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 13

"Tal?"

"Aye?"

"Wanna go swimming," Misha asked with a grin.

"Aye, let me go tell mum and we can go."

"Kay, meet you at the Southgate."

"Mum! Mum?"

"Shhhh, Ardyn's asleep. What's up?"

"Me and Misha's gonna go swim."

"Misha and I."

"Aye, Misha and I are gonna go swim."

Sidell just shook her head, "Alright, love. Be careful."

"Aye, mum. Love you," Tal kissed her mother's cheek and dashed off.

At eleven, Taledyn was truly her Sire's daughter. She was taller than average, her limbs long and gangly for her age but she had the same sure grace of her Sire and the cock sure attitude that she could do anything. Her sister Ardyn, at nine, was Sidell's exact double with the same sweet grace and patience.

"Yo, young hellion!" Aurora hollered as her grand daughter pelted down the path.

"Aye, g'ma?"

"Where you off to in such a rush."

"Swimming."

"Ahhh, be careful."

"Aye."

"Hey, Tal. What's that?"

Taledyn looked up from her study of the rocks and gazed off in the distance. "Don't know. Come on."

Misha, Tal's constant shadow, was only happy to follow her friend. They peered down the short cliff side. "Looks like someone swimming." Misha offered.

"Fully dressed? That's stupid." Tal scoffed.

"Aye, still."

Tal scrambled down the side using her butt as a sled and thumped to the soft sand. It was someone, apparently sleeping. "Lady?" Tal called shaking the woman. "Lady, you okay?" She turned back to her friend, "Misha, she's not waking up, lemme call Tian."

She mindsent for her sire and continued to try to rouse the woman, "C'mon, Lady. Wake up."

"Here, love. Let me see." Tristian rumbled after porting in.

Tal scrambled to the side as Tristian dropped to her knees and turned the woman onto her stomach. She pressed gently on her back and water rushed out of the woman's mouth. Again she pressed and a shuddering breath shook the body beneath her hands. "Easy, easy does it," she murmured when the woman began struggling. "It's alright, you're safe, just breathe for a bit and get your bearings." She turned to her daughter. "I'm taking her to Jax, you coming or you wanna stay here?"

"Wanna come." She turned to her friend. "We're going to the Healers hall."

"Kay," Misha shouted back and turned towards the holding.

Tristian lifted the woman easily and sent a searching glance across the beach. She sent for Puck to have the warriors comb the area looking for clues.

Tal hung on to her leg and the three appeared in the hall. "Jax, here!"

"What the hell? Tristian, you don't have to drown them when they turn you down."

Tristian ignored her. Jax's morbid humor often brought smiles to faces in dire times. "Tal and Misha found her on the beach. I didn't see any ships but I've got the warriors out in search."

"Here, put her down and help me get her undressed."

"She gonna be okay, Tian?"

"Don't know, sweetheart. It's up to her now."

The woman sputtered and heaved as Tristian turned her over the side of the bed. They missed the covers but the floor needed cleaning."

"EEEEyuck," Tal groaned.

Tristian chuckled, "Go on outside. I can tell you all about it tonight."

"Kay, can I go back to the beach? Watch Puck?"

"Aye, but stay out of the way."

"Kay."

Tal darted back out rounding up her friend, "Come on, maybe the warriors will find something cool."

"Aye," Misha replied in excitement and exertion. "Wait, Tal, I did run all the way back here."

"Oh. Sorry, Mish. We can walk."

"For a bit, till I catch my breath."

The warriors combed the length of the beach finding five more women, three still breathing.

"Puck?" Tal hollered over.

"Stay back, Tal. Don't move."

"Can't I see?"

"No. Come any closer and I'll tan your hide, you know I will. Then I'll tell your sire and she finish the job."

Tal sat back but her senses were on edge, curiosity eating at her. Then she noticed the two fully covered bodies and she turned to Misha finding her friend turning green. "Hey, come on, let's get out of here."

"We can stay, I know you want to."

"Yeah, but Puck won't let me see and there's no sense in us standing here while you get sick."

"Tal," Misha whispered, "What if we'd found one of the dead ones. Ahhhh, that just creeps me out."

"We didn't, come on."

"Puck, we're leaving," Tal reported, helping her friend.

"Alright, Tal. Take Mish home before she gets sick."

"I will."

Tal was quiet, too quiet. Ardyn even tried to get her into an argument but she just ruffled her sister's hair.

"Something wrong, love?"

"Nah, just thinking."

"About?"

"Stuff."

Sidell sighed but she let it go. Tal just couldn't talk to her and she didn't know why.

Tristian returned shortly and found herself wrapped in her daughter's arms. Knowing what they'd found on the beach she picked her up and hugged her. "Okay, hellion?"

"What happened?" Tal asked.

"We aren't sure yet. The lady you two found says they swam, from a ship. But I don't know anything more."

"Two died."

"I know. I'm sorry you were there."

"Didn't see nothing, Puck wouldn't let me. And Mish got sick so we came home." Tal sighed and rested her head on her Sire's broad shoulders. "Wanna know what happened, Tian?"

"I know, love. How about you take a nap. It's been a pretty exciting day."

"Don't wanna nap," Tal grumbled sleepily.

"Ahhh, wanna just relax then?" Tristian continued in a low soothing voice. "Maybe sit in the hot tub for a bit? Just floating on the surface, it's nice, quiet, peaceful. That sounds good, huh? Bet your mom would like to be there," Tristian continued her monologue carrying her daughter up to her room and tucking her in.

Sidell just grinned, "She wouldn't talk to me. What happened?"

Tristian explained and rose, "I need to go see what Puck found."

"Tristian, why'd you let her go back?"

"I couldn't have kept her away, love. That way, the warriors knew where they'd be. Had I said no, she'd have snuck out anyway and probably saw more than she should have."

"Hello,"

Tal whirled at the voice and found a smiling woman sitting up in the bed.

"Who are you? Not my healer, are you?"

Tal grinned and shook her head.

"Cat got your tongue? I'm Alessan but my friends all call me Alex."

"Taledyn, Tal."

"Surely there's more to do here than sit with a half drowned woman?"

The door opened and Jax clucked at her. "I swear, youngster."

Tal just looked at the floor.

"Well, you're here now, did you at least say hello?"

"Told her my name," Tal answered moving to the bed where Jax was pointing.

"It's a start."

"She told me hers."

"Ah, you two could get married now." Jax murmured in amusement.

Tal scowled as the woman in the bed burst into laughter.

Jax chuckled and turned to the woman, "This here is Taledyn du Aulstet and I am Drea Jax. Most folks just call me Jax; I'm your healer. Tal here saved your life and I suppose she feels a bit protective of you."

"Did you now? Then you have my utmost thanks Taledyn and I am in your debt."

"Nay, lady, there is no debt between friends and my sire had more to do with saving your life than I. I only found you."

"Still and all, young Tal, if you hadn't found her, no one else might have until too late. You did good, be proud of that."

Tal grinned engagingly.

"I see, healer, that we have a heart breaker on our hands."

"That we do, lady."

"Forgive me, I am Alessan Trenor, of Newberg."

Tal's brow scrunched, "Where is Newberg."

"Far to the south, young Tal. Many months on a ship."

"How come you were on the beach, Alex? Did the ship crash?"

"Now...let the lady tell her tale once, not every time someone decides to drop in on her, eh?" Jax scolded her gently, "Go fetch you sire so the lady can get some rest."

"Aye, Jax. Excuse me, Alex."

"She's well spoken for one so young,"

"That she is but she's a hellion to boot so...I guess it evens out in the end." The two chatted for a bit until a low rumble could be heard and Tal's animated voice came down the hall.

The door opened and the woman's eyes widened in surprise.

Tristian's gaze locked with hers and she smiled, "My youngster says you're awake and that you'd like to answer questions so you can get some rest?"

Jax snorted, "Close enough."

Tal eased on the bed not missing her sire's look of amusement. She turned and met her gaze, "I admit I'm nosy but I would like to hear what Alex says."

Tristian laughed, "Alright, young Heir, if your lady friend has no objections, neither do I."

Tal grinned, "Alex, this is my sire, Tristian Mardred. Tian, Alessan Trenor."

"I can see that I'm going to have a lot of questions," Alex replied in amusement. "Possibly as many as you two."

"Mum does questions," Tal answered with a chuckle. "Tian does answers."

She leaned against her sire's arm and two pairs of pale violet turned to Alex with twin-raised brows.

Alex burst into laughter, "Oh dear Gods of my father, this is too much."

The pair turned to each other and grinned.

"Enough," Tristian chuckled. "Your tale, Lady. What brings you to the shores of Dyan."

"Slavers," Alex muttered. "They sailed into port and we welcomed them. They turned on us and took us prisoners. The ship I was on...we got caught in a storm and got lost. I figured this out because of the confusion on deck when the storm released us. They kept pointing at the sky, arguing, pointing at the horizon." She sighed, "We kept sailing and one morning saw land off the port bow. I don't know what we were thinking but I didn't want to be wherever they were taking us. They started running around pointing at the land and shouting, 'Dyan, Dyan', and tried to turn the ship around. We took our chances, if they didn't want to be here, here is where I wanted to be. One of the ladies with us is a...shall I say procurer of specialized artifacts?"

Tal grinned, "A thief, cool. I bet she'd like Mardi."

Tristian snorted in amusement and nodded for Alex to continue.

"Yes, anyway. She picked the locks on the chains and while the ship was in an uproar, we jumped."

"Geez," Tal muttered.

"I don't remember much after swimming for miles, floating, feeling the skin on my face cracking. We thought they'd come after us but they seemed more concerned with getting away from here than retrieving six women that had been nothing but trouble."

"Did you see any insignias, perhaps a flag?"

"Yes, I did. If you have something to write on and write with, I think I can produce a likeness."

"Got it," Tal replied scrambling off in search of Jax.

Tristian paced to the window staring out in silence as she waited for Tal to return.

"She's a good, kid," Alex offered into the silence.

"Aye, that she is. Surprises me most times." Tristian returned with a wry grin.

"Some how I doubt that."

Tal returned triumphantly and handed over the writing implements. "Here ya go."

"Thank you, Taledyn."

They waited patiently while Alex sketched, erased and resketched until she was happy.

"I think this is a good likeness."

Tristian turned the page and stared at it as visions on seeing it on the jerkins of raiders and murderers ran through her head.

"Oh oh," Tal mumbled watching her sire and feeling the wild energies surge up to their bondmate's ire. "Tian," Tal called gently, resting a hand on her sire's arm, "Tian, okay?"

"Hmmmm, just remembering." Tristian's shuttered gaze again lifted to meet Alex's questioning expression. "Tal can show you to your friends if you're able. I'm afraid not all of them made it but three are with us and they regained consciousness this morning. They asked about you and we told them you were with us but not quite here yet. If you need anything tell the healer or her assistants. If Tal's around, tell her." Tristian turned to her daughter, "Don't forget your lessons."

"Aye, Tian, I'll be there."

"Be good," she turned and nodded to the woman, "Lady," then excused herself.

Tal grinned, "Told ya, Tian does answers, not questions."

Tal and Alex found the other three and they laughingly hugged each other happy they'd made it. Alex introduced their new friends and they started exchanging tales.

"Tal, move your butt, the Consort's on her way and you're damn late!"

"Shit!" Tal jumped. "Sorry ladies, excuse me." She turned to her friend, "Thanks, Mish, which way should I ....damn," she muttered hanging in mid air.

"Which way should you what?" Tristian questioned in annoyance.

"Uhmmm, Tian, I was just on my way."

"Then why am I looking at you?"

"Cause I can't reach the floor?"

"Move, you'll explain yourself this eve." Tristian eyed Misha who was trying to blend in with the corner. "Well?"

"Aye, Consort, Yes, Consort," Misha mumbled dashing after her friend.

Tristian waited until they were out of sight and leaned back against the doorjamb chuckling softly.

"Shame on you," Jax scolded her. "Misha's probably gonna have to change her drawers before she goes back to class."

"Probably," Tristian agreed cheerfully turning to enter the room. "Ladies, since Jax has proclaimed all of you mobile and since it's near mid-day, would you care to join me for a meal?"

"We'd love to," Alex accepted for all of them. "May I present my friends? This is Trina, Loshe, and Deidre. Guys, this is Tristian Mardred, some one important from what I can put together but I have it on the highest authority that she doesn't do questions."

Tristian grinned, "And who am I to dispute that authority? But, to keep your curiosity at a manageable level, my lady has agreed to join us. So, your questions may be answered yet."

She escorted them to the Baker's Brew and followed them in.

"There you are," Anya boomed. "And here I thought I'd get to pay court to these lovely ladies all by myself."

"As if," Tristian sniffed in disdain. She smiled at her lady and their youngest.

"My love,"

"My heart," Tristian returned with a kiss.

"Tian, eat?"

"Aye, little one. It's time to eat."

"You didn't get Tal?"

"I was on my way to get Tal when I was informed that Tal was not there to be gotten."

"Ooops."

"Uh huh, so once I laid my hands on her I chased her off to class and she can whine later on how she missed the mid-day with her new friends."

"Ouch," Alex grimaced. "You're mean."

"Hey, I reminded her about her lessons. Not my fault she can't keep her mind on where she needs to be."

"My heart, this is Alex, Trina, Loshe and Deidre. Ladies, Sidell du Aulstet."

Sidell grinned, "Welcome to Dyan, my sire should be joining us and yours I believe," she stated turning to Tristian.

"Oh, that will torque Tal really good if Aurora leaves her in class and comes to mid-day."

"I did," an amused voice murmured as Aurora took a seat. "With specific instructions on what I want accomplished and a plate from the kitchen. However, I thought it too cruel to tell her where I was headed in light of her current fascination with our visitors."

"Ah good," another voice drifted over, "I was afraid I'd be late. Got involved in that silly trade agreement with Mhyr again. Sidell, I swear it's time to share more responsibilities with you."

"You mean pawn off the jobs you've no more patience to deal with, don't you, Leader?"

The women chuckled.

"Yep," Emma agreed unrepentantly, "that's what I said."

"I'll look into Mhyr's trade agreements. I should have taken them to begin with since I've done all the rest but no, you needed to poke your nose in there."

"Hmmmmph,"

Sidell grinned and performed the introductions.

"Let me get this straight," Deidre spoke suddenly. "You are the Leader, of...the colony?"

"Dyan, actually. Although for all practical purposes," Sidell answered, "Mother now truly Leads Riger which is the entire land mass we are sitting on."

"Okay..." Deidre drawled, "And you're her daughter and will take her place when ever that happens?"

"Yep."

She turned to Tristian, "And you?"

"Typical run of the mill warrior," Tristian deadpanned.

Emma choked and they had to firmly slap her back. Sidell frowned at her lover, "Killing my mother will not make me happy, who am I suppose to pawn the work of to?"

"Oh geez," Emma wheezed, "thanks for caring."

Alex grinned, "Deidre, I did warn you that Tristian doesn't do questions and you did ask Tristian."

"Right, forgot about that." She turned to Sidell "Can I ask you instead?"

"Tristian is Heir to the Second House in the land, she's also my mate, and she is the Commander of our Warriors."

"Sounds typical to me," Alex muttered.

Tristian shrugged, "That's me, typical."

Sidell hushed her. "Aurora is her sire, Scion of the House. Together we are the leading families in the land."

"And Taledyn is your Heir?"

Sidell grinned, "Actually, I think Tal will be Tristian's Heir and Ardy mine."

"But...isn't Tal the oldest?"

"Of course, but she's not suited for a Leader. Tal is a doer. She'd never be content to manage and manipulate a country while every one else was out and about getting things done. I would never force that on her. So, no, I doubt seriously that Tal will Lead as Leader."

"And now that you know all about us, who are you?" Tristian put in evenly.

"Okay but can we ask more questions later?" Trina put in.

"Sure, just don't ask me," Tristian answered with a grin.

Tristian looked up to see Puck waiting for her. "Forgive me, love," she murmured excusing herself quickly.

Aurora smiled softly at the look of adoration in Sidell's eyes and turned to the three women. "So, who are you?"

