry out in pain.

Reeling from the impact, Markki's arm grew numb in an instant and he couldn't hold onto his sword. It clanged harmlessly onto the floor where Tianna went for it at once. Clutching his right collarbone that had received a sizable whack, Markki knew he had to act quickly and kicked out after the scantily clad woman. His boot only gave her a glancing blow across the gut, but it was enough for her to get thrown to the side with a whimper.

Even as Markki tried to reach for the sword with his good arm, Jin-Sarnos had jumped off the bed and was charging him like a raging bull. The voluminous man moved with surprising speed and agility, and the far smaller Markki was slammed into with such force he was thrown onto the wall to wall carpet like a boneless rag doll.

"Jewel! Get help while I show this scrawny weakling how real men fight!" Jin-Sarnos barked, grabbing hold of Markki's tunic and slamming him up against the wall.

"Yes, love!" Tianna groaned, staggering to her feet while rubbing her stomach where Markki's boot had hit her. She quickly reached the door, opened it and stormed into the dining hall on bare feet. Soon, she flailed her arms in the air while she screamed for help at the top of her lungs.

Jin-Sarnos turned back to his would-be assassin and delivered a thunderous punch to the young man's gut that made him double over in pain. "You're a pitiful little wuss of a man. Pitiful!"

Another punch followed the first, but Markki could move aside at the last moment to make the blow less effective. Eyeing his chance at leveling the uneven fight, he jerked up a knee and nailed Jin-Sarnos hard in the crotch.

The air left the big man in one, huge rush, and he staggered backwards with his eyes crossed and his cheeks turning an unhealthy shade of green. Squealing, he fell down onto his knees and began to sway like a reed in the wind.

Markki knew he had to make a run for it while he still had time, but couldn't resist delivering another body blow to the Emperor. Running around the large man, he aimed and delivered a kick to his considerable belly that only worsened Jin-Sarnos' condition.

After picking up his sword, Markki was at the door in two heartbeats, but inches before he could put his hand on the brass handle, the door was barged open from the outside and Zai Allizadra stormed in.

The Commander of the Black Lance didn't need much time to figure out what had happened. She instantly reached for her own blade and held it in a two-hand grip. Her ice cold eyes assessed the situation and decided the young man with the sword shouldn't be there. Belting out a war cry, she jumped forward and swung her heavy blade at the man's neck. Though she missed by a fraction, she had made her presence felt.

Markki cried out and ducked away from the blade that came at him. Jumping to his right, he rolled across the king-sized bed to scramble away from the woman with the insane eyes.

Zai followed him and took another wild stab at her opponent's neck, but missed again. She knew she had the intruder cornered and stepped back to cover every angle in case the young man tried to make a run for it.

"Get him, that wretched little prick!" Jin-Sarnos said in a thick, pained voice. The large man stumbled to his feet and staggered over to one of the chairs at the far side of the room. Hissing with pain, he sat down quite gingerly.

Zai nodded at her master's command. Feigning to the right, she hoped the move would make the intruder dive in the opposite direction - it did, and she was ready for him.

Just when it appeared Markki had a clear run to the door, Zai tricked him and performed a high kick to his chest that brought him down hard. His sword once again clanged onto the floor, but this time, he was in no condition to pick it up.

Zai shifted her own sword to her other hand and slammed the hilt into Markki's face, splitting the skin on his brow and upper nose and whacking the back of his head onto the carpet on the floor. When it created a grotesque, thumping sound, she did it again just for kicks.

"Enough, Commander," Jin-Sarnos croaked.

"But I am just getting started, Sire," Zai said with a wicked gleam in her eyes and a demonic smile playing on her lips.

"Mmmm. Take it someplace else. I don't want blood on my carpets."

"As you wish, Sire."

Zai got up and holstered her blade. She looked down at the bleeding mess on the floor and realized her opponent would indeed stain the carpet if she didn't move him in a hurry. Reaching down, she effortlessly lifted the unconscious man onto the king-sized bed. "Your sheets can be washed, Sire."


"Sire, do you wish me to behead him at once, or do you need to speak to him once he wakes up?"

"Neither, Commander," Jin-Sarnos said and rose from the chair with pain written all over his face. "I want him thrown into the dungeons next to his father. Oh, in case you do not recognize him, he is Markki Barlin, son of Efrem Barlin."

"Is he now?" Zai said and looked back at the young man's fair features that had been stained by his blood. "Now you mention it, I do see the similarities. What a week this has been... first I slay his sister and capture his father, then I shall have the pleasure of playing with young master Barlin himself. Quite astounding!"

Tianna 'Jewel' Bethan and a unit of Black Lance soldiers came to the door to the bedchamber and waited for permission to enter. The scantily clad woman didn't seem too worried about being in the company of a group of young soldiers wearing their regular black satin uniforms. When permission was given, she hurried inside to take care of her injured master.

While the woman helped Jin-Sarnos down the hallway to the next chamber, Zai wiped a few spots of blood off the hilt of her sword. "Take this piece of trash and throw it into the dungeon. In the same cell as Efrem Barlin. I want them to fear for each other's life," she said coldly, waving at her men to take over.


Almost a full turn of the hourglass later, normalcy had returned to Jin-Sarnos' bedchamber. In the meanwhile, he had received breakfast in bed because he could not yet sit on a hard chair, even with a cushion.

Next to him on the bed, 'Jewel' had put a dark cloak over her sheer sarong and was lying with her back turned so she wouldn't accidentally exacerbate her master's injury by doing anything that could provoke a physical response.

Jin-Sarnos had just finished eating a warm pastry when someone knocked on the door. Growling, he licked his fingers clean and pushed the tray away from him. "Enter!" he barked, taking the mug of strong ale he had ordered from the kitchen.

Zai Allizadra stepped into the bedchamber and bowed before the Emperor. "Sire, there's a woman here to see you."

Jin-Sarnos grimaced and shuffled around on the bed. "I fear she will have to wait. I do not believe I am ready for that sort of activity yet."

"No, Sire," Zai said with a cheeky grin, "this woman is a warrior. A Yonnae."

"Oh... one of those people. Oh, very well. What does she want?"

"She claims to have information on your daughter's whereabouts."

"I see," Jin-Sarnos said and took a long swig from his mug. "And how much does she want for sharing that information?" he said, wiping his lips and his double chins with the back of his hand.

"Fifty Crowns, Sire."

"Fifty? That's nothing. Sounds shady." Furrowing his brow, Jin-Sarnos emptied the mug and put it on the tray. Reaching over, he slapped Tianna's rear end hard which made the woman nearly fall off the bed. "Jewel, be gone. I have an important visitor."

"Oh... now?" the woman squeaked, wiping her eyes.


Tianna got up from the bed but kept herself firmly wrapped in the dark cloak. As she wiggled past Zai, she winked at the Commander before she left the bedchamber and went down the connecting hallway.

Zai eventually tore her eyes away from the gently wiggling, retreating form and returned to her master. The large man groaned under his breath as he sat up, and Zai had to stifle a smirk. "How are your privates, Sire?"

"I'm as raw as Phirax' buttcrack. I fear it shall be a while before I can play with girls again," Jin-Sarnos groaned, adjusting his codpiece that was pinching him.

"Well, I have spent enough time around men to know you should test your abilities as soon as possible, Sire. The longer you wait, the worse the cure will be if you need something done to it. Or them."

"Really? Surely not..."

"I fear so, Sire."

The greenish look on Jin-Sarnos' face as he got up from the bed and walked over to the closet at the opposite wall of the bedchamber to take a replacement for his ruined waistcoat proved that he wasn't quite ready to follow Zai's advice yet. "I should be in bed, but I cannot appear weak to a potential ally. Wretched, I cannot sit, either. I shall have to stand."

"Sire," Zai said with a bow and a flamboyant gesture that was just on the right side of mocking the overweight man, "standing emphasizes your powerful masculinity."

"Mmmm. Commander, you may send in the Yonnae. Oh, and I need you to remain here while I speak to her in case she is in cohorts with the Barlins."

"As you wish, Sire," Zai said and bowed again before she went over to the door.

A moment later, she returned with a tall, brooding warrior whose camouflaged cape was wrapped tightly around her body and held in place by a buckle. The buff redhead with the tattooed face cast a slightly disdainful glance at the fat man as she stepped into the room.

She'd had to leave her spear, her machete and the daggers usually strapped to her boots outside with the guards, but when she released the buckle on her cape which revealed her broad shoulders and her toned upper body, it became obvious she didn't need a weapon to kill.

Jin-Sarnos furrowed his brow and stared at the buff woman who was wearing the traditional traveling garb of the Yonnae - boots, high-waisted pants and a dark, quilted tunic with an integrated leather belt. Her age was difficult to pin down, but he reckoned she was close to, or just over thirty. On top of everything else, she was taller than him, thus negating the advantage he had hoped would come from standing up.

Zai cleared her throat which made the Yonnae look back at her. "It is customary to show your respect for our Emperor by bowing, Yonnae. Of course, since you're a woman, you may choose to curtsey, if such is your preference."

The warrior's left eyebrow crept up her forehead but she turned around and bowed deeply to the Emperor. "I did not mean to be disrespectful, Emperor. Where I come from, women do not bow to men."

Jin-Sarnos looked like he didn't know whether to laugh or get annoyed with the warrior's comments, but he chose the first and let out a slightly contemptuous chuckle. "Oh, they do here. I am Emperor Jin-Sarnos the Twelfth. And who might you be, Yonnae?"


"Sabia. I see. My Commander told me you have information you would like to share regarding my daughter?"

"I have. For fifty Crowns," Sabia said and looked at Zai like she expected the Commander to pull the coins out of nothing. When nothing did indeed happen, she looked back ahead at the Emperor.

"Why only fifty Crowns?" Jin-Sarnos asked, casting a longing glance at his bed as his injured members sent a few tendrils of pain up from his groin. "Why not a hundred? Or two hundred? Or a thousand? You know we are good for it."

"I am not greedy."

The conversation came to a halt and it soon became obvious by the warrior's casual stance and facial expression she wouldn't speak without the money present.

Jin-Sarnos cocked his head and studied the warrior. He knew by her bored looks it would be useless to employ his usual stalling tactics on her, so he relented and waved a hand in the air. "Commander Allizadra, you may leave to acquire the amount our warrior friend here seeks. Fifty Crowns, no more, no less."

"Sire...?" Zai said, narrowing her eyes at the unusual demand, especially since it went against what Jin-Sarnos had said not long previously.

"Oh, I have nothing to fear from this woman, Commander," Jin-Sarnos said, waving his hand dismissively. He turned back to the Yonnae and briefly went up on tip-toes to compensate for the woman's superior height. "Have I?"

Sabia's intense eyes scanned the fat man like she was gauging how long it would take her to flatten him. "No," she said in a voice that proved she meant it.


Upon Zai's return, she put down a burlap sack onto the four-post bed. As the sack crumbled, the coins in it jingled merrily. "Here," she said, dusting off her hands. "Fifty Crowns. Now speak."

Sabia eyed the sack silently. Without speaking a word, she went across the bedchamber - much to the slack-jawed surprise of both Zai and Jin-Sarnos - and poured out the contents onto the sheets. She quickly counted the coins and put them back into the sack. "All there," she said like it would explain everything.

"Well, of course it's all there. You were perhaps expecting us to sell you short, Yonnae?" Zai said with her hand on the hilt of her sword.

Sabia didn't comment on that, either. Instead, she took the bag and tied it to her leather belt. Only then did she move back to the Emperor. "Your daughter is staying in the Sarkhann Forest roughly a short league from here with a large group of people I would describe as rebellious. They're a ragtag bunch of misfits. Most are untrained, but some of them have weapon skills far exceeding that of your regular soldiers. Even those Black Lance men I have encountered."

"Nonsense!" Zai snorted.

"Your men may wear fancy uniforms, Commander, but they have forgotten to stay alert. When I was here the other night, I was able to defeat three of them without breaking a sweat... but you already knew that," Sabia said, shooting Zai a dark glare.

Jin-Sarnos looked from one powerful woman to the other and puckered up his lips in anticipation - he didn't quite know if he should stay and watch the catfight or simply take cover and employ whomever of the two that would still be standing.

Zai grumbled under her breath but removed her hand from the hilt to avoid accidents. "Yes, and it was completely unnecessary. I can understand you wanting to speak with a woman, but you could have told my men that instead of putting them in the infirmary with fractured hands and arms."

Sabia merely shrugged.

"In which case they weren't good enough, Commander," Jin-Sarnos said before turning back to the warrior. "Who's their leader? And how large is their number?"

"In addition to a score or so whores to keep the men happy, they are roughly ninety to a hundred strong," Sabia said, eyeing the Emperor carefully, "though not all have been trained yet. Before I abandoned my surveillance of their camp earlier this morn to follow Barlin here, I heard people speak of reinforcements arriving at lunch from Multrovia and Lotzan."

"How many more?"

"Double that number."

"Double it? Wretched! They must be building an army of sorts... why my Daughter is involved with those unsavory types is beyond me," Jin-Sarnos said and thumped his fist into his open palm. "Commander, have you heard anything regarding such a large threat so near to our walls?"

Zai shook her head. "I have not, Sire. Warrior, my master asked who their leader is."

"Their leader is a woman named Caid Barlin. She-"

"That is a flaming lie!" Zai said and grabbed hold of Sabia's arm. Forcing the buff woman around, she went toe to toe with the Yonnae and began to stare her down. "I took her down myself with an-"

"An arrow in the chest, yes. She was wounded, though not fatally so. I fought her in a sparring match the other day. She is strong... however I am stronger," Sabia said, not backing down from the confrontation.

The warrior's parting words hung in the air and turned Zai's face even more surly - the boasting words were clearly aimed at her. The two mighty warriors were at each other's throats and it wouldn't be long before the claws would come out, or so it seemed at least.

Jin-Sarnos rubbed his chin in glee at the prospects of not only retrieving his daughter so he could punish her in public, but also of bringing a definitive end to the increasingly annoying Barlin clan. "My friends, you shouldn't treat each other as enemies," he said and put his hands in the air. "I need you both, though for different purposes. Sabia, I thank you for your information. Ninety to a hundred men?"

"At the moment. Later today, they may have doubled that," Sabia said, slowly pulling away from Zai.

"Very well," Jin-Sarnos said and swept the tails of his new waistcoat out behind him. "We shall deal with them accordingly. Commander, see our powerful friend out and come back in."

"Sire," Zai said while bowing. She stared down the Yonnae to make her understand she was no longer wanted.

Closing her camouflaged cape, Sabia nodded curtly at the Emperor, spun around on her heel and strode out of the bedchamber.


"What a bitch," Zai mumbled as she came back inside a few minutes later. As she turned around from closing the door, she came to a sliding halt when she realized Tianna was stark naked on the bed, sprawling merrily and playing with her precious toys, her jewels.

At the same time, Jin-Sarnos came into the bedchamber from the hallway in a crimson robe that he closed with a belt. "Ah, Commander. So Caid Barlin isn't dead after all?"

"It appears so, Sire," Zai mumbled surly.

"Next time, you should aim for her neck," the large man said as he sat down on the bed and began to trail his fingers up and down Tianna's bare stomach.

"I always do, Sire."

"Commander, I have decided to follow your advice."

"Regarding what, Sire?"

Jin-Sarnos chuckled and reached up to knead Tianna's right breast. "What do you think? The confrontation between you and that buff Yonnae was incentive enough. I, the mighty Jin-Sarnos the Twelfth, shall now rise beyond mere pain and grace my wench here with a little joy."

"I see, sire."

"I am sounding a general alarm. I want a full lockdown. Send word to the gatehouses to seal off all entrances and exits for all civilians for the time being. Also, I want you to assemble six squads of your best riders and draw plans for a cavalry assault on the camp where my daughter hides in the Sarkhann Forests. I want the plans here in a turn of the hourglass," Jin-Sarnos said in a voice that had regained its regular steely edge. When Tianna let out a fake moan at her master's attention to her breast, he looked up with a superior smile playing on his lips. "Better make that two turns of the hourglass, Commander."

"It shall be done, Sire," Zai said and performed a deep bow before she left in a hurry so she wouldn't have to watch the show.




As the sun rose over the tall, proud trees lining the camp to greet the new day, Bronwyn stepped outside her hut and wrapped her dark brown frock around her shoulders to protect herself from the bitter chill. Though the morning had been far more frantic and confused than she had hoped, her body was still humming from the night she had spent under Caid Barlin's spell.

Their love-making had felt different from the times she and May-Linn had been intimate, but she couldn't quite figure out why. Those times had been lovely too, no doubt about that, but with Caid, everything had been just right. Every kiss, every touch, every sigh, every moan, every whispered declaration of love had been heartfelt and real.

She grinned goofily and formed a steam dragon with the plume that escaped her lips when she breathed.

"Good morn, Lady Bronwyn," Tawna said as she came towards Bronwyn from her own hut a bit further down the camp.

"Good morn, Tawna. Sleep well?"

"I have, Milady. I don't have to ask if you have. You are glowing," the senior handmaiden said with a warm, almost proud smile.

"I am! And it feels so good not to have to hide it. Oh, Tawna," Bronwyn said and took the handmaiden's hands in her own, "I had the best eve I could have. Simply the best eve I or any woman could ever have. We made love and it was beautiful. Caid was so tender and giving that I could not help but surrender fully to her... oh, I cannot even explain it! It was like our souls were one, not two."

"I am certainly pleased on your behalf, Milady. Have you heard about Markki Barlin?"

"Alas, we have," Bronwyn said and gave Tawna's hands a little squeeze before letting go. "Such a terrible mess. And a tragedy, too, I gather. A sentry lost his life?"

"Indeed, Milady."

"Tragic. Do you know where the Huntress is at this moment? I have not seen her for a little while."

"Oh, I cannot say, Milady. I have barely risen."

"Oh," Bronwyn said and looked at the medical hut. There didn't seem to be any activity there, which meant the best bet would be the tavern hut. "Come, Tawna, let us go over to the tavern. Even if Caid is not there, I must get some breakfast to feed the hungry beast inside me. I am ravenous!"

"Yes, Milady. It shows!" Tawna said and broke out in a chuckle.


Inside the tavern hut, the stress was tangible. A large group of men and women - with Caid in charge - had commandeered several tables and were discussing what to do. Accusations of all kinds were flying back and forth between the people before the Huntress lost her temper and slammed her fist down onto the tabletop. "This pointless bickering has to stop! None of us here could have predicted my brother was foolish enough to attempt something like this on his own. None! But I swear on our mother's grave, my brother did not kill that sentry! He had no reason to, and I dare say I know him far better than anyone here. Even if he did want the sentry dead for some unfathomable reason, he would have used one of his arrows... Kheo, his longbow is missing, too, yes?"

"Yep, Huntress. An' his sword," Kheo said, nodding.

Bronwyn came into the tavern hut with Tawna in tow just as Caid waited impatiently for Kheo's reply. The two women locked eyes and sent each other a quick wink and a knowing smile before Caid turned back to the matters at hand.

Bronwyn looked slightly worried at the dark faces of the group of people at the other table, but turned away from it and took off her frock. "Tawna, I can get my own breakfast today," she said, putting the frock over the back of a chair in a quiet part of the hut. The tavern hut was pleasantly heated, not only from the group of agitated people at the other table, but from the open fireplaces behind the kitchen counter manned by Harsomme and his staff.

Tawna took off her own frock and hung it over the backrest of the next chair. "Are you sure, Milady?"

"Oh yes. I am able to carry two apples and a mug of sweet ale, thank you. Would you like a bowl of porridge this glorious morn?"

"I would, thank you... oh, I better help," Tawna said and jumped up from the chair she had only just sat down on.

Caid forced herself to look away from the exquisite, clean profile of her new lover and back to the unshaven, gloomy faces of the men she was with. "All right, Markki even brought his arrows with him and that proves to me he would have used one of those. His skills with the longbow far exceed mine. He's an expert with that thing, and there's no way he would have resorted to brutality and snapped that man's neck when he had his longbow. No way."

"But somebody did, Huntress," a man said on her left. "And if Markki didn't, somebody must have been waiting for him. That somebody killed the sentry so he wouldn't cry out when Markki left."

"Perhaps so... but who in the name of Phirax the Unholy would that be?" Caid said and once again slammed her fist into the table. "Kheo, perhaps we should check again to see if anyone else is missing?"

"Naw, ain't nobody else missin', Huntress. Ain't no other empty huts or nothin'. And no other horses are missin', neither."

"Well, perhaps we can... oh, Phirax. Where's the Seer?"

The man on Caid's left grumbled and rubbed his unshaven chin. "Still in bed from what I know. Her back is giving her some trouble 'cos of the cold or some such. I didn't check myself, but my wife told me."

Caid groaned and cast another glance at Bronwyn and Tawna who were shuffling back to their table with two apples, two mugs of ale and a bowl of steaming hot porridge. "Wretched. Very well, we must-"

She never made it further before the door to the tavern hut was slammed open and Deegan Arliss dragged a severely panting, utterly red-faced Harlan inside. "Huntress," the Lieutenant said and led the old spy over to the tables, "upon my return from the patrol, I met this old geezer almost at the entrance to the camp. I think he's run all the way from Ashburne Castle."

"Wretched! Clear a space for him!" Caid barked and jumped up from her chair. "Harlan, come, old friend... have a seat," she said, hurrying over to the red-faced man and taking his arm.

"Th- thank you, Hun- Huntress," Harlan croaked in between huffing and puffing so badly he appeared on the brink of a heart attack.

Behind them, Bronwyn jumped to her feet and hurried over to see if there was anything she could do to help.

"You have news for us?" Caid said, helping the old man down on the chair that had been made ready for him.

"Urg- urgent news, Hun- Huntress," Harlan said and pulled out at the hem of his brown outfit.

'Harsomme, your brother is here, and he's poorly!' someone shouted, prompting the cook to come out from the back of the kitchen. He cast a single glance at his red-faced brother before he hurried over to the beer kegs and poured a mugful of the sweet breakfast ale.

Holding the mug in his shaking hands - and supported by Caid and Kheo - Harlan drank greedily from the ale. "The castle and even Ashburne itself are under fu- full lockdown. All entrances to the city have been cl- closed for civilians. I m- managed to escape through a concealed hole in the wall nobody else knows about."

"A full lockdown?" Bronwyn said, seeking out Caid's hands for support. "My father would only do that if we... if... if he came under threat from an advancing army. But... but surely we would have heard of such a threat?"

The old man looked up at her with dark red blotches coloring his cheeks and forehead. "There's more, Lady Bronwyn... Huntress, I wasn't able to pick up everything... but it seems the regular army is under general alarm. The Black Lance is in a state of high alert, however."

"Zai Allizadra, that wretched bitch!" Bronwyn barked, making everyone else there stare at her. Blushing, she looked down, but was comforted by having her hands squeezed by Caid.

Groaning out loud, Caid rubbed her brow and eyes in frustration. "So be it. They may have decided they want to get rid of us."

"But why now?" Bronwyn said, wringing her hands.

"Maybe Markki spilled his beans?" Kheo said cautiously. "You know how them people are able ta get someone to talk. I mean-"

"No, Kheo, my brother did not betray us!" Caid barked. "Of that I am quite certain!"

Harlan, having regained some of his natural color, wiped his mouth on the back of his hand and looked towards his own brother to see if there was any possibility of getting another mug of sweet ale. "Huntress, I only have hearsay with regards to your brother, but I believe he was beat up and thrown in the dungeons. Now, you know how handmaidens can exaggerate, but it seems he had ol' Jin-Sarnos at swordpoint up in the dining hall."

"At swordp- he what!?" Caid said, clutching her hair. "What did he do, that wretched young halfwit? Was he there to assassinate Jin-Sarnos?! I- I thought he had left to try to get father free of- oh, that... that... of course the castle and Ashburne are in lockdown! There was a clear and credible threat to the Emperor... and it came from a young, brainless pup who should have known better!"

It seemed the red blotches had been magically transferred from Harlan's face to Caid's because her throat, cheeks and forehead were suddenly dark red. Clenching her fists, she leaned her head back and let out an echoing roar of frustration.

The roar made Bronwyn jump a foot in the air from its ferocity. Upon landing, she hurried over to Caid and wrapped both arms around her, regardless of who was watching. "Caid... Caid, please calm down... I fear you are scaring me," she whispered into the irate woman's ear, "please calm down. It shall be fine, I promise."

"Fine? What could possibly be fine about it, Bronwyn? Not only is my father in their dungeon, now my brother is too... and he is there because he tried to kill your father! Oh, this is such a mess!"

"I agree. I still think our plan could work... if we disguise ourselves as Seers, we can-"

"No, Bronwyn... Ashburne is in lockdown," Caid said and put a hand on Bronwyn's cheek. "There's no way to get into the city. And I guarantee you we wouldn't be allowed to set foot anywhere near the castle, much less the dungeons."

Bronwyn chewed on her cheek as she gazed deeply into her new lover's eyes. A thought formed at her back of her mind, and she looked at the spy from the castle's kitchen. "Harlan...?"

"Uh... yes, Lady Bronwyn?" the old cook said, looking up in surprise at being spoken to by the Lady of the castle.

"Harlan, you were able to get out through a concealed-"

"-Hole in the wall... yes! It's not wide, but you and the Huntress should be able to fit through it. You could use that... but I would advise against it, Milady," Harlan said and wiped his mouth again. "The Black Lance will not look kindly upon strangers who show up out of nowhere."

"Perhaps so, but I feel our plan would work!" Bronwyn said and turned back to the Huntress. "Caid, you and I could go in there and... well... rescue your family."

Kheo looked from one to the other. Several times he tried to break into the conversation, but it wasn't until Caid noticed and put a calming hand on the excited Bronwyn that he found a space to speak up. "Thanks, Huntress. So... what if we created a diversion? Something nice an' fiery, ya know... maybe set fire to a wagon an' let it roll down towards the south gate or some such? Ya know, ta draw 'em away from the gate an' ta put a li'l fear into them Lancers?"

Caid stood up straight and rubbed her flushed face several times. In the end, she buried her face in her hands and let out a deep, long sigh. Looking up, she nodded at her old friend. "A diversion like that could work, Kheo. Just take care... they will not hesitate in shooting at anything suspicious."

"Aw, I know. Hey, do ya see anythin' suspicious 'bout a couple o' swell guys like me an' Deegan here? I mean, ain't we just blendin' in nicely?" Kheo said and wrapped his arm around Deegan's shoulder.

Bronwyn chuckled at the humorous comment and put a warm hand on the small of Caid's back. "I have a strong sense that our endeavor shall be successful, Huntress. Like I said last night, I know every single shortcut through the castle. I even know how to get down to the dungeons unseen. And in our disguises, nobody shall dare to question or even stop us."

Caid looked straight ahead, practicing her thousand-league stare. The color of her cheeks had gradually returned to normal, though her forehead still bore the last echoes of the flush that had been everywhere. Eventually, she nodded. "So be it. By Phirax, we shall do it! Kheo, you and Deegan have my blessing to create and execute a diversion at the south gate when Lady Bronwyn and I are in position at the concealed hole... wherever that is."

"Awright," Kheo said and slapped his meaty paw down onto Deegan's shoulder.

Harlan quickly put his finger in the air like he wanted to be excused. "The concealed entry is just short of two hundred fathoms north along the western section of the wall counting from the south. It can be tricky to find so perhaps I better accompany you back inside."

Smiling, Bronwyn went over to the old spy and put a hand on his shoulder. "We thank you for your most valuable information, Harlan. And we thank you for being willing to risk your life to give it to us," she said - and it was clear from the proud smile that lit up Harlan's face that he wasn't used to having one of the ruling class praise his work.

