by Norsebard




Chronicles of the Empress Book 1

Chronicles of the Empress Book 2



This 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: March 1st - 13th, 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: The dramatic events that led to Lady Bronwyn claiming the throne have given way to a calmer and more peaceful life for the Empress and her consort, the Huntress Caid Barlin. As a certain sameness falls over Ashburne Castle, the deep-rooted love between Bronwyn and Caid provides them with all the excitement they need. Suddenly, amid the worst winter storms for generations, travelers from the Natfarann forests in the far north arrive with a desperate plea for help. Thoroughly intrigued, Bronwyn once more assembles her team and sets off to help them...





Three moons on from the dramatic events that led to Lady Bronwyn claiming her father's throne, the troubled waters had calmed in and around Ashburne Castle. The lives of Empress Bronwyn and her consort, the Huntress Caid Barlin, had perhaps been too exciting in the past, but now, a sense of sameness had fallen over the castle and the senior members of the Imperial household.

The strong affection between Bronwyn and Caid had blossomed and had grown into a deep-seated, strong love that grounded them and gave them a sense of belonging. They accepted that not all they met looked upon their relationship with lenient eyes, but everyone who mattered had long since surrendered to the undeniable love between them.

In the moons since Empress Bronwyn had received the regalia, she had been forced into making several changes in her personal staff and her armed forces to flush out those still loyal to the legacy of Jin-Sarnos, and those who simply refused to change their ways to toe the new party line that emphasized kindness and support rather than brutality and punishment.

Like Empress Bronwyn had feared, bureaucracy and the burning question of what to do with those prisoners who truly were guilty of heinous crimes - like Zai Allizadra, the former leader of the Black Lance, who was still locked up in a cell at the base of the castle keep - had stopped her from shutting down the dungeons for good, but it was still atop her list of injustices that needed to be dealt with when the time was right.

Outside the grand castle walls, the worst winter storms for generations raged on and on with undiminished strength, dumping fathoms of snow onto the ground, uprooting trees and dislodging roofs with strong gusts of ice cold wind, and creating a shortness of supplies among the common population and even inside the castle. Effectively, everyone was locked up inside Ashburne Castle and the walled city surrounding it, save for the unlucky few who were forced to go on patrol - and those who simply loved the outdoors too much to stay inside, like Caid Barlin...




In Ashburne Castle, the Imperial bedchamber was still dark save for the orange, flickering light that shone from the raging fireplace. The only sounds heard were the crackling flames and a steady breathing coming from the bed, but Empress Bronwyn soon smacked her lips and let out a long, contented sigh. Rolling onto her left side, she gradually fell out of her slumber when her probing hand only found crumpled sheets and a cold pillow instead of the warm Caid Barlin she had expected to find there.

Bronwyn cracked open an eyelid and peeked into the semi-darkness. The empty side of the four-post canopy bed proved that the Huntress was once again out on a patrol somewhere, doing her duty for the Empire.

She sighed and snuggled down under the thick winter quilt. 'Oh, I fear it was a mistake to ask Caid to take her old rank of Senior Ranger... not to mention all the responsibilities that went with it,' Bronwyn thought as she tried to go back to sleep. 'Her loyalty to the Empire is admirable, but... oh, I would much rather wake up next to her and greet the new day like only lovers can...'

When she understood further sleep would elude her, she rolled over onto her back and rubbed her eyes. For the umpteenth time since assuming the throne following her father's suicide - by jumping from one of the guard towers - she was boundlessly pleased she had decided to bring down her own bed from her previous chamber near the top of the castle keep.

Though it had proved a severe strain on the poor soldiers who'd had to carry the massive four-post bed down the grand staircase and into her new quarters that were connected to the dining hall, she had simply refused to sleep in the old bed her father had used for his escapades with Tianna Bethan and other women of dubious virtue. She had decided to keep most of the other items Jin-Sarnos had had in his bedchamber, like the colorful draperies and tapestries, the high quality wall to wall carpet and some of the artwork - but the old bed had been removed even before her first day in office had been over.

The mere thought of her father even having a sex life gave Bronwyn the creeps, so she snuggled even further down and pulled the winter quilt high above her dark locks.

Moments later, a soft knock on the door to the bedchamber meant that sleep would be gone for good that night. "Enter!" Bronwyn said, pushing down the quilt.

Tawna, Bronwyn's old senior handmaiden and new Mistress of the Robes, entered the bedchamber and curtseyed deeply at her Empress. Gone were the coarse, dark brown frocks that Tawna had worn since the day she had started working at the castle as a shy eleven year-old - in their place, she wore a hip-hugging burgundy gown with wide, golden cuffs and golden lacework below the tasteful neckline. A barrette that held her graying hair in a neat double-bun hairdo was matched perfectly with little rosettes that had been embroidered onto the outside of the burgundy sleeves.

"Good morn, Empress Bronwyn. Dawn has broken and a new day has arrived," Tawna said, looking at the carpet while she spoke so she wouldn't appear disrespectful.

Behind Tawna, one of the next generation of handmaidens came into the chamber pushing a cart with a wash bowl and a jug of water. Once the cart had cleared the threshold, she curtseyed just as deeply as the Mistress.

As Bronwyn sat up in bed, she looked with pride at the remarkable transformation of her old senior handmaiden - that Tawna was in fact a graceful woman with an hourglass figure had come as a complete surprise to her. "Good morn, Tawna. Rise, my friend. You too, Carrae," she said and gestured at the two women.

"How was your eve, Empress Bronwyn?" Tawna said, walking over to the large wardrobe to find a suitable gown for the day's events.

"Oh, it was quiet, thank you. And yours?" Bronwyn said and swung her bare legs over the side of the bed.

"Very nice, thank you. My brave, handsome cavalier paid me a visit last eve," Tawna said with a crooked smile and a little wink.

"Oh, did he now! My, my!"

"Yes, and I fear we were so in tune with each other that eve turned to night and then dawn before he left."

Bronwyn smirked broadly at her old friend, knowing exactly what the Mistress meant by her words. "Sweet Tawna, I trust you will keep me posted on the progress? Please say yes, otherwise I shall have to ask your cavalier!"

"But of course, my Empress!"

Chuckling, Bronwyn yawned and scratched herself through her favorite sleeping chemise before she waved Carrae and the wash cart over to her.

The seventeen-year old maid with the soft features blushed like she always did, but she went behind the cart and pushed it the last of the way over to the bed. After curtseying again, she poured fresh, clean water into the bowl and offered her mistress a wash cloth.

"Thank you, Carrae," Bronwyn said with a smile. "Tell me, did you sleep well?" she continued while she dipped the wash cloth in the water. As she waited for her new handmaiden's stuttering answer, she dabbed herself around the eyes and behind the ears.

"I d- did, th- thank you, my Em- Empress," the teenager said, blushing furiously. The young woman looked anywhere but at the person she was speaking to.

"Oh, I wish you would learn not to fear me, child," Bronwyn said and dunked the wash cloth into the bowl. After wringing it, she wiped her forehead and ran it around her neck. "There. All done. I fear it is far too cold to be exposed to water," she said, trying to coax a smile out of the shy teen.

It didn't really work, so instead, Bronwyn pushed the cart back and got up to see what kind of gown Tawna had selected for her.

The Mistress of the Robes had chosen a golden, three-layer satin gown with straight cuffs and a black, braided leather sash that would hang low on the Imperial hips. The gown would leave the shoulders bare, but Tawna had selected a black shawl that would match the rest of the ensemble perfectly.

"Lady Tawna," Bronwyn said, executing a short bow to the older woman, "I cannot imagine what I would do without you. I surely would be lost without your sharp mind and exquisite taste. Indeed, I fear I would be doomed to forever roam the castle corridors in my sleeping chemise and a pair of mismatched long stockings... or worse!"

"You are too kind, Empress Bronwyn," Tawna said with a curtsey. "Carrae, come over here and help the Empress get into the gown. Then we shall address her hair."

"Y- yes, Mistress Tawna," Carrae said and gulped audibly.


A short half-turn of the hourglass later, Bronwyn strode into the grand dining hall with Tawna and Carrae in tow. The once so pristine marble floor still bore the scars of the terrible battle that had taken place as the combined forces of General Waleeri Galehr and Watch Commander Kallirna Tarsi had engaged Zai Allizadra's elite unit, the Black Lance, in a quest for control over Ashburne Castle and the surrounding walled city.

Many of the marble tiles had been cracked, and several others had been so saturated with the blood that had seeped into the surface texture during the conflict they had gained a peculiar - and chilling - shade of red.

Bronwyn could see through the stained glass panes high above the dining hall floor that the weather was as inclement as it had been the past several weeks - cold, windy and miserable. Winter had struck Dinnigon and Ashburne and had delivered a healthy layer of snow in all the surrounding lands.

To combat the chill, the massive fireplaces at both ends of the dining hall were blasting away; the flames so strong they occasionally shot out the wrong way and licked up the granite mantelpiece.

A small army of maids and servants were lined up along the outer edges of the dining hall as always. The horseshoe-shaped table had been set for breakfast with numerous brass trays overflowing with steaming hot sausages, pork roasts and various stews. The gold plates and silver cutlery were all ready, as were the jugs with sweet ale, wine, brandy and cold milk that had been placed in a neat row along the table.

When the commanding officer of the guard detail noticed the Empress striding towards the table, he thumped the butt of his ceremonial staff into the floor three times and let out a resounding: "All rise for Empress Bronwyn!" that made his platoon snap to an instant Attention.

On cue, the seven people who had been waiting at the table rose and hurriedly moved behind the high-backed chairs. Three were wearing clothes typical of the Imperial dignitaries and three wore officer's uniforms from the various branches of the armed forces.

When Bronwyn spotted the highly recognizable suede uniform of the seventh and final person at the table, she couldn't stop a broad smile from gracing her lips. Her eyes immediately locked onto Caid's husky green orbs and sent the compact, honey-blonde woman a silent message of love that was responded to in kind.

As the Empress came closer, the seven people at the table all bowed deeply and stayed in position until she gestured at them. "You may rise. Thank you. I fear I cannot listen to what will undoubtedly be bad news on an empty stomach, so let us enjoy the exquisite breakfast our faithful cooks have prepared for us before we throw ourselves into the grisly tales of doom and gloom," Bronwyn said and went over to stand ahead of the large throne. "Lady and gentlemen, you may be seated," she continued as she sat down.

The small army of maids and servants hurried over to the table and began to serve the Empress and her visitors, passing around the trays of food and the jugs with the various beverages.

While that was going on, Bronwyn unfolded her napkin and placed it across her lap so she wouldn't get grease stains on her gown. To her immediate right, Caid had already been given a sausage by one of the maids, and Bronwyn couldn't tear her eyes away from the woman she shared her life and bed with. The Huntress' cheeks were rosy which confirmed she had already been out in the freezing cold, but even better, her green orbs were sparkling and vibrant proving how much she enjoyed what life had given her.

Bronwyn smiled and turned back to the manservant who was standing at her left holding a jug of milk. "Oh... today, I shall have the sweet ale, thank you. Sweet ale and a little quality stew."

"Yes, Empress," the manservant said and hurriedly replaced the jug with the one containing sweet ale. He expertly poured the dark brown, frothy liquid into Bronwyn's ruby-studded gold goblet before he scooped up a medium-sized ladleful of the steaming hot stew. "Enough, my Empress?"

"That will suffice, thank you," Bronwyn said and pushed the gold plate closer to the ladle so the stew wouldn't spill over. Once the food and drink were in place, she picked up her spoon and fork and looked around at her breakfast companions.

Apart from Caid, the other people from the armed forces were junior officers with fresh, beardless faces and spotless uniforms. Since the Empire wasn't under threat and the winter was so harsh no expeditions could be carried out, there was no need for the senior officers to inform the Empress of the daily bulletins. The three dignitaries in their purple robes and elaborate hats were all distinguished, elderly gentlemen with white hair and beards - and rosy noses that proved the good brandy was never too far out of reach.

Bronwyn groaned long and hard inwardly when she clapped eyes on the cart carrying the pile of scrolls and decrees she was to sign after breakfast. That particular part of the job, she had been unprepared for, and quite often, she had no idea what it was she put her signature on.


Feeling full from the stew that now did its best to warm her up from the inside, Bronwyn leaned back on her throne and dabbed her lips with her napkin. The others at the table picked up on it at once and stopped eating even though two of them weren't finished yet.

"Very well," she said and took a sip of her sweet ale to wash down the chunky stew, "I fear we cannot put it off any longer. I yearn for an apple for dessert, but alas, it shall be a while until I can enjoy one. Is that not so, Huntress?"

Caid turned around in her chair and briefly smiled at her lover. The two women sent each other another little message before the Huntress sobered and turned businesslike for the benefit of her fellow officers. "Your fears are proven well-founded, Empress Bronwyn. Though the recent snow has been cleared relatively well within the Ashburne walls, it lies a fathom deep or more a mere half-league away from the city. We have been largely cut off from the eastern provinces. Several of the smaller villages to the north are reporting they have been buried in snow. The intense wind is adding to the misery by turning the driving snow into ferocious ice needles. And, if I may be so vulgar, it's as cold as Phirax the Unholy's tits out there."

The crude comment made the officers around the table chuckle out loud as opposed to the dignitaries who all bore highly shocked expressions on their faces - expressions that didn't go away until the Empress reached over to gently thump the Huntress' shoulder.

"Now, Huntress... by that," Bronwyn said with her tongue stuck firmly in her cheek, "I presume you mean the conditions are dreadful?"

"I do, Empress Bronwyn," Caid said with a grin. "It's no weather for man, woman, fowl nor beast. Yet another front is moving in from the north as we speak, and I fear we are in for another white carpet later today."

Bronwyn nodded somberly. She knew from speaking to the quartermaster that their vast vaults of supplies had already shrunk to below the average for mid-winter. With more snow on the way, no trader convoys would risk challenging the conditions - and worse still, the poorer areas of Ashburne would be hit comparatively harder if the merchants upped their prices due to the low supply.

"Mmmm," Bronwyn said and toyed with her spent napkin. "Soon, we shall have to come up with a contingency plan if this wretched winter continues as strongly as it has been. I cannot remember seeing this much snow since I was a little girl. And those were the winters of famine and disease that convinced my father to draw the plans that eventually became the War of Great Expansion."

"Indeed, Empress," Caid said, nodding.

"Indeed," Bronwyn said and crumbled up her napkin. "Very well. Lieutenant Portian, do you have any news for me from the City Watch?"

The young, beardless officer looked up in a panic before he licked his lips furiously and rose from his chair. "Empress Bronwyn, only very little," he said in an upper-crust accent. "The weather prevents the usual drunkards and brawlers from venturing outside to frequent the establishments. Unfortunately, that has caused an increase in domestic violence. Three men and a woman have been brought in after committing spousal abuse."

"I see. Thank you, Lieutenant Portian. Spousal abuse is unacceptable in my Empire. I trust you will teach the criminals a lesson?"

"We will, Empress Bronwyn. Each shall perform four days of hard labor before they are let out."

"Good. Anything else?" When none of the other officers had anything for her, she turned back to Caid and offered her a smile. "Huntress? Do you have anything to add?"

"I fear I have, Empress," Caid said and scrunched up her face. "A recently recruited soldier in the Second Ranger Battalion decided that life in the military wasn't for him after all. He deserted but was swiftly apprehended at his mother's home. At present, he's in the garrison brig awaiting whatever punishment we decide to bestow upon him."

Bronwyn chewed on her cheeks for a few seconds. A quick glance at Caid's eyes gave no hints as to the nature of the punishment she had planned. "Mmmm. Desertion cannot go unpunished, I agree. I trust you will find something that matches his crime against his brothers in arms, Huntress."

"I shall, Empress."

"Excellent. With that," Bronwyn said and rose from her throne, prompting the officers to follow her, "I bid you farewell, gentlemen. I fear I have a busy schedule ahead of me, and I can see my dignitaries have already grown quite impatient. Huntress, I would be grateful if you could stay a while longer. Please."

Caid dabbed the corners of her mouth on her napkin before throwing it away. "It tears at my heart to inform you, but I fear I cannot stay, Empress Bronwyn. A group of men in our old camp in the Sarkhann Forest are depending upon my swift return."

"Oh... drat. Very well," Bronwyn said and let out a deep sigh. She waited for the other officers to leave the table before she reached out and pulled her lover a bit closer. "I hope you will spare your old, long-suffering friend and bedmate Bronwyn a thought now and then while you traipse around in the snow playing with the boys. Alas! Alas, I fear I shall wither and die before I see you again..." Bronwyn said with the back of a hand firmly placed on her forehead. While the agony wasn't perhaps entirely sincere, the whine certainly was.

"My dear Bronwyn, you are never out of my thoughts," Caid said and reached up to take the Empress' hand. With a flamboyant gesture, she brought it to her lips and gave it a warm, wet kiss right on the knuckles that earned herself a husky snicker in return.


Several turns of the hourglass later, Bronwyn had her face in her hands as she listened to the dignitaries go through the news pertaining to the financial and political state of the Empire. She had already signed nineteen decrees and desperately yearned for Caid's lips on hers to give her a kiss of life.

The senior dignitary droned on and on in the background, but Bronwyn suddenly grunted and held up her hands which brought the elderly, white-haired man in the purple robe to a stuttering halt.

"Aggraweine, wait..." Bronwyn said and looked at the man whose gray eyes had taken on a worried expression. "I fear my ears have been clogged up... I did not fully understand what you said. Surely you did not say the replacements for the nine-branched candlesticks that were destroyed in the conflict will cost me one thousand one hundred Crowns each?"

"I... I... yes I did, my Empress," the dignitary said, shuffling around uncomfortably. "The replacements will be made by the finest goldsmith in Ashb-"

"Does that mean three-branched candlesticks will only cost me three hundred and fifty Crowns each?" Bronwyn said, leaning forward on her throne. She pinned the elderly man to the spot with a glare that proved to those who had forgotten that she was indeed the daughter of Jin-Sarnos.

"I... I cannot possible say, Empress."

"I suggest you find out, Aggraweine. I am not paying just shy of five thousand Crowns on something as frivolous as candlesticks. Next item on the agenda, please," Bronwyn said and tapped her knuckles on the armrest of the throne, a gesture she had picked up from Caid who used it to great effect.

The dignitaries all looked at each other before they bowed deeply. "That was all for today, Empress Bronwyn," Aggraweine said with his face pointed at the marble floor.

"Excellent. You may rise," Bronwyn said and hurriedly moved up from the uncomfortable throne even before the dignitaries had straightened their old, creaky backs. "Very well. I declare I shall find the Hunt-"

Somewhere on Bronwyn's right, Tawna cleared her throat loudly and strode towards the throne with hasty steps.

Bronwyn looked puzzled at her friend, but even before the Mistress of the Robes had reached her, it flashed through her mind that she had no time at all to find Caid and ravish her on the bear rug in front of the fireplace in her bedchamber like she had planned - it was the day where she had to act as a conciliator and pass judgment on some of the major and minor disagreements that had taken place between the citizens of Ashburne.

She had introduced the function when she came to power to show the people in her city that she would listen to them instead of treating them like cattle like her father had done. "Oh, but why did it have to be today?" she whined under her breath. Sighing, she bumped back down on the throne and made a tired gesture at Tawna to begin the proceedings.


Sometime later, Bronwyn shifted from one buttock to the other as she let out a "Hmmm..." at the sight of the two men standing before her. Both dressed in coarse frocks, one was a tall, broad-shouldered thug, and the other an older, white-haired man with long whiskers, an unkempt beard and a pair of shifty eyes. Both men bore visible bruising after the fight they had been involved in, and now it was up to Bronwyn to make heads and tails of the whole thing.

"So... to reiterate. You, Sir," - Bronwyn pointed at the thug - "claim to have been viciously attacked by this elderly gentleman here. Among other things, he kicked you in the nuts, to use your wonderfully poetic term. And you, Sir," - she pointed at the elderly man - "claim to merely have defended your cache of firewood from the other gentleman. Low-grade firewood, I might add, that you had stolen from the waste pile at the cabinetmaker's workshop, is that not so? And that you intended to sell to those less well-off at an extortionate price, yes? While claiming it was premium-grade kindling!"

The two men briefly looked at each other before they both nodded at the Empress.

"Very well. Take heed, my judgment shall be as follows. The cache of low-grade firewood has hereby been confiscated and will be returned to its rightful owner, the cabinetmaker. You are to pay each other a fine of ten Crowns to settle the deal. And yes, I know the payments will cancel each other out. Hopefully, you will both have learned a lesson of not stealing. If I see you again, you shall both receive five lashes. Do I make myself clear?"

Both men nodded.

"Good. Now be gone," Bronwyn said and waved her hand.

Once the dining hall had been cleared, Bronwyn leaned back in the throne and let out a long, deep sigh. "Oh, Lady Tawna... I cannot take much more of this. If I do not see a friendly face soon, I fear I shall be forced into a cupcake binge and drown my sorrows in sweet ale!"

"Fear not, Empress Bronwyn," Tawna said after peeking out into the hallway at the people seeking an audience. "For I sense a friendly face is exactly who shall walk through that door in a moment."

On cue, the double doors to the dining hall were opened by the two soldiers guarding them. In strode Caid Barlin, a man from Ashburne who was in his mid-forties, and finally a haggard and slightly battered woman who had swept a warm blanket around her shoulders to compensate for the torn, unfashionable dress she wore underneath.

"Oh! Huntress!" Bronwyn said and jumped up from the throne. In two heartbeats, she was at Caid's side and pulled the compact woman into a strong, sideways hug. When Bronwyn took a look at the pale woman wrapped in the blanket, she furrowed her brow and racked her brain to come up with the name of the person whose features were strikingly familiar.

Caid noticed and gestured at the woman who pulled the blanket even closer as a result. "Empress Bronwyn, this is Mairee," the Huntress said in her familiar rich voice. "Remember, she provided shelter for us three moons ago when we waited for darkness to fall so we could enter the castle unsighted."

"Oh, but of course! Ack, how embarrassing of me to forget. Enchanted to meet you again, Mairee. Welcome to Ashburne Castle," Bronwyn said and put out her hand.

The prostitute briefly kissed Bronwyn's knuckles before she performed a deep curtsey that almost saw her bump her nose on the marble floor. "Enchanted ta meet ya, Empress Bronwyn," she said in her rural dialect.

"And you are, Sir?" Bronwyn said, turning to the man who appeared paralyzed by the presence of the Empress.

The man in his mid-forties had a neatly groomed full beard, a stylish hairdo and a pair of eyebrows that were so neat they appeared to be plucked. His nose was regal but just a tad too large for the rest of his face. He was dressed in a dark blue winter cloak that covered an off-white quilted tunic and brown ankle pants. "Charles Logan of Ashburne is my name, my Empress. I wasn't informed that you would see to my case in person. I fear this matter is far too vulgar and crude for a Lady of such standing as yourself. Maybe I should return another day to-"

"Nonsense, Charles Logan. I shall manage. Go on."

"Uh... very well. I'm here to complain over this woman's services. I feel I did not get what I paid for," Charles said, clutching the hem of his cloak.

"I see," Bronwyn said and strode back to her throne to make it official.

Charles didn't need prompting to follow the Empress, but Caid had to put a hand on the small of Mairee's back to make her move along the smooth floor.

Once Bronwyn had folded down her golden gown so it wouldn't get crumpled, she shuffled over onto the other buttock and gestured at the man. "Go on, please."

"Uh," Charles said, shuffling around nervously, "my Empress, two days ago, I visited Mairee's establishment in the whor- uh, in the northern district of Ashburne. There, I paid her nine Crowns for a... for a... for a..."

Charles Logan's voice trailed off into nothing. He gulped several times as he looked from Caid, to Bronwyn, to Mairee and finally back to the Empress. "I beg for forgiveness, my Empress," he suddenly squeaked. "I have been wasting your time. Please accept my profound apologies. I just remembered I left the kettle on the stove. I bid you farewell," he said, bowing deeply before hurrying out of the door.

Once the double doors slammed shut behind him, Mairee snickered and pulled the blanket closer around her shoulders. "A-yep. That's pretty much how long it took him two days ago, too!"

"Oh, goodness me," Bronwyn mumbled, fanning her face at the news. "Well. Ahem. So his complaint was appropriate, Mairee?"

"Aw yeah, you might say that, Empress!"

Caid chuckled out loud and shuffled up to the throne where she leaned in and placed a little kiss on Bronwyn's cheek. "How are things, my love?" she whispered for her partner's ears only.

"Oh, so dreadfully boring. I fear I am bored out of my skull," Bronwyn whispered back.

"We cannot have that, can we?" Caid whispered and kissed the Empress again. Clearing her throat, she stepped back and spoke in her regular voice: "Well, this certainly took less time than I had expected. In any case, Mairee here sought me out when I returned to Ashburne a little while ago. Empress Bronwyn, I was hoping we could find a position for Lady Mairee at the castle while this wretched cold snap keeps us all in an iron grip. I fear her house does not have the ability to heat up as the chimney above her stove has been blocked by debris."

"Oh!" Bronwyn said and pressed her hands to her bosom. "But of course! Mairee, please... tell me, what skills do you possess?"

The prostitute wiped her nose with the back of her hand and looked from one woman to the other. "Well, I guess I can do a pretty mean hand j-"

"Other than that, Mairee," Caid said decisively before she would have to hold the smelling salts under Bronwyn's sensitive nose. As it was, she had to lean in a put a calming hand on Bronwyn's shoulder.

Mairee nodded pensively and appeared to think hard. "Well... back before my Mom kicked me out on the street, I wus pretty good with the old needle an' thread, actu'ly."

"Ha!" Bronwyn said and slapped her thigh. "A seamstress? Take heed, a seamstress you shall be once again, Mairee. I shall write you a letter of approval... indeed I shall! With that, you can go downstairs to the Matron Sharona and ask for a chamber. How about making yourself a new dress to replace those old rags?"

"I... I cannot ask for such a grand gift-" Mairee said, shuffling around on the spot, but Bronwyn interrupted her with a snort.

"Pffff!" the Empress said and waved at the battered woman. "Nonsense, Mairee! I insist on it. I shall write you that letter as soon as my work here is done."

"Thank you, Empress Bronwyn," Mairee said and went into such a deep curtsey it didn't appear she could get out of it by herself.

A sudden commotion at the double doors made all three women look over there. Moments later, one of the two sentries came in and waved his gloved hand in the air to get Caid's attention. "Huntress! We have an emergency!" he shouted before leaving in a hurry.

Caid didn't hesitate for a second but rushed over to the doors to see what was going on. Outside in the hallway, a man and a woman who had both quite clearly been out in the snow were helped down onto the floor by the sentries. The line of people who were supposed to have an audience with the Empress gawked at the two frozen travelers without as much as lifting a finger to help them.

The two people had almost turned blue from the frosty conditions they had been exposed to, and their woolly cloaks, bonnets and scarves were covered in snow that slowly melted from the far higher temperatures in the hallway. "All right!" Caid said and held up her hands. "People! Go home! The counseling sessions have been canceled for the rest of the day! Come on, Corporal... let's get these two into the dining hall," she continued, nudging one of the two sentries into giving the poorly visitors a hand.

To a chorus of disappointed or even angry cries from the men and women who had been waiting in line all morning for nothing, Caid and the sentries helped the shivering travelers through the double doors and into the comfortable warmth of the dining hall.

"Goodness me!" Bronwyn exclaimed once she saw the cause of the emergency. "Oh... come... come, put them next to the fireplace, Caid!" she said, jumping up from the throne. She hurried over to the nearest fireplace and cleared the area in front of it to make room for the weak visitors.

"Yes, put them down there," Caid said, nudging the sentries into going in the right direction. "Not too close to the fire. They have frostbite and the heat from the flames will only worsen their condition. Corporal, call for a healer at once."

"Yes, Huntress," the uniformed man said as he knelt down and helped the female visitor onto the marble floor. Once she was safely down, he got up and hurried back to the door with the other sentry in tow.

The woman's woolen cloak and bonnet glistened from the melted snow. Her fingers proved unresponsive when she tried to take off her outer garments, so Caid had to kneel down and help her free of the soaked fatigues. Underneath the cloak, the woman wore a hunting ensemble in the shape of a pale green, quilted tunic and a pair of brown, insulated straight-cut ankle pants.

At the same time, Bronwyn and Mairee helped the man take off his own outer garments. He was dressed similarly to the woman with the exception that he was wearing a leather bandolier across his chest with room for six crossbow darts, four of which were still there.

Solid ice caked in the man's mustache, full beard and even his eyebrows, but the warmth from the flickering flames meant the first few drops of water had begun to form in the hair.

Groaning, he leaned back and tried to reach for the woman he had come with, but Bronwyn put a calming hand on his ice cold shoulder to keep him from moving too far. "Easy now, Sir. You should not put a strain on your weak being. Your companion seems to be in good fettle if her cursing is anything to go by."

The woman had indeed begun to let out a string of mumbled curses, something Caid saw as a good sign. From her years of practical field experience, the Huntress knew that rubbing the ice cold skin would only worsen their condition, but even so, the woman felt far too cold for the Ranger's liking. "Milady, can you hear me?" she said, trying to feel the pulse on the side of the woman's neck.

Movement behind them made Bronwyn look, but it was Tawna who came back with a jug of brandy she had hurriedly taken from the anteroom just beyond the swinging doors down at the other end of the dining hall.

"Here, my Empress... perhaps a brandy will help them?" the Mistress of the Robes said, pouring a healthy shot into a tin beaker.

"Let us pray to Marpaxa that it will," Bronwyn said and took the beaker. When she held it under the nose of the frosty man, he shied away from the strong scent with a throaty groan. "Sir, this brandy will-"

"N- no alc- alcohol... cannot dr- drink... al- alco-" the man said, trying to push away the beaker.

Bronwyn furrowed her brow and stared at the man whose outfit didn't seem to be overtly religious in nature - especially not the crossbow darts. "Sir... this is medicine. It will do you good," she tried again, holding the beaker under his nose.

Grunting, the man eventually took the beaker and sipped the contents. Another grunt followed the first which probably meant he enjoyed the taste.

"Oh, it seems to work," Bronwyn said and motioned Tawna to pour some more into the beaker. Once it was full again, they moved over to the female visitor and offered her a sip of the contents.

The woman didn't take to the brandy like her companion had done, but she drank from it nevertheless - she even licked her lips when a few drops went down her chin.

"Caid, is she going to pull through?" Bronwyn said, kneeling down in front of the woman without any regards for the well-being of her golden gown. Out of pure reflex, she took the stricken woman's ice cold hand and began to pat it. "Milady... milady, can you hear me? Would you like some more brandy?"

"I think she will be fine, Empress Bronwyn," Caid said, still touching the side of the woman's neck to check her pulse. She found the heartbeat to be increasingly strong and regular.

"Oh, that is good news! Yes indeed, that is good news."

The woman only croaked to the offer of more brandy, but the man grunted loudly and raised a hand in the air. Mairee spotted it and turned around to tap Tawna on the shoulder. "That's a yes from the fella," she said, nodding.

The Mistress of the Robes cast a puzzled glance at the haggard-looking woman before she took the beaker from Bronwyn's hand and slid over to the man to offer it to him.

"Thank you f- for the m- med- medicine," he croaked. "W- we seek an audience w- with the Emperor."

"Well... I, Empress Bronwyn, am here... speak up if you can," Bronwyn said and hurried over to the other patient.

"Empress... no," the man said and furrowed his brow. "I n- need to speak with Emperor Jin-Sarnos..."

"Alas, Sir, you cannot. My father has passed."

"Oh... we didn't know," the man said and cast a glance at his wife. Grunting, he seemed to think that Bronwyn would do. "M- my name is Mikeel Rhoggis... th- this is my wife Aleesa Rhoggis. We c- come from the northern territories on an urgent-"

"Oh," Bronwyn said and pressed her hands to her bosom. "Do you mean to tell me you have traveled more than forty-five leagues in blizzard-like conditions?!"

"W- we have. We r- rented a covered wagon to t- take us here. It overturned a short league outside of t- town. The driver was thrown off the buckboard and was rendered unconscious. The horse fractured a leg in the accident. W- we had to leave them behind."

Caid let out a grim, dark grunt. "They'll both be frozen solid by now," she said decisively.

"Pr- probably. The- there was nothing w- we could do, my w- wife and I," the man croaked.

Bronwyn wrung her hands in worry but had to face the reality of what the man told her and Caid. For two regular people, dragging an unconscious man through a blizzard would have been akin to suicide by proxy - or sheer madness. "At least he will be enjoying the warmth at Marpaxa's side," she said solemnly.

"Em- Empress Bronwyn, I f- fear our faith differs f- from yours," Mikeel said, shivering. "In the northern territories, we d- do not believe in the Sibling Gods... not Marpaxa or h- her brother Phirax."

"Oh... I... I see. I had no idea... I beg for forgiveness," Bronwyn said, scrunching up her face.

Caid licked her lips and moved down to support the man while keeping an eye on the woman who seemed weaker than her husband. "Mikeel, why have you come? What was so important you had to brave the worst conditions in decades?"

"W- we have come to ask f- for help on a grave matter that threatens our village. We th- thought Emperor Jin-Sarnos was st- still... still..."

Bronwyn briefly grimaced as she looked at the frosty visitors. "Like I said before, I fear my father has moved on from this world, Mikeel. I assumed the throne upon his passing."

"I s- see... we h- hail the graceful Empress Bronwyn," Mikeel said and wiped an endless stream of droplets out of his beard and mustache. "N- now, it is your help we seek."

"And my help you certainly shall have, Sir Mikeel... may I inquire as to what my help will actually aide you against? Ruffians, perhaps? Highwaymen?" Bronwyn said with a wistful smile.

"Alas, highwaymen and ruffians we c- could deal with, Empress Bronwyn. No, I fear it is far, far worse than that. There's a hideous, foul-tempered m- monstrosity loose in the Natfarann Forests. Every single night, it attacks our p- peaceful village... eats our livestock... ruins our homes. We're at the end of our tether. We need your help to kill the loathsome b- beast," Mikeel said in a voice that grew stronger for each word he spoke.

Caid and Bronwyn stared wide-eyed at each other. 'Monstrosity?' Bronwyn mouthed, receiving no reply from the Huntress. "A monster?" she said out loud. When the man nodded, she furrowed her brow and began to rub her entire face to combat the weirdness of the moment. She suddenly looked up and pinned the icy man to the spot. "Wait... the Natfarann Forests? The same Natfarann Forests from the three centuries-old legend of the pirate treasure? Where a feared buccaneer captain ran his ship aground in a lagoon, killed his crew and spent six moons digging his treasure into the forest floor?"

"Th- that is a myth, Em- Empress," Aleesa croaked, making everyone turn to look at her. When she pointed at the beaker, Mairee hastily poured a healthy amount of brandy into it and gave it to her.

"A myth, Aleesa?" Bronwyn said, reaching for the woman's hand to offer her a modicum of support.

Aleesa took a deep sip from the beaker and wiped her lips on the back of her hand. "Merely a myth, I fear," she said, nodding. "Countless people have l- lost their l- lives trying to find that wretched treasure... the Natfarann Forests have been turned inside out, yet not a s- single gold Crown has ever surfaced. Th- this monster, however... this monster is as real as you or I. It truly is hideous!"

"How dreadful... but how long has it been terrorizing your village?"

Mikeel grunted and tried to wipe more water out of his beard. "It started a fortnight after the onset of winter. It has come most nights for a moon and a half now."

"Oh, goodness me... such a revelation is truly shocking! Could you not have fled?" Bronwyn said, chewing on her fingernails.

"L- leave the homes and the place of worship our ancestors built, Empress?" Aleesa croaked. "And wh- where would we go... th- there's nowhere for us to go..." she continued, clearly working herself into an agitated state.

"Hush now... I understand, Aleesa," Bronwyn said somberly. She furrowed her brow and took a step back from the two weak people. 'A quest for the Natfarann Gold? That would certainly provide the adventure I yearn for... but the terrible weather... and I cannot possibly send my loyal men out to be slain by an evil monster simply to see if the myth is true after all. No... no, that I cannot do. But I could join them on such a quest...' - "Caid... please, may I have a quiet word in your ear?" she said out loud and pulled the Huntress closer to her.

Behind them, the healer attached to the castle entered the dining hall with his kit and a couple of aides, marking the perfect time for Bronwyn and Caid to shuffle away from the weak visitors. Before they left, Bronwyn went over to Mikeel and Aleesa one last time and knelt down in front of them. "My friends from the north, I promise that we shall deal with this dreadful monster once and for all. You have my word."

The word of the Empress seemed enough for the two people who both nodded gratefully. Once Bronwyn stood upright, she put a hand on Caid's elbow and pulled her to the side, well away from the healer and his assistants.

"I know what you're thinking, my Empress," Caid said so quietly only Bronwyn could hear it, "but I cannot stress hard enough that there shall be no rescue operation while the weather is this wretched. I wasn't given this rank to be a yes-woman, and right now, I'm telling you 'no'."

"But sweet Caid, you have not even heard my proposition yet!"

"I don't need to," Caid said even more quietly. "Your eyes are shining with glee at the prospects of such a stirring endeavor... and dare I say it, lust for the mythical gold. Beware, my love. The Natfarann Gold has been the bane of many an adventurer... strong women as well as proud men."

Bronwyn took a half-step back and began to chew on her lips. She knew that Caid was right in all she said, and yet she couldn't help but feel a strong spark of excitement deep inside her. "I understand, Huntress," she said and let her hand slide up Caid's arm. "Though I am still an inexperienced puppy compared to your vastly superior skills, I had no intention of traveling north in such awful weather."

"I beg for forgiveness, Empress Bronwyn. I was out of line," Caid said and bowed at her lover.

"Please do not bow to me, Caid," Bronwyn said so quietly even the Huntress had to strain her hearing. The two women shuffled even further away from the hubbub near the fireplace so they could have some privacy. Once they were at a safe distance from the people tending to Mikeel and Aleesa, Bronwyn pulled them to a stop and leaned in to steal a quick kiss. "Caid, my proposition is to assemble a team and travel north, yes, but not until the weather makes a strong turn for the better. Even then, we may not be able to push through the mountains of snow you said yourself are out there."

"Indeed, my Empress. Belly-deep for a tall horse."

"Indeed... but at the same time, how can I tell those poor people that I care not about their village, nor the lives of their kin? I cannot, Huntress. That would make me no better than my father," Bronwyn said and stole another kiss just because she could.

"True. Well..." Caid said and looked up at the highly expectant face of the woman she loved. Sighing, she knew she had to admit defeat. "Well... if anyone is to lead such an operation, it should be your senior Ranger. Very well. In the morrow, I shall assemble a team and have them on standby for when the weather improves."

"Thank you, sweet Caid. I am indebted to you," Bronwyn said and stole yet another kiss. "And now, I solemnly proclaim that you, my senior Ranger, shall accompany your Empress back to my quarters to look at the first draft of my plan... and to take care of something that requires a woman's tender touch."

"Alas, I have obligations-"

"To your Empress," Bronwyn said and hooked her arm inside Caid's. Smirking triumphantly, she spun around and strode towards the bedchamber, dragging the senior Ranger with her.

"Indeed, my Empress. Indeed," Caid said as she hurried along to keep up with the taller woman's longer stride.




Three days later, the weather finally improved enough for Caid and Bronwyn's plans to be set in motion. Gone were the heavy, dark gray clouds, replaced by a clear and deep blue sky that stretched from horizon to horizon. The winds had died down as well, and with the appearance of the faint, orange disc that hung low in the sky, the pure white landscape presented itself from its most glorious side.

Bronwyn stood by the opened windows in her old chamber high up the castle keep and cast an excited glance out over the white roofs of Ashburne. Though she had moved all her belongings downstairs when she had assumed the throne, she had kept the chamber and the study in the keep for storage - and for the magnificent view.

Well-wrapped in several blankets and a thick fur to combat the chill that swept in from the open windows, she let her eyes roam beyond the city wall and out to the vast, sweeping landscapes where the trees and fields appeared to have been painted white.

She took a deep breath to fill her lungs with the frosty air. After holding it in, she let it out slowly while she thought of the expedition to come. 'It shall be perilous, of that there is no doubt. Not only do we have to brave the snow, once we get there, we need to fight a supposedly hideous, foul-tempered monster. What do we know of fighting monsters? Disregarding the flying creatures and the terrible brown beasts we encountered in Lasar-Ihtreg's realm in the east, neither I nor my associates have any experience fighting monsters.'

"Or perhaps the fervor of the Huntress in bed counts as fighting a monster...?" she said out loud, breaking down in a snicker.

She decided she'd had enough of the frosty conditions and reached through the windows to close first the creaky shutters, then the frames. Wrapping her fur even closer, she left the bedchamber and ventured down the grand staircase, as always greeting the many maids, servants and soldiers she encountered.


Once she was back in her new bedchamber adjacent to the dining hall, she shed her fur and the blankets to reveal she was wearing a brand new hunting ensemble underneath, consisting of high-legged boots, insulated, wraparound ankle pants, a quilted tunic and finally a fur-lined jerkin with an integrated leather belt - all held in various shades of brown.

A double-chested jacket and a pair of sturdy gloves lay ready for her on the canopy bed, but more importantly, Caid's hastily discarded sleeping tunic was still where its owner had left it the same morning when she had gone off to do her duty.

Smiling, Bronwyn reached for Caid's garment and held it to her face so she could get a dose of her partner's natural scent. "Oh, Caid Barlin, how I love thee," she whispered into the sleeping tunic. The soft fabric didn't offer an answer, and yet, she thought she could hear an echo of Caid at her most romantic and passionate.

After putting the sleeping tunic back onto the bed, Bronwyn left the bedchamber and went into the connecting hall that took her to the study and the servants' quarters.

In a very small chamber at the end of the hall, Carrae was sitting at a desk trying to mend a torn shirt. She only had the meager light of a single tallow candle to work by so it was slow going - the tongue that was stuck firmly in the corner of her mouth only proved it. The young blonde was out of her frock for a change, revealing her dark brown skirt and matching short-sleeved tunic.

Bronwyn remained silent for a little while so she could observe the young woman. Carrae was only eight years younger than she, but she seemed like a frightened little child, even compared to the other junior handmaidens. Some of them were loutish and brash when they were among their own kind, but Carrae never lost her timidness - unfortunately, that left her open for bullying.

When the teenager noticed her mistress standing in the doorway, she hurriedly put away her needlework, jumped up and curtseyed deeply. "Mistress Bronwyn. What do you wish me to do?"

"Oh, I was wondering if you knew where I would be able to find the Huntress, Carrae?"

"I do not, Mistress Bronwyn."

"Ah well, it matters not. It shall not be long before we meet for our afternoon snack. Please, go back to your work," Bronwyn said and sat down on Carrae's rickety bunk. As expected, the mattress was lumpy and coarse, but a beautiful white lace handkerchief was stuck in under the pillow, perhaps a memento from home or from a romantic soul she had befriended.

Carrae curtseyed again before she sat down. With a worried glance at the handkerchief under the pillow, she picked up the needlework and resumed mending the shirt.

"Tell me, Carrae," Bronwyn said, carefully running her fingers across the high-quality handkerchief. "I was under the impression that you and Mynere were friends?"

"We are, Mistress Bronwyn. Best friends."

"Ah," Bronwyn said with a warm smile. "Then how come it has been a while since I have seen you engaged in a conversation with her?"

"Oh..." Carrae said and stopped mending the shirt. She sighed deeply and stared straight ahead without seeing anything. She eventually blinked and resumed working. "Her mother has forbidden me from seeing her. Mynere has become pregnant with one of the stable boys. Her mother blames me."

"Surely you had nothing to do with that particular point of the matter!" Bronwyn said and slapped her hands down onto her thighs.

"No, but they met through me," the young woman said quietly, casting a sorrowful glance at the lace handkerchief.

Bronwyn saw the glance and put two and two together at once - Carrae had been infatuated with the stable boy, too, but had lost out to Mynere who was more mature and far more outgoing. Grunting, she rose from the rickety bunk and went over to the maid where she put a calming hand on the petite shoulder. "Oh, Carrae, that was not your fault. When we return from our expedition to the northern territories, I promise I shall call in Mynere and her mother for an informal talk. I know the importance of a close friendship."

"Thank you, Mistress Bronwyn."

"Mmmm. You are most welcome. Now, Carrae, will you please fetch the scribe? I need a few messages sent out in a hurry to some of my own friends," Bronwyn said and moved over to the door.

"Yes, Mistress Bronwyn!" the young blonde said and hurriedly put away the needlework. After curtseying, she scooted off down the connecting hall and out the door.

Smiling, Bronwyn looked at the pristine handkerchief and let out a dark chuckle. "Oh, this magical thing called love... we cannot live without it, and yet, we so often cannot live with it."


Sometime later, Caid Barlin stepped out into the snow-covered inner gardens of Ashburne Castle and looked around for the easily recognizable figure of Empress Bronwyn.

The gardens had been built on a high plateau in the shadow of the north-west guard tower, and consisted of six aisles of well-groomed bushes and flower beds as well as an intricate labyrinth lined by tall hedges. At the central part of the gardens, a love bench had been put up in an undisturbed spot under an ancient oak tree - of course, at present, everything was buried under what appeared to be a fathom of snow.

The Huntress crouched down and looked at a pair of tracks that went into the gardens. Grunting, she took off her mittens and reached into the pocket of her fur-lined overcoat to take the piece of parchment she had been given by a manservant. It read,

'Caid, I have summoned Kheo Khammon, Deegan Arliss and Lady Fyonna for a meeting this afternoon at tea time. Prior to that, I wish for you to meet me in the inner gardens for an intimate heart to heart on the state of our union. Bronwyn.'

Caid folded up the note and put it back into her pocket. "And now you want to play, do you?" she mumbled, looking at the tracks as she put on her mittens. "Very well. This is one game I am good at."

At the other side of the gardens, a dark, fur-lined bonnet and a pair of bright blue eyes briefly popped up, but quickly vanished. A snicker wafted across the inner gardens on the edge of the gentle breeze that was always present due to the proximity of the tall guard tower.

The Huntress set off following the tracks for a few fathoms before turning right and choosing an aisle where the snow hadn't been disturbed since the big blizzard several days earlier. In her sturdy boots and her wraparound leggings, she was able to stay warm and dry, and she exploited that by going into the biggest piles of snow she could find, knowing full well Bronwyn would never go there.

The dark, fur-lined bonnet quickly popped back up, but when Caid wasn't where she was supposed to be, the figure let out a puzzled plume of steam before going back down. Moments later, a tall figure dressed in dark brown furs crept out from behind a hazel bush and began to slog through the deep snow to get to another hide-out further into the gardens.

At the same time, Caid turned sharp left at the next connecting aisle and crouched down before she went too far. She was looking at a pair of tracks that were so fresh little grains of snow were still trickling down from the edges and into the hollows. Blending in perfectly, Caid scanned her surroundings and eventually spotted a flash of dark brown where one shouldn't have been.

The dark figure glanced around and eventually crouched down behind the love bench, right under the thick, snow-covered branches of the oak tree.

Caid grunted and looked at the crown of the tree where the figure was hiding; the snow on the branches had clumped together dangerously, and it was obvious a mere sneeze would set off a disastrous avalanche. Instead of rushing forward, Caid turned right and followed the aisle away from the central part of the gardens.

She moved past the labyrinth and along the next connecting aisle until she had found a better vantage point. There, she spotted Bronwyn still crouching down behind the love bench. Caid was close enough to see Bronwyn's sparkling eyes and rosy cheeks, and she knew the Empress had to be enjoying herself.

"Woe is me!" Caid said strongly as she stepped out into the open with her hands held out like in a shrug. "Where can my love be? She said to meet me in the inner gardens, and yet she is nowhere to be found. Perhaps she has run off with a charming rogue who swept her off her feet?"

A girlish snicker wafted out from behind the love bench, but it only made Caid furrow her brow and look up at the snow on the branches. "Of course," the Huntress said, pretending to continue to look around, "I'm glad she isn't here... that way, she won't be in any danger from the avalanche that will surely come down from the oak tree at any moment."