Emma chuckled as Alex took the lead.

"Ships," Puck explained as Tristian joined her on the street. "Lot's of them."

"I was afraid of this. Alex says they recognized the land and fled. I wondered if they fled or headed home to make sure the news got passed on."

"Do we know who they are?"

"Vostle. Or, whoever leads that land now since I killed their last leader."

"They by passed Altair this time."

"Seems like it. The nodes would have warned me." Tristian sighed, "Call a council, all commanders, bring in the ones from the field. How long?"

"Scouts estimate a week if the wind's right, two if not."

"So be it. I'll brief Emma and we'll meet in the council hall this afternoon. Telecom for the council, have the mages port in the commanders."

"Aye!"

"Problems?" Emma asked as Tristian reclaimed her seat.

"Looks like Vostle decided to get even."

"Ships?"

"Aye."

"You called a council?"

"This afternoon, Elders by telecomm, the mages are porting in my Commanders. We'll spread the word by mouth and scroll once we've a plan."

Emma sighed, "I realize that the prudent decision would be to destroy them now, but,"

"I know, Leader," Tristian murmured. "As I've stated, compassion in a Leader is a good trait."

Aurora chuckled, "Well, Tal will be pleased."

Tristian smirked, "No lessons." She turned to Alex, "We need to know everything the three of you remember. I'd really like to know how many on the ship, how many innocents, that kind of thing. Tell Sidell and she'll get word to me." She turned to her lover, "I'm going to do a mage probe, no sense hiding it. If they know this is Dyan, they know we have mages."

A week and a half saw the first landing. Emma and Tristian met them at the beach.

A tall, cadaverous man stood looking at them surrounded by five obvious mages. "I am Commander Lestern, we are here to claim this land for our ruler, King Dronar of Vostle. Lay down your arms and swear allegiance to my Liege or we will destroy this land."

"Well, that was a pleasant greeting," Emma jibed. She looked to the Commander and said distinctly, "NO!"

"So be it," Commander Lestern intoned.

His mages spread out and tranced. Tristian watched, fascinated as they burrowed through the Mother's womb seeking the power sources. She'd have to look into this type of magic. She felt them touch the node and recoil as the Mother's bond repelled them, they moved on searching.

"Is this gonna take long?" Emma asked sarcastically, "Supper's waiting."

"It will take as long as it must." Lestern replied.

"Tristian, if you would?"

Tristian nodded and shattered the ground around them causing the mages to fall losing their concentration.

"They were shielded," the Commander barked hoarsely.

"Do tell." She replied, again attacking, splitting the air around the mages in a thunderous clap. They screamed and covered their heads. "Doesn't look like it to me." A third casting of overwhelming horror had them babbling mindlessly. She stepped back.

"Next," Emma smirked.

"We shall return," he answered tonelessly, gesturing to his crew. They slit the mages throats and climbed back into their boats rowing back out.

"Goddess bless," Emma breathed.

"The price of failure," Tristian explained, torching the bodies. "Brianna, set a watch. Mark them and if they move contact me at once."

"Aye, Consort."

They gathered again in the conference room. Puck had brought word that more ships had been sighted off the southern coast.

"What are they waiting for?" an elder exclaimed.

"Their mages don't have the power to give them the edge they need. What they've gotten used to doing is finding a land and tapping off of the mage nodes in the land. This increases the power of their mages and also allows them to manipulate the people." Tristian answered evenly.

"But...do we have nodes here? That can be used to manipulate us?"

"Yes, quite a few."

"Then...I don't understand."

"The nodes in Riger are already sealed. They've already been tapped."

"By whom? And can this person also use it to manipulate the populace?"

"Yes."

"Consort, please. By whom?"

"By me," Tristian growled. "The nodes have been sealed to me for over ten years, the mages cannot use the power of the nodes because of that."

A sigh of relief went up surprising her. She'd expected fear.

"Goddess bless why didn't you say so. We were worrying ourselves into a tizzy." The Elder breathed out. "So, since you control these nodes, what are they doing?"

"Trying to break the link. They've actually got three fleets around us and they've been linking themselves together for a final push to break the link."

"Can we do something? It's not right that you have to do it all. Anything?"

"None that I can think of. They are not on our coast and besides what I'm telling you, no overt signs of hostility have been given. Neither the Heir nor myself want it to seem as if Dyan started the war."

"Well at least we've had some good news." The Elder concluded.

"Yes and no," Tristian muttered. "Yes because I control the nodes, no because I control the nodes."

They looked confused.

"If something happens to me?" Tristian explained.

"Ohhh," they understood.

"Then let me help?" Tal walked up proudly.

"NO," Sidell shouted rising. "Return to your seat."

"No!" Tal met her gaze evenly. "Tian is right, the fate of Riger rests in her hands only and that cannot be allowed. Let me help?"

"Taledyn, you will obey me on this," Sidell stood shaking in anger. "Return to your seat at once."

Tal flinched but did not back down. "I've been training since I was two. Ariel came to me at three. How many years, Mother, did Tian have before the burden was rested on her shoulders? How many?"

"I do not answer to you, young Heir!"

"Sidell be seated," Emma roared above the crowd. "One month, Taledyn. Does that answer your question?"

"Aye. I am going on my twelfth year and I've been training for nine of them. Let me help, it is my role and my right?"

"This council is dismissed!" Emma barked. "Return after the noon meal." She glared at the still seated council, "Get out."

Sidell rose and threw herself in her lover's arms "No, Tristian, please, no."

Tristian nodded Tal to her grandmother and settled her mate in her arms letting Sidell babble. "She's a baby, our baby. She can't go to war, for Alwyn's sake. She hasn't even started her blood yet. How can this be happening?"

Tristian held her silently, caressing her tenderly, rocking her gently as the words of a mother's fear spilled out.

"She can't...can she?" Sidell head lifted and she looked into her lover's eyes reading the truth. "No. Dear Goddess, I can't let her go." She cried out softly but slowly calmed. "Talk to me?"

"It is her right, by rank and by the Mother's choice. We've given her all the training she could ever have; only practice and application will matter now. She's strong in strategy, brilliant in devising defenses and offenses. She's a natural with a bladed edge and a born leader. Only experience will make her better."

"Do you want this?"

"No, dear heart, no. I would give my soul to prevent this but the risk? We could lose everything we hold dear because of this decision."

"Tell me what will happen?"

"She will need to face the mother alone. She's had tons of practice in the Mother's womb but it's always been tied to my bond and she always knew I could call her home. This time, she must stand alone."

"If she succeeds?"

"Then the bond will extend to include her. She will have the same instinctive knowledge that I have. She will become my equal and my Heir in truth as the Mother's Own."

"Your plan?"

"If she succeeds, I plan to raise the bond. All five stones." She waited as Sidell's breath caught and she whimpered then nodded for Tristian to continue. "I wish to do this when these pesky mages are at their most active in trying to break the link. It should overload their mage senses rendering them powerless from then on. At worst, we'll get most of them."

Green eyes locked on violet, "Why haven't you done this yet?"

"I may not survive the bonding and there was no one here to hold the seals."

"And Tal will survive?"

"I will be calling, by then the bond will be separate and the nodes will answer to me."

Sidell took a breath. "Do we have to go to Southlock?"

"It would be best."

"Then...why are we still sitting here?"

Tristian's arms crushed her tight as they consoled each other for the decisions made this day. They rose and Sidell took her lover's arm approaching the Leader and the Heir. "Come here, Tal," Sidell spoke gently holding out her hand and Taledyn stepped forward, a bundle of nervous anxiety. "You are your sire's child, and I am proud of you. We leave for Southlock at your convenience, young heir, say your farewells."

Tal knelt, a position she had never before assumed but did so proudly at this minute. "As you command, m'lady. I shall return shortly."

Tristian brought them out at the site of the Southern node. Sidell moved to Ariel's side since the woman had come to greet them and Tristian knelt near her daughter.

"I have only one piece of advice to give you Tal, hold it close."

Tal nodded. Now that the time was here she couldn't speak if she tried.

"Remember, Taledyn, remember who you are."

The words floated through her mind as the power rose to greet her. The colors blinded her with vivid intensity, she'd been here many times but never had the Mother's womb seemed so large, so real, and so terrifyingly different. She felt herself being absorbed into the vibrant ebb and flow on the mother's cycles, felt her entire being yearn for the ultimate bonding. She lost herself in the beauty of the mother's womb and she cried in joy at the welcome waiting for her.

'Remember, Taledyn, remember who you are'.

And she screamed in anger. "NEVER...I am Taledyn du Aulstet, Heir to the House of Mardred, offspring of the Mother's Own, this is mine to command, not yours to own. Let me GOOOOO!!"

And the world settled with a blur as Tal blinked to see the womb that was as familiar to her as her bedroom.

"Welcome, young heir," a glowing light greeted her. "The test is passed, you have done well. Your sire's blood is strong in you and the Mother is pleased. Go now, the time here is not the same as the time there. See the world through the eyes of the bonded, strengthen your bond, soar her winds. Go. Call for me when you are ready."

Tal remembered returning and suddenly she was in the air as strong arms surrounded her, cradling her, protecting her. The powerful heartbeat that had always been there for her thudding reassuringly in her ear and she smiled, "Tian," as she drifted off to dream.

"Hey you," Tristian greeted her gently as she blinked in sudden remembrance. She could feel the power of the nodes coursing through her; feel the power that her sire wielded so negligently.

"Time to work on those shields. Shore them up so your mother can come in and say hello."

"Oh, sorry," Tal replied, jumping up easily and quickly, the knowledge now as one with her as it was with her sire coming to her, she shielded. Protecting others around her from the wild, raging energy of the Mother."

"It's always like this,"

Tristian winked, "It gets old after awhile."

Tal chortled in amusement and shook her head. "I love you."

"And I you, young Heir."

"You've always called me that."

Tristian smirked, "You've always been that."

"But you knew, didn't you."

"The Mother called you, there was no choice. But...okay, accuse me of rampant egotism but yes...I've always known you would carry my responsibilities. Ardyn will carry your mom's."

"Then may I suggest, Sire, that you keep yourself in one piece or this land will never survive."

Tristian laughed outright and led her daughter out to her mother's arms.

A week later Tristian sat considering her plan. All was in place. The mages surrounding them were fully linked and battering the Mother's bonds. They appeared to prefer the early morning at daybreak and they never broke their schedule. Tal was as acclimated in her bond as she would ever be without experience. She new the value of less is more and the times when it's all or nothing. Tristian could do no more for her and it was time to take care of these pesky mages. She was unsurprised to feel her lover's arms surround her nor the touch of her children.

"Ardyn, you are you're mothers spirit," Tristian murmured, gently kissing her barely awake daughter and handing her back to Emma. She met Tal's teary gaze. "I love you."

"I know. Come home."

"I'll try. The best I can." She gripped her daughters arm in a warriors clasp, "Be well."

Tal threw her arms around her and hung on for dear life. "You too."

They were in a large open field backstopped to the high reaches mountain range, surrounded by warriors and mages. Just in case things got out of hand.

Tristian stood and turned to her mate as the family waited next to them for Sidell to join them. Tristian looked deep into her lover's eyes and read the truth. She bowed her head in acceptance and Sidell turned, kneeling to kiss Ardyn. She looked up into Tal's panic stricken face and lifted one finger, "She is my role and my right," she reminded her, watching her daughter swallow the lump in her throat and nod in acknowledgement. She hugged Sidell and sniffled, "Then bring you both home,"

"That is my plan. She will not be able to control the nodes for a few days, if we return."

"I understand. I will be here."

"Take care of yourself and Ardy."

"By my life, m'lady."

"So be it."

Sidell rose and watched her family walk to the fringes of the warriors and turned to fit herself in her lover's arm. The only place in the world that she called home.

"Almost time," Tristian's low rumble reverberated in her ear.

"I'm not going anywhere," she swore.

"So be it." Tristian called, a gentle call to the southern node as she monitored the mages, they picked up on the energy and tried to tap in, she called the node in Mhyr and it answered, as more mages flocked to the temptation of power, the eastern shore rose to her bidding, and now, the mages were caught in the grip of the energy paths, Tristian reached for Baylon and felt it link and finally, Altair. The nodes hovered gently, enough power to sweeten the trap and she felt the circle of mages complete their link. Tristian called for the final bond and power rose, faster than the mages could control, it exploded through the Mother's womb, racing to the call of their bondmate, answering the joining. The circle of mages was now caught in its wake and the weaker mages felt their heads burst as the overflow of power rushed through them. In Dyan the air shimmered in gold and a towering inferno of the sun's hue powered up from the mother's womb incasing the couple, and hiding them from sight.

Ceil caught Tal in strong arms and held on for dear life as the girl screamed for her parents.

The air heated, and the mid-power mages burst into flames, the ships crews rushing to douse the infernos suddenly in their midst, and still the air heated until it blistered the ground igniting the minimal grass but that was the reason this site was chosen. The wall of the high reaches mountain range burst into flame. Rocks burned.

The more powerful mages collapsed as their bodies succumbed the taxing effort needed to maintain breathing. Several ships on the sea went up in flames and the mages that survived the final bond were left mindless babbling husks. The sky took on a silver-blue sheen and the air seem to gather and hold its breath, as the colors of the bond froze and then returned in a kaleidoscope of hues, leaving a vacuum in its place that filled with a resounding crack as the energy dissipated.

Ceil dropped Tal on to her feet and slapped her. "Your duty, young heir, now or this was for naught."

Tal glared at her, her eyes filled with tears but she reached out and called, soothing the bond, settling the nodes. She soared the winds, greeting each in thanks as they returned to their quiescent state, from the Eastern shore to Altair; Tal secured the bonds and ensured the seals held. She returned, unable to face the horrifying truth that she knew awaited her.

"Hey," Ceil shook her roughly.

"What, dammit? I did it already."

Ceil grinned, "Well I'm glad to hear that but I thought you'd like to go check on your parents before we put them to bed."

Tal flew across the field dropping to her knees beside the unconscious women but they were breathing, dear Alwyn they were, and they appeared to be unharmed. The warriors lifted the prepared litter and she grabbed pole closest to her sire grinning for the entire world to see as tears flowed freely down her face.

"Mages," Puck hollered. "Take your places. Get your people in position, they come you damn fools, quit scratching your asses and move."

"Nice one," Maria complimented her before Megan ported them to the beach. All around Dyan, garrisons of troops appeared on the beach as the opposing forces gave up on their mages and stormed the land.

The people rushed to aid, preparing meals, setting up healing tents as the healers were taxed with the more serious injuries. Midwives came, farmers came, all the people in Riger pooled together to support their warriors. Hunters hunted for food, fire pits remained stoked so that none went hungry. In the center of the land, they gathered the children, the elderly, the disabled, and they waited for the outcome. The battle raged on as the opposing force attacked mindlessly, never hesitating as they were slaughtered.

"Why?" Tal whispered from the only vantage point Ceil would allow her to be in. "Why?"

"Because the price of failure is death," a beloved voice answered and Tal threw herself into her sire's arms. "Shhh, I'm here now. It's alright, love, I'm here."

She held her sobbing daughter as her pale eyes took in the horror on the beach. Not a free strip of sand remained and the sea ran red with blood. And Tristian grew angry, her sense of order offended by the mindless destruction and she vowed that King Dronar would pay.

"Hold!" she bellowed and Maria's blade made an impossible stop.

The Commander was then rendered unconscious and the warriors looked around them. Besides Commander Leach, not a soul from the attacking force lived. They never gave up. Never surrendered, never quit, until they were dead. Across the land, the same scene repeated itself and men and women lost many nights of sleep at the horror they were forced to inflict on other people.

They brought the Commander to Tristian and she gazed unfeelingly at him.

He sneered, "It will never stop, he will kill you all. It is his destiny to rule this world."

Tristian was on him in a minute, letting him scream for the world to hear as she raped his innermost thoughts searching for the only thing she wanted to know. Where was Vostle? And finally, as he dangle limply in her clasp babbling mindlessly, she found her answer. Vostle would pay. She snapped his neck and threw him over the precipice watching him bounce his way down to the beach. She turned to find herself pinned by the gaze of her daughter and waited for judgment. She was wrapped in shaky arms that offered her love, forgiveness and understanding.

