The Return

by Tas


Disclaimers: I honestly made these people up long before I heard of XWP or fanfiction. However, fanfiction is what gave me the courage (whimper) to post and its influence may well show up in my characters.

Love/Sex: Umm, yes. Between women, yes. However, sex is not the focus of the story.

Violence: Yes but I don't get too graphic.

Language: No worse than shown on primetime TV.

Many thanks to the talented bards of the Xenaverse for sharing their talents and proving that it's okay to dream.

Cie created a cover which can be found at http://www.angelfire.com/art2/ciegra/Tas.jpg

Feedback: blitteer@comcast.net


Part 9

Six months passed quickly and Tristian couldn't remember being busier. The move had not been without problems but the warriors were on site and things finally began to settle down. There had been no word from Mhyr and Tristian put them out of her mind. The newest colony of Dyan, called Haven, was a joy to behold, the women of various backgrounds combining their individual tastes into a colony rich with lush bold colors, subtle pastels, wide sweeping windows and a colony house designed as never before seen in Riger. Seth had dug up the design from one of the old scrolls. She had help in updating it for current material and construction standards. The building nestled in the rear of the colony, muted in its splendor and elegant in its setting.

Tristian and Sidell had built a second residence in Haven grabbing a secluded site nestled into the surrounding woods. They were there now and Tristian smiled as she heard a soft cry from the nursery.

Rising she set off to see what her daughter was up to. "Hey you," she cooed softly, checking the linen wrap. "I swear you've got a leak. Every time I turn around you're wet."

Taledyn du Aulstet gurgled happily at her large playmate and waved her arms and feet in the air. "I know...up." Tristian smiled lifting her daughter carefully and taking her into the small washroom. "Here, lets get you washed and changed. Good thing you're up. Momma's out with the latest herdfarmers reviewing the crop planning and I'm bored." Tristian continued talking to her daughter as she wiped her down and dressed her comfortably. "So, we're gonna go play with Ceil once we get you fed."

A small leather pouch design along the lines of a wineskin served as the feeding container and Tal happily consumed the offered goat's milk. They were weaning her off of Sidell and the goat's milk and soft foods now made up most of her diet. At bedtime she was treated to her mother's breast and would happily suckle until she fell asleep. Tristian loved those times and she'd hold her two precious charges against her reveling in the happiness being with them gave her. She was probably as sad as both Tal and Sidell that those times would soon come to an end.

Tal gurgled she was done. Tristian burped her, wiped her up again and placed her in the carrypack the leathersmith had made as a gift. Tal laughed in delight since she loved to go out.

"Ready?" Tristian queried and her daughter chortled gleefully tugging on her hair. "Guess so," Tristian answered herself with a smile, stepping out into the sunshine. "Bright out here," she chatted with her offspring who cooed and gurgled in answer.

The women of the Holding adored the couple and they couldn't help but smile when Tristian strode by with Tal strapped securely to her back. Tristian happily made her way across the border entering Wet Springs and heading for the training center.

"Eh la," Ceil greeted them. "Tal, how's my favorite girl?"

Taledyn smiled and grabbed the finger extended to her laughing as Ceil shook it gently.

She eyed Tristian with a smile, "Bored, Consort?"

"Yep," Tristian agreed honestly. "What's up here?"

"We've got a new crew in. Not quite new but they're from the guardians and this will be the first time they've entered the training facility."

"Ah...so, we get to see if Das was right?"

"Aye although the others that have been through have not been bad and the warriors stationed with them have been briefing them on Dyan's policies. I don't expect any difference with this lot butů"she drawled off teasingly. "We've a couple of youngsters here that would probably love to hold Tal if you want to spar some."

"Perfect," Tristian smiled taking Tal over to Nina.

"Hey, big girl. Gonna keep me company?" Nina smiled as Taledyn squealed in delight.

"Watch her, she crawls about as fast as most youngsters walk. She'll get away from you if you're not paying attention." Tristian warned gently.

"I'll mind it. It's no wonder considering her parents. I'm always surprised she's not walking and talking yet."

"A few more months, please," Tristian entreated. "I'm not ready to be running myself ragged trying to keep up with my offspring."

"Soon enough, Consort," Nina advised her with a grin. The offspring in a large family, Nina was quite familiar with babies and their ability to grow like magic.

Sidell walked into the center to find her mate and the Center's senior trainer engaged in a dance of intricate danger. The swords themselves were mere blurs of silver as the two women faced off in patterns so ingrained thought was no longer necessary. The speed of the strikes so quick, thinking about anything was a sure way to get them hurt. Both were now fully into that mindset where reflexes were in control and their minds were busy sorting the information received and sifting through to find the weak points in their opponent's guard.

Sidell could see that Tristian was picking up the pace and that forced Ceil into the position of trying to maintain her guard and keep up with the now fully powered blows. Ceils guards were slow and awkward and Tristian pushed her harder until she powered through a final block sending Ceil's sword spinning off into the dirt.

"Damn," Ceil swore in admiration. "I thought I'd been keeping up with my practicing."

Tristian grinned in amiable acceptance of the faint praise. "Hey, it's the best work out I've had in a long time."

The new warriors had gathered around the salle during the match eyes wide in amazement as the women sparred. "Geez," one whispered softly, "I hope they don't expect us to be that good."

Another chuckled, "Well this is a training center. Hopefully they plan to train us and maybe, one day, we will be that good."

A delighted gurgle caught Sidell's attention and she turned with a smile to see her daughter squiggling in Nina's arms.

"Alright already," Nina complained, laughing. "Here, here, I guess I know where I stand with you." She kissed Tal's cheek and placed her in her mother's arms. Tal cooed wrapped her short arms round Sidell's neck and kissed her happily.

"Hello, sweetheart. You and your sire having fun?"

"Hey you," Tristian murmured softly gathering the two of them close.

"Hey yourself, bad news I'm afraid."

"What now?"

"There's a ship off the horizon of Helene. They know it's not one of theirs so..."

"Ah. Did you tell Emma? She should probably be on hand to greet them."

"Aye, she's muttering about uninvited guests but plans to be there this eve. Estelle doesn't expect the ship to hit port until tomorrow so we'll meet with the council tonight and see what's up."

"Well, let me use the facilities here to wash off and then we'll grab some lunch at Luc's?"

"Sounds good to me. Taledyn loves those smashed taters and gravy she makes for her."

Tristian smirked, "Aye, loves to play with them."

After lunch they took Taledyn to Selene.

"Oooh, I get to spoil her rotten," Selene laughed at her daughter's expression.

"Mother, that was not the intent."

"Bah, off with you, it's a granmama's prerogative to spoil her first granbaby." Selene paused, "and second, and third."

Tristian hustled a laughing Sidell out the door. "Come on before we find out wishful thinking does work."

"She wants a houseful huh?"

"Aye. You'd think she could have said something sooner."

"What difference would that have made?"

"I'd have suggested she have more kids."

"Is Aurora coming?" Sidell asked curiously.

"No." Tristian grunted. "Seems there's a young one she wants to get to know better. We may have to kidnap her to get her back."

Sidell chew her lip. "Honey, can I be honest?"

"Of course, my heart," Tristian stopped suddenly turning Sidell to her.

"I'm glad Aurora's staying. What if...what if Selene has another vision?"

Tristian sighed, "I know. I've thought about that. It would mean that I'd truth spell her and I'd hate to do that to my own mother but...I wouldn't believe her anyway else. Unfortunately, if she was innocent, it would shatter the fragile relationship the three of us have managed to form."

"I know, I'm sorry I brought it up but...I wanted you to know how I felt."

"Shh, never be sorry for that. I need to know how you feel."

They held each other for a minute more and left for Helene.

Emma, Sidell and Tristian stood on the docks as the ship tied off, a company of Warriors arranged in formation. The ramp was lowered and Tristian moved to the bottom of it waiting for the owners to show themselves.

A large man sneered at her, "Clear the way, the master wishes to disembark."

Tristian crossed her arms and waited. The man strode down arrogantly, "Are you deaf? Clear the way."

He reached for her harshly and she grabbed his arm spinning him about feeling the satisfying pop of his shoulder dislocating. "Try again," she growled dangerously."

The warriors secured him and moved him to the side groaning in pain.

"Here now, what's all this? No need for that, lass. He's just a bit of talk."

Tristian blocked the man's descent and eyed him coldly. "State your business,"

"Well...but...I mean...couldn't we do this in comfort."

"No. State your business."

The man's eyes narrowed in anger. "I'd prefer to discuss this with your men. No sense in my having to repeat myself."

"You've got a long wait, then," Tristian growled.

"Raole, what is happening?" A hesitant voice echoed down.

"Lady du Aulstet, forgive me. I have no idea what the trouble is. I asked to be taken to their men so that we might begin trading but...this woman...refuses to give way."

Tristian's face was impassive and she never moved nor showed surprise at the identity of the tall woman on board the ship.

The woman's gaze flickered across the colony resting occasionally on small groups gathered about. "Perhaps they do things differently? Perhaps the women here are in charge?"

"What? That's preposterous, Lady. You know women have no sense for business but this place is obviously prosperous. I'm sure the men are busy in meetings allowing the women folk time to do their gossiping."

"My love?" Sidell called out in amusement. Watching Raole's eyes dart around looking for her mate.

"My heart," Tristian responded tenderly. Raole's jaw dropped in astonishment and disbelief.

"Shut him up," Sidell spoke evenly.

"Aye, love." A simple nod served its purpose and Raole was dragged off with the other unfortunate male.

Tristian's piercing gaze rose to the top of the ramp and she waited.

"I am Gisele du Aulstet, daughter of the ruling house of Baylon. May I enter?"

"Alone, Lady, or if you've women with you, they are also welcomed. Men are not allowed here without proper invitation and considering their comments, none will be forthcoming."

Gisele smiled, "Of course. There are five of us, the rest of the shipmates are men."

Tristian nodded and she beckoned the others forward. Tristian stepped down allowing them to gather on the docks. She turned to her Warriors, "Put them back on the ship." Once done, a simple shield ensured none of the men would be able to leave their ship. She turned to find the women watching her curiously and she gestured towards Emma. They turned to face her.

Emma eyed the woman critically but made no conclusions. "I am Emma du Aulstet, daughter of the ruling house of Xandor and now, Leader of Dyan. Welcome to our Holding Gisele."

Gisele's eyes widened in surprise and she smiled hesitantly, "We...are related?"

"That is something we can discuss. First things first, Tristian, removed that eyesore from my harbor and settle the colony."

Tristian nodded and set the ship out off the far coast. They were held in a mage spell and would not drift nor could the men leave. The warriors moved off quickly and the colony women ambled back to their activities.