"Very well," Caid said and raised her hands in the air to quell the murmurs that had already begun to rise from the other people at the table. Once she had their attention, her face turned dark. "I shall call for an urgent meeting of the community elders. I fear we may need to evacuate the camp for the time being."

The smile disappeared instantly from Bronwyn's face, and she cast a worried glance at the other members at the small meeting to see how they would react. "Oh... evacuate?" she said, covering her mouth with a hand.

"Evacuate, yes. If the Black Lance comes at us in a full scale raid, not even our log fence will be strong enough to hold them off. In their first attack on us when we had hardly even set foot on the soil here, a mere handful of Lancers on horseback were able to create enough damage to keep us occupied for weeks. Imagine what will happen if Zai sends a full squad, or perhaps even two squads, at us? It would be a massacre, Lady Bronwyn."

"I... knowing Zai Allizadra and her men like I do, I fear you are right, Huntress," Bronwyn said and began to chew on her already short fingernails.

Deegan pushed his chair back and rose from the table. "Kheo and I need to prepare for the diversion, Huntress. But I will say that I am sure not everyone in camp will share your view of the situation. Evacuating so soon after they have settled in here will inevitably lead to hostility. Especially, I hasten to add, since it's your brother who's at the root of the problems."

"I know, Deegan," Caid said somberly. "That aspect I cannot change. I will ask them to leave. If they refuse, I will tell them what to expect. Maybe it will not come to any loss of life."

The words hung heavily among the people at the table and created an atmosphere of growing tension and even dread. Sighing, Caid put her hand on Bronwyn's back and led her away from the others. "Please go to our hut, Lady Bronwyn. First, I need to speak with Fyonna and the elders, but I need a word with you in private... no, on second thoughts, let Tawna come, too. She may come in handy."

"Yes, Huntress," Bronwyn said quietly, biting her lips.


Some time later, Caid shifted two pale blue cowls to her left hand and knocked softly on the door to the hut she shared with Bronwyn. While she waited for it to be opened, she took a half-step back and put her free hand on the hilt of her machete just to be on the safe side. When the Lady appeared in the doorway, Caid stepped inside and immediately went over to the unmade bunk where she put down the cowls.

Tawna and Bronwyn had been playing a game of One-Two-Three at the table, but the gaming parchment was forgotten when Bronwyn caught a glimpse of the dark look on Caid's face. "Lady Caid, did your meeting not go well? You look so tired... or indeed sad," she said quietly.

"Deegan was right, Bronwyn. Most people aren't willing to leave. Some aren't even willing to listen to me because of Markki," Caid said and rubbed her brow. "But I cannot be held responsible for what my brother is up to... and the stubbornness of the people here may get them killed. Alanna agreed to leave the camp until calmness prevailed, but even she wasn't too pleased."

"Oh, that is comforting at least..."

"Yes. If my only sister was hurt as well, I would... I would not..." For once, a chink was revealed in Caid's hard-edged persona, and she clammed up like she was afraid of weeping if she carried on. A sheen of moisture did appear in her eyes, but she looked away and hurriedly wiped it off with her sleeve.

At once, Bronwyn moved over to her new lover and pulled the compact woman into her warm embrace. They rocked back and forth for a little while until Caid let out a sigh that came from the bottom of her heart.

Pulling back, Bronwyn smiled wistfully at the deep worry that ran across Caid's face. Words weren't necessary when a simple kiss held all the right answers, so instead of speaking, she leaned in and claimed Caid's lips in a warm, tender contact that not only confirmed what they had shared the previous night, but showed them a pointer to what the future might hold for them.

When they separated, Caid smiled at the support she was given and stroked the taller woman's neck. "Thank you. I needed that," she whispered for Bronwyn's ears only.

"I could tell. You are most welcome," Bronwyn said with a wink.

Behind them, Tawna had been outrageously busy filling out the last of the One-Two-Three game they had played, but when the kiss was over, she turned back around with a big smile on her lips. "Milady, Lady Caid, you are a wonderful couple, if I may be so bold."

"Thank you, Tawna," Caid said and took the opportunity to reach down and cup the Lady's rear end as a goodbye present before she moved over to the bunk.

Bronwyn grinned and followed her lover to the pale blue cowls. "I presume you have spoken to Lady Fyonna?"

"I have. She cursed every single one of Phirax' minions for messing up her back in such a moment of crisis. The chill this morn has exacerbated it, but it originally came from a twist she made when she had to reach for the waste bucket not long after we had said goodnight to her."

"Oh... goodness me. What wretched luck... so she cannot come with us to Ashburne Castle?"

"Not at first, no, but she promised me she would create and drink the strongest concoction she had to combat her pains. She will follow us later. All right... Tawna?"

"I am here, Lady Caid," the senior handmaiden said and hurried over to them.

"I have borrowed two cowls and two blindfolds from Fyonna. She said we must treat them with respect. Apparently, the Sacred Order of Seers do not appreciate having their cowls worn by anyone other than those who actually possess the special skills. However," Caid said and brushed a few pieces of fluff off the first cowl, "I'm sure they would not mind us using them for such a noble mission. Lady Bronwyn, here's your cowl. It's in two parts... high-waisted pants with very wide legs, and a tunic-like shirt you need to put on from above."

"Oh... high-waisted pants?" Bronwyn said and touched the high-quality fabric. "To be truthful, I had been wondering how Lady Fyonna was able to put on her cowl while still having separate pant legs..."

Caid offered her new lover a tired grin before she turned back to the bunk with the other costume.

"I shall help, Milady," Tawna said and snatched the upper part of the pale blue cowl out of Caid's hands. She quickly grabbed the chair and climbed onto it so she was at the right angle to help her taller mistress. "Her Ladyship owns... owned several dresses that we needed to put on this way. Isn't that right, Milady?"

"I did, Tawna. Oh, remember the blue satin one that had the beautiful application near the... ugh, I fear it is a bit tight!" Bronwyn said as the upper part of the cowl was slipped down over her head and chest.

The comical, pinched look on the Lady's face underlined her words, and it made both Caid and Tawna furrow their brows and let out identical grunts of surprise.

"Milady, perhaps you should try the lower part as well?" Tawna said and held up the high-waisted pants.

Bronwyn nodded and raised her left leg to slip into it. Everything fell into place eventually, but not only was the top a bit tight like the Lady had said, the ensemble was also too short on a whole.

The pale blue, wide-sleeved cowl had an intricately detailed, broad white stripe down the front that was decorated with white letters from a long-forgotten language. Like Fyonna's other cowls, it had individual pantlegs as well as a section of cloth at the center that would nearly have reached the floor had Bronwyn been shorter. The colors made her look the part, but the tips of her boots that stuck out from underneath the cowl detracted severely from the image.

"Hmmm," Tawna said, looking down at the unfortunate yawning and then up at Caid who was chewing on her cheeks with a thoughtful look on her face. "Milady, try to pull up the hood. It might take the attention away from the cowl's, ahem, shortcomings."

Bronwyn did as asked and reached behind her to pull up the hood. Once in place, it reached below her eyes and obscured most of her face.

"Well... it's better, but..." Tawna said and tried to study her mistress like she was seeing her for the first time. "Hmmm. No."

Caid grunted and pulled down in the pant legs, but she only succeeded in making Bronwyn let out a surprised squeak. "Try to hunch over," she said, scratching her nose.

Bronwyn once again did as asked and leaned forward into a pose similar to the one she remembered seeing Caid performing as the blind beggar. Though the cowl came further down, it still didn't cover her boots. "I fear I cannot walk like this for an entire day... I look like a court jester!"

"You do, Milady," Tawna said and stifled a snicker.

"I have an idea," Caid said and knelt down next to Bronwyn's tall figure. "If we cannot get the cowl down, we can get the boots up. How about wrapping the bootlegs in bandages? I have seen wrappings like that worn by people arriving from the southern province. It helps them when they walk through sand."

"Oh!" Bronwyn said excitedly, clapping her hands together through the wide sleeves. "I could be a traveling Seer. Oh, that is a wonderful idea, Caid! Yes, indeed, I shall be a traveling Seer!"

Caid grinned and clambered back up. "Excellent. Now, the blindfold. Move back the hood, please."

Standing on the chair, Tawna effortlessly wrapped the blindfold around Bronwyn's eyes and secured it by connecting two quick-release bone hooks at the back of her head. "Oh my... Lady Bronwyn, I must say you are a frightening sight. Quite frightening! That blindfold is so sinister!"

"Thank you, Tawna," Bronwyn said with a snicker. "I suppose that means the disguise works," she continued, adjusting the blindfold so she could look out around her nose.

Caid nodded and studied Bronwyn from several angles. "Yes. This shall do nicely. Please wait here while I go back to Fyonna and borrow a few rolls of bandages. I wouldn't go anywhere if I were you, Lady Bronwyn. The people here are nervous enough as it is... we wouldn't want to frighten them into making a fatal mistake."

"Indeed we would not," Bronwyn said with a relieved smile. She suddenly remembered the voices of Fyonna and the other Seers were raspy and dark, so she cleared her throat a couple of times and spoke in a deeper register. "Go... go, my friend. Travel to the medical hut and find the vital accessories you need!" she said, trying to pull off an imitation of Fyonna's characteristic raspiness.

"...Was that too much?" she continued in her regular voice.

"Oh, maybe a little... maybe just a little, Lady Bronwyn..." Caid said on her way out of the door.


Tension grew in the camp as the few families who had chosen to leave packed their belongings and strapped them to their horses. Tears were shed and a few angry words were exchanged when men and women had to say goodbye to people they had hoped shared their opinions.

Alanna and Deegan tried to calm the waters by giving the people who left exact information on where to go and when they could attempt to return, but some tempers were harder to control than others and Deegan had to step in more than once when Alanna was accused of wanting to betray them like her brother.

Two horses belonging to a family of seven were so heavily laden their legs nearly buckled when they walked off. The family had split up so three children sat on one horse and two on the other along with the heaviest of their baggage. The parents tugged the struggling horses into walking, but it was clear from the labored gaits of the steeds it would take them forever and a day to get anywhere.

On another horse, a very old woman sat unsteady in the saddle, having been tied to the saddle horn with a rope around her waist so she wouldn't fall off. The horse was pulled by the woman's husband who was only a few years younger than she.

Standing near the well at the central square, Bronwyn held her hands to her mouth when she took in the depressing sights. Horse after horse left the stables hut, all heavily laden and all carrying weeping or angry people. "Sweet Marpaxa... look at those poor people. We too may have to run for our lives before the next few days are over, but at least we stand a fighting chance. Caid... did we do the right thing?"

"We did what we had to, Lady Bronwyn. Wherever the Black Lance goes, Death follows. I've seen what a cavalry charge against defenseless civilians looks like," Caid said and sneaked her hand up to hold onto Bronwyn's, "and believe me, you do not wish to experience that."

"Especially not when such a charge is led by someone half-insane like Zai Allizadra."

"It doesn't matter who the commander is, Lady Bronwyn. Once Phirax is unleashed, he will not stop until he has claimed all he was summoned for."

Bronwyn shivered at the colorful description and leaned in close to the compact woman next to her. "Phirax is here, and I fear He has been summoned by my father," she whispered for Caid's ears only.

Briefly waving, Kheo came over to the two women. The large man was wrapped tightly in a brown cloak to fight the chill, and he had even been forced into wearing a woolly hat given to him by a woman from the camp who had developed an eye for the warrior. "Huntress... I need a word with ya. In private if that ain't too much hassle."

"It's not, Kheo. Lady Bronwyn," Caid said with a bow.

"Lady Caid," Bronwyn said and returned the bow.

Once inside the hut Caid shared with Bronwyn, Kheo closed the door behind them and took off his woolly hat. "Huntress, I'm gonna hafta ask ya a couple o' questions ya ain't gonna like."

"Shoot, Kheo."

"Number one, where in the name of Phirax the Unholy do ya wanna take Efrem and Markki in the remote chance ya actually get 'em sprung free? This here camp is gonna get flattened by them Lancers, you know that. Ain't no way we gonna come back here afterwards."

"I know. My hope is we can come back to the Sarkhann Forest, only into the denser areas south of here," Caid said and ran a hand through her hair. "The trees are so close there isn't any room for cavalry to function. Fortunately we still have some of our army surplus tents we used when we got started here... and... I'll tie them to Chestnut."

"They're heavy. They' only gonna slow down our steeds."

"So be it. I suppose we could try to hide in Ashburne, but I fear it would be too dangerous even in the short run. No, we have to at least try to come back to the Sarkhann."

"Yeah, I s'pose. Awright, question number two. Are we gonna raze the camp? I mean, ta stop fat, ol' Jin-Sarnos from gettin' his dirty paws on it...? I know not all people wanna leave, but... ya know. It's what we did back in the old days in the service when we had ta leave a post in order ta fall back to a safe zone. Ain't that pretty much what we're doin' now?"

Caid scrunched up her face and walked over to the window to look out. The huts she could see all represented weeks of hard work and she was reluctant to raze it merely for the reasons Kheo had mentioned. What convinced her, however, was seeing how badly the people who had to leave their homes affected Bronwyn. If the camp was razed, not only would everyone's homes be consumed by the fire, all talk of ever returning would be a nonsense. "Not this time, Kheo," she said quietly. "We're not in the service anymore. We're fighting for ourselves now. These people yearn for a home... they're not like us nomads who rarely stay in one place for more than a couple of weeks at a time. No, the camp stays as it is."

"Caid, you know jus' as well as I do that there ain't gonna be no camp an' there ain't gonna be no people here... as soon as them Lancers gonna get here, they' gonna-"

"We're not going to raze it, Kheo," Caid said and turned back to her old friend.

"Well, if ya say so, Huntress."

"I do."

"No skin off my butt," Kheo said and put on his woolly hat. "I'll go back to the main entrance ta stand guard. Ya know, I still cannot figure out who in the name of Phirax the Unholy could ha' killed that sentry. I mean... it don't make no sense, ya know?"

"Markki didn't do it, Kheo."

"Naw, didn't say he did. Heh, if ya hadn't sent that Yonnae critter packin', you'd almost think it was her doin', wouldn't ya? Nah, she ain't got no reason to kill 'im, neither," Kheo said and opened the door so they could leave.


Outside, another heavily laden pair of horses started the trek down the path to the back door. Bronwyn watched one of the poor steeds stumble down the slippery path carrying a load far too heavy for its scrawny back. "Oh... I fear this was wrong..." she whispered to herself, shaking her head slowly.

Tawna had helped a family pack up their belongings, but with their departure, the senior handmaiden returned to her mistress. "Pardon, Milady?" she said, leaning in towards the taller woman.

"Oh..." Bronwyn said, sounding like she hadn't noticed Tawna returning at all. "Nothing, Tawna. I was merely speaking to myself."

"I see, Milady."

"Tawna... what did the family say to you?"

Tawna moved a stray lock of graying hair behind her ear before she spoke. A dark frown briefly spread over her features when she considered whether or not to relay the less than flattering utterances she had heard about Lady Bronwyn and Caid Barlin from the departing people. Ultimately, she decided against it. "Not much, Milady. They were upset they had to leave their home. I helped them the best I could."

"Of course... of course, Tawna. Thank you. You have been most helpful."

"Milady," Tawna said and curtseyed.

A familiar figure came hobbling across the central square from the medical hut, hunched over, using a cane and pressing her hand onto her lower back. When Fyonna was close enough, she tried to wave at Bronwyn, but her hand returned to her back in an instant, like she had received a stab of pain in the brief moment it hadn't been there.

"Oh! Lady Fyonna!" Bronwyn cried and hurried over to the stricken woman to help her. Together, they were able to hobble the rest of the way to the well where Fyonna sat down on the edge with a pained groan. "Your back?" Bronwyn continued, folding down Fyonna's cowl that had become crumpled as she sat down.

"My back," Fyonna croaked, looking every bit of her two hundred years. "Twisted it early this morn. Hurts!"

"I understand, Lady Fyonna. Is there anything I can do for you? Get you some water, perhaps?"

"No, thank you, Lady Bronwyn," Fyonna croaked, shuffling around in the hope her skinny rear end would find a softer spot on the boulders that weren't merely rock hard but cold as ice as well. "I have had enough water this morn to fill an ocean. I have mixed myself four potions that should have reduced the pain... but all I got out of it was that I've had to use the bucket, oh, half a dozen times! And that's what got me in trouble in the first place!"

"Oh... uh... I see," Bronwyn said, taking a half-step back from the Seer.

"Lady Fyonna," Tawna said, curtseying at the older woman. "I know a special type of massage that has helped her Ladyship a number of times. Perhaps you would be willing to try that?"

"Oh, that is right, Tawna!" Bronwyn cried. "Oh, Lady Fyonna, I am sure Tawna's skilled hands can help you."

"A special massage? Well... why not. Right now I am willing to try anything. I cannot believe this has happened on such a day! Wretched!" Fyonna croaked, slowly rising from the hard rocks. At first, she let out a groan of pain as she tried to straighten out her lower back, but she eventually began hobbling back to the medical hut.

Bronwyn put her hand on Tawna's shoulder and offered the senior handmaiden a smile. "A wonderful suggestion, Tawna. Very good. Please help the Seer."

"I shall, Lady Bronwyn," Tawna said and curtseyed again before she left Bronwyn to assist Fyonna back to the medical hut.

Bronwyn turned back around to watch the last two families leaving the central square with their horses. By the time they were on their way down to the back door, Alanna shuffled across the square, seemingly to intercept Caid who came the other way. Bronwyn furrowed her brow at the sight, but decided to stay out of it unless she was called into action.

Alanna wrung her hands incessantly as she closed the distance between herself and her sister. When the siblings met at the halfway point, not a word was exchanged between them. Alanna eventually let out a deep sigh and put out her arms.

Caid pulled her sister into a hug and gave her a little crush as a sign of the truce she hoped would fall into place between them. "Sis, please do not despair. I know it's hard to do this all over again, especially with our loved ones in jeopardy... but... I fear there is no other way. Staying here will only put you in grave danger. Coming with us is no better alternative."

"No, but-"

"No, Alanna, you cannot come with us. It would be suicidal," Caid said and wiped away the tears that suddenly leaked from her sister's eyes. "You're not a warrior like I am. Like Kheo and Deegan are."

"She isn't a warrior," Alanna said sharply, throwing her head in Bronwyn's direction.

Caid sobered and pulled back slightly. She studied her sister's face to see if she still harbored the negativity that had come forth earlier, but it seemed she was merely being nervous and upset. "I know she isn't, but she knows every nook and cranny of the castle. Her knowledge will be useful to us."

"You love her," Alanna said as a clear and definite statement of fact.

"Do I?"

"Oh, don't even try to deny it, Caid. It's so obvious from the way you look at her. You may think you're acting as tough as the Yonnae who visited us, but your eyes give you away. You're in love, you know."

"Maybe I am," Caid said with a brief but sincere smile flashing across her face. "And how do you feel about that, Sis?"

Alanna's silence gave a stronger answer than a speech of a thousand words could, and Caid nodded and pulled even further back. "I see. This is neither the right time nor place to discuss that. When we meet again, I hope I can make you understand-"

"When we meet again?" Alanna mocked, shaking her head in disbelief.

"Yes, when we meet again. Listen, Sis... none of us are going to die today," Caid said and put both her hands on Alanna's cheeks. "We shall meet again, I guarantee it. And when we do, Markki and father will be with us."

"I do not share your optimistic view of the situation, Caid."

"So be it. We shall meet again. Now... give me a hug and leave so I know you are safe."

The two sisters looked at each other at arm's length. A few seconds went by before they met in the middle and gave each other a strong hug. "Stay safe, Alanna," Caid said and kissed her sister's hair that was so much like her own.

"And you, Caid. I love you. Goodbye," the younger Barlin said, wiping her eyes that had begun to leak at an alarming rate.

"I love you too," Caid said, waving goodbye to her sister who slowly made her way over to the stables. There, she mounted her horse and nudged its sides once she was comfortable in the saddle. Soon, her steed trotted down towards the back entrance.

Standing alone with eyes that leaked just as much as her sister's, Caid tried to wipe away the large tears from her cheeks, but gave up - there were simply too many of them. She sighed deeply and looked for Bronwyn. She didn't have to wait long for the Lady to join her in a new, equally strong hug.


Half a turn of the hourglass later, a fully disguised Caid - save for the blindfold - led Chestnut and a bay mare away from the stables and over to the hut she had shared with Bronwyn. Behind her, Kheo dragged Horsey along and Deegan came high atop his own steed, having recently returned from another short patrol. At the back, Harlan tried to lead his borrowed horse into following the others, but he was unaccustomed to the large animals and was already falling behind.

Stopping outside their hut, Caid gave Chestnut's reins to Kheo while she stepped inside.

Bronwyn was sitting on the bunk with a look of nervous anticipation on her face. She had changed into her hooded cowl as well and certainly looked the part of a traveling Seer, even down to the bandages they had used to wrap around the bootlegs.

Caid smiled at her new lover and went over to crouch down in front of her. "Hey... are you ready?"

"Not really," Bronwyn said with a nervous chuckle. "Oh, Caid, I fear so badly that I shall foul up once we reach the gate to the dungeon. What if I-"

"Bronwyn, I have every reason to believe you shall fool them all with your disguise and your manners. Not all will be smooth sailing, the world simply doesn't work that way, but we are both fast thinkers. We may hit a snag at some point, but then we shall overcome it. It will be fine, trust me."

Bronwyn opened her mouth to reply but the words failed her. She settled for nodding, wearing a smile that seemed more assured than moments earlier.

"Good," Caid said and stood up straight. "Come. We girls have a few boys to rescue," she continued, putting out her hand.

Bronwyn took it and allowed herself to be pulled up. Standing so close to each other, a kiss was inevitable, but they made it a brief one so they could get underway.


After getting reassurance from Fyonna that she would follow as soon as her injured back had been whipped into shape - Tawna's special massage had already improved it tremendously - Caid, Bronwyn, Kheo, Deegan and Harlan mounted their horses and set off down the path to the main entrance.

The bay mare Bronwyn was riding on wasn't as good-natured as Santilla, the palomino she had used on the week-long trek to Lord Lasar-Ihtreg's Shadowlands, and she bounced a little in the saddle, but the horse had already grown largely accustomed to the weight on its back, and an apple had helped speed the process along.

The small group invariably found themselves assuming the same box formation they had used on their previous trek, and soon went out of the camp and into the Sarkhann Forest with Caid up front closely followed by Bronwyn and Harlan who had managed - mostly - to get to grips with his horse, and finally Kheo and Deegan forming the rear so they could break formation in a hurry in case they came under attack.

Apart from the unusual garments she was wearing, Bronwyn found a comforting familiarity in everything about the brief journey she was on. The sounds of the hooves thumping into the thick layer of fallen leaves on the forest floor; the swirling mist that still hung in the air between the tall, proud trees because of the cold; the characteristic smell of the horses and the leather harnesses, and finally Ashburne Castle that appeared as a shadowy outline through the mist when the breeze was right.

She looked forward and to the left at the Huntress who was clearly in her element: the blonde, compact woman was constantly scanning their surroundings to stay on top of any potential dangers.

Just as Bronwyn was looking at Caid, she turned in the saddle to look back at her minuscule cavalry unit. The two women locked eyes and kept the blazing contact going for a little while before Caid turned back ahead and resumed scanning the forest around them.




The group traveled on the same trail towards the castle that Caid and her father had used when they were ambushed. Once again, her Ranger sense was tickling her ear, but the misty conditions made it hard for her to see anything - not that the flat terrain offered any highlights in the first place.

By the time they reached the halfway point to the castle, Caid put her fist in the air to stop the others. Looking ahead, she stared at the deep ditch where she had so nearly lost her life. She absentmindedly reached in under her borrowed pale blue cowl and touched the wound that was still sore, though healing quite nicely.

"Somethin' wrong, Huntress?" Kheo shouted from the back of the group.

"No. This is where I saw father for the last time. All right, let's move on!" she said, raising her arm and signaling they should continue.

Bronwyn spurred on her bay mare and was soon at Caid's side as they continued towards the castle. Smiling, she reached over and held her hand out in an invitation for a squeeze.

Caid smiled back and squeezed her new lover's hand. "We will find father and Markki. I guarantee it," she said in a steely voice.

"And a guarantee issued by the Huntress is as good as gold," Bronwyn said, tickling Caid's fingers.

The Huntress grinned and looked back ahead.

They rode on in silence for a few more minutes minding their own business when the mist suddenly lifted and the imposing Ashburne Castle came into view ahead of them. The massive keep and the four guard towers stood proudly above the square building housing the grand dining hall. Constant movement at the battlements atop the square building offered hints they were crawling with soldiers, and so were the guard towers for that matter. Caid took it all in and stored it for later.

The wall surrounding the city wasn't manned as such, but the gatehouses were. Caid and the others were still several hundred fathoms away from the nearest gate, but they could easily see a large cluster of farmers and traders who had set up a makeshift camp at the South Gate with their oxcarts and heavily laden wagons.

Some people had given up and were headed back up the trail, and they stared wide-eyed at the odd combination of Seers and warriors.

Caid chewed on her lips and looked away in order not to be questioned when yet another trader wagon rolled past them going the other way. Grunting, she put her fist in the air and pointed left, towards an open field.

They all turned away from the trail except Harlan who needed Deegan's help to turn his horse around. Once the group was alone in a field that had been plowed to prepare for winter, Caid put her clenched fist in the air to make the others stop.

"All right," she said, turning Chestnut around, "it's obvious they're still under lockdown. Bronwyn, we need to put on our blindfolds now even though I had hoped we could wait a little longer. There are simply too many people here..."

"Very good point, Caid," Bronwyn said and reached for the blindfold that she had put across the saddle horn. She quickly folded her hood back and tried to put on the cloth while controlling her bay mare, but it proved beyond her skills. "Oh... I cannot... I fear I need a hand..." she said, trying to hold onto the reins and the blindfold at the same time.

Deegan hurriedly came to Bronwyn's rescue and took the mare's reins out of her hands. "Here you go, Lady Bronwyn. I'll hold your horse while you beautify yourself," he said with a grin.

"Why, thank you, Sir Deegan!" said with a degree of mirth in her voice as she put the blindfold in place and secured it by connecting the two quick-release bone hooks at the back. "Oh... my dear Sir, is it the right way up?" she said, moving it up ever so slightly to be able to see out around her nose.

"I cannot tell, Lady Bronwyn. I only see a few squiggles."

"Oh... well, I suppose it matters not. No one else can read it, either," Bronwyn said and pulled the hood up. Once everything was in place, she cocked her head and moved it from side to side like she had seen Fyonna do several times. "Yes... this shall do nicely," she said in the characteristic raspy voice used by the Seers.

"The illusion is perfect... Seer," Deegan said with a grin.

Bronwyn nodded and pretended to be an older woman by hunching over in the saddle. She briefly looked up to see that Caid had already been fully transformed, too.

"What the..." Kheo suddenly growled, making everyone look at him. The large man was pointing back up at the trail where a highly familiar figure wearing a camouflaged cape was striding away from the castle and towards the Sarkhann Forest. "Phirax' balls! What is that woman doing here?"

"Why... that is the Yonnae! Whose side is that woman on?!" Bronwyn said, leaning her head way back to be able to see around her nose.

"Let's find out," Caid said, raising her own blindfold. "Kheo, Deegan... ride over to the lady and ask her politely to join us for a chat."

"Will do, Huntress," Kheo said and spurred Horsey into action. Deegan hurriedly gave Bronwyn her reins back and set off across the open field to chase after the large man.

Not long after, Sabia came running back towards Caid, Bronwyn and Harlan who immediately shied back at the sight of the fearsome woman.

"Yonnae," Caid growled, "I thought you said you had been given a poor reception here... why did you come back? To betray us all?"

