Zee: By an American and a Canadian well mostly the Canadian, it's her fault.
Windstar: Zee is, as usual, making things up. This story is completely her fault and a result of her imagination only. I claim no responsibility for this at all.
Feedback is always welcome at: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org
----------------------------------------Chapter 9 Intro
The Last Queen
By the time the last of the Queen's guests had gone to home to bed, it was early in the morning. As with most of Cassandra's parties, this one had degenerated into a drunken orgy and had lasted throughout the night. A small group of women had stayed with the Queen after the others had left.
Since she had become Queen after her mother's death, Cassandra had ruled only to indulge in her own pleasure. The affairs of the Clans had taken a back seat to her self-centered vision. The late night parties had become a signature of her young reign over the northern Clans.
Two Royal Castle Guards stood watch in front of the doors to the Queen's chambers. Both were clad in ceremonial but still functional chain mail armor.
One of them had a spear and used the end of it to smack her fellow guard in the shins. "Stop yawning, Adia. You're making me tired," Jess complained.
Adia stifled another yawn and glared with blood-shot red eyes at her companion on guard duty. "Too bad. I don't know why I traded with Fritz to be here. I should be at home in bed sleeping soundly with my woman."
She scratched her shaggy blonde head and blushed at the noises coming out through the door. "Goddess, if people only knew." She shook her head and her face turned slightly red.
"It was really nice of you to trade with Fritz. Her and Amanda were supposed to go visit the priestesses tonight." Jess waggled her eyebrows. "Just think, a little Fritzie running around."
Adia laughed. "Oh, we're all doomed." Little spikey-haired Fritzes ran around her head with them falling down and getting into trouble. She grinned at the thoughts.
The guard with the spear shrugged, rolling her head to loosen her neck and wincing at a loud moan from inside. "Doesn't she ever sleep?" Jess whispered.
"Rabbits have nothing on our Queen," Adia said with a shrug. It was sad. Cassandra had been such a sweet girl, but her mother's death had changed her as had the rise to the Throne as a young, inexperienced teen.
"Uh, oh," Jess hissed, straightening to attention as she spotted the head of the Castle Guard stalking toward them.
Ella was head of the Guards for the simple reason that she was the best fighter in the city, and some said, in the entire North. The tall Fire warrior could hold her own against two or even three of the Castle guards at a time, and they were considered among the best in the north.
"Ella looks pissed," Jess whispered out of the corner of her mouth as her body remained stiff at attention.
Adia scrambled to straighten her sinking posture and then froze. She so didn't want Ella on her case.
"What is going on here? the Captain barked out.
Ella hoped that the rumors she had been hearing couldn't be true. She had only been gone a short time to take a short pilgrimage home to visit her Muanya who had been hurt falling from an Alcen. Her ears could not deny the moans and groans she heard coming through the shut doors. Each noise made her face grow stonier and her eyes colder.
Jess swallowed and shifted a little uneasily and wished she were somewhere, anywhere, else. "What do you mean?" she asked in a play to gain a bit more time and shifted her grip on her spear.
Blue eyes narrowed into angry slits. Her words were clipped. "I mean, what is going on here? How many people are in there with the Queen? Have they all been approved?" Her right eye twitched at a loud scream of pleasure that ripped out through the closed doors.
Adia opened her mouth and then shut it and glanced at Jess.
A trickle of sweat beaded its way down the unfortunate guard's face. "Uh, they were... umm... approved by the Queen." Jess answered, trying to make it sound better than it was.
Adia's eyes bugged slightly at the head guard's question. "So, she's our Queen."
"And we are the Queen's Guard. We protect her even from herself!" Ella bellowed. "Cassandra's mother hasn't even been dead a year. The girl is in a vulnerable place."
"From those noises, I'd say she's in a good place," Adia muttered.
Ella hand curled into a fist so hard her knuckles cracked and strained white against the skin. Adia flinched.
"None of them had weapons on them." Jess objected, trying to defend their actions. "We searched all of them."
"What a surprise. At least you two got the basics done."
Jess sent an uneasy glance towards Adia. "Did you want us to throw them out?"
"I will throw them out. Make sure they leave," Ella snapped. The massive warrior turned towards the door, squaring her shoulders and placing her fiercest look on her face. With a snarl, her right hand wrapped around the polished bone door handle, with ease the door was pulled open and she marched inside.
"What is going on here?" She bellowed out.
Jess winced as she heard the startled squeals from inside. The guard stayed where she was. She was certain she didn't want to see what was going on inside the Queen's bedroom. One by one, women clutching clothes to their chests, were shoved out of the room. Jess met Adia's gaze from the other side of the doorway.
"See, this is why Guards should never get involved with Royalty."
Adia was completely shocked. Her mouth opened and shut, then she gasped, "I thought that was, you know, just a rumor. Ella is the definition of duty and loyalty. She wouldn't...."
Jess shook her head. "She and Cassandra were involved before her mother died." The last of the women from inside were shoved out and the door slammed shut. Jess started to herd them out. "I don't think Ella knows it's over."
"Oh," was all Adia could say as she began to follow the drunken partiers down the hallway to make sure they didn't puke on anything priceless and occasionally smacked them on the ass with the flat of her sword.
They returned to their post after herding all the revelers to the capable hands of Shamira, Ella's second in command.
Adia looked around and sighed. It was too quiet.
She winced at the angry voices coming from the Queen's room. Eyes wide she looked at Jess. It sounded like Ella's voice and it wasn't a happy sounding voice.
Jess bit her lip and shifted her grip on her spear, feeling awkward. She didn't want to be here listening and especially didn't want to hear the shouted words.
"What in the name of the Goddess do you think you're doing? You've been Queen for only a month and you're now sleeping with whores?"
Jess met Adia's eyes and winced at that particularly loud outcry from Ella.
Adia whistled softly. "This isn't going to go well." She nodded sagely. "Business and pleasure should never mix. It always ends badly. Maybe I should go get Shamira? You don't think Ella would do anything stupid in there, do you?"
Jess nodded in agreement. Yes, Shamira would know what to do.
Before Adia could go get her the door to the Queen's room was flung open.
Ella stalked out. Her face was red and stormy and her entire body radiated anger. The Captain of the Castle Guard didn't even glance at the two women as she stalked down the hallway and disappeared into the depths of the castle.
Jess slowly relaxed. "Maybe it's done with now," she reasoned. "Ella will get over it."
Adia nodded, feeling bad for her Captain. "I hope so." She blew out a breath, her eyes roaming the ceiling. "So," she sighed, "I have a gold coin saying they're knocking boots within the week."
The other woman grinned. "You're on," she said as she tried to ignore the disquieting feeling telling her that it was not yet over.
Torrin thrashed about in her sleep. She was trapped again in the cold water with hands wrapped around her neck that was slowly squeezing the air out. In a last ditch effort to save her own life, she stabbed her thumbs into the black soulless eyes. In horror, she watched the blackness creep out of those eyes and onto her skin. Unable to move, she watched it absorb into her flesh.
Horrible images of torture and death flashed in her head and she screamed. Waking herself up with her own screaming voice, she crouched from the pallet on the floor. Dagger in hand, she stumbled around the room looking for an enemy. Sweat covered her body. Slowly calming, she lowered the blade when she realized she was alone.
After lighting a lantern, she looked in the small mirror that hung on the wall at her eyes. Gray, tired eyes stared back. Her shoulders slumped in relief. She often had nightmares of the assassin and being trapped in the water. Other nights, she dreamed of black fire and a woman's voice urging her to accept her darkness. The worst ones were when she dreamed of being pinned to the ice thus helpless to save Luna as the assassin dragged her back to Khelin. She slumped back down on the pallet holding back her tears.
Wooten frowned as she watched Torrin do her chores. She had noticed that while the girl's physical body had healed, a disease of the spirit still infected her. Dark circles had set up camp under the girl's gray eyes and sometimes Wooten heard horrible screams coming from the Torrin's room. It seemed that neither hard work, drink or companions were able to cure what bothered the girl.
Luna sat down, ignoring the curious stares.
Wooten studied the woman for a moment. This one wasn't here for the food, she knew that. "What can I get you?"
Luna hesitated for a moment then just decided to come out and ask. "I'm looking for a woman…"
"Cause it's always about a woman," the women around the bar responded automatically.
Wooten snapped her towel at them and told them to behave.
Luna cleared her throat and continued, "This woman… her name is Torrin."
The women sitting around the bar went still and then one by one they set their drinks down. Torrin was like a little sister to most of them so this became business now.
Wooten frowned "Stop the posturing, you Alcian dung. I won't have my bar turned into shambles, again."
The women looked embarrassed but stayed ready just in case there was trouble.
Wooten turned back to the newcomer. "She's out back chopping wood. I think Adrian is sniffing around her…"
Some of the women chuckled. "Adrian is always sniffing around Torrin ever since the little one rocked her world. And all I have to say is, thank the Goddess someone finally put that womanizer in her place."
Another woman started laughing, "It's true, you know. I saw it with my own eyes. Torrin left her passed out, blindfolded and tied to the bed. Couldn't have happened to a nicer woman, if you ask me," she snickered.
Wooten snapped her towel at the loud mouths. "What happened between Torrin and Adrian is nobody's business. Bunch of old women, you are." She turned back to Luna. "She's out back. Go say what you need, but I warn you, if you're here to do the girl harm, you'll have a fight on your hands."
Luna frowned. The story has stung her, but she pushed back her disappointment. She nodded to the bar keeper and walked to the back door.
Torrin really wanted to bury the ax into Adrian's skull, but since the woman was the fourth daughter of the Chief of the Fire Clan, she suspected that action wouldn't go over well. So she did her best to ignore the whining woman, lifted up her arms and brought the ax down hard, splitting another log.
The dark haired woman had stripped down to a sleeveless under tunic. Sweat made it stick to her back like a second skin. She wore soft brown leather trousers and high winter boots.
She put the ax down and stared over at Adrian. In a quiet voice she said, "Adrian, I am not taking you to bed again, so just give it up."
Adrian pouted. "Torrin, you can't give me a taste like that and then deny me ever again. Nobody has done the things you did to me."
Torrin snorted, "Of course they haven't because you've never been honest with bedroom partner about what you really wanted. Go find some nice girl you like and tell her you like to be tied up."
Adrian blushed and stammered, "I could never do that. I'm not sure I could trust anybody to do those things, just you. Besides I would lose respect if I was seen to be weak."
Angrily Torrin split another log and turned at Adrian. "Adrian, what folks do in the bedroom is nobody's business but the two people doing it."
"Well, that's not true people like to talk…"
"No, Adrian. You like to talk, or brag rather, and it's unattractive. The only reason I took you to bed was because I was feeling twitchy and dangerous and when you came in, trying to push my buttons, I just wanted to show you that you didn't know squat. 'Cause if you knew anything, you'd know that it's the submissive with all the power. They control the terms of the "encounter". They have the power to stop it at any moment."
"How can a person who is tied up, stop the aggressor?"
Torrin blinked in amazement as she realized Adrian was serious. "By saying no, of course."
"What would prevent them from not stopping? What if I said 'no' or 'stop' and they didn't."
Torrin stared at the other woman in shock. She thought it was pretty obvious. "Because if someone says 'no' or 'stop', and the person she's with doesn't, it stops being about pleasure or having sex. At that point it becomes rape."
Adrian frowned slightly and then shrugged. "It doesn't matter, I only trust you to give me what I want."
Torrin growled in frustration. Maybe the woman had a hole in her head where everything she said just kind of leaked out. "Then you're in for a lonely life 'cause I don't want you."
Adrian made a grab for Torrin but Torrin shoved her away bringing the axe up like a weapon. "Get out of here, Adrian. I don't want to see you again. Pull your head out of your ass and grow up."
Adrian's face turned purple in anger and she stalked off, nearly knocking Luna down.
"You do realize that's one of Magda's daughters?" Luna asked who had been standing by the corner of the inn watching Torrin and Adrian argue.
Torrin stiffened and the axe raised above her head froze in mid flight. Slowly, she lowered it until the blade rested on the stump. "Luna?" She turned around, her eyes wide in shock.