Emma moved to Sidell's side, "My Heir, Sidell. Tristian is her Consort and the Heir to the House of Mardred."

The women sputtered in surprise, "But...the House of Mardred died out decades ago." Gisele murmured softly.

Tristian smirked, "Then my Sire is gonna be truly irritated." She turned to Emma, "The hall is prepared if you're ready, Leader."

"Aye. I suppose." Emma muttered as Sidell and Tristian led the way through the colony.

They settled in the common hall, the women quiet as they considered the events that had just unfolded. "It would be nice to find distant relatives," Gisele offered hesitantly.

"I've one concern," Sidell spoke gently. "You are not a mage."

"Of course not," Giselle looked at her strangely. "Why would I be?"

"The du Aulstets breed mages, Gisele," Emma answered. "From time began it has always been so. I am curious to know that branch that does not. More, I'm curious to know why a member of the royal family was removed from the Holdings of the du Aulstets."

"I...this," Gisele turned to her left, "is Luan, our lorekeeper. Perhaps she can shed some light on the subject?"

Luan's brow wrinkle in confusion and she settled deeper into the chair. "I have never seen scrolls of the time before Baylon, Lady du Aulstet. We have none and our records all begin with the founding of Baylon. I could not possibly guess where the branch split off except to say that Baylon was founded by a du Aulstet."

"Which one?"

"A Giles du Aulstet, Lady."

Emma turned to Tristian who nodded and left to contact Aretha Dubear. "We are contacting our lorekeeper. She should be here by the noon meal and we'll see if she has any more information. Since that subject is on hold, perhaps you'd care to tell me what brings you to our shores, Gisele."

Gisele nodded. "Over a year ago we had been trading with a ship from a place called Helene. They brought us the most marvelous beasts and father was so excited. Well we've not seen them for several moons and father wanted to find out where this land was and establish something a bit more reliable."

"Beasts?"

"Aye, the women called them horses."

Sidell's brow rose in amusement but she held her comments.

"From the tone of your men, Gisele," Sidell entered the conversation, "I'm surprised the women were allowed to do business."

"Well, they weren't treated well and I think they got a bad deal but they seemed pleased to receive those medicines we use. We thought that perhaps they were less civilized and didn't have such medicines available."

"What did you use them for?"

"Oh, to keep our ladies calm and relaxed. Occasionally, we women are prone to fainting spells and hysterics so the medicines come in handy."

Sidell's nails dug into her palm and she only relaxed when Tristian pried her fingers open and took her hand gently. She couldn't believe the words coming out of the woman's mouth...worse; she couldn't believe the woman meant it.

"Gisele," Tristian's low voice caught everyone's attention and eyes pinned to her, "are you on medication now?"

"Oh, yes. Raole says it's necessary lest I become ill. I don't know what I'll do if I can't get more soon."

"Wonderful," Emma muttered looking at the women in aggravation. "Tell you what, let's get the lot of you settled into rooms, get you fed and if you like we'll show you around our colony. Tomorrow will be soon enough to discuss your reasons for being here and look into the du Aulstet family line."

"That sounds excellent," Gisele smiled. Emma noticed her eyes were slightly off focus. She rose to speak to the tavernkeep and make arrangements.

Leaving the women in Emma's care Tristian took a few guardians out to the ship to retrieve their belongings.

Raole stared at the party in fear but his anger quickly took control. "How dare you. I am the First Minister to the King and I will report this insolence to his majesty upon our return."

Tristian smirked, "If I allow your return, you mean."

His face blanched at the open threat. "You...we've done nothing...nothing I say."

"You've entered our land uninvited, order me around as if I were a pet, assumed we needed oversight by...men, and offended my Lady. That doesn't sound like nothing to me." Tristian growled slowly. "Are you in the habit of visiting foreign soil and expecting them to bow to your uncivilized demands?"

"I...but...most greet us willingly. But as I said, most have been men. This is obviously the problem."

"Obviously," Tristian agreed, "I've often found them to be simpleminded, easily led, and overly concerned with the member dangling between their legs."

Raole sputtered in embarrassment and anger. "How dare you?"

"Raole, shut up. You're petty views mean nothing to me. Your bigotry offends me and frankly, I'm sick of the stench."

"Consort," a warrior called, "we are ready."

"Very good, Mardi. Let us return. I feel the need for fresh air and intelligent company." With that, the women were gone.

At the docks she had the luggage searched. "I want the drugs burned. Make sure those bags are clean before you return them to their owners."

"Sidell, it's true there are no men in the land?"

"In our part of the land, it's true. We call our part Dyan and it is known as a Holding. In our Holding men are not allowed without prior approval."

"How is this possible? How do you keep them out?" Gisele asked softly.

Sidell considered the question. She found Gisele to be a meek and mild individual and was occasionally frustrated that the woman claimed to be from her line. Sidell knew this was arrogant of her but every now and then she just wanted to reach up and smack the girl back into reality. "Well, we defend our borders, we've well trained women that are the martial forces of Dyan. They are known as the Warriors of Dyan and they travel the breadth of the Holding assisting those that need help, protecting us from raiders, keeping peace among the populace."

"Your women fight?" Gisele asked in astonishment. "I mean, really fight, with weapons and things."

Sidell smirked, "Tristian wears a sword on her back. Did you think it decoration?"

"I...didn't think about it at all," Gisele admitted. "I was so confused this morn I really didn't notice much of anything except the lack of men."

"How do you feel now?"

"Much better. The lunch was delicious and I'm not so fuzzy now. I don't know why that happens," she replied sadly.

"It's the medicine," Sidell answered succinctly.

"The medicine? Surely not! Father says it's only to keep me calm not for anything else," Gisele questioned hesitantly.

"It does keep you calm, Gisele, it makes your head fuzzy. It's difficult to get upset about anything when you can't concentrate on it."

"I..." her voice faltered at the thought and the two women continued their journey through the colony in silence for a bit.

"This is a truly beautiful place," Gisele finally spoke. Her eyes lit in delight at the muted colors and the laughing arguments taking place around them. "And everyone just seems so...happy.

"They are, for the most part. Occasionally there are problems. People argue and fight. It's a fact of life but they talk about it and the Council intervenes if it gets to out of hand. Mother is the final authority if the problem ever goes that high which...in regards to internal troubles, it never has. By the time the Leader is called in the women have normally forgotten what started the whole mess and are friends again." Sidell chuckled softly at that. Sometimes she wondered about the women in the Holding. "But, if you think this is beautiful, you should see Haven. That is a truly magnificent colony."

"Haven? As in a safe place to be?"

Sidell considered this with a smile. "I think that's what prompted the name. The women that established Haven all came from another land that refused to see them as thinking and feeling individuals. They were given no choices, offered no recourse and spent their days slaving away merely to put food on the table. They look upon Haven as their new start in life and have thrown themselves into making it the place where everyone has a right to the same things in life."

Gisele's eyes drifted as she contemplated that thought. "It would be something to live in a place like that." She eyed her ...kinswoman and spoke softly, "In Baylon, the men rule with ultimate authority. I am the King's daughter but my word has no more meaning than that of my maid."

Sidell sighed, always there were people that needed to control things so badly that others suffered for their selfishness. "Could you change things? Would the people support a change?"

"Why?" Gisele answered honestly, "the men rule with authority but they are wise enough to ensure their women are happy."

"Happy or drugged?"

Gisele hesitated then shrugged, "Matters not in the long run. The fact remains that no one feels the need for change therefore, why bother."

Sidell nodded in understanding. "And you? How do you feel?"

"Occasionally I get angry but then...it just goes away."

Sidell felt a slow burn; obviously the men of Baylon knew the purpose behind the drug and used it willingly to keep their women in line. She shook off the anger as having no purpose here and looked up to see her lover standing tall and proud on the docks, Tristian's gaze focused out towards the horizon. Sidell smiled and pulled Gisele along with her.

Tristian was lost in thought when she felt the warm arms of her mate circle her gently. "My heart," she greeted with a smile.

"My love." Sidell responded turning her lover to face her. "You're deep in thought."

"Aye," Tristian murmured leaning down for a welcoming kiss. "Touring the colony?" she asked when they separated.

"Hmmm," Sidell murmured still savoring the taste of her lover's warm mouth. "Uhmmm," she blushed at Tristian's grin. "Yes, I thought I'd show Gisele around." They turned to the woman to find her staring at them in wide-eyed wonder. Tristian checked her laces to be sure she was covered properly. She looked up and quirked an eyebrow. "Yessss?" she purred cockily.

"Behave," Sidell scolded her. "You'll frighten her back to Baylon with out the ship."

Tristian laughed and hugged her gently, "As you wish, my heart."

"You..." Gisele began, "you really are...together."

"Together? What do you mean, together?"

"You know, a couple, a pair, lovers?"

"Ahhh, yes. We've been joined for two years now and our daughter is about seven months old."

"Daughter? How is this done?" Gisele asked curiously.

Tristian blushed which brought a chuckle to Sidell's lips. Her mate was rarely flustered and absolutely adorable during the few times it happened.

"How it usually, happens," Sidell answered. "You know, the Goddesses gift from the time of the catalysts?"

Gisele looked blankly at them and Sidell sighed, "Dearheart, is Aretha here yet?"

"Aye, she, Emma and Felice are holed up in the common hall digging through the tons of boxes Aretha dragged along with her."

"Felice is here?"

"She and Aretha appear to be quite fond of each other," Tristian answered laconically.

"Imagine that," Sidell muttered in surprise. She turned to Gisele, "Shall we go and dig into our history?" Gisele agreed but Tristian begged off and decided to return to Freelock and save Tal from being totally spoiled.

"Alright, love, but your mother is going to be upset with you for taking her granbaby away so early.

Tristian shrugged, "She's my daughter and I miss her."

Sidell kissed her gently, "I know you do, and I'm sure she misses you. Go on, meet me here for supper?"

"Aye."

Sidell spotted Luan chatting amiably with a merchant and asked her to join them. When the lorekeeper found out they'd be meeting other keepers of lore she agreed happily.

"There you are," Emma greeted her offspring with a smile.

"Where is tall, dark and gorgeous," Aretha asked with a grin.

"She went home to get small, tanned and adorable. She misses her daughter." Sidell answered with a laugh. "They adore each other."

"Jealous?" Felice asked gently.

Sidell considered that and grinned sheepishly, "Occasionally. But when I think about it, I'm never sure if I'm jealous because Tal's with her sire or because her sire is not with me."

Emma laughed, "You are so whipped."

Sidell blushed.

"So the Mardred line died off decades ago?" Aurora asked in amusement, her eyes crinkled in laughter as her granddaughter tried to climb up her Sire's leg.