Sabia looked from Caid and over to Bronwyn before she settled for staring at the shorter of the two women. "Hardly, Huntress. Why are you here, wearing disguises no less?"

"None of your concern. Answer my question or taste my blade, warrior," Caid growled, clutching Chestnut's reins.

Sabia cocked her head and looked like she was thinking hard about what to say. Apart from narrowing her intense eyes, she showed no other reaction for a long while. Just when Caid was on the brink of losing her patience, Sabia nodded and looked down. "I wish to apologize to you, Huntress. And you, Lady Bronwyn. I came to your lands to find out who was responsible for a tragedy that took place in a Yonnae village three days' journey away to the nor-east. Nearly half the members of a tribe were killed in an attack, and most of the others were sold to slavers."

"Slavers? In Dinnigon?" Bronwyn squeaked, but she was ignored by the warrior.

"I was under the impression that someone from the Imperial hierarchy was behind the attack. Initially, I thought it was you, Lady Bronwyn."

"But- I? I can assure you I have nothing but the utmost respect for the Yonnae!" Bronwyn howled, spooking her bay mare into sidestepping.

Sabia eyed the Lady carefully without showing any emotions whatsoever. "So I've been told. The men who attacked the village weren't many, perhaps only two platoons, but that was enough against largely defenseless opponents. Most of our warriors were on a hunt. The men wore the uniforms of the Ranger battalion. That is why I suspected you of being involved, Huntress."

Now it was Caid's turn to stare at the warrior. She chewed on her cheeks, thinking about what could have happened to her units after she was banished - it wasn't unthinkable they could have committed such an atrocity, perhaps under a direct order from Jin-Sarnos himself. "When did this tragedy take place, Sabia?"

"Two moons ago."

"I see. Who had command over the platoons?"

"I cannot say as I wasn't there. But a dear friend from the village told me a Yonnae scout was with them. A woman wearing our own colors."

Hearing that, Bronwyn shook her head repeatedly. "A Yonnae betraying and killing other Yonnae... what is the world coming to...?"

The look on Caid's face was more than skeptical - in fact, it was positively distrustful. She eyed the warrior carefully from the tips of her rugged boots to the last locks of her red hair. "We don't employ Yonnae. Never have, never will. Jin-Sarnos doesn't exactly look at you with friendly eyes, you know."

"It was a Yonnae scout," Sabia said decisively.

"And you know that, how?"

"Because people generally do not lie when they are bleeding to death. I held the woman's hand when she died. She spoke the truth, of that I am certain. She said it was a woman so it was a woman. A Yonnae scout."

Grumbling, Caid shuffled around in her seat. "Very well, Sabia. I must accept that explanation. Bronwyn and I are on our way inside the castle with Harlan. I want you to remain here with Kheo and Deegan for the time being."

"With the men?" Sabia said in a disbelieving tone.

"With the men, yes."

Up at the south gate, soldiers suddenly began to shout and push the traders and farmers aside to clear the path in front of the large doors. Slowly, the space was cleared, though for what was still unknown.

"Huntress," Kheo said out of the corner of his mouth.

"I see it," Caid said and pulled down in her blindfold to make it sit tight across her eyes. "Lady Bronwyn, is your blindfold ready?"

"Al- almost there, Caid," Bronwyn said and hurriedly pulled the cloth in place. After adjusting it, she arranged the hood to make it look just right. "How do I look?"

"Just fine," Caid said and slapped Chestnut's reins to make her come alive. "All right, listen up... you too, Sabia. Bronwyn, Harlan and I shall proceed in a hurry back to the trail and move closer to the castle. We cannot be seen with the rest of you from now on. They are obviously preparing for something up there... a detachment of Lancers is my best guess. Sabia, like I told you, stay here with Kheo and Deegan. They will fill you in on their part of the plan. Everybody get that?"

"Yes, Huntress," Bronwyn said, nodding vigorously.

When Harlan and the others echoed the reply, Caid slapped Chestnut's reins again and led the small group away from Kheo, Deegan and the Yonnae. They were soon at the edge of the trail and made sure not to look back.

"Huntress," Harlan said and wiped his sweaty brow with a shaking hand as he rolled along atop his horse. "I- I am really quite concerned. I have never b- been part of anything like this before!"

Bronwyn could sense by the waves of intensity that rolled off Caid that she was too busy to answer the worried spy, so she steered her bay mare over to the older man and leaned in towards him. "Please do not get too agitated, Harlan. I promise the Huntress knows what she is doing. She is the smartest and bravest woman I have ever known. For the time being, just act... well, cool."

"Cool? I am anything but cool!" Harlan said and clenched the reins so hard his knuckles turned white.

Up at the South Gate, the large doors were opened and a few barked commands were heard from the other side. A cheer rose from the farmers and the traders who believed they were finally allowed to enter, but - much to their vocal dissatisfaction - they were rapidly pushed even further back by soldiers from the regular army.

"Halt!" Caid said, pulling Chestnut to the side and off the trail so they wouldn't attract attention from the soldiers. Once they were safe, she casually glanced to her right to see if Bronwyn and Harlan had followed her - so far, everything was going to plan.

They had made it to within fifty fathoms of the South Gate and could clearly see the houses of Ashburne beyond the large doors. In there, life seemed to go on as always, but a large group of citizens had assembled just behind one of the gatehouses. The adults had their heads together and were whispering at each other, and the children were pointing excitedly at something out of sight.

A rumble akin to rolling thunder rose from somewhere beyond the city walls. The rumble grew until it was quite thunderous, and by now, even the traders piped down and minded their own business.

Bronwyn cocked her head and glanced out from underneath the blindfold. There was still nothing to see, but she thought she could discern the familiar sounds of many hooves.

Then Zai Allizadra came into view sitting high atop a black stallion. Riding on her own to get the spectators' full attention, she was wearing her combat uniform with reinforced leather ankle pants, steel-tipped, long-legged boots, black gloves, dark gray chain mail covered by her regular black satin tunic, a red and black-checkered surcoat that carried the Jin-Sarnos coat of arms on the front, and on top of it all, her dark brown cloak that fluttered proudly in the wind along with her long, white-blonde hair.

Behind her, six full Black Lance cavalry squads came into view: sixty men, all armed with swords, spears, maces and clubs. They too wore the combat uniforms, but unlike their commander, the men wore helmets with broad nose guards and chain mail shields down their necks.

Zai sat proud in the saddle with one hand on the reins and the other on her hip near the hilt of her shiny sword that had been attached to her chain mail by a broad leather belt.

As soon as she had come through the south gate, she raised her free hand in the air and signaled to her men that they should move out, fast. Taking a deep breath, she roared out the battle cry of the Black Lance that was certain to strike fear into the heart of anyone near enough to hear it - including Caid Barlin and Lady Bronwyn: "Black Death Cometh! Black Death Cometh!"

Moments later, she kicked her horse into action, and the black stallion responded by increasing its tempo to a steady canter. The rousing war cry was echoed by her men as they spurred on their own horses.

On Zai's way past Caid and Bronwyn, she cast a curious glance at the unusual sight of two Seers on horseback with an elderly man at their side. The man stared at her with wide open eyes, but the blind Seers were hunched over and weren't looking at anything in particular. The moment was quickly gone, and she continued on her way towards their designated target.

As the units of the Black Lance cavalry thundered past Caid and Bronwyn, the Huntress was busy counting their number. "Sixty men... six full squads... Phirax have mercy on the people at our camp," she croaked once the last man had gone past them.

Despite the rain of the past few days, a choking cloud of dust had been kicked up by the many hooves and made she, Bronwyn and Harlan nearly break down in rattling coughs.

"They..." Bronwyn started to say before she had to stop to clear her lungs of the dust with a series of deep coughs. "There were more than I had expected, Caid," she said, fanning her face to get some clean air to come to her.

"And I, Bronwyn. We cannot do anything for the people at the camp now. I only hope Fyonna and your handmaiden have already left. If they encounter the cavalry outside the camp, they'll have a chance of escaping. If not... well," Caid said and nudged Chestnut's sides. The mare shook its head and let out a whinny before it set off towards the South Gate in a slow walk.

Harlan followed the Huntress at once, but Bronwyn was frozen to the spot, staring straight ahead. The news that Tawna and Fyonna could be in mortal danger was something she hadn't counted on. Scrunching up her face, she looked at the cloud of dust that trailed the advancing riders who were already well on their way. She gulped and nudged her horse's sides to get it to follow Chestnut.

Before Caid and Bronwyn could reach the South Gate, several soldiers from the regular army shut the large doors, much to the vocal anger of the assembled farmers and traders who came to realize they wouldn't be allowed inside for the foreseeable future.

Caid pulled Chestnut to a halt just as the doors were closed. Glancing around casually so she wouldn't blow her disguise by looking too interested, she could see that some of the traders turned their large wagons around and headed back up the trail to try their luck at the next city, some ten leagues to the north. The farmers who lived in Ashburne were less fortunate and were resigned to leaning against their oxcarts to commiserate with each other.

When Bronwyn finally caught up with Caid, Harlan was already there. Completely laid back and casual - though with a few red blotches on his cheeks - the man got his horse turned to the left so it could walk along the ten-fathoms tall city wall. Caid and Bronwyn followed, but just as Bronwyn nudged her bay mare's sides, a helmeted soldier clad in the red satin uniform of the regular army ran up to her and put a hand on the horse's reins to stop it.

"Where' you goin', Seer?" he said in an accent that reminded Bronwyn of Kheo, though the young soldier was more urban compared to Kheo's rural tones.

Bronwyn's heart began to beat double-time, but she willed herself into sitting as still as she could on the horse. "To the West Gate. It may still be open," she replied in her best raspy voice. She cocked her head and looked just past the soldier so it appeared she was really blind.

"That ain't open neither. All gates have been closed today. Where' you from?"

"The southern province. Near Afar... uh, Afarensia."

"Never heard of it. How come you don't speak in a southern accent?"

'Good question,' Bronwyn thought, racking her brain to come up with an answer that would satisfy the soldier. Glancing ahead, she could see that Caid and Harlan had already made it quite a distance away from her - not that she could blame them. "I am a traveling Seer. I have been most everywhere here in Dinnigon."

"Yeah? You are blind but you can see everythin', right? What color is my uniform?"

Bronwyn cocked her head the best she knew and let out a raspy groan that was supposed to symbolize her vast powers. "Red like your helmet. Now will you please let me leave with my companions?"

The soldier let out a surprised grunt and took his hands off the reins. "Of course, Seer. I was jus' havin' a bit of fun, 's all. You may leave."

"Thank you," Bronwyn said and nudged her horse's sides to leave the soldier behind. Once she had picked up speed, she let out a shaky breath and mumbled: "Oh, Sweet Marpaxa... another minute of that and I would have needed a dry pair of undergarments..."


Bronwyn finally caught up with Caid and Harlan at the rounded corner of the wall that encircled Ashburne. Coming to a halt, she raised her hood and wiped her damp brow.

"What happened?" Caid said, patting Chestnut's neck.

"A young soldier wanted to know what color his uniform was. It was red. Like his nose," Bronwyn said in a shaky voice.

Harlan chuckled at the humorous comment, but soon sobered. "The concealed entry is just under two hundred fathoms to the north of here. It's less than halfway up to the West Gate. We need to look for a strange pattern in the outer wall... it's really a crack that goes all the way through. We obviously cannot get the horses through it."

"Mmmm. Earlier," Caid said, glancing to her left and the desolate, rocky terrain beyond the castle, "the West Gate was less well manned than the others because of the lack of a decent road over here."

"Still is. Hardly anyone comes through here," Harlan said, looking back at the South Gate. "Oh... is... is that part of your plan, Huntress?" he suddenly said, pointing back at the gatehouse they had just left behind.

Caid raised her blindfold and followed the man's pointing. At the South Gate, three very different-looking people were engaged in a ferocious swordfight. Although their shiny blades clanged together again and again, they were evenly matched as no one seemed to have an advantage - or, possibly, it was Kheo, Deegan and Sabia engaged in a three-way sword demonstration.

Moments later, the huge doors were opened and a squad of soldiers from the watch came running out to get the melee under control.

"Yes, that's the diversion... and our cue," Caid said and pulled down the blindfold. "Come on!" she cried, slapping Chestnut's reins hard.

Bronwyn let out a few clicks that made her own horse follow Caid's. Soon, they had reached the spot Harlan had talked about, a strangely shaped pattern in the mortar covering the outer wall. As they came closer, the crack was revealed.

Caid and Bronwyn quickly dismounted, but had to come to the assistance of the nervous Harlan in order to get him down from his steed in one piece.

When six feet were on the ground in addition to the twelve hooves, Caid looked left and right along the wall to make sure they were alone. Nodding, she squeezed herself in through the crack. Being compact, she had plenty of space around her, but even so, her hood snagged on a jagged brick and was pulled off her head. Safely through the five fathom thick wall, she hurriedly pulled the hood back up and reached out to help the frightened Harlan through.

Bronwyn naturally went last. Her knees were knocking quite badly at the prospects of squeezing her far taller frame through the tiny crack in the wall, but she swallowed her nervousness and began the perilous journey. She stuck her right leg into the crack and tapped around with her foot to find solid ground. When she had it, she squeezed her torso inside and inched along, hoping she wouldn't tear the delicate pale blue cowl on the jagged walls.

She only had a space of half a fathom to navigate in, and she was having a hard time of it. Halfway through, she felt a panic rising inside her at having the other side of the crack so close to her face. "If the wall collapses while I am in here... I shall be ground into sawdust," she mumbled in a shaky voice.

To her right, the daylight shone strongly just beyond her reach, but it was nearly impossible for her to make it the last fathom. Baring her teeth in a frightened grimace, she realized she was stuck fast. "Caid... Caid... Caid!" she whispered in an increasingly shaky voice.

"Bronwyn?" Caid said, sticking her head back in.

"I... I cannot move. I fear... I fear I dare not go on..." Bronwyn croaked.

"Oh... hang on."

"Hang on? I cannot do anything but hang on!"

Caid crawled back inside and took Bronwyn by the hand. "Trust me, Bronwyn. Trust me, you can get out. Come on, move your right leg a little towards me... come on... good... now your left leg to keep your balance... good... and your right again... now a little more... good... now... now a little more and you are free."

Bronwyn moved the last few inches and found herself in sunny freedom. Stumbling out onto a sandy path that ran along the inside of the wall, she let out a long, desperate sigh that almost turned into a groan. "Ohhh... I thank you with all my heart, oh sweet Lady Caid. I was petrified in there... whatever happens, I am not going out that way."

"You are welcome, Lady Bronwyn. I need to brush off your cowl, but then we are ready to go. The differently colored wall you see to your right is the outside of the main building at Aleyn Rowan's stables," Caid said and went to work slapping the dust off the pale blue fabric.

"Oh," Bronwyn said, looking at the wall to her right that was indeed held in a different color. She sniffed the air and promptly crinkled her nose. "Oh... and we are very near to the manure, too..."

"We are," Caid said and got up on tip-toes to give Bronwyn a little kiss on the lips.

"Mmmm... thank you. Are you sure Seers kiss each other like that?" Bronwyn said, peeking out around her blindfold.

"All the time, Lady Bronwyn. By the way, Harlan has left us. He said we won't see him again unless something truly extraordinary happens. Now... hunch over and walk like you are three or four centuries old," Caid said and showed the Lady how to do it.

Bronwyn quickly caught on, and soon, two ancient Seers shuffled along the sandy path to get to one of Ashburne's main arteries.


"Goodness me," Bronwyn whispered once they were on the main street leading to the castle's entrance. "Look at all those soldiers... there are soldiers everywhere!"

"Mmmm-yeah," Caid grumbled, looking out past her blindfold at a squad of men from the regular army who marched past without noticing anything.

The two Seers hobbled along the dirty streets until they were a mere ten fathoms from the main entrance. Just when Caid was about to signal Bronwyn they should cross the street, a platoon of men from the Black Lance marched towards them from further into the city. Since nobody wanted to get mixed up with the men in black satin, the citizens of Ashburne and even the soldiers from the regular army spread out and gave the platoon plenty of room.

Caid hoped they would march on, but - much to her sublime annoyance - they stopped right in front of the main entrance where the commanding officer went inside. As Caid put a hand on Bronwyn's arm to tell her to stop, she cocked her head to look out past the blindfold, but she didn't want to do it too overtly in case they were being watched.

After a little while, the officer came back out with another man whom he saluted. The new officer assumed command over the platoon and led them away from the main entrance save for four soldiers who remained at the double doors.

Sighing deeply, Caid shook her head and leaned in towards Bronwyn. "Lady Bronwyn, I fear we cannot get in at the moment. The Black Lance is everywhere."

"Wretched," Bronwyn mumbled, peeking out past her own blindfold. "Then what... should we try a side entrance?"

"It may not be any different over there. I fear we cannot traipse around the city for too long... we're too easily- move! Move!" Caid suddenly whispered, shoving Bronwyn down the alley they were standing next to.

"Wh- what? What, Caid?" Bronwyn said with a touch of panic creeping into her voice. As she was pushed down the alley, she couldn't see anything past the blindfold, and although she trusted Caid fully, she would have liked to see what was going on.

"I just spotted the soldier you spoke to at the South Gate!" Caid whispered, pushing Bronwyn into a doorjamb. "Ashburne is still under lockdown... if you're in here and not out there, it would mean you have come through the gates somehow!"

"But he was a dimwit... he might not be able to connect the lines, Caid!"

"Are you willing to risk your neck and mine to test that notion?"

"Ah..." Bronwyn said and reached up to stroke the smooth skin around her throat and neck, "I fear that is a definite 'no'."

"I didn't think so," Caid said and eased the blindfold up her nose so she could see better. The alley they were in led down to the empty marketplace, and the nature and build of the houses on both sides proved that it wasn't one of the neighborhoods where the high and mighty were living. "All right... hmmm... yes, I have it. If we move down this alley, and move through the marketplace going north, we shall soon arrive at a special establishment. I know the owner well and I know she is dead against the Black Lance."

"Let us try it," Bronwyn said and moved out of the doorjamb. "Wait... north? Into the... the... district?" she continued, whispering the last word rather than speaking it out loud.

Caid chuckled darkly and took Bronwyn by the arm. "Would they look for us there?"

"No, but..."

"Good. Then that is where we shall go," Caid said and hauled a squeaking Bronwyn down the alley.


Half a turn of the hourglass later, the two Seers walked across the cobbled streets in the unsavory part of Ashburne commonly known as the whore district. This marked the third time Bronwyn had set foot in that part of town, and she liked it less for each time.

As they walked along the filthy, uneven streets that were far more crowded than the last time she had been there, she felt she was under an intense scrutiny by every single one of the sorry-looking people present.

Poorly clad children were playing in the streets observed by young women, and groups of menacing young men who typically worked in the fields but who couldn't get out because of the lockdown were loitering at the street corners seemingly just waiting for someone to walk past so they could tell them just what they thought of the world.

Bronwyn breathed shallowly as she took in the sights. Underneath her blindfold, her eyes were wide, and she had to force herself to blink, otherwise she would forget it in her agitation.

"We're here," Caid said and pulled Bronwyn to the side.

"This is... is the special establishment?" Bronwyn croaked, looking up at the two-storey building that seemed to be so crooked and decrepit it would tip over if she sneezed on it. The wooden door and the two windows facing the street on the ground floor had seen better days, and the curtains that had been drawn were torn and bleached by the sun.

"This is the special establishment, yes," Caid said and pulled a cord next to the door. Inside the house, a pair of brass bells could be heard playing a two-tone signal. "Lady Bronwyn, you do not need to be so concerned. These people are merely poor, not evil. You have nothing to fear unless you provoke them."

"A- are you sure?"

"Fully," Caid said and turned back to the door that was opened while she spoke.

A somewhat haggard-looking woman in her mid-thirties came into the doorway wrapping a coarse cloak around her body. Her legs were bare as were her shoulders. Her pale and prematurely aged, wrinkled face was tainted by old and more recent bruises, but all that faded when a deep furrow was formed on her brow as she took in the sight of the two Seers on her doorstep. "Wh- what in the name o' Phirax the Unholy is this?" she croaked in a broad, rural accent that sounded quite a lot like Kheo Khammon's. She hurriedly wrapped the cloak tighter around her.

"Hello, Mairee. May we come in?" Caid said in the raspy voice so characteristic of the Seers.

"I..." the woman said, looking from one Seer to the other with confusion written all over her haggard face. "I fear I don't understand a damn thing..."

"Perhaps this will sway you?" Caid said in her regular voice, lifting her blindfold to wink at the other woman.

Mairee's face was transformed by the smile that suddenly graced her features. "Oh! Caid!" she cried, reaching out for her old friend. "Come in... come in... when... when did you join the... oh, come in!"

Bronwyn gulped loudly as she stepped over the threshold and into the two-room ground floor that was clearly in use as a brothel. Although vacant, the smell alone proved what kind of activities it was regularly used for. At the end of a narrow connecting hallway, a rickety staircase went upwards, but Bronwyn didn't need to see the rooms up there to paint a vivid picture of their use.

Mairee wrapped the cloak around her again and stepped into a small kitchen just beyond the hallway. "Come in, come in... I wus jus' makin' myself some tea. You wan'some?"

On the wall opposite the doorway, a fire was crackling merrily inside a small cast iron wood-burning stove. On top of the stove, a kettle and a pot filled with something that looked like some kind of stew - a strange food for breakfast, Bronwyn thought - vied for attention with the kettle winning out for now.

"Yes please, Mairee," Caid said and lowered her hood. She pushed her blindfold up her forehead and took in the meager sights. "Mairee, this is my close friend Bronwyn. Bronwyn, this is Mairee, a woman I had the good fortune of helping a few years ago when she was in trouble."

"Aw, Caid is bein' too damn modest. Hello, Bronwyn. Very nice ta meet ya," Mairee said and thrust out her hand at the taller woman.

At first Bronwyn just stared at it, but she knew it would be horrendously impolite to ignore it so she reached out and shook the woman's hand. "Greetings Mairee. I fear I may be treading where I should not, but how did you come to be Caid's acquaintance?"

"Huh?" Mairee said, looking at Caid. "Boy, she's one of them high an' mi'ty ones, ain't she? I ain't heard nobody speakin' like that for years!"

"No, Bronwyn is just well-schooled," Caid said and wrapped her arm around Bronwyn's shoulders. "Mairee and I met in another establishment, oh, five years ago. To cut a-"


"Six years already? My, how time flies. To cut a long story short, I helped Mairee with a customer who held a dagger to her throat. I made sure he wouldn't do that again in a hurry."

"Boy, did she ever, Bronwyn!" Mairee said with a grin. "Caid here broke all the creep's fingers. Crunch, crunch, crunch!"

"Oh... I see," Bronwyn breathed, looking at the two distinctly different women she was with.

"Yeah," Mairee said and shuffled over to the stove. She reached across it and took two mugs that she filled with boiling water from the kettle. Once they were full, she added a few leaves and herbs to the water and stirred with a large wooden spoon. "Here ya go," she said, handing Caid and Bronwyn a mug each.

"Wait," Bronwyn said, holding up her hands, "I am fine, thank you. Please, enjoy your tea. You only have two mugs here and I would feel like such a villainess if I took your hard-earned beverage away from you."

"What?" Mairee said and looked to Caid for a translation.

"She doesn't want any. It's all yours."

"Oh... huh," Mairee said and nipped from her mug. It was still too hot to drink so she put it down and shuffled over to a rickety chair next to the stove. "You ain't told me what brings you here? An' what's up with those disguises?" she said, wrapping the cloak around her as she sat down.

Bronwyn happened to glance up at the wrong moment and saw that - much as she had expected - Mairee wasn't wearing anything underneath the cloak. The Lady's ears started burning, but she made a vow to herself that she would treat Mairee with the same respect as if she had been of noble blood.

"What brings us here is that we're looking for shelter until it's dark. And the disguises... well, Bronwyn and I were supposed to go into the castle on a... well, shall we call it a secret mission?" Caid said and tapped a finger against the pale blue cowl.

"I get it, I get it. I a-gonna keep mah trap shut," Mairee said with a grin.

"Oh, you can speak, Mairee... just don't ask any questions. In any case, there are too many Lancers around, so..."

"Them bastards," Mairee mumbled.

"Indeed. Can we stay here for now?" Caid said and cocked her head. She cast a glance at Bronwyn to give the Lady a silent message it would be all right to spend time with the prostitute.

Bronwyn wasn't entirely convinced, but she felt instinctively she would be safe in Mairee's presence. Relaxing, she nodded back at Caid and went over to the only other chair in the small kitchen where she sat down.

"But o' course!" Mairee said and slapped her hands down onto her bare thighs. "O' course... hey, I better put the Disease marker on the door... we wouldn't want anyone ta come lookin' for a little carnal action an' disturb us, ya know."

"Oh! Disease?!" Bronwyn said and shot up from the chair. When she realized she had grossly over-reacted, she blushed and sat back down. "That would be admirable, thank you."

"Huh?" Mairee said to Caid.

"She says it's a great idea, Mairee."

"Uh-huh... there's stew in the pot. Help yourself if you're hungry."

While Mairee went into the other room to find the plank of wood she always put on the door when she was suffering from a sexually transmitted disease, Bronwyn started wringing her hands. "Oh, Caid... I am trying... please know that I am trying... but I fear I am not cut out for this kind of assignment..."

"You can be at ease here, Lady Bronwyn. Mairee may not look like it, but I can assure you she is a knowledgeable and quick-witted woman. We shall have a pleasurable time here in her establishment, I promise you," Caid said and squeezed Bronwyn's shoulder.

"I trust you... I trust you with my life, sweet Lady Caid," Bronwyn mumbled, looking at the pot with the bubbling stew.


Many turns of the hourglass later, Caid and Bronwyn ventured out into the shady district and began to hobble back down to the castle's main entrance.

The walk to the castle's main entrance took much longer than it usually did because of their slow, dragging gaits. Now and then, soldiers shot them curious glances, but no one stopped them or even greeted them. The dusty side streets on the approach to the castle were eerily empty save for a few children in woolly winter garments who were out late, playing with hoops or homemade balls.

Turning a corner, Caid stopped near the main entrance to the castle, making it look like she needed to catch her breath. Still hunched over, she cocked her head and scanned their surroundings thoroughly. She noted there were fewer Black Lance soldiers around than earlier in the day, but the number of regular patrols had been increased to compensate for the departed Lancers. There didn't seem to be a pattern for when or how many uniformed men and women walked in and out of the castle's main entrance, which would most likely make it easier for her and Bronwyn to blend in.

Bronwyn looked at vastly different things to what her partner focused on. Instead of keeping track of the people in uniform, Bronwyn looked at the regular citizens who walked past them on the dark streets in their fancy city clothes, dark brown frocks or tattered peasant fatigues. Because of the cold conditions and the lockdown, fewer people had ventured out on the streets but those who were there all wore dark, gloomy expressions that didn't hold much optimism for the future, or even the present.

Grunting, Bronwyn remembered the things the people in the camp had accused her of when she had first arrived there; unfair or even extortionate taxation and random beatings being the worst of the bunch.

'I hope I will get a chance at rectifying all my father's sins. The good, honest, hard-working people of Ashburne should not walk through life looking like this... alas, even if I do assume the throne one day, I fear I shall have so much opposition from the fat cats I will not be able to make a single family happy...'

"Bronwyn!" Caid whispered hoarsely, tugging at Bronwyn's sleeve.

"Wh- what?"

"You were daydreaming! I've called your name four times now! Stay sharp!"

"Oh... I- I apologize profoundly, Caid... I was... I was-"

"Daydreaming," Caid said and tugged at Bronwyn's sleeve again to make her move on. "We should go inside. We've been out here for too long already. If any soldiers who saw us earlier today come past, they'll recognize us for sure!"