The shores of Riger glowed long into the night as pyre after pyre was lit to remove the stench of death from the land of a people who only wished to live in peace. Tristian set each ship aflame, allowing the gentle sea to scatter the remains. Around the land, three masted hulks of floating flame dotted the horizons as far as the eyes could see. Dyan mourned, for the loss of those that gave their lives to save their people.

"Five hundred and fifty!" Puck reported angrily. "For a madman that thinks he's king. Alwyn damn his soul, this cannot continue, Consort. By all that we love, never again will these shores be blackened by such sickening acts."

"She's right," Maria put in. "This...was the work of a madman. We survived, how many lands have fallen because of his deluded dream?"

"Lead us, Consort. Lead us now. To Vostle, to freedom."

The colony hall rang with outraged shouts of freedom. Emma pounded her gavel uselessly and finally resorted to magic, "Sit down, damn your hides. This is a council not a war party. We have never left our shores to begin a war. What is wrong with you people?"

"No more, Emma. He will come again, what then? Five hundred we lost this time, five hundred each time, how many times shall we allow this?" the elder council shouted. "No more. Let's take it to him. To his shores,"

"And how many will we lose then? A thousand? Two." Another voice rang out.

"While we wait he conscripts more, strips the lands bare and attacks others. I say beard him in his den. Stop his hold on the innocents. For everyone we save it's one less we fight. No more, Leader. Never again on our shores and we cannot turn our backs on the world and pray that he ignores us. When he owns the rest of it he'll come again. Stop him now."

Again the chant for freedom began. "ENOUGH!" Emma mindshouted. "You are dismissed. I will take council and return in the morning, get out."

Tristian took the opportunity to disappear clasping her lover's hand and leading her out the door out to a forest path that would take them deep into the woods. She held her hand as they walked casually down the path.

"Any particular reason we're hiding?" Sidell asked amiably.

Tristian grinned, "Can't keep anything from you can I?"

"Oh, like it was so hard to guess. My mother throws the council out and we sneak out the back like kids on a date." Sidell retorted.

Tristian chuckled and settled an arm around Sidell's shoulders.

"Well?"

"Yeah," Tristian replied on a sigh, "This is a decision that must come from the peacekeepers. Taking an entire country to war...for those like me, it's an easy choice. Do it. But I don't always look at the larger picture. I look at the end goal. How many lives will be destroyed because of my single-minded purpose? No love, you, your mother, the council of elders, these are the people that need to chose."

Sidell smirked, "So I'm here because?"

"I wanted you here," Tristian answered sheepishly.

Sidell laughed and wrapped her arms around her lover's waist as the cool of the forest welcomed them.

Taledyn stood out looking across the sea. She sat on a convenient rock that allowed her to lean back and relax, idly tossing pebbles out to the beach.

"Hey,"

Tal smiled having already felt her, "Alex, how are you?"

"Pretty amazed, young Tal. Pretty amazed." Alex joined her young friend tossing rocks. "Is it always this exciting around here?"

Tal snorted, "Actually no, only when we get unexpected visitors. Seems something always comes with them."

"On purpose?"

"Sometimes. Others nah, just happenstance."

"And this time?"

"I believe your story, Alex. That is what you're asking me isn't it?"

"I could forget you're only eleven, young mage. I could forget that easily." Alex conceded gracefully.

Tal grinned, "Well I am. Sometimes I feel like I've gotten a blinding flash of brilliance, others the most severe case of dumb asses ever handed out."

Alex laughed, "I hate to break the news to you, it doesn't stop as you get older."

"Thanks, Alex. I was wondering where I'd find someone that could cheer me right up." But she was grinning and Alex shrugged innocently.

"We want to help."

"Jump right in there. Everyone else is."

"Did that. I mean really help."

Tal turned to gaze at her reading the auras as easily as she read a book. "That's pretty cool, how'd you do that?"

Alex blinked. "What?"

"That wolf thing. It's neat. Not magic, I'd feel that. Or...not the magic I'm familiar with but...how?"

"You see that?"

"Sure. Tian saw it when she first laid eyes on the four of you but...your stories rang true and we've all got secrets. Long as you weren't hurting none of us it didn't matter."

"Shit," she looked up guiltily, "sorry."

"S'okay, not in front of Mum though, she gets all upset."

"Anybody ever tell you you're a pretty cool kid?"

Tal laughed, "Well, not precisely in those words but I've gotten the impression before." She smiled at Alex, "So what can you do for us in your wolf shape?"

"Pretty much anything a wolf can do plus some. We're faster, stronger, and a whole lot smarter."

"Nah, Tian says only human arrogance assumes we are smarter than a beast. A wolf in its own habitat is pretty darn canny. I suppose if you took one of us our of our habitat, we'd look pretty stupid too."

Alex chuckled, "I bow to the wisdom of you and your sire. Shall I say that as a wolf, I retain my normal faculties?"

"Okay. But, what good is four wolves gonna get us?"

"I was thinking, maybe, if we combined my people, with your people we'd have a fair chance."

"Ah, more than four."

"Couple thousand to be precise. We can't fight like you do but in my wolf shape I can kill a man with ease."

"So how'd you get captured?" Tal asked in hones curiosity. This was something they'd not covered since Alex's arrival.

"Darts," Alex answered succinctly. "They came, like they did here but we couldn't stop them from landing. They darted a bunch of us and took us aboard their ship. Thing is, I really think they were just slavers cause they didn't have mages and nowhere near the numbers needed to take over a land."

"Scout troops perhaps." Tal mused on the thought a bit more. "They found us by accident and the need for scouts wasn't necessary here. That would explain that. They must take some of their prisoners back, see how they perform, learn their secrets, and return when they have an almost sure chance of winning."

Alex looked at her in amazement and Tal shrugged. "Tactics, I love em. My best class."

Alex snorted. "Gee, I only learned how to read, write and add."

Tal grinned engagingly.

"Something else you should know."

"Uh huh."

"We're not all wolves. Some are dragons, some horses, some birds."

"Well, if nothing else, it will be an experience to remember." Tal chuckled thinking about it. "Why'd you come to me?"

"You listen better, your mum hears but she's not a warrior and she doesn't comprehend. Your sire...scares the piss out of me."

Now Tal burst into laughter, "Tian's a teddy bear."

"Yeah with foot long fangs and claws."

"You figure we're going to war?"

"Don't know young heir, but I wanted some one to know if you did, there's a passel of bodies that I can convince to help. A couple more thousand or so couldn't hurt."

"What if they don't wanna take the risk?"

"I'll come either way. You all saved our lives and then, you did what I didn't think anybody could do. I figure, if there's a chance to break this idjit, this is it and I want in."

Tal nodded, "I'll pass the word."

"Thanks, don't stay to long. I think the leader's ready to call in her advisors."

Tal smiled, "S'okay, she's missing two of them and I'm not gonna be around to hear about it."

Emma glared at the two empty chairs beside her for the thousandth time and returned her attention to the elder speaking. "Emma, I don't know if it's because we feel outraged or if it's because we feel it necessary but I believe in this. I...me...the woman that thinks killing animals is abhorrent. I truly believe that if we just turn our backs and hope he goes away, he'll be back but this time, he'll have the world backing him. How many have we removed from his ranks? How soon can he replace them? We have no way of knowing and I don't know if sending an initial scout force it a good plan? Frankly, I'd rather our people be fully supported from day one than have to survive for who knows how long before help comes."

Emma sighed, "I've never believed in killing. You know this. I...I believe that people, people like us, are thinking beings and by Alwyn we should be able to think our way out of sheer mindless slaughter."

"Emma," Aurora's voice cut in, "I think you've nailed it exactly. People like us would. But this madman doesn't think like us. Doesn't think anything along the lines of what we are even vaguely familiar with. He has a dream, and that is the be all and end all goal in his life. We are in the way of his dream. So I ask you, Leader, what about our dreams. Shall we let them die?"

"That's a pretty speech, Aurora," another elder broke in rudely. "But you're talking about sending our children, ours, to get themselves killed. I cannot support this."

"Who in the hell do you think will lead this effort you idiot? Who?" Aurora demanded.

"It's different. You haven't had her all that long. It's not the same," the elder mumbled.

"You're right, it's not. I haven't had her long and I sure as hell don't want to lose her now."

"Then how? How can you...support this?"

"Let me ask you this. In less than thirty years there is a good chance, a very good chance that I won't be here. Many of us won't be here. So, what you propose is to either, leave this decision in their hands and keep the blood off of ours, or, raise them into slavery ruled by a mad king. Which choice would you have me make?"

"I..." the elder stumbled, "I...He might fail, I'm sure someone else will stop him." She looked around hopelessly, "Maybe he'll just go away?"

The others just looked at her in sympathy. She covered her face with her hands sobbing softly.

Emma sighed. "Can I ask for a vote? All in favor please indicate with the toggle up, against down."

She read the final tally. "Please leave. I'll give you my answer at the morning council session. Aurora, please see to it that the full council is in session including all military leaders."

Aurora nodded as the elders filed out silently, leaving the final decision of life or death in the hands of the woman that had led them so well, for so long."

Emma entered her house and stepped into the foyer falling into her daughter's arms. "It will be alright, shhh, it's alright." Sidell crooned gently then allowed her lover to lift her mother up and put her to bed. Sidell joined her holding the sobbing woman until Emma finally calmed down.

"You know?"

"It was the only choice."

"You could have stayed,"

"This was a decision that needed the full support of the council not the coercion of the military. It will be worse before it gets better and there cannot be a time when the council changes its mind and lays the blame on our Warriors."

"Shit," Emma muttered. "After this, I'm stepping down. You're so damn smart you run the place."

Sidell chuckled softly as she gently brushed her fingers through her mother's hair.

"As Leader of this Holding, and Leader of this land, I call on the full council to cast a vote on the following. Shall we, as a military force, take this war that has been forced upon us to the shores of the perpetrators. Council the floor is not open for debate I merely want a tally. Indicate yes by pushing up on the toggle, no push down."

It took twenty minutes for the final tally. Emma's hands shook as she again took the podium. "We appear to have had a miracle happen today. Both the Elder council and the Full council agree. We take it to their shores. As leader it is my right to over rule both councils." She paused and gathered herself, "On this day we, as the people of Riger, unanimously agree to take this war that was forced upon us to the shores of the perpetrator." Emma's calm fašade failed her as she whispered the final statement, "So let it be written, so let it be done."

Part 14

As Sidell took her mother in her arms Aurora stepped up to the podium. "This council is convened, return home and see to your families. As plans are finalized you will be informed of events. We, as a land, will support this effort in any way possible. At this time, I call to order the Military Council of Riger."

Tristian took her seat, Aurora on her right, Tal on her left. "If all of the politically correct people have been dismissed, can we get down to it?"

The meeting broke into nervous laughter. "I know where Vostle is and I'm going to attempt an entry. This needs to be accomplished without magic so I propose to port to Altair. From its southern most tip, Vostle is two weeks away. I propose to take a small force with me and the back up plan is to port us back to Altair if shit goes tit's up. Basically, I need to scout the land, particularly the nodes and see how much power this would be king wields. If possible we will do troop reconnaissance but that is not the main objective of the initial landing. I'm open to pros and cons, do not bore me with stupid concerns."

She sat back as Aurora snorted in amusement. She really wished the other councils were run like this. Life was so much easier.

Since no one had anything to say Maria stood up and pulled down their strategy board. "Let's begin with the number twelve and work it from there."

"At least two mages," Puck put in. "If Tristian will be the ultimate target, we will need to ensure the rest of the people can get home."

Maria wrote that down and Aurora was doubly glad the meeting was closed. That comment would have started an all out argument."

"With two mages and the Consort, I think the team should be upped to fifteen," Trey put in. "Three on point, and three on each flank and on rear guard. That leaves the mages fully surrounded while they do what ever it is that mages do."

"Point," Maria agreed and upped the team count.

"I've had an...offer," Tal spoke up hesitantly. They regarded her patiently and she cleared her throat. "We've four women here that can shapechange. into wolves, take them also. That would give you far wandering scouts and while they are not mages, either of the mages involved in this venture would be more than capable of projecting to them. My rationale besides that? They've asked that we include them, all of them, from their homeland in this battle. Trust will be hard to win. This may give them a foot in the door rather than having to earn it while some maniac is trying to bust your skull in."

"Far scouts would be good. The mages could constantly sweep them ensuring that any change is caught."

"No, in their shiftshape," Tristian put in, "their thoughts would carry the scent of the beast. I could easily tap that and it's unlikely that Vostle will know about it."

"They did take captives, Sire," Tal reminded her."

"Aye, but only those with the Mother's gift will be able to see the difference."

"A calculated risk?" Tal queried.

"Very good," Tristian rumbled in approval. "I can tap their thoughts and what ever they project to me I'll pick up. Since they will not be broadcasting, the likely hood of discovery is even smaller."

Tristian looked over her council, "We agree?"

Nods around.

"Tal, go get one of your friends," Tristian turned to her daughter. "If we're gonna risk their lives they oughtta have a say."

"Aye, Sire." Tal responded cheekily, hopping up and hurrying out the door.

"You want me to what?"

"Come to the council," Tal explained patiently. "You wanted to play, I've got you in on the first scouting foray but you've been summoned and Tian does not care to be kept waiting. Come now if this is what you want."

Incredulous, Alex jumped into her trousers and entered the council chamber still buttoning her shirt. Apparently this was expected since no one even batted an eye.

"This is Alex," Tal introduced her. "Alex, the council." She returned to her Sire's side leaving a stunned woman sitting at the table.

"Puck," the woman next to her offered. "That's Ceil, Trey, Mardi. Maria's on the board." Puck continued around the table quickly and then turned to Tristian.

"Review."

Maria returned to her position and recapped.

"Alex," Tristian's low voice drifted the length of the room. "It will be dangerous, are you and your friends sure?"

"Yes. We've talked. I told them that I'd told Taledyn and could only sit and wait. We'll go."

"Good." Tristian regarded the room, "Resume."

"I'd recommend light packs," Mardi put in. "We could also devise something for Alex and...company?"

Alex shrugged.

"I'll look into it," Maria responded. "The lighter the packs the less trail you'll leave. Mounted or not?"

"Mounted," Ceil grunted. "If we gotta run, horses run faster." She turned to Alex, "Ever ride pillion?"

"No. What's a pillion?"

"It's a pad or cushion attached to the rear of the saddle," Tal supplied and grinned impishly. "Normally used for those of us with tender backsides."

The room laughed at her joke before settling back down.

"We'll try it out." Ceil continued, "Wolves are good for long lopes but speed will kill them. We'll practice and if you get the hang of it, good. If not, we'll try something else."

Maria was busy writing down all the things they'd need to check into before leaving.

"Ship?" Tal asked.

"I want Bri to arrange it," Tristian decided. "Tinder, let her know. Have it done quickly and no one needs to know where we are from."

"Trestle would cover us," Trey inserted.

"Good, make it so."

"Purpose for visit?"

"None, we swim."

"Night drop," Maria muttered. "I'll have Bri check the maps, be nice if we could find a sheltered cove. You don't need to be in the city?"

"No. Anywhere but I need to touch the land."

"Pick up if we're successful and avoid detection?"

"Have Bri also check the shipping schedules," Tal suggested. "Best not to mess with the schedule. She can identify three or four ships northward bound and make arrangements. Would be best if she could get the same Captain that dropped off nineteen fool women and fifteen horses."

"Point," Maria agreed and wrote that up.

"Alright, that's good enough. I want to leave within the month. Get me a team and no fighting. I'm tired of taking bruised escorts."

The women snickered.

"Puck, call in the commanders and begin plans for support efforts of the full operation. Find me horses, weapons, armor, and supplies. I want them stockpiled until we're satisfied with the numbers."

They nodded and she turned to Alex. "I would like to test the mindlink with all of you. I'll know if it works, you'll know what it feels like. Also, Tal says your people would like to volunteer. We can make arrangements to get there if you can envision a clear site. I'd like that settled before we leave that will give them months to argue about it before we'll need their answer."