"So they claim," Tristian answered from the chair she was sprawled in reaching down to pick up her struggling offspring. Tal curled up happily in her Sire's lap playing with the laces of Tristian's jerkin.

"And what do you think of these people, sweetheart" Selene asked comfortably, bringing out drinks for the two dark women sprawled in the sitting room.

"Thanks, mum," Tristian offered taking her glass and fighting off a suddenly interested child. "Hey, now. Just a minute or we'll both be wearing it." She let Tal noisily slurp the sweet fruit drink smiling indulgently.

"Hasn't quite got that drinking thing down yet, huh?"

"No," Tristian replied with a smile. "In her little flask she's pretty competent but these glasses still confuse her. She's getting there."

Once Tal settled again Tristian turned to Selene, "What do I think of them?" She sighed, "I think I'm still angry about Mhyr and it's carrying over to this new land called Baylon."

"Why so?"

"I over reacted," Tristian admitted softly. "I have no patience to listen to intolerant prattling and told the fool to shut up. I even left him with the threat that he could possibly report me to his King...if I allowed him to return."

Selene hesitated and then said softly, "There is much about Mhyr that you have to be angry about, sweetheart. Not the least of which is why you were there to begin with."

Tristian sighed heavily, "I can't go back and change things mom, neither of us can. It will do me no good to harbor feelings like that and truthfully, I don't want to."

"Was it difficult to leave Tal with me today?" Selene asked fearfully bringing wide-eyed astonishment to the faces of the two women sitting with her.

"Uhmm," Tristian hesitated, "Yes and no."

Selene watched her carefully and Tristian ran her hand through her hair in absentminded nervousness. "Yes, because of the way you react to stress. No, because there is no place in this world you could move Tal and not have me find her. That's unfair to you, I realize that, but it's truth and I won't lie to you."

Aurora stood to silently excuse herself but Selene caught her hand in a gentle clasp. While she had remained in Dyan and was living in Aurora's home, the two had not regained their closeness nor attempted to renew their relationship. They were friends only and Aurora felt she had no business sitting in on this conversation. "Stay, please." Selene asked her softly. "It involves you as much as the two of us."

"It scared me to have her with me," Selene offered hesitantly. "I was glad Aurora stayed with us."

"Scared you how?" Tristian murmured as she settled Tal more comfortably now that the energetic youngster had fallen asleep."

"I worried that I'd have a vision and that I wouldn't be strong enough to tell you. That I'd do something stupid because I seem to do it so well." She stopped Tristian's denial. "No, hear me out. Do you really think I didn't know what being in Mhyr was doing to you? That I didn't spend every day hating myself for it knowing that in Dyan you would have the world laid at your feet. See how you are with Taledyn?" Tristian nodded.

"That's how Aurora was with you. Everything that you'd wish your daughter to have, Tristian, Aurora would have given you and every day in Mhyr when I watched them deny you the simplest pleasures, I hated myself."

"Why didn't you leave, Selene?" Aurora asked gently. "You could have gone to Dram or any of the other Holdings. Why Mhyr?"

"Because of who she was. Because I knew that she'd face any challenge, fight any wrong doing, defend anyone that needed it." Selene finished softly leaving her daughter confused but Aurora's agile mind sifted through the words and she sat back in shock.

"Dear Alwyn," she murmured.

"What," Tristian asked in annoyance.

Selene answered saving Aurora from having to put the thought into words. "Only in Mhyr would they have prevented you from ever being in a position to do any of that. That's why we lived in Mhyr."

Tristian felt the shock of the answer as she hovered on the verge of outright rage. Planned, all of it. She had been kept in Mhyr specifically to be broken, to have the will sapped from her and leave her a shell of what she was, content to muddle through the days of her life never, ever striving to achieve anything of worth. A cold, calculated plan on Selene's part driven by a selfish need to protect her...and love. And that was the only thing that kept Tristian calm. Everything that Selene had done was truly done for love and how could she hate her mother for that. Her tongue felt thick with distaste but she acknowledged the truth. Wrong or not, her mother loved her blindly. "You did what you thought was for the best," she mumbled tiredly, "I cannot find it within me to hate you for that." She looked over at her mother's tear streaked face and felt the anger in her heart crumble in a final healing. Setting Taledyn down on the chaise, she rose to embrace the woman that had given her life and almost taken it away again. "Shhhh," she crooned gently, "It's over and we're home now. Shh, you'll make yourself sick."

"I'm sorry, sweetheart, so sorry."

"I know," Tristian replied softly, tears burning her eyes. "I do know."

She held her mother until Selene calmed and then looked at her tenderly, "Here now, why don't you go and lay down for a bit? You'll feel better."

Selene nodded jerkily and then faced Aurora, "I know you can never forgive me and I would never ask for it. I've no right to your forgiveness, Aurie, but I am truly sorry for taking her from you."

She stumbled and Tristian picked her up carrying her upstairs to her bedroom.

Tristian returned to find Aurora staring blindly at the ceiling.

"She's wrong you know," Aurora spoke quietly. "I could forgive her anything."

"She doesn't believe she deserves it, Sire."

"I know. I'd hoped...foolishly I suppose but I had hoped we...could be a family again. I've missed her, missed you both so much. But...she keeps me away and I...won't force her into anything." Aurora sighed tiredly, "So much hurt, so much pain."

The two sat in companionable silence for a time and Aurora murmured, "Don't suppose you'd like to have a drink with me?"

"Let's go to Wet Springs. Nina can watch Tal and we'll shut down the damn tavern or pass out trying," Tristian answered with a cocky grin.

Aurora laughed, "Aye, daughter, let's."

"I thought Tristian would be joining us?" Gisele asked curiously. They'd spent the noon meal and the hours after searching through the records. Supper was here now and they decided a break was in order.

"That makes two of us," Sidell responded having no idea where her lover might be. "She's normally good at letting me know if she's been delayed but I've not heard from her this eve."

"Should we worry?" Emma asked gently.

Sidell chuckled, "No, if something were truly wrong I would know. I can only assume she got caught up in something or other; you know how that can be. If I've not heard from her by morning I'll worry."

"Alright, I want Aurora here for this so let me call her." Emma frowned for a minute and then quirked her brow in amusement.

"Something funny?" Sidell asked.

"I've just been told that the current occupant is unavailable for consultation and to try back later, perhaps in the morning."

Sidell sputtered her drink on the table, "In a mindcall, you got a message in a mindcall?"

"Uhm, yeah, I did," Emma replied with a hesitant laugh. "I...don't quite know how to take that."

"I take it it's highly unusual," Felice asked, intrigued.

"Never happened in all the years I've known her," Emma answered. "Ever and I've called her at some inopportune moments. This," she looked out the window at the sunset..."hell it's only supper time."

The two du Aulstet's exchanged exasperated glances. Sidell finally caved in, "I can't take it. Do you know where she is?"

"Wet Springs, can you take us there? I've not been yet."

"You bet. All or just us?"

"All," Aretha stated firmly. Felice nodded and Gisele looked excited. "We are going elsewhere? How will we do this?"

"Magic," Sidell answered succinctly and ported them to Wet Springs.

The people felt the hum of mage energy and stopped to see who was visiting now. They smiled at the Heir and bowed differentially to the Leader. Sidell turned to a slightly beleaguered Gisele.

"I'll take her, Sidell," Felice chuckled softly placing a hand on the young woman's arm and tugging her along.

Emma surveyed the village in appreciation and then turned to the raucous noise coming from a nearby tavern.

"Lucan's new place," Sidell explained.

"Hell, let's go say hello."

They entered carefully to a rousing chorus of boos. They stood in the back of a room full of men and women cheerfully guzzling large mugs of...something but couldn't see what the commotion was all about. Emma turned to Sidell who merely shook her head and started to push her way forward. They eased a path clear and finally found the cause of the noise. Aurora Mardred stood swaying as she gripped the hilt of what looked to be Tristian's favorite dagger. Aurora's arm extended in front of her, apparently to help her aim. Her knife arm cocked back and flew forward in a blur to watch the knife bury itself in the rafter of the tavern's ceiling. A good six feet above the painted pig target on the tavern's back wall.

"Shit," Aurora cursed, "your damn knife's not balanced."

Tristian rose laughing and staggered over to climb on the table and retrieve her dagger.

"Poppycock," she slurred amiably, returning to Aurora's side. She faced the target and buried the dagger in the pig's eye. "Shee, it's fine. Your arm's not balanced, Sire."

"Alright," Aurora grinned pushing her away, "let me try that again. "She retrieved the dagger and carefully made her way back to the throw line. Turning she squinted causing Tristian to chortle and stumble crashing over a chair and landing on her ass.

"Hah, s'what you get for laughing at your Sire." Aurora's arm cocked and the dagger slipped from her fingers landing point down in the floor behind her. She threw and peered at the wall crookedly, "Where the hell did it go?"

Tristian was lying out on the floor laughing so hard tears fell, next to her, Ceil crumpled into a pile in a similar state. Aurora tottered forward a bit when Sidell's voice stopped her. "Aurora?"

She turned and smiled winningly, "There it is," causing the tavern to break out into more laughter. She peered suspiciously at Sidell, "You didn't come here to help her did you? Just cause I'm kicking her butt don't mean you gotta help."

Sidell bit her lip and shook her head no. "I swear you just dropped it."

"Ah," Aurora muttered retrieving the missing dagger. "Where was I?"

"Trying to find the pig, sire. It's running across the back wall," Tristian warned her helpfully.

"Aye, it is. Damn pig's the fastest I've ever seen," Aurora threw again and this time managed to place the dagger in the pig's body.

Applause sounded around the room as Tristian pushed herself off the floor. "Well done, Sire. But it's a damn good think you don't hunt for our dinner."

"Hush you," Aurora chided. "What's next...this is fun."

Tristian had yet to realize Sidell was present and her lover was keeping a low profile. Tristian eyed her Sire evenly. "You want to know what comes next?"

"What I said, dammit, you daft now?"

"Tristian..." Ceil growled in warning and moved forward. "Tristian don't you dare..."

Her sentence was cut off as Tristian nailed her with a solid right cross. The tavern erupted into a melee with Tristian urging her Sire on. "There's one, swing."

Sidell and party made their way out unmolested to find a chuckling Lucan seated on the porch bench. "Luc, what is going on?"

"Ahh, lass, they're just letting off steam. Tis alright and it's been awhile since we've had a good shake out of the tavern."

"How long have they been here?"

Lucan considered that, "Right after the noon meal as I recall."

"Goddess bless,"

A body came flying out the window, bounced off the porch and landed in the dirt. The young man rose groggily and stood in time to block the fall of another body. The two crumpled and laid still.

"Sidell," Aretha asked in concern. "Where is Taledyn?"