"Too true, Huntress. Lead on," Bronwyn said and hunched over even more.


Inside the castle, Caid and Bronwyn hobbled casually towards the main staircase despite the presence of many soldiers from the regular army and the Black Lance. Once at the staircase, they began their descent in an equally casual style. To the world, they were merely a pair of Seers on their way to Marpaxa knows what.

At the foot of the staircase in the vaults beneath the keep, Bronwyn pulled back her endless sleeve and pointed in the direction Caid should go. They carried on for a little while until they reached the anteroom outside the dungeons.

Bronwyn's heart thundered in her chest as they came past one of the massive support pillars and stepped out into the open. The first thing she saw around her blindfold was a warder from the regular army - wearing a leather apron - who sat behind a desk with his booted feet up on the corner.

As Caid and Bronwyn shuffled closer, the creepy presence of two Seers who had appeared out of thin air with nary a sound spooked the warder into dropping his legs off the desk. Grunting, he had to grab hold of the armrests of the chair he was sitting on in order to stop himself from getting intimately acquainted with the sawdust-covered floor.

"Seers," he said, shooting to his feet. He began to bow but stopped short when he realized his visitors were blind.

"Good eve, warder," Bronwyn replied in her best raspy voice. "We are here to see to a prisoner. Are the dungeons open?"

"You are in luck, Seers. They're open for just under another half-turn of the hourglass... then the rats come. Which prisoner?" the warder said and went over to the reinforced door that led to the dungeons.

"Barlin," Bronwyn said, shooting Caid a worried glance at the warder's comments about the rats.

"Which Barlin? We got two. Efrem and... somebody. I think they're father and son... not sure, tho'."

Bronwyn was about to open her mouth again when the warder snapped his fingers.

"Oh! That's right. Efrem ain't here now. They took him 'bout a turn of the hourglass ago."

Caid briefly stood up straight before she remembered she needed to hunch over. A sound akin to a groan escaped her lips, and she cocked her head and looked around. "Where to?" she said in a voice she hoped was suitably raspy.

"I cannot say, Seer. Upstairs somewhere."

"Mmmm. Wretched."

Bronwyn sighed deeply and could almost sense the massive disappointment that had to surge through Caid Barlin. The warder waited for their next move, as did Bronwyn. When Caid didn't seem to want to carry on, Bronwyn cleared her throat and stepped forward. "Then we shall have to settle for the younger Barlin."

The warder briefly opened the door to the dungeon but closed it again almost as quickly. "What do you actually want with him, Seers?"

Bronwyn scrunched up her face while she racked her brain to come up with an answer - suddenly it hit her: "Our Emperor Jin-Sarnos has requested that my companion and I employ our skills to force a confession out of him. He knows far more than he has let on. When we are done with him, he will have betrayed everything and everyone he has ever known and loved," Bronwyn said, making her raspy voice increasingly sinister as she spoke.

The warder's face was contorted in disgust over the two Seers. Still grimacing, he opened the door to the dungeons and stepped aside. "I'm gonna close the door behind you in case the rats come out early tonight, Seers. Just knock when you have done the dirty business you came for."

"We will," Bronwyn said, shuffling forward. She briefly put a hand on Caid's back to let her know they could go on.


The environment inside the dungeons was extremely hostile. Bronwyn had never visited the prison before, and after seeing the slimy, stinking vision of the forecourt of Phirax' realm that was revealed before her when the door opened, she vowed never to return.

The stench alone nearly bowled them over. A horrifying concoction of unwashed bodies, disease, rotten meat, stale water and human and animal waste billowed out towards them like something out of a nightmare. The pained groans from the inmates only added to the horrors.

On the hay-covered floor, drainage ruts had been carved into the crude boulders, but instead of carrying water, they contained urine and other fluids. Rat droppings lay everywhere, turning the already disgusting floor into a treacherous obstacle course.

Lit torches had been placed on the walls for every five fathoms or so, but the flickering cones of orange light did nothing to improve the inhumane living conditions or the horrific scenes of scrawny men that closer resembled the popular image of Death than human beings.

As she and Caid tip-toed down one of the hallways to stay away from the worst of the waste, Bronwyn could hardly keep her jaw shut tightly enough. Not only because of her urgent need to vomit, but because she wanted to scream at the unfairness and injustice of it all.

'Sweet Marpaxa,' Bronwyn thought, clenching her fists inside the wide sleeves. 'I thought Blackston Castle was horrific enough... but that was a golden paradise compared to this wretched place. What kind of twisted mind has designed and built this? I have never seen animals treated this poorly... dreadful. Simply dreadful!'

Not long after, they went past a cell where Bronwyn couldn't see whether or not the man who sat on the floor was dead or alive. The wall above him was covered in a dark substance that could be blood - or something else. Bronwyn gulped frantically and kept her eyes straight ahead.

They went past cell after cell of similar horrors until they arrived at one that only had one prisoner in it. Inside it, a young, bearded man was lying flat on his back on a crude bunk. His face was covered in cakes of dried blood.

Caid grabbed hold of the cell doors and clutched them so tightly the metal bars nearly buckled under her grip. Reaching up, then down, she unlatched the door and stepped inside like in a trance.

It was Markki, though it was hard to tell.

A tray with stale bread had been tipped onto the floor next to an overturned waste bucket. The substances had mixed, but it was hard to tell which was which. A jug of water stood just inside the door, but when Caid sniffed the contents, she nearly vomited on the floor - the water was rotten.

"By Marpaxa..." Bronwyn croaked, pinching her nose. "My father is responsible for this... my father is responsible for all this pain and suffering... oh... I cannot... Caid, we must stop him... we must stop him, Caid! This cannot go on!"

Caid hadn't heard a word of what Bronwyn had said. After removing her blindfold, she knelt down next to her brother's head and checked his pulse. It was still there, though weak. The cakes of blood on his face were horrific, but up close, she could see he was less beat up than she had feared. Leaning in, she kissed his forehead before she whispered in his ear: "Markki... Markki, it's me... Caid. Please wake up if you can."

The groan that came from the young man's throat proved he was merely sleeping, not unconscious. After a while, he opened his bloodshot eyes and turned his head to stare at the person who had whispered in his ear - then he groaned in pain and tried to shy back from the grotesque Seer who was right next to him.

"Markki, it's me... it's your sister," Caid said and caressed Markki's cheek and forehead.

Her brother stared at her with a shocked look on his face, almost like he thought he was already dead. "Caid?" he croaked.

"Yes! Yes, Markki, I am here," Caid whispered hoarsely, "we have come to get you out of here... Bronwyn and I."

"Too- too dangerous..."

"Don't you worry about that."

"F- father..."

"Father isn't here, Markki. He's upstairs somewhere. Can you stand?"

"Y- yes," Markki said and swung his legs over the side of the bunk. Groaning, he buried his bloodied face in his hands when he was hit by a wave of nausea.

"Good," Caid said and put a hand under her brother's arm. Working together, the young man was soon on his feet and holding onto the bars at the cell door for support. "Bronwyn... I have an idea," Caid continued as she held Markki steady.

The horrors had pushed Bronwyn beyond speaking, so she simply stared wide-eyed at the two Barlins.

"Go down to the warder and say the prisoner we were here for is deceased. I'll bet he'll come down here for that. If he does, we'll clobber him and take Markki out of this wretched place."

Bronwyn nodded and took off back up the disgusting hallway.


Not long after, the warder did indeed come back to the cell, grumbling loudly over getting his boots dirtied for the second time that day. He cast a brief glance into the cell and saw Markki sitting on the bunk leaning against the wall with a slack jaw and a vacant look in his eyes. "Yep. He's dead all right," the warder said, casually scratching his nose.

"And what are you going to do about it?" Bronwyn said in a raspy voice that she didn't even have to fake.

"Do? What I'm gonna do about it? Get someone in here and drag the carcass away is what I'm gonna do. Whatcha expect me to do?"

"Maybe give the prisoner a proper burial!"

"Now, Seer," the warder said and turned back to Bronwyn, thus exposing himself to an attack from behind, "we march to a different drum down here. That corpse over there is just another piece of trash that we throw out with-"


Sighing, the warder collapsed onto his knees and then keeled over, landing in the puddle that had been created when the tray with the stale food and the overturned waste bucket had come together.

Caid nodded and pulled up in her cowl to slip her machete back into its sheath. "And now you're just a piece of trash," she growled, hurrying over to Markki. "Come on, brother... freedom awaits you."

"No wait, Caid," Bronwyn croaked as she looked down at the unconscious man. "What if the rats he spoke of come before he has awoken? If... if they come, and the warder is still here, it... he will be..." - the look Caid offered her in return told everything she needed to know. Nodding somberly, she folded her arms inside her sleeves and turned to the door.

The two Barlins got going and were soon out of the cell. Bronwyn waited for them outside in the disgusting hallway, and the odd trio quickly reached the reinforced door that would take them back out of Phirax' forecourt.


At the door, Caid held it ajar and peeked out. The anteroom was empty and quiet - just what they needed. "All right, come on," she said, pulling Markki with her.

Bronwyn came last and slammed the door shut to the stinking dungeon. Sighing, she quickly leaned her head against the reinforced gate. The groan that escaped her lips proved that not only was she happy to leave that awful place behind, she knew she had to do something about it, and as soon as possible.

Shaking her head, she lifted her hood to wipe her damp brow as she stepped away from the door to go over to the desk. "Oh, look... water," she croaked, pointing at a jug of water that stood on the floor next to a leather bag of some kind.

"I'll bet that's the warder's supper. Let's use the water to clean Markki's wounds," Caid said and eased her weak brother down into the chair at the desk.

Bronwyn quickly snatched the heavy jug. She sniffed the contents, ready for the worst, but it turned out to be clean, fresh water. "I believe you are right, Caid. Here. I'll find a piece of cloth or some such that we can use to get that blood off him."

"Thank you," Caid said with a smile as she took the jug. Cupping her hands, she dipped them into the water and poured the cool, clean liquid onto her brother's dirty face, like she had done countless times when they were children.

Bronwyn went to work opening all the desk's drawers to find something she could use. The three drawers on the left side were all empty, but she found what she was looking for in the bottom drawer on the right. "A spare tunic," she said, holding up the red garment. Grimacing in anger over the inhumanity she had witnessed inside the dungeon, she tore a sleeve off the tunic with the greatest of ease.

When Markki's face was well-soaked, Caid and Bronwyn worked together to make him presentable. The cakes of blood were quickly disposed of, as was the filth that had gathered in his hair and beard. The untreated wound that reached from the bridge of his nose and up to his forehead was in an angry, red hue, and when Caid put a hand on her brother's forehead, she furrowed her brow. "He's warm. He may have an infection."

"Oh no..." Bronwyn said and looked into Markki's dusty green orbs that were so similar to his sister's it was uncanny. At the moment, they were fairly unresponsive, but some of the luster had already returned. "Infections are nearly always fatal... after all he has been through, I fear he may not make it..." she said, chewing on her fingernails.

"Yes he will!" Caid growled, leaning in to kiss Markki's forehead to make it better. "Won't you, dear brother?"

Markki could only groan, but he nodded faintly.

Caid returned the nod and kissed him again. "Bronwyn, have you found a beaker or mug Markki can use? He needs to drink some water."

"No... but I have not yet looked into the leather bag," Bronwyn said and pulled the bag up onto the desk. "Bread, baloney, an apple... a mug! Here," she said and handed the mug to Caid. Its design was too fancy for a lowly warder so Bronwyn suspected him of stealing it from one of the castle's chambers.

Caid poured some of the water into the mug and held it to her brother's lips. Markki drank greedily from it until he nearly choked on it. "Easy does it, easy does it," Caid said and used the torn-off sleeve to wipe his face. "Just like the old days... how many times have you burped on my shoulder, dear brother?"

"Too many to count," Markki croaked, looking up at his sister with a faint smile creasing his lips.

"Caid," Bronwyn said, tugging at Caid's wide sleeve, "what do we do now? Where do you want to take him? Back to Mairee's?"

The Huntress chewed on her lips as she took in the sorry figure sitting on the chair. Although the water had helped Markki, he still appeared too weak to walk more than a few paces. Going back to the crack in the wall where their horses were possibly waiting for them with their supplies including the tents was out of the picture altogether, but even going back to Mairee seemed impossible. "I- I don't..."

"I have an idea. How about we moved further up the keep... up to my old study?"

"The study? There's a fireplace there..."

"Yes, but it may not be lit."

"Well... all right," Caid said and rubbed her face. "That could work. Unless they've used it for storage or whatever in your absence."

Bronwyn shrugged with her arms out wide, a gesture that was especially impressive in the pale blue Seer's cowl. "I cannot say, Caid. We need to see for ourselves. If they have, perhaps my old bedchamber will do?"

"Now that would be hiding him in plain sight..." Caid mumbled. She looked from Bronwyn and over to Markki. With a grunt, she put her hands under Markki's arms. "Come on, brother... we need to get on the move."

"I c- can walk," Markki said and clambered to his feet. He swayed back and forth for a few seconds, but soon found his balance. "Which way?"

"Up the grand staircase!" Bronwyn said, pointing at the direction they should go.




"You know what we should have done?" Caid whispered to Bronwyn out of the corner of her mouth once they had made it a few flights up.

"No?" Bronwyn whispered back.

"We should have brought one of the brown frocks you and Tawna wore when you came to our camp... I just realize now that a handmaiden helping a Seer with someone would have looked more natural," Caid whispered, pulling up in the weak Markki on their way up the staircase.

"I fear you may be right. Alas, it is too late now to make such a change."

As always at any time of the day save for the darkest hours, the grand staircase was quite busy with maids, servants and soldiers traveling up and down the floors in the keep. Everyone gave the two Seers a wide berth, though most stared at the scrawny appearance of the man they were with.

Up, up and up they went. By the time they made it to the floor with the dining hall, Bronwyn had to lean against the outside wall of the staircase to catch her breath that threatened to leave her altogether from the agitation and stress she was under.

Markki's legs slowly began to wobble but Caid tightened her grip on him and fanned his face with her wide sleeve. "Come on, Markki... just a few more floors. You can do it... we cannot-"

The Huntress suddenly saw two officers she knew very well from her old Ranger battalion coming down towards them. At first, the officers didn't pay any attention to whatever else was going on on the staircase, but two Seers in pale blue cowls had a way of attracting attention to themselves whether they wanted it or not. The first officer furrowed his brow and slowed down. He didn't look at Caid, but at Markki. "Hey... aren't you-" he said, walking over to the three people.

Caid knew she had to think fast, and she let out a raspy growl and pushed herself off the wall. "This wretched prisoner is not of your concern! Mind your own business!" she growled, using her abdominal muscles to add an otherworldly - and unrecognizable - tone to her voice.

The officers quickly shied away from the angry Seer and hurried on down the stairs. After tracking them with her eyes, Caid glanced at Bronwyn who was nearly as pale as Markki.


The sturdy wooden door to the study proved troublesome to open and Bronwyn had to push against it with all her might. When it finally opened, she wished she hadn't been successful. While she had been away, her study had indeed been transformed into a storage room with all sorts of crates and boxes piled up in a haphazard manner. Her own furniture had been rudely shoved to the side, even the rug she'd had on the floor. The fireplace was dormant and the room was so cold her breath was nearly visible.

"Wretched," she mumbled under her breath. She casually shook her head at Caid who had decided to wait at the next landing below the study. Once the Huntress had joined her, they traveled further upwards.

"Oh, I hope my bedchamber does not look like that... my dresses... my beautiful dresses... my jewelry!" Bronwyn mumbled. Holding her breath out of fear of what she would find a floor up, she sneaked her hand below her cowl to tap her pocket. The tiled gold necklace that meant so much to her was still safe.

Upstairs, Bronwyn put up her hand to signal Caid and Markki that they should wait at the landing below like before. Tip-toeing across the floor, she peeked out of the staircase window next to the door to her chamber see if anything had changed down in Ashburne. She couldn't see any of the gates so she didn't know whether or not they were still under lockdown, but the activity down in the streets wasn't any different, so she presumed they were.

She sneaked over to the door and wrapped her fingers around the brass handle. It was cold to the touch, but at least it moved. The hinges creaked and groaned in a way they had never done before, and Bronwyn stopped on the spot, thinking the horrendous noises were so loud they could rival a thunderclap. Trying again, she went even slower and only opened the door enough to peek in.

Her four-post canopy bed was still in the middle of the chamber, unharmed and even equipped with a woven bedspread. The floor, the bedspread and the tops of the wardrobe and the dressers were dusty and seemingly untouched by human hand since she and Tawna had escaped. 'How long has it even been...? Sweet Marpaxa, I cannot remember... the days simply flow from one to the other for me now... though I do remember it was last night that Caid and I made love. If I ever forget that, I am ready for the dungeons myself...'

When everything looked all right, Bronwyn popped her head back outside and waved frantically at Caid and Markki. She quickly realized that the Huntress was as tired as her brother, so she hurried down the last flight and took Markki's other arm to balance out the heavy load the last section of the way.


Once everyone was inside, Bronwyn closed the door behind them and hurriedly barricaded it with a chair. Then she ran over to the bed and pulled off the bedspread. Underneath it, her favorite white sleeping chemise had been laid out like it was simply waiting for her to come back. "Oh..." she said, picking up the delicate fabric and staring at it like she couldn't quite fathom why that, of all things, had been allowed to stay untouched.

"Bronwyn, I don't think that'll look good on Markki," Caid joked as she helped her brother down on the soft bed and began to unlace his boots.

"No, most assuredly not!" Bronwyn said and hurried over to the wardrobe. Before she opened it, she sent a quick prayer to Marpaxa and slammed her eyes shut. Opening the wings of the wardrobe, she cracked open an eyelid and saw to her great relief that most if not all of her dresses and her others garments were still there. Some of it was in the wrong order, but at least it was there.

Comforted by the success so far, Bronwyn moved over to the dresser where she kept her jewelry. Like the other pieces of furniture in the chamber, a layer of dust had fallen on top of the dresser, but this time, fingerprints could clearly be seen in the gray layer. Bronwyn held her breath as she opened the top drawer. "Oh... wretched..." she croaked when she realized roughly two thirds of her jewelry was missing. "My jewels! Oh, those miserable... I will bet it is the Bullmastiff who has helped herself. Wretched!"

"The sleeping clothes, Lady Bronwyn...?" Caid said, putting away Markki's boots.

"Yes, I shall... I shall be right there," Bronwyn said and closed the drawer. Mouthing obscenities, she went back to the wardrobe and quickly leafed through the piles of clothes until she found a long, wide sleeping tunic in pale brown. Brushing it out of its folds, she held it up against her own body and then looked at Markki. "Oh, I believe I have found something your brother would not mind being seen in. Look!"

"Yes, that looks just fine, Lady Bronwyn," Caid said, helping Markki into a sitting position so she could take off his tightly wrapped hunting tunic.

"And here it is. I have only worn this sleeping tunic once or twice. I have always preferred my chemise," Bronwyn said, but suddenly stopped and jerked upright. Her mouth moved in an odd pattern, forming words her brain hadn't produced: "I am close by with Alanna and Tawna!" she said in a voice that sounded strangely monotonous compared to her own.

"I am close by with Alanna and Tawna!" Caid said at the exact same time in the exact same type of voice.

The moment passed as soon as it had happened, and it left Bronwyn and Caid gasping and staring wide-eyed at each other.

Markki stared at them both, thinking that he was still hallucinating. Shrugging, he slipped his arms out of his tunic and waited for the Lady to come over with the other one.

"Wh- what just happened there?" Bronwyn croaked, rubbing her throat that had gone numb.

"I don't know... Fyonna! Fyonna must have sent us a message!" Caid said, once again mirroring Bronwyn's gesture by rubbing her throat and upper chest. "Oh... but... no! No, by Phirax' balls! Alanna is with her!? I told her she should stay well out of the way!" she said, thumping her fist into her open palm.

Growling, she hurried over to the large windows and pulled open all the shutters. Even pressing her nose flat against the single panes, she couldn't see anything of what was going on down on the dark streets of Ashburne. Sighing, she shook her head slowly and shuffled back to her brother.

Bronwyn was still trying to figure out how it could have happened, but soon snapped out of it and handed Caid the pale brown tunic so she could put it on Markki.

The Huntress was back to her thousand-league stare but she took the tunic and helped Markki put his arms into it. "There," she said, caressing his cheek once she had pulled the tunic down over his back. "You're on your own when it comes to your pants," she added in a cheeky whisper.

Markki smiled back at her and loosened his belt. His ankle pants followed and were soon pushed down on the floor where Caid picked them up and folded them over her arm.


A short half-turn of the hourglass later, a thump and a few scratches at the barricaded door made Caid and Bronwyn jump to their feet. Bronwyn looked worriedly at Markki who was fast asleep.

They had both changed back into their regular clothes - Bronwyn into a fresh set from her wardrobe - and now, the Lady stuck a finger down the hem of her brown, sleeveless hunting jerkin that she wore over a white surcoat-like tunic with puff cuffs to get a little more air down her front.

Another bump made Caid draw her machete and inch over to the door. Moving around the chair Bronwyn had used to block the entrance, she put her ear to the sturdy wood and tried to listen for the cause of the thumps and scratches.

'Huntress? Are you there?' a familiar voice said in a whisper from the other side.

Caid grunted and removed the chair. She pulled the brass latch down and opened the door very slowly so it wouldn't creak and groan too loudly. Outside, Fyonna, Tawna and Alanna were lined up in that order, looking nervous and agitated. Fyonna was wearing her newer dark blue cowl, and Tawna and Alanna wore what they been wearing the last time Caid had seen them - a brown frock for one, hunting fatigues for the other.

Even before Fyonna could greet Caid, Alanna barged in through the door on a quest to find her brother. She stopped briefly to send a silent, apologetic message to her sister, but was soon on her way again. When she spotted Markki on the bed, she stormed over there and knelt down next to him. Closing her eyes, she let out a long, heartfelt sigh of relief.

Nearly the same scene was played out - only in reverse - when Tawna stepped inside the bedchamber. The senior handmaiden had barely set foot on the floor before Bronwyn flew into her arms and pulled her into a crushing hug.

"Oh!" Bronwyn cried, "I am so profoundly happy to see you safe, sweet Tawna! So profoundly happy!"

"And I you, Milady," Tawna said and returned the hug.

Behind the hugging women, Fyonna's reception was slightly less enthusiastic. Once the Seer had entered the bedchamber, Caid calmly closed the door and stuck the chair back under the latch so it couldn't be opened.

"Fyonna," Caid said, dusting off her hands.

"Huntress. Did you get my message?"

"We did. Loud and clear. In fact, it was so loud and clear Lady Bronwyn and I both brayed it out like a pair of mindless donkeys!"

"Oh..." Fyonna said and turned towards Caid. "I beg for forgiveness. I may have used too much energy when I sent it. It was most likely because I was in the company of two women at the time. Don't forget, I use the combined strength of the females present to channel my energy."

"I know. And now we're five women. Please let us know before your next attempt!" Caid said with a dark chuckle.

"I will. Oh... Markki! Oh, he looks much better than I had feared," Fyonna said and shuffled over to the young man on the bed.

Caid let out a sigh and ran her hands through her short hair. "Yes, but we believe he has an infection. Have you brought any of your remedies?"

"Only a few. Tawna has my bag. We've been in hiding the entire day and only made it in through the lockdown with a little Seer magic. Earlier this morn, we ran into the largest group of Black Lance cavalry I have ever seen. If I hadn't picked them up well in advance, we would have been trampled or mowed down by their swords. Oh, Huntress, I fear the people who chose to remain at the camp-"

"We better not dwell on that, Seer."

"No. But at least the Black Lance did not torch it. There was no fire or smoke after they had left that we could see," Fyonna said and put her aged hand on Caid's cheek.

Upon the touch, something happened to the Seer. She cocked her head and moved it in the strange, almost inhuman way she did when her senses were picking up something beyond the human range. "The Yonnae..." she said in a voice deeper than her usual register.

"Sabia is here somewhere, yes," Caid said, holding a hand on top of Fyonna's to maintain the otherworldly connection. "She's with Kheo and Deegan outside the castle. They helped us get in this morn."

"She will betray you. You must be mindful of her. She will attack you from behind. I see a shiny blade. A machete. She will stab you in the back," Fyonna said in a dark monotone.

Caid scrunched up her face and began to chew on her lips. "Sh- she told us a story of a massacre at a Yonnae village..."

Fyonna cocked her head again and extended all her senses. "Mmmm... she spoke the truth. Many Yonnae were killed. Her entire family. She shall betray you again, but there is something... something more... oh, the future is cloudy. I cannot see it yet," she said, slowly returning to her regular voice.

Caid let out the breath she had been holding. "All right," she said, rubbing her brow that had gained more than one dark frown. "I thank you for your insight and knowledge, Seer."

"I only wish I had better news to tell you," Fyonna said and shuffled over to the bed.

"You and me both," Caid mumbled. "Very well. Since we're all here now, Bronwyn and I shall try to find my father. He wasn't in the dungeons. We were told he is here in the castle somewhere, but we do not know where. I advise you to keep the door blocked and secure at all times."

"No one shall get through that door, Huntress... alive," Fyonna said and tapped a finger against the dark blue strip of cloth she had wrapped around her eyes.

Alanna looked up in a panic to send Caid another silent message, but soon went back to minding Markki when the look she got in return was too dark for her liking.

Bronwyn leaned in to give Tawna a goodbye kiss on the forehead. "We shall return, my brave, sweet Tawna. Have no fear," she whispered.


Bronwyn and Caid were once again on the move, this time sneaking down the staircase. Bronwyn had run out of clean ankle pants to wear so she had put on a pair of pale brown, puffy knee pants that were tucked down into white, wraparound leggings. Her bandaged boots had looked odd with the new ensemble, so she had decided to wear a neutral pair of black flats instead.

Since Bronwyn was essentially dressed like a page, none of the maids that went about their business on the stairs took much notice of the tall brunette - one maid even cursed Bronwyn for being in her way.

"Huntress," Bronwyn whispered, "I think we should try the dining hall first. Failing that, my father's private chambers."

Caid grunted as she hurried down the staircase, constantly on the lookout for trouble headed their way. "Let's hope we have luck at the dining hall. I for one do not wish to traipse through your father's chamber. That's where Markki was taken."

"True. In that case, we need to go in here... here, Caid!" Bronwyn whispered to the Huntress who had already run past the double doors that led away from the staircase.

"Bronwyn, this isn't the proper floor for the dining hall..."

"Lady Caid, were you planning on dancing through the guarded double doors and saying 'Hello! Hand over that prisoner, please!' ...Mmmm?"

Caid chuckled but kept up her vigilance while she did so. "Not quite, Lady Bronwyn. Not quite," she said, looking further down the staircase.

"Good. This is the back way. We need to go through a couple of hallways and corridors, but we shall arrive in the dining hall at the entrance used by the servants... which is behind my father's throne, in case he is sitting in it."

"Oh... now you're talking. Very well, lead on, Milady," Caid said and put a hand on the small of Bronwyn's back.


They ran through several damp, dark corridors where the only signs of life were the flickering torches that someone lit every once in a while. Occasionally, they could hear the characteristic chirping of rats and mice from beyond the walls, but they were past the isolated spots in a hurry.

Coming to a stop at the end of a corridor that looked just like all the other corridors they had seen, Bronwyn put her fist in the air like she had seen Caid do countless times. Once the Huntress was close to her, she put a finger across her mouth to signal they should keep quiet - Caid nodded.

The wall they were at was moist, but it didn't deter Bronwyn from leaning against it and peeking around the corner. One end of the connecting corridor that ran at the end of the one they were in went out of sight, but the other end, the one closest to them, led to a wooden door that Bronwyn knew would provide access to the servants' anteroom.