"Questions?" No one had any, "Dismissed."

Tal walked Alex back while Alex mused in silence. "That was a council?"

"Sure," Tal answered looking up at her curiously, "Why?"

"Nobody argued."

"Ahh, you missed the beginning. Tian opens with something along the lines of 'don't bore me with stupid arguments'," Tal laughed as she related that. "Keeps the stupidity level down. Also, they've worked together for years. Ride a trail with them and you'll swear you're surrounded by mages. They rarely need to talk to get an order passed."

"Come in?" Alex asked as they reached her cottage. "The girls will have tons of questions and the best I've been able to do is tell them I don't know."

"Aye, for a bit."

Tal briefed them the best she could. Unless you worked with Tristian, you could never know Tristian.

"So...we're in?" Deidre asked suspiciously. "Just like that?"

Tal cocked her head and waited. Alex grinned. This was a Tristian mannerism and Tal assumed it well.

"I mean...Alex tells us she told a little kid, no offense, and next thing we know we're in. Maybe we're bait?"

"Maybe," Tal deadpanned.

The women looked at her strangely. "Well, I mean. How can we be sure?"

"You can't. But that works both ways. You four land here and we're damn near overrun by some nut bucket. It's possible you were plants sent here to get the inside scoop. Now you're looking for a way home and volunteering will get you there. You run to your happy little leader, turn our people in, get a nice haunch of lamb for reward. Hey, job well done, next."

Tal fell silent as Alex tried to keep from laughing. She was the only one that would actually seek Tal out and talk to her. Truth was Alex enjoyed her company. Her friends figured Tal for a noble's brat.

"I think," Loshe murmured in amusement, "she just told you off. Big time."

Deidre scowled but her lips twitch with a grin of admiration. "So, it's a test for all of us?"

"Better now than in the middle of fighting for your lives. But then, I'm just a kid and I could be wrong. Perhaps you'd prefer doing it the other way?"

"Loshe," Trina chuckled, "there's no doubt about it. Deidre's just been slammed and so politely too."

"Must be her mum," Deidre muttered but she laughed softly.

Tal relaxed, "Must be, Tian doesn't do polite."

"Tian, doesn't do questions, doesn't do polite, doesn't do long meetings. What exactly does she do?"

"Anything she likes," Tal replied with a laugh. "If that's all ladies, I'll take my leave. Tomorrow will be a long day."

"Morning," Tal greeted the party as they were finishing breakfast. "Tian wants you."

The women followed her willingly and she led them into the forest arriving at an open clearing.

"Ladies," Tristian greeted their arrival. "I thought you'd be more comfortable shifting here than in the middle of the Warrior's compound."

Alex chuckled, "That's true. Didn't think about that."

Tristian turned her back politely and Tal joined her with a final wink at Alex.

"Alex that better not be your nose in my crotch," Tal growled. She turned to find a laughing large wolf with a coat of deep forest reds looking at her. "Funny girl."

"That's Deidre," Tristian said with a smirk. "Alex is the gray wolf over there."

Tal decided it was time to tune into her gift, "Ah, that's better. So Loshe's the black and Trina is a lighter red than Deidre.

"Very good," Tristian praised her. She looked down at the gray wolf and sent, "Can you hear me?"

Alex whined.

"Think your answer,"

"Yesss,"

"Hmmm," Tristian remarked verbally, "I've never heard a mindspeech lisp."

Tal shrugged.

Tristian worked with them for over an hour until she could identify them by their thoughts. "Okay, need a break?"

No one did.

"I wanna test distance so I need you to head out, stop at a half mile, that's our closest wide rider and work outward at half mile increments. Three miles is the farthest I'll ever have you out. If we connect at three miles, we're done. I'll want to do this once every other day until we're so close you'll feel like you're in my pocket."

Tristian smirk and nodded to Deidre, "Thanks. Alright, head out,"

Tal looked up at her sire, "Did she really say she'd love to be in your pocket?"

"She really did."

"Damn, that bitch theory must be true. They're always in heat."

Tristian laughed as Tal sent this thought to the wolves and Deidre cussed at her.

"I don't believe you said that in front of Tal," Alex muttered after a successful run. "Crimineys, what were you thinking?"

"Me? Hey, she's that one that called me a bitch in heat."

"Was she wrong?"

"Come on, Al, that is one fine looking woman. You can't tell me you haven't drooled."

"Oh yes I can. Tristian scares me so bad if she even thought of making a move on me I'd faint."

"Oh but what a way to go." Deidre hummed.

The next day brought even more excitement as Ceil met them in the glen. "Okay girls, we've had this pillion specifically designed for you all." She put the pad on the ground and explained. "We've had the sides raised a bit and strengthened the supports. I'm hoping, once you ladies get the hang of it, the sides will provide enough support to keep you up on the pillions when you jump."

Alex and crew eyed her warily but waited to see the outcome.

"Today," Ceil continued, "I want the four of you to get use to hitting the pillion dead center. I'll keep raising the height and you'll jump onto it. We'll see how things go." Ceil smirked, "Once we place the pillion on the horse, it would be in your best interest to not scratch the horse. She's liable to kick you into next week."

They started at a height that was mid-way between ground level and the back of a horse. Alex went first and was surprised that the padded cushion and reinforced sides gave her plenty of support to plant herself firmly and not fall over the other side.

For some reason, neither Deidre or Loshe could get the hang of this and they either over jumped it or ended up sliding down either side of the target. Tal rolled over in the grass and laughed her ass off until she was pounced by two non-shifted women and tickled mercilessly.

"I give, I give, please," Tal wheezed.

They let her up still gurgling and then pushed her over as she tried to sit.

Ceil just looked at them. "Come over here."

She put the pillion on the ground and had them pounce on it until they could land with all four paws in the middle of the cushion. Then she moved it back up to mid-way between ground level and horse height. This time they stuck.

Finally she placed the pillion on the target that was near enough to horseback height and they all tried again. It took awhile but finally, the four wolves had it down where they could jump, hit the pillion, and flatten themselves into the cushion to break their momentum. As a final test for the day, they tried in on the horse.

"Perfect," Ceil beamed at their successful attempts. "This one we're gonna practice daily because eventually you're gonna be doing this on run."

Deidre threw her head back and howled mournfully, sending Tal into fits of giggles again.

Ceil just shook her head, "Come on pooch, if you're lucky I'll find you a bone."

Alex snorted in amusement and paced off to lick Tal into giggling again.

"Bah," Tal grumbled, "Wolf slobber, eeewyuck."

They finally settled on the mounts being used and Tristian met them in the practice field. "Alright, the horses need to know you, so lets get introduced."

"Like this?" Alex asked.

"Aye, your scent doesn't change that much and this way their eyes will fool them."

"You mean I still smell like a wolf?"

Tristian grinned, "Well, only to some of us."

The horses balked and Tristian, Ceil and Ches moved through the herd gently calming the nervous animals until the women were accepted as part of the herd.

"I want one of you to change, right here."

They looked at Alex who shrugged and shifted. The horses stomped a bit and a few reared but again they were calmed quickly and Tristian had Alex brush against them as they walked by. This took the entire day until the wolves were happily lying under the horses as they cropped.

"Alright, we'll do it this way for the rest of the week and we're gonna start using them for pillion training. That means we'll be practicing here so I don't have to chase the damn things half way back to Wet Springs." She paused before she headed out. "Stop by the leather shop before you head home. She's got something she wants to try on the four of you."

They rose slowly making no sudden moves and ambled out of the pasture then took off at a run for the leather shop.

They expected to cause a commotion but the people merely greeted them politely as they passed. The leather smith grunted in acknowledgement and beckoned them over. "I be putting this on ye in this shape cause I want to be sure the fit's right. Tain't nothing worse than chapped skin cause the fit be poor."

She adjusted four small lightweight packs whose straps would expand when stretched and retract when released.

"Okay, now shift to ye normal form."

Alex looked up dubiously imagining losing a body part she was quite fond of.

Tal poked her head in and grin, "Alea, Alex is worried the straps will cut her tits off."

Alea chortled, "As if ye were that big, come on, get on with it."

Alex glared at Tal and shifted finding the leather stretching comfortably. Once in human form removal and donning the pack was easy.

"Good, can ye shift back without tuckering ye?"

She nodded and did so.

Alea rechecked the straps and Alex nodded to indicate they felt perfect.

"Okay, I'm done with ye. Next."

Having to make a few adjustments for Trina and Deidre, Alea finally got them settled. "Use the packs while you're training. You'll get use to putting them on and can be sure they're on right. I'll be here to make adjustments. Once yer over there, yer on yer own so check it good before ye leaves.

The women now back in their human form thanked her politely and headed for home.

"Alex?" Deidre called out from her cot.

"Humm?"

"Are these people strange or what? They don't bat an eye when four wolves come tearing through their town. They don't think much of it when we shift back and forth. Hell, I don't think we've made anyone nervous let alone scared."

"It's nice, huh? We don't get this much acceptance from the humans at home."

"Yeah," Deidre replied wistfully. "But damn strange."

Tristian worked them for seven days and then called a meeting of the scout team.

"Come, on," Alex coaxed. "We're on the team and we've gotta be there."

"I hate meetings, I hate arguments, I hate..."

"You're gonna hate yourself if you're late," Tal popped in and provided. "Let's go ladies, Tian doesn't do waiting."

"I hate that saying," Deidre snapped as she followed her laughing friends out.

Tristian eye the assembled team and raised a brow.

Puck cleared her throat, "All of our seconds are trained, Consort. There is no real need for us to be excluded."

Tristian's team took the best that Riger had to offer in one fell swoop but Puck was correct. It was quiet and the seconds needed a chance.

She took her chair as the volunteers let out their breaths.

"Alright," Tristian eyed the room, "for those of you that don't know the drill. We're finalizing the plans for entry, all pertinent comments are acceptable, don't bore me with stupidities." When everything appeared to meet her sense of order she started the meeting, "Begin."

Maria stood and pulled the board down having checked off what was accomplished, calculated schedules for training, and listing the needs for final entry. "From the top. Twelve warriors will alternate point..." she paused and looked to Alex. "You four are not familiar with our terminology. If you're confused, ask. Better here than on the trail."

"Thanks, can you point out where the riders will be so we'll have an idea when we're out?"

Maria pulled a blank board. X's marked the locations. "Point, flanks, rear. Three on each and they'll alternate by day." She looked to Alex who nodded. "Tristian, Bri and Megan will ride in the center of the warriors."

"You for are the far scouts and will ride front and flanks unless we're worried about a rear attack. You'll position at a half-mile and range out to three miles. Never farther and closer only if the terrain demands it or Tristian calls you in. The pattern you follow is yours to choose but a scent should be followed until the three-mile point. If you're really concerned let Tristian know and she'll decide the need to pursue it. This is extremely important for your safety so don't screw it up. If we don't know where you are when shit goes tit's up, we're either leaving your assess or getting ourselves killed trying to find your asses. You four are the most vulnerable. The positions are important but the objective is to give Tristian a chance to check the nodes and come home. Don't forget that. It will not be a good day to die." She eyed the four women to see that they understood the importance of what she said. Satisfied, Maria continued. "We're taking dried rations and will hunt on the trail. Unless pursued we stop nightly, once the command is given to camp, make a final sweep and return. If we need to run you'll receive the command to return, find the nearest horse and jump on."

Ceil chuckled, "Try to be sure it's one of ours."

The room chuckled and Maria looked around. "Questions so far? What we need to do now that the horses have accepted the weight of you four jumping on them is practice doing it while moving. That will be the start of the next training round. You'll be working with this team from now on and will find yourselves paired with any one of us. That's to get all of us familiar with each other and to be sure you aren't left stranded cause your favorite rider was too far away. Continue to use your packs and we'll be loading the horses with theirs so that will be an adjustment for the four of you."

She swept the room and sat down.

Brianna stood. "Alright, we're leaving out of Altair's south harbor. I've talked to the Elders at Trestle and they'll remember sending out fifteen of their people to see about finding some new trade." She grinned at Alex, "That'd be us."

"Jared also has a brother who's a Captain and the schedule he runs will suit us sufficiently. Three days sooner than planned but it's workable or we hold for another month. He returns in three weeks and we can connect or he'll set up the next four week's worth of ships to keep an eye out. There is a cove, it's on the far side and ships have been known to stop. We'll do a night drop close as we can and swim in."

Deidre groaned but said nothing more.

"Same with pick up." She looked around the room. "Questions?"

"Uhmm, how are we going to get to Altair?" Alex asked hesitantly.

"Magic," Tristian answered easily. She paused for further questions and continued when none were asked. "That's it, meet on the field in two days. Today you can rest. Alex, will the four of you wait a minute?"

The women cleared the room and Tal grinned encouragingly at Alex.

"Tomorrow will be a good day to visit your home," Tristian explained. "Care to try it?"

"Okay," Alex drawled. "This is that magic thing again, huh?"

"Yep," Tal answered bouncing in her seat.

"It's up to you four," Tristian reminded them. "We can load a ship and take the long haul, or, we go tomorrow."

Alex hesitated, then asked, "How...what do you need?"

"You're familiar with mindspeech," Tristian began, "Now I'm gonna ask you to visualize someplace in your home. You need to be very familiar with it and be able to picture it clearly in your mind. I'll want to check the visualization so we will be linked."

Alex turned to Tal who was nodding eagerly and she laughed. "Okay. I'm game. Are we sure it's not to far. I mean, what if we can't get back?"

"If we can get there, we can get back. If it's too far, we won't be able to get there in the first place."

"Alright. When?"

"Dawn," was the immediate reply.

"What is it about warriors and dawn?" Deidre asked plaintively.

"They stay less dead," Tal drawled lazily.

Alex giggled while the other three just covered their eyes.

"Have a nice day, ladies," Tristian smirked rising gracefully with Tal at her side, leaving the four of them sitting at the table.

"Alex," Trina muttered, "How old is that kid?"

"Eleven."

"Geez," Loshe mumbled

"Good morning," a gentle voice greeted them as they arrived. "I am Sidell and you are Alex, Trina, Loshe and Deidre."

"Lady, it's our pleasure."

"Please, Sidell will do. Tristian and Tal will be here shortly, they wanted to check on the plans for the stockpiling of supplies."

"You'll be joining us?" Trina asked shyly.

"I will if that's not a problem."

"No. I...why?"

"Because I represent Riger and if your people are offering to assist, Riger should be present to work out the details," Sidell offered reasonably.

"Hmmm, like an agreement."

"Or at least an understanding. It's not our wish to just use people as if they were throw away parts."

Sidell looked over their shoulders and broke into a dazzling smile. "My love?"

"My heart," Tristian replied gathering her close. Tal stood beside them.

Tristian looked up. "I need a volunteer," she murmured in faint amusement.

The four exchanged glances. Alex rolled her eyes and stepped forward.

"This won't hurt," Tristian assured her placing a warm hand on her cheek.

Alex almost fainted at the touch but an amused mind voice filtered through, "Visualize. Someplace large enough for all of us to stand comfortably."

Alex's mind flashed to a glen.

"Good," the voice encouraged her. "Focus in, what are we looking at?"

Slowly the image formed and sharpened, Tristian checked the scene to ensure it was whole. "Last chance, are you sure?"

Alex nodded faintly and the world moved.

She woke dizzily as her senses started to take in the sharp scent of the trees, the buzzing of the insects, the muted call of birds.

She stood in shock. "How in the hell?"

Tristian stood holding Sidell while Tal moved through the women gently nudging them upright.

"This is what you envisioned isn't it?"

"Yes...but," she peered at the maddening woman, "how?"

"Magic," came the inevitable response.

"Alex?"

She whirled to the sound of the voice. "Yes?"

"Really? Alex it's really you?"

Alex smiled recognizing the young voice. "Elias, come out here, silly boy."

A young boy popped up from behind the trees and ran laughingly into her arms. "Alex, it's you. How'd you get away? Did you swim? I've missed you. He turned to the party and threw himself at the other three as they laughed happily. "Where..where is Kyla and Moran?"

"Oh," he murmured crestfallen and Alex hugged him closer.

"Let's go to the village eh?"