"With Nina. Tristian leaves her with Nina whenever she needs to while she's in Wet Springs. Since both of them are in the tavern and Tristian doesn't want Tal in a tavern yet, I'd say our young heir is napping at her caretaker's place right about now. The door exploded outward as Ches Annon flew through it to land face down in the dirt. "Goddess be damned hellion. She punches like a mule." Ches caught her sister as Ceil came out backwards.

Ceil wiped her lip and tasted blood. "I'm gonna beat her ass, I don't care if she is the damn Consort or Commander or mage or..." the words were lost as she headed back into the fray. Ches saw Sidell and winked before following her sibling.

Lucan rose and stretched as the noise died down in the tavern. She peeked in through the now open doorframe and snorted in tolerant amusement. Tristian sat casually in a chair, Aurora beside her leaning on her daughter's tall form. Ceil and Chess were rising stiffly groaning and cursing Tristian's upbringing and parentage.

"Hey," Aurora protested vehemently, "I resemble that last remark."

Ches made it to her feet and collapsed in the nearest seat. She held her hands up in surrender, "Apologies, honored mage, don't hit me no more."

Tristian snorted in amusement and turned to eye her Sire's darkening eye. "What'd you walk into that fist for?"

"Is that what that was?" Aurora muttered darkly, "Felt like a mule's kick to me."

"Nah," Tristian denied, "Was just Ceil. Although, she's been compared to a mule before."

"Shut up, Mardred," Ceil groaned into a chair. She leaned back and chuckled, "Damn, that was fun." Looking around they surveyed the damage, pleased with the resultant pile of bodies scattered around the tavern."

"Yeah, it was." Tristian agreed amiably. "And I need a drink," she rose shakily and staggered over to the keg. Pouring four mugs she returned to her companions, "Ladies, to good booze, good food, and good friends,"

"Aye," her companions responded downing the contents of the mugs as the people around them started to pick themselves up.

Tristian felt the warm arms circling her and she leaned her head back against Sidell's stomach. "Hey, love. What brings you out here? You looking for me?"

"Not really," Sidell responded. "We were looking for Aurora, you just happened to be here also."

"Ah," Tristian peered at Aurora, "They're looking for you, Sire. You in trouble?"

"Told'em to try back in the morning. Damn stubborn women."

Tristian laughed and nodded her thanks as Lucan refilled her mug. Lucan's girls came out to put the tavern back together and Sidell watched in amusement as the people leaving casually dropped off money in a jar at the last table. Lucan saw her watching and explained. "They pays for their fun so I don't mind too much. It only happens occasionally so..."she shrugged and laughed. "I suppose if it were every night I'd be a bit more upset but...it goes with the territory."

Emma looked down at Aurora's nodding head and snorted, "I guess she really meant for us to wait till morning. Tristian, can you get your Sire home or shall I put her up here."

"Nay," she waved Emma off. "I'll take her."

Tristian stood carefully and placed five gold pieces in Lucan's palm.

"For Alwyn's sake, Tristian, I'm not building another tavern." she looked at the money and back up at the Consort in surprise.

"Then start a tab, I'm sure we'll be back, Luc." Tristian answered and lifted the now sleeping Aurora into her powerful arms. "You wanna get Tal or shall I come back for her?"

"I'll get her," Sidell said with a smile. "I'll meet you at home?"

Tristian turned to the three women accompanying them. "And what about them?"

"I'll take them back to Helene," Emma responded. "I'll see you three in the morning."

"Maybe," Tristian muttered, kissing Sidell gently and leaving them to finish up.

"Tristian what happened," Selene asked in worry as her daughter walked in with Aurora in her arms.

"Nothing much, had a few drinks, a few fights. Was a good night." Tristian answered climbing the stairs to Aurora's suite. She turned as Selene entered.

Shaking her head she looked down at the sleeping woman. "Go on with you, I'll get her settled."

"Okay," Tristian replied easily then she paused. "Mum, you were wrong you know."

Selene looked to her in confusion.

"This afternoon. You were wrong, the only person that hasn't forgiven you...is you. Aurora's been waiting a long time for her family to come home. Don't you think it's time that happened?"

"But...she can't...after all I've done..."

Tristian hushed her and kissed her cheek. "She can, she does, and she's still waiting. Trust me on this one. Let the past go."

Selene sat gently on the bed beside the woman that held her heart all these years and a gentle ray of hope began to pulse. She took a breath and went to get some linen and water to clean Aurora up with.

Sidell opened the hot tub after putting Tal to bed. Luckily, Nina had kept her entertained so the youngster was tuckered enough to happily snuggle down and sleep. She heard Tristian enter and went out to meet her in the bedroom. Smiling she moved closer and reached up to pull the dark head down for a kiss. "Hmmm, Lucan makes good ale," she murmured tasting the tang of fruit on Tristian lips.

"Aye," her lover responded as her hands moved softly across Sidell's back.

"Let's get you in the tub. I think a nice soak will help you more than what's on your mind."

"Maybe," Tristian agreed, "but I won't enjoy it half as much as this," she murmured teasingly running her hands up Sidell's side and softly brushing the underside of a breast.

"Me either," Sidell whispered as thoughts of a bath slowly faded away.

Tristian grinned as Aurora entered the Hall proudly wearing a blackened eye. "You could have asked Jax to take care of that, Sire."

"Don't be silly. It's a memento of my first tavern fight."

Tristian stared at her in amazement, "First? You're joking?"

"I am not. First. And I enjoyed it."

Emma merely shook her head and sighed, "Children, ya can't live with em and ya can't live with out em,"

"Hey," Tristian protested in outrage.

"I wasn't talking about you," Emma remarked pointedly.

Aurora merely sniffed delicately and raised a brow. "Something you wanted, Leader?"

"Well," Emma answered sarcastically, "Seeing as how you did manage to make it here before noon."

Aurora grinned as she remembered her morning. Selene had been solicitous and attentive. Aurora noticed a small change in the woman, particularly Selene's seemingly casual touches. Until now, Selene had been sure to keep physical contact between the two of them to a minimum but this morning. Aurora smiled, this morning she'd gotten a kiss on the cheek and told to behave.

"Riger to Aurora," she heard suddenly and scowled in aggravation. "Have you always been this irritating?" she snapped. Tristian gurgled in mirth as Emma's jaw hung open.

"What is going on?" Emma growled at the now laughing Mardreds.

"Where?" Aurora asked innocently, peering around the room. "I don't see anything going on, Leader."

"Mother," Sidell inserted gently. "Perhaps we could begin and they'll join us when they are ready."

Emma sighed, "Alright. Gisele, let's first answer the trade question. I will not allow trade between us and a colony that believes women have no rights and no sense. I just can't see it happening. Now, if your father would like to discuss a more realistic approach to these trade arrangements, I would be willing to meet him at a bargaining table."

Gisele nodded in agreement having expected no less.

"As for our relationship. Aretha has found some talk of an island about a month's sail from our coast. It's not named but it does show that Giles du Aulstet set forth to claim it. We have no further records on the success or failure of that venture."

Gisele asked shyly, "And the mage link?"

"Apparently, he was a mage but...it's not clear and either his power was very weak or he had really bad instructors. I can't really tell. I suppose if it was the former, after so many generations it might have just vanished from the line. So, based on those facts and what you've told me, I'm willing to believe that we are related and welcome you to the family home."

"Would my father be welcomed here?"

"Only as a guest and only temporarily. There's not been a male in the du Aulstet line for so long that I don't remember a time when we had one. I do know that I will not change the make up of Dyan, for any reason. We've fought to long and too hard to surrender our free will and listen to the prattling of fools that would have us believe we know so little."

Again Gisele nodded. She faced Emma squarely and asked her final question, "Would I be welcomed here?"

Emma nodded, "Aye, you'd be expected to contribute to the Holding like the rest of us. Also, we don't believe in servants, maids, or any of that. This is a land of fiercely independent women and having someone do for us what we can do ourselves is frowned upon. However, there are other Holdings here and you and your family may be welcomed there. That is something you can look into on your next visit if you like."

Gisele smiled sweetly, "I do. I'll tell father what you said. If he wishes to meet, where would you like to have that set up?"

"Baylon, I'm thinking," Emma stated firmly. "Let us see the measure of a man that knows so much more than women."

Gisele chuckled, "That will be quite an interesting meeting Emma. I look forward to it."

Emma looked around the table, "Are we agreed?" she asked eyeing Tristian and Aurora who were deep in conversation.

Aurora looked up blankly, "Right, what she said." and returned to her conversation.

Emma sighed. "So be it. Sidell, if you can pull your lover away, see if she'll fetch that ship back so Gisele can begin her journey home."

Sidell chuckled and stood. Walking over to Tristian she leaned over, kissed her cheek and pulled up on her jerkin. "Come on, my love, time to go to work."

Tristian smiled in apology to her Sire and followed her lover out the door.

Seven months later, a buck-naked Taledyn ran haltingly across the deck of the Lady Luck squealing happily, her Sire hot on her heels. "C'mere, you little monster," Tristian chastised her gently swinging her up into her arms as the crew laughed at the little nymph. "I don't know why you hate to wear your clothes so much."

"It's not that, sweetheart," Sidell laughingly supplied holding out the tunic for their daughter. "It's the game she likes so much. If you'd quit chasing her it would probably stop sooner."

"Tian," Tal mumbled as Tristian wrapped her securely. "Tian," she called again impatiently.

"What?" Tristian answered with a laugh.

"Down," Tal demanded.

"No. Nap,"

"NO, DOWN,"

Sidell covered her face with a hand to hide her grin. Tristian scowled at her, "You could help."

"And interrupt this intelligent conversation, not on your life, warrior."

"Tian, down, now...please?"

Tristian sighed, she hated that please. "For a little while Tal and then nap. Promise?"

Tal pouted.

"Promise or you nap now." Tristian warned.

"Kay, p'mise. Down now...please."

Tristian release her daughter and smiled indulgently as she scrambled over to Aurora. Tristian gave her a half an hour and then collected her for her nap. Tal went quietly but not necessarily willingly. Aurora chuckled as they made their way down the stairs to the lower decks. "She's gonna be rotten."

"Hah," Sidell exclaimed. "What do you mean gonna be, she already is. She's got Tristian so wrapped around her little finger the girl could murder someone and her Sire would smile proudly."

Aurora laughed and Sidell joined her. "I suppose that's not quite true and she's really not that bad but Goddess Aurora, did I ever have that much energy?"

"No. Not really. Her sire, now that's another question. Tristian's idea of a nap was to close her eyes when I picked her up and be wide awake by the time I got her into the bed."

"Ooooh," Sidell groaned. "This must be payback."

Tristian returned and stretched out beside Sidell her head resting in her lover's lap. "Damn, I need a nap now."