A surprised grunt produced a long plume of steam that floated up from Bronwyn's hiding place behind the bench. The grunt and the steam were quickly followed by Bronwyn herself who inched sideways to get away from the impending danger.

Caid chuckled and held out her hands.

Bronwyn hurried over to her partner and swooped in for a fair-sized hug. "Avalanche?" she squeaked, staring back at the solid white crown of the proud oak tree.

"I fear so, my love. Behold," Caid said and took off a warm mitten so she could stick two fingers in her mouth. Drawing a deep breath, she let out a piercing whistle - and moments later, the snow gave up the ghost and dumped itself down onto the love bench with a rolling whoomph!

"Goodness me... I swear, Huntress, I had no idea... none. None whatsoever," Bronwyn said and pulled herself in for a new hug. "Thank you. Once again, you are my savior," she husked, leaning down to claim Caid's lips in an ice cold kiss.

When they separated, Caid took advantage of not wearing her mittens by trailing an index finger down the Empress' cheek and onto her chin. "You look tired. And you have little lines of worry around your mouth that I do not believe I have seen before."

"Alas, I fear the harsh light of day only reveals my true face, Huntress," Bronwyn said with a snicker. "But truthfully, I am quite tired. There was more to the position of Empress than I had expected. Speaking of which..."


"Come, let us stroll through this magical, romantic landscape," Bronwyn said and sought out Caid's hand. "I have a few things I wish to discuss with you where your opinion will mean the world to me."

"Oh? That sounds serious," Caid said and hurriedly put her mittens back on so her fingers wouldn't turn into icicles.

"I fear it is, to a certain extent. I have spoken to my senior meteorologist. He claims with near-certainty the present weather will last a week, if not more. I believe we should assemble a team and travel north."

"Mmmm," Caid said, nodding. As they moved, they held onto each other's mittens with their arms merrily swinging back and forth.

"Yes. I have taken the liberty of summoning the other members of the team that served me so well on our near-tragic trek to the Shadowlands. Kheo, Deegan and Lady Fyonna. I hope they will accept the assignment, though Kheo and Deegan are busy men now."

"My Empress, I am ready to follow you to the end of the world... and the end of the world is not far from where we shall be going. The Natfarann Forests are in the middle of nowhere with only a few villages in the vicinity. Our stay there will be brutal, Bronwyn. The land will be relentless and we have no way of knowing how the weather will behave up there. On top of that, we may have to fight some kind of creature. This shall not be a merry adventure. I hope you understand that."

"I do, Caid," Bronwyn said and pulled them to a halt.

Caid stopped and studied the face of the taller, younger woman. There was a certain gleam in her blue eyes that was hard to read. "Empress Bronwyn," Caid said quietly, once again seeking out Bronwyn's hands. "May I speak freely?"

"Oh, but of course! Why, I am practically insulted that you even feel a need to ask!"

"Empress Bronwyn, I did so because you will not care for the question I have prepared for you."

"Oh... pray, go on, Caid," Bronwyn said and cocked her head.

"What are your motivations for going, my Empress? To help the people rid their village of this supposedly hideous monster... or to find the legendary cache of gold? Lust for wealth does not become you, love. I can see it in your eyes. There's a gleam there I've seen in men about to throw away their honor for simple Mammon. You, my sweet Bronwyn, are far stronger than that."

Bronwyn opened her mouth to reply but the words wouldn't come. She scrunched up her face and looked at the older and infinitely wiser woman in her arms. After a little while, she let out a deep sigh and moved in for a hug. "I fear you are right, Huntress. Although... I will say in my defense that it is not the promise of wealth but rather the quest itself that has put its hooks in me."

"Mmmm," Caid said and stood up on tip-toes to place a kiss on the Empress' lips. "I had a hunch it would be. Bronwyn, adventurers have been searching for that infamous pirate treasure for three centuries. To imagine that we should be able to find it on a whim when so many have failed is rather childish, to be honest."

"Oh, Caid, I fear you are right... again. Very well..." Bronwyn said and let out another deep sigh that showed itself as a strong plume of steam that slowly drifted away from the two women. "But wanting to help those villagers is still a noble cause, would you not say so?"

"Certainly, Empress Bronwyn. Just order my Rangers up there and we shall deal with that critter in no time," Caid said with a colorful gesture that described exactly what she meant.

Bronwyn chuckled and pulled the compact warrior into another hug. "No, Caid, I shall join you on this quest. I fear that if I do not experience something exciting soon, my brain shall wither and die."

"Oh, Bronwyn," Caid said in a voice that crept dangerously close to being a groan. "Need I remind you that you are the ruler of our lands... indeed, your moniker is the Mother of our People. Should you really be risking your neck by going on foolish and potentially dangerous quests such as this one?"

"But Caid, if you went without me at the head of a company of Rangers, you would be risking your neck, too... on a foolish and potentially dangerous quest, as you called it."

"True... however, as a soldier, I am by definition expendable. You, my love, are not," Caid said and stole a kiss.

Bronwyn didn't look too convinced, best witnessed by her eyebrows that went separate ways: the left one went up, the right one down. "I beg to differ, Huntress. There is only one Caid Barlin in this world... the one I make love to in the eve, the one I hold at night, the one I kiss in the morn. I do believe that would be the Caid Barlin who is here, right now, looking at me. And that Caid Barlin is by no means expendable."

Caid had nothing to say to that so she settled for getting up on tip-toes and giving her lover a tender kiss.

"Huntress, I understand your concerns, truly I do," Bronwyn said and touched her tingling lips that were graced by a wistful smile, "but the Empire will be left in the skilled, capable hands of my dignitaries while we are away. My dear friend Tawna shall take care of all questions concerning etiquette and the staff in her position as the Mistress of the Robes... and I dare say my armed forces shall continue to protect the castle and the city."

"Quite. But my Empress, I fear there are several high-ranking members of your armed forces who do not relish the prospects of their Empress being away."

"Who?" Bronwyn said, moving back at arm's length.

"Give me a full turn of the hourglass and I shall tell you! Me, myself and I for starters! Oh, I wish you would reconsider," Caid said with a dark chuckle, "alas, I can see in your eyes you have made up your mind."

"I fear I have, Caid," Bronwyn said warmly, running a gloved hand over the Huntress' rosy cheek.

"Very well. Ugh," Caid said and shook her head at the craziness of the situation. "Bronwyn, a long time ago, I promised I would protect you from all harm regardless of the foe. That still stands... well, I suppose I have sworn an oath, too, technically speaking, but my initial promise still weighs heavier on my heart, simply because that was made to you, Bronwyn, not your title."

Bronwyn leaned down in an invitation for a kiss. "Thank you, Caid," she whispered a mere inch from the Huntress' frosty lips.

Caid leaned her head back to let herself be kissed, but before they could establish the sweet contact, a snowball smashed into her fur-lined overcoat and shattered against her rear end. "What in the name of Phirax the Unholy was that now? Where did that come from?" she growled, spinning around like lightning to shoot green fire at the dastardly individual who dared to ice the Huntress.

"Oh, I do believe I know the identity of the assassin, Caid," Bronwyn said with her hands politely covering her mouth to block the inevitable snicker. Her superior height gave her the opportunity to see above one of the hedges lining the labyrinth.

There, a bald head had promptly ducked below the white wall after the rousing success of his first artillery barrage. Patting sounds from beyond the hedge proved that he was already working on producing more ammunition.

"Who?" Caid growled, still not seeing anything beyond shades of white.

"Oh, I do believe it may be... Kheo Khammon," Bronwyn said and snickered again. Reaching up, she waved at the large man to get him to come over.

Caid grumbled and secretly reached down to scoop up a large handful of snow. "Kheo, eh? Where is he?"

"He shall be here shortly, Caid. Indeed, here he comes now," Bronwyn said and smiled at their large friend.

Kheo Khammon stepped around the corner of the hedge and adjusted his overcoat that had been knocked askew in the sneak attack. He wore no hat or scarf to protect his bald head against the cold, so the skin had turned rosy from his eyebrows and all the way back to his bull neck. His beard appeared to have been trimmed recently and wasn't quite as long and unkempt as it had been in the


"Empress Bronwyn," he said and bowed deeply at his mistress.

"Rise, my friend," Bronwyn said and put a hand on the large man's shoulder. "Oh, I must say you look quite vigorous. How is life treating you these days? Are you comfortable in your new, old rank of Sergeant Major of the Artillery?"

"That I am, yeah," Kheo said in his typical, rural accent, "I guess some o' the younger men don't like this here old fool returnin' to bust their chops. They can sure use some bustin', tho'... here in the wintertime, many o'em are gettin' a little lazy, if ya know what I mean. Hello there, Huntress. You look like yer' wantin' ta tell me som'thin'?"

"Hello, Kheo. Oh, I very much am," Caid said and calmly reached up to bury Kheo's face in the snow she had kept behind her back. "Surprise!"

"Ooof!" Kheo spluttered, hurriedly wiping the ice cold snow out of his eyes and beard. The large man took a clumsy step backwards and stumbled over an unsighted brick that marked the edge of the flower bed they were standing next to. He flapped his arms in the air for a few seconds before gravity won the fight and dumped him on his rear in the middle of a large pile of snow.

Bronwyn took a sliding step away from Caid in case Kheo was going to retaliate at once, but instead, the large man calmly picked himself up from the snow - too calmly.

"I got snow in my britches... hate snow in my britches," he mumbled as he tried to dab down the seat of his pants. Out of nowhere, he let out a roar and jumped forward with his meaty paws stretched out ahead of him.

A split second later, Caid found herself grabbed around the waist and flung through the air in a perfect parabolic arc. She squealed as loudly as she could, but she couldn't do anything about the relentless pull of gravity, either. Moments later, she was face down in the same pile of snow just visited by Kheo.

Groaning, hacking and spluttering, she wiped snow off her forehead and out of her hair, mouth and nostrils, but her face still resembled that of a snowman, even when she sat back on her thighs and used both hands to escape the white prison.

"Surprise!" Kheo mocked, sticking out his tongue.

Bronwyn chuckled at the antics of the two old friends, but she knew fun and games could soon turn ugly if not kept on a tight leash. "My friends, I call a truce. A call to lay down your arms and shake hands like the noble warriors you are."

Ignoring Bronwyn's words, Caid and Kheo just stared each other down, both clearly working on devious plans of retaliation.

"Now go on and shake hands... shake hands, my friends... I shall not tell you again... shake hands!" Bronwyn said strongly, slamming her own hands onto her hips.

Caid's face cracked open in a broad smile as she put out her mitten.

Kheo didn't just shake her hand, he pulled her into a bear hug that made her laugh out loud while her boots were suspended two feet above the snow. After putting down the Huntress, Kheo bowed at her flamboyantly before repeating the gesture to the Empress. "Yer wish is my command, Empress Bronwyn. Now, I got yer note... obvi'sly. I know it said ta come at tea time, but I had some business t'attend over he', so I thought, hey, why not come a li'l early, Kheo?"

"I am glad you did, Sergeant Major," Bronwyn said and put out her hand.

Being the perfect gentleman, Kheo took it and kissed the Imperial knuckles. "Yeah, me too. So, whassat I hear on the grapevine 'bout monsters and stuff up north?"

"Ah yes," Caid said, still brushing snow out of her hair. "The Empress was asked by two visitors from the great, white north to come to their assistance with regards to a monstrosity that wrecks their village on a regular basis."

"Now ain't that jus' too dang bratty of it? Uh, when ya say 'monstrosity', ya mean...?"

"Alas, Kheo," Bronwyn said, fiddling with the hem of her furs as she cast a sideways glance at Caid's face that had turned beet-root red from the coldness of her mask of snow, "we cannot say. A beast of some kind. Whatever the creature is, the threat alone was strong enough to make three people travel forty-five leagues in a blizzard to ask for help."

"Three people? Aw, I get it. Two survivors an' an icicle."

"Indeed," Bronwyn said somberly. "In any case, Mikeel and his wife Aleesa are still recovering from their terrible ordeal. I have tried to coax more information out of them that could aid our expedition, but they seem reluctant to... well, to provide us with many details."

"Then I'll bet my monthly wages that dang critter is a nasty one," Kheo mumbled, scratching his beard that still had some snow in it from Caid's surprise attack. "They ain't dumb up north. They know if we think it's a real son of a who- I mean, a nasty piece o' work, we ain't gonn' come an' help 'em... so they keep their traps shut. Ain't that right, Huntress?"

"Sounds about right, Kheo," Caid said with a nod - Bronwyn merely bit down on her lips.

Scratching his beard again, Kheo narrowed his eyes and shot the Empress a supportive look. "I sapose yer settin' up an expeditionary force jus' like when we was tryin' ta get ya to the Shadowlands?"

Bronwyn nodded and put her hands on the small of her companions' backs to let them know they should begin to move back to the castle before Caid's face froze solid. "I am, Kheo. I fear the trip north shall be even more strenuous on the participants than our wretched endeavor to the east. Therefore, I could not stomach filling the roster ahead of time. This shall be on a voluntary basis. The Huntress has already accepted the assignment."

"Aw, but I ain't gonn' stay behind like a tweety-bird when the Huntress has committed. Naw, Empress Bronwyn... I'm in, too. Phirax, ya cannot keep me away," Kheo said sincerely, turning around to look Bronwyn in the eye.

"I thank you, Sergeant Major," Bronwyn said with a smile. "Now, can we please step back inside? Although I am fond of the snow, as the Huntress can attest, I fear my toes do not share my fondness for the white element. I dread the prospects of taking off my boots... there is something rattling around inside them! I fear my toes may have turned into ice cubes!"

Chuckling, Caid hurriedly stood up on tip-toes to place a kiss on Bronwyn's rosy cheek. The two women exchanged a brief glance that gave a strong hint that warming up wouldn't be a problem for either of them.


Safely inside the corridor, Bronwyn nodded a thank you to the two sentries from the Watch brigade who stood guard at the entrance to the inner gardens.

After the soldiers had saluted the Empress and the other two senior officers, the trio of friends slowly made their way through the damp, dark corridors on their way back to the grand dining hall. Even at the height of day, the orange, flickering light that shone from the burning torches that hung on brass rings on the walls wasn't strong enough to avoid deep shadows forming between each post.

"Ya know," Kheo said as he took off his overcoat and slapped it to get the last of the snow off, "we're gonn' need a whole new range o' supplies on this trek. We gonna need furs, blankets, insulated tents, plenty o' kindling, at least one o' them fancy brass lanterns I saw the other day that burns on some kind o' stinky gunk, spare canisters for that, food that don't need no cookin' in case the dang wind is blowin' so hard we cannot get a fire goin'... jus' about the only thing we ain't gonn' need on this trip is spare water. There's gonn' be plenty o' snow around for us to melt an' drink."

Bronwyn grunted as she took off her own furs. "Very true, Kheo. Take what you need from our storage vaults. I am sure the quartermaster will help you."

"Thank ya, Empress."

"Why, Empress Bronwyn!" Caid said and clapped her hands to her bosom in a rare case of teasing her partner in public. "Are you wearing men's attire underneath those shapeless furs? My, I fear your stuffy old dignitaries will suffer an acute mental breakdown when they catch wind of those tight, tight ankle pants... what do you say, Kheo?"

The large man looked anywhere but at said tight pants, mumbling something about not lookin' at anything in particular apart from where he put his feet. Bronwyn chuckled and leaned over to thump Caid's shoulder - she didn't speak a word, but she didn't have to.


Once inside the grand dining hall, Bronwyn let Carrae collect the wet robes for drip-drying and careful heating. Striding over to her throne, the Empress sat down and gestured to her friends that they could be seated, too.

"Oy, luv... I mean, Empress Bronwyn, have ya ever considered splashin' out on some cushions or som'thin'? Them chairs here is mi'ty hard on my bee-hind," Kheo said as he shuffled around on the high-backed chair.

"Alas, I have not, but thank you for the suggestion, Kheo," Bronwyn said and waved casually at one of the maids who had hurried into the dining hall to be ready to do the Empress' bidding.

The maid quickly left the outside wall and came over to the horseshoe-shaped table where she curtseyed deeply to her Mistress. "Empress Bronwyn?"

"Hot tea and sweet pastry for five, please. And a keg of easy brandy, too. 'Tis so dreadfully cold out there," Bronwyn said, smiling at the maid. "Ah! And a dry towel for the Huntress, please. I fear her face and hair are in dire need of a thorough rubdown."

"Yes, Mistress," the maid said and curtseyed deeply before she hurried back to the swinging doors to the anteroom. Before long, the familiar sounds of cups and plates clanging and a cook cursing over the unexpected work wafted back to the dining hall.

Caid sat at Bronwyn's immediate right - the proper place for the Imperial consort - and she took the opportunity to seek out Bronwyn's right hand and give it a loving squeeze. The two women smiled at each other before a certain darkness rolled across Caid's flushed face. "Bronwyn, I am not speaking as a soldier but as the woman who loves you," she said quietly. Once she had the Empress' attention, she leaned in so she didn't need so speak for the entire dining hall.

"This trip won't be as easy and adventurous as I fear you are expecting it to be. Phirax may join us once we get there, and I can almost hear his old companion Death clacking his hideous teeth in gleeful expectancy. I know I cannot make you reconsider, but Bronwyn... please... do not treat this expedition too lightly. Death does not care whom He reaps... He will simply take his share of peasants, soldiers and Empresses alike. We're all just reeds at the icy wind's mercy out there."

Bronwyn chewed on her lips and wished she and Caid were alone so she could speak what was on her heart. 'My love is right... I am being foolish for arranging such a dangerous expedition, especially in the bleak mid-winter,' she thought, returning the squeeze. 'But I have promised Mikeel and Aleesa I would help them. If there really is a monster, it may threaten Ashburne one day... and the treasure... the treasure could help us. Oh, I fear I need this adventure like I need food, air, water, and yes, Caid Barlin.' - "My love, I appreciate your concern. Once we set off, I promise I shall not act as an Empress but as your humble subject. Out there, you are in command, not I."

Caid furrowed her brow - that wasn't exactly the point she had tried to make. Before she could elaborate on what she had really meant, Carrae and another maid entered the dining hall pushing two carts laden with plates, beakers, pastries, kettles containing steaming hot pre-mixed tea, a keg of easy brandy, and finally a fine towel.

While the table was being set, the double doors at the other end of the dining hall opened to reveal the recently reinstated Lieutenant of the Cavalry Deegan Arliss. As always, the wiry, dark-haired man with the razor-sharp eyes that never missed a beat anywhere was sharply dressed in a red satin tunic with wide sleeves, a black leather belt with a brass buckle, and black wraparound ankle pants that went down into his high-legged riding boots. Over his arm, he held a full-length winter cloak that was soon handed to one of the maids for drip-drying. When his hands became visible, it was revealed he held onto a sealed scroll.

He quickly strode up to the end of the horseshoe-shaped table where he went down into a deep bow. "Lieutenant Deegan Arliss at your service, Empress Bronwyn," he said, studying the marble floor.

"You may rise, my friend," Bronwyn said and held out her hands to invite her friend over for a respectful touch.

Almost as expected, the cavalry Lieutenant didn't simply touch the Empress' hand, he took it and kissed her knuckles with a flamboyant gesture, much to the amusement of the other people at the dining table.

"Oy, you!" Kheo rumbled, "Wotcha tryin' ta do? Be the Empress' left-hand flirt?"

"Most assuredly not, Sergeant Major," Deegan said and stood up straight. "Empress Bronwyn, I carry a sealed scroll from Lady Fyonna. Behold," he continued, handing the rolled-up parchment to the Empress.

Bronwyn furrowed her brow and took the scroll. After unrolling it, she skimmed the text and let out a disappointed grunt. "Oh dear. Our friend Lady Fyonna shall not be joining us for our expedition. In her own words... Most Esteemed Empress Bronwyn, ruler of Dinnigon... mmmm, mmmm, mmmm, mmmm, mmmm... I fear my ancient bones are suffering greatly from the severity of the present winter. Most days, I can hardly get out of bed in the morn, much less walk down the stairs. Alas, even if I summoned the strength of all females within a range of a hundred leagues, my brittle frame would be of no use to you once out in the field. I fear I have to sit this one out. Please accept my profound apologies, Empress Bronwyn. Yours, Fyonna of Ashburne."

Bronwyn stared straight ahead as the scroll fell into her lap. "Drat. We could have used her many skills. Ack, that was not the news I had hoped for."

Deegan bowed again before he sat down next to Kheo. Grinning at the large, bald man, he helped himself to a plate of pastry, a beaker and the nearest kettle of tea. Then he spotted the brandy and dropped the other items to go for the most important one.

"Hmmm," Bronwyn said and folded up the scroll. Putting it away, she reached for her ruby-studded goblet and took a few swigs of the steaming hot tea that Carrae had poured for her. "Alas, there is nothing we can do about that. Goodness me, I fear I cannot even begin to imagine how my bones would feel if they were two centuries old like Lady Fyonna's," she mumbled under her breath.

Caid nodded and reached for the plate with the pastry that had suddenly lost the person it had been created for. She did so with a wink at Kheo who had already set his sights on it. "Yeah, it's quite remarkable when you stop to think about it. Imagine, Fyonna was already active in the Sacred Order of the Seers when our great-great-great-and so on-grandparents roamed the corridors of Ashburne Castle. Brandy, anyone?" she said, filling her beaker with a shot of the murky brown liquid before she took a bite out of the pastry.

Kheo quickly raised his meaty paw in the air and pulled the keg closer to him.

"Yes, quite remarkable," Bronwyn said, not uttering what they all thought - that Fyonna would be around for centuries after the people at the table had drawn their last breaths, even if they managed the near-impossible feat of breaking into their eighties. Bronwyn's chewing slowed down as she digested the thought of how many friends and family members Fyonna had lost over the years. The shiver that trickled down her spine was so cold she shook her head and concentrated on her pastry.

"I think I shall write her a letter of support. Yes," Bronwyn mumbled around a bite. "So," she said, drowning her dark thoughts in the hot tea, "I am glad you could join us, Deegan. Here is what the Huntress and I have discussed so far..."


Later that same night, after Caid had patrolled the many nooks and crannies of Ashburne Castle to make sure no assassins were hiding in the shadows, she returned to Bronwyn's bedchamber to supervise the changing of the guard.

With the two night sentries firmly in place, Caid grunted a good eve to them and knocked twice on the door to be let in.

Carrae opened the door and ushered the Huntress inside with a curtsey and a polite nod. "Good eve, Mistress Barlin. The Empress has just finished bathing. She is having her hair done for the night."

"Oh, that's all right, Carrae," Caid said and took off her suede jacket. Smiling at the young handmaiden, she rolled up the sleeves of her tunic until the cuffs sat fashionably just below her elbows. "I think I shall have a sweet ale while I wait for the Empress," she said and walked into the bedchamber where she dumped the jacket on the made bed.

"Mistress," Carrae said with another curtsey. She hurriedly closed the door and moved over to a small cabinet opposite the bed where she poured the dark brown liquid into a mug. When it was nice and frothy, she offered it to the Huntress with a half-curtsey. "Your ale, Mistress Barlin."

"Thank you." Taking the mug, Caid took a deep gulp to quench her thirst. She found it to be just the right temperature and smiled at the young handmaiden.

Carrae stared wide-eyed at the unusual combination of the Huntress' strong, tanned, sinewy arms and the soft curves of her female chest under the off-white tunic. When she realized she was staring, she blushed and looked down. "Mistress Barlin, do you wish me to wash and iron your uniform jacket?"

"Oh no, thank you, Carrae. It's suede," Caid said and wiped a foam mustache off her upper lip.

"I beg for forgiveness, Mistress Barlin."

"Ah," Caid said and waved dismissively, but she didn't have time to tell Carrae it didn't matter before Bronwyn strode into the room on bare feet and wearing her favorite sleeping chemise. Behind her, another handmaiden hurried out of the connecting hallway with two bone combs and a jar of soothing, scented ointment that she had rubbed into the Empress' scalp.

When Caid and Bronwyn made eye contact, both women broke out in identical, warm smiles. The air between them heated up until it sizzled with the unspoken messages that flew back and forth. "Oh, greetings, Caid Barlin," Bronwyn said with a wink. "I almost dare not ask if you found anything untoward out there?"

"I did not, Empress."

"My heart shall certainly beat easier upon hearing the good news. Carrae, Luna, that will be all for this eve. Thank you," Bronwyn said and smiled at the two handmaidens.

Luna and Carrae both curtseyed deeply and hurried out of the bedchamber, Luna through the front door and Carrae through the heavy door to the connecting hallway that Bronwyn had had installed when she had taken over the chamber. Moments later, the sturdy door was closed and latched, leaving Caid and Bronwyn to themselves.

"Oh, I am so excited for the morrow," Bronwyn said and swept aside the quilt on her side of the bed. After fluffing the pillow, she sat down and swept her long, bare legs up onto the mattress before shuffling up near the top end of the four-post canopy bed.

"I can tell," Caid said with a chuckle as she emptied the mug of sweet ale. "Now, try to get some sleep, Empress Bronwyn. I have a report to fill out before I can join you. I promise I shall be quiet while I use the quill," she continued, squeezing her finger into the ear of a brass candlestick.

"You shall do nothing of the kind, my love," Bronwyn husked, slowly moving up her sleeping chemise and parting her legs to reveal she had been lax in finding suitable undergarments for the night.

Caid's eyes became fixated on the thing of beauty that came into sight. Grunting, she put down the brass candlestick and began to unlace her tunic. "On the other hand, I could be talked into spending a turn of the hourglass discussing a few delicate topics with regards to the ins and outs of the world," she said as she slid towards the woman waiting for her on the bed. "Or something."

"Or something," Bronwyn husked, shifting to the side to make way for her lover.

Caid sat down on the edge of the bed and let her hand slide over Bronwyn's smooth legs. "You truly are beautiful, Bronwyn... and not only that, you smell good, too!" she said with a wink, clawing the tender skin on the inside of Bronwyn's right thigh.

"Oh, thank you! Sweet Marpaxa, how can you stand being so overdressed?" Bronwyn said, tugging at Caid's tunic. "Shed some layers, please... I need you so badly this eve... who knows when we can melt into each other's arms again and perform the ancient dance of love?"

"True. Very, very true..." Caid whispered before she leaned down to claim Bronwyn's lips. Further below, her fingers slowly slid upwards along the smooth thigh.




By the time the sun rose above the eastern horizon and broke through a thin layer of night-time clouds, a group of four riders had already been underway for nearly half a turn of the hourglass.

The four people rocked and rolled high atop their steeds as they made their way through the pure white landscape. The riders were all wrapped in thick furs that even covered their arms and legs, and they all wore furry headwear to combat the frosty conditions. The heavily-laden horses had been treated with special care as well and had their backs covered by dark green quilts that reached down to their legs.

Large plumes of steam rose from the eight mouths as the small group trekked across the frozen land. Though it was hard to tell the riders apart, Caid Barlin was up front on her chestnut mare - appropriately named Chestnut - as she inevitably was. In addition to her Yonnae machete that she kept in a velvet bag under her furs, she had strapped a loaded but uncocked crossbow across her shoulders and held the weapon within easy reach.

The Huntress scanned the surrounding tundra-like landscape but found nothing; at least nothing beyond the endless wasteland of snow, snow and more snow. The bushes, hedges and trees she knew lined the formerly brown and now white dirt trail she and the others were traveling on had all been assimilated into the great white collective and had disappeared as individual entities.

The lack of life wasn't a great surprise to her - she figured they were the only people for a hundred leagues in either direction who were crazy enough to venture out into the big freeze.

Bronwyn trailed the Huntress by a few fathoms on Santilla, the faithful palomino mare that had served her so well on their trek to the Shadowlands. All that was visible of the Empress were her blue eyes, but even that tiny slit was enough to let cool air inside her headwear. Her hands disappeared completely inside the shapeless, lined mittens she was wearing and she feared the inevitable moment where she developed an itch.

Trying not to think about any potential itches, she let her mind drift back to the previous night instead. 'Oh, what a glorious eve we had... goodness me, it was so exhilarating... so rewarding. I cannot fathom how my sweet Caid can seemingly be made of iron in the daytime and yet be such a soft, gentle, giving... oh, Sweet Marpaxa, tender, loving, warm, thoughtful woman when night falls and our clothes are shed. Why, last eve, she... she... she only needed to hold me tight for me to surrender fully to her charms. And that was before we started doing anything!' Bronwyn thought, snickering loudly as the thoughts of the previous evening's activities ran across her mind's eye.

Behind Bronwyn, Kheo and Deegan formed the rear as usual, moving side by side on Horsey and Crown, a pair of visually similar dark brown mares. Deegan's horse was thus named because that's what he claimed to have paid for it, a single Crown. The price had allegedly been two hundred Crowns at first, but the night he had spent with the daughter of the rich merchant who owned the horse had apparently been so magical for the parties involved he was offered the mare for but a single coin - or so he claimed.

Despite the cold, Deegan was alert and awake. He kept scanning the snowbound horizon behind them to stay on top of any issues before they could grow into challenges or even problems. Below his furs and his cavalry-issue lined cape, he had wrapped his blade in a specially prepared sheath that kept the high-grade metal warm and ready at all times.

The snores that came from Kheo's side of the group proved that he was somewhere else entirely, having been lulled to sleep by Horsey's steady, rhythmic motions. Occasionally, he let out amused or even naughty grunts that offered a hint as to the merry nature of his dreams.

Up front, Bronwyn yawned widely underneath the scarf that Caid had helped her wrap around her face. The Huntress had folded the triple-layer cloth again and again until Bronwyn feared she would never escape the clutches of the vile creature. Sighing, she looked at the utterly featureless landscape. In the distance, a cluster of trees stood with their crowns completely covered by snow, and the branches drooped so heavily they appeared to be at the point of giving up the unequal struggle with the elements.

"Mmmfh?" she said through the cloth, furrowing her brow when she realized she wouldn't be able to speak to anyone while the mask was in place. She rolled her eyes and pulled her right hand out of the mitten to lower the upper edge of the mask so she could speak.

The chilly wind nearly made her skin freeze over on sight, but she braved the conditions and briefly pulled down the mask. "Caid? Oh, sweet Caid?" she said with her teeth already chattering in her mouth.

"Mmmm?" the Huntress said, turning around in the saddle the best she could.

"Oh, Caid... I am seeking your professional opinion. When would the best time be for our first rest of the day? I fear my back and rear are already quite tired," Bronwyn said, marveling at the way her simple speech produced enough steam to rival a hot tub.

At first, Caid just stared at the Empress. Eventually deciding that Bronwyn wasn't jesting, she pulled down her mask and offered her a friendly, but decidedly apologetic smile. "At noon, Empress. Certainly not before then."

"Noon?" Bronwyn croaked, glancing at the sun to see where it was - nowhere near noon was all she knew. "Please inform this hopeless beginner when noon shall grace us with its presence, Huntress...?"

"I fear it shall not be for another three turns of the hourglass, my Empress."

The small group carried on for a short two hundred fathoms before Bronwyn had digested the answer enough to make a comment: "My sweet Caid," Bronwyn said, lowering her mask again, "is it too late to reconsider our expedition? Or perhaps... oh, reschedule it for summer?"

"I fear it may be just a little too late for that, Empress Bronwyn," Caid said around her mask before she turned back ahead to scan their surroundings.

"Drat," Bronwyn mumbled under her breath. Sighing, she lifted the mask in place and slumped inside her thick furs. The almost painful whiteness of the snow that was brought on by the strong rays of the sun was beginning to bother her, but she pulled her furry headwear down to cover her eyes - there wasn't anything to look at, anyway.


A few turns of the hourglass later, Bronwyn had been rocked asleep and was basking in the glorious affections of a glowing and rather naked Huntress who seemed to be introducing her to a mysterious ceremony that involved incense sticks, a wash cloth, a bowl of red apples and a pair of brass chimes that were played by a ghostly hand.

The dream was sadly left behind just before it got really interesting, but Bronwyn still snickered out loud at the strangely sensual images when she woke up. Smacking her lips underneath the mask, she pulled her hand out of her mitten to raise her furry headwear so she could see where they were - stuck in the middle of nowhere was the short answer. To thank Santilla for carrying her with no drama at all, she reached ahead and patted the palomino's neck, earning herself a whinny in return.

The windchill and the strong whiteness of the snow was enough for her to lower the headwear again, but before she had time to shuffle around on her padded saddle, she noticed that Deegan Arliss was up front, riding alongside Caid instead of being at the rear.

From the plumes of steam that formed from their mouths, she could see they were speaking to one another, but her elaborate headwear meant she couldn't hear much of the conversation beyond a few mumbled words. Furrowing her brow, she tried to get an ear free but found the conditions so hostile that she hurriedly pulled the cloth back in place, deciding on the spot that trying to listen in involved far too much hassle for too little reward.

"... been there for a while now, Huntress," Deegan said, pointing south. "Four figures on horseback. I cannot call their intentions, but you would think they would approach us faster. Anyone out here with half a brain knows the importance of traveling in large groups to have the strength of number to combat the conditions."

"Indeed, Deegan," Caid said and turned around in the saddle to follow the cavalry Lieutenant's pointing finger. In the distance, she was just able to make out four figures whose dark outlines stood out in contrast to the pure white landscape surrounding them. "They're not of equal size... of course, neither are we. They could be two adults, two teens... or two men and two women. No discernible colors or coats of arms. They have obviously scouted us so they will have spotted the Imperial crests on the horses' covers."

"Most likely. I fear they could be ruffians out for a quick score."

"They could be, yes. Very well," Caid said and turned back in the saddle. "Let's give them the benefit of the doubt for now. We shall slow down for a little while. Continue to track them, Deegan. If they adjust their own pace accordingly, they're not here to smell the daisies."

"As you wish, Huntress," Deegan said, nodding at Caid before he steered his Crown away from the lead of the group and fell back into position.

Bronwyn only realized the conversation between Caid and Deegan had indeed been important when Caid put out her arm and held it horizontally in front of Santilla, signaling they should reduce their pace but keep going. Bronwyn shook her head and sat up straight in her padded saddle. She tried to sweep the horizon but could only see snow, snow and more snow. "Caid...? Caid? Is there a problem?" she said around her mask, frustrated by the muffled sounds that came out instead of her clear voice.

"Possibly, my Empress. Think nothing of it, we shall deal with it if anything arises," Caid said over her shoulder.

Out of pure reflex, Bronwyn looked up at the deep blue sky to see if they were about to be attacked by the grotesque, dark gray flying creatures, but soon realized her gaffe and let out a groan at her own insecurity. "Caid...? Caid, I fear I must admit I prefer your honesty. Are we in trouble?"

"No," Caid said decisively, turning around in the saddle. "We are merely being followed by four riders. They are some distance behind us. Like I said, have no fear, Bronwyn. Granted, they may be ruffians, but they may simply be travelers like we are."

"Now why do I find it hard to believe they could be travelers...?" Bronwyn mumbled, trying to turn around so she could see behind her. With a bit of effort, she was able to look toward the south where the four dark riders were still following them.

"Huntress!" Deegan shouted from the back. "They have slowed down as well!"

"Figures," Caid grumbled, raising her clenched fist in the air to signal they should stop. "Come alive, everybody! Kheo, are you awake?"

"Fully, Huntress... an' lookin' forward to some luv'ly bloodshed," the large man said from the back, already gripping the hilt of his sword.

Caid chuckled darkly and maneuvered Chestnut around so she was face to face with the Empress. Smiling, she reached out and patted the younger woman's covered leg to comfort her. "Kheo, you may have that wish fulfilled in a little while. For the time being, let's just settle down here nice and easy and see how our shadows react. Empress Bronwyn, is that acceptable?"

"I bow to your superior knowledge, Huntress," Bronwyn said with a frantic nod. "Out here, I am but your humble servant."

At the back, Deegan shielded his eyes from the murderous whiteness and looked south. "They aren't doing anything at the moment, Huntress. They're waiting for us like we're waiting for them."

"Very well, Deegan."

"Huntress," Kheo said, shuffling around on Horsey to stay alert, "if ya want me ta fall back an' give them critters a warm welcome, jus' say the word... any word!"

"Not yet, Kheo," Caid said, holding onto Bronwyn's leg. The two women exchanged glances - one was comforting, the other was beginning to show a little worry.

"Oh, Caid," Bronwyn said quietly as she reached up to wipe a bead of sweat off her eyebrows, "I fear I am getting somewhat agitated. I had not expected to find ruffians so close to Ashburne. M- maybe they have trailed us ever since we left...?"

"I doubt it. They are simply local thugs taking full advantage of the first break in the poor weather for days," Caid said and clawed Bronwyn's thigh, though the mitten and the thick furs meant no physical contact was actually made. "From what I know, this area hasn't been patrolled since the storms began."

"I f- fear we may need to step up the-"

"Them critters are splittin' up!" Kheo barked, startling Bronwyn into spinning around in her saddle. "An'... Phirax, yeah! They be chargin' us in pairs, Huntress!"

"Let's show 'em the way home, Kheo!" Caid shouted, producing her razor-sharp Yonnae machete that reflected the sunlight to such a degree it appeared to be alight.

Shouts, war cries and wild, unrestrained yelling wafted down towards them from the attackers in what was an obvious ploy to scare the hopefully defenseless travelers into surrendering without spilling any blood - unfortunately, that tactic was about to be proven rather useless.

"Awwww... they're singin' my song!" Kheo said, twirling his sword.

"Deegan, stay with the Empress for now!" Caid shouted before she slapped Chestnut's reins and set off in a medium-paced canter towards the advancing riders.

"Oh... please be safe, Caid! Please!" Bronwyn shouted after her lover, but the Huntress was already too far away to hear the plea. She stared wide-eyed at the awe-inducing sight of Caid Barlin holding onto the reins with her left hand while her right held the fearsome blade high in the air. "Oh... Caid..." Bronwyn croaked, lowering the mask to let out the massive amounts of steam that was produced by her frantic breathing.

The war cries and near-insane yelling that came from the attackers gnawed on her nerves and sent an ice cold shiver running up and down her spine. Shuddering, she shuffled around on the saddle to make the chill and the resulting myriad of goosebumps go away.

Deegan was quickly at the Empress' side with his own sword resting across his lap. "Have no fear, Empress Bronwyn. I am here to protect you in case any of the attackers should slip past Kheo or the Huntress."

"Th- thank you, Lieutenant," Bronwyn said, shielding her eyes to track Caid's chestnut mare that cantered strongly towards the advancing ruffians, "but you must know my own safety is the last thing on my mind now..."

Caid barreled toward her two opponents. As she came closer, she could see that she had been right in guessing they were an adult and a teen. The grown man wielded a rusty old short sword, and the junior accomplice held a pair of daggers. Neither appeared proficient with their weapons, but even inexperienced men could kill if they wanted it enough.

As Caid thundered towards the two men, their war cries fizzled out when they realized what kind of opponent they were up against. The two ruffians hurriedly looked at each other almost like they were trying to decide whether or not to go ahead with their plans - foolishly, they pressed on.

Nodding grimly, Caid clenched her muscles and held firmly onto the hilt of the machete to be ready for the whack that would be sent up her arm when the fearsome blade would slice through the garb, flesh and bone of her opponent. The grown man came at her first, waving his rusty short sword high in the air.

As the two horses flew past each other in clouds of steam and kicked-up snow, Caid swung her blade in a precise, well-rehearsed strike. By the time the horses were clear of each other, she had remained untouched by the rusty sword.

The same couldn't be said for her older opponent who let out a pained groan and clutched his chest. The rusty sword fell from his limp hand, and he began to wobble in the saddle. Blood soon poured out of his cloak that had been sliced open by the machete, staining his pant leg and painting the snow below him bright red. Moments later, he fell out of the saddle and ended up face-down in the red snow. He twitched once but soon became still.

Caid spun Chestnut around to keep her second opponent in sight. While she and her horse created strong plumes of steam from their heavy breathing, her machete was glistening with the blood of the man she had sent to Phirax.

Her young opponent seemed unsure of how to proceed. With a worried frown on his beardless face, he held the daggers ineffectively against his chest like he didn't know what to do with them. His horse stepped around nervously and he had to work hard to keep it steady.

Caid nudged her heels into Chestnut's flanks and began to move closer to the young man. "Don't be a fool," she said in a dark, menacing tone of voice as she held the machete low so the blood could drip off it. "If you wish to follow the old man, just come at me. Do you understand?"

The young man's eyes began to widen and shift incessantly. Ultimately, he yanked his horse around and took off in a wild gallop that had him jerking up and down in the saddle over the rugged, snow-covered terrain.

Caid tracked him until he was merely a dark dot against the pure white background. Sighing, she threw down her machete into the snow and began the elaborate process of dismounting in her cumbersome winter gear.

Once she had wiped the blood off the Yonnae blade to make sure it wouldn't be permanently stained, she strode through a foot of loose snow to get to the fallen man. Grunting, she kicked him over with her boot and established at once from the vacant, glassy look in his eyes that he was deader than a doorknob.

She looked up to try to locate Kheo but she was unable to see the large man anywhere. Instead, she shuffled over to the ruffian's horse to check out the supplies it carried.

"Jerky, torn rags, five Crowns in coins, more jerky... not exactly the Prince of Thieves," she said, rummaging through a tattered old saddle bag that bore the crest of the Ashburne Cavalry. "Ah, there's nothing there. I'll take the jerky and the coins," she said and scooped up the items.

She briefly looked back at the dead man to see if she recognized him from Ashburne's armed forces, but his face and full beard were so common she soon gave up trying.


When Caid returned to Deegan and Bronwyn, Kheo arrived at the exact same time. The warriors waved at each other to show they were both unharmed. "Hello, Kheo! What kept you?" Caid said cheerily.

"Aw, ya know... it got kinda messy there fer a while."


"Yeah," Kheo said with a wide grin, "mah Horsey here hatta take a dump in the middle of the battle, so... it got kinda messy!"

"Poor you," Caid said and reached over to thump fists with her old friend.

"Ya got yours?"

"Yep. One down, one on the run."

"Ya let one go? Ya gettin' old or somethin'?"

Before they had time to go too deeply into the war stories, they were interrupted by Santilla who was squeezed in between Chestnut and Horsey. "Oh, Caid!" Bronwyn cried, frantically reaching out for the Huntress.

"I know when I ain't needed," Kheo said, chuckling into his beard. He quickly vanished to get Deegan up to speed on the events.

The distance between Bronwyn and Caid was too great for an effective hug and Bronwyn nearly fell out of her saddle when she tried to reach across. Groaning in frustration, she did the next best thing and tried to get down off Santilla, but the clumsy suit she was wearing restricted her movements to such an extent she couldn't even get out of the stirrups on her own.

"Hang on, Bronwyn... I shall be with you shortly," Caid said and swung her leg over the saddle. Once she was on the ground, she resembled a bear who strode through the snow to help Bronwyn get down. At Santilla's side, she put a calming hand on Bronwyn's thigh and shot her a warm gaze. "Have no fear, my Empress, we shall have you knee-deep in the snow in no time," she said and helped the Imperial foot out of the metal loop.

"Thank you," Bronwyn said and swung her leg over the saddle and the equipment Santilla carried on her hind quarters. Once down in the snow - that was as deep as Caid had said it would be - she pushed back her furry headwear and waited for the Huntress to come back to her.

When she did, the two women fell into each other's arms and began to rock back and forth. "Oh, my sweet Caid... you had me worried," Bronwyn said, smothering the shorter, compact woman in her arms.

"Aw, it was nothing, really..." Caid said with a chuckle around the armful of fur she had in her face.

"To me, it was plenty," Bronwyn said and lowered the mask. She leaned in and placed a brief yet loving kiss on Caid's lips - brief because she feared she would get stuck to the Huntress on a permanent basis if it lasted too long.

When they separated, Caid happened to look up at Kheo and Deegan who were making kissy faces at them from atop their horses. She narrowed her eyes dangerously which made the men turn their steeds around and shuffle off in an almighty hurry.

"Kheo," Caid said loudly, still holding onto the Empress. "When you're done gawkin', set up a temporary camp and get a fire going. We might as well exploit the fine weather for a little hot tea and jerky... and maybe a brandy."

"You betcha, Huntress. C'mon, Deegan... time ta work," Kheo said and turned Horsey around again.

Bronwyn let out a sigh of relief at the news. "I, Empress Bronwyn of Ashburne, Dinnigon and the surrounding lands solemnly declare... that I shall stand while I enjoy my hot tea," she said, nodding.


The next few turns of the hourglass went by with less agitation. The landscape hardly changed at all, leading to Bronwyn falling into a near-catatonic state of mind. As she rocked along high atop Santilla, she glanced at her traveling companions with dull eyes that ached from the effects of the bright sunshine on the snow. She simply couldn't fathom how Kheo, Deegan and Caid could endure the monotony of the endless treks day-in, day-out and still remain normally functioning human beings.

'I surely would go stark raving mad within a week... oh, Sweet Marpaxa, if I had to do this for a living... or if I happened to be a soldier in my army instead of the supreme commander... oh, my word, I would break down and weep hysterically each morn we were called into action...'

She shuffled around on the padded saddle and let out a long, pained groan that made Santilla whinny and shake her head in sympathy. Chuckling, Bronwyn reached ahead and patted the good-natured palomino's neck. "And you have to carry my heavy load all the way to Marpaxa knows what, Santilla... how you have not rebelled against me, I shall never understand. But I thank you from the bottom of my heart for not doing so."

After the ill-fated attack by the ruffians, Deegan had assumed a position a good fifty fathoms behind the others to present a deceptively easy target for any potential assailants. The cavalry Lieutenant was still hanging back, keeping a close eye on the featureless terrain they went past.

Kheo had fallen asleep again and was mumbling odd phrases into his full beard like "Oh, baby," "another ale, dontchaknow," and "shake it like I show'd ya!"

Bronwyn chuckled out loud at the large man's odd ramblings, thankful for the respite from the mind-numbing monotony it offered her. She tried to listen in, but he soon turned to a blurred mumbling that she couldn't pick up. Snickering, she nudged Santilla's flanks and moved up alongside Caid's Chestnut.

"Greetings, Huntress. Enchanted to meet you," she said with a gleam in her eye. She reached over in the hope that Caid would give her mitten a squeeze, but the heavy clothing made it difficult.

"Greetings, Empress Bronwyn," Caid said and performed a flamboyant mini-bow while still in the saddle. "Ah yes, isn't it remarkable that we could find each other in the middle of the frozen wilderness?"

"Indeed it is! Though I feel we would be able to find each other anywhere and at any time," Bronwyn said with a new snicker that created a plume of steam that escaped through the fabric of her mask. "Oh, perhaps we should turn to a more serious topic. Huntress, in your professional opinion, how much further do we need to go today?"

"I fear we need to go another league, my Empress. Although daylight shall be with us for another two turns of the hourglass..." - Caid turned around in the saddle to study the location of the bleak sun in the western sky - "oh, perhaps a little less than that now... but in any case, we should not overstress our steeds nor ourselves on the first day. Not when we have three further days ahead of us."

Bronwyn nodded somberly and let out a short, affirmative grunt that only created a little plume of steam.

"From studying the few maps of the region we had at Ashburne Castle," Caid continued, wiping her tired eyes with the back of her mitten, "we are roughly a league away from a small, unnamed forest that should theoretically be able to provide shelter for us. Mind you, out here, you never-"

"You never know. I know... so to speak," Bronwyn said and winked at the older woman.

Caid winked back and added a little grin. "Indeed, Empress Bronwyn."

Behind them, Kheo suddenly let out a roar akin to "Wa-hey!" before he fell back into a slumber.

Caid and Bronwyn looked at each other and chuckled as one. "Oh, Kheo has begun to talk in his sleep," the Huntress said as she looked back ahead. "I had no idea. Food for thought. Food for teasing!"


Half a turn of the hourglass later, Caid's sharp eyes had zoomed in on a bank of clouds that rolled slowly towards them from the east. She didn't like the dark gray look of it at all, even if the grayish color was exaggerated by being directly opposite the bleak rays of the sun.

The terrain they were in was primarily flat although there were a few snow-covered trees and boulders here and there. Tracks in the snow from the local wildlife proved they weren't the only living things on the planet, even if the desolation made it appear so.