"Okay, these your friends?"

"They are. This is Tal, Tristian and Sidell."

"Hi, come on."

"Sire," Tal spoke softly, her voice mildly alarmed.

"I know, leave them," Tristian soothed. "They're only watching and it is their land."

"They could be polite," Tal groused at the unseen watchers.

Tristian grinned and ruffled her hair.

They entered the village and the three of them were immediately surrounded by spear wielding men and women.

"Tal...hold." Tristian murmured.

"What are you doing?" Alex hollered. "They saved us dammit, let them go."

"Go on with you, lass. The elders are waiting. Well take them to the cells and you can tell it to the elders."

"Bahrain, dammit, they're my friends."

"Go on I said."

"Alex," Tristian's low voice rumbled, "it's alright. They're just protecting themselves."

Alex stared at her in shock, "You expected this?"

"Aye, you were visited by slavers or some such. They're not likely to be welcoming visitors with open arms again. Go on, we'll be fine."

"It's not you I'm worried about," Alex muttered.

Tristian smiled, "Sidell is here, she makes me behave."

Tristian made herself comfortable on the hard bench allowing Sidell to pillow against her.

"Nice place," Sidell commented.

Tal snorted in amusement. "If you like native fauna."

Tristian left them talking and sent her senses outward feeling the land greet her, finding the nodes eager to be bonded. She tapped the nearest one and reached for Dyan, feeling her bondmate answer. Grinning, Tristian set about bonding with the node and sending it out to tap the rest. She sat back and waited patiently for the joining.

Tal smirked as the power rose gently and she felt the gentle acceptance of the bond sweep through her.

They were there for an hour when the final node was tapped. A simple probe showed no obstructions anywhere. With a smile, Tristian sealed them and called gently for the southern node she felt the response and a sheen of silver-blue covered her as the node bonded with Dyan. The glow faded and Tristian shifted Sidell into a better position checking on Tal to be sure she was handling the extra power well.

"Whoa," Tal muttered. "There's a pick me up if I've ever felt one."

Tristian burst into laughter as her daughter collapsed into giggles.

"They're what?"

"Laughing," the guard reported.

The women used to Dyan just grinned and shook their heads. They'd been arguing with the stubborn elders for what seemed like hours and they were all tired.

The room jumped when an amused voice interrupted. "Alex, Sidell is hungry."

"Damn," Alex jumped to her feet her friends right behind her gathering plates and food for their guests.

"Alex, Deidre, stop. What are you doing?"

"Sidell is hungry. Are you deaf?"

The elder scowled, "Who is Sidell?"

"One of the women in the cells." Alex dodged his outstretched hand and she and Deidre pushed their way through neither surprised to find Tristian still sitting in the cell holding her lover. The shouts of the guards outside looking for the escapee almost had them in hysterics.

"Hey," Alex called out passing the plates to Tal. "I'm sorry."

"S'okay, mum was hungry and...well you know what happens when mum's upset." Tal mumbled around her meal.

"I can imagine."

Sidell smiled sweetly and thanked them.

"Alex, what are you doing? We've got an escaped prisoner and you're feeding the others."

"Bahrain, you took three prisoners, right?"

"You know I did."

"You have three prisoners. Maybe you should check your eye sight."

Deidre snorted as the two of them made their way back to the Elders hut.

"Alright," the elder sighed. "I still don't know if we can trust them but they're welcome to roam the village until we've made a decision."

"We're leaving tomorrow," Trina put in curiously.

"You aren't going anywhere any time soon."

"Forgive me, elder, I didn't realize we were also prisoners," Alex retorted.

"Alex," the elder growled. "That is not what I meant."

"Sorry, that's what I heard and we are leaving tomorrow. We came because I believe we should help but agree or not, I will help."

She stormed out of the room and went to release her friends.

Loshe couldn't help but chuckle as Tristian and Sidell strolled hand in hand through the village casually ignoring their armed guards. Tal bobbed alongside pointing out neat things in the forest.

"Are you sure that's a dragon," Tal queried.

"Well..never having seen one before I admit I'm not positive but it's no horse, bird or wolf."

Tal couldn't deny that logic and scowled as Sidell's gentle laughter floated over the village.

"She is so much like you, my love."

"Aye, but she talks too much."

Tal stuck her tongue out and Tristian grabbed it in a flickering blur.

"Ahhh, otay, thorry."

"Tian, can we go swimming. It's hot and sticky."

"Ask your mum."

"Mum?"

"I suppose, is it safe?"

Twin pairs of eyes stared at her in utter disbelief.

"Sorry, I forgot to whom I'm speaking with."

They ambled along to a secluded swimming hole and Tal stripped and jumped in. To the guards' astonishment, Tristian did the same and Sidell merely shook her head and retrieve the discarded clothing.

"They're what?"

"Swimming. Nude swimming," Bahrain managed with a cough.

Alex giggled. "Sounds like a plan to me." The four women shifted and howled their way through the village.

"Company," Tal hollered happily.

"Hope they shed the fur. That would stink up the place," Tristian commented lightly.

The women did landing in the pool fully dressed.

Tal's brow rose. "You four always swim fully dressed?"

Alex returned the look, "You two always swim naked?"

"Actually, yeah, we do."

"Why did I ask?" Alex muttered crawling out of her outerwear.

Sidell finally consented to join them but she also entered dressed and then ported her cloths back out fully dry.

"Not fair," Deidre grumbled.

"Allow me, m'lady," Tal bowed elegantly and dried the remaining clothes on the banks.

"Thanks."

"Anytime."

Tal started a water fight and Tristian finally set Sidell down and dove after her daughter dunking her several times before she squealed her apologies.

Alex noted that Tristian immediately moved back into her lover's arms.

"S'not fair, you're bigger than I am," Tal mumbled.

"Whiner," Tristian teased.

"Alright you two. I'm tired of being drowned." Sidell chided them both.

They grinned but settled back relaxing.

"So what's the news?"

"They're talking."

"S'okay, told you we needed to come now so they'll have months to argue about it." Tristian reminded them.

"Yeah, I thought you were kidding."

"Tian doesn't do kidding," Tal replied blithely.

"Now that's a bold face lie, Taledyn," Deidre retorted.

Causing the two in question to laugh heartily. "She nailed you good, sweetheart," Sidell chuckled brushing her daughter's hair with her fingers.

"Aye, she did. S'okay, I wondered how many more I could get away with," Tal responded, unrepentant.

"How many have you come up with so far?" Tristian asked curiously.

"Tons," Deidre answered. "I was beginning to think it was a mantra, something we should chant as we practiced."

Tal's imagination took hold and she began chanting, "Tian don't do stupid, Tian don't do questions, Tian..."

She was muffled by her sire's large hand as Sidell laughed herself silly.

"Alex," the elder interrupted their play. "Would you and your friends come and speak with me in my place?"

"Of course, Elder, we'll be right there."

Tristian stood nonchalantly, the sun glistening off her bronze skin as rivulets of water streamed down her well-defined body.

"Geez," Deidre choked.

Tal jumped out and grabbed Sidell's clothes passing them to her Sire.

Tristian lifted her gently dressing her before anything was revealed and placed her carefully on the bank then she climbed up after her and donned her own clothes. She turned to find four stunned women in the pond. "Well?"

"Ahhh, yup. Coming. Yup, I sure am," Deidre muttered as they dragged themselves out. Tristian and Sidell strolled casually along while Tal waited for the four women.

I am Elder Trenor and I apologize for your reception.

"It's understandable, Elder, from what Alex has explained. I am Sidell, my mate, Tristian, our daughter, Taledyn."

"Ahh, the resemblance is uncanny," the elder murmured as he tried to accept the picture presented to him. Shaking off his musings, he returned to the present. "Alex tells me that your people plan to launch an offensive action against this tyrant that is trying to take over the world?"

"True. We are three weeks away from sending in a scouting expedition for information."

"Good. That is always a best first step." He stopped again. "Frankly, I'm at a loss. I have no idea what to say."

"An answer was never expected today, Elder. We merely wished to propose an alliance. Whether you join or not, we will continue with our plans."

"That is madness. You realize this? He is unstoppable."

Sidell shrugged, "We stopped him once. We'd prefer to stop him for good so this doesn't become an annual event."

"Actually, mum," Tal pointed out. "We stopped him twice. Once on Altair and once on Riger."

"True," Sidell agreed with a smile. "How could I forget?"

Tal grinned and returned her attention to the elder.

"I see. Alex also tells me you plan to leave on the morrow."

"That's true also."

"I'd hoped you could remain...as our guests for a week or so to allow us to become acquainted."

"I could, but I'm the only one that could."

Tristian growled and Sidell stroked her thigh lovingly. The growling did not stop.

"That would be helpful. We are not familiar with your people and..."

"Elder," Sidell interrupted gently. "Excuse us."

She rose and stepped towards the door. Bahrain in his excessive wisdom grabbed her shoulder to spin her around. And almost died.

"Hold!" Sidell commanded.

Bahrain eyes widened in shock at the sword pressed tightly up against his throat, perfectly set to slit it with minimum difficulty. "Never touch," Tristian growled low in her throat. He whimpered and lifted his chin exposing his own throat and signifying acceptance of her command.

She dropped him like a bug and stalked out of the room with Sidell at her side.

"You," Alex told the still quivering man, "are an idiot."

"Sweetheart, they are not going to hurt me and you'll still be in Dyan. If for some reason I'm not back you'll have all the time in the world to come get me. This is a good plan, love. If we can form an alliance, it's possible we can gather more friends. Not to fight but to allow us to seal the lands so his mages can't get to the power."

Tristian glared.

"You said yourself it needs to be done," Sidell reminded her overprotective mate. "For the world, for the people. One week and I'll be home."

Tristian growled.

"One week," Sidell remained firm.

"I don't like it."

"I know you don't but what can they possibly do to me?"

"You'll be alone and I don't like it."

"Honey, you're being unreasonable."

"Yes I am. I am unreasonable. I'm extremely unreasonable when it comes to you and I don't like this!" Tristian exploded.

Sidell sighed. "A compromise?"

"Tomorrow."

"That's not a compromise," she chided. "Try again."

"Six guards two mages."

"For this village?" Sidell's voice rose in disbelief.

"Four, two mages, my final offer, one week."

"Done."

"I don't like it."

"I got that part, love, I'll be fine. I promise."

They entered and Tristian glared at the elder causing him to gulp. "Four guards, two mages, one week. If a hair on her head is harmed, you will regret the day you met Dyan."

"Wait," he squeaked. "Did you say Dyan?"

"She did," Sidell answered quietly, settling her upset lover back on the bench. "Riger is made up of five holdings. Dyan is the largest and we are from Dyan. But the operation involves all of the people so we now say Riger."

"Ahh, well then forgive me. It would appear that this will be much simpler," the elder smiled weakly.

Sidell grinned, "I just got a compromise out of my overprotective lover and I'm not giving it back. Besides, I'd like to meet your people."

"Well in that case. We'd be pleased to have you, Lady."

"Sidell, please. My mother is Lady du Aulstet, I am Sidell."

"Dear Alwyn," the man trembled in shock. He turned to Alex and saw her confusion and shook his head. "I..I must call a council. I..Alex how could you not know?"

"Know what?" Alex responded in confusion.

"I..forgive me, Lady. I must call the council together. Could we possibly meet with you in...say two hours? I'll have quarters prepared for the three of you immediately."

He stumbled out, leaving a room full of confused people. Tristian snorted. "Tomorrow, this place is nuts."

"Hush you, we've already made our deal and you can't go changing it when ever you please."

Tristian pouted. Sidell grinned and gently suckled the protruding lip. "Be nice."

"I was nice. I didn't kill that idiot."

"True." Sidell chuckled and stood. "Shall we, this umm, hut is a bit claustrophobic."

They ventured back out and Alex turned to Tal. "Would she have killed him?"

"Without a thought. He touched me mum." Tal answered solemnly and rose to join her parents.

The council was not a rousing success. "How can we be sure you're from Dyan?"

Sidell rolled her eyes. At this rate, she'd be lucky if she could convince Tristian not to remove the village from the map. "What kind of proof would you like, Elder?"

That stumped them and they stared at each other in confusion. "Uhm, I don't know."

"Then yes," Sidell said reasonably, "It would be very difficult for me to prove my claim."

She sighed as they started arguing again. "Why don't we stick with the original plan and you can forget about Dyan. I'll stay the week, four guards, two mages."

"No guards, no mages," another snorted in disdain.

"Then how about we just leave now and forget about all of this. I really don't have the time to play and Tristian is notoriously impatient."

"How about we put you back in your cells and you can wait while we decide what to do with you."

"Enough!" Tristian rose in anger. Sidell sighed in defeat, she had tried. "We leave now and this land be damned." She turned to Alex, "Choose."

"Oh we're coming. When ever you are ready."

The guards came rushing in at the Elders' frantic calls and Tristian dropped them with a shattering clash of air. Power hummed and the air shimmered.

"Wait...please...wait..."

"Hold, love." Sidell murmured gently and the power dissipated. "Speak quickly, my Consort is out of patience."

"We agree," the elders shouted. "Stay on your terms, please."

"Why?"

"Because you are Dyan. Lady, please, stay."

A flickering bolt of lightning lit the sky and six women stood at guard on the door of the elder's home. "So be it."

"Do you get the feeling we should have insisted Sidell return with us," Deidre murmured softly.

"Ayup," Trina quipped.

They were watching a sparing match. Or rather, a match were the warriors were doing their best to stay in one piece while Tristian barreled her way through them with negligent ease.

Ceil stepped up behind them and sighed. "Guys, we love you furballs but the next damn time you leave Sidell anywhere, send a note so the rest of us can join her."

"Okay," Alex squeaked.

Ches, Maria, and Puck joined her. "Come on guys let's go see if we can tire her out."

Ches snorted and the four moved forward splitting up and attacking in concert. Tristian's blade whirled as she danced through, but the women moved with her keeping her blocked in. Parrying blows no eye could see they danced a dance of death and Tristian laughed as she shattered a blade and moved to the outside of the circle. But Puck went down when she felt the blade give crossing Tristian's path causing her to stumble she rose triumphant with another blade and moved back in never letting her leave the ring they had her surrounded in. The warriors roused themselves and joined in the fray, as they pushed closer the four women had to resort to blocking body blows as Tristian reigned her sword in so she wouldn't carve her own people in half, finally after over two hours of sparring they managed to keep her trapped long enough to take her down and pile on her.

"Goddess bless," Deidre breathed as the Consort roared and the teeming mass of bodies flew outward leaving Tristian standing alone on the field.

"Very good," She praised them as she helped them off the field.

"She'll be home tomorrow," Maria muttered limping by.

"She better be," an equally aching Ches followed.

Tristian found her four scouts. "Come."

"Oh shit."

She whistled for Shadow and saddled her up, attaching the light pack and pillion. "Let's see what you've learned."

They shifted and Tristian rode by at various angles and various speeds. All four managed to hang on each time and one hour later she called a halt. "Good. In two days we go for the gallop."

"Can't wait," Trina mumbled as they passed Tal.

"Tian, mum says to come home and quit beating up on the warriors."

The people threw themselves out of her path as Tristian barreled past heading for her lover.

"Never again," Alex muttered after being squashed against the wall by a hastily dodging woman.

"Thank, Alwyn," Ceil breathed as she went to pass on the good news.

Part 15

"We'll swing into the cove, Lady, I can't give ye more than an hour to get off. Less would be best. There be a land jetty we'll swing up to. Should be able to land you dry. If'n our luck holds no one will know you're here."

"Thank you, Mardrone," Tristian responded softly.

"Nay, Lady. Thank you," the ship's Captain smiled shyly as his crew swung the ship snuggly up against the jutting land mass. They were off loaded and the ship moving on its way within the hour."

"Scout's out, okay furballs, do your thing, let's move people," Maria commanded in a low voice. "Alex, you and yours remember, we're supposed to go home. No heroics."

The majestic gray wolf padded up and laid a warm muzzle in her hand.

Maria grinned, "See you down the trail."

The four beasts vanished into the night.