"Surprise," the Northerner said, with a hint of a smile on her face, still uncertain how she would be received. Taking a step forward, she kept a distance between them, not wanting to push Torrin into any reaction. "I heard the most amazing thing about this musician playing in an inn owned by Fire warriors so I decided to come hear her play."
"You have? Um, I, well..." She blushed, completely flustered, and then she blushed even more when she realized what Luna must have witnessed between her and Adrian. "Ah, how long were you standing there?"
No matter how hard she told herself it didn't matter, she answered with a hint of hurt in her voice. "Long enough." She watched Torrin flinch. Luna didn't know why she had come here. There had been a half formed plan to bring Torrin back to the city, but it was obvious now that Torrin had friends and... other people here. "So you found wom.., um …a place you like?"
"Oh." Torrin's face fell a little bit. She set the axe down and went over to a tree where she had draped her heavy tunic over a limb. "Great, now she thinks you're a murderer and a whore. You're such an idiot." she mumbled to herself. She fingered the braiding on the jacket. "So, you just came to hear me play?"
Luna remained where she had first stopped, unsure what to do next. This had all seemed so much simpler in the Queen's City than it was here in person. "Um, actually, I just wanted to ask you something." she said, "then I'll get out of your way."
After putting her tunic back on, Torrin turned around and faced Luna. Torrin didn't really want her to leave so soon. She realized now, with the woman standing in front of her, how much she had missed Luna. "All right," she sighed.
"The gold that we found, it was Rhain who offered it to you, wasn't it?" Luna wanted to ask more, but she wasn't sure how, or if she even had the right to. It was obvious that Torrin had her own life here now, and it hurt her to see how fast the dark haired woman had managed to create one.
Torrin looked back at her puzzled and a bit hurt. "She said she was following your wishes." Her face darkened, remembering that night. "Since you and she are so close and all now." Torrin snapped her jaw shut. By the Goddess, she sounded jealous. She moved angrily to the pile of freshly chopped wood and started to pick it up.
"Close?" Luna was incredulous. "I'd rather be close to a snake! Why would I be close to Rhain?" Then blue eyes narrowed as she realized what Torrin had just said. "I'll kill her." Luna muttered, her fists clenching.
Torrin dropped the wood and glared at Luna. "What game are you playing? I saw you two in the Marketplace looking all cozy together. She knows about what I did at Abnoa. How could she know? The only person who knows is you, so you must have told her." She turned her attention back to the logs. Maybe she needed to split a few more dozen or so.
Luna frowned, not certain how to answer Torrin's accusations. She was doing her best to keep her own temper in check. "I don't know how she knew that. I didn't tell her, I swear. Besides, I wasn't being cozy with her. I was talking with Tasha and then Rhain barged in." The taller woman shifted her stance. "Besides, you seem to be friendly with quite a few women here."
Luna took a breath, a surprised expression on her face at how petty that had come out sounding.
Torrin looked up, "What do you care? Last I heard I was just some piece of filth not worthy to be in the same room with you decent people!"
"I never thought that," Luna said quietly.
Torrin snorted and then circled the blonde. "But you think I'm a murderer, and apparently a whore now. Goddess, you Northerner's are so... arghh!" Torrin was so frustrated she couldn't come up with any of the numerous descriptive words she knew.
"This was a bad idea." Luna said. Making up her mind, she held up a burlap sac that she had been carrying. "This is for you." Setting it down on the snow, she hesitated a second then smiled wanly.
"I'll let Tyra know where you are. She was very upset when she found out you'd left. Goodbye, Torrin." Luna turned toward the tavern door.
Torrin looked at the sack and then at Luna's back. "Luna, wait." She ran over to the woman and placed a hand cautiously on her arm.
The blonde stopped, startled by the touch. Although she secretly didn't really want to leave, she didn't think she could handle another fight. Guardedly, she turned and cocked her head toward Torrin.
Torrin flushed at the look Luna gave her. She licked her lips and then said, "I'm sorry. Um, I haven't been sleeping well, and Adrian makes me want to hurt things, and I'm sure I have a myriad of other excuses..."
Luna smiled, ducking her head in acceptance of the apology.
"I'm sorry, too. I just… I don't know what to say." She sighed. Even her apologies to this woman were lame. "Okay. How about this? Want to get a drink?"
Torrin grinned; relieved she didn't need to babble out anymore excuses. "Funny thing, we seem to have a tavern right in front of us."
After a moment of silence where neither moved, Torrin reached out and squeezed Luna's hand. "I'm not use to apologizing for my actions, but for what it's worth, I really am sorry for what I did back there..." She looked down at the hand in hers. "I wish I would have known you when I was growing up. Maybe I would have done things other ways." She let go of Luna's hand and started for the door.
Luna stared after her and then down at her hand as if she'd never seen it before. Only when Torrin reached the back door of the inn did Luna regained her senses and jogged to catch up with her.
"I wish I'd known you too. Perhaps things would have turned out differently for both of us."
The tavern went silent as the two women entered. Torrin looked around. "What?"
Wooten snapped a towel at the girl. "Where's my wood? You've been outside playing around again, I see."
Torrin looked indignant. "I would never."
"Ha," Wooten barked out a laugh. "You would too. Don't think I haven't seen you sneaking outside with the rest of the young ones to goof off and smoke that awful Karo weed."
Luna's eyebrows rose, and she started to smile again. "Karo?" the blonde muttered, trying her best not to laugh. "Aren't you the bad girl?"
Torrin rolled her eyes and looked back at Luna. "Yes, it's a known fact that I'm bad influence. Mothers tell their children stories about me so they'll behave." She grabbed Luna's hand and dragged her forward. "Wooten, I have a guest. See?"
Luna straightened up as the formidable tavern owner's attention switched toward her. She had the strange urge to make sure her face was clean and her hair combed. Luna leaned close to Torrin, whispering to her, "I think I'm afraid to be here alone."
Torrin grinned and whispered, "I'll be right back."
Wooten snorted. "We've met already. And you're still bringing the wood in. So, get to work while I pour your friend a drink."
Torrin frowned. "But, but..." She dodged the snapping towel and shuffled back outside.
The general level of noise in the tavern was starting to increase again as the other women returned to their own conversations when they saw Torrin leave.
Wooten looked at Luna and then barked out, "Sit!"
The tall blonde was sitting before she realized she'd moved to Wooten's command.
Wooten set a mug down in front of Luna and looked the woman up and down. "Hmm, she didn't drag you back to her room right away, so you must be pretty special to Torrin."
Luna gaped in shock at Wooten for a moment, then recovered and grabbed the mug placed in front of her.
"Does she take a lot of women back to her room?" Luna mumbled, her grip on the mug tightening.
"A few. Sometimes when people are lost and not sure what they want or need to fill a hole inside themselves, they do things to fill it. Torrin's got a big hole inside her."
The warrior took a large sip of ale, not thrilled at Wooten's words. She stared down at the mug. 'What did I expect? For her to stay celibate?' she wondered.
Sighing, she set the mug down. "She seems to like it here."
Wooten wiped a nearby water spot. She had noticed the woman's reaction to her comment. "And we like her here. She's handy, made her fix everything she broke after that bar fight, and she just sort of stayed. But you just look at her and you know this isn't where she belongs. Nope, this is just a waypoint on the road."
Cradling the mug in both hands, Luna thought over Wooten's words and said, "I wish I could help her, but every time I try, I think I make stuff worse. I never seem to do or say the right thing."
Wooten laughed, "Well, sometimes we have that effect on the people we care about the most. And she's got a lot of anger she hasn't learned to let go. But she's a lot different than the cub that wandered in over a month ago. Sadly though, she won't make her peace if she hides here."
"I don't know how to help her." Luna whispered, staring down into the mug of ale in her hands. She barely knew how to help herself, how could she help someone she hardly knew?
Wooten nodded and set a warm bowl of stew in front of the woman. Luna seemed almost as lost as Torrin. "Oh, you must be the woman." By the Goddess, these two were quite the pair! Wooten looked up as Torrin came in and pointed for her to go back out.
"I know you didn't clean up the mess you made."
Torrin looked guilty and went back outside.
The blonde grinned faintly as Torrin tromped back outside then glanced back towards the imposing bartender. "What do you mean, I 'must be the woman'?"
"It's always..." Wooten snapped her towel at a nearby eavesdropper who quickly moved out of the way. Looking sheepish, Wooten turned back toward Luna. "a woman… that's why the girl's so messed up. Someone who makes her feels... hmmm... worthy, like she could be so much more, I guess." Wooten shrugged. "Mind you, I'm reading between the lines 'cause with her, it's like pulling teeth sometimes."
Blue eyes widened. "And you think I'm that woman?" she squeaked, her face turning red as a blush worked its way across her skin.
Wooten laughed and ticked off the reasons. "Well, she didn't drag you to her room to have meaningless sex. She seemed happy to see you, which means she knows you because I haven't seen you around here, and I know the girl doesn't know all that many northerners." The bartender eyed a couple of women in the tavern who were looking with interested at Luna. Goddess, she hoped she didn't have another bar brawl on her hands. "And I suspect if anyone were to hit on you, she'd break their nose."
Luna stared at Wooten, unsure how or if she even should respond to that. She blinked, shook her head and took a large gulp of ale. "I..." She paused, rearranged her thoughts and started again. "You really think she was glad to see me?"
Wooten stopped cleaning the bar top and looked at the woman in front of her. She quirked an eyebrow and barked out a laugh. "She was smiling and she was holding your hand. She never does that. Torrin is the least touchy feely warrior I know."
"You know Fire warriors that are touchy feely?" Luna asked, both eyebrows rising in surprise. She probably could have gone without knowing that piece of information.
Before she could ask anything else, Torrin was tromping back in through the back door of the Inn. Luna watched her, studied the small dark-haired woman as she walked toward the bar. And seeing for the first time, the way the Fire warriors waved and nodded to her as she passed. She'd gained friends here, Luna noticed. The haunted expression in those dark eyes was still there, but better hidden. Luna found herself staring into Torrin's gray eyes unsure how she was supposed to react to her.
Wooten went back to cleaning the bar pretending to ignore them both.
Torrin looked around wonder who Luna was staring at but realized she was looking at her. She shyly grinned back. "Um, what? Should I go clean up? Do I smell bad?" Unconsciously she fidgeted with the newly grown hair that fell around her shoulders.
"No, you look good." Luna said before her mind could stop her mouth from moving. Suddenly, conscious of how many people were watching them, Luna grabbed her mug. "Can we go sit down?" She motioned towards one of the booths.
Torrin blushed slightly at the complement, "Oh, sure." She frowned at the bowl of stew and then up at Wooten. "How come I didn't get one?"
Wooten rolled her eyes and got another bowl. "Now, Torrin, remember to use a spoon this time."
"This time?" Luna asked, grinning at the blushing mercenary.
"You wound me, Wooten, you really do," Torrin responded dryly before she grabbed the two bowls and led Luna to a table away from most of the other patrons.
Luna followed her, taking a seat across from her, fidgeting with her half empty mug of ale. "So..." She trailed off, looking everywhere but directly at Torrin.
Torrin squirmed nervously in her chair. "You look good, Luna. Not fleeing for your life has done wonders for you." She could have smacked herself. 'Goddess, that was lame.' She looked down into her bowl and began to busily push her spoon around.
Luna let out a chuckle, and then quickly took a sip of ale to hide her smile. "Thanks." Licking her lips she tried to think of something, anything to say. "Will you come visit me, at the city?
Torrin looked up, surprise written clearly on her face. "I…y-you want me to visit?"
"Well… I mean, ummm, Tyra wants to see you. Only if you want to come I mean. Maybe I could bring her here, too." Luna muddled her way through an answer as best she could. "And I kind of missed you," she murmured quickly, looking anywhere but at Torrin's face.
Torrin sat there stunned, "Really?" She looked down, "I kind of missed you too. It hurt when..." She trailed off.
"When what?" Luna asked, watching the other woman intently. The warrior was leaning forward in her chair, her attention focused on Torrin, watching her eyes and tracking the movement of her lips.
"It doesn't matter." Not looking at Luna, Torrin gave a tiny shrug with her shoulders. "How are things going in the city?"