The Huntress looked up to scan the horizon away from the approaching dark front. In an area to the north-west, roughly a thousand fathoms away from them, the horizon was obscured by a curious-looking white blob that seemed to stretch up from the ground. A tree close to the odd phenomenon was markedly different from the vast majority of its brethren: not only was it swaying back and forth, its branches were mostly devoid of snow.

"Hmmm," Caid mumbled into her mask. She turned back to the snow front that hadn't crept closer since her last look. "Empress? Bronwyn...?"

"Yes, I am here," Bronwyn said and slid up alongside the Huntress.

"Bronwyn, tell me... follow my mitten and tell me what you see," Caid said and pointed at the strange phenomenon to the north-west.

"Snow... but I fear that is no great surprise..." Bronwyn said, shielding her eyes. "Oh! The snow is... mmmm... is it hovering in mid-air?"

"Indeed it is, Empress."

"Goodness me, that must be a strong flurry... but so local?"

"Oh, that's no flurry."

"But what in the name of Sweet Marpaxa does that mean now, Huntress? Ack, I know... 'tis a snow monster, is it not? Ack! A ghastly snow monster with white fur and yellow eyes and vile tusks just ready to tear chunks out of our tender flesh-"

"No, Empress, it's far worse than a mere snow monster," Caid said and patted Bronwyn's thigh in a reassuring fashion.

Bronwyn was caught in the middle of a whine which left her jaw gaping open inside her mask. When she realized she was being awfully childish, she blushed and reached down to put her own mitten on top of Caid's. "I beg for forgiveness, sweet Caid. I fear my imagination ran off with me. If not a monster, then...?"

"Fierce winds. They're picking up as we speak... it's connected to that front up there. Notice the tree next to the strange, white blob is mostly bare? The snow has been blown off the branches. And worse, it's inching this way."

"Drat! Now you mention it, it has become more windy. You were right again, Huntress. Fierce winds are worse than a monster... what wretched luck we are having! First ruffians and now the return of such inclement weather," Bronwyn said and raised her furry headwear to take a better look at the dark gray clouds above. "Double drat! My senior meteorologist insisted that we would have excellent weather for the duration!"

"Your senior meteorologist is based at Ashburne Castle, Empress. Not out here," Caid said darkly. "I fear we must pick up the pace. From my best calculations, we are still half a turn of the hourglass away from the unnamed forest where we wanted to hunker down for the night. But if we are exposed to strong winds and relentless snow before we reach it, there is a risk, however remote, that we may end up wandering aimlessly through a whiteout."

"Oh, I pray to Marpaxa that it shall not come to that! I have never been in a whiteout, but from what I have heard from your good self and others, it is a frightful experience."

"It is, Bronwyn... and believe me, you never want to experience it," Caid said with eyes that nearly turned dark from their intensity.

Bronwyn gulped and grabbed hold of Santilla's reins.


The dark gray clouds high above had continued their slow ascent up the sky until they had reached the zenith. As the bleakly yellow sun set in the west, there was no longer any doubt as to the contents of the clouds - snow, and plenty of it.

On the ground, the shadows created by the last rays of the setting sun seemed to go on for leagues, and the light turned bluer for each passing moment. The winds gradually picked up, too, though it came from the opposite side of the advancing front.

The loose snow on the ground had already begun to be whipped around, and it didn't take long for drifts to be formed where the wind decided the snow should end up.

Bronwyn cast several worried glances at the dark clouds above and at the odd sight of brown spots down in the white snow. She suddenly realized they were pebbles and clumps of dirt that had been blown across the open fields and onto the dirt trail they were traveling on. Gulping, she wrapped her furs even tighter around her body. Santilla shivered and let out a brief whinny, prompting Bronwyn to reach out and pat her neck.

Up ahead, the unnamed pine forest slowly came into view. It was revealed to be in an L-shape with the dirt trail going straight through it. The short leg of the L started roughly eighty fathoms before the forest proper, and the trunks that stood proudly at the leading edge to the right of the trail were covered in snow from the roots to the crowns, offering solid proof of the harshness of the winter.

As a fierce, ice cold wind started to swirl around the riders and their steeds, Caid pointed ahead at the trees - the others grunted at her, too preoccupied with protecting themselves from the wind to answer.

The Huntress scrunched up her face so only the tiniest slit around her eyes was exposed to the elements. Though the winds and the resulting snow had worsened, she could see the forest was denser than she had anticipated from looking at the maps, and for that, she was grateful.

A particularly nasty gust of wind that pelted the horses and the riders with a broadside of ice needles prompted Caid to raise her fist in the air and signal they should pick up their pace. Without looking to see if the others had seen her signal, she nudged Chestnut's flanks to get the skittish horse to react.

Bronwyn had noticed - her eyes hadn't left Caid since the winds had picked up - and she slapped Santilla's reins to get the palomino mare to follow the Huntress. She did so with a whinny of relief.

Kheo and Deegan followed at a more leisurely pace to make sure they weren't being followed into the forest. By the time all four riders had gone beyond the leading row of trees and into the slightly safer environment among the mostly bare trunks, Deegan whoa'ed his Crown and returned to the entrance to the forest where he kept a firm watch. Just as he settled down, a heavy snow shower fell from the clouds high above.

Luck followed the riders for a change and they were able to find a clearing that suited their needs perfectly some two hundred fathoms beyond the forest limits. A large tree trunk had fallen and had brought two smaller trees down with it, seemingly the result of a lightning strike. The seven by seven fathom triangle that had formed underneath the largest of the trunks proved to be a perfect spot to put up an overnight bivouac.

Though a few snowflakes drizzled down from above to fall upon those already sprinkled on the frosty ground, the trees were standing so close hardly anything got through.

After Caid had pulled Chestnut to a halt, she folded down her mask and shoved her furry headwear back so she could get a better picture of the conditions. "Cold, but not too bad. Very well, here we shall stay," she said and dismounted.

Behind her, Kheo did the same and was soon on the hard forest floor. "Empress Bronwyn," he said and scratched his beard that had turned quite frosty, "it's best if ya remain atop ya horse there until me an' the Huntress are done scoutin' out this here forest for any nasties, hostiles an' critters."

"Your wish is my command, Master Kheo," Bronwyn said in a strained voice, slowly unwrapping the endless cloth that had formed her mask. Her backside was killing her, but she wasn't about to say that out loud. When Santilla whinnied, she patted the mare's neck and carefully clawed its skin that had turned quite chilly from the wind despite the covers it wore. "Oh, you shall soon rest, Santilla. Soon... I hope," she continued, eventually taking off her mask completely.

The furry headwear quickly followed, and for the first time since before daybreak, Bronwyn was able to run her fingers through her hair. Once her scalp had been thoroughly scratched and aired, she looked around at the clearing but had trouble seeing anything in the rapidly increasing darkness. Just as she looked back down at her saddlehorn, she thought she could smell smoke, but rubbished the notion.

Over by Chestnut, Caid drew the machete from the fur-lined sheath she had it in. She quickly checked it to see if she had managed to get all the blood off and found it to be in a good condition. A glance around the forest made her reconsider her choice of weapons, and she slid the machete back down its sheath.

Instead, she took the crossbow and checked if the dart was secure in the valley. It was, and she cocked the deadly weapon to have it ready to fire. "My Empress, once Kheo and I return, we shall put up the tent and start the fire so we can light a few torches. It may not look like much at present, but I promise we shall make it into a cozy campsite," the Huntress said with a smile.

"My sweet Huntress, I trust you completely. Uh... but I wish you would hurry," Bronwyn said and returned the smile, though hers was a bit on the nervous side. "I fear the darkness here will be quite... mmmm... impenetrable."

"We shall hurry, I promise," Caid said and left to perform the sweep.


Caid and Kheo had barely ventured outside the edges of the clearing before they both picked up a strange scent that should not have been there at all - smoke.

The two experienced soldiers looked at each other and offered each other a nod. Moving silently, Caid slid right and disappeared into the undergrowth. Moments later, Kheo slid left and did the same.

Hunched over, Caid crept as silently as she could between the shrubbery and the bare trunks. Now and then, she crouched down and scanned her entire surroundings to make sure she wasn't about to walk into a trap.

Some thirty fathoms ahead of her, a pale blue column of smoke rose from just beyond another fallen tree. The density of the forest magnified every sound, so she held her breath and tried to listen for activity inside the makeshift camp.

When no sound reached her ears beyond the howling wind from outside the forest itself, she continued ahead, casting a brief glance to her left at Kheo who was mirroring her every move.

Eventually reaching the fallen tree, she tightened her muscles to be ready for any eventuality. She briefly peeked over the trunk and saw a man in a dark blue uniform-like outfit kneeling at a cast iron pot that was hanging on an iron contraption over a smoking fire pit. The man had his back to her and he seemed to concentrate too hard on the meal to notice anything else, but Caid knew looks could deceive.

She studied the man's camp and found two shiny metal swords by a sleeping fur. Both swords were out of the man's reach, but she couldn't tell if he had an additional blade or dagger on his body.

Movement to her left proved that Kheo had also fallen into position. Swallowing a lump of pre-combat nerves, she pointed at herself and then at the camp. Kheo nodded.

Caid pressed her lips together as she leaped over the trunk and landed inside the makeshift camp with a whoomp . At once, she put the butt of the crossbow to her right shoulder and aimed at the center of the man's dark blue uniform. "I have a crossbow trained at your back. Move too rapidly and you die. Get your hands up and step away from the fire," she said in a strong, menacing voice.

The man froze in place at the sound of Caid's words. Grunting, he slowly climbed to his feet with his hands in the air. When he turned around, he was revealed to be in his late thirties.

His intensely blue eyes nearly made him look like a distant relative of Bronwyn's, but his features were far more coarse and boorish, and his hair was long, wavy and light-blonde. The coarseness was underlined by his unkempt reddish-blonde beard and callused hands that seemed out of place in combination with the uniform-like garments he wore - rugged boots, navy blue wraparound ankle pants that were so dark they were nearly black, a dark blue quilted tunic with wraparound sleeves and bone cufflinks, a black jerkin with an integrated leather belt and finally a short, navy blue jacket that could be wrapped tightly with several strips of cloth.

"You have me, woman. I not your enemy. Tell me... what you want?" he said in a strong accent that made it clear his mother tongue was the one found in the provinces at the outer frontier of Acamar some two hundred leagues further north.

"For now, I only want your name," Caid said, signaling to Kheo he should move in with her.

"Volkan Roshek from Kirill at shore of Great Hvithian Sea," the stranger said with his hands high in the air. "And you?"

"We are Caid Barlin and Kheo Khammon of Ashburne."

"Who is who?"

"I am Caid," the Huntress said and raised her eyebrow.

"You no ruffians," Volkan said, turning to look at Kheo who came into the camp from the other side. "Or maybe he is, but not you. Women not ruffians. Women make homes."

"Oh, welcome to the new millennium," Caid said and stepped closer, keeping one eye on the man and the other on his weapons. "Volkan Roshek? I cannot say I've ever heard of you. With your clothes and your equipment, I'd say you're an adventurer, aren't ya? Perhaps a fortune seeker?" she continued, eyeing a box with old, well-used shovels and picks she hadn't been able to see from the other side of the fallen tree.

"Right now I am a lost man. My horse died. I got stuck here three days ago. I hoped someone would come and take me away. I have been eating my horse and root fruits since."

"Root fruits?" Kheo asked, crinkling his nose at the peculiar smell that came from the cast iron pot. "Aw yeah, root veggies. Stinks," he said once he had taken a peek.

Volkan chuckled and looked at the large, bald man. "Yes. Taste the same."

Caid furrowed her brow but lowered her crossbow to be less of a threat. "And what are you doing here, Volkan?"

The stranger relaxed his stance but kept his arms up. "Ah, I heard story about gold cache in Natfarann Forests. Millions and millions of Crowns there."

"Plenty o' death, too, buddy," Kheo said, shuffling over to stand next to Caid.

Volkan looked at Kheo with a puzzled expression on his face. He lowered his hands further but a growl by Caid made him put them back up. "What do you call me? Buddy?"

"It means friend," Caid said and crinkled her nose. "I think your root fruits are about to be burnt."

"Taste no different," Volkan said with a shrug.

Caid narrowed her eyes and studied the man and his camp. There weren't any indications he wasn't speaking the truth, and yet, her Ranger sense tickled her ears like it always did when the balance sheet didn't add up fully. "Well. We don't have a spare horse but you can come with us... if you behave yourself. Like you, we are going to Natfarann."

Volkan grunted and lowered his hands without waiting for permission. "Ah. Of course. I thought I could recognize fellow spirits. You have Death in your eyes, woman. All right. When do we leave?"

"In the morrow. We have a woman with us who isn't accustomed to gentlemen such as yourself. I suggest you sleep here," Caid said and uncocked the crossbow to show her good will. "We shall pick you up when we are ready to travel on."

"Fine. I sleep here and fix camp so I can leave when you are ready. But don't forget about me, yes?" Volkan said and shuffled over to his sleeping furs where he kept his blades.

"Oh, we won't," Caid said as she and Kheo walked backwards out of the makeshift camp in case Volkan had a throwing knife they hadn't spotted. In the end, nothing happened.


Back at the clearing, Bronwyn was about to explode with agitation over the uncertainty of Caid's whereabouts, not to mention the darkness and complete silence that surrounded her. Santilla sensed her nervousness and shuffled around on the spot.

When the Huntress and Kheo finally returned, Bronwyn nearly stumbled out of the stirrups to be at her lover's side. Growling and grunting, she managed to extricate herself from the metal hoops and ran towards the compact woman.

"Oh, sweet Caid! I fear you had me worried... again. I... I thought I heard you speak, but surely not...?" Bronwyn said, running a hand over Caid's cheek.

"I did speak. We found a man who's been living here for a few days. Kheo," Caid said and turned away from the Empress though she kept a firm grip on her, "set up the fire pit and the torches. We need light to erect the tent."

"Sure thing, Huntress," Kheo said with a wave. Soon, he was hard at work collecting small stones that would form the circle around the pit.

"A man?" Bronwyn said, running her thumb across Caid's cheekbone.

"Yes. A fortune seeker. He's to join us in the morrow when we leave. His horse is dead and it would be suicide for him to move out of the forest on foot. According to the ancient laws of the land, we're obliged to give him a helping hand."

Bronwyn scrunched up her face and began to chew on her cheek. "A fortune seeker, you say? He must be here for the mythical gold."

"He is. He told us."

Bronwyn didn't speak but the look on her face told a story more detailed than a tome of a thousand pages.

Behind them, Kheo worked the flints and created a spark that soon set light to the pile of twigs he had collected.

"I shall tell you all about him later on. First, I shall fetch Deegan and let him know about the man. Go on, Bronwyn... it's time for you to have some hot tea and jerky," Caid said and put a hand on the small of Bronwyn's back.




Three days, forty leagues and what felt like five hundred games of One-Two-Three later, the group of five had finally made it so far through the frozen tundra they could see the faint outlines of Abryloch, the village Mikeel and Aleesa had come from, shimmering in the near distance.

Arriving at the crest of a hill that gave them a good view of the snow-covered valley ahead and below, Caid raised her fist in the air and spread her fingers to tell the others they should stop and fan out.

Bronwyn came to a stop on Caid's right, with Deegan lining up next to her. Kheo who had Volkan Roshek as a back-saddle passenger came up on Caid's left.

Abryloch consisted of roughly twenty-five hovels - most were one-storey buildings but a few had two - and it was laid out in a very traditional star-like pattern with a square at the center and streets that spread out diagonally from it. On the far side, at the outer edge of the village, random, gaping holes in the rows of buildings proved there had to have been something there.

With the village being in the middle of open, flat terrain, it had no natural defenses, nor did it have a protective wall, a moat or even simple sentry boxes on the trails that led to it.

"Fully open to attack," Caid mumbled, shielding her eyes from the sun.

"Not many people around but plenty of smoke from the chimneys," Deegan said, looking up at the sky to gauge the time. "They're probably inside eating lunch. It's nearly noon."

"Mmmm. Chances are they've had to adjust their daily schedules."

Beyond Abryloch, the mythical Natfarann pine forests stretched out to the horizon. Though mostly white from the snow that had covered every part of the terrain, the original bluish-green tones of the tall, proud trees occasionally shone through the white. A dirt trail that appeared to have been cleared of snow led from the village and into the forest.

"If there really is a monster, why don't they just roll out the red carpet for it?" Caid mumbled and shook her head. "Oh, we're about to find out. Team! Move out! Be cautious, the slope appears slippery. My Empress, that goes double for you!"

"I know, sweet Caid!" Bronwyn squeaked, giving Santilla's reins an extra-tight squeeze.

After Caid had nudged Chestnut's flanks and started the long descent, the others followed her at safe intervals to prevent carnage in case one of the horses slipped and fell.

Although the slope wasn't too steep, the descent was hard work for Bronwyn who had the least experience with such difficult terrain of all of them. At first, she was as tense as the chains used to hold up a drawbridge, but she eventually forced herself into relaxing and allowing Santilla to take control down the slope - unfortunately, her calmness only lasted for another ten paces, then the palomino's right hind leg slipped a foot in the snow. Santilla couldn't care less about the little mishap and continued on steadily, but Bronwyn certainly could. Squeaking, she tensed up so hard she wouldn't have been able to remember her name if anyone had asked her.

Once safely down on a dirt trail that ran at the foot of the hill, Bronwyn let out a long, shaky sigh of relief. As the plume of steam drifted away from her, she pushed back her furry headwear and rubbed her face with her mittens.

"She's no rider," Volkan said as a statement of fact, not a question. "My mother a better rider and she is seventy!"

Kheo chuckled into his beard as he shuffled around in the saddle that was just a bit too tight for two fat-bottomed men. "Aw, ya shoudden sell her short, ya know. She's got them hidden qualities ya'd never dream of when ya look at her," he said over his shoulder.

"Ah... shoudden?"

"Should not," Kheo said, pronouncing the words so clearly his meaty lips looked like they were going through an ancient rain dance.

"Ah," Volkan said, giving the Empress a once-over.

After sending Deegan ahead to scout, Caid took sympathy on her partner and steered Chestnut over to the heavily breathing Bronwyn. "There, there... that wasn't so bad, was it?" she said, putting a mitten on the Empress' thigh.

"I fear it was plenty stressful for me, Huntress. Goodness me," Bronwyn said and tried to pull out in her furs to get some fresh air inside. "I am nearly cooking underneath my garments from the tension alone. But Santilla was so good to me."

"That's good," Caid said and looked up at the clear blue sky. "At least the weather is with us. Once Deegan returns from scouting out the village, we shall proceed into it and hopefully find someone who knows the ins and outs of the matter."

"Hopefully!" Bronwyn said, reaching down to cover Caid's mitten with her own. She hurriedly glanced at Kheo and Volkan who were far enough away to be out of earshot. When she realized they were in the clear, she leaned in to let the Huntress know she was about to say something personal. "Sweet Caid... I yearn for having your arms around me at night. Sleeping in such close company yet separately is a worse strain on my poor being than I had imagined it would be!"

Caid grinned and flashed her lover a soft, green gaze. "I share your view of the situation, Bronwyn. Alas, the conditions have not been ideal for intimacy."

"Woe, they have been anything but... I shall never get used to sleeping in a four-man tent... even more so considering we had a visitor," Bronwyn mumbled, never taking her eyes off Caid's.

"Perhaps if we are lucky, we shall have some privacy today where we can just be ourselves for a little while...?"

"Oh, Sweet Marpaxa! Let us hope so," Bronwyn said and rolled her eyes.

The sound of a horse moving at a canter suddenly reached their ears, and Caid drew back at once and pulled her hand out of her mitten to put it on the hilt of the crossbow.

The rider was Deegan who came back to the group and whoa'ed his Crown next to Caid's Chestnut. "Huntress, Abryloch is clear. I spoke briefly to the mayor. He offered to come here with a covered wagon to take our supplies so we could ease the burden on our horses. I accepted. I suspect he's a few hundred fathoms behind me."

"I see," Caid said and turned around to look down the same trail Deegan had just come from. In the middle distance, an old wagon covered by a large, off-white canopy came rumbling towards them, pulled by a jade that looked like it was well past its glory days.

"All right," Caid continued loudly so everyone could hear her. "Spread out. Assume a defensive position until we've seen what's inside that wagon!"

Volkan quickly jumped off Kheo's Horsey and put a hand on the hilt of the longer of the two swords that were attached to his belt.

While the others fell into position, Bronwyn stared wide-eyed at the Huntress but hurriedly followed the command by moving Santilla away from the trail and over to a bank of snow. "But Caid... the mayor... surely the mayor would not..." she said, lowering her mask to speak clearly.

"Empress, he doesn't know our true intentions," Caid said and cocked her crossbow. "We may simply be marauders here to snatch whatever of the Natfarann gold we think he has found."

"Oh, but... but..." Bronwyn said and looked at the covered wagon that had nearly reached them. The man atop the buckboard was squat and wrapped in furs. When he spotted the group of strangers, he waved at them. "But surely..." Bronwyn continued, gripping Santilla's reins. Her voice trailed off into nothing when she realized Caid knew what she was doing.

When the creaking and groaning covered wagon reached them, the driver whoa'ed his jade and locked the brake lever with his right foot. The mayor of Abryloch turned out to be a man in his mid-sixties. Squat and round, he had a ruddy complexion that had been aggravated by the cold temperatures. His furry hat and scarf covered most of his face, but when he pushed them aside, it was revealed his hair and full beard were the same shade of white as the snow.

"Greetings, strangers," he said in a surprisingly accent-free voice. "I am Crannog Rhaslain... the spokesman of Abryloch. I like to call myself mayor, but only to make the village sound more important, ha ha."

Caid nodded at Deegan who drew his blade and covertly slipped around the back of the covered wagon to look inside. Moments later, he came back into view and gave the Huntress a thumbs-up.

Bronwyn noticed and let out the breath she had been holding.

"Greetings, Crannog," Caid said, dismounting Chestnut. "My companions are Kheo Khammon, Deegan Arliss and Lady Bronwyn of Ashburne. That guy over there is Volkan Roshek of Kirill, and I am Caid Barlin, also of Ashburne. Enchanted to meet you."

"Oh... you're a lady... why in the world do you have a lady leading your group?" Crannog said to Deegan who had come up alongside the covered wagon. When he didn't get an answer, he looked back at the woman in suede. "I was wondering about your beardless face..." the mayor continued, staring at Caid's compact shape as she moved over to the wagon.

Stepping up onto the hub of the front wheel, Caid put out her hand and waited for the mayor to shake it. "A lady, no, a woman, yes. Like I said, enchanted to meet you, my good man."

"I don't underst- never mind. Enchanted to meet you, too, Lady Caid," Crannog said and somewhat reluctantly clasped Caid's arm. "Sirs, Lady Bronwyn," he continued, nodding at the men and Bronwyn who nodded back with a smile.

"Well, in any case," Crannog continued, "I brought my wagon for the crates your associate told me you were hauling. Should save your horses' backs, eh?"

"Indeed. And please, Caid or the Huntress will suffice, Crannog."

"Huntress?" Crannog said, furrowing his ruddy brow. "Oh, I fear our supper shall be a curious affair with all these strange, southern customs arriving all at once..."

The word 'supper' made Kheo groan out loud and rub his empty belly. "Supper?" he croaked, shooting the mayor such a pitiful look the older man had no option but to let out a braying laugh.

"Supper, aye! Oh, lad, I can see the women haven't fed you well. Have no fear... despite the wretched weather, we have plenty in our pantry."

"Huntress, if ya be lookin' for me, I'm gonn' be in the village!" Kheo cried and immediately turned Horsey around to begin the last part of the trek to Abryloch.

Crannog stared after him with a wide open mouth. "But his crates...?" he said, pointing at the wooden boxes that were tied to Horsey's hind quarters.

Caid chuckled and stepped down from the hub. "Oh, don't mind him, he's just hungry. Volkan, Deegan... come on, let's shift the rest of the crates into the wagon."


The group attracted plenty of attention when the riders and the covered wagon rolled into Abryloch's square, especially so when the villagers discovered the team was led by a woman.

As the riders dismounted to join Kheo who came out of a building opposite the town's only well - already munching on a sandwich - they were greeted by fur-clad villagers who surrounded them and offered them small gifts.

Bronwyn had barely set foot on the ground before a squat, blonde woman in her early to mid-thirties with plain features but friendly eyes came up to her and gave her a small figure of a bear carved from a piece of dark wood. "Oh... oh goodness me, thank you," Bronwyn said as she looked at the expertly crafted figurine. "Oh, this is such a pretty gift. Greetings, Milady, I am... uh, Lady Bronwyn of Ashburne," Bronwyn said and hurriedly took off her mittens so she could put out her hand.

"Gwen Rhaslain, Milady. I'm Crannog's wife. Enchanted to meet you," the blonde said and curtseyed at her visitor before clasping arms with the far taller woman.

Bronwyn briefly wondered if they knew her after all - Caid's plan was for her to travel incognito so they wouldn't attract attention from the wrong crowd - but it appeared Gwen was merely being polite. Smiling, Bronwyn curtseyed in return to show her hostess the proper respect. "Enchanted to meet you, too, Gwen."

Deegan and Volkan were given similar figurines by grateful villagers, but the main gift was reserved for Caid. While the Huntress took off her mittens and pushed back her furry headwear, a blonde girl of no more than fourteen years, perhaps younger, came out from one of the few two-storey buildings in Abryloch and headed towards her with faltering steps. She was carrying a tray where the contents were hidden by a white sheet of cloth.

As the young girl came closer, Caid could clearly see her youthful cheeks were tarnished by red blotches that had no doubt been brought on by nervousness. She wore a pale blue scarf that was too flimsy to protect her head from the cold, so it appeared to be there for religious reasons. A few strands of her long, blonde hair had escaped the scarf and flowed out behind her in the faint breeze that swept around the village square. Though still the owner of a round, childlike face, the girl had delicate and even pretty features, and she was dressed in a pale blue knitted dress that peeked above the upper hem of her furs.

When she arrived at the Huntress, she curtseyed deeply and held up the tray.

Up close, Caid could see the tray wasn't the gift, the white sheet of cloth was. It was a meticulously crafted cross-stitch embroidery where tendrils resembling flames in a multitude of colors swirled in and around each other; mixing and intertwining only to separate further on in the artwork.

"Oh..." Caid said, not expecting such a gift at all. She would have been more than happy with a carved bear like the others - in fact, she felt sorry for the young girl who had obviously spent weeks if not moons crafting the embroidery only to give it away to someone who had very little need for, room for, or even understanding of such a gracious gift. "I thank you for your splendid and most astounding gift. My name is Caid Barlin of Ashburne."

"I am Eileen Rhaslain, Lady Caid. The mayor's daughter," the young girl said, curtseying for all she was worth.

Caid knew it wouldn't be proper to correct Eileen on her use of Lady, so instead, she bowed at the young girl and waved Bronwyn over to her. "Lady Bronwyn, feast your eyes on my gift. Isn't it magnificent?"

"Oh! It certainly is, Lady Caid," Bronwyn said with a wicked gleam in her eye. Smiling crookedly, she winked at Caid and offered her a silent message of support, though of the cheeky kind.

Bronwyn's smile broadened as she put her hand on Eileen's elbow and pulled the young woman away from the Huntress. "Greetings, Eileen... I'm Bronwyn of Ashburne. Have you made that wonderful gift all by yourself? Goodness me, your skills with the needle and thread are unrivaled. Did you employ the two-over, two-under technique?" she said on their way back to the two-storey building that Eileen had come from.

Caid was left holding the artwork, and she had no clue where to put it. She was saved by Gwen who hurried over to the Huntress with the tray her daughter had forgotten all about when she had gone with Bronwyn.

"Here, Lady Caid. I shall keep my Eileen's gift while you unload. We shall be in the Village Hall across the square," she said, nodding at the building that Kheo stood in front of with his half-eaten sandwich.

"Gwen, please," Caid said, raising her headwear so she could scratch her honey-blonde hair that had been flattened quite badly over the past days, "my name is merely Caid. You can also call me the Huntress. I'll respond to either... but not to Lady Caid."

"Oh... well... all right," Gwen said with a puzzled frown marking her forehead. "Well. In any case, supper is nearly ready. Just come in when you have finished unloading."

"We shall, thank you," Caid said and pushed her headwear back in place. As she turned away from the mayor's wife and walked over to the covered wagon, she happened to lock eyes with Volkan Roshek who was leaning against the side of the wagon. "Are you done already?" she said, changing directions to go over to him.

"Splinter. My finger bleeds," he said, holding up his right ring finger where blood trickled down from the nail. "The young girl. You get her name?" he said and pushed himself off the wagon.

"Oh, she's just a little too young for you, Volkan," Caid said and looked up into the back of the wagon where Crannog and Deegan were already at the last crate.

When Deegan noticed he was being looked at, he stood up straight and wiped his sweaty brow. "We're almost ready, Huntress. The tents and the camp gear are in the first crate. Volkan and I will pack up and get the steeds sorted. Crannog has told me they have plenty of high-quality hay for the horses down at their stables. Isn't that so, Mayor Rhaslain?" he said, turning to the mayor.

The older man nodded enthusiastically. "Yes, yes! We bought a full load of hay from a trader convoy that came past just before the storms hit."

"Good," Caid said and tapped her knuckles on the filthy floorboards of the old wagon before turning away.

On her way over to the Village Hall, she bumped into Volkan who was still nursing his bleeding finger. "Like I said, Volkan, Deegan and the old fella could do with some help up in the wagon."

"No. Finger bleeds."

Caid narrowed her eyes and looked at the wound that was hardly more than a deep scrape. "Wipe it off on a rag and get to work, Volkan. This isn't a holiday camp."

As she left the fortune seeker behind, she could clearly hear him curse her in several different languages, but she chose to ignore him.

Caid never quite made it to the Village Hall before she had been intercepted by Bronwyn who came bounding out of the double doors with a big grin on her face. "Oh sweet Caid, they have a brass hot tub in the back! And we are allowed to use it before supper! Oh, I cannot wait to have warm, fresh water touch my body..." - Stopping, she leaned in so the information wouldn't reach everyone's ears: "I have not been cleansed since we left Ashburne... and I can smell myself," she added in a whisper.

"Ah, it's only been four days. In the legendary Hundred-League Campaign back in the war, for three moons, we couldn't bathe more than once a fortnight... if that. And that was at the height of summer," Caid said and hooked her arm inside Bronwyn's. When the taller woman was reluctant to follow her, she turned around and shot her a puzzled look.

"Lady Caid... I love you, but I am most decidedly glad I did not know you at the time..." Bronwyn croaked, crinkling her nose at the thought of the Big Stink.


The Village Hall was one of the few two-storey buildings in Abryloch. Inside, the ground floor was split into two equal halves: on the right, it had a dining room with an integrated kitchen, and on the left across a hallway, it had a drawing room and a bedchamber used by Crannog and Gwen. A small bathing hut with the fabled brass hot tub had been grafted onto the bedchamber with access from the chamber as well as the back yard.

An external wooden staircase went up to the upper floor that Eileen had for herself, though her bedchamber had to share the space with several small storage rooms.

The visitors had been ushered into the drawing room by Gwen and were now occupying every single seat in the room - though Bronwyn preferred to stand to give her sensitive rear end a respite before they had to sit down again.

Freshly-scrubbed, Bronwyn looked around the drawing room that was merely a cozy little den compared to what she was used to from Ashburne Castle. Finally out of her cumbersome winter gear and back in her new hunting fatigues - high-legged boots, insulated wraparound ankle pants, a quilted tunic and a fur-lined jerkin with an integrated leather belt, all held in various shades of brown - she was standing in front of the granite fireplace that dominated the far wall of the room, warming her hands on the orange flames that flickered merrily behind a brass mesh shield.

The wooden floor and walls were of a high quality with nary a crack between the carefully crafted planks, and Bronwyn couldn't feel any draught at all. Gwen's touch could be seen in the pretty curtains covering the windows to the square and in the embroidered cushions on the chairs - that Caid and the men had promptly put on the floor - but other than those feminine details, it was a very neutral room with a table and a group of chairs just inside the door, and a desk with another chair at the other side of the room.

One thing she didn't care for was the way Volkan Roshek's eyes seemed to gobble up Eileen Rhaslain. The young woman was sitting very prim and proper on one of the chairs speaking to Deegan, wearing her demure pale blue knitted dress and her matching scarf, but the fortune seeker's eyes never left her legs, her slender figure nor her developing chest. Bronwyn narrowed her eyes and moved away from the fireplace to give the man from the north a piece of her mind, but before she could reach him, Gwen Rhaslain came in from the hallway.

Their hostess had changed into a tan dress and a matching apron, and her long, blonde hair had been tied into a bun on top of her head. Reaching up, she rang a brass bell that was clearly only used for special events such as this one. "It's suppertime, everyone!" she said and hurriedly stepped aside for the stampede that went through the door and into the dining room across the hallway.

Bronwyn went last and stopped at Gwen who was still all agape at how quickly the drawing room had emptied out. "We thank you, Lady Gwen. It certainly smells delicious," she said and put a hand on her hostess' elbow.

"You are most welcome, Lady Bronwyn. Ah... Milady, please don't take this the wrong way, but... you are of noble blood, aren't you? You are vastly different from the men you travel with. And the other woman as well, the one who doesn't want to be called a lady. You, my dear, are clearly a lady despite your rather eccentric choice of wearing ankle pants. I can see it in your manners... you have a regal pose where the others are crude and boorish."

Bronwyn narrowed her eyes and began to chew on her lips - so much for traveling under a shroud of secrecy. She eventually nodded and offered the older woman a faint smile. "I am, yes. I am Lady Bronwyn of Ashburne Castle," she said and pulled Gwen closer so she could speak more quietly. "And the Empress of these lands. But I would prefer for that factoid to stay between us."

"Emp-?" Gwen croaked, hurriedly going down into a curtsey, but Bronwyn held onto her elbow to prevent it.

"No, Gwen. I am here incognito," Bronwyn said and looked at the open door to the hallway. "Please, I am Lady Bronwyn. Nothing less, nothing more."

Gwen looked like she didn't quite understand, but she eventually nodded and put away the ceremonial bell. "Very well, Lady Bronwyn. In any case, the soup is about to be served, so please head into the dining room..." she said, gesturing at the door.


In the dining room, a long table had been set with a white tablecloth, porcelain plates, brass candlesticks and silver cutlery and beakers. In the connected kitchen at the other side of the table, a woman from the village who had helped Gwen prepare the supper curtseyed at Bronwyn as she entered the room and joined the others who were still standing in a cluster.

Crannog came in from the outside at the last possible moment and closed the door to the hallway behind him with a soft phlum . "Sorry for leaving you at such short notice, but there was an issue that needed my attention. In any case, here I am," he said in a voice strong enough for all to hear, putting his thumbs inside his black waistcoat that he wore over a long, tan tunic that reached down over the waist of his knee pants.

"Welcome to our humble abode. My wife and I hope you will have a pleasant meal here. Now, before we sit down, I must inform you that this is a house where the ancient, holy scriptures are adhered to. From what I gather, the ladies present are not married to any of the men, therefore I insist that the men must sit on one side of the table with the ladies on the other to avoid any close contact between you. Ordinarily, unmarried women must wear a scarf whenever they are in the presence of men, but I am willing to relax our stance on that with regards to your good selves. Call us old-fashioned if you wish, but such are the rules. Thank you, and enjoy your meal."

Bronwyn and Caid looked at each other with identical smirks on their faces. The reality was more complex than Crannog's scriptures had envisioned, but they weren't about to complain.

After Crannog had sat down at the head of the table, Bronwyn took the first seat on the mayor's left, then Eileen and Caid. A chair was left vacant at the end of the ladies' side.

At the other side, Gwen sat down on her husband's right - thus breaking the rule, but no one wanted to question it - then Kheo, Volkan and finally Deegan. Kheo looked across the table at Caid and shot her a crooked grin that was returned in kind.

When the assistant cook from the village brought over a large bowl of vegetable soup, a cheer rose from the famished travelers. Kheo had already grabbed his spoon and held it ready for the soup. "Oy... Mayor... ain't we gonn' get somethin' ta drink?" he said, suddenly noticing the lack of beverages on the table.

"Oh... I forgot. Indeed we shall, my good man," Crannog said and got up from the table. He was quickly back from the kitchen with three jugs. "Here. Milk and fresh, clean water I pumped myself."

"Milk an'..." Kheo said, so shocked he lowered his spoon. "Naw, I wus thinkin' 'bout some, uh, brandy or ale, or wine..."

Crannog shook his head slowly. "I fear we do not drink alcohol. The scriptures, you see."

"Mmmm!" Kheo grumbled, looking down at his empty beaker.

"Now before we begin," Crannog said and put his hands on the table. "It is a firm tradition in this house that we Give Thanks. I humbly request that you respect our traditions though you are of a different faith."

"Of course," Bronwyn said with a smile, shooting the grumpy Kheo a glance that told him to Be Nice, Please.

"Thank you, Lady Bronwyn," Crannog said and closed his eyes as he folded his hands on the table. "Holy Father of all Men, we thank thee for providing this nourishment and for allowing our visitors to find us safely. In return, we shall read an additional ten pages in the Great Book this coming Prayer Day. We thank thee."

Opening his eyes, Crannog looked around at his family and his guests to see if they had spoken along with him. "Supper's served," he said with a smile.

Bronwyn's bowl had already been filled with the steaming hot vegetable soup, and she took her spoon and tested it. As expected, it was good, if perhaps a little insipid. She looked up at Gwen who had a worried look on her face. "I must say, this is an exquisite soup, Lady Gwen. Yes, indeed."

Gwen's relief was almost tangible, and a brief smile flashed across her face before she took her spoon and dug in.


By the time two smoked pork roasts, a bowl of cooked root vegetables, a gravy boat and a small jar of cowberry jam went on the table as the second course, the mood evolved into being looser and chattier as the travelers slowed down in their frantic attempts to eat their hosts out of the house.

Caid pushed her empty soup bowl away and leaned back in her chair. When she put out her right arm around the back of Eileen's chair, she could just about reach Bronwyn with the tips of her fingers - and she did. "Crannog, there is something you haven't asked us yet," she said, finger-teasing Bronwyn well out of sight of their host.

"And that is, La- uh, Huntress?" Crannog said, dabbing his lips on his napkin.

"Our motivations. Are we only here to help you with the aggressive creature, or are we here to search for the mythical cache of gold?"

The question made the others stop their private conversations and look at the head of the table.

Crannog narrowed his eyes and began to chew on his cheek. "Well. That is certainly a good question. Eileen, you are excused. It's time for us adults to have a serious talk. Your mother shall bring you a slice or two of the roast a little later."

"Yes, father. I shall be in the drawing room if you need me," the young girl said and pushed her chair back from the table so she had space to curtsey to her father and their guests. As she rose and walked away, her knitted dress swept around her slender body to accentuate her budding curves.

Volkan's eyes were glued to Eileen's hips that wiggled gently on her way over to the door, but when he looked back at the people sitting at the table, the murderously intense glare in Caid's husky green orbs as she sharpened the carving knife made him concentrate on his beaker of water.

Crannog hadn't noticed the interaction and carried on like nothing had happened. "Well, when we unloaded the wagon, I had a good look at the supplies you brought with you. Apart from one container, you do not appear to have any spades or other tools for digging. Instead, you all carry fearsome weapons. Also, you do not resemble the typical fortune seekers... except perhaps you, Sir," he said, nodding in Volkan's direction. "The rest of you remind me more of servicemen."

"Three of us here are full brass or non-commissioned officers in Ashburne's armed forces, two aren't," Caid said, cutting off a slice of the smoked pork roast and placing it carefully on Bronwyn's plate. "I'll leave it to you to suss out who is who," she said as she moved the knife back to the roast to cut herself a slice as well.

With a smile, Bronwyn took a spoon and selected a few scrumptious root vegetables from the bowl before she poured herself a healthy glob of dark brown, steaming hot gravy from the boat. The jar of cowberry jam came last, but it made her furrow her brow and glance around discreetly. She had no idea what to do with it, so she avoided using it for the time being.

Crannog chuckled and reached for the second carving knife. After cutting off a slice of the other pork roast and putting it on his own plate, he passed the dish along the table before he reached for the cooked vegetables. "Your good self, definitely, Caid. As well as the bald gentleman here and the beardless man at the end of the table. Not the man with the unkempt beard, surely... no offence. Nor you, Lady Bronwyn."

"Indeed. You are right on all counts," Caid said and poured more water into her beaker.

"Indeed," Crannog echoed as he poured some of the gravy onto his plate. To make his meal ready to eat, he took a spoon and scooped up a nice glob of the cowberry jam that he proceeded to dump into the gravy. "To get back to your question of your intentions... I feel that you are here for the monstrous being that threatens us. Though, again, not all of you. Lady Bronwyn, I fear I must admit I cannot see you with a sword in your hand, battling frightful snow creatures?"

Bronwyn's eyes briefly widened as she remembered her comments about the snow that had been whipped up by the wind before she knew what it was. "I am not, Sir. Consider me the moral support," she said, pushing her fork around. Like the vegetable soup, the smoked pork roast was somewhat insipid in its taste, but she was hungry enough not to care. With the mystery of the cowberry jam revealed, she took the small jar and scooped up a modest glob. She sniffed it discreetly and found it to smell sweet and tart at the same time. Shrugging, she dumped it into the gravy to at least try the exotic accompaniment.

"Ah... I see," Crannog said, but his tone of voice proved that he didn't. "Well, that's for later. Caid, I presume you wish to learn a little of the background to this mess while we eat?"

"That would be excellent, Crannog," Caid said and stabbed her fork into a bite of the smoked pork roast.

Crannog nodded and dabbed his lips again. "Because of the mythical treasure, we have been visited countless times by fortune seekers and adventurers. All have left empty-handed. Some have left feet-first in the back of our wagon because they didn't respect the forest or the lagoon. Roughly twenty years ago, a group of adventurers had foolishly brought a few prostitutes with them for entertainment when they didn't dig vast holes in our forest. We tolerated them because they kept their dirty business to their wagons. Oh... I beg for forgiveness... I didn't mean to shock the ladies with such talk of carnal matters. I hope you can forgive me?"

Bronwyn nodded politely - Caid wanted to roll her eyes but didn't.

"Well, on with the story," Crannog continued. "One of the prostitutes had a pet gushin on a leash that she kept in their wagon. The beast-"

"I beg for forgiveness, Crannog," Bronwyn said and put her finger in the air. "I fear I am not familiar with such an animal..."

"Neither were we, Lady Bronwyn. It was a hideous, foul-tempered little thing. Ugly like sin. Like a rat only far more ferocious... in any case, the beast killed its mistress by ripping out her throat with its claws."

"Ack!" Bronwyn croaked, almost dropping her fork on the plate.

Crannog leaned over to pat his esteemed guest's hand. "I beg for forgiveness, Lady Bronwyn, but it happened in such a way. The little critter escaped and sprinted through Abryloch on its way into the Natfarann forest. Two men tried to follow it, but they couldn't keep up with it. They did see it scuttle into a lair across the lagoon where it has stayed ever since."

"Wait a minute," Kheo said, waving his knife around. "Li'l critter? I mean... we wus under the impression this here beast was a large son of a... something."

"Sir, the beast has grown massively in the two decades since the incident," Crannog said like he was speaking to a small child. "Today, the little critter has reached full adulthood. I would say it's, oh, six fathoms tall and ten fathoms long including the tail. It's got a mouthful of pointy teeth and it has very strong arms and legs... although it tends to use the tail for the attacks."

The silence around the dinner table could have been cut with a knife. Bronwyn turned green around the gills and pushed away her plate, but Kheo, Deegan and particularly Caid scrunched up their faces like they were secretly accusing their host of exaggerating.

Volkan broke the silence first with a snort. "Where I come from, we have a word. It's a load of prak. Sure you understand," he said and stuffed a bite of the roast into his mouth.

Crannog furrowed his brow, but before the mood was ruined for good, Caid tapped her knuckles on the table to get back on topic. "Crannog, have you been bothered by the monster before? Do you think it has come out because of the severe winter?"

"This horrendous nightmare only started at the dawn of winter, Huntress. I cannot say for sure if the two are connected... but perhaps the beast has been taken by surprise by the severity, like we have. Perhaps its supplies are low. I cannot say."

"Mmmm. Has the monster returned since Mikeel and his wife left for Ashburne?"

"Oh yes. No people have been harmed yet, but we feel it's only a matter of time. Some of the livestock and a horse have gone missing so it's definitely carnivorous... what's really peculiar is the monster only comes at night. We have a theory that it cannot endure the sunlight. In any case it's getting worse and worse. The last few nights before Mikeel and Aleesa left for Ashburne, the monster came farther into the village than it ever had before. You can still see the sorry ruins of the homes it demolished with its powerful tail."

"The rubble at the end of the street?" Deegan interjected.

"Indeed," Crannog said somberly. Before he went on, he licked his lips and cast worried glances at the people sitting at his table. "At each full moon the creature gets into a... an extremely foul mood, let's call it that. So far, it hasn't ventured into Abryloch during one of its rages, but our luck cannot continue."

"At each full moon?" Caid croaked, thumping her hand flat down onto the table.

"Yes, I fear it is thus."

Bronwyn stared at her partner, trying to figure out what could have made the usually so steely Huntress so spooked. Then it struck her - "Ack... the full moon is only two nights away..." she squeaked, clutching her napkin to the point of nearly tearing it in two.

Crannog just nodded, Kheo groaned and Caid let out a long, slow sigh.


After much consideration - and gnashing of teeth - Caid had decided to set up their camp in the Natfarann Forest itself instead of inside the village. As dusk fell and the light assumed its familiar shade of blue from the last rays of the sun being filtered through the foliage of the pine trees, the Huntress stepped back to survey their camp with her hands firmly ensconced on her hips.

They had ventured six hundred fathoms into the forest to give the villagers a line of defense they hadn't had before. That deeply into the forest, the sounds and smells of the village wouldn't disturb them in their quest to track down and possibly slay the monster - whatever it turned out to be.

Because of the density of the pines, the forest floor and the dirt trail that snaked its way through the entire wooded area and onto the lagoon beyond it was only moderately covered in snow, thus giving the team a helping hand they wouldn't have had in snowy terrain. With their tents being the bog-standard army issue drab tan, they would have stuck out like sore thumbs had their surroundings been white.

As it was, the three tents that had been set up just off the dirt trail - a smaller one for Bronwyn and Caid that was protected by two tall pines, a larger one for the three men on the other side of the trail, and finally a plenum tent next to the men's tent intended to be used for briefings - blended in perfectly, especially since they had been camouflaged with twigs, clumps of dirt and assorted other items from the forest floor. Anyone who wasn't actively looking for the tents would never find them.

"Mmmm," Caid grunted, moving back towards the smaller tent she shared with Bronwyn. Although the temperature was still low, the density of the forest meant it wasn't quite as freezing as outside the line of trees, so they didn't have to wear their cumbersome winter outfits. The Huntress wore her regular suede uniform, though she had wrapped a thick winter cape around her shoulders.

Taking off the cape to fit through the gap, Caid briefly popped her head inside the tent and found Bronwyn already fast asleep in her sleeping furs. The Empress wasn't lying down, though - she was sitting up, holding a pencil and a piece of parchment in her hand like she had been writing something when the need for sleep caught up with her. Her neck was caught in an unfortunate position and her hair draped the parchment like a curtain.

Chuckling, Caid entered the two-person tent and folded down the flap behind her without bothering to lace it. She went down on her knees and shuffled over to the sleeping beauty. "Bronwyn," she whispered, putting a gentle hand on Bronwyn's knee that was quite visible through the sleeping furs because of the way she sat. "Bronwyn... wakey-wakey."

"Zzzzz... wha-?" Bronwyn said, looking around in a daze. Then she noticed the pencil and the parchment in her hand. "Oh... I fear I must have dozed off."

"You had," Caid said and caressed Bronwyn's cheek. "I need to have a small chat with the boys now, but I could see I had to rescue your neck from lasting damage. There'll be brandy and tea in the plenum tent if you want some."