Tristian sat Shadow in a negligent lounge as the scouts moved into place and Shadow followed the leader.

Tristian sent her senses out cautiously, expecting at any minute to find resistance. She connected immediately with a powerful node pulsing quietly in somnolent repose. She touched it, probing gently and felt the swirl of gentle mage energy reach up to test her. She lounged as the tendrils of power surrounded her touching, tasting, testing until she was recognized and the node roused filling her suddenly with a joyous rush of energy.

"Whoa," She bolted upright, unprepared for that reaction as power flooded her every pore.

"Hold," Maria commanded gently and Brianna sent out a mindcall to their friends. A simple signal if picked up that would not be understood but the wolves would know it well and hold their position.

They waited quietly as Tristian struggled to control the wild energy coursing through her.

She called for Altair, bringing the soothing touch of her bondmate swirling into the seething torrent of power and the nodes linked in joy, releasing her as the focus and allowing her a chance to sense the needs of the node. She touched it again and this time was not overwhelmed, she sealed it now, claiming it the Mother's Own and the node responded in childish glee as she released it to find its brethren.

"Continue," she murmured. Maria moved them on and Tristian reclaimed her mindlinks settling their concerns and sending them off again.

They made their way through the thick undergrowth moving carefully up hill, their goal for the night the top of the rise. There they would make camp until morn.

Tristian called the wolves in and the small group sat easily hidden in the forests growth until the slinking black shadows of their scouts drifted into the camp.

"Got some human scent off to the east," Deidre reported. "Past the three mile limit but I can smell it on the wind."

"Got some due south, in our path as I remember," Trina added helpfully. The other two caught no unusual scent but game was abundant. Tristian's probe had all ready connected with three other large nodes and she marveled at the power of the land.

They continued in silence for a week and a half, their silent scouts giving them more than enough warning to avoid detection by the occupants of the land. Tristian's bond continued to extend and she began wondering whether she had the right landmass.

"Something's not right," She told them one evening. "These mages tap the land, I've seen that in Dyan. But the nodes I'm finding have been untouched for generations. They're so excited that someone is here the first node almost knocked me on my butt." She paused and looked around. "Any of you find a village or something."

"Off to the west is human scent." Alex mumbled around her supper. "Big village from the smells. Wanna go?"

"I think so. We need more information than the land can give me." She nodded, "In the morning we'll change tracks and follow Alex. Two of you scout the village and let me know what to expect. Try not to get yourselves skinned."

Loshe made a face. "That is such a disgusting practice. It's not like I'd take your skin and hang in on my wall."

"Cause ours aren't as pretty," Tinder shot back quietly. The women settled quickly, morning comes much to soon on the trail.

Three days saw them sitting in the forest shadows moving onto the village stealthily.

"I need to go in." Tristian announced.

"Not alone?" Puck growled.

"Aye." She held up her hand. "But, two pair of you can wander in from the other gates. I'll take the main gate and see if I cause a stir. While I'm doing that, four of you slip in and insinuate yourselves among the people. Objective. Where is the king? How does he get his power?" She reviewed the faces as Maria and Megan jumped up followed by Puck and Ceil. "Good enough. Shit goes tits up get your asses home. Megan you got this lot in the city, Brianna, the rest of them."

"Let me go with you," Alex pleaded. "I can go in my shiftshape and be your pet. Should make some kinda reputation for you don't you think?"

Tristian chuckled. "Not exciting enough yet?"

"Tristian, I've never been more scared in my life these past two weeks. Would have peed myself many times in this shape. But...I want to go."

Maria smirked, "All this do gooding can be damn addicting."

The four newcomers shifted guiltily and Alex sighed. "It is. I...I feel good. About me, about what I'm doing with my life." Her friends nodded sheepishly.

"Alright," Tristian responded on a soft laugh. "Come along little wolf, let's go see if g'ma's home."

The women smiled at the well-loved children's tale. Although in the version four of them had heard, the wolf ate the idiot child.

Tristian donned her pack and settled her weapons. She then trudged over to a muddy brook and splashed gleefully, splattering her clothes in muck.

"Eeeyew," Alex sniffed. "How come I get the messy human?"

Tristian proceeded to roughen up her appearance so she'd at least look like she'd been hunting for a few days. She opted to leave Shadow behind and the two women blended into the verdant depths of the woods.

"Are we sure she's not a wolf?"

"No," Tinder deadpanned. "Do you wanna ask her?"

"Uh...that would be no."

"Smart girl," Trey responded in amusement.

Tristian and Alex entered the front gate with out being stopped or challenged. The guards did move back as Alex drew abreast and she snickered internally. Tristian was far and away more dangerous than this little wolf would ever be.

The village was...quiet. Odd in the extreme since it was a fairly large village but the noise was muted. No loud chatter could be heard in the square, no one laughed, and no sound of children could be heard. Tristian made her way to a likely tavern and entered, holding the door open and sweeping a knowing glance across the room. The tavernkeep eyed her warily and looked down at the wolf but kept his mouth shut.

She grabbed a table in the back of the room seating herself to view the entire room. Alex curled up under it making sure her tale was tucked out of the walkway.

"What ken I bring ye?"

"Your plate, ale, stew and water for the wolf, and a loaf of your bread."

"With honey," Alex sent.

Tristian bit her lip to stop the grin. "With honey, just slice in down the middle and pour some in."

"Be right back." Their server nodded nervously and moved to fill their order. They were half way through when the sounds of hooves could be heard and the despair around them rose even higher.

The door burst in and six swaggering soldiers pushed their way to a table rudely shoving the occupants out of the way.

"Well," Tristian considered, "Maybe it's the right land after all."

"Keep! Keep! Damn your hide man, you've thirsty men here. Let's have some service."

"Hmmm," Tristian read from Alex, "Raw soldier butt, my favorite."

"Stop that you," Tristian chided. "It's alright if you laugh at him, you're just a big dog. I'd start a fight."

"Okay," Alex sighed.

The largest of the group looked around the room sneeringly. "Alright, you folks know the drill, we'll be leaving in an hour. Have the people set up in the square. King Dronar needs more bodies and we need to come further and further out so double the shipment. I hate being out here."

Another growled, "And bring out the kids. He prefers kids and gods know you people breed like rabbits. Make us look for them and we'll tear this place down around your ears."

"And Keep, include the big silent one in the back in your homage payment."

Tristian left a snarling Alex near the gate. "Follow us, bring the rest, I'm going with them."

She'd order the other four out of the village but wasn't really surprised to find a struggling and cursing Maria being dragged into the square. She made her way to the waiting people and caught her before she fell on her butt.

"Hey there," Maria greeted her cheerfully, "come here often?"

Tristian grunted and hauled her upright by her collar. "Remind me to beat you when we get home."

"Got it. I'll make a note."

The people were so docile the guards quit watching by the time they left the village.

"So, what's this all about?" Tristian murmured to a neighbor.

"Ye picked a bad time to visit, lass. Sorry ye got stuck with us."

"Where are we going?"

"To the palace, the King." The man's eyes darted around. "They say, the King needs the blood sacrifice for his magics. He uses this land as a breeding ground and we supply fuel for his evil will."

"Considered fighting back?"

"Shhh," a woman hushed them. "They'll hear and kill us."

Maria stared at her in astonishment. "Forgive me if I'm wrong, but isn't that what's going to happen anyway?"

They stared at her in confusion as Tristian muffled a snort. She sent a query for the closest troops and found none. "How longs this been going on?"

"Half me life."

"Same King?"

"Only one we know. Been here since forever but he never gets older and he treats us well until he needs sacrifices. Been bad this year. Talk says he's been beaten, twice, so he's really stirring the pot."

"What about his mages?"

"Ah...talk is, they call to the land, he draws from them." He looked up curiously, "Ye got a lot of questions."

Tristian shrugged, "I'm a nosy kind of girl."

"How far's the palace?"

"Three days once we clear the highlands. Seven from here."

"So, you guys wanna go back to your village or continue on?"

They stared at her.

"Gotta make a choice, time for us to leave. If we disappear they may take it out on you. If we kill them, you can go back and wait for the next bunch to finally be sent out."

"Yer mad. They're the best in the land. Ye can't kill them ye crazy girl."

"So, you want me to just disappear? Okay?"

"NO. Take us with you. Please. They don't know what villages are being taxed so they'll never know these came here."

"Okay."

Tristian made her way forward with Maria right behind her. "Hey, ugly. I gotta pee."

"Piss in yer pants. Won't matter, we only needs you dead, not clean."

She pulled him off his horse and he smiled. "Brave girl, to bad you're gonna be a hurting girl soon."

"Ya know...I've always hated being called a girl," she remarked casually and kneed him in the groin, a left to his jaw brought him upright and she reached out and snapped his neck.

His five companions saw this in shock and they charged. Four snarling wolves leapt and took the men out of their saddles. Alex's jaw clamped on a tender throat and then snapped shut. Her victim gurgling his last breath. Women swarmed through the woods and shortly, the path was clear again except for Tristian who stood looking at the villagers. "Go home. Live the best you can."

And then she was gone. There were no bodies and very little blood. The next rain would remove all signs. The people mumbled of spirits and trudged back the way they came.

They reached the descending slope that would lead the down from the highlands after four days of silent travel. Tristian's eyes blinked as she stared out across a valley that spread out below them and reached across to the horizons. She stared in shocked at the armed camp of Vostle. Armed camps as far as the eye could see literally filled the valley floor.

"Goddess bless," Ceil breathed. "That's...that's more people than I can begin to count."

"He's got over seven thousand people cluttered in that valley," Tristian remarked having estimated the group strength of each camp. "I need to know how many are here willingly." She also needed to know why the node probe did not breach the valley. Something was stopping the bonding and to know that, they needed to be down there.

"We enter, try to look like competent troops. We'll just be one more set of scouts returning with news."

"What's the news?"

Tristian thought a bit, "Rumors that someone is launching a massive offensive. Seems the villages picked up on it from traders."

"Shaky but...what the hell."

"Alex, you four stay in your shiftshapes and mingle with the horses. I'll send you out at night. For now, we'll try to bluff our way in."

They descended openly without trying to hide. The people in the valley saw them and then returned to their own concerns.

"Halt. Whom do you ride with?"

Tristian swiped a name from the thoughts around her as the people came up with their own ideas on who these women must belong to. "Lessa's Raiders."

"Where are you coming from?"

Tristian eyed him coldly. "When you start to look like my Commander, I'll treat you like my Commander."

A grizzled old timer sauntered up grinning, "Best watch your tale boy. She be the type to catch Les' eye. Happen you twist the wrong tail, you're gonna wish your momma and daddy didn't do the deed that one time." He cackled at his own wit and shuffled off.

Tristian smirked. "Move boy, Les don't like to wait, and we don't keep her unhappy."

He grudgingly gave ground as the party moved forward.

Tristian could now feel the shields surrounding the valley nodes. They were spotty and not well maintained but she would need to guide the bonding rather than allowing the nodes to find their own way. Still. The valley nodes were free and she could seal them inside the shield and use them to break through. But...not yet. "Maria, find me this damn palace and then we're out of here. I've one more thing I need to check."

They camped as they found clear space and moved on silently causing no problems in the camps. Occasionally they were challenged but no one wanted the take on the formidable women that rode as wild as the wolves that came to their hand.

The palace itself was situated lower still in a natural bowl of the soil. The massive courtyard was filled with people hanging from the beams erected to support them. Men, women and children groaned weakly. Channels were carved into the floor in keeping with the slope of the soil and led to a reservoir filled with a dark substance. The wolf's hackles rose and Tristian's senses recoiled at the smell of blood that hung over the palace.

"Shit," Trey whispered in horror.

"People of Vostle, hear me, King Dronar, Ruler on the known world. We have conquered the lands that surround us and now...we move to conquer the unknown. This then, is the start of our final campaign. The ships are ready, you have your orders, rejoice with me as I raise the blessings of our true god. The screaming began as soldiers fell out and surrounded the bound victims. Slowly, torturously, they made bloody slices on the now hysterical bodies.

Tristian felt the mages' touch to the nodes and the power rose, guided by their hands it coiled and pooled beneath the palace. King Dronar strode arrogantly through the screaming, bleeding masses of flesh and mounted his Dais. He raised his hands out in supplication and called on his god. The node power seared and burst forth in an angry red as it circled his powerful form in a show of domination.

"Yes, See, I am your King and our god comes to my call."

Blood collected in the channels and flowed slowly to the pooling reservoir.

Now Tristian felt the power of the King as he pooled the dark forces from the agony and misery of the tortured. He glowed with a dark eerie light of the damned and reached down for a dipper passing it through the reservoir and drinking greedily of the blood of the innocents. Power flared off of him and the node magic recoiled. Held in place by the mages but refusing to touch the unnatural energy in its midst. "Hear me now," he projected, "I am the King. Stand beside me and live, against me and you will serve as fuel for my god."

A building of power and a clash of lightning, the node magic was released and the King sagged into his chair, his aura still bristling with the touch of the mage. "Prepare, we leave in one month and we will not return until the world is mine."

"Move out," Tristian ordered softly to find they'd been surrounded by a flange of women eyeing them coldly.

"Follow me," the leader ordered. "Unless, you'd rather visit our king."

Tristian nodded and the company fell in while the women took guard positions around them. They were led to the farthest corner of the valley, away from the palace and relatively clear of others.

"Dismount," the gruff order came.

Again Tristian nodded and the company stood down.

"Keep your beasts under control or we'll skin em alive."

Alex sat on Tristian's foot while the rest of them attached themselves to a nearby warrior.

"Come."

They were led into an entrance in the caverns camouflaged well by the natural brush of the surrounding flora.

"Enjoyed the show?" A sharp voice asked them pointedly.

"I've seen better," Tristian remarked casually. "Less bloody too."

"I understand you're one of my squads. Been out in the north high country. So, Commander, report."

"As I told the boy, when you look like my Commander, I'll treat you like my Commander."

"You also told the boy you rode with me," Lessa stated coolly.

"I lied," Tristian growled.

"What shall I do with you?" Lessa asked, eyeing her sleek form appreciatively. "What shall I do with all of you?"

"Letting us go, comes to mind," Ceil muttered.

"Silence," a guard rasped swinging a staff at her.

Ceil snapped it in half leaving an astounded guard staring at her broken stick.

Tristian turned to her with an amused stare. "Be nice."

"Awwww," Ceil pouted.

Lessa appraised them further. "Tell me Commander, you're in a large cavern, surrounded by over thirty women. What would happen if I ordered them to kill you all?"

"You would die. All of you." Tristian rasped softly. Bringing murmurs of anger around the cavern.

Lessa smiled in amusement. "You know...I almost believe you. Why are you here? You don't belong here and unlike foolish boys, I know you aren't common mercs. So, Commander, why or I'll just turn you in to our...King and see what he has to say."

Tristian studied her for long minutes before answering. "We're here as a scout force."

"For what purpose? To join him?"

"To kill him." She snarled. Alex's lip lifted in response and a low growl escaped her throat. Tristian's hand ruffled her fur and she settled.

The women in the cavern laughed heartily.

"That's a good joke, Commander. Pretty funny." Lessa's eyes snapped in anger. "I think you were sent as spies. To see how loyal his troops are to him."

"He doesn't care," Tristian responded evenly. "It doesn't matter, magic will push you to fight, magic will force you to continue when there is no way to win, magic will fight this war. You, all of you, are puppets, and the master is neither concerned with your loyalty, nor cares about your well being."

"How do you know this, if you aren't his spy?"

"I," Tristian paused to let that sink in, "am not an idiot."

Lessa studied Tristian again then turned to her guards. "Take them to the large chamber, get them food and drink, leave them free to move but confine them inside. Leave me, I must think."

The warriors stood poised for action when Lessa turned to Tristian. "Please, let me think. Does a single day really matter?"

Tristian nodded and the company followed quietly.

They were fed well and left to themselves. Being pragmatics at heart, the warriors napped knowing their senses were more than sufficient to warn them of danger. The four wolves curled up into a ball of tangled limbs, and the women sprawled out on the available flat tops.

"Lessa" Arina growled. "They're spies. Who else could they be? They're sleeping we could kill them all right now and Dronar will never know."