Moving back, Bronwyn went in so closely to the Huntress her shaggy hair tickled the Imperial nose. "Go to our left. Wooden door. Anteroom. Servants," she said in such a quiet whisper the words were nearly swept away by the gentle breeze that always ran through Ashburne Castle's many connected corridors.

"All right," Caid whispered and drew her machete.

"No!" Bronwyn whispered, putting her hand on Caid's arm that held the fearsome blade. "Friendly to me. No harm... please?"

Caid nodded at the Lady's words but kept the machete ready. "If they cry out a warning, it'll be the last thing they do," she said menacingly.

Bronwyn gulped. She knew she had to concede the point so she didn't even bother argue it. Instead, she nodded and crept around the corner.

Standing at the door, Bronwyn moved down the handle and held her breath as it opened. In the anteroom that worked as a pantry, three maids in the typical white and black uniforms of the kitchen staff were waiting impatiently for one of the cooks who was standing behind a counter to finish cutting half a glacé pork roast into thin slices.

As Bronwyn watched undetected, the first maid took a tray out of a rack opposite from where the cook was working and put it next to him. While the cook put the steaming hot slices of meat onto the tray, she took a spoon and transferred a few baked apples from another pot and arranged them carefully around the meat. Once the apples were in place, she took a gravy boat and put it on the tray to complete the ensemble.

When the cook signaled the tray was ready, the maid curtseyed and hurried out into the dining hall itself through a swinging door at the other side of the anteroom.

Bronwyn stepped into the anteroom and put her finger across her lips. "Hush, please, everyone," she said quietly.

The two remaining maids and the cook all stared at the returning Lady with wide open eyes. "Lady Bronwyn!" the man behind the counter croaked, "We- w- we were told you had died in a fall... o- off your horse...!"

"All lies, cook," Bronwyn said quietly.

Behind Bronwyn, Caid entered the anteroom with her machete drawn and ready for use if need be. She eyed the cook's many knives, but the man hurriedly put them on a tray and shoved it away from him to make it clear he was no threat. Caid smiled at him and put away her blade.

"Is my father out there?" Bronwyn said.

All three people nodded at her.

"Does he have a prisoner with him? A man by the name of Efrem Barlin?"

Again, all three people nodded at her.

"Good. When the third maid comes back, my friend and I shall go to them. I cannot stress enough that you should all leave. Go back to your chambers, or somewhere safe and stay there until further notice. Do you understand?"

"Y- yes, Lady Bronwyn," the cook said, nodding so hard his hat wobbled.

As if on cue, the third maid came back into the anteroom with the empty tray. The split second she saw the two women who hadn't been there before, she dropped the tray on the floor creating a grotesquely loud noise that made the other staffers shush her rather rudely.

Bronwyn smiled to show the frightened maid that she shouldn't be worried by their presence. "The cook will explain it to you," she said to the maid as she and Caid walked past her. "Go to your chambers. It shall be much safer for you there."

The maids and the cook all curtseyed or bowed before they hurried out of the anteroom and into the corridor at the back.

Bronwyn and Caid looked at each other. This was it.

Taking a deep breath, Bronwyn opened the swinging doors and stepped into the dining hall. The horseshoe-shaped table was set for supper, but only three people were eating at it - Jin-Sarnos, Tianna Bethan and a man in chains who could only be Efrem Barlin.

Like she had worked out, they came out behind Jin-Sarnos who couldn't be bothered to turn around at the sound of two footfalls instead of just one.

Tianna had her back turned, too, but Efrem was looking the other way, directly into the eyes of his daughter. The elderly man had an untouched silver platter in front of him with a few slices of pork, a baked apple and a pool of dark brown gravy. His hands were free, but they were resting passively on the large table. As Caid came into his line of sight, he grabbed a napkin and crumbled it up in his fist. The silent messages that flew back and forth between them nearly set the air alight with their intensity.

Jin-Sarnos only knew something was wrong when the dull side of Caid's Yonnae machete was pressed against his fat throat. Gasping, he dropped his knife and fork when he tried to shy back from the blade, but the large throne - and his large bulk - made it impossible.

When he saw Bronwyn come around Tianna's chair, his eyes nearly popped out of his head.

"Hello, father," Bronwyn said, slamming a hand down onto Tianna's shoulder so the colorful woman - who was wearing her favorite sheer sarong, though this time she actually wore undergarments underneath it - couldn't move an inch.

"Bronwyn..." Jin-Sarnos croaked, dropping his hands into his lap.

At the other side of the table, Efrem frantically tried to free himself of the chains but quickly found he wasn't strong enough on his own. "Caid! Caid, oh, it's so good to see you! Markki is... is in the dun-"

"Markki is safe and being taken care of, father," Caid said, keeping up the pressure on Jin-Sarnos' throat.

"Oh, I was so worried for him..." Efrem continued, once again trying to break free of the chains that kept his legs tied to the chair. "No... it is useless. We need a key."

"Where's the key?" Caid said, holding the blade closer to the fat man's throat.

The look Jin-Sarnos shot her back proved he wasn't about to help her with her request. Instead, he leaned his head to the left and spat on the shiny marble floor right next to her boots. "There!" he growled.

"Father!" Bronwyn barked. "Produce that key right this minute!"

"Never! You shall have to kill me first, sweet daughter of mine. Then, perhaps, you will find the key!"

"You wretched, pigheaded old man..." Bronwyn said, rubbing her face. "I wish I could say it is a pleasure to see you again... alas, it is not. I despise you. No, even that word does not carry the strength of the emotions I harbor within when I think of you. You sit here with all your excesses while innocent people are rotting away in the dungeon... you sit here with your whore while honest families are being torn apart by your stooges. You-"

"Silence!" Jin-Sarnos roared in a booming voice. "Are you quite done, daughter? What you see here, I have shed blood, sweat and tears for... I have fought and I have won! You have never fought for anything in your life! Everything has fallen into your lap since the day you were born... and how do you thank me? By running off to join some two-bit revolution led by that peculiar woman right there... so don't you come here and talk to me about excesses!"

"Father, you truly have been speaking to the wrong advisors. There is no, and has never been, any talk of a revolution! The people I joined were merely those you banished for doing their job."

"Pah, Bronwyn," Jin-Sarnos said and waved his hand at his daughter in disgust. "If you had done what was expected of you... if you had married Lasar-Ihtreg like you were supposed to, no one would have been banished in the first place. But no! Oh no, you had to be the modern heroine and resist the bonds of sacred marriage."

"Father, that man was a six centuries old Seer who conducted experiments on people!"

"No concern of mine. Marriage is sacred, daughter!"

"What in the name of Phirax the Unholy do you know about that? How dare you utter those words when your actions led to my mother's death!" Bronwyn barked, squeezing her hand down on Tianna's shoulder with such strength the colorful woman whimpered.

"Oh, not that old chestnut again," Jin-Sarnos groaned and rolled his eyes. "Very well, I shall give you the answer I always give you. She whored around. Was I, the man of all men, supposed to stand idly by while my wife spread her legs for that young lothario? Of course not!"

"He offered her warmth and compassion, father. Things you could not offer anyone since you do not possess those attributes!"

"Pah... he offered her his rod," Jin-Sarnos said and held his arm out with his fist clenched in a most vulgar manner.

The color of Bronwyn's face turned dark red, and for a brief while, it appeared she was going to take Caid's machete and run her father through.

"You can talk, but you cannot make me listen," Jin-Sarnos said surly, crossing his arms over his considerable belly despite the blade at his throat. "I am looking forward to watching you and that peculiar woman there lose your heads. Indeed, I might even wield the ax myself!"

Commotion at the double doors at the other end of the dining hall made everyone stop talking and look down there. The sounds of a struggle were clearly heard through the sturdy doors, but the people in the dining hall each reacted in a different way.

The still red-faced Bronwyn stepped away from Tianna and began to chew on her fingernails. Tianna, free of her captor, jumped up from the chair and ran over to the fireplace to be as far away from Bronwyn and Caid as possible.

Caid tightened her grip on the machete's hilt and shifted the blade around so the sharp side came to rest on Jin-Sarnos' throat an inch or so below his lowest double chin. "Why don't you just produce that key so we can leave in peace?" she growled, looking at her father who had once again given up attempting to free himself from the chains.

The Emperor himself began to chuckle darkly. Though the threat against him had grown by Caid's actions, he briefly puckered up his lips before flashing the woman next to him a devious smile. "And so it ends. Alas, I fear neither of you will live to see another dawn. If you are smart, you will lower your weapon now, Barlin. The soldiers who are about to come through that door will most certainly do it for you."

"Hold your tongue," Caid said, but even she didn't appear sure it would end well. Furrowing her brow, she looked at her own father who offered her a peaceful smile in return.

Then the double doors were slammed wide open. A small handful of people barged in, making Jin-Sarnos laugh out loud in victory. Moments later, the laughter got stuck in his throat when he realized it wasn't his soldiers, but three people of wildly varying looks.

"Kheo!" Caid shouted, waving her free hand at her friend.

"Oy!" the large man shouted back as he and Deegan slammed the double doors shut and pulled four of the heavy dining chairs over to block the entrance. "Oy, luv!"

"Oy, Kheo!" Bronwyn shouted, waving.

Kheo and Deegan hurriedly ran up to Efrem and began to yank, pull and tug at the chains to get him released from the chair. "Efrem... if ya don't mind me sayin' so, ya really got yerself neck-deep in trouble this time... eh?"

"Kheo... Deegan... I am glad to see you, my friends... quick, can you get me free?" Efrem said, pulling in the jingling chains.

"Mmmm-yeah. Gonna try. Hold on to ya ass, Efrem, this is gonn' get messy," Kheo said and wrapped his meaty paws around the metal. "Them chains here are tough... but... not... in... vin... cible!" he groaned, tugging harder and harder until his vast strength was able to pull the weakest link askew. From there, the chains fell to the floor in one, long snake.

Once free, Efrem bolted to his feet and shook hands with his rescuers before he ran around the horseshoe-shaped table to stand at Caid's side behind the Emperor.

The third of the three people who had entered the room, Sabia, opened her camouflaged cape and drew her machete. The Yonnae kept standing at the doors like a statue for a long while until she set off towards the table in a deliberate stride.

Jin-Sarnos stared silently at the Yonnae with wide open eyes and a face that slowly turned red until he could no longer keep the vitriol inside. "You! You wretched, ungrateful wench! Is this the thanks I get for giving you fifty Crowns? And for information that will undoubtedly turn out to be all lies?"

As expected, Sabia didn't reply. Instead, she slowed to a halt and cast a long, dark glance at Caid.

Caid remembered what Fyonna had seen in her vision and made sure to keep her front turned to the tattooed woman at all times. She hadn't told Bronwyn about the vision, but now she wished she had so she had another pair of eyes on the lookout.

"Please!" Tianna howled from her position at the fireplace behind all of them. "Please don't sacrifice me! I don't wanna die!"

Bronwyn rolled her eyes and strode down towards the howling woman. "Oh, do keep quiet, you foolish wench! A human sacrifice is not what we are here for... understand that," she said, holding her hands out with her palms up to show she wouldn't be the harbinger of doom.

On her way over to the fireplace, she realized that Tianna lived up to her nickname 'Jewel' by wearing all sorts of jewelry around her neck, on her fingers and even attached to her sarong - and moments later, she realized most of it had come from her looted jewelry box.

"Y- you... you are wearing my jewelry!" she growled in a deep, menacing voice, forgetting all about not being a harbinger of doom as she hurriedly closed the distance between herself and Tianna. "Give me my jewelry, you wretched woman! Now!" she howled, tearing the precious gems, rings and necklaces off the howling wench.

Once Tianna was relieved of the many pieces of stolen jewelry - appearing quite bare though she was fully dressed - Bronwyn slammed her hands down upon the shorter woman's shoulders and spun her around. "Be gone, wretched woman!" she barked, kicking the woman in red directly up her rear end, accompanied by appreciative hollers from Kheo and Deegan who were watching from the horseshoe-shaped table.

Howling, Tianna ran off down towards Jin-Sarnos' private chamber where she hurried through the door and slammed it shut behind her.

Bronwyn harrumphed loudly and bent down to retrieve her jewelry.

"All right," Caid said and pulled her blade back from Jin-Sarnos' throat. "With that out of the way... and my father liberated from his chains... my companions and I shall withdraw. We have found what we sought."

"Pah! You think I am going to let you walk away after what you have done to me, Barlin?" Jin-Sarnos growled, rubbing his double chins.

"Feel free to alert your guards but no harm has befallen you... yet. Bronwyn and I shall leave this wretched castle with our companions. Isn't that what you wanted?" Caid said and waved Bronwyn over to her.

"What I want is your head on the floor of my execution chamber. And by Phirax, I shall have it!" Jin-Sarnos boomed, slamming his fist down onto the tabletop.

Caid grunted and slid backwards towards the entrance to the anteroom from where they had come. She signaled the others they should follow her, and soon, the entire group of six was headed for the swinging doors with Kheo and Deegan covering their rear like they always did. Caid was mindful of not having her back turned to Sabia, but it wasn't always possible.

As Bronwyn held the swinging doors open for the others, she looked back across the dining hall and locked eyes with her father. She could see from the red flush that covered his bulbous face their struggles weren't yet over. He would alert the armed forces, of that she was certain, but the real question would be if they could sneak through the castle undetected.

Up front, Caid peeked into the corridor beyond the anteroom holding her machete ready for any eventuality. Everything was dark and quiet, so she opened the door fully and waved at her small commando unit to follow her.


They ran on and on through the dark corridors with Bronwyn acting as their guide. After a while, they had made so many turns and seen so many identical corridors that even the Huntress was lost. Bronwyn wasn't, however, and she knew exactly where they should go to come back to the grand staircase at the other side of the castle.

After nearly a quarter of a turn of the hourglass, Bronwyn put up her hand to make the others stop. They had arrived at a corner between two corridors - one was merely dark, the other pitch black because the torches had gone out - and she thought she had heard gruff, male voices speaking in a rural dialect reminiscent of that widespread among the men of the regular army.

Moments later, the male voices were clearly heard discussing a set of orders issued by the Emperor, and Kheo drew his sword and held it ready in case it would come to a touch of bloodshed. After a brief while, the voices drifted away and became quieter - then they were gone altogether.

Bronwyn let out the sigh she had been holding back and waved at her friends and companions to get them to move on.


Sometime later. They had nearly reached the grand staircase, and Bronwyn was chewing on her fingernails and thinking so hard steam nearly came out of her ears. 'How has General Galehr reacted when he and the other senior officers were informed of the situation? Will they have followed my father or gone against him? Oh, I fear I cannot say! Caid told me the General and several other high-ranking officers were plotting against my father... this could be the trigger they have been waiting for... oh... and I am running away like a frightened child. I should not be!' - "Caid... Caid, please listen..."

"Bronwyn, we've got no time to stop and talk," Caid said from somewhere over Bronwyn's


"But- but... I should stay and... and... I must stay. Oh, sweet Marpaxa, I need to stay and take the fight to my father. He was right, for once. I hope you will come through this wretched mess unscathed, my sweet Caid... for the risk that I will not is far too great to ignore..."

"You don't know what you're saying, Lady Bronwyn! Come!" Caid said with a degree of annoyance creeping into her voice.

Efrem huffed and puffed harder and harder as they ran along the corridors. His breathing was labored and he eventually reached out to put a hand on his daughter's shoulder. "Caid, wait... I'm not a... young man... anymore," he said, wheezing so hard his voice had turned thick.

The Huntress turned to look at her father whose face had already gone deep red from the exertion. "I am sorry, father. I fear we need to keep up the pace. Some of the Black Lance units are still away, but some are here. I do not wish to face another squad of archers anytime soon."

"I know... but... please... I cannot..."

Caid grunted and raised her fist in the air out of sheer habit. She realized the corridor was too poorly lit for the others to see anything, so she came to a halt and turned around. "Lady Bronwyn, where do we need to go?"

"Further ahead, Caid," Bronwyn said, pushing her way past Sabia who had been running directly behind the Huntress. "We are nearly at the grand staircase. You need to continue straight ahead. In a while, you will first reach a smaller staircase that will take you to the levels above where we are now. Then-"

"Oy! We' goin' up?" Kheo said from the back of the group. "We' ain't goin' up, luv, we' goin' outside! It's dark out there, we'd have a great cover!"

"No, Kheo," Caid said, putting a hand on Bronwyn's arm. "Markki and several others are resting up in Lady Bronwyn's old bedchamber. One of us needs to go up there and alert them." The Huntress looked into Sabia's intense eyes in a plea for help, but the Yonnae remained as stoic as ever.

"I'll go!" Deegan Arliss said.

Caid and Bronwyn both nodded at the former cavalry Lieutenant. "Thank you, Sir Deegan," Bronwyn said. "I can only advise you to state your business loud and clear once you arrive at the door... Lady Fyonna is protecting it."

"Ugh! I'd better!"

Kheo briefly chuckled at his mate's potential problems, but soon fell silent.

"Sir Deegan," Bronwyn continued, "you need to go down this next corridor on your right. The grand staircase is beyond it, though you shall need to navigate through two more corridors and a small staircase before you reach it."

"I'll do my best, Lady Bronwyn," Deegan said and sheathed his blade so he could run more easily. He quickly thumped Kheo's shoulder before he ran ahead and turned right into the next connecting corridor.

Caid nodded and turned back around. "That's all we can ask for, Deegan," she said quietly though the Lieutenant was already too far away to hear it. "Very well. Bronwyn, what's the quickest way out of the castle?"

"Keep going straight ahead, Huntress. With Sir Deegan's brave offer, you no longer need to move up. Instead, I feel you should try to reach the northern entrance."

Caid furrowed her brow and stared darkly at the Lady. "Wait... you really are going back to your father, aren't you?"

A thousand different answers rushed through Bronwyn's head, but in the end, all that came out was a strong "Yes."

"Lady Bronwyn, that is suicidal! It's worse than that, it's insane! I cannot allow you to go back there now... not unprotected!"

"Alas, I must, Caid," Bronwyn said and reached up to caress Caid's smooth cheek. "Either to stop my father from pursuing you, or to prevent the officers from carrying out a military coup."

Kheo chuckled from his position at the back of the group. "That don't make much sense ta me, luv!"

"It does to me, Kheo. The throne and this castle must be in the hands of my family. I fear I must leave you. Be well, everybody. It was an honor to know you," Bronwyn said and let out a sigh so strong her shoulders slumped.

Caid rubbed her face hard and looked up to lock eyes with the stubborn Bronwyn. "I said I cannot allow you to go unprotected. And I will not. I'm going back with you. Kheo... you're in charge. Get father to freedom."

"This is gettin' mi'ty confusin'!" Kheo grumbled, scratching his bald head.

"Just do what I tell you, Kheo. Father," Caid said and took her father's hands in her own. "We'll see each other outside. Later."

"I know we will," Efrem said and pulled his daughter into a hug. "Take care."

"You too. All right... Lady Bronwyn?"

"I am ready, Caid," Bronwyn said as she mopped her clammy brow that had gone quite icy from all the excitement and the agitation that rolled through her like a ceaseless wave.

"Awright, let's move out!" Kheo barked on his way up to the head of the group. "We' gotta lotta ground ta cover an' very little time ta get there! Let's giddy-up!"




Sometime later, Bronwyn and Caid were back in the anteroom next to the dining hall. Trying to move as quietly as a mouse, Bronwyn pressed herself flat against the wall next to the swinging doors so she could peek through without being spotted. By inching to her right, she could see her father standing behind his throne with his hands on the top of the opulent backrest. Maps, books and several pieces of parchment were spread over the large table like he had been studying something.

Two officers from the regular armed forces sat at the table. One was a distinguished-looking elderly gentleman with white hair and a matching circular beard. He was wearing a dark waistcoat over a red tunic like those worn by his men, though his had several golden tassels hanging down from his epaulets.

The other man, wearing a gray uniform, was younger and more rugged. He had a buzz cut and a full beard that he was rubbing thoroughly like he was thinking hard about something. Unlike the older man, the officer in gray had a helmet and a pair of gloves in front of him on the table.

"Can you see anything?" Caid whispered directly into Bronwyn's ear.

"Yes. My father has summoned General Galehr and Commander Tarsi from the City Watch. They look concerned. I fear they are none too pleased with the situation," Bronwyn whispered back.

"Now there's an understatement..."


"Never mind, Lady Bronwyn. Can you hear what they say?"

"Barely," Bronwyn said and turned her attention back to the three men in the dining hall.

"So, Gentlemen," Jin-Sarnos said and walked away from his throne. He put his hands behind his back and strolled around the shiny marble floor like he was giving a lecture. "I cannot fathom how your men, the might of Ashburne, are unable to find a ragtag group of warriors and women! Matters are even worse than I thought! Bronwyn, my sweet, virginal daughter, has been brainwashed by the insurgents and is now one of them. General Galehr, I cannot stress enough that I need you to find her and the people she is with! You too, Commander Tarsi. I hope you followed my earlier orders and have informed your Watch brigade that my daughter is to be apprehended on sight and brought to the dungeons where she will face a suitable punishment."

Kallirna Tarsi - the rugged, younger of the two officers - nodded but kept rubbing his beard like he wasn't sure about the whole thing. "I did, my Emperor," he said in a deep, schooled voice. "However, I cannot fathom how your daughter could have-"

"It was a shock to me as well, Commander," Jin-Sarnos said, moving around the table. "Alas, it is thus. Her pure mind was twisted and perverted by that peculiar Barlin woman. My daughter is young and impressionable. I fear it may be too late to turn her back to a way of life that's more suited for the Lady of Ashburne Castle."

"Yes, but-" Tarsi said, leaning forward on his chair.

"Enough, Commander! You have been given your orders. As soon as this briefing is adjourned, I expect you to return to your post and do your duty!"

Tarsi grumbled and looked at the older General to his right. "I shall do my duty, my Emperor," he grumbled into his beard.

"Emperor Jin-Sarnos," Waleeri Galehr said in a crisp voice that gave a clear indication of his upper-crust upbringing, "I fear this is all moving quite too fast for an older gentleman such as I. We were told your daughter had lost her life in a riding accident. Now she is suddenly here and in cohorts with insurgents? Insurgents, I hasten to add, that none of our spies or intelligence officers have any knowledge of."

Jin-Sarnos turned around and pinned the older man to the spot. "General Galehr, an older gentleman such as yourself must surely have heard of the concepts of honor and reputation? Did you expect me to mention in casual conversation over dinner that my sweet, only daughter had been snared into the clutches of a vile and wretched succubus?"

"My Emperor," the General said, having gained several red blotches in his face from Jin-Sarnos' thinly veiled insult, "I can assure you I know about honor and reputation. However, I fear that you underestimate how popular the Barlin clan is with the officer corps. Efrem Barlin, whom you had in the dungeons for no good reason, is still very well connected. As is his daughter Caid."

"Popular? Connected? My dear General, it seems to me there could be traitors in our midst," Jin-Sarnos said and thumped his fist down onto the tabletop, making the maps and pieces of parchment flutter around. "In the absence of Commander Allizadra, you, Gentlemen, represent the armed forces in Ashburne, and indeed most of Dinnigon and the conquered lands to the west. I demand to know how many of my officers feel the Barlin clan is popular and connected!?"

Waleeri Galehr and Kallirna Tarsi looked at each other. The two highest-ranking officers seemed to debate silently whether or not this was the proverbial drop that made their cup overflow.

"Tell me!" Jin-Sarnos barked, slamming his fist onto the table. "And while you're chewing on that answer, I demand to know how many of the senior officers are loyal to me, their emperor Jin-Sarnos the Twelfth!"

When Kallirna Tarsi pushed his chair back and put his hand on the hilt of his sword that was suspended down his right thigh, Bronwyn had seen enough and ran into the dining hall with Caid in tow. "Wait! Please wait!" she cried with her hands in the air.

Jin-Sarnos spun around and stared at his daughter in utter confusion.

The two officers reacted very differently to their superior. While Commander Tarsi greeted Bronwyn with a curt "Milady," while his hand stayed firmly on the hilt of his blade, General Galehr rose from his chair and bowed deeply to the Lady like the gentleman he was.

"Please," Bronwyn said, running over to the horseshoe-shaped table. To keep a safe distance to her father, she remained on the opposite side of where the Emperor stood. "What my father has told you is simply not true. There is no insurgence or rebellion, nor has my mind been twisted or perverted by Caid Barlin."

"You would say that, wouldn't you, sweet daughter?" Jin-Sarnos said with such sarcasm it dripped from the words.

"Father," Bronwyn pleaded, ignoring the barb, "you must understand that change must come to Ashburne and the castle. It simply cannot go on like this! Apart from those we pay to service us, the citizens of our city hate us, indeed curse us because of the taxes and the brutal beatings they suffer at the hands of Zai Allizadra's Black Lance.

The muscles in Jin-Sarnos' jaw worked overtime as he stared at his daughter and Caid Barlin across the table. At the last moment before he lost his temper, he looked to his two most senior officers. "And you... you simply sit there like a pair of cowards instead of apprehending Bronwyn like I ordered you to! You are guilty of gross insubordination, gentlemen!"

"Hardly," General Galehr said, crossing his arms over his dark waistcoat. "By definition, a refusal of an order cannot be referred to as insubordination if said order is illogical, harmful or indeed issued by an officer who is clearly acting against the good of the many."

Jin-Sarnos' eyes narrowed down into tiny slits, and the corners of his mouth began to twitch. "Against the good of the many?" he said hoarsely. "The good of the many? What wretched lies! I am your Emperor... your supreme commander... your superior in every way! I command you to apprehend my daughter!"

"Commander Tarsi will not do so, Emperor. And neither will I," Galehr said and walked around the table to get closer to Bronwyn and Caid. "However, we are fair men. We can agree to a compromise. Your daughter is right, changes must take place, and if you are willing to implement these changes rapidly, we shall take no further action against you."

"Oh, isn't that grand of you! Now, if I refuse to implement these changes... and I do, General... I assume you shall knife me in the back so you can claim the throne?" Jin-Sarnos sneered, throwing his hands in the air.

"If need be," Galehr said coldly, though he smiled at Bronwyn when he said it.

Bronwyn was in no mood to be played for a trusting fool by the elderly General, so she stepped forward with her hands in the air like her father's. "Wait. General... Commander. If anyone is to claim the throne, it is I, the rightful heir. Not some lowly stooge who sits with an easily revoked blessing of the military, or indeed even a General, a Commander, or for that matter, the Empire's senior Ranger," Bronwyn said, gesturing at Caid. "No offence meant," she quickly added out of the corner of her mouth.

"None taken, Lady Bronwyn," Caid with a broad grin on her face.

"But Lady Bronwyn," Waleeri Galehr continued, moving closer to Bronwyn and Caid who immediately moved in to protect the Lady. "Surely you must understand that a military government will have a far better chance at implementing the very changes you plead for?"

"General Galehr, surely you must understand that my family has occupied that throne for twelve generations," Bronwyn said and pointed at the opulent throne at the end of the horseshoe table. "Although I grant that when I claim it, I shall be the thirteenth generation which is somewhat unfortunate, but alas... thirteen comes after twelve. My son or daughter shall one day be the fourteenth successive ruler of Ashburne, Dinnigon, Tantor, Zigai and all the lands we have conquered, like the eastern provinces of Multrovia, Lotzan, Onilia and Palkor."

At that, Jin-Sarnos leaned his head back and let out a braying, contemptuous laugh. "My sweet, virginal daughter, in order for that to ever happen, you must first be locked in sacred matrimony. And not only that, but you must be on your back with your legs spread wide, willingly accepting your husband's semen as many times as it takes for you to get pregnant. Oh, I am profoundly sorry, my sweet daughter... I know you too well. That particular aspect, you will never be able to stomach!"