"Yes, I... I shall... I shall be right there," Bronwyn said and swept her legs out of the sleeping furs. "First, sweet Caid, there is something you need to do for me. Something I have been dreaming of for, oh... longer than I care to admit."

"And that is, my love?" Caid said with a smile, already suspecting what the need of the Empress would entail.

"I need you to kiss me, sweet Caid. And not just a polite peck on the cheek. No, a real kiss. One of those kisses where-"

That was all Bronwyn had time to say before Caid had taken her into her arms. The kiss that followed wasn't frantic, it wasn't rushed, it wasn't even the bruising affair she had expected; it was warm, it was sweet and, above all, it confirmed the strong, loving connection between them with its gently rolling passion that soon crept into every last nook and cranny of her body and soul. In short, it filled her with the warmth that could only be produced by the close contact of the woman she loved.

When they separated, they stayed close to be in each other's space for as long as possible. "Yes," Bronwyn whispered, leaning ahead to add another little kiss to Caid's lips while they were so close, "yes, it was such a kiss I meant, sweet Caid. I thank you from the bottom of my heart. Now I can go on for another few days."

The two women moved in for a gentle but heartfelt hug. "I apologize profoundly if you feel I have neglected you... if you feel I have not been affectionate enough, sweet Bronwyn," Caid whispered into Bronwyn's ear. "I fear I need to keep a distance to you simply to stay focused on what it takes to get us through the days in one piece."

"Oh no, please do not apologize, Caid. I certainly understand," Bronwyn said when they moved apart. "But I will admit to having needs and urges," she continued with a snicker.

"So do I," Caid said, leaning in to add another kiss to their already vast collection.

Bronwyn snickered but let herself be kissed by her partner. "I am quite pleased to hear that... quite pleased indeed," she husked around Caid's lips. "Alas... the eve we are about to enter shall not be one where we make love... or shall it?"

"I fear not," Caid husked back. "Remember, I declined the use of the brass hot tub. There are things a Lady of your noble blood should simply not be exposed to."

"Oh... I thank you. But can we at least share a single sleeping fur? I swear, Huntress, if I do not feel your arms around me soon, I shall be forced to press dear old Kheo into action as my substitute soft toy!" the Empress said with a girlish snicker.

"I dare say you would notice the difference sooner or later! If it yelped when you squeezed it, it would be Kheo, not I," Caid said and quickly claimed Bronwyn's lips again.

"Mmmm!" Bronwyn said around the kiss, reaching down to give Caid's buttocks a firm squeeze to test that theory - it rang true, the Huntress didn't shy back at all.

When they separated, Bronwyn smiled at Caid and hurriedly stretched up to place a peck on the other woman's nose. "Oh, we better go to the other tent now. We would not want to give the men an erroneous impression of us. Speaking of which," Bronwyn said and found her boots on the floor of the tent, "did you see how Volkan undressed Eileen with his eyes? It gave me a sour surge."

"I did. I sent him a silent message that he should back off," Caid said and shuffled to the side to give Bronwyn room to work with her boots. "If he continues to eye her in such a way, I shall be forced to spell it out to him. I am quite certain he will understand then," she said, speaking in a steely voice that simply could not be misinterpreted.

Bronwyn looked up and locked eyes with her lover. Nodding, she resumed putting on her boots.




Oddly, the night went by without dramas or incidents. As the sun rose the next morning and cast curious shadows down between the trees, Caid came back from doing her morning business in a freshly dug waste pit a few trees away.

As she cleansed her hands with water from one of their canisters, she crouched down and tried to get a different view of the trail. The experienced Ranger furrowed her brow and began to run through a long list of various tactics they could employ against the creature, but her efforts were made difficult by the fact they had not yet seen it.

"And I cannot believe it's the size Crannog said it was... no way," she mumbled, getting back on her feet. After glancing at the dirt trail one last time, she went into their tent to wake up the Empress.

As she stepped inside the tent and folded down the flap, she knelt at the foot of the furs she and Bronwyn had shared. The Empress was flat on her back, snoring merrily with her mouth slightly agape.

Caid could not stop the warm smile that slowly spread over her features, nor did she want to. "Oh, Caid Barlin... you got it so bad. Markki and father were right, I truly am a lost cause!" she mumbled, chuckling to herself as she shuffled closer to the sleeping beauty.

"Good morn, my love," she whispered, leaning down to put a gentle kiss on Bronwyn's forehead.

The Empress smacked her lips a couple of times and slowly cracked open her eyelids. The smile that came unprompted to her lips proved that she too felt the wonderful shroud of love around her heart. "Good morn, sweet Caid. Has the creature visited us yet?" she said, reaching up to caress Caid's cheek.

"Ah, no. I am quite sure we would have heard."

"I do not know whether to be disappointed or relieved that the monster did not show itself last eve," Bronwyn said, scratching her hair as she sat up in the sleeping furs.

"Nor I. Now, we only have one night until the full moon," Caid said with a wistful smile.

"Ack... you had to mention that part... I had almost forgotten about it!"

"I beg for forgiveness. Come, Bronwyn... I have dug a waste pit for you a bit further into the forest."

"Thank you," Bronwyn said and swept her legs out of the furs. "Oh... did you find any of the treasure in your efforts with the spade?"

Caid chuckled and leaned in to give Bronwyn a proper good morning kiss. "Alas, I did not."


A brief while later, Caid and Bronwyn stepped into the plenum tent to join Deegan and Volkan. The two men were sitting on thick furs on the ground playing a card game that looked to be quite confusing. They each had a stick of jerky and a mug of steaming hot tea next to them, but the mugs appeared to have been all but forgotten.

The cavalry Lieutenant was holding four cards against his opponent's seven, but it was hard to see which was best.

"Good morn, Deegan, Volkan," Caid said as she folded down the plenum tent's much larger flap after Bronwyn had gone through. "Is Kheo out on patrol?"

" 'Morn, Huntress. Yes he is," Deegan said, never taking his eyes off the cards. He started pulling one of his four cards out, but changed his mind and took another instead. It turned out to be the wrong one.

"Ha!" Volkan crowed with an ungainly grin, "Vrash! You need practice," he continued as he took four cards from his hand and slapped them down next to Deegan's one.

Bronwyn furrowed her brow trying to understand the strange game, but soon gave up and shuffled over to one of the furs where she sat down cross-legged. "Caid, would you mind fetching me a mug of hot tea? I truly beg for forgiveness, I forgot to tell you when we were by the fire pit outside."

"Of course I don't mind. I'll be right back," Caid said and stepped outside.

Bronwyn looked back at the card game, but the players seemed to have lost interest in it for the time being. "What kind of game are you playing, Volkan?" she said, toying with a loose thread on her ankle pants.

"Vrash. A game to play for money but we have none. It comes from homeland. Only for men," the man from the north said, shuffling the deck.

Bronwyn opened her mouth to shoot back a stinging reply, but found that she couldn't really be bothered. Instead, she observed the visitor whom she had grown to like less and less since he had joined them in the unnamed forest further south. His archaic ways and his long, unkempt beard and hair didn't bother her as much as the dark gleam he perpetually wore in his eyes. She couldn't put a thumb on what it was exactly, but he always seemed to weigh the worth of the things he looked at, be it items, beasts or people.

She thought of the warning Caid had given her before they had left Ashburne Castle; that the lust for wealth didn't become her, and that it had shone clearly in her eyes at the time. Suddenly, Bronwyn understood what Caid had meant - it was plainly evident on Volkan's face.

When the man from the north looked up and briefly locked eyes with the Empress, she hurriedly looked down at her lap, not wanting to go into any sort of confrontation.

Moments later, Caid came back inside with a mug of steaming hot tea and a small tin beaker. "Here, Bronwyn. Tea and a brandy... to get your blood flowing this earle in the morn."

"Oh, I thank thee!" Bronwyn said, taking both items from Caid's hands. As the Huntress folded her legs and sat down next to her on the furs, Bronwyn offered her a smile and a little wink. "What are the plans for today, sweet Caid?" she said and took a little sip of the chilled brandy.

"As soon as Kheo returns from the dawn patrol, you and I shall don some of our winter gear and explore the local terrain. Your superior height will come in handy!" Caid said and nudged Bronwyn's long legs with her pinkie.

"I see, I see... so all this time, my superior height has been the main reason you have stuck around?" Bronwyn said, returning the nudge and adding a tickle.

"Indeed, Lady Bronwyn. For that and a few other reasons."

"I knew it had to be something akin to that," Bronwyn said and took a long swig of her steaming hot tea. The warm beverage quickly heated her up from the inside and spread a comfortable warmth through her flesh and bones.

Commotion outside made Caid hurry up and leave the tent. As she went outside and folded down the flap, Kheo jumped off Horsey and slapped his frosty body to get the circulation going.

"Huntress, we ain't got no need for havin' them horses here. There ain't nothin'... an' I do mean nothin' out there. Nothin'! Oh, yeah, holes in the ground... yeah, there be plenty o' those around just off the trail. In some places, it looks like a whole herd o' groundhogs went into a diggin' frenzy, but no big critter anywhere. I figgered if it's eatin', it needs ta take a dump now an' then, but... I didn't find any o' those things either."

"All right. Thank you, Kheo. Get some tea and jerky."

"Don't mind if Ah do! An' a brandy, too!"

"Wait, were you all the way down at the lagoon?" Caid said and put a hand on Kheo's ice cold elbow just before he opened the flap to step inside the plenum tent.

"Yeah... well, almost... not enti'ly. Stopped, oh, two hundred fathoms or so before the edge o' the forest. It's wretched cold down there... icy wind blowin' in from the water like som'thin' fierce. Should I ha' gone on...?"

Caid shook her head and rubbed her hands together to battle the chill. "Nah, it's all right. Bronwyn and I shall go there in a little while. Go get some breakfast, Kheo."

"Now ya said it twice, but I heard ya the first time alreddy!" the large man said and hurriedly dove in through the tent's flap.


A little later on, Bronwyn and Caid walked down the dirt trail headed deeper into the Natfarann Forest. Following the deserted trail, they were finally allowed a bit of privacy and took full advantage of it by holding hands and swinging them back and forth as they walked.

They had decided against wearing their full winter gear, simply because the furry overcoat and chaps made it far too difficult to move quickly in case they accidentally awoke a slumbering bear or worse. In the end, they had settled for wearing their regular hunting fatigues with gloves and capes, and they had wrapped cloth around their heads to protect their ears from the cold.

As they walked along the trail, Caid could see that Kheo had been right about the many holes in the forest floor. Everywhere she looked, excavated dirt had been piled up and abandoned, occasionally joined by a broken shovel, spade or pickaxe. "My Empress, can you believe this wretched nonsense? Look at how they have ruined the forest floor," Caid said, gesturing at the desecration with her free hand.

"I cannot believe it, no. Greed must surely be one of the worst traits of mankind. I know it will sound hypocritical of me considering my status and background, but... what we see here is pure, unadulterated greed. For centuries, people have toiled endlessly to dig after a mythical treasure that may not even have been here in the first place! Such folly!"

"Madness is the best word to describe it, in my opinion," Caid said darkly.

Bronwyn grunted and looked over her shoulder. The forest behind them looked identical to the forest ahead, the forest to their left, and the forest to their right. If the dirt trail hadn't been there, everything would have been a perfect mirror image of everything else. "The Natfarann Forest is such a peculiar, desolate place, do you not think so, sweet Caid? I for one cannot imagine getting lost in here. Certain death would be the only logical conclusion, of that there is no doubt."

"No," Caid said, staring at the holes in the ground. "And imagine the betrayals, the paranoia, the violence and the bloodshed these trees have seen. When men fight over fortunes, some die... and some wish they had died."

Bronwyn shivered and moved in closer to the Huntress. "I would rather not imagine such things. Oh, sweet Caid, I am glad you convinced me to not set my sights on the treasure. Such a target would have made a sheer fool out of me. No, worse... I fear it would have brought out the worst in me."

"My dear Bronwyn," Caid said and gave the Empress' hand a little squeeze, "first of all, you don't possess an evil bone in your body, not that I have seen, anyway. Secondly, if the lust for gold had indeed claimed you, I would have been the little voice who whispered in your ear to persuade you to come back to the real world."

"And for that, I am eternally grateful, my sweet Caid," Bronwyn said and bumped shoulders with the Huntress. "Alas... my father was an evil man. His blood courses through my veins. His temper and fortitude reside in my soul. I fear I have inherited more from him than merely the castle we live in. Oh, let us not speak of such depressing matters. Here Caid, lend me your hand... I need to feel your skin upon mine."

Smiling, Caid took off her glove and put out her hand to do her beloved's bidding.


On their way through the forest, the winds gradually picked up, and Bronwyn began to rub her arms and legs. "Are the ghosts of the Natfarann Forests speaking to me, or is it getting colder?"

"It's getting colder. Kheo said the winds that came in from the water were icy. We must be close to the lagoon now... not that we can tell..."

The words had barely left Caid's mouth before she caught a glimpse of the icy surface of the lagoon through the endless rows of trees. The lagoon came into view on their right rather than straight ahead as they had expected, and even the experienced Ranger had to slow down and scratch her neck. "Well, we've found it... somehow. Come, Bronwyn, it's over here," she said and turned off the dirt trail.

The ground beyond the trail was hard from the frost and thus safe to walk on, but it was rocky, and Caid had to take care where she put her boot so she wouldn't stumble and fall. The twenty-fathom distance from the trail and over to the outer row of pines took longer than it would have on level terrain, but they managed to reach the trees in one piece which was more important than their speed.

Standing at the leading row of trees, they were fully exposed to the icy wind that blew in unhindered from the flat lagoon. The two-hundred fathom-wide body of water was frozen solid save for a narrow band of water roughly at the center, some eighty fathoms from the rocky, snow-covered shore. The lagoon ended a few hundred fathoms to their right, but the other end went out of sight beyond the pine trees of the Natfarann Forest.

"Caid," Bronwyn said, looking out over the lagoon, "in your professional opinion, can you see an experienced pirate Captain accidentally running his ship aground here?"

"Perhaps in a storm or dense fog, but..."

"I fear I cannot," Bronwyn said and wrapped her cloak tightly around her. "The more I learn of this wretched place, the more I realize the legends of the treasure are merely that... legends."


Below them, the ground sloped downward roughly a fathom from the line of trees to the edge of the ice. Several roots protruded through the coarse, uneven edges of the slope, but they had been covered by snow like everything else.

"Oh... I fear that slope looks too slippery for me, Caid. I doubt I can scale it."

"You needn't," Caid said, shielding her eyes from the sun. She employed all the skills she had gathered in her many years of service in the Ranger battalion to study the shore, the condition of the snow-covered ice, the narrow band of water roughly at the center of the lagoon, the sparsely vegetated, hilly isthmus that went from north to south at the other side of the body of water, and finally a dark shadow on the hillside roughly opposite Caid and Bronwyn's vantage point.

The Huntress let out a grunt as she digested all the information. "Bronwyn, see the dark shadow over there? Where I'm pointing?"

Bronwyn followed Caid's finger and stared at the isthmus. She could see a dark shadow like the Huntress had said, but she didn't have a clue what it could be. "Well, I see it, but..."

"That could be the creature's lair. If there is a creature."

"Its lair?" Bronwyn croaked, grabbing hold of Caid's elbow.

"Yes. That isthmus is roughly fifteen fathoms tall. That's unusual in itself and it would leave plenty of room for a creature. The slopes over there aren't particularly steep which could possibly mean we could use them for setting up traps-"

"Caid... sweet Caid, I fear you are moving far too quickly for me," Bronwyn said and pulled the Huntress close. "Our own safety must be paramount. I have not traveled forty-five leagues north on horseback only to see you die by the hand of some fierce monster... nor to die myself, I hasten to add!"

"None of us shall die here, Bronwyn... of that I am certain."

"Perhaps so, but no man, woman, child nor beast can predict when Death arrives. He could be waiting for us behind the next tree for all we know. Please, Caid, you must promise me to be careful. You simply must!"

Caid smiled at her lover and pulled her into a hug. "I promise, Bronwyn. But I fear we may come into situations where I will have to put myself at risk to save you and our friends. Such is life."

"I shall pray to Marpaxa that such a situation shall never arise for as long as I breathe. Alas, I understand that it may," Bronwyn said and hugged Caid again. Sighing, she looked out at the body of water and let her eyes roam across the dark entrance to the beast's lair.

"Good. Now, I think you should return to the camp. There's no reason for you to wait here while I explore the lair."

"Oh, but I can- while you what?!" Bronwyn cried, shoving herself back from the Huntress. "While you explore the lair? Have you gone soft in the head, Caid Barlin? What if you meet the monster? Have you heard nothing I have said to you?!"

"Bronwyn, calm down, I shall be perfectly safe. I am such a small target it won't even notice I'm there... if there is a monster," Caid said in a soothing voice. "The first exploration needs to be in the daytime for it to be effective. Remember, we do not know what's inside the lair."

"That is the point I am trying to make!" Bronwyn cried, clutching her head. "What if there is an entire family of beasts living in there...? What if they have had little ones who are just dying to feast on a scrumptious human being such as yourself?!"

"Bronwyn, now you're just being sil-"

"Crannog said the geshin-gashin-whatever was like a rat. Rats are bloodthirsty, Caid! What if you are attacked by a pack of rat-like creatures? They shall skin you alive and consume your flesh straight off the bone while you are still warm!"

"Now really... you have been speaking too much to some of the drunkards back home, Bronwyn. Of course I will not be skinned alive."

"But..." Bronwyn whined even as she instinctively knew the argument had long since been lost. Sighing, she threw her arms in the air and shook her head. "Fine. But it could happen!"


Not long after, Caid slipped down the slope and onto the first few inches of the ice. Crouching down, she tapped her knuckles on it to test its strength and found it to be rock solid. The wind that came from the south was freezing cold and so strong it constantly blew away the top layers of fresh snow, leaving the shiny, slippery ice as the surface.

She turned around and waved at an agitated Bronwyn before she ventured out onto the ice. After testing how slippery it was, she chose a path that wouldn't take her directly to the other side, but bypassed the narrow band of water at the center.

The ice wasn't too bad and it took her a surprisingly short amount of time to cross the lagoon. Only once did she have to backtrack and find another path because of the ice being cracked in front of her. The water below the ice seemed fairly calm and not too influenced by currents.

Once she reached dry land on the other side, she scurried up the embankment and ran along the flattest part of the isthmus. She found the ground slipperier than the ice because of hidden, loose rocks underneath the fresh layer of snow, and at one point, she lost her footing and stumbled onto her side.

It didn't take long for her to get back up, but when she turned around to signal Bronwyn she was all right, the Empress was already on her way down the slope to come to her rescue - or to chew her out, it was hard to tell. Another wave defused the situation and Caid was quickly on the move again.

The entrance to the lair was revealed to be a natural cave that had been carved out of the isthmus by a giant hand. The snow wasn't too deep on that side of the lagoon and Caid only had to shuffle through a foot of the white stuff the last few fathoms of the way. Before she ruined the surface of the pristine snow, she noticed there were no tracks of any kind in front of the lair's entrance.

Holding onto the cave's northern wall, Caid slid around the corner to stand in the opening. As expected, it was too dark to see much of anything other than the ground being littered with rocks of various sizes. A peculiar smell of decay wafted out from further within the cave, but she couldn't identify its exact origins, only that it came from an organic source.

Caid wished she had brought a torch so she could explore the cave extensively, but just as she set foot on the rocky ground, a sound akin to heavy, labored breathing reached her ears and made her stop. She scrunched up her face and hurriedly removed the cloth she had tied around her ears so she could hear better.

The heavy breathing seemed to come from somewhere further into the cave - which wasn't a surprise, all things considered - but a sudden, deep, rumbling sound certainly was. The sound reminded her of someone snoring, but she knew even the largest of bears couldn't produce such a powerful resonance. Another rumbling sound followed the first before it settled down into the heavy, labored breathing she had heard previously.

Caid's courage slowly left her, and she began to slide backwards to get out of the cave before whatever was snoring woke up and decided it needed to have a honey-blonde, suede-clad breakfast snack.

Once outside, she rubbed her mouth and looked across the lagoon at Bronwyn who was still waiting for her. "For Phirax' sake, Caid, perhaps this wasn't one of your best ideas..." she mumbled, taking several deep breaths to get the peculiar smell out of her nose. After a brief wave at Bronwyn, she began the trek back along the embankment.


Many turns of the hourglass later, night had fallen at the end of yet another day that had remained uneventful save for Caid's misadventures at the cave. The five people from Caid's hunting party walked along the dirt trail in search for the best spot to set up an ambush for the fabled creature they were there to slay.

The Natfarann Forest was dark, chilly and generally frightening, and Bronwyn had already had to make an extra stop to relieve her bladder that threatened to spill over at the slightest hoot of a snowy owl.

Up front, Kheo and Volkan each had a torch that they tried to get to illuminate the trail ahead, but penetrating the oppressive darkness wasn't easy even for two torches. Caid also had a torch, but she'd had to help Bronwyn find a suitable spot for doing her business so they had fallen back from the others.

Kheo, Volkan and Deegan walked on in silence apart from when one of them accidentally hit a rock or a pine cone and sent it scurrying off the trail. The fortune seeker and the experienced officers looked ahead and to the sides to find a spot that would be suited to stage an ambush, but they had almost reached the lagoon without finding anything. "Aw, this is jus' plum nuts," Kheo mumbled as he looked yet again to find a good spot. "We ain't never gonn' find anythin' in this wretched darkness. We shoulda done this earlier... like I said."

"From what's out here now," Deegan said, looking to the right, "we could have been here for a moon without finding a good spot. No, Kheo, we have to do this the hard way. We have to confront it directly."

Kheo sighed, but Volkan grunted at the underlying message. "Snoring creature, ha. I never heard so stupid. Why Caid did not say she was scared and pissed her pants? Snoring creature my ass..."

" 'Cos she wassen and she didden, that's why!" Kheo growled, pointing his torch at the man from the north. "Look here, buddy... if Caid Barlin said she heard the critter snorin', she heard the dang critter snorin', awright? And I'd watch mah lip if I wus you... unless ya want a fat one ta go with them perdy wavy locks o' yours."

"Fat one? Fat lip? What that mean?"

"It means that when ya be spewin' vomit like that 'bout mah friend Caid, I got all the right in the world ta give ya a really good thumpin'!"

Behind the two warring men, Deegan cleared his throat to stop the conflict before it would escalate out of control. "Sergeant Khammon, is this really the right time?" he said sternly.

Kheo briefly drew a deep breath to tell the Lieutenant to stay out of his quarrels, but let it slide - though he did grumble incessantly.

Some distance behind the arguing men, Caid held the torch low to help Bronwyn see what she was doing. A few muffled sounds of clothes behind pulled up were heard, and they were soon followed by soft footfalls on the rocky ground.

"I thank you, sweet Caid," Bronwyn said and adjusted her jerkin and her hunting jacket. "I am ready now. I beg for forgiveness for this unacceptable inconvenience. I cannot tell you how disappointed I am in myself. Thank goodness there were some leaves there," she said, discreetly wiping her fingers on her ankle pants.

"Oh, that's all right, love," Caid said and went back up onto the trail with the Empress in hot pursuit. "When you have to go... you know," she said, holding the torch ahead of her.

"I must admit I am afeared to be out here," Bronwyn said and looked over her shoulder to underline her words. "I am not used to being out late at night in the first place... and back home in Ashburne, everything is very well lit. Even when we spent the nights in the camp in the Sarkhann Forest, it never got this dark."

"Well, that was out in the open..." Caid said with a smirk.

"Mmmm! That would certainly have an impact on the darkness, would it not?"

"It would. Now, please... I believe the others are waiting for us," Caid said and gestured along the trail.


By the time they reached the slope down to the lagoon that Caid had used earlier in the day, they still hadn't found a suitable location for an ambush.

Kheo's mood had deteriorated even further, and he stomped around just beyond the cones of light from the three torches mumbling a long line of choice curses into his beard.

Bronwyn didn't dare speak to him, but she could see by looking at the body language of the large, bald man and Volkan Roshek that they'd had a row over something.

"Huntress," Deegan said, holding the torch formerly possessed by Kheo, "we won't get any further just standing here. I'll move ahead on the trail for another hundred paces or so to see if there's a secondary route down to the lagoon. If there is a monster over there, it cannot have come through the narrow gap in the trees."

Caid nodded and patted the cavalry Lieutenant's arm. "Good idea, Deegan... if you find anything, whistle."

"I will," Deegan said and moved into the dark night. Soon, all that was visible of him was the orange cone of light from his torch that bobbed through the darkness like an overgrown firefly.

Bronwyn shivered at the sight and made sure to stay even closer to Caid.

Caid cast a brief glance at Volkan who still held his own torch. The man from the north seemed curiously upset about something, but she couldn't be bothered to ask what was on his mind. "Kheo," she said, moving away from Bronwyn who rapidly closed the distance between them. "Let's get serious now. We've been in a similar situation before, remember? In the war, you, me and a company of men had to go out in a dense forest to intercept an enemy infantry platoon who was getting too close to our forward firebase."

"I remember," Kheo growled in the semi-darkness just outside the cone of light from Caid's torch. "I also remember we kinda lost half our boys in that ambush."

"We did. But no enemy walked away."

"Yeah. That day, we lined up in a crescent, didden we?"

"Yep. Well, four crescents to be exact," Caid said and moved closer to the Sergeant. As before, Bronwyn followed her closely. "What the first line didn't catch, the second line would, and so on and so forth," Caid continued, shifting the torch to her other hand.

Kheo grunted and kicked a pine cone way off the trail. "That's right. But we ain't got enough manpower here ta form more than one crescent, Huntress. An' Lady Bronwyn, with all due respect... ya ain't gonn' jump in there with us and splatter this son of a whore, are ya?"

"I fear I am not, Kheo," Bronwyn said truthfully.

"Nah, didden think so. That means we got four blades, Caid. Four blades against somethin' we don't even know what in Phirax' ballsack is yet."

At the other side of the trail, Volkan briefly pulled both his swords out of his belt. "Five blades. I got two."

"Well, ain't that jus' swell for ya, son!" Kheo grumbled.

A whistle from afar suddenly cut through the oddly silent forest. Caid and Kheo both turned around to look in the direction Deegan had gone. Sure enough, his orange torch came into view a good distance further out the trail. At first he held it steady, but he soon bobbed it up and down three times in rapid succession.

"He's found something. Come along, Bronwyn," Caid said and put a hand on her partner's elbow to drag her along.


Once they reached Deegan, the Lieutenant held the torch so they could see onto the ground. He had discovered a wide, well-used pathway of hard soil that led down to the lagoon, but more importantly - or worryingly, according to Bronwyn - a three-toed footprint that had been pressed down into the ground at the exact center of the trail.

"What in the name of Phirax the Unholy...?" Caid said and kneeled down next to the imprint. "We need more light down here... Deegan..."

"Here. There's another one just like it a bit further down the pathway to the water," Deegan said and put his torch nearly down on the ground.

Caid put her hand into the imprint and let out a long grunt when all but her thumb was hidden by the wall of dirt at the edge.

Somewhere in the semi-darkness, Bronwyn let out a croak and began to chant "Oh, Sweet Marpaxa, I pray to thee, please protect your humble servant..." under her breath.

Caid had other things on her mind than praying. Dusting off her hand, she leaned back on her thighs and looked around. "Kheo, I need your big feet over here. Walk around on the dirt for me..."

Volkan snorted and scratched his hair. "What good that do? Kheo no monster..."

The Huntress ignored him completely and shone the torch down onto the dirt where she wanted Kheo to walk around. The big man did so with a dark chuckle. "All right," she said, finding one of the imprints Kheo had left behind. "Kheo, you're twenty-one stone or so, right?"

" 's 'bout right. Why?"

"Your boot only made the smallest impact in the hard soil. The monster created a dent the size of my hand. That puts the critter at, oh... twenty times your weight. At least. Maybe double that."

"Ohhhh, Sweet Marpaxa, I pray to thee, please protect your humble servant!" Bronwyn howled out loud, clutching her head.

Kheo let out a long, slow sigh that gave a very good indication of what they all felt. Grunting, he turned around and looked down the pathway towards the lagoon. The ghostly pale light from the nearly full moon shone onto the white ice and snow to create an eerie, otherworldly spectacle. The icy winds that never ceased to sweep in from the flat lagoon had died down somewhat, but it was still cold enough for their breaths to show as faint plumes of steam.

The modest wind carried a faint, unidentifiable sound. It could have been a wail or simply a natural byproduct of a gust that had filtered through the crowns of the nearby pine trees.

Caid slowly rose to her feet and cocked her head, hoping the sound would return. When all she could hear was Bronwyn mumbling her prayers, she went over to the Empress and calmed her by rubbing her upper arms.

Then a fierce, high-pitched wail broke the silence. Echoing back and forth across the lagoon and between the tree trunks, it sounded like no animal any of the experienced men and women had ever encountered, and it made their blood freeze over. Bronwyn shrieked and jumped a foot in the air, and her agitation was only exacerbated when a second, even louder wail followed the first.

"We've got company," Caid said stoically although her heart was thundering in her chest. "Kill the torches. Dump 'em somewhere we can find 'em again."

"I'm on it," Kheo said and snatched the torches. He threw them onto the ground and stomped his large boot down onto the wicks. The darkness that fell was complete, and for a brief moment, they were engulfed by an inky void.

The five people kept standing where they were until their eyes had adjusted to the new level of light - then the moon's reflection filtered down through the crowns.

"Get off the trail and spread out into the crescent formation we talked about," Caid said in a strong whisper, grabbing hold of Bronwyn's arm so she knew where she was. "Kheo and Volkan, left flank... Deegan, right flank... Bronwyn, you're with Deegan. And keep your pretty head down!"

"Y- yes, Huntress," Bronwyn croaked and left the trail on shaking legs.

For a short while, footfalls could be heard crunching on various twigs and rocks on the forest floor. Then several swords and blades were drawn from their sheaths.

"An' where you gonn' be, Huntress?" Kheo whispered hoarsely from somewhere on the left.

"I'm gonna be the burr in Phirax' underpants!" Caid growled and drew her Yonnae machete. Turning around, she ran back a few paces on the dirt trail to get into the proper position at the center of the crescent.


Everyone held their breaths as the tension built up to hysterical levels. A faint tremor in the ground was the first proof something was coming their way. Another tremor; then another. The silence was broken by a third fierce wail that made Bronwyn whimper.

Caid twirled her machete and bobbed up and down on the balls of her feet to work off the excess energy that screamed through her body. With her eyes having finally adjusted to the darkness, she stared straight ahead at the pathway down to the lagoon, hoping to see enough to give the others an early warning.

Another tremor rippled through the ground, this time much closer to Caid. A glimpse of something greenish-white appeared on the pathway where only darkness had been a scant heartbeat earlier.

Caid drew a deep breath and let it out slowly. Clutching the hilt of her machete, she swallowed several times to get her nerves down to the level they needed to be at for her to function effectively.

Then the creature they were there to slay appeared on the dirt trail. They had all thought Crannog Rhaslain had exaggerated when he had spoken of its size, but it didn't take them but a heartbeat to see he had actually underestimated it.

Caid narrowed her eyes and gulped audibly.

The creature was at least six fathoms tall and ten fathoms long, including a powerful, pointy tail that it used for leverage when it walked on its two muscular hind legs. The front legs - arms - were smaller, but no less muscular and equipped with three fierce claws on each hand.

Its curiously oblong shape made it look amphibious and it appeared to have scales over most of its body, save perhaps for the underbelly that appeared to be of a different color. Its head looked like it was more at home under water than above it, with a large, meaty fold that resembled a fin behind each ear. Although mostly white, its skin was vaguely fluorescent with the moonlight making it glow a faintly greenish tone.

The creature had black, round eyes that were seemingly without eyelids, meaty nostrils that moved as it walked, and a slightly agape mouth that held row after row of sharp teeth. Six fangs - three on each jaw in a saw-tooth pattern - glinted in the moonlight.

"Oh, Sweet Marpaxa... Caid Barlin, you're in trouble now," Caid croaked as she looked at the size and the natural weapons of their opponent. Although every last fiber of her being screamed at her to run away to safety, she kept standing and clenched every muscle she had.

Down on the forest floor, Bronwyn had thrown herself onto her knees and buried her face in her hands to protect herself from the monster's frightful visage. Her heart thumped so hard in her chest she had an unpleasant, tangy taste of blood in her mouth, and her stomach rebelled to the point of wanting to turn itself inside out - not just because of the creature, but because of what she was sure it would do to Caid. Her mind had turned as blank as the pure, white snow they had been traveling through for the entire trek, and she couldn't even stutter out a prayer to Marpaxa to keep everyone safe.

The creature suddenly stopped some fifty fathoms from where the ambush was to take place. It turned to look into the forest on both sides of the dirt trail, almost like it had sensed something that shouldn't be there. It cocked its head and seemed to scan its surroundings while its nostrils worked overtime to pick up any and every scent that lingered in the air.

Caid was about to walk towards it to take back the initiative, but the creature was apparently satisfied there was nothing in the forest that could threaten it.

It raised its right hind leg and moved ahead, holding the tail onto the ground for leverage. As the powerful, muscular leg thumped back down onto the dirt trail, the tremors rippled through everything and made Volkan's two blades clang together.

The metallic sound had been faint, but it echoed through the forest like a thunderclap. While Caid bared her teeth in a disgusted grimace, the creature stopped dead and cocked its head.

Apparently deciding the strange sound had been nothing, the creature resumed walking towards the point of the ambush where Caid was still standing in the middle of the dirt trail, though she had crept into the shadows of a nearby pine tree.

A brief flash of light from the side of the trail where Kheo and Volkan were hiding made the creature throw its head in that direction and let out a fierce, screeching wail.

Up close, the wall of sound was painful to their ears, and Bronwyn couldn't stop a pained cry from escaping her lips as she clapped her hands over her ears. Groaning, she tried to stay as far out of the way as she could.

Once the creature had understood something was up, it slammed its right leg into the ground with an earthquake-like force that made every one of its would-be attackers jump and sway like reeds in a storm.

Caid nearly fell onto her rear from the force, but jumped ahead in the knowledge they couldn't wait any longer. "Charge!" she roared, swinging the machete in the air. "Charge! Charge it now! Kheo! Volkan! Deegan! Now!"

Clenching her jaw, she stormed towards the monster with the machete ahead of her. The razor-sharp blade glinted dangerously in the faint moonlight as she swung it wildly in the hope of inflicting damage to the creature. In her peripheral vision, she could see her companions jump out of their hiding places and attack the fearsome monster in the crescent pattern they had agreed on.

The creature let out another screeching wail that almost sounded like it was insulted over being disturbed on its evening stroll. It stomped hard down onto the ground and began to swing its arms around. The lethal claws swooshed through the air, but its arms were too short to be of much use against such nimble opponents.

Caid let her machete do the talking. Again and again, she stabbed and slashed the blade across the creature's scaly skin. Even the sacred Yonnae machete could only inflict superficial damage to the massive beast, but at least she drew some of its greenish blood.

"Caid!" Kheo cried somewhere in the darkness. "We might as well be pissin' on this wretched thing! My sword ain't good fer nothin' against them scales!"

"Keep tryin'! Stab between 'em!" she cried back, ducking furiously as a set of three claws came dangerously close to her face. She rolled over at the last possible moment and performed a somersault that sent her up close and personal with the beast's hind legs. Twirling the machete, she slashed across its toes but found the skin there even harder to penetrate.

The monster had just about had enough of the puny people trying to wound it, and it let out a screeching wail and spun around to give its best weapon a fair shot. The powerful, pointy tail swooshed through the air and thumped everything in its path out of the way.

A figure dressed in bluish-black was hit dead center by the tail and was thrown a good ten fathoms into the darkness, crying out in pain the entire way there.

On the tail's rebound, Caid had to throw herself flat onto the dirt trail to avoid a similar fate. As it swooshed past her, she considered using the machete on it but immediately realized it would only enrage it further. "Fall back! Fall back at once!" she cried, scrambling off the trail and into safety in the shrubbery.

As the other warriors hustled off the trail, the creature turned around and leaned its head back to let out a victorious roar. Its body was dotted with small puncture wounds, but even added together they would not have been enough to bring it down.

Turning back to the pathway down to the lagoon, it tightened its powerful hind legs and set off in a jump that left everything behind in a flash. A good fifteen fathoms later, it landed with a ground-pounding crash and set off back to its cave in a hurry.

From her vantage point pressed down into the shrubbery, Caid witnessed the monster jump away. Groaning out loud, she thumped her fist into the ground and sat back on her thighs where she sheathed the machete. "Phirax the Unholy is just laughing his furry butt off right now... wretched! We need bigger weapons!"

Getting up, she brushed twigs and clumps of dirt off her suede uniform before she put her hands around her mouth to amplify her voice. "Call in!" she cried, hoping to hear four distinct voices.

"Kheo here, still alive an' kickin'," Kheo said from somewhere to the left. "Deegan present and accounted for... and mightily annoyed," Deegan Arliss said from the other side of the trail.

"Br- Br- Bron- Bronwyn...!" the Empress squeaked in a voice two octaves higher than her regular one.

Caid let out a sigh of relief and hurried across the trail to get to her partner. Once she was at Bronwyn's side - and giving her a thorough physical check-up to make sure that every last part of her had come safely through the ordeal - she suddenly realized they were one man short. "Wait... Roshek? Roshek, are you there?" she cried, stepping back from Bronwyn.

Not a peep was heard from the forest, and Caid angrily brushed back her hair with a hand that still trembled from the surge of adrenaline that had coursed through her. "Wretched! That fool set it off and now he's the one arm wrestlin' with Phirax."

"Oh! Do you fear he is dead, Huntress?" Bronwyn squeaked, holding onto Caid's strong arm with all her might.

"I cannot say for sure... but he was hit straight in the chest by that tail. There's a risk he was crushed to a pulp."

"Ack! Sweet Marpaxa!" Bronwyn croaked and clutched her head.

Further up the trail, Deegan hustled over to where they had left their torches. Working with the set of flints he always carried with him, he soon created enough sparks to get the first torch going. Once that was burning merrily, the other two were easily ignited. Taking all three, he hustled back to the others and gave Caid a torch. "Here, Huntress. Do you think we should look for Roshek, or...?"

"We have a man down. We must look for him," Caid said, even if she wasn't entirely convinced by her own words.

Nodding, Deegan quickly gave the third torch to Kheo who set off into the forest.


A short while later - while Caid and Bronwyn had been making sure their lips had survived the attack and were still functioning like they should - Kheo let out a surprised grunt over something he had found on the ground. "Got 'im, the lucky bastard...!" he shouted, bobbing his torch up and down somewhere off to the left of the trail.

"Come," Caid said, putting a hand on the small of Bronwyn's back. The Empress was reluctant to move through the semi-darkness, but Caid held the torch low so they could both see where they were going.

When they reached Kheo, the large man was shining his own torch down into a hole in the ground where Volkan Roshek was lying in an unruly heap, moaning and groaning from the rough treatment he had been given. "Lookie there, Huntress," Kheo said, pointing down, "ain't he jus' the luckiest bastard alive?"

Caid stepped up to the edge of the hole and peeked down. She let out a surprised grunt when she realized it was one of the holes left behind by the fortune seekers who had turned the forest floor upside down in their quest to find the Natfarann gold.

Bronwyn shivered and pressed herself even closer to the Huntress. "Like a grave," she croaked, looking at a battered and bruised Volkan who was getting on his feet a fathom below the others.




After a late breakfast the next morning consisting of jerky and hot water - they had run out of tea leaves - Caid had sent Volkan and Deegan off on the regular dawn patrol while she and Kheo cleaned their swords of the greenish blood they had been soaked in the night before.

Kneeling down on the ground next to the plenum tent, Caid ran a rag of scrap cloth over the blade of her Yonnae machete while Kheo was pouring water down onto it from one of their spare canisters.

"Enough?" he said around a yawn that cracked his face wide open.

Caid was rubbing too hard to get the gunk out from between the machete's teeth to have time to answer, but she eventually looked up at her old friend. "Almost. Just a little more."

"This here canister is almost em'ty, Huntress."

"How many do we have left?"

"Not enough for all o' this nonsense. Ya know, it was Volkan who really messed it up fer us las' night," Kheo said and tapped on the bottom of the canister to get the last droplets out. Once it was empty, he held it steady and watched Caid wipe down her blade.

"I know," Caid said, rubbing furiously.

"Yeah. Him an' his dumb swords. Ya cannot control two swords at once, anyhow! Wotcha need two swords for? An' that other thing... yeah, that other thing with the weird flash o' light an' stuff that really set the critter off? That wus him, too. Yep. Caught a moonbeam, he did."

"I noticed."

"Yeah. The Empress sleepin' in?"

"Yep," Caid said and sat back on her thighs. Sighing, she wiped her sweaty brow with the back of her hand and looked despondently at the pile of swords they still had to go through before they could take a hard-earned rest. "It was a rough night for her. She isn't used to this sort of mess."

"Phirax, none o' us are. I dang near plutted mah undershorts when that critter came up on the trail an' started wailin'!" Kheo said and let out a loud laugh.

"You what?"

"Plutted... Huntress, ya forgettin' the old slang? Soiled mah shorts with piss an' gravy!"

"Oh... never heard that one before," Caid said and decided that she needed a break now, not later - the other swords could wait.

Kheo furrowed his brow and held up his arms in a shrug. "Aw, sure ya have... we said it all the dang time after battles an' stuff back in the unit... ya know, ta break the tension."

"You must be dreaming, friend. I've never-"

A rhythmical squeak-squeak-SQUEAK-squeak made both warriors spin around and put their hands on the hilts of their blades.

Instead of yet another fearsome monster that had popped up out of nowhere, Eileen Rhaslain came walking along the dirt trail from Abryloch pulling a handcart. The young girl who was wearing her regular pale blue scarf as well as a brown cape with a leather hem over a coarse, dark green dress waved at Kheo and Caid when she saw them.

"Awwww," Kheo said and lowered his favorite sword again. "I be spooked! I be dang spooked by that critter las' night... an' now I nearly plutted my shorts ag'in!"

Chuckling, Caid dusted off her hands and got up. "Spare me the details, old friend," she said and patted Kheo's gut. "Hello, Eileen!" she said strongly, waving back at the young girl.

Eileen pulled the handcart to a halt in the middle of the trail and went into a polite curtsey. "Good morn, Mistress Caid, Master Kheo. We heard the monster wailing last eve... were you able to slay it?"

"I fear not, Eileen. We wounded it, but it returned to its lair," Caid said, eyeing a drab cloth that was draped over a few lumpy items in the back of the handcart.

"Oh... well. At least it did not come into Abryloch. My father was adamant I should bring you some supplies this morn," Eileen said and swept aside the cloth. "I have freshly baked rye buns and loaves of white bread... also butter and salted fat, smoked baloney, jars with dried fruit and several different kinds of jam. They are really tasty! Oh, and I have two bottles of homemade sweetberry juice," she continued, nudging a wooden crate where two slender, dark green bottles stuck up.

"Sweetberry juice?" Caid said, leaning in over the handcart to see for herself.

"Yes. My father's favorite beverage. It's non-alcoholic, I hope you don't mind."

"Weeeellll-" Kheo said, but he was quickly shushed by Caid.

"Of course not, Eileen," Caid said and slapped Kheo's belly again. She reached down into a wooden bowl and took one of the round, dark brown buns. Holding it to her nose, she took a deep sniff. "Oh, those rye buns certainly smell delicious... oh, better than delicious. Beef jerky only goes so far, you know," she said, taking a big bite out of the bun.

Eileen's jaw fell at the odd sight of a rye bun being eaten on its own instead of being sliced open and covered in butter and jam, or salted fat and baloney, but she soon snapped out of it and accepted the weird customs of their visitors.

"Come... come, Eileen, let's go over to the plenum tent," Caid said around her mouthful. Chewing, she put out her hand to take the handle for the handcart.

The young girl curtseyed again and let the Huntress pull the heavy load. On the way to the largest of the three tents, she took in all the sights with wide, highly interested eyes. She was so absorbed in what went on in the small camp she didn't even notice Caid stopping at the smallest tent first.

The Huntress snatched one of the loaves of white bread before loosening the laces that held the tent's flap in place and sticking her entire upper body inside it.

Like the day before, Bronwyn was sleeping on her back with her mouth agape, but when the smell of the freshly baked bread wafted around the tent, she began to mumble something about food in her sleep. After doing that a couple of times, she smacked her lips and made a chewing motion with her jaw that woke her up.

Yawning, she cracked open her eyelids to see where the scent came from. "Oh!" she croaked when she laid eyes on the loaf of bread Caid was holding. "Oh... oh, sweet Caid, please do not eat all of that loaf before I have found my ankle pants!" she said, grabbing around in thin air for the edge of the sleeping furs so she could get up.

"You needn't be afeared, Lady Bronwyn. There is plenty more where this came from. Eileen Rhaslain has come with a few supplies. She and I shall be in the plenum tent with hot rye buns-"




"-dried fruits-"


"-and a little jam!"

"Ohhhh! You dastardly woman! Hold your tongue or I shall drown in my saliva!" Bronwyn cried and nearly tore the sleeping furs in two to find the way out.


The plenum tent soon echoed with the sounds produced by Bronwyn as she munched merrily on a thick slice of white bread with butter and strawberry jam. Sitting cross-legged on a fur on the floor, she had lined up a whole row of products she wanted to try, including a tin beaker filled with dark red sweetberry juice.

Eileen, standing in a corner of the tent because she didn't want to intrude, looked wide-eyed at Lady Bronwyn as the older woman stuffed half a slice of bread into her mouth and chewed on it so hard a few droplets of butter ran down onto her chin.

Caid chuckled at the sight and reached for the nearest bottle of sweetberry juice. She briefly sniffed the contents before she poured some of the ruby red liquid into her mug. "Eileen," she said as she rammed the cork back in the bottle and slipped it into the crate, "do you know if there's a blacksmith in Abryloch?"

"Oh yes, there certainly is, Lady Caid! Why?"

"I have a few ideas for a weapon that may be more effective against that creature than our swords," Caid said and sampled the juice. "Oh, this is pretty good, Eileen."

"Thank you. My mother made it," the young girl said with a blush creeping onto her cheeks.

Caid smiled broadly at her and took another swig of the sweet juice to respect Gwen's efforts.

Down on the furs, Bronwyn licked her greasy fingers and immediately began making herself a rye bun special. "What kind of weapon, sweet Caid?" she said, cutting one of the buns in two with a dagger. Once it had been halved, she applied a healthy spread of butter on one half and jam on the other - then she clapped them together and stuffed the whole thing into her mouth.

Caid chuckled at her partner's rampant appetite and made a mental note of treating her to breakfast in bed more often. "Oh, I better not tell you while you are eating, sweet Bronwyn," she said with a deliberate shake of the head.

The chewing momentarily slowed and the Empress gulped down the bite she'd had in her mouth. A small, relieved smile creased her lips before she carried on with the next bite and took her beaker with the sweetberry juice.

The sound of bickering reached the ears of the women in the tent. Caid rolled her eyes when she realized it was Deegan and Volkan back from the patrol. She cast a glance at Eileen and let out a long sigh. "I better see what that's about. Lady Bronwyn, you are my witness... this is the last time I'll accept anyone into my group without extensive knowledge of them."

"Your witness I am, Caid. Your concerns have been noted. Hopefully, it shall be a while before we need to go on a similar mission..." Bronwyn said around a bite of rye bun special.

After Caid had left, Eileen folded her legs and sat down on the furs next to Bronwyn. At first, the young girl just fiddled with her scarf as she continued to look wide-eyed at the Empress' feverish eating, but she soon dared to reach out and take one of the loaves of bread. "May I?" she said quietly, pointing at the dagger.

"Oh, but of course, Eileen! Do you want me to cut off a slice for you?" Bronwyn said with a smile as she took the sharp instrument.

"No thank you, Lady Bronwyn. I have experience with knives," Eileen said and cut off a slice of the bread. It was obvious the dagger was different from the kitchen knives she was used to, but she managed just fine.