"Arina, if you stepped into that chamber, you would be dead before you even knew they were awake. I looked into her eyes, Arina. I felt the truth of her words. She did not lie. Not to me."

"You're a fool. We've come so far and we're so close."

Lessa laughed. "Close? We haven't a chance. Even with the agreements we have between other companies, we're outnumbered and out magic'd. We need help and they are here. What else can we ask for, Arina? Alwyn has finally provided the chance; I'm going to take it. I have no choice."

"Les," Arina faltered. "Les, are you sure?"

"Yes," she stated with conviction, her belief shinning in her eyes.

"Then, let us go see our new friends." Arina acceded with a smile.

"Thanks, my friend." Lessa squeezed her arm gently.

Arian held her back, winking, and walked softly into the chamber.

"You wanna die now or wait until I get up?" an amused voice mocked her. She spun and gazed into laughing brown eyes as Maria Delgado uncoiled her tall, slender frame and stretched. Maria grinned, "Well?"

"Uhmmm, not...no...not now."

"Good call, Tristian hates to have her naps interrupted."

Lessa came in chuckling softly, "I did warn you, Arina. Like the mule, you just have to be shown, huh?"

Lessa gazed around at the deceptively reclining forms and the somnolent sleeper on the front table. Knowing instinctively that, even now, that one was the most dangerous of all. "Can we talk? It's necessary and we can help."

"Tristian, how come every place we go, someone can always help?" Ches complained good-naturedly. "Just once, I wanna be the helper, and not the doer."

Tristian handed her some cheese.

Ceil laughed, "Aye, sib, have some cheese with that whine."

The women laughed softly and Tristian uncurled her powerful frame standing to face Lessa, "So...talk."

Maria clucked at her, "Forgive her, she never learned that lesson about being polite. Let's get comfortable and you can tell your tale and we'll tell ours."

"We hired on as mercs," Lessa stated baldly. "I'll not lie about that, it's what mercs do. We never counted on the blood baths, the tortures or laying waste to the land for a madman's dream. We've...had second thoughts."

Arina chortled, "Try fourths, fifths, and sixths."

"Well you get the point. I know quite a few of the companies here and...with subtle questioning, found that I could raise a quarter of these to rally against Dronar. Problem is, it's not enough and that's where we were when you all dropped into our laps. The old man you passed new you weren't mine and he sent word. We figured Dronar heard about the plot and was after my head. But...the fact remains, we are inside. No matter how many people you bring, you will still be outside."

"Not quite," Tristian laughed gently. "But I get your point. I admit that all the help we can get will be necessary. At the moment, I can raise four thousand fighters. The reason we came in were many but I'd hoped that not all here in the valley were fanatics."

"That's still a small crew, they're almost double your numbers."

"True but," she grinned, "we're not all just fighters." She turned to the pile of wolf fur. "Alex, can you get out from under there?"

The pile groaned but the large gray wolf eased out and padded over to Tristian. "I think it's time to show them. With Dronar's plan to ship out in a month we've no time to waste."

Alex sniffed, and shifted.

Arina tripped over her feet backing up and fell into a pile of outraged wolves, who also shifted and glared at her. "Clumsy human," Deidre chided her in amusement.

Ceil rolled over in laughter at the priceless look of utter shock on Arina's face.

Alex smiled, "My people have also offered to help. All of us are shapeshifters but not all are wolves." She went on to explain and Lessa began to discuss the upcoming plans with gleeful animation.

"What now?" Lessa inquired.

"You will need to find some kind of banner that will mark those who fight with us," Tristian warned.

"I can pass the word that all will wear black. Either an arm band or headband."

"It will do." Maria agreed.

"All that's left is to get us home. We've got a pick up point off the northern jetty but we'll miss the first ship. They've arranged for one to stop once a week after that to check for us."

"I can get you on board one of ours. It sails to Altair for trade. I often send squads out for information retrieval."

"When?"

"Let me check." Arina rose to call a guard. She passed quick orders and returned to her seat.

"Tristian, we're gonna be cutting it close."

"I'll destroy his damn armada. That will give us the time we need. I can wait till we're out to sea and then flame them all."

"Bad plan," Maria put in. "You did that in Dyan. A bit suspicious don't you think?"

"A calculated risk?"

"It will put him on guard and we sure as hell don't need anything else against us."

"The only other option is to port us home from the ship and that will cause all kinds of talk."

Ches considered this and then added. "So take the damn ship with us." She laughed, "We can let them go once we get there, it will take them weeks to return and they're merchants. It's not like they were going to fight anyway."

Tristian considered and sent her gaze around the room. Her Commanders nodded in agreement. She scowled. "Done, but the first thing I'm doing when we come back is sinking his armada."

"What a baby," Maria cooed, "Don't pout, it's unbecoming."

Ches laughed, "I never understood that saying. Becoming what?"

Maria shrugged, "How would I know? I just repeat em. Go ask Tal, she probably looked it up."

They were in Dyan in two days and Sidell had already passed the word that they were leaving in a little over three weeks. Whatever preparations had been made would have to do. She also went ahead to Newberg and the people there were told that the attack would take place within the month. They were quite content to follow along. Theirs was a history of great alliances with Dyan. Following now was as ingrained as eating. They would wait for their mages and come when it was time.

With two thousand troops at each site, mages prepared and linked with the Consort, the arrival spots had been chosen previously and they would land in groups throughout the valley. Tristian was surrounded by the warriors chosen guards. She needed to break the shields and complete the bond but since she would not be calling for the master nodes, she didn't expect to encounter the same power feed as before.

"Company!" Tristian mindsent, "On three."

The air above the valley sizzled with electricity and Lessa ran outside. A shiver of anticipation ran up her spine. "They come, she shouted, raise the banner, do it now." From the far side of the valley a black pennant rose and flittered in the breeze, across the valley floor, more were raised. Men and women dug out the scraps of linen saved for this day.

The mages of the palace ran outside in consternation, looking around them for a threat. Dronar screamed for information and the air roiled as sound cascaded across the sky. In a burst of blinding flashes, Dyan arrived. Above the sounds of battle a clear voice raised, "For Dyan, For Freedom."

Tristian called for the nodes and they rushed to her summons like bees to honey filling her with power as the mages tried to tap the energies. Tristian called for a bond and the node power merged to a single strand of concentrated energy, she sent it barreling back outside the valley shattering the pathetic shields that had them contained and reached for the other side of Vostle. The power surged, joyous in its homecoming, again she called for the bond, binding the nodes to Dyan and sealing the power to the Mother's Own. Mage energy flared around her as her mages battled to keep her safe until she could defend herself. Soldiers screamed in agony as unfeeling blades ripped through muscle and sinew with equal abandon

Finally, Tristian rose, and pulled her sword. As the dance began the warriors moved outward leaving her room to maneuver as she cleared a path to the palace, the mages, and the man who would be king. Her guards protected flanks and rear as she carved a deadly swath through the mass of humanity in her way.

"Alwyn bless us," Arina breathed as warriors and shapeshifters fought side-by-side, leaving nothing in their path unless marked with a black band.

"Hey guys," Maria laughingly called to them. "Waiting for an invitation?"

The women laughed in delight and ran screaming into the melee.

"Come on, Shelvern, lift your butt," Alex exhorted, "Up, Up, damn dragon's worthless on the ground." With an effort he was aloft and his brethren, seeing this, flocked to join him. Alex snorted, "Now go, do dragon stuff, just don't harm our people or Tristian will hang your hide from her bedpost."

Panic ensued as the dragons swooped, opening deadly claws and raking through frail human bodies with deadly results.

"Hey," Maria hollered, "Watch that damn tail!"

"Sorry," Shelvern's low boom sounded across the land.

"A dragon," Arina blurted, "that's a dragon."

"Point," Maria called out laughing. "That's one for the girl."

Horses ran rampant through the high grass kicking, biting, and trampling their way through. The warriors rushed after them, fighting to get closer to the center where the final battle would take place. They were still out numbered but as the shadows grew long, the remaining troops fell back to the palace bowl and Tristian called off the attack.

"Fall back, set up camp. Ceil set a ring of guards around this place, no one in or out." She looked around, "Maria, where the hell are you?

"Right here oh blind one."

"Set out scouts, get us some food, we've got hungry people who deserve to be fed."

"Aye,"

"Alex," Tristian shouted, "Alex!"

"Okay, I'm here," Alex replied limping up.

Tristian glared at her, "Trey, take her to the healers and find me one of the others."

"Puck!"

"Yes, oh bellowing one?"

"Settle the mercs."

"Commander," Trina panted running up.

"Settle your people, we've set out to hunt but if you've other things you need they'll have to provide it.

"Shelvern went fishing. He'll bring back enough for everyone."

Tristian tried to shake the image of a dragon with a fishing pole from her mind.

"The rest of you, collect these bodies." She looked out in the harbor to ensure the massive fleet was totally destroyed and smiled grimly at the burning wrecks.

"Tristian," Mardi ran up. "We need more healers, ours are over taxed and our mages pretty tapped out.

Tristian nodded and called to Jax. Two-dozen healers were ported in.

Slowly order was brought to the chaos on the field as the night darkened and fire pits highlighted the eerie landscape.

"Damn I'm tired," Ceil muttered dropping into a limp pile.

Puck hobbled up. "We lost over three hundred. Considering the odds, I'm thankful the damage was that low."

Tristian nodded, but numbers were one thing. Families another.

"I've got the Commanders from each company headed this way and Deidre will stand in for Alex. She took a nasty sword hit saving one of our youngsters but Jax got to her in time. She's pouting cause she can't play no more." Puck relayed as she joined the limp bodies on the ground.

Tristian snorted and extended her long legs comfortably.

Lessa came up with twenty people around her all chatting excitedly about the battle.

"Did you see that dragon?" Arina exclaimed in wonder.

"Who could miss them?" Another laughed at her. "Thought the world had ended when one of the stuck a claw down and damn near cleared the area around us. Got us back our second wind I'll tell ya or I wouldn't be sitting here tonight swapping tall tales."

"Them damn horses, I've never seen the like. T'was like they could think."

"They can," Maria inserted dryly, "pouring herself a glass of ale. They're shapeshifters, all of them, and they're our friends so you be nice to them no matter what shape their in."

A low whicker of approval sounded and changed as a man stepped into the circle. "Thank you for those words, sometimes, our own have trouble accepting us."

Maria shrugged, "People is people, it's the heart that counts and your people have good ones."

And that pretty much summed up Dyan's attitude. They did what they needed to do, that was good enough for them."

Tristian sat silently letting the ebb of her bondmate soothe her aching body and heal her slight injuries. She could still feel the thrill of excitement flowing through the bond as the energies soared and linked through the Mother's womb. She smiled, the difference between these nodes and Dyan's were incredible. Dyan's were staid, dignified, and familiar with the bond and their responsibilities. This land was like a child with new friends and it reached out eagerly for acceptance. She heard the soft drone of her commanders but remained in the limbo of her bondmate for a needed moment of peace.

"She alright?" Lessa asked curiously.

"Aye, just napping," Maria replied. It was a much easier answer to give than the truth.

"She always glows like that when she's napping?"

Ceil chuckled, "Ahhh, it's just Tristian. She always had to be different."

Lessa could see she would get no information from the women and changed the subject.

"Alright," Puck spoke evenly, "from the numbers we've lost about three hundred people today. Most of you know that's incredibly lucky but lets not forget, all of them had someone at home waiting for them. The good news, we took down more than half of the original forces in the valley. With you all joining us, I'd say they've got less than three thousand people."

"So where are they?" Tristian's voice asked.

"Good question. The answer is, beats the shit out of me." Puck looked around. "We saw them fall back into the palace, at the time, it didn't seem like many since they were staggering in but now...they couldn't possibly fit three thousand people in there."

All eyes turned to the mercs who shook their heads. "Not us," Lessa declared. "We weren't honored enough to be allowed entrance in to the palace."

"Speculate," Tristian commanded.

"Caves? You saw our cavern; it goes back quite a bit. These hills are honey combed with tunnels. Maybe there's one beneath the palace."

"Possible," Tristian considered. "I know mage energy wasn't used to move them so those people are here somewhere. Where is the question?"

"I hate caves," Ches said with some heat. "I hate small dark, damp, slimy places."

"Ches," Ceil chided, "You want more cheese?"

"Alright, if they don't come out, I want all the wood you can gather. We'll enter the obvious entrances and build fires."

Maria grinned, "Smoke?"

Tristian nodded, "Smoke. The thicker the better." She looked around, "I'm going in through the palace. I want to clear that damn reservoir he's got and see what's in there. You all will be responsible for your people, keep them alive. Deidre, your people will split and double up with my warriors. Our Commanders will keep you alive. Maria, set me a team, twenty at best, two mages. I want someone to be able to get them out if I get into trouble."

"Uhmm," Lessa murmured, "Not to put a fine point on it but...who's gonna get you out?"

"I'll worry about that when it happens."

"Let's stay sharp, they may come pouring out of the hillsides in the morning hoping to over run us. No drinking, keep guards up, keep your eyes and ears opened. You're dismissed."

Tristian rose and made her way to her tent.

She stood at the path leading to the palace, twenty warriors at her side when a commotion began behind them.

"We're coming with you," a man shouted. "If'n they're in there you'll need help and we're coming."

Arina stood next to him daring her to deny them.

"Puck!"

"Aye, Commander."

"Secure this path, kill anyone that disobeys my order."

"Aye Commander."

Brianna moved up and the warriors dropped into place as Puck stepped forward. "Little man, Tristian does not care to have her orders ignored. When you're in charge you can make the decisions. Until then, do what you're damn well told to do," Puck ended in a roar and the crowd scampered back. "I better see smoke coming out of the damn hillside before the sun gets much higher or you'll wish I left you to Tristian." The crowd scrambled.

Lessa laughed and shook her head at a sheepish Arina. "You will learn. I just hope you aren't dead when it happens. Come on, let's go make smoke."

As Tristian's crew entered the palace courtyard the ground trembled and quaked. The warriors stood firm. Power rose around them and a sheen of red surrounded the grounds sealing them inside, away from help.

Tristian moved forward to the reservoir and murmured a gentle spell. The blood of the innocents turned into the cool cleaning waters of the Mother. She sipped and then drank deeply, reveling in the power of her bond.

They moved forward and the palace doors burst opened. The warriors prepared to defend but it appeared to be an invitation. Tristian crossed the threshold shattering the wooden barricades with a word and the women stepped into hell. Along every open wall space hung a body, mutilated and bleeding, many still alive. Here she felt again that dark rush of energy, tainted with hate. They moved forward and she extended her bond sending the magics of the Mother outward easing those suffering into her embrace. Now, she felt the first stirrings of fear and the probing of the mages trying to break her link with her bondmate. She followed the scent of magic. Leading her warriors down, down, deep into the bowels of the cavern. And still they passed mutilated bodies, fresh victims, obviously many of those that followed their King into the palace. She eased their passing as she continued her search. They entered a narrow corridor. She took the lead into the stygian darkness. A low grumble alerted her and she froze, the warriors acting on instincts honed by years of practice stopped dead, blades at the ready. She raised a shield barely in time as a blast of searing flame filled the corridors. A gentle murmur sent a ball of light floating down the corridor lighting the darkness. A dragon, shackled to the wall, snarled an snapped at its chains as it sent another wall of flame at them.

Tristian used her gift to see the beaten husk of a man in the dragon's heart. She moved forward slowly, keeping her shield up until they were eye to eye. And then, she showed him home. The dragon whimpered as memories buried made their way to the surface and the shapeshifter changed. Now inside of her shield the mage had no hold on him. She knelt and touched his forehead clearing the taint that bound him to the King. They moved him gently to the side and continued on hoping he'd wake and find his own way. Tristian was not ready to test the shield around the castle. They now entered a large cavern. A pack of snarling wolves attacked and she dropped them with a spell again clearing the tainted bond and leaving them to follow their own paths. Yelling attackers poured into the cavern and the blades danced again as the warriors moved into position. Blood splattered, the sound of bones breaking, the strangled gargle. All sounds of death that these women had heard so many times and then the cavern was clear.