Luna sat back, taking a sip of her ale to hide her disappointment. With a mental sigh she let Torrin switch the topic. "We are a city getting ready for a battle. Everyone is busy, now that spring is on its way. We've got Rangers up in the Pass to keep an eye on things. Everyone not able to actually fight is busy preparing for the battle, from making arrows to loading the Wave Dancer ships. I guess they have decided to wake up and fight for their lands."
Torrin nodded sipping her ale. "That's good. Khelin will whip her troops into a frenzy mass of killers and push them to the last woman. She won't surrender; she won't retreat unless she's out of troops. She's insane and a coward. Khelin was the last person to enter the Abnoa, you know. She didn't come in until she was sure it was in her power." Torrin paled as she remembered parts from a recent nightmare. With her hands shaking, she quickly took another drink.
Luna was quiet, remembering her own sufferings at the hand of that woman. Her own hands were none too steady when she drained the last of her ale. For a moment neither spoke, each haunted by the memories of the past. She pushed the thoughts away. "I need to get going. It's a long ride back to the city and I need to be there tomorrow. There's another war council meeting set to finalize plans for the Ellris Pass and I shouldn't miss it."
Torrin looked sad for a moment then the expression was gone. "Yeah, I guess it is kind of a trek back to the City." Impulsively she took Luna's hand in hers, squeezing it gently. "I'm glad you came. I thought you hated me. Our last meeting wasn't so good." Torrin gave a weak smile and let go.
Luna caught that hand before Torrin could reclaim it, squeezing it in return. "I'm sorry. I was, I mean, I'm still…well, puzzled by everything that has happened…. But despite it all, I've come to the conclusion that you are a good person inside, Torrin. Luna smiled slowly, "No matter how hard you try not to be". She stood and quickly released Torrin's hand after she realized she hadn't let go. Her cheeks turned red and she turned toward the door.
Torrin stood and followed Luna out. "I don't know why you think that. Out of everybody, I think you have the most right to hate me." She paused, breathing out a breath. "But thank you."
Although spring was starting to make its presence felt in the lands below the pass, it was not noticeable in the Ellris Pass. The wind was just as harsh and the temperature plummeted each night to painful extremes. Even for Northerners, the Ellris Pass was no place to go until the snow began to melt. Wendi clutched her bow tighter to herself and shivered, and tried to sit even closer to the fire. The old abbey walls offered some protection from the wind, but it was still bitter cold. She glanced around the fires, grinning as she realized she wasn't the only one who was cold.
"You sit any closer and you'll be in the fire. Of course don't you Fire warriors train for that sort of thing?" she teased the woman next to her, holding her own fingers towards the flames to thaw.
Black eyes glinted just out of sight. They watched with great interest, taking in the routes the women guarding the Pass walked and how often. Happily, they noted, that most were loath to go to far from the fires that burned. It wasn't that they were immune to the cold, they just ignored it. Cold was like pain, it made one stronger.
The woman rolled her eyes at the Ranger. "Yeah, we do the dance in the ring of fire on certain religious ceremonies," she grunted. Then as the wind howled through again, she shivered and moved a little closer to the fire. "We don't get a wind like this," she chattered out.
The woman just nodded and tried discretely to lean back into the Ranger so she could get some more body heat, without looking weak in front of her captain. "Shit, if we don't like it, the Southern army ain't going to try to do this Pass in the winter."
Wendi shivered and nodded, wondering if she could get the Fire warrior to sleep next to her. She didn't even remember what the woman's name was but it didn't really matter either just as long as she kept her warm. Glancing up, she watched the latest patrol hurriedly claim seats around the fire while another stalked out into the darkness. She gave the poor Ranger assigned to them a wide grin as she passed and getting a slap on her head for her trouble. "Ow."
The woman snickered at the Ranger's outcry. "You shouldn't mock another's luck. Of course in a few hours it will be us."
The leader of the Assassins made a sharp gesture with one hand. Sure they could get by unseen but they needed a little fun. They had been relegated to sitting by while the other two favorites got all the work. At her gesture, the other three disappeared into shadows.
Glancing toward the darkness, then back towards the warm fire, Wendi sighed. She could have left well enough alone, but no, she'd had an extra mug of wine with their thin dinner. It had kept her feeling warm for a time. But now her bladder was refusing to be ignored. "Save my seat" she told the woman, rising to her feet and making a sprint for the small latrine area.
The woman grunted. "Hurry up. I have parts getting cold."
"Not as cold as mine." Wendi muttered, starting to fumble with the thick hide coats that they all wore to survive the weather. As she was walking forward she stumbled on a dark shape in the way. With a curse she went down on her hands and knees. "Stupid ice..." Her words trailed off as she realized what the dark shape was. Stretched out in the snow, her face a mask of pain, and her neck sliced open, the blood freezing as it leaked from the wound was the patrol's Ranger.
Dara looked around. Where the hell was that Ranger? She'd been hoping for a bed warmer when their time was up from guard duty. She frowned trying to remember how long the woman had been gone. Slowly she got up and moved in the direction the woman had gone.
The Fire warrior scowled at some of the hooting when others noticed where she was going. Walking into the ruins she called out, "Hey... um... Ranger. You okay?" She blinked in the dark trying to make out shapes. She couldn't put her finger on it but something was wrong.
"Hey..." She was cut off as a figure materialized out of the blackness, placed a hand over her mouth and slipped a dagger between her ribs. The poison spread quickly. The warrior jerked in reaction, muscles spasming violently before she went limp, blood trickling out of her nose.
Her body was gently lowered to the snow next to the two dead Rangers. Wendi's face still showing her surprise as the dagger went into her.
The shadows created by the fires the Rangers and warriors were sitting next to seemed to grow darker.
The Fire clan captain chewed on a piece of dried beef jerky while trying to figure out a way to stay warm. Damn Magda and her orders. Glancing up, her eyes narrowed as she realized a few of the fires had more empty spots around them then they should have. "Where's Dara? And where is that other Ranger?"
The shadow behind the captain stopped flickering with the light of the fire and its shape began to change. Then without warning a body emerged. Two hands grabbed either side of the captain's head and then gave a swift jerk to the right breaking the neck. Before anybody could react the person was gone and the shadow flickered again with the light. The captain's body fell slowly hitting the snow.
Shouts turned into screams and then all was silent and still except for the flickering light of the fires that were slowly dying away.
Luna leaned her head against the shattered remains of the still un-repaired mosaic tiled table top. Closing her eyes she let her head rest there. The gouge from her ax still remained in the center. The meeting had taken all day. Dimly she wondered if she'd ever do anything other than be in meetings for the rest of her life. "Tasha, I don't think I ever want to sit at this table again."
Tasha rubbed her tired eyes. She looked to her friend and bit her lip in concern.
"That's it though, we start moving people as soon as the river thaws." Groaning, Luna leaned back and rubbed her arms and then tried to work out a kink in her neck.
"Yep. We should be getting a report from the guards at the pass within the next couple of days but I'm not expecting anything exciting." Tasha eyed Luna for a minute. "So what's the story with Magda's daughter? If looks could kill..." She trailed off knowing she didn't need to finish her thought. Magda, thankfully, wasn't as clueless as she seemed and had sent her daughter out of room earlier in the day.
The taller blonde shrugged, stretching her feet out and then stood up. "She was at the tavern with Torrin when I got there." She had told Tasha a little about where her sister was staying. "I don't think she likes me very much for some reason," Luna grinned.
"She hit on you, didn't she? I'll kick her ass!" Tasha fumed. "She's the biggest bitch I know." Tasha was working her way up into quite a huff. "Personally, I think she's part of the reason for all the problems we've been having between the Fire and Water clans. I just can't prove it yet."
Luna patted her friend on the shoulder. "No, Adrian was hitting on your sister." The blonde grimaced a bit in distaste. "Actually it was more like begging for Torrin to take her back. Torrin sent her away, though." Walking toward the doors to the library she held them open, waiting for Tasha.
"Torrin did what?" Tasha asked in disbelief as she raced to catch up. "Ewww, my little sister really slept with that thing? I suppose it's a bit late to have that discussion about sex." She shook her head, time for a change of subject. "Um, thank you for telling mom about Torrin. She's been there a few times to visit and she seems much happier now."
The woman winced at hearing Tyra had made several trips since her only visit. Things had been getting more and more hectic in the city and if she wasn't settling disputes between different clan members, she was attending strategy meetings. There just never seemed to be enough time for anything else. Nowadays, even sleep came second. "I'm just glad she's all right."
Tasha nodded. "Me, too. I should go and visit but..." she let out a sigh. "Well, I'm just not sure I guess." She shuffled uncomfortably. As they walked outside she frowned as she spotted Rhain with several Rangers from Abnoa. " Vladlin's balls," she cursed, "I'm not sure what she's up to. But it makes me nervous." Glancing at Luna, she patted her on the arm. "I'm going to go break that up. I'll meet you for dinner?"
Luna nodded. She was also frowning in the direction of Tasha's younger sister. Whatever she was up to wasn't good, Luna was certain of that. She made mental notes of the Rangers Rhain was talking with.
"Sure, I want to go visit the Temple anyway." She'd been in the Queen's City over a month now and had yet to visit the Temple of the Moon Goddess. Even as irrational as Luna knew it was, a part of her resented that the Goddess had allowed Abnoa to fall.
Tasha nodded then plastered a fake smile on her face. She walked over to Rhain and her toadies. "So, what are you all up to today?" she asked sweetly.
The tall blonde watched for a few moments, making certain nothing was going to happen. When the Rangers with Rhain slipped away, Luna took her leave as well. The days were starting to get longer and it was staying lighter as well. The streets were full with people, and Luna realized with a start, that even more must have arrived in the last week. To her surprise, she recognized quite a few of those she passed, nodding and returning hello's as she made her way towards the Temple.
Other than the Queen's Castle, the Temple of the Moon Goddess was the next largest building in the city. It was a graceful, soaring structure full of stained glass windows and carved statues. Her parents had often told her of this place. Stepping inside the Temple, Luna started to walk around, staring up at the high vaulted stone ceilings. Then she remembered that there would be a service in a few days. A holy day to celebrate the Full Moon.
Luna stopped in front of the back wall of the temple. It was the crowning glory of the Temple, a soaring thirty feet tall stained glass mural to the Exodus. Selene, the first chosen one. She stared at the women depicted in it, her thoughts in turmoil.
Adrian thought she was being sly, having followed Luna since she'd left the Castle. She wasn't use to not getting what she wanted. She wanted Torrin, but Torrin had rejected her and for what? She fumed. This weakling Ranger? Even her mother seemed under this woman's spell.
"If you're here to pray, you're welcome to stay," the ranger called out, keeping her back to the woman who had followed her into the Temple.
Adrian froze for a moment, surprised she wasn't as sneaky as she thought. Regaining her cocky attitude, she walked forward ignoring a look from a Priestess. Then she snarled, "What if I'm not here to pray? You think these Priestesses could really get rid of me."
Luna turned, sighing. "You don't want to do this, Adrian." The High Priestess had wisely gathered her acolytes and was leaving the Temple through a side door. Luna closed her eyes briefly. Her first visit here was turning out unpleasant. Perhaps she should have continued to stay away.
"Do what?" Adrian sneered. "I just wanted to meet you. See what the big deal was. Just wanted to meet the 'Luna', the one who has all the leaders of the tribes jumping around and asking 'how high?'." Adrian snorted and looked unimpressed.
"Fine, you've seen me, now get out." Luna gritted her teeth, her dislike for the Fire warrior showing in her eyes.
"Or what? This is a public place. You're the one who seems all jumpy and angry. You know what's a good cure for that, don't you?" She grinned evilly at Luna. "Sex. You know all about sex, don't you, Luna? I've heard a few rumors. You know, Torrin's a very sexual person. She's not going to want a virginally ice queen like you." Adrian wanted to stare down Luna and she was very unhappy at the fact that Luna towered over her.
Adrian had done some sniffing around. Luna had yet to take a lover of any kind. She wasn't sure what the deal was between the Ranger and Torrin, but she hated the fact that Torrin had sent her away yet invited Luna for dinner.
The blonde swallowed, her fingers curling into fists. The verbal attack wasn't unexpected, but it still hurt. "What's wrong? Torrin tell you to go away again?" She said the words in anger, her blue eyes ice cold as she stared down at the Fire warrior.