Once she had put butter, a bit of jam and a slice of dried fruit on the bread, she took a bite and began to chew very politely.

Bronwyn looked at the delicate features of their young guest with a wistful smile on her face. She couldn't help but think back to when she had been that age. Growth spurts leading to long, ungraceful limbs, not to mention a nose and a pair of ears that were too big for her head, growing pains from her budding breasts and widening hips, hair where no hair had been before, pimples, mood swings that made her burst into tears at the drop of a hat or laugh at inopportune moments, heartaches that were compounded by her confusion of not being attracted to boys when she knew she was supposed to be, and perhaps worst of all, the first, shocking experience of her monthly period. 'If Tawna had not been there, I would have ended up as a basket case... I almost did even with her help,' she thought as she finished off her rye bun.

"Lady Bronwyn... may I ask you a question?" Eileen croaked once she had finished her slice of bread. She didn't look at the older woman as she spoke, instead, she fiddled incessantly with her scarf.

Bronwyn furrowed her brow and realized her breakfast had just turned into a sensitive chat. "But of course you may, Eileen. Anything you can think of. But be warned, I may not be able to answer anything you can think of... ha ha," the Empress said and brushed away the myriad of crumbs that had ended up in her lap.

Eileen kept fiddling with her scarf until she realized it was too much of a good thing. Hurriedly, she put her hands in her lap. "Did you ever have a crush on someone when you grew up?" she said, clearing her throat when her voice broke.

The last bite of the rye bun was chewed excessively while Bronwyn was trying to develop enough courage to answer Eileen's question. 'Her father said their holy scriptures are valued greatly here... Caid would just lay it all out in the open, but I better tread softly.' - "Oh, I certainly had, Eileen. Most people do."

"Is it normal for one's stomach to flutter when I see him? For my cheeks to burn?"

"Yes," Bronwyn said and scooted closer to the young girl. "Yes, it is. A crush is the first step on the way to love. You feel lightheaded, you want to break out in song and dance until the sun goes down, you want to embrace the entire world, you want to be near the person you crush on, you want them to notice you... you do little things to make sure they notice you! For the right reasons, of course. You truly feel alive and... and... and yes, you feel dreadfully nervous. Your knees are knocking, your palms are sweating, your ears may even be twitching like mine did-"

"Oh!" Eileen said and snickered loudly. "That has not happened to me yet!"

"Praise Marpaxa- oh, uh... never mind. You should be thankful for little favors. Is it a boy from your village?"

"No," Eileen said in a tiny voice.


"No. It's the dashing Lieutenant."

"The dashing-" Bronwyn said but cut herself off. 'She has a crush on Deegan?!' she thought, almost reeling at the thought. 'Why, I suppose he is an attractive man, but... oh dear, oh dear.' - "Eileen, who am I to... to... scupper your dreams, but... oh, my sweet Eileen, I fear Deegan is just a little too old and a little too experienced for you."

Eileen nodded sadly and wrung her hands in her lap. "I know. But he is so manly and noble and polite and friendly and handsome and... he's just so different from the young men here."

"Well... he is all those things, I agree," Bronwyn said and nodded solemnly.

"Are you married? No... you cannot be. No husband would allow his wife to travel so far from their home," Eileen said and quickly looked up; then down.

Bronwyn scratched her cheek and let out a little grunt. 'Oh, they certainly are traditional here... such old customs... I made the right choice not to tell her any details about me and Caid.' - "I am not. However, I have been courted by Count Frankko of Tantor... that is a province far south of here. He is an elderly gentleman of noble blood and he seemed quite interested."

"Why did you say no?"

"Oh, I fear that is a long and dull story, Eileen. Suffice to say it was not meant to be. When my father died, the matter was quietly dropped."

"I beg for forgiveness for poking my nose in where it shouldn't be, Lady Bronwyn," Eileen said and made to get up, but Bronwyn reached over to put a calming hand on the young girl's knee.

"Please do not apologize for asking questions that are near and dear to your heart. I have not been insulted in the least."

Eileen nodded quietly and settled back down. "Thank you, Lady Bronwyn," she said, wringing her hands in her lap. "Oh... will my secret be safe with you?"

"But of course! Ack, I am the best keeper of secrets you shall ever meet, Lady Eileen!" Bronwyn said and pressed her hands to her bosom. "Now... how about we made ourselves another rye bun special, you and I?"

"Oh, I would-"

Before Eileen could speak, the plenum tent's flap was folded aside and a large shadow loomed in the door. Instead of the hoped Deegan, it was Volkan Roshek who shamelessly, and in full view of Bronwyn, let his eyes roam down Eileen's slender, youthful body.

Bronwyn nearly choked on her tongue and immediately jumped up from the furs, sending crumbs scattering all over the floor of the tent. "Sir, I do not care much for you or your inappropriate, filthy ways! If you do not treat this young woman with the respect she deserves, I fear you leave me no choice but to complain to the Huntress Caid Barlin... and Sir, you know very well she will not deal lightly with such a complaint. Now apologize to Lady Eileen."

Volkan sneered at Bronwyn and showed exactly how much he cared about her scolding him by reaching up and stuffing a finger into his ear. He dug around for a while until he found a disgusting ball of wax that he flicked onto the floor.

Wordlessly, he went further into the tent and sat down on one of the other furs. He briefly looked at the bottle of sweetberry juice but put it away with a snort of contempt.

Bronwyn's pot was very much on the boil, but instead of exploding, she put a warm hand on Eileen's cheek. "Wait outside, Lady Eileen. I shall just wrap up here and then I shall rejoin you. Caid will hear about his impertinence towards you, have no fear."

Eileen curtseyed and hurried outside without speaking a word.

Bronwyn bit down on her lips so she wouldn't make it worse by cursing or insulting the man from the north. Once she had a good grip on the remains of the breakfast and the crate with the two bottles, she spun around on her boot heel and left the tent.

Outside, Eileen had walked over to her handcart, but Bronwyn was in no mood to drop the matter so easily and began a thorough search for the Huntress. She found her discussing the idea of the new weapon with Deegan and Kheo.

"Caid, I need a word," Bronwyn said sternly, holding an armful of breakfast. With a bit of effort, she put down the crate onto the forest floor and carefully put the baloney and the jars of jam, salted fat, butter and dried fruit and finally the remaining loaf of bread into it.

Caid could hear by the dark tone of voice her partner had employed that it was serious, and she made sure to finish up quickly. "So... anyway, when I get into Abryloch, I shall ask the blacksmith if he can make such a spear or two. All right?"

Deegan just nodded but Kheo grinned and scratched his long beard. "Works for me, Caid. Hey, d'ya know if Lady Bronwyn is done with that there loaf o' bread? An' the jam... oooh, ain't that strawberry?"

"Strawberry it is, Kheo," Caid said, chuckling out loud as she reached in deep and patted Kheo's insatiable belly. "Eat 'til you drop. You too, Deegan."

"I am eternally grateful, Huntress," the Lieutenant said and executed a flamboyant and slightly overcooked bow that made Caid grin at him and try to slap his rear.

On her way over to Bronwyn, her grin faded when she caught a glimpse of the dark frown that occupied her lover's usually sunny face. "Let me guess... Volkan? Is that rat up to no good again?"

"I fear it is thus, sweet Caid," Bronwyn said and took hold of Caid's arm to underline how important it was to her. "Just now, he practically violated poor little Eileen with his eyes. If I had not been there, I am sure he would have made a lewd or possibly even downright obscene comment. The young Lady is thirteen, for Marpaxa's sake! I do not know what kind of society they have where he comes from, but here, such behavior is disgusting and wrong!"

"Simmer down, Bronwyn... I agree with you. Wretched... I had hoped he had received my message. It appears he did not," Caid said and rubbed her chin. "Very well. I shall tell him his behavior is unacceptable-"

"You should tell him to leave!"

"Alas, I fear I cannot do so before we have slain the creature. He will most likely leave us anyway, but without the support of his blades, we simply do not have the strength to bring it down."

"Oh... Phirax," Bronwyn mumbled, looking back over her shoulder at Eileen who was looking up at the crowns of the pine trees with a pair of red blotches on her cheeks. "We must keep them separated. I fear for her safety... I honestly do. If something were to happen to her by his hand, I... I... I would kill him myself. Yes," she said, wringing her hands in frustration.

"Let us pray it shall never come to that. In the meantime, I was about to suggest that you joined me for a little stroll into Abryloch, but perhaps we can go together the three of us?" Caid said and waved at Eileen who waved back.

"Oh! Yes, that is a brilliant idea, sweet Caid!"

"Good. Now, you can tell Eileen the news while I give Volkan a piece of my mind and let Kheo and Deegan know they should be ready for anything when it comes to the man from the north... I suspect they already are," Caid said and turned back to the plenum tent.


A short while later, Caid pulled the handcart as she, Bronwyn and Eileen were strolling back towards Abryloch. At first, the only sounds heard came from the squeaky axle, but Eileen soon warmed up to her two strong companions and began to ramble about everything under the sun.

"... and in the summer, some girls from a neighboring village and me go down to the lagoon for a dip or two on the Day of Rest. Last summer, my mother taught me to swim there. It was really difficult at first, but I soon caught on. Do you know how to swim?"

"Yep." -- "Oh goodness me, no," Caid and Bronwyn said, respectively.

"But we only go there on the Day of Rest like I said. All the other days, we toil in the fields from dawn to dusk. It's hard work. Have you ever tried to work in a field?"

"Yep." -- "Oh, no."

"It's hard on my back, but I manage. Two summers ago, another of the girls was pregnant but she had to keep working until she nearly had to give birth. I swear she got so big she couldn't bend over at all! I know it wasn't polite to laugh, but it was a lot of fun to look at her waddling around. Have you ever seen a girl that pregnant?"

"Oh yeah." -- "Rarely."

Caid and Bronwyn looked at each other and chuckled at their differences.

"I know she must have been hurting," Eileen continued, unaware of the interaction between the two older women. "I don't know if I ever wish to become pregnant. I guess it'll be up to my husband to decide."

Caid and Bronwyn looked at each other again, and this time they let out identical, slightly disbelieving grunts.

"Of course, I don't know yet if I can get pregnant. I remember another young girl three years ago who got into so many problems with her father and mother when she couldn't get pregnant. Her husband cast her out of his home because she wasn't the woman he had been promised," Eileen said and moved a few loose strands of hair back up under her scarf. "Oh, it was such an awful mess. I am not even allowed to talk about her."

"Wh- why not?" Bronwyn said, furrowing her brow.

"My father says she committed the ultimate sin. She drank poison. My father says the sin tarnished her in the eyes of our God. Her soul could not go to the Hereafter. It says so in the holy scriptures."

Bronwyn's jaw became slack and ended up halfway down her chest. Caid's lips crawled back in a disgusted sneer to show what she felt of the local religion.

"Lady Bronwyn, Lady Caid, you both believe in the Sibling Gods, don't you?"

"Yeah," Caid said curtly, sounding very much like she wanted to change the subject to something - anything - else.

"We do, Eileen," Bronwyn said and touched the young girl's arm. "Marpaxa and Phirax. They are sister and brother and were created by a joining of the light and the darkness when the world was young. They did not have a father or a mother, but their kin-in-spirit was the Great Mother, the one who created our world and all women, men, beasts and fowls. Sister Marpaxa is love, joy, compassion and all the positive things in our world. Brother Phirax is fear, anger, hatred and all the other negative things. When we die, we either go to Marpaxa if we have been good people, or Phirax if we have been bad... or even evil."

"But the young girl who drank poison... she would still go to your Phirax?"

"No," Bronwyn said sternly, "no, she would not. She was neither bad nor evil. She was a poor girl who had been forced into taking a fateful decision. She would have gone to the Court of Marpaxa where she would have spent eternity at the warm bosom-"

"Bronwyn," Caid stressed quietly.

When Bronwyn realized she was preaching, she sighed deeply and licked her lips. "Ah, I fear this is a topic near and dear to my heart, Lady Eileen. I beg for forgiveness. I should respect your faith like I hope you respect mine. My advice to you is to listen to your father. He is a wise and honorable man who only wants the best for his daughter."

Eileen furrowed her brow with doubt and confusion written all over her fair face. After a brief while, she nodded and reached out around her tight cloak to seek out Bronwyn's hand.

Bronwyn looked down in surprise at the slender, youthful fingers that tried to grip hers. She looked at Caid for guidance but soon realized it was up to her to make the decision. Smiling, she took Eileen's fingers in her own and squeezed the young girl's hand.


Once the trio walked into the square in front of the Village Hall, Eileen quietly let go of Bronwyn's hand. Soon, Caid pulled up the handcart in front of Eileen's home and handed it over to the young girl.

"Eileen, here you go... Lady Bronwyn and I shall try the smithy now," Caid said and held the handcart steady with her leg so it wouldn't run off with the young girl on the square's uneven surface. "Thank you very much for bringing us breakfast. It was delicious. You must thank your mother."

"Yes, you certainly must!" Bronwyn chimed in, nodding excitedly.

"You're welcome. Perhaps I can come in the morrow, too?"

"Oh," Caid said with a big grin, "if you have more of those rye buns, I fear you simply must come... otherwise Lady Bronwyn will seek you out and raid your pantry!"

Eileen blushed and snickered into her hand.

"Also, perhaps you could ask your mother if she has any tea leaves she can spare on us? We're all out. We would of course be willing to pay for them if she has."

"I cannot say but I shall ask. Farewell for now, Lady Bronwyn... Lady Caid."

"Farewell, Lady Eileen," Bronwyn said and briefly touched the young woman's arm.


As Bronwyn and Caid walked through the narrow streets, their choice of clothing attracted plenty of attention from the locals who happened to be out at the time. More than once, they were gawked at by the men and women who were all dressed in the traditional peasant garb.

"Why do I get the feeling women wearing ankle pants is a rarer sight than a flying pig around here?" Caid mumbled under her breath.

Bronwyn looked over her shoulder at a woman wearing a coarse, dark brown peasant frock who nearly walked into the side of a building simply because she had to gawk at the two strangers. "Oh, probably because it is. The people here are rather traditional, I would say."

"That's the understatement of the year. If I had lived here when I was Eileen's age, they would have cursed me forty times over, branded me with a glowing poker and run me out of the village," Caid growled. "The things Eileen told us just now? Grated on my last nerve, they did. "

"I understand, Caid, it pained me too... though I fear we need to respect their beliefs."

They walked on for a few paces before Caid grunted darkly and reached out to nudge Bronwyn's shoulder. "I fear we must agree to disagree. Let's close this argument before we say something we regret."

Bronwyn nodded somberly, wanting most of all to grab Caid where she stood and offer her a strong kiss to settle their rare difference of opinion. 'Alas, I fear such an open display of love between women would only worsen the mood here... wretched.' - "We better. Oh, this looks like the smithy," Bronwyn said as they came up to a building that clearly housed Abryloch's blacksmith.

The clay hovel with a thatched roof was drawn back from the street, and it was slightly taller than the buildings surrounding it. It only had three walls; the fourth was open to allow room for an anvil and a large, open forge with a pair of large bellows attached to it through an intricate system of pipes. Right next to it stood a wooden tub filled with water that had a peculiar color and odor. A smoke collector that was connected to an iron pipe that in turn went all the way up to the thatched roof had been lowered down onto the forge to catch any persistent embers.

The blacksmith wasn't at his post, so Caid went into the smithy to have a look around. At the back, she found two racks of various products that she studied carefully to gauge the skill level of the smith. They were plowshares rather than weapons, but she nodded with a satisfied look on her face when she realized the smith had to know what he was doing.

"I do believe the blacksmith is on his way, sweet Caid... at least, there is a young, muscular man with hardly any hair coming down the street with a spring in his step and a jaunty whistle on his lips," Bronwyn said from her position out front.

"Stall him!" Caid said with a chuckle as she dusted off her hands.

"Stall him? Have you hit your head in there?" Bronwyn whispered back, but remember to add a wink. When the blacksmith reached her with a puzzled expression on his face, she assumed her full height and held out her hand. "Greetings, Sir! Enchanted to meet you. I am Lady Bronwyn of Ashburne, and the other woman inside your smithy is my companion Caid Barlin, also of Ashburne."

"Greetings, Lady Bronwyn..." the blacksmith said with a frown on his face. He suddenly realized he was supposed to kiss the slightly taller Lady's hand, and he did so with a bow. "Oh, I beg for forgiveness. I am Trenton Mullinar of Abryloch. Enchanted to meet you."

The square-jawed, buzz-cut blacksmith was in his late twenties and was built like a brick house. Although wrapped tightly in a dark brown cloak with a leather hem, his broad shoulders and hulking arms were quite visible through the fabric. On his feet, he wore a strange pair of long-legged leather boots that appeared to nearly reach his knees.

"Trenton," Bronwyn continued, "Caid and I are with the party here to slay the fearsome creature in the forest."

"Oh... I see," Trenton said in a voice that proved he didn't see much at all. "I thought you were fortune seekers. And that has taken you to my smithy?"

Caid came out from the back of the workshop and dusted off her hands. "I knew a man named Trenton once... he was a fine fellow indeed. Greetings, I am Caid Barlin of Ashburne," she said

and put out her hand.

The blacksmith shot a puzzled look at the uniform-like clothes of the two women, but nevertheless clasped arms with the compact blonde. "Greetings. Trenton. So..." he said, furrowing his brow and looking back at Bronwyn.

Caid chuckled at the man's confusion but decided to get to the point at once. "We encountered the beast last night and learned our own weapons don't have the penetration required for slaying the critter. We were wondering if you could help us create hardware more suited for the style of combat we're to conduct here?"

"I'm... I'm not a weaponsmith... I make horseshoes and plowshares mostly," Trenton said with a shrug. "And milk cans, garden fences, chains... that sort of thing. Tell me, how come you speak in such an odd way? You almost speak in the tongue of a man..."

Caid resisted the urge to roll her eyes, but couldn't stop her jaw from tensing up. "I am the commanding officer of all Ranger battalions in and around Ashburne and Dinnigon, and indeed all the lands conquered by our beloved Empress. How do you expect me to speak?"

"More like a lady," Trenton mumbled but soon gained an expression that said he knew it would be an uphill struggle. "I shall see what I can do. What kind of weapons did you have in mind?" he continued, taking off his dark brown cloak to reveal he was wearing brown ankle pants and a sleeveless, green jerkin under a leather apron that reached from his neck and down to his knees.

"Spears, similar to the plowshares you have hanging in the back," Caid said, pointing over her shoulder. "Though modified with an additional grappling hook at the end... like a halberd if you know what that is."

The blacksmith scrunched up his face while he tried to visualize the requested item. "Hmmm, I don't," he said after a little while, "but I think I understand what you need. I believe it's feasible... you need to show me exactly what you mean, though."

Caid grinned and spun around on her heel. She hurriedly went back into the workshop and took one of the plowshares off the rack.

Bronwyn chuckled over her partner's enthusiasm and turned towards the slightly confused blacksmith. "Oh, my dear friend is very much in her element now. I fear you need to listen closely to what she is going to say. Once she truly gets going, it shall take ten rampant dray horses pulling in the other direction to get her stopped!"

The colorful description didn't seem to help the blacksmith, but Caid soon came back out with the plowshare to end the confusion.

While Caid and the smith were discussing the finer points of anti-creature warfare, Bronwyn folded her hands behind her back and took a little stroll in the narrow street. The simple buildings were all fairly identical save for a few minor details here and there, like curtains of different colors, ceramic tiles on the front doors, or twisted, cast iron railings in front of the houses.

The wind in the village was colder than it had been in the Natfarann Forest, and Bronwyn was beginning to regret deciding against wearing her winter gear or even her cloak on the small trip to town. As she stamped her feet and rubbed her arms to keep warm, she noticed Crannog and Gwen Rhaslain coming down towards her from the square.

For a split second, she was concerned they came to scold her for putting improper stories and thoughts into Eileen's young, impressionable mind, but the smiles worn by the two people didn't seem to suggest they would bring trouble.

The sight of the man in his mid-sixties and his far younger wife made Bronwyn furrow her brow and wonder if their marriage had been arranged, or perhaps somehow connected to procedures or ceremonies from their holy scriptures. 'When they had Eileen, Gwen would only have been in her very early twenties, but Crannog would already have been at least fifty, if not more. Back home, such a disparity in age could really only have come from an arranged marriage. Oh, foolish me, I should not make such sweeping assumptions without knowing the background. Maybe they did and do love each other...' - "Greetings and good morn, Mayor Rhaslain... Lady Gwen," Bronwyn said, reaching out to clasp arms with the older couple to show she had picked up a few of their customs.

"Good morn, Lady Bronwyn," Crannog said and adjusted his cloak after he had clasped Bronwyn's arm. It briefly fluttered aside to reveal he was wearing a white waistcoat underneath.

Gwen curtseyed and kissed Bronwyn's hand instead of clasping arms. "Good morn, Lady Bronwyn. How are you this glorious morn?"

"Oh, I am fine. I slept beautifully once we returned, thank you. And you?"

"Fine, thank you. Oh, I have spoken to our daughter and I shall make sure to put a box of tea leaves in the next batch of supplies. I cannot imagine drinking plain hot water," Gwen said and wrapped her hand around Crannog's waist.

"That would be a most welcome gesture, Lady Gwen. I know Caid and the others shall be very pleased. Oh, it was such a delightful breakfast surprise!"

"That is certainly good to hear, Lady Bronwyn. My husband and I are just out on our regular morn stroll to see how the village has made it through the night."


"Yes," Crannog said, "and this is the first morn in a while where we have not had to listen to gruesome stories of near-misses from that dreadful monster. My daughter told me you had engaged it last eve?"

"We did, but I fear we were unable to inflict much damage to the frightening creature. Although we did draw its blood, the beast simply shrugged it off and returned to its lair across the lagoon," Bronwyn said, glancing to her left at Caid who was busy drawing Trenton a picture on a piece of parchment to show him exactly what she needed.

"I see. In any case, you stopped it from reaching Abryloch. That's the most important thing. Say, what are Lady Caid and Trenton working on?" Crannog said, following Bronwyn's gaze to look at the two people inside the smithy.

By the open forge, Trenton appeared to finally understand what the Huntress was asking for. He briefly visited his storage shed and came back with three metal rods roughly three fathoms long each.

"Alas, I do not know, Mayor Rhaslain," Bronwyn said with a chuckle. "Caid has come up with a new weapon she is convinced shall slay the monster, but I fear she has told me nothing. And when Caid is convinced of something, she is generally right. Her reputation was built on getting the job done... and I dare say, from personal experience, that she is a relentless woman once she has set herself a goal." - 'Not least when it comes to amorous adventures in the Imperial bedchamber... goodness me,' Bronwyn thought and nearly began to blush at the images that came to her mind's eye of Caid's prowess and imaginative ways.

"Let's hope so," Crannog said and pulled his wife closer to him. "Ah, we shall not hold you up any longer. Have a pleasant day, Lady Bronwyn."

"And you, Sir. Lady Gwen," Bronwyn said and curtseyed at the mayor and his wife.


The turns of the hourglass flew by as they have always had a tendency to do in the brief winter days, and it didn't take long before the shadows lengthened and the light turned the peculiar shade of blue it seemed to prefer at dusk in the Natfarann Forest.

The weather had made a turn for the worse as the day had progressed. The wind had picked up considerably, and an icy breeze that rushed in from the frozen lagoon blasted across the dirt trail and sent pebbles, twigs and even items from their camp rattling around in a swirling frenzy.

Kheo had his hands firmly ensconced on his hips as he stood in the darkness and looked up. His eyes had found the only spot of open sky in the entire section of the forest they had chosen for their camp, but the sounds that emanated from the big man proved he was none too pleased with what he saw.

Gray, heavy clouds tore across the dark background where a few stars were twinkling merrily, completely indifferent to the dramas that took place down on the insignificant world. Now and then, the drifting, ragged clouds concealed the moon, but more often than not, the bright white, fully round disk was stamped onto the dark sky like a ghostly white ten-Crown piece.

"Good eve, Kheo," Bronwyn said quietly, bringing the large man a flickering torch. She had felt it necessary to change into her winter gear, but the furry chaps and jacket restricted her movement so much she practically walked like a miniature version of the big, nasty creature they were there to fight.

"Good eve, Empress Bronwyn," Kheo said and let out a deep sigh. He turned away from the full moon and took the torch offered to him. "Oy... yer well-wrapped, huh? Ya feelin' the cold or somethin'?"

"I am, Kheo. 'Tis bitterly cold this eve, do you not think so?"

"Yeah. But I dang near couldn't even fart when I wore all them furs so I better lay off 'em for the eve... I'm thinkin' we' gonn' be fightin' that bastard again and I wanna be able ta move freely."

They turned away from the small clearing Kheo had found and shuffled back towards the dirt trail where the others were waiting. "That is a very good point, Kheo. Oh, I fear it shall be a difficult fight this eve. I pray to Marpaxa that none of you shall be hurt or worse."

"Aw, ya don't have ta put in a prayer fer me, luv. Jus' save all them prayers for Caid. I know she's as important to ya as the rest o' us grunts put together..."


"Naw, don't try ta deny it, luv. I ain't dumb... don't forget I got my own li'l honey-girl back home. I know what love is," the large man said with a big grin on his face. Chuckling, he leaned over and pulled the far smaller woman into a sideways hug.

"Oh, I can assure you that you and Deegan are important to me, Kheo, but I will readily admit that Caid is close to my heart in a way you can never be. Ah, I shall pray for all of us! Marpaxa will know the difference."

Just as Bronwyn and Kheo stepped up on the dirt trail to join Deegan and Volkan Roshek who were already there, one of the heavy clouds tore open and sent a flurry of snow down onto the ground. The snowflakes that made it down through the thick crowns of the nearby pines fell calmly until they were hit by the wind that came in from the lagoon. In an instant, the gentle flakes turned to ice needles that pelted the people waiting for Caid.

"Drat!" Bronwyn croaked, turning her back to the wind and pulling her furry headwear down as far as it would go.

Volkan laughed condescendingly at the Empress' desperate fight against the elements. The man from the north shoved his hands into his pockets and gave her the sort of hateful glare normally reserved for the Huntress. "You not last a week where I come from, woman. Be quiet and toughen up."

"Maybe ya need ta follow ya own advice an' pipe down!" Kheo growled.

"Oh, you put mark on her, big man? I see no mark on her. Maybe you just dream to lay her like me."

Bronwyn's cheeks blushed furiously at the thinly veiled revelation. A cold shiver that had nothing to do with the weather ran down her back and turned into a nasty case of goosebumps. She shifted to the side to get even further away from the man who had now definitively revealed himself to be a creep.

Kheo cocked his head and began to grind his jaw. A second before he was going to show the blonde man from the north the way home, Caid came out of the plenum tent carrying the first of the new spears. "All right, listen up," she said strongly, "this is still a work in progress but I can feel in my gut it will do what we ask of it."

Once Caid had reached the dirt trail, she thumped the butt of the metal weapon into the ground. Standing at just over two fathoms, the spear had a two-foot long single-edged blade at the top. Just below the point where the blade began, a thin hook branched off from the rod at a ninety-degree angle. The foot-long hook ended in a shape similar to a regular fishing hook that was pointed away from the main blade.

"Goodness me!" Bronwyn croaked at the sight. "Oh, Sweet Marpaxa, what a cruel instrument of Death! Oh, goodness me, what does that thing do?!"

"Ah, Lady Bronwyn, this is why I didn't want to tell you about it at breakfast, " Caid said and lowered the gruesome weapon. "The hook is designed to tear the scales off the creature's body. Once its underlying skin or flesh has been exposed, we turn the spear around and use the blade. The beast may be large, but I cannot see any living creature surviving a string of two-foot deep puncture wounds."

Deegan closed one eye and tried to suss out the balance of the oblong weapon. "I have to admit it looks heavy and unbalanced, Caid," he said, rubbing his chin.

"It's heavy but that means it's got weight behind it in the thrust. Let's give it a test run. Deegan, get over here so you can get a feel for it. We had no time to attach a soft grip to it so you'll need your gloves."

"Yep," the Lieutenant said and adjusted his sturdy gloves to have them sit just right on his hands. He was quickly at the Huntress' side and took the new weapon from her grip. As he held it, he tried to find the balance point but found it hard going.

"Now," Caid said and walked behind Deegan to look at the weapon from his point of view, "hold it in a two-hand grip like a regular spear. Yes, like that. Very well, seek a target and take it out, Lieutenant."

Deegan looked around - ignoring Kheo Khammon who used both hands to point at Volkan Roshek - until he found a narrow pine tree that would do nicely. Lining up, he tried several different grips on the long metal rod until he found one that worked for him. When he was ready, he swung the heavy weapon around and tore the hook across the bark. As a result, a large section of the tree's outer skin was stripped away - then he spun the rod around and thrust the blade itself ahead. The weapon went a long way into the young tree with a meaty Thwack!

Behind him, Bronwyn clutched her head and let out a long groan that sent a plume of steam floating away deeper into the forest.

"Well," Deegan said and pulled the weapon back from the thoroughly ruined tree. "It certainly seems to work... albeit against a defenseless opponent."

"Mmmm. And it'll work against that beast, too," Caid said and took the rod. She quickly brushed bark and a few splinters off the hook and blade before thumping the butt into the ground.

Volkan grunted and shook his head. "Never work. Don't want spear. I use my blades. They work well last night."

"Aw, they sure worked well, awright... like Phirax usin' a cup ta piss an ocean," Kheo growled. "Need I remind ya that you wus the one-o' us who ended up ass ovah elbows in a shallow grave? Not the rest o' us, you. Pardon mah language, Lady Bronwyn."

Caid chuckled under her breath but didn't let it show to keep up the morale. "Kheo, save it for-"

The terrifying, wailing roar that came from the other side of the lagoon ended all conversation. Unlike the night before, the monster's wail had gained a growly undertone that proved that not only was it still annoyed over the previous night's attack, the full moon had triggered its legendary foul temper as well.

Bronwyn let out a whimper and pulled the furry headwear even further down over her eyes. A moment later, she was grabbed around the arm and dragged off the trail by Caid.

"Bronwyn, you must promise me to stay out here and lie low," Caid said with a firm grip around Bronwyn's arms. "You heard that wail, it's mean tonight. If the spears don't work, Phirax will come and his old companion Death shall follow him."


"No, you must promise me to stay out here where the ground is too soft for it to follow you... no matter what happens in the fight. No matter who goes down."

"No, Caid!"

"Promise me, Bronwyn! I cannot slay that evil thing if I have to look out for you as well!" the Huntress said, and this time, there was no mistaking that she meant it.

"I pr- promise, sweet Caid... please... I need a kiss. Please," Bronwyn said and pulled her lover close in the hope of getting just the tiniest amount of affection.

Caid hurriedly closed the distance between them and placed a loving kiss on Bronwyn's lips. "Once we have killed it, I promise I shall hold you for an entire day. I love you... but I must go," she said and pulled out of Bronwyn's iron grip.

Bronwyn bared her teeth in a frightened grimace as she looked at Caid hurrying over to the other side of the dirt trail to take the second of the three spears. "Love you too," she said, but her voice never reached above a pained croak.

Once the Huntress held the fearsome weapon, she went out onto the trail and assumed her position at the deep end of the crescent formation.




A deep, rumbling tremor heralded the arrival of the creature. Soon, its scaly head appeared at the end of the pathway down to the lagoon. The fierce wind made it difficult for the warriors to stand their ground or even to see properly, but they remained in position and waited for Caid's call.

Another tremor proved the monster was on the move - and if there had been any doubt, the last fragments disappeared like the morning dew when it let out a wailing roar that seemed so loud the air shook.

Volkan pressed himself down onto the soft, rocky terrain just off the dirt trail. He hoped his bluish-black uniform would prevent the monster from spotting him, but he didn't dare count on it. He held his long sword in his right hand and the shorter blade in his left, but he was reluctant to charge the creature.

Moving even further down, his ribs that had taken a beating in the previous attempt to kill the beast sent out a clear message of pain. Groaning, he lifted himself up on his elbows to raise his chest off the ground, but even that didn't help much.

He looked around at those of his fellow warriors he could see through the darkness, and scoffed at their notions of heroism and honor. Kheo was somewhere to his right, breathing heavily and smelling of sweat, and up on the trail, he could just make out Caid Barlin.

"All I am here for is Natfarann pirate treasure," he mumbled under his breath, looking back at the monster that had just begun its journey onto the dirt trail. The wounds it had received in the previous day's struggle were still visible on its soft belly, but the scales on the rest of its body were intact. "So far, I have not seen gold, I have not seen rubies, I have not seen emeralds... I have only seen fools, fools and more fools. I have no interest in monster. It hurt me! Don't want to get too close tonight, for sure. And that sweet blonde girl. Mmmm-yes. She taste good, I know it. So young and sweet... so silky smooth. When this over, I visit her..."

"Charge! Charge it! Spears!" Caid shouted somewhere up on the trail. To Volkan's right, Kheo let out a piercing battle cry and jumped up from his hiding place. Soon, the large man ran ahead with the makeshift spear pointed ahead of him to inflict maximum damage to the beast.

The beast wailed ferociously and lashed out with its short arms and the long, powerful tail. Up on the dirt trail, the sounds of the struggle could clearly be heard: the thumping hind legs, metal spears clanging against the monster's scales, grunts, cries, shouts, powerful wailing that made the trees shake, whooshes from the claws as they tore through the air, more cries, more grunts, more wailing...

Volkan stayed exactly where he was except for sitting back on his thighs. He stared at the battle with a cold expression on his face. Sheathing his blades, he got on his feet to be able to run away in case the monster decided to try a new tactic and head onto the soft ground off the trail.

An idea began to form in his mind as he watched the battle unfold. "Barlin said monster lived in lair..." he said to himself, scratching the side of his nose and his reddish-blonde full beard. As an experienced fortune seeker, he was used to looking beyond the obvious when trying to figure out where someone had buried a treasure. With all the holes in the dirt he had seen inside the forest, there was no doubt the treasure wasn't there - if it had ever been there at all. "And what better place for treasure than monster's lair?" he mumbled, looking at the pathway down to the lagoon.

Making up his mind, he let out a grunt and got on his feet. He quickly ran ten paces into the darkness to make sure he was out of sight of the others. After looking back over his shoulder to check, he turned sharp right and headed for a row of trees just on the near side of the dirt trail. Once he reached it, he crouched down and put a hand on the hilt of his long sword.

Back on the trail, the battle was still going on but it was impossible for him to see who was winning - not that he cared.

"Kheo! A few more! A few more and we got the miserable son of a-" he suddenly heard Caid Barlin cry from somewhere to his right. Her cry was immediately drowned out by several thumps and a fierce wail.

Grunting, he tried to stretch up to see if the others really were close to defeating the beast, but the darkness was too dense to see anything.

He chewed on his cheek and looked back down the pathway to the lagoon. The icy wind that blew against him whipped his wavy hair around and made him shield his eyes, but it also made him determined to at least try to go for it. "Treasure is in lair. I am sure of it," he said and jumped out from the trees he had been hiding behind.

With a last look at the ferocious battle, he took off down towards the lagoon.


The first part of his devious plan worked fine. The second part - getting across the uneven surface of the ice-covered lagoon under the ghostly pale light of the full moon while a gale blew the opposite way - nearly became his undoing.

Going from the path and down onto the shore proved to be a piece of cake, but a mere five fathoms onto the ice, he slipped and fell flat on his face because he had tried to walk too aggressively. Cursing and swearing in several different languages, he staggered to his feet and continued the perilous trek across the icy obstacle course.


Kheo roared out his frustrations at being unable to do much damage to the body of the beast. Caid's system of ripping off the scales, then stabbing the flesh underneath worked, but they hadn't counted on the beast being as agile as it was.

It never stood still for more than a few heartbeats at a time. It was ducking and diving to escape the spears, it kicked out with its hind legs and its shorter arms to pay back the favors, and it used its tail for vicious attacks.

Kheo pulled back his spear that was soaked in the creature's greenish blood. After wiping his sweaty brow, he bobbed up and down on the balls of his feet while staring at the huge, ungainly thing directly ahead of him to find a weakness he could exploit.

He briefly glanced to his right where Caid was hard at work mirroring every move he had made himself. He couldn't see through the monster but knew that Deegan would be going through identical procedures on the other side.

"Wait a minute..." Kheo said, looking around for the missing piece of the puzzle. "Where in the name o' Phirax the Unholy is... is that... aw, I don't believe it! I do not frickin' believe it! That li'l rat has done a runner!" he cried, stabbing wildly at the monster without hitting anything. Moments later, he had to duck to evade the fearsome claws. "He has done a runner right in the middle o' a battle, that li'l good-fer-nothin' son of a disease-riddled whore! Caid! Huntress!"

"I'm kinda busy, Kheo!" Caid cried from somewhere to the big man's right.

"Volkan is gone!"


"Naw, run off with his pants full, the li'l prick!"

"Wretched!" came Caid's predictable reply.


The lagoon's treacherous surface tricked Volkan time and time again, and the crossing took far longer than it should have. The howling wind made it impossible for him to hear if the battle was still fought back at the dirt trail, and he didn't dare stop to find out.

Yet again he fell on his face when his boot snagged on a block of ice that had been invisible under the ghostly light. This time, he cut his right palm on a particularly sharp edge, and the freezing cold water from the ice sent a strong jolt of pain up the arm he depended on to hold his sword.

Groaning out loud, he sat up on his thighs and tried to reach into a pocket to find something he could wrap around the wound. The fierce gale made him unable to do much of anything, and one gust in particular pelted him with an entire quarry's worth of pebbles that had been blown onto the ice from the isthmus at the other side of the lagoon.

He scrambled to his feet and continued the trek across the merciless ice. At one point, the full moon disappeared behind a cluster of thick, gray clouds and blacked out everything down on the ground. All he could do was to quite literally freeze to the spot in the middle of nowhere and wait for the moon to reappear.


In the middle of the dirt trail, Caid Barlin shook her sweat-soaked head at the inevitability of it all. As the monster let out a thunderous wail that made the air shake all around her, she jumped forward to deliver what she hoped would be a killing blow to the monster's throat. The spear went into the soft flesh up to the hook, but even such a central blow wasn't enough to persuade it to give up - much less to die.

"Wretched... such a wretched fight against a wretched opponent!" she cried, frantically rolling away when a pair of claws came tearing at her head. She ended up just off the dirt trail, but she got back on her feet at once and threw away the spear. Instead, she drew her Yonnae machete and went to war against the monster's soft underbelly.

The monster's next roar was perhaps even louder, and it was seemingly more determined than ever to show the puny humans who the king of the Natfarann Forests was. Swinging its sharp claws wildly through the air, it managed to grab hold of some kind of fabric that was attached to something more substantial. A wild scream followed, but when it closed its hand, it only grabbed air.

Wailing again, the monster turned around and let its tail do the talking.

Down on the ground, the panicky scream had barely left Deegan's lips after the monster's claws had ripped through his garments. His cloak, jerkin and tunic had been shredded to the point of hardly being there at all, but by the grace of Marpaxa, his skin had remained untouched save for a minuscule scratch across his chest. The violent impact had dragged him five fathoms along the rocky ground, and the hard tumbles he had taken when his clothes had become so loose the claws had lost their grip had left him stunned and confused. He had lost the spear he had used, but his sword was still in its sheath.

Bronwyn clenched her fists hard and began to crawl over to the dazed Lieutenant, resembling an overgrown porcupine as she moved along on her stomach in her furry winter gear. She didn't really dare, but she knew in her heart that she needed to check up on him - not least because of the crush Eileen had on the so-called dashing Lieutenant. "Deegan!" she cried hoarsely, putting an ice cold hand on the man's leg. "Deegan, a- are you... can you hear me?"

"Yeah... yeah, Empress Bronwyn," he said and reached ahead to pat the Empress' hand. "I'm fine... angry, but fine."

"C- come.. come with me... you have to get away fr- from here," Bronwyn said, raising herself up on her elbows to better be able to see the condition of her friend. He appeared all right, if rather exposed, and she already shivered at the thought of him fighting the monster with a bare upper body. "Deegan...? Please... we must move... do you wish to borrow my fur coat?"

"No time, Empress... we need to stop this monster," he croaked, rolling over onto his left side so he could pull his sword from its sheath. Once he had the shiny blade in his hand, he staggered to his feet and went back into the fray.

Shaking her head in despair, Bronwyn briefly popped up high enough to get a better impression of the magnitude of the battle. It appeared to be completely out of control, and she did the only thing she dared: she turned around and began to crawl even further away from the dirt trail and over to the nearest row of pine trees.


Volkan thought he could hear water gurgling from somewhere ahead of him, but he scoffed at that notion. He tried to feel the ground with his boot but had to give up when everything felt the same. The light of the full moon briefly flashed down upon the icy ground from between two clouds that raced across the pitch black sky.

Shying back in a hurry, he realized with a rising degree of panic he had been standing less than a fathom away from the thin, cracked edge of the ice. At the center of the lagoon, the ice wasn't strong enough to form a cover and that had allowed the gurgling water to remain free.

"Gawah meia," he croaked in his native language, desperately looking around for an alternative route to the other side. Although the band of water was narrow - perhaps only four fathoms wide - it was far too long a distance to attempt a jump. It would be suicide and he knew it.

Instead, he turned sharp right and began to trail the edge of the water, hoping to find solid ice before too long.


"Kheo!" Caid cried, pointing at a deep wound she had managed to create with her machete in the creature's soft underbelly. "Kheo! Come! Come, I've drilled a gapin' hole in the miserable ball of slime!"

Even before the words had fully left her lips, she had to jump off the trail and into the ditch to avoid the vicious pair of claws that came screaming down towards her in a pincer-movement.

The moment the monster turned away from her, she jumped back up and ran into the middle of the dirt trail.

Kheo came bounding over to her from the other side. "Make it snappy, Caid! We ain't go no left flank no mo' after Volkan crapped his shorts an' fled! Where's Deegan?"

"There," Caid said and pointed her machete at the bare-chested man who stabbed away at the monster with his spear.

"What in the name o' Phirax the Unholy is he tryin' ta prove fightin' with it in that kinda outfit? Is he tryin' ta charm the pants offa it, or what?"

"No idea. Kheo! Use your spear!" Caid said and went in deep under the beast. "Right here!" she cried, pointing upwards.

A mere split second later, all the air was forced out of Caid's lungs by the brain-rattling impact on her body. One moment, she had both feet on the ground; the next, she was suspended in mid-air headed for an unpleasant collision with a tree that stood exactly in her flight path. She didn't even have time to cry out as she hit the tree trunk diagonally across her chest. Her flight came to an abrupt end - and the world suddenly turned red - at the impact, and the secondary impact onto the ground wasn't much better.

Only then did she realize her curious lack of screaming had come from her lungs being utterly devoid of air. Gasping, wheezing and moaning, she extracted herself from the tree trunk and the undergrowth and rolled over onto her back to get some much needed air down her lungs.

Her chest was bad, her back was worse, but the dizziness that overcame her took the prize. All she could do was to lie flat on her back and stare up into the crowns of the pine trees - and wonder why it seemed the pines were dancing arm in arm to an imaginary beat.


For once Volkan was in luck and found sturdier ice only seventy fathoms north of the narrow band of water at the central part of the lagoon. Grunting in triumph, he turned left again and continued towards the isthmus that slowly but surely crept out of the darkness and into plain view.

Step by step, he braved the treacherous conditions until he could feel the ice growing harder under his boots. Eventually, he reached the far shore and crawled up the embankment.

Once he had solid ground under his boots, he threw himself down onto the snowy embankment and rolled over onto his back. Huffing and puffing - and with a cut hand that throbbed - he stared up at the many stars that seemed rock solid in the sky. The embankment provided shelter from the fierce wind, and for a moment, he debated with himself whether to stay there or continue his quest.

"Not long now. I can smell treasure," he croaked and sat up. He brushed himself off and staggered to his feet where he swayed for a little while, not only from the wind that struck him again, but from the severe physical strain he had been under.

He knew he needed to go south, which was to his right, but the clouds racing across the sky high above him frequently obscured the moon which made the darkness almost impenetrable. At the best of times, the light gave him a vague idea of where he needed to be going, but at the worst of times, his surroundings fell into an inky black void that made his quest nigh-on impossible.

It didn't help that the thick layer of snow on the embankment meant he couldn't see where the loose rocks were. Again and again, he tripped and almost fell, and a few times, he did indeed fall onto his right side. The first time it happened, he tried to hold himself up with his injured right hand but the pain proved unbearable, so the next time he stumbled and fell, he just took it all on the chin - literally.


On the dirt trail, Kheo and Deegan tried valiantly to fight the beast on their own, but they had no hope against the claws and the tail that tore through the air with increasing ferocity.

When Deegan had to take another evasive tumble down into the soft ditch next to Bronwyn, Kheo was left all alone. Roaring, the big man clutched his spear and rammed it upwards, aiming for the beast's throat; he repeatedly stabbed the deadly tip of the iron rod against the soft flesh, but even his best efforts were negated by the creature's surprising stamina and agility.

In the ditch, Deegan sat up straight and removed several clumps of dirt from his face and hair. "Wretched! Phirax, I cannot wait to see that mean creature get what it deserves..."

Bronwyn was still pressing herself down into the dirt, but she moved up on her elbows to give the Lieutenant yet another check. "Sir Deegan... your bravery is certainly admirable, but I fear that thing does not care about bravery! Please, be sensible and call a retreat before one of you ends up a head shorter!"

"I cannot, Empress. Kheo is fighting alone up there," Deegan said and got on his feet. Moments later, he had rejoined the fight.

"Alone? No, that cannot be, Caid is there too..." Bronwyn said and crawled around so she could look the other way. The stretch of the trail the Huntress was supposed to occupy was empty, and Bronwyn felt like she was dunked into a barrel of ice water. Her frantic breathing was immediately reduced to shallow gasps that only barely brought enough oxygen to her system.

Scrambling to her feet, she threw caution to the wind and stormed up onto the dirt trail. Kheo yelled at her to stay the Phirax away, but she couldn't care less about her own safety when Caid was missing. "Caid! Caid?!" she cried, yelling so loudly her voice broke.

When the battle behind her became too hot, she hurried off the trail and into the undergrowth on the other side. Two paces further on, her boot snagged on something on the ground and she nearly took a nosedive. Looking down, she could see it was Caid's spear. "Oh... oh, Sweet Marpaxa... Caid! Ca-"

Whipping her head around in a panic, she suddenly noticed a suede-clad figure lying flat on her back nearly ten fathoms off the trail. Although the figure was in one piece, it was still.

"No! Not again!" Bronwyn cried and hurried over to the motionless Caid. She threw herself down onto her knees and leaned down to the honey-blonde head to feel if Caid was breathing.

"Oh, I could get used to this," Caid croaked, taking the opportunity to kiss Bronwyn's ear that hovered a mere inch above her face. "I am fine, sweet Bronwyn... just winded. I needed a moment to catch my breath."

Bronwyn let out a cry of relief and helped Caid up into a sitting position. "Oh! Oh, we simply must stop meeting like this... we have only been together for six moons, and already, I have nearly lost you twice... no... no, three times... or... or is it four times now?! Oh, Caid!" she cried, diving in for a heavy, bruising kiss.

"Oouff!" was all Caid had time to say before she once again had a close encounter with a fiercely determined creature - though this one was rather more pleasant and cuddly than the last one.


One hundred and fifty fathoms from where Volkan had reached the shore, he stepped out into a big black hole and tumbled end over end down the snow-covered embankment. Landing the wrong way up with a bone-rattling crash in a foot of snow - and nearly choking on the avalanche that followed him - he cried out in a long, pained groan from his injured ribs and hand.

Then he realized he had crash landed directly at the entrance to the beast's lair.

With a trembling groan that was fueled by the pain that shot up from pretty much everywhere around his battered frame, he sat up straight and brushed the snow out of his hair and off his clothes. A peculiar smell wafted out from the cave ahead of him, but he didn't care about such trivialities.

After regaining his balance following the confusing series of tumbles he had made down the embankment, he got to his feet and staggered inside.