The women chuckled as Emma walked up to them. "Land ahead. The Captain tells me we should be in Port by supper."

They were met at the docks by a large collection of liveried guards. Raole sneered at Tristian, "Let's see how you like the shoe being on the other foot."

Tristian grinned and snapped her fingers. The guards vanished. "You were saying?"

"You know," Emma muttered, approaching the two of them, "I've met some stupid people in my life but...you knew she was a mage. What, did you think it only works in Dyan?"

Raole scowled as Tristian chuckled at Emma's jibe. "Go away, little man. I'm sure we can find your King and as soon as we're settled we'll get around to it."

He tried to bluster but an evil grin from Tristian stopped his rant and he turned to stomp off the pier, his guards finally making their way back and following his barked commands.

They found a decent looking tavern with rooms and entered. The tavernkeep smiled, "Welcome, have a seat and as soon as your gentlemen arrive I'll get things set up."

Tristian picked him up by his collar letting him dangle in the air with no noticeable strain on her part. "There won't be any men arriving, gentle or otherwise. Now can we get fed and I need three rooms?" She pulled a gold piece and watched his eyes flare with greed. "Three nice, clean rooms, a hot bath daily and three meals, for a week. What's it to be tavernkeep, shall we keep looking?"

"Nay, Lady," the man almost whined. "Forgive my impertinence, you're more than welcomed here. The foods good and hot and everything else will be cared for."

"Thank you," she replied placing the piece in his hand.

"You have to admit," Sidell remarked into the quiet, "She does have style."

Aretha snorted in amusement as they moved to a table in the rear of the establishment. The people eyed them curiously but no overt hostility was detected.

Their meals came out shortly and Tristian sniffed the air raising her hand to stop the others from eating. Her head cocked as she concentrated, breathing in the aroma and letting out a growl. Picking her plate up she approached a now thoroughly terrified tavernkeep. "Lady...nay...it's the rule...I'm sorry. I'll have new plates made up and we'll add nothing to your meals again I swear."

"Eat this," Tristian growled. "All of it. Call your cook out here."

Tristian berated the cook ensuring it would never happen again as the tavernkeep swallowed the bowl of laced stew. The servers rushed to replace the platters stopping to allow Tristian to check the food once again. She nodded in approval and turned to the now smiling and mellow tavernkeep. "Like that?"

He nodded absently.

"Good, if it happens again, I'll take it out of your hide."

They were relaxing, enjoying a glass of fresh ale when a guard captain approached them cautiously. "Ladies, my King extends his apologies and opens his home to you for the duration of your stay. If you'll follow me?"

Emma laughed softly as the fellow turned and retraced his steps to the door not realizing until then that he was alone. He scowled and returned. "Is there a problem?"

"Aye," Emma answered. "We're comfortable, we've our rooms ready, our things are already in place and we've no intentions of moving. Mayhap we'll change our minds after the meeting in the morning."

"But...my King."

"Aye, he's your King not mine. We're here at his request not because we need anything and I don't care for his policies. Relay my apologies, lad. Have a pleasant eve."

A young girl stepped up to the table, "Ladies, ye baths be ready."

They thanked her and tipped her leaving her round-eyed in pleasant surprise. Tristian glared around the room, "I trust the lass will be allowed to keep her earnings?"

"Oh, aye Lady, of course," the tavernkeep simpered.

"Tian," Tal demanded from Sidell's arms. "Tian, up."

Sidell smirked as Tristian lifted her daughter and cuddled her gently.

Tristian rose at daybreak, slipping out quietly for her morning run opting to leave Tal with her mother in case some idiot wanted to make an issue of her doing so.

She ambled down to the beach stretching and warming up then headed out at a fast pace across the packed sandy beach. She felt the air flow past her and inhaled the sharp scent of salt in the air. Opening her senses she felt the quiescent hum of a large node, curiously she felt for her bondmate and grinned ferally as the Mother answered. Laughing, Tristian touched the node in Baylon and was pleased to see the power leap up to greet her. She linked it in her bond and felt the welcome of her bondmate to the new link, the now sealed node was then released to feed the land and bind itself closer to the Mother's Own. Tristian's senses raced after it, finding the smaller nodes and sealing them also. She found Baylon to be only a third of the size of Dyan and the forming of the bond was relatively simple since no one had ever touched the power of the nodes. Baylon welcomed her as the Mother's Own and Riger rejoiced in the bonding. Power exploded through her being and she glowed burnished silver as she raced the oncoming sun.

Part 10

Returning to the tavern at a jog she nodded absently at the people now beginning to fill the streets seeing both concern, hesitant welcome, and outright outrage on the faces peering at her.

"Morning, my heart," Tristian greeted her lover with a smile. Her lips quirked in a grin when she saw Tal curled up in her mother's arms asleep.

"She's mad at you," Sidell warned.

"I figured she would be," Tristian replied wiping the sweat off her body and dressing for the day. "She enjoys our runs but I wanted to be free to answer any challenges these fools felt like giving me."

"Any?" Sidell queried gently.

"Nay, either they're all late risers or they've decided to wait for further developments." She picked up a grumpy Tal and whispered her apologies as she washed the sleep from her daughter's face. Tal hugged her tight, forgiving her Sire for abandoning her.

"Breakfast?" Tristian offered.

They heard the others entering the hall and turned to join them.

"I thought the three of us," Emma indicated herself, Aurora and Aretha, "would make the first overtures and you three can wander about and see what this place is like."

"Sounds like a plan," Sidell agreed watching Tal feed her tall lover. "Sweetheart, you're supposed to be feeding her." Sidell scolded with a chuckle.

"Don't blame me, she's the one that thinks I need help."

They looked up as another liveried guard entered asking if they were ready to meet with the King.

Emma sighed but rose and the three women followed the tall lanky soldier out the door.

"Tian, down." Tal demanded squiggling happily as Tristian released her.

"Shall we walk, love," Sidell murmured, "Let her run off some energy?"

"Aye." Tristian agreed.

They ambled down the wide street, Sidell's hand tucked in the crook of her lover's arm smiling indulgently at their offspring who was darting about chasing who knows what.

"Tal, come here and wait with me while momma shops,"

"Kay, Tian. Momma buy Tal present?"

Tristian grinned at the merchants display, "Ah, not this time, Tal. Maybe next stop."

"Kay. Tian buy Tal present?"

"Hey, getting greedy are you?" Tristian laughed swinging her daughter up and tickling her gently.

"Ahhhhh," Tal squealed bringing a raised brow from Sidell.

"Shhh, they're gonna think I'm killing you."

"Not," Tal proclaimed soundly kissing her Sire. "Wuv Tian," she pronounced happily.

"Hmmmm, well guess what? I love you, too."

"She's adorable," Gisele spoke softly approaching the pair. "I didn't get to meet her on my last visit.

Tristian greeted her pleasantly and turned a now serious face Tal to the stranger, "Taledyn, this is Gisele."

Tal stared solemnly at the woman and tugged on Tristian's laces sucking one absently.

Gisele squirmed under the even regard. "I see she has her Sire's eyes." Tal's violet eyes were deep pools of concentration and Gisele's feet shuffled.

"Hey," Tristian murmured, nipping her daughter's ear.

Tal smiled and ducked her head breaking the gaze she held Gisele in. "No staring," Tristian reminded her.

Tal looked to her Sire and nodded solemnly, "Lady sick, Tian?"

"No, Tal. Lady not sick."

"Lady funny, fuzzy, like smoke,"

"I know, it's alright. Gisele will be fine."

Tal gazed at her sire trustingly and nodded in agreement, "Kay. Tian, down please?"

"Don't go far,"

"Kay."

"What was that about?" Sidell asked in concern.

"Tal sees Gisele's aura. The medication leaves her feeling weak and disconnected with reality, her aura plainly shows that."

Gisele looked confused. "But...wouldn't all the women look like that?"

"They do," Tristian confirmed. "But she's young and has to concentrate to see it clearly so she normally doesn't bother. My introducing you made her aware that she needed to recognize you and so she Saw what was there."

"I see," Gisele murmured. "I don't take the medicine anymore but nothing's changed. I don't know what that means."

"It's in the food they serve the women," Sidell supplied. "Tristian had a deep discussion with our tavernkeep and cook last eve about it. She's threatened his hide if it happens again."

Gisele sighed and slowly ambled along with them.

The three of them casually wandered the market place as Tal dashed about in glee. Tristian found a booth that sold meat sticks and noticed two lines formed, one for women and one for men. The men's line was long. She grinned and stepped up to the women's side moving to order next. "I'll take four of them," she said placing the payment on the counter. The merchant nodded reaching for four of the sticks when Tristian' voice stopped him. "No, I'll take four from that fire," she indicated the cook fire in front of the men's line where several delicious smells were wafting off."

"You'll take what I give, ye," the merchant growled reaching across to hand her the order.

She grabbed his arm and hauled him up onto the smoldering flame.

His eyes widened in shock and he screeched in fear. Tristian held him for a minute, scaring him but not harming him. She let him loose and raised a hand. The four sticks of meat she had her eye set on appeared. "Next time, say yes Lady," Tristian growled at the cowering merchant. She turned to lift her now hungry daughter and smiled as Sidell's hand returned to her arm. Handing out their booty, the four continued their stroll.

"Hot," Tal announced, fanning her Sire's mouth.

Tristian laughed. "Not to me, silly. Here, let me see." Tristian blew on the meat to cool it down some and handed it back watching Tal gnaw on it with pleasure. "Better?"

"Good," Tal answered, chewing her prize.

"This is good," Gisele stated in surprise. "They normally taste bitter."

"Probably the medicine," Tristian commented. "These aren't cooked with any so the real flavor of the meat comes through."

Sidell opted to get the drinks. Again there were two lines. She stood and waited patiently then ordered. Unlike her lover, she merely paid and fetched four unlaced mugs.

"Hey," the merchant objected, "ye can't do that."

Tristian's low growl from behind her brought a quirky grin to her face, "She can do anything she wants, clear."

The merchant backed off sweating... "Aye, I d'nae know she's with you. Aye, lady, enjoy."

"Lady du Aulstet," a soldier huffed as he arrived at a run. Sidell and Gisele turned to him. Sidell's brow rose as she answered also, "Yes?"

The soldier hesitated, peering at the two of them. "Uhmm, I meant, Lady Gisele, m'lady."

"Ahh," Sidell smiled sweetly.

"Yes," Gisele asked again.

"Your father sends for you. He wishes to have you join our guests for the noon meal."

Sidell interrupted. "Tell him I've requested Gisele's presence...in the interest of better relations between our Holdings."

The soldier hesitated.