"I... if... it could happen," Bronwyn said quietly, wringing her hands. At once, Caid was at her side and put a warm hand on her back.

Kallirna Tarsi was unaware of the finer details of Bronwyn's personal life and scrunched up his face at the odd aggressiveness hurled at the young woman. "My Emperor, such harsh language towards your innocent daughter is uncalled for!"

"Pah!" Jin-Sarnos barked, waving his hand in disgust. Unnoticed by anyone of the people he argued with, he had shuffled further and further away from the table, though he had understood to return to it once in a while so it wouldn't look suspicious. From one heartbeat to the next, he set off in a jog that completely belied his bulk.

Before anyone could react, he had reached the door to his chamber, opened it, and slammed it shut behind him.

"Wretched!" Caid barked, setting off in a fast run to get to the chamber door. "It's locked... or barricaded," she shouted, yanking at the door's handle. "Bronwyn, is there another exit to the chamber?"

"Several!" Bronwyn shouted back, clutching her head. "I do not understand! Where does he want to go?" When she didn't get an answer, she set off towards the door to the chamber.

Waleeri Galehr and Kallirna Tarsi once again looked at each other with identical puzzled expressions on their faces. The Commander soon left to round up his senior officers to set the inevitable events in motion, but the General remained in the dining hall and hurried over to the two women.

"Lady Bronwyn, perhaps you can explain some of this utter confusion to an old soldier... because I grudgingly have to admit I have no idea what is going on..." Galehr said once he was close enough for Bronwyn and Caid to hear him.

"I..." Bronwyn said, mopping her damp brow, "I fear I cannot explain it fully, General Galehr. Everything here is as confusing to me as it is to you. I do not understand why my father has become so paranoid. Earlier, he was not..."

"Oh, that part I do understand, Lady Bronwyn. I fear Commander Allizadra has been whispering half-baked truths and blatant lies in your father's ear. She has become his closest confidante in the moons since your return from the Shadowlands. You only see your father at mealtime, but I have witnessed the influence the Allizadra woman has had on him."

"Zai... that wretched woman shall be the bane of my life if she is not stopped," Bronwyn said and punched her fist into her open palm. "General Galehr, I am sure we can both agree that whatever else happens, Zai Allizadra must not be allowed to continue in her present position. If executive powers are bestowed upon her beyond what she has presently, there will no longer be an Empire!"

"Oh, I heartily agree, Lady Bronwyn. Commander Allizadra must be stopped. Now... what did... oh, and I apologize profoundly for the indelicate and even vulgar nature of my question, but what did your father mean by you not wanting to... to... you know, with your future husband?"

"General, I dance to a different drum," Bronwyn said and pulled Caid into her grasp though the Huntress was highly frustrated at the lack of progress at the stubborn door. "I fear I have no sexual interest in men. The woman in my arms you see before you is the person I love. And so it shall remain when I assume the throne."

"Oh... I see," Waleeri Galehr said, looking from Bronwyn to Caid and back. "The Huntress Caid Barlin? Now I know I am too old to keep up with the news. Oh, my daughter sends you her greetings, Huntress. She told me in no uncertain terms that I should tell you that if our paths ever crossed again."

"Now you have, General," Caid said with a bow. "Please return the greeting."

"I shall."

Commotion behind them made the three people turn around and look. At the double doors at the main entrance to the dining hall, Kallirna Tarsi came marching in with two squads from his own Watch brigade and two squads from the regular army. Tarsi barked a few commands that made the soldiers fan out and assume perfect lines. "General!" he said strongly. "I have brought forty men. They should be able to keep the peace for the time being. They have not yet been briefed on the rather special assignment."

"Excellent, Commander. I shall do that in a moment," Galehr said, putting his hands behind his back. "Oh... what in the name of Phirax the Unholy is going on down there...?" he said, suddenly pointing at the double doors where a host of servants and maids came through carrying linen, garments, cleaning equipment and various other items typically used for a thorough bedchamber clean-up. The maid at the head of the queue of people was none other than Vittaria, the stern Matron who had made Bronwyn's life miserable by watching over her like a hawk.

The ungainly woman stopped dead in her tracks - so suddenly, in fact, that she was bumped into repeatedly from the maids behind her who could not stop in time. Vittaria stared wide-eyed at the common soldiers and the officers, but her eyes practically bugged out of her head when she spotted Bronwyn.

"I shall handle this, General," Bronwyn said and strode forward to intercept the stern matron. "Ah, Vittaria. Greetings. I cannot tell you how glad I am of seeing you in such good fettle. Now, you and I shall go over to the table where you shall give me a thousand apologies for being such a wretched stooge. Is that not so, Vittaria?" she said and put a heavy hand on the large woman's shoulder.

Caid rubbed her lips to stop herself from laughing out loud at the panicky look on the Matron's face. While Bronwyn and Vittaria moved over to the table like the Lady had said, Caid shuffled over to the four units of soldiers who were being briefed by General Galehr.

"Men, listen up!" the General said in an authoritative voice. Once he had everyone's attention, he put his hands behind his back and strolled down the front line. "I fear I must relay desperately tragic news. It seems our beloved leader, the incomparable Jin-Sarnos the Twelfth has developed a mental illness. Alas, it is so. He has run off, believing there are traitors in the armed forces who are out to overthrow him. I can assure you it is all a tragic figment of our beloved leader's imagination. Now, you men from Watch Commander Tarsi's brigade, your orders are to find our beloved leader and bring him back here in good order so he can be seen to by our best physicians. To the men of my own units, you are to remain here to maintain the peace until further notice."

A worried murmur that Caid knew all too well rose from the men. She had often heard a similar murmur from her own Rangers when she had ordered them to go deep behind enemy lines for missions supposedly of vital importance to the Empire - the murmur meant they did not believe what was said. Furrowing her brow, she studied several of the men from both branches of the armed forces. Distrust was plainly written on many of their faces, though there were a few who were going to follow General Galehr and Commander Tarsi.

When a few mumbled words opposing the new party line filtered through the ranks, Caid spun around and made a bee-line for the table where Bronwyn was still scolding the stern Matron. "Lady Bronwyn," Caid said quietly, taking Bronwyn's arm, "we have to leave in a hurry. The General is about to lose his men."

"Wh- what does that mean, Caid?" Bronwyn said and rose from the table without as much as looking back at Vittaria.

"It means Galehr went a step too far, too soon. There will be even more trouble in the immediate future. Come, I fear we must hurry. Let's use the corridor beyond the anteroom again," Caid said, hurrying over to the swinging doors. "Do you have any idea where your father could have gone to?"

"No, I... no. I am truly sorry, Caid... maybe the armory?"

"Oh, let's hope not," Caid said flatly.

A new commotion, far worse than the one produced by the maids and servants, arose at the double doors to the dining hall. Almost at the anteroom, Caid and Bronwyn spun around and looked back at a very familiar white-blonde woman in chain mail, a black satin uniform and a black-and-red checkered surcoat who came striding into the dining hall with a large detachment of black-clad soldiers backing her up. "Oh no... Zai..." Bronwyn whispered, nearly tearing tufts out of her hair in frustration.

"What in Phirax' ballsack is going on here?!" Zai barked in a booming voice. Staring around at Waleeri Galehr, the assembled soldiers, and especially the empty throne where Jin-Sarnos should have been but wasn't, she slowly drew her sword and held it straight out in the air. "General, this reeks of something I do not even wish to think through. Where's the Emperor? And what are all these soldiers doing h-" - Zai stopped abruptly when she happened to glance in the direction of Caid and Bronwyn. At first, it was clear she didn't believe her eyes, but she soon scrunched up her face and twirled her sword.

"Run!" Caid said, yanking the Lady around and pushing her towards the doors.

"Arrest or kill everyone here who isn't loyal to Emperor Jin-Sarnos!" Zai barked and waved at her men who immediately poured into the dining hall.

The units from the Watch brigade and the regular army were stunned but soon drew their swords to combat the threat. Caid's worst case scenario came into play almost at once when nearly half of the soldiers clad in gray and red turned on their own comrades and joined the members of the Black Lance in fighting for their Emperor.

Bronwyn hurriedly pulled open the swinging doors to the anteroom and took off down the next corridor. Caid kept standing at the doors to see if Zai followed them, but she was too busy hacking and slashing her way through the opposing soldiers. All around the combatants, maids and servants ran around like headless chickens, screaming wildly and flailing their arms in the air.

"Endgame," Caid said somberly as she closed the doors behind her to follow Bronwyn through the damp, dark corridors.


Time raced on in an unstoppable stride, and before Caid and Bronwyn knew it, almost half a turn of the hourglass had passed while they were on their fruitless search for Jin-Sarnos. In the corridors around them, they could hear the characteristic sounds that followed any battle: swords clanging against each other, men and women roaring in victory or screaming in defeat, and the gruesome, rattling moans of the dying.

Caid clenched her fist around the hilt of her machete with a look on her face that said she would much rather plunge herself into combat instead of being a tunnel rat who was chasing after a shadow.

Their search through the endless corridors, vaults and rooms was in vain. Now and then, they thought they had him only to find a servant or soldier instead, but even they had no wish to engage Caid and her machete. At one point, they could hear his characteristic voice booming out a warning at somebody ahead, but the echoes of his voice were quickly scattered in the dark, menacing corridors.

A short while later, they came up to a room that opened up away from the corridor. Roughly twenty by twenty fathoms, it had a row of wooden doors on all three walls, and Bronwyn recognized it as being part of the servants' quarters. A tray and most of its contents lay spread out over the boulders, and Bronwyn nearly stepped in something that looked like a glob of apple stew.

One of the doors was open, and the sound of a young woman crying filtered out into the corridor. "Wait," Bronwyn said and changed direction, "someone needs our help."

Caid had already run on, but when she noticed the Lady wasn't with her, she stopped and returned.

Knocking on the doorjamb, Bronwyn stepped into the room beyond the opened door and found herself staring at a Matron who was holding a wash cloth against a bleeding wound on the back of a very young maid's head. "Wh- what happened?" Bronwyn croaked, already knowing the answer in her heart.

The Matron grunted and continued doing her job with the wash cloth without looking up. "The fat one thundered past and pushed-" - then she did look up, realizing she knew the voice of the person who had asked. She nearly flew to her feet when she recognized the Lady of Ashburne Castle. "Milady, I beg for forgiveness. This clumsy maid was in the way and she fell over. She only has herself to blame for-"

"No, Matron... the truth, please," Bronwyn said and wrung her hands.

"I fear it was your father, Milady. He came by in an almighty hurry and rudely shoved this young maid aside. She was merely bringing me my late eve snack which is now on the hallway floor, I might add. When she fell, she smacked her head against the boulders. You see the results here," the Matron said, holding up the bloody wash cloth.

"Now it is I who shall beg for forgiveness, Matron. I need to ask you one more thing... did you see where my father ran?"

"Well... further along the corridor. Oh, he was actually mumbling to himself... some- something about the guard tower, but I did not-"

"The guard tower?" Caid said, moving in front of Bronwyn. "Are you sure, Matron?"

"Well... yes. Yes, I am sure."

"Good. We thank you. Come on, Bronwyn... I know what your father's intentions are," Caid said and grabbed hold of Bronwyn's arm.

The Huntress dragged the Lady away from the door in such a hurry she didn't even have time to apologize to the young maid. After another fifty paces, she finally managed to tear her arm free of Caid's grip so she could run using both arms for leverage. "Caid... where... where are... we going?"

"To the guard tower. There's an alarm bell in each tower."


"That your father can sound to alert the garrison of an attack!"

"Oh! Oh... we cannot allow... him to do... that!" Bronwyn said as she ran along, huffing and puffing for each long stride she took.

"To the left, here," Caid said and ducked down a larger corridor so quickly Bronwyn didn't have time to stop. The Lady hurriedly came to a screeching halt on the slippery floor, spun around, and hurried back up the other corridor.

Shortly after, they entered the narrow stone staircase at the foot of the five-storey tall guard tower in the western-most corner of the castle. Far above them, but slowing down, they could hear someone wheezing like a pair of bellows to keep up the pace.

"That... that must be father," Bronwyn said as she used her long legs to full advantage by taking two steps at a time. She was soon past the shorter-legged Caid who had to take each step or else she'd be slower. "There! There, do you see him? He is right there... oh, sweet Caid, you were right!"

"I'll have to take your word for it," Caid said, looking into Bronwyn's back and rear end - not that she complained about the view.

Above them, the wheezing grew to one notch below a full-blown heart attack. Then a door was opened, quickly followed by surprised grunts and angry shouts.

"Now what?" Caid said, still finding herself with a pretty, though obscured view of the situation.

"I cannot say, Caid... a struggle... there's definitely a struggle up there!" Bronwyn said, clinging onto the near-side railing with all her might to keep her speed up.

The angry shouts were replaced by confused utterances as men and women voiced their vociferous complaints at being kicked out of their own guard tower.

Then Bronwyn turned onto the final flight of stairs only to be faced by a wall of gray-clad soldiers. They stared at each other for a few seconds before a Sergeant stepped forward and bowed to the Lady. "Milady, with all due respect, your father is acting rather strangely this eve. He threw us out."

"I know, Sergeant... I fear he has suffered a breakdown of sorts. The Huntress will fill you in," Bronwyn said and fumbled her way through the throng of uniformed men and women to get to the door to the observation room at the top of the guard tower.

While Caid briefed the Sergeant in charge on the finer details of the matter, Bronwyn moved up to the door and knocked on it softly. "Father... 'tis I, Bronwyn. May I enter?"

A reply never came, so she chose to act rather than react. Holding her breath, she pulled down the heavy brass handle, opened the door and peeked inside.

The observation room was five by five fathoms and was equipped with three large and one small paneless window frames that overlooked the city and the Empire beyond it to the west and the south. Lit torches stood at each window frame, though their flickering cones of light were shielded by pierced metal plates so they wouldn't ruin the watchmen's night vision. Next to the door, a brass tray with glowing lumps of coal provided the heat, and at the center of the room, a fathom-tall brass bell was suspended from the ceiling by two sturdy ropes.

With the guard towers five storeys tall and placed on top of the imposing dining hall, the bells could be heard over all parts of Ashburne when they were struck, giving the citizens an early warning so they had time to counter the approaching threat.

Jin-Sarnos was standing at the alarm bell with the clapper ready to strike. He was deathly pale after the mad dash up the guard tower, and the way he gasped for breath - with each breath producing an impressive plume of steam - proved he had put far too much strain on his large body. "Ah... Bronwyn, you are just in time," he said in a strained voice. "Just in time to witness the final destruction of my enemies in the armed forces... and elsewhere."

"Father, please..." Bronwyn said, putting out her hands as she moved towards the Emperor. " 'tis far too cold and windy up here. Come down with-"

"No! When I strike this bell my loyal men will attack Galehr and Tarsi! And make no mistake, I still have plenty of men loyal to me and our Empire."

Wringing her hands, Bronwyn stared into her father's eyes and saw a level of anger and hatred she had rarely witnessed in a human being. "Please, father... come back down with us... come back and order the men to put down their arms so the conflict can be stopped. As we speak, Allizadra and the Black Lance have engaged Galehr's men in the dining hall... but there-"

"Good! I trust Commander Allizadra with my life! She shall wipe out those wretched insurgents!"

"Father, there is a way out of this that can prevent further bloodshed!" Bronwyn said and moved even closer to the large man. "It will only take a willingness to compromise... perhaps you could let Caid Barlin and her family leave in exchange for... for the lands that are in my possession in the east?"

"In the east?" Jin-Sarnos said and momentarily lowered the clapper. "What are you talking about, daughter?"

"The lands Lord Lasar-Ihtreg conquered. Multrovia, Lotzan, Onilia and Palkor... vast, sweeping landscapes with a low population but high potential for farming and keeping livestock... all these territories are in my possession, father."

"Have you bumped your head on your way up here? You weren't married to Lasar-Ihtreg... you refused because of some minor- wait... or were you?" Jin-Sarnos said and narrowed his eyes dangerously. "You were! In the name of Phirax the Unholy, you did get married to Lasar-Ihtreg!"

"I did, father. The ceremony went ahead as planned thus giving me half of his territories... but when I drilled him through with a blade, I got it all!" Bronwyn said and clenched her fists in a display of strength that she hoped would please her father. "These lands I am willing to part with if you let Caid Barlin and her family go in peace."

Jin-Sarnos seemed to think hard about the offer, but then his eyes gained a disdainful gleam. "I will let Caid Barlin and her family leave... but it shall be as naked, headless corpses in the back of the cadaver cart! And my sweet daughter, if you choose to fight for the honor of that peculiar woman, I promise I shall be merciful and order the ax brought down swiftly upon your exposed neck... no... I shall do it myself. Ah, yes. What a poetic way to close your chapter."


"Silence! Silence, you miserable, spineless coward!" Jin-Sarnos barked, raising the clapper at Bronwyn's head. "When will you understand that if you want something, you take it with all your might!? No compromises, no deals, no diplomatic exchanges of this or that... if something is worth having, it's worth fighting for! Alas, such is my eternal punishment for producing a girl."

Bronwyn slammed her jaw shut and clenched her fists hard. Several veins on her temples started beating through the skin, and her blue eyes turned so dark they nearly became cobalt. She knew her own anger matched that of her father's, but she tried to restrain herself to act in accordance with the principles she had followed since her childhood.

'Hatred... I cannot fathom how it is possible for me to hate another human being so fiercely,' Bronwyn thought, pressing her lips together. 'And yet I do. I hate that man standing before me with every fiber of my being... for what he did to mother, for what he did to May-Linn, for what he just promised to do to Caid and her family... for what he has done to me... no more. I shall have it no more!' - "No more!" she barked out loud, rushing forward towards her father.

"You spoke of a revolution, father... well, now you have one!" Bronwyn barked right into the large man's face. "If you will not willingly reduce the strain on the citizens of Ashburne, then by Phirax, I shall make you do it! If you will not willingly send Zai Allizadra to the execution chamber to be beheaded for her crimes against countless people, then by Phirax, I shall swing that wretched ax myself! You understand, father? The time for change has come, and if you are not careful, you shall be trampled as surely as a inattentive child in front of an oxcart!"

Jin-Sarnos stared at the irate Bronwyn with wide open eyes. Moving slowly, he slid backwards until he reached the wall of the observation room where he dropped the clapper that hit the stone floor with a clang.

Caid stormed into the observation room at the metallic sound, but kept standing at the door when she could see no harm had come to the Lady.

Bronwyn could hardly tear her angry eyes away from her pale father, but she turned around and waved Caid over to her.

Then Jin-Sarnos clapped his meaty hands together and let out a strong roar of approval. "My daughter! That's the fire I hoped you possessed! You have finally shown your backbone... by doing this, you have grabbed the power by the balls and done to me what I did to my father! Finally, after all these years, you have become the son I always wanted and not the pitiful, weak girl you were!"

"No, father... a man I am not. I am a woman... and I intent to remain a woman when I assume your throne. But like I said before, changes are coming. I would suggest you compro-"

"Never!" Jin-Sarnos said and inched over to one of the large window frames. "Never, Bronwyn! And you shall assuredly discover this yourself, perhaps even before my corpse is cold... at the top, there can be no compromises. One compromise will lead to the next, and before you know it, you will be seen as a weak, ineffectual leader... no."


"Silence when I speak! Even with the armed forces behind you, as they will be, you must continually show the strength, the steel, the power of your decisions, regardless of the brutality, regardless of how many people are hurt or killed because of your decrees. Ah, yes, Bronwyn... all this you shall discover."

Moving decisively, Jin-Sarnos stepped up onto the windowsill and looked out. His clothes and his sparse hair were grabbed and shook by the strong wind.

Gasping loudly, Bronwyn felt her heart thump violently in her chest and she pressed her hands to her bosom to stop the highly unpleasant feeling. She hurried over to her father and tried to reach for him, but he swatted her hands away with a growl.

Caid stormed the other way around the brass bell, but she was no more successful in getting the large man off the narrow ledge.

"No, father!" Bronwyn cried, wringing her hands. "Do not be a fool! Please... do not commit the ultimate deed just to prove a point... please! Please, father, get down and we shall... we shall... discover a way to... to rule together..."

"Have you heard nothing of what I said to you, Bronwyn? There shall be no compromises," Jin-Sarnos said and briefly popped his head outside. "No... it must end thus. For you, too, Bronwyn... one day, you shall find yourself in a similar situation, I guarantee it. The threat to your rule may come from within or it may come from an opposing army testing your strength... but it will come, mark my words."

"Father, please... come down from there," Bronwyn cried, once again attempting to move closer to Jin-Sarnos. When he didn't swat her hands away, she grabbed hold of his belt in the vain hope she could hold on if he decided to end it.

"Bronwyn, look at yourself in a mirror. The face that stares back at you shall sooner or later become the one that is despised and hated. Such is the nature of the world. It is far larger than you or I. Why, the very nature of humankind is that we inevitably become the very thing we opposed," Jin-Sarnos said and caressed Bronwyn's cheek with surprising softness, "Behold, the arrival of the new Empress. And what a glorious reign it shall be!"

Turning away from Bronwyn, Jin-Sarnos stepped off the ledge and threw himself out of the window frame, instantly disappearing into the darkness of the late evening.

Bronwyn's hand was caught in his belt, and she was yanked forward onto the thin ledge so rapidly and with such strength she didn't even have time to cry out. Mere inches from Bronwyn following her father into an early grave, her fingers slipped out of the belt. The forward motion stopped abruptly, but she still came to an uncomfortable crash landing against the window's lower ledge.

Moaning and groaning from the terrible shock and the pain that shot up from her ribs that were already weak after an incident on the trek to the Shadowlands, Bronwyn crawled away from the dreaded ledge with silent tears streaming down her cheeks.

Caid leaned against the window frame, looking down at the foot of the guard tower though she already knew she would not be able to see much through the darkness. Five storeys below, the faint outline of Jin-Sarnos' large body resembled a rag doll someone had thrown away. The blood that seeped from his broken body and head pooled around him, glistening in the severely flickering light of a nearby torch. Sighing, Caid rubbed her face before she turned away from the ghastly sight.

At the door to the observation room, the Watch Sergeant stood frozen in shock, staring disbelievingly at the dark, empty window frame. "He jumped..." he said in a croaking voice.

"Yeah, he jumped," Caid said and shuffled over to Bronwyn.

Bronwyn crawled over to the wall where she struggled to get upright. She didn't manage it until Caid knelt down in front of her and helped her by holding her under the arms. "I hated him... yet I loved him. He was my enemy... yet he was my father..." she whispered.

Leaning back against the cold stone wall, Bronwyn took a deep, trembling breath before she began to cry in earnest.

"Don't speak now, Lady Bronwyn. You should mourn your father... however I fear our endeavor isn't over yet," Caid whispered, gently running her hands down Bronwyn's sides to feel if any ribs had been bent or fractured.

The sharp intake of breath and the hiss that followed Caid's hands on their way down were dramatic, but the Huntress could soon lean in and offer the hurting Bronwyn a gentle kiss on the forehead. "Your ribs are fine, Lady Bronwyn. Sore, but ultimately fine. If you can stand, I fear we need to get going. There's still a battle going on downstairs."

"I can stand," Bronwyn said and clambered to her feet. She let out a few tortured moans and groans, but she was able to move ahead with her arms protecting her injured chest.

On their way over to the staircase, Caid stopped them and turned to the Watch Sergeant. "Bow to your Empress," she said coldly to test the man's loyalty.

"I beg for forgiveness, Empress Bronwyn," the man said, bowing deeply. "Please accept my condolences. My Watch detail and I shall continue our regular work until ordered differently."

"Good," Bronwyn said through clenched teeth. "I appreciate it, Sergeant. Oh, and from this moment on, any member of the Black Lance is to be considered a traitor and treated thus."

"As you wish, Empress," the Sergeant said and bowed again.

Bronwyn nodded and headed for the door with Caid helping her along.




By the time Bronwyn and Caid made it back to the dining hall, the battle was nearly over with only a few pockets of resistance remaining. The once so stately hall had been turned into a slaughterhouse; slick with blood and filled with the dead, the dying and those who were merely wounded. The ordinarily majestic nine-branched candlesticks were lying around helter-skelter. Some had been shattered, some bent beyond recognition after seeing use as substitutes for spears or other kinds of weapons.

The casualties were shared evenly between the two factions; Galehr's and Tarsi's men in their red and gray uniforms littered the floor in droves, as did Allizadra's Black Lance. Several maids sat along the walls where they were treated for wounds and gashes from being at the wrong place at the wrong time.

Only a few people were still engaged in fighting their opponents: Zai herself stood on top of the horseshoe-shaped table with most of her body from her white-blonde mane to her long-legged boots covered in blood - some of it her own, most of it from others. She had lost her surcoat in the mess, and her usually impeccable black satin tunic was torn and bloodied, thus revealing her dark gray chain mail.

Another survivor was Sabia, the Yonnae, who had chosen to enter the fracas on Zai's side to come to the aid of the only other woman in the violent mess. The intense warrior was no less bloodied than her new sister in arms, and dark red drops from the many men she had taken care of dripped off her machete and onto the formerly pristine marble floor.

General Waleeri Galehr was down with a deep gash across his upper chest and throat, and although he was still alive, he was only just hanging on. Similarly, Kallirna Tarsi had received numerous cuts and slashes across his body and sword arm that had left the skin split open from his wrist to his elbow, rendering him unable to continue the fight. Instead, he went around the dining hall to check up on those of his men who were wounded.

Three men from Waleeri Galehr's regular army were struggling to keep upright on the slick marble floor while they worked together to try to bring Zai Allizadra down, but she was far too skilled for their tired swings, and she effortlessly cleaved one's head, kicked the other's jaw out of joint with her steel-tipped boots and drilled the last one through by kneeling down on the table and thrusting ahead of her.

After that, no one else dared to challenge her. Grinning maniacally, she jumped off the table and walked around the dining hall where she methodically finished off those of her opponents who were merely wounded by ramming her blade into their necks or chests.

"I command you to stop fighting! My father, Emperor Jin-Sarnos, is dead!" a female voice barked from the double doors at the main entrance. Zai spun around with her bloodied sword pointed out ahead of her - and for the second time that day, she had a hard time believing her eyes as she stared at Lady Bronwyn and Caid Barlin.

Zai grunted and twirled her sword which sent a splatter of droplets all over the floor. "Oh, I do believe we need proof of that, Lady Bronwyn," she growled while pinning Caid to the spot.

"Look at the foot of the western guard tower, Allizadra," Caid said, stepping forward with her machete ready to fight anyone foolish enough to attempt an attack. "There, you will find proof hard enough to sway even the most skeptical."

"Hmmm... I see," Zai said and shuffled closer to Caid. "The foot of the guard tower... was he pushed or was he shoved?"

The two warriors came closer and closer with neither backing down. "He chose to jump," Caid said, slowly clenching her muscles and hunching over to be able to charge the Black Lance Commander if she needed to.

"Oh, I find that extraordinarily hard to believe, Barlin."

Bronwyn chewed on her fingernails, growing increasingly worried at the prospects of watching Caid duking out with the insane Zai. She had been unprepared for the carnage and destruction in the dining hall, and she didn't dare look anywhere but at Caid's back out of fear of becoming violently sick. "Y- you have to believe it, Zai," Bronwyn said and hurried forward to support Caid. "My father is dead, an- and that makes me the Empress of Ashburne and the conquered territories. Zai Allizadra, I c- command you to lay down your weapon. You are r- relieved of your duties..."

Zai's brow grew increasingly furrowed as Bronwyn made her statement. At the end of it, the Black Lance commander leaned her head and let out an echoing snort of contempt. "It would have been more powerful if you hadn't stu- stu- stu- stuttered, Lady Bronwyn. Or should I call you Empress Bronwyn?"