Kheo was about to lose his temper. Roaring out his frustrations, he tore off a scale with the hook, spun the spear around in his hand and rammed the blade deeply into the exposed, pinkish flesh.

The monster wailed in pain and twisted its torso to get away from the attacker.

The motion meant that Kheo lost his grip on the spear and received a thorough whack across the shoulders and neck by the butt end of the metal rod. Even as he reeled from that surprise blow, the monster tore the spear loose with its nasty teeth and effortlessly bent the metal between its jaws. A split second later, it spun around and let its tail take care of the rest of the business.

Kheo dove down onto the dirt trail as the tail swooshed past just above him and into a tree that was shattered by the strength of the long, powerful muscle. Looking up, he noticed at the very last moment he was about to turn into beef stew as the creature had spun around again and was lifting its right leg to squash him like a bug.

Howling, Kheo rolled away and jumped to his feet, but he only made it a few paces before his luck ran out.

Instead of using its hind leg, the creature changed tactics on the fly and dove down towards the large, bald man with its claws ready to pounce. The left hand missed its target, but the right one didn't - it grabbed him around the chest and lifted him off the ground like he was merely a feather.

Kheo screamed in pain as the four claws squeezed and tore into his skin. He was lifted up towards the creature's mouth and stared in wide-eyed horror at the six fangs and the rest of the razor-sharp teeth that loomed large above him.

Suddenly, the monster forgot all about him and let out a fierce, pained wail that made his ears ring. The next thing he knew, he sailed through the air at the height of the crowns of the pine trees. The descent through the branches was painful enough, but the impact with the ground sent him head-first into a bottomless, pitch black chasm of unconsciousness.

Back on the trail, Caid roared in anger at the monster, repeatedly stabbing the spear into its belly and sides and sending splatters of greenish blood down over herself and onto the hard soil.

The creature eventually had enough and spun around to employ its best weapon against the persistent foe. Though it missed the honey-blonde woman three times on two swings and a rebound, it had had enough and leaned its head back to let out a frustrated wail - then it tightened its powerful hind legs and set off in a jump that left the dirt trail behind. More than ten fathoms further on, it landed and hurriedly took off in a frantic escape.

Caid dropped the spear and fell down onto her hands and knees. Wheezing hard, she shook her head to blow the last patch of fog out of her brain. "Kh- Kheo... we gotta find Kheo..." she croaked and staggered to her feet.

"Oh, Caid... Caid, are you all right?!" Bronwyn cried, rushing over to her lover to help her get up.

"I- I- am f- fine... Kheo..." she said, grabbing hold of Bronwyn's arm.

"I know," Bronwyn said, looking around for the big man. "Deegan! Deegan, please help... we need a torch!" she cried, waving at the Lieutenant.

Deegan came to their assistance at once, and together, the three survivors stumbled into the darkness to find their missing comrade.


Volkan Roshek pinched his nostrils to combat the stench that hung heavily inside the monster's lair. Now and then, he could still hear the creature wailing some distance away up in the forest, but it didn't really bother him.

He entered the dark cave with stumbling steps, shuffling his feet ahead of him to avoid stepping into thin air again like he had done on the embankment. He regretted not stealing one of the torches, but he had been in caves far darker than this one where he had managed just fine.

Even beyond his plentiful self-confidence, the walls of the cave aided him by casting off a strange, nearly fluorescent light. Greenish-white in tone, the walls seemed to reflect some things inside the cave, though not all. One thing the walls didn't reflect was a loose rock that suddenly squeaked and scurried away when he pushed against it with the tip of his boots. "Gah... rats," he mumbled, stopping dead. "Rats no good. But rats not stink like this. Something dead in here. Must be," he mumbled and continued on his way deeper into the cave.

A short while later, the source of the stench was revealed to be two animal cadavers tossed away carelessly into a corner where they had fallen on top of a pile of pale white bones. Volkan was no expert on animals, but one of the cadavers appeared to be a horse. He had no problem identifying the other one, as the monster had left the entire front end of a milk cow uneaten. "Yuk... saved for late night snack... omma cahn-we cah ley," he continued, speaking in his native language.

Shivering from the sight and the stench, he ventured deeper into the cave. All around him, he could hear rats squeaking but he tried not to think about what they could be plotting to do to him.

The fluorescent walls continued to send a very pale light down onto the items strewn about in the cave. Loose rocks mostly, but here and there, he found a bone that had been picked clean and then thrown away. All of a sudden, the walls gained an odd color; a dark golden tone that he knew all too well, but that he didn't think could possibly be true.

A low rumble from somewhere around him made him stop and look back at the entrance to the cave. He even stopped breathing so he could concentrate on listening in case it was the monster that made an early return from the slaughter, but it didn't appear to be so. As he stood there, the low rumble returned and he realized it came in a rhythmical pattern.

"What now... water? Waves?" he said, looking up at the roof of the cave. He tried to calculate if he had already traveled so deeply into it that he had ended up below the surface of the water on the other side of the isthmus, but it was too dark for him to properly gauge the distance. "I think waves. Maybe access to ocean? No... not cold in here. Warm."

Volkan continued to walk further into the cave. He was still pushing his feet ahead of him, and still disturbing the occasional rat, when he suddenly saw a faint, darkly orange glimmer of something he knew all too well - gold.

"What could be?" he mumbled, forgetting about his cautious approach. Three paces further on, he bumped his foot into a hidden rock and took a nasty spill down onto the floor of the cave. He cursed loudly in several different languages as he rolled over onto his rear and dusted off his aching hands, but the curses got stuck in his throat when he realized just what the rock he had stumbled over was made of.

He took a deep breath and let it out in an explosive burst. "Gold!" he croaked, staring wide-eyed at a pile of foot-long gold bars right next to him. The pile had come from an open-sided, wooden crate that appeared to have collapsed when one of the supporting beams had turned brittle.

He hurriedly reached out for one of the bars that were resting on top of the pile. It was so heavy he nearly sprained his back, but his greed took over and gave him an energy boost strong enough to ignore his physical pain. He yanked the heavy, golden item towards him and held it in both hands, his scraped palm be damned. Up close, there was no mistaking the color and the weight - he had quite literally struck gold.

Gulping, he unsheathed his short blade and gently pressed the edge into one of the lower corners of the bar. The mark left behind by the sword proved the gold was pure and not diluted by other forms of metal.

"No hallmark," he said, running his fingers across the smooth, untouched surface. "Not from official supplier. Local gold. But how many... how many?" he said hoarsely, putting down the first bar and scrambling to his feet. With his hands ahead of him, he probed around the back end of the cave and came to the startling conclusion that in addition to the one that had collapsed, there were five more open-sided, wooden crates.

His throat tied itself into a knot brought on by his greed when he realized the entire back part of the cave was one, large cache of gold with the six wooden crates lined up side by side. All around him, gold bars had been stacked in crates from the floor to the roof of the cave. Although the cave was far lower at that end compared to the entrance, it had to be a good four fathoms up to the roof.

Speechless, he knelt down next to one of the whole crates and began to count the number of bars on each layer. "Twelve bars in layer... and what? Twenty-five, thirty-five, forty... forty-two bars high... that is... awwak, wein di lei," he mumbled as he tried to get the figures calculated. "Fi- five hundred bars in rack! Each! Three thousand bars in cave! Three thousand bars of gold! I! Am! Rich! Rich! I richest man in world! Me, Volkan Ilanta Roshek, richest man in world!"

He jumped to his feet and nearly tore out tufts of his long, wavy hair in an uncontrollable fit of maniacal glee. As he stared at the six wooden crates, the greed bubbled up to the surface and he began to dance around and let out all sorts of wild, unrestrained whoops and cheers.

"Three thousand bars! I can buy every horse in world! Screw horse, I can buy every woman in world! I can buy world! And I found it! Alone! Twenty bars can make me king of world... and I have three thousand bars!"

His dancing slowly died down as the fatigue from his ice crossing caught up with him. He buried his face in his hands and let out a long groan at the thought of owning everything - and everyone - he had ever wanted.

"And others do not know. They will never know. This mine alone. All mine... but they will come. They will try to take gold... my gold," he said and hurried over to the nearest crate to see if it really did exist. "They will not find my gold... they will find death instead. Yes. All of them... but- but I must stay in control. They cannot know or they will come... I must be silent until time is right."

Volkan leaned in to slap a kiss on one of the gold bars. The bar was cold to the touch, but he didn't care. Grinning maniacally, he spun around and danced out of the back part of the cave.


At the entrance, he came to a screeching halt and stared wide-eyed out over the icy lagoon. Less than a hundred fathoms away, the horrible monster came shuffling over the ice, rapidly closing the distance to him. The sight of the monster made it hard for him to breathe, and he clenched all his muscles to stop a full-blown panic attack from claiming him.

Greenish blood poured out of the creature from nearly a dozen wounds, but it seemed to be able to keep itself upright just fine as it slid across the ice with surprising grace. When it reached the narrow band of water at the center of the lagoon, it didn't bother to change directions but waded down into it.

The water came roughly halfway up its soft belly, washing off the blood and gunk that had caked there. It wailed in pain and writhed around with its tail slamming down onto the ice, but it didn't seem weaker than before.

At first, Volkan thought the large, hideous creature was dying, but it soon became clear it was simply trying to crush the ice around the band of water to make the gap larger. When the hole was big enough, it dove into the freezing water and went out of sight.

The fortune seeker took that as his cue and hurried away from the entrance to the monster's lair. He went north along the isthmus, and though he tried hard to stay away from the loose rocks, they were too difficult to spot under the snow, leading to several, heavy falls.


His return trip across the icy lagoon had been no easier than his initial trek to the far side, but the fire that burned brightly inside him from discovering the gold cache meant he couldn't care less about the pain that shot up from his ribs or his hand.

When he reached the shore near the trees close to the pathway up into the Natfarann Forest, he sat down on a snow-covered boulder and stared out onto the dark, foreboding lagoon. The icy wind was still blowing in from the south, whipping his long, wavy hair into a frenzy and making the coast a highly inhospitable place to be for any length of time.

Just as he was watching, the creature's head popped out of the band of water at the central part of the lagoon and seemed to scout out the terrain. Satisfied with the condition of its surroundings, it crawled up on the ice and shuffled the rest of the way into its lair. Its body had been washed clean by the sea water and glistened under the ghostly pale light of the full moon. As it stood in the entrance, it let out a final wail to let the world know the undisputed king of the lagoon had survived.

Volkan grunted and got up. "Best protection man can get. Gold is safe. My gold. Oh, my gold..."

A devious smile spread over his features as he walked along the shore and climbed up into the forest.


"Kheo! Kheo! Can you hear us?" Caid shouted, holding her free hand to her mouth to amplify her cry. When only a dead silence came back at her, she shook her head angrily and nearly threw down her torch in frustration. "Wretched... I pray no harm has come to him. Kheo is like a brother to me..."

"Where could he be?" Bronwyn said, biting her already short fingernails.

"I cannot say... he isn't here, that's a fact."

"Ack, what shall we do?"

"Do? We shall find my dear friend is what we shall do!" Caid barked, but immediately regretted her harsh tone. Grunting, she turned back to her partner. "I beg for forgiveness, Lady Bronwyn. I didn't mean to yell at you."

"Oh, fear not, sweet Caid, my skin has grown far thicker in the past few moons. I shall be quite all right, thank you," Bronwyn said and nearly stumbled over a piece of wood she couldn't see in the darkness. "And I truly do understand your heartache. Kheo has come to mean a great deal to me, too. Come, shine your torch over there," she continued, touching Caid's shoulder in the direction she wanted her to try.

Caid moved the torch in a wide arc but was unable to find signs of Kheo's presence anywhere. They stood in the middle of a clearing nearly fifty fathoms from the dirt trail where Kheo had been snatched by the creature. They had both seen him be thrown through the air, but they hadn't been close enough to see where he could have landed.

"No," Caid said with a deep sigh. "I fear our search is in vain. Kheo! Kheo, can you hear me?! For Phirax' sake... answer me, man! Kheo!"

Bronwyn chewed more on her fingernails and looked to their right where Deegan was performing his own search among the next row of trees some forty fathoms away from them. His torch moved in an irregular pattern as he held it high and low to look up into all the crowns and down into the undergrowth between the trunks.


Caid moved on and held the torch low to be able to see the ground ahead of her. She went another few paces before the sound she had heard had filtered through her tired mind. Furrowing her brow, she turned around and shone the torch on the ground where she had just been.


"Bronwyn," she whispered, "is that Deegan?"

"Wh- what? What is?"

"That groaning... is that Deegan groaning?" Caid whispered.

"I d- do not know, sweet Caid... n- no, how could it be? He is all the way over there, we would never be able to hear it," Bronwyn whispered back, suddenly afraid of moving in case she would accidentally step on Kheo.


"By Marpaxa, I definitely heard that!" Bronwyn cried. " 'Tis Kheo groaning! He is close! He must be!"

Caid growled out loud and let the torch sweep around and around down near the rocky ground. "Kheo? Kheo, speak up, man! Kheo? Aw, Phirax' tits, this is-"


"Kheo?!" Caid cried, stomping her boot down onto the ground in frustration.

"O- over here..." Kheo's familiar voice said from somewhere into the semi-darkness just beyond the cone of flickering orange light. "C- Caid... uh, help...!"

Bronwyn whipped her head around and caught a glimpse of something metallic that reflected the torch - possibly a belt buckle. "Caid! Here!" she said and hurried in the direction where she had spotted the reflection. "No, Caid, over here... no, I fear you are going the wrong- Caid, over here!"

"Where, fer cryin' out loud! Don't just say 'over here', tell me which way to go!" Caid cried, still pointing the torch in the wrong direction. When Bronwyn suddenly clapped a hand down onto her shoulder, she let out a most un-Huntress-like shriek and jumped a foot in the air from the shock. "Gaaah! Br- Bronwyn! My heart!" she cried hoarsely, taking a fumbling step sideways.

"We have found him, Caid," Bronwyn said and grabbed hold of the Huntress' suede jacket. Working as the guide, she quickly pulled Caid over to the spot where she had seen the metal glint in the torchlight.

Behind them, Deegan had been utterly unable to avoid the hubbub, and he was heading towards them at high speed to add his own torch to the rescue operation.

They arrived at the same time and shone both torches down onto the ground where Kheo was still lying in an unruly heap. "Oy, am I glad ta see ya... I got dirt in mah britches... and mah beard... Ah hate gettin' dirt in mah britches..." he wheezed, not sounding quite like his usual self.

"Ah, who cares about your britches, Kheo!" Caid said and pushed the torch into Bronwyn's waiting hands before she kneeled down next to her stricken friend. After finding Kheo's arm, she sought out his hand and gave it a squeeze.

"I care 'bout mah britches... 's the only britches I got. Hate gettin' dirt in mah britches..." Kheo wheezed, coughing and subsequently moaning in a way the experienced soldiers around him knew far too well.

Deegan knelt down next to his friend and ran a hand down over the big man's head and body. Although there weren't any external injuries apart from the numerous and utterly inevitable scrapes and abrasions, the wheezing could really only mean one thing. "Kheo, I think you have a whole row of bent or broken ribs," the Lieutenant said, supporting Kheo's bald head.

"Yeah, that's what... I figgered. Would explain... the blood in mah mouth... when I breathe, wouldden it?"

Bronwyn gasped and hurriedly knelt down next to the others to shine her torch onto the big man's face that, unsurprisingly, was contorted in pain. "Sir Kheo," she said in a voice she struggled to keep free of a tremor that wouldn't help the mood of the man she was trying to cheer up, "you have shown exemplary bravery in your hopeless fight against that creature. When we return to Ashburne Castle, I promise I shall bestow the honorable rank of Grand Marshal of the Imperial Artillery upon your good self."

"Wa-hey, lis- lissen ta... that, huh?" Kheo said, but his excitement brought on a rattling coughing fit that left his face beetroot red.

"Hush, Kheo, don't speak," Caid said, patting her friend's hand. "First of all, we must get you back to the camp. We cannot do anything for you here, but in the camp, we have our bandages and the rest of the medical kits."

"I d- don't... know if I can... m- make it back there... Caid," Kheo wheezed. The light from the torch revealed a thin line of blood that trickled out of the corner of his mouth.

Bronwyn's chin began to quiver at the thought of losing Kheo, but she gulped down her fears and put a hand on his cheek that she hoped would calm him down. "Have no fear, Sir Kheo. We shall help you... we shall carry you if we have to."

Caid let out a grunt and looked at Bronwyn through the orange light. After a few seconds, she nodded. "Yep. I have never left anyone behind on a battlefield and I'm not about to start now. With the First Up Front and the Tough Nuts working together, we cannot fail," she said and put her hands under Kheo's large body. "Deegan... try to take his shoulders."

"The... the t- tough nuts?" Bronwyn said, and the blank stare on her face was neatly projected into her voice.

"That was the unofficial nickname of our old artillery regiment," Caid said with a grin. "Tough nuts to crack, you know..."

"Oh... uh... I see," Bronwyn said before she reached down and helped Kheo up into a sitting position, mindful of not scorching his beloved britches with her torch.


Volkan had watched and heard everything from up on the dirt trail. "Surprised fools not dead yet. Ah, well. Changes nothing if they are alive. They will die soon," he mumbled, rubbing his nose and scratching his reddish-blonde beard.

Exploiting the confusion over by the torches, he slipped away unnoticed and began to run towards Abryloch, keeping a tight grip on his blades so the clanging wouldn't give him away this time.

A diabolical plan formed in his mind as he jogged along the dirt trail; a very detailed plan that began with a little carnal pleasure in the village and ended with the slaughter of his rivals for the gold - and a couple of the villagers, too, if they weren't careful.

Grinning, he upped the tempo to keep warm in the icy night.


By the time Volkan reached Abryloch, a snow flurry that had surprised him while on the trail had died down but the wind was still bitterly cold. He entered the village sliding along the walls of the houses, trying to blend in the best he could - the last thing he wanted was to be spotted by someone having trouble sleeping. Although the new snow squeaked under his boots, the faint sound was lost in the wind.

The square finally came into view with the Village Hall on the right. The information he had gathered earlier at the supper was put to good use, and he went straight to the official building without dithering.

Walking around it, he found the wooden staircase that led upstairs to Eileen's floor and put his foot on the lower rung. He casually looked around to see if anyone was watching him. When the coast appeared to be clear, he ventured up the staircase as quietly as he could.

The fourth rung squeaked loudly as he put his weight on it, and he cursed under his breath and came to an abrupt stop. He stood completely motionless for a while before he eventually carried on upstairs.


In the bedchamber on the ground floor, Crannog Rhaslain had just sat down on the bed after using the chamber pot when one of the steps up to his daughter's chamber squeaked loudly.

He furrowed his brow and strained his hearing to figure out if it had really been what he thought it was. "Surely Eileen isn't going anywhere in the middle of the night... not when it's been snowing?" he mumbled, looking out of the window onto the backyard that was lit up by the new snow. "Maybe she came back from somewhere... been with a friend, perhaps... but no. At this time of night?"

When the sound didn't return, Crannog shrugged and began to move his legs up under the thick winter duvet to go back to sleep. Then he heard a metallic clang from somewhere that he was positive came from the old lock upstairs. Suddenly nervous, he reached across the bed and grabbed his sleeping wife's shoulder. "Gwen... Gwen, wake up!" he whispered, "Gwen, I think someone has just... oh... I don't know. I think Eileen has someone upstairs with her!" he whispered before he jumped out of bed and hurriedly put on his pants.

"Wh- what? Where? Oh... Crannog, I didn't hear you," Gwen said, turning over onto her back and rubbing her bleary eyes.

At first, Crannog was too busy putting on his cloak to answer, but when he came back to the bed and knelt down next to it, he looked up at his wife. "I think someone is upstairs with Eileen... stay here but light a few candles. I'll... I'll take this... yes," he said, reaching into the drawer of a low bedside table to take an old, poorly maintained short sword. "I'll take this and... and go upstairs..."

"Crannog!" Gwen said and pulled the duvet up under her nose. "Your old sword! Oh, please, Crannog... please take care!"

"I will," the mayor said as he shoved his bare feet into his boots.


Volkan glanced around as he let the rusty old door handle slip down onto the floor.

Though the door at the top of the wooden staircase had been locked, he had been able to break it down in a matter of seconds. Once he was standing in a narrow hallway, he fell silent to listen. He could hear gentle snoring, and somewhere close, a bed creaked.

Once his eyes had adjusted to the darkness, he looked around the small hallway he was in. Three doors led away from it, but the amounts of dust on the floor in front of two of them proved that only one was in regular use - the one nearest to the staircase.

The creak from somewhere close was followed by a bump. Very faintly, he could hear snores that could only come from a young person. An evil smile creased his lips as he inched towards the next door.

The door to the bedchamber opened quietly. Volkan peeked in through the narrow crevice and liked what he saw. The young blonde was sleeping in a bunk that had been placed up against the chimney from the kitchen to provide the heating.

The other side of the bedchamber saw a rickety old chair and a dresser with a mirror. A few garments were hanging over the backrest of the chair, and an opened book that looked like a diary was on the dresser next to a quill and an inkwell.

His eyes slid back to the girl. Though she had pulled up her duvet, a section of her white, knitted, long-sleeved nightgown was visible on the side of the bunk. On the floor, a pair of brown, woolly slippers was lined up and ready to use.

Volkan had seen enough and drew his short blade. Slipping into the chamber, he closed the door behind him and slid across the bare floor. In the bunk, the young girl smacked her lips and turned over onto her other side.

He smiled as he knelt down next to her and shifted the blade to his other hand. He held his free hand ready above her mouth and nose and counted down in his mind to when he was going to strike - with the speed of a snake, he reached out, tore the duvet onto the floor and clamped his hand down onto the young girl's mouth.

"Hush, little girl," Volkan whispered when Eileen cried out, holding the dull side of the dagger-like blade across his lips. "You have so pretty hair. Why you hide hair under scarf?" he whispered and moved his hand away from her mouth to run his fingers through her blonde mane.

Volkan breathed heavily as he unbuckled his ankle pants and reached down to push them off, but before he could expose himself, the door burst open and Crannog stormed into the bedchamber holding his old sword high in the air. "Get away from her! Get away from my daughter, you vile, evil heathen!"

Volkan groaned in frustration and jumped up from the bunk with his own blade pointed at the mayor and his pants flapping in the wind. Behind him, Eileen cried out in relief and tried to pull the duvet back up so she could wrap it around herself. Giving up, she bolted off the bed only wearing her nightgown and ran out into the hallway where she bumped into her mother who cried out just as loudly. The two women soon went down the staircase.

"You despicable piece of trash! We open our doors for you and you come to violate our children! Be gone, you wretched animal!" Crannog barked, but the threat had little impact on the experienced fortune seeker.

Volkan closed his belt buckle with his left hand while he held the short blade in his right. His lips had been reduced to two thin lines in his face, and his eyes darted back and forth between Crannog and the open door.

They could hear Gwen and Eileen crying out down on the street, and soon, other voices joined them; angry voices.

Volkan's jaw worked overtime - he knew he was running out of options. Unless he wanted to dangle at the end of a rope, he had to escape, and he had to do it now. Roaring out, he jumped forward and gave the old man a shoulder block that sent him tumbling across the floor of the bedchamber.

Roshek practically leaped down the staircase, taking three or even four steps at a time. On the ground, he hurriedly looked around to find the best way to escape. Gwen and Eileen were long gone, but several others had come out of their homes and were standing near the Village Hall. A hulking young man with shoulders as broad as a bull came running up towards the Village Hall from another street carrying a vicious-looking hammer.

The man yelled something that Volkan couldn't hear, and he had no interest in hanging around to find out what it was. Drawing both his blades, he threatened his way through the crowd of angry villagers and stormed to the right, up the connecting street. He was headed for the relative safety of the Natfarann Forest, but even as he ran, his crooked mind came up with another devious plan and he quickly changed directions to go to the stables with the steel of his blade glinting dangerously in the torchlight.




Just as the earliest rays of the sun reached above the eastern horizon the following morning, a long, throaty moan escaped Caid's lips as she lay topless on top of the sleeping furs with Bronwyn kneeling by her side - unfortunately, the moan had not been fueled by passion, but by the angry black bruise that stretched diagonally across her body from her right shoulder to her left hip.

"Ohhhhhhh, my poor tit," she croaked, reaching up to poke her tender right breast that had gained roughly three or four colors in addition to its original pinkish hue.

Bronwyn held a brass candlestick in one hand while she used the other to shield her eyes from the sight of her lover's battered body. The new bruise joined the myriad of white, poorly-healed scars from her misadventures in the War of Great Expansion to draw a nightmarish painting on the skin of the Huntress. "Oh, sweet Caid... I fear you are black, blue... purple... yellowish... oh, there is even a spot of crimson across your tummy," Bronwyn said and let her fingers brush across the skin on Caid's stomach with a featherlight touch.

"Owch," Caid croaked, swatting away Bronwyn's hands.

"I beg for forgiveness, sweet Caid," Bronwyn said and took Caid's hand instead.

"Ohhh, my back is killing me as well," Caid croaked, trying to lift herself off the sleeping furs. "Please... have a look-see and tell me if it's all still there..."

Balancing the candlestick, Bronwyn helped Caid up into a sitting position and leaned over to see down the muscular back of the Huntress. "Your back, sweet Caid? Is that why you tried to rest on your side all night? I have not heard about-"

The shocked gasp that followed proved the back wasn't any better than the front. "Oh! Oh, Sweet Marpaxa," Bronwyn croaked as she took in the sight of the huge bruise that covered the entire upper back nearly from Caid's neck to far below her shoulder blades.

The gruesome, X-shaped scars Caid had received in the brutal fight against the Yonnae warrior Sabia in the battle for Ashburne Castle - and that Lady Fyonna had fused shut with her Seer powers - stood out quite clearly as white lines against the darkened skin. "Sweet Caid, you are even worse there! Y- your... I f- fear your back is simply one, large black spot! And blue, and purple, and-"

"I get the picture," Caid groaned, giving Bronwyn's arm a little squeeze.

"But what happened to your back? And why did you not tell me? Oh, Caid, I would have rubbed some of the soothing ointment onto it, you know I would!"

"I know, Bronwyn... the evil thing hit me on the back and shoved me away. Not as far or as high as Kheo, though... and for that I'm grateful. I doubt I could have survived such a fall."

Bronwyn shivered and shuffled over to the other side of the small tent she shared with the Huntress. There, she took one of the field kits and rummaged through it until she found a small, pale blue jar. "I fear my heart cannot yet cope with listening to us speak of such horrors, Caid. Here, I have found the ointment. Please... please allow me to tend to you. I cannot stand to see you in such pain... please, let me at least try to make it better."

"Would you?" Caid said with a tired grin.

"Oh! I am insulted you even have to ask, sweet Caid! And you did not answer my question," Bronwyn said as she shuffled back to the furs, still holding the brass candlestick. "Why did you not tell me about your back?"

Caid grunted and pulled her hair away so Bronwyn had access to the worst bruise first. "Oh... I didn't want to appear weak."

"To whom? Surely not to me, Huntress. I already know you are the strongest and bravest woman in the world," Bronwyn said and put down the candlestick so she had both hands free to unscrew the cap of the pale blue jar.

"I fear I am not. Not by a long shot, Lady Bronwyn."

"Hush, we can speak later," Bronwyn said and scooped up a glob of the ointment.

Caid chuckled but regretted it immediately when her breasts jiggled and disturbed the bruise that ran down her front. "But you asked me a question!" she croaked, stretching her back.

"That was then... this is now," Bronwyn said and leaned in to place a warm, loving kiss on Caid's lips. The kiss was meant to share some of the pain and make it more tolerable for Caid - and the smile on the Huntress' face proved Bronwyn's plan had worked.


The cap had barely been screwed back on the pale blue jar at the end of a cozy, affectionate massage when angry voices were heard approaching the tent. Caid pushed herself up on an elbow and strained her hearing to figure out what was going on. "My Empress, can you hear those voices?"

"Why... yes. Yes, I can," Bronwyn said and wiped her sticky fingers on a rag. She suddenly stopped to cock her head. "Tell me, does it not sound like-"

"Crannog. Something is wrong," Caid said and sat up at once. She reached for the strip of cloth that was supposed to be wrapped around her breasts, but reconsidered at once - her bruises were simply too painful. Instead, she grabbed her tunic with the wraparound sleeves and tried her best to slip into it.

"Huntress!" Crannog said strongly from the outside.

"Wretched!" Caid barked, tearing off the tunic that she had accidentally put on the wrong way around. After fumbling with it for several seconds, she finally found the right way and shoved it down over her aching body.

"Huntress! I demand you come out here at once!" Crannog said in a tone of voice that proved he meant it.

After putting down the brass candlestick, Bronwyn jumped to her feet and moved over to the tent's flap that she unlaced in a hurry. "Caid, I shall see what it is about. Just come out when you are dressed," she said and took her cloak before she left the tent.

"Very well," Caid groaned, grabbing for her ankle pants.

Bronwyn stormed outside and wrapped the cloak around her hunting fatigues. It didn't take her but a heartbeat to realize something had to be seriously wrong. Not only were the group of men from the village carrying wildly burning torches that punched through the early morning light and shone creepy cones of light down onto the dirt trail, but most of them were armed with short swords, daggers or even shovels - and all wore hard, threatening expressions.

"Sir Crannog...?" she said, staring wide-eyed at what could only be described as a hunting party.

"Lady Bronwyn... where is that wretched swine with the unkempt beard and the greasy hair?" the mayor said, holding a torch in one hand and his trusty old sword in the other. He had changed into a dark brown cloak with a leather hem that hung loosely over a tunic, a waistcoat and a pair of ankle pants that he had not had time to tuck into his boots. His entire body was twisted in pain, a legacy of being shoved by Roshek and hurting his shoulder in the ungraceful landing.

"V- Volkan?" Bronwyn squeaked, looking at the hateful expressions on the men's faces.

"I will not speak his name," Crannog said with several veins pumping hard on the sides of his ruddy face. "To me, he is but a swine who violates young, innocent children. Now bring him to us so we can hang him and get it over with!"

Bronwyn gasped loudly and pressed her hands to her bosom. Her face lost all color upon hearing the news, and she could feel the edges of reality begin to swim in a most disconcerting fashion. "Eileen... d- did he... is sh- she all right?" she breathed, though her voice wasn't strong enough to travel far.

"What do you care? Bring us the swine or we shall seek him ourselves!" Crannog said and briefly raised his sword.

Commotion behind Bronwyn made the men look over to the tents in the hope they had discovered Roshek. When Caid came out with a pained expression on her face, they groaned in frustration.

"He isn't here," Caid said in a strained voice. "He ran away last night when we fought the big son of a- thing, and he hasn't returned. What did he do?"

Crannog turned back to Bronwyn and shone his torch at the taller woman. "He came to my house and broke in. He went upstairs to Eileen's chamber, and he would have raped her if I had not shown up at the last possible moment. He was threatening her with a dagger... and he saw her in her nightgown!"

"Oh, Sweet Marpaxa," Bronwyn croaked, looking back at Caid whose jaw already worked overtime.

"He must hang for what he did!" Crannog barked. "I do not care how important he is to you, he must hang!"

Now Caid's jaw really began to grind. "He's yours to hang, Crannog. He's yours to behead, if you wish. He's yours to feed to the pigs, or to that wretched monster!"

Caid's anger surprised even Crannog whose temper was momentarily dampened. He looked at his men and then back at Bronwyn and Caid. "Very well, Huntress. Lady Bronwyn. So be it. Come, men... we shall seek that swine."

The group of angry villagers stomped off and left Bronwyn and a steaming mad Caid in their wake.

"That wretched son of a whore! That slimy, stinking prick!" Caid barked, clenching her fists to the point where her knuckles turned white.

"Caid, please calm down... it was not our doing-"

"He has sullied my name and reputation, Bronwyn! And yours, too! And above all, he tried to rape a thirteen year old girl! No," she said, looking back at the tent.

Bronwyn stared at her partner with a highly puzzled expression on her face. She tried to reach out for the Huntress, but the compact woman was already on her way over to the tent. "No? 'No' what, Caid?"

"No more. This is where I draw the line. I cannot stay," Caid said and angrily brushed aside the flap to the tent. Moments later, she came back out with her jerkin, her cloak and that most deadly of weapons, her Yonnae machete.

"Cannot stay? What do you mean, you cannot stay? Oh, sweet Caid, I am so confused," Bronwyn said, chewing on her already short fingernails.

Caid chuckled darkly and put on the jerkin with pain from the bruises and the unwanted news written all over her face. The machete was soon sheathed and ready to use. "What I said, Bronwyn. I cannot stay," she said and swept her cloak around her shoulders. The movement made her aching chest and back hurt, and she grimaced wildly and let out a gasp. "I have a swine to castrate," she said after regaining her breath.

"Oh, Caid... oh, Caid," Bronwyn said and rushed forward. When she reached her partner, she didn't want to pull her into a hug because it would only exacerbate the pain, but she couldn't bear not touching her, either - in the end, her urgent need for contact won out and she pulled Caid into a gentle but heartfelt hug. "I know I cannot stop you, but... oh, sweet Caid, please be careful. Volkan is a sick, twisted man who will not shy away from knifing you in the back if he feels threatened... or even pressured."

"I know, Bronwyn," the Huntress said and stood up on tip-toes to place a kiss on her partner's lips. "I promise I shall be careful. My love, I don't know if they will let you see them, but... but perhaps you could go into Abryloch and try to speak to Gwen? Or maybe even Eileen? To comfort them and let them know we'll take care of the swine?"

"I... I will, sweet Caid. That is such a good idea," Bronwyn said and repeatedly ran a thumb across the Huntress' cheek. "I hope I can persuade them to speak to me. Eileen and I had... we had a connection... oh, we spoke so well the other morn... no, goodness me, that was only yesterday!"

"Mmmm," Caid said with a nod. As a parting gift, she kissed Bronwyn again before she closed her cape and stepped away from the taller woman. "Farewell, my love. I shall not return until I have Roshek's testicles in a pouch."

"Ack!" Bronwyn cried, clutching her head. For a moment, she thought Caid had been jesting, but the dark frown on the Huntress' fair face proved she wasn't. Bronwyn couldn't get a word across her lips as she watched Caid turn around and jog along the dirt trail.

After watching the retreating figure for so long her eyes watered, Bronwyn shuffled over to the tent. As she pulled the flap open and stood in the doorway, she let out a sigh that was so deep her shoulders slumped. With a heartfelt groan, she entered the tent and moved over to the sleeping furs to stow away the pale blue jar with the soothing ointment they had used to try to ease Caid's pain.


Once the tent was in good order, she snuffed out the candle in the brass candlestick which left her surroundings in semi-darkness. Just as she was on her way over to the plenum tent to get the fire started, she reconsidered and went back to the smaller tent.

She knelt down in front of the field kits and began to rummage through them, searching for one item in particular. She finally found the package she was looking for; one that had been wrapped in reinforced cloth to make sure the exquisite leather sheath wouldn't be scratched or otherwise harmed.

As she unwrapped the cloth, she felt the comforting weight of the double-edged, Ranger-issue hunting dagger she knew Caid always carried as a spare whenever they were on the road in case anything would happen to her regular weapons. When the lethal blade came into view, the Imperial crest on the sheath glinted dangerously in the semi-darkness.

Bronwyn grimaced at the look and feel of the dagger, and her grimace only deepened when she pulled it out of the sheath and stared at the pointed, razor-sharp double-edged blade itself. "Oh, I pray I shall never use it," she whispered as she pushed the dagger back in place and put it down on the floor of the tent. She quickly got everything back in the field kits and took the heavy weapon. "But such a blade could come in handy in case Volkan comes back for... for more, perhaps," she continued, thinking back to when she had overheard the man from the north speaking to Kheo about lusting after her.


Once she had the fire pit going - she wasn't a natural like Kheo was, but she had tried to follow exactly what he used to do - she realized much to her frustration that she had skipped a step in the procedure: the two metal rods with hooks for a kettle or a pot that were lying on the ground by her knees were supposed to have been put down into the holes already dug for them inside the pit.

Groaning over her inexperience, she took the rods and hurriedly shoved them into the holes - her fingers were only moderately scorched by the flames.

She shook her head, got up and shuffled inside the plenum tent to get the kettle.

On the table inside the tent, a small container with a few sticks of jerky seemed to mock her. She picked one up and stared at the meat with a look of sublime disappointment on her face. "Oh... and just yesterday, we had those magnificent rye buns and butter... and jam... that wretched pig! How could he do that to that sweet, young girl?!" she said, throwing the jerky back in the container where it landed with a rattling bang.

Growling, she grabbed the kettle and one of the water canisters and strode outside to prepare the tea. "Oh... and we have no tea leaves, either!" she mumbled, rubbing her brow. She sighed and poured water into the kettle after all - even if the taste would be rather insipid, they still needed something to keep them warm. Once it was full, she hooked the kettle to the metal rods and stomped off to the other smaller tent.

"Deegan?" she whispered, standing at the flap that had been laced thoroughly. "Lieutenant Arliss, are you awake... uh, and suitably attired?"

She noticed a small box and several personal items strewn about on the forest floor next to the tent. At first, she wondered what had happened there, but then she recognized some of the items as belonging to Volkan Roshek - Deegan had apparently cleaned up the tent when they had returned with Kheo.

"Yes to both, Empress," the Lieutenant's familiar voice said from the other side of the tent cloth. Soon, the flap was unlaced and folded up to reveal a fully dressed Deegan on the other side.

Bronwyn stepped into the tent and knelt down at the foot end of the sleeping furs. Like Caid had been earlier, Kheo was bare-chested, and he was flat on his back with a look of pure pain on his pale face. There was an unhealthy discoloration on his chest, and his breathing was still labored. A bloody handkerchief had been tucked in under the pillow next to his head.

"Deegan, I fear I must have misunderstood you... did you not say you would wrap Kheo's ribs?" Bronwyn said quietly.

"Alas, I couldn't, Empress. He complained too much."

"But is there nothing at all we can do to help him?"

Deegan rolled down the flap and tied the laces to stop the cold from entering the hut. "I fear we need to let nature take its course, Empress Bronwyn. Broken ribs do not mend themselves overnight."

Bronwyn's shoulders slumped and she nodded somberly. "Alas, I fear I must be the bearer of more bad news, Lieutenant Arliss. Did you hear the commotion just now?"

Deegan shrugged and moved up to the top of the bed where he put a hand across Kheo's forehead to check for a fever. "I did. I fear I wore no undergarments at the time, and I felt it would not have improved the situation if I had stepped outside as Marpaxa created me."

"Ah... that was the right decision considering the circumstances, Deegan. It was Mayor Rhaslain and a group of highly agitated men from the village. Oh, I fear a terrible, terrible crime has been committed against the young girl who visited us yesterday," Bronwyn said, remembering Eileen's crush on Deegan. "I fear the vile snake Volkan Roshek violated her and tried to rape her last eve."

"He what?!" Deegan cried hoarsely, stirring the slumbering giant on the sleeping furs.

"I fear it is so. Fortunately, Mayor Rhaslain got to her in time before her innocence was lost."

Deegan stared at the Empress with wide open eyes. After a while, he scrunched up his face into a mask of anger. "I knew we should have paid more attention to him... the way he looked at Eileen made my stomach churn!"

"Alas, we were criminally inattentive, Sir Deegan," Bronwyn said and wrung her hands.

"Wait... where's the Huntress?"

"She... she has left to hunt him down. She said she would not return until she had his... his... oh, she had his... mmmm, his testicles in a pouch," Bronwyn said and immediately blushed harder than she had for years.

Deegan rubbed his chin and turned back to Kheo. "Good. I hope she leaves something for my blade, though. I shall take great pleasure in cutting off his cock and throwing it into a fire."

"Ack..." Bronwyn croaked, burying her burning cheeks in her hands. "I... I shall-oh... I shall travel to Abryloch to seek Gwen and Eileen. Oh, I hope they shall want to speak with me. I need to apologize to them."

"Empress, I cannot allow you to go anywhere without protection... and I cannot leave Kheo alone."

"I have protection, Sir Deegan," Bronwyn said and reached behind her to tap her fingers on the sheath of the dagger that she had attached to her belt. "I am taking the spare Ranger dagger with me."

"Do you know how to use it? It is a lethal weapon in unskilled hands, Empress Bronwyn."

"Oh, if I meet Roshek, I shall be driven by the fire of the wronged, I can assure you, Sir Deegan. I shall have no problem defending myself," Bronwyn said, nodding decisively.


Sometime later - after chewing on a stick of stale jerky and chugging down a mug of utterly flavorless hot water - Bronwyn walked towards Abryloch with a heavy heart that seemed to sink deeper and deeper in her chest for each step she took.

For a change, the temperature wasn't oppressively cold, merely icy, and the wind that had blown in from the lagoon the entire night had died down. The sun was out for the time being, but thick, gray clouds that amassed high above threatened to send another layer of white down onto the already saturated landscape.

The strong winds hadn't fully succeeded in sweeping aside the snow that had fallen during the night, so the dirt trail remained partially covered. As Bronwyn walked along it, she could see the many footprints from the group of villagers who had come the other way earlier in the morning.

'I cannot believe such evil nearly befell sweet, young Eileen,' Bronwyn thought as she strode along the trail. 'Why do we always have to ruin every object of purity and beauty we come across? And for what, wealth? Status? To show that we are beings with far greater power than the object? Why do we always have to treat our fellow human beings, be they women, children or men, with so little respect or even downright misanthropy? Oh, at times I fear the human race is beyond salvation...'

It took Bronwyn longer to reach Abryloch than she had expected, mostly because the optimism she had felt earlier slowly left her like droplets from a leaky bucket. When the first of the buildings came into view, she nearly turned around and headed back to the camp in defeat, but she squared her shoulders and carried on.

The first people she met didn't know her and thus ignored her, but it didn't take long before she ran into one of the older women who had been at the square the first time they had arrived. The local woman who was clad in the traditional coarse, dark brown garb typically worn by peasants walked along with an empty reed basket under her arm without paying much attention to her surroundings, but when Bronwyn had gone past her, she stopped and cried out.

"Hey!" she cried angrily, waving her hand at Bronwyn.

Bronwyn stopped at once and turned back to the agitated woman. "Yes?" she said, wrapping her cloak tighter around her so the other woman wouldn't notice the Ranger dagger.

"Aren't you... whatshername... Lady Caid?"

"No, I am Lady Bronwyn of Ashburne... but it is true I am with Lady Caid Barlin's party. Good morn, Milady-"

"Don't you good morn me, thankyouverymuch!" the woman said and put down the reed basket. "I saw what happened last eve! One of your men, that miserable runt, tried to rape the mayor's daughter! And he hasn't been caught yet... has he?"

"Not that I am aware of, no."

"No, and that means us hard-working women have to look over our shoulders in case the rotten bastard comes back to finish his job!" she said, throwing her arms in the air.

"I beg for forgiveness, Milady," Bronwyn said somberly. "He betrayed us in our fight against the creature. We thought he had run away, but he obviously came here instead..."

The news made the agitated peasant woman furrow her brow and remain silent. After a while, she grunted and picked up her empty reed basket. "How you and that other woman can work with someone like him, I shall never understand!" she said and spun around on her clogs before she stomped off towards one of the houses nearest to the Natfarann forest.

Bronwyn grimaced and wrapped the cloak even tighter around her. "Nor I. That was most assuredly one of the worst mistakes we have made, Caid and I."


At the Village Hall, Bronwyn went up to the front door and knocked on it. When nothing happened, she stepped out onto the small porch and looked at the parts of Abryloch that were visible from the square.

Though speaking to Eileen was foremost on her mind, she knew the villagers would not look kindly upon her if she appeared to force herself on the young girl like Roshek had done, albeit in a different context. Therefore, she stayed where she was.


Patience had never been Bronwyn's strongest virtue, so after waiting for what felt like a full turn of the hourglass - in effect, it was just over a quarter of a turn - she considered going upstairs to seek out Eileen unassisted, but her conscience won out and forced her to stay at the front door to wait for the young girl's mother. Sighing, she went back to it and knocked again.

Her prayers to Marpaxa were heard when the door was opened to reveal a familiar face who loomed large in the doorway - Trenton, the blacksmith, who had changed out of his leather apron and into a dark tunic, a pair of knee pants and wraparound leggings. His face fell when he realized who it was. "You?" he said without the slightest hint of warmth in his voice.

"Good morn, Trenton, yes... 'tis I, Lady Bronwyn of Ashburne," Bronwyn said and went down into a polite curtsey. "I heard what happened to young Lady Eileen and I came to offer her my profound apologies."

Trenton chewed on his cheek for a little while, seemingly not even considering allowing Bronwyn inside. "Noted. I'll tell her," he said curtly and began to close the door, but Bronwyn cried out and grabbed hold of the doorjamb so the door could only be closed at the cost of her fingers.

"No, please! Please, Trenton... I have come to apologize for the terrible event... may I come in, please?"

"Who is it, Trenton?" a mature female voice said from somewhere inside the house. Moments later, Gwen came to the door and stared at Bronwyn. Her face was puffy and her eyes red after the night's ordeal, but she nodded and put a hand on Trenton's buff arm. "It's all right. Her Ladyship can come into the drawing room."

"Thank you, Lady Gwen," Bronwyn said and stepped into the connecting hallway. She soon turned left and went into the well-heated drawing room where they had spent some time before the supper when they had first arrived. She was about to pull off her cloak when she remembered the sheath with the Ranger dagger she had attached to her belt. Groaning inwardly, she put the cloak back on her shoulders though the fireplace was raging.

Trenton closed the inner door with a grunt and stepped up to face Bronwyn. His face showed a hardness that hadn't been there when Bronwyn and Caid had spoken to him down at his smithy. "I came running last night when I heard Eileen's cries, but I couldn't catch him," he said menacingly. "He was too fast. If I had caught him, his corpse would have been drying in the sun by now."

"Oh," Bronwyn said in a shaky voice, "Please allow me to say you are not the only one who harbors such thoughts, Trenton."

"Let me take your cloak," Trenton said and reached for the dark brown garment, but Bronwyn held onto it with a grimace.

Gwen came back from the kitchen carrying a tray with a tea kettle and three mugs. She furrowed her brow at the oddity of someone not wanting to remove their cape in the blazing heat inside the drawing room. "Lady Bronwyn?" she said as she put down the tray on the desk at the far end of the room.

"Oh... oh, I fear I must tell you that I have a dagger under my cloak... purely for protection, you must understand that!" she said, wringing her hands. "I did and do not want to give you a false impression of me, but I had to go through the Natfarann Forest to get here, and maybe- maybe Roshek was out there somewhere... waiting for me. One could not know."

"One can never know, truer words were rarely spoken," Gwen said with a sigh. "I thank you for your honesty. Come, take off your cloak. It is far too warm in here for such thick garments."

Smiling nervously at Trenton, Bronwyn took off her cloak which let the black leather sheath with the Imperial crest come into view. It was clear the dagger she wore was a finely tooled instrument of death.

"Where did you get that thing?" Trenton said and stared at the weapon. "When you said you had a dagger, I thought... well, I thought you meant a rusty old toothpick!"

"Oh no," Bronwyn said, looking at Gwen who already knew her secret.

Gwen briefly smiled back to let her know the secret was still safe with her. "Oh, Trenton, we already know that the other woman with their party is a commander in the Ashburne armed forces. I am sure it was a gift... perhaps for a birthday?"

"Ah, not quite a birthday, but yes. Yes, Caid did give it to me," Bronwyn said, smiling and nodding at the blacksmith to convince him she was not a threat.

Trenton grunted and shook his head. "You folks down south are weird. Up here, when women have birthdays, we give them flowers or fruit. You got a lethal dagger. I'm not sure I ever want to visit Ashburne."

"Oh, although I admit it does not look good, I can assure you Ashburne is not quite that bad..."

"Still," Trenton said and put out his hand with his palm open. "Considering what happened here last night, I think it would be best for everyone involved if you handed it over to me for safekeeping while you are here."

Bronwyn nodded and began to slide the belt out of the loops to get the sheath off. "Oh, that is a wise suggestion, Sir Trenton... yes, you shall have it."