"Now, boy. Don't make her repeat herself," Tristian barked. The voice of a Commander used to immediate obedience and it showed as the soldier's back straightened, his shoulders squared and he came close to saluting. "Aye, Commander," he replied crisply and turned on his heel to report.

Sidell shook her head in amusement, "Ah, love, the training does show, huh?"

"Aye. Once a soldier, always a soldier," Tristian answered with a grin. "So, Gisele, join us for mid-day?"

"I'd love to, Consort. Perhaps I'll finally see why the men rush to eat in the city."

"Well, the foods good, no doubt about that. If the castle food is that bad though, we're gonna hear about it when Emma and them get back."

"Gee, I hope they remember about the drugs," Sidell mused.

"I'm sure they will, my heart. Their safest bet would be to swipe a plate out from under a male's nose. Knowing my Sire, I'd suspect that's what they'll do."

"Knowing my mother, she'll swipe the king's plate," Sidell put in laughing.

"Lady du Aulstet, welcome to my kingdom," the smooth voice wafted across the viewing chamber. "I am King Roland du Aulstet, Majesty of this realm."

Emma looked around her noticing the simpering acolytes that were prevalent when ever the person in power placed themselves in the position of homage. "Nice place, Roland. Must be a bitch to clean."

Aurora muffled a snort while Aretha bit her lip to keep from smiling.

"Are we here to talk or did you want us to stand in awe of your jewelry?"

Raole came forward pompously, "You will address his majesty properly or I will have you put in the dungeons."

"You know," Emma muttered darkly, "I've had about as much of you as I plan to take. Choice, First Minister, keep your lip shut or I'll remove your ability to flap it."

"Your trained pet is not here. Beware," Raole threatened, "My patience grows thin."

Aurora's eyes rolled. "Tell me, Emma, do you think stupidity is hereditary?"

"Guards," Raole snapped. It was the last command he would give for the duration. His mouth gaped in astonishment.

Roland chuckled and waved his guards back, "Stand down. I don't need a pack of silent imbeciles."

He turned to Emma and grinned warmly, "Come, you three. Let us leave this simpering hall and convene in my private meeting room."

Emma's brow rose in surprise but she responded in kind. "Let's."

The four seated themselves and Roland turned to eye them. "Raole tells me that you live in a land of barbarians, that you keep you men penned up, and that you probably eat raw meat for meals." He grinned mischievously, "Tell me, is this all true?"

"Oh, absolutely," Emma replied with a snort. "Couldn't figure out what else to do with them and they seem to be trainable." She continued, deadpanned.

Roland howled in glee, "Oh, Goddess, I've not had a laugh that good in a long time."

"So, why do you put up with it?" Emma threw out. "And why in Alwyn's name do you keep the women drugged?"

"What?" Roland replied in anger. "What are you saying, I've drugged no one?"

Aurora studied him steadily and leaned back in her chair. "You know, with out using a truth spell, I'd say he's telling the truth."

"Of course I am," Roland snapped in anger. "What gave you that idea?"

"Gisele says you expect her to take her medicine to keep her calm."

"I do. Our royal healer diagnosed Gisele as having a fragile system and untold excitement could cause her to fall ill. Possibly fatally ill, but I do that for her safety. There is no decree to have women take this drug in my land."

Emma pondered this for a minute, "Then you're being used. There is nothing wrong with Gisele. Our own healers checked the five women that first came to us over thoroughly. We took the drugs away from all of them and had them monitored in case they experienced withdrawals but health wise; there was nothing wrong with any of them. Also, your city serves its woman food laced with the drug. This I know for a fact because they tried to sneak some to us. We, however, are not quite as compliant as the rest of the women here."

Roland regarded them in surprise and not a little suspicion. "Why?"

Emma shrugged, "From what Gisele tells me, it's to keep the women compliant and the men in charge. Seems Baylon does not like to deal with women."

"Nonsense," Roland sputtered. "None have ever come here before."

"Not true," Aurora put in. "Over a year ago our women first found your shores. They are the ones that have been providing you with the horses." Now it was her turn for suspicion. "How would you not know this?"

Roland shook his head. "By the time I was aware of these marvelous beasts, the traders were gone and Raole merely stated that a reasonable agreement had been met. I saw no reason to question him. He's been with the family for years and served my father in a similar regard."

He fell silent and then, "If not for the fact that our other trade neighbor is needing more...horses, I probably would have never gotten involved. But we'd not heard from them in a while and I sent Gisele as my representative."

"You should talk to your daughter more, Roland. Gisele is under the impression that her opinion counts as much or as little as her maid's. It did not occur to her that she was your representative and Raole would have handled the transaction had we allowed him to land."

"He did say you didn't allow that."

"No. Men are not allowed in Dyan without prior approval. Other parts of our lands have both men and women but by the Goddesses own words Dyan was created as a harbor for women. A place they could live and not be persecuted for being women. Or being women that love women."

"So, that part, at least, is true?"

Emma laughed, "I figured he'd remember that. Yes, it is true."

"But...how then do you procreate?"

Emma turned to the woman beside her. "This is Aretha Dubear, the lorekeeper."

Roland smiled gently, "Please, lady Dubear, I must know."

"At the time of the catalyst, that time when Xandor was lost to the world, the mages of Xandor rose to stand with the Goddess and free her lands of the evil that was brought by a foreign mage. The final battle separated the land and Alwyn came to the women that survived, thanking them for their assistance. Of these women stood Corrine du Aulstet and Kyla Mardred. They were lovers of the heart and of the flesh, the ruling House of Xandor and the Second House of the Land. Alwyn blessed their union and passed to them the power to unite and to mate. From that day on, passed through the generations of our ancestors, our women can bring children into the world without the need of a man."

"Oh my," Roland murmured. "That...is quite a shock. You did say Mardred?"

"I did, Roland. Kyla Mardred's line lives on, still strong and growing stronger as the years pass." She turned and motioned to Aurora, "This is Aurora Mardred, Scion of the House of Mardred and Sire to the Heir and Consort, Tristian Mardred, Commander of the Warriors of Dyan."

The four chatted companionably discussing the splitting of the line, the exodus to Baylon and the building of Baylon. The noon meal arrived.

Emma stared cautiously at her plate and grinned. "Tell you what, Roland," she replied loudly. "I'll eat this if...we trade plates."

"Of course, Emma. Here, let me have that."

"Majesty," a servant moved forward smoothly. "Majesty that would not be appropriate."

"Why not?"

"Well, the meal has been prepared as is the custom and...you shouldn't trade plates with a woman."

"Tabor, I'm going to eat from Emma's plate. If anything is wrong with the food, or I'm affected in anyway, you will die."

"Wait," the man sweated, "wait. I will have new dishes brought out. A moment please."

His hands clapped preemptively and a servant darted in. "Remove these and have the plates brought out that are fit for his majesty's palate."

"All of them, sir?"

"Aye, you dolt. Now."

Roland hung on to the one in front of them. "Come here, Tabor. Sit and join us."

"But..."

"Now."

The man slumped over and shuddered as Roland pushed the tainted plate in front of him. "Eat, Tabor, eat all of it."

Roland kept an eye on the man as he and his guests enjoyed the new platters. He noticed the slightly dazed eyes, the inability to focus or concentrate and the silly smile plastered across the man's face. "Dear Alwyn, this is what I do to my Gisele?"

A knock sounded and he called for them to enter, "Majesty, the Lady du Aulstet," the soldier hesitated, "not the Lady Gisele," he waited for the king's nod of understanding, "sends word that the princess cannot join you and will be partaking the noon meal with their party."

"I did not send for her. I'd asked her to meet with them and show them around the city," Roland responded in surprise.

"But, the First Minister said you wanted her fetched for the mid-day."

Roland's eyes narrowed, "No, I do not. Gisele is fine where she is, now leave us."

"It would seem, Roland, that there is much afoot that you are unaware of."

"I cannot be everywhere at once," Roland snapped sharply.

Emma raised a hand placatingly, "Nay, I did not mean to belittle you. We've had troubles in Dyan. There is only one of each of us and we all do the best we can. In our problem, many children were harmed, badly abused, and the horror of that lives on in my soul. Nay, I merely state the obvious and offer our assistance if you've the need."

"I would recommend starting with your first Minister, Roland." Aretha injected cautiously. "He has Gisele convinced that a woman cannot possibly understand the intricacies of running a business, a Holding, or any manner of things of import. Apparently, only the men are capable of such deep thinking. These were true words out of his mouth and the reason Tristian took an instant dislike to him."

"Also," Emma put in, "It is the reason you were not invited to Dyan. We would know the man who is so well trained that he knows what is best for everyone."

Roland snorted, "Aye, I'm so well trained I can't see the forest for the trees."

"Oft times a jaundiced eye is needed to clarify things. Take heart, it's not impossible, merely tedious to repair."

"Now," Emma put in lightly, "about this trade you wish to enter in."

They concluded most of the agreements by supper and Roland asked if the rest of the party could join them for the meal. "I can promise you unlaced food."

"You will have to or Tristian may have your cook's head roasting on the spit. She's about tired of having to worry about the food, the drinks, you know."

"Aye," Roland muttered. "Shall I send for them?"

"Nay, they'll not come. I'll send word and tell them to come to the gate. You'll have someone meet them there or can Gisele bring them in?"

"I'd normally say she could but now...how would I know?" He sent the same guard that had met them in the square to get them at the gate.

As they waited Roland smiled at the sound of Gisele's gentle laughter floating down the hall. "I've not heard that in some time but...I truly thought she was ill and put it down as something I had to give up for her safety."

The sound of a happy squeal followed and running footsteps could be heard. The guard opened the door quickly and a chortling Taledyn scooted in, Gisele hot on her heels.

"G'ma," Tal shouted in glee throwing herself at Aurora. "G'ma Rie," she patted Aurora's cheek and pointed to Gisele, "bad. G'ma Rie, bad Sele."

"Oh? How was Gisele bad."

"Chase Tal. Bad."

Gisele dropped into a chair, "Goddess bless where does she get the energy?"

A soft chuckle from the door caused Roland to look up and his breath stopped. A golden beauty stood framed in the soft light of the waning sun, her exact opposite stood in shadows at her shoulder. He let out a breath and stood, "Lady du Aulstet, Lady Mardred."

Tristian's brow quirked in amusement and Sidell laughed clasping her lover's arm and bringing them forward. "Please, I am Sidell and my mate is Tristian."

"I am Roland, welcome to my home."

"Tian," Tal called impatiently, "Tian up, drink?"

"If you didn't run through the castle you wouldn't be thirsty."

"Drink, Tian, please."

"I'm getting it, you little slave driver. Just a minute while I check the thing."

Tal was soon drinking happily. She smacked her lips and wiped them with the back of her hand. "Damn," she announced clearly, "good."