Adrian growled and took a step forward. "She'll get bored with you and I'll be there waiting. I always get what I want and whom I want." She smirked at Luna. "Why would she want you when she can have me?"
Luna snorted. "Because you're always whoring around?"
Adrian lost it and before she realized what she was doing she swung at Luna.
The Ranger danced backward, just avoiding the enraged warrior's punch. "What? You aren't going to try to seduce me? I'm hurt," Luna spat, taking another step backward, her fists raised.
Adrian sneered. "You? I don't want you." The larger woman moved forward, cracking her knuckles and then, with a lunge, tried to catch the back-pedaling Ranger.
Luna fell into the unarmed combat skills that Mezzarna had drilled into her. A quick punch caught the other woman in the chin as Luna danced away from the relatively clumsy lunge. Adrian, she decided, relied mostly on her strength and very little on any sort of actual tactics.
"Problem?" Luna taunted.
Adrian shook and tasted the blood in her mouth. "Not with you." She straightened up to her full height while rubbing her chin. "You think you're special but you failed at Abnoa and you'll fail here. I don't know why everybody thinks your shit don't stink, but I will be watching you and when you fail again, me and my friends will pick up the pieces." She gave one last angry glare and then stormed out of the Temple.
The blonde slowly lowered her fists, her shoulders slumping as she closed her eyes. Adrian was right, Luna had lost Abnoa. How could she hope to succeed in stopping Khelin here? Flexing the hand that ached from her punch, Adrian's chin had been surprising hard.
A wrinkled hand touched the slumped shoulder.
Luna nearly jumped out of her skin in surprise, spinning around with a startled yelp, her hands coming up once more as she took a defensive stance.
The old woman laughed. "I mean no harm. For harm is forbidden in the Temple."
Realizing she'd just hit a woman in the sacred hall, Luna winced. "I'm sorry, Priestess." Feeling foolish, the blonde lowered her aching fists. "I just wanted her to leave."
The old mother nodded, her silver hair swaying with the movement. "She is a prickly one, so full of her own self-importance and her mother's indulgence. However, I did not miss how you asked her not to bother you, so I don't see how you are at fault for defending yourself."
The Ranger gave the Priestess a relieved smile for that. "Thank you." Her glance strayed towards the large stained glass mural behind her. "It's beautiful."
The old woman patted Luna's arm. "Yes, it is. It's one of the lucky things about being in the city. The Wind Walkers are such talented artists. That one is a scene of Cassia, the third Queen, being crowned in the Castle courtyard. She is the first Queen to rule in the Castle, the previous two helped build it."
Luna nodded towards the section she'd been studying before Adrian had disrupted things. It was quiet now that she was gone, and the Temple exuded a sense of peace and tranquility about it that was soothing to Luna's soul. "That's from the Exodus over there, isn't it?"
The Priestess looked where Luna was looking. "Yes. That is their descent out of the mountains and into the desert. Before the first band lost faith and left the Exodus. They're now called the desert dwellers or the Vagari."
Luna had heard tales of the desert people, living even further to the south than Khelin's people and the Horse tribes. Blue eyes studied the picture intently.
"I think I've lost faith."
There was a brief flicker in the Priestess's sea green eyes. She sat down and motioned for Luna to sit next to her. "Why do you say that?"
The Ranger didn't sit, she paced instead. "How can I still have faith after Abnoa? Why would the Goddess abandon us?" Luna knew the questions were not logical, but her heart cared little. "Why was it this Horse God who came to save us on the banks of the river after the Assassins nearly killed Torrin and not the Goddess? She scuffed at the smooth tiles. "I don't know if we can stop Khelin, we'll try, but there's a good chance we'll fail."
Luna stopped her pacing to stare up at the stained glass again. "I don't know what to do." The insecurities and doubts that had been growing inside her sounded slightly foolish now that Luna had spoken them out loud.
The priestess looked up at her, smiling. "Do you feel better now? You've been holding that all inside for a while now. Doubts are a like a sickness. If you don't get them out, they can poison you."
Luna let out a small laugh, ducking her head in agreement and finally took a seat. It did feel better now that she had voiced them. "I'm sorry. I don't know where that came from."
"Yes, you do. But Abnoa fell because your own leader doubted the strength of her own people to hold it and sent her strongest warriors away to help those make it here. The Goddess doesn't abandon us, but like the moon, She can be distant. She has an ultimate plan, but her means are so subtle that even her siblings are surprised when She out maneuvers them. As for the Horse God, his council is his own." She looked into Luna's eyes. "Child, sometimes we have to have failure so we know how not to do it again. Sometimes we must be lost in order to find ourselves again."
Luna smiled wryly at the old Priestess, touching her shoulder in thanks. "Thank you, I think. I would rather have never lost in the first place, though." Rising to her feet, she glanced one last time at the beautiful stained glass and turned to leave.
"Who said it was you who was lost, child?" The priestess chuckled and walked to the back to motion the others back in.
Torrin stared at the target tied to the tree. She was slowly learning to compensate for the lack of clarity in her eye. While most of the vision had come back, it was not as perfect as it had once been. Her sense of self was still very much wrapped up in her skills as a fighter and she was worried about the loss.
She pulled out another slim throwing knife, feeling the cool smooth metal against her fingers and felt its weight in her hand. Against the skin of her cheek, she felt the wind direction and was already making adjustments. Then, as her heart beat and then rested, beat and then rested, beat and… during the rest she threw the knife. It sailed cutting through the air.
With a silent, deadly beauty, it sank deep into the wood. She frowned. While she had hit the target, it was not the bulls-eye. Before, even dead drunk, she could hit the center of a target repeatedly.
With a sigh she pulled out another one and repeated the ritual. Closer, but still not perfect. With her frustration growing, she took a break. She picked up the water skin and took a swallow. For a brief moment, she wondered what Luna was doing. The Ranger hadn't been back to visit her. Although Torrin was happy they had managed to break the ice of hostility, she wasn't sure why it mattered. Why Luna mattered in the first place. But she did and that was almost more distressing.
She retied her hair back into a horsetail and picked up another knife. With a sudden flick of the wrist she sent it flying. Right into a body that wasn't there before.
The short man with long black hair looked down at the knife in his chest. Then with an arched eyebrow, he looked back up at Torrin. "Pray tell. Have I offended you in some way?"
"N-n-no… where did you come from? Who are you?" She demanded once she got over her surprise.
He pulled himself up to his full height and with a mocking bow said. "I am Armando, the God of the Horse People."
"Okay. Horse God. Right. Um, my knife?"
"What? Oh, yes." He pulled the knife out and smoothed his shirt making the hole disappear in the fabric. "You're not going to throw it again? While you can't kill me, it is an unpleasant feeling." Then with a flick he flipped the knife over and handed it back to Torrin handle first.
Warily, Torrin took the knife back. She stared at him uneasily. Armando seemingly was comfortable looking at the unfamiliar white northern landscape.
Finally Torrin cleared her throat. "Why are you here?"
He looked at her, his dark eyes taking in everything about the young woman. "You've grown up beautifully. I can see your Muanya in you. She was truly a wonderful soul." He gave a chuckle. "But as to why I am here. I am here because you are here. And you, my youngling, should not be here."
Torrin snorted. "Then where should I be? I finally found a place where I belong and you want me to leave?"
"Yes." He responded matter of fact. "You were born to fulfill a destiny and you cannot in this place."
Torrin rolled her eyes at his words. "Destiny. Sure. Then where should I be?"
He smiled. "Not here." As he began to vanish, he whispered. "In two days, four Assassins will kill the Council… including your Luna."
Torrin felt the blood leave her face. "What?" She rushed to the spot where he had been standing, but he was gone.
"You bastard," Torrin growled out. Then, she quickly pulled the knives out of the target and ran back to the tavern. Rushing into her room she pulled out the black leathers and mail. She didn't have time to waste, lives were in danger. No. Luna's life was in danger.
Wooten watched as a very different woman emerged from the back room. She got a chill looking at the mercenary. Torrin wore a look of death. Now Wooten could see how all the tales about Torrin could be true.
Cold eyes stared at Wooten. "I need to get to the city as fast as I can."
Wooten just nodded. "Take Weslen's Alcen. He's too stupid to know you're not his owner."
Torrin nodded, pausing when Wooten wished her good luck and then she was gone.
Torrin slid off the shaggy beast, her inner thighs flaring in pain. She wasn't use to riding the shaggy, stocky beasts. She wasn't use to riding, period. Other than a few times with a few Horse warriors, she hadn't really ridden that much. Alcen's were deer-like creatures with shaggy fur that turned white in the winter and brown in the summer. From their foreheads twin spiraling horns emerged. Those horns made the creatures fierce in battle; many Fire warriors trained their mounts to use those horns on command. This beast seemed to be a happy stupid creature and Weslen had taken to trimming her riding beast's horns so he wasn't a danger to himself or others.
It was now dark but it had only taken her a day to get to the Queen's City. She tied the halter to a nearby post and slipped into the city.
Torrin wasn't sure what to do. She didn't know how involved she should get. She had barely defeated the previous Assassins with only luck on her side and Luna's timely intervention. Four together was suicide. She bit her lip. However, she could not stand by and let her friend die. She paused mid-step. She had thought of Luna as her friend. When had that happened? Perhaps if she wasn't such a coward, she thought, she could have seen Luna as a friend from the start. Perhaps she could have avoided this path of haunting nightmares and regrets. She needed to find her mother. Her mother could tell her where she could find Luna. Shaking her thoughts away, she proceeded onto the city streets toward home.
Some people were still outside, but mostly, they were guards out patrolling the restless masses. There was a fragile peace now that too many bodies were now in the city. Tempers were short as well as many people's patience. Torrin kept to the edge of the road and tried to look like she belonged there.
"Well, well, lookie at what we have here, girls." The voice cracked through the night like a whip and Torrin flinched.
Rhain emerged from the shadow of building with four other women. Their blue eyes became dark with rage as they recognized Torrin.
Torrin knew that this would only end badly but she didn't want to start any trouble. She held up her hands. "Rhain, I don't have time for this. I have to see Luna. It's a matter of life and death."
Rhain grinned. Quinn was right, the traitor had come back. "What do you think girls? Should we let this murderer walk free?"
The tallest of the five cracked her knuckles. "Torrin, daughter of Tyra and some bastard southerner, I proclaim you a murderer. My sister died at Abnoa and her blood is on your hands."
Torrin gulped and felt cold inside. Not the cold she felt before battle that helped her distance her humanity from inhumanity of war. No, she felt the coldness of fear and shame.
"I'm sorry, but we need to hold off on blood feuds for a moment." She stepped back away only to find two more at her back.
"Rhain, please." She tried to reason with her sister, but she was almost certain what the outcome would be. "Khelin has sent Assassins to murder your Council."
Rhain snorted. "How convenient that you show up just in time to warn us. You may have everybody fooled but not me. All I see, is a trick to get you back into our good graces so you can feed information to your Mistress." Rhain waved a hand. "These women all lost a loved one because of you and I will see justice done."
"Rhain don't…" Torrin was cut off as rough hands grabbed for her. As she struggled, she vowed the next time to not try being nice and polite at all. Not wanting to hurt anybody she missed blocking a punch on her weak eye side that dropped her to her knees. Another blow to the side of her head knocked her out.
Rhain grinned and stepped up to give a kick of her own to Torrin's unconscious body. "That's for ruining my parent's marriage." She looked at the women and nodded. They understood why Torrin shouldn't be trusted. "Take her to the holding cells. In the morning, I will start the process to try her as a traitor. Do not worry. Your families will see justice."
Two of the women nodded and picked up Torrin each one grabbing her under an arm and started dragging her.
The taller of the two stared down at the small, dark-haired woman. She didn't look like such a threat now, just a little girl. "You think we need to chain her up?"
The other shrugged. "You heard Rhain, she's a trained killer. You want her loose so she can do what she did at Abnoa?"
"Fine." They dragged her into the cell and chained her to the far wall.
Torrin jerked awake and felt the chain manacles. She'd been in such positions before particularly, after a heavy night of drinking. Her head was throbbing and for a moment she panicked, how long had she been in here? What if she was too late? Frantically, she jerked on the chains, but they didn't give an inch. She groaned and went slack in the chains leaning back against the cold stone.