Once the sheath and the dagger were free of the belt, Bronwyn handed over the items to the blacksmith and watched how he put them into one of the desk drawers - then she hurriedly re-attached the belt so she wouldn't drop her britches in the middle of the Village Hall.

"My daughter is still sleeping," Gwen said and moved over to the tray with the tea. "She suffered through quite a living nightmare last eve, though mercifully a brief one. I created a sleeping potion for her so she could relax. I only hope she doesn't dream of... well. One shouldn't dwell on that. Nothing happened, and for that, I shall be eternally grateful."

Bronwyn nodded darkly. She knew exactly what Gwen meant.

"We cannot change any of that now," Gwen continued as she poured hot water into the first mug and crushed a few leaves down into it. "Tea, Lady Bronwyn?"

"Yes... yes, please. Thank you, Lady Gwen," Bronwyn said and let out the breath she had been holding.


A turn and a half of the hourglass later, a drowsy Eileen came out from the master bedchamber and shuffled into the drawing room wearing a demure sleeping gown and a pair of dark brown slippers. The young girl was wiping her bleary eyes and hadn't yet noticed they had a visitor.

"Mama, may I have some more wat-" she started to say, but stopped abruptly when she cracked open her eyelids and zeroed in on Bronwyn's easily recognizable figure.

Down at the other end of the drawing room, Bronwyn put down her mug on the table she was sitting at and offered Eileen a supportive smile to show she was there to help if they would let her.

"Oh..." Eileen said, clutching her hands in front of her and staring with her red, puffy eyes. "Lady Bronwyn..."

"Hello, Lady Eileen," Bronwyn said, but made no attempt to get up.

Gwen did, however, and walked over to her daughter. "Did you need more water, Eileen?"

"Yes, Mama..."

"Why don't you say a proper hello to Lady Bronwyn while I pump some more. We're low," Gwen said and mussed her daughter's neck.

"Yes, Mama," Eileen said and shuffled down towards the tables and chairs at the far end of the room. "Hello, Trenton. Good morn, Lady Bronwyn," she continued as she sat down on the chair recently vacated by her mother. When she realized she had forgotten to curtsey, she moved to get up, but she was stopped by Bronwyn who waved her hand to show it didn't matter.

Bronwyn moved her chair further to the left so she was closer to the young woman. Smiling, she reached out and held her hands in an invitation for a touch. Out of fear of stressing Eileen, she didn't attempt to take the young girl's hands in her own.

Eileen looked down at the gesture of support for a little while before she reached over and put her palms on top of Bronwyn's slightly larger hands. Locking eyes with the Lady, she allowed a small, wistful smile to crease her lips, but it was soon gone.

Trenton knew he was intruding on the tender scene and pushed his chair back to leave. With a polite nod, he went out of the drawing room and back into the hallway where he resumed his duty as the sentry.

"Lady Bronwyn, has... do you know if h- he has been caught yet?" Eileen whispered.

"I fear I do not, Lady Eileen. He had not yet been caught when I left our camp, but I assure you he cannot escape... or even come back here. Your father and a whole host of men from the village are chasing him. And so is Lady Caid."

"Oh... oh, she must t- take care... he is a wre- an evil man!" Eileen said with a degree of worry creeping into her voice.

"She knows, she knows, Lady Eileen," Bronwyn said and patted the young girl's hand. "My friend Caid can take care of herself, you can be sure of that." - 'In fact, it is Volkan who needs to take care of his bits and pieces,' she thought, but wisely kept it to herself.

Gwen came back in with a milk can filled to the brim with water. "Eileen! Here's some fresh water for you," she said and dunked a dipper into the can.

"Lady Bronwyn, may I be excused?" Eileen said before she rose from the chair.

"But of course, Lady Eileen!" Bronwyn said with a smile. After the young girl had left the table to shuffle over to her mother, Bronwyn emptied her mug and pushed her chair back. She was soon standing by the two women and watched Eileen gulp down an entire mugful.

Putting down the mug, Eileen discreetly dabbed the corner of her mouth with a hand before she glanced at Bronwyn and then her mother like she wanted to say something. A pair of red blotches were formed on her cheeks as she shuffled her slippers around on the floor of the drawing room. "Mama, may I show Lady Bronwyn the ancient book I found upstairs? Remember, the one I wanted to bring out to the camp this morn bef- before the man came?"

Bronwyn noticed a dark shadow racing across Gwen's fair face, soon followed by a frown and a slight narrowing of the eyes. Moments later, the signs of displeasure were gone, like Gwen hadn't wanted their visitor to notice them. Bronwyn didn't have enough information to analyze exactly what had caused the change, but the body language of the older woman told her that something had indeed happened.

"Oh, but do you really think Lady Bronwyn is interested in looking at that dusty old tome? And don't forget it's written in that ancient language that hardly anyone from the south can read... only us old-fashioned people," Gwen said, mussing her daughter's neck.

"Are you interested in looking at the book, Lady Bronwyn?" Eileen said, smiling wistfully at Bronwyn.

The Lady returned the smile and put a calm hand on the young girl's elbow. "Ah, but how can I say yes or no to your question when I do not even know what it is, Lady Eileen?"

Gwen chuckled and leaned in to give her daughter a little peck on the temple. "Lady Bronwyn, it's an old, old book that Eileen found up in the attic. You might call it a chronicle that keeps close track of events here in Abryloch and the Natfarann Forest. Ah, why would a modern, sophisticated Lady such as yourself be interested in such a dreary, old tome? I can hardly read it myself. It's at least a century old, and some of the information is even older. No, we can-"

"A century old? Now that I would very much like to see, Eileen. And, as a matter of fact, I happen to be able to read the old language," Bronwyn said and reached out towards the young girl; she smiled when Eileen once again made contact. When she looked up at Gwen, the dark frown had returned with a vengeance across the older woman's brow, but it left her just as rapidly as the first time.

A few seconds went by where Gwen looked like she didn't know what to say. Then she smiled and led Eileen and the Lady into the master bedchamber so they could have some privacy.


"Here," Eileen said, putting the dusty tome across Bronwyn's lap. The master bedchamber wasn't quite as grand as the name alluded to. In addition to a double bed that was up against the wall nearest to the hallway, the chamber only had a dresser with a mirror, two footstools, a sideboard and a tall wardrobe against the far wall. Two doors went away from the chamber, one to the drawing room and one to the bathing hut - home of the fabled brass hot tub - that had been grafted onto the bedchamber.

"Oh, goodness me," Bronwyn said, moving an index finger through at least a century's worth of dust. The matter was transferred to her finger, and by the end of the small journey, the book had turned black and her finger gray.

Eileen snickered at the sight and helped Bronwyn get the dust off and down under the bed. "Mama and I shall sweep up the dust in the morrow," she said with a little smile.

The tome was leather-bound and weighed a great deal. The front and back covers were hard, almost like the leather had been wrapped around pieces of wood. As Eileen sat down next to her, Bronwyn opened the first page with great reverence.

The meticulously hand-printed letters stood as sharply as the day they had been painted onto the parchment. Bronwyn was moved by the sublime quality, and she held each page with only the very tip of her fingers so she wouldn't ruin the aged parchment.

"Goodness me, look at this... even I can hardly read these old letters, Eileen. Your mother was right, they are written in the old language used in Dinnigon, not the one we use now."

"How do you know that, Lady Bronwyn?" Eileen said, shuffling up close to the Lady to see better. After a brief while, she cautiously wrapped an arm around Bronwyn's waist.

Bronwyn smiled at the tender contact and she felt her heart nearly skip a beat as the joy bubbled up to the surface. "Oh, I know because my long-suffering tutor back at Ashburne Castle tried to teach me the ancient language. You see this strange letter here that looks like a-"

"You live in a castle?!" Eileen said, leaning forward so she could look Bronwyn in the eye.

"Uh... yes... yes, I do. My family was close to the castle staff," Bronwyn said, mentally smacking herself over the head for blowing her own secret. She smirked and returned to the tome in the hope her young companion would forget about the other thing. "Now, can you see this letter that looks like an uppercase B? That letter is in fact a double-S."

Eileen seemed satisfied with Bronwyn's explanation about the castle and leaned back into the Lady's soft side. "But why would they make an S that looks like a B, Lady Bronwyn?"

"I have no idea, Eileen," Bronwyn said with a chuckle as she continued to leaf through the ancient book. "Oh look, there's a story of how Abryloch came to be founded here..."


Nearly a hundred pages into the tome, Bronwyn cocked her head at something she had read. Because of the old language, she hadn't understood everything, but most of the words made sense to her. 'On the eve of the full moon,' she read inwardly, slowly moving an index finger across the letters to parse the syntax, 'the Kawakia... the Kawakia? Hmmm... the Kawakia was sent to the lair across the lagoon. There, it was to... oh, Sweet Marpaxa!' she thought, staring at the words on the page.

'There it was to guard the cache of gold that we had claimed in the Natafarrau... the Natafarrau...? Must be an old name for the Natfarann Forest... that we had claimed in the Natafarrau Forest and melted down into bullion.'

Bronwyn put down the heavy tome and stared into nothing. She had a myriad of wildly rebellious thoughts inside her mind that she tried to get to line up in an orderly row so she could process them, but they were reluctant.

"Are you tired of looking at the book, Lady Bronwyn?" Eileen asked, putting a soft hand on Bronwyn's back.

"No, I am merely thinking of something I read, ha ha," Bronwyn said truthfully. 'Goodness me... they found the treasure a century or more ago... they found the legendary pirate treasure and melted it down into gold bars... and they put the gold bars into the lair Caid visited the other day... and, Sweet Marpaxa, they put the evil monster into the lair to stand guard over the gold! But why... I do not understand... Crannog lied to us! Maybe the monster has grown tired of spending an eternity in the lair... and now they have called for us to kill it... oh, goodness me.'

"Lady Bronwyn, can you read what it says down there?" Eileen said and pointed at a paragraph on the bottom part of the page Bronwyn had just read from.

Bronwyn furrowed her brow and looked down. At first, she had trouble focusing after the surprising news, but she soon started parsing the line. After a few words, she had to give up. "No, I cannot. I fear it is not written in the same language as the rest of the text. Perhaps it is even older than the rest."

"Oh... I recognize the language from our holy scriptures. I am not allowed to read the scriptures because I am a girl-"

At that, Bronwyn let out a disgusted grunt.

"-but I have taken a few peeks now and then... uh... because it... it interests me. You sound displeased with me, Lady Bronwyn?"

"Oh no, not with you... never with you, Lady Eileen," Bronwyn said and wrapped her arm around the young girl next to her. "I fear your customs and traditions are very different from ours, that is all."

"Oh. Lady Bronwyn, you must promise me to never tell my father and Mama that I have peeked into the scriptures. They would punish me," Eileen said, nodding solemnly.

"But of course, Lady Eileen! Again, your secrets are safe with me," Bronwyn said and took Eileen's right hand so she could put it against her own, palm on palm. "There... Forever Silent shall be our motto!"

"Forever Silent!" Eileen echoed with a snicker.

When the seance was over, Bronwyn snuggled up next to the young girl and returned to the tome. "Alas, I cannot read these words at all... I cannot deduce even a whisper of their meaning," she said and let an index finger crawl over the strange language.

"I had hoped you could."

Bronwyn kept looking at the words. One or two of them were somewhat recognizable, but others made no sense at all. "Look at this strange word... cwrrsse. How do you suppose that it pronounced, Lady Eileen?" she said and bumped shoulders with the girl.

"Kwerse? Cars-see? Curse? Keerse? Oh, I don't know!" Eileen said with a snicker.

'Curse?' Bronwyn thought, biting her lips.

Her train of thought was broken by someone knocking on the door to the master bedchamber.

"You may enter!" Bronwyn said, closing the tome.

Gwen held the door ajar and peeked in at the two people who were sitting on the bed. "Lady Bronwyn, Lady Caid is out front asking for you."

"Oh... thank you, Lady Gwen. Please inform Lady Caid I shall be outside shortly."

"Or I could tell her to come into the drawing room?" Gwen said with a smile.

Bronwyn smiled at the suggestion that she knew was made as a peace offering to their entire party. "Or you could do that, yes. Once again, I am grateful for your most gracious hospitality, Lady Gwen," she said with a friendly gesture.

Once the door was closed behind Gwen, Bronwyn put the heavy tome down onto the bed and turned to face her new friend. "Eileen, I fear I must leave you for the moment. Lady Caid needs to speak with me, or else she would not have traveled all the way here," she said, taking the young woman's hands in her own.

"Oh... thank you for looking at the book with me, Lady Bronwyn. It was fun."

"Yes, it was fun, was it not? Oh, I am very fond of such old tomes. We can truly hear our ancestors when we read the words they have written. Someday, in a century or more, perhaps our own descendants shall read something you and I have written. Someday, perhaps two women shall sit on a bed somewhere in the glorious Empire and tear their hair out trying to decipher our strange language... mmmm?"

Eileen smiled broadly and put out her arms.

Bronwyn accepted the invitation and pulled the young girl in for a warm, shaking hug. A short while later, she knew reality had caught up with Eileen when she could feel silent sobs racking the slender frame. The sobs soon grew stronger until the young girl began to cry for real.

"Just let it out, sweet Eileen... just let it all out," she whispered, reaching up to muss the long, blonde hair. She closed her eyes and tried to extend her senses to engulf the girl in her arms like she imagined Fyonna would have done with her special Seer skills.

"Why did he want to hurt me?" the young girl said hoarsely.

"Because he was evil."

"M- maybe I shouldn't have b- been so-"

"No," Bronwyn said and pulled back to look the weeping Eileen in the eye. "No, you must listen to me... it was nothing you did, my noble Lady. It was nothing you did, and nothing you said... it was all his evil doing. This you must understand, Eileen. Some are born evil, some turn evil... that ugly man was one of them. I say 'was' because he can and will never harm you again. Lady Eileen, do you hear what I say?"

"Y- yes..."

"Good. Trenton is a pleasant young man and a highly skilled blacksmith. I am sure he will make you a new lock for your door if you or your parents ask him... maybe you could even get your local carpenter to make you a brand new door. But whatever else happens, I promise that the evil minion of Phirax who masqueraded as a common man shall never hurt you again."

"Thank you," Eileen whispered, pulling herself into a new hug.


When Caid and Bronwyn saw each other in the drawing room a short while later, their faces lit up in identical smiles and they hurriedly closed the distance between them. "Oh, Caid," Bronwyn said as she pulled her lover into a gentle hug, mindful not to put too large a strain on Caid's bruises. When they separated, she looked down to Caid's belt to see if she had a pouch hanging there. "Huntress, tell me... was your quest a success or a disappointment?"

"Alas, a disappointment. I saw neither hide nor hair of the wretched bastard... pardon my language, Lady Gwen," she said to the blonde woman who was standing in the doorway - Gwen blushed but nodded.

"Wretched," Bronwyn said quietly, looking out of the window. "Oh... is it snowing?"

"It is indeed. It started when I was close to the village limits. How is Eileen?"

"Considering the dreadful circumstances, she is as well as she can be. When I left her just now, she said she would try to get some more sleep," Bronwyn said and instinctively snuck a hand around Caid's waist. When she realized what she was doing, she glanced up at Gwen to gauge the reaction of the lady of the house, but didn't see any negative reaction.

"Bronwyn, Kheo is poorly," Caid said darkly.

"Oh no," Bronwyn said and held her hands to her mouth. "I fear he may yet share a table with his family on this day... at Marpaxa's Court."

"I cannot say. I hope not, but... Death stalks us all at the best of times. Good day, Trenton," Caid said to the blacksmith who brushed off his shoulders as he came back into the drawing room.

"Uh, good day," the man said, stopping between one brush and the next.

"The spears you made worked well... alas, not well enough. The monster is still alive, albeit weakened... we hope."

"Hmmm," Trenton said, clearly thinking about something.

Bronwyn was nearly bursting at the seams to tell Caid what she had discovered in the dusty, old tome, so she grabbed hold of the Huntress' suede jacket and pulled her close. When they made eye contact, she cast a sideways glance at Trenton and Gwen to make a point that what she had to say needed to be said in private.

Caid nodded casually, but before they could leave the drawing room, the blacksmith put up his hand like he wanted to be excused - or like he had an idea. "Huntress... may I offer you a suggestion?"

"But of course, Trenton... what gives?" Caid said and wrapped an arm around Bronwyn's waist as a surrogate of more tender contact.

"Spikes. Cast iron spikes... on the ground, like... large... three feet long spikes... or maybe four feet long... from the plowshares, see? If we heat up some scrap metal plates I have out back and melt the plowshares down onto the center of the plates so they would have a good balance, and... and maybe set up some kind of-"

"Tripwire between two trees," Caid said, nodding. "Pray, go on, blacksmith."

"I... I was thinking we may be able to get the wretched beast to trip and fall down onto the spikes."

"Onto the spikes..." Caid echoed, rubbing her chin hard. She began to chew on her cheeks but eventually slammed her fist down into her open palm. "Such a death trap could work... alas, my team is two men short at the moment. We do not have enough manpower to set up and execute such a bold trap."

"But I could help! I am strong!" Trenton said and flexed his biceps to prove his words.

Caid looked at the young man's bulging muscles and let out a dry laugh. "Yes, quite impressive, but do you have any combat experience?"

"I fear I do not. But I am willing to learn and I am a quick study."

During the conversation, Bronwyn had looked from one to the other. She was still bursting at the seams to talk about the revelations she had found in the book, but she knew from the look in Caid's eyes that it would be a while before she would get a chance to say anything.

"Very well," Caid said and put out her arm. "Although I did say to Lady Bronwyn that I would not accept any new members without extensive knowledge of their background, you are now a part of the team... congratulations."

"Oh... uh, thank you," Trenton said and clasped arms with the Huntress.

"Lady Gwen," Caid said loudly as she folded her collar back up, "I fear we need to forget the tea. Trenton and I have some important business to attend to right this minute."

Caid's call was made too late - Gwen had already entered the drawing room carrying a tray with two mugs. "Oh..." she said, looking down at the steaming hot tea.

Caid and Bronwyn exchanged knowing looks, and the Lady chuckled from realizing she had to save the day. "Oh, but that is quite fine, Lady Gwen. I shall gladly join you for another mug of your exquisite tea. I would certainly like to continue our little heart to heart, and I would simply love to hear more about how you and Eileen made the glorious gift for the Huntress... goodness me, that was such a beautiful embroidery."

Gwen shot the Lady a relieved smile and continued over to the table with the tray.

When Caid noticed everyone else was looking away from them, she pulled Bronwyn down for a quick kiss. "My Empress, you are magnificent. This is why I love you so," she whispered, making Bronwyn blush and snicker.




"What in the name of Phirax the Unholy is that wretched thing?" Deegan said as Caid plonked a three-foot long plowshare attached to a metal plate down onto the ground in front of the plenum tent.

Behind her, Trenton let go of the squeaky handcart's wooden handle and rubbed his aching palm. Bronwyn stepped away from the blacksmith with an expression on her face that said if she couldn't get a private moment with Caid soon, they would have to scrape her off the tree trunks after the inevitable explosion.

Caid grinned and ran her fingers down the plowshare with the same reverence a proud mother would have showing her newborn for the first time. "Why, Deegan, this is a thorn."

"Some... thorn..." Kheo wheezed from his chair near the tent. Over the course of the afternoon and early evening, the chill had returned to the small camp, and the big man was wearing a thick winter cape over a loose tunic that didn't stress his condition.

"A thorn in its side," Caid said, tapping a fingernail against the cast iron plowshare. "Trenton and I have made four of these lethal weapons. Trenton, come here, don't be shy..." she said, waving at the blacksmith who was still standing well off to the side together with Bronwyn.

The broad-shouldered young man stepped near to the first of the spikes and took off a leather cap he had chosen because he hoped it would protect his head if it came to a brawl with the beast. "Greetings. I am Trenton Mullinar of Abryloch. I'm the blacksmith."

"We never... woulda... guessed," Kheo tried to joke, but the look of pure, unadulterated pain on his face as he spoke meant the attempt at humor fell flat.

"And, uh, I'm also the new member of the team. I'm grateful for that, Huntress. I hope I can prove my worth this eve," he said and bowed at Caid.

Bronwyn grunted and moved up behind Caid, hoping to whisper a quick message in the Huntress' ear. She put her hands on the compact woman's shoulders that she knew were just about the only places on her body that didn't hurt. She didn't want to appear impolite to the blacksmith, so she offered him a brief nod before she smiled at him. "Oh, we have every reason to believe you will, Trenton. Now, Caid-"

"Yep," Caid chimed in, reaching up to cover Bronwyn's hands with her own which drew a slightly puzzled glance from the blacksmith, "however, this evil critter is a fierce opponent. We have all eaten dirt in the battles we have fought against it. I fear you shall experience the same kind of warm welcome from our scaly friend."

Trenton gulped but wouldn't let his nervousness show too much. "So be it," he said, grimacing.

Caid nodded and gave Bronwyn's right hand a squeeze.

"Caid, I-" Bronwyn tried, but the Huntress had already moved on.

"Good. All right, here's what I had in mind," Caid said and moved over to the first of the plowshares. "We relocate our chosen battleground to further along the trail. There is an excellent spot roughly a hundred and sixty fathoms further to the south from where we are now... oh, you know what I'm talking about, we've moved past it often enough," she said and waved her hand dismissively. "Two trees are directly opposite each other... two large trees. We shall put up a tripwire, oh, a fathom or two off the ground. Ahead of the tripwire, we shall put up all four thorns in a diamond-shaped pattern that will hopefully strike the beast where they can do the most damage... the throat and upper chest."

"What kind of tripwire, Huntress?" Deegan said, looking at the thorns. "It has to be stronger than the decapitation wires we used against enemy cavalry back in the day."

The casual description of a messy, brutal death sent a shiver down Bronwyn's back that she had to shimmy left and right to get rid of.

"Ah yes, Deegan... behold," Caid said and went over to the handcart. There, she pulled the blanket aside and held up a sturdy metal chain. "Trenton says it's used to keep bulls separated. It'll hold."

Kheo tried to chime in, but his breath failed him and he shook his head in defeat.

"This thing we're fighting is rather stronger than a bull, though, Huntress," Deegan said pensively.

"It is, that's true," Caid said and put the chain back down into the handcart. "That's why we brought two chains," she continued, holding up the spare.

Bronwyn began to chew her fingernails. She knew that as soon as Caid and the others began to put up the traps, she wouldn't get a single moment alone with the Huntress for the rest of the evening. "Caid!" she said in a burst of energy. "Sweet Caid, I really do need a word! Now, please!"

Caid furrowed her brow and put down the spare chain. "Well... I fear I am quite busy-"

"Now, please!" Bronwyn said and pointed at the plenum tent. Before Caid could answer in the negative, Bronwyn had already turned around and stomped over to the tent.

Kheo wheezed in a way that was supposed to be a grin. Deegan completed the big man's train of thought and made a couple of brief kissies with his puckered-up lips.

Caid rolled her eyes at her friends but followed Bronwyn into the tent nonetheless. Inside, the Empress was leaning against the table chewing on her fingernails. Before Caid even had time to open her mouth, she had already been intercepted by her partner.

"Oh, sweet Caid, I fear we have had the wool pulled over our eyes. We have been the victims of a grand deception! In the mayor's home today, Eileen showed me a dusty old tome that revealed that Crannog has not been fully truthful with us..."

"Oh?" Caid said and wrapped her hands around Bronwyn's waist in the belief they were there to kiss.

Bronwyn didn't mind the contact but she wasn't about to let anything come in the way of delivering the message she had been holding back for many turns of the hourglass. "They have found the Natfarann treasure, Caid!" she whispered hoarsely. "And not only that, but they have put it in the creature's lair on the isthmus opposite the lagoon!"

"Oh... are you s-"

"I am quite sure, sweet Caid. I fear there is even more... the beast is their own creation. They put it there to make sure no one would get the notion of taking any of the gold!"

The news made Caid's face resemble a wide open question mark - then it fell into a mask of anger. She removed her hands from Bronwyn's waist and used them to rub her suddenly flushed face. "Those wretched liars! How dare they feed us so many lies...? Phirax' balls! Even Crannog has lied to us... a prostitute's pet gushin, my furry-"

"Ah, temper temper," Bronwyn said and put an index finger across Caid's lips, "I fear we do not know if Trenton is in on the... well, I suppose we could call it a conspiracy. If he is, I fear they may not want us to find the gold..."

"And they will slit our throats once we have taken care of the monster," Caid said surly.

"Oh... I had hoped you would say they would banish us once we had-"

"No, Bronwyn. We would know about the gold," Caid said and put a calming hand on Bronwyn's cheek. "They cannot allow that. By Phirax, we must be cautious. We must be prepared to defend ourselves with all means necessary."

"B- but you cannot mean-"

"The lust for gold turns even good men evil. If Crannog or anyone else of those narrow-minded zealots from Abryloch comes at us... or threatens you... with a blade, then yes, I shall separate their head from their shoulders. Man, woman or-"

"No!" Bronwyn cried and grabbed hold of Caid's suede jacket. "Eileen had nothing, absolutely nothing to do with any of this! I do not often pull rank on you, sweet Caid, but I shall do so now. No harm must come to that young girl, so sayeth I, Empress Bronwyn of Ashburne, Dinnigon and all the surrounding lands. This you must promise me!"

Caid looked up into Bronwyn's nervous but unwavering eyes that shone with fright and steely determination in equal measure. "So be it, my Empress. We shall spare the child if they come for us. But the rest shall fall if they threaten you... they shall fall so hard they shall never rise again!"

Bronwyn nodded and leaned down. "I thank you. Let us hope it will not come to that. Now, sweet Caid, a kiss... I yearn for a strong kiss," she husked as she claimed the lips of the compact woman standing before her.


As dusk turned to darkness and the strange blue light turned to shades of gray, heavy clouds rolled in from the north and threatened to scupper the plans before they had even been set in motion.

The winds picked up, and even the proud crowns of the pine trees began to creak and groan under the strain. The old snow that had assembled on the branches was blown off, making it appear like the flurries had already begun.

Like the night before, the full moon peeked through the clouds racing across the black sky, but the approaching front high above soon crept closer to it, and it wouldn't be much more than a turn of the hourglass before the moon would be fully obscured - thus robbing Caid and her team of all natural light.

As if on cue, the first real snowflakes began their slow descent from the heavens, making Caid pull her cloak tighter around her aching body. She looked up at the clouds and drew on all her skills to reach the striking, unambiguous conclusion that they were screwed, no matter what.

Grunting, she looked back down on the dirt trail where Deegan and Trenton had arranged the four plowshares in a diamond-shaped pattern like they had been told. The four lethal weapons were pointed straight up and looked like they could kill any living thing on the planet. Caid shuffled over to the spikes and tapped her fingernail against the cast iron metal to confirm their solidity. "Mmmm," she groaned, pulling her cloak tighter when further snowflakes joined the first that had already fallen. "Everybody! It's going to be pretty dark on this eve. Make sure you have your torch ready to ignite. Do not ignite them until I say so. All right?"

A chorus of affirmative answers came back at her. Before she shuffled over to check on the sturdy metal chains, she cast a glance to her right and spotted Bronwyn tending to a weak Kheo who was sitting on his sleeping furs on the cold ground wrapped in his full winter gear.

He was far too ill to even be present, but he had demanded with all his might that he had to be at the endgame. Caid shivered at the cruel sight of her formerly so powerful friend being so weak. She didn't like it one little bit and walked away in a hurry.

"Are you comfortable, Sir Kheo?" Bronwyn said, pulling down in the large man's furry headwear to make sure he stayed warm.

"Yeah... thank you... luv," Kheo wheezed, seemingly turning weaker by each passing moment.

"Sir Kheo, I wish you would reconsider... oh, please, let me take you back to our camp," Bronwyn said and knelt down in front of her friend. When Kheo didn't answer, she took his hands in her own to give them a squeeze - but she was frightened out of her wits when his strong hands felt like dead weight.

"Soldiers... like me... gotta die... on a battle-... battlefield... ain't no... two ways... 'bout it, luv," Kheo wheezed, looking up at the Empress. "We ain't... gonn' die... in bed... unless it's from... bein' squashed by a... twenty... stone wench!" The joke returned some of the old luster to his dull eyes, but the laughter that followed was too much for him.

Wheezing and groaning, Kheo suddenly turned red, then blue in the face. He stared wide-eyed at Bronwyn before he keeled over and fell off the chair.

Bronwyn's throat initially tied itself into a rock-hard knot of fear, but she soon spun around on her knees and cried out the loudest she ever had: "CAID! Caid, you need to come quick! Kheo is poorly! Very poorly!"

In a heartbeat, Caid came storming over to her fallen comrade and swept aside the winter gear to get to his inner clothes. "His heartbeat is irregular... and he isn't breathing... wretched, Kheo! Bronwyn, what happened?" she said as she tore off her cloak and knelt down next to the big man.

"I d- do not... nothing special, Caid... he t- tried to jest but s- suddenly turned blue in the f- face, and..."

"I fear this is worse than merely broken ribs," Caid said darkly as she ran her hands down his body inside his clothes. "Mmmm... yeah, none of them are out of place. Wretched!"

"None of them? B- but surely that cannot be, Huntress...? Kheo complained so vociferously over his aching ribs..." Bronwyn said, chewing on her fingernails.

"And yet, they're all where they should be," Caid said and leaned back on her thighs. She ran a shaking hand through her hair and looked towards the heavens for guidance.

Behind her, Deegan and Trenton came up to watch the unfolding events. Like the Huntress, Deegan ran his hands through his hair in frustration.

Caid suddenly noticed the discoloration on Kheo's chest above his right lung. Furrowing her brow, she checked the ribs on that side again to make sure she hadn't missed one that was out of place. When they were all in their correct places along his side, she bared her teeth in a worried grimace. "I fear his lung has collapsed..." she croaked.

"Oh, Sweet Marpaxa... how is that possible?" Bronwyn cried, clutching her head. "Where did it go? Does he only have one lung now?"

"No, he has both, but only one is capable of giving him air... and... and... the impact when he fell. It must come from that. I've... I've experienced this before... back in the war... there was an accident at a trebuchet and a soldier was injured by a boulder. The surgeon... the surgeon... what did he do, you fool!" Caid said and smacked her forehead hard. "I remember! The surgeon drilled a hole in the man's chest and- and blew air into his- into his-"

"He what?! Caid, you cannot drill a hole in-" Bronwyn screeched, but she was ignored.

Caid didn't answer apart from frantically drawing her machete. When she realized the weapon was far too large for such delicate surgery, she cast it aside and looked around in a panic for a suitable weapon.

"Lady Bronwyn's dagger!" Trenton cried, pointing at Bronwyn's cloak and the Ranger dagger he had seen her put back on the belt when they had left the Mayor's house.

"Ack!" Bronwyn cried and swept aside her cloak to pull the dagger out of its sheath. The lethal, double-edged blade glinted in the pale moonlight as she handed it to Caid. "Oh, Caid, this will hurt poor, old Kheo so terribly! Would it not be possible to give him some brandy or-"

"Bronwyn, he isn't breathing... we must act now," Caid said and unceremoniously rammed the dagger in between two of Kheo's ribs on the right side of his chest.

That was all Bronwyn saw before her eyes rolled back in her head and she collapsed where she stood.


By the time Bronwyn came to, their situation had improved in one area and worsened in another. Groaning, she clutched her head and sat up. Not a split second later, she realized the noise she thought had merely been inside her head had instead been the growly wailing of the monster as it came towards them up on the dirt trail. "Oh, no! Not that wretched thing! Not now!" she cried, scrambling around to find out where she was and what was going on - but when she turned around, she stared directly into Kheo's vibrant and very much living face.

The large man was resting next to her on the soft ground, and they were both lying on their sleeping furs.

Bronwyn's jaw became slack when she realized her friend wasn't dead after all. "Buh..." she said, staring at his bandaged chest where a faint stream of blood seeped through around the spot where she had seen Caid run him through. "Buh! Have we both died? Have we all died and gone to... to... the Court of Phirax?! Oh, wretched, I had hoped to go to Marpaxa," she croaked, rubbing her numb face.

"Naw... ain't quite... that bad..." Kheo wheezed, although he sounded far better than he had done before. Smiling weakly, he pointed up at the dirt trail where the traps were in place.

Bronwyn followed his pointing and saw the two sturdy chains stretched out across the trail. While she had been out cold, the clouds high above had indeed obscured the moon, so deep, dark shadows had fallen on the trail. The chains would be nigh-on impossible to see unless one knew where to look. Beyond the chains, the four lethal plowshares were lined up and ready to do their nasty business.

"B- but... I cannot see Caid... where is she?" Bronwyn croaked, trying to peer through the darkness.

"Behind... the... trees," Kheo wheezed, pointing a bit further down the trail.

Bronwyn had to take his word for it because she couldn't see anything. Groaning, she turned back to her friend. "But Sir Kheo... I am quite sure the last I saw was Caid stabbing you to death... how can you be here now, talking to me if I am not dead, too?"

"She didden... stab me ta... death, luv... she merely... opened me up ta... blow a buncha... air inta my... lung... with a... reed... or som'thin'. Dunno," Kheo said and pointed at his bandages. "Kinda... glad she... did, tho'."

"I, too, am glad, Sir Kheo... I was afeared we would lose you," Bronwyn said and reached over to take the big man's hands. She was relieved to feel his legendary strength returning to him, but even so, she could do nothing but stare wide-eyed at the near-miraculous sight. Grunting, she decided on the spot to never again doubt anything Caid would say or do.

Up on the trail, the monster advanced steadily towards the traps, seemingly happy that - for once - it wouldn't be disturbed in its nocturnal pastime of trashing Abryloch.

It only stopped to sniff the air once. As it cocked its head and looked around slowly, its large nostrils vibrated as it took in the scents of the surrounding forest. Satisfied that it was alone, it took a long stride ahead with its powerful hind legs.

Caid was hiding behind a tree gripping the metal spear so hard her knuckles nearly turned white. She knew Deegan was in a similar position across the road, but she couldn't see him. Trenton was right behind her so she could keep an eye on the inexperienced rookie at all times, though she felt her old Ranger sense tickling her ears from having a potential enemy so close, especially one who was armed with a spear. She held her breath and stared out onto the dirt trail where the beast had nearly reached the tripwires.

The monster didn't stop to sniff again and strode ahead with what could only be described as a swagger in its step from having reclaimed its position as the king of the lagoon - moments later, it slammed into the sturdy chains and began to tilt forward. As the relentless pull of gravity took over, it wailed loudly and ferociously on its way down. It clenched and unclenched its fists but could only grasp the air.

"Die, you wretched, miserable bastard!" Caid cried and jumped out of hiding as the monster flew down towards the four plowshares on the ground.

The impact with the spikes was gruesome. A cascade of greenish blood was thrown high in the air as the creature was impaled, and the wail that came from its pierced throat was drawn out and gurgling.

It began to shake and shimmy to get free of the plowshares, but as the greenish blood poured out of it and pooled on the trail, it soon became clear it was on its last.

"Deegan! Trenton! Charge! Charge!" Caid cried and ran up on the trail with the spear ahead of her. When they arrived at the fallen monster, they knew they didn't have to do much to help it along.

Caid ran around the large beast and used the hook to tear off a scale on the beast's head just below and behind the meaty, fin-like fold. With the flesh exposed, she turned the blade around and rammed the spear hilt-deep into the monster's neck.

As she pulled it out, a darker blood followed the paler, greenish fluids. "We live, you die," she said, taking a few steps back from the monster in case it still had some fire left.

On the side of the trail, Bronwyn was busy holding hands with Kheo. She was kneeling on the ground with her back to the slaughter. She didn't dare to look at what was going on, but at the same time, she couldn't not look at what was going on - in short, she had to depend on Kheo to act as her eyes.

"Oy, luv... yer squishin' mah hands," he croaked, but Bronwyn didn't have time to listen.

"I fear I cannot watch! Tell me, Kheo... tell me what transpires on the trail!"

"Well, the critter's down... an' gunk an' stuff... is seepin' outta it... from all the holes it's got... uh, pardon mah... language. I didden mean ta... upset ya delicate-"

"Stick to the battle, Kheo!"

"Ah yes, well, the Huntress... an' Deegan an' the new boy iz... givin' the critter all they... got with them spear... things. They're stabbin'... it ag'in an' ag'in... man, it's... really bleedin' now, yeah, that green... gunk is a-comin' outta it like-"

Kheo suddenly became stock still. At first, Bronwyn thought her eagerness had pushed him into a relapse, but when she looked up at his face, she knew it was something far worse than that. Spinning around on her knees, she stared with wide open eyes at the monster that had nearly pulled itself free from the spikes. "Ack!" she cried, squeezing Kheo's hands extra-hard. "Ack! It cannot be... it simply cannot be! How can that evil creature survive falling onto the plowshares?!"

"I dunno... but I know we' gotta... get outta he' like Phirax... himself wus... on our tail... 'cos it's 'bout ta be a-comin' this... here way!" Kheo croaked and moved to get up from the sleeping furs.

"Oh, Caid!" Bronwyn cried. "Look out! Look out for its tail!"

Up on the dirt trail, Caid didn't need to hear Bronwyn's cry to know they had failed yet again. She had to jump clear of the beast and perform a messy somersault to get away from one of the hind legs that was smashed down onto the ground right next to where she had been standing. As she looked up, she had to jump off the trail and into the undergrowth when the creature swung its claws at her head, missing it by a fraction.

Like Kheo had predicted, the monster tried to step off the trail to get around the spikes and carry on towards Abryloch, but the softer soil next to the hard trail couldn't support its weight and it nearly fell over again as its hind leg dug in. Wailing, it spun around and let its tail do the talking.

Kheo stared with wide eyes at the powerful limb that came screaming towards Bronwyn and him. He barely had time to open his mouth to croak before Bronwyn had noticed the danger and foolishly tried to protect the injured warrior by throwing herself on top of him, trapping his hands underneath her body.

The tail swooshed over them once, then another time on the rebound. Just when Bronwyn thought it was safe to look back, the creature changed tactics and came at her with its claws.

A shadow tore across Kheo and Bronwyn before either of them had time to cry out. Several clumps of dirt pelted Kheo's cheek at the exact same moment his soft protection vanished in thin air. Groaning, he fell flat on his back and clutched his aching chest.

The monster wailed hard, convinced that all its foes had been vanquished. It wobbled badly like it was about to fall over again, but it eventually managed to turn around and stagger back onto the trail.

"Deegan!" Caid cried, crawling up from the undergrowth and pointing at the creature with her spear. "Trenton! Follow it! Give it plenty on its way back! Ignite your torches to drive it ahead of us! You understand me?"

"We're on it, Huntress!" Deegan shouted back from further along the trail. Soon, two torches were ignited that prompted the creature into wailing loudly and shying back from the fire.

"Kheo?" Caid shouted, looking across the trail at the two people she expected to find there. "Kheo, are you all right?" When she received no answer, she jumped off the trail and ran over to the stricken man.

Kheo could only groan, so Caid knelt down and gave him a thorough check. "You got blood on your face... where were you hit this time, Kheo? Kheo?"

"Gah... not.. blood... dirt... got dirt... in mah... mouth... Bronwyn..." he croaked, hacked and spluttered. Groaning, he wiped the clumps of soil off his cheek and showed them to Caid almost like he expected her to know what kind it was.

"Bronwyn? Where is she, Kheo?"

"G- gone..."

"Gone?" Caid said and let go of her friend who fell back down with a bump and a groan. She got on her feet and tried to peer into the semi-darkness. "Bronwyn? Bronwyn, answer me!"

A faint groan came from a row of trees at the far side of the soft terrain they were on. Gasping, Caid hurriedly ran over there and felt around on the ground to - hopefully - find Bronwyn in one piece. "Bronwyn...? Bronwyn...? Bronwyn... oh, Sweet Marpaxa, make her talk to me!"

"H- here," a familiar voice said from the next tree down.

Caid spun around and spotted a furry lump lying at the foot of one of the pine trees. "Bronwyn!" she cried and hurried over there. She quickly dove down onto her knees and began to squeeze and pat her hands along the lump to check if all limbs were still attached.

"Ack... mind your hands, sweet Caid! I fear that was my chest, not my legs!" Bronwyn croaked from somewhere up the other end of the lump.

Caid let out an explosive burst of nervous, screeching laughter and hurried up to the other end. She hurriedly tore away the loose fur and found herself face to face with Bronwyn who appeared to be none the worse for wear. "Oh, my sweet love! Are you all right?"

"My ears are ringing and the big toe on my right foot is aching... other than that, I seem to be, well, as all right as I can be. I do believe my furry outfit saved me from-"

"Oh... sweet Bronwyn, I love you so," the usually so stoic Huntress cried as she flew down into Bronwyn's embrace.

"Ouff! Oh, I love you too, sweet Caid... ah... oh, why have we not kissed yet?"

Caid let out another screeching, nervous laugh and promptly did her mistress' bidding.


Volkan Roshek had no time for kissing, or indeed any interest in it. He sat high on the embankment on the isthmus beyond the lagoon. He had returned there after his adventure in the young girl's bedchamber had failed, but not before breaking into the stables and stealing all the saddlebags he could find. A pile of saddlebags and three canvas knapsacks were lined up around him in order of size and carrying capacity.

He had considered stealing one or two of the horses that Caid and the others had been riding on when they had come from the south, but they had all reacted strongly to him when he had entered their boxes so he'd had to give up that part of the plan.

He had spent the entire night, morning, afternoon and now evening hunkered down in the snow on the embankment, waiting for the creature to leave again so he could get inside. He had been there when the creature had woken up and let out a wail; he had been there when the creature had gone for a midnight swim in the icy waters, and he had been there when the creature had crossed the frozen lagoon and entered the Natfarann Forest.

Now, as he heard the large, ungainly beast wailing angrily somewhere deep into the forest, he got up and put the many saddlebags and the three knapsacks over his arm. Being far more careful than he had been the first time, he crawled down the embankment and went over to stand in front of the beast's lair.

The stench from the dead animals was indescribable, but the greed burned so strongly inside him he wasn't about to let something as trivial as bad odor stand in his way. Grinning, he stepped into the dark lair and shuffled his feet ahead of him to scare off the rats.


When he reached the back part of the cave, the gold bars were still waiting for him in the open-sided wooden crates. He breathed heavily from the excitement and agitation that blasted around inside him as he threw down the various bags and went over to the pile of bars next to the collapsed crate.

Kneeling down, he took the same bar of gold he had tripped over the first time he had ventured into the cave. It was heavy, too heavy for the flimsiest of the saddlebags, but it would fit nicely into those that were made of double-layered leather.

He grinned maniacally as he felt the weight in his hands. Though his right palm still throbbed mercilessly and the fingers on that hand weren't as nimble as they had been due to an annoying swelling, he still moved the bar up to his lips and gave it a long smooch.

"Yes. My treasure. My wealth. Work never again," he said and put the first bar into the sturdiest of the saddlebags. The second bar followed the first, and the third bar followed the second, until the saddlebag had gained so much weight it bulged out in the middle.

Humming to himself, he took the first of the knapsacks and folded back the hood. "Ah yes. Bars fit well. This should hold many bars. Smells of baloney... now smells of gold," he said with a dark chuckle.

He reached over and took the next bar from the pile by the collapsed crate. As he took it, a pair of beady rat eyes reflected the meager light and stared back at him from atop the bar just below where he held his hands. Hissing in surprise, he dropped the one he had just taken. The golden brick landed heavily on his thigh and slammed into the upper part of his knee cap, sending tendrils of pain shooting up and down his leg.

Volkan cried out and began to rub his leg. "Yammi ker fawhrra joon, wretched rat..." he cursed through clenched teeth, rubbing his thigh that had gone numb from the hit. The rat wasn't impressed and scurried off into the darkness. "Ow... ow, ow, ow... when I get home, I invent rat killer... poof, no more rat."

Hissing in pain, he took the bar he had dropped and shoved it into the knapsack; then the next bar beyond that. As he tried to lift the knapsack, he gauged that another two bars would fit easily. When all four bars were down on top of each other at the bottom of the sack, he folded down the hood and pushed it away, making the canvas scrape over the coarse floor.


A brief while later, reality caught up with his greed and he realized he had to stop filling the saddlebags and the knapsacks. Climbing to his feet, he hobbled around for a few paces to get the feeling back in the numb leg before he reached down and took the double-layer saddlebag.

Once upright, he carried the heavy container away from the cache of gold. As he returned, he took hold of the first of the knapsacks and lifted it off the ground - but he had only just swung it around when it split down the middle and was torn in two.

The four gold bars fell heavily onto the floor where they landed with ear-shattering clangs! that echoed through the cave. Volkan rubbed his brow and covered his eyes with his hand. Then he growled loudly and kicked out at the torn knapsack. "Miserable junk! Not play with Volkan Ilanta Roshek!" he cried, kicking the ruined knapsack clear over to the other side of the cave where it sent a few rats scurrying off in all directions.


In the Natfarann Forest, Caid followed the evil beast at twenty paces to stay out of reach of its vicious tail. She held her torch and the spear high to prod it along if need be, but so far, it had been walking on its own. For each step she took, she needed to be careful not to slip in the blood and gunk that seeped out of the creature as it struggled down towards the lagoon.

"Stay with it, Deegan! Watch the claws," she said strongly to the Lieutenant who walked on the monster's right, holding the tip of his own spear up against its neck.

"Trenton, don't lose your nerve now... you're doing great!" Caid said, glancing up from the slick trail to look at the blacksmith who was - for lack of a better weapon - holding one of the metal plates with a plowshare.

"Th- thank you, H- Huntress," he croaked back, moving to his left to get around a pine tree that stood in his way.

Caid grunted and looked back down so she could avoid stepping in the worst of the gunk. Ahead of her, the monster's breathing turned more and more labored, and it seemed it had lost the will or the ability to fight. The steps it took with its massive hind legs still sent tremors through the ground as it dragged itself along the trail, but it was clear it no longer possessed the strength it'd had earlier.

Behind Caid, Bronwyn and Kheo hobbled along arm in arm, acting as the moral support rather than a second line of defense. Of all the things that could have happened in the nasty tumble Bronwyn had taken when the monster's claws had whacked her, she could certainly live with what she expected was a sprained big toe on her right foot. Her heavy winter outfit was another story altogether - it had been reduced to scrap cloth after the close encounter with the beast's claws. All that had survived intact was the furry headwear.

"C'mon..." Kheo wheezed, "c'mon, Caid, poke that mean ol' critter in the a- rear... pardon mah language, Empress."

"Oh, that's quite all right, Kheo," Bronwyn said with a chuckle as she hobbled along the trail. "I fear with all the profanity my ears have been exposed to on this horrendous journey, I could write an entire four-volume set on what not to say or how not to speak in the presence of a Lady. I shall live, sweet Kheo... but thank you nonetheless."

"Aw, 's mah ple'sha, luv. C'mon, Caid! Give it a piece o' yer mind!"

Bronwyn shuffled further in under Kheo's arm and tried to tighten her grip around the large man's body without putting a strain on his wound. "Oh... I wonder why it does not simply roll over and die? Why does it insist on going back to the lagoon... could it really be that determined to guard the gold?"

"Maybe it jus' wanna go home an' die?" Kheo said with a shrug that made him groan with pain.

Bronwyn looked at him and began to chew on her lips. "Oh, Sir Kheo, you may be right... such wonderful, magnificent, heartwrenching pathos. Truly worthy of a place in legend. Such a fate would certainly be gloriously poetic amidst all the tragedy caused by the vile being," she said, nodding like she had just uncovered the best kept secret of Mankind.

"I didden get a dang syllable o' that..." Kheo mumbled.

Caid chuckled at the running commentary that went on behind her, but she soon had more weighty things on her mind. It seemed the monster was slowing down and it had begun to wobble.

A sudden wail made everyone there jump, but it wasn't the prelude to its death they had expected, but rather a final burst of anger towards the people who had defeated it. Moving slightly to the side, it began to slam its tail down onto the ground to show it wasn't quite dead yet.