Tristian squirmed as her lover eyed her with a scowl.

"Tristian," Sidell growled in warning, "I've told you I won't have her cussing like a soldier before she's even old enough to know what it means."

Tristian ignored the laughter in the room and settled her daughter deciding to explain that 'damn' was not a word to use in momma's presence...later.

Tal looked around happily and found Emma, "G'ma Em, up?"

Emma laughed indulgently picking the youngster off her Sire's lap and sharing her meal with her. Taledyn sat quietly eyeing the strange man at the end of the table occasionally turning to check that her sire was nearby. She'd watched the fuzzy glow around Gisele clear throughout the day and she was happy her sire was right and Gisele was not sick. She liked Gisele and hoped she could play more later. She scooted deeper into Emma's arms, the long day finally catching up to her and reached for her sire. "Tian, nap."

Tristian smiled, "You gonna nap on granma?"

"Please?"

"It's okay with me," she looked to Emma. "Do you need me to take her?"

"Of course not. She's fine, I'm surprise she's staying."

"She's tired, she was too excited to nap earlier and only got a few minutes." Tristian explained returning to her meal.

Aretha brought them all up to date.

"What do you plan to do with the horses, Roland?" Tristian asked leaning back with a mug of ale. Sidell propped her head against her lover's shoulder as they waited for an answer.

"Does it matter?" Roland asked, merely curious.

"Actually, it does. Where we'll have to get the horses from...the owner there is very particular on where the mounts go. She'd just as soon keep them than have them abused."

"Really?" he asked, the surprise evident. This was obviously a new concept to him. "But, the loss of profit?"

Tristian shrugged, "Ches seems to think it's worth it and since her customers continuously return, I have to agree with her."

Roland nibbled his lip, "Well, to be honest, I don't know." He looked around. "Those first...strings, I believe, that we received. Master Remy took one look at them and offered to purchase the lot. Since we really had no experience with them I agreed and hoped to work out something that would provide us with training. However, Raole kept telling me the merchants weren't interested so...we just passed them on to Master Remy."

They spoke longer and Emma turned a fussy Tal over to her sire. Tal immediately settled into Tristian's arms and returned to sleep."

"Let's take her back to the inn, my love. Time enough for the rest of this on the morrow."

Tristian agreed and they rose, "It's been enjoyable, Roland, thank you for inviting us."

"The pleasure has been mine. Gisele, shall we walk our guests home?"

Gisele looked up in hesitant surprise as she took her father's offered arm, "I'd be delight, Majesty."

Roland chuckled, "Then let us be off."

Raole stood imperiously pointing to his mouth at the front gate of the palace. "Ah..Emma, if you would? There are things I'd like to discuss with my minister. Actually, I'd like to discuss them with you present so I guess the morrow will be soon enough."

Emma chuckled at Raole's expression of surprise and the party passed by, six guards fell in behind the king.

"Gisele?" Roland spoke softly.

"Yes, papa?"

"I want you to stop taking the medicine I gave you."

Gisele ducked her head.

"Gisele?"

"I..already have, papa," she admitted.

Roland smiled, "Good girl. I also want you to have your meals with me from now on, no matter what Raole or anyone else tells you differently, you'll eat with me. We'll be sure your food isn't laced with that drug."

Gisele's smile of pure joy brought tears to her father's eyes. "Ah lass, I am sorry. I should have paid more attention to you. I'll try to do better but you must help."

"I'll try. What can I do?"

"Tell me everything, what you see, what you think. Everything. There's much we need to fix but first...we will stop this drugging of the ladies."

Gisele was so happy she could only hug her father tight and relish in the warmth of the arms around her. "Yes, please," she managed faintly.

Tristian stopped the party's procession and handed Taledyn to Aretha. Her head cocked and Sidell could feel the tension running through her lover's tall frame.

"Ye needs to return home, ye bitches," a rough voice called out from the dark. "Ye'r not natural."

"And you know this, how?" Tristian replied arrogantly stepping forward and taking the attentions of the watchers with her. "Let me guess, Alwyn herself came down and gave you this information."

"Don't blaspheme the Goddess ye heathens. She needs to strike down the lot of you and we're here to help."

"Our Goddess needs help from cowards? From people too frightened to face me in the light? I don't think so." Low murmurs were heard but no one appeared. "I'm quaking in my boots here guys, let's get on with it."

Still nothing so Tristian lit the sky. A simple murmur and the area flooded with enough light to resemble the evening sun. "Hey there," she mocked, "you boys come here often?"

"My love,"

"My heart?"

"Quit playing. Tal is sleepy."

"Pardon." Tristian turned, "Sorry boys, I can't play tonight. You want to meet me tomorrow or explain to your king here what brings you out this fine eve."

"Retrieve these fools," Roland's voice barked in anger. The men murmured in surprise as the royal guards appeared. "Take them to the dungeons, I'll deal with them in the morning."

"But...Majesty. Sir Raole sent a note, said t'was your wish these...women be punished."

"He lied," Roland uttered clearly. "Take them."

They made their way to the tavern, the people rising hurriedly at the entrance of their King. "Good night, ladies, mayhap we will have a more enjoyable day on the morrow."

"Can't be worse," Emma replied with a laugh.

Roland turned to Tristian, "Consort, my guard captain," he pointed at a tall man behind him, "would like to invite you to spar with him."

Tristian smiled, "I'd enjoy that, thank you."

"Tomorrow then." He turned to the awe struck tavernkeep, "Keep, these women are my friends, you will treat them as you would myself or I will have you visit my dungeons."

"No, Sire, I mean, aye, Sire. Yes, Majesty. They are already treated as such, and it shall continue."

They met again in the morning. Aretha accompanied Tristian and Tal to the guard's compound where the Captain waited patiently for them. "Ladies, welcome. Lady Dubear, we could sit the two of you here on the bench or I could have a chaise brought for you."

Aretha laughed, "Oh no, I'll be asleep in a minute and I'll never live it down."

He turned to Tristian and tipped his head in acknowledgement, "Commander."

"Captain," she acknowledged, "shall we?"

"Aye. Commander, I wish to say, much has been stated and much not understood. I am the Captain of the Royal Guard and where my Liege's interests lie, so to do mine. I'm willing to learn the truth of the rumors."

"So be it," Tristian responded turning to meet him in the center of the salle.

They began slowly, testing each other cautiously neither wishing to do harm if possible. As they became more familiar with the level of proficiency each possessed the blades moved faster. The benches surrounding the salle started to fill.

From the King's council room, several pairs of eyes watched the match below. Roland chuckled, "You could have said something. I'd have just had us all meet out there if I'd known it would be this good."

"They haven't even begun," Sidell murmured. "He'll give her a good match."

"Easy enough," Raole spit out spitefully, "when you've magic on your side."

Sidell eyed him in disdain. "Mage power can be felt," she lowered her shields watching the reactions on his face. "There is none on the field," she finished reshielding. "Tristian has been a warrior all of her life. She's only been a mage for two years. She does not need nor would she use magic in an honorable match."

Roland and Gisele gasped in surprise as the blades moved faster, mere blurs to the naked eye and Tristian laughed. The low, spine chilling laughter that told her lover she was having fun.

Sidell smiled in delight.

Tristian took them to the point were she was taxing the Captain's limits and then backed off, allowing the match to continue, reveling in the feel of her body moving in the intricate dance of the blades. Sheer joy made her laugh, a laugh full of life and awareness of death. She pressed him harder again and backed him around the salle watching as his breath grew labored and sweat poured down his face. A final flurry and he stood unarmed as she rested her blade on her shoulder, barely panting. "Not bad, Captain, you've much to learn but...not bad at all."

"Lady," he breathed. "I would give my life to have you teach me," he murmured reverently.

"Nay, though I would enjoy that, my home calls to me and we will be returning soon. Know that you have my respect, that is far more than many of the men in your land has garnered to date."

"Tian," Tal hollered. "Tian, Tal come now?"

"Aye, little pest. You can come now."

Tal scampered across the ring into her sire's arms and turned to regard the Captain. "Good," she pronounced. "Good blade."

"Ah, not as good as your mum huh?"

"Mum no good. Tian good." She explained patting Tristian's chest.

The Captain looked confused but smiled gently, "Aye, Tristian is very good."

"Aye," Tal drawled. She looked up and pointed, "Mum...see?"

Sidell waved and she chortled as things cleared for the Captain of the Guard. "Forgive me, I thought she was yours. She's always with you."

"She is," Tristian replied lightly. "Notice the resemblance. She's ours and Sidell is her birthmother. Where we come from that makes me her sire but do not doubt, Captain, she is as much my daughter as she is Sidell's."

She turned to her daughter, "How about a swim?"

"Yes" Tal agreed excitedly. "Swim, Tian, now?"

"Aye, now."

Roland turned to the party, "Damn," he breathed. Raole merely scowled.

"So, Roland, tell me about those fools last night." Emma prodded curiously.

Roland's eyes tracked to Raole, "Several men accosted our party last night, supposedly on my orders as relay by you."

"I've no idea what you mean. I've the entire guard contingent to answer my bidding why would I call on the citizens?"

"No one here said they were citizens."

Raole's face tightened but he recovered, "Of course they were citizens, the guards would have never attacked a party the King was in."

Sidell ignored that, it was dark and difficult to tell but soon enough a truth spell would make it clear. For now, it was Roland's problem."

"Guard," Roland bellowed.

"Majesty?"

"Bring up the prisoners."

The guard hesitated, "The guardsmen search but...they escaped in the night."

"How convenient," Roland muttered.

"No fear," Sidell replied, "they'll go after Tristian since she embarrassed them. Problem for you is, since Tal is with her, she'll probably kill them."

"She's a woman," Raole shouted, "Women have no stomach for killing, of course we need to find them before they hurt her. That display was pretty but what happens when push come to shove. She'll choke I tell you, Roland I beseech you, send out the guards."

"No." Roland replied easily. "If they die, so be it. Hopefully she'll get answers before she kills them."

"Oh, that I can promise you," Aurora muttered.

Roland turned to Raole, "Tell me about the drugs and the tripe you've been filling Gisele's head with regarding a woman's proper place."

"My King, I only pass on the teachings of the realm. I do not understand the use of the word, tripe?"

"You're telling me this is what is expected. Prove it."

"It has been passed from father to son since the beginning. The need for the First Minister to assist his King by keeping the populace strong and happy."

"By drugging them?"

"By whatever means necessary."

"And Gisele?"

"It's obvious that she cannot rule. I've arranged a perfect marriage for her. Her issue, hopefully she will provide us with a male, will rule in your place."

"Dear Alwyn," Emma breathed. "That's disgusting."