"Hey!" she yelled, wincing at her voice as it bounced around the small room.
"Hey!" Nobody even looked through the window in the door. By the Goddess, this was so not good.
"Listen to me! People are in danger! You have to let me out." Silence was her only response.
She could feel the despair in her rising. She was going to fail. Here was her chance to do something right for the right reasons and she was going to fail. Luna was going to die and she wouldn't be there to help her. She thrashed in the chains for a few moments before she got herself back under control. Losing control now would guarantee that people would die.
Slowly, she evened out her breathing and tried to analyze her problem... chained to a wall inside a locked prison with a quite a few unfriendly women who wanted her blood outside the door. "Not good," she thought. A breeze blew into the room through the small opening in the window causing the torches to flicker and send shadows dancing across the stone.
Torrin shivered as a shadow caressed her skin. Then a memory flashed in her head, 'she was standing in a room and the black fire was at her back and a voice whispered for her to touch the shadows to be one with them.' Shivering Torrin shook her head. That wasn't her memory. She had never walked through the fire. It had never been on her back…ever.
She looked at the shadow; it flickered and seemed to beckon to her. She really wanted to feel it. The chain on her arm clinked as she leaned over to try to touch the flickering darkness. It danced just out of reach of her fingers.
Growling under her breath, she stretched out again. Her eyes widened in surprise as she touched the shadow. The secrets of the Assassins opened up to her as her fingers slid into the shadows for a moment. It looked as if her skin was absorbing the shadows. Then she vanished and the chains went slack, slapping onto the stones.
She emerged into the hallway. Cocking her head, she listened to the whispering of the shadows. She wasn't alone. There were other shadows in the City infected with evil intent. They told her a great many things. She put the information away for a later time.
Torrin easily moved through the city to the Castle. She was happy she was not too late but still, she would be cutting it close.
Torrin slipped past the four guards and made her way into courtyard of the Castle. The Castle seemed to radiate a sense of sadness. The shadows whispered to her of dark pasts and bloody deeds, but she didn't understand what they were trying to tell her.
The Warrior haunted the hallways, lurking and watchful. She was cursed for an action so horrible nobody would speak of it; her name was forgotten, stricken from all records. Her own hubris had made her both the Deceived and the Deceiver and for that she would remain locked inside the Castle never to find the Goddess.
Since she had been cursed, she had felt like she was waiting for something important. At first she thought it was forgiveness, but after the years had passed into decades she had given up on that notion. Still, as time passed, she felt like she was waiting.
Now after years of lingering and skulking around in the darkened hallways, she felt it. Another had come. Another who bore the heavy mark of the Betrayer. A heavy curse to bear, one she knew all too well. She felt like a plucked chord on a stringed instrument, a sense of completion hummed through her. Her chance had arrived. The salvation she had dreamed and feared was upon her.
Torrin made her way past the thick stones into the Castle itself. It was very cold, Torrin shivered but kept moving. She needed to find Luna. Time was winding down and if she didn't find her and the Council, they would be killed. Somehow, Torrin knew more than people would die. If she failed, the North's hopes of winning would end as well.
Swiftly, she rushed through the empty hallways, a small chill gust of wind the only proof of her passage.
"Girl." The whisper was little more than a brush of wind across Torrin's skin, raising goose bumps in its trail.
Torrin's head whipped around. Squinting, she looked into the darkness, "Who's there?"
The gust of wind brought with it a sound of bitter laughter. "The Deceiver, of course." The cold voice was full of bitter sadness. Dust whirled around her as the sudden gust blew around her.
Torrin had felt fear before and recognized it here. The hair on the back of her neck prickled. "The Deceiver?" She peered into the darkness, straining her eyes to pierce the darkness.
A ghostly form emerged from the darkness in front of her, clad in ceremonial armor, a bloody sword in her right hand. She was insubstantial and Torrin could see through her. "Yes." The woman grinned wryly. The woman was taller than Torrin, and her armor was that of a Fire Warrior.
Torrin was, for the first time in her life, so afraid that she was frozen where she stood. But after a moment, when she saw the ghost only stood and looked back, she relaxed. She took a step back giving her some much needed space. "What is it with me and ghosts?" she muttered under her breath.
"Destiny." The ghost smiled, her eyes were filled with an ageless sadness and regret.
"I've come to you to help you." The woman's face twisted into a self-mocking sneer. "Believe it or not."
Torrin's eyes locked with the ghost's, and she knew that look in the ghost's eyes. She knew it because it was the same haunted look she had in her eyes when she looked in the mirror. It was regret. It was a pain that could never be purged. It was the wanting so badly to have the chance to redo something and make a different decision.
"I believe you," Torrin whispered.
The ghost stilled briefly as if not expecting that answer. "Then follow me, young one." Turning around she floated down the hallway, heading back deeper into the Castle.
Torrin followed without question. Perhaps she was insane to trust the apparition, but she could nothing else. She trusted her gut. Her gut told her the ghost would be her someday if she didn't follow her.
She cleared her throat. "Assassins are in the Castle. I need to stop them."
The ghost ignored Torrin.
They went through hallways, long disused and up several flights of stairs. Turning down one, the ghost paused in front of a simple iron bound oak door. "In there," she pointed.
Torrin stared at the door, and then shrugged. Touching the handle carefully, she explored it for a trap. Not finding one, she turned the handle and slowly opened the door, listening for anything that would signal deception.
She shielded her eyes as a torch sprung to life, its light shining off the polished metal in the room.
"There." The ghost motioned to the back of the small armory where a single sword rested in an ornate holder, its blade liquid silver.
"Do not touch the blade. Bring it to the one you protect."
Torrin walked back to the sword, pausing she frowned. "The one I protect? I assume that will make sense at some point." She was getting sick of ghosts and Gods and their need for cryptic talk. Continuing her way to the sword, she picked up the blade awed by its weight. It was a beautiful weapon. "Figures I wouldn't get something that neat," she mumbled.
There was the sound of laughter at that. "You are what you are, as I am what I am." The ghost hovered at the entrance to the room, unwilling or unable to enter.
"See, more cryptic talk," she huffed and went back to the entrance. With a wistfully sigh at the other weapons inside, she slowly shut the door.
The ghost was slowly beginning to fade away, becoming only an outline of the woman against the wall behind her. "You will find the Assassins in the Library. Do not fail as I once did."
Torrin nodded, took a step to leave, and then stopped. "Is there anything I can do for you?"
"You already have," the voice whispered in the darkness, fading completely away to leave Torrin once again alone in the dark hallway.
The meeting, like many of them in the past month, had stretched throughout the day and into the night. The Clan leaders were still willfully stubborn, but on the whole, Luna was happy with what they had accomplished.
Every remaining Ranger was now rushing toward the Queen's City. Many had already arrived and been assigned to help clear the woods with Magda's warriors. They had been devastatingly effective at reducing the number of rogue groups around the City and surrounding roads. To such a point, some of those groups were being sent to set up camp at the base of the Ellris Pass in preparation for the coming spring.
Healers from the Wind Walkers would be traveling up river on the first Wave Dancer ship to join that camp. They had planned as best as they could. Now, they just were waiting for the thawing of the Winderling.
Draining the last of the wine in her mug, she started to rise to get another when Eve leaped up next to her. The Wind Walker danced from her seat, grabbing a jug of wine and pouring Luna another glass.
Nodding her thanks, Luna took a sip from the new mug, frowning at the amused look on Tasha's face.
"The ice is starting to break up on the Winderling, we should be able to start transporting people to the base of the Pass by the end of this moon phase."
Luna smiled at Allysandra's words. It had been a long hard winter and the spring did not bode to be any better. Her deepest fear was that Khelin would somehow get her own troops to the top of the Pass before they could and block them.
Torrin stalked up the stairs that lead to the room where she knew the meeting was going on.
At the door the guard tried to stop her. She slid away and seemed to disappear into a shadow before reappearing behind the startled guard. The former mercenary slid her arms around the thick Fire Warrior's throat and giving a squeeze sent the guard into unconsciousness.
"Any word from the scouts at the top of the Pass?" Magda shook her head in answer to Luna's question. "None yet, but the next group just headed out to replace them. We should hear from them tomorrow."
The shadows in the room grew darker and went still, they no longer moved with the motion of the lanterns in the room.
The skin at the back of Luna's neck crawled and she slowly stood up, ignoring the confused looks she was getting.
Torrin could feel the dark magic swelling and with a swift kick, kicked the library door in.
Luna wasn't certain who it was that yelled the warning, all she knew was that between one heartbeat and the next the room was filled with turmoil. Black-clothed women stepped out of the shadows, whirling blades in hands.
A figure at the doorway caught the Ranger's attention despite the swirling bedlam around her. "Torrin!" Luna yelled as she drew her own sword, barely avoiding a thrown dagger that thudded into the back of the chair she'd just been sitting in.
Torrin felt her heartbeat speed up as she watched the room dissolve into pandemonium. She had to get to Luna. She felt urgency deep in her bones that certain things could not come to pass. She sidestepped a sword thrust and then quickly reached out with her hand catching the wrist and with a quick wrench, the bones snapped and the Assassin's sword fell useless.
The Assassin snarled, looked up and paused.
Torrin wasn't sure why the black-eyed woman hesitated but she used it to her advantage by shoving the woman out of her way to make it over to Luna.
Assassins flanked Luna, forcing her backward away from Torrin. She fought for her life. She had never imagined anyone could be so good with daggers. Her sword seemed slow compared to the slashing dance the Assassins used. Desperately she swung back, trying to force them away from her.
Tasha was fighting by Luna's side, doing her best to help the blonde. She wasn't as good with a blade, but she could at least deflect some of the knives. A flicker of movement caught her attention and someone slid out of a flickering shadow. Tasha opened her mouth to yell a warning when a boot caught her in the temple, sending her spinning to the floor unconscious.
The Assassin that had emerged lashed out with her dagger, catching Luna's hand with the pommel, causing the Ranger to drop her sword with a yell of pain.
To her horror, Torrin saw an Assassin slam the handle of her dagger down on Luna's wrist, causing her to lose the grip on her sword. Unthinkingly, Torrin pressed herself into a shadow, walked in the twilight road for a moment before popping out closer to Luna. While the other Assassins were busy keeping the Clan leaders occupied by leaping in and out of shadows, two concentrated on Luna, advancing on the weaponless Ranger.
Instinctively, she bellowed out Luna's name and tossed the sword the ghost had given to her care in the Ranger's direction. Even as she tossed the sword, her other hand moved to her clothes producing a dagger. With a quick flick of the wrist it went sailing through the air seconds after the sword. With a curse, she saw it sink into the Assassin's thigh.
Luna's hand still felt numb from the hit the Assassin had given it making it hard to concentrate but she did her best to ignore it. Luna kicked the nearest Assassin while snatching the sword sheath Torrin had tossed her. The Assassin she had kicked went down with a yell as a dagger found its mark in the woman's leg. Luna drew out the sword.
The beautiful blade looked like it was made of liquid silver. As she raised it, the sword glowed, spreading a brilliant, silver light throughout the library, chasing the shadows from the farthest nooks and crannies of the room.
Stunned, the Assassins hissed having their advantage taken away. Their black eyes turned towards the source of their discomfort and with a malicious glint, three of them moved toward the woman with the shining sword. Even with this surprise, they were more than enough for these weak warriors. They were the Mistress's Chosen. They were unstoppable.
Somebody somewhere yelled 'help' and another voice called for the guards. After the surprise of the lighted sword, the room erupted back into the chaos of battle.
Magda tackled one of them, taking the dark-eyed Assassin down to the floor with her as soon as the Assassin turned her back on the Fire Warrior.
The fourth Assassin was busy trying to pull the dagger from her thigh, cursing as she struggled with it.
Torrin blinked at the light, momentarily blinded herself. Sensing movement behind her she ducked the swing of a poisoned blade that would have sliced her neck open.
Torrin spun remembering a move not hers and kicked the Assassin's feet out from under her. Leaping sideways, she grabbed the woman on her way down to the floor pinning her hands to the ground with a barely audible smack of flesh on stone.
Black eyes stared into black. "You betray your sisters. May you burn in the Mistress's fire for all eternity," the Assassin hissed back at her.