Caid kept her cool and held the spear ready. "Everybody stay back!" she cried, taking a few quick steps to the side to get a better angle in case she needed to spring into action. "Let it blow off the last of its bluster!"

The creature seemed to understand her and soon settled down again. It let out another wail, but it was far weaker than the first one.


It had taken Volkan Roshek far longer to repack the saddlebags and the two remaining knapsacks than he had hoped it would. He had constantly had to balance his greed with what was actually, physically possible with the tools he had at his disposal - and he had constantly cursed, shouted, cried and raged over the pitiful saddlebags he had stolen when yet another had split down the middle from the weight of the bars of gold.

When everything was finally lined up and ready to go, he put the sturdiest of the saddlebags across his shoulders and bent down to grab hold of the handles of both surviving knapsacks. His knees cried out in anguish when he stood up straight, but he clenched his jaw and let the greed be the fuel he needed to get going.

"Only carry ten gold bars... got three thousand gold bars... need pack of donkeys for rest... fifty donkeys at least..." he said through clenched teeth.

The first staggering step led to the next and finally into an entire sequence of them, but the pain that shot up from not only his numb right leg - that had been well and truly bruised by the gold bar he had dropped on it - but the other one as well made him groan out loud for each stumbling step he took.

Fifteen paces from the entrance to the cave, a very familiar sound reached his ears. Something was being ripped apart, seam by seam by seam. "No... this too cruel. Why this happen to me? Not even left cave yet!" he groaned.

Without further ado, the knapsack he had in his right hand split wide open and dumped all three gold bars down onto the cave's rocky floor. With his delicate balance upset, he instantly keeled over to his left and landed hard on his shoulder. The saddlebags he had around his neck didn't fall off but pinned him down relentlessly, and he cried out in anguish as the weight of the gold bars mashed his face down onto the jagged rocks.

Hiccuping from the anger that bubbled up inside him, Volkan wiggled his way free of the saddlebags and sat back on his thighs. "Not fair! Now I need pack more bags!" he shouted, tweaking his nose and his eyebrow back into joint.

"But nobody gets my gold! Nobody!" he cried as he got on his feet and straightened his aching knees. With a growl, he stumbled back to the other end of the cave to take one of the saddlebags he had discarded earlier.

Fully equipped, he came back to the piles of gold at the entrance to the cave and threw down the double-layered leather saddlebag he had found. "Now pack gold! Jawn wenn'ka... please!" he said, rubbing his chin, mouth, nose and brow in frustration.


Not far from where Volkan was fumbling with his loot, Caid, Deegan and Trenton drove the mortally injured monster down the last section of the pathway and onto the shore at the lagoon.

The snow flurries that had come down earlier had moved on, as had the massive, dark gray clouds high above, so they actually had the light from the moon to work by. Even so, Caid had asked Bronwyn to ignite all their torches - the icy lagoon was simply too dangerous to cross without proper light.

"Careful, Deegan. This is mighty slippery if you set your feet wrong," Caid said once they had driven the beast onto the ice. She held her flickering torch low so she could see where she put her feet. "Have you been down here before? Trenton, have you?"

"Only in the summer... to watch the girls bathe," Trenton said in a squeaky, high-pitched voice that made the far more experienced Huntress chuckle.

Deegan's reply was in his regular voice, but equally negative. "I have not, Huntress. What should we look out for?"

"Merely stating the obvious, I know, but you need to keep an eye on the ice, Deegan. It's trickier than it appears," Caid said and shuffled down the steep, final stretch of the trail onto the shore. "The surface is uneven and you'll find obstacles everywhere. We're in luck with the wind... not much of it at the moment. That means the surface snow will not be blown in our faces."

"I understand, Huntress. Trenton, come over to my side and stay close to me. If one stumbles and falls, the other can help at once."

"Y- yes, Lieutenant," the young blacksmith said and hurried behind Caid to get to the other side.

The Huntress remained at the monster's rear. She kept herself just out of range of its tail, and that suited her fine considering she was carrying a torch in one hand and the heavy metal rod in the other. She looked over her shoulder at Bronwyn and Kheo who struggled down the pathway. "No, Empress Bronwyn... wait. I cannot allow you to go out onto the ice. It's far too dangerous out there for you. Take the long way around... I fear it'll take you a longer time to get there, but it's far safer and I don't need to worry about you along the way," Caid said quietly.

Bronwyn nodded with a look of relief on her face. "Thank you, sweet Caid. Our torch is burning strongly so we should be all right. To be truthful, I was not looking forward to venturing out onto the ice. I have never been much for slipping and sliding. I prefer solid ground under my feet."

"So do I... alas, on this eve, my wish cannot be granted," Caid said with a dark chuckle as she nodded in the direction of the dark, cold, icy and wind-swept lagoon where the creature had already started its last journey, driven along by the torches and spears of Deegan and Trenton.

Bronwyn tracked Caid's movements onto the ice to keep up with the others. Sighing, the Empress turned away and shook her head. "Sir Kheo, when we return to Ashburne Castle, will you please lock me up in the dungeon if I ever get another desperate craving for excitement and adventure?"

"Cannot promise... nothin', but Imma... definitely gonn' try... c'mon, we better..."

"Indeed, we better," Bronwyn said and began the seemingly endless journey around the outside of the lagoon, a journey that would eventually lead them out to the isthmus and the creature's lair.

Out on the ice, the creature had already reached the narrow band of water at the center, but unlike the other times, it simply walked around it, perhaps too tired and too resigned to its fate to even try to seal its wounds through the icy water.


Inside the lair, Volkan had once again filled the four bars of gold into a container, this time the second of the double-layered leather saddlebags. As he rose to his full height carrying the heavy load, his neck, back and knees were engaged in mortal combat to see which of them would be the body part that could ache the most.

He stumbled towards the entrance to the cave with his jaw firmly clenched and his face scrunched up to such an extent he could hardly look out of his eyes. One blind, stumbling step followed the next until he thought he could hear shouting from somewhere ahead of him.

He didn't want to stop, not even as a large shadow fell over him, but when he bumped into something soft that shouldn't have been there at all, he wobbled so badly that he had no choice but to stop and stare.

The beast moved with incredible speed as it thrust both hands forward and grabbed a screaming Volkan Roshek around the chest. It effortlessly lifted him and his heavy bags of stolen gold off the ground. One by one, the bars of gold fell from his grasp and down onto the floor of the cave with fat, echoing clangs!

Seven sharp and insanely strong claws squeezed into his body and caused him to let out an unbridled scream of terror that only made the monster tighten its grip even further.

With an almighty squeeze, the beast silenced the puny human by crushing his chest into a pulp. As the body crumpled, his red blood cascaded down onto the floor of the cave where it mixed with the greenish fluids still leaking from the beast.

Wailing in victory, the monster threw away the bloody remains of its defeated foe. It tried to turn around and return to the entrance to the lair, but the torches it saw on the ice scared it away.

After only two steps, it fell to its knees and let out a weak wail. A spasm rippled through the giant beast as it fell forward. The landing was hard enough to make the entire cave rattle, but by then, it was past caring.




Deegan, Trenton and Caid stormed into the lair and shone their torches down onto the body of the beast. "Is it dead? Hopefully it is truly dead this time, the wretched piece of..." Caid said and kicked her boot hard into its rear end to check.

When nothing happened, she nodded grimly and looked down at the saddlebags, the knapsacks and, above all, the bars of gold that had been Volkan's undoing. She instantly recognized the saddlebags as being those they had brought as spares for the crates that had been tied to the hind quarters of their horses. The knapsacks were new to her, but it didn't take a genius to figure out that somebody had stolen every item from the stables in Abryloch - nor that the mysterious somebody could really only be Volkan Roshek.

Nodding grimly, she turned around and shone the torch at the bars of gold on the floor. "Behold, the Natfarann treasure," she said, looking Trenton in the eye to gauge the blacksmith's reaction.

The young man stared at the gold bars with incomprehension written all over his face. He opened his mouth to speak but not a sound came out apart from a puzzled squeak. Staring ever harder, he crouched down and took one of the bars to see how heavy it was.

"Huntress," Deegan said, kneeling down next to the knapsacks. "Eight... nine... maybe ten bars of gold? The fabled Natfarann treasure was only nine or ten bars of gold?"

"Maybe... or maybe not, Deegan," Caid said and moved over to the Lieutenant. Looking at Trenton, she leaned down to Deegan's ear. "Watch our new friend here closely while I scout out the cave. I don't want any surprises behind me," she whispered for his ears only.

Deegan nodded and folded his cape back so he could get to his sword. "You got it, Huntress," he said, tapping an index finger against the hilt.

As Caid walked deeper into the cave, she came to a halt at the head of the dead monster. In death, it wasn't any prettier than it had been in life, but her curiosity got the better of her and she moved in close to study the scales and the underlying flesh on its head and upper body. She grunted when she realized the beast had a thick layer of fat just underneath its outer skin. "Hmmm," she grunted, nudging a loose piece of flesh with the tip of her boot. "That's why even our spears had so little effect. It's got two, two and a half feet of fat right there... it was probably amphibious. Good thing I came up with the four-foot plowshares. Hmmm. I wonder where critters go when they die?" she mumbled under her breath. Grunting again, she gave it a goodbye-kick before she moved on.

The stench inside the cave overpowered everything, so Caid had to cover her mouth and nose as she ventured further into the unknown that remained fairly dark, even with her torch held high. Twenty paces on, she nearly stumbled over something that gave when she bumped into it.

She shone the torch down onto the floor of the cave and was startled to see a boot - a boot that was attached to a leg, that in turn was attached to a bloody, crushed torso that had once upon a time been a human being. She raised the torch and saw the unmistakable unkempt beard and wavy, blonde hair.

"Phirax and his old companion Death were here this eve, all right," she croaked, crinkling her nose at the disgusting sight. "Volkan Roshek, you dumb, greedy son of a whore... look where it got you."

Caid slowly put two and two together and came to the conclusion that somewhere along the way, Volkan had somehow figured out - by bribing someone or perhaps making a qualified guess - that the cache of gold would be in the lair. And that he had subsequently found the cache and wanted to claim it for himself. "But if he did," she mumbled as she moved away from the corpse, "there must be more in here... I cannot see an experienced fortune seeker like him risk it all for ten bars of gold... no."

Caid moved on into the cave, but came to an abrupt halt at the pile of bones and the two animal carcasses. "Aw, this isn't for little children... that's a fact. I guess that big thing needed to eat, too," she said as she carried on.

By the time she reached the far end of the cave, she already knew what she would find - the flickering flames from the torch had been reflected by seemingly the entire back wall that had glimmered in that tell-tale dark orange color that could only mean gold. When she finally arrived at the six wooden crates, she held the torch out ahead of her to see better. Sighing deeply, she shook her head at the sight. "There must be thousands of bars here... why do I feel I've just found Phirax' throne? The Nasty One himself is lurking in the shadows, ready to pounce at the slightest indication of greed," she mumbled.

Sighing again, she crouched down and took the next bar from the pile that came from the collapsed crate. The heavy metal had a perfectly golden sheen in the torchlight, and she could almost hear how it tried to seduce her. Before it could put a devil fly in her ear, she grunted and threw down the bar.

On her way back to Deegan and Trenton, she shook her head repeatedly at the thought of what they had been through to get where they were. "So much pain, so much suffering... for us, for Eileen, for her parents... for Volkan. This has been a charade from the get-go... and an evil one at that," she mumbled, glancing at Volkan's corpse when she went past it.

When she returned, she nodded at Deegan and went straight over to the young blacksmith who was still playing with the first gold bars. "All right, son, it's time for you to cast off your mask of innocence," Caid said and grabbed hold of Trenton's cloak. "It's time for you to come clean with what you know and why we weren't told."

"But..." Trenton said as he shot to his feet. "Huntress... I don't know anything... how could I-"

"Don't lie to me. Bronwyn read it plain as day in a book in Mayor Rhaslain's house. A dusty old tome that explained quite clearly how the villagers found the pirate treasure a few centuries ago and stored it here. It also explained how this wretched thing," - Caid kicked out at the monster - "came to inhabit this lair. It, too, was a product of the villagers' rampant lust for the gold. The critter was put in here to watch over the treasure."

"The treasure...? These ten bars?" Trenton squeaked, making a sweeping motion down at the gold bars at his feet.

"Those ten bars and the thousands of bars at the back of the cave," Caid growled, never taking her eyes of the hulking, young man.

Deegan narrowed his eyes and looked deeper into the cave. "Thousands of bars?"

"In the name of Phirax the Unholy, yes. The entire Natfarann treasure. Six wooden crates neatly packed with scores and scores and scores of gold bars similar to these here," Caid said and nudged the bars of gold with the tip of her boot. "It must be worth countless millions of Crowns."

Trenton shook his head and threw his arms in the air in the age-old sign of not knowing what to say or do. "I cannot say anything, Huntress... I had no knowledge of any of this... Abryloch isn't a wealthy village, you know that... if we had all that gold within easy reach, why haven't we used any of it?"

"Maybe because the monster got out of control?"

Commotion at the front of the cave made Caid look over there. It turned out to be Bronwyn and Kheo who had finally arrived. "Deegan, don't let the master blacksmith here out of your sight," she said before she stomped away.

"I will not, Huntress," Deegan said and drew his sword to underline his words.

"Greetings, Empress Bronwyn. Enchanted to meet you again," Caid said with a grin and a deep bow as she reached Bronwyn and Kheo who were both leaning against the inside of the cave after their strenuous trip.

"Greetings, Huntress," Bronwyn croaked and reached up to lift her furry headwear to wipe plenty of sweat off her brow. "Goodness me, that trek across the isthmus took more out of us than it should have done. The ground was treacherous! Perhaps as treacherous as the ice... Caid, Crannog is on his way here. He seems to be on his own. Just as we reached the cave, he ventured out onto the ice with a torch."

"Oh, did he now? Why am I not surprised?" Caid said in a hard voice.

Bronwyn furrowed her brow at the harshness of the voice and the statement but put it aside for when they could have a word in private. "Oh, and I fear we had a humorous, little incident on the way here, Kheo and I. Is that not so, Sir Kheo?"

" 's right, luv. An' once again, I apologize fer... ya know..."

"Oh, think nothing of it, Kheo. I forgave you even while it was going on. In fact, I thank you for your swift reactions even in your present, weakened state."

Caid grunted at the odd exchange, but more pressing matter soon came to the fore. "Ah, I shall need to find out about that later. Empress, as you can see," she said and made a sweeping gesture at the creature's lifeless hind legs that could be seen quite clearly from the entrance to the cave, "the monster has been slain. Our mission here is complete."

"Why, the vile thing has indeed been slain, Caid... goodness me," Bronwyn said and moved into the cave to see better.

The Huntress was about to follow her when Kheo grabbed hold of her arm. "Oy... Caid... I need ta get somethin' off my mind. I need ta apologize for accident'ly puttin' my hand on the Empress where my hand had no right ta be... twice. Naw, lemme speak," he said when it appeared Caid would interrupt him. "On our way here, the Empress slipped an' fell on some loose rocks an' stuff. Well, she kinda went inta' nosedive, towards the ice. I wuz thinkin', oy, she could be gettin' in a world o' hurt if she bumped her head or somethin' on the ice so I kinda shot out my arm after her... and I kinda accident'ly grabbed her... her... bee-hind," the large man said, leaning in towards Caid so the world at large wouldn't hear his confession.

"Oh, Kheo..." Caid said with a crooked grin playing on her lips.

"I know... but it gets worse than that... the Empress wus kinda standin' in a bridge with her hands down an' her bee-hind up tryin' ta keep her balance, an' I had ta get her up ag'in somehow, so I guess I wrapped my arm around her waist... and I... oh... my arm slid up and up and up until it rubbed agi'nst the underside o' her ti- breasts when I pulled her back up... I beg fer fergiveness, Caid."

Caid chuckled and put an arm around the big man's shoulders. "You really shouldn't be apologizing to me, but to the Empress."

"Aw, I did. 'bout seventy-five times or so over the course o' the last hundred fathoms..."

Caid chuckled again, imagining what such an endless stream of apologies must have sounded like. "Oh, I am positive she'll live, Kheo. In fact, I'm sure of it."


"Definitely. Now, I think you should rest here by the entrance. There's a boulder over here you can sit on. You look a little pale and the stench in here is quite disgusting, so... and also," Caid said and moved in close, "observe Crannog closely. When he gets here, give us a heads-up."

"Ya got it, Huntress," Kheo said in a voice that was nearly back to his old strength from the responsibility that had been bestowed upon him.

Nodding, Caid helped Kheo over to a suitable boulder just inside the entrance before she moved over to Bronwyn.

The Empress had scrunched up her face at the sight of the gold bars - and not to mention the sight of Deegan keeping Trenton under safe guard with a drawn sword. "Caid...?" she said, gesturing at the gold and at Trenton who wore an expression that said he had no clue what was going on.

"What you read in the book Eileen showed you was true, Bronwyn," Caid said and pulled the Empress away from the knapsacks and saddlebags on the floor. "The treasure is here in the lair."

"Oh, goodness me!"

"And Volkan Roshek is here, too. He found the treasure and wanted to steal it. Alas, the monster felt he shouldn't and crushed him like a bug. His corpse is over to the left of the cave. It's not a pretty sight and I promise that you will not see it."

"Oh..." Bronwyn said and broke out in a shiver. "For that, I am eternally grateful, sweet Caid. I fear that looking at Death is not one of my strongest sides. But where is the treasure? The legendary Natfarann Gold surely cannot be those ten bars there?"

"No. Come," Caid said and put her hand on the small of Bronwyn's back. "It's down here. Please, Empress, keep your eyes straight ahead. Volkan and the monster aren't the only dead beings in here."

"Ack!" Bronwyn whined and hurriedly did what she had been told.


By the time they reached the back end of the cave, Bronwyn's jaw became so slack it ended up halfway down her chest. Without even blinking, she stared and stared at the crates of gold and at the pile of bars that had come out of the collapsed crate.

Like everyone else had done, she crouched down and took the nearest bar of gold from the pile. The weight alone nearly made her lose her balance, and she had to take it in a two-hand grip to lift it. Silently, she ran her fingers across the smooth surface before she turned to the Huntress and shot her a look of pure excitement. "Oh, Caid..." she breathed, turning back to the gold. "This rivals anything we have in the vaults back home in Ashburne Castle. In fact... there could be more here. Goodness me... one bar alone... or maybe two bars... could cover an entire year's worth of taxes. Caid, imagine that, two bars would ensure that the citizens of Ashburne would not have to pay taxes for an entire year! Goodness me... and there must be hundreds of bars here! Caid, this would... this would... we could help so many people with this treasure! We could raise the standard of living for our entire community with only five bars! We could help the women and children in need... we could-"

"It's not our gold to use, Bronwyn," Caid said sternly, putting a strong hand on the Empress' shoulder.

Bronwyn spun around and stared wide-eyed at her partner. "Caid, heard you nothing of what I said? This gold shall not simply fill the coffers at Ashburne Castle, this shall improve the lives of everyone there! Imagine if your acquaintance Mairee did not have to sell her body to make a living? Imagine if we could save just one little vulnerable child from dying from the cold or one of those terrible illnesses that always seem to go around? Imagine the skilled craftsmen we could employ to restore the houses in the poorer districts-"

"No, my love," Caid said and moved her hand up to Bronwyn's cheek. "Listen to me, we cannot take but one bar of this gold. It is simply not ours. Your ideals are noble, yes, but the gold belongs to the villagers. If we take this gold, even with a smile and a kind word, we are no better than the wretched fortune seekers who seek to claim it by force."

"But, Caid..."

"Huntress! Crannog's here!" Kheo shouted from the entrance to the cave.

Caid caressed Bronwyn's cheek and reached up to place a tender kiss on the curiously immobile woman's lips. "We shall discuss it later. All right? Let's see what Crannog has to say for himself. Come, let me guide you past the horrors."

Bronwyn sighed deeply but let herself be led away from the gold.


Once she and Bronwyn came to the head of the cave, Caid bowed at the mayor with a most flamboyant gesture. "Oh, good eve, Mayor Crannog Rhaslain. Such a pleasure to see you this eve!" she said in a voice that was decidedly on the wrong side of mocking him.

"Good eve, Huntress," Crannog said cautiously, tearing off a warm winter hat he had been wearing that had protected his ears with two furry flaps. Holding the hat, he toyed nervously with a string that had been tied below his chin. His ruddy complexion really shone red in the torchlight, and it created a stark contrast to his white hair and beard. His eyes flickered back and forth between the dead monster, the gold bars on the ground and Trenton who was still held at swordpoint. "I fear our manhunt for the vile snake Roshek was in vain. One by one, the men with me gave up and headed for home, but I stayed behind and traversed the Natfarann Forest. All to no avail," he continued, rubbing his shoulder that had taken quite a hit in the fall when he had been pushed over by Volkan in Eileen's bedchamber.

"You can scratch finding Volkan Roshek from your to-do list, Mayor Rhaslain. His crushed corpse is over in the corner."

"Oh! Did you kill him?" Crannog said excitedly, turning so agitated his torch began to shiver.

"We did not. Your monster did... and as your eyes will surely tell you, Mayor," Caid said and made another flamboyant gesture, this time towards the beast, "we have slain the creature. Behold! Isn't it magnificent?"

"Ah yes, quite... quite magnificent," Crannog said, still looking at the gold. "Ah... where do these bars come from? Did you bring them with you?"

Bronwyn grunted under her breath and moved forward. "Crannog, I fear that continuing to lie to us is pointless. We already know of the treasure... we also know that it was placed here by your ancestors."

"Oh, surely not, Lady Bronwyn!" the mayor said and let out a nervous laugh. "Really, such wild accusations from someone so noble and beautiful is rather surpri-"

"Crannog, I fear I must call you a liar again," Bronwyn said and stepped even closer to the old man. "I read the book. The dusty, old tome your charming daughter Eileen showed me simply because she wanted me to see a beautiful, old work of art that she thought I would enjoy. Your wife was rather more reluctant... and for good reason. I read it and it exposed your lies."

The mask of politeness and friendliness that had been on Crannog's face melted away instantly, replaced by darkness and unbridled anger. "That wretched, ungrateful little...! You could not have read it!" he barked, baring his teeth in a sneer and twisting his hat between his fingers. "None of you southerners can read that old script. No, you must have forced poor Trenton there by threatening to kill him if he didn't tell you where the treasure was!"

Bronwyn shook her head with a sour look on her face as Crannog unraveled in front of her. "We did nothing of the kind, Sir! Frankly, I cannot tell you how strongly I resent your insinuations! Threaten the master blacksmith when he was indeed the one who provided the weapons needed to finally slay the evil beast? Like I told you already, I read the book. I can read that old script because I was taught how to by one of the brightest tutors in all of Dinnigon."

Crannog slammed his mouth shut and mirrored Bronwyn's sour expression. He looked down at the gold bars and gave the nearest one a fair-sized kick with his boot. "Wretched..." he mumbled under his breath.

"Tell me, Sir... simply to confirm what it said in the chronicle," Bronwyn continued, "did your ancestors place the frightful monster in this lair?"

The silence that followed eventually became so oppressive Caid reached for the hilt of her Yonnae machete to speed things along. "Crannog, this is a good time to tell us what you have been holding back thus far," she said with her fingers playing on the hilt.

The sour expression on the elderly man's ruddy face turned so dark and bitter it appeared he had swallowed his tongue simply to spite the two women. "Fine," he said sharply. "Fine, you already know most of it so why not tell you all so you can gut me like a fish and take my gold? I assume you know the popular version of the legend where a pirate captain beached his ship three centuries ago, killed his crew and buried the treasure in the Natfarann...? All lies."

"More lies, Crannog?" Bronwyn said darkly.

"Aye. In reality, my direct ancestor by blood, Llochlyn Rhaslain, surprised the pirates when they had set up an overnight camp over there, by the shore," Crannog said and pointed out of the cave. "Their schooner had run aground because of the weight of the gold coins it carried. They had raided a merchantman off the coast west of here. My ancestor caught wind of the treasure from their drunken ramblings and came down to their camp. They were dead drunk and it didn't take long for Llochlyn to slit the throats of each and every one of them, including a couple of wenches they had with them for entertainment."

Caid grunted and spat on the floor. "Oh, that was certainly noble of him. And that bloodlust has carried on down the generations, has it?"

"Well... I have never killed anyone! It says in the holy scriptures that-"

"Oh, yes!" Caid said far too cheerily for the occasion. "The holy scriptures, of course, what was I thinking?"

Crannog clammed up instantly and his upper lip began to twitch. He glared at the two women in such a dark and murderous way that lesser people would have run away at once.

Not Bronwyn and Caid. The Empress grunted and took another step closer to the elderly man. "Pray continue, Crannog. I fear the time has come for you to lay it all out there."

The mayor shot the women another dark glare before he cleared his throat and continued the old tale. "Llochlyn and his family spent the next year... yes, year! They spent a whole year carrying crates filled with gold coins up to Abryloch. They melted them down into the gold bars you see here. My ancestor and his fellow villagers wrote up a pact and sealed it in blood... not only should everyone keep quiet as the tomb about the find, but the gold should remain in here for two generations..."

Bronwyn chuckled darkly and looked at the dead beast on the ground. "I take it the two generations became rather more...?"

"Aye," Crannog said and wiped his ruddy face. "The beast. A few years after putting the gold in here, rumors circulated that some yokels had found a vast treasure. Already then, the first fortune seekers began to show up. My ancestors killed most of them and shoveled them down over in the forest. Who's going to miss a fortune seeker? Alas, the true nature of the find could not remain hidden forever... so he bought a gushin from a visitor from Antomar and put it here. I don't know the details, but I believe it's an indigenous species up there... little could he know that it would turn into that big thing... before long, he and the others were unable to even get close to our treasure," he continued, pointing his thumb at the creature.

"But now," Caid said, stepping closer to the mayor, "you've run out of patience. Now you've decided to get your dirty hands on that gold before you're too old to enjoy it?"

"One generation turned to the next and the next and... centuries went by and... and the gold was still here... and when my father told me about the treasure on the day of my Rite of Passage, I f- felt the... I felt an urge to..."

"Get your dirty hands on that gold... yeah, like I said," Caid growled darkly.

"No! I'd... I would have shared it! I would have shared it with my own f- family and... a few others from the village... like- like Trenton's father. His bloodline can be traced back to a man who worked closely with Llochlyn Rhaslain... isn't that right, Trenton?"

The young blacksmith stared at Crannog with a look on his face that was a mix of anger, resentment and greed over being so close to the gold. "From what I know, yes," he eventually said.

"There, you see!" Crannog said, turning back to Caid and Bronwyn. "I would have shared the gold, honest I would! I attempted to reclaim the treasure not long after my eighteenth birthday, but the monster was too strong and tore several men from the village to shreds. So we waited again... waited and waited and waited... for decades! Then, my wife and I-"

"Gwen?" Bronwyn said, looking up in a hurry. "So Lady Gwen truly is involved in this wretched mess, Crannog?"

"She's involved up to her eyeballs! She knows what I know. She wants that treasure just as badly as I do!"

Bronwyn narrowed her eyes and began to clench her fists just out of view of her companions. "And you never once stopped to consider what that wretched gold would do to your sweet, innocent daughter? The endless hardship it would bring her? I dare say you perhaps should have!"

"No, but... oh, she would get her fair share of the treasure, Lady Bronwyn! I would never-"

"That's not what I meant!" Bronwyn barked, making Crannog shy back from her.

Caid could sense the conversation had hit one of Bronwyn's most painful spots - how a father should or should not treat his daughter - so she quickly put a hand on her partner's arm and held her back. "Crannog, what changed? Why all this now?"

"Oh, we... at the onset of winter for the past decade, we have tried to starve the beast to death so we could get to the gold," the elderly man said and rubbed his face again. "We always told the local peasants to keep their horses and their livestock inside... but how could we know the winter would turn so harsh? The beast had never had a problem with the winters before, but this time, its supplies must have been depleted faster than it had expected... then it came into Abryloch..."

"And then you sent Mikeel and his wife Aleesa to Ashburne to seek our help?" Bronwyn said. Though she had calmed down somewhat, she still had a vein thumping strongly on her temple.

"Aye. They volunteered to make the journey. We knew we were in over our heads and that we had to get professional assistance. Well, that was all well and good, but-"

Caid grunted. "But you didn't expect the professional assistance to be quite so professional. Is that it, Crannog?"

Once again, the mayor shot the Huntress a dark glare that would have made anyone else scoot off. "No, we didn't expect Emperor Jin-Sarnos to send a bunch of women! Mikeel carried a detailed proposition that was drawn up to convince Jin-Sarnos to send a battle group in exchange for a percentage of the gold. I don't know why that wasn't enough."

Bronwyn narrowed her eyes and began to chew on her cheek. 'Mikeel did not show me the plans when I introduced myself... but if Crannog was ready to commit to such an arrangement with my father, at least some of the gold is mine. Surely they cannot renege on their proposition now... on the other hand, betrayal is apparently, tragically, never far from the Rhaslain blood...' - "Your proposition was not enough because my father has been in his grave for three moons, Crannog. But we are here, and we have slain the creature. Therefore-"

"Your f- father...?" Crannog croaked with his face suddenly losing all its color.

"Surprise," Caid said flatly, pushing her machete back down into its sheath. Sighing, she went over to Bronwyn and took the taller woman in her arms. "Bronwyn, I think it's time to reveal your true identity. Once you have, there's something I need to say to Crannog. Go on," she said and gave her partner a little squeeze.

Bronwyn nodded and stepped back to the mayor. "It seems this eve is well suited for surprising revelations, Crannog. You know me as Lady Bronwyn of Ashburne, but in reality, I am Empress Bronwyn of Dinnigon, Tantor, Zigai, Multrovia, Lotzan and Onilia, and I am also the Sovereign of Palkor. Through my brief yet binding marriage to Lord Lasar-Ihtreg, I am also the undisputed ruler of the Shadowlands, Daughter of the Sun and The Stars, and Sister of the Mathawan and the Rainarr. In short, I am the Mother of all our lands and all our people. And finally, I command a vast army, though I have plenty of help with that particular aspect," she said and pulled Caid closer to her.

Crannog shook his head in confusion - it was clear he had no idea how to respond to the Lady's speech. "But you're a woman! And you're so young!" he finally said.

"Ah, such an eloquent reply from such a noble gentleman," Caid mocked as she wrapped her arm around Bronwyn's waist. "And I am Caid Barlin, Senior Ranger and the commanding officer of all Ranger battalions... but more importantly, I am the Imperial Consort. A fact I am sure will irk you more than the rest put together, you miserable zealot."

Crannog didn't reply verbally, but the disdainful frown he gained between his eyes proved Caid right.

"Mmmm. I had the feeling your reaction would be thus, Crannog," Caid continued. "Deegan, you can let Trenton go now. He isn't party to their deception," she said over her shoulder.

With the confrontation seemingly over for the time being, Bronwyn crouched down and looked at the bars of gold that had fallen out of Volkan's bags when he had been crushed. Nearly all were drenched in his blood, but a few had escaped the unpleasant coating and were as good as new. She picked up one of the clean ones and held it up close to the light of the nearest torch. The gold flickered dangerously in the orange light, giving her a stark reminder of the death and despair that would always follow in the wake of the seemingly innocuous bar of precious metal, regardless of where it went or the identities of those who kept it.

"Crannog," Bronwyn said, getting back on topic, "tell me, how many people have lost their lives attempting to claim this gold? The sailors on the merchantman raided by the pirates... the pirates themselves and the women who were with them... the fortune seekers and adventurers who not only killed each other but who were slain by your ancestors if they got too close... the men from your village... now Volkan Roshek... and countless others I am sure you have forgotten. All these men and women were killed because of this gold. Crannog Rhaslain, these bars are swimming in an ocean of blood!" she continued, working herself into quite a state again.

The mayor didn't seem interested in answering, but Caid certainly was. "And now we shall claim it. Or at least a percentage of it," she said decisively. When Bronwyn shot her a doubtful look, she put a hand on the Empress' arm and gave it a little squeeze. "My Empress, when we spoke before, I tried to apply morals to this evil conspiracy, but as we've discovered, so much evil has been committed here in Abryloch that morals simply cannot form the basis of our decisions. And Crannog, don't forget... you offered Emperor Jin-Sarnos a deal. Such a deal will automatically be transferred to his heir, Empress Bronwyn. She is here, now. She has fulfilled her part of the deal by slaying the monster... thus, the percentage of the gold you were willing to give her father is now hers to deal with as she sees fit."

Now the elderly man did seem interested in answering. He threw down the hat he had been abusing and clenched his fists in Bronwyn's face. "This gold belongs to us! To me! We have waited three centuries to collect it... and no woman... and certainly nobody who harbors such vile perversions shall ever be allowed to claim it! Ever!" - Suddenly, he jumped forward and tried to yank the gold bar out of Bronwyn's grasp.

Bronwyn let out a brief scream, but Caid quickly stepped in between the Empress and Crannog, grabbed the angry man's arm and flung him over her hip like it was the easiest thing in the world for her.

As the elderly man landed on his back with a bone-rattling crash, Caid kneeled down and put a strong hand on his chest. "Wrong answer, Crannog. I have sworn an oath to protect the Empress against all foes and at all costs... and so I shall. I do not wish to make your daughter a fatherless girl at her young age, but if you threaten the Empress again, I shall be forced to," she said hoarsely.

Deegan, Trenton and a pale but increasingly healthy Kheo came up to stand behind the Huntress and the elderly man, looking wide-eyed at what was transpiring. Deegan and Kheo looked at each other and performed similar shrugs. Trenton just scratched his hair.

Grimacing, Bronwyn rubbed the pinkie that Crannog had thumped quite hard when he had tried to snatch the bar of gold. "Mayor Rhaslain, I fear you must listen to what the Huntress says. She is quite devoted to her duty. My men and I shall take... mmmm... forty of these gold bars. The immense value held by forty bars will be enough to sweeten the lives of nearly all citizens back in Ashburne. With the coins these bars will produce, we shall build schools for those who cannot read and write, children and adults alike. We shall build hospitals for the ill, we shall improve the housing for those who only have ramshackle ruins to live in. We shall-"

"Pah! Spare me the lecture, woman! You believe you are such a noble and righteous creature, but let me tell you... once the lust for gold seizes you, you shall seek to keep it all for yourself! Even from this wretched daughter of a whore! Mark my words!" Crannog said, struggling against Caid's grip - but she was stronger.

"Oy!" Kheo barked, taking a menacing step closer to the man on the ground. "Ya ain't exactly in a position ta make such stinkin' comments. I suggest ya show the Empress an' the Huntress a li'l respect!"

Bronwyn's jaw worked hard at the mayor's words, but she gulped down the angry barb that was burning on her tongue and settled for clenching her fists. "Save your weak breath, Sir Kheo. This man cannot see beyond the tip of his nose. Crannog Rhaslain, it shall be thus."

"Pah!" Crannog barked and was once again pushed down by Caid.

"Empress, ya sure ya ain't gonn' want me ta give 'im a li'l bump up the noggin for them words he said 'bout ya an' the Huntress?"

Caid looked back up at her friend and shot him a crooked grin. "I fear it wouldn't do either of you any good, Kheo."

"Nah... his noggin prob'ly only got them gold bars in it. Eh."

"Crannog," Bronwyn said and walked around the other side of the pinned-down man. "Forty bars, no more, no less. You can keep the rest. For now."

"For now?!"

"Yes, Crannog. For now. These are my lands, therefore, the gold is mine. All of it," Bronwyn said with a harshness in her voice she didn't really feel rang true. Somewhere at the back of her mind, she could hear an echo of her father speaking those very words - she didn't know if he ever had, but to her, the family resemblance was chilling and quite uncanny. She licked her lips nervously to get back on track. "After all... have you paid your taxes like a good citizen?"

It took a moment for Bronwyn's words to filter through Crannog's anger, but once they had, he popped his eyes wide open and stared at her like she had developed a second head. "Taxes? Should we pay taxes to you? Of the gold of my ancestors? Never!"

"Ah," Bronwyn said, locking eyes with the irate man on the floor of the cave. "I fear you have no choice, Mayor Rhaslain. The tax collector has just arrived."

While Caid merely smirked broadly at Bronwyn's unusually hard-edged behavior, Kheo snickered into his long beard before he turned around and shuffled back to his makeshift chair by the entrance to the cave.


By the time dawn broke and the first, pinkish rays of the morning sun stretched up above the eastern horizon, an odd team of four adventurers and a blacksmith went through the final preparations for their departure.

Deegan had been in charge of collecting the horses from the Abryloch stables, and Santilla, Horsey, Chestnut and Deegan's own Crown were lined up on the dirt trail where the three tents had been only half a turn of the hourglass earlier. The Lieutenant had attached nosebags to all four steeds to make sure they were well-fed and ready to begin the long, strenuous trek home to Ashburne.

Bronwyn and Kheo were sitting on the last two sleeping furs, enjoying a mug of steaming hot tea and a stick of jerky while they watched Caid, Deegan and Trenton toil away with the rest of the work. "Ya know, luv," Kheo said and tore a bite off of the jerky, "a man could get used ta this... I mean, sittin' here watchin' while them young folks work their as- rear ends off packin' them horseys. Ain't this a grand life? Uh, apart from the buncha cuts an' scrapes we're appearin' ta be collectin'?" he said, poking his barrel chest that seemed twice as wide as normal because of the bandage tied around it underneath his travel gear.

"Why, it certainly is, Sir Kheo. You hit the bull on the nose there," Bronwyn said with a smile. She had already been wrapped in the parts of her winter gear that had survived the close encounter with the beast's claws. As the last thing she and Caid had done in their sleeping quarters before the tent had been struck and packed up, she had donned the furry chaps and a hastily stitched-up overcoat - the second to last thing had been to lie in each other's arms for a while to milk every drop of intimacy they could before their four-day long trek would commence. It had worked and they had reconnected on many different levels, not just the physical one.

"Hit the bull on the nose? Ooooh, luv... been there, done that... an' I cannot recommend it," Kheo said before chewing some more on his jerky.

Bronwyn laughed and reached over to pat her friend's well-wrapped shoulder.

At the horses, Caid leaned her forehead against the side of Chestnut's saddle and let out a long sigh. "Forty... forty wretched gold bars... how my arms haven't fallen off yet, I shall never know. Forty wretched gold bars! By Phirax' ballsack, I feel like I have carried a mountain!"

"I know what you mean, Huntress," Deegan croaked, looking down at his red, aching hands.

The Huntress sighed deeply and patted Chestnut's flank to thank the trusty steed for not giving her any grief while the heavy gold bars were loaded into the wooden crates on the horse's back. After getting a whinny in return, she folded down and tightened the leather strap on the crate on Chestnut's left before walking around the front of the animal to tighten the other one.

"So... listen up, everybody," she said once she was done. She walked out into the middle of the dirt trail and held her gloved hands in the air. "Forty gold bars have been packed into the crates, ten on each horse, five in each crate. If Phirax has it in for us and we lose a horse on the way home... and let's pray to Marpaxa we don't... but if we do, we shall leave the gold bars behind. Call it an offering to appease the Evil Master. Empress, have you finished your tea yet?"

"Nearly there, sweet Caid," Bronwyn said and toasted the Huntress, earning herself a few chuckles from the others.

"Very well. Once the furs you and Kheo are sitting on have been stowed away, we're ready to leave."

Bronwyn nodded and hurriedly drained her mug. Once it was empty, she got up and handed the empty mug to Deegan who quickly took that and the fur the Empress had been sitting on.

"Sir Kheo, up we must go," Bronwyn said and helped a groaning Kheo upright. "There... oh, I am so pleased some of your natural color has returned, my friend. I dare say you had us all, but especially me, worried when you had your crisis last eve. You have come to mean a great deal to me, you know. May I ask for a hug, please?"

The large man nodded and wiped his nose on the back of his hand. "A hug? Well, Ah can sure do provide a hug," he said and pulled the Empress into a gentle embrace. "I thank ye, Empress. It wussen particular-lee funny from where I wus sittin', that's a sure fact," he said, plonking his furry hat down onto his bald head.

"Oh, I can imagine," Bronwyn said and put a hand on Kheo's arm.

"Now, luv, if ye will please step aside. This is men's business... Deegan... I need a hand ta get my heavy ass up on Horsey," he continued, putting his foot into the stirrup.

"Ack, I dread such an arduous task... I better leave in a hurry!" Bronwyn said and scooted away from her friend and his horse - right into the arms of the waiting Caid. "Now... Huntress... can I persuade your good self to give me a hands-up too? Alas, I fear my regular agility is hampered severely by this cumbersome winter outfit," she said, holding out in her furry equipment.

"Certainly," the Huntress said, holding a scarf. "But before we do, it's time to apply your mask. It's far too cold out there to go without it. Please, my Empress...?" - the last words were delivered with a sweet, sincere smile.

Bronwyn grimaced at the thought of once again finding herself under the tight wrapping, but she eventually nodded an affirmative answer. "Oh, I have never been able to say no to you when you wore that look on your face, sweet Caid. Sweet Marpaxa, I vastly prefer to travel in the summertime," she said as she took off her furry hat to make way for the scarf that was to go around her neck, mouth, nose and ears.


Sometime later, the group lined up on the square in front of the Village Hall inside Abryloch. The winds had picked up, and although the sun was out and beating down from a clear, dark blue sky, the leading edge of the breeze was fairly nippy. Perhaps symptomatically, none of the villagers were there to give them a proper send-off with kind words or symbolic gifts.

High atop Santilla, Bronwyn reached into one of her pockets and clutched the carved bear Gwen had given her when they had arrived. Looking around, she felt the village had turned hostile after it had been exposed to be a place inhabited by narrow-minded, greedy people who did not shy back from killing indiscriminately to protect the stolen gold they called their own, and who lived by a holy scripture that tried its damnedest to keep more than half of the village's population locked in roles that had been deemed outdated and unwanted in the rest of the Empire generations, or even centuries, earlier.

Perhaps worse, she sensed no need or even interest among the female villagers to break free of the rigid structure they were forced into. Bronwyn shivered at the thought of young Eileen assuming an equally subservient role to her future husband when she was old enough.

The narrow, windswept streets of Abryloch suddenly seemed eerie, and Bronwyn was relieved they were headed home where the climate was nicer and the people friendlier - not that they didn't have their fair share of problems in Ashburne.

As if on cue, Crannog, Gwen and Eileen Rhaslain came out of the Village Hall and shuffled over to the riders, all wearing thick, dark brown winter cloaks over their regular garments. The young girl whose long hair had been tucked up neatly under her regular pale blue scarf seemed downcast by the departure of the men and women that she had connected with - perhaps mostly over her dashing crush leaving her - when she moved up to Bronwyn's Santilla and offered the Empress a square piece of parchment that seemed to be protecting something. "Empress Bronwyn, I dearly want you to have the embroidery my mother and me made for Lady Caid... simply to say thank you for listening to me... and to say thank you for being such a good friend," she said, smiling nervously at Bronwyn.

"Oh, Lady Eileen, you- oh..." At the last moment, Bronwyn realized that not only couldn't she take the gift wearing her mittens, the mask was muffling her voice to the extent that Eileen wouldn't be able to hear her even standing right next to Santilla. Grunting, she pulled her hands out of her mittens and lowered her mask. "Ah, I beg for forgiveness, Lady Eileen," she said and reached for the piece of parchment.

She hurriedly opened it and looked at the meticulously crafted embroidery. "Oh, this is such a wonderful, wonderful gift, Lady Eileen. I thank you," she said with a smile. She was about to close the parchment again when she noticed a small note stuck in between the embroidery and the parchment. It appeared to be a love poem, and it was addressed to Deegan. She knew instantly that she was supposed to give it to the Lieutenant once they were far, far away from Eileen's parents.

Bronwyn grinned and closed the parchment to keep everything safe. After stowing it away inside her furry outfit, she reached down and sought out Eileen's small hand. "Oh, sweet Lady Eileen, once again I thank you for such a gracious gift," she said with a wink that she knew the young girl would understand. "I still have the bear your mother carved for me when we arrived. They are beautiful... such wonderful craftsmanship. I envy you, you know... I fear my skills in that field are far below yours! Farewell, Milady. I hope we shall see each other again someday."

The young girl snickered and began to blush. After performing a deep, perfect curtsey, she took Bronwyn's hand and kissed the knuckles. "Thank you for not revealing my secret," she whispered for Bronwyn's ears only.

The Empress grinned and winked back at her young friend.

While that had been going on, Caid had waved Crannog and Gwen over to her. She couldn't hide the dark look in her eyes, but saw that it was matched to the shade by the one on Crannog's face. "Crannog... Lady Gwen. We shall leave you now, but rest assured, I shall return now and then to see how young Lady Eileen comes along. Her young Ladyship is very important to the Empress. I know she would be most distraught if anything were to happen to that sweet girl. Do you understand me, Crannog?"

The mayor didn't answer apart from shooting Caid a dark look and a curt nod. Gwen seemed more in tune with the Huntress' words, and she nodded with an embarrassed look on her face while wringing her hands.

"Good," Caid said and nudged Chestnut's flanks without bothering to say goodbye to her hosts. She and her steed shuffled over to Trenton who was standing all alone in the middle of the square. "Trenton Mullinar of Abryloch... you have been a good soldier. Thank you for your services to us. I hope you will not be dunked in hot water because of this," she said and reached down.

"If I do, Huntress," Trenton said and reached up to clasp arms with Caid, "I think I shall pull up my roots and relocate to another village. All villages need a blacksmith... and I do believe my reputation for creating plowshares has soared," he said with a grin.

"Indeed. This is how legends are born. Farewell, Trenton," Caid said and thumped her fist against his.

"Farewell, Huntress. Have a safe journey home," he said with a wave.

Caid clicked her tongue and pulled Chestnut to the left to get her to line up with the street out of Abryloch. "Now that's in the hands of Marpaxa... and Empress Bronwyn," she said with a strong chuckle.


Sometime later, the group rode along the snow-covered landscape in their usual formation: Caid up front, Bronwyn right behind her, and Deegan and Kheo at the back to be able to intercept ruffians in case anyone would be foolish enough to attempt anything. Kheo's injuries prevented him from taking an active role in the defense, so while Horsey kept to a steady pace, he had nodded off and was mumbling a few, slightly naughty words that were clearly directed at his honey-girl back home.

The heavy load meant the horses hadn't been able to scale the slope up onto the hill they had used as an observation post when they had arrived, so they were on a lonesome, tortuous trail going the long way out of the valley.

"Sweet Caid, do you think anything... anything at all would be different here in Abryloch if we were magically brought forward a generation or so?" Bronwyn said with her mask lowered. When Santilla whinnied, she pulled her hands out of the mittens and gave the good-natured mare a little scratch on the neck.

"Alas, Bronwyn... no," Caid said, looking back at her partner. "Eileen and Trenton are levelheaded people now, but they cannot fight traditions that are as old as time itself. I have a feeling Trenton will leave, perhaps even soon, but I fear Eileen will stay. Hopefully, the wretched gold won't influence her too badly... but I fear she'll eventually become like her parents, like all children do. "

Bronwyn bared her teeth in a grimace when she thought back to the incident in the cave that had seen her speaking to Crannog in what could only be described as her father's voice. Shivering, she decided to change the subject. "Oh, but that is for later. Caid, I never got around to telling you about something I found in the dusty old tome Eileen showed me. At the foot of the page, a paragraph was written in a strange, ancient language that she told me came from their scriptures. There was a word that neither Eileen nor I could pronounce... c-w-r-r-s-s-e. How do you suppose such an unusual word is pronounced, sweet Caid?"

"I dunno... c-w-r-r-s-s-e...? Curse?" Caid said, looking at Bronwyn over her shoulder. Shrugging, she turned back around and concentrated on scanning their surroundings high atop Chestnut.

Behind the Huntress, Bronwyn once again bared her teeth in a worried grimace. She suddenly felt the forest coming alive around them, and she looked between every snow-covered tree she could find to scout for the creatures she was sure were waiting for them.

Shivering, she pulled her mask back up and her furry headwear down to attempt to shut out the world and to try to clear her mind of all the horrors she had seen on their exhausting quest for the Natfarann gold...




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