The fear and panic she could sense clearly now as the mages were almost hysterically searching for power.

The screams started then, screams of agony, of untold pain, of a hurt that could never be healed and it echoed into the caverns, around the rooms, down the corridors as the sound rose into a crescendo, sending shivers of fear down the backs of these women who had faced fear before...and won.

She let her mage sense draw her forward, ignoring the sounds that threatened to drive them mad and entered the final chamber. A large anteroom. The cavernous floor was covered in bodies, live bodies. In the center rose a column of stone and on the flat top surface stood King Dronar and his mages. The screaming from the floor could now be understood as a black shadow covered the bodies the screams intensified building into mindless shrieks as the carnivorous insects burrowed into the flesh, eating their way though the obstacles in their path. Tristian was proud of her warriors. Even here, in a chamber of ultimate perversity, they held strong, alert, angry. She raised a hand.

"Stop her you fools," Dronar shouted, "Stop her, now, hurry."

They tried but without the nodes they were nothing and Tristian cleared the cavern in a blazing inferno that scoured both victim and victor alike.

"Nooooo, Master....help me." Dronar cried out in fear.

Tristian waited. Above everything else, she still didn't know what he was. She could feel the power but not the source, her patience honed by years of battle, she merely waited.

Dronar chanted, he pleaded, he cried and finally, he fell on his mages, cutting them open as he fed off the pain. He dove his face into a still bleeding abdomen and drank deeply and now, Tristian felt the power respond. Tristian called her bondmate and Dyan answered, merging neatly, the three master nodes answered the summons of their bondmate. Tristian glowed a burnished silver-blue that pulsed in wild arcs with the untamed power of Vostle. King Dronar stood, no longer cringing and weak. He exuded power, his eyes glowed and he was filled with the red haze of anger. "SO," his voice boomed through the cavern, deep and hollow as if coming from a vast distance. "She has found her bitch," he laughed madly. "And you think to stand against me?"

"PUNY MORTAL," Dronar spat.

Tristian merely cocked her head.

He raised his fists and struck out at her. Her shield held but she felt the power behind the blow.

Angry, he called for his master again, and the power grew. It filled the air, filled the cavern, the air turned thick with power and the mad king laughed. "YOU CANNOT DEFEAT ME"

The energy was so overwhelming she wanted to crawl out of her skin and then, a gentle voice touched her, "call the bond, Tian. I will guide it. Call the bond." Trusting that voice, she did.

Dronar roared in glee. "YES...call the bond...call the power that no mortal can control and save me the trouble of killing you myself. CALL BONDED ONE...call for your death.

The nodes answered rushing for the bond, racing for the joining, reveling in the merging, the power grew, it filled the cave, filled her soul, and continued to build as every node from Newberg, to Riger, to Baylon, to Altair, to Vostle answered the call. The power built but Tal's gentle hands shaped the power, guided the energy, protected her sire and settled it gently around her.

"NOOOOOOOOOO," Dronar roared..."NO mortal can control the power. THAT IS WHY I USE THE UNDEAD...." he struck her again but Tal was there, adjusting the shields, deflecting the energy. And then a flicker of light appeared, and Tristian smiled at her guide.

"Hear me, bonded, he must be returned to the Mother."

And now Tristian knew why she couldn't sense the source. The source was the Mother, the dark side of the Mother, freed by madness.

"I'm here, Tian, we will do what we must, together."

Tristian stood tall, a murmur threw the warriors out, another sealed the cavern and she called for the final bond. The nodes answered filling the cavern absorbing the energies hovering and claiming it for their own.

Dronar screamed, "NOOOOO," this cannot be."

A flicker of gold burst into a radiant haze that reached out for every nook and cranny filling it with the cleaning touch of the Mother. And through it all Tal shaped, pushed, urged, and manipulated the power around her sire as Tristian wielded energies never meant to be held by a mortal's hand.

She raised her hands and gathered the power, as Dronar chanted, his being diminishing as she watched. She held the power as it built and finally released it hitting him squarely in the chest holding it on him as he screamed. She watched his body melt, skin and blood oozed down to the ground and still she held it. The remnants smoldered and burst into flame, the ashes swirled and dissolved the clothing deteriorated until only smoke remained which was also claimed, until every essence in the room was again returned to the Mother's care and that which had been stolen so long ago was returned. The power focused, the air shimmered blue, and the power vanished leaving a vacuum that filled with the harsh crack of air. Tristian collapsed and the shields dropped.

Warriors scrambled lifting her quickly but gently and the mages ported her out to the healers. The rest of the warriors rushed out through the winding corridors, urging the now groggy wolves to follow, they reached the entrance to the palace never noticing the aftermath of the building's fate after the magics wielded in it. Never seeing the jagged strips of soil, torn from the ground in large gashes, never hearing the shouts of joy. They had only one mission, find Jax.

"Put her down," Jax barked, dropping to her knees and feeling the uneven thudding of her heart, the shallow breathing, the pale chilled skin."

"Blankets, get me the herb for weak hearts, get me some wet linens and get her out of these clothes."

A wave of Brianna's hand had her stripped, a warrior stumbled in her haste and set a bucket of water down almost in Jax's lap, linens appeared in mid air as Jax reached for them. "Get me some drinking water."

Jax got her clean, warm, swaddled in blankets, the herb helping and her heart beat steadying as her skin flushed. Tristian blinked groggily and croaked..."Bri,"

Brianna dropped to her knees placing her ear directly over Tristian's lips, "Bri...home...mage...center....me...Tal...now....Jax too."

Brianna nodded she rose to her knees and looked to Puck, "it's yours," she turned to Ceil, "pick her up," as Ceil complied and before Jax could squawk, Brianna had them at the door of the mage center where a hysterical Sidell pounded on the door to no avail.

Sidell turned, "It's sealed."

"Ceil, move Tristian to the door," Ceil complied and the door burst open. "In the shielded room Ceil, hurry, Jax move your ass."

Sidell moved to follow and six warriors jumped her holding on for dear life as she struggled, a mage blast had her clear but not before reinforcements had arrived. With the Mage Center shielded, she couldn't port into it and she couldn't rid herself of the warriors. She shattered the air dropping them but they held on continuing to crawl on her determined to follow their orders or die trying.

They found Tal convulsing but a small dose of the herb soon had her relaxing. Jax checked her over gently and pronounced her merely exhausted and needing to be put to bed. Brianna lifted her and the party made their way to the door as the ground shook and the air shattered in a resounding boom.

"Now what?" Ceil muttered moving a bit faster. She found the warriors grappling with Sidell. Emma and Aurora had just used the magics but the stubborn women weren't giving up. Many were down but they kept coming.

"Stand down," Ceil bellowed bringing the women to their feet in formation. "Goddess bless you idiots had better have a reason other than drinking. They remained in formation, faces impassive. "Remove yourselves, you're confined to the barracks until this is cleared."

Sidell was now wrapped equally around both precious bundles sobbing softly, calming now that she knew they were alive.

"Sidell," Ceil murmured gently, "Walk with us so we can put them to bed."

She nodded shakily and they stumbled forward. They tucked them both into the master bed leaving them to sleep.

"Sidell," Ceil touched her gently, "Come on, get up there with them." She lifted her up and placed her in the center of the bed. Tristian and Tal immediately covered her with protective grasps. "Sleep, Sidell, they'll do better with you there."

As Brianna ported them out, Puck turned slowly taking in the damage to the valley caused by the incredible display of power. Gouges of dirt had been moved, the palace was merely a pile of stone, great cracks ran through the valley, trees were down, rockslides had rained down around the hillside. Puck sighed. "Call our people in. Let's see if we're missing anybody." She turned to Trey who had been at Tristian's side. She looked green, her eyes glazed with unseen horror. They all looked like that.

She knelt and touched the woman's shoulder. "Hey," she called gently. "Did you guys find the rest of the army?"

Trey shuddered and her whole body shook. Puck hugged her gently seeing much the same reaction in the rest of them. "Okay, I only need to know this? Will they be coming after us?"

Trey shook her head, jerkily. "No...never again."

"Alright, easy now." She looked up, "Deidre, get me a healer, get me several." Puck left them in the healer's care and moved through the survivors.

"Well, Puck," Lessa looked at her with a grin, "That...shit, that was incredible."

Puck smiled weakly, "Which that?"

"All of it. An all day battle which we won, and a mage battle that...I can't even describe it."

Puck laughed softly, "Well, we aim to please." She turned to find her people, "Tinder, send out the scouts, find the villages or as many as you can, pass the word, the King is dead."

Tinder saluted and rounded up those still mobile and functional sending them out. The mercs made plans to move on once the ships returned, and Puck set camp for the night to allow her mages to rest. Some of the folks from Newberg complained even after she explained that the mages needed to rest.

Alex ended it when she hobbled in and snapped, "Then walk dammit, those mages saved our lives and our world. We helped, yes, but I don't think that's grounds for saying we're more important. So quit your bitching."

Two days later Riger came home, they brought the bodies of their fallen comrades with them so their families could say farewell. It was a sweet and achingly heartbreaking moment and although the cost was low, it was ultimately too high.

"Alright," Puck looked around in amazement at the warriors facing her. Women she'd worked with, bled with, drank with and slept with. "One of you explain! Why were the warriors attempting to subdue the Heir?"

Emma slammed into the room. "I want to hear this also," She barked glaring around the room.

The warriors held their implacable masks but one stepped forward. "We were ordered to."

"By whom?" Puck roared having already checked with her acting.

"By Taledyn, Commander."

"She is the Heir to the Heir, what were you thinking?"

The woman hesitated and then offered, "She is her sire's Heir."

"Let me get this straight," Emma growled. "An eleven year old child, told you, supposedly grown adults that she wanted you to hold her mother back no matter what?"

"Aye."

"Aye," Emma hollered, "What the hell kind of answer is that?"

"Leader," a low voice rasped.

"WHAT ARE YOU DOING UP?"

"Please, Emma," Tristian replied tiredly, "softly if you please."

She looked up at the women being reprimanded and smiled softly, "I'd give you all medals but that would probably send the wrong message, eh?"

"No need, Commander. We would not wished her to have seen...," the woman faltered.

"Aye, and for that you have my thanks. You'll also be glad to know that Sidell forgives you." Tristian rose and stood tall, "You are dismissed, and you have my eternal gratitude."

"And you, our undying respect," the first woman responded clasping her arm firmly. The women filed out each exchanging a warrior's clasp with their Commander.

Emma stared at her in shock and Puck just stood there. "Come on you two, walk me home."

"What the hell was that?" Emma asked huffily as they practically carried her back.

"You didn't ask them why."

Emma scowled, "Okay smartass, why?"

"Because it was very possible that Sidell would have entered that room to find Tal's brains splattered across the wall."

"Goddess bless," Emma invoked as they put her down on a chaise. Sidell came in with a drink and settled herself against her lover. As their equally tired daughter came in and snuggled into the pile. "Where's Ardy?"

"Class. Unlike others we know Ardyn loves to study."

"I liked tactics and strategy just fine," Tal defended herself.

Sidell just ruffled her hair.

"You awake yet?" Tristian asked gently.

"Aye, you want to hear it?"

"Aye."

Emma sighed in exasperation. "Sidell, when you take over, start a new mandatory class. Warrior speech, a translation class for non warriors."

Sidell giggled, the first laugh she'd had in awhile.

"Hardy har," Tristian smirked. "Our Leader, the comic."

"When you bonded with Vostle, the power changed." Tal began looking up at her sire.

Tristian nodded in encouragement.

"So, I entered the bond to see what happened. While in there, I got to playing and I figured out that the energies flow like water." She looked up again and smirked at Tristian's grin. "I started to experiment but...I can't call and manipulate at the same time." Tristian smiled fully. "That was it," Tal concluded.

"So you felt the final conflict?" Tristian asked.

"Aye, shivered me spine it did."

"Tried to crawl out of my skin," Tristian confided.

"Really?"

"Really."

"Sidell," Emma wailed. Her daughter chuckled.

"Tal figured out how to manipulate the energy flow of the Mother."

"Got that," Emma confirmed.

"She also found that you can't wield the power and manipulate the power at the same time."

"Why?"

Sidell looked to her lover and her daughter. "It takes too much concentration to do both and you run the risk of losing control." Tristian answered her mate's silent query. "Understand, Emma, unlike a mage gift which is called from the self, the Mother's power is everywhere and it has its own power. All we do is gather it and guide it. Equate it to sitting an unbroken stallion. Can you ride it and watch what it's doing at the same time?"

"Ahh."

Sidell took up the tale. "Once Tal was through and she returned, she still maintains the bond which gives her an awareness of what's happening at any node site, or...what's happening to any node in the bond. When Tristian faced the King, she called the node and Tal was aware of the energies swirling around it. From what they said, this was pretty bad, very powerful, and more then potentially harmful. Possibly more power than Tristian's ever seen wielded by another."

Emma stared at her. "They said that?"

Puck snorted.

Sidell ignored them. "So, seeing that her Sire was in danger and knowing Tristian would need the full bond to defeat him, she also knows the full bond actually controls the mage rather than the other way around. The full bond, especially now with the new lands, would also kill her. Tal decided, with her newfound skill, to help. She needed a safe place to enter the bond where there would be no interruptions, thus the mage center. With her gift, she can set a shield that we can't break, not because of the power but because of the type of power. And that's what happened. And, it worked but from the looks of them, I'd say barely." Sidell finished softly finding the two of them asleep. She brushed her hands over both of them and sighed. Turning to her mother she asked, "You understand the part about the warriors?"

"Now."

"So do I. I don't like it, but I do understand." She smiled gently, "Any other questions?"

"Did they really say all that?"

Sidell laughed sweetly, "I've loved her forever, I've become very adept at reading the REST of the story."

Epilogue

The day dawned bright, birdsong filled the air and an expectant hum filled the colony of Freelock. People bustled to and fro gather in the center square as the Colony Hall filled with Leaders of the other Holdings and villages, Elders of Dyan, and, and anybody else that could manage to get inside.

Across Riger, telecomms had been set up to broadcast the upcoming ceremony and the people happily chattered as the day's events unfolded.

Emma du Aulstet cast an amused glance at her daughter as Sidell fiddle with her dress. "Stop already, you look fine, perfect. What's got you so flustered."

Sidell turned to her in aggravation, "I hate being up in front of all these folks. Why couldn't we have sent a missive?"

"Oh no," Emma chortled, "This is too big of an occasion to send out in couriers. The people would revolt."

"Good," Sidell muttered, unwilling to calm down. "Let em revolt, they can go find somewhere else to live."

Emma laughed softly and gathered her flustered daughter in her arms. "Settle down. You are more than ready for this." She hugged her gently and smiled, "I am proud of you, Sidell, very proud of you. I don't think my life would have been filled with half the joys I've experienced if not for you."

Sidell's eyes filled with tears as she returned her mother's hug. "And I'm proud to call you mother." Trying to lighten the mood she looked up impishly, "Soooo, you ever gonna get around to finding me a second parent?"

Emma chuckled and released her offspring. "I don't know, your birthmother has always held my heart. Even after we lost her I've never been tempted." She smiled softly, "But I've all of you to keep me company and I'm in no rush. Now, quit stalling. Your mate is probably pacing and if we don't hurry she'll disappear and we'll never drag her back out."

Sidell laughed in agreement and followed her mother out the door.

Emma strode smartly onto the Common Hall floor. A stage had been erected and she took her place at the center. "People of Riger," Emma began. "It has been my honor to have led you this far into our history. We have come a long way together. Riger is once again a united land, well," She chuckled, "there is that little matter of Mhyr but, we'll get there eventually." She turned on the stage and looked out at her audience. "I've thought long and hard about this and my decision has been made. I'm tired of being in charge and I'm blessed with having an Heir fully capable of taking my place. She, in turn, is blessed with a mate that has more than proven her ability to defend our Leader and our land."

She turned to the front doors as they opened wide, "Join me, Riger. Welcome now, our new Leader and her Consort. Welcome the Royal Couple as they take their place in our history, welcome Sidell du Aulstet and Tristian Mardred."

Finis


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