"Empress is now my title, Zai."

"That's Commander Allizadra to you, child," Zai said, sending Bronwyn a fiery glare from her blue chips of ice that had once again gained a slightly insane edge.

"Oh, you are badly mistaken," Bronwyn said hoarsely as she moved closer, tensing her jaw to stop the stutter. "To me, you're nothing but a rotten turd in a gutter. Your number is up. The Black Lance is to be forcibly disbanded, such shall be my first Imperial Decree!"

The muscles on the sides of Zai's jaw worked overtime, and her eyes swept the floor to see how many of her men were still standing. When she realized they didn't have enough left to secure the castle, she cocked her head and appeared to sheath her sword. "Sabia, please come," she said far too calmly while glancing over her shoulder at the Yonnae.

When the warrior moved up alongside the Commander, the two strong fighters exchanged glances. "Sabia, remember when we first met a few days ago down at the East Gate? When you insisted on only speaking to a woman, much to my Lieutenant's frustration and his men's pain?"

"I do."

"Mmmm-yes. When we first met, I promised you I would look into the identity of the dastardly criminal who led the attack on your village."

"That you did," Sabia said, never taking her eyes off Caid.

"I found out. You were right all along, it was Caid Barlin," Zai said and drew her sword again.

Bronwyn's eyed popped wide open at that statement and she hurried in front of Caid in a last-ditch attempt to control the situation. "That is a lie! A wretched lie, you murderous bitch!" Bronwyn said with both hands in the air. "Caid had already been banished by then... there is no way she could have-"

"Then Caid Barlin must die," Sabia said and jumped forward with her machete ready to strike.

Bronwyn shrieked and dove for cover at the last moment before she would have become a head shorter. The floor was too slick with blood for her to keep her balance, so she ended up on her rear end in the middle of it all. Before she had even had time to think about getting up, Zai had grabbed her by the scruff of her neck and had yanked her upright.

"Now watch how your next little whore dies," Zai hissed into Bronwyn's ear. "Perhaps if we're lucky, Sabia will behead her like your other whore!"

"You wretched bi- OH!" Bronwyn howled when Zai tightened the grip around her neck.

Sabia and Caid circled each other like a pair of fighting mastiffs. With the first attack going wide, Caid had had time to regroup and think through all the moves that had been successful in the sparring match she had fought against the vengeful, tattooed Yonnae. A look at the intense warrior's eyes - that had nearly turned black from the fire that raged within her - told her that if she let down her guard for even half a heartbeat, everything would end right there.

The identical Yonnae machetes used by both fighters were gruesome weapons, and their short length compared to the regular swords meant the combatants had to get up close and personal to do any harm.

Sabia exploited that by jumping forward and grabbing hold of Caid's suede jacket, hoping to deliver a killing blow to her gut, but the Huntress tore herself free and swung her machete at the Yonnae's arm in retaliation.

"Aim for her left tit!" Zai cried in glee. "She's gotta be hurting there!"

Before Sabia could do as suggested, Caid spun around and let her machete whoosh through the air on a collision course with the Yonnae's gut. Her surprise attack was a success, and the sharp blade carved through Sabia's tunic to slash the skin beneath.

The warrior cried out in pain and jumped back as the tear in her clothes soon turned red from the blood that seeped out of her wound. Reassessing the situation, she chose another tactic by feigning a swinging backhand thrust as she threw herself back ahead. When Caid reacted, she changed her approach and brought the blade up instead, carving a long furrow up Caid's sword arm.

"No!" Bronwyn cried, clutching her head as she saw the sleeve of Caid's suede jacket flutter freely as she moved. When only a little blood became visible, the sneak attack turned out to be less damaging than it could have been.

Caid hurriedly stepped out of range to regroup. Swapping the blade to her left hand, she tried to clench her right fist to see if she still could. When her fingers moved like predicted, she swapped back. "Sabia," she said while she caught her breath. "Don't listen to that bitch. I had nothing to do with the attack on your village. You said it was two moons ago... I had already been banished then."

"Liar," Sabia said and stormed forward. Aiming for the Huntress' neck, she let her blade swoosh through the air, first left, then right. Her frantic swings missed, but she had the Huntress on the defensive and exploited it by going deep with her next thrust.

It missed, leaving the door open for a frenzied counter attack that Caid jumped into at once. Thrusting up to aim for the wound she had already inflicted on the warrior's stomach, she caught some of the clothing, but not the skin itself. The return swing slashed across the warrior's upper left thigh, tearing her ankle pants and drawing blood at once.

Unsighted by Caid, she and Sabia had moved too close to Zai for their own good. Out of nowhere, the leader of the Black Lance put out her leg to trip up the Huntress.

The next thing Caid knew, the slick marble floor came up at her at an alarming rate. Crying out in frustration, she landed heavily on her hands and knees but managed to hold onto her machete - unfortunately, Sabia wasn't slow in taking full advantage of the mishap and jumped over her to pin her down with her legs.

Moving decisively, the Yonnae slashed a big X in Caid's back, splitting the suede jacket, the white wraparound tunic, the lower part of the cloth protecting her breasts, and indeed the tender skin on her back.

Blood immediately bubbled up from the grotesque welts in the skin left behind by the jagged blade. Caid let out an unbridled, throaty scream and slipped down onto her elbows. Her shoulder blades were moved backwards, splitting the skin further and sending even more bright red blood out of the horrific wounds.

Bronwyn wanted to scream, too, but her throat had tied itself into a knot and she was forced to watch in silent horror as the Yonnae stepped up behind Caid and held the machete ready in a two-hand grip.

"You're about to die, Huntress," Sabia said calmly. "You need to make your peace with your Gods. Tell me you regret raiding my village! Tell me you regret killing my people... my family!"

"I did... noth- nothing of the... kind, Yonnae! It was... all a lie!" Caid croaked in a hoarse, trembling voice.

Sabia pulled back the sword and turned to stare at Zai. "Who's lying? She or you?"

Zai grumbled severely as she looked from Bronwyn to Caid and finally up to the warrior and the raging intensity that was etched onto her face. "Well of course it's she who's lying, Sabia," she said, releasing the tight grip she had around Bronwyn's neck. Once she was free of her burden, she circled right with her hand firmly on the hilt of her blade.

Bronwyn groaned in relief and rubbed her neck furiously before falling onto her knees to tend to Caid. The Huntress was pinned down beneath the warrior, pale and tormented, and looking very much like she was on the brink of passing out from the pain.

Zai slowly pulled the blade out of its sheath as she moved up behind Sabia. "Don't listen to her, Yonnae. The guilt is pouring out of her... look at her... can you not see she's merely trying to extend her miserable existence? If you will not kill her, then step aside for someone who will."

"I didn't say I wouldn't kill her," Sabia said, but seemed reluctant to move her machete down onto Caid's exposed back. "I just asked which of you were lying," she continued, turning back to the woman on the floor beneath her. She raised the machete again, concentrating on the spot at the center of Caid's bloodied back where she planned to strike.

The tears that had begun to stream down Bronwyn's cheeks as she tried to comfort the hurting Huntress made Sabia remember the tears that had streaked down the cheeks of the dying Sister she had tried to comfort following the attack on their village. Her gruesome task suddenly seemed less attractive, and she clenched her jaw hard while she pondered what to do.

Zai ran out of patience and raised her sword. Moving swiftly, she brought up the blade and drove it ahead in a powerful thrust - directly into Sabia's back between her ribs. "You are strong... but I am the strongest Yonnae here, Sabia," Zai whispered, mocking the warrior's earlier words.

As the glistening iron blade was forced through Sabia, she screamed in pain and crumbled to her knees. With the Huntress still underneath her, she lost her balance and fell to her right onto the marble floor. The sword slid out of her body as she fell, leaving behind two horrible wounds.

"No!" Bronwyn screamed, staring wide-eyed at Sabia's face that was contorted in boundless pain and fear. Moments later, it relaxed and the warrior closed her eyes.

Bronwyn looked back up at Zai with a mixture of dread and resentment coloring her fair features. Roaring out her hatred, she jumped up and grabbed hold of Zai's arm that held her sword. "Why?! Why did you have to kill her?" she roared, trying to wrestle Zai away from Caid but found the Commander to be too strong.

"Oh, she would have betrayed me sooner or later," Zai hissed, easily resisting Bronwyn's grip. "The world won't miss a Yonnae."

"The world will not miss you, either!" Bronwyn barked and tried with all her might to wrestle Zai backwards. Although she wasn't successful, her efforts had given Caid a chance to get up from the floor.

When Zai noticed, she slapped Bronwyn across the face with her free hand.

The slap made Bronwyn's ear sing and it left an angry red mark on her cheek, but she used it to fuel her anger. Determined not to appear weak when so much was at stake, she roared out her frustration and repaid the favor by slapping Zai hard across her cheeks. When it left the Commander stunned, Bronwyn took a deep breath and shoved the black-clad woman the hardest she possibly could.

Zai nearly slipped on the slick floor, but she recovered to jump back towards Bronwyn with her sword held high, preparing to deliver a killing blow - a blow that was intercepted at the last possible moment by Caid Barlin who held both Yonnae machetes in an effective block.

"Caid!" Bronwyn cried as she took in the gruesome appearance of her new lover. The shredded suede jacket and white tunic had been shed, and Caid's muscular upper body was only protected by the cloth that was wrapped around her breasts. Her entire back seemed to be one, large gaping wound with blood steadily seeping out of her and down onto her suede pants. The scores of old, poorly healed scars on her skin stood out as little white islands in the sea of red that slowly spread over her body.

Caid's face was contorted into a mask of pain, and when she spoke, she did so through a firmly clenched jaw. "Leave... Bronwyn... leave now. This will... not be... a pleasant... sight... f- for you..."

"I will not leave, Caid!"

"You shall both leave!" Zai cried and yanked her blade back to make another attempt at producing a killing blow. She swung the sword in a vicious thrust that missed by a hair's width. She roared in frustration and immediately tried to swing up from down low.

Caid jumped to the side and deflected the blow with the machete she carried in her right hand while she lashed out at Zai with the blade in her left. The razor-sharp machete snagged on the Commander's satin tunic and ripped it off her upper body though it couldn't do anything about the chain mail she wore underneath.

Zai roared again and jumped forward with her sword above her head. She brought it down with a whoosh and managed to cut several tufts out of Caid's blonde locks. For a moment, she thought it had been Caid's ear, but when she could see it wasn't, she grunted in surprise, twirled her sword and tried again with a thrust to the half-naked body.

The Huntress sidestepped most of the thrust, but the very tip of the sword slashed her below her ribs. It wasn't a bad wound compared to the others, but she still drew her lips back in a pained grimace before she brought both machetes up to return the favor by delivering a vicious chop down on Zai's left shoulder. Though the chain mail stopped most of it, blood immediately sprang forth from the impact and seeped through the metal chains.

Hissing in pain, Zai quickly stepped out of range and brought up her hand to probe the severity of the wound. Though her glove was slick with her own blood, she quickly realized it wasn't too bad. Growling, she wiped her hand clean on the remains of her tunic before she began to circle her opponent with her sword ahead of her.

She kept her eyes focused on the two lethal machetes held by the half-dressed woman in front of her. When her opponent feigned to the left, she brought up her sword and went in deep with a backhanded swing, hoping to gain an advantage in the brief moment Caid's stomach was exposed.

Caid did in fact nearly out-trick herself with the feign, but she brought up the machete in her right hand at the speed of light when Zai's blade came swooshing towards her stomach. The blades clanged together and she was able to hold off the sword, but the angle didn't work to her advantage so she found herself pushed to the side by the force of the thrust.

Groaning, she twisted her torso even though the movement sent a wave of pain shooting through her from the horrific wounds on her back. By moving swiftly, she managed to trap Zai's sword arm - not for long, but long enough to slam the hilt of her other machete down on her wrist.

Zai roared in pain and kicked out viciously at the half-dressed woman, hitting her squarely across her abdomen with a satisfying thump. She wasn't late in following up on the unexpected success by yanking her trapped sword back while forcing it to the side so it carved a deep, bloody furrow in Caid's side from her ribs and nearly down to her hipbone.

Screaming in pain, Caid doubled over but recovered in time to deflect another thrust delivered by her opponent. With the danger averted, she clenched her jaw hard and jumped forward with the machetes high in the air. At the last moment, she spun the left one around and brought the hilt down onto Zai's cheekbone that split upon impact.

Even before Zai had recovered from that, Caid crossed her strong arms and moved the machetes across Zai's chest in a big X. This time, the angle was right for the sharp blades, and they carved through the chain mail like hot knives through butter. As the chain mail was stripped away eye by eye, angry red stripes appeared across the top of Zai's breasts - moments later, the stripes gave way to a surge of blood that soon tainted the cloth she used to cover her mounds.

Zai cried out from the excruciating pain and fell to her knees. The sword was kicked out of her hand by Caid, but by then, she was past caring about that. She reached up to clutch her wounds, but she was unable to hide the many dark blue tribal tattoos that adorned her entire chest, including a representation of the Great Mother across the upper part of her cleavage. Gasping from the pain, she fell back onto her rear end and looked away from her conqueror in shame.

"You're... you're a Yonnae...?" Caid croaked through clenched teeth. With a groan, she fell down onto her knees and raised both machetes to hold them in an X around Zai's throat.

"No, Caid!" Bronwyn cried, hurrying over to the Huntress to put a calming hand on her shoulder that glistened with blood. "I know I have said countless times she must die, but I cannot allow you to kill her. Not like this!"


"Instead," Bronwyn said and gave Caid's shoulder a little squeeze to make her remove the machetes, "...instead, she is to stand trial for the crimes she has committed. Let us not start the new Empire by repeating the same mistakes that brought down the old one. Caid, I want you to spare Zai's life... please."

Caid took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "As you wish, my Empress," she said and withdrew the blades. "Zai... this is your second birthday," she continued while she clambered to her feet.

Down on the floor, Zai let out a grunt and fell onto her back. There, she panted heavily and took off her bloody gloves before she ran her hands through her shock of white-blonde hair. "If the gallows shape my destiny, I prefer to lose my head right here," she croaked, wincing in pain as her breathing exacerbated the bleeding wounds.

"Alas, Zai, your wish cannot be granted," Bronwyn said and knelt down next to the former Commander. When she took a look at the easily recognizable Yonnae tattoos, she furrowed her brow and glanced up at Caid who merely shrugged in return, too pre-occupied to answer.

Caid staggered over to the horseshoe-shaped table and bumped down on a chair, sitting well away from the backrest so her horrific wounds wouldn't be touched. Groaning, she tried to lean forward to rest her head in her hands, but when her skin was stretched, the wounds on her back and on her side began to bleed stronger so she was forced to sit in an unnatural position.

Before long, Kallirna Tarsi hobbled over to the stricken, glistening Huntress and began to assess her wounds. It was clear she had already lost a lot of blood and that she needed to have the wounds cleaned and treated sooner rather than later. "Huntress," he croaked, touching her bare shoulder. "You are in a poor state. Come, we should go to the infirmary-"

"Tell me something I don't know, Commander," Caid said hoarsely. "Do you have news of the battles?"

"Only very little. It seems our side is winning though I fear General Galehr will not live much longer. The Sheriff of Ashburne joined the fight to our advantage..."

"Good. Where's the Empress?"

"Still kneeling at the Allizadra woman..."

"Get someone to watch that wretched bitch... and ask the Empress to come over here... in a h- hurry..."

"I will," Tarsi said and rose as quickly as his own wounds would allow. After waving a group of his men over to him, he hobbled over to Bronwyn to let her know of Caid's message.

It didn't take long for Bronwyn to rush to Caid's side where she knelt down and took in the gruesome sight. Where her lover's skin wasn't slick with her own blood, it was waxen, and her strong shoulders and arms were trembling from the strain and shock she was under. "Caid... oh, my sweet Caid... oh, you look so dreadful," Bronwyn whispered and leaned in to place a quick kiss on the side of Caid's head.

"Bronwyn... I d- don't know if I'm gonna mak-"

"Of course you are! I will not accept-"

"Please..." Caid said in a weak voice, "please find my family. I want to tell them how much I love them..."

Bronwyn's face lost all color and her chin began to quiver uncontrollably. She stared at the mere shadow of a woman before her; her mind inevitably returned to Caid's strong presence when they had made love in her hut in the camp. "I will," she managed to croak even though her throat had tied itself into a knot again.

"Oy!" a highly recognizable voice said from the double doors. "Oy, did we miss the party or what? Phirax' balls, I think we did!"

"Kheo!" Bronwyn cried, waving the large man over to her.

When Kheo spotted the bleeding woman next to Bronwyn, his cheery mood turned to a stony mask in an instant. Instead of moving towards Bronwyn and Caid, he spun around and tore back out of the dining hall. Moments later, he came sprinting back inside holding a squealing Fyonna in his arms.

The big man deposited the Seer right next to the bleeding Caid before he hurried around the chair and pulled Bronwyn into a crushing bear hug. "The Seer's gonna cure her, luv... I promise the Seer's gonna cure her..."

Fyonna immediately went to work assessing the wounds. Her sharp mind quickly assembled a list of what she needed, and she turned towards Kallirna Tarsi and barked: "I need plenty of water, sutures and bandages from the infirmary. And something with alcohol to clean the wounds. Now!"

Tarsi bowed to the Seer and sent the most light-footed of his men downstairs to get the requested items.

"I pray to Marpaxa that you are right, Kheo..." Bronwyn said with her black shoes dangling a foot off the marble floor. "Wh- where is Caid's family? She... she wanted her family with her..."

"Alanna's waitin' outside with Markki. Efrem's bringin' up the rear with Deegan but I guess they cannot be far... ya want me ta get 'em for ya?"

"Yes, please... if you can?"

"Hang on," Kheo said and let Bronwyn down softly before he ran back to the double doors.

Fyonna cocked her head and extended her senses to let them glide down across Caid's bleeding back. "Huntress... Huntress, can you hear me?" she said, touching the injured woman's neck to check her pulse.

"Y- yes..."

"We came as quickly as we could once I had received your message."

"I d- didn't send a..."

"Oh, yes you did. It was loud and clear, I can assure you," Fyonna said and cocked her head while she took in the sorry state of Caid's back. "The Yonnae betrayed you, didn't she?"

"Y- yes and no... uggh... cannot speak now..."

"It's all right, Caid... we can work out the details later," Fyonna whispered and ran her fingers through Caid's sweaty hair. "Lady Bronwyn?"

"Y- yes, Seer?" Bronwyn said, chewing vigorously on her fingernails as she stared blindly at the crimson blood seeping out of her lover's back.

"Your father is dead." The statement came as fact, not a question.

"Dead he is, Lady Fyonna. He chose to end it himself... jumped off a guard tower, he did."

Fyonna nodded darkly and turned back to her patient.


A quarter of a turn of the hourglass later, Alanna wept silently as she clutched the arms of her brother and father. Most of the wounded and injured soldiers had been brought away, leaving the stately dining hall to the group of people centered around Fyonna's attempt at treating Caid's wounds.

Kheo had placed the Huntress face down on the horseshoe-shaped table, and Bronwyn had released the bone hooks that secured her top. Caid's back had been cleaned with nearly a full bucket of water, but even so, blood still seeped out of the wounds which made the work of suturing them a frustrating one for the Seer. She had sent out a request to find her husband Mirkko, but the Healer was yet to join them.

Bronwyn watched Fyonna's needlework in horror until she could take no more. It had been bad enough when Caid had been forced to breathe into some kind of laced cloth and had lost consciousness, but now, with her breathing shallow and unnatural, Bronwyn had reached her absolute limit and had to leave the ghastly operating theater before she fainted.

She squeezed Alanna's shoulder on her way past the younger Barlin, deliberately looking away from her fair face that looked so much like Caid's. On feet that refused to walk away from her new lover, she struggled over to Zai Allizadra who was still sitting on the floor guarded by no less than four soldiers from the Watch brigade.

The former Commander's own wounds remained unattended to. Her hands were tied behind her back which didn't look all that comfortable considering her condition. The blood that had seeped down from her upper chest had begun to coagulate and was caking to the last shreds of her chain mail.

Bronwyn stood at a safe distance and stared at Zai's tribal tattoos. "Zai... why have you never told us you are a Yonnae?" she croaked, tearing her eyes away from the representation of the Great Mother and up to Zai's blue chips of ice.

"What difference would that have made?"

"None, I suppose. You were the one who killed Sabia's family... were you not?" Bronwyn said, glancing to her left at the body of the Yonnae warrior that had been pushed to the side to make way for the many men with stretchers that had come through the dining hall.

"Well, of course that was me, child. I wish you would stop asking questions you already know the answers to."

"But... why?" Bronwyn whispered, biting her fingernails.

"I felt bored and wanted to see what my sword could do against a worthy opponent, and the men were easily persuaded to follow me on a little pleasure trip. Ah, and here's the delightful irony... many years ago, I was banished from that very tribe. You might say they sealed their own fate."

"You were banished for being a murderous bitch, I imagine?"

Zai's face cracked open in a broad grin that soon faded when it made her chest bleed again. "No. For banging the Chieftainess' bride-to-be on the eve of their joining."

"But... why would you do such a dishonorable thing?"

"She was drunk and joyfully spread her legs for me. What did you expect me to do... say no?"

"You are sick... a sick, twisted pers-"

"Ah, you have no knowledge of the real world, child," Zai said and waved her hand in disgust. "Anyway, I was bored but remembered the old tale... so I returned with a few squads to show the elders who really had the final word in the matter."

Bronwyn took several deep breaths through her nose to calm down. When even that wasn't enough, she ran a trembling hand through her damp hair and pinched the bridge of her nose. "Zai, when you and your men left earlier today, you were supposed to raid the rebel camp in the Sarkhann Forest, were you not?"

"Yes... what of it?" Zai said and cocked her head. When Bronwyn didn't go on, the Commander shrugged and looked back down. "The camp is no longer but it was a waste of time. There was hardly anyone there to kill or rape. Another lie the Yonnae fed us."

"Hardly anyone there to kill or r- rape...?" Bronwyn croaked, slowly clenching her fists. Her eyes slid up and locked onto a shiny sword that one of the four soldiers guarding Zai had in his hand. She dearly wanted to take that sword and run Zai through, but instead of giving in to the darkness that swirled around inside her, she spun around and stomped away. "Guards, throw that piece of trash in the dungeons... and get a Healer for her wounds."

The first guard reached down to take Zai by the scruff of her neck, but hesitated before he pulled her up. "Empress Bronwyn, the dungeons aren't open... the rats..." he said, looking at the back of the new ruler.

"Do as I tell you!" Bronwyn roared over her shoulder.

"Y- yes, Empress Bronwyn," the lead guard said and unceremoniously yanked the bleeding Zai to her feet.

Bronwyn wanted to go over to Sabia's body to see if the Yonnae carried any personal items they could send back to her village, but before she could make it there, Commander Tarsi intercepted her.

"Empress Bronwyn," the man said, saluting his new mistress. "We have recovered your father's body. What do you want us to do with it?"

"Oh... I... I do not know, Commander," Bronwyn said and rubbed her face. "Per- perhaps you should bring it here so... so we can make the transition of power definite and binding."

"As you wish, Empress," Tarsi said and performed a deep bow. He had already started moving away when Bronwyn put a hand on his elbow.

"Commander, please wait... I would like the Yonnae's body brought into my father's old chamber. The door is locked or barricaded but you have my permission to break it down. Put her on the bed. We need to give her a proper burial."

"That is highly irregular, Empress Bronwyn."

"And what part of this wretched mess is regular, Commander?"

"Point taken. As you wish, my Empress... but I was under the impression she was the one who inflicted those terrible wounds on your... " - Tarsi stopped himself though his mouth had already formed the word 'lover' - "I mean, on the Huntress...?"

"She was, but only because she was lied to by Allizadra. It may have been Sabia's hand on the blade, but it was Zai's twisted mind that guided it."

"Oh... I see. It shall be done, Empress," Tarsi said and bowed again.

"Thank you, Commander. If you will excuse me," she said, gesturing back at Fyonna and Caid.

The Seer was still hard at work dressing the wounds, but even she had grown frustrated over her lack of progress. No matter what she did, blood kept seeping out of the welts that had been formed by the razor-sharp machete. Eventually, she pulled back from her patient and stood with her crooked hands pressed against her chest, staining her dark blue cowl with Caid's bright red blood.

"Lady Fyonna?" Bronwyn croaked, unable to tear her eyes away from the bloody mess that had once been Caid's smooth back.

"My Empress, I fear that I-"

"No," Bronwyn said strongly, though she didn't raise her voice. "No, Lady Fyonna. You will heal her. Did you not ask for your husband to join you?"

"He hasn't come, Empress. I don't know where he is."

Bronwyn nodded and turned to look at the Seer's blindfold. "This is not the day where Caid Barlin dies. I will not accept it," she said in a steely voice, though the lump of nervousness that lingered in her throat nearly made her unable to speak at all.

"So be it, Empress Bronwyn. I will make another attempt though I cannot guarantee it will work any better than the previous ones," Fyonna said and reached for her blindfold. "Everyone... stand back. Stand back and avert your eyes."

Bronwyn took a deep breath as the implication of the Seer's words hit her. "Wait... you- you are go- going to...?"

"Yes. Now stand back, everyone."

"But... but will it not hurt Caid terribly?" Bronwyn croaked, repeatedly rubbing her brow where large, salty beads of sweat had appeared out of nowhere.

"Empress Bronwyn, Caid is going to die if I do nothing... that is certain. I cannot help her in any other way. I promise I shall make it as painless as I possibly can," Fyonna said in a voice that had suddenly entered a deeper register.

"All- all right... everyone! Everyone, move back... move back and avert your eyes from Lady Fyonna..." Bronwyn said, putting her hands behind Alanna and Markki to push them away from the sight that would undoubtedly be ghastly for the uninitiated.

"Oy, not that damn ghost light again!" Kheo grumbled, snatching Efrem's shoulders to make the older man move away.

Once everyone was at a safe distance from the Seer, Fyonna quickly doused Caid's back with water to make it as clean as it could be. Reaching up, she folded back her hood before she unhooked and took off her blindfold. At once, a pale blue light that shone out of her dead eyes lit up the wall beyond where she stood.

She looked down at her patient, took a deep breath and cleared her mind. Using the combined strength of the females present - and there were fewer than she wished for - she focused her will into reducing the energy levels in the beam of light until it would no longer cause Caid to catch fire. With a sigh, she slowly moved her head towards the right to let the beam slide up Caid's exposed back.

As the pale blue beam reached the wounds, they began to smolder, and it wasn't long before the pieces of catgut she had used for the suturing burst into flame and vanished. The beam intensified as it crawled up Caid's back, fusing the horrible wounds while creating steam from the excess water Fyonna had used to clean it the last time.

Some of Caid's skin began to turn red like it was exposed to too much heat, but Fyonna turned down the beam even further and continued upwards. The center of the carved X on Caid's back was soon reached, showing that Fyonna didn't have far to go. The upper back had been the points of origin of Sabia's machete and needed a stronger dose of the pale blue light, but it was taken care of with due concern.

Her task done, Fyonna let out a deep sigh and grappled for the blindfold. Once the pale blue light was extinguished, she waved Bronwyn over to her.

Bronwyn hurried over to the table and stared wide-eyed at the fused wounds and red skin on Caid's back. "Is... is she... will she be all right?"

"I have given her all I have, Empress," Fyonna said in a tired voice. "Now it's up to Caid... and Marpaxa. All we can do is wait for the knockout potion I gave her to wear off. In the meantime, you should cool down her back with water... plenty of water..."

"Yes... yes, I shall do that," Bronwyn said and took the dipper from the bucket. Mumbling a prayer to Marpaxa, she doused the reddish back with the cool liquid in the hope it would make everything all right.