Torrin frowned in confusion, but kept her focus on the poisoned blades attacking her. She rolled into a shadow with the woman, winking out of sight.
Magda struggled with the killer, pummeling her with her fists. A sudden pain caused her to scream as her opponent drove a blade into her stomach. The Assassin pushed the larger woman off of her, a cruel smile flashing over her face as she saw the blackness sweeping up from the stab wound on the woman's abdomen. Regaining her feet she hissed out to the others.
"The sword! Sheath the sword."
Luna twirled the new blade, a smile forming on her face at the weight and perfect balance of it. The light emanating from the blade seemed to outline the assassins. The smile fled from her face as two of the dark-eyed women once more attacked her.
Allysandra and her partner fought the third Assassin, doing what they could to keep her away from Athena and Eve. Neither were pure warriors, but they fought as best they could with the curved scimitars favored by the Wave Dancers.
In the corner of the room, Allysandra and her partner rushed the sole Assassin they faced, trying to trap her between them. To their surprise, the Assassin laughed and stepped backward into a shadow, disappearing from sight.
A scream behind them echoed through the room as Eve backed away from her mother. A black-gloved hand emerged from the shadows, the dagger it held slashing across Athena's throat. Bright red blood fountained into the air as the leader of the Wind Walkers went down gurgling.
The Assassin on the floor finally pulled the dagger out of her thigh and unsteadily got up to her feet. She blocked the pain out and twirled the twin blades in her hands while looking at the blonde.
"I remember you. Khelin had fun with you. Did you know that we were always there, watching? Yes, we watched just incase we were needed." She grinned cruelly seeing her words had hit the mark she had intended.
Luna rocked backward, her face betraying the shame she felt at the Assassin's words. She had always believed that what Khelin had done to her would remain her own secret. To hear that others had seen Khelin abuse her sent her into over the edge.
With an inarticulate scream, Luna attacked, lunging at the injured Assassin, slashing mindlessly. Her sword connected with the Assassin's poisoned blade, shattering it into a thousand shards and continuing through. The silvered edge sliced through fabric, flesh and bone, cutting the killer nearly in half with a fountain of blood.
The black eyes went wide in surprise almost if she could not believe her own death, then she fell onto the floor, red blood spilling out into a large puddle.
The silver light dimmed immediately as the Assassin's dark blood covered the sword, allowing shadows to once more creep further into the library.
Luna quickly wiped the blade across her shirt sleeve, cleaning away the blood. Once again the bright silver light chased shadows from the room, stranding the Assassins.
Torrin tumbled out of a shadow landing heavily on to her back, the wind in her lungs being expelled in a loud gasp. Sensing movement coming at her, she fumbled for a weapon but her trip through the twilight left her at a disadvantage.
"Torrin! Watch out!" Luna yelled, leaping over a fallen chair as she rushed towards the shorter woman.
Reacting to Luna's command Torrin rolled to her left. Her shirtsleeve was pinned for a moment by a dagger and then the cloth ripped away. Torrin flowed back into action. She brought her foot up, caught the Assassin in the chest and pushed the woman back toward the moving Luna.
The tip of the silver sword emerged from the assassin's chest as Luna ruthlessly stabbed forward and upward. The Assassin hung for a moment, pinned upwards upon the blade. Luna hissed into her ear, "Say hello to your Mistress."
Getting to her feet, Torrin pulled a knife and threw it at one of the remaining assassins approaching a group of women who were desperately trying to fight back at her. Her face gave a flicker of disappointment as she saw her knife sink into a shoulder.
Torrin, noticing the shadows were once again back, stepped into a one and flickered out of sight. She stepped out behind the other Assassin who had pulled her knife out and was advancing again on Allysandra. She pulled the woman into the shadows and away from Allysandra.
Eve cringed backward as the Assassin turned toward her with a feral grin that curled her lips back. Hurriedly, Luna shoved the body off her sword, cleaning it on the dead Assassin's shirt. The shadows winked out of existence once again just as the Assassin leapt toward one to reach Eve.
The surprised Assassin slammed into a wall head first, sliding to the floor from the impact as the shadow she'd been leaping into disappeared.
A body fell from a great height and crashed heavily on to the table top, followed by another. For a moment they wrestled and then the woman on the bottom arched and screamed. Then she flopped back to the table, blood pouring out from where Torrin's two daggers had stabbed into her body.
The guards, led by Rhain, pounded up the steps, their armor clanking and echoing in the stairwell. They broke into the room and stopped abruptly, stunned at the carnage.
Rhain gasped like a fish out of water. "What in the name of the Goddess is going on here?" she screamed.
Luna, her sides heaving from the brief but frantic battle, hurried toward the table, her sword held high, illuminating the scene on the table top.
Rhain took in the blood and the bodies. "You." She pointed at the nearest guard. "Get the healers. Seeing Luna move toward the table with her sword drawn, she drew her own and nodded for the others to follow.
Sensing movement, Torrin looked up. Wincing, she looked away from the bright light of the sword.
Only after she had made certain that the assassin was dead did Luna sheath her sword, returning the room to its normal lighting.
"Torrin?" Dropping to her knees the Ranger tried to check her for any wounds, remembering the black poison that had spread so quickly in the shorter woman's hand back at the river.
Torrin muttered, "I'm okay."
She turned back to Luna, giving her a small smile. "Just happy I wasn't late."
The tall blonde looked around her, wincing as she spotted Magda's still form and then at Eve sobbing over her mother's bloodied body but she saw no other dead. Looking back down, Luna smiled wryly, brushing black hair from Torrin's face. "No, you weren't."
Rhain has a bewildered look on her face as she looked at the dead Assassins. Then she looked down at her sister and froze in fright. "Luna, get away from her," she screamed. "It's a trick!" Vindicated yet terrified, Rhain had her proof literally staring her in the face. Torrin's eyes were as black as the dead Assassins sprawled on the floor.
"Don't be stupid, Rhain." Luna snapped at her. She helped the dark-haired woman to sit up. "She killed the Assassins. We'd all be dead if it weren't for her."
Luna's rebuke stung. Why could nobody but her see the danger that Torrin was to them? "Look at her eyes!" she shouted. "They're as black as the Assassins'. I've researched this Mistress of Shadows. Only Her Chosen have the black eyes. It's her mark on them."
Luna stood up, her eyes full of anger. "Listen to me, you little..." A nearby groan stopped the tall blonde. Tasha was starting to wake up. "Get a healer over here!" Luna snapped.
Torrin had paled at Rhain's accusation and frantically looked around the room. She peered into a mirror hanging crookedly on the wall. Solid black eyes stared back at her. She gasped and scrambled for the door. Instinctively, the dark haired woman stepped into a shadow when the guards tried to stop her.
Rhain cursed, torn between her sister and going after Torrin. Looking at two of the guards she nodded for them to follow Torrin. Then she rushed to her sister's side.
Luna glanced up when she heard the sharp intake of breath… cursing as she saw Torrin dive into a shadow and disappear.
"I let her go once," Luna whispered as she started for the door. "If something happens to Torrin, I'll have your head, Rhain," the blonde fumed.
Torrin fell out of the shadows and into the stairway then pushed past two startled guards. What the hell was happening to her? She had memories that weren't hers. She had skills to walk through shadows. Goddess, was she a danger to those around her? She had no answers only panic-stricken thoughts as she fled farther into the Castle.
The two guards gave Luna a starting point as to where Torrin had gone. From there it was fairly easy to track the panicked flight of the dark-haired woman. Her footprints were crystal clear in the dust for the Ranger to follow and Luna looped along through the corridors, her long legs eating up the distance as she ran.
The blonde had gone only a short while before she came across the two guards that Rhain had sent out after Torrin. They were in the center of an intersection trying to figure out which way to go. "You two." Luna's voice carried down the hallways, louder than she'd intended. Both turned towards her in surprise.
"Go back to the library." They hesitated and she drew enough of the sword from its scabbard for light to shine through the shadows. "Now."
Her tone brooked no argument. She watched until the two had disappeared back the way she had come before resuming her tracking.
Torrin raced blindly.
She was tainted somehow and she would never be worthy of anything or anybody. The mercenary slammed through a door and then froze, blinking at the black eyes in front of her. For a moment she was afraid there were more assassins, but she realized it was only a mirror.
The only killer here was her. Howling in rage, she flew across the small room and smashed her fists into the dusty glass.
Hands cut and bleeding, she sank to the ground on the broken pieces of glass. Rocking back and forth she cried. She had almost felt like she belonged somewhere and now that had been taken from her. Nobody would trust her now or see beyond her black eyes.
"You have to stop running away," a soft voice called from the doorway. Luna stepped inside, slowly approaching the upset woman. Keeping her voice soft and soothing as if she were talking to a cornered animal, Luna crouched down next to Torrin.
"You hurt your hands."
Ignoring the blood on her hands, Torrin tried to wipe her tears away. "You shouldn't be here. I'm not safe to be around," she said quietly, not looking at Luna.
"Really?" the blonde said, dropping to her knees and gently grasping Torrin's hands. "How come I think I'm not safe unless you are around?" the blonde gently teased. She took off the light outer shirt she'd been wearing to wrap Torrin's cuts with.
"Cause you're messed up in the head," she muttered quietly as she let Luna wrap her hands.
Luna grew quiet at that and kept her eyes fixed on the bleeding cuts.
Torrin finally allowed herself to look at Luna's long graceful fingers as the woman tended to her hands. Then she looked up at Luna's face. "Why do you keep coming after me?" she asked softly. "If anyone should hate me it should be you. After what I did at Abnoa, you should want vengeance, like the others, but you keep treating me like I'm a good and worthy person."
"I did want vengeance," the blonde answered, her eyes still on the bandaged hands she held in hers. "But I can't see you as evil, Torrin. I just can't. You aren't bad, no matter what you think. You've saved my life and I've saved yours. That binds us."
Torrin snorted but then gave a small smile. "Well, it does seem that we can't get rid of each other."
Suddenly Luna looked up at Torrin, her eyes cold and distant. "And I still want vengeance, just not against you." Then her blue eyes thawed at Torrin's words and she slowly gave her a crooked grin. "Looks like it, doesn't it?"
Torrin stilled at the look on Luna's face. It was so out of place on her friend's face. Unthinking, she touched Luna's cheek with her bandaged hand. "Vengeance doesn't suit you."
"What does?" Luna found herself asking, her voice low and quiet. Her body froze as she felt Torrin's hand brush her cheek.
Torrin gave her a genuine smile. "You're a leader, Luna. And a good leader can't rule with vengeance. Unless, of course, you want to be Khelin or some of her relatives," she added. "But you're not like Khelin, so don't let her memory taint you. I don't know what happened, and it's not my business, but as long as her memory affects you, she controls you. You need to let her go, Luna, don't give her that power."
Luna stared in shock at Torrin, not knowing what or even how to say it. "You're eyes aren't black anymore," she finally whispered,
Torrin frowned as she processed what Luna had said. Removing her hand from Luna's cheek, she fumbled for a piece of broken glass. Lifting it up she nearly sobbed in relief as her own gray eyes looked back at her. She dropped the piece of glass with a laugh.
"Thank the Goddess," she said and impulsively grabbed Luna in a hug and then kissed her cheek. She pulled back with a grin. "That has to be the best thing anybody has ever said to me." With another laugh she stood up, feeling the heavy weight lift off of her chest.
Luna smiled up at her, her face red and her body well aware of the hug she had just received. A bit unsteadily, she stood up and touched Torrin on the shoulder. "Think we can go back now? Tyra will want to make sure you aren't hurt and that Tasha is all right."
Torrin sobered a bit, her good mood dampened. Could she face them? Why had her eyes changed back? Why had they changed in the first place? Searching back through the past events, she suddenly remembered the cold river water and struggling with the Assassin, her fingers stabbing into the black eyes in an attempt to save her life and the blackness that had then swept into her body. "What?" She looked back to Luna when she realized she was being asked a question.
The blonde watched her, worry in her blue eyes. "Will you come back with me?"
"I don't know if should stay. I don't fancy being beaten up and chained to a wall again. Maybe it would be best if I left." Torrin didn't really want to go. It felt wrong, like an ache that wouldn't go away. But she couldn't stand staying under the constant threat of imprisonment. Especially since she couldn't argue since some of the women really had a legitimate claim to a judgment.