"How dare you," Raole seethed. "I find your displays disgusting. Pretending you know better, pretending you know more than the men that were put on this world to rule."

"Emma," Aurora stated blandly, "I'm beginning to think we've finally found out why this du Aulstet was forced to leave Xandor."

"Aye. Seems like it. If those where in truth, his policies, the family would have denounced him."

"They may have," Sidell murmured. "His powers may have been stripped and he allowed to live his life out. In disgrace he would have fled and landed here to build the Holding of his dream."

"And took the fanatics with him. Aye, it's possible."

Aretha sat in shock as Tristian stripped bare along side of her giggling daughter and the two of them were in the water splashing and laughing in glee. "Thought we'd stop by for some shifts or something," she muttered. "I'm not baring my ass for this Holding to be looking at."

"Well," Tristian called out from where she now held Tal letting her splash. "You coming?"

"I'm shy," Aretha retorted.

"Pshaw," Tristian snorted. "You've nothing to be ashamed of."

"For Alwyn's sake, does your woman know you're eyeing up the ladies of the Holding?"

"I'm not blind, Aretha." Tristian replied with a snort. "It's not as if our women bury themselves under layers of clothes."

"Still, I would think you'd keep your eyes to yourself."

"That's how warriors get dead," Tristian deadpanned.

"Arrrrrgh," Aretha screeched causing Tal to laugh and copy her.

"Fine," she replied stripping quickly and diving into the oncoming wave.

"Good, you can help us practice."

"Practice what?"

"Swim, Tal," Taledyn explained. "Coming, catch."

Tristian held her daughter even with the top of the water and let go as Tal began to stroke forward. It still reminded her of a little frog swimming but it worked.

"Hey," Aretha praised her, "that's pretty good."

"Aye, pretty good." Tal agreed breathing deeply. "Back?"

They played until Tal tired then splashed in the shallows covering each other in wet sand. "Dammit Tristian, I've got sand where sand doesn't belong."

"Amit, Tian," Tal chuckled happily.

"You're in trouble now," Tristian teased Aretha.

"Am not. I'll just tell Sidell you taught her. She'd buy it in a minute." Aretha laughed at Tristian's scowl. "And you know it."

Aretha watched in fascination as Tristian's whole demeanor changed.

"Oh oh," Tal breathed.

"Stay with Aretha, Tal. Don't come out until I tell you."

"Kay,"

Tristian's nostrils flared and her face tensed. Ears twitched catching the stealthy noise from the woods. She rose in unconscious arrogance, her body strong and supple. The firm muscles of her arms and back defined sharply against her wet skin, she was glorious and Aretha couldn't stop the gasp of surprised delight.

Tristian moved to the beach as the five men from the night before cleared the woods.

"Looky here. You're not so tough now, are ye?" the largest laughed evilly. "Seems you're way over there and your sword's way over here. Even if you did know how to use it."

Tristian considered fetching her sword but the thought of breaking bones was much more satisfying. Besides, Tal was too young yet to witness a blood bath. With her senses set to monitor her offspring, she moved forward to meet them. "Well, shall we see if you're any better in the daylight?" she asked mockingly.

"Bitch, you're gonna hurt."

Two rushed her, a negligent side kick shattered ribs, an elbow cracked a jaw. "Two down." she grinned at them.

The last three had their blades out and they rushed her. She leapt straight up kicking out the first two, landed, ducked the swing and backhanded the largest feeling the blood splattered her from his nose. She turned to a rising man and a fist put him back on the ground. The biggest tried to run but she grabbed the collar of his shirt. Another man, faking his injury, came at her from behind but her senses were humming, in tune with the world and she dodge aside grabbing him in a headlock and twisting forcefully, grinning wider as his neck snapped. Pale violet eyes pinned the quivering mass of flesh begging for his life.

"I've questions," Tristian said softly. "You will answer."

His head bobbed so hard she was afraid he'd break his own neck.

"Kill him," she heard Raole shout and looked up to see the royal guards charging forward.

"Hold," the Captain shouted and the men froze.

"Kill him, he might hurt her." Raole shouted in anger.

Captain Medellan looked at him and shook his head in disgust. "Commander," he addressed Tristian respectfully, "May we assist?"

Tristian rose and backed off, "I want him alive, Captain. If you can keep him that way, you may. If you've doubts then I'll do it."

"My word, Commander. Those still breathing will remain so." He smiled impishly, "Would you be wanting your sword now, Lady?"

Tristian snorted in amusement. "Nay wasn't worth the effort to retrieve it. Lucky for me, wasn't you after my hide."

Medellan eyed the hide in question silently admitting he'd consider it if she wasn't already spoken for. "Your lady comes, we'll await you at the palace. Have them summon me and I'll take you to interrogate them."

Tristian nodded as the guards moved off, Medellan pushing the minister along.

"Dear Alwyn!"

Tristian smirked at the look of sheepish chagrin and muted delight on Roland face. He flushed, "I, ah, see things are well in hand, Consort. I'll, ah, await your party in the palace." He turned and fled. Gisele followed him laughing softly to herself.

"My love?"

"My heart," Tristian smiled in welcome.

"Treating the natives to a little show?"

"Nay, M'lady, there was no time to dress."

"Ah hah, and, of course, the only way to swim is nude."

"Of course," Tristian answered easily.

Aurora chuckled while Emma stood on the beach trying to hide a smile. "Aretha, you'll have to come out sometime. Trust me, we can stand here longer than you can stay in the water."

Aretha put Tal closer to shore and she scampered out to her sire. "Tian, up, up now."

"Whoa, go to your mother. I need to rinse, I'll be right back."

"Rinse?" Tal mouthed the word strangely.

"Aye, rinse. Get the dirt off."

"Oh." Tal studied her for a bit and commanded, "Tian, rinse."

Tristian grinned and ruffled her hair. "Aye, young Heir, I think I will.

Tristian dove in beside the flustered Aretha. "I'm gonna hurt you, Mardred, just wait."

"What I do?" she asked plaintively.

"Got me out here starkers and them two just waiting for a show."

"So? Give them one."

Aretha lifted her chin proudly and stalked out of the water to the piercing whistles of Emma and Aurora. "Damn, Emma, she's been hiding more under her basket than lore."

Emma almost choked as Aretha nailed her in the gut on the way by.

"Tristian you are so bad," Sidell laughed softly, kissing her mate as she got dressed.

"Uhmmm," Tristian murmured, deepening the kiss neither realizing they were squishing their daughter.

"Amit, Tian, down." Tal protested in outrage.

Aretha snorted in amusement having covered the necessities and flounce off to their tavern.

"Tristian," Sidell warned.

"Sweetheart, Aretha taught her that. Honest. I've been trying to be good."

Sidell turned to Tal, "Who taught you that word?"

"Amit?"

"Yes."

"Eta," Tal announced proudly. "Eta said, amit Tian."

"Well I don't want to hear you saying it any more, young lady. If I do I'm gonna swat your backend."

Tal's brow furrowed in confusion, "Tian too?"

"Yes, and Tristian's too."

"Kay," she agreed happily much to the amusement of her grandparents.

"We're agreed?" Rolan asked solemnly.

"Aye," Tristian responded. "I'll return in two weeks and your buyer should be here to explain what they need the horses for. Too bad we couldn't figure out where that note telling those idiots to threaten us came from."

"At least, not without resorting to magic," Emma agreed. "I'd rather let Roland handle it as he deems best. Dyan is not in the habit of interfering in another's Holding and Baylon is not even attached to Riger."

"Trust me, Emma," Roland vowed solemnly, "If I can't get it resolved or Gisele is in danger, I'll holler loud and long for help."

Emma laughed and smiled cheerfully at Gisele. The difference was as astonishing as it had been in Dyan. Gisele was an honest loving soul and she grieved for her people. If Roland could accomplish it, Baylon would have a wonderful ruler for the next generation.

"But, if you agree to trade, Consort, how soon can we get the horses?"

"Right after I agree, we'll have them ready just in case and bringing them here will be simple to do. You've sent a message that I will be present?"

"Aye. They should receive it in more than enough time. They are not quite as far from us as Dyan is."

Nods at the table indicated all were in agreement.

"So be it," Roland proclaimed. He turned to a still stunned Raole. "Raole, get over it, she killed him. He deserved it."

"She couldn't have. He must have tripped and broke his own neck."

Tristian rose with a snort, "Leave it Roland, for his kind, it's easier to envision incompetent men than it is to believe that competent women exist."

"Well, he's got a steep learning curve or I'll be looking for a new minister. Roland smiled, "actually, that might not be a bad idea. Gisele could take his place that would allow her a chance to better understand the Realm."

Raole looked ready to burst and Emma hurried them out of the room.

Two weeks later found Raole sitting in a dark room in the city. The door opened and he growled in anger. "It's about time. What is going wrong? You're supposed to be the great mage. Why isn't Roland responding to my commands? In fact, no one is anymore. What's happened?"

"Shut up, Raole," a low voice responded. "I've just arrived and have no idea what is going on in your petty little realm. Now start from the beginning and tell me everything."

Tristian woke from the light doze she was in. The tavern below was quiet, she listened intently but no sound caught her attention. Turning inward, she allowed her senses to prod her mind. Ah, someone has tried to touch the node. Tristian smirked. So a subtle mage was visiting. What fun. Tristian new the mage was canny because no signs had been left that the node had been tapped before. Now, no one could touch it without warning her. She closed her eyes and returned to her light doze.

"Damn," a short, bristled hair man growled. "Someone's sealed the node. In a manner I'm not familiar with and it won't answer me."

"What does that mean?" Raole snapped.

"It means the spell I set to control the men that coerced them to listen to you is no longer there. It means, Raole, free will." the shorter man smiled harshly. "I bet that scares you silly."

"Tell me again about these women." His eyes glowed in anger, "And keep your bigotry to yourself. I need to know exactly how talented they are, not how talented you wish they were."

"What are you saying? They are women. They know nothing."

The man sighed, "You can be tedious. I'm surprised they didn't kill you." His hand gripped the air and Raole felt the power surge, mindlessly he babbled everything he could remember and made up what he couldn't.

Tristian blinked as the hum of power drifted to her through the nodes. She snorted, deciding someone was probably talking to Raole. Alwyn knows he can be irritating enough.

Tristian had arrived in the eve and settled her arrangements with the tavernkeep ensuring he remembered her. She found, however, that Roland had apparently sent out a decree that the food would no longer be laced on penalty of death. Tristian noticed the women enjoying themselves more and laughing cheerfully. She also noticed that many of the men appeared to enjoy it and the looks of disapproval were few and far between. Always hidden lest they be recognized.

Yawning she rose, washed and left for her run. It was time to wake up.

Continued in Part 7.


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