A while later, Bronwyn nearly dropped the dipper on the floor when Caid let out a rattling cough, but she quickly pulled herself together and held it ready at Caid's mouth in case she needed a drink.

"Urggh... urggggggh..." Caid croaked, shaking her head.

"Caid... Caid, my love, can you hear me?" Bronwyn whispered.

"Urgggh... Water..."

"I have water right here, sweet Caid... right here... reach ahead and you shall find the dipper," Bronwyn said, holding the wooden tool ready.

Caid did as told and took several greedy gulps from it. When a lot of the water ran down her chin, she realized she was in a poor position to drink and pushed herself back up onto her hands and knees.

"Oh! Careful, my love... careful, you are only just out of surgery!" Bronwyn said, giving Caid a hand to help her keep her balance.

"I'll manage..."

What Caid hadn't counted on was the fact that she was topless, but the chorus of amused grunts and shocked gasps that came from the spectators - Alanna lead the way - meant she found out in a hurry. "Oh..." she said, touching her bare breasts as she carefully leaned back and sat on her thighs. "So... anyone know what happened to my top?"

"I have it right here, sweet Caid," Bronwyn said and chivalrously moved in front of the recovering woman, "but your back is still too tender to wear it."

"My b- back is just fine, Bronwyn... I'd rather have some discomfort than shock everyone into fainting..."

Bronwyn let out a shaky, nervous laugh at the joke, but relented and reached for the green cloth that had only been moderately bloodied by the combat. She quickly slipped it on and fastened the bone hooks at the back. "Does that hurt?" she whispered for Caid's ears only.

"A little. But I have to-" - unfortunately, that was all Caid had time to say before Alanna flew into her arms and gave her the crush of a lifetime.

Bronwyn took a step back to give the sisters a moment to reconnect. Rubbing her sweaty brow, she turned to Fyonna and bowed deeply at the Seer. "I thank you, Lady Fyonna. I thank you with all my heart. You truly are a miracle worker."

Fyonna opened her mouth to reply, but was interrupted by her husband who came running into the dining hall with his medicine bag over his arm. "I am here! Where's the emergency?" he said, making everyone chuckle at his poor timing.




Six turns of the hourglass later, Jin-Sarnos' body had been brought into the dining hall and was lying in state in a makeshift open casket near the throne that remained unclaimed.

Two full units of the regular army guarded the open casket with Kheo Khammon - who had assumed his old rank of Artillery Sergeant Major for the ceremony - at the point to watch over the proceedings.

A host of Imperial dignitaries, diplomats and selected, high-ranking members of the armed forces filed by the open casket to show their last respects and to verify that Jin-Sarnos was in fact irrevocably dead.

The still weak Efrem and Markki Barlin had been placed at the horseshoe-shaped table near the throne where Deegan Arliss watched over them carefully and provided them with food and drink from the castle's vast kitchen - and a pair of cute maids who acted as their personal servants.

At the other end of the dining hall, a small army of maids worked flat out with scrubbing brushes and gallons of water to try to rid the floor of the blood that had ended up seeping into everything. They had a mere half-turn of the hourglass to get everything ready for the coronation, but at the speed they were going, they would most likely make it - the same couldn't be said for the nine-branched candlesticks that were all beyond repair.


Up in her bedchamber at the top of the castle keep, Bronwyn stood by the open windows in her favorite sleeping chemise and looked out onto Ashburne and the Empire beyond it with a disbelieving, even shocked expression on her pale face. The view out of the windows was the same as it had always been, as were the sounds and the smells that rose from the city that had seen so many horrors and so much bloodshed during the dark hours, and yet, on this day, everything was different.

Down below, she could hear the night watchmen who patrolled the streets of Ashburne proclaim that Dawn Has Broken in song, though the blackish-blue sky towards the east hardly changed tone because of the lateness of the year. "I wish my coronation could have been in the spring or the summer," Bronwyn mumbled so quietly no one else could hear her. "I wish the sky on the morn of my greatest day could have been colored in glorious shades of pink and orange, and not this dreadful blackish blue. Alas, I fear such depressing colors are a good fit with the mood here..."

Around her, pandemonium reigned supreme with Tawna, Alanna and Fyonna working together with Tawna's two young proteges Carrae and Mynere to clean and prepare the heavy mourning outfit for the coronation. The countless items that made up the cumbersome outfit were spread out on the four-post canopy bed that had turned into something resembling a stall selling fabrics and dyes at the Ashburne market.

If that wasn't hectic enough, a steady stream of orderlies brought dispatches to the chamber door relaying up-to-date news of the running battles that had, and indeed still took place all over Ashburne against pockets of resistance from the surviving members of the Black Lance.

Caid - still only wearing her ruined suede ankle pants and the strip of cloth around her breasts - received them, relayed their contents to Bronwyn who only listened with one ear, signed them and gave them back to the orderlies.

Bronwyn sighed and rubbed her face. She glanced to her right at Caid whose half-undressed, feral appearance resembled something out of a dream. The Huntress' strong arms and shoulders, not to mention the rest of her sculpted upper body, were strong positives, but they were negated by the equally strong negatives that came from the fresh, strongly pink X-shaped scars on her back, the bloody bandages on her right side where Zai's sword had carved a furrow, and her ankle pants that bore the result of the battle they had been in.

Bronwyn knew it would be quite a while before she and Caid would have time for an intimate encounter, but she made a pledge to herself right then and there that she would love the older woman until the end of the world, and that she would make sure the wounds Caid had received would be treated with the best possible attention and care - like frequent hot sponge baths.

The thought of Caid and her sharing a hot tub as naked as the day they were born brought a rare smile to her face, and she closed her eyes to let a few delightful images roll across her mind's eye in the midst of the chaos.

Unfortunately, the pandemonium behind her didn't allow for warm thoughts of future intimacy, and she was soon disturbed with the umpteenth dispatch from around the city.


When Alanna, Tawna, Fyonna, Mynere and Carrae had finally arranged the mourning outfit in the proper order, Tawna came up to her mistress and curtseyed deeply. "My Empress, your gown is ready."

Bronwyn turned to her senior handmaiden and offered her a weak, but sincere smile. "Thank you, Tawna. As always, you have offered me such invaluable assistance, and I appreciate all you have done for me. However, before I put on the cumbersome gown, I insist that Caid Barlin is fitted with a glorious set of clothes for a change. Although I cannot say her present state of undress is hurtful to my eye, I fear it would look out of place at a coronation."

"Yes, Empress," Tawna said and curtseyed again, "though I fear the dresses you own would look rather odd on Mistress Barlin's compact shape. May I suggest I run downstairs and take some of my own clothes? Mistress Barlin and I are roughly of the same size."

"Ah! Excellent thinking, Tawna! Yes, off you go. Thank you," Bronwyn said and put a hand on Tawna's cheek.

While the senior handmaiden hurried out of the door - nearly knocking over an orderly who brought yet another dispatch - Bronwyn stepped over to the bed where she took Alanna's hands in her own.

"Empress Bronwyn," Caid's sister said, curtseying deeply.

"Oh, please rise, Lady Alanna. Now..." - Bronwyn paused and looked around at the four other people in the chamber who all tried to blend in with the background so they wouldn't disturb the Empress. "While we are not exactly alone, there is something important I need to say to you, and now is as good a time as any."

"Yes, Empress Bronwyn?"

"I understand that you are not fully comfortable with the notion that I am in love with your sister. I do not know if it will make a difference, but I can assure you, Lady Alanna, that the love we share is as deep and as profound as the love you share with a man. Your sister and I have both experienced terrible events recently, but the one thing that has kept me sane has been the image I keep in my mind of your sister. The thought of once again holding Caid in my arms, of once again hearing her voice telling me that it shall be all right... and yes, of once again pressing my lips against hers and kissing her soundly brought me through my darkest hours."

"I... I thank you for confiding in someone who has treated you poorly, Empress Bronwyn," Alanna said and looked down. "Yet, I must be truthful and say that I... that what you share with my sister goes against the things I was taught when growing up. I fear your relationship shall take me a while to come to terms with."

Bronwyn's face briefly fell into a mask of disappointment, but she soon recovered and offered Alanna's hands a little squeeze. "So be it. You should know, however, that Caid and I will not look kindly upon anyone who tries to come between us, or tries to sour our relationship with barbs or hurtful comments. That you should know, Lady Alanna."

Alanna nodded solemnly. "I understand, Empress Bronwyn. I only wish the best for my sister."

"Good. Now, let us get back to the mourning outfit, shall we?" Bronwyn said and turned back to the myriad of pieces on the bed.

At the door, Tawna came back inside carrying a pair of brown, straight cut ankle pants, a sandy sleeveless jerkin, a white puff-cuff tunic, and a pale brown tunic with an open collar. "Mistress Barlin... I could not predict which of these two tunics you would prefer so I took both."

Caid chuckled as she looked at the highly feminine puff cuffs. "Ah, I fear that one is out of the picture, Tawna. I'll take the pale brown one with the open collar."

"As you wish, Mistress Barlin," Tawna said and briefly curtseyed before she hurried over to the wardrobe where she put the garments on the only empty spot left in the entire bedchamber.

Not bothered by the shame of being indecently exposed in the company of strangers, Caid quickly kicked off her boots and stripped off her ruined ankle pants until she stood only covered by two strips of cloth. She slipped into the pale brown tunic and adjusted it so the collar was lined up right; then she put on the brown ankle pants, tucked in the tunic and tightened the belt to the fourth notch. The sandy sleeveless jerkin came last and turned out to be a pretty good match with the rest of the ensemble.

"Oh, my sweet Caid," Bronwyn said and clapped her hands together. "I must say you look absolutely wonderful."

"Why thank you, Empress Bronwyn," Caid said and performed a deep bow.

"Yes... there is only one thing missing," Bronwyn said and moved over to her discarded outfit. She dug into her pocket and found the tiled necklace. Clutching it in her hand, she could almost hear how it spoke to her. She turned back to Caid and held up the priceless piece of jewelry. "Sweet Caid, this necklace is so important to me... it would give me the greatest pleasure to see it grace your slender neck during the coronation."

"Oh... jewelry? I'm not-"

"Please, Caid," Bronwyn said and moved over to the Huntress. When Caid didn't complain further, Bronwyn swept away the shaggy hair and eased the necklace onto her skin. She soon closed it and

turned it around so the teardrop-shaped pendant pointed towards the top of Caid's cleavage. "Perfect. Simply the most perfect woman I have ever laid eyes on. You are the most beautiful woman in the world... and better still, you are mine," Bronwyn husked for Caid's ears only.

Caid grinned broadly and reached up to touch the necklace and the pendant. "I thank you, Empress Bronwyn. However, I fear you are overcome with fatigue. Surely, you are the most beautiful woman in the world...?"

Bronwyn smiled at her new lover, but soon returned to the mourning outfit on the bed. "And now... I fear the time for this bothersome gown has come. Tawna, I need a hand... also, will you do my hair, like in the old days?"

"But of course, Empress Bronwyn. Everybody, avert your eyes, please," the senior handmaiden said and hurried over to help Bronwyn take off her sleeping chemise.


The mood was somber as Bronwyn stepped outside the bedchamber, and she sighed so deeply her shoulders slumped. She was wearing the full mourning outfit that consisted of a heavy, full-length black gown made up of four layers of cloth, black lace gloves, a black cape with leather reinforcements at the hems, and a black bonnet with a dark veil that fully obscured her face.

From somewhere behind her, she could feel Caid putting a calming hand on the small of her back. "I fear I am not ready for this, sweet Caid..." Bronwyn whispered for Caid's ears only.

"I fear there's nothing we can do about it right now, Bronwyn... down we must go," Caid whispered back.

"Alas... down we must go," Bronwyn said and took the first step down the grand staircase. She suddenly stopped and held out her arm. "But I will not go on without feeling your touch. Please... take my arm and let me know you are here."

"It would be my honor, Empress Bronwyn," Caid said and hooked her arm inside that of her lover.

Bronwyn sighed again and resumed walking down the staircase.


By the time they reached the grand dining hall that doubled as the coronation room, they were already fashionably late. As the two soldiers from the regular army who guarded the double doors reached for the brass handles to allow the Empress' entourage entry into the dining hall, Bronwyn put up a hand to halt them. "Tawna," she said and turned around with her hands ahead of her.

"I am here, my Empress... are you in discomfort? Is there anything you need me to adjust?" the senior handmaiden said, hurrying up to stand in front of the woman clad in black.

"No, Tawna," Bronwyn said and folded back the veil so she could look at the gray-haired woman who was one of her oldest and most trusted friends. "I have something I need to say to you. Change will come to Ashburne Castle. My obligations will multiply, of that I am certain. I fear I shall need an entire platoon of maids simply to keep up... and as we all know, such a henhouse will need a strong leader. Tawna, my old friend, I hereby appoint you to be my official Mistress of the Robes. Effectively, you shall be my right hand on all things concerning the staff as well as ceremonial etiquette and protocol... in short, you shall become the new Lady of Ashburne Castle. I hope you will accept the position."

"The official Mistress of the Robes?" Tawna croaked, staring wide-eyed at the new Empress. "Uh... yes! Yes, I accept the position. I thank you from the bottom of my heart, Empress Bronwyn," she said, curtseying so deeply it appeared she wouldn't be able to get back up on her own.

"Good... good, Mistress Tawna," Bronwyn said and looked at Caid who winked in return. "Oh... now I fear we need to get on with the program. Men, you may open the doors," she continued, waving at the soldiers as she folded down the dark veil.

As the double doors opened to reveal the Empress, the massed spectators inside the dining hall immediately fell silent. The Commanders from the regular army and the guard detail called for Attention, and their units that lined the walls to protect the new ruler all snapped upright with resounding reports from their hobnailed boots.

With Caid's arm firmly hooked inside hers, Bronwyn took the first step into the dining hall. She felt everyone's eyes burning holes in the black gown, and for once, she was happy to be unable to see anything at all through the black veil.

The long path around the horseshoe-shaped table eventually took Empress Bronwyn and her entourage of six to the open casket where Caid and the others left her alone. With her back turned to the spectators, Bronwyn folded back her veil and looked at her father's body. Even as she observed his waxen skin that had been powdered with chalk dust to stall the inevitable decay, she couldn't quite fathom he was gone, nor that she was the new Empress of Dinnigon and all the surrounding lands.

She knew it was expected of her to lean down and kiss her father farewell, but she couldn't make herself do it. Instead, she reached up and caressed his cheek in much the same fashion he had done to her before he had jumped to his death. "Goodbye, father," she whispered. "I shall hold no speech for you... other than to say I hope I shall be a better, more just and more humane ruler than you ever were." - With that, she folded the veil back down and put out her arm in a silent invitation for Caid.

The Huntress knew what it meant and hurried up to the casket where she took Bronwyn's arm. "Have you already said your goodbyes, Empress Bronwyn?" she whispered with a puzzled look on her fair face.

"I have. There was nothing to say."

Caid's eyebrows crept up her forehead, but she chose not to comment. Instead, she turned the Empress around and led her to the opulent throne at the end of the horseshoe-shaped table.

As Bronwyn strolled closer to the stone chair, it seemed to grow into a fanged, frightful creature that simply waited for her to sit down in it so it could tear her body and soul to shreds and consume her chunk by bloody chunk. She gulped, but knew that any hesitation would be interpreted as a sign of weakness.

Ahead of her, the hastily assembled dignitaries, diplomats and other people loyal to the throne turned to face her in preparation for the next part of the ceremony. As Caid led her up to stand in front of the throne, two dignitaries came to her with the Imperial regalia: an ancient, massive bound book containing the written history of Dinnigon and Ashburne that she was obliged to protect with her life; a three foot long gold staff with several likenesses of birds etched into it that was so heavy she couldn't hold it unassisted; a leather gauntlet representing the armed forces, and finally a laurel wreath in gold that was held ready by an elderly man.

Bronwyn's heart thundered in her chest as she folded back the veil and locked eyes with Caid. Her lips had been reduced to two narrow lines in her face, and the smile she tried to create never went beyond a faint crease.

The Huntress smiled back and began to remove the bonnet and the veil to make room for the Imperial wreath.

Once Bronwyn's head and neat hairdo were free of the burden, she took a deep breath, folded the black mourning gown and sat down on the throne that, much to her surprise, didn't turn into a hideous creature after all.

The massive bound book representing the Empire's past was placed on the left armrest, and the gold staff with the likenesses of owls and eagles that represented the infinite wisdom and bravery of the new ruler was positioned right behind it. The leather gauntlet was put on the right armrest in front of Bronwyn's hand as a symbol of her strength. When the elderly dignitary came forth with the laurel wreath that would complete her transformation from Lady to Empress, Bronwyn shook her head. "No," she said quietly. "No, I want Caid Barlin to do it."

"Empress... that is highly irregular!" the elderly man croaked, frantically blinking his shock away. "The consort has never, and I mean never-"

Bronwyn didn't answer. Instead, she cocked her head and gave the man such a dark glare he had no choice but to yield and offer the golden wreath to Caid.

The unprecedented event sent a murmur rippling through the spectators, not least of which the rest of the Barlin clan who had a front row seat.

Caid accepted the wreath and moved around the throne to stand on Bronwyn's right. They briefly winked at each other before Bronwyn looked ahead to ease Caid's sacred task.

As Caid slipped the golden wreath in place around Bronwyn's dark locks, a collective gasp rose from the spectators. Caid stepped back, discreetly wiping her eyes that had begun to leak - she reckoned she had caught a speck of dust, or something.

Kheo cleared his throat and stepped forward from his spot at the head of the honor guard. "Hear ye! Hear ye! Hear ye! All hail Empress Bronwyn o' Dinnigon, Tantor, Zigai, Multrovia, Lotzan, Onilia an' Palkor!" he roared so loudly dust nearly trickled down from the rafters high above the marble floor. "Long live the Empress!"

The spectators made their presence felt with a resounding "Hail Empress Bronwyn!"

Bronwyn was overwhelmed by the wave of sound that rolled against her eardrums, and she leaned back in the throne to try to get away from it. Once a modicum of peace had returned to the dining hall, she gestured at Kheo who stepped back in line.

"I thank you, Sergeant Major, and I thank you, everybody," Bronwyn said in a strong voice she had no idea where came from. "My reign shall bring peace and prosperity to Ashburne, our lands and our people. New procedures shall be introduced that will turn our focus away from faceless greed and back onto the needs of the individual. To the citizens of Ashburne, I say you no longer have to fear persecution for issues my father considered crimes, be they of a political, religious, racial or indeed sexual nature. Though hear and understand this... anyone who collaborates with outside powers that oppose my reign and are willing to support their words with financial or military might will face the long, humiliating walk to the gallows. For I, Empress Bronwyn of Dinnigon and the surrounding conquered territories cannot and will not allow the glorious Ashburne Castle and its city that have stood for a thousand years to come under threat from anyone. Thus, my reign as Empress has commenced. Once again, I thank you."

Caid briefly stared at Kheo who returned it with one that said "Oy, the li'l Lady is no longer, huh?"

Around them, the spectators needed a few moments to digest the words of the new Empress, but they soon began to clap and cheer. Once the tide started, it could not stop, and it didn't take long for all to rise to their feet and repeatedly hail the new Empress.

Bronwyn let out the breath she had been holding and fell back against the throne. Shaking her head slowly, she blinked several times to remove the veil of tears that had appeared after her heartfelt speech.

The elderly dignitary who had been shocked when he hadn't been allowed to put the wreath on the Empress' head came up to her and leaned in. "Empress Bronwyn, do you have any decrees?"

"Oh..." Bronwyn croaked, wiping her brow with a trembling hand. "I have. Thank you. Oh... how will we get them quiet enough to hear?"

"Perhaps your consort and your rather large friend can help?" the dignitary said, nodding in Caid's and Kheo's direction.

"Yes... yes, why did I not think of that?" Bronwyn said and waved Caid and Kheo up to her.

Once the Huntress and the large man were at her side, she reached out and took their hands. "I thank you for helping me get to where I am now. I promise I will not forget you when the spoils of victory are distributed, my friends."

"Aw, that's just' fine, luv... uh, Empress," Kheo said, scratching his foot-long full beard. "I don't need much o' nothin', really... maybe a li'l keg o' strong ale now an' then, but..."

"I am sure we can find a brew to your liking," Bronwyn said and winked at Kheo before she turned to Caid. "Oh, it nearly slipped my mind... Kheo, would you mind getting everyone to quiet down? I have a few decrees I need to announce."

"Sure thing, Empress," Kheo said and moved away from the throne. He stepped into the center of the room and took a deep breath before he roared out a resounding "Sileeeeeence!" that did indeed send dust trickling down from the rafters.

The spectators clammed up in an instant and turned their attention back to the new Empress who seemed to be scratching her ear.

Bronwyn suddenly noticed she was at the center of everyone's attention and hurriedly put her gloved hands in her lap. Caid began to move away, but Bronwyn reached out for her and held her tight. "No. I want you to stay," she whispered. Clearing her throat, she cast a glance at the spectators before she spoke. "As the first Imperial Decree of my reign, I demand the immediate disbandment of the criminal organization known as the Black Lance. For too long, they have been allowed to make the streets of Ashburne unsafe with acts of violence, rape and even murder. No more!"

The spectators began to clap, but Bronwyn raised her hands to get them to calm down again. "Also, as the second Imperial Decree of my reign, I am reinstating The Huntress Caid Barlin to her old rank of Supreme Commander of all Ranger battalions.... and at the same time, I would like to announce Caid Barlin as my personal consort."

The latter rather than the former sent a new ripple of murmurs through the spectators, but they let it slide and clapped at the announcements.

"Thank you," Bronwyn said and rose from the throne with Caid's help. "That shall be all for now."

"All rise for the Empress!" Kheo barked, prompting everyone to shoot to their feet.

Bronwyn bowed her head and stepped away from the throne. Everything inside her body and head was one, big bowl of blubber as she and Caid walked over to the rows where her closest confidantes sat - Fyonna and Tawna next to each other, and a bit further along the same row, Efrem, Markki and Alanna Barlin with Deegan Arliss as their liaison.

She had no words left so she simply stood there and let her friends congratulate her. The men bowed and the women curtseyed, but something about their behavior felt distinctly odd to her - until she remembered she needed to tell them when to get back up. "Oh... that's quite enough, thank you. You may rise. I fear I need to read the book of Imperial etiquette from cover to cover. I have so much to learn..." she said while her friends rose.

"We shall help you," Fyonna said with a smile.

"Oh, Lady Fyonna, you have already helped me tremendously... your healing skills brought Caid back to me... for that feat alone, I am eternally grateful," Bronwyn said and took Fyonna's hands in her own.

She shook hands with Efrem, Markki and Alanna Barlin as well before she made it down the line to Tawna, her new Mistress of the Robes who was the only one to be pulled into a warm hug. Deegan was next in line, and the former cavalry Lieutenant clicked his heels and bowed at his Empress with a flamboyant gesture.

"Oh, Lieutenant Arliss, we shall soon find a very nice position for you," Bronwyn said with a smile.

"Hopefully somewhere near horses, my Empress?"

"Ah, yes, it most certainly shall be. Perhaps as the Brigadier General of the Imperial Cavalry?"

"You are too kind, Empress Bronwyn," Deegan said and bowed again. "I would gladly accept a return to my old rank of Lieutenant if it meant I could be out in the field where I belong. I fear my skills riding a desk are sorely lacking."

"We shall see... we shall see," Bronwyn said and patted Deegan's hand. "Now... where is Kheo Khammon?" Bronwyn continued, looking around for the easily recognizable shape of the tall, muscular and completely bald man.

In the meantime, Caid was speaking to Commander Tarsi who had withdrawn from the ceremony to take care of the Black Lance prisoners that had been rounded up and apprehended all over Ashburne. On their way back to the Empress, they stopped at Kheo and dragged him along.

"Empress Bronwyn," Kallirna Tarsi said and bowed deeply. His entire right arm was covered in one, large bandage, and he hadn't had time to remove the bloodstains from the rest of his uniform.

"Commander Tarsi. Do you have news for me from Ashburne?"

"I do indeed, my Empress," the rugged soldier said and performed a coquettish little bow. "Nearly all members of the Black Lance have been killed or apprehended. The survivors have been incarcerated in the garrison brig. There were casualties on our side, but nothing we cannot handle."


"Also," Tarsi said and glanced around at the other people present. Grimacing, he leaned in towards Bronwyn so the entire dining hall didn't have to listen to the details. "I fear I have bad news regarding the Yonnae warrior."


"I fear we needed to... uh... I fear we needed to remove her body from your father's bedchamber. She had begun to... oh, there is no delicate way to say this. She had begun to smell, my Empress."

"Oh, no... so soon?"

"I fear so, my Empress. The undertakers were busy with your father... his larger body and the appalling injuries he sustained in the fall required far more attention than expected. We have brought the warrior into one of the storage vaults for the time being."

"Phirax," Bronwyn growled, scrunching up her face. "Very well, Commander. Thank you. I shall take care of her remains a little later on."

"As you wish, my Empress," Tarsi said and performed a bow. When it was clear he was no longer needed, he saluted the new ruler, spun around and marched away from the others.

The mood was momentarily ruined, but when Kheo Khammon stepped forward, the big man had a cheeky gleam in his eye that neither Caid nor Bronwyn could interpret. "Empress Bronwyn," he said and bowed deeply once he was in front of his new ruler.

"Rise, my friend," Bronwyn said and put her hand on Kheo's shoulder. "You did an admirable service to me with your powerful voice. Perhaps I should appoint you to be my new master of ceremonies?"

"Aw... no thank you, Empress. I kinda like the rank of Sarge a bit better... uh, if ya don't mind, obvi'sly. I ain't commanded a unit o' men like that since way, way, way back. It was kinda neat, ya know."

"I can imagine," Bronwyn said and turned to Caid, but before she had time to speak, Kheo had reached into his pocket and had produced a shiny, five-inch long brass key that he held up. "Oh... what is that, Kheo?" she said, cocking her head.

"Aw, this' a gift fer the Huntress."

"For me?" Caid said and took it from her friend's meaty paw. "A key? Where does it fit? A treasure chest somewhere, perhaps?"

Kheo looked at his new Empress and winked at her to prepare her for a little naughtiness. "Oh, ya can say that... it's fer Empress Bronwyn's chastity belt."

"But she doesn't wear a chastity... oh."

"Busted!" Kheo said, throwing his head back to let out a roaring laugh.

A shocked GASP! came from the others in the group, especially Alanna who appeared to be on the brink of passing out.

Bronwyn's jaw momentarily became slack at the naughty joke, but she soon recovered and winked back at Kheo with a broad grin gracing her features. Once the Empress chuckled, everybody chuckled to release the tension.

"Ohhhh..." Caid said and looked at Bronwyn, Kheo and the others. "Oh, you big, hairless grunt... hardee-har-har! Make fun of the Huntress, whydontcha?!"

Bronwyn nodded at her old friends before she wrapped an arm around Caid's shoulders and pulled her in for a tender hug. "We will... but only because we love you, Caid. Now, even as we speak, I am sure my dignitaries are preparing a list of a thousand and one items I need to put my signature on... but before I throw myself into that, I would like the first kiss from my brand new personal consort, if you do not mind."

"Mind? Oh, I don't mind," Caid husked and leaned in to claim Bronwyn's lips in a warm and sincere kiss that made everyone present go "Awwwww..." - Except perhaps Alanna, but even she smiled at the tenderness displayed by the two women.

Bronwyn closed her eyes and let the sweet contact chip away at all the tension that had mounted over the course of the past few days. With the kiss growing in passion and vigor, she reached up and put her gloved hand on the back of Caid's head to feel her even better, and to show those around her that from now on, things would be very different at Ashburne Castle...




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