Luna's eyes flashed with anger. "What?" Her grip on Torrin's arm tightened. "Beaten up? Chained to a wall? What are you talking about?" Realization slowly dawned and she growled, "Rhain."
Letting go of the shorter woman's arm Luna whirled and stalked from the room and headed back toward the library. "That's it! I'm going to kill that woman! I don't care if she's your sister!"
Torrin grabbed Luna around the waist and pulled her back into her body trying to hold her still. "Calm down. Luna, calm down. You can't attack Rhain. Not yet, at least….but hopefully in the future..." She trailed off thinking of some punishments for her half sister.
"I won't let her get away with this." Luna hissed, twisting around in Torrin's arms. "She can't..." Luna's words slowed to a halt as she realized exactly how close she was to Torrin, their bodies pressed against one another.
Torrin shook her head. "Luna, you can't attack her. Okay? She's Quinn's daughter. You know Quinn the legend, the ass of epic... uh, never mind." She looked up at Luna, "Um, have you always been this tall?"
Luna consciously made her legs take a step backward, her face burning. "I'm certain I was shorter when I was young," she muttered.
The dark-haired woman flushed at her inane comment. "Um, yeah. I suppose you were shorter when you were, uh, younger." She let Luna slip out of her arms but not really wanting to let her go. She flushed even more at her thoughts.
"I want you to stay," Luna mumbled. She had no problem facing the Mistress of the Shadow's Assassins that could meld in and out of darkness, but for some reason she found herself having trouble facing the small woman in front of her.
Before her courage failed her, the tall blonde held up a hand to stop Torrin before she could answer. "Wait, hear me out before you say anything?"
Torrin opened her mouth to protest then shut it, quirking a dark eyebrow at Luna. "Hmmm."
The ranger thought fast trying to come up with a way to get Torrin to stay. She didn't want her running away again. Who knew where the other woman would end up if she fled again? Luna bit her lower lip in thought then nodded to herself. "I want to hire you."
Torrin's gut sank. "What? I thought we were more..." She looked down at her feet. 'Stupid. Why would Luna think of her as her friend?' She looked back up, her grey eyes distant. "Okay," her voice cold. "What is that you want me to do? And you're racking up quite the tab, you know."
Luna's resolve crumbled. Taking a step back toward Torrin, she gently touched her cheek. "Torrin..." Luna paused, struggling for the words. "I want you to stay because… you're my friend." Blue eyes searched the gray eyes in front of her intently. "Um, I… well, don't leave me again. Please?"
Warmth flickered back into Torrin's eyes, and she looked at Luna with wonder. "Really? I don't know why… considering what I did." She blew out at breath and reached up, gently squeezing the hand that rested on her cheek.
Her throat suddenly felt thick and she cleared her throat. "I don't want to cause you any more problems, Luna. Rhain will create them just because I'm here, and my past activities could hurt you too. Are you sure you want me to stay?"
Luna's lips curled upward into a smile and she nodded before her friend had even finished speaking. "Of course I do. Who else is going to watch my back? What do you say? "She took Torrin's hand in her own and tugged her toward the hallway back to the Library. "Keep me out of trouble?"
Torrin laughed and let herself be led away, enjoying the touch. "Somehow, I sense keeping you out of trouble is a full time job. Ah, I get perks with the job, right?"
The blonde glanced over her shoulder at the trailing woman and wiggled her eyebrows and smirked. "Depends how good you are," Luna turned away quickly before Torrin could see the blush creeping across her face.
Torrin snorted. "You need to work more on being dirty. It totally blows it when you blush," the petite woman said evilly behind Luna's back.
"I don't know what you're talking about," the other woman muttered, hastily dropping Torrin's hand and continuing down the hallway.
Torrin couldn't wipe the grin off of her face but wisely chose to stay quiet. After a few moments of following Luna she wondered where they were. "I'm glad you know the way back. I wasn't really paying attention."
The taller woman accepted the change of topic. "I've been wandering the halls at night." She pointed down one of the cross-corridors they passed on the way back to the library. "There's a stairway down there that leads up to a tower guarded by these old women. It's kind of strange."
Torrin nodded. "The Castle is haunted. Something bad happened and people can't move on until things have been set right. I met a ghost. She's the one who gave me that sword." Torrin gave a shiver remembering the sad warrior.
Luna touched the hilt of the sword in question then paused, looking to the other woman questioningly. "A spirit gave you this? A ghost?"
Torrin stopped and looked back at Luna, she shrugged. "A ghost, a non-corporeal being, a body you can look through.
"Smart ass," Luna said. "I meant, did the ghost have a name?"
Seeing that Luna was not amused with her quip she meekly finished her story. Torrin recited everything she could remember. "She was dressed in armor that looked like it was Fire Clan in origin, a sword that still looked like it had fresh blood on it, and she called herself the Deceiver."
The blonde frowned, her fingers curling around the hilt of the blade for a second. "The Deceiver?" There were legends about the assassin who had killed the last High Queen named that. I think we should pay a visit to the Priestesses after this."
"Okay." Torrin agreed. She grinned at Luna. "Goody, more verbal sparing with a Goddess' Chosen."
Luna grinned back. "I know the feeling." Impulsively, she took Torrin's hand once more and pulled her toward the stairs leading to the Library. "Come on, we better get back before things get even worse up there."
Torrin hid a small grin as she looked down at their hands wondering why she was letting Luna be all touchy feely with her.
"Fine, but you can't let Rhain's goons pound on me anymore. I don't know how many more blows to the head I can take."
Luna's eyes narrowed dangerously. "I promise." She was going to have a word with Rhain or a fight; she wasn't sure which one yet.
As they were climbing up the stairs, they could hear the chaos in the Library. Several people were screaming at each other at the same time, while several other were wailing. Luna glanced at Torrin, straightened her shoulders and dropped the ex-mercenary's hand as they reached the doorway.
The guards eyed Torrin with suspicion but stepped aside to let them enter. The scene inside was worse than Luna had expected. Magda's body was laid out next to the table that Athena's was laying on. Crouched next to Athena, crying and wailing was Eve and another woman Luna didn't recognize.
Next to Magda's body, Adrian and Valerie were screaming at each other about who was in charge, while several Fire warriors watched on uncomfortably. Allysandra and her mate were in the corner, watching it all silently with unreadable expressions.
A healer was tending to Tasha, wrapping her head in a bandage and trying to get the Earth warrior to stay still while she did it.
Rhain stood just inside the doorway, talking to the two guards that Luna had sent away earlier. She turned toward Luna and scowling in anger as she spotted her half-sister. Before she could start ranting again, Luna hauled back and slammed a fist into Rhain's face, breaking her nose and sending her tumbling backwards.
Torrin winced, and then frowned. Not that she cared about Rhain getting her nose busted, she was worried more about the impact that action might have on Luna's leadership role.
Rhain staggered back up holding a hand to her gushing nose. "You bitch!" she gargled from her own blood.
Luna reached down and hauled Rhain back to her feet. "You're a disgrace to the North, Rhain." She shoved her toward the closer of the two guards that she'd been talking to. "Get her out of my sight." She glared at the three of them. "Next time you try to imprison someone without orders, I'll kill you all myself."
Rhain flushed, both from anger and embarrassment. "You're being tricked. Can't you see that?" the woman nearly howled as the other two women dragged her away.
"Your sister's going insane," Luna muttered to Torrin as she moved toward the two bodies.
Torrin just nodded sadly. She wondered what had happened to Rhain to make her this bitter. Growing up, it had been Tasha who had picked on her while Rhain seemed indifferent to her presence. Now, Tasha seemed almost likable while Rhain had become her tormentor.
Although they were both still glaring at the other, Valerie and Adrian had stopped yelling at each other during the altercation.
Adrian's eyes lit up as she spotted Torrin. Torrin resisted the urge to roll her eyes. Goddess, she was ready to try celibacy. Just as long as she never slept with someone like Adrian again. Honestly, she'd give it a real shot this time. She didn't bother to acknowledge Adrian as she just let her eyes slide over the room to take in all the details.
Luna sighed as she spotted Adrian's look, briefly closing her eyes to refocus on the situation. "Valerie, what's going on?" she asked the head of the Castle guards. When she caught the Wave Dancer's eye, the Ranger nodded toward Allysandra getting a small nod in return and a questioning glance toward Torrin.
"I was trying to figure out what to do with the last Assassin, when..." Valerie curled her lips, "Rhain tried to kill her while she was unconscious."
Luna mentally groaned.
Glancing toward the back of the room she saw the still unconscious Assassin that had rammed into the wall head on wrapped up in what looked to be more than fifty feet of rope.
Torrin looked over at the bound woman. "You need to put her in a room with total darkness or total light. There can't be any shadows."
Valerie looked skeptical.
"She's as close to an expert as we have on this," Luna gently reminded the head guard. She grudgingly agreed and signaled her guards to take away the bound woman and to start rounding up lamps… lots of them.
Touching Eve's shoulder in sympathy, Luna moved away from the two fallen leaders. Her anger and sadness would come later. She was too drained by the day long meeting and then the battle to deal with any more emotion.
Torrin looked around frowning. "How did they get in here unnoticed?"
Fire Warriors made excellent fighters, but apparently their guarding abilities left something to be desired. Luna wisely did not say that out loud in front of Valerie. Instead, she stepped aside as a group of white-robed priestesses entered to take care of the two fallen clan Chiefs. With a start, she realized that one of them was the old priestess she'd talked to in the temple when Adrian had tried to assault her.
Noticing a guard moving toward one of the dead Assassin's weapons Torrin snapped, "Don't touch that unless you want to die. Do you know how many poisons they have on their bodies and knives?"
Kneeling next to a now pale-faced guard she quickly checked for anything that looked useful. "The blades are poisoned. Just place them in a sack and burn them. The fire will render them harmless, but until then, one nick and you are a corpse."
The guard nodded and got up to get a sack.
Luna alternated her attention between watching Torrin and the priestesses as they prepared the two bodies. The family of the dead women would guard over them while their bodies were burnt and their spirits sent to the afterlife.
After only a few moments they picked up the two dead women and carried them back toward the doorway. Eve and the other woman trailed after them. After a moment of hesitation, Adrian followed as well.
Stepping away from the group, Luna moved over to Allysandra. "You two all right?"
The head of the Wave Dancers nodded. "Yes. Fine. I'm sorry we couldn't save Athena."
Luna clasped the sailor on her shoulder. "You did your best."
As Allysandra and her wife left the room, Luna talked briefly with the healer that had dealt with Tasha before walking back to where Torrin was. "I think that's about all the excitement I can stand for a night."
Torrin had sat back with a sigh while the guard when for the sack and watched everybody leave. She noticed the way Luna interacted with everybody, and gave a small smile. They may not know it yet, but Luna was their leader.
She looked up at Luna and gave her a sad smile. "Think you can stand a little more?"
"That depends, what is it?" Luna watched as the healer led a still disoriented Tasha pass the Fire guards standing by the door leaving her and Torrin alone with the dead Assassins.
"I have a theory why I can walk in shadows..." She looked up at Luna, "you have to believe me this is a new thing. I am not an Assassin."
Luna nodded, "I believe you," touching Torrin's shoulder to encourage her to continue. The nearby guards were watching them with interest. "Maybe we can talk somewhere more private though?"
Torrin shook her head. "Just shield me from the guards for a second. It shouldn't take more than that." She hoped. It hadn't taken very long in the water but that woman wasn't dead. This assassin was very much dead.
Curious, Luna stepped sideway to block the guard's view of whatever Torrin was about to do.
Torrin smiled in thanks and then leaned over the corpse. She moved her bandaged hands up to the woman's black eyes that stared into nothingness. Then with a delicate movement, she placed her index fingers over each eye. She flinched, not really wanting to see what she had last time. The blackness moved like ink coating each finger then it was gone. Torrin bit down on her lip so hard it started to bleed. Shaking, she removed her fingers and tried not to cry. There were too many bloody and violent images in her head. She wanted to scream, Khelin was viler than she had ever suspected. Slowly her brain cataloged the images and memories.
"Torrin?" Luna grabbed the other woman's shoulders to keep her from falling over, her fingers brushing bare skin as she pulled the other woman to her feet. "Torrin? Look at me."
Torrin's shook her head and refused to meet Luna's gaze. "I can't, give me a moment," she choked out.
She looked down and noticed the dead Assassin's eyes were brown now, no longer black.
"You see what she saw, don't you?" Luna whispered with a slow tendril of horror winding its way through her gut and she dropped her hand. If that was true, and the Assassins had been there when Khelin had... Luna took a step back.
Torrin breathed harshly through her nose. "It's nice to know a lot of my nightmares aren't things I've done." Feeling Luna step away she reached out not wanting to lose her connection to reality.
"Don't leave me, please…" She looked up desperately to Luna, her eyes slowly bleeding back from black to grey.
Luna hesitated, still appalled by the discovery, but took one looked at the shaken woman, and reached down to take Torrin's hand. She slowly pulled the black-haired woman to her feet. "Come on. We both need sleep."
Torrin shook her head. "Yeah." She let herself be pulled along. "You're right, I do see what she has seen. Most of it makes no sense. It's too much to processed, but Khelin sent them to murder the Council and the new leader of the North."
She blanched remembering more details. For a moment she thought she would be sick. "You-you-your guards at the Pass are all murdered."
A warm arm went around her shoulders, steadying her until the moment had passed. Luna nodded. She'd feared that was the case ever since she realized the Assassins had to have gone over the Pass themselves. "A new group was already on its way to replace them." She helped Torrin down the stairs and towards her room.
Torrin looked around Luna's room. "Nice. You must have impressed some people."
The blonde gave her a sheepish grin, slightly embarrassed by the room. They'd moved her from her previous quarters that were next to the Healers hall to a small suite of rooms. The three rooms were bigger than the Ranger actually felt comfortable in, but Athena had assured her that they were not being used.
"I get a lot of visitors," she said, undoing her belt and carefully laying the sword and scabbard on a dresser.
Both of Torrin's eyebrows rose at that. "Really?"
Once again Luna could feel her face heating. "Not those kind of visitors!" Luna stalked toward the washbasin. "Just people who want to get advice on problems."
Torrin grinned at the blush that covered Luna's face. "Uh, huh." Torrin's grin faded as she sat down, she hurt. First getting pummeled by Rhain and her goons, then fighting the Assassins plus crashing into the table, and finally her hands. She stared at her hands. Goddess she was a mess.
The excitement that had been keeping Luna on her feet slowly drained away and she sat down heavily next to Torrin, staring at the polished wood floor. "Thank you." She said quietly, her fingers fidgeting with the blood stained tunic she wore.
Rhain had taken the ex-mercenary's sword and the black scale mail when she had her locked up. But lacking imagination, they had not taken her knives. The few that she had left on her body she pulled out and put them on the small table next to her.
She looked over at Luna and gave her a wan smile. "You're welcome." She laid her hand on Luna's arm and gave it a gentle squeeze. I'm sorry I wasn't there sooner. I'm sorry those women died."
The blonde turned to study the face of the woman who sat besides her, smiling faintly and nodding before letting herself fall backward on the bed top. "I know. But we probably all would have died if you hadn't come. We'll deal with Athena and Magda's deaths tomorrow."
Torrin's eyes followed Luna as she fell back. She didn't fail to notice the way the skin was exposed on her abdomen as the fabric rode up. Blushing as she realized she was staring, she started to get up. "I should go, um, let you sleep. I'll find a place to bed for the night."
Warm fingers closed around Torrin's wrist that kept her from standing up. "There's another bed in the other room." Luna waved toward a second doorway, a room she hadn't used for anything yet.
"Oh, are you sure?" She licked her lips nervously. "I don't want to cause you any problems."
"Are you going to run away again?"
Torrin grimaced at the implication. "No. I made a promise to keep you out of trouble. So, you, my friend, are stuck with me."
Long fingers slowly released her.
"Then you aren't going to cause me problems." Luna grinned wryly and struggled up to a sitting position, wincing slightly as she pulled the scar on her side. It was very nearly healed but the fight had stretched it more than she'd realized.
Torrin noticed Luna's wince. "Is that still bothering you?" Reaching over she started pulling up the side of Luna's shirt.
"Here let me take a look."
The blonde went completely still. Her breathing stopping for a second as Torrin lifted up the side of her blood-stained shirt. "It's just stiff." She managed to say her voice a bit higher than normal.
Torrin made an "uh huh" noise, and gently touched around the wound. She grinned, "I do good work. You will hardly have a scar."
She prodded some of the muscles in the back. "You just need to soak in a hot tub to loosen the muscles around the area. They've been overcompensating for the wound and now they're stiff." She dug into a nasty knot giving a grin as it relaxed. Her grin fell when she realized what she was doing.
"I'm sorry. I shouldn't have just... I'll just go away now." Blushing she scrambled off the bed and made her way to the extra room Luna had pointed out. She left the Ranger staring after her with a confused expression on her face and her blue eyes darkened with emotion.
Swallowing, Luna shook her head and quickly changed out of the bloody clothes she was wearing. A soak in a hot tub sounded great but unfortunately she was too tired to go down to the bath houses. Instead she settled for a quick wash by the washbasin and climbed naked into the clean bed. Luna's last thought as she slipped into sleep was how gentle Torrin's touch had been.
Torrin slowly stripped out her clothes. With a groan, she realized she didn't have anything else wear. She debated for a moment, then with a shrug, decided to go naked. As she sat on the unused bed, she unwrapped her hands. Happily, she noticed that other than some nicks, they looked undamaged.
Sliding under the covers she wondered why she was so eager to touch Luna yet embarrassed when she did. Sighing, she realized it didn't matter. Luna was a decent and honorable person. Luna had never killed for money. She was everything Torrin wasn't. She turned over deciding that she should just be happy with the friendship that she had and focus on not screwing that part up.
The angry winds around Abnoa shrieked around her.
Slowly the winds became voices of the many dead. The voices turned into maimed bodies rising up from the stones and the earth covered in blood. They clawed and screamed at her for vengeance. They called her the Betrayer. Over and over they screamed for her death to give them peace.
Torrin tried to shove them away but there were too many. "I'm sorry!" She cried out over and over until her voice was raw. But still they came, overpowering her until she smothered by rotting flesh and surrounded by the smell of blood.
Luna was awakened from a deep and dreamless sleep by a sound. At first the Ranger didn't know what it was it. Then, as she sleepily sat up, she decided it was coming from next door.
Frowning, Luna got up, wrapping a blanket around herself and went to investigate. Opening the door silently she stepped into Torrin's room. The shorter woman was tossing and turning on her bed, obviously in the throws of a nightmare.
Immediately Luna crossed to her friend's side, knelt down next to the bed and touched Torrin's shoulder.
"Torrin, wake up, it's just a nightmare," she murmured softly.
Suddenly Luna found herself pinned to the bed. The remnants of sleep evaporated as she reacted to the position.
Torrin jerked awake from her dream at the pressure on her shoulder. But the terror of the dream was still there. She reached her hand for the dagger under her pillow, but it wasn't there. Automatically her body moved to another defense. Rolling to her side she grabbed the hand and pulled and flipped. With a growl she pinned the hands and grapevined the legs with her own. "I'm sorry," she howled. "I really am, but I can't bring you back from the dead!"
Frantically Luna tried to shove Torrin away but the shorter woman was stronger than she looked.
"Let me go!"
Torrin blinked at the voice. Slowly the nightmare faded and she looked down into blue eyes. The dark-haired woman frowned, and then realized who it was. Her face went pale and she let go of Luna as if she had been burned.
"I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I didn't know," she wailed and curled into a ball and started to cry. 'Oh, Goddess…I'm a danger to everyone. Even in my sleep, I'm dangerous. All I know is how to hurt and kill. Perhaps the gift of shadows wasn't just a quirk of fate,' she thought. She wanted to run, get as far away from this situation that she could, but she had promised Luna she wouldn't.
Luna rolled to the side quickly, snatching up the blanket she'd been holding and wrapped it around herself, her breath coming in short quick pants as she got herself under control.
She was just opening her mouth to apologize when she heard Torrin's ragged voice. Twisting around on the bed her heart broke at the sight of Torrin twisted up and sobbing. Ignoring the faint tremors of panic still coursing through her limbs, the tall blonde stretched out alongside Torrin.
Hesitantly at first, then more firmly, she pulled the younger woman to her and held onto her tightly.
"Shhh, it's all right. You surprised me, that's all." Gently she brushed her fingers through short black hair that was damp with sweat.
Torrin froze in surprise for a moment at the contact, and then relaxed against Luna. She had expected the Ranger to leave in disgust. "I'm sorry," she mumbled out again.
"Don't worry about it," Luna whispered, drawing the blankets up over them to keep out the cold air. She brushed aside locks of hair that had drifted across the other woman's forehead. "What were you dreaming about?"
Torrin gave a shiver as her mind went back to the nightmare she had been having. "I was back at Abnoa." She cleared her throat. "The dead wanted their pound of flesh." She looked away not wanting to see Luna's face.
Calloused fingertips drew Torrin's head back so that Luna could see her grey eyes. In the dim light they looked pale and vulnerable. "I don't blame you." She found herself saying, her fingers remaining on Torrin's cheek. "Not for what happened."
"You should. You should hate me. I could have stood down," Torrin whispered. "Rya gave me that option, but I was a Hawk. So, where my pack went I went. Even if it was to bring my old home to its knees. Even if it was to put a sword through the back of someone who might have been a sister."
Torrin's eyes flickered back and forth across Luna's face, unable to hold her gaze. "Rhain is right, you know. I couldn't save you just from the decency of my own heart. No, I had to make you pay me."
She gave a bitter laugh. "You know the sad thing? I actually wanted too. You were noble and dignified even strung up. You had fought well and although with Khelin's guards beating you down, you seemed so much better than the rest of us. Then when she had you stripped and tied up like a traitor…," Torrin closed her eyes. "I was too scared to give up my life even to do the right thing."
"But you didn't take your payment," Luna reminded her quietly, blue eyes sparkling in the dim light as she watched Torrin's anguished expression. "So you did save me without pay. That means you did it from the goodness of your own heart."
Torrin reached up and wiped her face. "You know I'm 22 and I've never cried. Not when Quinn beat me, not when the priestesses at the Temple were trying to 'condition' me. But I've cried more in these last couple of months than in my whole lifetime."
Luna smiled and gently touched Torrin's chest, just above her breast. "You might not believe me, but I think you're a good person, Torrin."
Torrin flinched at the touch and her nostrils flared, taking in the warmth of the touch.
Luna drew her hand back. "I cried a lot when my parents died." Luna revealed haltingly.
"You were close to your parents. It's understandable that you would," Torrin murmured. It felt strange, lying together. The bed warming around them as the blankets kept in their body heat, sheltering them from the outside world. It almost seemed as if they were completely alone in the entire castle.
Then Torrin began to notice other things she missed because of her previous emotional state. There was a lot of skin on skin contact going on. She licked her lips and tried to drag her mind away from the spiral it was going down.
She sighed and tried to refocus. "Oh, about the assassins? Um, Armando the God of the Horse people came to me. He told me that you were in danger, and that I wasn't where I belonged." She rolled her eyes. "More cryptic shit." She stretched and yawned. "You know, I'm getting tired of ghosts, Gods, and priestesses all with their mysterious messages that make no sense."
"I'm glad you listened to it, even if it was 'cryptic shit'." Luna's grin turned thoughtful as she shifted slightly on the bed and away from Torrin's warm and soft body. She really should have kept a blanket wrapped around herself, but she wasn't certain how to do it now without embarrassing Torrin.
"That's the second time he's helped us, right?"
"Yeah. I don't get why though. This is kind of far from his people and the grassy plains of Drakemore," she replied.
Torrin's yawn was infectious and Luna found herself yawning as well. "We should get some sleep." She contemplated getting out of the nice warm bed and into the cold air to go back to her bed.
Torrin nodded, feeling her eyes grow heavy. She matched one of Luna's yawns with her own and closed her eyes.
The blonde fought to keep her eyes open. She'd get up and go back to her own bed in just a minute.
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